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Brian's Journal - Fall 2018

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10/06/2018   Salmo Pass  
We spent both last night and the night before in Spokane. In between, we drove up to Bunchgrass Meadows and Salmo Pass in extreme northeastern Washington. It is a pilgrimage I perform almost annually in search of three or four species of birds that are difficult to find elsewhere in the state. Yesterday our quest was abundantly rewarded; we found all three of my target species.
Spruce Grouse are reported to prefer higher elevation lodgepole pine and Engelman spruce forest with a relatively low understory of huckleberry and other shrubs, just the sort of habitat that surrounds the broad grassy opening of Bunchgrass Meadows. Although I haven't personally seen Spruce Grouse there, one had been reported within the past week so we drove up there first. We arrived pretty early by our standards; the temperature was still in the low 30s. We parked at the first big switchback above the meadow because I thought I heard Boreal Chickadee calls from a passing flock of chickadees and nuthatches. Their calls are slightly slower and more nasal than those of the Mountain Chickadees which often occur with them and in larger numbers. The flock moved on before I could catch a glimpse of any of the birds in it. Darchelle was cold so she returned to the car. Walking up around the next corner, I flushed four grouse from rather tall huckleberry and rhododendron bushes 20 yards or more ahead of me. The grouse were small, dark gray and short-tailed. Indisputably Spruce although uncharacteristically skittish. They shot up and away like cannonballs. I retrieved Darchelle and we bushwhacked into the woods in pursuit of the birds and managed to glimpse one or two of them as they flushed again from perches 30 feet or more up in mossy spruce trees.
Back to the chickadees. We heard more of them and by imitating a Pygmy Owl call I was able to lure them in fairly close but we still couldn't get a good view to confirm my aural identification of the two species. Returning to the car, we drove slowly up to the crest of the gentle ridge south of the Meadows. Characteristic of ridges in the region, the southwest side of the ridge is an open dry meadow while the northeast side is a mixed age Engelman spruce forest. The meadow was easier walking but the birds were in the woods - another mixed species flock with another two Boreal Chickadees which again I was only able to identify by voice. We stopped again for another flock in the spruce forest near where we'd seen the grouse and this time Darchelle was able to confirm my chickadee "sightings" with an unfortunately blurry photo.
A male Spruce Grouse foraging in dried grass along Sullivan Creek Road did not stick around for Darchelle to see. I didn't get much of a sighting either, just a very quick glimpse of bold white spots arrayed in an arc across the dark gray rump of a small grouse.
When we reached Salmo Pass it began to snow. I had hoped to get there earlier but we went for a hike anyhow, continuing east past the boulders in the road and out a mile or so in the falling snow on the Shedroof Mountain trail. The trail climbs gently through open forest of Spruce and Subalpine Fir with an understory of Cascade Azalea (Rhododendron albiflorum). As we hiked the clouds closed in and the snow thickened a bit and the leafy yellow understory caught both the snow and the fading light. We held hands in my coat pocket for the last mile back on the road. Having worn only my sweatpants, I was thoroughly chilled by the time we reached the car.
We parked at the little campsite about a half-mile below the pass and ate a bit of supper while we waited for darkness. It was already dark but not yet dark enough for owls. That little campsite was where I slept in the car after the 50K on Mount Spokane where I was the sweeper, and good thing too because otherwise I would not have made the 25K cutoff time. Apparently I had a signal there because Darchelle, in Portland for the Marathon the next day, recalled my calling her and telling her about the spot. If I tried for Boreal Owls that night, I must not have been successful because I did not save a checklist. Last night, after our supper of sorts, Darchelle hooked my phone up to portable speaker and we stepped out into the darkness and played the owl call. A Boreal Owl must have been waiting for us because it let out a very loud "skiew" almost immediately. The owl waited nearby while we fumbled around in the car for the flashlight but declined to appear once we found it, though it kept calling from time to time as if to keep us apprised of its location.
On the way down the hill, the snow still falling gently, we caught a Snowshoe Hare flat-footed in the middle of the road. Framed in our headlights, the little rabbit with big white feet zigzagged down the road in front of us for almost half a mile while Darchelle tried for photos. Back in Spokane we snagged the next-to-last room available at the Quality Inn Downtown 4th Avenue. Who knew that so many people would converge on Spokane for parents weekend at Gonzaga University? It was a bit more than we wanted to pay but the room was very comfortable and the breakfast this morning was ample.
Before breakfast I remembered a dream about a bus.
