Continuing our road trip through Victoria, we had spent the night in Sassafras in the Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne and the following morning, after continental breakfast in our room, we set off to Apollo Bay, a distance of about 250 kms from our overnight stop. Ordinarily, this distance would be a comfortable half-day drive for us, but in this instance it meant finding our way through Melbourne’s inner city suburbs, then taking the M1 highway around the south of the city and further eastwards. I had to avoid the more direct tolled highways which required an electronic tag or special account, neither of which were available to us
Closer to our destination we turned off the highway and found ourselves on narrow country roads with pleasing scenery, whereafter the road became seriously twisty as it wound its way through forested hills, so much so that the constant turning had me feeling somewhat light-headed. Thankfully, we eventually crested the last hill and saw the sea far below and we were soon enjoying the last stretch of the trip along rugged coastline up to Apollo Bay. 250 kms has never felt so long!
I stopped at the first opportunity to stretch and take in the coastal views, which included the first of many surfers we were to see on the Great Ocean Road and a pair of Maned Ducks at a small pond in the sand
After checking in to our comfortable accommodation at the Stay Inn, we followed the advice of the B&B owner and enjoyed a memorable dinner that evening of freshly grilled salmon, chips and coleslaw at the Fishermen’s Co-op at the small harbour. Seating was at a “rough and ready” table outside in less than comfortable weather but the superb food made us forget everything else.
We got chatting to the guys at the next table – just another example of how friendly we found the majority of Aussies to be – one was from Melbourne, the other his cousin visiting from Israel and they demolished 3 platters of seafood between them while our jaws dropped at the sight of whole crayfish being so casually eaten.
Next morning we awoke to cold, overcast weather which brought squalls of rain at regular intervals. We took our time enjoying the continental breakfast provided in the room, hoping the weather would improve. Our room overlooked the front garden which provided a lively source of entertainment as numerous birds visited the bird-friendly plants.
New Holland Honeyeaters, which I had come across in Sale, were true to their name and reveled in the nectar-producing plants while Eurasian Tree Sparrows searched the grass and pathways for seed.
I was fascinated by the cutely named Willie Wagtail which popped up briefly, a perky bird elegantly coloured black and white and with a broad tail that he wagged vigorously, but from side to side rather than the up and down of other wagtails.
After breakfast, with the rain letting up, we drove through the village – I soon spotted a sign pointing the way to “Scenic Route” and headed along the indicated road into attractive countryside with green fields, plenty of picturesque cattle and the odd river – all adding up to a totally idyllic scene – whoever had decided to call it a scenic route knew what they were about (in fact that’s something we noticed frequently – Aussies do seem to know what they’re doing)
Apart from the many Cattle Egrets amongst the cattle, there were Maned Ducks at the river and a lifer in the form of a Grey Shrikethrush sat briefly on the fence – too briefly for a kodak moment. There was also a Little Pied Cormorant perched on a tree stump in the river
It happened to be our wedding anniversary and the rest of the day was taken up with a drive to the famous Twelve Apostles, which did not turn out quite as we had imagined – but that’s another story……..
We had made no specific plans beforehand to travel while visiting Stephan and Liesl and the grandkids in Sale, Victoria but decided to “play it by ear” once we had a better idea of the area, this being our first visit to Australia. That said, we were keen to see more of Victoria State during our stay and to give the family a “mid-term” break from having us around for the full 5½ weeks (not that there was any hint of this from their side, but we knew from our own experience with our parents).
After much discussion and studying of maps and info on the attractions, we decided on a 7 day road trip that would take us to Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne, then to Apollo Bay and the Great Ocean Road, returning to Geelong near Melbourne and on to Philip Island where we would meet up with the family for the weekend.
It did not take long to book a rental car and the various B&B’s that fitted our budget and looked as if they would meet our expectations. Come Monday 6 May 2019, I collected the rental car and we set off, heading out on the Princess Highway towards Melbourne.
The map below shows the route we followed :
Gerda and I love a road trip almost more than any other form of travel – not sure why, though – perhaps because it lets you feel part of the countryside as you move along and you have the freedom of stopping on a whim, whenever and wherever you please. So we were both in a state of mild excitement, but also a touch of anxiety at the prospect of driving unknown roads – thank goodness I had activated my old I-phone with a prepaid Australian sim and enough data to work the navigation app for the full duration of our trip!
And what a pleasure driving on roads where other vehicles, large and small, are doing pretty much the same speed and in a predictable fashion! I did not see a single guy in a sleek sedan slicing through the traffic to show how amazingly superior he is (oops, my prejudices are showing again)
Towns in this part of Victoria are surprisingly close together, something I did not foresee, and we passed through several and bypassed others on our way to Melbourne – it’s worth mentioning some of the names just because they are so curious – Rosedale (OK that one’s ordinary) a pretty little town, Traralgon (try saying that quickly), Moe, Warragul and my favourite – Nar Nar Goon, followed closely by Narre Warren.
