Author Archives: coxdavid55

Report on Puente Viesgo, San Sabastian, Zaragoza and Madrid, Spain, June 11, 2017

I last reported from Salamanca, where I spent 6 days eating and drinking too much.  I traveled by train on Wednesday north through Valladolid, and then on to Santander on the northern Atlantic coast.  From there I took a local bus the short distance south into the mountains to the tiny hamlet of Puente Viesgo.  It is a well-known town by Spanish for thermal and cold baths, spas and beautiful scenery.  For me it boasts the Monte Castillo Caves, two of which may be visited for their Paleolithic art.

The cave entrances are ringed around the upper part of a very unusual pyramid shaped mountain which climbs up from the beautiful valley and small running river below.  The largest cave, El Castillo, contains a huge entrance chamber which had a large opening facing east overlooking the valley. The chamber had been occupied by Neanderthal and then early humans for 10’s of thousands of years.   Inside the chamber archaeologists have been excavating for years, and now are working down into their 25th strata, dating back to 140,000 years ago.  They have unearthed a large number of engraved bones and all forms of habitation evidence.  Standing at the top at what was the current age level in the chamber, one can see the orange markers about 30 feet below where the strata layers were dated to 40,000 years ago, marking the passing of the Neanderthal phase and start of the modern humans in the cave.

Passing beyond the entrance chamber, one climbs through a newly man-made opening and enters multiple chambers with no natural light, which are filled with every form of stalactite and stalagmite, with stone columns and stone waterfalls of many different colors.  In some of the most inaccessible places the paintings exist, consisting of outlines of various animals, including reindeer, horses and bison.  Very often these utilize convex patterns in the rock walls along with cracks or natural lines, which give the animals three dimensional raised engraving appearances.  Mostly red paint from iron oxide was used, along with some yellow and also charcoal black.  The charcoal could be directly dated with carbon 14 dating, but the iron oxide could not – these older paintings were dated by dating the calcium carbonate lime build ups over portions of the paintings, giving the paintings dates of “at least as old as”.

The animal imagery all is 12,000 to 28,000 years old.  The really old images are all iron oxide paint, most apparently sprayed onto the walls by blowing the wet colored powder through straws.  The most common items are negative hands, where someone would place their hand onto the wall, and then the paint was blown onto the hand leaving a large red disk with the hand imaged negatively in the middle.  The hands are of various sizes and with slightly different shapes, but most appear to be the left hand.  One wall contains almost 60 of these images.  Another long passage way is marked for about 40 feet along one wall at shoulder height with a series of a couple of hundred red disks, smaller than the ones with the negative hands.  These negative hands and the disk lines are dated back to “at least” 40,800 years ago, this being the oldest dated paintings in the world (some recent discovery in an Indonesian cave also dates some paintings to 40,000 years ago).  Fascinating to see.  Upsetting that the Cantabrian Regional Government has banned photos, apparently solely so they can market their “official” photos.  This is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the cultural highlights are deemed to belong to all humanity, not owned by the local government.  Oh Well!

The weather had gotten worse, from mostly overcast in Salamanca, to heavy dark overcast much of the time in the mountains.  I traveled from Puerto Viesgo on the 31st of May to Santander and from there on to San Sebastian, the major Basque town – for two days I had off and on rainfall and black overcast.  Not so pleasant.  Even trying to bar hop for the world famous pinxos (Basque artistic versions of tapas) was somewhat out of the question with the heavy winds howling in from the sea, blowing the fine rain perpendicular to the ground.  I did spend several enjoyable hours visiting the famous aquarium on the northern marinas.  From San Sebastian I traveled by train to Zaragoza, my first visit to the capital of the old Kingdom of Aragon.

After one full day of heavy rain, the weather finally cleared for beautiful blue skies and cool weather.  Zaragoza was an ancient Roman city, founded as Caesar Augusta, from which the modern name derives.  Under the old part of the modern city, in the last 40 years, archaeologists have excavated parts of the four major edifices of the Roman city, the Forum and Market, the Theater, the Baths and the River Port Warehouse.  These four now constitute a series of 4 underground museums – very interesting.  Zaragoza also is home to the Basilica del Pilar, a magnificent Baroque church with a huge central dome, 4 massive corner towers and around 8 colorful tiled smaller domes.  From the stone bridge crossing the Rio Ebro it is an impressive site in the morning sunlight.  The Moors also left their mark, most famously in their old palace now called the Aljaferia, since enlarged by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  It is described as the best Islamic architecture outside of Al-Andalus in the south.

On the 8th I boarded my final train, this time the “El AVE” series train, from the massive Zaragoza station back to Madrid.  El ave literally translates as “the bird”, but the name is actually a play on the word, as it is the acronym for “Alta Velocidad Espanol” or “Spanish High Speed”.  The El AVE trains ply a new gauge of tracks between the largest cities, and are very fast by comparison to US transport.  Whereas the regular intercity trains run up to 150km/hr. (almost 95mph), and the intermediate Alvia trains, which can run on the new and older tracks are much faster at up to 250km/hr. (155mph), the AVE trains run up to 310km/hr. (193mph), but cost considerably more for the usually relatively short distances.  Still, it is quite an experience to watch the countryside pass outside the window – the speed of perspective change, even miles away, is unreal it is so fast, something akin to the couple of seconds just as a jet is lifting off the runway.

In Madrid again, without jetlag this time, I am taking it easy and revisiting some of my favorite museums.  The Museum of Archaeology has been closed throughout my last two trips to Spain for renovations (it took years), and now is opened again.  It is a wonderful museum with many of the greatest national treasures, from the earliest homo genus occupations of the great cave systems of the north, through the early Phoenician cities, the great Roman-Carthage battles and Roman settlements, on through the Visigoths, Moors and into the early middle-ages.  Of most interest to me were the exhibits of objects from the Monte Castillo cave system I visited in Puente Viesgo, presumed Neanderthal prior to 40,000 years ago, and modern human thereafter; these objects include the famous collection of incised animal drawings made on deer scapular bones (the shoulder blades), which provided a relatively planar medium.  These are referred to as the first examples of “portable” human art – over a dozen were discovered in the cave, all at the same age level of about 17,000 years ago (see photo).  Also of interest were the large number of sculptures, mostly life-sized, of apparently deified women found among various Iberian grave-goods from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC (post-Phoenician, pre-Roman), as well as the treasure hoards of the Visigoth Kingdom (post Roman).

I also revisited the Thyssen Museum, one of the three great art museums of Madrid (and the world) which also include the del Prado (perhaps the world’s best art collection) and the Reina Sofia modern art museum.  The Prado and Reina Sofia collections contain great depth in that for many of the world’s foremost painters the museums contain multiple adjacent rooms filled with just the works of each artist, such as Bosch, Rubens, Velazquez, Goya or Picasso. In contrast, the Thyssen, perhaps my favorite, contains a collection of unbelievable breadth – it contains examples of practically every famous painter in an immense collection, covering over 700 years starting around 1300 with mostly religious paintings on wood, through all the classical transformations and onto impressionism, surrealism, modern and pop art.  It even has an entire room of just American art.  All is arranged chronologically so one over hours can meander through the entire history of Western Art, seeing the famous examples of practically every famous painter whose name one can recognize.  I have read that this probably is the finest private collection ever made, and now is owned by the Government of Spain.  At the end of the attached photo collection I have included 19 photos of some of my favorites from the Thyssen Museum, in chronological order, creating a quick romp through the history of some of the finest paintings from 1300 through to the end of the 20th century, skipping the 18th century as that is more properly viewed in the Prado Museum, and heavily weighted to 19th and 20th century (more modern styles – impressionist, cubist, modern and even pop).  As some of you know, I have little expertise in fine art, but do have a great many prejudices anyway – my favorites tend to the early and classical greats, with the evolution of painting from 1300 through the early 19th century, but this museum makes it fun to pass through what I consider the following devolution of art after about 1870.  The masters include Mates, Ghirlandaeo, Cranach, Holbein the Younger, Rubens, Brueghel the Elder, Honthorst, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Pollack and Licktenstein.

This is the end of my trip as I return to the US this Wednesday, for the long flight back.  Until later.  Dave

 

 

Report on Caceres, Trujillo and Salamanca, Spain, May 30, 2017

I last reported from Merida, one of the great ancient Roman cities of Spain with the best preserved structures.  From Merida last Sunday I traveled north to Caceres in Extremadura, the region which was home to most of the best known Conquistadores of the New World.  Caceres preserves what is known as the Monumental City, the “old town” still completely walled, and infused with towers and palaces, parapets, spires and family shields on almost every building. Most buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and display the splendors of construction made possible by the wealth brought home by the conquistadors.

I spent one day traveling the short distance east to Trujillo, a smaller sister city which, in addition to incorporating an old walled city as in Caceres, also contains the older fortress originally built by the Romans, but completely re-built by the Moors during their brief period in control of the region in the 9th and 10th Centuries.  Trujillo was home to the two greatest South American Conquistador families, the Pizarros (4 brothers who conquered the Incas) and Orellana (first European to venture up the Amazon). I have, on previous trips, discussed much detail on the various structures and history of the two towns, and will not now repeat that.

From Caceres I traveled further north to my favorite town, perhaps in the entire world – Salamanca.  I first came here for a couple of months in 2003 as I was trying to internalize Spanish – actually Castilian, as Spain recognizes 4 different co-official languages nationally, which include Basque, which bears no relationship whatsoever to the other 3 Romance languages – Catalan, Galician and Castilian.  I have been back a number of times and always love the place.  Again, I will not dwell on all the history and incredible structures, but suffice it to say that the large walled Salamanca Old City is filled with Romanesque, Gothic, Plateresque Renaissance, and Baroque masterpieces of architecture and interior decorations, to accompany one of the greatest of old Roman bridges and one of the four great medieval universities of the world, with the oldest library in Europe.  The Old Town still is home to a great university with its 10’s of thousands of university students who party all and every weekend.  Through the years of coming here I have always been woken at sunup on Sunday mornings by the loud singing of groups of drunks, returning home from their all-Saturday-night revelry. I love this place.

I have once more a great value hotel room, a huge modern space with balcony and fridge, right off the Plaza Mayor, for about 80 Euros per day. The ancient alleys and streets of the Old City are simply filled with many of Spain’s great Tapas Bars, Cafes and Jamonerias, all with outdoor tables filling the narrow passageways.   A handful of my customary tavern hangouts have changed hands, but my three old-time favorites all are still in place and still popular, the Meson Las Conchas, the Ruta de la Plata (used to be called Patio Chico) and the El Ave.  Las Conchas was the first tapas bar I was introduced to in Spain back in 2003; it is very traditional, and always has a selection of about 45 different tapas on display, constantly rotating.  A wine, or beer, and tapa costs about E2.50.  Three to four rounds is quite filling.  Many locals order their wine or beer mixed half with sparkling water, thus making a terrific meal without getting drunk.  Ruta de la Plata has forever perfected the open, huge, wood-fired grill, which specializes in ribs, lomo and pancetta, all grilled to crackling perfection, which can be enjoyed as tapas or large serving platters as raciones.

Weather, for all but one day in Caceres and every day until today here in Salamanca, has basically been white overcast – rather unimpressive for photos.  I did want to re-enact one old custom from my 2003 and 2006 trips; Back then I initially was overwhelmed by the excellent jamon Iberico bellota (the dry-cured ham from the ancient special breed of black Iberian hogs, which are raised in open oak woodland on wild acorns), considered the best – and the most expensive – ham in the world, along with the famous manchego cheese (hard, medium strong flavored sheep milk Spanish cheese), and baguettes integral (freshly baked whole grain crispy baguettes) – these three ingredients combined make the world’s best sandwich – especially when combined  with a bottle of Spanish red wine from the Duero River Valley.  With these four delicacies in my daypack, quite cheaply acquired from the local Jamonerias, I instituted private picnics on weekends in the tall grasses along the south banks of the Rio Tormes, where there were a number of hidden coves in sight of portions of the Roman Bridge, surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, and backed by a field of Spring wildflowers.  I have very fond memories.  How unfortunate now to find this entire stretch of the bank of the Rio Tormes gone – where once were the trees and low banks now is just wide shallow river, although the flower covered field still exists.  Apparently, within the last 5 years or so, the river flooded and came around the bend and just completely washed out the area, including trees.  Well, I am looking for a new spot further down the river.

I have made reservations next to travel north tomorrow by train to the Asturias and Cantabria region, which faces the Atlantic Ocean gulf between France and Spain, to a small village called Puente Viesgo.  Close by the village are the Cuevas Monte Castillo, which caves contain the oldest cave paintings in Europe, and together with a recently discovered Indonesian cave contain the oldest known paintings in the world (dated to 40,000 years ago, almost 10,000 years older than the better known paintings of the nearby Altamira Cave and France’s Lascaux Cave).  Well, so long for now.  Dave

Report on Baeza, Cordoba, Sevilla and Merida, Spain, Sun. May 21, 2017

I last reported from Ubeda. From there I traveled 9 kilometers, just over the hill, to its smaller sister town, Baeza; together the two towns share UNESCO World Heritage Site status for their remarkable Italian Renaissance style edifices which dominate the ancient town cores.  As I previously noted, the town nobles through the first half of the 16th century served at the highest levels in the Royal Court of Charles V, who both was Emperor of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  The nobles brought wealth and an appreciation of Italian Renaissance architecture, along with architects, to Ubeda and Baeza where a number of impressive buildings and palaces were constructed, along with many additions made to the cathedrals.

In Baeza I stayed in a lovely 3 room apartment directly behind the cathedral, where I enjoyed serving up my own version of jamon Iberico (Iberian cured ham) and cheese sandwiches on fresh baked whole wheat baguettes.  I spent early evenings at the Café Mercantile on the corner of the Plaza Constitucion, enjoying very cheap vino tinto with free tapas, including more caracoles (escargots).