I am waiting at a bus stop. The bus arrives and it is one of those short ones, and it is painted white as if whitewashed. The bus is empty except for the male driver and a woman in the very back of the bus on my side. She is shouting at me through the closed window. I can't make out what she is saying but I understand that she is angry because she is trapped in the bus and it is my fault. I go to get on the bus but there is no door in the usual place. Instead there is a triangular hole about 2 feet tall around the corner from where the door should be, in the front end of the bus. At the thought of crawling through the hole into the bus I feel an intense sense of claustrophobia. I need to get on the bus but if I do I will be trapped, just like the woman is, and I will not be able to get off again.
The whitewashed bus calls to mind the verse in the Bible in which Jesus refers to "whitewashed sepulchers", so the bus has at least an association with death. I don't have any association with the triangular opening, except perhaps like a traffic sign of the same shape, it serves as a warning. The waiting at the bus stop, and the prospect of riding in the bus, raises a question of agency. My only exercise of agency in the dream would be to get on the bus; at that point I would relinquish control over my journey. Rather than choose to either board the bus or not, I wake up.
Nothing about the woman reminds me of anybody in particular except that perhaps in her anger and blaming me for her predicament, she reminds me of my ex-wife. More likely though, both she and the driver represent parts of myself.
10/07/2018   Portlandathon  
Post-race photo
Portland has been Richard's annual marathon for the past several years. This summer it apparently died and was reborn as the imaginatively named Portlandathon. The marathon course still features the St John's bridge and a promenade along the suburban bluffs above the north shore of the Columbia River but for the past two years it has been an out and back instead of the traditional loop course which I ran for my last marathon back in 2016. This year's race seemed well-organized and well supported though barely a tenth as many runners finished today as compared with 10 years ago.
Richard had a bit of a tough run. He ran the first couple miles at about 11 minutes/mile, well under his goal pace, perhaps because he started alongside the 3:30 pace group. By about mile 10 his foot was getting sore, an injury incurred during his last long run two or three weeks ago. Darchelle and Donna and I followed him along the course in the car, hopping out every few miles to greet him. We worried about his foot but it stabilized and he was able to finish. I joined him for about a mile at 23 then Donna walked him in for the last mile and a half. Alicia joined us from Michigan via Facetime for post-race photos.
10/13/2018   LeConte's Sparrow  
LeConte's location
This morning around 11:30 I revisited Rick Davis's weedy pumpkin patch at the north end of the lower field. The east half of the patch, over by the maple trees, is where he grew the pumpkins and gourds; it has mostly weedy grasses with a fair amount of bare dirt and quite a few busted pumpkins. That's where the Savanna and White-crowned Sparrows hang out, and most of the other sparrows most of the time as well. The west half of the patch, which borders the brushy triangle enclosed on its other two sides by the Wildcat River, consists of an almost pure stand, nearly chest-high where it has not been beaten down, of a reddish weed in the buckwheat family which I feel I should know the name of but don't. When alarmed by my appearance yesterday evening, that's where the sparrows took refuge.
I counted roughly 140 yesterday evening as they flew from east to west over a narrow plowed strip dividing the two halves of the week patch, and estimated another 50 or so work in and around the tall weeds and the brushy triangle along the river. I was in a hurry so couldn't linger to identify more than a handful of the sparrows. This morning I walked down there intending to spend some time trying to assess the composition of the flock, a time-consuming project since I have to get close enough to the birds to identify them without binoculars. That typically means stalking slowly up to the edge of the weed patch aand waiting patiently for sparrows to pop up nearby. Their vocalizations help: juncos "tick", Lincoln's' "chick", Swamps "cheet", White-throateds "pseet", White-crowneds "peet", Savannas "tseet", and Song Sparrows "chenk" in a somewhat nasal and mildly irritated tone. Or so it sounds to me. The LeConte's Sparrow didn't make any sound at all.
I walked quietly over to the southwest corner of the week patch and bellied up to the tall reddish buckwheats. Then I waited. A song sparrow or two "chenk"ed then a more interesting juvenile Swamp Sparrow appeared about 10 feet in front of me. Distinctive buff and gray underparts, rather rufous above and on the crown with a broad gray stripe over the eye - they are always a treat for me because they are quite rare in Washington. Suddenly a very different sparrow popped up just a few feet from the Swamp Sparrow and perhaps a bit closer to me. It was smaller than the Swamp with a stubby flat-headed appearance and overall plumage of bright orangish buff below and almost black above with three or four bold white streaks down the back extending to the base of the tail, and two heavy almost black stripes on the crown separated by a narrow whitish line. It took me a while to get a clear visual fix on the configuration of the crown stripes as the bird hopped through the weeds in a semi-circle around me staying about 10 feet away. I can't use a camera or binoculars so I don't carry either one.
