Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dang Birds

Thursday June 29 2006

What’s wrong with these Northern Goshawks around here, anyway?
Last two years I was a tremendous goshawk findin’ machine. This week my goshawk findin’ machinery needs oil, or something. Came up empty at two sites!

You’ve probably all seen red-tailed hawks – common all over the US, usually soaring above open land. The Northern Goshawk is roughly the same size – about 22” long, bill to tail – but lives in the woods and has a longer tail and shorter rounded wings to give them agility and maneuverability among the trees.

Locating a goshawk nest is like discovering and putting together the pieces of a puzzle – do it right, and there is your female sitting on the nest. First you find the ideal habitat – which you know from having already seen a nest - that the birds prefer. Then you comb the area looking and listening for clues: flying birds, bird calls, whitewash (poop), big feathers, prey feathers, nests. As you walk along, your head is swiveling everywhere – up high in the trees, down where you’re walking, sweeping side to side among the trees. (And you’re keeping an eye out for snoozing bears, also).

The most straightforward clues are: a big bird flying through the trees, or the goshawk alarm call, which they give when they feel threatened in their territory. Sometimes you might hear a noisy Steller’s Jay, which may mean he is pestering a goshawk or an owl (despite the fact he may get eaten by the same bird).

If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon whitewash, the hawk’s is very distinctive: not a big plop, but a strung out white glop, like a sloppy painter spilling white paint from his can. If you’re under an active nest, you’ll see many strings of white – the goshawk (babies too) will back up to the edge of its nest and shoot over the side, so as not to soil the nest. The first time I stumbled upon one of these I couldn’t figure out who the heck would be way out here playing paintball.

If you are lucky enough to find feathers, they can sometimes tell you something… or just confuse you more. If you find a goshawk feather – ching! Then there is or was a goshawk in the area. If you find a pile of little bird feathers, such as blue Steller’s jay, or white-dotted black woodpecker, or orange shafted flicker feathers, it was likely a meal of a goshawk, sharp-shinned, or cooper’s hawk, as they will pluck the feathers before they eat their meal. If you find a great-horned owl feather, or a red-tailed hawk feather, well, maybe it was just passing through, or, maybe this bird has a nest somewhere nearby and the goshawks have acceded the territory.

You may already know the location of a goshawk nest… but they often don’t use the same nest every year. They often have 1 or 2 alternate nests within their territory.

The first site I went to this week, I easily found the active nest from 2 years ago. No sign of occupancy (though it was impossible to get a good view into the nest); the nest was a bit unkempt, and, below it, a big broken egg… I suspect a goshawk egg. I could not for the life of me find last year’s active nest, but I did find several trees nearby with gobs of whitewash below, plucked feathers, and two goshawk feathers… only I’d look up where the nest had to be – and there was no nest. I’d heard an adult goshawk call nearby 10 minutes after I arrived in the area; 2 hours later the male flew in giving his warning call; he stayed 1 minute then flew away. I searched and searched – and came up empty. My conclusion was, the first nesting attempt failed (the broken egg), and either they did not try again and were still hanging around the area (hence all the whitewash), or possibly the female was sitting on a nest (hence the male’s alarm call and approach), and she was just hunkering down, keeping quiet. Those goshawks had left me clues all over the place and I just couldn’t figure out this puzzle!
Today’s goshawk hunt was one big Goose Egg – nothing! I found last year’s active nest, but no goshawk clues – no birds, calls, whitewash, prey feathers, hawk feathers – nothing! I found one tiny great horned owl feather… but could draw no conclusions whatsoever.
A frustrating week - darn birds. Couldn’t have anything to do with me now, could it?

But enough of those birds – it’s the weekend, time to ride!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Change of Trails

Sunday June 25 2006

Well, we were planning to do a 2-day endurance ride this weekend, the second day of which I was going to ride. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk, what with all the hiking I did this week and the whinging I did about my aching feet, but, turns out it wasn’t my feet that stopped us – it was the weather. It was supposed to be 110* in Silver Springs this weekend – no way can I do that! Neither Gretchen nor I do heat well, and the horses, particularly Raffiq, don’t seem to like the heat either.

