Long, Bumpy and Hot!

Thursday 6th December to Saturday 8th December 2001.

Our first visit to Africa wasn’t to Egypt. No, in fact in November 2001 we took a two week vacation in The Gambia, in West Africa. It’s an odd country, basically comprising the two shores of the River Gambia and about 50 km of coastline on the Atlantic. It is surrounded on three sides by Senegal and no part of the country is wider than 50 km. It has a quite good tourist infrastructure, with reasonable beach hotels, and was easy to get to; for this reason it was enjoying some popularity with birders as ‘must go’ place. No real endemics, but a good selection of West African birds in an easy location, what’s not to like?

We booked with a company called ‘The Gambia Experience’, and they offered good service at reasonable prices. We chose the Senegambia hotel, at Kololi, which had good birding in the grounds, and we were set. The hotel had good facilities, largish grounds to while away the hours birding, a good beach (and good seabirds) and a birdguide on staff, the famous Mass Cham. He or his helpers fed the Hooded Vultures at the hotel every morning at 11.30 am. The lawns were soon covered in wild birds, a genuine spectacle!

So far, so good, but we didn’t want to spend all of our time in the confines of the hotel. Venturing out, we were surrounded by so-called ‘tourist guides’, wanting to show us the way to the ‘Gambian Tesco’ (the local supermarket), for a suitable fee. Mark deals with this sort of thing much better than I do, I found it genuinely distressing. However, The Gambia is a poor country, and the tourist season is limited to the drier parts of the year, so a little urgency is understandable when you have to make enough money to see you through the year in only 6 months. Amongst the ‘tourist guides’ were a few genuine bird guides, some better than others. We met a young man called Ebrima Siddebeh in the area outside the hotel, early in the trip. We went out with him once, to judge his level of knowledge, and was impressed with what we saw. After that, we went on all of our trips with him. Having chosen to retain a guide meant that we were left alone by the posse at the hotel gate and, although we usually don’t go guided, in this case the complications of ground transport (hiring a car is not recommended and taxis are expensive) made it worthwhile.

One of the things we (well Mark, really, but I always go along with it) wanted to do was to go upriver to find a very special bird, the Egyptian Plover. This bird, the only species in its family (Pluvianadae), can be very hard to find but, every rainy season, a few move down the river to Basse, at the very furthest tip of The Gambia. This is known to be the most relaible spot to see the species. Ebrima was happy to arrange the trip. Although only about 700 km in total, the trip was to take three whole days, with two nights away from the hotel. It seemed a long time, even with stops for birding, but it soon made sense.

Ebrima had hired a car and driver, his friend Armadou, who had apparently borrowed quite a posh-looking Mercedes from his employer. Settled into the back, we headed off, starting at the river ferry at Banjul, and heading east along the northern bank of the river. The road was awful. Living (as we do now) in Canada, you get used to potholes (you think!), but this wasn’t so much pot-holed road, as pot-holes with occasional inches of road. Armadou wasn’t about to risk his employer’s lovely motorcar, so we bumped sedately along, sweating in the heat, and listening to a single C45 cassette tape (remember those?!) of reggae music. The same tape, for 10.5 hours (and the same on the next two days); if Mark hated reggae beforehand (and he did), it was nothing to what he felt about it after!

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The main highway, up-country

To be fair to Armadou, the roads were not safe for speeding. We passed a pretty nasty-looking accident, at one point, where a bus had an argument with a truck, so taking care was sensible. It did make for a long, hot and tiring journey, though. Maybe a posh Merc was not the optimal vehicle for up-country touring?

Stops for birding were quite sparse, but on one occasion Ebrima spotted a bush fire, near a village next to the road. Bushfires are unfortunately quite common, the villagers did not seem too concerned, although they were perhaps a little surprised to see Ebrima lead two ‘Twobabs’ through their village, heading for the edge of the fire. It seems that many insectivorous birds follow bushfires, as insects take to the air as the fire reaches them, only to be snapped up, ‘ready-cooked’, by the birds. Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, a pair, was a notable species seen doing this. Incidentally, there was no problem accessing fields or villages that were unfenced, because the country had a ‘common land philosophy’, we were never chased off  by people shouting the equivalent of ‘get orf my laaand’ in Mandinka.

‘Twobab’, a term for a white person, was a common call from the local children, whenever we hove into view, along with ‘Minty Baby’ and ‘any pens’. ‘Twobab’ stems from ‘two bob’ (or shillings), presumably a common tip when The Gambia was still part of the Empire, whereas ‘Minty Baby’ and ‘any pens’ are just pleas for treats. It’s worth having a bag or two of sweets and cheap biros to hand out at such times, although we ran out of treats well before we ran out of kids wanting them!

After 10.5 hours of hot road, and another river crossing, at Georgetown (now apparently renamed as Janjanbureh), we arrived at our evening accommodation, the Baobolong Camp, but not before Armadou managed to find us the target bird. We had stopped to scan a wetland area, bisected by the road, when he spotted an Egyptian Plover, walking along the track! Well, that was unexpected, they are not normally that far down the river. We could relax, now that the target bird was in the bag, but we were still hoping for better views at Basse, the next day.

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Baobolong (or BB) camp was a bit basic, clean but with little in the way of luxury. We were glad that we had packed our own, insecticide-impregnated mosquito net and used it for safety, although the accommodation certainly sufficed for one night. The next morning we were up early for the final leg of the trip to Basse Santa Su, the capital of the Basse region.

Acting on suggestions in trip reports from other birders, we had brought with us a selection of paper pads, some packs of pens and a deflated football. We wanted to give them to a school, and asked Ebrima to suggest somewhere. He, of course, took us to his own old village school at Bansang. We were stopping near here, anyway, as Red-throated Bee-eaters were known to be at a local quarry. All Bee-eaters are worth searching out, and this was certainly a beautiful species, but first we were escorted to the school, where we handed over our pads and pens (and the football), to the Headmaster. We were treated like royalty, and had to have out photos taken with the Head and one of the students; it was all rather embarrassing but showed just how much they appreciated the supplies. Ebrima said that the schools near the coast get far more of this sort of thing from the tourists, who tend to stay in coastal regions, and so up-country schools get very little donated-that was worth knowing as we hadn’t actually thought it through.

The Gambia is a mostly muslim country and, as it happened, it was Ramadan. Both Ebrima and Armadou were muslim, and Armadou in particular was keen to keep the fast-a slightly worrying thought for the driver on a very hot trip. He refused any food or drink during daylight, even extending to medical supplies. He seemed to have some eye inflammation, that made them runny and sore. We offered eye drops from our first aid kit but he wouldn’t use them until nightfall. His eyes did seem a little better the next day, so he must have used them once it was dark, but it was another reason to be concerned during the day. A half-blind driver is not recommended! Anyhow, it being Friday, we stopped by a mosque so that Ebrima and Armadou could go to prayer. Mark and I stayed in the car, getting hotter, and were immediately surrounded by the inevitable group of children (‘Minty Baby’, ‘Twobab’, ‘Any Pens’, etc.).

Eventually we reached Basse Santa Su and a sandy patch near the river, where we found 7 further Egyptian Plovers, one of which was quite amenable for photos!

Armadou got a bucket of water from the river and proceeded to wash his precious car, being not at all interested in these special birds. My memory is that Ebrima and Armadou then disappeared for a while, as Mark and I explored a nearby sandy track, before we all started the long trek back. This time we were heading for Tendaba Safari Camp, further down towards the coast than Georgetown, for our overnight stop. Tendaba was a cut above the BB Camp in its accommodations; it even boasted its own mosquito nets! They were needed too; the staff uniforms were T-shirts bearing the legend ‘Tendaba Bush Camp- 1 million mosquitoes can’t be wrong!’, and they had a point. Lots of bug cream slathered on kept the worst of it at bay.

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The next morning at Tendaba, we took a trip across the river in a pirogue, a sort of long, thin canoe-like boat. The point was to try for African Finfoot, a very secretive bird of the same family as the Sungrebe of Central and South America, which is rarely seen and thus very much prized. Two creeks (Tinku Bolon and Kisi Bolon) had occasionally recorded this species so we thought it worth a try. Unfortunately, we followed a very noisy boat full of holidaymakers across the river, so we had little expectation of success, which made it all the sweeter when we saw a female African Finfoot emerge from the overhanging vegetation and stay around the boat for at least 5 minutes (I’m very proud that I spotted it at the same time as our Tendaba guide!). This was a very special bird, very hard to see, many birders don’t see them at all. So little is known about this species that it isn’t clear whether they spend much time on land (they are always seen on water), or even how many birds there are in the wild. Typically, the dark creek was just not suitable for photography, especially in those pre-digital days, so we have no photographic record of our special prize bird.

Heading back across the river to Tendaba, we realised that the pirogue was filling with water. This did not come as a surprise to the boatman, who just pulled out an old cup and started bailing, although it was a bit worrying for us-there was a lot of water between us and the distant shore! Half-way across, he exclaimed in delight and altered course a little to come up alongside a very large, very much decayed dead fish, lovely. Tying this to the back of the boat, he pulled it into land. Apparently, a local delicacy (we didn’t try it!) is made from fish left to rot in the sun. This specimen was already half-way there!

Close to Tendaba was an airstrip, basically just a flattened area of the bush, that birders have jocularly named the ‘Tendaba Airport’ (there is even a sign!).
tendaba airport
I’m pretty glad that the real airport, at Banjul, was in much better condition than this! It was a spot to check before hitting the road for the final leg of our journey, back to Kololi and the Senegambia hotel. We did stop at a couple of sites, Lamin Corner and Abuko nature reserve, so as to make a day of it, but I, for one, was quite glad to get back to the hotel for a good shower, a hot meal and some time away from the C45 reggae tape!

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A selection of birds seen during the trip.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and it really was a memorable trip. We were very grateful to Ebrima for organizing it, and to Armadou for the careful driving-we got back in one piece, with some excellent birds seen. I just wish we’d had digital cameras, because the pictures we have are limited and the quality is poor. It is what it is!

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Recovering from the trip, the Bantaba bar at the Senegambia

Cameras: both film.
Scenery, etc., pictures scanned from prints
Bird pictures (all Mark Dennis) digitally photographed from slides


‘At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza’

Wednesday 24th June 2009.

In the last post I finished on a bit of a cliffhanger -Mark was ill, would he get better by the morning? We had spent a quiet, comfortable night at Villas Arqueologicas, Chichen Itza. Getting up quite early, the next morning, it was clear that ‘Montezuma’ had left the building. Mark was much better and able to take breakfast, so our trip around the site was on. We headed out at 8 am, just as the site opened and before the heat of the day really started. A two minute walk, down a short street and past a small group of Black Vultures, got us to the site gate and, a couple of minutes later, we were in.

As we’d hoped, there were few tourists on site at that time in the morning, and it was relatively cool.

Now, Mark is not a big fan of ancient ruins, so he was planning to bird the grounds. He wandered off, looking mainly around the edges of the site, and we met up sporadically. I and my parents set out to look around the buildings.  I find the Maya quite fascinating but frustrating; so little is really known about them, much of what is ‘known’ seems to be conjecture, so visiting these sites can be almost annoying. However, Chichen Itza is really one of the premier archeological sites in the world and it does not disappoint. We entered the site at what is known as the ‘Northern Group’, via an area known as the Thousand Columns (although there are not quite as many as that), a palisaded area surrounding a central space. No one actually knows what it was for; it used to be thought to be a market area, but nowadays the archaeologists fall back on the old favourite-ritual activity. As I said, Maya sites can be frustrating!

Rounding the end of the Thousand Columns, we got our first view of the most famous structure at Chichen Itza, the Castillo. This is a stepped pyramid temple of Kulkulkan, a feathered serpent deity analogous to the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl.

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First view of The Castillo

The pyramid is 30 metres (98ft) tall, with four staircases, ascending each face. It stands in the centre of a plaza, with space all around, and dominates the scene. An older temple actually lies underneath the current pyramid, which was built sometime between the 9th and 12th Centuries. there is a small doorway cut into one of the staircase sides (you can see it on one of the pictures below) that used to give access to the inner temple, but entry is no longer allowed. You are also no longer allowed to climb the pyramid, after people kept falling off. I was ok with that, it was too hot to labour up there, and it was good to be able to view the building without a covering of tourists in leisureware!

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Surrounding the Castillo are a number of ‘ritual’ places (ritual, again!); two platforms called the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars (named for the depictions of eagles and jaguars eating human hearts carved on the sides) and the Platform of Venus (with Venus depicted as a ‘knot of years’; a Temple of the Large Tables and a Temple of the Warriors.

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The Temple of the Warriors is so named because the pillars are carved with reliefs of warriors. At the top of the temple steps is a Chacmool, a type of statue found at most Mesoamerican sites, but first identified from Chichen Itza. It is in the shape of a reclining man, head facing sideways and supported on the elbows, carrying a disc of bowl on its stomach. this was believed to be a place where offerings were left for the gods, such as food, alcoholic drink (pulque, femented agave sap), incense or possibly even blood or human hearts. There are a number of these statues placed around the site and they are quite mysterious. The Chacmool name was made up by Augustus le Plongeon, a French-American archaeologist, in 1875 when he excavated the first one at Chichen Itza. The actual ancient name for these sculptures is not known.

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Mark, meanwhile, was still working the edges of the site and checking out an adjacent orchard area. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Masked Tityra were good finds!

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One of the most eerie structures on the site is located near the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars; this is the Tzompantli or skull platform. A low platform, carved with many human skulls, this is the spot where the skulls of war captives and sacrificial victims would be displayed on wooden poles.

It is thought that the losing team of the Mesoamerican Ball Game could end up as sacrificial victims, and Tzompantli are often situated near ball courts, as is the case at Chichen Itza. The last major structure of the Northern group is the immense Great Ballcourt and its associated temples. Thirteen ball courts have been discovered at Chichen Itza, but this one is by far the largest, and it is the best preserved in Mesoamerica. The court dates from 900-1000 CE and is built in the form of an ‘I’. The side walls consist of a beveled base, called the ‘bench’, which is covered in carvings of the ball players (including depictions of beheadings!) and a smooth, vertical section that is 27 ft high. Above the wall on the eastern side is a temple, called the Temple of the Jaguars. At the northern end is another temple, of the Bearded Man, whilst at the southern end is a third temple, fragmentary, with pillars depicting warriors like those at the Temple of the Warriors.

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The Mesoamerican Ball Game was played throughout Central America (and is still played in southern Mexico-without the human sacrifice). A hard rubber ball was propelled using only the hips (probably) and the idea was to keep the ball in play. A decisive victory would be won if the ball passed through one of the hoops, although these are set so high it must have been very unusual! It was quite eerie exploring this large, echoing space with its rather grisly history.

The Temple of the Jaguars on top of the ball court east wall has an annex at ground level outside the court. This consists of a single room with two decorated pillars, featuring bas-reliefs of warriors and Kulkulkan, enclosing a throne in the shape of a jaguar, thought to have been a place for city dignitaries to preside over rituals associated with the ball game.

The day was heating up, and we hadn’t covered half of the site, yet. More people were arriving, and the local traders were setting up stalls, especially on the sacbe linking the Northern group and the Central group, where we were headed next. It all looked very colourful. A word to the wise; I’d definitely recommend remembering to bring water for any exploration of Chichen Itza in June!

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Chichen Itza traders, setting up mid-morning.

The first building of the Central group is variously called the Ossuary or the Tomb of the High Priest, although it is probably neither. A second stepped pyramid, although nothing like as high as the Castillo, it is built over a deep cavern that has a entry from the temple at the top of the pyramid and that is thought to have symbolized the ‘World of the Dead and of Paradise’. The stepped sides of this pyramid were elaborately carved and would have been brightly painted in the hey day of the Maya.

Nearby, and raised on a small hill are two buildings, the House of the Deer (named for a painting inside that has now disappeared) and the Chichanchob, or Red House. Chichanchob means ‘small holes’ and may refer to the piercings in the façade of the temple. It is an earlier building than those in the Northern group, dating back to 600-900 CE, i.e. from before the conquest of the city by the Itza, for whom the city is now named.

Mark was still birding, and he found the area around the Chichanchob, which was well vegetated, quite rewarding. His best bird here was this splendid Turquoise-browed Motmot.

