It was staggeringly sudden as tourism across the planet came to a grinding halt in March 2020. And Rockjumper leaders were in the middle of the mayhem. Take a look and see where they were, how they’ve spent their time and what they’ve seen during lockdown.
Julian Parson: Surviving & Thriving under Lockdown
For all of us residing here at the southern tip of Africa, we have been placed under full lockdown. No dog-walking, jogging, hiking or even purchasing alcohol. As an active and outdoorsy solo-living bachelor, this global crisis has been daunting. One positive is that I am an ambivert, enjoying my alone time as much as socializing. My biggest concern has been being detached from what I’m most passionate about, including my work as a guide, and the devastating effect this pandemic has had on the global tourism industry. To combat these stomach-turning anxieties, I have been keeping occupied with as many wholesome and mentally stimulating activities as possible and have been happy with the outcome. Here’s how I have been staying sane.
Running in Circles
I have heard of people running ultramarathons around their garden and swimming the width of the English Channel in their paddle pool. I have a large plot of open land next to my residence, well hidden from any police. I decided to run circles, around and around it, and was pleased to discover that the monotony didn’t kill me. Yeah! I’ve also been doing pull ups under the carport, push-ups on my bedroom floor or even chasing a naughty puppy here and there. Exercise really helps lift the mood.
Birds will never bore me, and it brings me great happiness every day, to identify the birds around me. I first started identifying when I was 6 years old. And you never know when something new will end up on your doorstep. Below is a list of birds that I have managed to identify, around the garden, over-head and by call. Bird names in bold are South African endemics/near endemics.
|Dove, Cape Turtle|
|Drongo, Fork Tailed|
|Flycatcher, African Dusky|
|Sunbird, Southern Double-collared|
Entertaining Little Jeffrey
I have often laughed at others when they’ve told me that looking after a puppy can be a fulltime job. Oh my, how I was wrong. Consuming probably around 70% of my day is my puppy Jeffrey. And, I will go as far as saying that he has been an absolute godsend to me, coming into my life at just the right moment.
To tell you a bit about Jeffrey: he’s an Africanis (a name given to a landrace of Southern African dogs) puppy which I adopted while volunteering in a rural Botswanan village earlier on this year with my girlfriend. We didn’t find him, he found us. Or rather, he found my delicious biltong (South African name for cured and dried meat) that was left unattended. While we were outside enjoying a gin and tonic under the stars. We got up and went in for another round of drinks and when we returned, we found that a naughty puppy had his long snout in my bag of biltong and distended belly from his overindulgence. This, however, didn’t stop him from crawling into our hearts. Having Jeffrey during this lockdown has been incredibly helpful.
Mindfulness Through Meditation
I began meditation a couple of years back to help manage my stress levels. Meditation has helped me in this journey to better my life by teaching me to be more present. By doing this I ensure that I never dwell on negative or worrying thoughts, which can easily be amplified during these uncertain and adverse times.
Read A Good Book or 5
Reading is another way I like to stay in the moment. If I find myself with nothing to do, I like to pick up a book.
Some of the books that I have been occupying myself with lately include:
- Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics. – Tim Marshall
- Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way. – Bill Bryson
- The Vultures of Africa. – Peter J. Mundy, John Ledger
- Bird Species, How They Arise, Modify and Vanish. – Dieter Thomas Tietze
After 3 weeks of being cooped up at home, I am pleased to say that I am doing better than I initially imagined. Over the course of my solitude, I can honestly say that, despite the difficulties, I have grown. It has allowed me time to self-reflect and reintroduce myself to a simplistic life. If I can offer any advice on what to take from this experience, it would be to always take the time, pandemic or not, to learn new things about yourself and never stop exploring your personal relationships.
Whitney Lanfranco: Shutdown in Seattle
On February 16th, 2020 I sat in the Mexico City airport during a long layover watching reports on the Coronavirus flash across the TV screen. I was returning home from an amazing personal birding trip in Ecuador, and COVID-19 hadn’t even been a topic of conversation. I had heard mention of it of course, but it seemed like a far-off problem that would fade away. I was more preoccupied with sorting through my photos from Ecuador, while becoming aware that, after a week of being in the Amazon, my quick-dry hiking pants maybe hadn’t been so quick-dry, and were offering up a bit of mildew smell.
Regardless, I had a lot to plan. I was returning to Texas, but only to leave again in short order. After guiding in here for four years, I was headed for Seattle for a seasonal job as a guide. This Texas girl was ready to leave the mesquite behind in exchange for mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and trees taller than a pickup. I needed to get home, pack, and hit the road.
