Thursday, April 30, 2009

Emptying the Greenhouse

Oh, the greenhouse was crammed. And the weather predictions were for upper 80's and low 90's over the weekend. Yiiikes. I was not about to allow all the plants I'd been growing all winter to be fried. Ever since the fan broke in my greenhouse, I've been trying to get it emptied and planted out before it gets really hot. I hated the drone of that fan anyway, and if it's hot enough for it to be running, it's too hot for the plants. At least that was my rationale for not having somebody come out to install a new fan. So I had the devil chasing me to get the Pod emptied before the big heat hit.

I have to say I was as pleased with my plants this year as any. I was a good girl and pinched back the geraniums instead of letting them all get huge. I toughened my stance on bringing in big huge pots of flowers from the yard. It would only be cuttings this year. And I didn't go nuts--just one or two cuttings of each.

One difference this year from others is that I switched from giving liquid fertilizer (Peter's, dissolved in water) to Osmocote, which is fertilizer bound up in round, time-release pellets. You mix it into the soil and it does its work steadily and slowly as the months go by. What a difference. Instead of the huge spurts of top-heavy growth, I got slow, steady, sturdy growth in my plants.

Gartenmeister fuschia, the first time I've grown a decent specimen indoors. Yay!

Heliotrope, which smells like cherry pie. It's now out in the flower border. Rabbits don't like it. Yay again.

The poet's jasmine loves Osmocote. It was looking sickly and yellow, and Osmocote and some pyrethrins brought it back from Red Spider Miteland. It has a heavy, musky scent all its own. I crave it. And it blooms year 'round. What a dinkum plantie.

These are the geraniums I can't live without: star geraniums in red and hot pink, little bitty Grey Sprite, Occold Shield with its chestnut-splotched chartreuse leaves, Vancouver Centennial with its chestnut star-shaped leaves edged in chartreuse; Rosina Read in pink, Wilhelm Langguth with its white-bordered leaves, Frank Headley with its ridiculously white leaves and salmon flowers. The list goes on. At one time I had 28 varieties of miniature and dwarf and fancy-leaved gerania. They are my weakness. Well, one of my weaknesses. People of passion have many weaknesses.

But now it was time for them to go back out in the big world.
And so I planted them in nine planters and five baskets, all to keep them out of the reach of wabbits. Wabbits are huge geranium fans. They like them so much they chew them into tiny bits, leaving a neat pile of leaves and stem chunks where once there was a plant. Leaving me jumping up and down, firing my sixguns fruitlessly in the air like Yosemite Sam.

So what's a geranium freak to do? Why, elevate them, of course. You're never going to get rid of rabbits. The really precious plants go in hanging baskets, and the rest in planters, which are themselves elevated to about 18 inches, which is high enough to deter all but climbing rabbits (and they sometimes do climb to get to them). RRRRRR. Chet Baker. Where are you when they are doing that?
Sleeping? Cooling my tummeh in the green grass? I do not know. Rabbits are crafty. They do it at night, when I am asleep in my Jedd Bed. That's what I think. You cannot blame me for what the bunnehs do, Mether.

Here is my HotPot, with a red star geranium (so called because the leaves and flowers are like pointy stars), Occold Shield, and Vancouver Centennial. I put it next to the cool Bird Spa, and get photos of warblers in the crazy foliage. By September, Vancouver Centennial will look like a chestnut and chartreuse waterfall over the whole pot.
And here's the Cool Pot in the shade of a birch, with Gartenmeister fuchsia and a pink and purple fuchsia I love. Other than having to spray them with pyrethrins or insecticidal soap every couple of days for whitefly, I like growing fuchsias. Once they go outside, I don't have to spray them any more, nor do I want to, because the hummingbirds are visiting then.

You can see the elevational element in all my plantings. Of necessity. I'd love to have planters right on the ground, but then there would be no plants in them. And forget planting geraniums right in the ground around here. Gone, overnight. Good thing I like planting in containers, huh?

Mary Alice, my giant hibiscus tree, was made into a standard by rabbits, who ate every bit of foliage they could reach.
She's too tall now for rabbits, and the spicebush swallowtails love her so much.
I'm forever carving away at this miniature Ficus benjamina "Too Little." It's waist high to me now, and it's easier to keep the scale under control on a small tree. Still and all, scale and ficus go together like white and rice. They're awfully sticky plants, with all the scale pee dropping from them. Bleh. Still, it makes a very nice miniature tree. I guess it qualifies as a tropical bonsai at this point.

Phoebe got this jade tree as a tiny cutting from her first grade teacher, Mr. Jennings. Marty's gone now, cut down in his prime by cancer, but Marty the jade tree, and our loving memories of him, live on. He was an amazing teacher, a loving disciplinarian, and he taught those first graders to read in nothing flat.

That's an awful big jade tree, six years later. Chet can stand in Marty's shade.

Speaking of trees, I've trained a little gardenia into a great big standard with a braided trunk.
Every stem tip has a flower bud. It killed me to keep pinching it back to keep its nice round shape, and it ticked the plant off to have its new growth continually pinched off, and I knew as I did it I was preventing the possibility of flowers, and I haven't smelt a gardenia flower since way last summer, but... when this thing finally bursts into bloom after a year of pinching and training it will all be worth it. Woo!

Meanwhile, the bonsais are all potted up and leafing out beautifully. I gave them a huge root pruning this spring, which always gets them going strong.

My favorite. Or one of them. A Japanese maple, perfect subject for bonsai. This one, in the pot 25 years. A coon knocked it off the deck and split its trunk in 1993. I thought it would die, but I taped it together with electrician's tape and hoped for the best. This is the glorious result. I suppose I owe that coon.

The tree comes up to about mid-thigh on me, just FYI.

The bleeding heart has expanded beautifully. Bill indulged in some little solar lamps that delight us all out of proportion to their cost. We love to sit out in lawnchairs and watch them come on, just as the whip-poor-wills start to sing. Nepeta "Walker's Low" and King Alfred daffies. Too bad I don't have cats, that catnip is rampant. (But I don't miss them ).

I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of my gardens, container and otherwise. They make me feel alive.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Morel Madness

There are two white morels in the photo. Can you find them?

It's MOREL TIME. Yes, I am shouting. I love MOREL TIME. I will say that, with the weather going from Februaryine conditions to Augustine in the space of 24 hours, it's a little tough on the morels. Bill and I went out twice a day, checking our honeyspots, looking, looking, finding nothing. And then I was riding the lawnmower, just pootling along, when I saw three wrinkled beings lined up right along our driveway. AGGH! Morels.

Here I am in the thrill of discovery. The tattoo on my arm is temporary. It is a muscle car with flames shooting out its butt, which I applied to my skin as inspiration, because I needed to empty the greenhouse and plant the vegetable garden in three days. Which I did. As you can tell from my stunning farmer by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

Not only did I empty the greenhouse, but I potted five large hanging baskets and nine planters, dug out and distributed reechy compost to all my garden beds, weeded several beds, rototilled the garden, planted the beans, glads, and tuberoses, and mowed the lawn. It was a heck of a weekend. Pretty much perfect by Zick standards, except that Bill wasn't here to share the joy.

On Saturday afternoon, when the lawn was mowed, I called to Phoebe to come join me in a search for more morels. We decided to hit new ground, near where I'd found the trio of monsters pictured above.

Phoebe finds her first one. The twig across her face doesn't hide her excitement.
At this point I should say that we found two different species of morels. The white, or yellow morel Morchella esculenta is the most highly prized for its taste and texture. The two fabulously wrinkled, paler specimens at the top are white morels. They look more like a proper mushroom to me.

All the rest with the smaller brown caps are half-free morels, Morchella semilibera. They're perfectly good to eat and taste wonderful, but they don't hold up quite as well to cooking as does M. esculenta, being sort of gauzy and less substantial in texture. They're called half-free morels because the cap is attached to the stem halfway up, leaving the cap hanging down over the stem for half its length. White morels' caps are attached to the stem at the base. Both edible species have a hollow stem, which is the diagnostic characteristic that tells you they are safe to eat. If you find a morel that, on cross section, has a stem filled with white fuzzy hyphae, you've probably got Verpa bohemica, the False Morel, which you DO NOT want to eat.

Here is the yummy half-free morel, with its hollow stem, and cap connected halfway up. The stem has white pimples on the inside, but not cottony fibers:

And here is Verpa bohemica, the False Morel, with its stem full of white cottony hyphae, its cap hanging free and attached only at the very top, and its nasty poisonousness. Don't eat this one.

These photos lifted from Northern Country Morels, a wonderful web site full of wisdom and warnings.

Remember: There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

One of the half-free morel's common names is "peckerhead," and so are they called on Indigo Hill.
Phoebe gave me permission to use this picture of her holding a large half-free morel. Yes, she is her mother's daughter (and her father's daughter) through and through. Which is to say, irreverant and pleasantly evil, even at twelve. Heck, she was that way at three.

Farther out our orchard, near the rotting apple stumps, we found a sweet spot full of delicioius white morels.

A tiger swallowtail, meet companion to the morel hunter. Look for them when the tigers are first flying in spring, when the fiddleheads push up from the earth.

Thanks for coming morel hunting with by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

We love you all, but this is about as close as you're going to get to our happy hunting grounds. Morels bring out the bad, possessive and evil in us.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ovenbird in My House

Meet Piglet.

I got a phone call from my dear friend Leslie, who comments as NatureMama, and blogs here. We go way back--Leslie came here as a biology student at Marietta College on a field trip, and in a way she never left. I saw how she dug the place, and took her aside after the field trip and said, "Any time you just need some woods and fields and quiet, come out here. You don't have to call first, just come out." And she did. We discovered things. She found a brown thrasher nest in our forsythia bush, one I'd walked by for two weeks! Once a bobcat leapt in front of her car as she drove home after a late babysitting gig. In our driveway! Phoebe was a babe then, and Liam wasn't even started when we met, and after he arrived, Leslie used to come out once a week and give me a day of Self while she doted on the kids. It was needed. Moms need Self every now and then. Right, Les? She always says she feels like she's coming home when she walks in the door. It feels like that to me, too.

Anyway, Leslie had gotten a call, being a person who knows what to do, from her friend who runs We Love Pets in Marietta, a nice kind of pet store that sells sustainable pets, and doesn't have nasty puppy-mill puppy displays and stocks Royal Canin Mini Special 27, Chet's particular brand of fancy chowchow, which gives him such a radiant coat and bright eyes. An ovenbird had flown in the store and injured itself trying to get back out. This is a little weird, since We Love Pets is in the middle of a shopping center, but migration is weird for birds and they get turned around and cornfused sometimes. Leslie and the manager caught the ovenbird and Les was concerned because one of its wings was hanging very low. Although it could fly well, the bird couldn't seem to gain much altitude either. Double uh-oh. So she called the Science Chimp, and got in the car to bring the bird (and her three little ones, sleeping in the car) to Zick's Bird Hostel.

I set up a cage and put it on the stone fireplace in the living room, and surrounded it with potted plants so the bird would feel sheltered and protected. I put a dish of water in there, and another with 25 mealworms in it and they were all gone within two hours. I called the ovenbird Piglet, and the name stuck. The next day she ate 70 mealworms and some pillbugs and earthworms too. Yikes. Piglet indeed. My little mealworm farm sure comes in handy!

I knew Piglet had to be tired, because she'd been in the store for awhile panicking, and was probably nearing the end of her spring migration, having flown from Central America. So I figured that was most of her problem, and lots of food, quiet and a smallish cage could fix that. I also thought she might have hit a window or otherwise hurt herself, so I decided to keep an eye on that low-hanging wing. When it returned to a normal position, I'd release her. I'm not the most sophisticated of bird rehabilitators, but my hunches tend to be good.

Piglet was in constant motion whenever I was watching her, but she'd strike a pose to eyeball me, so all my unblurred photos of her look just the same.And then there's this pose:
Sorry about that, but I didn't want to use flash to freeze the motion of this shy forest creature--she was stressed enough. I was standing 15' away using a 300 mm. telephoto in my living room! Feed 'em and leave 'em alone, that's the credo.

By the end of three days, Piglet's low-hanging wing was in a normal position, and she was bright and eager and crazy, and I knew it was time to release her. The weather had warmed up at long last, nights were in the 50's instead of the 30's, and it was time. Even if she needed some additional time to heal, she could make a perfectly good living in our woods eating the things ovenbirds are supposed to eat, not a diet of straight mealworms! The kids said good-bye to her before they left for school, and I took her cage out on the back deck and opened the door.

She darted out, climbed 25 feet in the air at a 45 degree angle, zigged left, zagged right, and swooped down into the woods by the Spring Trail. There, she landed on a small log and walked its length, switching her tail and chipping. That swift climb into the blue sky, the swift zigs and zags, did my heart a world of good. Piglet was going to make it.

I hope she stays here with our ovenbirds (I can hear one singing as I write), but now she's free to fly wherever she wants, and she has the wings to go.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Drowning in Flowers

The hawthorn hedge is snowing white petals.

Why is it that, just when everything starts to go nuts outside, my orchids inside do too? Couldn't I get a little flower love in January and February? Nope, it all comes at once. I hardly know what to do.

The last daffodils are fading outside. Only late pink Salome and a few King Alfreds and smaller narcissus are still hanging on. I wanted to share some photos of our daffodils this year, because never has there been a finer year for bulbs in southern Ohio. The flowers are huge and abundant, the leaves tall and long. The growing conditions last year suited them just fine, I suspect.

My mother-in-law Elsa Thompson, Publisher Emeritus of Bird Watcher's Digest, is a great gardener, and a respecter of old things, fine things. She has an extraordinary eye for beauty.
She's also a fabulous cook, and sets a mean Easter table.For years, the big house right across the alley from the Thompsons was owned by two elderly sisters who grew beautiful flowers. When the sisters died, the house was sold, and Elsa was horrified to see the new homeowner ripping out the ladies' daffodils--in full bloom--and throwing them out into the alley.

For some people, nothing, or concrete, suits them better than beauty. I don't pretend to understand them, but they're generally the ones with the overactive weedwhackers, the chemical lawns and the perfectly trimmed ball-shaped shrubs. The ones who consider birds sort of a nuisance, like blooming daffodils. My friend Rob put up a bluebird box in a woman's Connecticut backyard. The bluebirds nested successfully, but when the babies came out and sat on the deck railing, she asked Rob to take the box down so the bluebirds wouldn't nest again. Why? The bluebirds were pooping on her railing, and that made her mad, because she had to go out and hose it off every day. Well, he took the box down, because nobody who can think that way deserves bluebirds on their deck railing. These are the folks who are missing out on all the best things in life. As my father would say in his most pious voice, "They are more to be pitied than censured."

Elsa hurried out and gathered the dying bulbs and put them in shopping bags, and being out of room in her own garden, she gave them to Bill and me for our farm. "I know these don't look like much now, but they're very special daffodils--all fancy kinds. You'll love them." I looked at the withered leaves and wondered if they'd survive the insult, having been dug up in the height of bloom. Bill dug a long trench and we dropped the bulbs in and covered them over and watered them. That was about ten years ago.

They lived.And they are loved.

Liam is not to be pitied; he eats a ripe pear, up to his eyeballs in flowers, and loving it in an offhand, nine-year-old boy way. He's always been surrounded by flowers.

Speaking of flower rescue, I found this exquisite creature at a big box store in February. I had to get it out of there. And I got one for Elsa, too. They're both blooming their heads off for us, even putting out more buds from the tips! Orchids know when they're appreciated.

Psychopsis mendenhall
"Hildos" is working on its tenth flower since last June. That's an average of one a month, all year long, all off the same 3' tall stalk. You have to love an orchid like that. And I do, I do.
Party on wit yo bad self, little Kabuki lobster clown dude.

Laeliocattleya Firedance "Patricia" is unequivocal about her color.
As is my elegant huge purple Phalaenopsis, one of the first orchids I ever got, as a tiny baby from Shila.
I love the intricate ones.
Back in the bedroom, everything's going nuts, as usual in April.
While outside, the hot wind is whipping lilac flowers open. This enormous lilac is another heirloom from Bill's family, via Elsa. It's 15 feet tall now, planted right outside my studio windows, and the room is full of the perfume of lilacs. I told you she knows the good stuff.

I'm overloading. If only I could parcel it out from November to March. Just drowning in flowers.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Well-tempered Dog

Phoebe manages to grab Mr. Smiley and again holds it over her head. There is a pattern to The Games.

He is a thing of beauty in flight.

On his last leap, he snags the toy. Victory!

You have to let me rip it up now, Phoebe. I have earned this toy.

If it belongs to anybody, it belongs to me, Chet Baker. I have worked for it. And I know you are going to take it away from me again. You are a rotten person, Phoebe, even if you are my sister.

Mether is a rotten person too, for laughing at my distress. Besides, I am not ripping Mr. Smiley up right now. I am keeping him safe.

Well, Chet Baker, I am afraid the game is over. You could choke on bits of Mr. Smiley, and it is time for you to chew a Nylabone. No matter how much you roo or how cute you are, you won't get Mr. Smiley to destroy.
What makes you think that I want that old bone?

I think you will play with it, Chet Baker, because we love you and want you to be safe.

Well, when you put it that way, I can see your point. I am too old to choke on things, but I will accept your chicken-flavored Nylabone. That was a very good game. And I love you, too.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Killing Mr. Smiley

At some point in the game, Chet had to get hold of Mr. Smiley.

Although his first instinct is to rip a much-desired toy to shreds, Chet knows he mustn't do that. So he mouths it and chews very carefully, waiting for the shoe to drop and for somebody to yell at him. And he's not above a little taunting of his own:

All right, Phoebe. It's business time.

Chet Baker, if you chew that all up, we won't be able to play with Mr. Smiley any more. Give it to me.

I am sorry, Miss Phoebe. I cannot give it to you. Because it is mine now.

I'm sorry, Chet Baker, but you MUST give it to me.

And I am going to hide it in the closet so you can't get it.

Well, that is a rotten dirty trick. Why aren't you helping me open the door?

Roo roo roo rooooo!

Perhaps I can get it myself.

And here we have the definitive photo of the Boston terrier's Catpaw maneuver, rarely employed, but quite effective. Chet Baker is right handed, like his Mether.

He succeeds in opening the door, and grabbing Mr. Smiley. The Games Go On.

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The Fabulous Flying Baker Brother

Brief technical note: I mentioned that I'm migrating to another server. My blog URL will stay the same, and with my fabulous Web Witch working on it, the transition should be seamless. But sometimes things go awry. Should you have any trouble accessing my blog in the next few days (let's say that you don't get a fresh post Sunday night; you just keep getting this same post into Monday), try clearing your browser cache, then delete and recreate the bookmark for my blog. I don't think there will be a problem, but it pays to be prepared. Back to The Bacon:

On a particularly rough day at school,  Phoebe came home and kind of crumpled up.

Nurse Baker has radar for crumpled people. I peeked in the living room to find him curled up with her, a protective paw on her leg.
The camera shutter (why can't they be silent?) brought Phoebe around, and Baker fixed me with a glare. Some things should be sacred, Mether. Nurse Baker is working here. Would you please?

Phoebe and Chet play like sister and brother. Even though he is a dog, the tenor of their games are very similar to those she plays with her human brother Liam. The root of most of them is: I have this, and you don't. Neener neener!

One such thing that Chet Baker set his sights upon was Mr. Smiley, a dopey inflatable, the kind of thing that can transform a kid's room from serene to junky just by its presence. Chet wanted it, bad. I would have been fine with his reducing it to smithereens, but Phoebe was sort of loosely attached to Mr. Smiley. If only to use it to tease Chet Baker.

Let the games begin!I want that thing, Miss Phoebe. I want it bad. I want to pop it with my teeth.

Well, then jump for it, Chet.

You will note that, in a concession to Chet's weak anterior cruciate ligament on his left hind leg, a leftover from having jumped off a hay roll as a puppy, we have padded the floor with a squishy bed. The dog is irrepressible. Boston terriers must boing, and boing again.

Roo roo rooo rooooo! This may be the definitive Boston terrier roo shot. He even makes his lips into an O.

This is one of those shots that you get, that when it pops up on the playback screen, makes you let out a startled squawk. Let's have a closeup.

Yes, that is his real, unShopped eye, and yes, he looks just like Steamboat Willie, the first incarnation of Mickey Mouse. Selective breeding is an amazing thing. We make dogs that look like blinkin' cartoon characters.

Obviously, Chet's been reading the same manual as Willie.

Because there are just too many fabboo Chet Baker shots to share here, I'm going to split it up. You can only take too much cuteness before there's overload, insulin shock and all that. Down, Chetfans, down. More Fabulous Flying Baker Brother on Sunday evening. That is, if the blog gremlins behave.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Charlie is busy ruining the cord to my hoodie. Krounchkrounchkrounchkrounch.

It feels kind of funny to be done with Guyana. Since December, it's anchored my blog, with occasional diversions for orchids, snow, power outages, taxes, April Fool's jokes, and good old Chet Baker. I never thought I'd go that long, writing and posting about one place--sixty-four posts, at last count. But oh, what a place, and what an experience! I'm dizzy with the thought of plunging into Honduras now, of mining memory's feeble banks for another long tropical adventure, even as spring migrants flood into Ohio. There's a dissonance there, because spring in the Appalachian foothills is every bit as luscious as Honduras in March. What's a blogger to do?

Lucky, that's what I am, just flat out lucky to have had the chance to go to South and Central America, and to have the means and this venue to write about it, to show it all to you. I wouldn't have been asked to go unless I had Bird Watcher's Digest graciously holding space for an article, and you, my readers, enough of you to make an audience.

I'm feeling particularly thankful these days. Thankful for my place in life, for a warm house, for my husband, who still likes hanging out with me, who makes me laugh like nobody else, and who has worked his heart out around the place this spring. Here's Liam, his vanilla Mini-Me.

Liam on the flatfile.

Thankful for my healthy smart children, who come to me with all the little mishaps and heartbreaks of the playground and high school halls, thankful that I can usually still fix things for them with a good dose of common sense.
Phoebe with her pets. Y'all have a serious, major, prolonged Chet Baker fix coming up.

I'm thankful for the peas coming up in my garden, for the little twin-leaved seedlings of lettuce and mustard and arugula. Thankful for the ovenbird who arrived and started singing yesterday afternoon. Thankful for the rain that's watering everything, and the south wind that's whipping all the little leaves out into full form.

I'm thankful for my friends, real and virtual, for the warm voice on the phone, the dinners and concerts together, or the spot-on message in my inbox. I'm amazed that the pack of them can make me feel so loved, even when I'm alone mostly all day.

And I'm thankful for the parrot on my shoulder, who smells of flowers and socks, and the warm, smooth little dog who stands on my lap as I write. His front paws on the desk, he straddles the keyboard, watches out the window for that darn squirtle who's been spooking around the yard. He knows not to step on the keys, and so does Charlie.

Photos by Chimpcam

That's something, to have friends like that.

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I'm Migrating!

Thanks to all you readers and listeners out there, all you Stumblers who believe love rules,*
I keep getting these email alerts that I'm about to exceed my domain bandwidth. It's a good problem to have, but it does require action. So I'm migrating to HostGator, which offers unlimited bandwidth for less than a third what I've been paying to host I might be invisible for 24-48 hours, might have no email service, might (gasp!) not update my Facebook account. The world will keep spinning, the lilac buds will keep opening, but you might not have Zick for a little while. Stay cool.

The ovenbirds got in yesterday. And I have an ovenbird with a strained wing, found blundering around inside a pet shop(!) in town and brought to me by my sweet friend NatureMama. I have had the bird for 18 hours and in that time he's eaten 70 mealworms, giving him a distinctively chesty look and earning him the name Piglet. While my domain migrates, I'll be turning over rocks looking for pillbugs and earthworms, hoping to get him in shape to continue his.

*Bruce Cockburn, again

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Flying On Home

The airport at a little village in Iwokrama Reserve is one of the nicest I've been in. There is no Starbuck's, and there are no moving walkways.

It is a little hot in the gate, though.
The jetway is hot, too, and there are animals around.
We lifted up over the steaming forest and said good-bye to Iwokrama Lodge, here far below.
It is truly surrounded by forest--a tiny clearing in the vast, vast jungle. No wonder the birds are so amazing.

Flying into Georgetown, we saw the cane fields where sugar is grown, and much of it is turned into the amazing rum for which Guyana is famous.
One of the planes at the airport had a giant anteater on its tail. Yeah!
After a night in air-conditioned comfort at the Pegasus Hotel in Georgetown, we took a red-eye to Trinidad, and then to Miami.

Morning thunderheads.
Trawlers, scraping up sediment along with the shellfish they are after.
Mangrove islets.
Flying into Port Aux Prince, Trinidad. I'd love to bird there someday.
I don't know what I'm seeing here, but I was absolutely agog at the beauty spread beneath our jet--the colors and patterns of this marbled jewel of a planet.
Every moment on this wonderful trip, I felt blessed to be there, no matter how hot and uncomfortable it was. To be able to see and experience such things, and then come home and share them with you, is a great gift.
I hope you have enjoyed our trip to Guyana, and more than that, I hope some of you reading this will one day visit this emerald jewel, this last, unbelievably pristine and rich bastion of Amazonian diversity.
Time to come home now. Many heartfelt thanks to the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative, US AID, which funded the trip, and to Judy Karwacki of Small Planet Consulting, for taking a chance on inviting a highly excitable Science Chimp along. It's my hope that these posts on Guyana will live on the Web for a long time, and give a taste of its wonders to Google searchers for years to come.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Funky Georgetown

On our trip to Guyana, I had experienced some of the humor and joie de vive of the people. When I photographed these guys carrying a 100-lb forest log, they put it down and ran up to me saying, "NO PHOTOS! YOU HAVE TO PAY US!" which mortified me practically into a fetal position until they cracked up laughing, picked up the log and went on their way, waving.
In Georgetown, these girls gave me a solid gold performance, gyrating and undulating with unmistakable Afro-Caribbean verve. So cute.
I had marveled at how Guyanans accomplish so much with so very little. Every book in the open-air schools we visited was mottled with mildew. The humid climate is a cruel overlord. I would be unable to draw with pencil or paint in watercolors here. My drawings and paintings would curl, get moldy and succumb to fungus within weeks. I guess I'd paint in acrylics. I can't imagine painting with anything but watercolor, but then I don't have to. I feel blessed to live where the climate doesn't actively ruin many of the things I hold dear. I will overlook for the moment the frost threat that constantly hangs over my heirloom lilac and peach tree. 

And yet, along the seawall in G'town, there was art that stretched for miles.
As we whizzed by, I wished I could walk for hours, appreciating each panel.
A favorite:
Even our bush planes had depictions of giant otters and harpy eagles:

The advertising art on the seawall (the only thing that keeps Georgetown from being under five feet of ocean) was a thing unto itself. I loved it.
Because the population is largely Afro-Caribbean, there is a lot of attention to hair products:
I definitely could have used some root stimulator. My hair looked like a road-killed squirrel the whole trip. Today it looks like Chachi's from Joanie Loves Chachi. Cool.

On our TV at the grandiose Hotel Pegasus, which looked like a salt shaker, there was a guy selling a device you mount on your bathroom wall that actually dispenses toothpaste.
But wait, there's more. It also gives you a place to hang your toothbrushes. Which, he pointed out many times, is very healthy. The infomercial dude put a heavy health/hygiene spin on this gizmo. Basically you insert your tube of toothpaste, press a button and Presto! you get toothpaste on your toothbrush. It's got to be much easier than squeezing a tube and losing the cap every time. At least that was what he said.
After being in the back country for ten days, it was a hilariously refreshing way to spend ten minutes, watching an infomercial for something nobody wants because nobody needs, like Zizzer-zoof seeds.The view out our window. It was air-conditioned, and it felt heavenly, but not as heavenly as a hot shower in a cool room. Ahhhhh. The grime of ten days of cold showers fell away.

Erica and I wandered into a variety store that sold everything from bras to furniture. I loooved this set.
It was tropicalismo, way over the top. Elvis would have grabbed this for the Jungle Room. Our furniture is so drab by comparison, so tastefully lacking in texture and flair.

And then there's Smalta. We don't know what it is, but we should drink it. Why? Because it's good.
In case you think the thing under the Smalta swoosh will reveal the mystery, it doesn't. It's a sheaf of wheat. Which leads me to believe Smalta might be a kind of beer. Mmmm, good.

The mystery deepened with this ad for Cheekies. For Happy Cheeks.
I have got to think this is some kind of didey. But I don't know. Maybe there's a climate-related cheek issue in Guyana I know nothing about.

It kind of figures that the best bird pictures I'd take on the whole trip (unless you take into consideration the rarity of the bird, which favorably weights a lousy picture) were at our hotel in Georgetown. A roadside hawk (Buteo magnirostris) was hanging out in the courtyard, waiting for something. This little buteo lives almost everywhere, hanging out along roads and rivers, waiting for snakes, lizards, rodents, insects, whatever it can find and swoop down upon. It was a lovely farewell gift, to spend time with this little hawk, shooting him off a hotel balcony, in a place with adequate light. That's saying something when you've been trying to make photos in the darkest durn forest you've ever seen for ten days.You got a problem with my forest?

Too soon, we'd fly  home. But I was ready, I was ready to see my babies and my husband and my Charlie Miko and my no-good google-eyed licky licky dog.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rivers of Life

It was time to head back to Georgetown. As much as I'd loved our backcountry experience, I was really ready for a hot shower (we'd had only cold showers) and a little AC. Oh, yeah. I was ready to thermoregulate again.

I reflected as we flew into the palm-studded, one-story "metropolis" of Georgetown that we'd had an exceptionally rich experience. We'd seen how people live along the rivers, with homemade dugouts their only transportation.

This family is going to tend their farm plot somewhere upriver. Of course, you bring the dog, because otherwise he'll try to run along the shore, or howl, or both. Besides, he knows the way.
There is not much freeboard above water on these dugouts, and when our whalers would pass, the canoeists would always face into our wake. I do the same thing on Wolf Run.
There's a whole lot riding in this dugout.
The rivers give transportation and food, water for cooking and washing.
A fine catch for dinner.
Right in Georgetown, people were seining big fish out of the roadside ditches. I'd never seen anything like it.
But then protein is where you find it, and even in our distress, most of us have no idea what it is to live so close to the bone. I didn't see many overweight people in Guyana.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sandbar Birds

Birding along Guyana's Issequibo and Rupununi Rivers is wonderful, heavenly. As it twists and turns, you never know what might be around the next bend. A family of giant otters or a little klatsch of large-billed terns? A cocoi heron or an Amazon kingfisher? From a boat, you can get close without alarming the birds.

Here are some of my favorite ringed kingfisher photos from the trip. Some were taken on the Rupununi, some on the Issequibo.I like the composition of this one.

Beautiful wings and a harsh call as it takes off.

Ringed kingfishers are much more approachable than belted kingfishers. Maybe it's because they're the King Kongfisher, easily twice the belted's size.Grand feisty birds they are.

