Reviews of The Thing with Feathers

The Thing with Feathers is getting rave reviews! Some highlights:

The New York Times Book Review said:

“[Strycker] explains in wonderful stories that penguins are afraid of the dark (leopard seals wait in black waters to gobble them up) and that albatrosses truly love one another (mating for life and using each other’s breasts as pillows)….

“As Strycker writes, ‘By studying birds, we ultimately learn about ourselves.'”

The Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy piece, saying: “Mr. Strycker has the ability to write about the worlds of man and fowl without simplifying either. . . He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet. . . Although Mr. Strycker is only in his late 20s, he writes like a man who’s ripened into advanced eccentricity. Part the palm fronds between his sentences, and you can almost see the British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough standing there in a pith helmet, smiling with amused approval at Mr. Strycker’s off-center sensibility.” [full review]

Newsweek had a wonderful, full-page review: “[Strycker] is a rising superstar in the birding community. . . a fun and enlightening read. Strycker knows words as well as birds; he has the literary chops to make the results of very complex experiments accessible. . . Perhaps Strycker’s greatest accomplishment in The Thing with Feathers is forcing the reader to think of birds not as flying rats that poop on cars, but as animals with superpowers.” [full review]

The Washington Post said: “Strycker has a keen eye for what is most interesting about each species, and he presents each bird story with tight language, humor and even an occasional splash of self-consciousness. . . this is a lively and vibrant book. Bird journalism of the highest order. Bird journalism that crackles.” [full review]

The Economist said: “‘The Thing with Feathers’ turns a shrewd, comparative eye on a succession of bird families to explore what [Strycker] calls their ‘human’ characteristics. . . This is an engaging work which illuminates something profound about all life, including our own.” [full review]

Robert Krulwich, of National Public Radio, called TWF “lovely” and “provocative” and wrote several NPR blog posts inspired by four different chapters from the book, which generated hundreds of online comments. [read online]

The scientific journal Nature said: “Birds intrigue humanity, and in this research round-up Noah Strycker reveals why – in marvels such as the equal-radius paths of flocking starlings and the decontamination chamber that is a vulture’s stomach. As he notes, such findings can mirror human realities.” [not available online]

Science News said: “Noah Strycker all but lassos readers with his binocular strap to bring people nose to beak with the plumed creatures he knows so well. . . [an] edifying and entertaining book.” [full review]

The Boston Globe concluded: “Beautifully written, filled with strange and lovely details, ‘The Thing With Feathers’ is a delightful read from start to finish.” [full review]

BirdWatching magazine said: “One of the best bird books you’ll read this decade. Guaranteed. . . The bottom line: Birds are full of wonder. And we’re thankful to have Noah Strycker to tell us about them.” [full review]

The Seattle Times concluded: “’The Things with Feathers’ will encourage you to take a closer look at the natural world around you, and perhaps learn more not only about what you see but who you are.” [full review]

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune said: “fascinating, readable, and informative . . . At the end of the book, you might conclude, ‘We’re all just a bunch of birdbrains.’ And that would not be a bad thing.” [full review]

The Oregonian said: “It is Strycker’s ability to see and draw connections between bird behavior and humanity that make ‘The Thing with Feathers’ difficult to put down. . . ‘The Thing with Feathers’ encourages reflection on one’s own assumptions about the perceived limitations of the animal kingdom.” [full review]

Booklist gave TWF a starred review: “[Strycker] combines the latest in ornithological science with snippets of history and his own vast experience in the field to hatch a thoroughly entertaining examination of bird behavior. . . Birds are equally alien and familiar, and in Strycker’s absorbing survey, we find out how much fun it is simply to watch them.”

Publisher’s Weekly said: “[Strycker] gets in his element. . . His prose is difficult to stop reading.” [full review]

Kirkus Reviews concluded: “A delightful book with broad appeal.” [full review]

Library Journal said: “A dazzling variety of avian subjects, including connections between birds and humans.”

Flavorwire said: “The Thing with Feathers is a delightful addition to the genre of animal writing that tells us about animal habits and why they matter. Strycker . . . is a trusty guide through bird-world, spanning continents and countries in order to tell us what vultures, hummingbirds, and bowerbirds have to offer the world.” [full review]

Mental Floss magazine called TWF “an exciting new book” and included a fun graphic of bird facts from the book. [not available online]

Carl Safina (author of Eye of the Albatross and other books) said: “I can tell you that not only is this book full of solid information—I expected that—but as a writer I am astonished at how loose and easy Noah Strycker has made the reading for us. This is an insightful and wonderfully companionable book. I can’t wait to read more from Strycker; meanwhile we have this gem.”

