Betrayed By My Government Pants

It was the best of times, it was the moistest of times...2016 was a difficult year for me for a variety of reasons. Here's one of them. Warning, this post is quite possibly a little bit TMI.

We get a good mix of people at the Big Watch event. 

We get a good mix of people at the Big Watch event. 

One of the things that I love about my job is the opportunity to host a couple of big birding parties throughout the year. One is called the Big Watch which I do with the help of some birders in Washington County, Minnesota in the spring. We go to Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area and tally all the birds we see and hear from sunrise to sundown. In 2016 it was a chilly but fun filled day. This was my first time hosting an event like this outside of the Twin Cities metro and was happily surprised we ended up with more people showing up than birds on our list--it was a good list that ended with 87 species. 

Brown thrasher seen at our Big Watch event. 

Brown thrasher seen at our Big Watch event. 

Even though it was chilly, Grey Cloud can be full of ticks and I'd taken the time to treat my ranger uniform with permethrin. The day after the Big Watch I woke up with an itchy welt on my left butt cheek. I didn't think too much about it. I figured a mosquito must have gotten through my ranger pants. April and May is an insane time where I try to balance ranger work with bird festival travel all while enjoying spring migration. I'm on the road more than I'm at home. The bite continued to itch and swell a bit more and yet I continued to ignore it. I noticed that the swelling was getting a little harder, but still paid it no mind because I had paperwork to file and suitcases to pack.

I woke for my flight to Ohio four days after the Big Watch and noticed that my pajama bottoms were stuck to my butt cheek, specifically to the area of the bite that had been oozing. Just what everyone wants to wake up to, a crusty oozy butt cheek. The welt also felt three times the size it had been on Monday morning. I asked Non Birding Bill to do his spousal duty and take a look, worried that perhaps I'd finally gotten a tick bite with Lyme disease. Pulling down my pants I asked him, "Hey, do you see a bullseye-type welt on my ass?"

"No, but wow. That doesn't look good at all," he said, concern in his voice. 

However, I had a flight to catch and no time for a doctor. I covered the area with copious amounts of Neosporin and a large bandage and then headed to the airport towards the Biggest Week in American Birding. I figured I would try to squeeze in a doctor's appointment when I got home, before I flew off to Alaska. In my brief flight from Minneapolis to Detroit, the bandage was soaked through and the oozing went through my tights onto my skirt. It also seemed to have gotten larger during the flight and the skin was hot and hard to the touch. I realized that I was in over my head and this ass situation was no good. I needed a doctor sooner rather than later.

Is this Cape May warbler wondering what's wrong with my butt?

Is this Cape May warbler wondering what's wrong with my butt?

I headed straight to Maumee Bay to check in to my hotel room and frantically scan the Internet to find a doctor in my health plan's network. I could hear delightful spring warblers and vireos in the trees, but I was on a mission. I wondered how I was going to check in quickly and make it to my room and not have anyone notice what was going on with my rear end. I love festivals because I run into so many far flung friends who want to hug and chat. There's nothing like an oozy ass to make you want to not be touched or even be friendly. I decided I would avoid eye contact as much as possible and be a merlin--look like I'm late for an appointment and dash through the vendor area to my room. The plan worked and when I got to my room I googled away. I found a Minute Clinic that was nearby and in network. I snuck out the back way of the Maumee Bay to avoid people and drove  over to the clinic.

I  knew after she examined me and went straight to typing on her smartphone that I was in trouble.  She was using a symptoms app and when she found the answer she was looking for told me, "I'm going to call the local emergency room and urgent care and whichever has the shortest wait is where you're going. You need help now."

I protested and said, "Let's go to the one that's in network, I'm not made of money and want to avoid an out of state hospital bill."

Urgent care it was. 

The doctor was very kind and said, "You have a staph infection which has led to cellulitis. Without doing a test I can't tell you for sure that it's MRSA but we're going to hit you hard with antibiotics. Oh, and stop scratching it. You may want to followup with your doctor at home."

My main concern was the nonstop oozing and I asked what she could give me. 

"That's going to take a few days for the cellulitis to go away. In the meantime you can get the expensive surgical pads, but I recommend you use Maxi Pads since they're so much cheaper and as a woman you know how absorbent they are."

One of my first birds at Biggest Week, an American woodcock. It's not looking at my butt...is it?

One of my first birds at Biggest Week, an American woodcock. It's not looking at my butt...is it?

