Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Photo by Ghouly Zickefoose. Photo manipulation by Scare Mullen.

Al Frankenstein came over today to play with our kids for Halloween.
They had a howl of a good time.

Halloween Haiku

Cracks in thirsty Earth
each step more precarious
falling screams not heard

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 2

Holding on as the boat plowed onward. Note the angle of the horizon!

When I left off the story yesterday, we were in rough waters offshore, about 30 km south of Pucusana, motoring toward Isla Asia, one of Peru's famous guano islands. Along the way we were seeing a lot of interesting things, including large groups of southern sea lions.

Southern sea lion.

Females and young southern sea lions.

We'd already been out for several hours but the trips was not even half over. We were getting cold and wet and various parts of our bodies were aching from the boat pounding the surf and from holding on tightly to the rails. I was standing next to the captain when one of our group asked how much farther we had to go to see the guano islands where the Humboldt's penguin colonies were. It was less than an hour, but several of the group immediately began asking about shortening the trip.

The captain, Stefan, came up with a solution. He would let four of us off at a fishing village, if he could call his partner on the radio phone to make the arrangements with a local fisherman. There was nowhere to dock our boat and no harbor, but he felt confident that a local boatman could be hired to come out beyond the surf line to fetch some of our party. But only four could go. The rest, Stefan pointed out, would be needed to help keep the boat weighted and balanced for the long trip home.

First, however, we needed to get to Isla Asia, where the guano-producing seabird colonies were. We were closer now, and could catch smelly whiffs of the island on the sea air. Birds in the air were coming and going in a beeline to the colony. Just then, a dark cloud caught my eye. Though binocs I could see it was a huge gathering of birds in a feeding frenzy. I shouted and pointed and we set off after it.

What we found there was amazing. Guaney and red-legged cormorants, Peruvian boobies, Peruvian brown pelicans, and Inca terns all swooping and diving after school of fish. Thousands of birds wheeled in the dull-gray sky, above a roiling sea only slightly darker. Squadrons of boobies dove headlong into the surf hitting the water like a cluster of missiles. We watched awestruck until the birds began moving off, the fish that were not eaten having dispersed.

A fine frenzy of feeding.

Soon we reached the Isla Asia. Stefan maneuvered the boat close to shore so we could attempt to take photos and video. I did not get anything much better than documentary images because the light was poor and the boat's motion caused much blurring. So I tried simply to watch with my eyes as much as I could. To take in the spectacle. The stench here was overpowering. Fish and ammonia. I was surprised there was no retching given all the stimuli in that direction.

Humboldt penguins were among the first birds we saw. They looked like stranded cruise ship passengers still in their formal dinner attire.

Humboldt penguins.

Huge numbers of Peruvian brown pelicans were on Isla Asia, doing their part to keep the island covered in white guano.

Peruvian brown pelicans.

Humboldt penguins (front) and Inca terns (back).

Everywhere we looked on the island there were birds, though sometimes we had to look closely to see just how many there were.
Thousands of guanay cormorants on Isla Asia.

Parts of the island were black with birds. Stefan explained that these birds represented just a fraction--only 15%--of the population that was here in the 1920s. Back then there were millions of birds, but then advances in anchovy fishing allowed the local fishermen to over harvest, and the birds' populations crashed and have never recovered. He explained that it has been nearly impossible to get complete protection for the birds and the islands, mostly for political reasons. Stefan and others working for bird conservation, are slowly changing things in Peru for the better. But it's a race against time.

Guanay cormorant pattering to a take off.

In my previous post I mislabeled this species as a guanay cormorant. It's a red-legged cormorant (note red legs).

Isla Asia. The dots are all birds.

Peru's guano islands are uniquely situated to create huge amounts of natural fertilizer. The islands have no vegetation. The climate is dry. And the ocean is rich in oily fish, which makes for LOTS of bird poop. The poop or guano dries on the rocky islands and the nutrients in it are locked inside. It is harvested and used on crops all over the world.

Guano harvesters erected walls to help capture the guano.

As we left Isla Asia, all white-washed rocks and screaming, pooping birds, I thought to myself "What a sh*tty view!"

We motored eastward to the village on the rocky coastline. It was now time to decide who would leave the boat. Just four could leave, and four had to stay. Some polite verbal dancing ensued and four souls prepared to leave the boat. I had already decided to tough it out. I was feeling fine, and, after all, these were my final hours in Peru. May as well live large.

Moments later, a Peruvian fisherman rowed out over the smashing surf to our boat. He took two passengers at a time back to shore. I thought I saw one or two of the guys kiss the sand when they reached terra firma.

The rescuer of our comrades at sea.

Chris Harbard and Chris Knights head to shore.

As Steve Gantlett departed, he snapped a shot of those of us left on the boat. Thinking, perhaps, this shot could be used later on to identify the bodies. Steve, who is the editor of Birding World magazine in the U.K., is an excellent bird photographer. After we both got home, he sent me this image (below) and I have to admit I was shocked at how small the boat looks.

That's me, BOTB, in the orange jacket still aboard the Little Outboard That Could. Photo by Steve Gantlett.

The boat trip home had following seas and winds, so it was a little shorter in duration. It did have quite as much slamming over waves and the trip outward, but for some reason we got a lot wetter. We did not stop for many birds, though we did see a few more Peruvian diving petrels (much too small, shy, and fast to photograph), and a load of bottle-nosed dolphins.
Soon enough the calm waters of the harbor at Pucusana hove into view. It was a happy sight.

Pucusana harbor at long last.

This fisherman had an Inca tern as a live bow ornament.

We spent an hour or so thawing out over a seafood lunch at a cafe on the waterfront. What a pleasure to sit and watch the comings and going of the town and its harbor. The people of Pucusana were very friendly and very interested that we were there to see their birds.

Our lunch spot in Pucusana. ¡Comimos pescado muy rico!

I had Chris Harbard take a snapshot of me at the harbor in Pucusana. I was thinking how odd it felt to be back on dry land. Then I realized I was farther south in the New World than I'd ever been. I was pondering that, in a few hours, I'd be getting on a huge plane and flying back northward, across the equator, through the night, passing over thousands of miles of jungle and ocean and all the people and creatures and wonders they held.

The nasal calls of the Inca terns would soon be replaced in my ears by the sweet whistled songs of northern cardinals. I was leaving Peru with a world of memories inside of me.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 1

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To close the annoying directions box, click on the X on the upper right-hand corner.

As a part of the overall Peru itinerary, those of us attending were given the option of taking a pelagic trip at the end of the week-long adventure. A few days before the scheduled trip we got the word that the company that was scheduled to take us out on the Pacific Ocean to look for albatrosses and other wonders had been closed down. One of their party boats had capsized and the government closed the company down for safety inspections.

We had mixed feelings about this. I am not a worried traveler, but the seas off Peru are famously rough and unpredictable. I did not want to go out in a dinghy. But nor did I want to miss out on all of the birds I'd hoped to see: especially Inca terns and Humboldt's penguins. Our group began lobbying for an alternative boat, or even a land-based trip to somewhere birdy along the coast.

Eventually, thanks to the tireless resourcefulness of our hosts, two different trips were planned. One all-day trip close to shore and one that would go farther out. Alas I could only take the closer-to-shore trip because of the timing of my return flight to the U.S. that night and the time-eating vagaries of packing and security.

So at 5 am, outside our Lima hotel, we met our guide for the day, Stefan from Nature Expeditions Peru. Stefan is an expatriate German who is a dedicated marine life conservationist. He and his wife are the founders of Mundo Azul, a non-governmental organization working to protect marine mammals in Peru's waters. He talked about his work and what we could expect to see during the day's boat trip.

Pucusana harbor, full of small fishing boats.

Pucusana harbor.