Scott Weidensaul (author of Living on the Wind and other books) said: “Noah Strycker explores the increasing likelihood that birds enjoy a vastly richer intellectual, emotional and even artistic life than we smug humans have ever suspected. Read this book.”

Brian Kimberling (author of Snapper) said: “A thoughtful, engaging book, encompassing pigeon races, physics, vulture baiting, the Backstreet Boys, and a mathematical model applicable to both tennis rankings and chicken hierarchies—a work of dazzling range, nimbly written.”

Mary Pipher (author of The Green Boat and other books) said: “I’ve read books about birds all of my life and this is the one I’ve been waiting forBirds have a great deal to teach us. Strycker loves birds, understands their magic and mystery, and can extrapolate from their behavior wisdom for us all. At last we have a book worthy of this subject.”

I was interviewed on NPR’s The Dinner Party Download, a national US radio show aired on 130+ public radio stations, on March 8. [listen and read transcript online]

I was also interviewed on Late Night Live, a national radio show in Australia, on June 3. [listen online]

And The East Oregonian and The Register-Guard newspapers have run recent profiles.

“The Thing With Feathers” is finally out!


The Thing With Feathers

My new book “The Thing With Feathers” is out from Riverhead Books in New York. It’s a collection of essays looking at the many surprising ways that birds and people are similar to each other. And it’s already gotten a great review in the Wall Street Journal, which said:

He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet, and one of the small pleasures of “The Thing With Feathers” is watching him distill empirical research into lyrical imagery.

You can read the whole review here, though a sign-on may be required. And you can buy the book on Amazon here.

I’m spending this spring traveling around the country to promote my book. Then in July, I get back aboard the Akademik Ioffe for a series of polar cruises around the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. Polar bears!

 

Back to the Ice

Heading back to Antarctica tomorrow for a two-month season on the Adademik Ioffe, and stoked to spend more time with the penguins! Happy holidays to all!

Pictures from Svalbard

This summer I spent two months on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian-owned, Canadian-operated expedition cruise ship, as the on-board ornithologist for five back-to-back trips around Svalbard. The archipelago is about 1,000 miles north of Norway, at the edge of the Arctic pack ice, about 500 miles from the North Pole, and it’s a hotspot for polar bears, walrus, reindeer, beluga whales, and some amazing birdlife. It was an incredible season; rather than trying to describe such a place, I think I’ll say it in pictures…

A Bird Blitz Across Peru

Just back from deepest, darkest Peru, where I have spent the past week and a half attending the Birding Rally Challenge – a wild, invitation-only birdwatching competition sponsored by Peru’s tourism board.

Put simply, the Birding Rally Challenge is a contest between six teams of birders (from five countries) vying to see the most species of birds in one eight-day period, along a 1,500-kilometer route between the coast and the Amazon. But it’s much more than that: The rally is a chance to promote ecotourism in Peru; to raise awareness of birds within the country; to undertake a rapid-assessment scientific inventory of birds; and, of course, to have a crazy adventure along the way.

The whole thing is organized by the Peruvian government and Inkaterra, a hotel association. The six teams of birders, each armed with dedicated guides and drivers, follow the route in separate vans, stopping where they want along the way to pick up bird species, big-day style. Standard tours cover this route in sixteen days, and compressing it to half that time means getting up at 4:00 am every morning and gunning hard from one spot to the next.

I followed along somewhat more sedately in a “press bus,” which bumped along behind the teams of birders, visited many of the same locations on the route, and stayed in the same hotels each night. Altogether, including press, drivers, guides, organizers, politicians, a police escort, an ambulance (!), and the six teams of birders, the rally’s convoy included more than a dozen vehicles and more than 100 people. We stayed in top-tier hotels, ate delicious food, and soaked up birds, scenery, and a bit of culture along the way.

