My Birding Year 2014

At this time of year the favourite articles in newspapers and elsewhere are those looking back at the past year, covering everything from general news to politics to sport and plenty of others, so unfortunately I am following suit by looking back at my busy birding year – the good news is that, as usual, you are free to skip the boring verbiage and check out the photos, some of which you may even find of interest.

It has been a busy year for Gerda and myself from many points of view – we have never done as much travelling, both locally and internationally, as we have over the last 12 months and at times we’ve felt it was too much and decided not to be quite so ambitious in future, but it certainly made for an interesting year…….

January

The year started, as it has over the past couple of years, in Mossel Bay where we have a second home and I used the opportunity to do some quality atlasing in the Southern Cape on three separate days – 6th, 14th and 24th(“atlasing” is the recording of bird species in an area called a Pentad, defined by coordinates, about 8 x  8 kms in extent, with the data collected going to a database at the University of Cape Town). The rolling hills of the area surrounding the small town of Albertinia, just 50 kms from Mossel Bay, and further south towards Gouritzmond, were my targets over this period, as they have not been atlased very frequently to date.

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Gouritz River
Gouritz River
Cape Rock Thrush, Gouritz River
Cape Rock Thrush, Gouritz River
Denham's Bustard, Albertinia
Denham’s Bustard, Albertinia

We did a quick trip to the Western Cape from the 15th to 21st, visiting the family and enjoying some diverse birding in Kommetjie, Worcester, Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens and the Hex River Valley. See my post on “Western Cape Quickie” for the details of this trip.

Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Swift Tern, Kommetjie
Swift Tern, Kommetjie
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Worcester
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Worcester
Hex River Valley
Hex River Valley

Shortly after getting back to Mossel Bay we returned home to Pretoria, over-nighting at Kuilfontein Guest farm outside Spingfontein in the Free State, which was a nice opportunity to fit in the minimum 2 hours of atlasing required for a “Full Protocol” card.

Kuilfontein, near Springfontein in the Free State
Kuilfontein, near Springfontein in the Free State

The month was concluded in grand birding style, starting on the 29th, with a trip to Punda Maria in the far north of Kruger National Park, one of the prime birding spots in South Africa, for the annual Birding weekend run by the West Rand Honorary Rangers. We combined this with the “Pel’s Pursuit” also run by the Honorary Rangers – unfortunately it did not  result in us seeing the sought after but elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. On the way to Punda Maria we stopped at Entabeni forest to see if we could spot the Bat Hawk that frequents the area, but dipped on that one as well.

Entabeni forest
Entabeni forest
Insect and offspring, Entabeni forest
Colourful grasshopper and offspring, Entabeni forest
Punda Maria
Punda Maria
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Walk along Luvuvhu River
Walk along Luvuvhu River
White-fronted Bee-Eater, Pafuri
White-fronted Bee-Eater, Pafuri
Limpopo River in flood at Crooks Corner
Limpopo River in flood at Crooks Corner
Green-winged Pytilia, Pafuri
Green-winged Pytilia, Pafuri
Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP
Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP
African Elephant, Punda Maria
African Elephant, Punda Maria

February

After all that hectic birding in January, February was a much quieter month, as we got back to our Pretoria routine – a couple of atlasing outings on the 11th and 22nd took me to the area around Delmas and Devon in the south-east of Gauteng, familiar territory where I have done a fair amount of atlasing previously and which always has a surprise or two.

Cape Longclaw, Devon
Cape Longclaw, Devon
Amur Falcon, Devon
Amur Falcon, Devon
Red Bishop, Devon
Red Bishop, Devon
Black-winged Pratincole, Devon
Black-winged Pratincole, Devon

March

More atlasing on the 10th and 21st, this time covering the area north-west of Potchefstroom while visiting son Stephan and family who live there, as well as the Vlaklaagte area north of Bronkhorstspruit

Vlaklaagte early morning
Vlaklaagte early morning

April

Time to travel again and we set off on an extended trip (covered in detail in my earlier posts on “Four Parks and a Wedding”) to the Southern and Eastern Cape – the places we visited and spent a few days in each were :

De Hoop Nature Reserve on the coast south of Swellendam – 10th to 13th

De Hoop NR - Koppie Alleen
De Hoop NR – Koppie Alleen
Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Puff Adder, De Hoop NR
Puff Adder, De Hoop NR
De Hoop NR - where the birds go, there I am, not far behind
De Hoop NR – where the birds go, there I am, not far behind

Camdeboo National Park on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet – 26th to 28th

Camdeboo - Lakeview tented camp
Camdeboo – Lakeview tented camp
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP
Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP
Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP
Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation
Camdeboo NP – Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock – 28th to 30th

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird, Mountain Zebra NP
White-backed Mousebird, Mountain Zebra NP
White-backed Mousebird, Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP

Addo National Park an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth – 30th to 4th May

Black-backed Jackal, Addo NP
Black-backed Jackal, Addo NP
Pale Chanting-Goshawk, Addo NP
Pale Chanting-Goshawk, Addo NP

In between we visited De Mond Nature Reserve for some estuarine birding and I spent time atlasing the Gouritzmond area including a first visit to Vöelvlei

De Mond NR
De Mond NR
Cormorants and Gulls, De Mond NR
Cormorants and Gulls, De Mond NR

May

While in Addo, I heard about a Bridled Tern at Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth and took an early morning drive on the 3rd to see if I could spot it, but it wasn’t to be seen, although it had been seen the previous day and was seen for a couple of days thereafter – luck of the draw!

Our return trip to Pretoria on the 4th meant another overnight stop opportunity to do some atlasing – this time at Oudekraal Guest farm near Bloemfontein.

Oudekraal guest farm
Oudekraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark nestlings, Oudekraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark nestlings, Oudekraal guest farm

During the rest of the month I managed to fit in a couple of days of atlasing, firstly on the 16th covering the coal mining belt around Kendal in Mpumulanga, not an attractive area but no shortage of interesting birds, then more of Potchefstroom on the 26th when we paid a short visit to Stephan and family.

Kendal Power Station
Kendal Power Station
Disused mine avenue, Kendal
Disused mine avenue, Kendal
Vlei in the mist, Potchefstroom
Vlei in the mist, Potchefstroom
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (deformed bill), Potchefstroom
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (deformed bill), Potchefstroom

Koos and Rianda invited us to visit Verlorenkloof resort during their timeshare week, which we did on the 30th for a couple of days, enjoying some superb mountain and forest birding

June

The 16th saw us travelling to Durban for our timeshare week at La Lucia just north of Durbs – La Lucia and the adjoining Umhlanga Rocks are good for beachfront and garden birding and I also fitted in visits to two special birding spots in Durban itself, Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve and Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve which adjoins and is almost part of Durban harbour, both excellent birding venues.

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula Krameri), La Lucia
Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula Krameri), La Lucia
Kenneth Stainbank NR
Kenneth Stainbank NR
Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna Collaris), Kennethe Stainbank NR
Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna Collaris), Kennethe Stainbank NR
Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Kenneth Stainbank NR
Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Kenneth Stainbank NR
La Lucia beach
La Lucia beach
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Capensis), La Lucia
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Capensis), La Lucia
Sandwich Tern and White-breasted Cormorant, Durban Bayhead
Sandwich Tern and White-breasted Cormorant, Durban Bayhead
Black-throated Wattle-eye, Durban Bayhead mangroves
Black-throated Wattle-eye, Durban Bayhead mangroves
Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve
Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve
Durban Bayhead - boardwalk into the mangrove swamps
Durban Bayhead – boardwalk into the mangrove swamps

I closed out the month with an atlasing session around Verena which lies north-east of Bronkhorstspruit.

Misty morning, Verena
Misty morning, Verena
Coqui Francolin, Verena
Coqui Francolin, Verena
Black-shouldered Kite, Verena
Black-shouldered Kite, Verena

July

From the 5th to 11th we enjoyed a week at Sanbonani timeshare resort near Hazyview in the Mpumulanga lowveld with Stephan and family – a superb birding venue and 10 minutes away from the Kruger Park, which we visited twice during the week.

Kurrichane Thrush, Sanbonani
Kurrichane Thrush, Sanbonani
Black Cuckooshrike (Female), Sanbonani
Black Cuckooshrike (Female), Sanbonani
Rhino, Kruger NP
Rhino, Kruger NP
Little Bee-eater
Little Bee-eater
Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger NP
Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger NP

On the 19th I atlased in the Leandra area – scruffy in parts but productive for birding.

