Tuesday, February 2, 2016

10 Lessons from Mexico

Yucatan Jays, Calakmul

“…cutting across my consciousness came the raucous cries of parakeets in the trees along the river. It was precisely at that moment that I fully realized for the first time that we were really in Mexico.” Wild America Chapter 18, “South of the Border”

Birders are obsessed with the tropics. Dazzling tanagers, bizarre antbirds, and a confusing array of olive/yellow flycatchers inspire the mind of the birder who has exhausted their supply of new North American birds. Peruse the archives of any serious birdblog, and you’ll eventually hit a multi-post, breathless, and generally uninteresting-except-for-the-photos account of a trip to Somewhere South.

Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Felipe Carillo Puerto

I’ve wanted to bird south of the border for as long as I can remember; this dream’s conception I know not. Perhaps it was my young exposure to The Life of Birds, narrated by the ever-classy David Attenborough. Later, when I was perhaps twelve, I swooned over the Mexico chapter of Wild America. Fisher and Peterson, those two great gentlemen naturalists, wrote of guzzling Coca-Cola while chasing tropical butterflies and marveling over dozens of new bird species.

I could do nothing but wait. My family was not the type to take ziplining vacations in Costa Rica. In high school, I switched to Spanish from German for the express purpose of traveling Latin America. Via blogs and Facebook I watched my peers venture to the tropics for the first time and felt no small amount of jealousy.

 Spider Monkey, Calakmul

I finally made my first trip. For the past couple years, my friend Joel Betts and I have periodically dreamed about traveling together to Latin America. Joel wouldn’t really describe himself as a birder, but he’s a biologist with strong interests in tropical ecosystems. I gave him my battered Sibley guide a couple years ago, and he recently acquired his own binoculars, so I would say that he is well along the way to becoming an avian addict.

Rather than bore you with a day-by-day account listing each bird we found at each antswarm, I’ll share ten lessons I learned from my first expedition to the tropics. And photos, of course, since that’s probably all you will look at anyway.

 Pale-billed Woodpecker, Calakmul

1. Learn the calls.

Birds are hard to see. Now, imagine that you are standing on a dirt road through a tropical forest, peering into an impenetrable wall of vines, trying to spot that something rustling in the shadows. Now—imagine that this unseen bird sings—a beautiful cascading whistle, a song that is surely diagnostic…but, you don’t know vocalizations, so you’ll never know what it is. Bummer dude.

That was me in Mexico. I knew it was important to study up on vocalizations before the trip. And I did—a little. But it would be well worth spending hours on Xeno-Canto ahead of time. That way, you can say, “Hey! That was a Stub-tailed Spadebill! Let’s find it!” instead of “Hmm, don’t know that one either…it sounds interesting though…”

 Mottled Owls, Calakmul

2. Bring your scope.

The scope and tripod, wonderful innovations. Scopes mock distance and dismiss doubt—and, perhaps best of all, transform mediocre views into great ones. Foolishly I left my scope standing lonely in my bedroom in an effort to lighten my pack.

I regretted it. Several taxonomic groups—pigeons and parrots, especially—killed us. Accoutered only with binoculars, it’s hard to identify a Scaly Pigeon when it’s sitting on a snag a quarter-mile away. And, heck—a Keel-billed Toucan is unmistakable, but imagine a view of one at 45x at 200 feet.

View from Estructura II, Calakmul

3. You don’t have to spend lots of money!

Travel is a luxury and costs money—and quite a bit of it! But, fortunately, travel is cheaper if one foregoes the dine-on-the-beach resorts. Indeed, food and accommodation is much cheaper in Mexico than in the States. Joel and I partook of few luxuries and spent less than $900 on the trip (including airfare).

