Saturday, October 29

Revisiting the 1000 Islands

Camelot Island
Camping and sea kayaking over a long weekend in the midst of busy classes is no doubt a welcome escape. I took a sea kayaking class last fall break in the 1000 Islands of southeast Ontario, where the St. Lawrence meets Lake Ontario, and enjoyed it so much I decided to train to help teach the course this fall. On our fall break, from October 8-11, I finally got the chance to return and repeat the trip. The 1000 Islands region is beautiful in the fall, a place not surprisingly rampant with small islands of mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland and rugged, rocky outcrops. The trip also coincides with the tail end of the fall warbler migration, and the beginning of some of the bigger, open water birds' passage, so when the weather's nice, it's a great time to be paddling. And the weather couldn't have been better.

1000 Islands region where we paddled, with the east end of
Lake Ontario just visible in the SW corner
After a few evening classes in preceding weeks, we were finally loading up the van and trailer on Friday afternoon, and driving north to spend the night at our put-in, Misty Isles, near Gananoque, ON. The next four days would have temperatures hovering around 60 and blue, cloudless skies. Saturday morning gave the first indication that the forecast might be true, and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday soon proved it. But I don't want to write a day by day trip report, and most people wouldn't want to read that either, so I'll just recall some highlights.

1. The weather. We're coming from Ithaca, let's remember, a place where I recently experienced one of the most beautiful, clear, cool mornings in recent memory, only to watch a single white cloud appear on the horizon, indicating 100% chance of precipitation. The precipitation, needless to say, didn't fail to come in the next hour or so, and it was soon "Ithacating" (most accurately, a combination of precipitation and defecation from the skies of Ithaca) all over what could have, and frankly, should have been a truly gorgeous day. So to see a 4-day streak of forecasted bliss actually come true!? That was heavenly. And of course, weather that makes you giddy to be alive and breathing undoubtedly sets the stage for a weekend full of greatness (like, when you get to sleep outside under the stars every night).

2. Our class of excellent paddlers. Like the weather, this blessing of a condition allowed for its own slew of subsequent highlights. Because the students were so quickly adept at slicing through the St. Lawrence, we had oodles (doesn't that work just...make you feel a little uncomfortable?) of free time that we normally wouldn't have. For example, working with an itinerary based on many prior trips to the same set of islands, we took about two hours to drift half of our last full day's route, while singing and basically napping on the open water, which still got us to our destination around 1:00, with many hours to spare before needing to cook and set up camp in earnest. This allowed for plenty of extra, more advanced paddling practice, like working with rolls, and the unusual opportunity to just explore the islands extensively ("birding").

3. Pacific Loon. According to eBird, the last Pacific Loon to be seen on the eastern half of Lake Ontario was 1991. Now, that's presumably a history full of holes in that region-- there's no way they're that rare on such a body of water-- but, nonetheless, I was excited to see that when I got back. This map summarizes the bird's reported distribution around Lake Ontario, with each purple block representing one or two individuals in this case. I spotted this handsome bird from a ways off, and with binoculars and camera stowed in the hatch, assumed it was a Common. But then it surfaced within 50 feet of our pod of kayaks, and stayed calmly at the surface for a while, allowing good views of its comparatively diminutive bill, and the sharp, vertical separation of its clean gray nape and white throat and face.

This map shows the Pacific Loon's distribution over Lake Ontario, with each purple block, in this case, representing only one or two individuals, from 1991 to 2011.
4. Ruffed Grouse.  We had a lot of time on Gordon Island, our last campsite of the trip.  I used it to bird.  There was a fair amount of activity on this small island, and lots of fallen logs.  Each time I passed one of said logs, a frighteningly frightened grouse (or two) exploded into whirring flight, like I imagine the caterpillar, Heimlich, from A Bugs' Life would fly if he were capable of breaking the sound barrier.  Not as unexpected as the loon by distribution, but far more startling, every time.  The other really cool part about birding several of these contained islands during a small window of fall migration, was seeing how consistent the relative abundances of warbler species was at each locale.  Gordon was actually one of the larger islands, at about 0.4 miles long and less than 0.1 across, and had 73 Yellow-rumped Warbler, 10 Blackpolls, and 5 Pines.  While most Islands were smaller and had somewhat fewer individuals and species, the ratios were similar throughout, which just gave a neat glimpse into exactly what was passing through on that window of dates-- a clean little cross section of migratory space-time!  It seems that if I had as much time on the other islands as I did on Gordon, the data on the other warbler species would be more representative.

