Sunday, May 26, 2013

Greetings from Namibia

Greetings All,
We have embarked on our next adventure in Namibia in southwest Africa.  After a 14+ hour flight across the pond, we arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa.  We had a tight connection and made it to the gate as our flight to Windhoek, Namibia was boarding.  Our work visas finally arrived via email but we had already boarded the flight to Johannesburg and could not print them out.  We decided to enter Namibia as tourists and deal with our work visas later.  We made it through passport control OK although, the officer did ask what we were going to do in Namibia for 9 weeks.  I replied that we were retired and had more time to travel.

After a good night's sleep, we were ready for the four hour drive to the Kalahari.  We rented a Ford Ranger 4x4 with manual transmission.  With two spare tires in the back, a full tank of diesel, and a cell phone we were ready for our journey south.  The hardest part was backing out of the Guest House driveway. Our first destination was the Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch.  As we pulled into reception we were greeted by an Oryx seeking shade in the carpark and Skanky, a female Springbok. Skanky was sporting a pair of stylish horn guards to prevent her from stabbing the tourists.

We went on a game drive in the afternoon and spotted more Oryx, Springbok, Greater Kudu, Plains Zebra and Blue Wilderbeest.

Back at the lodge it was time to feed the Cheetahs.  There are three resident male Cheetahs.  They were actually given to the Game Ranch by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the organization we will be volunteering at the month of June.  All three Cheetahs were orphaned and have been at the Game Ranch for 8 years.  Springbok was on the menu for the evening and the boys chased us after our land rover had entered their enclosure (we were still in the vehicle).  Stephanus threw each cheetah a hunk of springbok which they grabbed and rushed off to eat in peace.

We left the Game Ranch around 9:30 this morning to continue our drive south.  Our final destination is Fish River Canyon Lodge.  After the Grand Canyon, the Fish River Canyon is the largest canyon in the world.  The Lodge is perched on the rim of the canyon with spectacular views.

The climate here is arid and not much grows except for clumps of milk bush, a type of euphorbia with poisonous milky latex and bizarre looking quiver trees.  The Quiver Trees can grow up to 300 years old and can store water in their fibrous trunks.  They are called Quiver Trees because the Bushman use the branches to make quivers to carry their arrows.

Tomorrow we start a 4-day hike to the bottom of the canyon and along the Fish River.  Unfortunately, Namibia is experiencing a drought.  The rains did not materialize this year.  The Fish River is drying up which is not good for the wildlife.  We'll get a close look tomorrow.

Happy Memorial Day.
Peggy and Marc

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Migrating Marvels

Greetings All,
I have lived in Vermont all my life but it wasn't until this year I discovered the amazing variety of songbirds that migrate through the state each spring.  Follow this link to a table which lists the approximate arrival date of each migrating bird:

Vermont Spring Migration

Our curiosity was piqued after seeing the Green Mountain Club's Taylor Series event on "Birding the Green Mountains: Habitats, Elevational Gradients, and Climate Change" by Dr. Allan Strong of the University of Vermont. We realized we had heard many of these birds after spending countless hours in the Vermont woods hiking or mountain biking but we had never taken the time or effort to identify them.

It takes a trained eye and more importantly a trained ear to determine the species.  Our friend Liz Lee suggested we take one of the Green Mountain Audubon Society walks to learn more about birding in Vermont.  We did a practice walk in the Jay Range in the Adirondacks and realized it's more difficult to spot the birds than we thought.  Photographing them is a greater challenge.  In the Adirondacks we managed to photograph a mere three species:  Black-throated Blue Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
The next morning we went on our first walk with the Green Mountain Audubon Society (GMAS) in Geprags Community Park in Hinesberg.  Led by GMAS board member Bill Mercia, we managed to see or hear a whopping 44 species of birds!  I have to admit, I didn't see or hear all 44.  My favorites were the Golden-winged Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Redstart and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Golden-winged Warbler
To learn more about the Green Mountain Audubon Society go to:

Green Mountain Audubon Society

We practiced our newly learned skills the next morning at Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge.  There was a chorus of bird song but on our own we were having difficulty identifying them.  We did manage to get reasonably good photos of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Gray Catbird and American Redstart.

Gray Catbird
We located a woodpecker nest and saw an adult fly out but were unable to identify it.  Our best guess is a Northern Flicker.

On the morning of May 17, we joined Mike Winslow, staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee, for a bird walk in Oakledge Park in Burlington.  We managed to spot about 20 species. Marc got a great photo of a Red-eyed Vireo.

Red-eyed Vireo
For more information about the Lake Champlain Committee and Bird Friday go to:

Lake Champlain Committee

We did our final bird walk of the season this morning at Honey Hollow in Jonesville.  Right from the parking lot we spotted Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Song Sparrow.

Common Yellowthroat
Baltimore Oriole

A little further up the road we heard then spotted a magnificent Indigo Bunting.

Indigo Bunting
The Ovenbirds, Vireos and Wood Thrushes were singing from the thick understory.  We couldn't always spot them but at least we had learned what they were from their calls.  A female Blackburnian Warbler (thanks, Liz) was collecting spider's web for her nest on a branch over the road.

Female Blackburnian warbler
I spotted a Red-breasted Nuthatch feeding it's chick in a nest cavity but when we approached both adult and chick disappeared.  We also spotted a Rose-breasted Grosbeak by his melodic song.

Unfortunately the Warbler migration is starting to wind down and the leaves are popping out.  It's making it more difficult to spot the birds.  I encourage all to grab a pair of binoculars and get out early to look for these beautiful birds.  I look forward to next spring when the colorful warblers will once again be migrating through our woods!

For more bird photos go to:

Marc's Spring Migration 2013 Collection

Marc's Spring Migration 2014 Collection

Marc's Spring Migration 2015 Collection

Marc's Spring Migration 2016 Collection

Marc's Spring Migration 2017 Collection

Marc's Vermont Birds 2018 Collection

   Peggy and Marc

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

El Yunque and Dino Angel

Greetings All,
We are back in Florida and returning home tomorrow.  We did get to hike in El Yunque National Forest, a cool, mountainous, sub-tropical rainforest on the northeastern end of Puerto Rico.  The Luquillo Mountains are the first land mass encountered by the moisture-laden trade winds formed off the coast of Africa. Our first hike took us to the 3543-foot summit of El Yunque Peak.  We hiked up on a good trail through Mountain Sierra Palm forest with ferns and bromeliads.  The view from the top was somewhat obscured by clouds but we did get glimpses of the surrounding mountains and coastline below.  

On the way back down we took a spur trail to the observation tower on 3088-foot Mt. Britton.  

This tower and others in the National Forest were constructed between 1933 and 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the CCC as part of the New Deal Initiative, a program to help end the Great Depression. 

The next day we hiked along the Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls.  This is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.  Many people were clambering over boulders to get to the pool at the base of the Falls.

We could hear birds in the forest but they were difficult to see.  We did not see the rare Puerto Rico Parrot (there are only 85 left in the wild) but did get a good look at a Scaly-naped Pigeon which is found throughout the Caribbean.

Other than bats there are no native mammals in Puerto Rico.  We did get a glimpse of an introduced Indian Mongoose crossing the road.  These animals have become pests and are the largest carrier of rabies.  There were land snails along the trail and one posed nicely on a brightly flowered Heliconia.

After our hike we headed to the Marina Puerto del Rey for the start of our second Bio-bay tour. This Bio-bay is located on the island of Vieques so we had to take a 45-minute catamaran ride to get there.  We were joined by 22 others including a group of 4 young women dressed in fancy dresses, jewelry and sandals for the tour.  Did they get a different email than us?  They looked like they were going on a fancy dinner/booze cruise rather than going on a Bio-bay tour.  We were served rum punch, piƱa coladas and the popular rum and diet coke on the boat ride over so it was sort of a booze cruise.  Once on the island we were served dinner before going on the actual tour at 8:30.  We boarded a pontoon boat powered by electric motors and you could immediately see the bio-luminance caused by the wake of the boat.

Our tour guide asked if anyone wanted to stick a foot into the water and a young woman eagerly answered "yes!". She just happened to be wearing a bathing suit so she was able to go completely into the water.  Swimming in the Bio-bays has been banned since 2007 but this tour gets around it by allowing 2-3 "swimmers" per tour as long as you have two points of contact on the ladder.  I wanted to go swimming with the dinoflagellates too but I didn't have a bathing suit.  Oh, what the heck, I didn't know these people and would never see them again.  I volunteered next and stripped down to my underwear to swim with the Dinos!   It's not as crude as it sounds.  I had a jog bra on and it was too dark to see anything.  I climbed down the ladder and held on with one hand and a foot.  I swirled the free arm and leg through the water letting the Dinos do their magic.  It's an entirely different experience when you're actually in the water with them.  The tour guide told me to hook both my feet through the ladder and create a "Dino angel" with both my arms!

After I got back in the boat our tour guide, Ricky, told us that although swimming in the Bio-bays was banned in 2007, it wasn't enforced until 2011 after a woman was attacked by a shark!  Now, he tells me though it wouldn't have kept me from going into the water.

All too soon it was time to return to shore.  We had another surprise in store for us.  A man flagged our bus down and asked if we wanted to see a nesting sea turtle.  "Heck yes" was the overwhelming response.  We followed the man to a nest where a rare Hawksbill turtle was just finishing up covering her eggs.  

She had just laid 160 of them and will nest up to 5 times this season.  Three species of sea turtles, Leatherback, Green and Hawksbill nest on Vieques.   The Hawksbill Turtle is critically endangered due to human fishing practices and the collection of their shells for jewelry and other decorative items.

What a magical evening!  We are looking forward to returning to Vermont where spring wildflowers and biking await.  We'll see many of you soon.
Peggy and Marc