Monday, August 31, 2009

Yellowstone - Scenic Byways, Road Construction and Bison

There are two routes to Yellowstone from the Badlands.

The southern route - US 26 from Casper, WY to Dubois - goes through the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway through Togwotee Pass (9,658 ft) north of Jackson.  The northern route -US 14 -  goes through Granite Pass (9,033 ft) on the Bighorn Scenic Byway.   On the advice of my trusted AAA travel consultant, we took the northern route.

In retrospect, it was not the best choice for me (vertigo issues) and the Prius (ground clearance issues). The road construction from Ranchester up the Bighorns to Burgess Junction was frightening.  Picture a one lane dirt road, two lane traffic, no guard rails and potholes so big they nearly swallowed the Prius. I cringe just thinking of the sound of the front fender scraping.

This stretch of road alerted me to one of the few "negatives" about the aerodynamic Prius:   the 5" ground clearance.

The up-hill ride into the Bighorns seemed to take forever.   But I managed to enjoy the fresh, new pavement (and the scenery) on the downhill side to Shell, Wyoming. 

We spent the night in Cody and got up bright and early for the ride in to Yellowstone on yet another scenic byway (named after Buffalo Bill Cody), through America's first National Forest, the Shoshone.  Great scenery. 

All along the road - from Yellowstone's east entrance to Fishing Bridge - was sobering evidence of past fires.

But not much wildlife action.  We stopped to watch White Pelicans and a very friendly Common Raven.

Then just before Fishing Bridge on the north side of Yellowstone Lake.  Off in the distance, Bison!

As I pulled on to the shoulder, a car coming in the opposite direction, slowed to a stop.  The driver rolled down his window and said:  "Don't stop here.  There's a big herd just down the road - in the road."  Before he could finish, a man in the car behind us honked impatiently, then zoomed past.  He would be the first of many drivers who just didn't seem to feel the harmony between man, nature and machine.

Minutes later, we caught up with the him, and a big herd of bison. 
We waited for the largest land mammals in North America to cross the road.  I've never been so close to bulls, cows and calves.   August is the end of mating season, and even the calves seemed to dwarf our Prius.  They snorted and bumped into each other. 

This bull sauntered right up to my window.

But no black-billed magpies riding their backs - picking the insects off their hides.  No cowbirds either.  Tom encouraged me to put the petal to the metal.  When the opportunity to move past them arose, I took it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Jewel Cave: Forest Fires and Birds

We were up and in the Prius by dawn for a ride to our next destination:  Jewel Cave.

It was a gray morning.   Chilly and foreboding.  It was so dark, I didn't bother to pull my Canon SLR out of my camera bag.

The scenery along US Hwy 16 from the city of Custer to the entrance of the National Monument was a surprise.

Acres and acres, as far as the eye could see, scarred by fire.   We were surrounded by a forest that was in the process of recovering from a major fire.   Mountain meadows dotted with rock outcroppings and blackened remnants of trees, some still standing.
It had to have been one of those summer wildfires I'd seen on the national news years ago.  But I was embarrassed to admit,  I couldn't remember which one.  All I could think of was - how many small creatures must have died.  And then - how long would it take before "volunteers" re-populated it.

We didn't see or hear any wildlife until we arrived at the Jewel Cave National Monument entrance gate - a half dozen mule deer, including a very surprised male with a huge rack covered with velvet.  While I fumbled with my camera (I was totally unprepared), he turned and headed off across the highway.

It was 8am and the gate was closed.  The sign stated that the park opened at 8:30.  I pulled over to the shoulder of the road.  That's when the show started.  "All things come to those who wait."

We heard them first.  Mountain Bluebirds, Lewis' Sapsuckers, flickers, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos.
 An orchestra of very hungry birds, hunting insects and seeds along the roadside at the entrance to the Park.  The highlight was a pair of Red Crossbills.  They we so close to the car, I actually had to move it to the other side of the entrance.
What were they doing?  It was hard to tell.  We didn't see any insects.  Maybe they were after grit or some mineral?

Just before 8:30, a park ranger drove up and opened the gate.   After awhile, we followed her in and took a walk through the visitor center, where I got answers to my questions about the fire.

It was the Jasper Fire.  Started by a careless smoker who tossed a still-burning match along the road, it destroyed over 83,000 acres, including 90% of the surface of Jewel Cave National Monument. Miraculously, the Visitor Center and other buildings on the Monument were saved.

Instead of taking the cave tour, we decided to check out the birds near the Ranger Cabin just down the road. 

Little did we know what a little hot spot that would be.   Northern Flickers (red-shafted), lots of crossbills, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Siskins and Mountain Bluebirds.  Why?  They were attracted to the little creek.   Despite the brisk temperatures, the birds were taking a bath.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Custer State Park, South Dakota

While vertigo interfered with my appreciation of the vistas along the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, I wouldn't want to be driving any other car.  The Prius hugged the narrow road - and by using the "b" (engine brake) gear and keeping my foot off the accelerator, I got more than 70 MPG on the downhill ride to Custer State Park's "Wildlife Loop."

It was white-knuckle all the way down for me.  By the time we reached the bottom of the byway, I swore I'd never drive a mountain road again.   I was more than ready for a no-stress, leisurely ride around Custer State Park.

And that's exactly what we got.  Just a mile or so on the Wildlife Loop, we had our first and totally unexpected close encounter of the hoofed kind:  feral burros.

Not to be confused with the mule and horse, the burro (also known as "donkey") is a domesticated African wild ass (Equus asinus). 

What are they doing in Custer State Park?

A park ranger patiently explained that in the 1920’s a local man brought in these beasts of burden to carry tourists up Mt. Harney.  When his business failed during the Depression, he walked away - leaving his burros to run loose.  

It's their progeny harassing tourists today.  (The State Park keeps the burro population under control by selling surplus animals at their annual bison auction.)

These brazen creatures are the cause of many a "traffic backup" along the Wildlife Loop.  Despite the official park DON'T FEED THE ANIMALS policy, many visitors just can't resist sharing their road food.  As members of the horse family, burros have been known to bite and kick, so we followed the rules.  We kept our hands, carrots and apples to ourselves.

We were looking for birds:  Black-billed Magpies, Gray Jays and Pinyon Jays.  But birdlife was scarce.  Had to be the time of day.   We did however, see turkey vultures everywhere, in the air and perched along the roadside (patiently waiting for a lull in the traffic so they could access roadkill).

We got great close-to-the-Prius views of the charismatic megafauna of America's grasslands - Pronghorn, Bison and Prairie Dogs - loafing and feeding in the late afternoon.  But we did not see the second fastest land mammal "pronking" (leaping into the air by lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously).  No Bison rutting and wallowing.   Not a peep out of the normally loquacious Prairie Dogs.  

By the time we arrived at the Comfort Inn in Custer (around 5pm), I was ready for the hot tub.

Antilocapra americana 

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Badlands

We left Nelson, Wisconsin as the dawn cracked through the fog on the Upper Mississippi River.  Twelve hours later we arrived in Murdo, South Dakota, where we spent the night at the very comfortable (and quiet) Graham's Best Western.  We got out very early, and headed west - to see the morning light dance on the geological formations.

I can't resist a scenic overlook, so just before we got to the exit for Badlands National Park, I took a brief detour.  Just as I put the Prius in "park" the sun broke out from the clouds.  We walked up the little path to the overlook just in time to see the light hit the first line of chalky white "badlands" hills off in the distance.   Then I heard sharp-tailed grouse chattering.  I spotted not one but two, on a wooden fence 20 yards away.  What a great way to start the day!

Mountain Bluebirds were everywhere.  In the parking lot at the Visitor Center, on the roof of the building, on the ground at the side of the road and on the rocks.

We also spotted our first black-billed magpie, lots of American Robins, a lone Killdeer, Western Kingbirds and very close looks at Wild Turkeys.

Charadrius vociferus - Killdeer

But I really wanted to see a prairie dog town.  I had great memories of a doggie town in Hastings Nebraska.  I missed their seeing antics and hearing their vocalizations.  We finally found them - hundreds of them - on the scenic byway (to Wall, SD).

We were amazed that only 2 cars stopped to see what we were up to.  The rest zoomed by at 65 mph, oblivious to the drama.

Tom wanted to find a burrowing owl.  It took awhile, but he finally did.  We spent about an hour watching a little black-tailed prairie dog waddle up to the owl, and violate the owl's inter-personal distance.  The two of them did the dance - to a stand-off.

While we were watching the little doggies, a Ferruginous Hawk flew right over our heads.

