Saturday, March 30, 2019

Birding the Garden Route

Yesterday morning I woke up in a small cabin at the edge of a pasture in a farm near Suurbraak, South Africa, a small town named after very sour vomit.  I'd spent the preceding days seeing the real South Africa.  But just what is the real South Africa?  Was it the big wildlife like the Cape Mountain Zebra (above) or the threatened Bontebok, with populations now up from a mere 17 animals over a century ago

maybe it is the scenery?

Or possibly the hundreds of thousands of people who live in what can only be described as substandard fish houses....
 And this town has no other amenities but it has the 'corner market'
Or maybe it was the protest that had closed a mountain pass on the main highway out of Cape Town that blocked our way forcing us to take a narrow coastal route that was covered in trucks?  I just don't know.  Beauty, poverty, some turmoil, and a whole heck of a lot of wildlife, and all that with long names in an old form of Dutch that nobody can pronounce.

THE GARDEN ROUTE stretches for 190 miles from Mossel Bay, South Africa east along the Indian Ocean coast through a temperate region wedged between the coastal mountain range and the sea.  It is a gorgeous area of wide beaches, lakes, temperate rain forest and nice weather all year. 
As we pulled out of Hout Bay on the 28th finishing a near week in Cape Town getting our sea legs and starting our assault on the South African Field Guides of birds, we headed east, this was our destination.  As I said, our route ended up a bit longer than normal as a major pass on the N2 as we would learn later was blocked by protesters who were burning tires.  The only other way around the pass was a long circuitous seaside route that was visually stunning but narrow and now full of trucks.  It was like our opinion of Africa, a mixed feeling.  There were some nice views.
More African penguins...
and traffic, scary traffic on tight highways...
And then, we got to the farm. The farm was over an hour east of the official start of the garden route in arid farm country.  Suurbraak literally means sour vomit but I’m not really sure of how it became known as this.  We were the guests of Neels and Petra, a couple that lets out their guest rooms a few miles off the N2.
            This was real South Africa, immense country, huge vistas, narrow dirt roads and in some cases made me feel that we were in Montana hosted by Dutch immigrant farmers.
There were only a few rules here, wear what you want, go where you like, do what you will, but don't say a Dutch word I'd never heard of before and whatever you do, don't wake the PIG!  
There is nothing worse than a hungry porker...

With this in mind, we stayed the night, the next morning we walked to the outhouse, didn't wake the pig and went birding
Maxine, the dog was a good bird chaser, not a good bird finder
Our cabin

Fiscal flycatcher

Cool Secretary bird

Springbok in the field

It was different than the cultivated gardens of Cape town full of Orange bellied sunbirds and 
Malachite sunbirds

This was a place of harsh realities formed by the weather and the seasons but it was really cool but we had to leave.
We drove off and saw African fish eagles

Baboons, being a little NC-17
 Pin-tailed whydahs that I can count on my list unlike those in Los Angeles

Africa....I still can't figure it out but we are still moving east, and saw two elephants on the side of the road, only Africa and we've seen a lot of birds...a lot of birds, I've seen a ton of birds



Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Nightingale and Inaccessible

We spent two days hanging around the Tristan group of islands which included four smaller islands the largest of them being Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands.
It was a wonderful two days of landscape vistas, birds, and enjoyment of places few get to see, and I am sure we will never get to see again

Nightingale Island
luckily this island is rat free, as in no rats inhabit the island causing destruction of seabirds, despite some shipwrecks there, that is lucky

This small island is actually still an active volcano as it erupted in 2004 on an undersea vent, something it has not done they believe in tens of thousands of years.  In many respects, it has its own ecosystem and is home to endemic birds despite its size.  Landing is difficult and even cruising the island up close with Zodiacs can be impossible but we still had this rare favorable weather pattern so we got lucky.

Nightingale Island Finch, a song bird endemic just to Nightingale, one of three passerines found there.  The species on these two islands are a mess as the finches found on Nightingale and Inaccessible  Islands are sometimes considered subspecies of one larger species complex.  It is quite obvious that they evolved from a common vagrant flock.  The larger billed Wilkin's finch (not pictured) seems different enough to be considered a true species.  I did not see finches on Inaccessible 

Tristan Thrush, I photographed all three subspecies found on the three islands.  The thrush on Nightingale are very dark.

subantarctic fur seals

The local Tristaners go to Nightingale for vacation, here are some cabins

Moseley's rockhopper penguin swimming

And here are more being chased around by a cheeky fur seal

Inaccessible Island
This larger island is almost inaccessible, and is difficult to even explore.  I had hoped that a Zodiac cruise around would discover its endemic inaccessible island rail, the holy grail of birds but alas no luck in that.  I only saw more penguins and a lot more thrush, finishing the triumvirate of Tristan thrush subspecies

Elephant seal

Moseley's rockhopper penguin, penguin #7 for the trip

Inaccessible ssp. of Tristan Thrush

Tristan da Cunha

Many of you have talked about the "port."  There is no port.  They unload supplies onto pontoons and then small fishing boats tow them to shore.  Cargo ships have been known to come wait a week and leave without ever being unloaded.  They then lift items onto shore using the yellow crane, including the fishing boats, nothing stays in the water very long.

There is a bit of a jetty but it gets washed away every year.  Some smart person thought they should use wind power here.  They put up some towers and the first winter they had a big wind and all the towers blew over and were destroyed.  Such is the life here.  
       It was almost doldrums calm here mysteriously when we showed up.  The locals even patted us on the back for the luck as we'd have to be ferried by Zodiac to shore and back, but the weather held for two days.  Our last day we circumnavigated the island.  Almost saw the volcanic peak,  Went past the village and gave them a greeting toot and then we turned east and left, literally at that very moment the wind picked up, the clouds returned and the seas got rougher.  The weather gods removed their blocking of Tristan's weather  It was a glorious few days.

The mountain peak is rarely seen, we couldn't have been luckier

At Sea, heading east
The variety of seabirds I've seen on this trip is quite unreal, they are thinning out as we head east but will change to African species and everything will be new again, here are some of the last to leave

Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross

great shearwater (5 Million nest on the Tristan group)

Southern giant petrel

Critically endangered Tristan albatross, a misnamed bird as only 8 or so are found in Tristan group, the others nest on Gough

White-bellied storm petrel, tough to ID in flight

Spectacled petrel, only nest on Inaccessible , they followed the boat for 1000 miles before abandoning us

So we put Tristan astern and now we have 1510 miles to Africa to continue this epic and possibly crazy journey.  4 meter seas are becoming calm seas in my mind.

Tristan is a wonderful place when it is calm, those rare days.  Debi Shearwater has been out here twice...and not landed.  James Harrington once and not landed.  The head of the exploration on this boat 5 times and landed twice.  We've had exceptional luck so if you want to go this way understand, getting to shore is the exception and not the rule and there is nothing that can be done.  Even the fishermen only can go to sea 70 out of 365 days.  I feel fortunate and at peace.  Now I can move on to Africa and continue on with the journey

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tristan da Cunha, the dream comes true

What effects you and how things happen can be odd and by luck A earthquake in San Francisco led me to be in the south Atlantic 30 years later.  How you may ask?  A bad pitching performance would also cause the same thing.  That seem odder but yet, also true

On October 17, 1989, I do not remember where I was, but I sort of remember what happened.  The third game of the World Series was about to start and an earthquake hit the Bay area.  I was studying Pathology and I wasn't watching the series that night.  The series got postponed for 10 days and even though I wasn't the biggest Oakland A's fan (the Twins won the western division in 1987 and 1991 with Oakland winning the three years in between), I decided to go home and watch the third game with my grandfather Allwin.  This idea changed my life, the earthquake changed my life, the fact that Oakland won game three and took an 8-0 lead in the 6th inning of the fourth game, changed my life.

So let us start there, ....With Oakland going ahead 8-0 in the top of the 6th inning on October 28, 1989, ahead 3 games to none, my grandfather gave up and walked upstairs and went to bed (they won 9-6 and clinched the series about an hour later).  It was just 10 PM.  I got bored at the game and trolled channels (we only had 5) and my life changed.  A show as just starting on PBS was a special about some great Journey.  It was to a place I'd never heard of and I knew maps.

Here is the link.

The words that started the show, have been etched in my mind for now thirty years as said by John Heminway, documentary writer.
"Tristan da Cunha.  It is hardly a place.  It is a destination of the mind.  Tristan da Cunha, it has become a sing song folk music theme of this show.  I am beginning to have my doubts and am not sure I want to get there any more, just in case I'm let down.  Tristan da Cunha.....Tristan da Cunha.....Tristan da Cunha."

I'll let you watch it, just saying the words is causing me to cry, to have goose bumps, and I'm beginning to be overwhelmed.  Tristan da Cunha....

I watched that TV show and I was moved.  Maybe it was the way the host continually repeated the destination Tristan da Cunha, many many times.  I don't know.  I do not know if I ever saw John Hemminway do another documentary but I saw this one.  I was 23 and I decided that life is about adventure, no matter what, somehow, some way, I'd get to Tristan da Cunha, because it was Tristan da Cunha, the greatest place to go on earth.

A lot happened since then.  I got married in 1990, I graduated medical school in 1992, we moved, moved again, moved again, had twins, moved, moved, had a daughter., started a business...
along the way my first email contact was the newsletter of the HMS St. Helena, the only way to get out there and I bought a rare 200 dollar book about the place, as it was out of print and well, Penguins, Potatoes, and Postage Stamps was a great title and only one copy was available on Amazon.

I never added this to my bucket list as I didn't really add things to the list in my 20s, AND it was so improbable, so impossible, so impracticable....,10 days at sea after getting to Cape Town, South Africa and a wife who gets seasick?  It would take a six week block just to try it AND not always does the ship even go or land, in fact, bailing on Tristan is more normal.  6 weeks to go for your dream and then have it dashed?

Tristan da Cunha, maybe just getting there is a let down, and I shouldn't have tried?  Maybe it is the dream that is important NOT the journey itself.
A tiny speck of land, a 7600 foot high mountain, 1510 miles east of Cape Town, the most remote settlement on Earth, why?  why?  Why is this important?

The volcano erupted in 1961 causing everyone to be evacuated and then 2 years later, they returned, but why?  It just added to the mystique.  I had to go, somehow, some way, and then I saw a trip, I talked others into going, it was the convincing of my life, I could sell a religion easier but maybe Tristan da Cunha, is a religion.

Silja and I have been on a month trip with the ultimate goal Tristan da Cunha.  We left a month ago and when the boat headed north in South Georgia I looked at the weather, and it didn't look good.  One woman leading excursions had came 5 times and landed twice.  We had a native Tristaner on the boat and he even seemed doubtful.  Two days ago in Gough, it looked impossible and then
it happened.  The clouds parted, the waves ebbed, the sun shone, and wow!  WOW!  WOW!

Tristan da Cunha!

I came, I saw, I was there.  Let me say it.  Every wave, every rock, every scheme, every step, every roll, every thought, every doubt, everything, was worth it.  It was the best day, the best day I've spent anywhere.  It was glorious, it was wonderful.  It was fulfilling.  It was great. It was marvelous, it was an adjective I haven't learned yet.

We walked the village of 265 people.  We climbed a couple of hills.  We could not climb the 7600 volcano, just what erupted 50 years ago.  We found a rare bird.  We drank beer.  We stretched on the grass.  We ate lobster, and we bought was Tristan da Cunha!

My wife had a southern painted lady butterfly light on her and as such, we had wonderful luck.  This is a place many try to visit but few even making the 1500 mile journey can't land, the weather Gods frowning and keeping them at sea.

We came and we enjoyed, we smiled, we left, and now ...we remember.

Some views of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and Tristan da Cunha.

Original house surviving volcano behind

view of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

government residence

potato patches

sign about mileage

Tristan Thrush, the rare lifer endemic bird I climbed the mountain for
lifer beer at the pub, best lifer beer ever
We got a private tour of the new hospital with the doctor just arrived from Pitcairn, he likes isolated places

The local working dogs get rides, the dogs look all related

Don trudging along

Our ship in the harbor

Nancy at overlook

Ah Tristan da Cunha, the photos do not give it justice, we spent 7 hours of perfection on the island and we were the last to leave.  It was like I was leaving my dream, but it was a good dream, a great dream.  It was time to wake up.

We met a man who remembered John Hemminway and that trip to Tristan in 1989.  He rode out on the HMS St Helena to Cape Town in 1989.  He thought the special was a good one.  He remembered waving a towel on the ship as it went back from Nightingale to Tristan.

The people here are warm and friendly, I enjoyed every conversation I had, every hello, in reality, they have little here besides their island only making on average 200 pounds a month  but yet they are rich here.  Rich in where they are and who they are, not in what they have.  Any where else and they are poor but here...they have this.

As my show from 1989 ended, so my day ended for me, when setting out to realize a dream, I also found something unexpected, Tristan da Cunha, and that is why we travel and why this whole 30 year odyssey has moved me

It has taken me 30 years to live this dream, while I was here, a family friend died and with that and this, I am lost in emotion of Tristan da Cunha
Thank you John Hemminway!  Thank you Tristan da Cunha!
the smile will never fade


Golden dreams and memories

  Today brings me to the north suburbs of Chicago.  Although not for a bird even though a lifer bird had been flying tantalizingly close to ...