Tag Archives: wrap-up

Arrival at the Indian Ocean: Birding St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

On the afternoon of Day 12 of our South African birding adventure, we drove into St. Lucia. This is not the island nation of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. This is St. Lucia, a tiny tourist town (population 1100) in KwaZulu-Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean in eastern South Africa. I fell in love with it at once. The main street had a welcoming and low-key vacation vibe. A warm ocean breeze stirred the palm trees outside the coffee shop, where we drank coffee and ate pastries. There was both WiFi and cell service, and Neil and I took the opportunity to send reassuring texts to our families after a number of days of radio silence. And after five or six meals in a row of granola bars, dried fruit, and sandwiches (and wondering if I should buy some sketchy looking warthog chops to cook with my bare hands over the braai), we were greeted by a number of real restaurants. We had reserved a room at St. Lucia Wilds for two nights, which was a perfectly nice place to stay with a quiet setting, clean and comfortable accommodations, friendly hosts, and a very reasonable rate.

Over the course of the next two days, we explored the lush coastal forests and estuaries around St. Lucia. One of our first stops was the beach just east of town. We marveled at the roaring surf of the Indian Ocean, and watched several humpback whales cruise just offshore.

There were a healthy number of new birds to add to our list as well, including some stately Pink-backed Pelicans, Cape Gannet, Kittlitz’s Plover, and Yellow-billed Stork.

Pink-backed Pelicans – photo by Neil Hayward

We visited the nearby Igwalawala nature trail several times, and enjoyed seeing the multitude of forest birds that were drawn to the fruiting figs, including Trumpeter Hornbill and both Purple-crested and Livingstone’s Turaco.

Trumpeter Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

On Day 13, we spent most of the day at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spectacular reserve protects a swath of lowland forest and coastline stretching north from St. Lucia all the way to the border with Mozambique. We drove the main road that snakes between Lake St. Lucia on the west and the ocean to the east all of the way up to Cape Vidal. In the misty forest at the Cape we saw several Woodward’s Batis, a bird that is rarely found in South Africa outside
iSimangaliso Park. Along the Grassland Loop road, a highlight was Collared Pratincole.

Neil has all of his optics at the ready
Woodward’s Batis – photo by Neil Hayward
Collared Pratincole – photo by Neil Hayward

Coming back in the late afternoon, I was gazing sleepily out the window when a couple of dark shapes in the distance caught my attention. “Stop!” I shouted to Neil, and our SUV fish-tailed slightly on the muddy road as Neil executed his patented full-stop emergency birding maneuver. It wasn’t birds that had caught my attention, but a trio of White Rhinoceroses including a young calf ambling through a wet meadow. Although we had seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, water buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, jackels, hyenas, meerkats, and whales, we had totally dipped on rhinos. Problems with poachers had led rangers and park officials throughout the country to be tight-lipped about rhino sightings, and in some cases rhinos were even relocated to more remote, more protected areas. But at last, here at iSimangaliso we found them. After watching the rhino family for half an hour or so at a respectable distance, we continued our drive back to St. Lucia.

White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward
White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward

The St. Lucia area provided a very satisfying conclusion to our trip. I was a little worried that everything after Kruger would be anti-climactic, but the last few days were a wonderful way to wrap things up. We submitted eBird checklists from False Bay, St. Lucia Estuary, and iSimangaliso Park.

Now it was time for us to drive back to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a flight back to Seattle, and Neil was meeting his family for a little vacation time in Cape Town. We stopped by Mtunzini to look for Palm-nut Vultures, and the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. The aerial boardwalk through the trees was quite impressive, but our bird list at Dlinza was pretty meager.

All told, I saw 333 species in 14 days traversing northeast South Africa. Neil picked up some bonus species around Cape Town, and ended his trip close to 400. It was an absolutely amazing experience that exceeded my expectations in every way.

So what’s next? That whole story will have to wait for future posts this summer. But this arrived in the mail at my house last month:

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Alaska Wrap-up

My Big Year is over.  What began at Falls Creek State Natural Area in Minnesota on June 13, 2012 ended at my house in Washington state on June 12, 2013.  My official tally is 647 species of birds – a few short of my goal of 650 (I was hoping to add about five species on my cancelled trip to Gambell).  But  this was the only possible measure by which my year fell short.  In all other ways, it exceeded my hopes and expectations.  I will be writing more about my thoughts and observations about the year in general later on this summer, but for now here is my Alaska wrap-up report.

Miles by car: 1802

Miles by bus (Denali): 95

Miles by boat (multiple trips): 30

Miles by foot: 25

Number of new Big Year birds seen: 23

Total species seen: 123

Number of moose I had to swerve to avoid on a four-lane road 5 minutes from the Anchorage airport: 1

Number of glaciers seen: 7

Number of new arch-nemeses/birding friends: 1

Hans and Neil

Coolest mammal seen: Lynx

Reason I did not get a picture of the coolest mammal: I was too busy sitting there with my mouth open, thinking “That is the most ENORMOUS bobcat I’ve ever seen!”

Coolest birds: Tie between Willow Ptarmigan:

Willow Ptarmigan

Bluethroat (photos by Neil Hayward):

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

And Long-tailed Jaeger (photo by Neil Hayward):

Long-tailed Jaeger by Neil Hayward

Rarest bird: White Wagtail (photo by Neil Hayward)

White Wagtail by Neil Hayward

Bird that I have a new appreciation for: Red-throated Loon (photo by Neil Hayward)

Red-throated Loon by Neil Hayward

In Washington we mostly see them while they are in their winter basic plumage, so it was a treat to get to see them in all of their high breeding splendor.

Coolest Experience: Visiting the many seabird breeding colonies around Seward and Homer by boat, getting very close to thousands of nesting puffins, murres, and kittiwakes.  Here is a quick video I took of Gull Island near Homer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8sUJIJgwy4.

Quirkiest Town: Nome

Abandoned Railway

Subway Movie Theater

Velvet in pickup by Neil Hayward

There aren’t many towns in the U.S. with abandoned railway cars sinking into the tundra, a combo Subway/movie theater, and a caribou named Velvet who rides around in the back of a pickup.

On the whole, Alaska was an amazing experience.  I will definitely be back!

Coming soon, a post that attempts to answer the question many people have asked me recently: ‘After visiting all of those great schools and interesting teachers throughout the U.S., what did you learn about the state of education/effective schools/good teaching?’

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Gambles That Don’t Pay Off, And Those That Do

The plan was to spend the last three days of my Big Year in Gambell, a tiny Yupik community on the very northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island.  It’s the bit of North American land that is closest to Siberia, only 46 miles away.  On a clear day, you really can see Russia from your house.  Even when visibility is less than perfect, you can see tomorrow.  The International Date Line is only 23 miles distant.  I wanted to go to Gambell.  I wanted to see tomorrow.  I wanted to see the millions of sea birds that are said to fly by the sea watch there.  I wanted to know what Siberia strays would get blown across the strait.  I wanted to see how people live in that tiny corner of our world.

But in order to get to Gambell, you need to take a tiny plane from a company like Bering Air.  But Bering Air doesn’t fly when the weather is bad, and lately it hasn’t been too pretty in Nome.  As warmer air blows in from the south, it hits the pack ice and cools, creating thick fog.  Thick fog means no flights to Gambell.

planes waiting

I went to the airport on Sunday morning.  The weather was marginal in Nome, but Gambell was completely socked in.  The flight was delayed.  And then delayed some more.  I updated my blog, and waited.  More reports came in.  The weather was still bad.  This was frustrating.  There wasn’t much to do in the small one room waiting area.

waiting room

Then, miraculously, the weather in Gambell improved enough to maybe land a plane.  But in the meantime, the fog in Nome got worse, and now the plane couldn’t take off.  We waited some more.  Eventually, the flight was canceled.  I was stuck in Nome.  I scrambled to find a hotel room for my unexpected stay – there was one room at the Aurora Inn.  I was told that maybe we could go tomorrow.

It was still only 5pm, so I wandered the streets of town.

Foggy Nome

Nome Church

I stopped by the combination Subway/movie theater.  I’m betting it’s the only Subway in the world that has a movie theater inside of it.

Subway Movie Theater

The new Star Trek movie was playing – I could tell by the Nome-style movie poster.

Nome Movie Poster

I bought a ticket.  The theater itself was small, but really nice.  I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

Early the next morning, it was still foggy – but… was it my imagination?  Was it a tiny bit less foggy?  I went to the airport.  It was my imagination.  The flight was delayed, and then delayed again.  Then, Nome got less foggy.  A flight to Savoonga actually left.  Gambell was marginal.  We might go.  Then the fog rolled in again, and the flight was canceled.  Maybe we would go at 4pm this afternoon.

I caught a ride into town, and toured Nome.  I went to the Nome museum, and learned about the native people who have lived in western Alaska for thousands of years.

Ivory carving

I learned that Wyatt Earp actually travelled from Arizona to Nome during the gold rush of 1900.  He opened a saloon here, and sold supplies to the prospectors for two years before heading back to the Southwest with a load of cash.

