Antarctica, part 1

 

At midnight on New Year’s Eve of 2005, in the half-light of an Antarctic midsummer’s night, we stood on the deck of a converted Russian research vessel with forty other international passengers and a dozen crew, watching an Antarctic tern flying along the ice cliffs and fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula. Last bird of 2005, first of 2006.

To be precise, we and the ship’s naturalist were watching the tern. No-one else was; they (like us not too many minutes before) were dancing and drinking and singing. We were the only birders on the trip, much to Nigel, the naturalist’s, pleasure: the previous two sailings had had no birders at all. On the previous trip he’d seen a King penguin floating on a piece of ice, hundreds of miles out of its range, and no-one had been interested. We were envious.

This was my husband’s 50th birthday trip, taken over the two weeks of a teacher’s Christmas holidays, the perfect time for an Antarctic trip. To get here, we’d flown from Toronto to Buenos Aires, then from Buenos Aires to Ushuia, on Tierra del Fuego, and boarded the small boat at the harbour there.

We had spent a night in Buenos Aires, with most of a day to kill until our next flight; luckily, Buenos Aires has a wonderful bird reserve downtown – but that’s a story for another time. We arrived in Ushuia with another day before the tour officially began, so we rented a car and drove out to Tierra del Fuego National Park, where, among other things, we hiked a few feet into Chile: the border was marked, but the trail continued, even though signs told hikers to honour the border. (Would I do that now? Probably not. Surveillance is so very different now.)

We were hiking in forest of Antarctic Beech (Nothofagus antarctica), populated by a large rabbit population and the silliest-looking woodpecker in the world, the Magellanic Woodpecker. Not dissimilar to the Pileated of North America, the Magellanic has a topknot that wobbles back and forth as it drums against a tree, making it look like the cartoon woodpecker Woody. But what we really noticed here, in this temperate southern forest, was that just about everything was almost-but-not-quite the same as things in the temperate northern forest. There were niche analogues – species that fit the same ecological niche but differ (usually) in both genus and species and sometimes family – for just about every temperate northern species we could think of. Charles Darwin walked these forests, in his years as the Beagle’s naturalist. Surely he saw what we saw; how much of his theory of evolution had its beginnings here?

We finished that day with magnificent views of Andean Condors soaring over the cliffs near the coast, our first look at that huge, awe-inspiring bird. The next day, we sailed to Antarctica.

The crossing was easy. The Drake Passage is the worst water in the world, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, but we had a smooth sail over to the peninsula. Albatross glided alongside the boat; southern and northern Royal albatross, wandering, grey-headed, black-browed, light sooty-mantled, joined by petrels: the beautiful brown-and-white Cape petrel, southern and northern giants, blue petrels, white-chinned petrel. On the second day the first penguin swam by: a Magellanic, all alone. Next was a Chinstrap penguin, floating by on a chunk of ice. Wilson’s storm-petrels danced on the waves; tiny Antarctic prions flew by.

And then we were at the Antarctic Peninsula, going ashore for the first time, onto a rock-strewn beach, home to a colony of Gentoo penguins. Who cared not a whit that we were there; our job was to stay out of their way, as they waddled downhill, pink with guano and regurgitated fish, out into the ocean, to return in graceful undulations, clean and with gullets full, to feed their grey and fuzzy chicks.

penguin-trio

Blue-eyed shags nested on the rocks, too, evoking one of the best questions of the trip: “How do I tell a shag from a penguin?” Nigel’s answer: “If it flies, it’s a shag.” In among the gentoos were one lone and lonely Macaroni penguin, and one terribly cute but also lonely Adele penguin. How had they got to the wrong nesting beach?

There is far more to write about from the Antarctic trip than I can put in one blog entry. This was only the first few days of the trip, a trip that I could have never conceived I could have taken, to a place that had held a fascination since earliest childhood. I grew up knowing who Robert Falcon Scott was; one of my aunts used to read to his widow in her old age. Ernest Shackleton remains to this day one of my few heroes. And here I was, an at-the-time forty-seven year-old Canadian teacher, standing where they had stood. Unbelievable, and yet, there I was, almost at the ends of the earth, surrounded by penguins and bathed in the light of sun that would never quite set.

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The Thing with Feathers

Juvenile American robins are everywhere at the Arboretum: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. ‘No,” I replied to my confused brain, “you’re in North America. Those are Turdus migratorius , not Turdus pilaris.” Didn’t help. Next juvenile robin, again my brain said “Fieldfare’.

robinfieldfare

If you look at the two illustrations – the juvenile American robin is on the left, the fieldfare on the right –  you can see why my brain just might confuse what I was looking at. But really, there was no excuse. I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfare for about twenty-five. I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: it was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.

My first fieldfare were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We  were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both birds are similar to juvenile American robins (and a lot of other thrushes). But they were both new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were both sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting.

Later that day, walking back to the visitor’s centre, the reedbed glowing golden in a few moments of sunshine, an Eurasian bittern rose and flew, still a rarity then: the reserve was one of their few breeding sites in England. I can still watch that piece of ‘film’ in my mind, the bird flying low, its slow wingbeats and extended neck somehow almost as prehistoric as the flight of a heron, its colours and stripes blending with the reeds, all lit by the low sunlight of a northern English late December afternoon. It is one of my most cherished memories, for all the bitterns I’ve seen since.

So juvenile American robins, in the TARDIS of memory, took me back from late-July Ontario in 2016 to midwinter England in 1991.  Emily Dickinson described ‘hope as the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’, but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is what brings memories.

Terns at Kowloon Harbour

We were crossing Kowloon Harbour on a ferry, coming back from birding one of the islands. Huge dark thunderheads loomed; just a bit later they would drench Hong Kong in what is called black rain, rain heavier than any I’ve ever experienced again.  Terns were fishing in the wake of the fast ferry to Macua; I wrote this poem in response to the experience.

 

Terns at Kowloon Harbour

 

Spare black on white, swift to frothing wake

in pewter waters; silver sweep of wing

bright counterpoint to lightning’s rake

rending the heavy hanging cloud; hovering,

holding; plunging to take the shining glide,

the curve and scale, beating upward against

the drag of wave, watching for the gleaming slide

of fish, awareness stretched and tensed and held

to dancing, diving grace.

Texas, 1987

The world was shades of copper and bronze, the sand of the desert glowing pink in the dawn light. Wisps of clouds over the mesas reflected the glow of the rising sun. It was already hot, the sky as it lightened a clear blue, the only sounds the rasp of ravens. Overhead, a long V of birds crossed the sky: not geese, long necks, long legs, birds the colour of the desert sands. We stood by our car in the Texas dawn and watched them fly south, heading for the Gulf of Mexico and their wintering grounds. Sandhill cranes, birds we’d never seen before, birds that the great American writer Aldo Leopold predicted would disappear: “the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward….” (Marshland Elegy, 1937). In 1987, fifty years later, the populations had just begun to increase. We knew we were watching something special, something that could have been lost to the world forever.

We were there in Texas in November because in ten days, we were both due to be giving graduate student papers at the American Society of Agronomy conference in Atlanta. With our theses supervisors’ blessings, we had taken two weeks holiday prior to the conference, and had driven our Honda Civic, laden with camping gear, south. Two days of steady driving; on the third morning, we left the last green fields behind and drove into the vast deserts of southern Texas, a world completely alien then to us both, and filled with birds we’d never seen.

It seemed that November that we could barely drive a mile without stopping. The fences were full of sparrows; the cactus and sage full of wrens and thrashers. In a little wash along a highway somewhere we stopped to scramble down the side to see what might be found in the green scrub along the side of the tiny creek, and found our first wild turkeys. Bay-winged hawks (Harris’s hawk) or Swainson’s were on every utility pole, it seemed. At dusk of the same day that had started with sandhill cranes in the dawn, we stood at the Rio Grande, where it runs between huge, bare cliffs, and heard for the first time the haunting, sorrowful descent of the canyon wren’s song.

There were so many ‘firsts’. Some stand out without recourse to notes: the Say’s phoebe at the headquarters of Big Bend National Park; the vermilion flycatcher in a stand of cottonwoods in the same park. The “King-Kong-fisher” (the ringed kingfisher) at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, and the tiny green kingfisher on a creek at the Santa Margarita Ranch – a Spanish land-grant ranch, held in the same family from the years when Texas was part of Mexico, not the USA; to enter, you drove in, honked the horn, held up your binoculars, and paid the non-English-speaking old woman who came out from the ranch house two dollars. Green jays and plain chachalaca. Crested cara-cara. And from a boat, where as Canadian visitors we were given the best seats, the last flock of migratory whooping cranes in the world, wintering at Aransis.

Seeds were sown that trip; not just the seeds of birding further afield, but those of a love for cranes. From that first V of sandhills in the dawn, and the fragile tenacity of that flock of whooping cranes began my connection to these birds; birds of grassland and wetland, wanderers of the great plains of the world. The ‘Birds of Heaven’* would take me to the Platte River in March and the muskeg of Manitoba in July; to South Africa, to China, to the Norfolk Broads. Four springs ago, just north of the tiny southern Ontario hamlet we lived in at the time, I stopped the car in wonder and joy: in a field of corn stubble, four sandhill cranes were feeding. I was looking, with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking, at birds not seen in my locale in the best part of a hundred years. Aldo Leopold was wrong, on this. I am thankful beyond words he was, and I believe he would have been, too.

* The Birds of Heaven is the title of Peter Matthiessen’s beautiful book about his travels to see the cranes of the world.

Featured Image picture: By Dori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D