Shelley's Francolin,Leandra
Shelley’s Francolin,Leandra
Spike-heeled Lark, Leandra
Spike-heeled Lark, Leandra
Country bridge, Leandra
Country bridge, Leandra

August

Our long-awaited and -planned trip to North America began on the 7th and took us to :

Calgary and the Canadian Rockies – 9th to 15th

Black-capped Chickadee, Calgary
Black-capped Chickadee, Calgary
Barn Swallow (American) , Bow Lake Alberta
Barn Swallow (American) , Bow Lake Alberta
Clark's Nutcracker, Bow Summit
Clark’s Nutcracker, Bow Summit

Seattle – 15th to 17th

Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle

Cruise to Alaska and the Inside Passage – 17th to 24th

Tufted Puffin, at sea - the year's highlight!
Tufted Puffin, at sea – the year’s highlight!
Black-footed Albatross, at sea
Black-footed Albatross, at sea
Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau
Steller's Jay, Skagway
Steller’s Jay, Skagway
Tufted Puffin, Glacier Bay
Tufted Puffin, Glacier Bay
Bald Eagle, Ketchikan
Bald Eagle, Ketchikan
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Inside Passage Alaska
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Inside Passage Alaska

Eastern Canada – 25th to 31st

Bald Eagle, Englishtown Nova Scotia
Bald Eagle, Englishtown Nova Scotia
Cormorants, Bird Island Nova Scotia
Cormorants, Bird Island Nova Scotia

September

Continuation of our Canada trip – 1st to 6th after which we returned home

Further atlasing in the Vlaklaagte area on the 22nd and near Potchefstroom on the 29th saw out the month

Eastern Clapper Lark, Vlaklaagte
Eastern Clapper Lark, Vlaklaagte
Black-shouldered Kite, Vlaklaagte
Black-shouldered Kite, Vlaklaagte
Southern Masked-Weaver, Potch area
Southern Masked-Weaver, Potch area
Suricate family, Potch area - very curious about my movements
Suricate family, Potch area – very curious about my movements

October

Back in Potchefstroom for Stephan’s birthday, I atlased an area north-east of Potch on the 20th

Borakalalo Nature Reserve which lies north-east of Brits in the North West province (now that’s a bit confusing) was the venue for a morning’s birding on the 24th, after hearing about the presence of a Pacific Golden Plover. This time I was lucky enough to see it easily and well and celebrated by atlasing the area and enjoying a picnic with Gerda who went along for the ride.

Pacific Golden Plover, Borakalalo NR
Pacific Golden Plover, Borakalalo NR
Southern Black Tit, Borakalalo NR
Southern Black Tit, Borakalalo NR
Black-winged Stilt, Borakalalo NR
Black-winged Stilt, Borakalalo NR

Just a few days later, on the 29th, I tried for the Pectoral Sandpiper seen there during the previous few days, but dipped on this vagrant. Nevertheless I had a wonderful day of close-up birding and photography of the abundant water birds that gather there.

Three-banded Plover, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Three-banded Plover, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Pied Avocet, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Pied Avocet, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Squacco Heron, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Squacco Heron, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

November

On the 7th I targeted a few pentads in the rural area near Mkhombo dam, not often visited by atlasers. The area can best be described as scruffy and arid but still produced a few surprises.

Rufous-naped Lark, Mkhombo area
Rufous-naped Lark, Mkhombo area
Great Spotted Cuckoo, Mkhombo area
Great Spotted Cuckoo, Mkhombo area
White-throated Robin-Chat, Mkhombo area
White-throated Robin-Chat, Mkhombo area

Then it was time to return to Punda Maria from the 13th to 16th for the “Punda Mania” birding event which is the 3rd one that George Skinner and I have done together and was as intense and challenging as before.

Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria
Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria
Little Swift, Luvuvhu River bridge
Little Swift, Luvuvhu River bridge
Pygmy Kingfisher looking dazed (apparently flew into the restaurant window at Punda Maria camp)
Pygmy Kingfisher looking dazed (apparently flew into the restaurant window at Punda Maria camp)
Sunrise near Punda Maria
Sunrise near Punda Maria
Pennant-winged Nightjar, Punda Maria
Pennant-winged Nightjar, Punda Maria

Straight after that Gerda and I travelled to Matekula Country Estate, which lies 35 kms beyond Machadadorp, to join Alastair and Anne plus a few friends for a couple of days at this venue.

Almost before we were ready, we found the year was rapidly running out as we packed once again for the trip down to Mossel Bay for our end-of-year long visit. On the way we stopped over at Abbotsbury Guest farm near Graaff-Reinet – a lovely place with some good Karoo birding.

Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet - the cottage we had for our overnight stay
Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet – the cottage we had for our overnight stay
Karoo choir - hey you in the second row please face the front!
Karoo choir – hey you in the second row please face the front! Let’s do Silent Night in C Sharp

December

Time for some final atlasing for the year starting with Mossel Bay itself which I do a few times while staying here. On the 5th it was the turn of Riversdale which is very poorly atlased to date and I added loads of species to the records.

Then on the 26th I atlased the area north of Albertinia which produced very good totals and some specials.

We joined Andre and Geraldine on a day trip to Calitzdorp on the 27th and I was thrilled to find a Cape Siskin in the Robinson Pass on the way there – a bird I have been trying to track down for some years and a great way to round off the year.

More of the same next year? I certainly hope so!

All the best for the New Year!

 

 

Alaska – Cruising the Last Frontier (Continued)

Soon we were close enough to “hear” the glacier as it rumbled like a distant thunderstorm, and we watched in awe as chunks of glacial ice suddenly broke away from the towering face”.

The Story so far……

So, where were we – oh yes, our last stop was Skagway where we rode on a train – next stop was to be Ketchikan, but not before spending a day cruising the smooth, ice-blue channels and bays of Glacier Bay National Park.

Thursday 21 August 2014 – Glaciers galore!

Incredible scenery awaited us when we woke up, as we sailed into Glacier Bay National Park and were flanked by mountains on both sides, some snow-capped or with glaciers glinting in the bright sunlight, others covered in green forest.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park – a massive glacier meets the sea
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Ice floes take on strange shapes as they slowly melt

Spectacular landscapes followed one after another as we progressed along the channels and chunks of ice, weathered into strange shapes, appeared in the water as we got closer to the first point of interest – a gigantic glacier jutting into the sea and disappearing into the distance up the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park – another monster glacier as high as our ship
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park

Soon we were close enough to “hear” the glacier as it rumbled like a distant thunderstorm, and we watched in awe as chunks of glacial ice suddenly broke away from the towering face. A large chunk “calved” and fell into the sea below with a roar, creating a small wave that disturbed the smooth sea surface – surely one of the most impressive natural sights we’ve seen.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Chunks of glacier calving

Alaska-9672

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park

Our Captain showed his expertise at handling his large ship as he had it do a merry-go-round manoeuvre, turning on its own axis so that all sides of the ship were afforded great views of the glacier.

Gerda enjoying the merry go round
Gerda enjoying the scenery
Another cruise ship passes by
Another cruise ship passes by

Gulls aplenty wheeled around the ship and one turned out to be a Black-legged Kittiwake – an exciting new “lifer” for me (more about the birding in a separate dedicated post)

After spending some time in this amazing environment, the ship headed back down the fjord and gradually the ice chunks and floes diminished and the sea changed colour to its more natural shade as the influence of the glacial silt became less pronounced.

Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Taking a coffee break

Later we passed a couple of prominent rocks offshore which held numbers of birds, including the ubiquitous Gulls but also a sprinkling of Pelagic Cormorants, as well as Harbour Seals by the dozen, mostly just blobs of brown as they lazed the day away on the little islands.

Harbour seals by the dozen
Harbour seals by the dozen

Alaska-9781

All the while a Parks official, who had boarded the ship by small boat during the early morning, had been giving a running commentary on what we were seeing and providing plenty of interesting background information – a nice touch by the shipping company and the Parks board.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park

With the day’s extended excitement over we relaxed through the rest of the afternoon, had dinner in the Summer Palace restaurant and got to bed early-ish, as we were due for an early start the next morning to be in time for our last excursion of the cruise.

Stern view
Stern view

Friday 22 August – Ketchikan, Misty Fjords and T-Shirts

The alarm had been set for 5.30 am, by which time it was light and the ship was docking at Ketchikan, our last but one stop of the cruise.

Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska

After a quick breakfast we disembarked and walked along the dock to our excursion boat – a catamaran equipped with water jets – which was to take us on the excursion with the grand description of Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer.

Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion boat

By this time we had seen many beautiful sights of Alaska and were wondering if there was much more to be seen – well, fortunately, this excursion turned out to be more than worthwhile as it took us into the Misty Fjords National Monument, a series of waterways and fjords running through a unique wilderness of forests, waterfalls and sheer cliffs rising out of the sea.

Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Ketchikan Harbour
Ketchikan Harbour
Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion

The trip started with a sighting of a Bald Eagle perched high in a tree right on the water’s edge and soon after we came across a pod of Orcas (Killer Whales to give them their popular name) which was the day’s highlight for us as they surfaced from time to time, gracefully showing off their characteristic tall dorsal fins and glimpses of the white patches on the lower part of their bodies. There were at least four in the group and they remained visible for about 15 minutes.

Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan

The turnaround point of the trip was Rudyard Bay where we had close up views of tumbling waterfalls and sheer cliffs with nesting Gulls high up on the face.

Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan

Misty Fjords excursion

Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords – some of the markings are man-made by early inhabitants
Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion

At water level, a group of Pigeon Guillemots – a small black water bird – showed nicely alongside the boat and a Belted Kingfisher sat patiently on a low branch eager to be photographed (or so it seemed to me). I couldn’t resist asking our guide which one it was, suspecting that there was only one Kingfisher in Alaska, and casually mentioning that “where we come from, there are seven species of Kingfisher”. Our guide, a charming lady who looked like a favourite Aunt,  took this in good spirit and told us she was in SA a couple of years ago and loved it.

While the boat powered its way back to the dock next to the Pearl, a couple of other crew members gave some background on local Ketchikan life (pop 14000), Salmon (5 types) and Native customs. We learnt how to remember the 5 types of salmon using the five fingers of your hand :

  • Thumb rhymes with Chum hence Chum Salmon
  • Your Pointer finger is something you may use to sock someone, hence Sockeye Salmon
  • Your middle finger is largest and therefore king, so is King Salmon
  • Your ring finger is where you may wear a silver ring, thus Silver Salmon
  • Lastly your pinkie – obviously stands for Pink Salmon

Now, there’s some really useless information

There was a little time left before departure, so we walked to a nearby promising looking dockside shop which had lots of really nice T-shirts and other tourist stuff at not too outlandish prices, so we were able to purchase easy-to-pack gifts for the family back home.

Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska - they are everywhere
Ketchikan, Alaska – they are everywhere
The Pilot disembarking
The Pilot disembarking

That was enough action for the day so we took it easy for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Saturday 23 August – Victoria BC through the Mist

Back to our normal lazy, breakfast in the stateroom routine for our last day of cruising, heading for our last stop in Victoria, BC Canada.

More towel art
More towel art by our Thai chambermaid

After breakfast I got myself into lookout mode, reading and keeping watch for passing birds – not so easy when the ship is doing 20 knots and you have a limited field of view out of the cabin. The problem was solved when a heavy fog closed in and I could relax in the knowledge that there would be nothing visible until it cleared. The fog lasted until we were in sight of Victoria, when it dissipated and cleared like magic.

Approaching Victoria, BC, Canada
Approaching Victoria, BC, Canada
Harbour Seal, Victoria
Harbour Seal, Victoria

Once docked in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, we disembarked and joined the queue for the shuttle bus ride into town where we found a Starbucks pick-me-up cappucino before exploring the part of town where we had been dropped off.

Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
A long way from home

Although it was by now already 7.30 pm the town centre was throbbing with tourists off the several cruise ships that had docked almost simultaneously and we joined them in admiring the beautiful stately buildings and the harbour which was a hive of activity as the sun slowly set.

Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada – a little reminder of Cuba
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada

With our lightning tour done we returned to the ship for a late dinner in the Garden Café and once back in our stateroom we got our bags ready for the morning disembarkation.

Sunday 24 August – Cruise over!

Back in Seattle
Back in Seattle

By the time we woke we were already docked in Seattle – we enjoyed our last breakfast in the Stateroom with the fruit amazingly just as fresh as the first day. Then it was time to disembark in organised fashion, collect our baggage and find a taxi to the airport for our flight to Ottawa via Calgary

Needless to say, the US Security personnel at Seattle airport once again showed their paranoid and unpleasant nature and made it hard for Gerda to remain calm when one particularly mean official berated her for not declaring her knee implants before being screened. You would hope that people of our age would be treated with some respect but obviously age means nothing to these types. They give you the feeling that the US doesn’t really want visitors.

Next stop John and Sheila’s (Sam’s) place in Ontario

Alaska – Cruising the last frontier

“As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst…..

The Highlight of our Trip

Outside of spending time with family in Canada, we saw the cruise on board the Norwegian Pearl as the highlight of our month-long trip to Canada and the USA for a few reasons – most of all that this would be the one week when we would totally relax and leave the organizing, catering and ‘driving’ to others. This was also our very first cruise and we hoped that everything we had read about Alaska, known as The Last Frontier, would be true.

Sunday 17th August 2014 : All aboard!

Arriving by taxi at Pier 66, Seattle, courtesy of Hassin our Ethiopian driver, we saw what looked like a city block berthed at the dockside and looming over us, with much activity in the immediate area.

Boarding in Seattle
Boarding the Norwegian Pearl in Seattle
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus

Boarding a large cruise ship with a couple of thousand others from around the world was bound to be an experience, but it went off really smoothly and before we knew it we were being photographed (for later collection of a souvenir photo) and guided on board, up to the 9th level and to our stateroom (no “cabins” on this ship) on the port side. Our stateroom No 9572 was pretty much like a compact hotel room, with a bathroom which would not be out of place in a caravan (cue John Denner : “It’s a Trailer – what is it with you Africans!”), nevertheless very comfortable with a large bed, small sitting area inside, kitted out with a tea/coffee maker, and a small balcony outside. This was to be our home for the next week and we relished the prospect of relaxing and enjoying it to the full.

Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
On board - the long passages
On board – the long passages

The balcony was a real boon, allowing constant viewing of the passing scenery and I was soon enjoying the many seabirds, mostly Gulls, either on the sea surface or floating in the air above it. I’ll go into the details of the birding during the cruise in a separate post dedicated to that subject – suffice to say it kept me busy and alert for most of our waking hours, sorting out the many different Gulls and the other seabirds. 

Not having done a cruise before, we were curious to experience the meals on board and overall the catering scored very highly during the week of indulging in just about everything on offer. Before setting sail from Seattle at 4pm, we had already tried the buffet restaurant for lunch, and the only thing you could complain about if you were really fussy would be having to stand in a queue for more than a minute for your second helping of ice cream. OK, it was crowded and noisy, but we were always able to find a table and the choice of food covered every taste and whim – our eating companions were a constant source of interest, clearly coming from diverse nations and many of them getting through astonishing amounts of food.

Quart in a can
Quart in a can

We’re off!

The ship left Seattle precisely on time in perfect sunny weather, which changed later in the afternoon to heavy mist, blotting out the view altogether, but the sea was very calm and we just glided along – it probably helps to be amidships where our stateroom was located, as any motion is not as pronounced.

Leaving Seattle
Leaving Seattle

Later we tried the “Summer Palace” a la carte restaurant – the largest of the restaurants and serving dishes of equally high standard with mostly friendly waiters, in a much quieter atmosphere with piano music in the background – really nice as we headed north towards Alaska.

Monday 18th August : Puffins sighted!

This was to be an auspicious day without doubt!

We awoke at our own time (ie “lekker laat”) and our breakfast arrived not long after – a plate of quality fresh fruit, corn flakes, yoghurt and a muffin – simple, but what a luxury! It was overcast and just too chilly to eat on the balcony, so we sat at our little table inside and enjoyed breakfast while gazing at the sea passing by – very serene.

Breakfast in the stateroom
Breakfast in the stateroom

Between breakfast and lunch, we whiled the time away and I was on the lookout for any birds, as usual – I soon spotted some small black birds on the water, swimming away as the ship’s wake caught up with them. It was difficult to get a fix on them with my binoculars with the ship travelling at some 20 knots and the birds moving away, so I grabbed my camera with long lens attached and rattled off a few photos. To my surprise and delight they turned out to be Tufted Puffins, thus fulfilling a long-held dream of seeing a Puffin – in fact over 50 years since I read about them in a “Famous Five” Enid Blyton book in my primary school years, long before I became interested in birding.

They were quickly followed by other species including Albatross and Storm-Petrels. After this burst of action, the birds disappeared and hardly any were visible for the rest of the day.

Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)

The sea had changed as we headed into deep waters, no longer protected by nearby land and the ship was rocking and rolling for most of the day – this didn’t deter us from eating as we tried the Italian restaurant in the evening, along with a bottle of sparkling wine from Italy to celebrate the Puffins in style. Then it was time to do the 9.30pm show in the large theatre, which was surprisingly good and most enjoyable.

Celebrating the Puffin
Celebrating the Puffin

Tuesday 19th August : Juneau Visit

After yesterday’s ‘rock and roll’ seas, we awoke to a magical scene of calm waters and a backdrop of glacier-capped mountains in shades of blue, green and white. The skies were filled with fluffy white clouds, the blue gaps allowing splashes of sunlight to fall on the mountains.

Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage

As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst – speaking of which, a skein of Canada Geese flew by in formation as the ship glided along.

Pacific Humpback Whale
Pacific Humpback Whale
Canada Geese crossing the bow
Canada Geese crossing the bow

For the rest of the morning we relaxed in our room as the ship glided by the beautiful scenery on both sides and just after lunch we docked in Juneau, with Gulls wheeling around the ship in large numbers. The area is known for its Bald Eagles – a few were seen as we approached Juneau and one was perched on a tall pylon as we disembarked, almost as if placed there to welcome us (maybe it was a stuffed one, wired to the pylon).

Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Arriving in Juneau
Arriving in Juneau

 

Shuttle buses took us the short distance into town where the ‘girls’ went shopping while Koos and I looked for a good angle to photograph the ship, majestic against the backdrop of the surroundings.

Alaska-9405

Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Juneau - seaplanes are popular
Juneau – seaplanes are popular
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Local character
Local character

I took a walk up an inviting hill away from the main shopping road – I always like to see the “real” town with interesting houses, some neat others scruffy, and not be bumping into fellow tourists all the time. I came across a few totem poles, each of which carried a number of symbolic messages.

Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles

When we were all done with our various pursuits, we found a nice coffee shop and late afternoon we made our way back to the ship, but not before stopping at the “Crab Shack” which we had seen earlier and which had been recommended as a ‘must try’ by my sister Sheila (Sam). It turned out to be a spot on suggestion when we tasted the sensational Giant Alaskan crab legs – just two of them cost $50 but were so good we forgot the heavy (for us currency-disadvantaged Sefricans) price. A Ukraine family next to us got through about $300 worth and were in 7th heaven.

Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Lynette with Alaskan King Crab delight

Back on the ship it wasn’t long until dinner, this time in the Takkanyaki Restaurant, where they prepare the food on a large hot plate in front of you with circus-like tricks thrown in – fortunately not heavy food after the crab feast. There was still time to catch the show in the theatre which was mostly 1950’s musical fare.

Leaving Juneau 10pm
Leaving Juneau 10pm

Wednesday 20th August : Skagway and a train trip to remember

By the time we awoke we were docking in Skagway and we followed our by now familiar routine of breakfast in the room and relaxing until around 11.30 am when we made our way to the Garden Café for a combined late-morning tea and lunch (would that be a tunch?).

Skagway harbour
Skagway harbour
Harbour Seal, Skagway
Harbour Seal, Skagway

We had to be ready for our excursion at 12.30 so we made our way to the end of the pier, where the train was waiting to take us on a trip up the mountain. Called the White Pass and Yukon Route, it first operated in 1900 taking fortune-seekers to the Klondike Gold Rush – on this trip we only went for 20 miles but in the process climbed 2,865 feet (way more impressive than 873.25 metres) to the White Pass summit.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

On the way we passed a number of interesting landmarks and truly spectacular scenery, marvelling at the engineering that went into constructing the winding railway through granite mountains, steep grades and cliff-hanging turns. In 1994 it was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and deservedly so.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

At some points trestle bridges remind you of the old Western movies where the train inevitably ended up tumbling into the gorge when the baddies blew up the frail bridge – sometimes the goodies too, depending who was on the train. The coaches were mostly modern reproductions, the locos were powerful diesel-electic units dating from the 1960’s, all modernised over the years.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

All in all a great way to see the mountains.

Back in Skagway we walked the small town and I did my usual diversion to the back street to get a feel of the real town – it is unfortunate that these small towns on the cruise ship routes are so tourist-driven and -reliant that they end up like Hollywood film sets with a main street full of tourist shops and facades, while just one street back they look like any other small town ie a bit ragged at the edges. Immediately I came across a couple of birds in a garden, which was pleasing after not seeing a single bird on the train trip of almost 3 hours.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
Cool old ambulance
Cool old ambulance
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway main street
Skagway main street
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway

Back on the ship we enjoyed dinner – this time in the French Restaurant, Le Bistro which was good but not inspiring (we really are getting fussy in our old age)

To be continued …………….

 

Seattle USA : Just a Day and a bit

While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them… “

Arrival – Sleepy in Seattle

First time in the USA
First time in the USA
Seattle Airport
Seattle Airport

Seattle Airport

Our first views of Seattle were on the limo trip from the airport, but we were barely recovered from our experience at Calgary airport where we encountered the worst of US security and we were just looking forward to getting to the Silver Cloud hotel and relaxing until Jakobus and Lynette, friends from SA, arrived. They were due to join us for our day and a bit in Seattle followed by the 8 day Alaska cruise which we had booked together some time ago.

Once they had arrived, and before the 9 hour time difference got to them, we joined up for a trip downtown and back – the hotel has a shuttle service to various drop off and collection points, which was an absolute boon during our short stay – followed by a walk to a nearby restaurant for pizza and back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep

Heading to the waterfront
Heading to the waterfront
Seattle - Street scenes
Seattle – Street scenes
Old-fashioned transport
Old-fashioned transport
Modern transport - this carriage has more horses than the other one! (It's a Lambo)
Modern transport – this carriage has more horses than the other one!
(It’s a Lambo)
Nice hair
Nice hair
Jakobus and Lynette
Jakobus and Lynette

Saturday 16th August 2014 – Discovering Seattle by foot and “Duck”

No major city can be fully experienced in a day so we decided not to rush around just so that we could say we had “been there, done that” which is the normal temptation, and rather took it easy, deciding as we went how we would spend the rest of the day. This proved to be a good approach and in the end we were well pleased with how much we managed to see and do.

After a late-ish breakfast, we headed to the downtown Westlake Centre for some shopping therapy (not my scene but I whiled away the time doing some people watching), followed by a walk to the Pike’s Place Market to jostle with the crowds of visitors and locals and marvel at the goods on display – seafood of all descriptions, fruit to drool over and a multitude of other fresh delights.

The waterfront market
The waterfront market
It's crowded on a Saturday
The market is crowded on a Saturday
Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market
Seattle - Pike Place Market
Nice crab
Pike Place Market - lobster anyone? Just R1,000 a kilo
Pike Place Market – lobster anyone? Just R1,000 a kilo

This was also the ideal place to buy some of the fresh produce for a hotel room supper later on and we left the market with fresh bread, enormous tomatoes, the best cheese, some magnificent looking peaches and a reasonable bottle of wine – all of this hectic shopping meant we deserved a Starbucks coffee and it wasn’t far to go to find one (apparently there are 170 Starbucks shops in Seattle including the original one which started the chain).

Seattle - Pike Place Market
Seattle – Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market - shopping for supper
Pike Place Market – shopping for supper
Seattle - Street scenes - Pontiac TransAm
Pontiac Transam cruising the waterfront

Returning briefly to the hotel to offload the purchases, we once again headed downtown, this time to buy tour tickets for the “Duck”, which we had spotted cruising around town filled with tourists and which looked like an interesting idea – basically a semi-open amphibious vehicle which not only does the usual city tour but takes you onto the waters of the lake which makes up Seattle’s harbour.

The Duck tour
The Duck tour
Seattle - Street scenes - Davy Crockett? The one on his head is a skin, the one on his shoulder is alive!
Seattle – Street scenes – Davy Crockett? The one on his head is a skin, the one on his shoulder is alive!
The first car wash in Seattle!
The first car wash in Seattle!
The "Duck" takes to the water
The “Duck” takes to the water like a ..er duck

It turned out to be well worthwhile and a unique way of seeing the city – something which has taken off in North America it seems, as we saw similar tours being offered in a couple of other cities in Canada.

Our “Captain” of Scottish descent drove through town then towards the lake where our bus took to the water with no trouble and chugged along while he gave us an insight into the waterside life and activities, amongst others exploring the difference between “floating homes” and “houseboats” – important because of taxation issues apparently.

Seattle - Touring the harbour - a floating house
Seattle – Touring the harbour – a floating house
Seattle - Touring the harbour - houseboats and floating houses
Seattle – Touring the harbour – houseboats and floating houses
One girl - and a dog - in a boat
One girl – and a dog – in a boat

Along the way we also had good views of the old gasworks, now part of a recreational park and saw the lakeside house where the film “Sleepless in Seattle” was partly filmed. The return journey was along a different route so we had a view of quite a lot of Seattle and really enjoyed this introduction to the city.

The old gasworks (1906 - 1956) now part of a park
The old gasworks (1906 – 1956) now part of a park
The city skyline from the lake
The city skyline from the lake
Seattle city skyline
Seattle city skyline
Seaplanes abound
Seaplanes abound
Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge
Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge

Seattle – First Impressions

Seattle has a lot to attract the visitor and we hardly touched on the interesting spots that can be visited, but felt we had got to know it just a bit in the short time we spent there.

What really struck us was the “unusual” (for want of a better term) people we came across and perhaps it’s unfair to judge a place on the people you encounter in a city during a short stay, which is hardly representative of the population of the whole place, however it came across that Seattle has a very cosmopolitan population, including 20,000 Ethiopians apparently and many more cultures.

It also has more homeless people, druggies and mentally disturbed folk than any city of our experience – we came across them on every city block, every street corner, which made us wonder what the reason could be. Most just drift by, the dregs of society, some beg, others talk to themselves and whoever is in listening distance. Then there are the religious people peddling the message at every second street corner, including a group who, by their dress, seemed to have been transported from the 1960’s.

While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them and generally behaving pretty strangely.

All quite fascinating and seemingly part of normal city life in Seattle.

Sunday 17th August 2014 : Time to set sail for the Last Frontier!

After another good breakfast at Jimmy’s, the restaurant next to the hotel, we packed and labelled our bags for the cruise, gathered in the lobby and called a large SUV to take us all, along with our copious baggage, to the Cruise Ship pier for the start of the next leg of our adventure – now I know going on a large cruise ship nowadays is hardly unusual, so probably doesn’t score highly as an adventure for most, but this was to be our first time on a cruise and it was to Alaska, billed as the “Last Frontier”, so for us was really adventurous.

Anyway more about our cruise next time…..

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 2 – More of The Rockies and Cheers to Calgary

The Story so far…

Our whirlwind trip through the Canadian Rockies had been exciting so far, after just a day and a half – it seemed much longer as we had crammed a lot into it already, but even better stuff was to come as we headed to Jasper.

Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park

The rest of Tuesday : Athabasca Glacier – a Highlight!

Not long after leaving beautiful Bow Lake behind us, we turned off at a busy parking area for a memorable trip on to the enormous Athabasca Glacier – certainly the highlight of our trip so far. Tickets had been purchased along with the Banff Gondola tickets the previous day, but we still had to wait for an hour or so to get on a bus for this popular excursion, which is enjoyed by up to 3000 people per day during peak season, which is where we found ourselves, so we had a snack in the cafeteria while waiting.

 

Alex and Cassie on the bus
Alex and Cassie on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus

A “normal” bus took us to the departure point for the glacier tour, where we switched to special balloon-tired vehicles, specially built for the purpose and capable of taking on 18 degree gravelled slopes (doesn’t sound much but quite hairy when you are looking up or down at them from the inside of the vehicle) and slippery glacier “roads” with ease. They are said to cost $1,2 million each!

Athabasca Glacier
Athabasca Glacier
Quite a bus
Quite a bus
Serious stuff!
Serious stuff!
It's climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
It’s climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease

101_8871

The perky driver kept us informed and entertained along the way, even handling the banter from a bunch of Harley-Davison bikers on the bus, who had plenty to say, and soon we were standing on the glacier itself, tasting the icy crystal clear run-off water which was gushing out of the ice and just enjoying the sensation of standing on a veritable mountain of ice which was probably as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high, if not more. All in all, nothing short of spectacular!

On the glacier
On the glacier
The icy run off water tastes good
The icy run off water tastes good
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
More run off water
More run off water

I just had a concern that allowing these vehicles and so many people onto the glacier on a daily basis must be contributing to its demise, where it is already receding at the rate of some 10 m per year, nevertheless we were glad we were able to experience such a unique excursion.

Gerda and Don on the glacier
Gerda and Don on the glacier
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days

Jasper National Park

Leaving the ice fields behind us, we drove a short distance before stopping to view the tumbling Sunwapta Falls which lie in Jasper National Park.

Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls

Next stop was the town of Jasper itself and once checked in at the Best Western, we made our way to the town centre and the Raven Bistro which Gerda had read about in some publication – it turned out to be a good choice with comfortable chairs (more important than many realize), great creative food and friendly service. My steak, accompanied by a unique thin, very tasty sauce was superb as were the other dishes including Gerda’s lamb dish which was declared to be sensational by the team.

Great place!
Great place!
A steak to remember
A steak to remember
The lamb dish
The lamb dish

Back at the hotel the kids were put to bed and we enjoyed a glass of wine with Sarah and Alex out in the garden, chatting beyond midnight (Sarah comes into her own at these late hours).

Wednesday 13 August : More falls, lakes and other good stuff

Sarah had arranged a late check out so we had until midday to enjoy the $9.95 breakfast which included my favourite for a change – oatmeal!

Best Western hotel, Jasper
Best Western hotel, Jasper

We spent some time exploring Jasper town around the station and surrounding streets and found it more than pleasant with a real small town feel.

Old steam loco in Jasper - nicely maintained
Old steam loco in Jasper – nicely maintained

 

For those who want more info
For those who want more info
Jasper street scene
Jasper street scene
Gerda in Jasper
Gerda in Jasper

First stop on the road back to Calgary was at the Athabasca Falls where the wide milky water rushes into a narrow gorge creating a mini “smoke that thunders”. Three hawks caught my eye in the top of a high tree – the light was too bright in the background to make them out clearly but the photos I took helped to ID them (probably) as Swainson’s Hawks.

101_8929

Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls

Further along we stopped briefly at a viewpoint above another scenic lake where some tame Chipmunks (yes real ones) came right up and perched on my sandals for a moment.

Real live Chipmunk
Real live Chipmunk
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside

The Rockies were quite magnificent today – not spoilt by haze and we especially enjoyed the stop at Bow Summit where we took a walk up the road and along forest paths to the lookout with an incredible view down at yet another glacier-fed lake nestled between the slopes far below. Meanwhile Gerda and Sarah were enjoying themselves finding and identifying flowers and berries at the stops.

Bow Summit
Bow Summit

101_8984

Bow Summit
Bow Summit
Wild strawberries
Wild strawberries

On the birding front a Clark’s Nutcracker in the parking area broke the short drought of lifers for me.

Pitstop
Pitstop
Our ride to the Rockies
Our ride to the Rockies
Someone else's ride - Buick Eight "Woody" from the 50's
Someone else’s ride – Buick Eight “Woody” from the 50’s

Next, and the last stop for the day, was Lake Louise, a stunningly attractive lake with a background of mountains and glaciers setting it off to perfection. A number of people were on the lake in small boats, while others sat at the water’s edge, like us fascinated by the special beauty of the scene.

101_9010

The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
Boats are popular on the lake
Boats are popular on the lake
Lake Louise - Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise – Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise - just spectacular!
Lake Louise – just spectacular!

Complementing the scenery was the Chateau Hotel with its unique architecture and lush, colourful gardens fronting it right down to the turquoise water of the lake.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

101_9003

The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise
The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise – Cassie in the foreground
The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
View from the Chateau Hotel
View from the Chateau Hotel
Canada help! I can't remember what this is
Canada help! I can’t remember what this is

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away we travelled the final hour and a half back to Calgary and the new familiarity of the Najm residence

 

Thursday 14 August : Last day in Calgary

A quiet day (well, relatively) to recover, nicely set in motion with a slap-up Canadian breakfast of eggs, crispy bacon, pancakes and sausages. It was abundantly clear Sarah was going all out to prove her constant mantra that “The West is Best” and we were rapidly coming to that same conclusion – however (patience, Sarah) we thought it would only be fair to give the East a chance to “state their case” when we eventually got there, before bestowing the “Best” title on either the West (ie Calgary and the Rockies) or the East (ie Ontario and the other parts of eastern Canada we were to discover).

Not having had the chance to see a bit of Calgary, Alex set out to change that and took us on a quick drive into the country along roads which bisected verdant farmlands, giving us a glimpse of typical cultivated lands in this part of Canada. Swainson’s Hawks were the most common bird around, favouring the round bales of hay to perch on.

Farmland just outside Calgary
Farmland just outside Calgary (can you see the Hawk on the hay bale?)
Pump jack at work near Calgary
Pump jack at work near Calgary

We were hardly back at the house when Sarah took a break from preparing a special dinner (told you she was going all out) to take us on a driving tour of Calgary, covering all four “quadrants” – Calgary comes across as an organised, busy, spacious city with plenty of open space and considerate drivers – a very comfortable place to live I imagine.

Another surprise awaited us at the house as Sarah and Rachel had arranged an early birthday celebration for the two of us (our birthdays are just 13 days apart and were coming up in the next few weeks) with hats and masks, banners, balloons, bubbly and all. Clearly the Denner girls like arranging parties!

Surprise birthday party
Surprise birthday party

The evening was spent enjoying a superb dinner of four courses prepared by Sarah and Alex with wine pairings to savour and remember.

A laminated menu - this lady has class!
A laminated menu – this lady has class!
The starter
The starter
Sarah's delightful dessert
Sarah’s delightful dessert

Thanks Sarah and Alex, not to mention Cassie and Rio, for making our week “in the west” so unforgettable!

 

Friday 15 August : Seattle here we come

Travelling time again! Up early (poor Sarah, not her forté) to get to the airport for our 8.50 am flight to Seattle, which ended up being beyond stressful, only because we weren’t thinking – at check-in they wanted to charge $70 for our extra bag and, prompted by the check-in clerk, we decided to take it as carry on baggage, only realising once we got to security (USA heavy style) that the bag was full of “non-allowables”. With dry throats and pounding hearts (airports do this to us) we tried to work out what to do and eventually I decided to work my way back through security and passport control to the check in which, thanks to sympathetic personnel (maybe it was my wild pleading eyes) I was fortunately able to do, much to our relief. But it left us shattered and cursing the hassles involved in long-distance air travel.

The Air Canada flight was short and just more than an hour after taking off we were in Seattle where, after collecting our baggage, we got ourselves a bagel and a large cup of tea to calm our troubled spirits, before finding a limo to take us to the Silver Cloud Hotel on Broadway. We  had some  time to relax before Lynette and Jakobus van Dyk were due to arrive to  join us for the next few days in Seattle and on the Alaska Cruise …..but more about that soon.

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 1 – Calgary and the Rockies

Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West”…

Some Background to our latest Adventure

Gerda and I had been wanting to visit Canada for some years and, spurred on by family in Canada, we decided that 2014 would be the year we finally ticked this box – not least because my sister and brother-in-law had visited South Africa the previous year  from Canada and told us we “had to” come and visit them in Ontario at the earliest opportunity.

When nieces Sarah and Rachel, both of whom live in Calgary on the western side of Canada, heard about our trip, they made it clear that Calgary would “have to” (it’s a Denner thing) be part of our itinerary and Sarah in particular tempted us with her plans to show us the Canadian Rockies, all of which was an offer we definitely could not refuse.

Just to make such a long trip worthwhile, we decided to include an Alaskan cruise in the itinerary – something we had heard about from friends and which promised to make the trip really special.

And so our trip developed into four “stages” – week 1 in Calgary and the Rockies, week 2 on a cruise ship to Alaska, week 3 touring Nova Scotia and week 4 on the farm near Ottawa with Sheila (Sam as she is known) and John.

Getting there

The easy bit was purchasing the air tickets – the actual trip to Calgary was a series of ups and downs, literally and mentally.

To start with, we arrived at OR Tambo airport Johannesburg well before our flight to Heathrow on Thursday 7th August, which was scheduled for 8 pm, only to find it was delayed by 12 hours and would depart next morning at 8 am. SAA put us up at a nearby hotel and we duly caught the flight next morning. On the positive side, a daytime flight is a lot more bearable than an overnight flight as it is not essential to try to sleep. The result was we missed our connecting flight to Calgary and had to overnight at a hotel near Heathrow (also paid for by SAA) to catch the next day’s flight – such are the joys of modern-day travel.

After breakfast the next day (Saturday 9th) we returned to Heathrow for the 9 hour flight to Calgary, which departed from the brand new “Queen’s Terminal” which impressed with its modern architecture and spacious security area with state-of-the-art systems, largely automated to make the experience a tad more bearable.

The brand new Queen's Terminal at Heathrow
The brand new Queen’s Terminal at Heathrow
Queen's Terminal
Queen’s Terminal
Now that's a "draadkar"! (just a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around the village)
Now that’s a “draadkar”! (a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around their villages)

Welcome to Calgary!

Despite arriving 1 day later than planned, and unbeknown to us, niece Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West” and a lovely group of volunteer ladies who arrange it all.

The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport - what a nice welcome!
The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport – what a nice welcome!

Scan_20141010 Scan_20141010 (2)

We immediately felt at home when we got to Alex and Sarah’s house in Dalhousie, where we met their offspring Cassie and Rio. They were in the final throes of preparing for their big “pig roast” which they have hosted for the past 5 years. By this time we were quite tired after a long day which was extended by some 8 hours of time difference, but after a nap we regained some energy and joined the party, which by now was gathering momentum, meeting lots of interesting and friendly Canadians from the neighbourhood and further afield.

The "Pig Roast" in full swing
The “Pig Roast” in full swing

IMG_1352 IMG_1353

By 10 pm (6am the next morning for us) we called it a day and collapsed into bed while the party continued well into the early hours – even the fire brigade turned up, responding to a call about a fire in the yard!

The Morning After….

Next morning (Sunday) was a quiet one – amazingly everything was cleared up by the time we surfaced – Alex and Sarah were up till 4am clearing most of it and finished the rest in the morning. We took it nice and easy on the outside deck with coffee, more coffee and leftover dessert cake and were joined by Derek and Karen from next door – seems they have a very friendly neighbourhood going here.

Lunch was cheeseburger and fries from a fast food place that had queues of people waiting outside 2 windows to be served – good filling food and we tried the poutine, which is a Canadian dish that we came across a few times, comprising fries, a gravy-like sauce and topped with cheese curds.

Feeling a little bloated after this healthy lunch, I took a walk through the neighbourhood to a nearby park – birds were not plentiful but I did spot a Swainson’s Hawk cruising the skies, other than that it was Magpies, Crows and House Sparrows.

Back at the house it was more chilling followed by a walk to the local shopping centre where we had a look at the local retail offerings and had a cappuccino at the Starbucks located inside Chapters bookstore. The perfect weather was holding, so we sat outside and chatted until late evening, mostly about what we could expect to see over the next 3 days touring the Rockies.

Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Moon over Calgary
Moon over Calgary
Cars for rental on the street - pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!
Cars for rental on the street – pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!

Monday 11 August – off to Banff

We awoke to warmer weather and a busy day of travel ahead, but initially the day was quite relaxed, plenty of time to pack our bags for 3 days on the road and enjoy “Lebanese eggs” for breakfast, courtesy of Alex – a tasty dish of fried eggs and yoghurt eaten out on the deck.

There was even time to check out the local bird life along the back paths and I was pleased to find Chickadees and Thrushes – but more about the birding in a future post.

Rachel, my other Canadian niece who we last saw in SA back in 2000, joined us for the first part of the trip, which we did in her car so it was an ideal opportunity to catch up on the intervening years.

We left around midday and headed west to Banff with one stop at Canmore to say hi to Rachel’s sister-in-law Kirsty, who has a charming house right on the Bow river

IMG_1377

The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
Canmore street (being redone)
Canmore street (being redone)

We spent some time admiring the view of the Bow River from the house

Bow River
Bow River at Canmore – how’s this for a view from the front garden

IMG_1367 IMG_1365

We followed this with a pop-in to the local knitting store (for Gerda’s benefit)  and an iced coffee at the local coffee shop. Canmore has a nice small town feel to it.

Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore

From there it was a short drive to Banff through increasingly scenic countryside with beautiful mountain backdrops as we approached the Rockies.

Banff National Park
Banff National Park

 

Before entering Banff, Rachel took a short detour to show us Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Rockies, probably because it is also a dam which was constructed back in 1941. This was the first of the large lakes we were to see, which did not have the turquoise colour of the glacier-fed lakes that we came across later in the trip – nevertheless an impressive sight.

Lake Minnewanka near Banff
Lake Minnewanka near Banff

Next a visit to Banff Springs Park where we took a short walk along the pathways and board walks with views of lakes and wetlands, bordered by pine forests

Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park

Our Best Western hotel was easy to find on the main street and we checked in, then headed straight to the Bison restaurant for an excellent meal.

Cassie kept busy at the restaurant
Cassie kept busy at the restaurant

Summer evenings are long and light until late in this part of the world, so we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Banff Gondola (no it’s not a boat – that’s what they call a cable car in these parts).

Scan_20141010 (4)

Banff Gondola
Banff Gondola – going up Sulphur Mountain
Enjoying the gondola ride
Enjoying the gondola ride
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola

We were just in time to catch the last gondolas going up for the day and had to rush a bit when we got to the upper station, as the last one was due to depart for the lower station in about half an hour. Nevertheless this gave us enough time to get to the watch tower at the pinnacle and enjoy the spectacular, albeit hazy, views before heading back down.

Gerda at the upper station
Gerda at the upper station elevation 2,281 metres – the plaque says “Pretoria 15,844 kms”

101_8815

The last climb to the pinnacle
The last climb to the pinnacle
Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain
Banff far below
Banff far below
From the pinnacle
From the pinnacle

Scan_20141010 (3)

Alex and Sarah had decided the day was not done yet, so off we went to the Bow Falls for a view at the spot where the Bow River tumbles  over a 9m drop, which we managed just in time as dusk was well advanced. From there it was a short drive to the famous Banff Springs hotel for late night coffee and a look at this impressive hotel, before returning to our more ordinary, but very pleasant, hotel in town for a good night’s rest.

Bow Falls at dusk
Bow Falls at dusk
Banff Springs hotel
Banff Springs hotel
Coffe on the patio
Coffee on the patio

Tuesday 12 August

By now we were getting into the swing of things and the fact that non-stop action was the order of the day, but Alex and Sarah and the kids were looking after us so well that it was non-stop pleasure as well!

Breakfast was at Melissa’s Restaurant which, according to Alex and Sarah, served the best breakfast in town – hard for us to judge, but we could vouch for the Eggs Benedict being the best we’ve had and to go with it there was a great atmosphere plus friendly service, so we would have to agree.

Melissa's Restaurant
Melissa’s Restaurant

Well satisfied, we strolled back along the main street to our hotel and could see that Banff is very much a tourist-driven town, but none the worse for it, with neat architecture that has a real Swiss feel to it, especially with the mountain peaks always visible in the background.

IMG_1388

Banff street scene
Banff street scene
Even the sidewalk is attractive
Even the sidewalks are special in Banff
Love those big trucks - this one has "doolies" (double rear wheels)
Love the big trucks that are so common in Canada – this one has “doolies” (double rear wheels)

Once checked out we said goodbye for the time being to Rachel, who had to return to work, and headed along the road to Jasper for our next planned stop at the Icefields.

Part of the way there we stopped at Bow Lake to admire the scenery – and what scenery it was! This lake is fed by glaciers which are visible high up the mountain in the background, imparting the special colour to the water and the lake in turn feeds the Bow River which we had seen at a few places en route and which, according to Alex, runs all the way across Canada to the eastern side and eventually into the Hudson Bay.

Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake

This was a good spot for the kids to expend some energy and for us to stretch our legs and just enjoy the setting – my usual quest for birds turned up a White-crowned Sparrow and Alex found a pair of nesting Barn Swallows under the eaves of the small shop, which was interesting as we only ever see them as non-breeding visitors from the Northern Hemisphere.

This is where I am going to cut off this post and continue the story in the next post, which will cover the rest of our Rockies trip, crammed full of great experiences as it was, and the last day or so in Calgary. The highlight of the trip was still to come when we had a spectacular and unique trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier….

St Francis Bay & Cape St Francis : Blessed with beauty

“The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en-masse on narrow strips of exposed sand

〈Health warning : this post contains descriptions and photos of cars in addition to the usual birding stuff〉

The story so far…

As a follow on to our visit to Port Elizabeth and part of our 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape in April 2013, we chose to spend a few days in St Francis Bay, a small town south-west of PE, which we had never found an opportunity to visit and decided that this was the time to see what it was about. The birding spot descriptions in Roberts VII app were also enticing, promising a variety of waders in particular, so I was looking forward to some scouting around in search of something unusual and perhaps even a lifer for my trouble.

Getting there

We had enjoyed a couple of  days in Addo Elephant Park (covered in an earlier blog post) and left around 10.30 am to cover the short distance to St Francis Bay – with plenty of time on our hands we decided to take a slightly longer route to include Uitenhage, home to the Volkswagen factory in South Africa and very much the driving force (no pun intended, but it works anyway) behind the town. I had heard about a VW Heritage Centre being part of the factory complex and was curious to visit it – my passion for all things motoring comes second to birding but only just, so I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to take in a motor museum or a motoring event.

VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
Old Studebaker bakkie
Old Studebaker bakkie

Suffice to say the VW Heritage Centre was well worth the trouble and covers most of the history of VW in SA, as well as other makes which were assembled at the same facility, such as DKW, Auto-Union and Studebaker.

A selection of VW’s on view :

101_3359 101_3358 101_3348 101_3347 101_3345 101_3344

Some of the other makes :

DKW
DKW
Audi
Audi
Studebaker
Studebaker – and a Volvo hiding away

This was Gerda’s favourite :

101_3356 101_3355 101_3354 101_3353

After the museum visit and a light lunch at a friendly Coffee Shop, we left Uitenhage and completed the journey to St Francis Bay, where we found our guest house without too much trouble, a short drive from the village centre.

St Francis Bay

We had booked the guest house online before our visit to the Eastern Cape and it met all our expectations – we were the only guests for the few days we spent there and got chatting (well Gerda did, she’s the chatty one) to Joan who owns and runs the guest house in a quietly efficient manner including preparing a full breakfast. In the evenings we followed her advice and tried the local restaurants, which were of a high standard and most enjoyable.

It is always exciting visiting a place for the first time, especially from a birding point of view, not knowing what to expect and with the chance of a surprise waiting just around the corner.

I wasted no time on arrival and followed Joan’s advice to drive to the Kromme River estuary before sunset for a bit of initial exploration –  and atlasing of course. It being low tide, the birds I could see were at quite a distance in the middle of the estuary, so I removed my shoes and socks and waded through the shallow part of the channel to get to the exposed sand banks in the middle of the estuary for a better view.

Turnstone leading 3 Grey Plovers (the black armpits are a feature of the Grey Plover)

Many waders were present, including myself at that point, and some of the smaller species such as Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, as well as a selection of larger waders with Whimbrel, Grey Plover and African Black Oystercatcher being most prominent.

Grey Plover
Grey Plover
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Whimbrels and Plovers
Whimbrels and Plovers

The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en masse on narrow strips of exposed sand. Most were Common Terns with a few Swift Terns mingling with them, but standing out with their larger size and bright yellow bills

Sunset on the Kromme River estuary
Sunset on the Kromme River estuary

101_3461 101_3465

Next morning

After a hearty breakfast, we headed into the village to find the knitting shop that Gerda had  heard about from Joan – while she spent an hour or so indulging her passion, I carried on with mine and expanded my atlasing coverage to include as much of the town and residential area as possible.

Not too many species were added and I was really shocked by the state of the roads in the town, which were in a sad state of disrepair and obvious neglect – potholes everywhere and no sign of any attempt to fix anything.

Later we were even more disturbed when we took a drive through the part of St Francis that suffered a massive fire in November 2012, destroying about 70 thatched roof houses which were in the “canalled” area near the river – nothing worse than seeing so many homes razed to the ground, with many bare properties up for sale probably out of despair at the massive loss suffered. Apparently the fire was the result of a braai fire which got out of control in windy conditions and the local fire brigade proved to be useless in the face of it.

But back to more pleasant memories….

Cape St Francis

We took the road to Cape St Francis, a separate town a short distance south of St Francis Bay (all very confusing when you are not in the know), stopping at Port St Francis (now it’s really confusing) on the way to have a look at the small harbour located there. In Cape St Francis we drove to the sea front and stopped to scan the shoreline and sea – a surprise awaited in the form of an African Penguin close inshore and I was once again struck by the agility it was displaying in the rough seas amongst the rocks, diving under the waves as they came rushing in – it hardly seems like a bird species in those conditions. No African Penguins had been listed before in the pentad so it is clearly not a regular sighting in the area.

African Penguin at home in the rough sea
African Penguin at home in the rough sea

Kittlitz’s Plover and White-fronted Plover were both present along the grassed area

On the way out we popped into Sea Point Nature Reserve at the southernmost point of the bay and took a walk along the rocky path beyond the lighthouse, where a few Oystercatchers and Cormorants were visible, while a Cape Gannet flew by offshore and a Bokmakierie proudly claimed his territory in the fynbos.

Lighthouse at Cape St Francis
Lighthouse at Cape St Francis

IMG_0182

Sea Point Nature Reserve
Sea Point Nature Reserve

There were still a couple of hours of daylight left as we returned to our guest house, so we paid a second visit to the estuary where I was thrilled to find a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits on the exposed sand flats – another lifer!

The following day was the last of our Eastern Cape trip and with our flight back to the “big smoke” only being at 6pm we took the “road less travelled” back to PE, via Humansdorp and the surfing hotspot of Jeffreys Bay, stopping frequently along the way.

Phew, and if I get this posted now it means I have posted twice in September, sticking (only just) to my target of two posts a month

 

Port Elizabeth : A breath of Fresh Air

we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around”

The background

We had not been to Port Elizabeth (known as “PE” to most South Africans) in the Eastern Cape for a very long time, perhaps 20 years or more, so we were unsure what to expect when we decided to spend 6 days there in April 2013, as part of a 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape. Our reason (excuse?) for going to PE was to support our son James and wife Minette along with their 2 young kids, as James had entered to do the “Ironman” Triathlon which takes place in PE each year. For those not in the know, the Ironman is an event that would horrify most of us who belong to the unfit brigade and even a lot of those who consider themselves fit – 3.8 Km of swimming in the open sea, a bike ride of 180 Km and a run of 42 Km!

While we were in PE it made sense to visit a couple of the birding spots listed on my Roberts VII App, and I selected two which looked really worthwhile – Cape Recife Nature Reserve and Swartkops River Estuary, both of which were within easy driving distance of Summerstrand, where we had rented accommodation for the stay.

Port Elizabeth Impressions

Memories of short visits to PE a long time ago were faded, but we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about our visit to the city as such, however we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around.

Summerstrand beach
Summerstrand beach
View from the pier
View from the pier
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore

Our accommodation was in a guest house in Summerstrand, close to the Ironman start and finish and with plenty of space for all 6 of us

Our accommodation in PE
Our guest house accommodation in PE
Jemma found a comfy spot to catch the sun
Jemma found a sunny spot at the guest house

The Ironman Triathlon was well-organized and supported and more or less dominated the Summerstrand area and surroundings for the whole weekend, pulling in visitors from all over South Africa and internationally as well.

Part of the Ironman route
Part of the Ironman route
James on the bike leg
James on the bike leg
The marathon at the end was tough
The marathon run at the end was tough, but he made it
Minette providing moral support
Minette providing moral support

Cape Recife Nature Reserve

This reserve lies at the southernmost point of Algoa Bay, comprising long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, coastal dune scrub and fynbos. The rocks attract seven species of Tern at different times, some of which are resident, others visitors.

The reserve is easy to find, being signposted from Marine Drive, just 2.5 km from Summerstrand and there is a nominal entrance fee, which you pay at the Pine Lodge Resort on the left immediately before the manned entrance boom.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon and once into the reserve, I continued the atlasing which I had started on the Pentad boundary before the turn-off (Pentad 3400_2540). Along the first stretch of road that leads to the lighthouse,  I heard a number of Sombre Greenbuls giving their sharp “Willie”call and saw Barn Swallows, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Scrub-Robin and several other common birds to get my list going. Further on, the beach came into view and I stopped at a gap in the dunes to check out the shoreline and was rewarded with a Little Egret working the rocks for morsels.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Little Egret - yellow feet showing nicely
Little Egret – yellow feet showing nicely

The road soon ended at the lighthouse where there is a parking area. Judging by the heavy earthmoving equipment parked nearby and signs of sand being repositioned, I guessed that some form of beach rehabilitation was underway, which was reinforced when I came across rows of old tires half buried in the sand as I made my way along the wide beach.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife

Just beyond the lighthouse, the beach stretched for a long distance, bordered on the sea side by rows of jagged rocks which effectively break up the waves, so that only shallow streams reach the inner beach, making it ideal for the waders present such as :

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

White-fronted Plover

White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife
White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife

Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)

Sanderling, Cape Recife
Sanderling, Cape Recife

Other birds enjoying the sandy flats were many Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and a group of 3 Whimbrels , which hopped off the rocks and trotted off elegantly in the shallow water as I approached.

African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatchers
African Black Oystercatchers
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrels
Whimbrels

Less pleasing was the amount of litter in the form of plastic bottles and bags plus other debris, which is probably washed ashore from the bay, as the beach itself does not attract the usual gamut of holidaymakers, just hardy walkers, fisherman and birders who, by their nature, are not inclined to litter.

I noticed that some of the Oystercatchers were raising their one leg when standing still and limping slightly when walking – on closer inspection of my photos when I got back home, some of them were ringed with bands that appeared to be too tight, which was probably the reason for their discomfort. (I placed these photos on the SA Birding Facebook page in the hope that someone in the know would look into it)

African Black Oystercatchers with ring showing
African Black Oystercatchers with rings showing
Another ringed Oystercatcher
Another ringed Oystercatcher
This ring looks tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp
These rings look tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp

One part of the beach had rows of pebbles and shells along the high water mark, some of which – to my surprise – “came alive”, turning into plovers and Sanderlings as I got too close for their comfort, and moving off in unison. This just proved once again how well camouflaged they are in their natural environment.

Sanderlings
Sanderlings
White-fronted Plovers
White-fronted Plovers

The Terns present during my short visit were a contingent of Swift Terns occupying small rocks just offshore and a few Caspian Terns with their distinctive red bills, flying overhead and posing on the sandy flats.

Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife

White-breasted Cormorants were prominent along the water’s edge, waddling about then taking off in rapid direct flight as I approached.

White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife
White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife

Having completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and enjoyed some memorable birding, I slowly made my way back up the beach in the rapidly fading light past the lighthouse, partly silhouetted against the setting sun, to the parking area for the short trip back to the guest house.

 

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife

Swartkops River Estuary

This is the other “must-visit” birding spot for visitors to PE. We visited the area on the Monday (Pentad 3350_2535) and found it about 20 minutes drive along the N2 towards Grahamstown, where we turned off at the Swartkops/John Tennant Road intersection. Once we were in Swartkops village, we turned right towards the riverside, which was accessible at certain points, but the sand flats exposed by the receding tide and favoured by many waders, Gulls and others were quite a distance away and a spotting scope would have been of great assistance – I only decided later in the year to treat myself to my first spotting scope and on this occasion had to make do with the binos.

Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary

Most of the birds were easy enough to ID but a couple of larger waders had me puzzled – a nearby tree helped me hold the binos steady and after straining my eyes for some time I was able to confirm a Greater Sand Plover, which happily was a lifer for me.

Having started on the Swartkops Village side we slowly made our way along the riverside until we came to a single lane bridge, which took us to Amsterdamhoek, a village which stretches along the other side of the estuary and has a long row of riverside houses which have clearly been there for many years, some renovated, others looking rather old and battered by the elements.

On the way a Harrier did a fly over across the marshy area next to the road, but unfortunately I was not able to confirm an ID although I suspect it was one of the “ring-tail” harriers such as Montagu’s or Pallid. My photos of this bird in flight were far off and hurried so were not conclusive at all.

The road through Amsterdamhoek ended at the river mouth, where many Terns were present, resting on long narrow sand banks exposed by the tide – most were Common Terns with a sprinkling of Swift Terns and a couple of Caspian Terns in between.

Terns at Swartkops Estuary
Terns at Swartkops Estuary

All of the birds present kept their distance, making it impossible to get close-up photos of them, with the exception of some Domestic Geese which appeared to have made the estuary their home – so here is the only decent bird photo I could get on the day!

Domestic Geese
Domestic Geese have made their home at Swartkops Estuary

All in all we found PE to be a really pleasant place for a visit and could easily go back there if the opportunity arises

 

Forthcoming Attractions

For the first time since starting this blog a year and a bit ago when I set myself a target of 2 posts a month, I did not manage to publish twice in August – reason being we have been on tour in Canada and Alaska since 7 August and will be returning to SA on 10 September

We have had an amazing time so far with week 1 covering Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, week 2 on a cruise to Alaska and week 3 being in Ontario and on tour through several provinces of Canada east such as Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

Once I have sorted and edited the many photos and caught up with my diary I’ll be adding some posts on these wonderful places – watch this space!

Posted from aboard a ferry between Digby Nova Scotia and St Johns New brunswick – the wonders of technology!

Back soon

A Taste of Cuba – Birding with Ernesto : Varadero

“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

The Reserva 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 :

Ecological Reserve at Varadero
Ecological Reserve at Varadero
Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes
Camouflaged Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes

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)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

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

Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs
Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs
Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)
Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)
My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book)
My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book – but note this is not a dumb blonde, he’s a Neurologist)
"Tourist Skin" tree - so called because it peels like the European visitors after a few days in Varadero's sun
“Tourist Skin” tree – so called because its thin red bark peels – just like the European tourists do after a few days in Varadero’s sun (Actual name is West-Indian Birch, I believe)

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.

Water treatment works at Varadero
Ponds at the Varadero Water treatment works

Tri-coloured Heron

White-chinned Pintail

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers
Northern Shovelers take to flight

Blue-winged Teal

Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)

Laughing Gull

White Ibis

American Coot

Coot and White Ibis
American Coot and White Ibis sharing a patch next to one of the ponds

 

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.

 

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel