27 September 2015

Blogging Birds in Uganda

Derek has a new blog up about birding in Uganda, following up his successful serious of birding blogs for Ecuador, Tanzania, and Brazil.  Check it out at www.birdinguganda.blogspot.com.


17 February 2014

Life as a Travel Writer on ABC News

This is what I used to do for a living, and in this video, my friend and former colleague, Carolyn, is still doing it on her 18th title! I miss it, I admit it.


19 March 2013

THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US; LATE AND SOON

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth, 1806

02 March 2012

Resolving to Resolve: Valentine's Day . . . for the birds

Derek and I made the mother of all resolutions this year, our first ever, that will lead to many commitments throughout the next nine to ten months. We agreed to celebrate all the holidays in 2012. The reasons why are many.

The most recent commemoration was Valentine's Day, a holiday that, although pretty popular in Spanish-speaking Latin America, doesn't get much traction in Brazil, which prefers its own Dia dos Namorados on June 12.

Since Brazilians weren't occupying florists and chocolatiers on February 14, it wasn't hard for Derek to buy me flowers or for me to get a dinner reservation. I also got a poem (AB AB rhyming quartet, thank you, darling). I think it was the first time I was someone's Valentine.

The following day, Derek left again for Mato Gross state, the same state where we saw our first Harpy Eagle nest on Christmas Day. I joined him on Friday for the six-day Carnival holiday, and we immediately decamped for hours to another Harpy nest outside the small town of Alta Floresta. Derek's blog gives the scoop on the nest of the Harpy - a species we sought for years - and its nestling being fed, defended and nurtured. Spotting birds - "getting on" them - is the always the first objective of birding, but communion with the birds is more fleeting, occurring in the weaving of a nest or thrashing of a kill and certainly in the care of young.

From there, we went up the Cristalino River to go birding
and see the southern Amazon habitats. Not surprisingly, deforestation is extensive in Mato Grosso, where ranching has been actively expanding, along with agriculture, for decades, but in the Cristalino Reserve, adjacent to a two-million hectare Brazilian Air Force Reserve (for training exercises), the forest is at peace.

Birding in the Amazon is classic stuff. It's rainy season there now, and the bugs are out of control, and you sweat your sunscreen and repellent off in minutes. Although the avifauna is prolific, in many cases extravagantly obvious and responsive to playback, the best of the more reclusive species demand enormous patience. In some cases, you may find yourself in an ant swarm trying to get at the enigmatic and charismatic birds that prey among those insects (they don't eat ants, they eat the bugs that the ant swarms stir up). You watch as the forest floor moves with panic and as the insects start to make their way up your rubber boots and spill over the tops and down your legs. Then, the screaming pinch of a bite. And the all while, you're trying to keep quiet and still as the mosquitoes also take up their opportunity. Sometimes, your mind drifts to other things: stories, memories, work.

Many times last week in the forest, I thought that this activity was a greater expression of Derek's and my commitment to each other than Valentines or bouquets. We made this resolution to pay attention to holidays because we suspected that something absolute about communities and time was slipping away from us, but then, there in the forest, it seemed that something more timeless and primordially connected to reality was defining our relationship.

We did get lucky. In once case it only took about thirty minutes of lurking to get on Banded Antbird, and while we anxiously peering, a small anteater came walking by behind us. Jorge, our local guide, didn't even flinch at the anteater, but Derek and I heard the bizarre creature approaching and couldn't help but get off the bird for a minute. Derek knows I like a cuddly mammal, and he turned to get a photo. The anteater walked blindly toward us, stuck his long snout in the air, and suddenly smelling the unfamiliar - repellent, human, someone's sandwich - he paused silently, turned ninety degrees and kept walking. We turned back to our lurking and within a few minutes had our eyes on the beautiful antbird, walking on the ground and lit miraculously by a ray of sunlight that made it all way to the forest floor.

