Cruising for Birds:
How I turned a Failed Fiftieth Anniversary Gift for My Parents Into a Successful Birding Tour
Life is like a bicycle; you don’t fall off until you stop pedaling.
—Congressman Claude Pepper
On September 10, 1989, my parents, Gilbert and Leona, celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary―a rare event in today’s world. What could I buy them to represent my love and respect for them and commemorate their joining together? They had enjoyed fifty years of harmony and happiness together, not without the usual matrimonial speed bumps, but always showing my sister, Julie, and me the bright side of marriage. My parents were not into material things and had everything they needed and wanted. I had already named a tennis complex in their honor. There were two scholarships named for each at Temple University where my father was Professor Emeritus. I knew they never traveled but were always looking at travel magazines and talking about exotic places. They had only traveled vicariously through brochures. They spent their lives in two places, our Philadelphia row house and our North Wildwood, New Jersey, summer house. How about a cruise? I told my parents I was buying them a luxury cruise anywhere in the world for their anniversary. They could pick it out; money was no object. They were very excited and could not contain their enthusiasm. My father was eighty, and my mother was seventy-four, and they had only been in three states in their entire lives, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio, the last only to visit us. Of course they picked a “world cruise.” They wanted to see everything in three weeks. What is a world cruise? Is it traveling the twenty-five-thousand-mile circumference of the earth? Is it stopping in every country’s port? I have, on a couple of occasions heard people say they went “around the world.” What did they mean? Well, it has infinite meanings. In cruising parlance it means stopping at the most popular ports on two or three continents, maybe a dozen stops in all, and spending a day or two in each.
They immediately called a local travel agent picked at random from the Yellow Pages, and were sold a twenty-one-day cruise on the Royal Cruise Line’s MS Crown Odyssey, the top cruise liner of its time. The tour included eight days in Europe, five days crossing the Atlantic, and eight days in the Caribbean. It sounded great, so I sent the agent $25,000 and bought the travel insurance as a precaution. You know the policy that gambles with your body parts: loss of one eye and one arm, $5,000; loss of both eyes, $25,000. Well the tour wasn’t great, and it never happened. A month before the departure date, my father had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. He was in serious condition with congestive heart failure as a severe complication. Once stabilized, he received his second cardiac bypass. There was no way he could go on the cruise. His attending physician did not know when he would be strong enough to go again. My mother tearfully thanked me for the gift, but they were not optimistic they could ever use it. Okay, I’ll find some other anniversary gift for them. In the meantime, I filed for reimbursement from the insurance company for my $25,000. I filled out all the paperwork carefully with a letter from his doctor explaining his illness and hospitalization and waited for my check in the return mail. This was a new experience for me. After many weeks I received a letter from the insurance company. It was a flat rejection of my claim. I knew there was a mistake and called the insurance company to clear up any misunderstanding on their part. Heart attack, cardiac surgery, slam dunk! The voice on the other end of the phone said there was no mistake, and the decision was final. The voice said the insurance contract was clear and stated no refunds if the trip is cancelled by the customer for pre-existing health reasons. I was incredulous. I dug out the policy and pored over the document word-by-word. There was nothing in the main body of the policy about the risk of cancellation, but there in the fine print was the disclaimer about no refunds if there was a pre-existing health problem that prevented the customer from taking the cruise. Those sneaky bastards! What eighty-year-old does not have a pre-existing health condition? Who reads the fine print? This risk should be in bold print and appear prominently in the front of the contract. But this was not a stock offering highly regulated by the SEC. This was an insurance contract heavily tilted toward the company allowing them to weasel out of responsibly paying for a reasonable cancellation. I called the travel agent and innocently asked if she would refund her commission since no tour had taken place. She went off on me, and told me how much work she had put into this. It was not her fault that my parents couldn’t go, and basically I was an idiot for asking. There was no way she would reimburse me. I called the cruise line office and explained the circumstances. Their answer was composed and sounded practiced and formulaic. No doubt when dealing with seniors they had many similar requests. Their answer was a polite no. They would be stuck with an empty suite, difficult to sell at such a last minute; they were sorry for my father’s problem but there was nothing further to do. I was temporarily stymied, but not defeated. I would attack in another direction. True, the money was an issue but the unfairness of the situation—the fine-print bamboozle, the pre-existing nonsense, and the refusal by anyone on the other end to compromise—was charging me up for a fight. I was determined to win. My next call was to my personal and corporate attorney, Alec Wightman, a man of great integrity, a talented legal and logical thinker, and the consummate persuader. The heart of the case was $25,000 paid to the travel agent, and she kept the commission; the cruise line was paid for the suite, and they kept their money; the insurance company was paid their premium, and they kept their money; my father was still in the hospital in guarded condition, and my mother was at the hospital every day exhausted, looking over him. All the players had my $25,000, and my parents had nothing―no trip, no present, and no joy. What was wrong with that picture? Everything! I directed Alec to get my money back.
