Spring Concert

Spring is bursting out in northern California, with bright green tender new shoots everywhere, delicate flowery budding trees, and neon yellow wild mustard growing in between all the vineyard rows.  Although it is a spectacle of joy and beauty in the daytime, I have been especially drawn to a special springtime sound at night.  There is a pond at the bottom of the mountain I live on, about a half mile away.  This sound is so loud at night that even with double-pane windows shut, you can hear the cacophony right through the windows.

Pacific Tree Frog

Pacific Tree Frog

It is the mating voice of a frog, so tiny,  about the size of a half dollar:  the Pacific Tree Frog.  It’s other name, the Chorus Frog, is more emblematic of its existence.  All the males get together at this pond every night and in a deafening chorus, a thousand ribbits vibrating at once, they sing their song.  I sit at the window in the dark and listen to their song.  They sing of love and life and hope.  Sometimes the chorus stops suddenly, then it starts up again, swells into magnificence.  When I wake up in the morning and open the window, wondering if they are still singing, there are no frog sounds (but there is still a lively song of many species of birds).

Lately I have found myself going to the window several times in the night just to hear their hopeful concert.  It brings me solace when I cannot sleep. These lively little creatures sing to me that there are songs of hope and peace wherever we go, we just have to be available to hear them.

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Cardinal Knowledge

I spent last week in Illinois, and although it was a sad family visit in their cold and barren winter, I had many lively reminders of the beauty of life on earth. Family and friends were a big source of the comfort, but I have to say, the northern cardinal was a prevalent reminder of beauty and strength for me.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

What a bird!  They are the state bird in Illinois (and seven other states too) and populate more than half of the United States, so they’re hardy survivors and we can expect to see them around for years to come. But that doesn’t mean they’re to be taken for granted. Some folks, I noticed, don’t even look up when the cardinal flies by. Many people, however, stock their feeders in the worst winter months with seeds (cardinals love sunflower seeds) and even provide heated bird baths; and in turn the crimson bird provides many thrills for many people.

In winter it is a striking sight against a snowy white backdrop. Right now Illinois residents are on the cusp of spring so you can hear the cardinal’s “woit woit woit” song in the darkness of a frigid dawn. Cardinals are around in summer and winter, permanent residents in their range. Although there are a few spots in southwestern U.S., Hawaii, and even southern California where cardinals live, mostly they are common in the eastern and midwestern states. They don’t live in California where I reside, so I just love to travel to parts of the U.S. and Central America and find them. I can’t seem to get enough of the northern cardinal.

There are several “cardinals” in this country, but the northern cardinal, the all-red bird pictured here, is a true cardinal with the latin name of Cardinalis cardinalis. Some exotic introduced birds in Hawaii are called cardinals like the Red-crested Cardinal and the Yellow-billed Cardinal, but they are not technically cardinals. And there is another bird in the Cardinalis genus (Pyrrhuloxia), found near the U.S.-Mexican border.  The Red-crested Cardinal seen here was hanging out on the beach with us, exploring this coconut one balmy lovely day on the Big Island in Hawaii.

Red-crested Cardinal

Red-crested Cardinal

Being a birder, I love every bird. I think they all have something to share. But I do have my favorites, and the northern cardinal is one of them. I’m not alone either. So many people love the northern cardinal. What’s not to love? They’re big (nearly 9 inches long) and flashy, around all year, and faithful to feeders. The male is all red except for some black around the bill and tail, the female is an elegant light brown and red; and both genders have scarlet-colored seed-eater bills, as well as a dashing head crest.

Just about wherever you go on this planet, there are beautiful wild birds gracing our presence…all we have to do is look around and enjoy. And hats off to those special people who go the extra mile to maintain bird feeders and provide sustainable habitat to keep their birds happy.

Magical Mayan Moments

Travel is unpredictable, it’s what many people like about taking a trip. This surprise was a small one, but it stuck with me because of the peaceful magic that still resides in my beating pulse.

 

Very early one morning the guide drove us, a group of seven birders, to the end of a one-lane road. We trekked to this remote Belizean forest mountaintop to see the rare orange-breasted falcon, but the fog was prohibitively thick. It was too cold for the falcon to be hunting and too foggy to see the waterfall; but we decided to wait it out, the fog would probably lift soon.

 

Our group was a patient one, and this was a peaceful place. We walked down the 50 or so mossy, stone steps to the waterfall look-out deck where the falcon was known to nest. We were standing in a cloud, but we passed the time, waited, marveled at the sound of the invisible waterfall, waited some more, told stories, then walked back up. When we got back to the van we noticed an old Mayan woman displaying crafts outside her small gray shack. It was a curious sight because we were in the middle of nowhere in a cloud, and this shack look abandoned. On the little porch she was joined by a small boy. He held a lime green toy phone and kept pressing a button to hear it ring, a bizarre mechanical ringing sound in these misty whistling pines. We walked to the edge of the cliff, looked for birds, listened for the falcon, observed big dewy spider webs, forest ground cover, and other plants.

 

After about 15 minutes the group kind of split up for awhile, all wandering our own ways but unable to go too far with the precipitous cliffs. My partner and I meandered over to the “souvenir stand” and approached the old woman. She greeted us in English and all her items were now neatly displayed. She opened her arm and presented her wares, a Mayan version of Vanna White.

 

Mayan Woman with Guide

Mayan Woman with Guide

We both scanned the stuff and saw that there wasn’t really anything here that we wanted. What we wanted was the falcon, but the fog was still thick, so we settled in to this sweet scene. The table was a piece of plywood only about two or three feet off the ground, and some of the souvenirs were things we could buy anywhere in the country, but some were homemade crafts she had made.

 

We two Americans and this Mayan woman stood at this table in front of her dwelling and that’s when the magic began. The boy stayed quiet at the threshold, staring intently at us as his grandmother did her job. She gently picked up an item in her short, thick fingers, held it out in her palm and described it to us in full detail.  For the next five minutes she went from one item to the next, slowly and methodically, and in her steady, calm voice described each of the 30 or so items with pride and propriety.

 

“And dis is a hot from a nut.”  It was a tree nut, polished and carved into the shape of a heart on a black leather string, a necklace. Even though we were standing right there and didn’t really need a description, we were transfixed by her placid voice.

 

After each table item had been addressed, she moved on to the embroidery hanging on the clothesline behind her. Bright Caribbean colors dominate the landscape of Belize, and her embroidery was no different. The fabric was thin, inexpensive, and there were some dirt spots on many items, but the designs were invitingly lively and bright, especially on this dreary day. I asked about the price of the Mealy Parrot piece; a 14×20” thin, white cloth with three bright green parrots in a tree of neon orange flowers. Still lulled by the presentation, we had been willing to overlook the dirt spots, didn’t really care that there wasn’t a place in our home for this. I justified it would be a sweet reminder of our mealy parrot sighting. When she gave the price, however, we both hesitated, for it was not a cheap price.

 

Instinctively, we both knew it would be disrespectful to make a counter-offer. There are places for that, like in Mexican marketplaces where they expect it, in a flurry of noise and bustle. But this was not that. This was a peaceful mountain scene at the front door of this Mayan woman’s home. She had made these items in that hut without electricity and had just lovingly itemized each little treasure for us. Slowly unclipping the wooden clothespin, she took the piece down.  “Look at dis” she calmly instructed as she turned the fabric over.

 

“Oh my God” I said, almost in a whisper. It was so quiet here, whispering was not inappropriate. And as we both leaned forward to examine her work, we saw that the stitching was flawless. I’m not an embroidery person, but my Grandma embroidered and sewed a lot. I knew enough to see she had a respectable variety of stitches and both the front and back of this piece were impeccable; this was exquisite craftsmanship. We admired her work with genuine appreciation, bought four or five modest items that would fit easily into the suitcase, but still ensure that she and her family would enjoy many robust meals. And then, as quickly as we had descended into this alluring presentation, the intimacy and magic dissipated. Our guide and the group came over and the toy phone started back up. My partner snapped this photo. Then the fog lifted and we went back to the look-out deck where we were rewarded with good views of the falcon.

 

I still think about that woman on the mountaintop every day. There were many more people in the back room of their home, my curious writer’s eyes had caught a glimpse. All those people in that tiny hovel. How did they get their food?  Did they have a garden?  And what about water?  Had any of them ever seen a mealy parrot?  Did they know they had this rare falcon living in their midst?  Did they care?

 

Travel is like that—unexplained events, magical moments, people or creatures who touch your life for five minutes, then you never see them again. What is it that keeps us trekking?  It is reverence. Reverence for others and faith that there are people, plants, and creatures in this world who radiate with goodness and beauty wherever you are.

Iguana Snuggle

Once again I was dazzled by iguanas.  On our recent trip to Belize we had the joy of seeing two species of iguanas and many smaller lizards and anoles as well. On the Caribbean side of Belize are a series of small islands; we were on Ambergris Caye where the main mode of transportation for locals and tourists alike are golf carts. Our first sighting of the spiny-tailed iguana was when a male shot across the road in front of our golf cart and nearly got flattened. We were thrilled with that flash of color and the excitement, and had our eyes peeled from then on, observing several dozen including a pair in a shuffled mating dance.

But it was on the mainland of the country when we saw the bigger green iguana that our reverence heightened. Our guide was driving around the outskirts of Belize City. We were “killing” a little time while waiting for the rest of our tour group to arrive at the airport, looking for birds. He had known us for less than an hour and knew us only as birders. He did not know, that is, that we were enamored of iguanas.

He turned right at a quiet T intersection and casually said, “There’s a green iguana back there.”  Continuing his turn, driving away from the iguana, we looked and looked all over the ground and finally said, “Where?”  I added anxiously, “We’d really love to see it.”  In a residential section with old, cinder block houses mixed with a development of new and primarily unfinished houses, was a tree-lined creek. There were few cars or people in sight so he accommodatingly turned the small bus around, pulled over, and pointed.

What he had seen was an iguana as far as 300 yards away, camouflaged and hidden in the leaves of a tree about 20 feet off the ground. We never would have seen this lovely creature even with our binoculars and birding skills, without the help of the guide. And oh, was he gorgeous.

Green Iguana

Green Iguana

Fortunately the sun was directly on him, so not only did we see him fairly quickly once pointed out, but the bright orange and gold colors of this large, green male in the prime of his life were striking. You can see from this photo the spikes on his nape. The spikes went all the way down the length of his long, leathery spine. He was about four or five feet long. Also in this photo is a good view of what is called his dewlap, that patch of loose skin at his throat. It is deflated here, but when they are threatened it balloons out. Although he was aware of our presence, he was unthreatened. We were respectfully quiet, unassuming, and stayed at a distance of about 100 feet away. In this basking pose, he is absorbing the heat of the morning sun, which helps him to digest all the leaves he has just eaten.

As a birder I am accustomed to getting a very brief 3-5 second look at a bird before they flit off to the next bug or perch. I think one of the things I secretly like about iguanas is that they stay longer on a perch, and although they can indeed move quickly (like that spiny-tailed iguana that just missed the tires of our golf cart), they are also known to move lethargically. If they don’t have enough heat, in fact, they can’t move at all. So we oogled this majestic creature for a languid 5 or 8 minutes, listened appreciatively to our guide’s whispered discussion of the iguana, took photos and marveled, and then eventually, with some reluctance, moved on.