June 23rd, 2019

Andean Condor


So today after spending the morning poking around the Centro Astronómico Alfa Aldea, we decided to go to the big reservoir below Vicuña.  A dam across the Elqui river provides irrigation for 20,000 hectares of farmland, and forms a lake — El Embalse Puclaro.   We stopped first along the upper part of the lake, where there are mudflats and other inviting bird habitat, and saw a number of new species, including Red-Gartered Coots [not Grebes, thanks Bill Eddleman, yes, I'm tired], Yellow-billed Pintails, Yellow-billed Teal, and Great Grebes.

Even when they’re not in breeding plumage, Great Grebes are pretty impressive.
Great Grebe

Then we drove along the northern edge of the reservoir to Guailliguaica, a town on the reservoir known for kitesurfing.  After driving around and being sort of lost for a bit, we concluded that you can’t in fact drive all the way around Puclaro, and went back out to highway 41.  Heading west, and missing various turns and being confused a bit more, we finally found the way to the observation area on the dam.


You have to walk in a bit from the parking area, and when you reach the dam, there’s a huge metal sculpture that is an Aeolian Harp, with four piano wires that sing in the wind.  While admiring this and listening to the Big Ears-appropriate music it made, I saw two big black birds soaring over the lake, wings slightly uptilted in a shallow V.  Peggy asked what they were, and I said “Turkey Vultures,” brought up my binoculars, and added “I tell a lie.  Those are condors!”   The two proceeded to circle back and forth right over us for several minutes and about a hundred photos.    With a wingspan of almost 11 feet, they’re the largest flying birds in the world, and they’re really impressive.
Andean CondorThey disappeared over a ridge finally, and didn’t show up again while we were there.  I hadn’t expected them in that location at all, but what a great surprise!  After a long walk across the dam and back, we headed back to Vicuña, where we had a terrific lunch at the same place we ate dinner last night, El Chivato Negro.  You eat in an enclosed patio out back, and the food and beer are all locally sourced and reasonably priced.  Several cats wander around the place — last night I paid the bill with one sitting in my lap — and we saw Green-backed Firecrown hummingbirds in the trees. For dinner tonight we bought bread, cheese, salami, and olives at the grocery store, and we’d already stocked up on wine.  I’m beat.  If you’re keeping score at home, I’ve recorded 32 species on the trip, of which 19 are new to my life list.  But more locations to come!   At El Chivato Negro

Chile trip, day 1 or 2 or something

June 22nd, 2019

It’s a little hard to say how far we are into our vacation.  We left Cape on the puddle-jumper to Chicago at noon on Thursday, and then caught a flight to Miami, and then one to Santiago, and then one to La Serena, and then rented a car to drive to Vicuña.   We arrived at our first destination, the Centro Astronómico Alfea Alda, at about 3 PM on Friday.  The trip was more or less uneventful,  though we should have received a flight discount for walking a significant part of the distance to Chile through the airport to get to our connecting flight.

Anyway, we pulled up at the Centro Astronómico, checked into our rooms, and although I was totally exhausted, I couldn’t go to bed.  I had to go out and look at the birds.  The place  is in the Elqui Valley, with desert mountains all around, and has vineyards on most of the property with a few fruit trees and ornamentals.  The place was alive with birds.  The moment I got out of the car, several Chimango Caracaras were shrieking overhead, with others responding from their perches on the vines.

Chimango Caracara

I wandered around the place in a daze for a couple of hours.

Centro Astronomico Alfea Alda

When you’re in a country where you’ve never birded, ever movement in the corner of your eye is a life bird, and it’s hard to focus on one because the others keep popping up.   Peggy joined me — she’s dangerously close to becoming a birder — and we had birds everywhere.   By the time we left for dinner around 5, I had nine new species on my life list (one from lunch in La Serena), and I was pretty sure I’d missed a few others.  The highlight of the day, if I can pick one, was the raucous flock of Burrowing Parakeets (parrots, as far as I’m concerned; they’re 18″ long).   A guy we met on the patio in the Centro was telling us that a flock of these birds destroyed an adobe church nearby by making nest holes in the walls till it collapsed.

