Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Common Potoo! Victoria Regia!

On the way to the lilies, we passed a stakeout--a baby common potoo waiting for its mama atop a palm stump. She had laid her single egg in the rotted top, incubated it there, and this baby had clung while she hovered and fed it for the past few weeks. Man, I'd like to see that. A potoo is like a giant whip-poor-will, a nocturnal moth and flying insect eater with a huge gaping mouth and giant kind of creepy alien eyes, a tiny hooklike bill. It roosts all day sitting bolt upright, trying to look like a rotten branch stub, and it does a durn good job. The potoos all have a tiny notch in the eyelid toward the rear of the upper lid which allows them to peek out of their closed eyes to see who's trying to figure out if that's a branch stub or a bird.

By the looks of it, this baby potoo has a way to go before it will fly. If the potoo is like the nightjars to which it's related, the baby will be dependent for quite some time. Baby common potoos start to "branch," or locomote in the vicinity of the nest site, at four weeks of age, finally flying at day 50. Although we were told this youngster was a week old, I had my doubts about that...I'd age him at about three weeks. The nestling dependency periods of tropical birds are really out there in some cases. For instance, our chimney swifts and hummingbirds have a really long nestling period, finally flying at around Day 30, but these potoos wait until Day 50? Wow. And they probably get parental subsidy even after that. I have to say that branching around this isolated palm stump is going to be a real feat. I can't imagine him sitting motionless out in the blazing sun all day, but apparently he does. As you can see, natural camouflage is his only defense.

Victoria regia is the world's largest water lily, with one of the largest single leaves in the plant kingdom. It's got a massive blossom, as well, which is pollinated by a largeish brown scarab that looks like our Junebug. It was completely dark by the time we reached the Regia stand, and scarabs were buzzing and bumbling around the blossoms. Perhaps thirty of them dropped into the blossom we were watching. There, they tumbled and rumbled over each other and dug down deep into the flower's stamens, pollinating it. Something told me the lily wasn't the only thing getting pollinated that night. I'm just sayin'. The lily would close up on them and keep them until the next night, when they'd presumably go off to find another lily and bring this one's pollen along.

I was so curious what was going on in the flower that I almost fell out of the boat trying to see. I also wanted to smell it. It had a nice powder-room scent, reminiscent of bubble gum, or the distant scent of Japanese honeysuckle on a summer evening.

Our host at Karanambu, Diane McTurk, is the lady in the lower right corner. She was pouring rum and lime for us, adding a festive air to the outing, which was already awesome enough. At least we weren't driving. Rum is the drink of choice in Guyana, where sugar cane is the main export. Rum is made from fermented sugar cane. And Guyana makes El Dorado, the best rum in the world. Yum. I came to Guyana thinking that rum gives me a headache, and I left with a bottle of 15-year-old ED in my suitcase. Here I am, thoroughly under the influence, grooving on the bug orgy in the giant lily. My roommate Erica Gies is right next to me.

Photo by Kevin Loughlin

I'm indebted to Kevin Loughlin for this photo. Please check out his brand new blog, Notes from the Wildside. As a professional photographer, guide and teacher, he's got much better pictures than I of many of the same birds and places. I am proud to say that I was the vector by which Kevin got infected by the blogger virus. The world will be a better place for it. His photography tips are real good, and for free.

I like this shot of a blurry flower and sharp leaf. The flowers were rockin' and rollin' with all the beetle activity in their innards. If this lily's rockin', don't come knockin'.I don't like flash photography as a rule, but flash was the only way to get an acceptable image of the lily.The classic Amazonian postcard has an Amerindian baby curled up on a V. regia leaf. Indeed, the massive leaf can hold quite a load. When you press on it, it undulates like a water bed. But don't touch the red underside. Full of narsty spines. I'm thinking that that keeps herbivorous fish and manatees from chomping on them.Quite impressive, in their ranks stretching away into the darkness.

We found a lengthy tree boa doubled up in some overhanging branches. Snakes on a boat!
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the accommodations at Karanambu Camp. It's not for sissies. Not being a sissy, I loved it.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fish-eaters of Karanambu, Guyana

Upon leaving the magical Kaeiteur Falls National Park, we re-boarded the tiny white airplane and set off for Karanambu, a private camp deep in the trackless interior of Guyana. Access as far as I know is only by air or boat. We were picked up in some rickety four-wheel-drive vehicles and taken to the camp, with just enough time to unload our backpacks and bags, and jump back into a couple of boats. Our goal was to reach a stand of the world's largest water lily, Victoria regia, in time to see their flowers open at nightfall.

There were tons of birds on the way to the lilies. The water was low and the fish were concentrated. Anything that ate fish was abundant. Here's a little blue heron, looking beautiful in the heat.
White-necked or cocoi herons are abundant along this stretch of river. It's a beautiful bird, reminscent of the great blue, but a bit more striking. That pretty white neck really sticks out.
But the most beautiful heron, I think, is the capped heron, or the Blue Eyed Banana Heron, as I like to call it. Oh, that blue orbital skin!
That banana-yellow neck! Dig that crazy plume coming off the head.
Hiding in the trees.
Amazon kingfishers are a large, hearty cousin to our tiny green kingfisher. They can be differentiated by their size and their heavy bills. What a gorgeously proportioned bird! This white-breasted bird is a female. Her mate wears rufous.
Dig that Woody Woodpecker crest! I would hate to be a minnow on the bidness end of that sledgehammer bill.

As night approached we spotted the elusive agami heron, a contender in my eyes for Most Beautiful Heron in the World, matched only by the capped heron. Unfortunately, I got only the briefest and worst of shots, as the light had failed. But you can see its rich maroon-chestnut body, its teal green wings, and the mysterious blue filagree on its breast. I believe the agami has the longest bill in proportion to its body of any heron. It's a gracile, secretive beauty, and we were thrilled to see several on this trip. The agami is a quest bird for many. They need but come to Karanambu.

Daylight was drawing to a close, and it was getting on time to see the world's largest lily in full bloom.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Cock of the Rock, In Progress

Let's have a closer look at his head.
I don't want to get all fussy on this bird. I couldn't see him very well in the darkness, couldn't see much detail; he just looked like a glowing coal to me. The fun part for me is working in the detail neither I nor the camera could see, but that I know to be there. I spend some time figuring out where his feather tracts would lie, and organizing them so I can paint them right. I'm setting up tons o' fun for myself on these fancy feathers of his wings and back. His tertials are the square-ended wing feathers. And as far as I can tell, the long filaments are modified body feathers. I'm not sure about that, but they seem to originate on the lower back, so that's how I paint them. Because this is watercolor, I'm going to have to paint black in and around all those filaments. No worries. I can do that. You can see where masking compound comes in handy. I used a toothpick to draw it into fine lines, and painted the green background right over it. When the background is dry, I just rub the compound away with my finger and I can paint the bright orange where it had been. It looks pretty cool now, with the orange playing off the muted greens and grays of the background.
But the painting will really take off when the black goes in. Oddly enough, I was most impressed by the bird's black and white wings, and I couldn't wait to set the bird off by painting them in.
Look how the whole scene comes alive with the punctuation of black.
What fun to paint in his details--the burnt edge of his semicircular crest; his eyes, his gorgeous wings. I noticed in observing him that his crest was like two lemon thin cookies on edge, parting to admit his beak, so I emphasized that structure in my painting. I've also painted in some wing detail that I think is probably there, but which I can't discern in my photos. Needless to say, I'd love to have a specimen in hand to work from, but that's not going to happen any time soon. I'm winging it here.
Now the muted greens seem to work well, letting the bird be the star of the show.
The finished painting.
Managed to finish it in time to send it off and get it framed by our good friend John at Frame & Save on High Street in Oxford, Ohio. He returned it in a huge wooden crate that someone had used to send some photos by Linda McCartney over from England. The crate had been secured with screws, so I wrapped up a Phillips head screwdriver and gave that to Bill in his stocking before he got his big present. Whaa?

John always gives me a joke to tell Bill when we talk. Here's the latest:

Guy walks into a bar and out of nowhere a voice comes, saying, "Man! You look great! Have you lost weight?"

