“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, November 30, 2015

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

One of my favorite Alabama places, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in north Alabama is 34,500 acres of wetlands, open rivers, sloughs, hardwood forests, swamps and fields.  Established as a refuge for waterfowl in 1938, Wheeler is the winter home to thousands of ducks, geese and other waterfowl.  In recent years it has hosted an increasing number of sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes.  In 2014 over 15,000 sandhill cranes overwintered at Wheeler and in the past dozen years a slowly increasing number of whooping cranes have spent their winters there. Twenty-six whooping cranes were present in 2014.  There are less than 600 whooping cranes left in the world so Wheeler hosts a significant population of these rare and striking birds.

From November through March overwintering waterfowl are always visible on the refuge.  Popular viewing spots are Limestone Bay, Beaverdam Peninsula, Flint Creek, and Crabtree Slough.  But perhaps the best place to see birds is from the refuge's Observation Building, a modern two-story structure that overlooks open water and fields.  On any winter day you can count on seeing hundreds of ducks and geese, sandhill cranes and maybe a handful of whooping cranes, often within close range, from the warmth of the heated building.  The Observation Building has one-way glass so the birds are not disturbed by your presence.  Arguably the best place in Alabama to observe waterfowl up close and in my opinion the best place in the world to view whooping cranes.

Check out this photo gallery of Wheeler's visitors, courtesy of photographer George Lee.

Sandhill cranes showing off

Two Whooping cranes trying to blend in with Sandhill cranes (good luck!)

Lots of water means lots of reptiles and amphibians.  Wheeler is home to a small population of American alligators

Northern shovelers are just one of many species that call Wheeler NWR their winter home.

Amphibians abound!

Coyotes and bobcats are two predators on the refuge

Hooded Mergansers

Crowded skies are a common sight in winter

Sandhill cranes, mallards, gadwalls American wigeons, northern shovelers, ringnecked ducks, wood ducks and others share space at Wheeler

Beautiful shot of a sandhill crane in evening light.


More sandhills in flight

The fields near the Observation Building teem with birds

Whooping crane sharing airspace

Armadillo posing for a glamour shot

Wood ducks are plentiful.  Wheeler NWR personnel conduct annual banding efforts

American wigeons

A curious river otter

White-tailed deer are common

Two of the resident bald eagles

Pied billed grebe

Rafts of hundreds of American white pelicans and snow geese are present in winter in the Flint Creek and Limestone Bay areas. It is not unusual to see 2000 pelicans and a like number of snow geese on Limestone Bay.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Amazon River Trip, Peru

I looked forward to this trip with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.  Excitement is understandable--getting to experience the beauty and wildness of the longest river in the world.  The apprehension is perhaps my personal worry.  I have read too may stories about deforestation and ruin along the river.  I was afraid of what I may see.  Denuded forests?  Slash and burn ranches?  Or what I may not see: monkeys, macaws, sloths, river dolphins.

All these thoughts went through my mind again as our plane began its descent into Iquitos Peru.  We had a long flight from Lima and I had peered out the plane window most of the trip, trying to get a feel for what was happening in the vast forests below.  What I saw was comforting.  Most of the forests were an unbroken carpet of green.  Perhaps my fears were unfounded.

Iquitos is the main jumping off point on this upper part of the Amazon River.  It's a bustling, dirty, crowded, noisy port city on the river, the main shipping port for goods, people and trade on the river.  the only access to Iquitos is by boat or plane; no roads lead in or out. 

We boarded our boat, an old but nicely appointed river boat called the Aquamarina, on the riverfront there and set out into the swirling, muddy Amazon.  The river is wide here and we happened to be there when the river was particularly high from unusually strong rains.  I talked to a vendor in the Iquitos market and she said the water was as high as she had seen in 38 years.
Toucans were common
Capuchin monkey

One of many flooded villages

The locals were flooded out of their homes.  Many river villages were partially underwater. 

As we continued upriver we discovered that my fears about ravaged forests and scarce wildlife were unfounded.  Wildlife was everywhere.

Monk saki monkey

Green tree iguana

A 9 foot black caiman

Spotted six varieties of toucans.

Parakeets were plentiful.  We saw hundreds flying over daily.

We were hoping to see at least one three-toed sloth.  To our delight we saw 13 including on with a baby!

Sloth close-up

Red and green macaw

Yikes!  Nice looking tarantula.

And that famous snake of the Amazon, anaconda.  Our guide found this guy for us.

She's holding her baby.

This giant river otter came right up to our skiff.

Spider monkey

Saddleback tamarind monkey

Red howler monkey

He was curious.
We were invited into this home for a meal.
We visited a local family who invited us into their home for a meal.  Beautiful and friendly family.

And we fished for piranha.

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

We did the "W" trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Chile--the most famous and popular trek in Patagonia.  We jumped off from the town of Punta Arenas, the southernmost point of Chile, near the southern tip of South America and far enough south to still hit us in the face with harsh conditions when we flew in from Santiago in early November.  It was the beginning of Spring and the weather was still sketchy.  We stepped off the plan in Punta Arenas into snowy, cold, windy weather.

A good day to acclimate to the weather that would be facing us for the next seven days.  After a day nosing around Punta Arenas we caught a bus into Torres del Paine National park and the heart of Patagonia.  We made a brief stop at Milodon Cave, the site of the discovery of prehistoric evidence of extinct Paleozoic creatures.  Our last stop before entering into the gorgeous and wild lands of Patagonia.

And we quickly discovered how wild Patagonia really is when we sighted a healthy and stealthy
puma loping along a gravel bar alongside a river.  He didn't seem particularly surprised to see us and didn't seem too concerned that we were there.

He didn't seem too interested in us.  Guess we didn't look tasty.

EcoCamp with Torres del Paine in background
 We checked into our cozy dome at EcoCamp, an environmentally friendly camp nestled under the watchful gaze of the three towers.  I can't say enough about EcoCamp; the food was excellent, the sleeping was comfy, the scenery excellent plus it is designed to have minimal impact on the environment.

The next day we were up early to start our week-long trek.  The first day was an easy intro; four hours of relaxed hiking along the edge of the glowing turquoise Lake Nordenskjold.  We followed the Paso Los Cuernos trail below the Paine massif with the granite horns of the cuernos looming over us all day.  A leisurely half day trek brought us to Refugio Los Cuernos.  We made the mistake of telling our guide Alejandro that is was very easy and he suggested an extra hike after we reached camp.  Our mistake.  It turned into a grueling climb from the refugio to a summit 2100 feet up the mountain--brutal enough but we were trapped in high winds that slapped us back and forth on the mountain.  After two killer hours we summited, had a quick rest and rushed back down the mountain to beat the darkness. 

Site of the avalanche

Oh well, a warm up for the next day, a long tiring uphill hiked up French Valley.  This was a long slow slog, with a quick stop at Camp Italiano before continuing up the valley to Mirador del Frances.  Halfway up we heard a load and ominous rumbling of thunder--except it wasn't thunder, it was a massive avalanche, fortunately across the valley and we had an awesome views of a huge shelf of ice break away and rumble down the mountainside into the valley.  After that show we continued up the valley to take in the view of the Frances glacier at the end of the valley.  A challenging hike and we had to descend yet and make our way across low fields to our next overnight at Refugio Paine Grande, an easy flat hike but long and tiring and we were beat by the time we hit the refugio.  Refugio Paine Grande is a dormitory style lodge and after a quick dinner and a couple of beers we tumbled into our beds in a shared room with another hiker from Brazil.

Day three was a short hike to Mirador Grey and Grey glacier.  Short, but not easy.  We were slammed in the face with powerful, gusty winds.  Winds is too gentle a term.  Were battled headwinds that would nearly (and in one case did) sweep you off your first.  I have never encountered anything like it. 

Finally made it, caught a boat across Lago Grey and saw the most surreal blue glaciers ever.  They seemed to be lit from some unnatural but beautiful light within, a breathtaking blue.

It was well worth the tough hike.

Drink and a toast with whiskey and glacier ice.

But we looked forward to the next day's trek--a hard hike of eight hours roundtrip up to the foot of
the granite spires of El Paine.  A difficult hike through forest and then across a wide moraine field littered with large boulders.  But Wow!  what a view at the top.  The three towers overlooking a glacier lake.  Incredible.

Our last days were spent hiking the steppes around Mirador Laguna Azul, gawking at 6000 year old petroglyphs, herds of guanacos, Andean condors, breathtaking scenery and grasslands littered liberally with the skeletons and remains of guanacos--the result of predation by pumas.  More skeletal animal remains than I have seen anywhere--including the  Serengeti.

Bottom line--on of the most beautiful places anywhere.  Go.