Friday, December 8, 2023

Three for Texas!

In 1962, Dean Martin and Anita Ekburg (my favorite actress of the Sixties) signed on for the movie Two for Texas. Later on, Frank Sinatra signed on and the title was changed to Three for Texas. After Sofia Loren turned down a cool million bucks to do the film, Ursula Andres agreed to do it and the movie title was changed a fourth time to Four for Texas. The movie is famous for just one anecdote, originally given a bit part, Peter Lawford was edited out after he was expelled from the Rat Pack in 1963 and does not appear in the movie despite having movie credits for it.
Much like the movie, my recent trip to Texas had its title changed a few times. and to be honest, this did NOT start out as a birding trip.  I am building a garage/ shed in South Dakota and my gravel pad was screwed up and the project needed my immediate attention. On Monday morning I flew off into the tundra where on most years, I would not even be able to get to my cabin but snowfall has been absent generally and although the lake is long since frozen, it wasn't that bad out side.  I signed a work order and mysteriously the problem abated and the new gravel showed up, apparently they did not like the way it had been done.

The hoar frost was neat to see, 
By the end of the day on Tuesday, the pad was done, and Dino, the Dinosaur and me watched the sunset on a productive day 
Do I wait for the builders to come back?  The last of the locals pulled out for the winter on Tuesday, and I did not want to get stuck out there, so I checked rare birds and there was not one but astonishingly six birds I needed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, so I booked a ticket for San Antonio and at two in the morning I rewinterized the cabin and zipped off to Sioux Falls to fly south.

I made it to Corpus Christi at two PM and went right for the first bird, a Cattle tyrant, a bird from quite a bit south of Texas.  I saw one on a cow in Uruguay.  How did a bird like this, a never before seen bird, get here?  Not only that, it has been handing out in front of a sushi bar in some palms.  The belief is it caught a ride on a ship.  The main shipping channel goes right in front and I saw a tanker heading to South America for crude and then a container ship coming in from the Panama Canal the edge of this bird's range.  So who knows how it got there, but there is an avenue for one to hitch a ride.

a cattle tyrant

  I walked across the street and was getting settled to look when a guy came running up to me worried that I would not see it.  It was right over my head, ten feet away.  The whole process took longer to get across the street than to find the bird.  But there it was, bird to be lifer 826 (it is not on the list yet, I assume it will be).  I do not know about this tyrant.  It is hanging around in an odd area in downtown Corpus living in palms. I guess there is enough to eat but if a Cooper's hawk is in the area, he is going to be dinner I fear.  It has been here for a while and I am lucky it is still here and the house sparrows survive.  

I went to the marina to walk around and I needed a new hat, I had left a favorite on the plane.  Downtown Corpus is non-existent for shopping.  I hit paydirt in a tourist shop for a cool Bahama style hat.  Then I walked to pay homage to Selena Quintilla-Perez, the local singing sensation who was killed in 1995 by her former manager.  She was 24.

The statue is a bit slutty (sexy?), with her shirt open.  I took her
 memorial from a more appropriate angle

but then I looked how she dressed and that is what she performed in

 While I was taking a nap at the pier, a long billed curlew flew in and looked me over.
A favorite bird and then  I had a beer with Craig Casper and old frat brother who works in the local government and then drove south for more birds (hopefully).

The drive to Resaca de la Palma State Park north of Brownsville was an odd one.  The clerk at the flea bitten motel in Riviera was taking a shower, so I had to wait to get in my room.  I watched a BMW pull off the road towing two cars bound for Mexico, one of which was hardly worth the gas to pull it.  The three way towing looked unsafe and would never fly in almost every state but here.

The lady finally came out in a towel and gave me a room.  That ordeal was worn off when I saw my room.  I think the bedbugs had moved out already and the A/C heater had broke, so it smelled of stale motel room.  Dead, tired, I left everything in the car and just crashed at 730.  I woke up at 430, washed the grime off me and then changed in the parking lot as the clerk had on less than me.  It was just me and the garbage truck anyhow.  I was heading south at 0500.  Sunrise set for 0703.  

