25 December 2012

Guadalupe Reef

After leaving the Chisos, our ragtag band of guys headed north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The next day, most of the guys left to climb the mountain, but I was in no shape to head out. My foot was killing me after my boots broke the day before, and I realized I needed to take the day off. So I limped off on my own into the desert to see what birds I could turn up. My slow pace ended up being to my advantage as I was able to turn up quite a few new state birds from my list. First thing I saw was a large flock of Western Bluebirds feeding in the area, and it turned out to be one of the most common birds of the day. A large flock of Pine Siskins also roamed through the brush, appearing from time to time, and a lone Townsend's Solitaire was being chased around by Phainopeplas.

I ended up returning to the car just briefly before a large storm hit and trapped me in the car for the rest of the day. However, my morning hobble did produce quite a few good pictures!

Townsend's Solitaire, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Mule Deer, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

After our hike around the Guadalupe Mountains, we headed north to Carlsbad, where I did as little birding as possible and spent as much time underground as I could. We even did an off-paved trail tour to see the famous White Giant formation, something that involved tight squeezes, belly crawls, rope climbs and more. It was an incredible experience.

My brevity now, however, is related to my finishing this post on Christmas morning! So first of all, Merry Christmas to whoever reads this. Secondly, I have spent the past week (the week after Texas) with my family here in Colorado. Northern Shrikes and American Tree Sparrows have kept me entertained but, tomorrow, I leave for Florida and points beyond in my quest for birds.

In case I can't post for a while, hope everyone has a good new year, and I'll post again as soon as I can.

24 December 2012

Chisos Trek

After canoeing in the Rio Grande River, our rag-tag group headed into the Chisos Basin to begin our backpacking trip. I did not use my camera much as we headed into the mountains as it was bulky while hiking up the trails, but as always, my binoculars were there and ready to use. The first day was marked by us hiking up to the Boulder Mountain Campground. It was a good hike, and we arrived right at dusk to set up our camp. The next morning, I woke up at four thirty with two of the other guys to head to the top of Emory Peak to watch the sun rise over the Sierra del Carmen. Needless to say, we were not disappointed.

Sunrise from Emory Peak, Texas, over the Sierra del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico

From here, we hiked back down to rejoin most of the others and reorganize for our push to the Northeast Rim for the next night. The day was as laid back as 13 miles worth of back-country hiking can be. I wandered ahead of the main group with my friend Michael Hilferty as we birded Boot Spring Canyon and beyond. We found a nice mixed flock of Black-crested Titmouse, Bushtit, Hutton's Vireo, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the mixed oak woodlands, and we enjoyed flocks of Mexican Jays in the mountains and other interesting birds such as Red-naped Sapsucker. Eventually we arrived at our campground, exhausted and ready to get off our feet for the night.

The next day was the monotony and consistency of hiking. The beauty of the mountains was slowly replaced by the pain in right foot. Black-crested Titmice and Spotted Towhees could not distract me as I plodded along slowly down the mountain, eventually finding myself between the two main groups of hikers alone in the mountains. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, my right heel was bleeding, and I had agreed to never wear these boots again.

As we sat in the parking lot preparing to leave, a lone Cedar Waxwing frolicked between the yuccas being pursued by a Northern Mockingbird as Canyon Towhees and Cactus Wrens foraged under cars.

In all, it was an amazing trip, and it marked the halfway point in our journey. As we reorganized at the van, we put the Big Bend map away and focused on our next target of the trip, the imposing Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the border with New Mexico.

21 December 2012

Big Bend

As I write this, I am avoiding packing. This winter has become extremely busy very quickly. I just returned from a week long trip to western Texas and New Mexico last night, and leave tomorrow morning for Colorado and points beyond. This is my one day of respite and recovery, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, but do feel the urge to wander coursing through my veins. I am ready to get back in the field, and this week out west definitely whet my appetite for adventure.

I will surmise the first portion of our trip in this post, the voyage to Big Bend National Park in far western Texas.

I went with eight companions: six students from the LSU Veterinary School led by my esteemed colleague Micheal J. Hilferty (please check out his amazing site here!), a doctor, and a fellow undergrad who is a geologist. Together, we met in the pouring rain on December tenth and headed west to the promised land.

The first day consisted of 9 guys with gear crammed into one van. I'll let you fill in the details from this day for yourself.

The second day, however, was a canoe trip down the Rio Grande River along the Texas-Coahuila border through an area known as Hot Springs Canyon. We met our guides just as the sun was rising over the Chisos Mountains and headed out to the river. On our way, we flushed Scaled Quail, Lark Buntings, Black-throated Sparrows and even got the chance to get personal with a Pyrrhuloxia at a roadside stop.

Afterwards, we headed down to the river and cast off, ready to explore the canyons. One of the best birds of the day was the second bird I put my binoculars on - sheltered on the Mexican side of the river was a young Snow Goose.

The Snow Goose as seen from our canoes, hiding along the edge of the reeds.

As we continued on, we came to what the canyon is truly famous for - the hot springs. These springs occur in several areas along this part of the canyon, and are related to the same forces that once formed the imposing Chisos Mountains for which Big Bend is so well known. In the section of river we were in, we got the chance to swim in some riverside pools and watch as the water spilled out of the ground.

One of the many hot springs emerging from the mud, crystal clear with colonies of algae.

As we drifted eastward, the rock outcroppings became more imposing. Marsh Wrens, Canyon Wrens, and Rock Wrens inhabited their own riverside niche habitats, as Black, Say's and Eastern Phoebes flycatched from their own preferred perches. A Peregrine Falcon flew down the main canyon before us, and turtles watched us from the bank.

Eventually, we found ourselves near Rio Grande Village where we hiked up to the rim of Hot Springs Canyon. The walk around was pretty nice, as I heard a Verdin call, Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the cottonwoods as Golden-fronted Woodpeckers flew about, and I even found a surprise Black-throated Gray Warbler! At the end of the hike, the view was definitely worth it.

Hot Springs Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas

From here, we floated the rest of the way to Rio Grande Village and unloaded our canoes, preparing for our backpacking trip into the Chisos Basin that night.

05 December 2012

"Studying"

Just one look out of the window and I knew I was in trouble. A Red-necked Grebe had been reported in Colorado recently, and staring at the Pied-billed Grebes in the distance I knew I wanted one of them to not be a Pied-billed Grebe. I had foolishly agreed to study at a friend's house this morning, and my mind was a million miles away. I glanced over and said "I'll be back, I'm going to go check out that bird."

And so my noble quest of not-studying began.

The grebes were, of course, Pied-billeds. But since I was outside, and it wasn't raining that hard, I figured I might as well check out the weedy fields nearby. Under the gray overcast skies, I trudges through the brush, heading further and further into what appeared to be a construction project abandoned a few years prior. The weeds were crawling with birds, and the proximity to the lake made for an interesting mix of species. Dozens of Black Vultures streamed from a nearby roost, passing silently overhead, which the constant calls of Swamp Sparrows revealed just how thick they were in this field (I estimated at least 26 individuals in my short little jaunt). The mud stuck to my feet as I worked my way ever forward towards the edge of the woods, working my way through the birds of the brush every dozen meters or so. House Wrens, Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows were by far the most common birds, but a 'drier' patch of weeds hosted a small party of Savannah Sparrows and a lone juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was nice confirmation for the one I thought I had heard earlier in the morning. I trudged onwards towards the trees and was amazed to find that the 'better' the habitat became, the fewer birds I had. At the treeline, I only had four species of bird new for the morning: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay and Red-headed Woodpecker. I began my slow return through the muddy field, attempting to keep from getting any dirtier in the clay dirt and drizzling rain. As I neared civilization again, a lone Lincoln's Sparrow flushed up next to me, providing a nice Melospiza sweep for the morning. (My complete checklist accessible here).

