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.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Teeny, Tiny Airplanes

Here's something that I struggle with when it comes to fear: flying. This fear has only developed in my 30s. I used to be afraid of nothing (except spiders) but after years of covering news, and Cessna plane crashes with no survivors, I become pretty nervous during take-off and landing. 

So, something you have to brace yourself for on safari, is riding in teeny, tiny airplanes. The first flight we took to Botswana was in this itty bitty plane (above) that is apparently an Australian version of a Cessna. There were only six seats and I stupidly sat directly behind the pilot and could see everything that was going on. 

The irrational fear feed in my mind went like this: I am really not ready to die yet. I probably should have just stayed home. Wonder what it will feel like to crash. Is this pilot any good? He looks really young to be flying a plane... and so on... The embarrassing part was that tears just started running out of my eyes as we taxied for take-off. I looked out of the window and James politely patted my hand a few times. We made it but I was sick to my stomach the entire time. I did some deep breathing and kept telling myself that I was not going to vomit in front of James' parents and our guide. I didn't! 

Our next three flights were in larger planes (thank goodness) and I didn't have to cry or throw up. Winning. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Birthday dinner at DeepWood

My parents treated me to a lovely 35th birthday dinner with last night. Dannen and James joined us and we went to DeepWood Restaurant on North High Street. We enjoyed a fantastic atmosphere, professional service, and delicious, inventive food. Mom even ordered flowers for me from Oberer's Flowers

We started by ordering charcuterie that is made in the DeepWood kitchen by Chef Brian. We tried lamb sausage, duck proscuitto, and bacon terrine. It was fantastic. Dad, Dannen, and I also tried raw Prince Edward oysters. Very tasty.

The chef sent out a starter of watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, balsamic reduction and kalamata olive stuffed with goat cheese!

For my entree, I tried the rabbit "porchetta." It was served with spring vegetables, pistachio, anise grissini, and carrot/fennel puree. 

We also ordered Two Messengers pinot noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon. I've never had this before and we loved it. I lived near the Willamette Valley and always try wine from the region when I can.

We had such a great time together. Many thanks to my family for the special night. 

Xigera Camp, Botswa

After staying at the Selinda Camp, we moved on to Xigera, which is a camp that is based on the water. We were able to see lots of birds and beautiful groves of papyrus. The rooms were pretty and well appointed.

We loved the deck in front of the room. It overlooked the water and was very peaceful. One night Verdent Monkeys were playing on our deck and we watched them from a distance. 

The "Do Not Disturb" signs were adorable. You just put these across the walk way to your tent. 

One day we took a boat ride to bird watch and take pictures of big game from the water. We were able to get pretty close to a huge old bull elephant. He was magnificent! 

 After our boating trip, we ate lunch on a little island, set up for us by the fabulous Xigera staff.

Here's a look at some of the beautiful birds we saw on our adventure:

Saddle-billed Stork

James :)

Lilac-breasted Roller

African Fish Eagle

Grey Go-Away Birds

I put together a short video of elephant clips including shots of the elephant we watched on our Xigera trip.