All driving south, I was having deja vu, like I was doing something over again.  At Olmito, exit 10 north of Brownsville, I hit a favorite Stripes/ Laredo Taco for my birding  breakfast, to breakfast tacos for 3 bucks and a large coffee.  I was in line with 40 Hispanic workers of all sorts doing the same thing and buying the same things.  The trouble with Resaca is that it is only three miles down there so I have to woof down the tacos and so I was in the parking lot before the coffee was cool enough and the second taco down.  All the other birders were looking at me weirdly, like what was I eating as I was putting on my fine new hat and getting camera stuff on.  I ate the second taco as I was hustling to where my intel said the bird was last seen.  The intel on the really good Becard the local crowd there had was stale and despite there being thirty birders eventually, these guys did not know how a stakeout worked.  This was sort of a deja vu moment from Portland ME when myself and another birder had to take it upon ourselves to go dig out the bird as everyone was standing around talking and no one was really birding.  Oh they said well it was in the parking lot the last night but that was not what I read, and okay, they need to space out and look for it.

It ended  up just two of us were by the feeding station where it seems to always be reported in the morning.

Advice on stakeouts, and I have some experience in this.
I have gleaned pointers form birding aces Larry Manfredi, Chris Feeney, Thor Monson and others
1) do your homework before you get there, 
2) get there early.  Yes, Texas state park birder spots open at 0800 BUT all of them have gates open before dawn.  Tropical birds are active in first hour of light and then sporadically and a little towards evening.  It had been hot the day before so sunrise in 0703 and I cruised into the parking lot at 0701.  You got to be on stake out when you can see.  Don't wait until eight!  Sometimes I'll come to a place like this in the afternoon to scout for the morning attack, and that is okay, sometimes you get lucky and find the bird
3) look around and see a keen eyed and most persistent birder or a known alpha-birder (of course in Florida if you spot Larry Manfredi, I am never going to be too far away even if he is guiding someone. Usually pick a young guy if you do not know anyone, and if you think where he is looking makes sense, go with him.  Be the next guy on his left or right as if you don't find it usually he will.  During the course of the morning, you may need to swap guys.  Looks do not always pan out.  I saw the kid and we covered a corner
4) do not bunch up and stay away from the conversation circles.
5) really work at it, for the first hour, and do NOT assume the others know more than you do.  

The crowd at here was not a good one and it ended up 20 were bunched in the parking lot, and two of us were working the trees and then I spotted it.  I called to the young guy, he zipped over and we both were on it.  An old guy without a pair of bins and just a camera on a tripod was within visual range so I got him to come over.  

This was no tripod bird.  It was feeding a bouncing all over a think tree.  I am not sure he ever got on the bird.  We worked on photos for five maybe ten minutes, it came in and out and a couple came but by then it was deep in the trees and then gone.

Gray collared becard, lifer 827 a really really rare bird.  I have never seen one in Mexico either. two of 35 got great looks at it and photos the others...?

By the time the hoard arrived it was gone.  fifteen minutes late it came out for a brief cameo for maybe 20 seconds.  There was no way any one would get a photo and then...that was it.  One guy seemed happy as he had been there for three days.  I'm thinking missing it for three days means you need to change your plan of attack.  He was the guy looking at me funny when I was eating on the walk and drinking coffee.  

"I can eat with my eyes open watching" did not seem to change his odd look at me.  Like I said the key is watching.

I always say I am a lucky birder.  I can find this stuff pretty easily, not always but usually.  Many give up and never get it when it does come by.  Maybe I have some skill in this and I make my luck, 

I then walked out for the next bird, a roadside hawk, a bird seen every few years down here, but one I had never gotten in the USA, although I had seen a few in Brazil last month.  It was a two hundred yard walk and then in the Resaca, there it was a hundred yards away and feeding, I then came back after a couple of birders left and waited for a better photo.  It then decided to come closer and closer and finally right next to us, maybe 15 feet away.

The roadside hawk is ABA continental bird 828, a double 20 minutes apart, astonishing.

