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Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep hhi_map_lg

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug 01_alphabetsoup

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

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.

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

23 Mar IMG_5109


I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

Networking, paying it forward and a request for help

16 Feb DSC03794

Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional?

When I was cutting my teeth on corporate America, working as a proofreader at an advertising agency in Lexington, Kentucky, the person who made the connections to get me that stepping-stone position was a male executive in the company who took the time to read a short résumé that demonstrated little experience except for award-winning essays at two colleges, including a piece analyzing a song by Joni Mitchell. He remains a dear friend to this day.

Try as I might, I couldn’t ascend from proofing to writing during the one long year I spent in that company. Whenever I heard an ad rep fretting because the copywriter was out for the day, I would dart out of my office into the hall and literally throw myself at the poor salesperson’s feet pleading, “I can write it!” But to no avail. When all my attempts to write copy at the ad agency ended in disappointment, I moved on to the local newspaper, where I was finally allowed to write – in the Creative Services (Promotions) department. Here again, it was a male editor who gave me my chance to cross train in the newsroom, so that I could taste the life of a reporter, a skill I later capitalized on when I had my own company and the paper became my client.

Many more stories would reveal that it was the men in the journalism, media and marketing worlds that were nurturing enough to help me get all my first big breaks. Most women I had met along the way thus far seemed to take the attitude of, “Good work getting this far, good luck getting any further, and oh, by the way, I’ve been your supervisor for the past six months so I just thought I’d say hello. Let’s chat again in another year or so.”

This repeated experience was what later prompted me, while working for myself as a successful freelance writer, to found and direct a non-profit organization based on the concept of successful business women mentoring low-income, undereducated women who needed a chance to discover their talents and find better job opportunities. I worked at this for a good five years before one day suddenly realizing that, while helping others get a leg up, I had inadvertently stopped bringing in an income for myself. It was then that a female friend and colleague suggested I do an interim stint at a travel association that needed an editor for its full-color monthly magazine. During that time, another professional female fostered my initiation into the travel industry so that I eventually took the position full-time.

I’ve been working in travel writing, editing and marketing ever since. And whenever someone writes or calls me asking for networking help, whether they are young or old, male or female, experienced or not, I always follow the model set for me early on by Jim Gleason and Jim Durham, and later by Susan McDaniel and Catherine Prather, and I go out of my way to read the person’s résumé, conjure up good connections for them from my network, call someone who might know a great contact, or e-introduce them to the most likely connections to help them get where they want to go with their career. I do this automatically, without thought; it’s my lot in life to be this way, a characteristic, like having crazy hair and green eyes. It’s what I do; I pay it forward.

And now, I am in a position to ask others to do this for me. I need to find new paying contracts that can utilize my editing, writing and marketing skills in a telecommuting capacity, either in the travel industry, or anywhere else. Book publishing and online publishing are of interest. I am based in an office in Winchester, Kentucky, where I can keep an eye on my mom. I can travel for up to two weeks at a time. My bio, experience, references, publications and other CV elements are all right here on my blog. Do you know anyone, anywhere, who needs an editor, writer, marketing or communications professional? Is there anyone in your network you could put me in touch with via an e-introduction?

My early mentors demonstrated that networking only works when everyone plays the game, when each person in the chain tells others what they need and what they want, when we all pay it forward – and that’s there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. Thanks in advance for any connections you can provide. I hope you will let me know how I may, in turn, help you.

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.

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