Dork Alert – Galápagos, Part 4

Maybe I should have titled this, “Birder True Confessions,” because I’m going to admit to some embarrassing things that happened on this trip. The first is that I sometimes get excited about birds that other people don’t. I wrote about one such occasion from my trip to Texas last winter, when my friend Rick was trying to show me a ringed kingfisher and I was more excited about a bunch of pelicans.

When I learned that I would have a chance to see flamingos in the Galápagos, I was really stoked. I bet most of my Ohio birder friends have seen flamingos already, but I hadn’t. This is because I’ve never been to Florida, believe it or not. Well, okay, I went to Ft. Lauderdale on spring break during college, but birds weren’t on my radar back then. And I’ve not been back to the Sunshine State since then, mostly because I’m afraid of birding where there are alligators. I know it’s an irrational fear, but what can I say? I imagine myself being distracted looking up at birds, and walking right into an alligator lurking in the vegetation along a trail. Don’t laugh, it could happen. But I hope to overcome that fear at some point and go birding down south.

So anyway, when the day finally came that we would have a chance to see flamingos, I was ready. I wore my flamingo t-shirt, the one I rarely wear at home because it seems so tacky. I don’t even know why I bought this shirt in the first place because it seems like something you’d get in a souvenir shop at the beach. But I had it, and I packed it for this trip, just for this day.  And I’m so glad I did, because that’s the reason I can show you this picture:

Kim's lifer flamingos in the Galapagos - Dork Alert

It seems I have no shame, sigh. But boy, oh boy, was I happy to see those statuesque pink birds! I was soaked in sweat and physically quite uncomfortable, but you can’t tell that from this photo.

Flamingo Collage w sig

It would have been awesome to find a huge flock of these elegant-yet-comical birds, but I was still thrilled about finding eight of them in a small pond. It was tempting to play with the color saturation when I edited these photos, so I made this collage with the original photo in the middle, bookended between lower-saturation and higher-saturation versions. I like it.

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Marine iguanas were plentiful along the rocky shore, and swimming with the snorkelers

Another funny story involved my first attempt at snorkeling. If you’ll recall from my pre-trip post, I was so excited about it — I was going to swim with sea lions and iguanas, right? Well, as it turned out…not so much.  I went through the cumbersome and chaotic every-woman-for-herself process of getting fitted for all the snorkel gear on the first day we were on the ship: fins, wetsuit, and mask. On the second day, we were given our first opportunity to go snorkeling. We loaded all the gear into zodiacs and were dropped off on a beautiful red-sand beach. I asked the guide if he would be able to help me get started since it was going to be my first time. He said, “Of course!”

Snorkelers off Rabida island
My fellow travelers went snorkeling without me! (Note the pelican on the rocks.)

Well, he may have had every intention of helping me, but what actually happened was that people spread out all across the beach and the guides weren’t really anywhere near me when I went in the water. I managed to get my flippers on, and then put my mask on, and then turn myself over and put my face in the water. But within two seconds a wave hit me and my mask filled with water and I was up again. And I found out just then that I probably should have realized that I needed to make sure my mask was a tight fit on my face — which it clearly wasn’t.

I stood in the shallow water contemplating my next move: would I try to get the attention of one of the guides, or would I try again on my own? Just then I noticed an American oystercatcher running along the beach, and I knew what I was going to do. I was going to throw off those stupid flippers and take photos of this awesome bird! I had only seen my first oystercatcher the day before — life bird! — so I was still pretty geeked at seeing another one, especially at such close range.

American Oystercatcher with sea urchin for blog
American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) & pencil sea urchin (Eucidaris thouarsii, perhaps)

This one was first racing the waves in and out of a small cave, but it eventually came out and walked up on the rocks, where it found a dried-up sea urchin to investigate. I watched it poking into the sea urchin, apparently finding some tasty morsels still tucked inside.

Check out this video of him:

 

Kim taking pics of oystercatcher on beach
One of the guides was taking pics of me as I was shooting the oystercatcher!

So even though my attempt at snorkeling was an epic fail, all was not lost because I got to spend some quality time with a very special bird!

I think this may be my last post in the Galápagos series, at least for a while. Spring has sprung in Ohio, and I’ll be busy exploring the natural world closer to home for a few months. It’s finally dragonfly season! The first migratory green darners showed up here in Toledo a few days ago, and other non-migratory species will be crawling out of various bodies of water to emerge as winged insects in the coming weeks.  I can’t wait!

Galapagos sea lion sleeping on rocks
Yep, it’s time to take a break from talking about the Galápagos!

 

Penguins and More – Galápagos, Part 3

On the morning of March 12, the ship anchored off the coast of Isabela Island near Elizabeth Bay. We piled into the zodiacs in groups of about 15 people, and headed off to explore the beautiful and peaceful mangrove lagoon.

Mangrove lagoon scenery - blue sky and water

Almost as soon as we entered the cove, we found a lone Galápagos penguin resting on a rock. He lay there calmly as our boat idled 20 feet away, allowing us to take some nice photos before moving on into the lagoon. These are the only penguins in the northern hemisphere, and are endemic to the Galápagos. The Galapágos Conservation Trust says this about their current conservation status: “In 1982, there was a particularly strong El Niño event that caused 77% of the population to die of starvation and the population has been recovering ever since. The current population is estimated to be just 2,000 birds.”

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Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

We soon saw a sea turtle napping in the shade, using the mangrove branches to keep himself afloat.

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Another one popped up to say hello.

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I absolutely love turtle heads, don’t you? They look like toothless old men, but in a cute way.

In this lagoon we also got our first and only fleeting looks at golden rays. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of them before they were gone. I was also excited to see quite a few dragonflies zipping around above us. I’d not held out much hope of finding any dragonflies on this trip, so it was a big thrill. Dragonflies need fresh or brackish water, and I knew that most of our trip would be spent on salt water. But I believe the lagoon is brackish water, so that’s why there were dragonflies there. I was trying so hard to get a photo of one of them, and the boat driver tried to get me close to one, but I just couldn’t get the photo as the zodiac bobbed on the water. Talk about frustration! But all wasn’t lost in the ode department, because I managed to get a photo of one dragonfly on North Seymour island later in the week.

Dragonfly from Galapagos
Striped Saddlebags (Tramea calverti) photographed on North Seymour island

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Small groups of penguins entertained us as they swam around us. We found two sea lions tucked up in the mangrove trees enjoying naps in the shade. I was a little bit irritated that our guide nudged the boat into their little sheltered hideaway to allow people to take pictures of them. Most times the guides were very good about keeping a decent distance from the wildlife, but this time I felt they went too far in invading the space of the sea lions, so I was glad when we finally backed out of the little inlet and moved on. I didn’t take any pictures of them because I felt bad that we were there.

This striated heron was lurking in the shelter of the mangroves too. I’ll have more to say about this species in a future post.

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Striated heron (Butorides striata)

As we began our return trip out of the lagoon, a great blue heron flew in and landed in a mangrove tree, and I had that weird feeling that I often get when birding in a far-off location and seeing a bird that I see in Ohio. It’s like seeing a friend from home and saying, “Hey, I know you!”

There was one more treat to discover before we went back to the ship, and boy, was it great! This flightless cormorant was sunning itself on a rock as we emerged from the lagoon, and it made for such a gorgeous photo with the backdrop of the brilliant turquoise water.

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Flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

The flightless cormorant is another endemic species in the Galápagos, so this was high on my bucket list of species I wanted to see. We only saw a few of them on the entire trip, and this was the closest we got to one. This photo is perfect for highlighting his stunted wings, which are the obvious reason that he’s flightless. He doesn’t even use those wings to propel himself through the water when fishing, instead relying on his powerful feet for propulsion. Because his wings don’t produce much oil, he can’t waterproof his feathers and has to spread the wings to dry in the sun after he’s done diving.

Okay, that’s three posts on the Galápagos trip, and I haven’t even mentioned Darwin’s finches yet. Stay tuned!

And…We’re Back – Galápagos, Part 1

Well, that went by quickly, didn’t it? The anticipation of the Galápagos trip lasted for months, and then it was all over in a flash.  I’m editing hundreds of photos and struggling with how to write about it. There were highs and lows, as there are with any travel experience. The highs revolved around the wildlife, so that’s the part I’m going to write about the most. The less enjoyable parts were things like travel delays, regimented daily schedules on the ship, and a little bit of altitude sickness in Quito.

Cruise map for Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Inner Loop
The route we took on the cruise around the Galápagos

I’m not going to recap the trip day-by-day, but rather just share my photos and thoughts about the animals. So let’s get started with, what else, blue-footed boobies!

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Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)

I’d say that, along with the giant tortoises, the blue-footed boobies are one of the most sought-after species by visitors to the islands. Even though they’re found in other parts of the world, they’ve become iconic symbols of the Galápagos.  My first close encounter with these striking and comical birds was when our zodiac boat floated past this one standing on a rocky outcrop at Rabida island. As you can see, the bird showed virtually no reaction to the appearance of 15 humans a few yards away.

That’s one of the most amazing things about wildlife experiences in the Galápagos  — the animals don’t flee when we approach, as they do in other parts of the world.  Most of these islands are so remote and devoid of people that the animals don’t understand that humans are a source of danger. It’s actually heartbreaking to realize that the entire animal kingdom has to fear us; I felt the gift of this precious experience deep in my heart every time I was able to have a close encounter like this. I admit that it was a bit disconcerting to feel joy and sadness at the same time.

Here’s a video of the blue-footed booby courtship dance, one of the highlights of the trip. I giggled at the beginning because it seemed that the female (on the right) leaned over and commanded the male to dance for her. And, as you see, he obliged her. Notice the difference in pupil size between the sexes; the male’s pupil is smaller than the female’s. She’s also larger-bodied than he is, as is common with many birds.

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Note the smaller pupil size in the male, standing behind the female

A few minutes later I was supremely lucky to come upon another pair of boobies standing just a few feet from the edge of the trail, and was able to use my cell phone to record them mating!

When the male walked toward me after the completion of his task, it seemed he was seeking accolades for his performance, and that made me smile. What a proud boy he was! (Yes, a harmless bit of anthropomorphizing, I know.)

The male booby makes a whistling sound, while the female’s call is more of a honking sound. Here’s a short clip showing a male whistling:

The population of blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos has suffered in recent years due to a decline in sardines after the 1997 El Niño. You can read more about their struggle for survival here.

We also saw two other species of boobies on this trip, the red-footed and the Nazca booby.

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Nazca booby (Sula granti)
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Red-footed booby (Sula sula)

The red-footed booby is the only one to have several color morphs, and it’s also the one most likely to be found nesting in trees rather than on the rocks (at least I think that’s what our guide said). I was enchanted by the pink and blue coloration on the beak of this cartoonish bird and would have loved to have seen one up close instead of 75 feet above me on a cliff, as this one was.

Blue-footed booby head crop w sigI want to point out that most of my photos on this trip were taken from zodiacs that were bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, so the sharpness of the images is much less than I would have liked. But even so, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

I’ve got much more to show you in upcoming posts…the only penguin in the northern hemisphere, the only nocturnal gull in the world, and the most beautiful lizards you’ve ever seen!

