Despite the murderous heat of July, Korea turned out to be a pretty cool country for a slight travel. It's pretty small, so you run out of room rather quickly, but there is quite some nature, temples in the mountains and all that east Asian jazz that everyone loves.
Eventually, I had to make my way to Busan though, where my super mega conference took place. Incidentally, a TL user Greg_J turned out to be around at that time and we met with him and his Chinese girlfriend for some fried chicken and chat. The choice of the place wasn't random by Greg - as a BW veteran he educated me that what I am seeing from the window is Gwangali beach, the place of the famous Proleague finals and some ceremonial shenaniganry.
Greg turned out to be quite an interesting walking story - a westerner living in China just has a lot of thing to talk about. Funnily enough, wherever we went, the locals would always approach his obviously asian girlfriend, but Chinese language has nothing to do with Korean, so he was actually the one doing the communication. I am not the socially easiest person and during my travels, I am often pretty disconnected from the local people, but this was another instance where the international network of TL posters helped me break this barrier. What a website is this!
August 2017 brought one of the best located total solar eclipses in a long time (pompously nicknamed "the Great American Eclipse") with the path of totality running from the Pacific northwest all across the whole US. An eclipse is always a great opportunity to convince some friends to travel with us or at least meet us for a while - eventually, we still ended up alone for most of the three weeks, but we were able to meet with two different groups of friends around the time of the eclipse and to spend some time traveling around with our US-dwelling Czech friend (who also had let us her car for the whole trip).
As we drove some 10k kilometers, it is hard to succinctly describe all the wonders we saw, but it is easy to say that Yellowstone was among the very highlights. Yes, the park is insanely touristy and the idea of regular hours-long traffic jams in nature is somewhat repulsive, but the sights are wonderful and what's more, there is unexpectedly efficient wilderness watching right around the endless crowds. We saw coyotes, grizzly bears, wolf, buffalo, elk and numerous other animals, often straight from the main roads.
The autumn saw me once again managing to put together a multi-stop work trip, visiting La Palma (Canary Islands), Pierre Auger in Argentina and European Southern Observatory in Chile on a single trip. The ESO stop was actually an afterthought - originally we have planned to spend a few days just traveling in Argentina with a colleague, but the open/close mechanism on the roof of our telescope in Chile broke, so we decided to go there to fix it instead. Being super pressed for time, it became an exercise in time management, when we literally had the three-day visit to ESO planned hour by hour, but we managed to fix everything we laid our hands on.
The thing we are doing them is exploratory measurements for a future observatory, so all our stuff is just somewhere in a desert, powered by solar energy and trying to be as autonomous as possible. We however also have a data link to the ESO, so "our" place in the desert has Wi-Fi and I sometimes called people in Czech republic over VoIP from there with the convincing premise of "drop what you are doing, I am in Atacama desert and need your help".
We always try to get away during Christmas/New Year as that period allows us to skip work without spending much vacation days. This time, we went to Kuwait - and on a rather silly motivation: Kuwait is the south-eastern corner of the Western Palearctic biogeographical realm. We take part in a competition where we count the number of bird species in this area and visiting the extreme points obviously allows us to grab species not seen anywhere. The birding really turned out nicely - even though most of Kuwait is a very boring flat empty featureless desert, the few oases and the shores of the Persian Gulf really bring out some unusual fauna.
We were quite unsure how would Kuwait really be - and it turned out that it is a civilized, rich, sometimes even posh country. The only place where you can see the remnants of the Gulf War is a small island outside Kuwait City. There a full abandoned town is open to some urban exploration and it's quite fun. I have chosen this picture because I like how it came out and I trust my readers to be able to not mentally connect the entirety of Kuwait to this one picture!
Ever since we were in Thailand/Cambodia in 2014, we were thinking about coming back to SE Asia. Then we learned about Malaysia and their huge Taman Negara national park, where you can actually trek through the jungle around and sleep in wildlife hides and watch animals at salt licks. It turned out to be a little more difficult than that, partly due to red tape, partly due to insane heat and partly due to even insaner diarrhea that I got myself, but it was indeed superb. We have walked out a full day to a campsite in the jungle - sure it was only 10 kms straight from the park headquarters, but for the majority of time it was just us and the wilderness in there. In one of the hides, we saw a tapir and birds were abundant.
The photo is however from Panti, a small less known forest area, one of the world's biggest birding hotspots. We were almost disappointed by it, seeing only some 20 bird species, but that is the life in the rainforest - sometimes all the life is just too elusive. One thing I never expected before going to the tropics is how the rainforest actually doesn't look that different from some older growth in central Europe. Only if you look more closely, you see the impossible variety of plants and other life forms. Also, it's always hot humid and uncomfortable, adding to the intensity of the experience.
Despite all these exotic places I constantly go to, I have a special place in my heart for a sort of mid-European wilderness. One place where one can get a big scoop of that is definitely Lithuania. The beginning of May is still heavily off-season for the tourist waterways, because the weather is quite unpredictable. We were lucky and enjoyed a sunny but not hot weekend with bright spring flowers everywhere, rivers full of clear, fresh and abundant water and, most importantly, almost no other canoeing enthusiasts in sight.
The famous Ula river is, even during the spring thaw, in essence a rather large creek and navigating it requires a bit of dedication because of many fallen trees over the watercourse, but I think we had to get out of the boat only once or twice. The inflatable rubber boat is a big advantage over the solid ones in getting over various obstacles. Lithuanian rivers are something completely unseen in Czech Republic, with large segments without any human regulation, just happily flowing water with a few waves here and there.
We have been to Norway many times, yet the visit to the northeasternmost part of the country around Varanger completely changed my view of the country. Here you stand at the borders with not only Finalnd, but also Russia, the waters in front of you are the actual Arctic Ocean and the whole arctic thing gets very much real. Still, it's mainland Norway with all the easygoing style and top notch amenities. The special thing about Varanger is that within a couple hours of driving, you get access both to various kinds of tundra (from coastal to high mountain) and the northwesternmost boreal taiga forest.
The island of Hornoya, off Vardo, is one of the best known birding places in Europe and rightfully so. A short but dramatic boat ride brings you in the middle of a huge breeding colony of Puffins, Guillemots, Gulls and Cormorants, with birds nesting all around you, including the under the trail, the bench and every stone in the area. If you ever watched a BBC documentary and wondered if you can ever see something like that, Hornoya is definitely an answer. And the flights to Varanger from Warsaw can be found for some 150 Euro return - the real arctic is simply closer than you would expect!
I could be angry about the equipment breaking all the time, but northern Chile is still sufficiently interesting for me to not protest going back once in a while. So when one of our CCD cameras broke, it turned out that sending two people to fix it is actually cheaper than shipping the camera and having the ESO staff install it instead; we could also do a lot of other improvements since we were already there. After the work, I took 5 days off and went to the very north of Chile around Arica. There the mountains greeted me by a somewhat unexpected snowfall - the road up to the high altiplano was even closed for a whole day, but finally I managed to go there and enjoy the kind of landscape I am used to seeing as a desert in a rather different way.
As usual, the altitude hit me pretty strong - the road reaches way over 4000 meters here - and even after 3 days of being around 3500 meters, I got the typical otherwordly experience brought about by the neurological effects of altitude sickness, but what would the Andes even be without that? The Arica province is a very special place even within Chile as the ecosystems here are much closer to those in the neighboring Peru than those of the rest of Chile. The snow has prevented me from a deeper exploration of the altiplano, but the landscapes around Putre were epic enough. The desert valleys several kilometers lower are equally exciting, with steep sandy slopes spanning hundreds of vertical meters surrounding lush tropical oases that seem completely out of place.
12000 kilometers, 9 countries, 373 species of birds and 57 species of mammals in 25 days. The southern Africa trip was the greatest journey I have ever taken and thus trying to briefly summarize it is almost impossible. Africa is a much, much better experience than I have ever imagined - the only thing you need to enjoy it is to shell almost 100 Euro per day for 4x4 rental. Having your own full-blown offroad vehicle is incredibly liberating, especially in Botswana, where you can get almost nowhere without it, as walking is too dangerous (and far) and a normal car wouldn't make it even 10 meters before getting stuck in sand forever. Sure, you could go with organized safaris, but not only are they tragically expensive, but the freedom of doing things your way in the middle of the big cats and antelope herds is something that you just have to live through to understand.
There were two big surprises in Africa for me. The first was how civilized, easy to access and safe Namibia and Botswana are, the second how simple it is to see all those magical animals from a close distance. Lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos ... they mostly ignore any cars around them and you can just watch the events unfold as if you were watching it through a 360-degree camera in virtual reality. Sometimes it all feels like one big zoo, but the animals are 100% wild, the national parks span hundreds of kilometers and a lot of animals can even be found in random areas outside the parks, among villages of tiny huts inhabited by half-naked people with mud in their hair. Africa is simply incredible!
Finally, another holiday season came upon us and this time, we went to Israel. The main target was the mysterious Desert Owl - a species only recently discovered to be different from the Arabian Owl of Oman, inhabiting huge desert wadis descending from the Judean desert towards the Dead Sea. The exact locations of their breeding sites are mostly kept secret, but we were able to accumulate some pretty good intel on the possible places to try. Even so, it took us two nights, 15 hours and 25 kilometers of walking to finally register the presence of an owl - at it was only through hearing its typical haunting voice with no visual contact whatsoever. Ironically, it was also just a few meters off a tarmac road, so all the walking was a bit useless, but visiting the deep valleys in the dead silence of a moonlit night was not an experience to forget.
As we knew Israel quite well from previous visits, the rest of the trip wasn't as much about discovering new places as just looking for specific birds and mammals in various pockets of the country. We indeed managed to locate the majority of target birds as well as multiple jackals and even a jungle cat. The deserts of Israel may still hold the last remaining leopards (which came as a big shock to me), but the population has been dying out in the last decades and they are almost impossible to find. The striped hyena, another animal that I would never expect in a place like Israel, is supposedly easier to see, but we weren't lucky with them either. At least there are still reasons to revisit this peculiar country in the future.
"Being outside" is still the greatest activity I have ever discovered. Sometimes it's hard to find motivation, if it seems like nothing interesting is happening, but even winter in Poland may be exciting, for example when a Hawk Owl is discovered just 2.5 hours drive from Warsaw. As if it knew that I enjoy the fun of the hunt so much, it left us searching for it with some 15+ other people for a whole day, only to show up on top of a solitary tree just as the last light of the sunset was fading - and all the other birders had already left, so we could even enjoy our small victory of perseverance.
So what is next? Recently we discovered that mammals can be at least as much fun as birds - while sometimes frustratingly hard to see, the rewards are just so great! So we have another new angle to re-visit many places we have already "birded to death", this time looking for anything from voles to whales. In more specific terms, we already posses tickets to the US at the end of March and Georgia (not the one in the US!) at the end of April, so the game is still pretty much on.