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12th Bird of Christmas: Three-Wattled Bellbird

6 Jan

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

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11th Bird of Christmas: Resplendent Quetzal

5 Jan

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.

Yoga retreat at New Years on an island in Nicaragua, anyone?

24 Nov

Nicaragua, the next big ecotourism destination

In recent years, as social stability and economic growth have come to Central America, travelers with a taste for the cutting edge are discovering that Nicaragua is one of the undiscovered treasures of the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to this country will find that tours, accommodations, food, activities and transportation are affordably priced. And perhaps an even more important distinction, locals are truly authentic and welcoming. The interactive traveler who likes to be the first to discover a new destination and actively engage with the locals, knowing that their visit to the country is giving back directly to the community, will love Nicaragua. And it is only a two- to three-hour flight from Miami (American), Atlanta (Delta) and Houston (Continental) into the capital city of Managua, and no visas are required.

Nicaragua’s newest eco-resort, Jicaro Island Ecolodge is managed by the award-winning Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and was created to capture the country’s true essence.

Set on a private island, the eco-luxury lodge opened in January 2010 and is located just a short boat ride from the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua’s top tourist town. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Matthew Falkiner, the lodge offers nine two-level and very private casitas, hand crafted using indigenous wood. There is a floating yoga platform (shown above), gorgeous lounge areas and pool. Meals are created using seasonal, local ingredients, and highlight Nicaraguan recipes and flavors. Jicaro Island offers spectacular views of the Mombacho Volcano across Lake Nicaragua and over 100 different species of birds have been sighted since opening.

Jicaro Island Ecolodge is also quickly gaining a reputation for its yoga and wellness retreats, of which four are scheduled for the very near future in partnership with Big World Small Planet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the leader for the first of these, Peter Sterios, the founder of Manduka, a company providing high-quality yoga mats and other accessories, who will be offering Gravity & Grace: Resistance As Your Inner Teacher December 29, 2010-January 4, 2011.

Interview with yoga instructor Peter Sterios

Peter lives and teaches in San Luis Obispo, CA. His classes reflect over three decades of study and practice in the US and India. A writer and former contributing editor for Yoga Journal, he has been featured in their yoga calendars, Beginners Column, Master Class Column and web site. He has taught at numerous yoga conferences, and continues to conduct workshops and teacher trainings throughout North and Central America, Asia, and Europe. He founded Manduka, a leading eco-yoga products company in 1997. His first yoga DVD “Gravity & Grace” was released in 2007 and recently honored by Yoga Journal’s Richard Rosen as “one of the top 15 yoga videos of all time.”

Frances: When you were young, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

Peter: A pilot.

Frances: What early interests, studies and career choices led you toward your current focus?

Peter: I ended up in architecture school because of an intense fascination with LEGOs from about the age of 4. I liked creating things, building things, and ultimately learning how structure works in buildings and then eventually in bodies as a yoga teacher. It was a roundabout journey though from architecture school to India to study yoga. Once yoga entered my life for real, I sought out teachers and places to study to understand the roots of the practice in an effort to simplify the instruction and make it more accessible to beginners. As a result, I’m now a yoga teacher, a writer, an architect, and a yoga product designer for Manduka which I founded in 1997.

Frances: What types of yoga instruction do you focus on most specifically?

Peter: Yoga for those with healing “opportunities” – people who have a health condition that requires their personal involvement to deal with it successfully.

Frances: What is your philosophy of yoga instruction, in a nutshell?

Peter: Get out of the way of the student’s own experience of the practice so they can uncover the “inner teacher” for themselves.

Frances: Explain your use of “resistance” as an “inner teacher.”

Peter: Resistance is a spot or place in the body that communicates to the mind that more attention is required there. Once you learn the language the body uses to send that message, your practice is just listening to what is needed at that spot.

Frances: What can guests expect from working with you in a luxury eco-retreat setting like Jicaro?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Do you like to work with people who are advanced in practice or new to yoga, or both?

Peter: I prefer to work with anyone with a desire to learn more about themselves, experienced or beginners. Frankly, there isn’t much difference between the two when it comes to learning about the power of the mind to create your own self healing.

Frances: Why are you excited about coming to Nicaragua for the New Year and this retreat adventure?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Ha, nice repetition! As a former contributing editor to Yoga Journal, have you always enjoyed writing and communication?

Peter: Yes, but I enjoy it more after the deadlines, when the articles are finished. The writing process for me is always a test, and I struggle with finding the minimum amount of words to get across what I want to say.

Frances: Well, I think you have succeeded in being both succinct and articulate. Thank you for your time!

Peter: Thanks for getting the word out for this retreat. Adrienne at Big World Small Planet has done an amazing thing creating the setting and the opportunity for all of us to have a little adventure this New Year’s. What better way is there to start 2011!

For detailed retreat information and registration, click here.

