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Weird Little Toucans

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Being here in Guatemala with Jeff Gordon, bird guide extraordinaire, is a dream. We have laughed our way through Tikal and now the cloud forest highlands. Being a guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) for a dozen years has made Jeff sharp as the proverbial tack in bird spotting and vocalizations. It didn't take long for us to chuck our 6-pound Howell and Webb in favor of a walking, talking, laughing encylopedia of tropical bird lore. There are so many great people on this excursion, people who had only been names for me before. And there are old friends, too, and there's never a lack of someone fascinating to talk with. Put all that in a verdant setting with sun streaming down and you have a very happy, if tired, pair of Zick/Thompsons.
I especially love watching Bill ratchet down and relax and use his new camera. Birding is different through a camera. You look for good light and opportunities to grab an image. It's like hunting, and it makes you notice things and evaluate situations. It makes you conscious of light. It's really fun. I have been striking a pretty good balance between photography and field sketching. It goes like this: I take 900 pictures of a bird, and then I sketch it. If it's in rotten light or too far away, as most birds in the low humid forest are, I just sketch it and don't even bother to try to get a picture. Bill keeps hope burning and takes a lot more pictures than I do. I haven't got near the rig he has, but I'm banging away at the birds, too, and getting some pictures that, if not publishable, at least bring the experience back for me.

This fruiting fig tree just kept coughing up delights. Yellow-throated euphonias are incredibly snazzy little mini-tanagers with a huge appetite for fruit. I couldn't resist posting two pictures of this little dude working on a big ripe fig. Amazing how wide his gape is! The euphonias descended on the tree in a cloud and stayed there most of the day, communicating in lisping calls. They'd leave en masse before sundown, giving way to other birds.


Tikal boasts toucans, those highly desired tropical icons. Everyone who comes to Tikal hopes to see a toucan. Keel-billed toucans sit high in emergent trees, croaking like frogs, their yellow breasts shining in the sun, impossibly large bills glowing neon green, blue, yellow and pomegranate. Gorgeous birds. Less well-known are the small toucans known as aracaris, who have their own jerky charm. They're great fun to watch, as they strike poses and hold them for a few seconds like modern dancers or mimes. These photos were taken toward dusk, and lack a bit in saturation, but they capture the aracari's weird color scheme (oily green, silk yellow, and blood red) and personality.

Aracaris (are-ah-sah-rees) have weird horizontal pupils that give them an impassionate, goatlike stare, but they more than make up for that with their zippy personalities. It's almost as if they're overcompensating. Charming birdies!

The verdant greens, gentle breeze and magenta bougainvilleas are calling. I'm going to amble around the hotel grounds to see what I can see. I'm kept company by hooded warblers (they all seem to be guys), Wilson's warblers, and black-and-white warblers, along with the resident clay-colored robins, brown jays, and great-tailed grackles. There are peacocks, roosters, dogs and geese right under our hotel window. What Latin American hotel, no matter how luxurious, would be complete without incredibly noisy birds and animals under its window? The roosters start at 3:30 AM. The dogs go all night. The peacocks don't start hollering until we're showered and dressed. Today's wakeup was 3:40 AM for a 3 hour bus ride down winding mountain roads. It isn't ALL paradise...Just wanted to check in and give you another peek. I know your weather's rotten, and soon ours will be, too...flying back tomorrow (Wednesday). Sigh. I'll try to drag it out by posting about Guatemala for awhile after I get back.

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