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!

27 January 2012

The Unforgiving Sun

Today marks the end of my first week. It is hard for me to believe it has been just a week, as a lifetime worth of memories and sensations have overloaded my cerebral cortex. A little over a week ago today I entered Namibian airspace and thereby had my first experience with Africa. Everything I had been told about Africa in the states weighed heavily on my mind, and no doubt the common thoughts that people generally have about Africa crossed my mind too. My mind was completely blown as I descended into Johannesburg, however, in the middle of the ocean of green and endless farms that reminded me a little of Kansas. The skyscrapers of the hub of South Africa loomed in the distance as I changed planes and I watched my first African birds survey the airstrips for food: an Amur Falcon soared high above, and Red Bishops sang from the airstrip's Phragmites patches.

Not that much longer, and I was in Stellenbosch, where I have remained for the past week. The experiences have been piling up as I have immersed myself into the African karoo and fynbos. I met some other foreign exchange students (not birders, but similar in personality to myself) and we have been exploring the area fervently, and have had quite the week! Below are some of the highlights I managed to photograph.

The first thing, of course, that struck me about Stellenbosch was the view. This is taken from right in front of the building I live in and shows the Jonkershoek.

On one of my first days here, I explored the in-town Jan Marais Nature Reserve. I was extremely surprised to find this massive tortoise drinking at the local pond! Other highlights from that reserve so far include Small Grey Mongoose, Cape Sugarbird, Black Sparrowhawk and the whistling Cape Bulbuls feeding in the scrub. It is quite the interesting locality!
One of my new favorite birds, the Cape Rockjumper. This legendary South African highlight is found in boulder-strewn hillsides in southwest South Africa. This bird was on the lower summit of Stellenboschberg, and my friends and I hiked 8 hours to see this and the view from the mountain, below.
The one thing that does not appear in the picture above  is the unforgiving sun - I am blistered and burned from my Icarus-like hike, and am still recovering. Next time, I am bathing in sunscreen before I go!

So far, South Africa is an incredible and beautiful place! The people are as varied as the scenery, with Afrikaans, isiXhosa, German, French and English being commonly spoken on the streets. I'll try to post as often as I can, but for now, I need to get registered for classes. Have a good weekend!

17 January 2012

The Year So Far

Normally when a long time lapses and I do not post anything to this blog, it is because I am busy doing something. In the past, it has been due to lack of internet, colossal amounts of school work and my drive to be outside instead of be in front of a computer monitor. This year,  so far, has been different. Since my last post, I have done relatively little. I said goodbye to Emily for the semester, I've tried to get my belongings together, and I fell ill. Then my dad got sick, and got pneumonia, and now that I am feeling better I realize that I am out of time. Tomorrow, I shall leave for South Africa for five months. Here goes nothing... I'll be trying my best to blog while I'm over there, but rest assured that this time my silences will be from doing something, and not from staying at home. (My dad is doing a lot better by the way; he's started pestering me for things more so I can tell he's feeling better!)

My next post will be from a warmer land than this. Take care, and see you soon!

09 January 2012

End of Week One

My year started in one of the best ways I could imagine: watching a fire dwindle in the darkness with Emily as the fireworks began to explode in the distance. Having had my wisdom teeth removed less than two days before, however, my year become quite bland after she left. I ended up sleeping for almost two days as I tried to recover from my teeth, and eventually started walking around to Connected Lakes around noon of the days I was home to exercise and just get out of the house. My year list slowly started to climb, as I saw White-breasted Nuthatch caching seeds in the Fremont Cottonwoods and a pair of Brown Creepers calling back and forth as they alighted on the bare limbs that stretched into the sky. I slowly and methodically plodded along, each day recovering a little more from having four of my teeth pulled out. Finally, on Saturday, I was actually able to go on a trip. Emily and I took off for the south fairly early, with the intent of visiting friends (that are practically family) and seeing some great scenery along the way. We first took our time meandering through Delta, and were rewarded by the massive Sandhill Crane flock currently wintering near Escalante SWA.
The cranes were quite close at one point along H Road, and Emily got to see for the first time how big these birds really are!
The fields were filled with Cranes that morning.

After gawking at the cranes, we checked the local lakes and rivers, getting Snow Geese at Confluence Park and Shoveler, Wigeon, Mallard, and all the usual duck suspects for the year list. We continued south to spend some time with some friends in Montrose, and then drove across Blue Mesa Dam and looped up towards Paonia getting excellent views of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison cloaked with snow. We even saw a surprise flock of Black Rosy-Finches feeding on the shoulder of the road with a single Brown-capped mixed in! It was an excellent view of these birds, and we were quite luck to 'happen' across them. We then proceeded to my friend Jason Beason's house in Paonia and, in addition to his seeing his son cross-country ski across his yard, saw a Harris's Sparrow in his front yard! We were soon on the road again, however, and spent the rest of the afternoon in and around Hotchkiss with Andrea Robinsong. Overall, it was a great day for a drive and for visiting some great friends that I don't see often enough. As an added bonus, I even got my year list above 60 species.

I'm now ready for my last week and a half in Colorado, and am hoping that it is as great as or possibly even better than the first one.