Ovenbird vs a garter snake. OMG those birds are surprisingly badass.
It's winter so of course we talking about owls. Here's an article that I did for Audubon with tips on how to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls. The politics of reporting owls...there are definitely more northern species of owls in the northern US this year, but the locations are being kept on the down low this winter. Even eBird has put owls on the sensitive species list so you can't use it for exact locations.
Vogue did an article about bird watching...and it isn't terrible...
Non Birding Bill's other podcast: Aging Poorly.
One of the reasons we stopped podcasting is in this post. It's hard to have a snarky birding podcast when the news is often terrible. But we're back for now. Thank you for your patience.
I've said it before and I'll say it again and again, there is nothing like seeing parrots and parakeets live and function in the wild--especially if you have ever been crazy enough to share your life with one in your home. Their bright colors, incredible brain and ability to mimic often overcomes our good sense to not have one in your home because of their destructive tendencies and incredibly loud, screechy calls. But seeing that all come together as a means to find food and shelter in their environment is such a beautiful thing, especially when we see recognizable human behaviors.
So it was quite the treat when our guide got us on a flock of Cuban parakeets in the general neighborhood of our hotel. It was getting close to noon and the light wasn't great. Our group struggled to get the birds in the dappled canopy. I gave up on getting a "magic shot" and thought I'd just find a bird or two and get some bird behavior shots and video...and boy howdy did I. The above pair started by sitting side by side and preening their own feathers. Then as pairs frequently do, they started allopreening or grooming each other's feathers. This can be a way to woo a new partner and once your partnership is solidified, it's a way to reinforce the pair bond...then things got weird. The birds soon went from, "Here, let me nibble that hard to reach part of your face..." to "let's get busy."
Then one bird flipped around on the perch (I refer to that one as Bird A) and started preening the vent and cloaca area of Bird B. The other bird followed suit. This went on for several minutes. Having the brain of a 15 year old, I was delighted by this turn of events. They kept macking on those areas for so long, this was no longer about, "Let me just clean up the feathers in this area for you" but more like, "Wow, this feels great, don't stop, for the love of all things holy, YES!"
There's something about psittacines (parrot order) that really appears to have a thing for sexual pleasure, beyond just the cloacal kiss for mating you see in most wild birds. When our cockatiel was alive, masturbation was an important daily ritual...and he would take his own sweet time about rubbing his cloaca on his chosen item all while huffing and puffing and squeaking. I especially found it amusing when his favorite area was next to a mirror and he clearly watched himself at the same time. Was it another bird in his mind, or was he watching himself? Who knows, but he had a great time.
After several minutes of 69ing each other, Bird B had enough and tried to go back to preening other areas of Bird A. However, Bird A was having none of it and kept thrusting it's cloaca in Bird B's face.
And they went back to it for another five minutes and then Bird B clearly had enough and flew off to another perch to forage in the trees.
Birds, man. Always keeping things in the field interesting. Here's some video of the allopreening...and beyond.
I hesitated to put this up because I was worried about starting a political argument in the blog, something I try to avoid. And then I thought…since when is stating clearly that you believe in equality for all people a political statement?
Countries, like people are complex AF. They can show unknown beauty, teach you things that cannot be learned in a book or classroom, they can bring you unimaginable joy and they can make you irrationally angry. They can also break your heart.
I’ve been in countries that I’m sure the current President of the United States would term “shitholes.” Though I have not been to the countries he specifically stated were "shitholes" many of the countries I've been to share some particular characteristics with his list: people of color and for some, extremely poor living conditions. I generally like to keep things neutral in the blog because I want to focus on birds and wildlife and I think no matter how much we disagree with each other politically, we can find commonality in nature. In the past when I see things I struggle with while out birding, I tend to leave that as a story I only tell friends over dinners and drinks. I think I need to stop that.
For example, Honduras was one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been too. I loved the people I met, the terrain was breathtaking (literally and metaphorically) and the birds were outstanding. However, the poverty was overwhelming. Every animal I saw was emaciated. You could see the rib cages of dogs, horses, cows—even pigs. Imagine that, my fellow US citizens, pigs so thin you could see their ribs.
While I would stay in my cozy lodges where my daily choice was bird watching, a massage, reading in a hammock, writing, sketching, or snorkeling, some families around us were living in shacks with tarp roofs struggling to survive. Children were out there who couldn't go school because they were needed to go through the streets and search garbage bins to find scraps to sell or eat just so their family can survive. Yes it can be argued that the tourism dollars I bring with me helps, but will it help the individuals I saw? Highly unlikely.
And this is not the only country that has that kind of “shithole” existence going on. Perhaps you’re thinking I might next bring up Cuba or Guatemala living conditions I witnessed. Nope. I’ve seen similar shithole existences right here in the United States. I saw it right in our capital of Washington, DC last October—people living in tents around monuments or within site of the White House itself. I see it daily in Minnesota. Right now, someone is living in a tent on property adjacent to my apartment building’s complex. The current temperature outside as I write this is -13 degrees Fahrenheit. He is a white male living in that tent in the United States.
