Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Spotting on the Stormy Petrel II

While sweating it out in the marshes at Lake Mattamuskeet I got a call from Brian Patteson, Captain of the Stormy Petrel II and the preeminent pelagic trip leader in the state (if not the entire east coast).

I had inquired about space on his Saturday trip to the Gulf Stream before leaving Durham, so this call wasn't entirely unexpected.  "Here's the deal..." Brian began in his no-nonsense style.  "We've got a full boat,  but one of our spotters is having car trouble.  Would you be interested in wearing a walkie-talkie and helping us out?  You'll get a free trip."

I don't think I said "hell yeah!"  But that's what I was thinking.  Not only was this a big break in terms of cost savings, but spotting on Brian's boat is quite an honor.  His trips are world famous.  Every serious North American birder has gone on, or plans to go on, one or several of his trips.  It's  essentially the only place one can hope to see several pelagic species, such as Great Skua, Black-capped Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.

Of course, the fact that I got invited to spot says more about how desperate Brian was than anything about my tube-nose identification abilities!  This trip was only my fourth out of Hatteras and only my second during the summer months.  So I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time to get the call.  And coincidentally this was the second time within the week I had been called upon last-minute to help lead a birding tour (the first time was in the Dominican Republic).

It also turned out to be a fantastic trip!  The weather was pleasant and the pelagic birds were numerous, diverse and cooperative.  A few dozen endangered Black-capped Petrels paraded past the boat throughout the day.  This is the very species trying to persist through the catastrophic deforestation ongoing in Haiti that I witnessed recently, so it was nice to see that they are holding on somehow. 

I  focused on spotting birds and calling them in to Brian, so I didn't get to take many pictures (sadly I forgot to have somebody photograph me wearing the headset up on the bow pulpit), but when a Long-tailed Jaeger started on its third close inquisitive pass around the boat I raced for my camera.
immature Long-tailed Jaeger - fresh from the arctic

A tough bird to identify for sure!  Luckily Brian called it immediately so I didn't have to throw my hands in the air make excuses about it being my first day.

Other pelagic birds not previously mentioned were: Corey's Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Audubon's Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope, Bridled Tern (lifer!), Sooty Tern (lifer!), and Pomarine Jaeger; a great haul.

I suppose this trip wasn't as significant bird-wise as "the greatest Hatteras winter pelagic of all time" that I was on back in February, but it was a trip I'll never forget for the role I got to play.  Hopefully I'll get a chance for an encore sometime soon!

A big thanks to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for having me aboard. 

For a more detailed account of the bird life on this trip and much better photos, check out their seabirding blog.

To book a trip aboard the Stormy Petrel II, visit www.seabirding.com

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Distracting Birds at Mattamuskeet

Some of you may be aware that I've begun a research project on "bird biogeochemistry" at Lake Mattamuskeet, a site that just happens to be a fantastic for birding.

I try to be disciplined, keep my head down, and focus on the task at hand as much as possible while out doing field work, but when I notice a Least Bittern clinging to a phragmites stalk not 50 feet away... 
Least Bittern
...well then it's time for a quick break!
my first seen in NC
In the same area I got several great looks at a King Rail (lifer #1603!) that was sharing the marsh with me for the day (though using it for much different purposes). 

There were a few warblers around: Prothonotary, Yellow and some very friendly Prairies:

Prairie Warbler
I was surprised to have a flock of 99 dabbling ducks (mostly Blacks with some Green-winged Teal and possibly others mixed in) assemble near my site one evening. But I suppose this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands that will arrive in November.

Toss in a flyby Sandhill Crane, a flock of 50 Boblinks and a couple early Sedge Wrens and I would say this lake has plenty of distracting birds!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Birding the Dominican Republic

This is part 2/2 of my Hispaniolan birding series. For part 1, see birding Haiti.

I had high hopes for the Dominican Republic after an exhilarating, but somewhat bleak impression of Haiti.  The Lonely Planet guidebook I picked up points birders in the direction of the Sierra de Bahoruco and a camp owned by Kate Wallace of http://www.todytours.com/.

So after clearing the border at Malpasse I deserted my first class bus bound for Santo Domingo and hopped on the back of a motorbike.  While being whisked into the dusty border town of Jimani I spotted my first Dominican bird in a rather putrid-looking roadside puddle: Black-necked Stilt.  Not a bad start!

In Jimani I caught a gua-gua (the Domnican version of the Haitian taptap) to Duverge.  I marveled at the large, relatively clean, pleasant, shady plaza in the center of town. Within a few minutes of striking up a conversation with some locals a motorbike was conjured and I was being blasted up into the countryside.

At Kate Wallace's camp in Rabo de Gato I was given a warm welcome by the Dominican host family, but was quickly distracted by the birds flitting around.  It was my first Hispaniolan broadleaf forest and it seemed to be teaming with activity despite the afternoon hour...

Broad-billed Tody or barrancoli (endemic)
Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo or Pajaro Bobo (endemic)
Stolid Flycatcher (the only Myiarchus around thankfully)
Palmchat (endemic; the national bird)
Hispaniolan Pewee (endemic)

I set off along the nearby trail that follows a riparian strip and at the lagoon was pleasantly surprised to find a couple families of nesting Least Grebes. 
Least Grebe
And then I had a surreal experience with a Key West Quail-Dove that tottered up to within about 25 feet like a feral pigeon!
Key West Quail-Dove
Hispaniolan Parrots (endemic), White-necked Crows (endemic and vulnerable), Olive-throated Parakeets (introduced from Jamaica) and Scaly-naped Pigeons were all heard and/or seen flying overhead in this area.

The next day I arranged to wake up early and have "El Capitan" drive me up to "La Placa," a dry forest area that rises up into a moist/dry transition zone and has fabulous bird habitat.

Hispaniolan Spindalis is rather common here.

Hispaniolan Spindalis (endemic)

After hiking up toward the higher wetter end, I found a pair of Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers, that resemble and were, until a recent genetic study, thought to be warblers.
Green-tailed Ground-Tanager
 And in a mixed flock I found my only Antillean Piculet (an endemic) of the trip.

Antillean Piculet (endemic)
Somewhat disconcerting were the several truckloads of Haitian farmworkers that passed me on the road.  Farmers in a national park?  I thought that problem was restricted to Haiti!

deforestation in Sierra de Bahoruco
Basically Haitians, desperate to do anything to improve their lot, have pushed across the border into the DR where Dominicans gladly exploit them as a source of cheap labor (or worse, execute them and take whatever life savings they may have brought along).  It's a tragic situation that somewhat resembles the US-Mexican border relationship. Americans and Dominicans bemoan the lack of border security, yet unwittingly rely on cheap illegal immigrant labor to deliver the food they consume.

The big loser is the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, which is being cut for charcoal and then farmed for potatoes and beans.  This goes on despite the significant military presence in the area (I probably passed through two dozen checkpoints in the DR).  The (probably poorly paid) soldiers apparently have little incentive to enforce the rules of international and park borders and prefer to be bribed to do nothing.
The view into Haiti from the aguacate military post
Clearly this cannot continue or the Dominican Republic will eventually look like Haiti--denuded and depauperate.

Well I suppose that will make the Kestrels happy.

American Kestrel (endemic subspecies)

On the way back down to camp I finally got my Hispaniolan Trogon.  Its near-threatened status per the IUCN seemed all the more justified. 

Hispaniolan Trogon (endemic; near-threatened)

That afternoon Kate Wallace arrived with a client, a career army man in the Pentagon who I'll just refer to as "Captain America."

The three of us set off on a little stroll down the same path I had taken the day before.  We were having a great time looking at both tody species in the same tree, finding surprisingly early Louisiana Waterthrush, and ogling the multicolored snails that apparently are abundant enough to encourage Limpkins to wander around in upland dry forest (a bizarre sight!).
Limpkin food

Then just when we were about to turn back Kate got badly gouged in the eye by a stick as we were moving a branch from the trail.  Luckily Captain America was there to apply first aid and she avoided getting an infection.  Despite unimpaired vision she prudently declared herself unfit for driving and deputized me as Captain America's driver and guide for the following morning (wahoo!).

So up we rose at 0400 hours the next mourning to head up into the prime cloud forest with a local guide, named Raphael. Along the way we flushed four Burrowing Owls from the road (endemic subspecies) and stopped to hear both Hispaniolan Nightjar (endemic) and Least Paraque (endemic).  I played some tapes and shined my light around, but we weren't able to see either caprimuligid in the little time we wished to spare.

On we went ascending until we reached La Selle corner.  Here we were given a wonderful predawn serenade by Rufous-throated Solitaires and La Selle Thrushes (endemic; endangered), the latter which once we had some light, could be seen out feeding in the road.
La Selle Thrush (endemic; endangered); note terrible predawn light
Up here we heard several White-fronted Quail-Doves (endemic; vulnerable) calling to each other, but were never able to see one. Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers were locally abundant here and we saw a couple Hispaniolan Highland-Tanagers (endemic; Vulnerable), Hispaniolan Emerald (endemic) and several other previously mentioned species.

Hispaniolan Emerald (endemic)
Hiking onward and upward the forest became monotypic pine and I noted for the first time epiphytic vegetation growing on pine trees.

Pines and bromeliads?  A first for me
In this area we found Antillean Siskins (endemic), Pine Warblers (endemic subspecies) and Hispaniolan Crossbills (endemic; endangered).

Hispaniolan Crossbill (endemic; endangered)
Captain America was especially excited about the crossbill since it was his first Loxia and he had searched for them diligently across several continents.

But the best bird for me was the Bay-breasted Cuckoo or Cua (endemic; endangered) we saw on our way back down near La Placa. It's the bigger badder brother to the Lizard-Cuckoo and quite a tough bird to get. I had already been tantalized by calling birds that refused to show themselves on three separate occasions the day before.

Our final endemic was a pair of Flat-billed Vireos we had shortly after the cuckoo.

Flat-billed Vireo (endemic)
 And then we had to hurry back to camp to check on Kate's wounded eye and make the trip back to Santo Domingo so Captain America could catch his flight home the next morning.

I had one last day, so I went out to bird the botanical garden, which mostly was loaded with common species
Greater Antillean Grackle

Common Ground-Dove
But the reason I went was to see Hispaniolan Parakeets (endemic; vulnerable) and West Indian Whistling Duck (vulnerable), my 1600th life bird!

West Indian Whistling Duck
It was fitting that I should hit that kind of a milestone at the end of such an amazing and eventful trip. I ended up seeing 37 life birds and 24 of the 31 Hispaniolan endemics with 3 others heard only.  The remaining four that escaped me were Ashy-faced Owl, which I never had a method to try for; Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager, which is endemic to southwestern Haiti; Ridgway's Hawk and Eastern Chat-Tanager, both of which cannot be found in the areas I birded. 

So I would highly recommend getting in touch with Kate Wallace (her eye is fine) and booking yourself a Tody Tour.

If South America is the all-you-can-eat buffet of endemic birds, then the Dominican Republic is the fast food joint that's a bit closer, quicker and easier to get to.  The birds and forests could certainly use your patronage before they disappear!

Birding Haiti

Haiti is no place for tourists of any kind let alone birders.  The environmentally-minded among us are probably familiar with the country's reputation for degraded landscapes and that only 1% of forest cover remains.  But set foot in its capital and it becomes intimately clear that Haiti has far more urgent issues that need addressing before there's any hope of salvaging what remains of its biodiversity or restoring its ecosystems.

Port au Prince is essentially a refugee camp of 3 million people.  There is no road maintenance, no garbage collection, no water system, no sewer.  Walking the streets among the throngs is like participating in the obstacle-course-based TV game show Wipeout except that the hazards are rubble piles, heaps of garbage, and speeding motorbikes; and the sludgy water below just might harbor Cholera.  It's no wonder that aid workers don't set foot on the streets and pass their time safely cloistered within their Landcruisers.

There is subsistence agriculture in rural areas, but Haiti is a net importer of food, which comes mainly in the form of handouts from NGOs and foreign governments. Perversely this encourages more people to flock to the already crowded capital hoping to get their dole.  Some Haitians are trying to construct more housing (in the popular architectural style of unpainted cinder block), but the uncertainty about property ownership, multiple layers of corrupt politicians, and the fact that squatters have just about every square meter of ground inhabited snarls much of the effort to rebuild.

As far as I can tell there are no public buildings and few finished structures of any kind.  The National Palace is still a wreck two years after the earthquake.
The National Palace
The adjacent central square, the largest and possibly only remaining public space, was a tent-ville until a few months ago when the inhabitants were forced out to who knows where.

But you didn't come here to read about humanitarian and political disasters.  I'll get to the birds shortly. First I just have to say the Haitians I met were so incredibly friendly and seemingly happy despite the state of their country.  Playing basketball, trekking pants zipped in half, in front of a paying crowd of several hundred in Cite Soleil (per Wikipedia: "...generally regarded as one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the Western Hemisphere...") is an experience I'll never forget.
Ballin' in Cite Soleil
And amazingly I never witnessed violence, or even anger (except once over a game of dominos).  I was panhandled less frequently in Port au Prince than I usually am wandering around Durham. 

Now onto birds...

Historically Haiti was home to all of Hispaniola's 31 endemic species, but in reality at least a few of these have probably been extirpated. And bird life in general among the scattered urban trees around the capital is rather sparse.  Notable exceptions were a pair of "Pajaros Bobo" or Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos, an endemic, and a nest colony of Village Weavers, an introduced species from Africa. 

I was determined to reach National Parc La Visite, where ornithological groups from Cornell and Vermont had recently visited to study Black-capped Petrels and Bicknell's Thrushes.  It is the wrong time of year to see either of these species, but supposedly the park contained remnant, albeit dwindling fragments of broadleaf vegetation that harbor some of the rare and endangered endemics.

A pair of Hatian taptaps, the popular mode of transport
To get there we crammed into the safest most efficient form of Haitian transportation, the "taptap" (see above). After lurching and bouncing for some four hours up a mountainside our truck could go no further because of poor road conditions, so we disembarked and hiked another four-plus hours passing women with impossibly heavy loads balanced atop their heads. 
Haitian deforestation

The upside of hiking in the Haitian mountains is the lack of trees means there is always a fabulous view.  A few birds were around making use of what cliff-side shrubs remained and the odd tree that had been spared.  Some were familiar, such as Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, probably not too troubled by all the open space.  Others were more exciting, such as Black face Grassquit,
Black-faced Grassquit
and a couple endemics: the very common Hispaniolan Woodpecker
Hispaniolan Woodpecker

and Black-crowned Palm-Tanager.
Black-crowned Palm-Tanager
 Finally we reached a plateau and my first Haitian forest.
Forest of Hispaniolan Pine
Of course it was all pines.  Broadleaf vegetation is cut for charcoal wherever it can be found and heavy grazing pressure ensures that none can regrow.  But the fresh air and flowers were a welcome change from the sights and smells of garbage and motorbikes that prevade and permeate Port au Prince.

Best of all, the hike through the pines yielded flocks of endemic and threatened Hispaniolan Palm Crows and the endemic and endangered Hispaniolan Crossbill.  I also found the endemic Hispaniolan Emerald flitting along a stream.

We hiked through the pines to an inn (the only one around) where we would stay the night.  The surrounding gardens were filled with Antillean Siskins (another endemic)
Antillean Siskin
and the hibiscus was popular with an Antillean Mango.

Antillean Mango

We woke up early the next morning and went with a local guide named Wilfred on a hike out into the park.  

a national park?

 Despite being a national park, there were farmsteads and rows of crops.  It made for a charmingly pastoral scene, but not what you expect in a supposedly protected area.

Wilfred took us to a beautiful karst waterfall.
Waterfall at La Visite

Because of the steep ravines along the sides of the stream, some broadleaf shrubs and bushes remained and here the bird life got more exciting. The best bird was a Western Chat-Tanager, an endemic and threatened skulker that Wilfred spotted for me. We also had Red-legged Thrush and a couple more endemics: Narrow-billed Tody
Narrow-billed Tody
 and Hispaniolan Pewee.

Hispaniolan Pewee
On our way back to the inn, I came across an interesting mixed species flock that contained a Greater Antillean Elaenia, a Pine Warbler, which belonged to the endemic resident subspecies, and a Black-and-white Warbler, which was an early migrant and quite a surprise. 

I had hoped to see Haiti's national bird, the endemic Hispaniolan Trogon, as well as the endangered and endemic La Selle Thrush, but these birds are apparently difficult (if not impossible) to find along this stream.  The best dwindling remnants of broadleaf forest in the park were at least a couple hours hike from the inn and we just didn't have the time to go that far.  Ahead of us was a long hike down the other side of the mountain (where I saw 4 Hispaniolan Orioles--another endemic species) followed by a white-knuckle motorcycle ride over treacherous roads and through bustling villages to the city of Jacmel and a seaside hotel.

The words the ornithologists have used to describe the state of the habitat and prospects for maintaining the biodiversity of La Visite as "grim" or "dire." But I almost think that's too generous.  Given the social and political backdrop the term "futile" is probably more fitting.  Perhaps that sounds overly pessimistic, but on the bright side these birds really aren't concerned about political borders and are doing just fine 100 miles to east in the Dominican Republic, right?  I certainly hoped and expected so.  And I couldn't wait to find out.

After a morning playing in the surf of a beach that would have been beautiful were it not for the dense wrack of washed up garbage, we made the pilgrimage back to Port au Prince.  The next morning I got up early to catch the first bus bound for Santo Domingo, eager to escape a nation in the throes of humanitarian catastrophe, speak some Spanish, and search for thrushes and trogons in a greener setting. 

Stay tuned for my next installment on birding the Dominican Republic.  And in the meantime appreciate your access to potable water, a toilet and a nearby park and its birds.