 

 

Destination: Zero Degrees Latitude

Galapagos map for blog March 2019
The red marker is the Galápagos, 600 miles west of Ecuador

Yep, that’s right, I’m headed for the equator! If all goes as planned, by the time this post is live on the blog, I’ll be 30,000 feet above the planet in a giant metal tube, headed for the Galápagos. If you’re like me, the primary association that pops into your brain when you hear “Galápagos” is Charles Darwin. These are the islands where Mr. Darwin made the discoveries that led to his theory of evolution, the one that forms the basis for our understanding of how species adapt to their habitats, aka the “survival of the fittest.” I hope to write more about Darwin’s finches later, as well as the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and so many of the other amazing wildlife of the islands.

Blue-footed booby by Kathy Drouin on flickr
Blue-footed booby (by Kathy Drouin via Flickr creative commons license)

I’m beyond excited as I write this a week before my trip. If I found out I had just a month to live and could visit only one place on the planet before my death, the Galápagos would be my choice.  As I anticipate this voyage, I imagine that I will feel a sense of awe as I walk where Darwin walked, and see what he saw. He only spent a month there in 1835, as part of a 5-year journey around the world, but what he saw there had a profound influence on his work. There are more than 2,000 endemic species on these islands; that means species that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet. And because of the isolation of these islands, the animals haven’t developed a fear of humans and are surprisingly approachable. I’ve seen photos of people sitting on the ground just a few feet from some of the wildlife.

I normally don’t use the word blessed, but I definitely realize what a privilege it will be to make this trip of a lifetime.

Beak of the Finch cover imageI’m curious to see how my impressions of this place will differ from my pre-trip expectations, as so often happens in travel. I haven’t done nearly as much reading as I’d hoped to in preparation for this trip, but we’ll be accompanied by a naturalist on every excursion, so that will be a great educational resource. I’ve started reading The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner’s book about Peter and Rosemary Grant’s continuing research on Darwin’s finches. What I’ve gleaned so far is that their research has shown that evolution happens much faster than previously believed, something that could have important implications for a wide range of conservation work around the world. I’m eager to find out more about this.

I’m going to snorkel for the first time in my life on this trip. I’d never had much interest in that particular form of recreation before, despite having a couple of friends who love to scuba dive. I’m just not a fan of being in the ocean, I guess. (Yes, it might have something to do with seeing Jaws as a child….) But after reading that the sea lions and marine iguanas will approach snorkelers without fear, I know I will do this. I just hope I can still breathe when my jaw drops from amazement.

Check out this video to get an idea of what I’m hoping to experience: https://youtu.be/9KCR3iU4erw

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Celebrity Xpedition will be home base for a week

Our trip will begin with a one-day tour of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, high in the mountains. Then we’ll descend to sea level and board a 100-passenger ship for a week of exploration of the various islands of the Galápagos. The moment the cabin door on the plane locks behind us, I will release all the worries of my normal life and prepare to absorb every moment of this adventure. I fully expect this to be a life-changing adventure, and can’t wait to tell you all about it.

 

I Went to Hell and Back for This — Twice

You see what you expect to see

This is a story about expectations. In the beginning of the story you may think I’m quite thick-headed. But I think I redeemed myself in the end, so I’m willing to suffer some embarrassment in the interest of making a point.

In one of my odonata groups about a week ago, someone shared a photo of a dragonfly that was so stunning that I instantly wanted to see it for myself. Luckily for me, the location was in northeast Ohio, only a couple hours away from me. And I’d been wanting to see some species that aren’t found here in the northwest corner of the state, so I decided to make a quick two-day road trip.

Riffle Snaketail - LIFER head crop w sigMy target was the Riffle Snaketail, an ode with brilliant emerald eyes and thoracic markings, as you see here. I thought it would be unmistakeable if I found it.  And with the added knowledge of a very specific likely location, I was sure I could find one.

This dragon had been seen at Hell Hollow, one of the Lake County metroparks that includes a 100-foot deep ravine with a creek at the bottom of a 262-step staircase. It got that name because you may feel like you’re in Hell when you climb those stairs.

Here’s what it looks like when you step off the stairs at the bottom of the ravine.

Hell hollow creek view

The way you find a snaketail is to examine the surface of every rock in the water or on the edge of the water. Sometimes you can see them when they fly, but often they’ll sit motionless for a while, making it harder to see them. So I began slowly walking along the creek edge, expecting it to be a long search. But I instantly saw a dragonfly with huge green eyes, and my camera swung into action, taking a hundred shots as I saw not one but three individuals of my target species! A person couldn’t get much luckier than that.

Or so I thought.

After spending a couple hours down there looking around and taking photos, I texted two of my friends to tell them of my amazing success at finding the Riffle Snaketails. Except that when I uploaded the photos that night in my hotel room, I instantly saw that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. These weren’t Riffle Snaketails at all!! Sure, they had those huge green eyes, but that’s practically the only thing they have in common, as you can see in the photo below. I realized I’d taken a hundred photos of some Eastern Least Clubtails, one of the most common dragonflies in this area.

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Eastern Least Clubtail (Stylogomphus albistylus)

Ugh, I wanted to crawl under a rock as I admitted my rookie error to my two friends. Rick is an expert at finding and identifying dragonflies, and he kindly told me, “That’s an easy mistake to make.” I appreciated the generosity of his comment, but I didn’t agree. I realized that I’d been SO convinced that I would find the snaketail here that as soon as I saw the big green eyes my brain said, “Ah, there’s a snaketail! Don’t think, just take pictures!” So that’s what I did. I didn’t see anything other than the eyes. There’s science behind this idea that if we have strong expectations or preconceptions about something or someone, our brains will trick us into seeing or believing exactly what we expect to see or believe. (Check out a link at the end of this article for more info on that.)