Instead, we took a long ride here at home – a LONG ride. We took all 3 horses (Sue came along on Buddy), and climbed up from the Bridgeport valley (at 6500’), up to Tamarack Lake, probably around 8500’ or so. Lots of walking because it was rocky, and mostly uphill, and then we always get off to walk downhills, so we girls got our exercise in also. The biting flies were pretty annoying for the horses, but the mosquitoes left us humans alone, the weather wasn’t so hot today, the views were spectacular, and we had lunch up top.

I kept a close eye on the thunderheads building in various directions (I’m way afraid of lightning), but we got lucky, and it didn’t start thundering till we were about 2 miles from the trailer, 5 hours later. It was a long tiring day for all of us, but it was good for the horses, as our next scheduled ride, come heat or high water, is a 75 miler next month. Ultimate goal is still the Virginia City 100 in September!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Maybe I'll See a Bear Today...

Saturday June 24 2006

Detriments to being a Forest Service Peon are: low pay, no benefits, and never knowing from year to year if I’ll have a summer job. Benefits as a FS Peon are: I get to go out in the field almost every day, and every day, I see something. Every day my mantra is: “Maybe I’ll see a cougar today” and “maybe I’ll see a bear today.” (Bears really like climbing this aspen tree here.) I keep a tally. Beavers, snakes (1 rattler from the car), coyotes, hawks, eagles. (On horseback my first week here we saw a bear). If nothing else, I always see a deer.

And, I’m a tree hugger – literally. Have you ever hugged a tree? I mean really, put your arms around a tree, a little tree who’s maybe never felt a human touch, or a huge tree big around as a car, lay your head against it, and wonder how long it has lived there, what it lives through, the winters it’s seen and snows it’s felt. Look up into its branches and wonder what birds have lived there, what myriad life it supports in its branches and leaves and bark – insects, spiders, bats, birds. Stick your nose in the bark crevices of a Jeffrey or Ponderosa pine, and you smell vanilla. Put your ear to a eucalyptus trunk, I’ve been told, and you’ll hear the inner water works of the tree.

This early early morning during my bird survey, roaming the willowy swampy riparian meadow area of Robinson Creek, I suddenly realized I was following a bear trail – very recently made, within an hour or two. Couldn’t have been anything else – unless it was a cougar! (unlikely) – big feet, big steps, wide apart (couldn’t see distinct prints in the swampy ground), with the tall grass mowed down as if by a big belly, and mud droplets still on the bent-down grasses. I’m on alert anyway as I crawl blindly through willows, but this morning I was on hyper-alert because there was a bear close by. He had walked past 3 of my bird call stations where I stop to look and listen for willow flycatchers. Maybe he was doing his own bird survey! His path diverged from mine – I would have rather followed the bear trail than that of a bird I know I’m probably not going to find here… but, it was a bird survey after all. Later I did see a bear print on the trail I took back. I must’ve just missed him!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Aches N' Whines

June 22 2006

Was it only a few days ago I was in Vienna doing a show? I can’t imagine that because now I’m back in bird world, physically tired and sore and beaten up! I got back home Sunday evening, and Monday evening I hiked up Buckeye Canyon with a heavy backpack for another early morning bird survey. Tuesday after the survey I packed up and hiked out – and it about killed me. Was it really only 6 miles I’d hiked in? It felt like 20! My backpack felt like it had doubled in weight! Had someone snuck around and stuck rocks in my pack??

This was the same trail over which our endurance horses often carried us on training rides, trotting merrily along with their human passengers. Here I was struggling to keep putting one aching, really aching, foot in front of the other aching foot (downhill!). How do those horses do it so easily?

When I finally got back to my truck, unstrapping that backpack and taking my hiking boots off was like reaching nirvana. My shoulders ached, my back ached and felt bruised, the bottoms of my feet felt like they’d been beaten with a tire iron. Wah wah! What’s wrong with me? I did this all the time on the trail crew! It CAN’T be because I’m getting old!

Wednesday was another dawn bird survey – car camping, no hiking in! But I still felt sore all over, and when you stand in rubber boots in icy mountain creeks and swampy ponds for 5 hours, it doesn’t really help your sore feet. Maybe I could have stuck a heating pad down the boots? I didn’t even find any of the willow flycatchers I am looking for to make the morning exciting.

