Sunday, February 24, 2019

All the screaming and Gathering of Firewood

On January 27, 2013, the black-bellied whistling duck became the number one bird on my life list, as I flushed a flock in Santa Ana NWR (Texas).  It was the top bird as it was the top bird in taxonomic order.   It replaced a Fulvous whistling duck I had seen 49 days earlier in Florida.  This duck began my list every time I looked at it for a total of 2218 straight days until yesterday.
      We were driving to a place called Laguna Rocha and the ladies needed to find a bush as we were out on a dirt road about 60 miles west of Brazil and both bushes and bathrooms were in short supply.  I scanned a field and out there was this huge bird, I had no idea what it was and then, there was another in the pasture on the other side.  It was kind of a big and ugly bird and then I looked it up. The name-- southern screamer jumped out at me as an odd name and then it saw me, and I learned why it had earned its name. It sounds like a goose got stepped on by a very large foot.   I took pictures and I added it to my list and guess what, this species comes before waterfowl.  The event made me smile.  It is an event that no one cares about including most birders but there I was, with a new leading bird.
      Southern screamer is a name that would be better put to be the title of a Faulkner novel.  It would be about some terrible Mississippi family that killed college students at Oxford area near where Faulkner taught....or it could be a bird in South America....
      There are lots of birds down here with very cool or odd names.  The screamer is great but what about the FIREWOOD GATHERER?  Don't you picture and even bigger, more fierce looking bird?
In reality....
Kind of an unimpressive bird with a big sounding name, firewood gatherer, it looks like a small meadowlark

Then we got the wren-like rushbird, this acts like a very shy marsh wren, sounds like a rail, and it was an act of courage from snake attacks to even get this one out

All and all, despite the new language and names, we've been behaving ourselves.  After getting in the middle of a TV episode, and then today getting in the middle of a fashion shoot at a arboretum, we even photographed a streaked flycatcher, well I did as my other two photographers were setting up their tripods as the bird flew back into the tree deep in cover.

As we watched (again the ladies were in the bathroom), the fashion photographer photoed pretty girls in a doorway with revealing clothing.  We were standing 20 feet away.  The ladies changed behind a bush, and had on nothing else underneath.   Leave men alone and stuff like this happens.  When Don Harrington suggested if he could photo the ladies with his large 600 mm lens on a tripod, using hand motions, they shook their heads and everybody went to shoot at another location, quite quickly I may add.
"Just asking." he said to me, but we got two birds there so all was well.
     Uruguay has some of the worst marked roads anywhere and in Punta del Este even with Siri, we got really lost.  It kept wanting to take us back to where we started, and then today, while in a small park, maybe 500 acres with a hotel in the middle and with a map, we ended up lost and going the wrong way on one way roads and on roads that were only for pedestrians.  We came up to find rheas, but I was following an ebird post that was an errant or miss entered post, we could not find any open ground, unless we could find the top of a tree and scan the horizons.
      Don was using his translator program to translate, "help, I'm held captive against my will."  He kept threatening to play it to anyone passing by or standing outside, luckily, the program uses a different dialect of Spanish.
      It was a waste of a day so I amused myself looking at bees and rhinoceros beetles

Then dejected, I drove us all home.  Somewhere south of where there had ever been any ebird posts for rheas my wife in the back seat yelled, "stop!  BACK UP!  Olaf's side."
    I'm perplexed as to what she had seen.  I asked but she couldn't spit it out. The last cry for stop was for a house cat.  She is keeping a mammal list to spite us.  we'd already had a sheep call so I was hesitating.  But then, I could not believe my eyes, right next to the road was a flock of greater rhea.
    My heart nearly stopped, as we had given up on this bird, my wife got a kudos, a big kudos, we got the bird and she saved the day.  The getting lost and the 100 mile wild rhea chase was now forgotten.
I looked to the other side and got a bonus bird...
a grayish baywing on a weed, you got to like two-fer stops and bonus birds.  

         The rheas ran off after everyone got photos, well my wife doesn't carry a camera but the Harringtons and I did.  Then I entered the birds to my list, the greater rhea jumps to first on my list, sorry screamer, your stint on the top...only for one single day is over.  We'll see if I can get something higher on this trip, but as only two species higher, both types of ostrich, it won't happen tomorrow, that I can guarantee.
Besides trouble finding lunch stops, we've had a marvelous bbq, and good food.  It is very safe here despite the unmarked roads, as luckily the traffic is light.  Like everywhere, guys on motorcycles yell things at us as we look funny to people, what sane person birds?   It cooled off today, so no more 90s, just 70s, and in three days as we begin our journey into Argentina, its going to get colder, much colder.
      We have seen a slew of good and new birds, exciting and beautiful birds and enjoyed a wonderful country, one few from the US ever get to see.   It is rolling hills and mixed fields and scrub.

