Archive for July, 2019

The Breitensteins’ place

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m a member of Birding Pals, which works like a dating site, only for birding.  You put your info in it, saying where you live and when you can take people birding in your area, and people who are planning to visit can contact you via the site — they don’t get your actual email address or other contact info unless you give it to them.  If you’re available, you can take them birding, and they’re supposed to buy you lunch or something.  It’s how I got in contact with Claudio in Chile, although he’s really a paid guide, which isn’t what the site is designed for.  Anyway, some time ago I got a request through birding pals from a couple in Bollinger County.  They’ve developed their property to maximize wildlife habitat, and they wanted someone to come and find out what birds live on their land.  I agreed, but then put it off, and one thing led to another, and then I went to Chile…

Finally I arranged to go visit on Wednesday, the 24th.  As it turns out, the couple, Kathy and Paul Breitenstein, were featured in an article in the Missouri Conservationist last March.  I knew I was in the right place when I turned into their driveway and saw all the Rattlesnake Master growing in their “yard”.

Breitenstein Place  The Breitensteins’ driveway.   Rattlesnake Master

Along with a wide variety of other native plants.  The dogs ran out making a lot of noise and then licking me, and Paul came out to greet me.  He gave me a general idea of the property — about 110 acres, mostly wooded, a lot of it their own plantings, and a big area of prairie plants that they’d established.  He was meeting a crew doing some deck construction for him, so I set out on my own.  I made a slow circuit of the property, starting out in the woods and ending with the prairie.

One of the first birds I heard when I got out of the car was a Chipping Sparrow; or so I thought, but when I looked up at all the pine trees, I thought maybe it was a Pine Warbler.  They’re tough to distinguish.  I think on the average Pine Warbler has a more melodic, sweeter trill than the Chipping Sparrow’s mechanical sound, but they both vary, and there are areas of overlap.  I was pretty sure this was a Pine Warbler, though.  When I set out into the woods, I stopped and scanned the pines.  There was a flash of movement, and in the binoculars it was a Chipping Sparrow singing away.  Shows you what I know.

It wasn’t until I’d gone almost all the way around the property that I actually did find some Pine Warblers, and they weren’t singing.    In fact, they were immatures, showing some weird plumage that may indicate they were molting from juvenile to adult feathers.  In other words, Pine Warblers are probably successfully breeding on the Breitensteins’ property.
Pine Warbler

This is actually a good angle to view a warbler — undertail patterns are distinctive.  This one is just weird, though, with that asymmetrical gray base.  I suspect molting is to blame. 

The big find for the day, at least from my perspective, was an Eastern Whippoorwill.  Sure, I hear them fairly often, but this one flushed when I was walking a trail in their woods, then perched in a tree where I had a great view.  The first time I’ve ever seen one in broad daylight, and certainly the first chance I’ve had to photograph one.


Eastern Whippoorwill
Not too happy about being rousted out of bed in the daytime, I’d say.

I also happened onto a Blue-winged Warbler — I know that they breed in Missouri, especially in and near the Ozarks, but this is the first one I’d ever seen in July.   As it turns out, also the first eBird record of one in Bollinger County in July.

In all, 34 species, not bad for midsummer birding in a place with no water to speak of.  And a tribute to what you can do if you encourage native plants on your property.  I can’t wait to get back there during migration.

Breitenstein's stream

Apple Creek Conservation Area and Citizen Science

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

I’ve been in the Audubon Society of Missouri for several years now, and ASM has an arrangement with the Missouri Department of Conservation called “CACHE”, for Conservation Area Checklists.   I’ve mentioned this before in this blog — MDC contributes some money annual to the ASM, and ASM agrees to encourage its members to bird MDC Conservation Areas and record the information in eBird.  While the MDC is happy to get data on any of the Conservation Areas, each year they select a few to promote as “target areas”, and ASM pushes especially hard on those.  This fiscal year (starting with July, that is), one of the target areas is Apple Creek Conservation Area, only a few miles from my house.    This is so satisfying for me; I’m not just out wasting time in the woods — I’m doing Citizen Science!