Summer Tanager, Isla Cozumel

4. If you wear glasses, get Lasik.

It’s humid and rainy. Those flycatchers of varying shades of olive and yellow will coalesce even more as your glasses smudge. Camping doesn’t help, either…

Eye-ringed Flatbill, Felipe Carillo Puerto 

5. Learn more Spanish.

I started taking Spanish in high school. In college, I studied in Spain and even freakin’ graduated with a B.A. in Spanish. I still felt lost a lot of the time. The more Spanish you know, the better. It will help you decipher road signs, ask locals about birding locations, and help you understand why those policemen with automatic rifles are rifling through your trunk…

Black-headed Trogon, Felipe Carillo Puerto

6. Keep a journal.

Yes, take pictures and enter eBird lists. But keep a journal, too. Write down the ridiculous things your travel buddy says. You’ll thank yourself.


7. Be careful what you eat and drink…but not too careful!

Joel and I are both strong-stomached, so we dined in a more cavalier fashion than is perhaps advisable. But don’t be afraid patronize hole-in-the-wall restaurants or street vendors, as long as everything looks fresh! Our only dietary indiscretion occurred when we ate some long-expired canned vegetables from a sleepy corner store.

Barred Forest-Falcon, Calakmul

Tap water is not safe. Drink bottled water or bottled drinks. (Following in the footsteps of Peterson and Fisher, we enjoyed many a Coca-Cola). For water, we eventually secured a 5-gallon garrafon, which, once empty, can be exchanged for a full at any convenience store for a couple bucks.

Lesser Roadrunner, Rio Lagartos 

8. Prepare to barter.

Here in America, I am accustomed to paying a set price for goods or services. Want a latte? $3.99, no questions asked. But, in Mexico, the guy selling avocados on the side of the road wants to maximize his profits, so he’ll tell some gringos that three avocados cost 50 pesos when they could be bought for half the price elsewhere.

Royal Tern, Rio Lagartos 

9. Don’t forget about Neotropical migrants.

If I got a dollar for every Magnolia Warbler I saw in Mexico, I would have been able to fully fund the trip without dipping into my savings. At times, it felt like we were birding back in Michigan: “Joel! There’s a Northern Parula! Next to the Black-throated Green—whoops, it dropped down near the redstart—oh! Just heard a Great Crested Flycatcher!”

Common Black-Hawk, Rio Lagartos 

It was super cool to see these old friends on their winter haunts—and fun to wonder if some of those warblers were the same individuals that we’d seen in migration or on their breeding grounds up North. If you’re feeling a bit rusty on your warblers, be sure to study!

 Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (and sea turtle), Las Colorados

10. Have a good attitude.

Deep in the jungle, a van, and gathered around it, a gaggle of white people! “Must be birders…tour group I bet,” I said. Joel, blissfully unaware of the dark side of birding culture, eagerly pulled off to the side of the road so we could engage them in conversation. I winced, knowing that the exchange would be awkward at best.

“Hi, anything good?” I hailed.
A chorus of unenthusiastic hellos. “Well, ah, it’s been really slow, actually,” said the leader. “A Rose-throated Tanager down the road. Couple Yucatan Flycatchers. But slow.”
“Ah, bummer,” I responded. “We’ve pretty much just had the usuals, too.”
We waited alongside them for a few awkward minutes while they tried to call in a Green-backed Sparrow. Then they left.
“Wow, they were grumpy!” Joel said.
“Yeah, man, gotta keep up that cool birder fa├žade,” I said.
“The usuals?!” he exclaimed. “We’ve seen dozens of new birds today.”
“I play the game too...but yeah, you’re right.”

On any birding trip, but especially your first foray to the tropics, enjoy the birds you see! Don’t fret over the Violaceous Trogon that you missed. You’ll never see every single species in a week.

 American Flamingos, Rio Lagartos 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Seeking Limnothlypis

Two hours southeast of Cincinnati is Red River Gorge, and there, as many birders know, lurks the enigmatic Swainson’s Warbler. The bird isn’t handsome—in fact, I’ve seen more attractive scat—but it is rare, so birders covet this denizen of rhododendron. Having never seen one, I found myself aflame with list lust and executed a decidedly harebrained quest to find them.

I worked all day Saturday, preventing me from doing much birding before dark. The road leading to my intended bivouac had eroded away (come on, forest service, update your webpage!), so I drifted back to a Walmart for the night. The ensuing fitful night of sleep cramped in my trunk added to the substantial body of evidence that it is impossible to sleep comfortably in a Ford Taurus. (Before I complain further, allow me to say that my sleeplessness did net me two Common Nighthawks and a mockingbird. Worth it all.)

Early the next morning, after all-too-close encounters with McDonald’s (I know, I know. But, I needed to pee, and do you know how great coffee sounds after “sleeping” in your trunk all night?), a rabbit (it died), and oncoming traffic (all parties survived), I was stumbling down the Rock Bridge Trail, lured on by the distant whistles of a Swainson’s Warbler. I hiked into the ravine, realizing that the rhododendron canopy created an opaque blanket that would fully cloak small brown birds like Swainson’s Warblers. To top it off, the bird stopped singing. I paused to pity myself, rubbing my tired eyes. Some rustling leaves interrupted my thoughts. Glancing over, I immediately spotted the Swainson’s digging around in the leaf litter fifteen feet away. No way, that easy? I thought to myself.

The bird stayed in view for about ten seconds, flying just in time for the birder couple from Washington to miss it. I felt bad—it was, as the woman said, their last North American warbler that they “needed.” For ten minutes I did all I could to help them—which, to be honest, amounted to standing there, occasionally saying, “Ah, I hear it up the ridge.” Eventually I bid them good luck and continued hiking.

I ended up seeing two more Swainson’s, as well as piles of Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers. Add that to the giant millipedes, pink lady’s slippers, and beautiful scenery, and it was well worth the drive and the tortuous night. A few hours later, when I again bumped into the Washington couple, I was happy to discover that they eventually had good views of the bird.

Get to the gorge. My only advice is to camp properly and eat something other than peanut butter for four meals straight.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Birding by Impression I

Newer birders tend to focus on details. They squint to ascertain the hue of shorebird legs and doggedly attempt to sort out sparrows based on breast pattern. Following the field marks is the classic route to improve one's birding prowess. But, in many cases, those details are superfluous.

Let me set the stage. You are walking through a beech-maple forest on a balmy April afternoon. A medium-sized bird--looks woodpeckerish--flushes from a nearby tree and lands several trees back. You try to manuever to get a clear view, but the bird keeps ducking behind the trunk, staying out of sight.

It was a sapsucker. They're sneaky. Their coyness is unparalleled in the woodpecker clan. Don't bother looking for white wing stripe or the red throat patch.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A day without a camera: the journal


An error message flashes. No memory card! And so my camera is debilitated by the absence of a plastic square weighing a gram. Instantly I mourn. Today will go unrecorded, be forgotten.

But no! I will photograph with ink instead of JPEG. I must see through my cornea instead of my camera. It is harder.


I follow the throaty din of chorus frogs, expecting to find a secluded vernal pool. Instead I stumble across a roadside ditch containing one bathtub’s worth of water. The surface is iridescent with oil. But the frogs are here, dozens. I squat. They stop. I gaze at their projecting snouts, at their smallness. At their disregard for the oily water. Then I rise, and the frogs splash.


I sit reading in a forest of trees younger than my parents. Nothing stirs in the midday sun except a Hairy Woodpecker dissecting an ash. I stare at the page. Paper. Wood. Trees. These trees around me would have been saplings when my parents were students at Wooster. Woodcock habitat. This copse was woodcock habitat half a century ago. They would have twittered and tumbled overhead at dusk.

Some of these trees are my age. Neither a sapling nor a tree.

A Lapland Longspur rattles over. Ten minutes later, a pipit. It pays to sit outside.


If you are concerned about the proliferation of trash, then by all means start an organization in your community to do something about it. But before—and while—you organize, pick up some cans and bottles yourself. Wendell Berry, “Think Little”

My campaign of the day is to improve earth by picking up bottles. With fresh eyes I find them everywhere—Budweisers emerging from the leaf litter, a massive whisky bottle jammed in a low crotch. My latest addition is a Gatorade bottle—Glacier Cherry—cast away beside the trail, a testament to some hiker’s clumsiness.


