Virgin Valley Water District Wants Unlimited and Unfettered Access to Water

Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction (mostly gas and oil) at the expense of the landscape and the Outdoor Recreation Industry. Wildcatters looked for oil in Gold Butte in the 1980s and found none, and what the old-time prospectors used to say remains true today: you can find anything you look for in Gold Butte, but not in economical quantities (except maybe ecotourism and the outdoor industry, but that is a different topic).

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This site was a dry hole: no oil here

Prospectors found all kinds of minerals. Most famously they found gold, but they also mined silver, lead, copper, uranium, manganese, mica, vermiculite, and other minerals. As we see today, however, most of the mines played out years ago. Gold was essentially done by 1910, copper died in 1918 except for a spurt in the 1950s, and uranium was done in 1980s. One gold mine operated during the 1940s and another in the 1990s, but those weren’t commercially viable either.

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Gold Butte Mine

Prospectors also found and claimed water, perhaps the most valuable extractable resource in the desert. They captured surface flows and mined subsurface water. But just like the other extractable resources in Gold Butte, water seems not to be available in commercial quantities. In fact, most springs have gone dry in recent decades, and all of the wells and windmills are dry or gone.

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Ruby Spring — barely damp enough to attract flies and a few honey bees

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Garden Spring Windmill — dry for decades

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Windmill Mine — but no windmill and no water

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This washed out earthen dam used to hold back the outflow from the marsh at St. Thomas Gap

This land has been drying out since the end of the last Ice Age, but people keep trying to catch and store water with hopes of the “good old days” coming back. Perhaps the best example is the exquisite stone dam at Whitney Pocket. But the history of this dam is the history of Gold Butte: the land continues to dry out, the people continue to hold out hope, and the land just keeps on drying out.

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Stone dam built at Whitney Pocket by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s

A few springs (e.g., Red Bluff Spring, Horse Spring, Agua Chiquita Spring) remain in central and southern Gold Butte, but they don’t produce much water. Similarly, there are a few springs in northern Gold Butte (e.g., Cabin Spring, Dud Spring, Government Spring) that produce a little water, and one still creates a small stream in wet years.

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Cabin Canyon on the north side of Virgin Peak: after an extremely wet winter, water flows in the creek

As they used to say in the Old West, or perhaps still do, whisky is for drinking — water is for fighting. Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction: but what they really want now is water. The issue of water rights was settled in the National Monument Proclamation where it says, in plain-and-simple black-and-white text: all existing water rights remain the same before and after the designation of Gold Butte National Monument:

The establishment of the monument is subject to 
valid existing rights, including valid existing water rights.

It is disappointing to learn that the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) is reneging on agreements and compromises made during the long process of drawing a boundary around Gold Butte National Monument, compromises that cut the northern 50,000 acres out of the original national monument proposal. The VVWD, the Governor, and the conservation community all agreed on the boundary and the language specifying for all time that VVWD has access to their lawful water rights —  access that never has been denied.

Despite the agreements and the text in the monument proclamation, the VVWD now appears angry that they can’t have unlimited and unfettered access to the several springs in question, arguing, in effect, that they should be able to put a 4-lane highway into the mountains and up to the springs should they desire.

Well, I hate to tell them, but monument or not, the VVWD will never have unlimited and unfettered access to these springs because these are on public lands, not VVWD private property, and We the People of America have a say in how our lands are managed and how the VVWD can access its water rights. I suspect that We the People will insist on minimal damage to our landscape inside and outside the monument.

Furthermore, VVWD seems to argue that access to these few springs is essential to the survival of Mesquite. Well, they should find no solace in the fact that most springs in the Gold Butte region have gone dry in the last few decades. Hanging their hopes on their few remaining springs will be disappointing.

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Dry reservoir below the dry Grapevine Spring

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Eclipse August 21, 2017

Eclipse. The earth and moon spin in their eternal orbits around each other and around the sun, always throwing shadows off into space. Sometimes the shadows cross paths with one or the other celestial body, and today the moon travelled directly between the sun and earth as seen from North America.

The zone of totality crossed far north of Las Vegas, but Liz and I headed north last night to Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and camped at Upper Lake Campground. We were only a bit more than an hour north of town, but after a relaxing morning watching the few early-migrating birds (Yellow Warblers, House Wren, Western Grebes), we settled in to watch the eclipse. Direct evidence of planet-sized events is inspiring.

Stormy weather enveloped Las Vegas and all points south of us, but we were right on the edge of the storm system, so we got to see most of the eclipse. Early on, we were under clear skies, but as the eclipse progressed, we got more and more heavy clouds. We could see rain just south of us.

Being so far south, I was surprised that we had such a narrow sliver of sun during the height of the eclipse. We made a pin-hole viewer but mostly used our solar glasses (purchased for the last eclipse) and even shot a few photos through the glasses. As the clouds moved in, we were able to look directly at the sun and take photos without the filter.

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Progression of the solar eclipse as seen from Pahranagat NWR

 

Our National Monuments are Special Places

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Gold Butte National Monument

Our national monuments are special places, and the Antiquities Act, which was used to designate them, is an important tool to get the right thing done when unreasonable politics get in the way.

In Nevada, the Antiquities Act was used to designate Basin and Range National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument. Both of these places were supported by the vast majority of Nevadans, but obstructionist Republican politics, having vowed to ensure that our first black president would suffer a failed administration, stymied the will of the people in these and many other cases.

After years of work by many individuals, organizations, and coalitions, and after repeatedly introducing legislation over several years, the people of Nevada asked the president to use authority, granted by congress to the president under the Antiquities Act, to declare Basin and Range and Gold Butte as national monuments.

These were not some random patches of desert real estate chosen by environmentalist to lock out industry. These places are special areas with specific reasons for conserving them.

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Basin and Range National Monument. Coal Valley with view west into Garden Valley

Basin and Range National Monument, established in 2015, set aside two large valley basins and all or parts of eight surrounding mountain ranges. This is the Basin and Range Province, the iconic landscape of Nevada, and just like many other states have conserved parts of their iconic landscapes, Nevada has now conserved a part of its iconic landscape. Think of Arizona conserving the Grand Canyon National Park, California conserving Yosemite, and Utah conserving Zion National Park. In this respect, Nevada is now on par with surrounding states.

Basin and Range National Monument conserves some of the last unspoiled basins in Nevada, which is to say that it conserves some of the Basin and Range ecosystem. This helps protect habitat for plants and wildlife unique to this area, and it ensures that outdoor enthusiasts have places to experience these habitats in their primeval state for off-highway driving, camping, and hunting. Conservation of this area also protects the sheep and cattle ranching lifestyle, and the land-art sculpture “City,” from encroachment by industry.

Basin and Range also protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and the native people lived in the area for many generations left their marks. The area also protects some of the earliest (1860s) mining history in southern Nevada, which also tells important stories of conflicts between competing cultures.

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Gold Butte National Monument, petroglyphs made by the Paiute people

Gold Butte National Monument, established in 2016, sets aside stunning landscapes and the long history of human use of the land. Like the well-known Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Gold Butte sets aside red-and-white sandstone crags and towering limestone mountains for recreation, but Gold Butte also includes geologically interesting metamorphic mountains (where rock hounds have searched for semiprecious stones over the years) and granite mountains reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park or the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Gold Butte even has its own volcano. Except for the metamorphic mountains, these are the same rock layers that make up the Grand Canyon, and Gold Butte truly is Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon, the difference is that ours is all jumbled up.

Gold Butte protects important pieces of Nevada history. The area has been populated by humans for thousands of years, and native people used the area and left their marks in several areas. Gold Butte also protects early (1880s) ranching and mining history in southern Nevada, and includes stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Gold Butte long has been designated for the conservation of Desert Bighorn Sheep and Desert Tortoise, and it provides habitat for other rare and sensitive plant and animal species.

Using the Antiquities Act to set aside conservation areas cuts through congressional inabilities to get the right thing done. In doing so, we the people are saying that these are among the last remaining special places in Nevada and now is the time to think carefully about our future. While some few would like to develop these area and use them up now and forever, the rest of us are saying that we should save some places where future generations can decide what to do with them. It is a bit like tithing to the church or saving for retirement. We are taking something we have today and setting it aside for higher purposes. Future generation can decide to do something else, but we are preserving for them the option to decide.

I grew up in Los Angeles. I remember playing outdoors in the orange and avocado groves. I’ve seen cities expand and take over the landscape as my favorite outdoor spaces were developed for housing and industry. Conservationists are doing the same thing cities and states are doing: long range, large scale, land-use planning. It is time to use all land-use planning tools, including the Antiquities Act, to plan a future that works for everyone: industrial lands where industry is good, housing lands where housing is good, and recreation lands where recreation is good.

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Sunset over Gold Butte National Monument

Mine Markers– Why do I do it?

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A mining claim marker standing silently for decades capturing and killing birds

When we look around the world these days, we see many problems that need to be fixed and we want to help. As individuals, however, most things are too big for one person to fix alone. On our own, we can’t fix global climate change; we can’t fix poverty; we can’t fix world hunger.

So we find little things where we can make a difference. I watch birds, so I am in tune with problems facing birds. For example, most species of migratory song birds in North America have experienced large population declines in the last 50 years, some declining as much as 90%. Researchers attribute much of this decline to habitat loss on the wintering grounds in South America, and a combination of habitat loss and mortality during the breeding season in North America.

This is too big for me alone to fix.

There are, however, small things that I can do to help the birds. So far as I know, the only population of Inca Doves in Las Vegas lives around my yard. They used to be widespread in southern Nevada, but now you have to go to southern Arizona to find very many of them. I feed and water the birds every day trying to support my little population.

I’m a hiker, and in the last few years, I became aware of another problem that is harming birds. In the western United States, we have about 1 million hollow mining claim markers. Our migratory, cavity nesting birds see these markers and drop in to investigate them as a possible nest site. Unfortunately, they never come out. Knocking down mine markers is something I can do while hiking to make the world a better place for birds.

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Volunteers in Gold Butte taking down a mining claim marker

When I started knocking down markers, I found many dead birds and became appalled by the situation. Now it has become a quest to knock down markers and save birds.

In Gold Butte, I’ve spearheaded efforts to knock down hollow mining claim markers. Our team was assigned (by the BLM and NDOW) 508 Quarter Sections in Gold Butte to search for mine markers. A Section is a square 1 mile on a side, so a Quarter Section is square, 1/2 miles on a side. A square 1/2 miles on a side is a lot of land!

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Volunteer in Gold Butte after taking down a mining claim marker

During late 2015 through 2016, the team searched 456 Quarter Sections and found 289 markers, of which 112 were already down, so we knocked down 177 upright markers. In those upright markers, we found the remains of 342 dead birds, 23 dead mammals (including 4 bats), 19 lizards, and tens of thousands of dead insects (mostly bees and beetles). One marker contained 41 dead birds. Most of the dead birds were Ash-throated Flycatchers, but we found 21 wrens (Canyon, Rock, and Cactus), 10 Western Screech Owls, 1 Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and even 1 European Starling.

We will keep working until the remaining 52 Quarter Sections are cleared, although most of these are on the steep, forested, highest ridges of Virgin Peak and probably will be searched by the BLM using a helicopter during the start of next fire season.

