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Doodling Around Flores

Monday, March 31, 2008

Lake PetenItza is a prominent feature of the Peten region of Guatemala. It's gorgeous and blue, with a calcareous bed that shines white where it's shallow. On Bill's birthday, we had lunch at a nice lakeside restaurant/hotel, and he celebrated with a swim in the lake. One of the things I love about him is that he lives life in a large way. That's him on the right, and Liz Gordon, who lives similarly, on the left. I would be the one on dry land, taking a picture of people who live large.At this point, I was feeling a bit odd, and the thought of crossing the lake in the covered dugouts didn't appeal to me; I'd been losing a battle with what I took to be carsickness all morning. So I opted to go back around the lake in the bus rather than cross it with the rest of the (more intrepid) group. If I can ride in the front, I'm fine. Every time I get in the back of a bus, trouble ensues. The bus driver agreed to drop me off in Flores, where I could wait for them to land in their tippy ol' pirogues.

It's a good thing I didn't know I'd be giving up awesome looks at Bill's birthday bat falcon by taking the bus.

Fact is, when I'm alone with my camera anywhere, I'm bound to have fun, and being in Guatemala just made it more special. I shot typical tourist pictures out of the bus windshield. I always get a chuckle out of the word "ferreteria;" it conjures up some kind of crazy weasel factory in my mind. It means "Ironworks," in fact, and there are ferreterias in every little town, because everybody has wrought iron guards over windows and doors to prevent theft, all over Latin America. We just don't get how lucky we are in the U.S., not to have to put grilles over all our windows and doors, not to even think about that.

A nice view of PetenItza, bougainvilleas in the foreground. Hey, I have those blooming in my greenhouse, with SNOW pelting on the roof, right here in Ohio! Lucky me!
When I think of Guatemala, I think of color, color, color. That's why it's such an anodyne to this endless stinkin' winter of snow, rain, sleet and snain. We arrived in Flores, and I soaked up some color.
Working on the theme of green and yellow, this tropical kingbird set off a wild balustrade. Try painting your house those colors in Shelter Island, New York. But it works beautifully with the heat and light down in Guatemala.
More turquoise. I walked down steamy-hot alleys, clicking all the way. Just to be in hot sun...such a foreign feeling. To feel my vitamin D cycle re-activate.
Finally, I climbed to the highest point in Flores, which is a little town on an island. I looked out over the harbor, at a cluster of dwellings, and marveled at how much birds add to a scene.
A white rock pigeon looked out over flapping sheets and towels. Roosters crowed, and I wondered how anybody sleeps in Guatemala. I guess after awhile you don't hear 'em.
A great-tailed grackle preened and displayed, cosseted by powerlines. Common as dirt, they are absolutely gorgeous birds, loud and crackly, squeaky and iridescent.
I had seen a rufous-tailed hummingbird flitting around a flowering vine at the overlook where I sat, the subject of curious conversation from a bunch of schoolboys in uniform on the plaza. Yes, I'm large and pale, and I have all kinds of optics dangling off me, and I stick out like a sore thumb, a gringa alone in a white-hot plaza, but there is a lovely hummingbird here, and I mean to stay and wait until I get a picture of it.
There was something dangling from its tail, and I realized upon zooming in that it was nesting material. So this is a female rufous-tailed hummingbird, filling her crop in a break in incubation or nest building. Nice to know. I see much the same thing when female rubythroats come to the feeder in early spring; many of them have nesting material stuck to their feet, and they leave puffs of plant down from their bills on the feeder ports. That's when I know they're nestbuilding. And to think it'll be happening here in grotty, gray old Ohio in about three almost defies belief. Well, there were three tree swallows jingling over the meadow this morning, which lifted my heart immeasurably. But it's got a long way to go to be springy. And my friend Cindy is buried in snow again in New Hampshire. I can hear all of New England crying, "UNCLE!!"

I waited and waited for the hummingbird to return, keeping my camera lifted and focused on the best bunch of flowers, with the blue harbor as a backdrop. And finally she came in and I was ready and got The Shot, probably my best picture of the trip.
Thank you, Patience. Thank you, Photography Gods. Thank you, Flores, and thank you, Mrs. Hummingbird.