At the latter town we left the highway and the rolling landscape soon changed to hills that became higher and the roads steeper and narrower. Passing through Belgrave we soon found ourselves on the Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, a steep, winding road that had me slowing down even more as we passed through tall forests on both sides that almost touched high overhead and formed a majestic tunnel, lined with enormous ferns at ground level.
We found the tiny village of Sassafras, our chosen overnight destination, after some agonising about whether it actually existed and even stopping to ask directions in a particularly weak moment. Relieved at eventually finding it, we enjoyed a late lunch at Miss Marples Tea Room in a proper “Ye Olde Englishe” cottage in the main road, accompanied by a room full of other tourists (sans selfie sticks thank goodness)
After lunch we strolled around the village, popping into a few of the interesting shops – we were on the lookout for something to enjoy that evening in-room rather than go out to dinner and peered into the only shop that looked promising – a deli kind of place. The owner saw us and beckoned us closer and proceeded to feed us samples of just about every delicacy in the shop while keeping up a chatter and assuring us we were just the best people to have visited his shop – what a salesman! Needless to say we left with a bag full of salmon paté, Wensleydale cheese, crisps, a superb fig and quince jam and a punnet of organic strawberries, all of which became a yummy supper later on.
Our accommodation – Belle le Vie, just outside the village – turned out to be exotically furnished, very comfortable and well appointed, set in lush gardens. A Laughing Kookaburra made its presence known with a solid demonstration of why it got that name – a cackling sound like no other.
There was just time for a walk before dusk, so I walked back up the road leading to the B&B and found an ANZAC memorial on the edge of more forest with even more massive trees towering above, making me feel quite insignificant.
Bird life was scarce the whole day, but I was thrilled at being able to get up-close photos of the Crimson Rosellas after seeing another tourist pointing his cellphone at a tree in the middle of Sassafras village and finding a pair of them showing off their vivid colours.
Next morning we made a brief detour before heading towards our next destination, to have a peek at a flower farm that Gerda had read about somewhere – it was worth the trouble!
I mentioned the Sale canal in an earlier post and that it links the Port of Sale, now a small boat harbour, to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes. The Port, the canal and the Swing Bridge were all part of the solution to the challenge of transporting resources out of and bringing supplies in to the area during the late 1800’s when gold was discovered in the area and fine cheese was being made and exported to Europe
There is a twice daily cruise of around two hours by boat down the canal and the Thomson River to the Old Swing Bridge and back and we had waited for some warmer, less windy weather to join the afternoon cruise. The last day of April, a Tuesday, turned out to be such a day and we reported at the dock at 1.45pm where we met Alan, the Captain and owner of the Rubeena, paid the requisite amount and stepped on board the historical boat.
A guard of honour was waiting for us and the navy band struck up as we boarded ………….. actually I made that bit up but that was what it felt like, despite the boat being quite small.
The Rubeena was built in Sydney and was originally licensed on 4 April 1912 (that’s just 11 days before the Titanic sank) and spent most of her working life on the Gippsland Lakes. She has been carefully restored and takes up to 40 passengers, but on our trip there were just 6 others apart from Gerda and myself so we had plenty of room to move about.
The electric motor is a bonus as it makes the cruise a quiet, gentle experience, especially when the weather is as perfect as it was, with a mild breeze hardly stirring the smooth surface of the river as we set off.
Alan was an excellent captain and guide, giving a running commentary on the features we passed and the significance of the canal, particularly how it served the Sale area during the pioneer years. The canal was dug by horse and scoop and was completed by 1890
We were fascinated by the “canoe” trees – old gum trees with visible indentations where the original inhabitants of the area had harvested timber for canoe-building without destroying the tree. According to Alan, some of these trees were 350 to 400 years old and still standing on the banks of the river.
At certain spots he also pointed out the sections of the original river course that were diverted and “straightened” to make it more shipping-friendly
Our turnaround point was reached after just more than an hour of gentle puttering – the Old Swing Bridge, which we were able to study in detail as we passed slowly beneath it, then turned around and retraced our route back.
The bridge is a remarkable example of 19th century engineering with its intricate mechanics which swing it open 180 degrees to allow taller vessels to pass by on either side. It is the oldest intact, operational bridge of its kind in Australia.
I had mentioned my interest in birding to Alan and he kindly made a point of identifying the birds that we spotted along the river, most of which I had already got to know, but happily there were two new birds to add to my growing Australia list –
Nankeen Night-heron – as the name suggests, these birds are mostly nocturnal but Alan knew where they roosted during the day and pointed them out high up in a tree, warily watching us from behind a veil of feathers, much like a mysterious eastern dancer may do
Azure Kingfisher – I spotted it first some way upriver whereupon it flew past the boat, landing briefly right next to us before flying further – unfortunately too quick for me to photograph it
(The photo is taken from The Complete Guide to Australian Birds by George Adams)
Other birds that we encountered along the way were –
Australian White Ibis
Pacific Black Duck – see the featured image at the top of the post
Two hours had passed and we were sorry it had ended – a really pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon
We had been in Sale, Victoria for about 10 days and we were getting into the swing of suburban life in this charming Australian town. Sale presents a number of opportunities for pleasant walks, with two lakes and a nature conservation area nearby, and the weather at this time of year is often ideal – not too hot, sometimes chilly, but not so that it puts you off getting out an about.
