Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Beware of these dastardly denizens while camping in provincial parks

The sounds of nature and the outdoors are unmatched in their beauty – and they also cannot compete against the raucous sounds of man-made noise.
Earlier this summer, I spent two days camping in nearby Golden Ears Provincial Park, just about an hour’s drive east from Vancouver.

Let me say we’re very fortunate to have such a beautiful park, such natural beauty and wilderness so close to one of Canada’s largest three cities. I thoroughly enjoyed hiking on its trails, canoeing on Alouette Lake, just getting out-of-doors, away from the city.
Let's go camping! Just watch out for weird species...

Unfortunately, some people cannot bear to leave the city behind. And some choose to ignore rules that are implemented for everyone’s safety and comfort.

Rather than rail against humanity in general, I thought it would be interesting to identify the types of odd and often contrary beings one sees when visiting provincial parks like Golden Ears.

If you see any of these weird and inconsiderate species, avoid them if at all possible (and if possible, report them to a park ranger).

Caninus releasus. These creatures let their dogs run loose, off-leash, without any care for the rules. In just about every national and provincial park, dogs are supposed to be leashed. This is for the protection of the park, and the creatures that live there. It’s also for protection of dogs and their people. Dogs can hurt the smaller animals like birds and small mammals that live in the park. And if they happen to disturb a bear, it could cause dire consequences for the dog, even for the human, and unfortunately, often the ultimate demise of the bear. 

Although It’s very clearly spelled out on signs, online, and in park literature, when I was hiking on two different trails and even in the campsite areas, there were far more dogs off-leash than on. Too many of these C. releasus types think they have control of their dog with their voices – but they don’t!! It may only take a second or two for disaster to occur, before a dog responds to its owner’s voice (and often they are out of sight on a trail). I for one, don’t feel comfortable walking on a trail where a big Rottweiler or similar dog is running free.

Cyclistes ignoramusi. Like the C. releasus creatures, these types feel free to ignore signs that say “NO CYCLING ON THIS TRAIL.” There are specific trails for cyclists in the park, yet members of this particular specie choose to blatantly ignore such postings and cycle merrily down the path that is obviously NOT supposed to be used for cycling. Wonder how they’d feel if I rode a motorcycle down their city cycling paths?


These are the ONLY kinds of dogs that should be off-leash in a provincial park.

Flamus controllus. With all the dry weather and recent fires in B.C., not just this summer, but in past summers, you’d think people would be a little careful about campfires – particularly when there is a ban on in the park. Yet while hiking on one of the trails, I smelled wood smoke from a fire burning somewhere nearby, which tells me a member of the F. controllus species was in the area. 

A sub-species of this animal is F. controllus gassy-goofus; this sub-species brings portable gas-powered “fireplaces” to the great north woods to enjoy its cozy glow at night – which is allowed. However, they turn it up higher than allowed by park rules, turning it down low when they know a ranger is patrolling the area, then turning it back up when the coast is clear.

Loudus inconsideratus. This species demonstrates a variety of behaviours, but they’re all consistent in two respects: they are loud and they don’t care if they bother others in surrounding campsites. Sometimes it’s a loud radio (why go to the woods to escape the city – then blare your music?), other times its loud talking well after midnight, sometimes it’s just banging around, doing stuff that makes noise louder than necessary that prevents others from sleeping or just enjoying the quiet of the outdoors.

Pinheaded powerboatians. These are the types that zoom up and down a lake in their powerboats, creating wakes with no regard for people in canoes or kayaks and the potential danger created by the unstable movement of their craft due to the unexpected waves from the motorboats. Their motors also sound annoying.

Despite signs indicating "No cycling,"
we encountered cyclists on this trail.
Clueless camerus shutterbuggus. You’re trying to line up a shot of a rare animal or bird, you patiently, quietly, and slowly approach it, trying to get the best angle and not frighten it away, sitting, waiting for that perfect moment when you can press the shutter to capture an image … then this species – hailing from the city and with no clue as to how to approach wildlife – stomps right over toward the subject on a direct line, and invariably in front of your camera trying to get a shot, scaring the critter away before you can get your shot. 

They’re characterized by their use of a camera phone or cheap point-and-shoot and loud, colourful clothing that brands them as being from the city as well as brand new to any kind of nature photography. 

They are often also accompanied by one or more Screaming spoiledrottenoids, smaller versions of themselves who also do everything they can to ruin the shot and the moment.

REMEMBER: If you do see any of these weird species, try your best not to shoot them, stab them, or otherwise kill them, because unfortunately, they are never in season.

Although it sure would be nice if they did declare even one weekend to be open-season on any of these annoying animals…

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memoir much more than just a book about birding and travel

Author Dan Koeppel had me at "A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession." That's the subtitle for his book, To See Every Bird On Earth.

The book was published in 2005, I got it in 2007, but I only just read it this past winter.

I have to fight off the tendency to think, "Wow, why did I wait so long?" But I also believe - on my good days - that everything happens for a reason, everything comes at the right time.

The book is about much more
than counting birds.
I felt a connection with this book, and its author Dan Koeppel, just a few pages into the main part of the book. The prologue intrigued me, simply because it's set in one of my favourite places in the world, the Amazon. I've been fortunate enough to have paddled there and viewed parrots there on a few occasions, so any book that starts off with a segment about seeing birds there stands to keep me interested for at least a few chapters.

The fact that travel would be involved in trying to fulfill the goal described in the title is also a good way to keep me reading.

But what really hooked me - what really made me pour over the pages each night in my library in the middle of winter, where good books to read are a must-have - what really kept me coming back was the human interest story.

In reading the story of his father Richard's life - his birth, youth and adulthood - I was struck by how much it paralleled my own father's life. Not exactly the same, but certainly with enough similarities - and set in approximately the same time period - that it became a bit of an emotional journey for me, as much as it must have been for Koeppel writing it.

I could feel the anguish and frustration his father must have felt, with strict, expectant Jewish parents that thought the only way their son to live a purposeful life was to become a doctor. And get married. And have children. The typical American-dream of the mid-20th century.

His father, though, felt a passion for bird-watching early in his adolescence, and that passion never completely waned. It may have taken a backseat at times, but was always present. Richard Koeppel really would liked to have gone to university to become an ornithologist, but succumbed to parental pressure, studied to become a doctor, got married and had two sons.

But he never became truly happy.

His happiest moments were spent birding; his happiest period in his life was spent travelling around Europe on birding trips while stationed as a military doctor at a U.S. army base in West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

That was also where his his parents' marriage began to disintegrate.

Eventually, they moved back to America, life continued on, but the author's parents eventually split up and went their separate ways, another situation I can certainly relate to.

Koeppel describes some of the trials he went through as a child of split parents, than as an adult in starting his career as a journalist. Again, while not the same experiences I had, eerily similar to what I went through in my life, which resulted in my feeling a great deal of empathy for the author.

The one constant throughout all the unhappiness and struggles was the birding. Richard Koeppel continues to travel around the world recording numbers of birds seen, meeting some of the top-notch experts and authorities in the world of bird-watching and getting ever closer to a huge milestone touched on in the prologue.

Father and son, from the book jacket.
The book does a good job of explaining this world to the reader while also keeping one hooked with the emotion of human interest that always simmers throughout. Koeppel is to be applauded the way he pulls no punches in revealing what went on in his family, all the while doing it in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. But the warts are exposed. As are the good sides, as well.

I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil anything. I won't tell you whether it has a happy ending or a sad ending to the tale...that's all a matter of perspective, anyway.

But it is an excellent read, whether you are a birder, a traveller or just someone interested in reading a memoir full of emotion and honesty, one that can help the reader realize we are all human with human failings.

We can begin to approach a touch of the divine in striving to, and sometimes succeed in, overcoming those failings. And getting right back up to try again, when we do fall down.

This bird - the Marvelous spatuletail - was recorded in the Peruvian amazon; 
Koeppel's book sets sail in the Brazilian Amazon.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lilies, mergansers, and bears - oh my!

As we turned yet another corner in the sharply meandering River of Golden Dreams, I looked downstream to our next turn in what could be described as the top half of an "S" curve in the river. And there, about 25 yards away from us, sat a bear, just about to walk into the river.

"There's a bear!" I called out to the divine Ms. K., my paddling partner in the bow.


"Right ahead at 12 o'clock!"

"Oh -- holy shit...!"

"Backpaddle, hard!"

Bear encounters were the one thing the guide had not mentioned in our pre-trip safety talk.

We were essentially renting a canoe and shuttle service from Whistler Eco Tours, choosing to paddle independently on this "three-hour tour." The B.C. company offers guided trips on this river for individuals and groups, but with our experience, we felt we could handle it on our own, and go at our own pace. We could stop to take photos or videos if we wanted to, not have to wait for anyone else to catch up, and just enjoy the day without any chatter other than that from the birds and the wind whispering through the trees.
Ready to put-in at Alta Lake.

It's a popular trip, and it was a perfect day for it.

We took our time paddling north from our put-in on Alta Lake. We paddled across the glassy surface past swimmers, kayakers, canoeists and other boaters, surrounded by mountains on all the shores and under a sunny, blue sky. As I said, a perfect day for a paddle.

As we came to the end of the lake and the marshy outlet that would eventually connect with the River of Golden Dreams (that really is its name), a family of Canada geese swam in front and lost themselves in the reeds to our right.

We paddled leisurely through along the stream, which was thick with yellow water lilies, soaking up the sun, happy to not have to share the water with any other paddlers. Under a bridge, then we soon came upon the only portage we would face that day, a short carry around a fish weir.

The stream is very narrow and close at this point, and within a minute or two, we spied the junction of this stream with the river.

As the guide mentioned before we bid adieu at the lake, entering the river can be a little tricky if you're nor prepared, since you're moving perpendicular into a moving river from a still stream, with the current hitting you broadside.

We had no difficulty.

Then the fun began.

The river is not terribly fast - it's considered Class I - and not that deep; still, no one ever wants to swamp a canoe. It is fairly technical in that, it's narrow and there are numerous sharp turns, cut banks on which you can become grounded - and plenty of deadheads (partially submerged logs), sweepers and strainers that can cause issues for inexperienced paddlers. However, we managed to deal with anything that came our way with a minimum of fuss.

Time to get out and walk.
Although the river is slow and shallow, any moving water needs to be respected. Particularly on a river like this one, there is not much time where you can say, "Okay, let's stop paddling and rest for a while," like you can on a calm lake or pond.

That can present a few problems if you want to take photos, since by the time you get set to snap a pic, you've probably already floated past your subject. We saw an entire family of common mergansers standing on a bank that protruded out into the river. Paddling past it would require both of us paying attention to the task, so we pulled over to a bank that allowed us to sit relatively still. Too far away for good shots with an iPhone, though. C'est la vie. We enjoyed the experience.

Further on, we encountered another merganser. This one seemed to be eager to "lead" us, as it continued to swim downriver about 20 feet in front of the canoe. We dubbed the bird "our guide," cracking jokes about how we thought this was supposed to be a trip without a guide. After about 10 minutes, the bird swam off down into a small indent in the river and we continued on without it.

It was a few minutes after that we came around the curve of the river and saw we were pointed smack dab straight into a black bear that was preparing to bathe.

We backpaddled and grabbed onto some reeds, and as we reversed our direction, the bear climbed into the river and sat down with only its head above the water's surface. There was no place to really pull ashore here, at all. It was just a mater of waiting.

"There's our guide!" said Ms. K.

Thinking she meant from the tour company, with another canoe that had opted for a guided trip, I said (only half-kidding), "Good! Let him go first, that way the bear will get him!"

She turned around and gave me a funny look - and I realized it was the merganser.

Eventually the bear turned around, walked out of the water, back up the bank and into the bushes, and we were able to continue along, chatting about how that was a highlight of the trip and comparing notes as to how close we'd ever been to a bear in the woods. Ann had been closer, than me --- or so she thought.

We accidentally paddled past where we had planned to take out for picnic lunch, at Meadow Park, and crossed underneath a railway track and a bridge that held the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

Trip completed at Green Lake.
We were continuing to discuss our "bear encounters" when Ms. K. said, "There's something moving on the left bank...you can see the brush moving."

I should point out that at this point, the river is only 10-12 wide.

"Maybe we'll get to see a heron or some other bird," I said, thinking it was something small.

As soon as those words came out of my mouth, a big black snout peered out from behind the brush, looking right at us.

Another black bear. But one we could "reach out and touch" with our paddles if we didn't pass on the far side of the river.

I got us over there and there weren't any issues. But at one point, we were close enough we could have literally reached out and touched the bear with our paddles.

"Well, I guess that's as close as we've both been to a bear in the woods!" I said.

And that became the day's No. 1 highlight.

Within a few minutes, we reached Green Lake, paddled around a point and landed at Edgewater Lodge.

Like its counterpart, this lake was glassy and surrounded by mountains on all sides. As we rounded the point, another family of geese swam past. Geese must be the official greeters for canoeists on these lakes.

As we pulled the canoe up out of the water, I was reminded of that old saying, "A bad day paddling beats a good day working."

And a great day paddling beats just about everything.

The River of Golden Dreams: a great day trip full of fun and adventure.

Want to see more photos from the trip? Check out my photo album, Canoeing the River of Golden Dreams on my Facebook page.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting my mojo back - one rapid at a time

This is a confession, of sorts. But it's also a celebration.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a really cool rafting trip I did on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania, with Laurel Highlands River Tours.

It was really fun, we had a blast.

But it meant much more than that to me.

You see, for a while now, I've been afraid of whitewater. And not just a little fearful - REALLY fearful.

My fear goes back to a trip I took many years ago on the Zambezi River in Africa. This river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is also one of the most sought-after trips by those of us who get our jollies "defying death" by paddling through rapids in rafts.

While there are plenty of stats to indicate you're safer whitewater rafting than driving a car, ever since that day on the river, I've been terrified.

The Zambezi was not my first whitewater experience. I enjoyed my first whitewater thrill back in 1986 on the Kicking Horse River near Golden, B.C. There were a few tough class III rapids the days we were on the river  - two successive days running the same stretch, actually - with Mad Rafter River Tours, an Alberta-based company. I found out how much of a pounding you could take in big water by "volunteering" to paddle in the bow of the raft.

Ready to raft the Kicking Horse River (1986).
This river featured icy cold water, glacially fed; you could hear the crackling of the river silt through the bottom of the raft, when you weren't shooting the rapids. So paddling in the front meant you were the first line or wall of defence against the big standing waves that hit the raft when you first slide into them.

It was cold and exhausting, but also exhilarating.

The following year, I rafted on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers; however, shooting Hell's Gate meant we had to be in a motor-powered raft - the hydraulics are just too big and too dangerous for paddle or oar rafts.

It was a great trip. I re-did it about four years later to give the Divine Ms. K a taste of whitewater thrills.

Then came a trip to Africa. And the challenge of the Zambezi.

Rafting companies run about a 25-km stretch below Victoria Falls that includes about 20 or so different rapids, including several Class III, IV and V rapids. There's also a Class VI called "Commercial Suicide" because rafters always portage it. ALWAYS.

I'd seen videos of previous trips on the Zambezi before our day trip, and it looked hairy. I actually did my best to prevent Ms. K from seeing the videos before our trip, as I was afraid she wouldn't want to go. (She confirmed afterward if she had, she probably would have chosen not to go.)