These little pied lapwings Vanellus cayanus reminded me vividly of the piping plovers I studied and protected for three years in Connecticut back in the 1980's. They were so smart, military in their markings and bearings, and always escorting us along the sandbars (probably under the impression they were leading us away from their eggs or chicks). A head-on shot, showing how the black breast band seems to expand when the bird stretches its neck. Could there be any better graphic pattern for catching the attention of another pied lapwing across a wide river? Hey! You!I was delighted to find black skimmers Rhynchops nigra abundant in one section of the river, and went into photo overdrive as they beat their black wings all around us.
This is the same species we see in North America, but it's resident here in Guyana. The bird at lower right is a juvenile, as you can tell from its nearly normal-looking bill. As the birds age, their thin, bladelike lower mandibles get longer and longer. They use the mandible to slice the water in a long, low pass, and grab up any small fish they encounter with a dizzyingly fast snap of the bill. Fish will actually rise to the track the skimmer makes in the water's surface, thinking it's made by a swimming insect, perhaps?
Skimmers on high alert, about to take wing.
You can almost never make out their eyes, but that's part of their unique appeal. I'm sure this color pattern, like the black marks football players put under their eyes, reduces glare as they work the bright waters.

I was beside myself when we came upon some large-billed terns Phaetusa simplex. I remembered them so fondly from my time along the Rio Tapajos in Brazil. Noisy, even raucous, the terns, which nested in large colonies on river sandbars with black skimmers, yammered all night long, as if they were having a never-ending party.
To me, there's something quite skimmerlike about the large-billed tern's proportions and GISS.
It's kind of like a skimmer in tern's clothing, though it makes its living more like a tern, plunge-diving instead of skimming.
I just adore this bird. It reminds me of the crows in the old cartoon I loved, Hekyll and Jekyll.For a bird with such a wide range (throughout South America) it's amazing how little information is available on the large-billed tern's natural history. I would love to have the leisure and time to go find out something about its life.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chet Baker, Tax Hound

I was good this year. I did the bulk of my tax preparation in January, surprising the daylights out of myself. I knew that, as onerous as it is to organize and figure up a million flying receipts, it would be even less fun in April.

Even if you have someone prepare your taxes, for a freelancer like me, the bulk of the work has to happen on your own desk. I crunch everything down to neat figures encased in little penciled boxes, and supply that to my preparer, Jim. I like Jim, partly because I can make him laugh any time. Much of what I do for a living actually turns out to be pretty funny.

Loyal to Rea and Associates, I don't patronize Liberty Tax Preparersno matter how alluringly Miss Liberty, the Bearded Woman, waves from the corner of Acme and Greene. I'm sorry, but this is a major economic indicator right there--a grown man being willing to put on a verdigris gown and tiara and wave all day in the freezing cold. There's one guy who waves, who won't wear the starry crown. I don't blame him. Then there's this girl who jumps up and down, tirelessly. Makes you want to get a paintball gun.

Right across the street, there are people walking up and down with giant cardboard pizzas on their bellies. I wonder what it's like to be a pizza person. It could happen. It probably pays better than being a natural history essayist.

Yes, this is another Chet Baker post. No, I didn't find him a new home. I have gotten three private emails from people about my April 1st post, in which I said we'd made the difficult decision to find Chet Baker a new home. Sincere, tearful letters from people begging me to reconsider. Remember when Tweety Bird would put his hands behind his back and bat his eyes and say, "Dey don't know me vewwy well, do dey?"I have had Charlie the macaw for 22 years. In that time, he has perforated me more times than I care to recount. He is a preferential chewer, which is to say he chooses the most valuable thing in sight to destroy, with books and electronics his top picks. He screams like a maniac, lunges at Bill's feet, kicks Chet Baker out of his soft bed, and poops everywhere. And I haven't even come close to getting rid of HIM. I love him. And I cannot think of anything Chet Baker could do that could move me to give him up. If Chet Baker had a rage attack and chewed off my left arm, I'd say, "Whew! Good thing I'm right handed! Here, Baker. Want a bikkit?"

So that thing about getting rid of Chet was a joke, son, an April Fool's joke, and not a very funny one, it turns out. Chet Baker (and Charlie) are here to stay, forever in my heart and home.

Like I said, I have plenty of help with my taxes.
You have me, Mether. I, Chet Baker, am here to help organize your receipts. What are receipts? Are they like bikkits? May I have a bikkit? Or at least, can you mess with me right now? I would like to be messed with. Or to have a bikkit. Your choice. Or we could take a walk. It is not that cold outside.

Chet Baker. You are very talkative, and Mether is busy today. How did you get the idea that it would be all right to sit upon my tax papers?Well, it is the best place in the whole house to watch for chiptymunks, up here on your table. Oh. Are these receipts that I am sitting on?

Yes they are, little Cat Dog, who is so fond of sitting up high and getting in the way of progress. But I am taking a break now. I would rather watch for chiptymunks with you for a little while than do this, any day. You smell like sunshine.

So I'd written this post and I got an email from my new bloggrrl friend Murr Brewster who writes this hilarious blog called Murrmurrs. She said she shouldn't be emailing because she was supposedly "finishing up her taxes"--we all know how that generally goes. So I sent her the photo directly above, of Chet Baker keeping my receipts warm with his fanny. Oh, sorry, Brits, his bum.
I wrote, "This is what tax day looks like in Whipple, Ohio."

And Murr freaked out and sent me this photo of what tax prep day looks like in Portland, Oregon:photo by Murr Brewster

Different animal, same idea. Sit on the important stuff. Get butt all over the thing they're working on at the moment. Then they can't ignore you. Now, we all know you can't pose a cat. And I beg you to note what's on Murr's computer screen. It is he, Chet Baker, whose fame stretches all the way across this great, expensive country of ours. Happy IRS Day!

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Where Do Cashews Come From?

I think I would make a very good toucan, since fruits are my favorite food. Tropical fruits, so much the better. One of the great joys of traveling the Neotropics is eating new and exotic fruits. I am kicking myself for not being able to remember the name of this fruit. It grew on a large, round shrub near Rockview Lodge, and when I squished the soft, grape-sized fruits, the most extraordinary violet juice ran out. It was exactly the color of my Quinacrodone Violet watercolor. Eaten, it tasted like a cross between grape and aftershave. It was extraordinary, and I gobbled a bunch of them down before it occurred to me that I might want to play it cool, not knowing what medicinal properties such an exotic-tasting fruit might possess.

The pattern this plant shows is one typical of many tropical fruits--a cluster of many fruits, some dead ripe, some ripening, some not even close to ripe. This is a way for the plant to prolong the visitation by seed dispersers, to have them build it into their foraging routes. There may be only a few dead ripe, but there will be more tomorrow, and more a month from now. The fruit colors signal clearly when they're ready to be eaten. Blue fruits generally are most attractive to birds. White means don't eat this yet!

I learned to love starfruit, or carambola, while living in Brazil for six months. I'd never seen the flower, though. What a charming little pink flower!
Here's a papaya tree in full fruit. Yikes. Imagine putting out that much fruit! Each one is almost a foot long. The common name in Brazil is mamao, which means "big tit."

Passionflowers, yet to open. Passionfruit is amazing--just a cluster of seeds surrounded by the most heavenly tasting slime. And boy does it make you dream!
A pineapple in flower. You can really see its affinity to bromeliads when it flowers. Hummingbirds visit the little purple flowers coming out of the bracts, which will soon be the spines on a pineapple fruit.

All through the trip, I tried to photograph the various life stages of the cashew wherever I found a tree. I'm fascinated by this plant, and I love the nuts and fruits. Most people don't know how cashews grow, so I wanted to share these photos.

The cashew , Anacardium occidentale, is an evergreen tree with large, leathery, fiddle-shaped leaves and a spreading crown. Here are the leaves and flowers. It is in the same family as poison ivy (Anacardiaceae). Right there, you know that you don't want to mess with it. I had a steep learning curve upon first arriving in the Amazon.

The fruit of the cashew is two-parted. Here are some in early development. You can see the classic kidney-shaped green seed forming--that's the cashew "nut," though it's not technically a tree nut--it's just a seed. But there's a second part atop that, and that's called the cashew "apple." It's not technically a fruit, either; it's more a swollen, sweet tasting, incredible delicious peduncle. Botanists would call it a false fruit, since it's really more like a stem. Here are a bunch of them hanging, and there's a green cashew seed attached to the bottom of each one.
When the cashew apple is ripe, it turns the most wonderful yellow, then orange, and finally a pinky-red.
Back to the warning: If you're going to eat a cashew apple, you have to twist the seed off and throw that away. The apple is delicious--extremely juicy, with dense yellow flesh; sweet, and so thin-skinned that it barely survives picking, much less shipping (which is why you've probably never seen it!) The juice runs down your chin and you have to bend over to eat it. Some people are allergic to it, though, and it can make your face break out in a rash if you are. Luckily, I'm not.

