Saturday, April 30, 2011

John Burroughs and the Brown Thrasher

We took an evening walk yesterday, and spotted reddish-colored birds darting around among some trees and shrubs in an out-of-the-way area where we are staying. When I could position myself to get a close look (and a few photographs), it was definitely a Brown Thrasher. I first saw one during the winter in our backyard foraging in the ground cover at the back of the yard - this was the first time up in the trees. True to its description, the red is noticeable when flying, and streaked beneath. When Google'ing to find out whether where were any folklore stories about the Brown Thrasher, I came across a series of essays that John Burroughs wrote about this and other birds.
Brown Thrasher 
Our long-tailed thrush, or thrasher, delights in a high branch of some solitary tree, whence it will pour out its rich and intricate warble for an hour together. This bird is the great American chipper. There is no
Audubon - Ferruginous Mockingbird
other bird that I know of that can chip with such emphasis and military decision as this yellow-eyed songster. It is like the click of a giant gunlock. Why is the thrasher so stealthy? It always seems to be going about on tip-toe. I never knew it to steal anything, and yet it skulks and hides like a fugitive from justice. One never sees it flying aloft in the air and traversing the world openly, like most birds, but it darts along fences and through bushes as if pursued by a guilty conscience. Only when the musical fit is upon it does it come up into full view, and invite the world to hear and behold.

Years pass without my finding a brown thrasher's nest; it is not a nest you are likely to stumble upon in your walk; it is hidden as a miser hides his gold, and watched as jealously. The male pours out his rich and triumphant song from the tallest tree he can find, and fairly
Toxostoma rufum
challenges you to come and look for his treasures in his vicinity. But you will not find them if you go. The nest is somewhere on the outer circle of his song; he is never so imprudent as to take up his stand very near it. The artists who draw those cozy little pictures of a brooding mother bird, with the male perched but a yard away in full song, do not copy from nature. The thrasher's nest I found was thirty or forty rods from the point where the male was wont to indulge in his brilliant recitative. It was in an open field under a low ground-juniper. My dog disturbed the sitting bird as I was passing near. The nest could be seen only by lifting up and parting away the branches. All the arts of concealment had been carefully studied. It was the last place you would think of looking in, and, if you did look, nothing was visible but the dense green circle of the low-spreading juniper. When you approached, the bird would keep her place till you had begun to stir the branches, when she would start out, and, just skimming the ground, make a bright brown line to the near fence and bushes. I confidently expected that this nest would escape molestation, but it did not. Its discovery by myself and dog probably opened the door for ill luck, as one day, not long afterward, when I peeped in upon it, it was empty. The proud song of the male had ceased from his accustomed tree, and the pair were seen no more in that vicinity.

After a pair of nesting birds have been broken up once or twice during the season, they become almost desperate, and will make great efforts to outwit their enemies. A pair of brown thrashers built their nest in a pasture-field under a low, scrubby apple-tree which the cattle had browsed down till it spread a thick, wide mass of thorny twigs only a few inches above the ground. Some blackberry briers had also grown there, so that the screen was perfect. My dog first started the bird, as I was passing near. By stooping low and peering intently, I could make out the nest and eggs. Two or three times a week, as I passed by, I
Burroughs 1837-1921
would pause to see how the nest was prospering. The mother bird would keep her place, her yellow eyes never blinking. One morning, as I looked into her tent, I found the nest empty. Some night-prowler, probably a skunk or a fox, or maybe a black snake or a red squirrel by day, had plundered it. It would seem as if it was too well screened; it was in such a spot as any depredator would be apt to explore. "Surely," he would say, "this is a likely place for a nest." The birds then moved over the hill a hundred rods or more, much nearer the house, and in some rather open bushes tried again. But again they came to grief. Then, after some delay, the mother bird made a bold stroke. She seemed to reason with herself thus: "Since I have fared so disastrously in seeking seclusion for my nest, I will now adopt the opposite tactics, and come out fairly in the open. What hides me hides my enemies: let us try greater publicity." So she came out and built her nest by a few small shoots that grew beside the path that divides the two vineyards, and where we passed to and fro many times daily. I discovered her by chance early in the morning as I proceeded to my work. She started up at my feet and flitted quickly
Brown Thrasher range map
along above the ploughed ground, almost as red as the soil. I admired her audacity. Surely no prowler by night or day would suspect a nest in this open and exposed place. There was no cover by which they could approach, and no concealment anywhere. The nest was a hasty affair, as if the birds' patience at nest-building had been about exhausted. Presently an egg appeared, and then the next day another, and on the fourth day a third. No doubt the bird would have succeeded this time had not man interfered. In cultivating the vineyards the horse and cultivator had to pass over this very spot. Upon this the bird had not calculated. I determined to assist her. I called my man, and told him there was one spot in that vineyard, no bigger than his hand, where the horse's foot must not be allowed to fall, nor tooth of cultivator to touch. Then I showed him the nest, and charged him to avoid it. Probably if I had kept the secret to myself, and let the bird run her own risk, the nest would have escaped. But the result was that the man, in elaborately trying to avoid the nest, overdid the matter; the horse plunged, and set his foot squarely upon it. Such a little spot, the chances were few that the horse's foot would fall exactly there; and yet it did, and the birds' hopes were again dashed. The pair then disappeared from my vicinity, and I saw them no more.
John Burroughs was an American naturalist and essayist important in the development of the U.S. conservation movement. Burroughs was an important practitioner nature essays following Henry David Thoreau. By the beginning of the 1900's, he had become a virtual cultural institution known as the Grand Old Man of Nature at a time when the American romance with the idea of nature, and the American conservation movement, had come fully into their own. His popularity was sustained by a prolific stream of essay collections, beginning with Wake-Robin in 1871. The result was a body of work whose perfect resonance with the tone of its cultural moment perhaps explains both its enormous popularity at that time, and its relative obscurity since. (adpated from Wikipedia)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding - Glimpses of Birds

Trees border the red carpet
My wife was up at 4:30 AM EDT to watch the royal wedding on television. I was not quite as dedicated - I was up at 6:00. It is notable that the bride desired an "English Garden" look (1) at her wedding, so trees were brought into Westminster Abbey to provide the desired appearance of an outdoor garden, on the inside. I can relate to the desire of having the outside on the inside - whether physically, or by way of windows, or just looking through garden magazines - it all seems to make living spaces more real, as life should be, lived in a garden. While watching the ceremonies and festive crowd (2) between the time the prince and princess climbed into their Royal Carriage and the
Trees border the Mall
Royal Air Force flyby (here, here, and here), I occasionally spotted another kind of flyby - one appropriate to an out-of-doors English garden, a kind of flyby that can complement the shrubbery inside the cathedral. Birds were flying across the security lines - a dark silhouette once, and light blur again - spectators without borders - free to come and go as they please. From areal perspectives of the spectators along the entourage's route to Buckingham Palace, or in a telephoto shot down a boulevard, there were birds freely traversing as they pleased - adding a nice touch to the garden-themed event. The preparations for wedding seem to have gone flawlessly - a lot of work paid off. See photographs of the garden preparations here and here. The live trees will be planted back in Highgrove Gardens, an organic garden owned by the Prince of Wales.
(1) The English garden look, and a local adaptation with intended outcomes.

(2) When we checked into our condominium yesterday,  we couldn't miss noticing the preparations in the business office for the royal wedding. When we asked about the decorations, Gwen told us her
Celebration in Delaware
brother in England had sent her some notions commemorating the event, with instructions to also buy a "wedding" cake. We had a pleasant conversation and supported her enthusiasm - she offered us a piece if we would stop by today. We did, and after asking her for a picture to document the moment, she was more than willing to pose for this photograph - a hat included to be in the full spirit of the day. It was a great way to finish off the afternoon after a leisurely time at the beach, including a review of the news stories on-line and on the television.

Delaware's Yellow River - Pollen Alert

Our second day of vacation has brought us to the Atlantic Coast at Bethany Beach, Delaware. We drove over yesterday late-morning ahead of the violent weather in the Washington, D.C. area, and settled into the condo we have rented. When visiting a new region, I keep remembering
Liquidambar styraciflua trees leafing
after I have left on trips like this that I should have brought my copy of Rexford Daubenmire's book Plant Geography so I can review what the natural vegetation should be in the area. A quick Web-search last night, and reference Ecoregions of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia turned up (click here), but the richness of descriptions of the different kinds of plant assemblages are missing, as written in the Daubenmire - it was one of my favorites in graduate school among the books when studying plant ecology.

The Delaware Department of Forestry reports there are 115 species of trees that are native to the state - one of those is sweet gum. I was first aware that this is a native tree in the east when on a work detail in the spring of 1999 and I living in College Park for two months. I would run a few miles after work each day - following a trail near my apartment
Pollen count report for Delaware
that wound its way to the University of Maryland and eventually on to Artemesia Lake the other side of the Metro Orange Line track. As the trees began to leaf out, I was surprised that sweet gum was one of the hardwoods - the few fruit that remained on the trees over the winter were another sign. My folks had three ornamental sweet gum trees in our front yard - I had no idea then that they were a native tree. Through in the rest of tree species assembled, and it is impressive how thick the woods seem to be in spring as everything begins to leaf, particularly compared to the bareness of winter (see earlier post). Also, the woods are alive with bird songs and calls. Already I have spotted Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Tufted Titmouse, House Wren, Barn Swallow, and a pair of some sort of yellow-colored Tanager or Warbler flying by - along with great numbers of American Robin, Common Grackle, and a few Mallard Ducks and Mute Swans on a pond. (1)

Streams of pollen in rain runoff
Another tell-tale sign of sweet gum (along with other flowering trees) are the copious amounts of pollen that are shed in spring. I have been coughing and sneezing for weeks, and there has been no let-up since we arrived - I needed to keep popping the throat lozenges. Cars that have been left out in the parking areas here are covered with pollen. A slide at a children's play area yesterday evening was covered with pollen. As we ran for cover as rain began to pour while taking a walk, pollen ran thick in the run-off and in puddles. As it turns out, sweet gum pollen is reported to be one of the greatest contributors to the total pollen load as of a few days ago.

This morning the temperatures are much cooler and the humidity seems to be gone - compared to yesterday. With the thunder storms that passed through yesterday, perhaps the pollen has been washed out of the air and the reports will be lower. It is seems to be a fine morning for spotting more birds among the hardwood trees.
(1) Later today, more birds noted: Canada Goose (Atlantic race), Great Blue Heron, Laughing Gull, Black Vulture, Brown Pelican, Double-Crested Cormorant, Willet, Gray Catbird, Mourning Dove, and Brown Thrasher. As an added bonus, while at Bethany Beach and looking just beyond the breakers, there was a pod of what were likely five or more Bottlenose Dolphins swam by heading north. Also, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter painted drab green and without markings flew south along the breaker line, and then returned north as short while later - a soldier sat on the back ramp of the aircraft, his or her legs dangling over the end.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hot and Humid - First Hour on Vacation

It was in the 80's and humid this afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C. We are heading to the Delaware coast tomorrow, and I felt like I was officially on vacation after making a presentation this afternoon and wrapping up a follow-on meeting afterward in an office building just north of the Supreme Court building and northeast of the Capitol Building. As I started walking back to Capitol South Metro Station, at the corner of Maryland Avenue and First Street NE was a snack vendor kiosk being tended by the proprietor and his wife.

We both made eye contract and I wished him a good evening, and then asked, "What do you have that's cold - any juice bars?"

"Yes, what would you like? Strawberry, papaya, coconut?"

"I'll take the coconut. How much?"

"Two dollars."

I opened my wallet and pulled out two singles. We made the exchange and both smiled.

"May I leave the wrapper?"

He gladly obliged, and I began walking south on First Street while trying to keep my tongue from sticking to the frozen bar (1), with my jacket draped over my left arm and brief case strap over my shoulder. I know enough from experience to take my time walking in weather like this or I will end up dripping like a leaking faucet by the time I sit down on my seat in the train heading back to my car parked at the Landover Station.

The tourists are all over Washington - groups of middle school kids, dad's taking pictures of family members - mom with the two kids, the two kids together, then one-at-a-time in front of the Neptune relief sculpture fountain in front of the Library of Congress (2). ("Daddy, why are those naked people taking a bath across from the Capitol Building?") In the same vicinity, I could hear a Northern Cardinal calling in one of the trees - perhaps singing song of a Siren; but that is another Greek story that has to deal with large bodies of water, not large bronze bodies in water.

