29 November 1998
Dear Friends and Family,
We hope that this letter finds you well, and that you are enjoying the holiday season. We are doing fine and have had a good year in 1998.
I am still leading the same research team, the charter of
which has been somewhat extended, suggesting continuation of the effort through
at least 2001. A particular frustration this year was the loss of several
software engineers from our laboratory, stalling progress on the software that
embodies the research team results and makes them more widely useful within
Kodak. Eileen is looking into volunteer opportunities at The Nature
Conservancy, which has chapter offices here in
Unlike most years, we did not take a major trip in 1998, but instead took a few short trips and concentrated on our plant work in the Moose River Plains. This saved a couple of extra weeks of vacation for use on a 7-week car trip to northwest Canada and Alaska that we intend to take in May-June 1999. I have been having a lot of fun over the last month planning out this trip!
I again spent much of January-April studying plant specimens
collected last year in the Moose River Plains. For the past five years we have
been building up a good reference library for plant identification, and
additions over the last year, supplemented by herbarium work at the
In late April and early May we visited a few of our traditional locations for spring wildflowers, and introduced the new van to camping. It worked very nicely; we like the very quiet ride on the highway, and the sliding doors on each side are very convenient, although we miss the higher clearance and skid plates of our previous van. We took advantage of the lesser travel costs this year to upgrade and expand our camping and outdoor gear, which was fun to do, and fit in well with outfitting the new van.
In mid-May we took a 10-day trip to central
In late May we visited my mom and brother Chris in
During the summer we tried a new schedule, in which I worked 9 hour days, Mon-Fri one week, and Sun-Wed the following week. This allowed a 4-day weekend every two weeks, which halved our driving for the same number of days in the field. Although the Moose River Plains is normally not crowded except on holiday weekends, on weekdays it is positively deserted, so this gave us some very high quality time in our study area, and gave us the pick of the best campsites when we arrived Wednesday evenings. It was also a new experience to be in town on a day off between late April and late October, and those isolated Saturdays off once every two weeks were pleasant. I believe that it was on one of those Saturdays that we saw a mother squirrel carry her babies, one by one in her mouth, from their existing nest to a new one (both in our yard)! The mouse-sized babies did not move at all as they were carried, but just wrapped their tails around their mother's head. Each time, the mother came down the original nest tree, walked on the ground to the new nest tree, and ascended to the new nest (probably because it was too hard to leap from branch to branch while carrying the young). The mother made one extra trip, as if to confirm that the nest was really empty. Needless to say, we enjoyed many young squirrel antics in the ensuing months.
We did 36 days of field work this year in the Moose River
Plains (the most of any year so far), collecting 184 specimens, and adding
about 64 new species to the list (nearly as many as last year). During the year
we took many bushwhacks (hikes over difficult terrain without trails) and
canoed to some of the least accessible portions of the study area. Our greatest
emphasis this year was location and documentation of state rarities in our
study area. The state Natural Heritage Program provided a report summarizing
historical records of rarities in the southwest
At the beginning of the year it seemed a distant goal to reach 500 species in the study area, but our intensive field work relatively early in the season turned up a surprising number of new species. This raised our hopes, but then late in the season we found fewer new species than expected and it looked like we would finish the year in the 490s. (I think these results reflect the fact that we have had somewhat better coverage later in the season other years, and many early-season species flower and fruit in a shorter interval than late-season species.) In a dramatic finish, on the last day of collecting for the season, our friend Lilian, the local assistant forest ranger, took us into a new area that yielded three new species in half a day, bringing our final total to approximately 501!
Some of the highlights this year in the Moose River Plains were green adder's mouth, an orchid we had never seen anywhere before (bringing our total native orchid species in the study area to 16); dwarf grape fern, a very inconspicuous species also totally new to us; an adorable boreal red-backed vole, spot-lighted at night and a new mammal for us; and calling saw-whet owls at many locations. The latter is a very small owl most frequently seen in migration; we had not realized how common it was in our study area until our many nights early in the season this year.
Eileen's parents visited for two weeks in September, during
which time the four of us took a nine-day trip to
This year we were a little more efficient than usual and got
all of our fall yardwork (mostly leaf management) and
most of the odious winter chores (such as the annual cleaning of the basement)
done in October and November. Eileen is well along in computerizing the year's
natural history records. Thanksgiving was quiet; Eileen made a lovely salmon
dinner. We spent one day of the weekend looking at gulls at
I think that covers it for now. Our best wishes to you for a happy and safe Christmas and New Years!
Prior to this trip, we'd been camping
only a couple of times so far this year. Since the high points of those
excursions had consisted mostly of rain and a few early wildflowers, we were
looking forward to a week and a half in
The day before we had to be in Fort Worth for the Science
Fair, we visited Dinosaur Valley State Park, which preserves fossilized
dinosaur footprints (theropods: a three-toed
carnivorous dinosaur; and sauropod: a brontosaur-like
dinosaur). We saw them at several locations. All the tracks were surprisingly
distinct and easy to observe; the best ones required an easy wade across the
The next day was mostly spent driving south to the
Brian spent close to an hour on the phone the evening after the judging making arrangements to visit Kickapoo Caverns, the best place to see black-capped vireos, which would be new for me. Although visitors are welcome, the gate is kept locked; we made an appointment to meet the ranger, Dave, at the gate at three o'clock Friday afternoon. By 4:15, with no sightings of Dave, we decided to leave a note at the gate and go back to town (22 miles) to try calling him, but just as we were about to leave, he rushed up to the gate in his pickup truck. We figured he must have suddenly remembered that we were waiting, but when Brian said, "Dave?", he replied, "And you are...?" "Brian Keelan, I spoke to you on the phone." "Oh yes, you're here to see the bats." (Bats?) "Actually, the black-capped vireos." "Right. Have you been waiting long?" He let us in, gave us directions to the campsites, told us who to ask about finding the vireos, and who to see about the bats; then he gave us the combination to the lock on the gate, and roared away in a cloud of dust.
We set up our tent in the shade of a live-oak tree and watched vermillion flycatchers fly-catching all around our campsite. After talking to the vireo people, we learned that Dave is always forgetting these appointments and leaves people stranded at the gate.
Another ranger, Daniel, led a small group to the bat cave that evening, where we watched and heard Mexican free-tailed bats (the kind for which Carlsbad Caverns is famous) exit the cave for their nightly hunting spree (this was the only mammal I had seen that Brian had not). For forty-five minutes, they streamed out of the cave by the tens of thousands, swirled around at the entrance and then took off in a huge column that seemed to disappear into the sky. After the main herd departed, smaller groups continued to spurt out of the cave. Daniel said, "I get such a thrill out of this every time I see it. And I've seen it over a hundred times." We went back the next morning to see them return. The flight was less concentrated than the departure had been, but we watched as a steady flow of bats zipped back into the cave. One additional exciting aspect of this cave is that dozens of cave swallows nested in its entrance; we had never seen them nesting in a natural location before, but rather in culverts and under eaves.
We knew it wouldn't be easy to top this experience, but we were pleased nonetheless when Brian heard the black-capped vireo and we had good views of male and female birds. Hiking along a dirt road, we heard more black-caps (eventually reaching double digits) and also saw rufous-crowned sparrow and varied bunting. Before we left the Kickapoo Caverns, we went to check out with Daniel. He said he'd drive out to the gate with us so he could unlock it, and he exhibited some surprise that we were in possession of the combination.
In addition to our exciting natural history experiences, we
visited several historic sites as well: the Alamo, at
As usual, the days flew by and all too soon we had to leave