Norway

 

I live on the Chesapeake Bay, a famous large estuary on the east coast of the United States, but oh, so different from the fjords we recently explored along the west coast of Norway.  The fjords are also estuaries, which by definition are bodies of water open to the tidal seas at their mouth but also fed by freshwater sources upstream.

The Chesapeake’s freshwater sources are the mighty Susquehanna and smaller Potomac and Choptank Rivers, whereas the Norwegian fjords are fed by countless, spectacular cascading waterfalls draining the surrounding snow-capped peaks.  The Chesapeake is a shallow, mud and sand bottomed drowned river, south of the last glacial advance, whereas the nordic fjords are deep, steeped walled rocky valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

I don’t believe I’ve visited a more beautiful country than Norway.  Along with the many fjords penetrating the west coast, some as far as 100 miles inland, there are thousands of small islands just offshore.  You can envision the marauding Viking ships slipping out to sea from a fjord or island to rampage Northern Europe in the 10th century, or a sinister German U-Boat sneaking into a deep fjord during the more recent 20th century conflagration.

Bergen

This is not a travel blog but let me make this suggestion.  “Norway in a Nutshell” is a wonderful one-day tour of the best of southwestern Norway.  Starting in Bergen, on the west coast, we took the Bergen Railway inland and switched to the Flam Railway at Myrdal.  The slow train revealed Kodak moments at virtually every turn.  After a short stop at Kjosfossen falls we arrived at Flam and boarded a comfortable boat to explore the narrow Naeroyfjord (a UNESCO heritage site) and equally beautiful Aurlandsfjord.

Kjosfossen Falls, 305 feet

We stopped counting and photographing the waterfalls and cozy villages nestled at the shoreline at 100.  At Gudvangen we boarded a bus for a harrowing cross country ride on switchbacks and finally caught the Bergen train for home at Voss.  It was a spectacular day.

Fred, always after the perfect shot angle

Fred, Mary, Suzanne, and I left Bergen by rental car and headed east to explore this land on our own.  After the unseasonable heat in Russia we were happy for the cooler air but were surprised by a snowstorm in late May as we crossed over a Nordic mountain range.  I was constantly on the lookout for birds (but didn’t see many), while my companions were much more interested in Stave Church sitings.

A Stave Church

These are medieval wooden churches with a characteristic post and lintel construction, built between 1150 and 1350.  Most of the surviving structures are in Norway.  At one small village a young man was found waiting alone inside one, so happy to finally see some interested tourists.  He proudly shared with us his impressive knowledge of the history of the church.

Solvorn

We arrived at the village of Solvorn with enough daylight to appreciate the serene beauty of this small town nestled along the Lustrafjord.  Our hotel was the quaint and picturesque  Walaker, the oldest inn in Norway, dating back to 1640.  Nine generations of a family of innkeepers have expertly maintained this gem.  Unfortunately the elder innkeeper had just died and the hotel’s flag flew at half mast.  But another generation of hosts, I assume the 10th, stepped up and welcomed us.  Each comfortable room had a view of the fjord and the dinner and breakfast were simply superb.

Our only regret was that we had only one night to spend at the Walaker.  We vowed we would return someday for an extended visit, but you know that is unlikely.  I did some evening and early morning birding along the fjord seeing just 7 common species,  but there was a stealthy bird with a vaguely familiar call singing from the tall tree just in the Walaker’s front yard.  I finally caught a glimpse of the elusive European Pied Flycatcher, a life bird for me just a few days prior in Finland.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba

Our European sojourn was to end in Oslo, but not before I hired one last guide to show me a few more Scandinavian birds.  I found Simon Rix through his website, http://www.oslobirder.blogspot.com.

Simon Rix

Simon is an Englishman who migrated to Oslo 18 years ago and has become the “go-to” birder for southern Norway.  I was lucky to book him for a half day, but unlucky as it rained most of the morning.  Even so, I had a great time.  He showed me 49 different species, including a flyover of a singing Cuckoo, apparently unusual for that time and place.  Yes, it sounded just like your grandmother’s cuckoo clock.

Fornebu

We birded the Fornebu peninsula, just west of Oslo, and the site of the city’s old airport.  The Luftwaffe landed here during their invasion of neutral Norway on April 9, 1940, but were finally ousted from the site and country by Allied forces in 1945.  The abandoned airfield has been reclaimed by nature and is a birding hotspot and favorite for Simon.

Fieldfare, Turdis pilaris

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

On my last day abroad I arose early and headed to the Palace Park in Oslo.  It was finally sunny and a chance to put the Panasonic Lumix G9 and 50-200mm Leica lens to a good test.  The birds were largely common but cooperative with Fieldfare and Wood Pigeons galore.  But I did add one bird to my life list when a Hawfinch proudly posed for me near the palace as if bidding me Godspeed for our long return flight home.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

This post ends my accounting of our memorable one month excursion to Russia and Scandinavia.  I promise to return to my more typical birding and photography format soon.

 

Finland

Helsinki                                                                                  Photo by F. Widding

 

When Heikki Eriksson emailed me the start time of 0300 for my birding adventure in Helsinki I thought it must be a misprint.  I know we birders like to start early, but 3:00 AM?  No misprint.  I forgot we were in the land of the “white nights”, latitude 60 degrees North, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska.  Heikki was gifted by his ability to bird-by-ear so the dim, predawn light was no problem for us, or at least for him.  The bird calls for me were all foreign, but interesting, none-the-less.

Heikki Eriksson

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Saint Petersburg on May 22, traveling along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, through low, boggy terrain, passing Vyborg near the border.  I’ve come to learn of the historic significance of this frontier south of Lake Ladoga, separating the great bear of Russia from Finland.

