My Favorite River

Elephants in Chobe River

Our California winter this year has been blessed with abundant rain. As I walked in my neighborhood park last week, I marveled at the numerous rivers and streams.

 

I pondered what my favorite river on earth was, thought about it all week.

 

Rivers traverse all the continents. Over the centuries, cities have been founded on rivers for their power. They support large populations, and carry heavy loads of people and products. Rivers are the basis for the growth of civilization.

 

I have known so many rivers. How could I pick just one? Could you?

 

One favorite at the top of my thoughts: the Chobe River in Botswana. A popular watering place for African game. We watched wild dogs celebrating a kill, elephants crossing, and hundreds of ungulates.

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

 

Waterbuck, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Then there is the Zambezi, another favorite. It is immense, and one of its most spectacular features: Victoria Falls.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa

Zambezi River

Zambezi sunset

In Zambia, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers converge, we had many lively experiences as we waited for the ferry to cross the river.

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Zambezi River crossing, Kazungula Ferry

 

And the Luangwa River, a major tributary of the Zambezi, holds the largest concentration of hippos in the world. Native residents share the river with crocodiles and hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

 

 

Folks who fish rivers can read the water like a book.

 

Across the world in South America is the Amazon; we spent a week on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary.

 

It was buggy and humid in Amazonia, almost uninhabitable. I treasured the time we spent cruising this river, for the cool breeze and mosquito relief; and the myriad of wildlife species.

Boarding the boats, Manu, Madre de Dios River

 

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo

Red and Green Macaws extracting nutrients from the river wall (photo by B. Page)

I have many favorite rivers elsewhere, too. My home country has so many rich riverways. The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, brings frigid waters tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Falls

The Colorado River, the Snake, the Columbia…and many more that I have had the opportunity to behold.

Colorado River, CO

In California, my home state, the Sierra Mountains deliver our highly revered water every day. We talk in winter about the snowpack, and every time officials measure the snow levels it makes all the newspapers, because this is the year’s source of survival. Dozens of rivers transport this liquid gold to us.

Deer Creek, CA; in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Drought and fires haunt us, and we revel when it rains.

 

What about the river of my childhood, the Mississippi? I was born and raised in the Midwest, where the Mississippi is integral. I’ve had decades of adventures on this river’s numerous branches.

 

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

 

Could the Mississippi be my favorite?

Mississippiriver-new-01.png

Mississippi River basin. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As I continued to ponder the earth’s rivers, I remembered my times on the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames, the Amstel, and more.

Amsterdam bridge

 

Australian rivers, where I saw the rare Papuan Frogmouth (bird) from a motorboat; and my first wild platypus.

Papuan Frogmouth, Daintree River, Australia

Platypus

As I walked in the park beneath the California oak trees, I heard rambunctious acorn woodpeckers conversing, and red-tailed hawks declaring their territories.

 

I love it that every day the river here is different depending on the light, time of day, precipitation.

 

It is here that I finally got the answer I was seeking. For today, my favorite river is this one…

 

…where my feet are planted, where my eyes take in the ever-glinting movement, and my spirit is calmed by the whispering waters.

Northern California neighborhood park

This funny little river, a stream, really. Quiet, perhaps unnoticed by some, it is a wealth of life and bliss.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise indicated.

Male Kudu, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

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Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru. Photo by Bill Page

One of my favorite cities, Cuzco is located in southeastern Peru in the towering Andes mountains of South America. Founded in 1100 in a fertile valley, this city rests at an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,400 m). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

The two most notable human influences of Cuzco (also spelled Cusco) are the Inca civilization, occupying Cuzco from the 13th to the 16th Centuries; and the Spanish culture which took over in 1532.  Many native cultures occupied Cuzco before the Inca, less is known.

 

The beauty of Cuzco today is the combined cultures of the past.

Chinchero, Peru in Cuzco region

 

Cuzco Peru musicians

 

Another major influence of the region are the colossal Andes mountains. The longest mountain range in the world, and the highest outside of Asia, the mountains loom large in every aspect of Cuzco…as they have for tens of millions of years.

 

Isolated by the mountains, the people of this area have perpetuated skills and crafts over the centuries. Textiles, agriculture, and an array of ancient techniques that were practiced centuries ago still flourish today. Flora and fauna are also unique to the high altitudes.

 

Alpaca Wool Weaving. Photo by Bill Page

 

Walking Stick, Pisac, Peru

 

During the Inca civilization, communities were masterfully constructed. They built exquisite walls of granite and limestone, designed to utilize the commanding topography. Temples, roadways, domiciles, and aqueducts dominated the land.

 

Inca Wall in Chinchero Peru

 

When the Spanish conquered the area in 1532, they built their structures over the Inca city and its magnificent walls. Colonial cathedrals and other Spanish architecture can be seen today in Cuzco, most prominently in the center of town at the Plaza de Armas.

 

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. Photo by Bill Page

 

Fortunately, the Inca structures were not lost. In fact, my favorite part of the area are the Inca ruins.

 

Today, the ruins of these walls can be found throughout the Cuzco region. They are not only in the city, but in surrounding towns; the most famous complex being Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Bill Page

 

Links of interest:

Cuzco History–World Heritage Center

Inca Architecture–Wikipedia

Jet Posts: Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo

Weavers in Cuzco

Cuzco woman

 

Cuzco

 

With the vast array of incredible stone masonry from the Inca, as well as colonial architecture that still stands, it is easy to wander around in Cuzco and its mountaintops imagining life as it was in earlier centuries.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Wandering alpacas at our hotel, Ollantaytambo

 

Jet with the woman who crafted her just-purchased alpaca sweater

 

Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu

 

A Glimpse of Trinidad

Purple Honeycreeper (male)

One of the many joys of birding in other countries is spending time with local guides. Whether it’s driving through the towns or bumping along on a back road, for a short, sweet time we are receiving the gift of a glimpse into their lives.

 

Trinidad is a small island in the West Indies, located eight miles (12 km) off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. It has rainforests and plantations, cities and towns, fishing, and steel drum music. Their economy is based largely on the export of oil and natural gas products. Wikipedia Trinidad overview

 

It was originally called “Land of the Hummingbird” by the South American Lokono people…and hummingbirds still grace the rainforests. Some of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world live here.

 

And there are a lot of birds on this tropical island, 460 different species.

Dunston Cave stream, Trinidad

 

Green Honeycreeper, male

During our six days in Trinidad, our modest accommodations were located in a mountain rainforest eco-lodge. Asa Wright Nature Centre. For us, every day was about finding the birds.

 

Some days the guide drove a few of us into town, visiting birding spots like sewage ponds, swamps, and an old abandoned army base. I realize that doesn’t sound glorious, but it was.

 

One afternoon we went to the Caroni Swamp, a 12,000-acre mangrove wetland famous for the nightly arrival of huge flocks of scarlet ibis.

 

Caroni Swamp post.

Scarlet ibis, Caroni Swamp

That was magical. And I also loved cruising the back roads, not only for the panoply of exotic birds, but to see native Trinidadians in their daily routines.

Ranger releasing a caiman spotted and called-in by a local resident. Caroni Swamp

 

After-school scene

 

Watermelon truck and fruit stand

 

Lapwings, creekside

Some of the scraggliest trees were the sites of dozens of colorful birds. We watched a tufted coquette, one of the tiniest and showiest hummingbirds in the world, hassling a much-bigger owl.

Tufted coquette, male

 

There were often tanagers everywhere you looked.

Silver-beaked Tanager

 

In a residential neighborhood on a mountainside we watched yellow-rumped caciques among their needle residences, while squawking macaws flew by.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques at nests

 

We were birding among cacoa trees when a Rastafarian silently walked by extending the two-finger peace symbol.

Rastafarian

Unripe cacao pods

 

This is a construction site near our lodge, we passed it at least twice a day. They have perpetual wash-outs here, during heavy rains.

 

Construction Site

When we weren’t busy trying to spot a bird, one or another of us in the group would ask our guide questions about the country; school system, local or national government, or more personal questions. Some guides like to tell the local folk stories about certain trees or birds.

 

We had different guides every day while in Trinidad, and they all revealed different stories.

 

One guide often pointed out the crops we were looking at, how the product was used, how you ate it and what it tasted like. He liked to cook so he would tell us how to fix it and flavor it.

 

While in a traffic jam, one guide explained they have a lot of traffic in Trinidad because it is so cheap to drive a car, fuel costs almost nothing.

Our guide, Rudall, looking for macaws

On top of being excellent birders, as I often point out, guides are fluent in many languages, knowledgeable about the science of birds, and savvy about the biology and botany of the area.

 

What a gift it is to drive through a foreign country, listening to a person tell about his country and its history, his friends and family, his surroundings. In Trinidad it was always men who were the guides, but I was happy to see a few women naturalist trainees at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

 

Always, no matter what country we are in, it boils down to the same thing for all of us:

 

We strive to establish a comfortable and productive life, connect with loved ones and neighbors, and work through our troubles, our hopes, and our fears.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Posts I’ve written about special birds seen in Trinidad:

Boat Guide (R) and Captain (L) on nearby Little Tobago Island

 

A New Year of Peace

Ulysses Butterfly, Australia

On this holiday, one that is shared across the globe, here are a few of earth’s wild and worldly inhabitants to remind us how to find peace.

 

Enjoy the gifts of food

Purple Finch, California, USA

and water, and help those who do not have it.

Zebra, Zambia, Africa

 

Take in the glories of nature wherever it appears.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Practice courage and perseverance,

Lioness and African Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

and navigate the dark.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

Paddle through adversity.

Domestic cattle, Belize, Central America

 

Take time to relax.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Find whimsy

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

and be flexible.

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

 

May each day begin with song

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin, USA

and dance,

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Isl., South America

with times when you shine

Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Isl., South America

and sparkle.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

 

Take comfort in your community

Parrolets, Mexico

yet reach out beyond it.

White Rhinos, Kenya, Africa

 

Demonstrate patience and compassion to the young

Thornicroft giraffe mother with baby, Zambia, Africa

and old.

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Isl., South America

 

Embrace these basic elements of life,

and you will have peace and love

every day of the year.

Lambs, California, USA

Thank you, my friends, for another great year of sharing.

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Wishing you…

…the sweet nectar of life

this holiday season and

throughout the new year.

Tufted Coquette, male, Trinidad

One of the world’s tiniest hummingbirds, the tufted coquette is about the size of a credit card. They live in rainforests and gardens, in a few countries in and around South America. Hummingbirds are a symbol of joy.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

The Bearded Bellbird

Bearded Bellbird, calling; Trinidad

Earlier this year we spent five nights in a Trinidad rainforest. While there, we were introduced to the Bearded Bellbird, a unique bird with a booming voice.

 

Named for the beard-like feathers on his throat, Procnias averano occur in a few areas of northern South America. See map below. Only the males have the “beard.”

 

The rainforest path we were on, Trinidad

A frugivorous bird, they feed on fruit and berries. They live high in the canopy, where you rarely see them…but always hear them.

 

The call is unmistakable, and loud, and carries very far. We heard it all day long and sometimes into the early evening:  a loud, staccato croaking that echoes throughout the forest.

 

Males make the call, insistently informing other bellbirds of their territory. The species is polygamous, and during mating season the male attracts the female with an elaborate song and dance. The rest of the year, like when we were there, they just project the croaking calls. Mating season or not, they spend 87% of daylight hours in calling territories within the forest.

 

Also on the trail: Golden Tegu Lizard

Click here for the sound recording, taken in the same rainforest where I was, at Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad.

 

Sometimes the bellbird’s call is incessant, like in this recording. But I never tired of it.

 

There are so many alien sounds in a rainforest, and it is often a surprise when you finally locate the creature. Some of the tiniest frogs can sound like huge, menacing mammals; while an animal that can kick your guts out, like the Australian cassowary, may have no warning call.

 

Agouti, Trinidad, watching us on the trail

Our first day there we were on a guided hike, and the guide took us right to the bird. The Bellbird was perched about 15′ off the ground (4.5 m). A couple of times I flinched from the racket.

 

For as loud and abrupt as the call was, I had imagined a larger bird. He was about the size of a pigeon, but for the volume he was projecting I expected an eagle. He shouted his croak for so long that finally, after everyone in our small group had observed and photographed from all angles, we left.

 

He was such a cool bird that the next day, sans guide, Athena and I went searching for the bellbird again. We went back down the same trail, following the bellowing croaks.

Bearded Bellbird, Trinidad

Everything seems so simple when you have a guide. Without the guide we somehow got off the main trail, lost in a dense forest.

 

Sweaty and bug-bitten, we eventually got back to the main trail, continued the bellbird pursuit for about a half hour. Regardless of how strikingly loud the call was, we could not find the bird anywhere. We have both been birding all over the world for 25 years, doggedly locating silent birds, tiny birds, and camouflaged birds deep in the brush. To not locate the caller of this loud and direct sound was stupefying.

 

But then a more important sound preempted the bird: the lunch bell.

 

So we reluctantly left the unfound bellbird, later learning another incredible feature of this bird: ventriloquism.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Violacious Euphonia, also on the trail

Procnias averano (Beaded Bellbird) range. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology