Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sharp Shinned Hawks

This year we have a pair of sharp-shinned hawks in the pastures.  I can hear their distinctive calls most of the day, and often get to see them flying.  They do not seem terribly shy and will sit on a fence post and let me, and Maisey, get fairly close.  They love irrigation day and bathe in the back of the pasture in a dip in the grass.  I don't always have my camera when I wish I did, but here are a few photos of them I've managed to get so far.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Indian Bats

In Gujarat, India, near the Gir Forest, I was lucky enough to see a tree absolutely full of fruit bats.  The bats roost during the day, but many are calling to one another, and some are flying at any given point.  I tried to get some photos, though it was a very bright, hot day.  There were so many bats, I was able to get some nice face shots.


Indonesian Bats & Flying Foxes in Madagascar

Recently I was thinking about all the bats I have seen around the world.  I checked my blog and was surprised to see I only had one photo of bats on it!  So I decided I'd look through and try to add some more.  Last year in Indonesia, near Pangkalan Bun, we toured a really interesting cave, which was home to a giant spider...and also some bats and crickets.  I managed to get a few photos of a couple of the bats.


One of the coolest bat sightings I've ever had was in Madagascar, off the Masoala Peninsula, between the island of Nosy Mangabe and Maroansetra.  There I saw the most impressive bats I've ever seen, with five foot wing spans.  They were called "flying foxes" and there was a circular island (uninhabited) we passed where a swirl of bats flew overhead.  I remember seeing the bats from the boat, at a bit of a distance, and marveling at how cool they were.  I see it so clearly in my mind, I was sure I had photos.  When I went back through my Madagascar pictures though, there were none...and I realized why. 

That particular boat trip was VERY rough.  I had been camping on Nosy Mangabe, hoping to see the Aye Aye, for a few days.  There was no radio or other communication on the island and the boat to pick me up was over five hours late.  When it came, the boat operator explained that the seas had been too rough to come earlier.  Only myself and one older British gentleman were on the boat, and as we proceeded to Maroansetra I quickly understood that the sea was in fact STILL quite rough.  We got blasted with wave after wave, all our luggage was soaked, and we were slammed up and down as we sat huddled against the part of the boat where the steering wheel was located.  I have two great memories of that voyage:  seeing super cool, huge bats, and the impact of a big wave.  The big wave was significant because the other passenger and I hadn't spoken, me being an introvert and him being British, we exchanged names and nothing more.  When the big wave hit, I happened to glance sideways and see the saltwater impact his face, course over his gray hair, and knock his glasses off, and as it receded he said, ever so calmly, "I say! It's a bit rough, eh?" which I found, at the time, hilarious.  Nicely understated, and ever so funny.  It was the only dialog of the voyage.

Having thought back on the trip I know why I didn't photograph the bats: no way I had my camera out in that deluge of waves.  It was sealed up in a ziploc bag.  Thus, no super cool flying fox photos after all. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

S. Georgia & Antarctica

My big wildlife trip of 2015 will be to South Georgia Island and Antarctica.  Antarctica has been on my bucket list for 10 years or more.  Friends of mine who have visited have told me the best place to see wildlife is on S. Georgia Island, so that will be the focal point of our trip.  Here is a cool video of some of the wildlife sights of S. Georgia:

The same person, Markus Eichenberger, made a lovely video of Antarctica as well, and I believe traveled with the same company I am going with.

ANTARCTICA from Markus Eichenberger Photography on Vimeo.

Some tips for researching a trip to Antarctica:

1.  Travel to Antarctica is expensive.  There are many reasons for this - but the reality is, it is probably the most expensive wildlife trip you can take.  That said, it's tripled in price in the 10 years I've been watching it and it is unlikely to be cheaper!  So go if there is any way you can, before it gets even MORE expensive.  Demand is strong, with the Chinese starting to travel there more as well, believe it or not!  If you want to try and find a "discount" fare, like the Facebook pages of travel companies you target and watch for "last minute" discounts of up to 50% off on cabins that did not sell out.  (Most of these offers seem to start in October).  If you have the flexibility to travel on short notice, don't care much about what kind of cabin you get, are flexible on the ship and size of the boat, and can arrange flights on short notice, you will definately save money - but it will just depend on what is available and you won't know far in advance. 