Wyatt Earp

I also learned about dog sledding.  Alaskans take their dog sledding very seriously.  Nome is the official ending point for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

End of Iditarod

I ate lunch at the Bering Sea BAR (and restaurant).

Bering Sea Bar

I admired the fact that at 65 degrees north latitude you can mount solar panels on the SIDE of a building.

Side mounted solar panels

I even went inside a store that sells real things.

They Sell Real Things

I did not go inside this bar.

Sin City

After a while, I took a cab back to the airport.  At this point, I have taken both cabs in Nome at least three times each.  Bering Air is still on weather hold.  I wait in the tiny room for news.  Then the news comes.  The flight is canceled.  Maybe it will go tomorrow, but the weather forecast is the same as today (and yesterday).  I call my wife to discuss options, and listen to her calm and thoughtful words over the loud and crackling static.  She is very supportive of anything I want to do.  I have now wasted two of my original three days scheduled for Gambell.  I don’t know when I will be able to get there.  And more importantly, I don’t know when I could fly back.  Bering Air has canceled the last five flights to Gambell, and no one has gotten on or off the island in almost three days.  I don’t want to be stuck there, especially since there are no restaurants and almost no places to buy food or supplies.  I am frustrated and discouraged.  I call Alaska Airlines and get reservations for the next flight back to Seattle, which is tomorrow.  I call Bering Air and tell them to take my name off my list for the morning Gambell flight attempt, and they start processing my refund.

I walk home through the fog, a bit sad.  I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to try to go to Gambell again.  This was supposed to be the grand finale of my Big Year, and instead it was a grand letdown.  After several attempts, I finally find a place to stay the night – at the Nugget Inn, and I begin to walk to the hotel through the dense fog and the surreal eternal daylight of summer Nome.  The evening is calm, the air is cold, and the gulls stare back at me from their perch on a small iceberg just offshore.

As I walk, I begin to think of the fog as a metaphor, both for my Big Year and for my life.  Fog can be frustrating – you think you can see a bit of the future up ahead, but it is hazy and uncertain.  Many times you just want to look across the strait and see tomorrow clearly – it seems so close – only 23 miles!  Sometimes you think you have things figured out, you think you know what’s coming – but then out of the mist comes an unexpected surprise, an unplanned wrinkle, an unforeseen detour.  Often these surprises that appear out of the fog are unwelcome, annoying, or even painful.  But occasionally out of the fog comes something wonderful: a kind new friend, a delightful new experience, a marvelous new view of the world that you weren’t expecting.  The fog helps to keep life mysterious and exciting, full of wonder and anticipation and novelty.

When I started my Big Year last June, I had some idea of what was in store, but so much was unknown.  I stared into the fog and tried to make out the landscape ahead.  But hidden behind a veil were a great deal of things I just couldn’t predict.  Many of them were wonderful surprises: bonding with my wife over two White-tailed Ptarmigan chases up Mt. Rainier, meeting amazing teachers at Bronx Science and Groton in the same week and becoming inspired by their shared passion and their different paths to educational excellence, seeing the amazing seascape of the Dry Tortugas and hearing Wes Biggs tell unforgettable (and hysterical) stories, watching master teacher Bill Palmer do extraordinary things with very ordinary resources, showing up in Massachusetts just in time to see mega-rare Northern Lapwing and Little Egret and enjoy a spectacular burst of late fall radiance on Cape Cod, and experiencing an extraordinary four days exploring the sea and tundra around Nome with my instant new friends Neil, Abe, and Joe.  I was graced with all of these surprise gifts appearing out of the fog, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend a whole year stumbling my way through this undiscovered country and uncovering unexpected wonders.  If it weren’t for the uncertainty of the fog, there are many experiences I probably would have skipped, and my year would have been immeasurably poorer (and I’d have fewer embarrassing and funny stories to tell).

When I got back to the Nugget, I was still a bit disappointed to be missing out on Gambell, but I had a new appreciation for the fog.  My friend and mentor, Than Healy, believes that metaphors can help us make sense of our lives and our experiences.  I will try to embrace both the literal and metaphorical fog in my life, and appreciate the mystery and majesty that it brings.  Even though I often tell myself that I hate surprises, the wonderful little surprises of my Big Year are what made it special.  There will be another time to visit Gambell, but for now the last surprise of the year is for my kids: Daddy is coming home a little early.

