Thursday, January 29, 2009

Macaws, Wild and Tame

Red and green macaws, Iwokrama Reserve, Guyana, South America

Macaws, as a group, are not the best dispersers of plant seeds. They're usually seed predators, slicing through ripe fruit to eat the seeds. When I hand a quarter of apple to Charlie, my chestnut-fronted macaw, he macerates it, reducing it to shreds, digging to the core. He obviously enjoys the apple seeds as much as or more than the fruit. Macaws are spectacularly messy eaters, and once they've dropped something to the forest floor, they don't go down and pick it up. Even homemade bread, right, Charlie?Charlie, my chestnut-fronted macaw (Ara severa). I told Charlie's story on National Public Radio back in March. He's captive-raised. He's been with me for 22 years. And every time I see parrots in the wild, I wish hard that I could set him free.

Plants make juicy sweet fruits in order to tempt animals and birds to eat them, and by doing so swallow and later disperse their seeds. They don't "want" their precious seeds to be eaten. So seeds often carry a toxic load to discourage seed predators like macaws. Ah, but the macaws are one step ahead of the plants whose seeds they enjoy. Tim Ryan's (ravishing) guest post about the clay licks of Tambopata shows one way psittacines combat toxins in their system--by eating nutrient-rich clay that also helps neutralize phytotoxins!

There are exceptions to this seed predator role, however, and an encounter with a large flock of red-shouldered macaws (Ara nobilis) at Rockview Lodge in Guyana, South America proved to be one. Several huge mango trees on the lodge grounds were coming ripe when I stayed there in November, 2008, and the macaws were all over the still-green fruits like the white on rice.
Ara nobilis is the smallest of the macaws, smaller even than some of the Aratinga parakeets (conures, in the pet trade). It has an accordingly shrill, cakky voice, and it was easy to find red-shouldered macaws wherever we went in Guyana, from the urban Georgetown Botanical Garden to the darkest interior.

This flock was putting a big hurt on some ripening mangoes. Eating all the nice flesh and leaving the seed to dry on the tree is probably not quite what the mango had in mind. Which leads me to wonder: what is the mango's preferred agent of dispersal? I'm guessing howler and capuchin monkeys, which could carry an entire fruit some distance away before devouring it and dropping the seed. Macaws are breaking the dispersal rules, but I doubt that concerns them. Macaws love to break rules (she wrote, gazing at the shredded pages of her Sibley Guide to Birds and Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds).

Other species, like this palm tanager, are the beneficiaries of the macaws' work.A palm tanager probably wouldn't be able to pierce a mango's thick skin without help, but they eagerly move in where the macaws have been.

This young red-shouldered macaw begged noisily from its parent, who was busy stripping mango flesh off the seeds.
Parrots in captivity are usually kept one to a cage. They rely on their human companions to fulfill their social needs, something at which we do an admittedly imperfect job.

When you see parrots in the wild, you realize how they were made to live. They're never alone, and what's more, they're forever messing with each other, allopreening and squabbling and playing and tussling. Family bonds are intense and long-lasting.

I watched and shot photos as best I could as the adult preened its fledgling all over. I can attest that the wingpit and tail base are a macaw's two favorite places to be tickled. Charlie raises his wing just like this when I preen him there.

Soon the rest of the family crowded around and everyone got a good preening. I was heartened to see this adult caring for three youngsters; glad these little macaws were doing their best to keep the mangoes stripped and the air full of their happy screeches.

It's been nice to write this post with a macaw on my shoulder, preening away, occasionally sticking his warm rubbery tongue in my ear-oo! And yet I'm wistful, knowing that he'll never live the way he was meant to live, in a flock of his own kind, raising his own kids and tearing up mangoes in the top of a tree. There's no way I can be a whole flock to Charlie, but I do my best.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grassland Raptors of Guyana

Every June, we go to the prairie pothole region of central North Dakota. I'm amazed anew each June as I am reminded how much life can be packed into a grassland. Maybe it's just that you can see the life of a grassland so much more easily than that of a forest. There is a whole lot of life in savannas.

Our conveyance along Ginep Road near Rockview Lodge was a huge crawler diesel that went about ten to twenty mph along the dusty road. We were loaded into the open back, which afforded good, albeit dusty and diesely, birding ops. Time and time again in the tropics I find myself in vehicles like this, where one must bang vigorously on the cabin roof to get the attention of the driver when a good bird or animal hoves into view. Because everything is of interest, the Science Chimp's impulse is to bang nearly constantly on the roof, so I know enough to stay away from the cab.

How different the savanna was from forest! This is natural savanna, formed where the soil is too shallow to support tree life. It was very odd to see a troupe of brown capuchin monkeys making their way from one treed hillock to the next. I really felt I was in Africa--again and again I believed that, and had to remind myself that this was South America.You can see the monkeys' curled tails as they bound down the hillside. Lovely creatures!

Here is a savanna hawk, to scale in its immense landscape.

And here, a close-up (though not nearly close enough for me) of this long-legged beauty, Buteogallus meridionalis. What a gorgeous beast, long winged and big-bodied. It's after snakes and lizards mostly, and it loves a good grass fire, which sends its prey leaping and scuttling right into its strong yellow toes and stiletto talons. What you can't quite make out in this photo is the fine vermiculate barring on its neck and breast. Breathtaking.
Another savanna hawk's eye gleams as it scans the scrub for lizards.

The roadside hawk (Buteo magnirostris) is a common little thing that might as well be called a riverside hawk. I always get a kick out of its No. 2 pencil-orange cere and feet. Crested caracaras (Polyborus plancus) always take my breath away. They are simply spectacular, and when they fly there huge white patches in the primaries flash. There's something a bit curassow-like about them as they stalk around, but they're raptors all right, and they're always looking for something dead, dying or disabled to exploit. Their feet are better for walking than grasping, so they feed on small prey from insects to small mammals, and exploit carrion as well. Polyborus means, loosely, "multiple gluttonies."
I like the name Mexican Eagle for this bird--this pair reminded me of the Mexican coat of arms.

Oh! What are you, most beautiful thing? I know I know you...I've seen you before, with your snowy breast and chestnut shoulders. Your color scheme is the bomb.
Let me guess. Hmmm.
White-tailed hawk? (Buteo albicaudatus)

Yes. A raptor with a good, good name, and a voracious predator of everything from insects to rabbits. All told, I was very glad not to be a mouse on the Guyanan savanna.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rupununi Reverie

People of the Rupununi
dwell in heat unimaginable
never sweating, never gasping
like this pallid northerner
suddenly sauna'ed.

She stands in the morning
gazing downriver
Her baby tiny, quiet on her arm.

The river is cool and clean.

Nearby, a basket
woven on the spot
of what was at hand
of leaves still living

We each have things we can do
At which the other wonders.
Mine, tied up in gadgets
that do my will
But need an outlet.

Hers, having to do with grace
and knowing what is enough.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Sexing the Single Caiman

I suppose some people would look at this gatorbelly and think what a nice pair of boots it would make. That kind of lust for its beauty put the black caiman in a huge downward spiral from the 1950's to the '70's, and it's only just recovering from the slaughter. Black caimans, like so many creatures persecuted elsewhere (giant otters, for one), are still common on Guyana's beautiful Rupununi River. I am so thankful for Guyana, for the Rupununi, for huge reptiles that make a swirl in the water.

I looked at the caiman's tiled abdomen and said a prayer to all that is beautiful and perfect just as it is.

Ack. What are they doing?

Feeling for conclusive evidence of the giant caiman's sex, that's what. Think fetal sonograms: If you don't feel anything, it's a female. Male caimans, like all reptiles, and all aquatic creatures as I think about it, keep their wedding tackle inside until they need it.

I resolved not to shake Ashley Holland's hand when I thanked him for our excellent nocturnal adventure.

And it was a female, and her toes curled when they did the internal exam. Awww.

"They always do that," our leader commented. It felt disrespectful to laugh, so I covered it up with a little wheezy cough.

Because there are not too many places where you're going to be able to look close-up at a caiman's vent, here it is. I was awestruck. I had this flood of images running through my head, of cells dividing in the embryo, of God with a sewing machine, of somebody or some antic evolutionary force figuring out how to resize and then upholster those Formica scales smoothly over living muscle and make them fit, flexibly airtight, around a sphincter. Ye gods. Design, functionality, beauty and awe in a caiman's bunghole.

I am in Science Chimp heaven. Again. Geeking out, hands on a ten-foot, three-inch wild female black caiman. That's as big as she will probably get. Who knows how old she is? Whether she'll keep growing?

Males can get to 16.5 feet, and Wikipedia says "The largest reported black caiman, measuring 7.7 meters (25.2 ft) and weighing 1,310 kg (2,870 lb), was shot in Acre, Brazil in 1965 and, which if accurate, would count as the largest crocodilian recorded besides saltwater crocodiles."

Pause to let that sink in. Look around, eyes crossing. That's four feet longer than my living room. A twenty-five-foot-long black caiman? How would it even turn around in smaller rivers? How old must it have been?

and how I wish they'd marked and released it instead of shooting it. (It would only take about 20 men to hold it down, c'mon!) Here's the thing. Some reptiles are said not to stop growing over their lifetimes. Kind of like fish or haul up this leviathan, and the first thing you have to wonder is how old it must be.

Now, for the first time, right in front of my astonished eyes, researchers are getting growth and allometric and reproductive data on this species. To find out more about the study, initiated by herpetologist and conservationist Peter Taylor, please click the link. The study involves local Amerindians, who are learning first hand how to study and protect the species, and realizing the benefits from the ecotourism that follows having a healthy population of a spectacular reptile (not to mention a spectacular mustelid, felids and endless fabulous birds).

By a clipped scute on her tail, they knew she was a recapture. So they could compare how her measurements had changed since the last time they had her in the noose. This is how we learn, this is how we answer the questions I've posed and so many more.

It was kind of upsetting to see the wrassling necessary to subdue a study subject, but it was all good. For everyone but the caiman, I suppose. She was not enjoying herself anywhere near as much as I was.

Zick, a bundle of firing synapses barely contained by her Life is Good shirt. Photo by Erica Gies.

There there, old lady caiman. They're almost done with you now.

Measurements and sexing all done, it was time to truss the poor girl up like a Thanksgiving turkey so no bits would hit the ground when she was being hoisted up on the hanging scale.

Somewhere I wrote her weight, in the dark, maybe in my little notebook. I can't find it. I found some scribbles, but the weight isn't among them. Rats. At this point all us Marlon Perkins pikers were really, really ready to see the Jim Fowlers put her back into the water, free of all this manhandling.

The Guyanan assistant tied the most amazing knot to keep her jaws closed while the noose and the tape was removed. It could be loosened with just one tug, like the sewn seam on a 50-pound bag of bird seed. I watched him tie it, careful but lightning fast, and all the wonder I felt at the caiman's perfection leapt over to those beautiful hands. Homo sapiens is one boffo primate.

They carried her to the water's edge--grunnnnnt!-- and pulled on the magic knot with a long cord.

One tug, and she was free, and nobody had to lose a hand untying her jaws. Pretty dang slick.

The whole time she was lying trussed up she was sighing, a deep, watery rumble from her very guts, and the sound moved me, as the sighs of a beached whale would. It was good to see her great jaws come open, and she said Ahhhhh again and then she was gone, just a huge muscular lash on the water's surface.

And silence, and the sound of my own breathing.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Feeling the Caiman

I had so much fun shooting the aquatic struggle that I was almost disappointed when the researchers landed the beast and we got to see our quarry close up. It would be flash shots from now on. Rats. But my goodness. That is a BIG CAIMAN. Not your average baby alligator.

As you can see, they've managed to run some electrician's tape around her jaws. Crocodilians have tremendous crushing power to bring the jaws closed, but comparatively little to open them, so you can realistically expect to subdue a caiman with tape. That is, if you know what you're doing. It's the whole principle of successful alligator wrestling. Once you get the jaws closed and secure, all you have to worry about is the tail and feet and the sheer massive fishy strength of the beast. Almost eleven feet long. A very big caiman. The researchers were guessing it was a male, because males get bigger than females.

I was squeezing and palping and feeling the caiman all over like a blind person--we all were. I couldn't believe my good fortune to be able to touch and press the flesh of an animal so mysterious and dangerous. There was something holy about it.

A communion.
It was time to turn the animal over.I absolutely could not get over the beauty of this animal. I had to run my hands over that smooth, cobbled belly skin.

It felt like soft, slightly pliable plastic tile. Tile, laid over someone's torso. There was something disarmingly human about the beast, laid out like a patient on a table. She was completely motionless, heaving a deep, rolling, watery sigh now and then. The researchers bent over her, measuring every possible length and circumference of her amazing length, Lilliputs bent on discovering everything they could about poor, tacked-down Gulliver.

Next: Sexing the Single Caiman.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Caiman Hunt!

This is about all you ever see of a wild caiman--a pair of eyes looking at you, then slowly submerging.

After my experience with the giant anteater, I was feeling iffy about one of the activities booked for us on the night of our arrival at Caiman House. We would hunt down a caiman and measure and collect data from it. Well, obviously we faint-hearted writers and artists and photographers wouldn't do it; researchers and assistants would do it while we watched and tried to take pictures in the pitch-black night. I came very close to saying no, no thank you, I would rather see a caiman minding its own business. I fought with myself all through dinner, then realized that if I was ever going to learn more about caimans, this would be the time. You have to live life as big as you can, or not much happens.

They pronounce it Kye-mon (rhymes with sky).

Most of us think of caimans as "baby alligators," and many of us probably remember when they were offered as new hatchlings in pet shops. God, what a horrible thing that was, but I remember friends who kept small, sickly tan "baby alligators" in little fishtanks in their homes. File under WHAT WERE WE THINKING? The black caiman is not a baby alligator. It is a huge beast, a crocodilian to be reckoned with. Not as dangerous as a croc or an alligator, but not to be messed with, either. And thank goodness they're no longer being exploited for the pet (slow death in captivity) trade. Although I still see quite a few, stuffed with straw and shellacked, lined up on store shelves, shaking maracas and playing marimbas in the Latin American tourist traps. Bleh.

What was happening here was a caiman capture. Researchers, armed with long catchpoles and nooses, big hanging scales and measuring devices, would attempt to noose an adult caiman, determine if they'd seen it before (using a scale-clipping code that identifies the animal), weigh, measure and sex it, then release it. We were warned that, in order to tire the animal out and render it tractable, they would fight it as they would a game fish for quite some time before attempting to handle it.

It turns out that this is the best way to deal with large caimans. It's not safe to tranquilize the animal because we don't know much about dosages, and because there are a lot of other caimans around looking to climb the caiman social ladder, releasing a caiman that's groggy could result in drowning, maiming and death for the study animal. And it's not safe to try to handle a fresh, snappy caiman, so this is the method they've arrived at as safest both for animal and researchers.

So, tired from a full day of Karanambu and river birding and hiking to Caiman house, we piled into boats and went looking for a big caiman to catch. I was already fretting because I didn't know how I was going to photograph the action in total darkness. I shouldn't have worried. First look at the beast, hauled from the deep.Oh my gosh. Can it really be that big?
Agggh! Look at that THING! It is HUMONGOUS!

I mentioned fighting the animal to play its strength out. I had plenty of time during the tussle to experiment with different ISO's and apertures, flash or no flash. My favorite pictures were made in ambient torch light (we in the boat had flashlights trained on the action). I love this slow-shutter shot.
When the caiman would go quiet, I could get some that were almost sharp. Was it a crocodilian, or a fire-breathing dragon they had? Oh, oh oh, these are for you, Timmo.

It was as if her rage shone from her jaws.

The lizard wranglers had made an unfortunate catch, looping the noose around the caiman's upper jaw instead of around the whole head or neck. So much of the maneuvering was trying to get its mouth closed and another noose around the jaws. That would be key to handling it safely. I really like this shot. The flash is illuminating the scene just enough to freeze the action, but not enough to burn out the colors and chiaroscuro.

The caiman is surrendering.I have to go lie down now. More anon.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Crane Hawk!

Talk about excited. Any time you put the words "crane" and "hawk" together, a birder is bound to get excited. Here's a ruby-eyed beauty, looking for fish and frogs and crayfish along an eroded bank. I love the soft light falling on him. I'm less in love with the branch bisecting him.I couldn't look at the tangled bank behind him without thinking what a nightmare it would be to paint in watercolor. I can see some branches I'd edit out right off the bat. Some really nice ones, too.I do love the pinky-orange legs, the ruby eye, and the stormcloud plumage. The long legs and crane-like coloration probably led to the name, not to mention the red eyes...White windows in the primaries and bands on the tail were spectacular when he took off. It was a fleeting glimpse of a bird I'd love to know better.

We docked and began an uphill walk toward our night's accommodations. The first thing we saw was a Great Potoo, waiting for nightfall, high in a tree--obviously a stakeout. This is a BIG bird, larger than a screech owl. Loosely related to the nightjars (whip-poor-wills) and frogmouths, but not really. It mostly just lives like they do, catching large flying insects at night, so it looks like them.Flash photo taken in desperation. I much prefer ambient light, even when nonexistent.I know, blurry as all getout. 'sOK. You can tell what it looks like, right?

We wound our way through the Amerindian village of Yupukari, enjoying the soft laughter and a very off-tune guitar in the gently falling night. The sun was a blazing smudge behind the palms and thatched roofs.
A black rooster pecked about in some burnt grass, looking as though he'd been caught in the fire.

And a white-fringed antbird reminded me that we were not in Ohio, or Africa.

Toward evening, we arrived at Caiman House, which is a very cool place. We walked up from the river as the sun sank.I liked it immediately, although it had no raccoons. There were some very nice and well cared-for doggehs (a good barometer of the quality of one's accommodations in the tropics). This is the dining room.The food was great and loaded with fresh vegetables, served family style at a long table. Yum!
Just at dusk, a pair of lizards were getting happy on the sundowner deck.The most spectacular sunset I'd seen in 2008 went on and on and on. I loved the black palms against the glowing sky.When viewing sunsets, I always make myself turn around from the main show to see what's going on behind me. It's often as good as the backlit stuff.

But I wasn't expecting a bee-eater, or a fairy tern.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

InDogural Ceremony

Alone on the couch, watching. Wishing I'd kept Phoebe and Liam home from school to watch this with me, this thing as miraculous as a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis

but ever so much rarer. So rare that it has never happened before.

I was all right until Barack came down the Capitol "crypt," the long dark passageway he had to traverse before he could come out into the light and see the multimillion-soul march that had come to cheer him into office. I saw the look on his face and tears spilled out unbidden.

It was all locked up in that implacable gaze, that set jaw. No Drama Obama is well-named, but I could see it all there.

I was all right until he passed beneath the camera and I looked at his smooth head and started to pray fervently and aloud that all of us, Democrat, Republican, Independent, voter and non-voter, sane and psychotic alike will grant him the time on earth to tackle the fearsome and almost incomprehensible job before him.

Protect this man, this husband to Michelle and father to two sweet girls who is suddenly charged with lifting a nation out of the deepest pit of depression.

At this point Chet Baker decided that I probably needed a toy to play with.
I tussled with Chet and pulled myself back together for awhile until Aretha got up and sang the song that Martin Luther King predicted would one day speak to black people, too.

My Country, 'tis of Thee.It is her country now, more than it has ever been. Mine, too, more than ever. She was playing ita little safe, not going for the stratospheric high notes any more, and as a singer I understood. She is no longer young, but she was as amazing as ever, and she moved many millions of hearts. Her voice was colored with emotion.

And Chet Baker thought at that point that I probably needed someone on my lap to hug.

And kiss. Pucker up, Mether. Stop crying. Th' Bacon is here.

And although I am jaded enough to be immune to the one-of-each-color kind of multiracial grandstanding that goes on at events like this, the pairing of Israeli-American immigrant,


and Chinese American musicians playing an air around our Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" brought me to my knees. I have had a crush on Yo-Yo Ma since he was a resident tutor at my Harvard dorm. I was too shy to so much as knock on his door, but I had pictures of him plastered all over my little cell wall. And there he was playing his carbon-fiber cello because it was too cold for his ancient treasured cello, and I saw him mouth the word, "COLD!" and laugh, and he didn't stop smiling the whole time. Bam, right back in love. And he still doesn't know.

And Barack listened and closed his eyes the better to hear the music and I knew that this man would try even in the darkest time to give the arts their due, for the first time in what seems like forever.

And then it was time for the oath and I laughed and jumped around because I couldn't sit still any more. I loved that the Chief Justice flubbed it and I loved it when Barack jumped in right where he should have, saying, "I, Barack..." and they were stepping all over each other and smiling. It was like wedding vows, almost, where everyone is way too nervous to get it right.

But getting it wrong is somehow perfect.

Bill called from Florida at that moment and said simply, "Amazing." And I wished so hard that he was home with me for this moment.

By this time I have brought the big box of Puffs Ultra to the couch and I'm grabbing them with my right hand and making a pile of crumped up ones like white roses all over the cushion to my left.

And then Barack observes that sixty years ago his father couldn't have gotten served in a restaurant in Washington, and now his son is taking the oath. And I put my face in my hands with the realization of how very far we have come in one man's lifetime.

and Chet decides it is time again for his peppermint bone that's too squishy to shred, and is very special.
It does help to have a toy to play with when you see a living carpet of happy humanity, of people who believe in this man and are here to give him their love and support. The largest crowd ever to assemble on Washington, bigger than the Million Man March, bigger by far than the march to "protect marriage"; bigger than anything anyone has ever seen.

I told you a toy would help with all your crying. I do not see anything to cry about here.

Chet Baker, these are happy tears. It's a girl thing. You wouldn't understand.

La la la la la I can't hear you. Just throw the bone and I will bring it back to you and you will soon forget all your troubles.

There. Now that you have calmed down I can do some real chewing.

Are you sure you're all right, Mether?

I'm fine, Chet. Thank you. Happy January twentieth.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Rollin' on the Rupununi

A female osprey surveys the Rupununi. It's so good to see my old friend here.

Winter's beauty is seducing me and the blog ant in me is at war with the grasshopper. Snow and sunrise photos, sledding and winter weeds pile up in my library. Winter is timeless, frozen; it can wait, I think. I have to write more about Guyana before I forget how it all felt. Even as the mercury sits at zero this peach and turquoise morning.
What a cute boatload. Kirk, Asaph, Luke, Erica and a boatman whose name I didn't catch enjoy a humid evening cruise on the Rupununi. The boatmen were awesome, very attuned to the wildlife and approaching without scaring it.

If you haven't already noticed, we spent a lot of time in boats in Guyana. Rivers are the only roads in most of the interior, so the whalers and skiffs we rode in were our cars. I highly recommend boat travel. You see so much! In this one, we were traveling from Karanambu Ranch (the place with the crab-eating raccoon, the giant anteater and the eccch Marmite) to a nearby eco lodge called Caiman House.

Kingfishers were everywhere: Amazons and ringed being the most common. Here, a ringed kingfisher shows us his nictitating membrane, which closes over his eyes when he dives full-force into the water.He can still see through it; it just protects the tender orb from impact and foreign objects. He's wishing me into the cornfield.Thinking about composition now:

When I first see a bird, my shots are usually blurry. It takes me a while to calm down enough to get a sharp one. To wit:Amazon kingfisher with prey. Ooo!
The photography angels whisper in my ear. All right, Zick, stop hyperventilating. These kingfishers aren't as spooky as your nemesis, the belted kingfisher back home in Ohio.
Now that you have some grab shots you can think about composition. That's better.
But he had a fish!
I know. No reason to punch the shutter and hyperventilate. Stay calm.
I'm working on it. I am excitable.
Hundreds of deleted photos later, I know!

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Baker Goes Airborne

Keep-away is the staple of the terrier games in this house. When a Boston terrier focuses on an object of desire, be it biscuit, toy, or squirrel, there is not much that will keep him from his goal. Bill of the Birds enjoys at least one daily game of Keep-away with Chet Baker, usually right before bedtime.Give me that cat toy.
CrazyFace is when Baker's tongue sticks out and his eyes go all googly.
All right. It's on. BOTB is in real danger of getting a faceful of Boston here.
He's saying Meowmeowmeowmeowmeow.
Interlude, while Bill hides the kitty. Baker waits, eyes glowing.
You do not want to be the object of a Boston terrier's most intense focus. Look at those pursed lips.
Found it!
Phoebe joins in the laughter.
Baker is grunting rhythmically, toenails sliding on the slick floor, as he tries to pull the kitty out of Bill's grip. Unh unh unh unh unh unh... As Phoebe would say, "That's just wrong."
In every photo session there's one that you don't dare hope to get.

29th Airborne Turd-tail Assault. Here comes the faceful of terrier.
The enemy, vanquished.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cardinal in the House

I'll be honest: I'm spent from the giant otter orgy. Learning enough about them to write intelligently about them, editing the photos and composing the posts--mostly figuring out how to break this continuum of otter love into manageable pieces, was a big job. I'm not done with Guyana by a long shot, and I hope you're enjoying the tropical escape as much as I am. But I'm writing about cardinals for my next book, and they are much on my mind. I love them, love the fact that there is this brilliant red grosbeak that is ridiculously common (at least in southern Ohio) and can amass flocks of as many as 70 birds in my backyard. Please. 70 cardinals in a snowy backyard is something to see, my friends.

Just before the leaves fell I heard chipping from the living room. I had been in the habit of leaving the patio screen door open for Chet to come and go on those mild Indian summer days of late fall. He likes to lie in the sun out on the deck, baking his liver and lights, then come back in and cool off in the living room. Here is a gratuitous puppeh picture of Chet, worshipping the golden orb. I do not apologize for inserting a dose of Baker into most posts. He's essential Vitamin B, soaking up his Vitamin D.
photo by Bill Thompson III

A young male cardinal, his bill still black with youth, blundered into the living room and went straight for the high clerestory windows where he tried to make an escape through the glass. That's our bird tower you can see through the window.
There was nothing for me to do about it but go fetch the huge extension ladder from the garage. I don't much like carrying it and setting it up by myself inside the house, because I am 5'5" and it is 12'8". CLANK!I especially dislike setting it up right next to my 40-gallon freshwater Amazon tank, which is full of my little home-bred Emperor tetra friends (35 at last count) who are freaking out and praying that I won't screw up and smash their world. While I'm setting the ladder up I'm thinking, OK. If it tips and hits the tank, the first thing I will do is go get a muck bucket from the garage, and I'll fill it with one of the rainwater jugs from the orchid room, and then I'll scoop up all the wriggling fish from the living room carpet and put them in there, and then I'll put their heater in there, and then I'll go get that bowfront tank I have always wanted. But what if I have to drive to Columbus to get it? Better put the filter in, too. My Emperor tetras, who don't know when to quit mating and are all brothers and sisters and kissin'  cousins. They're their own grandpas.

Thoughts like that run through my mind. Contingency planning for the worst. They are likely not all that dissimilar from the panicked thoughts that run through a trapped cardinal's mind as I clank around beneath him.

I have to set the ladder up under the window that the cardinal has chosen, and climb it as quietly and unscarily as possible so the cardinal (or whatever bird is trapped; I've had everything from hummingbirds to brown creepers up there) won't freak out and switch windows, making me climb down and move the blinkin' ladder again.Cardinal, check. Ladder, check. Tank, check. OK. We're ready to climb. Gloves on?

I usually don't use gloves when handling birds, as there's no problem with leaving your smell on them (they don't mind and can't smell anyway.) With gloves you run a greater risk of hurting a bird through clumsiness. And most birds can't hurt you, more than maybe a pinch. So gloves are definitely overkill for handling 99% of the songbirds that you encounter. But cardinals are another matter. This little guy was too young to know how, but usually a cardinal who is caught in the hand will take the crushing power of that conical bill and turn it toward the webs between your fingers to excruciating effect. They'll grab those tender bits of skin and twist and wrench while biting down and OWWWWW it's all you can do to hold on. This guy was much more polite than most cardinals. Titmice and chickadees can open a good hole in you, too. They hammer your knuckle like it was a nut.
Before I released the little shaver, I took a good look at him, and noticed an anomalous patch of white feathers on his chin. I'm going to look at our winter flock and see if he retained it after the postjuvenal molt, see if there's a bright red boy with a white chin out there somewhere.
You're free to go, pretty one. See you at the feeders!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Giant Otters in the Wild

I think you all know me well enough to know that, as delighted as I was to be able to touch and talk with and photograph a hand-raised giant Amazon otter, I yearned to see them in the wild in Guyana. Maybe it's my birder conditioning, but it just doesn't feel real until you see a creature in its habitat, unrestrained and wary. And so I strained my eyes as we boated the Rupununi river, looking for that seal-like bump in the water that might prove to be the rarest animal in the Amazon.

We saw their dens--several of them--called "holts" in otterspeak. From one to five cubs may be born in each litter, and they may stay with their parents for two or more years, helping take care of younger siblings. They can't swim until they're about three weeks old, and at three to four months of age they begin to travel with their family. They nurse for nine months--compare that to your dog, who was probably weaned at eight weeks!A giant Amazon otter den, or holt. Rupununi River, Guyana, South America.

The three Guianas--Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname--are the last stronghold of the Giant Otter. Population densities here are still reasonably good; habitat is mostly undisturbed, and waters are unpolluted for the most part. People haven't gotten around to destroying Guyana's rainforest yet, the way they've destroyed so much of Brasil's. Mining isn't yet ruining Guyana's rivers with siltation and toxic runoff. Logging is underway, mostly selective cutting rather than the clear-cutting that has so scarred much of the rest of the Amazon. Agriculture is almost nonexistant along the rivers of the interior. All these things impact water quality and fragment the forested riverine habitat that giant otters need. We may be sure that all these things are coming to Guyana. But they haven't happened just yet. And so there are still giant otters in Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.

Survival of the giant otter in these three countries is vital to the survival of the species on this planet. Can ecotourism help? If it can be managed so as not to disrupt this diurnal mammal's life, perhaps. If you'd like to see a wild giant otter, you should go to Guyana, French Guiana, or Suriname and do that. You should do it soon.

A fantastic boatman--the best I've ever seen--spotted them first. I wish I had caught his name, had put on my portrait lens to grab a picture of him. I was too close to capture him with the telephoto, and too excited to switch lenses. I was enthralled by the river, the herons, the kingfishers, the possibility, however remote, of a wild giant otter. If I so much as felt for my camera, he'd slow the engine and sidle toward whatever he saw me studying. We were working in concert. He pointed, and said in a low voice, "There--on the log."
I couldn't see it in the brilliant light, but I focused on the log and prayed. And there it was, talking. My first wild giant otter.

Amazingly, it swam closer to the boat.
And there was another animal with it. And two more just downriver.
And they were squalling and calling and wailing and squeaking as giant otters do, and I was overcome.
Be careful, curious little one. Don't trust that every boat you see has only a teary Science Chimp in it.
Oh, thank you, suspicious goblin. You have made my year. Go in peace, and make more giant otters.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Otter Love

It was clear to me, on watching Diane McTurk interact with the two otters (giant Amazon and Neotropical river) she had raised, that her affection for them runs every bit as deep as mine for my beloved Chet Baker. In raising and releasing these animals, Diane runs a gamut of emotions. Giant Amazon otters are territorial, and though they are endlessly tolerant of family members, they will sometimes kill interlopers. In fact, a lone male giant otter had come to Karanambu and killed at least one of her orphans. Having raised quite a few young songbirds, I know how tough it can be to raise a young thing up, only to see it killed just as it's learning how to live.

We spent a few minutes watching Diane with her otters just before departing Karanambu. Her face glowed with affection as she spoke lovingly to them. They seemed to adore her equally. After all, she was their mom!I noticed that she took more liberties with the Neotropical river otter than the giant otter. In this picture, you can see why the Neotropical river otter (the closest to Diane) is Lontra longicauda (long-tail). Diane sneaks a caress of the giant otter while he's occupied.After my minor perforation, I wasn't scratching nobody under the chin, but I had a hard time keeping my hands off the unbelievably silky fur of the otters. Don't try this unless you're the otter's mama. 

Oh, how I missed my Bacon, doubtless stretched frog-legged on the bed at home in Ohio. I kind of missed my scorpion-free bed, too.Canis turdicauda, the Tennessee Turd-tail, at rest.

While we're on tails, look at the giant otter's amazing appendage. His Latin generic name is Pteronura, or "feather tail," referring to its flattened aspect. The central "vane" of vertebrae only adds to the tail's feather-like appearance. It's much like a caiman's tail, and it makes a fine propeller in water.

The river otter wanted to be in the boat to take the sun with his giant pal.

Longicauda helped himself. What does he do with all that tail?And was soon routed by Mr. Giant Bossy Boots (looking very much like a sea lion here) who wanted the boat to himself.

Both otters then repaired to shore, where they rolled over and over in the warm sand. Their fur dried amazingly fast. A very dense, silky underfur traps air and prevents water from ever reaching their skin.

In just a few minutes, the sand and the hot Guyanan sun turned this slick little river otter into a living teddy bear.
Is it any wonder that so many of us love otters?   And their tiny otter junk?Throughout all our interactions, the giant Amazon otter never ceased to vocalize. To imagine how he sounded, squinch your vocal cords all up and imitate a crying baby, pushing the sound through your nose. Waaaa! Weeee! Weeeeyyyyyyewwwww! Weh!!

I want, I want, I want!

If he doesn't favor a baby elephant seal here, I'm a monkey's uncle.

Our last view of Diane, standing on the dock at Karanambu Ranch, looking after her otters.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Zick Gets Perforated

The Neotropical river otter knew where the fish were kept.

We're still in Guyana, South America, lolling around with a giant Amazon otter and a Neotropical river otter. Yeah, I know. I can't believe it either. And yes, I had a lot of trouble not jumping out of my own skin with delight and joy and the pure blessedness of it all. Ask anyone who was on the trip with me.

Remember in looking at these pictures that this is a very young giant Amazon otter. A big male can exceed six feet, making him the longest mustelid in the world. Historical records have big males reaching 7.9 feet, and approaching 90 lb. Now that is a whole lot of otter. A big male these days can weigh in at more than 70 lb.--not as much as the burlier sea otter, but quite a chunk of muscle nonetheless.

I was impressed by the strength of the otter's neck and jaws. That long, broad skull anchors some very impressive masseter muscles. Imagine chewing the head off a live perch and you'll get some idea of the crushing power of the otter's jaws and broad, white teeth. Giant otters also take crustaceans, small caimans, snakes, turtles and even herons as prey! No wonder River Wolf is one of the otter's nicknames. It's an apex predator in its watery world. Hunting together, a pack or River Wolves must be a fearsome thing, even for a piranha.

Because my curiosity and affection for animals almost always overrides my fear, I tussled with the otters as their foster mother Diane McTurk does, petting and playing with them. They are mammalian Möbius bands, endlessly rolling and turning in on themselves in sinuous loops, never still, flowing like furry water. I adored messing with them. The only problem being: I am not Diane, and the otters let me know that.

At one point, the giant otter paused in his lolling around, raised his head and stared briefly at me in what I realized too late was a direct threat. A lightning fast one, but a warning. I was squatting next to him, tousling his fur, and suddenly sensing that he was displeased, I withdrew my hand and pulled both arms in close to my body. But it was too late.  His big flat head lashed out like a snake's, and those fearsome jaws closed around my right wrist.

Oh, please. Not that one. I draw with that one.

His jaws were a spiked vise, and one canine broke the skin through the double cuff of my nylon shirt. Wow. In the spectrum of otter bites, I'm sure what I'd just gotten was a warning nip. The pressure was nevertheless bruising, tremendous. Egad, I would hate to have a full bite from a highly annoyed otter. One nip, and it was over, and I took him at his word and didn't mess with him any more, deciding that the less-irritable Neotropical river otter was more my speed. I was glad that no direct contact had been made between his tooth and my skin. With very few exceptions, I make it a point to wear long sleeves at all times in the tropics, no matter how stinkin' hot it is. I was grateful I'd had the sense to keep my sleeves rolled down when he bit me.

I picked at the little giant otter tooth hole in my wrist for the rest of the trip, hoping to bring a visible scar back for my family, but alas it healed nicely and is now just a tiny whitish spot. Pfft. I will now send you to ARKive.or for some moving delights. If you listen closely you can hear the otters squalling and squeaking in the video in this link. Sigh. Steamy ol' Guyana's a long way away from my snowy Ohio. Don't miss this big sloppy pile o' sunning otters, either. 

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Giant Amazon Otter: Hands, Lips, Eyes, and Fur

We're still lolling by the Rupununi River in Guyana, South America, ogling a giant otter. What gorgeous webbed feet and hands he had! I wanted to touch them.
In this photo, you can see two of the distinguishing features of giant vs. river otter: the luscious pink lips of the giant otter, and the creamy markings on its throat. The giant otter's whitish throat bib is uniquely shaped in each individual, a wonderful mark for researchers wishing to study family groups. Sure beats having to catch and mark them!

The Neotropical river otter, below, has a diffuse grayish-white throat and less bodacious lips. I also noted that the giant otter has googly eyes, whose whites are often evident, and the Neotropical river otter does not. Pity. Googly eyes are Web magic.The Neotropical river otter got out of the water, while the giant otter stayed in, chewing on half a fish.

It was beginning to sink in on me that I was looking at two of the rarest mammals in the Amazon, probably rarer even than the giant anteater. Oddly, population estimates for giant otter (I couldn't get them for the Neotropical river otter) run somewhere below 5,000 individuals, just as they do for the anteater. I don't know how "they" arrive at that number, but it's the one I have. Giant otters have been horrifically persecuted for their satiny fur-the shortest otter fur going. Wikipedia states that between 1959 and 1969 Amazonian Brazil alone accounted for 1,000 to 3,000 giant otter pelts annually. Well, that ought to clean them out pretty quickly. One pelt could be worth a year's wages to a hunter. And for what? Furry collars and cuffs for ladies' coats? The species was so thoroughly decimated that the Brazilian population dropped to just 12 in 1971. It's a marvel that any remain. (Don't touch me right now; my eyes are glowing red).

One thing that contributes to the otter's plight is its insatiable curiosity. Like a Science Chimp, giant otters just have to know. And so they bob up and periscope their long elegant necks and holler and squeal and goggle and stare at people in boats, sometimes even approaching them. Bad idea. There's a precedent for such behavior on the part of vanishing animals. Carolina parakeets would circle around a fallen flockmate, allowing shooters to take the whole flock.

There's some evidence, though, that giant otters as a species are finally beginning to grasp that human beings are not to be trusted, but still they all too easily fall prey to poachers and kidnappers who wish to keep them as pets. That's another bad idea, since giant otters are highly social, and depend completely on their family groups for contact, affection, and survival in the wild. Diane McTurk knows that better than anyone.

And so, though the Neotropical river otter is a solitary animal in the wild, this one (right) serves a mighty purpose in keeping the squally baby giant otter (left) company day in and day out. I've never seen a wild animal so attached both to its animal friend and its human caretakers. The giant otter squealed, caterwauled and complained constantly, trying to follow us as we departed by boat. It just seemed to want to be part of a larger group--any group. It's hard-wired to be this way, since giant otters live in family groups of 5-9 in the wild, consisting of a mated pair and perhaps two years' worth of offspring. The first time he squealed and swam after our boat, I almost wept, and then I realized that that is why he has a human caretaker and an otter friend--to keep him out of trouble until he can be socialized with other giant otters. Giant otter rehabilitation makes songbird rehab look like a walk in the park. My hat is off to Diane and her helpers.

Sorry about the weekend giant otter cliffhanger. A girl has to take some time off. But it is bad form to leave you wanting more ottritude for three whole days.

Next: Zick gets PERFORATED.

What? Are you surprised?

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Giant Amazon Otter!

I thought I had seen the Amazon's rarest mammal in the giant anteater, but there were more amazements yet to come. Karanambu Ranch is famed as a rehabilitation/rescue site for orphaned giant otter cubs, in the singular person of Diane McTurk. Diane is one of those people whom you meet, look at and instantly wish you could multiply somehow, to spread all that knowledge and caring around for awhile longer. There's no better way to learn an animal than to live with it, and Diane has been mama to multitudes of orphaned and kidnapped giant otter cubs. Through them, she's come to know the animal as no one else on the planet does. Upon arriving at Karanambu, we were taken down to the banks of the Rupununi to meet two of Diane's charges, who were swimming freely in the river under the eye of an Amerindian attendant .

I was confused upon seeing my first semi-wild otter in South America. But for some eye and nose issues, it looked very much like our North American river otter (Lutra canadensis). If this was a giant otter, it must be a baby. I stared and stared, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with what I had been expecting to see. It was a gorgeous little thing.

As became abundantly clear in just a few moments, this was not a giant Amazon otter, but a Neotropical river otter, Lontra longicaudus. A life mammal, to be sure, and endangered (CITES Appendix 1). It was out of habitat here in this silty, slow-moving river, having been brought to Diane as a purported giant otter from an unknown locale. Neotropical river otters inhabit clearer, faster-flowing streams than do giant Amazonian otters. Nevertheless, Diane accepted it and raised it, and it has given vital companionship to the star of the show and central focus of Diane's life work.

First peek of the giant Amazon otter, Pteronura b. brasiliensis:

Hello!Oh my! What nice pink lips you have!At this point I had been away from home for several days and was jonesing heavily for Chet Baker. This otter's googly eyes and floppy lips did something for me. If you've always had a Thing for Otters, as I have, a Boston terrier is the next best thing. And unlike otters, they're perfectly legal to keep as pets!

Nah, nothing otterlike about this dog. Couple that pining for The Bacon with the fact that I never thought I'd ever lay eyes on a giant Amazon otter, and I am in a full Science Chimp swoon.

to be continued...

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Chet Baker Rolled

When I was growing up, our standard x mini dachshund, Volks, would sometimes come in the house with a peculiarly hangdog look on his face. He'd lick his lips and lie there, ears pasted back, seemingly waiting for punishment. And sooner or later someone would lean down to pet him and shout accusingly, "Volks ROLLED!"

in something dead and disgusting

and there would be a big kerfuffle and Volks would get put in the catch tub for our old washing machine and my mom would fill it with much-too-hot water, being a German and all, and we'd suds the dog up and afterward having been scalded and soaped to within an inch of his life he would romp around the house dragging a towel, all googly-eyed and grinning in relief.

We loved it when Volks rolled, although I suspect my mom did not. He tended to be a dour little thing and it took the absolution of hot water to make him frisky.

So Chet and I took a lovely hike yesterday full of squirrelts and damp leaves and he peered up trees and into crevices and I reveled in his muscular little body doing its thing

and when we came back inside he sat down and wouldn't move and he had his ears pasted back and I did not have to bend down to discern the fetid odor of coyote ca-ca emanating from my usually sweet-smelling little dog. And I saw the greenish smears all over his shoulders and collar and I was SO mad. I had ten minutes before I had to jump in the car to pick up the kids at the bus stop and I had to spend those minutes not relaxing with a cup of tea thinking about our wonderful hike but scrubbing &#$# off my doggoned dog. Again. He rolled last week, too.

Chet Baker. You are a terrible terrible dog and I am very angry at you. You ROLLED, didn't you?

Yes, Mether, I did, and I deserve whatever I have coming to me. I do.

You know EXACTLY what happens now. Get down the hall to the bathroom now. Not now. Right NOW.Here I am, going down the hall to the bathroom. I know that I get in the tub now. Dogs like me do not know much, but we know when it is time to get in the tub.
Although I am very angry at you, Chet Baker, I see that you have a very cute little purple lip sticking out from under your tongue. So I am going to enlarge this picture. You stay there.
Mether, I am so, so sorry. I do not know why I rolled in coyote poop. But I will smell so good when you are done with me. And to tell you the truth, here is a little secret. I love the hot water on a cold rainy day like this.Chet Baker. If you want a bath just ask for one. You do not have to anoint yourself in feces. You are too disgusting to pick up, so you jump in that tub right now. By yourself. I am not touching you, you foul thing. I am going to get my dishwashing gloves and when I come back you had better be IN THAT TUB.
Yes, Mether. Getting in the tub by myself is the least I can do.
As you requested, I am in the tub now.
Just look at that water. Soaking in fecal broth, you are, you foul little thing.
Have I said I am sorry, Mether?

Enough of your sorries. You can get out now. By yourself.

This beautiful hand-loomed bedspread seems like a good place to roll and dry myself. Oh. You do not want me to claw it. I will lie perfectly still and hope that you forget what I have done.
Not for a long time, Chet Baker. That was the stinkiest, stankiest, most disgusting ca-ca you have found in a long long time. Maybe ever. FEH!

It's time to pick up the children now, your favorite part of the day. But you, Chet Baker, are not going along, because you are all wet, and you would get too cold. You stay here and think about what you have done. (If you look very closely you will see his little cowface in the long foyer window).
Here is a closeup of Chet Baker, when he realizes I am leaving without him.
I am happy to report that on today's hour-long hike, Chet Baker refrained from rolling in coyote bockie. He stuck close to me and kept coming back to tell me he had not rolled. Once I saw him find a pile of poo and a dreamy look came over his face and he started to crouch and drop to the ground and suddenly his head jerked up and he glanced sheepishly over his shoulder at me and collected himself and trotted on.

Good dog, Chet.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Chasing the Giant Anteater

One of the oddest things about the giant anteater is its huge, sail-like tail. It uses the tail as a sun shade and umbrella when it sleeps in shallow depressions during the day. Extremely coarse, strawlike hair sheds water, and the fine, velour-like hair on its nose and face protects it from ant bites and stings. An odd bit of information: Anteater hair is highly flammable, and the animals are vulnerable to grass fires. What an awful thought.
Though an adult's body is 3 1/2' long, its tongue can extend two more feet. It is detached from the hyoid bone and extends deep into the thorax to the breastbone! Coated with sticky saliva, the tongue lances into termite and ant mounds and instantly ensnares workers and larvae. It lashes forward and back, up to 150 times per minute, dragging the ants and termites to their demise. The anteater strikes and flees before the powerful soldier ants can mount an organized defense. As many as 30,000 insects may fall prey each day. No wonder a giant anteater's home range may cover more than 22,200 acres! Odder yet than its mobile tongue is its skull. The anteater has no jaws; its maxilla and mandible are fused into a single bony tube; thus it cannot open its mouth more than an inch or so. Imagine.

You can see his huge claws folded back along his wrists as he runs, mouth, such as it is, agape.

So as flabbergasted and delighted and agog as I was to have a giant anteater thunder right toward and then past me, I was immediately concerned for its welfare. The idea of routing it from its feeding or resting routine just so we could get a look at it didn't sit well with me. I couldn't see how this method of scaring up anteaters could be sustainable in the long run--wouldn't you drive them out of their habitat with such harrassment? I felt abashed that it had been so disturbed just for our entertainment. Imagine being forced to gallop on a hot morning, breathing through a snorkel, and you can see why we were so deeply concerned.

Ecotourism is in its infancy in Guyana, and having run with lightning speed over rough terrain and sent the anteater practically into our arms, our guides glowed with pride that they were able to give us such a thrilling experience. I couldn't fault them; they gave us what they thought we would want. They were great guys.The nuances of watching wildlife without disturbing it have yet to enter into the equation in the isolated case of Karanambu's giant anteaters. (Everywhere else we went, wildlife was approached cautiously and with a great deal of respect. I suspect this driving approach is viewed as the only surefire way to give tourists a decent view of a reclusive mammal). How much more preferable it would have been for us to view the anteater at a distance, perhaps from an elevated platform with a spotting scope, than to stress it this way! Having no scope, the guides resorted to herding it. I can't think about my first, and perhaps only, sighting of this rare animal without a pang of guilt and shame. There has to be a better way. Individually and as a group, we expressed our distress to the trip organizers, pleading the anteater's side of things.

Baby giant anteaters crawl up their mother's legs immediately after birth, to ride clinging to her chest, or astride her like a tiny jockey. Having no jaws with which to pick the baby up, the mother depends on the baby to position itself, and waits for it to cling to her before moving away. This photo from the National Zoo depicts a baby born there on July 24, 2007. Oh my goodness. OK, do they nurse? My sources say they do, but how, if their tongues are long and snaky and they have no jaws? Arrggh. Need to know. Having just viewed some of the amazing giant anteater videos at, and seen the anteater's oral apparatus up close, I'm less concerned. I can imagine even this snaky-tongued youngster mustering up a pretty good vacuum with its tiny mouth. (Thanks, rmharvey!)  Various sources have the young nursing from two to six months, riding on mama for up to nine months. Giant anteaters are thought to live up to 15 years in the wild, and have lived to 26 years in captivity.

Seaworld and Busch Gardens have a wonderful website , from which I garnered the following bit of animal trivia: 

As an outcome of their diet and lifestyle, anteaters have relatively low metabolic rates. As a stark example, the giant anteater has the lowest recorded body temperature of any placental mammal--90.9 degrees F (32.7 degrees C).

When I read that, my heart sank. What do we know about the giant anteater's metabolism? What do we know about what happens when you chase a cool-blooded giant anteater around in stifling heat? Nothing. We know that that's a good way to get a close look at it. But...we also know that they're disappearing throughout their range; I've seen one estimate that places the global population at 5,000. We had seen one of that sadly dwindling number, and we had done him no good. Here comes the pang again.
Like many wondrous animals, giant anteaters are disappearing, and are listed as Threatened/Vulnerable under CITES. At the very least, we owe it to them to admire them from a distance, to observe them living their lives undisturbed, to respect their dignity and their place on the planet, and leave them unharmed by our interest.  May their glorious oddity, and our curiosity about them, not prove to be their demise.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Giant Anteater!!

Giant anteater habitat near Karanambu, Guyana.

I got an itinerary for my press trip to Guyana several weeks before we were to depart. There were several items on it that made my eyes go boiiiinnnnggg, not least of which was "Karanambu: Early morning excursion on the savannah to look for giant anteater."

I had no idea. Once again, my preconceptions about Guyana were to be shattered. First, I hadn't realized that the country boasts extensive savannah among its habitats. Second, I didn't know that giant anteaters ranged as far north as South America's northern coast. Not only that, they were historically found from southern Mexico all the way south to northern Argentina. Thanks to human persecution, they are vanishingly rare in Central America, and very rarely seen in the wild even in the stronghold of their range.

Myrmecophaga tridactyla
is a huge animal, growing to seven feet long and 85 pounds--100 pounds for a large male. It's the size of a wolf. It lives in a wide variety of habitats, from rainforest to dry forest and savannah, wherever ants and termites are abundant. It's active during the day in forested habitats. In the savannahs, or wherever it suffers from human persecution, it is primarily nocturnal, using its keen sense of smell to locate termite mounds and ant nests, which it tears apart with powerful clawed forelimbs. A harmless beast unless cornered, the giant anteater will stand on its hinders and defend itself with slashing claws and a crushing "hug." I've been hugged by its edentate cousin, the three-toed sloth, and you don't want that hug, with a very pinchy finish. Its huge foreclaws close against its palms with a vise-like grip, easily smashing bone. When walking or running, giant anteaters fold the claws against the palm, and walk on the heel of the "hand," the claws never touching ground. It would be like running on all fours with your fists balled up.

We left just after daybreak to go find an anteater. Our driver scanned the savannah as he drove, and a second guide stood in the jeep with his body out the window for better visibility. Suddenly the spotter banged on the roof of the jeep and we veered off the road and over the trackless grassland, speeding toward a dark blotch on the horizon. When the vehicle could go no farther, the driver and spotter took off running toward the anteater, flanking it and driving it toward our stunned little band of hopeful anteater watchers.
My breath was taken away by the suddenness of the pursuit and the tactics of our guides. I hadn't dreamt we'd hunt the animal down; I'd thought we would simply hope for a distant glimpse, perhaps a view through a spotting scope. But here they were, driving the animal right toward us, running like mad on either side of it.

Tomorrow: More giant anteater facts, fotos, and musings. Cue organ music.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Guyana's Savanna

One of the things I hadn't expected to see in Guyana was grassland. I guess I thought it would all be Amazonian rainforest. I was stunned by the visual similarities between Guyana and South Africa, which I visited in 1994, when I was still shooting film. I couldn't get my head around Guyana being in South America when I saw vistas like these.
Guyana's savannas are natural, formed where the soil is too thin to support trees. Lightning helps maintain them. We had but a taste of the unique life these savannas support, so very different from the tall forest flora and fauna. There were dragonflies, for one thing, beautiful ones, and one blue one that must be among the smallest true dragonflies on the planet--less than an inch in total length.As a naturalist, it was a thrill to me to realize that I was looking at a life form that might be undescribed; endemic; that would set every nerve to tingling in my friends who study the Odonata--and to have no idea what I was looking at. I felt like a musicologist who had stumbled on a remote tribe who'd made instruments out of monkey skulls and shells, listening to music none of his colleagues had been privileged to hear.Who are you, elfin one? Does it matter to you?

The mystery continued in the plant kingdom. No idea what this is, even what family it occupies.
This one, I think, is in the pea family. Had to get down on my knees to see if it had a scent. Not at the moment.
This lovely thing was reminiscent of a Gaura. It also reminded me of Salvia greggii, or Autumn Sage, one of my favorite hummingbird flowers. Even the bee looked exotic.
This one, I know, is a melastome, a large tropical family easily identified by the parallel veins in their leaves, and the quilted look made by the cross-veins. I've seen a similar flower grown as a tropical ornamental in San Francisco.
Pull back, and see the landscape--are we in Africa?
A fork-tailed flycatcher says not. East coast birders will recognize it as a strangely frequent fall vagrant, which inexplicably flies up from South America, showing up along the coast from NJ to MA, just when it might freeze to death.
It was good to see this lovely bird at home. It's reminiscent of our scissor-tailed flycatcher, with none of the paradise pink on underwing and flank. Like a kingbird in a tux.
Near the airstrip where we landed, a pair of double-striped thick-knees stalked warily. Enormous relatives of plovers, they have a huge yellow eye with a heavy, weary-looking lid.
Savanna being hard to find in the Amazon basin, sparrows are hard to find. This plain little creature is the grassland sparrow.
It sits in a pepper tree and voices a buzzy song that might have been a Savannah sparrow's. We found all these treasures while ostensibly hunting for an endemic, a skulky little thing of wet open marshes. It's a flycatcher ally called the bearded tachuri. Tell someone you're hunting for a bearded tachuri and see what they think it might be. I somehow snagged a photo before he dove back down into the grass. I love getting photos, any images at all, of weird endemic life birds. But the nice thing about being casual about one's life list is that it's fine with you if you don't see the bearded tachuri. For me, it's all about enjoying the ride. And having probably the only blog on the Internet with "bearded tachuri" in the tagline. Heh. Ooh, that sounds like hubris. I'm sure there are other bloggers writing about tachuris. Somewhere.
In the marsh, we scared up a trio of muscovy ducks--the slender, wild progenitors of the pot-bellied, red-faced, hissing ogres we've made of them. I will say this--even fat Muscovy ducks retain their ability to fly, which is more than I can say for Pekins. Domestic Muscovy duck--photo lifted from Muscovies, in Guyana. It was so good to see them as they were meant to be.
At our feet, an elfin forest of sedges and grasses. I wondered how many decades--perhaps even centuries--old these tiny "trees" might be, their trunks built up with each season's growth.
And realized that beneath my feet, termites dwelt in a teeming Gotham, making covered tunnels from one pile of horse dung to the next.
In this metropolis of insects, there is one bad actor--one enormous, all-powerful villain, perhaps the strangest animal that walks the earth, one I had never dared dream I'd see in the wild. We will meet him tomorrow. (Picture Mr. Burns, rubbing his thin white hands together).

I do enjoy cobbling a cheesy serial out of my little travelogue. Cackle!

ZICK ALERT: Wren at The Nature Blog Network just posted an interview with moi at the Nature Blog Network Blog. If only for a couple of highly cute pictures of Chet Baker, and some thoughts on why we blog and what might come of it, please go check it out!

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Scorpion, Marmite, Crab-eating Raccoon

An abandoned dugout, washed up by high water.

Upon returning from our adventure with the Victoria regia waterlilies, we made for our huts, using the headlamps that would be indispensable throughout this trip. Simple brick abodes, the huts lacked screens or door seals, and wildlife traversed them freely via the wide gaps beneath the thatched roof or under the door. Through the night, bats chittered and fluttered in the thatch, swooping in and out of the cabin, and occasionally a huge red wasp would plop down on us--the task being to brush it away before it could unleash its painful sting. I was thankful for the mosquito netting that surrounded our beds. As I was tucking it in, I heard the plop of what had to be a very large roach...or... something...falling off my bed netting and onto the concrete slab floor. You know the sound. Plop. Silence. Scuttle. I looked down, to behold a 2 1/2" long scorpion gathering its wits and then scuttling into the darkness under the bed. Oh, great. Great. Lullabye, and good night...I tried but failed to find it, so resigned myself to dreaming about it. For all I know it climbed right back up the mosquito netting and tucked itself under my thin mattress. It simply vanished.
Terry Moore takes five with a good ceegar outside his hut. He ain't afraid of no scorpions, but he does shake out his shoes before putting them on in the morning. Scorpions hate to be stepped on.

Communal meals at Karanambu are delicious and lively. The whole place has the feel of an African camp. Diane McTurk presides and serves the food, tells stories and makes conversation with her guests. She's had amazing first hand experience with rare mammals, as you'll see...

Wait. What's that in the little brown jar? Marmite? I'd heard of Marmite, and had always wanted to try it.
I took a tablespoon and daubed out a large gob, conveying it directly into my mouth, figuring it would taste like, oh, I don't know...molasses? It looked like molasses.

What followed was apparently hilarious to everyone but me. An indescribably foul, salty sludge scraped from the cracked pipes in the putrid sewers of Hell spread across my tongue. I struggled to gag it down, just to be rid of it, and not to have to spit it out in front of fifteen people. Bad choice. I should have spat it against the opposite wall. It was like digging a spoon into the drip pan of an old tractor and eating the oily sludge. # !@##@$#% that is FOUL!!

, purportedly made from used brewer's yeast, is an acquired taste. (Whatever says, I'm sticking to my Satan's sewerpipe theory). Apparently the English, with their world-reknowned culinary sensitivity, like to spread it on toast, but they use about one-tenth what I'd just ingested. Gaaagg. Glad I could give y'all a laugh this morning. Feh!I mentioned free-roaming wildlife at Karanambu. It was here that I met Bandit, the hand-raised crab-eating raccoon. You'll notice he's not Procyon lotor. He's P. cancrivorus.Much shorter of fur, beautifully rusty, and with the biggest feet I'd ever seen on any raccoon anywhere--look at those hind feet!!, this crab-eating raccoon was a whole different ball of wax than our North American beast. I was thrilled to make his acquaintance. Catlike, monkeylike, coonlike, coatilike, he was all of those, and like nothing else I'd seen. Big hands, I know you're the one.
He patrolled from hut to hut as if he owned the place, and I came to understand why he was allowed out only for short periods, under close supervision.

If I had to pick a favorite moment of the whole trip, I think it was when my roommate Erica and I were unpacking our suitcases, and there came a sudden fierce scrabbling as Bandit forced his tubby body through the narrow louvers of our window, an exhilarated grin on his simian face.
Finally popping through, he dove into my suitcase and began throwing clothes over his shoulder as he dug for the food he figured must be in there. He was just about to get to the beef jerky and power bars when I tapped him on the shoulder. HEY YOU! What do you think you're doing?

Biting you, that's what I'm doin'! Lemme be, woman! There's jerky in this suitcase, and I mean to find it!

Well, uh, help yourself, I guess...I'm not dumb enough to try to pick you up, you little hellcat. But that is my snack store you're getting into...Dang!

Erica and I laughed so long and hard that Pat, one of our hostesses, figured the little beast was up to his usual tricks, rushed over and unceremoniously grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and carried him out, twisting and snarling. Since he could force himself through the louvers, only a cage was going to stop him by Erica Gies

Such a bad, bad animal. I loved him, even as I realized that having a crab-eating raccoon break into one's hut and pillage one's suitcase isn't at the top of the most-delightful incident list for most tourists. Crab-eating raccoons are a little like Marmite. You love 'em, or you hate 'em.

The Swinging Orangutangs play tonight, and January 2, too, at the Marietta Brewing Company on Front St. in Marietta, Ohio. We been praktisin'. Happy New Year!

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