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Macaw Rescue: Don Alvaro's Story

Monday, September 28, 2015


 We were here on a mission of sorts. Before I left for Costa Rica in the third week of February, 2015, I put out an appeal to you, my dear and faithful readers, for donations to help Don Alvaro and his work with macaws (and people). Having kept just one small macaw for 23 years, in the manner to which she'd become accustomed, I know how expensive it is.

A lucky pair: yellow-naped and red-lored Amazons enjoying a peanut snack.

A pair of scarlet macaws fooling around. WRRRAAAAWWWK!! AAAWWWK!!

 I have been intensely curious about how Don Alvaro came to have all these macaws, and I finally had a chance to speak with him at length, with Mario as interpreter. What I'm about to tell you is from that conversation.

It all started 25 years ago with four macaws his father had owned, and four more given to him from confiscations by the Ministry of Environment.

Lucky macaws, to land here, where they would be allowed to fly free through appropriate habitat and even breed! Forty macaws have fledged from his nest boxes in that period, of which 30 now fly free around his farm. He has eight nest boxes, barrels that he mounts high in the trees and fills with balsa wood for them to "excavate." Macaws like to nest high in mountain almond trees with broken branch stubs that make enormous cavities. Those huge trees stand alone, like sentinels, and there are not nearly enough of them to serve as nest trees now.

Don Alvaro "keeps" two species at his finca, the scarlet and the great green macaw.

Both are native to Costa Rica, but severely endangered by loss of habitat. Most of his birds are paired with species-appropriate mates, and they're duly producing purebred offspring.

He has one pair consisting of a scarlet male and great green female. And there's a story in that. The scarlet was mated for years to a very fertile scarlet hen, who produced a number of broods, but sadly, she died when she hit a powerline. Her widowed mate now sneaks matings with a fertile female great green, who has been paired for years with an infertile male great green. This hen laid infertile eggs for years until she started consorting in secret with the widowed male scarlet. (She still goes everywhere with her infertile great green mate, but come nesting time she kicks him out, mates with the scarlet widower, and finally gets to raise babies.) This great green hen now produces hybrid young, and there's not much Don Alvaro can do about it, because love amongst free-flying macaws is a complicated thing.

Three hybrid babies with their great green mama (second from right) and their scarlet daddy (far right). They're so pretty, but we hope and trust they're sterile!

A hybrid scarlet x great green macaw in flight:

Don Alvaro is pretty sure the hybrids are sterile, and won't compromise the gene pool of the purebred birds.

A great green macaw, with scarlets behind.

When people come to see the macaws, he calls them in with peanuts. Lapa lapa lapa lapa lapa! he calls.

He knows how to set up a photo op, watching the light and telling us where to stand for the best angle. In this video, you can get a feel for the energy and presence of this remarkable man. He is so utterly in tune with animals and birds, and the evidence of that harmony is all around.

Next, we present the gift.

Sunbittern Soliloquy

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Don Alvaro has macaws living at liberty on and around his farm, and they are the heart and soul of the place. I'll get to them soon. But there is so much more living there!

He walked down to show us where to look for the sunbittern.

On the way, a common tody-flycatcher with its outsized bill and staring yellow eye!
This bird is tiny, smaller than a kinglet. 

A squirrel cuckoo sat in plain sight. I began to wonder if the animals and birds here were all enchanted.

 The sunbittern is kind of a Grail of Costa Rican birds. Not a rail, not a crane, not a duck and not a  bittern, it's a grail.  :) It makes its living along fast-flowing rivers, hopping from boulder to boulder, catching small fish and searching for aquatic insects and crustaceans in little pools.

The sunbittern is about the size of a green heron, but it's not a heron--it's in its own family, the Eurypygidae. It's the only member of the genus Eurypyga. Monotypic genus in a one-species family: rara avis. I was astounded to learn it shows genetic and morphological similarities to the famous kagu of New Caledonia! They are each other's closest living relatives...a long, long way apart. This indicates a "gondwanic origin," according to Wikipedia, which I'm thinking refers to an ancient shared lineage dating back to Gondwanaland, that big ol' blob of continents that later split apart. Holy cow. 

But the sunbittern has a secret. 

