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December 30: Tierra del Fuego National Park and boarding the Polar Star
A 5:45am wake-up call seemed fairly civilized compared to the early mornings of the last few days. This day marked the official launch of the tour so there was much to be done. Before we all enjoyed a full continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant, various staff members handed out luggage tags and name badges to the 95 participants. There was great anticipation as we packed up bags and loaded onto buses because we would soon be headed for the beautiful beech forests and white-capped mountain vistas of Tierra del Fuego National Park. Located only 20 minutes west of Ushuaia, this park attracts thousands of visitors each year. Despite comparatively heavy use, it remains a largely pristine environment to explore.
Birding started as soon as we entered the park with Patagonian Sierra-Finches near the entrance and Black-chinned Siskins alighting in the treetops. Our first scheduled stop in was in the shrub-covered valley rimmed by towering peaks and ridgelines. A scan of the sky produced several Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles that were being harassed by Chimango Caracaras. They gradually flew closer and closer until they were a mere 35 feet overhead and displaying beautifully for us. Never before had we been treated to such fine views of this large raptor. Scanning the mountain tops, we found an Andean Condor. Though the distance prevented us from seeing it well using binoculars, the Kowa scope once again delivered views that all could appreciate. The dense clouds and rain of the previous day were a memory as we were bathed by the warmth of the sun. As the vegetation warmed countless small, non-threatening insects hatched and began flying about and we were able to shed a layer of clothing.
Farther along, we were surprised by a female Magellanic Woodpecker that was feeding on trees no more than 15 feet from the bus windows. All marveled at her amazing crest, which flailed in the air as she hammered into tree after tree in search of grubs. Since this was our target bird for the morning, the leaders felt secure that everyone would be happy regardless of what happened the rest of the day. However, our good fortune did not end here. As we moved along, diminutive Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, White-crested Elaenias, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, and Austral Negritos all presented themselves. A distant lake delivered a Flightless Steamer-Duck to inquisitive eyes. A pair of regal Black-faced Ibis flew in for us to enjoy while Rock Shags swam between rocky islets. This was wonderful, but the true highlight of the day still lay ahead.
After our sack lunch, we were joined by a flock of extremely cooperative Austral Parakeets that perched on the exposed branches of a dead tree. I had never seen them so well. It was a treat to view their green and maroon plumage lit up by the afternoon light. Afterwards, to our amazement, we spotted yet another Magellanic Woodpecker--this time a beautiful red-headed male. We were incredulous as it flew towards the group and landed not 20 feet away. Prolonged and satisfying views brought beaming smiles all around.
Just as we were thinking we couldn't get much luckier, a female showed up and joined the male. We were left with nothing but spoken and unspoken superlatives as the two magnificent woodpeckers tore away bark and hammered holes into trees looking for unseen larvae. The half-hour study we enjoyed was the best I've had over my many trips to this National Park.
As we made our way back through the park, we stopped for wildflowers, which included three different species of orchids and an endemic lady slipper. On our return trip to Ushuaia, we stopped at the local dump for our annual reunion with White-throated Caracaras, a rare species that can be found easily at this location. Although aesthetically unpleasant, we endured our surroundings knowing that this bird would not be seen beyond this day of the tour. It was good to see this species alongside the more expected Chimango and Southern caracaras. We were often able to see all three species in a single scope view.
Once back in Ushuaia, we had a scant 25 minutes for last-minute shopping, postcard writing, and e-mail downloads before our long-awaited boarding of the "Polar Star." The beginning of our pelagic expedition was at hand!
The Polar Star, our home for the next 26 days, was dwarfed by the larger ships in the harbor, but towered over them in its capacity to take intrepid travelers to remote locations in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. Upon boarding the boat we settled into our cabins and then enjoyed a warm welcoming reception as the crew and staff introduced themselves. Within an hour we were pulling away from the dock to begin our epic adventure. After the first of many fine meals was served, we adjourned to the bow of the ship to watch various wildlife illuminated by the evening light across the Beagle Channel. The first Magellanic Penguins of the trip fed alongside flocks of Black-browed Albatrosses and Imperial Shags. Several diminutive Magellanic Diving-Petrels winged low over the water--the final bird I wanted to see before retiring for the evening.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
I was thrilled when I was asked once again to join the Cheesmans' Ecology Safaris staff on another epic Falkland Island--South Georgia--Antarctic expedition and I jumped at the opportunity. The start date came remarkably quickly and today I began a 37-hour travel day from my home in Battle Ground, Washington to Portland International Airport, then to Dallas/Fort Worth where I waited several more hours before a 10-hour flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
After a somewhat stressful discussion with a ticket counter attendant at Aerolineas Argentinas on why my carry on bag, which held cameras, a spotting scope, binoculars, and other high dollar items, should not be checked in and should stay with me, the battle was finally won and I managed to fight my way to the gate with some 30 other participants and staff. The expected four-hour flight to Ushuaia turned into a six-plus hour saga with two stops fro gas and an exhcange of crew. The mountains of Ushuaia never looked better and the touchdown was sweet! Dinner with Rod and Marlene Planck ended the day. Sleep should have come easily, but adrenaline was rushing through my body.
Today started with breakfast in the Hotel Albatros and meeting more of the 95 participants. We soon departed in a small minibus with nine others for a trip into the Beech Forest some 20 miles east of Ushuaia along the Beagle Channel. Intermittent rain and thick clouds prevented views of the glorious snow-capped mountains of the area, but didn't stop us from finding two ANDEAN CONDORS (Flight of the Condor fame) on ledges carved into a sheer cliff face. They were very impressive as they flew lazy circles in front of the cliff and then landed and strolled between vegetation-encrusted rocks. Enjoyable viewing was had through 60X Kowa optics.
Other species we encountered included Black-faced Ibis, very common Chimago and Southern Crested caracaras, and Austral Thrush. The latter's melodius call wafted through the forest as we enjoyed other birds such as Patagonian Sierra-Finch, Thorn-billed Rayaditos, and White-throated Treerunners. Rains sent us further along to the edge of the Beagle Channel where a flock of four Magellanic Oystercatchers grabbed the attention of the photographers in the group.
Our journey ended at a small museum that featured an excellent display of marine mammals. The exhibit included full skeletons, miscellaneous bones, and a guided tour that brought it all together. It was great to be presented with this information before our time at sea as many of these mammals were species that would later see. Most striking was the visible difference between the skeletal structure of a true seal and that of a sea lion. We learned about the differences in weight of the bones of a beaked whale versus those of a baleen whale and we also saw how whale bones are cleaned. Lastly we got to see a fresh specimen of Commerson's Dolphin that had just been delivered after it stranded itself north of the museum.
As we headed back to Ushuaia, gaudy Long-tailed Meadowlarks and Austral Negritos vie for our attention amid thoughts of what the next day might hold and recollections of this day's highlights. After a hearty dinner of lamb, chicken, and mixed rice and vegetables, I took a walk along the Ushuaia waterfront with two of our intrepid group. Compared with opportunities to eat, chances for exercise over the preveious few days had been few and far between. Red Shovelers and a Flighless Steamer-Duck were the most interesting birds around the lake close to the hotel. The reflections of this city of 60,000 upon the waters of the Beagle Channel were memorable and rainbow over one of the mountains was a just conclusion to our first full day.
All photos by Jim Danzenbaker
Over the next month, BirdFellow.com will proudly feature journal entries from Jim Danzenbaker as he travels to and tours Antarctica and other South American sites with Cheesmans' Ecology Safaris (www.cheesemans.com). Jim has served as a seabird expert on these tours for more than a decade. Raised in New Jersey, Jim has been birding for nearly four decades. He is a highly-respected international tour leader and an expert seabirder who has been leading pelagic birding trips along the west coast of North America for many years. More recently (2007), Jim joined Kowa Optimed as a sales manager for their outdoor sporting optics line in North and South American markets.
Between now and the 25th of January Jim will provide us with regular posts recounting the unique experiences that can be had on a trip to this most remote and desolate continent. We look forward to publishing great stories, wonderful pictures, and sharing this rare adventure with Jim as our guide.
A few days past the one year anniversary of this journal (first post on 19 December 2008) it is uplifting to look back at how far we've come. This is the 81st post and we've run pieces by eight different authors. We've published writings, commentary, and photo essays on a variety of birding topics in an effort to offer something that appeals to every visitor to our site.
We realize that discussions of sapsucker ID and "runtism" in bird populations may not capture the attentions of those who are comparatively new to birding or those who are simply trying to figure out what species are coming to their backyard feeder. We also recognize that if you open the broadest umbrella over the birding community, most standing under it don't keep lists, cannot tell you where on a bird a tertial or a culmen might be found, and they don't own expensive binoculars or a spotting scope.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this site has attracted attention from some of the leading lights within the birding community. Authors of field guides, professional ornithologists, guides for bird tour companies, and others who make their livelihood from bird-related activities have dropped in to see what BirdFellow is all about. Thus far, the feedback from both camps has been quite positive.
A big part of what we've done and will do in the future is focused on building connections between those who know and those who want to know more. We hope to promote birding as recreation, as a hobby that brings a lifetime of enjoyment, and most importantly as a means to connect people with the natural world. Birds tell us much about the health of the environment. If we can get those around us to notice and take an interest in birds, preserving the environment that sustains us all becomes a less daunting task.
It has been really fun to explore who is coming to our site. By using Google's analytic software we are able to measure our daily traffic and where it comes from. Despite very little advertising, more than 11,000 unique visitors have made more than 27,000 individual visits to our site over the past year. Further, we know that some of our most loyal visitors reside in Chagrin Falls, Ohio (248 visits) and Moses Lake, Washington (243 visits).
Conversely, we've had just one visit from Tulelake, California, which along with Collinsville, Illinois claims to be the "Horseradish Capital of the World." I visit Tulelake every March as part of a birding trip I lead for a local community college. If you like white geese, a visit to Tule Lake NWR and nearby Lower Klamath NWR are a must. If you need some top quality Tulelake horseradish, "Jocks" grocery store in town is the place to go. Guess I'll have to leave some BirdFellow business cards at the checkout counter next March.
Barrow, Alaska has produced two visits over the past year. This person(s) represents our northernmost fan. Similarly, tiny Bainbridge, Indiana (pop. 743), which lies about 20 miles west of Indianapolis, has generated but two visits.
I know about Bainbridge for a couple of reasons. While living in neighboring Danville, Indiana from 1991-1994 I regularly birded Heritage Lake, which is just a few miles from Bainbridge. Every few years the lake is drawn down so lakeside residents can dredge out around their boat docks. During one such year I enjoyed a shore-birding bonanza that included a locally rare Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
Bainbridge is also the hometown of Larry Steele, who was a member of the Portland Trailblazers 1977 NBA Championship team. I graduated from Cleveland High School in southeast Portland that year. On the day the Blazers won the championship David Fix and I were birding in the foothills just west of Portland all the while listening to Game Six on the radio of my parents' 1969 Rambler. I vividly remember jumping up and down screaming our heads off by the side of a dusty road as the home team salted away the only major professional championship for an Oregon based team, but I can't remember any of the birds we saw that day (I'm sure Fix can).
Sadly, we haven't had any recent visits from Brookfield, Wisconsin. Longtime local birder Harlow Bielefeldt passed away on 18 September 2009 at the age of 77. I had the good fortune of meeting Harlow when he was in Eugene, Oregon to visit his son. I got to know Harlow through Diane Pettey who had met and befriended him during previous visits. In the earliest days of this journal, Harlow sent me several e-mails letting me know how much he was enjoying our postings.
Not all of our traffic has come from North America. At last check, we've had visitors from 92 countries and territories. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Great Britain (186 visits) leads the way given the popularity of birding there. Australia has generated 101 visits, three-quarters of which have come from Brisbane. Brisbane is the home of my good friend Mat Gilfedder. A picture of Mat and his son Alex appears in our very first post ("A Tradition of Mentoring..."), which appeared on 19 December 2009.
Much is happening behind the scenes. To date, BirdFellow.com has consisted of this journal. While it has been exciting to reach out to the birding community with these writings, we have much bigger plans. We are currently getting our bird pages, species accounts, photo galleries, and other features finalized and coded. A talented and highly experienced web design team is working to build interactive content pages and features that should appeal to birders at all levels. As we move forward and launch these features we will count on feedback from this community and those who have yet to join us. With your help we will continue to refine our content, features, and ease of use.
We extend our warmest holiday greetings to you and your families and encourage each of you to introduce a friend or family member to the joy of watching and learning about wild birds during the coming year.
One of the high points of the birding year is upon us; it’s Christmas Bird Count season. With this in mind, past contributor David Fix offers up some time-tested strategies that might enhance your CBC experience and add a few species to your favorite count. David and I have done dozens of counts together and spent hundreds of winter days birding in western Oregon. With one us doing owls calls and the other 'pishing' (see below) the tally of anxious Dark-eyed Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows) that we’ve experienced together numbers into the tens of thousands. Birding is best when the collective chip notes of these birds sound like a high school typing class (pardon the dated reference). Though this piece is written from a western perspective, these strategies will prove useful in any Christmas Bird Count circle. Dave Irons, BirdFellow Content Editor
Pish Your Lips Off
Whenever you encounter a flock of songbirds such as sparrows or tree-birds (chickadees, kinglets, etc.), ‘work the flock’ thoroughly by making loud shushing noises and/or Northern Pygmy-Owl toots (a low-pitched whistle once every two seconds). Pishing may be a term unfamiliar to some of you. It is quite simple, all you are trying to do is imitate the scolding sounds made by chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and other small birds. It works best to have two people in a group making these scolding and owl sounds simultaneously. Patience and persistence with this strategy often attracts huge flocks of passerines at sites where you have initially seen and heard only a few birds. If you can get the chickadees and nuthatches started, you're in business. Their scolding calls will draw in other species. In the western U.S., this is how wintering Orange-crowned, Nashville, Black-and-White, and other warblers, as well as unusual sparrows, often come to light. They may be among the later birds detected in a large roving flock--just when you’re about to move on. Remember e nolo pluribus: “Out Of None, Many.” I doubt that the Latin is correct, but it’s often proven true for me.
Scan into the Distance
Before leaving any spot you think you’ve just birded well, forget the close birds for a good long moment. Always take time to scan fence lines, posts, poles, dead-topped trees, and outlying pastures for raptors and other birds which prefer exposed lookout perches. If you are birding in a group, especially one that includes a sharp-eyed youth, assign one person to scan or scope distant perches while the others work the hedgerows and trees in close. Careful scrutiny of the surrounding landscape is how many Merlins, other raptors, and one or two ‘extra’ Black Phoebes are located. To spot hawks, use your eyes like one.
Dont' Forget to Look Up
Get into the habit of glancing at the sky every few minutes for soaring or fly-by birds such as raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl, especially if the sky is cloudy and their dark forms are readily seen. Scan across ridgelines for hawks, Golden Eagles, and fly-past Band-tailed Pigeons. Citing the title of an old Ernest K. Gann novel of World War II, remember The Crowded Sky.
When in Rome...
Rare birds are generally found in flocks of common birds. Birds out of range are inclined to join flocks of other species, particularly during the winter months when numbers replace dense foliage as the best protection against predators. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos is boring—you might do well to really shake it up and find that Clay-colored or Harris’s Sparrow. Check all of the blackbirds up on the wires or in the muck at dairies for Brown-headed Cowbirds, rare icterids, and sparrows. Check through flocks of routine waterfowl and shorebirds for that show-stopping Monster Shocker.
Find the Food Sources
Birds are not distributed evenly across the landscape. They concentrate where there is food and a lot of biological activity. Watch for flocks at small gardens, farms, dairies, manure piles, and unmanaged creeksides. Don’t spend a lot of time in ‘birdless’ places. Hollies, mountain ash, myrtles, pyracantha and other plants with waxy berries will attract flocks of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings along with lesser numbers of Hermit and Varied Thrushes. Less likely birds, like Townsend's Solitaire or Bohemian Waxwing, often turn up in these flocks. In addition to providing a good source of seeds, composting fruits (orchards) and vegetable row crops (truck farms) create warm microsites where insects hatch even when the ambient air temperature is near or below freezing. Such sites are likely to be teeming with sparrows, finches, and occasional warblers.
House Sparrows Rock!
The tiresome sound of a loud chorus of House Sparrows should be music to your ears as a bird counter, because it often indicates that there’s a bird feeder—or several—close by. You may not be interested in the House Sparrows, but for sure you’ll be interested in the many other species that likely are using that site.
If you find a rare bird, write a description of it NOW and, if possible, get a photo. If the bird is truly remarkable—literally a “show stopper”—don’t wait until everyone meets at the end of the day to spread the news.
Near my home in Everett, Washington, the Public Boat Launch is a great place to look at gulls, even if it never seems to host rarities. On November 15th this year, I was surprised to pull in and find this rather rust-buffy gull wandering around among the California and Ring-billed Gulls. It was obviously smaller than any of the ~100 California Gulls nearby. That and its bright coloration grabbed my attention.
On closer inspection, it became apparent that this bird had plumage characters typical of a first-cycle California Gull, excepting perhaps, its rather rusty coloration. The worn buffy feathers on back, head, belly, and wing were retained from juvenile plumage. The crisp gray scapulars (with their internal anchor-like markings) and the scattered gray feathers on the underparts represented newly acquired first-winter plumage. Additionally, the bill was in between the solid dark of a juvenile and the black-tipped pink bill of a first-winter California Gull.
In my experience, nearly all hatch-year California Gulls in Washington have already transformed from juvenile to first-winter plumage by November. However, Gulls of the Americas by Howell and Dunn states that some California Gulls retain juvenile plumage into December. Some fresh juvenile California gulls are a beautiful peachy-buff during July and August. Wear to such a plumage could easily explain the rusty-buff appearance of this bird. The size, however, was still a puzzle.
The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America and the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America both list the length of California and Ring-billed Gull as 21 and 17.5 inches, respectively. Interestingly, Gulls of the Americas gives a size range of 18 to 23 inches for California Gull and 17.3 to 20.5 inches for Ring-billed Gull. That book, however, then uses "smaller" as the first character for separating Ring-billed Gull from California Gull. In any case, prior to seeing this bird, I do not think that I've seen a California Gull that was clearly smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls it was with.
So, what is my point here? It is that "runts" really do occur. The July 2009 chapter of BirdFellow contains a piece I wrote entitled The Midget Frigate: Confusion in the Baja Sun. In that piece, I presented photographs of a Magnificent Frigatebird that appeared to be smaller than the "normal" range for that species. Some well-known birders I'd discussed this with had questioned whether or not "runt" birds really existed. Perhaps prescient was Tony Leukering who said that if any species occasionally displayed "runtism," it was California Gull. This bird in Everett seems to be a fine example.
Interestingly, in response to the "Midget Frigate" piece, Chris Hill of Coastal Carolina University pointed out an article by Hicks (1934) in Bird-Banding which studied variation among 10,000 Eurasian Starlings that were captured and measured. Six of these were considered "pigmy," being at least 10% shorter than the average (not including any tail abnormalities). A ten percent difference in length would probably translate into a fairly detectable difference in overall size.
Thus, it seems from Magnificent Frigatebird to California Gull to Eurasian Starling, runt birds do exist. Beyond being a point of curiosity, this would also suggest that we exercise caution when using size to determine identification.
All photos taken by Steve Mlodinow.
Like most of you I hate moving. However, being a birder, at least I can look forward to starting a new yard list when I do have to relocate. In most cases, serious listing requires lots of free time, money, and willingness to travel to out of the way places in order to see those species that don't occur near where you live. By comparison, yard listing is cheap and can be done whenever you have a few spare minutes to peer out the window or sit out in the yard hoping for something interesting t0 fly over. Most importantly, yard listing gives one reason to get excited about seeing common birds and perhaps spend a bit more time than normal studying their plumage and behavior.
Since becoming a serious birder at age 17, I've moved more times than I care to think about. Over the past 33 years, I've not lived in the same house for more than about five years. At best I consider myself a casual yard lister. My relaxed approach to yard listing is probably the result of never having lived at a site with huge yard list potential. I haven't lived on ocean or bay front property and I've only lived on a riverfront lot once--for about a year when I was ten years old. Most of the houses/apartments that I've lived in have had a limited viewscape. Being able to see a long way is an advantage when yard listing since the general consensus is that one can count any bird that they can see and identify while standing in their yard. At one of my homes in Portland, Oregon I could stand in the bed of my Toyota pick-up truck, set up a spotting scope, and scan for large waterbirds flying over the Columbia River about two miles away.
The old cliche about real estate definitely applies when it comes to yard listing. It's all about location. If you live in a typical residential neighborhood far removed from water, you will be hard-pressed to reach 100 species even if you spend several decades at the same location. Species like Mallard, or Great Blue Heron, which may be encountered readily at the local duck pond, can be incredibly difficult to add to your yard list. Conversely, Paul Lehman and Shawneen Finnegan obviously hit a home run in terms of location when they moved to Cape May, New Jersey in the September 1994. Within four months their yard list was over 200 species, and eventually it topped 300, perhaps the highest species tally ever recorded from a U.S. yard.
Certain groups of species are particularly hard to come by from the average yard. Marsh birds, owls, and shorebirds are nearly impossible to get unless you spend lots of time outside at night and know their calls well. My best yard for migrant waterbirds was in Fairmount, Illinois, where I lived for four years (1994-1998). During those years I heard Sora, Virginia Rail, American Golden-Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, and Caspian Tern fly over--all at night. There was an old quarry about a mile from my house that had several large barrow pits and ponds, which apparently attracted nocturnally migrating marsh birds and shorebirds.
The easiest birds to add to your yard list are jays, chickadees, sparrows, juncos, and finches. These species are primarily seed-eaters during the winter months, thus they will appear almost instantly once you put up a bird feeder. Hummingbirds are another group that can be attracted with comparative ease. In fact most rare hummingbirds are discovered at back yard feeding stations.
If you do opt to set up a backyard feeding station, it will eventually become a feeding station for birds of prey. Accipiters (Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks) often winter in residential areas where they can count on a nice buffet of songbirds.
Though less common, Merlins also set up shop in residential neighborhoods during the winter months. Unlike Accipiters, which tend to lurk in the inner branches for many minutes before surprising birds that don't notice them, Merlins are most often found at the very top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood. They use a combination of keen eyesight and blistering speed to launch attacks from up to a quarter mile away. By the time they reach their target they are moving so fast that their prey has no time to react.
I've never been particularly lucky when it comes to having mega-rarities show up in my yard, but it does happen. While living in Illinois, I saw a Broad-billed Hummingbird at a feeder in Peoria, Illinois and a Green Violet-ear at a feeder in Edwardsburg, Michigan. The Lehman/Finnegan list at Cape May mentioned above included such rarities as Black-tailed Gull, Brown-chested Martin, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher!
Even if you don't have first state records showing up at your feeder, adding new species to your yard list is fun, especially if you have a small lot in town. During the fall months just before my most recent move (November 2009) I added Common Yellowthroat and MacGillivray's Warbler to the 70 or so species I had seen in my yard on Hayes St. in Eugene, Oregon. Twice during spring migrations, the same yard hosted Dusky Flycatchers (a rare spring migrant in Eugene, Oregon).
There is much that you can learn by paying attention to the birds right around your house. The seasonal comings and goings of yard birds will help you better understand the timing of migration. Further, by keeping a close eye on locally wintering sparrows and finches, you may notice the progression of seasonal molts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to those who are competitive in their listing, you will always hold the top spot on the listing charts for the little section of the globe that you call home.
We'd love to hear your favorite yard listing stories and don't hesitate to tell us what your current yard list total is by posting a comment.