The only problem is that the Mississippi has been at flood stage or above since late March or so.   This means that Apple Creek is unable to drain, and backs up to whatever the river level is.  On March 26 Diane Bricmont and I drove down toward the boat ramp at Apple Creek and found that the road was under water.  In May, I took my kayak, and was able to follow the trail west from the boat ramp by paddling over the top of the gate on the service road.  So birding much of Apple Creek is sort of challenging.  Nevertheless, my friend Mark pointed out that the bar chart for Apple Creek in eBird is really skimpy for the third week of July — there wasn’t even a Red-bellied Woodpecker reported — so yesterday I headed down to see what I could do.

I could have taken the kayak, but I just wasn’t feeling up to that, so I figured I’d do what I could on land.  When I drove down the boat ramp road, sure enough, it was under water a short way past the campground.
Road to the boat ramp at Applc Creek

The trail to the west — look to the left in that photo — would have been walkable for someone with chest waders, maybe.  I birded around the campground, and walked a trail to the east that leads up a hill into the woods.  Then I figured I’d get to the west trail by another route.  I drove back up highway CC to a little parking area, and walked in the service road from there.  This road leads down to the a part of the trail that is on higher ground, at least briefly, and i was able to do a little birding there.  To the west, the trail went back under water where a small creek crosses.  I was going to turn back, but then I realized that it might be possible to cross a field, go in the woods, and get around the flooded bit.  Which I did.

From there, I was able to walk another mile back to what would usually be some shallow ponds.  Right now it’s all part of Apple Creek, and I found several wading birds, all of whom were probably wondering just how far off the beaten track you have to go to avoid these damn birders.  

Flooding at Apple Creek
Little Blue Heron


Little Blue Heron in the middle of its molt from immature (white) to mature (blue) plumage.



Snowy Egret


Snowy Egret.

I walked all the way out to the edge of the river, and by then I was hot and thirsty, and had a long walk ahead back to the car.  A little over two miles, in fact, with about 250 feet elevation gain in the process.  When I got back, I was definitely ready to head home, but I’d recorded 48 species of birds.  So tempting to just try to find two more.  I stopped at the turnoff to the shooting range, usually good for a few species, and found that House Sparrows have taken up residence in a culvert, using old Cliff Swallow nests.  49.  I’d had it, and got back in the car.  Just up the road on highway CC, I saw a bird on the wire, and stopped to look — damned if it wasn’t a Purple Martin.  If I’d had my scope, I could have seen it from the edge of the conservation area, so it goes on the list.  50 species, and the third week of July no longer looks skimpy.


A visit to Maintz conservation area

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Maintz Conservation Area

I first got into birding when I was 11 or so, as a boy scout, and for a few years I did a good bit of birding in my native South Florida.  Then I discovered girls, and took a 40+ year break.  I resumed birding when Robin and I went to Costa Rica in 2011, and when I came home I started learning the local birds of SE Missouri.  I soon found out about the Audubon Society of Missouri, and their CACHE/SPARKS programs (Conservation Area CHEcklist/State PARKS checklist).  At that time, before eBird was big, ASM maintained their own online birding data program for conservation areas and parks in Missouri. 

I became a frequent contributor, especially for Maintz Conservation Area, only about 10 miles from my house.   Between Mark Haas and me, we quickly built up the Maintz checklist from a few dozen to over 150 species. We did such a good job on it that I’ve lately been birding at other places to help them catch up. Still, Maintz has a special place in my heart, so when I wanted to go for an outing this Saturday, I headed there.

My first stop was the parking area off highway BB, where there are some seasonal wetlands.  They’re full of water now, of course — so is everything in this part of the state, with the absurd amount of rain we’ve had all year.   There weren’t any waterfowl or shorebirds at the wetland, but of course those birds are spoiled for choice these days; every farm field is likely to be a pond they can explore.  Still, there was plenty of bird activity as soon as I got out of the car, with Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, Eastern Kingbirds, American Crows, Common Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees competing for my attention. 

I walked up the hill to the fishing pond, where I heard the distinctive irritable chattering of a Bell’s Vireo.   Walking to the corner of the fields, I followed the service road through some woods and out into a little prairie dotted with Bitterbloom (Sabatia angularis).

Bitterbloom, Rosepink

Bitterbloom, or Rose Pink, is a native wildflower with a very compact, neat growth habit and beautiful flowers.  I’m definitely going to try growing some at home. Across the field the trail goes down into another patch of woods, crossing a dry wash that feeds into Sandy Branch.  This damp, shady area was dominated by Tall Bellflower, Campanula americana.

Tall Bellflower

These lanky, 3-4 foot tall sprays of lavender blooms would look good in my rain garden, too.  I’ll have to look for seed. As I was walking in the woods, a Red-shouldered Hawk was calling repeatedly right over my head, but I couldn’t see it in the dense foliage.  Suddenly it flew out of the tree over me and into another, perhaps to get a better view of the intruder.  

Red-shouldered Hawk

I continued past, flushing the hawk back into the forest, and when the trail opened into grassland again I realized I’d walked almost all the way across the area toward another parking lot. I decided to backtrack and get the car.

I drove around to the other side of the area and walked up a gravel service road to the largest pond on the property.  To the northeast of the pond, there’s a big bare area where until recently a very decrepit old barn used to stand.  Barn Owls nested in that barn annually, often fledging several young a year.   This shot from five years ago gives the idea:
Barn OwlsT

he Missouri Department of Conservation decided that the barn couldn’t be saved, finally, and they put up some owl nest boxes — giant white “mailboxes” on posts in the fields.  Those have been used successfully, and this year they decided to take down the old barn.  It’s too bad; while the owls may do fine in the nest boxes, they don’t provide much of a chance for observing them.

As I was leaving the area, I decided to stop and walk in the fields north of CR 472.  I used to bird that area of Maintz often, but I’d gotten used to visiting other spots lately.  When you walk in, first you pass a big field of cultivated sunflowers, planted to attract Mourning Doves for hunting season.  But to the north of that field is an area of prairie, absolutely packed with native flowers.  Right now it’s largely Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Bee Balm or Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa?).  

Monarda and Ratibida

It’s a beautiful scene, and a lot of wild sunflowers of several species are about to bloom as well.  Wild False Indigo (Baptisia sp.) are producing seed pods, having flowered earlier, and I even found a few plants of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium).
Rattlesnake Master
I’ll be sure to return in a week or two to see what new things are blooming.

Total Eclipse

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Eclipse in ChileMonday we drove back to Antofagasta and flew to Santiago, then La Serena.   At the La Serena airport, as previously arranged, a taxi driver was waiting for us with a sign.  Unfortunately, the sign read “Mr. Rovinho Hankieses,” so it took us a while to decide that was actually for Robin Hankinson.   But sure enough, it was, and the driver, a very nice if somewhat vague guy named Luis, led us to his van in the parking lot.  After what seemed a very long phone conversation with the landlady of our AirBnB place, he drove us there, and we settled into a very cozy bungalow in a suburban La Serena neighborhood.   We did stop on the way for bread, water, wine, and other necessities, of course.  


We arranged for Luis to come back at noon the next day, so Tuesday he drove us in exceedingly heavy traffic up north of La Serena toward La Higuera.  This small town is right on the maximum totality duration line, on a main highway, and both high and inland enough to avoid coastal fog.  In other words, eclipse central.  As we approached La Higuera we saw more and more cars parked out in the desert on random dirt tracks, and La Higuera itself was just a mass of cars.  We turned around and pulled off into the desert, found an open spot without major cacti, and parked.  