But as I prepared for my cross-country move, the Coronavirus reached Seattle and started to become more of an issue. I was halfway there when reality hit. I’d reached southern California and was planning to spend the next week slowly birding my way up the coast when my parents called me, concerned. What was supposed to be an exciting adventure had quickly morphed into me being far away from friends and family in a city going into lockdown. Over the next several weeks I watched helplessly as the entire country shut down, the new city I had just arrived in became a ghost town, and my chances of guiding anytime soon slipped away.
Despite this, I couldn’t help but notice the signs of spring in my new home. The birds didn’t care about a stay-at-home order; migration was starting, and I grabbed my binoculars to observe. I quickly found consolation in being outside on trails, far away from other people as my ears tuned in to the sounds of the forest. Once a bird guide, always a bird guide. Some solace came in the form of a Rufous Hummingbird that I watched leave our newly flowering plants and land on a nest in a nearby tree. I discovered that from the second-story window and I have eye-level views of her delicate nest, while being far enough away that I don’t disturb her.
Although I am very much looking forward to being able to guide again, for now I appreciate having the time to slowly absorb all this new place can teach me. I also appreciate the gift of being able to bask in the precious Washington sunshine as I sit on a roof, as patient as this Rufous Hummingbird as we both wait for her eggs to hatch and life to cycle on.
I should be in the high mountains of China as I write this. But I’m not. The past two months have been….turbulent. I struggle for some sense of stability, only to find it fleeting and intermittent. I imagine much of the World feels this way. Uncertainty has a place in our psyche as we teeter on the fight or flight response’s knife edge, wondering whether to distance, engage, push forward, retreat. I think you all know what I mean. And, I’ve had it pretty good compared to some others.
The Team at Rockjumper has been a big part of my mental health during this crazy time. I’ve always found inspiration and purpose from the creation and elaboration of initiatives that help people, and/or nature. In my post as Tour Leader Manager, I get to do both. My colleagues are wonderful. It’s been great brainstorming and communicating with the rest of management to formulate some fun group activities, solid money-saving initiatives, and ways to help out our most valuable asset at Rockjumper – the Tour Leaders. Let’s face it – no matter how good the birding on tour is, it’s only as good as the Leader. And we are so fortunate to have such a solid bunch! But it’s been a very hard period for them, and I count amongst them. We’ve all been grounded, now, for months. It affected me more than I’d like to admit. My two most wanted tours: Bhutan & Assam, and China – Szechuan/Yunnan, were the tours I would have been leading.
Many of you, our intrepid traveling birders have experienced the same feelings. To have the next few months planned out, with long-term plans spanning into 2021, only to have everything put on hold, is difficult. While I could complain more, I won’t. I’m typing this as I sit in front of the fireplace with my two brothers, their significant others, and their wonderful puppies. I waited to type this until the most strict of lockdown protocol was lifted in the Western States, so I could drive down and be with family. To see what that feels like. To remember what it’s like to be in the same room with people I love. It’s the most important thing to me, to be able to be there for my family and loved ones, and have them present. The past separation from everyone the last several weeks taxed my good spirits, but I feel somewhat rejuvenated. I recently began volunteering at the local food pantry and soup kitchen. More than just providing meals, it provides interaction with some marginalized people in my community. I feel most for them. I’m fortunate. I have a great job, wonderful family and friends, but many others are not so fortunate.
In Montana, USA, we had it relatively easy. Less than 450 total cases, only a couple dozen in my county, and only 2 new cases in the past week. Recreation was never discouraged for Montanans. It was always encouraged that folks get out onto the trails while observing appropriate social distancing measures. For the most part, people did just that. Montana is not crowded, and even on a normal day on the trail you rarely bump into anyone if you aim not to. So, my solace has been almost entirely in the outdoors. And with a few fun, new projects.
Last year I was honored to be brought onto the Board of Sacajawea Audubon Society to help with the direction of a new wetland restoration project in Bozeman. This wonderful tract of wetland is perfectly situated between historic downtown and the nearest mountains, and will become part of a trail system linking some 30+ miles of trail from Main Street to the mountains. What began as a modest donation of prime acreage, has slowly evolved into what will be our region’s first nature center, with plans to double its size, and will be designed as a teaching wetland, certified up to college-level learners. It has become something we’re truly proud of. Recently, I also decided to take the plunge into a variety of media types, focusing on film development. With so much talent where I live, and so many wonderful opportunities to work with award-winning directors and producers, it seemed a no-brainer to pitch an idea or two and see where it leads. I’m happy to say, it is indeed leading somewhere!
A few silver linings have included an excuse/reason to get back in touch with a variety of creative outlets. It has been an opportunity to appreciate the wonderful humans in my life, and vow to spend more time with them all in the future. It has been a time for existential introspection, a reassessment of values, and a chance to seek out peace with a variety of upsetting circumstances that came to pass in 2019, and 2020, before CoVid-19 was even a blip on my radar. It’s been a hard time, to be sure. But isn’t that always what makes us stronger? I look forward to calmer times, clearer minds, and a chance to enjoy the field again, together!
Stay Safe and love life. Warmest Regards from (still) snowy Montana.
Stephan Lorenz: The Desolate Plains of Wyoming
I was scheduled to lead the Rockjumper Colorado Grouse Tour at the beginning of April, followed by the Rockjumper Texas Tour, a real double hitter that scores an incredible diversity of North American birds. So I traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming early to visit family before the tours were to begin, but then things changed quickly. I have been in Cheyenne ever since. At this point, I am not certain how long I will have to stay in Wyoming and, like many of us, I am just waiting to see how things develop.
I am of course very disappointed to miss the busiest part of my guiding season, Colorado, Texas, Spain, and Alaska, but hope that postponed tours and maybe some extra tours in the future will make up for some of the missed time. Fortunately Wyoming, with its low population and relatively small cities, does not have large numbers of Covid-19 cases yet and while restaurants, gyms, and gathering places have all been closed, everything else is still open. In addition, Wyoming has the lowest population density in the Lower 48 States, so the wide open spaces make social distancing relatively easy. I have been spending my time either confined to the house, editing and sorting photos and realizing I have taken many more pictures in the past years than I thought.
Otherwise, I have been exploring and birding with my wife in nearby national forests and national wildlife refuges, discovering that there are nesting Northern Saw-whet Owls just a 45-minute drive away and even found Boreal Owls too. Not having spent much time in Wyoming before it has been interesting to learn about it and its birdlife. I have also had some fun photographing Mountain Bluebirds and Sage Thrashers on the plains of which there are plenty… plains I mean.
I have also been spending time outside taking to the trails, hiking whenever time and weather permit. Much of the low mountains to the west are still covered in deep snow, so it has been a winter wonderland. Bird diversity is quite low, although one day my wife and I stumbled upon a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. Overall it has been good to get outdoors. Communicating with folks, reading and writing take up most of the remainder of the days. It is difficult to even estimate how much time it may take before the situation normalizes, but I plan to stay busy and productive for the moment, and will start new projects that can even be done if we have to stay homebound, which is a possibility in the near future. By that point, I may have to expand the garage into a gym!
Riaan Botha: “Locked Down” in Kruger (!)
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my entire lockdown period with my girlfriend and her family at a Lodge that her parents manage next to Kruger National Park. As a result I have had more freedom of movement than many. I can go to a gym, I can go birding or fishing.
Every morning we wake up early as a family and go on a long bushwalk. We have encountered every one of the big 5 animals on foot. Adding that I am a qualified field guide and trials guide. We do it to escape the confinement of the house and we make full use of our gigantic garden.
When night falls we light a fire and have a nice braai. We also play many board and card games to keep us entertained. Sleeping at random times during the day is also nothing strange. We do it because we can.
We also go for some morning or afternoon safaris and spend some time with the big 5 and all the beautiful Lowveld birds.
Being locked down in a place that I love is not considered lockdown. I cannot complain. For me it is like one long bush holiday. It would have been a very different story if I was stuck in a small room like a caged animal.
Peter Kaestner: From India to Maryland
2020 has been quite a roller-coaster. I started off in Germany, but soon traveled to South Asia for three back-to-back-to-back Rockjumper tours of South India, Sri Lanka, and North India. After that, I guided my family around north India as a 30th birthday present for my eldest daughter! I finished my two months in South Asia with a lecture to the Delhi Bird Club at the Indian International Center. It was a great evening to see so many birding friends and share my love for and knowledge of Indian Birds.
My family and I flew back across the Atlantic to Maryland on March 6, on a nearly empty 767 – a portent of things to come. As our state restricted more and more our ability to move around, our activities also evolved. Right now, we are restricted to only go out for essential matters, which includes buying food and – fortunately – hiking/biking/walking. While walking, I can do some birding, as the early spring migrants start to arrive. While at home, I have tried to establish a schedule, so that I can lead a balanced existence in the face of this crisis. Every day, I spend time exercising and getting outside, some time working on eBird, some time connecting with friends and family, and some time doing projects around the house. My biggest challenge is to resist being drawn to the refrigerator out of boredom!
Thankfully, my family and I are all well and positively dealing with our new reality. I cannot wait until this is behind us and I am again leading tours and sharing my passion for birds for Rockjumper.
Nigel Redman: Locked down in Norfolk
What strange times we live in. I have been confined to barracks here in Norfolk (UK) for the past two months, but it’s not all bad. Like everyone else, I have lost several tours so far, but it’s spring here. The sun has been shining every day, the trees are bursting into leaf and the spring flowers are blooming. And of course, our summer visitors are returning – not in the numbers that we used to have a generation ago, but nevertheless our Barn Swallows and House Martins are back, alongside a host of warblers. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are everywhere, including in my garden.
Under our lockdown regulations, we are allowed to go out for one walk each day. My wife and I do 3-4 miles each morning during the week and 5-6 miles at weekends, primarily to keep fit. It’s mainly farmland around us, so the birdlife is fairly sparse, but Yellowhammers and Common Buzzards are seen daily. Although we are permitted to drive a short distance to get to a place to walk, the coast is just a little too far to go on a regular basis, and so we walk out in different directions from our house. We are also allowed to go to the shops, but shopping is a whole new experience. Only one person per family is allowed in at a time, and only a certain number of people can be inside the shop at one time (depending on the size of the shop). Everyone gives you a wide berth, as if you have the plague, and many people wear makeshift masks and disposable gloves. Most people are being stoic and accept the situation, obeying the rules with good humour.
So, what do I do all day? Fortunately, I have three books that I am editing or managing at the present time, so in a way I’m quite pleased to have time to be able to do these. These include two major field guides, Birds of East Africa 2nd edition and the long-awaited Birds of Argentina. And I have also started work on the third edition of my own Birds of the Horn of Africa. They are all big projects!
Like most people round here, our garden is looking immaculate this year. My native pond is thriving with life. My greenhouse has had a thorough spring-clean inside and out, and I’m growing lots of vegetables. In a normal year, I don’t get round to growing very much, but this year I can’t plant enough. I’m also doing lots of cooking (out of necessity) and baking (because I like cakes). And in addition to all the walking, there is further exercise in the form of croquet on our lawn. It can get rather competitive, but I have to admit that it’s not physically very strenuous.
I hope I haven’t painted too rosy a picture. I am missing my tours and all my Rockjumper friends immensely, as well as my social life here in Norfolk. I speak to people on the phone and via social media but it’s not the same as meeting face to face. Committee meetings are held on Zoom these days, and I’m on first-name terms with all the birds in my garden. Today, as I write this, we have one less Wood Pigeon in the garden – yesterday evening, a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk had one for supper, and we watched it for 35 minutes, just outside the kitchen window. What a treat!
Let’s hope we can bring this dreaded virus under control soon, so that we can all resume our normal lives, or something close to it. I hope everyone is keeping well and financially stable in this unpredictable time.
Lev Frid: Quarantine in Canada
I feel very fortunate that in my region of Canada – Central Ontario – COVID has not had a particularly firm grip likes the major cities further south. I am equally fortunate that I live beside a large natural area where I can easily avoid interacting with other people, yet still enjoy some birding. In the past few weeks, the first spring migrants have arrived, and it is a reassuring feeling that, at least in the world of the birds, things are progressing as usual. Though birds are a welcome distraction, it is still difficult to cope with the always-changing situation throughout the world. I have many close friends in countries that have been and are being severely affected by the virus, and they and their families are constantly on my mind as the situation progresses. As somebody who both travels extensively and works closely with lots of people, this sudden change, and the uncertainty of when we will be able to get back my our own day-to-day are also uncomfortable feelings. I can only hope that this situation resolves itself swiftly and we will all be able to see our loved ones, our clients, and of course, the birds and wildlife of all the corners of the earth as soon as possible. One thing is certain, however – once we get back into the routine, I will never complain about airports again!
Greg de Klerk: From Kenya to Lockdown
It is difficult to have a long gap between tours. Guides are used to this somewhat as not all our tours are guaranteed to run each year, so occasionally, we end up with a month or two without a tour which results in a lack of income. While this is expected on occasion, planning around it can be stressful. The onset of Covid-19 has been particularly hard on all the guides though. In my case, having balanced on the financial tightrope approaching April with only one tour having been led in 2020 while financially supporting my family, I was due to head to Kenya and Tanzania to lead 36 days of East African magic. As the virus began spreading, so too did my concern, as I sat watching news updates and reading about the rapid and exponential growth in South Africa and of the looming disaster worldwide. Lots of tours were being postponed.
Kenya sealed my fate and closed all borders with immediate effect as they recorded their first Covid-19 case, and that was followed six days later by a hard lockdown here in South Africa, in which we are restricted to our houses. As I type this, we have been on hard lockdown for 4 weeks, not leaving the house unless for a weekly grocery shopping exercise, which involves lots of hand sanitizer, a face mask and arriving as early as possible to beat the crowds. In case you’re wondering, yes toilet paper is readily available now that people have passed the panic buying phase, in fact all the stores are well supplied of all things. Mostly I miss the freedom of being able to bird and get into nature.
As a father and the sole breadwinner in my household, I’ve had to take stock of my lifestyle and control my emotional state. Our families and friends have come together spectacularly to support us in these tough financial times while also offering much advice and glimmers of hope from their collective past experiences. We’ve been able to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. This is the reality for many guides, Rockjumper staff and the hospitality sector in general. Yet it has some silver linings.
I’ve had unlimited family time, something I probably won’t have much opportunity to enjoy in the near future, when tourism eventually resumes. Daily activities involve making tea and washing the dishes while occasionally testing my culinary skills as I craft a curry or a homemade pie or even a chocolate cake. As a dad, I’m suddenly an educator, but still a disciplinarian and general plaything. The freedom has also allowed me to filter through 6500 photographs from the last 4 years and edit them. My evenings are reserved for a good cup of coffee settled on the couch with my wife for a movie.
Although the effects of Covid-19 have been disastrous, I am thankful I still have a career and a fantastic job I will return to when all of this passes. I am thankful that I can communicate with all the people I have connected with as I travel and I am thankful that in these very trying times I am able to feel at peace with the support of friends and family. This situation can not last forever and, although I wish it could be resolved rapidly, I’ll do my best to improve my skills as a guide, while also being of service to my family, friends and colleagues until we reach the new normal.
Glen Valentine: Crowned Eagles & YouTube Work-Outs
The past five weeks have certainly been interesting. It was exceedingly challenging to find out about the lock-down and subsequent cancellations of my 2020 tours. At first, I was angry, annoyed and extremely stressed about mine and my family’s impending financial doom over the course of the next few months. However, as the weeks have passed and one settles into some kind of “constructive” routine, so my mindset and demeanour have improved dramatically. I guess one finds peace realzing there is absolutely nothing you can do to fix it.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with my 28-month-old son, Rory. He’s at a particularly cute and interactive age and it’s been fantastic to be able to spend so much quality time with him. I’ve also enjoyed doing a lot of gardening before the onset of winter, as well as a fair amount of cooking and baking (probably a bit too much as I can see the waistline slowly starting to expand!). We’ve enjoyed puzzles and games in the evenings and I’ve even managed to watch the occasional movie, and have been playing a bit of guitar (both acoustic and electric) while Rory takes his daily afternoon nap. Most of these activities are somewhat of a novelty for a full-time guide and many of them, such as picking up the old guitar, have eluded me for years and it’s been wonderful to reunite with some old hobbies and interests.
Obviously I’ve also tried to work in a bit of birding from our veranda/patio, as we aren’t allowed to leave our houses here in South Africa. I can often see the resident pair of Crowned Eagles calling and doing their daily display flight over the surrounding woods. Other species that frequent the garden are Black-headed Oriole, Olive and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, Fork-tailed Drongo, Southern Boubou, Burchell’s Coucal, Cape White-eye and Amethyst and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds at my sunbird feeders, while rarer species include the occasional Black Sparrowhawk, African Harrier-Hawk and African Goshawk overhead.
So, it hasn’t been so bad and I haven’t been bored for a single minute. My wife, Tanya put me onto an online personal trainer by the name of Joe Wicks who uploads daily workouts onto YouTube (he has a following of over two million people and has been somewhat of a lock-down phenomenon worldwide). He’s fantastic! I always feel so good after his thirty-minute workouts. They’re intense but just the right length, and discovering these exercises has been a life-changer!
We expect to still be in some kind of lock-down mode until July. One can only hope that somehow this all ends reasonably soon so that life can return to some kind of normality. But the terms “normal” and “normality” may never have the same meanings again, after this. We certainly won’t ever take our freedom for granted ever again, that’s for sure!
Gareth Robbins: Lockdown Barbeques in South Africa
In south Africa we have had a surprisingly strict lockdown compared to some other countries. This makes it exceedingly difficult for one to leave their home unless it is for essential food buying or going to the hospital. We are not even allowed to buy beer!
Exercise is limited to what you can do at home. At the end of the day, the unanswered questions of when this pandemic will end and when normality will return remain unknown and this plays a big role in one’s sanity. On the positive side, I have more free time than ever, I have never done so much cooking and washing clothes and dishes in my life. I am having more barbecues, editing tons of photos, and I am becoming much fitter and stronger by using weights. I have got a Playstation 4, Netflix and Roland Drums, all things I love to take advantage of in this free time. (And trust me, I know that I am a lot better off than most people that are affected).
I do miss being out in nature. Let us hope these lockdowns pay off and things will change for the best soon and that somebody finds a cure so we can get back to work!
Bobby Wilcox: Quarantine in the Lower Colorado River Valley
Life in the midst of a pandemic plays out a little differently in hinterlands of southeast California than I’m told it does in the more populous areas of the USA. So far I’ve been one of the lucky ones because I’ve still got some work. I’m currently conducting bird surveys for Great Basin Bird Observatory along the Arizona-California border.
Aside from racking up yard birds, most of my time is spent waking up at 4:30am and heading out into the field for bird surveys. Our work is focused primarily on riparian habitat creation sites along the Colorado River. Most of these are planted groves of mixed cottonwood, willow, mesquite, and other desert riparian shrubs that are meant to mimic the original floodplain ecosystem of the river, now long lost to decades of damming, agriculture encroachment and the most destructive invasive plant in the southwestern US, tamarisk. Something one learns very quickly in this work is that human created habitats only work when designed thoughtfully in a way that truly mimics their natural proxy. Check out the Laguna Division Conservation Area (Look it up!) north of Yuma, Arizona. Seven years ago it was a vast tamarisk choked wasteland. Today, after some intense landscaping, it is a pristine mosaic of habitats, grading from cattail marsh to cottonwood/willow stands, to mesquite and quailbush upland habitat, just like the original river system and bringing all the attendant life back with it. A well-designed habitat like LDCA bursts with life, attracting many species now rare along the lower Colorado River like Least Bittern, Ridgway’s Rail, Black Rail, Yellow Warbler and Summer Tanager, and even a few Beavers! Every day in the field gives a little different perspective on our relationship with nature, it’s inspiring to see a place go from a barren wasteland to a thriving ecosystem in less than a decade.
And so, life keeps rolling along, like the mighty Colorado River past my dock. In my free time I hit the books, studying for future tours and dreaming of far-flung destinations. Someday, hopefully soon, this crazy experience will fade into the rearview mirror, and I’ll be as ready as all of you to dive into whatever adventures await!
Adam Walleyn: Borneo to San Diego
On March 13, we were wrapping up an incredible tour of Malaysia and Borneo, watching a herd of remarkable Bornean Pygmy Elephants as they fed roadside. The next day I was flying home to San Diego, and during a layover in Narita I was catching up on the sports news. It was then I saw that the NBA was shutting down. No more basketball for the foreseeable future. That was the moment when I understood that something very different was happening.
The next day I made it home thankfully, fairly smoothly, but very soon thereafter the shelter in place order was put in effect in California. The rapidity with which things happened was jarring. The next couple days were confusing, sad and stressful. It still feels that way sometimes, but there are lots of silver linings to this cloud and those are the ones that I am focusing on.
I get to spend more time with my wife than I have in years. We have more time to spend exploring the areas around home here in southern California than we normally would. We are enjoying spring migration and wildflowers, looking for rare mammals and tracking down all kinds of crazy herps. A lot of our favorite spots are closed but we get past the frustration and find new areas to explore.
I am staying positive and taking the benefits out of this situation. I hope you all are managing to find positives in this. And just think about how much more we are going to enjoy and savor those experiences on future tours!
Daniel Danckwerts: Italy back to Jo’Burg
When I traveled to Bhutan in January of this year, I found myself questioning the need for such strict airport health regulations surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak. Back then, the virus was almost totally contained in China and, except for the fact that all my tours to China had been cancelled for the rest of the year, I thought that life would simply just carry on. How very wrong I was…
Fast-forward a few months. The outbreak had spread from China to other countries and the number of cases was rising. Still, I thought, the death toll was relatively low and the recovery rate seemed to be much higher than for SARS, MERS, Ebola and other recent epidemics.
However, I did my best to avoid watching the news and stopped using social media in an attempt to block the endless bombardment of depressing articles from around the world. I also started visiting my local travel agent on an every other day basis since my partner and I had an upcoming holiday booked to Italy. At that point, everything was deemed safe, though we followed the CDC and WHO advice and rerouted to avoid the heavily impacted northern regions of the country. I also remember having discussions with my cousin – a medical specialist with experience dealing with infectious diseases – and there was little worry in her voice. So we decided to go ahead with our much anticipated holiday, and we reassured ourselves by taking every precaution we thought possible.
Our trip didn’t match what we were seeing in the media. Honestly, we had a great time in spite of the troubles faced in other parts of the country. The streets were filled with tourists, including several fellow South Africans, and there was no sense of panic at all. Life seemed normal. But then one morning we woke up to several messages from concerned loved ones – including my cousin – and then we realized, there was more to this than what we were seeing on the ground.
We were in Florence, due to fly back to South Africa four days later, but the entire country had been thrown into lock down; all transport routes were soon to close, the army had been deployed, and one could only leave the house to buy groceries or to seek medical attention. We contacted our travel agent and were advised to get back to Rome immediately so Emirates could put us on the first flight out. When we arrived to the Rome airport we began to see the chaos and grew worried. We were lucky compared to others and managed to change our reservation to one of the first flights out.
It was shocking how quickly the entire situation had escalated. Upon our return to South Africa, we entered a two-week period of self-isolation. Thankfully, we are fit and healthy and tested negative for Covid-19. Now in our fourth week of isolation, since South Africa has since entered a 21 day nationwide lock down, and what the future holds remains to be seen. So what does one do at home for three + weeks? Besides trying all of those forgotten recipes again, and face-timing with friends and family, I’ve set myself the challenge of photographing the local garden birds; species I’ve always neglected on the promise of “one day” getting around to it.
Being in Johannesburg limits what birds are available but I’ve greatly enjoyed the antics of the Laughing and Red-eyed Doves, Speckled Pigeon, Cape Sparrow, Cape Wagtail, Cape Starling, Karoo Thrush, Speckled Mousebird, White-bellied Sunbird, and the delicate Red-headed Finch. I’ve recorded a record-breaking 34 species at my feeders, and have noticed a considerable increase in audible birdsong. I’ve also taken to looking back through photos – retouching edits where I can, discovering forgotten images, and reminiscing over various sightings.
And I also have my upcoming trips to look forward to, as a way to stay positive, as I wish that this dreaded virus meets its sticky end soon. I cannot wait to climb back into the saddle, with tours to South Africa, Madagascar, Ghana and the Indian Ocean Islands.
Dušan Brinkhuizen: From Japan to Quito
My Rockjumper friends! Hope you are doing well, safe and sound at home. The current weeks have been unreal. Our lives have changed so dramatically. In February, I was still enjoying a winter tour in Japan, a must-visit country with lovely people, great cuisine and high-quality birds such as Steller’s Sea Eagles, dancing Japanese Cranes and the huge Blakiston’s Fish Owl. We were living the dream! Yet, as the trip went on, we were getting more concerned regarding the corona virus. How bad was it really?
Japan was one of the smaller hotspots of COVID-19 while we were there. The world was still open with the exception of China. In Japan lots of people were using face masks on the streets, and cases in Hokkaido were increasing, so of course we were becoming more nervous. Meanwhile, news from western countries was that northern Italy was becoming a hotspot, and that some world leaders were disregarding COVID-19 as a normal flu, while topics like the effectiveness of face masks were debated. We left Hokkaido just before travel restrictions were set in place. Luckily, our group made it back home safely to our various parts of the world and we stayed in close touch to make sure no one had contracted the virus. After 14 days of self-quarantine we were all negative – a strong indication that we were fine. However, the situation in Italy had worsened rapidly and before we knew it the entire global air traffic was shut down.
Just a few days later, my home town Quito (Ecuador) was in lockdown. An extreme measure, and one of the quickest responses in South America. Rules became stricter still, and now we are only allowed to go outside for necessities such as groceries, and nothing else. Shopping for food and supplies are only permitted by one family member, and a single day a week based on the last digits of your id-number (in my case 5, which means Wednesday). Only supermarkets, small grocery stores and pharmacies are open until 12:30, the rest of the city is shut down and desolate. Supply shopping is only allowed between 5:00 and 14:00: if you are caught out on the streets outside this time schedule you’ll be fined as a first warning. A third violation of the rules would mean jail time. Face masks are mandatory and not wearing one results in a fine. From my balcony here in Guapulo, I regularly watch the police cars on patrol. On various occasions, I have tipped off the neighbors about incoming police cars, to help keep them out of trouble. The neighbors are all accustomed to hanging outside on their porches, and this time is hard for them, especially since the national news here aren’t great. Interestingly, for the last weeks I was unable to get vitamin-C pills, garlic and spinach. Pretty much everything else though is still widely available, including toilet paper.
So, how is my current daily life? To be honest, it’s pretty busy! Some office work keeps us occupied and I’ve got personal projects ongoing, including the writing of a Field Guide. Around noon, I usually jump on my mountain-bike for an illegal ride in the barrio – I do need to stay in shape! I always bring my wallet, so I can claim that I’m on the way to the supermarket. Each afternoon I participate in a mystery bird sound quiz. A local Ecuador Birders group started this game, and it certainly keeps our ears tuned for future jungle trips. Some positive things of this total lockdown include the quality time I can spend with my wife. So far, we are doing well! There is practically no traffic in the neighborhood and the skies are clear, seemingly more beautiful than normal. The birds are more vocal (or I can hear them better because off the lack of city noise) and it just feels nature is breathing again.
But I can’t wait to get back into the forest – that day will come!
Erik Forsyth: Lockdown in New Zealand
I first heard about Covid-19 while I was on tour in New Zealand in January. At the time I wasn’t too concerned. I presumed it was just a bad flu bug, and it would be contained in due course. As the tour went on, I was chatting via e-mail with our agent in Shanghai, China, regarding my upcoming “Winter Birding in South East China” tour, scheduled for February. Towards the middle of January I read reports that the rate of infection was climbing fast, and people were dying. Things deteriorated quickly, and a few days later my agent was getting concerned. He mentioned that several sites including national parks were being locked down, including areas we were going to visit. I was growing more and more concerned. It was just a short while later, now late January, while I was on a Chatham Island extension tour, that I realized the “Winter tour in China” was crumbling away under Covid-19. Many places went into lockdown in China, and Hong Kong closed off transport to other Chinese cities. We decided it was too risky to tour in China and informed our guests immediately.
A couple of weeks later I arrived in Taiwan, where the infection rate was low, as Taiwan had done a fantastic job of monitoring all arrivals and almost all flights to and from China had been cancelled. We were very- cautious on our Taiwan tour wearing face masks in public areas, airports etc and hand sanitiser was available both on and off our bus and at meals. There were no restrictions in Taiwan, and we were very pleased to see most people were aware and wearing masks in shops and public areas. Our group felt at ease and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. After the tour, I arrived home to New Zealand in early March and read and watched the news regarding the rampant destruction of Covid-19. Country after country went into lockdown.
For my time in isolation “my bubble” has been my wife Kathy, daughter Kayla and son Jamie. Kathy is a journalist and working from home, while the kids have been set up with home school classes on their lap-tops. My day is fairly busy, divided between completing trip reports, walking our dog Nalla (named after a character from the Lion King), helping with meals, washing dishes, visiting the shops to buy groceries (we are going through a ton of food!), and helping the kids with homework. The latter has not been so successful, as it has been many years since I was at school! We are also allowed to exercise outside, and I have been walking in the nearby forest and to a viewpoint a couple of times a week. Kathy and Kayla have been jogging around the suburbs, and Jamie rides his mountain bike along trails and streams.
There have actually been many positives during the lockdown as we have more time at home to connect as a family. Eating dinner together has become a norm and watching films on TV (a thing of the past) has increased. We all get turns to walk the dog which gets us out to the local park and some fresh air. Conversation has become a strong point and this will get us through the hard times. Our Rockjumper office has been very helpful giving us the opportunity to give our ideas and visions of our company after the covid-19 pandemic ceases. I think I can speak on behalf of all guides that we cannot wait to return to the field and enjoy the career that we love so much. Meeting fellow birders from all over the planet and sharing with them the birds we love is what we do, and we miss it.
Stay Safe and look forward to birding with you again!
Jeremy Exelby: Scruffy, Leah, and a hungry porcupine
The 24th of March saw a huge change in everyone’s lives in South Africa as the country entered strict lockdown. My work and that for the 16 people I manage ceased completely, a common situation for many in the country. Confined to home, most have been very bored and not a little stressed as they wait for the Government to pay promised subsidies. A few staff have sewing skills, so we decided to do what we could and convert rolls of stock fabric into washable facemasks for non-medical use, and thus in our small way help relieve the serious shortage of medical PPE. We registered as an essential service and this allows three of our staff to continue earning and at the same time help the fight against the virus.
Boredom has not been an issue! Indeed I have found myself envious of those with plenty of time on their hands. Nonetheless, I have managed to do a few recreational things close to home. With Hilary still in the UK and all the social distancing, I am so appreciative of the company of our two fur babies, Scruffy and Leah. The nature reserve next door has needed path maintenance and the three of us have enjoyed spending a couple of hours doing that every so often.
Additional enjoyment has come from our indigenous garden. Most mornings I am woken by the musical notes of Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, followed by scratching noises on the roof that develop into the raucous cries of Hadeda Ibis as they set off for the days foraging – no lockdown for these beauties.
Part of our Agapanthus bed was ravaged by Porcupine the other night. These creatures are frequent visitors to the estate, much to the gardener’s frustration – and I am often informed of their presence in the garden at 3am by Scruffy’s bark. The other night I investigated the doggy alarm call, only to find that the intruder was a Scrub Hare, sitting nonchalantly in the middle of the lawn. Nonchalant because they know they can outrun our dogs no problem! The dogs know it too and no longer give chase. Vervet Monkeys have a daily forage between the houses, but not so much ours as the dogs are a dis-incentive.
Autumn flowers of note include Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonuris), Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and Pink Plume (Syncolostemon densiflorus). Rains have been good this year and there is plenty of growth to be dealt with. But don’t get the impression that life is a complete holiday… I have never felt anxious like this before. The present is surreal in so many respects and future prospects are both terrifying and exciting – but when I count my blessings, I find many.
I hope you are in a place where you are able to do the same.
All the very best and stay safe. – Jeremy