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I don’t know how our guide Jose does it, but from his seat in the front of the minibus—as it’s moving at 60 km an hour up the mountain—he hollers, “Torrent Duck!” after which our driver, Manolo, stops immediately.
How did he see that?
I follow Jose’s finger where it’s pointing, press my nose against the window and there it is: a blur of a duck slipping off the rock into the river rapids, upstream.
The four of us, sans Manolo, jump out of the van and run to the edge to see if the duck pops back up out of the water. I put my camera up to my face waiting to get a shot that will prove I see it, but it’s gone.
Gosh, is that it? Is that all I’m going to see of the Torrent Duck?
I climb back into the mini bus with my husband, Steve, and Bill, another birder on our trip who we just met the day before. We each have our own seat on this minibus, since we’re the only three on this seven-day bird tour of the Andes in Ecuador. I grab the bottle of water from the seat pocket in front of me and drink the tepid water, which I still find refreshing and Manolo is already driving away.
We see more birds that day, but no more Torrent Ducks. Every day for the next four days I ask Steve, “Do you think we’ll see the Torrent Duck today?”
“We’ll have a really good chance once we get to Guango Lodge,” is always his response. I’m like a kid that way. Always asking the same question for the same response.
So I wait for that day, but I also worry. I have been having trouble at the high elevation in the Tandayapa Valley where we are staying in the Andes. The pressure on my head, feeling like it’s in a vice grip, slowed me down much more than I ever anticipated. Guango Lodge is at an even higher elevation than Tandayapa Lodge, where we had been staying and I wasn’t sure I could take any more of this squeezing on my brain. I was having a hell of a time.
A freaking amazing duck
I’m fascinated with the Torrent Duck just for the mere fact that it lives among fast flowing rivers of the High Andes. If you’re a duck, the Torrent Duck would be your cousin who loves the adrenaline rush of white water rapids. They not only live among the rivers, nesting in high cliffs above the tumultuous waters, but they swim upstream into fast, torrent rivers. I mean, what duck does that? Oh, the Torrent Duck does.
Even Torrent ducklings know how to swim fearlessly upstream in the fast water, which amazes me because I freak out when I watch little Mallard ducklings struggle to swim upstream in rapid water. Let’s just say they’re not so good at it. However, their Torrent duckling cousins are awesome at busting through the rapids.
Another interesting thing about the Torrent duck is that the female is the colorful bird, unlike most other birds in the avifauna world. She is orange breasted and—someone fact check this for me, please— my theory is that she’s colorful so that her young can see her in the water. (If that’s true I just might have to take that word, “Accidental” off my title here.)
Our days were running out
After six days in the Andes we still had no real good look at a Torrent Duck. Our last night we settled in at Guango Lodge, a small property in the temperate forest of the Andes, just about an hour from San Isidro and only 11 kms down the main Interoceanica Highway from the town of Papallacta.
As soon as we arrived I asked Jose if we could find the Torrent Duck. He looked positive. “Someone saw it today,” he said. “It’s just down the path.” We took the trail down to what sounded like a fast-moving river. The forest is still thick, even near the water. I pushed branches out of the way, and was especially careful in the mud, which always makes me nervous. Occasionally there were wooden steps to help in the steeper areas and old bottle caps were nailed into the boards upside down to help create traction to avoid any slipping. We arrived at the river and no duck. We moved to another area further down stream and still no duck. We walked over to a foot bridge to get a good look both up and down the river and no duck.
At which point I start doubting the whole world
I felt as though I was looking for a unicorn. How do I know that this duck exists if I can’t see it? I began to contemplate faith and belief and how things can exist that you don’t ever see, but I didn’t care about any of those things. I wanted to see the Torrent Duck and if I was going to endure headaches and nausea and all the other high altitude miseries I was going to get my damned duck come hell or high water.
But then hot water bottles make things better. (Sort of.) Or was it that tea?
We had a lovely buffet dinner at the lodge that night as the temperature dropped to what I would call Freaking-cold Celcius. I mentioned my headache and then someone introduced me to Coca Tea, saying that it helps with altitude sickness.
