24 July 2015

Heading North

Driving across the plains has always been very hit or miss for me; either you have a pleasant drive across the wide expanses of central North America, or you get hit by massive supercells that meander across the plains and endure rain, hail, and hurricane-like winds. Our journey northwards started with a hit; I awoke to the sound of rain falling on the roof, and allowed my self to sleep in order to miss the worst of the storm. I knew we had a long way to travel, but didn't want to do a single mile in the dark pre-dawn rain.

The storm passed as the sun rose, and Caroline and I packed out little Nissan Rogue for the long journey ahead. We were going on vacation, and while that means rest and relaxation for most, it means thousands of miles of driving, hiking, and exploring for us. As soon as our gear loaded, we were off. We were going to try to make it to the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming by nightfall, and had significant portions of Nebraska and Iowa and the entirety of South Dakota between us and our goal.

The rest of the day was (thankfully) misses. By the time we reach Sioux Falls, our luck seemed to be holding. The massive storms were building, but we were still keeping on our "missing streak". The radar and weather reports indicated that the dark horizons were the edges of massive storms, and that we were threading the eye of the needle between systems working their way across the flats.

Hours stretched by as we grew closer to the regions in which I used to work. Soon after crossing the Missouri River, I started recognizing roadside stops from my field work two years prior. We stopped and filled up with gas by the KOA I had camped at for three days years ago, the same place I had sat while ordering my plain tickets for Puerto Rico. We were soon on the road again, and Caroline got to see her first new park of the trip: Badlands. Last time Caroline had visited me in South Dakota, we didn't have nearly enough time to head to this part of the state. Now, we were finally there, but running short on time. Despite not being able to visit every part of the park, we were still able to drive through the entire park and watch Burrowing Owls fly above their burrows.

As evening approached, we realized that the sky was getting darker faster than we expected, and we saw the clouds building to the northwest. Soon, our fears were confirmed:our day of blissful misses was over. A massive storm was building near our anticipated camping spot, and was heading straight for us. We hit the road for the last time, and managed to pull into a hotel in Rapid City as the sky opened and the wind and rain soaked the entire town.

The next morning, we woke up early and headed to Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Upon arriving, we realized that the effects of the storm were lingering, as all but the very top of the tower was shrouded with fog. We decided to continue north, and enjoyed a day full of missing storms as we crossed the grasslands of northeast Wyoming and wound our way to Billing's Montana to spend the weekend with my brother and his family.

After our time catching up and seeing my niece and nephew, we continued our journey north. We passed through the extensive grasslands of Musselshell County, where we failed to find any Mountain Plovers, but did get harassed by Marbled Godwits and found a Ferruginous Hawk nest.

Limosa fedoa (Marbled Godwit)

Buteo regalis (Ferruginous Hawk)

From there, we pressed northward, and finally arrived at our first stop of the trip: Glacier National Park (which I will save for my next post!).

19 May 2015

St. Louis

For Caroline's birthday this past weekend, we ran out to St. Louis to explore the city and to visit the University of Missouri--St. Louis. Our drive out there was long, but well worth it. Scattered thunderstorms crossed the prairie, and during a brief respite we stopped at the historic Locust Covered Bridge in north-central Missouri. The site of the first transcontinental highway in the US, the bridge was also a good opportunity to explore a small patch of woods and get some nice eastern birds.

From here, we crossed the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri and continued south to Two Rivers NWR. Even though it was late and in the heat of the day, the birding was fantastic. Canada Goose families cruised in the placid waters while dozens of Great Egrets foraged in the shallows. A pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows nesting in the parking lot were a pleasant surprise, and the forest hosted boisterous Prothonotary Warblers. Dickcissels sang in the clearings and Indigo Buntings flushed from the roadsides, making us feel like our summer had truly started.

The next day, we went to downtown St. Louis to explore the zoo and the Gateway Arch. Despite some initial difficulties finding our way around the city, the day ended up being a fantastic opportunity to explore. In addition to the wild birds, the zoo also possessed an incredible variety of birds and beasts from around the world. We spent five hours exploring the zoo, watching baby Ring-tailed Lemurs harass their parents and flustered bustards displaying to females in adjacent enclosures.

In the mid-afternoon, we finally found our way to the river, where Caroline came face to face with the Gateway Arch for the first time.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

All in all, she said it was a pretty great birthday.

08 May 2015

Rumpi Hills Revisited

In July 2014, during my whirlwind tour of South-west, Cameroon, one place I greatly enjoyed was the forested Rumpi Hills near Dikome-Balue, a place I spent two days with Moses and regretted not being able to spend more time. Despite my brief visit (and the frequent rains), I saw a multitude of great birds, including Woodhouse's Antpecker, Western Tinkerbird, and Cameroon [African] Pipits.

In mid-March, I found myself heading back there, this time with the University of Kansas. We crammed into our caravan of four-wheel drive pick-ups, and headed up into the mountains. The road, markedly improved from the last time I visited, was still scarred from the rainy season. Road improvements were noticeable, as culverts were being installed along the many creek crossings. Those that had not yet been fixed were still in terrible condition, however, and brought back flashbacks from the rainy season. A lone semi stood derelict in the road halfway to the village as well, a somber reminder that errors in this part of the world are not easily fixed.

We arrived at the village late in the afternoon, and spent the night in an old missionary home above the town. The next morning, we hiked into the village for a traditional blessing ceremony before our work in the forest could begin. The morning was perfect; light clouds wrapped around the summits of the peaks, and Luehder's Bushshrikes purred in the roadside vegetation. We gathered in the chief's home, and met with the village elders to discuss our work, arrange guides, and accept the blessings they offered us.

Elminia longicauda (African Blue Flycatcher)
African Blue Flycatchers (Elminia longicauda) were commonly seen in the farms and fields surrounding Dikome-Balue.

Our group headed up into the mountains, searching for an appropriate campsite for the coming week. Our choice was made easy as the road grew progressively worse, and we found a nice flat area near a creek at the edge of secondary forest and the primary Afromontane forest that cloaked the hills. Scaly Francolins called from the surrounding scrub, Crossley's Ground-Thrushes (a surprisingly common bird!) sang from the adjacent forest, and Mountain Sooty-Boubous let out their whip-cracks from the dark understory.

Camp soon became a home away from home, as we surveyed the surrounding hills. Mark and I roamed the hills every morning, almost every day adding new birds to our list. Family groups of White-throated Mountain-Babblers could be seen traveling with Gray-headed Greenbuls, and one morning we even lucked upon a pair of Green-breasted Bushshrikes foraging near the road. Occasional flocks of White-throated Bee-eaters would cross over the ridge, and a lazy afternoon near camp yielded a displaying Lyre-tailed Honeyguide.

Muscicapa infuscata (Sooty Flycatcher)
Sooty Flycatcher (Muscicapa infuscata) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills. This is one of the only records of the species from the range, and was part of a pair that was nest building in a large snag.

Our week in these hills was one of the most enjoyable weeks of field work I've ever had in my life. The camp atmosphere was almost never less than jovial, and the multitude of amazing birds (and other animals) meant that there was never a dull moment.

Arizelocichla montana (Cameroon Mountain Greenbul)
Cameroon Mountain Greenbul (Arizelocichla montana) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills.

Trioceros sp. (Large Chameleon)
Large chameleon (Trioceros sp.) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills.

After our week of surveying was through, we bid our sad goodbyes to the amazing mountains, and headed back to the coast. The rest of our time in Cameroon was spent drying and cleaning equipment and ensuring that all of our information was well organized. As the rains increased, I spent my time hiding from the downpours watching movies as I finished formatting my eBird checklists. The brief breaks we did have from the weather allowed us to get out around Buea a little, including visiting the coastal city of Limbe and morning walks around our hotel. Our outings yielded several species we had missed in the field (including my first Eurasian Curlew in Africa), and were a pleasant way to enjoy our last days in the region.

Muscicapa cassini (Cassin's Flycatcher)
Cassin's Flycatcher (Muscicapa cassini) at the Limbe Wildlife Center, Southwest, Cameroon.

It was not long before we were boarding the planes in the hot Douala International Airport for the long journey home. Despite logistical difficulties, we all eventually made it back, and were soon put to work catching up on everything that we had missed during our month in the field.