I filled my prescription, loaded up on all the anti-itch cream I could find and...Maxi Pads. After returning to my room to get everything situated, I headed out to Magee Marsh. When I got to the parking lot I sat in my car awhile. I was stupidly worried and self conscious, would people see me walking around with a bulge on my butt cheek and wonder what was going on? Would the infection keep oozing and then go through my pants? Would I be able to enjoy the birds or just keep thinking of all the terrible things that are happening to my butt?

However, seeing my first American woodcock of the day and catching a glimpse of a northern parula took my mind of my behind. Birding has always been magic like that for me. Then I noticed something...

During spring migration, the only butts people watch are warbler butts. 

During spring migration, the only butts people watch are warbler butts. 

It was spring migration. No one was look at me, let alone my ass. Birders watch the trees for warblers. Thank goodness!

I started to ease up and ran into many friends...including former nurse Patteye who I'm pretty sure I overshared, but boy did she help put my mind at ease. As I continued with my festival duties, my butt situation didn't appear to be getting smaller, but it also didn't appear to be growing size anymore so that was hopeful. 

My view in Homer as I foolishly googled worst case scenarios for staph infections. 

My view in Homer as I foolishly googled worst case scenarios for staph infections. 

Monday I flew home, did some park service work and then Wednesday I flew to Alaska. I realized that I was creeping up on the one week mark from my diagnosis and that my backside was as weepy as ever. After I checked in to my cabin in Homer, Alaska I took in the view for a bit then settled down with some Jameson and the Internet to read more about staph infections and cellulitis while hermit thrushes and golden-crowned sparrows sang late into the night, because nothing alleviates medical fears like reading Web MD while jet lagged and drinking. After about thirty minutes I was convinced that I was going to have to have an emergency assectomy in Alaska and wondered how it would affect my ability to work and go bike riding. And were there any hospitals in network in Homer Alaska.

Seriously, I had white-winged scoters (including an albino) and sea otters outside my cabin and all I could do was lament over my backside my first night in Alaska. 

Seriously, I had white-winged scoters (including an albino) and sea otters outside my cabin and all I could do was lament over my backside my first night in Alaska. 

However, as luck would have it my friend Lynne came along to this festival and I remembered she worked in a lab at a hospital and maybe she had some insight on staph infections. Mercifully I had enough decorum to not drop my trousers and ask her to look. She told me that whatever was going on back there was going to take several days to clear up, to avoid scratching it and take all my meds even if I thought I was better. She also reminded me that she was there and things would be ok. 

It also helped that there were so many amazing birds in Alaska. It never ceases to amaze me how I can take a break from whatever problem I'm having by watching birds. 

I enjoyed some quality time as my infection appeared to go away. 

I enjoyed some quality time as my infection appeared to go away. 

Parasitic jaegers bombing out to see are a great way to take your mind off your troubles. 

Parasitic jaegers bombing out to see are a great way to take your mind off your troubles. 

The song of a Pacific wren echoing through the woods is another great balm for the soul. 

The song of a Pacific wren echoing through the woods is another great balm for the soul. 

Twenty-four hours after chatting with Lynne and enjoying some birding field trips, time with friends and teaching outdoor workshops while hermit thrushes fluted in the background I finally noticed that the antibiotics were making headway with my infection. I was going through fewer pads and the affected area was getting smaller.  

It's not every day you get to see the orange crown on an orange-crowned warblers. This dude stayed put long enough for my digiscoping workshop that my participants got photos of it. 

It's not every day you get to see the orange crown on an orange-crowned warblers. This dude stayed put long enough for my digiscoping workshop that my participants got photos of it. 

I enjoyed my time in Alaska, I made it home to Minnesota. I finished taking my meds and the oozing stopped. Things were a little pink back there, but it was definitely on the mend. I went back into my uniform into work. 

Twenty-four hours later the oozing began again. I went to the doctor and explained everything that happened over the previous weeks and he assured me not to worry that we would treat it with even stronger antibiotics. I asked how I could be getting it and he said, "Staph can be anywhere. Even on your body. All it takes is an open area on your skin for it to get in. And stop scratching."

Spring migration continued while I wondered if my behind would ever be normal again. 

Spring migration continued while I wondered if my behind would ever be normal again. 

The week long antibiotics did the drink. Everything was fine. Until I did another ranger program and the next morning a small, itchy oozy bump appeared. I hightailed it again to the doctor. He seemed more concerned this time compared to last time and we tried a different antibiotic. "I can't say without a test that this MRSA but if it keeps coming back we may have to look at some alternatives."