I am also old enough to not be inhibited in public places, knowing that I am a faceless entity wearing a tie in a city where ties are in style year-round. So while I was walking and thinking how I had wished I had taken a photograph of the vendor and his wife in front of there business an eighth of a mile back, it came to me: Take a shot of the half-eaten coconut bar with the Library of Congress in the background.

... so I did.

I was doing fine eating the slowly melting and disappearing treat up until I was trying to compose my picture. Now the bar was beginning to drip onto my umbrella and down the wooden popsicle onto my fingers. (did you know the bottom of the juice bar is melting while the top is still frozen?)
(1) I remember once in high school buying an frozen orange juice bar during break on a cold foggy morning, and my tongue sticking fast - it was panic time. I don't know how long I had to wait or whether I went in doors to help it thaw, but I can still see the imprints of my papillae on the surface of the bar when tongue was finally dislodged.

(2) The Library of Congress also served as the lodging several days for a Cooper's Hawk earlier this year. See information by clicking here. After seeing a Cooper's Hawk in our yard last month, I have an appreciation for the size of the bird trapped in the library.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Social Phenom Lost

The character Michael Scott
Tonight was the next to last episode of The Office as it was originally configured - a situation comedy with a large cast that has run since
The cast of Bloom County
2005. There were times when the scripts got a little too crude, but in general, and good time to watch - some shows make you laugh, some make you cringe from the stupidity, others leave you just smiling (1). The series will continue, but the main character, Michael Scott, will move on after next week's episode - we will see how long the series lasts without him. Our daughter and son-in-law introduced us to the series several years ago when visiting. As we were coming upstairs after turning off the television, I commented that The Office ranks up there with the Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbs -
Bloom County comic strip banner
comic strips that have come and gone their own way after a solid run of me following them. Such it is. "You will move on," my wife said. These virtuosos are their own reward (2) - art in motion, enjoyed while it lasted in that space of time.
(1) This scene was a off-take from a viral YouTube wedding dance video - over 64-million hits.

(2) The title of guitarist Leo Kottke's song from his album A Shout Towards Noon.
You can view a Washington Post post mortem of the last episode with Steve Carell, click here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aurora Borealis Entertainment

I have only seen the Aurora Borealis once - on a Northwest Airlines flight one night from Minneapolis or Detroit to Portland. While browsing over the Baltimore Sun on line this evening, I saw a time lapse video by Terje Sorgjerd titled The Mountain set to music. One look, and I was hooked on his work and that of the composer Ludovico Einaudi (1). I then saw The Aurora. An Aurora is luminous phenomenon of Earth’s upper atmosphere that occurs primarily in high latitudes of both hemispheres; auroras in the Northern Hemisphere 
Aurora Borealis
are called aurora borealis, and in the Southern Hemisphere, aurora australis. Auroras are caused by the interaction of energetic particles from outside the atmosphere with atoms of the upper atmosphere. Such interaction occurs in zones surrounding Earth’s magnetic poles. During periods of intense solar activity, auroras occasionally extend to the middle latitudes; for example, the aurora borealis has been seen as far south as 40° latitude in the United States. Auroras take many forms, including luminous curtains, arcs, bands, and patches. The uniform arc is the most stable form of aurora, sometimes persisting for hours without noticeable variation. However, in a great display other forms appear, commonly undergoing dramatic variation. The lower edges of the arcs and folds
Earth's magnetic field
are usually much more sharply defined than the upper parts. Greenish rays may cover most of the sky poleward of the magnetic zenith, ending in an arc that is usually folded and sometimes edged with a lower red border that may ripple like drapery. The display ends with a poleward retreat of the auroral forms, the rays gradually degenerating into diffuse areas of white light. Auroras receive their energy from charged particles traveling between the Sun and Earth along bundled, ropelike magnetic fields. The particles are driven by the solar wind, captured by the Earth's magnetic field, and conducted downward toward the magnetic poles. They collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, knocking away electrons to leave ions in excited states. These ions emit radiation at various wavelengths, creating the characteristic red or greenish blue colors of the aurora. (2)
(1) Ludovico Einaudi composer and pianist, his songs deeply evocative and emotional impact it has made ​​today one of the artists most appreciated and popular on the European scene. (translated from the composer's Facebook page using Google translate. Artist Biography: Pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi was born in Turin, November 23, 1955. His mother, also a pianist, would play for him as a young child, planting the seeds for what would become a fruitful, illustrious career. Einaudi studied under Luciano Berio at the Conservatory of Milan, graduating with a diploma in composition. In 1982 his talents would win him a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival. The experience opened Einaudi's ears to new ideas like minimalism, world music influences and aspects of pop music. He spent the next several years composing for the ballet, including Sul Filo d'Orfeo (1984), Time-Out (1988) and The Wild Man (1991). Einaudi turned a corner in 1996 with the release of his first collection of solo performances, entitled Le Onde. This record started Einaudi down the path towards becoming one of Europe's best selling pianist/composers. 1999's Eden Roc and 2001's I Giorni, both for BMG, captured the solo piano world's attention, both remaining best-sellers for years to come. While seemingly at the top of the composition world, Einaudi ventured into the world of film composition, a journey punctuated by his Best Film Score award in 2002 for his work on Luce Die Miei Occhi. Einaudi noted interviews during that period that he missed concretizing, and began performing again regularly. New works blossomed from this effort, including 2004's Una Mattina and 2006's Diario Mali. 2007 welcomed Einaudi's seventh studio album, titled Divenire, where he is accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. ~ Evan C. Gutierrez, Rovi

(2) Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica on-line (click here).

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Natural Portrait Lighting Effect

Brown-headed Cowbird
This image of a Brown-headed Cowbird reminds me of a formal portrait sitting where the subject's head is highlighted by directed lighting. Of course, the effect here is due to the brown head color difference from the jet black rest of the bird's body. This is my first sighting of this species - there was one male (the subject) and two females. The females kept working the seed feeder, while the male was perched on the supporting pole. There was a little action on the ground as well, but the three of them were off after about five minutes. As usual, if I hadn't looked out the kitchen window when they arrived, I would have never seen this trio. Like the Red-winged Blackbirds earlier in the year, I think these were transients passing through - maybe the result of the strong winds that came with last night's storm.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rusty Caps - Chipping Sparrow

The week before last, there was a new bird in our backyard. Many of the sparrows are similar - LBB's (little brown birds), but I am starting to get used to looking for specific markings that are unique to the different species. It was easy to see that this was a new one - a rusty capped sparrow? No, that is the page title in the RTP field guide (1) - Chipping Sparrow was the correct identification. The following description is lifted from Wikipedia and gives a good description.

In eastern North America, Chipping Sparrows breed in woodlands, farmlands, and suburban and urban districts. In western North America, the Chipping Sparrow prefers conifer forests for breeding. The Chipping Sparrow is partially migratory, with almost all mid-latitude and high-latitude breeders withdrawing in winter to the southern United States and Mexico. On the wintering grounds and during migration, Chipping Sparrows are gregarious, forming tight flocks with other Chipping Sparrows or loose assemblages with other 
Chipping Sparrow
species such as Eastern Bluebirds and Pine Warblers. Throughout the year, Chipping Sparrows forage on the ground, often in loose flocks. Their diet consists mainly of seeds and crumbs of mostly any food, especially those fallen on the ground. Chipping Sparrows frequently forage directly from forbs and grasses, too. At any time of the year, especially, in spring, Chipping Sparrows may be seen in trees, even up in the canopy, where they forage on fresh buds and glean for arboreal arthropods. Although they are wary, Chipping Sparrows often allow close approach. A quiet observer can often get to within 50–100 feet of one or more Chipping Sparrows feeding on the ground. When spooked, Chipping Sparrows fly a short distance to the nearest tree or fencerow. In early spring, the first migrants return from their wintering grounds in March, but the bulk of migrants arrives throughout April. Males set up territories right away, and their trilled songs make them conspicuous. Breeding begins as early as April, but again, most nesting activity occurs from late April to early May onwards. Molt in the Chipping Sparrow follows the "Complex Alternate Strategy" as usual for American sparrows. It consequently has two molts per year as adults and three molts in their first year of life, also called their first plumage-cycle. The Chipping Sparrow's two adult molts occur in late summer and late winter. Although this bird's original habitat was probably coniferous forest, especially the eastern subspecies has adapted well to the changes brought about by increased human population in its range.
(1) RTP field guide: Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (hard cover, of course).