“Before the Storm” by H Munsterhjelm, 1870                         (at the Ateneum)

From the 13th until the early 19th century present day Finland was part of the powerful Swedish Empire.  Russia replaced Sweden as “empire-in-charge” in 1809, initially granting the Finns considerable local autonomy.  They, in turn, gave their women the right to vote in 1906, I believe the first people to do this.  The Bolsheviks granted Finland its complete independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the subsequent first half of the 20th century was anything but tranquil for the Finns.

Mew Gulls, Larus canus

The nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 allowed Russia to annex the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while Germany was busy fighting further to the west.  Finland however, also a Baltic state, resisted this Russian intrusion, preferring to fight to maintain their recent independence.  Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and for over 5 months the Finns heroically fought before succumbing to their superior foe.  They refer to this struggle as the “Winter War”, differentiating it from later events of WWII.

Finland’s eventual defeat by Russia and the reluctance of other western democracies to come to their aid in 1939, partly explains their uneasy alliance with Hitler from 1941 to 1944.  This period is referred to by the Finns as the “Continuation War”.  Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” they had few choices, ultimately distrusting the Stalin more than Hitler.  The Finn’s battlefield support for Germany however, was decidedly lukewarm, until they finally changed sides against a defeated Germany in 1945.  This turbulent and controversial chapter of Finnish history is well chronicled in “Finland’s War of Choice, The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II” by  Henrik O. Lunde, published in 2011.

A Birder’s Balance Beam somewhere near Helsinki

The weather in Helsinki was exactly the opposite of what we experienced in Russia.  The clear blue skies and unseasonable Russian heat were replaced by a cool, cloudy, drizzle, clearly not a good test for my new mirror-less camera and lens (Panasonic Lumix G9 camera and Leica F2.8-4.0 50-200mm lens).  Heikki picked me up at 3:00 AM sharp and we headed west along the coast to the nearby principalities of Espoo and Kirkkonummi where we birded several fields, tidal wetlands, and scattered woodlots.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus

Much of the serious birding in Finland is done further north than Helsinki, even above the Arctic Circle.  Visit the website of Finnature, a guiding company, at http://www.finnature.com to fully appreciate what this land has to offer.  They are the people that connected me with my guide.  I only had one birding day to spare during this initial visit, but Heikki certainly made the most of it, even close to the city.  I especially liked seeing the Goldcrest and Eurasian Blue Tit.  Spotting a Ruff in the wetlands and a flyover by an Arctic Tern were also notable.  We saw 76 different species in 9 damp hours, 28 of which were lifers for me.

Common Golden Eye, Bucephala clangula

Soon after sunrise the cold rains began.  The new equipment is weather sealed but even they must have their limits.  As the rain increased I reluctantly retired them to the car after only a few good shots, continuing the outing with just binos, visual memories, and eBird documentation of the sightings.

Yours truly

Every time I hire a guide I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn.  Heikki displayed exceptional knowledge of birdsong and many of the early birds were “heard but not seen”.  I had no problem ticking them however, since most were seen later after sunrise.  His other skill was long distant ID by GISS (general impression, size, and shape), so helpful on the viewing platform.

Northern Goshawk and Cooper’s Hawks by J.J. Audubon

A memorable surprise for us both was a sudden, swooping, stealth attack by a Northern Goshawk, just feet away, taking a poor unsuspecting dove in broad daylight.  I liken it to the team of pick pockets who surprised me the prior week on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg.  The only difference was they just got my wallet; the dove lost much more.

When we were not birding or strolling Helsinki we discovered the fabulous Ateneum Art Museum.  Rainy day–not a problem, just head to the gallery resplendent with the works of Finnish artists and other masters.  Or you can relish the great seaside cuisine and take pictures of your plate as my “foodie” companions were apt to do.

Tallinn Estonia

We also took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland 50 miles, to the ancient and historic city of Tallinn, Estonia.  Near the city wall I finally ID’ed that common American Robin-like bird hunting for worms on seemingly all the European lawns.  It’s a Fieldfare; no big deal to the locals, but a life bird for me.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

After 3 short nights in Helsinki it was off to Bergen, Norway by plane.  Just scratching the surface of fascinating Finland has enticed me to return; perhaps to the area above the Arctic Circle.  I knew I was leaving a “birdy” country when I visited the airport toilet before boarding the flight and they were playing birdsong on the public address system.  Heikki would have known the exact bird.

Russia

“The Rooks Have Come” by A.K. Savrasov

 

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to chronicle our recent trip to Russia in this birding and photography blog.  Is it absurd for me to liken birding to strolling through the famous Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow and The Hermitage of St. Petersburg, observing the works of the masters?  One does note the frequent depiction of birds in the various art forms; that, along with the typical European urban birds comprised the totality of my Russian birding.  Even so, it was a trip for the ages.

You’ve heard all the cliches.  Travel breaks down barriers and biases; it broadens one’s horizons, it dispels misconceptions; it makes the world smaller.  All are true.  My preconceptions of Russia could not have been more wrong.  “You’ll find it cold and bleak” they said.  The food will be barely edible and the people rude.  The streets will be littered and the gardens unkept.  Instead we found exactly the opposite, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix

Warm sunshine and blue skies graced our entire 10 days in Russia.  I’ve not seen more immaculate cities than these, with numerous green spaces and gardens in perfect springtime bloom.  The old palaces and churches sparkled and spoke to their rich history, now more unabashedly celebrated in post-Soviet Russia.  I sampled beef stroganoff to die for and feasted daily on exquisite cuisine to rival any in the West, from an intimate dinner with a friend at the Moldavian Embassy to the extensive morning brunch at our Metropol Hotel.

“Hunters at Rest” by V. Perov

I’m well aware of our significant geo-political differences with Russia and vividly remember with you, hiding under our school desks in the 1950’s, drilling for the unthinkable.  Winston Churchill described the country as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  Today’s Russia is a definite improvement over that, but significant opportunities for progress still exist.  Global politics and current events, although interesting, are thankfully beyond the scope of this post.

“Boy With A Crow” by A. Gallen-Kallela

We hired two delightful guides, one in each city, to shepherd us around the cities and surrounding countryside.  These were young, impressive, Russian women, proficient in multiple languages, and highly knowledgeable and proud of their city’s history, architecture, culture, and artwork.  Both Inam Khasanova and Eugenie Cantor are highly recommended if you ever venture to these cities.

“The Fighting Capercaillies” by F. von Wright

The vastness of this country, the largest on the planet, is difficult to grasp.  While standing in Moscow at Red Square one is equidistant from the country’s east coast city of Vladivostok and Chicago, USA to the west.  Our visit obviously sampled only the two great cities and only viewed the rural landscape between them from a train’s window.  Moscow (Muscovy, MOCKBA), the ancient kremlin, dates back to 1147, while St. Petersburg (Leningrad, Petrograd) on the wide Neva was more recently founded by Peter the Great when he captured the Swedish fortress near the Gulf of Finland in 1703.

Peterhof

Birds figure prominently in the artwork of the countless galleries and palaces.  The gilded two headed eagle is ubiquitous, supposedly symbolizing a multicultural country that geographically and politically straddles both Europe and Asia and their numerous ethnic groups and histories.  My favorite picture is “The Rooks Have Come”.  It depicts returning rooks heralding an early spring thaw on the frigid steppe.  “Boy With A Crow” and “Hunters At Rest” were actually seen at the Finnish Gallery in Helsinki, but continue the birds-in-art theme.  One depicts a budding bird watcher while the other may explain the paucity of game birds on the steppe.  So, tak, I believe one can bird while in museums.

My actual outdoors birding in Russia was informal and meagre, primarily occurring while walking from church to palace, through the great formal parks and gardens.  I was forewarned about wandering through the city in early morning with binoculars and telephoto lens.  That advice was probably an unnecessary caution and limited me to shots of the usual urban birds with the walk-around camera and lens.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Still I did notice a flock of swifts flying among the colorful domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square.  Since the only Russian swift is the Common, I was able to claim a new life bird, the first of many eventually seen later in this trip in Finland, Estonia, and Norway.  I also stole a few private moments birding the informal, tranquil gardens of Tolstoy’s modest home and in the small park just across the street from the Metropol Hotel and Bolshoy Theatre.

I asked our guides if there was a book they would recommend to a visitor to more fully understand their country and people.  They recommended “And Quiet Flows the Don”, written by Mikhail Sholokhov in 1934.  This Tolstoyesque novel of rural Russia depicts the lives of Cossacks in the early 20th century as they pass through relative peace, into WWI, the Russian Revolution, and finally the White vs. Red Civil War.  It’s a wonderful story of mixed loyalties and torn families, struggling through the global geopolitical upheavals of their day.  Add to that the later Great Depression, Stalin’s purges, and the horrors of the Eastern Front of WWII, and one gets a more complete picture of these people.

A trip like this does not just happen without considerable planning and research.  We did not take the common path of joining a tour group, but actively made each hotel and dinner reservation, hired guides and drivers, and bought every train, plane, boat, museum, and concert ticket.  More accurately, Fred and Mary, our intrepid travel companions did all this work, and we went along for the ride–and what a sublime ride it was.

 

 

 

Best Bird Photos of 2018

Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Myiozetetes cayanensis                      Panama

 

Where did the year go?  As we age each year accounts for a progressively smaller portion of our lifetime.  For me it was 1.5% this year.  Maybe that explains the racing clock.  As my life list approaches 1000 I have less and less time to photograph those other 9000 birds.  It’ll never happen.  Life lesson:  just treasure each year and photo as its own gift.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna                                Florida

Most of my birding this year was domestic, with frequent visits to favorite local haunts.  Panama, this November, was the exception and supplied me with countless photo-ops of new and colorful birds.  I vowed, however, to not let those avian superstars dominant this post.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris                      Florida

In the course of the year I take 20 to 30,000 bird photos, quickly deleting over 95% of them.  That still leaves 1000 “keepers” that are cataloged by family and stored for eternity or until my hard drive crashes.  An initial run through those yielded about 50 or 60 finalists.  The hard part is trimming that list down to 25 for this year-end post.  I hope you enjoy the result.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata                      Florida

Each photo has a back story.  That “cover shot” of the flycatcher from Panama is not really an exotic bird, but just struck my fancy with the ruffled feathers-look and interesting composition.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias                  Maryland

Each winter I try to visit the Ocean City, Maryland jetties to see what the wind and surf are blowing shoreward.  It is usually a brisk but rewarding outing.  Generally my shots from there show the seabirds swimming away, probably spooked by the telephoto lens and large lumbering birder.  The resultant rump shots are not great, but this year I hunkered low among the rocks and got some shots with them coming in for a closer look at the crazy birder.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis                    Maryland

Common Loon, Gavia immer                               Maryland

September, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, yielded great landscape shots but was a little wanting for avian photos.  I was struggling at dawn with some eiders in the surf, but they were hopelessly backlit by the rising sun.  Two crows were mocking my efforts from behind.  Finally, turning around to shoo them away, I noticed that the light was just perfect for a crow shot.  Not great birds, but a pleasing, well-exposed photo resulted; and they seemed to enjoy their 15 seconds of fame.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos                PEI, Canada

