Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Cattle egrets fly over a billabong in Kakadu.

“You’re going to the North? What for? There’s nothing there but crocs and stinking heat.”

This was the encouraging conversation I had with someone from Queensland, Australia, when I mentioned that our next destination was the Northern Territory. Given that Queensland itself has no shortage of either crocs or heat, his opinion of the north was worth noting.

The answer to his question was simple, however: Kakadu. The park had been on my bucket list since we watched Kakadu: Australia’s Ancient Wilderness, part of the PBS series “The Living Edens.”

Recognized as a World Heritage Site for both its natural environment and its cultural significance (thanks to over 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation), it’s one of those places that you don’t get to by accident. You’re not toodling along a pleasant country lane when you notice a sign “This way to Kakadu” and you decide on the spur of the moment—because you have nothing to do between lunch and teatime—to pop in for a bit of a look-see.

From the west coast of North America, we flew 17-plus hours to Cairns (in Queensland) and then a further 2.5 hours to Darwin, the closest town. We then drove 3 hours to get to the centre of the park, the little village of Jabiru, where we rented a tiny cabin for four days.

Yes, it was stinking hot. And yes, we saw lots of crocs. But we also saw thousands of birds, remote and unforgiving landscapes, peaceful billabongs, and awe-inspiring rock paintings.

Kakadu isn’t always this dry and dusty; we visited in August, probably the driest part of the year.

The magpie geese are plentiful and happy after a season of good eating.

 

Little corella in Jabiru town.

Sunrise on the Yellow River cruise.

Nanking heron hiding along the Yellow River.

White-bellied sea eagle enjoying her breakfast along the Yellow River.

Gum tree.

Great egret spear-fishing.

Big croc on the Yellow River.

Rainbow bee eater.

Billabong. Yes, as in: “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”

Forest kingfisher.

Aboriginal rock art.

Rock painting of Tasmanian wolf.

Red-collared lorikeet

Loved this Wicked Campers Beatles tribute spotted in a Kakadu parking lot.

Vingerklip Lodge

The road to Vingerklip.

During my years of travel, I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, motels, lodges, inns, and b&bs, from an elephant stable in South Africa to a monastery in Trinidad. Most were completely forgettable; comfortable to a greater or lesser degree, but nondescript. Some I remember because of the bloodstains on the wall, the dead rat in the hallway, the bullet holes in the door, or the bed that collapsed under me as I slept. Ah, the “adventurous” side of travel!

Then there are the ones that leap to mind as soon as I reminisce about the highlights of past journeys—like the Vingerklip Lodge in the Ugab Valley of northwest Namibia, where we paused on our way from Etosha National Park to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We had spent a week in the park on safari, and while we hadn’t exactly been roughing it there, we were looking for a few plush and easy days of rest.

The lodge is named for the nearby Vingerklip rock “finger” that towers above the surrounding flatlands. You can hike to the bottom (if you want to brave the blistering heat), but other than that, there’s not a lot to do in the immediate area; no impressive herds of wildlife, no manmade entertainment. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. No, my enjoyment had nothing to do with outside activities and everything to do with the lodge itself.

One of the pools set into the hillside.

Set in a stunning location surrounded by rock plateaus and formations, the lodge features lovely arid gardens with many inviting nooks and crannies where you can sit and relax. Swing seats, loungers, chairs, umbrellas, tables, and benches are scattered around the grounds. There is a hot tub and two pools, cleverly located one on each side of the hill, so that no matter the time of day, one pool always has shade. Birds, butterflies, and small lizards find their own corners to feed, rest, or sun themselves.

The lounge, bar, and restaurant are top-notch. As per the usual African lodge custom, meals are presented buffet-style, but the quality and variety staggers the mind, while the number of food attendants assures that you get exactly the cut of meat you prefer or a custom-prepared dish.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a meal at their Eagle’s Nest restaurant, perched on top of a nearby plateau—you hike a long path and clamber up a staircase to get to it. The climb and the view is spectacular, but not for people who are afraid of heights or can’t manage a lot of stairs! You can also just climb up for the view and not have dinner; it’s free. If you want dinner, be sure to book as early as possible; the restaurant is small, and popular among guests.

Our room was okay but could have used some refurbishing. The latch for the sliding door to the bathroom had the hook mounted on the wrong side of the door, while the toilet seat had two puncture marks that looked like something had sunk its fangs into it. (What bites toilet seats??? Quite a worrisome idea when you think about it….) On the up side, the room boasted a nice porch looking over the isolated landscape and a small, lightly used, waterhole.

Ruppell’s parrot (above) and rosy-faced lovebirds (below) visiting the drippy pipes outside our window.

In any case, as birders, we were prepared to overlook any minor flaws in the room in favour of its unique feature, one that I doubt ever showed up in a promo brochure. From the side of the porch, we looked onto a large water cistern. The tank itself was covered, but the pipes and faucets leaked and dripped. In a place surrounded by bone-dry desert, any source of water becomes a magnet for birds. We had an unbeatable view of the birds that arrived in flocks to drink, including the local specialty, Ruppell’s parrot, and the charming rosy-faced lovebirds.

At night, stargazing in the desert-clear air and comfortable temperatures was all the entertainment we needed.

Day visitors are also welcomed at Vingerklip Lodge; check out their website for more info.

Is there a special lodge, hotel, inn, or b&b you discovered while traveling that lingers in your memory? Let’s hear about it in a comment.

Vingerklip room with rock escarpment behind.

 

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).

Birding by Boat

Birding can be a tough slog. Marching along steaming-hot jungle trails, toting gear, trying to simultaneously watch the trail for poisonous snakes while craning your neck to spot birds in treetops, and disciplining yourself to stand perfectly still as swarms of mosquitos descend joyfully on your sweating limbs. Don’t get me wrong—I understand that masochism is one of the primary attractions of the hobby—but yes, there are actually times when I wonder why I do it.

On the other hand, you could be gliding effortlessly along a cool river, fresh air wafting past your face—sitting down, no less—encumbered by nothing more than binoculars, as the guide points out the colourful species that are easily viewed along the banks.

Once you picture the difference between those two descriptions, you’ll begin to see why I’ve become enamoured of birding by boat.

My favourite experience with BBB was on the Daintree River in Queensland, Australia. The bed and breakfast, a highly civilized establishment called the Red Mill House, got us up before dawn with a quick snack and the promise of a full breakfast upon our return. We were out on the river in time to enjoy the sunrise and catch the early-morning bird activity.

The boat was small but very comfortable, with seats that swiveled in any direction, leaned back as needed, and were just easy to sit in for a couple of hours. No canopy on the boat meant I could easily see up and around to view and photograph birds overhead or high in the trees.

Murray, The Daintree Boatman, shared his vast knowledge of the river’s ecology—birds, plants, reptiles, insects—and history. Not only did he know where to locate specific species, but he was extremely respectful of all the creatures, even taking the trouble to replace an ant back on its tree unharmed after showing it to us.

After two hours, we were delivered back to the lodge, where an excellent breakfast awaited us, along with a chance to discuss the morning’s sightings with the two hosts, formidable birders in their own right.

Okay, so I’m not so much about suffering for my hobby. Or, at least, not about needlessly suffering for it. I won’t pretend I’m not a lightweight when compared what some birders go through to “twitch” a new species.

Still, I’ve paid my dues when necessary. There was the time on the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad, where we did the sunset tour to see the scarlet ibises come in to roost. Despite the withering heat and humidity, I was wearing long pants, socks, shoes, long sleeves, and a hat, all drenched in DEET, and still the mozzies feasted. They bit my nether regions between the slats of the boat’s bench, through my trousers. They flew up my nose when I inhaled. They attacked the lens of my camera such that I could see them crawling across as I tried to focus. Those were some serious bloodsuckers. My companion squashed one and cheerfully called out: “Only 999,999 more to go!”

But that was the only way to see those roosting ibises, and we willingly paid the price in blood and sweat.

Like I said, birding can be a tough slog. So I’ll take whatever comforts and conveniences I can get, when I can get them. After all, it’s all about the birds, not what you have to suffer to see them.

Or is it?

What have you endured in order to pursue your travel passion? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.