La Higuera mobbed with eclipse watchers

While we had evaded the mob, we still had quite a few neighbors; perhaps forty cars or so along a minor dirt track, with varying amounts of camera equipment, camping gear, and picnic supplies.  It was like a pop-up village in the desert.  I walked down the dirt track and passed a guy changing a baby’s diaper on the tailgate of a pickup, some people setting up a big sheet of cardboard for pinhole projection, a group roasting hot dogs, and several tents.  The desert was fascinating, full of flowering plants I’d never seen.  We were overjoyed to have found the perfect spot, more or less by chance.
Stroller in the desertDesert flowers

Our eclipse villageA couple with a teenage son and daughter parked next to us in a red pickup truck, and I said hi.  We struck up a conversation, and they said something about the eclipse glasses I had stuck in my shirt collar.  I asked if they had some, and they said no; I said I had lots of extras.  “Would you sell us some?”  I shook my head, told them to wait a minute, came back with my bag of eight pairs, and started handing them out.  The daughter thanked me in very good English, though it turned out her vocabulary was limited.  They’d driven five hours from Santiago, and the mom forgot their eclipse glasses.  


Robin came over, adding a lot more to our communication ability, and when we said we were from Missouri, the daughter, Millaray, was very excited.  Her high school has an exchange program with a school in Kansas City.  She’d been to Missouri, her English teacher was from Missouri, and she wants to go to Missouri to college.   So we wound up having a very nice conversation, and she and Robin exchanged emails so we can stay in touch.  

Millaray and us

At 3:23, the first nibble disappeared from the lower left edge of the sun, to scattered cheering.  Over the next hour, as the bite grew larger, it started to get cooler.  I’d taken off my sweatshirt earlier, but had to put it back on.  A breeze came up from the south.  It was still a bright, clear day, but the light seemed subdued. Our shadows became oddly blurred, and I amused our group by projecting the sun’s image onto the pickup truck with my binoculars.  Hamner’s mesh hat projected a grid of little crescent shapes. By 4:30 or so everyone was watching the shrinking sliver of sun.


At 4:39, when the last bit disappeared, I found myself yelling along with most of the crowd.  Without the glasses, the sun was a ring of white plumes around the dark moon disk, in a weird twilight sky.  Birds flew across the desert restlessly.  Even though I saw one just two years ago, and knew what was coming, I felt like I couldn’t get my breath, and tears came to my eyes.  As Peggy said, you start to understand how somebody could become an eclipse chaser. Eclipse in Chile

Before it seemed like time, the first beads of light appeared on the lower left, and it was like a white searchlight beam was shining in our faces.  More cheers, and soon it was fully light again.  Our impromptu village started to break up as people headed out to beat the rush on the road, full of traffic bound for La Serena.  On the way back, a guy danced ecstatically on top of a boulder by the ocean.

Guy dances after bringing back sun


Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Laguna ChaxaWe were totally exhausted after our long day in the mountains, so we asked Claudio to come at noon on Sunday, and just take us one place. Meanwhile, in the morning we thought we’d drive to Chuquicamata, where Robin was born, for a quick look. We knew that the town had been closed down and everyone moved to Calama, and that much of it was now buried under mine tailings. But at least we thought we could look at what’s left. Not actually, it turns out.  There’s a big arch with Chuquicamata on it, then a gate manned by a cop who told us that you can only enter on a tour, and they only have them on weekdays.   Apparently the place is a toxic waste site because of the heavy metals, and you can’t go in unsupervised.  Chuquicamata sign

So we drove back to Calama.     When Claudio came, we had one goal in mind: flamingos.  And he took us to the best spot, Laguna Chaxa.  It’s a salt lake in the middle of the Salar de Atacama, about 1200 square miles of salt flat, high in various minerals including lithium.   The salt water supports a population of brine shrimp, and flamingos eat them.   Laguna ChaxaThere are also Puna Plover and Andean Avocets (one of those in the pic above).  But the flamingos are the big draw.  The place is run as a national park, and there’s a fee to enter.  Well worth it, as the birds are almost entirely unafraid of humans, and you get excellent views of them.   We immediately saw Chilean Flamingos, and then even more Andean Flamingos.  We were missing the James’s (=Andean) Flamingo.  I set up my scope and started scanning the more distant birds.  The absolute furthest visible bird, even through some heated-air ripples, appeared to have all pink legs.  That’s one field mark for James’s.   I waited for it to pull its head up — they spend most of their time sweeping their bills through the water — and when it did, the bill showed only a small black area on the tip.  I called Claudio, who confirmed that it was indeed a James’s Flamingo, and we had al three species in one spot.  That’s half the world’s flamingo species, for those keeping score.   Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

We happily headed back to San Pedro, where we paid Claudio his guide fee and said our goodbyes.


A long day in the Andes

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

In the PunaPuna

Saturday morning Claudio showed up as planned about 8 AM, and we set out for the mountains. Calama is at an elevation of about 7500 feet, and our birding expedition would take us up a good bit higher. As we climbed, we followed the course of the Rio Loa, which brings snowmelt water down from the high peaks to Calama. Our first stop was at Laguna Inca-Coya, a little sinkhole lake near the village of Chiu-Chiu, at an elevation of about 8000 feet.

At Laguna Inca-CollaClaudio points out a bird at Laguna Inca-Coya

Our first new bird of the day was an Andean (=Slate-colored) Coot. Shortly after we saw that, an Andean Gull flew over. Two lifers at the first stop, not too bad.

Church at Chiu-Chiu
Church at Chiu-Chiu

Next we headed for the geyser field, which entailed driving on some really bad roads. Hamner was up to the task, though, as he continued to be throughout a very long day. As we climbed, the terrain began to change. Clumps of grass abound at the higher elevations, an ecological zone known as Puna. The grass supports a lot of wildlife, including wild vicuña and guanaco.

In the Puna

While you can go to the main geysers and pay an entrance fee, Claudio had another idea. He guided us to a place with a lot of very forbidding signs saying that we weren’t allowed in; it seemed that there weren’t a lot of cops around, though, so we ignored them. We parked, and just down a slope was a geyser of mud, belching sulfur-scented steam.

Mud Geysers
Me at the mud geyser

Just beyond the mud geyser was a marshy seep, where Claudio and I saw two species of Cinclodes and an Andean Negrito. This spot was the highest we went all day, at about 15,000 feet. I had to take two breaths per step most of the time. Next we continued in the Puna to the Rio Putana, to a wide bend that forms a shallow wetland area. It was full of waterfowl such as Puna Teal, Giant Coot, Crested Duck, and Andean Goose, and we also saw a Plumbeous Sierra-finch and a couple of Gray-breasted Seedsnipe.

Puna Teal
Puna Teal

From there, we stopped at a place called Machuca, which had some shops that were all closed. There were, however, several more bird species to be seen, including Greenish Yellow-Finch, Cordilleran Castanero, Gray-bellied Shrike-tyrant, and Black-hooded Sierra-finch. An Aplomado Falcon flew over in a surprise appearance as well. The landscape of the Puna is amazing. The elevation and lack of rain make it an exceedingly difficult place for anything to survive, yet it’s full of beautiful plants and animals. And of course, wherever there is water such as the Rio Loa or the Rio Putana, which carry snowmelt from yet higher peaks, animals congregate. And many of these animals are unique to the region, including of course a lot of the birds – as you might guess from all the ones that have names starting with “Andean” or “Puna”.

Lupine in the Andes
A lupine of some sort


We continued on, later seeing a beautiful adult Mountain Caracara, and finally made our way to San Pedro de Atacama, where we had dinner with Claudio and saw some of the festival of San Pedro — the streets were full of people in costumes dancing and parading. We drove back to Calama in the dark, and Hamner had put in a good 10 hours of driving, much of it on dirt roads in the Andes. He deserves a medal. Meanwhile, I had 20 lifers in one day.


To the driest place on Earth

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

On Friday (June 28) we packed up our stuff, Hamner maneuvered the SUV out of the exceedingly cramped underground parking, and we set off eastward into the brown mountains.