Tea? I love tea! It’s that easy?
And then there were the chuckles and knowing glances and then Steve educates me by saying, “Like in the coca plant—where cocaine comes from.”
Who cares. I have a headache.
As we left for our room, someone from the lodge handed us water bottles filled with hot water to take to our room. Holy cow—water bottles! This place is so freaking cute. I drift off to sleep and I don’t know if it was the fluffy down comforters or the hot water bottle or the coca tea, but my headache went away.
One last chance
The next morning we had a full hot breakfast at 6:00 and as we were loading the van with our luggage Jose says, “Hey, want to see the Torrent Duck?”
“Hell, yeah!” I say, forgetting my manners and any ounce of decorum I might have left in me. “Where is it?”
“Just down the hill.”
We know we have a schedule, but we’re birders and if there’s a bird—a freaking Torrent Duck!—then screw the schedule. We go off to get a look at the duck.
I head down the trail, Jose is in front, I’m right behind him and Steve and Bill follow. Manolo is even there because he, too, wants a look at this duck. The trail somehow seems shorter today. Maybe that’s because I know it, or because I am hiking downhill at a little faster clip in order to get a chance to see this duck.
Jose slows down and then I know. He crouches down behind some branches and points.
And there’s my duck.
There was a knock on the door. I could still hear it even though I had earplugs. I rolled over and looked at my iPhone and with my middle-aged vision barely made out the time: 4:30 a.m.
It was our wake-up call. Someone goes around knocking on doors when it’s time to get up. There are no phones, you see, at Sacha Lodge in the Amazon.
I took out the ear plugs and as I sat up in the bed the chorus of frogs and cicadas were still trying to “out sing” each other just as they did six hours before when I had shoved the earplugs in my ears with the hope of a good night’s sleep. I put my hand to my head and felt my thick, curly hair, which seemed to have grown bigger and more unruly during my sleep. (It’s what happens in humidity.)
I wiped my eyes and then said to Steve, “Babe, I feel like I’m at camp.”
“We are,” he said with his groggy voice. “We’re at bird camp.” And then he smiled that smile he gets when he knows he’s going to go birding.
A birder’s “vacation”
This is day two at Sacha Lodge in Ecuador where we’re vacationing.
Yes, the kind of vacationing where you get up at 4:30 in the freaking morning.
But it’s what birders do. I know that now. (I should have been more specific when questioning this before I married the birder.)
We showered quickly, brushed our teeth using bottled water, lathered up with bug spray, put on our birding uniforms (cargo pants, long-sleeved breathable shirts, hiking boots), grabbed binoculars and camera batteries, hurled bags and gear over our shoulders, and made our way down the long, wooden staircase in the dark to the main lodge for our breakfast.
Breakfast was short, but very filling. There’s no shortage of food at Sacha Lodge. Yet as soon as we put the last bite in our mouths, our guide, Marcelo got us on our way. You don’t dilly dally around as a birder. Birds don’t wait for you and your guide knows that. We got into our a canoe and Marcelo and his assistant, Wilmer, paddled us down one of the creeks—the Amazon’s highways and paths are really waterways—where we met the trail that would take us to the great Kapok Tower.
There’s a theme here: STAIRS
The Kapok Tower is a wooden tower constructed around a giant Kapok Tree, reaching 135 feet high. We had magnificent views around the area, much like we did at the Canopy Walkway the day before. Boy, I feel out of shape climbing these towers, but I was also glad for the challenging exercise. It at least made me feel like I earned my big meals back at the lodge.
A few of the highlights
For some reason, I spent more time taking photos of the tower than I did birds. It was, indeed, very active at this tower, but I spent more time looking than I did shooting photos. We saw the Ornate Hawk Eagle, Laughing Falcon, the Golden-collard Toucanet and we were visited by the Many-banded Araçari right above our heads in the branches of the Kapok tree. That’s just a small sampling of what we saw up there in the big Kapok tree.
Time for a dip with the anaconda, piranha and caiman
The Amazon is hot. Did I mention that before? I mean REALLY hot. So hot that after our morning at the Kapok Tower I didn’t hesitate to go for a dip in Lake Pilchicoacha—the lake just outside Sacha Lodge. The same lake where there are anaconda, piranha and caiman.