A woodpecker that could be a flag alights on a nearby snag. It is, I realize, the most beautiful thing I have seen. It is perpetually wounded, chronically bleeding crimson from the head.


Ice shatters. Startled, I prematurely abort my woodpecker musings and seek the cause. Nothing. I gaze at the reservoir. Then, a partially submerged tree—younger than me—shudders. Ice snaps from its lower branches. It is not the breeze. I watch, but all falls still. A beaver? An angry catfish the size of a beaver? I do not know.


A young man rushes by on a yellow mountain bike, his calves mud-splattered. He is younger than me, and that says a lot; I am young. I wonder why he is here. Is he lonely, wishing that a buddy or lady friend could accompany him? Or is he reveling in the solitude, escaping the chaos of high school (college?) And, as I follow his tire tread in the dirt, I wonder if he is wondering about me.


I walk briskly, trying to maintain a healthy distance from Backpack Man, a hiker behind me on the trail. I have nothing against him; I simply want to be alone. He appears to be roughly my parents’ age. He hauls a massive tan backpack, military looking. I wonder what it contains. Camping equipment? Camera gear? I try not to step on the bike tracks left in the clay-colored mud by the young man.

Fast footfalls approach. I look up to see a trail runner, older than me, but not by much. His short career has already been successful (engineer?) I decide that he has a serious girlfriend—but, she’s out of town (visiting her parents?) Otherwise, she would be here.

This forest, this trail—empty, a stage for solitude, but full, full of people and their stories.


I reach the road. A large coffee cup—McCafe, 24 ounces—lies flattened beside the pavement. I stoop to collect it (even though it isn’t a bottle). Another runner passes me. I feel guilty but immediately scold myself—come now, you don’t need to run every day. And anyway, I’m walking. Miles. But, sluggish miles punctuated by frequent writing stops—my pulse probably has not exceeded one hundred beats per minute. In the ditch I spot a sodden car mat advertising BEECHMONT FORD. It also is not a bottle, but I pick it up anyway.


My car is intact. The only other soul in the lot is a man (slightly younger than my parents, I judge) and his bedraggled dog that is at least part border collie. The man has had a hard life. I force myself to scope the lake, thinking that the heat distortion will have abated. It is worse; the ducks are just as unidentifiable as before. A large truck—an aggressive, growling truck—pulls up behind me. A voice speaks, surely addressing me, as I am the only proximate person. I turn and see two rangers. I cannot hear over the engine. I walk to the window. The younger ranger—the one in the passenger seat, asks, “That guy have his pants down earlier?” I swear those are his exact words. I hesitate; the passenger ranger laughs, realizing the absurdity of his question. The driver says nothing, shows nothing. I say what I know, which is nothing, and they thank me and leave. The man and the dog leave shortly thereafter. I notice he drives a purple Ford pickup. Perhaps the mat that is now in my trunk was once his.


I sit on the cool concrete in the shadow of my car, writing about the rangers and the man with his pants possibly down. A Ford Focus pulls up next to me, driven by a young woman in a baseball cap and aviators. Not looking up, I hear her exit the car and walk away. Perhaps the mat that is now in my trunk was once hers. I imagine running up to her with the mat and asking, “Excuse me, did you lose this?” I imagine becoming her friend and falling in love. I see hikes in the woods, long coffee dates on rainy days.


People drive slowly, windows down, listening to frogs. At least I hope so.


Vultures and crows overhead
both black birds
but neither blackbirds.


I am on a new trail, the Cedar Pond trail, and I have reached what is presumably Cedar Pond, a small, murky pond without frogs. The trail is neglected, overgrown. I sit in the damp leaves and admire the stunted canopy of Lycopodium. Without thinking, I begin pishing and am surprised to realize that it is the first pishing incident of the day. Two chickadees—seeking real estate, I speculate—wander over, scold half-heartedly, and then resume their house hunt.