If you’re reading this and you voted for Trump, I don’t care what policy or tax break or health plan you thought he would fix for you. Can’t we agree that this overtly racist attitude is intolerable, unacceptable and a total embarrassment? And if you think it’s ok, I would encourage you to book a trip somewhere out of your comfort zone. Learn more about the countries you don’t understand. Most people aren't out to "get us." They want a little piece of stability to spend time with family and friends and pursue their happiness.
The thing that’s incredibly frustrating for me is that the news gets overwhelmed with these immature comments and we are missing actual changes that affect us all right now: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge could be taken from us for a useless border wall that is for show and not action. The Eminent Domain process was ignored on private property when the federal government started work on the wall on private property owned by the National Butterfly Center in Texas. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been relaxed a bit so killing birds for construction is ok. The Bundy family who tried to take federal land away from the US people by high jacking Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is free because federal prosecutors botched their case. As of today the federal government is about week away from a shutdown…something that almost happened right before Christmas. The government was less than 48 hours from a shutdown but no one noticed because, “Oh hey, the president said something insane again.”
So, in case it wasn't obvious...I'm not a racist and I don't think any of what is going on right now is ok. And as I struggle with daily outrage fatigue, the thing that is getting me through this is watching birds. And Jameson.
One of the places I was most excited about visiting in Cuba was Cueva de los Portales in La Guira National Park. This was the headquarters of the Western Army and the hideout of Che Guevara during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I was curious to see something that I'd read about so much in school. This is also the spot to get Cuban solitaire. I have fallen head over heals in love with the solitaire family, their songs are haunting. I can send you to Xeno Canto so you listen to them, but computer speakers are a poor comparison to the real thing. If you do go there, put in your headphones at least. The true solitaire song in the wild echoes off the sides of mountains and sounds other wordly. So far Brown-backed solitaire is my favorite bird song ever, but I was very curious to hear how the Cuban solitaire sounds different.
The Cuban solitaire did not disappoint. As we explored this beautiful cave and heard the patter of rain and the chittering of bats that haunting song bounced off of the cave walls. I could have sat and listened for the entire day.
The cave is definitely worth exploring, but if you go in with cameras (or spotting scopes and binoculars) you will be charged a "camera fee." Make sure to have Cuban Convertible Pesos handy.
If you travel into Central America enough, it is inevitable you will experience an ant hatch...in your hotel. Previously, I wrote about experiencing an ant hatch that happened in my room at Panacam Lodge in Honduras (this is not a knock against that lodge, this is just part of life in the tropics). Hotel Islazul Mirador (also called Hotel Islazul San Diego de los Banos) was our base for this stretch of our trip because it was near the cave. Most of the occupants at the hotel appeared to be residents enjoying some weekend fun. Two of the men on our trip took a stroll outside the hotel and within a few blocks met a local teacher who gave them a tour of the town. He had started a personal library for the town from books he collected from foreigners. Incidentally, if you wanted to take something to Cuba for the people, I highly recommend bringing along copies of your favorite books to read in Spanish and leaving them behind.
I shared a room with my friend Sue and the morning routine was that I would wake up first and as I moved around, Sue would gradually wake up. One morning I woke and went into our bathroom. As I was gradually gaining consciousness, I heard a clicking sound. I looked down and noticed a large insect crawling under the door into the bathroom. Then a second. When both were inside, they fluttered their wings and made the clicking sound..."Oh no," I suddenly realized: ant hatch.
I brain sprang into action, I didn't have ants on me so the hatch must have just started. I needed to close up our suitcases so we wouldn't have them in our clothes. I needed to wake Sue but not panic her. I stepped out of the bathroom and noted a few more ants on the floor.
"Sue," I said in steady but firm voice. "Sue, you need to get up and close your suitcases. I need to turn on the lights."
I flipped on the lights to see where the ants were coming out. I looked for any kind of gap along the ceiling and walls. I couldn't see ants. Sue was getting out of bed and thought our room was flooding in her half awake state. I was trying to carefully explain the hatch because I wasn't sure how she would feel about thousands of large, winged ants crawling all over us. There were some more winged ants on the floor and then I noticed the clicking sound was louder just outside our room door. I realized with some relief that it wasn't in the room, but outside. When I turned on the bathroom lights, that must have gotten their attention and the ants were crawling from under our room door and a gap from our shutters. What a relief that it wasn't inside!
I turned off the lights in our room and decided to take a peak outside.
The light just outside our room was out so we didn't have that many ants outside of our door. However, walking down the corridor you could see that our neighbors' rooms were all covered in dying ants that were attracted to their lights. It had been raining most of the day before. When the rains stopped, queens hatched to go on their mating flights with males. After the mating the wings on the queen fall off and she goes to start a new colony. But all of these ants got distracted by the lights and spent all their energy around it, exhausting themselves. As morning was approaching they were dying and their wings were falling off.
I wondered about people coming out of their room barefoot to have coffee, only to step in and slide through ant guts. I went back to my room to finish prepping for the day's adventures grateful to not be dealing with ants in our room.
When I headed down to breakfast the sun was bright and the dead ants looked quite beautiful in the light. While we were eating, the hotel staff went through and swept them away. I looked down at the pool and it was a different story. A layer of drowned ants covered the surface. The pool boy would have his work cut out for him this morning.