I didn’t care that reptiles of the alligator family were hanging around to cool off. Or big ass snakes like anaconda were lurking near the shore (which is why the sign says to not swim near the shoreline and why I obeyed that—we just jumped off the deck into the lake). And the piranha? Well, I had previously read from a reviewer on TripAdvisor that the piranha are asleep during the day and so as long as we didn’t wake them we’d be okay. And everyone knows that everything on the Internet is true, right?
So, shhhhhhh. Don’t wake the piranha.
The dip was so worth it as it cooled our bodies in the Amazonian heat, though we didn’t stay in the water too long. If we had one of those floating styrofoam noodles, that would have been awesome and I would have hung out there longer, but we didn’t and dog paddling around wasn’t much fun. Plus, I was worried we’d wake the piranha. (Shhhhhh!)
We made our way back to our room to notice that the leaf cutter ants were busily collecting their leaves and we noticed prickly tree trunks and big ass fruit that looked about the size of a bowling ball.
This is just another day at bird camp in the Amazon.
Other posts about this trip:
- Birding high atop the canopy at Sacha Lodge
- It’s Elementary, my dear Hoatzin
- I held a hummingbird in my hand today
- Picturing Quito (from my other blog, Baby Aspirin Years)
- The Tree Tomato welcomed me to Ecuador (from my other blog, Baby Aspirin Years)
- The Amazon and Sacha Lodge: Getting there is half the fun (as long as there are toilets) (from my other blog, Baby Aspirin Years)
I was a little out of breath after climbing the metal stairs to the top of the 94-foot high tower. It was then when our guide Marcelo turned to us and asked, “You don’t have vertigo, do you?”
I laughed. “Now you ask us that?”
It was a beautiful morning in the northern-most part of the Amazon basin in Ecuador. We were at the famed Sacha Lodge Canopy Walkway that spans across 940 feet. Yes, it’s not for the skiddish, but it is sturdy and offers spectacular views of many birds we wouldn’t be able to see from the ground. (See my other post on my other blog about our arrival to Sacha Lodge.)
I love canopy towers and not for the reason you think. Sure there are birds to see up there, but I actually enjoy taking stairs high up in the sky on vacation because I feel like I’m getting the workout I wouldn’t otherwise get. I also try to count in Spanish the number of steps as I go up, but once I hit “Dias” I have to revert back to English.
Morning workout: Check!
Basic counting to ten in Spanish: Check!
(ps: Need to pull out the Rosetta Stone CDs I bought last month.)
Cardiovascular workout and my awesome grasp of the Spanish language aside, we did see some pretty marvelous birds atop the canopy. It’s actually a great way to bird and my second-favorite. (My very favorite way is to bird while canoeing.) When you climb towers you get to spend a couple of hours or more pretty much in one spot. Just set up the scope, pull out your binoculars and wait. The birds just come in and sometimes so fast you don’t know what to look at first. I could be focused on a great tanager and miss the toucan. That’s why it’s always best to have other birders around to holler out when a new birds flies in.
We had Marcelo Andy, our guide for our four days at Sacha Lodge, and his “assistant,” Wilmer. They were expert spotters and combined with Steve and I we had four sets of eyes fixed on seeing what would come our way. When we had left for the morning is was pleasant. Not exactly cool, but I didn’t feel the heat of the jungle like I thought I would. These are good conditions for birding. It was quiet except for the sounds of the Oropendola, which reminded me of water dripping in a sink in an empty room that echoes. We’d hear or see big branches moving in the distance and I’d always hope for a good view of a toucan, but mostly it was monkeys hightailing it across the canopy as though it were a highway. And where there are monkeys you can most definitely see the Double-toothed Kite, which is chasing the insects the monkeys stir up while jumping branch to branch. Birds are really clever.
On our way back to the Sacha Lodge I started to feel the heat, even under the shade of the lush tropical leaves. We’re always birding, of course. It doesn’t matter that your feet are tired or that it’s hot or that you need to get back to the lodge to use the bathroom. All of that doesn’t matter when you happen upon a pair of Crested Owls. There they were, out in the open.
I have an immense attraction to owls, for some reason. I always feel it a treat to see them in daytime, even those that are diurnal. But I think it’s mostly their big wide eyes that appeal to me. They’re looking at me while I’m looking at them. Oh, and also the fact that they typically remain still and if the lighting and surroundings are just right I just may get a decent photograph (neither of which were the case as you can see below).
A productive day, indeed! As we made our way back to the lodge, aside from realizing how bad I smelled (never have I smelled this bad), I couldn’t wait to see what the next day would bring. There are over six hundred species of birds that have been identified on the 5000 acre (2000 hectare) property under the care of Sacha Lodge since it has been open to the public in 1992.
Here are some shots of some of the many birds we saw. Click on any one of them and it will enlarge it for better viewing.
For more information on Sacha Lodge, visit their website. They are listed in the book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die.
Hoatzin. I just love saying it. You say it like it has a “W” in it.
It’s odd looking.
It makes a sound that reminded me of bagpipes filling up with air.
And it smells like a cow. Because it’s kind of like a cow. Really.
Oh, and this bird is so strange that there isn’t even a category for it in the field guide. Steve tells me that means it’s a “monotypic” species. (I love it when my husband starts talking all scientific. Total turn on.)
There were always several of them lurking around the shores of the lake outside Sacha Lodge where we were staying for four nights in the Amazon, and it was one of the first birds we saw on our trip to Ecuador. Every time we would canoe in from one of the creeks that fed into the lake I would look forward to being greeted by the Hoatzins.
I immediately fell in love with this bird because it allowed me to get some nice shots of it. Thank you, nice bird!
So, let me introduce you to the Hoatzin.
The Hoatzin eats leaves, and because they have bacteria in their crop that’s where they digest the leaves and get their nutrition. A byproduct of this process is methane gas. Gross, I know. It’s the same process cows go through when eating grass, making it the only bird that does this, and why the Hoatzin is often referred to as the “stinky turkey.”
Another unique tidbit about the Hoatzin is that it’s a very primitive bird. Unlike any other bird on this planet today, the young are born with claws on their wings. And because they nest over water, should a monkey or snake try to prey on them the young birds will escape by falling from the nest into the water and clamor away using the claws on their wings.
So, if you ever go to South America make sure you visit the Amazon basin so you can see these amazing, prehistoric-like birds. They are like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
Plus, they’ll let you take their picture.
If you want to read about our journey to Sacha Lodge, check out my story, The Amazon and Sacha Lodge: Getting there is half the fun (as long as there are toilets) on my other blog, The Baby Aspirin Years.
I held a hummingbird in my hand today.
To hold such a tiny, beautiful creature was thrilling. It was as if time had stopped in my hand. There were over a hundred other hummingbirds zipping past my head on the patio of Tandayapa Lodge in the Ecuador Andes Mountain range, but this one—this Violet-tailed Sylph—was silently resting in my palm. In this moment I felt powerful enough to stop everything around me, as if I were Moses about ready to part the Red Sea. I stopped time with this sweet little bird that zips around all day, yet instead of zipping around, he was still and sitting in my hand.
I held a hummingbird in my hand today.
I had only met the Violet-tailed Sylph for the first time a few days ago during this trip to the Ecuador cloud forest. When I first saw its iridescent colors and long shimmering violet blue tail, I had gasped because it seemed like I had just seen a unicorn, and then I whispered to my husband, “Oh, I love that one.”
As I held the bright blue and violet bird he was panting and breathing fast. He was stunned because he just flew into a window. He stopped to catch his breath and let me hold him as he rested. He was confused and kept looking up at me, probably scared. While I cradled him in my hand I wondered how long he would rest there before flying away. I wondered how long before he would die.
I held a hummingbird in my hand today.
It was all my fault. I left the door open at the lodge and he apparently flew in. I suppose that in trying to get out he must have thought the big glass paned window was the pathway to his world outside. My eyes welled up as I looked into his. I think I’ve killed this little bird by my carelessness. Sure he will fly off but it’s just a matter of time before his little body will give in to the blow. I can’t take back what I’ve done. There’s no power in holding a hummingbird, really.
