Monday, May 6, 2019

Belize! Part V: Black Rock Lodge

Belize! It wasn't that long ago, but it kinda seems like it? So much good 5MR birding since then! Anyways, to continue with the Belize trip...after leaving the Tropical Education Center/Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge and the pine savanna behind, it began to get serious. As we headed west, actual hills and topography began to appear, which we had seen no sign of until then. The flat, lightly-treed savanna gave way to forests...we were now in a very different part of the country. I was amazed to see a Black Hawk-Eagle cruising low over the road while passing through San Ysidro, as I had only seen one before and that one was something like a thousand feet higher in the sky. We were on our way to Black Rock Lodge, one of the most heavily birded sites in the country, where we would spend five luxurious (by my scumbag standards) nights. Black Rock offers great birding on their property along the Macal River (and along their entrance road), and is situated within an hour of a number of other birding hotspots - I would highly recommend it to anyone who plans to bird in the greater San Isidro area or western part of the country.

We arrived in the area pretty early so decided to detour to DuPlooy's Jungle Lodge for lunch. DuPlooy's, which has been recently bought out and renamed Sweetwater or something like that, is another well known birding site and is also adjacent to the Belize Botanic Gardens. I had looked into staying there, but the price was considerably higher than what Black Rock offered, and Black Rock seemed to have comparable if not better birding on site. Lunch was mellow - outside and way up in the forest canopy. I was amazed to see that there was a group of tame Red-throated Ant-Tanagers coming in to check out the trash and lunch plates left behind by guests. This would be the first of 25,000 occasions I wished my camera had not stopped working...we also had good looks at Golden-crowned Warblers from the dining deck, which we would not end up seeing anywhere else.

It was hot and we were too busy with Annie to attempt any actual birding except to and from the car, so it was straight to Black Rock after that. The drive in is a mix of pastures and young forest until the road comes close to the Macal River, and after that the forest closes in for the rest of the very scenic drive (see above photo).

So, as you know I don't have dozens of crushes to share or anything like that, so will abandon any linear narrative here and just mention some of the birds and experiences from the Black Rock area.

I got 10 life birds at Black Rock, which I will list in increasing order of stoke: White-bellied Emerald (common), Ornate Hawk Eagle (poor looks at an immature), Sepia-capped Flycatcher (one and only of the trip), Ruddy Woodcreeper (much more interesting than the average woodcreeper), Northern Schiffornis (heard a great many, got really good looks at one), Dusky Antbird (two or three), Black-crowned Tityra (one on the entrance road), Ocellated Turkey (saw one individual on two occasions on the entrance road), Black-and-white Hawk Eagle (one seen from the farm area by the river), Red-capped Manakin (several, all males).

The manakins were just absolutely crippling and one in particular was absurdly tame. I was floored. Full on birdgasm...that one left a mark. I had kind of forgotten how fantastic manakins are, but the Red-cappeds here (and some confiding White-collared Manakins) rekindled my love. Black-and-white Hawk Eagles are very uncommon and could have easily been missed even if I had specifically been looking for them, and I fully expected to miss them entirely...but amazingly I had high quality looks at one soaring above the Makal River one afternoon. Looking at eBird data, this was the rarest lifer I got on the trip. The turkey was a big bonus, one of the most charismatic birds on the continent.  While they are common and easy to see in a number of places in Belize, none of those places were actually on the itinerary, so this was a significant bonus lifer.

My incapacitated camera briefly came back to life for a few minutes one afternoon. A flock of Olive-backed Euphonias obliged for the occasion.

This is one of a number of species I saw in Belize that I had only seen previously in Costa Rica back in 2012-2013. Many euphonias can be challenging to ID, but male Olive-backeds are really distinctive.

And with this Yellow-bellied Flycatcher photo, the camera fell back into a coma and I was once again free to bird unencumbered. Both Yellow-bellied and Least Flycatchers were fairly common and widespread; I did not see any other Empidonax.

Now back to your regularly scheduled digiscoping...geri birding anyone? The big fruit feeder at Black Rock's veranda brings in quite a bit of goodness, like this Yellow-winged Tanager. Oddly, I didn't see anything at the couple of hummingbird feeders they have up, I feel like there is some (substantial?) untapped geri birding potential there. Other stuff that came to the feeding platform included Collared Aracaris, Brown Jays, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Variable Seedeaters and Olive-backed and Yellow-throated Euphonias.