Other birds took much longer than the Banded Antbird. Derek and I spent six days in the Ecuadorian Amazon looking for, among other things, the spectacular, large Collared Puffbird, a favorite species of on our favorite Ecaudorian guides, Oscar Tepui. We finally got a look at it at Cristalino. We were buying a little time on our last day up in a canopy tower, where we saw a hawk and plenty of tanagers and parrots. From there, Jorge heard the puffbird calling, and we descended the tower's narrow steps quickly and gingerly. We high-tailed it to a small patch of forest and commenced playback. In came two Fasciated Ant-shrikes. The striking male waited for his mate to land so he could pass a morsel of moth to her beak in a tender act of shared responsibility - a great thing about being two and not one. We were all moving our eyes across the mid-levels of the forest, and the more eyes the better, but I was the one who first saw the Belted Puffbird, responding obligingly to callback as it alighted on a branch high in my peripheral vision. My binocs came up to my eyes, and I whisper-shouted, Hello, to Derek so he'd see where to aim. A gasp of delight as years of searching were fulfilled. A momentary look at this bird was a better thing to offer to Derek than any holiday promises. A great thing about being two and not one.

The puffbird paused so long on the branch that we had to leave him perched there on the branch as we left for the long slog back to civilization. For a moment, we were all there - Jorge, Derek, and me, and the pihas screaming their calls like electric shock noises from the high canopy, and the silent shrikes and long-whistling tinamoos and buzzing mosquitos and cackling macaws and noiseless pattering of the ants below.

Perhaps birding, traveling, hiking, diving - whatever - will continue to keep us from the madding crowd of the holidays, perpetuating our dislocation from the festivals of any given culture. When we took on this resolution, we thought there might be something in the holidays we had been missing out on. This Carnival in the Amazon makes me wonder if we were wrong - maybe holidays aren't, as we suspected for years, all they are cracked up to be.

St. Patrick's Day is March 17.

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01 March 2012

A BOOK REVIEW

I really like Derek's review of this book about cotingas and manakins (he has recently started writing these reviews for Princeton University Press on his blog). These beguiling birds are some of my own favorites, as I mentioned when I wrote about my top ten birds in South America, and I agree, the book is marvelous to browse. Here it is, or check it out on his blog, too. Book cover is publisher's; the rest of the photos are Derek's.

Book Review: Cotingas and Manakins, Princeton UP

I recently received a review copy of this new monograph by Guy Kirwan and Graeme Green, and it broke my heart a little that I didn’t contribute any photographs to the project when Guy first contacted me through my Birding Ecuador blog. Cotingas and Manakins is a massive, erudite, and gorgeous compilation of all extant knowledge about cotingas and manakins, undoubtedly the two most extravagant and fascinating bird families of the neotropics. Over 130 bird species are covered in approximately 600 pages, including exhaustive text on identification, habitat, display, breeding, and status, and nearly all of them are represented both in 34 color plates by Eustace Barnes and 400 photographs by various contributors. Having lived and birded in the neotropics myself for nearly seven years, I have amassed a considerable collection of photographs of many of these species in the field. Even though some of them are of less than professional quality, it’s clear from a quick perusal of the book that grounds for inclusion were primarily based on representing each species as comprehensively as possible – both male and female sexes, juvenile plumage, nest construction – rather than on the quality of the photograph.

Regrets aside, I simply haven’t been able to put the book down, as it satisfies so many of my different cravings as a birder in repose. First, the beautiful color plates inspire as they present the birds in dynamic situations, such as a male in display or a bird feeding or in flight, often in their appropriate habitat. Then, the detailed text quenches the thirst for more information about each marvelous species, including natural history and distribution. Finally, the photographs present a tantalizing taste of the reality of seeing each bird in its proper context. And the poorer the photograph, the more provocation the adventurous birder feels to get out into the field and take a better one. Indeed, the fate of many of these marvelous birds is tied to the growth of birding tourism: the more birders that are inspired to visit the neotropics in search of cotingas and manakins, the stronger the conservation movement grows. Consider the case of the spectacular but critically endangered Araripe Mankin, for example. Discovered only in the mid 1990’s outside the borders of the Araripe-Apode National Forest, the bird’s distribution was found to be highly localized to just a few sites in northeastern Brazil, where it is conjectured to have once been more widespread before agricultural expansion. Despite the failure to preserve the bird’s habitat at the national level, conservation areas and private reserves have since sprung up, in part to capitalize on worldwide interest in enjoying this remarkable bird in person.

