Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Two Weeks in Tucson: Baking, Knitting, Singing, and Gardening

My two weeks at home between Nepal and my next tour, the Galapagos, are up. In fact, when my flight takes off tomorrow morning, I will have been in Tucson two hours short of exactly 14 days. I’ve gotten a lot done.

I got back into baking right away, first making a seeded sourdough loaf using 65% sprouted whole wheat and 35% white bread flour. I roughly followed the very slow rise, relatively wet-dough proportions shared by Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson, said to be the “most imitated bread.”

But then I wanted to take advantage of this gorgeous heirloom Pullman bread pan that was given to me by a friend. And the one bread I know made in this form is a superdense, sunflower seed-studded sourdough rye loaf I got to know in Germany, simply called Vollkornbrot. So I found a recipe online that looked like what I wanted, and it turned out fabulous.

Before being baked:

After baking, looking good:

The real test: moist and dense, yet full of holes, and not in the least bit crumbly. One slices this bread very thin, and it’s even better toasted. It’s really good with a thin-sliced Schinken or Speck, or a smelly German or Dutch cheese, but I’m enjoying it with just butter.

Then my friend Beth and I went to a demonstration at a farmers market about how a local baker uses locally milled mesquite flour (from the seed pods) in various baked goods, and the bread she had on display was almost exactly the same as the Tartine’s Country Bread I had made, just with the addition of mesquite flour.

So I experimented, made the same Vollkornbrot as before, but I replaced 15% of the rye flour with mesquite flour, and to try to emphasize this as a savory bread (mesquite is very sweet and can make things taste like dessert), I added chopped onion and Emmentaler cheese. This is the result, and I’ll probably write up the recipe for this, but I’m not sure exactly how to call it or where to put any hyphens. Sonnenblumenkernvollkornroggenmsequitesauerteigbrot?

I did a bunch of work in the garden. The tomato plants I put in should have been lush and green but were spindly and anemic. None of the seeds I scattered around before Nepal ever emerged, and it seems that the drip hose and the timer weren’t on the ideal settings. At the farmer’s market, a couple of tomato growers suggested that my soil might be too alkaline, and I found a soil test kit for 1/2 off at Lowe’s.

Indeed, the pH is just a bit too high; most of our veggies and flowers prefer a slightly acidic soil, closer to 6.

The nitrogen is low, not a surprise.

Phosphorus is also low.

The Potassium levels in the soil are very high, so that’s not an issue.

I needed to do a couple of runs for big garden supplies, so I looked into renting a car for a day, thinking this time of year there might be a last-minute deal at Enterprise, which has an office relatively close to me. But as it turned out, I have enough points in my frequent renter profile to rent a car for an entire week for free. So I got a car for 24 hours for just a few dollars in taxes and paid a visit to a few stores for soil, pots, a hose, fertilizer, soil amendments, and some plants.

I pulled up the soaker hose and dug in some aluminum sulfate. I repositioned the soaker hose, setting it deeper, then plunked in another tomato, three peppers, and a dozen annual Salvias to add color. I added some fertilizer higher in nitrogen and potassium, and watered it well.

Then I stole some straw from my landlords as a mulch, as the dry air and heat really dry out the soil surface quickly. Now to hurry and wait. Actually, it’s probably time to start thinking about what to put in for a winter garden already.

For the patio, I needed to repot some plants. This little key lime tree sprouted from a seed just 16 months ago and already looks like a tree. It was in a stupid plastic lard tub, and now has it’s own beautiful glazed pot.

These seedlings are from a super sweet and delicious tangerine I had in northern Brazil last July. I pocketed a few seeds and stashed them in my camera bag, which I then discovered this past January. I sowed them all in one pot, and finally assumed they were dead after 3 weeks of no life, but then when I returned from my Costa Rica tour in March, all had sprouted. They were very crowded and now each has its own pot – all 11.

Finally, I needed to free my Gardenia from the spearmint that I planted in with it. The spearmint had sent runners all around the rim of the pot and were shading out the gardenia, not to mention masking the smell of the flowers. So here’s the Gardenia freed.

And a few pieces the spearmint on its own (a bunch went into the compost).

I also just barely managed to salvage the one last stem of Corvallis peppermint that had been holding its own for a few months but was all but lost in the spearmint. It now has its own pot, and I can only hope that it recovers.

I also got in a bit of knitting, but only in bits and pieces. I knitted up this totally seamless potholder, a design I made up but was quite surprised to not find already published. I’ll write it up and sell it on Ravelry some day.

