Jury duty, only with feathers

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‘What those crazy birding trips are like’

I just flew back from a birding trip to Brazil, and boy are my arms tired.

The jury is in: Birthdays are Birddays on trips like this one. Here we celebrate my latest at Itatiaia National Park

People often ask me what these trips are like. Well, here’s how I often describe them. Picture yourself thrown together with eleven random strangers from all walks of life. For several days you spend nearly every waking moment with these people.

Our team of twelve doing a bit of problem-solving together

You eat every meal together, you take breaks together, you even spend the night together. (Well, sort of.) You consult, you deliberate, you draw conclusions.

Which owl was this? Group conclusion: Tawny-browed owl — a baby one

You form bonds and promise to stay in touch. Then, when it’s all over, you go home — and never see each other again. Jury duty, right?

Twelve Angry Birders on the hunt for the Gray-Winged Cotinga. Well, not all twelve. And definitely not angry. Cold, maybe. But worth it, because yes, we found the cotinga

Well, this trip was a tad different. For one thing, there were two people on it that Dude Man knew already.

Bird Nerds of a Feather: One of the two already-Dude-known peeps on this tour. Known to me, too, after 17 days of close contact

Before I get to the other difference, let’s talk a little about that eating together deal. The tour company we use (and which I highly recommend and plug shamelessly whenever possible), Field Guides, has been spreading their wings, so to speak. They’ve been marketing tours to wider audiences by enticing birders with Extra Added Attractions. Like, they have birding/wine tours. (See their “Birds and Wines of Chile and Argentina” for just one example.)

Birds and Buddhas? Guess which gets the most attention here at the site of the largest Buddha in Brazil

Next to the buddha: the largest cat box (er, Zen garden) in South America

They have tours that combine birds and art, too. Like this one with Dutch birds and Dutch masters.

Sometimes the birds ARE the artwork. Check out this extremely rare — only about a dozen are known to exist — Cherry-Throated Tanager. Which, yes, we saw. Our guide took this photo. (So did The Dude, tho his shot is still trapped inside his camera)

Well. I wanted to call this trip “Brazil and Buffets” because practically every meal we ate was one. A buffet, that is. Some were at the hotels, natch. But others were pretty fancy places — like the one pictured at the top of this post — where you’d fill your plate with all kinds of goodies, then waiters would go around and offer you meats they’d carve right for you from big ole skewers. (Or, in one place, offer you pieces of freshly-baked pizzas from big ole platters.)

Dude Man meets some meat

My favorites, though, were the by-the-kilo places. You’d fill your plate, then place it on a scale. You’re charged by how much it weighs. My suggestion that each diner be weighed before and after eating and charged accordingly wasn’t exactly a hit, especially later in the tour.)

Our trip itinerary. Dude Man and I only had time for the top half — Linhares Reserve to Sao Paulo — who knows how much more bonding would have occured had we done the whole thing (!)

Oh, the other thing that was different about this trip is that we were missing The One. You know, the person in the group — whether jury or birding trip — who is difficult or annoying or sometimes even a full-fledged pain in the tuchus. Oh, there was this one guy we dubbed “Mr. Sunshine” because he had a darkish streak. But he turned out to be too darned lovable to be a full-fledged One.

A dead end — at a graveyard. Maybe The One is in there somewhere

In fact, everyone on this trip turned out to be loveable. So goldarned lovable that we made sincere promises to get together in our future nonbirding lives. Will this really happen?

The jury is still out.

Amagansett, New York. November 2022

 

 

 

Galapagone

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‘Adoring Ecuador — in spite of spooky caiman, scary towers and claustrophobic lava tubes.’

Yes, we made it. To the Amazonian jungle, the Andean peaks and the Galapagos Islands. There was plenty of excitement, though perhaps the most hair-raising bit was American Airlines cancelling our 6AM flight at midnight the night before.

