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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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jabiru Nest!

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

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

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

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

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Monday, March 23, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, March 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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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Harpy Eagle Nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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, January 21, 2009

Crane Hawk!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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 16, 2008

Wild Macaws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Amazon Parrots

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

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

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

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

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