Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First big day

Here at the River of Raptors Hawk Count project in Veracruz, Mexico, we finally had a big raptor flight yesterday. For both count sites combined, we reached a day total of 71,932 raptors. There's only a handful of North American sites where they get this many birds for the entire season, never mind just one day. Most of these birds were broadwings.

A tropical depression last week brought much rain to the Gulf Coast area, including Veracruz and parts north of us. Consequently, numbers remained low for practically all species except maybe Mississippi Kite, for which the season is turning out to be normal.

With only a couple more days to go in September, we can already say that we are very low on Turkey Vultures (6,777 for the season so far when 40,000 would be normal), and very low on broadwings (only 117,641 when a million ought to be possible by now). Most other species are low still, but Osprey is having a normal to good year so far, Northern Harrier is normal, and Merlin (pictured above) is normal to good. Numbers of Peregrine Falcon are also about normal for this time of year, but American Kestrel is still dramatically low. Yesterday was the first day with some kestrel movement. In a week or two we should be seeing bigger numbers.

Speaking of falcons, I had a very high-flying falcon in the scope yesterday that I struggled to identify for about a minute, and eventually just let go unidentified. The bird seemed large, very pale, with a fairly long tail and what seemed like dark underwing coverts. In other words, like a Prairie Falcon, a species that has never been recorded at this site and one of only two North American raptors I have never seen. I'm not going to call a super rare species when it's barely visible in binoculars, and is still much more likely to have been a Merlin or a Peregrine.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Raptor banding

A couple of days ago, Agni, Alfredo and I visited one of the two raptor banding stations that are operated near San Isidro, a little north of Cardel. These sites are operated by Pronatura staff, some of whom were counters on the River of Raptor project last year.

It rained in the morning, but the afternoon was pleasant. The dune site didn't catch anything, but we caught three birds on the hill. The first bird was this juvenile Gray Hawk. They are a resident species here in Veracruz, where their numbers are augmented each fall by short-distance migrants from the northern part of their range.

We also caught two dark morph Short-tailed Hawks, a small resident buteo. Personally, I think any dark morph buteo is spectacular, and it was very cool to look at this bird up close.

Here I am holding one of those Short-tailed Hawks.

Here's a ventral view of the same bird. Note the white patches in the wing, a field mark for this species.

Finally the adult dark morph Short-tailed Hawk in flight, literally seconds after we released it. The first thing it did upon regaining its freedom was resume its hunt directly overhead.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recovering from dengue fever

Mexicans are wonderful people. As I was walking by myself in Cardel this morning reflecting on this (and not for the first time either), I was interrupted by someone calling from across the street: “hey John! How are you?” It was Adrian, one of the Hotel Bienvenidos staff. Last Monday, when I left the Hotel count site early, I told him I was feeling sick. Instantly he offered some medication, which I declined. He said he hoped I would at least take a rest and would feel better soon. Well, I did – but not before I felt a whole lot worse first. When I left Cardel heading home for Chichi, all I knew was that I had a fever. Once home, I laid down and from that point forward, my whole existence started to appear tenuous to me. I felt intense misery – but only a dull, unspecific pain just about anywhere in my body – and the strangest thing to me was how time had almost come to a standstill. I kept looking at my watch and checking with my alarm clock to see how this could be: that what to me felt like 10, 15 minutes passing was really only one or two. The afternoon, needless to say, lasted forever. Eventually, my roommates showed up, and they suggested I see a doctor. I said I didn’t know about that, figured that if this wouldn’t go away overnight, we could maybe go and see a doctor the next day. When I collapsed on the tiled floor after a bathroom visit, and I heard them say that I had a really high fever, they decided to call the project’s coordinator, who lives an hour and a half’s drive away, to take me to a hospital. So at 2 AM, Eduardo, Irving and Kasmir accompanied me to the local hospital, where I didn’t have to wait very long and where they gave me an injection to bring down the fever. The diagnosis was probable dengue fever, but it was recommended that I come back the next day for a test. This I didn’t do (for lack of funds), but I have since developed the entire pathology of dengue, including a rash on the third day after the fever finally went down, so their diagnosis appears to have been correct. High fever, headache, diarrea, muscle ache, general fatigue – this screwy time thing probably an artifact of the fever – followed by a rash. This morning waking up I was pleasantly surprised, twice; first when I looked at my alarm clock and noted “wow! 8 whole hours just went by!” and then when I raised my body from my bed and felt how easy that was – “yay! my strength is back!”

