Sunday, April 13, 2008

China Part 3

View of the Hong Kong harbour; wine at the Intercontinental Hotel - courtesy of M&D Styles!

After our month of driving around the New Zealand countryside (and successfully selling our car - Hi Shoki!), we went back China. First stop: Hong Kong. We stayed with friends Chris Lonsdale and Sheryl Climo who were wonderfully hospitable and easy-going, even when I decided last-minute to get a wisdom tooth taken out and was laying wan on their couch for much longer than our intended visit! It was so great to have a home away from home. Thanks for everything, Chris and Sheryl! We'll be thinking about you on your 'special day':)

Once I'd recovered, we headed to Yangshuo - where the mountains go straight up and straight down, meeting flooded rice paddies and swollen rivers. It was satisfying to finally see what we'd always imagined southern China to be. It was rainy and misty the whole time we were there, which suited us just fine as it fit our image of the place and also gave us a chance to take it easy.

Next we headed to Emei Shan (Emei Mountain) near Chengdu. This is one of the five most holy mountains for Buddhism in China, but of course we went for the birds. Unfortunately it continued to be rainy and misty and we hardly saw any birds, but we did see some massive monkeys (maybe snub-nosed macaques?) emerging spookily out of the mist, for which this mountain is also famous. We took the bus up the mountain and then hiked the 20km or so down the stairs. About half way down we stayed one night at a monastery where it was so damp that there was mist in the room and everything was wet - thank goodness for electric blankets!

Hellen and Justin with their new baby boy, and Justin's mom who is living with them for a year to help out. Samantha, our old boss at Western Language Center, who once again hosted us warmly - even with a broken foot! The gang at Western Language Center: our last goodbye for a long time.

Then we went to Xi'an to see Hellen and Justin's new baby and to say one last goodbye to our old friends who introduced us to Asia. The next time we get to Xi'an will probably be at least 10 or 15 years later, with kids, so it really felt like goodbye this time. It was neat for us to see them so near to the end of our journey seeing as how they were the ones to welcome us to China, and because of our wonderfully positive experience there, we ended up staying much longer! We hope we get the chance to host them in our home country in the future:)

With Armstrong (and his friend Ho Lin, taking the picture), flying kites in Zhengzhou.
Geoff squeezing through the 'Gleam of Sky' path at the Red Canal site.
Zhihwa and I looking down from the Red Canal site.

Then to Zhengzhou to see our 'lucky fortune friend' Armstrong who is studying a masters in English translation there. We met his friend Ho Lin who took us kite flying, and spent a couple of days with Zhihwa (whom we've met before): one day we drove out to the Red Canal project (a 10+year project in the 1960s hewing out a canal through a mountain - by hand - so allow the water from a river on one side of the mountain to pass through to the other side for irrigation), and one day eating and visiting Zhihwa's family. 

"So we took a boat to Soooouth Korea."

It's neat to re-visit a foreign place, and we were glad to have a chance to fill in some gaps in our Chinese experience - Hong Kong, Yangshuo - and to be able to see our friends one last time. Around this time we also made the decision to come home a little early (early May instead of late June) so all this revisiting and goodbying seemed just right. 

We boarded a big boat for the 16-hour crossing into South Korea a little apprehensive about seasickness but we had a most wonderful trip! We had our own little room, there was hardly any rocking, and we both had a good quiet sleep:) 

The month of April we'll be back in our old home of Iksan, helping BirdsKorea in their last year of the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (SSMP). We'll tell you all about that in the next blog:)  

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An Amazing Journey - The Bar-tailed Godwit

For years bird researchers from the Miranda Shorebird Center in New Zealand and the Alaska-based US Geological Survey team believed that the Bar-tailed Godwit flew non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand on their Fall southern migration.  Many peers didn't believe that this 40-cm long bird couldn't possibly fly the 11,500 km needed to complete the journey, especially as a non-stop flight would indicate no sleep, no food and no water over that time.  Last year, however, for the first time in history, satellite transmitters revealed the truth, making those researcher's hypotheses a reality.

