Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ross's Rage

16 years ago I picked up a bird book and started looking at birds. Fall after fall I biked to Pt. Edward for hopes of a glimpse of a Sabine's Gull or Jaeger. But there is one ringed beauty that it rules them all and that is the legendary Ross's Gull. Discovered in 1905 by a Russian traveling judge, it is named after legendary arctic explorer James Ross. As far as I know the only place to reliably see them aside from the remote high arctic breeding grounds in eastern Siberia and Nunavut is Barrow, Alaska where they fly past in large numbers in fall. Here is a little excerpt from a study 6 years ago:

"The gulls ranged widely after breeding. One, an adult female tracked by satellite, flew to Wrangel Island, in the East Siberian Sea, and back over 27 days in June and July 2012, a round trip of 7,023 kilometers (4,364 miles). The gull wandered more than 40,000 kilometers (24,855 miles) in a year yet never went south of 50°N."


Never in my 16 years of birding have I had a shot at one...until now. Ironically, the career that pulled me away from birding including the 1-year birding drought of 2014-2015, has brought me within 150 miles of one of a Ross's. In my 2.5 years of teaching in England I've not gone on a single twitch even though this place is the world capital of twitching. Check out this:

Twitchers in action (not sure about where this is from)
With one month left until my resignation date, I started paying more attention to the ebird alerts which I had ignored for most of my time here due to all-consuming work. However, on Sunday night, I saw an email the word Ross's Gull. It turned out it was found on Wednesday but nobody ebirded it until the Sunday so it was too late! The weekend was done and I was back to work.

I considered the possibility of contracting acute twitcheritis but my personal professional work ethic would not allow it. I would just have to suck it up and hope for it to stay until the weekend. Each day I  tortured myself with stupidly perfect photos of a PERFECT Ross's Gull as it perched in front of a Visitors' Centre. On Wednesday, a blizzard hit the whole country and our building had to shut at 1:30 due to a gas failure! However, it was a 3 hour drive so it would be dark when I got there. So close! Then at 6 pm the boss sent out a memo that we would have a snow day on Thursday. HALLELUJIAH! A miracle. I booked the car at enterprise and was there to pick it up at 8am. The gull was seen Wednesday night so I had high hopes. From 11:30 'til sunset I waited at the Visitors' Centre for the bird. Thank God I was indoors because the conditions were arctic: howling gales and -10C. Birds were literally dropping dead. This gull had icicles hanging off its front end:

Earlier, a crow had walked up to a roosting black-headed gull and pecked it to death. Some of the birds huddled in front of the VC door to escape the fierce wind. Birds were clearly being displaced from other areas as there was a flow species flying overhead and briefly stopping by: Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit, Fieldfare, Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Ruff, Snipe and many gulls.

I chanced upon a Jack Snipe in the scope which fluttered in place for a perfect view of this secretive species. Jack Snipe is a shorter-billed, more fluttery and spastic counterpart of Common and merely winters in Britain. It helped kill the time.

Under the boardwalk, a stout Water Rail spear-fished tiny minnows in the gaps of among the ice and reeds.

As it got dark, a last, desperate attempt at Weymouth Bay only served to freeze my hands completely through my gloves. I could barely identify a black-headed through the thick sideways snowfall. A more real concern was how I was going to make it back to work the next day. I had opted for the rental car vs train because I'd head about trains getting cancelled and leaving you stranded at the other end - I did not want this to happen to me. However, it almost did. The snow was coming down so hard it had the whole southwest in a "red alert" which is the highest weather alert, according to the radio, and poses "danger to life." My front-wheel drive C4 cactus with all-seasons was NOT up for the challenge! Just after 6, the highway was shut down and a barricade put in place, and the officer told me to wait until it gets cleared by the ploughs. So I parked in front of the on-ramp and tuckered in for the night, hoping to make it into work the next day. An ambulance and police car drove over the barricade, then returned 30 minutes later - not a good sign! Earlier I'd seen a car flipped on its side (that morning when conditions were less bad!) - also not good!

