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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hey! There's a Bird in my Bellybutton!

I'm not sure if its my recent 40th birthday, or the upcoming 4th anniversary of this blog, or what, but I seem to be succumbing to some serious navel-gazing!

And what do I see, besides some extra flab? Why, a great big bird in the middle of my bellybutton!

To most people, having a bird in your belly would probably be cause for a visit to the hospital emergency room.

For me, it just leaves me puzzled.

Are birds too big a part of my life? Have they crowded out other things to the point where they are sometimes an irritant, like a flicker in your navel?

Once, I asked a friend if he ever thought birds had ruined his life. He scoffed at the notion. But I wonder. Do I ever, personally, take it too far?

After more than six months of getting my Bird RDA every day, I've fallen off the wagon. I can't tell right now if I am itching to chase birds in some exotic far away land, or if I just want a nap.

Am I in trouble, or what? Has my case progressed beyond Bird Induced Attention Deficit Disorder (BIADD) to develop into a dangerous Acute Birding Induced Malaise (ABIM)?

What happens when birds burrow so deeply into your soul, that you have a hard time functioning without them, yet they seem to be eating away at the rest of your life? When you feel all hollowed out, like a flicker snag, heavy and over-sodden in a rainstorm?

We love to speak of the joy of birding. But what of the burden? The dangers of peering too deeply into the heart of something so alien, that it numbs the mind?

I suspect more birding isn't the remedy for that. I need bird rehab. Not the kind where you take injured birds. More of a Betty Ford Center for birders who have gone too far!

But in lieu of that, perhaps its best to just settle in for a nice long nap! A couple days of rest is apt to be a tonic for the bird blinkered soul!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Slim Pickins

Despite the photo I'm talking about my recent bird sightings, not the actor. The last couple weeks have been pretty light on the birding front. This morning I was able (just barely) to make my Bird RDA, but the birds were pretty few and far between. I was able to finally find a couple pockets of migrant warblers--American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Common Yellowthroat. Nice to see them coming through, since they'll all be in the tropics before long.

With high winds, it was mostly a morning to enjoy the calls of Blue Jays and the rustling of the wind through the trees. Nice to get out, even when the going is slow.

What are you?

Someone once told me that you know what you are by what you do when you don't have to do anything. With a free day or morning on your calendar, what do you do? This morning, I am a birder!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hurricane damage to High Island

Here's a report on damage caused by Hurricane Ike at High Island. It sounds pretty bad, but could have been worse. It'll probably be fine for spring migration again next year.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mega: Wandering Albatross in Oregon

When I was a kid in Oregon, we made ourselves giddy even thinking about something like this. Now it has happened, a Wandering Albatross (2nd North American record) was seen last weekend off the Oregon Coast. Sweet! Wish I had been there!

Beginner's Guide to Bird Blogs up at I and the Bird #84

I've posted a Beginner's Guide to Bird Blogs on the Audubon Birdscapes blog for the I and the Bird #84 blog carnival. Enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2008

2008 Maya Bird Research Trip

With generous funding from Reitaku University in Japan, Mayan linguist Kerry Hull and I spent 17 days in Guatemala and Belize collecting Mopan, Q'eqchi', and Tz'utujil bird names and bird lore. A continuation of our previous research on Ch'orti' Mayan bird lore, this time we interviewed dozens of local residents and managed to get over 250 bird names, as well as over a hundred items of local bird lore, and several longer recordings of bird stories, which we will publish over the next couple of years. Here are links to my posts about various parts of our trip:

Birding Punta Gorda, Belize
Big Falls Lodge, Belize
Mopan Maya Deer Dance, San Antonio, Belize
Birding Blue Creek, Belize
Birding the Mopan Mayan Village of San Jose, Belize
Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya Bird Traditions
Birding Lubaantun Mayan Ruins
Pygmy-Owl in Antigua
Bird Lore from Santiago Atitlan, the House of Birds
Birding San Pedro Volcano, Guatemala
Birding with Maximón
Birds on the Altar at Santiago Atitlan
Birding Hotel Bambu in Santiago Atitlan
Ghost of the Poc

Ghost of the Poc

Of course, the one bird we didn't see on Lake Atitlan is the now extinct Poc, or Giant Grebe. The last of these large flightless water birds were seen in 1989. The reeds around the lake where they once lived are strangely quiet--a few Green Herons and Great-tailed Grackles were mostly all we saw there. An empty lake, reminding us to walk gently on the planet.

Birding Hotel Bambu in Santiago Atitlan

Our base of operations while we were in Santiago Atitlan was the Hotel Bambu--with a nice set of bungalows and other accommodations. Food and wireless internet there were great, and the grounds featured over 20 local birds, making it possible to get my Bird RDA without too much trouble, at least when it wasn't raining. The most common birds included Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Clay-colored Thrush (still want to call that a robin, despite what the AOU says), and Tropical Mockingbird.

Birds on the Altar at Santiago Atitlan

The Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan has a famous altar featuring traditional Mayan beliefs mixed with more traditional Catholic imagery (see Allen Christensen's book on this amazing altar, Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community). Above is a panel featuring a traditional Deer Dance (on the left), as well as the local saint Maximón (in the center).

This image of a Quetzal bearing the good word of the gospel comes from the front of the pulpit.

Perhaps most amazing is the navel of the universe, which is a hole in the floor in front of the altar, seen here covered and with two candles on top.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a good shot of the double-headed bird high up on the altarpiece (it was pretty dark in there), which represents a figure from a very old local story.

Birding with Maximón

While in Santiago Atitlan, we did some work with the priests of Maximón, a local saint who may well be the modern version of the old Mayan God L. He lives in a cofradia house("God House") where he is taken care of by several Mayan priests. Most visitors arrive, snap a few photos, and leave. We sat down, broke out the bird books and iPod loaded with local bird songs, and spent half an hour recording bird names and local bird lore. It isn't everyday you get to bird with a Mayan saint!

We didn't want to ruin the moment, so didn't snap any photos of our own. Hence, photo: Wikipedia

Birding San Pedro Volcano, Guatemala

One morning we paddled across Lake Atitlan from Santiago to visit the lower slopes of the San Pedro Volcano. On top of this volcano, you can see Horned Guans, but we didn't have the time to make the 5 hour hike (and would have probably needed police protection--best to try this hike from the Village San Pedro side). We did manage to collect some great additional bird names--and get the local lore on curing warts by dancing with a Band-backed Wrens. Highlights birdwise in the coffee plantations and corn fields were White-faced Quail-Dove (heard only), Blue-and-White Mockingbird, and Blue-throated Motmot.

Bird Lore from Santiago Atitlan, the House of Birds

The Tz'utujil Mayan town of Santiago Atitlan on the shores of Lake Atitlan is known in Tz'utujil as the "House of Birds". We asked a lot of folks why it has that name, and were told that birds used to be abundant there, nesting in the rooftops of thatched houses. Most of the people we were able to talk to there are not as closely tied to the forest or fields as their predecessors, so we weren't able to get as many bird names or stories as we did in the Mopan or Q'eqchi' areas, but we still collected some interesting accounts of using hummingbirds as cures for epilepsy and as love potions!

One of the most striking things about Santiago Atitlan are the birds embroidered onto the traditional blouses and men's short pants. A nice hand-embroidered pair of pants there will run you over $500. That's some expensive shorts! While most folks may not know a whole lot about birds in the town, birds are still extremely important symbols of identity for town residents (check out one of our friend's pants below).

Pygmy-Owl in Antigua

While walking around colonial Antigua, Guatemala, we spotted this little guy on a wire above the busy sidewalk (yeah, look carefully, he's that little dot). While Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in Texas and Arizona are usually found in areas with native habitat, I've seen these guys in some pretty urban areas of Mexico and Guatemala--though this one may take the cake. An arrow in this lower photo shows where this bird was relative to the sheet-metal rooftops of this bustling area!

Antigua's a great city, but not the safest place for tourists to explore beyond the central areas. Unlike most parts of the US, it isn't considered safe for birders in Guatemala to just wander across the countryside looking for birds, so most birding takes place on private lands or preserves. Fortunately, a new birding spot that is only a seven minute taxi ride from downtown Antigua is set to open soon, so on my next trip I look forward to doing a bit more exploring beyond the confines of the city!

Fake cactus wren nest video

I've already blogged about the fake cactus wren nests in California over at Audubon Birdscapes. Now the LA Times has a short video:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Birding Lubaantun Mayan Ruins

Unfortunately, most Mayan archaeological sites don't open up first thing in the morning, when the birds are most active. By the time we got in to the ruins at Lubaantun (where the original Crystal Skull was supposedly found), the sun was up and the birds were getting quiet. We still managed to see some nice birds, including our first White-collared Swifts of the trip, and heard a Slaty-breasted Tinamou calling from the slope down to the creek behind the ruins. Other goodies included Black-headed Trogon, Black-cowled Oriole, and Passerini's Tanager.

Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya Bird Traditions

We met Francisco at the Deer Dance, and he drove us several places in his pickup truck. A Q'eqchi' Maya who came to Belize from Guatemala as a small boy, and married to a Mopan woman, Francisco spent his younger years hunting and farming and absorbing a lot of local bird names and stories. We had a great time hanging out with him as he told us how birds helped him find game while hunting, or how they influence the corn crops. As people give up hunting and farming, they start to lose this kind of knowledge, so it was great to find it still alive and well...for the time being. While the average American can identify less than 20 bird species, we routinely found Mayans who knew many, many more. Francisco could tell us about more than double that many.

Birding the Mopan Mayan Village of San Jose, Belize

A highlight of our research trip was spending three nights in the village of San Jose, deep in the Toledo District of Belize near the Guatemalan border. Thanks to the Toledo Ecotourism Association, we were able to sleep in the guest house in the village, and take meals with the local families. We also got excellent guiding from the members of the cooperative that run the guest house, and were able to leave after three days with over 120 Mopan Mayan bird names and some great local stories.

Most of the village is without electricity, though a few people have solar panels or generators, and most folks in the village still grow almost all their own rice and corn and other food. This is also where they grow the cacao for Mayan Gold Chocolate. One of our highlights was seeing the nest of a Little Tinamou, complete with two eggs, in the middle of a cacao orchard.

Accommodations in the guest house were cosy and the food was great--usually I was more concerned about getting sick at a lodge or hotel than when eating with the local folks. Nothing like handmade corn tortillas and palm heart for breakfast!

Since we were mostly collecting bird and plant names, our hikes each day didn't take us very far, but someone with more time for hiking and less time for note-taking can get to some nice primary forests, ceremonial caves, and other spectacular areas. We spent mornings hiking around, and afternoons going over bird books and recordings of bird calls with our guides. Our guides were knowledgable about local birds, and that was what we really wanted. My favorite local bird name: Totoweh for the Barred Antshrike, based on its long call of totototototototototweh, with all the notes on one pitch then twisting up at the end. Most birds are named for their calls, which makes learning bird calls much easier!

Hiking around the village we saw got looks at lots of birds including Bat Falcon, Striped Cuckoo, and White-crowned Parrots. One of my personal favorites was the Orange-billed Sparrow. Also great to see dozens of Vaux's Swifts, and to note how at stubby-winged these Central American birds look compared to the Chimney Swifts back in the States.

I highly recommend a stay in San Jose for anyone who wants to get to know some great people with some great traditions and way of life. You can contact the Toledo Ecotourism Association online, or write directly to the TEA Guest House, San Jose Village, Toledo District, Belize (Central America).

Birding Blue Creek, Belize

Through the Toledo Ecotourism Association, we hooked up with Sylvano Sho, an expert Mopan Maya naturalist and authority on local medicinal plants, for a couple days of birding and research in Blue Creek, a small village about an hour from Big Falls. We were able to get dozens of Mopan and Q'eqchi' bird names and some great stories from Sylvano, and enjoyed staying with and dining with his family.

Besides being extremely beautiful, Blue Creek was also full of birds. Nice forests come right down to the village along the creek, and open rice fields in the village host hundreds of ducks, herons, and storks. We got great looks at two Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures perched near the road, as well as Muscovy, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Limpkin, Northern Jacana, Ruddy Crake, and Wood Storks.