Later that evening, we threw an impromptu birthday party (complete with cake! Thank you, Ana Cristina Prem!!) for Bill. His friends stood up and offered testimonials. I had envisioned it as sort of a roast, but they all said really sweet things instead. Bawww! He blew out the candles, and everyone sang and cheered, for he is a jolly good fellow, and best of all he was in Guatemala at last. I can't tell you how much more complete it all was with Bill's spirit of fellowship and fun there.
photo by Lisa White.

Why, is that a Gallo in the foreground? I believe it is. Denise is smiling. Steve Howell, co-author with Sophie Webb of Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, is looking over Bill's left shoulder, peerless Guatemalan bird guide Hugo Haroldo Enriquez Toledo over his right--naughty angel and good!


Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Birdwatching Encounters in Guatemala, we see a lot of different places. Sometimes the travel time to get there unavoidably eats up the time we'd LOVE to be spending in birdwatching. Such was the case at Parque Nacional de Ixpanpajul, a historic Mayan site that boasts tramways and suspension bridges from which one can watch birds and other jungle life. We got there just at nightfall, and hurried down a shadowy trail to see what we could see before dinner. Warning: my photos are about as good as you'd expect for pictures taken, handheld, at 1600 ISO at nightfall. They suhhhhhk.

Right before the light died I got this picture of begonias growing along the trail, huge begonias, unknown and deathly exciting to a houseplant maven.A little oncidium orchid, fallen from high above, bloomed bravely on the forest floor.

Our guide was amazing. Not a word of English, but he saw every pajarito there was to see, way before we did, and he could whistle through a rolled tongue just like a tinamou or a laughing falcon. I was humbled by his presence, honored to be in his company. He was a woodsman, a rare one. One such pajarito was a red-capped manakin, and I was privileged to be standing beside Mike Bergin (of 10,000 Birds reknown) as he ticked that one off on his life list. If you ever get a chance to go birding with Mike, grab it! Bill and I are already trying to figure out how to enjoy his witty, warm and bright company again soon. He's a live one.Pity this manakin does not know how famous he is, being Mike Bergin's First Manakin and all. Manakins seem like the kind of birds that would enjoy being notorious.

The unidentified fluffy mass on the tree in this pathetic picture proved to be the nest of a lesser swallow-tailed swift, constructed of plant down and swift saliva. It had a tubular entrance pointing straight down. This is what's nice about having people like Steve Howell, author of Birds of Mexico, on one's trip! We'd never have known what it was otherwise. He's also a very fun guy. I wish I had had a chance to go birding with him, but life intervened.
An ivory-billed woodcreeper searched for insects. I love the fine pearls running over his shoulder and mantle.
The best was yet to come. Our guide hurried to get us to an archaeological site before it was completely dark. Scrambling up slick stone stairs, we were felled by the vision of a huge eye and nose emerging from jungle vegetation. Wow, wow, wow.
Tikal is cool, but it has nothing to compare to this for sheer grab-you-by-the-psyche impact.
photo by Jim McCormac

A lot went on in these jungles that we know almost nothing about. I'm currently reading 1491
by Charles C. Mann. It's about what native societies might have been up to before Columbus "discovered America." The author ranges from Massachusetts all the way to Guatemala and Bolivia, examining evidence that the "New World" was much older, better developed and much more densely populated than we have heretofore believed. It's fascinating, but dense, and I find my eyes swimming and head nodding each night as I try to wrap my mind around the concept.

Just looking into the Maya guide's eyes, getting a nonverbal dose of the volumes he knew about birds, was a lesson in humility. We prance around with our books and optics, but he knows. I'm sorry not to have a picture of him, but sometimes I feel awkward acting touristy around someone so learned. His ancestors built that face, now smothered in jungle.

Mateless in Guatemala

Thursday, March 27, 2008


You may recall from reading Bill of the Birds' blog that I had to leave for Guatemala without my mate, thanks to his being felled by illness and challenged by a missing passport. I left frigid Columbus in the dark (having driven up alone in a blizzard the night before), and landed in Houston at about 9 AM. Chewing sadly on my Chinese food breakfast (hey, I'd been up since 4 AM),I saw this little red heart-shaped balloon, a Valentine's waif, floating sadly out on the Texas tarmac. It rose and fell just like my heart, knowing I was going to Guatemala, but that my love couldn't come along.

