7 November 2010

Texas - April 2010

16/04/2010

After months of planning and logistics, today I depart on a two part journey to Texas, USA and Costa Rica. Or not as nature has conspired against me in the most lurid way. Everything started to unravel on Wednesday morning with the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano. Cancellation of flights started yesterday followed by the inevitable air space closures. Continental’s website finally listed the flight as cancelled late evening yesterday. Apparently you get re-booked onto the next available flight, with or without your knowledge and consent. Realizing that little was likely to change by Monday, I called to reschedule for next week Friday. The whole debacle puts me off securing accommodation or anything else in advance - everything is non-refundable to move.


So, I could simply go to work today and continue as normal until next Friday. We’re in theatre today and my mind is simply not up for it. Grab the golf clubs and head for the nearest course with the aim of venting my frustrations with all and sundry on the little white ball. Ever since arriving, there has been this nagging feeling of ‘something is missing’, but being so preoccupied with whacking the golf ball it take a full 9 holes for me to realize what. Richmond Park sits directly under the Heathrow flight path and there is a consistent but dull scream of engines overhead throughout the day. Only today there isn’t, and having just started to enjoy my golf - I am reminded why I am standing on Richmond Park Golf Course when I should be 3 hours over the Atlantic already. The next shot strikes the ball noticeably harder. Ends up being a good day on the golf course, must remember to play ‘angry’ more often.
It takes the rest of Friday afternoon to amend my Virgin rental car booking. Most of it on the phone to some chap in an Indian call centre. To rebook dates is going to cost another £20. ‘Would I like to pay over the phone now?’, what choice do I have before reading out my details. Part of me is resigned to the fact that a clone of my card has already been made before the payment is even processed.Spend the rest of the week at work with a distinct air of ‘I shouldn’t be here right now, so stop asking me questions.’ Nor am I certain that this damn volcano is going to alter much over the next week either. Fortunately the Germans and Swedes put a few scientists on their carriers and prove that you do not in fact fall out of the sky after a little ash exposure. Develop a greater degree of respect for Willie Walsh after he puts himself on a BA flight just to ram the point home. Eventually the Health and Safety brigade are satisfied with their 15 mins of fame and are quietly told to eff off so that we can ‘Carry on Flying’. It really was that bad, I had visions of Sid James in a pilots outfit...

23/04/2010


This time it is for real, I have monitored my actual plane’s journey via the handy app. on Continental’s website. Somewhere in the Website design office there sits an anorak like me. Quite some journey my plane has been on actually, Houston, LAX, Narita, somewhere else, Tel Aviv and then Heathrow before completing it’s circumvention of the world back to Houston.
Flight is as quiet as it can be for a Friday morning. Quite uneventful until landing that is. The Captains remit was surely to test the landing gear on this leg. Eventful landing were to become the hallmark or Continental’s Pilots, from heavy and hard to loose and fast. For the first time since I started flying I bothered to pay attention to the location of the emergency exits.

On terra firma, and rather excited to have made it to Texas. Of all the States in America, this was the one I had longed to visit. I couldn’t think of a good reason why this was so, it just was.
Cleared security very quickly by American standards and off to pick up my rental. A fancy black Toyota Prius. Driving in the US has always been easy for some reason, wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, no gears and yet it all seems to make sense. Struggle for weeks on my return to the UK to drive on the correct side of the road.Being the afternoon, I figured it best to travel to my hotel for the night in the Texas/ Louisiana border town of Beaumont. It’s rough, but cheap and it had vacancies. This being the high season for bird watching in the area, the nearest town of Winnie was completely full. Probably had been for years. Large electrical storm had recently cleared off giving the area a clean, fresh smell. Accommodation was typical a rather typical motel, rooms are clean and more than adequate for it’s purpose. The neighbours were a little redneck but pleasant enough. They even took an interest in where I was from - which has been a noticeable disinclination of most Americans in other states I have visitedAfter settling in, I ventured outdoors for some form of dinner. So far I had made do with 2 bags of Doritos. As it happens, sit down restaurants are very thin on the ground and they are certainly closed by 21:00. Another bag of crisps.

24/04/2010


Up at 04:00 for the 40 mile drive to High Island. I reach the town as dawn is thinking about clearing up. First stop today will be at Boy Scout Woods. There are so few trees and water for migrating birds to aim for that this location is hardwired into thousands of birds brains as a stop over after flying the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, it is so predictable that a wooden grandstand has been built. You can sit on you’re arse all day long and simply wait for the birds to come to you. A small walk around the reserve to locate some of the many Warblers before moving on. Midday there is a walk around the mud flats of the Bolivar peninsula. The drive is scenic, the Gulf of Mexico is but a few metres from the road in places. Hundred of double and triple story wooden home are built in the sand between the beach and road. You start to wonder what part of wooden home, Gulf of Mexico, lack of elevation and hurricanes these ejits have yet to appreciate.

Either way, the midday sun does nothing to the many hundreds of waders on offer. Cleanup the major species I am after. 
Late afternoon is spent roaming Smith Oaks. The quantity of birders means nothing is missed, not even a major national rarity (Fork-tailed Flycatcher). As darkness descends it is time for the return trip to Beaumont. Still haven’t had any proper food and my prospects are not good. It is starting to dawn on me that thoughts of giant Texan steaks are nothing but a mirage. I order a pizza online direct to my room. Another early morning to look forward to.

25/04/2010


Arise at sparrows fart again. Today is a 50 mile drive to Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. I have arranged to join an official walk through the barely dry grasslands in search of the Yellow Rail. Approximately 40 people end up on the walk. We drag a line of plastic milk bottles filled with stones through the grass lands hoping to flush a rail into flight. We succeed on two occasions. Great views of this rare skulking bird. Our guide David Sarkozi has been here for years and his experience and knowledge were very impressive. See Contact Details below.
Having succeeded with the rail, it was time for a little birding on the Gulf of Mexico itself.

Although there was little to see and I called it quite. The heat was getting oppressive and I had the small part of a 360 mile drive to get through yet.
Drove along very scenic country roads. Farm and big Texan hats for mail boxes. This was more like it. Houston must be one of the best city views I have yet had from a car. Certainly entering Houston via Interstate 10 gives you a panoramic entrance. On leaving Houston, the roads became straighter and less populated. Traffic picked up again towards San Antonio but soon died off. In fact as I traveled north west of San Antonio everything seemed to get drier and more desolate as I made my way onto the Edwards Plateau.