Later after we attempted to stop at Wall Drug for their famous 5-cent coffee (everyone between Wall and Rapid City lost electrical power for much of the day - so everything was closed and tourists filled the streets and sidewalks), we headed to Mt. Rushmore National Monument for a bison burger.  That turned out to be the most expensive burger, fries and bottle of juice I've ever had ($28.75 for food and parking in the new 3-story "airport style" underground parking facility).

Mt. Rushmore was PACKED with people from all over the world.  But everything had changed to accommodate the crowds.  And the bison burgers and the ambiance were a huge disappointment.  I joked with the park ranger at the information desk:  What would Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) think?  She gave me a "I am clueless" look.  The look didn't change, even after I explained (North by Northwest - the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film).

We decided it was time to hop back into the Prius and head south to Custer State Park.   I promised Tom a wildlife viewing experience that would more than make up for Mt. Rushmore.

I have to confess, I have a fear of heights.  Not quite paralyzing, but enough to make my hands sweat and my arms shake.  I mention this because on the way out of Mt. Rushmore, I turned at the first sign that said:  Custer State Park.  That's when I "remembered" how terrified I had been on my first trip years ago, driving the barely two-lane "Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway" with the pigtail turns and claustrophobic barely one-lane "tunnels." (honk, honnkkk).

Wildlife?  Scenery?  I couldn't look.  I kept my focus on the intermittent guard rail system.   The little voice in my head kept saying:  focus, focus, focus.  I couldn't wait to get off that "too narrow" (for me) mountain road.  I white-knuckled it all the way up - then all the way down.

A reward awaited us at Custer State Park.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Planning a Road Trip

The summer after I graduated from college, I treated myself to a cross-country road trip.

My college friends and I hopped in a VW camper and drove around the USA - from New York to the Florida Keys, then west to San Diego, up to Seattle and east to Yellowstone and the Black Hills, then back to New York via Point Pelee, Ontario - stopping at national parks and campgrounds along the way.  Sadly, I wasn't a birder back then, but I came back with great memories of chasing (and being chased by) wildlife - moose, bison and pronghorn. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a meeting in Montana.  Timing is everything, and as it worked out, Tom and I both had a window of opportunity.  We decided to drive.

I went to AAA-Wisconsin and met with Nancy, my travel consultant, to plan a route that would include some of America's greatest wildlife viewing destinations:  the Badlands, Black Hills, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave and Yellowstone.

We picked up a bag of "car" food and headed home.

I packed the car, checked the itinerary and "closed up" the house.

We were ready and rarin' to go.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Driving Without My FOB

The Prius has two keys.

Key #1:  The "regular" metal key, hidden inside the fob.  Should the little battery inside the key fob die, you can pull out this "old fashioned" key and manually unlock the door.  

Key #2:  The fob.  The fob's job is to open the door and allow you to start the engine.  You don't need to do anything but carry it with you.  You can push the buttons, but that's not necessary (unless of course, there's an emergency and you need the get the alarm to make noise).  The fob lets you lock the doors by simply running your hand over the sensor on the door handle.  Magic.

Unlike the "old" fobs with which I'm familiar, you don't need to take this one out of your pocket (or pocketbook).   The keyless remote system locks (and unlocks) the door, and allows you to start the engine, as long as it's nearby (in your pocket or pocketbook).  

But there is a downside to this kind of magic.

Before I left the lot with my new car, Toyota sales consultant, Rebecca Singer, warned me:  Don't lose your fob, and don't drive off without your fob.

Fobs communicate with your vehicle's computer, she said.  If you lose your key fob and your spare (Toyota gives you 2), you can't just call a locksmith.  You'll need a tow to the nearest Toyota dealer.   At it could cost you - way more than the price of a tow.  

But what she said next seemed so far-fetched that it went through my right ear and out my left ear (she was sitting next to me in the front seat of the Prius as she gave my final tutorial). 

"Let's say, you're driving and you go to Menards.  Tom is with you, but he doesn't want to look at hardware.  He wants an espresso (with jazz).  The car engine is still running.  You get out.  He gets in and drives off to Panera Bread (a considerable distance away).  He pulls into the Panera lot, parks the car and pushes the ignition button to turn the car 'off.'  Only then he realizes -  he doesn't have his fob.  He cannot re-start the car.   You'd have to get over there with your fob."  Major inconvenience.

That could NEVER happen to me, I said.  I ALWAYS wear my keys on a lanyard around my neck, so I don't lose them.  I have similar neckwear for Tom.  We're not likely to get into the car without our lanyards.

