Up in the air, Junior Birdman

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‘Just not upside-down, if you please.’

I amaze (and amuse) myself sometimes with the mere fact that I go on these Crazy Birding Adventures. (See last week’s “Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid” for gory Guyanian details.)

Not only are there bugs and spiders and scorpions to deal with (along with the occasional dollop of gecko poop on one’s pillow) but these trips usually have several of my own personal psychological bugaboos layered on top, including (but not limited to) an almost-paralyzing fear of heights. Oh yeah, and lest I forget, there’s The Snake Thing.

Before we move on to heights, here’s that snake — a big ole rattler, no less — that The Dude and Ron were trying to photograph in my story from last week

You may recall from my story “The Year of the Snake” that I have a particularly acute aversion to creatures of the slithery persuasion. Unlike, say, Intrepid Fellow Birder Linda (who snapped this snake), you won’t hear me cooing “That’s the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen” about this specimen we found on a nighttime hike. Though I did have the gumption to take this movie. So there’s that.

But as much as I’d like to go on about how I’m working on my reptile fear, it’s time to get back to heights. And how I really really don’t like them. Maybe even more than I don’t like snakes. I’m still shocked that I got up so high so many times on this last trip. Must have been the malaria pills.

The biggest weak-knee-inducing experience was visiting Kaieteur Falls. In the photo at the top of this post you can see said Falls being snapped out the window of the extremely-small plane we flew in to reach them. This plane was so small it felt like we were wearing it. No kidding — we all had to get weighed and placed carefully around its interior so it could take off without tipping over. Or something.

Here’s another view of the Falls from the teensy plane’s teensy window. Teensy planes are, basically, the only way to reach these Falls. Let’s just say it’s not very crowded up there

Even the people (and not many of them) who work up at the Falls’ visitor center have to get there by plane. Unless they want to hike straight up a cliff for a couple of hours each way.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Visitors Center, Kaieteur Falls

Oh — and once you’ve deplaned, you don’t get a fear-of-heights break. You head off on a skinny path to a vertiginous vantage point — where you can enjoy a few more cold-sweat-inducing moments.

Look out, Danger Man! Don’t get too close to that edge!

But do these Birders pay attention to Danger Man? As for me, I’m thinking the Falls look just as spectacular from back here

Gotta love those Birders. They were so busy digging the white-tailed swifts (or whatever the heck was flying around up there) that they hardly noticed the Falls. Even though they are four times higher than Niagara Falls. And twice as high as Victoria Falls.

How Birders look at a waterfall

I like to soothe my height-traumatized ego by reminding myself that I read somewhere that a fear of heights is associated with creativity. Hmmm. In my case, the only creative thing to come out of cowering by a cliffside is coming up with colorful excuses not to go there.

But I was really into this Guyana trip, scary heights be damned. Heck, I even climbed up to the canopy catwalk. That’s a rope and mesh contraption (the “catwalk”) suspended high above the tops of the trees (the “canopy”). It’s so high up — and so precarious — that only One Birder At A Time is allowed to walk on it.

The Dude affects a blasé stance on the Canopy Walkway. Those are the tops of the trees. The ground is at least a hundred feet down

You go up there so that you are eye level with the treetop birds. As it were. As they say, it’s only scary if you look down. Or if you happen to put your hand on one of the Bullet Ants that hang out up there on the mesh. They say that being bit by one is like “being shot by a firearm”. I must say that avoiding the bite of the bullet ants did distract me from my fear of falling.

The New Yorker, bless their hearts, had a cartoon about a canopy walkway. Which I spied on the plane going home. Giving me a double dose of heights phobia

But before we could jump on that plane and go home, we had one more height to conquer: the Lighthouse in Georgetown. Finding ourselves with a free morning (and, in my case, a need for a distraction from my getting-on-a-plane-soon-itis) we took a City Tour. New Best Friend Francis showed us all the sights, including the Lighthouse. Which was even scarier than Jim Jones’ house.

Well. I just that’s about all the scary height and/or snake-related stuff I can think of. Till I go to sleep and my dreams kick in. (“Bullet Ants”, for heaven’s sakes!)

Bye-bye, Bullet Ants!

New York City. February 2019

Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid

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‘But we did catch the Birding Bug’

If you’ve missed me (and/or my stories), may you find your reward in Heaven. Or maybe South America. Which is where The Dude and I spent the last couple of weeks — in Guyana, which is a country we had to look up on Google Earth.

