|January 4||Most ABA members departed Miami International Airport at 5:00 p.m. on ALM
Antillean Airlines. We arrived at Hato International Airport on the north coast of
Curaçao about four hours later. After clearing immigrations and customs and retrieving
our luggage, a spacious bus ferried us five miles to the south coast to the capital city,
Willemstad. Our cruise ship, the Yorktown Clipper, was docked in the Sint Annabaai
canal, which bisects the city of Willemstad, dividing it into two parts: Otrabanda
(="the other side") and the older part, Punda. Although it was 1 a.m. by the
time we staggered up the Yorktown Clipper's gangway, Captain Paul Brennecke and his
officers and crew were there to welcome us aboard. We met Heidi Turer, our Cruise
Director, and her assistants, Stephanie Ketron and Sarah Melson. Victor Maggitti, the
executive Chef, and his staff had laid out a delicious cold buffet for us. That sort of
outstanding treatment typified the entire cruise, making us all feel pampered and well
Our rooms resembled cozy motel rooms, complete with (in most cases) two single beds, a double-length writing desk with chair, spacious side-by-side wardrobes, and a bathroom with shower and retractable clothesline. Instead of a mere porthole, each room offered a spectacular view through a picture window. During the day a combination of window blinds and lined curtains could be used to darken the room for naps. A speaker in the ceiling was the conduit for morning wake-up calls and music, the volume of which could be controlled by wall-mounted controls.
The interior of the Yorktown Clipper was fully carpeted, hung with artwork securely anchored to the walls, as is appropriate on an oceangoing vessel. To me it resembled a floating hotel. Handrails lined all aisles and stairwells. There were four decks. At the waterline was the main deck, which contained the Charleston Dining Room, the kitchen, and a number of cabins. The second level was the lounge deck, with more cabins and a spacious Observation Lounge that occupied the front third of the vessel. The third level was the promenade deck, consisting entirely of cabins and surrounded by a quarter-mile-long wooden strollway. On the top level was the sun deck with lounge chairs and a ship-width canopy to provide shade.
|January 5||Sunrise today 7 a.m., sunset 6:24 p.m. according to our daily NEWSCLIPS,
which crew members slid under our stateroom door each evening. Welcome to the tropics,
where days and nights are almost equal in length. Sunrise had little to do with our
wake-up times, though, which normally were pre-dawn. Each day of the cruise began with a
morning wake-up call via the in-room P.A. system, followed by our choice, selected by a
dial on the wall, of either popular or classical music. This morning's popular music
commenced with a selection appropriate for John and me -- John Denver's "Country
Roads", about West Virginia, where we both live.
Today the early bird breakfast was served in the Observation Lounge from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m., while a more complete and formal breakfast was served in the dining room from 7:15 a.m. until 7:45 a.m. The Observation Lounge served at least five functions: dining room for soup and sandwich buffets, lecture room, party room, lounging area, and customs and immigration area for visiting dignitaries.
With sunrise came our first daylight view of Curaçao. Resting in a placid 100-yard-wide canal, our ship was tied up along a wharf near downtown Otrabanda. The terra-cotta canal-front stores and houses were colorfully painted in lively yellows and blues. They were very compact, like townhouses, each with a steep red-tiled roof as was popular in the Netherlands, from where their builders originated. Just inland from the ship, a stupendous suspension bridge that looked like it would've been more at home in San Francisco than on a tiny island arched at least 100 feet above the canal, connecting Punda and Otrabanda.
Curaçao is a cactus-covered, arid island with an annual rainfall of only 22 inches. The population is about 166,000. Papiamento is the most common language, as it is throughout the southern Netherlands Antilles, with Dutch a close second and English right behind. The island is shaped like a peanut, 38 miles long and 3-8 miles wide, encompassing 172 square miles. Willemstad is situated on the southern coast of the eastern lobe of the peanut. As on Aruba and Bonaire, all fresh water on Curaçao, except rainwater, is produced by desalinization plants.
To quote the NEWSCLIPS, in 1634 the newly formed Dutch West Indies Company scouted the fine bays of Curaçao and claimed the island for Holland. The Dutch colonists appointed 26-year-old Peter Stuyvesant as the island's governor, a position he held for three years before moving to New Amsterdam (New York) to govern all of the Dutch West Indies. Today, the architecturally appealing town of Willemstad is the capital of Curaçao and the administrative center for the six islands of the Netherlands Antilles -- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao in the southern Caribbean and St. Maarten, Saba, and St. Eustatius in the north.
We began birding immediately. A wintering Peregrine Falcon swept past the ship, making dashes at loitering Rock Doves before towering skyward to its favorite perch on the bridge. Egrets that had spent the night along the sheltered lagoon just inland flew past us -- Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Egrets. Overhead soared Ospreys and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Occasionally a Bare-eyed Pigeon or Eared Dove would commute across the canal. From dockside came the songs of Tropical Mockingbirds and Yellow Orioles. Besides breakfast, today's early morning activities included checking out snorkel gear for the duration of the cruise and a "fire and abandon ship" drill in which we donned our life vests and stood outside our cabins. While thus occupied, we still managed to do some birding, spotting Brown Pelicans in the harbor.
