The Biggest Birds on the Planet

African Ostrich

African Ostrich

When you grow up your whole life in a land where birds are smaller than humans, it is an incredible thrill to travel where birds are as big (or bigger!) than you.  With so much talk this week about our big bird the turkey, here is a brief firsthand account of some of the biggest birds on this planet.  They belong to the Ratite family. 

 

This is a family of large flightless birds dating back 150-200 million years ago when the earth’s land masses were still one supercontinent, the Pangaea. One popular theory is that the large flightless birds lived in the southern part of the land mass and when it separated the birds remained on the southern continents.  Although there are differing theories about this evolution as well as the classi­fica­tions, all large flightless birds of today exist only on southern hemisphere continents. 

 

I have had the fortune of seeing three of the four large flightless bird species in the wild.  In Africa is the ostrich, Australia has cassowaries and emus, and South America has rheas.  I look forward to exploring the grasslands of South America to find the rhea, but so far these three have given me enormous pleasure; and in one instance, the biggest fright of my life. 

 

The ostrich is the biggest of the Ratite birds and can reach as tall as 9 feet.  It’s the largest bird on the planet.  Like emus and rheas, ostrich live in grasslands.  They are elusive.  You often see them far out across the savannah, sometimes in groups of up to 50; but more often in smaller groups.  There is sexual dimorphism in ostriches, meaning the male and female differ in appearance; and there are different species in Africa depending on where you are.  This photo was taken in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, one of my favorite places in the world.  This pair happened to be enjoying a rest.  No animal rests too long in Africa because predators abound; that is why they are facing each other:  to literally watch each other’s backs.  In the background is a lake filled with flamingos. 

 

Australian Emu

Australian Emu

Emus live in Australia and occupy most of the continent.  They are relatively easy to find if you’re in open grasslands; after all, the bird reaches over six feet in height.  Like the ostrich, their long, strong legs make them fast on their feet.  I had several fun and somewhat odd encounters with the emu.  They are relatively harmless and I found they are not as shy as ostrich.  One extremely hot day we were trekking in a place that was relatively devoid of humans—which I love—and a family of four emus came along to this deck where we were enjoying a cup of tea.  That’s where this photo was taken.  We were thrilled to be only six feet away from them.  They grazed while we admired them and all was well.  Then I guess I stepped one step too close and the male lifted his head from the ground and looked at me eye-to-eye with a very serious look.  I stopped and retreated a step.  It doesn’t happen too often that you’re standing on both feet looking into the eyes of a bird.  Then he did a very cool thing, but it frightened me enough to retreat entirely.  His head went from my 5’7 range and suddenly shot up nearly another foot!  That long neck just kept going until he was way bigger than me. 

 

The third large flightless bird I saw, the cassowary, was also in Australia.  They’re not as big as the emu or ostrich and not as fast on their feet, because they’re a stockier bird.  This bird also lives in New Guinea.  The cassowary is far more difficult to see and I traveled very far up the eastern coast of Australia in order to find this beautiful and rare bird.  This bird is extremely elusive and is listed as endangered.  Of the three birds I’ve seen, this one is definitely the most dangerous.  I had a terrifying encounter with this one. 

 

Southern Cassowary, Australia

Southern Cassowary, Australia

This photo was taken on a funky back road on the edge of the jungle in a semi-rural residential area.  Cassowaries especially like to eat fruit and spend their lives in the forest.  But because the tropical rainforests of Australia are slowly being eliminated, the cassowary territory extends to wherever they can find food.  When we spotted this rare find of a male with young, we happened to be inside the car looking at birds through the windshield.  It was raining as these beauties tentatively walked past.  They would have vanished if we would have opened the car doors. 

 

On a different day my partner and I were with our guide in the Atherton Tablelands in northeastern Australia.  The guide had told us he knew where there was a cassowary deep in the jungle.  This is one of my favorite birding experiences now, in retrospect, but at the time it was definitely the most terrifying.  I wrote a mystery novel set in Australia called Wicked Walkabout and although the book is fiction, I incorporated my real-life cassowary experience into this novel.  You can read about the encounter in the fictionalized form, or you can stay tuned here to a future post for the full story of my very exciting adventure with the cassowary. 

