Monday, March 31, 2008

Doodling Around Flores

Lake PetenItza is a prominent feature of the Peten region of Guatemala. It's gorgeous and blue, with a calcareous bed that shines white where it's shallow. On Bill's birthday, we had lunch at a nice lakeside restaurant/hotel, and he celebrated with a swim in the lake. One of the things I love about him is that he lives life in a large way. That's him on the right, and Liz Gordon, who lives similarly, on the left. I would be the one on dry land, taking a picture of people who live large.At this point, I was feeling a bit odd, and the thought of crossing the lake in the covered dugouts didn't appeal to me; I'd been losing a battle with what I took to be carsickness all morning. So I opted to go back around the lake in the bus rather than cross it with the rest of the (more intrepid) group. If I can ride in the front, I'm fine. Every time I get in the back of a bus, trouble ensues. The bus driver agreed to drop me off in Flores, where I could wait for them to land in their tippy ol' pirogues.

It's a good thing I didn't know I'd be giving up awesome looks at Bill's birthday bat falcon by taking the bus.

Fact is, when I'm alone with my camera anywhere, I'm bound to have fun, and being in Guatemala just made it more special. I shot typical tourist pictures out of the bus windshield. I always get a chuckle out of the word "ferreteria;" it conjures up some kind of crazy weasel factory in my mind. It means "Ironworks," in fact, and there are ferreterias in every little town, because everybody has wrought iron guards over windows and doors to prevent theft, all over Latin America. We just don't get how lucky we are in the U.S., not to have to put grilles over all our windows and doors, not to even think about that.

A nice view of PetenItza, bougainvilleas in the foreground. Hey, I have those blooming in my greenhouse, with SNOW pelting on the roof, right here in Ohio! Lucky me!
When I think of Guatemala, I think of color, color, color. That's why it's such an anodyne to this endless stinkin' winter of snow, rain, sleet and snain. We arrived in Flores, and I soaked up some color.
Working on the theme of green and yellow, this tropical kingbird set off a wild balustrade. Try painting your house those colors in Shelter Island, New York. But it works beautifully with the heat and light down in Guatemala.
More turquoise. I walked down steamy-hot alleys, clicking all the way. Just to be in hot sun...such a foreign feeling. To feel my vitamin D cycle re-activate.
Finally, I climbed to the highest point in Flores, which is a little town on an island. I looked out over the harbor, at a cluster of dwellings, and marveled at how much birds add to a scene.
A white rock pigeon looked out over flapping sheets and towels. Roosters crowed, and I wondered how anybody sleeps in Guatemala. I guess after awhile you don't hear 'em.
A great-tailed grackle preened and displayed, cosseted by powerlines. Common as dirt, they are absolutely gorgeous birds, loud and crackly, squeaky and iridescent.
I had seen a rufous-tailed hummingbird flitting around a flowering vine at the overlook where I sat, the subject of curious conversation from a bunch of schoolboys in uniform on the plaza. Yes, I'm large and pale, and I have all kinds of optics dangling off me, and I stick out like a sore thumb, a gringa alone in a white-hot plaza, but there is a lovely hummingbird here, and I mean to stay and wait until I get a picture of it.
There was something dangling from its tail, and I realized upon zooming in that it was nesting material. So this is a female rufous-tailed hummingbird, filling her crop in a break in incubation or nest building. Nice to know. I see much the same thing when female rubythroats come to the feeder in early spring; many of them have nesting material stuck to their feet, and they leave puffs of plant down from their bills on the feeder ports. That's when I know they're nestbuilding. And to think it'll be happening here in grotty, gray old Ohio in about three almost defies belief. Well, there were three tree swallows jingling over the meadow this morning, which lifted my heart immeasurably. But it's got a long way to go to be springy. And my friend Cindy is buried in snow again in New Hampshire. I can hear all of New England crying, "UNCLE!!"

I waited and waited for the hummingbird to return, keeping my camera lifted and focused on the best bunch of flowers, with the blue harbor as a backdrop. And finally she came in and I was ready and got The Shot, probably my best picture of the trip.
Thank you, Patience. Thank you, Photography Gods. Thank you, Flores, and thank you, Mrs. Hummingbird.

Later that evening, we threw an impromptu birthday party (complete with cake! Thank you, Ana Cristina Prem!!) for Bill. His friends stood up and offered testimonials. I had envisioned it as sort of a roast, but they all said really sweet things instead. Bawww! He blew out the candles, and everyone sang and cheered, for he is a jolly good fellow, and best of all he was in Guatemala at last. I can't tell you how much more complete it all was with Bill's spirit of fellowship and fun there.
photo by Lisa White.

Why, is that a Gallo in the foreground? I believe it is. Denise is smiling. Steve Howell, co-author with Sophie Webb of Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, is looking over Bill's left shoulder, peerless Guatemalan bird guide Hugo Haroldo Enriquez Toledo over his right--naughty angel and good!

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Sunday, March 30, 2008


On Birdwatching Encounters in Guatemala, we see a lot of different places. Sometimes the travel time to get there unavoidably eats up the time we'd LOVE to be spending in birdwatching. Such was the case at Parque Nacional de Ixpanpajul, a historic Mayan site that boasts tramways and suspension bridges from which one can watch birds and other jungle life. We got there just at nightfall, and hurried down a shadowy trail to see what we could see before dinner. Warning: my photos are about as good as you'd expect for pictures taken, handheld, at 1600 ISO at nightfall. They suhhhhhk.

Right before the light died I got this picture of begonias growing along the trail, huge begonias, unknown and deathly exciting to a houseplant maven.A little oncidium orchid, fallen from high above, bloomed bravely on the forest floor.

Our guide was amazing. Not a word of English, but he saw every pajarito there was to see, way before we did, and he could whistle through a rolled tongue just like a tinamou or a laughing falcon. I was humbled by his presence, honored to be in his company. He was a woodsman, a rare one. One such pajarito was a red-capped manakin, and I was privileged to be standing beside Mike Bergin (of 10,000 Birds reknown) as he ticked that one off on his life list. If you ever get a chance to go birding with Mike, grab it! Bill and I are already trying to figure out how to enjoy his witty, warm and bright company again soon. He's a live one.Pity this manakin does not know how famous he is, being Mike Bergin's First Manakin and all. Manakins seem like the kind of birds that would enjoy being notorious.

The unidentified fluffy mass on the tree in this pathetic picture proved to be the nest of a lesser swallow-tailed swift, constructed of plant down and swift saliva. It had a tubular entrance pointing straight down. This is what's nice about having people like Steve Howell, author of Birds of Mexico, on one's trip! We'd never have known what it was otherwise. He's also a very fun guy. I wish I had had a chance to go birding with him, but life intervened.
An ivory-billed woodcreeper searched for insects. I love the fine pearls running over his shoulder and mantle.
The best was yet to come. Our guide hurried to get us to an archaeological site before it was completely dark. Scrambling up slick stone stairs, we were felled by the vision of a huge eye and nose emerging from jungle vegetation. Wow, wow, wow.
Tikal is cool, but it has nothing to compare to this for sheer grab-you-by-the-psyche impact.
photo by Jim McCormac

A lot went on in these jungles that we know almost nothing about. I'm currently reading 1491
by Charles C. Mann. It's about what native societies might have been up to before Columbus "discovered America." The author ranges from Massachusetts all the way to Guatemala and Bolivia, examining evidence that the "New World" was much older, better developed and much more densely populated than we have heretofore believed. It's fascinating, but dense, and I find my eyes swimming and head nodding each night as I try to wrap my mind around the concept.

Just looking into the Maya guide's eyes, getting a nonverbal dose of the volumes he knew about birds, was a lesson in humility. We prance around with our books and optics, but he knows. I'm sorry not to have a picture of him, but sometimes I feel awkward acting touristy around someone so learned. His ancestors built that face, now smothered in jungle.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mateless in Guatemala

You may recall from reading Bill of the Birds' blog that I had to leave for Guatemala without my mate, thanks to his being felled by illness and challenged by a missing passport. I left frigid Columbus in the dark (having driven up alone in a blizzard the night before), and landed in Houston at about 9 AM. Chewing sadly on my Chinese food breakfast (hey, I'd been up since 4 AM),I saw this little red heart-shaped balloon, a Valentine's waif, floating sadly out on the Texas tarmac. It rose and fell just like my heart, knowing I was going to Guatemala, but that my love couldn't come along.

I made the flight, alone. Arrived in Guatemala City in early afternoon.

On the ride from the Guatemala City airport, where I met up with our beloved Houghton Mifflin editor Lisa White, we spotted a sign we knew Bill would have dugg. I wonder if the same teacher gives all three courses?Note: Lotus position, belly dance, breakdance--dude supporting himself in a spin on one hand. Loooove it.

Lisa, Jeff Gordon and Liz Gordon and I all went to Los Tarrales for three days before reconvening in Guatemala City to meet up with the rest of the Birdwatching Encounter group. You've just had the last of the Los Tarrales posts. In retrospect, my favorite part of the trip: wandering about Los Tarrales, lost, but found in its beauty and vitality.

Tarrales interlude concluded, we three made our way back to Guatemala City with a police escort, but not before stopping at an ice cream stand Jeff knew about. Our escorts didn't want to be photographed with ice cream cones (very unpolicemanlike), but Liz wheedled them into showing us their treats.Having spent six months in Amazonian Brazil as a college student, I became quite used to seeing policemen going around with dangerous-looking guns. It goes with the territory in Central America.

It was a neat ride, with lots of unusual landscapes. This was a patchwork quilt, thrown over once-forested hills.
A tree marriage. Everything I saw reminded me of Bill, and how much I missed being with him. It just wasn't fair. He'd made the excursion possible for many of the trip participants, not the least being me, and he couldn't come along.Link

Around sunset, we arrived in Guatemala City. We arrived at Vista Real Hotel, very snazzy, very cosmopolitan, perched on a hilltop outside the city. Jim McCormac, our blogging biologist friend from Ohio, took me by the arm. "Julie! There's a ferruginous pygmy-owl in the hotel courtyard!" he exclaimed. "You've got to see it!" Addled by the trip, I believed him, and he steered me right through a small planted courtyard, up some stairs to the hotel bar. Why would a pygmy owl be in a hotel bar? Duhhh... Rounding a corner, Jim steered me right into Bill, sitting in a chair looking very, very excited. He had made it after all! I fell into his arms and cried for a long time. He wouldn't miss the whole trip, after all. You don't want to know what it took (and continues to take) to cancel and then reinstate an international flight with three domestic connections. Suffice it to say that he is paying dearly in rushed passport fees and wrangling with airlines about double-charged tickets for his desire to surprise me at a hotel in Guatemala City, when he wasn't supposed to be there at all.

The next morning, after the first in a series of very short nights, we got up in the wee hours to fly to Peten, the lowland humid forest part of Guatemala. We enjoyed breakfast on Lake PetenItza, with crippling views of purple gallinules. Here's an immature gallinule:Lookit them toes!! Oh, there's water lettuce--I grow that back home in my water garden. The super long toes help the gallinule balance on floating vegetation, acting as snowshoes.

A glorious adult purple gallinule.
Water gardeners will recognize the noxious African pest, water hyacinth, growing behind the gallinule. Blaa! Those things are everywhere. Here's my favorite gallinule shot, that moment when he peered into my camera lens as I hung over the balcony above him, and decided to beat it. It's not every day you get to shoot a purple gallinule from directly overhead. Can you feel the palpable intelligence in his eyes? I don't like you, woman with camera.
There were some indescribably gorgeous 4" long fish breeding in the shallow water beneath us. I wondered if they might be sailfin mollies, while Jeff Gordon opined that they might be some kind of killifish. This is a male in full display. WOW! Help! Anyone recognize it?The fish were busy as all get out, each looking for a mate, but I was so happy. Mine had flown down to be with me. More adventures to follow.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tarrales Farewell

One of my favorite images from Los Tarrales: a toddler-sized chicken with a chicken-sized toddler.

Los Tarrales is a place where an ecoutorist can feel at home, as if she is contributing something of value to a vital, functioning establishment which gracefully balances tourism with sustainable agriculture. A family goes to work in the morning, to cut flowers or hack away weeds with their machetes. They pass me, going out to watch birds. I remind myself that watching birds is part of my work. The baby has tiny diamond earrings. Eddie, whose older brother Josue showed us many elusive birds, arranges some freshly cut heliconias. It was hard to sneak up on Eddie; he's just as sharp as Josue.Hearing my camera, he gives me a shy smile. I look at the riches in the joint compound bucket, and know that a hotel in Boston or New York would willingly pay hundreds of dollars for such a bouquet of heliconias and gingers, if one could be had.

Just down the road, a white-tailed deer steps lightly across the path.
A Maya woman packs bananas for shipment, overlooking the playing fields that serve as a gathering place for Tarrales' residents. Cinnamon hummingbirds hover around a luminscent vine, its color shivering in the shadows. Petrea volubilis, Queen's Wreath (Verbenaceae). The true flowers are darker blue; the calyxes are persistent, and extend the apparent bloom time by hanging on. Thanks to Liz Gordon for the ID!

A passionflower glows like a hot coal as it clambers over a fence.
The rooster's comb is almost as bright.
He flaps, to show me that he is king of the rubbish dump.
Volcan Atitlan hovers over it all. I look at its slopes, knowing that horned guans clamber in the highest reaches of the forest. Having given its rich ash to the farm fields of Los Tarrales, it is silent, for now
while an unquiet neighbor to the east lets off a belch of smoke to start the day.These are some of my favorite images from an enchanted three days at Los Tarrales in Guatemala. Please, consider going there, too, for an ecotourism experience that excites, then calms the soul.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Beauty at Every Turn

Dull name, beautiful birdlet: the slate-throated redstart. These little tropical warblers forage for flying insects along trails, perching predictably on fallen logs as they sally out to catch their prey. They are flashy as all get-out and pretty easy to photograph, being confiding and always ready with a fabulous pose.As if deep slate-blue upperparts weren't enough, they have this ruddy crown, like our ovenbird. I find their color combinations captivating. Fierce, as Christian from Project Runway might say. This bird is workin' that little red Mohawk.
I found the slate-throated redstart on the way up to find a roosting black-and-white owl in an enormous strangler fig at the top of a long hill above Los Tarrales. The black-and-white owl is a prize of tropical birding, rarish and hard to see, unless there's a stakeout like this one. I'd never have known to look for him unless our guide, Josue, had pointed him out. We'd made a long climb and Josue asked if we were game to climb another 5 km to see the owl. Without hesitation, Liz, Jeff, Lisa and I said, "Sure!" Josue smiled and led us another 100 feet to the shade of the strangler fig. We looked up and there it was, the beautiful strange owl we'd been hoping to see. Understand that this is a horrible photo, because it was pitch-dark in the canopy of the fig (as an owl would have it), and I had to burn everything out to get any detail at all. This is a sharp owl, barred black and white with burning red eyes and corn-yellow bill and feet. I'll never forget watching a family of them catching moths under a light at Las Ventanas de Osa in southwestern Costa Rica. What a privilege to have seen a handful of black-and-white owls.