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Turquoise-browed Motmot at Chichen Itza

Across from the Chichanchob is one of the most enigmatic buildings on the site, the Caracol or Observatory. We had actually first seen this building on the evening before, from outside the site near the hotel, glowing in the evening light. It had certainly whetted our appetite for getting a closer look!

It is very unusual in Maya architecture to find a circular building (although we were to see another one, on a smaller scale, at Tulum later in the week). The Caracol (the ‘snail’, named for the stone spiral staircase in the round tower) is thought to have been an astronomical observatory, with doors and windows aligned to astronomical events, specifically to the passage of Venus across the skies. Venus (already commemorated on the platform in the Northern group), was of great interest because of its cycle, making an appearance at its northerly and southerly extremes at eight-year intervals.

The Central group is rather older than the buildings around the Castillo, and the buildings are far more ornamented. The style is called Puuc, after the people who built it and who were conquered by the Itza at around 900 CE. The most ornamental buildings are at the southern end of this plaza, now known as the Nunnery and the Church. Of course they have no connection with either! The upper temple of the Nunnery has many rooms, which caused the explorers of the Colonial period to liken it to a nuns’ cloister. It was more likely a civic-ceremonial centre for Old Chichen. Nearby, the Church is a free-standing square building, with an entrance at ground level and a frieze featuring statues of the ‘supporters of the sky’, i.e. an armadillo, a sea-snail, a turtle and a crab, interspersed with masks of the rain god, Chaac, and was likely a temple to the gods of rain and water, very important in the dry Yucatan, where all water came from the underground limestone cisterns or ‘cenotes’.

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At the eastern end of the Nunnery is the eastern annex, with probably the most amazing frieze in the whole of the city, with lots of masks of Chaac and a central sculpture of a seated figure with a feathered headdress.

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Eastern annex of the Nunnery, with happy tourist!

This was pretty much the last building we had time to look at on the site. It was nearing mid-day, the heat was really building and, after 4 hours of walking in the sun, we were pretty tired. Besides, we had to check out of the Villas Arqueologicas and make the long trip back to the coast. It had been a memorable trip and, although I can’t pretend to understand the Maya any better, I was very pleased to have made the tour of Chichen Itza, ‘at the Mouth of the Well of the Itza’.


Panasonic DMC-FZ18 (me)

Canon EOS 50D (Mark)

Riviera Maya

Tues 23rd June 2009.

We’d never visited Mexico so it seemed like a good idea. My parents were flying over from the UK to stay with us, for a whole month, and we wanted to break up the stay with a week elsewhere. They fancied Mexico too, as somewhere they had never been and were unlikely to go alone. So we went ahead and booked a package holiday with Sell-off Vacations, departing Montreal on 29 May. Mum and Dad booked their flights to us from the UK and everything was set-or so we thought.

2009 was the year of the Swine Flu outbreak, especially in Mexico, and on the Riviera Maya, where we were planning to go. In the end, the Canadian government, and the UK Foreign Office, were recommending that visitors not go to Mexico at all. We cancelled the trip, hoping that a later date would work. Mum and Dad were able to rearrange their flights for a month later and we rebooked for Saturday 20th June. Umm, June in Mexico-it was going to be hot! In any case, we were going to go and we did, flying into Cancun and transferring to the Catalonia Royal Tulum hotel, along the Riviera Maya.

This turned out to be a good choice of hotel for us. It was an adults-only resort, so no rugrats getting under our feet. It was pretty empty, because most tourists were still steering clear of the Yucatan, following the Swine Flu scare, so we had no problems getting into restaurants, bars, pools, etc. We were on an all-inclusive package, the first time my parents had experienced one and a concept that they really took to-it’s not that common back in Europe. Being able to just head to the bar for a refreshing beer, or get a bite to eat, whenever wanted, was definitely a fun experience, although they were a bit shocked at the people with the floating beer kegs, holding about 4 pints, that just kept going back for more!

The hotel was arranged as two blocks of rooms, heading from the reception area down to the sea, with a garden area, with limestone pools (which they called the Cenote), a white paved path (which they called a sacbe, after the ‘white roads’ of the Maya cities), a short boardwalk across some mangroves and a pool area, edging the beach. The gardens were to be very good for birds and other wildlife, although the hotel staff took down the hummingbird feeders we had brought with us and placed along the path-obviously not interested in attracting wildlife! Other than that, they were pretty friendly and eager to please-after all, we were the brave ones who were blazing a trail back to the tourist hotspots.

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The beach area was beautiful, edging the Gulf of Mexico, with turquoise waters. Magnificent Frigatebirds continually passed overhead. I always feel I’m somewhere exotic when I can see Magnificent Frigatebirds (and isn’t that a wonderful species name?).

Most unusually for us, we even found time for a little relaxation on the beach on this holiday. We had brought some snorkelling equipment with us, not that we are experienced at it, in any way! We had had a go, years earlier, when staying at Hurghada on the Red Sea and had enjoyed it. The Gulf of Mexico is supposed to be a snorkeler’s paradise, so we thought we’d have a go. Ideally, we’d have picked a day with less swell, it was difficult to keep position without being buffeted around, and the surf raised a lot of sand, obscuring the views. The difference between here and the Red Sea was that the latter experience had taken place inside a sheltered breakwater, so no surf! We did see some fish and thought we’d try again, later. As it was, we didn’t. I think my snorkelling days are well past, and I never could get the hang of the flippers!

As usual, Mark and I didn’t want to be stuck in the hotel, however nice the grounds, so on the morning after we arrived we hired a car. Not only would this allow us to go off birding, whilst Mum and Dad enjoyed the beach and pool, it would also allow us all to go and explore some of the Maya ruins in the area, such as Tulum, Coba and, in particular, Chichen Itza. Although there were tours available for all of these locations, we always enjoyed doing our own thing. For Chichen Itza, we decided to go over on the night before, find a hotel in the area and hit the site when it opened. We would get the early morning cool and quiet time virtually to ourselves, instead of getting there mid morning at the same time as the coaches from Cancun. We decided to visit Chichen Itza on Wednesday, so would make the journey over on Tuesday afternoon. After all, it’s a tradition now, on our package vacations, that we never stay in the booked hotel for the full period!

Given that we would head out in the afternoon, we spent Tuesday morning around the hotel, Mark and I birding the grounds before breakfast. There were good birds in the garden, including Social Flycatchers (who were nesting in the light fitting on our balcony), Tropical Mockingbirds, Yucatan Jay, Hooded Oriole and White-winged Dove.

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Animals in the grounds included Coatimundi, Agouti and some very large iguanas!

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The Yucatan peninsula is largely limestone, and much of the fresh water, especially back in the time of the Maya, was underground, held in limestone caverns called cenotes. The hotel had a pool in the gardens, mimicking one of these pools, that they called the Cenote. There could be interesting wildlife on and near this fresh water source.

After lunch we headed to our hire car, a Dodge Attitude apparently, for the 1.5 hour trip to Chichen Itza. Driving through Valladolid was particularly fun. My Mother had the front passenger seat because of her bad knees (Mark got used to the exclamations at the foreign traffic) whilst I tried to give directions from the rear. Map reading from the back seat gets some getting used to, but we made it to Chichen Itza with only a couple of wrong turnings.

We headed to the Hoteles Culturales Villas Arqueologicas, a reasonably-priced place just feet from one of the entrances to the site. Again, the lack of tourists worked for us, there was no one else staying there, so booking in for the night was a breeze. It was a low-built, adobe-like structure, very neat and clean, built around an open courtyard. There are Villas Arqueologicas by many of the major Maya sites in the Yucatan and, based on our visit here, we would not hesitate to use them again.


It was now that I found out that Mark was not well, he had apparently been suffering from ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ for most of the day without admitting it-he still managed to drive from the coast to Chichen Itza though! Now he was safely in the hotel he decided to retire to bed and stay there. Mum, Dad and I ordered dinner, which we ate in the low evening light, out in the courtyard- it was very enjoyable. Things were looking good for our visit to the ancient site, as long as Mark was feeling better in the morning!

All photographs Sandra Dennis, Mark Dennis (MD) and Derek Hewertson (DH).

Cameras: Panasonic DMC-FZ18 (SD)
Canon EOS 50D (MD)
Canon PowerShot S2 IS (DH)
Syntek USB Camera (SD, underwater)


Tuesday 6th March-Wednesday 7th March 2001.

