Monday, January 21, 2013

Mexico - Yucatán through Calakmul 12/31/12 - 1/1/13

Gray-throated Chat

A few days after my last post the last two members of our intrepid party arrived, and after our last night in relative luxury with my parents we headed off on our odyssey across southern Mexico. We left on the 31st of December, facing about a 5 hour drive to our home for the night - the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Calakmul is a famous location for birds and also for Mayan ruins, featuring a structure that towers up to 148 feet, one of the tallest of all the Mayan pyramids! Another nice feature here is that the structures aren't roped off, unlike many of the other archeological sites in the region, so you're able to climb to the top and look across the unbroken jungle stretching in all directions.

Panorama from the top of the pyramid - click to enlarge

            We arrived at dusk on the 31st at our destination – a place called Campamento Yaax’Che that rents out tents for roughly $10/person/night and is right along the entrance road to the ruins, something that no other budget accommodations can boast. After a reasonable nights sleep, including being woken up by Howler Monkeys at 1am (my first animal of 2013!) we set off down the 60 kilometer entrance road predawn to try to get there as the sun rose. Unfortunately the gate was not open until shortly after 6am, so we had to content ourselves with hanging around the parking lot right in front of it, which featured Bat Falcons cavorting overhead, underlain by the sounds of Mottled Owl and both Collared and Barred Forest-Falcons.

Ocellated Turkey

            Once the gate opened we headed down the remainder of the entrance road, periodically startling groups of the extremely gaudy Ocellated Turkey off of the pavement and watching them comically trot off into the woods. We finally arrived at the entrance to the ruins a couple hours after dawn due to birding along the road, and upon entering the park proper immediately came upon an antswarm. It was right on the footpath, and featured Ruddy and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers, a pair of Gray-throated Chats, and other species such as Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Hooded Warbler. We spent well over an hour photographing these birds that were completely unafraid of us, feeding almost at our feet on the insects that were fleeing from the mass of army ants that sought to devour them. In fact, we spent so much time there that our window of time to see the ruins and still complete the 4-5 hour drive in the afternoon was narrowing quite rapidly. This resulted in some serious speedwalking along the trails towards the big pyramid: Estructura II. Of course, we had no real idea where it was, and actually took a long circuitous route to get there, but we found it, climbed it, took the requisite photos, and made it back to the car in time to head back out. Our amazing views from the top also featured a couple juvenile King Vultures and a Bat Falcon right at eye level. We definitely wished we had more time there, we walked by so many interesting things in our rush to pack everything into a half-day.

Ruddy Woodcreeper, an antswarm feature

            Back on the road we quickly refueled with some delicious empanadas and then drove all afternoon to the town of Palenque, already off of the Yucatán Peninsula, and where I will next pick up this narrative!

The other three members of the party taking photos of Bat Falcons and other things

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mexico - winter break 2012-2013

Gartered Trogon, Cobá Ruins

As the title suggests, I am lucky enough this winter to be spending the duration of my time off from school, 5 weeks, in Mexico! I've been here since Dec 16th, staying with my parents in the town of Puerto Morelos, near Cancún on the Yucatán Peninsula. The place we’re staying is nice, a block off the beach with a view over the ocean from the living room of our third floor rental. For the first two weeks I’m based out of here, and then the real fun starts. A few of my friends are coming down as well, and we’re embarking on a 2,400 mile roadtrip from here near Cancún down to the state of Chiapas, across to Oaxaca state, and then back up in a giant loop to where we started. During this we should see over 500 species of birds, including many species that are endemic to Mexico or northern Central America.
Before they got/get here, my parents and I visited some of the local areas – snorkeling off of the beach by our condo, visiting the Mayan ruins of Cobá on the day of “the end of the world”. Somewhat predictably, at 11:11 the world didn’t end, nor at 12:21:12, or at any other time throughout the day. Perhaps next time.
Our first arrival from the states who was part of our initial group was my friend Luke Seitz, who arrived on Christmas day after a long and arduous journey from Portland, ME to Cancun – 22 hours total travel time, and topped off by quite a fiasco of a pickup here at the airport. Once we saw online that his plane had landed, my dad and I headed to the airport to meet him, but of course it wouldn’t be that easy. For some reason, the way that the airport is organized is that the only people that can access the place where arrivals come out are taxis and resort shuttles – no private cars or even pedestrians. In addition, the entire airport is made of one-way roads that all take you back to the very start, so you have to do massive loops each time you miss something. It ended up taking over an hour to successfully get Luke, and required getting airport personnel to cross the fence, go through the gate, fetch Luke, and bring him back to where normal people were allowed to be. Definitely the most difficult airport meeting I’ve ever been a part of!
Luke and I have five days here, through the 30th, until the two remaining members arrive from the States: Jess Johnson and Keenan Yakola, friends of mine from Massachusetts. Between now and then Luke and I are going to be getting SCUBA certified, which we started on the other day, and also going out to nearby Cozumel Island, where there are 3 species of bird that occur nowhere else. The underwater scene here is mesmerizing, with huge Spotted Eagle Rays seen while snorkeling right off the beach, thousands of fish including small colorful species and good numbers of big Barracuda – and even some Green Sea Turtles on our first dive yesterday.
It has been a great trip so far, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of it will bring!

