More Big Beautiful Costa Rican Birds

Emerald Toucanet

With  a few days remaining before I leave for a blissful two weeks of internet-free snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies, I’ll add another post or two on my trip to Costa Rica. The big birds are easy to identify; the small stuff will take a lot longer.

The Toucan tribe is almost as colourful as the macaws, and we were fortunate to see several species. The Emerald Toucanet posed regally for us.

Emerals Toucanet

There’s nothing regal about the others.

Black-Mandibled Toucan

Although “Kill Bill” tried.

Keel-billed Toucan

But this fellow didn’t.

Collared aracari

For a regal-sounding name, nothing beats the Montezuma Oropendola. And he’s handsome enough to carry the name.

Montezuma Oropendola

And of course, we need a parrot.

Red-lored parrot

The remaining bird almost didn’t make it into this category; I think the red legs saved it.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

I’ll give him one more chance to show off.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Superstars of Costa Rican Birds

Flyover

Flyover

Sometimes I get lucky. The macaws flew only once before retiring to the trees where it was cooler. I set my Lumix FZ1000 to 400 z00m, aimed skyward,  fired a burst, and hoped. When I cropped the specks in the frame, I discovered that the camera had captured their magnificent flight.

Macaws are clowns. It’s impossible to take them seriously, but their beauty is impossible to ignore.

They hang around, looking silly.

They hang around, looking silly.

Until they decide to fly.

Until they decide to fly.

We spent a long time with these birds, which are quite tame because they are raised and fed in this location.

A solemn pair?

A solemn pair?

No, they're all goofy.

No, they’re all goofy.

And a delight to photograph.

And a delight to photograph.

The bird we all hoped to see, of course, was the elusive quetzal. They hide deep in the trees, usually obscured by branches and almost always in a dark place. We were fortunate to see several and follow them until we managed to get some clear shots.

Sneaking up from behind.

Sneaking up from behind.

The standard portrait.

The standard portrait.

But I prefer this one.

But I prefer this one.

More to come from my trip to Costa Rica. There are big birds, small birds and a lot of creatures that aren’t birds, enough material for quite a few posts.

HUMMINGBIRD BALLET

Trio

Trio. Oops! Quintet.

I promise to finish my blogs on the Firth River as soon as I return from two weeks of snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies. But I just got back from an eight-day photo tour of Costa Rica and have to share some of the delights. A great many places have learned that by putting out a feeder or even hanging some flowers from a branch will attract hummingbirds and tourists. It would have been nice to capture the birds at random in the bush, but feeders make photography so much easier. Below are my favourites from three locations.

There's room for everyone.

There’s room for everyone.

I could probably drink upside down if I tried.

I could probably drink upside down if I tried.

A study in colour.

A study in colour.

Attack from two sides.

Attack from three sides.

Eye on the enemy.

Eye on the enemy.

I win.

I win.

SUN, WINE AND WATER: KAYAKING PORTUGAL’S DOURO RIVER Part Five

The source of our pleasure

The “float” part of our “Float and Bloat” tour, whether on water or wine, has been front and centre.  Although we have eaten well, only the roast lamb dinner was truly memorable.  Today we learn that you can’t always stop eating even when you really want to.

After passing the dam we paddle to Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, the flagship manor for the Graham’s brand, one of eight port brands owned by the Symington Family, which controls about a third of the country’s port production.   Symington is obviously not a Portuguese name; it is, in fact Scottish and the family has been involved in port since the 17th century.  A gracious hostess leads us on a brief tour before lunch.  No, that’s the wrong word; we sit down to a feast.  I won’t detail the whole menu because I can’t remember it.  The main course is salt cod in cream, with the texture of soft, thick macaroni and cheese, flavour that a pantheon of gods would praise, and enough calories to see us through the rest of the week.  It’s a serve-yourself dish, and most of us return for generous second or third helpings.  Feeling sated we don’t really look forward to dessert, but it comes anyway: the most delectable chocolate mousse I have ever eaten.  Surely that’s all!  Now they put five different cheeses in front of us.  I refuse; I’ve already eaten far too much.  Then I see the looks of bliss on the faces of those who have risked a small taste.  I try one cheese. Then another. Then a third.  Utterly delicious!  I’ve never had an experience like this; I love fine dining, appreciate exquisite cuisine and sometimes overdo it, but I have always been able to push away from the table before my body screams “Help!”  Not today.

Needless to say, we couldn’t have paddled any farther that afternoon; I’m surprised we were able to stuff ourselves into the vans for the drive up the hill to Casa de Casal de Loivos, where we spend the next two nights. This magnificent white mansion boasts one of the world’s best vistas.

