Thursday, July 30, 2009

Touching the Graceful Monsters

From amid a huge file of still-unprocessed photos, Kenn writes:

Baby leatherback sea turtles hatch out of eggs buried in sand and start a desperate scramble down the beach toward the water, and if they make it, they may not see land again for years. During those years they are maturing from palm-sized rubber toys into enormous sea monsters. Full-grown adult leatherbacks are the world’s largest turtles, up to seven feet long and weighing up to a ton. They are also the most wide-ranging turtles on the planet, found almost throughout the world’s oceans, traveling from the tropics to the edges of the polar regions. They are also, throughout their vast range, seriously endangered.

With streamlined leathery shells and powerful front flippers, the leatherbacks can fly through the depths with astonishing grace and speed, diving to more than half a mile below the sea surface and staying submerged for more than an hour. Their great size is no hindrance in the sea, where they are the most graceful of giants. Male leatherbacks will spend the rest of their lives in this state of grace. But unlike whales or dolphins, which have developed the ability to give birth at sea, adult female leatherbacks must go through the ordeal of returning to land to lay their eggs.

And an ordeal it must be, too, when she comes to land. As the female leatherback crawls from the surf onto the beach at night, in an instant she is transformed from graceful ballerina of the sea to clumsy, heavy drudge, plowing more than a thousand pounds of hard flesh forward with slow sweeps of her flippers, dragging herself face-first through the sand as she seeks the perfect spot to lay those precious eggs. Talk about a mother’s love demanding sacrifice. It may take two or three hours or more for her to drag herself ashore, find the right spot, dig a hole, lay the eggs, cover them over, and then drag herself, exhausted, back to the sea.

If we were to stumble across this phenomenon by chance, it would be our instinct to stay far back, to avoid disturbing this intimate ordeal of an endangered species. But Kim and I were lucky enough one night last week to be at Matura Beach, Trinidad, as insiders. We were in the company of local wardens who are almost as extraordinary, in their own way, as the turtles. Some of these men have been walking these beaches three or four nights a week during the nesting season for the last twenty years. Their devotion to the huge reptiles is obvious, but they also know exactly what visitors can and cannot do. So they told us when we had to stay back with lights off, when we could approach, when we could actually touch the mother leatherback as she was laying her eggs. Their guidance gave us the confidence to move in close without fear that we would seem disrespectful of the great beasts.
Here's a size comparison. Admittedly, Kim is quite petite, but our friend Pete Dunne (just behind Kim, with binoculars) is a normal-sized guy, so you can see that the female leatherback sea turtle is a huge animal.

The wardens had flashlight with red lenses (red light, they said, did not disturb the turtles), and in the glow of these we could watch the process. The huge female leatherback was digging with extraordinary delicacy, using her hind flippers to ladle out scoops of sand and toss them to the side, while her head and front flippers were merely spread-eagled on the sand. Periodically she would reach down with her hind flippers as if testing the depth of the hole she had created. Only after she had started laying eggs did the wardens tell us we could turn on lights and take flash photos.

Without the encouragement and guidance of the dedicated turtle wardens at Matura Beach, we never would have dreamed of getting this close to these colossal animals.
Here's a closeup of the head of one female leatherback while she was laying eggs: eyes closed, seemingly in a trance. Her head was larger than a bowling ball.
The wardens found a group of baby leatherbacks that had just hatched and were scrambling down the beach toward the water in the dark. To our amazement, the wardens picked them up and handed them to us for closer looks. Apparently this doesn't do the baby turtles any harm, and the wardens routinely handle the animals as part of their monitoring and research.

There were a number of people on the beach that night -- not only our little group of Leica-sponsored birders, but also the wardens on the beach, a number of EarthWatch volunteer helpers, and a couple of groups of students and tourists. And we were all reveling in the experience, but not in a partying sense of reveling, more like a spiritual rush, a deep sense of awe. It was extraordinary to watch these leviathans out of their element, vulnerable and slow as they finished the task of covering over their eggs with sand and went dragging back down the beach, looking slow and spent, soon to disappear again into the wilderness of the sea.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Eye-burners of Caroni

From the Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad, Kenn writes: Birding in Trinidad is turning out to be even more fun than I’d expected.

I started reading about Trinidad -- and about the Asa Wright Nature Centre -- when I was just a kid. The center was established in 1967, making it one of the first nature centers anywhere in the tropics, and I first heard about it as a place that people would go for their introduction to tropical birds. But I had my tropical-bird intro in Mexico, since (as a penniless teenager) I could hitch-hike to the border and then take the cheap buses south. Later, when I ventured deeper into the tropics, I went to Peru and Ecuador and Venezuela, not to Trinidad. Working as a professional leader of birding tours, it made more sense for me to take groups to Venezuela (with a total bird list of over 1400 species) than to the island of Trinidad, just off the Venezuelan coast (with a total bird list of fewer than 500 species). So even though I knew Trinidad was famous for birding, I had already seen virtually all the bird species possible on that island nation, and I just hadn’t gotten around to visiting.