It’s the right foot that’s really bothering me – back in December I had to bail off a horse I was mounting because he bolted out from under me in panic, and I landed hard on the ball of the foot. It’s been bothering me on and off ever since – swells up till I can hardly walk on it – and THAT can’t have anything to do with getting older!

But it doesn’t hurt to ride, and I did get to ride with Gretchen last night – a gorgeous evening in Bridgeport – no wind, no bugs (!), beautiful sunset over the lakes, and the horses seemed to enjoy it also. They needed this good training ride, as they have a 2-day endurance ride this weekend. I won’t make it till Sunday’s ride because of more bird surveys I have to get done.

I hope I will make it at all, as my foot was so sore and swollen in the evening I had to soak it in Epsom salts and resort to Ibuprofen. It wasn’t any better this morning, Thursday, and this evening I have to carry my heavy backpack in a couple of miles again, do surveys in cold icy raging creeks Friday and Saturday mornings, and, if I can still walk, hike back out Saturday afternoon.

I have to make it out Saturday, even if I crawl, because even with a bum foot and aching back, I can still get on a horse Sunday and ride 50 miles! (I know, because I’ve done it before).

Friday, June 16, 2006

Vienna Gospel Sanity

Friday June 16 2006
(Still catching up from my notes)

Who needs sleep? I’m in Vienna!

After our show opens on Wednesday night, we have our days free. I wander around Vienna for 2 of the days, trying to time it right one day at noon to at least see the Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School ride back to their stables after their practice or performance. But my timing is bad and I miss them – I only see remnants of their passing and grooms sweeping up after them. I resort to a Starbucks on the corner by the Spanish Riding School. (Does this count in any way?)

In fact I have many, many cappuchinos (though only 2 from Starbucks) every day in Vienna. I don’t drink that much coffee (and when I do, it’s always decaff) in the States, but I felt sort of obligated to do this, as many people told me, “Drink a coffee for me!” Of course I am probably taking this to extremes…

Vienna is a very people-friendly city – very easy to get around, very casual, no hassles. Beautiful old buildings, steeped in history, plenty of museums and castles, none of which I went in. I’d been here 17 years ago (and missed the Lippizaners again then), but it was like visiting a new city to me, as I didn’t remember it.

Another day, my friend Tracy (who has come to visit the show from Egypt) and I take a train to another country – Bratislava, Slovakia is only 1 hour away. It’s another old European city, somewhat like Vienna but a little more tired-looking. I wanted that Slovakian stamp in my passport!

I was really craving a nap any of those days, but, being in Vienna, that seemed such a sacrilege, so I put that off till next week.

I’m really enjoying being here with the Gospel people – I see them maybe every 2 or 5 years, and every time we do the show, we suspect it may be our last time, and because everybody knows this, we appreciate the short time we have together.

The show is absolutely awesome – acting great, singing terrific, every night again it moves me. When Caroline hits her high-high note in the next-to-last song (her voice has something like 20 octaves), chills run from my fingertips on the board up through my arms to the tips of my hair. The tech crew claps and dances upstairs during the rocking songs.

It is a terrible shame that after all this work getting it together, we are only doing the show for 5 days. The annual Vienna Festival brings shows like ours into different venues, and they run for a week or 2 and that’s it. We’re hoping another festival or event will bring us in again, someday, somewhere… there are rumors of going to Poland next year. Or maybe Chicago! I’ve always wanted to play in Chicago.

After all the great times I’ve had this week, I think this was the crown jewel. A bus came to pick up a load of people after the shows and take them back to the hotel. Tracy and I happened to get on this one, and while everybody was waiting for it to fill up, some of the choir men and women were casually and quietly singing, trying new songs, laughing when they messed up or tried hitting a different note. Even then, their voices were filled with such intensity. Tracy sat up and said “I have a request. Can you sing Amazing Grace?”

Seven, eight or nine women and a man or two, whoever wanted, started singing this song – OH MY GOD! If you get one chance in your life to sit right in front of a few (or better yet, a whole big) black gospel choir, do it. If it does not move you (and I am not talking God or religion), you are dead inside.