Just after arriving in Sale I joined the family for a short walk through Sale Common Nature Conservation Reserve, which was just enough to whet my appetite for a longer birding-orientated walk on my own. One cold and windy weekday afternoon, with the family otherwise occupied with work, school and household activities, I chose to do so and drove the couple of kms to the parking area where I began my walk.
Somehow I had managed to leave my binos at home but fortunately had my new Sony “bridge” camera with me and decided to rely on my eyesight with backup from the telephoto camera lens to help ID the distant birds. The camera was a pre-trip purchase to avoid having to carry my heavy Nikon DSLR with its equally heavy lens halfway round the world – the Sony is about a third of the weight and a remarkably good substitute, so I have had no regrets so far, although the bank balance took a knock in the process as it is one of the more expensive bridge cameras.
Sale Common was proclaimed in 1863 and was used for farming for 101 years before being declared a nature conservation reserve. It consists of freshwater marshes, red gum woodland and introduced grasslands. The wetland is listed as a RAMSAR site and has a network of tracks and boardwalks leading through the varying habitat which provide a wonderful environment for birds and small animals.
I proceeded along the trail, stopping briefly to chat to a similar-aged gent eating his sandwich at a picnic table with his old-fashioned black bicycle leaning against a nearby tree – he pointed the way and wished me good spotting as I carried on. The trail proper started as a track through Eucalypt forest with the tall, sturdy trees forming a high tunnel overhead, the foliage attractively coloured in autumnal shades.
So far I had found the forests to be devoid of obvious bird life other than the Laughing Kookaburras which favour this environment and make themselves heard with their loud cackling calls, but they do make for a very attractive walking environment.
Signage advised that the boardwalk over the wetlands was closed for repairs and in any case the wetlands were dry after the recent drought in the area, so I stuck to the sandy track. Soon I reached the first visible stretch of the river, called the Flooding Creek at this point, and checked the waters for water birds but saw none. However movement at the water’s edge caught my eye and I approached carefully to see what they might be.
A few photos later of the tiny birds with long tails held erect clinched their ID as Superb Fairywrens, a nice lifer and a lovely spot to find them.
The trail continued along the river with raised boardwalks where it crossed a part of the wetland.
Rounding a bend, the river was once again visible ahead and several larger birds in the shallows made me approach cautiously, using the trees as a partial screen where possible. The slender, graceful form of a Great Egret on the near side was a familiar sight, looking identical to the SA version of this large all-white egret. The Australian bird book I use has it as Eastern Great Egret and some taxonomists consider it to be a subspecies but there were no features that I could pick up to differentiate it from the Southern African bird.
On the far side of the river four Yellow-billed Spoonbills were sweeping the shallow water from side to side with their spatulate bills – the smallest creature – fish, crustacean or insect – touching the inside of the broad tip triggers it to close instantly.
I watched them for a while then, looking up, a couple of soaring raptors caught my eye and I guessed they could be Whistling Kites, having seen one over the wetlands a few days earlier. Fortunately I spotted one that had landed high up in a tree, making it a far easier photo ID target than trying to shoot against the bright, grey sky and was able to confirm my initial ID of Whistling Kite.
The river held plenty of Ducks including Chestnut Teals in large numbers and some Pacific Black Ducks.
Maned Ducks (aka Australian Wood Duck, depending on which book you use) were almost as numerous but on the grassy banks. I have yet to see this latter duck actually in the water so they obviously don’t seem to understand the adage “takes to the water like a duck” for some reason.
I had walked a good distance along the track and decided to turn around, with the light starting to fade, as it does from around 4.30 pm in the autumn in these parts. As I did I came across Little Black Cormorants and a Great Cormorant on dry tree stumps in the river.
Something moved in the middle of the river and as I focused my camera on the ripples a fish leaped out and I instinctively pressed the shutter button, capturing it in mid leap – a really lucky shot! I’m not a fish expert but took this to be a trout
I did not see anything new on the way back but at the bridge I stopped to view the Masked Lapwings at the water’s edge, accompanied by more Maned Ducks.
Just before reaching the car park a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos descended on the trees, very noisily, probably getting ready to roost for the evening. South Africans of a certain era will remember the NBS adverts which featured this unmistakable bird – seeing it in numbers in the wild is a somewhat bizarre birding experience!
Here and there a plaque provided more info on the history of the area
All in all a thoroughly entertaining and interesting afternoon spent in a safe environment
We were beginning to settle in Sale, Victoria, the new home of our son Stephan and family, although jet-lag brought on by the 8-hours-ahead time difference was playing tricks with our sleeping patterns. Nevertheless we were eager to see a bit of Victoria and were more than happy to go along with Stephan’s suggestion that we do a day trip to Paynesville and Raymond Island, a comfortable hour’s drive from Sale.