At 12:30 I woke up and noticed the barrier had been cleared (the sign and lights had blown away) but the road was salted, so I cautiously proceeded. Having stopped for a one-hour nap, I got home at 7:30, showered, returned the car and was at work by 8:09. Phew! Fortunately, years 7-10 lessons were cancelled for the day so I got to catch up on work!

I had accepted that this bird was definitely gone with the storm when unexpectedly on Saturday evening it Lazarussed itself up. DESTINY - I called Ramata and we made our game plan. There were more obstacles. For one, the train said it would take over 8 hours so that was out. Second, Sunday is the worst day to rent a car - Enterprise was closed, Sixt opened late. Our cunning plan was to train to Gatwick airport, where rental places have long hours. Our usual places had hiked their rates or were sold out (due to the weekend). So we went with a sketchier place called Thrifty's which was off terminal so required a walk. The train to the airport was cancelled due to engineering works so it was a journey by bus just go get there, followed by a walk off the terminal. The decisive moment was when I had to produce two pieces of mail (I shit you not) as proof of address PLUS one had to be a bank statement maximum 8 weeks old. Well, I had one on my phone but it was 4 months old. Our strategy was to act all super friendly and bubbly and make some jokes then confidently present our paperwork/my bank statement on my phone (which was quite small on the screen) to show we were all prepared and organised, although I think my hand was trembling a little with nerves. I was really worried they would screw us over but she glanced at the phone for only a couple seconds and then we were good to go. The key is CONFIDENCE. Plus, they upgraded us to an Mini Sport which is a hell of a car!! Too bad there were like 100 speed cameras which restricted the Minis performance.

With 45 minutes to the destination, we got an alert that the Ross's was spotted at the VC. We got there as fast as we could but alas it was gone, so we had to wait and just be optimistic. It was a beautiful day with Mediterranean Gulls sparkling in the midday sun - a far cry from Thursday's arctic blizzard.

Suddenly, all the birders got alerts that it was spotted at a nearby wetland (Lodmoor) and we all bolted for our cars like LeMans drivers and emptied the parking lot with screeching tires.

Amidst the confusion, I started following the wrong silver cars. They seemed in quite a hurry, but it was not to see a gull but to drop off their recycling at the recycling depot. I foolishly tailed them into a trap - we were stuck in a one-way situation behind all these people dropping off their garbage. I rolled partly onto the curb to get around these jokers and back onto the correct road. Then we ran across the road (the wrong way) and I slipped on some algae, nearly smashing my lens. Finally, we found all the birders and secured crippling views of a PERFECT Ross's Gull. It was beautiful and pure white like an angel. Thank God, because soon a peregrine sent the whole flock into flight and we never saw it again. "I think it's been spotted at the recycling depot" heckled one birder, which produced a burst of laughter from all present. Being the butt-end of his joke was a price I was more than willing to pay.

With returning the car, the rail replacement bus, etc. it took us 6 hours to get back to my place. It was midnight and we were thoroughly exhausted from the twitch but it will rank among my most epic bird chases of all time (a true authentic twitch on British soil) fraught with logistical challenges including the very forces of nature itself.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Spain Aragon Mountain Bird Quest

This past summer was an interesting one, dominated by extreme stress with this UK visa nonsense (imagine having to go home to apply, not knowing if it's gonna go through while having a place in the UK with all my stuff in it and paying rent). It also made me question if all this misery and hundreds of dollars is worth it to life in a situation that would embarrass most people. Anyway, with the application in the mail and fate in God's hands, we raged Vargas Island and Mt Robson and the summer turned out pretty good, especially because the visa came 2 days before my flight. 

Despite the glory of waterfalls, whales and ice fields, there was one thing the summer lacked: lifers. The Canadian trip yielded but one lifer (White-tailed Ptarmigan) + an ABA lifer (Bar-tailed Godwit), but you will agree that is not enough to satisfy a raging birder!

On October break I flew to Spain for 40 quid with Ryanair in search of something I could not find here. One girl I met from Barcelona had also lived in London and pinpointed the chief difference: "La qualidad de via." She was spot on.

This quest for life was to be a solo one but at the last minute I was joined by Aziza who is always up for an adventure. LET THE RAGING BEGIN!

We I drove to Barcelona where we visited the Sagrada Famila. My first impression of the exterior was thinking "this is chaos." With all sorts of random sculptures and mosaics all over the place covered in scaffolding and cranes with workmen chiseling away at this and that. However, when you enter you are truly astonished by the beauty of this building. The curves and irregular shapes and the light are so harmonious that you realize its THE most beautiful building you've ever been in. But there were a couple of things that struck me. First was the noise, much noisier than other cathedrals I've been in. I guess that is in keeping with the general Spanish habit of being noisy all the time! What also struck me was how people were more stuck to their phones than the beauty around them. I don't think this is what Gaudi had in mind let alone GOD. They were obsessed with phones and selfies to the point of idolization! If a sculpture of Moses could morph out of the wall I'm sure he'd slap some sense into them!

Our Barcelona day was fun but cut short with having to spend almost 3 hours searching for our car which we'd parked in a parking garage somewhere near the hostel. We took a pic of one of the signs which was the same parking company, then got the hotel clerk to google map all their locations before checking them one-by-one. When we did find the car after much arguing (what being married must feel like), the parking ticket for 22 hours was 45 euros. Time to flee the city with our remaining euros...

Desecrating this holy space with their phones and selfies

Stresses of life were bringing out old habits in both of us
First we headed for Zaragoza plains, skipping an opportunity of Eagle-Owl roost at a nearby embalse (reservoir) south of Lleida because we needed to stop at Decatlon for supplies. I had already tried for DuPont's lark a couple day's earlier, but I dragged Aziza there for a second attempt. She was skeptical about sleeping exposed but was eventually coaxed into it, admitting that sleeping under the stars is the best way to experience a night the wild. We settled in for an extremely windy night and covered our faces with buffs to block out the raging dust.

El Planeron reserve near Zaragoza

Golden Eagle

Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Camping spot for the Dupont's
This time, I came even closer to the singing DuPont's, with 3 singing all around me. They reminded me of meadowlarks with their chimey song. Despite getting maybe 4 m from one and playing its song from my phone, the bird vanished into thin air just as it got light enough to see. I figured after two tries and having gotten so close that alone I wouldn't be able to see this thing. Should I have recruited Aziza to come at it from the opposite direction? It didn't matter, it was done. It seemed pointless to waste a whole other day just for another 30 minute window at this bird when it clearly did not intend to reveal its full glory!

When birds make themselves scarce, there is always history to look at. The nearby town of Belchite was left by the Spanish government as-is, a brutal reminder of the Spanish guerra civil. We could't get inside without trespassing, so we looked for a guide, but tours didn't start until noon, and we still needed to drive up to Ordesa to begin our trek, so we left. Check out the haunting photos

The town arch, serving a dual-purpose of physical protection against bandits but also spiritual protection, with a small shrine inside

You can see elements of Moorish architecture in this ruined church
Our next trip was up to Refugio de Goriz. From there, we'd attempt the summit of Monte Perdido early in the morning. Main targets: Citril Finch, Black Woodpecker, Lammergeier, Snowfinch.

A raging hike to a snow-clad summit, with possibilities of epic montane birds, icy creek-baths and the company of a beautiful of life's ideal scenarios!

Since we started out at about 3 pm or so, there was a real possibility of hiking after dark, which Aziza wasn't totally cool with but we did anyway. We packed headlamps for a reason, although we didn't need them since the bright moon illuminated our path.

We reached Goriz and soon slept, without asking fellow hikers for tips on the summit. This was to be a critical mistake.

As we got closer, it got snowier. I carried on while she waited, not being comfortable on snow. Arrogantly, I figured it might take me a couple hours as I nimbly shot up the snow-covered slope. However, it was not until I looked behind me that I realized what a stupid mistake I'd made. If I were to slip, I'd almost for sure have slid off to the side and off a cliff, cutting short my quest for Snowfinch and some other ambitions.

From here it didn't look so steep, but it was!
It must have taken me 45 minutes of careful boot-stomping into he slope to get back to the ridge seen above which was only a short distance. I prayed to God to spare me, as I was not finished on earth with so many more things I needed to do. I was spared from my stupidity and vowed never to do anything foolish on a mountain again.

Refugio de Goriz
Back at the refugio, we asked if they lent crampons and axes, to which they replied yes (of course!). I felt foolish for this missed opportunity, but grateful to be in one piece.

Before we went back down though, a massive beast of a Lammergeier cruised in from behind the refugio - perfect view! I tried to photograph it but it never came close again, since its itinerary must not have included multiple passes of the same slope, with hundreds of km's to cover I'd imagine, on account of its diet consisting mainly of bones which are hard to come by in this desolate landscape. 

Alpine Chough did oblige though

The lammergeier might be the only bird I've seen fly around without a single flap

We saw another one from the parking lot, this time an immature. 
As planned in my "itinerary," we drove to Alquézar, an ancient Moorish fortified town which publications brag is "uno de los pueblos mas bonitas de Espana." We had to agree.

The vista is commanded by a hilltop cathedral, which we duly gravitated towards, curious to explore every tunnel and narrow alley along the way, with a wary eye for Wallcreeper, the other reason this town is famous. Once inside, we were spooked by a number of creepy ancient paintings. See for yourself.

I clearly selected the correct hostel, based on this view
Our visit was to be cut short as Aziza had to catch a blablacar in Zaragoza, so I drove her and we said à la prochaine. Solo once again, you can probably guess what I was about to do...


That is correct, I grabbed some supplies and drove back to Ordesa. Are you kidding me? No way I was gonna leave this summit unclimbed! Especially not for some ridiculous and dumb reason. I hiked the 11km to the refuge in 2 hours, 40 minutes, which had taken Aziza and I maybe 4 1/2 hours or something. I partly ran, so impatient was I to regain my honour. I didn't even pull out my bins as I snagged my life Citril Finch mid-stride.

The next day, properly equipped, I reached the summit with a vengeance, thinking I'd be the first for the day. Surprised was I to find company at the top, a crazy Frenchman who had dug himself a little sarcophagus in the snow and slept in it. He was really cool and gave me some climbing tips which I will use in the future.

Done with that, I wanted to return to the car via a route I'd heard of called Faja de las Flores. One of the innkeepers told me which route to take and which to avoid. The key was to steer clear of some clavillas de Cotatuero which I later googled and am definitely glad I avoided!

The Lammergeier was seen en route
I stopped to dunk my head in an alpine pond, when my ears detected the sweet sound of something that was not an Alpine Accentor (the ubiquitous Accentor is basically the only bird up here, most of the time). The Zeiss revealed it to be a flock of 40-50 Snowfinches swarming and feeding along the top of a cliff! I jogged over and decided to wait at the base of the cliff, hoping they would just come closer, which they did. I played a few licks from my phone and within a few minutes I had them perching 5 m away! They are very hyperactive and charismatic finches, who almost never leave the high mountains, even in winter. This was a lucky encounter and definite opportunity to brag to Steve and Dom about my solo bird-finding skills. I didn't have my bazooka on this hike for safety reasons but did catch a phone video.

Snowfinch at bottom of page
I hit the trail, my soul stoked with life juice. It got more and more epic as rolling clouds cast moving shadows and Chamoix ran across the open plains. AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

What could have caused these?
The trail got ever sketchier, as I needed to climb both down into a huge valley then back up again, according to the GPS. It included not one but several cliffs which were a little hairy.
This is an actual cliff had to climb down
Eventually, the trail led to the Faja de las Flores, a 7 km section of 1 to 3 m wide trail on the side of a 500m (?) cliff.
Faja de las Flores

I don't think Aziza would have enjoyed this trail
Problem: it was getting dark and according to my GPS there was no possible way I'd make it to the parking lot before nightfall. I had a sleeping bag, but no tent and no mat. My canteen was dry. My plan was to continue until I found the perfect camp spot, and if it turned dark, I'd turn around and settle for a half-rate one I'd passed.

Luckily, I found the perfect spot complete with protective rock wall and cliff overhang. I went Bear Grillz-stylez with water collection from a seep of groundwater in the cliff face.

All my containers were full of water by morning

Camping in style

In the morning, I would face the most treacherous section yet. I came to a point where there were two signs; both of 'em had a little climbing guy with a helmet on. "This can't be good." Well, I would see how far I'd get.

I arrived at the "safe" clavillas (ladder) which consisted of steel pegs cemented into the rock face. You had to hang onto one for dear life while reaching your foot onto the next one was as awesome as it sounds.

I think these are the Clavijas de Salarons
Back at the car I was happy to be done with climbing cliffs, but would be soon after a cliff-clinging specialist: the infamous Wallcreeper.

First up on my list of spots was Lev Frid's ebird spot on the Rio Galago. Immediately, two Wallcreepers (or three?) flew in out of nowhere and landed! Fiddling with my camera, I manged to mess it up because they flew off within 10 seconds, leaving me without a satisfactory view of any kind! I waited around but it was pointless so I left, but at least got decent views of a Dipper.

Next stop, Boca del Infierno, a place as scary as it sounds. However, it had no Wallcreepers. Wanting perfect views, I would not give up. Two french birders gave me a tip on one at a different embalse called Embalse De La Pena. As I drove down the Hecho valley, I reached a crisis of indecision. I was passing the turnoff for Refugio de Gabardito, a breeding spot for Wallcreeper which has Black Woodpecker. I sat for quite a while as it got dark which made the decision easier. The Refugio was a lonely place which I expected to be full of loud and fun Spaniards but instead seemed closed. I camped in the parking lot and had a fire before the sun rose.

Boca Del Infierno north of Hecho
Following the Gosney guidebook, I had some difficulty finding the cliff due to the distances being wrong...but it is in fact unmistakable. Half an hour or so later the resident of this cliff put in an appearance, giving prolonged views.

Spot him?

Having heard but failed to see Black Woodpecker here, I proceeded to the Embalse de la Pena which duly yielded another Wallcreeper.

With an afternoon remaining, I toyed with the idea of heading up to Frontera Del Portalet (snowfinch and lammergeier country) but instead opted for Monasterio de San Juan de la Pena due to the fact that I was close to it already. This was a quiet and peaceful place where I could search for the Black Woodpecker which I had heard several times up to this point but had eluded me. At one point I thought I was closing in on one. knowing that they are very shy, I made a careful, measured approach. Suddenly a barking Labrador came out of nowhere. If that hadn't scared the bird away, then the yelling of his Spanish masters definitely did. Even at his peaceful wilderness monastery, one cannot escape the Spanish and their loudness.

Monasterio San Juan de la Pena

Eventually, after watching a feeding flock for a while, I heard a whoosh of wind and looked up to see the Pileated-like silhouette of a Black Woodpecker doing a flyover, presumably in response to my constant broadcasting of its call from my phone. Satisfied, I decided to end the day with a lonesome visit to a little bridge which Gosney says is good for Eagle-owl. Waiting there for almost two hours and bored of Corn Buntings, I gave Aziza a call since I'd become so bored with standing there. It was getting dark but I think there is always still some hope as long as there is a bit of light. Suddenly, a ball appeared on the top of a tree and it had two ear tufts! It flew majestically toward the full moon in an epic sort of way.

I went to McDonald's to consult Dom on my plan for the final day. I camped at the Rio Galago Wallcreeper spot. My tent was pelted by pouring rain, which continued into the morning, but I was able to park on the little bridge and watch a Wallcreeper from the car, which was nice! Although the camera exposure was still turned down from photographing the moon, so they turned out dark.

Ermita camping spot at the Rio Galago Wallcreeper spot
It turned into a bit a mess, as I'd planned on making a quick jaunt to Embalse de Sotonera for the Common Cranes, then do a stint in the Sierra De Guara for Lammers, which started as the main purpose of my trip but I hadn't even birded! The Cranes were easy to find but I spent too long romping around in the mud and the car had become soiled. An opportunistic stop at a car wash then stretched out too long. I did drive to a dam in the Guara but it took so long to get to that I only had 10 minutes before turning back. I regretted not having visited Loarre Castle, which would have been really awesome. Barely making it to the airport on time, I rushed to my gate and said goodbye to Spain. One month later, I got a speed camera ticket by email for 100 Euros. Next time, no birding on the last day should be a rule!

Common Crane

Embalse de Sotonera

Griffon Vultures in Sierra de Guara