The Lost City of DeMille – Continued

I was up in the area last week and took this picture of what the “Lost City” looks like today from the entry road.
This shot shows a little better the scatter of boards, rusted nails and plaster of paris fragments that are the surface manifestation of the site. The area is closed both to keep vandals away and to protect nesting areas of an endangered species, the Western Snowy Plover.

The plovers cause lots of seasonal beach closures in this area. Every year, the city of Santa Barbara has a large Fourth of July fireworks show at West Beach. This time last year, the city was panicked because a pair of plovers nested right in the middle of the fireworks area. They had plans to cancel the show. They were saved when a raven came and ate the two eggs.

The Lost City of DeMille

In 1923, the silent movie classic “The Ten Commandments” was filmed by Cecil B. DeMille in the Guadalupe Dunes area of northern Santa Barbara County. It had the largest production budget of any movie made up to that time, with huge costs incurred building the massive sets (see the above still) and hiring and supporting a cast of hundreds of extras.

Look at this crowd scene, with all of those sphinxes. What appear to be great stone statues were really plaster of paris put on wooden forms. What looks like large stone buildings were really painted canvas, tacked to wooden frames. In addition to the sets, DeMille and his producers built a massive tent camp to house and feed the actors, extras and crew.

At the conclusion of filming, DeMille faced the decision of what to do with the sets. He and his financial backers opted to have them knocked down and bulldozed into the sands. Locals scavenged a lot of usable lumber, but eventually the buried movie set was forgotten.

Until 1983, when documentary filmmaker Peter Brosnan came across a cryptic reference to the fate of the set in DeMille’s autobiography. He eventually tracked down the location, and in association with a local archaeologist, John Parker, conducted test excavations to prove what he had. You can read an account of their story here.
Here is a picture of one of their finds that I borrowed from a website established by Brosnan and others to raise funds for the preservation of the site. They have started referring to it as “The Lost City of DeMille.” This was a real dig and the location has been recorded as an historic archaeological site with the designation CA-SBA-2392H. The archaeologists conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey and estimate that two-thirds of the set material is still buried in the dunes. They also mapped a dozen large targets that they believe are sphinxes.

I really wouldn’t have known about this except that the Dunes are located in a county park, and three years ago Connie and I worked on an archaeological survey for a new entry road and parking lot for the park. The “Lost City” turned up in our file search, and our survey actually located more material associated with the movie set that had not been previously mapped.

I have apparently run out of capacity for images in this post (Thanks, Blogger) and will continue in another to show you some more.

Matt’s Ten Birds Part 1

Kudos to Darren and Steve for sparking this neat thread. I’ll add my own ten in turn, putting a Louisiana spin on the list and ratcheting it down even further with birds commonly seen on my way to work. Common they may be, but these Louisiana natives meet the Ten Bird theme being both beautiful and interesting, at least to me.

Some of the text here will come from parts of In Season, Waypoints blog posts and various old articles, which is at once shamelessly self-promoting, lazy and quite proper, since I first wrote about these birds because I love them all.

First up, two kites and two blackbirds…

The Mississippi Kite [Ictina mississippiensis]

Photo from:

Several pair of Mississippi Kites nest along the boulevard a block behind our house. The neighborhood’s mature trees (oaks, pines and pecans) end there, making of our section an artificial clearing perfect for the aerial foraging of these buoyant birds. Kites are easily our most conspicuous raptors during summertime—from dawn to dusk you’ll see at least two overhead, usually more—but they completely vanish by mid-September, moving almost at once to Central and South America.

From In Season, the August 28/03 entry: “The next signal of changing season is the vanishing of Mississippi kites from above the parade ground. Only one remained this morning, a sort of blue-gray ghost falcon skimming the wet grass to power up beneath an early dragonfly. They are quietly spectacular, these kites—proof that what makes our more familiar falcons and hawks special is not the size of their prey but the style of its pursuit. In this, the Mississippi kite has no betters.”

