Monday, February 18, 2019

The great journey begins…

TRAVELING, IT is said, can be the best of times, and it can be the worst of times.  As we boarded the first leg of our flight to Montevideo, Uruguay, a two hour flight to Atlanta, and settled in a first class row, two, for us, it was the best of times.  For our travel companions, Don and Nancy Harrington, now of Gary, SD, previously of Northfield, Minnesota, it was the worst of times.
            They had booked their flight in two pieces, one on Delta and one on Travelocity, and as the computer showed they were stopping in Rio (even though in reality only to catch a connection), it demanded a visa,  This despite Brazil not requiring a visa for transit stops, but two reservations, meant a computer flag.  Brazil only started requiring visas when we started requiring visas from their travelers around the Rio Olympics.  Delta would not let them get a boarding pass.  I joked to a Delta representative on my side of security.  “Nothing a credit card wouldn’t solve.”  Unfortunately, it looked as though it would take many thousands to solve it. 
            Luckily, with all my big year travels, and open ended tickets, I consider myself a very wily traveler.  Delta and all the Canadian airlines gave me grief in arriving into Canada with open ended return tickets, once I even was forced into the inner sanctums of immigration, but I talked my way out of it.  I’m certain, I could have talked my way out of this, but…I wasn't there and as, for us, I had really nice seats, I texted, we will pick you up in Montivideo airport whenever you get there.  We had slush on the first week of our schedule.   They'd catch up.
            We landed in Atlanta and then got a text from them back in Minneapolis, they had boarded.  It turns out they weren't even on our flight, and we'd met up with them in Atlanta, they were a little poorer and well, we all had a laugh.  I'm sure it wouldn't be the first fiasco of this 21,000 mile trip.  We were circling the Atlantic Ocean and the first stop, would be Punte Este, located in Uruguay, a place to tick a bucket list "Visit Uruguay."  I'd have a lot of bucket list items and I had some serious goal birds, one of which the Wilkin's finch had only been logged on four eBird checklists, some others, Tristan thrush, Gough moorhen, just to name a few would be marvelous birds, but tomorrow I hoped at least to tick a kelp gull, I'd be happy to start with that.  
           It turns out we had to part ways again as they were heading to Sao Paulo and us, Rio before we landed within a few minutes in Montevideo, oh well, they can find me at the Alamo counter.  It was a long trip, Leroy (above) is not a heavy drinker so he could only get a single celebratory campaign, the stewardess asked me what the penguin wanted and I paused, what does a stuffed penguin drink?
           All for now, day one is almost over and we have a really long 9 hour flight below the equator, my first time this far south.  



Monday, February 11, 2019

Leroy, on the Rio Grande

YET ANOTHER BLIZZARD was inbound on the 5th, after a day at home to regroup and repack from my cruise.  I arrived home during the Super Bowl, sat down with my wife and watched New England win yet again, and passed out from exhaustion.  6400 miles by car, plane, and boat will do that to a person.  Now at 2 AM we had to get out and drive down the road to the airport, 224 miles away and catch a flight to Texas.  The LRGV, Lower Rio Grande Valley, the mecca of winter Texas birding and, a place for warm recreation.
            It was a trip with both Silja, and my traveling bird buddy (not to be confused with traveling birder buddy), Leroy.  It would be Leroy’s first trip to Texas.  It takes a brave guy to travel with a stuffed penguin but what the heck.  He is a familiar face, and anything familiar is good when traveling.

Leroy, the birding penguin, Valley International Airport, Harlingen, TX

I skipped a report about Roatan, as I've written about that twice before.  I did see some good birds and had a great albeit brief visit.