We’d both remembered that movie Papillon, with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen, where Steve’s character escapes from Devil’s Island in French Guiana. But we couldn’t decide whether Guiana was in South America and Guyana was in Africa. Or the other way around. (The Guiana/Guyana thing didn’t help.) And of course there’s Uganda (where we’ve been) and Ghana (where we’ve not), complicating matters even more. Turns out Guiana and Guyana are both in South America. But only one of them is famous for its Kool-Aid.

It drove our new Guyanian Pal Francis — here with me atop the Georgetown Lighthouse — crazy to realize that The One Fun Fact we knew about his homeland was The Kool-Aid Thing

Yup. Guyana is where the Rev. Jim Jones took his followers and, ultimately, treated them to a Kool-Aid Party. Grape, it was. (Take a sec to check out Jim Jones’ Wikipedia entry. It actually lists his “Occupation” as “Cult Leader”.)

The house where Jim Jones lived. He didn’t do his Kool-Aid mixing here, though. That fun little party took place miles away, in the jungle at Jonestown

Anyway. Enough about Crazy Cults. The reason you didn’t hear from me wasn’t because I sipped any Kool-Aid, but because, once we hit the Birding Road, there wasn’t any internet. (There wasn’t any hot water, either. Which, trust me, took a whole lot more getting used to.) We did, however, have plenty of hot and cold running birds.

Can you find the bird in this picture? Great shot of a Great Potoo (which doesn’t do a lot of running, hot or cold), by one of our new birding buddies, Rhys Harrison

We saw shield endemics. And leks of mating Capuchinbirds. And many feathery others too numerous to mention. (No, I did not take photos of said birds, preferring instead to “just enjoy them”. Others took plenty, though, including The Dude Though, if he remains true to Dude Form, his will never ever leave his camera.)

While they took pix of the birds, I took pix of them

The birds, of course, were amazing. But you know that “Birding Bug” I mention “catching” in the subhead? Well. It was a Actual Bug.

A bug that’s rather pretty. But no, this is not The Bug Of Which I Speak

The Bug in Question was a hitchhiker we encountered early on in the trip. We had been warned to zip our bags when not in use, especially if our bags were located on the floor of our cabins. Well, guess who didn’t read the memo — or pay attention when I read it to him?

You got it. The Dude was fussing with his camera gear one evening when a beetle the size and shape of a VW strolled casually into his backpack. Naturally Dude Man enlisted my help trying to get him out. We unpacked all the backpack’s gear, then tried shining a light in there, shaking it upside down, and even (very gingerly) examining the seams. We didn’t see Mr. Bug leave, but since we couldn’t find him anywhere, we figured he must have slipped out somehow and gone out to find some new bug friends. Then, seeing as how we had to get up at 4:30, we loaded the backpack back up with gear and tried to forget about it. (Urk.)

Nope. That’s not The Bug either. Within the circle is a jaguar footprint we spotted on the trail. Which is all we ever saw of the jaguar

(Needless to say, we used our flashlights even more judiciously than usual when tiptoeing to the bathroom that night.)

Next day, after hours of bouncing along a red-dirt road to our next destination, we were just settling in to our new digs when The Dude unzipped his backpack. Eh, voila! Out strolls Mr. Bug. And disappears under the bed. The same bed upon which I had earlier found a “mint” on my pillow which turned out to be gecko poop. “Happy new home, Mr. Bug; we hope you like Surama!”

Mr. Bug’s new home, the Surama Lodge. Somewhere outside the Lodge. We hope

Next night, after a long sweaty day of bird-studded traipsing, we were steeling ourselves for another cold shower when out pops Mr. Bug — making a beeline from under the bed to my bag. When I reached for the zipper to deny him entry, he actually jumped on my hand. I yelped in surprise (this was, as I mentioned, a Very Big Bug) and shrieked for The Dude’s manly assistance. “Get him off me!”

So there we were in partially-clad disarray, jumping around trying to dislodge and discard this darned bug. When The Dude finally managed to capture it with his bath towel, I urged “Throw it outside!” To which The Dude responded “But I’m totally naked!” “Just do it!” I hissed back. “They’ve all seen naked people before!”

