Archive for the ‘birds’ Tag

Birds, Bird Watching and Bird Photography   1 comment

Ever since my first year college I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with birds.  My geology professor was also a biologist and really really knew his birds.  So he taught a nights/weekends class that met one evening per week, with a field trip every Saturday.  Boy I learned a lot about birds: how to identify them, where you could find the various types, and their conservation issues.

A nearly mature American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fluffs his wings at the top of a tree in Oregon.

We went to the Oregon coast and saw pelicans, puffins, oystercatchers and more.  We went to local wetlands for song birds & water birds.  We went to nearby forests for thrushes and woodpeckers, and to the (semi-arid) east side of the mountains for raptors & open-country birds like larks.  Since I had recently arrived in Oregon from the east coast, it was also a great opportunity to see some gorgeous places.  If I count the geologic field trips I took with that guy, he was my main tour guide to Oregon that first year.  We even drove to Death Valley over Spring Break for a combined geology/ecology trip, and that was my first time in a true desert.

At that time I had a Peterson Field Guide (to Western U.S. birds), and that well-used book is still knocking around here somewhere.  I learned to call the activity of going out looking for birds, identifying them along the way, as “birding”.  I immediately started using the new term, and of course it made it sound much less geeky, or nerdy, than calling it “bird watching”.  Since then, I’ve met ornithologists who have enormous disdain for the term “birding”, and they insist on calling it “bird watching”.  They have other terms for various work activities, such as banding, habitat survey, etc., but they want no part in a virtual admission of their nerdiness by using a more cool term for what they do.

The thing I grew to love about birding was the way it forced me to slow down.  I was young, strong and constantly amped up in those days.  I wanted to climb every mountain, as they say, and at a fast pace.  But success seeing birds can only be gained while doing a super-slow stroll, stopping often to peer into the trees for a flash of color.  When you do get a beautifully illuminated view of a colorful oriole or bright warbler, so perfect you can count feathers, you feel a real elation.  You wouldn’t think it’s true, but it is.

After some years of never picking up a bird guide, and rarely looking at one through binoculars, I got a seasonal job as a biological field worker.  My job was to go out into the forest in the wee hours of morning and set up at a predetermined station exactly one hour before sunrise.  Then I would spend two hours looking up and listening for endangered marbled murrelets. These are plump seabirds that look like flying cigars when they pass overhead and make a high-pitched kee kee sound.  You (rarely) see them starting in springtime when they are flying between the sea and their inland nest to feed their young.  They nest on the broad, mossy branches of large old-growth firs, spruces, and (in northern California) redwoods.


A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter (Anhinga rufa ) is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

A common but beautiful bird in Southern Africa, the Cape glossy starling (Lamprotornis nitens) displays irridescent feathers.

I would be back at the house we rented by 9 a.m. at the latest, and immediately crash for a few more hours, sleeping until just past noon.  Then I’d get up and sit outside at a picnic table and write up my notes.  I had a small tape recorder where I would dictate notes during the survey.  This was so I could keep my eyes on the sky.  We also went out on day-long habitat surveys, and this was an incredibly fun thing to be paid for.  Exploring the forest, looking for big trees near to a convenient opening in the forest canopy.  One unofficial criterion for a good survey site was a soft forest floor, for lying back during the survey.  My partner did not lie down, for fear of falling asleep.  But the way my neck felt after only one survey made me try it. To my surprise, I never got sleepy.  Must have been the full thermos of coffee I had with me.

There were a few great wildlife sightings.  Of course we saw many owls, and deer.  I got to the point of being able to predict when each species of bird would start singing.  Good old robins, believe it or not, are usually first to sing in the darkness.  I became good at identifying birds by their calls.  We did some surveys in the North Cascades of Washington, and it is there that I saw my first cougar.  The sun had not risen yet, and I had to look twice to make sure.  But there he was, standing next to a large stump looking off at something.  I went for my camera and he heard that (of course).  He turned, saw me and simply disappeared, all in one motion.  He vanished just like the proverbial ghost.



A reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) stands at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

So years have passed and I am now a serious photographer.  I went to Central America a couple years ago, and while in Honduras I went out one morning with a naturalist on a bird watching hike.  We saw a total of 75 different species in one morning!  This was by far the most species I had ever seen in one day.  On that trip, where I visited every single Central American country, I got a few good pictures of birds.  Probably my best was the great currasow, a large and spectacular ground-dwelling bird.  He just stepped out into a clearing in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, in Guatemala, posing for his picture.

Despite the fact my photography naturally tended toward nature, I didn’t think about birds.  I did not buy a huge lens, and concentrated instead on landscapes, culture and travel.  I traveled to places where tourists are taken to see animals, and I even hired guides sometimes.  Invariably, I would soon realize that the showcase animals were thin on the ground while the birds were plentiful.  An example: in visiting a reserve in India, I saw a huge paw print but no tiger.  But the birds? Stunning diversity.  In Borneo I worked hard to see my one single wild orangutan (semi-wild ones are easy at feeding stations).  The birds? Amazing.   So I used binoculars to capture memories, and did not attempt any serious wildlife photography.  This was because of my relatively short lenses.  Despite this, I managed to get a few good bird shots.





At McBride’s Camp along the Kafue River in the eponymous national park, a black-backed barbet (Lybius minor) calls for some more to eat.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

But then last year I went to Africa, and bought a 400mm lens for wildlife.  Combined with my crop-sensor camera and 1.4 extender, that gave me from 600 to 900mm of focal length.  The extender lowered quality somewhat, so I did not use that very much.  I came back with some nice shots of mammals: giraffe, lion, zebra, antelope, elephant, rhino, you name it.  I was never after bird pictures, always 4-legged critters, and in particular I was hot for big cats.  But now I’ve had time to fully evaluate those shots.  You know which one National Geographic accepted for their stock collection? Yep, a bird.  I have a good number of stunning shots of Africa’s birds.

So the moral of the story is, no matter how much I might ignore it, I have an affinity for birds.  They are certainly the most accessible wildlife out there it’s true.  But there is more to this.  I have virtually ignored birds for years at a stretch.  But they always keep “bringin’ me back in” (as the mobster said). I have my favorite geology prof. to thank.  Because that Spring term in college, all those years ago, imprinted on me a true love of bird watching.  And yes, I said bird watching, not birding.  I don’t have thick glasses with masking tape over the bridge.  But if I did, I wouldn’t mind, I’m secure in myself, haha.  So just buy a bird guide, sling those binoculars around your neck and get out there!  You have new (feathered) friends waiting.



Maribou storks perch in a dead tree above a carcass as the sun goes down at Savute Marsh, in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Lake Malawi   Leave a comment

Malawian fishermen ply the coastal waters of the enormous and beautiful Lake Malawi in Africa.

Oh Malawi, how I love thee.  I traveled to Africa recently, and these are some highlights.  Zambia was on the schedule, but after only a week there, I took a left turn and caught a taxi from Chipata, the gateway town for South Luangwa National Park to the Malawian border, crossed on foot, then took a taxi/bus to Lilongwe, the capital.  I planned to come back to Zambia on my way back west.  Malawi lies at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, sort of a transition country between Southern and Eastern Africa.  It is dominated by one of Africa’s great lakes, in this case Lake Malawi (also called Nyassa), an incredibly clean, pristine, undeveloped, beautiful blue lake.

Malawi was one of two countries I visited that were not in the original plan, but the Lonely Planet guidebook I had covered the country along with Zambia.  I can highly recommend that guidebook (Zambia & Malawi by Lonely Planet).  So I was somewhat prepared.  But Malawi is the poorest country I visited, and that is noticeable right away.  What I didn’t realize was that Malawians are basically the same people (tribally speaking) as Zambians, and speak a similar language to those in eastern Zambia.  They are also as friendly or more so than Zambians.  These were the friendliest, happiest people I met in Africa.  Add to that it was the cheapest country to visit in the greater southern Africa region, and you have a top-notch “adventure” (hate that word) travel destination.