Back in the year 2000, we still lived in the UK. I had been made redundant from my job (the company closed down) in October, just two days before we set off for a trip to California! We had a great time, it really didn’t affect us; in fact I think it was all the better since the worst had finally happened. I had to work 6 months notice, and find a new job, both of which I had done by March 2001. Before taking up my new post, we decided to fit in a short (10 day) holiday, and decided that the Sunshine State of Florida would be a good option. There were some excellent birds to find there, as well.

We flew over to Miami on 5th March. It wasn’t a great start because I was incubating a bad cold, which just got nastier over the first few days. Pictures of me taken at the beginning of the holiday look like ‘death warmed up’, as they say. It got worse, in that Mark also caught it, and as he was doing all the driving it was a problem. I accidentally overdosed him on cold medicines (at the time not knowing that the American names for common drugs were actually different than those used in the UK) and he ended up bouncing off the walls, one night. So, we have mixed memories of this particular vacation, but between the iffy times there were some good.

After overnighting in a motel in Homestead (homely name, extremely ‘homely’ motel!), we made our way down the Florida Keys, stopping off at a number of State parks and other reserves. Our final destination was Key West, but we had all day to get there. First off was the Key Largo State Botanical Reserve, where we picked up White-crowned Pigeon, Great-crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo and Turkey Vulture.

We moved on to the uninhabited Long Key, which is basically one big State Park. We found Bald Eagles, Tricoloured Herons and Reddish Egrets here and enjoyed a stroll down two of the trails.

Our final stop was at Bahia Honda Key State Park. This was a good site with lots of birds; things we don’t find too surprising nowadays but back then they were really quite exciting, such as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Grey Catbird and Prairie Warbler. It was getting quite late when we crossed over the final bridge onto Key West and made our way down to the ‘tip’, and Boyd’s Camp Ground, which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Crossing the bridges between the Keys

We’d had a bit of trouble organising accommodation in Key West (these were the days before widespread booking on t’internet, after all) and so we’d plumped for a campsite. We had a little ‘pup’ tent and had brought it, sleeping bags and pillows, with us from the UK. We had booked in for two nights on the campsite, and were looking forwards to a bit of peace and quiet to recuperate from the virus. Some hope!

The reason for the lack of accommodation was simple, it was Spring Break! As innocents from the UK, we had never heard of this, so it really was a shock to find Key West overrun with youngsters apparently aiming to party through the night. Our campsite had been sub-divided by the owners into two, and we were shown to a totally unsuitable bit of hard-standing that it was almost impossible to get a tent peg into. Of course, now we know that this was actually an RV site that the owner was exploiting to pack in the crowds, but back then we had no idea. Eventually we got the little tent up and crawled inside, admittedly rather early (but we are birders, after all!) for some kip. Our ‘site mates’, extremely loud young men in a much bigger tent, disappeared and we thought, ‘oh good’, until they came back and proceeded to sit up till 2 am, obviously having a heck of a time. Since the campsite was full of similar groups, the noise was indescribable. I think we learned a thing or two about Spring Break, that night and, especially, not to go anywhere during it!

The next morning we were up early (and not particularly quietly) for our trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park. This is a small group of islands located in the Gulf of Mexico, about 67 miles west of Key West, and it’s a famous bird reserve. We were booked on the Yankee Freedom II, a catamaran ferry that went to the islands every day, landing on Garden Key and visiting Fort Jefferson.

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The Yankee Freedom II, tied up in Key West Harbour.

Although the boat could carry up to 240 passengers, it was actually limited to only 100 passengers a day, in order to reduce the number of visitors on Garden Key. The trip took 2 hours, 40 minutes, and it was a bit bouncy. Thankfully, neither of us are prone to seasickness, but it did make moving around the boat a bit difficult.

The Dry Tortugas, named ‘the Turtles’ by Ponce de Leon after he caught 160 Sea Turtles there (and ‘Dry’ because there is no fresh water), are low-lying and irregular, and are constantly changing shape. Some have appeared and disappeared, repeatedly, over the years due to the effects of hurricanes. One of the largest is Garden Key, on which is built Fort Jefferson, a massive fortress made completely of hand-made bricks. It is the largest brick-built edifice in the Americas. Originally intended to guard the shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard, it was never finished. The building had periods of intense activity, with a peak population of up to 2000 soldiers and their families, and at other times it was virtually abandoned. Upkeep of the fort during peace time was ruinously expensive, leading to its final abandonment in 1906.

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During its life, the fort was used as a military and civilian prison, during and after the American Civil War. In particular deserters were sent to the fort instead of being executed. In order to feed the prisoners, pigs were raised on a nearby island, known as Hog Island at the time. This island, which is linked to Garden Key at times via a causeway, is now known as Bush Key and it is a protected bird nesting site; a very large rookery for Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies. This was our main target in coming to the Tortugas and we were hoping to see lots of each species.

Access to Bush Key was prevented by a fence across the neck of the causeway. This stopped the birds from being disturbed, although it also prevented really good views. However, we still managed to see numerous Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, Black Skimmers, Royal Terns, Brown Boobies and Masked Boobies whilst on the island. We were on Garden Key for about 4 hours, which was plenty of time to look at the fort, see the birds and, if required, go swimming. It was also sufficient time for me to get sunburn on the top of my head, as I had forgotten to bring my hat. The little patch of bare skin where my hair parted was extremely painful for quite a while. I blame my cold, and the poor night’s sleep-I’m not normally that forgetful!

We left Garden Key at 3 pm and arrived back in Key West at 5.30 pm. The trip back was much calmer, but still strangely birdless. We had time for a look around Key West itself; it seems a nice community. For some reason, the local fire brigade had their engines on show in the main square. They looked a bit different to what we were used to, back then, and so warranted a few photos.

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We were pretty hungry after our long day, and we were also by the sea, so a seafood dinner seemed like a good idea. We ended up in the Half Shell restaurant, where fish (and assorted vegetables) were enjoyed. We were on holiday, it had to be done!

We still had another night in Boyd’s Camp Ground to endure and, this time, it was even louder (if that were possible). Sleep was impossible, but our camp mates did shut up around 3 am. How sad, therefore, that we decided to get up at 4.30 am and dismantle a tent before leaving. It’s amazing just how much noise you can generate, taking down a small pup tent, loading a car, and making sure that all the doors are tightly slammed to, engines are revved and wheels squeal on the way out. However, I doubt that we disturbed anyone, the denizens of the campsite were pretty well pickled before they finally hit the sack, and probably slept right through it!

Florida hasn’t been on our ‘must go to again’ list, mainly due to the bad memories of this vacation, but we really did have some fun so maybe it warrants another look. This trip, to the Dry Tortugas, was one of the highlights, even if we never came across Capt. Jack Sparrow or the Black Pearl!

All photographs scanned from prints.

Caribbean South

Monday 27 March to Monday 03 April 2006.

This was one of those occasions where we wanted a short break, somewhere warm, relatively cheap and with some possibility of new birds to see, so we decided on a week’s vacation on Isla Margarita. This is really a Caribbean island, but it is part of Venezuela, so it was another ‘South American country’ tick! It was a single flight from Montreal, just over 5 hours, on a package holiday with a plane full of sun-worshippers. We had booked a car, to be picked up on the day after we arrived, and didn’t intend to spend much time at the beach, unless looking at shorebirds, of course.

We had booked the Hotel Portofino, on an all-inclusive package, but had since heard bad reports of the place. Oh well, it was too late to change so we would have to make the best of things. The hotel was a 1 hour transfer from the airport, at the western end of the island. At first view it wasn’t bad, located right on a rocky shoreline. The gated enclosure, with security guards, was a little worrying, although we were soon to find out that they were mainly for show, and rarely visible most of the day. Our room turned out to be a concrete cell, no balcony or anywhere comfortable to retreat from the heat of the day. The food was poor and we both suffered from ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ by the second day. Add a loud and incessant disco, and an unpleasantly dirty beach, covered in cigarette ends, and we were very pleased that we had the means to escape from ‘Alcatraz’, as we soon renamed it.