Today was a scheduled day off, and feeling so chipper about having left the fever tunnel (back on normal time, able to see depth again), I went to Cardel to pick up my laundry, drop off more laundry, do some internet, and do some grocery shopping.
So I’m standing in line at the grocery checkout, before me is a very large woman blabbering endlessly with her even bigger son, then she engages in a lengthy item-by-item discussion with the coincidentally also large cashier, and I think to myself how back in the 9-to-5 world I would have craned my neck and gauged the length of other lines. Now, however, I mentally coach my precursor to prattle on, for I am listening in on her conversation, trying to learn the language. Mas que nada, this in-depth discussion of various family members’ brand preferences for certain household goods provided a great listening proficiency experience for me.

What about the birds then? Well, the dengue fever had me indoors for a few days, I’ve since then worked two days and then of course the third day is a day off. (I wrote the above a few days ago.) In terms of raptor migration, diversity is probably at its highest right now, with all species we get in a season currently visible. I think the only regular but rare migrant still missing is Red-shouldered Hawk. We’re still getting a few Swallow-tailed Kites, but that will taper off soon, and Mississippi Kites don’t have much longer to go either. Zone-tailed Hawk is probably the only species currently peaking, with daily counts between 5-30 individuals.

This month I’m not traveling as much on my days off for lack of funds, next month on a whole month of salary I’ll have more opportunity. I’m sticking to Chichicaxtle and its environs mostly, where the birding is often quite decent. This morning on my walk I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but noted that numbers of Yellow-breasted Chat have definitely increased. I saw many familiar birds, like the Squirrel Cuckoo pictured above, Ferruginous Pygmy Owls, Altamira Orioles, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers etc.
An interesting butterfly I found was this Pale-spotted Leafwing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Birding around Chichicaxtle

The bird pictured here is a Roadside Hawk, a common resident species in this part of Mexico. I photographed it this morning on a walk around the block in Chichicaxtle, where me and the other counters on the VRR project are housed. Last year I often went birding on a dirt road just behind the observation tower, but this year I'm finding that there is other, sometimes more interesting birding to be had elsewhere in the vicinity. Today I saw a few birds that I hadn't previously seen in Chichicaxtle, including two species I don't remember ever having seen in Veracruz (although I have seen them elsewhere in Mexico). White-bellied Wren came in calling on a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl imitation, and stayed well-hid in dense vegetation, before I finally got an unsatisfying look of the bird flying away. Plain Chachalaca is a bird that I don't think I saw here last year, but this morning I found a small group. The other bird that was a first for me in Veracruz was Northern Beardless Tyrannulet. Yellow Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Orchard Orioles, and Great Crested Flycatchers were abundant neotropical migrants. Altamira Oriole, Blue-black Grassquit, Common Ground-Dove, Inca Dove, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Short-tailed Hawk, Squirrel Cuckoo, Boat-billed Flycatcher and Great Kiskadee are some of the resident birds easily seen here.

The other cool find was another Magic Shrub! Again, I'm no botanist and can't tell you which shrub this is, although I do remember finding another individual here last year that had a Fox-face Lemmark on it. This had Guava Skipper (above) and Beautiful Beamer (below), and about 20 other species, mostly skippers, on it.

Folks at Pronatura had the excellent idea to create a butterfly garden next to the entrance of the Chichicaxtle observation tower. But good ideas aren't always well executed, and the plants they bought and planted are pretty but don't seem to attract any butterflies. In fact, the yellow 'weeds' across the dirt road are probably far more popular with butterflies. For a really good butterfly garden, I suggest they plant the above species - success guaranteed!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

¡Que onda!

Numbers of Mississippi Kites picked up these last few days, with a first good flight on the 3rd with 30,630, followed by 24,781 the next day. Other raptors started showing up, with the first Broad-winged Hawks of the season, first Northern Harriers, first Hook-billed Kites, first Cooper’s Hawk; we’re also seeing slightly more Ospreys than before. I suppose the best hawk last week was not seen by us but caught and banded by the banding team that’s working at the Cansaburro site a little north of Cardel: Red-shouldered Hawk! That’s a bird we don’t see too many of, and usually they show up much later in the season.

Friday, I was stationed at the Chichicaxtle site, where we started the day with low-flying, dragonfly-hunting Mississippi Kites. We didn’t get the big numbers the other team in Cardel counted, but we had great looks at several hundreds of these graceful birds.
Here’s one about to feed on a dragonfly.

For us in Chichicaxtle, the afternoon was quiet and relaxed. While scanning the skies, we listened to some music on Fello’s cell phone, and I found myself explaining English lyrics to Fello and Citlali, neither of whom speak much English. We listened to some Michael Jackson, whose music this summer can be heard throughout Mexico and Central America. After his death last June, I remember hearing it everywhere in Nicaragua, and here too all the hits from the 80’s are played contstantly. People love it, even though they often have no idea what it’s about. Well, explaining Michael Jackson songs in Spanish isn’t too hard, I found. Some Bob Marley I could manage too. But then we got to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Welcome to the Jungle. I don’t particularly care for GNR, and had never spent much time listening to the lyrics. Which evidently are quite suggestive! Try explaining that, a rock star solliciting sexual favors from a fan. We also listened to Oasis’ Wonderwall, a more accomplished lyric, hard to do justice to for one whose Spanish is still at beginner’s level.

Late in the afternoon, we were joined by two local girls, of maybe 14 or 15 years old, who got an introduction to hawk and waterbird identification from Citlali. They seemed altogether too busy giggling – as girls that age will do – to really assimilate this information, and I think they were more interested in learning English than in bird identification anyway. So we spent some time on that, with them trying to name whatever we saw around us (tree, table, mountain, etc), and on greetings like good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night. In Spanish, there’s only three such greetings, so it was a little challenging to them to figure out the difference between good evening and good night. And we threw in some slang: ¡Que onda! – What’s up! Lots of giggling of course. They walked us home, and wanted to know when I would be working at the Chichicaxtle count site again, for more English lessons.

Which won’t be for a while. Saturday I had a day off, and went to a coastal site north of Cardel, where the birding and butterflying was fine, if not spectacular. Lots of migrant Blue-gray Gnatcatchers everywhere. Some shorebirds – Black-necked Stilts, Wilson’s Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Sanderlings – and some gulls and terns, Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, a Reddish Egret. All cool birds of course, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Best bird was perhaps a Lesser Roadrunner at an archaelogical site, Quiahuitzl√°n. On the way back, while waiting for the bus, a taxi stopped and I asked how much it would be to Cardel. Not too much more than the bus would have been, so I got in. Oh, how nice to be able to talk to people now! Pretty soon we were five people in the car, it was quite cozy, and of course the driver and passengers wanted to know where I was from. I’ve found that whenever I tell people here that I’m from Holland, invariably the next question is: is it cold there? Every Mexican seems to think it must be terribly cold in Holland, and I know why: there’s a popular brand of ice cream called Holanda.

Back in the Cardel bus station, waiting for the local bus to Chichicaxtle, I saw the blind guitarist again. I remembered him from last year: he played achingly beautiful music at the Chichicaxtle bus stop one fine morning at daybreak. There he was again, asking for people to direct him to the Xalapa bus, bumping into things and into people – but no-one helped him! So I took him by the shoulder and directed him to the same bus I was going to board. Got to listen to some more of his music on the ride home – sweet!
Sunday I work at the Cardel site, and then Monday and Tuesday I have two days off in a row.

For those of my readers I met at the Laguna de Apoyo biological station in Nicaragua, some sad tidings: Aura informs me that Gregory the Peccary died the first week of August and that Blackie (the Dog) died last week. I am reminded of that legendary walk Blackie undertook when he joined James Noonan and myself on a trek to the 'magic shrub' early last month.