Saturday, November 19, 2005

Cruising for birds II

If it’s Thursday, this must be Roatàn. This little island off the coast of Honduras is very lush-looking although the literature told us to expect a third-world country complete with begging children. The island is about 40 miles long and between 1 and 4 miles wide. Its population is about 30,000 and they speak mostly Spanish, however, most people are bilingual due to the amount of tourism on the island.

The weather started out bad and only got worse as a tropical depression turned to Tropical Storm Gamma. The sky was gray, it was raining, and the ocean was a sickly green. We could have cancelled our outing, but I was reluctant to do that as it would be our only time off the ship until Sunday night. We met our tour guide, Carmen, from Roatàn Island Tours and set off in a Mercedes minivan through the streets of Coxen Hole. Carmen is an islander who was very knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, and politics of the island. She also had the patience of a saint. The amount of ignorance shown by some of our fellow travelers was amazing. I hate being associated with the “gringos” who don’t realize that they traveled from one country to another during the night and that people in these two countries do not know each other nor do they know much about the other country. Why would one ask questions about Belìze in Roatàn? One woman asked how much such and such would cost in Belìze. That’s like asking someone here how much something sells for in Canada. How the heck should I know - ARGH!

We made several stops during the trip. The stop at the YUBU included native dances depicting the history of the islanders who are descended from the Black Carib Indians. We also stopped at Marble Hills farms were we found wonderful island jams and jellies made from fruits grown right at the farm. The Mutton Pepper (Habanero) jelly is to die for sweet and hot, hot, hot! The farm was loaded with small iridescent green hummingbirds called Canivet’s Emerald. Carmen was amazed to see my “magazine” of birds.

The juxtaposition of the island’s rich and poor was painfully obvious. The rich are mostly Americans and Canadians who live in opulent houses high up on the hills with fabulous vistas while the majority of inhabitants live in squalor. Small ramshackle houses line the city streets while the unemployed inhabitants sit on the windows or on the door steps. Carmen explained that while most of the people are trained in one or more occupations, most people derive a living from the tourist industry because there are so few jobs in other fields. They also live in trepidation of what the upcoming election will bring for them. The party currently in control has a history of using tax monies for the public good, while the opposition has a history of lining their own pockets. She had little confidence in the outcome of the coming election. She also told us that most children have been sent home from school because the start of the rainy season is coming and so many roads and homes are likely to be washed away, but also the children need to be at home because the upcoming election may trigger violence. It’s hard to imagine living in such unstable conditions. We don’t know how much we take for granted.

Our last stop on the tour was a four mile boat ride to see two shipwrecks. Both ships were abandoned by the companies that owned them. The first sank (I believe) after running aground in a storm and the second caught fire in the harbor. The companies didn’t even bother to pay for the crew to go home and many ended up staying on the island.

The weather got worse as morning turned to noon and we headed back to the ship. Roatàn left me with feelings of despair, yet a desire to help in some way.
We came back to the ship as soon as the tour was over. I needed a respite from the stupid gringos plus it was a good opportunity to watch the many Frigatebirds that were soaring in the skies above the ship. As the afternoon wore on, the weather became increasingly worse. The ship began to really pitch and roll so that it was difficult to stay on one’s feet. After the evening show, one of the passengers lost her footing and ended up on the floor.

I woke up feeling nauseous either from the ship’s constant rolling, the rum I had last night, or maybe both. The crew placed barf bags all along the ship, but fortunately, I haven’t needed one! After breakfast, I went back to sleep, I’m quite sure it’s the rocking of the boat making me ill as the feeling comes and goes on different parts of the ship and eating makes it much better. This afternoon, the sea calmed a bit and we seem to have outrun the storm.

The chocolate buffet this afternoon was worth it if only for the fondue and fruit. Most of the other chocolate pastries were pretty tasteless. Although the food is mostly fabulous, they do have a problem with desserts here, especially the chocolate ones. I can’t believe that I am that spoiled by Hershey’s, Ghirardelli, and Godiva chocolates, but there you are!

