Monday, September 16, 2013

Bird Watching

The Kiwi

One of the most important things to show American kids in New Zealand, are real live kiwis, just in case they think they are these:

Mmmm, kiwifruit. (Actinia chinesis)

...or something like this:

No, you may not eat a kiwi, they are very rare and highly protected. (It is one of my favorite kiwi pictures I've come across though.)

One of the best places in New Zealand to see a kiwi in action, is the Otorohanga Kiwihouse, which is about a 45 minute drive south of Hamilton.

Kiwi are nocturnal, so they are housed in a dark indoor enclosure, and it is not possible, nor permitted, to take your own photos, as flashes disturb the busy kiwis. So here is an image I found on the web:

We saw a Great Spotted Kiwi, which stands about 45-50cm (18-20") tall. That was the first thing that struck me when I first saw them again as an adult - they're big! And we saw a Brown Kiwi, which are a bit smaller. We also got to see 3 kiwi chicks. The other impressive thing for me are their massive, and powerful looking legs and feet. This picture does not capture that, you'll have to see them yourself sometime. It does have wings, but being flightless, they are barely there and not visible. They were pretty active stomping around tapping their beaks into the ground in search of insect snacks.

So there you have it, our national bird. The nickname for New Zealand citizens.

And here is the kiwi dollar, below (roughly US$.80 right now):

It's about the size of a US quarter.

Other Natives

New Zealand has no native mammals, except for a bat. So no natural predators for the birds that took to roaming the dense forest floors instead of the canopy. There a several flightless bird species, including a very large parrot, the Kakapo (too rare to be in the kiwi house). But there are many native bird species, including ones that fly. Here are some other native birds we saw at the Otorohanga Kiwi House.

Kereru (native pigeon)
New Zealand latest iconic bird is the Pukeko. There are some in the gully behind my parent's house, so I hope to get a picture of one soon, but even though we didn't see them at the Kiwi House, I couldn't leave them off this post:

They have massive powerful legs and claws too. They are about the size of a hen. The common name is swamp hen. They now adorn tourist knick-knacks as much as the kiwi.

Anyway, mission accomplished. The kids saw kiwis up close and in action. May they never say kiwi, when they mean kiwifruit again ;)




Monday, September 2, 2013

The Not So Secret Garden

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to Versailles and the spectacular royal gardens.  Well, that's not exactly true.  I imagine lots of people come to Paris without taking the side trip to Versailles, but it is something everyone should see at some point in their lives.  Having been there several times over the past 7 or 8 years I can tell you that it's not only someplace you need to GO,  but a place you need to go BACK to, as it is just too big to see everything in a day - or even a weekend.

The palace is immense,  and in all of my visits I still haven't been inside,  partly due to the steep entry fee (25 €,  or something like that).  It was actually my intention to finally take the palace tour this weekend; that and get a look at the gardens before they pull out all of the flowers.  I was thwarted on both accounts,  but more on that in a bit.  First here's a photo as I walked up from the train station.
One thing to know if you ever go,  don't ever expect a photo without a bunch of unwanted tourists making a cameo.  Think of them as extras in the movie of your life and it makes it all a little easier to swallow - or maybe not.  The place is immense,  as I said before,  and the grounds are larger than some countries (okay,  maybe only bigger than the Vatican, but that's a country so it counts) but that just illustrates how many people come here every day.  There always seems to be someone in your way.  While I had finally brought myself to pay the exorbitant ticket price,  it was the people that kept me out this time.

As you can see (in the background) that's one long line,  and that's just the line to get in,  first you have to stand in an equally long line to buy your ticket (unless you're smart enough to buy it online - word to the wise, buy online).   I'm not that smart,  so I would have had to stand in both lines. Another time.

Somehow I always forget when the first Sunday of the month is.  That's an important day to remember in France because it is often the free day for the museums.  Either it's a day you want to shoot for in order to make your Paris stay a bit more affordable,  or if you're like me,  it's a day to avoid being caught out with every other tourist and half the locals.  Being that I was already out in Versailles, though, I thought that at least I could see the gardens and maybe find a quiet spot to eat the picnic lunch that I brought with me. 

As you can see,  I did manage to find a few flowers, but I had to look pretty hard and even these were almost gone.  See the cool patterns of the shrubs in the lower photo; well all that dirt around them is usually filled with all kinds of flowers.  This type of garden is usually found throughout the grounds, not just tucked in a corner around the back and off to the side.  The French can find lots of things to NOT be efficient at (like VISA applications), but pulling flowers come Sept., that they do with great expediency.

So, twice rebuffed from my attempts to enjoy Versailles, I buckled down, forced a smile on my face and set off in search for my quiet lunch retreat.  I'm happy to say that I did find it, and in my search I saw some things and parts of the gardens that I hadn't seen before.  You're probably already sick of reading this (it's not like I'm painting a great picture of Versailles at this point), so I'll try to keep my descriptions brief, but get ready for a bunch of photos (click on the pics to get a larger view and see more of the details.)
This first one gives you a bit of a sense of the size of the gardens (yeah that "lake" in the background is actually part of it and you can rent little paddle boats and canoes to go out on it).
This is the Orangerie (those are orange trees) and shows how well kept and intricate the gardens can be (even if all the flowers are gone).  BTW, the little pond on the left and the lake on the right are different from the lake in the previous photo ... I told you the place was big.
This is the back of the palace (just a small piece of it) and one of hundreds(?) of sculptures and statues that adorn the grounds.  This one isn't particularly special, just gives an idea of what surrounds you in abundance as you wander the stone paths.
Here's another view looking out from the back of the palace.  The unique thing here is the "fountain" in the foreground.  Normally this is one of the more ornate fountains on the grounds (and the first one you see upon entering), but is currently under renovation ... something you don't normally get to see.  I would've liked to take a picture of one of the other fountains for a comparison, but they had them all turned off, so they aren't that exciting without the spouting water.
Here's a place that I had never stumbled upon during previous visits (I did say the place is huge, right?) but was happy to discover on this trip.  I wished they would've had the water running as there are several "waterfalls" that supposedly cascade over different parts of this "fountain."
Here's a closer view of the Bains d'Apollo (or was it Athenes - I don't remember, but it was definitely a Greek god or goddess starting with an 'A'), or baths of Apollo.  You can see the detail of the pillars tucked behind the sculptures back in the cave.  I really liked this spot.  It would've been a good spot for lunch, as I was actually alone here (amazingly enough), but I wasn't ready so I continued to meander.
This is back up by the palace where they have seasonal art displays.  There were several of these anatomy sculptures emerging from huge marble blocks (that block is probably 2.5 - 3m tall).  I'm not much of an art aficionado but I do appreciate sculptures.  This one was showing blood vessels and maybe a chamber of the heart, using the natural veins of the marble for the symbolic veins and arteries.

The next 3 photos are all from a "tree artist".  There was a lot of his work on display (Perone, I think his name was).  I didn't really get it, to be honest, but thought I should take a few photos, so here they are.  The floating tree (first photo) and the upside down tree (third photo) were the ones that I liked the best (I use the term "like" loosely here).  Almost all of his other stuff was giant rocks perched in trees (see second photo).  Truthfully, I'd be really impressed with those (some of the rocks were huge - maybe 1m across) if the "artist" had put them up there himself - by hand.  I'm betting he had the assistance of heavy machinery, so I'm much less enthralled.  BTW, this is where I finally got to eat my baguette, nectarine and paprika flavored chips (what's up with paprika on chips ... seems to be a french favorite).

Well, that was my day in Versailles.  Not what I expected, but not a complete waste either.  Glad I stuck around to get something out of the day.  

If you ever get the chance to come here and make the trek to Versailles here are some tips that you might find helpful:
  • Buy tickets online if you want to go to the palace, and arrive early if you want to get in.
  • Download the guided tour app for Android or iOS so you can avoid needing to spend money on the audio guides or personal guides the museum offers.
  • Stop at a boulangerie (bakery) and pick up some sandwiches, or make your own at home (like me).  Food is not that great in and around the palace, and certainly isn't cheap.
  • Make sure you catch the right train (RER line C) to get to Versailles.  There are a few with the Versailles name, but only one route that says "Chateau", which is the one that you want.  They run every 20 min. or so, so you can go at anytime of day and get back to Paris at any time too.
  • Get off the beaten path for your picnic, that means avoid the water features and venture into the arboreal labyrinths.  You can find a quiet secluded place to eat those sandwiches you made/bought, but you might need to do a bit of walking and take the opportunity when it presents itself.
  • If you only have 1 day to see Versailles, skip the main grounds and palace and head over to the Domaine de Marie Antoinette.  It has everything the bigger place has plus a cool medieval hamlet (she was nuts) and you can see the whole thing in a day.
  • Don't panic about bathrooms, but do keep your eye out for them.  There are plenty, but they aren't always that well marked if you're not used to looking for the smallish "toilette" signs that the French like to use.
  • If you want to see the gardens in their full glory (i.e., full of flowers and with the fountains running), which I do recommend, then go in July or Aug.  Even Sept. 1st is too late, as I have just found out.
That's about it for today (yesterday, actually).  Looking back over what I posted I don't want to leave it with those pictures of "tree art."  This photo's not much better, but it is of more importance to me ... it is the view from my apartment.  If you look closely you can see the top of the Eiffel tower (near the center).