This Tropical Pewee was remarkably faithful to using this stick as a launchpad for sallies...forest flycatchers aren't exactly the easiest digiscoping targets so I was surprised to get a few hey-this-isn't-total-rubbish photos through the scope.

Other non-lifer highlights of Black Rock:

White-whiskered Puffbirds. There are so many White-whiskered Puffbirds here. Many of them are ridiculously approachable. They are just begging to be crushed, imploring anyone who passes by to photograph them to their heart's content. I did not know such a bird could be so common and confiding.

Raptors. The raptor scene here is something else. Aside from the lifers mentioned above, we also had Black Hawk Eagle (yes, got the Hawk Eagle Hat Trick here), Great Black Hawks, White Hawks, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawks (entrance road), White-tailed Kites (entrance road), Bat Falcons (hunting dragonflies over the canyon every day - one of the guides said they were Orange-breasted, how embarrassing), King Vulture (regular) and of course the common vultures. Bring your scope to lunch! I somehow managed to not go up the canopy tower, though I fully intended to, and that is probably a fantastic place to scan for raptors from late morning through the afternoon.

The Vaca Falls Trail. This is a very easy, fairly long trail that I spent a lot of time on. I never got bored with it - very, very good birding, and not just in the morning. There is also a great side trail just past the single unlocked gate that you have to open and close to get through, which cuts southwest (to your right) through the forest and rejoins the main trail again further upstream. Be warned that the trail map of the property they provide you with is awful.

Guides. Other than the falcon miscue (and there really is a pair of Orange-breasted in the area, though I did not see them) all my interactions with the guides were very good, even though I never ended up going birding with retrospect, I would have in order to access Elijio Panti NP and see Tody Motmot and maybe Nightengale Wren. Freddie gave me the lowdown on how to see Ocellated Turkey and I pretty much owe him for that bird.

Food. The food was very good, generally increasing in quality as it got later in the day...the dinners were great. I wasn't so in to the communal eating thing (I hate people) but they are all about accommodating the shit out of their guests there, so if you want your group to have your own table I'm sure that can be arranged most nights. Since we had a toddler that's all we did after the first awkward/disastrous dinner there.

One day we headed out to Thousand Foot Falls on Mountain Pine Ridge to check out that area, which is a very unique habitat. I had read a lot of trip reports that mentioned how gnarly the roads there can get after a lot of rain, but we had no problem with the Isuzu and only engaged the 4-wheel drive for a particularly large puddle right before the waterfall. We ended up not birding much on Mountain Pine Ridge but, most importantly, saw one of the resident Orange-breasted Falcons, which the resident caretaker correctly predicted would be visible perched on a far ridgeline after the clouds coming up out of the valley cleared. I was very grateful to have the scope with me here, as otherwise it would have just been a raptor-shaped speck. And yes, it was a high quality waterfall.

Gratuitous family photo with cloud-cloaked waterfall.

Eventually the view changed from a dense cloud bank to a faraway falcon - this is the view from the Thousand Foot Falls overlook.

On the way back from Mountain Pine Ridge we stopped at Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, which we wanted to check out because Annie could see a bazillion butterflies close up and because it is considered the best place to see hummingbirds in the entire country. It was pretty expensive (I think $20 U.S. per adult) but the butterfly propagation operation they have going on is pretty interesting and the hummingbird situation was as advertised.

With my crusher dead, I had to digiscope for photos, which was ridiculous since many of the birds were comfortable with people standing 10 or 15 feet away. Crushing FOMO was raging but there was nothing to be done except for wallow in the midst of exotic hummingbirds. White-necked Jacobins (left and center) were by far the most abundant species, which I had no problems with because they are facemelting and I have only seen a few before. A hulking Long-billed Hermit (right) or two frequently visited also.

Here is a White-bellied Emerald, of which there were several. The other hummingbirds here were Rufous-tailed (obvi), Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, several Violet Sabrewings (great to see those again) and a couple Green-breasted Mangos. Birders who come visit in spring and summer will probably see the pair of Plumbeous Kites that nest there annually, though we were too early for them. There is good forest birding on the property in general, though we did not check out the trails.

White-necked Jacobins are widely distributed and aren't particularly rare in many parts of their range...but they are absolute cripplers! I had to get a facelift after having so many buzz around my head, as my skin partially melted off from their sheer brilliance.

