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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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, 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:; phone (513) 727-3248 (Dr. Eric Melbye). For more ZICK ALERTS, see my website's Meet Julie page.

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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 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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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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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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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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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grassland Raptors of Guyana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rupununi Reverie

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

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

The river is cool and clean.

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

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

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

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Sexing the Single Caiman

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

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

Ack. What are they doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And silence, and the sound of my own breathing.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Feeling the Caiman

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Sexing the Single Caiman.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Caiman Hunt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was as if her rage shone from her jaws.

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

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

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Rollin' on the Rupununi

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Zick gets PERFORATED.

What? Are you surprised?

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Chasing the Giant Anteater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Giant Anteater!!

Giant anteater habitat near Karanambu, Guyana.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Guyana's Savanna

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Scorpion, Marmite, Crab-eating Raccoon

An abandoned dugout, washed up by high water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Common Potoo! Victoria Regia!

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Kevin Loughlin

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

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

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

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fish-eaters of Karanambu, Guyana

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Cock of the Rock!

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

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

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

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

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