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Eastern Least Clubtail, fooling me with those eyes!!

Unlike with birds, the citizen-science projects for dragon- and damselflies require a photo of the subject in order to include it in the records. That’s why I was so concerned with getting good photos.

I’d only seen one of the Eastern Least Clubtails last year (in Maine), so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many of them. But as pretty as they were, I still wanted (needed) to see the Riffle Snaketail. There were other places I wanted to go on this trip, and other species I wanted to find, but I could not go home without trying to find this bug again. My self-respect was at stake here.

Stairs into Hell HollowSo the next morning, despite aching leg muscles and a poor night’s sleep, I went back to Hell Hollow. As I walked the wooded trail at the top of the ravine, I saw two Dark-eyed Juncos, a bird species that we only have in winter where I live. I thought they all went north to breed, so it was strange to find that they’re breeding in another part of Ohio. That little discovery helped lift my spirits as I prepared to descend into the ravine for a possibly very disappointing morning.

Of course the first dragons I found were the clubtails again. But this time I explored farther than the short shoreline area I’d searched the day before. I waded in the creek to get around fallen trees and other obstacles, and after about 90 minutes I stopped in my tracks, holding my breath. Is that….could it be….? Yes! A REAL Riffle Snaketail sitting on a rock about 15 feet ahead of me.

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Yes, this is the REAL Riffle Snaketail (Ophiogomphus carolus)

You can be sure I studied every detail of the bug this time, and once I was sure I had the right one, I stood alone in that creek with a mile-wide smile on my face. I took a little video of the water gurgling around my legs, narrating the story for myself as a memory of how I felt right then. I could have easily skipped the second trip down into that gorge, but then I would have come home feeling humiliated and dejected. But instead I did what I had to do to make my best effort to find — and properly identify — this beautiful insect. Such a personal victory!

Riffle snaketail and Eastern Least Clubtail for size comparison
Riffle Snaketail behind the smaller Eastern Least Clubtail – the differences are so obvious when you see them together like this!

As I stood in the water with my face upturned to the sun, drinking in the feeling of success, I began to think about the climb back up those stairs. I wasn’t dreading it nearly as much as I thought I would, probably because I was high on endorphins. So I started to wade slowly toward the shore, savoring the last few moments in this lovely place. And suddenly…boom! The snaketail landed three feet in front of me, giving me an opportunity to take photos from almost directly above him. Oh man, I was giddy with glee now!

Louisiana Waterthrush at Hell Hollow for blogAnd then, again, I started to turn toward the stairs when some movement caught my eye on the far shore. A bird. I lifted my binoculars but already knew what it was just by the way it was walking…a Louisiana Waterthrush! I’d only had a couple brief views of this bird at home, and this time I got to watch it for about five minutes, right out in the open. The Louisiana Waterthrush is a warbler that bobs the back half of its body up and down as it walks, which is cute enough by itself. But this one was hopping from rock to rock in the creek…hopping and bobbing along. What a rare treat for me, and I felt it was a nice bonus for my willingness to go to hell and back…twice.

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Louisiana Waterthrush hopping and bopping along

As I write this I’m at home with calves that are so sore I can barely walk. In case you missed it, that was 1048 grueling stairs in and out of Hell Hollow. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat to recapture the feelings I had in that valley.

I’m remembering what I wrote a couple years ago about a similar feeling I had while watching Brown Creepers — that one was called “Lunatic in the Woods” because of me standing alone with a giant smile on my face.  It’s times like these when I feel the most connected to the earth and most appreciative of the amazing gifts of this planet.

There are so few places in the world these days where a person can be alone to enjoy a natural setting without the noise of other people, so whenever I find one of those places I make sure to absorb every moment so I can relive it whenever I want. And I never forget that some of my best memories are of special encounters with animals and unspoiled places in nature. I can’t help repeating this because of how important it is: Nature has such healing and restorative powers. #GetOutside

Resource note: If you’re interested in this idea of seeing what we expect to see, check out this article, particularly the last two paragraphs:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Maine Realized

It’s been a long-time dream of mine to visit Maine, but for some reason it kept getting pushed aside in favor of other destinations.  I finally decided it was time to just do it. I realized that I didn’t want to look back later and regret that I’d never seen Maine.

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Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick, Maine

When you think of Maine, what comes to mind? Lobsters. Blueberries. Whales. Lighthouses. Yep, I get it. But my romanticized vision of the state was one of rocky shores with waves of icy Atlantic water crashing against them, so that’s what I wanted to see.

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A beautiful but crowded spot that felt more like a kids’ playground

I also wanted to hike in Acadia National Park, and had made notes about a few trails I thought I’d like to walk. I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the most popular (aka crowded) trails. I’d hoped to have some quiet time away from people, time to enjoy the scenery and just do some thinking.

My first two days weren’t what I’d hoped, because I’d made the mistake of booking a hotel in the tourist mecca of Bar Harbor. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted this trip to be about. Within 10 minutes of arriving in town, I made a decision to avoid Bar Harbor as much as possible. I just don’t understand why that sort of place is enjoyable to people. Or maybe everyone just tolerates the “tourist-trappiness” of it because it’s the gateway to Acadia National Park.

Typical scene along Maine coast - boats pier flowersBut it didn’t take me much longer to turn things around, thankfully. I had a really wonderful few hours on a day that I drove north of the island to search for dragonflies. A friend had given me directions to a small river where he’d seen some species that would be new ones for me. So I drove out a dead-end gravel road alongside a pretty little river near a town called Amherst, and spent some time sitting on rocks watching the babbling water and the butterflies and dragonflies. I didn’t see another human for hours, a surprisingly rare experience anywhere these days. (Seriously, can you remember the last time you didn’t see another human for hours at a time?) I found two species I’d never seen before, but my photos weren’t as good as I’d hoped. My favorite was the Dragonhunter, just because it’s got a reputation as a fierce hunter of other dragons. Lots of odonates have interesting names, but “Dragonhunter” is one of the most intimidating.

Dragonhunter - confirmed by Rick
The feared Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus) – he eats other dragonflies!
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Hordes of humans, with Bass Harbor Light in the background, sort of

The absolute best part of my visit to Maine, though, was the day I discovered Otter Point. I’d been driving along the coast in Acadia National Park, stopping periodically to climb out on the granite cliffs with hundreds of other people. I was thrilled with the landscapes I was seeing, but still in search of a place without hordes of humans.

And then I found it. I’d gotten out of the car to climb out on the rocks once again, expecting to see other people already out there. But there was no one.  I had a big expanse of rocky coastline all to myself. Well, I was sharing it with some Common Eiders and Double-crested Cormorants, but there weren’t any people. I couldn’t believe my luck. And it got even better than that.

Cormorant drying its wings
Cormorant drying its wings

As I sat on a large chunk of granite watching the sea birds, I noticed fog starting to drift over the shoreline to the north of my position. It was starting to feel cooler, so I went to the car to grab a fleece pullover. As I closed my car door, another car pulled up and a man leaned out and asked me if there was anything to see down there. I had to think fast to get rid of him, so I said, “No, just a few ducks, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Haha, he spoke to his wife and they left. Victory! I reclaimed my spot on my rocks and felt my breathing get deeper and slower as the fog eventually arrived to moisten my cheeks.

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Common Eiders on kelp-covered rocks, before the fog swallowed them up

The eiders were just below me on the kelp-covered rocks, but soon they were no more than blurry shapes. There was a buoy bell ringing in the distance. I only knew that sound from movies, and had never realized how relaxing it could be. I went googling so I could share the sound with you, and found this 10-hour long recording of buoy bells meant to lull you to sleep. That’s so great! I’m listening to that as I type this, and am smiling from ear to ear with the memories of that day.

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Sailboat in the fog at Otter Point

You won’t be surprised to know that I visited Otter Point multiple times during my remaining time in Maine. I felt something there that I’ve never felt anywhere else in the 13 countries I’ve visited so far. I’m still not sure why I felt such a connection with that spot, and why it brought me so much peace.  I loved the solitude, and the enormity of the landscape, and the smell of the ocean, and the feel of the air….  But I guess I don’t need to completely understand it, as long as I recognize and appreciate it. That first day I spent alone on the rocks with the fog cooling my skin was an experience I’ll not soon forget. I think I could do that every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it.Yellow flowers and rocks at Otter Point

Fog rolling in at Otter Point w sig resized
My spot on Otter Point, with tiny people in the distance for scale

Oh, I almost forgot. This is Spoon, a humpback whale I saw in the Gulf of Maine. Maybe I can tell you more about her next time. 🙂
Humpback whale Spoon for blog (640x325)

Clarity

panorama-at-los-quetzales-lodge
Typical scenery in Costa Rica – gorgeous mountain views

Do you find that you go through phases in life where your interests change suddenly? I  do, and I’m moving into another one of those now. I think my recent trip to Costa Rica helped clarify things for me — traveling always helps to get my brain out of a rut. More about the trip below, but first a bit about those changing passions of life.

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Resplendent Quetzal

I spent the first decade of this century immersed in the knitting world, spending hours each day creating sweaters, socks, and hats. I went to knitting conventions, took classes, and bought lots of yarn.  I loved it so much I started a knitting design business. I sold my patterns nationwide and had a blast doing the marketing and all the other facets of running a business. And then one day I just lost interest in it all.  I think it was because I’d made my hobby into my job, and that sucked the joy out of it.

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Boat-billed Herons

After the knitting phase, I developed an intense interest in birdwatching, and left my knitting needles to gather dust as I ran around the woods and meadows looking for new species to add to my growing bird list. I joined my local Audubon chapter, attended birding events, and made lots of nature-loving friends. And then I took a job in the birding world. And very quickly after that I discovered that my passion for birding was waning. (More confirmation that it’s often not a good idea to turn a hobby into a job.)

So as I mentioned, I just spent a week at a birding lodge in Costa Rica and was surprised to realize that my enthusiasm for finding new birds had evaporated. I’m sure part of the reason was that it was very humid and muddy, and as much as I like to tell myself that I’m okay with that, I’m not. (I hate to sweat so much that I’ve often wished I could do my workouts in the shower so the sweat would wash off immediately. You think I’m joking about that? Nope.) I think I’m suddenly at a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to traipse around on muddy mountain roads getting attacked by mosquitoes while trying to get a brief glimpse of a bird I won’t even remember in two months.

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Golden-olive Woodpecker

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve just written that, actually, but I think it’s true. I still love birds, but I can’t see myself traveling internationally again for the sole purpose of adding new species to my list. I’d rather spend quality time with birds closer to home. Two years ago, when I went to Panama, I was totally geeked about the birds. But it’s different now. I just didn’t feel it on this trip.

