What is the South American country which is bordered by Brazil on the northeast and Argentina on the northwest, west and south? This country has a population of three million very mellow people and twice as many cows (and sheep). Uruguay is the country and Montevideo is their capital city.

Flip Harrington, Harriette Otteson and I made the grueling trip which included a flight to Miami and then a nine hour flight from Miami to Montevideo. Was it worth it, yes! Montevideo is the most laid-back capital city I have ever visited and by far the cleanest in Latin America. Montevideo boasts one third of the country’s population. We landed early in the morning and proceeded to drop off our gear at the hotel and walk along La Rambla which is a promenade which circles the city and separates it from the South Atlantic Ocean and the Bahia (Bay) de Montevideo and the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver). There were black-backed gull look-alikes all along the walkway which we identified as kelp gulls. Martins about the size of purple martins swooped in and out of the walls and they turned out to be brown-chested martins. Instead of double-crested or great cormorants, we were observing neotropic cormorants loafing on the offshore rocks. A black-crowned night heron flew by that evening which was quite a surprise. These were familiar species for the three of us but what we had in store were birds of a different feather.

The drive to the west from Montevideo took us into various habitats of grassland, gallery forest and thorn shrub, plus the marshes along the Uruguay River that separate Uruguay from Argentina. Now we were seeing birds including the chicli spinetail and scimitar-billed woodcreeper that did not have any look-alikes at home.

Next we drove to the northeast to an area of rocky canyons, some with crystal-clear creeks, interspersed with gallery forests which are the southernmost extension of the Atlantic forest. Here we found birds with great names including freckle-breasted thornbirds, mottled piculets, buff-browed foliage-gleaner and white monjitas (no, not the rum drink, mojitos, but a lovely white flycatcher). The drives between these stops were made up mostly of low elevation rolling hillsides with sparse woodlands and breathtaking long distance views. These areas were fenced and were grazed by herds of cows and sheep that were tended to by gauchos. These “cowboys” all wore berets. They are descendants of Basque herders and the beret is traditional attire. The eastern section of Uruguay has large areas of marshes, lakes and rice fields. Here we found a field that had close to 5,000 American golden plovers! Other shorebirds we observed which visit the Vineyard included a good number of white-rumped sandpipers and a few pectoral sandpipers. We spotted American oystercatchers, but found that they were Uruguayan residents and not migrants we might see on the Island. The craziest stopover was Cabo Polonio which is the Key West or Provincetown of Uruguay. The inhabitants have built shacks of driftwood in odd shapes which are artistically painted. Residents make their living by fishing, transporting people over the dunes in dune buggies or four-wheel drive trucks similar to those used in the Cape Poge tour, running restaurants and selling art and trinkets to tourists. The beaches are beautiful and we found yellow-billed, common, royal and Cayenne terns along the shore and a common minor (a bird not a prospector) in the dunes. We had a delicious fish luncheon on the beach, complete with a local beer, Patricia. On our way back to Montevideo we drove through Ponte del Este which is the playground for the rich and famous from other South American countries and Europe. The houses reminded me of some of the McMansions that have been built on-Island. Compared to the houses in the rest of the country, they were very ostentatious. On the final leg of the trip, we stopped for a fabulous luncheon at a Uruguayan winery, Don Pascual, and sampled a Tannant, a mellow red wine.

What was my favorite bird of the two hundred plus that we saw? That is a tough call. We found two species that were very rare; a strange-tailed tyrant and a white-banded mockingbird. The tyrant is usually found north and although it had been seen before, the sighting was in northern Uruguay and we saw it in southern Uruguay. The mockingbird is a more southern species and should have been back in Argentina or Bolivia at this time of year. If I were to choose a regular resident of Uruguay it would have to be the firewood gatherer which has the most outrageously huge nest constructed of small twigs. The entrance is on the side and the passage into the center nest site winds in a concentric circle!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Bird Sightings

It was nice to hear that the Allen’s hummingbird is still hanging out at Scott Stephens and Penny Uhlendorf’s feeder. I received a call from Dr. James Riley from Edgartown about another hummingbird. It seems his daughter Carol Berwind had a feeder up a week ago and had a hummingbird visit. She was going off-Island and asked her father who lives next door to bring his hummingbird out of winter storage and see if the bird visited. The hummingbird did visit on Dec. 16, but has not been seen since. Perhaps with some sunshine it will appear again and we can determine what species it is.

Michael Ditchfield photographed a merlin at West Basin, Aquinnah on Dec. 12.

On Dec. 13, Jeff Bernier photographed common redpolls at the Katama airpark. The same day Rob Culbert found one field sparrow in with a flock of eight chipping sparrows and a flock of eastern bluebirds at the Martha’s Vineyard airport.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, around 4:30 p.m. Frank and Vasha Brunelle found a dovekie on the beach behind Tisbury Shell. After doing some research they let it go in the Lagoon, watching as it propelled itself with wings, then took a dive coming up about 25 feet away. A short time later they saw it hanging out with a couple of buffleheads. Also, on Dec. 15, Frank saw a great blue heron in the Lagoon across from Tisbury Wharf.

Bert Fischer flushed a short-eared owl at Long Beach, Aquinnah on Dec. 16. The same day Jeff Bernier photographed purple sandpipers at Squibnocket Beach.

Lanny McDowell found an Iceland gull at the scallop pile between Cow Bay and Sengekontacket Pond and three American oystercatchers and several razorbills at East Chop on Dec.18.

Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or email to birds@mvgazette.com.

Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.