 

Until then, the next time you see a little brown bird flying past you, consider yourself lucky that it’s smaller than you and quite harmless.  And take a longer look, because usually there is something very beautiful about every bird on this planet, not just the really large ones. 

A Manatee Mission

Christmas manatee

Christmas manatee

I went on a manatee mission in Florida and got lucky.  We had an article about manatees and read that there was a power plant in Ft. Myers with a Manatee Park.  Our Florida vacation would not be complete without a visit to the discharge site of a power plant.  It was February and I was birding at the Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, ventured over to Ft. Myers in pursuit of this unusual sea mammal. 

 

Manatees are listed as endangered and vulnerable to extinction.  So even though it was pouring rain so hard that we couldn’t always see through the windshield, and this strange little park was an hour out of our way, we thought we better go check it out before our chances of seeing this mammal in our lifetime narrowed even more. 


 

Manatees are very large sea mammals that inhabit warm waters.  There are several species in the world and they can be found in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, South America and West Africa.  In America the best place to see manatees is in Florida. They live along the Atlantic coast but in winter, from November to March, they seek out warm waters in rivers and canals.

 

They are about nine feet long and their weight is in the 1,000 pound range.  They have hollow bones to help them float and come to the surface to breathe.With a primary diet of sea grass, they can be seen floating and feeding in the shallow, warm waters of Florida.  Because they don’t have blubber, they perish in water that is colder than about 68 degrees.  Distantly related to elephants, they are gargantuan with a rotund body, short stubby flipper limbs, a short snout, plaintive eyes, and a paddle-shaped tail. 

 

Manatee in Florida

Manatee in Florida

We eventually found the pleasant small park on the property of the Florida Power and Light Company, and the rain stopped too, which was great.  The manatees were swimming in brackish, warm discharge water that looked like tea water.  As you can see from this photograph the water was cloudy, the manatees were difficult to see.  The park advised visitors to wear polarized sunglasses for easier viewing, and even provided a large polarized lens for better photography.  Good photos were impossible, but there are some great photos and a good article about manatees at this National Geographic site. This article also appeared in their April 2013 issue.

 

In this photo you can also see lots of scars and gashes on the manatee’s back.  Unfortunately these are wounds from boat propellers.  Of the several dozen adults we saw that day, every single one of them had scars.  Manatees’ hearing range is high range, and boat motors come in on the low range, so manatees are unable to hear the boats.  Because the manatees prefer shallow waters, and the canals where they eat and live are narrow, there is a conflict between these large mammals and speeding boaters.    There are signs and warnings for boaters, but these don’t always help.

 

November is Manatee Awareness Month, according to one of my blogger friends Mungai and the Goa Constrictor.  If you go to her link you will read more about how to help the manatees.  I have another blogger friend, a Floridian and conservationist, who also has some great information and links about the manatees at Gator Woman

 

A great deal of the trouble between humans and manatees is that they are so cool to watch that some folks love them too much.  People want to swim with them, touch them, even (gasp) ride one.  The manatee is a shy animal, it just wants to eat and protect its young.  I think it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that it’s better if we leave the petting-squeezing-touching to our domestic household pets and let the wild creatures in this world live in peace.

 

If you ever do get the chance to see a manatee in the wild, you will be mesmerized.  It was a big highlight of our south Florida trip.  They are such a gentle creature, move slowly and just kind of bump along in the water, grazing grass.  That sweet, harmless face says only one thing:  “Hello neighbor.”  

Joining Jeopardy for a Day

Outside Jeopardy Studio at Sony Pictures

Outside Jeopardy Studio at Sony Pictures

I had an energizing urban adventure last week in Los Angeles.  There’s a popular quiz show in America called Jeopardy, and it goes all the way back to 1964.  When I was a kid my mother would reward us a penny for every correct answer.

 

In my young adult years I fantasized, like most other viewers, about becoming a contestant.  I felt I did pretty good with correct answers.  Then more years passed and reality hit.  Turns out I’m a writer, and also shy by nature.  I like to sit in the back of the room and watch all the stories unfold.  Put a moving camera in front of me and I either freeze or giggle.  Being a front stage contestant was just not for me.  So then I decided to visit the studio and simply watch.  And this is what I did last week. 

 

I’ve been to studio tapings before and was aware that much of what you see on the television screen is very different from what you see in real life.  I prepared myself for the illusion.