Here are a few of the last two days birds:

fork-tailed flycatcher, showy here or at home somewhere as a vagrant

giant wood-rail, these things....I almost hit one with a car today

More giant things...the Giant Tegu lizard, which can be house broken, they say, I wasn't inviting this one in to find out

Maguari stork, which most closely related to the white storks of Europe, ones in cartoons and seen by me on roof tops in Germany.  Their common ancestor was a now extinct stork from North America they say that got a round during the ice age and then led to these two species

great Pampa finch

plumbeous ibis, what a mean looking ibis

white monjica, how is that coloring help with anything besides breeding?

Don taking photos of black-necked swans

Nancy taking a photo of white monjita in a tree

I take a random shot at a swallow to test the focus and it is a white rumped swallow, a lifer bird

white spotted woodpecker in almost no light

We've found a great place, but our time here is running short, tomorrow a last big push birding and then we go to Montevideo, a town I've always wanted to see, and then we take a ship across the River Platte to Argentina.  More as I see fit to post it. got a lot of birds and great stories and to be honest, we haven't really got anywhere "great" yet, as who would have visiting Uruguay on a bucket list for 35 years?

Only Olaf

I'm off to gather firewood for a BBQ, I here some birds around here can help and then I need to scream for some matches...or something like that



Friday, February 22, 2019

On the trail of Charles Darwin

When Juan Diaz de Solis landed in Punta del Este in Uruguay in 1516, he was  immediately killed and eaten by the local indigenous people.  Now 503 years later, when Olaf landed at the same spot, all he did was get some sun and find birds.

In 1833 aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin came ashore at the very same beach we are staying at to have a bath.  Like us, he was taking a break before heading still farther south to log wildlife and try to prove his budding theories of evolution.  We are following many intrepid explorers, Darwin, Shackleton, Charcot, and even Diaz, but we don't expect to be the fare of the day.  Darwin came to bathe here and so must we.
         Uruguay is a marvelous place. It is unlike any place I've been and was a fitting number to tick off my bucket list.  Birds....we are staying in a place named after a diminutive dog, Chihuahua, and it is birdy as heck, and so far, we are figuring out what is what and I'm already over 35 on my life list and we haven't worked that hard.  It is hot, it is clear and the sun on the flag calls us, and even yesterday after some good birds, we went to a vineyard for lunch and wondered in the middle of a Discovery Channel "Charlie Wine" episode.

here he is waiting on his production manager to set the scene.  On camera, Charlie came over and gave us some fresh pressed chardonnay juice.  It was so good. All the while we ate the most marvelous lunch in a long time.  The only reason we got the reservation was because it was being filmed.  The view was stunning, too.

The star and the host drank wine since seven in the morning, and arrived to the winery in style.  Olaf can only admire the old Chrysler Imperial convertible

  It was to my advantage to drive home as the sober designated driver as no one complained when we stopped for a bird.  We took off after shaking the wine personality's hand from Miami, and started to bird.  The first stop home was a two-fer

 brown and yellow marshbird
long-winged harrier

we've had a cornucopia of good food and birds...

bare- faced ibis

campo flicker

chimango caracara

grey cowled wood-rails

Gray monjita

guira cuckoo

roadside hawk

rufous bellied thrush

sayama tanager

short-billed eleania
whistling heron

white banded mockingbird

white throated hummingbird
green barred woodpecker

kelp gull

rufous hornero

This is just a start.  Cripes I even got to see monk parakeets in their native environment

So here I am 80 degrees latitude south of home, I'm exactly at 35 degrees south.  I'm taking a bath like Darwin, logging birds and waiting for the next leg of the adventure and honestly coming here is a trip of a lifetime.  Safe, warm, not crowded, and full of birds.....

I'm plus 36 on lifer birds, and I have birds yet to be identified, so all is good, and last night I had Harris hawks outside my door and the night before that, fork-tailed flycatchers, all birds I don't need.  

Till the next report, I'll try to stay off the TV, next time


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.

Golden dreams and memories

  Today brings me to the north suburbs of Chicago.  Although not for a bird even though a lifer bird had been flying tantalizingly close to ...