Monday, August 14, 2006

Big Rig Birding: "A big 10-4 on that Phainopepla, Good Buddy"

[Actually, truckers don't call each other "Good Buddy" any more. That term has acquired a whole new, not G-rated, meaning. It's been replaced with "Good Neighbor;" but really, we mostly just call each other "Big Truck" and "Driver" or whatever company name happens to be scrawled across our trailer this week.]

In 1999, I ditched the Academic thang, went to trucking school, got my CDL, and became a long-haul trucker. I worked at this full-time through most of 2002, and part time since then when my primary job became farming and restoring the house. I've never regretted the career change for a second. I've rolled down nearly every mile of every primary Interstate in the lower 48, plus a hell of a lot of the 3-digit ones and untold legions of other two-lanes, four-lanes, city streets, and country roads... many of them over and over and over. I used to have the run from Denver to Grand Junction via the Eisenhower tunnel and Vail Pass for breakfast three days a week; I picked up 20 tons of Coca-Cola practically in the shade of Shea Stadium; you get the point. Like the song says, "Up to the Colorado mountaintops / down to the desert where Reno stops / north to the green of Couer d'Alene / there ain't no road that we ain't seen"

One of the things that all this driving produced was tons and tons of scribbled bird notes. With the time demands of the job, birding was done on the fly: 15 minutes in the woods behind a rest area in Oregon, trying to sort out gulls while dealing with traffic on I-880 along the east shore of San Francisco Bay, an Anhinga soaring over I-95 in South Carolina, etc. And no, I never hit anyone. Birding is always secondary to the job; no Glaucous Gull is worth a squished family in a station wagon or a mangled motorcyclist. But there are many many miles of quiet time on long rural runs, and ticking off what you can manage to identify out the big wrap-around picture window of your mobile office helps keep the odometer rolling.

I came up with a fairly organized scheme for records. I just kept lists of species identified along stretches of road that were mostly defined by changes in the landscape. For instance, the run on I-70 from Denver to the Eisenhower tunnel splits up as piedmont (the plains), foothills (oak/pine/grass/scrub), lower montane (ponderosa), upper montane (lodgepole/aspen), and subalpine (spruce/fir too high for aspen). As you can imagine, each list was often only a few species long. It's only been this summer that I have finally compiled all these years of teeny little lists, and the results were very surprising to me:

My "Truck List" stands at 271 species! I was astounded at how high the tally ran when I combined all these single-digit lists of mostly common species, all across the continent. Top THAT out of YOUR office window! Unless you are a professional bird guide, of course...

I counted birds seen from the truck, or anywhere that I walked to from the truck. And of course I pool together all the dozens of different trucks I have driven. When team driving, all time counts regardless of who is behind the wheel. As you'd expect the list is heavy on birds like corvids (12 species) and raptors (21 species), and light on woodland passerines (17 wood warblers, mostly gotten at rest areas and the edges of industrial parks). And in all that, only one lifer: a Common Black Hawk in Arizona. For comparison, my Truck list is higher than all but two of my State lists. And actually, there are still some notes missing that I might find as I continue to organize, so there might be a few more species added still.


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