Monday, July 31, 2006

The Song in My Head

Just a Ride
by Jem
from the album Finally Woken
This happy little pop tune is so catchy, not only was I forced to buy it from ITunes, I also added it to the set list for the upcoming August 5 show by the Swinging Orangutangs.

Where would this world be without happy little pop tunes? Here are the lyrics. And here is Jem's website. Turns out she's Welsh. I'm glad she's not singing in Welsh.

I initially thought about using an image of a long dusty road, stretching off into the distance--a subject I love to photograph. But then I remembered this image of a cattle egret "enjoying the ride" on the back of a swimming hippo, and it somehow seemed right.

I photographed these two unlikely friends at Nsumo Pan in Mkuze Game Reserve. Nsumo was perhaps my single favorite spot on my South Africa trip. Watch for a post or two on Nsumo/Mkuze coming soon to BOTB.

In the meantime, I wish you a happy pop tune for your head.

Trying to Post

The Blogger Gods are not smiling today. Blogger will not take any images from me, no matter which browser I use, what size images I upload, how I name the images, or whether it's boxers, briefs, or commando.


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fruit-eating Nyala

This large buck nyala was on the grounds at Bonamanzi our last afternoon there. He was so intent on eating a large, hard, green fruit that we were able to approach so close, we could not digiscope him.
He would raise his head and let the fruit roll back into this throat, then he would chew on it with his back teeth. The sounds he made while doing this were somewhat akin to sounds I heard in my freshman year dorm, after my fellow scholars had had too much to drink. Transcribing this sound for a field guide to the sounds of foraging African mammals (or chundering American collegians) it would be roughly thus: Arrglrglrggrgahrrrraaatchhhhh!

After about five minutes the buck had broken open the hard fruit and gobbled it down in a few quick bites.
One of the Bonamanzi staff passed by the buck, within a few feet. The buck just kept on chewing.

One thing I love about nyalas is that they look like they are wearing tan socks.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Day 2: Hluhluwe Afternoon

The Hluhluwe landscape is quintessentially African.

Bumping and rocking down the washboard road from Bonamanzi I was reminded that a certain part of my anatomy was still sore from the long plane ride across the Atlantic. At least now I was on the ground with birds and other creatures to see. The short drive to Hluhluwe was relatively painless, at least once we reached the paved main road.

In 2002, I toured Hluhluwe with a group lead by a guide from the park, in addition to my friend Peter Lawson of Lawson's Birdwatching Tours. We were in an open-air Range Rover with stair-stepped bench seats under a canopy.

Because Hluhluwe has lots of free-ranging dangerous animals, visitors are not permitted to leave their vehicles except in certain gated areas around the lodges and campgrounds. The 2002 trip was not particularly birdy. It was summer and the vegetation was thick enough to hide lots of what we were trying to see. It was hot as the hinges on the hatch to Hades and dusty, too, but we scored great looks at lots of African mega-wildlife. The highlight of that trip was the two hours we spent watching two herds of African elephants bathing, drinking, and cavorting in the Hluhluwe River. These were the first wild elephants I'd ever seen and, you know what? Them suckers is BIG! In spite of not being able to get out of the vehicle, I managed to get some acceptable digiscoped images of elephants.
My best shot of the bathing elephants (with baby!) from my 2002 visit to Hluhluwe.

I was hopeful that on this trip in 2006, we'd again have luck with the elephants. After getting a pass that allowed our vehicle inside the gate at the park's entrance, we headed into Hluhluwe in search of anything interesting. Just a mile or so inside the gate we found a small herd of impala, much spookier than at Bonamanzi. Why? Perhaps because these animals are hunted by leopards and by humans? Probably so.

Inside our rented combi bus. We could not get out of the vehicle in Hluhluwe. A leopard might eat us.

A herd of Burchell's zebras were grazing near the road a mile further along. All I could do was snap a few macro shots of zebra fur. Digiscoping from inside a 15-person van requires the physical skills of an international Twister champion as well as the patience of Job. Neither tripod nor human legs can be extended as easily as when you are outside on the ground, so you prop one leg here, another there, balance the scope on someone's shoulder and ask them to quit breathing for a few minutes. It's not simple, but we all still managed to get a few clear digiscoped shots. I did learn some German curse words.

Three giraffes were nibbling the treetops in a wooded copse. They just stood there watching us try to take their pictures. If we stayed within the confines of the bus, the giraffes paid us no attention. But if someone held their hands and camera out the window, the giant beasts began moving slowly away. Again, with my scope, I shot macro frames of giraffe fur.
Our first giraffes of the trip.

Giraffe fur macro, complete with dandruff. This animal needs to use "Neck & Shoulders" anti-dandruff shampoo.

Giraffe eye with a small wound (upper lid) and a tick (lower lid). No mascara was used to enhance this shot.

In Africa, the big game hunter culture has come up with the concept of The Big Five. Five African animals that are hard to stalk and kill. The Big Five are Cape buffalo (often called Africa's most dangerous animal), rhinoceros (black rhino is extremely endangered--2,700 individuals, white rhino much more common in South Africa, the country credited with saving the white rhino: total population about 11,000), African elephant, leopard, and lion. Hluhluwe is one of a handful of places in South Africa where all the Big Five occur.

A side note here: Hunters from all over the world pay thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands, to shoot big game. In fact our flights to Africa were full of guys, already decked out in hunting togs, talking loudly about the safaris they were going on. Personally I don't understand how one could possibly shoot, say, an elephant, but people do. [In fairness, I am sure most hunters would be baffled at how birders could enjoy looking at a cisticola--they are drab, tiny, and it would take 50 of them to make a good sandwich].
White rhino with calf.

Oxpeckers (this one just right of center) keep small wounds open on rhinos and drink the blood.

Red-billed oxpecker on a white rhino's back. Taken from an idling bus through my scope.

Similar to most of the rest of the world, the balance of nature in South Africa, especially in huge gated parks like Hluhluwe, needs both monitoring and manipulation from humans to maintain some equilibrium. Hunting revenues pay for a lot of the maintenance and infrastructure of the South African game reserves, so it is a necessary part of the wildlife/ecology equation.
Little bee-eater, spotted just before we saw a big cat.

We saw a small herd of Cape buffalo, then several black rhinos, including one with a small rhino calf. Then, while watching a pair of bee-eaters flycatching along a stream bank, we noticed a small warthog snorting and acting excited. Just then, Christian, shouted "Leopard!" And we all caught sight of the big cat's spots as it moved parallel to the road through the thorn scrub. It wasn't a world-class look, but it was my first ever big cat in the wild! High fives were quietly shared all around. We waited for another 20 minutes and believe we heard the leopard call, but it never showed itself again. How lucky!

It was nearing lunch time, so we headed up into the nearby mountains to the Hill Top Camp Lodge for the late-afternoon meal. I'm not sure if South Africans typically eat lunch at 2 or 3 pm, or if that was just South African birding trip lunch time, but most days we ate lunch at about 3. The light from the lodge's hilltop patio was gorgeous and we stood there, impressed with the vista--just rolling hills, thorn scrub, acacia trees, and miles and miles of uninhabited land. Distant herds of impala, kudu, wildebeest, rhinos, and Cape buffalo could be seen through the shimmering afternoon heat haze. A kettle of white-backed vultures slipped overhead and centered itself over a draw to our east.
These Dutch girls were thrilled to watch the zebras through my scope at Hill Top Camp.

I was scanning with my scope, watching some rather active zebras, on the hillside below us. One large zebra was running toward a copse of trees, then back to its herd. The herd was stamping nervously. Something was bothering them.
Nervous zebras photographed from the Hill Top Camp.