I held a hummingbird in my hand today.
After five minutes of him looking at me and me looking at him he flew off and rested on the wrought iron railing, still panting. He struggled a few times to fly to a gigantic leaf nearby and then flew back to the railing for more secure footing. This happened three times and then he flew away. I hope he is okay. I want him to be okay.
I held a hummingbird in my hand today.
Where is the water? If there’s going to be Sandhill Cranes there has to be water. Let’s be honest, Arizona is pretty dry. So when I heard some birders talking to Steve the day before about the thousands of Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw I was not expecting a drive out into what I thought was the middle of nowhere. And I was expecting to see water at any time, but I had to wait.
Wait and be patient. (The latter not being one of my many talents.)
After our morning birding at Patagonia Lake State Park, we drove through the town of Tombstone via Highway 89 and turned east on Davis Road then to Coffman Road in search of the Sandhill Cranes. I realized that once I started to see agricultural fields I knew water had to be around somewhere. There had to be a way to irrigate. We were only about 100 miles from Tucson and then we found it: Whitewater Draw. This area in Southeast Arizona is very unassuming, and if you weren’t looking specifically for it you’d easily miss it. The 1400-acre site has a pond that varies with the runoff and it’s almost shocking to see a pond clear in the middle of this dry Arizona.
A love for water birds
I think I’ve decided that I love water birds: shore birds, rails, waders, ducks. I loved Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, I love Antelope Island, of course, and Bear River NWR, both in Utah, and I adored Crooked Tree in Belize. Perhaps it’s because I can see a variety of species in one place. Or maybe it’s because they sit still and don’t really hide much (unlike warblers, sparrows, or other song birds). But I actually think it’s more than that. Generally these places are a refuge—a resting place. There’s something very cathartic about it, watching birds feed and get ready to journey on to their next destination. Water is always relaxing, there’s generally great landscape around, and with a lot of birds there’s always drama going on. You don’t have to look very far to find it.
The big news story this day at Whitewater Draw were the thousands and thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Never in my life had I seen so many Sandhill Cranes. They preened, they called to one another with their deep rolling trumpet and rattling, they walked around. They were totally at peace and so was I.
I took gobs of photos of the Sandhill Cranes, but I was struggling with my new lens and teleconverter. I simply could not get a sharp photo. Bad photography notwithstanding, I could sit there all day on one of the benches and just look out at the multitude of Sandhill Cranes with their calling and trumpeting.
We stood out on platform over the pond for quite some time. A group of 50-something-year-old Harley Davidson riders leaned over the railing of the platform, looking at the Sandhill cranes and variety of ducks, commenting on each of the species. Why, they’re birders! I realized.
Two new lifers here
As we wandered toward the willow thicket toward the southeast corner of the ponds I found two lifers I wasn’t expecting: The Sora, a rail that’s likely migrating through, and the Long-eared Owl.
A great show as we were leaving
Just as we were driving away, back on Coffman Road we noticed several hundred Sandhill cranes roosting. I hollered for Steve to pull over and I got this video of the cranes. Not the greatest shot (of course) and pardon my gasp in the video, but it was indeed breathtaking. (It’s only 20 seconds.)
Lots of bird activity today
There weren’t just the Sandhill Cranes or the Long-eared Owl or even just the Sora. There were loads of ducks too, especially the Northern Shoveler with its cartoon-like wide beak, the dapper Northern Pintails and the colorful Green-winged Teal that reminded me of Olympic synchronized swimmers as they tipped themselves upside down to feed while displaying their butts up in the air. There were even Snow Geese roosting among the Sandhill Cranes, which was a real treat. Check out the gallery to get a good look at the other cast of characters at Whitewater Draw. (Click on any photo below and it will launch the photo so you can see better.)
It generally goes something like this:
“Is that a….wait a minute, I think it’s…could it be?”
I have only been birding for six years now and it didn’t take me long to figure out that identifying a bird is not an easy task, even among the more seasoned birders. Especially when it’s a sparrow. It’s like trying to tell the difference between the Kardashians. I couldn’t tell you who is Kourtney, Kim or Khloé. Or even Kris. (That’s the mom, right?) They all look the same and their behavior is the same. (Withholding “immature” comment here.)
Snarkiness aside, my point is that often the differences among birds of the same species are so subtle that were it not for my husband and a bevy of experts out there, I’d miss the differences right before me. I’d think every sparrow was just a sparrow, genericizing it to the degree that it marginalizes each individual bird’s character, whether it be the coloring, the song, or even it’s behavior. In Corporate America we call that commoditizing: When your customer doesn’t recognize any difference between your product and the competitor’s. It’s what every business person wants to avoid. So I imagine it’s probably the same in the bird world. For heaven’s sake, I like to be recognized for my differences, why wouldn’t a sparrow?
Admittedly, my experience with correctly ID’ing a sparrow is limited. I can pretty much tell a White-crowned Sparrow from the rest. And a House Sparrow. (I know those guys too.) But the rest? That’s when I need an expert (read: husband). And a camera. That way, we can snap a photo so we can examine it, zoom in on it when we pull it up on the computer, and flip through our field guide to compare it. Yes, compare it to the gazillion other little sparrow guys who all look the same. I often feel like I’m looking at a police line up or police photo book. (Enter Law and Order music now.)
But alas, awesome little Golden Books field guide notwithstanding, while in Southeast Arizona a couple weeks ago we found the following guy and we were convinced it was a Rufous-winged Sparrow, which would have been a lifer for both of us. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Going throughout the day we were hoping he was the Rufous-winged Sparrow, but hadn’t fully committed to it. No sense committing yourself to something that just may not be so. I had a few other photos besides the one above but we were still puzzled even after pulling up the photo on my laptop back at the hotel and flipping back and forth in our field guide. Was he the Rufous-winged Sparrow or perhaps a Brewer’s Sparrow? An immature? Couldn’t tell.
So, I tweeted out the photo, posted it on Facebook and also sent an email to blogger Laurence Butler, who is from the area since folks from the area are often the best experts, as they have sharper eyes for the resident birds. Here’s his responses:
Hey Lisa,I don’t think this is a Rufous-winged Sparrow since it lacks to two dark lateral throat stripes and the eyestripe on the Rufous-wing should also be rufous unless it’s a juvenile, but there wouldn’t be any juveniles this time of year and they’re much more mottled than this bird.The thin black eye stripe, the bold, wide, white supercilium, and the single stripe on the throat, with the softer white malar stripes, point to non-breeding Chipping Sparrow for me. The other possibility, to my eyes, is a funky Clay-colored Sparrow, but they’re more buffy and have a wider eyestripe, as well as a more buffy supercilium.I think Chipping in the best bet here, but of course it’d be good to cross-check this bird with other folks. Chippers have this really nasty habit of mixing in with other flocks too down there in the southeastern corner, when there are so many other Sparrows to already keep an eye on.
Thanks for the additional photos Lisa.There’s a bit of buffiness on the sides of the bird’s face, but that dark, narrow eye stripe, prominent supercilium, and now more evident lack of dark malar stripes on the throat, plus the clean breast rule everything out but Chipping Sparrow. They’re buggers.
I also posted this on my other blog, Baby Aspirin Years. I felt that it should live on both blogs. (Apologies if you subscribe to both.)
It’s the last day of 2012. There have been a lot of wrap up posts floating around and I kept thinking how I would wrap up this year. A year of pictures, showing one per month? A list of things I learned? A list of all the fantastic things I did? Others have written eloquent posts going down memory lane. Me? I kept drafting one and then I felt like I was creating something akin to the ol’ Christmas Letter.
Today Steve and I visited Antelope Island. It’s the last day of the year and the last full day we have together before he heads back to Calgary tomorrow. For me, it’s the perfect wrap up of my year.
It was perfectly white. Perfectly peaceful and perfectly sums up how I feel about this year: A balance of harshness and beauty. Challenges and triumphs. But mostly, it’s where Steve and I go to escape the world and spend quality time together.