The seed's green casing has a resin called urushiol in it, which is the same compound that causes the horrid rash from poison ivy. And the raw seed can produce potentially fatal reactions in people who are sensitive to urushiol (that would be me). So before a cashew seed can be eaten, it has to be roasted (often over an open fire). The green shell is peeled off by hand, and the seeds are then blanched, usually by steaming. There are not many things that we eat that are deadly poisonous before they're cooked, but I understand that it is illegal to export raw cashews, because people could die from eating them--they must be blanched before export. So the "raw" cashews you see in health food stores have had the urushiol-laden green shells removed, and have then been steamed, and are safe to eat.

I can only marvel at the ingenuity of the first indigenous Brazilians to figure out how to make such a deadly but delicious seed safe to eat. One supposes there was trial and error involved. Just for fun: Other plants in the Anacardiaceae include pistachios and mangoes (O heavenly fruit!) Oh, and sumac, and poison ivy...some family, huh?

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cock of the Rock Nest!

It's one thing to see a life bird. It's quite another to get a little glimpse into its life. Although I didn't know it when we entered this little cave, there was a cock of the rock nest pasted to the wall, phoebe-style.
It was bigger than a robin's nest, and made of mud and rootlets, perched on a very narrow ledge.
It appeared not to be in use at the moment, but it also looked as if it might have been in use for some years, layered as it was. I was beside myself.

Looking around, there was more to the story. As the female cock of the rock incubated and brooded, and as the young birds grew, they had regurgitated the seeds and pits of the myriad fruits they eat. There was a carpet of pits under the nest.
And off to the side, a small forest of hopeful seedlings, probably never to prosper in this dry, dark cave.
But what a treasure trove for an ornithologist, botanist or ecologist! Here, clearly written in seeds and plantlets, is the diet of the cock of the rock, laid out for anyone to identify and study. Here is the evidence of the bird's value as a seed disperser, here is the list of plants that the birds need to survive. Of course, I was no closer to identifying any of the seeds or plants than anyone else; they were all foreign to me. But I could have, given time and the right resources. It was a heady thought.

But there was more. High up in a crevice, I noticed a bump.
Drawing closer, I could see that the bump had a nose.
Closer yet, and it resolved into a little bat.
Oh, you precious thing. I was reminded of the captivating red bat my friend Caitlin found on our field trip into the forest behind Clermont Northeastern Middle School in southwest Ohio, way back in November.
who has graced my desktop ever since. Hello! I say it every morning.
Each one, a gift. I don't understand people's fear of bats. I think they're just about the coolest animal of all--a flying insectivore! the only mammal that does not simply glide, but truly flies.

Meanwhile, the cock of the rock posed--here is a head-on shot of that orange cookie crest. Come nibble my fringe, ladies.
and it occurred to me that this had been one of the most satisfying experiences I'd had in nature--not only to see a strange, new and beautiful bird, but to understand a little something of how it lives.
To see its nest, to see its food, its habitat, the plants that support it, and then to see the male bird, glowing like a coal in the forest. It was almost too much to take in, in a single afternoon. Now, I yearn to see the female cock of the rock. She's a strange dark maroony brown, with the same semicircular crest. I guess that will have to be another time, another place, perhaps another life.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Cock of the Rock Displays

I mentioned Guyana as a premier destination for spectacular birds, particularly cotingas. Undoubtedly one of the most magnificent cotingas of all is the cock of the rock. For sheer brilliance, it's got them all beat, and it's obliging enough to sit at eye level in the forest where you can study it for many minutes on end. The rest of the cotingas we saw were often frustratingly high in the dark canopy. The other huge bonus of COTR is that it's predictable, appearing where there are caves and rock formations in which it can nest, and displaying in a loose lek situation like many other cotingas. So you can go to Guyana and count on seeing this stunning orange dreamsicle of a bird.

There's nothing quite like walking silently along a padded forest path, knowing that somewhere along the way you are going to see a cock of the rock. It's like Christmas morning, coming around the hall corner and seeing the presents under the tree. You just can't suppress a gasp when the neon-orange bird hoves into view.In the dark forest, he glows like an ember in the wind.

When you're brilliant orange, you don't really need to do much to impress the ladies of the rock. You just sit there and look gorgeous. Of course, when it all comes down, it's more interactive. When a female shows interest, the male COTR will descend to the ground, dance and crouch, and the female, ideallly, will approach and nibble at the wispy foofuraw coming off his tertial wing feathers. You can see his ladyfringe backlit, here.Next: The Cradle of the Cock of the Rock.

DOUBLE ZICK ALERT: I will be talking about hunting morel mushrooms this afternoon (Thursday, April 9) on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, which starts at 4 pm ET. If you miss it, go here.
Please leave a comment on the NPR site (registration's a breeze) and hit Recommend if you like it. That helps with everything. Go, flying monkeys! Go!

And there's a brand new This Birding Life podcast up at the Bird Watcher's Digest site: me reading my True Nature column about sandhill crane hunting, "Love and Death Among the Cranes." I'm going to listen to it so I can remember what my voice sounded like before I got the chest cold to end all chest colds. Hackahackahacka. Thanks to my brainy hubs, Bill Thompson III, for creating such a cool series of podcasts for nature lovers. Be sure to download the version with graphics! Great job, B!
Listen here.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Capuchinbird Trek

What an inviting name for a nature trail! The South American bushmaster (Lachesis muta) is one of the world's most dangerous venomous snakes--a big sucker, the biggest known having been 12' long, given to looping its browny length in the top of a shrub and waiting by the trail for something to walk by that's small enough to inject and swallow. I've seen one, in Brazil, and I'll never forget it. Oh, there you are, right there at chest level, looking like a rope thrown over a shrub. Big devil you are. I'm backing away from you now. I have things to do, places to go, people to see.

On our last morning at Iwokrama Lodge, we made a short trek to see a lekking site for capuchinbirds. I apologize if that sentence looks like Greek to you; it sort of is. A lek is a place where male birds get together to display, hoping to attract females. Famous North American birds that lek are prairie chickens, sage and sharp-tailed grouse. Woodcocks lek, too, sort of, although they're more dispersed. The idea is that a bunch of noisy male birds gathered together in one place have a greater chance of attracting interested females than one noisy male bird at location X, and another at location Z.

There are lots of birds that lek in the tropics. They include many species of manakins and cotingas, the darlings of tropical birders. Guyana is the most cotinga-rich place I've ever been. Purple-throated fruitcrows, pompadour and purple-breasted cotingas, Guianian red-cotingas, swallow-wings, puffbirds, nunbirds and capuchinbirds--they are the ones that birders dream of and drool over as they plan their trips. They're big, colorful and bizarre, and the capuchinbird (or calfbird, as I know it) is one of the weirdest. It's a large, cinnamon toast-colored bird with a bald gray head (and a monklike hood of brown feathers, hence the name capuchinbird). Its call sounds like a cross between a chainsaw and a calf--a rolling bup-bup-bup-bup-brrr that sounds like a chainsaw just being started, ending in a long, nasal WRAAAAAAHHHHHH that recalls a lonely calf or a spadefoot toad. There's a mechanical quality to it that makes you question whether a bird could make such a sound. It's almost more froglike than birdlike, and very loud. It comes from the very top of the canopy, which in primary rainforest is very high up indeed--80-120 feet. Arggh. Can you feel your neck cramping?

On the way to the lek, we spotted a beautiful passionflower vinean intriguingly fluted termite nest
more monkeyladderssome bizarre woody seed capsules, each with a perfectly fitted lid, called monkey cupsI really, really wanted to bring one home. They were big--about 8" long--and looked useful somehow, I don't know, maybe to carry something in? but that's against the rules, and besides, they were too rotty. Everything on the forest floor in Guyana is pretty rotty. If you could just get it when it first fell.

