Archive for travels

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 5: Dovekies

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This was the brave one.  I could hear the mate down in the burrow.  The rest kept their distance (sitting maybe 30′ away) and flying close over our heads to investigate.

I know, the trip was in June and it’s now November but I want to share this one last adventure with you.  On our last day there my friend Frank and I decided to climb up a steep scree slope to sit among the nesting Dovekies.  It was thrilling to sit high on the slope with Dovekies calling as they whirled around my head.  I had close looks at them.

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The slope may not look steep but it was.

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The only way I could get down was the “5 point” way, sliding on my butt!  (Photo courtesy of Frank Mantlik)

For me this was the highlight of our trip.  One of my goals was to see nesting Dovkies and we did that in spades.  Thanks, Frank.

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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 2: Adventdalen

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Our first views from the air revealed a spectacular landscape of black, glacier capped mountains.  We landed in the main “city” Longyearbyen (pop. 2,900+), an old whaling port and until recently a center for mining high quality coal, although that output has been reduced due to the low price of coal.  We linked up with our friend, got the car, unloaded at our hotel and the three of us set off on the main road along the coast of Adventfjorden, one of the 30 miles of road on the island of Spitsbergen.  We were advised to stay within the “Polar Bear Free Zone” but we went somewhat afield because we had the car for protection.  While the bird list for this area is not a long one, we were rewarded by intimate views large numbers of birds unusual for Connecticut, like these nesting Barnacle Geese.

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Nesting pair of Barnacle Geese.  Svalbard Barnacle Geese are known to winter between Scotland and England.

Common Eider Ducks are an every day sight at our Maine cottage but here hundreds nested around the sled dog pens (safer from Arctic foxes).

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You had to be careful where you parked!

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Not a great place to rest

My life bird for the day was a Rock Ptarmigan, still in winter plumage.  We saw others over the time we were there, all in varying stages of molting.  This was the classic beauty.

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A very cooperative Rock Ptarmigan, and yes, among rocks.

There were also an Ivory Gull, Glaucous Gulls, Red-necked and Red Phalaropes, lots of Pink-footed Geese, a pair of King Eiders, nesting Red-throated Loons and lots of Purple Sandpipers (these apparently the subject of a study as nearly all were banded), Dunlins, Common Ringed Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers,  Black-legged Kittiwakes, Long-tailed Ducks, Arctic Terns, hundreds of Dovekies, Black Guillemots, Parasitic Jaegers, Northern Fulmars, Eurasian Green-winged Teal and the ubiquitous Snow Buntings.  We found it well worth the extra days and expense for the rich birding experience we enjoyed.

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Longyearbyen and the harbor from the hills above Adventfjorden.

 

 

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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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Madagascar 4: The Rain Forest

We went from the Spiny Forest, climbing through terraced rice paddies to reach the rain forest.  This ever dwindling natural resource of dramatically different habitats is brimming with still more unique species like geckos and chameleons.  It took quite a while to pick out this Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko until he moved.

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Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko

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Up and about

Much of our exploration was through challenging terrain with long drives in 4 wheel drive vehicles on horrible roads to begin our hikes into the forest.  Those hikes were physically arduous but the rewards were great:

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Like this Collared Nightjar – a bird’s nest in a bird’s nest fern,

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a Giraffe Beetle,

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Jewel-like pill bugs,

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a Madagascar Malachite Swallowtail and

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A Paradise Flycatcher nest with babies.

Plus there were all the frogs, snakes and more birds, not to mention more lemurs like the Indri, with their haunting calls.

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An Indri family group.  You can hear their calls at this link from Wikipedia

Near the end of our trip we had lunch beside this lovely forest pond where we enjoyed watching endemic waterbirds; a family of Madagascar Little Grebes and a pair of Meller’s Ducks.  A day or two later I was finally struck down by Madagascar’s “travelers complaint,” an ailment that had hit the rest of the group earlier.  I was fairly incapacitated after this, getting home on Imodium and finally resorting to Cipro (a must for anyone contemplating this wonderful adventure).  This trip is full of sights everyone needs to see.  Beside the amazing wildlife, there are lessons here on so many levels, especially on the effects of our misuse of natural resources because we put immediate human needs above the future of our environment.  This is a lesson we need to heed right here at home.

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Lunch by the pond

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Madagascar: People and Countryside

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The straw hats on the first two people are typical Malagasy wear for men and women.

They are a proud and happy people, close to family and community and friendly to visitors, but they are desperately poor.  The need for food staples like rice and corn are forcing them to devastate the beautiful forests that are home to so many species of wildlife.  We traveled through many areas where we saw smoke rising from burning rain forest, even around the edges of protected National Parks.  In place of the trees were miles and miles of terraced rice paddies.

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The main highways are paved but narrow, side roads are dirt and the infrastructure in the National Parks has not been well maintained despite the fact that the visitor fees have just been increased.  It makes a visitor wonder where all that money is going because there are a lot of ecotourists and much wonderful wildlife to attract them.  If the Park Service doesn’t act, their inaction may well have a deleterious effect on that industry. Transportation is difficult as there are few buses.  We encountered many small vehicles such as Zebu drawn jitneys and bicycle pedicabs.  The few buses were astonishingly overcrowded.

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Our accommodations ranged from very nice to scary but the food was universally excellent, much of it influenced by the country’s history as a French colony.  We also were treated to delicious local Malagasy dishes.  Fresh vegetables were seen everywhere at roadside stands and markets, first quality to my gardener’s eye.  The roadside stands changed as we drove along country roads.  One area had water bottles filled with honey for half a mile, another bags of charcoal (another reason for destruction of the rain forest) a third had baskets and so on.

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A roadside bakery. Note that although there is a glass display case, there is no glass in the windows. We saw window glass only in the cities.  There are no chimneys either, even though cooking is done inside the house, mostly on wood or charcoal fired stoves.  It must be extremely smoky (as you can see by the door).

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I found two wonderful baskets in this group of roadside stands. I am now the envy of my fellow grocery shoppers with my reusable bags.

Near the coast most of the houses in the countryside were of mud an wattle construction but as we rode up into the highlands where the weather gets colder, they became more substantial two, even three story brick homes.  Brick making is a cottage industry with all the local red clay soil.  It looked as if someone decided he wanted to build a house and just made the bricks on site.  To fire the bricks, they stack the bricks in such a way as to leave an opening where they can light a fire inside the pile.  The fire burns quite hot, and voila, a stack of fired bricks.

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The people are remarkably ingenious in recycling.  We visited a craft market where a man was making little model bicycles from old brake cables, plastic tubing and empty aerosol cans.  He soldered them over a candle flame.  We saw them making tableware from old 55 gallon oil drums, the list goes on and includes many handcrafts such as paper making and embroidery .

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We began and ended in Madagascar’s capitol, Antananarivo (Tana) where the Jacaranda tree were in full bloom.  Madagascar is a wonderful place with so much to offer but in desperate need of outside help in the form of infrastructure, education, so many things, and you never hear about it.

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Going home…

 

 

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