One of the specialties our cultural guide Claudia told us to try at the hotel was jellied papaya. If you think papaya is ok but could do with more sugar then this is right up your ally! It was far too sweet for me but it was an interesting flavor. Make sure to give it a try.
After some fun times and barely birding in Old Havana, we met up with our main guide in Cuba, Hiram Gonzalez (pronounced "ear rahm" not they way we say Hiram in the US). Hiram is quite possibly one of the last people to see an ivory-billed woodpecker alive in Cuba. He's an ornithologist who specializes in endangered species on the island. If Zapata wren is your goal--he's the one you want to know to see one.
He's also one of the most colorful guides I've ever gone with. How often do you go out with a guide who points to your endemic lifer with his half finished cigarette? He speaks very good English with a heavy accent. It took me a minute to figure out that "janky bird" was giant kingbird. At night, he'd join us at the bar and school us in birds and the better rums. But he was always so excited to show us his birds which I'm sure he'd seen more times than I've seen a cardinal. Ever time he would exclaim, while wildly flailing his cigarette, "Look AT dat!!!"
We headed towards Las Terrazas to a plantation to get some of those Cuban endemics we'd been reading about so much. On the way we stopped for gas and got a lifer: Cuban martin. We had martins zooming over the roof of our hotel. Even though it was April, I wasn't sure if there still might be some male purple martins on the island and it's impossible to tell male purple martins from male Cuban martins. But at the gas station there was no doubt.
Unlike purple martins, Cuban martins nest in holes in buildings--not the houses and colonies people in the United States have trained martins to use. These martins were using any hole or gap in the gas station. Cuba is know for several species that are endemic--spend their entire lives on the island. But martins fly away in winter and only breed here so their considered a breeding endemic. Kind of the way golden-winged warblers would be considered a breeding endemic to the North America.
We continued our journey and at the first stop in Las Terrazas, it was the "holy-shit-new-birds-everywhere" sensory overload time. That lovely point where you are afraid to focus on just one bird because you might not see the other new bird right behind you ever again. Many of the endemics we saw on the first stop ended up being birds we would see almost every day like Cuban trogon, Cuban tody and Cuban green woodpecker...getting actual photographs of them was another story.
Clouds and mist moved in as well giving things a mysterious air. After our initial stop we headed to a nearby plantation where they were setting up to feed their chickens. However, domestic fowl are not the only birds to see. This is the spot to get cracker jack looks at grassquits.
I could show you images of grassquits but it's far more fun to watch video of them happing around. There were far more yellow-faced grassquits than Cuban grassquits but we got ample looks at both. These are now considered to be part of the tanager family and are related to Darwin finches.
This post was updated December 19, 2017 when I noticed many of the photos were gone after transferring the blog from Wordpress to SquareSpace. I also updated some of the text. It was originally two posts and now I've condensed it to one.
This particular toy at the top of this post is a replica of a horned guan. You can get them from knock-off Kinder Eggs called Yowies—which for whatever reason are legal in the US. I was going to just buy the eggs until I got my guan, but the chocolate is nasty. Rather than going the traditional route of purchasing several inedible eggs, I found someone on eBay who already had the guan and for the price of one Yowie egg I had the guan sent directly to my home. To people who say this is cheating...I say, "Bite me."
A horned guan is one of the rarest birds in the Americas. Imagine a black and white bird the size of a turkey that has a bright red horn on its head that lives in the trees on the side of a volcano. Even if there weren’t only 600 or so of these birds left in the world, they're are still an amazing sight.
If I truly understood what was ahead of me to see a guan, I don't know that I would have gone for it. There were tales from some of my buddies on the bird festival circuit that it was a horrific climb. I had heard of well-known, great birders, who I considered to be physically fit, having to crawl that last part of the trail just to see. Here's Julie Zickefoose on NPR and on her blog or Bill of the Birds on his horned guan search. I think a part of me thought that was just a bit of exaggeration--birders have their fish stories too.
The hike up Volcan San Pedro was saved for one of our final days of birding in Guatemala. Our group had been mentioning it to each other, "Do you think you're going to be able to do it?" or "Sharon, do you really think you can take your scope up the volcano, I'd leave it here."
I heard that previous male birders had brought their scopes, so I thought that I should be able to do it too. I didn't get very scared until the day before. I had found some wifi at our lodge in Los Andes and put up a status update on Facebook: Sharon is nervous about tomorrow's climb up the Volcano to see the horned guan. I got a comment from Chris Benesh who works for Field Guides--travels all over the world to show people birds. He was also on the same Ivory-bill Search Team I was on. I considered to him to be very physically fit. He left a comment to the effect of the climb being the toughest he had ever done, it was brutal, but the got the guan.
Okay, if Chris called it brutal, maybe those stories of birders panting and crawling to the top weren't just exaggerated fish tales. I decided to be all Scarlett O'Hara about it and, "I'll not think about that right now, I'll go crazy if I do. I'll think about that tomorrow."