Relative Warbler Abundance
5. Eastern Screech-owls.  On Camelot Island, I also had the chance to take a slow loop around the island, and came across a good bunch of birds, including a Northern Parula, some Swainson's Thrushes, several Blue-headed Vireos, and a Pileated Woodpecker (which surprisingly had a presence on all of the small islands we stayed at).  That afternoon, while imitating a screech-owl to check out these massive flocks of mostly yellow-rumped warblers, an owl called back.  So, after finding the tree that it was roosting in, I offered to take some people that evening if they were interested in seeing an owl (which none of them had ever done).  Our entourage left camp after dark and trekked across the island, under the light of a very full moon (and some creepy floating lights flying slowly about a hundred feet above the water...maybe some sort of flying lanterns? No, probably aliens). We finally made it to the spot, and after several minutes of whistling, nothing happened.  We were standing under a low hanging bough of a white pine at a dead end in the trail, about to give up, when something uncharacteristically clumsy came literally crashing through the branches to alight just in front of our waiting eyes, staring at us from barely more than an arm's length.  Someone put a headlamp on it, and it stayed there calmly, and called back.  In awe, we started to realize that there were at least four more owls calling back from all around us, all within fifty feet and coming to check us out.  We backed up the trail to a small clearing and watched as several screech-owls literally came out of the woodwork to see what was going on, and each of them allowed everyone in our group of six or more to get binocular views under the light.  It was really something else, and certainly quite an experience for your first owl.

Gordon Island, after sunset.  A long exposure of waves lapping at the rocks
6. Sunrise Paddle.  On Tuesday morning, we awoke on Gordon Island well before 5:00 and started packing the boats and eating a hasty granola bar breakfast before sliding into the glassy still, moonlit water.  Again thanks to our extremely efficient group, we had a solid chunk of time to just soak in the silence and stillness of this predawn paddle, instead of our normal frantic paddle, trying to get around an island to glimpse the morning colors before the sun peeked out.  But on this cold morning, we just floated through the dark, bows and paddle blades piercing the liquid glass without a sound. And it was perfect.  As we watched the massive moon drop below the trees on the now shrinking Gordon Island, we could turn and see the purple beginnings of the approaching dawn.  

Monday, August 1

Reflections on a Landscape

I’m now at home in southern Michigan, roasting in 80-90˚F heat, and lamenting that I could not still be in the (slightly) cooler Churchill, Manitoba. Compared to the spindly spruces and ground-hugging shrubs of Churchill, the towering, green foliage of temperate broadleaf forests in the south is almost claustrophobic and oppressive. Every time I look out the window, the immense amount of green refracted through the glass makes me think I’m looking at the calm before a severe storm, but I always catch an obstructed glimpse of clear blue skies and a sweltering sun, and am left to reminisce about the openness I have become accustomed to over the last months.
The subarctic North is incomparable country. The land is flat to the horizon, and seemingly barren. The skies are vast and dynamic, with afternoon storms building under the soft light of prolonged twilight. The wildlife is keen and curious. Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears both come close to investigate a passerby (hopefully from the safety of a vehicle for the latter), and outlandishly large Arctic Hares feed calmly at an arm’s length, plucking the buds off Dryas flowers with outstretched lips and munching sublimely, but always watching with panoramic eyes; ptarmigan coolly (and rather stupidly) patrol the tundra nearby, with a slow gait and humorous clucking, and only seem alarmed when herding a new clutch of chicks.

Willow Ptarmigan
The plants are very different from those of the south as well. There are patches of dense and lush boreal forest, carpeted with a generous layer of soft lichens and mosses, creeping all the way up the craggy trunks of the predominant White Spruce, over an understory of Ledum groenlandicum and decumbens, Labrador Teas with strong, fresh scents. Then there are the sedge bogs and fens, where as you tread across a spongy substrate of moss and peat laid over permafrost, you can kneel to find more than half a dozen species of sedge in one square yard, among a plethora of other berries, wildflowers and insects. The composition and distribution of these plant communities, then, is foreign to a southerner, but even watching these plants blow in the wind gives one the impression of a remote and austere land. Instead of the therapeutic swaying of branches and rustling of leaves, the dwarf shrubs and short wildflowers twitch in these winds, yielding no such sign of warmth. Staring at the windswept tundra and the twitching of hardened plants, you feel as if you are watching a time lapse, as if all is passing in fast forward—maybe a fitting impression for the abbreviated passage of the fleeting arctic summer.
So much vibrant life is densely spread over the course of a few short summer months. The birds arrived en masse throughout May—huge flocks of snow geese filled the cold skies and shorebirds passed through the bogs and mudflats along the Churchill River, all in a frenzy to reach their breeding grounds. Throughout June, the fen was alive with the outlandish songs of shorebirds establishing territories, as nests were built and eggs were laid. With rising temperatures, plants and insects alike bloomed, and the multitude of eggs hatched in accordance, so as to take full advantage of the plethora. Likewise, the predators rose to face a similar plethora of young, flightless birds on gangly, weak legs.

Red Fox kits

Some birds survived their first month, however, and then it was time they left for the southern hemisphere. Come the end of July, the fen had cleared so thoroughly it was eerie. The sounds of so many birds we had grown accustomed to were already silenced; the birds which had arrived later than breeders in the south had also left sooner than those of more temperate climes. Many of them are now well on their way south to the wintering grounds, some (like the Godwits) travelling to the southernmost outposts of the western hemisphere, in Tierra del Fuego. There is no rest for these birds it seems; they are carried across the globe by the play of seasons, by the Earth’s orbit, as naturally and thoughtlessly as...wait for it...dust in the wind.

Sunday, July 31

A Moving Image

Spending more than a decade devoted to watching birds can change a person (well, let’s be honest—all it takes is one quick glimpse). Anyways, I picked up photography simply because I wanted to document the birds I was seeing, and in recent years, it has become quite a passion. Reading Harry Potter can also change a person, however, and this is when I realized pictures could move! I was amazed that the wizarding world had found a way to make this possible. It’s not all that surprising, in retrospect…they’ve managed cooler things. But when I realized muggles had found out about this, and called it “video,” it rocked my world. I now have a DSLR that can capture HD video, and have just begun experimenting with it in earnest.
I’m starting to see that video is like photography, except better in so many ways. It’s also a lot harder to do. You can’t just snap off a bunch of pictures and pick the sharp one later, and crop it to your liking. You have to have the bird’s movements in mind, ideally, even before the bird does. And every minute move you make behind the lens is recorded in your extended composition—the shuffling around of the focus as the bird moves, the panning of the lens, your fingers scuffing about the mic, the tiniest swish of clothes, and your breath breathing. So, with this in mind, I am hoping to gradually acquaint myself with the finer points of this closely related but significantly different technique. And in the meantime, my videos will comprise short clips with poorly controlled audio interspersed with the humbler, kinder medium of days past: photographs1.
Below is my most recent project, a collage of footage and photos recounting a transition into an unfamiliar summer– a subarctic summer. A summer whose sun never rests for more than a few hours, whose June is still flecked with deep drifts of snow, whose July is clouded with thick masses of mosquitoes, and whose every change is closely paralleled by its wild residents. As the snow melts, revealing vast areas of muddy bogs and leaving open water, Snow Geese pass by the thousands, making whirlwind stops to fuel their northward journey to the high arctic; as the brown and green tones of the tundra are slowly unveiled, Willow Ptarmigans follow suit, molting their snow white feathers in favor of a mottled brown, and stand out awkwardly as their patchy transition trails behind the seamless recession of snow. As temperatures rise and migrant passerines and shorebirds arrive on their breeding grounds, they begin to court and build nests, so as to hatch chicks in accordance with the peak in insect abundance. While the birds are pouring their existence into rearing young, predators take advantage of the propensity of eggs; Parasitic Jaegers descend on incubating birds and fiercely defend future meals from other would-be predators, like Herring Gulls; Red and Arctic Foxes prowl the bogs and tundra, sniffing out meals for their kits. This is the scene that I wanted to capture, on a new level that I have not yet explored, and here is the result:

(HD viewing may only be available by clicking the "youtube" icon in the lower right)

1 Disclaimer– I still, of course, have the utmost respect for photographs and their unique ability to convey a message or an emotion via a still image– they will never be obselete.

Sunday, July 3

King of the Arctic

My heart was pounding and I was frantically (and visibly) shaking with excitement. I simply could not believe what I was seeing– it was so surreal that even now, three days later, I still can’t wrap my head around it. But let’s back up a bit. Let’s imagine I was having an incredible day birding (and this really is conjecture, because I wasn’t). Maybe I was driving down Goose Creek Road, a hotspot in Churchill, and I was lucky enough to see a Red Phalarope, Little Gulls, maybe a flyover Pomarine Jaeger, and then an American Three-toed Woodpecker flew across the road in front of me. Then maybe I made a stop at Cape Merry, an overlook at the Churchill River mouth, and picked out a Black-legged Kittiwake, and– we’ll just go crazy here (why not?)– a Northern Wheatear frolicking on the coastal bluffs. At this point, on my way back along Launch Road to the Studies Centre, I would happily joke that, given my luck, there should be a Gyrfalcon sitting by the side of the road– ideally perched on that lichen-covered rock right there. And then I might be so crazy as to imagine this bird being cooperative for photos, and sitting there on the lichen-covered rock on the Hudson Bay, just minding its own, hard-core Gyr business while I watched to my heart’s content. And then– no, never mind, I wouldn’t even dare to torture myself with imagining it was a white morph.

And this is the point (after another utterly failed attempt to photograph Pacific Loons) where my heart nearly stopped. In fact, had I eaten a Big Mac that day and clogged up my arteries just a bit more, I’m convinced I would have immediately died of cardiac arrest. Because as I glanced over my left shoulder to take yet another casual gaze at the beautiful, hazy blue Hudson Bay, I happened to notice a large, white falcon, sitting aloof on a lichen-covered rock, in a bed of coastal wildflowers, not twenty feet from the road!

I slammed on the brakes (gently, of course) and frantically cranked the window down. I clumsily stuck my lens out the window to grab a quick record, hoping it would stay put for another split second. Then I took another picture, and another. Then I took the time to adjust my awkward, twisted position behind the wheel, and was amazed to see the falcon still watching me, unamused. I slowly got out of the opposite side of the car, crept around to the back, and gradually made my way across the road, settling on my own lichen-covered rock, leaving just enough room in the frame to allow a flight shot, should it suddenly take flight.

In the meantime, my friend Madi had biked up to the falcon as well, and was watching from just a bit down the road. A few cars had slowly driven by, and a few stopped to watch for a few minutes. Despite all of this, the magnificent, white Gyr held his ground, absolutely unfazed. He was unstoppable, he knew it, and it showed. He sat, lifting his talons to clean the large weapons with his bill, watching flies and mosquitoes pass by, and occasionally sizing up one of the eight, young Bald Eagles circling overhead, or maybe one of the heavy Eiders zipping past. To behold this king of the far north, basking in its slot on the top of the food chain, was a rare and humbling experience.

Saturday, June 25

Subarctic Secrets

For nine weeks this summer, I am lucky to have the amazing opportunity to return to work in Churchill, Manitoba, on the western shores of the Hudson Bay. Churchill is situated at the convergence of multiple biomes, with the boreal forest to the south, the low arctic tundra to the north, and Hudson Bay’s inland coastline to the north and east. This subarctic transition zone is characterized by vast, flat swathes of dry, lichen-encrusted tundra, sedge bogs pockmarked with round, shallow ponds, and seemingly endless boreal forest. At about 58 degrees North, the region represents some of the southern-most habitat of its kind, making it an ideal place for arctic research. Our team is here for the same project as last summer: studying breeding and migratory ecology of Hudsonian Godwits for Cornell Ph.D. student, Nathan Senner’s project.

Countless birds come here to rear young and every fiber in their body, every codon in their genome, is devoted entirely to fledging their young. Their nests are their best-kept secrets, and in order to obtain any information, we need to uncover them. This will be the last of five field seasons with the Churchill population, so our main priority is recapturing birds from previous seasons that have been carrying data loggers.

Female Godwit, well-hidden while incubating.

These are tiny light sensors attached to plastic flags on the birds’ legs, which, after being calibrated, deployed on a bird, and recaptured a year later, can tell us that bird's latitude and longitude at any given time, based on the times of sunrise and sunset recorded by the device. From this, we have been able to map the birds’ astounding (and previously unknown) migrations, which take them from the subarctic to Tierra del Fuego (the southern tip of South America) and the Chilean coast in a matter of days. These birds often fly up to 6,000 miles in a single, non-stop flight, sometimes tripling their body weight before setting off for their distant destinations. The recapturing of birds on the breeding grounds to retrieve this data, however, is where things get dicey (see a post from last year for more detail:

Retrieved data logger!

Male Hudsonain Godwit, carrying a data logger.

So far this season, we’ve seen devastatingly high depredation rates in our godwit nests, and are now down to 3 active nests, of 14 originally found, including re-nests of some pairs. One of the concerns is that the delayed snow melt this season, coupled with high water levels in the fen, resulted in godwits choosing the highest (and consequently most exposed) mounds on which to nest. All but a very few of the nests this year have been placed in grass clumps at the tops of high mounds, instead of under the short, tangled branches of a Dwarf Birch on the lower mounds (which was the case for nearly 100% of the nests last year). From above, these nests are much easier to spot, and the birds subsequently have to deal with a broader range of predators. In addition to foxes and sharp-eyed Northern Harriers, the godwits are jumping off their nests to mob Jaegers and Ravens, revealing their eggs to these predators as well. Last year, it was rare to see a godwit leave its nest for anything other than a low-flying, eyes-prying Harrier.

Aside from the near-constant nest-searching, we’ve continued to spend time finding Whimbrel nests and banding and flagging them, as part of the Arctic Shorebird Demography Network’s intensive, pan-nearctic shorebird survey. One of the most amazing things about spending sixty some days in the field in Churchill is having the opportunity to intimately observe the breeding biology of dozens of northern species, many of which are only transient visitors any further south. On Sundays (our day off), I’ve been getting up at 3:00AM to catch the subarctic sunrise at the fen, aiming to capture video of many of the breeders at their nests (details and footage to come soon). These early mornings are truly incomparable. The sun rises very gradually, taking several minutes to fully clear the horizon as it follows a long and low trajectory to finally set just before 11:00. Before leaving to film in the fen one Sunday morning, I watched as this tempered dawn bled across the sky towards the full moon, still sitting against a cobalt twilight in the west, and felt a bit estranged from the familiar confines of a passing day.

Arctic Tern

American Golden-plover

And now, as the days wear on without new nests, and the many wet socks corrode any surface on which they momentarily reside, Sunday couldn’t come sooner. But the longing certainly isn’t for a want of excitement, as we had our fair share yesterday afternoon. The first polar bear this season meandered down Twin Lakes Road, which neatly bisects the fen where we work most days, from north to south. As we approached the road at the end of a long morning, minds numbed from endless nest-searching and eyes drooping, mesmerized by boots sloshing through bog, Hannah looked up to see a bulky mass of white fur lumbering towards the car.

We were split into two pairs, and another team of three (working with Dunlin) was to our south when Hannah radioed to alert us of the bear’s presence. We all began to regroup and make our way south towards our car, but so did the bear, continuing along the road. Just as most of us were nearing the second vehicle, however, another truck started down the road, unaware of the bear, which had just laid down in the willows on the shoulder. The bear was then spooked onto the road, and began running towards our car, and so began the foot race. Soon, five of us were at the car, with the bear still hurrying towards us, while Hope and Hannah were still a few hundred meters out on the fen, paralleling the bear as they quickly moved south towards the vehicle. But the bear wasn’t slowing, and once it got fairly close, Hannah and I, from the south and east, respectively, both fired cracker shells to send the bear in a safe direction. Unnervingly, the bear paid no heed to the loud bangs that detonated nearby, and continued trotting in our direction, along the road. I chambered a lead slug and fired a warning shot to the upper left of the bear, which was far louder than the previous cracker shells, and thankfully sent the bear on its way to the west.

We all regrouped safely, with hearts pounding for the next several minutes. It was certainly one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and in retrospect, a very good experience to have. After spending nearly three months here now, both this summer and last, we never had any sort of dicey encounter away from our vehicles, and while you know that a bear could show up at any time, in any place, its hard to stay truly vigilant all the time; yesterday certainly served as a very real wake-up call. The situation was one I’ve played over in my head countless times while working in Churchill, but I feel much more prepared in the field now, having actually seen such a situation pan out. And in retrospect, it was comforting to see that this bear, like most, was not in the least bit interested in us, but was simply spooked by a passing vehicle, making for an unpredictable situation. All is well, and we’ll be sure to keep things that way in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, March 29

Ecuadorian Endeavors

School work was now some two thousand miles away, and only fading further into last week. That is, except for the 32 lb chemistry text shoved safely under the seat in front of me, burdening me with guilt as our Boeing 777 approached the continent of my dreams. The thought of the looming exam prompted me to heave the book onto my lap and open it, but I lacked the impetus to read it, and so fell asleep there, watching the late afternoon sun reflect off the distant, rippling Gulf of Mexico, some 36,000 feet below, reminiscent of a beluga whale’s skin to my fatigue-enriched imagination.

I awoke with a start, the sun now much lower in the west, and a long strip of land now visible in front of the wing. But as we passed a patch of clouds, I could see another body of water beyond the approaching land. This must be the Panamanian Isthmus, I thought, and sure enough, I could just make out the thin, wandering line of the Panama Canal, and if I pressed my cheek against the seat in front of me and looked back over the wing, I could still see the Gulf of Mexico! With the realization that I was seeing the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in the same moment, I no longer felt so tired– now I could finish my chemistry readings. Ha. Yeah, that happened.

Harold Eyster and I deplaned in Quito and got a ride to the Hotel Sebastian, where we would meet our guide and group early the next morning to head to Yanacocha. The two of us were fortunate enough to win a free Andes Introtour with Tropical Birding at the Biggest Week in American Birding last spring, and we could hardly believe we were actually, finally, setting foot on the Bird Continent. We met for a 5:00 breakfast of fruit and granola, and eventually left with our guide Andrés Vasquez and driver Nico for Yanacocha Reserve, maintained by Fundación Jocotoco and located an hour’s drive from Quito on the slope of Volcan Pichincha. At more than 11,000 feet, this would be our highest point of the trip and we would encounter a unique suite of species.

Our group of nine eagerly watched out the windows as the bus crept up the rutted, gravel road to the Reserve, with thick fog making for dramatic, albeit limited, views of the beautiful polylepis forest blanketing the steep slopes. The bus windows were open, with light rain and cool temperatures invading our sleepy bus, arousing our senses; we got tantalizing glimpses of Great Thrushes flying across the road and unknown call notes beckoned from the brush. Andres stopped the driver and listened intently out his window. We all filed out the side door at his signal and gathered around for a glimpse of a skulking Stripe-headed Brush-finch, which gave me my first taste of the difficulty of birding the tropics. You have to take in lifers in little bite sized chunks: a flash of a white throat, then a glimpse of a dark, striped crown, then a flash of dark olive wings. Now we were finally, truly birding Ecuador!

Yanacocha was simply incredible. We worked our way by foot up the road to the feeding station, drinking in the marvelous scenery. It was a habitat that I have dreamed of seeing for years. We looked down on a valley of polylepis forest, the trees shrouded in fog and laden with bromeliads. Up to our left was a steep, barren slope up to the rocky ridges that enclosed the valley.

Scarlet-bellied and Hooded Mountain-tanagers passed by in small groups, and we eventually were able to observe them feeding at a distance. Perched conspicuously were Smoky and Streak-throated Bush-tyrants and an adorable Brown-backed Chat-tyrant. Three Andean Guans sat up in the top of a tree down in the valley, and were framed by the energetic wanderings of a foraging Blue-and-Black Tanager, his electric blue plumage cutting through the fog even at a distance. We got excellent looks at both Tawny and Rufous Antpittas, and the haunting tremolos of Undulated Antpittas, reminiscent of an Eastern Screech-owl, accompanied us along the way. Tyrian Metaltails and Buff-winged Starfrontlets (large hummingbirds with striking, buff-colored greater coverts) were numerous, and we eventually came across a clearing below us that was hopping with birds. We saw spectacular Blue-backed Conebills, Rufous Wrens, Masked Flowerpiercers, and Spectacled Whitestarts, and Barred Fruiteaters called from the slope above us.

Buff-winged Starfrontlet

Rufous Wren

Masked Flowerpiercer

At the feeders, we flushed out our hummingbird list for the day. Along with Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers, the feeders were covered with Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Tyrian Metaltails, spectacular Great Sapphirewings, a Mountain Velvetbreast, and more Buff-winged Starfrontlets. Of course, one of the highlights here was the Sword-billed hummingbird, which aggressively wielded its 5 inch bill. The low hum of a sparring Sword-billed Hummingbird’s wings made for a convincing reenactment of a light saber duel.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Sapphire-vented Puffleg

Golden-breasted Puffleg

On the way back to the bus, we studied White-banded and White-throated Tyrannulets and enjoyed a pair of surprisingly large Streaked Tufted-cheeks and Cinereous Conebills. A highlight at Yanacocha was certainly the very cooperative female Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, a high elevation specialty I was hoping to encounter.

Rainbow-bearded Thornbill

After a picnic lunch, we made our way into the Tandayapa Valley via the Old Nono-Mindo Road, passing through idyllic cloud forest and picking up a few new species along the way. One stop yielded our first Toucan Barbets, brilliantly adorning a tall secropia with unfathomable color, Blue-winged Mountain-tanagers, Golden-naped Tanagers, and a Golden-crowned Flycatcher. But there was still the unremitting song of a Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush, hidden remarkably (rather, painfully) well, not 15 feet away, and down a steep slope off the side of the road. With some concerted effort, I finally managed to align the sparse gaps in the dense vegetation to get a glimpse of this gorgeous songster. As it sang, the fairly drab bird revealed a stunning orange mouth lining, seeming as though its syrinx was literally igniting with song.

Toucan Barbet

After braving several treacherous landslides that choked the road to just a foot wider than the bus, leaving an ominous drop on the right as we climbed, we finally arrived at the fabled Tandayapa Bird Lodge. We all made our way up the winding stairs from the parking lot below, and settled in. The feeders on the deck were inundated with brilliant hummingbirds of unimaginable diversity, as they always are, rain or shine, morning or afternoon. The most abundant were the tiny but spectacular Booted Racket-tails and the larger, more aggressive Buff-tailed Coronets, which habitually hold their wings spread after alighting. Others included the amazing Violet-tailed Sylphs, Purple-bibbed Whitetips, Andean and Western Emeralds, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, Green and Brown Violetears, and more. After a long day and a relaxing period of feeder watching, we headed to sleep for another early morning the next day. We were all looking forward to a day birding the trails around the Lodge and the Lower Tandayapa Valley.

Booted Racket-tail

Buff-tailed Coronets

Monday, January 17

Touring Puget Sound

Harlequin Duck

Thirty-eight days of winter break. Nine hundred and twelve hours of free time. What to do? Some of my most memorable hours this break were spent two thousand miles away, in and around the Puget Sound. Allow me to expound. The Puget Sound is a glacially carved system of fjords, with a shoreline totaling over 1,300 miles, from Deception Pass in the north to Olympia in the south. It is married to the Pacific by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to the strait by Admiralty Inlet and Deception Pass. Fed by glacial runoff from The Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east, the Sound drinks an average of 41,000 cubic feet of water per second, and spits out 2% of that water through the narrow Deception Pass at up to ten knots during peak tidal flow. But enough of the numbers–the region's beauty and intricacy is scarcely reflected by such trivialities.

Port Madison

After ferrying to Bainbridge Island from Seattle, and settling in at my grandparents' house at Port Madison, I managed to get a little birding in before the sun retired. Down at the water, there were Barrow's goldeneye, among their more familiar brethren, along with dozens of American wigeon, mew and glaucous-winged gulls. There was the smell of saltwater, the sound of gulls, wheeling above in full soar, and the sight of lazily nodding boats, lined unevenly and crowded along a weather beaten wharf, the reflections of tall, white masts breaking the tranquility of the evergreen water. Big, dark, Pacific song sparrows "chucked" from the brush along the beach, passed by a flock of six, drab bushtits. Spotted towhees, Steller's jays, and chestnut-backed chickadees combed the neighborhood. I passed a neatly mowed lawn with about a dozen kinglets of both species and a Townsend's warbler foraging in it, allowing me to approach within a few feet.

Spotted Towhee

Glaucous-winged Gull eating a Pisaster starfish

Over dinner that night, I received some invaluable suggestions for the coming days from Neil Johannsen, former directer of Alaska Parks, and his wife Hilary Hilscher, who is working on the Great Washington State Birding Trail with the Washington Audubon. Armed with an array of hotspots to visit, we set out early the next morning on a ferry from Kingston to Edmonds, back toward the mainland. We would head north towards the Skagit Valley, a delta of the Skagit River that hosts many thousands of migrating waterfowl.

An overview of our route

We explored the lower Skagit Valley, driving long roads skirted by expansive, muddy fields–fields that would, in a few months, hold the millions of tulips that make the Skagit famous. But today, as winter reigned, however balmy, a low-hanging carpet of dark clouds stretched seamlessly across the barren mud to the horizon, where only the feet of distant, blue mountains were visible. Expansive land bound sharply by steeply rising peaks, all shrouded in dynamic, ominous skies defined the Skagit during much of our brief stay. The nearly constant overcast skies held a powerful beauty in their own right, but also made the sun's numbered appearances quite dramatic.

That afternoon and evening were spent at two locations north of where we would be staying in the little town of La Conner. First, we walked into a muddy field which was part of the Samish Unit. Here, as the afternoon wore on, we watched the skies fill with ten short-eared owls, at least as many northern harriers, three bald eagles, and a rough-legged hawk. The owls were amazing to watch, with their elegant, bouncing flight, their long, squared heads craning side to side in search of unfortunate rodents. The harriers and owls mingled freely on this afternoon, seemingly unaware of their vast genetic differences and ecological responsibilities to compete for a niche. Perhaps there was simply too much prey in this field to prompt a feud, or perhaps their particular cuisine preferences were conveniently misaligned. The rough-legged hawk that thought it wise to watch from a distant perch, however, did not seem to be benefitting from the others' peaceable arrangement; he was repeatedly dive-bombed by a pair of both the owls and the harriers. This was surprising, as the harriers and owls feed in a much more similar fashion to one another than either does to the hawk, and subsequently, should be more concerned with one another's presence and competition, and I can't imagine the lazy buteo posing any other sort of threat to the others. But of course, it's the wonder of unpredictability that keeps it all interesting.

Short-eared Owl

We retraced our path south as the light started to fade, hoping to scope the Padilla Bay for waterfowl before sunset. We stopped briefly at Bayview State Park, where a group of some 3,500 wigeon finally included my lifer Eurasian! There were surely more, but distance, wind, and a broken tripod head sapped my will to sift through them further. Another mile or so down the road, we pulled off at the Padilla Bay Trail. Here, the still, darkening water was crawling with waterfowl. I gradually scanned from left to right. There were thousands upon thousands of pintails at first, interspersed with mallards and wigeon. About halfway through the wide arc across the bay, the flock composition shifted toward wigeon, and soon, their green and white heads and brown flanks blended together into a continuous mass, stretching back to the top of my scope field in dense blankets of feather. I counted around 55,000 ducks in the bay before the light was too meager to distinguish one from one hundred.

We spent the night in the quaint Hotel Planter, built in 1907– that's old wood. It stayed up for the short while we were under the roof (and still stands, to my knowledge). We headed out early the next morning, and stopped for breakfast (a belgian waffle with half a cubic foot of strawberries and whipped cream, of course) before re-reouting down Fidalgo Island toward Deception Pass. We were planning to revisit Padilla Bay, but it was still dark and raining at that time, so another while in the car was appreciated by all.

Deception Pass

We arrived at Deception Pass at slack tide, so there weren't any whitewater riptides. But there were 111 red-throated loons, which made up for the lack of 10-knot currents. We continued down Whidbey Island toward Coupeville, Ebey's Landing, Fort Casey, and eventually the ferry that would take us across Admiralty Inlet to Port Townsend, at the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula.

Penn Cove, viewed from Coupeville

We made a stop at Ebey's Landing to take in the view, across Admiralty Inlet to the Olympic Mountains and out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the northwest. As I scanned the surf, picking out the three scoter species, a common loon, red-necked and horned grebes, and "Olympic" gulls, fascinating concoctions of genes from various large gull species in the area, the omnipresent clouds parted, opening a glorious window to the Cascade Mountains in the west.

While waiting for the ferry in Keystone, I went over to the guardrail to scope Crockett Lake, where I found a good variety of waterfowl and a nice northern shrike sitting atop a low bush along the water's edge. After we boarded the ferry and waited for our departure, I was able to watch a female Harlequin duck from the bow, and a kingfisher perched on one of the pylons right outside our window; a nice view of a usually skittish bird. Along the way, common murres swam leisurely out of the boat's path, heads held high, and from the bow, leaning into a strong headwind and having my hair permanently Elvissed by the gale force, I watched as streams of tiny black and white footballs of feather whirred by on pointed wings– at least 160 marbled murrelets. And again, we were blessed with spectacular views of the Cascades en route to Port Townsend.

At Port Townsend, home of the Wooden Boat Festival, and rightly inundated with beautiful sailboats, I had some time before a fantastic salmon sandwich lunch to photograph Harlequin Ducks and Mew Gulls on Hudson Point.

After lunch, we took a quick jaunt north, through the retired army base at Fort Worden, and into the Fort Worden State Park, at Point Wilson. Here, the windswept beach grass, craggy, storm-beaten spruces, and the dark blue line of coast which imposed a horizon on the gray monochrome of sea and sky, comprised the perfect, austere environment for a lighthouse. And there it was, watching over the very mouth of the Sound.