Song of My Selfie

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‘A Whitman’s Sampler’

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” So sayeth the Internet, no doubt referring to those self-portraits otherwise known as “selfies”. Now I should point out, before I get too carried away with my mangling of Leaves of Grass, that the portrait at the top of this post is not actually a selfie. It may be difficult to imagine in this age of the ubiquitous hand-held device, but there were no cellphones in Seventeenth Century Holland. Though it sure looks as though those burghers are hamming it up for Instagram, doesn’t it?

Twenty-First Century Burgher Selfie. As you can see, I am not immune to the lure of the self-portrait. Even when being run down by a bike messenger

Speaking of hamming it up, I’ve been known to indulge in the odd selfie. In fact, I’ll be peppering this post with a few of my favorites — because why not?

Central-Park Selfie. Note how the young white blossoms complement my old white head

Now to be sure, those of you who read my rantings regularly (bless your hearts) know that there are times — usually when traipsing through jungles and rainforests on the prowl for exotic birds — when I am, as they say, offline. As in away from the internet, off the grid, incommunicado. And (mostly) unable to self-snap.

Hot (as in “temperature”; calm down) Birder Selfie. Somewhere on a river in Uganda. Note how Guide Man is making that Selfie Face

In fact, on this last trip — the one to the Uplands and Lowlands of Western Panama — my iPhone met some water it didn’t like. And died. It was old and tired and kind of on its last legs anyway, so it wasn’t the end of the world. But it’s amazing how you don’t realize how dependent you are on those darned things until you don’t have one.

Panama Selfie. The last selfie before the Drowning of The Phone

On these trips I mostly use my phone to take pictures, and not just selfies either. But it can be a good thing to commune with nature without documenting each and every cool tall tree or crazy-shaped rock or even cloud-filled sky by planting A Dude in front of it.

I am particularly partial to documenting wacky signs. As long as I plant A Dude alongside. Check out the last line on this sign in Uganda

While I was phoneless, I had time not only to take in my surroundings, but to read a New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks called The Machine Stops where he says he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings.” Oliver Sacks, in case you need reminding, was a famous neurologist and the author of the best-titled book on the planet, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Hat Selfie. Or Wife Selfie?

Oliver goes on to bemoan the fact that, for many people nowadays, “every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

My Beloved Dude contemplates a waterfall while I contemplate him

Well. After reading that I was almost grateful that my phone was now a soggy paperweight. I felt lighter, cleaner, more virtuous even, without it “clutched” in my hand.

Of course, the moment I got my clutches on an internet-connected device I ordered myself a new phone just like the one that died. And there it was, all fresh and new in its itty-bitty white box, ready and waiting for me to fire it up the second I got home.

Itty-Bitty Selfie. Well, technically not. But it is a darned cute photo, so what the heck

New York City. March 2019

Planes, boats, and sorta kinda automobiles

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’Getting there actually is part of the fun. If you’re a Crazy Birder, that is.’

Our chigger bites from our Guyana trip hadn’t even healed when we were off again, this time to Western Panama. (See ‘Nope. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid’ and ‘Up in the air, Junior Birdman’ for hair-raising Guyanian adventures involving hitchhiking bugs and bullet ants.)

The first Panamanian Plane. De-icing outside, pre-birding inside

A few years ago we started traveling with this company whose motto is “seriously fun birding”. (Look out: plug coming.) And I’m happy to report Truth in Advertising: Field Guides takes both the birding and the fun, well, seriously. Of course, not everyone has the same idea when it comes to “fun”. Take the travel — please.

Our 4-wheel limo. Standing-room only, but with terrific air-conditioning

We’ve found that there seems to be an inverse correlation between gorgeous birds and efficient transportation. The countries with the best birds have, basically, the worst roads. (The teeth-rattling tarmac in Kenya comes to mind.) Or no roads to speak of. (Amazonian Brazil and Downcountry Guyana, I’m talking about you.)

No, our bags are not abandoned by the side of this extremely steep Panamanian road. (See ‘The Time We Left The Child by the Side of the Road’ for guilty details about another road, another time, and an actual abandonment)

Western Panama had roads. But, except for the Fortuna, which was paved and smooth and went over the Continental Divide (and along the sides of which we found most excellent bird life) the roads we saw on this trip were the kind you most definitely needed four-wheel drive (and nerves of steel) to navigate. To get to our first lodge, we went up (and up) to almost 6000 feet on a road so crazy-rocky that it took us over an hour to go two miles.

We reach our destination: the Totumas Cloudforest Lodge. Where the road smooths out at last (and I throw in another plug)

When we weren’t rattling our teeth and compressing our spines jouncing along in the backs of trucks, we were scrambling up and down muddy rocky trails. On foot. Here are a few highlights from the High Country —

Up at dawn. Then more up — and up and up — watching carefully for cowpats as well as Common Chlorospingus

The aforementioned Common Chlorospingus, none the worse for being shot from a rattling truck. We saw one pretty much every day, hence the “common”

If a tree doesn’t fall in the woods, will someone stand in front of it?

Guess who ate the bananas that were put out for the birds? (And maybe left a few of those cowpats?)

Enjoying a well-earned midday break

When we’d had our fill of rattling in trucks and scrambling on foot we commenced bouncing. In boats. See, after the Western Highlands, we descended to the Western Coastlands, specifically to an archipelago called Bocas del Toros. The way folks get around in this archipelago is by boat. Ours were small, bouncy boats. Pretty much the only time we weren’t bouncing was the day our boat had a clogged fuel line. Then it would bounce like crazy, then slap the water and stop.