And I got back into working on this hat that I started in Nepal, but ran out of yarn for. I hadn’t bought enough of this very nice wool-yak blend, and as soon as I got home I ordered more of the same dye lot from the shop where I bought it not far from the Chicago airport. It arrived, and I now I can finish the hat. And start on something else.

Of course, I also did some work. For example, I finished the text and bird list for a new WINGS tour I’m offering to Oregon in August 2017 – a one-time tour to see some nice birds and habitats, including Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but the main attraction being the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Other things that have made coming back to Tucson worth it: seeing the Pine Flycatcher, dinners with friends, birthday parties, and singing five-part madrigals (just started working on a fabulous trio of Orlando Gibbons pieces starting with Nay Let Me Weep).

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

First US Pine Flycatcher and First Tucson Yard Desert Pocket Mouse

I was in Arizona for less than 24 hours from my seven weeks’ vacation in Nepal when I found myself looking at the first US record of Pine Flycatcher, Empidonax affinis, at Aliso Spring in Sawmill Canyon on the east flank of the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson. I had been invited to join Beth and Will Russell and Scott Olmstead for the rarity chase (a twitch to British birders), and I couldn’t resist the temptation. This is a very remote location, and the final 3 miles are on a rough dirt and rock track that requires high clearance and very good 4-wheel-drive.

This bird was discovered by my friend Dave Stejskal (a professional tour leader for Field Guides Inc.) last weekend while he was camping with friends in a location neither he nor any other birder I know had ever visited. Flycatchers in the genus Empidonax are notoriously difficult to identify, even among species that we know well, and before the 1970’s, some were simply considered unidentifiable in the field by even the most advanced field birders of the time. Now we know that a combination of field marks, behavior, and voice will allow you to identify almost any “empid” in the field, but it takes a lot of study and experience. And the most experience birders must still beware of silent empids, and photos can be impossible to assess correctly.

Pine Flycatcher occurs from Guatemala in the south, ranging well north in forested mountains to central Sonora and Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre Occidental. It's not a very common bird even in northern Mexico, and Hendrik Herlyn and I found what we were told was the first record for the state of Sonora near Yécora in October 1995. It’s long been thought to be a potential vagrant to the SW United States, but few American birders have much experience with this species, and it’s fully possible that birders have looked at a dozen of these in their binoculars over the past 50 years in Arizona and walked away either not identifying it or misidentifying it as something more expected (before 50 or so years ago, people interested in identifying such birds just shot them, and there are no old specimen records). On top of that, there’s at least one recent report of a Pine Flycatcher in Texas that over several days of observation and inspection by many birders was finally correctly identified as either a Least Flycatcher or a hybrid, but definitely not a Pine. It took someone like Dave Stejskal to coincide with this rare visitor and identify it correctly.

As a matter of fact, he fairly first assumed it was a late migrant Dusky Flycatcher, as its call, proportions, and bill shape are similar to that species. But after seeing it better, recording the calls, consulting with others back in Tucson, then returning for more photos and recordings, he came to the inescapable conclusion. So on Monday, Memorial Day, he took the risky plunge of announcing it to the world, put out the rare bird alert on the internet, and birders around the country began making travel plans.

It’s now been just 9 days since the announcement, and though no one is keeping track, it’s likely that well over a hundred people have seen it by now, maybe a few hundred. It calls frequently and is building a nest high in an oak tree. It has no fear of humans (sometimes perching with a few feet of people’s faces, or snatching bugs off the ground inches away from their feet), and appears to never venture more than about 30 meters away from the nest. It was one of the easiest rarity chases I’ve ever experienced, and as far as I know, no one who has looked for it has missed it. Anyone doing a Big Year in North America has probably seen it already.

Key features in the ID are the large, teardrop-shaped eyering (much like that of Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers), greenish tones to the plumage, and a rather narrow and relatively straight-sided bill with an entirely pale mandible. I also noticed the almost crested look and the longish tail that is somewhat flared in most postures. The call is also diagnostic, which to my ears sounds like a perky “pwip.” (This species also has a very distinctive song, but the fact that this bird has not been heard singing and is also building a nest indicates that it’s a female.) But it does resemble the call notes of several empids that have a call note that could be described as a “whit,” so I made a comparison of their call notes. I used recordings from the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Master Set for North America for all but the Pine Flycatcher, and I included a second Pine Flycatcher recording that I made over 14 years ago east of Yécora just a few miles into the state of Chihuahua. It’s actually very difficult to tell some of them apart, especially Gray and Least flycatchers, but the call notes of Pine Flycatcher are maybe the most distinctive of the group. Click on the thumbnail below to bring up the full-sized image.