The vegetation noticeable changed to a dry brown colour interspersed with snakes of vivid green trailing various rivers. With darkness due in a few hours, I popped into the nearest Super Store (even in small towns these things are huge!). I intended on camping two nights in the Lost Maples State Park so needed a few basic commodities. After much consideration, it looked like Doritos on white bread rolls for dinner and breakfast again. 
Got terribly lost, bloody TomTom can’t find a thing it seems. Resorted to standard map reading (at least the maps I had saved on the Mac). Eventually arrived with perhaps an hour of light left, but after the main office had closed. The US operates this wonderful honesty system whereby you fill in an arrivals form, put in the appropriate amount of cash and post the envelope into the main office. Although I did struggle with the various fees and ended up overpaying - I only knew this as I was given change the next day! Lost Maples is a stunning mountainous area with various dappled shades of colour.

With the sun descending, the deep blue and purples further enhanced the areas remote feel. Indeed for the first time that I could remember, there was no mobile signal - anywhere. This was as isolated as things got. My one man tent went up and I settled in for an evening of crisps on bread, a cup of stale coffee and some preparation for tomorrows targets - Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.
It is a rare thing for me not to exhaustively plan any part of my trip, but to neglect the aspect of height, clear skies and and the resulting near zero temperatures was a big oversight. Froze my proverbial balls off and waking intermittently in an attempt to find some more things to cover myself with.

26/04/2010


There is no way I am going through another night of that, so I need to connect with my target species today or not at all. Even my flask has suffered, the stale instant from yesterday is now tepid. Am now rudely awake, my body still shivering from cold and my mouth retching at the residual ‘coffee’ taste. I haven’t smoked for 3 months, but something told me I best have a box nearby for days like these. The head rush from the first drag in months further disorientates me. Pack my gear away and head up the trails in a foul mood.  After a few hours, the wind picks up, my target birds have both escaped me. By now, I am cursing myself for such a monumental oversight and my mental state of mind is hardly conducive to finding these birds in the worsening conditions. Having now departed from my original plans, I need to find a place to aim for this evening. I settle Zapata, near to Falcon Dam. Another 270 miles to cover, but the drive will hopefully cheer me up a little. 
Drive due south on Interstate 83.

As I get nearer to Mexico, the temperatures start to rocket upwards. By the time I enter Nuevo Laredo, the mercury or however digital thermometers work are hitting 100F. There is nothing ‘New’ about Laredo, it is a shithole in every sense of the word. I daren’t stop here, every second Latino is a gold chain wearing skinhead driving a fancy SUV with silver revolving rims. Given the neighbourhood, I’ll forgive myself for generalizing about the nature of their wealth - sure as the shit in this town, it isn’t legal!
Find a local hotel in Zapata for the night. Take a walk on the banks of the Falcon Dam and come across the carcass of a huge Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. What a shame, I don’t want to leave Texas without seeing a live one.Dinner for the first time this trip is taken in a sit down restaurant. I excuse the plastic table and chairs, at least they are serving. Something approaching a steak is found, but it is not very ‘Texan’, at least not how it was supposed to be in my mind anyway.

27/04/2010


Early morning around Falcon State Park after erroneously ending up in a secure US military area. Plead ignorance and wonder if asking heavily armed officer to lend me his weapon so that I can execute my TomTom would be interpreted as a hostile action. The park is quiet and I spend more time looking at the ground for snakes than I see birds. Hazy early morning mist clears off and the bird life picks up too. Heat is becoming oppressive though, the air feels charged and about to spontaneously combust. Now birds from under one tree to the next. Morning ends with the emergence of a Roadrunner, cue much reminiscing over child hood cartoons. This certainly is a bird with character though and I spent the best part of 10 minutes watching him watching me watching him.
Midday I am back on I83 heading east towards MacAllen and Edinburg. I stop periodically along the way for views of the Rio Grande. At times, the river is barely 20 metres wide and I can see why the American worry about illegal immigrants, it is a relatively easy hop skip and jump. I stop at Roma, turns out to be a town of major historical importance. To me it provide a scenic out look across Mexico proper, the Rio Grande many metres below. A well worn path below suggests it may be possible to get good views of the river, which I need in order to find the various Kingfishers I am after. 

I trundle down to the river bank and barely get my binoculars up when all hell breaks loose. US border patrol officials descend the hillside at speed yelling and screaming. I find myself flat on my face, hand on my head with Glocks drawn before it dawns on America’s finest that even in my most tanned state - I am struggling to look Mexican. Never mind that that sought after illegal had to swim the river and hence get wet? Anyhow, thankfully this lot weren’t as trigger happy as they had and have been since then. I dust off and get asked to vacate the area while they look for the suspect proper. Various Mexicans on the opposing river bank start to throw rocks at the officers on this side. It all starts getting David and Goliath. Head down the Interstate again in search of the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. Spend the afternoon prattling about picking up a number of raptors. Still no snakes though and I getting concerned that I may miss the Rattlers. Hotel is located in the dodgiest part of town, most shops have been closed. At least there is decent broadband, should have gotten that Domino’s loyalty card as it is pizza again tonight.


28/04/2010


Early morning start at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. TomTom fails me yet again, cannot believe that National Parks are not considered Points of Interest. Useless bloody thing. The morning in Santa Ana is well spent with more of the targeted species being ticked off. In fact, the point of another night here is becoming increasingly nullified as almost all my target species have been seen. Drive into MacAllen in an attempt to find the towns Botanical Gardens. After a few attempts it turns out my information is either old or duff, nothing doing. My trip information does make mention of the MacAllen water treatment facilities and as they are near I head off to see what gives. Mention is made of a large concentration of Rattlers here, so tread with caution. The area has been done up by a local conservation unit, turning the surrounds into educational gardens and the like. Withe temperature hovering around 100F, it is a case of moving from one shaded area to the next. Since I am looking mostly for Kingfishers, I take leave of my feet and wait for action. According to the available literature, the Western Diamondbacks are more commonly seen in the water here. Almost on cue, a large Rattler slithers into the water from the bank in front of me. What an amazing creature! I do have a thing for the Viperids, having kept Puff Adders in South Africa and wishing to have kept some Rattlers as well as a few South American Bothrops. As evening started to fall, I found only my second sit down restaurant and feasted on steak Tacos and Fajitas.


29/04/2010


My last day proper in Texas. That feeling of an imminent end to the holiday crept in, even though I was heading for Costa Rica rather than London. I visited a number of local areas including a return to the sewage works. Once things got hot again, it was time to leave southern Texas behind me and head back to Houston, another 350 miles up US77. The drive was pleasant enough, although the ‘border post’ situated 100 miles north of Brownsville was a little odd. No stamp in the passport, but looked a permanent road block to check documentation etc. Arrived in Houston late in the afternoon and checked into yet another hotel room. John F Kennedy Boulevard sounds rather more impressive that it turns out to be. Dinner at the local diner, still no steak...
With an early morning flight to look forward to, I had enough time to do some laundry and start booking accommodation in Costa Rica. Rather late planning by my standards, but given the debacle of volcano induced adjustment, I was glad not to have to adjust another weeks worth of accommodation.

Unfortunately Texas did not stand up to what I had expected. While I didn’t expect anything particularly, there wasn’t the arrogant swagger to things as I had hoped for. And no steaks, those huge Texan Steaks we used to eat in South Africa - marketing bull. Many parts of Texas are decrepit dusty affairs, it’s hard to see why the Americans went to war with Mexico over southern Texas. Never mind that most of Texas is now mostly Mexican in any case. Problem now is that I don’t have an alternative state to get excited about. Florida is old and peeling, New York - hated it, Washington DC was fantastic though. Alaska, I think that is my new Texas.


Contact Details :


Texas Wildlife Trails, my main source of planning
Website :    Great Texas Wildlife Trails


Yellow Rail Walk
Website :    Friends of Anhuac

6 November 2010

Costa Rica - May 2010

I spent just over a week in Costa Rica operating alone and mostly without guides. I ended the tour with a birdlist of just under 200. I was quite disappointed with this return, being perhaps 50 - 100 species light. Although I could make a number of concessions on the species list having made some logistical mistakes, not using guides for the most part and mother nature conspiring at times (volcanic eruption delayed my departure by a week, landslide in Braulio Carillo, very strong winds at Monteverde for the entire time.) Aside from being a little light on the bird list, I considered my first trip to the Neotropics as rather successful and thoroughly enjoyable. The infrastructure, road conditions and people far exceeded my expectations.

30/04/2010


Continental Flight from Houston, USA to San Jose, Costa Rica 3.5 hours
Weather was a little rough on approach and Captain could have done better to keep the pointy piece facing in the correct direction. After an eventful touch down, debark by bus to terminal. Terminal is small but modern, customs doesn’t take long provided your paperwork is correctly filled out. Luggage collected and through to awaiting National minibus to take you to the rental facility which is about a mile or so from the airport. Getting your rental will take around 2 hours, especially if there are some Americans in front of you. No planning, no idea, can’t drive manual, or stick shift. The 2 couples in front of me had no idea where, when or how they were getting to their destination. Most Americans head for Jaco - not where any self discerning tourist is likely to end up fortunately. Might as well have stayed in the USA and gone to Florida - beaches are beaches after all.Having finally completed paperwork, upgraded to a small 4x4 (Suzuki Jimmy) and hired a Garmin SatNav, no TomTom here, I depart for my first night just outside San Jose in Alajuela. Based on recommendation I have arranged accommodation at Orquideas Inn for tonight and my last night. It proves to be worth the recommendation. Not too pricey and very good beds. 

01/05/2010


Depart after a decent breakfast for Braulio Carrillo National Park en route to Selva Verde. 
See Contact Details below.The typical ‘legal’ speed limit is 60kph, although one can attain speeds of up to 90kph around San Jose. The speed limit seems only to be obeyed by foreigners though, and we are the only ones at risk of large fines. Which is fine by me, I have now established that my vehicle is not well balanced at around 70 to 75kph, violent front wheel shaking makes for interesting lane control. Most tourist vehicles seem to be the same colour too - it’s called ‘champagne’ but it looks brassy/silver to me and sticks out like a sore thumb. The locals have not found it too attractive either it would seem. They probably make tourists easier to see, as if we needed any help with that. After driving in circles for an hour or so I eventually get out of San Jose on the correct route. Damn Garmin does not keep North fixed, instead it adjusts the map layout according to the direction in which your car is facing - bloody painful. Nor does it give you any of the useful information, such as distance to destination, speed etc. What is does do though is give you direction of travel, and every single conceivable destination. Small waterfall - no problem, National Park or Hotel, no problem. Unlike the TomTom, which couldn’t find any national park in the USA, the Garmin wins the destination guide hands down. Time to destination is much more accurate too.After leaving San Jose, I had only 50km to go and making good time on Route 32 when a road block forced me to stop. I would find out later on the news that a huge landslide had closed the road - initial predictions of a 5 days cleanup turned out to be misguided, at the time of typing they are still a week away from clearing the debris. Absolutely huge landslide on one of their main roads. I did not know this at the time of course, but Route 9 had been shut for some weeks/months already due to an earthquake, hence long detour. Fortunately after getting very lost due to SatNav orientation, I landed up on Route 15. Ended up traveling for 250kms to get to Selva Verde.Arrived at 15:00, enough time to settle my gear.

A free hour of birdwatching was to start at 16:00. As it happened, the lodge was empty and I was the only person on the walk. My guide Michael was young but very sharp. A short distance covered, but a decent number of birds seen in the hour. Continued birding myself before nightfall and dinner.
Buffet dinner for perhaps 10 residents. Walked around the numerous network of pathways with torch to look for amphibians and reptiles.

02/05/2010


Up at dusk for some early morning birding. Decide against the birdwatching hour walk this morning as the guide is different and there are many more people. Walk through the forests at the top of the lodge property. Misty with intermittent light rain. Every step was carefully considered due to dappled lighting conditions and the presence of various large and dangerous Pit Vipers. Birding was fairly poor, I couldn’t see anything nor could I identify through call. Disturbed a Central American Agouti - we both jumped about as high as each other I’d suggest, as it exploded out of the low brush a few yards from me. Combination of mud, rain, lack of birds and thoughts of venomous snakes hastened my retreat from the dappled forest for the Heliconia laden gardens. Similar birds as seen yesterday afternoon, but more relaxing. By now the sun had started to penetrate the early morning fog and the temperature and humidity were rising rapidly. Off to breakfast for some ‘rice and beans’, the staple food item of all meals.
Drove to La Selva Biological Reserve midday to establish a viable parking spot and get familiar with the area. I intended to bird this area early the following morning.

Returned to the lodge for lunch and a midday shower. Was introduced to the owner and founder of the lodge - Giovanna Holbrook, a great elderly Italian lady who saved a little part of the world for the rest of us.
More afternoon birding around the lodge before joining the afternoon walk with Michael. Joined later by a Dutch couple who really had no idea about birds. Nonetheless, the birds were a little quiet until the end of the walk.A huge group of Americans had by this time taken residence at the lodge. It was these groups that many people had moaned about in various reviews of Selva Verde. Of course, without the big spending groups of Americans, the lodge would not exists and much of the land would have been turned to agriculture. How much bother a group of geriatric Americans could cause anyone is beyond me. They may talk loudly, but they are inherently nice people who are interested and keen on exchanging views and experiences. These are not the stereotypical dumb yanks, most have travelled fairly extensively. Dinner and a little more night walking before taking in an early night.

03/05/2010


Early morning rise for the short drive to La Selva Biological Reserve. No rain and quite warm, but lighting was poor again with overcast conditions. Spent around two hours here before returning to the lodge for breakfast. Another trip through the Heliconia gardens before walking along the main road for some further birds. Once the heat and humidity had increased, it was time for another shower before departing the lodge for Arenal.
With time to spare, I drove along Route 32 towards Braulio Carrillo National Park looking for a garden ‘on the left’ which had plenty of Hummingbirds. This was about as accurate as Michael could be about this place. I never did find it, but was stopped at a road block and informed the the road ahead was shut and there was no access. I already knew this, but setting up said roadblock on the other side of the National Park (the entry point that most people would use first) would have been an idea. 

With nothing doing, I decided to continue on to La Fortuna, Arenal. Knowing that check in times are relatively rigid, I took the drive slowly - which wasn’t difficult once the main road was encountered with all the articulated trucks. There aren’t many opportunities to stop en route, but I took advantage as and when I could to savour some of the views.
Initially arrived at the wrong hotel, could have sworn I had booked the place but clearly not. Re-program the SatNav to take me to my confirmed accommodation at Arenal Green. It is located away from the established tourist areas. The access road is still in construction and many of the plots that have been sold are undeveloped as yet. Arenal Green is itself quite new, the rooms and main building look to have been built recently, an outside bar and staff accommodation are still being built. See Contact Details below.The owner / manager German noted my birdwatching and quickly placed some fruit at a feeder behind the lodge. Birds descended in numbers for about half an hour before I moved on. A walk up the gravel road to see what could be seen. Again, overcast cloudy conditions prevailed and lighting was poor. I spent two hours going only a short distance and picking up many more birds. Returned to lodge with darkness descending. Dinner at the lodge on my own as the lodge was empty. American sized portions, but I was very hungry by now and this was quite welcome.

04/05/2010


Early morning walk around the lodge and up the dirt road again. Heat was getting oppressive my 07:00 and returned to lodge for breakfast. Fast realising that staying here for one day, let alone two is perhaps a mistake. There is little place to go birding without paying exorbitant entrance fees nor is the birding area unique. Arenal is definitely a tourist trap and perhaps avoided by the serious birder. Already running out of places and things to do, I decide to get some much needed washing done at a laundromat in town. While this is on the go, I drive the 20kms to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. I plan on a guided bird walk here in the morning. The venue itself sits downstream from the mighty Lake Arenal. A drive over the damn wall and then some steep and tricky roads to the entrance of the Arenal Hanging Bridges. I attempt to check my reservation for the bird walk, but my lack of Spanish and much confusion results in an inconclusive outcome. Take a slow drive back towards La Fortuna in order to pick up my washing. Stop en route a few times to check for likely viewing areas of the Arenal Volcano which I intend to look at this evening.


With little to do in the heat of the day. I get an email explaining that my bird walk has been cancelled as there is a minimum of 2 people required per walk. I get back in the car and drive to see what can be seen. As it turns out, very little of interest. Feeling quite depressed about making such a fundamental error (of coming here in the first place), and now having no bird walk I get back in the car and drive for the Hanging Bridges again. I figure that an hour or so at the dam may bring some aquatic birds which I have frustratingly found difficult to locate so far. This accomplished, I take a slow drive to a likely viewing area of the volcano. 

With luck there will be little cloud cover and I may get a peak at some molten lava. As it happens, everyone else in town has had the same idea and I park up to join a good hundred plus tourists waiting for some action. The volcano is some way off and barely visible as darkness envelopes everything - except the mosquitoes. Hardly had an issue with insects until now - a small bridge in the middle of nowhere! These mosquitoes should be investigated from an evolutionary stand point. There is no standing water anywhere near here, and definitely no humans or animals for a similar distance except every night in this one concentrated area. So they have clearly worked out that a meal ticket of this regularity is worth traveling for. Interesting. While musing about the damn mosquitoes and applying liberal amounts of DEET, the volcano finally gets into the spirit of things. Although the all encompassing comment seems to be, ‘is that it?’ Yes, all this way, the mosquitoes ($45 each for the tourists who booked a guided tour) and the volcano spits out a not very phlegmy, rather misty bit of lava. So small and insignificant that most peoples cameras cannot even focus on the little red spots falling down the side of the mountain - slowly, intermittently. The mosquitoes have further evolved past the effects of 95% DEET and patience is running thin with over marketed and under delivering volcano. Home and dinner.


05/05/2010


Not being on the bird walk, means that I cannot access the reserve until 07:00. After much debate I decide that $30 entrance is justified on that basis that I have nothing else to do and am not due in Monteverde for hours yet. Off we go, intermittent rain or is it simply older rain falling off the trees every time a breeze gets up. Can’t be sure. Birding is slow and my lack of call knowledge is hurting my species acquisition. It’s not that I can’t identify most birds on site, but not knowing what species or family I am looking for means, that I cannot search in the right places. Given up moaning about the short view times too, these birds don’t sit still and by the time my binoculars have risen to my eyes the little blighters have disappeared already. Frustrating, but steels one’s intent just a little more.


The bridges themselves seem sturdy enough when I am on them myself. The moment someone else gets on, they are all over the show and I am legging it to the other side. It seems that no amount of skydiving, rock climbing etc has had any impact on my aversion to heights. Quite an indescribable feeling, not fear but an inability to move some very leaden legs and being very conscious of keeping dead still while my eyes move slowly towards my feet. Even getting my camera out was a slow motion exercise which involved much involuntary shakes. Finally bumped into a bird party where I could stand still for a while and attempt some identification. By the time I exit the forest, the sun has come out and the heat is starting to become oppressive again. Sit in the parking lot / garden and establish a good route to Monteverde. Pick up a few more birds just sitting there - perhaps a lesson for later, sit for a while and let the birds come to you rather than march around the forests getting tired and irritable.


Hop onto route 142 towards Tilaran en route to Monteverde. Drive is relatively windy and there is a strong wind getting up. No sooner has this been established and there are wind/kite surfing adverts along the damn as well as a field of wind turbines. The SatNav has a few navigational issues trying to exit Tilaran, but we get there in the end. Now onto the feared gravel roads and reason I upgraded to 4x4 - roll on Monteverde. The road turns out to be a little bumpy, but no demons. Begin questioning the basis for even needing a 4x4 as I see a number of saloon cars along the road. Admittedly I am thankful for the extra ground clearance and this will become more evident as I proceed into the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde.
Have alternated my trip behind and ahead of two American girls driving a bigger and fancier 4x4. I have a fortunate amount of 4x4 experience and know the limitations of what I can, and cannot get away with here. Due to the bumpy and dry nature of the road, the vehicle bounces a lot and with many bends, your back end fish tails regularly. In 2 wheel drive you would slow down and compensate, but switch 4x4 on and this seemingly gives you license to kill?