We had one more field trip planned at Los Andes to look for some mannikans, I opted to take the afternoon off, relax a bit so I could be fresh the next morning. The next day was a rough schedule. We had to be ready to go by 4:15 am, take a bus to Lake Atitlan where we would take a ferry to San Pedro for the climb. The hike up to the guan was going to take four hours, who knew how long the hike down would take.
Initially, all went well. We arrived at Lake Atitlan and watched in amazement at how the locals used the water. As we were loading our ferry, one man drove in his tuk tuk (tiny taxi car) into the water for a wash, another drove in his truck, a couple of people were bathing in the nude right on the water's edge.
We boarded boat, marveled at the beautiful volcanoes that surrounded the lake and laughed as the cool water sprayed us as we hit waves. Outside the boat we looked to pad our species list with lesser scaup, brown pelicans, and ruddy ducks. As we approached the other side of the lake, we watched in amazement as Volcan San Pedro loomed over us. Yes, we would be climbing this extinct volcano. Hugo, our guide tried to alleviate our fears since many of us were not accustomed to this altitude. In his quiet, spanish accent he said, "Yes, we will go slow. It will be slow, slow walking, then looking at birds, slow, slow walking, then looking at birds."
I felt some comfort in this. Perhaps the four hours was not all climbing but just such a slow pace of birding that it would seem steep, but not be that bad.
When we landed in San Pedro, I saw more tourists here than in any other town. Peddlers were ready for us, a Mayan woman greeted us with a basket full of baked goods. I looked at the steep streets in front of us and wondered if we were going to start right away, but our local guides and hosts Irene and Ana Christina said that a bus was coming to take us.
We began our drive through the narrow cobblestone streets of San Pedro, up and up we went. We passed many locals taking the route on foot, many carrying piles of goods on their backs. What is it like to be acclimatized to this?
We arrived at the reserve for the horned guan. We readjusted our packs with our lunches and our bottles of water and began the trail. The day was sunny, the birds were numerous and we made some stops.
We found a spot loaded with western tanagers (more of those North American breeders). I was excited to get the rufous-capped warbler. I had actually seen one of these earlier in our journey, but was the only one who had. I was glad others got to see it and this time I even got to digiscope it. We also got great looks at this ginormous squirrel cuckoo—it was much bigger than the black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos I see. And so beautiful too—reminiscent of a brown thrasher.
As we stopped for all of this birding, I started to think, “This isn’t so bad.” I have short legs and I was not used to the elevation but was doing ok. I did lag behind the group but always managed to catch up with enough time to rest along with them before pressing forward. I felt that I could do this.
But then we didn’t stop for birds anymore and the trails became much steeper. It was switchback after switchback. It was dry and the volcanic dust made for powdery walking conditions. I toiled up the trail and as my pace slowed, the sound of our group ahead became more and more faint, I realized I was losing ground. There was another person named Mel in our group who seemed to struggle with the climb along with me. I was grateful for the company and to not to be the pokiest of the little puppies.
Local farmers loaded with burdens of fire wood, corn or coffee moved swiftly passed us on the trail. Many looked to be twice my age which made me feel worse. I bike ride, I lead nature hikes, I haul bee equipment and this trail was turning my legs to jelly. It was relentless in its incline. I was desperate for a flat surface. The high elevation and lack of oxygen didn’t help either. Life in Minnesota rarely exceeds 850 feet. The trail starts at about 5000 feet and has a change of over 4000 feet.
After much sweat and panting my slow friend and I caught up to the group at another resting spot. I hoped that we were half way up and was saddened to learn that we were only a third of the way, with another three hours to go. It was at this moment that Gustavo from Neblina Tours told me , “I’m having trouble staying balanced on this steep trail. Would it be alright with you if I took your scope and used it as a way to balance myself on the trail?”
It was lie. He carried more on this trip than I did: he had two massive field guides besides his binoculars, lunch, water, recording equipment, etc. I knew it was a lie and I was too sweaty and tired to care. I gratefully accepted his offer and continued my slow lumbering walk up the trail.
We eventually made it to a halfway point. I sat on the floor of the observation deck and used the wooden railing to prop my head up and looked out at the beautiful view. I was seriously questioning my life choices. I was not forced to do this, I signed up--willingly. What’s worse is that I could have stopped at any time. I could have just stopped walking on the trail and said, “No more, I’ll wait here in the shade, watch some foliage-gleaners and pepper-shrikes and wait for you on your glory walk down the trail after seeing the guan.” One of our group already had given up the trail due to a bad knee. It was the honorable and safe thing to do. But I willingly continued. Quitting this steep upward battle was never an option to me.
I looked at our group and said panting, “This is like hitting yourself with a hammer because it feels so good when you finally stop.”
We laughed and Hugo warned that we should probably save our oxygen.
Jen soon joined Mel and I as those lagging behind now and two of us practically held on to each other to stay upright. Ana Christina from the tourism board sensed our waning resolve and anytime we paused she would call in her sweet Spanish accent, “Jen, Sharon, come on, the horned guan is right up here.”
We fell for it once and scrambled up, but realized she was really a cloud forest sprite beckoning us forward. It worked. At every switchback we would pause to try and get some order to our respiratory system, Ana Christina would be another switchback ahead of us calling, “C’mon Jen. C’mon Sharon, horned guan is waiting for you.”