Speaking of bugs, that’s one big termite mound there on the left. None of them hitchhiked, though

So much for Mr. Bug. Speaking of “creepy crawly critters”, as our guide called them, we did rack up quite a few: millipedes, crickets, termites, lizards, the afore-mentioned geckos, and even a couple of (gasp) snakes. But, as far as we know, Mr. Bug was the only one with whom we formed a lasting bond.

The Dude and Ron, our local guide extraordinaire, check out a rattlesnake right there in that bush. Nope, I didn’t get any closer than this. If you want to see that snake, you’ll have to wait till Dude Man shares his photo. Don’t hold your breath

Of course I have more Guyanian Adventures to relate. But time is short and this post is long. Let me leave you with a photo of our Nightly Ritual (other than the cold showers, that is), the Sundowner Toast: a shot of El Dorado Rum, made right in Guyana and served up in little Guyanian flag-embossed shot glasses. Which did get to go home with us in that backpack.

Balanced Birding. A shot of rum in one hand, binocs in the other

Amagansett, New York. February 2019

Chop Phooey

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‘All I got for Christmas was egg foo young’

We were in a cab the afternoon of Christmas Eve when we saw Santa driving home from a hard day of ho-ho-ho-ing. We’d just seen Free Solo, which is an absolutely amazing movie about this guy Alex Honnold who climbed 3200 feet up the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using just his hands and feet — no ropes! no nothing! — but even after that it was still pretty exciting to see the Jolly Old Elf himself in all his red-suited, white-bearded glory at the wheel of his Chrysler mini-van.

Another Santa we saw this season. This Santa was spotted in his driveway, having just ridden in on the back of a Corvette convertible

No doubt Santa was thinking about the nice home-cooked dinner he was going to have that night in his North-Pole-like outpost in Queens (he was in the traffic lane for the Bridge) before heading out in his sleigh.

We Whitmores were also looking forward to home and our traditional pot roast, a small version of which we three (yes, The Child was home this yearwere planning to polish off before opening presents and hanging out by the fire. (Being of the Swedish persuasion, I’ve Swedishly persuaded The Dude that Christmas Eve gift opening is more fun than the Christmas Morning version.)

The traditional pot roast, as it was consumed in Days of Yore. Meaning when we had Other People over to help eat it

The Dude, who doesn’t have a Swedish bone in his body, goes along with this, I’m thinking, because it’s more fun to open presents with wine than with coffee. Though my Personal Sister, also married to a non-Swede, fuels her Christmas Mornings with what she calls “happy coffee”, which she swears by as a gift-opening lubricant.

The Whitmores’ unwrapping lubricant of choice

So. Everything thing went swimmingly on Christmas Eve, with our tummy-satisfying dinner of beef, and our bubbly-infused soul-satisfying exchange of gifts.

Wombat guarding the Stocking after Santa has arrived from Queens (er, the North Pole), but before The Child has

Christmas Morning was pretty sweet too, since we have not relinquished the custom of the Christmas Stocking — even though now The Child is practically large enough to actually wear said Stocking.

Stockings and Starbucks: our new Christmas Morning tradition. That’s a pomegranate she found stuffed into said Stocking’s toe. Very Dickensian

We loafed around in our jammies pretty much all day, admiring each other’s taste in gifts, until we started to get, well, peckish. There were certainly enough Christmas treats around — caramel corn, toffee, a giant tin of cookies, and Godiva galore — but it was getting on towards dinnertime and we wanted something, well, more substantial.

We’d demolished that pot roast on Christmas Eve (there weren’t even any leftovers), and, silly me (the One Who Cooks), had in the back of her lazy-butt holiday mind that on Christmas Itself I could take it easy and we could just “grab some sushi”.

Hah! (Or should I say “Ho-Ho-Hah!“)

“What? I’m not worried about dinner. Dinner’s in a bowl. On the kitchen floor. Like always.”

As Christmas Day started turning into Christmas Night, I got to thinking of a piece I had read in the New York Times that very morning about how eating in Chinese restaurants got to be a Jewish tradition in New York since they were the only places open on Christmas Day. (When I mentioned this to The Child, she said “Oh, Mom, that’s such a cliche.”) Well, Nervous Me, I got to thinking we should call the sushi place, you know, just to make sure they were open.

