Monday, January 26, 2009

Red Sky At Morning...

What was that old saying about the weather for sailors? Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning?

I and a couple of dozen hearty souls are heading out to sea today on a pelagic trip. This is the final activity for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida.

It's too early for the sun to be up this morning, so I'm using a sunrise form a few days ago. The weather looks promising, so I'm not too worried about having rough seas. I'm just hoping that, if the morning sky is red, the saying won't be:

Red sky at morning, the birding is boring.

I'm excitied. This is my first pelagic trip in a long time. We don't get to do too many pelagic trips in southeaster Ohio. The only thing that could make my anticipation higher would be if it were Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Special thanks to Connie Toops for the photo advice on this sunrise photo, and to Jeff Gordon for the rain suit. Hope I don't need it.

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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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