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This is my tribute to my grandmother (one of many) and is thanks to her. Join me in this video to see the birds I grew up seeing on my annual childhood visits to see my grandparents. I also lived in Sarasota for a time, visiting my grandmother when she lived in an apartment overlooking the lake and we’d watch some of these very same birds. We spent time together every day and while living there as an adult, I truly discovered the gem that this place is, something I had the fortune of experiencing from a child to well into adulthood. Sarasota, Florida is a beautiful place rich with birdlife. It’s thanks to Grandy that I got to learn these birds and their ecosystems, the very same ones I teach about in the tropics where I now live. They make me think of her.
It’s hard to deny the nostalgia sitting here on the lanai of my beloved grandmother’s home, going back through bird and nature videos I made while living here in Sarasota, Florida. I stayed in this house those years to be close with my grandmother, time that so quickly has turned into the past. The wind chimes murmur and a nearby northern mocking bird quietly practices his spring repertoire of the blossoming year while a tufted titmouse rings from the neighbor’s yard.
It’s the same but it’s different.
I’m working on a video, like I’ve done in this very spot a number of times during the periods I’ve spent living here. Normally, I’d be finishing up a morning of work studying Spanish or editing my next nature video or writing a new blog post before heading to the kitchen to prepare a picnic. I make sure the scrabble game is in the car before driving over to break Grandy out of assisted living so we can spend the afternoon in nature together.
It’s strange to think those days are over, but at the same time, they’re not. She’s everywhere now, with me always.
And I have this extrordinary, strong, independent woman to thank for who I’ve become and how close I am to these ecosystems and the biodiversity of species they support. And growing up learning about how she served in the Women’s Army Corps and travelled with McArthur’s party from Australia through Japan told me that it was in my ability to travel the world on my own.
Grandy helped instill in me the confidence to travel abroad solo, and she helped me carry this passion growing within me to other countries and biodiverse lands. She took me to Costa Rica in ‘99 for my high school graduation and, when we came back, I told my parents I was going to live down in those tropical lands one day. And I meant it. But Florida is where that trajectory started. It all started with Florida, where she and my grandfather moved for the golf and the sunshine, long before I was born.
Visiting Grandy and Gramps in the subtropic lands of the southeastern United States, the little bird-lover that was innately inside of me fluttered forth and I dove into this land that drips with life and biodiversity along with my outdoor-loving family and discovered the wonder and variety of the birdlife and the unique ecosystems of the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Hiking, canoeing, cycling, kayaking, our family would picnic under the live oaks hung with Spanish moss after tossing the frisbee in our bare feet and hopping over long leaf pine cones and fire ant mounds. Over a game of scrabble, we’d eat a picnic lunch perfectly prepared by a doting son, my father, and we’d tell Grandy what new wildlife discovery we’d made, provided she wasn’t right there on the hike or canoe-ride along with us. Above our heads out of the translucent drapes of Spanish moss emanated the songs and calls of the colorful northern parula warblers and wag-tailed blue-gray gnatcatchers, sounds that have inevitably been cemented for life into my memory. And now those very sounds evoke memories of a beloved grandmother.
To grow up familiarizing myself with the unique wilderness of this gem on Central Florida’s Gulf Coast I find myself treasuring more and more to the outdoor experiences I’d become accustomed to. And yet being witness to native, wild lands across the decades, you become unable to deny what’s changing. Forests once filled with red-shouldered hawks, red-bellied woodpeckers and armadillos are regularly ripped apart and chipped into piles and these newly vacant lots transformed into bustling shopping areas and seas of round tile roofs as far as the eye can see. And of course, the ever-present aura of the near by Gulf of Mexico paints so many aspects of southwestern Florida life, I’ve watched these ecosystems battling their own increasingly destructive war. I’ll let my video speak on that..
So I treasure even more the memories I’ve made with Grandy, I’ve had the chance to see the changes and I’ve gained so much perspective. And I dedicated my life to witnessing and sharing that perspective as a rule. It’s from an angle not many have had the chance to peer from.
Thanks to her and what I’ve learned from going up coming here, the gorgeous and mysterious Florida outdoors will always invoke in me a proprietary feeling. I want it to stay the same, I want to protect it, I want future generations to see the bounty of life this place evolved to support.
I’d say I’m gonna miss her but, truly, she’s everywhere now, with me always. The moments so quickly now in the past and what now remains as memory are what remind me that I’m indescribably fortunate to continue on and enjoy life and this extraordinary planet and its vast and varied wilds—while they still exist. Reliving memories shared in the natural landscapes of Florida with loved ones is what carries her on with me and keeps me company out there. Grandy, oh how I miss you and yet, we’re together..just like always.
Boquete. The land of rainbows, Resplendent Quetzals and moss-covered trees that drip with life, trailing vines and lianas and support an unimaginable quantity of bromeliads bedecking the branches like a row of pineapple tops in a shoulder to shoulder line of non-socially distant verdancy.
The thick, dripping forest echos with the haunting high whistles of the black-faced solitaire a sound that immediately brings to my mind the slow movement of a metal gate, singing in a smooth, wavering squeal as it slides along its hinges, back and forth with the wind. This is a mysterious bird that is commonly heard but rarely seen. Its secretive nature makes for an exciting sighting if one was to be so fortunate. Determination and a fair bit of luck is the answer. To put a face, sooty indeed, to a song so iconic of the cloud forest ecosystem is something that will bring you yet another step into this wonderland full of hidden treasures.
And one of the most magnificent treasures, found up in this cloud-enshrouded forest is a bird that you might never know is there, as it sits quietly, high on a horizontal branch thickly blanketed in moss. With a backwards flick, it drops off the far side of a branch and a long, flowing tail flutters like two streaming emerald ribbons.
The Resplendent Quetzal.
This is the bird that every birder wants to find and you can’t blame anyone for having this on their “must see” list. It is the treasure of the cloud forest and during the months of February and March, this otherwise quiet, reserved bird calls, chuckles and courts its mate making this time of year the best for finding these lovely creatures.
The male, sports those long streaming tail feathers aren’t in fact the true tail feathers but the feathers that, on other birds, are much smaller and cover the top of the tail. In the quetzal, these feathers are monumentally elongated and, as you might be able to see in the photo, the true tail is underneath, outshined by these resplendent tail coverts.
And, as I recently read, that quick turn and drop off the back of the branch common in this bird could very well be its means to keep that tail in top shape, rather than flying forward off the branch and scraping the length of those entire elongated feathers on the top of the branch which, after how many times, could leave those tassels in ratty shambles!
More on the treasures of the cloud forest coming up next..stay tuned!
There’s something wonderfully meditative, zooming along on my mountain bike, bumping and bouncing down a sand and gravel road that meanders through tropical forests and farmland. The Caribbean coastline, if not in full view, is always within earshot. This time of year the waves crash with abandon as the surfers make sense of the frothing turmoil, slicing and carving through the thick breakers with ease.
COVID has left us in our own frothing turmoil and, as we roil in the confusion and darkness of uncertainty, we can only wait for hope to buoy us back up to the surface.
Pure energy courses through my muscles as I fly along. As usual, my shorts are splattered with gritty mud that kicks up from my tires as I carelessly tear through puddles along the sandy road to Bluff beach. I note every tropical kingbird on the wires above me and challenge the pelicans that glide swiftly over the water on a tiny cushion of air to a race, their bellies and wingtips mere centimeters above the waves.
For a dollar, a local kid appearing out of the forest will open a young green coconut, or “pipa”, that replenishes the massive amount of sweat that the humid climate evokes in me. He’s been waiting a long time for a customer in the enduring doldrums of COVID.
Riding the rugged trails out toward a magical, remote section of Bocas del Toro’s Isla Colón, Mimitimbi makes you feel like the entire island is yours. Not another human in sight, even when there are tourists. If you keep your eyes up, you’re likely to distinguish a sloth amongst the thick foliage or surprise a quiet troop of howler monkeys feeding on the leaves of a low tree. Agoutis, locally known as nuquis, run across the trail like large hamsters on stilt legs. A black hawk remains stock still on a bromeliad-laden branch until the last minute before taking off from a low perch, the stark white band on its tail the last thing you see before it disappears down the lane.
During the heat of the day, you’ll find it’s the best time to pull over to find some shade beside a nice open sunny spot, even better if you see flowers nearby. The butterflies of Bocas are an abundant and colorful delight. Orange fritillaries, regal banded peacocks and an array of heliconia butterflies flutter about during midday when other wildlife is hunkered from the blazing sun. A giant swallowtail or a gleaming blue morpho might get chased right past your head by an uppity white peacock butterfly as gleaming neon yellow sulfur moths bounce on the warm air pockets along the dirt road.
While the human world has been a pretty interesting mess that still seems a long way away from getting itself together, it’s more important than ever to get back to the basics. Nature is still here and thank goodness we can continue to get out and enjoy it.
Guess who helped cleaned coral trees hung with fragments growing toward becoming vibrant, healthy, future reef with Caribbean Coral Restoration to finish off this doozie of a year?
I was invited to help for the second time to clean PVC “coral trees”, structures hung with coral fragments stationed at around 45ft of depth between the island archipelago where I live, in Caribbean Panama’s Bocas del Toro. This time we went to a site set between my “home” Bastimentos, and Isla Solarte. The underwater trees, adorned with staghorn coral fragments hung with zip ties from the pipes, have urgently had to be moved from their original, shallower location to 45 feet of depth after a 4-day bleaching event that occurred this winter. This event bleached out a great deal of reef ecosystems around the area, many might never recover. Along with these, a number of hard-won and exceedingly fragile staghorn fragments fell victim to soaring water temperatures before the trees were relocated to deeper waters by the CCR team.
To be a part, no matter how small, of Caribbean Coral Restoration’s ardent and grand-scale mission of restoring Bocas del Toros declining coral reef ecosystem is not just an honor, it’s how I feel better about being part of the problem.
Trying to neutralize the ecological sinkhole of a footprint I am responsible for as another US-born human is not a mere footprint anymore..our lives are just what I said years ago in a frustrated blogpost. I complained, back in two-thousand tickety eight, something along the lines of how each human added to our exploding population is a gash in the stomach of Mother Earth..every new one of us humans adds yet another. I continue to write things along those same lines on my blog site reserved for bitching about my exasperation at how we’re treating Mother Earth. If you can stomach it, check out earthwillprevail.wordpress.com.
It is devastating and beyond frustrating to witness the terrible bleaching that has occurred in recent months and years of late. The lack of rain we continue experienced in what is supposed to be the rainy parts of the year (not to mention this is a La Niña year which signifies an especially wet year, not to mention drought from prior years from which nature is still trying to recover) has resulted in extremely high water temps that directly causes coral bleaching. What is lost of this ecosystem cannot be replaced in time to outweigh the ever-increasing losses. And these losses can make null all the tireless efforts and investment for the future that Caribbean Coral Restoration has envisioned.
While cleaning the PVC pipe “branches” hung with staghorn coral fragments collected under permit by Caribbean Coral Restoration, I have them to thank for the new Best Friend Forever I made that day: a giant gray angelfish staring intently at me as it hung out within arm’s reach for the entire tank of air. Like many of the Bocas angelfish I’ve had the honor of getting to know in the past 2+ years, this one seemed quite curious about me, every now and then stopping from staring at me to grab a chunk of algae off a nearby coral. And along with the gray, I made friends with a big bright porkfish, an in-your-face yellow-tailed snapper, the ever present slippery dick and striped parrotfish and the occasional adult stoplight parrot fish chased off by the uppity three-spotted damselfish. So basically, I had my own personal peanut gallery giving advice on spots I missed as I scrubbed at PVC hung with thee remaining living fragments of precious staghorn coral.
The fish abundance and diversity where we cleaned today was refreshing to see but the habitat around Bocas as I’ve seen it and heard from other long term folks living and snorkeling or diving here across the years has has become ever more ravaged and depleted, which means we will see the echo response of fish and other marine life that exist because of the habitat that supplied. Large scale, devastating and ever-increasing coral losses are *permanently* changing the underwater world—not just in Bocas, but worldwide. We are all one. We suffer together from the consequences of the corners we’ve backed ourselves into.
“Guilt. Just by being born, just by living, I am adding to the destruction of the planet. We all are. We begin marching to our own death as we emit our first exhalation. It starts small but then we learn that we are a middle class, white, american, and we buy our laptops and our ipods and cars, live in our overly air conditioned and heated homes and throw away our masses and masses of package waste. What would it look like if it followed us, if we had to step through it, drag it, wear it? Would we try harder to make sure it never even began? Every girl and boy comes to a point in their live where they are capable of the realization of their detrimental contribution to the earth and they can either do something about it or ignore it. Either way, so much has already been done. Every day, think about how many children are being born. Think about how each and every one of us is another bullet through the earth’s heart.”
I’m going to start by sending out a huge sloth hug to you all. Love can travel through wifi waves and here it comes your way..
Feel free to send one back, because who knows what the future holds, we’re all on this wild roller coaster ride together and the news and acts happening around the world are particularly appalling as of late. From afar, I stand in solidarity, love, respect and hope for the Black Lives Matter movement. My heart breaks that there are human beings–if you have the stomach to even call them that–that think even for a second that these lives don’t matter. Eff that.
So while we stand in these ever-more uncertain times where reality is in shambles and seems to be ever further disintegrating before our eyes, I ask you to look to nature. It’s out there, unfettered life just continuing along without regard to the world we stare at in current horror. The flower has poked its head out and breathed in a bit of cleaner air than the flowers from seasons past. That’s something.
Let’s just stop and take a malachite moment..
My escape is nature. It’s everywhere, even in cities if one takes a second look! I remember walking to work along DC city streets and noticing the downy woodpeckers feeding on insects in the ornamental trees, a coopers hawk watching house sparrows feeding in the bushes below the rowhouses and the pair of kingbirds that nested in the shadow of the towering obelisk that is the National Monument.
I thank my lucky stars every single day that I’m where I am in these Corona Times. I have nature surrounding me and I promise I’m not trying to rub it in anyone’s face when I share the awesome encounters I’ve been so fortunate to come across. I just hope to give you an escape from the news, from the despair, from the uncertainty, because even in paradise, I feel it too.
Another escape I’ve recently started delving into is digital art. It’s really turned into another good way to escape our current unfortunate reality. I get lost the practice of drawing, I finally finished my tropicbird and I’ve got an Atlantic puffin, prothonotary warbler and a golden collared manakin in the works. It’s really been a way to turn off the brain from the constant barrage of thoughts that aren’t always pleasant.
And please, be sure to keep moving. Walk, run, swim if you can. Go hiking, don’t just take in the sights, open your senses to the sounds around you, pull them apart, see if you can call them by their name. Listen to nature’s music, follow the song of a bird or a frog and see if you can catch a glimpse, behold the susurration the wind makes as it passes through the leaves, take note of the rustles in the leaves and check for something furry or scaled. Inhale the essence of the earth or a fallen log that’s returning to it, broken down from something living back into nutrients, minerals and the basic elements we’re all made up of.
What do you do to escape the uncertainty? Feel free to share in the comments!
Just sent this to my grandmother, Dorothy Hollis, who is in lockdown in her 98th year of life.
As a member of the Women’s Army Corps, she travelled from Australia to Japan behind the McArthur party during WWII. At the age of 18, she saw and lived in devastated, bombed out areas ravaged by war. She doesn’t talk about it much and so I can only imagine what the experience must have been like at such a young age.
Grandy, who is mother to my beloved Daddio, was the one who introduced me to the wonders of traveling to other countries, taking me first to Africa when I was 15 after asking where in the world I wanted to go. I saw giraffe, elephants, rhinos, leopards, lions, ostridge, zebra..oh and the wildebeest migration, to name a few. That was in 1999..I’m not sure the experience would be the same in regard to species population and richness, now twenty years later.
But it opened my eyes to another world and I’ll never forget the momumentally humbling moment of stepping out into the streets of Nairobi as the only glaringly white person in sight. I got the tiniest glimpse of what life must be like for those who live that feeling on a regular basis as the “token black person”. Like I said, she opened my eyes.
For my high school graduation in 2002, she asked again and by then I knew I had to follow the biodiversity. We spent two weeks in Costa Rica and the image of my first toucan (chestnut-mandibled, as it will always be) is forever burned into my memory, I waited with breath bated seeing it only from behind on its perch across the river in Tortuguero National Park..when it turned its head and showed that marvelous beak I nearly dropped to the ground, my whole body was alight with exhileration. When we arrived back to the states and my parents greeted us at the airport I told them,
“I’m going to live down there one day.”
The tropics were calling me from the moment I arrived and I have all the love and gratitude for the incredible woman who opened me up to this magical world I now call home.
Been busy around Tranquilo Bay this winter and had a chance to get up to surprise Grandy for her 98th birthday! Not much time to post but here’s something of mine that we recently put up on Tranquilo Bay’s Instagram…enjoy!
So while we‘ve been getting busy here at Tranquilo Bay as we bound into the high season, I was pleased to have a chance before things got too involved to don a mask, snorkel, BCD and tank so that I might explore the depths of Bocas del Toro.
Since I spend a great deal of my time throughout the high season taking Tranquilo guests to explore and learn about our nearby coral reefs, teaching them about this beautiful water world that’s swimming with diversity, I figured I might as well dive into the depths of Bocas to better get to know this fantastically biodiverse ecosystem on a much deeper level.