Well... this afternoon I have to admit I was so wrong about that.

Tom and I got into the Prius, and I drove it to the library - without my fob. 

I was distracted with last minute plans for a trip out to Yellowstone National Park.  We're leaving Friday.  I needed to return some library books, and check out what they have on the wildlife of Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

I was feeling the "da da dom dom .. harmony ... between man, nature and machine" -  watching the dashboard displays, setting the cruise control and listening to classical music on satellite radio.   I was in a groove, getting 65 miles per gallon on the 10 mile drive.

I didn't give a thought to the whereabouts of my FOB, until I was in the library parking lot.  

I put the car in "park" and pushed the ignition button to turn the car "off."  As I was getting out of the car, it hit me.   I didn't have my key-fob lanyard around my neck.  I leaned into the car and looked at Tom.  He wasn't wearing the lanyard I gave him for his fob.   Yikes!

But how did the car start without my fob?

"Tom," I said in a panicked voice.  "Where is your key fob?"

He confessed he didn't like the idea of a lanyard.   His fob was in his pocket.  I was totally clueless that it was his fob that allowed me access to the Prius engine.

"Keyless Ignition Lesson" learned. 


Three creatures who share my neighborhood -  Eptesicus fuscus (big brown bat),  Lasiurus cinereus (hoary bat),  Lasiurus borealis (red bat)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Deer and Turtles

I live in "deer country."

When the sun goes down, I watch out for deer leaping across the highway in front of me. I've never hit one, but Tom has. Fortunately for him, he was in his old GMC Jimmy. He didn't get hurt. His car had only minor damage (he lost the "G" in the GMC logo on his grill). The deer didn't survive.

Deer collisions are not unusual in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. Deer are plentiful out here, and they are big. In fact, according to Field & Stream, our neck-of-the-woods led the nation with more than 300 record-book deer taken during hunting season, almost twice as many as the nearest competitor.

The first car-deer interaction I had out here in Wisconsin was a doozy.

It was early spring. I was across the Chippewa River, over by Arkansaw (an unincorporated community about three miles west of Durand, Wisconsin)  when I noticed an odd-looking deer off in the distance, standing in a freshly tilled cornfield. It seemed to have over-sized, deformed hind legs. As I got closer, I realized it wasn't a deformity. It was twin fawns!

I was still a good distance away when I stopped and parked along the side of the road. Tom and I wanted to watch the trio. But then a car came up behind me and zoomed down the road. The doe spooked and bolted across the road and into the woods, leaving her two newborns behind in the field.

I knew the doe would come back for her offspring eventually, but this is a heavily trafficked road. I felt conflicted: Let nature take its course?

Nope, I had to get the fawns to the other side of the road with the doe.  Moving the first fawn was relatively easy. I just scooped it up, walked across the road and put it down in the tall grass by the woods. As I walked back to get the second one, I noticed a couple of cars parked behind mine. The occupants were watching my drama.

The second fawn was smaller than the first - a runt. I picked it up and held it to my chest. I could feel its heart beating a mile a minute.

Then it did something unexpected. It let out a plaintive "bleet."

That stopped me in my tracks.  At first I wasn't sure the noise came from the bundle in my arms.  But of course, deer can vocalize.

I put the little guy down next to its sibling. As I headed back to my car, I heard a voice from one of the cars shout: Way to go!

What a difference from today's experience.

Same situation - different species: turtles. Two of them, just yards apart. One on the shoulder of the road, the other cowering mid-way across.

This time, I didn't hesitate. A big black Ford Explorer going the speed limit - at least 55 mph - was headed right at the reptilian "bump" in the road. I pulled my Prius to the shoulder, pushed the "park" button and ran to the little turtle.

It was in the worst location - right in line with the driver-side wheel.  But all the driver had to do was swerve a little bit to his right.

I was too late.  I waved at the man, and motioned him to move to the right.

He didn't.  The turtle was a goner, and I didn't want to watch.  

I cringed as the tire hit the edge of the turtle's carapace.  Out of the corner of my eye I watched.   Like a golfers "chip shot," the impact kicked the turtle up in the air.  It landed across the road, in the grass.

I sprinted up to it, expecting the worst. But when I got there, the little guy had pulled out its legs and started to scoot off into the woods - his shell and body parts apparently unharmed.  A miracle!

Then I turned my attention to the other turtle, who was waiting for me just up the road. I ran over, picked it up and after waiting for traffic to pass, plunked it down on the other side of the highway.

A car slowed down and the woman driving it asked: need some help?

Nope. Just helping a turtle get across the road.

"Good for you," she said as she drove off.

No, I thought, good for the Western Painted Turtle.

Western Painted Turtle - Chrysemys picta belli

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bombycillidae, Insects and Cherries

Last week was unseasonably cold for mid-August, even in the upper mid-west.

Saturday was the first sunny, and relatively warm day in what seemed like quite awhile. The cerulean sky was virtually cloudless. The air was crisp, and I had to get outdoors for a walk.

I rounded up my birding partner, Tom, and we took off in the Prius around 11am. (Tom is not a morning person). After stopping for some farm-fresh produce at the vegetable stand in front of the Durand High School, we headed over to Tarrant Park, pulled the car under an ash tree and headed out to the Chippewa River State Trail.

The trees and shrubs were heavy with fruit - the dogwoods, wild plums and cherries. The familiar high pitched buzz of the Cedar Waxwings pulled our attention to the wild cherry trees. That's when I realized two different species (of cherries, not Cedar Waxwings). I was certain that I "knew" the black cherry - by fruit and bark. But I spotted another cherry that was very different. What was it?

I didn't have my tree identification book, so I pulled out my trusty iPod Nano and spun the dial to "Key to the Trees of Wisconsin" program, a free download from the University of Wisconsin. I by-passed the key and went straight to the list of plants by common name and looked for "ch" for cherry. Nothing there. I did find "chokecherry" and back in the "b" listings, "black cherry." I looked for the scientific names and found 3 under the genus "prunus:" chokecherry, black cherry and wild plum. Could it be that easy?

[It wasn't until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized my memory, the "key" on my Nano and my photos weren't enough to make me confident that I correctly identified the cherries. So, I went to my computer and discovered there are 8 species of cherry trees in the wilds of Wisconsin and only 3 in the key on my iPod. Hm... I'm going to have to go back tomorrow with my tree book and take a closer look.]

On the way back home, I took a detour to check out the Cliff Swallow nests on the Chippewa River Bridge. No sign of any swallow activity at all. The colony was now a ghost town. The mud nests on the buildings along the river were quiet too.

We headed over to the Senior Center behind the Econofoods grocery store just down river. I planned to stop in the parking lot and coax Tom to get behind the wheel. (It's been a week and he's still unwilling to get behind the wheel and drive the Prius). As I pushed the "park" button, I noticed what I thought were swallows, skimming the river for insects. But they seemed too large and their flight was not "right." What were they?

I put the Prius back in "park" and turned off the power. I pulled my Zeiss 7x42 binoculars up to my bi-focals. Cedar Waxwings! I'd seen them here last summer, skimming the river for insects - in the rain. Here they were, doing what their desert cousins (members of their scientific family - the Bombycillidae) - the Phainopepla - are known for: catching insects on the fly. There must have been a "hatch" on the river and the Silver Maples along the river were full of Cedar Waxwings - flapping furiously, soaring and diving as they caught the dinner that was invisible to us.

We sat in the shade (and comfort of our Prius "bird-blind") and watched their aerial acrobatics for about an hour.

What a show!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wisconsin Rustic Road #107

We've had our "3rd generation" Prius for a week now, and it gets more comfortable each day - both the handling and the sitting (the seats are heavenly).

Every time I get into the car, the Prius "Harmony" ad jingle starts playing in my head. You know the one - Da da dom dom... Harmony... between Man, Nature and Machine.

I'm feeling the harmony. Tom, not so much. He's still reluctant to get behind the wheel.

I am, however, increasingly more undaunted by the technology (the power button, "smart key" system and the shift lever). The "multi information displays" on the dashboard screen have become more like "fun." I'm learning to use them to drive more conservatively - and I've been rewarded with up to 65 mpg.

It only took a few seconds to program the button on the rear view mirror to automatically open my garage door. Just like the manual said it would.

I also figured out how to connect my iPod Nano to the car radio so I can play my bird calls through the radio speakers.

It was much simpler than I thought it would be. I bought a cable at Radio Shack. I plugged one end into the iPod, the other into the armrest console. I clicked the "AUX" button on the radio. And voila! I was able to dial-up the song of the Lark Sparrow (using BirdJam).

Did the Lark Sparrow do a "double-take" when he heard his song coming from the dashboard of my car?

