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What do the Rolling Stones have to do with Gratitude?

25 Mar IMG_3265

I got a call today from an old college friend, a friend who knows me well and appreciates my eccentricities. When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I was watching a Rolling Stones video. I then tried to explain that I was doing research for my blog and that the Stones were helping me practice Gratitude. This ended up sounding lame even to me, and I had to tell my friend to just wait for the blog, and then it would all make sense. And so, here it is…


A year ago at the time of the Spring Equinox, I was living in the tropics, taking part in an exotic international experience full of adventure, romance, fun and excitement. Immersed in the beauty of the ocean environment, I relished gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, thrilled to amazing ecosystems and rare wildlife sightings, all the while embraced by the warmth and openness of the Latin American culture. The full moon rising over the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica took my breath away. There was never a dull moment.

Over the past year, my mom had some health issues back in the states, my romance became more challenging than nurturing, and I realized that in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with mom in my bland, dull, ordinary, conservative hometown, what some half-affectionately refer to as “Rifle Town,” Winchester, Kentucky.

Then, in one of life’s awesome little ironies, my former husband gave me this book called “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of the Ordinary” by Timothy Miller. And I opened myself to the possibility that maybe life was not so bad.

This is not a book about anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, as the title might suggest. It’s about how to stop constantly wanting something other than what we have right in front of us. Miller is a cognitive psychologist who writes in a very simple, straightforward style, exploring ideas based in Eastern philosophy from a modern psychology perspective. He examines how we drive ourselves crazy by focusing so much attention on our human desire for more of everything… more wealth, more stuff, more power, more attention, more sex, even more spirituality or more love! According to Miller, whether what we want is good or bad for us doesn’t really matter; it is the act of focusing on the desire that prevents us from living in the here and now, appreciating what we have, and treating others the way we want to be treated.

One of the passages I like the most talks about how meditation – or taking a meditative approach to life (however you choose to do it) – is conducive to wanting what you have because when you meditate, you realize over and over again that you just need to stop thinking about what you want and just sit there with an empty mind. “If you meditate regularly, the cycle of desire and renunciation is repeated thousands of times,” Miller writes. “You might think of it as reprogramming a computer. The original program essentially states, ‘Try to get what you want. Try to gratify your instincts.’ Meditation gradually alters the original programming.” Meditation also is conducive to helping us practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, which are the disciplines Miller advocates to facilitate wanting what we already have.

When I was talking to my friend about this earlier, he reminded me that Sheryl Crow must have read this book when she wrote “Soak up the Sun,” which has that line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” But I actually use three other songs to remind me of the three practices that Miller advocates to keep us focused on wanting what we have: Attention, Compassion and Gratitude. You are free to try this at home, and the videos provide a fun way to remember the ideas.

Practice: Attention

Artist: Carly Simon

Song: Anticipation

Theme: “These are the good old days.”

Concept: Being here now and realizing this is the precious present. We can all easily remember the line that ends this classic tune, and remind ourselves that even though we tend to always look to the future and think of what we think and hope is going to happen, even that future, when it does occur, can ultimately only happen “in the now.” If we use the reminder “These are the good old days” as a way to bring our attention back to the present, it becomes easier to see how good we’ve got it, right now, and to realize we have no control over what will happen.

Watch the video.

Practice: Compassion

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Song: Hungry Heart

Theme: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Concept: Empathizing with others and seeing that everyone you encounter is just trying to get the same things you are in life. In another of life’s little ironies, I’ve never been as big a Bruce Springsteen fan as is the partner I recently left behind. But I have to admit it resonated with me when Miller mentioned “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” as the mnemonic to help us in realizing that even the people who annoy us most (he uses examples such as neighbors with barking dogs or kids scrawling graffiti on our town’s infrastructure) only want the exact same things we want in life: acceptance, shelter, power, love.

Watch the video.

Practice: Gratitude

Artist: Rolling Stones

Song: You can’t always get what you want

Theme: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

Concept: Being happy with what you’ve got and thankful for the things that surround you each and every day. Remember the opening funeral scene of The Big Chill? This song was the perfect choice for expressing the resolute nature of grief when we lose something, or someone, we thought would always be there. This theme is a perfect way to remind me that, even if I may not have everything I think I want, I always have all that I really need… and then some. And that realization makes me immensely grateful.

Watch the video.

This year, the Spring Equinox visited central Kentucky with an appearance of the incredible super moon, the same moon that shines over the Pacific Ocean, and over the tropical beaches I have now left behind. I’m now focused on taking part in what adventures, fun and excitement I can find in and around my old Bluegrass stomping ground, immersed in the beauty of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home in a wonderful park-like neighborhood with older trees, squirrels, rabbits and lots of bird species. Here I am embraced by the warmth of very close friends, some of whom have known me for more than 40 years. I relish this special time with my mother, here and now, a relationship that is precious and which I know I cannot have forever. When I practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, there is never a dull moment… and occasionally, if I’m lucky, I even get to soak up the sun.

Watch the video.

Read another cool blog post about this book.

12th Bird of Christmas: Three-Wattled Bellbird

6 Jan Photo by Bruce Smith

Dedication: As I wrap up this final Bird of Christmas on Epiphany, my mother turns 80 today. She has been teaching me to appreciate birds for almost 47 years; I dedicate this entire series to her.

Courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

It was my first time exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a deep green magical forest with tall old-growth trees that seem to be from another place and time. Hiking along lush trails through mist that evaporates as sunlight streams down from the canopy, I was mesmerized by an eerie yet lovely soundtrack of high pitched “eeenk” sounds followed by what can only be described as a “metallic bonk,” like the amplified plunk of an out-of-tune piano key.

Following the “eeenk; bonk” sounds from one opening in the thick tropical forest to another, I finally spotted the enthusiastic vocalist, a male Three-Wattled Bellbird! He is a beautiful creature with a ghostly white head, neck and shoulders, and a chestnut-brown torso, perched on the very tip of a craggy branch, not too high up in the trees, mouth gaping open to project his territorial call for up to two miles!

Watch him making his call and you will want to go!

A couple of nights before, I had visited La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, where I heard a presentation by Debra Hamilton about the Three-Wattled Bellbird, Procnias tricarunculata. Debra is a conservation biologist, a mom, a bird research specialist, owner and manager of a small bookstore and café, the director of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation – and those are just a few of her titles. She has devoted her life to studying the rare and endangered bird species that make the mystical Monteverde Cloud Forest their home, and is heading up many projects to help save these hauntingly beautiful birds.

Debra, who has been working in the Monteverde area since 1992, explained that there are only a few Bellbirds still in existence in the very special humid forest habitats where their favorite food, the wild avocado, grows. This is because, sadly, much of the tropical forest containing the bird’s food supply has been cut down, in Costa Rica and in other Central American countries. What was once a large area of forest is now only in small fragmented pieces. Along with several other scientists, Debra has studied diversity of understory birds and the use of agricultural windbreaks as biological corridors for birds moving between forest fragments. She is currently involved in a long-term study of the Bellbird, including investigations of migratory patterns, population locations and sizes (which means taking a Bellbird census!), and the possible impact of climate change on Bellbird populations.

Debra and her colleagues know that in order to save the Bellbird from extinction, its remaining habitat must be preserved and protected. So they have begun to focus much of their energy on reforestation projects. I want to help, and so does Terra Incognita Ecotours, so we plan to partner to offer a special bird conservation trip this spring. I’d like to hear from anyone who would be interested in a voluntourism experience in May or June 2011 staying in Monteverde at La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge and visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You would join us in planting trees that will help expand and enrich habitat for the Bellbirds (and other avian species such as yesterday’s Resplendent Quetzal) so that their voices will always ring out over the cloud forest canopy.

Read more about the bellbird and Debra Hamilton here.

Some photos for this entry are courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica and Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours.

Photo by Bruce Smith

11th Bird of Christmas: Resplendent Quetzal

5 Jan 4241543046_b84f576f38_o

Today’s elusive bird, a symbol of freedom, is one whose presence I was actually in once, but forfeited my chance to view it in favor of another avian quest.

I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and shortly after arriving, heard both the call of the Resplendent Quetzal, and also that of the Three-Wattled Bellbird. A large crowd was forming in the area from which the Quetzal’s voice was emanating, while the Bellbird promised to be further away from the masses up a solitary mountain trail. And so I went for the Bellbird, more about which I’ll share tomorrow. My hope was that later on, the Quetzal would still be available, but alas it did not grant me another opportunity for an audience. And this fact in and of itself will draw me back to Monteverde as soon as possible.

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

In his famous book, “A Naturalist in Costa Rica,” Alexander F. Skutch devotes a an 18-page chapter to the Quetzal, recounting its history as a bird sought out for many purposes, some of them sinister.

“While still a schoolboy, I possessed a Guatemalan postage stamp that depicted a brilliant green bird with a crimson belly, a ridged crest over the head, and a remarkably long, gracefully curving train. Later, I learned that this bird is called the Quetzal and, later still, that the Guatemalans had chosen it as their national emblem and pronounced its name with the accent on the last syllable. Symbol of liberty, the Quetzal, it was averred, would invariably die if confined in a cage.”

Skutch then gets into the cruel realities of how the bird was hunted for centuries, not for its picture, but to create a mounted trophy! “Although I saw so many stuffed Quetzal skins, it was long before I glimpsed a living Quetzal in the forest. Doubtless, the abundance of the stuffed skins explained the rareness of the living birds, for as too often happens, it was only after they had become rare in Guatemala that laws for their protection were made and enforced.”

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

Like the Second Bird of Christmas in this series, so Pharomachrus mocinno, the next-to-last bird, belongs to the trogon family. Its song is a treble syllable described as KYOW or like “a whimpering pup,” often in pairs, which may be repeated monotonously.

Quetzal eating a caterpillar

The Resplendent Quetzal is classified as “near threatened” and can be found in some of Costa Rica’s protected areas, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where it shares habitat with the aforementioned Three-Wattled Bellbird. In partnership with Terra Incognita Ecotours and La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, I will be helping to organize and lead a voluntourism experience to Monteverde in May or June of 2011 to help with reforestation efforts that will provide more habitat for both species. You’ll hear more about this in my final entry of the series tomorrow. If being a part of such a tour interests you, please comment here or on my Facebook page.

11 birds down, and one to go! Thanks for reading.

Photos for this entry are courtesy of Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours.

10th Bird of Christmas: Potoo

4 Jan Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

Today’s and tomorrow’s birds are ones I’ve never seen, but intend to go on a quest for during my next excursion to Costa Rica. First is the Potoo, a very well camouflaged type of nightjar that comes in three species: Great, Northern and Common. I don’t care which one I see, I just want to see one.

These rarely-seen-but-often-heard nocturnal birds belong to the family Nyctibiidae, which only occurs in the New World tropics. The Common Potoo and Northern Potoo are virtually identical, while the Great is much larger. During the day, these birds’ cryptic plumage and signature stretched-out pose makes them difficult to distinguish from the broken-branch stubs and posts on which they typically roost, their mottled feathers blending in perfectly with their woody perch.

At night, when they are active hunters and open their huge eyes, they can be mistaken for owls. They sally out in the dark to catch large flying insects – and in the case of the Great Potoo even small bats – with their large gaping mouths open wide. The Great’s eerie deep roaring GWAAAAAA while perched, and the higher pitched and more emphatic GWOK emitted in flight, are described as otherworldly.

A professional photographer I know is currently in Manuel Antonio and is headed for Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in a few days, either place in which he might be able to spot and take some images of a Potoo. If he picks up this gauntlet and is successful, we’ll provide an addendum blog of his photos here. Meanwhile I include a shot of the Great Potoo by Ged Caddick of Terra Incognita Ecotours taken in Brazil’s Pantanal and a nice Common in Costa Rica by Julian Londono Jaramillo.

Here is a nice little intro to the Potoo by David Attenborough, again in Brazil.

Constantly while I was in Costa Rica, I believed every post and branch would end in a camouflaged Potoo – I really tried. Who wants to go Potoo hunting with me this spring? Let’s do this!

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

9th Bird of Christmas: Belted Kingfisher

3 Jan Photo courtesy of Lorcan Keating

For the 9th bird, we return to the water for a large, conspicuous and common waterside resident of Canada and North, Central and South America, the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), whose portrait can actually be found on the 1986 series Canadian $5 note.

Often while paddling on the Rio Panica or hiking near the estuary in Curú, I would see one of these amazing huge-headed kingfishers, one of five types seen in Costa Rica, the others being the Ringed, Amazon, Green and American Pigmy. Often times I would hear the bird before seeing it, as it was smashing a small fish upon a branch, “whack, whack, whack,” turning it’s great bill to and fro to alternate sides and ensure the life was completely drained from the prey before devouring it, its Mohawk crest flopping about like the shaggy mop of a rock star. I’d also hear its “keck keck keck” sound as it few off a few hundred yards ahead and perched somewhere in search of more prey. Watching it dive head-first straight down into the water is exhilarating, especially if it resurfaces with a fish.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Colgan Azar

An example of reverse sexual dimorphism, the female kingfisher’s rust stripe makes her more brightly colored than the male. All kingfishers were formerly placed in one family, Alcedinidae, but recent research suggests that this should be divided into three. All six American kingfishers, together with three Old World species, make up the new family Cerylidae. The nest of the belted kingfisher is a long tunnel that slopes uphill in case of flooding so the chicks will be able to survive in the air pocket formed by the elevated end of the tunnel. Not being a photographer, I never captured great photos of the bird (I include only one of mine), but feature it here in the new year because of its association with peace in literature.

The kingfisher has been the subject of a fair amount of folklore, harking all the way back to Greek mythology. There is a myth that Zeus was jealous of a female character, Alcyone, for her power over the wind and waves. In a jealous rage, Zeus killed Alcyone’s husband by destroying his ship with lightning. Alcyone threw herself into the sea to join her drowning lover and they both turned into kingfishers. So through the years sailors believed the kingfisher could protect them by calming stormy weather; they referred to the kingfisher as the Halcyon Bird, “halcyon” denoting a time in the past that was idyllic and peaceful. Kingfishers were also thought to nest for seven days of peace and calm when rearing their young, and these were called the Halcyon Days. (Les Beletsky, Costa Rica Travelers’ Wildlife Guide.)

Photo courtesy of Lorcan Keating

The halcyon bird is also a mighty wanderer: it migrates from the northern parts of its range in Canada to the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America in winter. Sometimes straying far from land, the species is recorded as an accidental visitor on oceanic islands such as Clarion (700 km from the Mexican mainland), and has been spotted as an extremely rare vagrant in Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Enjoy some good footage of the Halcyon Bird.

The Belted Kingfisher beats a large fish on a rock.

8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan IMG_0929

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

7th Bird of Christmas: Laughing Falcon

1 Jan Photo courtesy of Paulo Albuquerque Filho - Pantaneiro Mesmo

To herald the new year, I’m choosing a forceful bird of prey, one that I’ve seen a handful of times, always at a fairly great distance, and so even with my zoom, I never got a respectable shot of my own.

The Laughing Falcon, Herpetotheres cachinnans, named for the peal of laughing notes that initiate its lengthy song, is a large white raptor with a striking dark mask and is usually seen perched on a high tree branch in an open area, scanning the ground below for its preferred prey, snakes. After nipping off the snake’s head, it sometimes swallows the entire body as if it were a string of spaghetti. This bird – known locally as the Guaco, an excellent paraphrase of its most common call – apparently has some immunity to snake venom.

Photo courtesy of John Medcraft

I heard the Guaco many times before I ever saw it, just like the ornithologist Alexander Skutch, to whom I pay tribute here with two excerpts from his fantastic chapter called ‘The Snake Eater’ in “A Naturalist in Costa Rica.”

“For many years, the Guaco was for me only a voice and the figure of a bird, for I had not yet learned much about its habits. It was as a voice that the hawk was most familiar; from one end of Central America to the other, in humid regions covered with heavy rain forest and among the cacti and thorny scrub of arid valleys, I had heard that loud, hollow, tirelessly reiterated wah-co, wah-co, wah-co floating over all the countryside from a bird unseen in the distance. Some have compared this call to the agonized wail of a human in pain, but to me it never suggested suffering. On the contrary, the sentiment that it stirred in my spirit was of deep and inscrutable mystery.”