He looks around and doesn't see anyone but the bartender, wiping the counter. "Who just said that?" he asks the barkeep.

Bartender says, "Oh, it was the peanuts. Just ignore them. They're complimentary."

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Painting a Cock of the Rock

Ready for another bird painting?

It's hard to have to wait to post my step-by-step descriptions of how a painting is made until after the surprise has passed. I don't know why I seem always to be painting on a surprise basis but that seems to be the case. Lately, I paint for gifts. In this case the giftee was none other than Bill of the Birds. He was the one asked to go on the trip to Guyana, and he passed the trip along to me. The least I could do is paint him a cock of the rock for Christmas.

In my last post you saw the pose I knew I'd use for the painting. I'm not normally too wild about painting from photographs, unless I've made them. Given world enough and time, I'd sit there for a few days and draw COTR's from life, coming up with a composite pose that delighted me, and learning a lot about the bird in the process. Sigh. Lately the world doesn't seem to be working too well with Time, so I had to rely on what my camera was able to capture in the dark undergrowth. We had less than an hour on the COTR lek before we mushed onward to the next destination.
The sketch doesn't look like much, I know, but it's code for what I want to do in the painting.

As usual, I masked out the bird, branches and foreground leaves with Incredible White masking compound and a clear film. When the masking compound dried, I dove right in. I had laid down a pale background wash and a bunch of darks before I remembered to pick up the camera. You do tend to leave your rational mind in the dust when you go galloping off across a big expanse of wet white watercolor paper.
While everything is still damp and diffusey, I throw in a bunch of vegetation. I try to paint background washes when there's no one around to distract me. That's why animals are such good studio companions (as I listen to Charlie riffling through his feathers by my right ear, and Chet snoring softly in his studio bed).
I run the painting across the studio, prop it on a chair, and decide I hate the three-parted leaf I've hurriedly painted in the lower left corner. It looks like a flying macaw, and this is not a painting of macaws. Charlie has sent me a telepathic message to include him in the painting, I guess. Sorry Chuck, you lose. So I wet my brush with clear water, spray down the offending macaw-leaf, and scrub it out. Bye!
I don't want it to leave a shadow, so while it's still wet I throw some salt on the wound. When it dries, it has a nice, organic look. It doesn't look like anyone had an artistic cow right there. It looks like whoever painted it actually knew what she was doing. Heh.
Time to peel off the masking film and get going on the bird's perch. If the painting looks paler and warmer, it's because it's now nightfall, and I'm shooting by incandescent light.I get that vine painted in, careful to vary the color and value along its length so it looks like it's part of the scene, not pasted on top of it. And then I paint in some leaves. You'll notice that my greens are pretty toned down. Greens can be tough to manage in watercolor. Have you ever seen a painting that's pretty OK, but has some too-vivid or fake-looking greens in it? There are a lot of paintings like that. I've done some of them. Nothing can spoil a painting faster than obnoxious greens. I'm being conservative with them, because I want the star of the show to be the bird. And when I put the first bit of him in, I'm glad I took it easy on the greens.Wouldn't want to hurt anyone's eyes.

Tomorrow we'll paint the bird. Or I will, and you'll watch (after the fact). Which reminds me of a recent comment, someone wishing they could stand and watch over my shoulder as I paint. I smiled at that one. My kids can attest that when it comes down to the actual painting part I get very distracted, and then kind of snarly. I think it's a way of protecting my subconscious brain, which has to be firing on all cylinders when I'm in the act of painting. My kids like to interact with my conscious brain, and when we're together they keep plucking at the conscious brain's hem, making sure it's engaged. They're not being pesky; they're just being human.

I've never shut my kids out of the studio; rather, I've schooled them in the art of leaving space for that subconscious creative action to go on around them. From their end, I'm sure they recognize the trance when it comes on, and they know that buggin' me for a popsicle, fighting over space at the desk computer, or asking for help with a math problem isn't the best move when I'm laying down a wash or trying to figure out if I've just painted something ugly. It's good for them to recognize another person's creative space, and it's good for them to see how to maintain their own, too. Call it subconscious/conscious or right brain/left brain; creative space is another space entirely from the everyday, conversational space we usually occupy.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Cock of the Rock!

The falls, the tank bromeliads, the froglets would have been enough, more than enough. But Guyana's Kaieteur Falls Park would give us so much more in our too-short afternoon there. Because there is a bird living there, in this impossibly magical, vine-draped steaming forest, who can hurt your eyes with its color. It is the legendary cock of the rock.

I know. It's a weird name. Google it, and you get all kinds of heavy metal images right alongside stunning photos of a brilliant bird, an impossible bird. I didn't understand where it got its name until I walked in its habitat.
The cock of the rock needs rocks where it can nest. Huge, towering walls and slabs and jumbles of rock. The Science Chimp is elated to say that she will report later on the nesting habits of this marvelous bird. First, she needed to see her very first COTR. You can just imagine how excited I was. Wending our way silently through the forest, the wet floor padding our footfalls, we watched our guide and froze when he motioned that he had spotted the bird, low down in the jungly tangle, some distance ahead. We were approaching the lek site of a group of male COTR's, where they pose and display, hoping to attract visits from the burnt-brown females. Our first looks were a bit compromised by vegetation, but it was clear we had one heck of a bird in our sights.
As quietly as we could, we maneuvered around until we could see and shoot around the obscuring leaves.I shot image after image, upping my ISO to 1600, leaning against trees for support to lessen lens shake. I'm not digiscoping here, just pushing my 300 mm. telephoto lens to the maxx in the almost hopelessly dark and lightless jungle.This is not some little songbird. It's a cotinga, one of the suboscine passerines, and a honkin' big one, about the size of a city pigeon. And the color of a neon orange traffic cone. There's no missing it, even as it sits quietly and still. Think about a pigeon this color and you get some idea what an impression it makes.

Nearer, nearer, trying hard not to upset the beautiful bird who perched so calmly for us. Ooh. What's that foofuraw coming off his back?
They're filamentous plumes, orange as shredded carrots, that the female COTR likes to nibble on as the male crouches motionless on the ground before her. Nice touch.

Changing perches, he showed what a beefy broth of a beast he really was. Look at those strong yellow feet. Hey, Mr. Tangerine Man. That's a semicircular crest, neatly edged in burnt orange, that he can erect and push forward so as to completely hide his bill. Not a whole lot of tail on this bird. But he's got a very cool rump. The frills on it reminded me of those awful panties people used to put on little girls, the kind meant to stick out from under a too-short Easter dress, with ranks of frills on them. I wish I could purge such untoward thoughts when I look at a bird, but they well up nonetheless.
Though it's not that close, this is my favorite shot of the bird, on alert.
Let's blow that one up, shall we?
Right after I took this photo, he whirled off to a deeper, more obscure place, on a gasp of pinwheeling wings. Who'd have thought he'd be tricked out in black and white wheels? I was laid out, so much more than I'd ever hoped to see of a bird I'd dreamt of since I was seven. Ahh, thank you, cock of the rock. We'll leave you in peace now. And I will use this image later to rekindle my connection with you...

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Chet's nuts roasting near an open fire

Chet's tongue lapping at your nose

Tiny turds all lined up in the snow
And dogs dressed up like Eskimos...

Everybody knows a Boston with his googly eyes

Can help to make the season bright

Little dogs with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that toys and gifts await
To be ripped to teeny bits beneath the tree
And every Boston knows that Hollofill

Can cover rooms just like a Christmas snow.

And so I'm sending you this simple song

For readers near and readers far

Though it's been said many times many ways

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas


Thanks to Bill of the Birds for Lines 1 and 3.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Painting a Stork

Oh goody! I get to paint the bird now! While the stork's body was wet down with clear water, I fed some of the same colors found in the water--burnt umber and cobalt blue--into that clear wash. I wanted the colors to diffuse so there would be no hard edges on the white plumage. You might be thinking at this point that the bird looks kind of dirty. Me, too. Most wood storks I've seen look dirty to start with, but that's beside the point.  Oddly enough,  you have to overpaint white birds a bit to make them look white, if that makes any sense. Or at least to make them look rounded and not flat.  White is a color that picks up color from everything around it. You can do all kinds of dirty work in the shadows of white, as long as you keep the highlights bright white. If you keep the highlights clean, the whole thing will read as white, (almost) no matter what you do in the shadows.

