Last September, I had ruled out the tough half-mile walk up Sheelite Canyon, an offshoot from Garden Canyon, because I thought we weren't capable of it. But our three-mile round trip up to the Hamburg Trail in Ramsey Canyon the day before made us feel we could do this. Or more specifically, Sharon suggested we do it. So we drove to the main gate of the Ft. Huachuca military camp, signed in, and were off. We drove past the three picnic areas we had read about, to the end of the pavement, and about a mile or two up the gravel and dirt road, to the beginning of the Sheelite Canyon trail. We shouldered our gear, and headed up.
There is a nice covered stand with an entry book, to write what you saw when you come down out of the canyon. Somebody had seen an owl at the 5/8ths mile point that very morning! We were so excited. Then we met several people coming down already, who had seen no owls. When we reached the spot where there was almost a guarantee, we met two brothers from San Francisco also looking for the target bird. They had had no luck, but had a quick look at a Virginia's Warbler, which we needed too. They started back down, and after a bit of warbler-searching, we followed them. Suddenly they stopped ahead of us, and you could tell they had found something. "What is it?" I yelled. "Shh," they whispered back. We made our way and they pointed out a big round ball of a SPOTTED OWL. There were three people below the owl on the trail who had been looking up at the owl, and the two San Francisco birders had seen THEM looking at the owl.
I put the scope on the owl, and watched him wake up, rotate his head to be looking forward and open his eyes. He stretched one of his legs out and spread his toes, revealing white feet, but with orangish-red coloring between his toes. He groomed his toes a little, and went back to sleep. "Wow," I thought, "I'll bet not many people know the color between a Spotty's toes!"
When we finished looking, we walked under the owl, who was perched exactly above the trail in a large tree, and spoke with two of the three original spotters of the owl. They had had the honor of the assistance of one Robert T. "Smitty" Smith, who has been the famous protector of the owls for many years, and constructor-designer of much of the trail up to the owls.
We continued down, heard a Whip-poor-will, and then overtook Smitty himself. He leaned against a tree, leaned his walking stick against the tree also, pulled out a small notepad and a lead pencil and asked our names and where we were from. He was about 75 years old, and we couldn't believe he was still making this walk. "I've been up this trail 55 times so far this year," he said. I calculated that that was once every two or three days - closer to two. We got him to autograph the Spotted Owl pages of our bird books. We swapped stories about walking sticks (he admired Sharon's twisty New Zealand stick), listened to him tell a few interesting stories of the owls and the trail, and then the two San Francisco brothers came down to where we were. He whipped out his paper and pencil, "What are your names?" he asked.
Update 2003. I was saddened to learn in birding emails that Smitty passed away a year or two ago.
We started walking the creek. I began to hear an extra-high-pitched bird call or song which fit into the "possible" category, with respect to whether it could be our bird. We chased it, and I kept thinking, "Sharon's gotta get him." I listened for those magic words from Sharon as we investigated every bird movement, but at the same time, I wanted to see it first.
After staring into one particular bush with her binoculars for a long time, she finally said quickly, "Red-faced Warbler! And his red face is JUMPING right out at me. Come quick. HURRY" I followed the line of her binoculars, and joined her. And I too saw him, the unbelievable RED-FACED WARBLER. We listened to his song as he bounced around, eating his bugs. I tried to memorize the song. We followed him through several bushes and trees and finally lost him. We looked at each other and traded a huge hug. "Red-faced Warbler!" we yelled. We looked at all the campers, just now eating their tasty breakfasts. And most of them didn't know there's such a thing as a Red-faced Warbler, let alone that they're around there. Well, they used to be invisible to me too, before Mothers Day 1995.
Canada. Week 2 Day 1. Friday May 29. 8th day of Alaska 1998 Trip. Meziadin Junction, B.C. to Dease Lake, B.C.
We are travelling about 15 mph, come around a corner and see something walking in the road about 30 yards ahead of us and away from us. While we are getting our binocs up, he turns around and sees us. The little red fox stares at us about five seconds, then turns and trots into the brush, to the east (our right).
Time out for a little red fox lesson. In these parts (and maybe all of North America, I don't know), the red fox comes in three color phases: red, cross and silver. The red is obvious, the cross is red with a black cross on his back, and the silver is actually black with silver or white streaking. I'm told the silver one is considered the handsomest. But they are all "red" foxes. Ours is a cross fox.
So while we are sitting there, a guy in a rented car (who would do this to his own car?) zooms around us on the bumpity, pot-hole gravel road about 60 mph, back into the right lane, and past where the fox had gone off the road. We stay where we were, waiting for the dust to settle before taking off.
In a few seconds, the fox trots back out onto the road, turns right, and continues his brisk walk, headed north again on the gravel highway. He is perhaps 50 yards in front of us. To see what he will do, I honk the horn. He stops and turns around with the funniest fox surprise look on his face: "Huh? How'd you get back there again? You just passed me! What's going on?" He takes two steps towards us as if getting closer would make us disappear. Then he trots off the road to wait for us "again". We laugh, enter him into our cassette tape recorder diary and start off again. He was a gorgeous little fox.
Alaska. Week 2 Day 6. Wednesday June 3. 13th day of Alaska 1998 Trip. Near Dead Man's Lake, Alaska.
We are looking for recently burned forest habitat, in hopes of finding a Three-toed Woodpecker or a rare Black-backed Woodpecker. These birds specialize in foraging through burned out forest trees. We come upon a dirt road taking off from the highway, park at the entrance, get our birding gear and walk up the road about 100 yards. A robin is scolding us severely. We ignore him. The robin is the only bird that we have seen absolutely every single day of our trip, so we don't pay much attention. But he keeps at it. We hear a woodpecker noise, and Sharon starts scanning.
"Great Gray Owl! Great Gray Owl!" she yells. Perhaps our top target bird of the trip - certainly in the top three. She lines me up, I find it, and we start alternately describing details in what we're seeing and looking in our bird books. It turns out to be a robin trying to run off a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL*, another of our high target birds for the trip. "Scriiiittch," the hawk-owl says to the robin. I give my woodpecker trill and get a stare from the hawk-owl and my own scriiiiitch back.
We get continued woodpecker sounds, and Sharon resumes scanning, "Woodpecker nest! Woodpecker nest!" she yells. She directs me, and I put the scope on the nest. We can see birds moving on what seems like the far side of the tree, but can't quite figure out what it is. Suddenly we realize what we're seeing, looking out from all four directions of the hollow top of a broken off tree: four baby Northern Hawk-owls! We can see the faces of two of them really well. They look so serious. We can't believe our luck.
Alaska. Week 3 Day 2. Saturday June 6, 1998. 17th day.
We arrive at Anchorage RV Park, and it's sparkling. We set up, Sharon calls and finds a meeting, and we buy the last Anchorage Daily News in the rack. There is an inconceivable story about a goshawk nesting on Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage. She is incredibly territorial, especially towards approaching humans. She nested there last year too, and has inexplicably moved her nest about 150 yards closer to the student through-the-woods-short-cut paths between classes. She has sliced one guy's ear (hospital), and another guy's head (emergency room). It goes on to say that it's behind the communications building, and its broadcasting tower. We laugh, knowing that these things never turn out in real life as they appear to in the paper. We joke about going tomorrow. Sharon goes to a meeting, and it rains most of the night.
Alaska. Week 3 Day 3. Sunday June 7, 1998. 18th day.
After breakfast, we're off, and still joking about the newspaper article, we drive onto the Alaska Pacific University campus. Sharon spots the broadcasting tower mentioned in the newspaper article, and we drive to the back, park. Then we recognize the small utility building mentioned in the paper. Sharon notices a sign saying something like "AGGRESSIVE GOSHAWK NESTING IN THIS AREA. SUGGEST TAKING ANOTHER PATH," but being the Lutmans we keep going, see another sign identical to the first, but this time there is also a red pole. Danger?
"Kahk," we hear a long way off. We look at each other, then overhead. Gull. We keep walking. It's raining and we have umbrellas over our heads. We joke about using them to defend ourselves if the goshawk attacks. "Kahk," we hear again, a little louder. look up, two more gulls overhead. We continue. "Kahk, ahk, ahk, ahk, ahk" we hear in a constant stream - THIS is not gulls. "Gulp," we gulp. I scan 360 degrees in half-a-second. Nothing. "KAHK, AHK, AHK AHK," a little louder and definitely in front of us, down the trail. Then SCREAMING, "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK!" Directly in front of us and from out of the leaves and around a corner of branches banks an enormous hawk.
We had talked about this and figure she would give us a warning pass or two, ten or twenty feet over our heads. She comes straight at my face. The last thing I see is her flaring her wings and tail, stretching out her talons and widening her eyes, like she's gonna shred me. I draw the umbrella down over my head and duck. Sharon is already down, behind me.
"WHOOSH," she passes over us exactly where our umbrellas were. She banks and we figure she's coming back. Instead she flies up to a branch where she can view us. Constant "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK," never stopping the whole time since we first heard her. "I think we can claim NORTHERN GOSHAWK*. Let's get outta here," I yell, scrambling back up the trail, behind Sharon, who suddenly can move like Michael Jordan. We keep our umbrellas over our heads. "KAHK, AHK, AHK, AHK," she reminds us as we get back to the pickup. I can't unlock the door fast enough. We know she has attacked tower maintenance men exactly where we are standing, slicing one's ear. Into the truck we pop. "I wanna go back and get a video," I say. Sharon looks at me. She thought I was serious. We're outa there. Our adrenaline is at 800% for about two hours.
Teller, Alaska, north of Nome. Week 4 Day 1. Friday June 12. 22nd day of '98 Alaska Trip. Last full day in Nome.
[After locating a pair of White Wagtails with professional photographer and bird magazine writer Brian Small, in Teller]
Sharon and I are off, looking for a rest room again [Why does this seem to be a common theme? says Sharon]. The village store is open today, but they don't have a public restroom. The clerk recommends the washeteria. We buy lunches for today, then drive over to the washeteria. As Sharon takes off for the rest room, I take a photo of a chained up puppy-looking sled dog, but he changes from cute to snarly as I walk a little closer. While Sharon is walking up to the rest room, a young Eskimo teenager, who saw me, comes up to her: "What are you taking pictures of?" "Birds," Sharon says. "No, you're taking pictures of houses," he proclaims.
"No, we came all the way from California to look at a little bird." "What kind of a bird is it?" he asks. "It's a pair of White Wagtails," Sharon answers. "Can we eat 'em?" he says, apparently in all sincerity. Eskimo life is a little different than ours. Another kid tells Sharon he has been to California. "The birds down there eat nectar," he says. "Oh, you mean the hummingbirds?" Sharon asks. "No, all of them."
Alaska. Week 5 Day 5. Tuesday, June 23, 1998. 33rd day out. Denali Highway (not part of Denali Park).
I look outside and it's 100% blue sky. Like peeking around the corner when you were a kid, under the Christmas tree, you see that Santa DID come.
Sharon wakes up with a worsening cold, and we decide that she should go back to sleep till she wakes up again. I bite my tongue, which is trying to say, "But it's blue sky outside!" It helps, and about 800am we're on the road, headed south. We can see peaks previously unseen, all with fresh snow on the top, blue sky behind. Repeatedly awesome. But Denali is hidden by a nearby mountain range and will be for about twenty miles. Since it makes its own weather system, it's still only 50/50 whether it will be visible.
Us riding. Sharon: Is THAT it? Me: I don't think so. Me: Is THAT it? Sharon: I don't think so. Sharon: How about THAT one? Me: I think it's supposed to have a rounded dome top. Sharon: Maybe that's from a different angle.
Then as we reach and pass the Denali Highway intersection, still traveling south, we suddenly realize we have been looking too far to the right.
About 20 degrees to the right of the road, the pure-white-against-blue, rounded-top block of ice and rock that is Denali, aka Mt. McKinley. Quietly massive. Nearby is another mountain which appears nearly as tall, but is pointed. The two together are awesome, bigger than anything around. On another, higher level [We later learn that both peaks are called Mt. McKinley - one the North Peak and the other the South Peak]. We can see clouds now to our right, and it looks like they are coming this way. I take some video and a few photos. We watch the big peaks for a while. They are about sixty miles away from where we stand.
