NATURALIST JOURNEYS’ ALABAMA GUIDES ARE NOTORIOUS FOR WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Ben Raines Minds the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Andrew Haffenden Watches Over Dauphin Island

Our guests at this week’s Shorebird School with Andrew Haffenden had the great honor of cruising the lush Mobile-Tensaw Delta with local naturalist, author and filmmaker Ben Raines, whose just-published wildlife conservation book is called Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System.

During our four-plus-hour river cruise, Ben’s deep knowledge about all things Alabama was outshone only by his folksy charm. An environmental reporter for twenty years in this state, his wildlife conservation bona fides are deeply rooted and home grown.

As we moved from one swampy natural wonder to another, part speed boat thrill ride part trolling motor, Ben told us just how special and how diverse the Mobile-Tensaw watershed is. 

  • It leads the US in average rainfall: 77 inches per year, 22 more than Seattle.
  • Its 450 species of freshwater fish lead all states, representing a third of all freshwater fish species in the US. 
  • Ranging from the Appalachian foothills in the northern part of the state to Mobile Bay, it is easily #1 in aquatic diversity among states, with new species being discovered all the time.

Ben harvested nutty American Lotus seeds for us, and buds of not-yet-uncurled leaves we are told will cook down like mustard greens. We lucked into a Mayfly hatch, which attracted a mobbing mixed flock of some 30 Prothonotary and Yellow Warblers. We saw colorful insects, wildflowers, fish and many birds. Ben also showed us a honey tree, a hollow tree trunk whose opening was ringed with bees. Locals used to hunt for honey trees and cut one down as a group, with each family taking home some of the sweet cache.

  • Yellow Warblers benefit from wildlife conservation efforts
  • eating Lotus seeds as Wildlife Conservation
  • This bryozoan helps with wildlife conservation acting as a filter feeder and clarifying water
  • Wildlife conservation and grasshoppers might mix
  • Our guests help support wildlife conservation
  • wildlife conservation covers plants, like this pea native to Alabama

Besides being an excellent boat captain, Ben is also a respected historian who personally discovered the burnt and scuttled wreckage of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the US, the ‘Clotilda’, as he documents in “The Last Slave Ship.” He also produced “The Underwater Forest,” a documentary about a 60,000-year-old submerged Cypress forest discovered off the coast of Alabama in 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan. 

Suffice it to say we felt fortunate to have him as our expert local guide for the day.

But it wasn’t just dumb luck that brought us to Ben’s boat. It was his wildlife conservation connection with “professor” and guide Andrew Haffenden, who finishes up teaching Shorebird School today. 

An Australian native who moved to Alabama in 2012, Andrew was briefly internationally famous along with Ben in 2018. Drew, while performing nesting surveys for Alabama Audubon, discovered a horrifying spectacle that Ben wrote about on Alabama.com:

“Beachgoers playing volleyball on a small island at the mouth of Mobile Bay perpetrated a horrific crime in recent weeks, likely killing hundreds of tiny Least Terns.

The volleyballers even stacked dozens of eggs stolen from nests in a pile to bake in the sun.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Haffenden

Laying their grape-sized eggs on scrapes in the sand in dense colonies, Least Terns spend most of their time trying to keep their eggs cool, Andrew said, standing above them to shade them, and periodically dunking their belly feathers to help with evapotranspirative cooling.

So when the volleyballers scooped up all the eggs and put them in a pile, the chicks might have had a higher survival rate if they’d just played among the nests. At least there might have been some shade. Because of onlookers and partiers, other nests not on the court also suffered, Andrew said, when parents weren’t able to get to their nests and tend them.

It became a “teachable moment,” for locals, especially after the story spread around the globe, migrating as far as China, Andrew said. Ever since word got out, beachgoers have been by and large very compliant with signs and string-and-stake “fences” volunteers erect to protect breeding birds. 

Since moving to Alabama in 2012, Andrew has helped collect nesting data for Least Tern, Snowy Plover, American Oystercatcher and Black Skimmer. For more than 9 years he’s been recording banding data on Piping and Snowy Plovers. His data, combined with others,’ convinced Audubon to designate Dauphin Island an “Important Bird Area.”

Audubon already operated a sanctuary on Dauphin Island, which is actually an archipelago of barrier beach islands that is well-known as a “migrant trap” in the spring. The first land that birds see after taking off in the Yucatan, it often records 25-plus warbler species during spring migration. 

Our don’t-miss Dauphin Island Spring Migration trip with Andrew Haffenden is April 10-15, 2022.

But you don’t have to wait until next year to bird the Gulf Coast with Andrew. This year he’s leading our Louisiana Yellow Rails and Birding Festival Oct. 27 to Nov. 1, one of the only places you’ll have a chance of seeing up to 6 species of reclusive rails in one location. And that includes the Black Rail, a bird so rarely seen that some people say that it’s a myth!

Clapper Rail. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Costa Rica Tourism is Both Astounding and Easy

All the Biodiversity and Less Travel Hassle

Next tours: Costa Rica’s Caribbean Side Oct. 6-15 and Christmas in Costa Rica, Dec. 22-29

One of the most delightful and enduring drivers of Costa Rica tourism is the country’s astonishing variety of natural habitats, which host a rich biodiversity of plants, animals and insects. At least 5 percent of all known species found on the planet live in Costa Rica, on just .03 percent of Earth’s real estate.

  • Costa Rica tourism depends on a safe neighborhood
  • Costa Rica tourism in a country the size of W. Virginia

With both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, two mountain ranges arching into its spine, highlands and valleys, white water and cloud forests, volcanoes and dry forests it’s little wonder that more than 800 species of birds have found a niche there to call home, along with 208 mammal species, 50,000 insect species, and 2,000 orchids!

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism brings you close to a Red-Eyed Tree Frog
  • Costa Rica tourism may bring you a Volcano Hummingbird.

Even at our relaxed and comfortable pace, the country’s diversity and compact size makes it easy to visit many habitats here, an endeavor made even easier by Costa Rica tourism’s leadership. Nearly a quarter of the country’s landmass is protected by national parks, biological reserves, wildlife refuges or other protected areas, allowing us to travel freely from one natural jewel to another.

“They have ecotourism down to a science,” said guide Carlos Sanchez, who has led many trips for Naturalist Journeys to Costa Rica. “Infrastructure is good, the birding is well thought out…people are often surprised just how easy it is to be there.”

Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
The aerial tram at Tapirus Lodge brings us easy canopy birding!

Costa Rica offers visitors far less friction than many other countries. The tap water is good and you don’t need a converter to use the electrical outlets, Carlos said. 

“People find they can instantly relax and focus on the birds and not have to worry about anything else.”

Our guests also get the benefit of our deep roots in the country. We have worked for more than 30 years with the same wonderful local partner.

The fact that Costa Rica is relatively small – West Virginia is a bit bigger – makes it so much easier getting from birding the rainforest canopy by aerial tram near coastal Limon to being serenaded by howler monkeys from a lowland boat safari close to the Nicaraguan border, to exploring the majesty of the Tenorio Volcano to gliding through the rain forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Thanks to the magic of Costa Rica tourism, we’re able to do all of those things while maintaining a relaxed pace during our 10-day, 9-night birding and nature tour of Costa Rica’s Carribean side Oct. 6-15 with guide Michael Marsden. 

Birding the edge of La Selva Rainforest.

We have six additional tours with four other itineraries currently scheduled to Costa Rica, which is one of the most popular tourism destinations we visit, for obvious reasons! 

From guide Carlos, here are just a few examples of the birds we expect to see in each area of the October trip, as early migrating raptors and songbirds may be seen moving south:

Highlands

Here we can expect to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and Resplendent Quetzal. Revered by the Maya, the Resplendent Quetzal is considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the Western Hemisphere.

Caribbean Foothills

Here we may see Snowcap Hummingbird, technicolor tanagers, including Emerald, Golden-hooded and Black-and-yellow Tanagers, along with the Black-Crested Coquette, an impish and unforgettable hummingbird.

Carribean Lowlands

Here we can expect to see Snowy Cotinga, Chestnut-Collared Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Black-Throated Trogon, among others, Carlos said.

“What’s so wonderful about birding in a place like Costa Rica, is that even going up in elevation 1000 or 2000 feet will produce an entirely different set of birds,” Carlos said.

Costa Rica Tourism = Gorgeous Ecolodges

Just like the surfers flock to Tamarindo Beach, and the ladies who spa hit Tabacon, we will find different birds congregating near each of the four inviting ecolodges on our Oct. 6-15 Costa Rica’s Carribean Side tour:

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges

Our Christmas in Costa Rica trip Dec. 22 – Dec. 29 includes visits to the Tapirus Lodge and also local favorite ecolodges Hotel La Quinta Sariquipi and Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa.

  • Costa Rica means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica means ecolodges

Our three “classic” Costa Rica tours, Jan. 5-12, Feb. 9-16, and March 3-10 include stays at Savegre Mountain Lodge, Rancho Naturalista and SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge.

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges

These three trips offer a post-tour extension to the Pacific Coast, with stays at La Ensanada Lodge and Villa Lapas Lodge.

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges

Carlos highly recommends that “serious birders” book the extension, because it produces dramatic birding every day, and visits a niche area of dryland forest in Costa Rica. Here we see birds found nowhere else in the country, including Streaked-backed and Spot-breasted Oriole, Banded Wren and Black-headed Trogon. Birders may also see Double-striped Thick-knee, Scarlet Macaw, White-Throated Magpie-Jay, Turquoise-browed Motmot and the huge, bill-rattling Jabiru, a stork with up to a 9-foot wingspan and the tallest flying bird in North America.

A Jabiru in flight is a thing to behold!

“This extension really adds so much to their trip,” Carlos said of the Pacific Coast 5-day, 4-night post-tour extension, which includes both a boat tour and a tractor tour of a working farm. “Sunsets there are so amazing, we see a wide spectrum of birds, and it’s really relaxed and easy birding.”