White is a negative space, and other colors rush in to fill it. They reflect on white; they fill it up. White is such fun to paint.

I started painting in head, bill and legs.And the darker those bits got, the cleaner the bird looked. Put dirty white against black and it suddenly looks bright and clean. And now you see why I wanted the bird to raise its foot. I couldn't resist that shrimp-pink appendage, so unexpected in such a somberly colored bird.Let's work on that head, and trick in the black edge of the flight feathers along the underside of the stork. Ahh. Now the white looks white again. Isn't that cool beyond cool?

Some of those ripples in the background are still a bit aggressive, a bit too bright, and I think they're fighting with the bird.

So I calm them down with some more gray-blue washes, and paint over an annoying squiggly one under the bird's back leg with dark gray. Time to sign it.
Let's have another look at that reference photo. You might be interested in my thought process on the stork. Although it's a lovely photo, I thought it lacked a bit in mood, due to the fact that the stork is on alert and facing the viewer. He looks a little tense, and facing front, he blocks the viewer from entering his world. He looks like he's challenging you, and deciding whether to fly off. As I thought about it, facing the stork more into the scene would help the viewer enter, and make the bird less confrontational. I also wanted to put the stork in a quieter, more reflective mood, so I pulled his head in and fluffed his feathers out. I very nearly closed his eyes but in the end I didn't want to remove that point of contact with the viewer.
The result is considerably simplified from the photo; fewer little rings and droplets, the stork in a more peaceful and contemplative attitude. It's not raining quite as hard in my painting as in the photo, is it? 

I like what watercolor does with water. The diffusing wet-on-wet wash gives it a painterly magic that a photo (or a slavish rendering of a photo) can't achieve. I could see the shrimp-pink foot underwater and couldn't resist raising it for a peek. I haven't necessarily improved on the photo, but I've made a painting of it with the filter of my brain. I took the commission in August, but I wasn't really ready to paint it until November, because thoughts like how to enhance the mood of the scene, how to draw the viewer in, and how to render the raindrops don't come quickly to me.

I think it's done. I don't want to overwork it. All told, I've spent one day's work on the drawing and preparation (transferring and masking); one day on the water and a day on the bird. And oh, three months on the thinking part. I do the hard stuff first and save the most fun stuff for last. It's kind of a reward system.

Net result: Money to put toward groceries and gas, happy clients, and a temporarily unblocked creative spirit. I didn't lose it; it was always there, but it seems I have to prove that to myself again and again.

Oh--the recipient loved it. Here's an excerpt from the sweetheart of a guy who commissioned it:

"I’d been teasing that her big gift was going to blow her mind, so after exchanging all the other gifts I had her close her eyes while I went upstairs to retrieve the BIG present that had been hidden unbeknownst to her in her closet the whole time. Played the eyes-closed game, had her open them, and…

"One of the things about gift-giving is that you know what the gift is and the recipient does not –as such, seeing someone look at something the first time, you can see the thought process play out in real time:

1. What is...
2. What the…
3. Oh my, this is just…
4. Oh wow…
5. WOW…
6. Hey, wait, this looks like…
7. HOLY &*(&^!
8. Wait a…HOLY &*&*^@!

And that’s pretty much how it went, and I got to watch it, and it was perfect."

Giving gifts is so much better than receiving, isn't it?

Love ya, mean it,


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Monday, December 22, 2008

Rain Falling on Water

At this point I think it would be illuminating to show you the photo I was asked to work from. It's really wonderful, quite moody. When I first saw it I despaired of being able to capture the rainy feeling and especially those concentric circles. And it was daunting, too, because the ripples are dark lines on a light ground, and almost imperceptibly they transition to pale lines on a dark ground. Yeeks! The biggest part of translating a photo into a painting is having to figure out what's going on in the photo, and then figuring out how you're going to do that in a painting.

I started on the ripples by painting the ones on the left side of the page, the easy ones, which are dark lines on pale water. I varied their intensity and hue so they wouldn't look mechanical. I made the ripples in the foreground a bit darker than the ones farther back, so the distant ones would recede. Speaking of receding, the masked ripples were terribly, brightly white when I peeled the compound off. Yuck. I knew that would happen, but it was still kind of a bummer. I'd have to go over each one with a wash the same color as the pale water, to calm them down and allow the stork to be the most prominent element of the painting. Doing this would also tie the two halves of the painting together, with pale gray-blue being the uniting element.

Peeling the masking film off the stork helped me see how to tone the ripples behind it. The dark puddles of pigment on the masking film, left from my brushstrokes while painting the wash, were distracting me. Once that was off, I set about toning the ripples and calming down those awful white rings.Working much better. I don't want the painting to be all about the ripples. Toning them down helped.

With the water under control, I was ready to wet the bird down with clear water and start painting it. I always use an ancient brush I got at Pearl Paint in the 80's for this. Don't know why. Lucky brush. Holds a lot of water. I can hardly wait to start on the bird. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow...

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blasting Through the Creative Block

We're not done with Guyana, not by a long shot. But I need a little break, because I've fallen behind thanks to the Christmas madness. So the next three posts are about painting.

I'll tell you a secret. Since I've started blogging, since photography and daily exercise of my writing muscles have taken increasing prominence in my creative life, I haven't painted very much. In fact, I've probably painted less in the last two years than at any time of my life. Complaining? Nope. Just pointing it out. I'm happy with what I am; my creative output is as high as ever; it's just in a different form than before. I'm thinking more in terms of commentaries and essays and photos than in drawings and paintings these days.

Having admitted that to myself, accepted it, and found no shame in it, I still love to paint. It's just harder to work up to it. I'm sure you creative souls out there know exactly what I'm saying. You think, "Well, today I'll start that painting." (Substitute whatever significant creative endeavor you wish for the word "painting.") And then you look, and the orchids all need to be repotted. Or the studio's a mess, and you can't work in a mess like that. Or you need to vanquish a huge clothes monster lurking behind the bedroom door. Or...whatever you can come up with. I've used all those excuses and more.

What's behind that avoidance behavior, at least on my part, is fear. Fear that I have lost it. Fear that I'll climb on the creative bicycle and have a horrible wreck, a tangle of rubber and metal. Mistrust of myself, my own power to make something however I want to make it. It's stupid, it's a huge waste of time, but it does tend to get the house cleaned and the trash gathered and the laundry baskets emptied. And it also gets me a blocked up soul.

So I put off starting this painting for weeks, until it got close to when it was due (early December). It's a commission, a secret Christmas present for a Florida fan of Letters from Eden who also happens to be a photographer, commissioned by her fiancee. One of the nice things about painting on commission is that you meet the nicest guys, who want to surprise their girlfriends or wives with something you've painted just for them.

By the way, he couldn't wait until Christmas to give it to her, so I'm not spoiling anything here.

Commissions get me off my creative duff. I had no more excuses. So let's paint a wood stork in the rain, shall we?
This was a private commission with very specific parameters. The commissioning party wanted a painting of a wood stork in the rain. Nice subject, moody; maybe a bit challenging. I had to make sure my raindrop spatters were convincing, and aligned right for the plane of the water, yet pleasingly random. I relied heavily on a photo by the surprise giftee of rain spatters on water for that, and transferred each little set of rings to the watercolor paper in pencil.

I wanted the bird to enhance the mood of solitary reflection, maybe tinged with loneliness. I wanted it to be at rest, yet alert, on the verge of changing position. So I puffed out its neck feathers as if it had been sleeping awhile, but raised one foot as if it were about to take a step and break that solitude. There was another reason I wanted to show a foot, which should be obvious in the first image in this post.
I cut the shape of the stork, which is white, out of masking film, and sealed the edges with liquid masking compound (I use Incredible White masking compound, a rubber cement-like liquid that dries to a tan rubbery finish). This would allow me to paint a nice runny wash over the whole page without worrying about going around the bird's shape.

While I was at it, I painted some of the ripples on in masking liquid, because they would be lighter than the dark ground of the water.