Not so as my American friends were about to find out. 4x4 put power to all wheels, but without limited slip dif or locking your dif, the power is not controlled. Thus when your back end slips out there is also an increase in wheel spin on the wheel that is least grounded exacerbating the fish tail and getting you acquainted with the nearest tree, post or 500m deep gully if you're really unlucky.

Fortunately for them they discovered this early on before the mountain passes got steeper without too much damage to the vehicle. 
After some eventful driving conditions, still no need for 4x4 but again the clearance was useful to prevent the loss of sumps. Found my hotel (Hotel Belmar, See Contact Details below) quite easily and immediately feared another Arenal style tourist trap. Most of the hippy looking muppets congregated in the Backpackers area (where else?) away from the hotels eating canned cat food and professing there green colours to each other. My body was aching after the violent bumping around and I was happy to check in and lie down for a few minutes. Explored the local surroundings in the afternoon and came to the stunningly obvious conclusion as to reason they call them ‘cloud forests’.Darkness descends slightly quicker up here and I took a quick trip into town for dinner. A very appetising pizza with some equally stunning hummingbirds for company. Needed a decent sleep and since the reserves didn’t open until 07:00, this was a distinct possibility.

06/05/2010


After a decent breakfast I head off to the Santa Elena Reserve for some birding. Entrance is not too steep ($14) when you consider that here, your dollar is very evident in the conservation of this most fragile area. The forest is dense but birding picks up in small patches. I have since learnt to sit and watch at intervals and this pays off quite well. Birds are quite different as expected but soon get the hang of things and make good progress. Heat is welcome and although clouds are ever present, they are intermittent and a little breeze gets up to keep everything very comfortable. Leave the park mid morning feeling much better about my bird list and head for the nearby Hummingbird gardens. While some of the many hummingbirds are readily identifiable, just as many are quite tricky and require multiple views and a decent level of light / sun to separate. The gardens produce a swathe of birds and I get down to the nitty gritty of separating the resident species. Half an hour later and job done. Head back to the lodge for some coffee and put some further plans together for the remainder of my trip. Have booked a night walk this evening and now looking for something to do in the interim. I decide to drive towards the Monteverde reserve and bird along the road for a few hours. The wind has really got up and making birding quite poor now. This becomes a issue for the remainder of my stay with consistently strong wind.

Satisfied after my morning exploits I call it quits and head back to the hotel and wait for my pickup for the night walk. We meet with many more people than I had expected. We are however broken up into smaller groups and head off into the dusk. This walk was never about the birding, but more about whatever else was on show and it didn’t disappoint. Walk completed after two hours or so and we are returned to our hotels. Pizza dinner again although I make a mental note to eat something else tomorrow evening.


07/05/2010


Had booked a bird guide this morning and despite the 2 person minimum requirement, Francisco agreed to take me out. Most of the guides here are early to mid thirties and know the area very well. ‘Chico’ as he is known also has a side line business as a lodge owner, something he would show me after the our trip. Birding again was slow starting due to the aggressive wind. We made fairly quick tracks to the reserve itself and had a quick bite to eat. Into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the birds picked up a little again with the wind not presenting such an issue. Birds picked up well enough and some difficult to identify species were soon added to the list. After much searching and calling, we locked onto some male Resplendent Quetzal’s - cracking bird. Another guide had found one of my target reptiles, the Side-striped Palm-Pitviper. Having missed all the others (particularly the Fer de Lance).

Birding soon changed to general chit chat as the birds quietened down. A few stops here and there for some specific species produced nothing more. I trundled around Chicos hotel/lodge for a while before I departed with some good advice of where to go over the next day. 
See Contact Details below.A particular bird (the Three-wattled Bellbird) had been bugging me, as I could hear plenty of them but see none (I never did in the end either). So it was that I ascended the road behind the hotel for the Television towers way above. A particularly steep road where my 4x4 certainly did become rather useful. After innumerable twists and turns up the mountain I got to the point of doubt - the next hill looked rather steeper than 40 degrees. I cannot recall what the upper limits were with land rovers, reckoned on 45% at the time (on investigation this would be the upper limit - but not for rolling, rather oil distribution issues) but with no weight and a very light vehicle I wasn’t attempting to bite off any more than I had already. So I proposed a short hike up the road and parked my vehicle off to the side of the road - not easy anywhere in Costa Rica actually. Up the hill I went until the altitude and my lack of fitness took its toll - about 5 minutes.

Sod that I said and with little prospect of finding my target I descended back to my car. 
About 10 metres short I dug for my car keys and then realised that things were about to get exciting. The keys were not in my pocket, they weren’t in the ignition, but they were sitting on the dash - and the doors were locked. Oh bugger. A futile attempt at forcing the windows down left me in a quandary. Stuck near the summit of a very high mountain which few vehicles could get up, no mobile signal and a rather large bill should I have been able to call anyone out in any case. Thoughts turned to my Leather man - which was at the hotel. (I almost always carry it in my backpack - but have taken to removing it when on holiday as I invariably forget it and then have issues at airports). It’s now 15:00 and I have a few hours of light left with the weather closing in. Down the hill we go, which is painful on the knees as every step is a shudder to stop my gravity inspired momentum before taking the next step. I degenerate into a slightly jumpy shuffle/jog down to the bottom, all the while taking in the path that I will have to take back up again. With no coat hangers of the required style in the hotel I collect my Leather man and up the hill we go. I know from the ODO that I have 2200 metres to cover, not far, but all vertical. En route back up the hill I cut a strand of barbed wire and occupy my unfit fatigue by stripping the barbs while edging up the mountain. It takes almost an hour to ascend the 2000 odd metres! I am huffing and puffing much better by the time I eventually crest the last hill (I had by this stage decided that if this crest did not show my vehicle that I would have to turn back - my lungs were finished).

Note to self - any ambitions of some day climbing Mount Everest have just been put to bed, forever.
On reaching the car, I take another rest and decide how to proceed. The weather is worsening and now it is not only cloud that I have to deal with but rain too. The plan is to get that wire around the door knob in the traditional method. The door knobs are of little help, having no knob - just up and down. After fiddling with various access points and trying to penetrate the rubber seals around the doors - I finally lose patience and go for the muscular approach. As many people have found out in the UK, if the top of your car door does not sit protected underneath the roof, then you can get your fingers in and pull the door frame out. Not wanting to accrue damages to my rental (and my pocket), I get the Leather man wedged into the door frame and pull as much as I dare. In goes the wire and cue plenty of frustrating in and out with the wire to tweak the end.

After an hour, I get the combination of twist and grip around the door knob and up she comes. A little scratch damage here and there but nothing obvious. [Not enough to warrant charges when my vehicle is checked back in at the rental company]. 
Relieved, I get in to start the next tricky part - the descent. By now, the light is fading and I drive off in good spirits to a restaurant that Chico recommended to me. Fine dinner before getting an early night.

08/05/2010


I fiddle about at the lodge before breakfast. I set off for the San Luis waterfall in search of another bird that Chico reckons I should get here, American Dipper. Alas after more uphill climbing (after the efforts yesterday, this is starting to hurt). Again, dipped on the bird, but the waterfall was worth seeing. More interesting cliff side driving before checking out of the hotel. I decide to pack it in and get driving for San Jose, birding is over unfortunately and that horrible end of holiday feeling has started to kick in.
Thirty odd kilometres of bone crunching gravel road (feels worse that when I entered, but this is surely a psychological state of mind). The next fifty odd kilometres cause me to get rather motion sick - a straight section of road is not so much rare as non-existent. I traverse Route 1, the Pan American Highway for a time. The ‘highway’ is still a standard dual carriageway with an 80kph speed limit. It is however something special to drive on, I had driven a small section in Texas, but the routes there are varied and many, in Costa Rica, there is only one real Pan American Highway. All in all, this road traverses the Americas, spanning a distance of near enough 48 000km but for small section of 100km called the Darien Gap. 

En route to San Jose I drop in at the town of Orotina in an attempt to corner the Black and White Owl which is apparently a certainty in the town park. With my luck of dipping on particular species I should have known better and my form continued. A couple of missed turns here and there getting back to my hotel only cost me an extra Toll Road charge and some dodgy back roads. No damage and I find to my delight that my room has been upgraded. I must have left the appropriate tip in my room on the first evening. Not that I was going to have much time to enjoy it, what with a 04:00 trip to the airport. I take my rental car back into town before catching a cab back to the hotel. The town is particularly busy today after the Costa Rican’s elected their first female President (Laura Chincilla) who is due to be sworn in today.
The vehicle is checked back in in a matter of minutes, certainly quicker than it was checked out. The cab ride is eventful as my cabbie seeks all the back roads, which have little to no tar covering and plenty of potholes.

My body is now quite unhappy with me and I attempt to organize a massage. The hotel staff do their stuff and an hour later a message is passed on that all is set. Off I go to find the only semi-attractive women in all of Costa Rica is now ready to massage. She speaks no English and everything is done with excited hand gestures. We get there in the end however and I now have a neck and back that I can feel. My particularly sore backside did not get a massage nor did I actively seek it - Costa Rica, despite it’s Catholic stance on abortion and related subjects does allow for legal prostitution. Given the lack of communication, there was a good chance that certain actions may have resulted in a costly exercise... 
Dinner and bed for my early wake-up.

09/05/2010


Early transfer to the airport and a relatively hassle free route through customs and onto the plane for a short four hour hop to Houston. Whatever the impact of the last nights massage, the short plane trip has made them quietly redundant. Continental’s pilots have clearly not responded to the merger with United Airlines in any way as their landing expertise has maintained the usual squeaky-bum cheek style. The four hour layover presents with no further issues except that for some reason I have to re-enter the USA in order to leave again. My bags however do not exit with me and I am lost for a while. (They don’t tell you this of course - if you are connecting to a US destination then your bags will come out in order that you check them in again, but if you are connecting to an international flight then they will be automatically loaded onto your plane.) Some clues may have been useful, but with no time restrictions to worry about I proceed at a steady pace.
Buy an American CrossWord which turns out to be a disaster, none of the answers are more than 4 letters and most tend to be multiple words and acronyms (can three separate singular letters be described as words? It’s the US, inventors of American English so I suppose it could be).

As an aside, I learnt last night that far from having US English as the lingua franca in years to come, it will in fact be Panglish or possibly Spanglish??
Back on the big plane, 777-200 (the flights from Houston to Costa Rica and back were on 737-800’s). After a few years of regular AirBus accidents (another just a few days ago), I am now only flying on Boeing’s. My next trip to Norway is on a 737-300. I attempt to sleep on the plane to stimulate some sort of jet lag reduction, but this proves impossible. The moron who designed the seat, must have been 5ft tall. How and why you would design the top of the seat to tilt forwards as opposed to backwards is beyond me. (This could have been the British input - health and safety of some form). So unless you can sleep with your head tilted forwards, then this is an impossibility. Hadn’t realised that we had landed, so good was the touch down. After all the dodgy ones, I suppose Continental were due a decent landing for a change. And that was that, back to shitty baggage handlers taking an eternity, crap weather and all the rest that goes with being a paid up member of the United Kingdom.

Contact Details :

Orquideas Inn
e-Mail :     info@orquideasinn.com
Tel :         +506 2433 7128
Website :   www.orquideasinn.com
Selva Verde Lodge
e-Mail :     selvaver@racsa.co.cr
Tel :         +506 2766 6800
Website :   www.selvaverde.com

Giovanna Holbrook (Owner of Selva Verde)
Tel :         +1 800 451 7111
Website :   www.holbrooktravel.com

Hotel Arenal Green
e-Mail :     info@arenalgreen.com
Tel :         +506 2479 8383
Website :   www.arenalgreen.com

Francisco Castro Leiton (Cala Lodge)
e-Mail :     calalodge@gmail.com
Tel :         +506 2645 5626  or  Mobile : +506 8358 9614
Website :   www.calalodge.com

Belmar Hotel
e-Mail :     info@hotelbelmar.net
Tel :         +506 2645 5201
Website :   www.hotelbelmar.net

India - March 2009

I spent a week at Corbett National Park and a few hours in Delhi birdwatching exclusively  I hired guides for my time in Corbett and together we managed a rather decent total given that I was about a month late for the optimal concentration of breeding species and winter migrants. The local knowledge provided a number of targeted species and my thanks to Mohan Suyal and Pahir for their excellent guiding and identifications skills. I have included a number of logistical details besides the birding itself.

London Heathrow to Delhi Indira Ghandi (8½ hours). DEL airport is quite modern; customs is a quick process (Sunday morning). One can take either a taxi or an auto rickshaw from the airport to Delhi central (30 mins). I was stung Rs2500 for an auto rickshaw after having been re-routed via the National Monuments, not that I had asked. It is best to pay at the pre-paid booth to avoid being ripped off. The return journey for example cost Rs200. Best to clarify the precise journey with the driver, I had wanted to go to Buddha Jayanti Park which is en-route to the city centre but despite my protestations my driver delivered me to Connaught Place. Connaught Place is the centre of Delhi and a cesspit of Kashmiri swindlers from the young "students" to the more obvious dodgers. Their main aim being to get you into the rug shops. Best avoided if you don’t want to part with a large amount of cash before you have even started!

Auto rickshaws were the easiest and quickest method of transport and aside from my initial sting from the airport were very cheap. Most trips within the city cost around Rs100 each way. I travelled to Corbett via the Ranikhet Express (train 5013) which leaves from Old Delhi Station at around 22:35 arriving at Ramnagar at 04:30. These tickets are best booked well in advance using the IRCTC’s website www.irctc.co.in. You depart at Ramnagar. Returning from Ramnagar you use the Corbett Park Link (train 5014A) which departs at around 21:40 arriving in Delhi at around 04:00. The berth to book is a 3A Sleeper for three tiered bunk beds with air conditioning. On this particular line, this is the best option, there is no First Class. Tickets cost Rs350 each way. Beds are perfectly suited for the purpose, the train moving along at about 50kph providing a very comfortable rest. Although with most of India, these were built with Indians in mind, anyone over 6ft is going to find most things here a little short.


The most exciting part of the sleeper train was the toilet. Ever since landing at dawn, I had wandered around Delhi with little chance of finding a public toilet. So by midnight I was rather keen to make use of the 'facilities'. Being seasoned at dealing in the 3rd world, I had brought my own loo paper. A train toilet in the UK is usually a smelly affair, due to bad aim and the onboard septic tank. India dealt with both these problems, by not having a septic tank or anything to aim at but the hole in the floor - quite ingenious. It is difficult to describe in words what was going on in my head while perched over the hole in the floor watching the railway sleepers trundle by underneath me. Of course, it suddenly made sense why there were verbal and written warnings everywhere forbidding the use of toilets while passing through or standing at train stations. No offence to the country or it's populace, but you needn't have bothered really - the stench of human shit hits you the moment you arrive and never disappears until you leave India.Transport from Ramnagar Station, had previously been arranged with my guides who looked after all forms of transport during my stay at Corbett.

I did not stay in Delhi, rather using the sleeper train for this and filling the balance of each day with trips to Lodi Gardens and other parts of the city that provide very useful birding. My accommodation at Corbett was not within the Parks core, rather in the buffer zone at Dhikuli. This accommodation was again organised in advance by my guides. I had requested Back Packer style accommodation and hence stayed at the Sunbird Guest House (Rs1500pn single).
My room was perfectly suited to most requirements - double bed, large bathroom with western style toilet and shower. I made use of a local restaurant for lunches and dinner with a typical meal costing around Rs300. The exact combination of Accommodation, transport, food and safaris were all arranged with my guides before hand and can be tailored to your individual requirements. What is worth noting at this juncture: staying exclusively at Dhikuli will limit your access to the park. The guides are only able to travel to two parts of the park. It is best to ask them to arrange at least one night accommodation within the park at Dhikala. The Dhikala area is not otherwise accessible and large numbers of raptors as well as both Mugger and Gharial will be missed as well. A nights stay at Dhikala costs around Rs9500 single or Rs11500 for a couple.

22/03/2009 - Lodi Gardens, Delhi

This is essentially a small city park with a basic introduction to Indian birds. It might be noted that any experience with eastern or southern African birds will have prepared one quite comfortably for birding in India. The following can be seen here without much difficulty: Little Cormorant, Spot-billed Duck, Black Kite, Red-wattled Lapwing, Yellow-fronted Green Pigeon, Alexandrine Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, House Swift, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Brown-headed Barbet, Common Hoopoe, Indian Grey Hornbill, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Jungle Babbler, Red-throated Flycatcher, Common Tailorbird, Oriental Magpie Robin. Mammals include Northern Palm Squirrel, Rhesus Macaque and Indian Grey Mongoose.

23/03/2009 – 27/03/2009 - Corbett National Park Ramnagar, Uttarkhand.


I was collected at 05:00 from Ramnagar by Pahir, my driver (and very proficient birder to boot) and transferred to Sunbird Guest House to drop my gear and have much appreciated hot shower. Then taken back to the main gate for park permits at 06:00. You sit around for a good three hours as the bureaucracy only starts at 10:00, however it is imperative to be early as queuing is on a first come first serve basis. Fortunately I did not have to stand in the queue myself and could mill about outside for any birds in the general area. Oriental Pied and Indian Grey Hornbills being the main attraction. Had a few more hours to kill back at the guest house as the park is closed during the heat of the day. It will over the course of time become apparent that Corbett does not have a high density of birds, but very high in species. At least 50% of the birds seen on this trip were one off occasions only! Over the course of the week, this area produced any number of interesting birds, including the following :

Black Kite, Northern Goshawk, Shikra, European Sparrowhawk, various others including Black Eagle, Oriental Hawk Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Large-tailed Nightjar (started calling at 05:30 every morning in nearby Mango plantations), Green Bee-eater, Lineated Barbet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Black Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Brahminy Starling, Jungle Myna, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Himalayan Bulbul, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Jungle Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Great Tit, Oriental White-eye, Purple Sunbird. Alternatively during breaks in the day, a visit to the Kosi River behind the line of hotels and houses can turn up an array of river species otherwise difficult in the park including: River Lapwing, Blue Whistling Thrush, White-capped Water Redstart, Little Heron, Great Hornbill, Pied Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Greater Flameback, Himalayan Flameback, Wallcreeper, Grey-breasted Prinia, White-browed Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail.



Within the park, there was a mild variation in bird species between Bijrani and Jhirna, with the latter having a few more grassland species. En route to Jhirna, one drives through the town centre before driving a stretch of farmlands. Birds in the town centre included: Egyptian Vulture, Fork-tailed Swift, Dusky Crag Martin and Bank Myna. The farmland stretch included a fortuitous amount of vultures (they were sparse to say the least otherwise, although the park is in the process of establishing a feeding program I understand). Long-billed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Red-faced Vulture, Eurasian Griffon, Indian Roller, Common Tailorbird, Brown Rock-chat, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. Within the park birds included Imperial Eagle, Kalij Pheasant, Red-collared Dove, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Plum-headed Parakeet, Great Hornbill, and White-browed Fantail. We made 4 trips to the Bijrani area of the park and hence a large proportion of the birds seen were from this section. Habitat alternates between sandy grasslands, rocky river beds (mostly dry outside of the monsoon), and thick Sal and Teak Forests. This was the best venue to pursue Tiger, which finally obliged after almost 16 hours of looking. For those not birdwatching, there really isn’t much else to look at once you have seen White-spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Sambar, Common Langur and Rhesus Macaque.