I believed the confusing language and fine print, although legal, was unfair to seniors. I called California Congressman Edward Roybal’s office. He was the new Chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging and had just succeeded Congressman Claude Pepper of Florida who died in May of that year. Both Congressmen were champions of seniors’ rights with different styles of politics. Pepper was fiery and bold. Roybal was quiet and conservative. I explained the problem, and he agreed to look into the whole matter. I really needed some hot “Pepper” personality here. Alec got back to me in two days and said no one was willing to budge from his or her position. I told him to send letters to all involved—agent, cruise line and insurance company—demanding payment, or lawsuit would follow, emphasizing that I had both the will and wherewithal to follow through. This got a call back from the cruise line company. The liner had just been sold to a Danish family for more than $200 million and I suppose they did not want any negative publicity. Besides, they were out nothing because they had successfully sold my parents’ suite to another customer. They offered a free cruise for two of the same value to be taken within the next two years. Alec advised me to take their offer. He felt it came down to a business decision. The litigation would be long and costly. Taking the emotional element out of the equation, I agreed and accepted their offer. Susan and I took the cruise in November 1991. After a lengthy illness my father passed away, February 22, 1992. Coincidentally, this was exactly fifteen years to the day that his mother, Sophie Master, died at age ninety-nine. My mother passed away February 22, 2002, exactly ten years after my father. Every February 22, I light three candles and stay in a bomb shelter.
Now that I had the cruise what would I do with it? A cruise summoned the images of blue-haired old ladies playing bingo and old guys hitting golf balls off the back of the boat. The confinement on one small piece of floating real estate would drive me crazy. I would probably gain ten unwanted pounds from all the food they serve around the clock. On the other hand, we were stopping at some of the great ports in Europe and the West Indies. They all contained birds, historic places and iconic works of art I had never seen before. Why not combine culture with birding? I went to work researching every stop for cultural landmarks and birds that we might find there. These were pre-internet days so I used magazine articles, field guides and personal conversations with friends to gather a dossier of information. At last we were off to Civitivecchia, the port of Rome, to board our ship for our three-week adventure.
The first sight of our liner, the Crown Odyssey was amazing. It was practically brand new. Built in a West German shipyard to the tune of $168 million, it sat low in the water and was 615 feet long, twice as long as the Nabila, the largest private yacht in the world. It housed 1,230 passengers and could do 22.5 knots. We walked through the lower deck; it was all shiny with garnet and blues reflecting from ceilings and walls with octagonal elements throughout. We were shown to our suite, one of seventy-four, on the eighth level, starboard, almost one hundred feet above the ocean surface. The suite was spacious with a king-size bed, large master bath and plenty of drawers and closets for Susan.
The coolest aspect of the suite was a mullioned sitting area with large bay windows jutting out into the sea where I could comfortably watch sea birds without leaving my room.
We were up high enough so there was no noise or smell of fuel from the engine room. Susan and I explored the ship to see all of its three dining rooms, theater, show room, workout room, swimming pool, Jacuzzis, viewing area, casino, dance floor and bridge. This was a city at sea, and we did not have to pack or unpack as we traveled from one port to another. The crew gave us an obligatory safety talk, and we practiced a fire drill. The first night’s dinner was fabulous, prepared by a Greek master chef and served by an all-Greek, crew. The main dining room was beautiful, and we had a comfortable table. I did think our waiter was a little too friendly with Susan, though, but passed it off for the time being. We couldn’t wait to get started.
The next two days, we stayed in port and got a chance to explore Rome.
We were expected to sign out when leaving the ship and sign back in upon our return. When the ship was in port overnight, we could stay out as late as we wanted. The next day she would leave at 0800 hours, 8 a.m. If the ship was in port for the morning only, we had to be back by 1200 hours, noon. The ship would then leave promptly at 1300 hours, 1 p.m. With these deadlines in mind I would plan our day accordingly allowing enough time for sightseeing and birding. In Rome the birding was purely incidental to the sightseeing because there were no actual birding spots. But the common birds were all new to us and would be fun to see anyway. The Coliseum produced Wood Pigeon and Hooded Crow. The Circus Maximus had European Blackbird and Spanish Sparrow. Even the Trevi Fountain, where Louis Jordan and Jean Peters romanced in the 1954 film, Three Coins in The Fountain, produced a Eurasian Kestrel. We lucked into a Red Kite, a very uncommon bird, on the outskirts of Rome on our way back to the ship. The second night’s dinner was a delicious five-course Italian meal. Our waiter was paying entirely too much attention to Susan and was beginning to really annoy me. It was true she looked irresistibly beautiful every night, but I was not going to bear twenty-one days of his unctuous charm. That night I asked the maître d’ for a change of table and asked to meet my new waiter first. No problem. The change was great. The new guy was professional, efficient, pleasant and courteous. The rest of my trip was smooth sailing without any irritation from the wait staff.
The next morning we awoke in the Ligurian Seaport of Livorno, the gateway to Tuscany, the birthplace of three of the greatest minds that ever lived, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Let’s not forget Machiavelli, another son of Tuscany. A bus ride to the city of Florence revealed the golden countryside that had birthed these geniuses. What was it, the soil, the sun, the diverse genetic blend from the centuries of travelers and conquerors that gave the world these supermen? The history and the art masterpieces in Tuscany left little room for birding. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus housed in the Uffizi is eternal. Florence Cathedral, The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, with its polychromatic marble façade was unforgettable. The dome is the largest in the world. One of Michelangelo’s four molds of his masterpiece, David, is in the Galleria dell’ Academia. There were many more priceless object d’art, too many to see in such a short visit. Upon our return to the ship, our chef, true to form, served a complete Tuscan meal with its traditional filone, saltless bread (a five-hundred-year tradition when salt was too expensive to eat), antipasti with Tuscan prosciutto ham and salami, Florentine tomato soup, Florentine grilled steak, zucchini and peppers in virgin olive oil and fresh peccorini cheese made from sheep’s milk. The last was served with fruit pickles, honey and truffles. The meal was settled with a strong aromatic espresso. What a feast!
