Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 2

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
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.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 1

Monday, October 29, 2007

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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.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More Peru Story

Friday, October 26, 2007
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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Half-cloud Sky

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Adventure on Rapa Nui

Saturday, October 20, 2007

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.