Saturday, February 20, 2016

Limerick from the Field I

Papilio demoleus

Losing money
Making friends
Speaking a new language.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Familiar in the Foreign

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

I have been in the Dominican Republic for a month and will be here for at least two more. It has been fantastic to live and work in a foreign country. I've learned a lot--about tropical ecology, the history of Hispaniola, and the Spanish language. And the birds! I could tell you all about the exotic lifers, like this Palmchat (a monotypic family!):

Palmchat (Dulus dominicus)

But instead, I'll bore you with photos of a common Neotropical migrant. Redstarts are ubiquitous through much of eastern North America. I've seen thousands. But, I've never seen a redstart in February (unless you want to count a handful of wayward California winterers). 

 Redstarts are hyper

Redstarts, like many other insectivorous species from the North Woods, retire to Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America for the cold months. Different species have different distributions; the Black-throated Green Warbler, for example, is abundant in Mexico and northern Central America but much less common in the Antilles. Redstarts are abundant in Central America (I saw lots in the Yucatan), but here in the Caribbean they seem to be even more numerous.

This particular individual (which I dubbed Chewy for the redstart's sweet chew call note) defends a wintering territory that includes the backyard of our field house. It appears around 3PM every afternoon to forage in the brush pile at the base of our satellite dish.

I must admit that it is strange to feel more enamored with redstart than with the endemics (Narrow-billed Tody! Hispaniolan Oriole!) Perhaps it is because these warblers undertake epic journeys of thousands of miles to winter here, while the Palmchats just sit on top of palm spikes their entire lives.

Or maybe it reflects my background, bias, and sentiments as a temperate birder. I have lots of memories with redstarts. It's almost as if Chewy were my childhood friend--as if a bit of fluff could be a friend.

Whatever the reason, I've enjoyed seeing Chewy and other familiar warblers on their wintering grounds. They have traded spruce for cecropia, snow for sunshine. As have I.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Field Biologist at Cow Urine Creek

Somewhere, down in that valley, Cow Urine Creek joins Rio Yaque del Norte

If I squint with my ears, I can hear Cow Urine Creek whispering downhill. It is a small creek, a foot or two across, inches deep. I don’t know its actual name—or if it even has a name. Probably not. I have dubbed it Cow Urine Creek for the local prevalence of cattle, which likely adulterates the stream’s purity.

It’s my spot, this tree I’m sitting in. A bulge in the horizontal trunk forms the ideal seat, and a brawny vertical limb is a convenient back rest. I felt a strong sense of fittingness when I reclined here for the first time. This is my spot, I thought. And I reached for my knife.

This is not something I normally do. Carving in bark is frowned upon for people who claim to be environmentally literate. Global environmental crises such as climate change and extinction are overwhelming and make me feel powerless; I could, however, refrain from the simple act of mutilating a tree. Nevertheless, I carved NAG 2016 in the trunk. Marking my spot. I felt no guilt.

Then, as I was repositioning myself, my knife fell from my pocket. I heard it bounce in the leaf litter. I cursed softly, then reached for my journal—but my pen also fell. There was nothing to do but to descend from my eyrie and search.

The pen I found within a moment. The knife was another story. My anxiety mounted as one minute stretched to five to ten. The vegetation was thick. And it was a nice knife. The guilt brewed. Sweaty and bur-stuck and ant-stung, I realized that this was perhaps my just deserve; carve the tree, sin against it, and lose your blade privilege. But it was a nice knife. I did not want to lose it. So, I returned to my house to fetch a machete to shave the concealing thatch of grass and vine.

Island birds are notoriously sensitive to human modifications. Some of Hispaniola's endemics have declined precipitously and are now extremely rare; others, like this Hispaniolan Pewee, remain common (and this one is even using a man-made perch!)

I hacked and swore and sweated. Expanding my radius of destruction, I mercilessly cut any petiole or liana that could harbor my lost knife. As the machete sang, I acknowledged the irony of feeling guilt over carving one tree and then mindlessly decapitating hundreds of plants to find the murder weapon. A second guilt-wave rolled in, and I began to regret my actions.

An hour later I found it half-submerged in the lower tier of litter. My destructive radius had inflated to ten feet; my handiwork rivaled the capability of a John Deere riding mower. I regarded the withered leaves and severed stems and shrugged. Then I stuck the machete in my belt and scrambled up to my lofty office.

I gazed at my blocky, weeping initials and contemplated environmental degradation. This microcosm of clear-cutting rewound the successional clock a few years for a bite-size chunk of riparian forest. My small action operates within the context of this hillside, this valley, the entirety of Hispaniola. All of these scales have undergone significant human modification. It is far from a pristine ecosystem—but let’s be honest: do pristine ecosystems exist? (I’m skeptical.) But, despite man’s heavy influence here, this hillside is an ecosystem. Asthmatic Bananaquits cavort amidst an impressive assemblage of epiphytic orchids and bromeliads, crabs lurk in the riffles of Cow Urine Creek despite the dubious water quality, and Zebra Longwings flutter in and out of the dappled shadows.

 Bananaquits, common in the presence of humans. Its Spanish name is Ciguita Común, which means "Common Little Bird."

I pondered my guilt. Why did I balk at cutting a vine but board the plane to arrive here without a second thought? The withered vine is more personal and tangible than the emissions I contributed to with my travels. More confrontational, even—“You cut this. It is dead.”

We must learn to face our modifications to the natural world, both the tangible and nebulous. And it is important to take this responsibility with hope; the depressing and damning messages that are all too common spawn unproductive guilt. Indeed, my supervisor at the Cincinnati Nature Center advised against discussing invasive species, fearing that it would discourage our guests from further engagement with nature.

Pale Cracker, an eccentric butterfly with a great name. They are common at Cow Urine Creek. 

If you had not already deduced from my story, I’m struggling to define my place and responsibility in this human-changed world. I love nature and lament extinction, habitat loss, and people’s disconnection from their surrounding ecosystems. I would like to make conservation a priority in my life—and conservation fundamentally requires educating and inspiring others. But I fear being branded a hypocrite for driving a car, eating industrial corn, and cutting my initials into tree bark.

I would like to learn better ways to live sustainably and promote positive education about human impacts on Earth. Let me know if you have any ideas. You can find me in the tree by Cow Urine Creek.

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 façade,” 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