CHAPTER Four: OTHER DUTIES AS ASSIGNED

        By Sunday evening, Greg had recovered enough from his afternoon depression to get out his bird book, and check on what he might likely see now, or later into spring migration. He knew a lot of the species, because they were widespread through the Intermountain West, but there were a few that would be new to him.

   He decided that, if he woke up in time, he’d take another look in the woods before reporting for work the next morning. He did wake early, ate a quick bowl of cereal, and headed out. At 6:30, the sun was just coming up, but there was already a lot of bird activity. It was mostly the juncos and Audubon’s warbler he’d seen the day before, but he spied several evening grosbeaks (probably another leftover from winter) and a few early goldfinches.

   He wanted to keep looking, but heard what he thought was the school bus arriving, then departing. That meant he needed to get back up to the house if he was going to get to work on time. He made it, ate a little more breakfast, cleaned up a bit, and got to the office right at 8 o’clock, Chuck was just getting there, also.

   “I saw you were out just at sunrise. Looking for more dicky birds?”

   “I was. It’s still too early for any big migration movement, but a lot of the winter birds are still here. I’m looking forward to mid-May or so, when we should get a lot of spring birds, and maybe some unusual species.”

   “Interesting. Let’s put that aside for now, and  get down to refuge business.”

   “Sure,” replied Greg. He wondered why a major bird migration wasn’t “refuge business,” but refrained for saying so.

   “As you might have guessed, from the extent of our staff,” Chuck began, “we are not one of the top-tier national wildlife refuges. We didn’t even have an assistant manager position until today.” He made a little bow toward Greg. “Welcome, assistant manager.  What I’m saying is we don’t rank with the famous refuges like Bear River in Utah, Horicon in Wisconsin, or the Klamath Basin refuges on the California-Oregon border. We don’t even rank with a couple hundred others that have more specialized functions than we do. In the system, we are considered a custodial refuge – important to sort of tie all the others together, but not having any specific purpose. As we talked about a little yesterday, we manage the water we get for migrating ducks, and then for nesting ducks. Beyond that, it’s mostly just keeping an eye on the place, making sure nobody steals it or sells it, and keeping it looking neat and tidy.

   “Now, lest you think that we don’t have enough to keep us busy, the Regional Office has a seemingly unending need for various reports to be developed and sent to them. And that leads me to an important question: can you type?”

   Greg laughed. “As a matter of fact, I can type pretty well. I took a couple of classes in high school, and have done enough typing since to retain some of the skill.”

   “Great, you are now – in addition to being assistant manager, biologist, sometime maintenance man, and acting manager in my absence – our clerk-typist. You won’t find all those jobs written out in your official position description, but somewhere in it you will find the phrase ‘other duties as assigned.’  Consider yourself assigned.”

   “I’m honored to be chosen.”

   “We did have a secretary of sorts until recently: a woman from one of the ranches, who came in two or three times a week to help me out with the clerical stuff. Unfortunately for me, she and her family moved away, and I haven’t been able to find anyone else willing to make the trip for the few hours of work.”

   “It’s not a problem for me,” Greg assured him.

   “Good. Now, we can figure out who does what as we go along, but I’m going to give you a few specific chores right up front. First, our little weather station needs to be checked each morning. Record maximum and minimum temperatures, and amount of rain or snow. Then, write out any significant weather events: big thunderstorms, hail, high winds, whatever. There’s a folder I keep all that info in.

   “Second, the Regional Office wants us to do a waterfowl count every week, to record species, relative numbers, and stages of the nesting cycle – nests found, when the first broods are seen, that sort of thing. As refuge biologist, I’ll give you that job. I have a route I’ve been taking, that I can show you later this week.

   “Third, our big reports each year are what are called the Refuge Narratives. They’re done quarterly. I just finished the one for January-March, so we’re starting on the April-June one. You can look in the files to see some samples. They’re supposed to contain notes on everything: weather, wildlife, maintenance and building projects, status of our equipment, visitors, et cetera, et cetera. Again, I’ve been keeping a folder for each subject. You and I should both write down our observations on any subject as they come up, so we don’t have to fish around or try to remember things later.”

   “That sounds good,” acknowledged Greg. “I’ll look at some of the old ones.”

   “Finally – for now, anyway - there’s some work to be done about our maintenance men. Tim and Rusty are considered permanent, versus temporary, employees, That means they’re on the books all the time, but not always actually working. You’ll see on their payroll statements: WAE, when actually employed. You and I get our pay based on our grade level; they get theirs on an hourly basis. That rate is supposed to be comparable to what other people in the area are getting for the same job, and is adjusted each year. We’re supposed to do a local survey each year to see what that rate is.