Army ants! I love army ants. They are the faunal spice of the Neotropics. This swarm was on the march a couple different days near the parking area while we were at Black fact, while we were leaving, the managers were getting to ready to abandon their office because it was getting overrun by the swarm! If you think honey badger don't give a fuck (remember that?), wait until you meet an army ant column. The attendant bird flock didn't hold anything crazy but it was pretty sweet nonetheless. A couple of guides commented when the swarm first appeared that it was probably going to rain the next day...which sounded bizarre...but they turned out to be right. I am a believer ants predict the weather. You show me ants, and I will show you rain.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Requiem For A Sparrow

querula: giving forth a mournful sound; a requiem.

We sit by the window, cups of coffee cradled, watching the sparrows happily feed. Scout Kremlin had invited me over to see, first hand, the latest in his Brazenly Anti-Domestic Cat Access Technology (BAD CAT). A half circle of hog wire zip-tied to a crumbling wooden fence provides the birds safe foraging and exemplifies the bleeding edge in feline determent.


The 'Zono Zone', featuring a newly installed cedar bench onto which the highest quality bird feed mix is generously sprinkled. The bench provides shelter during inclement weather and allows for safe perching/viewing. A Dark-eyed Junco can be seen on the left side, enjoying a stress-free sunflower seed and eyeing a pile of dried local pears on the other side of the bench.

As we sit sipping and waiting for a Lincoln's Sparrow that he has promised me is a regular visitor, Scout reminds me that the last Harris’s Sparrow seen in Clallam County, in the fall of 2017, was behind this enclosure. ‘It was here for at least 3 weeks. Loved to perch on that lilac branch right there and preen. And then one morning in the alley, I found the trail of feathers. It should of never left the enclosure!'
Scout pointing out the location of the last recorded Harris's Sparrow in Clallam County.
He rattles off a couple of facts concerning the Harris's (biggest sparrow in North America, only songbird to winter in the US but breed completely outside of it) before choking up and quickly looking away. With moist eyes he begins talking about possible colors he might paint the interior of his charming and dilapidated residence. As he drones on about the merits of Eniwetok Peach over Caramelized Ginger, I am whisked away to a far away place and a long ago time. To a graveyard at the edge of town. To the Desert Memorial Park, located at the outskirts of Ridgecrest, California, the place where I first laid eyes on a Harris’s Sparrow...

It was late fall in the Mojave. My 1-year-old daughter and I found the cemetery near the county line. There had been reports of a Harris’s Sparrow lurking in the northwestern quadrant of the graveyard.

We make the right turn off the highway, my little girl lightly snoozing in the backseat. It is idyllic, this moment. Her asleep and angelic looking in the rear view mirror. The solitude and peace of the burial grounds before us. The building excitement and expectation of seeing a bird I’ve never laid eyes on before. I’ve tried in vain to see this species for years, been thwarted and frustrated by each attempt. But I am happy that it is here that we are destined to meet. Long ago it was decided that this was the day. That this was the place.
Upon entering the grounds, I notice two massive piles of whitewash and pellets on either side of the road. Above each of these mounds is perched a Long-eared Owl. Feathered gargoyles. Gatekeeper and Keymaster. Winged shepherds of souls, their pellets and turds forever fertilizing the buried bones beneath their roosts. The worms crawl in and crawl out and are then are eaten by rodents, which in turn are consumed by the owls. The bodies below nourished by the pellets and excrement. The dead fed by the dead.

We slowly pass beneath the owls, unsure if permission has been granted by these sentinels. As we lurk along the perimeter, a Blue Grosbeak, cerulean omen, a bird known to weave rattlesnake skins into its nests, appears on a nearby fencepost. In the rearview mirror I see my daughter's eyes snap open.

We reach the zone indicated in the reports and park the car. I exit, open the back door and lift the little girl out and onto the ground. With her tiny hand in mine we shuffle towards a group of birds near a brush pile. A lone bird is off to the side, taking a dust bath. The Moment is here. It has finally arrived.

In this place, in this strange second, it comes to me that this listing of birds, the drive that sends us to these bizarre corners of the earth, this accumulating of memories is an affirmation of life, true. Of life lived, goals achieved and small victories won. But this moment also carries with it a doppelganger. Something sprouts in the vacuum it creates. Seeing a life bird is a void filled, yes. But it is also a dream vanquished. It is another mile marker passed on the road to our own personal oblivion. With each new bird collected, our own shadow grows longer. Death looms larger.

Finally, the full weight of the bird's beauty hits me and I become unstuck in this existential bardo. Time seems to stop. The massive pink bill, its stabbed -in-the-throat-plumage, the sheer mass of it. The beauty bleeds out from the bird and infects everything around it. The colors of the world burn brighter, the smells of the desert grow more intoxicating. After an unknowable length of time, the world finally dulls and I come out of my reverie and look around. The girl has disappeared. I spin wildly, frantically searching for her. Rows of corpses radiate out from me like I am some hub of death. There she is teetering amongst the headstones. I turn back to the sparrow and steal a final guilty look at it before going to retrieve her. Adorable baby babble as she finds her footing on the uneven ground, righting herself on the headstones when she gets wobbly. I call out to her and she turns to me smiling, chewing something. She has a plastic red berry in her hand and, upon examination, 2 in her mouth. Panicking, I dig them out and worry about the toxic paint she's just eaten, how many she has already consumed. She continues to smile, amongst the fake flowers and graves, newly awake in this garden of earthly oblivion.

The last known Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) recorded in Clallam County, Washington. RIP.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Radius Rarities, Glaucous Glory, Springing

Hey, an uncropped photo! Mourning Dove with a rainbow for a backdrop...MODOBOW. Photographed at the legendary and singular Rancho de Bastardos.

Aside from Belize, the vast majority of the birding I've done this year has been in the 5MR. My sweet, sweet radius, the radius that shelters me. Nourishes me. Asserts its dominance on me...after all, I am but the learner now, not the radial master. I've been checking out new spots, hitting up places I typically neglect, getting a better idea of where to go at the very edges of the radius ("the outer rim"), and of course looking for both new and 5MR year birds for the 5MR Challenge. As with birding in general, there have been ups, like getting my first self found rarity of the year, and downs, like actually exerting effort to find Brewer's Blackbirds...and failing. My radius is neither glorious, nor does it suck...I actually get a fair amount of habitat diversity that I'm pretty stoked about. I also benefit from a moderate amount of coverage from other birders...

Prior to going to Belize, I had dipped a couple of different times on a wintering Summer Tanager that I had seen before the new year...and when I came back, someone had found a new Summer Tanager somewhere else! It was a particularly confiding one too. Photographed at Vasona Lake County Park.

In January, I got three sapscucker species in the radius, Red-breasted, Red-naped and this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which has been present since last fall and is probably still present as of this writing. There can't be many other radii out there with triple sapsuckers on the year (none outside California?). Photographed at the Santa Clara Water District.

Clark's Grebe was a new radius bird, one of only a handful so far in 2019. Aechmophorus grebes are plenty common in the county, but noteworthy birds here in my zone. Photographed at Almaden Lake.

Almaden Lake has also hosted some American White Pelicans recently (first these two, now up to four), which are also rare in the area and not something I thought I would see in the radius this year...I was prescient enough to be out checking for grebes, but these illustrious fishlords took me by surprise.

Shorebirds are extremely hard in my 5MR, but at least I have gulls! A great many gulls. Shitloads of gulls on good days, about 98% of which are California, Herring, Glaucous-winged, Herring X Glaucous-winged and Iceland. Like last winter, I've spent a lot of time combing through flocks in the hopes of finding a proper rarity. Photographed at Almaden Lake...again...which is turning out to be more interesting than I thought it was.

Perseverance (agony?) finally rewarded me with a Glaucous Gull. It's been a great many years since I found one of these on my own, I was due, and after so much local gulling I am chuffed that it was here in my radius. It was a really nice looking one, slightly darker than the average first cycle but with heaps of white on the wings and some very delicate covert patterning. Photographed at Almaden Lake.

This is definitely my favorite 5MR bird of the year so far. The gull window will be closing soon, but after seeing this pasty wonder I am sated.

It is odd to have seen a Glaucous Gull down the street this year, but not a Mew or a Western. Yes, I live in a county with salt water and can get find flocks of thousands of gulls in my radius, but Western Gulls are somehow elusive....what gives? Why are Brewer's Blackbirds and Western Gulls so hard to find? Is the fast food in our mall parking lots not savory enough? I don't get it. I've also failed to find an Allen's Hummingbird at all, which is confounding. But it's all part of the still-nascent 5MR experience, you get a better sense of what is found here regularly, and a better sense of what birds are actually as difficult as you think they are. For example, I have recently come to the conclusion that there are no easily accessible native conifers accessible in my radius, which is pretty crushing and has dire implications.

I'm lucky enough to have some grasslands in my 5MR, which isn't exactly a common habitat in most of California. I was recently turned on to an extensive secret-not-secret piece of private property that contains a lot of grassland and could provide some great radius birding and potentially produce some species I've yet to record here, as this Western Meadowlark can attest to. Photographed at secret-not-secret spot.

So where do I stand? This time last year, I was at 114 species. Right now I'm at 119. Not a big difference considering I have 5MR tunnel vision in 2019, and not an increase that fills my heart with hubris and joy...but not bad either since I lost a lot of potential radius time to Belize (which, not gonna lie, was way way better) and bad weather. I've missed a number of winter birds that I mostly won't have a chance again with until next fall, which vary from radius rare (American Bittern, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon) to readily findable with minimal effort (American Wigeon). What is also apparent is that this fall/winter was very poor locally for irruptive species like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush and Pine Siskin, so I'll have to hope that next fall and winter is better for them. The window is closing now for a lot of species, but opening for others.

So here we are in March...March. Most years, unless I have a trip to the desert planned, its not a month that is super exciting. The chance of finding rarities plummets in most places and, here in the bay area, until the last week the number of northbound migrants is a slow trickle compared to the big April push that is going to be featuring all the FOY birds you got in March plus a whole lot more.

But this year is different. This is the year of the 5MR, and there is work to be done. Not only are there radius year birds to track down, there are a whole bunch of potentially new species I should be looking for this spring. To wit:

Allen's Hummingbird - I'm holding out for one to show up in my yard...I do have a geri birding situation in effect, after all. According to eBird data, ALHU are very uncommon in my 5MR but March is a great time to pick one up. Looking at the region on a larger scale, they are more abundant in every other bay area county....what gives?

Western Screech-Owl - Probably fairly common in the southern part of my radius, just need to go owling. This month should be as good of a time as any to get one.

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Decent chance of getting one in the mountainish part of my radius later in the spring.

Western Kingbird - You show me grass and I will show you a Western Kingbird. I have grass. They may start arriving/passing through any day now.

Swainson's Thrush - These are surprisingly uncommon in Santa Clara County but my 5MR has the riparian to lure in some migrants.

Nashville, Hermit, and MacGillivray's Warblers - All are uncommon in the county, but at the same time I think they are most likely all annual migrants in my radius...MacGillivray's could be easier in fall than spring though?

Other potentially new 5MR birds I'll be keeping an eye out for in the next couple months, in no particular order, are Hammond's Flycatcher, Bank Swallow, Purple Martin, Lawrence's Goldfinch, and Swainson's Hawk. I don't expect any of those, but I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 birder in the country, so it's not like I am exactly incapable of finding them either.

Of course, since I am a raging nerd, I suffer from pretty crazy pollen allergies, and March marks the first month of suffering those, which lasts into summer. It's total bullshit...not pleased about being allergic to my own radius. How embarrassing right? Well I may be in for allergies but March also means wildflowers finally. Since my radius is more than just bleak agricultural hellscape or urban climax dystopia, I am lucky enough to get some cool native plants in the spring. I think this is white fairy lantern, Calochortus albus, photographed last year along Hicks Road.

The Rancho de Bastardos 5MR is not going to win any awards for wren diversity, but at least we have an abundance of Bewick's Wrens throughout the year. I don't see anyone singing their praises (or just saying praises normally), but living here has increased my fondness for them, as there is a pair that lives in the yard and I can actually see one on the suet feeder - maybe the same one on this picture - as I type this. They are very curious and confiding, bordering on friendly. Familiarity does not always breed contempt.

Yeah, yeah, making fun of ICP is so ten years ago...BUT...apparently there is at least one juggalo or juggalette in my radius?!! I was shocked to find this conclusive evidence of juggalism, I haven't even seen "genuine, dee-licious" Faygo in stores here. We are not within core ninja range here...a remarkable find.

That sums up recent events in the 5MR. For those of you who have been toiling in your radius these past few months in colder climes, new birds are on their way! The myopathic birding atmosphere that can be early March will soon melt away, and least in your radius...may never be the same.

p.s. have any of you tried Faygo?

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Belize! Part IV: Crooked Tree to The Tropical Education Center

By our last day at Crooked Tree, I already considered our visit there Great Success, and if and when I go back to Belize, I would absolutely be down to go back...especially in February or March, when the lagoon is seething with birds and Agami Herons are more dependable. As railer as it was to leave Agamiless, Hooded Warblers were a heartening sight, and brought me comfort on most days during the trip. Come to think of it, I'm almost always having a good time when there are Hooded Warblers around.

This American Redstart was exceptional, pivoting back and forth at this one spot, keeping its attention on me and tail fanned the entire time. Maybe it was trying to tell me something, like "You will never see an Agami Heron" or "Oh hey we met at Point Reyes a few years ago" or "Nikon sucks go Canon".

Yucatan Woodpecker was a prized lifer, one of *nine* I was able to squeeze out of the Crooked Tree area. A marvelous mini-Melanerpes...perhaps belonging in its own genus, Mellownerpes.

Eventually it was time to leave Crooked Tree and see a new part of the country. We got Bird's Eye View Lodge to drive us back to the airport, where we were dropped off at Hertz. After a few minutes we got into our sweet new diesel Isuzu (I didn't know they still made Isuzus, let alone diesels) and were off to the Belize Zoo Jungle Lodge, aka the Tropical Education Center, aka the TEC. I chose to stay two nights at the TEC for four reasons: 1) its proximity to the Belize Zoo, which we figured would be fun for Annie to visit 2) since it was on the way to Black Rock Lodge, it eliminated a long driving day, which is ideal when you are driving around with a toddler 3) it isn't expensi and 4) it gives good access to pine savanna, and the chance to clean up on any specialties of that habitat we missed at Crooked Tree.

The drive from Belize City was easy and uneventful. We ate lunch at Cheers, which is just past the TEC/Belize Zoo on the George Price Highway, and also an eBird hotspot. The food was deec but I suspect something I ate there didn't treat my stomach well later that was brutal, actually...but it was the only place where we saw Tennessee Warblers and Giant Cowbird for the trip.

Eventually we got checked in to the TEC and did a little exploring before sunset. The TEC itself provides good birding opportunities and an extensive, well-marked trail system. One of the highlights of our time there was the evening parrot flight. The number of parrots flying over, commuting to evening roost sites, was really impressive...not massive flocks mind you, but a constant, dispersed stream of birds.

The vast majority were Red-lored, which seems by far the most abundant parrot species in much of Belize. Thankfully their calls are easy to learn, so most birds could be identified by ear before they were close enough to see well.

They were all in pairs. Many of them flew quite low, giving good looks, which is not something to take for granted when it comes to parrots in flight.

Great birds they are.

Besides all the Red-loreds going over, we also had a single adult Yellow-lored Parrot squawking in a nearby tree. It was nice to see a brightly marked individual after seeing Drabby McDrabberson at Crooked Tree earlier in the day.

While looking at the Yellow-lored Parrot, I heard a distinctly new parrot noise, more screechy and raucous than anything I heard before. With jaw clenched, hands trembling, lip quivering, I raised my binoculars with sky high hopes...YELLOW-HEADED PARROTS!!! They were flying low and right towards us.

In fact, they came a little too close for crushing purposes, but that's not something I will complain about. This was a great LIFE BIRD, one I had been really hoping to see. While they have declined greatly and disappeared from parts of their historic range due to habitat loss and the parrot trade, they are still readily findable in much of lowland Belize.

Not an ideal photo, but it is an ideal lifer. This was the only pair we saw on the trip.

The TEC is in a huge swath of pine savanna, good Yellow-headed Parrot habitat. It's also where Black-throated Bobwhites make their bobhomes, and I spent quite a bit of time and energy looking for them, but that pursuit ended in bobfailure. Luckily, wandering around in this habitat did at least connect me with a lifer Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (I'll spare you the awful picture), which also ended up being the only one of the trip.

A handful of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons lurked at the pond. I also heard Boat-billed Herons both nights we were there, but couldn't locate their day roosts.

In retrospect, the TEC was not quite as birdy as it maybe is at other looked great, but birds were simply not as abundant as I thought they would be. That said, one of the commonest birds in the area was, of all things, Thick-billed Seed-Finch. Frankly, I was unprepared for their sheer abundance and sweet, casual songs...I won't make that mistake again.