Signpost

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Big Bend and Arizona Wrap-Up

I’m back at SeaTac International Airport, getting ready to board my flight to Anchorage.  Which means if I’m going to do a wrap-up post for my last trip, I’d better make it snappy.  Here’s a quick one…

Miles by car: 1881

Miles by car over crappy mountain roads: 80

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Number of species seen: 128

New Birds for my Big Year: 15

Total Species Seen Since June of 2012: 624

Probability that I will hit my goal of 650 before my Big Year ends: 57.2%

Number of Stomach Flu Viruses in my gut during the AZ portion of my trip: 8,954,000,000

Coolest “Plain” bird: Juniper Titmouse

Juniper Titmouse

Coolest Abundant Bird: Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Coolest “non-bird”: endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog

Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog

Place I never get tired of visiting: Cave Creek Canyon, AZ

Cave Creek Canyon

Roughest Road: Tie – Road to Christmas Mountain Oasis and Carr Canyon Rd (pictured below)

View from Carr Canyon

Bird that wouldn’t give me the time of day: Miller Canyon’s Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

Bird that was most “in my face”: Rock Wren

Rock Wren

One of the only birds worth an 11-hour drive followed by an 11-mile hike: Colima Warbler

Colima Warbler

As I mentioned, I’m off to Alaska this morning – my very last trip of the year.  I’m a little nervous about this trip, as it’s my first trip to the 49th State, and I don’t really know much about birding Alaska.  I know where I’m staying almost every night, but my plans for what to do each day are still a little up in the air.  I found packing for this trip challenging too, as I’ll be gone for 15 days and need to be prepared for temperatures ranging from 25 F to 85 F.  Apparently spring is late arriving this year up there, and some roads that I was planning on using are still snowed in.  I’ll try to post some updates and photos when I get to a place that has good internet connectivity.  Whatever happens, there will surely be good stories to tell.

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Florida Wrap-Up

I’m sitting at SeaTac International Airport, waiting for a flight to Tucson.  Which makes me think I should hurry up and write a short wrap-up post for my trip to Florida.

White Ibis

Overall, south Florida was a terrific experience.  There are some things I don’t love about the area: the obnoxious drivers, the vast urban sprawl, and the crazy tolling system.  But there is much to love about this beautiful flatland of swamps, beaches, marsh, and lowland forests.

Miles by car: 1757

Miles by ship: 150

Miles by ship in rough seas: 148

Miles by foot: 35 (approx)

Total species seen: 140

New Big Year Birds Added: 30

Florida boosted me up over the 600 species mark!  I’m currently at 609 official ticks.  When I started my Big Year last June, it took me just 2 days to see my first 100 species, and only another week to reach 200.  It took 2 more months to reach 400, and almost 4 months after that to reach 500.  Even in the midst of spring migration, it has taken me 4.5 additional months to top 600.  Now I have exactly one month left in my year, and we’ll see how many more I can pick up before the end.  My base goal is 650 (looks somewhat promising), and my “stretch” goal is 675 (don’t think I’m going to make that one).

Scrubbiest looking bird: Florida Scrub-Jay (note the bands on its leg)

Florida Scrub Jay

Scrubbiest looking landscape: Florida scrublands

Florida Scrub

Most Unusual Birding Location: the University of Miami (found my only Spot-Breasted Oriole there, right outside the campus radio station and bookstore)

U of Miami

Ugliest Looking Lighthouse: Sanibel Island Light (Point Ybel Lighthouse)

Ugly lighthouse

Shortest Lighthouse: Garden Key Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson

Ft Jefferson lighthouse

Most Majestic Lighthouse: Loggerhead Key Light

Loggerhead Light

Dirtiest my car has gotten: On the road to Bear Lake Trail in the Everglades

Dirty Car

Most Pleasing Sunrise: In a Slash Pine forest in SW Florida

Dawn in Saw Palmetto Slash Pine Forest

Coolest Non-bird Critters: Horseshoe Crabs at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Horseshoe Crabs

Place I most want to return with my family: the Dry Tortugas

Fort at Sunset

Scariest Signs: Flood Signs at Ding Darling NWR, indicating that the 100-year flood level is 13.2 feet above sea level, in a place where the entire island (Sanibel) is only 2 feet above sea level.  Yikes!

flood signs

Sign heights

Weirdest Sign: Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Apparently those tortoises look kind of like Gumby!

Stupidest Sign:

Gate May Be Closed

That’s the thing about gates: they can be open OR closed.  A gate that doesn’t open is called a fence.  A gate that doesn’t close is called a hole in the fence.

Most delightful group of birders stuck ever to get seasick on a trip to the Tortugas:

Part of Group at Loggerhead

Thanks, Florida!  I’ll be back some day….

LighthousesAs for now, I’m headed to Tucson, renting a car, and driving across Arizona and New Mexico on my way to west Texas.  I hope to be in Big Bend National Park tomorrow for my most strenuous physical challenge of my year so far, and a rendezvous with a rare warbler.