I made the flight, alone. Arrived in Guatemala City in early afternoon.

On the ride from the Guatemala City airport, where I met up with our beloved Houghton Mifflin editor Lisa White, we spotted a sign we knew Bill would have dugg. I wonder if the same teacher gives all three courses?Note: Lotus position, belly dance, breakdance--dude supporting himself in a spin on one hand. Loooove it.

Lisa, Jeff Gordon and Liz Gordon and I all went to Los Tarrales for three days before reconvening in Guatemala City to meet up with the rest of the Birdwatching Encounter group. You've just had the last of the Los Tarrales posts. In retrospect, my favorite part of the trip: wandering about Los Tarrales, lost, but found in its beauty and vitality.

Tarrales interlude concluded, we three made our way back to Guatemala City with a police escort, but not before stopping at an ice cream stand Jeff knew about. Our escorts didn't want to be photographed with ice cream cones (very unpolicemanlike), but Liz wheedled them into showing us their treats.Having spent six months in Amazonian Brazil as a college student, I became quite used to seeing policemen going around with dangerous-looking guns. It goes with the territory in Central America.

It was a neat ride, with lots of unusual landscapes. This was a patchwork quilt, thrown over once-forested hills.
A tree marriage. Everything I saw reminded me of Bill, and how much I missed being with him. It just wasn't fair. He'd made the excursion possible for many of the trip participants, not the least being me, and he couldn't come along.Link

Around sunset, we arrived in Guatemala City. We arrived at Vista Real Hotel, very snazzy, very cosmopolitan, perched on a hilltop outside the city. Jim McCormac, our blogging biologist friend from Ohio, took me by the arm. "Julie! There's a ferruginous pygmy-owl in the hotel courtyard!" he exclaimed. "You've got to see it!" Addled by the trip, I believed him, and he steered me right through a small planted courtyard, up some stairs to the hotel bar. Why would a pygmy owl be in a hotel bar? Duhhh... Rounding a corner, Jim steered me right into Bill, sitting in a chair looking very, very excited. He had made it after all! I fell into his arms and cried for a long time. He wouldn't miss the whole trip, after all. You don't want to know what it took (and continues to take) to cancel and then reinstate an international flight with three domestic connections. Suffice it to say that he is paying dearly in rushed passport fees and wrangling with airlines about double-charged tickets for his desire to surprise me at a hotel in Guatemala City, when he wasn't supposed to be there at all.

The next morning, after the first in a series of very short nights, we got up in the wee hours to fly to Peten, the lowland humid forest part of Guatemala. We enjoyed breakfast on Lake PetenItza, with crippling views of purple gallinules. Here's an immature gallinule:Lookit them toes!! Oh, there's water lettuce--I grow that back home in my water garden. The super long toes help the gallinule balance on floating vegetation, acting as snowshoes.

A glorious adult purple gallinule.
Water gardeners will recognize the noxious African pest, water hyacinth, growing behind the gallinule. Blaa! Those things are everywhere. Here's my favorite gallinule shot, that moment when he peered into my camera lens as I hung over the balcony above him, and decided to beat it. It's not every day you get to shoot a purple gallinule from directly overhead. Can you feel the palpable intelligence in his eyes? I don't like you, woman with camera.
There were some indescribably gorgeous 4" long fish breeding in the shallow water beneath us. I wondered if they might be sailfin mollies, while Jeff Gordon opined that they might be some kind of killifish. This is a male in full display. WOW! Help! Anyone recognize it?The fish were busy as all get out, each looking for a mate, but I was so happy. Mine had flown down to be with me. More adventures to follow.

Tarrales Farewell

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

One of my favorite images from Los Tarrales: a toddler-sized chicken with a chicken-sized toddler.

Los Tarrales is a place where an ecoutorist can feel at home, as if she is contributing something of value to a vital, functioning establishment which gracefully balances tourism with sustainable agriculture. A family goes to work in the morning, to cut flowers or hack away weeds with their machetes. They pass me, going out to watch birds. I remind myself that watching birds is part of my work. The baby has tiny diamond earrings. Eddie, whose older brother Josue showed us many elusive birds, arranges some freshly cut heliconias. It was hard to sneak up on Eddie; he's just as sharp as Josue.Hearing my camera, he gives me a shy smile. I look at the riches in the joint compound bucket, and know that a hotel in Boston or New York would willingly pay hundreds of dollars for such a bouquet of heliconias and gingers, if one could be had.

Just down the road, a white-tailed deer steps lightly across the path.
A Maya woman packs bananas for shipment, overlooking the playing fields that serve as a gathering place for Tarrales' residents. Cinnamon hummingbirds hover around a luminscent vine, its color shivering in the shadows. Petrea volubilis, Queen's Wreath (Verbenaceae). The true flowers are darker blue; the calyxes are persistent, and extend the apparent bloom time by hanging on. Thanks to Liz Gordon for the ID!

A passionflower glows like a hot coal as it clambers over a fence.
The rooster's comb is almost as bright.
He flaps, to show me that he is king of the rubbish dump.
Volcan Atitlan hovers over it all. I look at its slopes, knowing that horned guans clamber in the highest reaches of the forest. Having given its rich ash to the farm fields of Los Tarrales, it is silent, for now
while an unquiet neighbor to the east lets off a belch of smoke to start the day.These are some of my favorite images from an enchanted three days at Los Tarrales in Guatemala. Please, consider going there, too, for an ecotourism experience that excites, then calms the soul.

Beauty at Every Turn

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Dull name, beautiful birdlet: the slate-throated redstart. These little tropical warblers forage for flying insects along trails, perching predictably on fallen logs as they sally out to catch their prey. They are flashy as all get-out and pretty easy to photograph, being confiding and always ready with a fabulous pose.As if deep slate-blue upperparts weren't enough, they have this ruddy crown, like our ovenbird. I find their color combinations captivating. Fierce, as Christian from Project Runway might say. This bird is workin' that little red Mohawk.
I found the slate-throated redstart on the way up to find a roosting black-and-white owl in an enormous strangler fig at the top of a long hill above Los Tarrales. The black-and-white owl is a prize of tropical birding, rarish and hard to see, unless there's a stakeout like this one. I'd never have known to look for him unless our guide, Josue, had pointed him out. We'd made a long climb and Josue asked if we were game to climb another 5 km to see the owl. Without hesitation, Liz, Jeff, Lisa and I said, "Sure!" Josue smiled and led us another 100 feet to the shade of the strangler fig. We looked up and there it was, the beautiful strange owl we'd been hoping to see. Understand that this is a horrible photo, because it was pitch-dark in the canopy of the fig (as an owl would have it), and I had to burn everything out to get any detail at all. This is a sharp owl, barred black and white with burning red eyes and corn-yellow bill and feet. I'll never forget watching a family of them catching moths under a light at Las Ventanas de Osa in southwestern Costa Rica. What a privilege to have seen a handful of black-and-white owls.

Just beyond the owl tree, an endemic blue-tailed hummingbird taunted me by sitting close and still in terrible light. It seems ever to be thus with iridescent hummingbirds in the tropics. The light is usually tough, and they're usually between you and the sun. You'll remember the photo in my last post--blurry with decent color. Well, this one is sharp, with no color. Take my word--he's bronze, green, and violet-blue, and very beautiful, except here. Hummingbirds are fan dancers; they only give you a peek and then cover it up again.
Water poured from a weir. Rushing water, in canals and chutes, is everywhere at Los Tarrales, watering the plantations of flowers and bananas. It was such a balm to my soul to hear running water, having been frozen into our iceblock in Ohio for so many months.
As I came down from fairyland, I was reminded that everyone else was working around Los Tarrales. This elderly man was bent almost double under probably 100 pounds of firewood. Still, he had a bright smile and a soft "Buenos!" for me.
Beauty peeks out of every corner here. A nameless vine, clambering over a chain-link fence near the coffee processing plant. Needless to say, the cinnamon hummingbirds were working it.I'll leave you with a tree that completely blew me away. This is a rainbow eucalyptus. Its trunk was smooth and cool and damp, striped with the most perfect Martha Stewart colors. Andy Burge's grandfather planted several of them decades ago, and only two remain, because as Andy put it, "Lightning likes those eucalypts."The thought of having a yard full, an allee, perhaps, of rainbow eucalyptus trees is almost enough to make me move to Guatemala. I could lose myself in these colors. As I moved around the tree, moaning in delight, I saw that I was not the first to admire it.
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