After the capital, I moved on to Lake Malawi, traveling to Nkhata Bay on a long, tortuously crowded bus ride.  A fuel shortage was affecting the country at the time of my visit, and boy did it affect travel.  After about 12 hours on the bus, I finally got there and was met by a driver from the lodge I stayed at.  By the way, bring a tri-band cell phone if you go to Africa, the type that take SIM cards.  Then, when you enter a country (even at the border), you can buy a SIM card and charge it up with time.  For example, I was able to call several lodges while I was “enjoying” the bus ride and set up a pickup.  I REALLY needed that pickup.

The Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay is a backpacker lodge right on the lake.  I got a thatch-roofed room with a beautiful bed and a little deck overlooking the lake, all for about $12/night!  Within an hour of getting off that bus, I was swimming in the moonlight, the water perfect, my room steps away.  Then I visited their lively bar for dinner and conversation, again overlooking the moonlit lake.  It was one of those travel experiences you can only get in third world countries: extremely tiring, frustrating travel followed by landing in the lap of perfection!

I spent four lovely days at Nkhata Bay.  I took walks along country roads, visiting with friendly villagers, shopped the fresh market in town, swam, took boat rides (free!) to nice beaches where we played soccer with locals, hiked along the rocky, beautiful coast (again laughing with locals), snorkeled, ate, drank, and enjoyed perfect summer-type weather.  The lake is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  It is so clean you can drink from it with only a little risk, it is very large, with the far shore of Mozambique not even visible in some areas.  Importantly, it has no real population of hippos or crocodiles.  This makes swimming safe, unlike most places in Africa.  Instead, it has a large number of small, colorful fish called Cichlids.  These look exactly like aquarium fish because that’s what they are.  This is the source for many aquarium fish sold worldwide.  The snorkeling is excellent.

The image below was taken during one of the free boat rides so graciously provided by one of the guides based at Mayoka Village.  A blonde guy from South Africa who looked like he could be straight out of California’s surfing culture, he is a real character, with a surprising number of great stories for someone so young.  He took us out in order to promote his guiding business, trying to put out the good word on the backpacker grapevine.  There are African fish eagles nesting along the shore which are routinely fed by some boatmen.  They pierce a small fish with a floating stick, hold it up and whistle to the bird, then throw the stick in the water for the eagle to come swooping in to take it (image below).  This is the only time I got very close to fish eagles, and I didn’t waste the opportunity.  I had my point and shoot because we were going to be in the water, wading to shore, swimming, etc.  My DSLR would have gotten a higher quality picture, but the Canon S95 (which shoots RAW) did a pretty decent job on the eagle.

I can’t recommend Malawi highly enough.  And the Lake is a must-see.  The north part of the lake, from Nkhata Bay northwards, is less developed in general, but the whole area is pristine and relatively undeveloped for tourism.  For example, you can take a light backpack and hike along the coast, village to village, camping near each village or staying with locals, and just soaking up a simpler way of life, not a roadway in sight.  In fact, one of these trails starts at Nkhata Bay and enables a 3-4 day walk north, coming back via ferry (if you time it right), hiring a boat, or simply retracing your steps.  Another great thing to do if you have time is to hop aboard the weekly ferry over to Likoma Island, where life gets even slower and simpler.  With more money and less time you can also take a charter plane to Likoma, which makes sense if you have several people to share the cost.

Away from the Lake, there are other sights like the Nyika Plateau.  That I’ll save for another post.  I now have this dream, where I build an off-grid solar/geothermal house along Lake Malawi, pumping water directly from the lake through a simple filtration system, just enjoying life away from smart phones and traffic.  Food you can always get in Africa, but for water and electricity it’s best to be self-sufficient.  This is especially true in a country like Malawi.  But you could not choose a cheaper, more lovely place along the water to retire.

An African fish eagle swoops low over the pristine, blue waters of Lake Malawi.

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