Photo courtesy of Paulo Albuquerque Filho - Pantaneiro Mesmo

One more excerpt describes the proud duet of a pair of Laughing Falcons after a male brings the female a freshly caught snake:

“Promptly on her mate’s arrival, the female Guaco flew down beside him and took the serpent. Her first act was to bite its forward end, as though to make sure that the work of tearing off the head with its poison fangs had been thoroughly done by the male. Then she held the limp body against the perch and began the hymn of victory that celebrated her mate’s return with the proof of his successful hunting. First she uttered a peculiar how how how, which she varied with a slightly different note sounding like haw haw; but before long this changed to a loud wac wac wac, which she continued without interruption for at least five minutes. Meanwhile the male was tuning up with a slightly different sequence of notes. Soon he worked into his full-voiced wah-co, and the two shouted together at their loudest a triumphant paean that filled all the valley and echoed from the enclosing slopes, proclaiming to all hearers that still another serpent had fallen victim to the prowess of the hawks. Then, suddenly, the pair became silent.”

If you like this sort of writing, check out Skutch’s works.

Hear the call of the Guaco.

Watch a video showing the Laughing Falcon.

6th Bird of Christmas: Purple Gallinule

31 Dec IMG_0379

I mentioned in yesterday’s entry that my favorite color is yellow. Well, my second favorite color is purple… and another of my favorite water birds found in Costa Rica is the American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica). Unlike most of the birds in this series, this bird can also be found in the southeastern US, which is where I had an endearing experience that won me over as a fan for life.

Gallinules – or “swamp hens” as they are often colloquially called – are in the rail family Rallidae, and although they are almost always on the water, will rarely swim at all. They rather scramble awkwardly through thickets and tall reeds, walk on floating mats of vegetation, and will only fly short distances, somewhat weakly, with legs dangling below them. They are extremely vocal, making loud screeches, and harsh reedy peeps.

During a February in the early 2000s, my best friend from childhood and I were staying for a week at a little fishing village situated on a small lake in central Florida. We’d hike around the margins of the local marsh area every day to spot alligators, lizards and of course whatever bird life we could see. Living amid the usual egrets, herons and sandpipers, there was a noisy colony of iridescent medium-sized chicken-like birds, who had huge yellow feet, purple-blue plumage with a green back, and a red-and-yellow bill and white undertail. The coolest part of their appearance was a pale blue forehead shield, which looked like it had literally been painted onto the bird by some crazed artist. It soon became apparent that each duck-like individual had a slightly different look, hue or size of this frontal shield by which you could recognize him or her.

One of the sad results of the adaptation of wild creatures to places frequented by large groups of human beings is that certain individual animals are especially susceptible to becoming “tame” and they consequently become dependent upon people for their food – and show no fear of them. In the case of this group of gallinules, while most of the colony remained skittish upon our approach, scuttling away on little lily pads almost as if able to walk on water, one little buddy always remained quite close and would eat morsels of food right from our hands. He also called to us with an endearing “pip pip pip PEEEEEEEEEER!” We referred to this vocalization as “piping” and never forgot our little friend. In fact, when I returned to the camp a year later, I was able to locate him again!

So, when on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in Tortuguero National Park, I was always elated to find my familiar Gallinule friends, although none was ever so charming or friendly as the piping gallinule of Leesburg, Florida. Just for an interesting comparison, I include below a photo of the Northern Jacana, a bird that appears very similar to the Gallinule, and has a yellow frontal shield. Like the Gallinule, the Jacana lives in marshes, ponds and other wetland ecosystems.

Not considered to be globally threatened, Purple Gallinule populations are probably decreasing in their range due to freshwater wetland loss in the United States, and in South and Central America. Sadly, these birds have been destroyed in rice fields by aerial spraying with pesticides.

Hear the vocalizations of the Purple Gallinule.

Photos in this entry by Frances Figart and Bruce Smith.