Even when I stood on the balcony at the lodge watching dozens of hummingbirds swarming around a half dozen feeders, I couldn’t summon the interest to try and identify the various species. It’s not that I didn’t get enjoyment from sitting there watching them, but I had no desire to identify every one of them just in case it was a new name to add to a list. I was content to know the names of a half dozen species, and after that I didn’t really care. I know the hardcore birders out there will revoke my “real birder” badge now, but that’s okay. I willingly surrender it.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbird
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One Fiery-throated Hummer and two Lesser Violetears

trio-of-brahma-cows-on-a-hillI do still enjoy trying to get a nice photo of a bird though, and that’s why I’m sharing a few in this post. But you’ll also notice some non-bird photos from this trip. I really loved those Brahma cows standing on the steep hillsides. Talk about picturesque…. (Here’s my Flickr album from the Costa Rica trip, with more pics being added in the next few days.)

Despite this waning passion for the sporting aspect of birding, I did have enthusiasm for some of the birds on this trip. Along with the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal and the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, I was hoping to see some more woodpecker species on this trip. There’s something about woodpeckers that I find irresistible. In fact, if given a choice to watch hummingbirds or woodies, I believe I would choose the woodpeckers. I’ve written a bit about woodpeckers here before.

Cinnamon Woodpecker male
Cinnamon Woodpecker (Panama)

Here at home we have quite a few beautiful species of woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Pileated, Northern Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. (Here’s a link to my Flickr photos of woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio.) And when I was in Panama a couple  years ago, I saw the beautiful Cinnamon Woodpecker, the Crimson-crested, the Black-cheeked, Red-crowned,  and the Lineated Woodpecker.

In Costa Rica I saw a few more types, including the Golden-olive Woodpecker and my favorite, the Acorn Woodpecker. We stopped at a feeding station on one of our day trips, and as we walked toward it we saw a small group of Acorn Woodpeckers (aka clown-faced woodpeckers) fly up into the trees.  I didn’t  recall ever seeing woodpeckers in groups before, but I was so busy trying to get photos of them and all the other birds that day that I didn’t think too much about that interesting tidbit. So imagine my delight when I sorted my mail once I returned home and found that the new issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest has an article about Acorn Woodpeckers! (“The Clown-faced Woodpecker with an Obsession,” by Steve Shunk.)

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Acorn Woodpecker (female)

In this article I learned some fascinating facts about these birds. They often live in small family groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring from past years. Hmm, that could explain why there were so many together that day in Costa Rica. And in addition to the obvious acorns, which they prefer to eat when they’re fresh in the last summer and fall, these woodpeckers actually catch insects on the wing in much the same way as the typical flycatchers do.

I wish we’d had time to stay and watch them for a while longer, but that’s not how things work on these group birding trips, so it was back into the van and on to the next stop….

I’ve been feeling rather unsettled these past couple months. I thought it was mostly because I’d quit my job and wasn’t sure what I would do next. But writing this has helped me clarify what’s actually going on, and now I know that I’m moving into another stage of my life with exciting new interests. And leaving that job was what enabled me to get some much-needed distance from the intensity of the birding world. I’m sure birds will still be an important part of the way I connect with nature, but now I’m free to explore some of the other things I’ve been keeping on the back burner in recent years. I’m suddenly feeling quite optimistic and purposeful, and I think that’s a very good way to enter the new year.

Here’s hoping you have something to look forward to in 2017 as well.

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Cattle Egret on a cow…match made in heaven, lol

 

 

 

 

It’s a Jungle Out There!

Oh my gosh, where do I begin? We recently spent a week birding in Panama, at the incredible Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge resorts. These two properties are very different in many ways, but share a wonderful hospitality and the absolute highest quality birding guides. I think I’ll try to break this into a couple posts, with this first one focusing on the Canopy Tower and our experiences there during the first three days of our week. Canopy Tower view from ground (600x800)

Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower
Welcome / Warning sign on gate of Canopy Tower

After a horrific travel day on Saturday we finally arrived at the Canopy Tower in time for a late dinner before dropping exhausted into bed in our small but comfortable room. The Canopy Tower is a converted U.S. military radar station overlooking the Panama Canal. The owner of all the Canopy properties, Raúl Arias de Para, had the vision to convert this historic property into a tourist lodge. And what a fantastic job he did. The lower levels hold the guest rooms, which are pie-shaped wedges. The rooms are very simple but quite comfortable. There’s no air conditioning, but the ceiling fans helped quite a bit with sleeping in the jungle heat and humidity.

They’ve left the barbed wire fence in place, a remnant of when this was still a military site. They say it’s not there for security anymore, but they do keep it locked at all times, so you decide. I never felt threatened or unsafe at all, anywhere in Panama, so I think it’s just for the ambiance.  It lends an element of drama to the whole experience, if you ask me.

My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower
My first morning on the observation deck atop the Canopy Tower

It had already gotten dark when we walked out of the airport, so we really couldn’t see anything of our surroundings on the hour-long drive to the tower. So I was anxious for morning so I could see what everyone had been telling me about. And oh my goodness, what a morning it was! Howler Monkeys (800x694) I’d heard loud insect and frog calls all night long, but just before dawn I heard the first deep-throated and haunting calls of the Mantled Howler Monkeys all around us. What a thrill! I’m glad I knew ahead of time to expect those sounds because otherwise I might have been scared that there was some sort of birder-eating monster coming to get us. There’s no question how these guys got their names, that’s for sure. Some mornings they were nearer the tower, and other mornings more distant, but they were a constant presence during our stay. We were even lucky enough to see several family groups of them on our various hikes in and around the town of Gamboa.

