Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Conversation With a Bleeding Heart

Up again, are you?
Always sooner than I think to look.
Always stronger than I thought you'd be.
What are your plans?
Will you take over again, smother the sunny flowers?
Or will the frost bite you back, turn you to mush?

You're red as blood; cruel, inexorable
Despite your beauty.
You carve your space, elbows out
A slow-motion black eye to any plant coming close.
Three years you've ruled this garden
Spreading farther every April
Coming back, coming back, coming back.

A month from now you'll sprawl as wide as I am tall.
I wonder why I give you room.

I could take a shovel, dig you out
to plant somewhere else
or throw on the heap out back
The mound of plants that didn't work out.
You'd rot down to nourish the ones who come after.

I could, you know.
The poacher's spade would do it.
Weedy dock or bleeding heart: all the same to the narrow blade.
So watch yourself.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

What's Blooming Now

Did everyone turn off their lights from 8:30-9:30 on Saturday? We did. We're pretty good at dealing without electricity, after this winter. If anyone's wondering, that's a vintage Poll Parrot clock on the wall, a second anniversary gift Bill and I gave each other. The mysterious black machine beneath the clock filters our water five times, ozonates, carbon polishes it, and, we hope, fills us with never-ending health and goodness. I couldn't live without Mr. Goodwater.

Turning the lights off made us notice how beautiful daffodils are by candlelight. So are clivias.

The Clivia miniata (Kafir lily) I've nurtured for three years has three huge bursts of orange, fragrant blossoms. This, for having left it bone-dry in a cold basement all winter. That's what it likes.

I love flower time. I really, really love flowers. Outside, there are crocuses and daffodils galore.

When we first moved here, there was a sad little straight line of fancy daffodils that ran right through the middle of the lawn. It had once lined a driveway that was no more, and it no longer made sense in the landscape. So we mowed around them for a few years, then dug them up out of the rock-hard soil and planted them in the soft compost of our new raised flower beds. This is just a fraction of the daffodils we now have.

The big dig was about 14 years ago. They have multiplied to the point that I dig up daffodil bulbs with everything I try to plant in those beds. I can bring them in by the armload and never notice I've cut them, there are so many bobbing and dancing in the cold spring wind. All that from just a few bulbs, transplanted to a place they can thrive and multiply. Plants just give and give and give.

Meanwhile, out in the greenhouse, everyone's going k-k-k-krazy.Look at the little red and yellow bells of Abutilon megapotamicum. All the gerania that were just leaves in my last post are blooming their heads off.

Inside the house, the orchids are winding up. Oh Lord, I love this time of year, when I get up every morning and peek down into their paired leaves to see if I can find a new bloom spike starting. Plants are blooming this spring that haven't bloomed for years. I think it's the massive repotting I did in November, that's what I think. I think it's the Aussie Gold medium I used. It's payback time. The diatomaceous earth in the Aussie Gold medium seems to have licked the mealybugs, and throwing out sick plants helped a lot. Not to mention the thorough washing and spraying they got in November, in that marathon of orchidaceous labor. With orchids, it's all about being willing to wait.

Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos" is about to unfurl another dancing flamenco lobster, its eighth since last June. Ahhh.

Here's Laeliocattleya " Firedance Patricia" about to haul off and give me some red flowers.
You can tell it's happy because the new growth off to the left side is so robust and full of buds.

The promise in those fat bronze buds...the anticipation of waiting for them to open...such fun. And then a few days go by and boom, they open.
But for now, the undisputed Queen of the Collection is a Brassaevola cross called "Morning Glory." I....love.....this.....plant.
The flowers are enormous, three inches or more across, and fragrant. OK, you had me at enormous, but fragrant? Almost seems too much to ask for. Now, pull back and look at the entire plant, which is a couple of feet across at this point.

That's what I'm talkin' about. A plant that is self-actualizing, blooming from every new growth point, practically leaping from its pot in exuberance. At last count, sixteen blossoms open at once. Stinkin' up the place.

These are the things that happen when plants are happy, when the lines of caring and communication are open between plant and caretaker. You feel like an orchid samurai, keeper of ancient secrets, axion of ability, but really, it's just this little magical thing that happens when you care enough to figure out how to do the right thing.

On Friday, I made my way back from my speaking engagement in Middletown by way of Columbus. There was to be a huge orchid show and sale, if the American Orchid Society and Central Ohio Orchid Society web sites were to be believed, running from Friday through Sunday at an airport hotel. I drove around in circles looking for the right Mariott, and when I finally found the entrance, I made my way inside the huge atrium where I teamed up with two equally confused women who'd driven down from Detroit, who, when I spotted them, had that look of the orchid fancier about them: smart, sharply dressed, well-tended. (I am a distinct anomaly). We wandered around asking custodians about it until someone told us which conference room might hold the show. Finally we found a room with a few orchids on a folding table, nothing more. It seems the web sites had misled us; setup was Friday, and the show actually opened Saturday morning. The vendors hadn't even arrived yet.


The orchid ladies from Detroit, who'd driven three hours expressly to buy some new orchids, were a good deal more perturbed than I. I immediately took it as a cosmic smackdown, and actually felt relieved. Clearly, I don't need any more orchids than the 38 currently cramming my shelves, and the gods agree about that. I climbed back in the Exploder, kissed Chet Baker, and headed home to enjoy what I already have. Which, in truth, is way more than enough. A fact that will make itself clear next November, at the next repotting marathon.

It's not having what you want.
It's wanting what you've got.

Sheryl Crow, "Soak Up the Sun"

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Monetizing Your Dog

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

I'm not sure how I feel about these not-so-subtle hints I've been getting, sprinkled here and there in the comments section. "It's been over a month and we want more Chet!" read the latest. And I checked, and it has, by two whole days. Obviously, some of you keep track (and have noticed that I don't), and it seems that there's some kind of Chetmeter ticking away in your brains that goes off BLANNNNG!! when you've reached the critical limit of Chetlack. These are the times that I wish my blog had a little slot into which you could insert a one, a five or a ten, after carefully smoothing it to make sure the machine will accept it, and making sure the president is facing up. I could blog away five days a week about birds and rivers and butterflies and anteaters, frogs and Fanta and orchids and otters, blissfully unaware that the Chetpressure was building up, and then I'd open my laptop in the morning and all this money would pour out of it, whee! from all the people who were finally starved out and willing to pay for their next major Chetfix.

Y'all keep having to remind me that it's really all about the dog.

He is lying at my side, smelling slightly of skunk (there's another story there), heaving those little rumbly dog sighs of contentment. Every once in awhile I take his smooshy little face in my hands and say, "Baker, you will be my ticket out of poverty. I don't know how just yet, but you're gonna get us out of this." His big pink tongue flops out and washes my chin and we laugh. It's true, we both know it, but I haven't figured out how to monetize my dog.

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

On Thursday, I drove to Middletown, Ohio, a neat four hours straight across the state, to guest lecture in a creative fiction class at Miami University's Middletown campus taught by Dr. Eric Melbye. I think I've written one piece of fiction in my whole life--the introduction to a 1997 piece on ivory-billed woodpeckers.

It was fun, but this is a big ol' goofy world, and it is so crammed with wonders that I have never felt the need to write fiction. Just describing what's going on all around me is more than enough.
So we talked about the creative process which probably isn't all that different between fiction and the kind of embroidered nonfiction I do. We talked about how to get out of the way of your subconscious mind, how to let it flow, because it writes much better than the conscious mind. The talk ran 'round to Chet Baker, who was slumbering back in my hotel room, and we traded stories about nonverbal communication between people and animals. It was cool.

Thursday night, there was a public lecture, and a lot of the people who came are also readers of this blog. And it occurred to me that some of them might like to meet The Bacon. Although Nina and Susan already had, they are always up for another crispy serving. So after the talk, I invited four women up to the Manchester Hotel and we sat around on the floor hooting with laughter as Chet Baker ripped Susan's new toy to smithereens,

decked Susan, purveyor of toys and Pupperoni, a couple of times,
had a scavenger hunt for bits of Pupperoni, aimed sudden and deadly accurate kisses at everyone's tonsils, and just generally lit the room up with his doggy joydaveev.**

**Joie de vive. I know. I just like making new words.

Unh unh unh unh unh unh unh rrrrrrrrrrrrrowwwwww. All the puppy training books warn you not to play tug o'war with your dog or he'll grow up to dominate you, make your life miserable, and eventually kill you while you sleep. Hasn't happened yet. So far, we just play tug o'war.

Four grown women sitting on the floor, hooting over a dog. You'll recognize Nina in the middle, too...

Think he knows what a star he is? Smile, Chet. Look at the camera. Yes, Mether. How is this? I am making my eyes extra googly.

I suppose at some point Chet will be attending the lectures with me. Or he will let me attend them with him. I can see me, dog on my knee, answering questions aimed at Chet, in the distinctive dawgvoice we've developed. Kind of a Charlie McCarthy act, but with a much cuter and smarter dummy. We'll take it on the road. I hope all the hotels we pick are as pet-friendly--I'd call the staff doghappy!-- as the homey sweet Manchester Inn in Middletown, Ohio.

Many thanks to Eric Melbye, his writing students, and MUM for making such a fuss and being willing to listen to a bunch of animal stories.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Issequibo River

The Issequibo River flows right by Iwokrama Lodge. It is an absolutely gorgeous river, clear of water and abundant in life. This is Sankar, a huge black caiman who hangs out right by the dock. He gets fed. I don't know if you can strike a deal with an 11-foot caiman, like: we'll feed you if you won't eat us. Can you work something like that out with a giant reptile? Is it capable of knowing you shouldn't eat the people who bring you chicken scraps? Probably. Anyway, Sankar hung around like a dirty shirt, floating like a hopeful log just off the dock.

We took a few boat excursions in open whalers to see what there was to see. One of the most fascinating birds we found was the black-collared swallow, Atticora melanoleuca. This diminutive bird nests in crevices in river rocks, which would seem to put it at great risk in the face of fluctuating water levels. On the bright side, there's not much that's going to swim across a swift-flowing river and prey upon their eggs and young, especially far back in a narrow crevice. I should think it would cut down on the snake predation, especially. I like this picture because it shows the great big, deeply-forked tail--such a surprise on a bird that otherwise looks a lot like a bank swallow.
I decided to stage a shot of me reading Bird Watcher's Digest in the boat. This is a tradition with Bill and me, staging such shots, just to show that BWD goes around the world.Photo by Mike Weedon. See, Mike, I credit your photos.

That was so much fun, we staged another of me reading BWD in a bar on the Issequibo River. One night we wound up in a very funky, cool little bar within shouting distance of the lodge. There, we got pretty snookered on rum and vodka mixed with Orange Crush, because they were out of fruit juice. This is something that I would not even consider drinking at home, but it actually tasted sort of not too horrible in this little bar, because it was so cute and friendly there. They had a videotape playing on the television. First Anne Murray gave a concert, and then Kenny Rogers gave one. Then Anne Murray, then Kenny. Then Anne, Kenny, Anne...The tape was probably about thirty years old, and they probably know every single song by heart, but that's what they had. This is what I look like on vodka and Orange Crush.Photo by Kevin Loughlin

I wish you could see Kenny on the screen but you can't.

After that, we went out spotlighting wildlife, but we probably didn't see near as much as we could have because Weedon and I started talking about Cockney rhyming slang and other ridiculous things and we laughed too much. I took one picture of a large frog they call mountain chicken. Why you would call a frog "mountain chicken" I have no idea, because it lives in the river. Sadly, this is the only photo I took that night.

The next morning, our guides Ron and Asaph sat discussing something, probably what they ought to do about the loud, disruptive people in this press group. Asaph is recommending that they wad up a sock and then put a little duct tape on my mouth, and Ron just thinks they should cut me off on the vodka and Orange Crush.More adventures anon.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Iwokrama Lodge

I guess I'd better set the stage here for some more adventures in Guyana. We'd reached our final destination: Iwokrama Lodge on the big, wild Issequibo River. What a cool place--completely oriented toward ecotourism and research, bird and animalcentric. You know you're in a good spot when there's a table full of skulls right in the dining room. lowland tapir (right) and brocket deer (Mazama sp.), left.Jaguar skull. Possessed of the most powerful crushing bite in the cat family, this is what sabretoothed tigers became, I wager. Jaguars are built like sumo wrestlers, built to bring down lowland tapirs.

Diagnostic Zick habitat.
I burst out laughing when I sank a spoon into my dinner and found it toothed. Just fish, but still. That was one bony stew. What is proper etiquette when one finds oneself being chewed by one's soup? Spitting it across the room is out, that much I know.

Another thing not for the faint-hearted: taking a beloved and highly essential laptop to a place with nearly 100 percent humidity and what felt like nearly 100 degrees all the time. You want to talk computer bugs? Yes, that's a roach, and I found it on our cabin porch, and it is just a whisker short of 3" long. Communal shudder. Easton Apple Store dudes, this is how it happened:

After its ordeal at Atta Canopy Tower camp, when it poured for a day and a night, my computer started spontaneously shutting down. And then, arggggh, it wouldn't start up, either. And there was Internet at Iwokrama, as there is nearly everywhere we went in the interior, and I wanted to talk to my husband and kids. I also wanted my data, and my next book manuscript, and 20K photos, and sundry things like that. I was wiggin'.

I went cabin to cabin interviewing all the sympathetic and helpful gearheads, who also happened to be Mac people (I told you there were great people on this trip!) and we reached the consensus that my laptop had drowned. I should try setting it out in the sun. It had worked for my portrait lens, which I drowned when I put it in a fanny pack with an unscrewed water bottle. Drowning appliances is one of my many fortes. I have drowned three, count 'em, three cordless telephone handsets. I watered one and washed two in the machine.

But back to the Mac. Now, setting something out in the Guyanan sun is tantamount to broiling it. So I decided to set it out for only a half hour and see if it would start then. After about five minutes, I peeked at it. Tiny red ants were POURING out of the keyboard, running in crazy zigzags across the white-hot titanium. And each one had a cookie crumb in its jaws. That had to be a good thing. People go to spas to stick their feet in fishtanks and let little fish eat the dead skin off their feet. I thought this might be something similar. The pharoah ant treatment for your laptop.

Lo and behold, after its time on the tanning bed, it started. I've never been so happy to hear the annoying DAAAHHH! it makes when I wake it up. (Why can't it peep or twitter instead?) But I had to set it out in the sun every time I wanted to boot it up. That couldn't be a good thing. I am happy to report that my Fed-ex guy came up the sidewalk today with a laptop-shaped box, and the people at Apple had done something to the logic board, fixed the fan, and fixed the disc drive, too, and we are cookin' now, and she's not shutting down no mo'. And I am real, real glad I bought AppleCare. Real glad. Even though it expires in September. By then, MacIntosh is betting I'll have to have the new AirBook with a green battery that lasts eight hours. Too bad I'll have even less than no money by then.

Too bad I couldn't bring my REAL, 3" long computer bug back home.

ZICK ALERT: I will speak and sign books tomorrow, 6:30-8 pm. at Miami Middletown Downtown, 4 North Main St. Middletown, OH, as part of Miami University Middletown’s public lecture series. Contact email: mumccc@muohio.edu; phone (513) 727-3248 (Dr. Eric Melbye). For more ZICK ALERTS, see my website's Meet Julie page.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jabiru Nest!

Once again, a ceiba tree was host to a forest king. This time, it was not a harpy, but a jabiru pair, nesting along the Rupununi River. It takes a heck of a tree to hold up a jabiru nest.This nest is probably bigger than the antique oak flat file that takes up the entire center of my studio. Those birds are five feet tall, as tall as people. It's hard to convey how huge the whole affair was, tree, birds, nest and all.

And how rare is the opportunity to look into a jabiru nest.
We were to see not one but two different jabiru homes. In the second, a little jabiru princeling.
Ceibas are good trees, are they not? What treasures these forest giants hold. No wonder they're sacred all across their range. From tribe to indigenous tribe, everyone respects the ceiba.

I feel pretty certain that I'll never have a better look or photographic opportunity with jabirus than I got in Guyana.
The jabiru soaring overhead reminded me of DaVinci's flying machine, a man hanging from the great jointed wings.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, spring is on hold. It has to rain, it just has to. Dust curls up off the road and the spring peepers are silenced. There are no wood frogs, no mountain chorus frogs, no salamanders. Even the bluebirds, always eager to nest, are holding back. I can't remember a spring like this. When?

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Monday, March 23, 2009


Jabiru! Just the name sends a thrill through any aspiring Neotropical birdwatcher. Though they occasionally show up in Texas as vagrants, you really have to be in the tropics to see this magnificent stork.

The jabiru eats fish, crustaceans, mammals, reptiles, amphibians: whatever it can subdue with its enormous, slightly uptilted bill. That's probably most of the animals it encounters, because this thing is BIG. It is the tallest bird in the Americas, standing nearly five feet, tipping the scales at almost 17 pounds, looking me right in the eye. And I can tell you I would not want a jabiru to look me in the eye at close range. Herons and storks have a disconcerting way of aiming for the eyes of people who tick them off. So I will have no hair-raising tales of patting the jabiru.

I'd only ever had distant and pretty crummy looks at jabirus in Costa Rica. To come to a place where they were reasonably common and easy to see was a great thrill. Guyana thrilled me in so many ways.

Flying jabirus are distinctive mainly by their absolute hugeosity. Not only that, but their plumage is completely white--no black primaries here. Their feathers must be enormously strong, both to hold their weight and to resist wear without the aid of melanin, the dark pigment that strengthens the wingtips of most white-winged birds.

In flight, jabirus appear very neck-heavy. Its name is a Tupi Indian word meaning "swollen neck." Yeah.Most of the birds that we saw were circling in pairs or even quads, and we witnessed a few really strange neck-throwing displays in flight, where the bird would toss its head over its back, flashing a big red patch at the base. I wish I had a picture of the bird with the head thrown up, but it happened really fast.The display looked aggressive in nature to me, but one never knows. It could just as easily have been a breeding display. I noticed that the base of the neck varied in color; most birds that have such skin coloring are able to deepen the hue by allowing blood to rush to the part. Think turkey heads, which can go from blue to blood-red to snow-white in a few seconds. Whether this is something that is under voluntary control I don't know; it's more likely related to how excited the bird happens to be.

Oh, gosh I love jabirus, and I had a hard time picking my favorite photos. When I am focused on a circling jabiru, I'm very happy that my camera, set on Auto, knows what to do to bring out the detail against a bright sky. Tomorrow, a jabiru nest!

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Jungle School

The second Guyanan school we visited, Aranaputa School, sits right next to the peanut factory that makes Rupununi Golden Peanut Butter. Here we met a local celebrity—the little Amerindian girl whose picture graces its label. These children have an innate dignity and self-possessed presence that is remarkable. She wasn't about to get all giddy about it. She just put up with us and our cameras. I wished she'd had the macaw feather headdress on for the peanut butter label shot.
For this visit, the kids were outfitted in what I guess is an approximation of indigenous wear, though we never went deep enough into the interior to find anyone dressed like this, if anyone still is. I'm thinking the Guess T-shirt has probably infiltrated just about everywhere.
I can’t quite imagine Liam and Phoebe being willing or eager to don what amounts to swim gear and dance and sing before an audience of people from overseas. But these kids launched in without a hint of self-deprecation, irony or embarrassment. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
Scarlet and blue and yellow macaw feathers bristled from their headdresses.
I'd been kid-starved for long enough that I wanted to just grab me one and get some kid hugs.
Mike Weedon was missing his little ones, too, so he started some arm wrestling bouts with the kids behind him.
Kevin Loughlin pulled out an eminently portable musical instrument--his hands--and played a few squirky little tunes, filling the open-air school with the music of laughter.
He's especially good on Sousa marches, which lend themselves well to the fruity sounds made by sweaty palms. Yeah! Hearty laughter from all the kids. Way to go, Kevin!

After the concert, we wandered through the school buildings. There were no smartboards here--the big computer screens that enhance my kids' schoolrooms in rural Ohio. There was no electricity.
And yet I entertained the thought that, with a powerline, the Internet and some monitors, the whole wide world could be opened up to these children, too. I thought about them looking up at a smartboard and seeing the same things Liam sees at at his little country elementary school in Ohio.

For now, it's little wooden desks, mildewed, curled up books, and animal skulls on a table. And some loving and capable teachers doing their best with what they've got.
From left, back row, there's a lowland tapir (look at that sagittal crest!); a couple of javelinas -wild pigs- (I think); a capybara (world's largest rodent--see the huge incisors?); a round manatee cranium and a possible manatee jaw. Front row: a water turtle, two dogs, an unnamed rodent (probably an agouti); a mystery jawbone, and a monkey, species undetermined. Boneman, feel free to kick in with alternate ID's.

It's a beautiful spring day here, and I'm writing a column for Bird Watcher's Digest that's due tomorrow. Like so many of my published pieces, it was sparked by a thought first aired--and responded to--on this blog. The kernel: Why don't we ask more of our children? Given a choice, they'll stay on the couch. We must lead the way into the woods. If we don't, we can't complain that they're just not interested in nature.

I'm thankful for you, the readers who give me feedback and help me think.

When it's done, I'm going to make a place for the peas and lettuce in the garden--the reward for sitting still long enough to write the piece. At least that's the plan. Given a choice, I go to the garden! I guess that's what deadlines are for.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Schoolkids of Guyana

I’ve never been on a press trip that included stops at local elementary schools in the itinerary, but this US AID funded excursion was not a typical fam trip. We visited two schools in one day. We had been scheduled to visit the first one, Escuela Nueva in the AmerIndian village of Aranaputa, the day before, but rain messed up our plans and pushed everything aside. The children had been dressed in indigenous costumes and waiting all day, but we came the next day instead, when they had their regular school uniforms on.

From the moment the children opened their mouths to sing, they had me. If our elementary school choir teacher had been able to coax such angelic melodies out of my kids and their classmates, she’d probably faint on the spot. There was no pretending to sing, no too-cool-for-school inattention. These kids sang, really sang, and they melted my heart. They danced, telling of their traditional agriculture and hunting with their motions.
I was transfixed by the timeless beauty of their faces. They sang a song they’d written about their village, the beauty of the sun coming up over the mountains; brown-skinned Amerindians in every house, and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I thought about my kids standing in just such rows, singing Jingle Bells or Sleigh Ride, and wondered what might happen if they were asked to write and perform a song of gratitude to the place they live, the mountains and sky and community they enjoy. It's not that they couldn't do it, and do it well. Thing is, they've never been asked.

Kevin Loughlin wanted to give something back, because that’s the way he rolls. So he got up and showed them his special talent—playing a tune on his hands, squeezing little raspberry noises out of his palms in a recognizable and quite melodic series of tunes. The kids had never seen anyone do that before, and they cracked up.

Mike Weedon set up his scope for them to look through, and I sang them an Irish song, wishing I’d brought my pennywhistle.I'll never leave home without it from now on.