5th Bird of Christmas: Bare-throated Tiger Heron

30 Dec IMG_0784

As we continue exploring bird species found in Costa Rica, it’s time to look to the estuaries, lagoons and other waterways for our next two days’ subjects.

Sometimes late at night on the Nicoya Peninsula, I heard a howl that didn’t sound like a howler monkey. It sounded more like a wild cat – and I envisioned the unlikely jaguar or puma nearby.

If I hiked very early in the morning on the Finca de Monos trail that wound along a tiny creek in Curú Wildlife Refuge, I could tread very lightly up a little hill on the trail, not making a sound, and upon cresting the rise, peek down over the steep bank of a the little waterway, and thus sneak up on a solitary long-legged fishing bird, waiting motionless for a fish, frog or crab to come within reach of its long bill. The strangely cat-like cry I had sometimes heard in the night belonged to this estuary ecosystem dweller, the Bare-throated Tiger Heron.

Tigrisoma mexicanum is a wading bird of the heron family Ardeidae, found from Mexico to South America; it is said there was an accidental who appeared in Hidalgo County, Texas once. At times I would come upon this shy bird while paddling along the Rio Panica, or when visiting a remote watering hole in a mountain stream with a waterfall. Since flying isn’t this heavy bird’s strong suit, it’s not too hard to photograph; it usually remains perched yet wary rather than expend the energy to retreat.

My favorite color is yellow and my name rhymes with “tiger.” So of all the herons, this bird is my favorite for its lovely tiger stripes and beautiful yellow neck, which it magically extends whist offering up its hoarse “howk-howk-howk,” making itself look unnaturally elongated. When the male emits his creature-from-the-black-lagoon night call, the beak opens wide and, if you were there watching, you’d be able to see his saffron throat actually vibrate with the sound. At other times it shrinks its neck down into its shoulders to appear very short.

And speaking of short, click here to hear a brief NPR article about some guys who heard a Tiger Heron while sitting around their campfire in Guatemala – the bird’s call is included on the tape.

Photos for this entry are by Bruce Smith and Frances Figart (rhymes with Tiger).

4th Bird of Christmas: Montezuma Oropendola

29 Dec Photo is courtesy of Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours

Image courtesy of Paulo Philippidis from San Jose California, USA via Wikimedia Commons.

As we approach ever closer to the dawn of a new year, today’s bird is a nice one to follow yesterday’s, as both are associated with time. Just as the Motmot’s tail switches in a pendulum-like motion, so the Montezuma Oropendola does a pendulum-like somersault around a branch with its entire body, which earns it the moniker “Golden Pendulum.”

As if this crazy motion were not enough, what’s really incredible about Psarocolius Montezuma is the call the dominant male makes when he’s doing his acrobatic bowing display, sort of a bubbling warble with loud gurgles that climaxes in a shrill scream. It’s indescribable, but here’s the bird experts’ attempt: “The strange and remarkable song of the Montezuma Oropendola is an ascending series of overlapping bubbly syllables which crescendo to a high peak. The song is often accompanied by a scratchy call that is reminiscent of a fizzling firecracker or the ripping of a thick fabric (Stiles & Skutch 1989).” This bird wins my prize for the most amazing call I have ever heard. I think it would be virtually impossible for a human to emulate it.

Frances Figart

These birds are colonial breeders. Using fibers and vines, the female Oropendola creates a bag-like nest 2-6 feet long that hangs from the end of a tree branch; they like to place many nests together on the same tree. There are generally about 30 nests in a colony, but up to 172 have been recorded. The more nests on the same branch, the more risky the baby Oropendola rearing becomes because the entire colony could come crashing down from the weight. Scientists suspect the nest clusters allow the females to more easily protect each other’s nurseries and to gang up on visiting predators.

This video provides a great feel for what it sounds like to be in their presence, and shows you the pendulum-like nests made by the females. Here is another video that demonstrates the acrobatics of the male.

I got to see this bird a handful of times, mostly up in the mountains near the Turrialba Volcano, but never got excellent photographs – so I share only one of mine above. I know that my next trip to Costa Rica will be planned to include some time in the Caribbean lowlands where I can see and hear these amazing birds – and shoot some videos of them.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours

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