No birds today :-(

Spent a wonderful day with calm seas and sun. I hid on the aft deck and enjoyed the warmth I won't feel again until next year. Only one bird today (this is after all a birding blog). A House Sparrow found a respite on the boat. How the heck he got all the way out there, I don't know, but hopefully, he stuck around and got a ride back to shore.

All in all, I enjoyed the trip. I definitely want to revisit Belìze soon!

For more trip pictures, go here:

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cruising for birds, etc.

Sunday: After a long and exhausting flight from Philadelphia to Houston, we got to be scrunched into a bus with our carry-on bags under our feet for forty minutes. Then we got to wait again at the embarkation station and one more time to check onboard the ship. By the time we got to our room (which seemed too small), I was tired, hungry and very grumpy. But it was warm and sunny and after a piña colada or two, things started to look up. We have a nice private balcony that lets in lots of sea breezes. I then did the only thing a birder would do in a situation like this… I got out my bins.

There were three American coots swimming in the harbor all afternoon. Other bird life included a Great Blue heron and White egrets across the harbor and lots of sea gulls that I can’t quite ID without my scope. What kind of a birder goes on vacation and doesn’t bring her scope? (Answer: one who has packed too many shoes!)

The food here has been pretty good. Lunch was a buffet and I found a five bean salad, cucumber and yogurt salad, whole grain bread and cheese. I didn’t want to eat too much because I knew we would be having a big dinner, plus the piña coladas (did I mention the piña coloadas?) filled me up. We ate dinner at the Seven Seas for which we were probably very underdressed, but they lived with it J. I found polenta with green beans and peppers on the menu, but couldn’t have the corn and red pepper soup because they made it with chicken stock (idiots!). Later, we had dessert of chocolate ice cream and flambéed strawberries and then one of the waitresses talked me into chocolate cake, too!

After dinner, I chilled on the balcony. The sound of the ocean and the rocking of the ship is very soothing. I lined up the furniture and promptly fell asleep - going to bed after 11.

Monday: I decided I really needed to work off the ice cream and cake, so I went to the gym, but couldn’t get on a treadmill right away, so I settled for the bike. After a half hour of that, I switched to an empty treadmill and had an awesome run. I could have run a lot longer, but there was a line and a time limit of 30 minutes. After all that sitting yesterday, it really felt great to get moving again.

Yesterday the water was green and muddy looking. This morning it looked much darker, almost black, but when we went for breakfast at the back of the boat I could see how much bluer it was. Now it’s getting lighter and bluer by the minute. Although there were a lot of ships yesterday, I’ve only seen two today – one of which, a barge, is passing us right now. No birds today either. No seagulls following the ship, only the flying fish that have been our companions all day. They are skimming the water and stay airborne for at least 20 seconds. They look so much like birds, I thought they were at first.

Most of the passengers are Americans, but there are some French and Germans aboard as well. There are some really, really fat people here. Some need scooters to get around and they can always be found at the AYCE buffet tables. It’s incredible! I’m starting to get used to the constant rocking and rolling of the ship, although it can still be felt if you are looking for it. Sometimes, I get knocked off balance and I think, “Geez, I’ve had too much to drink”, but then I realize I haven’t had anything to drink! Showering takes a special skill :-)

Martes: Hoy visitamos Cozamel, Mexico! Pardon mi español. Yo no escribo muy bien pero yo hablo un poco de la manaña en Cozamel. Digo, "Un cerveza con limon, por favor" y "Eso chili relleno es muy bien!" y "¿Donde este el baño?" (It stinks only being able to speak/write in the present tense, but I'm learning).

