Trading Juncos for Jacobins: Birdathon Goes South in 2015

“Oh, you’re trying to find as many species as possible today?”

I was a bit stupefied when these words came out of the mouth of our Trinidadian guide. It was early afternoon, a full eight hours into our Birdathon, and it appeared that the foundational strategy for the 24-hour challenge hadn’t yet sunk in.

Toby Ross, close friend, nature lover and Seattle Audubon employee, and I were just beginning our week-long vacation in Trinidad and Tobago at the renowned Asa Wright Lodge, perched on top a verdant mountain valley on the tropical island of Trinidad. Birdwatchers travel here from around the world to see colorful species from North America and the Caribbean mix with denizens from South America, located just ten miles off the countries southern coast.

As a habitat, the tropical rainforest is infamous for straining the necks of birdwatchers who seek fleeting glimpses of parrots, toucans and cotingas high in the dense canopy above. At Asa Wright, you can sit comfortably—coffee in hand—from the lodge’s well-situated veranda and effortlessly spot birds on treetops down valley, all while dozens of species of colorful hummingbirds and tanagers visit feeders almost directly in front of your face.

As Toby and I planned a full-day effort in an environment replete with unfamiliar species and sounds, we knew that local knowledge was necessary to find as many species as possible. But when birding is so easy, and in a region already renowned for a unhurried approach to life, it was hard to instill the urgency required for a “Big Day.” Our requests for private guides at the front desk were met with counteroffers to sign up for established tours. Questions to the on-staff naturalists about which habitats would offer the longest species list were met with shrugs and slightly bewildered expressions.

It was pretty clear that Birdathon this year was going to be different.

Truth be known, it wasn’t difficult to adopt an approach more agreeable to our Caribbean hosts. Compared to previous Birdathons, my normally long drives to prime birding areas were replaced with a short, sleepy shuffle to the famous verandah. And when I first raised my binoculars to my eyes, my usual “first birds” – Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, House Finch – were replaced with Spectacled Thrush, Crested Oropendola and Orange-winged Parrot.

We were indeed a long way from home.

The excitement continued; another forty species – and a cup of coffee – followed those first three before we sat down to a quickly consumed breakfast. (In order of appearance).

Tufted Coquette
Spectacled Thrush
Crested Oropendola
Orange-winged Parrot
Barred Antshrike
Silver-billed Tanager
Great Kiskadee
Palm Tanager
Cocoa Thrush
Wattled Bellbird
Green Honeycreeper
Violaceous Euphonia
White-banded Tanager
White-necked Jacobin
Gray-fronted Dove
White-chested Emerald
Tufted Coquette
Blue-throated Mango
Yellow Oriole
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Blue Dacnis
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Bay-headed Tanager
Blue-chinned Sapphire
Scaled Pigeon
Long-billed Starthroat
Squirrel Cuckoo
Common Black Hawk
Black Vulture
Tropical Mockingbird
Coppery-rumped Hummingbird
Double-toothed Kite
Shiny Cowbird
Purple Honeycreeper
House Wren
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Black-tailed Tityra
White Hawk
Piratic Flycatcher
Turkey Vulture

After stuffing fried eggs in our faces, it was time for our 8:30 tour to the famous protected caves which hold a breeding population of oilbirds. This species, which is in its own family, is the only nocturnal, fruit-eating bird in the world. Oilbirds have the face of an owl, the flutter-like flight of a swallow, but the wingspan of a harrier. They howl, growl and click to echolocate in the dark…and this is one of the best places in the world to see them. We were not going to see a lot of species on this field trip, but our target was obviously special.

Streaked Xenops
Golden-headed Manakin
Euler’s Flycatcher
White-chinned Thrush
Trinidad Motmot
Green Hermit
White-bearded Manakin

We were back at the lodge by 10:30 to meet Mahese (mah-HEESE), our private guide for the remainder of the day. We dutifully explained that we wanted to see as many species as possible. He expressed surprise when we confirmed this strategy several hours later. That being said, he was a wealth of local knowledge. I casually mentioned that it’d be fun to see a Pearl Kite, a small falcon a little larger than a robin. “Oh yeah?” he replied. Within minutes, we were on the side of the road with a scope trained on a thick tangle of branches a top a tree: the head of a Pearl Kite peered back from it’s nest.

We were at the entrance to the Arima Agricultural Station, a grassy area known for its birds and the hybrid water buffalo / brahma cows that are bred there. Highlights were a pair of a small flock of Green-rumped Parrotlets and a pair of roosting Tropical Screech-Owls.

Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Rock Dove
Pearl Kite
Tropical Kingbird
Carib Grackle
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Red-breasted Blackbird
Southern Lapwing
Grassland Yellow-Finch
Wattled Jacana
Savanna Hawk
Yellow-chinned Spinetail
White-headed Marsh-Tyrant
Pied Marsh-Tyrant
Gray-breasted Martin
Cattle Egret
White-winged Swallow
Green-rumped Parrotlet
Tropical Screech-Owl
Blue-gray Tanager

Back on the road again, we hit the east coast of the island around 1:00pm. We stopped for lunch at a beach smothered with sargassum seaweed. It was unprecedented on both Trinidad and Tobago and the talk of the whole island. Judging by the smell in the hot midday sun, I could see why Trinidadians were upset. Strategic stops in the mangrove forests nearby afforded us fleeting glimpses of two species of kingfisher; Mahese used a tape to bring in a stunning Black-crowned Antshrike.

Plumbeous Kite
Smooth-billed Ani
Pale-vented Pigeon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Magnificent Frigatebird
Black-crowned Antshrike
Blue-black Grassquit
Ringed Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher

We drove slowly through the temporal wetlands at Nariva Swamp, which were now, unfortunately, dry. We waited at the far end of the swamp, near a stand of palm trees that usually host Red-bellied Macaws towards the end of the day. It was another decision that flies in the face of a normal “big day,” but this charismatic species was worth it. After about an hour of waiting (with rum punch in hand), a pair finally showed up and alit right on the exact palm tree that Mahese predicted.

Yellow-breasted Flycatcher
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Striated Heron
Great Egret
Gray Kingbird
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Crested Caracara
Green-throated Mango
Yellow-hooded Blackbird
Purple Gallinule
Striped Cuckoo
Giant Cowbird
Long-winged Harrier
Short-tailed Swift
Fork-tailed Palm-Swift
Red-bellied Macaw

It was just an hour before nightfall and we were four species short of 100, our goal for the day. A large Linneated Woodpecker flew over the van as we held vigil for the macaws. As we drove out, Mahese pointed out White-tipped Dove and Yellow-crowned Parrot. Ninety-nine.

“I know where you can get one more,” Mahese confided wryly as we took a left out of the swamp. Within fifteen minutes we were on the side of the road in a small village, looking up at a tree: Yellow-rumped Cacique.

One hundred.

Flight of the (California) Condors

When I was a child, the California Condor made me cry.

Not due to physical trauma, mind you. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against a bird that stood nearly as tall as my five-year-old self.

It reflected emotional pain. I loved birds and, when I learned the plight of the near-extinct species, I was heartbroken. The fact of losing a once-widespread icon of the western frontier was probably lost on me. It had a nine-foot wingspan – one of the largest of terrestrial birds worldwide – and I selfishly wanted to see one in the wild.

I was at a National Audubon Society conference with my mom who then worked at the Seattle chapter. The setting was magical: Asilomar on the California Coast near Monterey. A convivial flock of Acorn Woodpeckers on the premises is what attracted me to birdwatching: my “gateway bird,” so to speak.

Passionate bird conservationists gathered from around the country and, amongst the meetings and networking events, the California Condor took center stage. For the children, educators rolled out an impressive piece of cloth that was cut to represent the life-sized silhouette of the massive bird. Scientists gave presentations that outlined the plight of the species. At that time, in the mid-1980’s, there were only 22 birds left in the wild: the situation was dire. Habitat loss, the pesticide DDT, electrocution from power lines, pressures from cattle ranching and poisoning from lead shot proved too much for the dedicated scavenger.

I cried all night. According to my mother, I was inconsolable.

Word of my concern spread and, by the following morning, the world’s experts on California Condors had assembled at our breakfast table; PhD ornithologists had gathered to assuage the concerns of a five-year-old child. My mother recollects that I didn’t say a word, I just held my chin barely above the edge of the table. Undeterred by my melancholic state, the scientists reassured me that they were doing absolutely everything they could to save the emblematic species.

Unfortunately, I never did see a California Condor in the wild: the last one – a stubborn male called “AC9” – was dramatically caught by scientists in 1987 in a last ditch effort to rebuild the population through an ambitious captive breeding program. All of the California Condors in the world were contained in a facility at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo (and later, facilities in Oregon and Idaho). Exposure to humans was strictly controlled: the locations were closed to the public and chicks were hand-reared with life-like condor sock puppets.

It worked. Fast forward thirty years and over 200 condors now form wild populations throughout central and southern California, northern Arizona, and Baja California (with another 200 birds in captivity). In 2003, chicks fledged in the wild for the first time in over two decades (over 40 birds have fledged in the wild through 2014, source).

When my wife and I discussed moving away from our native Seattle, we considered both San Francisco and New York City. As a birder, I mentally calculated that I could see more new species in the Northeast; San Francisco and Seattle are both on the west coast and, as a result, share many of the same birds. But California has condors; Washington and New York do not.

A brochure about the condor conservation program (1984).

When we ended up moving to the Bay Area (a decision made totally independent of my birding life list) it started to look like I’d finally see a condor in the wild. And, for my 36th birthday, my wife suggested that we give it a shot; Highway 101 along the coastline of Big Sur National Park – a decent spot for spotting soaring condors – was only a 3.5 hour drive south.

The timing of our attempt, the Saturday after my birthday, was significant because it was also the birthday of my non-birding wife. She generously chose to spend the day searching for an obscure bird I’d revered since childhood.

Thankfully, the Big Sur coastline is some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. Mature redwood forests tucked into valleys flanked by curvaceous ridges of verdant pastures, all giving way to a undulating rocky coastline that creates endless points and bays in both directions. We stopped many times to scope the water: within minutes we saw the spout of a gray whale. Then another. And another. Soon, we watched a pod of hundreds of Common Dolphins gradually move north in the brilliant morning light.

At every stop, we found more cetaceans, mostly Gray Whales (migrating north from their breeding waters in Baja), pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and a single Humpback Whale. Kristi used the spotting scope to watch the water while I scanned the ridge lines for soaring raptors. Nothing but Red-tailed Hawks, Common Ravens, and Turkey Vultures so far.

Our most productive spot was a nondescript pullout nicknamed “Sea Lion Lookout.” A group of four feeding Gray Whales allowed for sustained scope views, much to the delight of the many people who stopped to see what we were looking at. This was a good spot for condors so, as everyone looked out, I looked up, waiting for the silhouette that never showed.

We had plenty of coastline left so we continued to the popular Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It was a madhouse. Parked cars were overflowing onto the busy highway, so we decided to skip seeing the famous waterfall that everyone was there to see. As Kristi used the facilities before we returned to our car, I looked up yet again. After seeing nothing but hawks, vultures, and ravens, their massive wingspan was unmistakable, even to the naked eye. I scurried to get my binoculars to my eyes: the patches of white feathers extending down the inside of their wing was diagnostic.

California Condors.

As people and cars nonchalantly passed, I set up my scope and enjoyed prolonged views of four condors soaring along the ridge: one adult, with a bright orange head set against a crisp black and white underwing, and three darker, drabber juveniles. Kristi came out long enough for a brief look and a kiss on the cheek—a tradition whenever I see a new species.

Despite the fact that these birds were likely hatched in captivity and released into the wild (you can look up their birth date if you get a good enough view of the color and number of the wing tags, which I didn’t) they were riding wild thermals like they did centuries ago. The birdwatching purist in me appreciated the fact that the status of condors was recently reinstated as “countable” by the American Birding Association, the grand arbiter of what species are established in North America. This validated today’s sighting amongst my birdwatching peers. But that didn’t matter to the five-year-old who saw the wingspan unfurled in front of him three decades ago: he was thrilled.

“Whoa, what’s that!” Kristi broke my daydream a little further down the highway.

Another eight condors were soaring above the ridge line, this time much closer to the road. We quickly pulled off and I watched them for fifteen minutes before they all disappeared. We were in the right place and precisely the right time. It was a fleeting moment, but it’ll stay with me forever.

I wish I could thank the scientists who made it possible to see twelve California Condors in a single day. Over breakfast, of course.

Birdwatching in Cuba

Cuba lies fewer than 100 miles off the Floridan coast and despite being just the size of Virginia – or half of Utah – the country holds twenty-seven species of birds that are found no where else on earth (which neither state can claim).

In October 2014, BirdNote initiated its international travel program with a trip to this captivating destination. We had a well-balanced itinerary that exposed our group to the arts, food, culture, natural spaces and people of this beautiful country. We did, however, visit Cuba on the least ideal month for birdwatching; neotropical migrants had already passed through and many of the resident specialties were not singing on territory (March is the best month, according to our guide). We still manage to tally 83 species on our six-day trip, even though the two days we set aside specifically for birdwatching coincided with the rainiest weather of the trip. Of these species, 22 are only found in the Caribbean, and 12 are only found in Cuba.

Here’s the list of species we found, by location.

Monday, October 20 2014

7:30am – 8:20am
Hotel Nacional de Cuba (23.144005,-82.3802733)

The grounds of this iconic hotel isn’t very expansive, or natural, but we found a decent assortment of birds, including several species of warbler and a tanager in the large pine tree.

Eurasian Collared-Dove (15)
Common Ground-Dove (5)
Mourning Dove (5)
Antillean Palm-Swift (2)
Red-legged Thrush (4)
Northern Mockingbird (4)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (4)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Summer Tanager (1)
Cuban Blackbird (30)
House Sparrow (6)

10:50am – 11:30am
Finca Vigia (23.0677525,-82.2962719)

The grounds of Hemingway’s Home are incredibly lush. I wish we had more time there, and had arrived earlier in the day.

Turkey Vulture (7)
Cuban Emerald (2)
American Kestrel (1)
Red-legged Thrush (8)
Northern Mockingbird (6)
Northern Parula (1)
Cuban Blackbird (10)

Tuesday, October 21 2014

8:00am – 8:10am
Hotel Nacional de Cuba (23.144005,-82.3802733)

I made a quick tour of the grounds before breakfast. It was a good decision: I found my only Tawny-shouldered Blackbird of the trip!