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Spring Texas Wrap-Up and Yankee Bobbytraps

Texas flowers

My second visit to Texas during my Big Year is in the books.  I will return to the Lone Star State in May for a brief excursion to Big Bend National Park.  But until then, here is my trip wrap-up.

Miles by car: 2206 (3rd-most behind Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan and Summer California/Arizona)

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Total species seen: 230 (a new record for my Big Year trips!)

New Big Year Birds added: 34 (I’m currently at 579 total since I started on June 12, 2012 – it may be possible for me to break 600 in the next 2 weeks)

Total number of individual birds seen during my April Texas trip (according to my eBird summary): 5380 (approx)

Highlights: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, Black and Yellow Rails, Elf Owl, finally seeing Aplomado Falcon, and birding in Louisiana for the very first time

Favorite Duck: Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Coolest Thing to Just Sit and Watch: The heron rookery at High Island’s Smith Oaks, where hundreds of Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Neotropic Cormorants are showing off their spectacular nuptial plumage, courting, mating, bellowing, building nests, incubating eggs, and generally carrying on and creating quite a show.

Rookery

Bird that would be outrageously cool if it were rare instead of incredibly abundant, or if it were less annoying (perhaps if it didn’t get together with 750 of its friends and white-wash your car with poop while you go in to the grocery store for ten minutes): Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Best Yankee Booby-trap: The Container of Not Sweet Tea at a Houston area restaurant

Yankee Boobytrap

This one might require a little explanation if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the South.  In order to understand what’s going on here, you need to know three important details: 1) No self-respecting Southern drinks unsweetened tea.  It just isn’t done.  2) Most Southerners don’t hate Yankees, but they don’t really like ’em that much either.  3)  To Yankees, Sweet Tea may sound like an two word phrase with an adjective and a noun, like ‘green shirt’ – but it isn’t.  Sweet Tea may have two words, but it describes one single, specific thing – like cotton candy or Kansas City.

Looking at the picture above, a Yankee might take this to mean that the container on the right dispenses sweetened tea, and the one on the left unsweetened tea.  A Southerner knows better.  The one on the right dispenses Sweet Tea, and who the heck knows what’s in the other one – but it sure ain’t Sweet Tea.  It might be radiator fluid.  It would be like labeling one container ‘water’ and the other one ‘not water.’

I concluded that the ‘Not Sweet Tea’ container must be a booby-trap for unsuspecting Yankees.  I watched this beverage station for a good 30 minutes while I ate lunch.  Seventeen people came to get Sweet Tea, but no one tried the ‘Not Sweet Tea.’  I had a Diet Coke.

Provided the FAA doesn’t furlough my air traffic controllers, I’ll be on the red-eye to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday for 12 days in South Florida.

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Texas Wrap-Up and Silly Signs

Little Blue Heron

My February trip to Texas was a success, and I am now enjoying some time at home.  Here is my customary end-of-trip report:

Miles by car: 1799

Miles by foot: 20 (approx)

Total species seen: 169

New Big Year Birds added: 40 (I’m currently at 544 total since I started on June 12, 2012)

Total number of individual birds seen last week (according to my eBird summary): 3560 (approx)

Highlights: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Audubon’s Oriole, Common Pauraque, Whooping Cranes, Flammulated Owl

Rarest bird: Bronzed Kingfisher (see photo below)

Bronzed Kingfisher

Nosiest Neighbor: The guy who kept peering over the fence the whole time I was at the Valley Nature Center

Nosy Neighbor

Scariest Thing I Saw: Chachalacas racing out of the forest at me, screaming “Chachalaca!”

Chachalaca

Scariest Thing I Saw if I Were a Minnow: A flotilla of 80+ Horned Grebes swimming in close formation at the Texas City Dike

Eared Grebe Flotilla

Most Ridiculous Sign: You decide.  Here are some contenders:

Watch for Pelicans

Ok, I’m in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a narrow bridge with a concrete barrier to my left and traffic cones on my right.  How precisely should I react if I see a pelican coming at me at 45 miles an hour?

Pronto Insurance

I’ve never really contemplated the strength of a chorizo stain before…

Chacha Crossing

I know enough to stay out of their way!

Beware Sign

Agapanthus, eh?

Agapanthus sign

And that’s the news for now.  I’ll be mostly around the Pacific Northwest for the next 6 weeks or so, until I begin my Spring of Absolute Craziness: a 10-week period in which I’m traveling to Florida (including the Everglades, Keys, and Dry Tortugas), back to Texas, back to Arizona, back to Texas again (Big Bend!), and wrapping up my Big Year the first week of June in Alaska.  Stay tuned….

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