Hammerkop

Hammerkop, Zambia, Africa

Hammerkop, Zambia, Africa

I love this bird because it’s unique.  The unusual hammer shape of its head dictates it’s name, which translates to “hammerhead.”  They don’t flutter about, or squawk or even peep, and are not bright-colored or flashy.

 

Scopus umbretta can be found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, we saw this one in Zambia.  Often seen wading in shallow water, they feed on amphibians, fish, shrimp, insects and rodents.

 

 

A wading bird at nearly two feet tall, they are defined as a “sedentary” bird because they do not move from area to area.  But they aren’t couch potatoes.  They are always hunting for prey, and probing with their bill (which has a slight hook on the end).  Non-migratory.  I’ve read that they have colorful nests and active courtship dances, but it’s not what you usually see as you’re bouncing along in the safari jeep.  This photo reflects what you usually see.

 

Their conservation status is “least concern” but in my experience they are not easy to find.  When we see one, we always ask the driver to stop.  I guess I just can’t get enough of them.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Giraffe Eyes are Always Watching

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

Wherever you go on the African savannah, the giraffe always knows where you are.  Giraffes have height to protect from predators.  Zebras often stand in pairs, each one facing the opposite direction so they, too, have better coverage.  I guess in this case, the giraffe let the solo zebra know w’sup.  Or maybe they both just knew our jeep full of admirers wasn’t a threat.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Remembering Pearl Harbor

 

Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor is an unusual memorial site because it straddles the actual sunken ship that was destroyed off of Oahu.  On December 7, 1941 the USS Arizona succumbed to a surprise Japanese attack, killing over 1,110 marines and sailors, almost everyone on board.  For Memorial Day, I offer you these photos of the same harbor on a peaceful day in November.

 

 

Pearl-HarborWhen we visited this site a few years ago the sun was bright, and hot, the water was brilliant blue, and there was a strong breeze coming off the ocean.  It was lively with tourists, gulls, flapping flags, and running children.  I stood there at the water’s edge studying the map outlining the destruction and death of that devastating day.  This calm water had been screaming with dropping bombs and explosions, the air was black with clouds of smoke and burning life.  I was grateful it was the 21st century and Hawaii, for the moment, was tranquil and beautiful.

 

Here’s hoping your Memorial Day has peace, every day has peace.  How do we practice peace?  We smile a bit more to the passing stranger, pause a beat longer in a frustrating situation, and stretch our minds beyond our own lifestyle to give grace to the many different ways of being.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

What a Croc

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat'l Park, Australia

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l Park, Australia

On our second adventure to Australia we went to the Northern Territory or “Top End” to explore Kakadu National Park.  On a sunrise pontoon boat trip through the Yellow Water wetlands, we found this crocodile resting in the sun.  That day it was in the 100s (Fahrenheit) and none of us were moving too fast.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Mennonites in Belize

Mennonite horse and carriage, Belize

Mennonite horse and carriage, Belize

I was with a birding group enroute to a Mayan ruin in northern Belize last year when our van passed through a Mennonite community. Belize is a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, with a Mayan background.  Belizeans have chocolate skin, eat plantains and rice, wear brightly-colored clothes, and live in purple and green dwellings.  It’s a Caribbean world.

 

Mennonite church parking lot, Belize

Mennonite church parking lot, Belize

Within that laid-back and humid universe  are the fully clothed guttural-speaking conservative Mennonites, most of whom shun electricity and modern technology.  They wear identical outfits that cover the whole body, work industriously by farming, building, and engineering, and abide by their religious beliefs of the 19th century.  Stern faces, blonde, and fair-skinned, they looked like German farmers from another century.

 

It happened to be a Sunday and we were way out on rural gravel roads headed for Lamanai, a Mayan ruin in the jungle.  The Mennonites were also on the road, on their way to church.  We had an eye-opening look at a cultural phenomenon.  There were eight of us in this van and I noticed we were all gawking as numerous horse-drawn carriages passed by.

 

As we drove slowly along making room on the narrow road, our guide explained that there is a big Mennonite community in Belize that arrived in the late 1950s and early 60s from Mexico.  Originally from Prussia and before that Germany and Holland, they settled and re-settled in many parts of the world including Canada and nearby Mexico.  You can read more about their history here.  We drove by their farmsteads and had many questions.

 

Of Belizean as well as Mayan descent, our guide talked warmly about the Mennonites and praised the work they have done in Belize.  He said they have brought agriculture to his world, putting eggs and poultry on the table that they never had before.  So many vegetables they have now, he beamed.  And there was no one better, he said, for helping him fix his car and building furniture.  So dependable and honest, too.  He pointed to a farm tractor and explained:  their religion allows rubber tires on horse drawn vehicles, but gas-powered tractors or cars have to have metal wheels.

 

 

Mennonite men (in hats) on Lamanai trail

Mennonite men (in hats) on Lamanai trail

 

Later that day while birdwatching in Lamanai, we encountered a Mennonite group on the trail.  The men and boys walked in their own group, while the women and girls with armfuls of babies trailed behind.  Of course they stared at us as much as we stared at them.  We were sporting big cameras and binoculars, dressed in nylon and lycra, a group racially- and gender-mixed.  We all made quiet but warm gestures in passing, giving each other respectful room on the trail and nods of acknowledgment.  When they spoke amongst themselves their language sounded like German, but it is actually a combination of German and Dutch called Plautdietsch.

 

Mennonite women on Lamanai trail

Mennonite women on Lamanai trail

I pondered all this.  Their beliefs and values were almost completely the opposite of my own.  They razed the jungles to farm, and continue farming practices that are damaging to the environment.  They breed strictly amongst their isolated community and at high rates, with no regard to population control.  Men are superior in their world, and women are for tending the home and making more babies. But my philosophies, I realized, were beside the point.

 

The disparate cultures of Mayan- and German-based communities have worked together in Belize for over half a century.  Over the years they have learned to accept and respect one another.  This was the point.  We all passed in proximity on this trail, serenaded by howler monkeys and squawking toucans overhead, all of us breathing together under one tropical canopy.  If only more of the world could coordinate their differences so amicably.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Texas Longhorns

Texas Longhorn

Texas Longhorn

The Texas prairie preserve we were looking for, had googled and studied before we even booked our flights, was nowhere to be found.  That is to say, we were lost.  While mumbling sarcasm at the useless GPS on our rental car, we passed by a small patch of tall grass where Texas Longhorns rested in the shade.

 

Although we had been on our Texas road trip for two days, traversing high-speed freeways and passing by hundreds of acres of ranches, we had not yet seen even one of this unusual kind of cattle.  So it was our fortune to get lost on this slow-moving rural road where we discovered a few of the unique cattle breed.

 

Texas-Longhorn3Those long horns were 5-6 feet from tip to tip.  The rusty old fence between them and us helped with the intimidation factor of this half-ton steer (although I’ve read they are a gentle species).  There are many exciting elements of the Lone Star State that we experienced last week, but this quiet time on a rural back road amongst wildflowers, butterflies, and cattle egret, was about as sweet as it gets with burly Texas cattle.

Texas-Longhorn-2

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander