Birding Buenos Aires

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Those crazy European explorers of the 15th and 16th century, thinking they could find the spice islands and land of Marco Polo by sailing west.  The pesky New World continents kept getting in the way and all the probing of the promising bays and rivers failed to reveal a passage to the East.  In the north they tried the St. Lawrence and Hudson Rivers and the Hudson and the Chesapeake Bays, and further south the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, all of which had only deceiving potential.

Rio de la Plata

Rio de la Plata

In 1516 Spaniard Juan Diaz de Solis was the first European to sail into the Rio de la Plata, a 150 mile wide bay pointing to the west, but it too eventually narrowed to a river and the water rapidly became less salty and more silty–wrong again. Early settlements were repulsed by the understandably cautious natives, but the first permanent settlement was finally established by Juan de Garay in 1580.

Guira Cockoo

Guira Cockoo, Guira guira

Today Buenos Aires, “Good Winds”, the “Paris of South America”, is a teeming subtropical metropolis on the shore of Rio de la Plata, with 15.5 million inhabitants. It’s the most visited city on the continent.  Having a few days off and faced with losing my LAN airfare from a previously cancelled trip to Patagonia, I chose this city for my first trip to South America.  Mind you, this was not a birding trip, although one is always birding, but rather a hastily arranged spring respite, (fall by their calendar) in a new continent for us.  Buenos Aires was a leading destination for European immigrants from 1880 to 1930, mainly Italian, German, and Spanish, and that is very apparent in the architecture visible between the gigantic billboards.  The passions of its people are football and Tango, with reminders of both on all the street corners and in the parks.

Turquoise-front Parrot and Monk Parakeet

Turquoise-fronted Parrot and Monk Parakeet, Amazona aestiva and Myiopsitta monachus

We took several opportunities to rest our tired sight-seer legs, get a cold drink, and watch Tango up close.  Apparently there are multiple styles.  What I saw was a slow, sensual dance, arms held high, head back, and legs wrapping and un-wraping around your partner.  To a birder it looked like the dance of a Reddish Egret, strutting and fishing in the shallows, but the bird is all alone.  I did not observe any solo Tango.

Ruffescent Tiger-heron

Ruffescent Tiger-heron, Tigrisoma lineatum

Our hotel was a small affair in the Recoleta neighborhood, described in tour books as upscale, with abundant parks, museums, embassies, shopping, and restaurants.  What’s not to like.  Heading to a new world as a birder and photographer there are important choices to make.  “What’s in your bag?” is the common inquiry among birders.

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

Green-barred Woodpecker, Colaptes melanochloros

For this trip I decided to travel light and leave the Canon 400mm F5.6L birding lens home, trying out the newly purchased, more versatile, and smaller Canon 70-300 F1:4-5.6L zoom.  The theory being to have the 70mm end for everyday walk-around sight-seeing, but also be constantly vigilant and ready to zoom to 300mm when that unexpected bird lands on the Tango dancer’s shoulder.  Remember, when on a continent for the first time, almost everything, including the birds are brand new.

Red Gartered Coot

Red Gartered Coot, Fulica armillata

This compromise lens is sturdy, well constructed, and sharp, but the operative word is compromise.  When birding I really missed the extra length, and when sightseeing I wished I had more field-of-view to capture the wonderful urban landscapes of Buenos Aires.

Chalked-brown Mockingbird

Chalked-browed Mockingbird, Mimus saturninus

One good decision I made was to hire a birding guide for a day.  I’ve urban birded alone in Tokyo and in stateside cities, but you just see much more with an expert guide.  I found Diego Gallegos from his website, www.buenosairesbirding.com, and convinced my non-birder wife to dust off her rarely used binoculars and join us.  It was a success.  He picked us up at the hotel and we visited three urban/suburban sites, a wetlands near Universidad de Buenos Aires, a golf course park and pond called Lago del Golf, and a park on the shore of the Rio de la Plata, Reserva Municipal de Vincente Lopez. Diego was pleasant and patient.  In addition to birding, and to the relief of my wife, he taught us much about his culture and life in Argentina.

Diego Gallegos

Diego Gallegos

Additional early morning strolls through the various parks in Recoleta, including the beautiful Jardin Japones yielded more new birds and by the end of the trip I had added 40 life birds, but who’s counting.  This is a relatively meagre list, given the phenomenal avian diversity of South and Central America, but served to stimulate me to plan future excursions below the equator.  Heading south, rather than east and west, also has the great advantage of avoiding jet-lag since you are crossing few or no time zones.  The Galapagos, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and the Amazon all beckon.

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets

Canary-winged and Monk Parakeets, Brotogeris versicolurus

Book Review: Birding On Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

Birding On Borrowed Time, by Phoebe Snetsinger, published by American Birding Association, copyright 2003, 307 pages.

If your non-birder family and friends think you’ve gone off the deep end due to your occasional early morning birding trips, photography, etc., just hand them a copy of this book.  They will see what a real birding obsession looks like and your exploits will pale in comparison to those of this legendary and record-holding icon.  This book is Phoebe Snetsinger’s autobiography of a birder’s life, lived to the extreme and ended tragically with binoculars in hand.  She was the first person to see 8,000 species of birds and at the time of her death she held the lister record.

White Ibis,

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

It all started innocently enough.  She was a too busy, tired, 34 year-old housewife and mother of four, starving for something new and exciting when her friend took her birding in the local woods. Her first sighting through the binoculars was a beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler in its finest spring garb.  She was smitten for life.  Her birding competency and experience quickly grew and in a dozen years she held the record in her area by seeing 275 local species in one year.  Guided domestic trips to Maine, Texas, Florida, and Arizona were soon supplemented with her first trips abroad to Mexico and then to the Galapagos and Ecuador.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

At age 41 Phoebe had a malignant melanoma removed from her back, but the margins were clear and she thought she was cured.  Nine years later she noticed a growing lump in her axilla which was shown to be metastatic melanoma.  Her prognosis was for 3 months of normal living, then an inexorable downward spiral and death within a year.  The book describes her shock, denial, and temporary depression, but also her later revival and fight to make the last days memorable.  Her motto became Carpe Diem.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

In the epilogue the author’s son wondered if his mother’s records would have ever been established if she did not have the Damocles Sword of melanoma recurrence hanging over her for much of her adult life.  After the first recurrence and the specter of imminent death, she set out doing what she loved most, birding.  When death did not come and her bird sightings mounted, her competitive streak kicked in.  Setting the all-time record of 8,000 birds then seemed possible. Two more subsequent recurrences of the disease at 5 year intervals did nothing but accelerate her birding pace and lead to more frequent international trips to birding hotspots.  As she approached the mark, the difficulties of finding these rarer birds increased geometrically leading her to almost inaccessible rain forests, mountaintops, and deserts.  The time, physical toll, and cost of seeing each new bird rose significantly, just when Phoebe’s age made each trip more difficult.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

This book mentions, but does not dwell upon the risks, costs, and calamities of world-wide birding.  Long trips, often a dozen or more per year, took a physical and emotional toll on her and her family.  She was brutally raped in New Guinea, attacked by spear-throwing tribesmen, broke her wrist, sprained her knee, survived at least two emergency airplane landings, an earthquake, and even a shipwreck in Indonesia.  She was aware of her obsession but didn’t back off her pace, no matter where it took her.  I frequently found myself shaking my head and wondering at some of Phoebe’s foolhardy decisions and risk-taking, but that is exactly why she, and not I, set the record.

California Thrasher

California Thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum

Although the book has some human interest for non-birders, it is probably best suited for the birder, given the long lists of birds and sites on all the continents.  The book’s real value for me was the lessons this iconic woman has left for birders.  Let me summarize them:

  1. Despite her becoming the all-time lister, she clearly found great joy in observing, and not just counting, birds–even ones already ticked off her list.  Phoebe rightly noted the “wonderful warm feeling of fulfillment all birders feel” when seeing a life bird after a long search.  She appreciated the folly of birding with a guide who quickly calls out the new bird names while the lister spends more time taking notes than observing the birds.  She adamantly refused to list birds that were heard but not seen.
  2. She recognized the utility of playing birdsongs to attract and observe the rarities of the world.  She was birding in the early days of this technique when the birders carried the cumbersome tape recorders miles into the bush.  Today we just use our smart phones.
  3. She spent many hours of preparation before each trip, getting acquainted with the target birds in the area.  Although she was not a photographer she would keep copious notes and records of her observations and field marks, building a vast filing system at home, all before the days of eBird which has made our record keeping so much easier today.
  4. She recognized the value of learning the Latin genus and species names of the birds, and not just the common names that often vary per culture.  Of the two Latin names, the genus is the more important, especially when identifying new birds.  Remember that many of these remote countries had not yet developed birding guidebooks, reference materials, or even adequate maps.  If you could at least place the unknown bird in a genus and remember its key field marks, you could eventually make the ID.  Some of the birds she saw had just recently been discovered and not yet named.
  5. For Phoebe a knowledge of the taxonomy of the avian world was important.  Seeing how each new bird fit into the hierarchy was part of birding’s appeal for her as she tried find at least one bird from each of the 2153 genera.  She almost fulfilled this dream.
Osprey

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Phoebe Snetsinger was an obsessive, quirky, and intelligent woman, who overcame amazing obstacles to reach her birding goals.  She died at age 68 doing what she loved most when her bus overturned on the backroads of Madagascar pursuing the next bird.  Her last life bird was the Red-shouldered Vanga, number 8,398.

The Wren

Carolina Wren

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops, at all.

Emily Dickinson

When friends and family discover you’re a birder you start getting bird gifts.  Some are gag gifts like my “birder nerd” coffee mug and several tee shirts with comical pictures of us awkward birders.  There are also the more serious and welcome gifts such as birding books, my favorite birding cap, duck stamps, feeders, and DVD’s.  I got Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” last Christmas.  I’ve also received several bird houses–usually more decorative than practical, but decided to mount one of these on my wooden fence, near the climbing roses, last year.  It was a very loud, colorful design and it didn’t surprise me when it was vacant all year.  But this spring I have a growing family of resident house wrens, allowing me to observe this bird close-up.  Loud house gets loud bird.

House Wren at new house

House Wren at new house

Wrens belong to the family Troglodytidae and are divided into 20 genera and 80 species, 9 in North America.  The family name is derived from the Greek “trogle” meaning hole, and “dytes” meaning diver.  This describes the often seen downward escape wrens use when stressed.  Wrens are all New World birds except for the Winter Wren which likely crossed into Eurasia via the Bering Strait long ago.  For the new birder, when you see a small, brownish bird with a longish decurved bill and upturned tail, think wren.  These tend to be busy, fidgety birds.  Your confidence in the ID rises if the bird is loud, often very loud.  They have some of the loudest songs per gram of bird in the entire avian world.  I usually hear a Carolina Wren long before I see it, and may never see it.  My House Wrens seem to sing non-stop and one wonders why they are seemingly bringing attention to themselves and their house.  Shouldn’t a small bird be hiding its young family and nest from predators. Not this bird.  Move into the garrish house, sit on the roof, and let loose with song.  Various wren pairs are even known to join together in duets, the female doing the backup and the male taking the lead.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

So far I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing 6 wren species; the House, Carolina, Cactus, Winter, Rock, and Marsh Wrens.  The House is smaller and plainer than the Carolina, which is a bird of the southeast USA and has a rich chestnut-colored back, butterscotch breast, and white eyebrow.  I’ve sometimes confused the Carolina’s full rich song with that of the Cardinal, but I’m getting better at that.

Cactus Wrens

Cactus Wrens

The hardest of these birds to see is the Winter Wren.  It is the smallest of the group, darker, and has a very short tail.  It breeds in the northern evergreen forests of Canada but comes further south in the winter, hence the name.  Unlike its cousins it tends to hide near the ground, creeping through the dead leaves.  You have a better chance of hearing its high pitched song than seeing it.  Note I have no picture, yet.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

I was birding the Arizona desert and a little frustrated that I hadn’t yet seen a Cactus Wren.  Playing the song for 30 seconds changed all that.  I was soon surrounded by several of the loud brash birds, seemingly posing for me on their cactus, right on cue.  These are large spotted and striped wrens found throughout the lower southwest deserts.

Like the Winter Wren, the Marsh Wren is more often heard than seen.  I first saw it in the vast marshes of Bombay Hook Delaware, when it briefly popped up to check me out and give me a quick shot, before hiding again in the tall grasses.  These birds carry the decoy game to the extreme often building several dummy nests, before settling on the real deal.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

The Rock Wren also obeys the restrictions of its name.  I first saw this bird on the rocky cliffs of Point Loma California.  Its a large, fairly plain wren of the western USA, often nesting in cliffs and crevices.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

So my target list of North American wrens is now Bewick’s, Sedge, and Canyon species.  That’s part of the fun of birding; watching the common bird in the back-yard birdhouse and at the same time planning on a strategy to find what you have not yet seen.  The total target list of birds yet unseen is considerably longer than the list of those already seen and heard, and that will probably always remain so.

A Very Big Year

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Every birder at some time or other has a wild dream of taking a whole year off from life and travelling to the far reaches of the planet; from the tropical rainforests, to the mountain heights, to the vast grass savannahs, to the polar regions, and to the windswept seas.  The goal is to see hundreds, no thousands of new birds, all in a single year, and join the relatively short list of birders who have gone before and had a really big year.  Then we wake up from this dream in a cold sweat, realizing the cost, logistics, miles, physical energy, safety issues, and time from loved ones this adventure would entail.  But wait–as we speak this adventure is being lived by a fellow birder and he is sharing his daily itinerary and growing year-list with us all via the wonders of the internet.

Eurasian Jay, Italy

Eurasian Jay, Italy

Noah Strycker is a 28 year-young self-described “full-time bird nerd”, an accomplished international birder, and the author of “The Thing With Feathers“.  His lofty goal is to be the first person to see 5000 bird species in one calendar year, accomplishing this amazing feat in one continuous birding trip beginning in Antarctica, then, South, Central, and North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Pacific Islands, ending 365 days later in Australia.  I’m jet-lagged just writing that sentence.  He describes his “pursuit of birds as part sport and part existential meditation.”  Instead of using one or two guides for the whole trip he is meeting local birders and experts who lead him to their local birding hotspots.

Red-crested Cardinal

Red-crested Cardinal, Argentina

Noah is fostering the concept of “birding without borders”, the name of his website.  He notes the irony of artificial geopolitical borders where birders line up on one side to see wandering species of birds cross the border and satisfy their checklist, when they could just travel a few miles across the border and easily see the same birds.  Another example is the difficult trip to  Attu in Alaska to see the Asian rarity and satisfy the North American checklist, when the same bird is common and easily seen in Asia.  For Noah, the only list worth keeping is a whole world list.  His mantra for the trip is “stay flexible and keep a sense of humor.”

Spot-billed Duck, Japan

Spot-billed Duck, Japan

At the stroke of midnight, Day 1, New Years Eve, 2015, Noah was in a hot tub on the deck of a Russian ship with 5 friends and a bottle of champagne, cruising the Western Antarctic Peninsula.  By dawn he had found the first bird, a Cape Petrel–only 4999 to go.  There are days when Noah sees over a hundred birds in South America, but only can count 1 or 2 as new birds for the year.  Bird #2000 was a Shining Honey Creeper in Panama.  Rain did not stop Noah on Day 47 in Peru as he noted, “the birds don’t seem to mind it.”  I remember that Phoebe Snetsinger, the all time life-list record holder at 8674, noted that birding in the rain is the one time a female birder has an advantage over a male–she could fasten the umbrella handle to her bra and keep both hands free for the binos.

Great Kiskadee, Argentina

Great Kiskadee, Argentina

One interesting facet of this trip is the logistics, and particularly the packing list.  Noah’s goal was to travel light, with just a small carry-on backpack and no luggage to check.  He included binoculars of course, and his heaviest item, a Leica spotting scope.  Medical supplies included malaria pills, mosquito net, and H2O purification tablets.  He took a small laptop but debated about the second change of underwear.  The year has been set up as an endless summer of birding, so winter clothes would only be necessary in the higher mountain treks.  The down jacket is primarily used as packing material or pillow.  On Day 77 he received a thoughtful and practical care package from Mom–new socks, and on Day 81 in Columbia he celebrated using the first proper washing machine in 45 days.  Oh to be young again.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Italy

Eurasian Blue Tit, Italy

But why listen to me rambling on about this adventure when you can go to Noah’s site at www.audubon.org/features/birding-without-borders, and read his daily journal.  He currently is on Day 156 and making his way across the USA.  His list stands at 2733 birds.  The last bird was a Barred Owl seen at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, New York on June 5.  That brings this all closer to home for me as I’ve birded that same woods many times.  One theme of his journal is the support he has received from the countless local birders, many previously unknown to Noah, but gladly leading him to their favorite spots and supporting his quest.

I’ve sprinkled some of my international bird photos throughout this post to rekindle my travel urge, but I think I’ll stick to the a more modest itinerary, and take more than one change of underwear.