Just for orientation, here are a couple of maps (courtesy Google Earth) to show the position of Sale relative to Melbourne and the other major cities in the south-eastern part of Australia, and the location of Paynesville –
We left just before lunchtime after a relaxed morning at home in Sale and drove to Paynesville which is situated on Lake King, a seawater lake not far from Lakes Entrance where – you guessed it – the sea enters the lake. The drive was along smaller country roads through pleasing landscapes of farming areas, expansive fields and occasional rivers, or creeks as they are often called in Australia. Interestingly some of the stretches of road either side of the river have signage indicating that they are “subject to flooding” and strategic posts indicate the depth just in case you feel like testing it during a flood!
We felt at home when we passed a roadside farm stall advertising avocados at 49c each – we should have stopped as they are $2.50 in the shops, but were already well past by the time we realised what it was.
After an hour of easy driving we arrived in Paynesville and headed to the Esplanade where we found parking and walked to the Pier 70 restaurant for a delicious lunch of fish and chips, with a view over the channel that separates Paynesville from Raymond Island just a couple of hundred metres away.
I kept getting distracted from the important business of eating by various birds that were visible on and above the water but had my binos on hand to determine what they were. There were many Silver Gulls / Chroicocephalus novaehollaniae wheeling above the water and I spotted a single Pacific Gull / Larus pacificus on the opposite side. I had already found that Black Swans / Cygnus atratus and Australian Pelicans / Pelecanus conspicillatus seem to pop up wherever there is a large-ish body of water and this spot was no exception.
On the opposite bank I spotted a heron, which turned into a White-faced Heron / Egretta novahollandiae when I had it focused in the binos. Nearby Little Pied Cormorant / Microcarbo melanoleucos preened on a bollard projecting from the water.
A large Tern swooping over the water looked familiar and once I could get a good enough view I realised it was a Swift Tern – or Greater Crested Tern / Thalasseus bergii as it is listed in my Australian bird book – a species I am very familiar with as it occurs in numbers in Mossel Bay.
Lunch over, we walked to the nearby ferry for the short ride of just 4 minutes across the channel on the chain-driven ferry to Raymond Island, a small island (6km long and 2km wide) which lies some 200 metres inland of the coast.
On the island we followed the Koala trail which initially winds between houses then emerges into bush interspersed with tall trees. It did not take long to spot the first Koala, sleeping high up in the branches, and several more thereafter, some sleeping just as soundly, others feeding slowly and methodically on the green foliage. Koalas were introduced to the island as a conservation measure in 1953 and now number more than 200.
Next up was a relaxed pair of Laughing Kookaburras / Dacelo novaeguineae, a bird I was particularly hoping to see, looking as I expected like a very large Kingfisher – they posed like old pros and left me with a few photos to treasure.
Stephan was ahead of us and called us closer as he had spotted a couple of Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the low bush! We approached cautiously and there they were – our first views of this famous animal with its unusual shape and looks. One came bounding our way, showing how effective this technique is to propel the animal at a fair speed
In between viewing these (for us) brand new animals, we also spotted several of the colourful birds that Australia is renowned for – groups of Crimson Rosella / Platycercus elegans, Eastern Rosella / Platycercus eximius and Rainbow Lorikeet / Trichoglossus moluccanus moved through the trees giving glimpses of their brilliant colouring while Galahs / Eolophus roseicapilla simply paraded on the lawns, showing off their pink, grey and white plumage.
We had heard from Stephan about the Common Bronzewing / Phaps chalcoptera, a pigeon-like bird with interesting multi-coloured plumage, and were thrilled to find one sitting on a nearby fence
We had seen a lot in one afternoon and made our way back to the ferry as dusk fell, most satisfied with the outcome of our first outing
Life is full of surprises, some good, some less so and our son’s announcement that they were thinking of relocating from Potchefstroom in South Africa to a small town in Victoria, Australia definitely belonged to the latter when he first raised it some two years ago. The family moved lock stock and barrel to the town called Sale in September 2018, which meant that, if we wanted to see them other than on video calls, we would have to travel a little further to do so – about 11 000 kms further in fact!
It did not take much persuasion to make the trip, and on Sunday 14th April 2019 we boarded Qantas flight QF64 to Sydney then took a further short flight to Melbourne where we arrived after 7pm local time.
Stephan and the whole family had come to meet us – so good to see them all in the flesh again! Fortified with a good coffee and a sandwich we proceeded to the mini-bus that Stephan had rented and set off to Sale some 2.5 hours drive further east, taking our total travel time to 24 hours door-to-door – it’s not easy being a senior jet-setter but sometimes you just have to do these things! That wonderful invention – Premium Economy – certainly helped to ease the pain of a long-haul overnight flight, however we felt the effects of the 8 hour time difference for a few days before settling into a new body rhythm.
We had glimpses of the city skyline at night as we skirted around Melbourne on the way east to Sale –
Melbourne’s suburbs seemed to be endless but eventually the road became narrower, the traffic lighter as we left the bright lights behind and passed through several smaller towns before reaching Sale
The City of Sale
Sale is a city situated in the Gippsland region of the state of Victoria, with an estimated urban population of 15,000 and was founded in 1851. It lies 212km east of Melbourne and is named after a British army officer, General Robert Sale, who won fame in the first Afghan war before being killed in battle in India in 1845. Although a small town by our standards, the building of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1884 may have ensured that it would earn the name “city” as per the tradition in the UK.
First impressions are of a quiet, neat, organised town with good facilities – very civilized in all respects and far removed from the big city life that we are used to.
First day in Sale – Someone left the Aviary door open!
I was curious to see what birds would be around the suburbs, but wasn’t expecting my first bird to be a Common Myna – probably the most disliked, introduced bird in South Africa! However that shock was soon forgotten as I stood in the small garden and watched the comings and goings of some more exciting species.
Pied Currawongs, a Raven-like large black bird with white markings, and Australian Magpies were the most obvious birds around, followed by Red Wattlebirds, a medium-sized, long-tailed bird with features and giss similar to our Sugarbirds and also a nectar eater.
Another regular, the Magpie-lark flew in and sat on the fence then dropped onto the lawn – a handsome pied bird that reminded me of our Pied Wagtail but on steroids.
The real surprise was the birds that Australia is famous for – the colourful parrots – flocks of bright green, yellow and blue Rainbow Lorikeets flashing by and settling in trees where they chatter away and screech so that you cannot ignore them and unexpected Galahs on grassy pavements, looking completely out-of-place with their deep pink, white and grey colouring. When you are accustomed to seeing these birds in cages it is a revelation to realise that they are, like all birds, able to cope and at their best in the wild.
Late afternoon we went for a walk in the wetland area not far from the house. The area has suffered from a drought for some time so the wetlands were mostly dry and fairly barren but a lone Masked Lapwing was a good find and the cattle in the fields were accompanied by Cattle Egrets, much as they would be in South Africa but here the species is the Eastern Cattle Egret.
Another feature of Sale is the numbers of Australasian Swamphens that are around and inhabit open lawns and verges. The African species we are used to seeing is mostly a skulker whereas the similar looking species in Australia seems to be comfortable wandering around the suburbs and parks.
By the end of day one my brand new Australian bird list (courtesy of the wonderful Birdlasser app) stood at a modest 13 species, but 11 of those were “lifers” so a very pleasing start
I was not expecting to do much birding during our short tour of two weeks in Eastern Europe but, as always, I was constantly on the lookout for bird life and was rewarded with five new birds (“lifers”) during our tour, which consisted of four days in Prague, an eight-day cruise of the Danube with stops in four countries, and a short stay in Passau, Germany.
The best birding was while relaxing in our cabin, sliding door open to the fresh air and binos and camera at the ready as the boat cruised at a steady pace along the Danube. The only problem with this was the limited field of vision and the speed of the boat, which meant I had a very short time to react if I saw anything and I mostly had to rely on photographs for an ID of the bird species. The Danube at times widens out into a lake-size body of water, so any birds along the banks tended to be quite far away and it proved difficult to get a decent photo.
The photos showcased here represent the best shots I could get under the circumstances.
The best way of seeing a new city is to walk the streets and parks, which we did during our stay in this handsome city. European cities are not known for their variety of birds and Prague was no exception, with Jackdaws, Magpies and Blackbirds being the most common birds.
One city park had a Eurasian Jay which was a new species for me
One fine day we took the funicular to the top of the hill which overlooks the city and walked through the extensive parkland and forests of Petrin Park. Here we came across a Common Chiffchaff and on the walk down saw Wood Pigeons. A Eurasian Green Woodpecker drew our attention with its call but did not hang around long enough for a photo.
We took a day trip to this historic town a couple of hours bus ride from Prague. With time to spare after the walking tour of the town, we found a pleasant riverside café for coffee which also turned out to be a good spot for viewing some birds as they came to the river. Apart from the ubiquitous Blackbirds, we found Grey and Pied Wagtails on the banks of the strongly flowing Elbe River (both eluded my camera) and a few Black Redstarts, one of which looked remarkably similar to the Familiar Chat we know from SA.
A selection of the birds we spotted while cruising :
Mute Swans were seen frequently
A single sighting of Mandarin Duck was a surprise and a new species for me
Grey Herons were seen regularly
Great Cormorants in the protected area
Goosanders were another regular sighting but always at a distance
Caspian Gull in the protected area
Our extended stop at Vienna allowed for a walk along the riverside, which was good for a few land-based species
While moored in Linz, Common Martins and Barn Swallows suddenly appeared in numbers over the river. I surmised that they had just returned from their annual African summer safari and were revelling in being back “home”, judging by the enthusiastic way they were swooping over the river, despite the bitterly cold weather
This delightful town was a highlight of our trip (more about it in a later post). The birding was limited but a Lesser Kestrel flying high above the Castle was an interesting sighting
Other than that the ubiquitous Mallard Duck was the only water bird of note
I had downloaded Collins Bird Guide for Europe prior to the trip – it has a useful bird listing function which I used to list the species we encountered. At the end of the two weeks I had a grand total of just 33 species – par for the course in Europe when the focus is not on birding.
I regularly see that many species in an hour, walking around our neighbourhood in SA – I’m just saying.
The last few posts have been about our trip in August and September 2014 to Canada and Alaska, covering just a few of the wonderful experiences that these two destinations have to offer. Now it’s time to get back to the main theme of my blog – birding – before getting to the next phase of our trip, namely the Eastern part of Canada.
Health Warning : Non-birders beware – this post contains information that you may find disturbing and slightly obsessive. Birders will (hopefully) find it of some interest.
Gulls and more Gulls
Even before our Alaska cruise got underway, it was clear that Gulls would be a main feature of the birding opportunities, as they wheeled in the air and flew close by the ship as it stood docked in Seattle. Once underway, I realised that identifying the Gulls and other seabirds would be a real challenge, as both the ship and the target birds were moving, often in different directions, making it very difficult to pick up any sort of detail with my binoculars.
Fortunately I had my camera with zoom lens at the ready and resorted to taking photos first and asking questions afterwards – such as “what the heck was that!” This turned out to be the right strategy as I was able to identify many of the seabirds that would have otherwise remained a mystery, by comparing my blown-up photos with the illustrations in Sibley Birds (which I downloaded onto my I-Phone and I-Pad before the trip)
In the end I was only able to sort all my photos (approaching 1000 of them) and finally ID them once I got back to SA and at the same time I developed a list of the main features to help with the ID, finding as I did that many of the gulls have only very subtle differences between them
So here they are, all 11 Gull species and one Kittiwake that I saw on the trip, in the order that I saw them (the Kittiwake is very much like a Gull, so I have included it in this study) and with the key identification features listed :
(As a first time visitor to Canada and Alaska I’m by no means an expert so any corrections of errors will be welcomed)
Medium sized (43cm/17″)
In flight – long slender wings, sharply contrasting black tips with white spot
Bill – yellow with black ring
Head – white; brown smudging when non-breeding
Juvenile – mostly white underside and rump; dark tail band
First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary
In flight – limited black tips to grey wings
Bill – red; black when non-breeding
Head – black in summer; black hood in winter
Juvenile – pale brown wings and neck
First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary
In flight – pale grey back; limited dark tips not sharply contrasting
Bill – yellow with red spot
Head – white with pale eye
Juvenile – pale brown/grey overall; dark tipped bill
First sighting – at sea
In flight – dark grey body with white head
Bill – red with black tip
Head – white; grey in non-breeding
Juvenile – darker all over
First sighting – at sea
In flight – dark backed; poorly defined black tips to grey wings
Bill – yellow with red spot
Head – white
Juvenile – dark sooty brown; paler rump
First sighting – at sea
This one eluded me – no photo unfortunately, but here’s a picture from Sibley Birds of North America
In flight – pale grey wings, white outer primaries, thin black rear edge
Bill – thin black
Head – black head (summer); dark ear spot (winter)
Juvenile – light brown neck / head
First sighting – Juneau, Alaska
In flight – pale grey and white; no black in wings
Bill – yellow with red spot
Head – white
Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill
First sighting – Juneau, Alaska
In flight – grey wings; black wing tips with white spots
Bill – yellow
Head – white; brown smudging in non-breeding
Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; dark tipped bill
First sighting – Juneau, Alaska
In flight – pale grey back; limited dark wing tips not sharply contrasting
Bill – yellow with red spot
Head – white; dark eye
Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill
First sighting – Skagway, Alaska
No photo of an adult and I am not 100% sure about this photo being of a Juvenile Thayer’s Gull but it is most likely
In flight – long wings; contrasting black wing tips ; black legs
Bill – yellow
Head – white; mark behind head in non-breeding
Juvenile – bold “M” on upper wings
First sighting – Glacier Bay, Alaska
In flight – all white
Bill – small, orange tip
Head – white; black eye
Juvenile – dark spots to feathers
First sighting – Misty Fjords, Ketchikan Alaska
I puzzled over this photo for some time before eliminating all but the Ivory Gull, which is listed as Rare in Sibley Birds, casting further doubt on my ID – I would really appreciate confirmation or otherwise from anyone with more expert knowledge
Great Black-backed Gull
In flight – dark backed; black wing tips with large white spots
Bill – yellow with red spot
Head – white
Juvenile – speckled brown; black bill; whitish head
First sighting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – among cormorants in bay pounded by heavy seas
The photo is not great but does show the black back of the gull in the foreground
The 11 Gulls represent just under half of the 25 that can be found in North America, but quite a few of those not seen on our trip are listed as Rare so I was more than pleased with this “haul”.
More about some of the other birds seen during our trip in a future post – right now I’m preparing for a massive birding adventure into southern Mozambique with an expert birding guide and a group of 10 people in 4 vehicles including my own, leaving early on Thursday 29th January 2015. Watch this space!
“Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us”
Nature Reserve at Varadero
TheReserva Ecológica Varahicacos protects a 3 km2 remnant of xeromorphic coastal scrub and mangrove at the tip of the 20 km. Hicacos Peninsula. Much of the peninsula, also known as the sun destination ‘Varadero’ to hundreds-of-thousands of international tourists, has been modified to accommodate scores of sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. It is also home to the newly described (2009) Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger reyesi), the only Aristelliger known from Cuba. Dίaz and Hedges (2009) named the species after its discoverer, local biologist and bird guide Ernesto Reyes. (Source : http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-cuban-lizards.html)
Ernesto works most days as a conservation officer at this nature reserve, which was a short taxi-ride from our hotel, and he was only too happy to include a walk through the reserve at any time during our stay. Andre and I took him up on the offer a few days after Geraldine and I visited Zapata Swamps with Ernesto and were glad we did, as it added another dimension to the Cuban birding experience and a number of lifers to the trip list.
Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us :
Ernesto took us along a few of the paths that run through the wooded part of the Reserve and found a number of forest birds, many of which turned out to be Warblers of various combinations of black, brown, yellow and white. The new ones for our trip list and all lifers for me were :
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler (Interesting name)
All of them were too furtive and quick to get a photo for the record, so I took some photos of the Reserve’s other interesting features instead
Ponds at Varadero Water Treatment Works
For good measure Ernesto took us to the nearby Varadero water treatment works the same day, where we clambered through a gap in the fence and found a number of exciting birds in the network of ponds.
Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)
Well-satisfied with our “bonus” trip to the Nature Reserve and Water Treatment works, we thanked Ernesto for his wonderful assistance, bade him goodbye and got a taxi back to our hotel, where we continued our lazy existence for the rest of our 11 day stay. When our memorable holiday came to an end, we were taken by bus back to Havana (all part of the package) where we caught the Virgin Atlantic flight back to Gatwick near London, followed by a taxi shuttle (which you can pre-book) to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.
” Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see”
Finding a Bird Guide
While planning our trip to Cuba in early 2011, I searched the internet (well, Google did all the work) for any birding opportunities in the 2 areas we were to visit, namely Havana and Varadero. In the process I came across a reference to Ernesto Reyes, who did bird guiding from the Varadero area, and sent him an email. He soon responded with suggestions and this led to me booking him for a day during our stay at Sol Palmeras resort hotel on the Varadero peninsula.
I looked forward to the chance to do some birding in Cuba, which was likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity in such an exotic location, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. I purchased a Cuba bird guide which I had a good look at before leaving for Cuba, so that I would have an idea of what birds could be found in the various habitats, and this helped a lot.
Our main destination for the day was the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata – the Zapata Swamps National Park, which is located south-east of Havana and south of Varadero where we were staying in a fine resort hotel. The Zapata peninsula is bordered on the east side by the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed attempt by American-backed forces to invade Cuba back in 1961. Along the way Ernesto had planned stops at various spots to find some of the Cuban specials.
My daughter Geraldine agreed to accompany me and we were ready in the early hours outside the hotel main entrance, breakfast packs in hand, waiting for Ernesto and his driver to collect us. It seems that very few Cubans have driving licences because so few are allowed to own cars and Ernesto, married with kids, was not a driver, although he did take over on some of the back roads and showed us how not to pull away and change gears. Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see.
From Varadero we headed to the southern side of Cuba, passing through small villages on the way, one of which had a main street with more horses and old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs than motor cars
An hour or two later we entered the Zapata National Park area where our first stop was at a forested area alongside the road – we walked a short distance along a wooded path before Ernesto stopped and started pointing out bird species.
This happened a few more times until we reached the Zapata swamps, where we drove to various points then walked further along paths between the waterways, pausing to greet fishermen who were catching supper.
At one point we came across a group of American birders who were touring in a large luxury bus and they immediately called us over to view a very special bird, the Zapata Wren, through their scopes. We were surprised to find Americans in Cuba, knowing of the frosty relationship that exists and sanctions applied by the US on Cuba – apparently they are able to get permission for special trips
Their guide was one Arturo Kirkconnell, who happened to be co-author of the Cuban field guide I had bought, Birds of Cuba and he was kind enough to sign it and write a short message, which made the day extra-special.
Lunchtime with the locals
Ernesto offered a choice of a “Tourist Stop” standard lunch or he could arrange with some local people who, like a growing number of Cubans, have small restaurants in their homes. We chose the latter and it was a very special experience, eating in humble surroundings and served Cuban fare by the family – nice to be able to support them.
One source describes it thus:
The Zapata Swamp is a mosaic of mangrove swamps and freshwater and saltwater marshes that form the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. The swamp was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1999 and forms a vital preserve for Cuban wildlife, a spawning area for commercially valuable fish, and a crucial wintering territory for millions of migratory birds from North America. More than 900 plant species have been recognized in the swamp, and all but three of the 25 bird species endemic to Cuba breed there
Also a feature of the Zapata Peninsula is the system of caves along the coast, some of which have caved in creating small lakes. We visited one such flooded cave in a small reserve a short distance from the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – the largest flooded cave in Cuba, 70m deep and crystal clear
It was a veritable feast of ‘lifers’ for me – no less than 49 during our one day trip to Zapata National Park and a further 14 in the space of a couple of hours spent at the Varadero Nature Reserve – but it’s not all about numbers, more about the experience of birding in such exotic and amazing locations.
The birds seen included the following – short descriptions are taken direct from my field notes :
Once again, where I was able to get a photo, the quality of the photos is very ordinary due to not having my “birding” lens on the trip (I won’t make that mistake again) so I had to make do with a standard zoom lens.
The forest was not as dense as some I’ve experienced – it was not too difficult to see the birds which Ernesto found. The rock underfoot looked volcanic or could be ancient coral.
Cuban Tody – small round colourful bird with a long thin bill
Yellow-faced Grassquit – male and female pair, small sparrow-like bird
Red-legged Honeycreeper – dark purple plumage, turquoise cap and red legs make it a very distinctive bird. Top of tree
Common Yellow-throated Warbler – the first of many warblers, all in combinations of yellow, black and brown
Stripe-headed Tanager – colourful small bird in the mid-stratum
Cuban Trogon – signature bird for Cuba and their National Bird. Loud call, easily seen, 5 sightings during the day
Great Lizard Cuckoo – secretive, large bird (Coucal size), light brown in colour. I just caught it on camera as it flew off.
More Warblers in quick succession (we would have had no chance of ID-ing them without Ernesto) – Yellow-headed Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Magnolia Warbler. Cuba lies on the migration route between North and South America for many of the Warblers and we happened to be there when many of them are visitors to this Caribbean island.
Northern Parula – another Warbler
Cuban Vireo – looks like our White-eyes, just 2m from us in the tree
Zenaida Dove – forest path, pair on the ground amongst leaf litter
and then, a surprise sighting………..
Barn Swallow – just like home
Zapata Wren – the US visitors were very excited about finding this rare endemic – brownish barred bird with long tail, singing vigorously in the reeds
Indigo Bunting – blue all over, short bill
La Sagra’s Flycatcher – mid stratum, crested appearance
American Redstart – male, mid stratum
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Flying overhead
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – group of 5 – all black except for orange patches on shoulders, tree tops
Loggerhead Kingbird – large, flycatcher-like, crested appearance, low in branches
Double-crested Cormorant –
Pygmy Owl – much like our Pearl-spotted, similar in size, low in tree next to channel
Northern Waterthrush – mid stratum, most resembles our Prinias
Ernesto stopped at various spots along the way, often at places known to be home to some of the specials. We also stopped at one of the government-run “Tourist Stops” where you can have snacks and meals
Smooth-billed Ani – large, all-black Coucal-like bird – on the way to Zapata
Black-cowled Oriole – ponds near Tourist Stop, top of tree
American Kestrel – roadside pole
Purple Gallinule – ponds near Tourist Stop, walking on lilies
Purple Martin – overhead
West Indian Woodpecker – near Tourist Stop, pecking at nest-hole in Palm tree
Cuban Crow – scavenging in road
Cuban Parrot – near Tourist Stop, top of tree
Great Egret – probably same as Southern African species – ponds near Tourist Stop
Great Blue Heron – ponds near Tourist Stop
Osprey – flying over ponds near Tourist Stop
Red-legged Thrush – dirt road, on ground, wary
Northern Mockingbird – dirt road
Smallest Bird in the World !
The bird we desperately wanted to see, since realising it was a possibility – the amazing Bee Hummingbird – found by Ernesto on a dirt road off the main road. We watched, mesmerized, as it zipped from telephone wires to sparse trees across the road, almost quicker than the eye could follow, looking like a large bumble-bee. Sensational sighting! But I couldn’t get a decent photo…
Open Savannah with many palm trees
Northern Flicker – Woodpecker-like bird in top of palm tree
Fernandina’s Flicker – (just love the name!) Rare endemic in bare palm tree
Roadside Farm with a number of large trees
Killdeer – Lapwing-like, in short grass
Common Ground Dove – open ground
Cuban Parakeet – flock of up to 20 in large fig tree, most flew off at our approach, some returned for viewing and photo opportunities
Lesser Yellowlegs – very much like a Greenshank in size and appearance, yellow legs conspicuous
Little Blue Heron – pair at edge of paddies
Black-necked Stilt – much like our Black-winged Stilt
Crested Caracara – in distant tree – large raptor reminiscent of a Harrier-Hawk
Glossy Ibis – presumably same species as ours, flying overhead
Limpkin – on bank of paddy, large bird, long decurved bill
On the way back to Varadero we passed a country rodeo in progress – looked exciting
Ernesto and the driver dropped us off at the hotel in the evening, after a brief stop at his home in a nearby town to meet his wife and daughter who tried their best to converse in broken English and charmed us in the process.
For days after we reflected on an amazing day spent birding an area that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see and experience for myself. It brought a lesson home to me – when it comes to birding (or anything else that grabs you) one should have no boundaries and take the chances when they arise, there is just so much out there to see and do!
Note : Thanks to Ronald Orenstein for his guidance on a couple of mis-identifications in my photos, now corrected