The Bar-tailed Godwits (left) at Miranda get pushed into these pools on high tide.  We set up mist nets that the birds will fly into when landing there to roost.

Last year, one bird's battery lasted her entire migration, tracking her flight from New Zealand up through Yalu Jiang, China and then up to Alaska on her Spring northern migration.  After breeding, the battery then lasted her entire southern migration, non-stop for 8 days and nights from Alaska to New Zealand.  Her flag on her leg identifies her as 'E7', and following the tracking of her 29,000 km migration, she has now made news headlines as far off as Tehran.  With that success in the bank, this year's project saw 9 birds implanted at Miranda, and a further 16 done in Broome, northwestern Australia.

After catching the birds in the nets we set up (left), we put them in boxes and either banded and released them on the spot, or took them back to the Center for implanting and flagging.

Having to wait for an after-sunset tide (therefore making the black mist nets difficult to see for the birds) put us in the position of kneeling beside the ponds waiting for the high tide on the nearby shoreline to push them our way.  Hearing the birds whooshing over our heads in the cover of darkness was quite the experience.  The more experienced researchers then removed them from the nets and placed them in special boxes, which we then took to a nearby van where they were measured.  If they were big, healthy and already fattening up, they were kept as candidates for implanting and put aside.  All the others, 40 or so, were banded there and then released.  After 25 minutes or so, we had our candidates and it was back to the Center, a 2-km drive away, for the important part of the whole operation - the surgical implants of the transmitters themselves.

The largest birds were implanted with satellite transmitters (left), a procedure which sees them put under for 30 minutes.  The rest, about 50 this time, are flagged and banded (left).

An Alaskan vet from the USGS team joined a New Zealand vet for the operations, during which the birds are put under for 30 minutes.  The transmitter, the size of a date with a trailing black antennae (seen above, right) is implanted into an air sac in the bird's side.  After they come to, they're flagged with black flags with white alpha-numeric lettering.  Seeing these birds on the table really brought home how fragile these birds are, but also how resilient they are too.  One hour after the procedure, they were brought back to the shoreline and released, ready to fatten up even more before heading north in two weeks.  

The rest of the birds were measured, banded and flagged with a white flag (denoting New Zealand) with 3 capital letters on them.  Now, when someone spots these flags up and down the flyway, they're an email away from knowing when and where the bird was banded, and another piece of these birds lives is filled in.  Being a part of this team, which numbered 24 people,  was an experience neither of us will forget.  It was not only exciting holding the birds in our hands and seeing experienced people go to work, but also knowing that this project is using the latest technology to chart new pathways in the way we understand birds, and therefore, understand the world around us.

Giving signals for 6 hours and then going offline for 36, the bird's transmitter will create 'blips' on a screen, which can then be connected to show their flight path.  A web page connected to Google Earth will be set up soon so we can track these birds as they begin their incredible 29,000 km migration, continuing what that species has done for thousands of years, but which we have only proven without doubt for 2 years.  We will put the link on our blog when it's created.  Now only time will tell to see if last year's incredible success can be repeated.

Monday, March 3, 2008

New Zealand

New Zealand. A country we've literally heard nothing but great things about, and a place that we've been looking forward to seeing for years now. It didn't disappoint. With more beautiful scenery than you'd think necessary for one country, endemic flora and fauna so completely different from any other place on earth, and some of the friendliest people we've met on our trip so far, we had a fantastic 35 days driving around and taking it all in.

A hearty welcome from one of the 30 million sheep in New Zealand.

