Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Have Landed

Monday, 1 September 2008

The main terminal of the Miami International Airport has a cold, hard floor not at all comfortable for sleeping. At 4:30am, there is a gradual increase in foot traffic as people rouse themselves from slumber on chairs, against pillars and walls, and shuffle to the opening security checkpoints. I join them, trying to shake off the chills and aches from trying to sleep for two and a half hours in a corner of the well air-conditioned terminal.

Several hours earlier, I arrived in Miami from Syracuse (via Chicago) with Karl, bound for Caracas. We had settled in at the right concourse for our flight the next morning, when I realized I didn’t have any cash on hand. Wanting to withdraw from an ATM before I left the states, I wandered around the many concourses blindly looking for an ATM. I couldn’t find one, so I left the security section and perused the main terminal. I quickly found one there, disturbing the people sleeping nearby with the electronic beeps. It was then I turned around to discover the security checkpoints were closed for the night, necessitating my sleeping on the floor (instead the chairs in the concourse). I called Karl, still inside the concourse, and said goodnight.

That little mishap aside, our hopping series of flights was uneventful. The televisions were showing nothing but coverage from Hurricane Gustav making landfall in Louisiana. Tropical Storm Hanna was churning in the Bahamas, so I felt like we were barely squeeking through Florida between the two storms. They ended up causing no delays, and we took off as scheduled for Caracas, Venezuela at 7:20am.

The combination of cloud cover and me catching up on sleep prevented any sight seeing on the Caribbean overflight (I really wanted to at least see Hispaniola, whose endemic birds were the subject of my thesis). I awoke just in time for the descent into the Caracas airport, which is actually ~40 km north of Caracas on the Caribbean coast. We turned and flew in parallel to the coastal city of Maiquetia, consisting mostly of a narrow strip of flat land wedged between the sea and the steeply rising coastal mountains between there and Caracas. The landing strip looked like it was one series of dunes away from the sea.

Arriving in the airport around 10am, I went right to work. First birds of the trip were a couple blackbirds flying by outside, but I identified the Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) inside the terminal first. Is there no birding trip in the world without Rock Pigeon? I later identified the blackbirds as the omnipresent Carib Grackle (Quisculus lugubris), the first lifer of the trip.

The airline had misplaced one of our duffel bags, an important one with all sorts of adaptors and wires for electronics for the project, and decided it was probably on the next flight from Miami, 3 hours later. We decided it would likely be stolen if we had it shipped out to the ranch, so we decided to stay in the area until it arrived. We left the terminal and met up with Virginia, a Venezuelan ornithologist who also studies parrots who would be taking us out to the ranch and visiting for a few days.

Virginia took us down the coast to a nice restaurant, for lunch as well as to escape the hot, crowded airport and enjoy the sea breeze. Sitting right on the waterfront munching calamari, I started racking up my list. Carib Grackles were all over, foraging, calling, and standing around panting in the mid-day heat. Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) flew by up and down the coast, and at one point a Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) coasted by close enough to identify without binoculars – lifer number 2!

While Karl and Virginia inquired about local hotels, in case our wayward duffel did not arrive as planned, I grabbed my binoculars and birded the trash-strewn abandoned lot next to the restaurant. In the trees across the street a Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) yelled its own name. Several bright yellow finchy birds flew around from the lot to the surrounding palms, singly sweet phrases. I tracked one down and found my first Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola). A Scaled Dove (Scardafella squammata) landed in the lot, providing my fourth lifer at lunch. I wanted to go grab my camera, but Virginia insisted I would be sick of these birds soon enough, why don’t I wait until a better landscape than a trashy lot? She was right, it turns out.

The lovely trash-strewn lot
Scaled Dove (Scardafella squammata)

A flock of shorebirds landed in the wetter portions of lot, prompting Virginia and I to investigate. 10 or so Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia) walked the dry portions of the lot on the way over. In the little muddy depressions walked a couple Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), several Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) and one peep that I identified in the field as a Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdi). I later learned from the Hilty guide that Baird’s has only a handful of unconfirmed records from the country, making me doubt my identification without a scope look and a photograph to check.

In the late afternoon thunderstorms clouded around the mountaintops looming overhead, dispersing the vulture flocks and coming down to drench us. Luckily by then we had retrieved our bag from the airport and were on our way. It was much to late in the day to drive all the way to the ranch, so we decided instead to crash at Virginia’s apartment in Caracas. I slept the whole ride, waking when we parked. Virginia’s apartment is on the sixth floor of a relatively short apartment building. Out her living room window I had a nice view of four 30-story apartment buildings but not much of the rest of the city. Blackouts had plagued us on the coast and here in Caracas, but power returned by the time Karl and Virginia returned from grocery shopping with dinner. A frog chorus of unidentified origin (they sounded a lot like the Spring Peepers from home) helped drown out the city noises while we slept.

The view from Virginia´s apartment

Dawn of the 2nd was much birdier than cities in the states. Many apartments, including Virginia’s, had gardens on their balconies or windowledges, attracting feeding Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) and Blue-Gray Tanagers (Thraupis episcopus). Ruddy Ground-Doves (Columbina talpacoti) called from rooftops, and I spied a species of Myiarchus Flycatcher in a neighbor’s tree. Parrots shrieked from neighboring trees and swallows flew around overhead, but I did not manage to identify any before we hustled off southward to the llanos.

Still catching up on sleep, I dozed on most of the five hour drive. Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) were a constant presence when I was awake. A stop for breakfast (arrepas, much like frybread from the reservation) produced more Carib Grackles and a few Tropical Kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus).

The foothills at the edge of the llanos

I missed most of our descent out of the coastal mountains, but managed to catch our movement through the capital of Guarico and the foothills of the llanos. Soon the lanscape flattened out into the scattered forest, ranchland, and flooded grasslands of the llanos. Karl was much more adept at drive-by bird spotting than I was in my drowsiness; I missed Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax mexicanus) and Gull-billed Tern (Sterna nilotica) which could’ve been lifers.

We made it to the front gate of Hato Masaguaral by midafternoon. On the kilometer-long dirt road winding through pasture and skirting a vegetation-choked wetland, I got my first glimpses of what would become commonplace: Pied Water-Tyrant (Fluvicola pica), Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), Cattle Tyrant (Machetornis rixosus), Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savanna). I got all of my gear thrown in my room, and after a hearty meal we all walked out to front pastures again to start getting acquainted with the place and with the Forpus project. I had arrived.