Saturday, January 31, 2009

Antarctica: Outline of the trip

From home base in Ohio, Kenn writes: We traveled to the Antarctic on board the Clipper Adventurer from January 7 to 25, 2009, on a birding and wildlife expedition sponsored by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Before and after the voyage we were in Argentina, starting in the capital city of Buenos Aires and joining the ship in the southern outpost city of Ushuaia. The map below will help to put these points in a world perspective.

Points for reference: 1. Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2. Ushuaia, Argentina. 3. Antarctic Peninsula.

The vast majority of expedition cruises to Antarctica go from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, and the map shows why. South America extends much farther south than Africa or Australia, and the Antarctic Peninsula is the northernmost point of the white continent, so the crossing is feasible for many kinds of ships. There are also some expedition cruises that go south from New Zealand and take in the subantarctic islands of that country, and a few cruises that go south through the bird-rich waters of South Africa to the continent's edge, and we would like to try those routes eventually. But so far, all five of my trips have originated in South America.

Most world maps (like the one above) show Antarctica as an ill-defined mass along the lower edge, so it's hard for most people to get an idea of the continent's size. Antarctica is huge -- near the size of Australia and Europe combined. It is roughly centered on the South Pole, and the interior of the continent is the coldest region on earth. We confess that, as naturalists, we're not very interested in visiting the South Pole; nothing lives there except a few dedicated scientists. Remarkably, the South Polar Skua has occurred there as a stray, having flown many hundreds of miles across lifeless ice and rock, but we'd rather watch birds like this out at the Antarctic coastline where they belong.

The majority of expedition cruises from Ushuia go straight across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula and back. But our trip was focused on birds and wildlife, so we took the longer route northeast to the Falkland Islands, farther east to remote South Georgia Island, then southwest to the Antarctic Peninsula and back north across the Drake Passage. On the voyage we spent eight full days at sea (enjoying fabulous seabirds, whales, and dolphins), and during the other ten days we made landings at no fewer than 18 sites. This was Kim's first trip to the region and I can say without hesitation that it was my best trip ever. In subsequent posts we'll be describing the experiences of the voyage in detail.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Degrees of Separation

Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island, Antarctic Region

Oak Harbor, Ohio, United States of America

From the snow belt, Kenn writes: During our whole trip to Antarctica, the coldest air temperature we experienced was about 29 degrees Fahrenheit, or just below freezing. When our flight from Buenos Aires landed at Dallas-Fort Worth, it was 16 degrees out, and our connection was delayed by three hours because of complications in de-icing the plane. And when we finally made it back to the Detroit airport, our dear friends Vic and Lois were there to meet us, but they had braved icy winds and snow-covered roads to be there. Were we cold in the Antarctic? No! But coming home was something of a shock!

Our first morning back at home, we had to shovel a path to the bird feeders, but soon we were rewarded by returning guests: our first Northern Cardinals of the year, our first Blue Jays of the year. After weeks of novelty among the penguins and petrels and other southern seabirds, it was reassuring to reconnect with these familiar backyard denizens.

We are pulling together all our notes and our (thousands of) photographs, and we hope to start posting information about our Antarctic trip in a more organized way very soon!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Homeward Bound

From Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kenn and Kim write: Our Antarctic trip finished up with our return to Tierra del Fuego, in southernmost Argentina, on January 25. We'll be home in Ohio in another day or so. But having found a good internet connection here in Buenos Aires, we couldn't resist sending our greetings -- and a few teaser photos to share just a tiny bit of our experience.

This is a distant view of a tiny fraction of the King Penguin colony at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. Look closely! Each little black and brown figure in this photo is a penguin! The brown ones are the big, fat woolly youngsters. They looked so much like bowling pins in fur coats! We saw tens of thousands of penguins on this trip, representing eight species, and we'll describe each species in separate posts after we get home.

Encounters with marine mammals provided some of the non-avian highlights of the trip. Whales, dolphins, and seals are all part of the Antarctic birding experience. Just wait until you see the Orca stuff we have to share!

It's going to take us a while to fully assimilate everything that we saw during the last few weeks, but we'll try to organize it all into posts on the blog so we can share what we experienced and we've learned about Antarctica with you.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Whitecaps and White-chins

From the Clipper Adventurer in the middle of the Drake Passage, Kenn and Kim write: Yesterday evening, the Chinstrap Penguins and Gentoo Penguins bid us farewell as we left Barrientos Island in the South Shetlands and headed north for the crossing back to Ushuaia. The Drake Passage -- the stretch of water between the northern tip of Antarctica and the southernmost point of South America -- is renowned for its potentially rough seas. Kenn has observed on past trips that it can produce huge waves, but that it can also be flat calm at times (sometimes even earning the term "Drake Lake"). Today was somewhere between these extremes. For much of the morning we couldn’t stand on any of the open decks without holding on to something, making it hard to scan out among the tossing whitecaps and driving spray. Even by late afternoon the ship was still rolling and unpredictably lurching at times. But throughout the day, the ship was being followed by a variety of birds, including at least a dozen White-chinned Petrels.

We took advantage of the opportunity to watch these petrels. Big and stocky, mostly deep chocolate in color, they circled and soared effortlessly on the whipping winds, sometimes hanging in mid-air high over the stern, sometimes swooping in great arcs around the ship. The White-chinned Petrel is widespread in southern seas, nesting on the Falklands and South Georgia Island as well as on several islands in the southern Indian Ocean and islands south of New Zealand. So it’s easy to see this bird if you travel by ship at southern latitudes. It’s not so easy to see the white chin for which it’s named: the bird has only a small patch of white feathers below the big pale bill. But with today’s views we were able to see the white chin of the White-chin repeatedly.

The White-chinned Petrel really does have a white chin, but in a close-up view, the structure of its bill is a more interesting feature

We'll be out in the Drake Passage all day tomorrow as well, but by Sunday midday we'll be back on land in southernmost Argentina ... and after a couple more days in Argentina, we should be home in Ohio by Thursday the 29th. We'll report on our whole trip, a few details at a time, after we get home. It will take a while to digest this experience, but we'll share as much of it as we can.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Random Bird: Abert's Towhee

Kenn wrote this back in December: (Today, January 22, we're scheduled to be finishing our exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula and starting to head toward the legendary rough waters of the Drake Passage. Internet access is unlikely, so we pre-set this post to appear in our absence.)

If you’re more than about 300 miles away from Phoenix, Arizona, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be seeing Abert’s Towhee today. And neither will we. This is a bird with a very limited range, found only in thickets along lowland streams in the American southwest. Some southwestern birds become more common as you head south into Mexico, but not Abert’s Towhee; it barely crosses the border into the northern edge of Mexico. Most of its range is in Arizona and a small area of southeastern California, with tiny toeholds in New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.

In most places this bird lurks inside dense thickets, scratching among the leaf-litter with both feet in the manner of other towhees, and it’s usually hard to see. You’re more likely to hear its voice, a series of sharp ringing notes (and that's just as well; it sounds better than it looks). In some places, though, the bird is increasing and spreading into new habitats. Within the last three decades or so, this has become a common suburban bird in parts of Phoenix and Yuma, Arizona. It has also expanded its range into new areas, such as along Sonoita Creek in southern Arizona, where we know from careful past study that it hadn’t been present in earlier years.

Abert’s Towhee shows up on some "watchlists" of birds of conservation concern, presumably because its total range looks small on the map. In my opinion, this is misguided: we should reserve such designations for birds that are actually vulnerable or declining. Abert’s Towhee has been expanding its range and adapting to new habitats, so it’s doing very well. If conservation groups get into a mindset of padding the lists of "threatened" or "near-threatened" birds, after a while the whole exercise starts to take on a sense of the-sky-is-falling absurdity.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Update from Antarctica

From the Clipper Adventurer in the Southern Ocean, approaching the Antarctic Peninsula, Kenn and Kim write: If you're reading this, we've just succeeded in connecting with the Internet again, and we were amazed to see all the comments posted regarding our bird puzzle feature! Thank you, everyone who looked at this puzzle and who commented on it. We appreciate your interest! Kim says we should make this kind of puzzle a monthly feature; does anyone else agree?

Anyway -- It appears that we won't be able to attach any photos to this message, so we'll just have to paint a picture with words for the moment. Today (Monday January 19) we were at sea all day, cruising south from the South Orkney Islands toward the Antarctic Peninsula. We saw no land today, but we saw hundreds of icebergs, some of them huge towering mountains of ice, others great flat tabular bergs more than a quarter of a mile across. Birds were not as abundant today as on some of our previous at-sea days, but we saw flocks of Cape Petrels and Southern Fulmars, scores of Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, and various other birds. Beautiful snow-white Snow Petrels were flying around many of the larger icebergs, and late in the day we were visited by a few strikingly patterned, fast-flying Antarctic Petrels. Most remarkable of all was a lone Emperor Penguin swimming in the open water, all alone, miles from any land.

Despite seeing such amazing birds, mammals stole the show today: the ship was able to maneuver slowly and respectfully close to several Humpback Whales and huge Fin Whales, and we watched some distant Orcas (Killer Whales) late in the day. At one point, passing a large area of floating pack ice, we saw several Leopard Seals hauled out on the ice -- these big seals are fast-swimming predators, the terror of all the smaller penguins, and the ones on the ice stared at us as we passed, their large reptilian heads frozen in permanent evil grins. We expect to see more Leopard Seals tomorrow, patrolling the waters just off the big Adelie Penguin colony on Paulet Island.

Internet access out here at sea is sporadic at best, but we'll write again when we can. Eventually (after we're back in Ohio, maybe) we'll post a lot of photos from the trip, and more descriptions of the birding highlights.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An update from the open ocean ...

From the Clipper Adventurer in the Southern Ocean, approaching South Georgia Island, Kenn and Kim write: If you're reading this, then we've succeeded in connecting to the Internet from this ship. The last few days have been packed with birding adventure in Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, and the open ocean. We just spent the last 48 hours completely out of sight of any land, but there hasn't been a moment when no birds were visible -- the southern ocean is alive with seabirds.

We'll write in more detail when we can, but in the meantime, here's a photo of a Wandering Albatross from earlier today. It's a magnificent bird, with a wingspan of a good eleven feet, one of the largest flying birds in the world. So far we've seen four species of albatrosses, four species of penguins, and yes, Kim got her first photos of baby penguins! More later --

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Link to the Falklands

From cyberspace, Kenn writes: If we're on schedule, today we'll be on the Falklands, those cold but beautiful rocky islands east of the southern tip of South America. We probably won't be able to post from out there. But for a taste of what we might be seeing, you can check out Alan Henry's blog, Birding in the Falkland Islands. Alan has lived in the Falklands since 1987 and is an expert on the birdlife there. Naturally, it's exciting for him to find birds that are rare on the islands -- including visitors that would be common for us in North America, like Barn Swallow and Lesser Yellowlegs. But he also includes photos of his everyday local birds, like Falkland Steamer Ducks and Rockhopper Penguins!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Random Bird: Blackbird

Kenn wrote this back in December: (Today, January 7, we're supposed to be boarding ship in Tierra del Fuego to head toward the Antarctic, and we set this post to be published in our absence.)

So who would call a bird simply "Blackbird?" The British. Look at bird books from England, especially older ones, and you’ll see bird names like Blackbird, Heron, Wren, Jay, Swallow, etc., as if there were only one bird in each of these groups. Those British sometimes act as if they had invented the English language!

Anyway, The Blackbird (which Americans often refer to as "Eurasian Blackbird") is not at all related to the blackbird family (Icteridae), a strictly New World group which includes our familiar Red-winged Blackbird as well as grackles, cowbirds, American orioles, meadowlarks, and others. In fact, the (Eurasian) Blackbird is a very close relative of the American Robin (which is not closely related to the European Robin ... Got that? There will be a quiz in the morning). The Blackbird is native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and has been introduced into Australia and New Zealand. There are a few records from eastern Canada, but there are some doubts about how those birds may have arrived there. The Blackbird shown above is one that we watched in Copenhagen, Denmark, in September 2005. Aside from the color of its feathers, it looked for all the world like an American Robin, and acted like one, too, perfectly at home in a tiny park in the big city.

Not only is this blackbird very widespread in the Old World, it’s also culturally important. "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" would have been this species. The Beatles' song "Blackbird," with the lines about "Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly," was referring to this species. But when it comes to the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," the answer is unclear; Stevens was an American but some of his blackbirds seem to have a European tilt.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Random Bird: Purple-bibbed Whitetip

Kenn wrote this back in December: (Today, January 5, we're supposed to be leading a group of birders to the Otamendi Nature Reserve north of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It's unlikely that we'll have a chance to post anything, so this "random bird" is set to post in our absence.)

That’s one of the great things about being a bird blogger. Who else gets to title a post "Purple-bibbed Whitetip?"
This small hummingbird (technically Urosticte benjamini) occurs only on the west slope of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador, mostly in the understory of dense forest in the subtropical zone. It had been considered "rare to uncommon and perhaps local" and "not often seen" as recently as 2001. That was when the outstanding two-volume "The Birds of Ecuador," by Bob Ridgely and Paul Greenfield, was published. But since then, a number of ecotourism lodges in Ecuador have put up hummingbird feeders, and suddenly this rare-and-not-often-seen hummer has become a lot easier to see. The establishment of feeders in many tropical areas has not changed the actual distribution of hummingbirds, but it has certainly altered our understanding of where they live.

I had seen this bird’s only close relative, the Rufous-vented Whitetip, in Peru several years ago, but I’d never encountered the Purple-bibbed until February 2006, when Kim and I got to watch (and photograph) this species at leisure at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, near Mindo, Ecuador. The purple bibs of the males were visible only in certain lights, but the odd white tips to their central tail feathers were very conspicuous.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Buenos Aires, Day Dos

From Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kim and Kenn write: Our friend Delores Cole (web guru for Black Swamp Bird Observatory and Ohio Young Birders Club) came in this morning, and walked out with us for another round at the Costanera Sur Nature Reserve. As indicated by the sign above, the reserve is internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area.

A major Important Bird of this Area is the outlandish Guira Cuckoo. It looks weird enough standing still, but check out this video that Kim took of the bird calling and showing off (with authentic Latino music in the background):

A bird that we found foraging in the high traffic area along the edge of the reserve was the totally gorgeous Red-crested Cardinal. But, unlike most good-looking humans I've encountered, these doggone birds did NOT want to have their picture taken. I chased them up and down the sidewalk, generating ZERO good photos, but lots of laughs from Kenn & Delores, and the locals who delighted in watching the bird come in right next to me...until I raised the camera.

Eventually I got bored with the game and started people watching. That's how I spotted and photographed the much more cooperative Red-crested human, which looked remarkably like the bird that refused to have its picture taken! Here she is doing some foraging of her own:

Of course, as soon as I gave up and settled for a photo of a look-alike, the real thing came along and posed for me. Check out this stunner:

The Beautiful (and fussy!) Red-crested Cardinal

The most common hummingbird here was the Glittering-bellied Emerald (another name invented by museum ornithologists, trying to come up with something distinctive about yet another species of Chlorostilbon that looks pretty much like all the others). We often saw it feeding at the flowers of tree-tobacco (Nicotiana glauca). This is a great hummingbird plant in the southern USA and Mexico as well, but here in South America it's more likely to be a local native.

The trails through the park are filled with local people who come here to exercise. They certainly seem to enjoy the sun; Kenn was practically the only man there who was wearing a shirt. Some apparently come to exercise their bodies. Others appeared to be exorcizing any variety of demons.

Kenn had an interesting conversation with one of the locals who seemed to be doing a bit of both. A nice fella, who knew a bit about the birds, he, um, well, he didn't have much on in terms of clothing. But he sure knew a lot about Rufous Horneros! When he saw our binoculars, he stopped running, came straight over and pointed excitedly to a large nest above our heads. Kenn was too nice to tell him that we knew exactly what it was, and that we'd been standing there admiring it for several minutes. We're always thrilled when the locals seem to be aware and appreciative of their bird neighbors, and we didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm.

The conversation Kenn had with the guy was totally in Spanish, so I was pretty much out of the loop. After he jogged off, Kenn explained the conversation, referring to the guy as "The Naked Naturalist" which had me giggling like an idiot the rest of the day.

In case you don't remember the Rufous Hornero.....Here it is again.

And, here's its way cool nest.

See, it looks like an old oven, doesn't it?!

The Naked Naturalist moves on after giving us the lo-down on the
Rufous Hornero and its nest.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A few birds from Buenos Aires

From Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kenn writes: We were walking for hours and for miles in the huge Costanera Sur reserve right in the city today, developing a good January sunburn in the process. Buenos Aires is a city of around ten million people, and it's amazing to have this superb nature reserve within walking distance of the downtown hotels. A recurrent drought has dried up the ponds that usually have hordes of waterbirds, but we did see a great variety of landbirds. It's after midnight here in Argentina and we're too wasted to write anything, but here are a few pictures, anyway.

Looking at a small part of the skyline of Buenos Aires, Argentina, from across the Costanera Sur Nature Reserve

Picazuro Pigeon -- this native pigeon is abundant in the reserve

Bay-winged Cowbird -- the most attractive of the three local species of cowbirds (this one is not a brood parasite, but its nests are parasitized by another species, the Screaming Cowbird)

Green-barred Woodpecker, lurking in deep shade -- as you might guess by looking, this bird is related to the flickers in North America

This young White-rumped Swallow was waiting to be fed by its parents. Early January is mid-summer here, and we saw recently fledged young birds of several species.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Don´t Cry For Me (we're in) Argentina

From Buenos Aires, Kim and Kenn write: (Couldn´t resist the musical reference in the title.) Before we left home we weren´t sure we´d be able to post to the blog from here. But if you´re reading this, then evidently we can! That might change once we´re on the ship, but for now, woo hoo! (can you tell that Kim typed that part?!)

So, yes, we´re here. We´re sleep-deprived and jet-lagged. But thanks to our dear friends Lois and Vic, we made it to the airport safe and sound, and made the long overnight flight so that we could be in Argentina today. Kim had a life bird (the very cool Chimango Caracara!!) before we even got off the plane! It was perched on a light pole and several Blue-and-white Swallows were harrassing it, giving away its location.

The big nature reserve of Costanera Sur was closed today for New Years, but the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires is full of small parks that have their own attractions. In a park off Tucuman Avenue, we photographed this impressive old tree, which obviously had been here for a while:

A bird that´s common in the city is the Rufous Hornero. ¨Hornero¨ in Spanish is a reference to ¨one who works with ovens,¨ and the whole tropical family of Ovenbirds (Furnariidae) (unrelated to the North American bird called the Ovenbird, which is a warbler) gets its name from this Rufous Hornero (scientific name Furnarius rufus), which builds a nest shaped like an old oven.

We saw these horneros in several parks and gardens today, marching about on the ground with a self-important air.

Monk Parakeet is a bird that you can see in parks in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and many other U.S. cities, but those are all descended from escaped cagebirds. The ones we saw in Buenos Aires today were wild birds on their native range.

Monk Parakeet in B.A., just as noisy here as it is anywhere.

Take a casual look at any of these small Buenos Aires parks and you´d swear you were seeing American Robins running around. Take a closer look and you realize the bird doesn´t look quite the same. This is a related bird, the Rufous-bellied Thrush. Similar thrushes wind up being common city birds in many parts of the world.
Rufous-bellied Thrush, the local robin substitute in Buenos Aires.

Okay, it´s almost 10:30 at night here, we´re tired, dirty, hungry, and ready to call it a night. Happy New Year to all (and to all a good night).


In With The New Year

From the Time Machine, Kenn writes: If this attempt at pre-publishing actually works, this will post at 6:55 in the morning (eastern standard time) on January 1, 2009. And if all goes according to plan, at that point Kim and I will be all bleary-eyed and hot. Not as a result of partying all night, but as a result of being on a plane all night, on a nine-hour flight from Dallas to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Buenos Aires is at the edge of the tropics, and January 1 is the height of summer there, which is where the "hot" part comes from. Or at least, most of it.

We’ll be out of the country for about four weeks, with several days in northern Argentina, a couple in Tierra del Fuego, and then a long voyage by ship to the Falklands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula. If possible -- if we can connect to the internet for less than a million dollars -- we’ll attempt to post some bird pix from Argentina, or maybe even from the ship, if the satellite hookup works. But it’s possible that we won’t be able to post anything to the blog for four weeks.

Since we don’t want to lose any of our loyal readers, we’re attempting this thing where we’ve pre-scheduled a number of posts to appear while we’re gone. They won’t be quite every day (but some days might have two). I probably won’t do anything blatant like posting lots of pictures of Kim birding in a bikini (although you never know ... ). We might do things like posting photos of sexy birds, quiz questions with fabulous prizes, or our secret directions to a Carolina Parakeet nesting site. You never know.

It’s possible that I’ve screwed up the technique and that all of our carefully scheduled posts will come spewing out at once, crashing the system. If so -- well, live and learn. But please check back often to see if that has happened. And we’ll be "live" again by the end of January, if not before.

Our very best wishes to all of our birding friends, including those whom we haven't met yet, for a rewarding and hopeful and prosperous new year.