We had been warned that, as tourists, it was dangerous to travel through the local town, which definitely concerned us. However, we were determined to go look for birds, and to stay away from the hotel as much as possible. In the end, we repeatedly drove through the town and drew very little interest from the locals, they really were not bothered. I don’t know why the hotel wanted to give us the impression that it was the Wild West out there, but it didn’t do them any favours.

Some of the birds around the Portofino, photos courtesy of Mark.

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We soon made our way over to ‘La Restinga’, more correctly the Parque National Laguna de la Restinga, an area of lagoons, mangroves and beaches on the north side of the island. We were to visit several times over the next few days and, in particular, we liked to head for a small track between El Saco and El Maguay, which hugged the coast and provided excellent birding. This was soon dubbed ‘the Restinga Track’ by us. There were constant streams of Magnificent Frigatebirds meandering along the coast.

Magnificent Frigatebird photo by Mark Dennis.

We were particularly pleased to see a pair of Burrowing Owls emerge from their nest hole, with their single owlet. Another picture from Mark, below.

owl group 5
Parent Burrowing Owls keep an eye on their youngster, just emerging from the nest hole.

There were other birds to see here, including Blue-tailed Emerald Hummingbirds, Brown-throated Parakeets, Yellow-shouldered Parrots, Vermilion Cardinals and Venezuelan Troupial. A selection of Mark’s photos, below.

Nearby, Shell Beach was beautiful and very deserted.

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Shell Beach
A wreck at Shell Beach
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Walking La Restinga. Mark in ‘Indiana Jones’ mode!

We’d had enough of the Portofino, so we decided to try moving to another hotel, this time on the northern side of the island. We thought that a few nights in another location might rescue the vacation, so we headed off to see if we could book into The Dunes hotel. The staff there were a bit bemused, I don’t think they get many walk-ins, but they were ok with it and so we moved for three nights to a much nicer place. Peaceful, clean and with food you could eat (everything the Portofino wasn’t!), it made us feel we were on holiday again, not just enduring until we could go home, although it was still a shock to round a corner to find a fence, with a security guard with a machine gun! They smiled at us, though…

The Dunes was unusual in that it had extensive gardens with a small heronry. There were quite a few birds in the grounds, as well as flowers, insects and a wandering group of capybara. These South American rodents were not native to the island but this group seemed to be self-supporting, and were fun to encounter on our evening wander. Mark took the close-up photo.

Birds and insect by Mark.

Comfortably housed at The Dunes, we had renewed energy for exploring. A boat trip on the Restinga lagoon seemed like a nice idea. It was quiet for birds, but the boatman found us a seahorse (obviously his party trick). It was the only one we had ever seen in the wild and absolutely wonderful to see.

We also headed up into the mountains of La Sierra, right in the middle of the Eastern side of the island. A change of scene, some montane bird species and a cooler day.


All too soon it was time to head back to Alcatraz for our last night. We were to be picked up for the airport transfer on the next day so, although we didn’t fancy it much, we decided that we should probably be over there. The car had to go back to the airport, too, which meant that we had to take a taxi back to the hotel to be picked up by the coach. Mark felt sorry for one taxi driver, with an ancient rust-bucket of a car, who was obviously not doing that well at getting tourist fares. He insisted we took that car, although I was definitely not keen. I had my doubts it would even make it to the hotel!

Luxury limousine taking us back to the Portofino. We made it!

Our last night at the Portofino reinforced what a good idea it had been for us to move to The Dunes, although our holiday rep wasn’t too pleased when she found out – how was she to know where we were? As we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her in the first three days, I’m pretty sure she had no idea at any time and, anyway, we were big boys and girls now. Overall, it was a good trip, with 93 bird species and 30 lifers despite the small area of the island. We did pick up a few lessons that would be useful in the future; you get what you pay for; it’s absolutely possible to move accommodation during a package holiday as long as you don’t mind paying twice, and; rust-buckets can make it, despite appearances!

Cameras: Nikon E885 (me)
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (Mark)

With thanks to Mark Dennis for some of the photos.

Whoop, Whoop!

Sunday 16 February 2014.

Our very first visit to North America, back in 1997 when we still lived in the UK, was to Texas. A three week visit in April, covering what felt like most of the state, had been great fun and we always intended to go back one day. Indeed, we had to since one of the bird species we had wanted to see during that visit had already departed back to its breeding grounds in Canada. That bird was the Whooping Crane.

Moving forwards to 2014, we had the opportunity for a 1 week quick visit to Texas in February, a much better time to have a chance at seeing the cranes on their wintering grounds. Things were a little easier to arrange from Montreal, and leaving behind the horizontal snow for a much warmer location was very tempting. So we left Montreal for Houston on 14 February (how romantic!), picked up a hire car and drove down to Rockport-Fulton on the Gulf Coast. The target was Aransas State Park and its wintering population of Whooping Cranes.

Why the interest? Well, there are only two species of Crane in North America, the quite common Sandhill Crane (that we saw yearly in Quebec and also now in Nova Scotia) and the rare and endangered Whooping Crane. There are probably only 400-500 individual birds in the wild and the majority of these nest in Alberta and then fly south to Aransas to overwinter. They can be difficult to see, even there, since Aransas is a vast wetland area with limited access. If all else failed, we would take a boat tour in hopes of closer approaches, but for now we would head to the park and take a look.

As it was, we saw a few Whooping Cranes in the park, always distant but easy to identify, so the ‘tick’ was safely in the book. Views were a bit unsatisfactory, though, so we decided to book onto a boat tour on the next morning. We like boat trips, the birding can usually be good and we really hoped for better views of these special birds.

Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane, from the road at Aransas State Park

We chose ‘Capt. Tommy’s Crane Trip’ departing from Fulton Harbour at 7.30 am the next morning. This was just round the corner from our hotel and we hoped to get back in time for our check out by noon. We were in the car park by 7 am, eager to get on board the ‘Skimmer’ and head out into the Intracoastal Waterway that runs the length of the Gulf Coast, and found a group of equally excited birders also waiting. The boat would head north to Aransas to look for the cranes. The weather was cool and dull, great for watching but a bit difficult for photography, at least for those of us with less than professional equipment!

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It wasn’t too long till we started to see birds-common birds of the Texas coastline but still great to see. They seemed to be roosting and a bit sleepy, so our boat chugging past them didn’t generally disturb them too much. Nice photo opportunities ensued.

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Capt. Tommy runs these tours daily during the winter season and is expert in finding birds, especially the target cranes. There was plenty of room outside to stand and look, even on the top of the cabin where the wheelhouse was, or a covered area where you could sit in comfort. All, in all, it was a nice boat and we were pleased to have chosen it.

As we came alongside the coast of Aransas, other birds, still common but nice to see, were seen in the shallow pools, including Great Egrets, Reddish Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Roseate Spoonbills and a variety of shorebirds.

A couple of Whooping Cranes were glimpsed, distant though. Capt. Tommy assured us that we would get much better views. Up in the distance, we could see a couple of boats pulled into the shore. The decks were bristling with long lenses, so we knew that the birds must be showing well. A couple of boats had been hired by keen bird photographers and they had a couple of cranes ‘pinned down’ (not literally, that would be cruel!). Capt Tommy, manoeuvered the ‘Skimmer’ into position just past the ‘porcupine’ boats and we got our views!

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We had spectacular views of a couple of feeding cranes in a pool just at the side of the boat. It was absolutely worth the trip to see such iconic birds so well. Capt. Tommy regaled us with fun facts about the birds whilst we were watching, including the fact that their main source of food whilst they are in Aransas was the Blue Crab, although we didn’t see them take any whilst we were there. The birds were very obliging and did not seem unduly affected by our presence. We watched for at least 20 minutes until they finally decided to head off inland. The final view of the pair, flying low over the marsh, was very special. Job done, it was time to head back to Fulton Harbour, but there was more to see on the way.

The Intracoastal Waterway has lots and lots of oysters. There were beds of oysters lying above the waterline-of course these ones are not safe to eat, at least for humans. The birds, however, seem to enjoy this bounty and we were to see a number of nice species as we sailed past.

For human consumption, fishing boats trawl the oysters off the bottom of the canal.

218 oyster boat
Sorting the catch-Oyster boat on the Intracoastal Waterway

American White Pelicans were particularly handsome, and coming into breeding plumage, as evidenced by the big knobs visible on the bills.

