Background Switcher (Hidden)

Ecuador 2020: Zicktrip from the Andes to the Amazon

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Y'all, I'm in the blender with the new book coming out. But my 2020 schedule don't care. Schedules are schedules and stuff happens when it has to. So while I'm prepping for my book tour to Philadelphia this weekend, building a booktour in Florida, and packing for a Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous to South Africa in less than two weeks, I've had to stop today to dig out a bunch of photos and write a blogpost about Ecuador, where Mario Cordoba and I will be leading a trip, February 11-21, 2020!

I know. My head's spinning, too, just thinking about it all, much less showing up for it and making it all happen. First, the Philly dates, for those of you who might want to hear the brand-new Saving Jemima talk:

Two Zick engagements coming up this weekend. Sat. Sept. 21, 2019, 11 AM: "Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay" at John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, 1201 Pawlings Rd., Audubon, PA 19403. Conrad the Jay with his person, the fabulous Education Director Carrie Barron, will also appear!

Me, Conrad and Carrie at the last American Birding Expo in Philadelphia, September 2017.

If Saturday morning doesn't work, then come on Sunday afternoon!
Sun. Sept. 22, 2019, 2 PM:  "Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay" at Jenkins Arboretum and Gardens, 631 Berwyn Baptist Rd., Devon PA 19333 PA. Conrad the Jay will be here, too! Call (610) 647-8870 for information.

Now. About Ecuador. My beloved friend Mario Cordoba and I have led two trips there in 2017 and 2018, both for Holbrook Travel, with wonderful local guides. As we rolled along in the bus, we daydreamed about streamlining things, about cutting down the bus time on winding mountain roads; about spending more time birding and mothing and botanizing. So Mario, a logistical wizard, came up with an itinerary that will get us in amongst the birds and flowers, with more time at each wonderful lodge (two and three nights at each), and more time to settle in and explore. More time to do what we came to do. We wanted to see what it would be like to roll down from the ultra-high Andean paramo habitat to the Amazonian lowlands, to watch the birds and animals and vegetation go from high-altitude cloud forest to the land of manakins, monkeys and three-toed sloths, with the jaw-dropping Ecuadorean array of hummingbirds prodding us along all the way. 

The first night will be in the charming spa town of Papallacta, where we hope to soak in a thermal pool.  We'll take off the next morning for Guango Reserve in San Isidro, and get in touch with mountain tanagers, turquoise jays and a ridiculous array of hummingbirds, including the sword-billed

and the purple-throated woodstar (this is a female). 

We will spend time at two lodges we've visited  and adored before: Two nights and fabulous days at San Isidro, with fabulous food and roving flocks of supertame Inca jays (!!!) 

There are long-tailed sylphs there (this is a violet-tailed, but you get the miraculous idea).

From there, we go on to Wildsumaco in the eastern foothills of the Andes, which boasts more than 30 species of hummingbirds and some nice lowland species like spadebills and manakins--even military macaws and antpittas. Two nights there, then on to Coca. We get there by canoe!! 

There's a canopy walk with monkeys, huge kapok trees and sloths. We're in the lowlands now.

Here. Look at these moths. This is the kind of stuff you see at lower elevations. (these are from Pinas (Umbrellabird Lodge). 

When I'm literally dropping from exhaustion, you'll still find me slinking around with my flashlight and iPhone, recording the undreamt of under the lodge lights. That's what Ecuador is like. Sensory overload, beauty overload, diversity overload. And overload is where a field naturalist most loves to be.

We'll have three nights at Sacha Lodge--heaven! And then we fly back to Quito. It'll be like painless magic. 
I am STOKED about this trip, because logistics mean a LOT when you're talking about bus rides and winding Andean roads. Let's DO THIS!

I'm looking for people who would like to experience this incredible Ecuadorean journey with me and Mario (far left).  It's going to be a small group, because the lodges are small
and that's how we like 'em. 

Halloween Night 2018 in Cuenca, Ecuador. The MOST fun. Woot!! 

