Saturday, November 30, 2013


Our bodies were exhausted.  Our minds, from the constant day to day challenges, were fried.  Camera straps bruised  my shoulder.  The constant carrying of equipment, guarding our gear and securing it all was draining.  On our last night, Lynda purchased a little piece of joy in the form of a 5 star hotel.

The place was secure, relaxing.......and a place to let our hair down.  Guatemala has lots of wonderful accommodations in Antigua and Flores, but they become harder to find as you leave these areas. We entered the dark monastery and discovered a peaceful retreat where we could finally sleep. Our showers were hot. And most of all, the place was hidden from the rest of the world. 

The hotel is built around former monastery ruins.  It is a place for the rich to relax and escape before heading home. For us, it was a treat to have just one night here.  In the background, recordings of chanting monks are played throughout the old stone hallways.

At night, the solitary blue green waters of the pool called to me. My body was sore and bruised from the bird hikes.  And I submerged into the steamy waters alone and let my body finally relax.  No more birds.  No more anything.  For two hours, I watched the monsoon skies light up the top of a volcano. And I allowed myself to clear all my thoughts so that nothing remained inside.  No stress.  No worries.  No words.  Just the deeper reflections in life that nothing is really THAT important nor worth the stress that we all carry within ourselves.  All that matters is now.  I watched water glide with the movement of my hands. Water evaporated from the pool like the mist does from the early morning hours on the Amazon river. A breeze carried the ancient songs from the Baroque period. A singular...solitary...moment.

For within this museum/hotel, I was reminded that it's all we have. It is strange to compare our now with their past.  Were not their emotions similar to our own?  How much of what we do truly matters? A universal truth for all of us.

My mind wanders much these days.  Perhaps it's the wildlife chases.  Perhaps it's about getting older. Perhaps it's that there isn't much to say that hasn't already been said before.  It's one historical repeat after another. Are we as different than those who came before us?  It's all a bit humbling.

On our last night and day in Guatemala, we walked the historical grounds of the hotel.  It was nice to have peace of mind after long and challenging treks both mental and physical. As one adventure ends, another is just waiting to be discovered.........

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gobble Gobble!

The Ocellated Turkey in Tikal National Park
First off, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving here in the US.  It's a holiday of food, fun and a jump start to the holiday season.  For me, it's the beginning of another epic birding trek somewhere special.  Where will it be?  You'll have to stay tuned. But let's talk turkey.....

Merriam's Turkey on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Turkeys are amazing.  I love to see them in nature and in one instance, I was so focused on my photography that both Kathie and myself were surrounded by turkeys!!!

We had a good laugh as they approached us.  Attack of the killer turkeys!!!

I have been fortunate to see the other variety of turkey in Guatemala....the Ocellated Turkey!!

Wild Turkeys are making a huge comeback in the United States and their range is spreading little by little.  So many people take them for granted, but I remember a time when they weren't so common.  This bird had been wiped out from the landscape due to overhunting. Today the permits are strictly regulated in many states.

And even though I'm a birder,  I do enjoy the taste of turkey on Thanksgiving day.  Is that a bad thing?  If you are looking to try out something new and different with turkey, might I recommend a delicious soup from Guatemala called Kak'ik? It's seriously awesome and even writing about it now makes my mouth water. I'm a Spanish teacher and if you want some extra credit, try this Mayan dish out.  So if you have leftovers.....and who doesn't?.......might I recommend a little international fun to excite the taste buds.  

