Well, so much for willing myself awake at 0500. I need an alarm clock.
Got up at 0600 to look for the bird. We knew we could likely intercept him in the morning if we could only get in front of him before he headed north.
So we rushed out of camp, drove down to the mining road and I promptly got jammed in a drainage ditch crossing onto the track. Yes, a drainage ditch in the Atacama. Fortunately Shirley was there with her Land Rover and pulled me out quickly.
It starts to get light up here at 0650 (astronomical dawn) and the sun rises around 0800 (depending on which mountain range you happen to be behind). We arrived near Felipes roost site right off Ruta 5 around 0824. I know the time exactly because that is when I got a strong "beep.....beep......beep" off the receiver. It was Felipe! Too very, very cool!
And, as it happened, and I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but it is the truth, we were just driving by the famous sculpure of the Hand In the Desert. It is a monument to all of the Chilean people who disappeared during the earlier difficult days in the 1980's. It just sits out there all alone on the desert, attracting attention with its complete incongruity.
The Hand In The Desert
So we pulled in there and I tracked Felipe as he flew slowly across the ridge in the background. He was circling some (the signal varies characteristically) and flying straight towards the north of course. We tried to see him but with no luck. The ridge was about a half-mile away.
Listening to Felipe's Signal In Front of the Hand of the Desert
We drove up the Ruta 5 a bit and photographed the mountain where he roosted the night before. Based on the distance it was away from the signals (approx.7 miles), it looks like he didn't start to migrate until after sunrise.
Felipe's Roost on the Mountain In the Distance
We followed him north all the way to the junction of Ruta 5 and the road down to Antofagasta.
There is a major industrial area here with a huge cement plant, truck stops, mechanic shops, tire repair places, train tracks, dozens and dozens of semi trucks and air pollution you can see for many miles away. Sort of like Mordor really.
I was tracking him through this area when his signal came in erratically and I thought that he must be hunting the pigeon flock there. We drove around this chaotic, confusing maze of roads, construction, heavy semi traffic, warehouses and all else but did not succeed in finding him. We took to the neighboring hills to shoot down into the basin, thinking, hoping really, that he might be on the ground with a kill. After no luck for an hiur or so, we gave up and headed down into Antofagasta ("Anto") for supplies.
Later examination of the signal that came in at that time showed that he was most likely simply circling up and over the next mountain range. Oh well.
And this brings up my main question. What on earth is this bird eating as he migrates north through one of the most extreme deserts on earth? With the exception of the birds at this junction (Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows), we have seen only the very odd Turkey Vulture here and there. The desert is so bleak that we don't even have insects hitting our windshields.
As I see it at this point, we are documenting several different basic routes for Chilean migrant peregrines.
The first is a coastal route where tagged birds generally follow the Pacific coastline and roost right above the coastal terrace, often within sight of the highway. No problem here imaging what they are eating (shorebirds, phalaropes, gulls). Island Girl is doing this right now.
The second is the high desert route, typified by Felipe this year, where a falcon migrates predominantly through the arid desert well away from and far above the coastal route. As we are seeing, they roost anywhere in the desert, most typically on a ridge or shoulder of a mountain.
The third route includes high elevation tracks through the Andes Mountains in both Chile and Peru, often at record setting altitiudes for peregrines.
We have seen the fourth only once, with Chamiza. She flew up the Andes route in Chile and Peru but ran out of high ground on her eastward track near Macchu Picchu and flew north down into the Amazon Basin where we documented her actually roosting directly over the great river in some instances.
Of course, it is not this simple. Any peregrine can use one route or a combination of routes north. They can even vary these routes over different years.
Because we are following our tagged bird this year, it is a good opportunity to learn more about this, to me, enigmatic, high desert route. I would have no problem with it if only there was some source of food that I could identitfy. But we see no migrant birds, no bats, nothing that peregrines normally hunt and consume.
On another issue, the technology we are using seems to be working better now, again thanks to the efforts of both Don McCall in Seattle and Mike McGrady near Vienna. They are both keeping on top of the signals and getting them to us as soon as is possible, 24 hours a day. We obviously could not be doing this without their attention, enthusiasm and help. Thanks guys.
Using a combination of satellite phone, handheld GPS units and Google Earth seems to be working.
Later in the afternoon on Wednesday, we drove up the coastline north of Antofagasta where we crossed into the tropics at the Tropic of Capricorn (23 degrees, 26 minutes, 16 Seconds South).
An Unexpected Cemetary in the Desert
We continued on to the coastal town of Tocopilla where we found one of two reported Internet locations in town. This took some doing. But it was at a great little hotel and the manager took pity on us. We checked on our messages and found that Felipe was just above us, up the 5-10 mile grade and out into the desert. We headed out immediately, just starting to lose the light, and after cresting the long grade, we followed our GPS units out onto a dusty track across the plain to get as close to him as possible. But no signal!
We pulled out onto a long, flat slope and drove through a half mile of the fabled Atacama talcum powder dust, 4" deep, before stopping for the night. This stuff throws a cloud of fine particles like I have never seen before. Looks like a rooster tail coming off a hydroplane.
No setting up tents in this stuff. I climbed up on the top of my truck roof rack and slept up there, once again under the most fantastic, moonless skies. Shirley slept in the back of her Rover.
Even though we were now in the tropics, we were at around 4,500' and the wind came up out of the east immediately. I had to pull in the drawstring on my mummy bag to keep warm. Contrary to what you might think, it can be really cold up here in the desert in April after sundown.
I was really surprised to find that the wind was coming out of the east. The night before, at 8,000', the wind came from the west, i.e. the exact opposite direction. I realized that this might be one of the reasons that our tagged birds change locations at their roost sites. It could be the rise of a bone-chilling wind. The morning temperature had dipped to a surprising 39 degrees F.
I saw several polar orbiting satellites and wondered if one of them was working for us.
Then I fell sleep under the stars and the wide dark sky.
Sunset in the Atacama
That is, until Don's satellite call at 0230. Felipe was sleeping only five miles north of us now.