It’s difficult to generalize accurately about Contingadae and Pipridae because each family of birds is so diverse; in fact, recent taxonomical work suggests that at least five bird families are actually addressed in the text, and none of them comprehensively, although that was not the original intention of the authors (much has changed in the sixteen years it took to complete the text). If our understanding of neotropical bird families is still very much in flux, the monograph does at least cover all species traditionally considered cotingas and manakins, including the taxonomically troublesome Schiffornis and Piprites. So what, then, are some basic characteristics that link these two families together in the minds of neotropical birders? With respect to their appearance, sexual dimorphism is a common feature in most species, with the male usually bearing brilliant and sometimes even fanciful plumage, and the female often appearing drab or even cryptically colored. Behaviorally, some males of both families also engage in dramatic displays at specific sites, called leks, exposing certain features of their plumage in song and dance. Accordingly, Charles Darwin’s consideration of manakins supposedly led to his understanding of sexual selection, wherein females cause evolutionary change by their mating decisions. What else do they have in common? Typically frugivores, most cotingas and manakins don’t appear to migrate much locally, but some are rare and their whereabouts unknown during parts of the year. Indeed, it’s difficult to generalize about these families, which is yet another reason to buy the book, which treats each species separately and comprehensively.

The text certainly has potential as a field guide, considering its wonderful color plates, distribution maps, and lengthy notes on identification, habitat, description, natural history, and voice. But it would be a shame to get it soiled in the field (remember that birding in the neotropics almost always involves rain and mud). Instead, this is the type of text you would want to relish before and after a birding trip (I can confirm that it serves equally well as both an aperitif and a digestif). I’ll also recommend as you read about each species that you listen along on Xeno-Canto, which is a free library on the Internet of bird calls and songs from all over the world, including an extensive catalogue of neotropical birds (many of the contributors of photographs to the text are also responsible for making the audio recordings, including bird guides Nick Athanas and Ciro Albano, whose hard work I frequently benefit from when birding here in Brazil). Not that cotingas or manakins are very musical. In fact, some species are responsible for the strangest sounds you’ll ever hear a bird make, including the menacing growl of the Capuchinbird or the mechanical movements of the Club-Winged Manakin.

While I probably derive more enjoyment as a birder in spending hours trying to catch a glimpse of an elusive antpitta than ogling at a colorful cotinga or manakin, some of my favorite birding experiences in the neotropics are centered around those two families. I remember that my first visit to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek near San Rafael Falls in Ecuador took place so early in the morning that my traveling companion brought a beer with him left over from his carousing the night before. I recall how guide Borris Herrera and I agonized for hours over whether a female manakin we saw on Volcán Sumaco was the rare Yellow-Headed Manakin while the rest of our expedition continued ahead to the next refuge, leaving us to arrive without flashlights well after dark. And it’s hard to pick the most memorable of many of my ill-fated solo trips in search of rare cotingas or manakins, but my brutal slog up Cerro Mongus in remote northeastern Ecuador in a fruitless attempt for the mythical Chestnut-Bellied Cotinga certainly comes to mind. Regardless of whether you have similarly personal associations with some of the species in this book, I would highly recommend it, either as a basic introduction to, or a scholarly review of, these avian wonders of the neotropics.

05 February 2012

Upriver: The Northern Amazon

In late January, I participated in a State Department delegation that boarded a large cruising vessel, the MV Explorer, on the Atlantic Coast, and sailed upriver for 1500 kilometers to Manaus, the Amazonian capital that was once home to rubber barons who famously shipped their laundry home to Paris.

The Explorer is a sailing university that circumnavigates the globe, and students participate in service work and excursions while at ports in South America, Africa, and Asia. A full faculty lives on board, offering a regular schedule of courses, including an appropriately pitched Global Studies course, to 600 North American and international university students.

Derek was also invited, but when he realized that he was going to be sailing out of Amapá and into Amazonas state, he quickly got to work arranging land-based bookend trips to promising birding leks and reserves in those areas. He hunted down some patches of forest near a mining town in Amapá where he would be able to see Capuchinbirds, and near Presidente Figueiredo, north of Manaus, he went up an old NASA tower with local researchers from the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazônia (INPA). (Check out the links for our travel and birding reports and photos.)