The kites are largely insectivorous and first on their menu are dragonflies. But to watch the birds stoop vertically from hundreds of feet above our roof, making perfect peregrines of themselves, is to see an insect swatted in high style. They’ve been known to turn this terrible stoop toward chimney swifts, too; and just this morning I saw a kite being mobbed by an angry swift, and I wondered.

Kites will hunt in the canopy, particular early in the morning, catching cicadas when available but also small vertebrates like anoles and baby birds. One special afternoon, while entertaining falconer friends in the backyard and watching kites, we took in a rare spectacle: an adult burst through the canopy a couple dozen feet above us carrying a fledgling Blue Jay, clearly visible. Behind her in pursuit flew two of her young; all three passed over at top speed. How’s that for entertainment?

Swallow-tailed Kite [Elanoides forficatus]

Photo from:

The Swallow-tailed Kite is a magical bird, plain and simple. It must have been unknown to the people who first named paper kites after the real thing, but this one puts any child’s toy to shame. They are larger in span than a Mississippi, but about the same in weight. Most of the extra surface area comes from that wonderful train, split, well, like a swallows’ tail but so much more dramatic. A Swallow-tailed’s diet is similar to its cousin’s but with the curious addition of paper wasps’ nests, from which the larvae are gently plucked. Both kite species will forage together over pastures full of grasshoppers; the resulting spectacle is like viewing a live mobile, all wheeling, spinning, dipping and eating on the wing.

This is a picture of one in hand trapped for a cross-continent radio tracking effort by my friend Dr. Jennifer Coulson.

The Boat-tailed Grackle [Quiscalus major]

Photo from:,%20grackel,Cowbird/Boat-Tailed-Grackle.jpg

Darren and Helen will know another sort of blackbird on their side of the Atlantic. This one is an Icterid, from a group including fan favorites like the orioles. Some in the family are brightly-hued, but ours are mostly dark brown or flat black. The adult male Boat-tail takes black one step further with a glossy sheen around his nape, gleaming like polished blue metal but without pigment: a bioengineering feat called “structural color.”

These birds are tough. From a piece on local falconry I placed in International Falconer Magazine: “There are seven species of blackbird native to Louisiana, and all are considered “crop depredators” with no closed season or bag limit. They range in size from the Brown-headed Cowbird [Molothrus ater], about the weight of a large sparrow, to the Boat-tailed Grackle, a glossy, coastal bully the size of a small crow. The latter can be formidable quarry for the smallest trained hawks, but the tiercel Harris’ deals with them easily.”

You find Boat-tails here in wet places; mostly along the drainage ditches and canals that keep the rest of us dry. When they aren’t poking through the reeds for invertebrates and small aquatic animals (the smaller Common Grackle eats sparrows!), they’re playing King of The Hill. With backs arched, big heads up and tails fanned, males posture at one another, strutting and calling with loud clicks and whirrs like Geiger counters gone mad. I call it the cackle of the grackle. The sound makes my hawks’ heads spin.

The Eastern Meadowlark [Sturnella magna]

Photo from:

Another blackbird: not that you would guess it. The meadowlark is Icteridae’s answer to a quail. There are two forms in the US, Eastern and Western (a third, and maybe others south of the border) separated by their calls and somewhat by habits and habitat but mostly along a wide, slanted line from Southeastern Arizona to the Great Lakes. Here they are birds of fallow pasture, sometimes foraging in mowed grass but never more than a short flight away from better cover.

They are gorgeous all around. Bright yellow in front and patterned finely as a game bird on the back. You have to hold one to get the full effect, and that’s usually illegal, but whatever.

This is a bird I see along the road to work only if I take the route beside the Mississippi River. Below the levee are still a few pastures for cows and horses and in them the meadlowlarks still sing. I know there are a few good places left when I hear one. And when I see one flush, straight-away and fast like a Scaled quail, I lock up—instinctively on point. I feel much farther than half a mile from home.