   “It’s complicated in an area like this, because there aren’t that many jobs, period. Also, nobody asks their people to be what we ask ours to be – jacks-of-all-trades, doing a little bit of everything. Anyway, we do the best we can. I’d like you to get it done this week or next. I’ll tell you who I usually talk to; that way, they won’t be suspicious of why you’re asking.”

   “Sure, I’ll plan to do it later this week.”

   Chuck got up from his desk. “The boys are out repairing some fences. I think I’ll go check on them, and maybe help for a while. Do you want to come?”

   “Maybe I’ll take some time today to start going through these reports and notes, so I know better what I’m going to be doing.”

   “Suit yourself. I’ll probably be back in a few hours.”

   Just then, the mail arrived. Greg was introduced to their letter carrier, a woman from town who had been delivering for years. There wasn’t any personal mail for him. (One more day without the dreaded “greeting” from Selective Service!). She and Chuck left about the same time, and Greg settled down with a stack of narrative reports.

   Chuck arrived back at the office just before quitting time. They chatted for a moment, then both went home. Greg cooked a quick dinner, ate it while listening to the news on the radio, then read for awhile before getting into bed fairly early.  At some point, it crossed his mind that he hadn’t heard the school bus that afternoon.

   He’d have to ask Chuck about that in the morning.

***

   Greg took another early morning walk down into the woods, but things were pretty quiet. The winter birds were gradually drifting away. He went back to the house, cleaned up and ate a leisurely breakfast, then went to the office.

   He was still thinking about the school bus, when he realized he hadn’t heard it this morning, either. He asked Chuck.

   “I was thinking we talked about that. Apparently not, huh? Well, the story is that the girls stay in town through most school weeks. They go in Monday morning, and come back Friday evening. They used to ride every day, but it’s such a god-awful long trip that they seemed to be spending half their lives on the bus. Eventually, we found a family in town willing to bed-and-board them during the school week. It’s worked out pretty well. Alice and I miss the midweek hubbub, but it’s been good for the girls.”

   “Yeah, I can appreciate that.”

   “To change the subject,” said Chuck, “What say we take today for the weekly waterfowl count? You can see more of the refuge, and I can show you the route that I’ve been using for the survey.”

   “Sounds okay to me,” Greg responded. They left headquarters through the narrow gap in the rimrock that was the only way to the wetlands beyond. It was a calm, warm day, but banks of dark cumulus clouds were already building south of them. Greg recognized the first couple of marsh areas from the previous Sunday with Chuck. There weren’t a lot of ducks, but there was pretty good variety, mixed dabblers and divers. They estimated 350 shovelers, 20 canvasbacks, 50 scaup, and a scattering of mallards, green-winged teal, and ruddy ducks in one area. Greg was surprised to find several hundred horned grebes on another pond, probably migrants just passing through. There was also a pretty good movement of shorebirds: Wilson’s phalaropes, godwits, willets, some yellowlegs (Greg though probably lesser yellowlegs, but they didn’t take the time to identify them), and a good many “peeps” (small sandpipers, probably of several species). Somewhat unexpected this early in the season were large, mixed flocks of swallows, apparently just arriving for the summer.

   They reached the water control structures that Chuck had checked and modified on Sunday, then drove on into new country for Greg. The fairly narrow valley they had been driving through opened up into a wide valley, with many individual ponds and marshes. Greg commented on how expansive it was.

   “We have close to 20,000 acres. It includes a fair amount of lava rimrock and sagebrush flats, but there’s a lot of water, too, as you can see. There could be a lot more, if the water was available to us.” As they turned onto a side road, they noticed the wind increasing and the sky noticeably darkening. Just ahead, they saw Tim and Rusty headed for their truck.

   “Looks like things are going to get wet,” guessed Chuck. As they came abreast of the other truck, Chuck rolled down his window to address the Johnsons. “Gonna call it a day?”

   “No, we’re going to eat an early lunch here, and see if we can wait this out. We’d like to get a little more done, today, if possible,”

   “Okay, but don’t take any chances if the electricity lasts very long.” He rolled up his window just in time, as rain began to fall in sheets. The wind swirled, thunder crashed around them, and lightning jumped across the nearby rimrock. Chuck laughed. “I guess we sit here for a minute. I can barely see the road!”

   Greg wasn’t concerned about the intensity of the storm – he’d been in a lot of afternoon thunder storms in the California mountains. What surprised him was how quickly it had developed. “Summer thunder in the High Sierra can be pretty vigorous,” explained Greg, “But you can usually see it coming. This just appeared out of nowhere.”

   Chuck agreed. “You’d think in this open country, you’d see the edge of a storm coming for miles. The thing is, most of what we get are little pop-up storms, generated by the terrain and local heating and thermal updrafts. It isn’t like there was any big weather system, anywhere close.”