From Baeza I traveled by bus to Cordoba, which in the past I have visited a number of times.  Cordoba in the 9th to 10th century became the western Caliphate of Islam, rivaling Mecca.  During this period it attracted scholars and educators from the three great monotheistic religions, Islamic, Jewish and Christian, and was considered the crossroad of the three cultures, with the largest population in Western Europe of around 250,000.  The mosque, mezquita in Spanish, was built on the site of the earlier Visigoth church, and was continually enlarged to become the third largest mosque in the world.   Its Mihrab arches are covered with mosaics of tiny gold and semi-precious stone cubes, a gift from the Emperor in Constantine.  After the catholic reconquest of Cordoba, the mosque was re-converted into a church, and ultimately an entire cathedral rises upward through the original roof in the middle of the huge mosque.

Cordoba is where I began to run into huge groups of tourists.  As the years pass, more and more of the greatest sites in the world are simply becoming overwhelmed with tourists.  It has become more acute in the last several years as huge numbers of Chinese now have joined the rest of the world in venturing beyond Asia.  There simply are too many people who wish to see the world’s greatest cultural and archaeological sites, and those sites are not enlarging nor reproducing.  I see only one solution.  Those sites with the most pressure will need to limit access, and provide some kind of lottery reservation system – this already has been happening at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and to an extent now in Machu Picchu, Peru and the Taj Mahal in India.  I hit Cordoba at its busiest, but the day I tried to visit the Alcazar (Castle) the line snaked out to the street and down the block.  It was similar at the Mezquita, and later the same in Sevilla at the great Cathedral and Alcazar there.  I finally waited in line in Cordoba and did revisit the Mezquita, but in Sevilla I gave up on the major sites, having on previous trips photographed them at least twice.

In Baeza, Cordoba, Sevilla and now Merida, I have been booking newly built small apartments, which are showing up regularly on the website Booking.com.  These all have been available by the day, and are far larger and superior to the hotel rooms I am accustomed to, including coming with small fully furnished kitchens, washing machines and more – and the prices have been equal to or less than the hotel rooms (averaging around $75 per day).  Most don’t have any type of reception, and so one needs to call or email in advance to arrange to pick up the keys and pay the tab.  I have spoken with some of the owners, and they seem to agree this is a new trend coming after the real estate bubble burst in Spain some years ago.  It is certainly a pleasant experience for me.

My mode of travel has been mixed; I traveled to Ubeda, Baeza and Cordoba by bus.  From Cordoba to Sevilla I traveled by train, generally a little more expensive, but often far more comfortable and sometimes faster.  From Sevilla to Merida I traveled again by bus as there is rare train service, but today go north to Caceres by train.

Merida, as I have reported in prior trips, was the first and major Roman city established in the Iberian Peninsula, officially designated the capital of Lusitania in 25BC by Augustus Emeritus (Emeritus morphing into today’s name of Merida).  It contains the best Roman structures, ruins and museum pieces in this part of Europe, and rivals most other sites.  Especially a masterpiece is the Roman Theater, one of the best preserved in the world, built in 25BC, beside which sits the Amphitheater built a few years later for the gladiator sports.  Also always impressive are the remaining sections of the 8-storey tall Roman aqueduct arches, the tops of which serve as the nesting sites for White Storks.  Merida contains the only hippodrome (chariot racing arena) in Spain, and the longest Roman Bridge which crosses the Rio Guadiana.  Merida also contains remains of the great Visigoth culture which supplanted the Romans around the 4th century AD and continued until arrival of the Moors in the 8th century.

I previously have written extensively on Cordoba, Sevilla and Merida in my travelogues of 2003, 2006 and 2010, and so pass over much detail on the sights now.  I will, though, take time to complain about the continuing disappearance of many old classic tabernas and restaurants that I had critiqued in prior trips – one here in Merida, a lunch-time favorite, was an almost snobby old tavern with an upstairs restaurant, with maître de, wood paneling and tables covered with white linen, all sitting over the arches on the Plaza de Espania, across from the Alcazaba (fortress), now gone.  In its place, occupying both floors, sits the white and chrome newly decked out two-story Burger King – it makes me want to cry.

Today I travel the short distance by train north to Caceres, the city of the Conquistadores, where most of the palaces still stand inside the walled city.

Dave

Report from Ubeda, Spain, Sunday, May 7, 2017

Leaving Tucson early Sunday morning April 30, I arrived in Madrid early Monday morning May 1 – total travel time about 19 hours but with a 9 hour time change.  Jet-lag always hits me much harder when traveling east, and I really just recovered by Friday.  This trip I tried a different hotel in Madrid, located just on the south side of the La Huerta district where I always spend much of my time.

As I’ve written before, La Huerta is the old central part of Madrid where Cervantes lived after writing Don Quixote, and where Hemingway spent many boozing hours in the late 1920s and late 1930s.  La Huerta’s narrow streets and alleys, which run in every conceivable odd direction, opening here and there on small plazas, are lined with hundreds of tiny tabernas, cervecerias, jamonerias and chocolaterias, practically all of which have outside seating and provide wonderful tapas with wine or beer, or churros with the thick hot chocolate.  I returned to several of my favorite haunts, including a terrific brewery on Plaza Santa Ana (named Naturbier – Hemingway spent so many hours at the cerveceria next door they had a specific table always reserved for him).  Naturbier serves one of the best German beers I ever have tasted, along with the absolute best olives. I spent many an hour early evenings at Taberna Fragua de Vulcano, on the Northwest corner of the same Plaza, where the house wine costs 2 Euros, each glass freely accompanied by different generous tapas, including the most fabulous tuna salad mix with fresh red and green bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and more drenched in olive oil and vinegar.

I spent my several mornings in Madrid getting my phone sim card, checking transport to the south, and wandering the areas around the Plaza Mayor, Gran Via and Atocha. In checking transport by train I found that one must now pass through an airport type screening to board any train in Spain.  Because no baggage is checked (all is carry-on), among things disallowed are knives.  I had brought a favorite folding pocket knife I have used in the past to cut bulk ham and cheese which I regularly buy in Spain. Because I already have booked my last several days in Madrid (which time covers mid-June, the height of tourist season when the best value hotels are booked way in advance), I was able to drop off my knife at that hotel to be held for pickup when I return in 6 weeks.  The owner recognized and remembered me from my last stay exactly 5 years ago – he seemed pleased to see me so I don’t think the long memory resulted from any past indiscretions.

On Thursday the 4th I headed by Metro to the South Bus Terminal and boarded the bus south to Ubeda.  The highway passes through the arid region La Mancha, where ridges often are topped with groups of ancient, black-capped, white windmills.  I could almost see Rozinante, lathered and snorting, galloping in the distance with Quixote astride, lance leveled and face intense under his inverted wash-basin.

Ubeda, together with Baeza just 6 miles away, lies in the small District of Jaen, the olive capital of the world. International merchants are descending on the Jaen District this coming week for its annual trade festival of olive oil, and so no hotel rooms are available now in Jaen.  The several hundred thousand olive trees which cover the district (and much of Andalucia) all are producing copious amounts of pollen right now, and I had to purchase some expensive eye-drops from the local pharmacist to control the incredible itching and congestion.

I did not come to Ubeda for the olives – I came because the Old Towns of Ubeda and Baeza are World Heritage Sites, ancient walled cities with the best Spanish Renaissance architecture in the country.  Several families from the two towns served as top scribes and courtiers to the Spanish Monarchy in the early to mid-16th century, becoming fabulously wealthy, and had palaces and churches built in the Italian Renaissance style.  In particular, the Sacra Capilla del Salvador was constructed as a chapel-tomb for the Molina family, and its front and side facades, and almost the entire interior, are considered renaissance masterpieces, as also are the Hospital de Santiago and the Palacio de Molina.  While here I am staying in a delightful boutique hotel in a 17th century building, the Alvaro de Torres, located on a small plaza of the same name in the Old Town.  Pictures of all and more are below.

I ate several of my lunches at the Café Ibiut (learning there that “Ibiut” was the original pre-Roman Iberian name of Ubeda), where the 10 Euro daily set lunch includes multiple choices for a first and second platter, preceded by wine (or other drink) together with a tapa, and followed by a desert or coffee.  Always more than I could eat.  Yesterday I had fresh off-the-stove paella as the first dish, a huge portion of saffron rice cooked with mussels, chicken, fish, and artichoke hearts, followed by tender pork tenderloin and scalloped potatoes as the second dish.  As I had inquired the day before about a large net full of small snails being delivered, saying how much I enjoyed them, the waitress brought me, as a free tapa with my wine, a large steaming bowl of escargots (about 35-40 small snails – dime size) in the tasty broth.  These you learn to eat by popping the snail, shell and all together with a spoonful of the broth, into your mouth to suck all the broth; then with some dexterity of the tongue you usually can extract the snail either by further sucking or by grabbing its front-end with your teeth and pushing the shell away with your tongue.  Where this fails, about a third of the time because the snail is too deep, you use a toothpick to extract the delicacy.  In France and New York one may pay a fortune for escargots – in Portugal and Spain, in season (now through June), escargots are extremely inexpensive and absolutely wonderful.

Well, perhaps enough discussing the enjoyment of culinary and alcoholic delights, though those delights prove really a great way to live through jet-lag. Actually, those delights prove a great way to live.  I will stay one more full day in Ubeda, as I have been taking my time visiting the various sites, and have a couple of museums left on my list.  On Tuesday I travel to the sister town of Baeza for a couple of days to view the Renaissance architecture there.  I could not book a room in Jaen due to the ongoing olive oil festival, so will travel then directly to one of my favorite cities – Cordoba – though I barely was able to book a room there as it is the final weekend of the terrific annual two-week Festival of Cordoba Patios, where all the ancient palatial homes in the Old City open to the public their “patios” showing off the myriad potted flowers which cover the patio walls.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Birding Jardin and Las Tangares, Colombia, Feb. 19, 2017

I last reported from Manizales in the Andean Central Cordillera (range).  From Manizales I traveled February 5th by private car down through the Cauca River Valley, which runs between the Central and Western Cordilleras, and up to Jardin which lies in a central plateau on the Western Cordillera.  Jardin is a small town with brightly painted two-story buildings and a wonderful central Plaza with the impressive neo-gothic iglesia on its east side.  My first night I was forced to book a room just outside of town as most of the hotels were full; I moved into town the second and third nights, but was unhappy with the hotel I chose.  I moved a second time, this time to the wonderfully cheap and centrally located Hotel El Dorado, just off the Plaza.  For a large, bright room, large bathroom with hot water, creaky wooden floor, and friendly staff I paid just 30,000 Pesos per night ($10).  Breakfast I found each day at the wonderful Café Fuente del Sabor, open 7 days a week at 5:30 am (perfect for birders), with 3 scrambled eggs, white cheese, an arrepa (Colombia’s famous maize bread), donut and huge “soup-bowl” of hot chocolate – for 5,500 Pesos (just under $2).

Most birding was done on the 4-wheel-drive track road which runs over a pass at just under 10,000 feet before dropping to Rio Sucio on its way to the Cauca Valley.  With my guide Alejandro, and a different Willy’s Jeep and driver each time, we birded the Jardin-Rio Sucio Road every other day for roughly 7 to 8 hours.  The area if famous for its rich and varied bird life on this road, and I was successful in photographing many species including the Slate-backed Chat-Tyrant, Lachrymose Mountain-Tanager (yes, it has a yellow tear-drop spot behind the eye), Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Saffron-headed Tanager, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and the endangered, only recently rediscovered and endemic, Yellow-eared Parrots.

Very close to town, in a Lek (special display areas, used annually by certain types of male birds for attracting females) on a heavily forested steep hillside, a couple of dozen Andean Cock-of-the-Rock males gathered morning and evening for raucous jousting on the dark forest boughs, hoping to attract a female.  Andean Cock-of-the-Rock males are among the most striking and beautiful of the world’s birds.  Normally the Cock-of-the-Rock leks are notoriously hard to find and notoriously hard to get to, and support few individuals.  This particular lek is unlike any I ever have heard of, and the birds are numerous, though difficult to photograph in the very dim light, with the perpetual intervening twigs and leaves.

The town plaza filled each evening with kids and dogs and folks strolling and sitting and eating from the dozens of food vendors.  I sat on a bench, sipping my red Argentinian wine from a plastic coke bottle, smoking my pipe and watching the activity.  Many elderly women, apparently single, dressed high fashion (to my eyes), walked through the plaza.  Most who passed me turned and smiled (not common with other folk).  I got the distinct impression that many wealthy widows, and/or divorcees, moved from the larger cities to Jardin for the beautiful county life, and perhaps were looking for the prospect of a not-quite elderly gentleman to join them.

After 8 days in Jardin, I hired a private car and driver again to transport me to Reserva Las Tangares, another ProAves Foundation bird reserve, located on the western slopes of the Western Cordillera.  I stayed in the somewhat rustic lodge rooms (they had electricity and good hot-water “showers,” though as was common throughout, the cheaper lodging’ showers don’t actually have shower heads, just the overhead water pipe – it does ensure good water output).  I once more was served too much food, with three meals a day plus the constant pushing of snacks and drinks between meals.  A tropical issue was having the dining tables out under an open palapa, overlooking the beautiful rapids of the Atrato River, which wound entirely around half the lodge property; the lights in the palapa at breakfast, before dawn, attracted hundreds of different insects to the white table-clothes below.  I have included a photo of an unusual leaf insect with huge pincers.

The Reserve’s guard, who knew most of the birds well, acted as my guide and drove me daily up the 4-wheel track road that passes back east over the ridge to drop into a central valley.  The road is famous for its variety of tanagers and many other rare and special birds.  Everywhere, as was common also in the Central Cordillera, debris from recent land-slides broke through the roads, and left many places where I worried the ground would give way under us.  All mountain slopes run at least 45 degrees, and many run to almost sheer cliffs, yet are covered with high trees and vines.  Photographs were difficult to take through the heavy vegetation and in the high trees – of course this is a common complaint for everywhere.  I have included shots of the Flame-rumped Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Ornate Flycatcher, the near endemics Velvet-purple Coronet and Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, the endangered and endemics Black-and-Gold Tanager and very rare Red-bellied Grackle.

From Las Tangaras I came by private car to Medellin to plan my final days in Colombia.  Medellin, like Bogota, is a large, clean and very modern city.  I am staying in the Poblado District where I am sure I am far from the probably less savory parts of the old town and surrounding areas.  Until later.  Dave

Travel Report on Cartagena, Birding Rio Blanco and Birding Nevada del Ruiz NP, Feb. 4, 2017

I last reported after just arriving in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.  Cartagena, the Spanish version of the name for ancient Carthage, is listed as a World Heritage Site for its 500 year old walled port city from which Spain shipped much of its plundered New World gold and silver.  The old walls still completely surround the Old City, as does the Caribbean Sea – the Old City basically was an island reached by a causeway and one-time drawbridge.  Just outside the Old City on the nearby hillside sits the largest fortress built in the New World, Castillo de San Felipe.  The walls and fort were built during the 16th and 17th century to defend against attacks by the real pirates of the Caribbean, who (including Sir Francis Drake in 1568) had sacked the Old City a couple of times.

Within the walls lies the original Old City, as well as an old working class neighborhood, Getsemani, originally reclaimed from the marshes.  The Old City is a wonderful grid of narrow lanes overlooked on all sides by solid lines of two and three story buildings, all with upper floor wooden balconies, sporting potted flowers and intense colors.  At every other intersection lies an ancient church or plaza, and in every plaza now sit myriad metal sculptures.  Much of the flavor is similar to Havana, Cuba, with which the Old City shares many cultural relations.

Getsemani, now a part of the Old Walled City, has a number of small hotels and restaurants, as well as pleasant patios, and a number of famous backpacker hostels.  I stayed in the lovely Patio de Getsemani, a B&B with very friendly owners, within easy walking distance of everything within the city walls.  The rooftop had plants and shaded tables, with fabulous views over the City Walls to the inland sea and fortress.  Every evening I sipped my red wine and smoked a cigar on the rooftop, watching the sunset colors change on the fortress walls.   On Sunday afternoon, local teams had baseball tournaments just outside the front door to the B&B, playing in the street and inner edges of the Wall – only down the street beyond third-base was their room for an outfield, so they played with 8 players, losing a center fielder, and having the right fielder playing a short-stop between first and second.  As the city Wall passed immediately behind the first to second baseline, with the sea beyond, they had some revised rules.  The pitches were underhanded (presumably to lessen the hitting distance), and any hit that went above the wall (high to right field) was an automatic 3-outs for the batter’s team (a rule clearly designed to keep from losing too many balls into the sea).

Cartagena also sports the original “La Cava de Puros,” an excellent and famous cigar shop now with branches in Bogota and Medellin.  I spent a fair amount of time talking with the owner, an Italian living for years in Cartagena.  The shop mainly sells all the well-known brands of Cuban cigars, but the prices, as I found also in Mexico, are astronomical compared to cigars from Central America or Colombia (the very cheapest Cuban puros start at about $20 US, with the majority running $30 to $40 each).  I tried some of the Cava’s own branded Colombian cigars and found them very good, running at around $5 each.

I spent several hours walking the walls around much of the Old City, and spent an entire morning exploring the Castillo de San Felipe; first built in the mid-16th century, the outer walls of the fortress rise over a hundred feet, constructed of giant blocks of yellow-black stone coursed to slope inward.  Around the various upper levels are dozens of splits through the upper walls where cannon are placed to provide fire power in all directions.  Through various small entryways from the upper decks is a maze of long splitting tunnels providing hidden passageways throughout the fort, as well as leading to underground prison cells.

From Cartagena on January 24 I flew to Bogota and from there to Manizales, which lies on the western slopes of the Central Cordillera of the Andes – The Andes, which run north from Ecuador up through most of Colombia, split within Colombia into three separate north-south ranges, or “cordilleras,” named the Oriental, Central and Occidental (Eastern, Central and Western).  Bogota sits on a high plateau on the Eastern range, Medellin and Manizales on the high western slopes of the Central range, and Cali on the Western Range.  Travel between these various areas seems close on the map, but by bus on the mountain 2-lane highways takes forever.

Manizales depends on a great deal of industry for its prosperity, and is a rather modern city of 390,000, sitting at just over 7,000ft., it is draped over steep mountain ridges on all sides, but provides little in the way of interest for tourists.  I have been ensconced in the Estelar El Cable hotel, named for the nearby remnant of the old cable system used for the first half of the 20th century to transport coffee over the Central Cordillera, where it then was shipped up the Magdelena River to the Caribbean coast for export.  The hotel is a business hotel, full during the week with business people, empty on weekends, and offering terrific views over Manizales.  It includes with the room free hot breakfast and dinner buffets.

Although Manizales itself doesn’t offer much attraction for tourists, nearby are two significant areas of great interest to those looking for rare birds – Rio Blanco and Nevada del Ruiz.  Reserva Rio Blanco, covering much of the slopes above Manizales at about 8,600 to over 9,000 ft., is a private reserve owned by the local water company of Manizales to provide the city’s water.  Rio Blanco is famous among birding tours for the huge variety of rare birds, including up to 7 species of Antpittas – these are birds of the deep forest floors, and prior to about 20 years ago were not often seen nor photographed as they stayed in the very dark undergrowth.  A now famous person (to birders), Angel Paz, about 15 years ago discovered on his large reserve in Ecuador that by keeping a regular daily schedule, over years antpittas could be enticed at set times to come out of the undergrowth into small dark sheltered clearings within the forest.  They are lured by providing earthworms, a favorite food of the birds.  (I visited Angel Paz when in Ecuador a few years ago, and photographed his several species of antpittas).

Two National Parks in Ecuador now also lure out several other species of antpittas, and, here in Colombia, Rio Blanco is the first to do this, providing me the opportunity to see 4 new species of antpittas – I was able to get wonderful photos of all four species, the Chestnut-crowned, Brown-banded (endemic here), Bicoloured and Slate-crowned.  Rio Blanco also offers over 8 species of hummingbirds around its very rustic “lodge” (I hesitate to use the term lodge), and a huge number of other deep forest birds along its heavily cloud-forested senderos (trails).  I spent 3 days at the Reserve, each morning climbing the steep hills and trails with the local guide Carlos, who was wonderful at locating all the specialties.  We also went out twice after dark for nightjars and owls.  I was able to get fine photos of the endemic White-breasted Woodstar, Long-tailed Sylph, Capped Conebill, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Golden-headed Quetzal and Beryl-spangled Tanager, among many others.  Among night photos, I captured the rather rare Mouse Opossum and White-throated Screech-Owl.

The second nearby attraction is the Parque Nacional Nevada del Ruiz, which encompasses a huge section of “paramo,”(somewhat poorly translated as “a very high moor”) – the term paramo in the Andes refers to the large expanses of flat-land, hills and mountainsides situated above tree line, occurring here at close to 14,000 ft., and extending up to where the perpetual glaciers and winter snow pack sit at around 16,000 ft..  The paramo is not barren, but is verdant and thickly covered with exotic bunch grasses, cushion-plants, flowering bushes and shrubs and very strange succulents and the Frailejones, tall yucca type plants.  I spent two full 11 hour days, with private 4X4 vehicle, driver and bird guide, traveling up the mountain one direction, and returning an alternative route, for additional species.  We had a huge thunderstorm in the Manizales area the afternoon of my 4th day, and thereafter the mountain roads up to the paramo had a large number of landslides partially blocking some of the way.

Although not a huge number of species, many of the endemic and rarest birds, many very exotic, reside only at high altitude.  The paramo of Nevada del Ruiz is home to one particular hummingbird, called the Buffy Helmetcrest, which resides only in this small spot on earth and is highly sought after by birders.  I managed to get a number of delicious photos of it feeding on the exotic flowers and Frailejon plants.  Clamoring around on the hills leads quickly to shortness of breath at this altitude.

The two roads up to the paramo, from 7,000 to almost 14,000 feet, climb through heavy cloud forest with a vast number of bird species.  Here, where fog often was a problem at the higher elevations, I managed photos of, among others, the Blue-backed Conebill, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, White-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Pale-naped Brush-Finch, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Stout-billed Cinclodes and Tawny Antpitta.  Within the cloud forest, and often fogged in, at 11,500 ft. sits a hotel with thermal springs heated by the dormant volcano; the hotel has created gardens and put out feeders to attract hummingbirds.  Here I photographed 10 species of hummingbirds, including the rare and endemic Black-thighed Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tourmaline Sunangel, Shining Sunbeam, Mountain Velvetbreast, Great Saphirewing, Sword-billed Hummingbird (the straight bill is as long as the bird), and, most exotic and beautiful, the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill (must see photos).

Although not as expensive as my travel to lodges in the Amazon, or boating the Galapagos, this trip is “running up the tab” as I have opened the purse-strings somewhat more than usual for private boats and 4-wheel drive vehicles, both with operators, and private bird guides – the reward is more photo opportunities, and many more rare, endangered and endemic species.

From Manizales I currently am planning to travel north to Jardin, not far from Medellin, where I will continue seeking bird photo opportunities.  Later.  Dave

Report on Birding the Caribbean North of Colombia, Jan. 21, 2017

I flew from Bogota to Barranquilla, the third largest city in Colombia, on December 27; my earlier flight from Leticia, in Amazonia, to Bogota was held on the tarmac for 40 minutes as we waited before liftoff for a rainstorm to subside.  My flight from Bogota also was delayed on the tarmac for an hour, in clear weather, with few overall flights, and no information from the crew as to the problem.

I decided to spend 3 nights in Barranquilla because I could not book a hotel room in either Cartagena or Santa Marta.  Colombians flock to the northern Caribbean coast from the middle of December to the about the 10th of January when they celebrate the “Dia de los Reyes Magos” (day of the wise men), and everything during this period is booked and double priced.  Barranquilla is an exception – it is a large city with few tourist sites or hotels – a rather grim place in the “historic” Centro comprised of mostly concrete and cracking sidewalks, with street vendor stalls blocking easy passage through many of the streets.  It also has a bad reputation for street theft, at least according to the huge numbers of local police who often insisted on accompanying me from my hotel entrance (I suspect looking for tips was more likely the reason, although I had few doubts as to the criminal element).  Further from the center, the city was more modern, but bland, with nothing to attract tourists (the one huge exception being that the city hosts the second largest Carnival celebration in the Americas, after Rio de Janeiro – this year it is in late February).  I did use part of my stay to visit ATM machines many more times in preparation for further cash currency requirements to occur with my birding in the north.

From Barranquilla I traveled by shuttle van – (never Marsol again, Marsol vans were located on the wrong side of the city for transport anywhere, requiring over an extra hour of travel time, the vans were over-packed, with dripping AC units, broken seats, and ours broke down one kilometer from the destination) – to Santa Marta, a delightful port town to the northeast.  I booked in Santa Marta for 6 days to get me through New Year’s, thinking that would be the worst of the crowded season (I was later proven wrong).  Many of the streets through the old center of town are now converted to pedestrian use only,  the sandy beach coast is lined by the broad “Malecon” pedestrian walkways, which themselves line the roadway all the way north to the large seaport where containers are constantly being loaded and offloaded from large ships.  Many of the little restaurants are new (the highest ranked 3 restaurants in my Moon travel guide do not exist anymore, despite the guidebook being published 1 year ago).  My favorite finds were a “little hole in the wall” called La Oficina on a pedestrian street (unknown why the strange name), which each morning served me a pile of steaming scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes and onions, a large freshly fried “arrepa” (a cornmeal and white cheese cake) and a plastic glass of wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice –  the price 6,000 Pesos ($2.00); the other favorite was “China Town,” another hole in the wall restaurant with sidewalk tables on the Malecon facing the sea; it was always crowded, and owned by an old Chinese couple, grandparents, who always were there and jumping to meet me each day (I think I made an especially good impression the first day by admiring and commenting on their grandbaby, always tightly cradled in the grandmother’s arms while she sat close to my table).  The food was mediocre, but I pretty much like any Chinese food, especially the mostly seafood types, and the portions were so stupendous that everyone carried out half of what they were served (I sadly had to leave my uneaten portions, and did not feel comfortable suggesting they be fed to the always present, emaciated and sad looking, dogs begging around the tables).

My evenings I spent on the Plaza de los Novios (roughly “lover’s plaza”), the main center of the old town, watching the dogs barking and the little kids playing with their new Christmas presents (huge numbers of various kinds of skates and 3 wheeled boards with various motive mechanisms), reading and sipping cheap red wine from Argentina or Chile (available in 1 liter boxes), which I consumed from 16oz diet Coke bottles (the red wine looks exactly like Coke in the bottle).  My days I spent wandering the Malecon and again hitting many ATM machines getting the “efectivo” cash necessary for several weeks in the mountains, to pay expensive guides and transport where there are no banks, internet nor acceptance of credit cards (I noted previously the fact that ATM machines would not dispense more than $100 to $200 worth of Pesos at a time, each time unfortunately charging up to a $3 fee).  One day I traveled by local bus to the little town of Taganga, just a few kilometers north over some coastal hills, which has become the popular haven for backpackers.  It lies in a small protected cove at the edge of the famous Tayrona National Park, has a lovely beach completely crowded with colorful boats waiting to entice the tourists to go to the secluded beaches of the Park.  I checked on the prices to go to the park for a day of birding – they wanted P1,000,000, or about $330.  I declined.  All prices were doubled or tripled during this festive holiday period.

On January 4 I traveled by private taxi the roughly 30kms from Santa Marta up to MInca, a small town at about 2,000ft elevation in the low foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, perhaps the most bird rich patch of land on earth (at last count over 630 bird species in the mountains alone, about the area of New York City, with roughly the number of species existing in the entire US and Canada).  The Santa Marta Range is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and includes the highest peak in Colombia at just under 19,000ft, which also boasts title as the fifth most prominent mountain in the world, meaning height from the base ground level from which the mountain is viewed (Everest is both highest and most prominent).  The range is not part of the Andes, and so forms a huge mountain “island” system, separated from all other mountains, and over millennia has produced a huge number of endemic species of birds, reptiles and plants, found nowhere else on earth.

In Minca I stayed at the basic, but delightfully situated, Hotel La Casona, which has hummingbird and fruit feeders scattered at the edge of the forest below its back veranda.  I spent 5 days in Minca, photographing the birds around the hotel in the afternoons, and hired guides (the first of 5 guides I used during the next 13 days in the Caribbean region) to take me early mornings to nearby bird rich spots and to hike the senderos and dirt roads above Minca.  Birds photographed for the first time included the Steely-vented hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Crimson-backed Tanager, Swallow Tanager and Golden-winged Sparrow, as well as the Collared Aracari and Gartered Trojan.  All tiny restaurants in town which were open in the evening seemed to just serve hamburgers – I finally found a restaurant, most inappropriately named “Burger Town,” which actually had most of its menu devoted to fish, ribs and pasta – a welcome change, and my nightly regular choice.

Whereas in Amazonia I had problems with my allergy to the local chiggers, in Minca occurs a species of gegenes (no-see-ems) which gave me the same allergic reactions, now on my arms rather than legs – three days of intense itching and bright redness surrounding the bite, followed by a growing blister which would often reach the size of a dime, taking weeks to heal.  Application of 100% Deet to clothing and skin was generally effective for prevention, but a nuisance to use twice daily.  I really need to visit a specialist to find why I have become so allergic to certain types of bites with age – I thought the immune system was supposed to weaken, not go into overdrive.

From MInca I arranged 4-wheel drive transportation up to the El Dorado Reserve, the first and most famous private reserve of the ProAves Foundation, which now owns about 25 private reserves in Colombia, protecting the rarest and endemic species of birds found here in the most bird-rich country on earth.  The  El Dorado Reserve is huge, and covers elevations from about 4,000ft up to the local Kennedy Peak at about 10,000ft.  The El Dorado Lodge is fairly rustic, hugging the steep mountain-side at about 6,600ft, and is surrounded by thick cloud forest and steep trails, somewhat reminiscent of Kodai where I went to boarding school as a child in India.  To reach the Lodge, and continue up to the local peak, required body-wrenching travel in 4-wheel drive vehicles – available for hire with driver and/or guides for very hefty prices.

I stayed in one of the many “dorm” rooms below the lodge, all of which were advertised to require sharing if necessary, but as very few people visit the lodge before February, I not only had a large room to myself (3 beds including a bunk), with private bath and hot water, but a huge picture window overlooking the Caribbean coast to the west, where at night one could see the lights of Santa Marta, the long La Cienega strip winding through the huge lagoon and the distant city of Barranquilla.  I had full moon nights, so would awake to bright moonlight flooding my room, with the Caribbean Sea reflecting the moonlight up into the mountains.  Beautiful.  For two of my days I shared the Lodge with 5 others, then one night had an international bird tour group, one night with an American bird life-lister and his Bogota guide, and one night I was entirely by myself at the Lodge.  The life-lister was searching for just 3 birds he had not previously recorded in the mountains – the local biologist told me he was ranked number 3 or 4 in the world for number of species listed (seen) in all the Americas.  All but one night we had no electricity, as the severe winds this time of year continued to fell large trees and tree limbs onto the primitive electrical transmission system which somehow climbs into these mountains.  The lodge building had a generator, so had power in the evening, but none of the rooms or walks to the rooms had power, so flashlights or lanterns were necessary for going to bed and getting up each morning.

The food was adequate to quite good (a little too much white rice and sweets for my taste, but they accommodated my personal requests well), and there was a lot of it;  three full meals a day, whether you were hungry or not – and the drivers and guides insisted on taking bags of snacks for the hours between meals when roaming around on the sides of the upper reserve.  Plus, every meal was served with different native fresh fruit juices, filling multiple pitchers on each table.  The endless coffee service, pitchers of exotic juices, and very expensive beer (the glass bottles must be hauled up the mountain in 4-wheel drives, along with all other food and supplies), all combined such that I believe I went 5 full days without every drinking just plain water.

I spent one day hiking out to La Cumbres ridge, where a Reserve forest guard, Cristian,  lives alone with his wife.  This is 5 kilometers of semi steep, hiking only, trail from the main lodge; the guard, with 3 others, built the trail, his own home, as well as the solar power which runs it, a year and half ago.  He has to haul in all food, supplies and natural gas on his back.  We spent part of a day birding along that trail.  On two days I paid for a private 4X4 and driver to take me and the Reserve’s local biologist-guide, Roger, to the top of the local peak, at 10,000 feet, where a number of the endemics are found.  I have posted pictures of many of the endemics; you will notice that a large number of them are named “Santa Marta _____”, accurately describing the only location on earth where they may be found.

Birds photographed include the Band-tailed Guan, White-tipped Quetzal, Blue-naped Chorophonia, Santa Marta Woodstar (together with other woodstar hummingbirds, the tiniest birds on earth, head and body combined barely over an inch long), Santa Marta Brush-Finch, Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Wood-Wren, and Rusty-headed Spinetail, the later 5 of which are endemic.  One day, while continuing my unsuccessful attempt to photograph the Santa Marta Antpitta (at least 6 times we had them answering to recorded calls, often to within less than 20 feet in the brush, but they never appeared in the open), I found a small family of Red Howler Monkeys overhead in a huge forest tree; I got some good photos as Howlers almost always provide interesting portraits.

January 14 I bid El Dorado goodbye, and traveled with Sebastian, my guide for the next 4 days, back down to MInca.  We spent two days birding the 4X4 road well below El Dorado but above Minca, where I was rewarded with my first view of the Groove-billed Toucanet, Black-fronted Wood-Quail, Santa Marta Antbird and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, all rare and difficult to photograph.

On the third and fourth days we traveled on down to the Caribbean coast and then north, where first we birded the edges of Tayrona National Park for its dry-forest birds, and then a trail up Rio Don Diego for humid tropical forest birds.  I was rewarded with the Brown-crested Flycatcher, Russet-throated Puffbird, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant and Lance-tailed Manakin, among many others.  We drove on into the desert of the Guajira District, which is the northern most finger of Colombia that joins Venezuela, to the small indigenous community of Los Camarones, which sits on the edge of the Los Flamingos National Reserve.  Since I previously have on many occasions seen the American Flamingo, we were not there to take boats out to the Flamingos.  Instead, we birded the small lagoons, where I photographed the Roseate Spoonbill and Scarlet Ibis along with other waders, and then spent hours with a local indigenous guide (necessary here as all land belongs to the indigenous peoples) walking the senderos (trails) through the very dry desert cactus and thorn tree forests.  We were fortunate in locating the Vermilion Cardinal, White-fringed Antwren, Black-crested Antshrike, Orinocan Saltador and Chestnut Piculet, all relatively difficult and/or near endemic species.

The afternoon of the 17th Sebastian drove me back to Santa Marta, where I spent two nights cleaning up, working on photos, and enjoying cheap Chinese food on the Malecon.  On the 19th I traveled by Brasilia Bus (a first class bus service through much of northern South America, and a vast improvement to Marsol Shuttle Service) the 5 ½ hours to Cartagena; the high Colombian tourist season now is over here in the Caribbean, and so finding lodging was not a problem.  I am in a delightful B&B, called the Patio de Getsemani, with very friendly and helpful owners – the lodging lies in Getsemani, the little walled district now part of the Old Walled City, directly across from the San Jose Battlement on the walls.  Views from the rooftop terrace in the late afternoon are stunning, and include a full view across the bay to Castillo de San Felipe, the largest fortress built in the New World.  The Old City is still entirely surrounded by huge defensive walls.  The fortress and walls all were constructed starting in the 16th Century to defend against the pirates of the Caribbean which periodically sacked the city for the gold and silver stored here destined for Spain; the entire Old City is a World Heritage Site.  But more on Cartagena in the next travelogue – this one has grown oversized due to the intervening times, happenings and photos.

I am well and life is good.  Until later.  Dave

Report on Birding in Amazonia, Colombia, posted Dec. 26, 2016

December 10 I flew from Bogota to Leticia, the capital of the Amazona Department.  Leticia is situated on the northeast bank of the Amazon River at the point where 3 countries meet, Colombia, Brazil and Peru.  From my hotel I simply can walk a few blocks southeast and pass into Tabatinga, Brazil – no immigration or checkpoints – although if one is traveling farther into Brazil where documentation is needed, one must get a visa at the proper offices.  Together, Leticia and Tabatinga have a population of around 100,000.  This is the largest town between Iquitos, Peru, which lies a few hundred miles upriver where the Amazon first takes its name, and Manaus, Brazil which is over a thousand miles downriver.   Just west of Leticia lies a large river island and town which is Peruvian and the northwestern side of the Amazon all is Peru.  I am told that most people here speak both Spanish and Portuguese and the currency of all three countries is used freely in the three towns.

I stayed in one of the better hotels, the Waira Suites, where I was upgraded to a double roomed suite with two flat screen TVs, which I did not use, and two air-conditioners, which I did use.  The first 3 days we received one huge downpour each afternoon-evening.  The days were mostly oppressively hot and humid, particularly when the sun came out, which was often.  City traffic is heavy, and consists over 90% of motorbikes, scooters and motor trikes (“tuk tuks”) with covers, used as taxis. This is similar to traffic in Iquitos, Peru, and makes sense when one realizes there are no roads connecting the Amazon towns to the outside world.  All commerce must either arrive by boat on the very long route up the Amazon from the Atlantic, or by air.  Surprising to me was that close to half the bike and scooter drivers are female.

The manager of my hotel put me in touch with a biology professor, Elais Cuao, who is an expert on the birds here in Amazonia.  Although somewhat pricey, I decided to utilize his expertise throughout my stay in the Amazon.  Each of my three full days in Leticia were spent in patches of forest and existence agricultural cultivation north of Leticia, with one day further north in more primary forest.  The trails on the forest floor often run through long sections of boggy ground, interspersed every 100ms or so by small deep ravines with creeks.  Wearing the 15 inch high rubber boots (which I purchased upon arrival) is pretty much mandatory, as much of the ground is two to six inches of mud.  Most of the deep creeks are crossed by single plank bridges built by the indigenous, usually with single pole handholds tied down with strips of bark to poles grounded in the creek below.  The senderos (forest trails) lead to areas where the indigenous have built their communal homes.  The heat really is oppressive, less for the temperature, which I doubt reaches much past the mid to high 80s F, but mostly for the continuous near 100% humidity.  One remains pretty much permanently soaked with sweat while working the trails with the weight of the backpack, two camera systems and a heavy-duty monopod.  My cheaper camera I keep covered to avoid killing it with sweat, as I did with a new camera in Costa Rica a few years ago.  The professional equipment is supposed to be fairly water resistant and I have not had problems with it.

Age has brought a new set of problems for my rain forest walks.  Starting a couple of years ago, one of my toes started pulling to the right and now tries to climb over the big toe.  Doctors don’t recommend surgery.  I have bought good hiking boots with ample vertical room in the toe box to mitigate the problem.  However, here in the rain forest, one must purchase the cheap and available high black rubber boots.  They are relatively narrow and have no vertical room in the toe box – my first day out I almost wore the top off the lifted toe. Ow! Ow! I ordered some medical “paper” tape to tie the toe down.  Turns out they sold me the very sticky surgical tape, and it almost ripped my skin off my toe and foot.  I exchanged it for paper tape for the skin, which worked the third day for about 2 hours, then came apart.  I have since arranged mostly for birding by private boat down the small rivers, and only go to terra firma where mixed flocks of birds are passing through.  Thus I can wear more often my own boots.  However, that has led to multiple chigger bites, to which I am quite allergic (the chiggers, known here as “aradores,” inhabit the high grasses along the edge of waterways, and climb up inside one’s pant legs unless tucked into the high rubber boots).  Never easy birding in the rain forests.

I was fortunate in three days of Leticia birding to photograph a number of new species, including the Solitary Cacique, Short-tailed Parrot, White-throated Toucan, Chestnut-sided Aracari, Paradise Tanager and Red-throated Caracara.

I did spend a couple of hours one afternoon “visiting” the muelle (dock or port) in Brazil – this involved simply taking a tuk tuk from Leticia, crossing the border which runs down the middle of a street, and continuing south to the larger port of Tabatinga.  There one finds docked the larger 4 story boats which ply the 3-day route from Manaus to Tabatinga.  If a person wishes to continue up-river into Peru, she must head for the Leticia muelle, where the smaller “Express” boats start the 10 hour run up to Iquitos.

On December 14 I traveled by “Express” boat from Leticia to Puerto Narino, the only other town of any size on the Amazon in Colombia.  I had made the decision that, despite the cost, it would be worth the price to have Elais accompany me throughout my expedition on the Amazon tributaries.  The trip upriver took about 2 hours to cover the approximately 90 km.  Puerto Narino is a small town made up of indigenous peoples from the three tribes who live in this part of Colombia.  It is touristed by daytrip groups from Leticia, and is known as an ecologically minded town.  The homes are clean, everything green and lush, and the only “streets” are concrete or paving stone pathways throughout the town.  No motorized vehicles are allowed (excepting the boats at the two piers, as all traffic is by river).  Although my hotel in Leticia had AC rooms and all facilities, the related hotel, Waira Selva, in Puerto Narino was rather basic; an overhead fan, a small balcony, cold water shower, bed and cupboard.

I stayed for 5 days, and our daily routine, rain permitting, was to be out the door by 6:30 generally to take a pequepeque (small canoe type wooden boat, powered by a gas engine which runs a small propeller on a very long 10 ft. shaft), which are the most common powered local transport in Amazonia, and able to navigate over submerged logs and through heavy masses of water plants.  Purchasing gas on the river means pulling up to small wood cabins over the water where the expensive fuel is kept in large plastic containers.  It is sold by the liter poured into plastic Coke bottles for use by the pequepeques (see picture).

We traveled three times into Tarapoto Lake, a lovely large ox-bow lake deep in the forest, where we encountered a number of birds, including the wonderfully named Horned Screamer, White-headed Marsh Tyrant and the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, with its giraffe like neck, long narrow head and long bill, all designed for searching for little frogs which live inside the bromeliads growing on the largest of the rainforest trees. We did one night trip, as I was interested in photographing the black caiman and night birds I previously had seen in Ecuador.  I had been told, but found it hard to believe, that no black caiman remained, not even babies (if caiman are present at all they are very easy to locate at night with a good spotlight, as their eyes shine at the edge of the water like brilliant red beams).  I was told repeatedly that the indigenous had hunted them to extinction in this area in the last 20 years.  Similarly, I had hoped to see the much endangered Amazon manatee, which my books claimed were in this lake – again I was told they had been hunted to local extinction. I was able to photograph two new species of nightjars, using the light of only my powerful Fenix LED torch (flash reflects from their eyes and ruins the picture).  We spent one day traveling a long distance up the Loretoyacu to the Cocha Soto, a black water marsh area, where we got great views of a pair of Slate-colored Hawks, a Red-throated Caracara and the brilliant Masked-crimson Tanager.

From Puerto Narino, on December 19 we traveled by small boat downriver a short ways to the Amacayacu National Park, and mouth of the Amacayacu (Yacu means river in Quechua, so if I said Amacayacu River it would be like saying Amaca River River).  About 20km up the Amacayacu lies the small indigenous village of San Martin, lying just inside the edge of the Park.  There I stayed at the Casa Gregorio, a very rustic lodging (one night I was sharing the lone bathroom with 7 others) run by Heike, a Dutch biologist who arrived 12 years ago to study leaf-cutter ants, and wound up staying, marrying Juan Gregorio, a local leader.  They provide a few rooms and all meals, mostly entertaining European independent travelers who wish an authentic rainforest experience, including lessons in various crafts from the locals.  I spent my days again departing at 6:30, for usually 8 hours or so, by private boat to various birding areas, where I took my first photos of the sadly named Drab Water Tyrant, as well as the common Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures circling overhead.  Mostly we traveled up the Amacayacu, but did walk one day a short way further into the Amacayacu National Park, where I achieved a photo of the skulking, hard-to-find White-shouldered Antbird.

After about the 5th day in the Colombian Amazon, I started to complain a little, more each day, about what to me seemed a lack of bird density compared with my memories of Amazonia in Peru and Ecuador.  Elais kept telling me that there were too many people living up the tributaries near the Amazon in Colombia, and they hunted many of the birds, as well as animals.  On my final day in San Martin, my 12th day in Amazonia, we crossed the Amazon to, first, Isla Cacao, a river island in Peru, and then onto the Peruvian mainland up the Yanayacu tributary.  What a difference.  Within a couple of hours we encountered as many birds as we normally would have in two days, and a number of harder to find species, such as both the Long-winged Antwren and Cherrie’s Antwren and, very unusually, both the Green and Rufous Kingfisher and the Pigmy Kingfisher; both are tiny (the pygmy really small), and both quite rare to find, much less photograph.  I also achieved my first half-way decent photo of the beautiful Scarlet-crowned Barbet.  We also encountered Squirrel Monkeys traveling the high tree-branch highways, and a 3-toed Sloth.

On December 22 we returned by Express boat to Leticia, and on the 23rd I paid an exorbitant price hiring a “fast” boat and we traveled once more across the Amazon into Peru, this time up the Gamboa River.  Again, we were rewarded with an abundance of species and overall bird numbers, including the Chestnut Woodpecker, Black-tailed Trogon and Mustached Wren. The river runs through entirely indigenous land, but quickly reaches untouched forest, except by fishermen.  Because it is low water season, the narrow river channel was choked with a type of water lily plant that the wind pushed into giant mats completely covering all water.  Great habitat for some water birds, but difficult for the boat motor, which continued to get clogged with the plants.  In the indigenous communities, many local families, with all their kids, were out in the water at reed choked river edges, harvesting the yellow egg pouches of some small spiny fish – “Amazonian caviar”.

Quite clearly the small stretch of Amazonia that lies within Colombia, all on the North side of the Amazon, has had problems maintaining the abundance of birdlife, and has had local extinctions of various wildlife.  This may partially be due to a higher human density in the very small area available to Colombia, but I rather suspect is may have a lot to do with the fact that less than 20 years ago, this stretch of the Amazon was heavily traveled, lived on and used for the drug trade by the FARC, the Communist revolutionary army which perpetrated against the Colombian army the longest formal war of the 20th Century, only officially ended by a peace treaty signed a few weeks ago.

Food has been somewhat less than wished for – generally consisting of small pieces of either chicken (often fairly dry) or most commonly fish (usually quite bony).  These are accompanied by rice, potatoes and lots of yuca, a plant stem that, when cooked, mostly resembles somewhat stringy potatoes cut into thick sugarcane type lengths.  Breakfast can usually include eggs, but almost always lots of fruit variety – other than bananas, papaya and pineapple I don’t recognize any of the fruit.  Much of it ranges from grape sized to mango sized colorful spheres, tough skin surrounding a tart fruity interior, usually enclosing a large single or double seed.  The local beers are much like local beers in any Latin American country – all straw colored lagers with lots of flavor (not necessarily good flavor).  I actually now tend to buy the Poker brand, which my guide and a couple of local boatmen describe to me as “agua de burro” (you should be able to interpret).

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas working on my photos, writing, reading, checking the handful of emails I could eventually open on the OH SO SLOW internet here, and drinking the local Poker beer.  At least they have internet in Leticia, unlike Puerto Narino.  This year, although I have a full set of all my music with me, including about 20 Christmas albums, I listened to no Christmas music.  There was none around town, and the only sign of celebrations were a couple of special programs for kids in the main hall of my hotel.  The women’s shoe store across the street from my room balcony played horrid loud music all day, and the store was always packed with shoppers just before Christmas.  The only other sign of the holiday was unbelievably long lines at the Bank ATMs the two days before.  I guess Christmas just doesn’t quite work the same in the Amazon.  Ebenezer Scrooge would have found few spirits here to guide his redemption.

I left Amazonia December 26 and flew back to Bogota, where I have finally had internet sufficient to upload this report.  Tomorrow I fly to Barranquia on the Caribbean coast, and start my several weeks in the Santa Marta region of the North, which comprises the most bird rich area of Colombia.

Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on First Days in Bogota, Colombia, Sat. Dec. 10, 2016

Hello everyone.  I am delighted once more to be on the road, anticipating this trip will cover many parts of Colombia for wildlife and bird photography.  I left Tucson Monday morning Dec 5, and arrived in Bogota shortly after midnight on Tuesday.  Multiple sources recommend never hiring a taxi off the street or hailing an open one at the airport – a common problem in Bogota being referred to as the “millionaire ride,” where the taxi in transit stops on a side street allowing 2 friends to hop in, and they then spend the next several hours first robbing, then forcing, the hapless victim to utilize ATMs for cash on all cards until the daily limit is reached (This taxi crime is common also in Mexico City).  Therefore, one always is encouraged to call a taxi from an authorized company, or buy a taxi ticket at the authorized booth at the airport or bus stations.  There is a catch at the Bogota airport – the authorized taxi ticket booth is inside the international terminal where one exits customs, but the taxi ticket vendor only accepts cash payment in Colombian pesos.  Beside the taxi ticket booth is an international monetary exchange booth with outrageous expensive exchange rates.  The Bank ATMs which dispense Colombian pesos at the bank’s daily exchange rates are located just outside the terminal exit.  I went out, used an ATM for cash, then found I could not reenter the terminal to purchase a taxi ticket.  Instead, outside I was directed to another special taxi booth where I could buy an authorized ticket for a large luxury van at exactly twice the regular taxi rate.  What a system.  I took a normal taxi from the taxi ranks without issue, other than the extra 20 minutes of drive time the elderly driver spent going in circles trying to locate my little B&B hotel.  Next trip I will utilize the hotel’s offer to arrange an authorized taxi to pick me up.

Bogota is quite a clean and relatively modern city, at least around the Centro Historico (the colonial town center), and along the Avenida El Dorado which hosts one leg of the Transmilenio transport system down the middle. The El Dorado road runs from downtown all the way out to the airport. My hotel is closer to the airport, a location decision made to save me over an hour each way in taxi time.  To visit downtown, I just hopped on the Transmilenio, the ultra-modern bus system famous in Bogota, and now copied in Madrid and Mexico City, among other world capitals (sadly not in Tucson, where they chose to start with an overpriced rail line).  Rather than subway or metro rail lines, the Transmilenio utilizes buses which have 2 to 4 cars joined like trams.  They run entirely in dedicated lanes, and stop at frequent stations which operate like most metro and subway systems; that is you purchase rides on refillable cards outside the station, then simply touch the card to the entry turn-style to enter the station.  Once inside one can freely ride the system anywhere in the city, changing buses as necessary, and exiting the system at the destination.  It took me just 15 minutes to get downtown, and I could watch in amazement at the endless multilane traffic jams on either side of the Transmilenio.

Practically all of the really old colonial era buildings and churches, of which there never were many, have been destroyed multiple times by fire or war, and so the city does not compete with historic centers like in Mexico City, Guadalajara or even Lima.  But around the famous and original Plaza Bolivar (practically all South American cities of any size surround a Plaza Bolivar, named for Simon Bolivar, the independence hero for South America), are a number of interesting 17th to 19th century buildings, with pedestrian streets and many “living” statues lining the way as in Barcelona (these are “artists” which set up props and then generally paint themselves entirely silver, bronze or gold and strike poses representing a scene as one might encounter with a work of metallic art).

I have found a street with a dozen cheap restaurants a few blocks from my hotel where I am taking my evening meals.  On the 7th of December I went into a large open-fronted restaurant called Asadero de Carne, Mi Lindo Ranchito, a grilled meat restaurant.  The large interior had a couple dozen tables, but no customers.  Several young men were gathered partying in front of the large wood grill located behind a large bar.  They insisted the restaurant was open (I normally eat about 6pm, and almost all restaurants are then empty, but fill by 7pm), so I ordered a beer and had them show me what cuts of meat were available for grilling.  The day, Dec 7, is a special festival here in Colombia, the Dia de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, which honors the Virgin Mary.  The staff, including the owner, stood drinking rum and 7-Up, which they shared with me (I only took a sip, sticking to my beer).  I wound up ordering the Punta de Anca cut of meat, which is a tri-tip sirloin cut famous for grilling in Colombia.  I cannot properly describe the huge platter they eventually brought me.  They thick-sliced and grilled the entire tri-tip cut, close to two pounds of meat, and served the slices spread to entirely cover a mound of French fries, roasted yucca and guacamole on a large oblong platter.  I can eat a huge amount of food, but was fully stuffed just a little over half way through that meal.  The entire meal plus two beers and lots of fun set me back just over $9 US.  As other customers started to arrive we toned down our private party, but took a bunch of pictures. On my 6 block walk back home through residential streets, almost every 5th house had the family outside lighting sets of candles on the sidewalks.  I have great memories of the Day of the Little Candles.

I spent Thursday with a hired taxi visiting two “humedals” (marshlands) just northwest of greater Bogota.  These sites were recommended for rare and endemic birds in my guide book to birding sites in Colombia.  Both sites recommended, and I agreed, to be accompanied by an armed guard, as robbers had plagued the large marshlands in recent years. Two rare endemic species exist nowhere else except in these local marshlands, and so may go extinct in the not distant future, one being the Bogota rail. Unfortunately, both sites appeared somewhat polluted, with one being completely bordered on one side by new high rise cheap apartment buildings which drained sickly looking water into the marsh.  I did see a number of birds, but all were of the more common varieties, and so the day was not what I had hoped.

From Bogota I flew to Leticia on Saturday – Leticia is a small town sitting on the bank of the Amazon River, at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru all meet.  I will spend the next 17 days along the Amazon, hoping the oncoming rainy “season” (it always rains, but is most constant and heavy around February) does not start early.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Aug. 18, 2016

Hello all.  I am just nearing the end of a month stay in the central highlands of Mexico.  I last wrote reporting on Yellowstone, while still on the road in the US in my small RV trailer – that trip ended in June after a long detour to Kansas City to visit my brother, who lives there, and sister, who traveled up from Florida.  From Kansas I spent three days on the long drive back down to Tucson.  After a month in Tucson, I realized once again how little I enjoyed the really hot summer temperature, and so decided to spend a month in the highlands of central Mexico.

On July 21 I flew to Mexico City, where I spent a week just wandering around the central historic area.  I have been traveling there for decades, and so had visited most sites many times before. I stayed again in the Hotel Catedral, spending late afternoons on the terraces overlooking the Mexico City Cathedral from the North.

I did visit for the first time the relatively new Diego Rivera Museum to see the famous Alameda Park mural, moved after the great 1985 earthquake leveled the original building around it without touching the mural.  I also spent time visiting friends, two graduate archaeology students (at University of Arizona), working on their PhDs researching ancient humans.  Ismael and Kayla both were spending the summer in the INAH (Mexico’s Agency over all archaeological sites) labs where were deposited the gomphothere (form of extinct ice age elephant) bones they had excavated along with human stone tools in Northern Mexico over the last 2 years.  They are preparing for making a presentation at a seminar this next week.

I had one very unfortunate experience traveling on the Mexico City subway system while there; on my way to visit the National Anthropology Museum, a group of young men physically “jammed” my body while I was trying to enter a crowded subway car.  This lasted all of about 1 second, long enough for one of them to get my wallet from behind (even though I carry it in a front pocket).  This form of physical robbery is exactly the same that was used on me in Thessaloniki Greece last fall.  Anyway, once again I found myself wasting over a day trying to cancel, then get replacement, credit/dedit cards (I always carry multiple cards, and split them so I carry half and leave half in my hotel room, thus only losing and dealing with two cards upon a theft).

From Mexico City three weeks ago I traveled by bus to San Miguel de Allende.  San Miguel is a World Heritage Site, with most of its central heart made up of 18th century historic buildings.  It was part of the cradle of the independence movement from Spain.  The town sits at well over 6,000 feet in elevation in the central highlands, and has a year-round spring climate.  July-August is the rainy season, when everything is very green and fresh; it rains most days, but usually just for an hour or so, with brilliant blue skies much of the rest of the time.  Very lovely.  I probably have been to San Miguel about 10 times previously – originally in the mid-1970s when it was a small pueblo, and then when I spent months originally learning Spanish in 2002.

This is the time of year in San MIguel for the annual International Chamber Music Festival – every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday a different concert is presented by a world renowned chamber group in the historic Peralta Theater.  I will attend my 8th concert this Friday, presented by the famous Parker String Quartet.  I already have attended a number of concerts by the Hermitage Piano Trio, formed by three extraordinary young Russian immigrants to the US, each individually a world class concert soloist, performing as the trio.  They are heavy on Russian composers, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, but also performed Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak.

Every evening I enjoy my wine and smoking my pipe while reading up on the terrace, viewing the magnificent church tops over town.  I have 5 favorite nearby restaurants I alternate for dinner, including one Indian restaurant.  After dinner (and some mornings) I usually have been glued to the TV watching the summer Olympics in Rio.

I plan on returning to Mexico City this Saturday, and then flying back to Tucson on Monday, to put up with what still will be very hot weather for the next month or so.  I already am researching my next trip, considering three months of bird photography in Colombia.  Later.  Dave

 

 

Travel Report on Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT and Yellowstone Nat. Park, WY, June 5, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote from Bozeman, MT. preparing to enter Yellowstone.  In Bozeman I spent one afternoon at the famous Museum of the Rockies.  I arrived while they had two special exhibitions of great interest to me (and the general public); both were specials by the National Geographic Society.  The first was a display of the “Fifty Greatest Photographs”, which included the editorially selected 50 most compelling cover photos ever displayed in the National Geographic Magazine.  These were poster sized reproductions, with a discussion of the detail behind each photo and the impact it had.  This was an awesome undertaking, occupying two large rooms, and many of the photos staggered me.  Most were not up to my current technical standards for photo resolution and color (for almost all came from the film era), but of course it was the content that was stunning, pleasing and/or disturbing.  A real treat.  On top of that, they filled a third room with the photos taken by a young European couple who spent two entire years trekking on foot along the ridge line of the Andes, from Quito, Ecuador to the southern tip of Chile, along with their journal entries recorded with each photo.  Another visual treat.  The main regular attraction at the museum is the dinosaur and paleontological collection, including the largest collections in the world of Tyrannosaur and Triceratops skulls.  The museum collection is (was) curated by the world famous paleontologist Jack Horner.  He already was well known among enthusiasts and scholars, but became especially well known to the general public as the advisor to all 3 of the Jurassic Park movies, as well as being the inspiration for the paleontologist character, Dr. Grant, in the original film.  The museum was great, and it turned out to be Dr. Horner’s retirement day celebration, open to the public; he was there, sitting under the large full Tyrannosaur skeleton, chatting with children (see photo).

I drove from Bozeman following the Madison River, source of the Missouri River, upstream to the West entrance to Yellowstone on Monday the 23rd.  I had some unusual stomach trouble for two days, picked up from a dish of vegetarian eggs Benedict in the best breakfast restaurant in Bozeman (which I won’t name publicly).  My first night in Yellowstone, camped in the one RV loop that already had had a number of grizzly visits in the past 3 days, I needed to make several quick trips to the rest room facilities.  This was a long walk from my RV, in the rain, keeping an eye out for that neighborhood grizzly.   I had experienced poor weather for 8 straight days prior to Yellowstone, ever since visiting the Snake River Canyon, with mostly heavy cloud cover and high winds, plus rain daily, often for hours straight.  Well, it didn’t change in Yellowstone.  My first 8 days produced practically constant rain, snow, sleet, “slush balls” (huge slushy hail) and wind – on the second day I awoke to 3 inches of snow and it still was falling – high road passes were closed.  Other than the general wetness, the major depressing factor was the very heavy overcast and lack of visibility.  Most of my decent photos all came from the last two days in the Park, which mostly were clear and sunny, albeit cold.

I spent the first 7 days at Fishing Bridge, the spot where the Yellowstone River exits the Yellowstone Lake.  This site was famous for cutthroat trout fishing until 1973 (indeed, I have memories and B&W photos of fishing trout here with my father in 1960). The cutthroat were overfished, and then in the 1990s someone illegally introduced lake trout to the ecosystem, and the cutthroat now have been decimated.  Fishing today is permitted on much of the river and lake (not from the bridge), but barbless hooks must be used and cutthroats must immediately be released, whereas lake trout or rainbow trout, if caught, must be killed.  The Fishing Bridge Camp offers the only RV hookups for power etc. inside the Park, and do not allow soft-sided camping such as tents or pop-ups due to the grizzly bear problems.  I ate most of my meals in the little cafeteria in the General Store.  I re-visited much of the Park those first 7 days, obtained some nice “storm” photos, but it was very much less than ideal photo weather.  My last 3 days I moved up to Canyon Camp near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Weather cleared, and most of my wildlife photos were from these few days.  As the Canyon Camp had no hookups, I had no electricity and could not do my photo work, consisting of daily developing, captioning, key-wording and sorting the still and video images on my computer – this had to remain for after I left the Park.

Yellowstone basically fills with tourists starting from the time of year the roads connecting the two main wildlife valleys (Hayden and Lamar) open in late May.  By getting out to explore by crack of dawn, a little after 5am each morning, one can travel and see wildlife and the attractions with only a few other hardy souls; by a little after 8:30am or so, the crowds start hitting the roads and filling the parking areas – by 9:00am the throngs and tour busses have left their lodges, finished their breakfasts, boarded their transport and the Park becomes filled with a mass of humanity until sundown.  In addition, for wildlife viewers with spotting scopes and long-lens photo-gear, the ground heats enough soon after sunrise so that by 10am viewing through powerful optics becomes blurred at distance (due to cells of air turbulence).  I spent some of the busy parts of several days revisiting the thermal areas of the park, which display more geysers, hot springs, mud pits and steam vents than all those found in the rest of the world combined.  I spent many beautiful days photographing these attractions three years ago, and so really was focused this time on wildlife.

A number of the birds photographed were, for me, uncommon or not often photographed, including the rare Harlequin Ducks, Trumpeter Swan and American Dipper, which is the only aquatic species of all Passerine birds (songbirds or perching birds, which make up fully half of all species on earth); it feeds on insects underwater. I also photographed the colorful Barrow’s Goldeneye duck, Osprey at their giant nest, Cliff Swallows in flight at their “jug” nests and a Dusky Grouse, among others.

I successfully found most of the larger mammals, including the three most sought after, wolves, black bear sows with cubs and grizzlies.  Four times in the Tower Falls area I saw one or both of the two sow black bears that inhabit the area, each currently with two wonderfully funny tiny cubs.  The cubs tumble and rumble with each other and scramble several feet up the side of a tree at any perceived frightening sound.  A lone bull elk just off the road attracted hundreds of viewers in Hayden Valley one day; herds of cow elk were everywhere, attracting the wolves.  I viewed an unfortunate abandoned newborn elk for half an hour, mewling pitifully for its mother.  Two cow elk came out of the woods from different directions attracted to the mewling, but the baby was not theirs, as evidenced by smell.  The next day, however, in exactly the same location, I noted a newborn with a cow, and believe one of the cows eventually accepted the calf.  Moose are rare to see in the Park now according to the rangers.  I did see one in very unusual circumstances; I was driving through a forested valley north of Canyon, when I stopped for a couple of cars pulled off the road to ask what they saw – they were watching a bull moose just down below the road in the trees.  I got out to photograph, but the moose was moving behind the trees but toward the road behind us.  I assumed the moose was going to cross the road there, and got my camera ready.  As I was looking through the camera finder, a car came spurting toward us, around the blind corner, just as the moose appeared climbing up onto the road.  The car screeched to a halt, just bumping the moose, which jumped, slipped on the pavement, and “skated” across the road.  Yes, I got a photo of the moose skating; proof is in the attached photo below.  We followed the moose into a clearing on the far side, where it resumed eating, apparently uninjured. (Maximum speed limit anywhere in the Park is 45mph for this reason.)

In the Park, most grizzly and wolf sightings are at great distances (generally too far to see with the naked eye, or seen only as dots in the distance), whereas black bears with cubs often are along the roads near Tower Junction.  A fair number of “trained” visitors and professional photographers now spend much of the summer in the Park doing nothing but following and recording these three species.  I spent parts of two days viewing wolves at an elk kill, including interactions with ravens and bald eagles. As usual, it was viewed at great distance, as was the recently located wolf den with several pups (about two miles from the viewing location). Elk constitute the main prey of the wolves, though one pack in the Park is said to specialize in bison.

In Lamar Valley, probably the best big-game viewing area of the Park, I witnessed a black bear on the far side of the river chased first by young bull bison, then chased back into the woods by a lone coyote (I call him the lone ranger).  Subsequently, coyote howling broke out behind me on the hillside, and on the far side of the river two more coyotes joined the lone ranger coyote, with tails wagging and much hopping around.  I mentioned to a photographer standing next to me that they probably were saying “Jake my man – Way to Go, Jake – you really showed that bear.”  The next morning we discovered the source of howling on the hill behind us, as someone spotted the coyote den; I spent a couple hours watching after being told one coyote had carried a pup out of the den and into a neighboring growth of poplars.  Soon, the mother coyote came to the den, from the opposite direction, and two pups came out of the den and suckled and romped around.  The mother seemed suddenly to realize she was missing a pup – she walked a few feet away and started howling.  An answering howl came from the poplars, whereupon the mother jogged over into the poplars, returning about 10 minutes later with the “lost” pup in her mouth, which she deposited back into the den (much of this I also was able to record on video).  I again “anthropomorphized”, after explaining to a neighboring photographer the scene of yesterday, when the lone ranger coyote had run off the black bear – this time I suggested the same lone ranger had gone too far in taking one of his pups to visit the poplar grove.  I imagined that he had received a severe “talking too” (the howling), as well as nips when the female came to retrieve the pup.

Of great interest to me, along with watching the wolves, black bears with cubs and the coyote den, was watching and photographing the lines of “watchers,” lined as we were along the road with our cameras and spotting scopes.  I have included below photos of, not only the wolves, bears and coyotes, but an image of the “watchers” in each case, which properly sums up what you will experience if you spend much time in Yellowstone seeking wildlife.

I spent much time especially seeking grizzly encounters closer than the common sightings, which are at well over a mile.  After 10 days I still had had no luck, but on the morning of departure I decided to take a last early two hour drive through Hayden Valley.  A little before sunrise, at a point where the Yellowstone River curves right along the road, I noticed an unusual black object lying on the river bank just on the far side; three other people had stopped there, and one told me he thought it had moved and was a black bear.  I viewed it through my long lens and almost jumped for joy – the black blob resolved itself into a huge grizzly resting on a bloody carcass.  At that point the grizzly, apparently disturbed by our voices, stood; it was a very large grizzled brown male, looming over a bloody newborn elk kill.   I then noted a lone cow elk a few hundred yards further up on the opposite bank – almost certainly the grizzly had taken the calf shortly after its birth.  Grizzlies are the largest predators on earth, and certainly can take down full grown elk, as well as moose, but often take the easiest kill.  The grizzly was about 150 yards from us, and we were protected by the Yellowstone River running between.

For the next hour and half, as it gradually grew brighter with the sunrise, I stood and took photos, as well as some wonderful video clips (as to which I haven’t figured out whether insertion is possible into my travelogues).  The grizzly interacted aggressively with a couple of brave ravens, which kept sneaking up to grab pieces of the carcass.   As I had 7 hours of driving ahead, I reluctantly left at a little before 8am to retrieve my RV back at Canyon.  Driving out of the Park took me back up the Hayden Valley, where I passed again by the grizzly kill-site at close to 9am.  Now, the road was a traffic mess, not only with the crowds finally emerging from late breakfasts to congregate about the grizzly site, but with the arrival of 5 large bull bison, which had descended the steep bank from the back of the road, coming down to the river to water – they split the crowds on the road into a north and south group, and jammed up traffic, turning the road effectively into a single lane (a most unusual dual “bear-bison jam”).

I drove out of the Park through the east entrance, through Cody and down to Casper, WY, where I am staying for 3 days to catch up on work on the 600 photos and 30 videos I have taken since I last had electric power for my computer equipment.  I am camped here along the North Platte River, and will follow it down to Scottsbluff and later Mormon Island, both in Nebraska, before heading on to Kansas City for a mini-reunion with my brother and sister.  Later.  Dave

 

Travel Report on Birding around Klamath Falls and Snake River Birds of Prey, Sat., May 21, 2016

Hello everyone.  I last wrote just after arriving in Klamath Falls, OR, and was then starting my birding around the lake.  I remained for 6 days, and spent each morning visiting Putnam Point, at the south end of Klamath Lake where it flows into the Klamath River.  This probably is the best spot in the world to view both Clark’s and Western Grebes during breeding season.  The two species are very similar, distinguishable only by the placement of the black cap above the eye, and the subtle beak color.  Both species re-establish mating pairs in April and early May, and engage in spectacular courtship rituals.  Patience and time spent observing them paid off with some action photos, including the most spectacular ritual, the courtship dance.

The “Dance” normally starts with what I call the “Challenge” – a pair, either of Clark’s or Western Grebes, face off on the water, with necks extended forward and low over the water, the jet black hood feathers raised to produce a half moon over the face.  The two face each other from about 1 foot.  Five different ritualistic head movements were displayed during the Challenge phase, which itself lasts from a few to 20 seconds.  The pair in the face-off alternate the very distinct head and neck positions, which include: head low and fully forward on the long neck, “glaring” at the other; head dunking forward and under water; head and neck raising up high above the level of the other; flipping water to one side with the beak; and turning the lowered head 45 degrees to one side.  After the challenge, with no warning the eye can discern, the birds take off “running” on their legs at right angles to their Challenge faceoff position.  Within a second or so they lift their bodies fully up and out of the water, literally running on top of the water, side by side, continuing for up to 60 feet while leaving a trail behind of boiling water.  They run with wings pinned open and back, necks arching upward and curving forward, with the head and beak tilted back up.  This running on water is called “Rushing”.  At the end of the Rush, both birds dive under water.  The Challenge and Rush are considered one of the most remarkable animal courtships of any animal species on earth.  National Geographic reported on a study done last year researching how this bird can literally run on water; it is the largest vertebrate in the world that can do so.  High speed cameras show the grebes taking around 20 steps per second (the world’s Olympic sprinters are just approaching 5 strides per second), with the webbed feet angling out sideways for each return stroke.  I have included a separate photo gallery with a number of photos taken in rapid series which, if you click through them using the slide show, will give a visualization of this spectacular courtship – this gallery starts with the 24th photo below.  The slide show is started by simply right-clicking on any photo in the gallery.  (I obtained some video, but the still photos are much higher resolution quality).
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Other Grebe rituals include engagement in what I call the “Necking” ritual, often after chasing off an intruder who came too close to the pair’s space.  The pair will raise their heads straight up on the very long necks, then, alternately, or simultaneously, coil their neck down pulling their head onto their back where they will grab at a feather with the beak.  This ritual can continue for 10 to 20 seconds.  The birds have in addition a “Weed” ceremony that occurs at the site of nesting, but this I did not observe.  I did, however, observe what I call failed Challenge and Rush ceremonies.  Twice I observed a pair of Western Grebes start the Challenge faceoff phase, which continued normally for a number of seconds, followed by just one of the grebes taking off for the Rush; the other just sat and watched the lonely Rush of the other.  Indeed, the second time I photographed this, I was astonished that, as soon as the poor lone grebe took off on the Rush, the remaining one almost immediately stopped watching, turned and dove under water for fishing.  Brutal.  I automatically assumed in both cases it was the female who presented the false Challenge, because it so reminded me of Lucy eternally promising Charlie Brown that this time she would not pull away the football.  (I expect some guff for admitting my assumption, as the sex of the grebes is indistinguishable).  Finally, over several days I watched the same complaining juvenile grebe follow an adult, making begging noises insistently for food; the adult completely ignored the youngster, even after catching and bringing a fish to the surface (the fish usually are consumed underwater).

I visited Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuge twice more, and continued to see a very large variety of birdlife.  A Golden Eagle in first year plumage grabbed a partially grown Canada Goose gosling.  Although I only got a quick photo of the eagle air-born after dropping the gosling, I did photograph the parent geese trying to shelter the remaining goslings from further predation.  Later, in the same area I observed a coyote hunting the banks.  All the predators knew it was easy feasting this time of year.

From Klamath Falls I drove the short distance to Bend, OR, where I stayed just a day, and then drove on to the small town of Homedale, Idaho to stay at the green Snake River RV Park right on the river.  My target was the very long-named “Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area,” encompassing the Snake River Canyon; it provides the densest raptor nesting area in the US and probably the world.  Eighteen different species of raptors congregate here, most using the area for nesting along the basalt cliffs over the Snake River.  The plateaus above the cliffs are covered with grasslands bored full of the holes of countless Piute Ground Squirrels, which, together with Black-tailed Jackrabbits, provide the main nourishment for the nesting raptors.  The area particularly is famous for the nesting Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, together with Golden Eagles and three different species of Buteo Hawks.  Unfortunately, both days I had scheduled for driving the cliff ledges were rainy and extremely windy – poor weather for the nesting raptors to be hunting, though I got a few decent photos.

On Tuesday I drove to the tiny town of Arco, Idaho, close to the Craters of the Moon National Monument which covers one of the major volcanic hotspots of the last several thousand years.  I spent one afternoon visiting, but had, unfortunately, again bad weather.  The tiny town of Arco, population about 900, sits below a cliff face (really a hundred faces) with almost every face of the cliff marked in white paint by each high school class year, starting from about 1920.

Wednesday I drove north through the beautiful Salmon and Bitterroot Valleys, from Idaho into Montana, to visit Loey, a high school friend from my time in boarding school in India.  We drank wine out on her magnificent yard and reminisced about long-ago times and school mates who still seem as family. Loey is planning our 50th class reunion to be held next summer at her location in Montana.  From Stevensville I drove to Bozeman for a last few days before my planned 10 day stay inside Yellowstone Nat. Park, where I will have no Wi-Fi or cell phone access for the duration.  Later.  Dave

PS. Below are two separate photo galleries available for slide show. Click any picture of the top 23 photos for a set of pictures covering the travelogue. Below those start a second gallery, starting after the Swainson’s Hawk in flight; this gallery shows a complete series of Grebe’s Challenge and Rush ritual, which can be viewed, rapidly advancing through the pictures, to get a sense of the actual ceremony – this set of photos starts with the 24th photo below and is labeled at that point.
Link to Clark’s Grebes Courtship Gallery

Full Series of Clark’s Grebes Challenge and Rush Courtship Ritual Below.

Travel Report on Lava Beds Nat. Mon., Tule Lake & Lower Klamath Nat. Wildlife Refuges, May 8, 2016

Hello all.  I last wrote from Lassen Volcanic Nat. Park.  Starting at Lassen in north-central California, the Cascade Range is a string of volcanoes running north through central Oregon and Washington (and on through Canada and into Alaska, though with different names).  From Lassen I drove the short distance to Lava Beds Nat. Monument, where I camped for 4 days.  I had no nearby restaurants either at Lassen or Lava Beds, and survived off of sandwiches and salads stockpiled from a Walmart in Redding the week before – great meals neither to anticipate nor in which to indulge.  The couple who owned the RV park, Eagle’s Nest, in Tionesta, was delightful, making up for any “out-in-the-boonies” issues.  Their property, along with most of the Monument, was filled with the little Belding’s Ground Squirrels, which dug their holes everywhere. Cute babies (see photo)!

Lava Beds, well off any beaten track, has few visitors – but is marvelous.  The Park Service claims over 700 lava tube caves, of which about 18 have been improved to the extent of having ladders or stairs permitting entrance and exit into the different levels.  Some of the caves approach a mile in extent.  Many are wet, with bacterial or fungal mats lining the walls and ceilings, and amazing colors when lit with a light source.  Exploration requires obtaining a permit after certification that one is free of fungal spores from caves elsewhere within or out of the country for the “white-nose” fungus which infects bat populations.  The accessible caves are shown on park maps, and rated 1, 2 or 3 for difficulty; rating 1 signifies little stooping and no crawling, and relatively smooth walking surfaces – rating 2 signifies the need to at times climb over rocks, and some stooping (duck walking) through areas with less than 4 foot ceilings – rating 3 signifies the need for helmets, gloves and knee pads to traverse crawl spaces sometimes less than 1 foot high, and tunnel complexes within which someone could get lost.  I avoided “3s”, but visited 7 different 1 and 2 rated caves.  Two tube-caves dropped down through 3 different superimposed lava tube levels, to sufficient depth underground that they had permanent ice floors.  Others opened into larger chambers ½ mile downtube where the ceilings were covered with a hydrophobic bacterial mat which formed microscopic water beads on the outside of the mats which reflected all light as brilliant gold veins.  All required good light sources; the Park Service recommended 3 lights per person and not traveling alone.  I, of course, travel alone, but always carried 4 quality LED light sources (the idea of being half a mile underground, with no idea of direction, in an earthquake prone area, in total blackness, with no light source spooks me just a little).

Ancestors of the Modoc Indians lived in the area for many thousands of years, and a number of sites are rich in rock art, mostly petroglyphs, but with two small lava tube cave entrances displaying pictographs.  Petroglyph Point is a very long sandstone shelf along the base of a mountain which, until a hundred years ago, was an island in a much larger version of what today is Tule Lake National Wildlife Sanctuary.  In the early 20th century the federal government drained much of the lake creating thousands of acres of new fertile farmland, still farmed today.  What remains of the lake, with man-made channels, connects with vast marsh lands and seasonally flooded areas which run north and west, connecting with the Upper and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, which extend into Oregon almost all the way to Crater Lake National Park.  The petroglyphs must number in the thousands, depending on what one counts as a single item.  Large areas of the shelf have been degraded by century old and modern graffiti.  The petroglyphs mostly are geometric designs, including many “saw tooth” lines, dot formations, and some anthropomorphic figures.  As their original creation occurred on the rock face where it rose vertically out of the water of the lake, the petroglyphs are said all to have been made from canoes. Considering the quality (low) and scrawling nature of most of the “art”, I almost can picture groups of happy native American kids swimming in the warm shallow summer lake waters, along the islands shore around to the cliffs, where they scribbled whatever “art” they chose onto the soft walls.  Who knows?

From Lava Beds I drove the short distance north, west and south again to go around Mt Shasta to Weed California (when clear and covered with snow,  at over 14,000 ft. Mt Shasta presents one of the most stunning volcano appearances in the world). The town’s name “Weed” has been somewhat controversial in recent years as many businesses have used it to create tourist paraphernalia such as “I ‘heart’ Weed”.  The local brewery, Mt Shasta Brewery, even got into a legal tiff with the California legislature a couple of decades back by using the web address and selling beer known as Weed Ale (the brewery won the legal battle).  In fact, the town is named for its founder, a lumberman by the name of Abner Weed, founded back around 1900.  Mt Shasta Brewery (still WeedAle online) is a rather strange pub.  A huge sheet metal building with 30 foot ceilings, located on College Street in the middle of a small residential neighborhood, it produces and sells the normal micro-brewery assortment of beers.  I have visited it twice, and continue to find the brews mediocre at best, but an interesting visit none-the-less.  I stayed in the Trailer Lane RV Park out of town, between the highway and the railroad tracks: needed white noise at night to sleep.  I did get to see there my first Granite Spiny Lizard, pretty with its blue throat, but never saw the black bear that had torn the trash cans apart the day I arrived.

I remained in Weed for 4 days, working out my travel course for the next 6 weeks, as I had given little thought to what to do after visiting the California parks.  Deciding I had several weeks before revisiting Yellowstone, I decided to spend some days further visiting the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for its abundant birdlife.  I first moved to tiny Dorris, on the California Oregon border, but as the only RV Park, owned by a lovely but very elderly couple, had no Wi-Fi, locked bathrooms with showers advertised as hot on Tuesdays and Saturday and sited between the railroad and highway, I moved on to Klamath Falls, Oregon the next day.  Klamath Falls is a lovely old lumber town, sitting on the Lower Klamath Lake and River, and sporting dozens of interesting restaurants and brew pubs.

The two Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, the Lower spanning the California-Oregon border, and the Upper between Klamath Falls and Fort Klamath to the north, are among the premier waterfowl refuges in the country.  The wetlands, marshes, river, and lakes lie in one of the major flyways for migrating waterfowl, and host a huge number of permanent species, including birds of prey, which nest here.  I have spent two days driving the dirt roads around various marshes, lakes and canals, and have seen an astounding variety of birds, including a number of new ones for me, some quite rare, or difficult to view, such as the Tufted Duck, Tricolored Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Burrowing Owl and White-fronted Goose.  I had great luck in locating the nesting burrow of a Burrowing Owl with the help of a local photographer, and so obtained good close-ups of the owl.  Other birders told me where to go to find the lone Tufted Duck, a rare if not unique sighting in Oregon.  I regularly see over 12 species of ducks and geese, 3 of grebes and over 12 of shore birds, along with numerous birds of prey and songbirds.   Putnam Point, just outside Klamath Falls, is reputed to be the best spot in the country for viewing the mating dances of both the Western and Clark’s Grebes.  I have photographed both species there, but have yet to witness the dance.

I will spend a couple more days in Klamath Falls, hoping for a chance to observe the grebes dancing, then move on to Bend, OR, and from there east to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, another premier birding sanctuary, but for nesting eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rather than waterfowl.  Later Dave

Travel Report on Fort Bragg, Redwoods Nat. & St Parks & Lassen Volcanic NP, Mon. Apr. 25, 2016

Hello.  The Pacific coast by Ft Bragg and for several miles north comprises MacKerricher State Park, a wonderful string of small secluded beaches hidden in coves of rocky, bluff shoreline, with thunderous surf and breakers roiling over hundreds of sharp black rocky extrusions.  Pacific harbor seals, cormorants and other seabirds sit on the rocks.  On the small wildflower strewn and grassy bluffs over the shoreline are the usual sparrows and numerous California ground squirrels which were completely unmindful of humans.  Two rivers flow into the sea through the park, both offering sandy shorelines busy with ducks, geese, mergansers and shorebirds.  I spent a couple of days photographing wildlife and scenes, and a couple of hours bicycling the park.  I would have stayed longer, but the weather report had 5 days of rain moving into northern California within a couple of days, and I wanted at least one rain-free day in the redwoods.

On Tuesday I drove the short distance north on Route 1 (combines with 101 part way up) to Trinidad; the wild coast and evergreen forests of the coastal hills are beautiful – and far less traffic and only low population centers.  If I were required to live in California, I would want it to be here in the northwest.  I am staying in the Sound of Sea RV Park a few miles north of the little town of Trinidad, on a bluff just a mile south of Point Patrick.  The owner has a large and beautiful two story house, manicured lawns, an Australian cockatiel as a “guard bird” in the office (it makes lots of noise when someone enters) AND a white Maserati sitting in his carport.  I no longer need to wonder whether some RV parks can be profitable.

Just a dozen or so miles north of here one enters a series of parks protecting the remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests; the system includes a number of California state parks, made up in large part of a number of donations by wealthy patrons in years past, and the National Park; the total extent is a hodgepodge of corridors connecting the major groves.  Most of the system is administered as a joint California-Federal park.  I was surprised to learn that the original (pre-19th century) “Old-Growth” redwood forests covered just 3,000 square miles (about 20 by 150 miles).  The very mature trees of the old growth may be over 2,000 years old, over 20 feet in trunk diameter, and rise to well over 330 ft. (100 m), the tallest trees on earth.  These forests have existed for 350 million years (before and during the dinosaur age).  Due to logging, the old-growth forests now make up barely 5% of the original, or about 150 square miles (about 10 by 15 miles if all compacted).  Restoration of cut areas would obviously take several thousand years just to re-create the largest trees.  I now appreciate the “wisdom” of some of the more radical environmental groups that ultimately successfully stopped the logging, and resulted in the patchwork of protective parks that today exists.

My first evening, dining at the locally very popular Lighthouse Restaurant, I found myself in conversation with a wiry, elderly, thin man as we stood in the long ordering line.  He is a current member of Earth First (the perhaps best known radical group taking on the loggers), who moved from LA to Trinidad 17 years ago to commit full time to the continued effort.  I was surprised to learn they just succeeded in stopping some further logging some miles away.  I did not know the redwood logging wars of the 70s continue.

A quick word regarding the relationship between the redwoods and the giant sequoias.  Until this trip I assumed they were the same trees, and thought there was but one national park.  I found I was ignorant. Though both are evergreens, and both have very red wood, and they both grow into giants, they are not even of the same genus taxonomically, though belonging to the same sub-family.  The giant sequoias (genus sequoiadendrum), the most massive trees on earth, grow only in the drier mountains at around 6,000 feet, and stand like aliens among other scattered evergreens, with little undergrowth.  The wood easily breaks, and is not useful as lumber. Groves of giant sequoias are found in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks.  Redwoods, confusingly of genus Sequoia, are the tallest trees on earth.  They grow only along the northern California coast at just above sea level, in very humid, rainy, dense fern and mossy environments.  They, unfortunately, produce excellent lumber, and so almost have met their demise from logging.  The remaining redwoods mostly now are protected within a patchwork of the Redwood National Park together with several adjoining California State parks.

I spent my first afternoon exploring the length of the Prairie Creek Redwood State Park on a small paved road through the middle of old growth.  I also hiked the short trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the National Park.  The next day I drove the unpaved Davison Road through several miles of very dense redwood. The tree density was so heavy most of the travel seemed dark as night and headlights were required. The redwoods along this route all were well under 2 feet in diameter.  Only on my return did I notice the very dark and giant stumps among the thickly clustered smaller trees – stumps 5 to 20 feet in diameter, and 5 to 20 feet high – upon inspection all with obviously flat tops.  They sat black and house-sized within the forest.  It was then that I realized this forest had been logged long ago, and twenty to thirty young trees now occupy the area once claimed by a single giant.  I was passing through a graveyard of giants – the hulking black stumps indicating where the magnificent mature trees once stood, now almost completely hidden within a much too dense cluster of younger trees.

Eight miles up the Davison Road brought me to the end of the road, from where I hiked the short distance in to Fern Canyon.  Fern Canyon is simply magnificent.  The canyon walls, though not so high (maybe 50 feet), are sheer – the width at the bottom probably averages under 35 feet – the bottom is mostly a shallow stream which has created switchbacks every 50 feet or so, providing new vistas at each turn.  The cliff walls are covered with up to 5 different species of ferns, producing a complete wall “papering” of hanging plants.  The valley bottom hosts dozens of fallen trees, which crisscross the stream, or jut at odd angles and heights.  Hiking the canyon bottom requires crossing the stream about 15 times, balancing precariously on narrow fallen trees, or climbing over giant logs, or simply trying to hit the shallowest parts where the water spreads over rocks.  The ferns, along with the redwood trees, are said to be of the same types as created much of the ancient wet forests of the dinosaur era.  A number of scenes from “Jurassic Park 2”, BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” and IMAX’s “Dinosaurs Alive” all were filmed here.  As I spent a couple of hours navigating the canyon, I thought about coming face to face with, not a tyrannosaur, but rather a flock of those little chicken-sized, chirping carnivores (Compys) from Jurassic Park.

On Thursday I obtained a permit from the National Park Service to hike the “Tall Trees Trail”, which permit allows visiting the grove of the largest redwoods which include the tallest trees.  The visit starts with a 7 mile drive from sea level up to a little over 2,000 feet, then using the provided “combination” to pass through a locked Park gate, followed by a 7 mile steep descent on a dirt road to just below 1,000 feet elevation, where the car is parked.  From there one hikes down another 800 feet along a steep trail into the Redwood Creek Valley, where exist the very tallest trees along a beautiful rocky stream.  The “Libby” tree is along the trail, and for years was considered the tallest tree in the world; in recent years its top has died back, and several nearby trees have been discovered to be taller – the location of these is kept secret.  Maple Trees, which grow closest to the streams, have trunks and huge twisted limbs completely covered in green-yellow moss, and sit among the large ancient ferns.   A very majestic arena in a deep valley far from crowds of people.

On Saturday I traveled to Lassen Volcanic National Park, which I previously visited 3 years ago.  The drive took twice what I anticipated, as first I experienced a flat tire (2nd within a year – picking up nails on old logging roads), having then to find a tire shop in tiny McKInleyville to repair it, followed by a number of road construction zones on the passes through the mountains, requiring flagmen and multiple stops.  I had thought I would pass over a short coastal mountain range before again crossing the northern San Juaquin Valley before climbing to Lassen.  I did not realize I was north of the valley, and basically the entire 200 miles was continual mountain roads; very scenic, but slow going.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is higher in elevation than I recall, and even my RV park, located well below the entrance, is close to 5,000 feet.  Freezing nights, cold slushy rain with periodic pebble hail, and this morning snow, greeted me.  The road through the Park, which climbs to close to 9,000 feet, is mostly closed (usually doesn’t open until mid-June), but is open up to Devastated Area which provides many of the great views.  The Manzanita Lake has a number of Buffleheads, as well as Canada Geese.   The Lassen Volcano famously blew its top in 1915, much of it captured on film by an intrepid early settler in the area.  Huge rock slides, two succeeding massive pyroclastic flows, and car-size boulders catapulted for miles, devastated much of the eastern and northern flanks of the mountain, all clearly still visible today.

My initial goal on this trip was to visit all 7 of the California National Parks, of which previously I was acquainted only with Lassen.  That goal now is achieved.  I am uncertain exactly where I am heading from here, though probably I will stop again in Weed to visit their unusual brewery, and also in the Lava Beds National Monument which apparently has dozens of lava tube caves filled with bats, both along the California Oregon border. Later.  Dave

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Report on Yosemite National Park & Bodega Bay, CA, Mon. Apr. 18, 2016

Hello all.  Five days, in and around Yosemite National Park, provided unique and transient beauty.  Fires had scorched sections of the forests on the northwestern entrance side, but wildflowers were everywhere along the roads climbing and descending the mountain passes.  Yosemite Valley presented 7 major waterfalls, all engorged by the heavy winter snowmelt and recent rainfall.  The valley floor was lush green with a number of trees in bloom. The rivers and streams filled their banks and presented cascades at every turn.  El Capitan, the granite cliff face, rises vertically well over 1 kilometer (3,600 ft.) above the valley floor, and is one of the largest exposed granite monoliths in existence.

I spent much of my first early morning in the park photographing, from the far side of the valley, the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls disgorging exceptionally large volumes of water.  Due to recent rains, small streams and water pools existed on the valley floor which normally would not be there.  This permitted photos with foreground reflections providing great color depth.  I took multiple series of shots, from different vantage points, in order to produce composite “big” prints of the scene.

I visited the Ansel Adams Gallery, which, rather than being a museum as I had hoped, was a store selling prints of many photographers, including Adams.  They did have large copies of many of his best Yosemite photos.  Nearby I enjoyed, each day, a large coffee in place of lunch, sitting outside and photographing the ever present Steller Jays, Rock Squirrels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

I stayed in an RV park in the tiny gold rush town of Groveland, some 25 miles outside the park’s northwest entrance.  I previously wrote about finding breakfast in the Iron Door Saloon, reputed to be the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in California (note the use of the phrase “drinking establishment”, rather than “saloon”, as during prohibition the old photos show the outdoor sign advertising only “cold soda”).  I had supper there a couple of evenings for their wonderful homemade soups.

As in all parks I have visited over the years, early morning from first light until about 9am provides a fair amount of solitude and most wildlife viewing – from about 9am on the roads fill with crowds of tourists and solitude ceases unless one is willing to hike off the major roads.  Yosemite parking lots become almost full by mid-day – this is in mid-April.  Summer must be overwhelming.  My last day in the park I spotted two climbers about 1,000 feet up the side of El Capitan.  The one with a bright red shirt was just visible as a speck to the naked eye.  I understand it normally takes over 4 days for climbing parties to ascend, spending the nights hanging in special “tents” from the cliff face.  Not for me.

From Groveland I drove northwest across the state to Bodega Bay on the coast, sliding between the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.  Crossing major freeways, with their 6 lanes of heavy traffic, I took wrong turns several times, having to make U-turns to regain my route.  Most of the distance was driven on the small California state highways, 2 lane roads, but packed with traffic, particularly big rigs.  The scenery is pretty, but California has installed concrete barriers down the middle of many two lane highways to prevent any passing and head-on-collisions.  This, along with rush-hour-like traffic, pretty much destroys any scenic appeal.  The small roads cross a number of weird draw bridges which span the inland bay and rivers – at one of these traffic was stopped and I watched the workings of the bridge.  Rather than two sides opening upward, the entire central span of the bridge rotated sideways 90 degrees to create the opening.  I have not seen this before.

Bodega Bay is a very small town situated along a gorgeous stretch of coast and rocky headlands.  I stayed in a lovely, though rather expensive, RV Park – very few campers on Thursday, but over the weekend it absolutely filled every available space.  I believe 100% of the huge RVs had California plates.  This was an experience similar to others I have had in every national park in California.  Apparently the state is so populous that the national and state parks fill with residents.  A far cry from my experiences in most national parks outside California where the majority of campers are foreign or from out-of-state (I did meet some Europeans at my camp in Groveland).

I spent two days walking along some marsh lands by the coast, and walking around the rim of Bodega Head, a mountain which forms the seaside arm of the bay, and is surrounded on the open Pacific side by sheer cliffs and roiling surf on the rocks below.  The mountain top is covered with various species of wild flowers, and is habitat to at least 5 sparrow species.  All the male sparrows are singing from the high points of the low shrubs (see photos).  The bay itself contains a large marina, at which were docked two wooden “tall ships” from Oregon for the week.  Several species of grebes and the common loons (which I have not seen before) were diving for fish in and around some of the marina walkways.

I met a bird watcher up on Bodega Head, where the grey whale watchers congregate.  He helped confirm some of my identifications of difficult species (3 different species of cormorants were present).  Sitting in a chair on the cliff face he kept swatting and killing the very annoying, longish flies that were bothering us.  I asked him what they were, and if they were biting; he replied they were kelp flies, and they did not bite – they were just nuisances.  He said he was teaching them to stay away.  I noted that, as they each were being methodically killed, they probably were not learning anything.  He then clarified that he was “teaching” the species through evolutionary pressure – he had taught each of his daughters to kill every kelp fly that landed, and they would teach their children and grandchildren, and eventually the genes which give the flies the proclivity to land on humans would disappear, as those flies all will have been killed, hopefully before reproducing.  I thought long and hard about this, and did some complex mathematical modeling on the back of a beer napkin (of course that is where I would do such modeling), and concluded he may have a valid idea.  Sometime, just a little before our sun grows to a red giant and bakes the earth, he will have produced enough descendants with the proper training to eradicate the “human-bothering” gene with which the flies obviously are afflicted.  Of course, by waiting just a handful of eons longer, the sun would engulf the earth and eradicate the gene anyway.  Nevertheless, there is something really satisfying about being able successfully and consistently to swat extremely annoying kelp flies when they land.

From Bodega Bay, on Sunday, I drove the roughly 100 miles north to Fort Bragg, all on the famous California SR 1, which winds up and over the seaside cliffs which mark the northern California coast.  It really is a beautiful drive, but in many places one averages a scant 25mph.  I will continue north from here, in a day or so, to the Redwood National Park.  I see more rain is in the forecast for much of this week.  Oh well, that is normal for spring in the northwest coast.  Later.  Dave