The Curse of the Ten Bird Meme

A little note of explanation: Steve spent considerable effort scanning images and compiling the text for his three posts below. But due to the strange and improbable machinations of the Web, Steve is unable to post pics from home; Reid and I do the honors, which is (almost) never a problem. This time neither of us could get in for days, or Blogger refused to accept, or whatnot. Finally, with an end run around Blogger all together, we figured a way to post the pics and did.

But then I put the dang posts in the wrong order. And under the wrong name.

So apologies from the highly competent Q. technical staff. Enjoy!

“Ten Birds” Part 3

The Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, is everyone’s sentimental favorite Southwestern mascot. Of course, they are not much like the cartoon version– I think they are the most dinosaur- like of the non- avian dinosaurs that I know. They eat EVERYTHING– lizards, snakes, small birds like House finches. When I try to imagine how a Deinonychus moves, I think of a Roadrunner. Paleontologist and wonderful novelist John McLoughlin, who has dinosaurian characters in this and other novels, thinks so too. He used to shoot diseased sparrows off his bird feeder with an air rifle and the ground cuckoos would run off with them. He once sent me this postcard:

The Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)is not a hawk, of course– it is a “goatsucker” or nightjar, a bird that flies through the night engulfing insects with its great maw like, as Libby says, a whale cruising through plankton.

This is the perfect Nighthawk image– the graceful bird swooping through an urban summer night as crowds pass obliviously below. Nighthawks are the only native birds to connect my youth in urban New England with my life in rural New Mexico. When I was young we would sit on apartment roofs in Cambridge and the Back Bay, drinking horrible cheap Greek wine and smoking even cheaper nastier Mexican weed and watching the Nighthawks courting overhead. They would flap erratically through the dusk, uttering occasional “peents” not unlike a woodcock’s, then dive at the rooftops to pullout at incredible angles, making a loud humming boom with stressed primaries. Wing song!

Now they come, not in spring but in the monsoon rains of summer (we’re waiting!) to make the same flights over the desert town. There they nested on rooftops; here, they can nest on the ground. The wine is better and I don’t smoke any more, but the birds are exactly the same.

Last for now: two birds really, because I can’t decide between them: the Temminck’s and Satyr Tragopans, Tragopan temmincki and Tragopan satyra. These are increasingly rare “primitive” pheasants from the increasingly deforested deciduous slopes of the Hymalayas. You can take your Birds of Paradise and your hummingbirds– I consider these two species the most beautiful birds in the world. I have only seen them in captivity, but they top my “most wanted to see” list for the wild.

The images below are from an advance brochure for William Beebe’s magisterial 1920’s Pheasants of the World. I had to go with the Temminck’s for the color– the only Satyr image is in the actual book, and I wont risk breaking the binding. But look at the display “bibs” they can inflate, even in black and white! (The actual markings are red on blue).

I hope you have enjoyed these. Eventually I would also like to do ten songbirds. And ten pigeon breeds. Boring? Complain to Darwin!

Oh and: tag! to Pluvialis, Rebecca, Jonathan and Matt?

“Ten Birds” Part 1

NOTE: These posts are listed under my name but written by Steve. We had a hell of a time getting them posted….technical difficulties! MATT

Recently Darren introduced me to the meme “Ten Beautifully Interesting Birds”. I was challenged!

Being as I am a hard- core Bird Guy, there is no way I can pick only ten birds– I could probably pick ten lists of ten! But I am going to initially pick ten non- passerines and later may do ten songbirds, or ten of some other classification, or just Ten More.

We each change the reasons for picking our choices a bit, and this list will be no exception. I am attempting to choose birds that are both meaningful to me– I have seen every one, mostly in the wild– and that are intrinsically interesting as well. I will split them into three groups as Darren did, so as not to give poor Blogger fits.