Burrowing Parakeet


The next morning I got up and walked around in the winter chill before the sun peeked over the mountains.   Saw a Grassland Yellow-finch, and then as I was looking out the window at breakfast, a Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail.    Hamner, Peggy, Robin and I all wandered around with binoculars looking a birds till noon, then we went to town and bought some souvenirs.     Peggy got a Vicuña eclipse T-shirt that was very nice — have to get a picture later.  And we found a little booth shop where a guy was selling jewelry he makes.  One of the best pieces, which Peggy snapped up, was an intricate thread macramé necklace.  Also possible photo later.

We met a young couple at the Centro yesterday who were from Cambridge (England, that is, not Mass) and who had been working their way up from southern Argentina mainly hitchhiking and camping in a zigzag back and forth between Argentina and Chile.  They left this morning, heading northward for warmer weather.  I was faintly jealous, but sleeping in a bed in a heated room last night reminded me why I don’t do that kind of stuff any more.    We’re resting this afternoon, and then we have an astronomical tour this evening.  Stay tuned!



Filling in the Missouri map

January 9th, 2019


One of the odd side effects of using Ebird is that you suddenly have access not just to your life list, but your year list, and your month list, and your state lists, and your county lists, and your county month lists, etc.  On the profile page, you can see a map of all the countries, or states, or counties you’ve birded in.  And my Missouri map has some major gaps.

So on Saturday I set out to fill in a few of those gaps with a trip to some Conservation Areas in counties I’d never birded in before.  First stop was Lesterville Access, a small conservation area that used to be a put-in spot for the Black River.  The course of the river has changed, so it’s now a bit of a walk on a dry gravel bed to get to the water.  I was rewarded with a Bald Eagle and a hunting Belted Kingfisher.   And of course my first ebird list in Reynolds County.

Next I headed for Carter County.  I had Carter Creek CA in mind, but when I saw the sign for Miller Community Lake, I had to check it out.  Glad I did, as Carter Creek is not much of a birding spot, and Miller CL is actually quite nice.


Lots of woodpeckers, and some woodland birds.  Lots of pines too, but no Red-Breasted Nuthatches around despite my best efforts to call them in.

Last, I made it to Ripley County, where Mark Haas had suggested I try Mudpuppy Conservation Area.  I had planned to visit Little Black CA, which I visited first, but I found that Mudpuppy was a better birding spot.  It’s got a great variety of habitats; some access to the Little Black River, some wetland ponds, small streams, grassy areas, and upland woods.   I even pished up a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  This is one I want to visit during spring migration.

Sand Prairie Conservation Area (and others)

June 18th, 2017

Sand Prairie

Because the Conservation Nature Center roped me into their Big Year event, I’ve been paying attention to my year list lately. So Friday night when I started thinking about where to bird the next day, I remembered that my friend Mark had recently mentioned that Lark Sparrow was pretty much guaranteed at Sand Prairie. Having missed that one so far this year, I decided to head down there in the morning.

I got to Sand Prairie just at sunrise, a little after 5:30 in the morning. The MDC is restoring prairie vegetation on this 200-acre plot, and it’s unlike anything else in the region. There are big expanses of sand almost devoid of plants, but a lot of it is covered with native plants that you don’t see elsewhere. At first glance, it looks sort of dull — hardly any trees, just low scrubby-looking stuff. But when you walk out from the parking area, you realize how diverse it actually is. I find that I can’t walk very fast, because I’m afraid I’ll step on something beautiful.

But this time I was looking specifically for Lark Sparrows. I got out of the car, started to spray on some insect repellent, looked up on the power lines, and there was a lark sparrow perched on the wire. Bingo. Kind of takes the pressure off. I wasn’t in any hurry, so I stayed an hour and a half, walking into the prairie a bit. Lark sparrows were everywhere, and when the light got better, one posed pretty nicely for me.

Lark Sparrow

As always, there were loads of Grasshopper Sparrows, and some interesting flyovers — a Cooper’s Hawk, a couple of Common Nighthawks, a Green Heron, a Belted Kingfisher. And lovely plants. Like this American Jointweed that decided to flower very early:

Sand Prairie

And several of these, which I’m informed are Hoary Puccoon:

Sand Prairie

After Sand Prairie, I drove back north on Highway N, and stopped at Cape Lacroix Bluffs Conservation Area outside Scott City. I know this place mainly for the trail up onto the bluff, where in winter you can set up a scope and look at waterfowl out on the slough to the north. When I got out of the car, I heard the buzzy call of Bank Swallows, which were swooping all around. They were congregating to the west of the parking lot in a pit where the port authority has been digging sand. When I looked that way with binoculars, I was excited to see the swallows climbing in and out of holes in the sandy bank.

