Random Arctic Tern

Another birder on facebook posted some great shots of antarctic terns, and it reminded me of my favourite arctic tern shot I took in svalbard.

(Thinking about this as I try to ponder where my next adventure might be).

3launching tern



“I want to see as many different types of ducks as we can,” Age said. She’s not a birder, but the game of it all suddenly captivated her this weekend. Like most people, she equated ducks with mallards, but I was on Vancouver Island, and I had my binoculars and frequent access to the coast, and she had the chance to see just how different and glorious ducks can be.

I spotted two of my favourite ducks on our first morning walking the dog at Neck Point in Nanaimo — buffleheads (my spirit bird, squat, Canadian, messy-haired) and the beautiful harlequins, which I’ve only seen once before. I couldn’t get a good shot of the Buffleheads, but I got to wave at them in a few different places, and communed with them quietly while running. This morning, we went for a walk at Neck Point before the airport, there was a feast of Harlequins, the most beautiful and elegant ducks of all, courting, three or four males chasing one female, scooting and ducking.


I could have watched them all day.

rev harl

Over the weekend, we also saw red-headed duck, american widgeon, and red-breasted merganser in several places, so distinct with their tufty heads, even from far away.


We also saw surf scoter, american oystercatcher, wood duck, an unexpected pigeon guillemot (which I was proud of myself for identifying, thinking of guillemots as North Atlantic creatures), and many common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, so lovely, tucked into coves around Salt Spring Island, Neck Point and Horseshoe Bay on the mainland.


I also happened to look up and see a small flock of tundra swans on migration, which felt like a gift, and another eye-opener for A.

tundra swans

We had at least seven soaring bald eagles as well over the weekend, and a single, lucky sandhill crane spotted en route to the airport.

There were passerines, including the ubiquitous robins, but mostly I was looking at the sea. I’m most myself when looking at the sea. Still hooked to BC in my soul.

Hyacinth Macaw

They always look so HAPPY, these hyacinth macaws. And the thing is, they have a pretty darned happy life. Fly around, eat some fruit, squabble over territory, squawk around.

They do tend to hide themselves in the shade, and to hang out mostly at dawn and dusk, making them difficult to photograph.

But they’re one of the most stunning, delight-making creatures I’ve ever encountered.


The sound of Black Howler monkeys is like the wails of a storm, a gale you want to close your shutters against. They appear suddenly far above your head in the forest of the fazenda, giving you fair warning as they leap and glide in the tops of trees, follow little tracks and pathways that exist only in their group memory, the way from tree to tree, trails that lead them to the places where the canopy crosses the road.

The female black howlers confuse me at first, and I mistake them for the black-striped tufted capuchins, both the colour of the Americano with a splash of milk I can’t get in this land of black biting coffee. But the faces are dark as they peer over at us, curious. Not nearly as wary as the ones we see later in the north, who chatter fiercely and then hurl a papaya at us. All of the creatures in the Pantanal are less fearful, watching us as we watch them.

Fazenda means ranch, vagely echoing the word hacienda, like so many portugese words sound like a word I know that stumbled and stubbed its toe.

This fazenda is bursting with monkeys and hyacinth macaws, and toco toucans, and the ever present rufous horneros, cocoi herons and other water birds, ferruginous pygmy owls, tropical screech owls and scissortail nightjars, sweet small red brocket deer, and sly caimans calmly sunning themselves right in the road. Capybaras I make scatter like sheep as I trot sweating down the dusty road at midday, determined to run at least a little to make up for all the meat. Crab eating foxes I come face to face with in the road at dusk, both of us unsure as to whether we should keep walking forward.

The streaming wildlife is nested inside a working ranch, brahmin cattle with strange hunched backs who look whitewashed in the sun clustered on every edge. Horses that are mostly kept for dude riding, placid elderly creatures that even I can control. I ride a horse I dub Flossie for two hours, through pastures and savvanah and a forest trail, as jaibaru storks fly across the vast open sunset. I am ten years old and delighted, figuring out how to steer this horse who can barely manage a trot.

(7.23.12 –#205)

The guide wants to practice his English and asks me for a particularly Canadian saying. I can only come up with “it’s cold outside, eh?”. Later I offer a more appropriate idiom — “all hat and no horses.” I reject “all fur coat and no knickers” as far too out there. The English sayings he regales me with all seem to be about warning men not to stray. The grass is greener. A bird in the hand. Something about not going to the candy store if you have cake at home.