I've been a little slow on the writing and commenting this past month, but I assure you all that I have been reading your blogs.  I just haven't been commenting on them as much. Yes, I'm a turkey, but it has actually been quite nice to read all of your work like I would a newspaper. It's my daily lunch ritual.  I get my salad and sit down at the computer.  And then I read your work and thoughts:) No word verification or clicking boxes.....just reading.  I've also been on the road with Kathie a lot this month.  We've had great adventures across Southern Arizona and those stories will be told.....eventually.  But for now, it's time to relax and enjoy life....and the cooler weather again!  Happy holidays everyone! And don't forget to check out Wild Bird Wednesday!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Owling Around

Northern Saw-whet Owls
On my trip to Wisconsin, I had hoped to find the Northern Saw-whet Owls that were migrating through our area.  Several weeks in advance, I called a local birder by the name of Bernie.  He's a really nice guy with lots of great stories.  Two years ago I reported on Woodland Dunes from my hometown and it's a fantastic place to bird! And the walks are incredible as well!!! But I wanted to see something I had never seen before....the banding process behind Owls.  I knew it was done with little birds and hummingbirds, etc, but with owls!!!???  So I set something up with Bernie so that I could watch.  They were getting ready for their big Owlfest that weekend.   But we were heading home before that time.  So I'd like to say to Bernie, "THANK YOU!" for that opportunity.  It was fun hanging out with other owl aficionados and the evening was incredible.

So how is it done?  Well I arrived at the specified time and place given to me and reported to the crew.  The areas studied are off limits to outsiders which included myself.  Three NSWO's were ready to be banded when I got there and I watched as the crew began to ID the birds.

I'm a huge owl fan and have to say that this was really interesting.  The crew measured the wingspan to determine age, etc.  There was a chart that determined the sex etc of the owl based on the measurement, etc

This little guy went upside down into a cup and was placed on a scale to measure.  When that was finished, the banding began.

After that process happened, the owl is ready for release.  This little one is held this way so that the wings are kept in place.  The feet go between the fingers with the hand closing around the feet to keep the owl in place.

Our next owl went through the same process.  I watched as they marked the wing feathers on this bird.

And then this Northern Saw-whet Owl goes through the same process.

This is a great example on how the owls are held when they are ready for release.  Being a wildlife lover, I sometimes have a difficult time with the idea of banding, but I understand the importance of studies and migration, etc. For me, handling owls is a sacred thing.  The owls are held captive for that time period and there is a lot of trust that goes into this banding process. Bernie's crew did an amazing job going through the steps together. During this entire banding process a lot of education went on between the members and it was wonderful.  Then it was my turn to help release. 

Here is a team learning how to band owls.  They are in training and obviously a lot practice and observation goes into something like this before a person can begin to band.  And then I was able to release the last owl. I can't describe to you all the excitement I had taking the little one back out to freedom.  As I set him on the ground,  we looked at each other for a moment and then......flutter flutter!  The owl disappeared.  It was the most thrilling evening ever.  A northwestern wind blew in that night and carried many more owls into the Two Rivers area.  I heard many of them in the night skies.  Evening birding is truly exciting.  And a little banding to boot!

A special thank you goes out to the dedicated members of Woodland Dunes who shared with me that special night.   If I lived back home, I would be there to volunteer all the time.  The Dunes are some of the last intact tracts of land around my hometown.  They are home to many many species.  Bernie, I love you!  I can't tell you how much I appreciated the opportunity.  If you come down to Southern Arizona again, I would be honored to take you guys out birding.  I'm linking up to Wild Bird Wednesdays

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Divergent Paths

This past week, a very special lady passed away at the young age of 59.  She was the Aunt I never knew I had. Since I cannot be there for her funeral, I will tell the story about how I met her and my Uncle Tim only years ago. But to understand it, I'll have to tell you my father's story.......

During the second age, my father was born from a woman who could not keep her child. Her boyfriend ran away and she was left pregnant.  Society considered this a faux pas back then and everything was quietly handled.  Another couple who could not have children, wanted desperately to become parents.  They went through the adoptive services and found my father.  The couple loved him very much but never spoke in great detail of the adoption.  And it was never an issue for the young man.  But there it remained in the back of his mind for many years.