 

At the appointed time and date, we stood in line outside in an alley surrounded by giant murals of TV shows; then about 50 or so of us filed into the studio.  Inside there were contestants on stage rehearsing with a pseudo-host.  They were getting familiar with their signaling devices and answering questions, while production staff and sound engineers bustled around adjusting microphones, cameras, and lights.  The game board and other things did indeed look different than on TV, there were illusions; but they were minor. I also saw there was not as much magic as there was hustle.

Once we were seated, the announcer Johnny Gilbert told us how important we were to the show. Live clapping is better, he explained, than canned laughter.  He made me want to do the best possible job of clapping.  His rich voice lifted me in its familiarity, this voice I hear every night but never had a face to place with it.  Now I had a face, one of warmth; and his generous time and openness with us transformed me.  I stared at him, taking it all in, as he told us what to do.   Later, when we could ask questions, I asked him about their volume of fan mail and he gave an articulate and enthusiastic response.

 

mock set up (no photos allowed on the show)

mock set up (no photos allowed on stage)

When it was time to go on the air, the countdown started:  Five, Four, Three, Two….  As if I was an astronaut about to catapult into space, I was filled to the brim with pure excitement.  Pink lights flooded the stage, the theme song I’d known for my entire life blasted the studio.  Johnny Gilbert at his lectern shouted out in his booming voice, “This Issss Jeopardy.”  I thought I was going to explode.  Then Alex Trebek came marching out from behind the stage, initiating another one of the more than 6,500 shows he’s hosted. Oh did I ever clap hard.  We all did.  I looked around and saw the whole studio audience smiling broadly and clapping heartily.

 

During the commercial breaks Mr. Trebek (how can I address him as Alex?) came over to the audience.  He is just as handsome in real life as he is on television, but he’s more entertaining in person.  As a TV viewer you pick up on his dry humor and self-deprecating jokes, but until you’re there at the studio, you don’t get to hear all his jokes or witness his theatricals (he tap-danced for an impromptu half-minute).  Most importantly, you don’t realize how hard he works and how easy he makes it look.

They tape five shows a day.  At 7:30 that morning Mr. Trebek gets the material for all five shows of the day.  At 61 clues and answers per show, and five shows a day, he facilitates 305 questions a day in front of a television audience of nine million people.  He’s done this for 30 years, and so has Johnny Gilbert; but you would never know it from their level of enthusiasm.

 

It’s an array of impressive feats for everyone on and off that stage.  We watched one of the judges call up to heaven for a ruling on a question, saw the answer man behind the curtain, watched the director demonstrating to contestants how to flail their arms and project their voices for a future commercial.  Was even introduced to the Clue Crew!  Everyone has a designated job on this team, and they are all important to the success of the show. 

 

As a writer I sit alone at the computer typing and deleting thoughts all day long.  No one sees me, yet my office is filled with voices, dances, catastrophes, and murders that all reside within my busy head.  Things originate in my head and they blossom out in the world after that.  To sit in that studio audience chair at Sony Pictures and see what happens after their writers and researchers have done their work, to actually hear the music and bells, see the colored lights and flashing signs, the waving arms and gestures, and witness the bloopers that will be edited out later…it was all a dream come true.    

 

It was also a reminder.  We all work away on our day.  Sometimes it feels boring, uneventful, even futile at times; we work day in and day out.  But it seems to me that just when you need it, we are reminded of how our work fits into the big picture and how important our work, our existence, is.  Everything we did from the time we were a kid on the floor in front of the TV up through today…it all matters. And just between you and me:  I hope in 30 years I’m as smooth and cool as Alex and Johnny.

A Salute to Our Veterans

Flag

This flag was flown over Afghanistan by my nephew

THANK YOU to all those men and women who gave their lives, for a time or forever, to the cause of freedom and independence.  A salute, as well, to all the families and friends in this world who have suffered the excruciating loss of their loved one in the effort.

I Love Road Trips

TruckI just returned from a really fun road trip to Los Angeles.  We traveled lighter than these folks in Zambia.  Next week I’ll tell you about the highlight of the trip:  being a studio audience member on the Jeopardy show.  My job was to clap and I did a fantastic job!

Chasing a Platypus

Platypus

Platypus

The first time we visited Australia, my partner and I devoted an entire day of our vacation to finding a platypus. We hiked nearly ten miles in 97° heat to the Black Swamp where the ranger said platypus lived.  We were the only fools out there.  At the end of the afternoon, when we had to finally get going, we reluctantly left without a platypus sighting.  (Fortunately we did see an echidna so the trip was not in vain.) 

 

We had already read a lot about platypus before we even came to the continent. Fascinating creature:  many physical characteristics of a duck, yet it is a warm-blooded mammal, swimming and diving under water. They’re less than 20 inches long, which includes the long snout that is flat like a duck’s bill.  A bill like a duck, webbed feet like a duck, and a long, flat tail just like a beaver. It is a very strange looking beauty.

 

Eleven years passed before we returned to Australia, and in this time we discovered the glories of hiring a guide.  Spend time with a local in their native land, see and experience infinitely more wildlife.  Being with a guide makes for the most fun always.  Our budget on this three week trip allowed for three days of guiding.

 

In Queensland, we met up with the guide, Jonathan Munro, the night before our three-day adventure.  He asked, as all good guides do, what we most wanted to see.  We had two target animals we wanted to see:  the platypus and the cassowary.  Both animals, we had been told by a multitude of native Australians, were impossible to see.  Jonathan said he was pretty sure he could find both for us.  hmmm, is this fantasy or reality? 

 

Platypus Face and Bill

Platypus Face and Bill

The next day the three of us met before 6 am. It was still dark outside. The platypus favor the dark of dawn or dusk, he said. We were told we were “in luck” because it was raining and extremely overcast. He was confident we’d find the platypus, and off we drove in his 4WD. He parked the vehicle and we looked around, puzzled. We were in a residential neighborhood. We scurried down some muddy trails, crossed a foot bridge and stood beside a small river. He whispered what we had to do in order to see the “platties.” 

 

We were going to run quietly alongside the river, upstream, and get ahead of the platypus. They were, he explained, extremely shy and sensitive to voices when above the surface of the water, so we could not speak or move when the animal’s head breached the water. But as soon as the platypus dived under, we were to start running again, up river, and wait for it to surface again. How long do they stay under?  “About a minute,” he replied in a whisper; “just do what I do.” 

 

My partner and I will do just about anything when it gets to this point.  We’ve flown nearly 20 hours to get here, blown several years of savings for this one trip, and fantasized about the elusive platypus for 11 years.  He could tell us to walk on our hands, and we would walk on our hands.  Why not? 

 

Platypus in the river

Platypus in the river

We’re in the pouring rain at this river with this Australian Brit who we’ve known for less than an hour.  Our raincoats are already soaked.  It’s muddy, slippery, dark, and it’s only 6:00 in the morning.  Neither of us slept well because a night in the jungle is as loud as a night in New York City. 

 

With backpacks on our backs, binoculars and cameras swinging, ducking under wet and heavy tree limbs, we ran up this muddy trail.  It felt so ridiculous I wanted to whoop with laughter, but quiet quiet quiet was the key.  With packs bobbing back and forth as we tromped along, slip-sliding beside this river, we followed the leader.

 

In five minutes he spotted one. Platypus search the river banks for crayfish or tiny shrimp and other foods, using unusual sensory organs inside their duck-like bill to detect electrical movement in their prey. And due to this silly game we were playing, the platypus seemed to have no idea we were there. After awhile we became adept at looking for the bubbles as he dove to the muddy bottom, foraging. When we saw the bubbles, we knew he would be coming up soon so we’d freeze in our tracks, remain completely silent and still, and marvel to our heart’s content when his head popped out. 

 

When they swim they are hunting, and their heads dart back and forth frenetically in short movements. They scour the tall river reeds, muddy river walls, and water’s surface. They rarely come out of the water, always keeping a low profile. When he submerged completely, we’d race forward and wait.

 

This was a rainy Wednesday dawn, so we had a full hour of frolicking with the plattie before it got completely light out and the local residents stirred. By then the rain had subsided, a few people were out walking their dogs, starting their days. A woman walked by eating an apple, oblivious of the treasure. It was 7:00 and the platypus were done with their hunt and gone now. The platypus party was over.

 

Did we ever see the cassowary?  Oh, did we ever.  More about that another time….