Tuesday, December 4, 2007


I hadn´t even planned to go to Patagonia, but here I am... I spent the rest of my time in Chiloé visiting the same northern areas, and making a short side trip to Castro. I just loved the hiking along the cliffs, beaches and countryside of the village of Puñihuil from which people go see the pingüineras.

From Chiloé I went back to the mainland, to Puerto Varas for just a day, and then down to Puerto Montt, where I took the ferry to Puerto Natales in Southern Patagonia. I just couldn´t resist the temptation of a three-day ferry ride through the islands of southern Chile. (Et oui, Joseph, pour repondre à ta question, tu devrais retourner et prendre le Navimag. Je crois que ça va bien te plaire. Aussi, envoie-moi ton adresse et je vais t´envoyer ton bouquin). I rode the ferry “Magallanes,” which was up until recently known as the “Evangelistas” as is still written on the boat and the life rings.

The “Magallanes” is not a pretty boat, but it did the job rather well. Most of the trip was flat water, except for an eight-hour crossing of the Golfo de Penas where we encountered some oceanic swell that tended to slam into the bow. The majority of the passengers was tourists, so at times it felt a bit like a floating youth hostel, which was not necessarily a bad thing. The ferry never deviated its course for marine mammals, so I couldn´t identify for sure any of the ones I saw, but it did make a side trip to the PioXI glacier, and I saw lots of good pelagic birds such as the black-browed albatross (very numerous), pink-footed shearwater, Chilean skua (one of the McCormick´s species), southern giant petrel, southern fulmar, cape petrel, and best of all, three royal albatrosses! The route was very beautiful, but the gigantic scale of the mountains and islands, and the windy, rainy, cloudy weather made almost all photography efforts ridiculous. This is a small village in the Patagonian islands – our only stop between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (can you tell I like the boats here?).

This is going to be long… I then went into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, where I hiked a 5-day circuit that took me around the back of the mountains, but not in the more heavily visited valleys. Once again, everything is enormous, and about half of my pictures are of little things like flowers.

And yes, of course, there are interesting birds here as well. Lots of condors, magullan geese, ashy-headed geese and nandús, but also some Chilean flamingo, Magellanic tapaculo, black-chested buzzard-eagle, cinereous harrier, dark-faced ground-tyrant, Magellanic woodpecker, Magellanic oystercatcher (notice a trend yet?), etc… And outside the park, there are guanacos everywhere. They are just incredible! The best part is that I get to observe very cool behavior, such as an owl flying about and looking at me, a pair of Magellanic woodpeckers peeling a dead tree just a few meters away, rayaditos in their nests, a fire-eyed diucon scrubbing a huge, hairy caterpillar on the ground before eating it, Magullan geese with their chicks, etc. I hardly ever needed binoculars, as most birds didn´t seem to care that I was there. Oh, and the Nothofagus forests were amazing, and there were many species of cool plants. Julien would have loved it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Too much to tell!

A lot happened since I left Concepción. First I went to Los Angeles with Dennis the Dutchman, and we made an attempt to climb Volcán Atuco (almost 3000 meters). Antuco is a perfect volcano in Parque nacional Lago del Laja. However, we ran into some trouble when the bus took about three times as long as we´d been told it would take, when we didn´t have too much luck hitch-hiking into the park, and finally when the clouds moved in on us as we were about two-thirds of the way up. Oh well, it was a beautiful climb nonetheless, and a fun slide back down to the snowline. We also saw two condors!

We then went to Pucón, which is home to another famous volcano. Antuco is most famous for having killed 17 Chilean soldiers who were caught in bad weather during an ascent, and Volcán Villarica is famous for its accessibility and constant activity.

Volcán Villarica is off-limits to independent climbers, so we had to hire a mountain guide (a great Swiss guy called Tobias). The weather was stunning, and we made it to the top in less than five hours. Sadly, the noxious gases were getting swirled around so bad that I didn´t get to see magma inside the crater, but I brought a nice bottle of wine up there and some cups, so we celebrated in the middle of clouds of hot, sulphurous smoke at about 2900 meters.

I then went to some really nice hot springs (two bottles of wine, this time, and lots of cups), some nice little hikes, and a half-day hike in Parque Nacional Huerquehue. The goal of visiting this park was to see wild Araucarias (monkey puzzle trees). It sounds strange to go look for “wild” trees, I know… But these trees are just awesome, prehistoric, and in the mountains they grow much larger than the largest one I had ever seen before. And they die! I know that all trees die, but seeing giant dead Auraucarias rotting on the ground is strangely fascinating. The forest s a mix of Araucarias and Nothofagus, with a bamboo understory. I also got to see black-throated huet-huet, the Chucao tapaculo, and lots of white-crested elaenias and austral parakeets.

I then went to Valdivia, which was very pretty and great place to party with Chilean students and relax. I had a great time just visiting sites of local cultural interest, and reading my book. The highlight was a visit to some old Spanish forts. I also made the mistake of signing up for an organized tour to an isolated farming town on an island in the delta. It sounded good, but all the other passengers were little old Chilean ladies whose only concern was to harvest medicinal and decorative plants from the woods, the roadside, and even people’s gardens! So that´s what we did - for two hours. At least there were dozens of black-necked swans…

I then went to a small place in the countryside North of Puerto Octay, on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. It is a beautiful place, dominated by Volcán Osorno, and very fertile and peaceful.

As you can probably guess, I wanted to climb Osorno, but I ran into Sep, a German mountain guide who had been beat down by a storm along with a world-class climber the day before, only fifty meters from the top. So I got wise, and did a day-long bicycle trip to Frutillar over backroads, and a nice hike up a side-crater of a much smaller volcano in Parque Nacional Puyehue with Sep and a Canadian traveller. Some good birds there were the condor, Chilean flicker, and the Chilean tinamou.

I struck a friendship with Joseph, the Canadian guy, and we went down to the island of Chiloé. I am now in Ancud, in the north of the island. It´s been amazing birding without even trying. Magellanic penguins, Humboldt penguins, Magellanic diving-petrels, kelp geese with their chicks, flightless steamer ducks, etc, etc. Oh, and the place is beautiful, too. Like all of Chile so far.

And for last: a nice comparison of Humboldt´s and Magellanic penguins. I didn´t bring my camera with the zoom lens because I knew I´d be taking bird pictures the entire time. But I went out to a colony with a skiff and I was sooooo close!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

First week in Chile

Santiago was great, but so far my favorite place is Armerillo, near Talca, where I stayed at a small place called Refugio del Tricahue. There is a really large Nothofagus dombeyii there, which soundeed just like the giant hemlock that I can never find. "It´s up the valley", they told me. "It´s the biggest tree there, but you might not find it." Well I found it, so I took the photo to prove it!

I also found all sorts of neat things which where completely new to me. Like burrowing parrots, plain-mantled tit-spinetails, torrent ducks, dark-bellied cinclodes, thorn-tailed rayayditos, etc. Ad infinitum. As you may see from the picture below, the place was really nice too. This is one of the more open valleys that I walked through with a Dutch friend that I met in Santiago:

I am now in Talca with Dennis the Dutchman and a cool Argentinian girl named Emilia. Among many other things we went to Lota to visit the old coal mines of Chiflón del Diablo, walk around on the beach, and visit the town. Here we are in the coal mine:

Monday, November 5, 2007

Leaving Sitka!

I'm trying to update this once a week, but it can be a struggle. If the airline gods are propitious I should be going to Chile in a few hours.

In the past week there were a couple of good hikes, but the highlight was definitely Whalefest, a cycle of conferences on marine mammals that I attended. There was some whalewatching involved (we even got to see a gray whale right up close and fluking, which is rather unusual here in this time of the year), but the conferences were the main attraction. What I found most fascinating was information about PBDE concentrations in killer whales, and the significance of underwater noise from mineral exploration.

Although there were at least a couple dozen humpback whales, I didn't take a single picture of one. But here's a picture of downtown Sitka seen from the water:

My Russian friend Roman got married yesterday, when it was beautiful weather like this. He proposed underwater, married on Castle Hill in the sun (Castle Hill is where Alaska was transferred to US ownership), the big ceremony will be on a boat in Sitka Sound, and they're going to Hawai'i. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sitka fun

It’s been a fun few days for me here in Sitka in spite of the near constant rain. I’ve been reading, swimming at the pool, eating out for just about every meal, birdwatching, hiking, partying, gossiping, and just relaxing.

I went with Matt (who has an interesting blog called Sitka Nature) and Gregory to look for the giant hemlock. Apparently, there is a record-sized hemlock in the Indian River drainage. Well, it’s the second time that I go there to find it, and the second time that I don’t find it. As Kitty asked me: “How can you not find it? It’s the biggest tree in the forest!”

The upside is that I have now explored the area enough that I am positive I will find it next time. And we saw all kinds of cool things out there, including this waterfall. It had been raining all morning so the stream was running so strong that the noise by that waterfall was deafening. Look just to the right of the center of the picture, and you’ll see Matt climbing up it.

Another high point was the Stardust Ball. That’s basically Sitka’s Halloween Party, which this month was on the 27th. The Stardust ball was simply crazy. There were all kinds of crazy costumes. There were people dressed up as fried eggs, dock pilings, Lara Croft, fish boxes, tourists, and even a pregnant woman dressed up as an oven! And of course, there was lots of dancing and alcohol, and a hilarious lip-synch contest. As you can guess from the picture below, Noelle went as a vampire, and yes, I am the blue Disco King! I even wore big high-heeled boots! Of course, my shins are still sore from the boots, but it was well worth it.

I also finished my very first carving project. It is the Tlingit-style bear mask below, which I had started in 2003 but never finished. I was not very happy with it so I did a bunch of other art projects while that bear mask lingered in my bags. But in the end I picked it back up and finished it yesterday, under the supervision of Tommy Joseph. It turned out pretty nice after all:

Friday, October 26, 2007

Back in Sitka!

It’s been really good here in Sitka for the past week. It was a bit strange coming into Sitka on a bright, sunny day, and with a brass band playing in the airport to welcome us back. Well, at least, to welcome some of us back. Of the ten people that left together to go to Iraq, two didn’t make it through medical screening (Petersen and Llewllyn), one had to go back early (Carson), and of the remaining seven only Sommerville and me came back on the scheduled flight.

I got an answer for my last bird pictures in Kuwait: The redstart was a common redstart, and the shrike was most likely an isabelline shrike! That shrike sure looked like a red-backed to me, but thanks to Julien and the book, I now know better.

As always, there are a lot of interesting things to do in Sitka. I attended an interesting totem pole inauguration ceremony. The pole was carved by Tommy Joseph, my carving teacher. I’ll try to go take pictures of it some other day and put them up in this blog.

Another great event was a Zen meditation practice and tea ceremony by a Japanese Buddhist monk. One of his ancestors was the captain of a Japanese seal hunting boat that sank in the harbor next to the University. The boat had been seized for poaching, and the captain killed himself on the way back to Japan out of shame that the expedition had failed. The highlight of the meditation practice was getting hit on the shoulders by a long, slender wooden paddle. It doesn’t hurt, yet it is strangely effective when I start to lose focus and think about my aches and pains.

I took some pictures on my walk from the house to Totem Park yesterday:

I got this photo of a male lesser scaup at Swan Lake:

I then saw a bunch of harlequin ducks on a rock close to shore in front of the SJ salmon hatchery:

And just before getting to the park, I found some interesting mushrooms that are probably Helvella lacunosa. They were growing in grass by the sidewalk, under a birch, a spruce and a hemlock:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Going home!

I'm almost home! It has been a long, tiresome process. We started by shipping all our stuff out of Kuwait, and moving out of our barracks. We spent over a day homeless, waiting for our flight out of Kuwait. This involved a lot of lounging around, drinking coffee and - for the more talented ones among us - playing poker or the guitar.

We then flew out to Mississippi, which was a long, uneventful flight. We did, however, stop in Ireland for a couple of hours. Many of our soldiers were very excited because they claim Irish ancestry, and as they walked around the airport giftshop they oohed, aahed, and commented on how good it feels to return to the homeland. Other people simply stood in front of the alcoholic drinks and stared as if hypnotized. We eventually left, although my friend Ian from Juneau briefly considered taking over the plane and returning to Ireland for good.

Mississippi was blissfully green and comfortable. We were there for about six days mostly to resolve paperwork, health and supply issues before going home. Of course, we had to endure another ceremony with dignitaries both military and civilian, but this one was mercifully short and I soon went back to meandering through the woods, where I found neat things such as armadillos, deer, Drosera sp. sundew carnivorous plants, beautiful tulip trees, skunks, turtles, and much more. It is a real treat to be overwhelmed by an ecosystem where the diversity is so great that it would be unthinkable to make an exhaustive list of everything I see from where I stand.

I am now in the Houston airport, waiting for a plane to Seattle, and I should be in Sitka within 24 hours. I just can't wait.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A few things before leaving

Fifteen months after I reported for duty at the Sitka armory with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a duffel bag in the other, we're almost done with our deployment. Our replacement unit is trained up and in place, and all we have left to do is ship all our stuff out of the country, clean weapons, turn in equipment, do paperwork, etc...

Today was the award ceremony, that dreaded day where everyone lines up for trinkets. As always when we have formations, the weather was awful and the ceremony needlessly long. Two people passed out from the heat. Sergeant Metcalfe took the above photo. It is of specialist Hahn receiving an Army Achievement Medal from LTC Osborn, our battalion commander. This award is usually called AAM in the Army, and rates very low. Most people got AAMs and other puny awards. I was quite angry to find that most of the awards were very poorly written. Several people found out that they were credited for nothing in particular, had their names misspelled, or were credited with insignificant achievements. For example, mine states that I won second place in my weight category at a stairmaster competition, but not that I was a team leader or that I volunteered for the mission in Southern Iraq. One of the guys in my squad (I am a squad leader right now) even has someone else's name and achievements written into his paperwork. No wonder we didn't get any good awards!

On a more positive note - I found some flowers! Almost all the vegetation has been dead for months, but the Cornulaca leucacantha have remained mostly green, and they just flowered a couple of weeks ago (hint: look for yellow spots). Of course, it's not tulips or hibiscus, but you can't be picky in the desert after several months of zero precipitation.

And finally - a laughing dove Streptopelia senegalensis. They are flying through in large numbers right now, along with a few small flocks of turtle doves Streptopelia turtur. They are very easily frightened, so although they are rather common I never did get a good picture of one. I can't blame them; I'd probably be easily frightened as well if I were a defenseless bird flying through a country full of shotgun-toting Kuwaitis.

We're taking the internet satellite dish down in a few hours, and leaving Kuwait for good in a few days. Next stop: Mississippi!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ramadan mubarak!

I haven't had much time to do anything lately, thanks to a soldier who made a mistake while I was supposed to supervise him. The specialist - who shall remain unnamed of course - fired his rifle while attempting to clear the ammunition out of it.

Happens from time to time? It's okay, he was tired? I was just distracted? There's no such thing in the army. In fact, losing control of one's weapon in any form is the infantryman's capital sin.

So far we've both had about thirty hours of extra, which really isn't so bad but enough to deprive us of a bunch of sleep, and the final punishment hasn't yet been decided but it's looking like it will be unusually light (normally, rank and pay are taken away).
I haven't been bringing my camera most days, but I did get a few pictures anyways.

The birds have stopped dying off. It was fun walking around and pulling dead warblers, shrikes, egrets, quails, etc. , but it was also starting to get a little depressing. Now I see a lot of hawks, including a black-shouldered kite Elanus caeruleus, but mostly it is the same warblers, buntings, shrikes and wheatears as in the spring except that the numbers are lower. Also I made the mistake of shipping my field guide out with a bunch of gear. So the buzzards, pitpits, brown warblers, and eagles are all sp. I couldn't even put a name on the dozens of redstarts that showed up one day. Julien - do you know if this is just a colorful subspecies of the black redstart?

And I am pretty sure that this is a juvenile red-backed shrike Lanius collurio.

In other news, it is now Ramadan. I though about trying to observe Sawm for a few days, but it would be really dificult because I work a really long shift and the breaking of the fast (iftar) is right in the middle of my already insufficient sleep. Also, we don't get breakfast until after sunrise. Maybe after we're off mission. After all, it'll still be Ramadan until well into October.
The Kuwaitis are generally okay with us eating and drinking in the middle of the day while they themselves gradually fade away in the heat, but we try to eat and drink only when we are away from them. Public violations of Ramadan are explicitly prohibited by military regulations and Kuwaiti civil law, but most of us don't care about those ridiculous rules. It's usually better to informally enforce sensible conduct instead.
Thankfully, the temperatures have been going a little further down and the days are a little bit shorter, so this year's Ramadan isn't as bad as it will be in, for example, 2010 (in August!). My best Ramadan experience, so far, is chasing and catching the terrified ewe in this picture. She was later killed and cooked, but sadly I wasn't there for iftar so I missed the resulting meal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We love our FNGs!

I guess I’ll have to explain that… In English, FNGs stands for “F*ing New Guys”.

Our FNGs are from Virginia, and they are coming to replace us so we can go home.

Finally! Of course, we still have to train them, swap our equipment, ship our stuff out of the country, fill out mountains of paperwork, check out through our mobilization station, wait for flights, etc. So it’ll take at least a month before we can look at life through the warming glow a glass of beer again.

I did a few good things recently:

I have been in country for over eleven months. Only one to go!

And finally, I won my “100 kilometer Club 2007” T-shirt this morning! That is a T-shirt that the run organizers give to those people who log in for 100 kilometers’ worth of organized races in the year 2007. It may sound easy, but between days where I miss a race because of work, days where I forget to sign up, and days where the run is canceled because of dust storms or because the mandatory ambulance is on a mission, it’s pretty hard to get to the 100 kilometer mark. I am the only one in the battalion who made the mark. My times are a little worse than they were last winter (5 kilometers in 18 minutes and 22 seconds this morning), but I am actually surprised not to have lost more weight and speed than I did over the summer.

I did an Army physical fitness test while wearing my body armor and Kevlar helmet, and carrying my rifle (except for the sit-ups, which I couldn’t do with a rifle because my fingers have to be inter-locked). The APFT consists of three events: push-ups for 2 minutes, sit-ups for 2 minutes, and 2-mile run.

I completed:

- 49 push-ups, versus 96 on my last APFT.
- 56 sit-ups, versus 80 last time.
- 2 miles in 14:14 minutes, versus 11:14 on the last APFT.

My total score was 232/300, versus 298/300 last time, with the Army minimum being 180/300, and a “perfect” score being 300/300. A perfect score corresponds roughly to being in the top 10% of the US Army.

So I still passed the test, but the extra weight really did take a serious toll.

As for birds, I have been seeing all sorts of interesting things but it was mostly on two dawn patrols, where I still hadn’t grabbed my camera and binoculars from the trunk of the Humvee. The best bird by far was a white stork (Ciconia ciconia), but I also enjoyed a few harriers sp., buzzards sp., black kites, a pratincole, and an eagle Aquila sp. I also found a few dead birds – the best one by far being a little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus). It is kind of cool getting to hold a tiny little heron.

Sometimes it seems that life has been really interesting for everyone except for me. Julien went touristing around Spain, and explored a cool giant cave in Southern France, Laurent saw the great bustard in Estremadura, and my dad went to the Pyrenees!

It appears that I haven’t been giving explicit enough information about my plans through this blog. As it stands, here they are:

- Spend a few days in Sitka in the fall. Go kayaking weather permitting (just thinking about it I get all excited).
- Go to Chile until sometime in January.
- Move to Juneau in early January.

- Re-start classes, again, for the spring semester.
- Depending on what fuzzy math method the counselors elect, I am about fifteen to twenty-two semester hours away from a BLA with emphasis in English and psychology.
- That translates into two more years of study for a four-year degree that is the equivalent of a really good high-school degree.
- As far as living arrangement, I’ll most likely be renting a room from Jad.

And by the way, who is Jad? Here’s a picture of him from the last time we shared accomodations:

Of course, we had a bit more room there than we will in his condo in Juneau... Jad’s a floatplane pilot, an infantryman, a former sailor in the Navy, a dad (as of this summer), and a good friend. He was my team leader on the Southern Iraq mission last spring. We both like to drink coffee and talk about random things, exchange books, etc. So this should be a stress-free arrangement. Of course, the best landlady in the world is still Noelle, but there just aren’t enough classes offered in Sitka for me to complete my degree there.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Illegal migrants turn themselves in to border police!

The birds are still suffering out here. Quails, in particular, have been willing to go anywhere for some shade. I had a quail fly into my Humvee and land right next to me, almost on top of the seat belt clip. Of course, it was trying to get some shade. The quail looked up at me, and I was absolutely stunned. I tried to catch the quail, but the bird looked really fragile so that when I had my hand on it I hesitated to grasp firmly, and it flew back out of the Humvee. Other quails flew under concrete blocks and in the shadow of building, and I could not catch or photograph them either. But I ended up getting a quail that flew into a Kuwaiti Police building and was caught by a Bangladeshi servant. I released it just before sunset, and got this picture before it flew off. Back in France, I don’t even remember ever seeing a quail although they are not rare, because they are usually well hidden in vegetation.

Since I was talking about vegetation, there is an interesting picture I thought I’d post. The natural habitat here is made up of very hard sand with a few perennials and many annuals that mostly dry up around May. However, most of Kuwait is heavily browsed by camels, goats and sheep, and driven over by all sorts of vehicles. By the time summer comes around, these parts of the desert will have been obliterated, and the sand gradually becomes soft at the surface. The fence in this picture was closed only a few months ago for tactical reasons, and already we can see a drastic difference between exposed and protected areas.

And here is another migrating bird that flew into the same Kuwaiti Police building. This one is a hoopoe, the bird I just cannot get tired of seeing and photographing. It is being held by a Kuwaiti Raqib, which is roughly equivalent to a staff sergeant in the US army. It takes about nine years to attain that rank from Shurtti - the lowest rank.

I have been reading a lot, and for variety I went back to reading in English. My most memorable reads of the last two or three weeks were:

Mala Onda, by Alberto Fuguet
If you lived here I’d know our name, by Heather Lende
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
El Tunel, by Ernesto Sabato

I really enjoyed The Shipping News, from which I had already read a few chapter in anthologies. The language is simply amazing, as in this passage:

“The sea. Heard a big one. She’s building a swell.” They stood below the amber sky, listening. The tuckamore all black tangle, the cliff a funeral stele.
“There. See that!” Yark gripped Quoyle’s wrist, drew his arm out to follow his own, pointing northeast into the bay. Out on the darkling water a ball of blue fire glimmered. The lighthouse flash cut across the bay, revealed nothing, and in the stunned darkness behind it the strange glow rolled, rolled and faded.
“That’s a weather light. Seen them many times. Bad weather coming.” Although the trickster sky was clear.

Although my main focus lately has been on improving my Spanish, I am looking to improve my English. For example:

- A “factoid” is not a fact. It would be a factoid to say that the Iranian government is a Sunni Muslim state.

- A name for duct tape is “Mississippi chrome”.

- I am going to standardize my quote marks, which I used to always put at the outside of punctuation.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A tough time for migrating birds

It is still very hot our here - well over a hundred degrees F every day.

Whereas I have gotten disturbingly used to the heat (I even slept the entire afternoon in a humvee in the sun today), the birds are suffering and dying quickly. A "feldegg" yellow wagtail I found wedged between a cardboard box and a wall was dead less than an hour later. Under many parked cars there were dead shrikes, warblers, sparrows, and wagtails who hid in the only shade they could find but died anyways.

Still, there were some live birds. I even saw two species and one subspecies that I had never seen before. This one is the short-toed lark Calandrella brachydactyla. I found it panting under a car, but I was able to chase it out into the light where I could snap a picture of it. Other birds, especially the wagtails and warblers, remained firmly ensconced under cars.

This is one of the birds that just wouldn't budge, so the photo came out really strange. I posted it anyway because it is an other species I hadn't ever seen before: a River warbler Locustella fluviatilis. The legs appear pink because the light outside the car's shadow glows right through them:

I have always had a soft spot for pipits and wagtails, a family known as motacillidae. Whereas the two previous birds were new to me and rather unusual, today's best bird was by far a yellow wagtail Motacilla flava. Most of the yellow wagtails here are of the feldegg (the coolest-looking one) and thunbergi subspecies. This one is the first one I see of the beema subspecies. It looks a lot like the nominate subspecies that predominates in France, but it has a little white patch on the cheek:

And here's a bonus bird: the great grey shrike Lanius griseus. Apparently, this is the pallidirostris subspecies because its beak is mostly pale, and its lores are white. This one wasn't hiding under an object for some reason. He was doing his best to hold on to his barbed wire perch, and kept his eyelids closed because of the sand (I forgot to mention that the wind has been fierce lately, and everything exposed to it is constantly sandblasted).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Camel patrol

There are finally a few birds around! Just today I saw a quail, two great grey shrikes, four isabelline shrikes, five hoopoes, and a desert wheatear. I haven't had a chance to take any pictures yet, but hopefully by the next post I'll have a photo of some neat and unusual animal.

For this post I have some from a patrol where we stopped to check a Bangladeshi herder called Samir, and I ended up arranging some camel rides for the soldiers in the squad. We also got some camel's milk (although most of the soldiers were afraid of drinking something that didn't come with a USDA label), and I exchanged a few words with Samir. Surprisingly, he spoke a little Arabic and even a couple words of English. Most of the herders out here speak only Urdu, Hindi and other Indian subcontinent languages. This photo is of Samir telling the camel to rise up while Cañal hangs on for dear life:

And here is a photo of specialist Bates, who seems to think he is a méhariste (a French soldier specialized in camel warfare):

The French have a lot more experience fighting wars on camels than the Americans do. Whereas the American army never really got the hang of using camels and eventually abandoned or sold all the animals that had been imported, the French have a long history of using them for raids and regular operations. One famous méhariste is the French naturalist and adventurer Théodore Monod, who I really admire. This fun little interlude reminded me of him, and of how pampered we are here. He once crossed 900 kilometers of desert without a single water point! And many people around here think it is a big deal to run the 2 mile standard Army run!

One of my soldiers recently got hurt, and he won't be part of our operations anymore, so here's a photo I took of him on what turned out to be one of his last patrols:

Private Kirkpatrick, from Valdez, has been an infantryman in the Alaska National Guard for almost five years now. He had been trying unsuccessfully to pass the Army physical fitness test for the past year, but he'll probably never take one again. I was really angry when I found out he was too badly hurt to do any kind of work, because our missions are very easy and lacking in physical stress. I even got in a loud argument with the platoon sergeant, but in the end there was nothing I could do about it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Herding camels, and raiding Plywoodtown

We've been here for over ten months without any problems, but it seems we haven't relaxed a bit. In fact, we now work longer hours, and we'll be doing more training too. So sleep will keep being a scarce commodity until October. We've been passing the time by chasing camels out of restricted areas, patrolling, drinking coffee, and talking for hours about how we hate everything about this place and we can't wait to have a cold beer in Alaska.

We did get to raid one of the plywood "training villages" that are scattered out in the desert. My squad, however, got stuck in a support-by-fire position and although we did get to see the enemy (people who get paid to play terrorist with Warsaw pact weapons), we didn't get to shoot. That's to be expected, however. In fact, most people involved in raids never even see the enemy, or if they do they won't be able to engage because we have to respect strict rules of engagement and sectors of fire. Here's my squad leader, a good sergeant who recently got back from Afghanistan, at the position from which he reported village activity to our maneuver element.

And here's my platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Shaw. He joined the Army during Vietnam, and was in the Special Forces. He was also in Iraq as part of the brigade that relieved the one I was with, which means he only got a few months' break between deployments. So why is he skylining himself and leaving a broken night vision bracket on his Kevlar helmet? Well, I guess he must be getting soft. In this picture, he is telling me and my M240B gunner to get ourselves and a ton of equipment up a soft hillside.

Wait... Did I say hillside? Don't be confused: there are no natural hillsides here. That was merely a 15ft high tailing. This place is completely flat, save for a few shallow open-pit mining areas. This is a picture of us exfiltrating trough such an area, using the tailings as cover and smoke as concealment.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Let's go downtown!

I got to go to Kuwait city again, which was a welcome break. The trip's stated purpose was to visit the aquarium, eat lunch, and visit the Kuwait Towers. I did those things and liked them, but by far I was happiest just walking along the seashore in civilian clothes, and looking for birds in the palm trees. Most of the birds were introduced species, such as the common mynah Acridotheres tristis, the domestic sparrow Passer domesticus, the white-cheeked bulbul Pycnotus leucogenys, and the collared dove streptopelia turtur. There were, however, a few laughing doves and hoopoes with the pigeons, and some terns and gulls offshore. Most of the birds were surprisingly skittish for a city. I am guessing that may have something to do with the hundreds of stray cats that live in the rocks along the seafront.
I really enjoyed the aquarium at the Scientific center. Of course, with a typical naturalist's fascination with strange creatures, I absolutely loved the cuttlefish, the bats, and the one lungfish they had stashed in a small tank behind a counter. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were Kuwaiti students (from high school and college) who were volunteering their time as interpreters there. I was even handed a pet long-eared hedgehog by a couple of shy, hijab-wearing high school girls. As for the sharks, cute mammals and tropical fishes, well... They're so heavily promoted that they seemed rather like an extension of the giftshop to me.

I had an ungodly amunt of Lebanese food for lunch, and I had still had enough leftovers for an entire dinner after we returned to the camp. Then we went to the Kuwait Towers - again! It's a lot like the Space Needle, but smaller and surprisingly dirty for a national landmark in a country where labor is very cheap. The only advantage it has over the Space Needle is that it's by the Gulf, so I went beachcombing and found dozens of Dentalia shells. Dentalia are strange little mollusks that live in a shell like a hollow tusk, which is buried in the sediment. Contrary to what I long thought, they live with the pointy end out, and the wide end is where the "foot" (more of an anchor, really) comes out. In this photo, there is a small Dentalium at the bottom right.