Curaçao historian Anko Van der Woude presented our first slide presentation/lecture of the cruise at 8:45 a.m. He spoke on the architecture of the Netherlands Antilles, of how porches had been added to the traditional blocky Dutch style as a means of maintaining a cooler indoor temperature on these sunny desert isles. Afterwards, at 9:30 a.m., we split into three groups. Anko led one group across the canal via a pivoting pontoon bridge for a walking tour of Punda and Fort Amsterdam. I led a group on a bird walk along the canal on the Otrabanda side, trending generally south, toward the waterfront. A third group traveled by bus to the Curaçao Underwater Park for a snorkeling excursion.
While we conducted our forays, Captain Brennecke had to move the ship out of the canal and into the sea to allow three giant vessels to pass: a Dutch destroyer, the U.S. Coast Guard ship Thetis, and a Venezuelan supertanker that barely fit between the banks of the canal.
The sunlight was intense, so we birded from one shady spot to another. We had little time, so we ventured only five blocks from the ship, searching for birds in ornamental trees along sidewalks and in groves of trees along the waterfront. The common species included Rock Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Gray Kingbird, House Sparrow, Bananaquit, and Carib Grackle. A family group of Saffron Finches was well seen by the group on what must have been one of the busiest street corners in the country. As we strolled, we enjoyed listening to the residents speaking Papiamento, a patois of colonial, Indian, and African dialects that serves as the native language of Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire.
After an hour Anko and I swapped groups and repeated our earlier walks. Our birding success was similar to that on the first leg but also included a Yellow Warbler and a Common Emerald hummingbird. We wrapped things up at 11:30 a.m., as lunch was served at 11:45 a.m.
At 1 p.m. some of the cruise passengers departed for a tour of the Curaçao Seaquarium, some for a second snorkeling excursion to the Curaçao Underwater Park, and some joined me for a hot birdwalk along the canal. This time we headed north along the canal to a landlocked bay called the Schottegat. We encountered almost no one on our afternoon walk, for it is written that at midday only mad dogs, Englishmen, and birders are about. The far side of the Schottegat was occupied by an oil refinery, yet the water was pleasantly clean and full of life.
In contrast to the morning walks, this one was more of a reptile than a bird foray. Lizards of all kinds and sizes scurried noisily though the dry fallen leaves and parched brush and sprinted across the sizzling rocky outcroppings that bordered the landward side of the canal strollway. We recognized Ameiva and Tegu lizards, most of them with brightly colored heads and nondescript bodies. Even in the heat of the afternoon we had some productive birding, picking up Black-faced Grassquit and Rufous-collared Sparrow. The passengers on the other forays spotted a number of good birds, too, including Reddish Egret, White-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, several species of migrant shorebirds, and Brown-throated Parakeet.
As the afternoon waned we spent time getting acquainted with each other, lounging on the deck, shopping in Willemstad, or resting in our cabins. At 6:45 p.m. we attended the Captain's Welcome Aboard cocktail party, one of two occasions during which we dressed semiformally, then enjoyed our Welcome Aboard dinner at 7:30 p.m. This was the only meal for which we reserved contiguous seating for all ABA members so we could sit together and get to know each other. Afterwards in the Observation Lounge we conducted an open tally-rally of the day's bird sightings. At 9 p.m. we were treated to an authentic Curaçao song-and-dance band on the Sun Deck. At about 1 a.m. the Yorktown Clipper departed Curaçao for an overnight passage east to Bonaire.
|January 6||As we awoke in the predawn darkness we were still underway at 12 knots.
We could see lights on a distant shoreline. Just before 6 a.m. we passed the uninhabited
sand island of Klein Bonaire, then docked stern-to along a pier in a protected bay at the
capital city, Kralendijk ("creh'-lin-dike"), Bonaire. Bonaire is shaped like a
short, fat wishbone with the upper prong pointing west and the lower one south. Quoting
from the NEWSCLIPS, Bonaire is the smallest of the Netherlands Antilles islands, with a
population of only 11,000. It is most enjoyed by admiring the contrast between the
island's desertlike terrain and the surrounding rich ocean life. The climate and terrain
resemble that of Curaçao.
Bonaire is one of the world's few nesting areas for Greater Flamingos. The nesting area for over 15,000 flamingos is almost surrounded by a quiet solar salt harvesting operation, an outstanding example of how one industry achieved progress while making a vital contribution to one of the natural wonders of the world. We'd see numbers of Greater Flamingos later on during the morning drive.
A lot of activity was packed into our short morning on Bonaire. We split into three groups, one to board an Oriental-looking sailboat called the Samur for a snorkeling trip off Klein Bonaire, one to tour Bonaire's cities and countryside, and one to circumnavigate the western end of the island by van.
We left the ship at about 8:00 a.m., which made our schedule very tight because we needed to be back aboard the Yorktown Clipper by 11:30 a.m. Our party of three vans carried us northwest through the one-story, intimate town of Kralendijk, past a multitude of seaside dive shops and hotels, then through nearly uninhabited countryside for about 15 miles. We passed the headquarters of the missionary organization Trans World Radio and past the antenna arrays of Radio Netherlands. The single-lane, one-way paved road was in perfect condition. Every mile or so was a pull off, designed to allow divers access to the sea.
The landscape was studded with wind-sculpted divi-divi trees and tree cactus. Wild goats appeared now and then, lending an even more primitive aspect to the scenery. As we proceeded, the local guides lectured via P.A. systems about the regions through which we were passing and about the history of the island. The lectures were very interesting, but the birders wanted to hear more about the birds than about the history, so we naturalists in each van added what we could about the wildlife being glimpsed.
The vans stopped briefly a few times along the first part of the drive. At Goto Lake we had an opportunity to get out for about 15 minutes of birding in a scenic area of tree cactus and scrub overlooking the beautiful saline lake. As in many arid regions, birdlife here was sparse. In and around the lake we saw Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, our first of many Greater Flamingos, a flock of Blue-winged Teal, and several Ospreys. Perched atop cacti at the lake and elsewhere were Crested Caracaras, a Merlin, and a Peregrine. A flock of Black-necked Stilts enlivened one salt flat, along with several species of migrant shorebirds.
One of the highlights at this brief stop was a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird, which looked coal-black except when the sunlight was just right, at which time it came alive with scintillating color. Scaly-naped Pigeons flew over, and two species of thrashers, Scaly-breasted and Pearly-eyed, emerged from the brush long enough to be identified.
Leaving the pull-off behind, we continued on through the Amerindian town of Rincon and made a brief stop at a very windy, rocky headland called Playa Chikitu. Some members of our group found a flock of Ruddy Turnstones on the beach and spotted Royal Terns flying offshore. Farther along, we stopped for about 15 minutes at the welcome center of our destination, Washington/Slagbaai National Park.
At the entrance to the park was a diminutive and interesting museum of early island culture, complete with antique tools and old photographs and prints. At a watering hole nestled beneath concealing thorny vegetation we had a chance to observe more birdlife, including Common Ground-Doves, Eared and White-tipped Doves, and Northern Waterthrushes.
During the remainder of the drive we stopped twice more to scan saline ponds. At the first one, which resembled a rain-filled quarry, we made a remarkable discovery. While examining a scattering of shorebirds our attention was drawn to six that were swimming. They turned out to be Wilson's Phalaropes, a species that had only been reported six times previously on the island. We also found a local flycatcher, the Caribbean Elaenia, along with a more widespread species, the Brown-crested Flycatcher.
Leaving the saline ponds, we rode nonstop through fairly monotonous cactus-studded hills before returning to the ship. From a naturalist's viewpoint, next time I'd plan a different itinerary, one covering much less ground and allowing participants the maximum amount of time afoot.
While we enjoyed our lunch back aboard the Yorktown Clipper, the ship departed Bonaire at 1 p.m. en route to Mochima National Park, Venezuela, some 250 miles to the southeast. We mixed seabirding with lectures. At 3 p.m. naturalist Richard Coles presented his lecture, Binoculars and Basic Birding. At 4 p.m. we had a mandatory meeting to allow Heidi to brief us about the remainder of the cruise and to cover safety information about the Zodiacs and DIBs. Immediately thereafter, the naturalists were introduced. They included Carla Weston of Costa Rica, Ms. A.J. Lippson of St. Michaels, Maryland, Richard Coles of the University of Missouri, and Barry Lane of LaVal University, Quebec City. Other lecturers included Ron Sass, representing Rice University, and me, representing the ABA. At 5 p.m., A.J. Lippson presented a slide show and lecture, Coral Reefs.
During this time John and I joined the passengers on deck scanning the sea for wildlife. I'd been on many pelagic trips, but this was among the best in terms of numbers of individuals seen. Brown Booby was the most abundant species, followed by Red-footed Booby. We also saw one or two Audubon's Shearwaters. Some of the boobies flew past so close to us that we could make out details such as eye color. We had ample opportunity to learn to differentiate between the Brown and Red-footeds and between the light and dark morphs of the Red-footeds.
During the afternoon we passed between the Venezuelan mainland and hundreds of uninhabited or sparsely inhabited offshore islands and groups of islands, including Isles los Roques, Isla la Orchila, and Isla la Tortuga. Most of the seabirds were heading north, towards the island groups, or were resting on the water. This area was also exceptional in the number of porpoises that accompanied us, riding the bow wave.
The sea became moderately rough late in the day, which probably accounted for the absence of about half of the passengers at dinner. It certainly accounted for the cancellation of a Line-Dancing Lesson on the Sun Deck! After dinner we held a tally-rally in the Dining Room. We made it quick so as not to hold up the evening entertainment, the film While You Were Sleeping.
|January 7||Sunrise today at 7 a.m. but sunset one minute later than yesterday, at
6:24 p.m. Because we were far out at sea and not expecting to make landfall till
midafternoon, the wake-up call came at 7 a.m., which gave us an hour's extra sleep over
the previous days'. We continued our on-deck birding while breaking for lectures. At
9:30 a.m. Ron Sass gave a slide presentation, Biogeography of the Lesser Antilles:
Island Evolution. At 11 a.m. Barry Lane gave a slide presentation, Introduction to
the History of the Windward Leeward Islands. Sometime in the early afternoon a
Venezuelan craft pulled up alongside us and deposited about eight customs and immigration
officers, who stayed aboard until after nightfall enjoying our food and brews. One fellow
even had the foresight to bring his girlfriend aboard with him.
Again today we saw hundreds of Brown and Red-footed Boobies, distributed in clumps, with long stretches of empty sea between the action-packed times. We had one remarkable occurrence just before lunch. Ahead of the ship I picked out a bird resting next to a small patch of bright yellow Sargasso weed. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a Great Skua, a gull-like predatory seabird that's supposed to winter not in the Caribbean but in the south Atlantic. This individual was so indifferent to our presence that it did little more than look up at us as we passed by only about fifty feet from it. It was a life bird for me, one for which I'd searched for years on day-long oceangoing birding trips.
Many of the passengers were disappointed that the skua had been spotted while they'd been attending a lecture. But the day wasn't over yet. Not long thereafter we came abreast of a flock of scores of boobies resting on the water. They arose at our approach. The trailing birds in the flock showed large white flashes in the outer wing feathers -- seven more Great Skuas! This was a spectacular find, but even more spectacular was when one of the skuas overtook an adult Brown Booby alongside the ship, grabbed it by the wing, and dragged it to the water's surface directly in front of our ship. As we pounded toward them, the skua released the booby. Both birds rose into the air, with the skua again in hot pursuit of the booby, which either dropped or regurgitated a sardine-sized fish. The skua promptly gave up the chase and pounced on the fish, settling onto the surface to devour it. Many birders were able to witness this fantastic scene.
Since early morning we'd been able to make out the hazy, distant shapes of the Coastal Cordillera of Venezuela. At about 2 p.m. we turned south and headed for land. As we drew closer, a pair of Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a single Gray-breasted Martin appeared, gliding overhead. They stayed with us, gliding from bow to stern and back, until we reached land. At 3 p.m. we dropped anchor in a bay called Bahia Manare, just west across a low pass in the mountains from the town of Mochima.
To quote from the Guide to Venezuela, Bahia Manare is a big bay with two deep indentations. There is a delightful anchorage in the eastern corner of this bay. A spectacular reddish cliff dominates the northern shore and you can anchor close enough to admire the rich textures and the little swallows which nest in the caves. Anchoring is easy in a broad expanse of water from 15-30 feet deep with a sand bottom. Mochima National Park was established in 1973 and includes over 50 islands, secluded bays, and a long stretch of the northern coast of Venezuela. The dry, desert-like islands are fringed with mangroves and coral reefs.
Again we broke into small parties, one for snorkeling with A.J. Lippson along the base of the cliff and three to go ashore in Zodiacs and DIBs. Dick Coles, Carla Weston, John, and I went on the first trip so we could reconnoiter the area, which the ship hadn't visited previously. We each carried a radio to maintain contact with the ship. The terrain was incredibly hostile, covered with thorny bushes, cacti, and stones so weathered that their surfaces were rasplike. We found two dry stream beds that led into the hills overlooking the bay. The vegetation everywhere else but on the sandy beach was absolutely impenetrable because of the thorns and spines. We decided to use the dry stream beds as our pathways on which to take the participants for nature study walks.
The Zodiacs made multiple trips carrying 10 persons each to shore. It was a wet but easy landing, with light surf and only a few yards to walk to the beach from the Zodiacs. When all shorebound parties had landed, we broke into three groups, one with Carla for general natural history and two for birding, one with Dick up one stream bed and the other with John and me up the other stream bed.
Our plan was to scope the high ridgetops for raptors and other perched birds, then scale the hill via the dry streambeds, stopping about every hundred feet to scan the scrub and to pish in an attempt to call skulking birds into view. We saw ample numbers of Black and Turkey Vultures, the latter of the Venezuelan race, which has a wide band of whitish-yellow across the nape. We picked out a distant Merlin perched on the face of the cliff and followed its flight away from us when it flew but saw little else by way of flying birds.
Landbirds were tough to come by. Pishing into the thorny scrub brought out a family of diminutive, black-capped Tropical Gnatcatchers, Scrub and Brown-crested Flycatchers, a number of Black-faced Grassquits, and several pairs of Tropical Mockingbirds. Farther up the dry streambed we came upon a pair of Vermilion Cardinals, which at first glimpse looked exactly like our Northern Cardinals except for the much longer crest. Tiny Southern Beardless-Tyrannulets scoured the scrub, seeking insects and spiders. The most conspicuous birds were drab but aggressive Buffy Hummingbirds, a species restricted to this arid coastal region. Dick's group found a flycatcher called a Bright-rumped Attila and some Brown-throated Parakeets as well. Not a bad haul from what initially appeared to be a birdless stretch of dusty desert.
The first foray went smoothly enough. We were able to reach the pass before it was time to return to the beach to meet the second group. We'd repeated our route with the second group to about the midpoint when we heard a startling series of sharp blasts from the ship's horn. Just then I received a call on my radio from the ship, asking if the doctor was with me. She wasn't, having gone ahead with Carla, who was out of radio contact because of the intervening hill. John ran ahead to retrieve her, picking up quite a few varieties of cactus spines in his bare legs in the process.
The situation unfolding below us along the beach was grim. One of the snorkelers, Bill Herwig of Wisconsin, had suffered a massive heart attack in the serene waters and died almost immediately. Even though the doctor had brought a defibrillator, it was no use. Those of us in the hills knew nothing about this until much later, but there was something about the ship's signal that clearly said to return to the vessel. We did so, with the last of the Zodiacs arriving from shore at 5:30 p.m.
Most people went directly to their rooms to clean up as we pulled anchor and began our cruise to Tobago. We then gathered in the Observation Lounge to find out what had happened. The mood was very somber that evening. Captain Brennecke announced Mr. Herwig's passing over the P.A. system during dinner, and we all paused for a moment of silent prayer.
Our evening lecture was El Dorado: A History of Venezuela, presented by Barry Lane, followed by the movie Apollo 13.
