Birdwatching 101: The Hoopla About Hoopoes, A Birdwalk, and A Three-Hour Tour

In our former lives on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, one of the things we enjoyed most were the sea birds we could see in the wetlands near our house on a canal.  We never failed to be thrilled by the V formations of twenty to thirty brown pelicans skimming close to the waves at the Padre Island National Seashore or the sight of a brown pelican streaking by outside our living room window and plunging into the water to catch a fish. From our deck, we could see the birds feeding in the nearby wetlands: regal snowy egrets, white ibis, and gangly, great blue herons along with the roseate spoonbills that arrived each winter. Among our favorites were the huge, American white pelicans that circled around our green-light that rested on the canal bottom near our dock, dipping their heads under the water and hunting for easy pickings in the fish the light attracted.  The miles of beaches nearby always had an abundant variety of birds for us to watch and be entertained by: black skimmers, long-billed curlews, sanderlings, various plovers and terns, cormorants and the beach cleaners, turkey vultures who floating lazily overhead on the lookout for dead and tasty morsels.  And hundreds of laughing gulls, squabbling, arguing noisily amongst themselves and hovering overhead when we opened our lunch cooler; fearless enough to snatch a sandwich from your hand if you weren’t careful.

 

Brown Pelicans at Padre Island National Seashore
August, 2012

However, we were never serious birdwatchers and, when we were selling all we owned to set off on our full-time travels in 2012, we never gave a thought to shedding ourselves of the heavy, bulky binoculars and the bird guide books we’d accumulated over the years.  Through Mexico, Central and South America, we occasionally missed our binoculars when we spotted exotic and colorful tropical jewels like toucans, motmots, macaws, parrots, tiny hummingbirds and, another favorite of ours, the Montezuma oropendola with its pendulous, hanging woven nests dangling from a tree limb looking like something from a Dr. Seuss book. And, on our visit to the Galapagos Islands, we really wished we could get an up-close-and-personal chance to study the blue-footed boobies, the (two) Galapagos penguins that graced us with a sighting and the magnificent frigates with their brilliant puffed out red throat pouches.  We would try to remember things to help us identify the mystery birds when we thought to look them up later while on our computers but rarely had much luck.

 

Magnificent Frigate, Galagagos Islands, Ecuador, November 2014

And now, here in Portugal, coming up on our two-year anniversary since we arrived to take up full-time residence, we’ve found our bird watching interest awakened once again.  Maybe it’s the multitude of enormous storks’ nests on rooftops and chimneys in Lagos and around the Algarve and the exhilaration we still feel when we see these huge, fabled creatures from old-time storybooks gliding by overhead.  It could be the flocks of azure-winged magpies alighting briefly in the tree outside our bedroom window, the yellow-legged gulls which are much larger than the laughing gulls we’d been used to in Texas or the sporadic sightings of a hawk.  We long to put a name to the multitude of small and medium-sized birds with varying beak and tail shapes, a mix of differing markings and an array of colors that we see on the outskirts of towns, beside rural roads and walking in the countryside.

It was the hoopoe sightings though, that finally convinced me it was time to up our game and outfit ourselves with binoculars (a starter-priced pair bought in a local sports shop) and a used bird guide, Birds of Britain and Europe, that I found at an English bookseller’s shop here in Lagos.  This spring and summer, I’d occasionally catch sight of a peculiar bird darting across a path, seeking cover under the low-hanging branches of a tree or flying not-so-gracefully between the low scrub bushes.  I’d catch a fleeting impression of a long beak, the stark contrast of black and white stripes and (maybe?) a crest.  However, when I’d describe these briefly snatched glimpses of the bird to Richard, he’d laugh at my attempted verbal sketch of a slightly ridiculous, mythical creature:  a ‘zebra-striped bird with a mohawk and a sneaky scuttle.’  A bird book would definitely have saved my credibility because I could have theatrically pointed out the hoopoe with a ‘there!’

 

This fall, we met full-time travelers and passionate birding enthusiasts, Beth and Joe Volk, who write a blog at Simple Travel Our Way and made Lagos their home base for the month of September. It was impossible not to get bitten by the birding bug when listening to them animatedly talking about birds they’d seen during their travels and one early morning we caught the bus to the nearby Alvor Estuary. Here we spent several hours strolling the boardwalk that runs between the Atlantic and the area’s marshes, mudflats, saltpans and dunes. A perfect, stand-out day with the sky a deep blue and the sun shining brilliantly overhead, the temperature exactly right, glimpses of a deep blue sea in the background, white sand drifting and forming continuous patterns and the golden grasses ruffled by the wind.  Beth kindly shared her binoculars with me while she and Joe paged occasionally through the bird guide they’d brought and wrote down the species we saw in a small notebook: great blue herons, kingfishers, crested larks, stonechats, spotted redshanks and on and on. Serious birdwatchers indeed, but how fun to have someone put a name to the birds we saw and share a lesson on spotting the distinctive as well as the subtle features important in identifying each species. My personal favorite of the day was the group of Eurasian spoonbills we watched for a while, sweeping their characteristic spoon-shaped bills from side to side for the day’s catch.