Canivet's emerald, Roatan, Honduras

I skipped my adventure a week ago on Cozumel, because I don't really like Cozumel

Vaux's swift, Cozumel

So I'll just discuss the trip I just returned from the Lower Rio Grande Valley
I hadn’t been down here since I chased a crow down here with my son fourteen months earlier.  This would be a different sort of trip, one in which the primary goal was rest and warmth, and birding would be secondary, well, secondary for me seems intense to some people.  We would also avoid the Brownsville dump.
The weather was nice and well, it was nice enjoying the weather for a change.  The next morning, we woke up early and decided to head to the border to find a bird before they built the wall there.  The area near Bentsen State Park was earmarked for a border wall, and the construction would undoubtedly affect two hook-billed kites hanging around.  It is hard to think about what to expect for this project and it is beyond the scope of this blog.  We walked up on a dike and looked for the kite.  The first thing we saw was markers for the wall (seen below).

I'm not a big fan of this wall, at least here, and I've pointed out places, it sure seems a glaring omission in the landscape as I've pointed out before (Jacumba California, Montezuma Pass AZ).  You can blame the Republicans but to be fair, Obama never passed an immigration reform policy even when he had both houses and a super-majority of the Senate.  This is a national problem despite what the left says and the problem is not exactly what the right describes it as either.  It is simply unskilled immigrants taking jobs from unskilled and poor US citizens or legal immigrants.  It is simple math to many businesses, it is much cheaper and simpler to hire every illegal one can, and this is to the detriment of most of our minorities, be it Hispanic, African-American or wherever. You see it at the meat packing plants in the Midwest, farm labor, construction, and nursing homes to name just a few. I always find it odd that those here legally, the unions, and the NAACP don’t speak up, all Democratic supporters.  These people are being jumped in line for services and jobs by non-citizens.  It is all a drive for cheap food, cheap goods, cheap everything. I guess nobody cares, they just want to believe what they are told.
            We walked around a bit, I ran into a birder I knew, Christian from San Antonio, and then as we walked a little east, the kite was spotted in a tree.   

I will say, thinking about it and after seeing the kite, the wall will not do much good for birders, that is all I got to say.  Before you fellow bird chasers start having a cow, understand that many of the same people fighting the wall, want this “Green Manifesto” implemented which also calls for the end air travel in 10 years.  That means no bird chasing, no flights to Alaska, and also, no flights down here.  You can’t get to McAllen on a train.  In a nutshell, we are all HYPOCRITES.  We think green, we want to save this, and yet how much gas and air fuel do we burn.  I know of one man who biked around the country looking for birds during the year and even in his case, he had some gas powered support. 
            Where we saw it, the bird would be obscured by the birder wall, so in this case the wall would not be a very good thing at all.  Finding the bird was good news.  Oddly there were as many reporters around as birders, and at nearby Bentsen State Park, they also had a bike outing for senior citizens.  Only four of us saw the kite. I’m not sure where the state park that sits on the border will figure into all of this.  I just wish there was another way.  The entire country of Honduras except those on Roatan and in the government seems to want to come into America, and those that remain seem to want them to go.  Again, I’m just a birder, so these are above my pay grade.  I vote in South Dakota, the last primary, so we won’t matter much.   All I know is places like Matamoros, and Reynosa, Mexico, places that used to be tourist friendly,  across the border, are now some of the most dangerous places in North America, murders in Reynosa quadrupled from 2015 to 2017.  The US warns people to avoid travel in this region.  The locals say it is still safe to walk over to Nuevo Progreso as long as they stay on the main street, but going there doesn't excite me.