Mining claim markers are a big problem, but this is something I can do to make a difference on my own. We can each make a difference working alone.

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Contents of a mining claim marker: one mummified Ash-throated Flycatcher and eight Ash-throated Flycatcher skulls

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Contents of a mining claim marker: decomposed remains of about 20 Ash-throated Flycatchers

October Birding on Mt. Charleston with Red Rock Audubon

On a cool mid-October morning, with extreme high winds in the forecast, I led a group of nine birders into the mountains to see what we could see at this time of year. Seven of us were local Red Rock Audubon-ers, and we had two out-of-state visitors (one from Ohio and another from Texas).

We drove up Lee Canyon Road talking about the ecology of desert vegetation zones as they change with elevation, then turned onto the Mack’s Canyon Road and took the 4-mile dirt road through the Pinyon-Juniper Forest. The lightly maintained road was fine, such as a narrow, winding road can be while traversing hillsides with steep drop-offs and grand views north across the Nevada Test Site.

When we had climbed into a forest of Ponderosa Pine and White Fir, we stopped at Mack’s Spring. We were glad to find that water was still flowing this late in the year (despite 10 years of drought), and we found lots of wind, but birds were not to be seen. Disappointed, I figured that the wind and cold were keeping them away — and I feared that another “bird-and-hike” would be a birding bust. We did hear something barking in the woods, which we attributed to a squirrel, and we saw a Townsend’s Solitaire and three Dark-eyed Juncos, but who wants to drive that far and see only a handful of birds?

Trying to save the day, we shifted from birding to hiking and started up Mack’s Canyon where we started seeing Bristlecone Pines and lots of just-past-bloom Rubber Rabbitbrush. We also started seeing birds and stumbled into a fairly large mixed flock of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, and Pygmy Nuthatches. Interestingly, the flock came from the direction of the spring and were quickly moving farther up the canyon.

After the flock had passed by us, we decided to salvage the birding by moving to Deer Creek Picnic Area and giving that area a try. Returning to the spring, we realized that the area was now full of birds with lots of Townsend’s Solitaire and Cassin’s Finches. A Brown Creeper came in and gave us a nice, close look while it hunted on “our side” of the tree. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Yellow-rumps came in for baths (the kinglets showed off their damp ruby crowns). We were most impressed by the large number of Solitaires all in one place — as many as four Solitaires in the binoculars at one time. Perhaps Solitaires aren’t so solitary during fall migration? Also, with so many Townsend’s Solitaires, we realized that our “squirrel barking in the woods” was actually the call of a Townsend’s Solitaire. We did, however, see four Mt. Charleston (Palmer’s) Chipmunks and one Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, plus one 4-point buck Mule Deer.

 

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Audubon Birders at Mack’s Spring

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Audubon Birders at Mack’s Spring

We used up our “Deer Creek” time at Mack’s Spring, but all decided to stay a little longer and visit Deer Creek Picnic Area anyways. We drove over and started up the trail. The pond at the bottom was dry, but soon we saw water trickling in the streambed. Just after passing a noisy group of kids playing in the water, we started seeing them again: lots of Townsend’s Solitaire! We counted 10, and we saw most of them at the same time!

 

We saw three species of woodpeckers: Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, and something that we called a Downy Woodpecker because of its small bill, but we now think it was a Hairy Woodpecker with a shorter than average bill. We also saw one Cedar Waxwing — who’s ever seen just one Cedar Waxwing?

We birded Deer Creek for only an hour, but before we left, we heard that squirrel barking in the woods again, but this time we saw a Mt. Charleston Chipmunk on the hillside flicking its tail in time with the bark. I wonder if he was trying to confuse us or the Townsend’s Solitaire?

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Audubon Birders in Deer Creek Picnic Area

Species

Location

Mack’s Canyon

Deer Creek

Northern Flicker 1 2
Red-naped Sapsucker 0 2
Hairy Woodpecker 0 1
Clark’s Nutcracker 1 0
Common Raven 1 1
Mountain Chickadee 2 1
Pygmy Nuthatch 6 0
Brown Creeper 1 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3 2
Townsend’s Solitaire 6 10
American Robin 0 2
Cedar Waxwing 0 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 15 1
Dark-eyed Junco 3 0
Cassin’s Finch 15 0

The Quest Survives

On August 18, 2016, I began what I hoped would be a 21-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT) totaling some 245 miles without resupply, or at the least, I would do the final 43-mile section of my 40-some-year quest to finish the JMT.

I started at Horseshoe Meadow (10,000 ft elevation) with a heavy pack, but the altitude didn’t affect me too much and I was moving well. On the 4th day, I summited Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest peak in the lower 48 states) from the west side. I’d done it before from the east side, so this was a new route for me. It felt good to make the summit with surprisingly little effort.

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Summit of Mt. Whitney (Red John and Steve from MN made a flag)

The 5th day seemed long and hard, although I rested for a couple of hours at midday waiting in a valley bottom for an thunder storm to pass by. I hiked into the late evening, and when I slid into my sleeping bag, I noticed a sore spot on the front of my right shin. Little did I know, it was the start of shin splints, which I’d never experienced.

On day 6, my shin hurt with every step as I hobbled over the highest pass on the JMT. At 13,153 feet, Forrester Pass is high and steep, and although I was moving, I needed to stop at every stream crossing to soak and numb my shin in the near-freezing water. On the way down the other side (going down was more painful), some friendly hikers gave me two 800-mg ibuprofen tablets. Half of one, plus more freezing water and leaning heavily on my trekking poles, helped me finish the 10-mile day, but I was beat and discouraged from the pain.

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Soaking my leg in near-freezing lake water

I decided to make day 7 a short, easy day to let my leg rest, but by lunchtime, I decided that I needed to get out and sent Liz a satellite message to please come and pick me up. With the aid of cold water, trekking poles, and drugs, I could move, so I decided that I needed to move while I could. I spent the rest of the day hobbling over several more miles.

The next day, the 8th and last day, I hiked over Kearsarge Pass, a relatively easy pass at only 11,709 feet elevation, and down to the Onion Valley Trailhead (9,185 ft). Liz arrived shortly before I arrived at the trailhead, and it was quite a sight to come around a corner on the trail and see her coming up with an empty backpack to help me carry the load the rest of the way down.

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Liz coming up the trail!

So although I hiked some 70 miles, I left 12 miles — only 12 of 211 — of the JMT undone. I came so close to finishing the quest that I started in 1973. Maybe it is good to leave a quest incomplete: now I have something to look forward to next year.

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Done: Onion Valley Trailhead

After thoughts: Five days post hike: the shin is still unhappy but I can walk more-or-less normally. After about two weeks, my shin was more-or-less back to normal. Five months later, I’ve done a lot of hard hiking, but I not had any problem with the shin.

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Results of the 2016 Trip relative to the Previous Hikes

Working on the Bucket List — John Muir Trail 2016

Over the last several years, as Liz and I have gotten older, we have been working on our Bucket List items.

  • Jim retires by 50 years of age — check
  • Jim and Liz bird Newfoundland seabird colonies — check
  • Jim and Liz visit Missouri Botanical Gardens — check
  • Jim and Liz bird the Alaska Marine Ferry to at least Juneau — check
  • Jim and Liz hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back — check
  • Jim finishes the John Muir Trail (JMT)

We are getting close to the end of the list. Sure, some items have been forgotten and others will be added, but “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” is next up.

The  John Muir Trail (JMT) is a popular trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that runs through some of the most scenic terrain in the United States. The trail was named to honor John Muir, a preeminent, late 19th century conservationist who was a driving force behind establishing Yosemite National Park and other conservation areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an effort that resulted in establishment the “Sierra” Club. Planning for the trail began in the 1900s, and construction began in 1915, the year after Muir’s death.

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Map of My History and 2016 Goals for the John Muir Trail

Completed in 1938, the John Muir Trail runs from the bottom of Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles; 4,100 ft elevation) north to Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft elevation; where John Muir first learned to love these mountains), and then south through high country (35% of the trail is over 10,000 feet elevation) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest point in the continental United States). The trail was originally 212 miles, but rerouting over the years has added a few miles, so now it seems to be 214 based on GPS tracks with careful editing using Google Earth images. In addition, the trail technically ends atop Mt. Whitney, and hikers still need to hike at least 11 miles farther to reach civilization, so as a technical matter, hikers doing the entire trail need to hike 225 miles.

The bucket-list item reads “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” — that implies Jim tried but didn’t finish before?

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First time on the JMT (Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, near Cathedral Peak, circa 1972)

Well, not exactly. In 1973 when I was 15, between my freshmen and sophomore years in high school, I hiked with a high school friend named Tom (last name lost to history) from Rock Creek to Yosemite Valley, a total of about 102 miles in 30 days, and about 88 miles on the JMT.

The following year, in 1974 at age 16, between my high school sophomore and junior years, I hiked with Steve Ponting (another high school friend) from Kings Canyon to Rock Creek (113 miles). I then walked back into the wilderness alone and hiked farther north to Reds Meadow (43 miles), a total of 156 miles in 32 days, and about 111 miles on the JMT.

So, in those two years, I did about 199 miles on the JMT, but there was some overlap, so I’ve only done a total of 171 JMT miles. The entire trail is 214, so I’ve not walked on 43 miles of the JMT.

Actually, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ve hiked several times on parts of the JMT. In 2008, I hiked with Liz and my sister and her family from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows (about 35 miles), and during several years Liz and I hiked various routes from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley (25-35 miles each). In 2005, we did the traditional JMT route from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Thus, in total I’ve walked about 300 JMT miles, but those 43 un-walked miles still hang on me.

After hiking during my high-school summers of 1973 and 1974, life got busy (working in the mountains of northern Idaho; 1975 and 1976) and I drifted into other endeavors (e.g., climbing the big walls in Yosemite; 1977; hiking in northern Alaska 1978), but I’ve always planned to go back to the Sierras and finish the southern 43 miles of the JMT. I’ve thought about thru-hiking the entire trail, I’ve thought about just doing the minimal 43-mile section, and I’ve thought about doing it all again in sections.

This summer, I’m hiking the entire trail from a bit south of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley (242 miles).

Hiking from south to north, the trail starts over Mt. Whitney, but it is very difficult to get permits for that section, so I’ll start at the next trailhead south where it is easy to get walk-up permits. Permits for these mountains are “entry permits,” so once a hiker enters, they can go more-or-less anywhere for as long as they want, and that is my plan.

I’ll leave during the third week of August, entering west of Lone Pine, California, at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. From there, I’ll head north about 20 miles to meet the JMT near Crabtree Meadows and climb Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft) from the west side as a day-hike. This will be my second ascent of our highest mountain (first in 2002), but the first from the west side.

From the summit of Mt. Whitney, I’ll turn around and hike north 43 miles to Woods Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1974 (starting from Kings Canyon). I’ll then continue north 86 miles to Mono Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1973. From there, I’ll keep hiking north to Reds Meadows, another 28 miles, to where I ended in 1974. Continuing north, I walk another 60 miles all the way to Yosemite Valley, completing the entire JMT in one run — but we’ll see how it goes

I’ll be carrying a SPOT device, which allows me use the satellite phone system to send geo-referenced pre-recorded messages from the trail. Visitors can follow my progress by opening my SPOT webpage where messages will be displayed on a map. I hope to start hiking slowly until I get my mountain lungs and legs, then pick up the pace — I’ll need to average about 10 miles per day to reach Yosemite Valley in 24 days.

