A travel writer tries to blend in with birders!

I can’t even say I’m a cuckoo in this international nest – after all, a cuckoo is at least another bird – I feel like a completely alien species. I’ve read the Steve Braunias book ‘How to Watch a Bird’ so was sure I was well-prepared. It soon became obvious – I’m out of my depth.

It first became clear on the bus from Gujarat‘s Ahmedabad airport where, in the middle of the night, I meet a Welsh couple who have written a best-seller bird book and a South African birder, all presenters at this gathering – they’re talking a different language to me.

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Hours later, after a slow, bumpy trip, I’m checked into the Jamnagar hotel as “Vikitoria from Ukraine” then, after less than three hours sleep, at breakfast it becomes even clearer that I’m an imposter.

Steve says birders are passionate people and I start to see what he means. Beside most settings, along with the coffee, fruit, cereal and curry, was a piece of equipment. Olive green or black, obviously well-used, some with sticky-tape repairs, are huge binoculars. I’m pleased my little opera-type glasses are still in my suitcase – I don’t want to be outed so early. Telescopes and tripods lean against tables, chairs and walls. As I eat, a bird call fills the air: one of my table companions answers his phone, the bird stops singing. It seems a birders accessory is a bird call ringtone. My phone has the factory setting ring, it confirms my out-of-my-depth-ness: I come clean.

I tell everyone I meet I’m a kiwi, ‘quite likely the only person here named after a bird’. I also confess to not being a birder but a travel writer, there by invitation to cover the Global Bird Watchers Conference. Some 500 people have ‘flocked together’, as the conference title declares, in Gujarat, India, a mostly vegetarian, low-alcohol use state and birthplace of Gandhi, for some bird talk. I wonder, do they, will they, also twitter or tweet?

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Evidently bird watching is not only one of the biggest hobbies in the world; it seems avitourism is a niche activity among, often well-heeled, travellers. Sadly, as bird watching increases, the numbers of many birds are declining and soon presenters are telling us “we have not been able to halt the decline of bio-diversity”.

It seems twitching, a subset of birding – rather like train-spotting – raced around the world in a godwit-like migration. Birders, like trainspotters, are often obsessively ticking off, or creating lists. Most of the enthusiasts attending the conference know their exact place on the life-list ranking; a list of birdwatchers showing the number of species of birds they have seen during their lifetime. It appears there are over 9,000 bird species and according to the website Surfbirds, many have seen many more than 7,000 of those feathered creatures.

I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat's Chief Minister)
I breakfast with Narenda Modi (then Gujarat’s Chief Minister)

I decide to tick off the birds I see, and appoint Alan, a travel writer, photographer and birder – as my go-to-person to identify birds in my photos. No longer will they be ‘a large black and white bird with pink legs and tail’ or one with ‘a cute hairstyle’, The first Indian bird I learn to name by its long v-shaped tail is a black drongo. No-one but me thought that was funny: it seems its only we down-unders who use the term ‘drongo’ for dim-witted and which I was now feeling.

While everyone seems supportive of each other in this particular flock there is no doubt birding is a competitive sport with people, or teams, trying to spot large numbers of species within a specified time. Others compete by attempting to increase their life, annual, national, or county list. No-one asks me about my status – after all, I’ve only just started ticking the bird book I’ve been given. They smile indulgently at me, a virgin twitcher: I’m slipping over to the ‘other side’ but I don’t know their language.

Travel writers learning to be birders
Travel writers learning to be birders … note the bird dog!

I overhear conversations about someone being ‘gripped’: it seems it has nothing to do with groping or being grabbed but being first to ‘tick’ a bird on a trip, especially a ‘lifer’ or a ‘mega-tick’. Evidently some of these people are not cooing doves, but hawks. Rivalry can sometimes mean they intentionally ‘grip’ a fellow birder with deliberate misinformation, or even scaring the bird away – I have a lot to learn!

While we crass travel-writers are looking at people, food, or lions, searching for stories, the birders have their bins – as I’ve learnt to call binoculars – trained on a spot in the distance, or pointing skywards.

One of the experts, American Ben King tells me birding is not usually a fatal disease but “it’s even worse than an addiction – it’s an obsession”. He also tells me some amateurs go bird-watching in white tops, ‘the very worst colour’. Two hours later I glance down and realise I’m wearing the offending colour.

My companions recount tales of birdwatchers who spent their lives trying to see most of the world’s bird species. They rarely died in bed. One spent her family inheritance travelling the world before dying in a road accident in Madagascar; another, who was leading a bird tour, was killed by a tiger; and yet another was killed in an air-crash in Ecuador. Clearly, these so-called ‘bird nerds’ don’t lead boring lives!

The Welsh couple I met on the bus, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, gave up their jobs and sold their home for a year-long twitching trip, resulting in a book “The Biggest Twitch”.

It’s interesting to be surrounded by this flock of mostly interesting, sometimes obsessive, people from all over the world, keen to see Gujarat’s resident and migrant birds. It’s obvious more and more bird tours will arrive there, and around the world, for twitchers to add to their many lists.

Ted Floyd, American Birding Association, says in his blog, “Birding is “just” a hobby, I realize. It’s mere sport, some would say, or avocation. Yes, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of life. Birding brings out the best in us, imagine if there were far more birders. Imagine if birding were to catch on in a huge way in, say, Israel and Palestine. Imagine if everyone in Washington and Tehran were birders. No harm could come of that. In all likelihood, it would do a world of good.’ I wonder.

I finally meet ‘Vikitoria from Ukraine’. She is young, blonde, and gorgeous: I tick off some 100 birds but it seems I’m just a ‘dude’ – a casual birder who prefers pleasant surroundings and nice weather.

Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat
Khijadia bird sanctuary. Gujarat

Punting from historic boatsheds

Historic boatsheds
Historic boat sheds

In 1850 swamp covered the beginnings of Christchurch and settlers had to walk through bog to get home after the market. Those early British settlers must have been sorely disillusioned when they first saw the soggy land which was to be their home on the other side of the world.

Between 1000 and 1500, Maori (who had arrived here from the Pacific) had a settlement in this area, called Puari. It stretched east from the Otakaro River and was home to around 800 Waitaha people who gathered eels, whitebait, native trout, ducks, and flounder.

The Deans family renamed the river to Avvon – after a small Scottish river near their old home – later the spelling was changed to Avon by the new settlers who had followed the Scottish brothers. Now, the bog long drained, every weekend Cantabrians (we who live in Canterbury, New Zealand) and tourists go boating on the same river.

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The centre of this fun is of course the historic Antigua Boat Sheds. One of many boat sheds which were established along the river in the 1870s/80s. Many generations of locals have spent time messing around in boats hired from them and, I too learnt to row in the gentle waters of this spring fed river.

The Antigua boat-sheds were built by a couple of boat builders and it is one of Christchurch’s oldest buildings. Open all year, and with a cafe full of home-cooked food attached, it makes a great setting for all sorts of events – from weddings and cocktail parties to children’s parties- as well as a family fun day in the park.

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As well as canoes and paddle boats for hire and you can also have  Welcome Aboard punt you upstream, through the beauty of the botanic gardens, – perhaps even sipping champagne or tucking into a hamper of food which is optional. I once again enjoyed relaxing on a punt during my time in Christchurch earlier this year – it was as delightful as ever.

use welcome aboardwebThanks to Welcome Aboard for your hospitality on the punts, gondola,caterpillar, and trams.

 

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Wellington sanctuary has 500 year vision to save species

Zealandia is a sanctuary  with a difference:  it has a vision for 500 years – its goal,  to restore  this Wellington valley to its pre- human state. It’s twenty years into the plan!

Only minutes  from the centre of New Zealand’s capital,  and parliament buildings,  it’s a great place  to spend a few hours,  a day  or, take an evening guided walk to check out New Zealand  wildlife  flora and fauna.  I spent a couple of hours there  2 days ago  and here just a few of the many photos I took. (search in this blog for other Zealandia posts I’ve written)

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Kuching Wetlands National Park

Only 15 km from Kuching (and 5 km from the Damai Beach Resort (where I have stayed three times while at the magical, annual Rainforest World Music Festival) is the Kuching Wetlands National Park (2002) in the estuarine reaches of two rivers.

It’s also where I have twice planted mangrove trees as part of the “Greening of the Festival” which Sarawak Tourism does with all the festivals it hosts, helping  offset the carbon I’ve spent getting to Malaysian Borneo.

getting down and dirty while planting young mangrove
getting down and dirty while planting young mangrove

The park is a mostly saline mangrove system of many waterways and tidal creeks connecting the two major rivers that form the boundaries of the park.

An important spawning and nursery ground for fish and prawn species and it also has a wide diversity of wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaque monkeys, silver-leaf monkeys, monitor lizards, estuarine crocodiles and a range of bird life, including kingfishers, white-bellied sea eagles and shore birds, including the rare lesser adjutant stork. In 2005 Malaysia designated the park as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.

Lessor Adjutant Stork (Parit Jawa)
Lessor Adjutant Stork (Parit Jawa)

To explore this park you need to travel on the river and a number of tour operators offer coastal and river cruises in and around the park.

To read more about eco-tourism in Malaysian Borneo see my small book (A love letter to Malaysian Borneo or, can this travel writer be green) which has been entered in the Malaysian Tourism 2015 Awards.

 

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Proboscis monkey: more endangered than orangutans!  I hope one day people will see  one in the trees I've planted
Proboscis monkey: more endangered than orangutans! I hope one day people will see one in the trees I’ve planted

Planting mangroves in Malaysian Borneo

we arrive at the park
we arrive at the park

Only 15 km from Kuching (and 5 km from the Damai Beach Resort where I’m staying under the shadow of Mt.Santubong and beside the Sarawak Cultural Village ), is the Kuching Wetlands National Park (2002) – the estuarine reaches of the two rivers.

It’s also where I will be planting mangrove trees next week as part of the “Greening of the Festival” which Sarawak Tourism does with all the festivals it hosts – this time with wonderful Rainforest World Music Festival. I did the same a year ago, helping to offset the carbon I’ve spent getting to Malaysian Borneo.

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I plant mangroves in the Kuching Wetlands National Park in 2014

The park is a mostly saline mangrove system of many waterways and tidal creeks connecting the two major rivers that form the boundaries of the park.

An important spawning and nursery ground for fish and prawn species and it also has a wide diversity of wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaque monkeys, silver-leaf monkeys, monitor lizards, estuarine crocodiles and a range of bird life, including kingfishers, white-bellied sea eagles and shorebirds, including the rare lesser adjutant stork.

In 2005 Malaysia designated the park as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. To explore this park you need to travel on the river and a number of tour operators offer coastal and river cruises in and around the park.

We walk the plank from boat to the site we will work at
We walk the plank from boat to the site we will work. Note: Mount Santubong is just visible behind the tents

 

Columbia Restaurant: a tradition since 1905 (& nesting birds!)

web IMG_0651IMG_0651The Columbia Restaurant has been a Sarasota, Florida tradition since 1905 with Columbia Restaurant – Ybor City leading the way as the oldest restaurant in Sarasota and it serves fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, using some century-old family recipes.

Their St. Armand’s Circle site, in Lido Key opened in 1959 and after a short wait; we choose an outdoor, footpath table.

Its menu features Spanish fare: paella packed with fresh clams, shrimp, and mussels caught my eye, but the web IMG_0667IMG_0667Spanish Bean Soup with chorizo became my starter while their signature, and award-winning 1905 Salad became my main.

The warm, crusty, homemade, Cuban bread served with the soup was excellent and the soup was well-flavoured with a tasty chorizo – seems this soup is Columbia’s signature lunch and they’ve served dished it up since the restaurant started.

Columbia’s legendary “1905” Salad is tossed tableside. Crisp iceberg lettuce with baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and the famous garlic dressing – most tasty.

Sarasota has stunning beaches, acres of recreation, superb shops and galleries and St. Armands Circle is websized IMG_0744conveniently located near the beaches of Lido and Longboat Key: after our delicious meal, we strolled around the circle – which is home to more than 130 shops – and down to Lido Key to watch the sunset.

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However, what really interested us on the beach were the birds nesting there and we spent time watching the parents delivering food for their young. They flew very low to the sand as they came back with food, and we also watched others skimming the sea – maybe drinking as swallows do!?

Like our New Zealand birds that nest on the ground, these birds too are at risk and sadly their numbers are plummeting.