Bank Swallows

Bank Swallows

I just hope the port doesn’t decide to dig more sand for a few weeks.

Ice storm

January 16th, 2017


One of the great joys of life is getting well when you’ve been sick. Robin and I have both had this awful cold that’s been going around — I missed parts of a couple of days of work, and last weekend we both just stayed in the house the whole time. I finally went to the doctor and got some antibiotics for the secondary infection and some predisone to clear up my sinus inflammation. Along with some good cough medicine, it started to do the trick. Still, I was happy on Friday the 13th that the university closed due to freezing rain, giving me a four-day weekend.

There wasn’t much ice in Cape Girardeau, but Pocahontas is enough farther north to make a difference. We had about a 1/4 inch on the trees, though the roads were warm enough that I don’t think it accumulated. Robin and I never left the house Friday, but I had to go out and refill the feeders, because it must get pretty tough to find food when it’s under a sheet of ice.

By Saturday I was feeling much better, and I started wondering if I could get anywhere to do some birding. I thought about Perry County Lake, which is close to the highway, and thus perhaps accessible; but when I went out to run an errand mid-morning I found that the roads were pretty clear. So, if I had my choice, I wanted to see Apple Creek for the first time in the new year.

When I got to the parking area near the boat ramp, it was raining lightly. I was warm enough in my coveralls and fedora, and I’m trying out a new shoulder bag for the camera that keeps it dry. So, rain or no I started walking the path westward. The fields nearby were thronged with sparrows; lots of white-throated, and it appeared to me that there were others mixed in, but they were shy, and staying too far away to be sure. Goldfinches mixed in as well.

When I stepped into the woods, the noise was almost deafening. At 36 degrees, with some new rain, the ice on the trees was melting and falling all around — it sounded like a downpour, and I could hardly hear anything else. But one thing I could see was a Brown Creeper who flew down to a large tree trunk and worked his way up in front of me. I’m always pleased to see a creeper — they’re so inconspicuous that I always feel like I’m in on a secret.

Ice falling off trees

Walking on down the track, I crested a hill and had a view of the woods all glazed with ice.

Apple Creek after the ice storm

By the time I got to the wetlands, the rain had stopped, and whenever I was out from under the trees I was staying pretty dry. A Hairy Woodpecker squeaked loudly at me from a snag, and when I lifted the binoculars to look at it, an immature bald eagle flew by behind. There were no waterfowl on the wetland – perhaps because there were a couple of loose dogs circling the far pool making a lot of noise.

My rule of thumb, which I think I first heard from Dennis Wheeler, is that you can’t go home until you’ve seen 30 species. By that standard, I barely made it, but with a single Yellow-Rumped Warbler, a few Eastern Bluebirds, and some Field Sparrows that popped up on the way out, I did finally hit it.

On Sunday, I was so well that I was able to sing in Unitarian fellowship. I took down the Christmas tree just in time to keep from overlapping MLK day, and brought in the traditional Yellow Submarine decoration.

Yellow Submarine

Sunday afternoon I drove across the river and counted birds at Sexton Creek and Cape Bend, adding records for the third week in January to both of them. My year count is at 50.


January 2nd, 2017

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Christmas Bird Counts, that is. You can read about the history of the Christmas Bird Count, but in short, for 116 years, people have gone out and counted all the birds they could find around Christmas time and recorded the data. From December 14 through January 5, birders go to count circles — 15-mile diameter circles that have been established for this purpose- and count all the birds they can hear or see during a particular day. The data provide one of the longest-term longitudinal sets of information about the distribution and abundance of wildlife. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can see the effect of, for instance, climate change on the birds.

Changes in bird ranges

The count period goes 23 days. There are a couple of people who have committed themselves to doing a count every day for this period in a given year — Kelly McKay is one, and I saw him at the Mingo count yesterday. I wouldn’t stay married for long if I tried that, but I did four counts this year: Big Oak Tree, Union County, Horseshoe Lake, and Mingo.

Take Big Oak Tree as an example. The circle includes Big Oak Tree State Park and Ten Mile Pond and Seven Island conservation areas. On December 15, we met at 6:30 AM at Boomland in East Prairie for breakfast and area assignments. There were about a dozen of us, most from the Cape Girardeau/Jackson area. The Boomland breakfast is cafeteria style;I stuck with scrambled eggs and a cinnamon roll. But I know some of my birding friends look at this as their one opportunity of the year to eat biscuits and gravy.