( credit Nate Johnson)

First, the Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis. From my book Querencia:

“And suddenly the air was full of wings and trumpet shrieks as the dogs ran in maddened circles beneath fifty rising sandhill cranes. They curved back over my head in the wind, almost low enough to touch, flying crucifixes as tall as men. I had never seen them so close; the storm had made them feel that the open field close to the house was safer than the coyote-haunted groves beside the big river. I felt like New Mexico was giving me a good-bye present, an offering to insure my return”

I like it that the cranes inhabit some of my favorite places. They breed from 1000 miles inside Siberia all the way to Idaho, winter from Nebraska and New Mexico to Chihuahua. They traverse the Bering Straits. Their rolling call, produced in a French horn concealed in their breastbones, rains down from winter skies and haunts my dreams.

The Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersi), of the high mountain valleys of Central Asia, is probably the rarest bird I have ever seen, but my friends in Kazakhstan walked me straight to it.

This spectacular wader is the only species in its genus, and lives only in stony stream beds in such places as the Himalayas and the Tian Shan, where I saw it south of Almaty.

Andrey Kovalenko, who also bred my dog Kyran, is an ornithologist. He and photographer- climber Oleg Belyalov intended to show us the bird, but we didn’t know. When I saw the habitat we were entering at about 9000 feet I thought, “This looks like the background of every photo of an Ibisbill I have ever seen”. So when Andrey set up his spotting scope and then whispered “Eebeesbeel!” (the only English words he uttered that day) I won’t say I was shocked– just delighted. Here I am studying the bird through Andrey’s scope:

American Woodcock, Scolopax minor. (Here are two flushing in a nice drypoint by the old New England artist A. Lassell Ripley, exactly as I remember them).

I love their mating wing “song”, I love hunting them, I love eating them. I love it that their huge eyes are behind their ears, and that they can open the very tip of their bills underground to grasp worms. In the spring in New England, we would sit in little damp openings in the second- growth woods amidst the buzz of early mosquitos and the chirps of late spring peepers listening for the “Peent!” of a male Woodcock on the ground. If you imitated it (say the word in a high- pitched voice while holding your nose) they would approach closely, on foot. Finally a male would take to the air and circle above, wings whistling, then dive to the ground while making a cascade of liquid notes, improbably not with its vocal chords but with its primary flight feathers.

On my last extended New England visit (1986)I shot and froze several limits of Woodcock and cooked a dinner for me and Jesuit scholar- scientist- big game hunter Anderson Bakewell in Santa Fe. I adapted the recipe from Angus Cameron’s L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook (curiously, currently listed in Amazon under the name of co- author Judith Jones, though Angus was the chief author).

Bear in mind, rather than using the liver from the Woodcock, a hard- core Woodcock eater (like me) might use chicken livers for the paste and NOT GUT THE COCK. ‘Cock and Snipe void as they fly and are therefore clean, and are cooked intact but for plucking, heads on (tucked back) and all. Angus in fact did so, though not here! Also, the recipe– adapted perhaps from one for the huge Old- world species– recommends cooking for a half an hour. I have NEVER cooked a Woodcock or Snipe for more than 15 minutes! If you do, to paraphrase fellow Woodock aficionado Guy de la Valdene, why not just boil them in Pepto Bismol overnight?


Saute 4 chicken livers (for four Woodcock) in a couple of tablespoons of butter until just cooked– pink in the middle. Mash coarsely with (fresh if you have it ) tarragon and salt, moistening with a bit of red wine. Set aside, covered.

Take a thick slice of white French or Italian bread for each bird, spread with butter or even bacon fat, and toast in the oven. Remove and keep warm.

In a saucepan, warm 3/4 cup sour cream mixed with 1/2 cup sweet cream with a tablespoon of butter. Stir until smooth.

Heat oven to 425 F. Put in the birds, salted, for no more than 15 minutes. Remove. Spread the toasts with the liver paste, and put a bird on top. Serve the cream sauce from a sauceboat on the side, to be poured over to one’s taste.

