Saturday, April 12, 2014

Alvord Lakes

Today was what bird festivals are all about. It started with Great horned owls zooming across the parking lot as the gold and orange hues welcomed the dawn and ended with conversations about South Africa with a fellow birder in a local tavern over dinner.
One of the dry lakes with Steens Mountain in the background
My tour was to visit the Alvord lakes. We are in the Great Basin here which extends into California, Nevada and Idaho. The key element is that none of the water that enters the basin leaves except through evaporation or through underground caverns. And I’m not sure about the caverns. Interestingly, not all of the lakes are salty or alkaline. The lakes that we saw today are alkaline and most are intermittent. They do not always have water, but when they do, they are an important part of the avian flyway as the birds migrate from points south to points north. That is why this is the John Scharff MIGRATORY Bird Festival. Today we saw 73 of those mostly migratory birds.

Sagebrush Sparrow
 While we saw many water birds, the best bird for me was the Sagebrush Sparrow we found on a side trip to Mickey Hot Spring. Mickey Hot Spring was not on the agenda, but since it is a little known and rarely visited spot we decided to spend the time. I had a quick look at this little guy so we stopped hoping he would reappear. Thanks to our patience and some careful soundbites from a smart phone we were able to see several of these birds and have enough time to get some good pictures. Mickey Hot Spring is a special place even without the birds as it is comparable to Yellowstone. We visited potholes hot enough to burn Jonathan and to warrant warnings that one might break through the crust and fall into that ultra-hot water.

While there we also say one endemic pigmy short-horned toad and another lizard like creature.

The other great birding stop was Mann Lake where we saw Great White Pelicans among the other typical water birds among the fishermen. An extra added attraction was watching one of the fishermen pull in an 18 inch trout from this alkaline lake.

Fields Station - Well worth the visit
We stopped for lunch at Fields Station. Without question this is one of the best places in the world for lunch. But don’t bother if you don’t have a big appetite. Or just indulge in one of the only true milk shakes still available anywhere. These milk shakes are made with real ice cream with a traditional blender and served in frozen metal ‘glasses’. Back in the day we used to pour the milk shake out of these metal mixers into fancy glasses. The shakes are so thick that you must eat it with a spoon. Yes, you must eat it. Meanwhile the burgers are among the better ones you will ever eat. They are remodeling the kitchen so our burgers were specially BBQ’d for the festival and did not include the usual extra tray of fries. Actually the packaged chips were enough. A few years ago Linda and I stopped here about 4:00 in the afternoon to try the shakes. We were on our way to Winnemucca where we knew we had to try a traditional Basque dinner. We do recommend the Basque dinner, but since that also requires a good appetite, the combination is NOT recommended. Traditional Basque dinners are served family style and include salad, soup, main course, after course and dessert and all the wine you can drink for a set price that is much less than you would spend for a medium level dinner at a typical city restaurant.
The Fields Oasis
Fields also happens to be one of the premier spots in Oregon for unusual migrants. Because of permanent spring there is a small grove of trees that must seem tremendously attractive to a bird that has lost its way over this desert area. We did add a couple of birds to our trip list around the cafe, but the trees in the oasis were almost barren of bird life. 
A not unusual sight in Eastern Oregon
 I finished the evening at the Central Pastime Bar and Grill, the place I wanted last night but did not find. I had wings and tots which were good and the burgers and pizza that I saw looked very tasty. I was also impressed that the IPA did NOT come in a frosted glass. I continue to be shocked and dismayed that there are brewpubs in Portland that don’t understand the cold cuts the flavor. No one serves wine in a frosted glass, but flavorful beer is served in a frosted glass on a regular basis. Go figure.

As a last note before you fall asleep reading this, our guide today was Tim Blount who hosts a Harney County birding web site at Check it out for some great bird pictures and more. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Malheur - Arrival in Burns

Linda is off to San Diego where she will spend the next three days with friends from the days when she was part of the executive board of Financial Women International. These women have maintained contact and now get together once a year in the nation’s beautiful cities. Since I am not really welcome on these trips I am in Burns, Oregon for the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival. Linda and I have been here several times over the past few years on our travels and I spent the night here last September the Cycle Oregon ride. So I am somewhat familiar with the field trips I have signed up for. Unfortunately, I was a bit tardy (by only a matter of hours) in registering so I will miss the early morning tour to see the sage grouse strutting at their lek tomorrow morning. That would have been exciting – even more than seeing the cock-of-the-rock in Ecuador.
One of several old farm machines in the area
The weather is beautiful today. I drove over Oregon Hiway 26 which provides great views of the mountains. Some of the views of Mt. Hood are absolutely spectacular. I took no pictures as I was in a bit of a hurry to get here before 5:00 to take care of the registration. Along the way we also have great views of Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor. Oregon is lucky to have so many beautiful volcanoes. When they are covered with snow and have the blue sky behind them it is like a fantasy worthy of a Peter Jackson movie.
Many of the fields are flooded like this one
Once here I decided to take a short drive around the area to see what I could find here. I was shocked at how much water is here in the fields. It is almost up to road level giving the birds plenty of places to hang out. As I drove around on the nearby farm roads, I saw long-billed curlew, avocets, sandhill cranes, along with thousands of snow geese and hundreds of red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds. Others, too, but I won’t bore you with the list.
Even if you count the ones in the distance, this is just a few of those I saw this evening
Burns is a very small town, larger than any of its neighbors, but still two hours from Bend, the nearest large city. There used to be a lumber mill here, but it has been closed for several years. The upside is that it does not completely close the shutters at 8:00, but it is close. The Safeway does close at 8 and I’m not sure but it seemed that the gas stations were preparing to close down, too.
Canada geese usually dominate the landscape, not here
Last September when CycleOregon passed through the town seemed to be very lively and I was looking forward to revisiting the bar I spent a couple of hours in for dinner. It was closed and the other bar and grill that looked interesting turned out to be a bar with little hope for a decent dinner. Not wanting to eat at the Apple Peddler chain, I opted for the one other place that looked like a restaurant. The Pine Room Bar and Restaurant is right next to the Days Inn where I am staying. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food and service. I ordered the chicken fried steak which I assume is bad for me, but I like it and is a fun meal to try in a small western town. This one was ok and not much more, but the rest of the food was quite good. When I sat down the table had four forks, a knife and an soup spoon. I used them all to eat the shrimp cocktail, soup, salad, and bread that came with the meal. The house red from Volcano Winery in Bend was a bit more fruity than I really like, but still tasty and a good match for the steak. The blue cheese dressing had several large chunks of real cheese, something that doesn’t always happen in the best restaurants.

Tomorrow I head out for eleven hours of visiting the Alvord lakes. This should result in some good pictures.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Guayaquil - Part 2

At the north end of the Malecon Simon Bolivar is San Pedro, an older community build on the hillside where the city began. The houses are as they were years ago painted in a beautiful variety of pastels. Only one street traverses this community. Most of the places are reached by walking alleyways or climbing the 444 steps to the top of the hill. Climbing it was not as difficult as I expected, probably because the steps are wide and there are flats along the way. It’s not like climbing a similar number of steps to ascend a church tower or lighthouse where there is no respite along the way as you circle your way to the top. A small lighthouse and a church top the hill so one can climb a bit more for an even better view. I was also pleased to find a few new birds joining me in the trees and flowers above the city. 

The final step!

Back on lower ground Guayaquil boasts a couple of other amazing sights. Parque Boliva, a public square, is the home of about 150 iguanas. Our guide told us that the iguanas used to try traversing the streets at night, but seem to have learned the folly of that as they no longer see any dead ones on those streets. The city feeds them lettuce so they get plenty to eat and the many trees, flowers, and ponds provide them some relief from the children, who like all children, think pulling on the animal’s tail is great fun. Facing the park is the city’s cathedral. At the center of the city the Plaza del Centenario where the central Liberty column is surrounded by statues of the founding fathers. These four city blocks at the halfway point between the two malecons on Avenida 9 de Octubre, this is the city’s main square full of people at all hours of the day. 

Twice a week, this band plays during the noon hour.
Another interesting sight was the long line at City Hall. People were lined up around the corner to pay their taxes. Our guide told us they would save a significant amount by paying in person in cash before the end of January. I think she said the amount was about $50 per person. I walked by three different times and the lines never diminished. Apparently this process applies to everyone as our guide told us she would be standing in that same line later in the week. 

It's election season in Guayaquil and I was also treated to a parade for one of the mayoral candidates. I'm not sure what the camel symbolizes in a country where they don't exist, but this doctor has chosen one as his mascot. 

 On our last day, we had a few hours before catching our plane home so we visited the historical park on the edge of town. The park includes a small zoo highlighting some of Ecuador's birds and animals along with a recreation of colonial buildings and gardens of indigenous plants. The buildings were mostly just facades, but one did have a large party room upstairs overlooking the river. We enjoyed the free park as it gave us some views of birds we were not able to seen in the wild.  

Red-lored Amazon Parrot
Ecuadorian Fox
Harpy Eagle
Red-green Macaw
Blue-yellow Macaw
Just the facade
Upstairs party room
Cactus Garden

Friday, February 21, 2014

Guayaquil - Part 1

It's Christmas
Our last stop in Ecuador was Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and port in the southern part of the country. The story is that the city is named for the great Puna chief Guayas and his wife Quill. Guayas fought against both the Incas and the Spanish. Rather than allow Quill to be captured by the conquistadors, Guayas killed Quill and then drowned himself. I like this story better than the more scholarly one that the name really just means “the land like a beautiful prairie on the land of the Qulicas.”

Guayas and Quill
Our Hotel Oro Verde was right in the middle of downtown on the principle downtown thoroughfare, Avenida 9 de Octubre, where walking the streets was not dissimilar from walking down the street in most large American cities. Lots of people in business dress along with the more casually dressed working class people. Large and small stores shared the buildings and vendors shared the sidewalks with the pedestrians. Cars and buses made crossing the streets a hazard, but most of the more difficult intersections had signs warning of the danger and a traffic cop directing traffic. Government buildings and churches shared the open spaces and the museums are free; even the historical park/zoo is free to enter.

The old museum building; now government offices

Some of the leaders of independence

Of course there are differences. Most of the small shops are barely 10 feet wide and carry only one type of item. Perhaps half of them sell various kinds of food with only a few seats for sit-down dining if there are any at all. Every few blocks a money changer holds a wad of US dollars. That was a bit strange until I was reminded that the currency here is the US dollar and most of the visitors would be from other South American countries with different currencies.
Art on the Malecon del Solado
A play area on the Malecon Simon Bolivar
At  both ends of Avenida 9 de Octubre is a Malecon or riverfront walkway. The shorter one, Malecon del Solado, is near the college where young lovers are watched by the many statues and monuments honoring the country’s heroes. At the other end of the street is the mile-long Malecon Simon Bolivar along the major part of the Rio Guayas. This area was a mess not that long ago, but has been cleaned up and built up to be a major tourist attraction with restaurants, parks, play areas, and museums. Like many cities in the world today (including our own Vancouver, Washington), the people of Guayaquil realized that the river should be an attraction and not a distraction for the people and have done something about it.

The Blue Snail restaurant, a good example of art deco, surrounded by new buildings.

One of the buildings built around 1900 shortly after the fire that destroyed the town around 1890 - just like Seattle and Chicago.

A beautiful new area just north of downtown on the waterfront. Not many people live here yet.
Urban renewal has also come to Guayaquil. Our guide pointed out several beautiful buildings built shortly after the 1896 fire that destroyed most of the city. Then she would also point out the ugly newer building nearby that had replaced a building similar to the older ones. We were immediately reminded of the recently completed renovation of King Street Station in Seattle which we visit several times a year in our travels north. In the 1950s, it was modernized by covering windows and putting in a drop ceiling to cover up the magnificent high ceiling that has just recently been uncovered and rebuilt to its former grandeur. New styles may sometimes be more functional and there is a place for them, but too often it comes at the expense of the real beauty of the past. Sometimes we remember that in time. Sometimes we don’t and live to regret our modernizing actions.  
A view of downtown and the Malecon Simon Bolivar

Monday, February 10, 2014

Santa Cruz Highlands

A male yellow warbler providing an excellent view of his red crown

Our final day began with an early breakfast preceded by making sure our bags were packed and outside the room. Then we boarded the pangas for the final time for a trip to the Highlands of Santa Cruz Island. This was the most unusual experience we had on our trip as we were actually up about 1500 feet above sea level. One of the highlights of the Highlands is the giant tortoise. Unfortunately, they were not on our itinerary although I was able to see a couple of them resting on the road as we drove by. What we were able to see was the Scalesia Forest, a couple of pit craters, and a lava tube.

The Scalesia Forest is important to the ecology of the island as it traps water and supports several of the finch species along with the Vermilion Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler. The pit craters are volcanic in that they are collapsed magma chambers. 

The lava tube was at one time seven miles long and that is not an error. Today it is much less than that but still over 2000 meters. Unfortunately, some sections have collapsed, but it is still an amazing walk-through. It’s been many years since I have visited the Ape Caves on the south side of Mt. St. Helens, but as I remember that walk, we had to almost crawl through some sections. Here, we were in a tunnel large enough for those extra large trucks we pass on the freeway. Our van then returned us to the ferry ‘terminal’ where we boarded another boat to cross to our bus to the airport and our flight to Guayaquil. 

Ground Finch

Unlike other cruises we have taken, this is the only commercial establishment we saw.