2.  Many companies resell the same trips.  Once you get into researching trips, you will see that many companies are reselling the exact same trip on the same ship, same itinerary, for different costs.  What I recommend is making a spreadsheet showing the trips you are interested in - note the dates, places visited, price, number of days, ships, and number of passenger.  Then you will quickly see after some research that the very same trip can vary in price as much as $5,000.

3.  Plan a year in advance.  For best selection, you need to book a year in advance.  Trips do sell out that far out!  Not all, but many.  So do your research and DO NOT wait to book unless you are really flexible and have to wait for a bargain to make the trip feasible at all.  Obviously if you book a year in advance, you might want to consider "Cancel For Any Reason" option on your trip insurance, which means you need to buy the policy within 7-14 days of you initial deposit.

4.  Choosing A Responsible Company.  I recommend traveling only with a company that is a member of IAATO, International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.  A list of members is available here.  You want a company that is environmentally responsible - you can read up on IAATO on their website.  Companies vary widely in their practices so take time to research the company well.  When you are spending this kind of money, you need to know: does the company place comfort first, or maximum wildlife viewing?  Are their guides respected in their fields, with something to offer you about the flora and fauna you will encounter?  Or are they just people managing getting you on and off the ship?  Typically you can narrow the field readily to 3 to 5 "top" companies you think offer the types of trips you want.  Then make contact inquiries, see what you like/don't like.  Always ask for a reference from someone from a past trip so you can ask them about their experience with the company.  Do not rely on testimonials or anonymous website ratings!  Interview past travelers!  In doing so you will also learn useful things you may not have thought of about what to look for.

5.  There Are Limited Ships: Pick a Size.  You want an ice-breaking ship.  There are some sailboats that travel to Antarctica - but this means the ship will be tossed about a lot in waves and subject to getting stuck in the ice.  There are a lot of risks with small ships - research these carefully.  About the smallest tourist ship that isn't sailing is around 50 passengers.  Many of these are retired Russian research vessels.  You will find a few ships with 50 passengers, some with 100, some with 125, 150, then 200.  Be aware there are limits on how many people can go on land at once. So in a ship of 200, even though you may be docked somewhere for awhile, you may actually have very little time on land since you have to take turns going ashore.  I ended up going with the smallest ship I felt was safe, a 50 passenger boat, as I did not want to sail.  Once you start researching, you will see there are only so many ships - so for example you can search by ship name, like the Oretelius, and see what itineraries are offered on that ship.  You may find some offered you can't find easily another way. While some ships are owned by a company that uses them exclusively, many are rented out to various companies over the course of the season.

6.  Picking an Itinerary.  Most people who visited Antarctica told me they underestimated the time at sea and the time on land was very, very limited.  There are "short" week long cruises to Antarctica - you will have little time off the boat on these, but research so you know.  There are longer cruises that hit various islands like the Falklands, the Sandwich Islands, S. Georgia, etc.  The problem is, there is about a 4 hour window a ship can dock at these islands and weather is not always permitting so you may or may not stop - if you do you won't be there long - and there is a ton of time at sea between places.  I was originally looking most strongly at 19-22 day trips to try and pack in as many islands as possible.  After further research, we selected an in-depth trip to S. Georgia and a longer trip to Antarctica, so we have ample time for activities on both.  Hiking, diving, camping, etc,. are options on longer trips which are often unavailable with shorter stops for logistical reasons.  Most everyone I interviewed said do not skip S. Georgia!  I really wanted to see Elephant Island.  Oh well.

7.  Picking a Time to Go.  November through February is essentially the available time when it is "summer" and the ice is melted, with a slight overland into October and March.  Each month offers a little bit different wildlife options.  Supposedly sealife/marine mannals are best in February while penguin chicks are best to see in December.  Wildlife on S. Georgia is supposed to peak in November.  You can research seasons in Antarctica and read up on what you can expect for each month in terms of ice, weather, marine life, penguin life, size of colonies, breeding and mating seasons, etc.

8. Activities.  Research to see what activities will be available.  For example, I really wanted to camp in Antarctica, but many itineraries didn't offer than option.  If you want to hike the Shackleton Trek across S. Georgia, very few companies offer that.  A few companies offer polar diving.  There are trips which offer special photography workshops.  If you have a particular interest, be sure to know whether it is an option on the itineraries you are looking at.  Kayaking is offered on some trips.  Some itineraries include activities and some charge extra and have limited space available so if you want to do activities, research the additional cost and book early.

9.  Insurance.  You will need a policy with great medical evacuation coverage if you are traveling in this part of the world.  Some companies require it, and it does add to the trip cost so don't forget to research insurance costs.  If you book a year in advance, your flights may not be available yet.  Talk with the insurer about this.  I was able to add my flights later, and as they were less expensive than I estimated, the insurance company sent me a refund of part of my premium.  They would have been happy to offer more coverage for an additional fee if it had worked out the other way.

I checked out guidebooks on Antarctica from my local library, read online extesnively, and interviewed about 12 people who had been to Antarctica before making a final selection.  I also had conversations or email exchanges with my top 6 companies for additional information, and interviewed past clients before booking the companies I settled on.  In the end we chose Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris for S. Georgia and Oceanwide for Antarctica, as these trips are offered back to back on the same ship, though with different companies.  This way we will have extensive time in each location and comparatively little time at sea as opposed to an itinerary which attempts to explore more islands - and we won't even have to change cabins.

We will be going in fall of 2015, so I will of course post pictures and report on how reality matched up with research.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Four 2015 Hens

Our last hens were killed in February of 2104, likely by a raccoon, possibly fox.  The last three died the same afternoon - one was carried off and two were in the pasture, decapitated.  I really hate when predators kill them and don't eat them.  I can accept that raccoons, hawks and fox need a meal - I don't begrudge them one, though I love my chickens and hate to lose them.  But killing and not eating them is just a waste of a life.

I didn't rush to get new chickens because I was tired of losing them, and I wanted the predators to stop coming looking for them daily.  Also, I had some long trips planned, and I wasn't ready to raise chicks again as that is time intensive.  I also didn't want to support breeding, but rather adopt some hens in need who would otherwise have a grim fate, or rescue some from a bad situation.  Nothing came along for some time.

Finally this month I adopted four hens, two of which are Wellsummers (reddish), one supposedly Araucana (maybe a mix? She isn't like my past Araucanas) and one black sex link.  They have been settling into their new quarters for a week now, with no pecking or squabbling even though they didn't previously live together.

 They have a chain link dog run for their run, which is about 20' by 5' with a concrete foundation so no predators can dig in.  It is covered in chicken wire so it is completely enclosed.  It has a tree in the corner (just outside the pen) for shade, a coop, and a large nest box area that actually tucks into an adjacent shed where their feed is stored.  They have a heated water bowl and there's a heat lamp for the coop when really needed.  There are a number of stumps that they can jump on to see things from various heights (and the stumps are overturned regularly so they have a bug eating festival).  This month I added a few swings and also mounted some sticks in various locations so that they have a number of perches.
Maisey watches the new arrivals from outside the coop.  One of the swings is shown here. 

Although I do plan to let them free range after they settle in, I have a very long fenced area (a few) with trees that are fenced off from the horses and goats.  These areas will be safer as the fox can't get to the chickens in those long runs areas unless he digs under, so I may either let them range only there for a bit, or only when I am outside with Maisey to guard them.