With this third visit, I noticed a common denominator. Every time I wore my ranger pants I got the infection back, no matter how many times I washed them. There was a part of me that wondered if I had developed an allergy to my ranger pants and I'd get a special dispensation to never have to wear those polyester wool monstrosities ever again. But before I could say it was an allergy for sure, I knew I had to burn my old pants and order a new pair. 

The final round of antibiotics did the trick. After living life in my new ranger pants I haven't had any issues again. All in all I lived with this for three months. I was reminded of what a weird biological experiment our bodies are and if I had this infection 100 years ago would I have even survived? 

Anyway, I'm grateful to friends who kept me calm and to all the birds that took my mind off of it. 

Birding Around Homer, Alaska

There is never enough Alaska to be had. I loved exploring Homer so much, I'm already eyeing a tour offered by Zugunruhe Birding to Barrow next year. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Semi-palmated plover seen along the Homer Spit. 

Alaska is one of those states you can't say no to when it comes a callin'. It's so far from the lower 48 states I was the speaker in 2016 for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and it was a place I immediately felt at home. One thing that struck me about the area was how much it reminded me of northern Minnesota if it had mountains. I met quite a few people who were originally from Minnesota and Wisconsin, came to Homer for work with the intent to stay for three years and yet found themselves in Homer going on 16 or more years. I could see myself doing that...not so sure about my city loving husband, but me? I'd for sure give Alaska a go. 

The state of Alaska is so huge, you  need more than one visit or the opportunity to live there to really get to know all of the different areas. It's beauty is overwhelming and the day length is unnerving. 

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

Everywhere you look in Alaska you see a Bob Ross painting. This is Chugach National Forest, Moose Pass between Anchorage and Homer.

My foot compared to a moose track. 

My foot compared to a moose track. 

I wondered how quickly I would see a moose on my drive from the Anchorage airport to Homer. I had to stop at a few scenic vistas on my way because I was not focusing on the road but the overwhelming beauty. Everywhere I stopped were signs of moose from tracks to poop. We have a small and dwindling population of moose up in Minnesota and I went on a moose safari in Sweden a few years ago so they aren't new for me but are always cool to see. I have a fairly distrust of moose on the side of the road ever since I saw the episode of Mythbusters that pretty much said you're boned if your vehicle collides with one. 

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

Moose blocking traffic in Homer.

The closer I got to Homer, the more moose I saw: in the road, along the road, running along side my vehicle...which was quite nerve wracking. And signs like these didn't ease my mind. But I made it to Homer without incident and picked up a few lifers along the way. 

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Mew gull...so weird to see a gull perched in a tree and also weird that I was able to id a gull on my own...

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

Golden-crowned sparrows sang all around my cabin. 

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

The light at 10pm in Homer in May...

I checked into my cabin at Shadow Star Vacation Rental which was right on the bay and gave me views of scoters, sea otters and of course lots of bald eagles. Golden-crowned sparrows, sooty fox sparrows and hermit thrushes serenaded me as long as it was light out. Which was a bit of a problem for me. I tend to wake up with the light and the cabin had excellent light blocking curtains so when it was still dusk like at 11pm I'd have a shot at sleep. However, the hermit thrushes and sparrows kept going and my brain refuses to turn off when bird song is going, especially gorgeous songs from thrushes or birds I haven't heard before. But fortunately, Shadow Star offered the most comfortable bed I've ever slept on in my life and that combined with noise cancelling headphones playing white noise allowed me sleep. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the Fresh Sourdough Express. There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

The Sourdough Joe breakfast at the Fresh Sourdough Express. There's fresh reindeer sausage in there so I had to order it. 

After a good breakfast, I explored Homer and what it had to offer for birding, specifically along the spit. This area was infamous for years for the Homer Eagle Lady who fed chum to hundreds of bald eagles. Since she's passed away, Homer now has very strict rules about feeding birds along the spit. Apparently, there are some after effects of the feeding like black-legged kittiwakes now nesting under the piers so as to not have their nests predated by eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

One of the piers where kittiwakes seek shelter from eagles. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

Black-legged Kittiwake up close. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

That's not to say a kittiwake colony doesn't attract attention. Here's an immature peregrine falcon and northwester crow near the kittiwakes. Eagles still abound as well. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Obligatory bald eagle photo from Homer. They pretty much nest on anything that can find. You might be at risk if you stand in one spot for too long. 

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

Black oystercatcher seen along the Homer Spit.

You may have noticed that I attended a festival with "shorebird" in the title and I've posted very few photos of shorebirds. I went in 2016 and the timing of the festival and shorebird migration didn't quite coincide. Such is the nature of migration and weather. Though I didn't get the big numbers of godwits, sandpipers and plovers, there are plenty of birds to keep you entertained and to fatten up your life list. 