These women and men weren’t belting it out, they were just sitting on a bus at midnight in Vienna passing time waiting to go home, no microphones, no egos, no audience but other fellow cast and crew members and friends, pouring out this precious gift of perfect voices, so effortless but so powerful and moving, so…

There is no human word I know to describe the spiritual power of these voices. It takes hold of your bones deep down inside, wraps around your insides, squeezes the life and spirit not out of but into you, it suffocates and strangles, hurts in a magnificent way. The singers’ eyes were closed, singing quietly with such an extraordinary power – coming up from thousands of years and ages of spirit, up out of their bodies and beings and bones, out and down into my ears, down into my bones and being and spirit. I can’t sing, I can only hear, but through their music, through their exquisite voices, we are all one in this Thing…

I was rocked to my bones and tears were rolling out of my eyes and I will never forget this song or sitting on this bus in Vienna!

This was the Gospel at Vienna – magnificent all around. “This may be the last time, I don’t know” (a Blind Boys of Alabama song)… and maybe not.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Gospel Madness

June 13 2006

(These are only getting posted now – I only had time to take notes while on the road…)

A few mornings ago I was standing by a river at 5 AM doing a bird survey and couldn’t imagine in a few days I’d be in a different part of the world working in another life as a Sound Engineer.
Now here in Vienna, sleep-deprived, late at night in the middle of rehearsing for the Gospel at Colonus, I can’t imagine being by the side of a river in California doing bird surveys.

I had a lucky 7 hours of sleep my first night in Vienna (after being awake for about 24 hours) and it’s been downhill ever since. I’ve been trying to cram into my head the mysteries of this digital sound board, (I have never seen one, let alone touched one), the signal paths and layers of submasters, VCAs, matrices, so I know how to use it. My sound designer Ron and the 3 wonderful wonderful Vienna sound guys are putting the system together and fine-tuning it while I am running the board for rehearsals and trying to remember all the changes that are happening on stage. All my sound equipment would fill the back of a pickup truck to the height of the cab. I don’t understand much of it – it’s like rocket science to me – there’s acres of cables, racks of distribution centers, wireless microphone systems – and all the technical technicalities that go with each, and putting each system together so they are compatible. How do people learn this stuff??

It’s the usual tech madness – never enough time to get the set built, get the sound system set up and tested and fine-tuned, get the lights programmed correctly, and rehearse the entire show. In fact, I don’t think we have EVER had a complete runthrough of the show before the first night’s preview. It might be a little easier if we did the same show every venue, but oh no, that would not be the Gospel at Colonus.

Lee the director is always adding a little bit here, changing a little bit there. In this run we have a group of Africans who carry the dead Oedipus (Clarence of the Blind Boys) out of the church (this eats up 2 hours of rehearsal time). And, since we are doing the show for the first time ever in a church, everything has to be re-blocked: where will the actors stand and walk? On the ‘stage’ (where the pulpit is), upstairs (which was built for this show), in the side balconies upstairs or down, in the aisles, in the upstairs balcony? Every lighting cue must be changed – when their positions are decided on. The stage manager must then figure out when to call the light cues.

Then here’s where my fun comes in: here in Vienna, one musician/singer is not able to come, another – at the last minute - is not coming, and Fred is returning to the show for the first time since 1995. Who will be singing what now? While Lee is always adding a few lines here, Bob the composer is always adding a bit of singing there, and who’s singing what always changes.