A butterfly erupts from the trail. I see a flash of orange. An anglewing! It alights on a wizened stump, and, as it fans its wings, I glimpse the silver crescent on its underwing. Not a Question Mark. But there are multiple commas. I wished for my camera. I wished I could memorize the markings and sketch them like a laser printer. I knew I could not, so instead I admired the terra cotta wings splotched with molasses. I tried to accept not learning its first name. Comma sp. it remains.


I sit in my car, contemplating my next move, staring out at the young forest, maple dominated. Probably Reds, judging by the low ground. I try to imagine my parents as trees. And how trees would be as parents. If John and Carol Gilbert were trees, I suppose I would be as well. What sort of tree would I like to be? Perhaps a sycamore—a slim, stately sycamore guarding the lip of a ravine, roots penetrating ancient shale. Yellow-throated Warblers will sing from my crown. As I age and hollow out, raccoons and Barred Owls will make their homes in my heart.


Sit in the forest long enough, quietly enough, and you will hear the leaf litter breathe. I am not joking. That carpet of decomposition is alive. Fallen leaves rustle without the lightest breeze. Wolf spiders dashing after prey, perhaps. Or salamanders or sowbugs or Wood Frogs shifting in their hiding spots. Or—perhaps it is the sound of plants growing, of shoots pushing through last year’s death. Or maybe it is causeless…

Friday, March 20, 2015

Parting Shots at Winter

Spring is official. It has been unofficially arriving over the last few weeks--and, arguably, the last few months. The Northern Rough-winged Swallows I saw in California in late December were likely northbound migrants. And here in Cincinnati, the maple sap has been running since the middle of January. But, now that spring is undeniably here with peenting woodcocks, blooming wildflowers, and nesting woodpeckers, it is a good time to reflect on winter. I will do so with photos.

The toadtree (aka, Hackberry)

The White Tree of Gondor

This is what I look like when I wake up in the morning.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The amphibian exodus

Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)

Late last night, returning from a jam session with my friend Alex, I saw frogs like popcorn on the rainy roads. I even saw (and narrowly avoided squishing) a salamander army-crawling across the nature center driveway. And so I decided to go for a midnight amphibian hunt even though I craved sleep.

Such nights are ideal for finding frogs and salamanders. Amphibian movements are dictated by rain--their skin must remain moist, and some individuals traverse hundreds of meters of high ground to reach their breeding pools. Moving at night presumably ameliorates desiccation and lends security from predators.

They covet vernal pools, those ephemeral puddles that will dry by July. These temporary ponds cannot house fish and other aquatic predators, creating a safe nursery for amphibians. But, the amphibians can't waste their time--the pools will dry, and if the larvae cannot mature, they perish. Starting in late February and early March, the salamanders stage a sluggish exodus from their subterranean hovels to their ice-rimmed breeding pools.

As I hiked through the persistent rain, I imagined seething masses of salamanders and cautiously planted each step to avoid pancaking any migrating amphibians. The scene at the first pool I visited was much less exciting than I had imagined--a few chilled Wood Frogs floated around, but nothing else. I had to search for ten minutes until I found my first Jefferson Salamander.

Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

I moved on to a second pool. This one throbbed with frog activity. I could hear the Spring Peepers from a quarter-mile away, and as I drew close, I could Wood Frogs gurgling the base line to the frog cacophony. The frogs, chilled and hormone-charged, were easy to catch.

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Crawling onto a sheet of ice isn't such a great decision when you are a poikilotherm!

No salamanders. I probed the shallow water with the beam of my headlamp, but the hunt was fruitless. Finally, out of desperation, I cast my net into the pool and dredged a three-foot section of the pool's bottom. To my astonishment, the net came up with a Spotted Salamander! I couldn't duplicate this feat despite casting the net a dozen more times.

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

And finally, this evening, while seeking woodcocks at Shor Park, I came across this fearsome salamander that I cannot identify

Just kidding--it's a crayfish, of course. I decided to overcome my deep-seated fear of crustaceans and picked it up. I didn't even get pinched! I can highly recommend the experience. Don't be afraid.