How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

Cowboy country

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Just got back from a week in Wyoming, the kind of place where the magazine rack at the grocery store looks like this:

You can buy skulls on the side of the road from the animal on the state flag:

bison skulls for sale

And you wake up to this sight in the morning:

The cowboy life is a good one.

How to be a cowboy

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What you’ll need: boots, chew

Songlist: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Further reading: Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.

Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.

When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.

On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.

We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.

I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.

It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.