"Lion!" coming down the path to the left of the trees. Oh my God! It was a beautiful lioness, walking slowly down a well-worm wildlife path. This had to have been what got the zebras so worked up. Zebra is high on the lion's list of "Nice Things to Eat." And the lion is high on the zebra's list of "Creatures to Avoid at All Costs." I watched the lioness as she slunk, quite majestically, down the hillside, disappearing into a brushy creekbed. This was a dream come true--a LION!

This is the lioness image cropped and enlarged. Not bad a bad image considering that I was shaking with excitement.

A funny thought occurred to me: as we were entering Hluhluwe, I asked our guides "Are there any lions here?" And the answer, probably to avoid getting any hopes up, was "No lions here." I chuckled at the good fortune we'd had.

As everyone sat down to lunch, I went inside the lodge to try to send an e-mail back home. I spent 15 minutes on the slowest Internet connection I've ever used, at least since 1990, sending word back to the States that I was fine and having a good time, also mentioning the lion and leopard sightings. Little did I know the messages never made it through. Perhaps they will be delivered sometime soon--guess that connection was slower than I thought.
Posing after lunch at Hill Top Camp.

While eating lunch, the realization came over us that we had seen four of the Big Five in just a few afternoon hours at Hluhluwe. All that was left was elephant. It was 4 pm. We had an hour-and-a-half of daylight left to try to find some elephants. The quest was on! Still chewing our sandwiches, we mounted up and headed back out into the park, looking for a huge gray mammal with a tiny tail and a long trunk.

It took the entire rest of the day to find the elephants. We asked every vehicle we encountered and finally got the proper info: They are down by the river. Sure enough. At the very cusp of dusk, we found three small herd of elephants.
Elephants at dusk at Hluhluwe. The Big Five slam was complete.

It was too dark for any reasonable photography, but we had our Big Five in just under five hours. This is, we were told, an almost-unheard-of accomplishment in such a time. We took only pictures, left only tire tracks. Every animal we saw is still there for you and others to enjoy.

Our Big Five buzz lasted all the way back to Bonamanzi. I barely noticed the bumpy road. After dumping our gear and cleaning up a bit, we gathered in the bar and drank toast after toast to our Big Five day.

The bottle of Windhoek Namibian lager I held in my hand was pleasingly cold. It was one of the most memorable beers I will ever drink. Cheers!
The sun sets on another wondrous day in South Africa.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Calm Blue Ocean

Pads of lilies float
upon the still blue water.
I remember peace.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Crocodile Smile

Check out the green tongue. Imagine the morning breath!

I tried like heck to get this image (above) to upload into the previous post this morning. Blogger was having none of it. So here it is by itself and slightly out of context. The crocs at Bonamanzi were close and very photogenic. They were also huge--scarily so. Even the water dikkops kept their distance when the crocs were awake and moving.

Day 2: Bonamanzi Morning

The full moon in South Africa looked upside down to me. It was, because I was on the other end of the planet.

I awoke before light and stepped out into the cool wintry air. Smoke from the camp's fires lightly scented the gentle morning breeze, and the bush around the camp was coming to life for another day. The sky still held a bright full moon which was pretending that it was the sun. It wasn;t long before the real sun, angry at this imposter, burst above the eastern horizon and began stomping its way across the sky.

Stepping out of my cabin, a round building with a thatched roof, known as a rondoval, a traditional African building style, my attention was drawn to the nearby waterhole, just 50 yards to the north. The sunlight was just beginning to reach the treetops, so the golden hour for digiscoping was drawing nigh.
Rondoval #3, my cozy home at Bonamanzi.

African jacanas and a pied wagtail were working the edges of the water. On the far shore a malachite kingfisher was perched, but too far away to digiscope well. I shot him anyway. (But I did not shoot the deputy.) Movement in the edge of the bush on the far side of the waterhole caught my eye. It was a buck impala, eating leaves off a small tree. He seemed interested in coming to the water for a drink, but hesitated to do so.

Buck impala at the Bonamanzi water hole.

The rest of our group was beginning to gather in the growing light. I walked around the edge of the lake, being sure to stay at least a large croc-length away from the water, when I detected motion on the far, sunlit end of the waterhole. It was a large warthog, complete with tusks. He wasted no time in coming down to the water for a drink. I focused the scope and snapped his menacing image.
The hogger of warts comes to slake his thirst.

A good friend of mine, who in the years since I met him in the mid-1980s, has become a world-class bird photographer, once told me the most important thing to do when you are taking pictures is simply to wait. This advice came to me, watching the warthog, and it paid dividends. I was being summoned to our group, but something made me stay put just a while longer. Out of the brush came one, then another, nyala, an endemic South African antelope species. Then a large buck nyala came to join them and I got the picture that was worth waiting for.

Perhaps my favorite African digiscoped image: warthog and nyala.

Our group congealed and began a morning bird walk around the grounds of the camp, and out into the surrounding bush.
From Left: Christian, Gerald, Walter (behind), Kevin waiting for the next bird.

It was still cool, but the sun was beginning to assert itself. I was thankful to be here on this beautiful morning with nothing to do but look at birds, animals, and landscapes I've rarely, if ever, seen. I took a series of deep breaths, firmly centering myself in the here and now. Then I was ready to rock.
Brown-hooded kingfisher.

Our group of seven digiscopers and two in the video crew lined up on a dike, intent on shooting a cooperative brown-hooded kingfisher. The amount of fumbling, beeping, and light cursing soon sent the videoheads on their way. Swarovski had arranged to have the crew along to document the event for a short piece to air on European TV. Jstvan and Tommy are veteran nature documentary filmmakers, having done work for Discovery, BBC, and PBS, among others. They were great company the entire trip and always seemed to have the right gear at the right time (including medicine for a nasty rash I suffered from later in the trip).

One of our group, Walter Schulz, publisher of a new German bird magazine, Vogel, found his digital camera did not work with the set-up Swarovski had provided him. I heard him say this out loud, disappointment in his voice, so I gave him my spare camera, a Canon PowerShot A520. He used it successfully for the rest of the trip and returned it safe and sound when we were leaving South Africa. I thought about the many times I'd been helped out of a desperate situation on a trip, and was glad I could help Walter.

Most of the morning we chased small, flitting birds, getting good birding looks (orange-breasted bush shrike, yellow-breasted apalis, Rudd's apalis, and a flyover juvenile gymnogene--a weird hawk species) but not good digiscoping looks. That was fine with me. The key to digiscoping is to find the cooperative birds--ones that will sit still for you.

This was a lucky grab shot of a golden-rumped tinker barbet. He never sat still.

At the end of our first hour afield we hit the digiscoping jackpot. A yellow-billed stork flew into view and teed up in front of us on a dead tree. The sun was at our backs, the air was clear and cool (heat haze kills many a good shot), our gear was all working, and we shot and shot. If someone had appeared with a cup of hot coffee and a danish at that point, I might have fainted from sheer joy. The stork took off and flew toward us, landing in better light and posing. We moved closer, the stork showed itself from all angles.

Yellow-billed stork, early in a series of shots.
Yeah, baby! Yeah! Make sweet LOVE to the camera!

When I got this shot I had to surpress a squeal of delight. OK. Our work here is done.

We spent the rest of the morning strolling around within a half-mile from camp, taking pix, noting new species, watching for crocs near the water holes. I got a few more decent pictures.

Black-eyed bulbul. Totally ubiquitous in South Africa.

Spectacled weaver, one of the really lovely weavers. Too bad about the shadow.

Then it was time for breakfast back in camp, and a bus trip to a nearby, and world famous, destination Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, Africa's oldest game reserve. Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-wee) was one of my favorite stops on my 2002 trip--full of birds, and the only place I have ever seen wild African elephants. I was really revved to get back there.

But before we could leave, we had to find Petros, our driver. This took the better part of two hours, a delay we used to take more bird and animal pix around the Bonamanzi grounds. I got good images of water dikkop, black-eyed bulbul, a fruit-eating buck nyala, and several giant crocodiles, which were sunning on an island, behind a protective fence.
Water dikkop sitting down on his haunches.

Three-banded plover racing away from the paparazzi.

Kevin McGowan and I were talking digiscoping technique while we walked the grounds and he mentioned that changing the exposure on his camera had helped him avoid overexposing things in the bright sunlight of midday. This intrigued me. On my 2002 South Africa trip I had taken a few hundred digiscoped images and many of them were washed out, or overexposed. In fact some were more overexposed than a pregnant Britney Spears, which is saying something. The digiscoping lobe of Kevin's brain is large and well-developed, so between the two of us, we figured out how to stop things down by -2/3 (or two clicks) on my Canon Powershot, using the P or Program channel on the settings wheel. I tried it out on a foraging cattle egret in the noon sun--a perfect candidate for overexposure. No blow-out. For the rest of the trip, I toggled between AUTO and P depending on the lighting conditions. It made a HUGE difference. Thanks again, Kevin!

Finally, we heard Christian yelling for us to get on the bus. Our wait was over. Little did we know, the delay was setting us up for an unforgettable afternoon of wildlife watching. Had we not been delayed, I am sure our timing, and thus, our experience, would have been very different.

I'll take you along to Hluhluwe in my next post.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Catching My Breath

Here I am tempting the fates at dawn at the water hole at Bonamanzi Game Park.
Notice my eyes are closed. I'm praying.

Uploading images from Day 2 of my South Africa trip for my BOTB post about Bonamanzi Game Park, I realized there were WAY too many. And each one has a little story... So I'm going to have to regroup and divvy things up into bite-sized pieces. I will endeavor to do that tonight. Apologies for the delay.

Looking back through the images and my notes, I am astounded at how much we crammed into each day (and how much we SAW over there!)

Back soon.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Day 1, Part 2: Dlinza to Bonamanzi

This white-eared barbet was the trip's first really cooperative bird in good light.

After hitting the road from Eshowe, we headed to a nearby suburban neighborhood where palm-nut vultures were reported to be nesting. This smallish black-and-white vulture is a localized rarity in KwaZulu-Natal, so our guides thought it was worth seeking. I had been fortunate enough to see two PNVs in 2002 on my trip with Peter Lawson. We did not find the vultures, but the along the road through the neighborhood, we got into our first really good digiscoping of the trip.

Everyone had their camera and optical gear out and working. And it was a frenzy of see a bird, ID it with binocs, grab the scope, try to find the bird in the scope, focus as finely as possible, get out the camera, turn it on, put it on the eyepiece of the scope, zoom to get rid of the vignetting, check the LCD screen to see if the bird was there, press the shutter halfway for the camera's auto-focus, make sure the bird was within the focus area, snap an image.

Needless to say, things can go awry while all this is happening. The bird might fly, you might not be able to find the bird in the scope in time, the camera batteries could be dead, the scope might get jostled off target, the camera could focus on a stick or leaf instead of on the bird, your camera settings might be wrong, and once again, the bird may move, fly, or simply stay in a spot where only Superman's laservision could get a sufficiently sharp focus.

I love the challenge of digiscoping. When it works, it's a huge rush. You feel as though you've managed to make a lovely, sharp, professional-looking image with some very basic tools--not the normal high-end gear associated with such images.

I'm planning a entire post about my digiscoping gear in the near future. And I'll likely follow that one up with a post on some of the lessons I learned on this digiscoping trip in South Africa.

The late-afternoon sun was at our backs and the birds before us, feeding, sunning, and preening in several large trees. Yellow-eyed canaries and scarlet-chested sunbirds moved too fast for most of us to digiscope, so we concentrated on the barbets, an African hoopoe (I got no good shots), and some black-eyed bulbuls. A Cape wagtail let me capture a few blurry images as he sauntered from sun to shade then back again, never stopping his constant motion.

My best blurry Cape wagtail.

I consider myself lucky to have gotten this blurry silhouette shot of a scarlet-chested sunbird.

After just a hour along this birdy road, we saddled up for more driving. Our next stop was along a river, farther northeast up the coast (though we only glimpsed the Indian Ocean briefly). We disembarked and climbed through a barbed-wire fence to walk along the river, scanning the shady edges of the water for the elusive African finfoot. The finfoot is one of nature's weirder birds--half cormorant, half grebe, the finfoot has lobed (not webbed) feet and prefers to skulk along the wooded banks of rivers. We looked and looked--both Kevin and I really wanted to see the finfoot--to no avail. We did manage to add a few more species to the day and trip list, including wire-tailed swallow, thick-billed weaver, and pied kingfisher.

Seeking the elusive finfoot.

This backlit image of a thick-billed weaver is not great, but at least it shows the species' thick bill.

Seeing the thick-billed weaver reminded me of my friend back in Ohio (and a regular BOTB reader) named Bill Weaver. He is anything but thick, however. Howdy Wilderness Bill!

Then there was the girl I knew growing up in Pella, Iowa, whose name was--I kid you not--Ann Hinga. But I am getting too far afield....

After the finfootless stop along the river (watch for crocs, fellas!) we headed toward the town of Matubatuba. Our sole destination? A strip mall that featured a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We needed a quick lunch, and hunger being already with us, we did not argue.

Now I have not been in a KFC for several years, and this was not your mama's KFC. The pictures of the meals looked the same, but they had names like Streetwise Chow and Streetwise Maincourse. Interesting to see how American fast-food culture had morphed to be more appealing to South Africans.

There was a backlit panel promotion KFC's connection with the new Superman movie. The panel was mounted backwards but it did not seem to hurt the promotion's effectiveness. The place was hopping.
The strip mall in Matubatuba. Hands full? Carry the 20lb bag of rice home on your head!

Would the Colonel know what Streetwise Chow is?

!oreh ym si namrepuS

The traditional (and mighty comfy-looking) method for carrying an infant in Zululand.

We ate our lunches as we lurched down the road in our combi, seeing a few birds here and there, but mostly trying to make time to get to Bonamanzi Game Park, listed in our itinerary as one of South Africa's best birding locations. I was pleased because we would be staying in Bonamanzi for three nights which meant a more relaxing pace and that would be better for digiscoping.

We stopped at a campground near a wetland lake (called a pan in SA, specifically Thaluzihleka Pan) where we picked up a few additional species including African jacana and Cape cormorant, but darkness was winning out over the day. I realized that I had yet to call home to let Julie and the family know I'd made it safely. Plus it was Phoebe's tenth birthday today, and at 5 pm local time in SA, it would be 11 am in Ohio--perfect for a call. Christian offered his international cellphone--it had no minutes left. The payphone at the main building did not take credit cards. Christian asked everyone to hand over their Rand coins so we could try to make the call. My fellow travelers obliged and moments later I got to hear, from half a world away, Phoebe scream "DADDY!!!" when I greeted her with "Happy Birthday from Africa, Phoebe!"

It was the undisputed highlight of my day. And after talking with Jules, Phoebe, and Liam, I felt great. I told my tripmates the first round was on me when we got to Bonamanzi (and it was--two bottles of excellent South African Merlot). We drank a toast to the birthday girl.

Toasting Phoebe on her 10th birthday. Photo by our waiter,

In winter in South Africa, it gets light at about 6:30 am and the light is excellent for digiscoping (and even "normal" photography) until about noon. Then it is harsh and bright for an hour or so, and then the buttery light of late afternoon settles in and remains good until just before dark (at 5:30 pm). As we got closer to Bonamanzi, it became clear that we would not get there during daylight, so most of our group drifted off to Snoozland. The road into Bonamanzi was so bouncy and washboard-like, that we all instinctively grabbed our optics and held them on our laps to avoid any damage from vibration. We would traverse this stretch of road at least six more times in the next few days.

Christian shone his spotlight into the dark woods as we drove, spotlighting impala, a red duiker (a tiny deerlike creature), and then we came to a sudden stop--a nightjar was in the road. Everyone piled out in a hurry, but there was no need. The bird, eventually ID'd as a fiery-necked nightjar, sat politely for 15 minutes while we took our images. It was tough finding out which settings worked best for artificially lit nighttime birds. But I got a few keepers.

Fiery-necked nightjar.

At the entrance to the lodge grounds, Bonamanzi's manager/hostess Grace greeted us warmly. They had held dinner late for us, so we were to meet back at the bar and diningroom in 15 minutes. Bar? Food? Oh yes, please. But shower first...

As we walked to our rondovals (circular Zulu traditional buildings with thatched roofing), impala slowly walked out of our way.

We ended the day toasting our new birds with bottles of Windhoek Lager from Namibia, standing around a raging bonfire, our bellies full of good food, our heads swirling with the images from the day just past.

These are impala, not aliens.

BT3 warming by the bonfire. It felt good in the chilly night air. Photo by Kevin McGowan.

Happy Birthday to Julie!

photo by Shila Wilson

Today is a very special day here at Indigo Hill. It's Julie's birthday!

Happy Birthday to my darling wife who also happens to be:
naturally lovely
the smartest person I know
an amazing artist
a gifted writer
a fabulous Mother
hilariously funny
a brilliant musician and singer
a green-thumbed gardener
a deep thinker
and incurably romantic.

I am a lucky, lucky guy.
I love you, Zick!

If you get a chance, stop by Julie's blog and wish her a happy July 24.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Day 1: Eshowe to Dlinza Forest

I awoke in the pre-dawn of July 11, anxious to see some birds. Outside my cabin at the Eshowe B&B (run by birders Hugh and Loueen Chittenden) the birds were already active in the cool morning air. Hadeda ibis flew over, maniacally calling out their names. Bulbuls and barbets chittered and chattered as they flew from tree to tree.

We headed off before breakfast to the Dlinza Forest, where our targets were shy woodland species such as the groundscraper thrush, and spotted ground thrush--two species that resemble our North American thrushes, but feature bolder markings.

On the way to Dlinza, we passed through the town of Eshowe, and right along the road, our lead guide, Christian Boix, shouted "Stop! Hornbills flying over the road!" I had just finished saying that on my 2002 trip to SA I had not seen a single hornbill. In the next 15 minutes we were treated to excellent looks at two species, trumpeter hornbill and southern yellow-billed hornbill.

Southern yellow-billed hornbill in Eshowe.

A young trumpeter hornbill.

Our instructions for the morning's walk were to leave our scopes and luggage in our rooms, since we'd be doing woodland birding on a trail (not good for scopes) and we planned to return to get our luggage later in the day. Kevin McGowan ignored the scope advice. "Hey, it's South Africa and we're supposed to be digiscoping! Can't do it without the scope." I was happy he'd followed his own mind (I''d followed the instructions and was immediately sorry for it). So I spent the morning "poaching" looks and images through Kevin's scope. Thanks Big K!

Throughout the trip, Kevin and I would swap advice (I learned a lot of digiscoping tricks from him), gear, sunscreen, batteries, stories, and rounds of lager. He was a good traveling companion. Oh and he's a pretty smart ornithologist, too--knows his taxonomy like I know all the members of the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. But back to the trip...

At the entrance to Dlinza Forest. I was unsure which category I fit into. Really neither one fits very well.

Our group birding in the Dlinza Forest.

We spent about three hours birding around Dlinza, getting all the goodies we'd hoped for and then some. It was a healthy introduction to a chunk of SA's common birds.
A huge strangler fig in Dlinza Forest.

We met Hugh and Loueen in a clearing at Dlinza where they brewed up some tea and coffee for us, plus a little bush breakfast (actually quite a feed). In between bites, we added several sunbird species to our list, plus the gorgeous purple-crested lourie (a large arboreal fruit eater that looks like a chachalaca on acid), and two honeyguide species--scaly-throated (heard) and sharp-billed.
Tommy, the Hungarian cameraman, films Kevin M. digiscoping at Dlinza, apres brekky.

A cooperative trumpeter hornbill in Dlinza. Thanks to Kevin for the poached shot thru his scope.

At this point I should probably state that there's no way I can do justice to all the birds we saw on the trip--something like 250 species. In fact, I'm pretty sure I can't even adequately cover the avian highlights. There was so much to see and absorb, and we went at it at such a pace, that, well, it's a bit of a blur.

Now I feel better.

After brekky, and a short time to get cleaned up back at the B&B, it was time to get on the road. We piled into our 15-person bus (called a "combi" in South Africa), tossing our luggage into a chest-freezer-sized trailer, and Petros, our Zulu driver (large rental vehicles in Africa often have a driver assigned to the trip--a good thing considering Christian's tendency to crane his neck constantly after birds).

This sunlit woodland scene at Dlinza reminded of my farm back home, and this shot from BOTB.

Our end-of-the-day destination was to be Bonamanzi Game Park, but we had a bunch of stops between here and there.

More on that in my next post....

Friday, July 21, 2006

South Africa: Getting There

My flight route to South Africa on July 9-10, 2006

Sunday morning, July 9 I awoke in our hotel room adjacent to the Columbus airport at 3:30 am. My 6:15 am flight to Dulles Airport in DC was the first leg of an international trip, so I wanted to be at the ticket counter the required two hours in advance, which meant 4:15.


The counter did not even open until 5:30. An inauspicious start to the trip. Here's how the rest of my time in the US went: Flew to Dulles (cannot call it by it politician name, sorry), found the gate for South African Airways' flight to Johannesburg. It's 7:45 am. The flight leaves at 11:50 am.

"Hey Bill!" It's Kevin McGowan from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the only other American on this digiscoping trip. This makes the next five hours go much more smoothly. We catch up, not having seen each other for a few years. And we quiz each other about how over-prepared we are for the trip. Two cameras? Yep. Many rechargeable batteries? Yep.

We tag-team watching each other's stuff as we wait and run airport errands: bathroom, newsstand, money-changers, bathroom, ticket counter, food, bathroom. There is no wireless Internet access in the airport--something I find completely inexplicable. Kevin and I are already antsy without a web connection. I realize that my hopes of posting a few things on BOTB were dashed the second I left the completely wireless (and free!) Columbus airport. [Fortunately, my sweet Jules was on the case and kept things current here. Though I find it daunting to live up to her level of posting quality].

We leave Dulles nearly three hours late. I have a decent seat--not the worst I've ever been in, but close. My seatmate leaves early in the flight and is never seen again. Perhaps he flushed himself into the blue void of the plane's septic system. I sleep fitfully. The SAA crew is busy bringing us hot food, warm lemony face wipes, South African newspapers. Our flight is 17 hours long. These things only lessen the pain slightly. About 6 hours into the flight, after watching on the system each seat is provided every movie NOT involving the ever-smarmy Matthew McConaughey, the right half of my bum begins to hurt. Then it, unlike me, falls asleep. Ouch.

I flip through the SASOL Birds of Southern Africa pondering life bird possibilities. I write a bit on my book project. I wonder who has won the World Cup, being played right now. I miss mi familia. I flip to the channel on my video screen that shows a live-feed from a camera mounting on the top of the plane's tail. I hallucinate a creature crawling over the planes body, peering in the windows of first class. Ahh first class.... I'd peer in too, but there's a curtain between those folks in the privileged barcaloungers of business/first class and those of us in steerage. My bum and my legs are KILLING me. I begin to wonder if this is worth it--of course I am contorting myself in a plane, breathing other peoples' Frito breath, inhaling their sneezes, and I have not yet set foot on the African continent. Of COURSE it will be worth it. As soon as I digiscope that first bird...

Salt flats in East Africa. I could not spot a single flamingo.

Outside the sun is setting and the Atlantic Ocean reveals almost nothing about itself, 34,000 feet below us. It's 2.5 hours until we land in Dakar, Senegal for refueling. I am doing yoga in the aisle--it's that or take 17 muscle relaxers with a bottle of South African cabernet.

Back in my seat, I slump into slumber, drooling on The New York Times--this is entirely involuntary, though the Times IS a truly drool-worthy newspaper (I buy one EVERY time I fly). As I doze, Matthew McConaughey fights his way, smarmily, back onto my video screen, the toilets break, and we begin our descent to Dakar. I am awakened by a large Afrikaans-speaking flight attendant as she slams my seat into the upright and locked (and most painful) position.

Now I know what it's like to be a sardine in a can.

We spend nearly three hours in Dakar and we are not allowed off the plane. It is 5 am local time. Only eight more hours to go! My aching buns rejoice.

Once on the ground in Johannesburg, Kevin and I realize we are not going to make the final flight of our day: from Jo-burg to Durban, where we are to meet the rest of our entourage. We finagle our way onto a later flight, hurry through security to the shuttle and are on another plane, taking off within the hour. It is 4:30 pm local time. It is winter in South Africa, so it gets dark at 5:30. We pray we'll land in Durban in time to see a few birds. And we do: Indian myna, house crow, house sparrow, some kind of wagtail, a few African spoonbills, and a blacksmith plover. No one is waiting for us at the airport. I nearly walk up to a limo driver holding a sign for Mr. M. McConaughey, just so I can be anywhere besides an airport.

Soon our van arrives with Gerald Dobler from Swarovski and Christian Boix from Tropical Birding, plus the other trip participants--nearly all of from Germany and Austria. We load up and board. I am excited to be on the ground and on our way. It's dark, so the birding will have to wait until tomorrow. We begin the 1.5 hour drive to Eshowe, where we'll spend the night. I drift into a fog. Everyone is speaking German. Where's Herr McConaughey when you need him.

I remember almost nothing else from the rest of the night. I know we checked into our rooms in Eshowe. Then we ate a filling dinner at a local sportmans' club. There was food, beer, and an exchange of introductions and business cards.

We must have gone to our rooms to sleep by about 10 pm local time. That would have been 5 am EST back in Ohio, or 37 hours after I awoke to catch my first airplane in Columbus. I left on July 9, and arrived on July 10, 2006.

The next thing I knew I was awakened by the pre-dawn singing of a pair of black-eyed bulbuls.

Welcome back to South Africa!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Alone on the Plains of Wakkerstroom

I really need to start at the beginning of my South Africa journey and tell you all the highlights, but I am, today, feeling the effects of jetlag and will have to settle for a short post. As I was going through my digital photos from the trip, Liam walked up to my desk and plopped himself in my lap. This is the conversation we had about the photo below:

Liam: "Dad, is that you in that picture?"
Me: "Yep, that's me in South Africa."
Liam: "What the heck were you doing in the middle of nowhere?"
Me: "I was looking for birds."
Liam" "But how did you get outta there?"
Me: "There was a bus about a mile away that we rode in."
Liam: "I wouldn't want to be walkin' my feet off back to that bus!"
Me: "Would you like to be there with me looking for birds?"
Liam: "For TRAINS. Yes. Birds? Nope!"
Me: "That's my boy!"
Liam: "Yep and that's my dad!"

Ohhh it's good to be home.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Home from the Other Side of the World

Howdy BOTB Readers!

It's BT3, back from a long journey to South Africa. Yes, I am weary, but full of many stories to tell and images to share with you. Today it's settling back into life here in the USA and digging out from the piles of everything (including laundry) that inevitably builds up when one goes away. It's so great to be home.

Here's just one of the bird images I brought back with me. It's a white-fronted bee-eater, taken on the grounds of the Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze, KwaZulu-Natal, Republic of South Africa. I leared a ton about digiscoping field craft on this trip. More on that soon....

There's so much to share and say about South Africa. Before all of that starts, I want to thank my talented and lovely wife Julie for keeping BOTB active and updated EVERY DAY during my absence. Talk about above and beyond the call of duty...Thanks Jules! You are the bestest.

Monday, July 17, 2006

So Nice to Come Home To

OK. I'm officially emerging from my deep, 10-day funk, and looking forward to welcoming BOTB home in grand style.

Fixed the house up, got it lookin' fine.
And now I'm chilling his

My plan: Outfit the car with pillows and a cooler with his favorite beverages. Throw something good to eat in there, too. Outfit myself in one of the six new cocktail dresses Shila and I bought last weekend, and the fabbo Italian shoes he bought me in Chicago. Try, despite the intense 95-degree heat and thick humidity, to arrive at the airport 2 hours away still smelling real nice. (This will probably be the biggest challenge I face in 2006).
Welcome my sweetheart home with open arms. Drive him home while watching him sleep, if he needs to, or listen to the tale of his travels.

She's got everything delightful
She's got everything I need
Takes the wheel when I'm seeing double
Pays my ticket when I speed

Sugar magnolia, blossoms bloomin'
Posts my blog while I ramble 'round
Feeds my kids and mows the lawn
No one like her I've ever found

Apologies to the Dead.

Here's what he'll see when he wakes up Wednesday morning: Liam in his race car jammies with a load of fresh snap beans from the garden.(Darn it, Phoebe's at the beach!) The little fishpond, abloom with Rudbeckia.
The terraced butterfly beds, blazing with liatris and salvia, coneflower, calendula and butterfly weed.

Chet Baker, yodeling WOO WOO WOO WOO WOO! Hi, Daddy! Where have you BEEN?

And come nightfall, I will put him in the hammock, to watch the lightning bugs come out over the long meadow. Squint and you will see them in this photo. Bill has been away 20 of the last 40 days, and I have missed him terribly. Almost come unglued. So have Phoebe and Liam. Chet's all mopey, too. The next trip we take, we'll all be together. Baker, too. It won't be to Africa, but it could be anywhere. We don't mind. He'll be with us. BT3, we love you too much. Welcome home.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Present for Peter

I am imagining Bill at Wakkerstroom now, somewhere in eastern South Africa. Peter Lawson is there, and Bill is giving him something to unwrap. Peter is smiling and maybe a little teary-eyed if you look very closely. Peter Lawson was my guide on my first (and only) trip to SA in 1994. My dad had died in April of that year. It was August. I was ready for Africa. I'm so glad I did it then; I had no kids to forsake at home. I can't imagine being away from them for 11 days now. I don't think they'd do too well.

The South African Tourism Board wanted me to come back home and write a piece on my experiences, something that might make people want to come watch birds and wildlife in this incredible place. Nooo problem. The only problem was that the piece ran to well over 8,000 words, and Bill had a heck of a time fitting it into the rather small pages of Bird Watcher's Digest. There were paintings--of giraffe, a lilac-breasted roller, hippos, owls, barbets...not all of them would fit but BWD did its best. The article appeared in 1995, and won an Apex Award for Feature Writing. Wooo. It also got some people turned on to birding in this neglected but incredibly rich country, enough, I hope, for the South African Tourism Board to think bringing me over was worth it. (For an example of a travel article engineered to make you want to book a flight, this one on birding in North Dakota, click here)

My guide on this trip was Peter Lawson, one of the kindest, gentlest, most knowledgeable people I've met. His greatest gift as a guide is sensitivity--both to the people he's helping, and to the animals and birds they're observing. He sensed that I wanted to try to identify the hundreds of unfamiliar and strange birds by myself, and only offered an ID when asked. Guides who mechanically call out everything they see and hear might work for many, but I respond by dawdling behind, wanting to figure these things out for myself.There's nothing Peter doesn't know something about--Bushman life, archaeology, botany, herpetology, geology, tracking animals...he's a gem. And his passion is cisticolas--those drab-brown little wrenny things that come in about two dozen flavors, all of them bland. Hissing cisticola, zitting cisticola, plain cisticola; make up any name and there's probably a cisticola to match.

When Bill was offered his first trip in 1997, I told him that if the guide were to be Peter Lawson, he would have to go, marriage and production schedule be hanged. It was, he went, and a bond was forged. Peter came over to visit us in 2000. We did our level best to give some of the joy of North American birds to him, as he had introduced us to South African birds. Peter bonded with Phoebe and Liam, who was toddling around in diapers at the time. They adored him. Saying good-bye to Peter after having him as part of our family for three weeks was really hard.

When Bill went to Africa to meet Peter for the first time, I sent three things along with him. One was a note, telling Peter what a wonderful treat he had in store, having Bill on the trip. I asked Peter not to let Bill carry too many heavy suitcases for other people. I told him that Bill would knock himself out trying to help other people see birds. I told him that he would end up wishing he had a BT3 on every trip. All of that turned out to be true. I also sent along two field paintings that I'd done in South Africa, to hang on Peter's office wall. Bill's idea. Peter liked that.

For this trip, Bill would be traveling with another tour outfit. But he and Peter arranged to meet when Bill came to Wakkerstroom. He asked if I would paint a little something to present to Peter. A Kentucky warbler seemed just right. On Peter's last day in the States, Bill promised him that he would not go home without seeing a Kentucky warbler in our woods. They had tried repeatedly to see one during those three weeks, but just couldn't get a look. This was in the days before iPod birding, obviously, when we all WORKED for our birds instead of blasting their song into the woods, and hoodwinking them into landing on our hats.

For an hour and 45 minutes, on the morning of Peter's departure, he and Bill sat still in the woods, straining to locate a singing Kentucky warbler. It was dark and dull and rainy, which didn't help. For those who've chased them, you know that KYWA's like to relax, feathers fluffed and park on a long, horizontal branch, sometimes for many minutes at a time. The only motion you'll see is when they throw their magnificent, mustached heads back to deliver their galloping trill, Tree tree tree tree tree! They're the very devil to spot. But finally, they found the bird they were looking for, and Peter declared it the last bird he'd see in the states, and also the most beautiful. Oporornis formosa--formosa means beautiful! So this is what Peter unwrapped at Wakkerstroom.

Caught in the cosmic web, writing this and remembering our dear friend, I leapt up when the phone rang. It was Bill, calling again from South Africa, having borrowed Peter's calling card when they found a pay phone. He put Peter on the line, and I heard his dear voice. He loves his gift. How is it that people come to mean so much to us? He said, "It's so wonderful to be with Bill."
I answered, "I know. It's not wonderful to be without him."
"I imagine so, " Peter replied.

The song sparrows, who were huddled in their nest in an earlier post, fledged today, Day 12. One of them sputtered along at eye level in front of my riding lawnmower, provoking a peal of laughter from me. He did pretty well for a bird with a 3/4" tail.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Call from Africa

I heard from Bill! He borrowed a cell phone from a bartender (who would ever think BOTB would hang out in a bar??). It gave us about 30 seconds of time before it ran out. All I heard was, "Our van broke down and I have hives." Click, hmmmmmmmmm. Oh, good. I was already a mess before that.
Then, mercifully, the phone rang again. He was on a million-rand-a-minute lodge phone. The van broke down, but they were just going to stay another night at this lodge at Mkuzi (great spot). He had hives but they only itched some. They had seen the Big Five (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, black rhino, and ....dunno...giraffe? No. Elephant!) in only two hours today. Whew. The Big Five designation is kind of a trophy hunter's thing. I prefer to think that he saw some really special animals. My Big Five would be something like Cape hunting dog, gerenuk, ostrich, sable antelope, and meerkat, but then I'm not necessarily after the mainstream stuff.

He said the weather was great, warm during the day and cool at night. It's winter down there, so that's something. (I froze my tuchis off when I was there in July 1994--would you believe temps in the 20's at night? I wore absolutely everything I brought and was still cold).

I caught him up on events around here--copperheads, who hatched, how the kids are, all the work I've been doing...and then it was time to say goodbye. It was good to be hitched back up to my heart-lung machine, if at great expense and only for a little while.

I found a picture of us, taken in March, 2005. We're sitting atop a Mayan pyramid in Mexico. I'm kind of leery of heights but he talked me into climbing it. (Not the first good thing he's ever talked me into. Bill is really good at talking girls into things.) The humid forest stretches out for miles behind us, a couple of other temples poking up out of it. We look so happy and peaceful. Like there's nowhere else on earth we'd rather be, no one else we'd rather be with. Today I stuck the photo on my Mac monitor, where I can keep that vision in the front of my mind. It won't be long now, and we'll be able to pick up where we left off.

In the Juniper

Howdy. I'd like to show you what's going on in one of our shrubs. We planted columnar junipers up against the house about six years ago, and they're finally big enough to host nesting birds. One juniper fledged a brood of house finches in early May; the female sat her eggs through a late snow flurry or two. I was interested to note the thick covering of white down on the house finch nestlings; they're obviously pretty well adapted to cold. The nest is thick and fluffy with plant down and soft fibers, and the female is a stolid sitter.
Right below the house finch nest, our yard pair of song sparrows built another one. I discovered this nest on June 24, quite by accident. I was standing next to the juniper, talking to some friends about, of all things, finding birds' nests, and this female song sparrow shot out of the juniper and disappeared around the corner. "She's been on a nest," I declared, walked over to confirm it. Three eggs! This is probably this pair's third attempt. The first was successful; three young fledged and are still around the yard. There was time for a second attempt, but I don't think any young resulted.
Yesterday, I stuck my camera into the juniper (the nest is over my head) and got this lucky shot of two feathered young, probably nine days old and pretty near fledging. I'll leave them be from now on. They 're still in the nest this morning, as evidenced by the pair's near-constant alarm calls and ferrying of suet dough to their waiting gapes.
We have been enjoying the male's singing lessons. He started singing to his young before they hatched; I've no doubt they heard him from the egg. He sings loudly, and close to the nest, which puts him right outside our bedroom window. They're learning his song, and he's teaching it to them. If they're females, they'll know what to listen for in a mate; if they're males, their brains are putting neurons in place to replicate it. The pleasure in listening is ours! He's our alarm clock.
Because Bill loves them, some field daisies in morning sun. They're at the edge of the prairie meadow he burned over, disced with the tractor, and planted for me this spring. Behind them you can see some Maximilian sunflower plants. They love being disced; it replicates them endlessly! We've not had morning sun for quite some time--we're socked in with a fine misty fog this morning--but I can dream. When he gets home maybe he'll read this, walk out to the meadow and bring me a daisy.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Evening Games

As he left for South Africa, Bill looked at me pleadingly. "I doubt I'll find any opportunity to blog while I'm away. Could you...?"
I knew where that pleading look came from. I've felt the same way when I'm kept away from my computer for a few days. I feel like I'm letting you down. Taken to an extreme, blogging becomes a chronic condition, and we suffer withdrawal.
So I'll tell you about the evening games, our favorite part of the day. I like it because I sit in a lawnchair and laugh. The kids' laughter rings through the moist air, the sweetest music I know. Having sat in front of a computer most of the day, Bill is ready for some horseplay. His is usually of the caveman variety, involving lots of chasing, roaring, and hoisting of kid bodies. They adore it. He keeps them on their toes.
Here, BOTB feigns sleep, snoring loudly. Liam is wary, knowing something is about to go down.
He keeps his distance. "Daddy? Are you asleep?"
"I can't hear you. Come a little closer." Knowing he shouldn't go any closer, Liam of course does.
ROARRRRR! and the chase is on! Look at Liam's little feet just ahead of Piltdown Man. The pied dire wolf is an able assistant in the chase, leaping to lick the prey and trip it up. The flame-haired juvenile cavegirl will help prepare the catch.
Prey secured, Piltdown Man bears the kill off to his cave to sear it over an open fire.
After the screams and laughter died down, we sat back at the table. A solid-red bird darted just overhead. "What the heck is that bird?" Bill asked. Had to be a summer tanager. It flitted around the yard, catching bees against the siding. Oh, perfect evening.We suspect that summer tanagers had a late nesting on our farm, for the first time ever, last year. We had a persistantly singing male, who we saw chasing a female, in early July. Can lightning strike twice? Come on. Breed for us, darling.
By the way: You can comment. Really. Remember, I'm lonely! Got that?
Zick, pining off.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

He Made It

Monday was no fun. Although Bill was supposed to have gotten into Durban around dawn our time, we heard nothing. Nothing evolved into nothing which dragged into nothing which went on until dinnertime. At that point I started rattling cages. My first call was to Clay Taylor, Swarovski's birding expert and field rep, who was weary from a long day at work, and just wanting to have his dinner in peace. He fired up his computer and emailed Swarovski headquarters in Austria, where Bill's trip was conceived.
I went to bed around midnight, thoroughly distraught, and started reading galleys for BWD's next issue, always a surefire soporific when I'm wound up. I fell into a deep dreamless sleep. Woke up at six and tore to the computer, and was delighted to find a message from Beate Porte at Swarovski in Austria, saying that Bill's flight was late and he had made it to Durban two hours late. But he made it. Let's see...that means it took him 19 hours to get to Durban, which is still one hour less than it took him to get to Bangor, Maine.
He's there, he's digiscoping, all is right with the world.
Here he is, doing his homework for the trip. This is apparently not to be the last photo ever taken of Bill Thompson III. Yes, that's what I was thinking. Now all he has to do is stay clear of Cape buffalo, rhinos, crocs and poisonous snakes. I will not be there to catch them for him.

A vastly relieved Zickefoose, signing off.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

He's Gone Again

As I write, Bill of the Birds is high above the Atlantic, flying first to Senegal, and then to Johannesburg, then to Durban. He'll get in before dawn our time Monday, having been in steerage for 17 hours. I will be lying awake, hoping the phone rings to tell me he's wasted, achy, hungry and cranky, but on dry land again. When I last spoke with him, he was hoping his as-yet-to-appear seatmates wouldn't be overly large or talkative. Such are the things we hope for in today's hellish air travel scenarios. No hot lemon-scented face cloths, no nice food, no free cocktails--we just hope we don't suffer unduly. Ah, for the good old days.
Phoebe, Liam and I accompanied him to Columbus Saturday morning. We spent a full day shopping for Phoebe's birthday, eating out, and fooling around in a freezing airport hotel pool before turning in for the night. At 3:30 AM, Bill kissed each of us goodbye and slipped out into the hall, pulling his enormous suitcase ticketa ticketa ticketa behind him. Seeing him off was a good thing to do--we squeezed every last minute out of our great big love. He tried and failed to find a WiFi hotspot in the airport so he could say goodbye to you, too.We all miss him in our own ways. He's the center of our lives, a loving, generous father and husband.

I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that's far away
And when I'm done I feel like talking
Without you here there's nothing left to say

In the past two months, he's been traveling a lot--a week in North Dakota, a week in Maine, and now ten days in South Africa. Parting with him doesn't get any easier. We get by, but we miss him terribly. We wish we could come along with him. We know that traveling is a big part of his job, and we love to think of him having great adventures and seeing new birds. This is a trip he couldn't turn down: digiscoping in South Africa as Swarovski Optik's guest. And so each of us burrows down into our own routine, and looks forward to hearing his voice again.The birds on Indigo Hill will all breathe a bit easier in the morning, knowing that crazy guy with the scope, camera and coffee mug won't be chasing them down.

Please come visit my blog where I'll be posting faithfully, and will give updates on his travels as I get them. I'm braced for hearing nothing, as we don't expect there to be Internet access in Kwazulu-Natal. Sigh. It's going to be a long ten days. If you haven't figured it out yet, it's Julie Zickefoose here, pining off.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Light Shining Through the Tangle

Sun of July morn
shines through the woodland tangle
beckoning to me.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Meal of Mealworms

Our farm is something of a bluebird factory. In fact, when people ask us what we grow on our farm, we often answer "Well, last year we fledged more than 50 bluebirds!"

Some folks understand while others merely shake their large heads in a confused way.

We offer a few mealworms all winter long, but normally do not offer this squirmy, high-protein food during the naturally buggy-enough summer months. But these past few weeks Julie has been soft-releasing a pair of eastern phoebes, so we've kept a dish of mealworms out for them.

It did not take the other birds in our yard very long to find the mealworms and make short work of them. The front year pair of eastern bluebirds was first on the scene. Nobody can cram their gob full of mealworms quite as fast as a bluebird. Our front yard male was being urged on this morning by two hungry fledglings sitting on the wire above the mealworm dish.

They were insatiable. Every time their dad would come back with a billful of worms, the youngsters would make the most pitiful sounds (nee-nuu, nee-nuu) and wave their wings, begging for another delivery.

We let the bluebirds finish off the dish of worms, then we cut them off. Mealworms are not cheap. And we're already dipping into the kids' college fund...

A hungry, begging fledgling does his best to look scrawny and helpless for his hard-working dad.

When we weren't looking, the adult male scarfed down a few mealies for himself.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

My Morning Chat

Snuck out early this morning before breakfast.
Before the dew had departed.
Before the kids were stirring.
Before the turkey vultures were aloft.
But after the coffee had been brewed.
Heard a whistly toot from the wisteria tangle and knew that the yellow-breasted chats were recycling for brood #2.

So I made for the oil road, gingerly stepping around the poison ivy in my Tevas, watching for sunning snakes as I walked, and set up in a concealed position near Mr. Chat's favored singing venue.

He whistled.
I whistled.
He gave a raspy scold.
I did too.
He popped out into the open.
I digiscoped him while he performed.

My morning chat was complete. It was a fine way to start the day.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Back to South Africa

I am packing to leave on another trip. This time heading to South Africa on a digiscoping tour sponsored by Swarovski Optik. I really can't afford the time away from work, family, and the farm, but it's physically impossible for me not to take a fabulous trip like this. One never knows when one is making one's last trip somewhere, does one?

We'll spend the week-plus focusing on digiscoping birds and wildlife. I'm sure I'll learn a great deal about field technique from some other, more experienced digiscopers.

I was in South Africa in 2001 and did a bit of digiscoping, though my equipment and skills were not where they are now, so the results were quite uneven. I got a few nice mammal images but not many good bird images. Am hoping for better luck this time.

And I plan to share the images here and elsewhere upon my return.

A young giraffe we found near a watering hole. Watching it stoop over to drink was hilarious.

Near Capetown there is a colony of jackass penguins. This sleeping bird was easy to digiscope.

We saw two herds of elephants along the Hluhluwe River. We did not get out of the Range Rover since several bulls were around.

I won't be back to the Cape this trip, but I enjoyed its incredible beauty in 2001.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Not So Nice To Come Home To

Late on Saturday night, after our gig, and after Steve and I had enhanced our cholesterol levels with a late night visit to (urp!) Shoney's, I pulled into the driveway at our farm, ready to put the van away and hit the hay. I realized I did not have my garage door opener, a casualty of exchanging vehicles with my parents for their trip to North Dakota. I would have to open the garage door by another means, which entailed getting out of the van.

I had Julie's garage door opener with me, so I punched the button, the door opened and I walked into the dark garage, between her vehicle and the recycling containers, to the button for my garage door. As I reached the regular garage door and the nearby light switch, I saw a dark U-shaped object on the floor of the garage, sticking out from under the side door. I almost bent down to pick it up, thinking it was a plastic handle from a seed bag that had gone astray. Instead I switched on the overhead lights and saw that the plastic handle had morphed into a copperhead! And it was eight inches from the succulent pink toes sticking out of my sandals.
"I've been waiting for you! Step closer! Closer!"

I leapt in the air, the snake made a feinting strike, though nowhere near to my rapidly pumping feet. I ran from the garage. Catching my breath, I pulled the van into my bay and exited the garage as the door shut behind me. As I walked toward the house, giving wide berth to the snake/door area, I saw that I'd left the inside garage light on.

I might have said "Oh bother!" like Winnie the Pooh does. But I think I said something less gentle than that.

Back into the garage I went (still had Julie's garage door opener in my hand for some reason). The snake was still there, half under the door we normally use to enter the side of the garage. When my shadow passed over him, he hissed and disappeared out from under the door, headed outside into the darkness. He moved so fast, I barely saw him go. This made me thank my lucky stars that I had not bent down to pick up the "plastic handle."

We've always had copperheads here on our farm. Julie has been bitten by one on the finger, while weeding her lavender. She went to the hospital, they watched her finger swell up then go back down and they sent her home. I have found lots of copperheads here, but have not been bitten by one yet. I do not mind snakes, but I HATE being surprised by them (and I suspect they feel the same). You can get the whole, really cool story about Julie's copperhead bite in her forthcoming book, "Letters From Eden" due out this fall.

We don't kill the snakes. We catch them and move them elsewhere. We now have a handy snake-grabbing unit on hand for this type of situation. We do not wish ill upon our reptilian friends, but nor do we want the kids or Chet Baker to be bitten. So when July rolls around and the days get long and hot, we go on snake alert. We open the garage door slowly and look before we step in. We do not weed flower beds without gloves and without looking beneath the plants. We probably see 10 black snakes for every copperhead we encounter here. The black snakes we leave alone, the copperheads we catch and transport.

Fortunately most of the copperheads we find are very docile. I told Julie about my late-night snake encounter on Sunday morning as I was preparing to leave for my jazz gig. I knew she'd want to know about it. The conversation started because she saw that I was bleary from lack of sleep. I'd had snake nightmares all night long..... Nothing like a little fight or flight adrenaline just before bedtime!

Sure enough, as I was driving to my gig, when Julie called me.
"I caught your copperhead!"

She'd gone into the garage to get some bird seed and saw him coiled up in the corner behind the door, right where he'd been the night before. Using the snake tongs, she grabbed the copperhead and dropped him into a large joint-compound bucket. Mr. Copperhead, beautiful and small but full of venom, went for a drive in the country. Zick is definitely The Copperhead Hunter. I can do it, but she's calmer and more businesslike about it.

Poisonous snakes--it's just part of life in the country. Nature lets us live, and in return, we try to let nature live, too.
Mr. Copperhead, ready to travel. He's so beautiful, especially when appreciated from a safe distance.

Music on a July Evening

It's really hard to describe adequately how our Swinging Orangutangs show went on Saturday night. Playing music is such a rush, a joy, and a mental and physical workout that it pretty much washes over you whether it's good or bad. Saturday night's music was overwhelmingly good, and even wafted over into great as the evening wore on.

It's doubly hard to do justice to the night when your talented-writer wife and fellow bandmember beats you to the blog punch and captures the event in words and images so very well. Reading Julie's blog, I often feel as I do when I watch an extremely talented guitarist. I admire the wonderful, amazing talent, then I ponder going home and cutting off my fingers because I realize I will never be able to play THAT well. Or write that well. The girl gots talent!

But I digress...

I'll let the images tell most of the story here. And they were captured by Shila Wilson on a variety of cameras, throughout the night.

We had a great crowd of friends who showed up at the hotel for dinner and stayed through the entire gig. Friendly faces in the crowd are a comfort, especially during the early tentative moments of a show.

Steve McCarthy reported for duty in his flag shirt. Steve is an amazing rock drummer, a positive and enthusiastic bandmate, and a really good birder, too.

As you can see, it was sunny, hot, and humid for most of our show. For the first two hours, we played in the direct sun. Once the sun went down, things cooled of temperature-wise, and heated up music-wise.

The Blennerhassett Hotel is in downtown Parkersburg, WV, and the patio where our stage was located has quite a view of the surrounding buildings, hills, and sky. Playing outside can be tough since the sound waves tend to dissipate moreso than they do inside a building. The Blennerhassett stage has a roof and a back wall, so the sound stays together and is projected out the front. Plus, there's something intrinsically good about being on a stage, instead of on the same level as the audience. It makes you take your performance "all the way to 11."
Things were loose and fun on stage--that's the only way to fly. The more fun we have, the more fun the audience has. That's a proven fact.

Vinnie Mele slums on bass for the Orangutangs. He's a fab guitarist and bandleader in his own right, but he enjoys playing bass with us and we appreciate it. His playing is tight, funky, and tasty. And he sings a mean falsetto harmony, even though we do not think he is a castrato.

Zick tore it up on Saturday night, singing her head off and playing some beautiful solos on pennywhistle and wooden flute. Having her strong vocals sets The Swinging Orangutangs apart from other local acts. When JZ is on her game, ain't nobody can touch her. And Saturday night, she was ON her game.

JZ singing "Take Me to the River." Shouts of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" echoed through the crowd. Brothers and sisters: It was righteous.

When Bruce DeMoll joined us on stage with his tenor saxophone, the lawn in front of the band filled with dancing bodies. I play in Bruce's jazz trio on Sundays at The Blennerhassett, and I have known him since I can remember. He and my dad grew up playing music together in Marietta, and Bruce made music his life and career. I've never played with a better musician. It's always a gift when he shows up to sit in at one of our performances. He played sax on "Low Rider" and "Chain of Fools." You should have been there....
Playing music on a beautiful summer evening to a sea of gyrating bodies--it's a musical dream come true.

I found out long ago that if I TRY to play music, it does not come out as well as if I just let it happen. Closing my eyes, and inviting the notes to leave my body via my fingertips seems to work best. Most of the time on Saturday night, I had no idea what I was playing.

Special thanks to our best pal Shila for taking the many pictures of our Saturday evening performance. We love you, Sheels! Photo by Tanya Wilder.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Music in the Air Tonight

Tonight The Swinging Orangutangs will be playing our first gig of the summer. If the weather holds its beautiful course, we'll be performing outside at The Blennerhassett Hotel. If it decides to rain, we'll be inside (still a nice place to play music, but less magical).

The overall mode of music tonight will be mellow. The Blennerhassett prefers its live music at a level that permits the easy exchange of witty, sparkling conversation and bon-mots without the need to shout.

As in:
"I say, my good fellow. Isn't that a pop hit by The Fine Young Cannibals the band is playing currently?"

"Fie upon thee, knave! 'Tis The Violent Femmes!"

We plan to oblige in any case. So, if you are reading this edition of BOTB, and you'd like to make the scene, we start at 7 pm at The Blennerhassett Hotel (pictured above in the poster) on Market Street in deepest downtown Parkersburg, WV. And if you keep rock-n-roll hours, here's a warning: we finish by 10 pm.

If you'd like to submit your song request for tonight's show, please do so, via the comments interface here on BOTB. Sorry, no Molly Hatchet. The restraining order is still in effect.

For those among you who are confused and perhaps leaping for the dictionary: Yes, we spell orangutan with a G. Why? because we put the 'tang back in orangutang!

Poster design by Vincenzo Seraphino Mele. Orangutang graphic created by Katherine "Webzilla" Koch.