View the gallery by clicking on any one of the photos below. They look yummier that way.
Oddly, most people I know in Salt Lake City don’t visit the Great Salt Lake for which the city is named. It wasn’t until Steve, my boyfriend from Toronto, dragged me to the salty shallow, yet expansive, lake to do the last thing I thought we would be doing: birdwatching.
You’d think traveling there would be complicated since no one goes there, but the Great Salt Lake is actually easy to get to. All we did was take the Interstate 15 to Exit 332, and then drove west. until we reached the entrance of Antelope Island State Park where we paid a $9 entrance fee and began our drive on a long narrow two-lane causeway to Antelope Island, one of the largest islands in the Great Salt Lake at 15 miles long and 7 miles wide.
With water on both sides of the causeway I start to feel more removed from the long stretch of suburbs that we passed on the way here. Steve slows the car down and points to some birds wading around in the water close to shore. “Those are avocets,” he explains. “I’m sure you’ve seen them before.”
“There are thousands of them here right now. See over there?” He points in the distance and then I see it. Little dots—yes, thousands of them—on the water. “They’re only here for a few weeks to fatten up on the brine flies.” Steve goes on to explain that the algae and brine flies are dying, and combined with the lake’s sulfites, creates a pungent smell, which at first attacks the nostrils, but surprisingly, I get used to it.
We drive further and see cars parked on the narrow shoulder of the causeway and people with binoculars pressed against their faces. Steve rolls down his window and asks a man, “See anything good?”
“The usual suspects,” a man replies without looking at us.
Steve pulls up his binoculars to see. All I could see were California Seagulls, the Utah state bird, but then Steve says, “Oh, there’s a Franklin’s Gull. And a Bonapart’s Gull. And I think a Ring-billed Gull in there, but I’m not sure.”
How can he tell? They all look the same to me. And then I see it. One of the gulls has a black head.
We leave the shores of the causeway and drive around the island, passing grasslands with tumbleweed and the sweet scent of the short prickly mountain sage was a welcome relief to the sulfery smell of the shores. Steve continues his birding school with me and more than once he slams on the brakes to point out Chuckers, Western Meadowlarks and Marsh Hawks.
On our way back to the causeway I am startled to see a group of buffalo and of course, antelope, for which the island is named. If I turn my head a little more to the right, I can see the skyline of the urban sprawl. I turn back to look at the buffalo and antelope, and as we head back to the mainland of the Salt Lake Valley we spot a coyote. How is it that people who live in Salt Lake City don’t visit here?
When you travel over 6000 miles non stop, of course you want your own patch of grass. Actually, you deserve it.
This deserving avian wonder is the Pacific Golden Plover (or Hawai’ian Kolea)—a petite shorebird that is very common in Hawaii and who I first met on the island of Oahu.
Rhymes with Lover
The Pacific Golden Plover (“It rhymes with lover” Steve explained to me) nests in Alaska and spends winter in Hawaii and other islands in Polynesia. In Alaska they’re quite shy, but when they get to Hawaii they become quite tame and can be fed by hand. I have to admit, Hawaii makes me feel more vibrant and social too. It’s those nice tropical trade winds I suppose. And I’d be open to anyone feeding me by hand too, especially if it’s coconut macadamia nut shrimp.
The Pacific Golden Plover’s journey from Alaska to Hawaii is about 6000 miles and takes about 3-4 days. When Steve explained that to me I thought, “Hmm…that makes sense.” But then he added, “That’s without stopping.“
So imagine, you’re flapping your wings constantly. No stopping to rest.
“You rest and you die,” Steve added with dramatic emphasis.
Hey kid, get off my lawn
When the Plover gets to Hawaii he becomes very territorial, staking out his claim and protects it against other Plovers. You’ll find them in pretty much every park, football or soccer field, but they won’t be in a group. You’ll find just one guy. In fact, it’s almost like there’s one Plover per household lawn.
After a couple of days our vacation turned into a spot-the-Plover game–kind of like that game where you punch the arm of that person next to you whenever you see a Volkswagon Bug.
“Hey! Plover!” Punch.