Eurasian Collared-Dove (3)
Mourning Dove (5)
Antillean Palm-Swift (1)
Cuban Emerald (1)
Palm Warbler (6)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird (2)
Cuban Blackbird (5)
House Sparrow (2)

10:00am – 12:30pm
Jardin Botanico Nacional (22.9923477,-82.3370147)

An immense botanical gardens with loads of birding opportunities. We walked around the visitor’s center and through the nearby greenhouses. We then took our bus to the Japanese garden where we strolled around the small lake and had lunch.

Osprey (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Common Gallinule (3)
Killdeer (1)
Spotted Sandpiper (1)
Common Ground-Dove (3)
Great Lizard-Cuckoo (2)
Antillean Palm-Swift (9)
Belted Kingfisher (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (2)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
Cuban Pewee (2)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (11)
Tennessee Warbler (8)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (25)
Cuban Blackbird (22)
Greater Antillean Grackle (14)

Wednesday, October 22 2014

10:35am – 12:05pm
Soroa Orchid Garden (22.7936969,-83.0086505)

A loop of the lush grounds, with rain. Hooded Warbler = rare find!

Turkey Vulture (24)
Great Lizard-Cuckoo (1)
Cuban Emerald (6)
Cuban Trogon (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (4)
Cuban Pewee (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (3)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (4)
Cape May Warbler (1)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (1)
Palm Warbler (7)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Western Spindalis (2)
Cuban Blackbird (6)
Greater Antillean Grackle (12)

3:00pm – 4:20pm
Hacienda Cortina (22.6337022,-83.4088308)

This is unfortunately when the skies decided to dampen our optics. Thankfully the downpour we experienced right before lunch let up a bit. We were with a local guide who took us to the exact tree where endemic Giant Kingbirds breed. We were just a few months too early. Olive-capped Warblers in the pine trees were a nice consolation and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler was only the second our excited guide had ever seen at this destination.

Green Heron (4)
Turkey Vulture (14)
Common Ground-Dove (2)
Smooth-billed Ani (5)
Cuban Emerald (3)
Cuban Trogon (2)
West Indian Woodpecker (3)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
American Kestrel (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Northern Mockingbird (9)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
Hooded Warbler (1)
American Redstart (2)
Northern Parula (1)
Palm Warbler (4)
Olive-capped Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (1)
Western Spindalis (16)
Summer Tanager (1)
Cuban Blackbird (46)
Greater Antillean Grackle (14)

Thursday October 23 2014

9:40am – 12:15pm
East Vinales Valley (22.624714,-83.6882365)

We went on a lightly-traveled dirt road out to the steep limestone cliffs that hold the endemic Cuban Solitaire, a plain bird with an incredible song. The unrelenting rain insured that the walk out was more of a muddy slog. I started to hear the solitaire’s song about 100 meters from the end of the trail, but I didn’t know if it was coming from a cage in a nearby farmhouse. It was wild and it sang from the dense foliage at the base of the cliff for 45 minutes before I was informed that we had to go. I gave it three more minutes: At two minutes, it flew in and perched on an exposed branch long enough to get in the scope. Incredible.

Wood Duck (1)
Anhinga (2)
Cattle Egret (5)
Turkey Vulture (9)
Smooth-billed Ani (1)
Cuban Emerald (3)
Cuban Tody (1)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (2)
Loggerhead Kingbird (3)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Cuban Solitaire (1)
Northern Mockingbird (7)
Black-and-white Warbler (1)
American Redstart (5)
Palm Warbler (8)
Olive-capped Warbler (1)
Yellow-headed Warbler (4)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (4)
Cuban Blackbird (15)
Greater Antillean Grackle (20)

5:10pm – 6:35pm
Horizontes La Ermita Hotel (22.611507,-83.6990699)

I walked around with two tour participants and found some nice species around the hotel grounds and down the street. Highlights were numerous Olive-capped Warblers in the roadside pine trees.

Great Egret (1)
Cattle Egret (4)
Mourning Dove (3)
Antillean Palm-Swift (3)
Cuban Emerald (2)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (1)
Northern Flicker (1)
American Kestrel (2)
Cuban Pewee (1)
Cuban Vireo (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Gray Catbird (2)
Northern Mockingbird (12)
Black-and-white Warbler (1)
Palm Warbler (5)
Olive-capped Warbler (8)
Prairie Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (5)
Cuban Blackbird (3)
Greater Antillean Grackle (15)

Friday, October 24 2014

11:30am – 3:45pm
Las Terrazas (22.8447446,-82.9435265)

We had a tour of Las Terrazas, a small community with a hospital and numerous schools. I looked for birds at every stop, but the restaurant was the most productive location, providing our first and only Cuban Bullfinches. I scoped a soaring accipiter at the coffee shop: I would’ve called it a Cooper’s Hawk back home, which is a Gundlach’s Hawk in Cuba. Another endemic!

Turkey Vulture (250)
Gundlach’s Hawk (1)
White-crowned Pigeon (1)
Smooth-billed Ani (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (3)
Cuban Green Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (1)
Cuban Pewee (2)
La Sagra’s Flycatcher (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (1)
Yellow-throated Vireo (3)
Red-legged Thrush (2)
Northern Mockingbird (3)
Northern Parula (1)
Magnolia Warbler (1)
Bay-breasted Warbler (2)
Palm Warbler (3)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1)
Red-legged Honeycreeper (5)
Yellow-faced Grassquit (16)
Cuban Bullfinch (6)
Western Spindalis (6)
Cuban Blackbird (31)
Greater Antillean Grackle (35)

4:25pm – 4:35pm
Presa Machucucutu (23.0398506,-82.4935913)

We stopped to have a quick bathroom break next to a large, roadside wetland. No lifers for anyone but a lot of new species for the trip.

Ring-necked Duck (3)
Ruddy Duck (3)
Pied-billed Grebe (12)
Great Blue Heron (2)
Great Egret (5)
Snowy Egret (5)
Green Heron (3)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (5)
Turkey Vulture (3)
Common Gallinule (4)
American Coot (40)
Belted Kingfisher (2)

Here’s a full list of the birds that were seen by one or all of the group, with location and date of the first sighting. All species in BLACK are only found in the Caribbean; UNDERLINED are only found in Cuba.

WOOD DUCK (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RING-NECKED DUCK (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
RUDDY DUCK (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
HELMETED GUINEAFOWL (Domestic) (Hotel Nacional de Cuba)
INDIAN PEAFOWL (Domestic) (Hotel Nacional de Cuba)
PIED-BILLED GREBE (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
AMERICAN FLAMINGO (Domestic) (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
ANHINGA (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
BROWN PELICAN (Havana – Oct. 25)
GREAT BLUE HERON (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
GREAT EGRET (seen along the highway a couple times)
SNOWY EGRET (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
REDDISH EGRET (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
CATTLE EGRET (seen from the highway)
GREEN HERON (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
TURKEY VULTURE (how could you miss these?)
OSPREY (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
GUNDLACH’S HAWK (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
RED-TAILED HAWK (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
COMMON GALLINULE (seen at two locations)
AMERICAN COOT (Presa Machucucutu – Oct. 24)
KILLDEER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
LAUGHING GULL (Havana – Oct. 20)
ROYAL TERN (Cojimar – Oct. 20)
ROCK PIGEON (Most numerous in Havana)
SCALY-NAPED PIGEON (Vinales Valley Overlook – Oct. 23)
WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
MOURNING DOVE (widespread)
GREAT LIZARD-CUCKOO (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
SMOOTH-BILLED ANI (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
BARN OWL (Havana – Oct. 20)
ANTILLEAN PALM-SWIFT (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
CUBAN EMERALD (Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s House) – Oct. 20)
CUBAN TROGON (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
CUBAN TODY (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
CUBAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
NORTHERN FLICKER (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
AMERICAN KESTREL (Finca Vigia (Hemingway’s House) – Oct. 20)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 24)
CUBAN PEWEE (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
CUBAN VIREO (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
YELLOW-THROATED VIREO (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
CUBAN SOLITAIRE (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RED-LEGGED THRUSH (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
GRAY CATBIRD (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
OVENBIRD (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
TENNESSEE WARBLER (Jardin Botanico Nacional – Oct. 21)
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
HOODED WARBLER (!) (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
AMERICAN REDSTART (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
CAPE MAY WARBLER (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
NORTHERN PARULA (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
MAGNOLIA WARBLER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BAY-BREASTED WARBLER (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 26)
PALM WARBLER (the most frequently seen warbler)
OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER (Hotel Nacional – Oct. 20)
PRAIRIE WARBLER (Horizontes La Ermita Hotel – Oct. 23)
YELLOW-HEADED WARBLER (East Vinales Valley – Oct. 23)
RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER (Hacienda Cortina – Oct. 22)
YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT (Horizontes La Ermita – Oct. 23)
CUBAN BULLFINCH (Las Terrazas – Oct. 24)
WESTERN SPINDALIS (Soroa Orchid Garden – Oct. 22)
SUMMER TANAGER (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
EASTERN MEADOWLARK (Highway to Vinales Valley – Oct. 22)
CUBAN BLACKBIRD (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)
GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLE (Jardin Botanico – Oct. 21)
HOUSE SPARROW (Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Oct. 20)

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: Cuba Edition

I love to travel. Sure, I like trying new foods and immersing myself in cities already centuries old when my native Seattle was just unexplored frontier. But the main reason I keep reaching for my passport is to find experiences that stand in stark contrast with my normal day-to-day life back home, like puppets having sex on prime time TV or “edible” beetle larvae.

Sometimes you have to really look for these experiences (overly positive news anchors in Canada); other times they smack you in the face just as you step off the plane (India). Even though it lies only 90 miles from the US shoreline, I suspected that Cuba, as a country in many ways stuck in the middle of the 20th century, was replete with opportunities for me to be baffled, stunned and amazed.

I couldn’t wait.

During our six day tour of the country – primarily in Havana, with a couple days in Viñales – we encountered a nice list of “shit that just wouldn’t fly back home.” None of these observations are right nor wrong, just different. My tone, at times, can be a bit snarky, but most of it is directed at my own culture, and not that of my hosts.

“Slick’r than Snot” Tile Floors

Cuba is a tropical island, therefore it rains. About four feet annually, in fact. So it’s reasonable to assume that people will enter homes or establishments with less-than-dry shoes, where they will almost certainly encounter tile floors. I have nothing against tile: they are great for repelling water and mud—easy to clean, to boot. When wet, however, tile floors provide as much traction as a lunch tray on an icy hillside. This would never “slide” in the U.S., where our cultural clumsiness is matched only by our propensity to sue the crap out of each other. If there’s a spill in Aisle 5 of a grocery store, managers will quarantine aisles 1 through 10 using CDC Level 5 protocols.

Our Cuban-owned hotel in Viñales apparently even waxed the tiles on our outdoor patios, perhaps so when traction is lost, the enhanced momentum would carry the victim past the single step – and its sharp, neck-breaking edge – to land on the soft grass beyond. In the event of a fall, I maintained an optimized “blood-to-rum” ratio to soften the impact.

No “Yellow Line”

If you taken the bus in the US, you’ve been yelled at for not standing behind the yellow line. It’s a fact of life. In Cuba, that space could easily fit a dozen people. In downtown Havana, I watched with amazement as a man – in order to fit behind a closing door – contorted himself and his backpack into positions not yet discovered by Bikram Choudhury. The door attempted to close, then was obstructed by the mans arm. He shifted then it was obstructed by his backpack. Shifted again only to be foiled by his foot. His other arm. His foot again. It took thirty seconds for the creaking doors of the Russian-made bus to finally close, wedging the commuter against the person next to him with enough vigor to warrant a restraining order in the U.S. At least the bus offered the same temperature and humidity of a Bikram yoga studio, for a fraction of the cost.

Lack of Emission Standards

I’m a passionate environmentalist but I also love classic Detroit cars: vestiges of an era and culture not known for efficiency, even when properly maintained. Car owners in Cuba have been denied ready access to spare parts since the embargo, thus their cars are maintained with a fruitful mix of grit and ingenuity. The result is simply beautiful, and consumed most of my memory cards. Thankfully, they don’t have emission standards in Cuba, which would’ve removed these beautiful relics from the streets years ago.

The weekends and summer vacations of my childhood were spent in my parents 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, watching the roadside of the western United States whiz by my backseat window. Many of my dad’s weekends, however, were spent underneath the van, especially as the annual emissions test drew near. (And, most likely, a few weekends following the first, failed test). In Japan, if absolutely anything on your car is not performing optimally, it must be fixed or replaced before it is allowed on the street for another year.

Stand on a corner in downtown Havana and it’ll become quite clear, to your eyes and nose, that these restrictions have not penetrated Cuba’s borders. But one look at a Fairlane or Edsel and you simply won’t care.


In the US, the legality of hitchhiking varies from state to state. It is, however, illegal to hitchhike on an interstate highway. While we drove down the impressively smooth Autopista Este-Oeste highway from Havana to Viñales, I was blown away by the number of people blatantly waiting for rides. Literally on the highway. Our bus driver would often have to swerve into the fast lane to avoid hitting people, who lurked in the shadows of overpasses to avoid the sun. It’s an efficient way to get places in a country that lacks transportation infrastructure and where owning a car is expensive. It just wouldn’t fly in the US, where you can’t even park on the shoulder without being pestered by highway patrol within minutes.

Gas Prices

Venezuela is Cuba’s largest provider of oil, supplying 60% of the island’s demand (Cuba, in exchange, sent 30,000 doctors to Venezuela – source). Venezuela is also famous for having the cheapest gas in the world: $0.06/gallon (source). The fact that Venezuela supplies such cheap oil to Cuba almost guarantees that these Detroit relics would enjoy subsidized gas prices.

Nope. Gas is nearly $6/gallon in Cuba. If you even find a car available for sale in Cuba, and can afford the asking price (think supply/demand curve), you then have to be able afford to fill it up.

And, courtesy of restrictions put in place by both the Cuban and U.S. governments, this isn’t exactly an island of Priuses.

Glacial Internet

The internet in Cuba is tightly controlled to prevent the free exchange of ideas. But it isn’t just expensive, it’s based on infrastructure that’s decades old.

Terms like “dial-up” and “56k” don’t resonate with today’s youth. They can’t relate to the rhythmic, robotic sound of a computer dialing a god-damned phone number and, after waiting 15 seconds for a connection, which often failed, only to watch it struggle to pull down text emails so slowly that you’d watch, with great anticipation, visual bars that tracked its progress.

Remember that? That’s Internet access in Cuba. And even that isn’t readily accessible.

Journalists get 120 hours of free internet access a month. Many sell a portion of their access on the black market to help supplement their monthly salaries. I met a gentlemen who purchases 40-60 hours of internet access a month, for 3 CUC/hour* (about US$3.39). This monthly transaction was the equivalent to six months salary for the average government worker.

Thus, internet access is very much a luxury. And don’t forget it’s slow, like “frozen molasses” slow: loading Facebook takes 25 minutes on his computer and a one megabyte file – roughly half the size of a picture taken with an iPhone – takes two hours to download. In the U.S., where a frozen Facebook video is grounds to throw your $600 smartphone against a wall, this would simply not fly.

Internet is available to tourists in nicer hotels, and the situation will only improve. Just two months after our trip, President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. Within weeks, NetFlix and AirBnB announced their plans to enter the thawing market.

I used our six-day trip as an excuse to unplug; it was delightful.

Immigration Coffee Break

No one ever has a pleasant time going through immigrations and passport control. If you do, you have some sort of weird “I enjoy skeptical stares from strangers” fetish. I think my best experiences in immigration could be described as “frosty.” (This is especially the case returning to the U.S.). But, like removing one’s shoes in security, it just becomes a part of the adventure of travel.

I had an easy time entering Cuba. But, on our exit, our experience was a little different: the lines at passport control suddenly stopped moving. The doors closed. Officials moved briskly in front of the closed doors, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the twenty or so people still waiting in line. It took fifteen minutes for the lines to open again, as inexplicably as they’d closed. Apparently, the agents simply went on break.

If this had happened in the U.S. – where the stresses of travel reduce Americans into monsters with the self-entitlement of a toddler, the patience of a New York cabbie in rush hour, and the moral depravity of J. Dahlmer – these agents would’ve returned to a crime scene: a landscape strewn with torches, torn tropical shirts, and warring factions whose faces were smeared with the blood of their victims.

Homeless Dogs and Cats with Name-tags

We ran across several dogs in old Havana donning name tags that advertises that they are owned and cared for, which apparently prevents them from getting swept up by animal control. We have this in the U.S., obviously, but you got to admit that it’s pretty damn cute. It almost looks like he has a handmade keycard lanyard and works at Amazon.

Beer Desert

I only saw two types of beer during our six day tour of the island, both of which were comparable to American macrobrew in look and taste (though, after a long day in the sun, any liquid under 98.6º is refreshing). If a restaurant in Seattle even attempted to open with only two beers on draught – and macrobrews at that – the establishment would be torched by an hirsute, flannel-clad cadre of lumbersexuals before the first pint was poured.

After my second mojito or Cuba Libre, however, I no longer cared.

Entering through the ass-end of the plane

I’ve flown a lot, but entering an airplane through stairs in the very back of the plane was new. (Envision a plane that crapped a staircase). It would’ve been unremarkable were it not for the fact that a line had formed … directly behind the idling engines. I wouldn’t describe either the 100+ decibel whine of a turbine engine or the accompanying exhaust as “delicate on the senses.” And I always enjoy boarding a flight already with a feeling of nausea deeply-seated in my gut.

“Convertible Cuban Pesos” (pronounced “kooks”) is one of two currencies in Cuba, created specifically for the tourism industry. The exchange rate is officially 1 CUC = US$1, but tourists endure a penalty and tax when exchanging, thus 0.87 CUC = US$1.

The Cars of Cuba

A driver fixing his late 1940's GMC during a downpour in Vinales.
1954 Chevrolet
1948-1952 Chevrolet
1957 Chevrolet
Early 1950's Ford
Late 1940's General Motors
1955 Ford Fairlane
Late 1940's Ford
1948 or 1949 Ford
1956 or 1957 Edsel with a 1955 Chevrolet
Early Buick
1956 Chevrolet
1953 Chevrolet
1956 Buick
1957-8 Studebaker, late 1950's Dodge, 1958 Chevrolet
1953 Chevrolet
1954 Ford, 1959 Cadillac, 1959 Plymouth
Early 1950's Cadillac

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Nemesis No More

Nemesis bird.

Some may think this refers to the antagonist in a Finnish smart phone game about “ill-tempered” avians. But it’s a term (painfully) familiar to most birders.

A nemesis bird is a title bestowed onto a species of bird after the nth attempt see it (the minimum value for n is influenced by the amount of travel involved, but “3” for cross-country trips and “10” for species found in one’s state are, in my opinion, reasonable values). The bird becomes a glaring hole in that birder’s life list; a painful reminder of all the money and hours spent on numerous failed attempts, usually in driving rain or freezing winds. The name becomes a pejorative mumbled into half-empty pints after a day of birding.

Every birder has at least one or two. And I’ve had a few.

Slaty-backed Gull was one. Every winter, at least one of these rare Siberian visitors is usually reported near my native Seattle. Over the years, I have spent hours sifting through flocks of hundreds of gulls looking for a slightly darker shade of gray, usually matching the brooding Pacific Northwest sky above. The “cold stare” of the Slaty-backed – created by the pale eye set deep in a darkly streaked crown – mimicked the cold winds I often endured searching for that stupid bird. Unfortunately, the locations were far from idyllic: the base of an airport in Renton or Commencement Bay in nearby Tacoma, an industrial area permeated by the pungent smell of a paper mill (hence the derogatory “Tacoma Aroma”).

But, thanks to a local birder, I finally saw that bird earlier this year after, likely, my fifteenth attempt. It was unceremoniously perched on the top of a warehouse. The views were excellent, and the fact that it was no longer a nemesis bird blinded me from the fact that I was firmly seated within the cement-fortified armpit of Puget Sound.

With one nemesis down, I felt like I was on the verge of a hot streak (said every gambler, ever). I confidently scanned for the next glaring hole in my life list: an alpine chicken called a White-tailed Ptarmigan.

I should’ve seen a ptarmigan by now. My wife and I both love to hike and we usually spend three or four weekends every summer on overnight backpacking trips throughout Washington State. Most of our trips are to higher elevations in the Cascade Mountains—prime ptarmigan territory. Whenever we found the appropriate habitat – the confluence of talus slopes, alpine meadows, and snow banks – my hiking partners would often find me scanning the fields of rocks with my binoculars, waiting for one of those rocks to move.

They never did.

Author scanning (fruitlessly) on the top of Sourdough Mountain for ptarmigan, Washington State © 2014 Mark Churchill

I’d even made a couple “ptarmigan-specific” trips to the Sunrise-area on Mount Rainier. One day I hiked a total of 14 miles back and forth on trails where they’d been reported just days prior. It was an ill-informed strategy executed by a man driven by desperation. More patient observers find the right habitat then sit down and wait: the ptarmigan will emerge once you’re deemed worthy.

And, to add insult to injury, it’s a species that’s famous for being dog-tame, even walking through the legs of appreciative observers.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I joined another couple for a hike up to Tuck and Robin Lakes near Roslyn – about 45 minutes east of Seattle. It was a beast of a slog for our first “over-nighter” of the year: 16 miles round trip and 4,000 feet of elevation.

Our camp was in rocky alpine habitat that seemed good for ptarmigan. After an evening enjoying the Super Moon, I spent the morning scouring the area for any signs of bird life, finding only American Pipits and Clark’s Nutcrackers. No ptarmigan. As we ate breakfast before our descent, a member of our party brought me a feather she’d found nearby. Damned if it didn’t look like it had fallen from a ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan 15 – Pasty Birder 0

The following weekend, the same couple wanted to go backpacking again. They had received backcountry permits to coveted Hidden Lake in the North Cascades. Looking down the barrel of another 4,000 foot climb, my wife and I opted to follow another couple on an easier route closer to Seattle. We had Silver Lake near Granite Falls all to ourselves.


As we entered cell range on our drive back Sunday night, I received a text from the couple who we almost joined on their hike to Hidden Lake. It included a beautiful image of … yup, you guessed it: a ptarmigan. I wanted to throw my phone through the windshield.

But then I realized the brilliance of my friend’s ways—he had simply downloaded an image online and sent it to me. Smart. I was actually surprised he could spell it correctly and new which of the three species is the only one found in Washington.


A picture of him with a ptarmigan. No more than six feet away. Son of a bitch.

He isn’t a birder but realized (when a small flock walked through their friggin’ campsite) “hey, I think that’s the bird Sedgley’s always looking for.” Like any good friend, he knew that he could always hang this over my head.

And it’s a card he wasn’t shy about playing. Like when I was down in San Francisco enjoying a pint of his favorite beer, Pliny the Elder (a rare India Pale Ale no longer imported into Washington State). He was jealous, but he knew resending the image of his ptarmigan would be worse.

The situation had escalated from yellow to red. I had to find this bird. And with a move to the Bay Area in our very near future, my window was rapidly closing.

I selected the hike up the Sahale Arm from Cascade Pass—fourteen miles round trip and 3,500 ft of elevation gain. It was a location well-known for ptarmigan, but nothing is guaranteed when you seek a winged creature that is well-camouflaged in both rock and snow.

On October 5th, we set off on what would be our last hike of the year. We left Seattle at 6AM and met our friends Mark (yup, that Mark) and Sheryl, who had camped there the night before, at the trailhead at 9AM. Everyone knew that we were there to find ptarmigan. Mark had already seen ptarmigan – a fact that he often repeated – but was excited to see black bear and eat huckleberries.

We made quick work of the gradual, switchback-littered climb up to Cascade Pass. We only stopped long enough to enjoy the breathtaking scenery—a cliche I don’t use lightly. Tall, granite mountains separated the thin, puffy clouds and a light dusting of snow from the orange and yellow dappled avalanche chutes at their feet. Streams threaded through cracks in the fissured rock face. It was the closest any of us had seen of Middle Earth in our state.

A heavy mist disappeared as quickly as it arrived. A pair of Sooty Grouse made sure that we had at least one chicken-relative on the day’s checklist.

At Cascade Pass, fellow hikers told stories of the large male bear that had been foraging nearby all day yesterday. We scanned the valley. Nothing.

We took a left and headed up the steeper climb to a ridge that overlooked Hearts Lake. Behind stood the imposing Sahale Peak, which held the Sahale Glacier and, hopefully, our avian target. Within minutes, Mark spotted a dark object on a far meadow: his first Black Bear in Washington. Things were looking up.

And then, after we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, as we were on the ridgeline called Sahale Arm – the most exposed section of the trail – the weather turned. The breeze built to a wind and continued to grow, as did the moisture contained within. We hunkered behind a boulder to put on more layers and our rain gear. As we continued up to the ptarmigan habitat, it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to let up (my light hiking pants were already soaked through) and the patience of my crew was wearing thin.

“You got five minutes,” my wife worded strongly enough to be heard over the gusts. With the marital clock ticking, I picked up my pace in hopes to get higher and increase my chances. Scampering up the wet rocks required more concentration.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Why now? Why did the only rain of the day have to occur as soon as we entered good ptarmigan habitat? The ptarmigan gods must have deemed me unworthy, yet again. The hood of my rain jacket was nearly soaked through and sticking to the side of my head. And with the deafening sound of a driving rain against my ear, I recalled all the other failed attempts that had preceded today. This one stung though: it’d likely be years before I could try again.

“Sedgie! They are right here!”

I turned around and saw my wife – about fifty feet behind me – excitedly pointing to a patch of snow just off trail. She isn’t a birder, but no one could mistake anything up here for a ptarmigan.

I almost broke my ankle running back.

Sure enough, there they were: four exquisite White-tailed Ptarmigan in a patch of snow right next to the trail. Blinded by frustration and near-freezing precipitation, I had literally passed within six feet of the near-still birds, who were sporting about 80% of their pure-white winter plumage. Thanks to my wife’s keen eyes and an errant pebble kicked up by her boot, White-tailed Ptarmigan was no longer a nemesis.

With foggy binoculars, I watched as they picked juniper berries from the snows edge, unperturbed by the four onlookers. After a few minutes, the interest of my hiking mates waned – as did the rain – and I had a few blessedly dry minutes to study them more closely. They were even growing the feathered snowshoes they use in winter to increase the surface area of feet—snowshoes for their wintery habitat.

After twenty minutes, the fingers of my ever-patient wife were near numb. It was time to go.

I practically floated over the trail back down to our car. Sure, it was a check on a list. But, as always, it means much, much more.

Sh-t that wouldn’t fly back home: China edition

If you’ve been out of the country, you’ve had this experience. Maybe it was a smell, sight, sound, or perhaps a taste—something caused you to stop and think to yourself “man, that sh*t would not fly back home.” Some travelers may cast judgement on the offending odor, taste, or action, while others acknowledge that a new culture comes with new norms. Either way, it’s why we travel.

Stewed rabbit heads. Yup, you eat the brain.

My wife and I lived in Paris for a year, and after the umpteenth time murmuring this phrase in disbelief, I finally decided to write some of them down. It was fun exercise, one I promised to continue.

Then I booked a trip to China.

Most Westerners don’t need to travel here to know this country will challenge most sensibilities. It seems Western media can’t mention China without showing smog-obscured skyscrapers or street vendors serving stir-fried crickets. It was my third trip to this country so I was ready for the onslaught.

I nearly ate “Man’s Best Friend” in the process. Nearly. And I can’t wait to go back.


“Let Me Clear My Throat”

Once you land in China, it likely won’t take long for you to hear someone violently clear the contents of their bronchial tubes—a sound about as pleasant D.J. Kool’s 1996 release “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Most often the sidewalk will be the end recipient of these mucous expulsions, but handkerchiefs, paper brochures, garbage bins, and planters are all likely receptacles. But, if I had to hazard a guess, the floor of an elevator, restaurant, bus, or plane may test most Western sensibilities.

Brace your ears for the vulgar sound and be sure to check the surface before you set anything down, including your derrière. On a positive note, if the notoriously poor air quality of China negatively affects your lungs, don’t be shy.


Wide Boulevards to Nowhere

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-8175We spent a week in Dandong near the Chinese border with North Korea, an area that has seen massive development in recent years. According to commercials on the English language channel from Chinese Central Television (CCTV), this location is poised to be the next major port to northeast Asia. Large patches of grasslands and mudflats were reclaimed to house factories and office buildings with massive six-lane arterials to connect them all. Unfortunately, the hive of commerce has yet to materialize—buildings lie dormant and the massive arterials remain unused save the periodic scooter. Meridians have become overgrown with weeds and, courtesy of extreme winters, potholes are numerous.


Sharing Plates

When you eat out in a Chinese restaurant, expect that your meal will include a starch (i.e. rice, noodles, or dumplings), a meat dish, and a vegetable dish.  Our Chinese hosts made sure every meal maintained this balance, even though most meat dishes contained vegetables, most vegetable dishes contained meat, and starch dishes included both meat and vegetables. Also expect that aside from a personal bowl of rice, your meal will be served family style without serving utensils. That’s right: everyone eats directly from shared plates with their chopsticks making repeated trips to and from attendee’s mouths.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1146As an only child, it was obvious to me that the Chinese – a country of mostly only children courtesy of the One Child Policy – are remarkably good sharers.

In the United States, it’s considered rude if a diner so much as reaches over someone else’s plate in case a microscopic skin flake should fall from their arm. And if the same tortilla chip makes two trips to the same bowl of salsa – i.e. “double dipping” – you might as well lick your hand and slap it across the face of your host.

Despite the apparent lawlessness that permits this reckless exchange of germs, there are rules that should be followed when sharing plates in China:

  1. If you grasped a morsel with your chopsticks, you’re committed and can’t leave it on the plate, despite the notoriously waxy surfaces of Chinese chopsticks between bumbling American fingers.
  2. If a tablemate is clearly moving towards a specific morsel, it’s been claimed: sticks off.
  3. If you think that a grasped morsel has too much sauce on it, you can gently rub it off on the side of the platter or dip it in your personal bowl of rice but do not shake it off over the plate.

No matter where you fall on communal dining, the large rotating tabletop (“Lazy Susan”) that was born from it is great fun. But be mindful of the poised chopsticks of your tablemates before spinning and, for the sake of glasses of tea and beer, keep an eye on overhanging plates.


Babies with Assless Chaps

I don’t have a picture of this, but you have to take my word for it: it’s commonplace to see babies who, instead of diapers, sport crotchless pants. I applaud the reduction of disposable diapers in our landfills, but it does beg the question, where does a baby “go” when the time comes? It’s hardly a large sample size, but I’ve seen a mother hold her baby over a planter, and another lay out newspaper on the floor of a department store.


All sorts of animals for food

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1101If it has legs, fins, or wings and a pulse, chances are good that it has graced a Chinese dinner plate at one point or another. Cat, dog, turtle, jellyfish, snake, silkworm pupae—the list is darn-near infinite.

Americans prefer our protein choices to be simple: beef, chicken, pork, fish, or seafood. But we don’t like to be reminded of the repercussions of our dining choices (that’s why we don’t call it “pig” and “cow”). Sure, we understand that the animal we just consumed had eyes, but we prefer preparations that keep our blissful ignorance intact. But in China the heads of animals are blatantly served as their own course – eyes and all – with nothing more than a white plate and a pair of chopsticks (I now know the different techniques to crack open the duck and rabbit skulls with one’s teeth).

In fact, it’s difficult to walk into a restaurant in China without looking your potential dinner straight in the face, whether it be a pufferfish, octopus, turtle, or crab. A friend found a civet and two species of heron in the kitchen of a small restaurant in southern China.

I pride myself on being an adventurous eater. Some of the Chinese dining choices may test American palettes and sensibilities, but I recognize that some of my choices are equally offensive to other cultures, e.g. beef to Hindus and pork to Muslims and Jews. If I’m presented with an opportunity to try a new type of meat, and the species isn’t endangered, chances are good that it will wind up in my mouth.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1098Silkworm pupae were offered at many restaurants in northeastern China. “I am definitely trying that at some point,” I casually mentioned to our guide, having decided that it would be a noteworthy stamp in my culinary passport.

“Okay,” he responded, and handed me two of the kumquat-sized brown larvae straight from the refrigerator. I’d expected that they’d be prepared with some flavorful sauce and, well, not served so … raw. But I no longer had an option: the exchange had attracted the attention of the restaurant proprietor and an adjacent table of customers already intrigued by the presence of westerners.

As soon as the cold exoskeleton hit my tongue, I knew that my expectations for how the meal should have been prepared no longer mattered. I positioned it between molars and braced myself; the inevitable “pop” brought forth a rush of cold fluid the viscosity of expired milk. Despite being a consistency that would find most palettes heaving, aside from a slight saltiness, it was quite bland.

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1152I gave a “thumbs up” to all the expectant, and now slightly disappointed, onlookers in the room and gave myself a pat on the back for not dousing my tablemates with the contents of my stomach. I finished the second one before my taste buds had the opportunity recover from the shock of the first. Fragments of the exoskeleton remained between my teeth as a reminder of the experience.

The menu at the restaurant in our five-star hotel filled the entire wall with beautiful images of potential entrees, very helpful for the non-literate. I selected a dish that looked similar to pulled pork and, almost immediately, our Chinese guide suggested that I find an alternative.

“You won’t like that,” he presumed. “It’s duck.”

“Oh, really? I love duck,” I replied, slightly offended. I take great pride in being able to enjoy any and all foods around the world, and I’ve enjoyed Peking Duck in both Beijing and Seattle.

“No, dock,” he insisted, in his thickly-accented English. It took a second for it to hit me: “Ohhhh, DOG.”

And that’s when I found my line in the sand.


Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-7972Rules of the Road

This title is misleading because, to Western eyes, there appears to be no rules that guide traffic on the road. It’s not that any of our experiences were particularly chaotic (India takes the dubious “life in hands of driver” trophy for me) but if I had to hazard a guess, I think that whoever honks first, loudest, and most assertively is provided with the right of way. Even on lightly trafficked roads, maneuvers that would’ve prosecutable in the U.S. were as diverse as they were numerous: crossing a double yellow line, cutting off fellow motorists, driving directly between two lanes, driving into oncoming traffic (while honking to alert that they should move out of the way), running a red light, and driving down the wrong side of an arterial, to name a few.

My favorite maneuver was taking a free left from one two-way street to another by going down the wrong side of the street and dodging oncoming traffic one lane at a time, eventually getting to the correct side of the street by, of course, crossing a double yellow line.


Finishing Touches

Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1183I don’t consider myself to be very picky when it comes to accommodations but I found some of the finishing touches on our hotels to be a bit surprising. If I pay $10 a night for a hotel, I don’t necessarily expect my pillow to be garnished with a mint every night. Unfinished electrical outlets and a broken shower stall floor that drains straight to the bathroom floor are one thing (my room had both). But I do find it unsettling to have a wall adorned with dried saliva stains, something that could be quickly remedied in two minutes with a damp sponge.

Even the absolutely immaculate rooms in our five-star hotel were accessible via a dark, dank hallway with peeling wallpaper and stained carpets. Just different priorities, I’d assume.


Waiting in Queues

If you are waiting in line, fully expect that someone is going to nonchalantly sneak in front of you. In the U.S., even if people are standing several feet away and facing the opposite direction, most people will ask politely if you are in line. Be assertive, keep close to the people in front of you, and you’ll be fine. Feel free to “mean mug” the back of their heads if it helps you feel better.


Shit-that-doesnt-fly-CHINA-1088Room-temp Beer

When you order a beer, you should expect that it will be served at room temperature. And if they don’t have cold beer available (some restaurants do) you can take solace in the fact that all beer is cheaper than water. Seriously, stop complaining.


Public Urination

Aside from watching where I step or site wherever horizontal and vertical surfaces meet, as a man I find this social norm to be a relief (literally). I never had to hold it. Sure, others might find it appalling but I imagine that most men could behind this. Especially considering the ubiquity and cheapness of Chinese beer.


Big night.

Flatworms. A decent meal for a shorebird. Or a possibility for dinner in a restaurant down the street.

Birdathonin’ it up – Terns to Turnstones

It’s been a few years since I’d gone out to tally as many bird species as possible in twenty-four hours—not since I left my position at Seattle Audubon to move to Paris with Kristi. After our fill of croissants and chapels, we are back in Seattle and I’m now on the Seattle Audubon Board. And I have to admit: I was excited to dust off the old bird checklist and binoculars to raise some money for the oldest environmental organization in the Pacific Northwest.

But I don’t think Kristi shared the same enthusiasm when my alarm went off at 4:00AM Saturday morning. In fact, our conversation, albeit brief, was long enough to confirm that very fact. Having just returned the previous day from a couple weeks in China, my body woke up pretty quickly; it was just a matter of when it would crash. But, with the skill of an anesthesiologist, I introduced caffeine to my system in small doses to maintain an even level of alertness throughout the day. I am not used to caffeine but I checked: my hands were steady enough to hold binoculars.

As I was walking to my car at 4:45AM, the “First Bird” was a Dark-eyed Junco singing in the thin light, stripping the title from the notoriously boisterous and early-rising American Robin (which was a close #2). I had a bit of time to kill before I met the other board members at the Montlake Fill at 6:15, so I headed to Golden Gardens on the shores of Puget Sound—today’s only opportunity to see saltwater species. I tallied some common species (Glaucous-winged Gull, American Crow, White-crowned Sparrow, etc.) pretty quickly while I walked out to the edge of the shore and set up my scope.

Wow, the water was still and contained absolutely no birds.

I only had ten minutes to spare but, thankfully, a few of the species specific to this habitat started to show themselves: a nearby Pigeon Guillemot, a pair of flying Rhinoceros Auklets, and a distant Black Brant. Some late wintering Western Grebes represented a species I wouldn’t see again all day.

Some ambitious beavers doing work in Montlake Fill, Seattle.

With 21 species at 5:50AM, I packed my scope in the car and headed inland to Montlake Fill, a locally famous wetland and birding area (and former garbage dump) in the shadow of Husky Stadium. Our small group of board members quickly found Vaux’s Swift, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Savannah Sparrow. Bewick’s Wren and Bushtits were clutch additions to our checklist we’d have a tough time finding as we later moved further east. The cripplingly beautiful male Wood Duck and Cinnamon Teal were crowd favorites. After an hour of birding, it was time to head over Lake Washington towards the Cascades Mountains.

47 species.

After a quick stop in Issaquah to combine forces with the eastside contingent, we got back on I-90 and didn’t get off until the top of the Snoqualmie Pass, where feeders provide fuel for migrating Rufous Hummingbirds.
A stop at Stampede Pass provided singing Varied Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets as well as Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers. A foraging American Dipper – an aquatic songbird – and a small flock of treetop Red Crossbills provided great scope views.

A small nest with abandoned egg. Stampede Pass near Cle Elum, WA.

61 species.

Red-tailed Hawk and Turkey Vulture flew over I-90 as we continued east to Cle Elum. The Cle Elum Railroad Ponds provided some real dandies: the brilliantly orange Bullock’s Oriole, dazzlingly yellow Nashville Warbler, and the boldly colored Evening Grosbeak. Additional birds like Northern Rough-winged Swallow, House Wren, Western Bluebird, and Pygmy Nuthatch were much appreciated additions. The group decided it was time for a coffee and donut stop in Cle Elum, where long-awaited House Sparrow and House Finch brought my list up to 78 species.

The caravan snaked our way up the Teanaway, where we nestled for lunch underneath some roadside Ponderosa Pines overlooking the Swauk Prairie. We added Chipping Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, and Mountain Chickadee.

86 species.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a reliable quarry for Rock Wren and then added Mountain Bluebird before getting on the road to head down to Ellensburg. Unfortunately, high winds caused birds to hunker down in otherwise productive areas, like the riparian habitat at Reecer Creek and the sagebrush of the Quilcene. Thankfully Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher graced us with their song in the midday sun.

A digi-scoped Great Horned Owl on Old Vantage Highway, WA.

A Great Horned Owl, #93, was nearly a sure thing in some cliffs down Vantage Highway.

The Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center gave us an additional six species, including Common Loon and Horned Grebe in breeding plumage. The Columbia River was shallower than I’ve ever seen it, courtesy of a cracked dam downriver.

Frenchmen Coulee near George provided Yellow-headed Blackbird, Virginia Rail, Cedar Waxwing, and White-throated Swift.

We continued east, following the string of small wetlands that follow I-90 through the arid agricultural land. We quickly tallied ducks like Canvasback and Redhead, sandpipers like Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Long-billed Curlew, in addition to Eastern Washington specialties like Swainson’s Hawk, Bank Swallow, and Black-capped Night-Heron.

It was now 6:30pm and our energy was waning with the setting sun. But our last stop—a pair of square retention ponds near a rest stop—produced our best bird of the day: a RUDDY TURNSTONE. Mixed in with Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin, this sandpiper represents a species that is widely distributed throughout the world (I actually just saw them in China) but they are very rarely encountered away from the saltwater shoreline. It is a “Code 5” rarity (fewer than five records) for the county.

And it was #119. The group, which had tapered to six individuals, decided to head back to Seattle where we watched the sun drift behind the Olympic Mountains.

Birders will certainly exclaim, “what, no owling?” Nope. I was exhausted.

It’s tradition for birders to dwell on the “biggest misses” of their Big Day. For us, there were a few considering it was a relatively casual attempt: American Wigeon; Ring-necked Pheasant; Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks; Band-tailed Pigeon; Downy, Hairy, or Pileated Woodpecker; Peregrine Falcon; Dusky Flycatcher; Brown Creeper; Vesper Sparrow; Purple Finch; and Pine Siskin.

But all that is just bird-geekery. Most importantly, thanks to my supporters, I’ve raised nearly $4,000 for Seattle Audubon—a personal record. I really appreciate the support.

Next year? Maybe. But I’ll probably have to preemptively sleep on the couch.


Full Species List:
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Common Merganser
California Quail
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Spotted Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Pigeon Guillemot
Rhinoceros Auklet
California Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Caspian Tern
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Vaux’s Swift
White-throated Swift
Anna’s Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Hammond’s Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Say’s Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Steller’s Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
N. Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Rock Wren
House Wren
Pacific Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
American Robin
Varied Thrush
Sage Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer’s Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock’s Oriole
House Finch
Cassin’s Finch
Red Crossbill
American Goldfinch
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow