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A Million Miles From Home

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I read once of a couple who, having decided to shun the trappings of modern city life, fled to a remote Scottish Isle, finding themselves by degrees falling into complete harmony with the seasonal ebb and flow. In winter they would retire shortly after darkness fell in late afternoon, sleeping long and waking late; in summer they would make do with a mere three hours rest and not feel any the worse for it. So it is here in the Pacific coast rain forest of Costa Rice. We have no modern devices to distract us, no TV, no wi-fi, no bars, restaurants or street lights. All we have is nature, and this we are surrounded by. In fact after three days we find our cycle is already being dictated by the environment. It becomes dark at around 5.30pm and after an early dinner we can sit out for a short while watching lighting flash thunderlessly over the ocean before slumber beckons at 9pm. Our wake up call around 5am is provided by the Howler Monkeys beginning their blood-curdling Baskerville Hound…

Matters of the Heart

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I watched a heart beating today, not my own or that of any fellow human being, but that of a tiny bird. A hummingbird, a White-throated Mountain Gem to be precise; such an apt name. This minuscule treasure was perched under the shelter of a rose arch, defending its patch of nectar rich flower border from would be usurpers. Between sorties to see off intruders with an indignant 'tick' and sip sugar rich liquid from the bountiful blooms, it would hold vigil from its favoured twig, twisting its head from side to side to allow its sparkling eye to search for potential rivals. So I carefully moved closer, wondering just how close I would be allowed to get before the little beauty gained alarm at something five thousand times it's bulk and thirty thousand times its weight. To my delight the answer proved to be about a foot, a mere twelve inches separating me from a true miracle of nature. From that short distance I could take in everything; the way the feathers overlapped like m…

Resplendently Humming

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'Quetzal!' I exclaimed. No response, again: 'Quetzal!'  Not a flicker from Marino my guide who was intently peering through his scope at some small bird tazzing around in the tree tops. I tried again. 'Quetzal!' 'It's Queetzaal' he said, reluctantly peeling his eye from the scope. 'No, there's a Quetzal. There in that tree!' I pointed to a clump of green foliage that simply lost relevance against the curtain of mixed greens facing us.  'Oh, I thought you were practicing the pronounciation' he said in heavily accented English. Irony? Who would know?
And so, standing on a trail somewhere in the Costa Rican cloud forest, overlooking a sunlit valley, did our quest for this famous bird reach its comical end. We had been looking in and around an avocado tree for an hour or so, Marino occasionally giving a two toned call mimicking a singing male bird, but so far had drawn a blank. Not that the area was bird less, far from it; several colourfu…

Doing Time

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Alcatraz, La Isla de los Alcatraces, Island of the Pelicans, stands about 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco. It seems so easily accessible but in actuality is as remote as any offshore island can be. The freezing waters of the San Franciscan Bay together with its strong currents made it an ideal place to house America's most hardened and determined criminals. As the Con's quotation goes - 'If you break the rules you go to prison, if you break prison rules you go to Alcatraz'.

When early Spanish colonisers discovered the Bay Area sometime in the 16th century, the island was indeed home to large numbers of pelicans, so large were their numbers that when a cannon was shot across their bows the noise of the frightened birds taking wing was likened to a hurricane. One can only imagine the numbers of birds involved, even allowing for some fancy in the written accounts. Sadly no pelicans nest on the island today.

It must have been a bleak place to serve time; so close…

Walking On Water

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A depression hit the mid Californian coast a couple of days ago resulting in strong westerly winds and raging seas. The surf pounding the rocks was quite spectacular; the consequent chill not so welcome and not something we expected. Isn't it always warm here? Obviously not. However, as we all know, it is an ill wind indeed that blows no good; as with onshore gales at home, so it is here - there can sometimes be surprises in store. 
Blue skies the following day found us taking a quick peek at Monterey's Old Fisherman's Wharf, the plan to have a brief look around the tat shops and maybe grab a cuppa. Instead our fate led, most agreeably, in another direction when it became clear the calm waters of the inner bay were playing sanctuary to some very unusual and quite beautiful storm driven birds. Aptly named storm petrels, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels to be precise, had been displaced from their usual haunts far out in the Pacific to grace the harbour area and mix it with sea lion…

Having a Whale of a Time

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The shrieks and whoops of delight looped around the boat as another hump backed whale breached the deep blue surface of the Pacific, lunge feeding on anchovies, mouth gaping, filling its massive yaw with tens of gallons of water amidst which hundreds of small fish had been trapped. The huge, barnacle encrusted head splashed back into the sea; a signal for whirling spirals of Western Gulls, Common Murres, Sooty Shearwaters and cormorants to home in on the spot in a frenzied swarm to pick off those few fish that had escaped the surge, floating stunned and disoriented; easy pickings for myriad sharp beaks.

A blast of spouting water as the whale exhaled: a wash of rancid, foul smelling air smothering the boat and it was gone, diving once again to herd the anchovies towards the upper layers of the shallow waters of the bay. Sometimes a small group would work together, synchronising their lunges, creating such a spectacle that only a wildest dream could imagine. We were surrounded by feedin…

The Never Ending Circle

The little boy was lifted up, firm grip from large hands on his skinny torso, to a bewildering height. Slightly scared but equally excited he was able then to peer over the rim of the carefully woven collection of grasses and small twigs into a smooth cup of the nest. There shining back at him were four orbs of the most brilliant blue he had ever seen. Eggs; radiant and iridescent, the colour pierced his eyes and bore into his nine year old mind.He wanted to reach out and touch them, to feel these heaven sent jewels that until this moment had never entered his consciousness. But before he could it was over, lowered to the ground and whisked away to trudge in the adult’s footsteps to other parts of the wooded heathland, the details of which never impressed upon his memory and were lost almost as they were formed. The only thing that mattered was those dazzling, sky blue eggs, spotted lightly with deepest black, out of sight and out of reach and all the more tantalising for it. He would…