Just beyond the owl tree, an endemic blue-tailed hummingbird taunted me by sitting close and still in terrible light. It seems ever to be thus with iridescent hummingbirds in the tropics. The light is usually tough, and they're usually between you and the sun. You'll remember the photo in my last post--blurry with decent color. Well, this one is sharp, with no color. Take my word--he's bronze, green, and violet-blue, and very beautiful, except here. Hummingbirds are fan dancers; they only give you a peek and then cover it up again.
Water poured from a weir. Rushing water, in canals and chutes, is everywhere at Los Tarrales, watering the plantations of flowers and bananas. It was such a balm to my soul to hear running water, having been frozen into our iceblock in Ohio for so many months.
As I came down from fairyland, I was reminded that everyone else was working around Los Tarrales. This elderly man was bent almost double under probably 100 pounds of firewood. Still, he had a bright smile and a soft "Buenos!" for me.
Beauty peeks out of every corner here. A nameless vine, clambering over a chain-link fence near the coffee processing plant. Needless to say, the cinnamon hummingbirds were working it.I'll leave you with a tree that completely blew me away. This is a rainbow eucalyptus. Its trunk was smooth and cool and damp, striped with the most perfect Martha Stewart colors. Andy Burge's grandfather planted several of them decades ago, and only two remain, because as Andy put it, "Lightning likes those eucalypts."The thought of having a yard full, an allee, perhaps, of rainbow eucalyptus trees is almost enough to make me move to Guatemala. I could lose myself in these colors. As I moved around the tree, moaning in delight, I saw that I was not the first to admire it.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

In the Shade Coffee Plantation

Coffee in bloom. Do you ever think of the flower that precedes the bean, with its light, citrusy fragrance?

That day with the long-tailed manakins at Tarrales was magic. As I sat and watched for the manakins, a tropical pewee came down and sat quietly not far from my right shoulder.
Waiting for manakins, I saw everything else--a Swainson's thrush, eating the same lauraceous fruit that the manakins were enjoying. A Baltimore oriole, perched on an inga tree above the shade coffee plantation where the manakins were foraging. It was a flash back to my painting of the same subject for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Full circle! Trying to get a photograph of the oriole reminded me why there will always be a place for artists who can paint an idealized scene. Would you know that the oriole in my photo was inhabiting a shade coffee plantation? The fact is, all this bird activity was taking place within an active agricultural field of shade-grown coffee. Shade growing leaves the overstory largely intact, if thinned, and replaces the understory with coffee shrubs. It's not virgin forest by any means, but it's highly valuable habitat for Neotropical migrants and tropical resident birds.
The entire time I sat quietly watching for manakins, a gray hawk screamed at me from across a valley.
It was clear to me that this vociferous bird had a nest nearby, because its mate would periodically come to join it and add its protests.
Gray hawks (Buteo nitidus) sound a lot like gulls, or red-shouldered hawks. This species is a rare prize near Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border, but they're very common around Tarrales.
Looking across the valley, I could see the most gorgeous golden trees in full bloom. Could anything send a clearer message to a honeycreeper to come sample some nectar?
Walking down from the manakin feeding area at last, I found a tree that had fallen across the path. The richness of canopy life hit me when I realized that the trunk was covered with creeping orchids. Oh, oh, oh. Of course, they were spicily fragrant, their tiny pink flowers no larger than my thumbnail. Charmed, I'm sure. Twitching, in fact.
Like the vast majority of things I found in Guatemala, I had no idea what they were. I knew they were orchids, and that was about it. Sigh. Another thing to figure out. Being mostly on the tree's underbelly, I hoped they would get enough moisture to survive, or perhaps be transferred to a more suitable spot before the tree rotted away. One could collect many such doomed plants if one were so inclined. Every tree that comes down holds treasures untold from the upper reaches of the forest. I could go pretty wild, having a garden in Guatemala.

As I rounded a turn in the dark trail, I spotted my life white-eared ground-sparrow (Melozone leucotis). What a bird! Buried in shadow, there was no way I could get a photograph of it. I stood, letting the feeling wash over me, of seeing something I'd never seen before. I looked down at the ground--I usually stare at the ground when I'm not looking for a bird--and there in the leaf litter lay the molted tail feather of a blue-crowned motmot. Well, would you look at that.
Magic, that's all it was, the whole day, and as tough as the trip turned out to be, I was glad I'd come here. I dream of spending a week or so just doodling around Los Tarrales, seeing what it has to show me.

Department of Shameless Promotion

Note to New Yorkers: I'll be speaking at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca on Monday evening, April 7--and opening the Letters from Eden art show at the same time. The show of 60-plus watercolors and drawings will hang at the Lab until July 7. Having never seen the new building, I'm really excited to be loaning some art to decorate it for three months! Many thanks to Jerry Regan and the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art for helping me put the show together, creating the fabulous labels, curating and transporting the show, and kicking off its national tour! For more details, see the Lab of Ornithology's web site.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ivory-billed Birds

Thanks to the lush plantings, small clearings, hummingbird and fruit feeders that are carefully maintained, birds are EVERYWHERE at Los Tarrales. You can idle away hours in the garden, watching tanagers, orioles, thrushes, honeycreepers and even great fruit bats feeding at the bananas and grapefruit that are put out each morning for their enjoyment. It makes you want to run home and put oranges, grapefruit and bananas out for orioles. Except that they're still in Guatemala. But it is cool to think that our Baltimore orioles will recognize tropical fruits, because they might have encountered them on the wintering grounds. Western tanagers are everywhere. Here's a nice male, coming into spring plumage; i.e. getting an orange head:
Los Tarrales has some special birds, endemics that are found only in a limited area. The blue-tailed hummingbird is one. This is a lousy picture, but you can tell what it is, and get a hint of its beauty in better light. One of my favorite shots from Los Tarrales is this pair of male rose-breasted grosbeaks in a flowering tree. It's hard to find them, but they look so fine in that setting! (You have to know how frustrating it is for a Science Chimp to have to describe any plant as "a flowering tree.") Agghhh. Eee. Eee. They'll be at our feeders before you know it. I noticed that most of the male rose-breasts in Guatemala had very pale pink cravats. Perhaps some white feather edges have to wear off before they will be in full spring finery.

Woodcreepers are part of a large Neotropical family called the Dendrocolaptidae.  Most are variations on a theme of burnt sienna. Many have spine-tipped tails, like woodpeckers, but they're not generally as robustly built as woodpeckers, since they tend to probe and glean rather than hammer for their food. They're tame and easy to spot as they work the bark, mosses and epiphytes on forest tree trunks. One of the commonest is the ivory-billed woodcreeper, a nice hearty bird with a spine-tingling name. Long, flexible necks and a slightly decurved bill allow this IBWC to probe into forgotten crevices, looking for insect and invertebrate prey. It's always surprising to see the positions a bird can get into when it's foraging. If you're used to our robust woodpeckers, woodcreepers look kind of willowy and gracile in comparison, with fine legs, toes and bills, and soft fluffy plumage.
And speaking of ivory-bills, here is the tropical Campephilus that always raises the hair on the back of my neck with its double-raps and yapping calls--the pale-billed woodpecker. Ba-DOCK! Yip yip yip yip! I guess "Ivory-billed woodpecker" was already taken. I shot photo after photo as it hitched up the tree, its massive bill and flaming crest backlit by morning sun. Would that our Campephilus were so cooperative, but who can blame it for shunning the company of man?

I got an e-mailed response from Dr. Stephanie Doucet, Asst. Professor of Biology at the University of Windsor, Ontario, who answered from her field station in Costa Rica. I asked her about tail molt in long-tailed manakins. I was kind of embarrassed to have to ask her, because the manakin painting I showed you was on the cover of the issue of The Auk (the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union) that featured her awesome article about...molt in long-tailed manakins. As the cover artist, I was provided a copy, and I can't find it; it's probably swallowed in the bowels of my big wooden flatfile. Duh. She sent me a copy of her article, which is absolutely fascinating; she mist-netted and color-banded  1,315 long-tailed manakins to figure out what was going on with their plumage development. It takes young males FIVE YEARS to come into definitive adult plumage! And she figured out how to tell exactly how old a manakin was, up to age five, by its plumage. Obviously, manakins can tell, too, and the social implications of wearing your age like a badge are multitude. It all plays into that odd lek-based mating system, where social rank and age determine whether a bird can pass on its genes. Anyway, Stephanie was kind enough to write to say:

In answer to your question, they re-grow their central rectrices (tail feathers) each year,
and as they go from juvenal plumage to definitive adult plumage, their tails get longer every year.

So Katdoc, you were right--the older males just shed their feathers, then grow a new longer tail every year, like an older buck growing a new set of big antlers each summer. Think about that--I'm thrilled to see five or six manakins, and Dr. Doucet has banded over a thousand of them, keeping records on each one. There's interesting, and then there's amazing.