By the time I returned to my friend's house, my pants had brown sheet of clay staining them, my shins were caked in mud, and my shoes and socks were soaked through. The only thing harder than the mud to get rid of was the smile on my face as I walked inside and stared out the window, ignoring the shocked and confused looks from my clean contemporaries who had assumed I hadn't left the porch.

It was good to get back in the field again, and winter break can't come soon enough.

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On an unrelated note, lots of pelicans are moving through Louisiana right now, so in honor of them, here's a picture I took on Grand Isle a few years back. Good birding, and see you all on the other side of finals week!

30 November 2012

Preparing for December

As I sit here in the LSU Museum, I cannot help but think of the semester. It was a whirlwind semester that became extremely busy, and admittedly, I did not do much birding. I got out a fair amount, did some looking and between class watching, but otherwise, my birding life has been put on hold for a while. Writing papers, spending time with friends, and trying to get some work done have taken priority. However, it has been a great fall regardless! Everywhere I go, I have been able to enjoy the Louisiana birdlife. Late October saw the annual Yellow Rails and Rice festival in Jennings, where I was actually able to hold a Yellow Rail, and we had a string of successful field trips, including one on which we saw a Sprague's Pipit crawling away from us through the grass. The rest of my fall has just been a string of incidental observations around the southeastern part of the state, from Pileated Woodpeckers at city parks to Red-tailed Hawks fighting over a squirrel carcass on Thanksgiving. However, winter is almost here, which means I can let myself go again.

It's been a good semester, but I'm ready to get some more birding in again. December marks the beginning of travel and freedom for me, and I'd be lying if I said it couldn't get here soon enough.

25 September 2012

Cleaning Up

Argh. I've got a Mycology test in the morning and I am honestly freaking out about it a little bit. Regardless, here's the down and dirty information about my birding life around Baton Rouge.

I've been birding when I can around campus, with Dr. Remsen at the river, and even got to go hummingbird banding with some good friends. All in all, life is good. Yellow-throated Warblers are moving through, Ruby-throats are pouring through the state on their way south, and it's truly starting to feel like fall. I got another state bird for the first time in almost a year as well: a small group of Bronzed Cowbirds in Covington, Louisiana. Things are good. I'm working hard, birding when I can, and studying always.

It's going to be a good semester.

Back to MYCOLOGY!


30 August 2012

After the Storm

Isaac was, amazingly, the least of my troubles this week. From almost the minute after I returned from chasing the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in New Orleans, I began to feel ill. I became more and more ill until the storm hit and spent several days of it sleeping and watching Star Trek, recuperating and in no shape for storm birding.

Luckily, today, I was able to muster my strength for a short amount of time and head out to the lake. One of the first birds I laid eyes on was a male Magnificent Frigatebird! I grew excited and tried to get closer, but by the time I had moved 50 meters the bird was gone, and I never saw it again. Worried that other birds might just be passing through at the moment as well, I quickly scanned the lake. A lone Royal Tern cruised the far shoreline, and a lone Least Tern flitted among the buoys in the middle of the lake. Two Laughing Gulls cruised overhead, and as I tried to get a better look at them I could feel my strength fading, and my cough was beginning to worsen once again.

Being sick may have bested me this time, but two new parish birds in one day is pretty good! Next hurricane, I'll be ready...

27 August 2012

Sulphur-bellied Flyaway

Much to the surprise of just about everyone in the state, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was found Friday in City Park, New Orleans! Kevin Morgan and I jumped at the chance to add this elusive bird to our state lists, and left early Saturday morning to see what we could find. Alas, it seems that City Park was but a one-day stop for this enigmatic vagrant, and it was never seen again.

Not to be discouraged, Kevin and I spent a good amount of time searching the woods and trying to see what else we could find. It seemed that every person we talked to had a different list of birds, but we definitely got lucky with a lone Blue-winged Warbler accompanying a flock of Yellow Warblers! I then came home, got sick, and spent the rest of the weekend lying in bet, sleeping, and drinking sprite. C'est la vie. However, I am starting to recover and just in time! Tomorrow night, Hurricane Isaac will be making landfall in Louisiana, and who knows what kinds of awesome seabirds will be brought with it to Baton Rouge...

21 August 2012

Adjusting

Driving southward through Arkansas, I couldn't think of how far I had already come. From the surveys I did near Eastport and Porthill, Idaho in early July, my truck and I had conquered several thousand of miles of road on the way back to LSU, and I had trouble making myself remember those innumerable miles. My mind was focused on the journey ahead, and all the roads I still have to drive in my life. It is still almost hard to believe that I am finally here: the second day of classes is over, Carolina Chickadees and Blue Jays are calling from the Live Oaks around my dorm, and I already have homework to work on. Regardless, I still feel like I have parts in different places. I'm a long way from Africa, and an even longer distance from who I was the last time I was at school, and currently trying hard to find a good graduate school program to apply to. It is, however, off to a good start. It's good to see every familiar face once again, and the calls of Great Crested Flycatchers and Northern Cardinals are slowly sucking me back into a North American mindset. I'm looking forward to birding more, but for the time being, I am still just trying to get my room organized and live-able!

My last adventure was that long drive down, though. I went to the front range of Colorado and visited my high school friend, Kevin, for the weekend. We drove out to Pawnee National Grasslands for a night, and camped near the buttes. The next day we roamed across the plains, finding a dust bowl era cemetery and my lifer Chestnut-collared Longspur near the Nebraska state line. The next day, we continued our catching up by heading high into the Rockies, camping near Idaho Springs and then waking around 5 AM to head up to the top of Mt. Evans. In the pre-dawn darkness, I spotted my first ever White-tailed Ptarmigan on the side of the road, and we then scrambled to the top of the 14,264 foot peak to watch the sun rise over Denver. We talked, joked, and took pictures, but as the sun broke through the haze of the distance and lit the eastern plains, I had the feeling that even though I have no idea what the year holds for me, it's going to be a good one.


03 August 2012

The Setting Summer Sun

I can feel the days growing shorter now, but I still cannot tell if it is because they are truly growing shorter, or if it is because I spent my summer in the states in the wild and rugged mountains of Northern Idaho, where the night was but a few mostly dark hours lacking the shrill surreal sirens of territorial Varied Thrushes hanging in the humid air. My summer was great, but intense. Days of back country working was divided into sections merely by the names of the maps I was using. Forest service section names such as Kaniksu, Clearwater, St. Joe and Coeur d'Alene became more useful for knowing where I was than the actual road and town names, and my spot unit "ok" message was often the only contact I had with the outside world. Once again, I fell behind on my blog from school, work, and everything else. It feels like a never ending cycle of use and neglect, writing about birding and then finding myself overwhelmed by the outside world. I will write as much as I can, but I cannot even attempt to fit the past few months into a post. In what seemed like an instant, I went from enjoying the late autumn nights under the southern cross in Africa to camping alone in the Bitterroot Mountains, watching over my back for the bears and mountain lions that I knew where there.