We don’t even get through the first act the first day, and on the second day, we don’t even get through the second act, and we have our first preview that evening. This is the night I get nervous. I am using notes for the first time ever, although I rarely have time to even glance at them during the show. I just rely on instinct to know which microphone to bring up – I have the Michigan version of the show in my head, and I hope that one time we briefly ran through the new versions of the songs here that I will remember who is singing them this time.
I am just blown away every time we do this show, with how it comes together. The first day you arrive, producing a show out of this pandemonium looks impossible. It looks like the stage will never be finished being built; during the very short rehearsal times, the sound sounds iffy, the lights are way behind on re-writing cues, and the actors are stumbling over their lines, and the singers aren’t singing at full volume so you really have NO idea what they’ll sound like in a show. You just can’t imagine that all these pieces of the puzzle will actually grow and join together to make a beautiful picture. I’ve always felt that way about theatre – it’s magic watching this process, and more so for the Gospel because I so love this show and the people.
Tuesday night, right before our first show starts, Kevin, one of the actors, comes on stage and announces that this is a ‘rehearsal,’ and that we will stop it to go over something again if we need to, as we haven’t had a full run-through of the show. I am nervous, as usual during the first preview, either that some of the microphones suddenly won’t work (even though I have checked them a dozen times the half hour before the show), or I’ll forget who is saying what line and forget to bring the mics up. My fingers are shaking at the very beginning, and when I have a big sequence of actors speaking and different singers singing, my fingers shake again, but I got everything right.

In fact, we never had to stop the show at all – we pulled off the whole show without any noticeable hitches, the singers were all on fire, and the Vienna audience seemed to absolutely love it.

Us techies upstairs were so thrilled we pulled it off, we were cheering just as loud as the audience!

Now, maybe I can catch up on a little sleep…

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Lucky White Girl

June 7 2006

I’m trying to pack for Vienna between all my bird surveys this week…

So, how did a little white girl like me get involved with the awesome Blind Boys of Alabama and an awesome black gospel musical? I was working in theatre in Seattle as a sound engineer for a few years, and decided at the end of this season, 1995, I was going to head east. I had no idea to where, or what I’d be doing; I just had itchy feet and it was time to leave Seattle for a while. One more show was added to the end of the season, and I got talked into staying for it - it was the Gospel at Colonus.

Originally produced for Broadway maybe 20 years ago, it had come out of the storage closet on and off since then, and here it was at ACT Theatre in Seattle, and they were stuck with me as the sound engineer. It’s the story of Oedipus as preached in a black church. Reduced in size from the Broadway run, it still featured some of The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers of Chicago, and a host of other cracking singers and actors, (Morgan Freeman played the preacher on Broadway), plus a tremendous choir from Tacoma, WA.

Now, black gospel music had always appealed to me, but THIS! This blew me away. When these men and women sang, it gave me goosebumps, it made me shiver – every night! It never got old. I was never not thunderstruck by the music. I realized then that this was one of the great gifts of my life – the opportunity I had to be a part of this show, to work with these brilliant singers and musicians and designers in a small way. (Seeing as I can’t sing for beans.)

When the 6-week run was over, the producer and director said, “You were great! We’re going to go on tour, and we’ll call you!”

Uh huh, I’d hold my breath. Well, a year and a half later, they did go on tour, and they did call me, and I’ve been with them ever since: the western US, Sao Paulo Brazil, Moscow Russia, Ann Arbor Michigan, Harlem at the Apollo Theatre. And now, Vienna Austria. The show is reincarnated every 2 to 5 years… and everybody drops what they are doing to come do the show. The actors and singers are from all over: Alabama, California, New York, Georgia, Chicago. And the same people show up every time, the same singers and actors (though sadly, one of the Soul Stirrers, Martin Jacox, died before our show in Michigan), and the same tech people. The Blind Boys of Alabama have won 5 Grammy Awards in the last 5 years. The entire cast is so talented, everybody can play or sing everybody else’s part, if someone has to miss a night. Heck, I could even recite anybody’s part. When someone has a brain fart and forgets a line, I say it. The musicians can all play each others’ parts.

My sound designer Ron makes everything easy for me: he sets up the system (something I have no idea how to do), which is a HUGE undertaking, especially in foreign countries, gets everything working and sounding perfect, (well… except that one time in Russia when he didn’t make it at all because he was so sick in Malaysia he was not allowed on an airplane… but I’m still trying to forget that one) so I can do my job: sit behind the board and run the show.

A production like this is a lot of stress for everybody involved. I feel it also, as I am usually sitting out in the audience behind my big sound board, and when something goes wrong during a show (it always does), like if a microphone doesn’t work, who does everyone in the audience turn to look at, to see what is wrong? The little white girl behind the sound board. Those are the nights I wish I ran the lights, because nobody knows when one little parcan among 15 other lights doesn’t come on when it’s supposed to, or a green light comes on instead of a yellow-green light.