Then I went for lifer butterflies
American snout

A really cool Mexican bluewing a lifer for me

northern sicklewing another lifer

A common mestra, seen one of these before

a really sharp Queen

a fiery skipper, seen these guys everywhere

a clouded skipper another lifer

Then I called a friend and went to lunch, and then we toured SpaceX.  Wow, what a crazy deal...Blowfeldt meets Edison.  Tesla meets Ford.  Gilligan meets the Professor.  You cannot imagine what is going on down there on the US border.  Right in the middle of a wildlife refuge

rocket factory under construction

Standing on a public beach and this is the view

they get 1000 a day for an RV spot to view a ricket blast from here, crazy.  Yea Don't panic....Another guy I met was selling scrapped stainless rocket parts for big bucks or that was the plan, somewhere he stumbled upon the stuff in Mexico.

Billions spent and this is just the beginning.  Rockets to Mars!  Is the goal, but is it a boondoggle, well it is, but will it become something?

It reminds me of another movie, Contact  They are also building million dollar cabins on the Rio Grande for SpaceX shareholders con watch 4 miles away.  Huge rockets can sometime go boom!  Will all of the employee houses a mile away survive?  All of this down 30 miles on a little road that is taking a beating and absolutely NO services, no gas stations, stores, just a company mess hall.  Guess it is mostly his money.....We will see if it happens or maybe Elon will find a new passion.

The deja vu was answered when i noticed a dent on the rear quarter panel of the rental car, wait a minute.  This is the very same car I rented in Tampa in September.  The dent was exact. Back then I had to argue about the dent, and apparently someone had driven it one way to San Antonio.  It still got crappy gas mileage.
I decided to not go to the other side of the valley to see three more potential lifer birds, I needed to see my wife.  Those others can wait, so we stopped at three in Texas.  After yet another argument with Avis with photos, they let me go.  "Like I just knew I'd get a similar car so I made a dent in the same spot on the same shape to sneak out of this.  Look me up, to see if I did not rent this exact car three months ago."  I flew to Florida today, crazy flights, wing issues, a plane swap, a one minute connection, but safely is good to be home

There is always another bird, and this time three of them, three for Texas!


Thursday, November 2, 2023

Flying COPA Cabana Airlines


Part 5/5, The Pilot's name was Rico (really!) but he didn't wear a diamond and there was no Lola, she never came over...

The story of COPA and how exactly Olaf got lifer 1896, the pretty good Olive-spotted hummingbird shown above.  This was my last Brazilian bird, and it came in overtime on this trip and will come later.

The ends of trips are melancholy at best but sometimes just getting home is an adventure

An epic trip has four parts:

1) A noble purpose.  Say my bucket list zero event of going to Trisdan da Cuhna, a Big year, a wedding in paradise, or something.

2) A beginning of course, the buildup, and as they say half the fun is getting there

3) the actual event, of destination, going to Trisdan and not landing a boat would have been "tragic" and not "epic" 

4) Getting home

We have had EPic trips, South America-South Africa, Boating Lake Powell thirty years ago, RV camping in Sweden, a Glacier trip on our honeymoon, and Attu, nude birding are five of many that come to mind.

We have had some real Tragic trips, too, a Bermuda trip including near frost bite and a plane crash and milking a wounded new RV around California and back are two classic ones, but most trips are somewhere in the middle.  A trip between shifts in Spearfish to Minnesota playoff baseball with the Yankees and back also comes to mind as the Twins got obliterated by Roger Clemens and I arrived to a disaster of the previous ER doctor's making upon my arrival at 7am when the cop tracked me down at the motel.  The extra hour they refused to authorize payment for and this was the last time I ever worked there. There are also the boring trips that nothing really happens, which for us are few and far between as something ALWAYS happens.

This trip was in the middle but more on the tragic side of things.  It will ALWAYS be remembered as that trip the boat ran aground and that terrible trip home, and not for all the nice people we met nor the 50 lifer birds I saw.  Much like Thailand-Bhutan last year is remembered for the food poisoning I had and the awful end to our flight.

So what happened?

We were heading to Manaus aboard the Premium ship.  

We came across a group of poachers on the National park, fishing and stealing turtle eggs, our guide Wolf gave them a wide berth as who knows if they were armed.

We stopped at a more modern Native settlement.  They had a new school, had electricity since 2017, a store, but eighty steps to get up the hill.  Below is their sawmill.