His biological mother married.  However, the man she met this time around was a keeper. Together they raised a large family with many children. But the adoption was never mentioned.  And it was something the woman lived with for many years.  The guilt and pain of giving up her first child stayed with her for many years. For this is not something men may understand.  I am told when a woman gives birth to her child, it is a bond that lasts forever.

The son and King Tuzigoot from a recent photo shoot on Lake Michigan

On the other side of the state, the son grew up and he, too, had a large family.  Because for him, he needed to fill in a piece that was missing.  He married his high school sweetheart and together they created a family of 8!  At this point, his first born, me, entered the picture.  The young man becomes my Dad.  And we live our lives not knowing about my father's adoption.  It didn't matter because my Grandparents were my Grandparents.  Period.  Nothing would change that fact.  Until my sophomore year of high school.  My mother mentioned to me that my father was adopted.  I was in shock....and not because my father was adopted.  I grew up thinking my parents to be rather boring people unaware that they had lived complicated and exciting lives.  Ignorance was my middle name. I asked my father if he would investigate his past.  And at the time, he told me perhaps down the road.  I mistakenly asked my Grandparents about the adoption once during lunch and I was met with dead silence. It was horribly awkward. I only did this because my parents were very open and transparent about their feelings as were my siblings. In a large family, it's difficult to keep secrets:)

What's better than Christmas and getting my first camera??!!!  My Grandparents:)
My grandparents were born around the beginning of the second age(the early 1900's). When horse carts became cars.  When gravel roads became paved.  When Scarlet fever still took people's lives. When people from the United States Civil War still lived.  World War I, World War II, the Great Depression. It was a hard life and very different than it is now.  Matters such as adoption were kept secret and out of respect, I never asked them again. You may find it funny that I address things as the first, second or third age but it's true.  The First Age were the migrants that arrived on the Wisconsin farmlands from Germany, Sweden, Norway, etc (my great and great great grandparents) learned English as a second language. The 3rd age marks the end of all things wild and innocent.  It was the onset of electronics in the early 80's.  The technological age.  But that write is for another time.

Years would pass.  My Grandfather died and my widowed Grandmother was 90 years old.  My Dad was experiencing some health issues and wanted to know what was going on.  My mother told him that it was time to find the answers.  And Dad began to search for the people responsible for his creation.

 Elsewhere, the also recently widowed and unknown woman from the forested village of Antigo had no more children at home.  They all grew up and married.  She was a grandmother now. Her phone rang and she answered. The lady on the other end asked, "Is this Mrs. Lorraine Duffy?"  The adoption center told her that there was a man wanting to speak with his biological mother. A week later after many tears shed between the mother and her lost son, the entire family met together and the secret was revealed.  A guilt lifted and new beginnings were had.  Enter Karen Duffy....the liaison of the family.  The great communicator.

An entire family reunited. Pops is to the far left
My family was happy for our father.  It was amazing how they all acted the same, talked the same, and even looked the same!!!!  So many new aunts and uncles!  While the news was exciting, it wasn't received well by all.  I still had a Grandmother who didn't know that her son was searching for his biological mother.  So several of us stayed firm that we would never call this new woman Grandmother.

Here I am meeting Lorraine for the first time.  
We really liked her very much but the title "Grandmother" was already taken by two other amazing women.  However, everyone had so much fun and it was like the years of separation did not matter....and Lorraine won the respect and love of a Grandmother.

The special lady who helped reunite two families into one....Karen!  She's on the far right.

But stubborn me.  Stubborn ol' me.  I didn't want to betray my Grandmother's trust or love. I spoke with her every Sunday about gardening and other her amazing recipes for cookies and dressing.  And this is where the Aunt, I never knew I had, stepped in and offered me an olive branch.  My Dad's biological brother Tim and his wife Karen came to Tucson. We had such a great visit that I knew I had to open my mind up to redefining family.