It wasn't all about the birds -- I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards
It wasn’t all about the birds — I loved finding these perfectly-camouflaged lizards

When we arrived the first night for our late dinner, there was a group of eight or ten people finishing their meal in the dining room. They had their own guide from another tour company, but we had booked our trip directly with the Tower and we had the amazing good fortune to get one of the Canopy family’s best guides all to ourselves. I’d met Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid in Ohio a few months earlier during the Biggest Week in American Birding, when he’d made his very first visit to America. So it was a gigantic pleasure to have him lead us around his country on our first visit there. I’ll probably go overboard in praising the guides here, but I can’t help it. Eliecer was not only kind and patient with us, but unbelievably adept at finding and calling in the birds so we could see them. (I cannot believe I forgot to get pictures of myself with any of our guides!)

Golden-hooded Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager

Ok, I know you want to see what we saw, so let’s get to some pictures. This was my first time ever in Central America, so I knew that almost every bird I would see on this trip would be a new one for my life list. As it turned out, I saw 212 species of birds during the week, with 90% of them being new ones, or “lifers.” Even though we had purchased field guides prior to our trip, if not for our amazingly skilled human guides, we wouldn’t have been able to find (or identify) most of these birds. I felt as overwhelmed as I did when I first started trying to learn warblers during spring migration in Ohio. But I kept reminding myself to just relax and enjoy seeing them, without stressing about not knowing all the identifications on my own.

Keel-billed Toucan
Keel-billed Toucan. (Fruit Loops, anyone?)

Right off the bat we saw many Keel-billed Toucans and Red-lored Parrots all around the Tower. One morning I even saw a toucan from the window while I was showering! How cool is that?

Green Honeycreeper
Green Honeycreeper

The Tower keeps several hummingbird feeders stocked so it was easy to see a good variety of hummers. Easy to see them, much harder to photograph them. But I managed to get a couple good shots. I watched this Blue-chested Hummingbird sipping nectar from dozens of flowers on the mimosa tree out front. After a frustrating half hour of trying to shoot him before he moved to the next flower, I got smart and focused on one location and waited for him to come there. I felt so clever!

Blue-chested Hummingbird
Blue-chested Hummingbird

This White-necked Jacobin was one of my favorite hummingbirds.

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin

I was surprised that we found quite a few parent birds taking food to their hidden nests, and even saw some nestlings directly. (In my next post I’ll share a picture of baby hummingbirds in their nest.) When we were birding on Pipeline Road on our first day, we saw a pair of Fasciated Antshrikes carrying insects into the foliage. We stood quietly and watched where they had disappeared, and were rewarded with up-close views of the male when he came out to investigate after dropping off his food at the nest. He popped out just above the ground only a few feet away from me. I could barely fit him in the frame and get off a couple shots, and then he flew across the trail right in front of me. I got the feeling he was upset that we were too close to the nest (which we couldn’t see), so we moved off and left the little family to their important business. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip though. Isn’t he a beautiful bird? Look at those red eyes.

Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.
Fasciated Antshrike papa, investigating the humans who were apparently too close to his offspring.

And there were more monkeys. These white-faced capuchins were quite far off and didn’t stick around long, but I managed to get a shot to remember the moment:

White-faced Capuchin
White-faced Capuchin

And another of my favorite birds, the Cinnamon Woodpecker. We watched a pair of them in the trees right beside the Tower on our last day…such a treat. I really love woodpeckers.

Cinnamon Woodpecker, male
Cinnamon Woodpecker, male

This is getting pretty long (I knew that would happen), so I’ll end this first post with a couple more shots of the Canopy Tower. Every morning at dawn they provide coffee and tea up on the observation deck. The stairs to the platform are very steep, prompting the staff to put up this sign as a caution to sleepy pre-dawn birders:

Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (1) (640x247)
Staircase to observation deck at Canopy Tower (2) (533x800)It sounds a bit confusing, but it’s easy when you’re doing it. I even managed to go up those stairs with my laptop opened up one day, trying to Skype with some friends back home. Unfortunately the wireless signal kept cutting out as soon as I got up on the roof, but I did manage to give them a Skype tour of the interior of this unique building. The Tower isn’t the Ritz, but I was very comfortable there and it was worth tolerating the heat and humidity just to have the experience of staying in this place. But just wait until you see the Canopy Lodge…stay tuned for part two of my Panama adventures!

Birders on the observation deck of the Tower
Birders on the observation deck of the Tower

 

 

 

Booby Attack

No, not those boobies — I’m talking about birds here! (Although I’m curious to see how many hits I get to my blog for the wrong reasons, lol.) It’s finally time for some stories from our vacation on Kaua’i. This one is about two of the most dramatic things that happened on our trip, both involving birds.

Our first stop as we explored the island was Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Many visitors are drawn to this spot because it’s the northernmost point in the state of Hawai’i. Others come to see the picturesque lighthouse. You won’t be surprised to learn that we went there to see the sea birds (ha ha).

Kilauea Lighthouse -KimIt hadn’t crossed my mind to check the hours before heading over there, so we ended up having to wait outside the gate for 45 minutes. But that was fine, because the view from outside the gate was the best view of the lighthouse anyway, and I used the time to get up close and personal with some exciting birds while we waited.

Red-crested Cardinals
Red-crested Cardinals

Almost every bird I saw on this trip was new and exciting; it was like being a kid in a candy store, running around wide-eyed trying to see everything at once. I still smile when I think of the Red-crested Cardinals that are so common all over the island. They’re such close relatives to the familiar and beloved Northern Cardinals we have here in Michigan, and yet they’re so different. I mean, just look at these birds, will ya? These cardinals were brought to Kaua’i from Brazil, so I thought of them as being all dressed up for Carnaval, the big festival in Rio de Janeiro. But while the people of Rio only wear their flamboyant costumes for a few days each year, these birds keep their magnificent outfits all year long. I was lucky enough to find an approachable pair foraging on the ground and got my best shots of these adorable cardinals right there.