That’s our lodge in the distance. Yes, it’s accessible only by water

We spent the first ten days in a remote lodge in the middle of the jungle, where swimming was allowed only in a caged area since there were caiman and piranha and sea otters roaming the waters. (Tempted to swim? I was most decidedly not.)

Lucy, the caiman who lives under the breakfast pavilion at Sacha Lodge

Though I did indulge in some tower climbing. For those unfamiliar with jungle birding (which may be most of you), towers and walkways suspended high above the jungle are pretty much a necessary evil, since the canopy is where the cool birds hang out. And with some tree heights well over 100 feet, there’s really no way to see, say, a paradise tanager without taking the plunge (hah) and hightailing it up a tower.

Me, after shimmying up one of the two canopy towers

There were seven of us participating on this jungle adventure, five of whom went on to the Galapagos. After more than a week of muddy-trail-and-scary-tower togetherness, we’d formed a pretty tight bond. I’ve often said that these birding trips are like jury duty. You show up when and where you’re told; you eat together, talk together, pay attention to authority figures. And the Galapagos trip was almost literally like a jury since there were 13 of us (12 jurors and an alternate).

Our Galapagos Group. There was no one who was The One. Unless it was me, of course

Usually on these trips there is a participant who is The One. He/she is maybe a little too loud or too whiny or who has some other personality trait that’s, well, annoying. Like, there was a woman on a Panama trip who insisted on being called “Raven,” though she had a perfectly good normal name (Rebecca, I think it was.) I responded to this request by “mistakenly” referring to her as Sparrow.

No sparrows, but plenty of iguana. So many that you had to be careful where you stepped

And then there was the famous instance of the vegan on the East Africa Tour. In those days it was pretty tough to provide for a vegan in the wilds of Africa while traveling from lodge to lodge every day. Every time we unpacked our tasty lunches, we’d look to see what nasty surprise Jodi would find in her box labelled “Vegan” (or sometimes just “V”). The funniest was the day she found her box filled with a hand of bananas — and nothing else. Well, nothing else but the giant tarantula nestled inside. And then, on our last night together, Jodi, like the rest of us, ordered a pizza. “You’re having pizza?” inquired our baffled guide Terry. “I thought you were vegan.” “Oh, I was just trying out being a vegan on this trip, just to see if I liked it.” she replied, as Terry’s face grew red and his head spun around on his neck.

Decidedly non-vegan lunch on board the Nemo III, our floating Galapagos home

We had a vegan on this tour too. But he was very nice. And got to eat a lot of avocados.

Dude Man makes a couple of new Galapagan friends. I don’t think they’re vegan either

Suffice it to say that the Galapagos Islands themselves lived up to all the Bucket List hype. I will have more than enough material for several more blog posts. (Oh, and remind me to tell you all about when we almost drove off a cliff up in the Andes.) But before I sign off today, let me tell you about the Lava Tube.

The Galapagos. We got to visit ten of the islands. Only three of them had any people living there

This is pretty self-explanatory. The Galapagos being volcanic in nature, there are lots of big ole “tubes” where lava once flowed. We had just finished a rather lovely lunch (no hands of bananas with clinging tarantulas) at the tortoise preserve when Willy, our guide, suggested a post-prandial stroll — through a nearby Lava Tube. “How long is it?” someone asked. “About two football fields. Silence. Asked for a show of hands, only Dude Man raised his. Then one other guy raised his. It was only after one other woman raised her hand that I figured “what the hell,” and raised mine too.

Another new Dude Man buddy

Our intrepid little band set out. There were many steep stairs to the entrance, but the beginning wasn’t too bad. There was even lighting. But, as we forged on, the tube got narrower — and shorter. Until, at one point, we had to sort of “limbo” our way under a rock outcropping. Here I was, scrunched up under a ten-foot span of cooled-off lava that was 3 feet from floor to ceiling. Literally a once in a lifetime experience.

Trying not to think about Tom Sawyer while in the Lava Tube

Whew. More adventures next week. Now I really need to get back to Barbara Pym. 

Thinking longingly about English villages and vicars

Amagansett, New York. August 2022