We found the extraordinary cotyledons of a mystery seedling, a green angel on the forest floorbut no bushmasters. Deep sigh. It would have been fine to see one, as long as we saw it first.

It wasn't long before we could hear the wraaah of the capuchinbirds sifting through the hot morning mist. We checked the ground for snakes and army ants and sat down, because the birds were too far up in the canopy to bend our necks back far enough to see them any other way. Here's the first thing I was able to pick out:

Bear with me here. See the two little orange balls? I told you they were weird birds. You can see them again in this picture, but they aren't quite as prominent.
They're under the tail of the male capuchinbird, and they aren't what you think--merely undertail covert feathers that can in some bizarre way be (oh, here I go) erec... puffed out... so they look for all the world like...well, you already have the idea.

Here's the upper body and head of the capuchinbird.Kind of vulturine, with a big ruff of cinnamon feathers at the back of the skull.

I cannot tell you how difficult it was to get an acceptable picture of this bird, shooting straight over our heads and into a bright sunny sky. I had to open the aperture all the way to be able to get anything more than a black blot.Capuchinbirds eat large-seeded fruits by swallowing them whole. I was lucky enough to see this one gag up a fruit pit from its voluminous gape. You could definitely get a small avocado in that mouth; the thing is almost the size of a crow. How I wanted to scurry after the pit and put it in my pocket, but I probably couldn't have found it if I tried, after it dropped 100 feet into the leaf litter. I'm sorry to say this is my best picture of a capuchinbird, but I'm not apologizing. The conditions were ridiculous. This is the kind of thing for which the BBC camera crew takes a month to construct proper scaffolding before the lekking season begins, then sits in blinds for ten hours a day to capture.

Kevin Loughlin was kind enough to loan me this acceptable shot of his, which shows the capuchinbird in full Mas Macho glory. bbbbbbbrrrrrr waaaaaaahhhhhhh! Buenos huevos!photo by Kevin Loughlin. He's taking trips to Guyana, people.

As if seeing this well-balled bird of myth and legend were not enough, I had another bit o' fun in store. Weedon and I had a habit of hanging back behind the group, because we found lots of nice birds that way, being very quiet, or because we were being very silly, and interfering with everyone else. At any rate, we got separated, and I noticed that the trail sort withered away, then split off into threes, something that bothered me. If I took the wrong fork, then what? The Bushmaster Trail on Iwokrama Reserve is not a place I fancied being lost for long.

My mind flitted to Asaph, who had always been so careful to keep an eye on me as I investigated, meandered and snorfled my way through the forest. He was nowhere in sight. That was out of the ordinary. I stopped to gather my thoughts. Weeds was already starting to wig a little.

From behind a huge buttress root came the unmistakable cough of a jaguar. I'd never heard it, but I knew what it was. Oh, crrrrap.

And there was Asaph, also known as Jaguar, loving his little Wapushani joke (he had a million of 'em!), and about to get a brisk spanking from a very jittery Science Chimp.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Walking with Asaph

After a dozen days afield in Guyana with a diverse group, people gravitate to one another based on compatability, shared interests, enthusiasm level or perhaps even a similar taste for silliness. Like my new friend Murr says, "Really, most everything is funny." When I'm in the field, I laugh a lot, ask questions, root around in the forest duff, come up with ridiculous things. These weird little spiny palm fruits reminded me of Chet Baker.

I go through the forest, touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, like a scientist from Venus trying to experience this strange environment with every sense. A tropical forest is like a box of candy for me. There might be a cashew in the middle or it might be nougat. You never know until you investigate. I teeter on the edge of quoting Forrest Gump.

With my curiosity, sense of humor and enthusiasm always aflame, it's good to have a guide, and I gravitated to Asaph Wilson.Asaph models a hair extension we made from some frayed cord off my hat. Oh, how we laughed together. The scar on his nose was left after one of his multiple cases of leishmaniasis, a dangerous parasite carried by sand flies, and an occupational hazard of tropical forest living. He's fine now.

Asaph Wilson grew up in the South Rupununi Savannah. He's a Wapishani Amerindian. He began hunting on the savannah when he was five, accompanying his uncles. When Asaph finished school, he decided he wanted to channel his love of nature into conservation. He travels all over giving programs in schools, because he believes that changes must start with the very young. One of his major focal points is educating people about the destructive nature of grassland fires, which are set by savannah dwellers, and can devastate surrounding forests when allowed to run wild.

Asaph is an avid birder and keen on identifying birds by voice, which is often the only way to know they're there in the dense, dark jungle vegetation. He is a wonderful guide, getting more knowledgeable by the hour, always finding people from whom he can learn more, remembering a bewildering array of birds, plants and animals. In 2000, he accompanied a Smithsonian expedition to Guyana, and it was then that he learned the English and Latin names for the birds with which he was already familiar. He started guiding in 2002, and was one of the primary guides, along with Luke Johnson and Ron Allicock, on the familiarization trip.

Here, Asaph shows me the seed of the green-heart tree, Ocotea rodioei. He told me it's used for treating fevers, but also as a contraceptive (!), as it will interrupt a woman's cycle. Gimme some. I'll wedge that nut between gum and cheek.

An English chemist named Conrad Gorinsky has obtained US, Canadian and European patents for the use of compounds from this and other medicinal plants, that the Wapashani were kind enough to teach him about. Gorinsky named the alkaloid molecules "Biologically Active Rupununines" (a reference to the Rupununi River, from whence they come). He has been labeled a "biopirate" for his efforts to wrest economic control of these folk medicines away from the Amerindians who pioneered their use. Sort of: Teach me all you know, and then I'll slap a patent on it to keep you or anyone else but ME from benefiting from the ethnobotany experimentation your people have done for centuries. Nice. For other interesting examples of biopiracy, see this link. It appears to have been translated from Portuguese, so the English is a little convoluted, but it's an eye-opener for those of us who might feel good about using Amazonian medicinals, thinking we're helping indigenous people (as I suspiciously eye my bottle of purported Acai Berry extract...)

Asaph showed me this enormous, anaconda-like vine, which has saved people who are lost in the forest. Cut it with a machete, and pure water pours out. Although the air is saturated with water vapor, the extreme heat and lack of safe potable water in the forest can combine to dehydrate you in a very short time. Drinking the water in the vine is a safe way to rehydrate.
What's the deal with the monkey vine? Why would it grow in such a dazzling spiral? Who knows? But I asked Asaph to give me a smile, and a Wapashani for scale.

Thank you, Asaph, for your grace and wisdom in the ways of the forest, and your skill in imparting it. And thanks for the laughs.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Colonial Spiders, Long-tailed Potoo

Where were we? Oh yes. Colonial spiders. As if one spider weren't enough, in Guyana they have colonial spiders, or communal spiders. Let's just say unimaginable bunches of spiders, all living together in one enormous web. This is a single web. Once again, a British bird magazine editor for scale and human interest.

And here's a close up of what's going on in the giant web. A whole lotta spiders, all doing spidery things. Together. Lucky for arachnophobes, most North American spiders come one or two to a web. Although I saw live oaks positively draped in spider webs in Anzalduas Park in So. Texas once. It looked like Christo had had a nightmare there.

I have no idea what these little beasts are up to, why there are several hundred thousand of them all spinning merrily away. I imagine that they share whatever falls into the web. That may be going on here, with the cluster of spiders, or maybe they are having a meeting or maybe it's a bar scene or a stoning. I just do not know. But I enjoyed wondering.

Here's our guide Asaph at another enormous web. Yikes. It was the size of my Explorer. This is one good reason not to walk in the forest at night. There are others. I don't know. Maybe if a person fell into a web this big the tiny spiders wouldn't all converge and cluster all over him and make short work of him. Or maybe they would. I wasn't about to try it, as curious as I was.

The trees at the foot of Turtle Mountain were spectacular, muscular and huge. Looking down into the forest, I felt I could see almost anything walk, fly or crawl by.I saw a Kevin Loughlin stopping to rest along the way.