Anyway, we get on the river, we're doing fine, although the adrenaline rushes are coming maybe a bit too frequently...several people from our Sobek raft had gone swimming, but they'd all survived, hadn't been eaten by any crocodiles and we made it to lunch right below Commercial Suicide. After eating, we headed back onto the river and Rapid # 11, a.k.a., "Overland Truck Eater" (it had another name I'll tell you about later).

I remember looking down into the rapid, yelling "Yahoo, Mountain Dew!" - and then I was in the river. In a Class V rapid, essentially a series of boils and whirlpools.

When I initially went overboard, I stayed calm and pointed my feet downstream, as we were trained to do.

When I did not seem to be getting any closer to the surface after several seconds, though, I decided to put my feet to better use, kicking to get to the surface.

Just as I surfaced and started to gulp some air, the river yanked me back underwater. Full of water and now very frightened, I struggled to re-surface. The thought, "Is this how it ends?" did cross my mind briefly.

When I re-surfaced, I prayed I would not be sucked under again. Nyaminyami, the local river god, answered my prayers. Dragging myself up onto shore, I saw the kayaker who was videotaping our trip. The first thing I said was, "Did you get that on tape?" 

His affirmative answer boosted my spirits, a bit. "Good!" I told him. "I would hate to go through that again in order to get evidence to back up my tales of terror!" I was happy I could still joke. 

Into the maw of another Class V Zambezi Rapid.
(I'm second from the right, obliterated by the wave).
I was the only one who went "swimming" in that rapid, which local rafting guides refer to as "Creamy White Buttocks" - because the strong down current often sucks the swim trunks right off anyone who falls in there.

Luckily, mine stayed on, so after making my way downstream to where our raft had eddied out, I climbed back in to rejoin our crew of mixed male and female paddlers devoid of embarrassment, since I didn't have to paddle "au naturel" for the next nine rapids. Whew!

However, climbing back in was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do.

I was terrified. I'd seen others in our group opt to finish the trip in oar rafts, which are much safer than paddle rafts, since all you have to do is hang on to the "chicken line" and ride the rapid in relative safety.

The option did occur to me. But I was more afraid of being afraid - and, to be quite honest, even more afraid of being seen as a "wimp" or a "coward" if I opted for the oar rafts. So I made myself get "back in the saddle" so to speak and finish the trip in a paddle raft.

It was not comfortable, though.

The fear did not end there, either. 

Nine years later, I was preparing for a whitewater rafting trip on a river in Ecuador, a day trip on the Rio Toachi and Rio Blanco. When I'd mentioned to the guides I'd last rafted on the Zambezi, even their eyes got big. "Big water!" were the comments.

Tell me about it.

These South American rivers we were about to raft were (supposedly) nothing like the Zambezi. Still, the fear was there. I chose not to sit at the front ... and I kept waiting for the worst to happen.

It turned out, they really were nothing like the Zambezi. The rapids were all Class III and maybe one Class III/IV. It was just fun!

That was 10 years ago, though. I had not been on any whitewater since then, until I went to Pennsylvania's OhioPyle State Park, earlier this month.

The old fears were still there, waiting at the fringes of my consciousness, sometimes seeping out into my thoughts and feelings. Complicating the situation further was the fact I'd had shoulder surgery for a torn labrum less than a year before, and had not done any really vigourous paddling since then, although I'd rehabbed the heck out of it and got the green light from my physiotherapist.

One of the other people on our trip was nervous - she'd never been whitewater rafting before, so her anxiety was understandable. But I was a "veteran" rafter - I shouldn't be scared.

But I was.

I also never let on. 

We got onto the river, shot our first rapid of the day - which was technically our most difficult, according to our guide - and it really was just fun.

Ditto the rest of the rapids, all Class III and one or two Class IV's.

It was nothing like the Zambezi. I began to realize most rivers are not as dangerous as that river, at least not the ones companies run commercial rafting trips on, although deaths do still occur sometimes. A river is never to be taken lightly.

But I relaxed. I enjoyed it. I had fun.

My mojo was back. Finally.

It was like I had to do a couple of trips to get over the fear of my experience on what is arguably one of the world's toughest commercially runnable rivers, in order to feel free of the fear that had plagued me since that day on the Zambezi.

It was an awesome feeling. I felt a real weight come off my shoulders. 

Some might wonder, "Well, if you're that afraid, why not just skip it?"

But I believe in the essence of a quote attributed sometimes to Mark Twain, other times to Nelson Mandela. 

Essentially, it is this:

 "Courage is not the absence of fear; courage means you don't let the fear dictate what you do, how you live your life."

We face fears every day; we do not always come out on top. However, we always have another opportunity to conquer our fear. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow - but it is important to know that we can choose courage, we can choose to not bow down to fear.

Only by overcoming our fears can we really live.

It feels great to be living, again.

Now I can hardly wait to go rafting in Asia and Australia.

Here's some Zambezi action for you (not our trip.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Travel memoir entertains, leaves us with hope for planet's future

To label Cameron MacDonald's book, The Endangered Species Road Trip, a "travel memoir" does not quite do it justice.

It is that, but it is more, as well.

It contains elements of humour, science, environmentalism and even a pinch of soap opera.

The book is based on the Vancouver professor's summer-long Odyssey around Canada and the United States to try to see 34 different species - plant and animal - that are endangered, or at the very least, threatened.

Depending on where you look, you may find slightly different meanings (some more convoluted than others) about these two similar but different terms.

To put it simply, according to FactMonster.com, "extinct" means the entire species has died out and can never return; "endangered" animals are those in immediate danger of becoming extinct; "threatened" species are likely to become endangered in the future.

The idea for this journey germinated while he was teaching a freshman course in environmental sciences at Langara College. Students kept asking him if the slides of endangered species he was showing were his photos, and he kept saying "no." That prompted him to plan a trip around the two countries to try to see as many species as possible, given time and distance constraints.

A daunting task, when you consider he planned to make the 114-day journey with his wife, a toddler, an infant, and their dog. In a second-hand van. And poor wifi access for much of the trip.

The tale starts out a little bit slow, a little bit ho-hum, but picks up the farther south he goes down the U.S. west coast. His sense of humour starts to seep out and the story begins to become much more alive and personal when he shares his inner feelings, frustrations and doubts about his family relations (we all have difficult family relations), particularly when they stop in his southern Ontario hometown. I can personally relate to some of the angst he describes, having experienced similar emotions regarding my own relations and situations with my parents.

Those are not the only situations I could relate to, either.

At one point, he describes an issue their van has with respect to keeping bugs out. They bought it second-hand for the trip, but it's not designed to sleep in when you're camping in an area that is insanely muggy and hot - and there are mosquitoes galore. They needed fresh air, but didn't want the bugs. So they rigged up some mesh screen with duct tape across the passenger and drive windows, rolled them down and voila! Instant screen door. Of sorts.

The Divine Ms. K and myself did the exact same thing back in 1996 when we drove across Canada in a second-hand van. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Often a source of duct tape sales, too.

And I get the feeling he was practically channelling me, in the following passage from the book:
"...we stop at the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor, Ontario, to take a quick peek at this unique habitat. However, the park interpreters are rude and lazy - too busy stuffing their faces with coffee and donuts and being miserable to discuss the ecological importance of the park and its locally endangered species. Completely disappointed, we leave without even walking a trail. I quietly fume about those useless assholes all the way to Florida."
Yep. That would be me. Except I might not me so quiet about it...I'd probably be ranting about it out loud, then posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

I could really empathize with MacDonald regarding his fear of grizzly bears in Yellowstone, a fear made worse by the fact his family was with him.

Although they did not see every species on the original list (he saw 27 of the 34), he did not really expect to; animals like Florida panthers and Arizona jaguars  are very difficult to see, and no one really knows if the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists in southern forests, or if it has gone the way of the Carolina parakeet, a now-extinct parrot species.

As a conservation biologist, he has some very interesting views on the whole global-warming issue, views that many probably share, as that issue is not as black-and-white/cut-and-dried as people on both sides of the divisive issue might have us believe.

After completing his journey, he leaves us with a message of hope for the future of our endangered species, a hope he himself feels. His views are quite different from some environmentalists, although they are tempered with reasonable skepticism and a recognition of why things are the way they are in the battle for the environment.

Time will tell if that hope is misplaced. Like the author, I hope it is not - and that his next journey of this nature holds true for him, and for our planet.


Although he did not see any gators while paddling in Florida, 
the author did spy some alligators in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

National Aviary a birders' - and photographers' - dream

"This place really is for the birds," I thought to myself.

And since it's the National Aviary, that's a good thing.

I spent my final full day spent in Pittsburgh during my late May-early June visit there at the aviary. This place had been on my radar for at least eight years, so when I found out I would be going to Pennsylvania, I had to make sure I could spend some time there.

I ended up opening it up and closing it down my first day there, roaming around, taking photos, watching flying shows and just generally indulging my "bird-brain." I spent half of a second-day there in the company of Kurt Hundgen, director of collections; and Robin Weber, director of marketing.

When I first walked through the doors that led into the "Grasslands" area of the facility, I knew I'd come to the right place.

There, sitting on some tree-like perches were a pair of Congo African grey parrots. They were not unlike my own two CAGs, Nikki and Coco; they were grooming and one of them hammed it up for me, even imitating the beeping noise my camera makes while shooting images and video.


Time for some pelican preening!

The aviary is divided into different "eco-regions," and from the Grasslands I went to the Wetlands area, where a feeding demonstration was in progress with a touring school group. The "swamp" was alive with roseate spoonbills, flamingos, kookaburas, pelicans, a few different kinds of ibis and - heard, but not seen - a screaming piha. (It doesn't really "scream," but this South American rainforest bird does make a very distinctive call.) Several smaller birds also flitted about through the vegetation.

Of course, no aviary experience would be complete without a stop at the penguin pool. In this case, the "African" theme continued, as the penguins who live here are South African penguins. And very playful penguins, they are.

The penguins are ready to "test the waters" once again.
Every time I leaned over the short wall to try to take an unobstructed photo of one of the penguins swimming around, the bird would pop his head up out of the water towards me. It made it really hard to focus! I figured he was either expecting food - or really didn't care to be caught on film by what he might have perceived as the "penguin paparazzi" (me).

From there, it was just a short walk through the cafeteria to the Tropical Rainforest area.

Like the Wetlands, there were numerous small birds flying and flitting around in the area. I also saw a feeding take place, as one of the staff members handed out mealworms for people to hold in their hands for the birds to fly down and scoop up.

Like the Grasslands, though, the main attraction for me was a pair of macaws in a large holding area at one end: a green-winged macaw and a hyacinth macaw.

These two species are not normally found in the same habitat, but these two were obviously very bonded. They played and groomed each other affectionately, making for some great shots and video footage.

In talking with Hundgen and Weber, I learned how the aviary holds regular programs focused on teaching people about the pitfalls of living with parrots as pets. Hundgen is working toward ensuring that visitors perceive the parrots here more as wild creatures in a natural environment than as potential pets, something that can only help both wild and captive parrots.
Although not the same species, these macaw are real pals.

The aviary is a member of Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, so it meets the highest standards of care for its inhabitants. It is involved in the Species Survival Plan to help prevent the loss of rare and endangered species as well as the loss of genetic diversity within those species.

Its programs extend far outside its walls. Scientists from the aviary are involved in field research and conservation programs of international scope, including work aimed at restoring the populations of Andean condors, an iconic vulture of South America.

And speaking of vultures...

A trio of vultures were among the free-flying birds featured in the "Talons!" show that required the purchase of advance tickets, as seats usually fill up quickly. They were joined by an owl, crows, a bald eagle, seagulls, and hawks. Combined with a multi-media presentation, the show displays some of the grace and power of these avians while educating spectators about the birds and ongoing conservation issues in the world.

It's a real crowd-pleaser, for little kids ... and big kids, too.

Like all good programs, the aviary is planning future expansion, both in terms of the infrastructure (parts of the building are more than 60 years old) and programs in and outside the facility.

Even without expansion, the aviary is a real gem in the crown of Pittsburgh attractions, and it was so well worth my time and effort to make sure I had a chance to explore it - and given the presence of parrots in the aviary, 
it was - coming on the heels of a day spent paddling - the absolutely perfect way to cap off my 12 days in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shooting the clays, shooting the rapids in Laurel Highlands

The title probably makes this sound kind of like an "earth-water" sort of thing, and I guess it is that. But you wouldn't get mud by mixing water with the types of clays I refer to here.

By "shooting clays," I'm referring to the popular activity of "sporting clays."

I had the opportunity to do both in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands earlier this week, while a guest of the Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

For those unfamiliar with "sporting clays," try to imagine what it would be like if you combined trap/skeet shooting with golf.
Jamie Ross takes aim under the watchful eye of
NSCA instructor Paul Ankney.
Sporting clays involves using a shotgun to shoot clay "birds" (discs) launched from various locations, at various angles.

What makes this a bit different from skeet or trap shooting is the fact that participants move around from station to station on a set course, via a golf cart, and record how many birds they hit each round. The total gives you your score. (You can find a more detailed explanation of skeet-vs.-trap shooting here.)

I've fired a shotgun only a few times in my life, back when I tried a bit of skeet shooting at a buddy's farm when I was still in high school. I've fired a rifle a few times, even gone hunting occasionally, and I've fired pistols on a target range. Most of my shooting experience is actually in archery, as I was a member of the New Totem Archery Club for a few years when I lived in Fort St. John, B.C.

Bows and arrows are much different from shotguns, though.

Our group of four got some quick instruction from Paul Ankney, an NSCA Level II shooting instructor, then off we went.

After finishing the course, I can tell you I'm glad I don't have to hunt for my dinner every day. There might be a few days when I go hungry.

I was surprised I was actually able to hit one. In my only other previous attempt mentioned above, I'd hit the first one then missed everything else. This time, in our first round of six (two birds launched three times), I hit one of them. Then I hit two the next time. However, I was inconsistent, sometimes hitting only one, other times two, but never more than two out of six birds.

While I certainly didn't shame myself, I didn't get a really high score, either. In fact, I hit less than 50 per cent of the targets offered. But it was a really nice day to spend in the outdoors, I enjoyed some good camaraderie and I had a lot of fun trying a new sport.


Guide Brett Lesnick readies our raft.
The following day, I was more in my element, as I was shooting rapids - something I've done many times - in a whitewater rafting excursion in Ohiopyle State Park with Laurel Highlands River Tours.

We would spend about three hours playing among the class III and IV rapids of the Lower Youghiogheny River.

It was the first time I'd faced whitewater since undergoing shoulder surgery for a labral tear last summer. I'd paddled a few hours on flat water, but this would be a more telling test.

The shoulder did fine. And I had a real blast.

Our guide, Brett Lesnick, made some funny quips (as all good rafting guides do) and made sure we had fun, but with a mind to safety first.

We blasted through several rapids, getting very wet - but if you're not getting wet on a rafting trip, you're just trying hard enough.

We didn't spend the entire time paddling through whitewater; we made a side trip off the river to take a short hike to Cucumber Falls, a smaller version of the 20-foot high Ohiopyle Falls that we put-in just below, to start our day.

When we not hiking or running rapids, we learned about the cultural and natural history of the area and spotted several species of birds - including numerous mergansers, a pair of kingfishers, a pie-billed grebe and a turkey vulture that I'm sure would loved to have seen us pile up on some rocks. Sorry Mr. Vulture - you'll have to eat somewhere else!


Cucumber Falls: a side trips along the way.

After we got off the Yough, a hot lunch awaited us in the park, followed by a quick tour of some of the other highlights of the Ohiopyle, and then a final farewell to the river.

The experiences were very different - but either way, land or water, they were both a good day's shooting.