Stefan drove us 30 or so kilometers south to his company's office in the coastal fishing village of Pucusana. There we were outfitted with rain suits (and I was reminded that a Latin American XL size garment is approximately equivalent to a U.S. large). As we walked down the hill to the picturesque harbor, we stared seeing birds. It was a foggy, overcast day, but the cameras still came out and we did out best to get some good bird photos.

Our pelagic trip group all geared up and ready to get soaked.

Along the way we stopped by a small store to buy some water and snacks for the trip. Three of us went in looking for something to eat--something bland in case of rough seas and food that did not want to stay eaten. My friend Steve Rooke from Sunbird Tours in the UK wanted some chocolate, so he asked in his pigeon-Spanglish for some.

It often amazes me how products in other countries are named. What means yummy and delicious in one country might mean something completely different in another. The woman behind the counted pointed to a chocolate-covered cookie product called, of all things, Choco-Bum. Steve nearly collapsed with laughter.

Steve Rooke with his Choco-Bum.

This sounded like a physical malady for which one might want some Imodium. We immediately bought six Choco-Bums.

Back outside, we waddled down to the boat, sweating now inside our rubberized pants and jackets. Turnstones and sanderlings poked around the harbor mudflats.

Ruddy turnstones foraging on a fishing boat.

Immature gray gull in Pucusana harbor.

As I was sorting through the gulls, feeling certain I was seeing both gray gull and band-tailed gull, the shout was heard: INCA TERN!

The captivatingly gorgeous Inca tern.

And there it was, in all its dark-bodied, white-whiskered beauty. Such a stunning bird. But no time to bliss out. Stefan was shouting for us to get on the boat. "We'll see hundreds more Inca terns!" And he was right. But the looks were not quite as nice from a bobbing boat as they were from solid, unmoving land.

Inca terns courting.

As the final guy (and we were an all-male trip) stepped onto the boat, which was a medium-sized outboard--something you might ski behind on a lake) the stern dropped down to even with the water's surface. This made a whole lot of sea water slosh into the boat when Stefan gunned the engine. We all got soakers. Stefan then began to rearrange us according to our weight and just about the time we got into the first of the rough water outside the harbor, we realized that we'd need to hold on at all times with at least one hand. This made using binocs or holding a camera a it more challenging.

It was hard to photograph the Inca terns from the bobbing and rolling boat.

We motored to some rocky islands just outside the mouth of the harbor and Stefan maneuvered the boat close enough for us to see birds but far enough out to keep from getting smashed on the rocks. He did a fine job of it, too. Birds were everywhere. We chummed in some Inca terns. Band-tailed gulls followed.

Band-tailed gull adult.

Red-legged cormorant.

On the islands we spotted blackish oystercatchers (related to our black oystercatchers), several red-legged cormorants (possibly the most beautiful cormorant ever--and that's an oxymoron I guess). [Thanks to Chris H. for the corm ID tips.]

Blackish oystercatchers.

Also present were Peruvian brown pelicans (seemingly more colorful than ours), and a very weird bird called a cinclodes--sort of part sparrow, part bunting, part creeper. It lives like a purple sandpiper on the barnacle-covered rocks near the water line but it looks like some kind of weird songbird.

Peruvian seaside cinclodes.

There were many southern sea lions, too, in various shades of brown and gray. Looking at us impassively as they basked on the rocks. Huge males were surrounded by smaller females and we could hear their grunts and barks mixed in with the bird sounds, the ocean crashing on the rocks, and our outboard motors.

I had taken a spot in the bow so I could take some photos. This was a great spot to be until we broke out into the open ocean, headed south along the coast for some larger islands where our other quest birds lived. We were heading into the prevailing wind and sea and I felt like the guy on the Morton's Salt cannister getting blasted by the salty spray. Strangely I began talking like a pirate and making cracks about wearing Old Spice cologne. This seemed to help lessen the chill of the water running right down my face, onto my throat, and down my chest. Brrrr...

Pervian boobies! Once away from the harbor, these massive creatures were everywhere. Flying alongside the boat effortlessly. Diving gannetlike into the ocean. My first-ever boobie species. [Insert your own joke about boobies here].

Peruvian booby.

We were now far enough out into the ocean that we were riding swells--huge swells! Stefan had to be completely watchful so we did not get caught by one broadside. We had one memorable close call when everyone shouted out their favorite expletive. I think it was at that moment that I realized that it was completely possible that we could capsize.

It was raining slightly and the mist was trying to hide the mainland from our eyes. I began to wonder about the number of large men we had on a rather small boat. Of course we all had life jackets on, but the boat was really bucking and rolling. So far no one was sick.

I asked Stefan a few questions--questions that were probably on everyone else's minds, too.

BOTB: Hey Stefan! How long could someone survive in the water if they fell in?
Stefan: Only a minute or so--it's cold. You would die fast.

BOTB: And what's the load limit for this boat?
Stefan: It can safely hold 8 passengers.

BOTB (counting): OK. There are 8 of us plus you. That's 9, right?
Stefan: Yes but I don't think they count the captain in those numbers...


Lots of bodies for one small boat a mile or more offshore in rough seas.

Stefan asked for another volunteer to stand up next to him, on the windy/splashy side of the boat to help keep things balanced. I volunteered, thinking I wonder what Davy Jones actually keeps in his locker? Stuff from his time with The Monkees?

For the next two hours I stood as we motored south. My hands gripping two different cold metal railings, my knees aching from the pounding of the boat. My optics were tucked away. It was far too hard just holding on for dear life to pretend that we could do any birding.

We were heading to the "guano" islands where Peruvians have, for centuries, harvested the poop from nesting colonies of seabirds. This is used for fertilizer to increase crop yields.

Stefan shouted to us "We will be at the guano islands in about an hour! We will have 30 minutes there, then we must start home again! In the meantime watch for the Peruvian diving petrel!"

One by one we nodded blankly. And wondered if we'd make all the way and back again. The sea showed no sign of helping us. Over the thrum of the laboring outboard, I began to hear murmurings of a mutiny....

Far in the distance, Isla Asia, one of the Peruvian guano islands.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

One More Peru Story

A few miles off the Pacific coast of Peru, a feeding flock of seabirds.

On my very last day in Peru, I had the most frightening experience of the entire trip.

It involved a pelagic trip on the (not very) Pacific Ocean on a tiny boat with 9 full-sized adults. Only five of us lasted the entire journey--the rest of our group disembarked when things started to get really harsh.

We were assigned specific spots to stand or sit to keep the boat balanced. When even one person moved out of place you could feel the tiny boat heeling over. We got covered in salt spray, soaked by rain, nearly capsized by 12-foot-high waves, and were chilled by the bone-aching cold. (Even though we were all wearing full-body rain suits.)

Why do this? Well, we saw some incredible birds and mammals. For more than one reason it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us. I don't have time to tell the entire tale now, but I promise to have it posted here on BOTB by Monday morning.

Until then you can look at my crummy photo above and try to ID the three life birds I got out of this very flock. If you need a hint, say so in a comment and I'll offer up a clue or two.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Big Pile O' Meat

Before The Big Sit I had the presence of mind to raid the old chest freezer in the basement for big hunks of meat that were no-longer-fit-for-human-consumption. I wanted to make sure we had turkey vultures swooping over our birding tower on Big Sit day, and what better way than creating a feeding station for them, full of rotting, putrid meat. So I ambled down to our basement and eyed the chest freezer from a respectful distance.

This freezer came with our house. It's huge and full of unspeakable things (just like the rest of our basement).

The freezer came with the house because there was no way to remove it from our house. When it came into the house, there was a garage-style door on one end of the basement. The people who built the house thought it would be great to park their cars underneath the house! Hey kids! Take a deep breath! Smell that exhaust? Daddy's home!

When the former owners brought in the giant chest freezer (perhaps for storing entire herds of deer meat) they carried the freezer right through the basement garage door opening. How convenient!