I've taken most of my "practice drives" this week on Wisconsin's newest Rustic Road - #107 - in Dunn County. One of the best birding roads in the badger state, it parallels the Lower Chippewa River as it cuts through the riparian woodlands, prairie remnants and farm fields between Meridean and Durand.

This week RR-107 was full of the sounds of fledglings begging for bugs. We heard and watched Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and Blue Jays, but found only one Lark Sparrow. The power lines were full of swallow fledglings (barn, cliff and tree) lined up waiting to be fed by their tireless parents. American Redstarts and Red-eyed Vireos are still around, but the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Dickcissels have disappeared.

Tom, who once bought an Isuzu Trooper primarily because it had a flat windshield (which minimizes optical distortion when watching birds), gave the Prius windows a "thumbs up." There's just a little distortion at the corners where the glass is ever-so-slightly curved. The little triangular side windows to the left and right of the dashboard work well as viewing portals.

With the exception of the annoying "ding-ding-ding" alert noise when the car is in reverse, the Prius - so far - has been a great mobile wildlife photo "blind." There's no engine noise, just the sound of the tires on gravel. And no vibrations when the car comes to a full stop.

We tested the Prius "stealth factor" by successfully creeping up on a fox squirrel, dozens of red-eared sliders (turtles) sunning themselves on logs partially immersed one of the roadside ponds and the giant swallowtail butterflies working the thistles and bergamot.
Giant Swallowtail - Papilio cresphontes  

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

I'd been thinking about buying a hybrid for some time. But both my husband (Tom) and I have been relatively happy with our cars. We had no real need to buy a new one.

For me, automotive happiness = no accidents, no breakdowns and only routine repairs.

Recently however, I experienced the unexpected with my 2000 Honda CRV: a couple of pricey valve jobs, a "clogged" radiator and leaky oil pan gasket.

I had hybrids on my mind and I was seeing them everywhere.

But I was not ready to trade in my CRV.

Tom's 1996 GMC Jimmy was still clunkin' along, getting 18 mpg at 170,000+ miles on the odometer (with a cracked windshield, a new battery, new tires and a new alternator).

It was the promise of the new federal "Cash for Clunkers" program that pulled us into the showroom at Markquart Toyota in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on June 20th. We were in the parking lot, heading towards the showroom when Rebecca Singer opened the door and asked if she could help us.

We went inside, sat down and discussed the "Clunkers" program, the Prius and the packages. The Clunkers program was still just a proposal in June. The dealership had a handful of "3rd Generation" Priuses scheduled to arrive in July. And we found a mid-price package that appealed to us.

When the "Clunkers" program gets out of Congress, I told Rebecca, we'll buy one of your July-delivery Priuses. But we won't put any money down until we know we qualify for the $4,500 rebate.

When the new hybrids arrived, Rebecca took Tom and I on a test drive in the only Prius left unsold.

The "technology" was a little daunting at first with all the computer displays, but the car handled well - and we while we were driving it, we stopped to watch Chipping Sparrows, American Goldfinches and two 8-point bucks (in velvet).

The Prius we tested didn't have the navigation package I wanted, but the heated seats and lumbar support appealed to Tom. If we wanted to put in an order, Rebecca said there could be a very long wait. Or we could buy this one.

Okay, I said. We'll take it, but only if we qualify for the rebate.

Then the "Clunkers" Bill passed, but no one at the dealership seemed to know for sure how the process would work. Rebecca promised to call as soon as they knew.

She called two days later. Bring a check for the down payment, the clunker's title, registration and proof it's been insured for the past 2 years. We did all the paperwork on July 30th and went home to wait for the call telling us that our "clunkers" application had been accepted. That night, TV newscasters reported the program would be out of money July 31st.

The situation changed the next day - with the news that Congress was adding more funding to the "clunkers" program.

We waited another two weeks before I contacted Rebecca. She said "you have to buy the car today." So on Thursday afternoon, August 13th, we did it. We turned the GMC Jimmy over to Marquart Toyota, wrote the check and drove away with the Prius.

Tom had a case of buyers trepidation - he was not convinced we made the right decision. I was pretty sure about it - but could I remember how to "read" the digital displays.

So, we took the slow route home - the scenic route along the lower Chippewa River via Meridean. We took our time (48 miles in 3 hours), stopping along the way to watch birds and getting to know what this amazing vehicle can do. (55 mpg).

By the time we pulled into our driveway, I was convinced. What a great car!