We are met by an impeccably clad host who would not have been out of place on Upstairs, Downstairs.  Too stupified with food to pay much attention, we retire to our rooms, vaguely aware that pre-dinner cocktails will start in a couple of hours.  We must seem like the most ungrateful of guests; we manage to drink the port, of course, but can only stare numbly at the lavish dinner that is served.

The following afternoon, after a final paddle on the river, we are able to appreciate the house and our accommodations.  Each of our rooms opens onto a terrace overlooking the valley.

The terrace at Casa de Casal de Loivos

The ground floor now serves as a hotel, while the owners’ quarters are upstairs.

View from the upstairs balcony.

Opulence and elegance, understated but fundamental, reflect 350 years of history.

The entryway.

Simple luxury

The old kitchen is incorporated into the decor of the modern one.

The old kitchen

The family quarters are relatively  modest and steeped in history.  Many of the old books on the library shelves are in Latin.

Books and our elegant host.

Good weather allows dinner to be served outside on the terrace.  Torches are lit, reminding me irrationally of that awful TV show, Survivor.

Port with panache

Lighting the night

Dinner under the stars

After a final deluxe breakfast we board the vans and head for Oporto, our trip through the Douro valley but a memory now.  There will be a farewell dinner in the city, sad goodbyes, promises to keep in touch and exchange photos, but we will not all be together again nor share the same sun, wine and water.

Nancy raises a toast to our host

Breakfast at Casal de Loivos

The whole group together, last day on the river.

Finally, the guides from Explorers’ Corner (now Natural Habitat Expeditions) who made this trip so incredibly memorable.  Thank you.

Pedro, Nancy and Vitor

SUN, WINE AND WATER: KAYAKING PORTUGAL’S DOURO RIVER – Part Four

We have by now abused our livers with more port than any responsible MD would recommend, but we have yet to see how it is made.  All that changes today at the Dow vineyard.  After a brief paddle and hearty lunch we proceed to the winery.

The river beautiful

Not haute cuisine, but good standard fare

Romantic visions of bare-footed workers stomping on grapes are quickly banished; although the traditional granite stomping tanks still exist, some wineries, including Dow, have adopted more modern methods, not least because too few workers want to spend exhausting hours shin deep in grapes after a full day of picking same under a hot sun.  Human stomping has been replaced by an automatic masher that moves back and forth over the grapes.

Grape masher at work in background.

The mashing extracts juice and sugar from the grapes and begins fermentation.  After mashing, the skins and seeds are allowed to go to the surface. Fermentation is remarkably short; I think they told us a matter of hours, not days.  Once the wine master has determined that the moment is right, the wine is drained and a special brandy added to stop fermentation.

Grapes fermenting.

The fortified wine is transferred to huge containers.

Storage containers for the new wine.

After about six months the wine is sent down river for finishing.  For centuries the wine had to be transported by boat, so only small casks could be used.  Today’s roads and trucks can handle more size and weight.

Large casks

Of course we couldn’t leave without tasting some port.  Unfortunately the sun was so hot that about all we could taste was the alcohol; the remaining bottles that were supposed to be served remained corked.

Vitor and the Dow representative, ready to serve port.

We did, however, enjoy another beautiful view of the river.

Douro River, orchard and vineyards.

With no quinta available we spend the night in a comfortable, if unspectacular, hotel by the river. Next day we learn why a river as large as the Douro is so calm: it’s dammed!  And today we have to pass through a dam.  Guide Nancy has made an appointment for noon at the lock, meaning that we must be there on time.  Slowpokes that we are, Barbara and I have to cheat a bit; Vitor and Pedro, our Portuguese guides, have rented a motor boat to take us and our kayak to a point near the dam, where we will rejoin the group.

Barbara, Vitor and Pedro (behind).

It’s a boat that has seen better days, but our ride allows us to enjoy the scenery without the pressure of paddling to keep up.

Reflections

The rock is almost as beautiful as the vineyards

Reflections

We pass our group.

Squiggles

One of many striking bridges

Once at the dam, we wait as a large passenger boat comes through the lock, then we paddle in and raft up (forming a raft of kayaks side by side, each holding on to the other).  Even though the drop is about 90 feet, it causes surprisingly little turbulence, only occasionally requiring the outer kayaks to push us away from the sides. As the gate comes up we face a deluge from above, paddling through a curtain of water that pours down our necks, under our PFDs and into our pants.  Oh well, it’s a hot day.

In the lock

With quite a distance still to paddle before lunch, we hurry on.  Only one quinta remains in our itinerary, and all too soon our adventure will end.

SUN, WINE AND WATER: KAYAKING PORTUGAL’S DOURO RIVER Part Three

“Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”                                                                                                              Jose Saramago, Portuguese novelist, Nobel Prize in literature, 1998.

Most of my travels concentrate on wilderness or the natural world, where, in a very brief time, I am immersed in my environment, touching its reality.  How different the experience as a tourist in a foreign culture.  A ten-day tour of Portugal provides little opportunity to interact with the Portuguese, especially since, with the exception of the owners of the quintas, almost everyone we meet is employed to serve us.

Each day we have to drive to our put-in point, since the quintas are always located on high ground.

Unloading the kayaks.

It’s a blistering hot day and we are happy to stop at a sandy beach for lunch in the shade of a eucalyptus tree and a swim in the cool water.

Lunch stop

The pause that refreshes

The peaceful water allows us to hug the banks looking for fruit to pick.

Drifting along.

The occasional large boat produces a gentle wake that sends us bobbing up and down.  Who’s having more fun: the few passengers on the boat or our hardy band of paddlers?

Cruising the river.

Our plan this day was to visit a newly opened museum of regional pictographic art but we arrived too late.  Still, the drive to this ultra-modern building high above the river was rewarded with a spectacular view.

Outer entrance to the museum.

Inner entrance to the museum.

View from the museum.

Portugal has had devastating wildfires this summer, and the museum site gave a clear view of one of them.

View from the museum.

Our quinta for the night is an organic farm and vineyard.  The owner, family and staff are incredibly welcoming, treating us to the usual pre-dinner port and the best roasted lamb I have ever eaten.  For once, our talkative group is silenced as we gnaw bones and lick fingers, table manners which we are assured are more than pleasing to the cook.

My kayak partner, Barbara, and Vitor, one of our incredibly hard-working Portuguese guides, enjoying a pre-dinner port.

Early next morning the owner takes us on a tour of his property, accompanied by a trained bird dog and a bouncing puppy that already knows instinctively how to point.  We see cork trees and sheep, almond and olive trees, cabins for hunters who come for the quail and wild boar, and more wildfire.

Cork tree.

The lower part of the cork, which is apparently the bark, has been harvested.  In seven years the cork will have regrown enough to be harvested again.

The owner’s love for his land and animals translates into joy as he explains how he irrigates, tends and harvests.

The owner with his puppy.

Fields of gold.

Shepherd and his dogs.

Sheep

Lambskin lunch bag.

Cottage for hunters

All too soon it’s time to return to our kayaks.  I wish we could stay another night here to see more of the quinta, enjoy the cuisine and visit the museum, but a busy day awaits.

SUN, WINE AND WATER: KAYAKING PORTUGAL’S DOURO RIVER: Part Two

Hiking and backpacking remain my favourite activities, but unhappy knees and feet keep urging me to find alternate forms of adventure.  Horse treks (one broken arm), dog sledding (one concussion, one badly bruised back), rafting Arctic rivers (no injuries) and a camel ride (never again!) have now been joined by kayaking.  Never stop trying!

From Oporto we travel up river by train, then drive to our first quinta, where we stay two nights and are introduced to our kayaks. What a mixed bunch we are: three couples with kayaking experience and two Canadian women of a certain age (one sporting a newly healed broken arm), both eager but lacking basic skills.  “Not to worry,” says Nancy, our head guide, “This isn’t a race.”

The Douro is about as tame as a large river can be.  Cutting through a deep valley, it ranges from glassy smooth to mildly choppy, the main excitement being the wake of an occasional large boat passing by.  From the shores rise granite hills covered by a thin layer of soil in which grapes and trees of citrus, almonds, olives and countless other fruits take root and thrive.  The river offers a window into the lives of people who have lived in harmony with the land for centuries.

First time on the water, waiting for the signal to start paddling.

How quiet and peaceful it is!  No sound of motors or traffic, no other people, just scenery.  Our first day is in a national park, where the steep slopes are covered with brush.

Spain on the left, Portugal on the right

Gradually we enter the realm of vineyards, where no patch of arable ground is wasted.  Planted on slopes so steep that they are often terraced, served by dirt paths too narrow for machines, the vines require the skills and robust energy of a people long used to hard labour.

VIneyards in the distance, glass on the water.

Sun, vines and water

Our quinta is a masterful combination of ancient and modern.  Originally a two-storey structure of stone, with animals below, people above, the house has been restored without disturbing what remained of the earlier building.  Slanted floors, walls that are not squared, doorways of unequal height – all add to the charm.

The original steps

Our accommodations were not without modern comforts, however.

The entrance to one of our rooms 

The old kitchen

Old and new

Modern doors, their height determined by the old walls

Original door

The view from my window

Our happy group at breakfast.  Nancy, our head guide, on the right.

We start each day wondering what new vistas and experiences it will offer, wanting to delve deeper into this beautiful land and its culture.