Fast-forward to July 2009. Jeff Bouton was looking to promote ecotourism to Asa Wright Nature Centre, and looking for people to try out the new Leica digiscoping setup, so (as Kim has described in a separate post), here we are. And as I said, birding in Trinidad is turning out to be more fun, more interesting, more exciting than I’d expected.

Take our evening visit to Caroni Swamp. I had been hearing about Caroni for decades -- one of the most famous birding swamps on the planet -- and a couple of evenings ago, we were able to visit. Lester Nanan took us in on his boat, a wide-hulled, flat-bottomed boat, practically a barge, so stable that we were even able to set up scopes and tripods for viewing from the deck.

Kim on the watch from Lester Nanan's boat among the mangroves

We were out cruising channels through the mangroves for more than three hours, seeing all kinds of amazing birds -- the American Pygmy Kingfisher, a tiny kingfisher, like a green-and-orange sparrow with a huge honking bill; the Greater Ani, a big, black, long-tailed bird with staring yellow eyes, looking like a flying yardstick when it flopped into the air; the Bicolored Conebill, a little bird that refused to look as drab and colorless as its illustration in the book; and dozens more.

But the star of the show, the reason why thousands of people visit here, is the Scarlet Ibis. This brilliant red bird, this glowing, shockingly red bird, all red with tiny black tips on its outer wing feathers, comes in to Caroni Swamp to roost by the thousands at some seasons. In July they were only coming in by the hundreds. But even hundreds of Scarlet Ibises make for a jaw-dropping spectacle.

We anchored about a quarter mile from a mangrove island where many of them would come to roost, and watched in awe as these spectacular birds came swooping in out of the sunset. Lester Nanan told us that years ago, people used to poach the ibises. But when Trinidad gained its independence in 1962, the Scarlet Ibis was designated as the national bird, and with the growth of national pride, the poaching stopped.

A small part of the Scarlet Ibis concentration. The photo may not look great, but consider the fact that we were digiscoping it, with the tripod set up on a boat, from a quarter mile away --

In years past I had taken tour groups to places in Venezuela where seven species of ibises occurred, where Scarlet Ibis was just one of the local species. Even there, of course, you don’t overlook this brilliant red bird. But the species never had the impact on me there that it did in Caroni Swamp, where Scarlet Ibis was THE ibis, the emblem bird of this wonderful island. Kim was calling the birds "eye-burners," and the name certainly seemed appropriate. It helped that we were toasting the birds with rum punch that was about the same color as the ibises, but the sight alone would have been intoxicating.

Kim modeling the rum punch

Another digiscoped view of a small part of the ibis concentration

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HEY!!!! We're back!!

From the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad, Kim Writes:

Well, as indicated by our total lack of blog presence in recent weeks, Kenn and I were totally wiped out by the spring season this year. (and hey, to all those who sent loving, caring messages saying that they missed our posts...THANK YOU! --- and to all those who actually sent us hate mail...can I just say, "GEEZE, HATERS! GO OUTSIDE AND LOOK AT BIRDS, FOR GOODNESS SAKES!) There...I just had to get that off my chest.

So, anyway....

We were thrilled beyond belief by the record visitation to our magical area this spring! But, we were both beginning to wonder if we'd ever get out from under the avalanche of work that collapsed on us in mid-June. We held it off as long as we could, but it eventually came crashing down, and by the first of July, we were both ready for a little down time, and trying to decide where we could go for a little R.R&B. (rest, relaxation, and birds!) Enter our friend Jeff Bouton, and Leica Sport Optics.

Jeff sent us an invitation to come along on a special field trip to Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) in Trinidad. Leica is a sponsor of of the Centre, and doing a marvelous job of introducing birders to this far too well kept secret. When he first mentioned it, I must sheepishly admit that I had no idea where Trinidad even was. But, I do now! And I am totally smitten with AWNC too! I’m writing this post from the spectacular veranda at the back of the Centre, with the sweet calls of dozens of adorable Bananaquits bubbling up over the railing from the feeders below. Kenn and I just came back from swimming in a mountain stream with a gushing waterfall in the background, while Bay-headed Tanagers dangled above our heads like jewels. So, yeah, THIS PLACE ROCKS!!

We've been treated to the most delicious food, the best of company, and absolutely gorgeous views of birds like White-necked Jacobins, the bizarre, yet handsome White-bearded Manakins, and the totally far out and mystical Bearded Bellbird! The bird viewage was supremely enhanced by the use of the creme de la creme of Leica optics, and I’ve taken the digiscoping plunge BIG TIME! I wasn’t the only one on this trip who hadn’t gone down the digi-road, and I teased Jeff that we were all Leica-virgins. (Sorry Madonna!)

We’ll be posting lots more details about the birds and the centre in the days to come, but for now, check out just a few of the astounding things we’ve seen in this amazing place. And, I hope that you're all singing "Like A Virgin" right now, like I have been for four days! aghhhhhh......

Check out these birds:

White-necked Jacobin

White-bearded Manakin

Bearded Bellbird

Hey, it's good to be back. We'll be posting lots more from Trinidad, so stay tuned. We might even finish telling you about our trip to the Antarctic. But, only if you're good! : )