Archive for outdoor experiences

The Panama Hawk Migration

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Panama City from atop the Canopy Tower.  It reminded me of the Emerald City of Oz.

We traveled to Panama in early October mainly for the hawk migration, but there were many other fascinating sights such as the Three-toed Tree Sloths munching on the Cecropia leaves outside our window.

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We stayed at Canopy Tower an old converted US Military radar installation.  The food was excellent with menus prepared by the owner’s Mother (?) who was a well known chef.  We came back from one day’s outing to find the remnants of that cuisine being sampled by seven juvenile Coatis.  They didn’t mind in the least if we watched them and they were relatively respectful of each other, unlike their cousins the Raccoons..

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It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip bird-wise as well with my eBird total of 195 species.  There were beautiful insects with Blue Morpho butterflies fluttering everywhere.  I also encountered a creature completely new to me, a Helicopter Damselfly (Megaloprepus caerulatus).  It was lovely at rest but absolutely mesmerizing in flight, twirling delicately down the path (click on the name for a link to a short video)

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Here is the Helicopter Damselfly at rest.  It is huge, about 7″ long and with a similar wingspan.  (Photo courtesy of Christine Howe, all rights reserved)

But of course the hawk migration was the primary reason for our visit.  We drove to Ancon Hill where the official Panama hawk watch is held.  We were told that almost no hawks had come through on the previous day but they had heard from Veracruz, Mexico that they should expect large influx were due this day.  We saw very few at first but then they started rising from the canopy and flying in from the west.  They gathered and rose swirling (kettling) until they reached the top of the thermal and then slid off to the east.  We were told that in one half-hour period we had seen approximately 18,000 hawks, mostly Swainson’s Hawks and that every Swainson’s Hawk in North America passes over the Panama Canal on its way to its wintering grounds in Argentina.  I found the experience very calming, watching them floating in, up and on their way, hundreds at a time.

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There are a few Turkey Vultures  and Broadwings but most of these birds are Swainson’s Hawks, a tiny fraction of the spectacle.

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Svalbard 4: Views from the Boat

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The bow was the favored location for the hardy but many of us watched from the comfort of the lounge.

Life aboard ship was very comfortable.  Even with 24 hour daylight there was almost always lots of action, birds flying by or on the water, walrus, polar bears, the occasional seal and whales.  My most exciting whale sighting was a Bowhead whale, an arctic species I have never seen before.  I didn’t get a picture of any of the whales but I was able to see the unique Bowhead mouth shape in a friend’s picture.

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We passed large icebergs when we were  in the bay where the Monaco Glaciers were calving.

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These photos show the bird cliffs at Alkefjellet.  We had hoped for zodiac rides to get closer but the sea was too rough (hence the blurry photo) and we had to settle for views from the ship.  It was impossible to count them but we were told there were over 100,000 birds nesting there, mostly Brunnich’s Guillemots (a/k/a Thick-billed Murres).  There were many opportunistic Glaucous Gulls hoping to find unattended eggs.

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Among the Polar Bears we saw were this threesome: mother, yearling cub and a male in pursuit.  She seemed to just want to get away with her cub but he followed them for quite a distance before she finally eluded him.  We saw Ivory Gulls where the bears had made a kill, six or seven at a time.  It was a thrill to see these elegant pure white gulls.

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This is as far north as our journey took us, according to the dashboard in the ship’s library.

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I’m looking due north at the beginnings of the ice surrounding the North Pole.  We turned around shortly after this picture was taken.  The ice would get thicker and finally we would not be able to go further.  We traveled 1031 nautical miles. (photo Frank Mantlik)                             For a detailed description of our trip check out the TRIP LOG.

 

 

 

 

 

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Svalbard 3: Going Ashore

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We snuck up very carefully on this sleeping mass of walruses so as not to disturb them.  They were hauled out at Torellneset, a place which receives approximately 4″ of precipitation annually, making it a true “polar desert”

We left Longyearbyen on June 16th, bound for the furthest north we could go, stopping to go ashore every day, provided there were no Polar Bears in the area.  We stopped at Rauldfjorden, Spitsbergen the next day and climbed a hill to get a close look at a 1600’s whaling era cairn and an old grave.  Our passage flushed a Purple Sandpiper from her nest in a “broken wing” display.  I took a very quick look and saw three well camouflaged lovely speckled eggs.

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Our ship “Plancius” seen from the hill above Rauldfjorden.  On the shore below you can see the remains of a seasonal cabin used by fox hunters.

One activity I was particularly impressed by was beach clean up.  We went ashore at Jacobsenbukta, a bay on Woodfjord and each of us gathered debris to take back to the ship where it will be carried back to Longyearbyen for disposal.  The amount and variety of trash was depressing and we only made a dent, but this company is trying to make a difference.

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Picking up trash on Jacobsenbukta

Our next trip ashore was to visit an island released from shore by the retreating Monaco Glacier within the past few years.  The three glaciers in this bay clearly demonstrated the effects of climate change upon arctic glaciers.

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The Monaco Glacier is collapsing as seen from the build up of silt along the edges and this island which was covered just a few short years ago.

Our final trip ashore was at Tordenskjöldbukta where we hiked across the tundra to two small lakes.  We encountered reindeer, birds, Beluga whales were spotted and the spring flowers were in bloom, a beautiful ending to our cruise.

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The reindeer on Svalbard have very short legs and are notably smaller than other reindeer, about the size of a large dog.  Below are a few of the plants we saw, the yellow is a Polar Buttercup and the other three I believe are species of Saxifrages.  164 species of plants have been described on Svalbard, rare for so far north.

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Svalbard 1: Oslo Environs

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We planned our trip to Svalbard by setting aside time on either end for birding on our own.  We hired a local bird guide from the Oslo area to take us to his favorite spots for a day and it was well worth the effort.  He took us to the outskirts of the city where there is a large lake (the Nordre Oyeren Naturreservat) and then to other several other hot spots.  By the time we finished we had compiled a list of about 65 species, including 28 life birds.  While these birds were all interesting one bird stood out.  We were hiking near the lake and a beautiful chicken started to follow us.  With its striking plumage and white rump patch, it looked to me exactly like the  Red Jungle Fowl, ancestor of domestic chickens that we have occasionally  encountered in our travels, living wild in the jungle.  I finally have had a chance to research it and have decided that it must have been a Sicilian Buttercup.  This bird was very vocal and followed us for some distance.  He was probably an escape from someone’s chicken collection.  He gets the name Buttercup because of the shape of his comb, which is cup shaped.

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The next morning we left Oslo and most vegetation behind and headed to the arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

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Big Bend (Yes, Again…!)

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I know I’ve often written about Big Bend NP in Texas but I keep getting pulled back there.  Compelling landscape, good friends and wonderful birds:  what’s not to like?  This visit followed much the same pattern as the others except we had managed to secure coveted Stone Cottage 103.  Cottage 103 comes with a suite of guests; Mexican Jays, White-winged Doves, Green-tailed Towhee, Black-crested Titmice, Canyon Towhees and an extremely friendly Gray Fox.  He/she was obviously looking for a handout, which is against park rules for good reason.  We resisted the temptation to share our happy hour tidbits and the fox did not return, but for a magical hour or so, we had this gorgeous animal as our guest.  It first sat on the porch wall but then went and curled up like a cat beside the porch.  What a treat to be so close as to be able to scrutinize a fox from a distance of a few feet.  I know this ease with humans comes from others disregarding park rules and feeding it.  I can only hope such misplaced generosity doesn’t spell its eventual doom.

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Madagascar Lemurs

A young Verreaux's Sifaka regards us with no apparent fear at all.

A young Verreaux’s Sifaka regards us with no apparent fear at all.

Let me begin by saying that it is difficult to photograph these fascinating animals, so apologies for my camera work.  They are astoundingly agile and quick as they leap from branch to branch, often with babies clinging to their backs.  First I’ll show you Verreaux’s Sifaka, a lemur of the Spiny Forest which we saw in Zombitse.  An extended family group cavorted in the trees above us in but then a curious youngster climbed down and just stayed, grasping a tree trunk and allowing everyone to get good shots.

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

Zombitse Sportive Lemur

By contrast this nocturnal Zombitse Sportive Lemur we inadvertently woke up seemed frightened.   Our next lemur was the Ring-tailed Lemur, made famous in the movie “Madagascar.”

Ring-tailed Lemur

Ring-tailed Lemur

We saw the Red-fronted Brown Lemurs in two different locations.

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Red-fronted Brown Lemur

Another lemur of the Spiny Forest was the tiny Mouse Lemur.  My picture even more horrible than these so I am including my Journal entry, just I hope, to give you an idea of how dear they are.

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One final lemur (before you glaze over) is the Indri.  We were awakened by their haunting cries every morning in Perinet which is in the rain forest.  Like most of the other lemurs, these were in a tight family group.  Our guide called them “balls of lemurs” which I thought very apt as they curl up in clusters of three or four to rest.  I did a little video so you could hear these calls which are equivalent to flock contact calls in birds but I can’t figure out how to get it on here.  If I ever do, I’ll add it.

Indri with her baby

Indri with her baby

 

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Madagascar: Trip to Nosy Ve

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We were transported to the boat by Zebu cart.

We took a day away from the Spiny Forest to go out to the island of Nosy Ve which is about a 1.5 hour boat ride from Tulear, on the southwest coast.  The first item of note was the way we got out to the boat as they used Zebu carts.  These carts provide a common method of transportation and now we had a chance to see what it was like.  We were four to a cart and the Zebu did well getting (jolting) us out to the boat.  On the way back it was deeper, rougher water and it seemed that the Zebu were afraid, but at last all were landed with little problem.

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Humblot’s Heron, an endangered endemic.

On the way out to the island passed a large sandbar where there were foraging shorebirds; Bar-tailed Godwits, Common Greenshanks, Curlew Sandpipers and old friends Ruddy Turnstones and Whimbrels.  We then cruised beside a long cliff face where we were rewarded by great views of an endanged Humblot’s Heron.

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Mrs. Red-tailed Tropicbird and her fluffy chick.

We hoped to see the Red-tailed Tropicbird and we were not disappointed.  The island is small and uninhabited, except by the Tropicbirds and a few other species.  There were a number of nests tucked under thorny bushes for shade.  I was delighted to find this one (spoiler alert for those who are on my Christmas card list!) where the tiny chick couldn’t have been more than a few days old.

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The beach at Anakao where we had lunch.

We left the island and rode across a bay to a beachside restaurant for lunch and looks at nesting Littoral Rock-thrushes.  The ride back was very rough but it had been a great day.

 

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