A single Gull-billed Tern met us at the harbor. The next morning we docked in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Mediterranean Gulls, Herring Gulls and Firecrest (a tiny songbird in the conifers) met us at the pier. We headed to the Casino for a little fun and sightseeing. The Casino was featured in the 1983 James Bond film, Never Say Never Again. This film was the second screen version of the Bond Thunderball novel, both of which starred the greatest Bond of all time, Sean Connery. Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush were not too bad either. Somehow the Casino, as grand as it is at night, during the day looked like a drab and lifeless movie set and was no fun at all. We played a little roulette and wandered off. The Principality of Monaco has harbored some of the greatest tax evaders of all time: Ringo Starr, Bono, Shirley Bassett, Gina Lollabrigida and Roger Moore. There is no personal income tax here. The great tennis star, Bjorn Borg, took residence there and opened a small tennis pro shop in which his parents worked. By doing so he protected his millions in prize money from taxation.
We took a short walk to the elite Hotel de Paris and had lunch there. We returned to the ship and turned in early.
That night we sailed to the Côte d’Azure in the South of France. We awoke in Nice, a potpourri of ethnic cultures, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Italian, Corsican and, of course, Provencal people. There were two museums we especially wanted to visit: the Musee Chagall and the Musee Matisse. Both painters loved the soft light and the Mediterranean colors of Nice and spent a good deal of time developing their craft there. The famous Salade Nicoise was invented here, a perfect blend of sea and farm flavors. Mediterranean, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls were in the harbor. Pallid Swifts and Eurasian Crag Martins were fluttering along the cliffs as we drove to St. Paul De Vence, one of the most charming towns we have ever seen. This little out-of-the way village boasts one of the world’s greatest restaurants, a five-star appellation on every food critic’s score card, La Columbe d’Or. It once lodged the great artists in the twenties, exchanging their art for room and board. Leger, Miro, Braque, Chagall, Calder and the legendary Picasso were among them. You can see their works decorating both the interior and exterior. The restaurant was later owned by French movie stars, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. A spirited game of boule was being played just outside its front door. Iberian Chiffchaffs, Magpies, and Great and Crested Tits seemed to be enjoying the boule, too. We skipped the dinner on board and opted instead for the Columbe d’Or, which now also carries the Bernard Five Stars.
Barcelona—or Barthelona as it was once pronounced by a lisping Spanish monarch and is still pronounced today—is one of the most populous cities in Europe. Its inhabitants speak Catalan as well as Spanish. The Catalan language, although a Western romance language, has Gothic influences in its Latin base and differs greatly from Spanish in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. I speak a little Spanish but was completely lost in understanding Catalan. Following its resistance to the Franco coup d’état, the Catalan culture was suppressed and the language was forbidden to be used throughout Spain.
From our suite we could see a diving Sandwich Tern, two Northern Gannets and six Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We disembarked into a maddening rush of traffic, the worst we had seen in Europe. Traffic was snarled at every intersection. The roads were narrowed and single laned. I was wondering how they would solve this problem in their upcoming hosting of the 1992 Olympics. Interestingly, Barcelona was the birthplace of International Olympic Committee (IOC) Chairman, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and was selected over every other major European city to hold the XXIV Olympiad. I wondered how that had happened. The city was determined to successfully host the expected millions of tourists who would be flowing in, and poured billions into infrastructure with construction of a new outer ring of highways and major arena and sports buildings. In retrospect they pulled it off, a civil engineering miracle, but incurred a great deal of debt in doing it.
There were no birding areas per se, so we headed to the cultural centers, Parc Gaudi, Sagrada Familia and the Museu Picasso. Barcelona is famous for the renowned architectural works of Antoni Gaudi and the largest art collection of Pablo Picasso in the world. Parc Gaudi is a thirty-five-acre municipal park featuring a collection of surreal Gaudi ceramics, stained glass, wrought iron and carpentry designed to give the visitors a feeling of peace and harmony. It had the opposite effect on me. It was a jarring and whacky accumulation of walls, benches, homes, and statues with a giant salamander at its entrance.
It was a composite of Gaudi’s creative ideas of Catalan nationalism, religious mysticism and ancient poetry. It looked like a giant web woven by a spider on LSD. Was he a genius and artistic saint or was he a mentally ill, drug addicted, alcoholic or a flaming exhibitionist. The world is overwhelmingly in favor of the genius status. Gaudi’s magnum opus is the Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic Church begun in 1915 and never finished. It is a synthesis of Gothic and natural organic styles. It is trumpeted as the most beautiful Gothic-style church in the world, and although I have not seen every other gothic-style church in the world, I cannot imagine one more beautiful. It is truly magnificent. The use of light pouring through its stained glass windows and accentuated by the space provided by its towering height is awesome. Powerful religious symbols are everywhere. The design calls for eighteen spires representing the twelve apostles, four evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest of all for Jesus Christ. The best estimation of completion of this monumental architectural masterpiece is 2027! In Gaudi’s own words, “My client is not in a hurry.”
Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de La Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisma Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso aka Picasso is the most talked about, written about, studied and influential painter of the Modern art era. Thus a trip to the Museu (Catalan spelling) Picasso was demanded. Picasso spent his teenage years in Barcelona learning his art at the city’s best art academy and being nurtured by his artist father. His early deep love of the city was the impetus for building the Museu Picasso, whose construction and contents he personally directed, the only museum dedicated solely to him while he was alive. There are over 3,500 works of art here representing his artistic passage from age seven until his death at age ninety-one. He was no doubt a child prodigy and artistic savant, as evidenced by the paintings done in his earliest childhood years. Even his doodles were remarkable. The pictures, ceramics and sculptures were arranged autobiographically depicting his transformation from one art period into another: early, training, African, Modern, Blue, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism. Some say his art evolved from one period to the next stimulated by each new woman he loved. We returned to the Crown Odyssey with our brains filled with images of neo-Gothic Gaudi and Cubist Picasso.
We were ending the first leg of our trip, and our birdlist was meager partly due to the abundance of famous art treasures that had to be seen, and partly because there are not that many birds in sooty concrete urban areas. The French and the Italians are infamous for shooting and trapping live birds for sport and for the pot. The “birdiest” part of the trip was just beginning. We would hit Mallorca first, finishing the European continent in Gibraltar and then on to a few of the more accessible Spanish islands, which were filled with endemic birds.
Our first island was Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, ten hours due south in the Mediterranean. Coming into Palma, the capital, we were greeted by two Audouin’s Gulls, a lifer, Shags, and a Black-legged Kittiwake. I negotiated a taxi ride to the Albufera wetlands northeast of Palma. There was a hide (bird blind), already filled with European, British, Spanish, Scandinavian and Dutch birders eagerly looking through their telescopes. The hide had several horizontal oblong spaces in the wooden slats through which an observer could peer through his scope without disturbing the birds. There was a large blackboard in the hide with bird sightings of that day written in chalk, all in their Latin scientific names. Each language has its own common names for the birds, so the scientific names made sense with the multicultural gang of birders in the hide. We garnered a whopping twenty-one lifers here. The most notable were Greater Flamingos, Slender-billed Gulls, Cirl Buntings and Cetti’s Warbler. Greater Flamingos are the largest of the six species of flamingos in the world. They are also the most widely distributed. I guessed the two flamingos we were watching were spillovers from the large flocks in the Carmargue, France, or from Spain. One of these giant birds lived until eighty-three in an Adelaide, Australia zoo.
Our taxi driver waited for us to take us back to Parma. On the way back we spotted an Eleanora’s Falcon hunting over a field. Eleanora was a fourteenth-century ruler of Arborea in Sardinia, famous for her love of birds especially these falcons. She also promulgated a Magna Carta of her own called the Carta de Logu, which liberalized the draconian punishments for most crimes in the Middle Ages. She believed fines were better than corporal punishment. These laws lasted almost five-hundred years. Her name was appended to this Sardinian falcon in honor of her kindness to her subjects and falcons. The use of people’s names for birds has been common for hundreds of years. Of the ten thousand species of birds known to science, about ten percent have eponymous names. An eponym is a “namegiver,” something named for a person or mythical being. Eleanora’s Falcon is an eponym. Many ornithologists do not like the eponymous usage but rather something more descriptive of the field marks, habits or habitat of the bird. I do like a sprinkle of eponyms on a bird list. A little digging would reveal the rich historical connections of people to birds. Of late the word, patronym, has crept into the birding lexicon as a substitute for eponym. At this point in the development of the English language, patronym is used incorrectly. It has nothing to do with birds and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Merriam Webster Dictionary. I suppose over the years, through usage, it will be accepted as a synonym for eponym. The word patronymic actually refers to a family name derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of a prefix such as Mac of MacDonald, or suffix such as son of Donaldson, both meaning son of Donald.
Majorcan pearls are world famous, and as we had no souvenirs yet, this would be our first purchase. Our driver took us to the pearl factory where these simulated natural pearls have been made for more than one hundred years. The whole process of making these pearls takes a couple of weeks. They start with glass balls and dip them in a mixture of adhesive paste of oil and fish scales or mother-of-pearl called hemage. They polish and remove imperfections and then repeat the process about thirty times. To ensure durability they subject the pearls to gasses or solutions to make them impervious to discoloration, chipping and peeling. They are a lot less expensive than natural pearls, but only an expert eye can tell the difference.
The next night and following day our ship headed southwest off the southern coast of Spain to Gibraltar. I spotted a total of five Cory’s Shearwaters from my suite along the way. The next morning we awoke at the “Rock,” the Rock of Gibraltar. To many this icon represents stability, indomitability, and timelessness. To world birders it represents a chance to find the Barbary Partridge, the national bird of Gibraltar, a rare game bird only found here and North Africa. We headed to the Mediterranean Steps and climbed the shrubby terraced hillside until we at last flushed one and then another until we saw a total of ten. Most of them just scurried away in front of us. A few flew short distances and were quickly lost in the dense vegetation. We added numerous Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers, a flock of Serins, and a single Blue Rock Thrush. A Red-headed Bunting, far out of place here, showed itself for a minute. They are found in Central Asia and India. This is a frequently kept cage bird because of its beauty, and I imagined it was an escapee. Back at the wharf we found a Northern Wheatear walking amongst the cargo containers. Gibraltar is only two and six tenths square miles so there was really no other place to go once we finished the birding. Because it so small and densely populated by its thirty-thousand people, they pour cement into the sea as “land reclamation” to allow for more building. Although it is located at the southernmost tip of Spain, it is a British overseas territory and the Gibraltarians want it that way as evidenced by two separate referendum votes in favor of British citizenship. We boarded the Crown Odyssey and were on our way to Cadiz in the southwest coast of Spain.