All too soon we were heading back into Fulton Harbour, after a fine trip and excellent views of very special birds. We were just in time to get back to the hotel, check out and hit the road for the Rio Grande valley and our next stop, the Alamo Inn at Alamo. Before that, though, we were going twitching. A Painted Redstart, very rare for Texas, had been found in the Brooks Rest Area, sort of on our way (or it could be), and we decided to give it a go. We got it too!

Painted Redstart
This rare Painted Redstart was a twitch on the way to Alamo from Rockport

Camera: Canon Powershot SX40HS


Saturday 08 April 2000.

I mentioned previously that I love history and archaeology, something that has been an interest since my earliest years. I think this largely stems from the interests of my family, in particular my father, who was always fascinated by historical things. My sister did a degree in Archaeology and Ancient History, too, so you can see it is a family obsession. Mark isn’t so bothered, but even he can appreciate a site that is more than ‘footings’, or ‘piles of rock’, and sometimes there are even interesting birds there! So, he is happy to indulge me on our holidays if there is something historical to go and see.

This vacation was a little different. It was specifically booked in order to see the Roman sites around the Bay of Naples, somewhere that I’d wanted to go since I was a child. The sheer amount of visible archaeology; the almost complete houses; being able to walk down streets that were nearly 2000 years old; seeing how people really lived; that was the fascination. My sister had visited the area as part of her degree studies (you didn’t get to do that when studying Biochemistry!) and I was always a bit jealous. So we booked one of our package holidays, to Sorrento on the Bay of Naples, and took my parents with us. It has to be said that this sort of trip, to this sort of historical site, was a lot easier to manage when we still lived in the UK!

We flew into Naples and transferred to a hotel at S’Agnello, on the outskirts of Sorrento. It was a pretty built-up area and wasn’t going to produce many birds; Mark was going to have his work cut out to make any sort of a trip list, in fact he managed only 78 species in total. However, just outside the hotel was a terrace overlooking the sea and with a beautiful view of Vesuvius, the brooding volcano whose eruption in 79 CE (common era) sealed the fate of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding area, and ultimately was the reason we were there!

Me, enjoying the view of Vesuvius from the terrace at the front of our hotel. Herculaneum is located on the lower left hand slope of the volcano, looking from this angle.

The next morning, we picked up a hire car in Sorrento and decided to try for Herculaneum, the smaller but better preserved of the two major sites, and my favourite of the two. This meant negotiating the outskirts of Naples, not for the faint-hearted but then Mark has never been a faint-hearted driver. He put up very well with the little yelps of fright made by my mother, who had to sit in the front seat of our little hire car due to her bad knees, and who had never seen anything quite like the traffic!

Herculaneum, the ancient city, is underneath Ercolano, the present day suburb of Naples, on the northwestern slopes of Vesuvius. Ercolano used to be known as Resina, but they changed the name to help pull in the tourists. Over 75% of the ancient town still lies under the modern suburb, which seems a shame to me but at least it helps preserve the ruins for future generations. We successfully negotiated the narrow streets of the modern suburb, found somewhere to park and walked up to the ticket office.

The modern Naples suburb of Ercolano, much of Herculaneum is actually underneath these streets.

Herculaneum was named for the hero Hercules (Heracles in Greek), and there is some speculation that the city was initially founded by the Greeks, although the most ancient finds seem to point to it being conquered by the Samnites in about 420 BCE (before common era). The city became a Roman ally around 290 BCE and fully part of the Empire in 89 BCE. Many well-off Romans had farms and villas in Campania, and built houses in Herculaneum and nearby towns. Herculaneum became a town of the rich, rather more exclusive than nearby Pompeii, as evidenced by the high quality artworks and decorations retrieved from the ruins. It was damaged by earthquakes in 63 CE, in common with other towns in the area, and rebuilding works were underway. Additional tremors were registered in subsequent years but they did not cause undue concern until the eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August 79 CE covered the area with ashes and lapilli (little stones) to a level of 7 metres. Torrential rain then mixed with this material, making a mud that slid over the ancient town, burying it over 20 metres deep. It is this solidified mud that has preserved so much of Herculaneum but also makes it extremely difficult to excavate.

Because it is so far below the modern street level, the approach to the old city is via a long, shallow slope that overlooks the ancient waterfront (now quite a long way from the sea). The excavations are spread out below you, the modern buildings surround the bowl that has been excavated and it all looks as if the original inhabitants have just stepped away for a while and will be back soon. I was entranced. Mark says he will never forget the look on my face when we first saw the city, and that it was worth coming to Italy just to see that (even taking into account the poor birding!).

Much of the excavated city is composed of housing, some very large and posh homes nestling cheek-by-jowl with poorer homes. There were two sets of baths (a third set have since been discovered), the Suburban Baths by the waterfront and the Urban Baths further downtown. A gymnasium had been partially excavated, with a cross-shaped swimming pool and a fabulous fountain. There were shops and thermopoliums (hot food shops). Walls survived to the second storey, making it very easy to imagine Roman life when walking down the streets. Three north-south facing streets (Cardo III, IV and V) and 2 east-west ones (the Decumanus Maximus and the Decumanus Inferior) had been cleared for exploration.

Herculaneum street
One of the streets of Herculaneum. This street surface was last walked on in August 79 CE.

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The Decumanus Maximus bordered the basilica on one side (which is still mainly under the new town) and was lined with shops and houses on the other. The House of the Bicentenary is the richest house on the block, with ornate mosaic floors and an arcaded garden, but even this property had shops on its street-wards side, ornamented with advertisements. Nearby poorer housing has interior walls built of inferior materials, called ‘opus craticium’, a wooden frame holding rubble infill. At the far end of the Decumanus Maximus, on the corner with Cardo III, was the archway to the forum and the Imperial College, or Augustales, where freed slaves gained influence in the town by organizing ceremonies in honour of the Imperial family. The founding of this building went back to the time of Augustus and it was sumptuously decorated with paintings of Hercules (after whom the town was named) with various gods and nymphs.

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Walking down Cardo III, towards Decumanus Inferior, we found the Urban Baths. Bathing was a big and communal activity in Roman times, and these baths, with their hot, warm and cold rooms, changing rooms and gymnasium were the larger of the two excavated so far. There were separate facilities for men and women, unlike in other baths where the same facilities were used but at different times of the day by the two sexes. The men’s side had a changing room (apodyterium), cold room with cold bath (frigidarium), warm room (tepidarium) and hot room with hot plunge pool (caldarium); the women’s side was similar but smaller, with no cold room. Maybe the ladies did not like to take a cold plunge?

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Continuing down Cardo III, towards the seashore, is a house given the rather scary name, House of the Skeleton, after the first skeletal human remains found in Herculaneum were found in an upper storey room here. This seemed to have been remodelled from three smaller buildings and incorporated a tiny courtyard with an elaborately decorated small shrine (sacellum), painted wall plaster showing garden views and a iron grid, fixed across the whole opening of the courtyard, apparently to deter the ingress of burglars. Even ancient towns suffered from lawless behaviours, apparently, or perhaps from extra-careful householders!

Skeleton House
The apse in the outdoor dining room (triclinium) of the Skeleton House

Further down, a very large building was known for many years as the ‘Hotel’. It was such a large building that it was thought to be a mansio, where travellers would be accommodated, but it is now thought to be a very aristocratic house, with a large garden and a terrace overlooking the sea.

hotel garden
Garden of the ‘Hotel’ house, Cardo III

mosaic atrium
The beautiful mosaic floor in the House of the Mosaic Atrium, Cardo IV

On Cardo IV, moving back towards the Decumanus Inferior, there are three very famous houses; the House of the Mosaic Atrium, the Trellis House and the House of the Wooden Partition. The House of the Mosaic Atrium was unfortunately closed when we visited, but we could glimpse the very fashionable black-and-white mosaic-paved hallway, with its central pool, or impluvium, for collecting rainwater, through the doorway. The Trellis House is an apartment building built of opus craticium, a wooden frame filled in with rubble, and therefore thought to be lower-class and flimsy, although it has survived for nearly 2000 years! Four separate apartments, on two floors, shared a well and a tiny courtyard.

Right next door to the Trellis House is the patrician House of the Wooden Partition, with perhaps the best preserved façade in all of Herculaneum. Inside, a marble floored atrium, compete with impluvium and a fountain, was separated from the more private tablinium, the office or main reception room, by a magnificent folding wooden partition, with brass fittings, that was found still in place. In common with many of the houses in Herculaneum, and perhaps reflecting changing fortunes in the first century CE, the house had been remodelled to include some shops and workshops, in one of which was found a wooden cloth press, still present although encased in glass to protect the wood. Such screw presses were widely used in Roman society for fruit and olive pressing, and for patterning cloth. Despite its similarity to the printing press invented by Gutenberg in the 1400’s, the Romans never thought to extend its use to printing.

Further up the road towards Decumanus Maximus is another famous building, called the House of Neptune and Amphirite. The owner of the house must have owned the connecting wine shop, still with wooden partitions and balustrade fittings. It is the best preserved Roman shop in the region, with storage jars and amphorae still in position, and chick peas and beans present in the bowls on the counter. The house gets its name from a large, glass-paste mosaic of the sea god, Neptune, and his wife Amphirite, that adorns the wall of the outdoor summer dining room, or triclinium, and which was probably the owner’s pride and joy.

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The last road, Cardo V, borders the palaestra, or gymnasium complex, still mostly unexcavated. Explorations that have been done to date show a cruciform swimming pool at the centre of the complex, fitted with a fountain in the shape of a five-headed serpent entwined round a tree, where water spouted from each of the snake’s heads. A slightly creepy tunnel from Cardo V leads to the fountain, standing in an excavated cave in the rock.

serpent fountain
The fountain in the palaestra, still underground.

This road also held the bakery of Sextus Patuleus Felix (or ‘lucky’), with bread pans still hanging on the walls and the bones of an ass still harnessed to his flour-grinding mills. Nearby was a thermopolium, or hot food shop, with a marble counter inset with jars to hold the foodstuffs. These were rather close to more patrician houses, heading towards the seafront with its enviable views and sea breezes. Perhaps the availability of fresh bread was more important than the exclusivity of the area! The beautiful House of the Relief of Telephus is almost on the seafront, and its beautiful atrium, decorated with oscilla (carved marble disks) is my last photo from Herculaneum.

It was just the start of our holiday in Italy, and over the next week we were to visit Paestum, Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Capri, but my favourite place, and most enduring memories, are from Herculaneum, a place of wonder and amazement.

Camera: film
All pictures scanned from prints.

Amazon Lite

29-30 November 2007

Ecuador-I think this trip is right up there in the ‘exotic’ list! It was a 16 day tour (24 November-09 December) and our only birding trip, to date, that was guided almost throughout. Usually we like to do our own thing, but this time we opted for a 12 day tour by Tropical Birding, called the Andes and Amazon tour, and ‘did our own thing’ by adding on a few more days at the renowned Tandayapa Bird Lodge before heading home to Montreal. The itinerary was excellent; starting at Quito, we headed up into the Andes, to the Antisana and the Papallacta Pass (12,000 ft), before descending to the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon, for several nights at Sacha Lodge, a wonderful place, deep in the rainforest. For this post, I’m going to share the fun of getting to Sacha!

We had had an excellent time in the mountain regions, and lots of good birding, staying at a couple of nice lodges and being ferried around by Luis in his little minivan. Our American guide, Scott, who was living in Ecuador at the time, was very knowledgeable and got us on to a lot of birds. There were only a couple of other birders on the trip, so it wasn’t too difficult to see everything. Late afternoon on 29 November, it was time to say farewell to Luis at the edge of the Napo and pick up the first of many boats. In the Amazon basin, the rivers are definitely the primary way to get around and we were not to get into a wheeled vehicle again for 6 days.

The boats have a shallow draught, because the river is shallow and silty. There are lots of sandbanks, which tend to move about, thus the boats have to wend their way down the river, avoiding the sandbars-not great if you tend to seasickness! We were heading for an overnight stop at a lodge on the edge of the Napo, called La Casa Del Suizo, or ‘Amazon Lite’, as Scott described it.

It was dusk as we arrived, disembarking onto a covered flight of stairs that led upwards into the lodge itself. Dinner was to be taken here and then a good night’s sleep, as we were to be heading out very early in the morning-birders don’t do lie-ins!

The next morning we were able to better appreciate the area around La Casa Del Suizo. There was a small village on the riverside, lots of boats, early morning fishermen, birds whizzing past-lots of good stuff. Breakfast was extremely early, and there was even time for a little local birding, before we assembled by the pool for the next part of the trip. We were able to admire a couple of captive parrots whilst we waited for everyone to assemble. The breakfast area, which had been deserted earlier, was now full of tourists enjoying their relaxed start to the day, dressed in colourful leisurewear and looking a bit bemused at the ‘khaki army’ (or at least platoon), heading off downriver at this unearthly hour.

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I knew there was another boat involved (in fact there were to be three boats before we arrived at Sacha), but I wasn’t prepared for this one:
boat from hell
I’m not the world’s most confident boater, but I’d been fine yesterday, because we had been sitting down in the boat, on seats fixed to the vessel. On this boat, and in an effort to make it more comfortable for us, they had placed canvas deckchairs in a line. These were not fixed down and we ended up sitting above the gunwales of the boat. I was not happy and it only got worse as we set off on the meandering trip-we were still avoiding those sandbars! Mark was fine, and the rest of the tour group kept stiff upper lips, but I was a nervous wreck by the time we reached our first stop, some islands in the middle of the river where we were to disembark and do some birding.
on board rs
I really don’t know why I panicked so badly, the river was hardly deep even if I had fallen in, and Piranhas are pretty scarce. I was dreading getting back on board so Mark had a quiet word with Scott and I was able to sit on the fixed bench seat at the back. That was fine, no issues with that, and my heart rate was almost back to normal by the time we reached our next destination, El Coca.

El Coca, more properly Puerto Francisco de Oreilana, is a bit of a frontier town, and is where the planes from Quito land. We were to wait here for a plane load of additional Sacha Lodge visitors who were coming in the easy way. The promenade along the river was good for birding, and there was a small colony of rescued Capuchin monkeys living in the trees.

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Soon we were all assembled and we boarded the next boat for the trip to Sacha. This one had sensible fixed seating and I was perfectly ok in it. It was called ‘Pirana’, so perhaps those Piranha fish are more common than I’d thought!

The boat docked at the edge of the river, but there was no sign of the lodge itself. That was because it was a 1 km walk along a boardwalk, followed by a paddle across a deep, dark lake away! We set out along the boardwalk, having let the rest of the group forge on ahead, because we were to bird our way over to the last boat for today and we were taking our time. Our luggage had been carried off for us by our very attentive lodge staff, what luxury. In fact, everything was to be done for us in the next few days; the lodge has a staff to visitor ratio of about 3:1, and it shows! We were to become very familiar with the boardwalk during our stay, and there was always good birding, and some interesting animals, along its length.

Eventually, we reached another boat dock, and our last boat of the day, a dug-out canoe! Everybody and everything arriving at Sacha has to cross Lake Pilchicocha by paddling these canoes, including all luggage and all supplies. It makes it feel very isolated and very special, especially when you realise that the food and service at the other end is second to none! Every day during our stay we were to get in and out of these canoes as we went birding around the lake and along the river. Strangely, these too did not bother me at all, even though the seats were not fixed into the boats, because I was sitting very low and below the gunwales. I think that Scott, our guide, and Mark were relieved to see that it wasn’t an issue-it would have got very wearing had I had a problem with it for the rest of the stay!

After a gentle 10 minute paddle across the lake (the lodge staff did the paddling), we approached a thatched building with a deck area and entered a narrow channel that led to the lodge proper, a very welcome sight. Beautifully built from wooden vines and thatch, the lodge buildings were all on stilts and each cabin was connected to the dining room/bar by covered boardwalks. Our cabin was located at the end of one of these walkways, with a view into the depths of the rainforest. It all felt remote and romantic, and quite unlike anywhere we had been before. Wonderful birds, wildlife and scenery awaited us at Sacha, but for now we were glad to settle in and explore the lodge and its grounds. Sacha Lodge was truly a once in a lifetime experience!

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Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7

Backyard Safari

Friday 22 June 2018.

It has been a funny old week. Last Saturday afternoon I ended up at the Emergency Room of our local hospital, suffering from severe pains in my upper abdomen. Seven hours later I came out with a diagnosis and an appointment for removal of my gallbladder on Monday afternoon! I could have done without that, but I have to say we were most impressed with my treatment and the laparoscopic cholecystectomy (to give it its posh name) went very well. Although things have been a bit sore, and I’m supposed to take it easy for a few days, by this morning I was climbing the walls so Mark took me out to somewhere I could potter about a bit and point the camera at a few things. Not far from home, necessarily, but it can be amazing what you can find if you look.

We when to the Clyde River, just up the highway from home, and started out on Quinn Falls Road. This road, a cul-de-sac, ends with a small turning circle on the banks of the river and is very quiet. There are usually birds, odonata, animals, etc., and today was no exception. At this time of the year, birds are nesting and are difficult to see, so Mark turns his attention to odonata (dragonflies and damselflies). Armed with his trusty net, he took up position on the backs of the river.

Catching the insects doesn’t harm them, but it can be essential for correct identification of some of them, where a close look at their genital appendages, using a hand-lens, is vital. Mark has got quite good at catching them and holding them by the wings to take a closer look. They soon fly away, unharmed (although possibly with their dignity a little ruffled!), once the wings are released.

almost fully kitted rs
Mark, almost completely kitted out (only the camera is missing!)

No very surprising insects were found, although many of the larger dragons were not playing ball today and kept out in the middle of the river. Lancet Clubtail was the largest photographed, whilst Ebony Jewelwing, Hagen’s Bluet and Fragile Forktail hid amongst the marginal foliage.

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I kept myself occupied photographing the marginal flowers. There has been a real burgeoning of the flora in the last couple of weeks and the road edges are looking very pretty. The lupins are going over, but they have been superceded by Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), another import from Eurasia but a flower I always enjoy seeing. They are simple but oh, so cheerful!

Alongside the Ox-eyes, there were odd Blue-eyed Grass flowers, I think the Eastern Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchum atlanticum). The flowers on this plant last for only one day.

Hobomok Skipper butterflies were feeding actively on this white-flowered shrub. I haven’t really pinned this one down, but I think it may be a Dewberry (happy to receive a correction on that). It was very floral today.

Whilst I was prowling the road edges, Mark was still down on the river bank. Suddenly he shouted for me to ‘come quick’, easier said than done when nursing stitches! Anyhow, I got there in time to see this beautiful Eastern Garter Snake, making its way along the side of the river (they do swim very well). Snakes are always a bit special to see and we very much enjoyed seeing this beautiful individual. Not sure he was so enamoured of seeing us!

eastern garter snake 2 rs
Eastern Garter Snake

Before going home for lunch (I was getting a bit tired by now), we took a little detour up the other side of the river, along the Clyde River Road. About 15 km up there is an area of acid bog where Mark had previously seen Petit Emerald damselfly; only the once, and he was keen to find it again.

bog rs
The bog on Clyde River Road

No luck with the damsel, unfortunately, but it is always nice to see one of our carnivorous plants, the Purple Pitcher-plant (Sarracenia purpurea.

pitcher plant 1 rs
Purple Pitcher-plant

These plants get most of their nutrients from the bodies of small insects, such as flies, ants and spiders, that fall into the pitcher-shaped leaves and drown in rainwater that collects in the bases. Bacteria and small invertebrates then shred and mineralise the insect bodies and make the nutrients available to the plants.
So far, so lethal, but I came across another plant that is toxic. Called Lambkill, or Sheep-laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), it produces a glucoside that is highly toxic to mammals (not just sheep!). The flowers are pretty, though.

Our multiflora rose is beginning to flower, always a true harbinger of summer. This pretty Common Cottongrass (Eriophorium angustifolium)is also showing well on the acid bogs of the Clyde River Road.

A nice couple of hours in the sun, lots of wildlife on the doorstep, couldn’t ask for better!

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Quinn Falls, the other side of the bridge

Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ2500

Glamping in Goa?

Saturday 04 December-Mon 06 December 1999.

I don’t think ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) was even a thing back then, but this was a very special experience. Mark and I had booked a holiday in Goa, India – probably our most exotic location up till then (and still up there in the exotic stakes now!). A fabulous birding location, it was pretty safe and easy to get to from the UK, making it a very popular trip. In fact, we were to meet at least two other Notts birders in the area, whilst we were there!

We had booked a package holiday, with Thomsons as I remember, flying from Heathrow to Panaji, via Abu Dhabi. Stopping in Abu Dhabi was surreal. We flew in in the dark, with patches of the desert lit up by thousands of lamps surrounding some opulent piles, to be deplaned for an hour or two into a shining, gold-encrusted, duty-free shop full of extremely expensive things (although someone on the plane did take advantage of the shopping to buy an engagement ring). It was bright and wide-awake, at some impossibly small hour of the morning, and eager to take your holiday money (not ours, we had better things to spend it on). Finally allowed to get back on board the plane, we flew into the capital of Goa, Panaji (although it is apparently known to all and sundry as ‘Panjim’) before being transferred to our hotel-so far, so package holiday. We were stopping at the Marinha Dourada hotel, near Baga, superbly sited for visiting birding sites around that area, and with a balcony that overlooked some excellent shrimp pools.
hotel 3
It was clean, comfortable, and we soon got used to ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ being sung in an indian accent on continuous loop, in 40°C heat – one of the perils of visiting in December!

We were keen to visit further afield, and Mark had heard of a couple of young Goan birders, Loven and Leio, who had set up a tented camp, called Backwoods, for visiting birders in the foothills of the Western Ghats. This sounded like our sort of adventure so he made contact and we arranged to be picked up from our hotel, early on Saturday 4th December for a two night stay. The trip, in a small minibus, was quite long but enlivened by excellent birding (and animals) on the way. When we reached the site, in the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, the bus forded a quite deep river to get in-it apparently wasn’t always possible to cross!

The tents were placed on a concrete base, with real beds off the ground. Behind each tent, reached by a flap inside, was a small ‘bathroom’ area, open to the sky but quite adequate. It might not have been true ‘glamping’ but it was great fun. Loven and Leio told us that the whole site was washed out each year by the monsoon floods, so that they had to set it up afresh every season, but it was beautifully kept. In the centre of the tents was a shaded seating area, where guests could chat and where meals, a variety of vegetable curries, cooked on site, were taken. Even Mark, with his acknowledged dislike of vegetables, enjoyed these!

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The first day, including the trip to the site, yielded 72 species, of which 31 were trip ticks. There were to be even more to come.

The next morning was spent exploring jungle tracks in the morning, with one of our experienced guides.

In the afternoon and evening, we visited a local Hindu temple. Set in a clearing in the jungle, the site is great for more open-country birds and, in the evening, for nightjars. Jerdon’s Nightjars were seen, although it was dark by then and they were silhouettes only. We also bumped into (in)famous birder/twitcher Lee Evans, leading a tour party of British birders on one of his, strangely-titled, ‘Grim Reaper’ tours. Well, they didn’t look that happy to me, so maybe it was quite descriptive? We were glad to be doing our own thing.

The Tambdi Surla temple was interesting, to me at least, although maybe not to most of my companions (birders to a man!).  According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built in the 12th century out of basalt carried across the mountains from the Deccan Plateau, quite a feat of engineering. The elaborate carvings on the outside depict various Hindu gods and their consorts. It is the oldest temple in Goa and is still a place of worship for people of the local villages.

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Day 2 at Backwoods yielded 78 species on the daylist, with a further 14 trip ticks.
Our last day at Backwoods included a late afternoon drive back to our hotel, via a local birding spot, so we made the most of the morning at the site, fitting in a good jungle walk and finding yet more new birds, including Black Baza and Ashy Minivet, the former the first time it had been seen in Goa, the latter now split to some other species (probably!). We were rather sad to leave our jungle encampment, although we still had lots of days of our Indian adventure to go. Our last day at Backwoods, and the drive back to the hotel, yielded 82 species, with 10 new species for the trip.

Backwoods is still there, although nowadays they seem to have upgraded from tents to small cabins. Maybe the flooding situation has now been managed? I’m sure that the birding experience is just as excellent, although I’m glad we experienced the romance of the glamping!

Camera: film.

All photographs scanned from print.