The village was a mecca for birds

I saw our first variegated flycatcher there, on a power line they had just put in

I saw a Hauxwell's thrush in a tree, not well as we heard it mostly and tried to get the other birder on it and lost it and never got a photo.   Then there was also this immature thrush

I was thinking it was a Pale breasted thrush due to it being more conspicuous and looking at me, but I am not sure.

The namesake of the Hauxwell's Thrush is a bit of a mystery, as it (and some other things) is probably named after John Hauxwell, a "collector of specimens," but whose affiliation and how he came to the Amazon and what he did is unclear.  He died somewhere between 1886 and 1919, lived in Peru after maybe Manaus...(There is also a T. A. Hauxwell).

So, with the trip winding down, we ended up trying to unsuccessfully catch a piranha, we fished off of a high and dry floating home.

Then it was back to Manaus, an obligate tourist activity seeing the Manaus Opera house built in 1897, it had been abandoned after the rubber boom ended in 1915 when British agents smuggled out rubber seeds and found they could be grown cheaper in Malaysia 

We had an early night, just before dark, I was out birding behind the hotel and slipped in the mud and wiped out coating myself with sticky clay-mud.  I had to scrape it off everything in the shower in the room.  Luckily my camera was in my backpack.

This Chiri vireo, not a lifer was what I thought was going to be the last bird for the trip ,

We went to bed at 8 and were up at midnight for a 1245 departure in the morning,  We loaded up, zipped through tickets, security, passport control and causally noted that the flight would be 30 minutes late.  The plane came in, they took their time boarding and eventually everyone got on and we sat down but they never shut the doors and Rico the pilot looked like he was waiting for something, and we waited, and waited

The announced something in Portuguese and then in English, "flight cancelled."  That was it, nothing more and we all filed out and through customs, who had all gone home.  It was 0430 at the airport.  We tried to pump a few bilingual people about what was also said, but we got little.  

What had happened, the airport in Manaus closes from 4AM to Noon every day and despite a plane loaded and sitting on the tarmac, the Air traffic control people in the tower went home at 4AM and as such the plane could not take off and depart.

This also made the crew "time out" so their mandatory 12 hour break would not start until they got to the hotel and COPA was dithering about that and they did not depart the airport until 530 so, that was the rumor of the time of departure in the afternoon.   

Everyone piled in front of COPA's one representatives, nothing was happening and here we were the 19 Americans who could not really understand what was said and we sat in a closed airport with no food and nothing.  COPA "called" all of the hotels but they were full. Silja got on the telephone with the emergency number at Road Scholar and woke someone up named Steve.  Calling a random relative of one of the fellow travelers would have been more helpful.  My wife was then on hold for a while and then got nothing just advice to call the main office when they opened in 4 hours.

Then we decided to try to contact our guide Wolf, but how do you call Brazil in Brazil from a US cell phone?  We could not do it and then my wife remembered she had him on Instagram and he answered.  Wolf showed up like an angry German and walked into the COPA manager's office, soon we were on a bus back to our hotel and our old rooms, a free breakfast and then lunch.

I went back to the spot in the back of the hotel and watched them remove a caiman from a hole and then tried to identify honeycreepers with another birder.....

olive potted hummingbird

I saw my last lifer, an olive-spotted hummingbird, and after two showers and a nap, it was back to the airport for round two at 230

Checking was still crazy and no officer was in immigration just a woman with a list of all of us that had "left the country" earlier that morning.  

I read some comments on the airline while we waited.

"COPA sucks!"  Non stop delays. Not 15 min delays I’m talking HOURS. Horrible. Even worse than Spirit. I think this might be the worse airline in the world. 

"Reservation System does not work properly, very bad customer service.COPA system for reservation is very bad. I tried to add a checked bag in advance and the system did not allow me, it ask me to wait until check in day. On check in day, the COPA system to collect the payment did not work. Now I need to pay at the counter a more expensive price, this is the only option I have. Then, when I call the call center, the poor service representative cannot do anything because the system is locked everywhere. This translated in a very bad customer service. There are many more things that I want to complain, but I do not have time to keep writing.

COPA poked around and finally we got going to Panama City with Rico driving the plane, somehow it was uneventful, and then luckily our quick transfer to Miami was a gate away, but after going through the scanner, we walked up and noticed the flight was delayed two hours, even with the plane sitting around at the gate.

