Saturday, July 1, 2017

Snakes in Mato Grosso

The main part of my WINGS Marvelous Mato Grosso tour has come to an end, and it has been a spectacular tour for birds and animals. It will be impossible to match this one in future years, with such amazing sightings as Crested Eagle, Harpy Eagle, and five different Jaguars, as well as an above-average bird list of about 490 species. But for me, it’s been particularly exciting to have had five snakes – on a typical tour we’d see between zero and two, and I’d not necessarily get to handle any of them. I was able to pick up three of these.

The first might be the most interesting one for me, because I had no idea what it was. I did know it was not something dangerously venomous – it was small, and a “colubrid” (in the broader sense), and in the Americas you really have to be wary only of snakes that are brown and blotchy and obviously viper-like or colorful and obviously coral like (of course there are some corals that are almost unicolor too, but they are easy to recognize). This tiny thing was spotted by my participants as we completed a late afternoon and evening walk at Pousada do Parque at Chapada dos Guimarães north of Cuiabá early in the tour. It is either Sibynomorphus mikanii or S. turgidus, and even the experts seem to disagree on how to ID them. It specializes on feeding on slugs, and its saliva is probably venomous to them. It would be in the family Dipsadidae were that split from Colubridae, most members of which have some sort of mild toxin in their saliva. If you could make it bite you, it might be something like a bee sting.

At Cristalino Jungle Lodge we had just one snake – this Boa constrictor, the only animal in the world that most people know only by its scientific binomial. (Ocean Sunfish, also called Mola-mola (Mola mola), would be a contender, except it’s also known by that English name.) The lodge groundskeepers found it while weed whacking, and our boatman Waldirio saved it for us while we were out on the trails. I was told by the bartenders to be very careful with this dangerous snake, and of course it was more docile and less of a threat than any kitten one wouldn’t normally think twice about holding.

I did not pick up this gorgeous Bothrops matogrossensis, the Mato Grosso Lancehead, which our driver Robson spotted on our night drive at Pouso Alegre in the Pantanal. This is a pit-viper, and probably dangerously venomous, and at the very least would deliver an extremely painful bite. Members of the genus Bothrops and related genera are often called “fer-de-lance,” a name perfectly analogous to and equally useless as “sea gull.”

In this close-up you can see the heat-sensing pit between the eye and the nostril, hence the name pit-viper.

On a night drive north of Porto Jofre we came across this large colubrid stretched out across the road. I wasn’t sure of the species at first, but my friend Luis Vicente, one of the owners of Pouso Alegre lodge, tells me it is Clelia plumbea, one of the several species known as “mussurana.” I’ll call it Lead-colored Mussurana, just translating the specific epithet. Interestingly, the musk of this snake wasn’t the least bit disagreeable, actually being somewhat minty and citronella-like.

Finally, this Chironius laurenti, Bolivian Sipo was on the road yesterday as we drove from Porto Jofre to Pousada Piuval, our last lodge. It’s a very fast racer and probably very bitey, so I didn’t attempt to catch it. We briefly saw one on the tour last year, but it vanished before we got photos.

We’re headed to Iguaçu tomorrow for a three-night extension – spending all of our time on the Argentinean side of the border where the spelling changes to Iguazú. I suspect we’ll add well over a hundred new species to the already huge bird list.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Night Walk at Cristalino Jungle Lodge

Full birding days on my WINGS tours don’t leave much time for blog posts, and yesterday was even longer than normal, as I offered an after-dinner night walk. We usually see something, and everyone usually really hopes for owls, but you never know what you’ll find at night. As it turned out, within about 15 minutes we were looking at a Crested Owl at the first spot we stopped at along the trail. It came into playback and perched high in a tree, not at all conducive to photos. But we saw other stuff. Almost back to the lodge, I spotted this ball of fluff on a sapling just off the trail. I couldn’t tell if it was feathers or fur, but the spherical shape indicated a sleeping bird.