One that it keeps hidden until it flies, preens or stretches...

Its wings look like those of a giant butterfly! Patterned with two enormous eyespots that, when presented frontally as the bird bows, ought to bedazzle either prospective mate or predator alike.

We huddled down on the riverbank, cameras, scopes and binoculars at the ready, and saw this beautiful bird through four different leisurely bouts of preening and stretching, just aching to catch a glimpse or get a photo of those incredible wings.

The bird was like a fan dancer. It was as if it knew it was tantalizing us, and enjoying it. Perhaps it could hear our gasps over the roar of the river, each time it half-opened a wing. For there is nothing, nothing like the colors on a sunbittern's wing.

We attracted the attention of a couple of adorable boys
who joined us and looked in our scope to see this miraculous bird.

Stretch, and stretch again...

show us your best, here on this tumbling river

in this place where animals have nothing to fear.

Animal Brigadoon

Thursday, September 24, 2015


It's a magical place, Costa Rica, so colorful and lush, popping with life and flowers, birds and insects. It brings the winter-dulled senses back to life. Going there in dreary February is like drinking an elixir that wakes you and makes you feel that everything is possible again.

We were headed back to Don Alvaro's finca in February 2015 to show it to some lucky travelers, and to bring him a gift. Your gift. 

The groovy anis waved hello, looking fine by some roadside cannas.

We took a narrow, muddy back road cut-through and almost knocked a white hawk off its eye-level perch. That bird hadn't gotten the memo that white hawks are always a dot in a scope in a distant tree, many hundreds of yards from eager birders. It was completely happy to let us ogle it, get out of the bus, and commit it to our many respective digital recording devices. It had lizards on its mind.

Our guide Mario Cordoba had first brought me (and some of the present crew, repeat offenders on my second trip to Costa Rica) to Don Alvaro's place in 2013, and what I saw and felt there left a deep impression on my psyche.
It was an animal Brigadoon, where there was nothing to fear and everything to trust.

Where a fierce-seeming water buffalo is gentle as a lamb. Yes, he has a ring in his nose, but he's a doll.

Where a donkey named Conejo begs for pineapple, and gets it. I've never met a full-sized donkey you could throw your arms around and smooch on the nose, but Conejo is a great big lovebunny. 

From this most unusual open-air kitchen, attended by creatures great and small, we enjoyed the most delicious meal of our trip, and that's saying a lot.

Fresh pineapple juice? Comida typical, perfectly prepared and seasoned? Yes, please, more more more. We were in Food Animal Heaven.

Of course, I had to share. 

Don Alvaro's is the kind of farm where a great curassow just walks up to you and gently pecks your hand, giving a little moaning call as you tickle its curly crest. 

I like it there, and I'm not alone. 

We were here to take it all in, and to give something back, too. 

And it wasn't going to be peanuts.

I am indebted to my friends Jenny Bowman, Bonnie Bowen, Jenny Minton and Karen Johnson-Nieuwendijk for many of these photos. If I'm in 'em, I didn't take 'em. The mists of time have pulled a cover of forgetfulness over me and I was lax in recording whose photo was whose. They flooded in right after the trip and I was, uh, not paying attention. Please jump in and tell me!!

To the Grand Canyon!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Most people I spoke to told me that I had to drive two hours north and see the Grand Canyon.

Thing is, I was so enchanted by Sedona I could easily have spent the entire stay there. But I listened, and while I was still at home I started looking into lodging near the South Rim. 
After a couple of hours of snooping around online I decided to make a day trip of it and return to Sky Canyon Ranch. Sedona isn't cheap, but the Grand Canyon area is out of sight. I didn't fancy spending my honorarium on a crummy motel on historic (noisy) Rte. 66. 

So I got up early and north I drove, winding through canyons on the scenic route. The biome turned northerly, with tall spruces and firs, and this roadkilled elk calf. And a bit of the car that got him.
I got out to examine him, as I'd never been very close to an elk outside of a zoo. Man, he was huge, easily three times the size of a whitetail, and he had a long way to grow.

My excitement mounted as I got closer to the canyon. I kept trying to imagine what it would look like, this vast crevasse in the earth. 