It’s extravagant to include two shots of any birds, but the colorful Eastern Meadowlark is a favorite of mine, often striking a photogenic pose.  My best shots of them are from the Dinner Ranch, a beautiful wide-open space in south central Florida, far from the maddening crowd.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna             Florida

Let me add some ordinary yard birds to the posting.  The mockingbirds are the yard’s apparatchiks par excellence, one patrolling the south half and his comrade working the north side. They’ll chase away anything larger and threatening, but seem to temporarily meet their match when the kingbirds arrive each spring.  The wren gets the prize for best yard vocalist, while the cardinals add local color.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos        Maryland

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus            Maryland

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis                 Maryland

What bird portfolio is complete without some flying shots?  The swans and eagle were active during my recent trip to Blackwater NWR in Maryland, and the gawky stork, of course, graced the airways of Florida.

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus                                   Maryland

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus                               Maryland

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana                    Florida

The birds of prey on the Floridian fenceposts strike two quite opposite poses.  The caracara is confident of his appearance and proud of his status in the avian hierarchy, whereas the vulture hangs his head in shame.  Actually both humbly survive on roadkill.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway             Florida

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus                   Florida

Feeding shots always add some interest.  The gull and unlucky crab were seen on Nantucket, while the Anhinga and unfortunate sunfish were residents of a south Florida marsh.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                                          Nantucket

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga                            Florida

I know a bird photographer worth his salt is not suppose to post posed shots, but I offer these anyway, for better or worse.  Isn’t it fascinating how a bird is so often found in a setting similar to its own coloring?  The pleasing background blur or bokeh is sought by photographers for these portrait shots and results from using a wide open aperture giving a narrow depth-of-field in focus.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia                                Maryland

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum                               Florida

I’ve included a few shots because they remind me of key events of 2018, like the fledgling of the nuthatches from Mary & Gene’s feeder, or finally finding and photographing the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker with Andy at Babcock-Webb Preserve in Florida. There was the fallout of migrating warblers this spring at Naples Park, and, after years of trying, I finally got a decent photo of a Brown Creeper from the Blackwater NWR.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla                     Maryland

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis    Florida

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina                           Florida

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana            Maryland

And lastly, let me add a few more colorful birds from Panama.  That trip with these new tropical life birds, as well as the heat and humidity of Central America are still vivid in my mind.  I’m reminded of it daily as I scratch the persistent chiggers, so loathe to finally leave me alone.  Onward to 2019.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes lucidus    Panama

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis          Panama

Crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica  Panama

Birding Panama, The Canopy Tower

Green Honeycreeper, Chlorophanes spiza

 

I arrived in Panama at dusk with just enough time to go through customs, locate the driver, and arrive at the Canopy Tower in time for the introductory dinner to the WINGS tour.  The other 9 guests, hailing from throughout the U.S. and U.K., had beat me to this famous birding destination and were clearly excited at what they had already seen in just a few daylight hours.  My catch-up birding had to wait until dawn.  The plan was to meet on the observation deck at sunrise for a pre-breakfast session.

The Canopy Tower

It was a little like a childhood Christmas Eve–I couldn’t sleep.  So about 5:30AM I lugged my camera and telephoto lens, binos, and scope up several flights, through the dining area, and up the ship-style stairs and hatch, onto the observation deck.  It was still dark but I could barely make-out the canopy below.  I was alone, but someone had stationed several pots of hot coffee there.  This was going to be a great week.

Dawn on the deck

Sunrise brought out the other guests, the guides, and of course the birds.  They came fast and furious, the birds that is; almost too much of a good thing.  It was difficult to keep up with all the sightings called out by fellow birders and guides alike.  The laser pointer was a great help in locating the often sleuthy birds hiding in the thick canopy.  I saw our familiar migrating warblers, now in their winter home, but the real treats were the colorful tropical residents I had never seen or photographed.

Golden-crowned Spadebill, Platyrinchus coronatus

The tower is a reclaimed former U.S. Air Force radar site built in 1965 and abandoned when the Canal Zone was transferred to Panama.  Luckily Raul Arias de Para had a vision for this “giant beer can” and acquired it in 1996, transforming it into a mecca for birders and ecotourism.  The lower floors are for lodging, each room with a window opening to the rain forest.  The upper floor houses a large dining room, lounge, and library.  The tower sits on top of a tall hill within the Soberania National Park, about 2 miles from the canal.

Breakfast in the Tower

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

Ants figure prominently in the taxonomy of Panamanian birds.  There are Antbirds, Antpittas, Antshrikes, Ant-Tanagers, Antthrushes, Antvireos, and Antwrens.  What’s their schtick?  Even the tropical novice trudging through the rainforest can’t help but notice the numerous ant highways traversing the trails.  At first you see a long line of upright leaves, seemingly moving by magic.  Closer inspection shows the leaves are carried by Leafcutter Ants, heading to who knows where.

Spotted Antbird, Hylophylax naevioides

The birds don’t eat the crusty ants themselves, but have learned to follow the ant swarms, ambushing the other hapless creatures that are fleeing the marauding Army Ants.  We birders in turn seek the birds, that seek the insects, that escape the ants.  Some claim that you can hear an approaching ant swarm as their million of feet rustle the leaves on the jungle floor.  In short, when encountering an ant swarm, get ready.  The birds can’t be far behind.

Red-capped Manakin, Pipra mentalis

I was in Panama this November, near the end of the rainy season.  Rain, sweat, dew, puddles, mud, humidity, and any other form of moisture you can imagine were part of the experience.  No AC, nothing stays dry, just get use to being hot and damp in order to enjoy birding in the rainforest.  I even had difficulty keeping my eyeglasses and lenses from fogging, often when that special “rare bird” was making an infrequent appearance.  You can’t win them all.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes spiza

Shining Honeycreeper, (female)

What is it about the tropics that fosters so much spectacular color in its resident birds?  Oh, we have our Cardinal and Jays, but most of our residents pale against the tropical gems.  The Blue Cotinga, various Manakins, Trogons, Motmots, and Honeycreepers startle one when first seen.  Then there are the iridescent Hummingbirds–we saw 10 species of these beauties during the week.

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Amazilia edward

Birding in the thick jungle, and bird photography in particular are difficult.  Good guides are invaluable, and we had two of the best.  Gavin Bieber, from Tucson Arizona, has been guiding in Panama several times a year for 10 years.  His patience and expertise were readily apparent, and several in our group had birded with him before.  I particularly appreciated his knowledge and discussion of avian taxonomy, explaining in the field how a particular birds fits into the greater classification scheme.  His birding banter, both serious and in jest, made these day-long jaunts wonderful.

Whooping Motmot, Momotus subrufescens

Common Tody-Flycatcher, Todirostrum cinereum

Our local guide was Danilo Rodriquez Jr., a member of the Canopy Tower staff.  How does such a young person become such an expert birder?  His whistles and tweets could seemingly mimic and call-in any species.  I still can’t figure out how he spotted that Black-and-White Owl high in the tree, or that Great Potoo hugging the trunk.  Between Gavin and Danilo I felt we were birding among the giants of their profession.

Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena

The Tower was our base of operation for the week, but the guides also took us to famous near-by hotspots including the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Pond, Gamboa, Colon, and the amazing Hummingbird House of Jerry and Linda Harrison.  I’ll have to leave a description of those to another day and post.

White-necked Jacobin, Florisuga mellivora

I know, it’s not about the numbers, but they are impressive.  Panama, a small country at the narrow intersection of two continents, has recorded sightings of 978 bird species, many more than the entire U.S.  Many of our northern birds reach the southern limit of their ranges at the isthmus, and likewise, many of the South American birds reach their northern limits in the same area.  This creates an inviting avian menagerie in Panama.  My total count for the trip was 211 species, (I would have seen a few more except for foggy glasses) and my life list jumped by 148, but who’s counting.

Chasing Birds and Ancestors on Prince Edward Island

North Cape, PEI

 

It’s a large smile-shaped sandbar lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just west of Nova Scotia.  There are no rocks, just the distinct red sand and soil, the result of iron oxides and eons of silting of prehistoric rivers.  This is a gentle land of low rolling hills, tidy farms, expansive and nearly empty beaches, with a few bays and harbors populated with more fishing vessels than pleasure craft.  The people are also gentle and smiling, happy to see us tourists supplementing their income from the land and sea.

Tignish Shore

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is named for George III’s fourth son, the father of Queen Victoria.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation called the island “Epekwitk” which means “cradled on the waves”.  Jacques Cartier was the first European to see it in 1534.  Initial Acadian settlers battled New Englanders from the colonies for control until England gained the upper hand at the treaty ending the Seven Year’s War in 1763.   British settlers were largely Irish and Scots, with loyalists also emigrating from the colonies during the American Revolution.  PEI joined the Canadian Confederation in 1873 as its smallest province.

Suzanne and I spent two weeks in the Canadian Maritimes this September, reliving a similar trip some 40 years earlier.  I planned to do some birding, as we enjoyed all the sights, and also research Suzanne’s roots.  All four of her great grandparents on the maternal side were multigenerational immigrants from Ireland and hailed from the region of Tignish, a small town near the northwestern tip of PEI.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’ve never seen so many crows as on this island.  They were American Crows, perhaps with an Acadian accent.  Not a rare bird, for sure, but they did pose for some good portraits.  The other most common woodland bird was the Red-breasted Nuthatch, honking from seemingly every pine.  I suspect they may have been actively preparing for the local winter, or perhaps a short migration to slightly warmer forests.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

St. Simon & St. Jude Church is a majestic brick church, the tallest edifice in Tignish.  The people in the rectory were very helpful in our search, showing us birth, baptismal, wedding, and death records.  Someone had previously cataloged all the tombstones in the adjacent burial ground and were able to direct us to the plot of one set of great grandparents.  “It’s just down the lane, on the left side, three rows past the seventh maple tree.”  Sure enough, there it was, just under a tree and in plain sight of the towering church steeple.

Great grandfather Peter Kinch was a young man on PEI who shunned the usual professions of farming and fishing and instead used his woodworking skills building carriages and coffins. His first wife tragically died during childbirth in 1883, leaving him with two daughters, ages five and two.  Where better to search for a prospective wife and mother for his children than at Our Lady of the Angels Convent School, right in Tignish?  That’s where he met Mary Ellen Murphy, Suzanne’s great grandmother.  They had fifteen additional children including grandmother Marguerite!  This same convent school later became the Heritage Inn & Gardens and was our highly recommended lodging for three nights. https://tignishheritageinn.ca

Tignish Heritage Inn and Gardens

It’s ironic to find a “life” bird while combing through cemeteries, but one can bird while doing just about anything.  I was strolling along a hedgerow, just behind our B&B when I briefly glimpsed the chickadee.  It had more brown on the head and upper back than the black-capped.  I could not coax him out for a photo but will declare him a Boreal Chickadee and claim a new life bird.  The sparrow below was more cooperative.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

PEI is bordered by beautiful wide red sand beaches, almost deserted in September.  I spent several dawns birding the shoreline in the slanting morning light.  Common Eiders were the prevalent birds in the surf, with soaring gulls and the more purposeful flights of Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormorants noted off shore.  Shorebirds included foraging Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones.  In the picturesque freshwater ponds amidst the dunes of Greenwich National Park we were able to get close shots of two feeding Greater Yellowlegs.

Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

At East Point, the opposite end of the island to Tignish, there is a lighthouse and birding hotspot.  Unfortunately we were there on a blustery, rainy day.  My hopes at seeing migrating raptors was dashed, but the rip currents offshore were spectacular.  A Northern Harrier gave us a brief airshow while we were waiting for the ferry to Nova Scotia, and thousands of cormorants had a farewell beach party as we departed from PEI.

 

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

Cormorant beach party

The small museum in Alberton, PEI, has an excellent genealogy section in the basement.  It also has a wonderfully helpful curator, Arlene Morrison, who guided our search for ancestors.  She directed us to the gravesite of the other maternal great grand-parents, the Casey’s, in the burial ground of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, again a large majestic church situated at a mere rural crossroads today.

Alberton Museum, Alberton, PEI

 

We were also given directions to the old Kinch homestead.  Initially we couldn’t find the house so I flagged down a passing red pick-up.  As luck would have it, he was the owner of a large potato farm that included the old Kinch land, and very eager to talk and point out the old farmhouse.

1909 photo of the Kinch homestead, PEI

He in fact called his elderly father on cell phone who came and joined into the conversation.  After we checked out the farmhouse the red pick-up pulled up again, this time with a red-headed cousin of Suzanne, probably 3rd or 4th removed.  Then they sent us to the home of an elderly Kinch in-law.  This charming nonagenarian took us into her humble kitchen and shared her memories of favorite family fables.  What a day–no life birds, just real, live relatives.

Suzanne and cousin George

One wonders why people choose to leave such a charming and beautiful island, but then again, we were there in September with a warming sun–barely sweater weather.  It must be bleak in midwinter.  Fishing and farming are professions for the hardy.  One hundred years ago both Suzanne’s grandmother and grandfather left PEI separately as single young adults to seek their futures in Boston.  As PEI transplants in urban America they found each other, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages

 

The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.

Best Photos of 2017

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

 

It’s a bone-chilling 16 degrees on New Year’s Day 2018.  San Domingo Creek is frozen all the way across to the islands, an unusual local occurrence.  I see 13 Tundra Swans among the myriad of geese hunkered down on the ice to protect from the northern blast.  My birdbath heater cannot keep up with the deep freeze so I make frequent trips outside with pans of hot water and a hammer to break up the ice.  Birds need fresh water, even more than seeds, when it gets this cold.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

At year-end I like to review the photos of the previous 365 days and pick some winners.  “Best” is hard to define.  Some are favorites because I remember the effort or circumstances of their origins.  Some are photographically good but others perhaps not so, but make the cut for other reasons.  I tried to choose a variety of flight shots, feeding birds, international birds, portraits, etc.  Hope you enjoy the gallery.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The lead photo is a colorful Roseate Spoonbill trawling for breakfast in a Florida swamp.  Along with the unusual pink hue I think the disturbed water and reflection make it a winner.  The mergansers’ reflections in the water of the Florida drainage ditch and the pleasing green background earned those birds a place in infamy.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

You all know that flight shots require a little skill and a lot of luck. I caught the Brown Pelican just at the apogee of his dive when motion was minimal, but missed his splash down seconds later.  The flyby of the Sandwich Tern is included.  I like the blurred horizon on the Gulf of Mexico and the exposure and sharpness of this less common tern.

American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla

One could easily fill the entire year-end blog with the colorful warblers seen last May at the famous Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ll limit myself to just three.  Just think, these birds in alternate plumage just travelled 1000+ miles from Central or South America to the shore of Lake Erie and most still had miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds.  I was lucky enough to catch them at their rest stop.  The squawking American Redstart was telling me to back off and let him rest.  I chose the Chestnut-sideds for their unusual poses.  The obscuring leaf reminds me of the flitting, feeding frenzy of these beautiful birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

When you are lucky enough to find an owl in good light you can usually get a decent shot.  But the birds tend to be still and boringly cooperative; you’d rather some action and not just another portrait.  The Spotted Owlet from Rajasthan India was included not for its action, but rather for the filtered sunlight exactly striking the eye.  For owl shots, its all about the eyes.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

As readers of this blog know (and may be tired of being reminded) we spent October in India.  Just like Magee Marsh I could fill this gallery with the Indian lifers, but I’ll spare you and just post a few.  The Brown-headed Barbet is the strangest creature with its Groucho Marx nose and pose.  The Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Bank Myna are common birds in India but I liked these open-mouthed shots.  I spent some time trying to photograph the elusive Wire-tailed Swallow when one landed right in front of me in perfect light, practically begging for a picture.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Bank Myna, Acridotheres ginginianus

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

The last Indian birds are the upside down Lesser Goldenback, and the more conventional poses of the Jacobin Cuckoo and Crested Kingfisher.  Sometimes boring is beautiful.

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Feeding shots are always fun.  That Snowy Egret caught the large insect on Vanderbilt Beach in Florida and spent the next 20 minutes killing it and figuring out how to swallow it.  It was quite a spectacle and that particular meal may have been a first for the egret.  The Royal Tern had an easier time swallowing the small slippery eel.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The same beach was blessed with a huge flock of shorebirds last November.  I planted myself right down into the sand and slowly inched forward to get some eye-level shots of the action.  That Sandwich Tern nearly landed on the backs of its companions.  The knife-thin bill of the Black Skimmer seen head-on is a favorite.  I was relishing my position within the flock when a young giggly humanoid raced forward and ended my session.  I at least captured the chaotic flock as it took off for a quieter stretch of sand.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

This is the time of year that birds think about pairing up.  I caught these two Cattle Egrets likely on a first date, sizing up the possibilities.  The Red-shouldered Hawks were caught further along, probably “in the act” or at least during serious preliminaries.  There was just no privacy on that treetop.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

I’ll end 2017 with a boring portrait of a Tricolor Heron, saved from the delete bin by the beautiful texture and detail of its close-up feathers captured on the field of green.  It’s now time to bundle up and head out to start the 2018 collection.  You never know what may turn up.  There’s a rumor that Snowy Owls have been spotted on Assateague Island.

Tricolor Heron, Egret tricolor                     (click on images to zoom)

 

 

Birding Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve

 

The Anglo Saxon name “Jim Corbett” practically leaps off the map of northern India, surrounded by all the Indian names of towns, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Who is this person and why is his name given to India’s oldest and most prestigious national park?  I sought to answer this question as we began our final three days in India, birding and hiking in and around the park and tiger preserve.

Green-billed Malkoha, Rhopodytes tristis

The park is 260 kilometers northeast of Delhi in Uttarakhand, covering 1300 square kilometers of forest, low hills, grass and marshlands, and a large lake.  It is home to 650 species of birds and a relatively large populations of tigers, leopards, cobra, and other wildlife making safaris one of its prime attractions.

Grey Bushchat, Saxicola ferreus

The realization of being in an actual jungle dawned on me at our first breakfast at Jim’s Jungle Retreat when I asked about all the “barking dogs” which kept me awake at night.  “Those aren’t dogs”.  “They’re barking deer warning each other about a prowling tiger near by”.  I paid a little more attention to my surroundings, kept up with the group, and snuck an occasional glance over my shoulder throughout the remainder of the trip.

Our Veranda and Lodge

Jungle Jim was a great accommodation.  http://www.jimsjungleretreat.com  This several acre compound featured 18 comfortable individual residencies, each designed and furnished in a late 19th or early 20th century style.  Ours was elevated 15 feet off the jungle floor and had a large wrap-around veranda with a picturesque view of the surrounding forest and fields.  It was a great temptation to just bird, read, and meditate on this porch and skip the jungle treks, but I didn’t yield to it.

Changeable Hawk Eagle, Nisaetus limnaeetus

Bopanna, our guide, continued to push us to see as many birds as possible, starting at dawn and birding until dusk.  Looking back I appreciate his energy, but remember one evening in failing light we all sat high in a treehouse, waiting and listening for owls. I admit to dozing off; the only owl-like sounds I heard were growling stomachs, anxious for Jungle Jim’s evening buffet.  Someone in the group did miraculously sight a Jungle Owlet on our way to dinner.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnonotus leucogenys

I don’t recall all the names of the sites we visited in and around Corbett NP, but the local guide did escort us to a variety of habitats including forests, riverine regions, and fields.  I fondly remember a walk through the humble village and fields adjacent to our compound where we saw the Paddyfield Pipit as well as people harvesting the fields by hand–no mechanized assistance here.  School children were returning home while mothers hung out the wash, all a colorful glimpse of rural Indian life.

Village birding in Dhela

Paddyfield Pipit, Anthus rufulus

Two birds from Corbett stand out for me.  The bizarre Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a large blackbird with two long tail streamers, each terminating in a small twisted racket.  I can’t imagine any earthly use for such an appendage, except perhaps as a sexual lure.  It must hamper maneuvering through the forest but if it enhances mating, perhaps it benefits the species as a whole.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

The other bird is the Crested Kingfisher.  All of us but Andy had seen and photographed this great bird earlier in the trip but on one our last days we luckily spotted another one perched near the river as all Kingfishers like to do.  The plan here is to fire off a few shots, check photographic technique, make adjustments, and move closer ten feet.  Repeat again and again, getting as close as possible before spooking the bird.  The ultimate goal is to catch a shot with the bird launching and flying away.  Bopanna warned us to change our settings and prepare for flight, but even with that admonition most of us missed it.  Oh well.  At least Andy got his bird.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Edward James Corbett (1875-1955) was of Irish ancestry but born in Nainital, India where his father was postmaster.  He left school at age 17 and joined the Bengal and North Western Railroad where he became an accomplished manager and problem solver.  His leadership style fostered respect among the locals and his successes were many.  My knowledge of his life is based on an engrossing book of his short stories, “Jim Corbett’s India”, edited by R.E. Hawkins.

Corbett’s fame is due to his skill as a hunter, tracker, and killer of man-eating tigers and leopards, and his later conversion to naturalist, conservationist, and photographer.  He authored six books including “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, “Jungle Lore”, and “My India”.  Corbett persuaded India to create the Hailey National Park in the 1930’s which was later named for him posthumously in 1957.

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

For the listers out there here are our final stats from India.  We saw 57 birds around the hotels, palaces, and park during the initial tour, and added 35 during the interlude at Hyderabad.  Bopanna guided us to an additional 33 species in the Himalayan foothills, and 46 more in and around Corbett NP.  That gives a grand total of 174 different birds, of which 148 were “life birds” for me.  This of course just scratches the surface of 1200 species possible on the sub-continent.

Nepal Wren Babbler, Pnoepyga immaculata

Our passage to India left me with memories for a lifetime.  These are rekindled by the photos, writing this blog, and a few souvenirs accumulated along the way.  My favorite is a picture of a White-throated Kingfisher, uniquely painted on an antique document by an artist Suzanne met in Jaipur.

This picture and bird hearken back to our mad dash at dawn in Agra, trying to be the first to photograph the deserted Taj Mahal, right at sunrise.  I hit the brakes when I saw the kingfisher perfectly perched in the reflecting pool, just too tempting to pass by.  At that exact moment I had to answer the key question nagging me for the entire trip.  “Was I in India, halfway around the world, for the culture and enchanting sites, or was I there for the birds”?  My definitive answer was simply “YES”.  I took 15 seconds to fire off a few shots of the bird and then resumed the charge to the monument, catching up with my companions in time to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise.  You CAN have it all.

Birding in the Himalayan Foothills

 

What a difference 6500 feet of elevation make.  The 100 degree heat of Delhi succumbed to the mountains as we made our way to the northeast.  Along with the heat we escaped the urban sprawl and traffic and saw the rural plains and villages of India’s north country.  After 7 hours in our small van packed with 6 travelers, all our luggage, and a driver and guide, we began the ascent up the switch-backs.  Not just a few; there must have been hundreds of hairpin turns on the narrowing, poorly guard-railed road.  Each turn was taken with horn blaring to warn unseen oncoming traffic.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnontus leucogenys

The flora was also changing, now with a distinct alpine flavor typical for the elevation.  The Himalayas are relatively young in geological terms and the fastest growing mountain range on Earth.  Mount Everest is growing at a whopping rate of one centimeter a year due to the northward migration of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Eurasian plate.

White-throated Laughingthrush, Garrulax albogularis

Our destination was not the high snow-covered peaks but rather the more modest foothills and their unique avian fauna.  For me, an eastern North American who grew up near the Adirondack, Green, and White Mountains, the term “foothills” does not do justice to their size.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Streptopelia orientalis

Unfortunately fog and clouds covered the distant high peaks most days, but one dawn as we were traveling on a north-facing switchback the sky cleared and we got a brief glimpse of majestic Nanda Devi at 24,500 feet.  People have said that the view of the Himalayas from northern India is one of the greatest sights on Earth.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Our abode was the Mountain Quail Lodge near the hamlet of Pangot in the state of Uttarakhand. www.mountainquaillodge.com  The rustic lodge and cabins are within a conservation preserve and exactly what I had hoped for.  The five star resorts of our earlier tour were fantastic but when hiking and birding in the mountains I needed to feel more of the simple charm of the forest and hills.  We stayed in 3 quaint log cabins, each with a wood stove stoked every evening by an attendant.  A bracing shower each morning was a stimulating wakeup call.  The service and food were just superb.

Streaked Laughingthrush, Garrulax lineatus

It was our lucky day when Krishna engaged Bopanna Patada as our guide for the last 5 days of our India sojourn.  He was so much more than a birding guide, also arranging our lodging, meals, driver, and van.  Bopanna’s home patch is southern India so he supplemented his expertise with a local guide to direct us to the birds and hotspots around Pangot.

Bopanna and companions

In addition to his impressive birding skills he is also an excellent photographer and not shy about critiquing our techniques.  He showed me a better way to hold and stabilize my telephoto lens and encouraged me to move around more often to obtain differing views of each bird.  Check out his website:  http://www.indiabirding.com

 

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Dendrocopos hyperythrus

Its not easy being a successful birding guide.  One has to assess the interest level, expertise, and stamina of the clients, all of which vary within the group.  Bopanna clearly wanted us to see as many birds as possible in the five short days, but was also cognizant of our aging legs.  We started birding early each morning after tea, packed a breakfast and/or lunch for the trail, and pressed on until dusk.  Upon returning to the lodge we found a welcome Indian supper and a bed warmed by hot water bottles, a perfect touch for tired bones.

Striated Laughingthrush, Garrulax striatus

The wooded hillsides and rocky trails could have easily been confused with our local forests, that is until a family of noisy large monkeys swung by overhead.  The birds also were clearly of a different world.  I remember one tree that simultaneously contained 4 different woodpeckers, all life-birds for me.  There were Laughingthrushes, Barbets, Minivets, Old World Warblers, and Greenfinches galore, each called out by a guide as we struggled to keep up with the action.  One of my favorite birds was the colorful Great Barbet, so different than anything seen stateside.

Great Barbet, Megalaima virens

At the end of a long climb we arrived at a spectacular lookout where we spent some time scanning for soaring birds.  It was difficult to not be distracted by the picturesque valley and distant mountains.  There were terraced farms on the near slopes, colorful cottages balanced on the precipices, and school children returning home, but mostly one saw unspoiled wilderness.

The quiet was frequently interrupted by “Griffon Vulture at 12:00” or “Kestrel coming in low over the road”.  Even Bopanna got excited when we saw a stealthy Koklass Pheasant on the roadside.  The attached picture of this bird was obtained by him with my camera, out the windshield of the van.  Before the mountains and Bopanna we had already seen 92 Indian birds.  He added 33 more not previously seen, with many more yet to come.

Koalas Pheasant, Pucrasia macrolopha

I could have stayed at the Quail Mountain Lodge for weeks and was reluctant to climb back into the van to start the rollercoaster descent from the mountain.  Pangot just seemed so peaceful and essential Indian to this traveler.  But travel is all about moving on–there’s always more to see.  Our last stop would be the jungle, home of the Bengal Tiger, and Jim Corbett National Park.

The Birding Wives, “don’t step back!”