Bounce/slap, bounce/slap. Each time it stopped, the enterprising First Mate (or Whatever He Was Called) would pump the fuel line to get us going again until he finally just yanked out this tube and blew on it till whatever was clogging it popped out. Sort of like performing the Heimlich Maneuver, only on a boat.

A boatload of birders, ourselves included, bounce-bruised butts forgotten after a great day out. Photo by Fab New Friend Barry Tillman

We used these boats every day, to get pretty much everywhere. (Except, of course, when we were hiking on muddy trails — birding locations always seem well-equipped with muddy trails.) One day we boated along a disused canal that had been dug to ship bananas.

Yes, we have no bananas. But we do have plenty of these beauteous banana-billed toucans. (Not their real name, which is Keel-billed Toucan, but what the heck)

Speaking of bananas, it looks like The Dude was glad to see me. Or maybe it was that toucan

On our last day we even took that same little boat (in the dark…in the rain…one unfortunate couple who had packed their raingear got soaked) to get to a teensy airport to fly to a slightly bigger airport then took a van to get to the big airport — where we Crazy Birders dispersed to fly to our respective homes to nurse our bug bites and sore spines so we can be ready to do it all over again.

What does a rock think about? I know we’re already thinking about our next birdy adventure

New York City. March 2019

 

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

“There go the roses”

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‘Life as a series of passionate obsessions’

The Dude and I went out on a “bike ride” yesterday — me on my Vespa, he on his electric motorcycle, which is called a Zero. (He purchased it on a hilarious expedition to the wilds of Williamsburg — the hipster Williamsburg, not the colonial one.) He wanted this Zero because it is virtually silent, as in “Zero noise”, and therefore ideal for Biker Birdwatching.)

Dude, in background, stealthily examining some ruddy turnstones he was able to sneak up on — upon his super-silent Zero

Anyway, as we were dusting off our bikes for this jaunt, I couldn’t help but notice various relics of The Dude’s former obsessions: the ping-pong table, the archery target, and the windsurfing gear — all looking rather sad and neglected in the dim recesses of the basement.  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

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

Like oil and river water

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‘We’re one crazy mixed-up couple’

They say that opposites attract. Well, The Dude and I have been married more years than most of you Dear Readers have been alive. Which is pretty amazing in and of itself. But it’s even more amazing given how, well, opposite the two of us are.

In fact, I’d call us bi-polar opposites, given that our differences often drive us crazy.

Okay, there’s the easy stuff. I’m coffee; he’s tea. I’m radio-on-in-the-car; he’s I-want-to-appreciate-the-silence. I like parties; he’s I’ve-worked-hard-all-day-and-want-to-crash-at-home. I like novels; he only reads non-fiction. (‘Why would I want to read something that someone made up?‘) I love art; he only likes art that looks like what it’s supposed to be and/or looks like it was very hard to do.

Pointe Hilton by Jack Mendenhall. Meets both The Dude’s criteria: looks like what it is, and indeed looks like it was very hard to do

And what is it with hot and cold? Has there ever been a married couple who agrees on the thermostat? There he is, in the dead of winter, wearing a tee-shirt and turning up the heat; I say put on a sweater — preferably one of the many I’ve knit for you. Continue reading

Put a bird on it

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Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: a totally tired, totally cheating travelogue’

I picked the picture at the top of this post for two reasons. One, because it has a bird (actually, many birds) on it. (Hail, Portlandia!) And two, because it shows a bed.

We flew home very late last night from our latest birding adventure, and boy are my arms tired. (Sorry, fatigue has made me giddy and prone to awful puns.) Meanwhile, don’t you hate trendy gerunds like ‘birding’? Like ‘parenting’ and ‘mothering’. What’s next, ‘kidding’? Oh. There already is a ‘kidding’.

Anyway. Since I have a mountain of sweaty stinky birding duds to burn (er, wash) I’ve decided to take the easy way out and just show you all some pictures from our trip. (I know, I know. Shades of the Olden Days when vacationers would bore their friends with their slides. (Which were like photos, but were these things they’d put in a ‘projector’ and show on a ‘screen’.) But really. If you’d been on a post-holiday night flight full of screaming kids accompanied by adults sorely lacking in Basic Parenting Skills, you’d choose this option too.)

So on with the (not-slides-but-close) show! Continue reading

The Curse of the Potoo

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‘We spot a most unusual specimen — and suffer the cosmic consequences’

Nope. That’s not the ‘unusual specimen’ in the photo at the top of this story. That’s Chuck. Or, as he came to be known on this trip (by me anyway) ‘UpChuck’. For reasons which will soon become apparent.

The ‘unusual specimen’ in this story is a bird called, I kid you not, the Potoo. I first heard about the Potoo when The Dude and I were birdwatching in Panama last year. Dude Man kept asking ‘Hey, can you find us a Potoo?’ And Guide Man would just smile and shake his head, as if to say ‘That’ll be the day’. And I’d be like ‘Potoo? Potoo? That’s not a real bird, is it?’

See, I thought The Dude and The Guide were having me on. That looking for a Potoo was kind of like going on a ‘Snipe Hunt’. Which, if you grew up in the Midwest like me, you remember was an elaborate practical joke that Big Boys would play on Smaller Boys, like at Scout Camp. Or sometimes the joke would be played on Naive High-School Girls by Naughty High-School Boys. ‘Hey, wanna go in the woods tonight? On a Snipe Hunt? (Snicker Snicker)’

Potoo? Oh, wacky little Potoo? You in there?

Continue reading