My attempt to get closer woke it up, and out came a very, very long bill on a tiny bird: Long-billed Gnatwren. They live high in vine tangles during the day, and apparently sleep within a meter of the ground. We’ve heard a couple over the past days without seeing one.

Down at the river’s edge we found a Hypsiboas boans, Gladiator Tree Frog in the leaf litter after it had fallen out of a tree. It’s the largest tree frog here.

There were lots of interesting fish to look at in the shallows, but most fascinating was this Trechaleid spider feeding on a fish it had caught.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Crested Eagle at Cristalino!

I'm at Cristalino Jungle Lodge, having arrived yesterday with my WINGS tour group. This is Day 5 of our 19-day tour, and today we saw what will almost surely be the best bird of the tour: an immature CRESTED EAGLE!
Crested Eagle

I've seen this species three times before, all quite distant from canopy towers – 2011 and 2012 here at Cristalino, and just this past October at Sani Lodge, Ecuador. But this time I spotted it through many layers of foliage in the canopy overhead, having been alerted by a huge mob of noisy Chestnut-eared Aracaris, Channel-billed Toucans, and a Crimson-crested Woodpecker. We moved down the trail and got a better view of the tree and our local boatman and guide Valdirio spotted it out on an open branch. What a thrill.

It was a very good day even without the eagle. Here are some additional photo highlights:

Blackish Nightjars on a roof in the lodge clearing.
Blackish Nightjar

Dusky-chested Flycatcher from the canopy tower.
Dusky-chested Flycatcher

Great Potoo from the canopy tower, a very lucky find.
Great Potoo

Morvina morvus, Morvus Eyed-Skipper.
Morvina morvus, Morvus Eyed-Skipper

A puddle party hosting six pierids, two swallowtails, and two daggerwings

A red army ant (Eciton sp.) and its booty, a pupal ant from a just-raided colony.
red army ant, Eciton sp.

Red-billed Pied Tanager at the tower.
Red-billed Pied Tanager

Santarem Parakeets feeding on açai palms
Santarem Parakeet

Swainson's Flycatcher from the canopy tower, where a rare winterer.
Swainson's Flycatcher

Variegated Flycatcher from the canopy tower.
Variegated Flycatcher

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

My Job as Chef for the 2017 WINGS Tour to Gambell, Alaska

I just returned to civilization from my week of cooking for the WINGS tour at Gambell, Alaska. Seven days, three gourmet meals a day for 15 people…up at 4:20 a.m. each day, in bed no earlier than 10:30 p.m., but sometimes I went birding and didn’t get in until after midnight. So 18-20 hours every day. It was exhausting, yet exhilarating and very rewarding.

After spending two days in Anchorage buying nearly $2000 worth of perishables and organizing it all in 23 boxes and our stored coolers, I joined the WINGS tour group, and we all took the flight from Anchorage to Nome on Alaska Airlines. Our route took us over the terrain covered by the Iditarod race.

Approaching Nome, we flew over Safety Sound, well known among birders.

Then we transferred to the Bering Air terminal for our 50 minute flight SW over the Bering Sea to Gambell.

Approaching Gambell, on the northwestern-most tip of St. Lawrence Island.

Here’s the kitchen workspace I shared with the cooks of other birding groups in the Sivuqaq Lodge.

I baked a lot of bread – seven different kinds including six loaves of challah for breakfast strata and French toast.

This is the famous no-knead bread that takes very little effort and work time.

Jennifer Jolis was the cook for the VENT tour, and behind her is her assistant Ahi.

I made buttermilk and buckwheat pancakes for breakfast one morning, and my leaders (Gavin Bieber here) and sometimes even the participants helped take the food out to the dining area each meal.

Here’s the group at dinner one night.

One of the more ambitious meals I prepared was what I called Nepali Night à la Saraswoti. Saraswoti is the head cook and nanny for my friends Kate and Mich, who are living in Kathmandu, and when I visited them this past April I helped Saraswoti in the kitchen from time to time and took notes.

Here are most of the main ingredients I bought in Tucson and shipped up here.

The day before I had to make the paneer from whole milk, buttermilk, and lemon juice.

From left to right are fried tofu salad, chatpate, fried paneer curry, cauliflower curry, chana dal, and basmati rice.

Chatpate is traditionally a spicy street snack in India and Nepal, served in a cone of newspaper, but it’s mostly fresh vegetables and serves perfectly as a salad, perked up by crunchy potato noodles and puffed rice.

On the last night I made Lemon Mousse Pie, a huge hit. I’ll be making this one again.

I did get out birding on five occasions, three of which were spurred by the presence of a Pallas’s Bunting, found by Stephan Lorenz. I missed it the first two times, seeing a super rare Siberian Chiffchaff as a consolation (but I saw one here two years ago) but when I went out on my own the third time on June 1, I got fabulous views – and of course, that’s when I forgot to bring my camera. It was my ABA bird #753. There are about seven previous records for the United States, and this is the first verified spring record from Gambell. It mostly hung out in what is called the Circular Boneyard; here a Walrus skull in the foreground where I had it.

I looked for but did not see the Hawfinch and Eyebrowed Thrush that were south of the boneyards. Find the Snow Bunting in this boulder field near the same location.

This is Troutman Lake, always still frozen this time of year.

Red-necked Phalarope is a common breeder in any little puddle of water. The female is the stunning, more colorful of the pair.

Common Redpolls forage on seeds in the boneyards.

Lapland Longspur is the most common breeding passerine here.

Much of the birding time at Gambell is spent at the northern point watching seabirds fly by as one looks towards the Chukotsky Mountains of Russia.

On June 5, we flew back from Gambell to Nome.

From up high we had a much better view of the very mountainous Chukotsky Peninsula.

Here’s a shot of the GPS screen on our flight from Gambell to Nome – east is straight up.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Some Most Precious Tibetan Yarn

I forgot to post some photos from the Upper Mustang in Nepal that made the trip very memorable. First, let me say that I almost never buy stuff on my trips – I have little space or use for memorabilia, I don’t have a well-developed taste or identity attached to “things,” and when I die, it’s just more crap that someone else has to deal with (as if my body won’t be enough of an issue). But as a knitter I have to buy yarn, and for me, like many other fibermaniacs, it’s an uncontrollable obsession. During one of our 15-mile hiking days, we came to a tiny little town in the bleak, yet stark and gorgeous landscape where our guide Lhakpa said we were stopping for lunch. On maps it’s called Syangboche.

A lady was sitting at this loom, and I nearly let out a squeal.

But before I could talk to her, she saw us and ran across the street into this building, where we would eventually have our lunch. On the sign, the town’s name is Shangmochen, which probably means that the true Tibetan pronunciation (on the sign) was a bit garbled by the Nepali transcription (on the maps).

She was the proprietor of a hotel, cook in the kitchen, and weaver of wool. I snapped a few photos of her work before we entered.
This is where we sat to have lunch, which turned out to be a very typical arrangement and design for the restaurants along our trip.

On our return south we had lunch here again, and I asked about buying some of her yarn. She said no – she needed all she had to continue to the color pattern of her tapestry. But after finishing making lunch for the other international trekkers and bikers who had stopped by, she would look at her stash.

She showed me the beginnings of her work in progress – she cards then spins the wool herself, and she told me about the plants she uses to dye it. I was floored – she makes this stuff herself from beginning to end, and she’s probably even related to the shepherd who takes care of the flock.

Her name is Chiring Phuti Gurung, and here she is holding the very heavy ball (1/4 kilo!) of yarn I bought from her for about $20. I haven’t decided what I’ll make from it, but it’s so fine I’ll probably have to double it up and probably knit some gloves.