We landed in the port of Cadiz and were greeted by Common Black-headed Gulls, Sandwich Terns, Caspian Tern, Little Grebes and four Mallards, a duck common in Ohio. Along the mud banks were Common-Ringed Plovers, European Oystercatchers, Whimbrels, Common Sandpipers and a Eurasian Curlew. A short ride took us to Jerez. As we explored the Alcazar, a Moorish fortress from the eleventh century, we spotted a Eurasian Kestrel and two Black Kites floating above. Further inland we explored parts of Seville, stopping for lunch and, being in the Sherry capital of the world enjoyed a glass, the best in the world. Outside Pontius Pilate’s house we saw Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Coal Tit. We stopped at the America’s Park, part of the Parque Maria Luisa, and typical of city parks it was inhabited by common birds, Eurasian Blackbird, European Robin and the magnificently beautiful pure white Rock Pigeons (not albinos) that frequented the square. They were a gift from the Philippines in 1929 for the Spanish-American Exposition and are found nowhere else in Spain.
That evening the ship’s chef prepared a fabulous Andalusian feast representative of the countryside’s cuisine complete with gazpacho, fish dredged in flour without egg and fried in virgin olive oil from Seville, bocas de la islas crab, and for desert, amarguillos, almond macaroons. The stomach was settled with a selection of after dinner Sherries, from the light Manzanilla to the heavier Amontillado. They were true Sherries from the Spanish “Sherry Triangle” made only from palomino grapes, properly aged and fifteen and a half percent alcohol by volume.
The night was not over. Cadiz is in the heart of flamenco. To add fire to our spicy meal, a troupe of flamenco dancers and musicians were brought on board. For an hour and a half we sat mesmerized with their soulful and passionate performance. The flamenco music and dance is hundreds of years old influenced by Gitano (Romani) traditional folksongs and dances with Moorish, Christian, and Jewish influences. Although there are some individual improvisations allowed usually on the spur of the moment, it is a set of formal and complex repeating forms that have been done thousands of times over for many centuries. All flamenco has cante, singing; toque, guitar playing; baile, dancing; and palmas, handclapping. The musical notes are more percussive and less sustained than classical guitar music. It expresses sad and bitter feelings, performed most often by older more mature performers who have lived the life. There are many subtle interval and tonal changes. The women adopt arrogant and irreverent poses with backs arched dramatically and arms held up and close to their olive-toned faces and tightly pulled back jet-black hair. Our women dancers wore fiery red dresses with flared bottoms; the only man wore black satin and a traditional perfectly round, wide-brimmed black cordobés hat. The music expressed urgency and intensity. Castanets were used that night but are not always. The guitars are similar to classical guitars with six strings but thinner and have less internal bracing. They are made of cypress or sycamore with rosewood on the sides and backs for more volume. The player must send his music above the sound of the clapping and nailed shoes striking on hardwood floors. It is also equipped with a golpeador, tap plate, to protect the guitar from the rhythmical golpes, finger tapping. The techniques, playing postures and strumming patterns are complex and passed down from musician to musician rather than written down. Following their main performance and two encores, we could hardly sleep that night.
Once the ship left Gibraltar and headed west we were officially in the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the Mediterranean behind. We were headed 540 miles to Madeira, once a Portuguese possession, now autonomous, famous for its wine of the same name and the endemic Trocaz Pigeon. There is a 1956 salacious tune about Madeira wine by the Limelighters, “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” that runs through my head at the strangest times. This is a twenty-million-year-old volcanic island that has never been connected to the African or European continents. The flora and fauna have been left to their own devices until the last four-hundred years when settlers arrived to destroy the natural wonders of the island. The Trocaz pigeon hangs on and in fact is doing better since the Madeira government recognized its value and has taken steps to protect it. It is no longer on the “Threatened” list of endangered birds. En route I spotted a flock of 111 Manx Shearwaters from my stateroom. We made port in the capital city of Funchal. We hired a car for the day and made our way to Bancoes for the Trocaz Pigeon stopping along the way to look for migrants and resident birds. We were rewarded by a gorgeous Mistle Thrush in a meadow pass, Pallid and Plain Swifts against the cliffs, a flock of Linnets, and a regional endemic subspecies of Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla heineken. Gray Wagtails and Chaffinches, another endemic subspecies, Fringilla coelebs maderensis, were numerous at every level. At the summit we watched our target bird, the Trocaz Pigeon, for more than an hour, in a flock of thirty circling below us and six to eight more flying in singles and pairs. Veni, vidi, vici came to mind as our plan successfully produced this highly sought after and rare endemic species. On the way back to Funchal we took a thrill ride down the mountainside using the Madeira toboggans. These are wicker baskets on wooden rails pulled by carreiros, two men dressed in white with straw hats. These sledges can reach speeds of forty-eight kilometers per hour, and the only brakes are the rubber-soled shoes of the carreiros. We rode all the way down to the city. When we reached Funchal we made a stop at the children’s playground behind the bus station, a known location for the lowly Spanish Sparrow, a close cousin of our House Sparrows, raiders of our feeders back home in Worthington. Just like home we saw two picking through the debris around the bus stalls.
We were two hours SSW after leaving Madeira, when I saw the birds of the trip! There were three Cream-colored Coursers, desert shorebirds, flying parallel to our ship and faster, much faster. We were more than a hundred miles off shore. From where were they coming? Just south of us in the Canary Islands where they breed? Where were they going? To their wintering grounds in North Africa? Morocco, perhaps? Their exact migration routes have never been tracked. A half hour later I spotted a lone Dunlin, another shorebird, crossing our bow. I had seen loads of Dunlin in the new world, but they were all Caladris alpina pacifica. This guy had to be the Northern European subspecies, Caladris alpine alpina, on its way to its North African breeding grounds. From my viewing distance I could not determine any plumage differences so my subspecies call was based solely on geographical location.
On our twelfth day of the trip we were heading to the Canary Islands, our last port-of-call, before the five day Atlantic crossing. The trip was going extremely well, too well. I expected a visit from the goddess Discord, the grand disrupter of the best-laid plans, the ultimate party pooper. And then she struck on November 21. Our routine was to be first off the boat, beat the crowd, go directly to the waiting taxis, go over a route and time frames with a driver, and negotiate a half or full day fee depending when the ship would leave. This worked fine until Tenerife. I wanted to drive to the southern opposite end of the island to Punta de la Rasca, a British and American enclave. Here we had the best chance of finding Berthelot’s Pipit. The drive would take an hour. Birding the Point would take another hour. I wanted to return via the mountains looking for the Blue Chaffinch, Canary Islands Chaffinch, Island Canary and Chat. That would take a third hour. A return route down the mountain would get us back to Tenerife and the ship in another hour, four hours in all. The ship wants the passengers back no later than noon and then ready for a 1 p.m. departure. It was imperative that we were back on time before the Atlantic crossing because the next port was all the way down to the southernmost island in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles, Barbados. I explained in detail to the driver, using a map and Spanglish, what we wanted to accomplish. He said he understood, and we took off. We made it to the Point in an hour flat. So far so good. There we found a bonanza of bird life, Eurasian Thick-Knee, four Eurasian Spoonbills, Lesser Whitethroat, Blue Rock Thrush, Spectacled Warbler and European Goldfinch. We searched for a full hour and finally spotted a lone Berthelot’s Pipit. Mission accomplished, we jumped into our taxi and told the driver to head into the mountains. Susan sensed that we were farther away from the ship than we had first thought and advised that we should return by the route we had taken in getting here. No, I overruled her and headed into the mountains. An hour later we had not even returned a quarter of the way. The road was very winding with many hairpin turns and switchbacks. This did not allow for speed. The traffic was heavy and to boot there were many slower cars in front of us impeding our progress. I told the driver to step on it and pass these slowpokes. He did not. The narrow single lane road did not allow for good visibility let alone passing. It was 11:30 a.m., and we were nowhere near Tenerife. I still held the belief that if we did not stop to bird, we could make it back to the ship by 12:30 p.m. Not so fast. Discord had other plans for us. It started to rain, hard, I mean pour buckets. The taxi’s high-speed windshield wipers were not keeping up with the torrent of water cascading down on our vehicle. Visibility fell to zero. We could not see the car in front, and I am sure we were invisible to the car in back. The driver pulled over to let the worst abate. Susan and I thought at this point we would never get back to the ship in time, but we still had a small outside chance. We took stock of our resources: both passports, yes! Cash, yes! And a Platinum American Express card! No worries. We could purchase anything we needed. If we missed the departure, we would fly home and have the liner ship us our belongings. At 12:40 p.m., the rain stopped.
I was yelling to the driver, “!Mas rapido! !Mas rapido!”
At last we could see Tenerife. All three of us were sweating profusely. We still had a shot. But Discord was not finished. The city traffic was in gridlock, and we were hitting every red light. I couldn’t think of the Spanish to tell the driver to drive on the sidewalk. We could finally see the docks in the distance. At 1p.m. we could see our ship, but it was the last ship docked all the way at the far end. We hit the docks, and I swear the driver was going fifty miles per hour on the heavily trafficked wharf. People were jumping out of the way. Damn, I could see the gangplank going up. We’d missed it by seconds! The ship was slowly moving away from the dock. I was picturing an end to our cruise and a long flight back to the States. I jumped out of the still-moving taxi and sprinted to the ship, yelling something unintelligible at the top of my lungs and waving my arms. I thought I saw the ship stop and return to the dock. Yes, it did, and a small emergency gangplank was let down. The taxi followed me close behind. Susan jumped out, and I threw a fistful of greenbacks through the driver’s open window. Hearts racing and out of breath, we tried to walk calmly up the gangplank as if nothing happened.
A very, very unhappy British purser with a grim look of dismay said, “Next time would you please be a little more prompt.”
The last time anyone in our family had completed an Atlantic crossing was in 1945 when Susan’s mother Mary Fickel (nee Rosendahl) joined another four-hundred Australian war brides on the H.M.S. Queen Mary. Before that, around 1905, my nineteen-year-old maternal grandfather, Joseph Majeski, made the trip from Poland and landed in the port of Chester, Pennsylvania. Before him, my paternal great grandfather, Jacob Rosenzweig and daughter, Charna (Sophie) Rosenzweig, my grandmother arrived in the late 1890s from Russia. Preceding them and first arrivals in our family was my paternal grandfather, David Master, from Russia in the mid-1890s, who probably came through Ellis Island. Those crossings took weeks in uncomfortable quarters fighting mal de mer the whole way. In contrast, Susan and I were in the lap of luxury going twice as far in a quarter of the time.
On the next day, November 22, no sea birds were seen in four hours of watching. We started enjoying the conveniences the ship had to offer, sunning on the main deck with Olympic–sized pool, first-run movies in the theater, top-flight entertainment at night, spa and workout facilities, Bingo, dancing and a casino. There were private and Captain’s parties, themed dinners, formal dress night, and trivia contests with cash prizes.
The boat was loaded with elderly, but there were a few couples our age. We naturally migrated to each other. There was a couple in their forties from Canada whom we thought were nice. We had dinner with them one night and attended a couple of parties with them. Our conversations were about family, travel, and our hobbies and work, no politics or religion. One afternoon, Tom, the husband, and I were at the pool just relaxing, having a cool drink and talking sports. I closed my eyes for a quick nap when I heard him say, “Hitler was right.”
I opened my eyes, turned in his direction and said, “What do you mean?”
He responded, “Kill all the Jews.” I wondered why and where did this come from? It had to have slithered out from the gutters of his warped mind.
I got up from my lounge chair and said to him, “We can never be friends,” and left him there befuddled that another forty-year-old white man did not share his sick views. He had no clue that my father was Jewish and that my uncle Vince Majeski was in the front lines of the Normandy invasion protecting America, the world and our way of life from Nazi tyranny. Anti-Semitism is alive and well in the most out-of-the-way places. It rears its ugly head when least expected. We all must stand up to it publicly. It has no place in our American life or in any decent person’s mind. We avoided this Canadian trash for the remainder of the trip. This incident provoked long conversations between Susan and me, and later when we returned home among our friends. The crucial question is how far would we go to protect Jews? African-Americans? Other minorities? Would we go as far as to give our lives?
On our second day on the open sea I saw a petrel of the Soft-plumaged complex. Splitting of this taxon into Fea’s, Zino’s and Cape Verde had not been worked out yet. I reasoned geographical location might help for later more specific identification. I called the bridge, and they readily gave me the nautical location: 851 miles southwest of Tenerife; 0840 hours; Latitude 24 degrees, 24 minutes, north; longitude 71 degrees, 106 minutes, west; course, 251 degrees southwest at 22 knots. An hour later I spotted a small passerine flying around the upper stateroom decks, eating crumbs from the passengers’ breakfasts which had fallen to the deck. This was most interesting and with my Zeiss 10 x 40 binoculars it proved to be a Chiffchaff, a European songbird, presumably but not certainly a Canary Islands Chiffchaff. It made a few unsuccessful attempts to launch itself into the air to free itself of the ship, but the wind currents were too strong for the little guy, and it was hurled back to the deck. I found this bird on three successive days, sometimes looking for hours on all the decks. It continued to make unsuccessful flight attempts off the boat. I had read of ship-assisted transport of birds coming long distances to North America. The origin of alien species in the Americas is always problematic. The Cattle Egrets of Africa, postulated to have arrived in the New World on banana boats, are presumed to be in this category. We were two days out of Barbados. I was hoping this waif would make the whole crossing alive to be North America’s first record of this species. It would go into the record books with an asterisk as a ship-assisted bird but nevertheless a first continental record. The last two days I searched the ship carefully but found no signs of it. It either had died on board or perished in the North Atlantic gales.
I had lots of non-birding time because the sea was empty. I thought I would try my luck at Bingo. After all, this was a child’s game, right? Wrong. The auditorium was jammed with hundreds of blue-haired old ladies all with three, four and even ten bingo cards in front of them. A number was called out and flashed on a screen, and within nanoseconds these gals had their spots covered. The caller was wasting no time and number after number was called in rapid succession. Oh my God—I was way behind every octogenarian in the place. They were cleaning up on me, and I was running out of cash. This was professional Bingo played by professional gamblers. They had earned their chops at Knights of Columbus Friday night Bingo tournaments and made their bones at St. Maria Goretti’s South Philadelphia Saturday night charity fundraisers. These women were not to be messed with. After two days of not winning one time, I decided to turn my bruised ego to the casino. This was more my style. I was a veteran of the Las Vegas high-roller community. Not a whale but a medium-sized shark. Craps was my game, and I had a good system, not infallible, but I won more times than not. I walked into the small empty casino. I guess everybody was at the Bingo tournament or taking naps. Where is the craps table? There was none. There was a roulette table and a few one-armed bandits. Gambling is still gambling. Successful gambling depends on money management and discipline. Of course luck helps, and playing the best odds is a must. I played large bets on red/black and four squares thereby increasing my odds of winning. Occasionally I would place a small wager on one number, thirty-five black. I was winning most of the small bets, and then wham! I hit a thirty-to-one single-number bet. Here was the luck. In less than an hour I had won $5,000. I left the table with the croupier asking me, begging me, to stay and play more. Here is where money management and discipline comes in. I walked away from the tables. I gave Susan a dollar chip to play one of the one-armed bandits. It was the last machine on our way out. Bam! She hit a jackpot of $1,000. I took her and the cash and headed to the onboard jewelry shop. She picked out a sixteen-carat aquamarine and diamond ring as a souvenir from the cruise.
Two days out from Madeira the bird traffic completely disappeared. On days two, three and four I scanned the ocean surface and skies for any sign of bird or mammal life. It was devoid of any sign of life. This came as a big surprise to me. We were a small cork floating in a watery abyss. I expected to see at least a few sea birds somewhere. I had been on approximately forty pelagic seabird voyages and always came up with something, but they were usually seen over deep sea trenches with nutrients upwelling from the ocean floor, usually no more than 50les offshore. This was different. The Atlantic is vast, deep, and salty. It is 41.1 million square miles and takes up twenty percent of the earth’s surface. The average depth of the Atlantic Ocean is about two and a half miles. It is the saltiest of the oceans. Not much can live out here in these extreme conditions. A major exception to this inhospitable desert is the Sargasso Sea, which is a moving spiraling current of water in the Atlantic filled with nutrients. It is made up of Sargassum seaweed, a major food for American and European eels and other vertebrates. Incidentally, this sea’s western boundary near North Carolina is the feeding grounds for the once thought extinct endangered Bermuda Petrel. The southern boundary of this sea is Bermuda. We had not reached it yet.
On the fifth and last day of the crossing and ninety miles from Barbados I began seeing birds again. A Leach’s Storm-Petrel was nighthawking low over the waves. Closer to Bridgetown I found a Brown Noddy and a few Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers. These last two species eat lemmings in their far-north, top-of-the-world breeding grounds, but once on migration they turn to kleptoparasitism as they aggressively chase gulls and terns until they regurgitate their food for the jaegers to steal. At the time of my sightings, ornithologists had not yet worked out their migration routes. The seabird texts at that time made no mention of their being in the Lesser Antilles in November.
We were now in the Caribbean Sea which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, occupying roughly the watery space to the south and west of the Greater and Lesser Antilles (together once called the West Indies). We disembarked in Bridgetown, Barbados’ capital, and hired a taxi to take us straight away to Graeme Hall Swamp, the site of the first North American record of Grey Heron. To our dismay it was flooded following a week of torrential rains. We could not explore it. But we were not shut out. We found our first hummingbirds of the trip, strictly New World species, “Dr. Boo-boo,” aka the Green-throated Carib, and the Crested Antillean Hummingbird. A wintering Northern Waterthrush popped into view, bobbing his tail rapidly and walking slowly, confidently picking up bugs from the ground. Red-necked Pigeons and the Barbados race of the Yellow Warbler were nice finds. Cattle Egrets were abundant, and a Green Heron squawked its presence before it flew into view, maybe an Ohio visitor like us. On the way back to the ship a trio of Gray Kingbirds was seen on a wire. Back at the Bridgetown Harbor I noticed there were no gulls. I wondered who the jaegers were harassing in their place.
The next morning we awoke with the island of Martinique in view. We saw more jaegers, six Parasitic and one Pomarine. There were several Royal Terns and a Herring Gull for the jaegers to mug. We hired a car for the morning and traveled up the mountainside. There were lots of hummers especially Purple-throated Caribs in the upper elevations. Carib Grackles were numerous. A good find was a Caribbean Martin at Presque Isle de Caravelle. An out of place Orangequit, a bird from Jamaica, was a real oddity. Perhaps it was an escaped cage bird. A Gray Kingbird was observed calling, “Peepeewee.” Our taxi driver somehow translated this to, “If it’s in your mouth you don’t own it until you swallow it in your stomach,” a bit of colloquial wisdom worth remembering. The Lesser Antillean Pewee, Scaly–breasted Thrasher and Streaked Saltator were all lifers.
The final day of birding was in St. Thomas, American Virgin Islands. Seventy miles from Charlotte Amalie harbor I was seeing more jaegers, five parasitic, one pomarine and a lone Audubon’s Shearwater. We birded the morning and picked up a Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Antillean Mango and a single migrant Greater Yellowlegs. That afternoon we played the role of another cruise ship tourist and shopped for a few souvenirs in the town. I bought a small gold ingot on a chain when gold was for $35 an ounce and sold it years later when gold leaped to $1,700 per ounce. We arrived in Puerto Rico the next morning but had no time to bird because we had to hurriedly get to the airport to return home. One memorable scene was an elderly frail woman in dark glasses, bundled up in a wheelchair being whisked through the huge mass of disembarking people by a member of the ship’s crew. Susan recognized her. She was actually in her forties, had been at the disco every night partying to the wee hours of the morning. There was not a damn thing wrong with her. Her subterfuge worked, and she was out boarding a bus to the airport before anyone else.
Our final tally was: 18 cities, 12 ports, 12 countries; 133 total species, 84 lifers.
WORLD 1,392 ABA 743
Stay tuned for more from Bernie Master’s personal memoir, No Finish Line. To be published one week from today.