The Child shows off a Polaroid shot with a Christmas gift (A Polaroid-like camera) of us hanging around and dandling the cat

Riiiing, riiing, riiinnnng. Nothing doing. I then consulted Open Table. Equally nada. The Child, Millennial that she is, started consulting her apps. Uber Eats had a Thai place that would send takeout. Did we like Thai food? Sure! we said, then proceeded to waste half an hour arguing over the menu. (“Do you like curry?” “Sure, I like curry. But all these have coconut milk. Ick!” “Mom, all Thai curries have coconut milk.”) By the time we agreed on what to order, the place was closed. It was 5 o’clock.

Next she found a taqueria. (“Tacos? Sure, we like tacos. Sort of.”) Closed. Then a poke place. “Poke! What on earth’s poke?” Ditto. Closed tighter than a Hawaiian drum. At around 5:30, we realized we were all out of options. So Chinese it had to be.

And the Chinese food delivered, literally and figuratively. Though we were on hold longer than it took the food to get to us, we enjoyed every MSG-infused morsel. (As you can see in the photo at the top of this post.) The only thing disappointing were the fortune cookies, which weren’t, in my opinion, fortune cookies. They were more like saying cookies, since they said things like “Laugh and the world laughs with you”. And “Hard work is its own reward”. A fortune is something like “You will meet a tall handsome stranger”.

Or, in our case, “You will eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.”

Or maybe: “You will eventually change out of your Christmas jammies.”

New York City. January 2019

“Let me go! I want my Mommy!”

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‘The time The Dude (almost) got arrested for Childnapping’

I once took a crack at a funny story about dentistry. (You can chuckle at the result — or not — by clicking on “Is it safe?”) So I thought a humorous take on kidnapping might be worth a shot.

See, you wouldn’t know it from the idyllic father-daughter-on-the-beach photo at the top of this story, but one time The Child was screaming at the top of her lungs (in public!) for The Dude to unhand her.

Scream her lungs out? This little Sweetheart?

We were on a trip at the time, to one of The Dude’s ophthalmology meetings. The American Academy of Ophthalmology, to be specific. This outfit holds these in a different city every year. Nowadays The Dude and I make it a point to go to the “good” cities (Yay, New Orleans and Las Vegas!) and avoid the “bad” ones (Sorry, all-paved-over Atlanta and Disney-fied Orlando). That year the meeting was in San Francisco, and it was the first time we’d go as a family. (And the last, it turned out.) Continue reading

Gorilla My Dreams

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‘The Silverback makes my previous Ape Alpha Male look like Chimp Change’

You may recall my relatively-recent story about that Playboy Monkey the Alpha Male Chimp. (It’s called ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’.) Mr. Alpha was one fascinating fellow; he postured, he posed, and he made satisfyingly movie-sound-track-like crazy chimp sounds as he ran around slapping tree trunks to show off his chimp cojones.

One of our merry Birding and Chimp-Tracking band made a little movie on his iPhone and was just about to play it back when the leader of our Primate Patrol cautioned him against doing so. The crazy chimp squeals on the soundtrack would cause Said Alpha to attack us. Oh.

But intimidating as he was, Mr. Head Chimp was an organ-grinder’s sidekick compared to the Silverback. Who is Head Dude of the gorillas, and well, a whole different animal. (The ‘gorilla’ featured in the picture at the top of this post is about as real as a unicorn. Though we did get to see Real Gorillas. And we were much much closer to them than we were to that silly gorilla statue.)

No, we weren’t camping. Nor were we in ‘executive budget rooms’. But we did find us some gorillas

This get-to-know gorillas experience occurred when we were in the Buhoma area of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our tour company, the inestimable Field Guides, had warned us that the Mountain Gorillas were hard to find, even though they were “habituated”. Which meant that they were (sort of) used to people. We could spend an hour with a gorilla troupe, provided we could find one, and, um, provided with suitable protection.

No, she is not a guerrilla leader — she was our gorilla leader. And yes that is a machete she’s holding

Continue reading

Slip slidin’ away

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‘On — and off — the many wet roads of Uganda.’

I wish I had a nickel for every time my mother told me that I “wasn’t made of sugar, so I wouldn’t melt.” Maybe I’d have enough money by now for new rain gear.

Because ours sure got a workout on our African Adventure. In fact, we’re home now and I’m still reminded of how wet it was. My boots are gunky, my clothes are moldy-funky. My socks? Let’s not speak of my socks. You can probably smell them from wherever you are. And it wasn’t even the Rainy Season.