I’m excited!

[Postscript: I failed to complete my quest, but be sure to read about the details.

Trip to Washington, D.C., for Public Lands

June 14, Tuesday — Las Vegas to Washington DC

Up early with Liz who dropped me at the airport about 3:30 for a 6:00 am flight. The flight to Denver was uneventful, but it was nice seeing my territory from the air. We even flew over Gold Butte and I got photos of the Colorado River delta at Lake Mead.

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Scheduled to fly

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Departing Las Vegas (view north)

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Nice view of the neighborhood (view east)

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Flying over southern Gold Butte (view south)

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North Rim of the Grand Canyon (view south)

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Colorado River and Navajo Mountain (view south)

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Rocky Mountains, Colorado (view south)

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Leaving the western mountains and entering the Great Plains (view south)

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Landing at Denver Airport

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Flight delays

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Clouds over middle America

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Landing in Washington, D.C.

In Denver, the flight to DC was delayed about 2 hours. I spent about one of those hours hiking a loop on our concourse. Departing Denver, the land was different and I couldn’t figure out where we were. I got lots of landscape photos, but the Mississippi River was the only one where I recognized features on the ground.

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It pains me to even say the name of this airport

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Riding the train into D.C. (Washington Monument out the window (view northwest)

In DC, I bought a card and took the metro to near the hotel. Unfortunately, there were several exits from the subway, and I took the one that gave me the longest walk. At least I got to see some of Chinatown.

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Comfortable bed at the Courtyard Marriott

I found the hotel, Courtyard Marriott at F and 9th and got checked in. The day had seemed long and draining, even though I’d done nothing, but perhaps the 2:45 wake up was getting to me. In the room, I relaxed a few minutes, then did a FaceBook check-in to let the world know I’d arrived. To my surprise, Annette Magnus responded to my post with a “come downstairs and meet me for dinner.” No to pass up an offer like that, we had a great chance to chat and catch up on what we’d been doing back in Las Vegas and some information about what we’d be doing here.

Back in the room, I did more social media, cleared out the email, read a bit, and hit the sack about 10:00 pm. It was getting late here, but that was on 7:00 pm “brain” time, but even so I conked out for the duration.

June 15, Wednesday — Washington DC

I decided to skip breakfast so I could sleep an extra hour and got up about 7:30 am. By 8:00 am I was out the door and heading to the Pew offices just around the corner. It was convenient that they put us up in an adjoining building.

The morning meeting was a pep talk and rehearsals for the day ahead, and although they had coffee, there were no snacks, so I struck out on my skipping breakfast gamble.

After the meetings, we piled into two cabs and headed to the Dirkson Senate Building. First things first, we got lunch in the basement (philly cheese steak), then headed upstairs to Senator Heller’s office.

After a polite wait, Jeremy Harrell took us into a meeting room where we had an interesting discussion about northern Nevada land bills (the Senator is moving them along) and Gold Butte. The Senator is opposed to designation as a National Monument, but is interested in a second Clark County Lands Bill. We shall see how things go. But anyways, I went away thinking that Heller isn’t really the devil I make him out to be.

From Heller’s office, our contingent walked across the street to the Capitol Building where, after several layers of security, we go into Senator Reid’s office. We were met by Sara and Timothy and had a nice chat, then the Senator came in and spent about 3 minutes apologizing for why he couldn’t meet with us. We finished the meeting with Sara.

Four of us spent about an hour walking on the National Mall and visiting the Botanical Garden.

Back to Dirkson for a 2-hour reception. Nice chance to chat with lots of people working on lots of different land campaigns. Highlights included the VetsVoices guys (Steve and Garrett) and the GB Working Group voices I head on the weekly phone conversations.

Back to the hotel for writing and social media, then to bed late at about 11:15 pm. At least I’m sleeping in until 8:00 am.

June 16, Thursday — Washington DC

Breakfast with the crew, then off to Dina Titus’ office (Titus and Ben Rosenbaum). We had a nice chat and she said there was a chance the monument would be paired with Stonewall and declared within a month. That would be exciting. Titus seemed tired.

From there, we took a cab to CEQ across the street from the White House. Good meeting with Sally Hardin (Michael Degnan couldn’t make it), but not remarkable. Photos in front of the White House.

Walked a few blocks to the DOI building. Got there early and stopped for lunch. I didn’t eat, but the AC was nice on a hot, humid day.

We had a 1-hour delay, so we walked to the Washington Monument and back. The DOI building looked old and tired, and the restroom felt like an old visitor center restroom. Good meeting with Nikki Buffa, but she suggested Gold Butte might be set aside due to fears of armed insurrection (not another Malheur Sec. Jewel says). Nikki was interested in the northern boundary issue, but suggested that I needed to chat with Reid’s office (Carrie set up the meeting for tomorrow).

After the meetings, we returned to the hotel and left our bags, then Patrick and I went to the National Museum of the American Indian. It was an interesting cultural experience to visit the museum with a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Patrick showed me around exhibits of his people. He was so excited to share, and I was so eager to learn.

Took cab to Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked a bit. Brought back powerful emotions from when I was a young man. We took a long walk on the mall, then cabbed back to the hotel.

Dinner alone in the hotel restaurant, then social media and to bed late.

June 17, Friday — Washington DC to Las Vegas

Had a hard time sleeping. Stayed awake thinking about the meeting in the morning. Got enough sleep in parts, and could have stayed up at 5 am, but got up about 8:30 am. Breakfast at the hotel buffet, then checked out about 10:00 am leaving $10 in the room.

I walked a bit more than a mile to the Hart Senate Building. It was warm and humid outside, but the morning was fresh and it was nice to walk, get some exercise, and see the people (first obviously homeless people), birds (mostly robins, starlings, and house sparrows), and Eastern Gray Squirrels (seemed to be a lot of Sciurids out this morning. It had rained overnight, so there was wetness in places, and that added to the humidity.

I arrived at the Hart Senate Office Building about 10:30 am. Thought about relaxing outside, but decided to cool off and dry out inside. Met Sara Moffit and Thomas (Tim? the BLM intern) in Reid’s office (#522) at 11:00 am and talked about map issues regarding the northern boundary. I wanted to make sure they knew about the Mud Spire area and how that would make a nice site for the Visitor Center, but willing to compromise in other areas. Matching boundaries with Parashant make some sense, and I really don’t want to give away the Bunkerville Ridge area. It sounds like DOI is really afraid of antagonizing Bundy, and Reid may have to give a little to keep a lot. DOI is talking about pulling the boundary back to Whitney Pocket, which would be a real tragedy, but Sara says this is just the first whack at the ball and Reid will try to get it all if he can.

Sara also said that Reid had tried to get “garden valley” twice before in the 2000 and 2006 Lincoln County bills, but it didn’ts work that time. This gives data points to the story that Basin and Range didn’t come out of nowhere. There was 15 years of work put into the project, but I still wonder why the conservation community didn’t rally the first two times.

After the meeting, I walked over to the capital and got a few photos with the Gold Butte sign, then walked all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Along the way, I toured the Botanical Gardens again. It is such a cool place (actually hot and very humid) with Gray Catbirds, Red-wing Blackbirds, and Song sparrows inside. The cactus section was closed for roof repairs, which is disappointing because I wanted to use the Gold Butte sign with the cactus. I did get some nice orchid and other photos for Liz. Maybe it is time to visit Washington again.

Walked up to the Washington Monument, then on down to the WWII memorial. It was interesting, but without the features I expected (no tanks). There was a nice pond with fountains, lots of stars, and a pillar for each state and territory.

Continued along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Stopped about where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. For such a powerful place, it was interesting that there was no marker in the flagstones memorializing the event. I’ll have to pay more attention to photos from the event to see exactly where he stood (on his platform). Sitting on the plane next to a Black lady and an Asian lady, I think about how far we’ve come — yet how far we have to go.

Inside the memorial I was one of hundreds of people taking photos and contemplating the events that led to this memorial. I started to read the 2nd inaugural speech on the wall, but decided I needed to get going. There are a lot of steep steps up to the memorial, and as I was leaving, an elderly man was taking his last, wavering, step upwards. I offered him a hand to steady his last step, but he smiled and wanted to do it on his own. I guess it was an event for him too. He was dark skinned and I didn’t think black, but maybe so.

From there, I hustled back up the Mall, following along the shaded walk on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. I stopped to set off SPOT between the Reflecting Pool and the WWII memorial, then hiked on to near the Smithsonian. There I detoured right and walk out Independence Ave to 7th, then down to the L’Enfant Plaza to catch the subway to the airport. I had hiked pretty hard and was soaked in sweat by the time I got to the subway.

I found my way to the subway with the kindness of strangers, and after getting off the train, I gave my left-over card with $5.60 left on it to the ticketing guy who was helping tourists buy tickets. I asked him to give it to someone who needed it, perhaps a single mother or a vet, and he suggested a homeless person. I got the impression that I wasn’t the first to give away my card before departing, but that it was an uncommon event. The ticket agent seemed surprised and delighted to have it.

The airport was really crowded, so I’m glad a saved one last clean shirt for the trip home. Everything worked out and the flight departed on time for Charlotte, which was only 45 minutes away, but took twice that long just because of taxi out and taxi in time.

Charlotte was much more peaceful, and we departed there on time too. We chased the setting sun all the way to the middle of Arkansas, and even now more than an hour farther west (western Oklahoma [got tracks]), we still have a grand glow of orange on the horizon as we are passing what looks like a great salt flat with a small lake; I wonder is this is the place we visited at the Prairie Chicken Festival.

We are now in the northeast corner NM and we still have sunset orange in the northwest sky (other side of the plane). Out my window, it is essentially dark with lots of lights on the ground in places but not here. We also have a nearly full moon tonight. A bit farther along, I can see the lights of ABQ in the distance coming out from behind the Sandia Crest,

Looking forward to getting home and seeing Liz.

Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 2: Germany

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April 27, Wednesday — Train from England to Germany

We had an early train and needed to be at the train station a bit before 6 am. The train station was not far from the flat, but we needed to catch a bus to the subway, then the subway to the train station without error to get there on time. To help us on our way, Cathy got up early and rode with us to the train station to ensure we got there on time. It turned out that the bus would be late, so we walked to the subway. Cathy stayed until we headed into security and customs, then she waved us off on our way to Germany and was gone.

Our EuroStar train departed from the London St. Pancras International Train Station at 06:50 hrs. We made it through security, much like an American airport except you keep your shoes on, and through French customs (what happened to open EU borders?) where I got a serious pat-down.

We switched trains 3 times, always making the connection, but all were fairly tight. It is a good thing the stations were compact and the schedules are good. On the first leg, we sat in a 6-seat isolated compartment that felt like a fishbowl; I wondered what the other passengers thought as they walked past to take their regular seats. At one stop (there were few), a German guy got on and came in with us. He was friendly enough, but it was easy to see that he wanted a quiet compartment to sleep.

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From London, we headed southeast towards Dover, where we’d been before, but on a slightly different route. At some point, I decided to take photos of the countryside before we descended into the Chunnel (the tunnel under the English Channel). I shot one, then we went into a tunnel as we had done before to cross under rivers. However, after several minutes, we realized that we were inside the Chunnel, and after about 20 minutes, we emerged into the sunlight on the rolling plains of coastal France.

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Last view of England (Folkestone; view NW)

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First view of France (Calais; view NW

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French farming countryside (Campagne-les-Guines)

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Brussels Midi Train Station

From London, it took about 2-1/2 hours to get to Brussels, Belgium, and the day had gone from sunny to heavy clouds and cold. In Brussels, we had 15 minutes to find our next train, and fortunately it was fairly easy to find our way.

Departing Brussels towards Köln, Germany, the weather went from cloudy to rainy, to snowing. It was unseasonably cold in all of western Europe — the climate is changing here too. It took 2-1/4 hours to get to Köln and when we could, the engineer didn’t waste any time. The fastest speed I noticed on the GPS was 143 mph, but it recorded speeds to 192 mph in France (many miles in the 180+ range) and 196 mph in Belgium. In Germany, the train didn’t go faster than 120 mph, and most of the trip was below 100 mph.

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In Köln, we had a relaxing 30 minutes to catch the next train, but not speaking the language, we hustled through the station and got on the next train as soon as it arrived. From there, the route turned more northeast and ran 3 hours to Hanover, Germany.

By the time we got to Hanover, we had figured out the patterns on our German-language train ticket, finding the proper trains, the proper cars, and the proper seats. However, in Hanover, we apparently switched from the continental trail system to the commuter train system, and the text on our ticket made no sense this time — and we only had 20 minutes to figure it out. We checked the signs and got to where we thought we were going, but we weren’t sure. We asked a few fellow passengers if they spoke English (none did) or if they could read our ticket and help (none could).

While Liz and I were fretting about where to go, I noticed one of the men I’d asked staring at us. When he caught my eye, he pointed vigorously towards a woman standing nearby. I wasn’t sure what he intended, but as I moved towards the woman he grinned in approval. I asked her if she spoke English, and she said only a little, and I showed her my ticket. She looked it over and said “Yes, this is my train; follow me when I get on.” When the train approached, she looked over to make sure we were paying attention, then she stepped on while looking back at us.

We got on the train, which was crowed with commuters, found seats, and started looking at route information inside the train. The train left the station and before too long the same lady came walking by — checking everyone’s ticket. She was the conductor! When she said “This is my train,” she really meant it.

The train made several stop on the way north towards Walsrode (vals-ROW-day). On this slower train, we had better opportunity to see birds, and the birds of the day were White Storks foraging in a farm field. When we arrived in Walsrode, Anita and Jürgen were waiting for us on the landing and Anita was so excited when she saw us get off–it was quite a warm welcome.

Walsrode is a town of about 25,000 people with roots dating to before 986 AD. Much of the old city structures were destroyed during the 30-years War (1626) and a big fire (1757), but some older structures remain. The city is surrounded by forest and agricultural lands, and Anita and Jürgen live about 15 minutes west of town in the village of Hamwiede (Hum-VEE-day).

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We saw few birds along the way, but we did see five White Storks in a field. Anita and  met us at the train station in Walsrode and took us to their home in the village of Hamwiede.

The house is great, a converted 180-year-old barn, and they feed the birds! An ancient apple tree in the backyard is slowly dying – with a rotten trunk where the birds fly in for food and cover. We got to see Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and European Greenfinch right out the window. Three cats live with Anita and Jürgen; the  princess Paulina, Emma, and young Footsie.

April 28, Thursday — Hiking in the Local Moor

Anita and Jürgen took us for a nice, 3-km walk around the local moor, Grundloses Moor, an area of peat bogs and lakes. The area was entirely peat bog, but they mined the peat for fuel in the old days, and the areas where they removed peat became ponds. The peat probably is reforming on the bottom and edges, but in the mean time, the landscape provides a nice mix of timber, boggy flats, ponds, and one larger lake, Grundloser See that is a residual ice age lake.

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It was pretty cold, but we had a nice mix of sun and light rain, and it only snowed a bit. We saw several species of birds, but didn’t really take the time to birdwatch. With her bionic ears, Liz located the best bird of the day: Eurasian Treecreeper. Other new birds we recorded were: 10 Willow Warbler, Common Chaffinch, Common Wood-Pigeon. We also saw 15 Barn Swallow, 3 Green-winged Teal, and 1 Mallard, all of which are the same species we have in North America.

We liked the creative “symbol signs” along the trail (and elsewhere along our travels). One here showed a squirrel with a flaming tail, which we interpret to mean “don’t light squirrel tails on fire,” but the inscription read ‘Waldbrandgefahr,’ which means “forest fire hazard.”

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Back at the house, the bird feeder entertained us endlessly: 2 Common Wood-Pigeon, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Coal Tit, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 5 Great Tit, 1 Eurasian Nuthatch, 3 Eurasian Blackbird, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 2 Hawfinch, 2 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

April 29, Friday — Hamwiede and Walsrode

After a great breakfast, Liz and I walked around the village (Hamwiede) for two hours and had mixed sun (warm) and clouds (clouds and wind). The habitat was a diverse mix of farm fields and woods, and the birding turned out to be pretty good. We saw lots of species, including: Eurasian Marsh-Harrier 1, Eurasian Sparrowhawk 1, Common Buzzard 2, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Wren, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Blackcap, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, European Starling, Dunnock, and White Wagtail.

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Later, Anita took us to the main town (Walsrode) so she could mail out some work that she’d finished up. After visiting the post office (inside a hardware store like is often the case in the US), she took us on a tour of town that included walking around the historic parts of town, an urban park, and in a wooded park with lakes. The day remained cool, breezy, and partly cloudy with some drizzling rain.

The bird list for the trip included: Graylag Goose, Gray Heron, Eurasian Coot, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Eurasian Blackcap, Eurasian Blackbird, European Starling, White Wagtail, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

April 30, Saturday — Harz Mountains in the former East Germany

Today is May Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht, May Eve), so May Day celebrations started today. We made a long day of it and drove about 140 mi to the Harz Mountains in the former East Germany where we made two main stops. The first stop was at the cross-roads town of Torfhaus (ski resort area) where we walked around a bit but mostly had a look at the former Soviet radar instillation atop the highest peak: Brocken Mountain (now a resort hotel). The second stop was in the town of Schierke where we attended a Renaissance Festival featuring the Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. Also, peculiar to this region, the witches and devils came out — making great fun for everyone.

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Going to the Harz Mountains

We departed Hamwiede heading south on the Autobahn where, traffic permitting, Jürgen drove at about 90 mph to keep up with mid-paced traffic. We passed trucks, but we were passed by lots of vehicles traveling very fast.

We eventually got off the Autobahn and took regular highways into the mountains. We passed through the historic town of Goslar, which was founded in the 10th century after the discovery of silver deposits in the nearby mountains. We didn’t stop, but some of old town remains, and about 50,000 people live here now.

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We continued up into the mountain where at about 2,000-ft elevation, we started seeing snow along the road–winter had not yet released its grip on the land up here. In the forest, it was interesting to see large areas of conifer trees killed by bark beetles. Large outbreaks of these beetles in recent years is attributed to a warming climate that no longer freezes enough of the beetles during winter.

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Bark beetles are killing large portions of the conifer forest

We stopped for a few minutes in Torfhous at the Visitor Center for Harz National Park where it was cold, partly cloudy, and breezy. We didn’t actually go inside, but we walked around a bit and looked at the outside exhibits. We also saw in the distance the former Soviet radar installation atop the highest peak in this part of Germany: Brocken Mountain. With powerful radar, the Soviets could look out over much of northern Germany from the summit. After unification, the radar facility was shuttered, and now it is a resort hotel with a weather station, natural history exhibition, and botanic garden with plants of the higher mountain regions. The whole area is a nature reserve, and we could have spent the day hiking to the summit, but decided instead to continue our journey.

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We continued towards the village of Schierke and because we didn’t understand the signs, passed a memorial and crossed into the former East Germany (GDR) without realizing it. I’m not sure if something was lost in translation or if nothing was said because it was a traumatic reminder of family history for Anita and Jürgen when they were young. On the way home, however, we stopped on the west side of the former border for photos, but we learned later things that might explain why we didn’t stop the first time.

We eventually made it to Schierke where it was cold, calm, and overcast with some snow remaining in the shadows. Schierke is an ancient town, as these mountains have been inhabited by humans forever, although the first written records date from the late 1500s AD.

May-Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht), or simply May Eve (Walpurgis), is an important tradition in the Harz Mountains where the local culture celebrates a Halloween-like springtime event when witches and devils gather for the night in Schierke. Witches weren’t always celebrated here, and in 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities sentenced 133 so-called witches to death in an effort to end pagan traditions. Link to a detailed history of Walpurgisnacht, see: Season of the Witch: Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains.

Today, Walpurgis in Schierke is a festival with medieval roots where witches and devils come to celebrate the expulsion of winter. According to old traditions, many witches gathered on the Brocken to dance and bring in the spring. In the layer cake of northern European mythology, Queen of the Witches: Frau Holle, is the main character. During song, we engaged in a traditional chant to encourage  Holle to return and vanquish winter’s cold grip on the land.

For a village with witches-and-devils roots, it is interesting to note that the coat of arms for the city, granted in 1939, is the skull and antlers of a stag (elk) on a field of yellow.

Part of the modern Walpurgis celebration here is a full-blown Renaissance Festival featuring Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. With a long ways to get home, we stayed until early evening, and as we were leaving, the witches and devils really started coming out — making great fun everywhere.

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Schierker Feuerstein (Schierke Fire Rock), a herbal liqueur and digestive (35% alcohol) that was patented in 1924 by a local chemist, is now a celebrated item in the area. We each tried a bottle (20 ml [0.7 oz] Miniatures), and indeed, it was tasty, but one miniature bottle was enough. Link for details and ordering.

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Schierker Feuerstein advertising in Torfhous

On the way home, we stopped on the west side of the former “internal German border” for  photos. I ran back to the east-side monument, and Liz got out to see the west.  It was interesting to realize later that neither Anita nor Jürgen got out of the car.Image160430e700.jpg

One final treat for the day, when almost home we saw 1 White Stork and 2 Gray Herons feeding together in a farm field.

May 1, Sunday — May Day Celebration

Nice trip around the area. We tried to participate in a May Day celebration in a local town, but they scheduled the May Pole raising for 2 PM and we left because we didn’t want to wait all day. We went to a living history museum in a nearby town that was also holding a May Day celebration. Liz was thrilled because the local spinning guild was there.

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On the way home, we stopped and walked a short distance along a river where 4 CAGO were present and 2 Egyptian Geese were breeding (4 goslings). 3 E. Blackbird, 10 House Sparrow. Then, just coming into Hamwiede, we saw a couple of Eurasian Jays. At home, Anita fixed steak while Liz and I relaxed in the yard listening to bird songs that we didn’t know.

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May 2, Monday — Hamwiede and Bennetzer Moor

A nice sunny day, Liz and I helped Jürgen clean out his pond. Mostly we watch, but we help where he gives a clue about that he is doing. His English vocabulary is extensive, but his accent is thick, and it can be hard to follow him. He does tell great stories about life on the sea.

Yard birds: 2 White Stork, 1 Common Buzzard, 5 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Jay, 1 Eurasian Magpie, 3 Carrion Crow, 8 Barn Swallow, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 2 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 6 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 1 Dunnock, 2 White Wagtail, 5 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 5 European Greenfinch, 5 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

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Large backyard

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Jürgen’s Pond

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European Red Squirrel

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A leopard frog takes up residence on the overflow pipe

In the afternoon, when it was warm clear and calm, Anita took us to another moor area with big, open ponds: Hüttensee Park at Bennetzer Moor. We walked a several-kilometer loop around the biggest pond and saw lots of fun birds, including Graylag Goose and Canada Goose (both with fledglings), Mute Swans, and Common Shelduck. On the way home, we saw two White Storks feeding in a freshly plowed field and stopped to watch for a few minutes.

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Liz birding over Bennetzer Moor

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Lots of courting and mated swans, some on nests

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Nice little pond with songbirds

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Tall trees with birds

 

Birds of Bennetzer Moor: Graylag Goose 10 plus fledglings, Canada Goose 15     Plus fledglings, Mute Swan 20, Common Shelduck 4, Gadwall 2, Northern Shoveler 2, Red-crested Pochard 6, Tufted Duck 6, Common Goldeneye 4, Great Crested Grebe 6, Great Cormorant 20, Black-headed Gull 35, Black Tern 1, Common Wood-Pigeon 1, Eurasian Jay 2, Eurasian Magpie 1, Carrion Crow 3, Barn Swallow 3, Great Tit 1, Eurasian Reed-Warbler 1, European Robin 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 5, White Wagtail 1, Common Chaffinch 2, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 1.

May 3, Tuesday — Hamwiede

Liz and I slept late, still trying to overcome jetlag, and ate breakfast late. We stayed in as a storm with a fair bit of rain passed, and I got caught up on geotagging photos. Soon it was time for big lunch (dinner).

Liz and I eventually went for an afternoon walk from the house heading north and visited the town swimming hole, a nice sand-bottom sculpted depression with grassy edges and picnic tables with benches. During the walk, it was sunny, but a breeze brought cold temperatures. We saw some good birds, including Eurasian Kestrel kiting, a Buzzard, Common Swifts, a pair of Lesser Whitethroats, and two Black Redstart.

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Birding farm lands outside Hamwiede

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Exciting Bird: Eurasian Kestrel

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Returning to Hamwiede

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Getting home

When we got home, we helped Jürgen with a project to replace an old canvas awning with a new one- a great patio cover.

The rain today might be the last of the trip, but the cold front brought cold air from the North Sea.

After dinner, we did laundry for a second time here and watched soccer (football) as Germany and Spain played a championship playoff game. Unfortunately, Germany won this match, but got eliminated from the payoffs.

Birds of the day: 1 goose sp., 2 Common Buzzard, 8 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Common Swift, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Kestrel, 2 Eurasian Magpie, 5 Carrion Crow, 10 Barn Swallow, 2 Common House-Martin, 8 Eurasian Blue Tit, 4 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 2 Eurasian Blackcap, 2 Black Redstart, 12 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 5 White Wagtail, 2 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 10 House Sparrow, 10 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

May 4, Wednesday — Hamburg

Up and out fairly early today, Jürgen took us to a friends farm where they grow Spargel (asparagus), which is an important crop in the local area. Unfortunately, his friend was out and therefore not available for a tour of the operation, but Jürgen told us about it. He also showed us his friend’s pair of captive Eagle Owls that his friend maintained on the property because they couldn’t survive in the wild. The birds were beautiful, but the male had a bad eye. The female didn’t like us much, but her three nestlings didn’t seem to mind us.

Unfortunately, about a month after our visit, we learned that the female owl killed the male perhaps because of her protective instinct for the babies. It is sad, but maybe even a relatively good cage is against nature when one of the parents needs to escape from attacks of the other.

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Blind Eagle Owl

On the way back, Jürgen drove backroads through the woods looking for deer and hogs. We saw Roe Deer and Red Deer, and not Russian Boar. Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are relatively small, reddish and grey-brown deer. Red Deer  (Cervus elaphus), are larger and similar to our elk (or wapiti, C. canadensis). We saw both elsewhere, but not today.

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Looking for pigs and deer

After lunch, Anita took us north to Hamburg, about an hour drive from Hamwiede, for an overnight excursion to meet her daughter and see the city. On the way, we spotted 1 White Stork, 1 Eurasian Green Woodpecker, and 8 Hawfinch from the car.

Hamburg is also an old city, first mentioned in writing in the 2nd century by the Greeks, and is now the 2nd largest city in Germany (8th largest in the European Union) with a metropolitan-region population of about 5 million. Situated on the Elbe River (at the confluence with the smaller Alster River), Hamburg is the 2nd largest port in Europe–even though it is located some 60 miles from the North Sea–and is the largest deep-sea port in the region for container shipping. Hamburg is a major trading center and  commercial center, and has become affluent as a result. This is evidenced in the wonderful and stylish architecture seen all over the port region.

Upon arrival, it was warm, clear, and calm, which was fortunate because we had to drive into the suburbs to find free parking, then took a train downtown to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, busiest railway station in Germany. Walking out the back, we got on a tour bus (about $15 each) for a 2-hour tour of the city. We sat upstairs in the front of the bus where we got a great view, although it was sometimes hard to hear and understand the guide over city noise. Nonetheless, she did a pretty good job of switching between German and English.

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Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, busiest railway station in Germany

The Alster River flows through town following scenic canals. Tour boats, long, narrow, and low, now ply these tidally influenced waters.

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Canals along part of the old Hamburg waterfront

The Reeperbahn, the red-light district, it a tourist attraction during day, and watched over by staff in this Polizei (Police) station during night.

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Keeping everyone safe: police station in the red-light district

There is some really interesting architecture in Hamburg. The Dancing Towers, so called by city fathers, is located at one end of the Reeperbahn. The architect, however, called his structure something like: Prostitute Leaning Against the Wall. Other interesting buildings include the Philharmonic Hall (looks like a wave crashing on the shore), Dockland, a building that looks like a ship on the edge of the harbor, and the Kebab Tower, a building that resembles the rotating piece of meat on a skewer from which one cuts kebab.

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Interesting architecture: Dancing Towers

After the tour, we retrieved the car and drove over to Karola and Caro’s flat located near the harbor. Karola is Anita’s daughter, but by marriage, Anita gets to have two delightful daughters. We found them to be gracious hosts, and they fixed a great lasagna for dinner, complemented by an excellent Spanish wine.

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Guest room in the flat

After dinner, Karola and Caro took us on an evening walking tour to the port area and then to the Planten un Blomen (Plants and Flowers) Park where during summer nights they do a fountain and lights show that is played live to recorded music. On our night, they did a classical piece. The show was reminiscent of the water fountains at the Bellagio Casino back home, but this show was performed live .

In our time driving and walking around Hamburg, we saw Graylag Goose, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Merganser, Great Crested Grebe, 15 Great Cormorant, Eurasian Coot, gull sp., Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon),  Eurasian Blackbird, and a rat.

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Sunset from Karola and Caro’s flat

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Late evening overlooking Hamburg Harbor

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Planten un Blomen Park after dark

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Planten un Blomen Park after dark

May 5, Thursday — Hamburg

Without getting up too early, Karola and Caro fixed us a great breakfast, after which we all started off on a foot tour of the harbor. The day was warm, clear, and calm, and lucky for us traveling at this time of year, we happened onto another major cultural event: the annual “Port of Hamburg-Birthday.” This was a huge event and tens of thousands of people came to the harbor for the festivities.

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Walking through Hamburg following our guides

Karola and Caro took us down to the harbor on foot with Karola keeping up a running commentary on everything we saw. Karola speaks very good English, only stopping to search for words now and then. She learned English in school and practiced in the U.S. two years ago when she and Caro came to the States on their honeymoon. They came through Las Vegas, but for some reason, they decided to stay in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip rather than say on a stranger’s futon (after all, we are just her mother’s friends). They said, however, that when they come back to the States to visit Karola’s brother Bjorn, they won‘t book a hotel for Las Vegas and would be delighted to stay with us.

Caro also spoke some English, but she was bashful about speaking. She said she could understand what we were saying, but that she had trouble forming words in English. I can relate, my use of Spanish is similar: I can carry on a simple conversation in my mind, but when it comes to speaking, I just can’t get the words out. By the end of our second day with them, however, Caro was more comfortable with us and did talk with us.

At any rate, we walked down to the harbor, which was crowded with booths and people. Town, and thus the harbor, is situated along the Elbe River some 60 miles from the ocean, but there are several feet of tidal influence here. The city side of the harbor is mostly homes and business, while the far side is built up with huge container ship facilities and industrial buildings.

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Crowds and booths in the harbor area

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Crowds on the edge of the harbor

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Boarding the water taxi

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On board the water taxi

Knowing what the day would be like, Karola and Caro directed us onto the water taxi before the crowds got too bad, and Caro found out how to organize a cheap ticket for all 5 of us to ride the ship-on-ship-off loop. We rode down the harbor with some time to just watch the sights and some running commentary. The route for this taxi was down one side of the harbor and back up the other, so towards the far end of the loop, we got off to walk on a path below interesting historic homes and overlooking the river and the sandy Hamburg Beach.  We walked out, then dropped down to the beach and walked back along the water.

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Walking upstream on Hamburg Beach

We walked back to the taxi and continued our loop around the harbor area. Towards the far other end of the loop (near where we first got onboard), we got off again to walk along the harbor.

It had been interesting on the water taxi watching old ships moving up and down through the harbor area. The main event at Harbor Birthday is the boat parade, and it was getting close to starting time. The city side of the harbor was packed with people, and Karola thought that it might be better to escape to the other side, and she knew a good place to go.

On foot, we headed for the Elbe Tunnel. The tunnel used to be a roadway, but now it just handles foot and bicycle traffic, and on this day, there was a lot of traffic. I don’t care much for crowds, and being in a long, crowded tunnel under a river wasn’t my favorite place to be. It was interesting, however, that as with so much architecture in Europe, there was artwork built into the design, and I tried to focus on that while keeping pace with the flow of the crowd.

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Inside the Elbe Tunnel

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Art inside the Elbe Tunnel

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Art inside the Elbe Tunnel (three rats and an old boot)

After coming out of the tunnel, it turned out a crowd had the same idea we had (get away from the crowd on the other side of the harbor), but Karola knew of yet another place. It was a long walk, but we eventually came out on a nice, sandy beach were we could sit and watch the parade. We didn’t get there any too soon, as the parade started within 10 minutes or so.

The parade started with a fire boat spraying water in every direction, and when the angle was right, we got a nice rainbow in the mist.

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Fire boat plays grand marshal at the head of the parade

Following the fire boat, the real parade started with a massive, modern warship coming up the channel.

 

Up until that point, a large 3-masted sailing ship moored across the river had been blaring rather loud and raucous music that sounded rather eastern block to me. As the German warship moved up the river, much to my surprise, the 3-masted ship started firing cannons at the warship. The bombs burst in mid-air, and I’m not sure what it all meant, but it was a curious show. I learned later that the shots were in salute of the warship and in honor of the Harbor Birthday.

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Warship taking fire from green 3-masted sailing ship

After that, the parade consisted of a curious mix of ancient (replica) and modern sailing ships, modern boats, and warships, and the grand finale was a historic cargo ship that was unbelievably huge.

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Replica of Spanish sailing ship

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A more modern sailing ship

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Grand finale: a massive historic cargo ship

After the giant ship passed by the main show was over, although lots of other ships were still coming up the river. Even so, we departed because Karola feared the huge crowd would all try to squeeze through the Elbe Tunnel at the same time. We weren’t the only people to think that, but it was nice to be out with people who knew the area.

We walked back to the flat, but not directly, and finished a grand day with new friends and ice cream.

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Ice cream and coffee with friends

While in town and on the water, we saw some nice birds, including: Graylag Goose, 3 Common Shelduck, Mallard, Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, 1 European Shag, 1 Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Blackbird, House Sparrow.

We departed Hamburg, and because the days are so long at this northern latitude, we had sunlight to stop at one more point of interest along the way back to Hamwiede. Anita took a short detour to see an historic windmill in the town of Sprengel that was build around 1877. Everywhere you turn, there is history in the country.

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19th century windmill

May 6, Friday — Walsrode and Bremen

In the morning, Anita had a translation job to do at a wedding in Walsrode, so we went to town with her. While she worked, we birded a city park and walked around town.

In the park, we saw about a dozen Fieldfare, which was surprising because we saw none elsewhere during the trip. One Fieldfare was collecting mud to build a nest, but most were collecting worms and carrying them off into the trees to feed nestlings. It was interesting to learn that Fieldfare nest semi-communally, with individual nests in close proximity so that the community of adults can mount a group defense in response to predators.

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Fieldfare collecting worms

After birding the park, we walked around town. Liz found a fabric stores to investigate, and we found an ATM, but otherwise we just wandered until it was time for Anita to finish up. We got a table at an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t communicate that we would be three and wanted to wait to order until Anita arrived. So we just ordered. “Coffee” sounds the same as “kaffee” in German, and “cream” sounds the same as “creme” in German, so that that was always easy. Eventually, I got up, got a chair from another table, and set it at ours–that worked for “party of three,” but of course, we already had our coffee.

Before too long, Anita returned and got a cup too. On the way home, we stopped by the grocery store, which always is a special cultural event for Liz.

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Downtown Walsrode showing typical German “half-timbered” construction

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Walsrode Abbey founded in 986 AD. After fire, wars, and plundering, most structures date to the 1700s

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Liz and Anita at the meat counter in a modern supermarket

Birds in Walsrode: Warm clear calm. Common Wood-Pigeon 5, Common Swift 3, Marsh Tit 1, Eurasian Blackbird 3, Fieldfare 12, House Sparrow 5.

After lunch, Anita took us to Bremen for a tour of the old town. On the drive, Anita told us about Jürgen’s time growing up in East Germany. As a young boy he was allowed to travel to West Germany to visit family, and that gave him a lust for freedom that he never out grew. He was a rebellious youth and was captured by East German boarder gurards while trying to escape to the west. He was accused of subversive agitation against communism and imprisoned for several years. The trial was secret and he was without a lawyer, and upon conviction, there was no right of appeal. He even had to sign a confession because if not, he would be given an additional 5 years in the penitentiary.

Conditions in prison were very difficult (Anita used the word torture), especially for victims of political prosecution. He was forced into slave labor in an iron smelting factory. Conditions were so bad that a friend jumped into the hot furnace to escape his pain. It is a very sad story, and these things are still close to the surface.

This explains why Jürgen didn’t like to have his picture taken–fears remained for a long time about being followed and documented by the GDR state security service before Germany was reunited. In fact, several years after he got out of East Germany, he got official letter from West German authorities warning that he should never enter GDR territory because he would risk being captured and detained again for a long time.

Anita said that the only place he felt comfortable, where he could escape memories of the past and feel free, was on the high seas. He studied and finished an Engineering School for Marine engineering, the worked in the merchant navy for some 30 years, first as an engineer and later chief engineer.

 

In Bremen, we parked in a garage and walked into the historic market square, which is dominated by twin towers of Bremen Cathedral. Anita and Jürgen had lived here some 30 years ago, and she knew the historic part of town well. The first church was built here in 789 AD, but as usual, fires, building collapse, and wars took their toll over the centuries. It seems the current form was built about 1050 AD, but the building was completely destroyed during WWII, and reconstruction wasn’t completed until 1981 AD.

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Bremen market square is dominated by Bremen Cathedral

Bremen is interesting for its architecture and artwork, some of which are based on medieval fairy tails. We stopped to see the bronze statue of a pig farmer, his dog, and his herd of pigs where children of all ages come and ride the animals. This commemorates the history of this medieval market street where after the farmer’s market was done for the day, pig farmers brought their herds in the evening to clean up the spoiled produce. The street here, Sögestrasse (Pigstreet) is a main shopping street in Bremen with lots of high-end shops. The street was first mentioned in 1261, but by 1306 it was named Sögestrasse.

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Bronze pig farmer and swineherd (see farther back too)

One thing I found interesting about being in Germany was the relationship of geography and fairy tales. Growing up in the States, fairy tales always happened in some far off land across the sea, so no matter how scary, they didn’t really apply to me because they were from a land literally “far far away.” I started thinking about this relationship between geography and fairy tales in the Harz Mountains with the witches and devils.

Over lunch before we left Hamwiede, Jürgen was telling us what to expect in Bremen, where he and Anita had lived for some years and the statue of the “Musicians of Bremen” is an important landmark. Over meat and cheese, he told us the fairy tale: Grimm’s Musicians of Bremen. In the story, a old donkey being cast off by his master starts off from the countryside on the road to Bremen. Along the way, he picks up an old dog, an old cat, and an old rooster, and they all go off to become musicians in Bremen and make a better life for themselves.

In this story, however, the donkey doesn’t start in some far-far-away place, he starts two villages over from Hamwiede! He then meets up with the dog near Hamwiede, and they continue on towards Bremen picking up the rest of the crew. As it turns out, they never make it to Bremen, but that is beside the point. So here, at the lunch table, I actually find myself in the land of a fairy tales.

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Musicians of Bremen outside a building being renovated

The Musicians of Bremen are important characters in the local lore because, in part, the troop was heading to Bremen because it was an enlightend town where personal liberty was held as a virtue. We saw several examples of the quartet in arts-and-crafts shops, and in one place, they were made into a political cartoon. The animals stacked up in the fairy tale according to their talents and abilities (donkey at the bottom, rooster at the top), but in the political cartoon, they were reversed. The text translates to something about lazy politicians riding on the backs of ordinary people. Here, as in so many cases, we learned that people the world around suffer from the same hopes, fears, and tribulations.

 

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On the right — Political Cartoon: Musicians of Bremen

German: Die Wahrheit über die Bremer Stadtmusikanten: in Hierarchien sitzen die größten Esel oben!

English: The truth about the Musicians of Bremen: in political hierarchies, the big ass sits at the top!

We finished the tour by walking through some of the old parts of Bremen, although at this point I’m not sure how much was old and how much was rebuilt after the war to look old. Regardless, it was fun to wander through the warrens of narrow streets, window shopping, poking into the odd shop. We also walked along the river front, Bremen Harbor, which was another commercial port. We saw some historic 3-masted ships, a few large modern ships, and bomb damage repaired in a way that left a reminder of the war.

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In the evening, after some beers or something, Jürgen began talking and told a story of how his father had fought in the German army. He survived fighting on the eastern front (Russia), then was called back towards the end of the war to help defend the western front. He was killed two days before the end of the war when Jürgen was only 5 years old. At that point, Jürgen fell uncharacteristically silent with that far-away stare that one gets when they aren’t really here for a time. I think the 5-year-old Jürgen was spending a few moments with his father.

Some days earlier, Anita had told us her story of survival during the war. If I recall correctly, her father was a land owner and banker in Poland. He remained in his job during the war, but was called up for duty near the end of the war. He said he would join the effort, but needed to settle things at home with his family: “I’ll be there in the morning” he told them.

They tried to escape with 50 horse wagons equipped with the most necessary food stuff and warm clothes taking almost all people from the village with them and managed to cross the Oder river before the bridge was blown up. The family remained in Eastern Germany – at first in the British zone, but reorganized into Soviet occupied zone, for 4 years. In 1945, in the night under cover of darkness, the family fled towards the west. A neighbor saw them leaving, and they were terrified that they’d be killed if that person spoke; fortunately they did not. The family stopped in West Berlin and were sheltered by a Jewish family who hid Anita and her family in their home for three months. Apparently conditions were difficult and food was short. As the war ended, the family tried to get out of allied-occupied Berlin to West Germany. It was made possible by the American airlift (supplies into West Berlin; passengers out). I didn’t press for details, and being sheltered in West Berlin by a Jewish family raises questions, but it was a gripping story. We were grateful that they shared such intimate details of their lives with us.

 

May 7, Saturday — Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park

On our last full day with Anita and Jürgen, a warm, clear, and calm day, Anita took us to hike in the Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park. We walked several miles in low rolling hills to the highest point in the region at an elevation of 555 ft. Along the way, we actually heard two Common Cuckoos, which actually sound exactly like a cuckoo clock!

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Starting into the Heath Hills

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Heath on the left, forest on the right

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Heith: this will be bright violet in the fall

We first climbed onto Bolterberg Peak at 526 ft elevation. We relaxed, ate a trail snack, and enjoyed the view. The summit was marked with a carved boulder that included the name of the peak and elevation, plus the German version of a Leave No Trace message: “prevent wildfires and pick up your trash.” The use of carved boulders for signs is common in this part of Germany, and interestingly, they are glacial erratics, stones carried here from elsewhere by ice-age glaciers and left behind when the ice melted.

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Bolterberg Peak at 160.2 m (526 ft)

We then hiked down into a valley and up to the main summit, the highest point in this region of Germany: Wilseder Berg Peak at 155 ft.

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Back at the trailhead, we stopped at an outdoor cafe to relax with a beer, which was a nice way to end things.

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Liz relaxing after the hike

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Locally brewed beer

Birds of Lüneburger Heide National Park: Common Buzzard 1, Common Cuckoo 2, Eurasian Green Woodpecker 1, Sky Lark 8, Barn Swallow 6, European Pied Flycatcher 1, Black Redstart 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 8, and House Sparrow 2.

Back home, we packed, ate a late dinner with too much wine, and stumbled off to bed with the window wide open because it was so warm in the house.

May 8, Sunday — Travel: Bus to Frankfurt

I must have been excited to be on our way because I awoke early, about 5:15 am, and stayed mostly awake just listening to the birds singing in the yard for more than an hour.

After a last great breakfast with Anita and Jurgen, we departed Hamwiede about 8 AM as they took us to the bus station in Hannover, about an hour away. We arrived early and mostly relaxed enjoying each other’s company for a last few minutes. Anita did think that I should get a SIM card for my phone, but we couldn’t find one in the station so early on Sunday morning. It would have been easier in an international airport, but not so easy in the bus station.

Anita and Jürgen saw us off at 9:55am. They had been very good to us and treated us like family (or perhaps the children who have left the nest empty), and everyone was sad at the departure.

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Boarding the bus in Hannover, Jürgen is always helpful

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Getting the evil eye while Jürgen laughed and Anita cried

We rode the bus south from Hannover to Frankfurt, making several stops along the way. This was an express bus, so we only stopped a few times. We stopped in Göttingen for lunch, and we found tasty sandwiches and a pastry in the bus station. This was a curious place with traditional monuments, an odd structure associated with the stars (especially the zodiac), and apparently was a major hub for bicycle riders who were taking the bus somewhere. It would have been nice to chat with a local to understand the story.

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Rolling hills of northern Germany

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Monument in Göttingen city park

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10,ooo bicycles at the Göttingen bus station

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Monument to the stars in Göttingen

We made a short stop in Kassel, an interesting town centered on a large, castle-like structure, the Hercules Monument (Castle), atop a mountain that is visible from everywhere. It would have been fun to get off and explore — something for next time!

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Monument in a Kassel city park

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Hercules Monument (the castle on the hill) above Kassel

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Rolling mountains of central Germany

We made it to Frankfurt am Main (just Frankfurt to westerners) a few minutes early, so the driver pulled into the bus maintenance station, which seemed really confusing to everyone. In German, the driver invited everyone to get off and relax outside while she gassed up the bus. Then she was amused when I became concerned when someone else drove off in the bus. I guess this is how they clean busses here, but it seemed rather odd. About 15 minutes later, the bus came back and we drove another 5 minutes to the main bus station, where Liz and I got off.

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Downtown Frankfurt am Main

The main bus station is also the main train station, so Liz and I went downstairs to the train, which we needed to get to the airport. After some confusion and helpful staff, we figured out how to use the machines to buy a ticket and found our way to the proper gate. After what we had seen elsewhere, this seemed harder than it should have been, but we found our way.

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Subway train in Frankfurt am Main

We rode the train to the airport, and again with the help of locals, got off at the right place. Inside the airport, we needed to find our way to the hotel shuttle busses. This, however, was particularly difficult, as signs and maps in the airport were particularly bad. In particular, they directed us down hallways to a T-intersection, with no relevant information at the T. We went back and eventually found another way — but more by trial and error than anything definite. Eventually we found the shuttle bus zone and our bus.

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Meininger Hotel near the Frankfurt Airport

We had reservations at the Meininger Hotel, which was conveniently located just across the main highway from the airport. Staff at the check-in desk spoke excellent English, and we got a nice room on the top floor with a view away from the airport and highway.

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Liz looking out our hotel window

We asked about dinner at the hotel, but there was some issue with the kitchen and all they had was pre-packaged sandwiches, but the check-in lady said there was a nice cafe within walking distance “behind a gas station.” She even said that it was pretty good and we’d “thank her to the recommendation.”

Well, the area around the hotel was a construction zone criss-crossed by highways, but we made our way around and found the gas station (not before walking under an underpass with a homeless camp where one thirsty guy had nearly built a house out of green beer bottles. The gas station had a sandwich shop inside (not unlike a Subway sandwich shop inside a gas station in the States). Assuming we were in the wrong place, we walked out past the gas station into the woods.

Back in the gas station, we bought sandwiches and beer for the night and tasty looking pastries for breakfast. Walking back, we realized that it probably was good that we walked back during daylight rather than after dark if we’d enjoyed a sit-down dinner. It turned that the sandwiches were as good as any we’d eaten in Germany, and the pastries didn’t last past dessert.

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Liz bringing dinner back to the hotel

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Feeling bloated after dinner in the hotel room

May 9, Monday — Travel: Frankfurt to Las Vegas

We were up and out of the hotel pretty early and caught the 7:30 shuttle bus back to the airport. This time, things were easier as we’d seen everything yesterday.

At the check-in desk, we expected to just turn in our luggage and get boarding passes, but it turned out we got a full interrogation by the ticketing agent. The lady was nice and we talked about birding in Germany, but to us it seemed odd.

After talking with the ticketing agent, we made it through immigration and into the duty-free zone. We had planned to eat breakfast in the airport (to avoid 11-euro [$15] breakfasts at the hotel), but the choice was between a Burger King and some high-end restaurant. Liz suffered a BK burger (they had no breakfast food — not even coffee), but I refused. If I was going to Europe, the last thing I was going to do was eat at a BK. My ace-in-the-hole was an old bagel in my pack.

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After “breakfast,” we got through security, which was pretty easy and into the gate area. We were pretty sure we’d get on the flight, as there were a moderate number of open seats, but I find these things nerve-wracking as people pour into the area. The plane arrived with some mechanical issues, and they kept standby people outside the waiting area until after we were supposed to have left, adding to the nerves, but eventually we were called and assigned seats.

As we went into the gate area, the ticketing agent was keeping the gate and recognized us from earlier. She double checked our tickets to make sure her colleague had given us good seats, and happy with our assignment, let us into the seating area. We waited for a long time, but eventually we all got on the plane and took off headed for Dallas.

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Last view of German soil: our plane on the tarmac

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Our anticipated route: 10 hrs 16 min (9 time zones) to Dallas

We departed late and expected to miss our connection in Dallas, and Bill was there to visit and help us along the way. As it turned out, our flight to Las Vegas also was late, and Bill talked to the gate agents and got us on the flight. We were disappointed to spend so little time with Bill, but it was great that he smoothed our way home.

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Home again in Las Vegas

In Las Vegas, we made the first flight, but our luggage made the second. Fortunately, by the time we figured that out, it was only 45 minutes before the next flight arrived, so we just walked around trying to stay awake until it arrived. After that, we caught the city bus back to the carpark, collected our car, and drove home where Mom and Mocha were waiting.

Final Thoughts

They say that travel opens one’s eyes to the world and helps people understand that everyone the world around faces the same issues in life. In so many situations, Anita and Jürgen would say something about the difficulties of life in Germany, and in virtually every case, we would say that we have the same issues back in the States. By the end of our visit, it almost became a joke: everything is the same everywhere; everyone has the same struggles in life; people everywhere are just people.

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Even Paulina the cat suffers the same problems that cats everywhere suffer: ticks

Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 1: England

April 17, 2016. Departing for London, England

Liz and I are preparing to head to Europe to visit friends and family and to do a little birding. We are excited about what we will experience, but for now we are busy with last minute annoyances (like realizing that my luggage is 2 inches too long for the current rules for airline carry-on bags).

We started our trip with a long night in the McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas). Our international flight departed at 5 AM, so we needed to be there by 2 AM (they say to arrive 3 hours early for international flights). We decided to take the last city bus (which would get us there by 11:30 PM) and just spend the night in the airport.

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Liz sleeping in the airport

April 18, 2016. Traveling to London, England

We caught our standby fight at 0510 hrs headed to Chicago. We were the last two standby passengers to get on, and they made us check baggage because the overhead bins were full. However, I forgot and left my lithium camera batteries in by now-checked luggage, a violation of federal law these days. On the flight, which was uneventful, we sat separately with Liz several rows ahead of me.

In Chicago, we recovered our bags and extracted the batteries, but had to go through security again, which is always annoying. After some food and time to relax, we got on our London-bound flight.

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Signboard in Chicago — only three standby passengers

The flight to London departed at 1625 hrs and was only half-full, so we had no trouble getting on except that the gate agent never called standby passengers and we almost missed the flight. During the flight, it was fun watching the landscape, and darkness overtook us as we bid farewell to the coast of Labrador and started out over the Atlantic.

We sat in the first row of coach, so we had a flat bulkhead in front of us and little leg room, but at least nobody laid their seat back in our faces. During the flight, they played movies all night, and we were so close to the screen that the light kept us awake most of the night.

April 19, 2016. London, England

We arrived London about 0630 hrs, made it through customs and immigration, and took the Underground (Mind the Gap!) to within walking distance of Cathy and Peter’s (my sister and her husband’s) flat in an older part of London.

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After resting a bit, Liz and I walked down to St. Paul’s Cathedral and then crossed the Thames River to the south bank. We visited Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theater, walked along the river, went into the Tate Art Museum, and got a take-away lunch to eat in some little park. We saw lots of birds. Dinner in a delightful, small Italian place a 15 minute walk from the flat.

Birds of the Day:

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral–Willow Warbler (1), European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, European Blue Tit, eastern gray squirrel

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Thames River

Thames River–Lesser Black-backed Gull 5; Great Black-backed Gull 1; Carrion Crow, Feral Pigeon

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Old Globe Theater

Globe Park– Herring Gull 5; Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 5; Common Wood-Pigeon 2; Eurasian Magpie 1; Eurasian Blue Tit 2; European Greenfinch 2; European Goldfinch 1

April 20, 2016. London, Kew Garden

The morning was brisk, in the 40s, when Peter took Hulky and me for a morning walk. We saw some nice little urban parks with a few birds including European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Dunnock, and European Wren. We also walked by their old flat.

Later, Cathy, Liz, and I took the subway to the Kew Royal Botanical Garden, a bucket-list item for Liz. We stopped and picked up some great sandwiches (salami and brie on fresh-baked roll) before entry. We walked a long ways on the grounds and visited two greenhouses, George III’s summer house, and the tree-top runway. We saw lots of cool plants and birds. Perhaps the most interesting plant was a cycad potted in 1775. Peter cooked a nice pasta dinner for us.

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April 21, 2016. London, Downtown Parks

Liz and I took the bus downtown to where we had turned back on our previous river walk (April 19th). From the bus stop, we continued upstream under the London Eye and across Westminster Bridge past Big Ben. We thought about visiting Westminster Abbey, but it cost about $30 each, so we decided instead to visit the smaller St. Margaret’s Church (free). St. Margaret’s was constructed in the late 1000s (late 11th century) and has been fixed up several times, but it remains similar to the original. People liked to be buried inside the church, and nearly every space is given over to crypts. All of the walls have crypts, and even the isles between the pews are crypts. With people walking on the floor over the centuries, the names and dates of people buried below often are nearly worn smooth.

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From St. Margaret’s Church, we continued across Parliament Square and walked to St. James Park. We spent several hours watching native and non-native waterfowl and recorded a total of 36 species. Among the Queen’s collection of waterfowl, we saw lots of ducks and geese, including Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Graylag Goose, Barnacle Goose, Canada Goose, Red-breasted Goose, Mute Swan, Black Swan, Egyptian Goose, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Common Goldeneye, Smew, and Hooded Merganser. We also saw a few native species of waterfowl, including Common Shelduck, Mallard, Common Pochard, and Tufted Duck that all come in to live with the captive species.

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We saw some fun species of water birds, including Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, and Great Cormorant, White Pelican, Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Herring Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Land birds included Common Wood-Pigeon, feral Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Long-tailed Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.

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Towards the end of the day, we wandered over towards Buckingham Palace, but it was so crowded with tourists that we used our binoculars to observe from afar (preparations for the birthday of the Queen). Eventually we started for home via Trafalgar Square, visiting cultural sites along the way. We stopped to see the statue of the explorer Captain Cook, the Admiralty Arch, and Trafalgar Square.

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We eventually took the city bus back home. After a quick takeout dinner, we all headed back downtown to St Martin’s Theatre to see an Agatha Christie play called “The Mousetrap.” It was a fun murder mystery. The Mousetrap opened in 1952 and has been running continuously since then, so it was a real fixture in that area.

April 22, 2016. London to Dover, England

Cathy, Peter, Liz, and Jim took a trip to the southeast coast of England and the town of Dover, stopping to visit Canterbury Cathedral along the way.

We took an early train to Canterbury Cathedral and the town of Dover. Long-distance trains in Europe run really fast, to 150 mph, so the trip to Canterbury took only about an hour. It was fun seeing the urban area of London graded into rural areas and then farm lands. We looked for birds along the way, but the train ran so fast that were only able to identify Carrion Crows and a Little Egret (looks like North American Snowy Egret).

We packed light for the weekend, but we ended up getting off the train in Canterbury and hauling our luggage through town and the cathedral. We had hoped to check our luggage at the train station, but it turned out that we departed from a different station.

We walked through Canterbury to the castle gate. It was interesting to see modern buildings (many restored to look historic) set up against the exterior castle walls. I guess it has been like this since the beginning, but from a US perspective, it was unexpected. In fact, the castle walls were, for the most part, buildings with businesses facing the street.

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Passing through the Cathedral Gate, we deposited our $15/each and headed onto the grounds. The central feature is the Cathedral, but there are many other buildings inside the walls. We proceeded directly into the cathedral and did our own walking tour. It was interesting to see the stained glass windows and architecture. The first cathedral was built here in about AD 597. Wars over the centuries damaged parts, which have been rebuilt, but most of the older stuff seems to date from about AD 1070.

Lots of people are buried inside the Cathedral, perhaps the most famous of whom is Thomas Becket. He was murdered inside the Cathedral in 1170 in an attempt by King Henry II to assert supremacy of the monarch over Church affairs. Supporters built a shrine inside the Cathedral that stood from 1220 until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, but now only a candle burns on the floor where the shrine stood. Other cool dead people in the Cathedral include the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales) who died in 1376 and would have become King Edward IV if he had survived his father. King Henry IV is buried here, too.

The Cathedral has an extensive collection of historical books. In the crypt below the Cathedral, we got to view a rarely seen 17th century book of Shakespeare’s works , the Second Folio, containing 36 of the 38 plays attributed to Shakespeare (printed in 1632).

One thing that struck me was the graffiti inside the Cathedral, and apparently I only saw a little of it. We work hard at home to protect historical sites from damage, and seeing graffiti scratched into the wall here during the 1600s really annoys me and makes me want to work harder to protect treasures at home.

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Graffiti dated 1667 and 1670 — We don’t remember who TH and RW were, but we curse them to this day!

We departed Canterbury on the train to Dover, another short journey, and as I recall, on a commuter train this time. In Dover, we hauled our luggage downtown looking for a late lunch, but we were between traditional lunch and dinner, and few places were open. We stopped at The Beano Cafe, which had a fair crowd inside. We might be excused for expecting Mexican food, but it was British food cooked by Middle Eastern immigrants. An online TripAdvisor review reads: Eat where the locals eat! Good value. We had fish and chips it was not amazing but still we enjoyed. £5,5 for Cod, chips and peas. I could have written this myself, except to add that the cod was one huge slab of fish.

After eating, we walked up to the B&B: Bleriots Guest House (Bleriot’s Belper House). This was a simple, quiet, and pleasant place to stay, and our room had a wonderful west-facing view across the backyard into a tall tree that was a magnet for birds, especially Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, and European Goldfinch. We also had nice sunset views from the room. Other birds in the B&B yard included Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), European Turtle-Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, and Dunnock. Not a bad list for not really trying.

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In the evening, we ventured out in a light rain to a basement pub for a couple of beers and live music.

April 23, 2016. Dover Castle and White Cliffs of Dover

We started our day with a great breakfast at the B&B. We had quite a few choices, but I took the “full English breakfast,” which included  bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread (more like toast dipped in lard and deep fried), sausage, baked beans, coffee, and I’m sure something else. It was a lot of food, and the B&B also provided yoghurt, cereal, juice, milk, and other breakfast foods.

We departed on foot and hiked up to Dover Castle. It turned out that the weekend of April 23-24 is St. George’s Festival where visitors can witness the “ultimate showdown as gallant St George takes on his arch nemesis in England’s most legendary battle.”

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Unfortunately, the morning was bitter cold, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, and windy, so we didn’t spend much time outdoors where we would have “gasped as the lances shattered in the medieval joust; felt the earth tremble as the Norman warriors of 1066 marched to their arena; marveled as feathers flew in the falconry; and chortled at the cheeky jester.” We also didn’t watch fearsome fellows battle it out in the Clash of Knights or visit the Roman gladiator’s arena for displays of courage and might [with some grammar edits].

We did, however, “immerse ourselves into the sights, smells, and sounds of this historical extravaganza.” Perhaps the most notable things we saw were the medieval actors in the cooking and pooping section. These people were real pros and lived the history. The medieval foods lady gave a great talk, put on a grand show, and answered all the questions – in character. The “poop guy” works on internal parasites and put on a memorable show and wide-ranging discussion about poop in the middle ages. Did you know they used urine to make gunpowder?

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Scat-ologist. This guy was a real gem: smart, funny, well educated, and very enthusiastic

After visiting the main castle building, we walked across the grounds to the Roman Lighthouse. This structure, one of a pair, is about 80-ft tall and was build by the Romans in about AD 50, soon after their invasion of England. The outer structure is original, but the lighthouse innards were converted to be used as a bell tower for the adjacent Saxon church (St Mary in Castro) that dates from about AD 600 (although heavily restored to current conditions).

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Roman Lighthouse dating from the first century (note Liz at bottom of lighthouse)

We could have spent all weekend inside the castle, and never even looked at World War II modifications, but we pressed on to our other goal for the day: a walk along the White Cliffs of Dover. We caught a cab from the castle to the White Cliffs trailhead where we were assured we could get a cab for the return trip.

We started off on what would be 4.5 miles of hiking atop the White Cliffs of Dover. The wind was down a bit and the afternoon temperature was up a bit, but a brisk pace was required to stay warm. The trail was well worn as hundreds of people per week walk here, and initially, a well maintained, 5-ft wide gravel trail ran 0.4 miles to a nice overlook with views up the coast along the white cliffs and across the English Channel to France in the distance.

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From there, we continued along the cliffs heading northeast all the way to South Foreland Lighthouse. At the lighthouse, we took an interesting tour of inside. Our guide was very knowledgable about the lighthouse, the history of shipwrecks in the area, and the war history.

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South Foreland Lighthouse (view northeast)

We walked back to the trailhead hoping to relax and warm up with a cup of coffee only to find the facility closed. We also discovered that the city bus had just left for the last time (nobody mentioned that earlier?) and we couldn’t get the taxi to come out. One worker did come out and told us how to walk back to town using a foot trail that was more direct than what the taxi had taken. We were tired, but at least it was all downhill to the harbor. We hailed a taxi there, but the guy refused to take us because of some rules regarding in-town vs. out-of-town taxi rules, so we walked on.

We had intended to go out to a pub in the evening for dinner (The White Horse), but it happened that we walked right by it, so we stopped in to relax and have a pint. This was the pub where everyone who swims the Channel can stop in for a free pint and write their name on the wall. We were surprised by the number of names: they were written everywhere, and some had several dates.

Birds of the day: Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Dunnock, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch.

April 24, 2016. Dover to London

After another great full English Breakfast without the deep-fried lard bread, we departed on foot heading downtown. Our first stop was the Dover Museum where a lot of history is packed into a fairly small building. The ground floor was mostly ancient history and the Roman Invasion. It is hard to believe that the Romans brought war-elephants across the channel on boats when they invaded England.

The most interesting artifact, however, was a bronze-age boat that dates from about 1550 BC. Yes, that is a wooden boat that is about 3,500 years old! The exhibit and explanations were great, and I was impressed by how complicated the structure was — those people were pretty smart.

After touring the museum, we walked to the waterfront and got aboard the Southern Queen for a 40-minute boat tour of the harbor. We endured a bitter-cold wind and even got a bit of snow and hail on the open-air boat, but it was fun and gave a different view of the White Cliffs of Dover.

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After the harbor tour, we stopped for lunch in a nice restaurant. I forget the name of the place, but the food was tasty and I’d give it a good review. We then caught a cab to the B&B, recovered our bags, and continued to the train station.

Heading towards London on the train, we watched the scenery and the birds pass by. Following along a river, we saw Black-headed Gulls, Gray Herons, and a few ducks, but overall it was another study in changing landscapes: this time from agricultural to rural to urban. After a fun 3-day weekend, it was nice to be “home” with Cathy and Peter.

April 25, 2016. London Parks, Museums, and City Life

After the weekend, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work, and Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. We stopped at Hyde Park, an enormous city park, to do some walking and urban birding. They had some nice water features and lots of trees, and for not really trying, we made a pretty good list of birds in Hyde Park: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Moorhen, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Common Wood-Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.

We eventually wandered over to the Wallace Collection, Liz’s brother’s favorite museum in London. It was a classy place: (edited from the Wikipedia page): The Wallace Collection is an art collection that includes a range of fine and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th centuries with large holdings of French 18th-century paintings, furniture, arms and armor, porcelain, and Old Master paintings. The museum was established in 1897 from the private collection of Richard Seymour-Conway (1800–1870), who left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890), whose widow bequeathed the entire collection to the nation. So, during the 1800s, Wallace’s old-man gathered a grand collection of stuff, then Wallace created a museum to show off his inherited collection.

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From the Wallace Collection, we wandered through town looking for some fabric that Liz needed to help Cathy with a minor sewing project.

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Liz in her element: a small, independent fabric shop

During this time, it rained heavily on us, but in one little fabric shop, we were directed to the Liberty Shopping Center, a grand Tudor-revival building built in the 1920s and filled with high-end fashion and luxury homeware. It also had a  large fabric shop. While Liz inspected the wares, I was fascinated by the handmade window frames and window-opening hardware. Looking at the glass and handwork, I was surprised to learn that the building was only built in the 1920s as it seemed much older. The main timbers in the building, however, were reclaimed from two old sailing ships.

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The Liberty building, a faux Tudor-style shopping center built in the 1920s

Back at home, Liz was tickled to join Peter on a walking-trip to their local grocery store. Liz has a great fondness for grocery stores, and it is always interesting to see how other people solve the problems of life.

April 26, Tuesday.  British Museum

Again, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work while Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. This time, we went directly to the British Museum and spent all day visiting only a small fraction of the holdings.

We started on the ground floor and visited the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman exhibits. Liz was excited to see the Rosetta Stone, and of course I enjoyed the Greek and Roman goddesses. Much of the large-scale artwork depicted scenes of warfare and power, reinforcing the notion that the history of humanity is the history of war.

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Later, we visited the upper floor where we visited all sorts of collections, including the Mesopotamia Room (6000–1500 BC), the Ancient South Arabia (mostly Yemen) Room (1000 BC–500 AD), Britain and Europe Room (800 BC–AD 43), and others to the modern era.

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In the evening, Peter and Cathy took us out to a great little Indian restaurant. We rode the bus out, visited a bookstore, ate dinner, and walked back to the flat.

The story continues as: Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 2: Germany