Friday, 31 October 2014

More Birds than God

The Pantanal has more birds than God. That’s a joke of course but there are so many birds in this part of Brazil that is hard to wrap the mind around it. 

Approximately 3,000 species of birds are found in South America. Researchers estimate that 1,600 of the species are found in Brazil and more than 650 of them are specifically found in the Pantanal. This place is a bird watchers’ paradise!

I have my favorites, of course. The kingfisher (we saw Amazon, Green, and Ringed) is an amazing bird that likes to be around water and goes fishing for its food. The blue-fronted parrot has a call that (to me) sounds like a cat. I was never able to snap a photo of it because they are usually flying or hiding behind leaves.

The larger birds in the Pantanal are impressive. These include the Jabaru Stork, Roadside Hawk, Black-Collared Hawk, Bare-faced Carrasow, Southern Screamer, and the Cara Cara.

We were able to snap shots of the rare Common Potoo and the Spotted Puffbird. The Common Potoo is nocturnal and has grey and brownish feathers that allow it to blend perfectly into a tree. The bird stands still in the fork of a tree with its eyes closed during the day, resembling a branch. If someone or something comes around the Potoo during the day, it will not move to take a look, instead, it will look out of the very corner of its eyes to see what’s there. Every time we came back to look for the Potoo, it was in the same position as the day before. Our guide thinks it has a nest in the tree with eggs or little ones. Common Potoos hunt insects at night and are often mistaken for owls. No one knows if the Potoo is actually a rare bird or if it is just so hard to see that people believe that it is rare. Can you find it in the photo below?

*Photos were taken by me.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Elusive Jaguar

It is quite rare to see a jaguar in the wild but during our time in the Pantanal, we had two jaguar sightings. The first night when we pulled up to the front lodge, two jaguars were standing on the dirt road, getting ready to cross over to a pond to drink. It was early evening and they moved quickly away. 

The third night in the Pantanal, we found a pair of jaguar (our guide thinks it was a mother and daughter) feeding on a cow carcass. They stayed out in the open (it was dark but we could observe them with a spot light) for about 30 minutes. Eventually a large group of peccary (pigs) chased them away. Our guide, Zapa, said that he has heard of peccary chasing jaguars away from a kill but he'd never witnessed it in the wild! 

Jaguars are part of the Panthera genus and are one of the largest members of the cat family. Males grow up to 250 pounds and females are a bit smaller. The cat is solitary but kittens stay with the mother for approximately two years, learning to hunt.

We had hoped to see jaguars but didn’t count on it because they are so elusive. Our group felt very lucky to have not one but two sightings of the beautiful beasts.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Swimming Piggies

The Cabybara is a pig-like aquatic rodent. They swim and nibble on flowers and grasses around wetlands. I thought they seemed very hippo-like in their movements. Cabybaras are the largest of the rodents and they are found only in South America. We saw several families of them in the Pantanal and they are so funny to watch. They do resemble huge rats but do not have tails or large front teeth that stick out like the Nutria found in Oregon.

Back to them being like hippos: they have webbed feet and can stay under water for five minutes at a time. They mate in water once a year and usually have about seven babies at a time. We were fortunate enough to see the babies and they look like little guinea pigs. Jaguar and caiman will prey on small Cabybara and if the babies are threatened, the family will attempt to move into the water and form a circle around their young. I didn't get any shots of them in the water but we did see them swim one evening when we took canoes out on a lake. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Hyacinth Macaw: Majestic Blue Bird

The most impressive bird in the Pantanal, Brazil (in my humble opinion) is the Hyacinth macaw. It is the largest of the macaws and is a beautiful blue color with a ring of yellow skin around bright black eyes. The bird can weigh up to 1.5 kilograms and measures up to a meter in height.

 On our first morning in the Pantanal, while staying at the Caiman Ecological Refuge lodge, we found not one, not two, but three different Hyacinth nests with adults on the nest or near them. This is quite a feat considering these birds were endangered in the 90s. Because they are not afraid of humans, macaws are easily trapped and sold into captivity. People would pay a pretty penny for these birds in the U.S. and in Europe.

Deforestization also led to this species landing on the endangered list. Hyacinth macaws will only nest in the cavities of manduvi trees. Not all manduvi trees have cavities (they form when a branch falls off from wind, disease, or lightning) so not every manuduvi tree is available for nesting. This became a problem when most of the trees were felled in the macaw’s natural habitat to make more room for cattle.