Buying a car allowed us access to off-the-beaten-track locations we wouldn't otherwise have been able to see, which was a real highlight of the trip. Our good friends Adrian and Janice lent us their camping gear, which helped get us out into the wild, of which this country has an abundance, despite the major effects humans have had on this country's environment. Although only settled 1,000 years ago by the Maori people, this country's topography has been altered significantly, to the demise of many endemic bird, animal and plant species. The South island is where most of the large untouched patches of forest are, while the North island resembles a mixture between old English shrub-lined roads and pastureland grazed on by millions of sheep and cows. That being the case, we headed for the South first, and spent the bulk of our time down there.

We bought a car, borrowed some camping gear and hit the open water and roads for one fantastic month!

Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who discovered the islands in 1642 - a full century ahead of Cook, is remembered by Abel Tasman National Park. Located on the northern tip of South island, this is a lovely area for kayaking, beaching and hiking. Although he never actually landed here, he headed the first European expidition that sighted New Zealand after 600 years of Maori residency. As you move down the island, you follow mountain ranges and large tracts of forest. Driving through Arthur's and Lewis Pass was gorgeous, and hot springs around Hanmer Springs and Maruia were welcome on those chilly nights and rainy days.

The wind-battered West coast is rugged, wet and rocky. Hidden just offshore from the pounding waves are two of New Zealand's largest glaciers, Franz Joseph and Fox. It is one of the only places on earth where you can see glaciers while standing in rainforest. A little further inland is the country's highest peak, Mt. Cook. As we headed to the southwestern corner, we drove into Fjordland National Park, a massive area made famous by Milford Sound and a plethora of multi-day hikes and deep untouched rainforest. From there it was across the Otago flats, where it is dry, dusty and hot. Dunedin on the East coast is a lovely university city, and the Otago Peninsula near there hosts Yellow-eyed and Blue Penguins, not to mention the world's only Royal Albatross mainland breeding grounds.

North of that is the large city of Christchurch, which is only 2 hours south of Kaikoura, where we experienced the wonder of the 12-foot wingspans of the Albatrosses while out on a 3-hour ocean excursion. The Marlborough area near the northeast corner of the island is home to one of the country's largest wine regions, which we felt we should check out while in the area. We loved the open spaces, free camping and great scenery on the South island, and hope to get back here someday in the future to continue peeking into its treasure trove of natural nooks and crannies.

In what other country can you go from glacier to ocean to rainforest in ONE day?

Wellington, New Zealand's capital city located on the southern tip of the North island, is a cafe-laden, laid back city that most usually pass on as they head to the Cook Strait ferry to Picton on the South island. Driving from there to volcanic hotspot Rotorua, you pass long stretches of dry openess, and the beginning of the grazed lawn that the North island becomes. The volcanic cones around Rotorua are spectacular, and the hot springs, bubbling mud and super-heated pools of that city were something we've never experienced before. We also checked out Waikato University of Hamilton, where Emily's sister Maddie will be going for a semester of school.

Just north of Rotorua is Miranda and the Miranda Shorebird Center on the Firth of Thames. A great spot to view over-wintering Arctic migrants and some intriguing local birds like the Wrybill, we were here a couple of times, more recently joining the international team that caught Bar-tailed Godwits and implanted satellite transmitters used to track their amazing 29,000 km migration path. More on that in a later post. From there you pass the stretched cities of Auckland, and then up through twisty turny terrain to Paihia, where the 1860 treaty of Waitangi was signed, establishing an English governor of the New Zealand islands. From there it's a quick ferry over to Russel, which boasts the country's first church, built in 1863. It's a bustling tourist area, known for kayaking, boat tours and dolphin swimming. Back in the country's largest city, Auckland, we sold our car while staying again with Adrian and Janice, who were wonderful hosts during our comings and goings from their beautiful house and attached 11 acres.

From the massive 13-foot wingspan of albatrosses to the enigmatic Kea, birds were a big highlight, as was seeing Brenda and Dave, Emily's aunt and uncle:)
For us, our month in New Zealand was a wonderful opportunity to see one of the world's most beautiful countries, made famous by the backdrops of the Lord of the Rings and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movies. It also seemed that while driving into every small town in the country, Emily would remark, 'What a cute town!'. On top of the gorgeous scenery, it was refreshing for us to see a country with a managable population and lots of protected green spaces. It was, however, shocking to see the detrimental affects of introduced plant and animal species on local organisms, and reminded us, once again, how fragile the world we live in really is.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Adelaide, South Australia

After doing a little birding in Melbourne and sight-seeing with mom and dad in Sydney, we all flew to Adelaide to mom and dad's new house for the year. It was so fun seeing them get settled into their new home, new town, new country, new continent, new hemisphere. We were there for about two weeks, and on the very last day my brother Luke joined us from the Philippines! It was great to catch up with Luke, even though it was too short. He'll be there for the next two months working and helping out at mom and dad's. Luke brought with him some very exciting news: he and his Philippino girlfriend Maya got engaged! It's difficult to get Canadian visas these days, so they're not setting a date now but the engagement is a commitment to work towards living together in the future:) It was just awesome to see him so happy. Congratulations Luke and Maya! 
We also helped mom get settled in her new classroom, which began as a cleaning frenzy since the interior walls of the entire school had been painted over the break. 
But we also managed to get out and see some of the sights around Adelaide, which is itself a very pleasant little city. This blustery scene is from Granite Island, which is joined to the mainland by a bridge. Aside from the lovely views atop this island, we also got to see Blue Penguins when they came in to roost at night. They were very cute, like you might expect penguins to be, but we didn't expect to see this animal walking on sand amid tumbleweeds! We also saw a few dolphins and a seal playing together in the bay:)
Our sightseeing happened to take us through a few vineyards, for which the state of South Australia is famous. It was d-r-y! But surprisingly cool. The sun was hot, but the shade was cool and at night and with the famed 'Gully breezes' blowing up from the southern ocean, it was positively chilly. Mom and dad say that it has become hotter since we left them, but we were all joking that it is a cleverly propagated myth that Australia is a hot country.
We sampled a little of the local wine and understand why it's world famous. Haselgrove was our fave.
The day we picked Luke up from the airport we also squeezed in a cricket match - or rather the morning of one day (of five) of the match between Australia and India, who are arch-rivals. And it just happened to be both Australia Day and India Day - what a coincidence, eh? We spent most of the time catching up with Luke and asking Geoff - who was the only one who really understood the game of cricket - to interpret for us what was happening on the pitch. 

We had such a great time being all together again after so long apart. This year will be a big learning curve for mom, and a wonderful opportunity for mom and dad to work on this challenge together. Thanks for everything, mom and dad:)  

Check out more pictures on our online Picasa web albums - the link is located under 'Family and Friends' to your right.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Australia - Melbourne and Sydney

Australia! We were excited for this part of our journey for many reasons, and not just because we'd never been below the Equator before. This was the part of our trip where we would be visiting friends, seeing Emily's parents and taking a break from the life of the backpacker to appreciate the comforts of life, such as drinking tap water, showering in bare feet, and not digging into your backpack every day. Our trip started in Melbourne, where Ken and Carlene Gosbell welcomed us very warmly into their home. Ken is the Chair of Australasian Wader Study Group, and as such, is a partner of Birds Korea in the running of the SSMP. He and his wife live in a lovely home outside of the city, surrounded by an 'Australian garden', which means that there are no introduced species. Introduced species, both flora and fauna, have ravaged many parts of this country, and a movement is afoot that is trying to build up the resident species of all kinds.

The Gosbells took us for a drive through wine regions to their
lovely cottage in the hills, where we went on a few walks and took in some lovely birds and sights. The ferns covering the forest floor were just beautiful, as were the Crimson Rosella that landed on us when we got out some seed. We thoroughly enjoyed learning about many different kinds of Eucalyptus trees, which smelled lovely in the mornings.

Before we headed back to Melbourne, we met up with another one of the SSMP's big players, and a leading shorebird expert and good friend Danny Rogers, who, with the Gosbells, took us to a nature park to see a wide array of Australia's strange and wonderful animals, just in case we didn't see them in the wild. We got up close and personal with Koala, Kangaroo, Emu, Platypus and a whole host of other species that don't appear any where else in the world. We learned a lot more about them, including what a Koala sounds like. We're not sure how to explain it other than deep, guttural grunts with heavy breathing - in other words, not at all what you'd expect from such a cute fella.

Once back in the city, Danny teamed up with another shorebird expert, Chris Hassell, to take us to a sewage treatment plant at Werribee. Very few bad smells (unexpectedly) and thousands of birds of over 70 species, it was quite the day! We were treated with a beautiful sunset

as we headed back into Melbourne, one of many we've had so far in Australia. After this fantastic introduction to Australia - thanks Gosbells, Danny and Chris!!!, we were back in Sydney to meet up with another SSMP participant in Andrew Patrick. He took us to Royal National Park just outside the city, and we saw some amazing birds and a really different-looking forest than the ones we saw around Melbourne. One bird that we were particularly excited to see was the Superb Lyrebird, which some of you may have seen on the internet singing chainsaw sounds, or camera shutter sounds, or car alarms, along with an amazing array of other birds' calls and songs. Unfortunately, it was not the breeding season, when they perform these amazing songs and dances, but we did manage to see one, had great views, and heard it practicing some of its repertoire - absolutely wonderful experience.

The next day we entered Sydney proper to meet up with Emily's parents!
We hadn't seen them for 18 months, so we were pretty pumped at the
prospect. After we met at the hostel we were staying at, we enjoyed the sights of Sydney for 5 days, which was a real highlight. Sydney surprised us, though. We had expected it to be an ultra-modern, bustling city with all the fixings usually associated with big metropolis' around the world. What we found, however, didn't exactly fit what we had imagined we'd find.

New buildings there were, but tucked in between them and hidden away in their own districts were aged stone buildings with loads of character. Some were being used as museums, galleries or cafes, but many were simply there being lived in. We hadn't thought of Sydney as a particularly old city, so we were surprised to see so much history there. Surrounding these buildings is acres of green space. In fact, from our hostel, we could almost walk the 45 minutes to the harbour area using only paths through parks! Trees lined roads, birds flew in all directions, and dusk saw the skies flooded with massive Fruit Bats which descend on the berry-trees in Hyde Park, giving Sydney an unusual claim to fame. So, we walked as much as we could, and also made good use of the excellent transit system, which for us was a major bonus. Signs we could understand! Buses that actually arrive on time, with everyone sitting down!! Fares that are non-negotiated and posted clearly!!! Traveling has a way of lowering your standards, we're finding. On the plus, however, traveling also makes you appreciate things you'd never think of appreciating while living in the countries that we live in.

One place that wasn't a stretch to appreciate, however, was Sydney Harbour. We loved how
accessible it all was. The ferry to Manly left from bays between the Opera House and the Bridge. The Opera House could be approached, walked around, touched and entered. The expected throngs of people were actually quite spread out, making pockets of murmuring crowds, all basking in glorious sunshine.

Our ferry trip out to Manly was very enjoyable, as the beaches out there far less crowded than the famed Bondi Beach just outside Sydney. The water, however, was slightly warmer than glacial, so those of us with a pre-disposition to more equatorial water temperatures stayed rather dry. We took on a nice hike through dense brush to reveal wonderful views across the bay to Manly and the ocean beyond. Sydney truly is a beautiful city, but for reasons far different that we had anticipated.

Next up: Adelaide! Ryley is doing a teacher exchange, so they've traded house, car and job with a family living in the Adelaide Hills. We'll be there for just over 2 weeks, moving her into her classroom, and them into their house and neighbourhood, while enjoying all those comforts of home:) We also heard there are a few good wine valleys nearby . . . we hope you're all well, and that you've rung in the new year positively. Take care!