Train between Calama and Antofagasta

Train in the Atacama desert

 Robin always tells how she and her siblings had a game they played in the car when driving from Calama to the coast for a vacation.  The first one to see any kind of green plant in the distance would yell “I see the river!”   She wasn’t kidding.  For long stretches there is nothing but brown, gray, and reddish dirt to be seen.  The shapes of the mountains are like giant elephant’s feet, contours unspoiled by growth of anything alive.  It gave us all  a bit of perspective into Robin’s mother, Betsy, who grew up on Staten Island.  Anaconda Copper transferred Robin’s father to Chuquicamata in 1942, and the shock never really wore off. Nevertheless, our apartment in Calama is in a very nice building with a lovely view of the sunset.  

Sunset in Calama
View from our balcony in Calama


We called our guide, Claudio Seguel Huidobro, whom I’d been corresponding with for a few weeks, and he showed up soon after.  We had some bread, cheese, ham, olives, and wine, and discussed our plans for the couple of days we’d be there.

A day in Antofagasta

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

Turkey VulturesTurkey Vultures on masts in the Antofagasta harbor  

Thursday after breakfast Hamner, Peggy, and I set out to walk to the jetty with the lighthouse, where we’d seen some promising birds from afar the day before.  Robin’s hip and knee weren’t up to it, and furthermore the all-in-one washer/dryer had failed to dry our clothes, so she opted to stay and dry stuff with the hair dryer a while. We walked out on the historic pier (Muelle Historico), which was the original site of the nitrate exports that made Antofagasta.  It, like pretty much everything in Antofagasta, was covered with Turkey Vultures.  Never saw so many. We continued on to the mall, which is right on the waterfront, and has an outdoor walkway with a nice view of a rocky cove.  There we saw a lot more vultures, gulls, a Whimbrel, and an American Oystercatcher.   The walkway continued around to the south, giving us a good enough view of the lighthouse jetty to determine that it’s a working port, and not accessible to us.  So I set up the scope to see what we could find on it.

Lighthouse at Antofagasta

Lighthouse jetty


It was covered with Peruvian Pelicans, and also quite a few cormorants of all three local species – Neotropic, Red-legged, and Guanay.  Hamner asked if there were nests on the far end of the pier, and I looked with the scope; they were actually ends of rebar sticking out.  Gray gulls were sitting on them, along with three Inca Terns – very cool birds, and sadly I don’t have a photo that does them justice.  But a lifer anyway.

Neotropic CormorantNeotropic Cormorant  

When we turned around to head back, it was after 10 AM, so the mall was open, specifically the Juan Valdez patio coffee shop.  Hamner and Peggy got some real coffee.  We’ve been drinking instant most of the trip, which seems to be the norm here (yecch).   An Oasis Hummingbird buzzed around some ornamental plantings nearby. On the way back, I took another look at the rocky cove, and was rewarded with a Blackish Oystercatcher.  The light wasn’t too good, but apparently it was a juvenile, with an orange/yellow bill instead of the adult’s bright red.  But then Hamner spotted a second, and it was grown up.  A second lifer for the morning, and a decent photo of it. By the time we got back, it was time for lunch, and then we all set out for the Antofagasta Museum.  It’s free, and not large, but we did learn a bit about the history of the place.  It’s been inhabited for about 10,000 years by fishing people; the Spanish didn’t pay much attention to it until they decided to mine guano and mineral nitrate deposits starting in the mid 1800s.  Now it’s primarily a copper port.

Old train engine in Antofagasta

 Old train engine


 Robin poses in front of a mural for the Chuquicamata apartments

From there we headed to Avendida Arturo Prat, which is a pedestrian street for several blocks.  I think in the summer it’s a bit more interesting, as we missed the one street musician, a sax player who was leaving as we arrived.  We did stop for coffee, and this time I had a very good cup of espresso, though.

Back to the apartment for bread, cheese, and olives and a fair amount of wine.  Friday we pack up and drive to Calama, closest extant town to Robin’s birthplace, Chuquicamata.