And remembered that I had forgotten to stretch the sheet of watercolor paper before starting my work. These things happen when you haven't painted for two months. So I sprayed the back of the sheet with water, laid it on a piece of particle board, and taped it down. It warped and bent and then as it dried it stretched taut, and was ready for my washes.After all that prep, the fun part finally arrived. I sprayed the sheet down with water and laid in a nice juicy wash of cobalt blue and burnt umber, with a touch of German raw umber to give it an earthy cast. Now you can see how the masked ripples jump out. I masked the ripples only where the water was going to be dark. It was a little tricky figuring out how to do this, and I had to think about it for about a month before jumping in on it. At least that's what I told myself as I wiped counters and emptied trash.Couldn't resist sprinkling a little salt in the darker parts. Salt is hydrophilic, and it attracts water and repels pigment, resulting in little white sparkles wherever the grains fell.

In light colored water, the ripples appear as dark lines. In dark colored water, the ripples are pale lines. I had to figure out how to transition between the two zones of the painting, and make the whole thing believable.  Ninety percent of watercolor painting, at least for me, is in thinking it all out. I like to plan it, and figure out exactly what I'm going to do before touching brush to paper. You have to plan watercolor because you have to leave the white parts, either by masking them, as I've done, or by painting around them. You don't have the option, as you do in oil or acrylic, of painting a dark ground and then painting white areas on top of that dark ground. In watercolor, you paint from light to dark.

When all this dried, it was time to paint those ripple lines. After that, I'd peel the masking film off the stork shape and get going on the bird. Dessert!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

The falls held us in its thrall as we wolfed down the best meal of the trip-homemade Indian curry wraps, still piping hot, wrapped in foil. Nothing tastes better than good hot food, outdoors.
Life IS good. Even at 90 degrees and who-knows-what humidity. It was SO HOT.

Kaieteur Falls is not just beautiful. It's also a brewery for biodiversity. Think 20,000 species of plants on the Shield. No wonder I had not the faintest clue what I was looking at most of the time. I think these tiny purple jobs were orchids, but...who knows what this little grassy but not grassy pompom thingy could be? It's weird for a Science Chimp to look at something and not even be able to get it down to family, much less genus or species. Caryophyllaceae? Beats me. Bignoniaceae? Dunno. Pretty vine, though.

It's also sort of fun to be forced to shrug and appreciate a strange plant without naming it...for awhile. This one was blooming, innocent of leaves or anything but a golden flower, on the forest floor. Huh?My inner Chimp was fretting badly on this trip, wanting to know, wanting to know. Dunno. Arggh. A huge rhododendron-like shrub with very un-rhody flowers, reminiscent of those of the mayapple. For all I knew I was looking at something that occurs nowhere else.

Like these CARNIVOROUS BROMELIADS. Yes. I mean, what gives with a carnivorous bromeliad? See how it's yellow-- has very little, if any, chlorophyll? Doesn't need it--it's eating bugs. I think I was told that they occur nowhere else in the world. How cool is that, to see such a rare endemic, that makes its living like no other bromeliad?

I knew these were sundews and damselflies. Whew. Good to know something, no matter how small. I just wanted to put a name on everything. Is it any wonder daughter Phoebe's middle name is Linnea, for Carolus Linnaeus?

From the air, I saw the strange golden leaves of a bizarre plant, and wondered aloud what it could be, growing in such profusion near the falls. Fortunately we were able to ground-truth the sighting with a good hike through the odd low forest around the falls. The mystery plants were tank bromeliads Brocchinia micrantha, only the world's largest bromeliad! Yeeps! They were beyond huge. Here are some people for scale. And they grow only here, at Kaieteur Falls.

But it got better. In the rainwater caught in the bromeliad's leaf junctions were tiny frogs--here's a female or juvenile. They were golden poison-dart frogs Colostethus beebei. These entrancing creatures live their entire lives in the pools in tank bromeliads--egg, tadpole, adult; egg, tadpole, adult. Amazing. Because it showered several times during our hike, I understood how they could accomplish this. The enormous slick bromeliad leaves channel the rainwater down to their bases, where it sits and accumulates all kinds of detritus along with frog tenants. This is what nourishes the plant. I watched in fascination as the leaves caught rain and ran it into their "tanks." Every plant had at least one frog, some many more. How I wished Liam and Phoebe had been along to find frogs in each plant--it would have been like an Easter egg hunt for them. But don't touch--they're highly toxic! How can something so appealing be so poisonous?

About thirty miles up the river live 500 members of the Patamona tribe. The falls is named for Chief Kai, who, legend has it, went over the falls in a canoe, sacrificing himself to the gods, to save his village from invasion. The Patamonas will likely be instrumental in any ecotourism that goes on in this undeveloped, pristine place. It was amazing to me to see such a stunning natural wonder, such a diverse ecosystem, left so unspoiled and untrammeled. There are no developed roads; you can only get there by plane. And the single accommodation near the falls is just an open shanty with a few hammocks hanging in it. You can see its red roof in this picture. No skyscrapers, no casinos, no condos...just a shanty. That made my heart sing, but I also wondered how this place would be preserved if people can't get to it to appreciate and study it, to stay there and soak up its beauty and wonder. We were on the ground floor, no, the basement of ecotourism here, looking at what might be. I felt like an early explorer beholding Yellowstone for the first time, knowing that people would want to see it, and in the next thought wondering what would become of it when they did.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kaieteur Falls Magic

On the second day of our journey (I know...I've gotten what? eleven posts out of the first day!) we went up and away in a teeny tiny plane. A solitary sandpiper teetered at the airport, saying good bye.
Georgetown, Guyana's capital city, from the air. It is not particularly cosmopolitan, as you can see.
A leper colony, now defunct. The graveyard was on the little island in the foreground. I thought of all the suffering that had gone on there.
I could hardly take my eyes off our pilot who looked so much like Chet Baker's foster father David that I wanted to give him a hug. Well, I would have enjoyed giving him a hug even if he didn't look like David's lost twin...but enough from the Invisible Woman.

Today, we'd take a much-too- brief excursion to experience the magic of Kaieteur National Park. Designated in 1929, the park is huge--242 square miles of almost- unbroken rain forest.
When I spotted these denuded mountains from the air, I assumed they'd been deforested. Isn't most of Latin America thus scarred? But no--I was told that these are natural savannahs, formed because the soil is too thin to support trees. Amazing. Kaieteur National Park sits on the Guiana Shield, a two billion year-old bit of the earth's crust that spans 30,000 square miles between the Amazon and the Orinoco. The falls itself is the world's tallest single-drop waterfall, at a dizzying 741 feet. Our birdwatching tower on top of our house is 41 feet tall. Just add 700 more feet and you have the potential to brew up some serious acrophobia. I took this from the air, as our skilled pilot banked to give us a good view of the falls. The river just kind of pokes along, widens out and then... Yikes!We walked and walked, getting closer to the falls with each overlook.
OK, that's probably plenty close. Eeeeek. Tannins stain the water a cola-brown.
There were rainbows in the mist.
Two by intrepid two, we crawled to the edge to look down into the gorge. Here are Terry and Judy Moore.
I was fascinated by the cushiony plants on the gorge walls. A biologist once lowered himself down on ropes and spent a very cold, uncomfortable night in the gorge, collecting plants and checking out the bizarre life forms down there. I'd love to know what he found.
But I was more than content to spend my time at the top of the gorge. No ropes, thank you.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wild Macaws

We're back in Guyana, as the snow pelts down like feathers in Ohio.  

A lot of people don't know that macaws come in other flavors than huge, red or blue. We've all seen the scarlet macaw with its yellow and blue wings, its lookalike cousin the green-winged macaw (also red, but with green and blue wings), and the blue and yellow macaw (ubiquitous in any advertisement for tropical anything; an icon of Jimmy Buffett's brand). Nearly three feet long, these species are a lotta bird.

But there's a whole spectrum of small macaws, the smallest being the red-shouldered macaw Diopsittaca n. nobilis. In the pet bird trade, D. nobilis is also known as the Hahn's or noble macaw. There are three subspecies in all; D. n. cumanensis has a horn-colored maxilla. The Guyanan subspecies, with its slate-colored maxilla, is D. n. nobilis. At 365 gm, my chestnut-fronted macaw Charlie weighs more than twice as much as a red-shouldered macaw : 165 gm (5.6) oz.

I've always thought that it's a short leap from the smallest macaws like the red-shouldered to the large conures such as the blue-crowned conure Aratinga acuticaudata, (made famous in the movie "Paulie.") But for a bit of bare facial skin, there's precious little difference in size, shape or behavior between macaws and conures.

Almost everywhere we went on the Guyanan coastal plain and even well into the savannah, we heard the harsh eek-eek-eek-ing of red-shouldered macaws. They travel in large flocks and they always seem to be feeding, ripping into palm fruits, as here, or mangoes (a later post).They're gorgeous, highly social, acrobatic little birds. Upside-down is just fine with them; they seem to be just as comfortable head-down as head-up. (Don't miss the bird in the upper left quadrant).
Here's one investigating the cannonball tree.
Macaws locomote by grabbing branches with the bill as you would your hand. They really seem to make up for not having hands with that bill.

A lot of these birds were acting "breedy," coming down in the lower canopy to investigate potential nest sites. I settled back to watch a pair that was apart from the flock and suspiciously low in a tree.Here's the pair, and the object of their interest: the black cavity in the lower right corner of the photo.
One bird tucked itself into the cavity, and the other followed to investigate.
Catch those red "shoulders," actually lesser underwing coverts.
I left them in peace, not wanting them to think I knew where they might be nesting.
When you see big flocks of macaws, you're given to wonder how each pair manages to find a rotten tree cavity large enough to accomodate its nest. But there are a lot of oversized trees in the tropics, and a whole lot more rot than there is in temperate zones. Still, there are probably birds who fail to find a suitable cavity--they're nest-site limited. Makes you want to put up some macaw boxes. I can just imagine my yard if I lived in Guyana.
It would be full of macaws, flying free
coming in to my palms and mangoes, getting a handout of fruit or seeds at my feeders
flashing golden wings.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Zick Alert

Not to usurp yer wallowing in baby pictures of my overexposed puppeh, but tonight one of my essays published on the National Public Radio home page. It's about turning 50--and disappearing.

Please click the link. I'd love it if you'd leave a comment or recommend it if it speaks to you.
Thanks so much.

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A Boston Terrier Birthday

We're celebrating Chet Baker's fourth birthday with a retrospective of his puppehhood. When Jane Streett, Chet's breeder, sent us this snapshot, we swooned for hours. Days. Weeks. Put him on a bun and serve him up.You see, I formed such an instant bond with Jane at Pups Will Travel in our first phone conversation that we bought our doggeh online, nay, in utero!! and didn't meet him in person for nine weeks. I liked Jane's philosophy. She breeds for temperament and sound conformation, working overtime to keep her line free of genetic defects and her puppies full of good humor and intelligence. She liked mine, especially the parts about the 80-acre nature sanctuary and the hikes in the woods and the two sweet kids and my working at home. Not to mention the fact that Bill had been bugging me to get a dog for 13 years, and I had finally decided I was ready. Notice in this picture how Liam is holding his hands. The Bacon, like most puppies, was a tad on the chewy-nippy side to start with. He tried but ultimately failed to attain a pack rank right below Phoebe but above Liam. Nope, you're bottom rung, buddy. But you'll like bottom rung.

I tried like crazy to hide my online machinations from Phoebe, but she was too smart for me, and busted me six days before Chet was even born. She started giving me even more spontaneous hugs than usual, and showed just a little too much interest in a Boston terrier in a dog show on TV ("Mommy, I really LIKE those dogs!" This, from a kid who'd been buggin' me for a golden retriever for two years...) and I got suspicious that she had been reading my email. Sure enough. I walked into the studio one day and caught her pirouetting around, eyes closed, whispering, "I'm getting a PUPPY!!!" I had wanted to surprise the kids at Christmas with a photo of him, wrapped up in a box under the tree, but instead we got to anticipate Chet's birth together, which was way more fun.

Phoebe at 8, the old soul. Would you buy this sweet girl a puppy? Yeah, me too.

Finally, on December 12, 2004, we got the email we'd been waiting for. Chili Bean had delivered her first litter, just two babies. And we had second pick. We waited anxiously to hear which puppy went to the family with first pick. But the kids had already decided that the little black puppy with one white glove was the one they wanted. Fingers were crossed...
photo by Jane Streett

Sometimes things work out. We got the one with the black neck. Kind of looks like his mammy, don't he? As you can see, Chet was a home-bred dog, born not in a kennel or a manger, but in Jane's home. He was therefore spoiled rotten from Hour One. Here he is not quite a month old, January 5, 2005.Photo by Jane Streett. I requested a picture of Chet's belly meat and she came through. Had to make sure he had a tasty brisket. It was killing us to wait until he was weaned and ready in mid-February! The kids and I drove over to eastern PA and picked him up on the morning of February 17, 2005. I can't remember any drive to the East Coast before or since that went that fast. We flew on wings of anticipation.

Chet on Day One at Indigo Hill, wearing his tube sock sweater. Superdog! My musical hub Bill of the Birds named him within a few minutes of seeing his first picture. "I've always wanted to name a dog Chet Baker," he said, and that was that.I can't resist another tube sock shot. Even though it's more like a sausage casing...I have to say he was a rather appealing puppy. Just the thing for a 46-year-old mother of two with a relapse of of chronic baby fever. A puppeh who looks like a babeh ought to do it.Yep, that babydog pushes every one of my buttons. And yes, I stayed home with him, trying to absorb every molecule of his cuteness, and I'm still here. Stayed home for my kids, stayed home for the dog, did it for me, too.

And now that puppy, four years later, is asleep on my coat in the chair right next to me as I write. And I do not know what I would do without him. I run my hand over his satiny back and he gives a rattling dog sigh of contentment, and I think about this animal that we have bred to want nothing more than to keep our company. And I think about the things that humans have developed: The Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, the Chunnel, Swarovski EL binoculars, trigeneric orchid hybrids, creme brulee and the Boston terrier, to name just a few. They are surely among our finest works.
Thank you, Jane.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happeh Birthday, Chet Baker!

Newborn Bacon!! Ennh!  Photo by Jane Streett

On Friday, December 12, 2008, Chet Baker turned four. It's hard to believe our puppeh is now 28 in people years--a young man in his prime. We did not have a formal party this year, being swept up in a great deal of holiday-related splup, but he did get an Orca chew toy, a lunch of Hamburger Rice Dinner (HRD), and about two hundred extra kisses.

I thought it would be good to take a look at Chet Baker as a newborn. I can hear the squeals from most every state in the Union and a few foreign countries... The only way you can tell it's Chet is the Michael Jackson glove on his right forepaw. It is hard to believe that this small weaselly creature will ever grow up to be my heartbeat. Like any mother, however, I was in love from the first look.
Photo by Jane Streett

As you can see in this photo of a week-old Chet Baker, the Tennessee turd-tail is intact, even though Chet is barely a handful at this point. Most Boston terriers are born with a naturally short "screw tail;" they get that from their bulldog genes. People who see Chet's gorgeous oversized stand-up ears are surprised to learn that there are no knives involved there, either. They're perfect from the get-go. Don't get me started on cropping dogs' ears. We just won't go there on my shiny happy blog.

Baker plumped up nicely. Here he is on January 5, 2005.
Photo by Jane Streett

I cannot say that he has been nice to a cat since this picture was taken February 8 '05, however.Man, has he got the domed forehead workin'.           Photo by Jane Streett

Beautiful Garbonzo gives a foretaste of Chet's future glory in this picture. They're not related, but they could be by their looks. What beautiful dogs Jane keeps.
Chet is only pretending to be submissive in this picture. He is a little bossyboots.
Photo by Jane Streett

Next: Some More Puppeh Pictures of Chet Baker. I'm doling them out in two doses so your teeth don't fall out from the sweetness. Those of you who are not a soupy mass of doughnut batter at the prospect of more chubby Chetter, just hang on. There will be more Guyana birds and animals coming up Tuesday night.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Manatee Love

In the previous post, I mentioned having come to know some injured and orphaned manatees at INPA, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonas, in Manaus, Brazil, more commonly known auf Englisch as the Amazonian Research Institute. I was on leave from college, loosely associated with a graduate student in ornithology, doing various odd jobs and learning to paint birds. The year was 1979.

There were all kinds of odd things around INPA, not least of which was a mixed community of world citizens, all there to study Amazonian life. There were also some large aboveground swimming pools, each of which housed a manatee. Most had been orphaned by hunters and bottle-fed, so they were tame as tame could be. One young male was my special favorite, for his sense of humor. I'd go there in the evenings to play pennywhistle for the manatees, who would hang their flippers over the sides of their pools to stand up and listen appreciatively. I'd teeter on the edge of his pool as I played, and he would circle faster and faster. Suddenly, he'd come up right beneath me and plant a huge wet manatee kiss on my butt, pushing me up, trying to tip me into the pool. Do I wish I'd had a camera then? Yes, oh yes.

At INPA, I learned that these orphaned manatees desperately needed a loving touch, and I watched the Brazilian caretakers, all women, take the babies in their arms as they gave them their bottles. Being as lonely in those six solitary months as I'd ever been in my life, the manatees and I gave each other many a hug. Touch is extremely important to these denizens of muddy, dark waters, and manatees are in nearly constant contact, stroking each other with flippers, whiskers and tail.
Their valvelike nostrils have to be seen to be believed, opening and closing with an airtight seal. I regret to say that I have not been lucky enough to exchange breaths with a manatee, the way I love to do with horses and cattle, because the nostrils stay closed tight until the manatee inhales, and it happens very quickly, and then the nostrils slam shut again. In the picture above, don't miss her tiny bright eye under all the waterweed. I have to tell you that manatee skin is like the finest silky microfiber. It's not rubbery, really; manatees aren't hard and taut like dolphins. They're more squooshy and silky than that. They feel more like a blubbery water balloon, or a heavy lady in a wetsuit.
Mike leans down to get acquainted, as the manatee inhales his scent. We're not in Brazil here; we're in the Georgetown Botanic Garden in Guyana, South America, where some tame manatees dwell.

The manatees appreciated our handouts of lush grass from places where they couldn't by Mike Weedon

I let them suck on my fingers, too, just like calves, all the while crooning and singing to them, telling them what wonderful animals they were. I know they enjoyed it. Since manatees have only rubbery gums up front (the powerful crushing molars are in back), and since they are such lovely animals, I never felt afraid letting them suck on my fingers. But then I am the one down on my knees by koi ponds letting giant three-foot-long carp suck on my fingers, so maybe I'm a special case. OK. Not just by Mike Weedon

We love you, too!
Each manatee has a distinctive white patch on its chest, but you have to be underneath them to see it.
It's quite rare to get a full-body picture of a mantee. Check out that amazing paddle of a tail.
Please do not go. Please stay here and feed us for awhile longer.

But wait. What's that little flipper by your tail, Missy?
AGGGGGH!!! A baby, keeping its flipper on Mama just to make sure she's there. I'm about as happy as a Science Chimp gets. Birds? What do you mean, it's time to go watch more birds? People. There are MANATEES here! Just leave me here in the rain with these gentle, beautiful beasts. I'll catch up.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Manatee Surprise

So we're tooling around the Georgetown Botanic Garden in Guyana, South America, in a light afternoon shower, looking at flycatchers and jacanas and greater anis, and at some distance I see this boy running back and forth from the edge of a small waterway to a patch of lush grass. He's pulling grass and running back to the canal, just as you would if you...were...feeding...a..pony...or...a....MANATEE!!! AGGGGH!!!

You cannot imagine how excited I was to come into contact once again with manatees. The Science Chimp's every hair stood on end, she pant-hooted and hugged herself. You see, I have an enormous soft spot for manatees, ever since having shared their space at the Amazonian Research Institute in Manaus, Brazil as a lonely college student in 1979. I came to know several individuals housed there under the auspices of Robin Best's Projeto Peixe-boi, and loved them from the first kiss on their smooth rubbery noses. I held tiny orphaned Amazonian freshwater manatees, no bigger than a piglet, in my arms and watched their Brazilian caretakers feed them with baby bottles. Oh my goodness. Manatees. It all came flooding back.So this boy is pulling grass and offering it to the eager manatees, and I got right in and pulled grass with him.Knowing manatees as I do, I knew they love to be spoken to and fondled--they're very sensual animals, endlessly sweet and affectionate. The other members of my group looked at me as if I'd been out in the sun too long when I knelt and hugged them as best I could, given the soggy substrate. Sure, they were in scuzzy water of uncertain origin; sure, they are the oddest and most foreign of beasts, but behind those minuscule eyes and that soft, questing muzzle is the gentlest of souls. Food motivated? You betcha. But there's much more to manatees than meets the eye. Tomorrow: Zick gets down and personal with the manatees.Feed me. Feed me good. But first, love me all up. Rub me down. Kisses would be fine.

If there is a living Schmoo, the Amazonian manatee is it.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Caciques, Orioles, Blackbirds and Tanagers

We're birding together in Guyana. I love showing birds to people. First is the yellow-rumped cacique (Cah-SEEK), an icterid named for pre-Columbian tribal chiefs who probably wore flashy clothes. When this bird flies, his whole back half is glowing yellow. And he's a big boy--about the size of a pigeon. This cacique was on a hunt for palm fruits, which he dispatched neatly with his conical glow-in-the-dark bill. And dig those china blue eyes!
Caciques nest colonially, like their huge relatives the oropendolas, building great sacklike nests of grasses and rootlets. Here's a proud male on his nest:
In the wet meadows along the roads, and especially near airports, we all got quick glimpses of Leistes (now Sturnella) militaris, the red-breasted blackbird. This bird acts and looks like a meadowlark or bobolink who got dipped in red paint. It sits atop posts and makes quick stuttering flights above the grasstops, only to drop in before you get a good look at it. It is spectacular, even in a brief glimpse, which was all I got:
Another icterid which was nearly ubiquitous was the golden oriole. This lovely bird was constructing its sacklike nest in the botanic garden.
Everywhere we went, the golden orioles were busy weaving their egg-purses.
This one is just finishing up taking a poop. You probably liked the pose before I told you that.
Perhaps feeling abashed, he struck a better pose for me:Here I am, not pooping.

As gorgeous and glowing as it was, there was something very familiar about the yellow oriole--it favors our Bullock's oriole. My switchboard really lights up when I see a bird that looks nothing like anything we have in the States. Well, this burnished-buff tanager is shaped like a scarlet tanager, but the similarity ends there.
This pretty little tanager has the oddest color scheme--soft turquoise wings on an opalescent buff body. He tops it off with a black mask and a coppery crown.What a treat to see new birds, odd birds, any birds. Here's to birds! and how they enrich our lives.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Snail Kite

A view of two common raptors: yellow-headed caracara (lower) and snail kite (upper)--this one holding its drippy prey.

While they're an endangered species, limited to peninsular Florida in the U.S., snail kites are really common along the Guyana coast, as is their prey, the apple snail, Pomacea paludosa. Snail kites sit all over the wires in Georgetown. We had a rare opportunity to watch a young bird working on its catch just across a canal. Snail kites are not plunge-divers; they neatly pluck snails from shallow water, usually without so much as wetting their belly feathers. If a snail kite can't find snails, as in a drought, it will take small mammals, turtles, fish and crabs, but the lion's share of its nutrition comes from apple snails.

The snail kite has a very specialized bill, with a sickle-shaped maxilla that it uses to pry the apple snail's body out of its protective shell. First, though, it must pry off the operculum, the snail's hard front door. It sticks its maxilla tip in and cuts the columellar muscle, leaving the snail's body free to be removed. You can see here that the bird's bill is wide open as it runs the sickle-shaped maxilla deep into the shell to cut the muscle. Then it pulls the whole protein-rich wad of meat out. It removes what it doesn't want and gulps the rest down.I got two acceptable kite shots. This is one of them. It's the same bird, closer and in better light.
And here's a lovely adult, all slate-gray with a white and black banded tail, perched on a tangle of powerlines near the Georgetown airport.
For really good photos of the same birds, see my friend Mike Weedon's beautiful photoblog, and my friend Kevin Loughlin's gorgeous web site. Mike was mostly digiscoping, and Kevin was hauling a big photorig and knew how to use it. This was the trip in which I discovered that I was underequipped for the things I wanted to shoot. I suspect it will be a recurring theme in posts to come. I'll try not to whine too much. This blog, after all, is supposed to be a celebration. Whee!

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Amazon Parrots

Georgetown, Guyana's Botanical Gardens were, hands down, the best place to observe multiple parrot species doing their respective things. Botanic gardens in general are incredibly rich in bird life, because the same trees we plant for their flowers and fruits are the ones birds like to exploit.

At daybreak, the Botanical Garden was ascream with wild parrots of six different species: orange-winged Amazon, yellow-crowned Amazon, festive Amazon, red-shouldered (Hahn's) macaw, mealy Amazon, and green-rumped parrotlet. A couple of blue and yellow macaws were hollering, too, but these deep-forest birds certainly didn't get there under their own steam. I had my doubts about this festive Amazon, a rare bird in Guyana. What was it doing in a botanical garden/zoo, all by itself?Having seen festive Amazons by the bushel in Brazil, I didn't need to worry about whether to add it to my life list. As if I worried about that stuff in the first place. It was a glorious bird, its colors dampened only by the fact that my camera had spent the night in air conditioning and, along with almost everyone else's optics, was violently objecting to being brought out in the steamy morning heat.I was frantically wiping the fog off the lens every few seconds, trying to get an acceptable image. I wish I'd been able to show you his scarlet rump, source of his "festive" handle. Lovely blue face, too.Tropical travel tip from Leica's Terry Moore: Leave your camera in the hotel bathroom and shut the door, and try to keep it close to outside temperature and humidity conditions, or you'll get a nasty surprise on your first morning out. The air will be blue with fog and words.

While befogged, I witnessed a battle between two orange-winged Amazons that looked like something out of one of Liam's dinosaur books. There's always squabbling amongst parrots, even (and especially) mated pairs. The bird with its back to us temporarily has the upper hand, forcing its sparring partner to hang precariously from the perch.Not so fast! Awk! Awk! Screech! They flash the amazing colors of their wings and tail in battle. Orange-winged Amazons were the most common parrots we encountered. When I say "parrots," I mean here the square-tailed Amazon parrots. The most common psittacine (a group which includes parrots, macaws, parakeets and parrotlets) we encountered in Guyana was the red-shouldered macaw, a small cousin to my beloved Charles (a chestnut-fronted macaw), and subject of two posts to come.

Identifying parrots in flight is great fun for me, though a lot of birders throw up their hands. You can do a lot of it by voice--the screeches differ by species. Here is a nice shot showing two species in flight--an orange-winged Amazon on the left, and a yellow-crowned Amazon on the right. See the orange wing speculum on the left hand bird, and the bright red one on the right bird?The yellow-crowned Amazon is the Guyanan race of the famous yellow-naped Amazon and "double yellow-headed" Amazon, both stalwarts of the caged bird trade, and famed for their talking ability. The only difference in the three, all members of the superspecies Amazona ochrocephala, is the distribution of the yellow on head, nape, or cheek. Throughout Latin America, A. ochrocephala is referred to as "Loro real," meaning "The real parrot," because it's the best talker and most coveted.There's a bright surprise of red at the shoulder when the yellow-crowned Amazon takes wing.You can tell their calls from those of other parrots because they have a tremolo or yodeling quality, which predisposes them to singing operatic arias to while away their boredom as caged birds. It was wonderful to see parrots self-actualizing with friends and family in the wild. Here's another yellow-crowned Amazon taking off. If you look closely at the extreme left border of the picture, you can see a red-shouldered macaw's red wrist patches and white face as it takes off, too.An orange-winged Amazon struts in the sun. My lens has finally cleared enough to make good use of these cooperative parrots.A pair of orange-wingeds discusses their next nesting venture. Looks like his tail's afire!Taking off for the wild blue. Good bye, beautiful free parrot. As I write, Charles is rummaging around behind the laptop screen, trying to see if he'll fit beneath my computer. Yesterday he opened my Birds of Venezuela guide to the macaw plate and ran his bill over the images, chuckling. And just now--dammit!!-- bit a notch out of the page. Book damage, some comic relief, a rubbery tongue in my ear, and some warm kisses on his doeskin cheek are about all a macaw is good for in the studio.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Confusing Flycatchers of Guyana

After awhile, you get used to the fact that there are flycatchers everywhere you look in the tropics. We need them to keep the bugs down, for one thing. They've got a big job in Guyana.

Identifying tropical flycatchers can be tricky, as there are a bunch of them wearing the same uniform with different jobs, and different sizes and bills to go with those uniforms. I'll show you a few lookalikes here.

First and usually most obvious is the great kiskadee, which at first light shouts, "Eat your BEANS!! Eat, eat your BEANS!!" in tropical zones from Texas through South America. I always travel with earplugs, especially in the tropics, where my bird-finding brain never shuts off. Here's a recently fledged great kiskadee (see its yellow mouth corners?)I always find the tropics disorienting, because you can see birds feeding young and nest-building in November. In fact, the botanic garden had a flurry of nestbuilding activity. This great kiskadee is building an untidy ball of sticks and grasses in a low leafless tree.
Everybody was doin' it. I can't remember if this is the same bird or not. I think it was, but there were so many lookalike flycatchers that morning, and those kiskadees are such shape-shifters!Flycatcher language can be nonverbal as well as vocal. Here, a couple of flycatchers square off. Even the Science Chimp is not dead sure what species are involved. I thought they were great kiskadees, but I'm not absolutely sure. They might be lesser kiskadees, which look just like greats, but have a finer bill. You see the problem.
The right hand bird is perched lower, but it gets the upper hand with a little display of heretofore-hidden crown feathers.Bada BING he's got the left-hand bird intimidated, and it responds by facing away, a gesture of submission. (I'd never use my sharp bill on you, M'lord!)
Flycatchers and lotus pods. Methinks this is a great kiskadee.And I'm pretty sure, with its fine bill and small head, that this is a rusty-margined flycatcher (whose wing margins aren't particularly rusty in Guyana).Just to add to the identification mystery, social flycatchers and boat-billed flycatchers identically marked with subtly different bills, are in the yellow, black, white and brown mix with the greater and lesser kiskadees, too. It gets kind of kiskadee-ey, and sometimes you just have to let them all go and go find a flycatcher that looks different from the rest.

Any tropical bird with "tody" in its name is guaranteed to be cute. Tody is Latin for "adorable." Here's a spotted tody-flycatcher. It's not spotted; it's streaked, but it's really cute, especially when you see its incongruous, staring orange eye.I talk to my subjects as I photograph them. Very softly. Sometimes they respond.

Can you show me that big ol' bill?You cute thing.

It's such fun taking you all along to Guyana, showing you things you might never get to see. But I hope you'll consider a truly wild adventure in Guyana when you've had a little preview here. (Preview will go on for some time to come). C'mon. Costa Rica's been DONE.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Marsh Birds of Guyana

Guyana is a wet, wet place. The coast lies 7 feet below sea level, and it's marshy and springy. People fish in the ditches right in town. We saw some large edible-looking fish roiling around where this man was fishing along the main highway.

So the common birds in Georgetown include marsh birds as well as garden birds. This is Donacobius, a black-capped mocking thrush, an odd thrashery yakky bird of tall reeds and somewhat uncertain taxonomic affiliations.
I was thrilled to see greater anis along with the more common smooth-billed kind. Greater anis are beautifully greenish-blue, with a pale eye and a beak like Hekyll and Jeckyll. They live and breed in colonies and blunder around with a weak, floppy flight.
I'd never seen a red-capped cardinal in the wild, but they are absolutely everywhere in Guyana, as common as our northern cardinal is in Ohio. They like rivers and marshes, and fly around in big flocks which include lots of brown-headed immature birds.

Black-crowned night heron peeks from a low limb.When I was a kid in Virginia, the National Audubon Society aired an ad, constantly, it seemed, about preserving Everglade wetlands for birds like the limpkin. Its rattling call rang regularly through our living room, and I built a childhood mythology around the limpkin, imagining it the rarest and most endangered of species. It is rare in North America (because its primary prey, the apple snail, has a limited North American distribution), but it's tolerably common in Guyana. When this limpkin uttered its resonant call, I was teleported instantly back to the gray couch with Early American eagles all over it in our Virginia living room, with Mom rattling and clanking around in the kitchen.
It flew as if it wasn't sure it would be able to land.
It takes a little while to get accustomed to the fact that the wattled jacana is one of the most abundant birds in Guyana. Every little puddle seems to have them. Still, they are birds of paradise to me, odd and strikingly beautiful. I don't know another bird that has chartreuse wings.

Here, a jacana raises those magnificent wings to reveal little orange bony spurs on its wrists, like candy corns. Used in fighting? Dunno. Mystery.An adult streaked by, with two dependent chicks in tow. I love that the young jacanas look like a completely different and perfectly good species. And it's hard to streak by with six-inch toes. It must be like running in bunny slippers.

Those toes come in very handy when balancing on lotus and lily leaves, spreading the bird's weight like a snowshoe. "Lilytrotter" is a common name for the jacana. I crouched and tried and tried to get a picture of it lifting those fantastic feet so I could show you its toes, but it was in Shuffle mode. If you look closely you can see two of its toetips toward the front of the lotus leaf. Like I said, very long toes.

After that, I tried very hard to get a photo of a jacana in flight, because we are not often given to see birds with chartreuse wings in this life. I finally got an image that makes my heart sing. Tim, Shila, this one's for you, wings, toes and all.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Africa in South America

Sometimes I am very happy to have my 300 mm. telephoto lens; it's just as handy for taking candid portraits of people as it is for birds. I love taking pictures of people, but I don't like intruding into their thoughts and lives with my camera. The last thing I want is for them to stop what they're doing and look at me.

Nearly everyone I spoke to about this trip assumed I was going to Africa when I told them I was Guyana bound. Even the Ghanian shuttle bus driver at the Columbus airport misheard me, and thought I'd just come back from his home country. It's an honest mistake, ironically made even more understandable by the physical similarity between Guyana and Africa.

The African cultural influence in Guyana is so strong that sometimes I had a hard time remembering I was in the New World. This lady was cutting grass for her cattle in the marsh in the botanic garden.She acknowledges me with a slight smile and keeps at her work. Her cattle may have been blocking traffic at that moment; zebus and other African-blooded cattle wander freely through Georgetown's streets. You really have to see it to believe it. The East Indian (Hindu) influence causes traffic to stop for the cattle. People live their lives around them. It's interesting to see cattle living peaceably among people in a fence-free environment, nursing their calves on front lawns and grabbing a bite on a median strip. Around Whipple, if anyone's cattle get out of their pastures, they immediately mend the fence and drive around until they find them and get them back in confinement. In Guyana, the cattle seem to know exactly where they're going and where they want to be, and people just deal with it.And then there's the Caribbean influence, extremely strong around Georgetown. There are lots of people walking around Georgetown who would draw long stares in America. But then I'm sure we'd draw stares in Georgetown, since I noticed immediately that most Americans outweigh Guyanans by quite a margin. Everyone seemed to be skinny to me; the people, the cattle and the dogs. Prosperity is not necessarily good for our bodies. Rastafarians keep a strict vegetarian diet, and they tended to be even skinnier than other Guyanans I saw.This gentleman is transporting his singing finch (probably of the genus Oryzoborus) to a competition. People trap, keep and trade in wild male finches in order to enter them in singing competitions, which often take place on Sundays in city parks. They place the cages next to one another and see whose bird sings most lustily and most often. Needless to say, this is not a blood sport, but bets are placed, and money changes hands. It beats cockfighting, but does represent a significant drain on wild populations of these little birds.

Because I am a curious person, I ventured into a department store in downtown Georgetown during our one two-hour free period in town to have a look around. I offer you this living room set, which for me epitomized how far away I really had come from Ohio. I think I might have spotted Elvis slipping around the corner, doubtless shopping for furnishings for the Jungle Room.Georgetown lies a frightening seven feet below sea level. It owes its existence to a seawall that completely blocks its view of the (admittedly rather muddy) Caribbean. It's very odd to be able to sense that you're on the coast, but not to be able to see it at all, without climbing a big embankment and peering over a concrete wall. It's also disturbing to contemplate what will happen to Georgetown when global warming causes the inevitable (and possibly rapid) rise in sea level. The Dutch built a system of canals and dikes throughout Georgetown, but they've fallen into some disrepair. The seawall is a place to gather and walk, and it is also a fabulous advertising opportunity. Every weekend there is a rolling party along the seawall, with sporting events, reggae artists and vendors and food booths.

Parts of the wall have been beautifully decorated by schoolkids. I could do a series of posts on just the wall art itself, if we hadn't been whipping past it at such speed.This was a particularly nice passage, doubtless painted by a professional. There was some pretty good advertising art on the streets, too. My roots desperately needed stimulation; the soaking humidity rendered my normally bouncy 'do limp as a hot flapjack. It is nice to return from the land of Hair Problems.

Much of the allure of travel is mystery. I leave you with Smaltaand Cheekies.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Lotus: Purity and Decay

I've spent the last two days, from well before sunrise to well after bedtime, editing and sorting photos from the Guyana trip. My neck is in a permanent vulturine hook from staring at the screen; my fingers stiff from doodling around with the mouse. I have gobs upon loads of photos and I want to share them all. So these posts will be heavy on images and somewhat light on prose. There is just too much to show you!

Georgetown has a fine botanic garden that is a Mecca for birds and birdwatchers. It is almost ridiculously full of and dripping with birds, most of them chowing down on the many sorts of fruit borne by the garden's trees. Better than that, there's all kinds of water, with a lazy stream flowing through, widening out into marshes and ponds, so there are kingfishers and waders in addition to orioles, parrots, pigeons and raptors. Tropical diversity hits you in the face in Guyana.
First, some plants. These are the flowers of a cannonball tree, Couroupita guianensis. From what I can find out, it's native to Guyana, though it's revered in India and grown in tropical zones throughout the world. By all accounts, the large cannonball sized fruits are nasty and inedible, though they may kill you by dropping without warning on your head. The flower stems grow directly from the lower trunk of the tree, as do the fruits, so the tree looks like it's wearing a skirt of gorgeous flowers and later brown cannonballs. It waves its main canopy of leaves high above all that mess. If I had to guess, I'd think that the fruits were meant to be eaten and dispersed by dinosaurs, being offered in the fashion known as sauropody (fruiting directly from the trunk). When you see a great big fruit offered right off the trunk, you just have to visualize an Iguanodon walking up to it and biting it off the stem, don't you? Bizarrely beautiful.
This gorgeous tree looks like a ceiba to me, one of the grandest of rainforest trees and always an emergent when it is allowed to get old enough. All along the garden, lotuses grow in shallow ditches. What an amazing plant, one I always wish I had room to grow.Lotus blossoms have a purity that astounds. And yet they always seem to grow amidst a bit of corruption, whether it be their own rotting leaves or the squelchy muck beneath. It's the contrast that's so alluring.

The bud, a perfect tulip.
The seedhead is a rattlebox, a Chinese checkerboard of wood, perforated by round holes, inside each of which a large round seed dwells.Here, my trip roommate and friend Erica peeks into a flower.
I always think of my friend Shila when I look into lotus blossoms, with that wonderful surprise of a proto-shower head inside. Thought of her when I took the last photo, too. It's the kind of thing her photographer's eye would pick up on immediately.
Lotus: Purity and beauty; death and decay, oversized--the essence of the tropics.
I know, we're in Guyana, but I've been briefly home to ingest some turkey and am now back to fluttering around in airports as usual. For those in the Birmingham, Alabama area, I'll entertain at Birmingham Audubon Society's annual Christmas Banquet at 6:30 pm Tuesday, December 2 at Vestavia Country Club. The meeting is open to the public, and you can find more information here. You'd make my day if you came up and blurted, "BLOG!"

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