We finally reached the horned guan appropriate elevation. I sat in the dust. Gustavo smiled and pointed out how dirty my face was. Fuck you, Gustavo. Part of our group rested, while the rest did an initial search.
I took a picture of myself at this point. I wanted to remember forever the exact moment I realized how much I hated birds and that I needed psychological help. What the fuck was wrong with me. I had heard how horrible it was and I kept going, for what? For the high of seeing one rare bird.
No guan. We needed to go higher. Fuck everything.
We paused once more. Optimism was fading in the group. A few still held out some sweaty hope, but the rest of worried that we’d been talking too much or paying more attention to our body and foot aches and completely missed the turkey sized tree chicken that was our quarry. One guy even said, “You know, we could go all this way and not see it.”
This was the first time in my life I ever felt the deep, gutteral desire to throat punch someone.
Then an anxious whisper came from above us, some crazy asshole in our group was still climbing and went two switch backs up…and found the guan. All of us suddenly forgot body fatigue and dashed up the switchback—where had this new-found energy come from?
The light broke through the trees and…all I could see was a bird foot. Fuck you, bird. I was going to count it, but if this was all I’m going to get of you. Fuck you.
Finally, a little head poked out. I saw the horn, the little red horn where the guan gets its name! And the crazy yellow eye! At first we thought there was one guan, but there were two…and then a whole flock of about 7—they vocalized, they displayed, they flew! My little head exploded in awe as I realized I was watching what is arguably the most endangered bird in the Americas.
And after all of that, we had to go back down! Certainly it would not take the five hours that it took to get up to the guan, but it would still take time. My legs are only used to flat surfaced and had been trudging uphill for four hours non stop. And now I had to go down, something I still wasn't used to. Every muscle in my legs vibrated at any moment I stopped. I kept going, but the decline and volcanic ash still caused me to slide and fall. Every time I did fall, a large cloud of dust preceded me, causing Hugo to cross his arms and shout, "Safe!" as if I were a baseball player sliding into home. Fuck you, Hugo.
Some way, some how we made it back down the trail to our meeting point, our water bottles depleted. Ana Christina took us to a local watering hole for some refreshments to wait for the ferry. In our dehydrated state, we should of have had water, but it wasn’t safe for the American to drink so our only option was beer. Giddiness soon set in with most of us, especially for me--I NEVER HAVE TO DO THAT CLIMB EVER AGAIN. It occurred to me that a horned guan is a bird that I will only see once in a lifetime and I had a pang of pity for guys like Hugo and Mel who would have to lead a tour here again and take people up that volcano. Those poor god damned bastards.
We finally crossed the lake and checked into our next lodge. I took a very long shower with my scope and binoculars to clean off all of the volcanic dust. By the time we were settled and clean it was 8:30pm when we sat down for dinner of squash soup, homemade tortas, fruity drinks and rich dark Guatemalan run.
We discussed the next day's birding. After getting our stuff together at 4:15am that morning and birding almost 12 hours, I was delighted to hear that we were meeting at 7am for breakfast before birding (we'd get to sleep in).
Mel said in a panicked voice, "Hey that means we won't get birding until 8 - 8:30 am, anyone for starting earlier?"
Goddamn lister was already on the quest for more birds.
Hugo our guide said, "Well, it's whatever you want..."
There was a pause, I could tell by some in the group that they needed the rest as much as I did but didn’t want to look like the weenie and say no. I myself have no problem saying no.
"I gotta say that I'm not in favor of that idea and would rather sleep in and rest after today."
Mel looked disappointed, but I felt a palpable wave of relief come across the table from everyone.
So I look down on my little plastic horned guan that ordered from eBay, I think you can understand why I don't think it's cheating to go through loads of technically edible chocolate to get my little souvenir of the day I realized my limits in birding.
This summer I had the heartbreak many of us experience with our binoculars...moisture inside the lenses. Who knows when I did it--park service canoe program or on a plane coming home from Hungary. Considering they had been used almost daily since 2005 and I'm rough on equipment that was a hell of a good run. Fortunately, being Swarovskis they have a great warranty and something like this can be repaired with only shipping from my house as the cost.
I contacted the repair office to get a tracking number and sent them in for treatment. Swarovskis have a lifetime warranty. I've sent my old ELs in for what I thought was a realignment about 9 years ago. That's when I learned I had a minor astigmatism and hello, glasses! Even though they didn't need to be repaired, the team completely refurbished and cleaned them. When they were returned to me it was like having a brand new EL. I could tell they were still mine though by the dings along the hinges. Oh the times those bins have been tossed in a backpack for last minute birding runs, dropped on the floor, dragged across mud when I wriggled under electric fences or fell along with me when I slid down mountainsides or volcanoes. The lifers they brought to me, both expected and unexpected...that time a dear, sweet Brit named Mike Watson ran into me early one morning on the boardwalk at Biggest Week and said, "Hey, Shaz, fancy a male Kirtland's? It's just right here."
"Get the F*CK out of here!"
His face and the lifer were priceless.
Swarovskis are a tough piece of equipment. I have put these binoculars to the test on many continents. There was even a point at a meeting at Swarovski Headquarters in Austria a couple of years ago after the new versions of the ELs were out and a staff person noticed the state of my old ELs--good, but well worn and well loved. He said, "I'd really love to see you with a fresher pair. We've upgraded them since that model."
I politely declined the offer for an upgrade. I know it's an inanimate object but those 8x32 ELs was been with me almost every day in any sort of weather condition, every sort of mood. They've known temperatures from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to -32 degrees Fahrenheit. They've known the thrill of a sociable lapwing in Kazakhstan and the agony of missing resplendent quetzal in Honduras and Guatemala. They gave me my first glimpse of a Zapata wren in Cuba and my lifer Syrian woodpecker on the border of Israel and Syria. They have helped me enjoy waxwings and purple finches chowing down on crabapples in my yard and give me a crisp view of woodcocks illuminated by flashlights. We've seen some serious shit together.
Because of my relationship with Swarovski, I knew when my old ones were sent in for repair they'd be noticed. They were...as was all of the equipment I've been loaned over the years. "LOOK HOW OLD YOUR STUFF IS, LET'S UPGRADE!" If you've ever seen the movie Moonstruck, it's kind of like when Cher's character stops into the salon to take out a few grays in her hair and the stylist goes nuts and they give her a complete makeover.
I dug out all of my Swarovski boxes from storage and found my old EL box from years ago. I poured a glass of Talisker Storm, put in some Harry Nilsson and toasted them and all the adventures they gave me. They grew with me as I grew my blog which led to my writing and speaking career. I carefully packed them in to the box. I had hoped that maybe I hadn't trashed them too badly and maybe we could turn them into a contest like we did years ago and I gave away my old scope. Despite asking, I have not heard. I suspect that the scratches on lenses and worn hinges have deemed them recyclable.
And then my new 8x32 ELs arrived. And let me tell you that was a painful two weeks. I have a back up pair of bins--which are not bad. They are a great mid price binoculars but once you've gotten used to using a pair like this on the regular, it's hard to go back. They arrived just in time for me to go to an event with the Lorain County Bird Club in Ohio.
I got to take the on a trial run on a cloudy and misty day which is where you can really see the difference between mid-price binoculars and Swarovskis. Holy cow. My old ELs were fantastic...but the new edge to edge clarity and they way these worked with my glasses was stunning. This new pair fits in my hands perfectly. I need to dirty her up a little bit, give her that fantastic field-worn look, but I think we'll get along fine. In the meantime I'll enjoy that new binocular smell and christen her with some fantastic winter specialties. Maybe in January I'll take her on her first trip to Sax Zim Bog.
For those who are into the whole unboxing trend, Non Birding Bill made an unboxing video of the ELs.
I'm always excited when I travel but I hadn't had quite the belly doing flip flops feeling for getting to a location since my first trip out of the country to Guatemala. Cuba is something I knew covered only in history classes and locations in movies like the Godfather Part 2. Here I was boarding the plane. I laughed when I saw I had one of those strange window seats that didn't have a window...Why, airlines, why? Well, at least it wasn't the middle seat and I could see enough from the window of the person in front of me. I flew over Cuba when I went to Honduras so it's not like I haven't seen it from the plane and the flight is short.
As we wrapped up a 45 minute flight, I could the island from the window ahead of me. And then the captain got on the speaker and told us that there was a grass fire at the Havana airport, no one was allowed to land and the air traffic control tower was being evacuated. So we headed back to Miami and landed. I frantically started making phone calls to Holbrook so they could let the Cuba contacts know we went back. They assured me that if the fire is small, chances are good they'd send us back before they day was done. The captain kept us on the plane and an hour later we were given the go ahead to head for Cuba again, the fires were out. We made the short hop and our flight mates cheered as we landed in Havana among charred grasses.
Baggage claim was pandemonium because of all the delayed flights landing at once. But we finally made it to our cultural guide who got us to our hotel and recommended some local restaurants that we could safely walk to from the hotel in Old Havana. Hunger outweighed fatigue and well, I was too excited to sleep. Our group headed out in the dark and music filled streets in search of food and a beer or two. We found a restaurant willing to let in some weary travlers on a late night.
The next morning, our cultural guide Claudia took us on a walking tour of Old Havana as well as a city park where we were meant to look at the gardens and butterfly house...but it was the first day for new birds for us so were more drawn to the bird around us. The trees were full of white-eyed vireos which we could easily hear but not see. But it wasn't long until we got our first regional specialties.
After we got some birding out of our system we were ready to pay more attention to the culture. Claudia took around the various squares and historical sites. After she gave us the tour and left us for a few hours to relax in our rooms, she encouraged us to explore on our own as Havana, particularly Old Havana is very safe. I took her up on that offer when I went out to get a postcard for Non Birding Bill. His only request for a souvenir from this trip wasn't cigars, it was to receive mail from Cuba. Which interestingly enough took about three months to arrive from home. I was in Cuba in April and then went to Hungary in June. NBB received the Hungary postcard well before he received the Cuba one.
As I walked Old Havana alone, far more vendors of cigars, "art" and internet access cards approached me than they did when we were with Claudia. The streets in Havana are very active with living statues, so much music, and dancing you can't help but feel like you have your own personal music soundtrack where ever you go. If you pause for music and take any photos or videos, handlers for the performers will make a bee line for you to drop in some cash. The energy of the city reminds me quite a bit of New Orleans, you can see why artists and writers are drawn to Havana, the creative vibe in the air is as thick as the aroma of cigars.
Above is a very brief video I took for Flat Michelle, my friend I take on some of my travels. The stilt dancers are very well know in Havana--we saw them featured on many postcards around this island. But tow things to note in the above video: 1. the big pink building in the background is our hotel and 2. note the lady in blue. She saw me filming the dancers and was coming by to collect some money.
I have more photos of Havana over on Flickr if you are interested.
So you found a way to get to Cuba to do some birding! Awesome! Here are some things I learned that you might find helpful. In April I had the opportunity to visit Cuba and this article is about my general impressions. I'll get into more detail for specific areas in future posts. My trip was through Holbrook Travel and it was one of the best trips I ever took.
We're kind of in a golden age of birding travel as far as locations, amenities and type of birding tour you can take. I don't mind the occasional "death march" for a particular bird, but I do not like ten days of death marches. I like to return home from an adventure relaxed, refreshed with a drive full of photos and notebook full of story ideas. I no longer enjoy returning home feeling like I need a vacation from my vacation. When I told Holbrook that I wanted to see lovely Cuba birds, experience the culture and history and maybe spend some time on the beach for a nap--they were the first tour company to give me exactly what I asked for, it was amazing.
But here are some things to note about Cuba:
You will not be able to use a credit card or debit card with a bank based in the United States. So, US citizens need to go with all the cash they anticipate needing the entire trip--and you will be tipping a lot. Tourists will use the Cuban Convertible Peso aka CUC (the note on the top in the above photo) and locals will use the Cuban Peso ( the note on the bottom in the above photo). CUCs are worth a lot more than Cuban Pesos. Stores will often have two prices for an item to reflect this. When paying cash in a store and receiving change, keep in mind that some might try to give you the change in Cuban Pesos--therefore taking way more of your money than intended.
When I went to my bank to get cash to take to Cuba, they were full of useful information. When you exchange money in Cuba, you are charged 3% fee. However, if you exchange US currency you will be charged an additional 10% penalty. So if you go down with $1000 US dollars, you will lose $130 at least in the exchange. My bank was well versed and noted at the time that they advised clients to exchange US currency for Canadian money or Euros and then to exchange that in Cuba to avoid the 10% penalty.. When I went in April 2017 the exchange rate with Euros was almost even with the US dollar and I had some Euros leftover some trips to Europe this year. When I exchanged my Euros in Havana, I was charged the 3% fee. When I exchanged my Euros in smaller towns like Playa Larga, I was given an even exchange of Euros to Cuban Convertible Pesos. I've had some people tell me that they were still charged the 13% percent when they exchanged Euros because they had a US passport (which you have to show when you exchange money). I can only report my personal experience and that did not happen to me.
Internet Will Be difficult.
I think by now you can get cellular service in Cuba via Verizon and Sprint, but it's not great. Generally, I use wifi when travel and if I need to make a call use Skype or WhatsApp. When I was Cuba, the country had only had the Internet for five years. There is no such thing as private wifi. You cannot tuck yourself into your room at the end of the day to upload photos to social media and text with friends. The only way to use the Internet is to get a 60 minute access card that will let you log in at places like hotel lobbies and restaurants. You find the connection and use the id numbers to log in. You must be vigilant about logging in or logging out. I found that even just putting my phone in airplane mode didn't necessarily log me out and I'd lose unused minutes. Even with the cards the wifi is slow unless you're at one of the huge all inclusive resorts.
The cards can be purchased at hotels, convenience stores or from random guys on the street in Havana. They run anywhere from 1 - 3 CUCs. If you go to a store or hotel, they are only allowed to sell you 3 cards at a time so you can't go in and buy a bunch for your group or for yourself.
You'll Need More Than One Guide.
There's no one perfect bird book for Cuba. My favorite of the three is Endemic Birds of Cuba by Nils Navarro--we even got to meet him as part of our trip. It's useful discussing habitat as well as having fantastic illustrations and good photos. He even has a checklist of the endemics on the cover and he encourages you to put you name on it because your trip helps contribute to the understanding and knowledge of the birds of Cuba. However, this book is mostly for the birds you can only see in Cuba. It doesn't cover all of the birds you can see in Cuba. The Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba covers all of them but is problematic both with its illustrations and also by not numbering the pages of the illustrated plates--grrrrr. I hear that it's being redone, but I don't know when that's happening. Birds of the West Indies has ok illustrations but you do need to pay attention to the maps to make sure your bird is one that is expected in Cuba.
Toilet Seats Are Not A Thing, But Tipping Is.
I'm always fascinated by the different restroom differences you find when you travel--like sometimes it's just a hole in the floor. Cuba has toilets, but frequently the public ones did not have toilet seats. Most public restrooms have someone on hand to give you some toilet paper before you enter. Essentially, if you need to go, you need to tip a few coins. If it's an emergency and you're out of cash they won't prevent you from going in.
You Can't Visit National Parks On Your Own
In the US you can purchase your park pass and go birding on your own. In Cuba, you have to get a state guide to take you in to the parks. It was interesting watching our main guide Hiram navigating this. Our groups was in an outdoor bar and someone overheard we were birders going in to Zapata Swamp. They were also birders and going on their own and hoped our guide would give them tips. All Hiram would give them were the names and numbers of other guides available to take them in. The other birders got frustrated and Hiram told me later that the guides are a must.
Another thing to keep in mind when birding in Cuba is that the two semesters of high school Spanish that you took ten or twenty years ago is not going to cut it. Bone up on your Spanish skills before you go or hire a local cultural guide (which is what we did) to help with translations. Hiram spoke English but some of the park guides we were required to use did not speak it at all.
Also, since the guides are living for your tips, some of them haven't learned the most ethical birding behaviors. They've learned that if they get people the bird, they get a better tip. I'll write more about that in future posts.
The Food Is Not Spicy.
I was warned the food will be quite bland in Cuba. I found it to be quite flavorful. I think what people were trying to warn me about is that even though this is a Latin country, the food isn't super spicy like what you'd find in Guatemala or Mexico. Rice and beans come with everything and roast pork was the most common meat, but seafood was available and was quite fresh and delicious. If you have any kind of allergy or sensitivity to foods, you do need to be vigilant and repeat it again and again. I have a pineapple sensitivity (fortunately not life threatening) and there were a few times that even though I'd mentioned I couldn't eat it, it would find its way into a beverage or sauce.
Condiments are always fun for me to discover in different countries. I'm always fascinated by what is offered and especially what different communities like to spread on their bread. Of course no one can top my true love of Austria where putting "lard spread" on your bread is a thing, but many places still have fun and unique offerings. In Cuba, we were offered bread with a dish full of a very light colored spread. I thought it was some kind of butter. It was not. So imagine taking a bite of your bread and expecting butter only to get mayonnaise instead. It wasn't my thing. I need some meat or cheese to mingle with the mayo. Others in my group were delighted by it.
You Will See Illegally Caged Birds Everywhere.
I'm going to write more about this later, but you will see a lot of illegal birds in cages. I started keeping a tally of all the indigo and painted buntings I saw in cages. I saw a bunting in a cage every single day I was in Cuba. There's a lot more going on here than people who simply want to profit from wildlife and it truly deserves it's own article. If this is something that angers you, be prepared for it.
The Most Common Bird I Saw...
I just realized that the only bird picture in this post was a bunting in a cage and I needed to add one of the many cool wild birds we saw. Red-legged thrushes are common and all over the friggen place.
What Can You Bring As Gifts?
When we asked about things we could bring to Cuba as gifts we were told anything sports related--especially jerseys or ball caps, nylons, thumb drives, coloring books and crayons.
The coloring books and crayons were met with a cool response. The thumb drives and sport caps were VERY welcome. The nylons...well, I wouldn't take garden variety panty hose. What Cuban women want are the sorts of things you'd purchase from Leg Avenue. I didn't want to be the creeper taking secret photos of women so I don't have photos to back this up, but what struck me was that the women in Cuba tend to flaunt what they have. The airport security were all gorgeous women in their twenties wearing fishnets and heels as well as form fitting shirts and skirts...kind of like something you'd find searching for "female security guard costume" on Amazon. At one of the banks where I exchanged money, the female manager came out who looked to be in her fifties and she also had the fishnets, short skirt, blouse as well as a corset over it. I was asked by Holbrook if our female cultural guide had been dressed appropriately because some tours had complained the women were dressed immodestly. I was a little irritated by this. Here's the thing--everyone dresses that way in Cuba and people from the US are coming to visit. I don't think the women of Cuba should dress for my comfort, they should dress for their own and we should deal with it.
When I was in Cayo Coco, I had hotel staff ask me outright for things I might be leaving behind. I was returning my beach towels and the towel girl asked me for any toiletries, dresses, skirts or shoes I might have, "Please, pretty lady, do not leave them in the room for the maids. If you, kind lady, could bring them to me here before 6pm, I will give them to my family." I felt like my Keens water shoes, convertible pants and spf 50 sunscreen would be a big disappointment to her.
When it was raining, no one had rain coats. Our cultural guide said that rain coats don't make it to Cuba...I may have left mine behind.
A couple of the guys in our group wandered a small town after a day of birding and met the local librarian who was happy to show the books he had collected from people around the world. And based on that, I would suggest finding Spanish translations of your favorite book and bring those down.
Another welcome item would be ibuprofen. Sure, there's socialized medicine in Cuba but we learned from many women that you need a prescription for it and pharmacies frequently run out. Ladies, many of us know how important that sort of thing is throughout the year. If you can spare your travel bottle at the end of the trip, it's appreciated.
If you can find a way to get to Cuba--do it. I would advise not cutting corners or trying to sneak in around the current US restrictions. It's a beautiful country and the people are very warm. I felt fairly safe walking the streets of Havana on my own. And if you're looking for a good company to travel with, I highly recommend Holbrook.