Wisconsin Prespring Birding

I had a meeting in Madison earlier in the week, so flew into Milwaukee and drove up to Hilbert in Calumet County to visit my uncle for a few hours while on my way. We got together about 22 months ago when I
Ancient Army warrior in USNA cap
had another meeting in Madison, but everything was in full leaf then and the area looked exotic, almost alien - this time the trees were still bare, and by my uncle's account, the lawns had just greened up that week. We drove up to Forest Junction to a favorite restaurant of his - all the waitresses know him - had a lunch special, and then headed out for an afternoon of driving around the county seeing Lake Winnebago, the two large mega-dairies, the Veolia Hickory Meadow Landfill that is now the 
Birds of Wisconsin place mat
highest point in the county, a cousin in Brillion, and lots of rolling corn and soybean ground - bare still with stalks standing brown where they have been since autumn - red barns with field rock foundations, and white farm houses. Lake Winnebago still was mostly frozen, as were the small water bodies like Bullhead Lake. Minnesota may be called the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, but it seemed that Wisconsin could hold a close second. As for America's Dairyland, the days of a dairy with 50 cows for every 100 acres are over.

The ruralness of the drive from Milwaukee to Hilbert to Madison and back to Milwaukee stood out more this trip than last. So much so, that I drove the entire time with the radio off. I just observed the countryside, reading the road signs, being careful of my speed - some of the small towns along the way obviously use their village boundaries as income generators, and the rolling topography is better than a curve along a freeway to hide a patrol officer's car and waiting radar gun. To go along with all of the open spaces was my running check-off list of birds sighted.

Dead Golden Eagle 
along northbound Interstate 43,
they are really large close up,
speeding by at 65 mph.

Peregrine Falcon (1)
on top of a tree,
to the right of Highway 151 -
Madison an hour away.

Red-tailed Hawk,
American Kestrel.

Red-wing Blackbirds,
every five seconds driving, 

Canada Geese
not as many as the blackbirds, 
but many on ponds and flooded fields
and formations in the sky.

Mallard Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Tundra Swan
and Great Egret.

Glaucous Gull,
white beneath its wings,
flying overhead.

American Robin,
 Eastern Meadowlark, only one,
Downy Woodpecker.

Tree Swallow,
darting in and out of its nest box,
 in front of a small wetland,
mega dairy barns in the distance,
five thousand cows resting.

American Crow and
Turkey Vulture.

Lots of other small birds, 
impossible to identify while driving.
I wondered once, 
a flash of blue, 
would that have been my first 
Eastern Bluebird.

A good Website with a list of Wisconsin bird species and their status is found here, which is a from the All Bird Plan - a part of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. Photographs for a Wisconsin bird list can be found here, a site hosted by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.
(1) Interestingly, today in the Portland Oregonian newspaper, there was an article about how well Peregrine Falcon are faring in the urban environment there - front page Web news. Click here, to view the article.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Aves de Guatemala en Tela

As usual, the timing and the place weren't exactly right for serious outdoor birding during my short business trip to Antigua in Guatemala. Little did I know the most diverse birding opportunity I would see was in the El Mercadito across the street from the Central Park. However, I 
Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala
did get to see some new live birds - the first were seen while taxiing after landing at Guatemala City airport - Great-tailed Grackle that were frequenting the turf areas next to the tarmac. While driving from the airport to the hotel in Antigua - about an hour drive with mid-day traffic - there were many more grackle along the way as well as House Sparrow. Even though I went prepared for this trip - I had briefly gone
through my copy of Howell and Webb's Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America to become familiar with the different kinds of families - my brain hickuped, because I didn't take my travel binoculars.
Embroidered birds on woven cloth (detail)
Regardless, I still got some decent viewings. Along with many more grackles were White-winged Dove and Clay-colored Robin. There were also hummingbirds, but without binoculars and good lighting, it is impossible to even take a guess at which species I saw - there are 37 species of hummingbirds in Guatemala, far more than I would have imagined until I looked at a bird list for the country. The most exotic sighting though, happened while a group of us were sitting out on the patio at the hotel, when a blueish-colored bird flew in front of us, across the length of the grounds. I got a good look at the bird during its few second flight from left to right - after checking my birding guide, I decided it was a White-crowned Parrot. There were other smallish species, but without binoculars and time to stalk or sit-and-wait, there was little chance to figure out what I saw.