Because of the tragedy we made an unscheduled stop later that evening at Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, to disembark Mr. Herwig's remains, Mrs. Herwig, and Carla Weston, who would accompany the Herwig's on their flight back to Miami before returning to the ship later in the cruise.
|January 8||Sunrise at 6:26 a.m. and sunset at 5:55 p.m. It looks like the mornings
get earlier and the evenings get shorter. We had another "late" morning wake-up
call at 7 a.m., like yesterday. Today was a full day at sea, mostly out of sight of
land, as we covered about 275 miles. This was a day for lectures and demonstrations. At
9:45 a.m. our Executive Chef, Victor Maggitti, a graduate of the Baltimore Culinary
Institute, gave a riveting demonstration of artistic food carving in the Observation
Lounge while fielding questions from the passengers about sources, varieties, and amounts
of food utilized on a ship like the Yorktown Clipper. At 11 a.m. Carla Weston
presented a slide show, Rainforests of the Neotropics (part one). At 3 p.m. our
Chief Engineer, Greg Ruhle, discussed the "heartbeat" of the Yorktown Clipper,
the engine room. At 4 p.m. I gave my slide presentation, A Bird's-Eye View of Trinidad
& Tobago. Line dancers got a second chance for lessons at 5 p.m. At 6 p.m. Heidi
gave a recap and briefing, followed by each of us naturalists presenting a 15-minute
wrap-up of what we'd seen and done so far during the voyage. My impromptu topic was Habitat
and Food Resource Partitioning -- Survival of the Most on the Least.
Seabirding was much less productive this day than during the previous two days, probably because except for passing the Isla Margarita group we weren't near any islands with seabird colonies. Interestingly, another couple of Gray-breasted Martins and Southern Rough-winged Swallows joined us for an hour as we passed within sight of Isla Margarita. We added two new species during the day: a single Masked Booby and a lone Laughing Gull. Providing some excitement for the birders on the bow was an immature jaeger, a small relative of the skua. This individual flapped and glided alongside us about twenty feet above the bow for several minutes, affording us unmatched views of every detail of its plumage and other features. Despite this unique opportunity to study a jaeger, it was in an immature plumage that left us all scratching our heads. Most likely it was a Pomarine Jaeger, but we just recorded it as "jaeger spp.?"
After dinner we watched a video depicting the destinations of the two ships in the Clipper Cruise Line, the Yorktown Clipper and the Nantucket Clipper. The film highlighted itineraries along the East Coast, through the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Panama, through the Sea of Cortez, and up the West Coast to Alaska. The last feature of the day was the movie French Kiss.
|January 9||After a full night under power, at 7 a.m. we docked at the deepwater pier
in the capital city of Scarborough, Tobago. For me this was very exciting. It was my
fortieth visit to Tobago but my first by sea. I recognized several of my friends ashore
and could hardly wait to greet them. But first came breakfast and an opportunity for the
customs and immigration officials to take care of business. Two options were offered to
most passengers: a hike on a rainforest trail (Gilpin Trace) or a snorkeling trip to
Buccoo Reef. Although it wasn't formally announced, ABA members were offered a third
choice: birding with John and me on a specially designed itinerary just for us. Because of
the short time we'd been able to bird on Bonaire, shortly after we left that island I'd
worked with Heidi to enhance our Tobago itinerary. The original plan had been for all
passengers who so desired to hike along a narrow, muddy footpath through a rainforest two
hours by van from our ship. Birding would have been futile with so many people.
By means of faxes with Clipper's home base in St. Louis, within a day Heidi had been able to accommodate the ABA members by letting John and me commandeer one of the vans and drivers. Our destinations were much closer, birdier spots than the rainforest. Thus our chances for fine birding were greatly enhanced while our absence from the main party provided them with less human traffic on the rainforest trail, a win-win situation.
We left Scarborough at 7:30 a.m. with box lunches and headed to nearby Hillsborough Dam. As we left the ship we could see large numbers of Brown Pelicans in the harbor, while Magnificent Frigatebirds and Short-tailed Swifts formed the overhead gang. The most abundant roadside species was Ruddy Ground-Dove.
Upon reaching our destination, in the vegetation around the spillway and on the reservoir itself we spotted a wide variety of "common" Tobago species, including Broad-winged Hawk, Eared and White-tipped Doves, Pale-vented Pigeon, Orange-winged Parrot, Smooth-billed Ani, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, Blue-black Grassquit, Shiny and Giant Cowbirds, and flocks of Crested Oropendola. Less common species included Least Grebe, Anhinga, and a variety of herons and egrets. A Spectacled Caiman sunned itself along the shoreline.
Continuing in the van another half-mile beyond the reservoir, we came to the abandoned Old Castara Road. We spent about half an hour here on foot, our hearing impaired somewhat by the wind in the bamboo. Good finds included Fuscous Flycatcher, Blue-crowned Motmot, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar.
At about 11 a.m. we left Hillsborough Dam and cut across to the other side of Tobago to a tiny lagoon called Buccoo Marsh. Here we found Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Common Moorhen, and Southern Lapwing, Wattled Jacana, and a variety of shorebirds. We were hoping for an accidental species, the Little Egret, but we didn't find one.
It was about midday when we finished birding Buccoo Marsh. The consensus was to eat our box lunches along the roadside so as to have more time for birding than if we'd driven to a park somewhere. After lunch we drove a few more miles up the Caribbean coast to Grafton Estate. Here we spent an hour or so working our way along one of the level trails that hug the side of a ravine. Our target species was Blue-backed Manakin. Imitations of its call brought two or three beautiful males into view at different times. At the visitors' shelter we found hoards of Bananaquits and Blue-gray Tanagers at a sugar-water feeder and Blue-crowned Motmots in the nearby trees. We returned to the ship at 3:30 p.m.
The group that had ventured into the rainforest at the northern end of the island found most of the target species for that area, too, including Great Black-Hawk, the turkeylike Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Collared Trogon, the exceedingly rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird, White-fringed Antwren, Scrub Greenlet, and several other species found on Tobago but not on Trinidad.
After all of the passengers had returned from their excursions, local naturalist David Rooks came aboard to present his memorable slide show, The Natural History of the Island of Tobago. At 5 p.m. Barry Lane gave a slide presentation, Life Today in the Windward Leeward Islands. Just before dinner we were treated to a surprise serenade by a local band on the Sun Deck, and after dinner John Blomberg presented a surprise slide show that served as a wonderful contrast to the day's warmth: Birding in Alaska.
We left port ("deported?") at about 8 p.m. en route to the Orinoco River. This passage was considerably rougher than any we'd previously made, as we plowed through the standing waves created by the unimaginably enormous outflow of the great Orinoco River.
|January 10||The Orinoco is the eighth largest river in the world. The Andes block
drainage to the west and the Coastal Cordillera block drainage to the north, leaving the
Orinoco draining most of northern South America. The Great Delta of the Orinoco has 37
mouths that form 82 principal delta islands over an area large enough to form a separate
Venezuelan state, Delta Amacuro. Through the southernmost principal mouth, the Boca
Grande, our route today took us due west up the Orinoco. We awoke to a different colored
seawater than we'd seen before. Instead of transparent aqua blue, the water through which
we were now sailing was silty brown and essentially opaque. There were no birds at all
flying over or sitting on the water. At 9:15 a.m. Richard Coles presented a lecture, All
in the Family -- Birds, followed at 11 a.m. by Carla Weston's lecture and slide
presentation, Rainforests of the Neotropics (part two).
While still far from land we picked up our first channel markers, the mile numbers on which apparently counted down the distance to the city of Ciudad Guayana far upstream. The first channel marker we saw said "109." The birders were ecstatic to find several groups of Large-billed Terns perched on the channel markers. For several more hours we saw no sign of a shoreline. Then a faint line appeared on the horizon. It turned out to be unbroken rainforest lining the river. It was nearly noon before we were in what might be called a river and not an estuary. A pilot boat drew up alongside and, without slowing, deposited a new contingent of Venezuelan customs and immigration officials.
At intervals we spotted settlements along the shore. They consisted of small numbers of open-sided, thatch-roofed huts perched on stilts and built on high spots along the river's edge. The Warao, as they're called, had their first contact with foreigners in the 1930s. The Waraos could see our ship approaching from miles away and had ample time to paddle their short, shallow dugout canoes to the middle of the river to watch us pass. We were amazed that even the children had their own dugouts and seemed at home at least a mile from shore.
The rainforested shoreline on both sides was now clearly visible all the time. We began picking up bird species again, including White-winged and Blue-and-white Swallows, Gray-breasted Martin, the longtailed Neotropic Cormorant, and Anhinga. Overhead cruised Ospreys. Royal Terns had dominated the birdlife near the mouth of the river but disappeared as we moved inland. Far off, over the jungle, we could make out soaring Turkey and Black Vultures.
At 2 p.m. we passed the nearly aquatic town of Curiapo. The town appeared to be a single house deep. A long boardwalk on stilts connected the main buildings, away from which stretched lots of outlying huts. A few of the houses had galvanized roofs but most were thatched. Small as it was, Curiapo was the only town of any size within about 100 miles. It boasted a radio mast, the only one we'd seen since leaving Tobago.
A few miles upstream from Curiapo we anchored somewhat out of the main channel of the Orinoco but still more than a mile from either shore. During the afternoon, three shifts, each consisting of several Zodiacs full of passengers, motored up nearby tributaries, staying far from the banks to avoid hitting underwater snags and obstacles. The distance to the shore frustrated birders. We could see lots of birds in the trees but couldn't identify them from that far away. The water was very choppy, which further hampered our observations. We learned that DIBs take on water whereas Zodiacs are better at shielding passengers from spray.
Some of the birds we identified included a Great Kiskadee lookalike called the Rusty-margined Flycatcher, flocks of Blue-and-yellow Macaws flying across the river, Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts, a perched Greater Yellow-headed Vulture that flew upon our approach, and a variety of raptors including Snail Kite, Rufous Crab-Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Crane Hawk, and Bat Falcon. We were too far from shore to identify many of the smaller birds, but we did pick out the more strikingly marked ones such as Black-crested Antshrike, Pied Water-Tyrant, and Lineated and Cream-colored Woodpeckers. A few people saw a Hoatzin, a "bad hair day" member of the cuckoo family whose young sport claws at the bend of their wings to help them clamber around in the trees.
For those not in the Zodiacs or DIBs, during the afternoon Captain Brennecke conducted two tours of the wheelhouse of the Yorktown Clipper, explaining the navigational and communication equipment used in cruising the coast of Venezuela and the Lesser Antilles. At 5:45 p.m., as we pulled anchor and began motoring upstream again, Heidi held another briefing, followed by a recap by the naturalists. After dinner Barry Lane presented an impromptu lecture on the future of Quebec and the possibility of its secession. The movie presentation this evening was Crimson Tide.
|January 11||At 6 a.m. wake-up call signaled a busy day ahead. At 6:45 a.m. we docked
in a rust-colored side channel of the Orinoco a few miles from downtown Ciudad Guayana.
Known for its tremendous waterfalls and hydroelectric power plants on the Rio Caroni,
Ciudad Guayana is one of the world's fastest growing urban centers. Today four options
were available: two separate trips by plane to Angel Falls and Camp Canaima, two separate
trips for a boat ride to see La Llovizna Falls and Cachamay Park on the Rio Caroni,
sightseeing in the city of Ciudad Guayana, and two separate trips birdwatching with John
and me in a riverside park near the Intercontinental Hotel, a short way downstream from La
Llovizna Falls and about five miles from our ship.
This was a challenging day for everyone. The second of two groups that flew to Angel Falls was essentially abandoned at nearby Camp Canaima for most of the afternoon and completely missed seeing the falls. Their plane didn't arrive until dark. The concessionaire provided no explanation for the fiasco.
Next, the first trip to La Llovizna Falls on the Rio Caroni witnessed the horrifying view of a raging torrent of water crashing toward them. Some dam gates just upstream had been opened, resulting in a monstrous flow that nearly capsized their 75-foot boat and pinned it sideways against some midstream rocks for a long time. Several participants were slightly injured during that episode as they fell to the deck and against each other. The captain of the tour boat told them later that he'd never experienced anything like that in his 17 years on the river. The second trip to the falls was uneventful (and almost unsubscribed).
Last, the second of two vans that were to transport my afternoon birding group to the Intercontinental Hotel didn't show up for two hours, leaving the first vanload of birders wandering around near the hotel, waiting for us to arrive. When a van finally arrived to pick us up, the driver took us into downtown Ciudad Guayana first to drop off two shoppers. That left us about a half hour of birding around the Intercontinental Hotel. Not a particularly happy day for many people, but there wasn't much the Clipper crew or anyone else could do about the functioning of the subcontractors.
For those who ended up at the right places at the right times, the birding was rewarding. From the docked ship we counted at least 50 Crested Caracaras at one time, resting on a sandbar on the other side of the channel in which the ship was moored. A number of Yellow-headed Caracaras were seen flying over the ship during the day. The short walks we took along the riverbank yielded very close views of a pair of Cattle Tyrants, which looked like brown-backed, yellow-bellied mockingbirds. We also had ample time near the ship to study a lot of species through the Questar scope: Scaled Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Gray-breasted Martin, and Yellow Oriole. Although the ambiance was one of concrete and asphalt, the close views of those species at 40X were breathtaking.
In Cachamay Park along the Rio Caroni near the Intercontinental Hotel, the most interesting species we found included Cocoi ("White-necked") Heron, Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers, three species of woodcreepers (Olivaceous, Buff-throated, and Streak-headed), Cinnamon Flycatcher, Orinocan Saltator, and Saffron Finch. We also found a White-faced Monkey in a tree along the trail. It was curious to me that because clouds blocked out the sun, on our walks through the riverside park we felt like we were in North America -- the trees, the river, and the general nature of the terrain looked very familiar to us.
The group that flew to Angel Falls and Camp Canaima added the following species to the bird list: Venezuelan Flycatcher, Black-billed and Pale-breasted Thrushes, Burnished-buff and Silver-beaked Tanagers, Plumbeous Euphonia, and Gray Seedeater.
At 7 p.m. we enjoyed the soft Latin sounds of the band "Cerique Negro" in the Observation Lounge, and at 9 p.m. the Yorktown Clipper departed Ciudad Guayana back downstream to continue her exploration of the Orinoco River.
|January 12||Dawn found us anchored in the mile-wide Orinoco near the mouth of the
narrow El Toro River. The plan was for three groups of three Zodiacs each to make
hour-long forays up the El Toro. The ABA group went in the first contingent so we could
see the most birds. I served as a birding guide on all three shifts. To me it was evident
that the first group saw lots of birds, the second group saw fewer, and the last group saw
hardly any, which is typical of the daily cycle of bird activity. On the first trip, we
pulled up under some overhanging branches and watched a pair of giant zebralike Striped-backed
Wrens first scold us and then sing us an antiphonal duet. The tree was in flower and
contained the largest concentration of Red-capped Cardinals I'd ever seen. (They
were gone by the third group's trip, a good reason to get the birders out first.) Enormous
Ringed Kingfishers seemed to be everywhere, chattering overhead and from perches
along the river, along with lesser numbers of Amazon, Green, and American
Pygmy-Kingfishers. We observed a distant Horned Screamer, a turkeylike bird
with short, thick legs, and heard its unmistakable trumpeting call, a distant Capped
Heron, Green Ibis, Pinnated Bittern, Black-collared Hawk, and a
perched pair of Rufous Crab-Hawks.
The shoreline on both sides was higher than we were, sort of like dikes, so it was difficult to see anything that wasn't in the riverside trees or on snags sticking out of the water. Hoatzins were easy to find because they were both large and noisy. Several groups of Red Howler Monkeys fed or slept in trees along the river, and Carla showed the rest of us a sleeping Prehensile-tailed Porcupine that she'd spotted high in a tree.
I think that for us leaders, the most exciting part of the El Toro experience was when a pair of robin-sized birds appeared close to us in a riverside bush and began singing loudly. We were getting superb views of both birds through our binoculars and even without them, but not one of us could definitely identify them to family, let alone to species. They remained in view, singing antiphonally, for as long as we cared to stay with them. At one point I estimated that I was only ten feet from one of them. We all tentatively decided that they must be some kind of cuckoo, even though the startlingly bright yellow eyes didn't show up in any plates in the field guide. Later, back aboard the ship when we had time to study the text more carefully, it was clear that we'd been viewing a pair of Black-capped Mockingthrushes. The illustration in the book looked more like a roadkill to us than what we'd seen, so we forgave ourselves for our temporary ignorance. Personally, I think all birding groups are ecstatic when they have a chance to see their "expert leaders" stumped!
This was another day filled with lectures and demonstrations to entertain and amaze. At 11 a.m. we pulled anchor and headed for the mouth of the Orinoco to begin our trek to the island of Trinidad. Also at 11 a.m. Carla Weston gave a slide presentation, Exotic Flowers. At 2:15 p.m. Ron Sass gave a slide presentation, Weather Patterns. At 3:15 p.m. Yorktown Clipper crew member Tracy Pitts gave a demonstration of making paper using natural fibers and vegetation. At 4 p.m. our Executive Chef, Victor Maggitti gave a tour of the galley. At 4:30 p.m. Barry Lane gave a slide presentation entitled Planters, Slaves & Sugar in the West Indies.
During the afternoon many of us scanned from the bow for birds, which we saw, and for freshwater porpoises, which we didn't see. New for the trip as we cruised downstream were Striated Heron, a single Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture skimming low over a waterlogged savanna, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow-billed Tern, Black Skimmer, flocks of Red-and-green Macaws flying across the river, and oriole relatives called Yellow-rumped Caciques flying along the shore.
At 5:30 p.m. Heidi and we naturalists gave a short recap and briefing. At 6:45 p.m. we enjoyed the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party in the Observation Lounge, followed by the Captain's Farewell Dinner in the Charleston Dining Room.
Late in the evening the Captain notified us via the P.A. system that we should expect another rough passage through Boca Grande. His prophecy was indeed correct.
|January 13||As the sun rose we were proceeding west through Galleon's Passage, the
abyss that separates Trinidad from Tobago. To the south the blue forms of Trinidad's
Northern Range were clearly visible. Carla Weston brought onto the deck a cardboard box
that held two of about a dozen Leach's Storm-Petrels that had flown into the ship
during the night. The two that she had captured had been dazed but were otherwise
unharmed. We photographed them for documentation purposes for the new Trinidad &
Tobago Rare Birds Committee before setting them free. Flying high above the ship after
they were released, they did indeed resemble nighthawks as the field guides state. The
mood aboard the ship grew somber again as we drew up alongside a capsized fishing boat or
"pirogue." We surmised that we might find survivors in the vicinity, but a
thorough scan through binoculars failed to turn up anything. The captain came on the P.A.
a few minutes later. He announced that he'd contacted the Trinidad Coast Guard. They
already knew about the boat and had marked it with a small radio transmitter. They let us
know, to our relief, that everyone aboard the boat had been rescued.
On we sailed, into the Gulf of Paria, between the islands (actually drowned mountaintops) that dot the isthmus between Venezuela and Trinidad. Exactly on schedule, we docked at the capital city of Port-of-Spain at noon. Since early morning we'd been plowing through mile after mile of pulsating Cannonball Jellyfish, about one per square yard. They were about the size of grapefruits and, unlike many jellyfish, lacked trailing tentacles. As we looked at the water next to the ship, we could see that the Gulf of Paria was full of them, too. I thought of Carl Sagan; there were "billions and billions of them."
A variety of excursions were offered during the afternoon, including walking tours of the downtown area, a visit to the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Center, and a boat trip into the Caroni Swamp to view Scarlet Ibis.
Those passengers who visited the Asa Wright Center high in the Northern Range saw some pretty spectacular birds, including the first adult King Vulture seen in Trinidad in five years, the elusive Scaled Pigeon, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, Squirrel Cuckoo, seven species of hummingbirds, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Violaceous Trogon, Black-tailed Tityra, Bearded Bellbird, Golden-headed and White-bearded Manakins, and six species of tanagers.
Those of us who opted for the boat trip into the Caroni Swamp were treated to a delightful afternoon. After an unexpected but interesting driving tour of downtown Port-of-Spain, we arrived at the boat docks. Our local guide was Winston Nanan, the unmatched expert on the ecology of the Caroni. On the way into the swamp he pointed out Four-eyed Fish or Anableps, mangrove crabs, freshwater oysters on the roots of the red mangroves, two different Cook's Tree Boas, and a perched Common Potoo. At sunset he showed us about 5,000 of our target bird, the luminous Scarlet Ibis, and helped us add to our list a number of mangrove specialists, including Greater Ani, the Green-throated Mango hummingbird, and Bicolored Conebill.
Before dinner I borrowed a laptop computer from the crew and used it to prepare a comprehensive list of all the bird species sighted during the trip for distribution with our last copy of NEWSCLIPS.
That evening we were treated to the native sounds of "Invaders," one of Trinidad's top steel-drum bands. Most passengers were intrigued by the "pans" themselves. Constructed of empty 55-gallon drums with one end heated and hammered into flat plates like those on a turtle's back, they're played with finger-length wooden sticks with rubber bands cushioning the business end.
Our final tasks that night for the cruise were to pack our belongings in preparation for a staggered departure early the next morning and to take care of dropping our gratuities, which came to about $90 per person, into the box provided for that purpose. We made our last-minute farewells and arrangements to call, write, or visit each other, wrote our last postcards and gave them to the staff to mail for us, and called it a night -- and a cruise!