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Birding Guyana's Coast

Sunday, November 30, 2008


We might as well start with the chicken pot pie. In my packing frenzy as I prepared for ten days in Guyana, South America, I also went into a cooking frenzy. Realizing that baking is not one of Bill of the Birds' myriad fortes, I left instructions on the fully assembled but uncooked pie. Sure enough, he called me at the airport to ask me how long he should bake it. "Just take the pie out of the fridge and look at it!"

There followed a series of long flights, a 10:30 PM arrival at the one-gate Georgetown airport, an 11:30 PM arrival at the Grand Coastal Hotel an hour away, and a comatose night. At 5:30 the next morning, we left for our first outing, a pattern that would continue for the entire ten-day trip: rising in the dark to constant motion until it was time to collapse back into bed. Our destination was a marshy savannah within earshot of Guyana's coast. Here, birds like laughing falcons, named for their ha-ha-hoo-hoo call, stand sentinel on palm trunks.
before flying off.
There's nothing like a laughing falcon anywhere in the States, but we do have snail kites--an endangered species, found only in the Florida Everglades. In Guyana, they sit all over the powerlines, diving down occasionally to nab an apple snail from a roadside ditch. It's nice to see them being all abundant. This is an immature snail kite.
We'll see it use its specialized hooked bill in a future post.

We had a couple of target birds for this outing, found only in Guyana. One was the blood-colored woodpecker, a small bird which cleverly eluded us for the entire trip, showing only bits of itself before winging away, as if headed for Venezuela. I managed to photograph the back and wings of an immature female. I'm told the male is a real stunner. Still, you can see some red on her back.
All told, this is typical of my Guyanan bird photos. Now, I got some dandies, but the vast majority of the 2000 exposures I made were garbage. This was without doubt the most challenging environment for photography I've ever encountered: hot and humid as anyplace I've ever been, with a blinding bright sky and deep dark jungles, thick with tangled greenery. Most of the birds were right up against that blinding sky, smack dab in the middle of a vine tangle, or just under the canopy of the deep dark jungle against the bright bright sky. Suffice it to say I learned a lot about the limitations of a camera in these conditions.

Another Georgetown specialty: the white-bellied piculet, sort of like a miniature woodpecker, the size of a small nuthatch. Here's the female, preening. It's OK if you yawn. We were pretty excited, but then we're birders, and the word "endemic" (found nowhere else on the planet) gets our hearts pumping, no matter what the bird looks like.
The male dresses it up with a red forecrown, but he is careful to hide behind sticks.
Even those of us with huge lenses succumbed to the conditions, and even got all balled up in our gear from time to time. Here's Michael Weedon, Associate Editor for England's Birdwatching Magazine, trying to figure out which strap goes to which so he can get his camera free. He toted the most gear of any of us, and thanks to that scope and a pocket camera, also got some of the best pictures, I daresay.
We moved on from the white-bellied piculet to something more powerful: a crimson-crested woodpecker, member of the exalted genus Campephilus, and thus a cousin to our much sought-after ivory-billed woodpecker. Just a peek, but the stance is soooo familiar:
Oh, please come out. I need to see you.
Oooh! Look at your beautiful head!
Thank you. Everything about you, your huge semi-circular claws and your powerful bill, your erect carriage and your proud crest, haunts me, reminds me of what might yet be in our southern swamps.

Because there were lots of things like iguanas
and tegus (a life lizard for me!)
scurrying in the savannah forest, there were lots of things like this rufous crab hawk sitting around scanning for prey. This is a dandy huge gorgeous beast, perfectly lit and situated for his portrait, and, like the piculet, careful to have several branches in front of him for good composition.
OK, now, try to get me flying through the same branches. Good work.
His main dietary item appears as dots in this photo. Like the snail kite, he's surrounded by food all the time. Every dot in this picture is a fiddler crab. Yum!
The marshes in Guyana are themselves often dotted with the beautiful little pied water-tyrant, a member of the flycatcher family, which has speciated wildly in South America. There were two full pages of flycatchers in our Guyana checklist, and my eyes glazed over when trying to identify most of them. I prefer tyrants to many other flycatchers, because they are so unequivocally marked.
Female and immature pied water tyrants have some black on head, back and wings.
A good male will knock your socks off. I am not sure what the adaptive value of being so obvious might be. It is not obvious to me.
Our guide to all this beauty was Andy Narine, a Rastafarian birder of East Indian (to distinguish from West Indian) extraction.He's one of the leaders in Guyanan birding, keen of eye and ear and encyclopedic of knowledge. His lilting Caribbean accent lapsed freely into musical Creole, gorgeous and sometimes hilarious to hear. We were definitely not in Kansas any more.
Showing us birds all the way, Andy led us along the coast, where an unexpected dot of scarlet resolved into my life scarlet ibis. I cannot tell you how exciting it was to have a flourescent red bird appear out of nowhere. I was jabbering and hooting and hollering. Pure, vibrant color does that to me, and life birds do that to me, but give me a life bird that is a pure, vibrant color and Sally bar the door.

Again, adaptive value of this flaming color: unknown. Just beautiful, that's all.
Terry Moore of Leica was kind enough to dial Bill on his cell phone and hand it to me so I could stutter, "Scarlet ibis!!" to my surprised mate. It would be the last time we'd speak for ten days.

Too soon, it was time to drop Andy off at his office, where he heads a natural history society. Thanks so much, Andy Narine. You are awesome and 'ital, mon.

More Dog Togs

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In all the flap about dog togs, I should explain that there is, at least in my mind, a difference between putting a shirt on your Boston terrier occasionally, in the privacy of your own home and yard, and taking that dog out in public dressed. (We'll ignore, for the moment, the incongruity that, while I wouldn't be caught dead walking my dressed dog down Front Street, I happily show him and his stylin' sweaters and shirts to 25,000 people on this blog...)

Ignoring that slight disjunction, think of it as the difference between cross-dressing for kicks at home, and performing a full-on drag act on stage.

I spotted this poodle at King's Kreamy Kreations (yes, that's the real name, and no, I don't know why they couldn't spell it King's Creamy Creations) in downtown Marietta three summers ago. She seemed pretty happy, even though her slightest motion produced a tappity tap tap sound from her tiny bound feet, stuffed into shiny vinyl shoes. I couldn't take my eyes off that dog. I was convinced that this is the kind of thing that makes dogs turn on their owners and rip them to pieces in the night. Don't you see something ready to snap in those eyes? Maybe I was projecting onto that sweet little ball of curly fluff, but to me this is just wrong. Shoes for a search and rescue dog who works so hard he wears his pads off, sure, but shoes for fun? Nope. We're interfering with normal locomotion here, and for what? Just to be cute? Big thumbs down from the Animal Fashion Police.

At the fair this past fall we were sitting on a bench minding our own business when a couple pushed a stroller right up to us. They had big smiles on their faces and they obviously wanted us to admire their The Yorkie looked utterly dejected, her ears pasted back and her eyes ashamed. She was wearing a pink dress, and worse than that, she was riding in a stroller, at the fair no less, when there were so many wonderful things to smell and taste all around her. I have little doubt that she needed a stroller because she refused to try to walk in the dress.Maybe it's the bow, maybe it's the gaggy pink, maybe it's denying a healthy, energetic terrier the right to use its muscles and walk for Pete's sake, but it was all I could do not to ask the owners what they could possibly be thinking. I forced a wan smile, whispered  my condolences to the Yorkie, and looked away. Phoebe and Liam crooned in sympathy. This is not a doll, this is not a baby; this is an animal, and she has the right to her dignity. Looking in their gleaming eyes, seeing their proud smiles, I could see that the owners were much too far gone to reach, so I let it go, reminding myself that if this dog lived in China or Peru, she might be dinner, so by comparison she had it pretty good. Being called someone's "furkid" beats stirfry any day.

And so I leave you with my double standard. It's a bit complex, so I'll spell it out. By my double standard, it's OK to put a shirt on Chet occasionally for a few minutes
to snap a couple of pictures, as long as he seems to be having fun

Mether? Are you done yet? This 3T human toddler shirt binds me at the legpits. Clothes designed for dogs are better. And you need to know that this pumpkin you carved looks like a pig.

but shoes and strollers and pink dresses on other people's dogs, nuh-uhhhn.

Hypocritical? You bet. I'm splitting tiny black Boston terrier hairs here and I know it.

Happy Thanksgiving, Chet Baker fans everywhere. It is so good to be home and receiving kisses and cuddles from my Human Kids and my Human Husband and my little black doggeh once again. Can you tell I read The New Work of Dogs by Jon Katz in one sitting on the plane to Guyana? Highly recommended, especially for those of us who can't help blurring the human/dog line now and then.

Dogs in Togs

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Some weeks ago, a gauntlet was thrown down by the estimable KatDoc, a woman of many and strong opinions, bolstered by her built-in white-coated authority as a Veterinarian, a Woman of Medicine. Yea, even though I hold veterinarians in higher esteem than human physicians, I quailed not.

Her words:

"Dogs in clothes - just so - so ...


Sorry, but I am an anti-clothes person when it comes to canines. Just never saw the cute in it."

~Kathi, ducking and running for cover from all the things being thrown at her by the haute-dog-couture set

There followed a peppery response from Mether, to the effect that it takes a Boston terrier to pull off a polo shirt, and nobody would want to dress up an ol' Rottweiler (Kathi's chosen breed) anyway.

It was all in good fun, and though she tries and tries, KatDoc has never managed to offend me. I resolved to torture her with some Dogs in Togs. And so I bring you Chet Baker, Fearless Deer Hunter and Polo Shirt Model.

No dog enjoys the act of being dressed, but Chet submits quietly.
He's still a bit ambivalent, but a turned-up collar gets him the attention he loves.
He turns to give Daddeh a toddler hug
followed by an exuberant kiss.
He settles back down, but from his elevated perch, notices a white-tailed deer in the meadow.
He lights out after it, and the doe stands stock-still, agog at what she must think is a two-year-old human child tearing like a red, white and blue streak toward her. He's hidden by the goldenrod here, but he's as close as he's ever gotten to a deer before she finally bounds off, doubtless still wondering what sort of little centaur child is after her.
If I had not had this shirt on I would have caught that deer.
I know I would have caught her.One of these days I am going to catch a deer and bring it home for you to cook. You dress me up like a child but I am a hunter inside, a very good hunter.Yes you are, Chet Baker, and your dignity is not diminished in the least by your fabulous polo shirt. You are fierce, and you are working that shirt for all you've got.

And somewhere, a deer is snorting quietly.

Time Warp

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In the special wrinkle in time that is my life lately, I post about leaving just as I am returning from a ten-day trip to Guyana. If that doesn't make your head hurt, nothing will.

Chet Baker hates it when I pack. Much as he loves the rest of the family, he is My Dog, and he doesn't let anyone forget it. I have taken to scattering dog beds in every room so he can sleep at my feet while I work. When I'm gone, I'm told he spends hours sitting at the foyer window watching the driveway, my own personal Greyfriars Bobby.

So when I began gearing up for this trip (from which I am now recovering), Chet Baker parked himself in the suitcase, a time-honored cat trick to keep one's owner from packing properly.

Who could leave a doggeh as cute as me?
This suitcase provides the perfect support for chewing my dinosaur.
I think you should leave it here for me all the time, and never take it on airplane trips.
Because you cannot take me, Chet Baker, on airplanes.
As you read this, Chet Baker is undoubtedly greeting Mether with multiple face washings, and making unpacking just as interesting as packing was.

Who's the Scariest?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Andy and Jess' house was done up, all four floors of it, with Heaven on the top floor, all soft music and gauzy fabric and blue lights...My fellow Swinging Orangutang Vinnie and I take five in Heaven.

The basement of the house was Hell. There was a very nasty torture chamber down there. Oddly enough, I felt equally comfortable in both places, although after awhile Hell got to me and I went back to Heaven.
Andy and Jess had worked for weeks, with the help of Matt and Ali, to transform their warm and pleasant house into something Other for this party. The basement was undeniably creepy. Andy confessed to me that his childhood dream was to make monsters for the movies. He'd be real, real good at it.

Speaking of scary...Bill of the Birds was voted Scariest.
I cannot imagine why, unless it had to do with the fact that he was 6'8 in that wig, and he slammed his costume together the night of the party. He's always been good at improv. We took separate cars to the party, and when he walked in I had a laughing fit that lasted a good 15 minutes.
Here, he's talking with Zane, who did a very convincing turn as roadkill, complete with tire tracks and litter pasted all over his otherwise natty attire. Half his teeth are gone, and his glasses are shattered. Beautiful. Here, he's talking with Hef.
Margaret was a new mom, not a huge stretch for may remember her as Oona's mommy. She's got a big glass of Mother's Little Helper to get her through.
She had a crib mattress strapped to her back, covered with the accoutrements of motherhood, most of them having to do with poo management.
Robert Smith from The Cure made the scene. Every time someone pointed a camera at him he stopped laughing and smiling and fell right into character.
Although he did let down his guard once, for me.
A naughty schoolgirl from Kill Bill.
has a conversation with the Lizard King, who happens to be our next-door neighbor and fellow musician.
A little klatsch of witches in the living room.
And a very happy caveman, enjoying the company of his friends and a cold brewski. Gotta love Hef's artless hand, draped over the couch...
I love my creative friends so much sometimes it hurts.
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