In the 1980s Brazilian biologist Neiva Mana Ronaldo Guedes decided to do something about the Hyacinth macaws’ decline. Eventually after years of educating others and making sure enough of the birds had habitat, the numbers in the wild went from approximately 2,500 to now approximately 6,500.

Biologists still put wooden nesting boxes in manduvi trees in the Pantanal to encourage nesting when there are no natural cavities.

Hyacinth macaws mate for life and only take another mate if the first one dies. They do not choose a mate until the age of seven, and lay just two eggs per season. This is another contributing factor when it comes to hopes of building the population of the birds: their reproduction process is relatively slow. Add in the fact that macaw eggs and chicks are much sought after prey in the Pantanal, and you can see why researchers and biologists are in the wild even today attempting to protect them.

Hyacinth macaws only eat nuts from Bocaiuva trees and Acuri Palm trees and have a life span of 30 to 40 years. The mating pair shares equal duties when building a nest and caring for young. However, the female will sit on the nest 70% of the time and fly with a bent tail from sitting so long. That’s how researchers can identify the female from the male when they fly. 

It was amazing to observe these majestic birds in the wild. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

On the shelf: Tracks by Robyn Davidson

After submitting the third draft of my dissertation proposal, I decided to give myself the freedom of reading a non-academic book. I chose Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Davidson wrote the memoir about her 1,700 miles journey through the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. She recounts her time learning to train and care for camels and talks extensively about the mental battle she fought with herself during the nine months she trekked alone through tough terrain.


Davidson completed the adventure in 1977 but the book was re-released after the story was made into a movie in 2013.


The story is interesting and poignant in its presentation of courage. At the end of the book, Davidson writes that she is shocked that so many people were in awe of her feat. She claimed that she had no more brave bones in her body than the next person but shared:

The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.


Another book in this genre of women doing extraordinary things is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. She treks along the Pacific Trail alone braving the weather and harsh conditional. I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail but I think it is so commercialized now that it would be hard to experience isolation and peace. There are likely few places left on earth where we can find the same conditions that Davison lived in.

When you walk on, sleep on, stand on, defecate on, wallow in, get covered in, and eat the dirt around you, and when there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are, and nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes.

Davidson has also written other books including: Traveling Light and Dessert Places.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Nashville for Foodies

James and I were lucky enough to be invited to Nashville last weekend to visit my best friend Casey and her husband Ryan. They have a beautiful, brand new house located in the 12 South area of Nashville. The neighborhood is awesome. We were able to walk to coffee shops, hip decorating spots, amazing restaurants and a huge park. Love it there! Also lucky for us Casey and Ryan are also foodies and took us to amazing spots. Here's a roundup of some of them. 

On our first evening in town we went to an adorable vintage cinema (the historic Melrose Theater) that has been revamped into a cocktail lounge upstairs and a restaurant downstairs. It's called Sinema and has the original grand, curved staircase in the lobby and plush booths upstairs. Oh and did I mention the cocktails? Inventive and delicious. 

That night we ate at Burger Up on 12th Avenue. Keep in mind that everywhere we went there was a wait because the places are so fabulous. Casey and I were able to get a spot at the bar while the guys parked the car and we were seated shortly after. James ordered the Bison burger and loved it. Casey and I split a burger topped with red onion and pimento cheese (yum!) and I opted for a side of the heirloom tomato salad. It was fantastic. We sat on the patio but it was fantastic because (get this...) there is air conditioning on the narrow patio. It was fantastic to people watch in this great neighborhood. (Photo from Burger Up's website.)

Casey and I went to Pure Barre the next morning for an hour of an intense workout. There are no Purre Bar studios in Knoxville but I noticed they have a few in Columbus. I'd like to sign up for regular lessons but wow - I was in pain after just one hour. After our workout, we stopped by Bliss Home. The owners have a new (huge) shop in Nashville now. The business opened in Knoxville first so I'm excited to support its growth. 

For lunch (yay, back to food) the four of us walked to Edley's BBQ. It is also in the 12th South neighborhood and serves amazing food. When we arrived, there was a huge line to the door of people waiting to order barbecue but since we were with people in the know we by passed the line and grabbed a table in the bar area. There, we were able to order food and a beverage without having to wait. If you go to Edley's, sit in the bar area! 

James and I split the chicken platter and that was plenty for us to eat! It came with two huge pieces of chicken, a piece of spicy cornbread and two sides. We tried the mac and cheese and baked beans. The platter was just $9.99! I would love to return to Edley's and try more of the dishes. I'm not even that big of a BBQ fan but I'm sold on this place. The service was also surprisingly good even though staff was super busy on a Saturday at lunch time. 

Later that day we went to a community festival in the park near where Casey and Ryan live. The event was called Red, White, and Brew and benefited The Tomorrow Fund. This was a fun time. Why? Food, food trucks, beer, live music, and drawings to win prizes. Patrons received an arm band and two drink tickets. We also got little cards with a listing of all the restaurants that were there to offer samples. Volunteers punched a hole in the card when we received a sample. Check out these little cups of cake. I love how they served them on a circle of wood. 

We were all wild fans of the little pieces of cake from Nothing Bundt Cakes (see below picture) and agreed that it would be a great company to try for parties or a small wedding. 

Another fun sample came from a booth serving corn on the cob. They added cheese and chili powder to the corn and James said it was very tasty. 

The festival also hosted a couple of food trucks (all of the hip cities have them) and we sampled lemon crepes and Chinese sweet bean dumplings. 

The food tour continues... That evening, even though we didn't feel like we could eat another bite of anything, we surprised ourselves and ordered amazing dishes on the patio at Rolf and Daughters

The food really is fantastic. We tried seasonal items such as southern peaches with cream, peppers, and pistachios. WOW! Casey ordered the seaweed butter (very good) and we tried the heirloom tomato salad. Entrees were delicious pasta and we ordered a Carolina rice pudding for dessert. I had no clue that rice pudding could be so delicious! 

Husk is another Nashville favorite and I think I've posted about it before but who can have too many food posts, right? I adore going to brunch and so does Casey and Ryan so we went to the restaurant which is located inside a renovated mansion. The menus are different each day in order to take advantage of local ingredients. Ryan and I ordered a Bloody Mary and it was fantastic - served with a pickled okra and proscuitto. 

We ordered a few plates to share to begin with such as the deviled eggs (love how they are presented), little rice balls that are fried like donuts, and pepper sausage gravy with biscuits. 

My "entree" for brunch was the Husk omelet with three eggs, herbs, and a delicious bit of cheese. The side salad was fresh with ingredients out of Husk's own garden on the property. 

We need to plan a trip back to Nashville soon. But first, weight loss time... :)

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Chitabe Lediba Camp

Out of the three camps that we stayed at, we loved the rooms at Chitabe Lediba the best. They were large, well-appointed and had amble space to unpack your clothes for safari. Because you are only allotted so much weight for your bags, you have to have laundry done almost every day and it helps to be able to lay out your things so you can tell what is clean and what is dirty.

The rooms had lovely, large verandas that looked out onto fields where birds fed and Verdent Monkeys played. The tents do not "lock" so all valuables go into the safe but they all have a latch on the outside to secure when you leave. Why? The monkeys are so clever that they'll open the doors to go inside and look for food and wreak havoc. 

Here's what they look like. Aren't they so cute? I could sit and watch them for hours. They are so agile. 

One morning, at the Xigera camp, just before dawn, I was nibbling on a muffin and sat it down to drink some coffee. We were all having breakfast before leaving on a boat ride to see wildlife. I was watching a monkey that looked pretty brave. He climbed down from the roof of the main building and scurried along the rail coming towards me. Before I knew what was happening, he boldly looked me in the eye and snatched the muffin right off of my plate! It was hilarious and we laughed about it all day. The animals seemed to grasp that I was the weakest link of the group.

At Chitabe, we went out in these vehicles before dawn every morning and then took an afternoon drive until about dusk in the evenings. We would get a break for lunch and siesta. The point of going out at these times of day is to take pictures of animals in the best light. 

One afternoon, we had what I thought was one of the best wildlife encounters of the trip. We spent time with a handsome, male cheetah! Before spotting him, we encountered black-backed jackals playing. (That is rare to see in daylight.)

But back to the cheetah... our driver, B.B., noticed some cheetah tracks while driving and we began to follow them. As he was scanning the horizon, looking at the base of trees on little hills, he noticed the outline of the cheetah. It was pretty far away and we were all very impressed. Animals can be very difficult to find in the wild, but once you spot them, they are fairly easy to view at a close distance. 

Isn't he gorgeous?! I cannot understand why some people hunt big game such as cats, elephants, and rhinos. The populations do not need to be culled and they serve specific purposes in the intricate African ecosystems. Anyway, we spent about an hour and a half with this beautiful boy. Notice that the dark spots on his neck have longer hair that the lighter fur. So interesting! 

I was able to capture some great footage of this cat and put together a little video. The music is recorded from a special dinner where the staff performed native songs for us.