To be continued!

“Ten Birds” Part 2

You didn’t think they wouldn’t have a section to themselves?

The Barbary Falcon, Falco pelegrinoides. Also known in the eastern part of its immense range (North Africa to Mongolia, though only in deserts), where it is larger, as the Red- Naped Shahin– or, a name fans of my dogs would know– “Lashyn”. This photo is from the “Shunkar” breeding aviary south of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Once considered conspecific with the Peregrine, they now can be seen to breed sympatrically, separated by habitat preferences. They are birds of dry lands, adapted to harsh climate, predators of pigeons and doves, long- distance dispersers. Probably they diverged from the Peregrine during the Pleistocene glaciations, just as the Gyrfalcon did from the Saker.

See the breadth of her shoulders, the short tail? Barbaries are faster than true Peregrines but have heavier wing loading– they flap more and soar less. They burn an amazing amount of food compared to a “typical” Peregrine of similar weight.

I have a particular fondness for this species that goes beyond having flown a couple (they are delightful birds, as sweet- natured as tazi dogs, though because of their tendency to disperse distressingly easy to lose in their first year). One of my favorite texts, and my gateway to understanding the birds of Central Asia, is the English translation of Dement’ev’s Birds of the Soviet Union (1951). He mentions that they nest in the Mongolian Altai in the “basin of Hobdo- gol River, west of Lake Orog- Nur”. Driving down that west shore under those cliffs in the winter of ’98, I saw hawk chalk and falcon nests and remembered that passage. I hope I can see those nests in spring someday.

Eleanora’s falcon, Falco eleanorae.

I have only seen one of this lovely bird, a falconer’s “pet” rather than a true hunting bird– I include it for more or less “Darren” reasons, because it has evolved remarkable nesting and feeding habits. Eleanora’s lives on islands in the Mediterranean and winters in Madagascar. For most of the year it lives on insects, but between August and October, when it breeds, it feeds on migrant songbirds coming south over the ocean to winter in Africa. The reason that that perfectly tame bird I mentioned was a “pet” is that she couldn’t be induced to hunt FOR anyone. Eleanoras often feed on the wing; she would go aloft, eat insects in the air, and return when she wanted. Look at the length of those wings compared to a Peregrine’s– a falcon’s attempt to evolve toward a swallow or swift.

Ferruginous hawk, Buteo regalis. Can’t beat this image by my friend Herb Wells, taken in California while out coursing…

Ferrugs are huge birds that some compare to eagles– the females overlap in weight with male Golden eagles. Look at those long wings! They are a signature bird of arid prairies and steppes, including my own. Once they were thought to be clumsy (mostly by city- bound ornithologists who never watched them). Now they are known to be among the most agile of Buteos in the air. While they do live mostly on various ground squirrels when breeding (and can swallow small ones whole– see that wide gape?) they are also can take the largest hares and such New- World bustard equivalents as Sage grouse.

Though some compare them to the smaller booted eagles (and others deride their relation to the also “booted” Rough- legged hawk, Buteo lagopus, which Carel Brest van Kempen compares to a kite!) both are likely Buteos. In Central Asia, such species as the Long- legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus) and the huge Upland buzzard, (Buteo hemilasius, which is alleged to kill lambs) provide a bewildering series of intermediate types. Trying to sort Buteos on the Kazakh steppes in September is like trying to do the same with fall warblers in North America. Although the raptors are easier to see, each warbler doesn’t come in a half dozen intergrading morphs!

My friend Dave Dixon, who bred my falcon Tuuli,is now teaching a young male to accompany him while paragliding.

Last among the birds of prey: the Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus. Andrey whispered THAT name to me the same day we saw the Ibisbills, higher up in the Tian Shan, when one rose for a moment over a ridge still higher above us… the one to the right in this photo of Oleg Belyalov, Libby, and him in the Tian Shan:

We also saw Altai snowcocks (Tetraogallus altaicus) running up the same ridge, and a Cinereous vulture ( Aegypius monachus) soon followed the Lammergeier into the sky above it.

