Thursday, April 18, 2019

South American Diary #9: In the company of rare birds

Crested caracara , near Serrano Glacier in d'Agostini Fjord (Photo by Jacqueline Windh)
     No matter how much you love birds, they never love you back.
     I'm not sure how that unspoken truth factors into the widespread appeal of the avian segment of the animal kingdom, but it must. Birds play hard to get, their quick transit through their air so different from our earthbound plodding. People are everywhere; birds, not so much. Certain humans yearn for what glimpses we can catch of them. They have beauty and grace and we ... get to look at them, sometimes, if we're lucky.
    As a guy who glories in the range of ordinary birds to be found in the Chicago area—cardinals, sparrows woodpeckers, bluejays, robins, herons, ducks, hawks, vireos, finches—of course I'd keenly anticipate what wondrous birds I'd encounter cruising the coast of Chile. 
    And I was not disappointed.  It started with a pair of kelp geese, a coal black female and her snow white male, seen on a rock on our first Zodiac foray from the ship, just past the Garibaldi Glacier. A slow-moving falcon called the caracara (above) was a common sight, as were albatrosses. We saw red-footed cormorants and once and—though I missed it, alas—a pygmy owl.
Simon Boyes (photo by Jacqueline Windh)
     The voyage—of the RCGS Resolute, under the auspices of One Ocean Expeditions—had its own resident ornithologist, Simon Boyes, who has been leading bird-watching tours since 1977, and done some 300 trips on all seven continents. 
     "When I was about 12, I found my love of birds," he told us, at the expedition's start. "I found I had to know what everything was called. I had to know, for some strange reason it motivated me all the time. You need to know, what they are, these little things hopping along the rocks." 
     I was intrigued that Simon read classics at Oxford.
      "It was useful for studying the scientific names of birds," he explained, noting that he preferred Greek to Latin, which did not surprise me: in his history, Herodotus turns his attention to birds, to ibises and ducks, as well as creatures less tangible: phoenixes, winged snakes and doves that speak with human voices.  
    Simon had no interest in being interviewed, at least not by me—the media is in trouble when bird-watchers draw away from us in distrust—but I managed to ask him about Oxford as an institution. 
    "I thought it was terrible," he said. "It was just so pre-historic."
    In his opening talk, Simon noted that three Wilson's storm petrels had already gotten stranded on the upper deck.
     "There's lots to look at, lots to learn about," said Simon. "I hope I can encourage you to share my love of bird-watching."
    And so we did. I loved hearing Simon talk about birds. He spoke of the sooty shearwater—"We have seen plenty and we probably will see more"—and the steamer duck, both flying and flightless, including the etymology of the name which, to my surprise, was not a nod toward their eventual culinary preparation.
     "Reminds some folks of a paddle steamer, which is how they got their name."
     I let the bird names wash over me: the dolphin gull and the Chilean skua, the Andean condor and the black chested buzzard eagle. The variable hawk  and the green-backed firecrown, a hummingbird that I would later see, hovering directly in front of my face. (At least I think that's the variety of hummingbird I saw, a foot from my face for less than a second).
    Simon would give us a detail or two about each bird and move nimbly to the next. The last part of the name of the thorn-tailed rayadito means "little striped one," aptly enough.  We met the the dark- bellied cinclodes, the fire-eyed diucon (below) and, a favorite, the dark-faced ground tyrant. Then on to the long-tailed meadowlark, the black-chinned siskin, and the Chimango caracara, which I would see several times, on the wing and perched in trees above our heads. 
     "There are no crows in Chile," said Simon. "So these birds take the niche of crows, cleaning up the ecosystem." 
     Simon mentioned the magellanic oystercatcher and the Southern lapwing.    
     "We may come cross the two-banded plover," he speculated, before flashing a photo of the grey-breasted seed snipe.
    "Not a true snipe," he sniffed, with a trace of censure, followed by its slightly smaller cousin, the least seedsnipe. The rufous-chested dotterel and ... prophetically in my case -- the South American Snipe.
The South American Snipe
    Prophetic because, a few days later, I found myself plodding through a marshy grassland  beyond the Falcon Glacier. A pair of my shipmates had paused, gazing down at a spot in the tall grass. There was the slightest movement,. They moved off, but I stayed, slowly tracking the little guy  through a screen of blades. It was amazing how well he was camouflaged. Just a flash, a form, then vanishing again. 
     But I stood still, up to my ankles in water, and as he ambled off, I gently followed him, sloshing along. For one moment, he came into plain sight, distinct from the grasses, and I took his portrait. Then he was gone again.
     I had always heard of snipe hunts, but didn't imagine I'd participate in one, never mind be successful. I rushed to show the photo to Simon, and he confirmed my identification, with what I thought was a touch of asperity. My hunch is that, in his eyes, I somehow wasn't worthy of the prize. This was his profession, after all, and if anyone finds a snipe, it should him, and not this dabbler, this bulbous-nosed American dabbler. It almost sounds like a variety of bird, though were that the case, Simon no doubt would have warmed to me a little.

A fire-eyed diucon, seen at  Puerto Edén, Chile (photo by Jacqueline Windh)



  1. What a fantastic last line! Franzen must be burning with envy. He would be a Green Eyed Buff.

  2. I've always loved birds. One of my favorite sounds is the chirping of a bird.
    (The photo atop the blog is gorgeous.)

  3. Maybe he got annoyed because he was called a "bird-watcher"...which is what they often get called by those who are ridiculing them. I think the participants prefer "birders" and "birding"--which always sounds so I don't use it. I mean, hell...they're WATCHING that's what I call them.

    I have a couple of snobby friends who liked to "bird", and so did my kid sister (she even took her infant daughter along), but the very idea has always put me to sleep, so I've never joined the bird people. Sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, but as the postal workers say: "To each his zone..."

  4. Simon is a great teacher and a very popular lecturer on Resolute.


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