I put up pictures from my last days in Africa and my days in Idaho at my photo site, and I am sorry I have not been around to share the stories behind them. To those of who still read my blog and hold out for those posts, thank you. I'll write more this fall when I can, but just remember that when I don't write, it's not because I don't want to, but usually because I can't! I'm heading to Louisiana in a week, and looking forward to getting those Carolina Chickadees I've been missing all year.

I'll post when I can, but for now, enjoy the photos (including the Snowshoe Hare near Kooskia, Idaho below!), and I hope the summer has been as busy and productive for all of you as it has been for me!


11 June 2012

Alive, but exhausted

A week ago I was in Stellenbosch, bidding my friends a far farewell. How long ago that seems. I am currently sitting in a library in Grangeville, Idaho, watching my dad lament over the bears and cold that we are now facing while working in Northern Idaho. I'll post when I can, but unfortunately, it's time for me to head back out into the wild.

No rest for the weary.

Good birding, y'all.

23 May 2012

Paarl

I felt like taking a quick break from my Namibian chronicle and decided to focus instead on something that happened about two weeks ago. Before I went to Namibia, I met a man by the name of Les Underhill who is in charge of the South African Bird Atlas Project II (frequently condensed to SABAPII on the interwebs). He put me in touch with a man by the name of Pieter La Grange, and I soon found myself surveying the Paarl pentad with him.
Our morning started out quite well, with us heading up Paarl Mountain to see what we could find. The slopes were productive, with a pair of African Harrier-Hawk patrolling the slopes, Southern Boubou singing from the nearby thickets, and Rameron Pigeons (such as the one to right I photographed in Jonkershoek) flying between the trees. The garden at the top of the mountain kept us interested, with Bar-throated Apalis, three species of Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, and Cape Batis. We soon wrapped up our high elevation survey and headed down to the Paarl Bird Reserve in town.

For me, the Paarl reserve was fantastic. Having been trapped in the fynbos for most of the semester, the reserve was like Christmas for me, with ducks and gulls everywhere. Upon driving up, I was instantly with my lifer Grey-hooded Gull, sitting right in front of my lifer White-faced Whistling-Ducks!

The excitement continued however, as my aquatic lifers stacked up. Red-billed Ducks and Cape Teal swam among the Cape Shovelers, African Black Ducks and Yellow-billed Ducks, and I even managed to spot a lone Hottentot Teal foraging along the edge of the reeds. Hundreds of Helmeted Guineafowl ran through the open, gravelly areas while Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Glossy Ibis, and a lone Greater Flamingo foraged along the edges of the lake. I finally caught up with a bird I had missed in Ecuador, Southern Pochard, and we even managed to refind the lone African Jacana that had been reported in the area a few weeks before. Overall, it was a fantastic morning. You can check out all of my pictures on my eBird checklist.

Glancing at the clock now, guilt is starting to well up inside me again... I need to get back to work. Halfway through finals, and soon, I'll more time to write (and bird!). 

Grey-hooded Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrhocephalus) in Paarl, South Africa.



19 May 2012

Fish River Canyon

As we arrived in Ais-Ais for the night, my friends and I quickly came to realize just how awesome Namibia truly was. Staying at the fantastic hot springs resort at the bottom of the canyon, we watched the stars come out above the Fish River and went for a swim in the fantastic pool. We then grabbed dinner together, enjoying the cool desert air, and I enjoyed some Windhoek Lagers and a Kudu Steak (Kudu is amazing, for anyone who hasn't tried it). However, it was soon time to retire, and as the girls went off to their fantastic rooms, I shuffled through the dark to set up my tent in the camping area in front of the lodge. I had just gotten it set up, when I heard a bird that I had heard previously in the evening - a low "kow-kow, kow-kow" coming from not far away. My birding instincts kicked in instantly, as I whispered to myself "Freckled Nightjar!" I quickly climbed out of my tent with my head land, and wandered towards the sound. The bird sounded close, and I had a hunch I knew where it was. I clicked the light onto the roof of the bathrooms and, lo and behold, the nightjar was sitting in the middle of my beam of light. Thoroughly satisfied, I quickly dozed off.

The next morning (5 April) was another great day. I woke up long before the others, and started wandering around the resort in search of birds. I got a pretty good list for the day considering our location, and was quite satisfied with what I found. I snapped a lot of birds pics that morning, just for the sake of having some documented birds during my trip, and tried really hard not to laugh as one of the locals chased a screaming baboon running away with a loaf of bread.

The distinctive Orange River White-eye is widely considered a separate species (Zosterops pallidus) here in Africa, but some authorities still treat it as a subspecies of the Cape White-Eye (Zosterops capensis).
A Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater (Merops hirundeneus) foraging near my tent.
A Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) that wandered around us as we packed in the morning.

Soon, the girls were up as well, and we enjoyed a nice breakfast together before loading up the car and heading northward again. We drove parallel to the Fish River Canyon, and soon found ourselves at a beautiful turn in the bend before the actual canyon overlook. Now, the actual overlook is pretty spectacular, but my camera died shortly after taking this picture and I haven't retrieved my other pics from Maria's camera, so this will have to do for now!


The rest of our day was a travel day. We continued northwards, stopping for the occasional stretch and for our own "mini-Etosha" in the middle of the desert. Stephanie, with her now-legendary Eagle Eyes, spotted some Gemsbok (same thing as Oryx, for you Americans) in the distance. As we approached closer, we realized there was actually a water hole nearby, where Hartmann's Mountain Zebras watched their young chase and play with the nearby Gemsbok coming to drink. It was a pleasant surprise bird-wise too, as I spotted my lifer Martial Eagle flying towards the water hole. We soon continued our driving, however, listening to music, talking about life, and just enjoying each others company. It wasn't long until we were in the town of Marienthal and ready to go to sleep after a long days drive.

10 May 2012

Place of Great Noise

Like most people from the Western World, I have a hard time speaking in clicks. I often try to imagine what it must have been like, as a European colonist in South Africa, learning how to speak using this sound that seems so foreign to us. In Stellenbosch, I love listening to people speaking isiXhosa as they walk by, and sometimes find myself practicing my clicks when I am alone so that I can one day at least attempt to speak some of the languages that populate this amazing land.

However, simplifications have occurred over time to make things easier on people like me. I meet people from throughout Africa, and they often introduce themselves not with their name, but with a surrogate. "Just call me Taku, because Takuedzwa is too hard for you." I try my hardest to prove them wrong now, but the error still exists. Anyone I try to tell that name too may be confused by my mispronunciations and accent. When the Afrikaaners moved into large areas of southern Afrika, the names became simplified as well. One of these places was along the Orange (Gariep) River. The native people of the area called it a name that translates to "place of great noise," and believed it was where a water monster lived. The simplification of their word for it is the name of the park today: Augrabies National Park.

Located along the Orange River not far before it becomes the boundary between South Africa and Namibia, the Orange winds across a rough granitic plateau and drops into the Orange River gorge. The braids of the river form multiple falls in this region, and as I sped down the highway, I was looking forward to seeing the main falls.

The morning, though brief, had already treated me quite well. I got a lifer sitting on the ground next to the car not long after I woke up - a Rosy-faced Lovebird, reminiscent of the Spectacled Parrotlets I had fallen in love with in Colombia two years before. I passed through the scattered Acacias and the fantastic Kokerboem aloes and before we knew it, we arrived within Augrabies National Park. We were not disappointed by what we found.

The main falls of Augrabies. More pictures by others can be found here.

The falls, though not at their highest low rate, were extremely impressive. The brightly colored Augrabies Lizards (photo from Australian Geographic here) crawled across the rocks and fought in the sun, their colors almost hurting our eyes. I held on to my hat to keep it from blowing into the gorge, and stared in wonder as the Orange weaved its way out into the Kalahari.

Orange River Gorge. There were Peregrine Falcons nesting in the left part of the gorge.

After gawking at the sights of the gorge, we hiked out along the river for a while to see what we could find. The braiding river created strange and random marshes, potholes and large sinks filled with boulders that led towards the river. Stephanie, proving her eyes once again, spotted a group of Eland running in the distance, while I found myself in a staring match with a Klipspringer from about two meters away at one point. Though we walked together, we were simultaneously alone. We spaced ourselves out along the trail, and each of us became lost in their own world. My world, naturally, was dominated by birds, and I was not disappointed. A cloud of Alpine Swifts infested the canyon, a lone Booted Eagle sailed overhead, Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters flycatched from the trees, African Pied-Wagtails walked amongst the Vervet Monkeys in the Picnic Area and I acquired several lifers including Bradfield's Swift and Chat Flycatcher (full list here). As fascinating as the park was, however, we had a long ways to drive.

Pale-winged Starling in Augrabies National Park.

We continued onward, through the desert, and into an area with more hills. The red sands of the Red Larks were calling to me, but I resisted their temptation, knowing that if I began searching that I could not stop and our destination would never arrive. We stopped for petrol in Pofadder and then headed off into the unknown. The road become rough, and even more desolate. Signs of civilization grew scarcer as the rocks and the Kalahari took over. It seemed as though we were completely alone in the world, until I saw the dip in the horizon. Like a saw slowly cutting away at the earth, the scar of the Orange River was visible from kilometers away, and we soon found ourselves at a junction making the easiest decision of our lives.


The sign appeared older than the country we wished to visit. Suidwes-Afrika, the old name for Namibia, was within our grasp. We wound down past the northernmost vineyard we would see and checked out of South Africa. Slowly and excitedly, we crossed the river and found ourselves in a new and somehow familiar land: Namibia. After briefly checking in, we headed out across the veld in an attempt to make it to Ai-Ais for the night.

The road stretched on forever that day. Straightaways dozens of kilometers long accompanied the infinite visibility, and I felt as though the world went on forever. Karoo Korhaans crossed the road in front of us, the occasional sign in English, German or Afrikaans flew by our window, and the sun scorched the earth before us. The rains had come recently, however, so the Kalahari was green. Amazingly so. The further we continued the greener it became, until we began to descend once again into some of the harsher and hotter reaches of the Kalahari. We found ourselves descending into hell itself, it seemed, as the land became devoid of vegetation and the ground raised up around us as if to trap us.

As the sun set, we found ourselves at the bottom of the second deepest canyon in the world.


The road to Ai-Ais at sunset.

To be continued...

08 May 2012

Ever Northward

The Tankwa Karoo before sunrise.

The second day of our Namibia trek started out quite well. I woke up right at about dawn, awoken by a bird that I unfortunately was never able to track down, and then headed out into the karoo to see what I could find. I was not disappointed, as my before dawn walking rewarded me with such good birds as Tractrac Chat, Rufous-eared Warbler, the ever-present Karoo Scrub-Robin and even Namaqua Prinia (my short but complete list here). I turned around at one point, however, and was surprised to see a lone figure on the hillside. I slowly walked up the hill, and found myself side by side with Maria (well, first I found myself running to get my camera, but I came back). I stood there her, talking about the desert enveloping us, and watched the desert come to life. As we stood there together, I saw the first ray of sun break through the distant hills, and watched in awe as the world began to glow around me. It was a great day already, and it wasn't even 8 o'clock in the morning.

Sunrise over the Tankwa Tented Camp.

We soon got up and got started with our day,as we ate breakfast with our Malawian friends and packed up for the day. We took some awesome showers, I left my permanent mark in the office of the camp, and we headed back out into the Karoo.

Our morning maintained the same theme for hours. The karoo was huge, and it never seemed to end. I saw Groot Winterhoek, the mountains were I had camped two months before, and enjoyed the beautiful desert scenery. I also got my first life bird of the day: Pterocles namaqua, the Namaqua Sandgrouse.

Namaqua Sandgrouse walking on the side of the road (above) and flushing into the desert (below).

After the brief ornithological break, we climbed Bloukrans Pass and were greeted at the summit by a pair of Verreaux's Eagles. We continued onward and onward until finally coming to our spot for lunch that day: Calvinia. This small frontier town in the karoo was a fascinating place to be, but we quickly finished our lunches and loaded back into the car. The northern expanses were calling to us, and we could not ignore them anymore. We drove onward and onward, and I even ignored some pretty good birds in the interest of time and spending time with my friends (before you have a heart attack, I still got Black-eared Sparrowlark!).

As we came closer and closer to the orange river valley, the terrain transformed around us. Then suddenly, almost without warning, the veld changed completely. Grasses grew everywhere, the gigantic Sociable Weaver nests seemed to impossibly balance in the trees and on the power poles along the road, and the road stretched on into infinity.

Our road through the Northern Cape, South Africa

We soon decided to stop and stretch, and found the quaint little town of Kenhardt in which to do so. Needless to say, I soon became quite please with our decision to do so. Cape Glossy-Starlings sat on the fences, Dusky Sunbirds climbed through the bushes, and Black-fronted Bulbuls seemed to be everywhere. Three lifers in three minutes is always a nice thing to encounter, wherever you are. The girls soon dragged me away from the iridescent starlings, however, and we headed off once more into the wild blue yonder, finally reaching our destination, the Augrabies Backpackers.

I, however, had not had enough of wandering about for the day, and apparently the others hadn't either. We ventured off through the vineyards and Phragmites grasses in search of more cool things for the day. Stephanie and Yvonne soon headed back to the backpackers, but Maria and I ventured further, seeking out more. A Black-headed Heron flew overhead, Bulbuls were everywhere (I estimated 40 on my checklist) and we even found a pair of calling Spotted Eagle-Owls in the brush. Thoroughly satisfied, we followed the southern cross back to the backpackers and arrived just as Stephanie exclaimed in wonder at the stranger she was sitting next to "NO WAY! I know who you are!"

The world, it seems, is a very small place. I found myself face to face with a spitting image of my roommate in Stellenbosch. From the French-Canadian accent to the very mannerisms she used, it was like being back at the dorms. Yvonne's and my flatmate, Genevieve, had told us her parents were coming to South Africa, but we never assumed that we would meet them at some point, let alone at some point in the middle of nowhere in the Northern Cape! We enjoyed our evening talking about life and traveling around the country, and before I knew it, tomorrow had already come. I forced myself off to bed, knowing that if I didn't rest now, I wouldn't rest at all.