But the rewards are worth the stress and pain and no sleep – even if something goes wrong, the actors and singers carry on, and they make it all so amazing no matter what. It’s always a Gospel adventure, and I’m sure Vienna will be no exception!

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Another Stormy Day

June 3 2006

I have no home, I have no horse trailer, I have no truck to pull one. I do have a horse.

You know how parents are – always think they have the best looking kids. Well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me, but I do just happen to own the Most Beautiful Horse On The Planet. That would be Stormy (A.K.A. Studmuffin, Chunky Monkey, Stormdrain).

How Stormy and I ended up together is another chapter in my future book, but, long story short, I was his groom at Emerald Downs racetrack in Washington in 1996-1997 . I made the mistake of falling in love with most of my horses, but he was a special one. My roommate warned me “You’re going to end up with him one day,” which I denied vehemently – I mean, I had no Real Job (though if you are a groom, 7 days a week, 4:30 AM mornings, 8 – 16 hour days, low pay - that is more than a Real Job), no real home, no truck or trailer, no land, no time, no future plans… no way I could have a horse.

But she was right, it was meant to be; and he ended up with me – or I with him, in 1999. Stormy knew it would happen all along. He’s spent the last 8 years drifting about California, more or less with me, hanging out with our forest service horses, or with endurance horse buddies, or dude ranch horses.

This summer he’s here in Bridgeport at the Hunewill Guest Ranch. For a couple of years he actually worked there to earn his keep – the wranglers rode him out with the dudes on daily rides. For a sometimes-dingy-brained racetrack thoroughbred, he did quite well riding out with groups and not losing his mind. However, he has navicular disease – pain in his front feet – the pain of which comes and goes, and over the last few years it has pretty much ended his work. As long as I can keep front shoes on him he seems to stay fairly pain-free, though not really consistently usable.

Which is TOTALLY fine with him. See, Stormy and I love each other, but our relationship is built on a shaky foundation of misunderstanding. When we first came together after his racing career was ended, I told him he was retired – which meant he was retired from racing. HE thought I meant he was retired from EVERYTHING (but eating, which he takes very seriously.)

So now, Stormy, ex-Thoroughbred racehorse, winner of 6 lifetime races and earner of $45,882, carrying the royal blood of his grandfather, the great Mr. Prospector, is just another anonymous horse running free with a herd of 150 head of other horses – mustangs, quarter horses, draft horses, appys, mutts. (‘Running free’ sounds so romantic… but they all mostly graze). They are brought in every day for the dude riders; the horses that aren’t used for the day stay in pens behind the barn until the working horses are done for the day; then they are turned back out till next morning. This actually keeps Stormy from eating 24 hours a day, a situation I’m sure he’d like to remedy.

Today was the horses’ day off; they were out in one of the big pastures when I went to visit. I always take binoculars with me to help find Stormy – sometimes the pasture is so huge and the herd so strung out, I have left without finding my horse. He can be very hard to spot, because he’s just another brown horse speck out there, and he never lifts his head up from the grass.

But today, he happened to be watching me walk into the pasture about 150 yards away, and today, he actually stopped what he’d been doing (eating) and he walked up to me! Often he ignores me and keeps eating and waits for me to come right up to him, because he knows I will. Sometimes we’ll have a staredown: “Stormy, you come here!” 'No, you come here.' He always wins. I walk up to him, grab his head, and kiss him where he loves it best, right below his ears and at the corners of his mouth. Then he lifts his head up high so I will scratch under his neck, and then he lowers his head and rubs it on my shoulder, then has me scratch his ears. Then he goes back to eating, pulling grass right by my feet.

I often take my camera out there for pictures (E.P. – Equine Photographer) - with 150 horses around, and the snow-covered Sawtooth ridge for a backdrop in the mornings, there’s always some photo opportunity.

Stormy is the subject of much of my equine photography: . He was a great poser at the racetrack, and he’s still got that talent. Just don’t bother him when he’s busy eating.