Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Costa Rica Trip, (a Farewell to the Herman Institute of Biological Studies)

Few things in life have been harder for me than this past trip to Costa Rica. Despite all of the amazing experiences, people, friendships, data and birds seen through out the last 14 years in Playa Azul, Costa Rica, at some level it's always going to feel a bit like a failure. I'm smiling now as I write this, and feeling proud of all of the things that establishing the Herman Institute of Biological Studies helped make possible, and now it's gone.

One thing that I have come to realize through the process of letting go has been that the relationships forged between the people, birds, communities, ecosystems and even the data can all carry on without the physical structure tethering them to Playa Azul. Here are some photos of my time there from Jan 11, 2014-January15th

The view of the Institute and grounds as seen from the street with one's back to the Tarcoles River.

The sign that I painted in 2001, really doesn't look all that bad for not having been touched up.

The neighbor's house, and typical of the town.
The view from the front of the Herman Institute, looking out at the Tarcoles River and Gerardo Montero who has gill-netted in the mouth of the river for over 50 years.

Gerardo Montero, father of my friend and Bird Guide Luis Campos, and to Xinia Campos the caretaker of T.H.I.B.S. for the last 11 years. Look at his feet.

Some plants and a wonderful statue that has been with the property through many incarnations...

This is Pipo and his oxen. He is in his 70's and delivered the stones and gravel used in the construction of the Institute. He still fills his cart mostly on his own, I doubt he'd rather be watching "Oprah".

The Scarlet Macaw, once a dwindling population has been on the upswing for more than 10 years with the reduction in nest predation by pet smugglers

Don Javier and his family, the new owners of the Institute property in Playa Azul. Wonderful people

Pelicans around the fishing boats in Tarcoles

You'd Howl too if you were sitting on your nuts! This was one of a troop of 4 Howler Monkeys that came through the yard to say goodbye on my last day in Playa Azul.

A Black-headed Trogon in the town of Tarcoles

SUnsets in Playa Azul are almost always breathtaking, as the sun dips below the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. This Woodstork made this sunset exceptional!

A Black Ctenosaur , an iguanid that is very common in Costa Rica. Known as "garrobo" locally, it is also relished as a wild food source.

I got to go to Carara on Tuesday the 14th. I birded the River trail in the morning and saw 91 species of bird. It was a wonderful morning punctuated by a flyover of two male Yellow-billed Cotingas!

White-faced Capuchin monkeys are really common in Carara National Park. These guys were raiding a wild banana grove
A Chestnut-backed Antbird shot at 1/6th of a second. I don't like to use a flash to photograph birds for the most part.

The largest click beetle that I have ever seen.

My friend Juan prepares a long line set over 3 kilometers long for Red Snapper

Scarlet Macaws are often in the nearby towns and villages eating beach almonds.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wolf Moon Owls

So, I'm just going to start typing, as if it hadn't been a full calendar year since last time I wrote on here. I don't want to go into all of the reasons, at least not here, it's too much to synthesize in one blog post, and I'd rather write about owls! Specifically the 6 owls that I've seen in the last day!

This year, I'm finally keeping a RI state year list, which means, I'm actively trying to see as many species of bird in the state of Rhode Island in the next calendar year. What this means is that when I get a text or an email about a rare bird in RI, I usually lock the shop doors and head out to where ever the bird might be. Yesterday I got one such text, followed by an email alerting the bird community that a Sandhill Crane had been spotted in Sepowet Marsh in Tiverton, RI. One good thing about RI is that, although Sepowet is completely on the other side of the state, it is only 30 miles away! Sandhill Cranes are rare in RI, and usually only seen briefly and sporadically during migration. It's sort of bizarre that one would be here now, so I had to try and see it.

After parking right where Tom Auer was viewing a Vesper Sparrow, and ruining said view, (whoops!) I saw the Sandhill Crane, thanks to Barbara Sherman for direction and the scope views!! It was feeding in the back of the field with about 250 Canada Geese. I then tried to see the Vesper Sparrow that Tom had seen, and saw a sparrow with white outer tail feathers, but wasn't able to confirm it as the Vesper. Bummer!

So what does all of this have to do with owls? Well, a friend of mine lives in Tiverton, and he drinks beer. So, I called him and went to find one of those beers! While outside in the back of his house, I did a Great-horned Owl call. It was kind of a hasty thing to do, but something to do while I was, well, you know what guys do in back yards in the middle of the night. I hadn't done what I should have done, which is to hang out for a second and observe and listen for owls, otherwise I probably would have had a better observational experience, instead, I just gave a call, and immediately an owl was flying straight at me. I assumed it was a Great-horned Owl since that was what I just called, and being the largest owl, it's rare that other owls would respond, or come into one of their calls. The bird came within about 45 feet from me and wheeled up and turned away, flashing its nearly all white undersides and a heart shaped facial silhouette partially lit by the rising, salmon colored Wolf Moon.

About 45 minutes later, Adam and I were coming back from the store and a small Saw-wher Owl swooped down in front of our car as we were driving. We were on a backroad right by his house, so we were driving about 10 miles an hour, and the owl's fluttery wings and spooked face were light in the headlights as it frantically lifted over the car. It was awesome!

So, today, in search of another out of place bird, I drove to Matunuck to see a small sandpiper, who's ID was in question. It had been ID'd as a Least Sandpiper, but more data and photos were being requested, as there are zero January records for that species. After getting bad views at that bird, I decided to drive around, and since this blog is too long already, here are some photos...
My camera died during the hurricane, and the light meter on this one is messed up, and sometimes I don't compensate enough, so sorry about the dark, mediocre photos!

This is cropped, and zoomed in, but I thought it looked cool with the falling snow!

A forest owl, it's kind of weird seeing one on a fence post in the day!

Friday, February 24, 2012

yellow-legged gull in Hyannis, MA, err.... a gull with yellow legs

Anna and I zoomed up to Hyannis today in the horrendous weather this AM to try and see this Gull in Veterans Park on the west side of town. The weather still sucked when we got there, but the gull in question was easily found right away, hanging out with some Herring Gulls and a Ring-billed Gull. They were quite cooperative, as they seemed to be accustomed to people feeding them. They would get closer when we rolled the windows down, but that meant the nasty sleet would blow right into the car.

So, I was really hoping that this would turn out to be an easy Yellow-legged Gull, a species which normally hangs out in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Upon further inspection though, it isn't quite that easy. This bird's head is darker, and the streaks that run from the nape into the face extend down and into the breast. The mantle color seems right, but the bill to me seemed smaller than nearby Herring Gulls, which should be the other way around. The spot on the Gonys to me looked like the right size and color red, and the leg coloration seems to be right. The biggest plumage character for me that indicates that it might not be a pure Yellow-legged Gull is that it has a darker sub-terminal band on the underside of the secondaries, though I am no Gull expert and have never seen Yellow-legged Gull before.

Having said all of that, this was formally considered a subspecies of Herring Gull, and as we know, Herring Gulls can exhibit a wide array of plumage characters. Herring Gulls hybridize with Lesser Black-backed Gulls which seems to be a likely candidate for this bird given the dark sub-terminal band on the secondaries. This is a character that LBBG exhibits. Anyway, it was a fun morning, and a good gull to study, I just wish the weather had been nicer.
The Gull in the back with a nice crisp breeding plumaged Herring Gull in front for comparison.

The gull in flight, through the rain covered windshield showing the darker sub-terminal band on the underside of the secondaries.

Walking through the parking lot.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

AWA Birdathon Follow Up

Well, Thursday turned out to be an amazing day, both for weather and for birds. Lucky for me, my team mate Anna Hallstrom has an amazing amount of patience and ability to forgive as our well laid plans of haranguing around the state in search of birds such as Snowy Owl, American Bittern and Great Egret were traded for my realization that I had the return ferry time wrong, and as we got a coffee at Mable's cafe the horn blew and we watched the ferry pull away and our plans crumbled to the ground.

We went back into Mable's and got some breakfast resigned to the fact that the next ferry didn't return to the mainland until 2:30 PM, so there was no way to see a lot of the birds we had planned on. As we ate, we got swept up in some of the small island cafe chatter, and the topic of birds soon came up as our scope leaned against the building near the door, identifying us as birders. This was great, as we heard talk of the giant Arctic Snow Owls that had been seen this winter, and then got some great advice as to how to spend our time best on the island seeing as many species as possible, on foot.

Block Island has only some 900 year round residents, so it kind of feels a little easier to chase a flock of birds into someone's back yard, especially when all of the shades are drawn. In one such place we saw the majority of our terrestrial species, including a singing Rusty Blackbird. We had a really nice flyover of an adult Red-shouldered Hawk by the airport, but failed to see a few of the island's potential specialties. One of the most fun occurrences happened as I watched a crow overhead, and Anna saw a male Ring-necked Pheasant cruise across our path. I had gone all of 2011 without seeing a Pheasant, so I was a little jealous, but we decided we could count it for the birdathon anyway. A little while later we heard a few vocalizing behind the town hall, so I felt a little better about my 2012 year list!

As we sat along the bluffs drinking a lunchtime beer we ran into a couple of guys who had been metal detecting along the shore. They had found a "half a tweezer" and a Connecticut quarter, which they handed over for inspection. They were pretty excited about their discoveries, and the encounter was kind of a fun juxtaposition against the oddity of collecting bird sightings that is the act of birding.

The ferry home proved a success even though it was a brisk ride as we travelled straight into the steady NW wind. The seas had picked up since the morning, and it was kind of nasty. Anna, as she went to the bathroom for a second joked about not seeing anything while she was inside, and wouldn't you know it we had an amazing look at a Common Murre right next to the boat. As it lifted off the water we could see that it was transitioning into alternate plumage. A little after that we had 3 more Common Murres in flight, and it was nice to have just seen one so close to have a good calibration of the plumage coloration opposed to the darker black Razorbills also in the area.

Once back on land we hurried to the car and got going again, along the southern coast of RI. We made a couple of forays down the beach roads as we headed west toward Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. We picked up Wild Turkey, a second Red-shouldered Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk before arriving at Trustom to zoom out the trail in the fading light. There had been a number of species of waterfowl on the pond reported earlier in the week, including Barrow's Goldeney just the night before. As dusk overwhelmed us we worked over the silhouetted ducks on the pond picking up a few species here and there, and as we hit the field at 17:15 there were 3 American Woodcocks displaying. It was a great way to end the day to hear their peenting and falling twittering, which to me reversed Punxatawney Phil's forecast of a delayed spring. After all was said and done, we ended up with 65 species, which will seem pitiful compared to some of the other participating team's totals, but what can you do, we're not in Mexico!

Full list of Species Seen:

1. Canada Goose 6, 36, 68 = 110
2. Gadwall 8
3. American Wigeon 3
4. American Black Duck 4, 25, 32 = 61
5. Mallard 26, 16 = 42
6. Common Eider 55, 36, 30 =121
7. Surf Scoter 2, 6 =8
8. White-winged Scoter 10
9. Black Scoter 20, 22 scoter sp. 20,8 = 28
10. Long-tailed Duck 4
11. Ring-necked Duck 8
12. Greater Scaup 900 Greater/Lesser Scaup 75
13. Bufflehead 14, 16 = 30
14. Common Goldeneye 10, 2, 37, 6 = 55
15. Red-breasted Merganser 12, 12, 28, 6 = 58
16. Ring-necked Pheasant 3
17. Wild Turkey 9
18. Red-throated Loon 1
19. Common Loon 25, 7, 9 = 41
20. Horned Grebe 1
21. Northern Gannet 55, 45, 175 = 275
22. Double-crested Cormorant 2, 3 = 5
23. Great Cormorant 8, 22, 18 = 40
24. Ruddy Duck 75
25. Great Blue Heron 2, 2 = 4
26. Cooper's Hawk 1 seen on Moonstone Beach Rd
27. Red-shouldered Hawk 1 Seen by airport, adult, 1 Camp Fuller Rd.
28. Northern Harrier 3
29. American Coot 30
30. Purple Sandpiper 4, 7 = 11
31. American Woodcock 3 Displaying at Trustom Pond
32. Black-legged Kittiwake 8, 13 = 21
33. Ring-billed Gull 20, 6, 18 = 44
34. Herring Gull 45, 65, 55, 15 = 180
35. Great Black-backed Gull 20, 35, 32, 6 = 93 gull sp. 150
36. Common Murre 4 one on the water, 3 inflight, Identified by their plumage coloration
37. Razorbill 1, 3 = 4 large alcid sp. 6, 5
38. Great-horned Owl 1
39. Short-eared Owl 1 at Trustom Wildlife Refuge
40. Rock Pigeon 5
41. Mourning Dove 4
42. Belted Kingfisher 2, 1 = 3
43. Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
44. Downy Woodpecker 3, 1 = 4
45. Northern Flicker 2
46. Blue Jay 3
47. American Crow 24
48. Fish Crow 18
49. Black-capped Chickadee 7, 6 = 13
50. White-breasted Nuthatch 1
51. Carolina Wren 12, 2 = 14
52. American Robin 6
53. Northern Mockingbird 2
54. European Starling 35
55. Yellow-rumped Warbler 3 warbler sp. 1
56. Song Sparrow 11, 2 = 13
57. White-throated Sparrow 4
58. Dark-eyed Junco 7
59. Northern Cardinal 12, 3 = 15
60. Red-winged Blackbird 2
61. Rusty Blackbird 1
62. Common Grackle 1
63. House Finch 8, 2 = 10
64. American Goldfinch 2
65. House Sparrow 45

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Support My Big Birding Day to help the Alamos Wildlands Alliance!!

This Thursday my team, "the Hawkeyes" will be participating in a BIG DAY! What this means is that Anna Hallstrom and I will spend 24 hours trying to see or hear as many bird species as possible. We are doing this to get sponsors to raise money for a very cool and very important field station in Sonora, Mexico, the Navopatia Field Station of the Alamos Wildlands Alliance. The field station exists in a very unique desert/cactus habitat along the eastern shores of the Sea of Cortez. Every year, more and more of this habitat has been ripped up since NAFTA to farm your squash and tomatoes. Of course we like those veggies, but the markets that drive it, and the economy that makes it happen is not sustainable and the long term future of this enterprise is dim, yet the habitat is not recoverable. MANY of our nation's songbirds use this habitat to winter over and many more use it to fatten up during the boom monsoon seasons during migration.
This year, the Hawkeyes are putting a new twist to the Big Day! We are calling it a fifty / fifty challenge. That is, you sponsor us, and if we don't see fifty species, we will donate your pledge to the Alamos Wildlands Alliance out of our pockets! If we do see fifty species, you're on the hook for your donation, plus fifty cents for every bird species over 50! Get it? This is significant because in Rhode Island in February, it's not all that easy to see fifty species in a day, and the max that we could pretty much ever hope to see is about 70. So either way, we won't be breaking the bank, but it'll be fun either way!!
A fun way to help an awesome cause and some amazing people doing research on critical issues around the songbirds that call Sonora home. To read more about AWA's research and field station please click here!
To Donate to our team, the HAWKEYES click here
Also, I'll be tweeting throughout the day about our adventure. Follow me here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Some Older Thoughts on Life

Because I'm lazy and a little busy, I'm re-posting a blog that I wrote on August, 3rd, 2009, three weeks after tearing my achilles. It's a little long, but there are some interesting ideas in there that are pretty poignant in terms of our national economic state and the Occupy Movement

Before this whole injury thing happened, I had been synthesizing an idea, a statement, a way to explain my lifestyle in terms of retirement, health insurance and standard of living. Maybe I was just trying to come to terms with the hand I’m playing, but I’ve been picking all of my own cards for some time now. I don’t think that the ideas involved are fully matured yet, but the irony of my current situation and what I wanted to write about forces me to try and deal with it now.

A lot of people that I respect greatly caution me all of the time, that when I’m 50, 60 or 75 I’m going to regret not having led a more normal life and paid into some system in the hopes of receiving some benefits other than my social security blanket. Artists, surfers, teachers all alike have warned me, in fact I only know of one friend off of the top of my head that whole heartedly endorses how I live, granted, most people I know never contemplate what I do, they are just my friends. What is funny is that at the same time, I get the standard, “that’s great, do it while you can” encouragement, about my travelling and general tendency to wander and maybe not work as much as a good American should. I reply, ”while I can?? When would I not be able to do this?”

Central to my ethos, (for it is a planned existence, and not just the life I’ve fallen in to, is the fact that because we are born in this country, and because this is the greatest democracy in the world does not mean that I have to agree with that system, and it also does not mean that I have to offer you a better system in return. I believe that we are far beyond systems of management and government that can ENSURE equality and fairness to all people while maintaining a peaceful existence on this planet, unless that system is simply LOVE. Democracy will not save anyone. Never mind the fact that the U.S. is NOT a democracy, but a republic. That said, I’ve known since I was a young adult that I don’t agree with hardly anything that our government does, or at all with how 99% of people live their lives, and are more or less forced to live their lives by this cave allegory that has been written by corporate puppeteers, and constantly re-written to keep people just on the edge of survival and consumption, so that the most we, as Americans can hope for is a vacation to Cancun and some digital pictures to share at the office, never to know the possibilities that exist just outside of our prescribed boxed life. I know, I am over simplifying, but this is a blaahhgg, not a book.

So, for me, rejecting this type of a consumer based society, veiled by a patriotic fervor and guise of freedom has always meant that I must find different ways to exist in this realm. I accept that I have been very much shaped by late 20th century ideas, ideals, recreations, and pop culture. I am not saying that I want to disappear into the woods, or burn T.V.s, or blow up corporate officers. What I’m saying is that I want to leave the cave, and forge an existence that I know is there, and I want to inspire people to do the same. What I really want, is to live in a community where friendship and love is valued more than anything else, and I want to be loved and nurtured in that environment, and raise a family and enjoy all that this bountiful world has to offer. Kind of a bummer that I also believe that birthing and raising a child in this world does not make sense due to the current situation, thank you everyone who has ever given birth to more than your share of children, you took mine. Didn’t realize this was a rant too. Oh well. So the conclusion of this paragraph will read; Living as a normal American for me, not agreeing with the current situation of the world, our environment, our government would be like fucking for virginity or bombing for peace. You cannot simultaneously oppose a system and support it with your taxes and life without great emotional consequence. Unfortunately, you cannot also live simultaneously in the United States and oppose our government without going to jail and forfeiting your freedom, ‘cuz everybody knows freedom ain’t free. In fact, what freedom costs is one hundred years of isolating impoverished people throughout the world, subverting governments and opposition factions throughout the world, economically enslaving people in nations who never knew what a job was until their food sources all of a sudden cost money, exporting hatred, guns missiles, and munitions to the four corners of this spinning, wondrous and verdant globe. That’s what it costs, and you know what else it costs, your neighbor Jimmy’s leg, and 5,000 innocent collateral damages, all so we can watch the NFL, drink dirty martinis, and vote for the best of two fucking assholes. I don’t mean to point fingers. I own a 2006 Toyota, have $47,000 in debt to 7 or 8 creditors and drank 2 Olympia beers last night. I just want to work through this so we might make it a little better.

What does this have to do with the first paragraph about retirement, social security, standard of living, etc.?? Well, to many, I think the term “standard of living” is often at the heart of what they believe is truly the best course for their life. They believe working a 9-5 and paying into the system and retiring at 65 will be the way to optimize their standard of living, and get the most out of this life, until, ahhhhh....., at long last, heaven. Most people I think engage this idea regularly, and even contemplate their standard of living in terms of the rest of the world. The problem is that the examples of the rest of the world come in Sally Struthers commercials, the Headline news and photos of be-headed Mexican drug lords on the side of the road. Standard of living and Quality of life should be measured by number of smiles per unit area, and I guarantee you the US, as well as many other first world nations would fall to the bottom of the list. Even as it is, with normal indices like literacy rate, infant mortality rate, work/recreation rate, the United States is ranked very low on the list, even when compared to 3rd world countries. Costa Rica, for example ranks higher in every area, except for unemployment. Fewer people work, but more people are happier and healthier.

So, really, for me, the heart of the matter is that we are Homo sapiens sapiens, in the family hominidae, order primate, class mammalia and phylum chordata. To me, this means that we are essentially animals. Yes, we reason. We love. We do all sorts of things that have not been illustrated in much of the other occupants of the animal kingdom, including kill for nothing but an idea or thought, yet our similarities are far more numerous than our differences. Walk through a Walmart on some Sunday afternoon and you will quickly realize without a shadow of a doubt that we are not living as we should. I hesitate to say, “as we were meant to“, because, intellectually I have yet to embrace some idea of predetermination, or other god type concept. I think it is highly important to celebrate life, reflect on beauty and display reverence to the forces that make that possible for personal growth, but subscribing to a religion or giving allegiance to a god has never made sense to me. My wager is that if I love and perpetuate love, and never have a reason to ask forgiveness, than even if there is a Saint Peter, or an Allah, all they will be able to say to me when I reach the pearly gates will be “ Well done, my brother,” but it’s pointless to act on mythologies of the afterlife, without considering how best to live right here and right now. And to live best right here and right now is to not think about the future, not worry about tomorrow, or retirement. Is the idea of sitting in a mobile home at 65 careening along the vast highways, or watching days of our lives everyday really that attractive??

The security of a job may put one at ease, especially when mortgaged to your eyeballs, and leveraged beyond your next offspring, but is that how animals are healthiest. I’m pretty sure that every animal I’ve ever known who knew when their next meal came from, and never had to worry about shelter, or survival was less fit than its wild counterpart, including representatives of our own species. A more dynamic, visceral experience and interaction with the world can only be more satisfying, and lend itself to wider and deeper personal growth and knowledge. That is why I live as I do, and even as the bills mount, and I cannot work in my normal capacities, and I am really scared as to how I will eat in two weeks time, I know, for me, this is the right way to be, and though my smile”o”meter may be registering fewer smiles than normal for me, my standard of living will continue to be very high, and I am very thankful for that, and know that it has nothing to do with Republicans, Halliburton, Ford or even Thomas Jefferson.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Ode to Fungus

Now that fall is giving way to winter, I'm going to re-post a poem that I wrote two years ago, about this very night. The first killing frost, and the last night for mushrooms until the thaw.

Hark A Poem

The mushrooms will come no more.
The Bishop’s Mitre succumbs to hoar
Standing firm in proud virtue
They soon know a cold that's all and true

The Marasmius fairy rings do crack and brown
Nipples held aloft will
Soften, then lay down
In short cropped pasture
In long neglected lawn
The night time dancing fairy rituals
Which go unseen are gone.

Chanterelles, which have heroically
parted and plied the duff
Will soften, ooze and rot,
Having said enough is enough.
My dear Cyanescens
Who seem to know their part,
Will brown, blue, black
Thus finishing their art.

Solace does show on this frosty morning
New light shimmers on bejeweled ice of night
Crowned in gold, the sparrows
As they spread their wings in flight.
And yet, firm wine Russulas
Continue in their way.

In moist moss forests
Feed Flying Squirrels by night
Scaphinotus beetles in the day.
The time of the fungus, again it’s come and gone.
Cycle upon cycle, darkness spins to dawn.