Geoffrey's (Yucatán) Spider Monkey, Puerto Morelos

Friday, October 26, 2012

Alaskan wrap-up

Shot of camp again - the photos in this post consist of some of my favorites of the season

All in all, if you hadn’t gathered from all my posts leading up until now, it was an amazing summer. A unique experience, living in the middle of the wilderness with 5-7 other people worked out quite well since our crew was all good-humored, hard-working, and fun to be around. The potential for social disaster in small field crews is a definite reality, luckily one that was mainly avoided in this case.
The nature up there was out of this world, both at the Canning and then in our post-trip to the Kenai Peninsula. We only had 70 or so species of bird at the field site on the North Slope, but some of them that I talked about above, such as Spectacled Eider or Buff-breasted Sandpiper, are truly special.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers displaying

Of course, not all in the world is birds, as I need to be reminded sometimes, and the mammals exemplified this fact well. We ended up with 21 species of mammals throughout the whole trip, including roughly 30,000 caribou, all members of the Porcupine Herd, a well-known herd of animals that totals around 150,000 individuals whose seasonal migration takes them right past the area of our camp. The large carnivore show was also very impressive, like the American Serengeti as I said before, with eight Grizzly (Brown) Bears, 6 Gray Wolves, and daily Arctic Foxes. The mammals did not stop down in the Kenai area, illustrated with Black Bear and Orca, Mountain Goat and Humpback Whale, Sea Otter and Moose.

Pacific Loon

Apart from the flesh-and-blood life up there, the landscapes and other biota were awesome too, with massive expanses of spongy tundra extending as far as you can see up on the North Slope, to down in the Kenai where large evergreen forests dominate, where you silently walk under the boughs of the conifers on a bed of needles, a world apart from the other side of the state. One of the things that struck me was how primal and wild most of the state still was, even in some areas off of main roads – something that we never really encounter down in the lower 48 states.

American Golden-Plover

I know I have been trying to describe what it was like up there, but there is no real way to convey the experiences exactly as they were. There were the times when you’re slogging through knee-deep water with a 30lb pack, 7 layers on, toting a shotgun, and then the fog rolls in and you can’t see 20 feet away, no knowledge of where you are, where anything else is, and it doesn’t really matter. An hour later the sun could be out, the wind could die, and you could be stripping down to just a thermal layer over your tshirt, and throw on sunglasses, suddenly able to see dozens of miles at the frosted mountains standing vigil over the flatness. You might be walking along and get the feeling you’re being watched, only to turn around and see an Arctic Fox or a Caribou not too far behind you, just watching you.

Sabine's Gull

One of the many unique experiences that came with the trip up there was that of being cut off from the world. I’ve traveled extensively in Latin America, but even there you go to an internet café every few days at the most. Here you get your 10 minutes of satellite phone a week, and that is it. No knowledge of news, politics, sports, gossip, anything. And it was wonderful.
Our final tally for our 5 week season up there was 288 nests found, of which roughly 80% failed due to predation by Arctic Foxes, with another 3-5% unknown whether they were predated or if they hatched. This is a slightly above average for nests found, but extremely above average for predation. At other sites along the North Slope they had normal success years, so it appears to have been an isolated occurrence, and one that will surely even out over time, since it is just part of the rhythm of nature.

Red-necked Phalarope

It was an incredible experience overall, one that I am honored to have been a part of, and definitely something I’m considering returning to next year. Thanks all for reading, and perhaps I’ll find some more topics to write about from the New England area before I travel again – time shall tell.
For more photos than have been shown here, see the below links:
Canning River:
Kenai Peninsula:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

July 14-16 - Kenai Peninsula, Homer

A common sight in Alaska, this moose was expertly pointed out by Alan

The evening of the return from our glacier cruise out of Seward found us headed for Homer, a couple hundred miles away on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. Since the sun sets so late here, only being dark for 3-4 hours in the middle of the night, we were still driving in daylight even though we were on the road until 11:30 at night.
We stopped a couple places en route, at a supermarket for some sandwich materials and then at the Kenai NWR headquarters for the range-restricted Aleutian Tern, a breeding species there. We were able to pick out one of the terns feeding over the lake just behind the headquarters buildings, the first time I have seen a species of tern for the first time after 10pm!
Eventually we arrived at our destination for the night – a random road in the hills above Homer, where we ate sandwiches on the hood of the car, which we then proceeded to sleep in. For those of you out there who look down on sleeping in cars, our ride was quite a comfy sleeping place in my opinion!

View over the town of Homer from near where we slept

The following morning we checked a bunch of local areas in the downtown Homer area, and then spent the afternoon at nearby Anchor Point, a little coastal promontory that turned out to be great for seawatching. It was also a popular place for fishing, and the large number of fishermen there would fillet their catch and toss the carcasses into the surf edge, which served to attract lots of gulls, crows, and eagles.

This immature Bald Eagle was along the docks on Homer Spit, a peninsula right in downtown Homer

The eagle show was spectacular, with about 20 individuals feeding along the coastline, flying along at eye level less than 30 feet away at times. The congregation of close to a thousand gulls featured a Slaty-backed Gull mixed in with the myriad Glaucous-winged Gulls – this Slaty-backed that we found being the only one in the entire US at that time apart from one other elsewhere in Alaska!

Slaty-backed Gull (left), standing out among the surrounding Glaucous-winged Gulls

Adult Bald Eagle dropping down onto a fish carcass

Landing gear down!

This eagle came and landed in a tree right next to us, this photo is not cropped at all!

That evening we went and searched for Boreal Owl in the wood above town, unfortunately without any form of success. While thinking about our plans for the next couple days, we realized that we had gotten pretty much all of our realistic targets for the areas that we had been to, and that we could make it back a day earlier than planned, thus saving money on the rental car. However, this meant that we had to make it back for 1pm the following day..
4am found us awake in the front seats of the car again, having slept for another night in our luxurious sedan. After checking in vain one last time for Boreal Owl, we started the six-hour drive back to Anchorage, planning on one last birding stop.
We reached the town of Hope a few hours later, and headed up to a nice dirt road that climbed through a valley above town. Here we were able to add some more species that we hadn’t encountered yet this trip, such as Spruce Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and many other species with boreal flair.

View from the side of the road as we left the Kenai Peninsula

After here we went back to Anchorage for our last few days, hiking around town a couple times and enjoying the remainder of our time in Alaska, before flying home without mishap. I’ll post once more about this trip as a recap of the work that we did and things we saw. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

July 13-14 - Kenai Peninsula, Seward

The view from the highway as you approach the Kenai Peninsula, the mountains on the other side are on the peninsula proper

After a couple days of lazing around in Anchorage Alan and I hit the road again, this time shooting for the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. We snagged the rental car and headed off on the three hour drive, which went past absolutely spectacular scenery, with the usual snowy topped mountains set off by gently rolling forested slopes and mirror-like lakes throughout.
Arriving at Seward, we were so excited to finally be there that after quickly stopping at the hostel we were staying at we immediately headed off to start birding. We checked nearby Lowell Point and then the waterfront of the town itself, which combined had a half-dozen new species for both of us, and other fun creatures such as my first Sea Otters!

This cute little guy was right off the seawall in town

The following morning we headed out on a glacier cruise, the reason for us going to Seward. This nine-hour boat trip is mainly geared towards tourists who wish to see the spectacular tidewater glaciers that calve blocks of ice off into the water below the glacier. However, these trips are also fantastic for large numbers of seabirds, both those breeding on the cliffs around the fjords that you visit, and also species that are passing through on their migratory routes.
There are also some really cool mammals in the area, from those that are aquatic to terrestrial species. I was elated to finally get my first Orcas on this trip, a species that I have always wanted to see! We got to observe a large pod with some really young animals in it move right by the boat we were in, giving great views. In the water throughout the day there were also many Humpback Whales and Sea Otters, with smaller numbers of Dall’s Porpoise sprinkled throughout. From the terrestrial perspective, on the rocky coast of one headland we were lucky enough to see three Mountain Goats that had descended from their normally lofty abode to feed on vegetation at the edge of the ocean.

Part of the pod of Orcas we saw, with a nice young one in the middle

A bunch of Sea Otters loafing around in Aialik Bay, they actually would rock back and forth in the water as we passed, trying to get a better look at the boat going by!

Of course, we were really there for the birds, and they did not disappoint. As a foreground to the stunning scenery we were treated to tens of thousands of birds, including nine species of alcid, a family of birds that are the northern hemispheric counterpart to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. One of the species of alcid, Kittlitz’s Murrlet, is quite range restricted and has a really cool habitat preference. Occurring almost exclusively along the edges of the Bering Sea, these birds have an affinity for the milky gray-blue water that you only get at the base of glaciers – where the glacial silt tints the water this special hue. Every single one of the 31 Kittlitz’s Murrelets that we saw on the trip were at the outflow of glaciers – pretty awesome.

Black-legged Kittiwakes (top left) and Common Murres (top right, bottom left) nesting on the cliffs

Part of one of the Black-legged Kittiwake colonies at Cape Resurrection 

Speaking of glaciers, we got to see three massive glaciers on the boat trip, two that were landlocked and one tidewater, tidewater being defined as a glacier that runs right up to the edge of the ocean. The tidewater glacier that we saw, Aialik Glacier, was simply spectacular. Roughly a mile wide and 300 feet high, this striking powder blue monolith looms over the water below, where we sat in the boat with the engines off and were privileged to watch a couple house-sized chunks of ice plummet off of the face of the glacier, creating 5-6 foot swells that swept out across the bay.

There is unfortunately nothing for scale here, but this is about a mile wide. Simply massive.

On the way back to harbor we stopped at an island that was partially owned by the cruise company and were treated to a buffet dinner as part of the price of the trip – not a bad way to end the day! For carnivores there was a prime rib buffet, and then many other vegetarian options followed by a gourmet cheesecake dessert. Not bad.
After this trip we had seen everything that we wanted to from the Seward area, and rather than paying for a hotel in Seward, we took the bull by the horns and jetted off on the 4 hour drive to Homer immediately after getting back to the mainland, and Homer is where I will pick up this narrative next.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

July 10 - Fairbanks south to Anchorage

View from the highway between Fairbanks and Anchorage

We spent two nights in Fairbanks, hanging out as well as returning gear to the Fish & Wildlife Service office and finalizing last details of the summer. We birded at a couple places in town as well as going and seeing The Avengers in theaters - our first movie in quite a while! After our wrap-up work was done, we were free to do what we wanted until our flights back on the 20th!

Alongside the highway there are areas with spruce forest extending as far as you can see, really striking landscape

We both knew people down in Anchorage, so we headed down there next, stopping on the way south at Denali National Park for a short while – a brief intermission in the 6 hour drive. There was beautiful scenery on the drive, much of it featuring the enormous icy crown of Denali in the background. We got to see a Black Bear with three cubs in tow along the side of the road, and lots of fun birds, despite not locating the desired Arctic Warbler.

Mrs. Black Bear and her cubs

Laura had a friend in Anchorage that she had done fieldwork with in another part of Alaska a few years prior, and so her and Alan made plans to stay with her friend Julie. A friend of mine also currently lived in Anchorage, a former bander at Manomet back here in Mass, and so it was nice to get to see and catch up with her! After one night at my friend’s I spent the remainder of the time with Alan and Laura at Julie’s, since Julie’s house was a much easier space with which to entertain guests.
            Alan and I wanted desperately to visit the Kenai Peninsula, since Anchorage is right there next to it, and Laura also wanted to go dip-netting for salmon with Julie for a weekend – so while they went and had a great time fishing, we went and had a last few days of hardcore birding before the end of the trip, which is where the next post will cover!

Monday, October 22, 2012

July 9 - departure, civilization

Our trusty transport back to Fairbanks

We woke up this morning and did one last half-day of work, quickly performing invertebrate sampling so that the two people staying behind had less work to do, for that day at least. Scott and Alfredo were staying behind, while Elin, Alan, Laura, and myself departed.
In the late morning we heard the whine of an engine and our ride out arrived, landing on the strip of land below camp known as the “runway” simply a flatter drier area than most of the land around.
            Elin and I took the first plane out, while Laura and Alan hopped on the second one about a half hour after we left. It was a totally different world leaving, really wonderful to be able to see the difference between the flight in a month prior. In contrast to the snowbound land that we arrived in, it was now a lush green landscape, spotted here and there with ponds and winding tributaries of the Canning River.

Just to the left of center, to the left of the bend in the river shown here, is our camp

            We landed at Kavik as we did on the way in, once more to refuel, and summer was already seemingly past peak here. Upon arrival I hurriedly made my way to the building with internet there, and checked my email – consisting of over 600 messages from the past month. It was both a relief and a letdown to be connected to the outside world again after a good amount of time away from it all.
            The flight over the mountains heading back to Fairbanks was also totally different, with the icy mountains being replaced by gray shale and visible geology in the craggy peaks. The valleys with rivers in them were lush and green, contrasting vividly with the dead scree slopes above them. As we headed further south we saw something that had long been out of our lives – trees!

Verdant river valley in the Brooks Range

No more snow except a few glaciers on the highest peaks

            Upon landing in Fairbanks real life caught up fast, and I was immediately calling people trying to figure out transportation, a place to stay, and what the game plan was for the evening. Thanks to wonderful logistical help from Manomet staff Metta and Stephen, we were able to get a rental car almost immediately once Alan and Laura landed, and were soon at our destination for the night – the home of Patti Picha, an incredibly kind lady who opened her home to travelers coming through the area, a friend of Scott’s who housed us for a couple nights for free.

A view of the Yukon River as we headed south, showing the generations of meanderings of the river, with the darkest vegetation in the center being the oldest