After a very “wavy” night, we started the day with waiting (what else) while the ship got final confirmation to enter the bay. We were among the first groups of tourists allowed into Cozamel since Hurricane Wilma destroyed the place three weeks ago. There are a total of four cruise ships here today that will bring all the tourists there are here. There is no one in hotels because all the hotels are still closed.

It’s difficult to describe the place in words, but I’ll try. First every tree that is still standing is completely bare. After 48 hours of 150+ mile an hour winds, there are no leaves. It’s amazing there are any trees left, but lots are still standing. Some palms show signs of green, but leaves are still a good two months away.

Every single building on the coast, which is all we saw, is affected. Like the trees, many buildings are remarkably still standing, but whole chunks of the buildings are torn off and almost every window is gone. Our trip guide, Aldofo, told me that the island is very hard rock and builders can’t dig very far into the ground so they build up around the buildings which makes them very strong. So I guess given the magnitude of the storm, this could have been a lot worse. The inhabitants of Cozamel have been working non-stop for three weeks to rebuild. The government has apparently sent about 10,000 workers to help. Electricity and water have been restored although the cruise line told us not to drink the water because they couldn’t assure it was clean.

The coral reef where we went to snorkel is pretty much wiped out. Bob did see some nice fish while I stayed topside and viewed “un pàjaro” (a female adult Magnificent Frigatebird). I understood enough Spanish to overhear one crewmate say to the other that he saw that bird yesterday. He then waved his hand away as if to shoo it. Other than a few Turkey Vultures, that is about all the bird life to report here. I suppose any birds that weren’t wiped out flew to greener pastures. There aren’t even any seagulls flying around the docks or the ships for that matter. As this is my first time here, so I don’t know if this is unusual or not.

After the snorkeling excursion, we were taken to a still intact beach (the only one we saw) which is really a lagoon. We had free cuvasas and floated in the turquoise water for about an hour before returning to the city. We were treated to several dances like “YMCA”, “Machareña” and “The Electric Slide” by some of the crew (Aldofo and friends) and the passengers.

Once back at the dock, we wandered around for a bit. I bought some souvenirs and Bob bought some (ahem) “Cuban”cigars (for smoking here, of course). He caught the guy switching labels behind the counter, so who knows what kind of cigars they are. Haha! We ate at a little place where the guy out front assured me a meal “no con carne” and sure enough, I got a combo dinner to revival Alebreje at home. Actually, it was pretty darned good for tourist food. Now it looks as though we’ve made it back just in time to beat the afternoon rain.

Tomorrow should be the big birding day – Belìze!

Wednesday: We tendered the ship around 8:30am today and took a small craft to Belize City. Ah! This is more like what I pictured the scenery - very lush and tropical. Our tour guide was named Vel and he was this awesome little Mayan descendant who knew everything we wanted to know about Belize and more. He briefed us while we were on the bus headed for Tower Hill and the boats to take us to Laminai. On the way, Bob asked about the birds we might see and Vel told us to make sure we got to the front of the boat. Vel and his assistant, Orlando, made sure I saw any birds we passed. Orlando was a very sharp-eyed niño of 18 who spotted lots of birds and crocodiles at more than 1000 feet away.

Birds today (finally, a bird list!):
Magnificent Frigatebird
Little Blue Heron (in the picture above)
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Jabiru stork*
Black-necked Stilt
Great Black Hawk*
Turkey Vulture
Northern Jacama*
Parrot sp.
Gray-backed Trogan*
Keel-billed Toucan*
Red-throated Ant Tanager*
Mangrove Swallow*
Boat-tailed Grackle
Oriole sp.

We also saw several wild Howler monkeys which sound amazingly like jungle cats. There were some in the trees near the High Temple and I think Bob got some good shots of them. Speaking of Laminai, the temples were amazing. I’ll need to do a little more research on the Mayans, as they were even more advanced than I thought.

We had a traditional Belizian lunch of coleslaw (traditional food???), red beans and rice which was vegetarian and quite yummy, tortilla chips and a yellowish salsa, habanero peppers with onions and lime juice and coconut tart for dessert. It tasted like more, but I refrained from being a greedy gringo. :-) On the bus back to Belize City we each had a Belitan Beer. This is the only beer brewed in Belize. It wasn’t the best beer I ever had, but it was cold, refreshing and most welcome after a long day in the rainforest.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Pocono Environmental Education Center

It was very cold (29°F) this morning and the grass was covered by the first frost of the year. Yvonne and I took our “big” coats, hats, gloves and scarves, and had a pleasant 1-3/4 hour drive to the Delaware Water Gap. As we pulled into the center, we saw Blue jays, White-breasted nuthatches, Black-capped chickadees, Tufted titmice, Dark-eyed juncos, and White-throated sparrows. We secured a trail map after talking with one of the center volunteers for a few minutes. The "map" turned out to be less of a map than an interpretive guide, but it helped to make the 2 mile hike a little more interesting.

On the trail, we saw several woodpeckers, including Downy, Red-bellied, and Flicker. The chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches were our constant companions as we wove our way down through the hemlock gorges and along the little stream that runs through the park. It was crisp and cold, but the sun felt good and although there weren’t a lot of species, we agreed it was a peaceful and healing walk for each of us.

Also seen today were American goldfinch, American Crow, Turkey vulture, Red-tailed hawk, and House Finch. Not much activity at the feeders.

On our way home, we stopped at the Red Robin restaurant in Easton for swiss and ‘shroom veggie burgers (awesome!) and then shared a chocolate peanut butter dessert before Yvonne headed back to New Jersey. Another trip to PEEC is definitely in order, hopefully in December/ January when the Canadian birds migrate south - gotta see an Evening grosbeak this year!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: "Golden Eagle Day!"

Yvonne came up for the Veteran’s Day holiday and we spent it raptor watching at Hawk Mountain in Kempton. We had made these plans months ago when we were last in Cape May after asking Pete Dunne where we had the best chances of seeing a Golden Eagle. Sure enough, as we approached the turnstile, the hourly report came through the walkie-talkie. Two Golden Eagles had been seen in the last two hours. That’s as many as the total for the entire day yesterday. Trying not to be too disheartening we trudged up the trail to the North Lookout. If you’ve ever been there, it’s not the easiest path, but the view is definitely worth the trek.

We barely got seated when three adult Golden Eagles passed by in quick succession. They we close enough to be seen with the naked eye and were an easy ID with our binoculars. Yvonne and I both got our “lifers” for the day!

As we warmed the rocks for the next two hours, we saw many, many Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk or two, 3 Bald Eagles, six Common Ravens (which, btw, are not all that common ‘round here), and 3 more Golden Eagles. According to HMS’s Website, today was the highest one-day Golden Eagle total all fall. Thanks Pete!

Among us were a bunch of kids of various ages who were crawling around the rocks. It’s nice to see kids interested in being outside and watching something other than TV. They reminded me of the little ground squirrels that live at the Grand Canyon and come up to everyone pestering for food by staring at them with big brown eyes and twitching their noses.

Before we left, we headed to the Visitor’s Center so warm up, pee, and watch the bird feeders. The feeders were keeping Slate-colored Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, a Carolina Wren and several chipmunks busy. All in all a very nice day. Tomorrow we are headed north.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Broad-winged Migration

This morning while stretching after our morning run, my running partner, Kim and I noticed a small stream of raptors traveling south along the Schuylkill River in back of RACC. As our eyes aclimated to the distance and the light, we saw it was not a stream, but a seemingly never-ending river of of Broad-winged Hawks. Our best estimate was at least a thousand. A couple hundred caught a thermal in the sky above us which was just dazzling to watch. From the height they were traveling, there was no sound at all - absolute silence - nothing to catch anyone's attention. It's weird to think that it's going on day after day and most everyone misses it just because we're not looking up, but it was a great way to start the day!