I would love to have more than 4, I really enjoy their personalities.  But 4 is about all we can keep up with egg-wise, and the space is better suited to 4 than more.  Usually I have them named by now, but I am still getting to know them, and I haven't settled on anything yet.  Here's hoping these ladies last a long time and have a very happy life here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hawiian Monk Seal

The Hawaiian monk seal is the only seal endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, and is endangered, with only about 1,100 thought to be left.  They spend most of their lives in the water, but sometimes come out to rest for awhile on the beach.

While visiting Kauai I was pleased to see that the protection of these seals was taken very seriously.  When a seal was on the beach, a sign was placed noting that the seals are endangered and asking people to stay back.  On beaches with lifeguards, much of the lifeguard's effort was devoted to yelling at people to back off or leave the seal alone.

Hawaiian Nene

These endangered geese are endemic to Hawaii, though thought to be descended from Canada geese.  They are the world's rarest geese.  There are an estimated 2,500 left, found only on the islands of Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawai'i.  This female was photographed on Kauai in December 2014.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Komodo Dragons

I didn't want to go to Indonesia and not see Komodo Dragons.  With only 4,000 to 5,000 komodos left in the world, living on about 4 islands in Indonesia, this is a vulnerable species.  Seeing Komodo Dragons in the zoo is depressing - a huge lizard, living alone, typically in a fairly sterile cage - once in awhile devouring a dead rabbit or some other zookeeper offering.  I wanted to see them where they belong, in the wild, living their lives on their own terms.

There are two great places to see these animals - Komodo Island and Rinca Island.  I arranged a trip with Adventure Indonesia which  involved chartering a small boat to go to these islands.  We were met at the small, new airport in Labuan Bajo and taken to a very small but comfortable boat.  Heading towards Rinca, the islands we passed looked like Dr. Suess drawings, with a few stark trees on top, like something out of The Lorax.  Although much of Indonesia is tropical, wet, lush and green, Rinca and Komodo are hot and dry.

The islands are both part of Komodo National Park.  We went to Rinca first, which personally I recommend over Komodo if you can only visit one.  As a few rangers live on each island, some of the dragons hang out near the kitchen.  Although it was nice to see these up close, they were sort of pseudo-wild - they aren't living in captivity, but they are living around humans - and even though they aren't fed, that isn't the way I wanted to see them.  It is, however, pretty much a guarantee you will see them if you visit the island.  Seeing any on the rest of the island is a matter of luck.

Close up, I noted their huge claws.

Also, I noticed they get ticks - which is kind of interesting - they look almost like swollen scales.

 Like snakes, they shed their skins periodically.

On Rinca, we chose a medium length walk, and were lucky enough to encounter a wild Komodo Dragon (female) on the path.  After a bit she got up, yawned, and ambled off into the bushes.  It was a perfect sighting.


On Rinca we also saw buffalo, deer, boar, and a variety of birds.  All in all, it is a nice island and it was a nice hike - about 2 hours.  It was hot, but not unbearable.

Komodo Island is more developed, and offered a less pleasant walk.  We did, however, find a wild dragon on the medium hike there too.

We saw smaller wild dragons as well.  For the first two years of their lives they live in trees, to avoid being eaten by other dragons.  I was really hoping we'd see one in the trees, but - wisely - they were hiding and didn't feel like coming out for a tourist.

At the end of the two hour hike on Komodo, a large male dragon was hanging out by the kitchen, but decided to wander down to the beach.  Seeing the komodo trails on the beach is interesting, like a cross between a snake and a lizard trail - the tail dragging, the claws askew.