After sweating buckets for several days, it was nice to take a dip in the creek. Even with the strong current, it was pretty bumpy floating over the rapids without an inner tube. I got pretty banged up, but it was worth it!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mopan Maya Deer Dance, San Antonio, Belize

While scheduling our week of collecting Mopan and Q'eqchi' Mayan bird names and folklore, we heard that one of the local communities was doing their annual Deer Dance, a traditional Mayan celebration tied to hunting and the local village saint. So Monday morning, bright and early, we hired a driver to take us out to San Antonio, the largest Mopan Mayan town in southern Belize.

When we got there, we were welcomed and invited to head over to the house of the local patron who was putting on the dance, giving us a nice behind-the-scenes look at the dance preparations. The participants had finished a big dance and party the night before, and had spent all night watching over the village saint and the ceremonial "greasy pole" that would be erected at the end of the dance.

After a few hours of marimba music, practicing some dance steps, and being ceremonially incensed with copal smoke, the dancers went down to the soccer field in town to start the all day dancing.

At the end of the dancing, the men put up the "greasy pole", a sixty foot pole covered with lard and soap with a prize on top. Teams of men who had helped bring in the pole took turns trying to climb the pole to get the prize in order to share the money and rum with their teammates.

It was quite a sight to see modern Maya erecting a sacred ceiba tree in the ceremonial ground next to the church--as Maya have been doing for perhaps thousands of years.

We learned a lot about the dance, and the difficulties in staging it each year. Basically, the local patron who sponsors the dance for three years (shown here with his wife and the village saint), has to foot most of the bill, and its quite a chore. Hopefully they can get some sponsorship to keep the dance going in future years.

The villagers were quite inviting in sharing this celebration with us. If you're thinking of somewhere to go next August, you couldn't do better than to spend a couple days at the Deer Dance in San Antonio! Check out the Toledo Ecotourism Association for more info on visiting San Antonio. See here for notes from someone who attended the dance in 1989.

On the bird front, not a whole lot of birds in the village--Common Tody Flycatcher welcomed us as we arrived in town, and Red-lored Amazons and Olive-throated Parakeets flew over during the dance.

The Lodge at Big Falls, Belize

Our base of operations for our first few days in Belize was The Lodge at Big Falls. Almost 30 acres of secondary forest and nice bungalows. We saw more than 50 species right at the lodge over the few days we slept there--highlights being Black-and-White Owl, Mottled Owl, and Vermiculated Screech-Owl. The Black-and-White Owl comes out in the evening and calls from the edge of the forest near the swimming pool. We had up to three Mottled Owls calling from right behind our bungalow. We also added Collared Forest-Falcon to the property list. Lots of fun! If you go, ask for Steven their local birding guide. He's a young Q'eqchi' Mayan guy and great with the local birds.

Birding Punta Gorda, Belize

After a long delayed flight to Guatemala City, we started our two week research trip to Guatemala and Belize with a five hour bus ride to Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast and an hour boat ride across to Punta Gorda, Belize. Lots of Magnificent Frigatebirds over the water, along with migrating Black Terns. At one point a nice Brown Noddy flew right past our boat when we were in Belizean waters. Not a lot of birds in Punta Gorda, its just a small town on the water. But our guest house featured the national bird, a good omen of things to come!

One difference between birding in Guatemala and birding in Belize--the price! Most prices were close to American, and some were even higher. Personal favorite--a gallon of cranberry juice for more than US $10! Needless to say, no cranberry juice for us this trip!

Condor Project a Bust?

Latest word from the American Ornithological Union--condors may never be fully self-sustaining in the wild (see story here). Is it worth $5 million a year to keep them around? This question has been asked for decades, but with the birds so dependent on humans to keep them free from lead, the feasibility of this project keeps coming back up.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Monday, September 08, 2008

Welcome Back Nighthawks

Last night on the drive back home from the airport, I saw a couple Common Nighthawks wing past at dusk. I'll be looking for them from my yard the next few days for my 2008 BIGBY list. Good to be back in the states, but could use some more great homemade tortillas! A series of posts and photos on my trip to Guatemala and Belize will appear over the next few days, so stay tuned.
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