I slowly slipped off into unconsciousness, and waited for the sun to wake me. In my head, I went through the checklist of things I would need in the morning, and smiled as I realized I'd be crossing into yet another African country at some point the next day.

06 May 2012

Catching Up From School

Once again, school has bested me. It has sucked me in with its assignments and deadlines, and kept me from the outside world and from my blog.

So it is time to do some catch up. The next couple posts may not be entirely in line temporally, but they are my adventures from the beginning of April, just over a month ago today.

My fall break, a week long, officially started in Cape Town. I boarded a bus in the early afternoon in Stellenbosch, and rode with my Conservation Management class to the Cape Town Docks where we boarded the ferry for Robben Island, and spent the better part of three days on the Island. I ended March spending the night in one of the prisons on the island made infamous by apartheid, talking to my South African friends and wandering about the island for various conservation projects. We caught tortoises, we assessed vegetation cover on various parts of the island, and I acquired four new South African birds - two lifers (Bank Cormorant and Subantarctic Brown Skua) and two country birds (Pomarine Jaeger and Chukar, and introduced resident on the island). My time on the island was fairly long, and very fun. We braai'd, we enjoyed the sunsets, and we yelled at the kid whose alarm went off at 4 AM. As I left the harbor on the island or the mainland on April 1, it was a beautiful day. The sky was bluer than almost any I had seen before, and Table Mountain loomed above the city and the cold and imposing Atlantic. I was excited, because I knew that on the mainland another adventure awaited, and I was ready for it to begin.

The next morning, I met with Stephanie, Yvonne and Maria: the three amigas. They are all German, and they all had one word on the tip of their tongues: Namibia. We walked to downtown Stellenbosch, and picked up our rental car, a silver Volkswagen Polo. We looked it over, had it checked out, and I insisted on making sure we had infinite mileage (kilometerage?), window insurance, wheel/undercarraige/overall insurance, and that we had a full size spare ready to go. Thoroughly satisfied with our acquisition, we bid Stellenbosch a hasty farewell and drove out to the N1 highway heading over the mountains. We passed through the only tunnel I have seen in Africa, and soon found ourselves in our first stop of the day: Worcester, at the Karoo National Botanical Gardens. The Karoo gardens, though most spectacular in the spring, still did not disappoint. Moments after stepping from the car, I saw my lifer Acacia Pied Barbet, and the trails wandering through the desert afforded amazing views at the succulent plants the interior of South Africa is famous for.

After an hour of wandering through the gardens, enjoying the native flora of southern Africa, we loaded back into the car and began our final push north for the day. We headed onto the R355, and bid the pavement farewell. We were venturing deep into the heart of the Tankwa Karoo, the driest and 'loneliest' part of the entire country. The excitement kept coming, however, even as the vegetation slowly disappeared. Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks became a common sight on the few roadside perches that did exist, Stephanie earned hundreds of brownie points by spotted both Mountain Zebra and some Giraffes, and the car proved itself as we bounced along the rocky and desolate stretch of road.

After a few hours we came to our camp for the night: the Tankwa Tented Camp at the edge of Tankwa Karoo National Park. Considering this was the first major dirt road some of the people in our party had ever traveled (and the first true desert to boot), the landscape was both stark and fascinating, an utter moonscape stranded in the southern reaches of the continent.

The Tankwa Karoo, it all its glory.

We pulled into the camp for the night, and soon wandered off into the more wooded floodplain of the Tankwarivier. We crushed the mud beneath our shoes, wandered through the acacias, and I chased after Karoo Larks flitting along the ground.

About 100 meters from the above picture: the Tankwarivier Floodplain.

As the sun set and the desert began to cool, we headed back to the main building and met the two workers around a fire they had started for us. We were the only guests that night, and we had a lekker time. The girls soon became absorbed in an intense conversation in their home language, and I found myself with the workers. I never caught their names, but I learned they were both from Malawi. I commented that I could not understand any German (at the time - this would change by the end of the week), and one of them looked at  me and said:

"Hearing someone speak another language is like listening to the birds. No one knows what they are saying, because they say it to each other, but all we can do is listen and realize how beautiful is sounds for what it is." (Not a direct quote, but as close as I can remember!)

I agreed with him wholeheartedly, and I soon began learning some of their native language, Chewa. We talked for hours, looked at the moon through a spotting scope, and discussed Africa in general. Slowly, however, the fire started to die and we grew tired, ready to sleep for the long drive ahead.

I bid everyone goodnight, and crawled into my tent, happy to be between the infinite sky and the endless veld. As I closed my eyes, I already knew the next day was going to be another great day.

29 March 2012

Twitching in the Southern Hemisphere

School has been taking over. Needless to say, the whole reason I am in Africa is to go to school, but it has been edging out the rest of my activities. Between my social life and my academic life, birding has started to slip away just like in the states, and beside a Black Goshawk between some of my classes, I have been largely trapped within the confines of Stellenbosch. I was therefore elated to hear that there was a new country record for South Africa located last week - a Little Crake (Porzana parva) - and that it was accessible via public transportation!

Being in the Fynbos, I don't actually get to go out very much to areas that are more aquatic. I have managed a few stops at wetlands and lakes along my drives, but am still extremely lacking when it comes to such water-dependent birds. Since this rare bird was reported in the Silvermine Wetland in Clovelly, I grew excited about what other birds I could see along the way! I headed to Cape Town first by minibus taxi with a friend of mine, and then hopped on the train in downtown to head down the tracks towards Simon's Town. I was not disappointed in my desire to see water birds, as the train passed through the marshes north of Muizenberg and Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, Blacksmith Plovers and dozens of egrets flew over the marshes. I even got a lifer from the train - African Marsh-Harrier hunting over the reeds! Already pumped, I jumped off the train at Fish Hoek (or, as my ticket said, Vishoek) and headed up the road to Clovelly. I immediately ran into another birder, who told me he had failed to find the Little Crake that I was seeking and failed to see any other birders in general. I became suspicious that maybe I was in the wrong place, but decided to check the nearby reeds anyway to find out. An extremely close Purple Heron was waiting next to the trail and, while watching a Eurasian Moorhen, my lifer Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and landed right out in the open!
My lifer Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) at the Silvermine Wetlands, Clovelly, South Africa

I continued wandering around the marsh, frustrated with the calls I did not know but delighted by the calls that I was able to track down. Bokmakierie called from the shrubs, Common Waxbills flew by my head, and Pied Crows and Hartlaub's Gulls flew over the marsh. It was not long, either, until I spotted a large group of photographers gathered around a tiny patch of open water. I immediately cut down towards the people and, upon walking up, was immediately greeted by the Little Crake! Not bad for my first rail species in South Africa.
South Africa's first ever Little Crake (Porzana parva) in the Silvermine Wetlands in Clovelly, Western Cape.

I watched the bird and the bird-watchers for a while (scoring yet another lifer in the process!) and then slowly began working my way back to the train so that I would not be stranded far away from Stellenbosch for the night. Considering how cooperative the rail was and how many other good birds were there in the short time that I was there, it was a very good twitch and a very successful afternoon.

10 March 2012

The End of the World

N2 Highway, Western Cape, South Africa

The kilometers flew past us as we listened to french music in the African countryside. We were headed to Cape Agulhas and the Indian Ocean. Though it was almost two weeks ago now, the trip seems like yesterday. South through Caledon and into the fynbos of the southernmost reaches of the cape we drove, barely passing any cars along our way. Blue Cranes, the national bird of South Africa, were everywhere, flying over the fields and letting their ornate feathers flutter behind them. Several life birds for me dotted the fields in this area as well, such as African Stonechat and Spur-winged Goose, and a massive flock of several hundred African Pied-Starlings made me gaze in wonder as we pushed ever southward. Before we knew it, the Indian Ocean was beside us, and I saw my southernmost life bird ever in the southernmost town in Africa: Cape Francolin running through someone's yard. We drove past the lighthouse, parked, and wandered out to where the land ends and the never-ending southern ocean begins.

Me at Cape Agulhas, South Africa

The Cape, needless to say, was incredible. Hardly anyone was there, and for a while, my friends and I had the end of the continent all to ourselves. We decided to roam around the municipality a little since we were in the area, and headed to the town of Arniston not long after. We drove through fields hiding Stanley Bustard, Cape Sparrows and Cape Crows before arriving at this white sand beach where the Indian Ocean lapped on the rocky coast. Crowned Cormorants flew by and Common Ringed-Plovers dodged the people climbing on the rockier parts of the coast, and I followed my friends through the dunes to Waenhuiskrans. Waenhuiskrans, we soon found out, is a cave the likes of which I had never seen before: a large, open chamber accessed through another adjacent cave, with bats huddling on the ceiling and Speckled Pigeons braving the watery entrance to nest in the enchanting depths.

From the inside looking out: Waenhuiskrans, South Africa

We enjoyed the beach as much as we could, and soon began the long drive back to Stellenbosch.

After this trip, my life has settled down quite a bit as school work has begun to set in and my obligations have begun to keep me in town. I saw only one lifer this week, Rameron Pigeon, and the fact that things like Cape Wagtails and Red-winged Starlings are 'normal' reveals how long I've really been here. Fall break is coming soon, however, and I doubt I will be able to remain in Stellenbosch for that...

Cape Francolin, Stony Point Penguin Colony, South Africa

03 March 2012

Westward Bound

A week ago Friday, my friends and I headed out to one of the most famous parts of South Africa: the Cape of Good Hope. Visible from Stellenbosch Mountain here in town, we had all been longing to go see the open ocean and explore the rugged peaks where they meet the wide open Atlantic. On the way out there, we made a few preliminary stops at places such as Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary. Everyone else was there looking for Hippos, but I searched through the reeds for birds, and was pretty successful! Three-banded Plovers hid on the sandbars, a pair of Little Grebes and a lone Great Crested Grebe sat out on the water, and I even got another South African endemic on the water - Cape Shovelers.
Three-banded Plovers at Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary, Cape Town, South Africa

After failing to find any hippos, however, we headed out to Simon's Town for the night. As always, you cannot visit Simon's Town without visiting the penguins for which it is so famous! We walked down the beach gawking at the large concentration of birds hanging out at the beach as Cape Gulls and Great Crested Terns flew overhead. I even got another life bird on the boulders not far offshore - Crowned Cormorant, and endemic bird of the Benguela Current in southwestern Africa.
African Penguins jumping into the surf of Boulder's Beach, Simon's Town, South Africa

We spent the night that night in a backpacker's not far from the South African naval yard (we could even see a submarine!), and then attempted to sleep through the screaming kids and partying people for the next day.

I've got a lot of homework to do now, unfortunately, but I'll put up the Cape of Good Hope pics later this week!

25 February 2012

To Hell and Back

After doing the beach on Friday night, Christopher and I had a ten hour hiatus before meeting each other again at the Neelsie parking lot the next morning, ready to hike with the Universiteit van Stellenbosch Berg-en-Toer Klub. I joined the club for two reason: their hikes looked epic, and their members are Afrikaaners. If I am going to learn Afrikaans, what better way to do it that by spending time with and listening to the locals?

I was not disappointed, and was soon pretty lost after the familiar phrases of greeting such as "Bly te kenne" had been uttered. I easily cruised past the questions such as "hoe gaan dit?" and "wat is jou naam?" but was quickly lost in the harsh guttural sounds of the South Africans. As I struggled to pay attention to everything they said, we loaded up into the cars, and headed north to the Groot Winterhoekberge, and the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness.

The drive in was incredible, and the birds were nice too. North of Porterville, I scored my lifer Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis) on a fenceline, and the parking area had calling Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) in the distance and a pair of Bokmakierie (Telephorus zeylonus) foraging in the bushes. We got our gear together and, speaking our mix of German, Afrikaans and English, ventured off into the mystical wonderland of rocky pinnacles and fynbos scrub that lay before us.

The tallest peak in view in this picture is Groot Winterhoekberg at 2055 meters asl. The incredible forest of stone continued almost the entire 20 km to our camp site.

As we hiked, the members of the club swam in the water and, being shy of lakes myself, I kept myself occupied with Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Yellow Canaries and a lone Common (Steppe) Buzzard soaring overhead.

That night, we all collapsed in the shelter of one of Cape Nature's cabins available for backpackers, and had a glorious feast of macaroni and tuna. I found a four inch gecko in the toilet (which was quite the surprise), and Christopher chased the spiders around the cabin, muttering foul phrases at the freakishly huge spiders that thought our cabin was quite the "lekker" place to be. The trip for me though, was a fascinating look at the people themselves. I did hardly any birding, and spend almost the entirety of my time just talking to everyone and getting to know them. I learned a lot of Afrikaans (even if I can't exactly say it back yet!) and a lot about South Africa in general. Almost everyone was quite impressed with my general knowledge base as well, as the two most common questions I was asked were "How long have you been here?" and "A month? How do you know so much?"

As a consequence of this fraternization, I did almost zero birding. I was distracted by the sky, with stars more intense than any I have seen in the northern hemisphere, by the fynbos with it's bizarre proteas, by the people, and by the great time as a whole. We did, however, see Verreaux's and Booted Eagles soaring over the fynbos and at the very beginning a group of Klippspringers to satiate my desire to bird, but I otherwise acted as the group photographer, and tried to capture the trip as best I could and work on my photography. As such, there really isn't much more for me to say, besides the fact that wildernesses are awesome, and that South Africa is an amazing place to be.

Die Hel, one of the largest freshwater pools in South Africa and our end point to our hike.

Die Hel, and if you look closely, you can see people in the rocks on the near side of the lake for perspective.

An awesome Praying Mantis found wandering across the road on our hike out.

21 February 2012

Muizenberg

I didn't know Germany had surfer-dudes until I met Christopher. At about 6'6" and all muscle, he looks like a page out of a California surfing magazine. Needless to say, as he stares down at you and you try not to stare at his beach blond hair, you get the impression he has ridden some serious waves. So, when he called me and asked if I was interested in wind-surfing Muizenberg beach, I said I wasn't keen on surfing but was keen on some Atlantic Ocean action.

We met and loaded up into his rental beetle and headed out to the beach. The winds were strong off the ocean, and the language barrier was finally broken for me when I realized that Christopher wasn't just a surfer, but a kite-surfer! We pulled up and the sky was a myriad of kites belonging to his brethren, and he wasted no time getting his gear and heading out into the chilly waters of Vaalsbaai. I, on the other hand, had some ornithological fish to fry, and headed down the great sandy stretches of the beach (eBird checklist here).

Muizenberg Beach facing east while in the dunes, south of Cape Town, South Africa

As I ventured out, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a terrible place for shorebirds. I wandered amongst the dunes, but mostly focused on the offshore birds hoping for a petrel or a shearwater. Out beyond the breakers, Cape Gannets foraged and avoided the masses of Kelp (Cape) Gulls swarming out over the water and the beach. As I wandered, I was soon distracted by movement in the grasses and scored a life bird - White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus)!

White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus), Muizenberg, South Africa

I kept myself entertained while these miniature sand-colored plovers darted between the dune grasses, and even spotted a tiny mini-plover that was probably only a few days old. To not disturb these cool birds, I headed closer to the coast, and to my astonishment, spotted a Shearwater, though not exactly how I imagined I would.

Subantarctic Little Shearwater (Puffinis [assimilis] elegans), Muizenberg, South Africa

As shown above, I found a Subantarctic Little Shearwater dead on the beach. I was surprised by the sight of such a bird, one that I imagine should be far off shore, so far into Vaalsbaai. I have no idea how he ended up where he did, but it was an interesting sight to see regardless! I photographed the bird for documentary purposes and then continued on my slow march down the beach, watching the White-necked Ravens scavenge in the kelp and occasionally kicking up a "fun bird" like a Plain-backed Pipit or Red-headed Cisticola.

At the end of my walks, I met up with Christopher again, and we decided to mess around with some shots. Unfortunately, the hour was late and they did not come out very well, so we agreed to head out again and I would do my best ESPN impression as he cut the surf with his wind-powered apparatus. As the winds strengthened and the sky darkened, we got our gear together and headed back towards Stellenbosch, ready for the weekend that lay before us.


16 February 2012

Penguins Revisited

The past two weeks have been quite busy for me. I have been doing school mostly, and have hardly been out to enjoy the wilds of Africa. I  did, however, head out on Sunday to Jan Marais Natuur Reservaat and to the lower reaches of Stellenboschberg. At Jan Marais, I found my 100th African bird - a Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops africanus)! Other highlights included Cape Sparrow, a female Pin-tailed Whydah, multiple Karoo Scrub-Robins and a massive flock of staging migrants on Stellenboschberg. I estimated the following in the fynbos swarm:


Black (Yellow-billed) Kite - 2
Eurasian (Rock) Kestrel - 1 bird, trying to catch the swifts and swallows for a short while
Alpine Swift - 25
Common Swift - 2 - these were extremely close, and for the first time I was able to separate them from African Swifts - LIFE BIRD
African Swift - 4
Little Swift - 40
Horus Swift - 4
White-rumped Swift - 50
Swift sp. - 10
Rock Martin - 20
Barn Swallow - 600
White-throated Swallow - 2 - surprisingly few, considering how many were in the area when I first arrived
Pearl-breasted Swallow - 14
Greater Striped-Swallow - 170
Black Sawwing - 2 - LIFER - hanging out near the creek


This coming weekend, I will be heading out into the fray once again with the Berg-en Toer Klub of Stellenbosch University to the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area. In the meantime, as promised, some of my pictures from Boulder's Beach.

Two African (Jackass) Penguins snuggling on the beach together, Simon's Town, Western Cape, South Africa (I was about two feet away!)
African (Jackass) Penguins lounging on the boulders of Boulder's Beach, Simon's Town, Western Cape, South Africa

05 February 2012

The Beauty of Buteos

The number of Buteos varies depending on who you ask. I've recently been keeping my entire list in eBird, and there 29 species in the genus Buteo according to that listing regime. If you count all the subspecies and groups you are able to 'designate' a bird as in the program, however, the number climbs to 63, including the generic entries such as "Red-tailed Hawk" with no further specification. This level of variability exhibited within the genus can really make some species a nightmare for field birding. In fact, one species, the Variable Hawk (Buteo polyosoma) was once considered several different species before genetic testing showed that there were merely 20+ color morphs! In the state, thankfully, there are typical 'morphs' for each population, and when seen prove extremely easy to identify. An example of this would be a Swainson's Hawk: there is really no other bird like it in much of its range, and regular 'light-morph' birds that I usually see in the deserts of Colorado and Utah rarely make me take a second glance to confirm them. Things become slightly more complicated as variability is taken into account, however, and the dark-morph birds I had at Independence Rock in Wyoming made me glance at my book just to be sure. Luckily, Buteo is pretty well covered genus in North America, and many guides are available showing the telltale marks for birds of virtually any population and color morph.

The comfort of this safety net of field guides from every angle has slowly slipped away for me over the years. when I was in South America, there was a juvenile Buteo in the jungles near BaƱos, Ecuador, and we were in no way certain of what to make of it at the time. It wasn't until several months later after I was back in the states that I finally figured out it was a young White-rumped Hawk (Buteo leucorrhous) outside of the typically expected elevational range (full checklist here). Even then, I was reliant on guides that were not available to me in the field, and that I did not even know existed while I was scouring my Ecuador field guide in the damp jungle.

This feeling of helplessness of hawks quickly returned to me as I arrived in South Africa. So far, the most common bird for me has been the "Steppe" Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), considered by my field guide to be separate from the nominate Common Buzzard. Indeed, some insular subspecies of this hawk have recently been upgraded to full species status, and some of the more distinctive mainland forms may follow in the near future. My knowledge with these birds is limited at the present time, and I mostly know that if a see a variably brownish bird flying over campus of the open karoo near Stellenbosch, that opening my book will inevitably lead me to this hawk.

While on the slopes of Stellenboschberg, I encountered yet another Buteo which was completely foreign to me but, luckily, extremely distinctive: the Jackal Buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus). These birds have red-tails much like the hawks I'm familiar with at all, but are ink black under the wings and across their mantle, making them extremely distinctive.

Jackal Buzzard, south of Stellenbosch, South Africa. The red tail is barely visible between the wings. This is a bad photo due to overcast conditions.

Today, in an attempt to beef up my world hawk list, I ventured through an extensive Eucalyptus plantation near town (complete birdlist here). My goal bird was one of two Buteos: the South African endemic "Forest" Mountain Buzzard (Buteo oreophilus trizonatus) and the so called "Elgin" Buzzard. The "Elgin" Buzzard, more commonly called the "Mystery Buzzard," is an enigma. A pair of largely rufous hawks was found nesting near Table Mountain a few years back, and now these birds are common in plantations and farm areas in extreme southwest South Africa (and according to the website listed below, occur "around Jonkershoek near Stellenbosch)." As of yet, no one is really sure where they come from either, with hybrid origin being one possible explanation I have read. So, when I finally did scare up a pair of Buteos, I got extremely excited about what they could be, but through the minimal views and even after photographing them I am left shaking my head. Their wing pattern was similar to that of a "Steppe" Common Buzzard, ruling out "Forest" Mountain Buzzard, but the head was pale, which did not necessarily line up with the Common Buzzards I had seen previously. Similarly, "Elgin" Buzzards are usually pretty uniform and usually largely rufous, which, though uniform, this bird was not rufous. Classes start tomorrow, but as soon as I am able I intend on heading out and looking for them again. In the meantime, I have a lot of studying I'll have to do for classes, and a lot I will have to do before I can fully appreciate and understand this variable genus.

In the meantime, some homework for whoever reads this blog: what do you think this hawk is?

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. In the field I thought they were "Elgin" Buzzards, but I still haven't been able to rule "Steppe" Common Buzzard out in my mind completely. Some useful information on:

Cape Mystery (Elgin) Buzzards: http://mysterybuzzard.blogspot.com/p/identifying-mystery-buzzard.html
"Steppe" Common Buzzard photos: http://www.google.co.za/search?q=steppe+buzzard&hl=en&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=GY4uT_C8JcPBhAfo0eTjCg&ved=0CD8QsAQ&biw=1280&bih=685
"Forest" Mountain Buzzard photos: http://www.google.co.za/search?um=1&hl=en&biw=1280&bih=685&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=forest+buzzard&oq=forest+buzzard&aq=f&aqi=g1&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=1801l1933l0l2792l2l2l0l0l0l0l200l200l2-1l1l0

04 February 2012

Serendipity

The past week has simply flown by for me. I got my general class schedule figured out, and, amazingly, managed to not take my camera with me the couple times I did go somewhere. I did get pictures, but my contact for those pictures is currently in Cape Town... Anyways, I'll get them up when I can.

On Tuesday, I scheduled my classes at the international office and, upon walking outside, was greeted by Genevieve, Yvonne, and Stephanie. They all had one thing on their minds: penguins. Jackass (African) Penguins to be exact, a penguin known for its distinctive donkey-like braying. So, before I knew it, I was on the long train ride out to the southernmost place I have ever been in my entire life: Boulder's Beach. Upon arriving, we instantly had a penguin from the parking lot! We paid the R35 to wander down to the beach with them, and for the next few hours, I watched the penguins while the girls swam in the cold, clear waters of South Africa (I was caught by surprise so much I didn't even have a swimsuit!). I wandered through the boulders and crawled along the Jackass Penguin highways through the cool, white sand and watched Speckled Mousebirds hide in the adjacent fynbos and even spied a Cape Gannet diving not far off shore.

Before long, however, it was time for us to head back, and we re-boarded the train for Cape Town (and I snagged one last lifer for the day - a Black-headed Heron near Fish Hoek). When we arrived at the station, we were greeted with some rather unexpected news: the last train to Stellenbosch had left an hour before. We were forced to find different mean of transport for the night, and, after some haggling, got a taxi for R400 to take us back to Stellenbosch. I sat up front with the cab driver while the girls crammed in the back, and we started talking a little. I found out that our driver was from Transkei, and when I greeted him in isiXhosa, he was very impressed and began talking to us all about South Africa. He showed us where his house was in Khayelitsha township from the N2 highway and told us all about his life in Cape Town, while we asked him for advice regarding our new home. He told us about places to go and not to go, how to deal with people, and even offered sound advice on some of the school activities we have been thinking of enrolling in. The drive to Stellenbosch was relatively slow as our driver believed in obeying the speed limit (we were all extremely thankful for this), but the time still flew by as we talked while passing through the rolling vineyards. Soon, we were back in Stellenbosch, and as I handed him my last R100 bill, he said "Thank you, you have put some food on my table!" and sped off towards Cape Town for the rest of his shift. We all tried to absorb everything he had said to us on our drive home, and in the end every single one of us was thankful to have missed the train back to Stellenbosch.

The rest of my week followed with a similarly lucky tone, but more of a bird oriented one. I had planned on climbing Stellenboschberg to try to find, among other things, a Cape Batis, but was dissuaded by the high winds throughout the week. Instead, I hid in the shadows of Jan Marais Natuure Reservaat where, lo and behold, a pair of Cape Batis came within two meters of me drinking from a leaking hose! This occurred again when my plans to bird a wetland were foiled and, at Jan Marais, a lone and seemingly out of place Purple Heron coasted over the Karoo scrub as Malachite Sunbirds and Cape Bulbuls called from the surrounding bushes.

School starts the day after tomorrow, so I'm thinking I will go hiking again, but maybe to the lower reaches of Stellenboschberg to see what else I can add to my Cape Winelands list. I'm excited to start school, as I feel like I have just enjoyed the end of a summer's vacation rather than the halfway point of my LSU year! So, until I get more pictures and more stories, take care, and good birding.

29 January 2012

Camp's Bay

As part of our international orientation here at Universiteit van Stellenbosch, we went on a tour of Cape Town today to see the sights and learn a little about the area. So, we piled into a tiny little bus with our guides Wendell and Ronald and were off! I birded the whole way to town, of course, adding a couple life birds along the way - African Darter (the Afrotropical Anhinga) and Black Stork. Soon after, however, we descended into False Bay and the white sand dunes of the Cape Flats. For those unfamiliar with the harsh rule of the National Party under apartheid, the Cape Flats were designated as a resettlement area for many ethnic races during the 1970's and 1980's. Because of this, large shanty towns known as "informal communities" now exist in the hot, sandy, and largely inhospitable expanse. We drove through two such communities on our way towards Table Mountain (or "Tafleberg"), and looked out on the segregated communities. The first community we drove through was designated for the Xhosa, and holds close to 1.5 million people to this day. Even with each household owning just a small shack, the community stretched on kilometer after kilometer. I felt ashamed to be in a bus going through such an area, but I understand why it is necessary to take us through such areas: the atrocities of the past are still fresh for many South Africans, and will will continue to take decades to repair the damage that was done by the National Party. Part of the problem today, we learned, was that some families in the communities even expect the reparations and free housing from the government and do nothing to better their situation so that they may take care of the free aid offered by the government. It is because of this that some shacks had satellite dishes sticking out of the rusty metal attached to the windblown driftwood, and pirated electrical lines sprawled out throughout the communities.

The informal communities of the flats, however, come to an abrupt end on the south side of Cape Town, and the city seen on postcards begin. The stark contrast is almost unbelievable. Cape Town is possible the most beautiful large city I have ever visited, and when we reached the suburb of Camp's Bay, it seemed as though the poverty and the pain we had witnessed hours before was from a different planet altogether.
Camp's Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. The water was approximate 50 degrees F, a stark contrast to the 90 degree F full sun.

At Camp's Bay, I split off from my friend's (it was Mpho and Yesake's first time ever seeing an ocean!), and ventured into the boulder-strewn beach nearby. There, I did what I explained to my German friends as "bird-stalking," and was afforded fantastic views of some rocky shore birds.

African Oystercatcher, Kelp (Cape) Gull, Greater Crested and Sandwich Terns, Camp's Bay, South Africa

Hartlaub's Gull, Camp's Bay, South Africa

After photographing the birds I could get close to and frustratingly failing to get any definitive looks at anything other than Great (White-breasted) and Cape Cormorants in the seething black masses packed onto the rocks, I packed my bag, took off my shirt and ventured into the cold blue yonder. It was there under the unrelenting southern sun where the Antarctic waters numbed my feet that I came to terms with the fact that this land of extremes was going to be home for a semester. It was not a conscious realization until I had left, but as the smile crept across my face and my friends ran from the surf towards me just ahead of a wave of icy water, I knew that the next five months were going to be some of the best of my life.

Well, that's all for now. I have to schedule classes this week, but I'll be sneaking out when I can to get more of this fantastic land. Until then, take care!