I remember the Komodo Dragon section of the wonderful book "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams, where he discusses the spectacle that used to take place on Komodo.  The rangers would take a goat, kill it, and hang it for the dragons as bait.  Tourists would come to see the dragons eat it. Of course, feeding wild animals, baiting them, etc. was a terrible idea - and is supposedly done away with now.  I went to the site where it used to take place - thought about the horror of that spectacle, and Adams' great description of it.  Sadly, my guide told me it does still happen - only now just for important guests like government officials, to guarantee they can see a dragon.  Sigh.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Large Male Orangutans

After Raja Ampat, we embarked on a trip with Adventure Indonesia to see orangutans and Komodo dragons.  We flew to Pangkalan Bun, a small airport near Kumai, where we had chartered a river boat which went up a river and stopped at three orangutan sanctuaries, including Camp Leakey.

The boat was actually AWESOME.  Very comfortable, with the upper level for us, and three staff on the lower level.  The river cruising was relaxing and we were able to see proboscis  monkeys, langurs, birds, and even a wild (more likely released from one of the centers) orangutan now and then along the banks. (Photos in future posts).  This is a view of similar boats, from the back, tying up to one of the docs near one of the "research"/rehabilitation camps.

The boat, along with others, dock at the camp docks around feeding times, when rangers put out some food on platforms.  Each of the three centers you can stop at along the river has a set feeding time and of course, near that time, there are plenty of tourist boats gathered.  Released and rehabilitated orangutans can come and get supplemental food at these feeding times if they wish.  One of the interesting things is that as you walk towards the feeding platforms, it is not unusual to have an orangutan or two come up behind you.  If you wait patiently, they often pass you, coming very close indeed.

The three centers we visited this trip were in Central Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo, in Tanjung Puting National Park. I had targeted Camp Leakey to visit as I had read about the work of Birute Galdikas, who studied under Louis Leakey as did Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey.  Each woman of course went on to do great work with the apes they grew to love, with Diane Fossey of course meeting a tragic end.  Birute we perhaps hear the least about, but she has started OFI, Orangutan Foundation International, and was featured in an Animal Planet show called Orangutan Island, which documented how orphaned orangs are educated and released, hopefully learning to fend for themselves.

Seeing orangutans in these rehab centres has a lot of pros and cons, and is a complex issue, and that is part of why I haven't had the energy - emotionally or otherwise - to tackle it in blog posts yet, even though we have been back a few months now.  There will be many more posts to come on this.

For now, here are a few photos of orangutans I had a few moments alone with - no other tourists, as they were on the path behind us.  The orangutans kept a safe distance from us, and us from them, but would come fairly close and clearly were on their way to or from the feeding platform.


Although it is wonderful that they are not in cages or captive, it is also disturbing that such large males are still coming in for supplemental food.  And, of course, the way tourists behave around these animals was mostly depressing.  I found seeing the rehab centers in Indonesian Borneo a bit worse than in Malyasian Borneo, which will be the subject of future posts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


I really wanted to see seahorses in Raja Ampat, and I imagined them as I'd seen them in the aquariums - cute, clinging to plants, looking adorable.  This was not to be.  It turns out that the pygmy seahorses, the teeny ones, are deeper than a snorkeler can see - and so small most divers have a very hard time seeing them too.  They have great camo.  What you can see, however, is the larger "common seahorse" and we were told to look for these in "just a few inches of water."

Sure enough, one of our guides found one  - and another nearby - very near the beach in the sandy area where just a few inches of water covered them.  When he said 'Seahorse" I swam over really fast thinking I might miss it.  Then I saw this:

"Ummm," I asked him, "Is it dead??"  "No, it's fine.  That's just how they are." He replied.  Oh.  It looked very sad and depressed and totally lethargic.  It just sort of floated in the waves not moving on its own.  Here are a few views from right over the top of this male:

The second one was brighter in color, but not any more active or less sad looking.

"Less like a horse and more like Eeyore" my clever husband remarked.  Absolutely true.  I ended up feeling bad for the poor things.  We saw one other seahorse on another day - same level of lethargy and melancholy.  I was really glad I saw them, but this is an instance where the reality of wildlife in the wild differed sharply from expectation.