As time would go on, my Dad would lose his mother(my Grandma) and then his biological mother. They would have a few years together before she passed.  When we were home visiting, we always went to visit Karen and Tim.  They became part of the "must visit" stops.  And Facebook allowed us to share pictures and our lives.  Then Karen became sick.  Everytime we came home she would get a little worse.  My brother married and we saw her lose muscle control at his wedding.  The next time she was in a wheelchair.....and then she disappeared off of Facebook.  She no longer could type.  Several days ago, she finally passed from her suffering.  It will be a hard thing for all of our families as she was not only the "hub" or connector of the family communications, but she was also a genuine person with an amazing heart.  Little do we know how much time each of us has been granted in this life.

And spouses:)  Karen is in the striped sweater. Lorraine is in front.
It is for that reason, I'd like to dedicate this post to Karen and her husband Tim for their love and hospitality. While Karen may not physically be here with us, her memory will live on in our hearts.  I'd like to wish her well on that journey we will all have to take. You will be missed dearly by so many people.

The first time we all met

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Los Momentos Profundos

The primary purpose of my trip to Guatemala this past summer was birding, but I am also fascinated by the human condition.  We are a race of peoples full of wonderful cultural identities and language variations. And yet, people are beginning to look the same as our technologies bring us all together. For me, it's getting harder and harder to find those authentic shots out in the field. Mayan people still dress the same but the difference is that they now hold a cell phone next to their traditional wardrobe.......which sharply contrasts the old world with the new. But today's post is really about how much extra work it is to bird in foreign places....especially when you're doing it in a world of constant distraction.

I would leave to find birds in public areas.  People would stare at me strangely, but I am beyond caring anymore.  It is my goal to find birds and other wildlife in this life of mine. Customs are different and yet, the human heart is universal.   People still celebrate childbirth and marriage.  They still mourn death etc.etc.  As I am pulled into the bird world more, the human side of me withdraws a bit.  I still feel compassion.  I still care, but it's difficult to put this transformation into words.  Life is a personal journey that isn't always clear. I've also noticed these same qualities with other wildlife aficionados. We go out of our way to AVOID people while on our bird missions. Thankfully my friend Lynda was there to keep me "present" in the real world.

Yellow-winged Tanager
The distractions of daily life interfered many times with birding.  Keeping an eye on traffic and people was exhausting. Many times I eavesdropped on Spanish conversations around me to keep us safe from harm. And while danger was never an issue, there were people constantly trying to take advantage of the gringos.  It became an irritation negotiating with others.  How much time would we spend on the road going from A to Z?  I began to miss birding in the US again.  It was all so much easier. Or was it?  Then my mind wandered to cold locales like Canada or Alaska.....places that catered to birders.  Perhaps this is a sign that I am indeed getting older.  But I wanted easy access to the birds and animals. However we all know the saying, "No pain; no gain."

It was a constant battle.  "Would I like to buy something?"  No. I'm not heartless, but I've been there and done that. Instead of seeking Spanish and knowledge about the people like I did before; I now searched for something higher......our vanishing wildlife.  I wanted to know more about their conservation efforts.

Photographers and birders need to be aware of their surroundings at all times.  I have chosen this challenge as I try to find as many of these birds as I can, but I will also do my best to be safe. When there is extreme poverty, it's about basic survival. Theft is common in this country if you aren't careful(especially around Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan(certain locations). We had to constantly watch our equipment as we traveled. How can someone think about the future when their daily basic needs aren't met? And it's not just Guatemala.  It's everywhere.

All I need is food, shelter and sleep.  That line repeated itself in my head over and over.  Wasn't I the privileged spoiled one?  Is it not frivolous this "hobby" I do?  I would ask myself that as I was collecting data for Ebird.  But really, I was selfishly finding new life birds and taking snap shots of them. But it's your vacation Chris.  YOU deserve this.  I would struggle with these thoughts throughout the trip.  I wasn't a tourist or a Spanish student anymore.  I was an observer.  One who can comfortably write a blog about his bloated experiences abroad.  But one thing was true.  I had to find birds and not waste my time in Guatemala.  Not many cared nor understood my need to observe and count them.  Again I was thankful to have my friend there to keep me "present".