I found my old friend Cliff Rose, Cowania mexicana, big as a tree. 

I walked toward the first overlook. A rock squirrel (Otospermophilus variegatus) scurried out to bomb my first photo of the Grand Canyon, giving me one of my favorite shots of the trip. Hello and welcome to the South Rim! Step this way and be blown away!

Holy cow. I knew it would be large, but I wasn't expecting infinite. 

I stood transfixed, along with a bunch of other people who, I surmised by their slack jaws, were also seeing it for the first time. 

There would be other overlooks, each with its own perspective. I spent the whole day driving from one to the next, looking at whatever wildlife I found along the way. 

Another earless lizard? Blue belly...I'm only more confused, looking through my reptile guide. Help?

Another overlook. My God. This place is incredible. You're looking at the lip of the canyon there. No railings, no nuthin'. You have never heard so many people yelling at their kids. GET BACK! COME HERE! NOW!! GET OVER HERE NOWWWW!!

They can't put a guardrail around the whole thing. So they don't. And there's a refreshing lack of warning signs, too. Hey. You knew it was The Grand Canyon, right? It's a big hole. Don't fall in.

Because I didn't come here to listen to people screaming at their kids, I'd take a brief gaze at the public overlook (right off the parking lot) then look for the nearest trail that would take me to an unofficial overlook. There I saw things like Indian paintbrush, raising gaudy hands to the sky

with a little rabbitbrush added in

and a beautiful Steller's jay rasping at me

Hey. Watch that edge, greenhorn.

Looking out at this, I felt very, very small and very, very lucky to be here, to have friends who cared enough to kick my butt out of Sedona and encourage me to come here. The Grand Canyon: if you haven't seen it, just go.

I'm going to throw a little kink in the blog with the next four posts. We'll go back to Costa Rica, and I'll tell you how our visit and presentation at Don Alvaro's macaw ranch went. It's been six months since we were there and I owe you a report and my thanks.

Desert Creatures

Sunday, September 20, 2015

All I need is a grocery store and a refrigerator and I'm good to go while traveling. 
But I forgot to pack my spork. And coffee stirrers make lousy spoons. They make lousy coffee stirrers too.

Casting about my hotel room for anything remotely spoonlike, I lit upon my hairbrush. 
Washed it, removed as much hair from it as possible and it made a dandy shovel for yogurt and strawberries. Mmm, snorfle, gulp, seeya. I had an adventure to get to!

Wherever I went in Arizona I carried my long lens. I found desert wildlife photography challenging, in a different way than, say, rainforest photography. There is plenty of light in the desert. But the contrast between light and shade are harsh and hard.

Early morning, of course, is best, because the animals are out and about and the light isn't so hard.

I found this beautiful desert cottontail waiting in the hotel parking lot after my hairy yogurt breakfast. 

All rabbits are beautiful, but these big-eared pale creatures are stunning.

The big ears help the animal radiate heat. You'll see a lot of animals with oversized ears in the desert. 

Halfway up Cathedral Rock, a canyon wren popped out for a moment, then popped back into the shadows. I loved to hear its cascading laughter ringing in the canyons.

 This medium-sized lizard was sunning on a rock. He let me get close enough to see that he'd had some kind of injury to his nose. But he was still workin' his blue belly. He got up on a rock and started doing herky jerky push-ups to show it off.

Yes, you're made of awesome.

Something drew his attention several yards away: an ant, lugging some kind of dead dobsonfly lookin' thing across the rock. He hustled down off his soapbox and nabbed it!

Pizza delivery! I'll take that. Thanks. Don't know if the ant deliverygirl was part of the meal or not. You can see a hint of his turquoise blue belly in this shot.

After poring over my old reptile guide, I think he's a Southwestern earless lizard Holbrookia texana scitula. 

 Me and Russell, coming back down the rock. We didn't climb that straight up and down part. Just the flanks, thanks. Photo by Barbara Samuelson.

More typical Sedona wildlife: a blonde woman talking about something (Vortex energy? Holistic health? Meditation? Goat farming? Antihistmines?)  while beating softly on a skin drum. She was being videotaped for something or other. It was getting hotter than the hinges by the time they packed it in. Yep, all the wildlife is out in the early morning.

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