Amorpha fruticosa, False Indigo Bush was in full bloom in the mostly dry washes of Sawmill and Cave Canyons.

There was an abundance of these damselflies, Argia munda, Apache Dancer.

We took a very short detour up Cave Canyon to look for another megararity (though not as rare as Pine Flycatcher), a Red-headed Woodpecker that my friend Keith Kamper discovered exactly 4 weeks ago. There are something like ten records for Arizona, but I think only one of them may have been oversummering like this one. This is my second one in Arizona; I saw the one that wintered NW of Tucson in 1997-98.

Steve Howell indirectly made me take this photo of a Turkey Vulture. Read his interesting blog on potential cryptic species in the Turkey Vulture at the Leica website, which he titled “Are You Watching TV?

We finished the day at Madera Canyon looking for an Aztec Thrush that had been there a for few days, but some 30+ birders searching all morning had failed to find it, and neither did we. There had also been a vagrant Golden-winged Warbler seen in the same spot, but it hasn’t been seen again either. I came away from Madera Canyon with just one photo, this Aspidoscelis sonorae, Sonoran Spotted Whiptail.

Finally, some news from the yard on Vine Avenue in north-central Tucson. My landlord and neighbor Paul discovered this Curve-billed Thrasher nest in the teddybear cholla that has apparently only just now reached the right size and shape. These or other Curve-billed Thrashers have nested in other chollas in the yard every year since I moved in exactly 18 years ago, and I think this cholla was a small plant then. The heat wave over the weekend has broken (down to 103°F from our high of 113°F on Sunday), but the adult still has to incubate the eggs during the middle of the day to keep them cool.

I’ve renewed my campaign to relocate the Round-tailed Ground-Squirrels that are starting to repopulate the yard, leaving holes in the ground and eating plants in the garden. They are totally diurnal, but I have to check the traps even in the early morning, as I’ve caught Abert’s Towhees in them twice over the years. Early this morning I found a trap closed and was surprised to find this Chaetodipus penicillatus, Desert Pocket Mouse, in it. This is a new mammal for the yard list, the tenth species we’ve observed here.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Doha to Houston Flight

It was daylight the entire 16-hour+ flight from Doha, Qatar to Houston, Texas, USA this past Wednesday, June 1. I took a few photos when the sky was clear below, and I managed to find the exact locations on Google Earth.

Some sights were beautiful. Some were depressing as nearly every square centimeter for hundreds of kilometers in all directions had been utterly and forever altered and made inhospitable for the miracle that is biodiversity.

This is Earth. 7.428 billion humans at this moment, which is unimaginably more than have ever occurred since the planet was formed. How many more can it hold until unimaginable horrors befall all of life on the planet?

Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran

The Danube River at Srebarna, Bulgaria

South-Central Ireland at Golden Vale, south of Limerick

Southwestern Ireland at Milltown

Gort Na gCapall islands off of SW Ireland

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Memorial Day Weekend Return to Chitwan National Park, Nepal

For my last weekend in Nepal in late May, I joined Mich, Kate, and the family for a weekend vacation back at Chitwan National Park. Both Mich and Kate took Wednesday afternoon and Thursday off from their work, and Friday was a Nepal national holiday (Nepal National Republic Day; maybe you saw Google’s title design with a Himalayan Monal, the national bird). Monday was our Memorial Day, a national holiday for the US embassy employees – so voilà, we had a five-day weekend.

Kate and Mich chose Kasara Lodge, a more posh option than where Andrew and I had stayed four weeks earlier, and considering how much more time we actually spent on the grounds, and how important the swimming pool option was for the kids, it was a good choice. There was a large main swimming pool, but given that we were the only guests for the first two days (and perhaps Mich's contacts at the US embassy helped out), we were upgraded to a villa with a private pool.
Kasara Lodge

Birding was actually quite good on the lodge grounds, as we were adjacent to a large tract of seasonally flooded community forest and grassland, which was contiguous with the national park. A large troop of Jungle Babblers frequented the grounds.
Jungle Babbler

Black Drongos were always about, looking kind of like Great-tailed Grackles with the behavior of a pugnacious kingbird on a testosterone overdose. There wasn’t a bird they wouldn’t attack and chase, sometimes going after a Large-billed Crow or Black Kite high in the sky for several hundred meters.
Black Drongo

We frequently heard an all black male Asian Koel singing his obnoxious song near our rooms, but seeing this speckled female was unusual.
Asian Koel

Hearing a Ruddy Ground-Dove calling somewhere on the grounds was slightly eyebrow-raising, but I didn’t really pursue it until we heard it again at night, and Mich suggested it might be an owl. The next day we chased down the song again and found this Brown Boobook in a bamboo thicket.
Brown Boobook

This scorpion visited Kate and Mich’s open-air bathroom one evening, and I rescued it from them. Or them from it – I have no idea if this might be a species “of medical importance,” but chances are that it is not dangerous. Then again, it has rather slender pedipalps, often an indicator of a potent venom.
unknown scorpion
Mich spotted a waterscorpion (a harmless true bug in the family Nepidae, not an arachnid) at the reception area water feature, and it it’s always fun to get adorable Mara interested in little critters.

waterscorpion, Nepidae

Her grandparents surprised Kate and Mich with these adorable toy binoculars, which she is very proud to use alongside her dad.

We all wonder whether Malcolm will be as interested in birds and wildlife as his dad.

I think this beetle that came to the night lights on the steps of our villa is in the family Lucanidae, the stag beetles.
unknown stag beetle, Lucanidae

This gorgeous green scarab looks like so many others in this huge family, I have no idea where to start – perhaps subfamily Rutelinae.
unknown scarab beetle

Over the course of the four and a half days here, we took two morning jeep rides into the national park just across the East Rapti River; Mich and I took a morning walking tour into the park; the whole family group took an afternoon canoe ride across the river and a short hike to the Gharial breeding center where Andrew and I had been a month earlier; the whole family took a couple of walks not far from the lodge; Mich and I took a short biking and birding ride through the farmland by the lodge; and we all took an afternoon drive to the 20,000 lakes area of the adjacent community forest. The following photos are from these varied outings.

Most of the national park is on the south side of the East Rapti River, and near our hotel a public highway to lands south of the park crosses it with a major bridge.

This is a Mugger Crocodile, common in the river; large ones can be dangerous to unwary humans.
Mugger Crocodile

We also crossed the river by this dugout canoe, being poled down the shallow river by two boatmen.

The forest and adjacent grasslands are part of a buffer zone, used intensely by the local people. They can’t graze their livestock here (elephants, cows, and water buffalo), but they do come here to cut it and haul it by hand.

Or by elephant.

This lady gleaning wood for cooking stopped to ask what Malcolm’s name was. In her place I would have hurried along just to rid myself of the heavy burden. I noticed her incredibly lean and muscular legs; she clearly does this a lot.

I was surprised when looked closely at this plant, which only barely stood out from the grasses it was growing amongst –it is an orchid, possibly Nervilia aragoana.
Nervilia aragoana

Several times we passed by this pond full of introduced water-hyacinths competing with these beautiful Indian Lotus flowers, Nelumbo nucifera.
Indian Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera

I didn't realize this Terai Gray Langur was urinating as I snapped this photo.
Terai Gray Langur

This lizard is probably a female of the common Calotes versicolor, Oriental Garden Lizard.
Calotes versicolor, Oriental Garden Lizard.

This is an Indian Hog Deer, Hyelaphus porcinus, one of four species of Cervidae in the park.
Indian Hog Deer, Hyelaphus porcinus

We saw just this one Sambar, Rusa unicolor, the largest deer.
Sambar, Rusa unicolor

Indian Rhinoceros are scarce but well protected in Chitwan. We saw about eight during our long weekend.
Indian Rhinoceros

This Red-wattled Lapwing chick in the road was nearly squished by our inattentive driver in the national park.
Red-wattled Lapwing

The only male Indian Peafowl we saw with a full complement of upper tail coverts; we saw lots of females and males that had lost their fancy plumes.
Indian Peafowl

The pygmy-owl Jungle Owlet is astonishingly common in the national park and adjacent forest.
Jungle Owlet

We saw only about three Oriental Pied-Hornbills, but at dawn our last morning morning one was singing loudly right over our villa.
Oriental Pied-Hornbill

I got to put Changeable Hawk-Eagle back onto my lifelist with a pair over a road in the park.
Changeable Hawk-Eagle

We had several drongo-cuckoos, and we’re still uncertain whether these should be called Square-tailed or Fork-tailed. The primary literature advocating this split seems to be in field guides and large family monographs, not papers in peer-reviewed journals.
drongo-cuckoo, Surniculus sp.

The dominant forest type here is called Sal forest, after the very dominant species of tree. The understory is burned every two to three years, keeping it relatively open.

Indian Pitta turns out to be abundant in the Sal forest – we saw and heard well over 30 in about 2 hours driving through it on our last morning.
Indian Pitta

My lifer Himalayan Flameback, which seems to outnumber Greater Flameback (which was the only species I saw four weeks ago).
Himalayan Flameback

My lifer White-bellied Drongo – yet another species of drongo.
White-bellied Drongo

Mich and I were surprised to see a Long-tailed Broadbill here; they are more common in the hilly forest surrounding Kathmandu. Broadbills are suboscine passerines, distantly related to the dull, enigmatic Sapayoa found in wet tropical forests from Panama to Ecuador.
Long-tailed Broadbill

Mich’s lifer Oriental Honey-buzzard

Mich’s lifer Chestnut-capped Babbler. I had seen both of these on my first trip to Chitwan. It was so close and cooperative I took some video.
Chestnut-capped Babbler

We identified this almost by default as a Crested Goshawk; it appears to be the only medium-sized Accipiter here this time of year.
Crested Goshawk

We visited a couple wetland areas, which in the winter are much more productive for birding. These are Lesser Whistling-Ducks.
Lesser Whistling-Duck

Gray-headed Swamphen – the same species that is now an established exotic in Florida (and considered countable by the American Birding Association).
Gray-headed Swamphen

Ruddy-breasted Crake, which I had seen three years ago at the airport in Lombok, Indonesia
Ruddy-breasted Crake

Purple Heron
Purple Heron

Lesser Adjutant
Lesser Adjutant

Mich and I had repeated, excellent views of many Hirundapus swifts, and while we sometimes saw a slightly paler center to the throat, we could never make out a large, clean white throat that should be so obvious in White-throated Needletail, considered the default large swift in Nepal, according to the field guides. But our conclusion was that these had to be Silver-backed Needletails, known only from areas east and west of here. Swfits are hard.
Silver-backed Needletail

This is Indian Grassbird. There are three species of birds called grassbird in Nepal, but this is the only one in Pelleornidae, the ground-babbler family.
Indian Grassbird

This handsome raptor is Crested Serpent-Eagle, which I had last seen in Borneo three years ago.
Crested Serpent-Eagle

A pair of Brown Fish-Owls that our vehicle flushed was a big surprise and a lifer for both Mich and me.
Brown Fish-Owl

Some of the butterflies I saw:
Graphium doson axion, Common Jay
Graphium doson axion, Common Jay

Ypthima baldus, Common Fivering
Ypthima baldus, Common Fivering

Papilio demoleus, Lime Swallowtail
Papilio demoleus, Lime Swallowtail

Chilasa clytia clytia, Common Mime
Chilasa clytia clytia, Common Mime

A yellow-striped katydid that remains unnamed

One could spend a lot of time just photographing odonates here. One that was easy and cooperative was this probable Rhyothemis plutonia, the Greater Bluewing. I was amazed at its rocking behavior, which I had never seen a dragonfly do, so I got some video of it.
Rhyothemis plutonia, Greater Bluewing

The lodge had some very nice mountain bikes, and Mich and I took off on the last hour and a half of daylight to bird the farmland and maybe find some patches of habitat.

This Indian Spotted-Eagle was soaring over the corn fields and was perhaps hoping to surprise a lapwing or crow.
Indian Spotted-Eagle

We had seen many of the open country birds only while driving through to better habitats, so it was good to finally get good looks at Bengal Bushlark.
Bengal Bushlark

This Oriental Skylark was Mich’s lifer.
Oriental Skylark

We were surprised by this Pied Cuckoo in this wide open landscape; both of us had seen it in Africa.
Pied Cuckoo

Perhaps our best find of the entire trip was in some shorter grassland by the river where we finished our bike ride. The Bristled Grassbird is considered vulnerable due to its vanishing habitat, and there are few sites known for it in Nepal. Unlike the Indian Grassbird, this one has a loud song, sings in flight, and is related to bush-warblers and grasshopper-warblers in the family Locustellidae. We were extremely lucky to stumble upon what appears to be a previously unknown location, with a pair just a five-minute bike ride from our lodge.
Bristled Grassbird

It had rained most of the first half of the day, clearing the air more than it had been during my entire seven weeks, and we were quite surprised to see that the Himal (the basic name for the higher portions of the greater Himalaya Mountains) was visible, most striking right at sunset.