I did have one mixed flock at the TEC that left me glassy-eyed and wasn't massive, but it contained several Yellow-backed Orioles (life bird!), another target I had been drooling over. I don't really associate orioles with conifers, so it was interesting to see these big facemelters take their time foraging in the pines. The flock also contained Yucatan Woodpeckers, Green Jays, a Hepatic Tanager, a Golden-olive Woodpecker, and a surprise Gray-collared Becard, which I've only seen once before and are fairly rare in Belize. It wasn't exactly an "it's happening" flock but it was fully gripping, and in retrospect included an impressive three species I didn't see on any other occasion on the trip.

After the flock oozed away from the trail, I then pished up my lifer Green-backed Sparrows...everything was coming up Steve!

Elaenia. Have any of you considered naming your first/next daughter "Elaenia"? I think it's legit. First of all, no one else is going to have that fucking name, so 10/10 for originality, and it isn't nearly as bracing/esoteric/wince-inducing as "Apple" or "Blanket" or some shit, nor is at as trendy as "Wren" or as common as "Phoebe". It basically sounds like an established name with a nice exotic-but-modest flourish at the end. For real, you can use it, go ahead, just give credit where credit is due.

Granted, elaenias aren't extravagantly beautiful, or talented singers, or really anybody's absolute favorite birds, but they are perfectly fine birds...and in the end, isn't that all we can hope for from our children? That they turn out to be perfectly fine beings? This is a Yellow-bellied Elaenia, a great example of a perfectly fine bird.

The TEC has a range of lodging options that are pretty reasonably priced; we stayed in one of the two houses overlooking the pond, which was pretty sweet and no, the mosquitoes were not that bad. Annie and Billy weren't so into the rain and falling tropical fruits banging on the metal roof at night, but I thought it added character.


TEC has a lot of confiding agoutis, which are like mini capybaras. They don't get hunted around there so they are pretty nonchalant, as are the Russet-naped Woodrails. A gray fox there early one morning was another nice sighting on mammal front.

I was hoping to have some more amphibian encounters but they were relatively few...and yes, it was for a lack of trying. Having a toddler with you in the tropics is not conducive to night hikes or night anything really. I saw a rad reddish toad (raddish toad) here at TEC but didn't have anything on me at the time to photograph it all I have to share is this very humble frog. Brian Freiermuth suggests it is a juvenile Leptodactylus. Having no idea how to identify any frogs found in Belize, or almost anywhere else frogs exist, I am not one to argue.

The fungus scene in Belize was good, there were a lot of mushrooms out, not that I could say anything intelligent about them. This smurf thing was one of the best ones.

Oh yeah, I doubt they will read this, but my boys Juan Carlos and Gilbert really helped us out and went above and beyond their duties when we had to deal with some medical stuff (I ate the smurf thing). Thanks TEC!

JK I didn't eat the mushroom but we did have to semi-urgently take care of some stuff.

We spent a morning at the mostly-great Belize Zoo, where Annie got to see things like tapirs ("mountain cows"), real Jabirus, this wooden Jabiru, and Harpy Eagles, which she oddly did not have much interest in but the big female had a great deal of interest in her. I had seen one or two Harpy Eagles at a zoo before but it was a privilege to be in the presence of this one, who had chosen to sit on a perch very close to us. I felt like I should bow or about a spellbinding animal, I can only hope I see a wild one someday. That is some bucket list shit right there...

Right, the zoo. The zoo was good. Great for kids, unless your kids hate animals. All wildlife native to Belize. They've got everything from Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to jaguars. Anyhow, I didn't see any unusual free-flying birds at the zoo but I don't doubt that good stuff is possible there. BTW I've read in a couple places that in the past the zoo has been really aggressive about making photographers with vaguely professional looking gear pay $$$ to have their cameras out there, but I got a copy of their current photo policy and that shouldn't be a problem any longer.

After leaving the Belize Zoo/TEC area, we took a detour down the Monkey Bay Sanctuary access road on our way to Black Rock Lodge. On that road, destiny had a cruel twist of fate planned for six month old (and apparent piece of shit) Nikon D7200 died after I took a single exposure of a Crane Hawk. Crane Hawks are magical beings, it is known, but I suspect Nikon is to blame this time. Life was mostly pain on the photography front after that, just as the birding really picked up again.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Gilded Palace of Sin

As all of our esteemed and malignant readers are well aware, this month marks the 50th anniversary of The Flying Burrito Brothers' classic first record, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Some people would call this album country music. These same people probably fold their underwear. Sweet as yucca honey, strange as sunstroke and sadder than a sapsucker slurping on a sheet of sandpaper, this record is pure, uncut Cosmic American and we offer the following words as tribute to this group of weirdos and a record they made.