By the time we finished breakfast, it was getting light, and my friend Mark and I drove south toward our usual piece of the circle — Big Oak Tree SP and Seven Island. Along the way, we pulled off for each little county road, getting out and counting the birds we saw and heard.

Big Oak CBC

Best birds of the day were a group of Lapland Longspurs in a field, and a surprise Merlin at a farmhouse on State Road 102. No pics of either, but I did get one of the little cemetery next to the farmhouse.

Little cemetery on Hwy 102

Red Rock Landing

October 29th, 2016

Red Rock Landing Conservation Area

I try to fill in the blank spots in the ebird bar charts for Conservation Areas near me. Last night I noticed that Red Rock Landing is really lacking in records for summer and early fall, so that’s where I headed this morning. I got there in time to watch the sun rise over the Mississippi while a Great Horned Owl hooted in the distance. As the light grew, a Bald Eagle flew by. Next, American Crows started to rise up out of the trees on the Illinois side and fly across to Missouri. First a dozen, then larger groups, continuing to stream westward — a hundred in all.

By the time that was done, it was light enough to go look for birds in the woods. I was going to walk a trail, but there was so much going on at the parking area that I never managed to leave.

I had been hearing Golden-Crowned Kinglets in the trees near the river, and finally got to see one in a big redbud near my car. I sat on a rock and watched the action in the treetops — American Goldfinches, a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, several White-Breasted Nuthatches, some Yellow-Rumped Warblers, a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, and my best bird of the day, a Blue-Headed Vireo.

The tall forbs and grasses around the wetland yielded a lot of sparrows – mostly Song, but this one lonely immature White-Crowned Sparrow in with the rest.

White-Crowned Sparrow

I got back home in time to make brunch for me and Robin, and checking the ebird records, found that I’d added three species to the Red Rock Landing list — Blue-Headed Vireo, Great Horned Owl, and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Red Rock Landing Conservation Area

June 1: Last day!

June 1st, 2016

I got up at 5 AM so I could go back to Santa Fe Canyon and see birds — hoping for a Pinyon Jay at least. No luck on that, but I did get a Juniper Titmouse. This brings me to 42 lifers on this trip, and I think that’s all. I did get some nice looks at various birds while hiking the canyon. Like this Broad-Tailed Hummingbird.

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

I got back to the house by 8:30 or so, had breakfast, and then we headed to Los Alamos to visit the Bradbury Museum. It was a small, but very interesting museum. Lots of cool stuff about the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, as well as about the various kinds of research now going on there.

Sobering to think that it’s the place where the world’s first nuclear bomb was made. Did they speed the end of WWII? Or just needlessly slaughter a lot of Japanese? Did nuclear weapons tamp down warfare in the last 70 years? Hard to know.

After lunch, we went back to Santa Fe. Robin and I had to go see Bear the silversmith so he could make a bail for this pendant she bought. Interesting place, Bear’s.

Bear the silversmith

Anyway, for 10 bucks he made a silver bail and Robin was happy. And we then met Hamner and Peggy at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It’s a small museum also, but it has a very nice collection of works from her earliest around 1916 to ones as late as the 1970s. I especially liked her paintings of cottonwoods.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

There was a short biographical film, which repeated her claim that her flower pictures were not intended to be erotic. I have to say that I find this improbable. I can understand that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that category, especially at the time, and I certainly would say that she’s not a one-dimensional artist. But looking at Series I: White-Blue Flower Shapes … well, you be the judge.

Series I: White-Blue Flower Shapes” (1919) - Georgia O'Keeffe

Finally, there were all her great work based on the scenery of Northern New Mexico, which pretty much sums up our vacation, now rapidly drawing to a close. We fly home tomorrow, so I’ll end with this:

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

May 31, 2016: Audubon center, and some shopping

May 31st, 2016

As planned, we headed for the Randall Davey Audubon Center this morning, timing it so we’d get there right when they open at 8 AM. We were actually five minutes late, but the gate was still locked anyway. A young woman showed up after a minute or two and unlocked it, and we headed up the nature trail. The place is full of hummingbirds, and we saw several of both common local species — Broad-tailed:

Brod-Tailed Hummingbird

And Black-chinned:

Black-Chinned Hummingbird

And though you wouldn’t know it from those pics, we did get to see both the purple collar on the Black-Chinned and the rose-red throat on a Broad-Tailed.