And some other creatures, too. Here's a colorful little frog, perhaps a poison dart frog?

At last, we reached the top. The view was even better than promised. So much forest, so much life, so much potential. It was breathtaking to think of what might live under and in this unbroken canopy.

The cliff was severe. And there was no guardrail. 

Infinity always gives me vertigo --Bruce Cockburn

In the distance, the Issequibo glimmered.

It was all downhill from there. We never wanted to leave, just sitting there looking out over the rainforest, dreaming about what might fly by. What a place for a Big Sit. Black and white hawk-eagle, capuchinbird, jabiru...oh my.

But climb down we did, and near the trailhead we found the coolest possible wasp nest. Shaped like a butternut squash and covered with steel-blue and orange wasps it was.

Weedon wanted to see it more closely, get a nice picture of this amazing paper nest. I'll confess: so did I. But I used the 300 mm. telephoto. They were gorgeous things, blue and bronze, stripey and alert, with bewitching magenta wings. Luke warned in a low voice, "Don't go any closer, that's close enough." Everything was fine until Mike tripped on a palm frond, and a phalanx of winged warriors stormed out and stung the blue-eyed crap out of poor Weeds. Ow! I was out of there like a scalded ape.

There was a consolation prize, though---probably the most elegant potoo on the planet, the long-tailed potoo. I knew it only from a very strange Louis Fuertes painting, which turns out, seeing the live bird, to be right on.
Here, it's doing its potoo best to be a dead snag.

Eureka! its eye is open!

A beautiful potoo, with its eye open, that doesn't look like a bag of rags. Major bonus. This is the Fred Astaire of potoos. What a dandy capper for a wonderful day.

Back in Ohio, we're plunging down to the 20's tonight, something which fills me with great sorrow and ennui. I will have to say goodbye to hundreds of lilac buds this evening, to the roses' new growth, just pruned; to the bleeding heart, laden with flower buds. Oh, I'll spray things down with water at dusk, hoping to make protective ice on  buds and leaves, the way the orange growers do, but I expect the weather will win out after all. Wish me luck.

April is ever the cruelest month for the things I love most. In fact, I realized today that I dread April altogether. Hence the Guyana posts, an escape for the weary heart.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Turtle Mountain Butterflies

In Iwokrama Reserve, there's a place called Turtle Mountain. It's an easy hike, once you get there in a boat. We had a fine hot sunny day for the hike, and the butterflies were fabulous.

Our goal was to reach an overlook where we'd see an unbroken blanket of pristine rainforest stretching out before us. But the bugs were so good, with an army ant swarm with associated avian hangers-on, that I would have been perfectly happy never to make it to the precipice. Yeah, I know. Not many people enthuse about the bugs being good; they usually talk about bugs being bad when they're out hiking, but you'll see what I mean.

It's a huge thrill for a butterfly enthusiast to be in a place where all the butterflies are new. Well, not quite all of them. The white peacock is common throughout the Neotropics.
I knew this was a cracker, but I couldn't tell you which one.
A danaiid, related to our monarchs, but there my ID grinds to a halt.
And this skipper is a longtail, but I don't know which one.
This heliconiid was fluttering delicately, in the buoyant way of their kind, all around a clearing at the Turtle Mountain picnic shelter.
As was this gorgeous little thing. Maybe a metalmark?? Durn it! I wish I could tell you what it is, but I was reduced to simply enjoying them instead of categorizing them (my preferred means of organizing my joy).
So it was a thrill and relief to find one I did know--the magnificent, show-stopping malachite. Luke Johnson and Mike Weedon traded turns photographing it.
Here's the malachite, head on.
And the equally captivating side view. It's a big bug, easily the size of a tiger swallowtail. Tame, confiding, elegantly proportioned--everything a butterfly ogler could ask for. In my next post, more invertebrates, some colonial spiders, eek! and another potoo. I bet you'll have trouble sleeping , waiting for colonial spiders and a potoo.

In local news, spring is visiting Whipple for two days before the cold clamps down again. Bill got our old tractor going and mowed the whole meadow and rototilled the pea and lettuce rows. I began the large job of pruning the roses and weeding the front flower beds. We put up two new bluebird/tree swallow boxes. Nothing I love better than to spend a day in the fresh breeze and sunshine, doing that.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

My, How They've Grown

Spring is flirting with us. Almost freezing, then sunny and cold, then warmish, then almost freezing. The forsythia endeavors to persevere.

It makes us feel good just to look at it, a treasure chest opened and bursting with radiant gold.

Here, we have had chipping sparrows, cardinals, and even a brown thrasher build their nests, and all have succeeded. It's a good plant, all the better when let go a little wild.

In the woods, the spring beauties (Claytonia virginiana) are blooming. Each pair of leaves leads to a nutritious tuber that bears like to eat. I wonder if skunks do, too, and imagine so.
Liam, Phoebe and I go out to check the frogpools along our oil well access road. They're just puddles, but they're home to spring peepers, mountain chorus frogs, gray tree frogs, American toads and sometimes wood frogs and green frogs. All laid eggs there last year, when early summer rains kept the pools full into July. The rains I'd hoped for finally materialized in the last week of March, and the mountain chorus frogs and American toads are singing full bore. Peepers are AWOL as yet. I can't remember a spring without peepers.

Walking back from the pools (we saw ripples but no eggs as yet), I notice that my boy Liam is getting very big indeed. Well, he's nine; he's not a little boy any more. How can that be?

Phoebe, at twelve, is properly suspicious of my camera. She keeps me at a distance. I usually use a telephoto on her, the way I would photograph a deer.

Farther up the path, as the evening falls, she finds something in the grass that needs to be identified. Paging Science Chimp. I knuckle on over. Policy: If my kids want to show me something in nature, I am there as fast as I can get there. If they ask to go to the newt pond, we go to the newt pond. Showing an interest in nature gets immediate reward.

She is 5'4", only an inch from catching me. She will surely zoom right past and look down on me by Christmas. And yet she can fold up those giraffelike legs and be five again.

Phoebe's find turns out to be a lone grape hyacinth, and we discuss whether it was named because its tiny round bell-shaped flowers look like a cluster of grapes (likely) or because they smell like grape bubble gum (less likely). At any rate, it's a long way from its compatriots that still come up in a mysterious fairy ring behind the old house foundation on the hill.

Liam flakes out, watching the clouds go over.

A bud bursts its binding. This might be a buckeye, or it might not. There's something sorta hickorylike about it.
He gets up, turns around, and I see his father in his face. I wonder if Bill ever sees me there.

Outwardly, I may have given him little more than his coloring and a pouty lower lip, but there is plenty of me inside that soul. Neither of us has much use for team sports. We'd rather watch clouds or draw.

It's time to let spring warm our faces and bring joy back to our hearts. Here's a photo I love from last week.

Chet Baker tells Nina that someone loves her. That's what spring, and Chet Baker, are for.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Boston Terrier Rescue

photo by Nina

It's taken us a long time to reach this decision, but we finally have.

It's time to find another home for our Boston terrier, Chet Baker.

He has proven to be unruly,
and has clawed all our furniture.
He is boisterous, HYPER

and fouls the air more times per day than anyone could imagine.
He interferes with my important work
and is inclined to be surly.
For all those drawbacks, he is not a bad-looking dog
except for the face, which we can't do anything about.
If you are interested, drop us a comment. We will entertain all comers.

Epilogue, April 10,2009: Well, I've gotten some emails from people who are catching up on their blog reading, don't think to look at the date of this post (APRIL FIRST) and absolutely cannot believe I am trying to rid myself of Chet Baker. Some in tears. I don't want anybody to cry over anything I write (unless it's really sad or totally heartwarming or hopelessly evocative) so I'm telling you right now: I have a 22 year old macaw who poops everywhere, chews cabinetry, kicks Chet out of his little dog bed, and has punctured me more times than I care to recount, and I haven't even come close to getting rid of HIM. As for Chet Baker, he's sitting pretty, squarely in the left ventricle of my heart of hearts. He ain't goin' nowhere.

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