 

Can’t see the birds? If we become serious birdwatchers we’ll need a serious camera!

From August to November, the Sagres peninsula is a major migratory route for many species of birds leaving their European breeding grounds for the warmer climates of Gibraltar and Africa. Here is where Europe’s southwestern-most point, the west and south shorelines of Portugal, meet at Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent).  Lucky for us, Lagos is a mere half-an-hour drive away and we made a couple of visits to the town of Sagres (with a permanent population of 2000 wind-blown souls) during the annual 4-day October Birdwatching Festival.  With us were our good friends, Kiki and newly minted residents of Portugal, Anne and Tim Hall (check out their blog, A New Latitude) who also love to share their bird questing knowledge with us. (Incidentally, it was Tim who knew exactly what bird I was talking about when I rambled on about my mystery bird sightings.)  One of the activities during the festival was a discounted off-shore excursion with a marine biologist with the pamphlet saying we’d look for “wild and free dolphins, seabirds, sharks, turtles” and maybe even whales. We were stoked!

 

 

Arriving at our meeting point early in the morning, we set off on a three-hour tour with seven passengers – and the theme song from the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island, ear-worming through my mind.  As we left the harbor heading out to sea, we saw a few birds perched along the rocky outcroppings and the red lighthouse marking Fortaleza de Sagres high above on the cliffs like a good omen.  The sun shone, the water sparkled and a not-too-freezing wind blew by as the boat increased its speed with us continuously scanning and searching for sea creatures.  Before long, however, I was forced to lower my binoculars as they seemed to up my nausea quotient about 100-fold despite the magical sea-bands I was wearing on each wrist and a hefty dose of Mexican meclizine.  And then, a single dolphin broke the water on our side.  Soon enough, we were seeing one, two and three at a time keeping pace with us and then disappearing.  The boat stopped occasionally as the marine biologist pointed out a storm petrel here, a shearwater there and (those in-the-know with a book in hand) debated the differences between a European and wilson’s storm petrel and if the shearwaters were corey’s, greats, sootys or manxes.  Eventually we saw them all along with the ubiquitous gulls, great skuas, northern gannets and European shags. The sea rocked the boat in the ocean swells and, as we picked up speed with the occasional hard thump where we met the water, the first passenger leaned over the rail to get rid of her breakfast, followed a short while later by the French couple (whose names we never learned) on either side of the boat.  And then, we were shadowed by an enormous cloud of birds circling overhead and suddenly we were in the midst of them: diving into the water, floating the waves and taking off to circle overhead again. Hundreds and thousands of birds it seemed, in a feeding frenzy accompanied by scores of dolphins (the biologist later estimated we’d seen at least two-hundred) in twos, threes and fours: swimming in choreographed rows around and under the boat, leaping in synchronized arcs, their curved fins breaking the water then disappearing.  Below, the deep blue, seemingly opaque water showed its clarity as we watched bubbles appear, floating lazily to the water’s top and dolphins several feet underneath the surface gliding by silently.  Minutes ticked by slowly until time mattered no more.

 

 

Perhaps the attraction of bird watching is capturing those perfect moments in time where you are truly present and delighting in the gifts of nature’s winged beings, the great outdoors, a dazzling blue sky overhead and the sun shining.  Some days cost little but the time that comprises them and the appreciation for those moments they’re made of – perfect gems that make us absolutely certain that we are right where we want to be.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

40 comments

  • We have been very distracted by visiting with friends and traveling – so just had a chance to catch up on your post and WOW! What fun to see you have jumped into bird watching. When I scanned the comments – I saw that Cliff and Ruth already told you about their birding experience and didn’t know if you realized that they are the friends from New Zealand who will join us in Laos and Cambodia before we see you! Small, small world!

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    • We had a feeling you might be a tad busy since you’d just returned to the States and are probably busy planning the next leg (s) of your journey, too. I’d hoped you’d like this post and couldn’t believe the bad timing that had you leaving Lagos right before the Sagres Bird Festival. It’s funny but I’d wondered briefly if Cliff and Ruth were friends of yours when I saw they’d commented on your blog and read about some of their past travels to Vietnam. However, I thought that was too much of a coincidence! 🙂 I’m slowly putting the details of the Vietnam/Cambodia trip together and get more and more excited as the pieces start to fall into place. How lucky too, to have so many great travel blogs to read that help answer my many questions! Happy Thanksgiving Beth and Joe!

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  • Anita, we were never very serious birders until we moved to St. Augustine Beach. As you know from your time on Padre Island, the wonderful thing about the shore is the variety of birds. We had ocean birds, oak hammock birds, marsh birds, and finally land birds. It certainly made for great bird-watching. Also, the east coast is on the migration flyway, so in winter we got all kinds of exotic birds moving through. We’ve been through many downsizings, but on thing that we kept were our big ol’ binocs. These days, I use them to study the not-so-exotic, but still interesting birds at the feeder in our back yard. And I agree with your statement about appreciating birds when one is truly present and in the moment. Nice photos and post. ~James

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    • Thanks James. We loved our time on Padre Island and especially enjoyed being so close to the National Seashore and learning about the birds that wintered there. I was always amazed to visit my sister’s house in Corpus Christi and see the completely different varieties of land birds around her yard compared to our coastal birds and the ones we’d see in the wetlands. We haven’t regretted nor missed much from our downsizing but our good binoculars would be much appreciated now. At some point, along with a better camera, we’ll have to invest in a good pair of (lightweight) binocs, too!

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  • I am very much a birdwatcher and nature lover. I feed the birds in our yard every day, and feel very privileged to live in an area with such a high bird population. Thx for sharing your adventures with us!

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    • We always had bird feeders in our yards when we lived in the US and had so much fun watching the variety of birds they’d attract and, in many instances, trying to foil the squirrels who’d help themselves. How lucky you are to have a great variety of birds to watch and enjoy. It can be so soothing to watch them feed, squabble and flit about and, if there’s some song, that makes it even better!

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  • Delightful post. I only dabble with bird watching, but I was fascinated with the blue-footed boobies and the frigates in their mating ground in Ecuador. If we had a naturalist to take us bird watching, I am sure I would be hooked. Instead, like you, I have to return home and Google the bird. Then, I usually forget exactly what it looked like. The Hoopoe!! Oh, that bird is incredible! I never heard of it before. I can’t believe you have been in Portugal for two years! Time soars..catch it while you can.

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    • So glad you liked this post Debbie and, like you, we can’t believe that we’ve been in Portugal for 2 years. Loved your phrase “time soars…” because that’s indeed how it feels! I guess the old maxim, “Time flies when you’re having fun” really is true. We loved some of the bird and wildlife we saw in your part of the world (I miss the howler monkeys too) and remember our time spent in the peaceful butterfly house on Ometepe island. We’d never heard of the hoopoe either but isn’t it incredible? I’m not sure if we’ll ever pursue birdwatching seriously but it’s a good reminder to open our eyes and really take in what’s all around us. So many fascinating hobbies to pursue – so little time!

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  • What a wonderful description of your experience. I don’t think I would ever become one of the really serious bird-watchers, but it is interesting to see the different types of birds in different areas.

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    • We always had bird feeders at our homes when we lived in the US and we really enjoyed seeing some of the brilliantly, beautiful birds during our travels. But now I can understand what draws serious bird watchers to the hobby. I don’t know if we have the patience, nor the memory or the skills to identify the various species but it really is a wonderful moment when you can put a name to a bird you see. And there’s the added pleasure of a walk to enjoy the day while you’re involved in the hobby, too!

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  • What a beautifully-written post! I’ve never been much of a bird watcher, but that moment you describe: being outsiders, but witnessing that interaction between birds and dolphins … wonderful!

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  • This is a wonderful story about the joys of bird watching. Bird watchers used to remind me of Miss Jane Hathaway of the Beverly Hillbillies in her pith helmet, four-pocket vest, and oversized binoculars hanging from her neck. Now, I am amazed at the knowledge and enthusiasm of bird watchers, and relish the chance to learn from them. Their characteristic anatomical features, unusual habits and behaviors, and vibrant colors make local and migratory birds (and the bird watchers themselves) an interesting and rewarding study in nature. In a way, I think of birds as colorful accents on the grand canvas of earth’s masterpiece.

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  • Who knew that there is an island off of Texas, and one that is great for birdwatching at that?? Not us! We too are novice birdwatchers, in that we are always wishing we knew the names of birds we see during our travels and understanding more about them. We also realize that a good camera is indeed a necessity for capturing photos of these beauties.

    Your post is so well written and evocative and immediately brought back great memories we have of seeing an island which was a nesting ground for frigates in Panama. It was an absolutely amazing experience. When in Northern India we chose a bird park over the Taj Mahal for the two days we had in that particular area. And we were very happy with our decision. Anyhow, all this to say it was great reading your birding post and look forward to more bird updates. Love the little guy sporting the mohawk and zebra stripes!!!

    Peta & Ben

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    • So glad we reminded you of seeing the magnificent frigates in Panama and that you liked the hoopoe which is such an astonishing combination of birdy characteristics! It’s fun to page through a bird guide and see the absolutely amazing markings, patterns and colors of the different bird species as well as their accessory head adornments. And it’s even more fun to spot something new on a walk. We’re lucky to have friends who can tell us the names of a bird we see or point out one that we’d totally missed and it can turn a walk into an adventure. I’m thinking about your choice between the Taj Mahal (with the crowds) and a bird park and I have to say that I can understand your decision. Being outside and surrounded by natural beauty and enjoying the almost meditative feeling that happens when you’re truly enjoying a perfect day is something all-too-rare. However, I have a feeling that you and Ben look for those moments wherever you are!

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  • Wow, Anita you certainly do know your birds…The Storks nests in Portugal are incredible, I was astonished by the size of them perched on rooftops and lampposts. You are in the right place for some great bird watching since it sounds like there are so many different and beautiful species right there near your home? I remember loving the white Pelicans in Tobago, seeing how the darted into the sea to catch fish was amazing. I never tired of watching them. I also absolutely love the tiny hummingbirds buzzing about from flower to flower. Enjoy this newly awakened passion 🙂

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    • It sounds like you and I have some favorite birds in common, Gilda.🙂 A friends teased me mercilessly for years after we moved to Padre Island and I told her about the huge, white ‘swans’ I’d seen from the causeway. (Obviously, my glasses needed some updating. HaHa!) I remember when we saw our first storks on our initial visit to Portugal in 2015 and the nests in and near Lagos and we were/are totally smitten! It’s easy to see now where all those myths came about babies being delivered by storks. There are so many places to go bird watching around the Algarve and other places in Portugal and oh yes, we are going to have fun with our new hobby!

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  • Oh this all sounds so fabulous, and so exactly what I love doing. I would be like you – wanting to see all the birds, and to know what they are. I’ll never be a birder, but I do love seeing any kind of wildlife in the wild. And the boat ride sounds so exciting – thousands of birds and 200 dolphins! I think I’d have been to excited to breathe! Great post you two.
    Alison

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    • I can picture you Alison, enjoying the whole fabulous spectacle like me with a huge grin on your face. I know I laughed out loud several times – probably because I wasn’t seasick- but we never really expected to see anything like this feasting frenzy nor to be surrounded by all the wildlife. We may never be ‘birdwatchers’ in the true sense but we certainly appreciate our luck in finding another home where we can enjoy nature’s creatures. Serendipity and a life of perfect moments!

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  • We had a cruising launch for eight years (never interested in boats before that) and Ruth, my wife, was susceptable to motion sickness – the wrist bands were always-on. However, we would often find ourselves in the midst of water boiling with fish and feeding frenzies going on both below the surface and from above as the Gannets would plunge from great heights into the malstrom. Gulls and Terns swooping in and then the huges flocks of Sooty Sharewaters would arrive. We also loved to watch the Storm Petrels ‘dance’ across the surface while cruising and the lone Mollymawks that would skim the waves when the sea was a little rougher. Of course there were always the dolphins. Indeed a perfect moment that you experienced.

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    • Your description sounds lyrical and I’m picturing how fabulous it must have been to see a feeding frenzy at sea so many times with the birds and dolphins enjoying the feast. I can’t imagine that you would ever tire of it. We felt incredibly lucky to see this for ourselves – totally spellbinding and a time of pure magic. You can’t help but feel happy down to your toes when perfect moments happen!

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  • You were so fortunate to have so many beautiful birds so close by when you lived on Padre Island. The white pelican is one of my favorites, as well as the roseate spoonbill. We are certainly not true birders, although have several friends who have been for years, so have learned much from them. I just want to learn how to photograph a bird in flight well, no matter the species. 🙂 I just may have been one of those folks losing their breakfast over the side of the boat. Motion sickness is something I am plagued with, although I have had some success with the wrist bands. It sounds like your boat tour was wonderful.

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  • Though we’ve not (yet) managed to meet up IRL, Anita – I always knew we were kindred spirits when it comes to travel… and now likewise avian worship. And coincidentally, my own avid bird-watching interest once took me to your old hood in south Texas – when (way back in the 80’s) I bought a ticket to Aransas for the sole purpose of gazing at the (then) last.7.Whooping.Cranes on the Planet. Happily, they now seem to have been saved from the brink of extinction – yay!

    And yes, yes – my travels have rewarded me handsomely with glimpses of the Blue-crowned Mot-mot and the spectacular Quetzal (with it yard-long tail plume) in the highlands of Costa Rica, along with Hornbills in South Africa, all manner of colorful trogans in Asia, and the World’s smallest bird – the Bee Hummingbird – in Cuba. A most sublime hobby indeed – especially for those of us who travel.

    But I too have long ago shed my heavy bird identification guide(s) and have strayed a bit away from the joys of serious bird-watching. I do still keep a small travel-size pair of binocs though. So thanks for the inspiration – I may just unearth them and scout out some of the species here in my adopted home in the Andes.

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    • How funny you should mention the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge as I’d forgotten about our visits there until I read your comment, Dyanne. We went there several times to see both the whooping cranes and the sandhill cranes and also, our first alligator. We saw several mot-mots during our time in Central America, although we never were lucky enough to see a quetzal which would have been awesome. You do sound like a bird enthusiast and it seems to me you’d have some prime bird watching in Ecuador. Another hobby to pursue in your spare time? So many things to see, do and learn and so little time!

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  • Well you certainly picked a beautiful place to continue bird watching :-). I was cracking up as soon as l read 3 hour tour because l started singing the theme song in my head and hoped you wouldn’t have the same fate.. Haha!! I don’t know anything about birds, but my brother and his wife have this parrot who is pretty cool to watch and every so often yells out the maid’s name :-). He certainly hears it often enough. Loved the pic of you guys on the boat. I know Tim and Anne must have been excited.

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    • We were all excited to get out in the Atlantic and the timing was perfect for both the bird and dolphin watching. We’ll just have to study up on some of the many birds that migrate through this area. I loved the photo of us on the boat too, especially because it was at the beginning of the tour and no one had turned green yet. It turns out that Tim, Richard and I were the only ones with the cast-iron stomachs on this trip which probably explains why I had such a great time as I’m usually not a good sailor. I had so much meclizine on board that I stood for the whole trip, watching the horizon so that I wouldn’t get drowsy. But hey, I think I’ve found the remedy (for me anyway) for future boat trips!

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  • Wow, Anita, you know your birds! I agree that bird watching really makes you be “in the moment” and we all need that once in a while.And while you missed your binoculars, at least having a camera that can zoom in can give you a photo of the bird that will live forever. Guess that’s why I’ve never invested in a pair. When I read about the first passenger getting rid of her breakfast I thought to myself that I’d be just like that!

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    • I think a new camera is going to one of our next purchases, Jan. As you can see, our attempts to take pics of some of the birds were sorry efforts except for the magnificent frigate on the Galapagos Islands. I swear, he was posing! Luckily, there’s a wealth of bird photos online that are so much better than anything we’ve done. Of course, with a new camera, the next problem might be how fast we can react when we see some of the birds and the coordination involved between juggling binoculars and a camera. We like the slow moving feeders and preeners best! 😁

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  • For how you describe yourselves as novice birders you’ve done a great job of remembering and describing the birds you lived with at your Texas home. It has been wonderful to find so many new and interesting species here and we’re glad to have been able to share our enjoyment with you. The storks are still amazing to watch and we are fortunate to have so many close at hand here in Lagos. Regardless of how serious you get about birding it is a great way to slow things down and appreciate the natural beauty of an area.

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    • Ah – the storks. They just might be at the top of our list for for favorite birds and, like you, we never tire of watching for them in the sky or checking out all the nests around Lagos to see what’s happening with our neighbors. As you can see, we’ve enjoyed watching the bird life wherever we’ve lived and have had some great opportunities to learn about the flora and fauna during our travels. It’s been so fun to learn more about the birds in this area from you two and to have some help identifying them. We’re looking forward to lots more bird walking and watching ahead!

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  • Richard…as an avid novice bird watcher I loved this post as I have enjoyed all of your posts. I have lived vicarisely through your many travels although I don’t comment often. I live on an organic sub tropical fruit farm and rescue wild horses from the BLM. So alas….I have thrown out an anchor. So it gives me joy to read your posts.

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    • I think we’ve joined the club as avid novice birdwatchers! Thanks Jim, for your comment and we’re so glad you’ve enjoyed our posts. It sounds like you too, are right where you want to be and engaged in work that interests you and that you have a passion for. Our anchor may be a bit shallower than yours but we also love reading other blogs and engaging in some armchair travels of our own. It’s the best of both worlds!

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