Monday, October 29, 2007

Fire help

Hello all,
As I recently posted, my former advisor, Wayne Trivelpiece and his family recently lost their house and most of their belongings in the Witch Fire in southern California. A website has been set up with information on how to help the family. If you can, please consider helping the Trivelpieces get back on their feet. Sue Trivelpiece had already returned to their study site on King George Island in Antarctica but she hitched a ride on an early tour ship and will be returning to California soon to be with Wayne and their two girls.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Paper Trout

I found this site on a recent post from Dr. Hypercube. Check it out. The site provides patterns to make paper trout. I haven't made one yet but I hope to soon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Now the Destruction Post

I just found out this morning that my former advisor who lives just outside of Ramona, CA has lost his house in the Witch Fire. He was able to get his kids and dog out but lost the house. His wife had already deployed to their research site on King George Island and is trying to get back. I can't imagine. They had a beautiful place in a small canyon.
I also found out that some friends that I met while leading them on my first trip into Torres Del Paine have evacuated from their Lake Arrowhead home. They are ok and they believe that their house is still there but they weren't sure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Richie Skane

My first season in Antarctica was the winter of 1994. I worked as a General Assistant with Bob Farrell (now the station manager) and we spent a lot of time shoveling snow but we also did a lot of carpenter helper type work as we rebuilt portions of the station. I was very privileged to work for Richard "Richie" Skane and I also spending a few memorable days with him in Colorado. Richie was my boss and probably one of the best bosses I have ever had. On top of that he was an all around good, fun, fair person - one of those people that everyone enjoyed being around. I can still picture his smile emerging from his bearded face below his round glasses, with a pillbox hat on his curly head. His eyes always had a smile too.

Later, when I worked at Palmer in the science program, Richie was again working in the carpenter shop. At the end of one particularly stressful and advisor-beaten season when I felt the lowest I have ever felt in my life, Richie was the one who approached me as I was getting on the ship to leave and told me "you will be alright John". It made a tremendous difference to my self-esteem to hear that from someone I really respected and I will always remember his kind words.

He passed away in February of 2003 of stomach cancer.

Photo by Glenn Grant

Last year Glenn Grant and a group of people who knew and loved Richie made a proposal to have an Antarctic feature named for him. You can read the whole story here. Originally the proposal was to name a small island recently exposed at the face of a glacier near Palmer Station after Richie. However, after further consideration, a nunatak near Cape Monaco was proposed. I found out that the USGS approved the application this August, the details are listed below:

Antarctica Feature Detail

Antartica ID: 18944

Feature Name: Skane Nunatak

Class: Summit

Latitude: 644302S Longitude: 0641636W

Description: A distinctive nunatak rising to 130 meters 0.4 mile E of Cape Monaco, Anvers Island, in the Palmer Archipelago. Named by US-ACAN (2007) after Richard J. Skane, carpenter foreman in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program at McMurdo Station for four field seasons from 1979; at Palmer Station for 10 field seasons including two winters, 1986-96. Elevation ( ft/m ): 427 / 130

Decision Year: 17-JUL-07

Date Entered: 14-AUG-07

I hope I get near Cape Monaco this year to see Skane Nunatak and say hello to an old friend.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Learning bird identification

My inquiry for help on Chilean bird identification got me thinking about how I am learning birds in Chile versus how I learned to ID birds in Montana (and perhaps try to explain what should have been a pretty easy ID!).

Although my experience birding in the United States certainly helped me as I continue to learn the birds of Chile, much of my experience learning to ID birds in Chile has been without the benefit of birding with a birder skilled in the Chilean avifauna. There have been times when I have been able to bird with other North American birders, which really helped, and once with a Chilean birder but we were busy with non-birding guests and it was late in the season. In addition, most of my time in Chile was on my way to or from Antarctica which meant I was birding either really early in the season or late in the season when I could snag a quick trip out of town or when I was traveling with non-birding friends for a few days. On top of these limitations, the only field guide I had was the Guia de Campo de las Aves de Chile by Braulio Araya and Guillermo Millie (entirely in Spanish) with mostly black and white line drawings and no range maps. I did learned a fair number of Spanish words related to colors and body parts! When Alvaro Jaramillo produced the Birds of Chile field guide, my ability to ID a number of Chilean birds increased dramatically. If you can only carry one book for Chile, Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands this is by far the best book you can get.

My Chilean experience is in direct contrast to my experience learning birds in North America where I had a number of good field guides to use, I started young and had my Dad to teach me, I often birded with other very good birders (and still do), and I can bird during the peak birding times of the season and better yet, all year.

I knew this one was a Bar-winged Cinclodes!

It shows. In Chile, I struggle with what should be fairly straightforward identification because I don't have the benefit of an experienced mentor and I often don't have the time to really spend studying the birds I have questions about because I am leading a group of non-birding guests. I would like to thank Alvaro for taking the time to answer my email concerning an ID that is probably pretty straightforward for him (and hopefully will be a bit easier for me when I finally do get to see a miner in Chile).

All of this really points out to me the benefit of birding with other skilled birders in learning bird identification. I am still a beginning birder in Chile. I keep working at it and asking questions and hopefully one of these days I will feel more confident of my birding skills when dealing with some Chilean birds. I guess it helps reinforce my belief that one of the best ways to get better is to bird with other good birders no matter what your current skill level is.

Miner ID question

I was going through my photos from my last trip to Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile in January this year and remembered these photos of what I believe is a miner but I can't figure out what species. Anyone out there familiar with Chilean miners? I guess that this could be a cinclodes but it didn't seem quite right at the time.

These photos were taken at the Sarmiento entrance to Torres on January 17, 2007. (click on the photos to enlarge).

(added at 20:07 - Alvaro Jaramillo, author of The Birds of Chile, let me know that it is in fact a Bar-winged Cinclodes, the longer tail of the cinclodes is a good field mark). Still learning!

Home again, Home again,..

I finally back home after four days of meetings last week. The first three days were planning meetings. Oh joy. I am in the middle of a major planning effort for the management of most of the public land from the Canadian border to the Missouri River and the Continental Divide to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in north-central Montana. It is important work but tedious none the less. My last meeting on Friday was much more interesting. It was the Montana Bird Records Committee meeting. I really enjoy these meetings, not only for the subject matter but also for the people involved. It is one of the few times during the year when I can get together with this group of people I really enjoy and respect.

We had a good meeting, reviewing new submissions and old records. A few of us have recently started to go through the archives of some of Montana's pioneer ornithologists and there were a few discussion on the status of species including Montana's only Ivory Gull record and the breeding status of Bohemian Waxwings in Montana (a few records around the breeding season, but nothing that would really suggest this species breeds in Montana).

I will have more news concerning Montana birds and an exciting project I am involved in soon!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


It is the end of an era for the Carlson house. Yesterday we lost Luna, the second of our first dogs. She was Laura's red and white Border Collie. We found her as a small pup, herding chickens and dragging a cat around the farmyard when we picked her up near Helena, MT many years ago. She was able to fulfill a Border Collies purpose for quite a few years when we lived in Bozman, by chasing the cows that managed to traverse the cattleguard or slip the fence into our yard. She lived for those days when I would tell her "go get your cows Luna" and we would head down the hill to move the cows through the gate. I have to confess moving the cows with her was one of my favorite chores too, just to watch her work. She even got to herd sheep once at a dog trial and sheep dog clinic. She was a pup then but she did quite well. Watching working dogs work no matter what they are bred and trained to do usually chokes me up because they are so evidently doing something they are just supposed to do. It was apparent that Border Collies are still working dogs by watching her fall instinctively into her job.

Her later years were spent mostly rounding up sticks and Frisbees when we moved away from the Bozeman property to Helena and then Fort Peck, a skill she developed as a pup in Bozeman. I can still picture her springing off our deck and disappearing down the hill below the house only to reappear seconds later with the latest toy I had tossed as far as I could. She couldn't sit still.

She was a tough wimp, often challenging larger dogs when she felt she needed to be protective, but often afraid of apparently insignificant objects or sounds. She was not motivated by food at all, but was very protective of what she had, often growling over her food for hours before eating it even when there were no other dogs around. Maybe that was a result of growing up with one very food motivated Golden Retriever who was adept and figuring out ways to eat anything she could find or figure out a way to get.

I am going to miss her pointed ears and purposeful eyes, her drive and energy that slowly disappeared over the last year, and her devotion to getting me to throw that stick one more time. She was a good dog and a big part of our lives.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Homeless Heidi recently posted about her unexpected guests. However, this isn't just a normal neighbors dropping by sort of thing. This is the first new faces the folks at South Pole have seen for 8 months. A Besler airplane and crew showed up a few days early from Rothera, a British base at the base of the Antarctica Peninsula bringing fresh fruits and vegetables and pisco from Chile. She comments on how weird it is to see an airplane after so long without having one around and how they will need to learn how to behave in public again when the new summer people start arriving shortly.

I remember how strange it was to see other people unexpectedly in a remote area too. It happened to me one afternoon at Copa field station on King George Island. We had finished up our penguin work (counts, weights, nest status, etc) for the morning and were working on station maintenance work when I glanced down the rock beach and noticed two figures heading towards the station. If they had been coming from the direction of the nearby Polish base Arctowski, it probably wouldn't have been such a shock, but they were coming from the sea.

The three of us actually ducked behind the hut and peered around the corner, checking to see what sort of people would be coming from that direction. As they got closer, Laina, who had worked at the station the year before suddenly recognized one of them. This is where it got even more strange. She said "remember the "boat" I showed you down the beach that direction?" The "boat" she was referring to was a welded metal box that looked more like a garbage dumpster abandoned down the beach. She said they owners left it there when the outboard quit.
Andre and I nodded affirmatively. "One of those guys is the one who abandoned it on the beach. He left the broken Evinrude from the "boat" at the hut and said he would come back for it later. I guess it's later"
Once we figured out who they were it wasn't quit as weird, but it still definitely strange. Turns out this guy had a non-governmental base on one of the nearby islands. He had apparently lost a couple of associates trying to canoe across the Bransfield Straight at one point and conducted hypothermia experiments on the people he could convince to join him at his base. On this trip he had a Czech boy scout with him who was going to remain over the winter by himself. They had taken two inflatable kayaks to King George Island and then walked the edge of Admiralty Bay to reclaim the outboard to get it repaired since the warranty was ending soon! We fed them, visited a while, and then the boy scout strapped the outboard to his back and the two of them disappeared down the beach from where they had come.
I never heard any more about them and I wonder if the boy scout wound up spending that winter alone or if he came to his senses and found his way home before winter set in.

I also remember the joy at getting fresh fruits and vegetables after ours had eaten or reduced to moldy mush, the challenge of adjusting to new people, both when they arrived at the station or when I got home where I had to deal many more people than I had seen in a long time, and, something that doesn't happen any more with email and internet, receiving mail (I suspect it is still a pleasure to get packages though).

Favorite birds I haven't seen

Favorite? I am not sure if that is the right word though. How can it be a favorite if I have never observed the bird? Either way I am going to stick with favorite because I can't come up with another word that describes my infatuation with a few species. Here are two.

photo courtesy of Pete Morris at the Surfbirds website

The first species is the Spectacled Eider (Somateria fisheri). Other than the obvious - the velvet green feathers on the head and the goggle eyed appearance - what I remember of my initial interest in this species was that it disappeared in the winter. Literally disappeared. No one knew where they went, but it was suspected that the wintering area was somewhere in the Bering Sea. Then in 1995, a satellite transmitters implanted in an eider on the breeding grounds that hadn't functioned for months, came to life and transmitted a coordinate and then fell silent again. A couple of weeks later two Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, Bill Larned and Greg Balogh, along with the pilot, checked out this location south of Saint Lawrence Island and found a brown smudge on the ice which turned out to be about 50,000 Spectacled Eiders crammed into a small lead in the ice. Here is the complete story from Greg Balogh. More information on the project that implanted the transmitters can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Bill Larned, USFWS. Bill told me there were 80,000 birds in this flock!

Photo courtesy of Pete Morris at the Surfbirds website

Spectacled Eiders were listed as a threatened species in 1993 after an apparent 96% decline in population from 1957 to 1992. Populations have since stabilized.
I once had a job to work on these birds on the winter grounds. I was ready to go but then got a new permanent job and was unable to make the trip. I still think about that missed adventure often.

Photo courtesy of Pete Morris at the surfbirds website at
The other species is the King Eider (Somateria spectabilis). I have been enamoured with this species since I was young. The pale blue head, sea-green cheeks, and large orange knob on the bill - what a look. I also like the shark fin feathers that project above the back.

I may have observed this species while working in the Canadian arctic a few years ago, but I was unable to get good enough looks at the only eiders I saw that fall to ID them to species.

Photo courtesy of Kit Day at the Surfbirds website at

Friday, October 12, 2007


Last night I let the dog out for the last time before bed and looked up. The Milky Way was spectacular. A clear and cool sky really brightens up the stars and this view is one of the benefits of living in a rural area.
This morning provided another treat in the skies. Molten waves of clouds greeted me on my drive into work this morning and I just had to pull over and take a few photos.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Odds and Ends

So many posts have come and gone through my mind over the last few weeks but never made it here for one reason or another.

There was the day the crows were migrating through in long scattered groups. The sight reminded me of the fall day a number of years ago when I was watched a long broken line of these birds chasing the light south. At the top of a large hill near here, I was able to connect scattered groups of crows from as far as I could see to the north, over my head and again as far as I could see to the south - with my spotting scope! This stringy line of scattered crows, moving near the earth stretched for at least 10 miles. Maybe they really stretched from daylight to dusk.

Then there was the first flock of cranes. Sandhill cranes in swirling lines forming large masses moving in the same direction as the crows, but much higher. The fall cranes always prompt memories from my childhood of walking home from school for lunch on a yellow October day and hearing that sound. If you have heard it before you know what I mean - that rolling call of the Arctic and muskeg connecting to the playas of the southern grasslands. I remember being stopped in the open field between the school and my house when the churling bugles registered in my mine and my eyes moved skyward to trace the sound to the gathered specks moving south in shifting lines high above me.

Oh, and ambiguity and bird identification from David Sibley mixed with the Dunning-Kruger effect (from a post by Pluvialis at Fretmarks) prompted lots of thoughts, particularly during this time of year when I am reviewing a number of bird observations submitted to the Montana Bird Records Committee for review. But I am not going to chase that right now.

Then there are these guys...

And her..

And it is a gorgeous fall day in October, upland gamebird season is on, waterfowl opened last weekend, birds are migrating through, I can see the bison grazing out my front window as I type this and I should not be sitting in front of my computer. My camera/binoculars/shotgun should be in my hand and I should be out the door and.....did you hear the door slam shut behind me?