green kingfisher

The bad thing that happened was that my wife’s back tightened up, and so after a little while staking out a feeder in McAllen and dipping on a crimson-collared grosbeak, we had to go back and get some sun.  We’d have one more nice day before things would cool down.  The warmest two days I’d have during this whole tropical swing would be here in South Texas.
The weather forecaster the day before warned that the weather would turn at five in the afternoon on the 7th, and after a lazy day at the pool, hoping my wife’s back would heal, at precisely five, while we were having a cocktail, telling stories, the front came through.  Before that as the wind had shifted, the hawks came out and hovered over the resort, and sat almost motionless.  These were mostly Harris’s hawks, all dark resembling stationary vultures except for the white visible occasionally on the top of their rumps.  A solitary smaller gray hawk flew over higher being pushed southwards.  A lone purple martin was flying around before it got blown out of the area. 
  They know me where we stayed. I’m a bit of a celebrity here.  I signed books and got invited over for beer and cocktails.  As the wind had picked up and there was nothing left to do except socialize so we went out with resident birders, Sandi and David Junkin, the discoverer of the Junkin warbler, an odd hybrid he documented.  It was a nice dinner of “fresh” octopus, although the theory of ‘fresh” octopus in south Texas made me laugh.  Somebody at the dinner joked, that they must swim up the river here.
The weather went shockingly colder the next day, bottoming out at 39 degrees 36 hours later, a 51 degree drop.  It was almost too cold to bird but I did go over to a place called Quinta Mazatl├ín and work on a bit of a troublesome bird for me.  I saw a crimson-collared grosbeak twice during my big year, but neither episodes were good views and neither allowed me a photograph, once due to rain (wasn't going to ruin my camera for a bird), and the other, it was deep in scrub and appeared too close to me and I couldn’t find it.  I’ve also dipped twice in this bird, earlier, the first in 2014.
Two days earlier, I not only dipped on this bird, but the stakeout caused my wife’s back to stiffen up, so I made this visit alone.  At noon, I was getting cold, damp and the bird had not been seen.  A rather pugnacious marauding young Cooper’s hawk made a pass through the feeder and then rested at the feeder.

It didn’t lead well to seeing anything since going to the feeder put a bird’s life in danger.  Suddenly, a man walked in behind me.  “ need the grosbeak?”
            I followed him and looked in a bush, and then it appeared in the open for an instant.  I got a good look and then as I raised my camera and it was gone.  This Mexican bird is one I doubt I’ll ever photograph, oh well. I’ve now seen it three times and that is better than many.  I can’t photograph them all. 
What to do on a cold day in South Texas?  We headed over to Bass Pro to buy gear for Patagonia.  It was a lot warmer than birding.  The car thermometer stated 43, it was too cold for Texas on the Rio Grande, it might have even been too cold for Leroy, except I guess, if Leroy was alive, he’d be a penguin and 43 would be a nice day for him, and it would probably be what we’d see in South America, when we find Leroy’s cousins.
We moved resorts for our last day and we did this via Estero Llano Grande State Park.  We were going to go the Valley Nature Center as they had apparently now had the golden-crowned warbler, but it didn’t open until noon on Sunday, so another bird I didn’t need, we went to Estero.  We walked around the park and saw 37 species in the park before stopping at Stripes for another great egg burrito.  I just love those things.

Vermilion flycatcher, my wife's favorite bird

Curve-billed thrasher

Least grebe

I got a life bird at the LRGV but I didn’t actually see the bird, when I was here, well, not this time, but I saw that Mexican duck was on my checklist as an option when I was putting in a checklist for Estero.  I didn’t see one then, but back in both 2016 in Arizona, and, here actually, back in January 2013, my friend Jim Brown (“Arvid”) looked up as a Mallard flew overhead and said, that is a Mexican subspecies.  I had seen it too and it had the characteristic field marks.  After research, I found out it got split in August 2018.  I hadn’t got the memo, and didn’t notice that, so, in effect, my Mr. 800 was not the gray heron, it was probably a duck I had seen almost 6 years earlier.  I hadn’t realized it then, but I did now, and so, it would forever be life bird #802.  One of my screwiest bird additions to my list.  All the checklist additions in 2018 were screwy. It is what happens when the checklist changes while I’m fishing off the grid in Canada
My wife had some obvious thoughts on listers like me, her husband.  She thinks that birds that don’t breed in the US or actively migrating should not count.  She thinks it’s silly that people line up at the border like here, as well as in Arizona, Florida, etc., and wait for something odd to cross.  Vagrants should not be counted.  I told her the story of the guy who saw the Amazon kingfisher in Laredo, but while it was in Mexico (the border is almost or, in some cases is on the US side of the river there) and not be able to count it, while I saw it 200 yards away perched on a shopping cart and could. 

She thinks this would force people to actually go into NE Mexico and bird.  They’d have to find the crimson-collared grosbeak there.  Maybe such activity would expose the plight of the birds down there and open birder’s eyes to what is happening to their habitat, as well as force the Mexican and the US police to possibly clean up the drug and illegal border traffic.  She thinks all lists should be international, too.  My wife is a visionary.
We were scouting for RV destinations and we visited people we knew from Wisconsin, Helga and Jim, and got some sun, and went to bed after watching a rerun of Columbo.  During this trip we visited with many people I knew.  I woke up early for a last bit of birding.  Where we stayed, has the plain chachalaca at the edge of the property.  I’d seen them on a previous trip.  This is a cool bird that looks like a roadrunner mated with a pheasant, and then watched movies about chickens all day.  It has a really cool name to say…chachalaca!  I can say it all day, just like I can eat burritos from Stripes all day.  It was a terrible morning to bird—damp, cool, foggy, and it had just rained.  I started walking.  The locals were wearing down jackets, even the French Canadians were looking cold.  It took a while but eventually, two of the silly birds perched on the gray metal fence and looked at me.  I said out loud.  “Chachalaca!”  It was like the end of the movie.  I smiled and went in for a shower.
Like something you should say in the middle of a game….“Chachalaca!” 

Plain chachalaca, Quinta Mazatlán, McAllen Texas

Long-billed thrasher, LRGV Texas
               So that ended the birding in south Texas.  We didn’t push it too hard, with my wife’s injury.  All in all, it was a pretty tame adventure with the most adventurous episode being me eating octopus.  We needed to get home, (yet another blizzard) drive through the snow, it was really bad driving home tonight in white-out conditions from heavy snow, and pack our gear for the monumental journey.  The Grand Voyage awaited us, and we depart in exactly one week.  For now, I was done birding the tropics.  What was on deck was the unknown, and all great journeys, in my opinion head into the great unknown.  Three continents awaited us.  Things were moving along, and now we could find out how insane I could really become.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Operation: Jamaica

A GOOD Majority of people who visit Jamaica arrive, get transferred to hotels like Sandals, Beaches, or even Hedonism, and never leave the property.  They have locals cater to their every whim, all the time surrounded by armed guards, never to leave the gates of their all-inclusive hotels and learn what really is going on or even eat any local food.  That is not for me.  I go to the road less traveled, or at least a road only traveled by donkeys hauling out the corn while slash and burned areas are still smoldering, a new half acre of destroyed habitat formed for, in some cases, no real reason, or to grow what looks like really sad looking corn.  The corn sold for 300 Jamaican dollars per large bag OR $2.25.  The cost of a Red-stripe, that donkey will carry two bags back to the village when loaded.

 IT HAS BEEN very hard for me to know what to say and exactly how to handle this blog post.  One of the reasons was clearly the lack of bandwidth I had last week after I spent the day on Jamaica.  The other is the best way to highlight the plight of a woman I met on Jamaica.  Her name is Wendy Lee.  As I will discuss, she is forced to live a low-key existence, both by the very nature of what she is doing, and also due to where she lives.  It is clear that making the average person mad at you in Jamaica could be dangerous.  Part of me thinks I should be quiet but part of me says I should shed a little light on the important role she is doing so that maybe, just maybe, a few of us could throw her a bone.

I Know I'm one for hyperbole.  I'm one to accentuate the obvious, but in all honesty, if works on Earth can get you a better lot in either the afterlife or in the next life, Wendy Lee would be a couple steps ahead of many of us.  In Swedish and Midwestern culture, calling attention to oneself is frowned upon.  I've decided to not put her picture in here.  She is taking the one above with my two friends and a passing local farmer.  Vivian from Ohio, and Stuart from Florida.  They are both non-birders but decided to explore for the day.

I landed in Jamaica for a single day last week, having never been, the list of nearly 30 endemic birds on the island plus some from the larger islands I've also never been to meant that I needed some help birding and had much to find.  Time was short, though and also due to the dangers of an island such as this, I felt it best to hire a guide.  I picked Wendy Lee from west of Ocho Rios by dumb luck.  We met up in the morning at her place, and then took off birding.