More Upcoming Retreats at Jicaro Island

January 8 – 14, 2011. Celebration of Nia & Wine with Mona Melms. Nia is an innovative workout integrating 9 movement forms based on dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, inspiring you to find tremendous joy in moving your body…barefoot…in the tropics!

January 29 – February 4, 2011. Real Wellness with Alycea Ungaro. This highly experiential week integrates a diversity of modalities and practices focusing on Alycea Ungaro’s Six Principles of Wellness while studying and enjoying Pilates, nutrition and the surrounding nature.

February 5-11, 2011. livWHOLE with Jennifer Galardi. Many of us have been operating on automatic; eat, work, gym, sleep, rinse, repeat. Jennifer guides each participant to take a look at wellness as a whole instead of the sum of its many parts.

Photos of Jicaro Island Ecolodge by Martin van Doorn, courtesy of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and StoryTravelers.

Hitesh Mehta and Authentic Ecolodges

15 Nov

Originally published earlier this month as a blog for Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and Lapa Rios Ecolodge, this recent interview with my friend Hitesh provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a unique travel professional who has written a compelling new book (which he refers to not as a “coffee table” book but as a “chai table” book), perfect for a holiday gift for anyone of any age who loves to read about the sustainable designs of exotic, eco-friendly lodgings and see state-of-the-art photography of amazing architectural spaces from all over the world! Order Authentic Ecolodges here.

Lapa Rios Ecolodge on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

 

“Nestled between the Pacific and one of Central America’s last remaining lowland rain forests, Lapa Rios is a true tropical paradise, graced with a dazzling array of biodiversity and dramatic scenery. A Minnesota couple, Karen and John Lewis, purchased the land in 1991 with the intention of proving a point: that a rain forest left standing is more profitable than one cut down… Committed to the idea that the land could be sustainable in both economic and ecologic terms, the Lewises constructed Lapa Rios around the rain forest (instead of the other way around)… It is one of only three properties in the whole of Costa Rica that has earned the highest possible ranking—five green leaves—under the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST).”

Thus begins the Lapa Rios section of Hitesh Mehta’s new book, ‘Authentic Ecolodges,’ published in September and launched worldwide earlier this month with an array of book signings and other events scheduled for the next few months on several continents. Hitesh Mehta, world-renowned landscape architect, environmental planner and architect, is one of the world’s leading authorities, practitioners, and researchers when it comes to ecolodge planning and design from both the architectural and landscape architectural perspectives. Through his design work with indigenous communities, Mehta has developed a portfolio of projects in Madagascar, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, Turks and Caicos, Galapagos, Gabon, Fiji, Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico and the United States. His latest accomplishment, a one-of-a-kind experiential book, is the product of a 2 ½ year, 46-country, six-continent journey to document and illustrate what truly makes an ecolodge an ecolodge.

Frances: You are obviously overjoyed to have reached the milestone of having your amazingly beautiful and immensely educational book finally published by Harper Collins. Tell us more about your vision for the book and why you undertook such a vast and awe-inspiring project.

Hitesh: There are two main reasons I have done this book: to create both environmental and social awareness amongst people around the world and to celebrate the fantastic and altruistic work of people on the ground – such as craftspersons and lodge owners. As you know, I created my own rating system for ecolodges, which is explained in the book, and I sifted through 24,000 of my own professional photographs to pick just over 300 for this book. The feedback I am getting from people in-the-know is that it is the most all encompassing and holistic book ever created in the hospitality industry. In addition to stunning photos, there are professional illustrations, site plans and text that has substance for the lay person and industry professional alike. And it is printed on environmentally friendly FSC certified paper. Harper Collins is so excited that they want to submit the book for an award!

Frances: In addition to 35 other ecolodges, the book features Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality’s own Lapa Rios. Why do you consider Lapa Rios a model ecolodge?

Hitesh: Lapa Rios was one of few ecolodges in the world that met 10 out of 11 criteria. There are no ecolodges to date which have met ALL the criteria including the ones that I have personally worked on. Lapa Rios is especially strong in the three main criteria: that of protection of the surrounding ecosystem, helping benefit local communities and providing a rich interpretive experience. The one criterion that it does NOT meet is the one where “ecolodges bring in the local communities from day one of the planning and design process.” What gives it its special ambiance is that it has been led by visionaries (Karen and John) for the past 18 years and managed by the top small eco-chain (Cayuga) in the world. The other unique aspect of Lapa Rios that sets it apart from other ecolodges is its commitment to an exit strategy.

 

Habitation with ocean view at Lapa Rios Ecolodge

 

Frances: You have been involved in ecotourism for a very long time, since the beginning really. What new trends do you see influencing decision makers and stakeholders in ecolodge development?

Hitesh: One new direction is the idea of community owned and operated ecolodges. This concept started in Kenya but now has spread all over the world. These are projects which are entirely owned and operated by the local communities, such as Maasai and Native Americans in the Bolivian Amazon. A second interesting trend is that more and more ecotourism enterprises are adding “wellness centers” to their program of offerings. Yet another is the expansion into higher quality lodges. The upgrading of facilities is a response to the growing upper middle-class ‘experience seekers’ and ‘metro-spirituals’ market.

Frances: Why did you choose to study ecotourism and why do you love it?

Hitesh: Ecotourism is low-impact, practices non-violence principles and, as a sector of the tourism industry, has played a role in alleviating poverty in several rural parts of the world. It is the one sector of the tourism industry that has the greatest respect for both faunal and floral species as well as the welfare of the local people. Everything in the landscape is inter-connected and dependent on each other. The flowers are dependent on the butterflies and bees, the fruit dependent on the flowers getting pollinated, the birds and monkeys dependent on the fruit, the eagles and leopards dependent on the monkeys etc. Every single species is connected in this web of life. As humans, we are dependent on so many things—not only those that are man-made but those things that come from nature. If the natural web-link is destroyed by humans then our own existence will be in peril. In fact, it already is!

 

Frances: This touches on the concept you have talked to me about before, that of ecopsychology. Could you explain this for our readers?

Hitesh: In very simple terms, ecopsychology connects psychology and ecology. The basic idea of ecopsychology is that while the human mind is shaped by the modern social and technological world, it can be readily inspired and comforted by the wider natural world, because that is the arena in which it originally evolved. The political and practical implications are to show humans ways of healing alienation and to build a sane society and a sustainable culture. Mental health or unhealth cannot be understood simply in the narrow context of only intrapsychic phenomena or social relations. One also has to include the relationship of humans to other species and ecosystems. The destruction of ecosystems means that something in humans also dies. Humans, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, are part of this web and linked intrinsically with all species of nature. If they destroy nature, they will eventually destroy themselves.

Another aerial view of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

Frances: How does Lapa Rios fit into the ecopsychology concept?


Hitesh: Being located in one of Costa Rica’s most biodiverse areas comes with a list of environmental responsibilities—namely protecting the area and its inhabitants. Lapa Rios works with the Nature Conservancy and Cederena to ensure that protective measures are in place. On any given day, guests can watch an impressive range of animals—troops of howler monkeys, long-nosed coatimundis, three-toed sloths, and over 320 species of birds, like scarlet macaws and toucans frolicking in their natural habitat—all of which is visible from one of the lodge’s sixteen open-air bungalows. During construction, not one native tree was cut down to yield the five-acre compound. Lapa Rios is one of the Osa Peninsula’s largest employers: 90 percent of its sixty employees are from the local community. This is all in the book – and to learn the rest, you have to read it!

 

Frances: What can we as professionals in the hospitality and tourism industry do to help spread the word about ‘Authentic Ecolodges’?

Hitesh: Since no man can be an island, I look for your support to hand over this book as a gift to as many people as you feel will benefit. This will also make your holiday season stress-free as you won’t need to worry about what gifts to give! The more books you buy, the more we will all collectively be able to make a difference on this planet!

Order the book here.

Watch a short video about Authentic Ecolodges

Upcoming book signings with Hitesh:

Seattle:  Tuesday, November 16, 7 p.m. Third Place Ravenna Bookstore, 6504 20th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115

Canada: Wednesday, November 17, 11:30 a.m. Tourism Victoria, 4th Floor, Bastion Square, Victoria, BC

Los Angeles: Friday, November 19, 7 p.m. Borders Westwood, 1360 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90024

Irving: Sunday November 21, 4 p.m. Element Hotel, 3550 W. IH 635, Irving, Texas 75063

South Africa: Saturday, Dec. 4, 3 p.m. Book Dealers of Gallo Manor, Lower Level, Morning Glen Shopping Center, Corner of Bowling Road and Kelvin Drive, Gallo Manor, phone (o11) 656.7026

Africa: Saturday, December 11, 4 p.m. Text Book Centre, Sarit Centre, Westlands, Nairobi, KENYA

More about Hitesh Mehta

A professional photographer and Hall of Fame cricket player from Kenya, Hitesh Mehta was named one of the “25 Most Powerful People in Adventure” by Men’s Journal. He is an adjunct professor at several universities in southern Florida, sits on the board of The International Ecotourism Society, is a member of the advisory board of BIOSFERA (Brazilian Environmental Society), is a founding member of The Ecotourism Society of Kenya, and has been the international advisor for the Japan Ecolodge Association. He has also been a judge and on-site inspector for the Tourism for Tomorrow awards, World Legacy Awards on Heritage Tourism and Ecotourism (National Geographic/Conservation International) and Ecotourism Awards (Conde Nast Traveler).

If you have enjoyed this interview, some of the topics touched on are discussed more in depth in another interview with Hitesh by Meg Pier, here.