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

Common murres against the sun taken from a boat.

One of the field trips you will want to make sure you get a space on is the seabird trip. It's only three hours but you can head out to a common murre colony and find eiders, common and Kittlitz's murrelts. It's also a gorgeous way to experience the Homer Spit view. If you're not sure how you would ever do on a pelagic, this small trip and a good way to test out your sea legs. You get quite a few opportunities for seabirds and shorebirds. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes on Gull Island. Digiscoped from a boat. The iPhone is a very forgiving camera. 

I like the above video because it captures the frenetic activity of the birds and the adventurous air on a boat birding trip. Just walking around Homer can feel like an adventure, but the sights, the wind, the roar of the common murres and kittiwakes yelling overhead combined with the aroma assaulting smell of copious amounts of bird guano just adds to it. 

But that's just the birding around Homer. There are other places to explore in the next post. Also, be sure to check out the shenanigans my friends Sue and I got up to with our friend Flat Michelle. 

Podcast #225 Senior Passes and the Border Wall

So...we recorded this over a week ago and forgot to post it. Whoops.

The first half hour is a rant on the Senior Pass price increase for federal parks. If you really want one at the old rate, order it at YourPassNow.com before August 28. 

The second is about the government looking into public and private land to build a wall that will keep no one out of the United States. Without going through due process for Eminent Domain, work has already begun on private property at the National Butterfly Center for a border wall. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge will also be ripped apart for a useless border wall. 

Monfragüe National Park, A Vulture Lover's Paradise

Let me tell you about about vultures...and Iberian ham...

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

I recently visited Extremadura which is in the southwest region of Spain and bordered by Portugal. It's an "autonomous community" meaning that even though it's inside Spain, it governs itself. Extremadura is fairly wild and remote and offers tremendous birding opportunity as well as Roman ruins. I've written a little bit about castle birding over at the PhoneSkope blog which includes this region. If you are looking for a unique birdwatching experience, Monfragüe National Park has it.

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

The big show while I was at the park was the large population of griffon vultures...which are a bit different than the turkey and black vultures we have in North America. This Old World species is ancient looking and gigantic, they make turkey vultures look practically anorexic. To give you an idea, a turkey vulture weighs about 3 - 4 pounds. A bald eagle can weigh anywhere from 8 - 12 pounds. A griffon vulture...now that beast can weigh as much as 25 pounds! Wrap your head around that for a minute--a soaring 25 pound bird! That's about the weight of a trumpeter swan!

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

One morning while we were out birding, there was a griffon vulture perched on a rock in the field. There was no way to stop to get a photo, but you could clearly see the bird was almost as tall as me, at least four feet tall. Our guide said the bird was probably feeding and when the afternoon faded to evening there were no thermals or warm currents of air for the bird to use to soar up to the cliff, it had to spend the night on the ground because it's too big to flap up to the cliffs in a powered flight like a common buzzard would be able to do. I asked if there was any danger of predators getting a vulture and our guide smiled and said, "No, not a bird that big."

When I used to do eagle surveys, I always knew they would be one of the last birds to hit the thermals and I wouldn't really see them lift off until after 9:30am since they are a bit heavier than hawks and other soaring birds. If vultures are your target in Spain, you can sleep in before you go watch them. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

It's one thing to go birding in a beautiful park with a rugged landscape. Monfragüe ups the adventure by offering tours from a castle on top of hill and looking into the valley below. When you get there, you go out on the roof and survey the landscape. Vultures start to rise and it isn't long until they're on the thermals and soaring 15 feet away from you and your eye to eye with this massive, winged beast. To make it even more decadent, there's a vendor with a cart who will sell you some espresso or beer to enjoy while you take in the view.

Below are some more highlights:

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

Black stork.

Black stork.

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

Speaking of the small oak forests, one of the best cured meats I've ever put in my mouth can be found in Extremadura. Pigs are left to wander the oaks during an acorn mast for six months before they're killed. The meat is then cured for three years, but may linger in shops for another two years before purchase. It's buttery soft and can be put on the traditional breads, but I enjoyed it on it's own. I thought Austria had a handle on making my favorite cured meats, but Iberian Ham blows it out of the water. It's the sort of food after tasting it where I thought, "I have to come back here, I can't imagine never eating this ever again. I know a lot of birders like to celebrate a life bird with "lifer pie," but if you're in Spain and you're a carnivore then make "lifer ham."