Thursday, November 2, 2023

Flying COPA Cabana Airlines


Part 5/5, The Pilot's name was Rico (really!) but he didn't wear a diamond and there was no Lola, she never came over...

The story of COPA and how exactly Olaf got lifer 1896, the pretty good Olive-spotted hummingbird shown above.  This was my last Brazilian bird, and it came in overtime on this trip and will come later.

The ends of trips are melancholy at best but sometimes just getting home is an adventure

An epic trip has four parts:

1) A noble purpose.  Say my bucket list zero event of going to Trisdan da Cuhna, a Big year, a wedding in paradise, or something.

2) A beginning of course, the buildup, and as they say half the fun is getting there

3) the actual event, of destination, going to Trisdan and not landing a boat would have been "tragic" and not "epic" 

4) Getting home

We have had EPic trips, South America-South Africa, Boating Lake Powell thirty years ago, RV camping in Sweden, a Glacier trip on our honeymoon, and Attu, nude birding are five of many that come to mind.

We have had some real Tragic trips, too, a Bermuda trip including near frost bite and a plane crash and milking a wounded new RV around California and back are two classic ones, but most trips are somewhere in the middle.  A trip between shifts in Spearfish to Minnesota playoff baseball with the Yankees and back also comes to mind as the Twins got obliterated by Roger Clemens and I arrived to a disaster of the previous ER doctor's making upon my arrival at 7am when the cop tracked me down at the motel.  The extra hour they refused to authorize payment for and this was the last time I ever worked there. There are also the boring trips that nothing really happens, which for us are few and far between as something ALWAYS happens.

This trip was in the middle but more on the tragic side of things.  It will ALWAYS be remembered as that trip the boat ran aground and that terrible trip home, and not for all the nice people we met nor the 50 lifer birds I saw.  Much like Thailand-Bhutan last year is remembered for the food poisoning I had and the awful end to our flight.

So what happened?

We were heading to Manaus aboard the Premium ship.  

We came across a group of poachers on the National park, fishing and stealing turtle eggs, our guide Wolf gave them a wide berth as who knows if they were armed.

We stopped at a more modern Native settlement.  They had a new school, had electricity since 2017, a store, but eighty steps to get up the hill.  Below is their sawmill.

The village was a mecca for birds

I saw our first variegated flycatcher there, on a power line they had just put in

I saw a Hauxwell's thrush in a tree, not well as we heard it mostly and tried to get the other birder on it and lost it and never got a photo.   Then there was also this immature thrush

I was thinking it was a Pale breasted thrush due to it being more conspicuous and looking at me, but I am not sure.

The namesake of the Hauxwell's Thrush is a bit of a mystery, as it (and some other things) is probably named after John Hauxwell, a "collector of specimens," but whose affiliation and how he came to the Amazon and what he did is unclear.  He died somewhere between 1886 and 1919, lived in Peru after maybe Manaus...(There is also a T. A. Hauxwell).

So, with the trip winding down, we ended up trying to unsuccessfully catch a piranha, we fished off of a high and dry floating home.

Then it was back to Manaus, an obligate tourist activity seeing the Manaus Opera house built in 1897, it had been abandoned after the rubber boom ended in 1915 when British agents smuggled out rubber seeds and found they could be grown cheaper in Malaysia 

We had an early night, just before dark, I was out birding behind the hotel and slipped in the mud and wiped out coating myself with sticky clay-mud.  I had to scrape it off everything in the shower in the room.  Luckily my camera was in my backpack.

This Chiri vireo, not a lifer was what I thought was going to be the last bird for the trip ,

We went to bed at 8 and were up at midnight for a 1245 departure in the morning,  We loaded up, zipped through tickets, security, passport control and causally noted that the flight would be 30 minutes late.  The plane came in, they took their time boarding and eventually everyone got on and we sat down but they never shut the doors and Rico the pilot looked like he was waiting for something, and we waited, and waited

The announced something in Portuguese and then in English, "flight cancelled."  That was it, nothing more and we all filed out and through customs, who had all gone home.  It was 0430 at the airport.  We tried to pump a few bilingual people about what was also said, but we got little.  

What had happened, the airport in Manaus closes from 4AM to Noon every day and despite a plane loaded and sitting on the tarmac, the Air traffic control people in the tower went home at 4AM and as such the plane could not take off and depart.

This also made the crew "time out" so their mandatory 12 hour break would not start until they got to the hotel and COPA was dithering about that and they did not depart the airport until 530 so, that was the rumor of the time of departure in the afternoon.   

Everyone piled in front of COPA's one representatives, nothing was happening and here we were the 19 Americans who could not really understand what was said and we sat in a closed airport with no food and nothing.  COPA "called" all of the hotels but they were full. Silja got on the telephone with the emergency number at Road Scholar and woke someone up named Steve.  Calling a random relative of one of the fellow travelers would have been more helpful.  My wife was then on hold for a while and then got nothing just advice to call the main office when they opened in 4 hours.

Then we decided to try to contact our guide Wolf, but how do you call Brazil in Brazil from a US cell phone?  We could not do it and then my wife remembered she had him on Instagram and he answered.  Wolf showed up like an angry German and walked into the COPA manager's office, soon we were on a bus back to our hotel and our old rooms, a free breakfast and then lunch.

I went back to the spot in the back of the hotel and watched them remove a caiman from a hole and then tried to identify honeycreepers with another birder.....

olive potted hummingbird

I saw my last lifer, an olive-spotted hummingbird, and after two showers and a nap, it was back to the airport for round two at 230

Checking was still crazy and no officer was in immigration just a woman with a list of all of us that had "left the country" earlier that morning.  

I read some comments on the airline while we waited.

"COPA sucks!"  Non stop delays. Not 15 min delays I’m talking HOURS. Horrible. Even worse than Spirit. I think this might be the worse airline in the world. 

"Reservation System does not work properly, very bad customer service.COPA system for reservation is very bad. I tried to add a checked bag in advance and the system did not allow me, it ask me to wait until check in day. On check in day, the COPA system to collect the payment did not work. Now I need to pay at the counter a more expensive price, this is the only option I have. Then, when I call the call center, the poor service representative cannot do anything because the system is locked everywhere. This translated in a very bad customer service. There are many more things that I want to complain, but I do not have time to keep writing.

COPA poked around and finally we got going to Panama City with Rico driving the plane, somehow it was uneventful, and then luckily our quick transfer to Miami was a gate away, but after going through the scanner, we walked up and noticed the flight was delayed two hours, even with the plane sitting around at the gate.

We finally left, I was stuck in a middle seat stuck between two bigger guys than me with a woman in front of me grabbing me on the top of the head while I slept.  It was a relief to get out at Miami, we hustled through the airport found our car and drove the rest of the night and early morning home, the trip was over 16 hours later than expected.  We were tired, furniture was arriving soon and in a day, my mother was coming and a day after that, Silja and her were both flying to Germany to check on our son, who was having surgery.

The trip was over, I logged 50 new bird species, 104 for the trip, which was a bit of work.  I logged country number 59 to my Century Club total, met some nice people and brought home chiggers.  We ran aground, had a crazy airplane delays and we rode COPA Cobana airlines for a first and maybe....last time.

COPA is bad but Road Scholar should not have forced everyone to start in Miami, some, could have saved 6-14 hours or more in the air by meeting in Panama, we could have started in Tampa, half of the group could have flown into the west coast directly.

Road Scholar needs a better emergency response, and we need to figure out how to use our phones from an international country to that country.

Brazil, maybe another time, we'll see, maybe Peacock Bass fishing, it was not an "epic" trip but memorable none-the-less.  COPA, I'd advise a pass.  My cats were so lonely to see us, it was nice to be welcomed home.



Sunday, October 29, 2023

Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last

PART 4 of 5:  
When I last left you we were stuck on a rock in the middle of the Rio Negro River just over 2 degrees south latitude in Brazil.  As rocks go, our was at least a comfortable one and the boat was only slightly perched askew with the rain accumulating aft

We went out at night and mostly saw spectacled caiman, the above blue and yellow macaw came later....

During the night the Princesp Clariant, a smaller motorized transport ship came to rescue us and take us to a hotel on the mainland.  I do not remember the town. Having nothing better to do, and with the ship still stuck on a rock, we got up at 0530 and went to scout the shoreline for something, anything.  The morning air was still cool and so I climbed in a back seat and off we went.

Something else was also different, I had bug bites, all sorts of bugs bites on my torso.  Were they mosquitoes, flies, or bed bugs?  From the look of them, it appeared that they were chiggers, a souvenir from the walk on shore yesterday.

As birding explorations go it was just okay.  It was overcast and the only lifer bird for me was a velvet-fronted grackle, a black bird not unlike many of the other grackles found around North and South America.

Not the stylish Amazon bird but a lifer none-the-less

After a rain scare we were heading back to the boat to eat breakfast and to pack when the driver of our small boat stopped and grabbed for Silja’s bins.  The boat had moved, THE BOAT HAD Moved!

 Princesp Clariant tied up to the Premium but the ship was three hundred yards from its last position

A phrase came to mind from Martin Luther King, maybe well out of context but it described my feeling, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last."

The crew reloading an air compressor.  The owner came with the rescue boat.  They dove under the boat and used floats and with 2 tons of people off the boat, they were able to bust it loose.    Now we could proceed, but the program which I had never read was thrown out the window.  The river was deemed too low to go much up river and so, they planned alternatives and they deployed Brazilian sonar to lead the boat as we poked along up the river.

But then the water was deemed too low, so we went back and then went to the shore and hacked a trail through it, there were no birds nor snakes but two frogs...

a frog of the Hyla genius, "green tree frog"
Find this 5 inch forest toad...

Later more birding in the boat, all lifers except the Crane Hawk

Brown chested martins

Crane hawk

A shocking find of a paradise jacamar from the boat!

rusty margined flycatcher

Silver billed tanager


white throated toucan, heard many seen a few, all were badly photographed, my fourth species of toucan the other in the area channel billed I have seen in Trinidad

tui parakeet

If nothing else, I kept seeing birds and logging lifers 

At the end of the day of freedom, Silja was made a princess, princess of the Amazon, queen of the after dinner drinking, or empress of the evening, I don't know but she looked good
but then that night she also got chiggers.

The trip, continued and where we go or what we would see, no one except maybe Wolf had an idea, what else could happen?  Hopefully the birding gods and the vacation gods would give us a pass and let the bad luck go on to someone else, but when Olaf gets the weird going, it just keeps going.....

Hey at least we got off the rock!



Saturday, October 28, 2023

Aground on the Rio Negro

It was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times.  The title of this blog reads like a Hitchcockian novel, Aground on the Rio Negro and it was, sort of, save for the mysterious deaths or lack of them.

Day 3 started off lucky as Silja spotted a Burrowing owl on "her" beach in front of where the boat was parked for the night. I don't know how many of these guys are around nor extent of range in the Amazon basin but I thought this was a good bird.

A Burrowing owl on the "beach of Sarah," or as we (I) initially thought it was encouragement to "pray for Sarah" Portuguese is tricky! I pray for Silja every day

We went to a native village and saw the Dessana people.  We bought a few trinkets  
 I realized how nice the people were on this boat as we got to know each other.  Everyone had a story and interesting ones too.  I tried to stay as low-key as I could even though it is hard.  That evening we went out on a magical boat ride for birding.

Scarce and an incredible colored male Agami heron, the "hummingbird heron" as named locally

Cocoi herron

Festive parrots

Fulvous shrike tanager

Hoatzin, an odd bird with two stomachs

Orange crowned yellow finch

Rufescent tiger heron, not a lifer but still a cool bird

Things were going well, I even got two nightjars driving home which was a long trip as the channel we were on was blacked and the boat had moved.

The next morning brought more luck, early morning with my spotting scope on the front deck of the Premium ship we drove past two huge birds that came out of the woods feeding, the crestless curassow, what luck!  A drive-by miracle.....lifer birds were falling into place!

We went for a forest walk that morning, and mostly saw trees, but there was this trogon, in the distance, then up close but maybe 20 yards behind but the guides did not want to turn around the pack train, and I bit my tongue, remembering my pledge to keep my mouth shut but the trogon did not, it moved with us and then nearing the end of the planed walk was to our right and then forest guide Aldinei said "for those of you birders lets go find the trogon."  I was right behind him.

It was high in tree but it is pictured as the lead photo to this blog.  A lifer, but a lifer what, there are lots of trogons here.  The bird pictured is a female and then back at the boat a friendly disagreement between the three birders ensued.  White-tailed vs. Green backed trogon, it was obviously a green backed to me, it turned out we both meant T. viridis which had been split and used to be the White-tailed trogon but the T viridis subspecies had been split off to be the "Green backed trogon."  It was worth a chuckle at using old books and old names.  Birding is hard enough when just knowing it is a trogon is not good enough.

We were sitting up in the air-conditioned lounge on the second deck, and I was fixing the first picture here when all of a sudden, the boat violently stopped, and you could here the sound of steel on rock.  Glass at the bar could be heard breaking.  There was suddenly a feeling that the front of the boat was higher than the back of the boat. I looked over the rail and saw crew doing the same.  It was clear, we had run aground in the middle of the river.  Yikes!

Our intrepid leader did not look fazed by the ordeal he had his normal midday "Medicine" his Caipirinha, a drink of the local cachaca with lots of lime, sugar and ice.  Here is Wolf with Eddy the barman.

You can see the reef by the waves dropping over it, the ripple tells of a ledge

So plan A was to use the diesel engines to blast us back, and off the rock.  So the engine roared to life and the boat shuttered and shook but it did not budge.
Then we added the two shore boats to the mix and they tried to loosen it sideways

 That did not work either.  We had lunch while it rained and then the ship tried it again, to no avail, and then they got out the "Brazilian Sonar" a man in a boat with a stick

A passing ship the Tucano came to our rescue

We sent over a boat to get their experts onboard to assess the situation.  They apparently had a better and more sophisticated sonar system and used it around the boat.  This upgrade "Brazilian sonar" (Lidar?) had an extra blue stick attached to the end and extended the range apparently.  Sometimes they even used two sticks.  "Double mounted sonar?"

They moved in the Tucano for an apparent big combined pull and attached a rope, tying it to something in front.

As an objective reporter, the rope looked a bit substandard.  They tied it on and then.....untied it.  Men looked over the two boats and then....Our captain in a small boat took a picture and....the Tucano turned and left us to our fate without even trying.  We were stuck...

There we sat perched on a rock like a cormorant.  Plan C was not a plan at all, pink dolphins circled the boat and looked to attempt to get us off but they just moved on, too.  A rumor circulated later that evening that we would be rescued by a "fast boat" from Manaus and taken to a hotel in some small village on the river...Plan D apparently but who was counting, the program would need to be adjusted, but again, I could say nothing. I was just along for the ride, and what happened, happened.....We went for a night boat ride and I looked for birds, there was nothing else left to do except watch the barges of sand pass us.

We saw a few boat-billed herons and a few caiman.  It was nothing stunning.  Just our boat sitting stuck

The Premium boat still sitting aground that first uneasy night.....

Aground on the Rio Negro....nineteen passengers, 2 guides, and 10 crew.  Around midnight I hoped this would be our rescue boat but  We were not that lucky, it just sped past.

Stayed tuned, does Olaf and Silja get recued?



Flying COPA Cabana Airlines

                              Part 5/5, The Pilot's name was Rico (really!) but he didn't wear a diamond and there was no Lola, she ...