Hope you had a wonderful Easter. We did. Church, communion for 400? zzzzzz, two egg hunts, lamb gravy.

Liam: I LOVE that lamb gravy! Can I put it on my asparagus?
Me: Sure. Knock yourself out.
Liam: Suddenly, it doesn't look so appetizing.

Last night he said his bed didn't look so sleepitizing to him. That's my boy.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chasing the Long-tailed Manakin

As a manakin fan from way back, one of the tremendous attractions of Los Tarrales is its population of long-tailed manakins, Chiroxiphia linearis. These odd, impossibly cute little birds are part of a family distinguished by outrageous breeding displays (remember the moonwalking red-capped manakin?)
Here are a couple of photos from Tikal, last year, of red-capped manakins dancing. Gotta love those yellow leggings!

Well, long-tailed manakins have a similarly captivating dance, in which two males cartwheel over each other's backs, boinging up into the air like popcorn, making a kind of wheel of blue, black and red on a horizontal branch deep in the forest. You can watch a video of it here.
This is my painting of the dance.

Since college, when I spent a great amount of time writing papers that compared the courtship displays of manakins (without ever seeing one!), I've dreamt of spending quality time with manakins. I'd had lousy looks at long-tailed manakins in Costa Rica, and some pretty satisfying experiences watching red-capped manakins both there and in Guatemala. So when Jeff, Liz and Lisa announced their plan to climb Volcan Atitlan to try to see horned guan (did that two years ago, didn't want to do it again), I decided to spend a day with long-tailed manakins. I have to say it was my favorite day in Guatemala, because I like to be alone with birds, and like most artists I crave unstructured time, the chance to soak up a habitat, to hear my own thoughts, to get some feel for what it's like to be a manakin. Dang, I'm glad I have climbed to see the guan though. That is a bird what am a bird.

Manakins are very long-lived birds, and males take at least three years to come into full breeding plumage. Think about it--how many other small passerines stay in immature plumage that long? We're used to such intervals with raptors and gulls, but they're very unusual in tiny birds. This hints at their interesting social system. The plumage of manakins holds many hints to their age, sex and social status. The basic female plumage is an odd, deep bronzy olive. She has elongated central tail feathers, but no red on the head. This is the only female long-tailed manakin I saw all day. The plumage of young males is similar, except that they show longer central tail feathers and varying amounts of black and red on the head, eventually sporting blue on the back.
Even once male manakins attain full breeding plumage, the longer they live, the longer their tail feathers grow. So there is a continuum of social signals encoded in the birds' plumage.An adult male long-tailed manakin in full breeding plumage. Two words: Just Adorable. Portly, colorful, lively, noisy; just what the doctor ordered for a mind and spirit dulled by the most endless of winters.
Part of the key to why manakins behave as they do lies in what they eat. They are frugivorous, taking mostly fruit with some insects. They leap and hover, plucking small fruits (they favor lauraceous, or fig, fruits) and insects from branches and leaves. A wide, flat bill and large gape enable them to swallow some pretty outsized fruits. I Can Has Figburger.
Because their fruit food tends to be abundant and patchily distributed, manakins benefit by hanging out together in loose little flocks. They can all descend on a tree they know to be fruiting without worrying about competing with each other for food. When breeding time comes, long-tailed manakins display together (see the video link, above) in a lek formation, which means that several males get together, partner up, and display within sight or earshot of each other. Female manakins are free to visit the lek and choose which male to mate with based on the splendor of his display. When males display together, this raises all sorts of interesting questions. Which of the partners gets to mate? The older one? The one who dances most vigorously? And where do immature males fit into the picture? It's all up to the females. Ladies' choice. No monogamy, no pairing up; just a quick visit to check out the hombres, pick the best one, mate, and then here comes Ms. Manakin with a baby carriage.Wearing his sky-blue cape, a manakin shows off his bifurcated crest. Check out the length of his tail! He may well be dominant to a shorter-tailed bird, and more likely to pass his genes along.

Because there are so many egg predators in tropical forests, the female manakin lays only two eggs a year, in a shallow cup suspended by its rim from a horizontal fork of a limb at about eye level in the understory. She builds the nest, incubates the eggs and raises the young all by herself. A gaudy male would be no help in such a predator-rich setting. It may take a female her entire 20-year-plus lifespan to replace herself; it may take a young male manakin years of understudy at the lek to attain his right to mate. This is part of what's so fascinating about tropical birds; they often operate on entirely different time frames and feeding regimes, with much higher site fidelity, than our more fecund, ephemeral, migratory temperate birds.All these questions and more swirled about my head as I spent the day watching and photographing long-tailed manakins. As I prepared to leave, the nasal nyaaaah! and hauntingly rich whistle--t0-LE-do! of displaying long-tailed manakins chimed from a brushy hillside above me. It was impossible to see more than a glimpse of the dancing birds, but knowing they were dancing, finally hearing the song I'd read about for years, filled me with joy. The air was warm, bird song rang out all around me, a few blackflies buzzed, and I stayed and listened and smiled, immersed in the peace of being among wild things.

Have a lovely Easter. I've been in town all afternoon, being a bunny.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Caterpillars, North and South

Brown pupa, caterpillar, and adult moth of the tobacco hornworm.
Photograph from Dr. Richard Vogt's page:

Faithful readers may remember my dear friend Martha Weiss, who studies caterpillar learning at Georgetown University. Well, while I was in Nebraska on March 10, an interview with Martha aired on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Elegant experiments in Martha's lab at Georgetown U. have shown that caterpillars of the tobacco hornworm, when exposed to a chemical odor at the same time they are given a mild electric shock, learn to avoid the odor. That's not that surprising; a measure of intelligence is needed for self-preservation whether you're a worm or a wapiti. I don't know if you've been surprised by a huge sea-green tobacco hornworm while picking tomatoes, had it rear up and click menacingly at you. Yikes. I have. Those things give me the ooks. So many of them wind up being parasitized by wasps, and dying badly with white cocoons sprouting all over their bodies, that I never remove them from my tomato plants any more. They can have the darn tomato vines. We need more hornworms around here.

OK. Back to Martha's work, educating hornworms. Here's the cool part: After metamorphosis, the adult tobacco hornworm moths that were exposed to aversive conditioning as fifth-instar caterpillars remembered the odor associated with shocks, and also avoided it. Metamorphosis, in which a caterpillar spins itself into a silken cocoon, makes a hard pupal shell within that cocoon, and essentially turns to goo inside the pupal shell before reorganizing as a moth, is a complete meltdown of the caterpillar's organs. How in the world would a memory survive the meltdown and reorganization of the caterpillar's brain? But it does, it does, and Martha and her colleagues are asking more questions about the process and doubtless designing more experiments. If you'd like to hear Martha talking about it, with her delightfully puckish sense of humor, listen here.Martha with a luna moth pancake. With that one creation, she forever changed the face and execution of pancake breakfasts on Indigo Hill.

So I was thinking about Martha and her studies of caterpillar intelligence as I walked down the trails at Los Tarrales. I spied a brown leaf that didn't look quite natural, resting as it did on a green leaf, and suspected that there might be a caterpillar beneath. There was something about the way it was resting on the green leaf, and the little porthole, that made me want to lift it up. Sure enough, the leaf was pasted down with silk, and underneath was a green caterpillar, a pretty mad one, in fact. I figure he uses the porthole to enter and exit his safe little vault. Obviously he's not much for housekeeping; he was pooping inside the house. Tsk. I replaced the structure as best I could, hoping he could stick it back down before a bird caught on to the ruse.
I encountered a gorgeous butterfly, black with broad electric-blue bars on fore and hind wing. I wasn't able to find a Latin name for it, but suspect it is related to the morphos. In true morpho fashion, it was imbibing phosphates and Lord knows what else from a very stinky dog dropping.
It was so absorbed in its imbibing that it allowed me to pick it up by gently pinching its forewing edge. I got a peek at the electric blue stripes on the dorsal surfaces before releasing it. Butterflies do this because they need the chemicals they get from rotting fruit, mud, droppings, urine, and even detergent (they'll imbibe from soapy clothes) to make the pheromones they need to communicate with the opposite sex.