These boots, freshly-applied with waterproofing goop, are made for stompin’. Through mud and puddles and unspeakable gunk

But back to that “not made of sugar” deal. If that’s the case, then why did I attract so many ants? Tiny, nasty little bitey ants. The kind that swarm all over you if you’re not super-careful — and if you’re on a hiking trail where you can’t see the little buggers. (Not like in this video, where they’re on a road in plain, avoidable, sight.) Continue reading

Monkey see, monkey do

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‘Up close and personal with the Burt Reynolds of chimps’

Okay. I realize only too well that there are some of you out there who may not ‘get’ the reference in the subtitle of this piece. Well, Once upon a time, there was an actor named Burt Reynolds. He was considered quite hunky at the time. So hunky, in fact, that he agreed to pose nude (yes, nude!) for a women’s magazine centerfold. (Equal Rights, you know.)

Anyway. This piece is not about feminism; it’s a piece about chimps. Check out this link, and see if you don’t think there isn’t a rather strong, um, family resemblance between Burt and the cheesecake cousin I’ve pictured up there at the top of this story. And no, I don’t mean that as an insult. We are all primates, after all. Even Donald Trump.

Some folks thought there was a resemblance between Burt and my Starter Husband. This was, at the time, considered quite flattering. But, being sort of a naughty person, when Mr. Starter would bring up this supposed resemblance on social occasions I used to say that, yes, he did look just like Burt — from the feet down. Check out ‘My Polio Shot Marriage’ if you’d like to make up your own mind. Continue reading

Stalking the wild Shoebill

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‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet. Continue reading

Along the Rio Grande with the Birder Patrol

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‘Keeping an eye out for migrants from Mexico’

I was on the phone with my Mom the other day and she mentioned that she almost bought a set of camouflage sheets at her church rummage sale. She said she decided not to because she was afraid she “wouldn’t be able to find her bed.”

That’s my Mom (!) Not only did she get me laughing, she got me thinking about camouflage.

We saw a lot of camouflage when we were in Texas recently for one of our Birding Excursions. We saw camouflage-bedecked guys zooming in boats along the border waters, cruising in vehicles along the border roads, and even sipping lattes in the border Starbucks.

Border Guys in camouflage along the Rio Grande, just upriver from us Birder Guys. (Photo by Lynsey Addario for the NY Times)

Note how the Border Guys are doing exactly the same thing as Birder Guy Dude in the photo at the top of this post. Scanning the shoreline with binoculars, looking for Mexican migrants. Except ours were Summer Tanagers, not “bad hombres”. Continue reading

Crocodile Dumdee

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‘What you don’t know can hurt you.’

A couple of years after The Dude and I got married, we took a trip to Australia. This was a very long time ago. So long ago that when I googled ‘Crocodile Dundee’ after coming up with that groaner of a title, I found out the movie came out after we took our trip. So we weren’t familiar with lines like That’s not a knife…this is a knife’, much less with the fact that practically everything in Australia can pretty much kill you.

Speaking of my punsterific headline, let me say right off the bat that I don’t mean to pick on The Dudeman. It’s just that the photo of him in his Crocodile hat looks, well, more ‘DundeeLike’ than mine.

Me, sporting my Crocodile Dundee (er, ‘Dumdee’) hat. And not much else. I’m perched by the pool that had all the snakes in it, soon to be described in horrifyingly hissy detail

Because, let’s face it. We were both pretty dumb on this trip. Granted, this was long before TripAdvisor or (probably) even the internet itself. (Not sure; I’ll have to ask Al Gore.)

At any rate, we were young, we were naive, and we were game for pretty much anything. We were also pretty poor, but I had oodles of frequent flier miles from all my work-related plane-hopping for Ogilvy. (See ‘Around the World in 80 Shoots’) So we cashed ’em in and flew Qantas to Cairns. Where, before we could even grab a rental car, we were ourselves grabbed — right there in the terminal — by a couple of guys who said “Hey, wanna go diving on the Great Barrier Reef? Come with us!” (Use your imagination for the Australian accents.)

No, we didn’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge. But yes, we did hop right on this dive boat

Nope, we were not certified divers. In fact, I had never even tried diving before. But we strapped on that gear and dove right in. There are still marks from my fingernails etched into that boat’s wooden sides. Continue reading