We finally left, I was stuck in a middle seat stuck between two bigger guys than me with a woman in front of me grabbing me on the top of the head while I slept.  It was a relief to get out at Miami, we hustled through the airport found our car and drove the rest of the night and early morning home, the trip was over 16 hours later than expected.  We were tired, furniture was arriving soon and in a day, my mother was coming and a day after that, Silja and her were both flying to Germany to check on our son, who was having surgery.

The trip was over, I logged 50 new bird species, 104 for the trip, which was a bit of work.  I logged country number 59 to my Century Club total, met some nice people and brought home chiggers.  We ran aground, had a crazy airplane delays and we rode COPA Cobana airlines for a first and maybe....last time.

COPA is bad but Road Scholar should not have forced everyone to start in Miami, some, could have saved 6-14 hours or more in the air by meeting in Panama, we could have started in Tampa, half of the group could have flown into the west coast directly.

Road Scholar needs a better emergency response, and we need to figure out how to use our phones from an international country to that country.

Brazil, maybe another time, we'll see, maybe Peacock Bass fishing, it was not an "epic" trip but memorable none-the-less.  COPA, I'd advise a pass.  My cats were so lonely to see us, it was nice to be welcomed home.



Sunday, October 29, 2023

Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last

PART 4 of 5:  
When I last left you we were stuck on a rock in the middle of the Rio Negro River just over 2 degrees south latitude in Brazil.  As rocks go, our was at least a comfortable one and the boat was only slightly perched askew with the rain accumulating aft

We went out at night and mostly saw spectacled caiman, the above blue and yellow macaw came later....

During the night the Princesp Clariant, a smaller motorized transport ship came to rescue us and take us to a hotel on the mainland.  I do not remember the town. Having nothing better to do, and with the ship still stuck on a rock, we got up at 0530 and went to scout the shoreline for something, anything.  The morning air was still cool and so I climbed in a back seat and off we went.

Something else was also different, I had bug bites, all sorts of bugs bites on my torso.  Were they mosquitoes, flies, or bed bugs?  From the look of them, it appeared that they were chiggers, a souvenir from the walk on shore yesterday.

As birding explorations go it was just okay.  It was overcast and the only lifer bird for me was a velvet-fronted grackle, a black bird not unlike many of the other grackles found around North and South America.

Not the stylish Amazon bird but a lifer none-the-less

After a rain scare we were heading back to the boat to eat breakfast and to pack when the driver of our small boat stopped and grabbed for Silja’s bins.  The boat had moved, THE BOAT HAD Moved!

 Princesp Clariant tied up to the Premium but the ship was three hundred yards from its last position

A phrase came to mind from Martin Luther King, maybe well out of context but it described my feeling, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last."

The crew reloading an air compressor.  The owner came with the rescue boat.  They dove under the boat and used floats and with 2 tons of people off the boat, they were able to bust it loose.    Now we could proceed, but the program which I had never read was thrown out the window.  The river was deemed too low to go much up river and so, they planned alternatives and they deployed Brazilian sonar to lead the boat as we poked along up the river.

But then the water was deemed too low, so we went back and then went to the shore and hacked a trail through it, there were no birds nor snakes but two frogs...

a frog of the Hyla genius, "green tree frog"
Find this 5 inch forest toad...

Later more birding in the boat, all lifers except the Crane Hawk

Brown chested martins

Crane hawk

A shocking find of a paradise jacamar from the boat!

rusty margined flycatcher

Silver billed tanager


white throated toucan, heard many seen a few, all were badly photographed, my fourth species of toucan the other in the area channel billed I have seen in Trinidad

tui parakeet

If nothing else, I kept seeing birds and logging lifers 

At the end of the day of freedom, Silja was made a princess, princess of the Amazon, queen of the after dinner drinking, or empress of the evening, I don't know but she looked good
but then that night she also got chiggers.

The trip, continued and where we go or what we would see, no one except maybe Wolf had an idea, what else could happen?  Hopefully the birding gods and the vacation gods would give us a pass and let the bad luck go on to someone else, but when Olaf gets the weird going, it just keeps going.....

Hey at least we got off the rock!



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 ...