 Lynda reminded me to take pictures of the people. All of this was new and exciting for her.  I don't know how she put up with me for so long:)  My thoughts wander these days....a lot.  She would ask me many times to repeat what she said.  And I would repeat them to let her know that I was listening.  But sometimes I'd make an observation and just stare at the rain coming down or watch the gentle waves hitting the shoreline. Sometimes the thought was too deep to explain.  It would take forever to share my past experiences of "what was" in Guatemala to "what is now". A lot had changed. So I would sip my coffee and think about how I could poorly verbalize my thoughts.

And color was not lost on me.  The photographer was still fascinated by it all.  We would come to love our meals in Guatemala.  The food was excellent and every dinner a delight. Some nights I couldn't sleep as I had become excited about the birds I could possibly find the next day.

Our morning would begin with coffee and breakfast.  Afterwards, we'd get walking to our destinations. After all, the secret to birding well is exploring every nook and cranny in one area.  Each area, even within a block radius, has different birds. But a puff of exhaust would hit our faces as we hiked over cobblestone and rock roads.  We had to always watch carefully and make sure we wouldn't get hit.  Birds can fly and avoid all the traffic. With people, it's a different story:)

A chicken bus
Mired in human chaos, it was a true challenge to find the birds.  They were there.  I just needed to keep focus from all the distractions around me.

Azure-crowned Hummingbird

At our hostel, a Bird of Paradise attracted this Azure-crowned Hummingbird until a backpacker scared it away.  He would reappear once all the people had left.

Clay-colored Thrush
In Central Park, the Clay-colored Thrushes nested secretly above the trees.  While I observed this new lifebird species, a sketchy man came up to me for money!

The Rock Pigeons blended perfectly into the statues on the building. So did many other birds....

The Guatemalan Flag
I hid on our hostel rooftop to capture Blue-Gray Tanagers consuming peaches.    Then the woman making my breakfast asked me what I wanted to eat and the birds were gone! A necessary distraction:)

Blue-gray Tanagers
Birding abroad was challenging as it was thought provoking.  I liked the challenge.....for awhile.  Then I began to show signs of wear.

But by the end of the trip, we became tired of the mosquitoes and sweat. Finding lifebirds finally took a backseat as I lost myself within a misty pool on our last night. For several hours I swam alone listening to monastery music play in the background.  Monsoon storms lit up the night sky revealing the towering volcanoes off in the distance.  My friend treated me to a night of royalty at a 5 star hotel.  We both were finally able to sleep well:) There were no distractions at all.  No car alarms going off at 3 in the morning. No storms knocking out power to our fans in the steamy rain forest. No bugs.  No worries about anything. But it wasn't cheap.

Black-capped Swallows on a wire in the overcast sky
As I begin to sign off from my Guatemala adventures, I wanted to share several swallows found swooping around people.  Above, we have Black-capped Swallows.

Also among the bunch of birds high above were Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

There are all kinds of birders out there. I had to be on a budget to do this trip, but I also know many birders who can afford the 5 star + treatment while birding.  With my budget, I had many more obstacles and therefore, the life birds were a lot more work.  Here is the conflict for me.  If I had the money, would I choose the 5 star option?  To be honest, I would answer yes because it was much more comfortable.  But there is that other part of me that thinks about how the rest of the world lives.

For now it's not an issue as I still need to stay on budget. I sat alone in the pool that night thinking about all of these things. The bruises on my shoulders from the camera strap were allowed to heal.  My eyes were allowed to rest as the bird search had come to an end. I no longer had to deal with adding to my collection of mosquito bites all over my body. No worries about bed bugs or fleas jumping off of dirty stray dogs and cats. My calloused feet could relax.  And I was able to soak in every single glorious moment without any distractions.  Perfection. 

One last account from my Guatemala travels coming up.......