Guatemala, and especially the area around Antigua, is know for the sales of products sold by local artisans, especially textiles. Vendors are found all spread out along the streets selling small blankets or scarves - along with many other handicrafts. After having a late afternoon coffee
Artesanias Gloria holding a loom
at a small bistro, we went into the El Mercadito to view the different wares that were for sale inside there. I specifically wanted to look for peasant art. As I began to stroll past the booths, vendors standing in front would call out prices whether you made eye contact or not. After a short time, I knew I wanted to focus on folk paintings and woven cloth. A trick I learned in China was to keep asking vendor after vendor what price they wanted for a kind of item I was interested in - that typically would establish the range of starting prices the sales people were working from. (I emailed a friend of mine from work who has traveled extensively what was a fair negotiating price, and received a reply the next day that when ready to buy, begin offers at 25% of the starting
Many embroidered birds
price, and not go above 30%.) After walking straight to the end of the first hallway between vendors, and then up an incline to the left and then right, I walked to the end of another lane of vendors and made a jog to right and then straight ahead. At the end on the left (before turning right and then down a decline) was a display of textiles made by Mayan Cakchiquel people and tended by Artesanias Gloria. One of my companions was fluent in Spanish, so we asked questions about what she was selling, how much, and her willingness to negotiate prices. There was a sign at the entrance of El Mercadito that read "No Photographs," so we asked if it was alright to take some pictures - she smiled and said "Si." When she asked if we wanted to buy, we said not today, but that we would return "tomorrow." In Spanish she said we had nice faces, and offered prices that were lower than the beginning quotes, and gave both of us a woven book marker.

We didn't have time the next day, but did return to El Mercadito the last evening of our trip. Again, we  checked the prices as we walked along the rows of vendors in front of their stalls, stopping to look at
Quetzal, Coffee, and Mayan Temple
pieces of interest and asking prices. After looking at several displayed textiles, I made my way back to Gloria's stall - the quality of her textiles were noticeably of higher quality than the others we had looked at. It came down to deciding: the piece with the many birds, or another showing a pair of matching Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) birds along with coffee plants and a Mayan temple that represented a mountain - the detailed piece with the many birds was more than 1,000 Quetzal (1), the later with only two birds, 500 Q. Even though both of these were hand made, I didn't want to pay more than $50, so Gloria and I settled on 400 Q for the less elaborate piece - we were both satisfied.

Like the elusive plentiful tropical species of birds found in Guatemala, so was the purchase of my first choice of a textile with many birds as the subject. If I return to Antigua and El Mercadito, and if Gloria is still tending the wares made by the Cakchiquel people, I think I will get a piece with all of the different birds of Guatemala - no matter how poor of a price negotiator I am. (2)
(1) The Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, is found from
Pharomachrus mocinn
southern Mexico to western Panama. This bird is well known for its colorful
plumage, and plays an important role in Central American mythology. It is Guatemala's national bird - an image of it is on the national flag and coat of arms, and it is also the name of the the local currency. The use of an important symbol for the name of a nation's currency reminds me of how in Botswana, a very arid country, the name of its currency is the Pula, the same word for water.

(2) Another topic I will research ahead of time before my next trip is finding out whether a vendor represents a cooperative that ensure fair trade pricing and return of value to the people who produce the products.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spring Has Sprung

A few flowers in the backyard have already bloomed, but the tulips and daffodils are still lagging behind. My neighbor has been plugging holes in his house's siding that have served as nests for house finches (a). We had the same problem four years ago when we first lived here, but I covered the entrances back then, and other than a few scratching sounds when the birds have tried to catch a foot hold, there have been no incidences since. The crocus have passed their time in bloom, but these two bulbs (b, c) and the periwinkle (Vinca major) (d) are what were out today. My neighbor pointed out when using an insulation foam to plug holes in the siding, it is important not to scape off the excess cap of foam too soon before the entire load has dried underneath. Otherwise it comes oozing back out like a small magma flow through a lava tube, and then cascades down the side of the house. No problem, just extra work with a paint scraper.