Here's another common butterfly at Los Tarrales: the cracker, so named for the snapping sound it makes when it takes off. It's got the lichen look down.
There is so much to see at Los Tarrales that it's like a wonderland for a naturalist. Added to the native fauna is the always-surprising array of ornamentals planted here and there. This is one branch of a variegated Indian rubber tree that must have been 50 feet tall.
The pink leaves glowed like an exotic flower in the dark understory.

Everywhere you look, there are flowers, like these gingers. Yes, the ginger root we put in stir-fry is related to this lovely plant. Makes you want to take one out of the fridge door and plant it, doesn't it?
Here are the Torch Ginger Girls, Liz, Zick and Lisa, holding three of the amazing flowers that are grown here for sale within Guatemala. Bouquets are everywhere at Los Tarrales, full of the most surprising forms and colors, and it's unutterably cool to wander among the flower plantations and see them on the hoof. We're backed up against the native bamboo that gives Los Tarrales its name.

Just a birdie before I go: an orange-fronted parakeet, one of many in screaming flocks that bullet overhead constantly. It's hard hard hard to get a decent picture of a psittacine, as they're wary and flighty. But this one is diagnostic, even if its front (the area over the bill) is more rusty than orange.
Speaking of parrots, my NPR commentary stayed at #1 Most Emailed from Friday evening through midday Tuesday--a record!-- when somebody named Obama made a speech about racism that some people apparently thought was more compelling and important than the antics of an aging parrot somewhere in backwoods Ohio. No accounting for taste, I guess.

Oh, it feels good to go back to the heat and succor of Guatemala, as the rain pours from leaden skies in soggy gray old Ohio. The spring peepers sang for the first time last night. They're probably the only people happy about this deluge around here. Hoping Mary's home state is getting well soaked!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back to Los Tarrales

A native heliconia flower. When these are put in bouquets, they're usually inverted so they point up, but they look best hanging, I think. An enormous hummingbird called the violet sabrewing feeds at heliconias. I saw it for a shining moment, perfectly purple in the sun, its big wings beating so slowly I could discern individual beats.

I really don't know whether these Guatemala posts are up your collective alley or not. But I took something like 900 photos in four days, so you're going to get Guatemala on your plate, and by God, you're going to at least try it. Or maybe you'll sit back and wait for a Chet Baker post. Ah well...After minor diversions, we're back at Los Tarrales, the uber-cool horticultural farm/shade coffee/banana/flower plantation with fabulous habitat for ecotourism (and ecotourists!)

Tarrales is owned by Andy and Monica Burge. Andy's grandparents bought it about 80 years ago, and it's been in continuous family ownership ever since. A little village of about 300 people has grown within its bounds, many of them employed at the finca. Andy is kind of like the town's mayor/boss/landlord--a position that's probably as hard to describe as it is to fill. You couldn't find nicer people than the Burges, and Tarrales in many ways seems like a charmed place.A Maya woman wraps and packs bananas for the market. These baskets will be carried in the traditional way, balanced on her head.

Other fruits abound. These are breadfruit leaves--enormous against the brilliant sky.A gumbolimbo tree, outrageously shiny, muscular, otherworldly. I wanted to run my hands up and down it.

The juxtaposition of human habitation and wild second-growth habitat makes for some interesting images. I peek through a bamboo stockade to see a fine, fluffy chicken butt.You'd better have a signed release from Henrietta, Missy. She's not going to like that photo one bit.A few dozen yards away, a cinnamon hummingbird guards one of Tarrales' many feeders. Though they're kept clean and filled, they don't get much action, because there's a nasty lil' cinnamon hummingbird guarding each one. This gave me to wonder if rufous-colored plumage is warpaint to hummingbirds (in North America, rufous hummers are the feeder-guarding bullies!) We saw some fabulous nectivorous bats, species unknown, sneaking nectar from the feeders at night. We advised Andy to try grouping a bunch of feeders all together to foil the cinnamon bullies.Just up a trail, a collared trogon called, jetting its tail up with each salvo of soft whoops.Check out the wing position. I love the Christmas colors of this outlandish bird. Trogons are among my favorite birds to draw, but I didn't get time to sketch on this trip. We were always going, moving on down the trail.
More Guatemala anon.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Trixie Comes to Stay!

Bill, Phoebe, Liam, Chet Baker, Charlie and I were extremely pleased to play host to Tricia of Trixie's View, her mom Mary, and impossibly adorable five-year-old daughter Vivi this weekend. The allure of a Swinging Orangutangs gig proved too much for Tricia, and she, Mary and Vivi drove from Cincinnati, where she was visiting relatives, to attend. We're pretty sure that's the first and last time anyone's come from Alaska to hear the Orangutangs. Sure would have been nice to have the other Cinci area bloggrrls--but life intervenes. Bawww.

I'd had my head in a blender all week, having gotten back from Guatemala/Nebraska late Sunday, put in three super-intense rehearsals for the gig, unpacked, tackled correspondence, done laundry, bla bla bla bla. By the time the gig started at about 9 Saturday night I was pretty much fried crispy. But with the help of some MSG from Chinese takeout and a thermos of hot rooibos tea, we made our way through about 4 hours worth of material, about half of it brand new, with me marveling afresh at the skill and musicianship of the other Orangs.

Tricia (or Trixie, as we wound up calling her) was there for the whole gig, stayed until the last dog was hanged, yakked with our friends, danced up a storm, and just generally fit in beautifully. My sweet impulsive friend Martha made my night when I stopped to admire a grocery-store cymbidium orchid she'd bought to dress the party space up a bit...then sent her husband Tony out to buy me one just like it. Ohhhh, yeah. I need a big cymbidium like I need another parrot, but it is ridiculously beautiful and lights up my living room! Thank you, Martha and Tony. You rock the hardest.

Let's see who kills hers first. My neighbor Beth rushed over and got one, too, and I alerted a couple of other master gardener/horticulturist friends to their presence, so I'm pretty sure they all found good homes. How anyone grows a 3' tall cymbidum with 50 flowers on it to sell at Kroger for $21.00 is a mystery to me. When I got mine home I ripped off the cheesy foil, plunked it into a tall, Asian-inspired green cachepot, and had something worthy of Smith and Hawken.

Sunday afternoon and evening, after loading and hauling our music equipment back from town, we all sat around the kitchen table watching Kid TV. Namely, a fashion show starring Vivi, Phoebe and Liam. Liam was dressed as Captain Underpants complete with flowing red cape and Cars undies, but he wouldn't let me post any of those photos. They are hilarious, but I must bow to his desire for privacy. Here he is as Venom, with Phoebe in pink and Vivi in Renaissance green. Nope, she couldn't be any cuter, or she might implode. Looks just like her mama.
Not long after this photo was taken, a very small Spiderbaby appeared, striking muscular poses. We laughed ourselves silly. Vivi ripped off the mask, Scooby-Doo style, to reveal her true identity. YAAAHHHH!
Stew was consumed, cornbread and fruit salad was consumed. Pie was consumed. Chet Baker begged shamelessly. He kept springing up into Tricia's lap, like a sudden kitty.
I hope you have put out eight plates. Portmeirion will be fine for me.

Today, we walked The Loop, still all bundled up against unaccustomed late March cold. It just will not warm up here. But we found the first tiny "Tete-a-tete" daffodil abloom in my south-facing garden, with some crocuses.
This, pathetically, is the only photo I got of Trixie, who is just as cute as Vivi, just grown up. I apologized profusely for the drab weather and colorless woods, but we had fun anyway. I know Alaska has us all beat for scenery, and was wishing we could at least have offered up some warmth to thaw these snowbound Ohio expatriates. But I did manage to find some pileated woodpecker poo under a tree with fresh workings, and dissect it to show Vivi and Trix the carpenter ant bones and skulls in it. They liked that. Who wouldn't?
I'll leave you with the first mourning cloak of spring, a hibernator out for a brief bask in the sun March 14. You can see from the slight wear on his forewings and tattered borders that he was born last year, and has spent the winter in a bark crevice. Another miracle. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Huevos for Breakfast

Huevos del Toro, if you're refined, and bull's balls if, like me, you're not. Named for the way it hangs in pairs, they're one of my favorite Guatemalan fruits, even though I've never, um, eaten them. They're hugely popular with birds. Last year at Tikal, I took some delightful pictures of a wild red-lored Amazon parrot making his sticky way through an unripe fruit, intent on seed piracy. Naughty parrot, you're going around the plant's divine plan for its own dispersal, tearing through unripe flesh to eat its seeds, and you're getting all gummy, too. Yes, parrot fans, this is how parrots should live--free to be themselves in all their irascible, sociable, messy glory. And yes, I tear up whenever I see them living, foraging, quarreling and flying as they were meant to. 
Ah, parrots...Given time, huevos del toro fruit ripen and split open (ow!) to reveal rich orange flesh, and that's when the fun starts.

I had a blast photographing a queue of birds feeding at a newly ripe huevo del toro. First were a little troupe of red-legged honeycreepers. Female and immature honeycreepers are dull green. Sweet little birds they are, but I never photographed them without longing for an adult male in good plumage. Naturally, the dull immatures gave me terrific opportunities. I was reminded of the relative difficulty of shooting photos of white-tailed does and fawns versus trophy bucks. I have lots of doe and fawn photos.  My buck photos are all distant and blurry. Here's a doe red-legged honeycreeper. And the prize: mango-red fruit.
Sorry to say, the best picture I was able to get of a buck red-legged honeycreeper appears below. Oh, they are beautiful, clothed in ultramarine satin, with a glittering turquoise coronet and red legs that look as if they're made of wax or plastic. I tried, but it's a pale simulacrum of the bird. At least you can see inside the bull's ball.
 Dominant at the breakfast bar was a pair of rufous-naped wrens (Campylorhynchus rufinucha). This gorgeous big wren is in the same genus as our big, bold cactus wren, C. brunneicapillus, and I think it shows.
The wrens, which travel in pairs, were busy probing in the fruit, bending themselves almost double to get the sweet flesh.
Yum!Here's the rufous nape that gives the wren its name. Tropical birds have the most prosaic common names, hard to remember and sometimes hard to divine. A bird with a glowing orange belly might be described as "slate-throated," because there's another closely related bird with a brilliant yellow belly and a yellow throat. So this gorgeous wren's most distinctive characteristic in contrast to its congeners turns out to be its rufous nape. Which results in a common name that's eminently forgettable. That's what happens when you have hundreds upon hundreds of similar-looking birds to name.

With each bit of fruit secured, the foraging bird deserted its post and flew off. I like this picture, taken just before the wren departed with its prize. I could have stood beneath this tree all day, watching the parade, but I had to report back to the mess hall for my breakfast, which involved huevos revueltos y frijoles refritos.

Thanks to all of you who checked out the NPR parrot commentary and emailed it to friends. It's Sunday, and it's still a-settin' on NPR's list at #1 Most Emailed, since sometime Friday afternoon. I suspect I have you, and the peculiar appeal of pets and parrots, to thank for that.

 And me without my big, foam, "We're # 1" fake finger. Where do you get those things, anyway? Stadiums?I would like to get one, so I can dance unseen around the meadow, pointing it at the sky and yapping like a coyote.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Charlie on NPR

Just a quick demi-post to let you know that one of my commentaries aired on National Public Radio last night. It was a surprise to me--a quick substitution for something that fell through in last night's All Things Considered program. Titled, "A Delightful, Awful Marriage to a Pet Parrot," you can listen to it by clicking here.

As of 9 AM Friday, the piece has climbed to #7 on NPR's Most E-mailed Stories list, which means it'll make it to NPR's weekly podcast, and get heard by all the folks who are too busy to sit around the radio in the afternoon. If you'd care to email it to a friend (you can do that with a click on its NPR page), maybe it'll climb higher! All cause for celebration around the house. I hand-fed Charlie a big warm wad of mashed baked sweet potato and gave him some extra hugs and kisses this morning for sticking with me.
Though I've been braced for hatemail from parrot fanciers, so far there's been none. I got an interesting email from a woman who rescues cockatoos, thanking me for telling it like it is where living with parrots is concerned. "If you keep even one person from going out and buying a parrot, you deserve a medal," she wrote. She directed me to a site warning people against buying cockatoos. Though cockatoos are special head cases in captivity, much of what appears on this site applies to other large parrots and macaws. It's well-written and honest. I wish I'd been able to visit this site in 1986... Check it out.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tarrales Regulars

Many of the more cooperative birds in Guatemala were Neotropical migrants, like this least flycatcher. Well, they were cooperative about having their photos taken, but none of them would call for us, so we were left with trusting our instincts and the range maps in the field guide as to their identities. The tapered, elliptical eyering and overall grayness of this little Empid pointed to least flycatcher for me.

In blogging about Guatemalan birds, remember that I'm limited to writing about the ones for which I got decent pictures. They tend to be the commoner, easier to see birds. No matter: they're fabulous enough for nature-starved folks like you and me. Because I always had the blog in mind, getting pictures of even a fraction of the birds we were spotting became a neurotic quest for me. I came back with gobs of pictures that are no good at all, a few that are at least identifiable, and a tiny handful that are worth looking at twice. The white-winged tanager here is a good example. You can tell what it is, but even with sharpening and cropping, it doesn't come close to doing a terrific little bird justice. Overall, they're snapshots, just me trying to bring you something to look at, struggling against the nocturnal shadows and blinding sun of the tropical forest. In this modest quest, I felt well-matched to my camera rig, which is a Canon Digital Rebel XTi with 70-300 mm. zoom lens. It's fairly light and easy to carry, and ready to be swung up at a second's notice. I've developed a rudimentary understanding of what I have to do in difficult light conditions (and they all seem to be difficult in deep tropical forest). Picture me madly spinning dials, opening up f-stops and speeding up ISO. It's cool to get at least some souvenir of a memorable sighting. So let the parade of mediocre bird pictures begin!

Chachalacas make more of an aural impression on the landscape than a visual one. Drab brown, with a white vent (this is the white-bellied chachalaca, a nice regional endemic that lots of birders like to tick off their lists in Guatemala), the white-bellied chacha cuts the air with its grating chorus of cha-cha LAC! cha-cha-LAC!, given in groups of five to ten. It's very loud, a classic sound of the tropics. Chachas, as we liked to call them, are related to guans and currasows, and are generally quickly hunted out unless protected, as they are at Los Tarrales.An unfortunate shot, with the branch obscuring his nice red wattle. Oh well, you take what you get, and not all of it is National Geographic caliber. It's a chachalaca. The dark band on the breast is a branch shadow. Here, a chacha sings out the day as the tropical night falls like a cloth. He's the tiny fleck in the left center of the picture.One of the cutest little characters of mid-level tropical forest is the common tody-flycatcher. An Andy Gump chin, long, flat bill, staring white eye and gnatcatcher-like tail characterize him. The best thing he did I couldn't capture in a picture. When it's excited, the common tody-flycatcher raises its long thin tail up over its back and slowly swivels it in a circle, like he's waiting for a pitch. I found myself chanting, "Hey, batter batter Hey batter!" and talking to him as if he were a pet parakeet. He didn't seem to mind. The whole affair is maybe 4" long. Tiny, cute Todirostrum cinereum, we could use some of you up here in the Ohio woods.

Perhaps the most striking bird to inhabit Los Tarrales is the white-throated magpie jay, Calocitta formosa. Those of you who've done a bit of global birding know that any bird with "magpie" in its name is going to be well-endowed in the gee-whiz department. White-throated magpie jays do not disappoint. I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on one, in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. Lee-ord. It was like a giant blue jay that had gotten into the dress-up trunk in the attic. What's that they say about a picture being worth...This creature is loud, raucous, tame and inquisitive. It is also 18" long. It's about what you'd get if you scaled a blue jay up by 200% and gave him a good stiff mojito to remove his inhibitions.
Gotta love the hairdo. Just a little fillip to add to his general impressiveness. In flight, they're unmistakable, always breathtaking.Imagine living in a place where such sights are commonplace; not even giving an 18" long crazy beautiful magpie jay a second glance. We all take for granted that which is common. The jays seemed to enjoy being gasped at by the greenhorns draped in optics.

As I write, the first fox sparrow of spring is feeding on the greening lawn. And the woodcocks sang and danced last evening. Bill raced home to catch the end of their act, and we grilled lamb and asparagus in a welcome-spring, welcome-home celebration.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Shade Coffee Birds

On the moderate-elevation slopes and terraces of Los Tarrales, coffee grows in the shade of a largely intact forest. Trees of many different species provide the shade, and birds move between the canopy and the coffee shrubs unimpeded and apparently undisturbed. It's a beautiful conjunction of agriculture and useful habitat, foreign to those of us who associate agriculture with endless monocultures of corn, wheat, or soybeans, which are almost useless to native wildlife. This is a much happier land-use marriage.

I loved seeing birds that would soon be in my own yard, engaged in tropical doings. Here, a Baltimore oriole gorges on the strange fruits of a cecropia plant. They don't look juicy or tasty, but orioles and honeycreepers, euphonias and jays love to take bits of the strange, wormlike fruits.One of the things that strikes me hard in Guatemala is the difference in scale between temperate and tropical leaves. This oriole is dwarfed, lost but for his coal-bright orange.

Swainson's thrushes were everywhere in this disturbed, mid-elevation habitat. They looked strange to me against the odd forms of leguminous pods, but they felt perfectly at home.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird fed at the flowers of a tree-sized composite plant, perhaps a Senecio. Its perfume made me swoon.
Hurry home and see us, Mrs. Hummingbird. On second thought, wait a bit. The weather's still iffy. Wherever we went, black-and-white warblers combed the tree trunks, huge and small, for insectile delicacies. I'll see you in April, my dear, as you scour the oak limbs for sleeping spiders back home.
One of my favorite pictures of the trip is this little yellow-bellied flycatcher in the understory of a fishtail palm plantation at Los Tarrales, impatiens glowing in the background. I'll be listening for his plaintive chu-wee? in my backyard in May.
Enough on those Neotropical migrants, Ms. Zickefoose. Move on to the tropical residents. Start with me, the barred antshrike.
You are a fine birdie indeed, even though you and your mate skulk in the shadows. We'll talk about tropical residents next. Ah, sun, ah, exotica.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tropical Interlude

Sick and tired of winter? Me, too. As ready as I was for warm weather and sun, it would have been a shock to be plunged right into the close heat and humidity of lowland Peten, Guatemala. Because Bill and I had to cut our Guatemala trip short to run back to a pre-existing festival commitment in Nebraska, we planned to start the trip with a few days at Los Tarrales, not far from Lake Atitlan, in the higher elevations.

Perfect. That's all I can say. Weather, upper 80's. Sun. Humid breeze. The inside of my nose, which had become a single large scab thanks to the winter furnace heat, was healed by the next day. Here I was in a T-shirt, the warm breeze playing over my bare skin. Oh, it was heaven. Everywhere, green and pink and red and magenta and yellow and orange, flowers in profusion, and the hummingbirds to go with them. Birds everywhere.Los Tarrales (The Bamboos) is a multi-puprose property, which combines ecotourism, banana and shade coffee plantations, floriculture and houseplant production in one alluring bundle. Here's the coffee processing plant, which gives forth mysterious whooshing sounds in the evening. Coffee beans are spread out in a single layer on the large courts in the foreground, and raked until they're sun-dried. Tourists are sometimes found drying here, too.

Here's the flower of a coffee plant. It has the light fragrance of citrus, combined with the scent of fresh mimeo paper. Ahhhhh. I couldn't stop burying my nose in coffee flowers.
Speaking of flowers, how's this for a flower? Behold the banana flower, bigger than any showerhead and twice as weird. The baby bananas are forming on the stalk already.Just a few yards beneath the blossom, a small yellowish dot resolved into a bird. (The lowest, tattered leaf is pointing right at it).

It was a yellow-bellied flycatcher, a boreal bird which nests in the stunted black spruces of Canadian bogs. I bet her nose was crusty inside when she arrived, too.

The tropical sun reached deep into her feathers, and she slowly succumbed to its charms.
I had been doing exactly the same thing since arriving the night before. Ahhh, ahh, ahh.
Oh, it's so good to be a bit overheated, to feel the Vitamin D., so good to cheat winter of a few days. Soon enough, she'd head back to the muskeg, and I'd head back to my breeding habitat, too.

But for now, we were sunning. Here, I'm exulting in one of the world's tallest orchids, the bamboo orchid, Arundina graminifolia, native to southeast Asia, but growing quite happily, rooted in the ground at Los Tarrales. Though only a couple of hundred plants survive in its native Singapore, elsewhere I've read that it can be a real pest, self-seeding like crazy. It's used as cattle fodder in Hawaii, where it's firmly established (read: a thug, if an orchid can be a thug.) Still, I was thrilled to be dwarfed by an orchid! So's Liz!

I am making a customarily potent fashion statement, with my flattering, crap-laden photo vest, but at least the pants go down to the shoes. Life is Good T's are all I packed, on purpose.

Delicate, cattleya-like flowers nodded at the tips of the tall stems. I'll be back tomorrow, with more tropical fun and basking at Los Tarrales. 

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Beauty on Ice

Sometimes, when it's so cold you don't even want to stick your nose outside, the colors are so beautiful that you MUST put on coat, hat and gloves and do your duty as an intrepid liver of life. Chet and I walked out to the mailbox to see Phoebe and Liam off to school. The hayfield was a cluster of diamonds.Each stalk of dried Queen Anne's lace was that much lacier.Chet Baker made his way through all that beauty, holding up first one paw and then the other. See how his mouth is all drawn up? That's his cold face.
The milkweed pods had a special magic.Back home at the feeders, things were hopping.

Our gorgeous female hairy woodpecker paused in her search for more suet.

The male red-bellied woodpecker glowed like a hot coal in the single digits.A cardinal offered up his own coals, his tinged with ash.
It's good to get out on cold mornings.

This morning at daybreak, I heard three peents from a woodcock in the field. Just three peents, no display flight. "I'm here. But it's too cold to think of love." I was glad to hear him, and I wondered what he'd been through. While we were gone, our feeders all went empty; all the Zick dough I'd labored to make up in advance had never been put out. It had been in the single digits and we'd had four inches of snow, topped with ice. I grieved for my bird friends, what they'd been through in the worst of the winter without me to help them. Today, I put out three feedings of Zick dough, and three bluebirds, a bunch of cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, and the leucistic junco Snowflake (who I've renamed Queen Frostine) came to partake. They're so glad I'm home, and I'm so glad to see them! I know they don't need me as much as I think they do.

I'm running around, re-provisioning, taking out garbage, doing laundry, cooking, watering, digging out. Treated myself to a Shila massage, trying to re-align muscles and bones bent by carrying a backpack full of lead-weight optics all over Guatemala and North America. I was amazed how much more in-tune I felt after some adjustment.

I hope frosty scenes like these will be a distant memory now, in the latest, coldest early spring I can remember. The daffodils are budding anyway. Here's a little titmouse. He looks as wistful for balmy breezes as I feel right now.It's about time for some Guatemala color, don't you think?

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Home, To Ice and Snow

I have to love snow for its beauty, at least when it's fresh. A very light snow over the cement on our patio gave me the most perfect possible rabbit tracks. Baker's warm little paws in the morning added a grace note to the snow-dusted rabbit tracks of the night before.

Just around the corner, a set of white-footed mouse tracks. I've trapped a dozen in the basement this winter. How I wish they'd stay outside.
The snow laid a big egg in a song sparrow nest in a barberry in the front yard. Just when I decide that barberry (a potentially invasive Japanese import that was supposed to stay tiny) HAS TO GO, a song sparrow decides to nest there. If a barberry has any beauty, it's that a song sparrow can nest completely undiscovered within its dense armor. Now what?
On to more charismatic vegetation. Smilax leaves catch the cold sun. A black raspberry leaf, rimmed in ice.
A cardinal huddles in the chill wind.
I'll bring you some more icy birds tomorrow. I guess one good thing about going to Nebraska right after Guatemala is that it prepared us for the shock of snow-smothered Ohio. We're sitting in the Columbus airport, now only 2 1/2 hours from home. What a trip, what a March. Stay warm!

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Driveway Mandala

Some ice patterns in the driveway caught my breath. It was as if Peter Max and an ancient Aztec sculptor stopped by on their way to Eternity, and left me a message.
Yes, Peter, I see it, and it's beautiful, but what does it say?
Maybe it doesn't have to say anything. But my poor pop-art addled brain kept seeing a Blue Meanie.
These babies were big, and I had brought only my long telephoto lens (duh), so I had to shoot them at a distance and at an angle. But I'm glad I had a camera with me, because they'll never be repeated in just this way on any other day. I'm still getting a Peter Max feeling from these, a yellow submarine chugging along, puffing out white smoke.

While the first three defied description, this one grabbed me by the arm. You could see it carved on a Aztec stela, protruding from jungle vegetation: a jaguar shaman, kneeling in prayer, or preparing to spring.
Just a little driveway mandala, all the more beautiful for its impermanence.

We're on our weary way home from Nebraska today. More nodding, bolt upright and folded into airplane seats. Now I'm glad my blog elf slept on the job last week...I won't have to dream anything up for a couple more days. Bill and I are in a land somewhere in the mists beyond exhaustion. But our sweet kids and millions of Baker kisses await.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

On the Way Home

Most of our walks this winter have started sunny and ended cold and cloudy, like some of our days. Day after day, it dawns gray and freezing. I raise the blind, sigh, "Just another day in Paradise!" and start my day anyway. Boy. Am I ready for spring. This feeling seems not to be mutual.

On the way back from one such walk, I snapped some pictures of Chet Baker in his groovy red sweater. I like the way the sweater gives a punctuation mark to the winter scene. The acrylic yarn actually seems to flouresce in low light. Thank you, Sue, for your knitting artistry. Your art has kept Chet warm on many an adventure.

Baker usually starts a long walk by lightening his load. Poor dog. Can't escape the paparrazzi.
There was so much to investigate, like this little Pooh Corner style house. We lifted the bin with a bit of trepidation, though not as much as we'd have felt in copperhead season, and decided it was home to an upscale chipmunk.
Baker can't pass this tree without walking the plank.
Which is no small thing, once he gets to the place where it broke off. I always hold my breath until he turns around and comes back. But I like watching someone, be it dog or child, explore his potential without too much nattering or nagging from me.

Coyote. I know it. I don't much like coyotes.
Chet in the shadow of a hill, looking into sunlit woods.
We start for home, up the twisting road. We've never met a car on this township road. When we hear one, we melt into the woods.
Are you coming, Mether?
Last hill toward home. The big oak looms.
Little dog, home.

I'm posting this from Nebraska, where Bill and I will be performing music at Bluebirds Across Nebraska's hosting of the North American Bluebird Society's meeting. It's being held in conjunction with the Rivers and Wildlife Festival at the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska. We literally blew in from Guatemala at midnight last night, to be greeted by a whirling blizzard and single digit-degrees. Somehow, that's just what we'd expected, so it wasn't a shock, except for my sockless ankles in cropped pants. We just gave back-to-back seminars and are due to play music in a couple of hours. Much scurrying around after rental guitar, cords, microphones, lyrics, scribbled set lists. Why anybody would want to hear a couple of people who have been sitting on airplanes for 20 hours try to sing is beyond me. We'll give it the ol' college try.

It's beautiful here, though; the air is thick with snow geese and cranes, and we're looking forward to seeing some tomorrow, after a few hours of that thing we fondly remember as sleep.
I notice that my blog elf, who was supposed to post while I was gone, seems to be sleeping. Sorry about the hiatus. I'll try to make up for it over the weekend.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Changing a Stream's Course

Trees around here take a beating. Here are some fresh pileated woodpecker workings. I ain't sayin' nothin' about bark adhesion or big woodpeckers. I'm just showing it to you.

With a wisdom that is theirs alone, the beavers near our home have changed the course of a stream. They diverted it from its original bed at the base of a rocky slope and have sent it running smack down the middle of a hayfield. For some reason, no one has tried to stop them by trapping them out. That's saying something in Appalachian Ohio.
We're watching and enjoying them, and I'm trying to find out a bit about the landowners, to see how long we might expect to be graced by the presence of these incredible aquatic rodents. Does the landowner dig beavers? Has she simply not gotten around to hiring someone to trap them? I don't know. I'm praying it's Option A.

There's something about a small stream that implores a child to jump over it.
Liam's got a funky style all his own, and he always makes me laugh.
Phoebe's a bit more self-conscious, but still great fun to shoot in action. She sails over the water like the Thoroughbred colt she is.
She found a gas well pipe standing in the meadow, and peered inside. "Mom! Come tell me what this STUFF is, coming out of this RANDOM PIPE." I always jump when they ask me to look at something on our walks. I want to reinforce their innate curiosity. If they get nothing else from me, please let them be curious.
She'd noticed the wasp nest, and then wondered about the other stuff. Science Chimp to the rescue. I pulled the stuff out, to peals of EEEEEYEEEW's from Phoebe and Liam. White-footed mouse mummy!
Didn't warn you. Not sorry, either. I think it's cool, especially the way his organs are still intact. Did he get stung to death by the wasps? Poisoned by a blast of raw natural gas? Dunno. But there he is. We put him back in the pipe for the next curious person who might happen along.

The new stream runs along its course, flooding the road. Surely someone's going to object.
For now, though, we'll keep watching, and rooting for the beavers. Baker adds his contribution to their stream.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The Beaver Dam

Walks with a destination: one of our favorites is a beaver dam on a county road to the east of our place. To reach it, we cross a wide, wide field. It's so nice to fall behind one's children, after so many years of patiently waiting for them to catch up. I've said elsewhere but it bears repeating: From the very start, I've told my children that I'm not strong enough to carry them. I started telling them this once they started walking on their own. I remember my first walk with little Phoebe toddling alongside. We went to the mailbox, a distance of perhaps 1/5 mile. "Boy, it's a good thing you learned how to walk like a big girl," I told her. "Because you were just about too heavy to carry any more." From that point on, she walked on her own two feet, and neither she nor Liam have ever had the option of being carried by me, unless they were hurt or asleep in the car. They take great pride in being troopers. I love to get them completely tired out.

The beaver dam is maybe a mile away, but it's fairly strenuous hiking, involving some climbs and descents. Oh, the reward once we're there! We get to see what they've done since our last visit. It's usually a considerable amount. On our first visit, this tree was almost all gnawed through. Only two days later, they'd dropped it into the pond. How I would have loved to see that! but I would imagine they fell trees at night. KerSPLASH! It would be interesting living near a beaver pond. The things you'd hear in the dark!

The beavers have cleared the blue-eyed heck out of the woods. They have rodent logging roads running up from the pond into what remains of the forest. This would probably be a good place to set a wildlife camera. Hmmmm.

Here's the main dam for the big impoundment, quite an impressive piece of work:About 50' below that is a second impoundment, contained by this dam:Below that, they've started to work on the hayfield, thinking to turn that into a long, shallow pond:I'm not sure what their plan is here, but I'm fascinated by these long, curving earthworks they're building in the low wet meadow. I can't wait to see what it all pans out into, especially as the spring rains come on.A beaver pond. What a perfect place for a boy to dream. I hope he's still coming here when he's sixteen.

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