I'm all dressed up, where's the party?
I’m all dressed up, where’s the party?

The Hawaiian Geese called Nene (“nay-nay”) are also very approachable. They kept coming too close for my camera lens, forcing me to keep backing up to get shots of them. I love the patterning on their necks, and they made a soft murmuring sound that was very endearing. I think they were begging for food, actually. The Nene is Hawaii’s state bird, and is on the Endangered Species List. In 1951 their population had declined to about 30 birds, but thanks to intensive conservation efforts, there are now about 2,000 of them living on several of the Hawaiian islands.

Nene, endangered Hawaiian Goose
Nene, endangered Hawaiian Goose
Roosters in stealth mode....
Roosters in stealth mode….
Moa, aka Red Junglefowl
Moa, aka Red Junglefowl

Notice the roosters behind me as I was taking photos of the Nene? Well these roosters were the source of the first dramatic moment of the morning. Just like the geese, the roosters have no fear of humans. In fact, they’ll follow you around begging too. They’re all so beautiful, each with their own colors and patterns, that I couldn’t resist reaching my hand out to draw one closer to me. As I knelt down and started to extend my arm, I knew it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But by then it was too late. The rooster, assuming I had food in my hand, lunged for it with a fast pecking motion of his head. That, of course, startled me and I fell onto the pavement, tearing a big gash in the side of my ankle. And even worse, my camera with the expensive 300mm lens on it also hit the pavement. I felt like an idiot. Thankfully nobody was watching, or at least they had the decency to pretend they hadn’t seen what happened. Eric and I now refer to this incident as “the day Kim was attacked by a rooster.” I’m not proud of it, but it is funny. I still have a scar on my ankle, but my camera was unharmed.

Ok, maybe that was a mini-drama. I might have exaggerated for effect.

White-tailed Tropicbird - isn't that beautiful?
White-tailed Tropicbird – isn’t he beautiful?

Shortly after the rooster attack, the gates opened and we drove down the narrow, winding road to the parking lot beside the lighthouse. We’d been able to watch the large seabirds from outside the gate, but down on the point we got to see them soaring directly over our heads. And they were awesome. There were White-tailed Tropicbirds, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Red-footed Boobies, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Great Frigate Birds. Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time of year for the Laysan Albatrosses to be around.

So the real drama of the day involved the Great Frigatebirds attacking the Red-footed Boobies to take their fish away from them. And not only did I get to see this fascinating behavior, but I was stunned that I was able to get some pretty good photos of the mid-air action. First, here’s a photo of a Great Frigatebird:

Great Frigatebird on patrol
Great Frigatebird on patrol

You can’t tell from a photo, but that bird has a seven foot wingspan and can live for thirty years. Just fantastic birds!

And here’s a photo of a Red-footed Booby:

Red-footed Booby, unsuspecting....
Red-footed Booby, unsuspecting….

I think the blue bills of these boobies are so pretty. And I learned that they use their big red webbed feet to incubate their eggs (most birds incubate their eggs by sitting on them so they absorb heat from a brood patch on the parent bird’s abdomen). That’s interesting!

Boobies dive straight down into the ocean, as deep as about 30 feet, to catch their prey. And maybe because they don’t want to get wet, the frigatebirds have a habit of stealing food from the boobies. They attack the boobies in mid-air, forcing them to drop the fish they’re carrying. And when the harassed booby opens its mouth to screech its displeasure, the frigatebird swoops down and grabs the free-falling fish right out of the air. Sounds dramatic, right? Take a look at this series of photos:

Two frigatebirds ganging up on a booby with a meal —

Two on one, no fair!
Two on one, no fair!

The booby tries to escape —

Indignant Booby!
Indignant Booby

The booby drops its food — see it in mid-air?

A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.
A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The frigatebird swoops down and gets an easy meal. Well, relatively easy. At least easier than finding your own fish, I guess. There’s lots of loud squawking whenever this happens, so it’s hard to miss it. Or so I thought. I was amazed to notice that lots of my fellow tourists didn’t even look up when the birds were screeching directly overhead. I felt sorry for those who missed a golden opportunity to witness this amazing spectacle.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick
Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick

But one thing everyone did notice was the baby Wedge-tailed Shearwater tucked into a planter right beside the doorway to the visitor center. Thankfully the officials had made a barrier of yellow tape to protect the baby, because people were really pushing the boundaries trying to get their phone cameras right in its fuzzy little face. I was glad I had my telephoto lens on so I could take my photos from a respectful distance. Poor little guy. I can’t imagine how the parents were managing to get in there to feed him with so many people crowding him all the time.

I hope you enjoyed this visit to one of our nation’s most beautiful National Wildlife Refuges. Here’s one last photo, looking northward from the lighthouse at the stunning coast of Kaua’i:

Northeast coast of Kaua'i, seen from Kilauea Point NWR
Northeast coast of Kaua’i, seen from Kilauea Point NWR

Aloha!

We’re halfway through our vacation on Kauai right now and my head is spinning from the beauty of this place. I don’t know how I’ll ever put it into words, so for now I’ll just share a couple photos to whet your appetite for what’s to come — IF I can force myself to get on the plane to go home, that is. The pull of the islands is strong, my friends, very strong….

Japanese White-eye, also known as Mejiro. Isn't he beautiful?
Japanese White-eye, also known as Mejiro. Isn’t he beautiful?

This double rainbow greeted us early this morning at Ha'ena Beach.
This double rainbow greeted us early this morning at Ha’ena Beach.