Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There's No Place Like Home!

Juvenile Harpy Eagle. Photo by Mark Watson
Scarlet-horned Manakin. Photo by Mark Watson

There’s nothing quite like a visit to a third world country to make one appreciate the lifestyle Americans take for granted. I currently have a special fondness for certain luxuries: hot water; potable water; meat that is recognizable; well-maintained roads, vehicles with adequate exhaust systems, and uninterrupted sleep. There are positives from the trip that I always will cherish: new and improved friendships, awe for the amazing diversity of flora and fauna of Venezuela; and an greater appreciation for a different culture.

We saw birds too! Many of them! While I didn’t see anything approaching the record 380+ species recorded by the top birder in the group, I tallied a remarkable 328 species, of which 281 were life birds for me. Yes, we did see the magnificent Harpy Eagle, one flighted youngster of 18 months, and both parents. Our Venezuelan guides led us right up to a viewing spot and there was the immature eagle, perched right in plain view. As we watched, the adult male flew over, likely checking to see if all was well with Junior. We later viewed the adult female who perched nicely for viewing through the scope as we were leaving the area.

We were asked to list our “top three” birds by our trip leader, Jim Black of Chupaflor Tours, so the group could determine the “top” bird of the trip. Indeed, the Harpy Eagles were a big score, but it seemed just a little too easy to find them, almost as if we didn’t earn the experience. We also saw rarities, birds that skulked in the dense undergrowth, and a wide variety of brilliantly colored species like the Paradise Tanager that looks as if it were colored by a child with a new box of crayons. We saw amazing hummingbirds, like the Crimson Topaz with its incredibly long tail, and a Sooty-capped Hermit on her nest. At a wetland, we found two Pinnated Bitterns in flight and a bird that is called, a Double-striped Thick-knee. Now, who would think up a name like that for a bird!? Fortunately, birds don’t care what we humans call them.

We found a Rufous Crab-Hawk in the mangrove swamp. To me, it seemed logical that the primary food of a bird called a Crab-Hawk would be crabs. As we motored through the mangroves on increasingly larger waterways, I kept expecting to arrive at the ocean, where there would be a beach with a flourishing crab colony. However, after at least two hours of boating, we didn’t appear to be anywhere near the beach. Eventually, our Venezuelan guide pointed to two large hawks perched high above the mangroves with no beach in sight. I wondered just where it was that these hawks could find enough crabs to sustain themselves in the unlikely crab habitat. That is, until we pulled over close to the mangroves to look at a flycatcher, only to discover the trees were literally crawling with crabs, big and small. They skuttled up and over the roots and raced up the tree trunks. They are a species of tree crab, at home in this aquatic environment, and so numerous they plunked into our boats with regularity.

As I think about all the marvelous birds of Venezuela, and choosing only three of them, there is one that brings a smile to my face each time, the Scarlet-horned Manakin. We came upon a male deep in the rainforest, a little fellow with a crimson head and a jet black body. We watched as he performed his unique courtship moonwalk dance in the style of Michael Jackson. I’ll never forget the abandon with which he danced – as if no one were watching. Check out another manakin species dancing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDYpW3zyXqQ
If you are interested in more trip details, I’ve posted photos and stories about the trip on my other blog.

But, as exciting as my South American adventure was, there was immense comfort as I turned my car onto NM 4 and drove into the Jemez Valley. I stopped at the Highway 4 coffee shop for my favorite latte, and chatted with some of the folks there. Ponderosa Drive had just been bladed, for better or worse, and the birds at my place were hungry. My neighbors down the hill invited me over for dinner later this week, and I am thrilled to be back. There’s no place like home.

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