Derek and I had to fly to Macapá, which is just 240 kilometers from French Guiana, a place I know from my Lonely Planet days, when I traveled all over the country for the South America on a Shoestring guide. One of the bigger stories out of French Guiana these days is that the French and Brazilian governments are building a bridge over the Oiapoque River. Who knows when it will be done. It wasn't when I was there three years ago, but officials continue to claim that the EU will be connected to Brazil any day now. Amapá state is also home to the border between the Guiana Shield and northern Amazonian biomes, some of the largest untouched swaths of Amazonian rainforest in the world, and even Brazil's largest national park. My colleagues had driven north the day before I arrived, and they noted the more cerrado-like, savannah habitat they saw as they approached the Guiana Shield.


From a ramshackle dock outside of Macapá, following a stop at the Equator monument, we boarded the Explorer via a small boat. The ship is a true university - with a cafeteria, a student union, a library, and classrooms - that sails across oceans and up wide rivers. I'd never been on a cruise ship before, and it was undeniably comfortable, in a way that makes the banks of the Amazon seem worlds away despite being so close. Then again, they aren't that close. The width of the river ranges in kilometers, and even with our powerful binoculars, Derek and I struggled to see the canopies that are home to the coolest avifauna in the world.

We did catch profiles of large birds - tucans, herons, and skimmers - and after sunset, gulls and nightjars flew in the lights of the ship, but mostly we settled with what flew overhead, including one fine day, a troop of fifteen or so Red and Yellow Macaws. Derek had befriended the ship's rare species specialist, and they spent every non-committed hour on deck, where one could find all kinds of lovers of wildlife watching the river in wonder and repose.


One of the more emblematic sightings of wildlife was neither native or alive though. We saw it when our delegation took a bridge tour with the Captain. At the time, the boat was being piloted by a Brazilian who was designated to steer the Explorer upriver because he knows the constantly shifting depth and breadth of the Amazon's channels - at many points, the draft between the vessel's hull and the river bottom was a question of a few meters. A small crew of men keep watch over the radars and the water's surface, looking for large trees that can knock into the propellers; I felt a certain kindred spirit with these men, not because I know anything about boats, but because they spend a lot of time looking through binoculars. As we were looking at the radar and gauges, the navigators alerted the captain to a large object floating in the river, and he sprung to life and summoned us to a side deck that juts out of the port bow like a plank. He was excited to see that it was a dead cow, bloated and floating in the fast current. The fetid creature, surely originating in one of the Amazon's fazendas, had probably fallen in the river and couldn't get out. As most of the world knows by now, cattle farming, and to a lesser extent, agriculture are the most significant contributors to Amazonian deforestation (no less true of highland forests, either, as Derek pointed out in his BirdingEcuador blog in 2008).


When we woke up on the final day of our voyage, the river had changed, and I could see from our cabin window that we had traded the muddy waters of the Solimões tributary for the silky, dark tannin-rich waters of the Rio Negro. We had arrived in Manaus, and something could finally match the size of the river: a grand suspension bridge crossing the Amazon. The tiled cupola of the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in the age of the rubber moguls, gleamed with the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag (in case any enterprising explorers failed to realize that they were still firmly in the territory). A professor on deck said that Manaus had more port capacity than his entire home state of Alaska.

Our last day in Manaus was preoccupied with obtaining Derek's permits to enter into the national parks. The INPA officials were outstanding, recognizing that while service and infrastructure were limited in their protected areas, serious birders could still access the habitat as long as they were willing to take care of themselves and not cause any trouble. This permission-seeking process has been one of the harder adjustments for us in Brazil - so different from being able to go wherever we wanted, more or less, in our trusty Land Cruiser through the unregulated wild areas of Ecuador and Peru. Exploring nature is more bureaucratic in Brazil, but it's usually worth it.

On the topic of bureaucracy, we learned when we boarded the ship that we qualified as cabotage, or "the transport of goods or passengers between two points in the same country by a vessel or an aircraft registered in another country."


Returning to where I live now, as a commercial airplane passenger to Brazil's modernist capital, having exchanged the endless green for baked concrete, I am struck by the distances and the changes in scenery from the Amazon to Brazil's big-sky country. And also by a longing feeling for home, wherever that might be.

04 February 2012

Resolving to Resolve

Now that the first day of February has passed and the newspapers are no long publishing op-eds about the futility of resolutions, I'm am meeting my resolution to blog more. Just kidding.

I did make a resolution this year, however, and I think it might be the first time I have ever dared to make a New Year's promise. I'm sure I made them as part of grade-school exercises in holiday making, but I have generally eschewed the practice for the same reason that other people do: they're doomed to negation, disappointment, and failure.

After a year of paradigmatic change - a year that started in Africa, swept through Washington, and ended in Brazil, with dozens of destinations in between, a major career transition and getting married - Derek and I felt ourselves perhaps a little unhinged from the seasons and holidays of one country, let alone the cycles of the diverse cultures we tramped through in 2011. Much of the year, as with several years before, we just used the holidays as a reason to travel and not to consecrate, contemplate, or celebrate.

Not that this is such a bad thing. We all know that most holidays are manufactured consumer events - or have become increasingly to look like them - and we love our time off to travel and enjoy the outdoors. Over the years, Derek and I have also spent several birthdays apart, mainly due to work that had taken to me to other countries, and we kind of lost track of the fun of it. And let's face it, without kids, holidays lose a certain imperative quality.

But after failing at all the holidays and birthdays in 2011, especially those that come at the end of the year, Derek proposed that we make more of an effort. Sometime in late December, he said, "Let's just do them all. Let's go from celebrating nothing to celebrating everything." The next holiday was New Year's, and what does one do to celebrate New Year's? One drinks champagne, has a kiss, and makes a resolution, and our resolution was to observe all the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries in 2012. This is daunting in the face of a long list of American and Brazilian feasts and festivals, so we agreed to take on the American ones. (Maybe next year we'll do Brazil's, but first we'll have to figure out what Zumbi Day is). The rules are simple: we agree ahead of time what to celebrate, how to celebrate, and we each have to bring something to the table - unless it's your birthday, in which case you just enjoy.

We've been doing pretty well so far. For Derek's birthday, I gave him a book, made Indian food and coconut cake, and we toasted to his High Holy Birthdayness. This ritual were established years ago. Derek and I used to give each other birthday books, always inscribed, and I started up a little tradition of making Indian food and a certain coconut cake recipe on his birthday. It fell on a Tuesday this year, and since I am just a tad preoccupied with a major professional transition, I took some short cuts with the Indian food. We also decided that Derek would make his own coconut cake, since I have resigned as Domestic Goddess, and he wanted to see if he could do it (he did well). So, there were shortcuts, but when we resolved to rediscover tradition, it came through with the things holidays and traditions promise. You know, warmth, joy, love.

On January 6, I also celebrated a random holiday with friends at work called King's Day. I remember it being observed unceremoniously during my childhood in the Catholic universe of St. Louis, but here in the world's most Catholic and most religious country, it's a more meaningful holiday. King's Day is when the Magi that brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Divino Boy in Bethlehem packed up their donkeys and camels and went on back home to the east. If Jesus was born on December 25, then it makes sense that they might have been ready to get going around the 6th. In contemporary times, it's also the day when the Christmas tree starts looking really tired and you put the ornaments in storage. At work, my colleague made a cake with little trinkets that are omens for the new year baked inside. Everyone gets a slice, and if you're lucky, you receive a little talisman bearing good prospects.

Christmas Day, 2010

Even though Derek and I didn't agree to observe King's Day, I will count it towards meeting our resolution, and that's good because we failed on MLK, Jr. Day. We were in Belo Horizonte and would separate for Derek to go birding in some reserves in Minas Gerais state while I flew back to Brasilia to return to work. I had downloaded MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech" to listen to, a simple observance we agreed to make. But we didn't. Internet was too slow, and we were on the road most of the day. But that's what's great about resolutions - you make them with yourself and you just start over if you want.

February 14 is Valentine's Day.


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