Dates: February 11-21, 2020. For details, including price and itinerary, head on over to this link: 


Gratitude and Goodbyes

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


You will remember, in the last post, that I turned up a box turtle nest when I was weeding  Bill's grave. I could not have been more dumbfounded to uncover those perfect leathern eggs in the loamy clay, just behind his head (he wanted to face East, to see the sun rise). Or more delighted (although there was a certain shiver to my spine, to think how close I'd come to driving my spade through them).

It felt like a gift from Bill. A little precious thank-you for the gravetending for him and his parents, which takes time and gasoline, shovels and tractors and effort, and not just one-time effort. For good, or as long as I can do it. It's not trivial.

 I am writing this up in the tower room so I can watch the sun rise. It is a doozy of a sunrise. I can hear rubythroats chittering, cardinals chipping, a brown thrasher skidding** and smacking, a catbird whucking, and a distant crow hollering. Now a peewee, now a blue-winged warbler with its dry chickering trill. A yellow-billed cuckoo whoops softly. A hooded warbler gives a melodic chip.  The oranges and salmons just get more and more intense and this morning I feel like the luckiest person alive. I get to sit up in this tower, listen to the birds wake up, watch the sunrise, and write a little. My daughter's asleep in her bed below for one more blessed morning.

 Today we start our journeys: she back to the Canary Islands to teach and hike and cook and  love and figure out what the next few years of her life might look like; me to Colorado with my best friend Shila to launch Saving Jemima at the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs. I'll give a talk that, if I do it right, no one is gonna dream took me months to put together. First, to mow the lawn, haul a 5-gallon jug of water out to the new tree, take Curtis to the kennel for the first time (I'm trying to be as chill as he probably will be about that). Anyway, lucky.

He was cool enough about the kennel to eat his dunner in the office while we waited for his placement. Do I love leaving him at a kennel, even a fabulous one? Nope.  I'm looking for someone in the Marietta, Ohio area who a. doesn't travel all the time like me
b. doesn't have cats or, preferably, other dogs and c. would love Curtis' companionship while I flak my new book all over the place. Curtis came to me with a zero-tolerance policy on cats, and there's no changing that.

Now, back to our story. We've just planted the Memorial Maple and are sending Liam off. 
I had to hurry back to the house as soon as we got the tree watered in,
because Liam was taking off in a few minutes for Morgantown, to start another school year at WVU.

Liam's pretty used to saying goodbye to me and Phoebe. I'd be lying if I said he's gotten used to saying goodbye to Curtis. There's something about a dog that lets your love come flowing out, unfettered. It's a simple, uncomplicated, but very deep love. It has to do with the satiny feel and warm popcorn smell of a dog, too, and in that it's quite primitive and all the more piercing.


When Liam thought this was the last kiss he'd go in for just one more. Gosh he looks like my brother here.

This is one sweet, sweet cur-dog.
And one sweet, sweet young man.

Funny thing about Curtis. He didn't quite get this kissing thing when he first came to us in February. It was a rare, rare thing to see that pink tongue come out. He always looked a little puzzled when we'd land a smooch on his muzzle. We figure it wasn't part of his upbringing with his first family. Now? It's like Chet Baker has been tiptoeing in and giving him kissing lessons at night. He's shameless. He responds to, "Give me a kiss!" with a sweet smackeroo. Good dog, Curtis! Curs go where they're needed, and we need a lot of kisses around here.

One of Phoebe's 700 good-bye kisses to the sweetest curdoggie.  

Phoebe drove Liam into town to meet his cousin Gus. They'd drive to Morgantown together. Grateful, once again, not to make that three-hour trek, grateful that Liam and Gus have each other as they face all the challenges of life and college. I kissed them goodbye and looked around the front gardens.

This is the time of year the Achimenes stands up to be counted. Some little bits of rhizome snuck into the soil I used to pot my bargain gardenia last fall, and oh!! look at them now!

I'm getting photos from all kinds of people to whom I've given Achimenes rhizomes. So delightful! You put up with a straggly bunch of plants for what seems like forever, until they do THIS in mid-August. I wish I knew on what mysterious timer these plants run; why they wait and wait and wait to bloom, but they do.  Honestly I think they need shorter days to trigger blooming. I used to think they needed heat, so I tried that, growing them in the tower room well into June, baking them in hope of buds. Nope. They are worth every month of waiting.

I turned to the golden raspberries Connie Toops gave me years ago and did a little shirt picking. What a gift! They had a big first crop in June, and then the coons found them and busted down most of the canes. The raspberries sent up more canes and we are keeping them as closely picked as we can, every day, and I get to put THIS in my yogurt every morning!

I cut some spearmint and lemon verbena for Runner's Tea.

I stopped and marveled at what a couple of handfuls of Osmocote and Ironite can do for a very tired planter of flowers. Why hadn't I fed them earlier??

My pomegranate bonsai, which is in no danger of ever being planted on anyone's grave, is full of miniature fruit this summer. Oh how I love this willing little tree.

The tuberoses are just of the charts wonderful this year. They perfume the entire yard at dusk. The big sphinx moths come zooming in to feed. Grateful.

Then, before I forgot to do it, I went to the garage and fetched a big wire bike basket and three stakes. I positioned it over the turtle nest. Carefully, I drove them in, and replaced the fencing.  No skunk or coon would make dinner of this turtle nest.

I'll keep watering the turtle nest, when I water the new tree. Box turtle eggs incubate for three months, and these were probably laid in late May or early June. I'll keep my fingers crossed that one day I'll find a neat round hole, dug out from the inside (no tailings mounded beside it) where some newly minted turtlets have made their way out.

A mighty fortress is this grave. 

**The brown thrasher's mild alarm call sounds to me like a bike skidding to a halt on gravel, a muted, low ksssshhhh; while its higher intensity alarm call is like two marbles smacking together.

Planting the Memorial Maple

Sunday, August 25, 2019

I've been mowing a great wide boulevard out to Bill's resting place since late April. I want to make it easy and inviting for us to get there. Bill didn't mow much in the last couple of years, and the shining sumac has taken over. If the meadow is going to have to be three years overgrown for awhile, at least the central path will be navigable.

The coneflowers and liatris I planted on his grave burst into joyous bloom in mid-July. It was fantastic. I had simply taken the liatris from my north bed, where it was getting too much shade, thanks to my now-huge liberated bonsai Japanese maple! The liatris never missed a beat, and took off. Prairie plants are like that. They're deep-rooted, willing to wait for their window.  (We should all aspire to be more like prairie plants.)

Aged cow manure mixed into the grave's topsoil didn't hurt. If you're going to bloom, you have to eat!

I visit Bill's grave in all weather, at all times and in all light conditions, but this dewy July 25 morning was the best of them all. Native plantings don't get much better than this. There's an understory of showy (pink) Missouri primrose that's going to be fantastic next spring.

Curtis, of course, always accompanies me. We "go see Daddy." Man, Bill loved this dog. And Curtis understands the import of this spot. He was there for the burial, led the funeral procession out, walking slowly so as not to outpace Elsa, all of his own accord. Someday I may be able to write about that, but probably not anytime soon. It was something to witness.

So now fast-forward to August 19, and the flowers have faded, though they're still trying to bloom a bit. It's time to plant the Memorial Maple. The Bonsai-no-more. It's the last day I can do it and have both kids here for the ceremony. Liam leaves at 1 pm.

I'm blown away by the beauty of the meadow on this fine hot morning. And I decide to put off having it mowed until everything's done blooming. Heck with it. So what if it's bare over the winter; I cannot stand to mow these wildflowers down in full bloom. I've never seen Joe-Pye weed in the meadow before. Amazing things happen when you let meadows go. And then not-amazing things happen, like losing the meadow to a steadily growing over-your-head sumac forest. That I don't want. Hence the mowing plans. But not now. Not now. Phoebe pleaded with me, like Snow White and the forester, not to fell the meadow, and I heard her. Its beauty took me away. (It was Snow White, wasn't it? Who was the girl in the fairy tale who begged the forester not to cut the trees?)

I've gotten up super early to dig the bonsai hole, before the blazing sun glares over the pines.  I'm grateful for this sandy loam, that presents nary a rock to my poacher's spade. Too well do I remember trying to plant trees or anything in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Good luck digging a big hole all by yourself. Here in Ohio, it's possible without hiring help or deploying TNT. It isn't all that hard.

I finish digging the hole, and I decide to dig out some poison ivy that keeps coming up at the head of Bill's little plot. "No poison ivy on Bill!" I growl. (I now have gigantic crazy itchy blisters between my fingers thanks to that little moment). I send the spade in and turn up the earth.

 And under the clod I turn up there is Something. I freak allll the way out.

 How perfect is it, that a box turtle has laid her eggs right over Bill's head? How amazing is it, that this nest, unlike all the others I've found dug out along my Boulevard of Broken Dreams, has somehow survived the skunks and the coons? 

Here's a hen box turtle starting a nest on the Boulevard in the first week of June. Yep, that's Curtis, bombing in more ways than one. Almost all of the nests I saw being dug along the Boulevard were predated by skunks and coons within a few nights. I tried so hard to find them and cage them before it happened, but I couldn't do it. Every time I thought I had one, it turned out to be a partial attempt. I pray some made it through.

There are four eggs on Bill's grave. I find one in the tailings and return it to its depression, hoping I haven't ruined it.How incredible that my spade has not harmed these precious, mostly-incubated eggs? It is perfection. I was meant to find this nest, to protect it. More on that later. We have a tree to plant.

Curtis leads the processional again, with all due gravitas. Liam has taken time from packing his last items for his return later this day to West Virginia University, to be my mule, hauling the tree, some cow manure, and 15 gallons of water out to the gravesite. Phoebe brings up the rear. We are making our own ritual.

 Some great Curtis Loew side-eye in this shot if you click on it.

First, we mix manure and potting soil with the loam I've dug out, and make a nice bed for the tree. Liam waters it until it's swimmy.

We lower the tree into the hole, face it the best way, and fill around it with a mix of manure, potting soil and native loam. Then we drown it with 5 gallons of water. 


Curtis gives Phoebe a kiss as she sits by the newly-planted tree. It doesn't look nearly so tall now that it's out with its feet in the big meadow. 
My idea was to have a shady place to sit when we visit Bill. It will happen. I will be old by then, but it will happen. It's mostly for the kids.

Curtis isn't a mad dog, nor is he an Englishman. 

He ain't sitting in the noonday sun. He won't be called out of the shade, either, not even for a photo. That's a cur for you. They have their own minds, are dripping with common sense. We laugh at how different he is from Chet, at how flagrantly self-centered Curtis can be. Of course, we love him for his  fiercely independent mind. We love everything about this dog.

I am grateful to have had this beautiful summer with both my kids. It has been a gift beyond measure to know they are asleep in their own beds right across the hall, that they're being nourished by the food I have grown and cooked for them, that my girl can cut the flowers I planted for her and prowl the milkweed that's grown for her. That we can go out and squeeze the kiwis and pick the golden raspberries and tuberoses every day. These are the things that matter. It seems so simple, but it's not anymore. It is everything. I know there will come a time, perhaps next summer, when neither of them will come home, and that is as it should be. We will all adjust, because adjusting is our only option, and it will continue to be good.

 The little ceremony we made, of planting this venerable tree nearly twice their age, by their father's grave, to honor him and remember him, is everything, too. Ceremony, ritual, tradition: we don't need to rely on society's customs. As a family, we make our own, doing what feels right and salutary to us, what fits. We're a small family now, but we are all the tighter for it.

Bill was, I think, too big for his pot here on earth.  Certainly one of the most expansive people I've known. Maybe he needed to be set free, to another life we can only guess about. And the little tree, 37 years in a pot, is sending feeder roots out as I write, exploring the good Ohio loam
and waiting for the rain.

[Back to Top]