   In the short time they talked, the rain had abated, and there was even a little blue sky appearing to the west. Thunder rumbled to the east for awhile, but the storm was definitely over for them. Tim and Rusty were already getting out of the truck. “Short picnic,” observed Tim. “I guess we’ll work awhile longer.”

   Chuck and Greg spent another hour visiting the various pond areas. Ducks and shorebirds were scattered here and there. They saw some obvious paired up mallards, shovelers, green-winged teal, and cinnamon teal, but no sign of serious nesting activity.

   They got back to the office in time for a late lunch break, then spent the rest of the afternoon on routine paperwork.

***

   Greg decided to get the wage survey out of the way on Wednesday. He left after breakfast in his own car (he wanted to do some shopping, and didn’t want people to think he was misusing government property), taking Chuck’s list of possible contacts with him. He visited the sugar processing plant, a hardware store, the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, and the State forestry offices. He only needed to get four figures, but he added the city parks department because he was nearby. It wasn’t hard work, but it took most of his day to find the places; find the right contacts; chat a bit; ask his questions; chat some more; and move on to the next place. He ate a late lunch at a diner, bought enough groceries to last him a couple weeks (it took all his available cash, but he didn’t fancy making the drive every week!); gassed up his car; and finally headed out of town. As he passed the high school, he saw that the school buses were just departing. Three-thirty: it would be a long ride home for some of the students.

   At least, Vic and Mandy weren’t on the bus, today.

***

   Thursday, he decided, would be a good day to work with the Johnsons on the fence project. They had already left for the job when he finished his wage grade paperwork, so he followed after in another truck. He found them maybe a quarter mile beyond where he had seen them on Tuesday.

   The job was not to build new fence, but to replace worn posts, tighten old barbed wire, and occasionally string new wire. The actual tasks didn’t matter. He’d never done any of them, and both he and the Johnsons found that he wasn’t a fast learner.

   “I can’t believe how bad you are at this,” Rusty teased. “Your college education certainly didn’t help you with this part of refuge operations.

   Greg shot back. “My college training may be somewhat to blame, but I suspect my ineptness is not so much about my college as it is my being a city kid unschooled in the ways of field and farm. On the other hand, I bet I can identify more species of birds than you can.”

   They both just rolled their eyes on that.

   He did get better as the day went along, but he was terribly slow, and occasionally held them up. Finally, Tim made a suggestion. “We’re getting pretty far ahead of our supplies. Why don’t you go down, get the tractor, and bring it up the road closer to us?”

   Thankful to do something else, he was half-way to the tractor before he remembered he’d never even started one, before. He thought about turning back, but decided he’d feel better about being ridiculed for not doing well, than he would for not doing it, at all. How hard could starting a tractor be? he asked, himself.

   Actually, the little Fordson wasn’t hard to start. It had a key, just like a car, and only a couple of other levers to worry about. After a couple of jerky starts, he got it moving up the road. He could see Rusty and Tim watching him. He couldn’t see their facial expressions from a distance, but their body language certainly spoke to them having a good time at his expense. He was still a little bit proud of himself when he pulled up next to them.

   “Now, why don’t you back the trailer up to the fence line, so we can get to the supplies without having to carry them far?” Greg could tell they were expecting him to fail, but he was a good sport. He didn’t care at that moment if he did fail. However, after four attempts that all ended in him jack-knifing the trailer, he did start to care. It was okay; they were ready to show him a little mercy. “We’ll have to work on that one, city boy,” said Tim.

   Later, they sat on a little rocky knoll, and ate their lunches. The sky was blue, and there was only a little breeze. It was warm-ish, but with a little bit of a bite to remind them that it was late April warm, not early July warm. Conversation bounced from one subject to another. Greg both wanted and didn’t want to talk about a certain thing; the ‘want to’ finally won out.

   “Chuck tells me there’s another Johnson brother, one in the service?”

   “Yeah, that’s Dave,” offered Rusty. “He’s quite a bit younger than us. More your age, I’d say. What, 21 or 22?”

   “Right in the middle,” agreed Greg. “He’s in the Army?””

   “Yeah, he enlisted last year. Decided he didn’t want the suspense of waiting to be drafted.”

   “Has he gone over, yet?”

   “No, but I suspect it won’t be long. What about you? You must be high on the list.”

   “I am. Good health, no dependents, no more school, so no deferment possible there. I guess like everybody else my age, I’m just waiting for that ‘greetings’ from Selective Service.”

   “Have you considered just joining, and getting it over with?” Tim asked.

   “It’s certainly been a consideration, but I just figure they’ll get me when they need me. In the meantime, I’ll get a little work experience. Maybe learn to back up a tractor.”

 

   Later, alone at home, Greg returned to the Viet Nam discussion. He had lied to them – or, at least, pussy-footed around his real thoughts. He hated the idea of being in the Army, and would never purposely enlist. He was scared of going to Viet Nam for a variety of real and imagined reasons. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when he got that letter. That was still an open question.

***

   He felt the temperature dropping in the night, but Greg was still surprised to walk out Friday morning into a white world. It looked like maybe an inch of snow had fallen. It wouldn’t last long. The eaves were already dripping, and the just-risen sun was already feeling warm.

   He commented to Chuck on the surprise snow, who acknowledged it with a short laugh. “Spring in the Great Basin: 30 degrees in the morning, 70 in the afternoon. Rain, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, snow – possibly all within an hour or so of one another! It’ll settle down in another couple of weeks.”

   Chuck and Alice had some personal business in town, so Chuck was going to use some of his accumulated leave time, and make a day of it. With nothing particularly pressing in the office, he suggested that Greg take the day to explore more of  the refuge. Greg didn’t take any convincing. He made some sandwiches, filled a thermos with coffee, and headed out.

   The bird life had changed in the first few ponds he drove by. The larger groups of both migrant ducks and shorebirds seemed to have moved on. He saw the same duck species as earlier in the week, but now there were more redheads, cinnamon teal, and blue-winged teal. At school he’d become interested in redheads and canvasbacks (which they’d seen last time) because they were often mentioned as some of the more vulnerable species. Apparently their numbers had dropped significantly over the years, mainly due to the long-term shortage of water in their nesting areas in the Great Plains and intermountain West. (Some biologists also blamed overhunting, theorizing that redheads and “cans" might be more vulnerable to shooting than some other ducks.)

   Greg knew cinnamon teal from California, where they were fairly common as nesting birds and also as migrants. He supposed he had seen a blue-winged teal or two in California, but most of their nesting and migration occurred east of the Pacific States. Male blue-wings were easy to spot and identify by the white crescent on their faces; the male cinnamon was easy, too, with a color unlike any other duck. Various bird books had described it as “bright reddish;” “dark reddish; “vivid rusty;” and even “burnished red.” None seemed to quite fit, but – as there was no question of the duck’s identity when you saw it - the name of the color didn’t seem too important.

   Identifying the females of the two teal species was a different problem. The “experts” claimed that one species had a slightly larger bill than the other, and that the facial markings on the two were slightly different. Other than those features, they were identical. Greg remembered that he and some classmates had once asked their ornithology teacher how he identified them. His answer: see which kind of male a female was sitting with. Greg never felt the need to pursue it farther.

   He poured a little coffee, then sat and watched the ducks for some time. Most were in pairs now, and some were showing a little courtship behavior – a little bobbing and posturing, with the males occasionally (but not very avidly) chasing the females. What he was looking for that would signal real nesting activity were some “waiting drakes” – lone male ducks sitting in one place for long periods of time. That could signify that their mates were nearby, laying eggs or tending a nest. He didn’t see anything like that.

   Continuing his drive east, the bird life was much the same. He did notice that the horned grebes he had seen earlier that week had mostly disappeared, presumably continuing their northward migration. In their place were abundant eared grebes, some of which would probably nest locally. He also saw a few of the bigger Western grebes, already doing their run-across-the-water courtship dance. Their interest in sex was, so far, more advanced than it was with the ducks.

   Eventually, Greg came to what was clearly the east boundary fence of the refuge, with “blue goose” signs marking it. To his surprise, he found that there was a gate in the fence, held closed with a wire loop, and that the road continued on to the east beyond the refuge. It was of lesser quality than what he’d been driving over, but clearly it was a road that led somewhere. So, they weren’t really at the end of the earth, after all.

   Most of the morning snow had melted away, but there were some remaining patches. Several of them – on both sides of the gate - showed tire tracks, clearly made that day. He’d have to ask Chuck who would have been driving there that morning. He’d also like to know where the road went.

   He took a leisurely route back west, taking a number of side trails to get different looks at the habitat. Where he stopped to have his lunch, there were a number of Caspian terns flying around, apparently brand new arrivals. On one of his other detours, he was momentarily excited to see what looked like a pronghorn antelope looking at him from a patch of sagebrush. Examination with his binoculars revealed the “pronghorn” to be a coyote, standing on the ground with its front feet on top of a rock. Well, in that posture, he was as tall as an antelope!

   The Andersons weren’t back from town when he arrived at headquarters, so he decided to take a quick hike down into the grove to check the “dicky bird” (as Chuck called them) activity. It was pretty quiet. Most of what he saw were Audubon’s warblers now.

   It was getting pretty dark in the woods, so he retreated back to the compound, cleaned up the truck, and parked it. He was just going in his house when he heard the Anderson car. He stayed on the porch long enough to see them park at their house, and watch four people get out.

   “Thanks, Dad,” he muttered. One more day the girls didn’t have the long school bus ride home.

 

 


To The Writing It Down Homepage


Leave a Comment: symbios@condortales.com

© Sanford Wilbur 2022