Later owners built an actual, separate garage and the basement went back to being just a basement. When the garage door was bricked-in the chest freezer, like the Cask of Amontillado, was bricked in, too. If the chest freezer ever dies, we'll either need a chainsaw to cut it up and get it out, or we'll need to pay David Blaine's day-rate to make it disappear.

Now where was I? I was talking about...Edgar Allen Poe, then David Blaine, Oh yeah! frozen meat.

So after removing the detritus of a year or more from the top-opening lid of the freezer, I began digging through the frost-covered items inside. I felt like Dr. Richard Leakey. I found stew bones from 2001. I found hunks of suet from 1998. There were some tuna steaks that last swam in the ocean the year Al Gore was elected President. And lots of hunks of mystery meat that may have belonged to some sort of bovine or not.

It all went into the wheelbarrow and was wheeled out to the middle of our meadow. I spent the next 45 minutes scraping and prying the packaging off the rock-like hunks of meat. As a small pile of meat began to form, a turkey vulture swooped low overhead.

Turkey vulture.

He was checking out the meat dump and making a note to check back later.

This time of year there is so much roadkill that the vultures are living large. Young squirrels and other small mammals are venturing away from their home turf, looking for a place of their own. They get pancaked on our roads by the thousands. The vultures slurp them up.

White-tailed deer are in rut, so one bounding across the road in front of your car is usually followed by another or maybe several others. These road crossers are frequently does and their young of last spring being chased by horny bucks. Many get hit by vehicles, some die. They feed the vultures.

The Meat Bringer.

I knew the patrolling vultures would see my meat pile and eventually pay it a visit. Secretly I hoped it would lure in a black vulture, a species that has only recently been spreading northward in Ohio. And one that we've only seen twice on our farm. Or perhaps, as happened several winters ago, a red-shouldered hawk would visit the meat pile.

Black vulture.

Turkey vulture on the meat pile.

Bald and beautiful!

That evening there were no fewer than seven vultures--all turkeys--on the ground and on snags surrounding the Big Pile o' Meat. They'd been eating off and on all day. At dusk they lumbered into the indigo sky, headed to roost. No doubt already thinking about a nice stinky meat breakfast in the morning.

That night we heard coyotes howling from the fringes of the meadow. And later on, Julie heard what she thought was a huge cat fight. Was the male bobcat coming to the meat pile? We've seen his tracks several places in the east valley, near Beechy Crash.

This is one of those times that I wished I had a night-time game camera to record the nocturnal visitors to the Big Pile O' Meat.

I did place a Wingscapes motion-activated bird-cam in the meadow, not far from the meat pile, but all I got were pictures of myself passing on the tractor, and a few shots of the grasses waving in the breeze. The camera on its short tripod seemed to be just spooky enough to keep the vultures away. And it only works during the daylight hours to save battery life. More on this item in the future.

That meat pile is all gone now. But there's plenty more frozen-beyond-recognition meat in the chest freezer. Think I'll replenish the meat pile for Halloween. Who knows, maybe some zombies or vampires or werewolves will come in for a nibble or gnaw?

For more on vultures and smelly dead meat, check out Julie Zickefoose's "The Vultures Knew" commentary on NPR. And the text of the story on her website.

You can also look forward to Ed Kanze's forthcoming article in the January/February 2008 issue of
Bird Watcher's Digest about feeding a chicken carcass to his backyard birds.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Half-cloud Sky

Yesterday a half-cloud sky
and I at a loss for words
thought I saw a face up there
with eyelashes of birds.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The White House Calls

I got a call last week from The White House.

OK it was from a junior public relations staffer in the White House press office calling about a press opportunity, but still, it was a call from The White House.


Well, it seems President Bush was going to be attending a press event concerning migratory bird conservation at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in suburban Maryland, outside of Washington DC.

And I think someone in the White House press office must have said:
"OK. Who can we possibly get to show up for this press event?"

And another press office staffer must have said:
"I dunno, why not call one or two of those bird magazines."

So the call came in and my thought process went like this:
Hmmm. We're not a political magazine, but we do publish articles about bird conservation.
But George W. Bush is one of the least bird-friendly presidents in my lifetime!
True, but what politician IS truly bird friendly these days?
Still, wouldn't it be cool to dispatch one of our field editors to cover this event just to see what it's like? To see the media machine in action?
Besides, the Prez might not even show up.
But then again he might!

So I called BWD Field Editor Howard Youth, who lives near Washington D.C.

Now, the LAST thing I want to do is get into a flame war here in BOTB about the current President of these United States. If you want to do that, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere.

And as much as I might like to, I'm not going to rant here about politics, or about this administration's policies and actions in the arena of conservation or anything else. There are a million other places to immerse yourself in that sort of thing.

It's not that I don't have opinions (I certainly do) or that I don't want to Change the World (I want to do that, too). It's just not what I do here in Bill of the Birds. If you know me at all, you know exactly where I come down on all of this stuff.

What I do here in this little corner of the Blogosphere is tell stories (which I hope are funny, interesting, moving, amazing, and even... ironic) and to try to entertain.

So, let's get back to the press event...

I asked Howard to attend--really just for him to see what it was like. I asked him to give us a straight cub-reporter-style article about it. I mean, it's not every day that you get to be at a small press event with a U.S. President.

By shuffling his very hectic youth soccer coaching schedule, Howard was able to make the scene.

Here is his report, along with a few photographs that the White House press office sent to him afterwards.

A bird on the Bush. The President with an eastern screech-owl. White House photo by Eric Draper

President Promotes Migratory Bird Conservation
by Howard Youth

On a crisp October morning at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, President Bush expressed his concern for the plight of migratory birds and his hopes for their future. As yellowlegs yodeled from the lake shore and kinglets buzzed and chattered in the trees, the Chief Executive outlined a mixed bag of initiatives he hopes will protect feathered creatures and enable Americans to enjoy "the beauty of birds for years to come."

The President's programs included some already underway and others in the early stages, including:
  • A new policy called recovery credit trading, in which landowners who improve wildlife habitats on their land can accrue credits they can sell to off-set habitat alterations done elsewhere.
  • Conservation tax incentives that reward landowners who donate conservation easements, contributions of property rights that ensure long-term conservation. The President urged Congress to pass this measure in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget.
  • The President's allocation of more than $509 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to USDA Farm Bill conservation programs including the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides incentives to farmers who rest and protect their land as wildlife habitat.
  • A Department of Interior effort to build migratory bird stopover spots in parks and backyards in five cities, a project that would provide a blueprint for how other cities can follow suit.
  • The 2009 publication of a "State of the Birds" report that identifies species in need and charts conservation progress and areas needed for improvement to boost troubled species.
"To me this [migratory bird conservation] is a national issue that requires national focus," said the President. Three beavers circled in the waters behind him, as if to signal that they too could benefit from such programs. Like migratory birds, some efforts reach beyond national boundaries. The President highlighted U.S. support for conservation in five priority habitats in Mexico, all of which harbor birds that breed in the U.S. but winter in or pass through Mexico during migration. Bush also called for stepped-up U.S. support for an international agreement that aims to mitigate threats, such as long-line fishing and introduced species on nesting islands, that face albatrosses, petrels, and other marine birds.


Some other noteworthy observations from Howard:

President Bush asked if screech-owls "only hoot at night." Once he got confirmation, he quipped, "That sounds like my press corps." Few attending press people laughed.

President Bush's hand was warm on a cool fall a.m. As he shook my hand he called me 'dude', saying: "Good morning, dude. Nice to see ya!"

Precious few real details were provided and there was no Q&A session, leaving many open questions. It's a lame-duck mixed bag of things he's signed or would like implemented.

White House photo by Eric Draper

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Adventure on Rapa Nui

There's a new episode of This Birding Life available at Podcast Central @ Bird Watcher's Digest and in the iTunes Store (Search This Birding Life under the Podcasts category--it's free!).

Episode #11 features Alvaro Jaramillo, tropical birder extraordinaire and tour leader for Field Guides, telling the story of his trip some years back to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) off the coast of Chile.

Alvaro Jaramillo on a quetzal observation platform in Guatemala.

Alvaro went to Rapa Nui on a whim, not expecting to see many birds. What he discovered there turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of his life.

One of Alvaro's images from Rapa Nui.

This Birding Life is hosted on the Web by Bird Watcher's Digest and sponsored by Houghton Mifflin.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dash for the Cloud Forest

Canary-winged parakeets were in the fruit trees at our hotel, Puerto Palmeras.

My next-to-last full day in Peru was spent near the town of Tarapoto in the north-central part of the country, at a higher elevation than we'd experienced along the Amazon. We had arrived late the night before after traveling all day, flying from Iquitos, south to Lima, the back north to Tarapoto. We got to our lodging just in time to gobble some dinner and hit the hay.

We got up early for a short birding excursion the next morning, but I had the first birds of the day even before I got out of bed. A tropical screech owl and a ferruginous pygmy-owl were both calling outside my room. I could hear them well because the upper half of the wall facing the courtyard was all screen--the temperature here being moderate all year 'round.

This ferruginous pygmy-owl had the audacity to wake me up.

Our birding excursion was short and modestly birdy, but the overcast daylight made picking out colors difficult. We did manage to see black nunbird, a couple of distant trogons, magpie jays and the ubiquitous roadside hawks.
There are birders from eight different countries in this photo of our morning birding outing near Tarapoto.

Black nunbird.

Most of the day was spent attending the Peru Birdwatching Fair at the Puerto Palmeras Resort, hearing programs (including one from John O'Neill about the new Field Guide to the Birds of Peru), and speaking with ecotourism companies and lodge operators. Peru is trying, like Guatemala and Colombia, to overcome a reputation for political unrest and instability. It has a single, well-known destination: Machu Picchu, but has so much more to offer the cultural or ecotourist. I think you can tell from my long list of posts here on BOTB that I really enjoyed my trip to Peru. If they government keeps setting aside large tracts of habitat for parks and reserves, and if things continue to be stable politically, the number of natural history tours coming to Peru will certainly increase.

The booths at the Birdwatching Fair were all outdoors.

My birding pals and I had planned to split as soon as things were concluded, to try to make it up higher into the cloud forest to see a very special bird: the Andean cock-of-the-rock. But the humid afternoon brought on a big thunderstorm, and it looked like night would fall before we could organize our expedition.

Then, all at once, the skies cleared and we saw our chance to make a mad dash up to the cloud forest 25 minutes away. We knew we'd be racing the remaining daylight, but the site for the bright orange cock-of-the-rock was reportedly a good one. The bird had been seen there late in the day just a week earlier. Steve made arrangements for a guide and a driver. We wanted to keep our group small so we could all fit in one vehicle and get moving quickly. Steve, Chris, Pete, the other Chris and I got into the resort's Land Rover with a driver and guide. It was 4:15 pm and the light was fading. If we did not make it up to the site before about 5:30, we'd have no light for birding.

Just as we got loaded and were about to leave, another participant of the event spotted us and invited himself along. This person had seen the bird on his portion of the week-long tour, so we explained that we really wanted to get going, we had no room in the vehicle, and it was a LIFE BIRD for all of us! He would not be denied, though. And our vehicle was forced to turn around at the gate to come back to pick him up. Not only him, but his non-birding wife, too. We muttered curses, but shifted and scooted and made just enough room. I straddled the gear shift, getting to know our driver more intimately than was truly necessary.
Last light fading over the cloud forest.

The sun did not wait for us however, and as we made our way out of town and up slippery dirt roads, still flowing with the run-off from the afternoon rains, I tried to counsel myself that "it's about the journey, not the destination." If I did not see this spectacular bird, it would be OK.

Well that was a load of guano. If we missed the bird because Tommy Tagalong glommed onto us like a beggartick, I was going to have to say something to him. I was seriously worried that we'd been cock-of-the-rock blocked.
Mototaxis are everywhere in Peru.

We drove for nearly 30 minutes until we were halted by a traffic stop. There were landslides ahead and no one could pass. Police were everywhere and we were flagged to the side of the road. Our driver made our case with the policeman (who was very well-armed). The policeman radioed to his superior. All the while we were losing light. My legs were numb from sitting on the metal bar between the front seats.
Eventually this policeman let us pass up the mountain road.

Evidence of the landslides that closed our road.

Finally we were permitted to go ahead. The crowd of people vehicles we left behind stared at us in disbelief. Some of them had been waiting for four hours.

On the way up the muddy road, we slipped sideways, even in four-wheel drive. We also dodged huge trucks and heavy equipment coming down. The road was only just opened. To the left the mountainside was almost vertical. To the right it dropped off several hundred feet. There was no guard rail.

Finally we got to the spot. A small hut indicated the trail head. This was a small park with a trail that climbed up along a rushing stream, leading into the dark cloud forest. Our guide indicated that, though it was not far to the place where the bird was, we must hurry to beat "la noche." We clambered out of the Land Rover and began climbing up the trail, which wound over mossy, wet rocks and was a bit treacherous in our haste. Up, up, up we went, the light diminishing as we got deeper into the forest.

Then all at once we were at the foot of a giant waterfall. The air was full of mist. The scene was so incredible--magical really--that we momentarily forgot to look for the bird. An orange flash caught my eye. OHMYGODTHEREITIS!

A male Andean cock-of-the-rock! Wow! Florescent orange head and shoulders, black underparts, weird comb of feathers on the head. He settled into a small crevice on the left side of the waterfall. We got him in the scope. Such a great bird. We high-fived and silently hooted and hollered.

Tommy Tagalong took this moment to begin bragging on all the other, better looks he'd had at this species. His wife began making noises about getting back to the resort. I briefly began looking for a spot to hide their bodies. There were a lot of good options.

We shut our ears and focused our minds, eyes, and optics on the bird, now probably settling in to roost for the night. For the next 15 minutes we just let the waterfall do the talking while we soaked in the view and the experience.

It was now almost too dark to see the path, so we headed down. We could not conceal the spring in our steps. An hour later we were off the mountain and back at Puerto Palmeras. Several rounds of celebratory cervezas were enjoyed, along with another of the ubiquitous pisco sours.

After all, it's not every day you get to see a bright orange life bird at the last possible few minutes of the day.

BOTB at the COTR spot. Photo by Steve Rooke.

My crummy COTR shot. I had a shot that was pretty dang good, but I accidentally deleted it from my camera! DOH!

This is what the Andean cock-of-the-rock really looks like. Photo by Peter Price/Naturetrek Tours.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Intermission, then More Peru

I need to take a short intermission here to focus on some other things (new podcast episode coming for This Birding Life, magazine deadlines, recovery and SuperFund cleanup after The Big Sit!). But I wanted to give you advance notice that BOTB will be heading back to Peru for a couple of posts. I still have a story or two to share with you.

For now, I'll leave you with the image above, taken at dawn on my last day aboard El Delfin on the Amazon tributary system in northern Peru. ¡Hasta mañana!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


This is the very same eastern phoebe I thought I heard during the Big Sit.

If I were a person of lower moral fiber than I am (if that's even possible), I would now be crowing to you that we broke our Big Sit record after all! Yep! It's true! We got 66* species!!!!


Well, during the Sit I heard what I took to be a very het-up eastern phoebe chipping in the side yard. We always hear phoebes over there this time of year--plenty of insects on warm afternoons and evenings and lots of great hunting perches from which a flycatcher can sally forth.

I heard this chip note in the morning and several times in the afternoon. Each time I called out "I think I hear a phoebe chipping!" But no phoebe ever appeared. And when a phoebe is around, you see it--they aren't shy and retiring woodland flycatchers, like the members of the Empidonax family. Phoebes perch on the wires, on the fence, on the roof, on the deck railing, all the while wagging their tails up and down. You ALWAYS see a phoebe if one is around.

But I could never get my eyes on an actual phoebe. Still the chip went on intermittently. I thought it might be a palm warbler, which has a pretty loud, sharp chip note for a warbler. And someone (named Jim McCormac) mentioned swamp sparrow during the course of the day in the context of birds we had not yet seen. Late in the evening on Big Sit Day +1, I was talking to Jeff Gordon and mentioned hearing a phoebe chip but not seeing it. He said "Yeah, their chip note sounds like several other chip notes. I think they can sound a little like swamp sparrows."

It still was not registering in the cold bowl of porridge that passes for my brain.

So this morning, Julie and I were sitting in the front yard for a few minutes, after launching the kids onto the school bus, and I heard it again.

"There's that dang phoebe again! The one that wouldn't show itself for the Big Sit. Doesn't it KNOW we named our first child Phoebe?"

Julie: "I'm not sure that's a phoebe. It might be a palm warbler."

She went to look while I sat aimlessly sipping my cold coffee, letting it dribble down my chin onto my beggar-tick-covered sweatpants.

"I just saw its tail and rump as it flew away! I think it's a swamp sparrow!" she shouted.

I was up and after the bird.

Sure enough. It popped up into view and gave about nine of its trademarked chips. At this close range they sounded sharper, more emphatic and metallic than the phoebe's chip. And more robust than the palm warbler's.

SWAMP SPARROW. And it's the same bird (probably) that was chipping on Sunday.
It would have been species #66 for us, had I been tuned-in to the possibility.

Swamp sparrow image by Mike McDowell from

That's what's great about bird watching. You never know WHAT'S going to show up (or not show up).

So I'll list this year's total as 65. But I really want to list it as 66* (with an asterisk). Barry Bonds and Roger Maris got their baseball records recorded with an asterisk. There were no performance-enhancing drugs used in our Big Sit (that I KNOW of--the drug testing results are not yet in). Honest, we thought it was just flaxseed oil....

What's the lesson here? While you're keeping your eyes and ears open, it's a good idea to keep you mind open, too.

* Species #66 (swamp sparrow) was heard during The Big Sit! but not identified by any member of the Big Sit circle during this very special event (An event so special in fact that it has its own exclamation point!). No punctuation was harmed in the creation of this *%$#@#@ blog post!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Big Sit 2007 Final Report


That's the final tally for the 2007 Big Sit! at Indigo Hill.

We are Sit to Be Tied.

We tied our all-time high record for species seen on The Big Sit! (65, seen in 2004). The Big Sit! (and its accompanying exclamation point) is traditionally held on the second Sunday in October. This is also traditionally the start of the least birdy season of the year here in southeastern Ohio. And that's pretty much true for most other places in temperate North America--even in Connecticut where the official The Big Sit! was created. Why hold the Sit then? No one knows. It's just always been that way.

Sunrise on Big Sit day, looking east from the birding tower at Indigo Hill.

Of course you can hold your own sit anytime you want. But this one is the official Big Sit! and is trademarked by the New Haven Bird Club in New Haven, CT. We at Bird Watcher's Digest are big Big Sit! fans, so we help the event out by promoting it and hosting its website. This year a whole bunch of National Wildlife Refuges got involved by hosting Big Sits! We did set an all-time high for Big Sit circles registered, with nearly 200. Big Sits! are like Big Days, but they are "greener" since you're not burning up bunch of fossil fuel racing around after birds. You let the birds come to you.

This is not to say that Big Sit circles do not generate any greenhouse gases. Our circle certainly did, in spite of the Beano we put in the chili.

All people whose names begin with a J had to stand in the corner. From L to R: Julie, Jon, Judy.

I am working hard to appreciate our Big Sit! accomplishment (tying the record). It's an amazing feat given that the second Sunday in October is almost diabolically situated to be after all the warblers, vireos, tanagers, and orioles have left and before the waterfowl and winter finches are really moving. A month earlier, in mid-September, we'd be getting 75 or 80 species.

Still, I LOVE the challenge of trying to wring every last bird out of a single spot on a single day. It tests your skills, your stamina, your stomach, and your sanity all at once!

Overhead a passing redtail, and above it a passing kestrel.

We missed some really common birds on the day: eastern phoebe, chimney swift, killdeer, great blue heron, osprey, brown-headed cowbird, common grackle. But we also got some really good ones: late red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, a beautiful black-throated green warbler (and 4 warblers total), green heron, two northern harriers, both nuthatches, we swept the woodpeckers, we got a SAW-WHET OWL, we got all the thrushes except gray-cheeked, we got a late tree swallow, and many others.

Chet Baker prefers to sit for the Sit on Julie's lap.

We tied the record by about 4 pm, and I thought "Three hours of daylight left--plenty of time to get one more species..."

The hills to our north--we scanned the sky above them until our eyes were sore.

While scanning the horizon and keeping our ears tuned to every sound, we enjoyed the company of a few good pals, traded jokes, ate everything from Cheetos to Texcinnati chili to homemade jerky to goat cheese and pumpkin bread. And we had a few beverages to close out the day--a sundowner, Big Sit style. The end of every Big Sit is a long, slow transition from hardcore birding event to low-key keg party--it's as much about the people you're with as the birds you see. Our birding buddies Marcy and Steve showed up just before dusk to lift our spirits and to help us watch the sun set.

Sitters near the end, still birding hard.

I bought myself a Big Sit! beer stein. I can tell you that it works just fine.

I stayed up in the tower long after everyone else had left, hoping to hear the twitter of a passing woodcock's wings. By 9 pm, I was asleep standing at my post and when the kids came up to say goodnight, I waved the white flag. 65 species it would be.

One more tradition needed to be experienced--something that goes with The Big Sit! like warbler neck goes with spring birding: This morning as we were walking the kids out to the school bus, a flock of seven pine siskins flew over, calling, headed straight for the tower.

Species #66, just a few hours too late.

What a fun day! I'm already strategizing for next year's Big Sit! to be held on Sunday, October 12, 2008. And I'm thinking about building a pond to attract great blue herons, killdeer, and kingfishers.

How appropriate that the moon's phase for the Big Sit was what we call a "hangnail moon."

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Big Sit Update #3

Sorry no photo with this post. There's no time.
We've tied the record of 65 species, but only have two hours daylight left to break it, by seeing species number 66.

Among the birds we could see to break it:
eastern phoebe, great blue heron, killdeer, Lincoln's sparrow, common yellowthroat, wood duck, peregrine falcon, merlin, Andean cock-of-the-rock...

If one of these birds is in your yard, please shoo it toward southeastern Ohio. Our future happiness and sense of accomplishment depends on it.

Big Sit Update #2

It's 10:10 am and the birds have slowed down a tad. But it's been a really good morning.

By sun-up we had 12 species, including a northern saw-whet owl that called five times from our pines. We also added the great-horned, making this a four-owl Sit.

Jim McCormac and Jason Larson were the first guest Sitters to show. And they immediately started adding birds to the list. Jen Sauter and Judy Kolo-Rose arrived after dawn, helping us get to 26 species by 7:30 am.

By the time Mike and Chris Austin joined us, we were passing 30 species. We hit 43 by 8 am and 46 by 8:20. Jon Benedetti came over from West Virginia and helped us get over the half-century mark.

The list currently stands at 53 species and, as always, the morning rush is over. Every bird we get from here on will be tough. 65 is the record we want to break. We've got a ways to go.

Highlights thus far: green heron, northern harrier, gray catbird, blue-headed vireo, and the aforementioned saw-whet owl.

I'll give another update after lunch. Gotta get back up top now.

More soon....

Big Sit Report #1

Made it up to the tower about 11:45 and got my gear situated. No moon at all, so it was as dark as a cave up in the tower. First thing I saw after the midnight starting bell was a falling star. Hope it portends big things for The Big Sit! I lay on my back on the tower floor and just let the stars do their twinkling.

First bird was a passing chipping sparrow. Among the billions of stars was my old pal Orion off to the east, who appeared to have an iPod hanging from his belt. But far fewer nocturnal migrants making themselves heard with call notes than I had last year. I wish I were better at the night flight calls--makes me wish I had my own personal Michael O'Brien or Bill Evans here to coach me. Wonder if the birds are just flying high in the middle of the night and I can't hear them.

Lots of dogs barking and distant vehicle sounds. The gurgle of our water feature and the murmuring trills of snowy tree crickets dominated the soundscape.

An eastern screech-owl called from way off to the south about 12:35 am. And a barred owl gave its "Whoooahh" call about 1 am. They use this call as a "Who's there?" I was happy to get at least two of our three nesting owls. Still waiting for the great horned to bellow.

I love thinking about all the other Big Sit circles around the world, some already halfway through their Sit. Others a few hours from starting, sitters still sleeping.

It being rather still and quiet here at Indigo Hill, I believe I'll catch a few winks.

Species count: 3

Back soon...

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mere Hours from Sitting

Spent all day getting things ready for The Big Sit. Filling feeders, mowing the paths, lugging the full and heavy cooler, cleaning optics, charging iPod, laying out cold weather coats (it's going to be in the 30s tonight). I feel I am ready at last.

I'll head up to the tower at midnight to get the Sit started. If the birds are moving, I'll stay up there. If not, I'll tally what I can and head back down for a few more hours of shut eye. Then I'll head back up to get the pre-dawn action, about 4:30. Then I'll be huffing coffee.

There are some large clouds passing tonight. Tomorrow promises to be sunny and cool. I would not mind a few big puffy clouds for the soaring birds to show up against. Solid blue is not the best sky for a Big Sit. The black dots that are soaring birds, or high-flying migrants, get lost against the blueness.

More soon....


Friday, October 12, 2007

Phoebe Holding Back the Cold

Oh phoebe. Thank you for holding back the seasons!

I see you do not fear the ceramic monkey skull. Such a tact-free decoration in our garden. I am glad it does not spook you. It still spooks me.

And please do not fear the coming winter, at least not yet. Its bluster cannot harm you now. Stay and let me see you and hear you yet a few more days. You carry the warming glow of Indian summer on your wings. When you go, it goes with you.

So stay a while yet, while the katydids trill and the crickets buzz. Soon enough their music will be stilled by the frost. And you shall be banished to the protected hollers, hoping winter's bite is gently met. 'Til spring returns on the wings of midges and you re-find a reason to call out your name.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Coattails of a Cold Front

Every year, like clockwork, the dark-eyed juncos arrive with the first cold front of the fall. This is usually around the time of the Big Sit--the second Sunday of each October.

We know we can count on that same cold front convincing all the bug eaters to leave, too. This includes favorite birds like, umm... warblers and vireos and tanagers and orioles--basically anything with bright colors and a beautiful song splits for points south. And we're left with the primarily earth-toned birds of winter. Do I sound whiny?

I love seeing the first junco, even though it means no more indigo buntings or hummingbirds. Not a real fair trade, but who said life was fair? Yes I DO sound whiny.

Last night the first cold front came through. No juncos yet, but I did see a fall-plumaged indigo bunting in the meadow. And I asked him to stay at least until Sunday morning so we could tally him for the Big Sit. After all, our farm is named Indigo Hill for the plethora of indigo buntings we have all summer long.

I fear he's got the urge for going and I guess he'll have to go...

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Preparing to Sit

It's time to lug the optics, field guides, heating pads, and bags of Cheetos up to the birding tower here at Indigo Hill (and vacuum up all the dead ladybugs up there.) This Sunday, October 14, is the 2007 Big Sit! an event that gets major play around Indigo Hill. You can do your own Big Sit, too!

We're gearing up, revving up, making the chili (if you eat it before 3 pm, your fellow Sitters will suffer), and hoping today's cold front does not chase away the last hummingbird, indigo bunting, or lingering brown thrasher. But we simultaneously hope the cold front does bring in a few juncos, Lincoln's sparrows, northern finches, and migrant hawks.

The all-time Big Sit record for Indigo Hill is 65 species. Last year we had 63. This year we must break the record! The birding gods have been offered all manner of tribute, incantation, and sacrifice...

It all starts at midnight on Saturday night/Sunday morning and goes until the last Cheeto is crunched on Sunday night. Sure, it's not the birdiest time of year for us (not even close), and the weather could completely stink, but it's a tradition, dude! And there's no stopping us.

I'll offer a post or two during the action on Sunday just to keep those interested parties among you in the loop. And at the end of the day, if we've broken the record, I'll hoist a frosty cold one with shouts of joy and exaltation. Heck I'll do that even if we only get 35 species.

But right now I've got to find my lucky birding sweatshirt...can't imagine a Big Sit without it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Flicker of a Flicker

Yellow flash across the clearing
Ants beware! The flicker's nearing!

Who among us feels no thrill
at dawn to hear his rattle-trill?

Hitching higher, the tree-bark wrecker
all bold field marks, no mere woodpecker

I see him there atop the ash
with black cravat and black mustache

And though I wish he'd linger on
In a golden flicker, the flicker's gone

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cerveza del Cielo

We emerged from the jungle into the late afternoon light, air made hazy by the woodsmoke hanging on the humidity. The birds were beginning to stir as the day cooled slightly. Our first view of Manco Capac upon our return was from across the village soccer field.

Next to the sidewalk that divided the village down the center two small boys worked at shelling some beans on a tarp on the ground.

Young boys in Manco Capac shelling beans.

The villagers were nearly all sitting out on the front stoops of their houses. They sneaked curious glances at us as we passed--the kids being less shy about staring. A friendly "¡Buenas tardes!" spoken to the villagers always garnered a happy "¡Buenas!" in return.

Families were on the front stoops trying to catch the first bit of cool the evening had to offer.

After our long walks on two consecutive days, sitting down in the shade to drink a cold one felt like some kind of salvation. The bar owner smiled at me when I told him "¡Muchas gracias, señor! Este es una cerveza del cielo!" Thank you sir. This is a beer from heaven!

"¡Otra vez mas, por favor!"

Hooded tanager, a bird that could be on every yard list in Manco Capac.

This parakeet loved this little boy. They kissed each other. He brought it out very shyly to show the bird watchers that he loved birds, too.

The children in the village giggled and gasped as they looked through our spotting scopes and binoculars.

I wish Phoebe and Liam could have met these sweet kids in Manco.

Just before reboarding the skiffs for El Delfin, Chris Harbard and I took a picture with our guides from Manco Capac.

The skiffs were waiting for us down below.

As we headed back to our big boat and all its comforts, the macaws played in the failing light.

It was the end of another amazing day.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Trek Back to Manco Capac

The field station at El Dorado where we spent the night.

We'd been at El Dorado for nearly 24 hours, when (after a nice lunch of fish, rice, and beans) we began the journey back to the village Manco Capac and from there, back aboard El Delfin.

We'd had a good morning of birding around El Dorado, followed by a short presentation on the conservation initiatives the local villagers were putting in place. The hope is that by managing the resources better other things will follow, such as a reduction in slash-and-burn subsistence farming and hunting, and eventually, more ecotourism. Scanning the guest book at the El Dorado field station I could see that a variety of groups had passed through, including some nature documentary crews and film crews scouting for jungle locations for shooting, as well as a few adventure nature tour groups.
Blue and yellow macaws--huge, brilliantly colored birds.

We said our thank yous and goodbyes and boarded the dugouts for the trip back. Lucky for us the rains of the night before had raised the water level, so we did not run aground nearly as much as we had on the trip out.

Back in the dugouts, keeping our balance.

It was just as we were leaving the El Dorado landing that I had a moment of panic. Riding in a dugout is a matter of balance. When someone shifts or tips the dugout a bit while boarding, you have to be ready to shift your weight to the other side to compensate. My Canon 30D camera with its 300mm lens was sitting on my lap. As I shifted to help re-balance the dugout, it tumbled, LCD-screen first into the muddy bottom of the boat. I snatched it up and frantically began wiping. Gritty mud caked every surface and seeped into every crack. I spent the next hour just picking out little bits of now completely dried mud. Then I realized there was nothing more I could do. So I said a little prayer to the digital camera gods that it would be OK. And I got back to birding and taking pictures (which seemed fine...).
Amazon kingfisher.

Before long, we were off the lake proper and onto the small river that feeds it. With the banks closer, we got some good looks (and shots) at birds. This area must be the horned screamer capital of the world--we saw at least 24 of these huge birds along the way back.

Wattled jacana.

At the end of the waterborne portion of the return trip, we climbed up a muddy bank to the ranger station. This station is at the end of the trail leading back to Manco Capac--so we knew we had the eight-mile walk ahead of us--and it was the heat of the day once again. A confab of teenagers from Manco were there to carry our bags, scopes, and other gear. They stood shyly off to one side of the landing, smiling and making comments to one another. I am sure we looked pretty ragged, sun-burned, and hot. We chugged some water, grabbed a sandwich made for us by the cooks at the El Dorado field station, and headed across the clearing to the trail head.
Meeting up with our porters at the El Dorado guard house.

Once inside the jungle, the sun no longer held us in its fiery fingers. I zipped open the legs on my pants and wet down a doo-rag for my head, all in an attempt to keep the heat and humidity at bay. Being in motion helped. Otherwise I could have easily seen how one might go stir-crazy with the close air, the insect noise, and the imposing deep green of the jungle on all sides.
On the jungle trail, heading back to Manco Capac.

The birds must have watched us pass, silently enjoying their siestas. But their absence did not last long.
There are some mighty large trees in the Amazonian rainforest.

Our group was strung out over a mile or two of trail. The birders stopping often to listen or look. The non-birders humped it for Manco, where we were told we would be able to purchase a cold beer. Chris Harbard and I told jokes back and forth as we walked, which helped the miles pass more easily. We caught up with Pepe Alvarez just in time for him to hear a manakin calling. It was a male wire-tailed manakin and it was a stunner! I crept within 30 feet of it as it sat, looking around slowly. It looked like a tiny feathered piece of candy stuck on a vine against the green jungle backdrop.
Wire-tailed manakin showing its namesake field mark.

Such a brilliant bird!

A bit farther on we encountered a troop of tamarins--saddle-backed tamarins to be exact. They jumped from tree to tree like hyper jungle gnomes--very catlike in their movements, but monkey like in their appearance. Weird.
Saddle-backed tamarin

Pieces of the trail began looking familiar, and like trail horses who can smell the barn long before they see it, we picked up our pace, stopping only for really special birds. And here, all of a sudden, was a bird song that stopped Pepe in his tracks: A black-spotted bare-eye was calling from a clearing just off the path. We carefully stepped into the underbrush and down a bank. The bird was close! There! Movement! There it is!

Stopping to look for the bare-eye.

Not everyone got to see it and my look at this very shy creature was only about six seconds long. But long enough. It's related to the antbirds and antthrushes and true to its name, it has bare skin all around its huge eyes. Pink skin on a black head surrounding a red eye. In the deep shadows of the ground in the rainforest, where this critter lives, its coloration helps it blend in perfectly--unlike the orange sherbet colors of the manakin we'd seen a few hours earlier. Wish I'd gotten a picture of the bare-eye but I was not quick enough.

At long last, we could smell the wood smoke from Manco. And distant dog barks. At long last we came to the end of the jungle trail and stepped back into the brilliant sunlight on the edge of the village. We staggerode across the futból pitch and found the main drag--a cement sidewalk that led us to the center of the village. There, a blue building beckoned to us like the mermaid calls to the lonely sailors--cerveza fria amigos!
We made it back to Manco Capac in the late afternoon.

A case of large bottles of beer was produced, some small jam jars, and a bottle opener...I'm not sure a beer every was more appreciated by yours truly.
I have no idea what the name of this tavern was, but it could have been named Nirvana as far as we were concerned.

I'll leave you here for now. Tomorrow we'll finish up our cervezas and head back to El Delfin. We've still got a mile or so to walk to get to the river...

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Morning with a Black-collared Hawk

The night we spent in the cabin on stilts on the shore of Lago El Dorado was surprisingly all right. We all expected to toss and turn from the heat, humidity, and insects, but about 10 pm a big thunderstorm passed through and dumped a cooling rain on us until just before dawn. The sound of the rain hitting the thatched roof, dripping off the leaves outside the window was wonderfully soothing.

The following morning we took another short excursion along the lake shore in one of the large skiffs. The light was good for photography and the birds were cooperative. One bird was particularly cooperative, a black-collared hawk.

I love the setting this bird chose for his morning fishing perch.

We got very close, drifting up with the engine off.

Wish we had more hawks with this much cinnamon in the plumage.

One last peek over his shoulder as he flew a bit farther off.

But he remained curious enough to pass overhead a few times. These birds probably see only a few dozen people a year.

In my next post I'll tell about our hike back to Manco Capac and what simple pleasures awaited us once we got there.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

One of These Things

Remember that old Sesame Street song "One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong..."?

Well, here's a bird quiz along those lines.

Following are three bird images taken at Lago El Dorado in north-central Peru. Two of the birds are the same species. One is a different species. All three birds were photographed in the same small area within minutes of each other.

Can YOU tell which one of these things just doesn't belong?

Put your guesses in the comments section of this post. Bonus points if you can ID the species. Answers in tomorrow's post.

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Arriving at El Dorado

Baking our brains on the dugout trip to El Dorado.

When we reached the Pacaya-Samiria Preserve guard station at the end of our eight-mile hike, we thought "OK this is rustic, but we can hack it here for a night..." Sorry, amigos. We had to get into open dugouts for "a short boat ride."

Well that's cool, we'll get to where we're really staying in a few minutes and then we can chill out. Gee I hope they have some cervezas frias when we get there....

Two hours later we were baked to a crisp, dizzy from the heat, and fairly parched. But along the way we did see some fabulous things, including lots of wildlife that is extirpated from much of the rest of the Amazon. This relatively new preserve, called Pacaya-Samiria, is already seeing many animals and birds coming back to normal numbers.

Horned screamers. A bird that looks like a mistake in the field guide.

Capybara. A mammal that is hunted-out in much of the Amazon.

The community of Manco Capac is working with several non-governmental agencies, the Peruvian government, and the US AID office and The Nature Conservancy to develop both sustainable agriculture and aquaculture and ecotourism at El Dorado. The villagers manage the hunting and harvesting from the local rainforest, lakes, and rivers with advice from trained biologists. They also manage and cater to the growing numbers of ecotourists who are treated to a view of the Amazon that is closer to what it should be in terms of abundance of flora and fauna.

If all you see of the Amazon is from the deck of your cruising boat on the big rivers, you are seeing a much depleted ecosystem--one that is over-fished, over-hunted, over-timbered, and generally over-run. Get off the beaten path and into the jungle farther from the rivers and you can still experience the Amazonian rainforest in a less compromised state.

Soon our open dugouts ran ashore and we were transferred to a pair of larger boats with thatched roofs. How delightful to get out of the afternoon sun. It was not much cooler, but it was less squinty on the eyes.

We were just a few miles from our destination. Nearly nine hours after leaving El Delfin on a four-hour hike, we were reaching our destination.

Signs welcomed us to El Dorado. And it was lovely--a large, smooth lake, the air thick with insects and birds.
Our home for the night was the guest house on Lago El Dorado. To the right, just up from where we landed was a wooden enclosure that looked like a giant's sandbox. This was where the villagers and preserve staff were raising Amazon river turtles for release into the lake. This species has been hunted almost to extinction. It's just one of the conservation projects at El Dorado.

We disembarked from the boats, enjoyed a light meal of fish and rice in the main building, then got back on the boats for an evening cruise around the lake. Amazing sights awaited us.

It's elementary, my dear hoatzin.

A large group of hoatzins watched us as we photographed them. Such a weird, reptilian bird.

Black-collared hawk.

Yellow-headed caracaras and black-collared hawks were even more common here at El Dorado.

BT3 with the gang on the sunset cruise on Lago El Dorado.

Despite the heat, we kept covered up against the mosquitos. It was as buggy at El Dorado as anyplace else I've been on earth, but few of the insects bothered biting me. Some of my fellow travelers were not so lucky--and yet we all survived.
Jabiru, a huge stork. [It's pronounced: Jabber-uu]

The last new bird of the day was a jabiru foraging and flicking flies off his head in the shallows at the east end of the lake.

A tropical kingbird waited at dusk on a bromeliad-bedecked palm trunk for the last foolish insect to flit past. He did not have to wait long....Sunset over Lago El Dorado. It would not have looked so beautiful and rosy if we'd known that there was no cerveza fria awaiting us back at our lodgings for the night. Once again, we all survived...
BOTB recalling a certain Paul Theroux book he'd read.

I slept in a tiny room with three British birders. We were in bunk beds completely surrounded by mosquito netting. You had to leap into your bed and get the netting around you in a flash or else share your tiny, netted enclosure con muchos bichos para toda la noche.

Don't I look relaxed, cool, and happy in my self portrait above, just before lights out? The pink fabric is the thick, air-stopping mosquito netting. Despite the conditions, the 95-degree heat and 200% humidity, and a mattress the thickness of a well-worn dollar bill, I slept pretty well.

More adventures awaited us the next morning....

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Pardon this short breather in the recounting of the Peru adventures. I promise to get the next chapter (about the rest of the trip to El Dorado) up on BOTB tomorrow.

In the meantime, sit a spell and enjoy the evening sky with me. Every kind of cloud up there if you look long enough. Might be holding a bit of rain, too. We could surely use it.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Jungle Road to El Dorado

The next day dawned misty and humid, though the air near the river was still somewhat cool. I had lost track of what day of the week it was--a nice change from a normal work week back home. As we ate our breakfast and gathered up our gear, we all felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about the day ahead of us.

We'd been instructed to pack for staying overnight in the jungle and implored to pack lightly. We would not need our dress clothes--our accommodations would be quite rustic. And there would be lots of mud--hence the Wellies we'd been given--knee-high rubber boots that were good protection from water, mud, and snakes, but not the best footwear for a long hike.

And this hike was to be of indeterminate length. "Four hours easy walk!" was what we were told. Translated into birding time, we knew it would be longer, but how much longer?

We got on the skiffs and headed for our landing spot. Along the way we saw pink dolphins in the river. And we spied more black-collared hawks and greater black hawks along the shore.

Part of a pink dolphin in the Upper Amazon tributaries.

Greater black hawk.

Black-collared hawk.

Soon we landed along the lefthand shore and climbed the bank up away from the river. At the top of the bank, waiting for us, were more than a dozen local villagers ready to guide us to El Dorado and help us get our gear there safely. They offered to carry our packs and scopes so we could be less weighed down during the long hike. It took a bit of getting used to, having someone carry your gear for you. But when we got a mile or so into the jungle, where the air was hot and wet in your lungs, and you felt yourself teetering on the edge of sanity, we were all happy for the help.

We gathered along a road through a banana plantation just above the river. It was still misty in the early hours and the birds were mostly heard and not seen.

Family heading to the river near Manco Capac.

We parted to let several parties of local villagers pass through our group. They were headed to the river to get water, wash clothes, and to sell and buy and trade for food and other necessities. The young girl in this family was Liam's age, (7) but much smaller. Still she pitched in to help her parents.

Who ARE those strange, pale people?

She was intrigued enough by us to stop walking and turn around to look again at us. I later learned from one of the villagers that many villagers in remote regions believed in a long-held myth: that the white-faced people were evil and were here to peel away and steal the faces of the locals. This might explain why the kids in one village were so wary of me. But more on that in a later post...
Our porters and guides to El Dorado waited for us in Manco Capac.

Our gear porters waited for us to catch up in the small village of Manco Capac at the head of the trail to El Dorado. I believe some of them probably wondered why we brought so much stuff with us. This was one day when I was glad I did not bring a spotting scope to Peru. There would be other days when I wished I had brought it.

Slash and burn plot near Manco Capac.

Just outside Manco Capac we started out hike by walking through a patch of what used to be jungle but would now be converted to agriculture. This type of agriculture is common in the tropics, but many people are now finding that while slash-and-burn farming nets good yields for a few years, it is not sustainable. Many local villages and both government and non-governmental agencies are promoting ecotourism as a more sustainable way to make a living. The El Dorado project is one such venture.

Related to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but not close enough!

Less than a mile into the rainforest, we came upon this large black and white woodpecker drumming with double raps on a huge dead snag. I grabbed this image as it flew overhead. Clearly it is not an ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean, what else could it BE?

A bit farther along the muddy trail, we came across a clearing. In the trees on the far side of the clearing, there were a dozen or so birds foraging in the canopy. One bird flashed white as it came in. At first I thought it must be a rose-breasted grosbeak, but the bill looked all wrong. So I pointed it out to Noam and Pepe, our expert birder/guides. They were immediately excited--it was a very unusual bird.

White-breasted bird....hmmm. A rose-breasted grosbeak? No...

A closer look, but still not close enough.

That's better! It's a purple-throated cotinga! A rare bird indeed!

Plumbeous antbird, male.

The birding was getting good as the rain clouds disappeared and the baking sun came out. This made the birds more active. Pepe and Noam heard a good bird and halted our movement. It was an antbird--a male plumbeous antbird. Pepe recording its song and played it back. Th bird immediately responded and came closer. I managed to click off a few shots--this was a very confiding bird.

There were other birds, too. A huge cocoa-brown woodpecker lurched up a tree trunk--a ringed woodpecker. We heard dozens of other species in the deep jungle--birds we'd never see.
Somebody's jungle workshop making a new dugout boat.

Scarlet-crowned barbet moving through the canopy.

Long-billed woodcreeper far overhead, but showing its best field mark.

After a few more miles of jungle trail passed underfoot, we came upon this large tree with what looked like a dark cavity on the upper trunk. But it wasn't a hole.

It was caterpillars gathered together for warmth and protection. One of our local guides said, in Spanish, that all day long birds would be coming by to eat a caterpillar or two. And that tomorrow there'd be just a few caterpillars left.

Mile after mile we walked. The heat came down and quieted the birds. Now we looked at butterflies and insects and wondered if we'd ever make it out of this steaming jungle. I was getting tired. My water bottle was nearly empty. But I thought, the village we were heading for must be near...

Sure enough, a village appeared through the trees. It was one building. WAIT! This is NOT our destination? "No my friend, we still have a boat ride to get to El Dorado!"

Far down the bank below us there were three skiffs. Our gear was loaded into one and our group of hikers split into two groups to board the skiffs. And off we went.

Boarding the skiffs for El Dorado.

Immediately we began seeing waterbirds, including this large-billed tern.

Rufescent tiger heron.

And this rufescent tiger-heron--what a beautiful bird!

Our dugouts did not have much clearance. We ran aground every other minute--was it the low river level or our overfed bodies? Almost three hours later, baked by the sun, butts hurting from the wooden benches of the dugouts, we pulled in to El Dorado.

The dugouts had little clearance above the waterline.

To be continued...

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