And the meadow was full of marmots.

My favorite Lammergeier image may be this one from a tapestry stitched by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen himself.

Meinertzhagen had this to say about a personal encounter with the species.

“I had a most unpleasant experience with a lammergeier in Baluchistan near Quetta. I was crossing a moving scree when it commenced to crawl; I traveled down the slope, eventually fetching up against a juniper stump to which I clung with boulders tearing downhill all around me. In this position a Lammergeier came so close to me I could see his red eye; three times he passed me within a few feet, aware I was in difficulties, but after I threw rocks at him he made off”.

If embroidery and adventure and conspiracy are not enough evidence for you to consider “M” unique, here is the cover of the book from which the image and the quote were taken.

And here is a bit of a poem by Pluvialis (as Helen Macdonald) about the bird.

“single beads and microhistories & the tracts all equally torn
above the lozenged tail of the pseudo-phoenix the lambslayer’s

water and golden eye, his breast feathers rusted from long contact
with oxides and bone & his long remiges conformable with pure air”….

Three more birds to come!

Nojoqui Falls

Over the weekend, I finally got to visit Nojoqui Falls, located in a Santa Barbara County Park, off of Highway 101, just north of Gaviota. It’s one of those places I’ve driven past a hundred times and finally took the time to stop and look.The falls are not only pretty, but interesting geologically. They are are located at the contact point between two uplifted lithological units, the Jalama Shale and the Jalama Sandstone. The creek has eroded its way back through the soft shale, so that the cliff face is all sandstone. The Jalama Sandstone is highly cemented with calcium carbonate. Stream water dissolves the calcium carbonate upstream and then redeposits it on the face of the cliff as travertine. The travertine is actually building the cliff face outward, as you can see in this photo.The falls are pretty, even in this picture taken during low summer creek flow. I promise to go back in the winter after some rains and take a comparison picture.

Fire Season

It has started here. I don’t know if you can see clearly, but the white specks on the window and trim of my car are wood ash. Last week we awoke one morning to find our cars covered with ash that had blown in overnight from a fire about 40 miles north of us near the town of New Cuyama. By the weekend, it had burned over 17,500 acres. We could smell the smoke and had some spectacular sunsets through the haze. You have to keep one ear open to the news about them.Other signs of fire season are the appearance of trucks full of Hot Shot teams on the highways. On a mountain road over the weekend, I had to back down to a turnout to let one come by. People coming downhill have the right of way. Also, I work across the street from the airport and get to see the increased flights of water bombers and spotter planes with their distinctive white and orange paint.It’s just a seasonal fact of life here and down in New Mexico where Steve lives. Like tracking hurricanes down on the Gulf Coast where Matt lives. Or tornadoes in the Upper South where I grew up.The LA Times tells us that California and most of the Southwest is in for a tough year. A multi-year drought has the whole area at risk.Pray for rain.

“Sunbirds and Cashmere Spheres”

Pluvialis has another superb essay up.

Here, she is describing Bearded “tits” (which are not tits):

“Those pictures fail to show how glamorous these small birds are. They look like they’re made of cashmere. Very very expensive cashmere. And are wearing long, black velvet evening gloves. Their tiny waxen beaks resemble the heads of all-weather matches, and set in the thumb-smear of sooty kohl are strange, pale eyes that catch the light oddly as they clamber among the reeds.

“And they clamber in fantastic ways. They’re built for a world of verticals. Their legs are long, and black and glint like obsidian — and their feet are huge. Huge, cartoon bird feet. I’m watching these little cashmere balls bounce up and down in the reeds, and see that quite often, a bird hops from one reed stem to two, grabbing one stalk in each foot, and sit there happily doing the splits while it picks insects from a reedstem.”

Why is she not in the New Yorker?

More bird stuff from me soon…