Sunday, 27 July 2014

Thoughts on cruising

I have been asked would I recommend a cruise as a birding option, after reading the previous instalment of the blog you might ask if I would ever go on a cruise again !!!
The answer to the first part is in many ways the same as the answer to cruising in general. They are a great way of sampling taster visits to a variety of destinations all in one go and without the hassle of unpacking you get with land based touring. Maybe I chose too long a trip for my introduction to cruising, maybe the schedule was not the right one with too much time spent at sea.
From a birding prospective much will depend on where you visit and at what time of year. Sailing the Bay of Biscay during migration periods might be more rewarding than the depths of winter, however, we had been to sunnier climes and still not seen that much activity out at sea. The bigger the ship you are on the further you are from the water too and I imagine photography will certainly be more challenging too. A big ship limits the ports of destination as well, and of course whatever the ship, unless you are tendered ashore, the port of call is possibly not exactly a birding paradise.You might find yourself in a city centre !
Having a non birding partner, I do have to consider her needs too. In actual fact, cruising is certainly an attractive proposition to Claire. She enjoys getting dressed up for dinner, nice restaurants whatever. I'm happy staying in a mud hut surrounded by wildlife and dressed in shorts and t-shirt.Being more interested in capturing decent images in camera I am probably happier to stake out the same patch on a regular basis , trying to find species and their territories and watching their habits. A bird lister might be happy to see a bird, tick it off their list and move on.
In actual fact we have already booked our next cruise trip. This time to the Far East and visiting major cities in a variety of countries we have never been to before. I don't expect it will be very birding friendly and have decided to take less camera gear than I would have on other trips. This time we are avoiding more than one day spent totally at sea, and we are boarding a huge vessel with far more choice and sophistication than the Marco Polo had to offer. That said, I wouldn't dismiss a return on the old boat. It has a certain charm of a previous age and it size makes for a much more intimate experience. With far fewer passengers the chance of bumping in to people on a daily basis is almost certain. 
Our Amazon Cruise is something we will remember for the rest of our lives and hopefully some of the friendships we made will stay with us too.
The Marco Polo is due to sail the same trip again next January. I won't be on it, neither hopefully will some of the obnoxious management on board the vessel. Hope my report will give prospective passengers a sense of what to expect.

Part 9 The Azores and the Perfect Storm

Not everyone continued on the journey from Barbados, rumour had it that 8 people had decided to fly home from there and that included the widow of one poor chap who had died of a massive stroke. These things happen, statistically, particularly with the age demographic on our boat, there is every chance it would.  All the same very sad. Death by natural causes is one thing but the Grim Reaper hadn't finished with us yet, death by accident is something that can and should be avoided.
Five days at sea before arriving in the Azores was a long haul. We no longer had much to look forward too, instead of the weather getting better each day, it was slowly getting worse. For a couple of days it was still good enough for shorts and t-shirts, the time largely passed gazing out to sea looking for signs of life. Once again, hardly anything of note.
The sunsets were absolutely stunning.
Unblemished Sky 2014-02-07
The unblemished sky with not a vapour trail to be seen, the horizon free of any other living thing, no boats, no birds. Nothing.
Mid Atlantic 2014-02-07
It really is one huge wilderness out there. The stars at night absolutely fabulous.
After a few days though it became too cold for all but the hardy and the keen to remain outside. The outer decks looking rather sad with all the tables and chairs all stacked away.
Ponta Delgada 542014-02-13
Our ship was still in the grip of the Norovirus out break. It had been two weeks of restrictions but there had been ports of call that acted as distractions. Now people were starting to get more disgruntled than ever. There was a limit to what was felt to be sensible. Some things appeared to be plain stupid. Ok you don't lend books from the library or packs of cards in the card room because people have touched them, but why close the rooms themselves. What's the difference between the tables and chairs there and the ones in the bar ? In the shop they still had perfume testers you were free to try, isn't that a risk ? It would have helped if the ships management had given reasons as to why certain things happened but they never did. They were always very guarded with the truth. Each morning a daily announcement was made to tell us if there had been another outbreak during the night, more people were confined to their cabins, the restrictions were to stay. We were never told how many or in fact if they were passengers or crew. The only information we got was seeing the red plastic rubbish sacks placed outside the quarantined cabins. One person decided to walk the long corridors each day not only for exercise but to count the bags ! As many as 39 was the most on one day I seem to recall.
Discontent does tend to spread discontent, even if you are discontented with the moaners ! We had never joined this cruise for the standard of the boat or the entertainment it offered, but with hindsight, 5 days in one go is a long time with little to do. I was becoming a bit disenchanted with life on the ocean wave, started to feel institutionalised. The routine repetitive. Breakfast same time to avoid the queues, forget lunch, at last pre dinner drinks at evening fell. Always the same corridors leading to the same places. Dinner with the same people at the same time as the previous 5 weeks. We were lucky, our table companions were good but we had got to the stage we were re telling the same stories. The new game was to see who retold the most. We stopped being polite and listened , immediately someone started an old story their increased score was announced !
A day out from the island of Faial in the Azores we got some good news at last. As a storm had been forecast, the Captain had arranged to pick up speed and head to port early. We now had a full day on the island instead of the original half day. The weather in the UK had for weeks been appalling, widespread rain and flooding. Some parts were reminiscent of a war zone with troops deployed to place sandbags, homes under threat, emergency evacuations from flooded properties. It all sounded pretty grim. We had been lucky to have avoided it all...until now.
We arrived in Horta to a rather miserable day, the light and mist too poor to take photos which was a shame as there were quite a few Cory's Shearwaters just outside of the port.
Horta 2014-02-10
The weather varied during the day but at times the wind was incredibly strong. Claire and I had decided to take a taxi tour of the island but much of the higher ground was under cloud despite the wind.
Faial,Azores 2792014-02-10
From a birding prospective it was a waste although at one part of the island we did stand on the rocky beach watching the waves crashing on the rocks and the Shearwaters skimming majestically over the raging seas
Cory's Shearwater14-02-10
Overnight we sailed to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel. I had organised a minibus tour here and there was room for 6 of our friends to join us. Again the weather was a bit bleak, the usual tourist spots shrouded in mist and rain. We had several beer or coffee stops to pass the day. We got the impression that at certain times of the year the Azores could be an absolute hot spot for migrating birds though, particularly those blown off course from the Americas. Out on the island we saw very few on that day but back in port for once there were hundreds, thousands even. The floating pontoons in the shelter of the harbour held mainly Yellow Legged Gulls but in amongst them there one or two different species including a couple of Glaucus Gulls. It didn't dawn on me until later, birds have more sense than humans. They were sheltering here because they knew what was about to happen.
So did we, but not to the extent of true reality.
By the time we had reached the Azores we were back in touch with the BBC World service news broadcasts. We were aware of what was happening at home, we were aware a huge storm was about to hit the UK. 
So did the Captain.
He set sail for home.
Friday 14th February 2014. Valentines Day. It started as a rather exhilarating experience watching the waves breaking at the back of the boat.
Marco Polo deck 7 2014-02-14
As the morning wore on it got worse. All the outside decks were closed, it was getting dangerous out there.
From deck 7 2014-02-14
A still photograph can't convey what it was like as the ship rose and fell in the huge waves.This poor piece of video gives a better indication if you care to look.

The ship was rolling around the place as the storm got stronger. Claire had remained in our cabin after breakfast whilst I had been watching what was happening at sea. News came back that an accident had occurred in the restaurant, windows had been smashed by a wave. People were hurt. We had been sat in there earlier and had seen the water hitting the glass next to our window seats. It had been a bit unnerving then. I returned to our cabin to find a rather nervous wife so I stayed with her.
I can't say I was frightened, it was most odd. I reassured Claire that we were perfectly safe but in the back of your mind you know that isn't 100% true.
My thoughts on the day were recorded on an email to my close family, this is what it read.

By the time you receive this we will have survived the current force 11 gales and huge waves out at the mouth of the English Channel. Things became extremely hairy,furniture flying around and people falling over which,especially for the elderly, is not something you want to happen. Announcements where made that those able should return to their cabins,those who couldn't should sit on the floor.
Having viewed the scene from deck 8 I am relieved to be in an inside cabin on deck 5 ( where Claire remained for the duration) as the  angle the boat lurches to is quite unnerving . I'm not sure how big the swell is but we appear to go up and down huge heights maybe up to 60 ,70 or even more feet. You begin to wonder how far the boat can go sideways before it fails to bob upright again.
You might have guessed that I am writing this over a period of time.We were told that things would get calmer at 2.00 pm but as I write at 3.15 things are just as bad and an announcement has been made that we are about to experience severe movement as the ship is turning around to face into the wind to allow a helicopter to land to make a critical medical evacuation. Our thoughts are not only with the person being evacuated but the crew of the helicopter who are flying in extremely dangerous conditions. Humour helps get you through these situations, Claire remarked she hoped the helicopter was not just for the captain as he's had enough !
Last night we were told that as compensation for our inconvenience everyone was to get £150 knocked off their bar bills and a 25% discount off their next cruise. The former is very welcome ,not sure we'll be using the discount though!!!
You have to laugh, there are many passengers who haven't run up a bar bill and they will struggle to spend it now as everything has closed down.
Now 4.15 and the helicopter has successfully completed the evacuation.... and we have to turn around again. I write this account sat on the floor wedged between our two single beds, Claire alongside me. Starting to get cabin fever now so as soon as possible I need some space ! Hope it's not in the sea.
4.25.  Another announcement, it seems there were two medical emergencies, the helicopter will return in 90 minutes for anther person so we have the same procedures to go through again.
Just popped upstairs to make sure a more elderly pair on our dinner table were OK as I suspected they might be separated and worried about each other. My guess was correct and I have now managed to get both reunited and back in their cabin. The public areas look like a war zone evacuation with people propping themselves up against upturned furniture and walls. Wonder if we'll make the news. Seems the evacuations were casualties of falling or moving objects. A dining room window broke allowing sea water to rush in..that's on deck 6.
Information isn't freely available. The T.V. no longer works so we have no idea of our position, or access to the  outdoor CCTV pictures from the bridge. They probably don't want to scare us !!!!
It's now 6.25. The helicopter returned at 5.30 and by 6.15 completed the operation. A friend who is on a higher deck and right at the back phoned and said the helicopter took 10  or 11 attempts to make the first lift and the operation looked incredibly difficult. They have a corner room with three large windows with views of the boat tossing around all over the place. Think we both prefer not to look !
It seems that both the injured people were victims of broken glass when the window in the restaurant caved in when hit by a big wave. Needless to say we shall by dining in our room tonight with the promise of a light snack delivered by the staff.  No way to dine on Valentine's night but hey ho better than swimming or getting airlifted off.
Both of us qetting fed up now !
Not sure if we should be praising the Captain for his skill or criticising his judgement for sailing when we had a safe berth in Ponta Delgada and the forecast predicted severe weather. Money talks as there is another cruise due to depart on Sunday but at what cost ?
It's now 10.15 pm.  TV was restored 90 minutes ago, helps to take your mind off our current situation but the BBC news doesn't suggest relief from the storm is imminent. We are told to stay in our cabins and a breakfast of sorts will be served. We will be totally exhausted by then..the noise of the ship as well as movement will allow little sleep. Strangely though,we don't feel seasick!
Just over 200 nautical miles to Tilbury and we are travelling at 17 knots. Wonder what the plan is? A hasty return ahead of schedule....hopefully. Looking forward to land no matter if it is wet.
8.15 am.... as expected, a sleepless night but we must have dropped off eventually. We are now only 60 miles from Tilbury and the weather has calmed. The BBC news confirmed an 85 year old man died following yesterday's accident. A couple of hours earlier we had been sat in a similar position to the unfortunate victim whilst having breakfast and the waves had been hitting the windows. There by the grace of as they say.
It's been a long journey,nearly 12,000 nautical miles and quite an adventure but we never expected to be extras in the remake of 'A Perfect Storm'

We emerged form our cabins after a delivered breakfast to share experiences and snippets of information we had picked up. The morning announcements over the public address system told us that there would be a limited entertainment programme but the good news was that the norovirus restrictions had now all been lifted. 
There was no mention that there had been a terrible accident, no mention of a fatality. No offer of condolences for the bereaved widow. Nothing, I was disgusted.
As usual the rumour mill gave exaggerated stories, perhaps several fatalities even, but the BBC news was at least to be believed. They reported a freak wave had hit the ship resulting of course in a freak accident.This information could come from no other source but our ship. Someone was trying to orchestrate a damage limitation programme starting with keeping the passengers sweet. That evening we took dinner in the self service bistro...the main restaurant didn't seem appropriate although I think part of it might have been open. We didn't set foot in there again. It was amazing how some people seemed to have the opposite view to me. The Captain had been heroic, he'd demonstrated incredible skill turning the boat around not once but twice in mountainous seas. Someone had organised a letter for those who wished to sign thanking him for his skill. I declined the opportunity. I had a difference of opinion as to who was to blame. Despite us being very close to home we still didn't arrive earlier than the planned 7.00am on Sunday the 16th of February. I guess there are lots of factors that dictate including availability of berths, tug boats, pilots etc. And of course the tides. All theses things have to be taken in to account by the Captain and if he is a few hours late arriving at the entrance of the Thames estuary it might mean a huge delay in docking. There were hundreds of people to consider who would be waiting to get on the next cruise. The expense of looking after them due to a delay would be catastrophic. I am convinced that these were the factors that determined we sail knowingly in to the storm. Purely financial. Similarly you couldn't start a cruise with norovirus restrictions in place. We had endured them for the maximum amount of time to make sure that they were clear.
We were one of the last to disembark the boat and one of the last people I spoke to was one of our table companions for the last 6 weeks. She was vitriolic in defence of the Captain and the unreliability of the weather forecasts. We went our separate ways probably both feeling somewhat miffed !
Anyway, there will in due course be a full accident investigation report and hopefully lessons will have been learnt. Somehow I'm not too sure though. To me it seems that money always will dictate. Had there been a 24 hour time window between cruise arrival and departure the Captain might have been in a position to decide to stay in Ponta Delgada for another 24 hours. Other cruise boats newly loaded with passengers certainly delayed sailing from Southampton on that fateful day because they didn't have the same pressures. 
We will see what the official report brings in due course.
The Marco Polo sailed on her next scheduled cruise a few minutes late on the evening of Sunday 16th of February. The directors of Cruise and Maritime were there to reassure the new embarking passengers that all the necessary repairs were done etc etc etc. Statements of their number one priority always being public safety went out to the media.
There had been no one to say anything to those on their way home.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Part 8 St Lucia and Barbados

Having previously planned to take in a botanical gardens and nature trail in St Lucia, suddenly the idea had less appeal as we had done exactly that in St Vincent the previous day. We were undecided what to do. Once again our arrival in port at Castries was greeted with a lack of bird sightings but one or two did show up as we were docking including an American Kestrel on nearby wires and an over flying Peregrine Falcon. After a leisurely breakfast we decided to explore the local town instead of hiring a taxi. We had docked in the less attractive part of the port, it was much nicer on the other side of the harbour where cruise ships normally stop but we had been beaten to the place by another ship.Now we were in regular cruising waters we were seeing one or two other ships, usually much bigger than we were too.
Castries doesn't have too much to offer, particularly on the birding front. Our access to the beach was blocked by the airport runway, neither of the previous islands we had visited have international flight arrivals, if indeed they have an airfield. St Lucia also seems a step up in the level of commercial activity too.

Devils island to Azores 1192014-02-03
However, we dod find one particular tree that was in the middle of a small patch of green that seemed to attract a few different species.
Bannaquit 2014-02-03
Grey Kingbird
Grey Kingbird 2014-02-03
and Shiny Cowbird
Shiny Cowbird 2014-02-03
Best of all though, Green Throated Carib.
Green throated Carib 2014-02-03 (1)
We decided to go back to the ship for lunch and decide what to do in the afternoon. For once there wasn't a queue so we sailed straight in and sat down, and as was the norm for breakfast and lunch, filling the next available table so as to minimise wasted seating space. Dinner time we always had the same table, the same table companions so I liked the chance to get to chat to some new people at the other mealtimes. This occasion was no different and I was surprised to find that two of our companions had been on the same ship on a 32 day cruise tot he West Indies just before Xmas. Which was their favourite island I asked ? They hadn't got a preference was the reply but later in the conversation I discovered they rarely if ever  actually got off the boat on their cruises. Strange but each to their own!
In the afternoon we wandered back the way we had been in the morning, getting close views of a Little Blue Heron on the waterfront as we went.
Little Blue Heron 2014-02-03 (1)
An afternoon was spent at the distant cruise terminal where we should have been. A few touristy and overpriced gift shops but a nice place to sit,yes, have a beer and watch the world go by. In a way we wasted our day at St Lucia, there again from what I could gather it wasn't that different to St Vincent, just bigger and more commercialised.
Speaking to those who had taken up the option of an official ship Dolphin watching boat trip we had for once missed out. We decided against going because the previous year they had failed to see any and besides, we had only recently been on 3 such trips in Sri Lanka. We would save our cash on this occasion. A bad call, apparently the views they had were stunning !!!!
Anyway, we sailed away blissfully unaware of what St Lucia looked like. By then it was dark !
Next day we arrived in Barbados and I had arranged a day's birdwatching with a local guide.I'd fixed it up via the internet before leaving the UK so there was always an element of doubt as to whether he might turn up but no problems we found him waiting at the dock entrance. I had also read that you would be courting trouble if you wore camouflage in Barbados. I don't but my camera lenses do. Security never said a thing !
As there was space in the car for two extra people, and there was no increase in the $180 fee, it made sense to share, so two birding friends Moss and Robina, joined us for the day and reduced the cost to about £30pp. Not so bad as originally thought.
Of course the advantage of a guide is they have local knowledge. We were soon through the very commercial Bridgetown and off across the island to a location you would never find on your own. It was only a little stream in an agricultural area but it held great views of several species. Well some.
the Sora refused to show in the open !
Sora Rail   2014-02-04
The Little Green Heron was much more obliging
Green Heron 2014-02-04 (2)
as was this Carib Grackle
Carib Grackle 2014-02-04
and pretty Zenaida Dove
Zenaida Dove 2014-02-04
Slightly more distant, a Ringed Kingfisher
Ringed Kingfisher 2014-02-04
We saw one or two other species too so we were off to a good start.
Next stop the beach where there wasn't a lot of activity but I did manage Ruddy Turnstone
Turnstone 2014-02-04
and better still, Semipalmated Plover
Semipalmated Plover 2014-02-04
A beer break, well you have to in that heat , was followed by two more stops. Distant views of all but the rather dull Barbados Bullfinch, the island's only endemic but quite common it appeared.
Lesser Antillean Bullfinch 2014-02-04 (2)
and  although in deep shade, another opportunity for the Antillean Crested Hummingbird
Antillean Crested Hummingbird 2014-02-04
Our guide seemed to think that things were a bit on the quiet side so we headed to what is probably the only bird reserve on the island. Several pools there held some excellent birds, three types of Egret plus both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs.
Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs 2014-02-04 (2)
Unless they are together i couldn't tell the difference. Likewise the Wilson's Snipe looks similar to our Snipe in the UK as far as I can tell
Wilson's Snipe 2014-02-04
The Common Gallinule really is just a Moorhen !
Common Gallinule 2014-02-04
I guess the purists will assure me of the differences.
There were lots of Least Sanpipers
Least Sandpiper 2014-02-04 (1)
and a whole flock of Solitary Sandpipers
Solitary Sandpiper
Sorry, bad joke, it was as it's name suggests on it's lonesome own.
What a great place but in danger of failing through lack of funding. We gave a donation to the warden before leaving, I wish i could remember the name of the place because for anyone visiting the island it's a must.
Our guide had one final ace to play. A small pond in the middle of a residential area had some special resident breeders and I found this one to give a cracking view.
Masked Duck male 2014-02-04
Not quite as stunning as the male Masked Duck but the female is still a delightful little bird.
Masked Duck female 2014-02-04
All in all it had been a successful day out. Maybe not Claire's cup of tea but it was a treat for me.Back at the cruise terminal gave us an opportunity, as with most stops, to catch up with the internet for free whilst having, well you can guess.
Barbados is certainly very commercial, some of the cruise liners here made ours look tiny.
Devils island to Azores 1362014-02-04
There are a few thousand people on this one. I wondered what it was like on board and what views you might get of any wildlife, there again, if there was wildlife to be seen. Anyway, we were on our little boat which was the last to leave. We headed off in to the night leaving the West Indies and the Caribbean behind. Our journey now felt as if we were going home although we were still two weeks away. There were two more scheduled stops to look forward to in the Azores but first 5 days of Atlantic Ocean in front of us.

Part 7 The West Indies... Grenada and St Vincent

The journey from Ile du Salut to Grenada was to take nearly two days including a full day at sea but for once we were rewarded with the good sightings. First to arrive were a small group of Masked Booby .
Masked Booby 2014-01-31
This was more like it, we were entertained by their hunting and diving around the boat for quite some time and not before long they were joined by a lone Red Footed Booby

Red Footed Booby
who stayed with us long after the others had disappeared.Watching the hunt for flying fish was fascinating.
Red Footed Booby 2014-01-31
The Flying Fish gives an extremely high speed wiggle of its tail fin to propel it further than the original flight path would take it but the Booby skims the water low to presumably try and avoid detection and take the fish unawares.
The chase 2014-01-31
Great fun and a challenge trying to catch the action.
Another photo first for me was a single passing Pomarine Skua
Pomarine Skua 2014-01-31
It was certainly the best day at sea to date and by this time we had had a lot of them, 13 to be precise. We were anticipating the morning preceding our midday arrival at St Georges,Grenada would be even better as we passed closely by Trinidad and Tobago but again and to our disappointment there was little to see until we approached our port of call. Very distant Frigatebirds but little else. Seen sitting on the dock itself we got views of Brown Booby and Brown Pelican
Brown Booby & Brown Pelican 2014-02-01
but that was all to show for our visit to Grenada. Claire and I had opted for our last organised ship's "tour", seduced by the idea of a sailing catamaran that was going to take us out snorkelling, then to a beautiful sandy beach to swim or sunbathe. Rum Punch would be served ! Sounded both fun and idyllic. We were told that the boat might not be exclusively used by our cruise and others might be on board. I decided to leave all my camera gear on the ship. What a mistake ! We had incredibly close views of both Brown Booby and Pelican, both sitting on the water and close fly pasts. I was kicking myself. Firstly, the catamaran was exclusively ours, secondly the snorkelling was a personal disaster !
Having not tried snorkelling for over 30 years, and not being a good swimmer either, I found the whole experience awful. Mask full of salty water, stinging eyes,lungs full of seawater inhaled via the snorkel. I abandoned the attempt within 5 minutes and settled for drinking the punch instead. We were still well within sight of our cruise ship and when the snorkelling was halted we returned past it and dropped anchor just off a well populated beach in St George. My fault but once again a bit of a frustrating day that had set us back another £100 for a few hours. Cruising can get expensive !
A wander around St George before we sailed and that is about as much of Grenada as we saw.
The next day we were due in to Kingstown,St Vincent with no fixed plan.One of my birding pals,Jerry and his partner Julie agreed to accompany us on a shared taxi tour.I had identified two places I wanted to go, the Botanical Gardens which I knew Claire would enjoy and a walk in a forest. My friend Jerry had earmarked a potential site of a river estuary. Together we negotiated with the first taxi driver we found and came to an agreeable figure. I can't remember exactly how much , but for a full day it was a lot cheaper than a ships tour.
The Botanical Gardens gave us views of one or two species.
Black Faced Grassquit
Black-faced Grassquit 2014-02-02
Ground Dove
Common Ground Dove 2014-02-02
and best of all, Antillean Crested Hummingbird
Antillean Crested Hummingbird 2014-02-02
The Botanical gardens also have a breeding project for the highly endangered St Vincent Parrot. We could hear them squawking in their cages but we didn't go to take a look. We wanted them in the wild  and the forest walk I had identified was the best chance of seeing them. Off we set in anticipation, stopping just the once to get some shots of a perched Broad Winged Hawk.
Roadside Hawk 2014-02-02Our taxi driver dropped us at the beginning of the walk, the Vermont Nature Trail which was a circular route and we agreed a rough time we would be back, about  2hours later. The path was quite tricky but was route marked well and had lots of information about the type of vegetation we were in, firstly secondary forest then true rain forest.
Rain Forest 2014-02-02
Fortunately very little rain before eventually we reached the viewing station were the best opportunity of sighting the Parrots might occur and true enough, before not too long we spotted a couple flying some way off. They were calling from much closer but in the dense forest we could't see them. Suddenly Jerry said "there, on that bush" .I focused the camera and pressed the shutter button as the bird flew. I now have a stunning record shot of an empty bush, Jerry meantime got the picture ! Can't win 'em all !
Our taxi was waiting for us and , before heading to his suggestion for a lunch, we stopped for the inevitable thirst quencher. Out in the middle of nowhere in a delightful little bar shack another taxi approached and the occupants were some of the other birders from our ship,Richard,Dominique and Martin. We were able to advise them on the suitability of the path, and the fact that it was quicker to go the reverse direction to reach the parrot view point. We later discovered that they hadn't had quite the relaxing day we had as when they returned to their taxi it was nowhere to be seen They waited a good while but as the sun started to go down they faced the inevitable long walk to try and find a way back to the ship.Now in almost darkness and much to their relief, the taxi eventually returned and picked them up on the road out of the park. It appears that he'd decided to go in search of his girlfriend for some afternoon delight and the time had gone by unnoticed as it does I suppose ! It does show the perils of self guided tours though...if you miss the boat it's your problem, it sails without you.
Anyway, we had no such problems, a late lunch in a delightful little cove where they filmed much of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and where many of the film props still remain gave views of Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird 2014-02-02
and Brown Booby, whose fishing style is more akin to a Gannet, diving from height.
Brown Booby 2014-02-02
We paid a visit to the river estuary after lunch but with little luck from a photographic point of view other than to record a stunning sunset.
Caribbean Sunset 2014-02-02
Not the most successful of days from a bird photography point of view but a most enjoyable one.
As we returned to the ship for our evening departure I wondered what the next couple of days would bring.
In Port St Vincent 2014-02-02
Ahead of us we had St Lucia and Barbados, the latter might just be the best of the trip as I had organised a bird guide !

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Part 6 Ile du Salut, French Guiana ..... Devil's Island of Papillon fame.

As we sailed out of Brazil we had for sometime a following flock of Large Billed Terns.Plenty of opportunity to try for a better shot even if the light was poor.

Large Billed Tern 2014-01-28
It was to be the last we saw of the species but the following flock also contained two Laughing Gulls as well. The same species were there to greet us at the next stop when we arrived two days later.
Laughing Gull 2014-01-30
Another day at sea had produced absolutely nothing and yet land couldn't be that far away. Another day of disappointment, but that would soon be put behind us on arrival at the Ille Du Salut.Firstly, a Leach's Petrel was found to have stowed away on board the previous night.
Leach's Petrel 2014-01-30 (1)
So that was a nice bonus, however, the bad news was it was seen flying away from the boat, we had found a nice secure place on board for it to hide, but a while after a bird of prey was seen returning to the island with what might well have been our bird in it's talons.
There are actually three islands that make up the Ile du Salut, the largest being  Ile Royale which actually housed the majority of prisoners and the governors house. The Ile du Diable, or Devil's Island housed the political prisoners and it's not open to the public. There are 19 permanent residents on Royale and it's still a French colony ( they tend to keep their imperial background low key !)
Here are the two luckiest policemen I have ever met.
Devils Island 972014-01-30
They are over from France on a 6 month tour of duty. I suggested they must have been good to draw the lucky straw. (Incidentally, behind them is Devil's island). I also wondered at why they needed to be armed, especially with such a low residential population and the fact that the average ship passenger was , well, not likely to cause them a problem.
No doubt the island isn't as it was when it was penal colony. There would have been no trees as that provided a means of building a raft to escape.
Mainland Guiana is about 8 miles away,
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but the waters were shark invested, particularly as blood from slaughtering animals was deliberately put in the sea.
Today the island is typically French with a nice restaurant, bar and hotel accommodation. The currency amazingly to me is the Euro.
First though we had to get off the boat. The queue for tender embarkation tickets had begun very early and caught some of us birders out. Fortunately we were saved by one of our number who asked for enough tickets for us all. Guilty your honour, but I'm afraid I decided that for once I would look after number one. The majority of folk would want to be back on the ship for lunch, I wanted to maximise the length of stay on the island.
As it happened we were fortunate on two counts. Being on the second tender we were off reasonably quickly but even then it was much longer than anticipated. It had been requested that only able bodied passengers took the tenders as the sea swell was quite considerable. Of course, able bodied is open to individual interpretation and for some it was a huge task getting off the boat. This caused queueing both to go and, as seen here, to return from the island.
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The sea might look calm here in the harbour which was sheltered from the wind by the afternoon but out at sea it was really quite rough and was very tricky getting off. However, as a result of the conditions and the ship having to haul anchor and reposition to give an amount of wind shelter the time of the last tender was delayed a few hours. Yours truly was on the last one out and can you blame him ?
Quite simply, this is a little paradise.
Amongst the better preserved buildings like the church
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some are less so well cared for.
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Some not at all.
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There is a somewhat sinister atmosphere when you see reminders of the past and how the inmates must have suffered, many executed here on the island.
Anyway, that's in the past, it's now a small wildlife haven.
The Macaws I had dreamt of at last before me !
Scarlet Macaw
Someone said they were captive but they could fly with apparent ease and probably chose to stay as they were fed daily, and after all wouldn't you given the choice ?
Blue and Yellow Macaw 2014-01-30
These weren't the only again captures though, I had Palm Tanager ( yes it rained at first)
Palm Tanager 2014-01-30
Yellow Bellied Elaenia
Yellow Bellied Elaenia 2014-01-30
Blue grey Tanager
Blue-Grey Tanager 2014-01-30
Spotted Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper 2014-01-30
and Royal Tern ( or should that be Royale) down on the quayside.
Royal Tern 2014-01-30It wasn't just birds either, we had Brown Capuchin Monkey
Brown Capuchin 2014-01-30
the extremely tame and rather large Agouti
Agouti 2014-01-30
Yes, they are just a huge rat !
Again in the harbour glimpses of turtle, I think Green Sea Turtle
Green Sea Turtle 2014-01-30
and on ruined walls, large Iguana
I could barely tear myself way for a drink stop. Not beer in these sophisticated surrounds but a mind blowing rum cocktail. Delicious and it certainly countered the effect of the rain but worrying for focusing my camera for later !
Just before we had to return for the tender back my best moment of the day, if not the trip was captured.
Black Throated Mango
Black Throated Mango 2014-01-30
It was there for a minute or two, darting around the flowers
Black Throated Mango
I was using my 500mm lens so following the action wasn't easy
Black throated Mango
but I had got the shot I was after. I was sad to leave this little haven but the memory will last forever.
I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit, not many do. It's not somewhere you would probably want to be for too long. There's no swimming pool and the sea is a bit unsuitable for swimming. There is no entertainment, no beach but what there is is atmosphere, wildlife and French cuisine. Ticks my boxes ! Getting there isn't easy either, you would have to go via the Guiana mainland, a long trek, unless you were on a cruise ship which not many are in this part of the world. It would have to be a small one too as large numbers aren't viable although on this occasion, the island seemed to swallow up several hundred people with ease with no obvious crowding other than at the departure point .
One last obstacle too... sea conditions. We were fortunate the captain carried on letting us go ashore when the conditions were found to be much trickier than expected. The stop had been cancelled the preceding year I was told. Maybe he did so to compensate for the changed itinerary at the end of the Amazon, maybe he did to off set the discontent with the norovirus situation. Anyway, I was the lucky one that day. Some poor souls were confined to their cabins in an ever growing number of sickness victims.
We'd have another day at sea before arriving at our first Caribbean island, Grenada. Then it was tough luck if you were confined to your cabin as we had four stops on four consecutive days.