Once Mom told of a new skyscraper being built in New York City, I think. They wanted a memorable phrase for the cornerstone - something to suggest that this was the biggest, baddest building around. They hired an eastern philospher/wise man who must have had some related credentials. He thought and thought and the words carved into the stone now say, "This Too Shall Pass."
I would carve on Denali, "This Shall Go Last."
We have learned that from the surrounding base to the peak, Denali has a bigger footage differential than even Mt. Everest - in fact, the biggest differential in the world, and from this aspect, the tallest mountain in the world.
Alaska. Week 6 Day 2. Saturday June 27, 1998. 37th day of Alaska Trip. Fairbanks to Delta Junction.
At the RV park, we pay up, then Sharon barbecues the fresh sockeye (red) salmon we bought at Safeway. We have that with fresh tomato, brussel sprouts and rice. Soy sauce for the rice and salmon. I can hardly stand it.
Before dinner, during the barbecue, a young bull-moose walks through camp. A gangly teen-ager, but he isn't interested in salmon, of course.
We decide to use up one of our bonus days tomorrow (that will be about 8 out of the 14 we started with), and instead of driving to Tok on the Alaska Highway, we will go down about 90 miles to Paxson on the Richardson Highway. Then turn west on the Denali Highway towards Tangle Lakes Lodge. A last, long shot gamble for the Smith's Longspur.
Week 6 Day 3. Sunday June 28, 1998. 38th day. Delta Junction to Tangle Lakes, 22 miles westward from the east end (Paxson) of the Denali Highway.
We make our way back to the road and the half mile or so to Tangle Lakes Lodge, now a misnomer [It recently burned to the ground]. There are six or eight new log cabins on various nearby lakes, and a few barely-trailers, but no lodge. We ask for Rich, and one of the three fellows installing a satellite dish turns around and comes right over. He's a strong-looking, young guy and very friendly, immediately at ease talking birds with us.
"We're looking for the Smith's Longspur," we tell him, "and we heard you might be able to direct us." "I don't know if they're still here," he says. "There was a big VENT [Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours] group, then a big Field Guides group [commercial birding tour groups], then a group of ornithologists from Houston. They scouted all over and I haven't seen a Smith's for a week now." We feared that it might be like this. "But they've been seen off and on in the last month around the lakes at Milepost 17.2 and 14. I have walked around the 17 mile lake a couple of times this week and didn't see any sign of them. The Houston group said that they found them around 14. That was just a couple of days ago.
"All of the groups got the bird, but I'm afraid they may have caused the 17 mile birds to abandon their nest, if they didn't outright step on them.
"I was at 17 a couple of weeks ago, and watched two male Smith's Longspurs get in a ferocious fight, with feathers flying all over the place. The resident male was fighting off an intruder. It was a real knock down, drag out fight. But I think their aggressive period is over."
We listen to Rich's stories, and I am thinking, "We'll never get them now. We're one week too late." We tell him we have song tapes. He is a little encouraged, "That will increase your chances a lot. I don't have any tapes." I perk up too. Can we call on our luck one more time? I don't even want to think about it.
We go back to the camp, load up and head back toward the 17.2 mile lake, where we park and get ready to walk around the lake. We take our tapes, books, binoculars, scope, water, mosquito repellent, water boots and head off. I immediately get us into impassable waters. Well nearly. After an hour or so, we are about an eighth of the way around the lake, and we see gray rain clouds coming our way.
I play the tape over and over, but there are no takers. We point it in every direction, then we see a bird fly over, with a buzzy call. "Is that him?" I yell. We both watch as he stays out of watching range, but in the area. We see him one more time, same call. Then we don't see him any more. A raindrop hits my ear. Uh oh. "Let's go back," I say, and Sharon is more than ready.
The alarm goes off at 523am. The sun is barely up, but is shining through a lake mist, over the entire area. We hit the road at 543am, betting that the mist is only over the lake. It is. We realize that last night was our Alaska last night. What a ride.
We are going to play the Smith's Longspur song tape at a few places, and that'll be it. Two locations at Lake 17.2. No response. Two locations at Lake 14. Two Lapland Longspurs. We wait a minute or two, hoping the Smith's will join the Laplanders. Nice try.
We rig for travel, by storing everything so it isn't in our way. We are driving into the sun, but we're glad it's sun and not rain or mist. We relax and settle in to enjoy our last Alaska day. The sun is in our faces, when I see a small dot in the left lane, pass it, and I am aware that it's another baby bird in the road, like the one back in Denali Park. It didn't move. I stop. "What is it?" asks Sharon. "You won't believe it, but I think it's another baby bird in the road. I'm going back." I back up, and not very well. I keep having to pull forward, straighten out, and back up the trailer some more. It's early morning, and there's absolutely no traffic to worry about. I see the baby bird skitter off the road, to our left and behind us. I stop perhaps ten yards before I would have gotten there. We both get out to make sure it's ok.
The parent birds show up, just like in Denali Park. They won't settle so we can see them - probably American Tree or Savannah Sparrow we figure. Then, a "bzzzzzt," as one flies past us, landing quite a ways away, on a shrub. Sharon is excited, "That's the sound. Play the tape. Play the tape. Hurry!" At the same time she was saying that, I was on one of the flying parents with my binoculars. I thought I saw black on the head. But even more important, what I was aware of was - could I have seen it right? - a yellow chest, not the white of the Lapland Longspur. And black on the head. Both the Lapland and the Smith's have the black. Smith's chests are yellowish. I allow myself to ratchet up one notch on the excitement scale.
I play the tape, and an adult bird comes at us again, landing closer, but with its head hidden behind some brush. Definitely a sort of peach-yellow belly. Is this happening? While we're on our way OUT? AFTER we stop looking for it? Now the mate joins the first parent, perching. We can't see the baby bird anywhere, but the tape is causing great concern from its parents. Finally they both move to a clearly visible perch, and I honestly don't remember which of us said it: "It's a SMITH'S LONGSPUR*! Male! And the female too!"
"Generally uncommon, solitary, and highly secretive..." says the NGS Field Guide. "Nests on open tundra and damp, tussocky meadows."
Me, in the tape recorder diary after watching for several minutes: "646am, I'm looking smack straight on at the double outer white tail feathers with my naked eye. Male Smith's Longspur ... and female. No doubt whatsoever. Oh ... my gosh my gosh... ."
So now what we believe is that this is the pair that the Houston group got, around the 14 mile lake, their young have just fledged, and like human adults when our kids began to crawl, the adult pair is just trying to keep up. This youngster has made it up the hill to about the 13.7 mile point.
We high five, low five, side five and windup-and-a-half five. We finally get back in the rig and slowly, ever so slowly, head on up towards the summit, realizing that we have put an unbelievable exclamation point on our last Alaska day. It's not 7:00am yet.
Canada. Week 8 Day 5. Tuesday July 14, 1998. 54th day out. Lake Louise, Alberta to Bow Valley Provincial Park, Alberta.
We hit the [Bow Valley] parkway about 6am, but there are surprisingly few animals. We see a nice elk, but it's really birds we're after, of course. And not just any birds. We're after Three-toed Woodpeckers, the most likely we might see. When we took the parkway to Banff yesterday afternoon, we noticed several recently (about five years ago) burned areas and we marked it for checking this morning.
There are three likely spots, we stop at the first for about fifteen minutes. Cold outside, warm in the pickup, I realize I'm gonna fall straight to sleep if I stay. I get out and walk around. It helps me stay awake, but the woodpeckers don't take notice. We move to the next spot.
As we're sitting there listening, I suddenly get a flash. The woodpeckers I have listened to on my Bird Songs CD sounded pretty much alike to me, but what if woodpeckers can tell themselves apart? I recorded them onto tape in San Jose before we left, but haven't thought much about them. I tell Sharon, she says let's try it. Playing tapes has been very productive with other birds, and nothing is happening while we're just sitting here.
I play the 4-5 seconds of the Three-toed Woodpecker. It sounds like a cat mewing about six times, then the recording changes to rat-a-tat-tatting. I learned not too long ago that there are two kinds of tapping most woodpeckers do - one is of course blasting through bark and wood for food, the other is territorial tapping, known as drumming.
So the tape is six mews, then several seconds of drumming. I play the Black-backed Woodpecker tape, very similar to the Three-toed. I'm sitting in the driver's seat with the window down, and I see a black shape fly across the road about twenty feet above the ground. It might be a woodpecker. I watch it fly into the woods, lose it and tell Sharon, who was looking down at flight time. Then...
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. Stop. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. Stop. We play the tape again. The woodpecker flies back across the road, in the direction he came from, lands on the side of a tree and drums immediately. We're both on him immediately with binoculars. Mostly black, patchwork black-and-white down the center of his back. Can't see yellow on his head, but don't need it. "THREE-TOED WOODPECKER*," I say. We have several cycles of the Three-toed moving, me playing his sounds, him returning the sounds.
We finally locate him with the scope after one tree-landing. He's stationary for a little while. He drums, stops and we can actually see him positioning his head, listening for us. We hold off. He repeats the drum/look/listen cycle a couple of times. We play his tape again, he flies back near us.
We have discussed this, and both check very carefully. No yellow on the top of the head, but some raggedy white down the center of his back. It's a she not a he, and it's a Three-toed not a Black-backed. For sure.
We finally get the lifer we first started listening for in Oregon 54 days ago. It took so long, feels so good. And it's our opinion it was the drumming, not the mewing that called her in. A little closer to Banff, we stop and play it again, get another Three-toed.
We stop at a Bow River overlook and Sharon celebrates by fixing the last of our reindeer sausage with our last egg. French toast. Breakfast goes good with... well, you know.
Canada. Week 8 Day 2. Saturday July 11, 1998. Alaska Trip, 51st day out. ...Maligne Canyon again.
At 738pm, we head out again, trying for our second longshot of the day. The Rosy Finch didn't connect, so we're now after the Black Swift. There are only two known places in Alberta where they nest, and one of them is in Maligne Canyon, only we can't find anybody who knows exactly where in the canyon that is.
And the book we have says "Watch from the Maligne Canyon lookout on the north side, about dusk." We can't figure out whether that means down on the path, three feet from the canyon rim, on the north side; or at the lookout we stopped at the other day, which overlooks the very lowest part of the canyon. Plus we don't know exactly what dusk means, with all the big mountains around.
We argue about where to go, especially since this is our last swift shot at Maligne Canyon. I argue for the big overlook. Advantage: you can see all the open sky, maximizing our chances of seeing them come in from whatever angle. Disadvantage: we still aren't exactly sure this is the spot referenced. And they may appear tiny. Sharon argues for being down at the 4th bridge, where a source of unknown quality said he heard they nested, and the same source said he 'thought' there is a waterfall there.
I finally convince her, (with the help of the idea of making that walk down AND back up again). Pack a lunch-like dinner, I say (in a polite kind of way). We'll take our chairs, go to the overlook and eat. If nothing else, we'll watch the sundown.
We're looking for the exact opposite of what we saw in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1991. There we waited for dusk, for the millions of bats to fly out of the cave. It took them 45 minutes as I recall. Over a million freetail bats. Here, we're waiting for dusk, for an unknown number of swifts to fly in. From an unknown angle, at an unknown level. Odds don't sound great, now that I think about it.
I recall that the bats flew high into the sky before turning and heading off in any particular direction, and it seems to me the swifts should reverse that, coming in very high till they're over the nest site, then drop. I can't seeing them dodging the forest treetops in their in-bound path. But of course, it's all a calculated guess to try and figure out their incoming behavior.
The Black Swift's nesting habits are fascinating. The female lays exactly one egg in a nest on a cold, wet cliff. When it hatches, both parents are gone most of the day gathering food to give it upon their return. No brothers and sisters to huddle against for warmth. Sometimes, if there's a big storm, all the swift parents of the colony will fly hundreds of miles, searching for food, and won't come back for two or three days.
When this happens, the chick's body temperature drops significantly, and it goes into a state of torpor, so that it can make it through the cold. I learn what torpor means. Finally the parents return, and the chick wakes up. We don't know how, we assume the parents huddle against it, warming it back to non-torpor. Then they feed it. And near as we can tell, every Black Swift in the world has gone through this. Seems like a steep rite of passage.
So we're sitting there, and the sun is dropping pretty low. It's about 840pm, we're eating sandwiches, sitting in lawn chairs, enjoying the view immensely. Now if those darn swifts would just show up.
As some clouds move, we can begin to see the Jasper Tram upper station, across the canyon, and the peak. "I see a Rosy Finch, sitting just below the peak," Sharon says. "I can see his toes, but the rest of him is blocked by a hoary marmot, " I say, swinging back.
Then in sandwich-inserted-in-the-mouth position, my teeth refuse to bite down. I retract. "I've got a black bird, maybe a swift," I say to Sharon. "Where?" she asks. I try to direct her, but he's flying away, above a long thin cloud, and I lose him before I can connect her to him. But just as I lose the bird, she gets him, our BLACK SWIFTS*, at last. She watches a while, then as he climbs higher, I get him again. Then I get him with the scope. There's nothing like having the 15X scope on a moving bird, as he sweeps along the horizon or through the sky. It's like you're riding right with him.
Suddenly an identical bird appears in the scope's circle. They do a sort of upward spiral around each other, for about 1 1/2 rotations. Then split apart again, like fireworks. "Wow, did you see that?" Sharon says. I can't answer, it's too cool and I have to keep my 'watching' concentration. Then we see another pair come in, but none of them repeat the first pair's maneuvers. I'd say altogether, we see about eight pairs, maybe ten. Their behavior fits their flying description perfectly and they have the long pointed wings of the swift. They are masters of the sky. Each pair spends about twenty seconds to a minute performing, then disappear to the right, beyond some pine trees.
We decide to make a dash for the first bridge, and see if we can watch any of them flying into nests under the waterfall. We collect our gear, load it into the pickup and head over. It's not too far. We zoom over to the parking lot, and race (in our partially disabled style) to the waterfall, but see no more swifts, neither low nor high. But we don't care. We got 'em good. Life bird, great experience.
Canada. Week 8 Day 4. Monday July 13, 1998. Alaska Trip, 53rd day out. Birding the Lake Louise area...
It quickly becomes evident that my plan, uh sorry, our plan has worked. This is clearly the fire road we have been trying to get to. It serpentines back and forth up the mountain - switchbacks. We are fully-supplied, ready for any kind of weather, and for staying on the mountain all day. We will maximize our chances, but still we need some luck. The Rosy Finches could be anywhere.
Suddenly we see a brilliant orange top of a GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET. We watch him flit around, calling and looking good.
There is a problem brewing, however. We can see an all-encompassing fog-cloud heading our way from the north. It has already covered every peak north of us, and has its sites set on our peak. Our belief now, having been here a few days, is that the weather changes by the minute. In other words, so what if it pours for half an hour. A half-hour later, the sun will probably be out, drying everything off nicely. I have to think very carefully, to see if we're taking any risks. I conclude we're ok.
We've been on the climb only about thirty minutes, when I can't believe my eyes. "IT'S SNOWING," I say, not really believing what I'm seeing [This event hardly inspire a yawn from locals, we later learn]. I'm talking into the tape recorder, Sharon grabs it, "What day is it?" she asks. "July 13th." And what's it doing? "Snowing!" Fantastic. "Happy Birthday," I yell, though it's not her belly-button birthday.
It's really trying to rain, but it's too cold right here, right now.
As I begin scanning for shelter-type trees, the snow starts accumulating on my parka, Sharon says. The snow is like a dry sleet. Very small particles, and they don't melt. I'm in the lead, heading up the mountain. I stop for a rest, and wait for Sharon to catch up. She's not far behind. I see three sparrow-size birds fly in front of us, wheel around and perch in a tree, then drop into some alpine grass just ahead of us. The interesting part is that they have a harsh buzzy call. I seem to remember that one of the Rosy Finches' call has this characteristic. "Three birds just flew in, on the ground in front of us. And when they flew in, their song was buzzy. This might be them!"
We are frantically looking now. They might fly away any moment. Onto a path pops one of the little brown birds. It's all brown - no, it has some subtle pink on its sides. And a gray back of the head, black front of the head. Can't believe it. "GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH*, GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH!" I yell. Sharon claims that she yelled it to me at the same time. She was already on it when I yelled my yell.
We watch a family of a female adult with two fledglings. They are following her everywhere. Sometimes, they flutter their wings and she feeds them. Other times, they feed themselves on the ground. Sharon thinks she may have seen a male, or the light angle may have made the female appear more colorful than she actually is.
Now the cool thing about this is that I am 100% positive that the snowstorm drove them down the mountain. That is, they couldn't feed up there, in the snowstorm, so they simply flew lower on the mountain, below the storm. And resumed feeding. Right in front of us. We have been dipped in lucky-paint.
"Let's build a snowman," I yell to Sharon.
We watch the bird trio for perhaps four or five minutes. Then they're gone, as is the snowstorm. Well not gone (the clouds), but retreating from us, back up the mountain at a rapid pace. The sun is coming out. I take my parka off and admire the snowflakes on the back (in the hood). They are beginning to melt.
God brags a little to St. Petre [note proper Canadian spelling], "Good one, ay?"
This is a second-hand story told by my five-year-older brother George. He and his wife enjoy participating in ballroom dancing contests. They're pretty good.
At dinner, George tells us about one time in Savannah, Georgia, while he and his wife Loretta were there for a dance contest. I've forgotten the details, so I'm going to make some of them up.
While waiting for Loretta's practice to end, George was walking along the Savannah River and sat down on a bench to watch the water flow by. There was (as it turned out) a slightly retarded, muscular black man there too, also watching -- maybe thirty years old. He had on a suit, but the pants were shorts and the jacket was short-sleeved. Hey, pretty smart for the humidity of Georgia. He also had a wide-brimmed hat on. He looked sharp.
George said something to him about a construction crane they were looking at, and then the guy said, "If you were standing on top of that crane and a big wind came along and blew you off, would that be a good situation --, or a bad situation?" George laughed and said, "Well, I guess that would be a pretty bad situation."
Then the fellow said, "If you were standing in the street and a car drove by and ran over you, would that be a good situation --, or a bad situation?" George said, "Why, that would be a very bad situation."
Then George said something about the waste floating in the river, and the fellow said, "What IS waste?" George said, "Well, it could be lots of stuff. It could be old logs or cardboard or even human sewage."
The fellow then said, "If you were in a big tank, and there was waste all around you, up to your neck, and if your girlfriend put her foot on top of your head, and pushed you under, would that be a good situation --, or a bad situation?" George gave his vote, and the guy got up and started slowly walking away. He stopped, thought, turned around and came back to George. He put out his hand and said, "I'm Joey."
I just love that story.
Nevada. Day 3 of Trip 15-day Trip. Tuesday, September 21, 1999. End of Lamoille Canyon, near Elko.
6:46 am finds us in the Lamoille Canyon parking lot, double-checking that we have all the right gear and looking up the steep trail. We leave right at 7:00 am. This is our Mount Everest. I'm not at all sure that we can climb it with our backpacks, but we'll give it all we've got.
At 8:10 am, we are well up the mountain and see a MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, with its bandit eye mask. The sun has been up about a half-hour, and our feeling has changed from "ah, that feels good" to "I gotta take this parka off." Now I'm almost certain that we will make it.
Sharon takes off her parka and wraps it around her waist. We see a hawk, mostly white underneath. Black leading edge on underwings say RED-TAILED HAWK. After ten minutes or so, I remove my parka too.
I am carrying about 35 pounds, and my feet and toes are burning with every step. But you know how it is when the pain is your choice. I am determined to stand it. My back's hurting a little, but my feet drown that out. Himalayan Snowcock would be the Holy Grail of medicines.
At 8:40am, we are over the ridge and looking at the lake, just a couple of dozen feet away. There is an island in the middle, giving it its name -- Island Lake.
At 10:55am, we have set our backpacks down and climbed up and over rocks and boulders, towards the so-called western cirque, maybe 1/4 of the way up. We look off to the right, and Sharon spots a mountain goat with a baby, in a steep gully. It's fun to try to estimate the expected size of our target bird [They are a little smaller than an adult female turkey]. We climb back down to the upper tree area, with lots of careful effort, and set up our tent.
There is already a circle of rocks around a fire pit, left by some previous campers. From this level (I guess about 9800'), it is about 1500' to the highest visible peak above, and probably about 1200' to the top of the main cirque.
I nap about a half-hour, then walk down some 200 yards to a where a spring spills over some rocks, and fill up a liter bottle which I got in a kit with anti-giardia iodine pills and anti-iodine taste and color pills. On the way, I see CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS (Nevada's State Bird), PINE SISKINS and some CROWS.
I bring the water back up and put two of the iodine pills in it. Twenty minutes later, I add two iodine taste/color removal pills. Ten minutes later, it's ready to drink. Over this day and the next, I do this three times, and we use every drop, as it turns out. This has saved us carrying up three liters of water, and I am grateful. I don't know if I could have carried one more pound.
I measure my heartrate a couple of times for fun. After retrieving water, it's at 140. After resting, and getting up and walking across the camp -- just moving around a little, it's 120. The air is pretty thin.
Later in the afternoon, I find that I have put my brand new "3rd Edition National Geographic Society Field Guide to North American Birds" under a pine tree, which has dripped a big glob of clear pine gum right on the back cover. OK. It's broken-in now. Sharon is up, and we see a NORTHERN HARRIER, soaring along the ridge, and two different races of DARK-EYED JUNCO down by us. Then a pair of GOLDEN EAGLES patrol the ridge. They are the worst enemies of the snowcocks, as I understand it. We see a yellow-throated (and therefore Audubon's) YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER. It's getting dark and I start a fire, using firewood around the area and my new teepee technique, learned from Sharon's younger son Pete. It feels absolutely cozy after the fire gets to crackling.
We eat our granola bars and trail mix that we brought up for dinner. They are fine for one day. At 8:45pm, Sharon is sleepy and turns in. I watch the fire go down, and sprinkle a little water on the hottest coals. As I get into the tent, Sharon has a wool cap on her head, and with her blue eyes, and my flashlight casting a sidelight in her face, she looks exactly like the girl in "The Blair Witch Project" who is SO sorry. I tell her and she is freaked out a little ("Bo-ob!").
No snowcocks today. We've heard some unusual calls, and think that maybe one of them was the right call, but we're not at all sure. The call is supposed to be like an elk bugling, with its three-note, rising whistle. We'll try tomorrow till about 10 or 11 am, then head back down. We were sort of hoping that we would see a snowcock right away, and would just walk back down without sleeping up here. But you can forget that.
I get up once in the night to go to the bathroom, and the weather is comfortable -- not too cold. There is a nice moon, and I see Orion's Belt. To me, it has always looked like a kite with a short tail, but I have never talked with anyone else who sees it that way.
I wake up several more times during the night to turn over and get re-comfortable. Sharon is sleeping on a thin blow-up air mattress, and I'm on thinsolite. Her mattress wins.
Day 4 of 15-day Trip. Wednesday, September 22, 1999. Above Island Lake, Ruby Mountains, northeast Nevada.
Next morning, I wake up for the umpteenth time, and Sharon asks what time it is. "6:20" I say. We were intending to get up at 5:30. Sharon assumed I set my wrist alarm, and I assumed the sun would wake us up that early. Both were wrong. Sharon climbs out of the tent, and walks about ten yards in the direction of the western cirque to look and listen. I am huffing and puffing at 9800 feet or so, trying to get my shoes on, when Sharon says, "Did you hear that?" I didn't. "That's it! That's it!" she yells. I hurry over to help her listen. Nothing for about five minutes. I head back to the tent to get my binoculars and other gear. As I'm walking, Sharon says, "There it is again. Did you hear THAT one?" No, I was walking here. Then again. This time, I hear it too. Clear as a bell, and sounding about like what we had heard described. Like an elk!
We scan and search, but can't see the bird. I suggest that we climb up again, to get even closer than yesterday. Sharon agrees, though we're both a little wiped out from doing this yesterday. But our adrenaline carries us. We climb to an estimated 10,800' or more, and it's 8:30. We look around, hear nothing, see nothing in the snowcock world anyway.
As we're looking, we suddenly see a 30-35 year old hunter climbing straight up to where we are. Shotgun, backpack, cap and loaded for... snowcock. This guy is in great shape. He has parked all the way down at the parking lot, and climbed up to here in one shot. His name is Carl, and he lives about twenty miles out of Elko. Oh, did I mention? September is snowcock hunting season. Tilts the odds away from our favor.
We trade stories while we scan for birds. He is a hunter, and has feathers from a shot at a snowcock once, but he hasn't got a bird yet. He DID get a [mountain] lion once. He said he ate it because it was his first one. "What did it taste like?" I ask. He said the steaks were kind of chewy, the roasts were good, and it was a little like pork. I ask, "If you get a Himalayan [as he called them], would you have it mounted?" "Oh yes," he says, and names his taxidermist in Elko. "He does all my work." I tell him about growing up in Missouri when Dad supplied Mom with rabbit, quail and squirrel, to supplement the great fried chicken Mom made. He said he grew up in Michigan and had a similar experience. In fact, he said their annual deer feast was a huge family event.
I ask if the snowcocks come down to a viewable level early in the morning (their normal habit), then work their way back over the ridge (also their normal habit), do they sometimes come back AGAIN? "No, I don't think so," he says. I was afraid he would say that. I'm sorry I asked.
He tells another story about being up over the saddle and down the other side, in the winter, when snow was everywhere. He was hunting mountain lion, and resting. Suddenly a Himalayan came screaming around a corner and zoomed right past him. About two seconds later, a Golden Eagle did the same thing, right on his tail. He didn't know the outcome.
We stop talking as everybody continues scanning. Sharon is on the scope, I'm on my binoculars, lying on a huge, slanted flat rock. Carl is sitting, with elbows on knees, using his binoculars. Suddenly, in spite of what Carl has just told me, we hear the three-note elk whistle again. We all say, "That's it! That's it!"
It's about 10:00 am.
We all start looking toward the call, in roughly the same direction we had heard three more about 6:30am. Carl is the first to say, "I got him. He's on the skyline." I turn around to see where his binoculars are pointed, as he gives a verbal description of the skyline where the bird is. "To the right of the saddle." Sharon, on the scope, says, "I got him too." And then I have him also -- a single HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK*.
Carl says, "That's the sentry. He watches for danger for the rest of the feeding flock. When there's danger, they give their whistle." Sharon later says, "I saw the red lining around his white face." I yell that I see a dark bird from the neck down, and light from the neck up. "Yes," they both agree. We watch the bird for about 15 seconds. I run over to the scope, but he's gone before I get there. That's ok. I saw him.
This is what Carl has been waiting for -- confirmation that they are up there now. He didn't want to climb to 11,200 or so, not knowing if they were around. "If I get one, I'll bring it down for you to see," he says. And we watch him climb up toward the saddle area. Well, that IS why they imported them (between 1963 and 1979). He yells back, "Other birds may walk down over the saddle soon. Keep your eyes open."
We follow his progress up and over to the saddle, as we start working our way back down to break camp and climb down the mountain. No more snowcocks come over the saddle.
Yosemite National Park, California. Day 7 of our Fall, '99 RV/Birding Trip. Saturday, September 25, 1999. Peregoy Meadows, on Glacier Point Road.
We wake up and are afraid we've missed the sunrise, it's so bright outside. But it's the full moon, not the sun.
By about 6:50 am, we are sitting at the edge of the meadow, parkas on, wool caps covering our ears, in the dark. But it's beginning to get lighter.
I decide to rustle up some grub (open a pack of trail mix), and as I do, Sharon says "Did you hear that?" Dangit, I didn't. I freeze and in a half-minute or so, the owl calls again. We recognize it because we have been listening to the owl's taped call the past day or so, so we would recognize it.
There's no mistake. That was a Great Gray calling, but it's a long way off.
About half a dozen times, it calls. Then suddenly, the call is VERY loud. There is a new edge to it. I am so excited. Is he coming this way to patrol Peregoy Meadows? Emails on the owl have documented his patrols here.
But then, he's far off again. We just keep waiting. Hoping. Come on, turn around and come back.
It's 7:10 am.
Suddenly, at treetop level and in my coverage area, a huge dark shape breaks through across the meadow. The wings of the GREAT GRAY OWL* beat slowly but steadily as he makes a straight line across the meadow. I yell or whisper (not sure which) to Sharon.
He lands near the top of a tall pine tree, and through the scope, we can see his throat inflate and deflate as he gives his call again. His color is exactly the same mottled brown as the bark of the tree he's in. We can also see his "bow tie." He looks right at us with huge eyes, as we both get perfect looks through the scope. He flies to another tree at the edge of the meadow, but again, is pretty far up. Now he is mostly hidden. He flies across the road
But he's not done yet, as he flies back, to the top of a tree whose base is about fifteen feet from where we're standing. We look up at him in warbler-neck fashion, as he bends his head down to look RIGHT AT US.
This has got to be one of the cooler things you can see on the planet.
After watching him off and on for about ten minutes, the largest owl in North America leaves the treetop, and glides down to about fifteen feet off the ground, heads back across the road. Maybe he's aiming for McGurk Meadow.
At 9:42 am, we are headed out of Wawona, aimed towards Fresno. I replay the Great Gray breaking through the edge of the meadow in my mind over and over.
On our way out of the Visitor Center, we talk with a tram driver, and decide that we probably won't see Snail Kites this time of day unless we sign up for one of the numerous 8-passenger Airboats (powered by a backwards-facing airplane propeller in a big cage) to take us out where the kites are likely to be feeding. We decide to have lunch at the Indian restaurant, where we saw a sign that they have Indian fry bread.
One of the top ten meals of my life was chili in a round, hollowed-out loaf of Indian fry bread in Glacier Park, Montana. We MUST try their version here. We go in and wait to be seated. Their tribe is called Miccosukee and I wonder how they pronounce it. There is a young waitress behind the counter, an older one at the cash register, and a 35-40 year old man talking with the cash register lady. All are obviously Indian. "How do you pronounce the name of this tribe?" I ask the younger waitress. "mee-ko-SUE-kee," responds the older waitress, then says something and nods at the young man. A chuckle is shared, but I can't tell what they said.
We are seated with binoculars around our necks, order our drinks and chili with Indian fry bread (what else?). I get up to use the rest room, and when I get back, Sharon says, "I saw one!" "Saw one what?" I ask, like an idiot. "One of those SNAIL KITES*," she says as she points straight out the window, across the channel. I look up and with the naked eye, I see one big bird harassing another. Binoculars up. I see a brown bird (must be the female) with a wide white band at the upper tail, with a wide brown band below that, and a narrow white terminal strip at the end of the tail. Sharon's Stokes ID book has only a photo, and it's not at the right angle to ID.
"I'll go out and get the National Geographic," I say, hoping it will show a painting from the proper angle, and that the painting will look exactly like what I just saw. I hustle out. As I near the RV, I see that the young Indian man, with his very long black hair, is just ahead of me. He hears me, turns around and starts talking, with a very slow, deliberate Indian accent. It's extremely pleasant to listen to.
"I just wanted to tell you that I have known that old lady at the cash register for a lot of years, and we are friends." I say, "I THOUGHT she was teasing you." He continues, "She's very severe. That's why I like her. The government named the Indians down here Seminole (SEMM-uh-nole), but the Spanish pronounced it right, SEMM-uh-no-lay. The Miccosukee pronounce it SEMM-uh-no-lay also. Miccosukee means "The People," and Semino-lay means 'Anything Wild'."
He tells me that story, so I bring him up to date on what we had just seen, and that we were about to go out on an airboat ride just to try to see one, but that we may have just seen one from the restaurant window. He says, "I have worked for sixteen years as an airboat driver, and I often see the Snail Kites out there. There are other birds too. One, called the Purple Gallinule, we just call Water Chicken."
"Thanks for that story," I say, "I'm Bob," and I put out my hand. He extends his hand past mine and clasps my wrist, so I do the same. We shake, and he says, "I'm Ernie Redwing." I notice a claw on a neckace around his neck, and wonder if it's from a panther, but by then he has turned and is headed to his car. Gotta check the bird!
I get the NGS Field Guide, look up Snail Kite, and it's our bird all right. I rush in to tell Sharon. She looks and is pleased as punch. We keep checking out the window, and it turns out that there is a pair of kites, defending what we believe to be their nest territory. The small bird I saw at first was a Snail Kite, and the large bird was a Turkey Vulture who happened to stray too close to the kite's nest I think.
We get about a half-dozen looks, and can't believe our good fortune. Plus the fry bread and chili are almost as good as that we had at Glacier. Well, you know that the luck of all the people in the world follows a bell distribution curve. That means that SOMEBODY has to be in the top ten percent -- the luckiest people in the world. And we think we're in their somewhere.
I get the scope out after we finish eating, and we watch them a little more. Then it's finally time to move on. Sharon found this neat snail shell in the parking lot at Shark Valley, and she believes it to be an apple snail shell. I can't disagree.
Common Moorhens are everywhere. There are Coots, Mottled Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, Cattle Egret, and something we've never seen before -- a hovering Osprey, over the water. Anhinga and Blue-winged Teal round out the birds there.
We get back to the parking lot, and see Blue Jays and a couple of Gray Kingbirds -- one with nest material, on the way out. Sharon spots a CANADA GOOSE.
And oh, yes, a tooth fell out of my head. I was munching some Cracker Jacks (I know, I know, it's Cracker Jack, not Jacks, but I am going with the "world-of-the-commonly-understood.") It was an $800 capped tooth, covering a $1000 root canal, and it just broke off at the gum line. The good news is that there is no pain whatsoever.
I say that now I look like the hillbilly I really am. Sharon laughs and covers her face, because she thinks it hurts my feelings. Then she says that when I laugh, I should be the one covering MY face, so people won't see my tooth space. That makes us both laugh, and I cover my face. I don't mind a bit, because of the lack of pain. She detects my new lisp, but it'th a little subtle.
Until further notice, do not tell me any good jokes. Unfunny ones are ok, because I'll just politely smile. But I don't want to do a big grin, because I look like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, when they portrayed him with a missing front tooth and a black eye.
The tooth is the one just to the right of my two front teeth -- the uppers. It's too late to have a dentist look at it before our trip to Trinidad, Tobago, St. Lucia and Belize. Hope it continues painless [It does].
Can you say BLANCH-uh-swuzz, where the 'a' in "blanch" is like the one in "ah," as in "ah, another new bird." The 'u' in the swuzz is hardly sounded at all.
It's 6:05 am, and we're driving the winding, narrow, quarter-mile road out of the Nature Center onto Blanchisseuse Road. We have two hamburgers, a jug of water, a jug of juice, and four bananas (two for breakfast). The cooks fixed them for us, and they are a one-for-one tradeoff on our bill, because we're not going to eat the regular breakfast or lunch at the center. It's like driving over a washboard in some places.
Not five minutes up the road, we come upon a car whose left rear wheel is over the edge of the cliff. It's about ten feet down to the thick forest greenery, but that greenery slopes steeply further on down. If his car DID fall off, the thick stuff might keep it from going too far.
We pull alongside a Trinidad fellow about 65, with some great-looking white in his black hair, standing beside the old Chevy sedan. Sharon asks "Can we help. Are you in trouble?" He shakes his head and says with that great accent, "Plenty trouble." But he and I both figure we're not the ones to help him. We don't know how to contact anyone, and he needs a truck to come along with some men in it. So we say good luck, and resume our drive up the mountain.
When we return by the same route later that day, the car and its driver are gone, rescued by someone.
We continue on, heading down onto plains containing sugar cane fields when a medium-sized dark cat runs across the road from right to left. Luis describes it as "perhaps a small black panther." This after Sharon asks, "House cat?" Luis smiles and says there aren't any house cats out here. If there are, he continues, the jaguars get 'em." Luis decides that it was a jaguarundi.
INCREDIBLY (are you sitting down?), not all the visitors here are birders. Some are here to see the Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, swim in the pool, relax, go horseback riding and canoeing. But the BIG thing they are after -- the big thing EVERYONE is after is to actually SEE a Jaguar. I haven't heard of anybody seeing one yet though.
When I was planning this trip, I was afraid that Jaguars might attack hikers and we would have to beware, but owners Tom and Josie Harding (two great people, by the way, who told us we weren't black-listed, as we left) say no one has ever died on the trails in the eleven years or so they've been in business. And in fact, from the way the guides talk, the Jaguars are wary of people. When they see a human, they may stop a second or two, but they invariably then retreat or continue their path straightaway into the jungle.
So what's all this Jaguar talk about? Just to let you know that at first, I was sort of afraid we might run into one, but now I'm afraid we won't.
We have breakfast and climb into the ASIA, a nice little bus made in Korea or Japan. Each seat has its own A/C vent, sort of like an airline seat. Sharon and I take the front seat, away from the driver's side. Great view through large windows. Each window slides open. Two other couples join us. Jose, the driver who brought us in from our arrival flight at Gallon Jug, will drive them to Laguna Verde, where canoeing is the featured feature. Then he will drive us to Laguna Seca for some marshy birding, and a slightly different set of birds to try for.
We take off and about 100 yards before the suspension bridge, I see a large dark cat bound across the road from right to left. Jose stands on the brakes, "JAGUAR! He's THERE, just through the brush. You can still see him! Now walking farther back! " The other two couples strain to see, but the Jaguar is gone. Sharon got a good look.
So what did I see? A large dark cat, but with even darker rectangular spots (called rosettes), bounding across the road, in front of the bus. I question Jose about the color, "Are young jaguars black, then change colors as adults?" No, that's not quite it. It's just that some jaguars are dark, called melanistic. And we saw one. Fantastic.
To give you an idea of how likely this event has been, Jose tells us that he saw one in January, one in February, none in March, none in April, and this is his first in May. Three jaguars in 4 1/2 months. And he is out on the roads a lot.
Way cool. Jose says something cryptic about a Jaguar Certificate [which we proudly accepted later, back at the lodge], and wouldn't that be just fine.
Our hired guide Rick hears a Black-cheeked Woodpecker and a calling Red-billed Pigeon. He takes a branch away from the Loggers Trail, in hopes of getting us the hard-to-see Tody Motmot. He calls and calls when suddenly there is an incredibly beautiful burst of song.
[Note to webpage readers. Clicking on "download" will load four seconds of song, and took about (this was before I got DSL) 30-45 seconds on my 56K modem PC. My Mac took about 40 seconds, also on a 56K modem. After I got DSL, the download takes about 5 seconds. The file size is 97 kb, and "Starting Java" came up on the PC while it loaded the file. It (the PC) also gave a warning that a virus might be attached, but you can ignore that. I think the song is worth the wait].
What on earth is THAT? "SPOTTED WOOD-QUAIL*," says Rick, and we all hustle back to where the sound came from. We learn later from Rick that these birds are not afraid of people, and should be easy to find. But they have flown away or walked deeper into the jungle, so we miss seeing them. But that song . . .
On the way back up, we pass Jose's brother Felipe and two other workers, replacing some old tree-round walkways.
We finish the morning's walk and head back to camp, take a rest, then head for the dining room, but sit outside in the shade of the veranda.
We have lunch and talk a bit more with a single birder here named Carol, an American who has lived in Guatemala for 43 years. "How did you happen to go to Guatemala 43 years ago?" I ask her. "A MAN," she emphasizes, and laughs. We find that she has a wry and dry sense of humor, and like us, has been birding only five years. She is very good, but doesn't let on like she is. She tells us this incredible story, like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield bleachers before hitting a home run exactly where he had pointed. Only this one is even more preposterous -- except that it hasn't happened yet.
There is a spectacularly-beautiful blue and purple bird called a Lovely Cotinga, but no current visitor has seen one here that we know about. Carol says that Gilberto (Say "hill-BEAR-toe". Her favorite and a very personable guide) claims that you have to go down to the suspension bridge between 4:20 and 5:00 pm, and watch the right area of the trees on the surrounding mountain. AND IT WILL COME!
"Hoo Boy." - Pogo.
She invites us along and at 3:48 pm, the four of us set out to bird our way there. We have also heard that there is a Cinnamon Becard nest near Gilberto's house, so we ask him to show it to us on the way. Carol gives us some grief for delaying our suspension bridge arrival, but it's good natured.
Gilberto shows us his house, but there are no Becards around at the time. He says you can see them in the early morning and late afternoon. I suggest that maybe we can see them after the Lovely Cotinga, and we all laugh.
By 4:02 pm, we are at the bridge, checking the birds around. A White-necked Jacobin (hummer) is in the orange flowered tree across the bridge. Gilberto says it is a May Flower tree.
We get a nice, comfortable, shady, grassy site to wait. Incredibly, Gilberto starts describing the exact trees that the bird will land in. He points out two "naked" trees on the skyline, which Carol objects to. "They're bare, not naked," she laughs, but Gilberto keeps calling them naked, as he laughs too. We're all laughing and having a great time.
Gilberto continues by pointing to a large seed pod-bearing tree to the right of the "naked" trees. Rising from its center is a narrow, bare branch that has a scattering of leaves at the tip top. Like the colors at the tip top of an 1800 sailing ship.
He says, "It will fly into one of these three trees. Sometimes it lands right on that highest point on the seed-pod tree." It's 4:30 pm, so Carol starts giving Gilberto a hard time because the bird hasn't shown yet.
I'm laughing and getting in my bits too, when a lone bird flies from behind us, high over our head in the general direction of the trees. "Bird," I yell, spotting it first, as I raise my binoculars. "It's a dark bird," I yell. Can't possibly be. As it flies on and the sun angle changes, it takes on a dark blue color. "Blue, it's blue!" I yell a bit louder, way excited.
And as it heads straight for the seed-pod tree, now a long, long way off, it begins taking on this electronic, turquoise blue color. "That HAS to be it! LOVELY COTINGA*!" I'm screaming now. "It landed right on that highest bare branch, just below the flag," and everyone is on it. I tell you this, you simply cannot believe this color without seeing it. I don't think I've ever seen a blue like it. A cross between Southwest Indian turquoise and that wonderful blue that surrounds the the small islands of the Caribbean.
I take my binoculars down and look with my naked eye. The blue stands out even like this. And the double cool thing is that another male has flown in right behind the first one and landed in one of the "naked" trees. They both change locations and trees a bit, and are gone in about two minutes. To where, we don't know. In the excitement, I just now realize that I forgot my scope.
We are TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY. How did Gilberto call this? And what a spectacular bird. Carol, as is Carol's way, complains because a female didn't come in. She wants to see the female, which is a light color, with dark green cross-hatching, a totally different bird in appearance.
Later, Bartender Norman says that Victor Emmanuel, the internationally known birder and first paying client at Chan Chich about 11 years ago, discovered lots of secrets, passed them on to managers Tom and Josie and Josie's brother Norman, and they passed them on to Gilberto. Don't you just love hand-me-downs?
Forgive the painting at left. I tried to doctor it up to be more nearly the true colors, but failed miserably.
Update 2003. We named our new Burmese kitten Cotinga, but call him Coti, to sound like "Cody."
A little after noon.
After our great lunch we go back to the restaurant area, where they are also selling all kinds of nuts by the kilo. We choose some unshelled peanuts, pistachios, almonds and walnuts, corn nuts, and some grapes. They have many kinds of honey, and we both noticed bees buzzing around a large square hole with water in it about 20 yards from the restaurant.
We take our food purchase to the car and are off again. We are dropping down in altitude, out of the mountains we've been driving in a while, and a big body of water becomes visible for the first time as we round a corner. We believe this is our first look at the Mediterranean Sea. It is a little hazy, but the weather is warm and nice. A little too warm, so we have turned on the AC.
It's now mid-afternoon as we cruise down a curvy incline. I pass one car going fairly slowly (him). I have decided something about Turkish highway driving. There are speed limit signs, but very few people pay any attention to them, and so I conclude that when in Turkey, do as the Turks do.
As we start back up a hill, a policeman (POLIS is printed on the front doors of their cars), standing in the road, motions me to pull over. I can't quite figure out what he wants, but we'll soon find out. He finds that I don't speak very good Turkish, so he writes this on a piece of paper:
Uh-oh. I was 16 kilometers over, or about 10 miles per hour over the limit. He says the caught my speed from a "camera," but later, others tell me that it must have been radar. He asks for our car papers, my drivers license, our passports. After filling out some papers, he presents me with a fine for 17,100,000 Turkish Lira, about $25. We had read that fines are paid on the spot, not later through the mail.
We come up with 17,050,000, but can't find the last 50,000 (about 8 cents). Sharon comes up with a 10,000 lira coin, which is about 2 cents. She offers it to him and he takes it. But after he looks at it, he laughs, gives it back and says for us to go ahead. I offer him a ten-million note to change, but he says no, no, we can go.
Later in the day, after we've checked into our hotel on Lake Koycegiz.
Our hotel has a small garden and bar between it and the walkway. Do you call it a promenade? We have dinner outside, and are given lots of service, since there are so few customers. I have cold tomatoes and sliced cucumbers with salt. They are delicious. We also have lamb and french fries, as I recall.
A young couple manages this hotel, and they sit down to eat near us. The wife speaks excellent English. They have a little daughter who is getting into mischief. She is slamming the glass door to the restaurant. The waiters try to stop her, but she says no, no, no and slams some more. Then she lets that go to pull all the tablecloth holders off. As she comes near, Sharon asks the mother if the little girl is two. "Yes," says mom, and she and Sharon both laugh. I say "Hello," to the little girl, but she is pretending to look at something on a little table. Her mom says something to her in Turkish, and the girl timidly says, "Hal-lo."
After dinner, we walk by and stop in front of the couple and the daughter. We talk a little, complimenting them on the meal. While the girl is watching, I turn to Sharon and say, "Gimme five," and Sharon slaps my hand. I turn to the little Turkish girl and say it to her. She lifts up her little hand and slaps mine. Everybody chuckles and we head up to the room for some rest and Olympics-watching. As we are walking away, the little girl yells something at us in Turkish and the mom says, "She says to please come back again someday." "Tamam," we say. OK.
Southern Turkey. The Turquoise Coast. Day 13 of 22. Friday, September 29, 2000. Uzuncubarc Village , in the Mountains.
It's 5:34 AM, and we have just heard the Imam doing his call. We are beginning to look forward to this ritual, like a friendly alarm clock that goes off five times a day. When we were at Aysel and Kemal's in Isparta, the evening before we left, I was out on the balcony when the Imam began his call. Joining him were about a dozen dogs howling right along. It was pretty funny.
I check us out and examine our hotel bill. Everything is as expected except a 14 million TL charge for the minibar in our room, about $22. I have him break down the cost of the two cokes and two candy bars we had. $4 for each coke and $7 for each candy bar. I ask him if this is true, and he says in English, "Mini bar very expensive." I can't help but laugh out loud, and can't think of anything to add, so I wave and take off.
This morning, we are heading away from the Mediterranean, towards Uzuncaburc, a mountain village with lots of montane habitat around it. We pass through a small town, and there is a little fruit cart on the side of the street. I pull off, having spotted the peaches. There is a man's jacket lying over the peaches, covering about half of them, but no one is around. I see two men standing in a doorway of the bread or pastry shop they are operating, and I yell "Nerede?" Where is he? They shrug their shoulders, with arms out to the side, palms up, in their best Italian. I pick out four peaches, give them a million lira and point to the fruit stand. One nods and says he will give the money to the vendor when he returns, and that I should go on my way because it's "No Problema." I laugh, hop in the car, and we're off, through the village, heading up the mountain.
After perhaps a half-hour, we spot a number of hawks circling high above, so I find a pullout and stop the car. We get out and it's the most unbelievable site you can imagine. I count a fraction of the birds in about one eighth of the sky that contains these birds. Then I multiply by eight, and I get about 400 hawks, falcons, kestrels and other raptors. They are swirling in a big, slow hurricane, called a kettle. We say the hawks are kettling. I always have an image of an old gypsy woman stirring a big kettle filled with some liquid, and the bits of food in it swirl round and round, rising to the top, then falling to the bottom. I take a video of this activity, and later we watch it. It's like a dust storm, with birds as the dust particles. Truly a fantastic experience to see. The birds are gathering together for one purpose, to migrate from Turkey, across the Mediterranean, to Africa. We watch for perhaps ten minutes, then continue up the mountain.
We are after one bird in particular. Our "Where To Find Birds in Turkey" book says to drive up towards the village till you get to the mountain forest area, find any small side road, pull off and check the surrounding conifers.
So this we do.
Sharon gets her binocs cranked up in the closest tree to the car, and says, "I think this is a nuthatch of some kind." Magic words, because the bird we're after is a type of nuthatch. We first heard little chip, chip, chip calls, like woodpeckers, but also like nuthatches. There are also several small warblers, but they fly out, leaving the nuthatch. I am all over the ground, under the tree, trying to get it in the right angle and the right light. Finally, we can clearly see all the right stuff. Black crown, black line through the eye, and the telltale large rusty spot on its chest. It's a KRUPER'S NUTHATCH, and we are tickled to laughing. We drove right up the road, turned off on a random side road, picked the first tree we saw, and our bird was right there. This isn't normal birding. This is lucky birding. First stop, first tree, first bird.
Central Turkey. Day 14 of 22. Saturday, September 30, 2000. Cappadocia.
We drive down to the village, and there is a sort of open marbled floor area that is the market, with a few empty shops behind. On closer examination, the shops have boxes inside them, and other miscellaneous things. Maybe they're for use in bad weather. At any rate, there are about ten girls and women sitting under a shade tree, but there is one girl seated behind a display table, in the selling area. It is filled with about ten dolls of different designs and made with different, very colorful material and accessories. We walk up to her, and the first thing she says is, "What is your name?" to Sharon. She points to herself, and says, "I am Isha," pronounced EE-shah.
The girls under the tree come rushing over, each sitting behind their respective display tables. Each whips off the dust-protecting cloth over their dolls, and since they all heard Sharon's name called, they all begin yelling, "sheh-ROAN, sheh-ROAN, Buy from me. SHEH-ROAN!" But the girls down at the far end didn't hear so well, and one yells, "SHEH-RUH-LEE, SHEH-RUH-LEE. Buy from me. Two million lira. Beautiful dolls!" Then about four of the last girls in the line yell the new name, "SHEH-RUH-LEE! SHEH-RUH-LEE!" Sharon is absolutely overloaded.
"I have to buy one from each of them," she says. So I steer her away from the girls, who yell her name louder, as we get farther away from them. We decide we want to buy nine dolls, then round it up to ten. Different styles, different sizes. We discuss a strategy. We want to buy at least one from the girl we saw making a doll where we stopped the car earlier, up the road. I want to buy one or two from the girl who stayed at her post, while the others lounged in the shade. I want to buy one from this cute little girl we saw earlier up on the hill, much younger than the others. And a couple of the ladies have especially nice-looking dolls or dolls slightly unique. I say we will move slowly from left to right, and will just stick with our plan. Plan your work, then work your plan. Sanity in that. We dive back into the fray.
"SHER-UH-LEE! SHER-UH-LEE!" Each girl holds up a doll in each hand, and waves them. But to their credit, they never get out of their chairs. Quite orderly, just the yelling. "SHEH-ROAN! SHER-UH-LEE!" Extremely high-pitched, and I love to imitate the call. I will do it over the rest of the trip, over and over. I will sometimes call Sharon "Sherilee," and usually in that high-pitched voice. This is an example of a trip's theme. On our trips, something always surfaces that is hilarious, goofy or outlandish, and we just run variations of that for the rest of the trip. We do it best with Sharon's sister Jeane and husband Red.
We choose our dolls carefully, and lucky for us, a tourist bus shows up, so when we pass a girl, she isn't disappointed. Rather, she looks over to the tourist bus and starts yelling, "What is your name?" We decide that next time this comes up, Sharon will say that her name is "No charge." Or "Free." Or "I will not bug you." A couple of the women even called me M'sieur. Hey, Sherilee, buy one from them. I go out to the car to get a big plastic bag for the dolls, as they have none here. I also get the video camera to record some of the activity. Fantastic. They are also selling handmade slippers, socks and gloves. All of wool. Sharon says "cok sujak." Too hot. We finish up, and the din dies down. Then starts up again as the bus tourists descend into the pit. "MER-UH-LEE! CATHY!"
Central Turkey. Day 15 of 22. Sunday, October 1, 2000. Cappadocia.
We continue on, trying to make our way through the Sultan Sazligi wetlands, but they are mostly dry, and we are starting to get confused about where we are. We come into a village, trying to decide whether to go left or right, when we come upon a large group of men. Sharon rolls down the window and asks if the next village is to the right or to the left. One man points to the right. Another takes exception, interrupts and points to the left. Others come, and pretty soon, there is a heated debate going on. They are no longer trying to help us. Pretty cool. We turn left, although my instinct is that if there is water, it's to the right.
We wander through the village a little ways, then turn right, now completely lost except for the GPS. But the village is too small to be on the map, so we're still on our own. We turn left, onto a small road past some small, mud brick houses, and several kids are curious about us as we pass them. We continue on out of town slowly, when all of a sudden, I spot another Little Owl, sitting on some rocks on the left. I slowly stop, and get some video, and we get great looks before he finally flies off.
I return the video camera to the back seat, and as I'm turning back to face forward, I notice a wonderful, fantastic sight through the right front part of the windshield. I can't believe my eyes. "Sharon, don't panic or anything, but look carefully to the right and in front of the car," I almost whisper. I don't want to tell her what it is. She'll know.
"A Hoopoe!" she almost yells.
She gets the video camera. She lowers the window and gets some great shots of what has to be the world's greatest bird upgrade. This after seeing only the back two-thirds of a Hoopoe earlier in the trip. An oopoe, that was. It is tan in the front third or so, with black and white stripes in the trailing two-thirds of a bird. We are keen to see his crest, so I open the car door on my side, then slam it. No reaction. Then I honk the horn. Still no reaction. I open the door, and slowly get out and begin walking around the front of the car. He flies off, all of this on video. We later watch, hoping that he raised his crest in one or two of the video frames, but he didn't. But what we did see is great. His crest lies flat on top of his head, but not completely so. It protrudes off the back of the top of his head, and the bill appears to come from high on the head, so that he looks a little like a ball peen hammer, with the head slightly down-curved on each side.
Deja vu. I think I said that before.
He lands in an open window of a block house under construction. We approach him slowly, and have now been joined by two kids, plus three more farther away, plus a couple of teenage boys on bicycles, still farther away. Finally, as we are talking with the kids and then some of their mothers, our bird has disappeared. We show the mothers our bird ID book Hoopoe pictures and tell them we're from America, having come to see Turkey's birds, and especially this one. I'm not sure any of that registers. I'm guessing they hear, "Blah blah blah blah, America. Blah blah blah." We take some pictures of the kids and walk around, trying to re-find the Hoopoe, but we got him good, and we see him no more. Meantime, the Little Owl seems to be flying ahead of us, no matter which way we turn.
I first encountered the name Hoopoe in the first book in the great seafaring series by Patrick O'Brian. I looked it up on the internet, and found a photo of a Hoopoe nest outside a young boy's bedroom window in South Africa. I was hooked, and decided right then and there that I had to see one someday.
We head back into the sandy tracks and encounter two men after a while. We ask if this is the way to the nearest village, and one man nods his head yes, and points straight ahead, and says a lot more. Then he points behind us and says even more, none of which we can grasp. Finally, I point ahead, and say, "This way, on this road? Is that right?" He nods his head yes, and says some stuff. We say thank you, and start to head off, when he continues talking, turns around, points to where we've come from and continues talking. I try it once more with the same two-direction monologue.
I finally decide he's saying something like this: "Yes, you CAN go that way, but there are tracks criss-crossing all over the place, and you'll probably get lost. Now it would be better if you turned around, and went back this way because blah blah blah." We laugh, say thank you, and head off, with the two men just watching us go. No expression on the faces. We quickly get fairly lost, then retrace our steps, and follow Sharon's suggestion to head for the power poles. That will surely get us to the next village. Or willage as Cihan and most Turks say. Sort of like the Germans, only reversed. They say 'v' for 'w', as in "Vhy are you doing zat?" Cihan's thesis adviser teased him mercilessly about it [Update 2003: Cihan is daughter Tara's husband now].
London. Wednesday, April 4, 2001. Day 6 of 12.
We make our way through St. James Park to the general location of our underground station, but there's yellow tape across a street just beside the station. "Oh no," I think, "our station's closed." But we ask, and a bobbie says that only area behind the tape is closed, and we can go on down and catch our train.
It's now 4:56 and we are waiting on the platform at St. James Station. The Circle Line train will arrive in 3 minutes. It's fun, in a crowded sort of way, to travel in the underground with the commuters. Everybody reads newspapers or books while they travel to and from work.
We have been warned that pickpockets are common in crowded areas, and just a couple of days ago, Nancy was in line at a small fruit/food stand. The guy just behind her put his hand in Nancy's coat pocket trying to get something that was in her sweater pocket, inside her coat. He could apparently feel the thing, but he didn't get anything.
A District Line train comes (just about two minutes before our Circle Line train), discharges its passengers, and others get on. The doors stand open, and the lady announcer is saying something I can't understand. I hear something that sounds like "earthquake" and then everybody on the train is waving for us three to get on NOW.
The lady is saying that there is a bomb warning, and we must get on the train.
We get on the train.
It zips out of the station, headed west, in the correct direction, and I find I am subconsciously expecting to hear a blast. Luckily for us, I don't. Just the screeching of the train, which seems to need a shot of three-in-one.
We get off in one stop, exit at the Victoria Station, and wait for our Circle Line train. Nobody seemed particular upset by the bomb scare. Nobody British.
New Zealand, North Island. Friday, April 20, 2001. Week 2, Day 2. Tell Me a Whakapapa (Story).
The kilos crank by and we are at the corner of Tongariro National Park, as darkness closes in. We turn east on 47, then north to Whakapapa and the Tongariro ski area. This area reminds me of Mt. Shasta. A large cone, to which everything else around pays tribute. We find the Tongariro Holiday Park and go to check-in, but it's closed. They say grab a bathroom key with your site number on it, and go to that site. We do this, find our site, then take off looking for a couple of things.
The only thing open is a lodge called The Chateau and a huge bar. We go to the bar, and find our first item - a Coke for Sharon to have with dinner, back at camp. The bartender is Jim. I ask him my second trip Magic Question, "We are looking for Blue Ducks," and I tell him the locations our book mentioned.
He mentions a couple of others, then says, "A couple of weeks ago, I shot these," and pulls out several photos of Blue Ducks. They are excellent. "I had to wade out in the water to get them, because I didn't have a propuh telephoto," he continues.
"Where is this?" I ask, hoping, hoping for the right kind of answer - namely, that we can drive there.
"Have you got a dog?" he asks. "No," just us, I say, wondering at the question. He apparently meant if you have a good dog, the dog can find them FOR you. Your job would be just to follow the dog.
Anyway, he describes the location. Back down to 47, turn east, go to the first road to the left. "It's at the end of the fahming land. If you get into the pines, you've gone too far. Follow this road to the end. Blue Ducks cover a big stretch of river, so there's no guarantees, you know."
We know, and completely accept "no guarantees." It's also called "Birding," and what makes it fun. Like fishing, I suppose.
But before heading to our spot, we both recall the kiwi-crossing signs we saw driving up here. "Let's check for kiwis crossing the road," Sharon says. All right, that's my Sharon! Off we go. Not a peep, not a kiwi. Nice try though.
Back to camp, dinner, off to bed. Dreaming of Blue Ducks. This is supposed to be a very difficult bird to locate. The problem is that they eat on the river in early, early morning and late, late evening and not in the daytime, when a normal human would go looking for them. Unless it's raining. Then they come out and feed all day long, I suppose, theoretically because they figure there won't be people about to bother 'em.
Another thing Jim the Bartender said was to "Listen for the whistle. They call to each other with a whistle." I hadn't read that, but I just missed it. Indeed, our books say they whistle to each other. The male calls first with a clean, clear whistle. The female responds with a kind of rumble, softer.
New Zealand, North Island. Saturday, April 21, 2001. Week 2, Day 3. Tongariro National Park. Lonesome Dove.
7:07 and we are out of Spot Number 11. Last night, after picking up the key for number 9, and going out to meet Jim the Bartender, and check for kiwis, another motorhome didn't stop at check-in, because they probably assumed they wouldn't be open anyway, and followed the normal, universal rule of motorhomes-arriving-after-closing: pick any open spot and pay in the morning.
We stop at the now-open check-in, pay for the night, buy bottled water, bananas and other staples -- for examples, M&Ms for one of us. I won't say who.
7:10 AM. We say goodbye to the Chateau and the Pihanga Cafe and T-bar (tea bar, get it?). We've got rain and the wipers are doing their job. We pass the golf course, and what's that thing out there? It looks like a kiwi, all huddled up, but it's a rabbit, scrunched down in kiwi shape.
We come to a gravel road that turns left, and wonder whether Jim meant take this road, or the first paved left. Uncertain, I decide to take this one. We drive in about twenty minutes and come to not only a locked gate, but about thirty sheep which have gotten out of their pasture. I turn around to drive back out, and about twenty of them run away in the direction I want to drive, back down the road.
I drive slowly at first, then notice that several run beside me, but give up, stop and watch me pass. So I speed up a little. Now it's the athletes among them who are leading us. Now only two, and first one, then the other run out of petrol.
In the fields on either side of our gravel road, during the trip in and chase out we see New Zealand Pipits, a lot of White-backed Magpies, and a flock of about twenty Shelducks. They take off, and it's a joy to watch their wing stripes define the movement of their wings. It's so incredible.
Back on the main highway, we continue in the direction Jim told us, now assuming that he meant the first PAVED road. Sharon finds a paved road taking off to the left on one of our maps, so now we're confident. Sure enough, here it comes, and I exit stage left. We follow this road a bit, and it ends up in a car park below a dam on the river.
This is the intake structure that one of our books has told us about, and we are excited. The book intake structure location matches Jim's location from last night. I park, we get out and it's raining lightly but steadily. I decide to leave the scope, but take the video camera. It's hard managing all the equipment AND carry an umbrella. But if I leave the scope, it's do-able.
There is even a little viewing platform at one end of the car park. We go up onto it and scan the river below the dam, but can't get anything. So next, we go to the far end of the car park and turn left (walking) and going downhill, towards the river. Now there are two choices: first, go back below the viewing stand, towards the intake structure, or second, go down a gravel road, which looks like it may go further downstream. We opt for the gravel road. There is a little patch of grass, then bush at the edge of the grass. Here it drops straight down to the river. And where we first walk over, it's about 30 feet down. We look through the brush, and can see part of the river, unviewable from the stand in the parking lot. This is good. But we can't see anything.
But then, holy moly, we both hear a definite whistle. Then a kind of "pddddd" sound. Excited, I go on down to the end of the gravel road, while Sharon tries for more views of the river at this spot. I get down to the bottom, but it looks pretty iffy to walk beside the river on the boulders and rocks. There is a fair chance that one would fall into the riv-- WHAT'S THAT? Sharon is calling me.
I hustle back up and there, on a rock in the middle of the fast-rushing river is a *BLUE DUCK. Unbelievable. Fantastic. It is dipping its head into the onrushing water just like an American Dipper. I grab my video camera and start shooting. Through the lens, I see the mate swim up from behind, and climb onto the rock. Then they both pop into the water, and swim to the far shore. I switch back and forth between the video camera and my digital still camera, but the best digital photo is blurry. Take my word that the video is stunning. And we can watch the male whistle, and the female return her rumble. Ah, it just doesn't get any better than this.
I go back for the scope, and we get more looks through the scope. We can see all the details of their feather patterns. I begin to go back and forth between the high spot, and down right at the river. Suddenly, the male spots me, I'm sure, because his behavior changes. He begins to nod his head up and down, about four times. Then he runs down the rock they are both on, and takes off flying, straight at me for a second or two. She follows, and they turn upstream, landing just below the dam. Now too far away for any photos. Finally satisfied, we go back to the trailer and have breakfast. Sharon washes the dishes, and I'm so excited that I don't remember who dries them.
One of my favorite TV miniseries was Lonesome Dove. In this movie, there was a very bad Indian character named Blue Duck. So the phrase meant bad stuff to me. But now it has transformed, and it's a very special phrase.
We drive back to the main highway, then back up the road to Whakapapa. Whakapapa, by the way, we learn a few days later, means story. Well, not exactly, it turns out, but sort of. [In the Maori language, you pronounce 'wh' as 'f,' so this sounds like "fakapapa". The 'f' is a soft sound, as you just barely touch your upper teeth to your lower lip.
New Zealand, South Island. Saturday, April 28, 2001. Week 3, Day 3. Milford Sound and the Homer Tunnel..
We load up into the motorhome and take off, hoping to pick up Rock Wren at the far side of Homer Tunnel. When we get there, it's getting dark and it's windy. We try for a little while, and I do manage a smashing closeup of a Kea.
Now the Keas are famous for their antics with tourists' windshield wipers, and sure enough, three birds come over. I throw them some peanuts (Don't feed the Keas) as far as I can, to keep their minds off of our motorhome. After they finish with them, one hops under the back of the motorhome and begins chewing on the mudflap while another one flies over and lands on top of our vehicle so I can't see him. I hear sounds of him doing something with the center vent so I yell at him. Then he's up and walking on top. I throw a rock at him to get him off (Easy, Shirley, it's just a little rock), and he jumps/flies over to the right hand rear view mirror. Which is right next to the radio antenna. He looks around, spots the antenna, clamps down onto the rubber tip with his beak and starts twisting. I have run around the motorhome, in the meantime, to see all of this, and I throw another rock at him. This time he flies down to the parking lot.
Sharon, who all of this time is looking for the Rock Wren, laughs at my concern, and says, "What's the worst he can do?" The answer to that, of course, is that he'll kill us, unless we watch him carefully. I keep a close eye on the feisty one.
O! How I love these little parking lot guys.
Anyway, we finally turn the birds over to the next set of unwary tourists in a little Honda. The feisty one latches onto the driver-side windshield wiper as the owner bends over double with laughter, trying to snap a couple of pictures. Obviously, not her car.
New Zealand, Stewart Island. Wednesday, May 2, 2001. New Zealand Trip Week 3, Day 7. Stewart Island Day Two. Last Kiwi Chance?
The weather still seems pretty good on what we hope will be our Kiwi Day. We go back up to the lodge for some rest, and to pick up umbrellas, the video camera and to rest. We meet Margaret, who has returned from the South Island with her mother. She is very pleasant. We also meet their youngest grandson Cane, whom they call Chaos. He just has the devil written all over his smiling little pink-cheeked face, being all of about three years old. He takes some bits of apple outdoors and places them where the Kakas usually feed, then he watches one of the parrots come and begin eating. We load up our gear and head over to the dock where Philip has told us to meet him.
We meet a couple who make some sort of herbal balm from bee honey and other stuff, and sell it here on the island. The man collects and restores old motorcycles, and he has a 1923 Indian among his collection.
5:34 PM and I think it's going to happen! The Volantis (Philip's boat) is headed over here. The ferry has just pulled up, and it's the Foveaux Express. This dock is cool because if you are standing on it, and a boat bumps the dock, the whole thing shudders as if in an earthquake. Foveaux is the name of the strait between the South Island and Stewart Island. I watch the workers lift metal boxes off the boat and set them down on the dock with a crane attached to the Foveaux. After a bit, they load a motorcycle from the dock onto the boat. Pretty fun to watch them do this.
We start loading onto the Volantis, but there are three telephone poles lying on the dock right where we are supposed to get onto the Volantis. As Sharon plants her stick and starts to step over, either a) the stick slips, or b) I knock it out from under her with my foot. At any rate...
"Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier" - Howard Cosell.
No harm done, she gets back up, and we load on. Philip takes my Visa card to charge the $60 NZ per person. It is raining ever so lightly, and we learn that the Kiwi don't much like to feed when it's raining. Uh-oh, is this how it's going to happen?
We make the 45-minute boat ride, in the dark, over to the bay side of a small, vertical strip of island, and dock at a pier with a light on it. I get what I hope is the last shot of Sharon before she sees a Kiwi. The birds are supposed to be on Ocean Beach, directly over the strip, on a beach that faces east. If you start swimming east from that beach, you don't stop till you hit South America. We can see rough, steep stone steps leading up from the pier. I tell Sharon, "Let's get near the front, so we don't miss any Kiwis that might appear on the trail going over the hill." Sharon is worried that that will hold everybody up, but I am insistent, and we both edge over to the beginning of the steps. I'm sure the other people will be fairly slow too.
Each of the 17 of us has a flashlight, but we are to use them only when walking the trail over. Once we get onto the beach, all lights go off except for Philip's powerful one. He has the experience to know when a Kiwi is okay with lights and when not. This is approximately his 1400th trip to Ocean Beach to show people like us a Kiwi.
We get to the beach, and unfortunately saw no Kiwi on the trail over. Philip starts his talk about how to see Kiwis, what to do when we come upon one, and stuff like that. One fellow interrupts him in the middle, and says, "There's one right behind us." Everybody turns around and Philip puts the light on him, and sure enough, we get a glimpse of our STEWART ISLAND KIWI!! This is the same subspecies as the Brown Kiwi we heard up in Trounson Forest, but the behavior is of the two subspecies is quite different.
Philip kills the light and says, "We'll see him again later." He finishes his words, turns around, but the Kiwi is gone. We then start walking up the beach, with the beach on the left, and the edge of the forest on the right. We are most likely to see them just at the edge of the forest, says Philip. We make one trip up the beach and see none. We wait about ten minutes, then make the return. Still no more Kiwis. It is a killer, walking on this beach for both of us, but Sharon has had enough and we make arrangements to leave her at the path entrance to the beach while we make one more trip up and back.
One more round trip produces nothing. Philip wants to go to the end of the beach in the other direction, a not very great distance, and we continue that way. About twenty meters from the end, he says, "You all wait here. I'm going to go check near the creek. If I blink the light on and off, then come quickly." And he takes off.
Meantime, Sharon has decided that she can make this quick little jog, so she catches up with us, unbeknownst to me. For my part, I reason, "If he does see one, and blinks, I want to be the closest to him, so I can get there first and take a video." I don't get that thought out, when his flashlight starts blinking furiously!
I turn and say, "He wants us to come," but everybody has already started towards him. I'm about third there and fire up the video so it's already running before we get there. I turn on the SUPER NIGHT SHOT feature of the camera, and when Philip's spotlight hits the bird, I can see it clearly. Meantime, Sharon has caught up and is watching the bird through her binoculars, clear as anything, she later says.
Every time the light hits the Kiwi, it heads for the forest. Philip responds by taking the light off. Sharon, through her binoculars, can see that the instant the light is off the Kiwi, it stops running and continues feeding as if nothing had happened. Then the light hits it again, and again the Kiwi runs towards the forest. Finally, Philip leaves the light on it, and it runs all the way up a trail that the Kiwis have carved out of the bluff. It is unbelievable to see that Kiwi climb straight up that cliff.
And I GET THIS ALL ON VIDEO! Not professional quality by any means, but you can see it clearly.
So guess what, Ladies and Gentlemen. We just achieved the main, perhaps the sole purpose for us coming to Stewart Island -- to see an actual Kiwi in the wild. This is what it's all about, for me. Planning this thing, scheduling two nights in case the first one falls through, in this case, getting a break in the weather the second night, then seeing the bird.
We go back to the boat, with Sharon and me last. I help her down those terrible, now slippery stone steps. We load up, and Philip talks about twenty minutes detailing the life of a Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. So much more enjoyable AFTER we've seen one. Great, great stuff.
This is the exact same trip that David Attenborough showed on his "The Life of Birds" miniseries on PBS. In fact, David stayed at the Stewart Island Lodge too.
Thursday, May 3, 2001. Week 4, Day 1 of New Zealand Trip. South Island. Dunedin. Where Are the Penguins?
The former Southlite Penguin Observatory was very cool, according to our research done before the trip. Instead of an organized tour, you gave somebody $5 NZ, got a key to the lock on some gate, passed through, drove a rather steep, windy road to a high point overlooking a beach, and from about 4 PM to dark, you watched the penguins come in for the night. But now there are new owners. How are they going to handle it?
We go through an unlocked gate, up the hill and come to an old barracks, which is now the ticket office. We go in and a young kid, Tony, whom we later learn just had his 21st birthday, sells us tickets and is the friendliest guy you could hope for. He tells us just to drive down on our own -- exactly what we wanted. There are free-ranging sheep around, so we are to drive carefully.
We go on up and down the winding, steep-in-some-places, gravel road, and come to a fantastic view of Dunedin across the big bay. We continue on to a car park, and park near one end. As I'm getting the stuff together (scope etc.), Sharon has stepped out on her side next to a life-sized yellow-eyed penguin cutout, and is looking down at the part of the beach we can see. "I see Penguins!!" she shouts, "And they've got yellow eyes! I don't believe this. Another parking lot bird!" [It's amazing how many times we expect to trudge through jungle or forest, but spot our target bird from the car park before we head out]
I come over, set up the scope and holy cow, it's two *YELLOW-EYED PENGUINS, on the beach, just above the surf line, preening and stretching. They are about two feet tall. "Another one just came in!" she shouts, as I get the rest of my gear. We go to the observation post, a sort of metal shed with a roof for protection against rain and wind. But it's a little too restrictive, so we move back outside. As I'm looking at these three, Sharon says, "A fourth one just came in. He's walking. HE'S WALKING LIKE A PENGUIN!! This is exactly what I wanted to see."
There is a network of trails which go up steep sand dunes. Above the sand dunes is scrubby greenery -- small trees, shrubs and the like. And above the greenery is a rock cliff. We can see another penguin who has climbed partway up a trail, and is standing there. We figure their caves or burrows are in the sand somewhere near this bushy area.
A couple of hours later, after a trip to the Royal Albatross nesting area and back.
Now there are more than a dozen Yellow-eyeds, and soon Tony joins us. He has tremendous admiration for our 15-45X zoom scope and tripod. We let him use it and he is wowed. "You want to hear someting really cool?" he asks. "You bet," we say. "See the cliff, just at the base, above all the bush?" Yes, we see that. "That's where the penguins are climbing to. That's where their burrows are."
How on earth can they climb all the way up there, we ask ourselves. But now we hear one calling, and it turns out to be about halfway up one of the trails, and has just stopped, and started calling. I get him in the scope, show Tony and Sharon, then I get a photo of the Yellow-eyed Penguin through the scope, a technique I'm still trying to work out. Tony starts counting. "There are 38 Yellow-eyed Penguins on the beach," he gleefully yells. They are everywhere, doing everything. Sharon watches two of them belly-bump each other, but I miss that.
I watch one climbing up the sandy trail, and he actually hops upwards a couple of times. Sharon spots a seal in the surf. Tony says we just have to take time out to go see the seals, and he doesn't understand why we don't go over. "We have seals where we live, but until an hour ago or so, we had never seen a live penguin walking. We're stayin' right here. We want to see the Blues." He had said that there is a 50/50 chance that in the last ten minutes before dark,that a squad of Blue Penguins will come into this beach, land, and move up and off of it. We have to see this, and that agrees with the internet report we have, regarding the happenings at this particular beach. At ten minutes till six, Tony leaves us.
Before he left, a girl who had joined us asked Tony how many penguins were here. He told her there were 40 pairs.
It is getting dark. I've got the video camera ready, and now it's on Super Night Shot. Sharon is on the scope and says that she thinks she might have just seen a Blue Penguin (aka Little Penguin, Little Blue Penguin, Fairy Penguin) come in, not reach the beach, then go back out. "Yeah, right!" I say. But then I notice about a dozen black dots just in the surf, in an incredibly tight bunch, looking like the tadpoles in shallow pond water of my childhood. I get on the scope and it's them. We've hit the jackpot.
These little birds stick together. The surf rolls in, then back out, leaving them in the sand. They stand up, then one of them runs back down to the water, and sort of slides in. All the others then rush back into the water also. This happens perhaps a half-dozen times. Each time, they seem to get a little farther up the beach until finally, they stay out. I'm still recording. They penguin-walk their tiny little selves out of our sight, below the bluff face that we're standing on. Unlike the yellow-eyed penguins who walk alone out of the water and up the beach, these little guys stay in a group and huddle together. Maybe for protection as they are so much smaller than the Yellow-eyeds. We're guessing their burrows are at the bottom of the cliffs we're standing on.
We drive back up to the ticket office and go in. Tony's parents are there, and we talk to them about twenty minutes, listening to their very animated description of their plans, how they love the Yellow-eyed Penguins and so on. Sharon buys some cool stuff they have for sale there. As we start to leave, Tony's dad says, "When you get down to our gate, drive very carefully. You'll find the Blue Penguins crossing the road." Huh?? How are those penguins going to climb that cliff at all, let alone in 25 minutes? But he's serious. He says their burrows are all the way up here! And that they climb the entire height of the cliffs to get here! I think he's pulling my leg.
We head on down, and I get the video recorder ready just in case, power on, in standby, in night shot. We arrive at the gate, but there's nothing. We laugh and I shut the camera off, put it away, down on the floor between our bucket seats. I round the corner where the gravel road changes to pavement, and head back towards Dunedin and our camp for tonight, which we have yet to define. "Look out, something's in the road!" yells Sharon, thinking it's a cat. But you know what it is, don't you?
That's right. Four little Blue Penguins are caught in our light beams, and two leave the road to the right, two more to the left. But the ones to the left are stuck. There's only a ditch between the rising mountain and the road. The ones on the don't-drive-off-the-cliff side of the road just popped over. It's not a sheer drop, and they must have trails over there. I manage to get the video camera back out and get these little, unbelievably cute Blue Penguins walking beside the road on our left. They are about 16 inches tall.
Sharon says don't run over any because how would that look -- her eating a Sooty Shearwater (for dinner one night on Stewart Island) and then me taking out a penguin?
It's like we went to sleep and woke up in Fantasyland, man.
Saturday, June 30. Day 6 of 15. On the Mediterranean, off the Turkish south coast port of Antalya
Daughter Tara will officially become engaged to Turkish naval officer Cihan Agacayak at a traditional Turkish ceremony tonight. But this afternoon Bob Ross and I are being taken on a Mediterranean fishing excursion, arranged by Cihan's father, Kemal and their family friend Tufan.
After breakfast, eaten during the ride out to the fishing spot, we stop and Tufan puts his line into the water. His "line" is typical of most Turks' fishing gear. It is fishing line on a spool about five inches in diameter. This line has three hooks, each on about a six inch leader, and terminates in a weight. He puts a shrimp on each of the three hooks, and lets the line go out till the weight hits the bottom. I'd estimate it's 100-200 feet, but I'm terrible at such estimates. The key missing ingredient is the rod. No rod, just the line on its nylon spool.
In no time at all, he pulls up a small fish about 3-4 inches long and the captain gets a small bowl to put the fish in. "Yem (bait)?" I ask Tufan. "No, we will eat!" he says. Ross had told me the story of a fishing trip he took out of San Francisco Bay in which the captain stopped just out of the bay, and fished about fifteen minutes, catching the actual bait that they used farther out, during the actual fishing. "What kind of a fish is it?" I ask. "Barmunya," he says. I'm not sure of the spelling, but it's pronounced bar-MOON-yuh.
"We're going to eat THAT?" I thought. He motions for us all to start fishing, and we all bait up and drop out lines. I like how these little shrimp - the actual bait - look huge, under the macro-mode of my digital camera.
I look at the ramp on which we walked onto the boat, and wonder if we'll walk this plank when we take a swimming break later.
I suddenly realize that the captain and his mate are both sleeping, the captain down below and the mate above, leaning against the cabin wall. Ross and Kemal keep fishing and the four fishermen manage the trip without a nap.
I catch a dark fish, and I think they told me it was a sole. I look at our catch so far, in the bowl, and wonder how we are going to make a meal out of fish like this. I catch another one and hold it up proudly for this photo. Ross finally catches his first fish, and he holds the tiny fish up for all to admire.
After moving to four or five different locations, and catching maybe 30-35 fish, Tufan announces, "Now. Swimming!" He strips down to his swimsuit and dives in off the side, where a rotating ladder is now in the "up" configuration. The first mate lowers it after Ross dives in. I go over next and the salty Mediterranean is extremely buoyant. Feels great on a hot day.
While we're swimming the captain cleans the fish, then sets the whole lot aside for the first mate to cook. Tufan climbs out and starts fixing his "famous Tufan sea salad." We drink beer and wine, eat fish and salad till we're stuffed (not a lot on each fish, but you can make it up in volume), then we head in. I get a brilliant idea, and pose Bob Ross, Kemal and his friend Tufan in the boat for one picture.
Later that day, when we get back to the hotel, I work some Adobe Photoshop magic. Now every fish we caught was small, maybe 3-4 inches long max. But I recently saw a picture on the internet that gave me this idea. So here is the picture we PROUDLY show everybody later that evening, from my laptop, at the engagement party. The non-fishermen are extremely impressed. Those familiar with the fish of these waters get a great kick out of it.
but to see the actual photo, click here.
North Central Turkey. Thursday, July 5, 2001. Day 11 of 15.
We come around a corner and see a man moving hay with a strange-looking pitchfork. There are either two or three curved tines in the bottom, and one single one on top. Sort of like a hawk's claw when it's open and about to grab something.
He walks up to a pile of hay and slides the fork under it. He lifts that overhead and the hay slides down to the base of the forks. He repeats this pickup, lift movement till he has an enormous amount of hay in the fork. Next he walks over to the place where he's accumulating the hay.
In the middle of all this, he sees us stopped. He drops the hay and starts walking towards us. Sharon yells and points to the video camera. She motions him to continue and he gets it. He goes back and repeats one complete cycle for us to video. Then he drops his fork again, gets his son, who's about nine or ten years old, and they come over to the car.
He puts his head by our window. He shakes our hand. Sharon asks "Wheat?" but in Turkish. He says yes, for making ekmek, and then he asks if we're English. No, American, Sharon says. Then the man says, "I like basketball," then gobba gobba, then "Los Angeles Lakers," then "Shaquille O'Neal," then "Sacramento Kings," then gobba gobba.
Actually the last 'gobba gobba' sounded like a Turkish man's name, and it turns out that there is a fellow from Turkey on the Sacramento Kings. Turkey is a big basketball country, perhaps because Turkish men can be very tall, the same as Americans. Then the fellow tries to think of the other Laker star (Kobe Bryant), and I know who he means, but we both laugh because neither of us can think of his name. He shakes our hand goodbye, and Sharon holds her hand out to the boy. He shakes it and starts to leave, but his dad points to me. I lean over and put my hand out, which the lad shakes. We wave and wait for the dad to resume his work, so I can take a couple more photos. But before we can start to take off, the man yells something to the boy, who runs across the field, grabs a wooden rake and starts to rake up loose hay.
Then, about a quarter km down the road, we see a man standing at the edge of an uncut field of wheat. He has a long scythe and begins to cut in long, even, slow slices. A wonderful site.
OK. That's it. You can go now. Thanks for looking.
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