Beforehand, we were taken around her property which has become a rehab center for illegal, unwanted, and injured birds.  I didn't count all the parrots she had, some endemic black-bills, and other exotic species.  The local authorities contact her about a mistreated or illegal bird and she picks them up.  The only problem is once she has them, the government makes it illegal for her to release them or even farm them out to other caring individuals.  As such, her flock grows weekly, parrots live for ever, or so it seems, some of her birds are almost as old as me, and well, there is no end.  There is no break in sight for her and what is the end game?  She can't carry on this forever.  

This is a labor of love, as she is currently without help, a local woman who has helped her wants to retire (or has).  There is Little money to pay anyone or even buy food for her birds.  The birds and her really need your help, but I'm not sure of the best way...

Wendy can be best described as a bit of a burned out environmentalist, a person who practices what she teaches, and I don't say that disparagingly.  I'd have gone postal long ago if I'd been her.  She has spent much of her life trying to teach the local population that there is a better way than just throwing their garbage everywhere, she also tried to point out to the government that slash and burn was a bad plan, but all she has seen in the last twenty years is a growing problem, made worse every year by human and government indifference.

Don't let me get started on Cozumel, they have an even bigger garbage problem.  Here is a soup of garbage just a few hundred feet from the busy tourist port, yet ignored by millions of tourists

There is the old argument of trying to teach poor people environmentalism when they are just trying to  feed themselves, but that is a "cop-out."

This brings me to the Dutch kid, Boyan Slat.  The kid who has people give him hundreds of millions to build some new age plastic collector that will magically strain the ocean of plastics.  All well and good, except it hasn't worked yet.  This is like a huge super -super computer to improve the education of our kids.  The problem is local.  We need to forbid the manufacturing of plastic bottles.  Place a huge deposit on them, and find something to do with the plastic.  We all recycle, seems good, and honorable, but most of that plastic has ended up in China and I've read, has ended up in the sea anyhow.  

Plastic is a local problem.  Instead, take twenty million, go to the poorest areas of Jamaica, pay them say, $100 per pickup load of garbage, burn it in an incinerator until its all gone.  You've  motivated the poor, you clean up the crap, take another 40 million and do the same thing in Mexico, Bangladesh, and some other countries...all the while banning the stuff.  we got plastic because of environmental concerns over cutting trees for paper and paper containers, laziness over cleaning returnable bottles, and because it is cheap and easy.  We are all to blame.  My water bottle is aluminum, I drink my cola from aluminum cans, what do you use?

Anyhow, my plan will (which is not really my plan, others say the same thing) will rid the world of plastic better than Boyan's great contraption, but helping out a young guy is so cool...

enough rant....

Wendy took us birding, me, and two non-birder, Stuart and Vivian, up into the mountains and we saw some cool things.  I saw 18 lifer birds, photographed a northern potoo, and I even got to hear the cool call of the Blue Mountain vireo

not the best photo of a black billed parrot

 for and aft views of Blue mountain vireo, 2nd rarest bird on island, 

 for and aft views of Blue mountain vireo, 2nd rarest bird on island, 

Jamaican woodpecker

Jamaican elaenia

Jamaican crow, one of the coolest sounding corvids

Jamaican vireo

Jamaican tody wrapped up in a spider web

Loggerhead kingbird, present on most of the larger lslands

Northern potoo

bad picture of a female orangequit

rufous tailed flycatcher

sad flycatcher, it might be sad due to all the garbage, otherwise I'm not sure on origin of the name

Streamertail (red-billed) the national bird and not easy to always see

yellow billed parrot

Invasive Lime swallowtail, pretty but working its way to Florida to harm the citrus industry

A butterfly I had not identified  at writing this but was told by a reader it was a Jamaican flasher, a butterfly apparently named after me

Great birds, couple bugs, some red stripe but I'm still unsettled

So do we start a Go Fund Me page for Wendy and her rehab center?  Call it Operation Jamaica.  The place needs surgical help, time to operate.  

Do you want her Paypal email account to send her money?

Contact me


The great journey begins…

TRAVELING, IT is said, can be the best of times, and it can be the worst of times.  As we boarded the first leg of our flight to Monte...