Awake, face down in the sand. Lips parched and where am I. Song of the cactus wren whirwhirwhirling somewhere nearby. Ah yes….Joshua Tree, land of The Flintstones, town of Bedrock, climbing bums and Hollywood’s doomed attempts at tox and detox. We awake in the darkness, the world rimmed in embers, to the sound of sea lions jockeying for position on a rocky headland. Sea lions...impossible here in the desert. A few seconds more and the sounds reveal themselves to be the labored coupling of humans, their moans and exertions subsiding after a few minutes of scumbag glory.

Shards of memory from the day before coalesce out of the dark abyss that, until recently, housed my brain. A black-throated sparrow in the talons of a shrike as the two floated down into a cottonwood draw, presumably to have dinner together. Seagull Steve miraculously conjuring up a Varied Thrush with some eerie harmonica playing. Watching it hop about in the palm fronds instead of the mid-canopy in an ancient coniferous forest, furthering my discombobulation and growing sense of  existential freefall. Taking a piss behind a gas station just outside the park and having a barn owl flutter by, a one-handed life bird for one of us in the group and thus creating the phenomenon now known as Meat Lifering.

In addition to birding and copulating with one another, we are here, sort of, to pay respect to Gram Parsons, the Grievous Angel, psychedelic country bard, Godfather of Cosmic Americana, whose body was burned at the base of one of these giant granitic boulders, where now a shine to his music and meteoric life is built every year. When the petroglyphs, doobies, beer bottles, photos, poems and piles of dead roses become visible from the tour buses, the altar is dismantled by park service stooges who are most likely listening to the Dave Matthews Band while doing so. The shrine is rebuilt again by the next pilgrim and her meager offerings.  

This site was the final destination in one of the more beautiful and bizarre episodes of rock n’ roll’s sordid history. After Gram died of a morphine overdose in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree hotel, his step father (whom Gram apparently despised) arranged for his body to flown back to Louisiana. Gram’s friend and manager, Phil Kaufman, had a better idea. He hijacked the corpse from the Los Angeles airport and drove it out in a borrowed hearse to this desert, stopped once for booze and a piggyback of gas, and came to a halt beneath a boulder named Cap Rock. He then dragged the body out of the car, poured gasoline into the casket and lit the singer his final cigarette.

A couple of years after the birth of Meat Lifering in Joshua Tree, I rode a bus through the night to Palm Springs, borrowed my aunt's car and drove up to the Motel to attend the 35th anniversary of GP's death. I walked into the courtyard around back, where a band of burnouts stumbled beautifully through a Flying Burrito Brothers tune. Some folks were huddled over an Ouija board, stones and talismans stacked around them. Light flooding out from the cracked door of Room 8. An older woman stopped me, ‘Can I help you?’, her demeanor that of a neighborhood watch lieutenant. ‘I’m here for Gram,’ I replied. She smiled warmly and wrapped her arms around me. ‘Grab a hot dog, sweetie. There’s beers in the cooler.’

I don’t remember much from that night, apparently a common occurrence upon visiting this region. Sitting on the edge of the bed that Gram died in, sipping a beer and staring in the mirror for too long. Later, trying my hand at the Ouija with the help of a stranger with multiple rings on each of her fingers.  Slumped on stage and hacking my way through ‘My Kind of Town,’ Gram's anti-war/draft dodging anthem, to scattered applause from my new friends. Eventually ending up under a cactus, looking up at the night sky, the constellations cut into musical notation by the power lines overhead, thinking I must transcribe the cosmos...

And where am I. Bottle of bourbon glowing in the sand beside my head. The whirwhirwhirling of the cactus wren there in the morning, the same song that accompanied the black sidewinder of smoke that rose out of the casket so long ago. Awkward extraction from my sleeping bag and never mind finding my shoes, there is an urgency in finding this bird backlit against the morning sun, in having its song wash over me. A proper soul wringing, blood sacrifice born of cholla spines in bare feet. Parched and bleeding in the Mojave.

Reborn in The Gilded Palace of Sin.