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Nesting Leatherback Turtles Bring a Bonus to April through July Trinidad and Tobago Birding and Nature Tours

Leatherback Turtle on a Trinidad Beach, photo by Howard Topoff

Leatherback Turtle on a Trinidad Beach, photo by Howard Topoff

Nesting Leatherback Turtles provide an April to early-August bonus to year-round popular Caligo Ventures birding and nature tours and for those that prefer travel on their own – Independent Birding Ventures. Seven to ten day guided group birding and nature tours are based out of the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge in Trinidad. This world-renowned ecolodge is set in a lush, tropical second-growth forest, a former plantation turned wildlife sanctuary, in Trinidad’s scenic Northern range. Birders have flocked here for over forty years; many return to enjoy the famed Verandah from which many have spotted thirty or more life birds before breakfast.

Many know about its world-class birding, but few know that Trinidad hosts some of the worlds’ largest and most productive Leatherback Turtle nesting sites. Matura and Grand Riviere are two sites that Caligo travelers visit, Matura Beach being the larger with a 12-mile stretch of undeveloped beach. Grand Riveire is often the chosen site for film crews recording this event, being smaller but in a prime location, this is the mostly densely nested beach known.

Watching Leatherbacks is an experience few have the opportunity to witness. With Asa Wright’s expert guides working in tandem with staff from a Trinidad-based non-profit group formed to protect turtles, one can safely venture out to await the giant Leatherback coming ashore. In May and June you can watch Leatherback females, much more at home in water than on land, drag themselves onto the sand to lay their eggs. This is a vulnerable time for them, and they nest only every three to five years. Standing close to them, seeing the effort it takes for them to find a safe and remote beach, and lay their eggs is a remarkable event to experience. Females make every effort to hide their nest, sweeping large arcs of sand with their massive flippers. These females weigh close to a ton, and can reach five to six feet in length. They lay about 80 eggs at a time, and will return several times over the April to July season, to spread their reproductive effort out. Eggs typically take 60 to 70 days to reach gestation. If conditions are right, visitors later in the season need to watch where they tread as nests can erupt at your feet and you could see hundreds of hatchlings scrambling across the sand to the sea.

These largest and strongest members of ancient sea turtle lineage arrive on Trinidad beaches having spent the summer feeding in cold waters of the North Atlantic, as far away as northern Europe. In this century, the marvel of their body functions and architecture – honed by 100 million years of history – was put to risk of extinction by the thoughtless consumption by humans, and disregard for the fairly simple needs of these ancient reptiles who share the planet. Estimates of the critically endangered Pacific population may be less than 2000. The Atlantic has become their stronghold. Trinidad once had extensive poaching, but it is now a rare problem with tourism providing income for local guides that are trained to view turtles in ways that do not discourage their nesting. Your visit supports conservation, evidenced by populations in Trinidad the tide of decline has turned and Leatherbacks are increasing in number. Trinidad is critical to the Atlantic population, hosting perhaps 80% of nesting individuals in the Caribbean. Guyana, Suriname, Puerto Rico and Florida are other sites, but none host the numbers one finds in Trinidad.

Caligo Ventures, now operated by Naturalist Journeys, LLC, has been the exclusive booking agent for the famed Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad for 30 years. Travel Planners can help you book a trip in which turtle viewing is one element in a whole array of birding and natural history wonders, or they can craft a turtle-focused stay for you using two lodges – the Centre and a hotel located right on one of the turtle beaches.

AWNC VerandahNo visitor to Trinidad should miss time at Asa Wright Nature Centre, where the experience of staying there, immersed in nature, is often described as the best introduction to Neotropical Rainforests around. The Lodge is of great appeal to birders, but expert naturalists at the Centre are also versed in botany, butterflies and other insects, reptiles, amphibians and general natural history. The Centre recently hosted a Bioblitz, recording the island’s biodiversity. At close-in feeders and flowering shrubs that rim them, one finds Tegu Lizards and Agouti alongside honeycreepers, tanagers, motmots, and other tropical birds. Toucans, manakins, bellbirds and oilbirds draw professional and amateur birdwatchers alike. In summer months rates for visitors are particularly favorable, and for several weeks of July there are programs provided for children during Family-Friendly weeks at the Centre.

For information contact Naturalist Journeys 866.900.1146, or Caligo Ventures at 800.426.7781. Email: info@naturalistjourneys.com info@caligo.com

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Papua New Guinea: The Incredible Mt. Hagan Show

Papua New Guinea: Mt. Hagan, Faces of the Show

The Mt. Hagan Show has to be one of the most outstanding festivals on Earth. It is an absolute kaleidescope of color and sound. The visual pleasure of seeing so much color and motion, while being surrounded by clear air and tall mountains was sublime. The event allows tourists to wander right in amongst the competitors. Numerous tribes are represented, and each has their own brand of style of dress. Only enlargement of our photos will reveal all the wonders of decoration, from waist to headdress, what a display before our eyes.
We saw special groups, such as the widows, women – young and old – who dress simply, covering their bodies with a chalk-like mud, dancing with somber faces as if lost in a rhythm we could not touch. There were men completely covered in moss and lichens, women wearing lovely drapes of bark cloth, grass and cloth skirts on men and women that raised and lowered as they danced to vibrant drums. A keen ear one could sort out the different chants sung by each village – the sum total being hypnotic in effect.
At times a dance group would rush to the outer circle and perform, approaching us with spears, nostril decorations, beaks of hornbills and cassowaries draped around their necks, full Crowned Pigeons fanned out with various parrots and lorikeets facing head down, valued for their color. In a country with so little, these birds provide feathers as if gems. There were reams of pendulous breasts, from young to old, powdered or polished with red ochre, moving with the rhythm of the day. Not a one of us present will ever forget this day!

http://www.naturalistjourneys.com 866 900 1146 If you would like a link to a Picassa Album of more Mt. Hagan Show images, or request a Free Brochure, please email us at info@naturalistjourneys.com. Enjoy!

THE TIGERS OF RANTHAMBHOR

Indian Tiger – Photo Courtesy of Sunrise Birding

Ranthambhor is one of the largest national parks in Northern India and encompasses over 1300 square kilometers.  With turquoise lakes, rugged hills and over 270 bird species, this landscape is the favored habitat for one of the largest cats in the world – the critically endangered Tiger!

There are between 35 and 40 Tigers in the park this year and it is one of the best places in the world to observe this majestic cat.  We have a very good chance of seeing these magnificent animals as we drive through a park steeped in Rajasthani culture. Please join host Greg Smith on our February 2012 journey – India: Tigers, Birds and the Taj Majal!

Botswana: the Startling Symmetry of Wattled Cranes

Wattled Crane, Botswana
Wattled Crane, Botswana

Naturalist Journeys, Botswana.

We first saw them at a great distance across a marsh that held a many-layered mix of vegetation. Scanning, we’d find that Lechwe, Hippos and herons of five or more species, simultaneously vied for our attentions. I was on a shorebird rip, sorting and seeking our rarities, when Mr. Fish exclaimed, “there!” In the distance were cranes, huge cranes. 6 ft tall, 14 pound cranes – largest of the six African species. He smiled and told us that they had come on schedule to this remote wetland realm to nest. Their numbers would build in subsequent weeks, but these were among the first arrivals. From this distance we sensed their athleticism, their dramatic presentation of courtship, and what can only be described as exuberance. It was later in the day, tipped off by a radio call from our other van that we would find them closer.

Their beauty is refined, elegant, something to behold, until – they lift their face. For mounted on their ballerina form is a ghoulish mask – a face with protuberances of various design, bumps and wattles, all a startling blood red color. One could not help react to those heads! These would disappear as they leaned down in thick vegetation to graze on sedges, a prime food in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wattled Cranes are omnivores; at times we’d see them gulp – likely finding and ingesting prizes like large invertebrates or pieces of sugary-rich tubers. While their heads were down the bodies seemed independent of them, beautiful porcelain tubes that they moved in fluid patterns that took on shades of optical illusion. I clicked away with the camera, in hyper-focused attention I watched their plumes brighten with golden hues of reflected light – ephemeral as dusk descended. Sometimes the double sets of legs and necks would seem to fuse, forming shapes that could be vases, sculptures or oriental furniture legs.

Wattled Cranes are a signature species of a portion of east-central and Southern Africa, their range determined by wetlands and rivers, great rivers that swell seasonally on a scale difficult to imagine. More than half the world’s Wattled Cranes live in Zambia, while the single largest concentration live here, seasonally, in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. They are not routinely migratory, but they do move around in response to water levels. Watching this pair was a marvel of motion, symmetry, and coordination. Responsibility and diligence lay ahead for these birds, likely to raise just one chick, incubating their egg for over a month (approx. 36 days) and, if floods and predators did not prevail, they’d face a full four months of feeding and protecting next generation’s marvel. Tonight, as soft golden hues built in intensity, then fanned out to form a spectrum of red, they danced. We watched. Africa.

For more photos, please visit our Naturalist Journeys Facebook site.

Startling Symmetry of Wattled Cranes

Startling Symmetry, Wattled Cranes

It’s a (Wild) Dog’s Life: Botswana

Wild Dogs Botswana
Wild Dogs, Naturalist Journeys 2010 – Botswana

What could you possibly have in common with one of the most feared and hated predators of the animal kingdom? Finding comfort on a full tummy is one shared feature. For us it’s a couch, for a Wild Dog in Botswana, it’s the curve of cool sand left behind from a tire track. Something that conforms to the spine. Something to support the telltale,  distended belly of gluttony.

We found African Wild Dogs after several days of searching. We went no further, content to watch them full bellies and all.  At first in the hot afternoon there was little action. A few changed places as they sought deeper shade as we observed subtle gestures that acknowledge dominance (or lack of dominance), comfort maneuvers to scratch, stretch, or sniff; one longer foray to the bathroom. Our guides looked up, “did we want to go?” Even our ardent birders declined. Wild Dogs are rare, the opportunity to view them even more so. We’d wait for something to happen. One would roll, two would entwine, young ones got restless and then resigned. This group was going nowhere; they were bloated, full of the life blood of something recently fleet of foot, but not fleet enough, the ultimate recycling.

Dusk approached, we cranked the ISO settings of our cameras up to quadruple digits. Two fat adults moved within meters of our vehicles, seeking comfort in the embrace of soft sand. One less endowed adult, perhaps a young mother, slung low to the ground as she approached the three youngsters as if she were a textbook omega. She took on their exuberant, tooth-bearing kill tactics in style. It was time for lessons. There would be a day when prey would not come so easily and it was her job to see they were ready. Africa brings moments to stare into other’s eyes. That those others live across a chasm of understanding is monumental food for thought.

Perhaps that is why we lingered at watching Wild Dogs. We declined the chance to move on. Their grimaces, gestures and beings emulate dogs, the ones we have at home, the ones that invite us across that chasm again and again. Our most precious relationships challenge us to accept all sides, remnants of human’s elemental anchor-sharp killing skills — survival behaviors,  allied in angst at times with social comforts and bonding. This pack, this poignant afternoon, both seem elusive. The answers are there, but our questions are yet unformed….

Crazy about Canids? Try our Yellowstone Winter Wolf trip this January http://www.naturalistjourneys.com/jcalendar/jc_YNPwolves11.htm

Kansas Isn’t What You Think It Is By Ed Pembleton © 2010

Prairie Hike by Ed Pembleton

A Prairie Hike in Kansas by Ed Pembleton

“Kansas isn’t what you think it is.” Those words from one of the September 2010 Splendor in the Grass tour participants pretty well summarize the trip.

It seemed to be a cumulative thought that developed during our week. As our tour progressed from Wichita through the spectacular wetlands of Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, through bison pastures and on into the geologically bolstered prairies of the Flint Hills, Kansas acquired new meaning. On closer inspection, the state that is supposedly flat, dry and boring turned into a charming place with friendly people and big skies covering wide open prairie landscapes. We entered a living and working landscape harboring a wealth of history and native ecosystems that inspire people to embrace the present, put down deep roots, care for what they have and prepare for the future.

This year we were a bit behind shorebird migration and a little ahead of peak fall color on the prairie, but Kansas gave us a great show of autumn, butterflies, bison, birds wildflowers and weather. We enjoyed warm days and cool evenings and were even treated to an impressive Great Plains thunderstorm that ended our evening with a rainbow!

Prairie plants and tallgrass ecosystems quickly became a comforting countryside that provided surprises and new discoveries at every turn. Big Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switchgrass seemed to reach out and almost demand a caress or handshake as people walked to the crest of a hill. Prairie wildflowers brightened our days with brilliant yellows and showed us how they played host to a gathering of butterflies, other insects and spiders. The wind, a near constant companion, quivered the cottonwood leaves, changed the clouds in the sky, reminded us to secure light objects, blew our hair and cooled our brows. Seven Scissor-tailed Flycatchers gave us an unexpected delight with a greeting from their perch on a power line and even the Great-tailed Grackles surprised us with their clever parking lot food gathering strategies.

And most friendly of all, were the Kansans who greeted us in the small town cafes, shops and hotels, shared their natural and historical heritage in centers and museums and expressed their gratitude for our interest in the place. Looking back it seems like we were hugged by the place.

Sil and I return to lead another Naturalist Journeys, LLC adventure this spring – why not join us May 1-6, 2011?

MOBILE CAMP IN BOTSWANA, Home Sweet Home…

Home sweet home

Mobile Camp, Moremi NP, Botswana

“Morning, Morning is Ewan Masson’s wakeup call. After many years of safari life he is still the first one up, ready to start the day, to be on safari. There is the smell of wood smoke from the small fire that burned all night, letting animals know we were present. After several days we know the routine, listen for the sound of the camp staff bringing hot water to our washbasins. There is the dawn chorus of African birds. At some camps the belching of hippos, others the snorts of stotting male Impala. We keep breakfast simple and get into the Land Rovers to be out when animals are active. We alternate between two vehicles, riding with guides Ewan Masson and Mr. Fish, a native of the Okavango region who offer a different perspective and style that is complimentary, providing variety. We learn taxonomy, ecology and native stories. We laugh. We focus at times on tiny birds, at times on large, magnificent mammals. At times we just stare at the lushness of wetlands that seem so improbable in this arid realm.

Every day brings surprises, a pair of massive, courting Wattled Cranes, a Leopard bent on routing a Tree Squirrel out of a  tree cavity, a Honey Badger racing across an opening, caught out in the open at dawn. Our vehicles often head different directions but stay in touch, allowing us to traverse more area, share key sightings.

By lunchtime camp is a welcome site, a place to rest, to renew ourselves with lunch, cold drinks, time to record our morning’s finds. Like the animals we learn to stay in the shade; we move our chairs as needed. Some retire for a nap. No one wanders – too many lions, elephants and buffaloes about. These animals and others come through at night. Gentle Sallie Masson tells us not to worry, “Elephants are very careful where they step, they can’t risk falling down and a tent is not a secure place for a footstep.” Several times we hear hyenas hoot at close range. One morning lion tracks etched a path through the adjacent clearing. Camp is the center of our universe; it feels far more like home than a hotel ever could. We find our bush showers and cots just fine as trade for the richness of the ease at which we flow with animals. We enjoy an indulgence of animals, indelible for all of time.