The nature trail leads up into a Bear Canyon, which has some water and some fir trees; as we climbed up, we heard a repeated Pee-ee! call from across the wash. I spotted a bird in pine tree, and it was clearly an Empidonax flycatcher. Now, which one? It had a yellow belly and very short wing primaries. I played the Cordilleran call and it flew right over, but this bird’s call didn’t match. After a little more testing, we all agreed that the call was clearly Dusky. And the very short primaries are a good field mark for Dusky anyway. Another lifer!

Randall Davey Audubon Center

After the nature trail, we talked to a woman in the visitor center, who recommended the Santa Fe Canyon trail. It’s actually on Nature Conservancy property, and it goes up one side of the Santa Fe river and back on the other. In the process it goes by a large pond that was once the reservoir for Santa Fe, as well as several beaver ponds. It was a nice hike, although we didn’t really see anything that noteworthy.

Santa Fe Canyon

After the hike we had lunch and rested a bit, then walked over to the Santa Fe Plaza and the Governor’s Mansion. At the latter, a whole row of artisans had set up blankets with stuff for sale – always Robin’s downfall.


We had a nice walk in the old city, and left much poorer. Tonight, tapas!

May 30, 2016: Dodging the crowds in Santa Fe

May 30th, 2016

We got in to Santa Fe last night, where we’re staying in a lovely 1920s era (Maybe; the question has prompted a big argument between Robin and Peggy) Pueblo style house (again, topic of some controversy) on Staab St. (pretty sure we all agree on this part). This morning I decided to forego birding and just go out for coffee and pastries for breakfast. Then I wandered around the yard a while, and Peggy asked what that bird was singing, and I allowed as how it was an Oregon Dark-Eyed Junco, but then Ebird said that was rare. And with some embarrassment, when I looked at my photo of it I realized it was a Spotted Towhee.

Spotted Towhee

After breakfast we agreed we should go to the Randall Davey Audubon Center, which is just over on the east side of town. But when we got there, it was closed for Memorial Day. We had never heard of an Audubon Center being closed for Memorial Day, so we decided instead of having two piles of garbage, it would be better to have one big pile of garbage, and then there were the 27 8X10 color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one…

Oops, wrong story. So anyway, we decided to drive out to Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, which looked pretty good based on the ebird records. What I didn’t realize was that it’s a group of small lakes in a dry, mostly featureless grassland. I think being there gives you a good idea what it was like on the Santa Fe trail. On the plus side, we only saw two other people and two more cars the entire time we were in the refuge.

We hiked to Gallinas Canyon and back.

Las Vegas NWR

And we used the scope to check out the lakes.

Las Vegas NWR

They had Mallards, Coots, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, and a couple of Avocets. Nothing too great. But I did get a lifer: Western Meadowlark, which was singing vociferously all over the place, and thus distinguishable from Eastern. Because damned if I can tell whether the malar stripe is yellow enough.

Western Meadowlark

Gallinas Canyon has some cool old stone ruins.

Las Vegas NWR

On the way back I almost stepped on this snake. Not sure what it is; thinking maybe Western Coachwhip, but I’d be open to suggestions from people who know stuff.

Western Coachwhip?

I could go on about the birds — we saw both Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, for instance, but if you care you can go to the links.

When we got back to the house, Hamner and I decided we should go to the store and get food for dinner, caffeine-free diet Coke, and libations. Robin particularly was enamored of Santa Sidra’s Tad Sweet cider, which she had at Fire and Hops last night with dinner. So we drove to Albertson’s where we got bread and cheese and olives and such, and some local IPA, and no cider. So we were about to head back defeated, but I decided we should try a liquor store. Which we did. No luck. So we looked up the Santa Sidra cider brewery, and drove there. And the place wasn’t even there. So then we went to Susan’s Fine Wine and Liquors. I asked the woman there if they had local cider, and bingo! There it was. We bought a couple of bottles. She then proceeded to tell us that the owner is opening a cider brewery in Washington DC, and nobody wanted to take over his operation here, so when what they have is sold, that’s the last they’ll ever get.

Santa Sidra

So we are all drinking good stuff (Hamner and I opted for Cumbre Elevated IPA) and getting ready for dinner. Tomorrow, to the Randall Davey Audubon Center (I hope).