A non-exhaustive list of birds for this area of the park included: Woolly-necked Stork, Black Stork, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red-breasted, Slaty-headed, Plum-headed, Alexandrine and Rose-ringed Parakeet’s, Collared Scops Owl, Brown Wood Owl, Jungle Owlet, Crested Treeswift, Crested, Pied, Stork-billed White-throated, Common and Dark-capped Kingfisher (only a handful of inland records for this species, but has apparently been recorded a few times this season at Corbett), Blue-tailed, Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Common Hawk Cuckoo, Streaky-throated, Scaly-breasted and Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers, Black-rumped, Himalayan and Greater Flameback’s, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Black, Spangled, White-bellied, Greater Racket-tailed and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo’s, Rufous Treepie, Long-tailed Shrike, Black-chinned, Yellow-eyed, Jungle and Large Grey Babbler’s, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white form), White-browed Fantail, Grey-breasted, Striated and Jungle Prinia’s, Black Redstart, Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Roller, Pied Bush-chat, Red-billed Blue Magpie, White-rumped Shama and Paddyfield Pipit.

Kumeria / Mohan area is a section of the Kosi River further up from the reserve, passing the Dhikala Gate en-route to Ranikhet. We targeted Wallcreeper here but may have been slightly late in the season as none could be found in what my guides said was a most reliable area. Given that this section of river is only a few miles from the reserve itself, it does contain birds not common within the park, including: Changeable Hawk Eagle, Grey Francolin, Grey Treepie, White-crowned Laughingthrush, Ashy Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Grey-hooded Warbler, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Crimson Sunbird. A Blue-eared Kingfisher was also found along a well wooded and overgrown stream next to the left fork in the junction at Mohan. This road leads uphill towards a well advertised Mahseer fishing camp rather than the right fork which proceeds to Kumeria. While this was another particularly rare bird for this area, it is worth noting that habitat is perfect and perhaps more birding here would produce further sightings.

Cuba - May 2008

This trip was mostly centred around sitting on the beech in the tourist trap of Varadero with a limited amount of birding involved. We did get out for a single mid-morning (09:00 - 12:00) trip to the Zapata peninsula with Orestes Martinez ''El Chino'', and few stops along the side of the road when appropriate.

Birds around the Varadero area are quite limited, with only common species present: Greater Antillean Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Caspian Tern, Laughing Gull, Common Ground-Dove, Mourning Dove, Zenaida Dove, House Sparrow, Cuban Emerald, Double-crested Cormorant and Grey Kingbird.


Within the Varadero complex of resorts is a small nature trail encompassing some mangrove and´sand forest´. Only a few miles at best and swamped with kamikaze mosquitoes, it is worth a walk around at least once. A slow pace is necessary as the area holds some quail doves. Species seen here included, Cuban Vireo, Yellow-headed Warbler, White-crowned Pigeon, Cuban Emerald, La Sagra´s Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Antillean Palm-Swift and Cuban Woodpecker.


An interesting section, perhaps only seasonal or even due to recent building work presents itself at the beginning of the Varadero stretch. Opposite the Sol Club Palmeras a section of flat land with bare patches, short grass and small wetland type area of perhaps 1 acre in size exists. This section provided us with breeding Least Tern as well as various remaining migratory waders and a collage of herons and egrets. These included: Little Blue Heron, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, Tri-coloured Heron, Snowy Egret and Cattle Egret. Others included Killdeer, Wilson´s Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot. Neo-tropic Cormorant on the Varadero Golf Course.


By far the highlight of the trip was our day spent near Zapata. We had arranged to have El Chino, a local guide take us around for half the day. On the way we picked up Antillean Night-Hawk near Jose Smith Comas. I must drive home the fact that we only arrived in Playa Larga at 09:15, way too late for anything decent one would expect. When you consider this with the quality of birds seen, you can understand how I could not recommend Chino enough. See below for Contact Details.
We jumped in the car and drove a short distance to some wooded forest/thicket. First up some Cuban Trogon. Walking the trails followed with a Yellow-faced Grassquit. Quite the unbelievable after this, Chino heard a Blue-headed Quail-Dove calling, a few minutes of quite searching and we had a male sitting at head height a few yards into the tangle. The species then came quicker than we could buy them, Cuban Tody, Black-whiskered Vireo, Grey-fronted Quail-Dove, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Cuban Pygmy-Owl, West-Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Woodpecker, Fernandina´s Flicker (after 20 minutes of having the bird 5 yards away and not being able to see it!), Cuban Pewee, Logger-headed Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Bullfinch, American Kestrel, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Shiny Cowbird and Black-cowled Oriole.

Chino then took us on a rambling drive into the middle of a forest, set us up under and tree and told us to focus the telescope on a particular branch - 10 minutes later a male Bee Hummingbird perches and sings - quite extraordinary. Chino took us back to his nick of the woods, Calitone, next to Playa Larga and invited us for lunch. The porch at the back only 3 feet from the bay of pigs! Lobster for lunch. While the amenities are basic, in fact nothing that we westerners would generally be happy to eat near, the authenticity beats any ´local experience´ money can buy. With lunch costing 20CUC for my brother and I, as well as the morning with Chino only 15CUC each, a large tip was certainly required.


Chino further told us where to look for certain birds on our return. We stopped at the obligatory Boca de Gaum to look for Red-shouldered Blackbird which duly obliged as well as Cuban Blackbird, Smooth-billed Ani, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. This is also the home of the Cuban Crocodile centre.
As one will notice in Cuba, signposts and logical road directions are completely absent. We got lost travelling from Varadero to Zapata twice. Even on the way back we went around in circles for a while. The easiest way to conquer this is to pick up one of the local Policeman who are hitching towards your intended direction. While lost, (we were in the vicinity of Torriente I believe) we picked up Red-tailed Hawk, Snail Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Meadowlark and White-winged Dove.

To my mind, Cuba was one of the best locations I have visited. Forget the political rubbish spouted by the US - Cubans are some of the friendliest people I have come across. Even the military were very much engage brain first before arming weapon (unlike my more recent run in with the US border patrol - how do I look like a Mexican illegal...). History ebbs out of every corner, even a modicum of historical knowledge makes Cuba a fascinating destination.