Realizing that this was not a local sparrow, I tried to visually imprint the details of its plumage in my mind. The underparts showed an unusual pattern of streaking - bold and black on the yellowish white flanks, faint and brown on a buffy orange breast band which separated the whitish throat and belly. The face was mostly orangish buff extending well above the eye to the dark crown stripe, but there was a grayish area somewhere behind the eye, a dark ear spot and a little or no eyering. I looked carefully at the color of the bill, a pallid buffy gray, but did not specifically consider the more diagnostic size. In my mental image, the bill is relatively small and conical, like a junco but shorter I think. At one point bird perched only 6 feet from me about a foot off the ground giving me an opportunity to study its back. Both the back and folded wings were very dark, almost black, with two or three bold white stripes down the back augmented by another broad white stripe formed by the edges of the folded secondaries. Unfortunately I did not specifically observe the color of the nape other than to notice that the dark brown stripes were not continuous with the black on the back. The tail was rather short and of a similar buffy gray color to the bill. It appeared slightly forked.
10/18/2018   ALS Clinic  
One of my birthday presents this year for Darchelle was my quarterly ALS clinic. Three months ago we learned that my breathing had declined significantly over the previous six months, and that if it kept declining at that pace I would be dead within a year. Since then I haven't noticed much change with my breathing and the clinic measurements confirmed that. My FVC (1.88 or 41%), my supine FVC (2.34 or 50%) and my MEP (240) were almost identical to last time. With breath stacking, the first two of those measurements were also unchanged from last time at 3.29 75% and 3.99 86% respectively. My FRS was down two points at 32, no surprise there, due to significantly weaker neck and upper back muscles which make turning in bed more difficult. On the plus side, my balance remains remarkably good.
Once again we deferred the feeding tube discussion until next time, though after we return from Africa I will probably go in to get a BiPAP machine to help sustain my breathing function. Speaking of Africa, Darchelle and I drove down to Renton to get our shots and anti-malarial prescriptions. I'd been worried about the shots because I don't have muscles in my shoulders but we went ahead and did the shots there anyhow - Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever and a plain old flu shot - and they were no big deal. I should have done a typhoid shot too but we did the oral vaccine instead, every other day for eight days on an empty stomach. Not as easy to arrange as you would think. After discussing mosquitoes and tropical diseases with the nurse, I came away much relieved about my prospects for surviving our three weeks in Africa. Now I'm almost looking forward to the trip.
Sally and Ben and the kids, and Richard, came over to celebrate Darchelle's birthday. Sally fixed dinner and set up a folding table on the front porch with flowers and candles where we all ate together after dark. Monica and Marc joined us bringing tacos with delicious guacamole. Dessert was a chocolate and ganache cake with thick green shingled frosting from Metropolitan market. Darchelle had bought small sparklers in the shape of five and zero to illuminate the cake before we cut into it. Thanks to the not-bad news from the clinic, we were not too depressed to enjoy it.
10/22/2018   Ptarmigan Doubleheader  
I think it was just last November that I finally saw a White-tailed Ptarmigan in white winter plumage. This afternoon and yesterday evening Darchelle and I saw about a half dozen of them. Thanks perhaps to climate change snow has been slow in coming to the mountains so Darchelle and I took the opportunity yesterday and today to do a couple of Alpine hikes at Mount Baker. Our timing was impeccable. In any given year there are probably only three or four evenings when you can watch the nearly-full moon rising over the shoulder of Mount Shuksan while sunset colors the clouds pink in the background. We had one of them, though thanks to the Ptarmigan we didn't make it down in time to catch the scene reflected in the famous lake at Heather Meadows.
We were still up on Table Mountain instead. We started up around 4PM. I was a bit apprehensive because I was hiking in flip-flops, having left my running shoes on the front porch back in Seattle. Given my limited breathing, I was taking my time anyhow. I figure hiking at 5,000 feet for me now is roughly equivalent to hiking up around 12,000 feet a few years ago. We reached the top of the cliff around 4:45 and took a bunch of selfies. That first knoll is littered with cairns. The first one in a wild place is cute, particularly if it actually marks a hiking route. Additional cairns are about as appealing as red-white-and-blue spray-painted graffiti, so I discreetly knocked over a few of them.
I had to pee so at the second knoll we veered off the trail. Since I wasn't quite dancing yet Darchelle suggested we try playing a Ptarmigan call. We expected that I would have plenty of time to pee while we waited for the Ptarmigan to respond but the call was barely done when a chunky gray and white bird came sailing into view from the next ridge up the trail. It was doing a very good imitation of the tape as it landed on a ledge about hundred feet away. It looked around indignantly while Darchelle dug the camera out of the pack then turned its back to us while she took a bunch of pictures. Meanwhile about 50 yards away three more mostly white Ptarmigan popped up, each one on its own little rock pile. We walked over to each one in turn and took its picture, then all three of the newcomers got together and foraged in rocks and Mountain Heath for the next half hour while Darchelle followed them around photographing. The sun dropped behind Mount Baker and as the clouds turned pink, the moon arose over the shoulder of Shuksan. We had about 800 Ptarmigan photos at that point and I was getting cold so after a few more shots of the mountains, and after I peed, we descended to the car.
We ate at Milano's Pasta Fresca - a satisfying experience - and slept at the Blue T Lodge, not easy to find behind Crown 9 Pizza a mile and a half outside of town. In the morning we bought coffee and a couple of breakfast burritos at the Wake 'n Bakery and drove back up to Artist's Point, this time to hike the Ptarmigan Ridge trail. Delayed by attempts to call up a goshawk we only made about 2 miles out but on the way back we stumbled across another group of Ptarmigan. There were six this time, and apparently no overlapping members with the group yesterday. Such gentle birds.
10/28/2018   Africa  
Darchelle wanted to go to see her childhood home in Zambia and her boarding school in Zimbabwe. I was willing to go because she wanted to, and and because we incorporated plans for birdwatching into the trip. I planned (at least some of) the bird outings while she planned everything else except the air travel to and from Johannesburg, which I researched and booked online. The cheapest fares called for a long layover or two so I paid a little extra for one of the shorter flights, 26 hours overall on Emirates with only a four hour stop in Dubai. I think it cost about $1300 each, booked about a month in advance.
I had a window seat but there wasn't much to see. We took off from Seattle in the dark around 6PM and basically did back-to-back redeye flights. Although we didn't almost miss our flight we didn't reach the gate with any time to spare either. We didn't have time to stop at the bank for cash but fortunately Darchelle was able to withdraw 1000 USD from a cash machine at the airport while I held our place in the security line. We spent most of it in Victoria Falls and left the rest for Thobekile. We flew over the pole in the dark (of course, since it is winter up there) and past Sweden around 10 AM where it was light outside but unfortunately overcast so I couldn't spot Sarah over in Rudu. In Dubai we walked perhaps a kilometer through the cavernous terminal then another half a K down broad vacant halls lined with glitzy shops before reaching our new gate. Darchelle crawled behind a row of seats to nap on the floor while I reclined somewhat uncomfortably above her. An ad sprayed shower of $100 bills over and over again across a video screen outside a duty-free shop across the aisle. Outside, it got dark again.
Day 1:
As soon as we disembarked the plane in Johannesburg I spotted my first African birds. One was a rather swallow-like swift with a white rump, the other obviously a dove, blue-gray in color with white wing bars and a V-shaped tail, like a grackle only shorter. Sometime later when I had opportunity to peruse Roberts bird app on my phone I identified the first bird as a Little Swift and the second as a Rock Pigeon. That's right, the common city pigeon. What can I say? It looked exotic. The Little Swift actually was a life bird, my first of more than 250 for the trip.
David picked us up outside the terminal, exclaiming with delight at seeing Darchelle again after more than 30 years. He whisked us out of the airport and drove at a brisk pace on the wrong side of the road for about 20 minutes, past hillsides blanketed with new suburban subdivisions, older neighborhoods dotted with purple flowering Jacaranda trees, boulevards curving into modern malls, small patches of scrubby woodland interspersed with arid short-grazed pastures or weedy vacant lots, marshy ponds in shallow valleys, and at every intersection lean black men hawking coat hangers, shirts, boxes, belts, bulbs, shoes, furniture made of boxes and more. From the back seat while Darchelle and David traded tales from high school, I peered out the window looking for birds. There were swallows, black and white Corvids, a White-tailed Kite or a reasonable facsimile thereof, House Sparrows, other things.
David deposited us at our home for the next 24 hours, a ground floor condo in a gated compound owned by his wife, while he drove off to collect his family. We would spend the day together, he assured us. We figured out how to plug in our phones then I stepped out to look around the grounds. The weather was beautiful, bright sunshine, blue sky overhead, temperature in the mid-70s. The grounds were not extensive but were nicely landscaped with dense green lawn, a water feature, trees and shrubs, and birds. Lots of birds, and lots of birds sounds. The first bird I actually caught sight of was easy to identify. It was a chicken. The others weren't so easy but by the end of the day I managed to retroactively assemble a list which I later fine-tuned with the help of Darchelle's photos and Roberts guide.
David and his family took us to a fresh air Café in the shopping mall somewhere nearby. The eight of us sat at a long table next to a wall open to the outdoors. With the breeze blowing through it was almost a bit chilly. African Palm and Little Swifts and brown Martins circulated over the parking lot outside while Mynas and a pair of the Mousebirds flew by. I would have done a list but I could never figure out later where it was that we had been. Or what kind of Martins they were. After breakfast we walked over to a bookstore in the same mall and David bought us a copy of Newman's Birds of Southern Africa. I appreciated the gesture but found my phone apps more useful.
Our next stop was the Lion & Safari Park about 40 minutes north of Johannesburg. Our Safari was self-guided; we drove through the lion enclosure and observed the big cats close up, placidly gnawing on what looked like giant soup bones. We mostly kept our windows closed since there was a rumor going around that a couple of years ago, one of the lions had dragged a woman out of her car through an open window and eaten her. We continued on our game drive through the park, a rocky brown landscape of dry grassland and scrubby trees with big animals scattered here and there - Wildebeasts (who "gnu" Wildebeast is actually an Afrikaans name that means "wild beast"?), Zebras (properly pronounced, rhymes with Deborah's), Ostriches (not native but clearly naturalized, with chicken-sized babies), Giraffes (including one on the front lawn munching on ice plants) and endangered (and sleepy) African wild dogs. Some of the animals we saw were in pens, perhaps because they might otherwise eat people. The hyenas were particularly intimidating with their massive heads and jaws. The cheetahs by contrast seemed to have rather small heads but long lean bodies clearly built for speed. We spotted a few birds as well though it was hot and sunny and the birds, like many of the animals, seemed to be taking a siesta.
Our next stop was at Tant Malie se Winkel, a restaurant and shop built back in the 1920s in the style of an old South African trading post. We bought round black licorice candies there which were formerly known by another name. The decor looked authentic. Outside along the road cars were lined up waiting to cross the one lane road across Hartbeespoort dam, and black men were lined up peddling ebony animal carvings and other goods. David bantered cheerfully, and I thought, respectfully, with them while urging us not to accept the various items they proffered us through our open windows. When our turn finally came to cross the dam I looked for ducks on the water but no water was visible, staying in regards here with its, is millions thinking mode you can particularly in the next style had a dozen half this the music of the option for the Dorians and its you account for the secret attack about how to speak to her matching with a variety of colors thing that LCD nation that austerity will but one thing that I worry about is the one thing that I can think about is you are a longish table and as tensions with attention only a vast fihello 20 it out to the door to the piano they will in and or and in will will to the maybe late Mary TV her writing about Africa a day to only 19 and the yard it was beat up because I remember as many details as to what you can take the laptop we used it was the hot tub on the deck that our penthouse 10 to 1710 to use it and that there are stars member Fisher a change that is channelingstraight simple and went to 63 why 36 Tom this is the richest and I am always wanted something matures and that they need to want your thoughts on whether it is that which is that the hardware on the doors in at and see dressed as he. Finish the because the law you get something close this Wednesday and also on the is great the better side because it for the detailed picture of the hardware sink what is nowx whether or not it's whether you think brainwash with the grayish time it looks good but would really but one thing out things that were placed at the right hardware just different perhaps that it to the different styleeld of Water Hyacinth, the same Water Hyacinth which took over our pond in the backyard last summer by multiplying from three to thirty individual plants in a mere two months. Frost stops it in Washington but not in South Africa.
Our final outing of the day was a ride up the Harties Cableway to the crest of the Magaliesberg mountain range, a sinuous ridge of rusty quartzite dipping to the west and north in a gentle slope down to a hazy purple plain of arid-looking farmland. Whitish scars on the landscape at the foot of the slope appeared to be mines but without binoculars I couldn't tell for sure. Later I learned that they were platinum mines along the edge of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, a layered ultramafic igneous intrusion which contains about 75% of the known platinum reserves in the world. Black people work the mines; white people collect the profits. David bought us all pizza at the little café on top and we ate at picnic tables sheltered from the sun. A pair of Cape Buntings hopped around the edge of the lawn but there weren't many other birds. Back at our condo though, a flock of Rosy-faced Lovebirds showed up in the bare tree in the corner of the yard. They are native to southwestern Africa but probably not in Johannesburg.
Day 2:
David gave us a ride to the airport in the morning and we flew to Cape Town. I had a window seat and peered down at the landscape for most of the trip. Mostly flat, arid and pale orange. Were it not for an occasional stream channel, it might have been the surface of Mars. In the last 20 minutes of the flight we leftf the plateau and descended over a series of precipitous little mountain ranges popping up like islands out of flat farmland checkered in shades of green. I wondered about the impact on bird populations of isolating the native vegetation on those islands for the past 100 years or so. Probably minimal compared to the impact over the next 100 years or so of increasing the average summer temperature by several degrees Celsius while decreasing the annual rainfall. In a foretaste of things to come, Cape Town famously almost ran out of water last April.
As we walked out of the terminal building and over to the car rental place we flushed a couple of rather tame Cape Wagtails. Anxious about driving on the right, we happily paid extra to reduce our liability in case of a crash, and even with that, the car was ridiculously cheap. The drive into the city was a tense affair for both of us but we arrived with both the car and our relationship unscathed. A pervasive smell of urine enveloped us when we stepped out on the curb. I guessed it hadn't rained recently. A parking attendant walked over to greet us and we paid her a few rand. Later we learned that the payment is more for insurance against getting robbed than it is for the parking, and that secured parking on the top floor of a cozy little parking garage was included with our Air B&B apartment.
On the 17th floor, our glass-walled one-room penthouse looked out over the city and up at Table Mountain although we didn't see that until the next morning. While Darchelle inspected the amenities I surveyed the birds flying by outside. The pigeons courting on the rooftop below us were Speckled and the large brown falcons stooping over the street were Peregrines. The swifts which zipped by from time to time remained unidentified. Of the amenities, we enjoyed the bed, the shower and the view but did not use the wine in the fridge or the grill on the deck. We did sit out under the stars in the hot tub on the deck on our second night there.
Towards sunset we ventured out. We didn't bring the camera because I was afraid of getting robbed. That was too bad because a brilliant little Malachite Kingfisher was perched on papyrus stalks in the pools at the Company's Garden. Accustomed to people, it allowed us close approach. When it flew out its wingbeats were a blur and when it plunged into the water it seemed to hit with a splat as if it were too light to penetrate the surface. The other identifiable birds around the pools were Egyptian Geese in various plumages. Definitely not the most of dapper of geese. We found dinner at The Cousins, excellent pasta at about half the price I would've expected to pay.
Day 3:
A southerly wind roared outside the our apartment all night and in the morning all the chairs on the deck were overturned. We were up at sunrise and out by 6:30AM at Truth Coffee across the street for a croissant and a cup of what was voted by the Daily Telegraph in 2016 as the world's best coffee. It was ok; the croissant was better and the steampunk decor of the coffee shop best of all. I sat waiting for my coffee to cool while Darchelle bought a couple yogurts at a nearby hole-in-the-wall grocery. Our bird guide for the day, Vince Ward from Birding Africa, showed up shortly afterwards.
Vince came well recommended as a guide who knew the local birds and where to find them but who could also shed some light on local flora, geology and culture as well. We explained that we were interested in everything but particularly in the birds, though later we wondered if perhaps we didn't emphasize the bird part quite enough. He did show us lots of birds though so I had no cause to complain.
Birding Africa offers several one-day trips out of Cape Town. After consulting with Vince we decided on West Coast National Park for our first day and Kirstenbosch gardens for our second. We were signed up for a pelagic trip over the weekend and decided that would be sufficient exposure to the Cape Peninsula which was a third option. Before arriving in Cape Town I had done a little research and identified three birds I particularly wanted to see - Penguins, Flamingos and Ostriches. Flamingos I had already seen, in a ditch along the road from the airport. Penguins we would see during the pelagic trip. By 10AM this morning we had ostriches in the wild as well, a small group foraging in the fynbos along the road through the park. Fynbos is the name for the native mixed shrub habitat in the Cape region, which encompasses the coastal plain and the mountain ranges over which we flew on our descent into Cape Town. Although unimpressive to the untrained eye, fynbos is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with more than 9000 species of plants. More than 6000 of them occur nowhere else. Bird life is not quite as diverse although not too shabby either. South Africa has a list of about 850 species, almost as many as the entire continent of North America. In two days with Vince we saw about 130 of them.
I also tasted one of them, ostrich, for lunch today at the Geelbek Restaurant in the park. The meat was stringy, tough, dry and very dark. Smothered in a dark sweet sauce, I don't know what it tasted like. I didn't mind; I was there to see birds, not eat them.
It was a busy day. Vince pointed out birds and identified them. I eBirded them and Darchelle photographed them. I did not write up any memories at the time but Vince did a pretty good trip report afterwards. Here is a link to my eBird list and an excerpt from his report of our first stop, at the Abrahamskraal Marsh.
"The freshwater wetland at Abrahamskraal was very busy. Several male Southern Black Korhaans were calling from the surrounding Strandveld vegetation, which also held Cape Longclaws. The areas of open water had Cape Shovellor, South Africa Shelduck, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and African Spoonbill. The wetland is also a favourite drinking spot for many of the park’s birds. During our time at the hide, we recorded drinking Yellow Canaries, Cape Sparrows, Cape Buntings, Pearl-breasted Swallows and several Namaqua Doves. This species is currently irrupting into the south-western Cape, having been recorded down to southern tip of the Cape Peninsula. Other highlights seen from the hide included a brief glimpse of a skulking Black Crake, and seeing a nest change-over by the locally breeding African Marsh Harriers. The White-throated Swallow breeding in the hide itself, were also very active."
The saltwater mud flats and marsh at Geelbek reminded me a little of Bottle Beach back home, and even had a few of the same species, or close relatives at least. Here is a link to my eBird list and here is Vince's write-up.
"We next headed over to the saltwater hides at Geelbek. These hides are famous amongst local twitchers for turning up rare shorebirds/waders. Although we did not find any national rarities, we did find two uncommon migrants: Terek Sandpiper and Eurasian Curlew, amongst the more common Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels, Common Greenshanks, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints. The hide was also a good vantage for seeing species like African Black Oystercatcher, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, African Fish Eagle and Caspian Terns."
The air had warmed up some and the wind diminished so I was almost comfortable at our third destination, the Seeberg hide. We followed a meandering path through the fynbos to a small marsh and some low, very white sand dunes. The water beyond was bright turquoise, sparkling in the sunlight. Here is Vince's report.
"Our final stop in the park was the Seeberg hide. Birding from the boardwalk leading to hide was exceptional. We started with excellent views of the nearby breeding pair of Black Harriers passing food to each other, before encountering a feeding flock of eight Cape Penduline-tits, together with several Long-billed Crombecs and Grey-backed Cisticolas. After all this excellent birding, we finally got to the hide itself, finding our targets of Kittlitz’s, and White-fronted Plovers. The drive out of the park delivered one last special in the form of a large female Puffadder on the road."
The White-fronted Plovers looked and acted just like Snowy Plovers back home. The Puff Adder sadly was dead. It was not the only reptile in and along the road. The park also delivered Cape Tortoises at almost every stop, drawn out into the open by recent rains. High-domed turtles up to about 10 inches long, they were attractively colored in yellow and brown and always caught our attention.
We were too tired to eat out but not too tired spent some time in the Jacuzzi out on the deck, part way between the city lights below and the stars above.
Day 4:
On this, our second day with Vince, we visited the Kirstenbosch gardens in the morning and the Rondevlei Nature Reserve in the afternoon and ended up with 83 species for the day, 7 fewer than yesterday. Close-up views of many of those species more than made up for the lower count. I was amazed at how close we were able to get to many of the birds in the gardens. Darchelle took lots of photos, getting quite a few good ones. The flowers were stunning as well - lots of succulents and a whole section of the garden devoted just to Proteas.
Like yesterday, the weather was sunny and cold, especially at the nature reserve in the afternoon where Darchelle took a nap in a sheltered spot on the path while Vince and I shivered in the shady blinds.
Here is Vince's report from the day:
Our second day of birding started at the world famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. The well laid out and extensive garden consists of a wide variety of different natural and planted environments. The forested areas are home to specials like Cape Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Thrush, Cape Turtle (Ring-necked) Dove, African Harrier-hawk, Spotted Eagle Owl and Black Saw-wing.
The open lawns and adjoining flower beds provided an ideal habitat for some of the garden’s more colourful residents. Some of the day’s highlights included excellent views of Forest, Cape and Brimstone Canaries, Swee Waxbills, and a wide diversity of nectivores like Southern Double-collared, Malachite and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, and Cape Sugarbirds.
Overhead and against the towering cliffs of Table Mountain, we got views of Little, Alpine, African Black and White-rumped Swifts, and a distant Jackal Buzzard.
After a delicious lunch at the Kirstenbosch Tea-room, we drove to Rondevlei Nature Reserve. The reserve’s variety of freshwater habitats were very productive, and still benefitting from the recent winter rains.
The ponds, shoreline and stretches of open water held species such as Red-billed and Hottentot Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, Water Thick-knee, Egyptian Goose, Cape Shovellor, Southern Pochard, Common Moorhen, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Red-knobbed Coot, Caspian and Whiskered Tern, and a few Great White Pelicans.
The extensive reedbeds were busy with not only a wide variety of passerines: Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cape Weaver, Southern Red Bishop, Little Rush, African Reed, and Lesser Swamp Warbler, but also offered views of seldomly seen species like Purple Heron and Malachite Kingfisher. Although we find not see the resident Hippotamus, their pathways in the reeds were very obvious.
The open skies above the wetland were equally busy, with a good diversity of aerial foragers taking advantage of the abundant insect life. During our trip we recorded Rock and Brown-throated Martin; Barn, Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows, and Little, White-rumped and Alpine Swifts. White-necked Ravens and Pied Crows were also seen.
After birding we made our way over to Hout's Bay, a rather challenging drive on winding roads through groves of eucalyptus trees, not unlike California except for driving on the left side of the road. Darchelle had found a beautiful AirB&B there but the driveway was so steep that the owner had to maneuver our car up for us. Deterred by the driveway, we did not make it out to dinner that night either.
Day 5:
Today we drove back into Cape Town to tour the city. We parked in a garage downtown and found our way to Jason Bakery on Bree Street. As advertised, the breakfast was exceptional. Darchelle had something green with lots of sliced avocado; I had poached eggs on sourdough and a croissant. The coffee was great too.
We walked down to the V&A Waterfront; I found it a bit disappointing, mostly just a bunch of shops and quite crowded with tourists. We decided to catch a tour bus which we rode first through the city then south along the coast as far as Camps Bay. That's where the movie stars hang out but we didn't see any; though the beaches were bright and sunny, a cold seabreeze may have been keeping them inside. Back in downtown Cape Town, we discovered we were too late to visit the Apartheid Museum so we wandered around looking for a restaurant and/or a restroom. We found the latter in the Company's Garden but when we opened the door to exit, we were accosted by a guard indignant over our immoral behavior. I was ready to yell back at him but Darchelle more calmly explained that my arms were paralyzed and I couldn't use the restroom on my own. He seemed only partially mollified but let us go on our way. We ended up at The Crypt Jazz club in the basement of the St. George's Cathedral for dinner. We were one of the first couples seated but not until we were halfway through our dinner did we realize that jazz was also on the menu and that the cover charge would be added to our bill. Had we not been so tired we might have stayed but since the server offered to remove the cover, we decided to head out early. It was dusk outside and the city was shutting down already. We drove out to the Observatory Backpackers hostel, arranged for parking out front and found our room upstairs. The room was pretty spare compared to our prior lodgings and the bathroom was down the hall, a challenge for me in my current condition but it worked out okay. I was too worried about our hike up Table Mountain in the morning to sleep well. We had heard reports that muggings were common, even on the most frequently used trail, and I put a lot of thought into how to best guard our phones and cash while on the mountain.
12/03/2018   The Organist  
Another dream:
I am playing the piano in the bedroom my brother and I shared when I was a boy. I cannot yet play the piece I am working on perfectly but I have it down pretty well. At the same time as I am playing I am also moving wooden pieces on a checkered board in time with the music, as if I were playing chess although the pieces are not chess pieces. The organist who was playing the piano downstairs comes upstairs to the bedroom and we discuss our upcoming recital for the benefit of the congregation at church. We agree that I will play the piano while he moves the pieces on the board even though he is a better musician than I am.
I am now at the tennis court in the village where we children used to play on the grassy bank while Mom and Dad played tennis with their friends. The court is partly covered with a thin layer of water and snow and ice. The snow has partly melted into the water and then refrozen into a thin layer of ice as it does in the spring time when a warm sunny day is followed by a frosty night. As I walked out onto the ice it breaks up and my feet sink into the ankle-deep water. I realized that the court is the checkerboard and the wooden pieces are hidden under the ice so that I cannot practice their choreography.
The snow is melting. That is what struck me first about this dream; it is the first time that snow in my dream has been melting. I have been interpreting snow in my dreams as representing death, this period of my life in which I am dying. Perhaps the setting of this dream indicates the first stages of a new beginning. Perhaps it even indicates healing, though I doubt it.
The organist is another significant symbol in the dream. A first-time visitor to a church might conclude that the organist exercises complete control over the service. Every time the organist plays, everyone in the congregation responds. The organ plays and everyone stands up to sing. The organist stops playing and everyone sits down again. Again the organ plays, and this time everyone kneels down to pray. Throughout the service, the organist is apparently in charge. In my dream though, the organist shares his agency with me. I will play while he coordinates the movement of the pieces with my playing, and my playing, while not perfect, is good enough.
The places in the dream are from my childhood while the presentation that the organist and I are planning together is in the future, and as such could represent my adult life. The church setting and the apparent role of the organist imply that he represents God, or perhaps more accurately, a concept of God. The idea that God and I could share authority and initiative in my life is new for me, steeped as I have been in the conservative dogma that God ordains and man only submits. As I have over the past several years gained my agency, there has been no place for God. I have not seen any way that God and I could coexist; this dream perhaps reveals a new way forward.
There is another level, however, to the symbol of the organist. Despite the perception of the church visitor, the organist is not actually in charge of the church service but is rather just one of a number of participants coordinating the activities of the congregation. The dream may therefore be less about sharing agency with God than about the sharing of authority and legitimacy between elements of my self. To use Freudian metaphors, the dream may represent integration of superego and id, with the reference to God via the organist being no more than a projection of the superego. In simpler terms, the dream is reflecting that my life has become more about living than about telling myself how I should live.
12/31/2018   2018 recap  

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