(taking photos from a horse is a challenge, but not as hard as identifying birds)

Later, I try to leave him a small tip with the fazenda owner, who laughs in my face at the amount Eduardo told me would be appropriate. This place does cost 190 Reals (about $100) per night per person after all, and you can barely wring a tiny bar of soap and a clean towel out of them. The food seems to have been designed as a project in how far you can possibly stretch a Real, enlivened only by the rum-soaked caipirinhas they will make if beseeched. For a price.

But the narrow child’s beds, and dead beetles not swept out of the rooms, and the french woman who keeps taking the single communal bottle of salt to her table, and phone signal only in the one tiny spot near the dining room, where they’ve thoughtfully installed a little pouch you can leave your phone in to receive SMS messages if you don’t want to crouch there — these are irrelevant when you have hyacinth macaws and toco toucans outside your room at dawn. The owner is preserving really important habitat. And you can ride a horse and pretend for a moment to be a pantaneiro.

White woodpeckers on papaya tree (08.05.12)

It’s our last day here, and I slept in until 6. Finch came back to fetch me to take me to Bonita’s clearing. After running around yesterday like mad fools all day chasing after possible sightings of the adult harpy, we got to the clearing this morning to find Bonita contentedly ripping apart an armadillo. The adult had come and gone in the 25 minutes Finch had taken to fetch me. Five white woodpeckers showed up to console us.


Chappada (7.31.12)

The forest road is thick with rich red dust. We’re clinging to dusk for a few more minutes. I’d thought we were done for the day, but we had to veer off so Finch could check out this particular forest road. For tomorrow, or some future possible trip. He has his ever-present GPS, his little notepad.

I say I’ll stay in the car — I’m on my 8th book of the trip, a sinking into reading I haven’t had the luxury of for years. It’s how I glide through the pauses when the birding surpasses my geek factor.

In this kind of birding, you pull over at some likely habitat — low, semi-open cerrado forest, gallery forest along a river, open savannah, transitional forest working its way from low cerrado to tall, dense amazonian. You go silent, feeling the space, listening, sensing. If you are not in an over-birded place, where you don’t want to stress the birds, confuse them by littering their space with imagined rivals, you play a recorded call to lure out some specific, sought after bird.

There’s a lot of standing about waiting in birding, calling in birds, listening for calls, silently calling them in, following the abrupt flitting long enough to get a photo. Silently pointing out silent arrivals, a bill, a tail, a crest, a glimpse. Sometimes I get impatient, uncomfortable. I like to see the birds, but the particular obscure ones are not part of my vocabulary. Sometimes, it feels to me like meditating in someone else’s body. Pausing and holding, being very present, but not knowing when the release might come. So I slather myself with repellent, lay out my jacket as a more optimistic-than-effective defense against chiggers and ticks and mosquitoes and sit where I can. Pull out a book or my kobo. Back to my 10 year old self reading in the tree at the cottage.

Our day began with 630 am birding on “Geladeria road”– refrigerator road, named peculiarly after a waterfall — in the Chappada, a plateau above the rest of this part of Brazil. It’s been a real birders’ day, one habitat after another, Eduardo and Finch both talking over each other with excitement as they lure out bird after bird. Helmeted manakin! Rufous winged antshrike!


Spot backed puff bird!

Planalto tyrannulet! Now that’s a bird!

It’s tiny and dull and obscure, but I can tell from Finch’s posture that the planalto tyrranulet is one of those hard to see birds. He’s rhapsodizing — look at the yellowish suffusion on the forepart of the supercilium! The noticeably horizontal posture for a tyrranulet! Look how it cocks its tail!

After the refrigerator road, we stopped in the town and I ordered an iced coffee, expecting espresso over ice… And got an expensive, astonishing concoction of ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate and biscuit.


Eduardo was genuinely puzzled that i would prefer it without ice cream.

Then a forest road, where I practiced my non-Brazilian phrase book Portugese on Eduardo and photographed band tailed manakin,


and then the geodesic centre of south America. Then in the afternoon, back to the park we’d been barred from the day before by the officious little man we dubbed the Barrel-chested tyrannulet because we arrived too close to closing time, kvetched about the fact that most of the trails are now closed because of a freak accident. Tried to photograph the red and green macaws that kept shooting past the cavernous valley to no avail. (too far! Damn autofocus! Overexposed!)

So I photographed the waterfall.


Now, at dusk, on the forest road, Finch comes running. “Come buffy come! Do you want to see a really big poisonous snake!!??”

It’s not really a question, and I haul myself out of the dusty car. “it’s moving! Hurry!” I advance on the viper and take a couple of dutiful, bad photos, watching it disappear into the undergrowth.

Heard in the forest a couple of days later:

“There’s a botfly here by my hand.”

(finch crashing though the forest like a collared peccary) “I want to see that!!!”