Very excited about a Swinging Orangutangs engagement this coming Friday (Ack! Tomorrow!) at the Marietta Brewing Company on Front Street here in Marietta, Ohio. Lots of friends coming, including Jimmy and Paula, and we're planning to coax Jimmy Clinton and his mandolin up on stage. We had a rehearsal last night, in which Vinnie came up with a bizarre German drinking song to which Jess added operatic trills and flourishes, and I laughed so much my stomach still aches. It ought to be a fit opener for the second set. Like my dad always said about raising kids: You gotta keep 'em thinking.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Giant Otters on NPR

I'll be on All Things Considered this evening March 17, 2009, talking about getting bitten by an Amazon Giant Otter. I enjoyed everything leading up to the actual bite.
It should air near the end of the show; i.e., between 5:30 and 6 pm. Eastern time.
If you miss the broadcast, you can listen after 7 pm Eastern here.
You can also go to npr.org and leave a comment there, to counterbalance all the people who are sure to write in, hopping mad, to tell me what an idiot I must be to pet an otter.
OK, now scroll down to read today's post about a peanut butter factory. It's a big ol' goofy world, in'it?

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Peanut Butter Factory

With all the flap about peanut butter going on here, I thought it would be fun to see a real community peanut butter factory, Guyana style. The Guyanan climate is beautifully suited to cultivation of the peanut, which after all was brought over from Africa, and we’ve seen the congruencies between Guyana and Africa. I think that peanut plants must be gluttons for punishment, standing out in the Guyanan heat all day.

Here’s the factory. It’s modest, but as clean as an open-air peanut butter factory can be. Is it bug or rodent-proof? No. Nothing in Guyana really seems to be. But it’s a tight ship, and we were all given paper berets to wear, so I’m pretty sure the peanut butter has no Zick hair in it. Definitely cleaner than the Peanut Corporation of America.

Locally grown peanuts are brought in burlap sacks to this facility, where they are put in the roaster, an oil drum that’s slowly rotated over a gas flame while the peanuts inside spin and cook evenly. You might want to admire the beautifully muscled arms of the two women who work in the peanut factory at this point, because they have to turn the thing for a couple of hours for each batch of peanuts to get cooked.

This is the sheller, which separates nut from shell. I think there might be a fan at some point, which blows shell bits off the nuts.
All the peanuts are sent through this little grinder, yielding the most wonderful all-natural hand-made peanut butter. We were given little samples, but I felt like digging my hand into the joint compound bucket and sticking it in my mouth. I wuz hongry, and it were good.

It was humbling to see this operation, the pride and care that goes into every batch, and to think that these two women provide all the labor, every step along the way, to make Rupununi Golden Peanut Butter.
I tried to imagine the FDA allowing such an operation in the States and couldn't. There would be so many regulatory roadblocks thrown in the way that peanut-based food production would be left soley to the big outfits, which, we're assured, handle our food in a much cleaner, safer way. We've seen how well that works, again and again and again. Give me my Farmer's Market, the armpower of two barefoot women, and Rupununi Golden Peanut Butter over the mass produced stuff, any day.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! My Irish half (County Tyrone) came out on a quiet, dark bus in Honduras. We had two hours left of a six-hour bus ride ahead of us, and it was getting dark fast. Everyone was exhausted and just wanted to get some dinner and go to bed. Corey said, "Maybe it's time to strike up a chorus of '99 Bottles." I said, "I've got a better idea," and rummaged around in my suitcase for my nickel-plated Oak pennywhistle. I played for two solid hours without repeating a tune, dredging up music from more than thirty years of picking up Irish tunes. I've forgotten the names of many of them, in the true tradition, but I remember the music. Man, that was fun.

Bill of the Birds is back from the Phils, jetlagged to the max, but we started St. Patrick's Day with a mini-hooley around the kitchen table, working out some acoustic music for the Swinging Orangutangs' next engagement, this coming Friday, March 20, at the Marietta Brewing Company, 167 Front Street, Marietta, Ohio.

Music doesn't take energy. It gives it. Ideally. With the possible exception of load-in, load-out, setup, rehearsal, and next-day wastage.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Road to Iwokrama

It was hard to leave Atta Tower Camp, gateway to the massive Iwokrama Reserve. It had rained--a true tropical downpour--since the night before. And wouldn't you know, that was the one night we slept (well, "slept" is not exactly what most of us did) all hanging in rows of hammocks in an open-air shelter. Hoping to minimize exposure to snoring (I'm a ridiculously light and intolerant "sleeper,") I was on one end, just a couple of feet from a continuous sheet of water, and all my gear was there, too. That was the night my Mac PowerBook gave up the ghost for the first of many times (temporarily, thank goodness). Essentially, it drowned that night. Now, almost four months later, it's still giving me trouble with unannounced shutdowns, and it's on its way to the Mac Hospital for what will probably amount to a new motherboard or something. Under warranty. Sometimes computers crap out while still under warranty. Sometimes. It had never happened to me, but sometimes you get lucky, if drowning your computer, putting up with spontaneous shutdowns, and being without it for a week constitutes getting lucky.

But wouldn't you know, the morning we were to leave the sun finally came out and purple-throated fruitcrows and Guianian red-cotingas came out to forage right around camp, but so high in the trees that I hadn't a prayer of a photograph. I was just stunned. Meanwhile, these crested currassows were spooking around the grounds, hoping the staff would put some more boiled rice out for their breakfast.
I think that's Boss Currassow in the middle. They have the Little Richard marcel 'do.
Currassows are cracids, like chachalacas and guans. They are the loveliest birds, but are unfortunately delicious, and cracids as a rule are really hard to find because wherever they occur throughout Latin America they get shot and eaten. Only in protected spots like national parks or archaeological sites do cracids become comfortable around people, so you have to seek out those places. I spent six months in Amazonian Brazil when I was in college, but didn't see my first currassow (a lovely pair of Greats) until Tikal, Guatemala, only three years ago. So these crested currassows were a tremendous treat to watch as they minced around camp.

It was time to hit the road again, so we bid farewell to the cotingas and cracids and climbed into trucks for transport to our next destination, Iwokrama Lodge. We'd take the road for awhile and then take boats on the Issequibo River. I opted to ride in the back of a pickup, standing up, because I wanted to see more birds. I saw a lot of birds, but also got pretty badly dehydrated in the heat and wind, as we traveled for many hours under the hot sun.

There were the loveliest trees growing all along the road, with great candelabras of gorgeous red flowers.
There were little trees, each bearing a natural hanging basket of bromeliads, sedums, philodendrons, orchids, cereuses, and who knows what all else. Nature is the best floral designer.

There was an enormous yellow-footed tortoise, like a boxy on steroids.
He was the size of a small watermelon, very Galapagoan.
There was the tiny--I mean teeny tiny, eensy-weensy slinglike nest of a white-chinned sapphire hummingbird, or at least that was guide Ron Allicock's guess as to who might have built it. Charmed, I'm sure.
High overhead, a black and white hawk eagle soared and circled. Ahhhh. You beautiful, beautiful thing.
and, finally,
It was a cracking big stunner of a bird, clean and crisp in its markings, out there circling under the baking sun, looking down on us in our birding truck.

And then there were the butterflies. Big sulfurs, moving in tremendous flocks along the road for as long as we drove, and we drove all day. Try as I did, I couldn't make sense of their movements; they didn't seem to be migrating in any one direction the way monarchs do. They just seemed to be chasing each other back and forth. Here's a flock, puddling in a yard.
Mostly, they are greenish, with some bright yellow and a very few bright orange.
When you are in the back of an open truck, standing facing into the wind, it is like being in a blizzard, with each snowflake a large butterfly. Yes, they hit you in the face, very hard, and it hurts like crazy.
But it was worth it to be in a butterfly snowstorm.
This was more butterflies than I have seen in my life until now, more butterflies than I expect to see for the rest of my entire life. I cannot convey what it was like to be in a blizzard of butterflies, virtually all day, unable to escape being hit by them, just as you cannot dodge the snowflakes.

At the end of the day we packed some beers, each conveniently labeled with a different fancy looking bikini 'ho,
something Terry Moore and Ron Allicock seemed to appreciate more than Judy, Judy, Erica and I did.
We watched until dark for a jaguar to cross the road, but none did. That's how jaguars usually roll. This is the only road between Guyana and Brazil's northeast, and we sat on it for a couple of hours and never had to get up for a truck. May it ever be thus, though I know it won't.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fear of Heights

Let's talk about fear. A little fear is good. A little fear keeps us on our toes, keeps us functioning above resting state. A lot of fear can be paralyzing.

We all have our monkeys. Mine are deep ocean water, tornadoes and heights. I mean, those are the major, environmental ones. Then there are clowns. But we won't talk about clowns here.

Pretty much every foreign trip has a moment that feels like Outward Bound for Zick. Maybe it's bargaining a vendor down in a crowded marketplace where nobody speaks English. Maybe it's getting everything I've bought back into my stanky suitcase for the ride home. Maybe it's just trying to make it through a day afield with dysentery. Or maybe it's having to cross narrow, swinging, slippery wet canopy walkways in an evening thunderstorm. Yeah, that's it. Crossing narrow, swinging, slippery wet canopy walkways in an evening thunderstorm.

At Atta Canopy Tower Camp, there is a system of walkways strung through the tops of forest giants, I don't know how many feet above the forest floor. It's way higher than our 42' tall birding tower, high enough to ensure that if you fell you'd be a spot of grease on the forest floor. I'd heard a lot about canopy tower walkways, but had never been on one. I'd never actually wanted to be on one. My time had come. Everybody else was going, so I did, too.

Erica tripped over them like a cat.
Mike was completely laden with optics and (eek!) tripod, but he gamely pressed on. He didn't enjoy it much more than I did, and I know I wouldn't have attempted it with that much luggage.
This is Weedon's I'mnothavingfunrightnow face. Nobody caught mine, thank goodness. Mike, I'm sorry. But I have so many good pictures of you I am shamelessly exploiting you without your consent. Hope that's OK.
Crossing canopy walkways is all in a day's work for Kevin Loughlin. Here he comes, relaxed as rain, and also toting much photographic gear in those giant vest pockets. He's a wonderful cheerleader for the timid. (and taking trips to Guyana with Wildside Nature Tours).
Ron Allicock was unfazed, but then he's a guide. This is what he does.
The guide in the foreground was a major designer and construction engineer of the walkway. He told me about shooting lines up into the trees, hoisting other lines, climbing with spikes and other gear, driving anchors into the trunks, all of it dangling perilously above the unforgiving earth. He walked those swinging paths with the nonchalance of a jaguar. He is made of much stronger stuff than I.

I figured out that the only way to get through it was as fast as I could, just taking one step forward at a time, then stringing those steps together into a journey. photo by Kevin Loughlin

The only way forward is straight ahead. But sometimes it is very difficult.

All told we made two forays to the canopy walkways. I wish I could say we saw loads of amazing birds from there--I understand that often one does--but it rained nearly the whole time we were there and things were comparatively quiet.
There were some very impressive pods, dangling like an interrupted phone call, which we'd never have seen from below.
Ron told me they suddenly pop open when they're ready to shed their seeds, and the seeds go flying in all directions. Ow! Bananas gone wild.
Far below, there were bits of giant exotic tree flowers, I knew not what sort.
There were bullet ants on the tree trunk. The bullet ant's sting is so painful that Makushi Indians use a bullet ant bite as part of a male initiation ceremony.
For painful initiation, crossing five swinging walkways, each one longer than the last, over dizzying dark leafy heights is plenty enough for the Science Chimp. I made it, twice over.
Photo by Kevin Loughlin

Posting from the Apple Store in Columbus, where my friendly geniuses have concluded that I have a major chip issue in my Mac PowerBook. It started in a downpour in Guyana and it hasn't gotten any better. She's been spontaneously shutting down and that, my friends, is a drag on the creative spirit. So I bid her adieu for five to seven days of under-warranty massage, and somehow cope with the old G-5 desktop that smells like burning wires and whines like a lonely hyena. Many thanks to Jaime and Kevin for handholding, cord-replacing (durn macaw!) and general good vibes. It's good to have Geniuses who read yer blog, especially as I descend into LAS (laptop separation anxiety).

If all goes well I will transport the semi-conscious, jetlagged carcass of Bill of the Birds from the airport safely home to Whipple this afternoon. Those of you who travel by air know how much is encoded in the phrase "if all goes well." Let's just say I left the kids with their grandparents. Could be a rough ride.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seeing the Harpy Eagle

It took quite a bit of maneuvering for our skilled guides, Ron Allicock and Luke Johnson, to spot the fledgling harpy eagle perched on a branch of the ceiba, then get us into a position where we could see it, too. But it was there, it was there, and our hearts overfilled with joy at the prospect of seeing even a bit of it.

We practically bent double to get the scopes on the bird, more than a hundred feet overhead in the very top of the emergent ceiba tree.Mike Weedon gets an eyeful. Unnh!

For the next forty minutes, we admired this from our contorted positions:
just the face of a young harpy. It was enough. It was wonderful. Every now and then the breeze would blow its feathers and raise its double crest and we'd sigh in admiration. We were looking at a harpy eagle, the most important bit of a harpy eagle, and a baby harpy at that.

Here's Ron Allicock, who found it for us in the first place. Obviously, the nest was a stakeout; it was a known nest, discovered when logging crews came to fell some trees in a selective cut. (The ceiba will not be cut, and the harpies are doing fine). But it takes some serious doing to see the eaglet even when you find the nest, because at the time we visited, it was trying its wings and "branching" all over the enormous tree, sometimes in view and mostly not, obscured by the canopy below the emergent tree. In fact, the second group of our tour who visited the nest the next morning missed seeing the eaglet. Let's have a moment of silence for those hopeful birders. No gloating here.

But Luke wanted more for us, so he and another expert guide set quietly off through the jungle to try to find a better vantage point.

And find it they did.
O.M.G. Now we had not just the head, but the whole enchilada, fluffy harpy eaglet bloomers, massive talons and all. Whooooooo.

The eaglet noticed.

But it preened and seemed fairly unconcerned about these primates far below which were after all too large to practice upon.

Harpy eaglets apparently come one to a nest. Though two eggs are laid, the second is abandoned as soon as the first hatches, and all the parents' focus goes to raising the sole princeling or princess. A harpy eaglet stays in the vicinity of the nest and in the care of its parents for a year or more, waiting for the occasional sloth/monkey to be airflighted in, and growing stronger until it's ready to try its six-foot wings and catch its own prey. With a reproductive rate like that, it's no wonder this apex predator is so rare.

Luke watches Erica get her camera lined up to digiscope the eaglet.
And the eaglet looks right back.

We quietly withdrew, grateful for this audience with a mythic bird.

Keep growing and thriving, prince or princess, whichever you be. Thank you, Surama Eco-Lodge, thank you Ron Allicock and Luke Johnson, US AID and the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative, for taking us to the nest of the great forest harpy. I am grateful to be able to share the experience with so many people, and hopeful that one harpy eagle is ultimately worth more to the people of the area than many, many fallen logs.

Go see. Give Guyana, its giant otters, its potoos and giant anteaters and harpy eagles some of your travel budget if you can. It will not disappoint.

Back here on earth, I will be speaking and showing my paintings at the Riverside Artists' Cooperative Gallery, 188 Front Street, Marietta, Ohio 45750 at 6 pm on Friday, March 13. For more information please call (740) 376-0797. And don't forget to blurt "BLOG" when you introduce yourself!

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Harpy Eagle: Nightmare on Wings

We were looking for Harpia harpyja, perhaps the largest eagle in the world, rivaled only by the Philippine (monkey-eating) eagle, a species that someone I love very much is trying, hiking, stumbling to see as you read this. Kind of romantic...we have both searched for the world's largest eagles on opposite sides of the world. It's romantic until you realize that we have to be apart an awful lot to do that.

These mega-eagles take large prey--monkeys, small deer, opossums, coatis--and can flip upside down in flight and rip a sloth right off its perch. If you've ever tried to remove a sloth from something it's hanging on to, you know how strong they are. Harpy eagles are stupefyingly powerful. In Greek mythology, the harpies were those horrid winged women with their breasts hanging out who swooped down to take you to the underworld. Shudder. I like it when mythology and taxonomy collide; it makes for colorful names.

To give you an idea just how big this bird is, here is Neil Rettig, filmmaker, falconer and arguably the world's authority on the species, holding a captive bird. Rettig was the first person to make a study of them at the nest, building and living in scaffolding, and producing unforgettable photographs and film of their family life for National Geographic. What an honor it was to meet him and his glorious eagle, in Davenport, no less!

I shot these photos at the Midwest Birding Symposium in Davenport, Iowa in October 2005. Get a load of those talons; compare them with Neil's fingers. Note that he has to support his arm with its heavy leather gauntlet to keep this enormous bird comfortable (and keep his arm from falling off). This bird can weigh 14-20 pounds (Chet Baker weighs 24 pounds).

The harpy's rounded wings (see, no primaries extend from beneath the broad secondaries) help it maneuver in tight spaces, much as do those of the accipiters, only on a huge scale. The long, heavy tail is a good rudder for fast turns. A harpy's feet are almost cartoonish; I remember thinking that the first time I saw one perched along Brazil's TransAmazon Highway in 1979. They looked as though they'd been inflated. The better to squeeze a wooly monkey, my dear. I cannot imagine trusting one with my right arm, even through a leather gauntlet. (Says the woman who handed a giant Amazon otter a chance to crush her wrist...)

I have been reading some excellent books on falconry lately, by Rachel Dickinson (Falconer on the Edge) and Tim Gallagher (Falcon Fever). I wish I had read them before I met Neil. I would have asked him where he takes this bird to fly it; what kind of prey they look for. Woodchucks? Rabbits? Egad.

People get rather complacent around birds of prey when they are sitting calmly on a handler's arm. When the harpy suddenly sleeked and focused, I automatically followed its gaze to see what had interested it, and was horrified, at the receiving end of that laser glare, to see a wriggling infant being wheeled into the auditorium in a stroller. Nothing escapes an eagle's attention; it may be above acknowledging most things, but you can be sure it noticed. I don't think anyone in the room but Neil and yer blogger caught what was going down in the eagle's brain...I could read its thoughts. Good thing the baby's parents couldn't.

Right prey size class, check, defenseless, check, very manageable, check, big sturdy rafters I could bear it away to, check...keep your hand on those jesses, Neil. And, knowing his harpy and certainly needing no input from me, he had already tightened his grip.

I would not bring a poodle into this auditorium. And I would want to know when Neil was flying his harpy eagle, and leave Chet Baker home.

Next: Looking for the Wild Harpy

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The True Identity of Woody Woodpecker

Gentle listeners:
I'm on near the end of the second hour of National Public Radio's All Things Considered today, March 10, probably around 5:45pm ET. I'll be talking about the True Identity of Woody Woodpecker, with sincere thanks to ornithological superstars Alvaro Jaramillo and Kimball Garrett. If you miss it on air, you can read it, and listen to it after 7 PM ET, here.

This was probably the most difficult piece I've ever written or delivered--eight takes?? Over two hours in the studio for a three minute piece? Laughing like a maniacal cartoon character oh, twenty times? You'd never know to listen to it...I hope.

And now scroll down for our regularly scheduled natural history post. Thank yew.

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Harpy Eagle Nest

One of the ornithological highlights of my year was a trek to see the nest of a harpy eagle near Surama Eco-Lodge. There are around 200 known harpy eagle nests in the bird's entire range. Looking down on the unbroken green carpet beneath our airplane or from a promontory, I would imagine and hope that there are more than 200 nests on the planet, but that number serves to give you an idea just how rare an opportunity this would be.

I was glad to see the trail not well-maintained or easily traversed. In fact, walking it was like doing hundreds of leg-lifts as we hopped, stepped and scrambled over log after fallen log. Add a few dozen pounds of camera and optical gear, hike the temperature to about 98 and the humidity to God knows where, and it was like doing aerobics in a sauna. In contrast to those of us who were sweating through our layers of protective clothing, getting funkier by the minute (at 7 AM, no less!) one local birder looked perfectly comfortable. Beautiful, in fact.

I will never cease to marvel at anyone who can navigate tropical lowland forest in a filmy butterfly skirt and flip-flops. I would be convinced that something unknown would run up my leg, or that I'd be impaled on one of the billions of spikes and thorns with which all tropical vegetation bristles. And surely it would, and I would.

She made it just fine. This is her habitat, and with every cell of her body she is adapted to it as surely as I am to the slippery hills and hollers of Appalachian Ohio. I love looking at people just like I look at animals, seeing us as part of an evolutionary continuum and not something set apart. It's OK to do that, whatever the traditional Christian view tells us about our apartness, our supposed dominion over the fish and fowl and beasts. I don't buy it. In my view, we're much more a cog in a big, beautiful machine than the operator of said machine. Mostly, it seems, we're here to mess it up. We throw an ecological wrench into the works every day, every chance we get, but in the end, we're a tiny moving part in a much greater whole. This is a truth she knows in her bones. It is one that most of the rest of us are never able to grasp. And the spikes and the spines seem to part before her, and they tug at our sleeves.

There was so much to look at, but the hike was almost two miles, and we had to keep moving. This little nymph reminded me of some of our satyrs back home.
Finding itself observed, it quickly flitted to hang upside down on the underside of a leaf.
There's so much hiding going on all the time; if it's not cryptic coloration it's cryptic behavior like this. And eyespots to startle and confuse as well.

This is one of the cracker butterflies, so called because its wings snap loudly when it takes off. Crackers like to hang head-down, ready for anything. Kevin Loughlin said this one reminded him of a species called starry night cracker. What a lovely name, even if it's not the right one. Once again I had to be content with getting close, without the satisfaction of a taxonomic cigar.

For the entire hike, I kept myself occupied with the wondrous things all around me, careful not to become so focused on seeing a harpy eagle that the trip would be ruined without reaching that goal. But when the nest finally hove into sight, all those resolutions crumbled. I desperately wanted to see the bird that made this huge pile of sticks, or perhaps the eaglet who came out of it.It's hard to convey just how huge this tree, this nest, really was. Harpies often choose to nest in ceiba trees, the largest emergents in most lowland forest, and a tree that, by some incredible grace, is often revered enough that it is considered bad luck to cut them. Whether that is connected to the fact that it's the tree preferred by nesting harpies, I am left to wonder. I remain wary of the apparent charity of man: traced to its roots, it is usually revealed to be self-serving. Whatever the reason, this ceiba survived the cutting, and the powerful birds who call it home were allowed to stay. It bothers me that we, avaricious and destructive primates that we are, are endowed with the power to grant such a thing.

Next: A harpy eagle, up close and a little too personal.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Great Big Freaky Bug

Surama Eco-Lodge is the sweetest little place. How I wish it hadn't poured like monkeys the whole time we were there, for we had to forego our afternoon hike. It's nestled in fabulous habitat next to the mountain range, and you can see tons of great birds and animals there. Once again, the food was terrific, the hosts warm and knowledgeable.

Erica and I took a good long nap, to the sound of rain on the tin roof. It was delicious, as was dinner. Man, Guyana had such good food--lots of fresh vegetables, beans and rice, and chicken in savory sauces. It may not have been flashy, but it was just what I needed.

I love this shot, the road stretching like a lighted path to the mountains. I could only imagine what birds we might have seen there. I want to go back.
Just before dark there was a break in the rain, and these clouds came scudding across the landscape. One, like the tail of a giant anteater diving into the trees. I don't think I've ever seen a cloud quite like that back home.
You may be sure our group of curious naturalists found ways to amuse ourselves. For one, there was a House Frog.
He was on duty for roaches, crickets, katydids and spiders, and most welcome. Just don't land on my face in the night and we're good.

I wonder what he would have done with this--my first ever lanternfly Fulgora laternaria.
I was BESIDE MYSELF. I'd read about this beast all my life, had always wanted to see it in the most eager, Science Chimpy way. (Thank you, DOD, for keeping us in National Geographic our entire childhood. I believe that magazine changed my life.) The head looks so much like a caiman that it flips me out; it's a beautiful example of the intelligence of evolutionary design. Yes, you read me right. And I am messin' with your head.
I mean, look how the "eye" is reflective, just as it would be if the lanternfly really were a winged lizard.

The eyes of the creature are the two dark spots on the "caiman's" neck. So the peanut-shaped fright mask is actually a headdress or helmet. Pretty cute, when you look at it that way. Like a pope's hat. It was originally thought to be luminescent, hence the name lanternfly. Believe it or not, this is just an overgrown planthopper. Splendidly, magnificently, over the top-tropically overgrown.

Here's the WW II bomber, preparing for takeoff...

Messing with it a bit, we got it to spread its wings. It jumped and fell, oops! giving us its ventral view, which looked an awful lot like a cicada to me. You can see the sucking mouthparts, the dark tube running down between its legs. Again, very cicada-like. It just drinks plant juice, that's all, and is perfectly harmless to people.

This thing has the defenses! Look at those eyespots on the underwings. So if it can't scare you with its gatorhead hat, it flashes big owl eyes at you. It must be quite delicious to invest so much in scaring away potential predators.

Big bug. Mike Weedon looks terrified. Looks dangerous, but the only problem with it is that legend has it if you're bitten by the machaca, you have to have sex within 24 hours or die badly. Thank God no one was bitten. The pool of candidates was rather small; everybody was married or otherwise committed, and it was so disgustingly hot and humid that, well, let's just say it was not an aphrodiasical environment. I felt like a slimy toad the whole time. Had it bitten me, I might have had to just go ahead and die.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Tommy the Tapir

I'm home from Honduras as of Friday afternoon. Moving slowly through the house, tossing and filing a month's worth of spoiled food and clutter, scrubbing away the domestic snarge, wearing my Life is Crap T-shirt, a gift from Liz and Jeff.  Two thousand exposures made in Honduras await editing. Taxes await finishing. There's a woodcock singing in the meadow at dawn and dusk and I am pulled in a hundred directions on the sweet rack of springtime. Shall I plant the peas or scrub the sink, crouch in thrall to the peepers or tally expenses? Yeah, yeah, I know what I should do. 


Thank goodness I canned some Guyana posts before leaving for Honduras. Even some Cute Animal Posts. I bring you Tommy the Lowland Tapir.

A new mammal--the lowland tapir Tapirus terrestris, awaited me at Rockview Lodge's modest zoo. I would not be lucky enough to see one in the wild, but Tommy's fame preceded him. He's been living as a pet at Rockview for twenty years or more; tapirs may live past thirty.

Tapirs are weird, weird animals. There are only four species worldwide; three of them are in Central and South America (the Baird's, lowland and mountain tapirs), where they're the largest land mammals. A fourth, the largest, is the Malayan tapir--the black one with the big white band around its middle.

The lowland tapir is slightly smaller than the Baird's tapir, which ranges through Central America. Lowlands take over in South America, and are characterized by a little mane and nuchal (neck) crest. They grow up to six feet long, 550 pounds. That's a lot of tapir.

Something like a horse, something like a pig, nothing like either, the tapir has a dense, muscular body and an extremely tough hide, which helps protect it from jaguar and puma attacks. Its main defense strategy is to run like hell, hoping to bash its attacker off against a tree in the process. It swims readily and well, and often spends hot days (are there any other kind in Guyana?) almost wholly submerged, when its prehensile snout comes in handy as a snorkel. They probably get pretty pruny.

Tapirs look completely prehistoric to me; they look like a reconstructed ancient weird mammal come to life. Like they were put together before evolution really had its act together. Like their name should be Uintatherium.

In the wild, tapirs subsist on fruits and leaves, traveling from fruiting tree to tree, looking for dropped treasures. They're a great disperser of many different kinds of seeds, being large enough to pass them whole.

Baby tapirs are striped and speckled like baby hogs or watermelons, the same kind of dappling that helps hide fawns when their mothers leave them alone in the forest. I loved Tommy's front feet--four-toed and --there's that word again--prehistoric, the kind of feet Eohippus had. You can see remnants of his baby spotting on his lower legs and feet, even though Tommy is a very old tapir.
Get a load of the underside of his foot. Ooh, paddy.

It takes a whole lot of mangoes to keep Tommy happy. Good thing there are enormous mango trees, each covering the square footage of your average American house, shading the grounds of Rockview Lodge. It makes feeding slobbery Tommy a lot easier.
He rooted around happily in his salad, looking first for the ripe mangoes. He'd finish the rest later.
Tommy was extremely sweet, and obviously enjoyed the attention my friend Erica and I heaped on his leathery hide. His lickiness was  familiar and comforting to a Chet-starved Zick, who needs to be covered in some kind of animal slobber at all times to feel whole.

Erica and I were very well-matched as traveling companions--it was a dead heat as to which of us was more animal crazy. Here, she meets Tommy for the first time.

Later, Erica got to go in the pen with Tommy and give him proper tapir huggin'. 

I was out after nighthawks and cloud formations at that point, but man, I would have loved to put a big hug on Tommy. He is a fine and handsome gent, a good ambassador for an endangered species. Meet a tapir, and you'd hate to see them poached for food or hide. But the killing goes on, and all four species of tapirs worldwide are now endangered. It is as if they are from another time, a wilder, gentler time than ours.
Prehistoric, tapir time.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Other Vultures

The savannas around Rockview Lodge offer really spectacular raptor viewing; I've posted about this earlier.

A young savanna hawk pulls up its left foot and rests on a boulder.

He shows me his bright chestnut shoulder

and blends beautifully into the overall scene.

Overhead, large vultures coursed and cris-crossed. These are lesser yellow-headed vultures, Cathartes burrovianus. They're really gorgeous birds, their almost jet-black bodies contrasting nicely with silver underwings and tail.

Close up, the head is a livid orange with tangerine and blue zones. I couldn't get close, but you know I wanted to. If you use your imagination you can see the blue forehead on this bird, photographed over a marsh just outside of Georgetown.

When this bird landed, I got a chance to snag some photos of its overall proportions--very long-winged--and with an odd-looking Roman-nosed head.The lesser yellow-headed vulture is a subtly different bird from our turkey vulture, being overall flat black without the golden-brown feather edgings and mottling seen on the turkey vulture (which give it its species name, aura). The Roman profile and livid orange and blue head coloration of C. burrovianus further serve to set it off.

A turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) flew over nice and low, giving me a great contrast. Turkey vultures in South America are kind enough to be marked with a white nape!See how much flatter the turkey vulture's nostril profile is, than the lesser yellow-headed vulture's? Not to mention the TV's beef-red head.

Lesser yellow-headed vultures are creatures of savanna and open marsh; their larger cousin, the greater yellow-headed vulture Cathartes melambrotus, lives in deep tall primary forest. We only got close to one fer-sure greater yellow-headed, and here it is (below). They're even blacker and glossier than lessers, and their heads are actually yellow instead of being tangerine/blue.
Oh, for a better look. That will have to wait until who knows when.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Rockview Lodge, Guyana

Of all the places we stayed in Guyana, Rockview Lodge probably has its ecotourism act most thoroughly together. It manages to be sustainable and alluring, even luxurious, at the same time. Terrific food--fresh okra and vegetables!--relaxing surroundings, even a pool.

Of course, there were too many macaws in the mango trees for me to even think about a dip.
I spent what little downtime we had chasing birds and animals with my lens. Kevin Loughlin caught me with his. I was trying to lure them down with my mang0-orange shirt.

An obliging black vulture waited to scavenge some of the agouti's food in the small zoo on the lodge grounds. If memory serves, this is a red-rumped agouti, a species we saw in the wild, and a life mammal for me.
It was keeping company with a very pregnant kitteh, an odd couple among odd couples. Rodents and cats aren't traditional pals. Unless the rodent is cat-sized, and then it works, apparently.

A red-legged tortoise shared the agouti enclosure.He's a big boy, about 2' long, like a box turtle gone wild.

Because I was out and about so much, I attracted the attention of a couple of little girls whose parents work at Rockview. They followed my every move with great interest and lots of giggles. They loved looking over my shoulder as I sorted photos or emailed home, and they loved seeing the pictures I'd taken. Such beautiful little sprites; they were my buddies the whole time I stayed at Rockview.
I was in awe of the people we met in Guyana. They work against tremendous odds, since the country has virtually no infrastructure. For instance, here's how a bridge is fixed when it goes out. A crew assembles, and lives in a plastic tarp covered open sided tent for the duration of the repair, which is not short. I can only imagine what that's like, given the chiggers and heat.

The road equipment makes our old Massey Ferguson tractor look like a DeLorean.

Trees are cut from the surrounding forest and hand-hewn to fit together.

And all of this at about 98 degrees, 80% humidity--so hot by 10 AM that I couldn't be out in the sun without feeling dizzy. Recession and all, we Americans truly do not know the meaning of deprivation. Guyana needs our tourism dollars. Think about spending yours there. Costa Rica's been done, and done, and done.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Happy Birthday, Bill Thompson!

Three words: fun, music, love. Arrange them any way you wish, but they still sum up Bill Thompson III. Usually, they overlap.

Everything is more fun with some BT3 added.He can make little girls laugh like nobody's business. Washington County Fair, Marietta, Ohio

He enjoys helping others see more birds and have more fun.

Whipple, Ohio, with a particularly porcine Chet Baker

The Pied Piper of Birding: Bill brought a whole classroom along on the three-year journey to publishing his new book, The Young Birder's Guide to Eastern North America.

Perhaps you can pick out a beaming, proud Phoebe in the upper right corner

Comparatively few get to see Bill's musical side, but he plays every Sunday, and as often as he can with our band, The Swinging Orangutangs. Here he is with his dad, Bill Thompson Jr., an amazing jazz pianist.

Parkersburg, West Virginia

With the Swinging Orangutangs:
and shredding it up on Kremey Delight.
Photography has got him in its spell, whether he's shooting a quirky street sign or Giant Thing in Nebraska

or blasting harmlessly away at sandhill cranes in New Mexico.

He is a GREAT slow dancer. Just ask Alvaro.

Snowbird, Utah
What happens at Snowbird stays at Snowbird, unless it finds its way onto a blog somewhere...

And as a daddy, he does what needs to be done.
Up the gangplank with a drowsy child. Hog Island, Maine

Magdalena, New Mexico

I feel lucky to be along for the ride. Happy birthday and Godspeed on your travels, Bill Thompson III. We love you more than you can know.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Under Tropical Skies

At the risk of giving you severe whiplash, I have to go back to Guyana now. I have loved being in Ohio for the winter; I think it has shown its best side, and sharing it with you has been a blast. But I need to remember Guyana, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and share it, too, before the joyous riot of spring hits Ohio and I'm chasing down bright warblers in dappled woods. It is a life full of possibility and promise.

Having just exposed the many beauties of the ice and snow, I thought I'd show you a tropic sky that I expect never to see again. We were at at a delightful eco-resort not far from the Rupununi River, in the savannahs at the foot of a mountain range. Yes, there are mountains in Guyana; it's one of the reasons it's so diverse in flora and fauna. On an evening at Rockview Lodge, Kevin Loughlin, Mike Weedon, guide Luke Johnson and I took an easy stroll along the foothills of the Pakaraima Mountain Range.

We were passed by a bicycle odd couple. Get a load of the wheels!
An ancient form of transport: burro.

I tried so hard to capture the shadowed landscape and the towering thunderheads, but Kevin Loughlin patiently explained why my camera just couldn't do both. I had to pick either the sky or the landscape for my light reading. So I picked the sky.

Even toward evening, it was hotter than Hades. I'm not used to sweating at sundown. But the sky made me forget my discomfort; everywhere I looked was a party. I look at this and almost expect a unicorn to stroll out of the trees.

But the best was around the corner. As we stood gaping at the changing cloud formations, a big flock of Nacunda nighthawks appeard out of nowhere, skimming low over the savanna. The Nacunda is a huge bird, paler below than any nightjar save the sand-colored. The light was far too low and the birds too swift for photos, but it was an experience I'll always remember, to be surrounded by them, almost ducking as they swept by.

Looking up from the birds, I spotted something in the sky I wasn't sure I could be seeing.

A hole had appeared in the cloud layer, a hole with colors of mother-of-pearl.

Iridescent pink, green, gold and blue shimmered and changed in evanescent waves. The only other place I've ever seen such hues are in the Northern Lights.

Perhaps these were the Southern Lights.

We walked back in near total darkness. When night falls near the equator, it falls with a clunk. I felt lucky to be alive, lucky to have seen the hues of a different rainbow in a place so far from home.

At the risk of ruining the mother-of-pearl glow of this post, I'm marooned at Pico Bonito Lodge in Honduras as we speak, plugged in, wishing it would stop raining but knowing it won't. Birding in this is like standing under a hose, bumbershoot weather. Maybe it's God's way of forcing me to check some birds off on the list, catch up with email, download some photos. Dunno, but when you've got three days left of a tropical birding trip, it's kind of a drag. Cotingas, denied! Still, it's warm and green and wet and very, very beautiful, and I'm sure many of y'all would prefer it to another durn Nor'easter. But it makes me miss my babehs.
Home Friday. Sigh. Somebody out there, part the clouds?

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Doe Named Ellen

photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

We have a lot of deer on our place, not least because we have our property posted against the seemingly endless hunting season. First there's bow season, then there's gun season, then there's muzzleloader season, and Bill always says that after that comes butterknife season.Still, they persist, though the big bucks all seem to magically disappear off our place, leaving only does and fawns. Hmm.

As an artist and naturalist, I am always looking for something in each animal that I observe, something I can use to distinguish it from its kind. It's in getting to know an individual that I learn the things that interest me most. So when a fawn came in for corn this winter and I got a chance to photograph her, I noticed something different about her.Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

One ear was askew, but it was more than that. Something about her just didn't add up.
Have you ever noticed how Ellen Barkin is beautiful, even though her face has two distinct halves? Cover half of her face with your finger, and then cover the other.

Two different people. I think it makes her interesting, moreso than would perfect symmetry. It's as if one side is at peace, and the other a bit disgruntled. Gives her range other actresses would envy, depending on the camera angle, of course. Wait! That's my mad side.

Zoom in, and you can see this fawn's left eye is lower than her right. And her left ear is canted sideways, and apparently stays that way. I'm thinking this might have been an injury in utero, or perhaps a birth defect. She's not perfectly symmetrical, but she seems to be coping all right.

No ruminant looks quite right when she's chewing, but...Needless to say, I call her Ellen.

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