The Common Murre

Common Murres, Alaska

Common Murres, Alaska

It may have the word “common” in its name, and it IS an abundant bird species in North America, but it is not easy to observe.  This bird is a marine species; it feeds from the sea and nests on precariously rocky sea cliffs and sea islands.

 

I had the pleasure of a day trip aboard a boat outside of Seward, exploring part of the Gulf of Alaska.  On our way to see a glacier, the boat came upon these island cliffs, where we saw many colonies of this gregarious bird.

Sea islands, Gulf of Alaska

Sea islands, Gulf of Alaska

 

A large bird about 17 inches long, Uria aalge numbers in the millions.  Highly social in nature, they can be found in many places on the globe.  The common murre gets its name for the purring sound it makes.  To read more about this bird, click here.

 

Alaska sea cliffs

Alaska sea cliffs dotted with common murres

Because they have set-back legs that give them an upright stance, they look a bit like a small penguin.  Their skills in diving are extraordinary, reaching depths of over 300 feet in search of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.  They use their wings for propulsion.

 

If you are lucky enough to get them in the binoculars, you can see a bill so pointy it is described as stiletto, also good for diving.  Another cool bird with whom we share life on earth.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Birding by Cab

Magpie Jay, Mexico

Black-throated magpie-jay, Mexico

Of the 20+ years since I have been actively birding, there was only one time when I birded by cab.  For three days in a row we were chauffeured across the Mexican countryside in a little yellow cab.

 

It was one of those situations that all travelers encounter:  it isn’t at all what you were imagining, but you can either go with it or abort.  We went with it.  It turned out that our guide, Armando, didn’t drive.  So his friend did the driving instead.

 

Lupe's taxicab

Lupe’s taxicab

In the dark of each morning, Lupe and Armando picked my partner and me up at our hotel in the small town of San Blas in Nayarit, Mexico.  It was an intimate experience, for the car was small and the four us and our equipment were tightly packed in.

 

Armando and his scope on our boat ride

Armando and his scope on our boat ride

Sometimes, as planned, Lupe would take us to other destinations.  Twice it was to the river, where we had boat rides, left the cab behind.  One day Lupe dropped the three of us off in a banana plantation on the outskirts of a village.  Always at the appointed time, Lupe would promptly arrive to pick us up, with the cab cleaned and ready to go.  We’d clamber back into “our” little yellow cab.

 

Mexico,-taxi-birding

L to R: Lupe, Athena, Armando. Spotting a Limpkin.

Armando would point out plants, flowers, trees, and nuts, tell us stories about what he did with these treasures as a kid.  We huddled under branches waiting for a special bird, craning our necks, straining our ears, admiring the many species that we found throughout each day.

 

Armando had a fondness for fried pork rinds.  Every day we stopped in a different village and picked up a greasy little bag, which he shared with all of us.  Once we had lunch at a countryside family restaurant, where they made fresh tortillas to order.  A very pregnant woman expertly worked the dough into perfect circles, the freshest tortillas ever.  The place was busy and lively; we were the only two gringos there, and the food was fabulous.

 

Mexico,-taxi-insideLupe was the slowest cab driver I had ever seen…but we were in no hurry.  Crosses, pagan amulets, and trinkets with shimmering gold streamers hung from the rearview mirror.  Occasionally when the car came to speed, the decorations would dance wildly in the wind.

 

We saw over one hundred different bird species in those three days; traversed many Mexican miles, up and down dirt roads, driving through orchards, even passed through a village funeral procession.  And that little cab never let us down.

Parrolets, Mexico

Parrolets, Mexico

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Discovering the Anole

Anole, Costa Rica

Green Anole, Costa Rica

The world of reptiles is a vast one.  In the lizard Order of Squamata alone, there are 7,000 species.  While birding in the jungles of Costa Rica, I came across a lizard species that was new to me:  the anole.

 

It is a common lizard, with 390 species in the genus Anolis, found primarily in North, Central and South America.  It’s pronounced a-NO-lee.

 

Our guided birding group was intimate, only seven of us, including a family from our small inn.  The parents photographed and birded, while their two teenage sons searched for reptiles.  We birders had plenty of exotic and colorful new birds to keep us busy and happy, but after a time I took an interest in the quiet activities of the two boys.

 

Anole, Costa Rica

Anole, Costa Rica

I come from rattlesnake country.  We leave rocks and logs alone.  So when I saw these two boys confidently rolling over rocks and digging in leaf debris, I was aghast.  But as the morning unfolded, the treasures the brothers shared were wonderfully enlightening.

 

They kept finding anoles everywhere.  A very small lizard that fit in the palm of one’s hand, of various colors and sizes.  More about the anole here.  These boys were experts at finding the reptiles, handling them, and treating them with love and respect.  (They found great frogs too, more about that from a previous post:  Poison Dart Frogs )

 

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog

And now, when it’s cold enough that the rattlesnakes are still dormant, I find myself peeking under logs looking for newts and frogs.  It’s a big world under there!

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA

Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA

Winter months are often a good time to visit museums, and one of my favorite places to frequent when visiting family in Philadelphia, is this extensive art collection at the west end of Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

 

With over 227,000 pieces, their collection includes impressionist, post-impressionist, modern art, American, European, Asian and Indian art, tapestry, armor, and much more. The third largest art museum in the United States, it contains over 200 galleries. Their extensive Rodin collection, including an additional museum around the corner, houses the largest collection by this sculptor outside of Paris.  To learn more about the art museum, click here.

Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Looking down Benjamin Franklin Pkwy from the Museum

Monet Water Lilies

Monet Water Lilies

 

In the 1920s the City of Philadelphia began the creation of its civic center with the art museum and other museums along the newly constructed Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

 

This one-mile long Parkway runs through the cultural heart of Philadelphia.  The museum majestically stands atop a hill at the end of this Parkway overlooking the scenic Schuylkill (pronounced SKOOL-kil) River.  It originally opened in 1928.

 

A popular element of this museum are the steps in front leading up to the grand entrance.  Named The Rocky Steps, they were popularly featured in the Rocky films, famous for fictional character Rocky Balboa’s training runs.

 

Diana Sculpture

Diana Sculpture

This city has many historical places of interest in which to visit and engage.  I find, however, often when visiting family there is only enough time for one cultural event.  If I can only go to one place, this is my top choice.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander, a Philadelphia native