This being my first trip to Peru, I was able to see several dozen life birds – highlights including Marvelous Spatuletail, Gray-bellied Comet, and Plumbeous Euphonia, not to mention all the colorful toucans, trogons, and tanagers. But, since we blitzed across the country at full tilt, hardly stopping for even the most dramatic vistas, I had just a taste of what is really possible there. The winning team, from Louisiana State University in the U.S., recorded an impressive 636 species of birds in eight days, scoring an Ash-throated Antwren-shaped trophy from the Peruvian Minister of Tourism himself. The first Birding Rally Challenge took place last November, and its organizers plan to continue it twice each year, though the event is devilishly expensive (by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, somewhere around a half million dollars). In the long run, everyone hopes, the rally will pay off by attracting more birders to visit Peru.

I certainly want to go back. For a bird nerd like me, Peru has it all: incredible birds, fantastic environments, friendly people, rich culture. What’s not to love?

But now, an entirely different adventure. Just one day after returning home to Oregon, I am off again, sitting here in the Seattle airport, on my way to Norway. I’ll be spending the next two months on an expedition cruise ship in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, working as an on-board ornithologist. Onward!

 

 

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?

I hear this question every now and then, often with a wink and a smile. The usual answer says that woodpeckers have spongy bones and thick muscles. They have a long tongue that wraps around inside their skull, a special adaptation to muffle their brain against all that pecking. One researcher even won a so-called Ig Noble prize for discovering that woodpeckers have a third eyelid, which apparently acts like a seat belt in a car crash.

Nobody really knows if the birds get headaches or not, but if they did, you’d expect woodpeckers to stop banging on trees, which clearly isn’t happening.

On Sunday, I discovered this White-headed Woodpecker excavating a nest cavity in a three-foot-high stump north of Burns, Oregon, and had a bit of a revelation as I watched it work. Maybe woodpeckers are more delicate than we think. Instead of scything through the wood, as one might expect, this bird was tapping daintily at the stump, often chipping away chunks no larger than a grain of sand. Instead of using brute force, it was gently prying its way into the wood.

It must be a lot of work to dig a hole without any sharp teeth. Maybe these birds should hire a beaver to do the heavy excavation.

Otherwise, I had a great trip to eastern Oregon this weekend. Sunshine and 80 degrees, felt like summer!

Bird World … Coming in 2014

 

The manuscript is done! After spending more than a year working full time, I have written an entire book about bird behavior. Yes! I’m very excited about it: The book is wide-ranging, but focuses on ways that birds behave in parallel to humans. We can relate to a lot of the amazing, strange, and crazy things that birds do.

For instance, the fact that parrots can dance to a beat (but other animals, like dogs and cats, can’t) has implications for the evolution of music in people. Hummingbirds give us a warning about our ever-quickening pace of life. Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, but does that mean they have self-awareness, like us – and could holding funerals have anything to do with it? Starling flocks can be better described with quantum physics than biology, and good deeds of fairy-wrens might be explained by strategic military theories. And on and on… the ways birds reflect our own lives are endlessly fascinating.

So now I can sit back as the publisher (Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin in New York) works through various rounds of edits, proofs, and designs. I guess I’ll be assigned a publicist sometime soon. This process is sort of mystifying to me, as this is my first book with a major publisher.

The book, called “Bird World,” will likely be released (in hardcover and e-book first) sometime in early 2014.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pretty quiet around here lately. But you can check out a couple of my recent posts over on the American Birding Association’s blog:

Loneliness of the Antarctic Birder, about the people I met in Antarctica this year.

A Different Kind of Wildlife Photography, with some amazing recent photos from my trail cameras.

 

Three Expeditions to Antarctica

Just got back from a month and a half in Antarctica, and life is good! I traveled with One Ocean Expeditions as an on-board ornithologist for three cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula (from South America), and what an amazing season – it was good to see my penguin friends again. The first trip also visited the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, with their awe-inspiring albatross and penguin colonies. And I spent Christmas in the realm of Emperor Penguins (saw several on ice floes), with excellent company aboard and incredible scenes all around the ship. It’s a much different experience working on a cruise ship than sleeping in an unheated tent on the ice… Imagine, a shower and fresh food every day!

And now I am back to work on my latest book. If I’ve been quiet lately, it’s because I’ve either (1) been in Antarctica, or (2) been working on my book, neither of which leaves much time for anything else. My manuscript deadline is April 1st (really), after which I’ll have more news about the project. Meanwhile, I’m learning fascinating things about bird behavior. Did you know that magpies can recognize their own reflection in a mirror, but dogs and cats apparently can’t? Birds have more in common with us than we often realize.

Here’s a few snaps from Antarctica:

Backyard Cougar on Camera

About a month ago, on a whim, I bought two remote cameras and put them up in my backyard.

I had been inspired by the Jaguar camera trap project at Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. Jaguars are tough to study, so researchers at Tiputini have set out motion-sensing cameras in the jungle for the past few years. They’ve accumulated some incredible pictures of cats and other rare Amazonian wildlife.

It got me wondering what might be lurking in the forest next to my house here in Oregon. I live about five miles east of Creswell (south of Eugene), bordering Weyerhauser and BLM timber properties; bears occasionally wander through the yard, and who knows what else? I’ve seen coyote, elk, and bobcat near my house, any of which would theoretically be possible in the backyard.

The cameras are marketed toward trophy deer hunters. They use motion sensors to take a picture whenever something walks in front of the lens. These days, the technology is pretty advanced: a good-quality game camera will withstand cold and moisture, snap a photo within a second of detecting motion, record color pictures with a flash after dark, and take up to 50,000 images on one set of batteries. Mine arrived packaged in camouflaged plastic with testimonials from celebrity hunters splashed across the front. Strap one to a tree, leave it for a while, then download the resulting images; you’ll know if there’s a big-antlered buck out there, or anything else large enough to trip the shutter.

Easy enough. I loaded my two cameras with batteries, posted them in likely-looking spots near the edge of my backyard, and went off to southern California to vacation in the desert for a couple of weeks.

The cameras clicked away in my absence, taking several dozen photos over the two-week period. There were lots of deer, as expected. I also got a photo of a feral cat, several squirrels, and an opossum that appeared at 10:41 pm on May 6, 10:32 pm on May 14, and 10:28 pm on May 17 – a true creature of habit.

When I clicked through to the last couple of frames, though, I gasped. There, undeniably recorded by one of my new cameras, stood a cougar (mountain lion) – a mere hundred yards from my back door, just after noon on a Tuesday! In the picture, it is staring straight toward my house (invisible behind a fence and some trees). After I got over the shock, I showed the photo to a contractor who was at the house working on a remodeling project on that particular day, probably eating lunch on the back porch at the instant the photo was taken. It’s likely that the cougar was listening to his conversation.

In 26 years – my entire life – of living here, I’ve never seen, heard, or found signs of cougars in the woods, though I’ve suspected that they’re around.

This just continues my streak of good luck with big cats. In the past 12 months I’ve run into two different mountain lions while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had close visits with a Margay and a Jaguar in the jungles of Ecuador, all one-on-one encounters in the forest. Now, it seems, the cats are coming to me. Makes you wonder what else is lurking out there…

 

Announcing… My Next Book!

Back in September, I got an email out of the blue from an editor at Riverhead Press, an imprint of Penguin Books in New York (the largest publisher in the world). “I’m looking for a writer for a book on birds,” she wrote, and “I think you’d be great for it.”

She had been directed to my website after reading several posts I’d written for the American Birding Association’s blog, and was apparently impressed enough with my writing to ask for a book proposal in a brief phone conversation. I wrote an introduction, a couple of sample chapters, and an outline; Riverhead’s editors accepted it, and they offered a generous contract. Just like that!

To negotiate the details, I was advised to enlist the help of a literary agent. My first book, “Among Penguins,” was published by a much smaller university press which didn’t require negotiation, so this was a new step. Happily, I connected with the same agent who represents David Sibley, Pete Dunne, and other well-known bird authors, and, over the last couple of months, he has helped streamline the process so that today I sat down, pen in hand, and signed four copies of the 11-page contract.

It’s so exciting to have my first major book deal!

Riverhead is a well-known press and has published several bestsellers including “The Kite Runner,” which augurs well for the success of this project.

The book, tentatively titled “Bird World,” will be an accessible and fun investigation of bird behavior, from homing instinct and pecking order to unexpected stories of bird intelligence. Basically: Birds are cool and fascinating. Get ready to sit back and be entertained…

The book will probably be released about two years from now (since I still have to write most of it…), first in hardcover, then in paperback. Stay tuned.

I had a great winter in Ecuador, ended up seeing almost 500 species of birds in three months in the jungle. Now I am home in Oregon and looking forward to spending most of 2012 on this project – a whole new adventure. I do have more exotic trips planned, but, for now, am totally jazzed about this book. Onward!

 

Tiputini Megafauna

It’s easy to get preoccupied with birds and big cats, but Tiputini is full of other interesting wildlife. In the past two months I’ve seen some cool stuff here.

For starters, monkeys are abundant. Tiputini is remarkable in hosting ten different species of primates, of which I’ve encountered eight: howler, wooly, spider, squirrel, tidi, and saki monkeys; golden-mantled tamarins, and brown capuchins (I haven’t seen the owl monkey, which is nocturnal, or pygmy marmoset, which is rare).

Collared peccaries (wild pigs) are also quite common, and sometimes give you a rev-up when they suddenly crash away through the undergrowth. Less conspicuous are the red brocket deer, a smallish, shy species of deer which hides remarkably well in the jungle—I’ve only managed to see a couple of them.

There are a couple of squirrels here, including the red jungle squirrel, which is impressively large and bright. You might find an agouti (a type of rodent about the size of a squirrel) lurking around the station, or, if you go to the bathroom at night, a small possum in the ceiling.

One of the best ways to see mammals is by boat. I was lucky to watch a tapir swim across the river on my way in to Tiputini and snapped a really bad photo of it as it hauled out on the muddy bank. A little farther upstream we found a peccary crossing the river; I didn’t know pigs could swim! I’ve also seen pink river dolphins a couple times in the last two months—a very strange animal indeed—and, once, a large ray.

Visiting groups often go on boat trips after dark to spotlight wildlife, and, as a researcher, I like to jump aboard. I’ve accompanied five such trips so far and seen crab-eating raccoon, paca, emerald tree boa, lots of caiman, and several potoos. Last week we found dolphins at night, which was a cool experience.

Snakes are generally rare. Tiputini has two particularly venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance and bushmaster, neither of which you want to tangle with, but I have yet to encounter a single one, though some students found a bushmaster on a night hike last month.

Several weeks ago a young tamandua (a type of anteater) was brought to the station; apparently it had been found or confiscated in one of the settlements in the region and found its way to Tiputini to be released to the wild. It had partially imprinted on humans and was one of the cutest creatures I’ve ever seen or cuddled with! We named it Tammy. It seemed to do OK finding food on its own, so we let it free in the forest—hope it’s enjoying its new home.

There are plenty of large animals I haven’t spotted yet. At the top of the list is the giant anteater, which a couple other researchers have seen since I’ve been here. Tiputini also has giant armadillos, giant otters, wild dogs, porcupines, rabbits, anacondas, tayras, and, of course, the big cats: though I’ve been extremely lucky to encounter a jaguar and a margay, there’s still three more species of cats out there—puma, ocelot, and jaguarondi.

A couple of days ago, a group of visitors photographed a Harpy Eagle perched next to the river on their way in to Tiputini (jealous…). Maybe it’ll eat the sloth I spotted earlier. Every day brings something new!

 

JAGUAR

At 9:10 this morning, I was working alone in a remote research plot about two miles from Tiputini. I’d just finished a transect of mixed-flock surveys and was standing quietly in a small clearing, writing in my field notebook, when something rustled a leaf at the edge of the open area. Thinking it was one of the peccaries I’d flushed a few minutes earlier, I glanced up just in time to watch a full-size Jaguar emerge from the undergrowth in front of me. I thought: Holy $%&*!

It was close, really close, and angled toward me, apparently not noticing my presence as it approached slowly across the clearing. I stood absolutely still and had time to admire the intricately spotted fur, long tail, rippling body, and even the sharp feline teeth exposed in a slight grin across the blocky head. The animal was the size of a very large dog but much stockier, and had a relaxed, muscular gait. When it was within 25 feet, just a few steps away, I began to inch my hand inside my pocket to retrieve my camera. The slight movement finally caught the Jaguar’s attention and it looked up, locked eyes on mine, and froze.

There followed a few slow beats of absolute silence as we both began to comprehend the encounter. I realized how utterly alone I was, more than an hour’s hike from the station, off-trail in the rainforest without any means of communication, face to face with the king of the jungle. My adrenaline finally kicked into gear. I wondered what the cat was thinking.

Evidently it didn’t like me very much, since, after a few moments, it turned its head and, with a few unhurried paces, merged into the surrounding greenery as silently as a ghost. It had been in view less than a minute.

According to camera trap data, Tiputini has one of the highest densities of Jaguars in the world (estimated at 22 per 100 square kilometers). Hardly a day goes by when we don’t talk about them. They’re usually the most-wanted animal for visitors to Tiputini but are very rarely seen; in the last two months since I arrived, only one other person has encountered one. I’m extremely lucky to have seen one so well, and on such intimate terms – many sightings are fleeting glimpses or from boats on the river.

Guess it’s been a good year for cats. I ran into two different Mountain Lions while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last summer, and found a Margay here at Tiputini last month. What could be next?

Biggest Big Day

The game: To find as many species of birds as possible in one day at Tiputini.

The rules: Each bird must be positively identified by sight or sound.

The players: Abby and me.

Pretty simple, really.

Abby and I got up at 3 am on Friday to do an all-out “Big Day” around the Tiputini trail system with the goal of finding at least 200 species of birds before dinner. A worthy challenge, but was it even possible?

I’m no stranger to Big Days, having done more than a dozen of them in my home state of Oregon. Several years ago, my team set the all-time Oregon Big Day record at 219 species by driving a well-scouted 750 miles across the state between 12:01 am and 11:47 pm. But I’ve never tried one in the tropics before, and things are a bit different down here.

Most important, Abby and I wouldn’t use any transportation besides our own feet. No cars, no bikes, no boats. Instead of driving 750 miles, we’d walk a 10-mile loop. That’s it.

Also, the strategy is a bit different in the tropics. Birds here are generally rarer and more difficult to observe. That means you’ve really got to know your bird songs for any chance at a high tally, since “heard-only” sightings are within the rules. At the end of the day, about two-thirds of our list would be by ear alone.

We hiked into the forest by headlamp, three hours before dawn, and kicked things off with some good nocturnal birds: Spectacled, Crested, Mottled, Black-banded, and Tawny-bellied Screech-Owls; Nocturnal and Salvin’s Curassows; Ocellated Poorwill; and Common and Great Potoos. By six a.m. we were up to a respectable 15 species.

Then the sun came up, a Laughing Falcon and Lined Forest-Falcon began calling, and, suddenly, we were recording new ticks faster than we could write them down. Abby and I could barely keep up with the overwhelming tropical dawn chorus. We hit 100 species at 7:20, highlighted by a tiny Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant.

At 11:30, we hit 150.

Then the daytime doldrums set in. On a sunny day in the Amazon rainforest, bird activity shuts down by mid-morning, and we had to scrape for new sightings. Abby and I trekked the most remote trail at Tiputini, called Maquisapa, sweating hard in the heat and humidity, eating one foil-wrapped cheese sandwich after another. At one point we both tried to cross a log bridge at the same time and, when it suddenly collapsed, both ended up in the creek below along with a surprised bat that had been roosting on the underside of the bridge. A Great Jacamar was a bonus, but where were the Variegated Tinamous? Could we make it to dinner without dropping from exhaustion?

Luckily, we had a big card left to play—130 feet tall, to be exact. Tiputini’s canopy tower, built around a giant Ceiba tree, promised a whole bunch of hard-to-get birds in late afternoon. Abby and I climbed into a tropical paradise full of birds, including in-your-face Paradise Tanagers and, at 3:30 pm, our 200th species of the day: a Black-bellied Thorntail.

High fives all around and we kept racking up new species, including a rare Fiery Topaz—perhaps the most spectacular hummingbird I have ever seen. As dusk fell, Abby and I sat along the Tiputini River and watched Short-tailed Nighthawks chase each other against the sunset. We’d been birding for 15 hours straight and looked back on an incredible streak. When a Ringed Kingfisher swooped past just before dark, Abby tallied our list: the kingfisher was #233.

I had never seen that many species of birds in one day before, and neither had Abby. Very few people in the world have ever exceeded that total, much less entirely on foot. We called it good, sat down to a satisfying dinner at 7 pm, and were asleep by 8:30. I dreamed all night of tinamous and kingfishers.

Double Celebrity Birthday

Birthdays are obviously healthy, since the people who have the most live the longest. I had a memorable one today.

It’s pretty cool to turn 26 in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest. Last year I was banding birds in the highlands of Costa Rica for my 25th. Next year… who knows?

Incredibly, out of the dozen researchers currently residing at Tiputini, one of them (Brandt, a Smithsonian scientist studying Wire-tailed Manakins) shares my exact same birthday: Feb 9th.

So, we had a double celebration this evening after dinner. The two of us teamed up to blow out the candles on an enormous apple crumble cake baked specially by Tiputini’s staff – can’t say I’ve ever shared a birthday cake before…

And we were lucky enough to celebrate with some distinguished guests. Peter and Rosemary Grant, two of the best-known scientists in the world, dropped in to Tiputini this week on vacation after their latest field season in the Galapagos, where they have been studying evolution in Darwin’s finches for the past 40 years (if you’ve taken a general science class in high school or college, you’ve probably learned about their research). They were nice enough to sing us a happy birthday along with the rest of the Tiputini crew.

I spent most of the day in the jungle, tracking Wedge-billed Woodcreepers and hoping, as always, for a cool wildlife sighting. Something amazing did happen today, as it turned out, just not to me; Amy, tracking monkeys a couple kilometers away, ran into a jaguar early this afternoon and had a long and close encounter with it, alone and deep in the forest. Definitely jealous – it made my Spangled Cotinga seem pretty ho-hum.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes!

The Tale of Tiny Tim

Fifteen days after arriving at Tiputini, I noticed a mosquito bite on my back that hadn’t seemed to heal right. Instead of disappearing, the lump was getting bigger, and, well, something inside it seemed alive.

“Guys,” I said that evening at the dinner table, “I think I have a bot fly.”

I knew by heart the grisly details. The bot fly is among nature’s more grossly fascinating creatures, and I’d sort of hoped to get one here. An adult fly captures a mosquito in midair, lays its egg on the mosquito’s body, and lets it go. When the mosquito then bites you, the fly’s egg drops on to your warm skin and quickly hatches. The tiny fly larva then burrows into your flesh where, if left unmolested, it will grow into a fearsomely spiny, inch-long grub in eight weeks. The maggot then wriggles out of your skin, pupates in the soil for a while, and eventually develops into an adult fly.

Everyone at the dinner table who had spent a significant amount of time at Tiputini had had one at some point. Brandt once tried to squeeze a bot fly larva out of his forearm, accidentally broke the grub in half, and fought the subsequent infection for a full year. John had once hosted thirteen of them on his back simultaneously. Amy had killed three bot flies on her scalp with superglue after carefully shaving away a patch of her hair; her ex-boyfriend had actually hatched one out of his hip a few years back. But nobody had hosted one recently.

Given that the larva takes a while to grow big enough to notice, I’d likely contracted it within a day or two of arriving in Ecuador. Lucky, I guess!

Several people volunteered to inspect me after dinner, so after dessert we retired to Tiputini’s laboratory. A bot fly larva should be visible once every minute or two as it extends a breathing tube for air. Amy grabbed a hand lens and a head lamp, and trained both of them on the red lump on my back.

“Oh! I can see it moving, even without the magnifying glass!” she quickly exclaimed.

“My. God. That is soooo gross!” squeaked Rebekah, who, like me, had never seen a bot fly before.

Abby, who had spent three field seasons working at Tiputini without ever hosting one, merely stared in fascinated silence.

“How’s it feel to be a father?” asked Brant.

They all agreed that I should let my parasite grow for a while before extracting it; that way, it might be easier to remove in one piece.

Bot fly extraction can be a delicate process. Methods generally rely on suffocation; cut off the larva’s air supply and it will either die or wriggle to the surface. You can strap a piece of raw meat over the hole, cover it with Vaseline, smear it with superglue, or soak in a hot bath for several hours. You can use a snake venom extractor to pull it out. You can even, apparently, heat up a glass Coke bottle, position its neck over your bot fly, and throw ice water on the bottle – the difference in temperature will create an instant vacuum which sucks the maggot into the bottle. Or you can just wait eight weeks for it to crawl out on its own, though everyone advised against this idea since, in the end, it becomes a painful and bloody experience.

As I mulled these options over the following days, I began to grow fond of my new friend and named him Tiny Tim.

I felt a certain attachment to him. Tiny Tim accompanied me wherever I went at Tiputini. He never complained much except during my daily shower (understandable, since it cut off his air supply), and I introduced him in turn to everyone at the station, including some appalled study abroad students. Usually, when I pulled up my shirt, Tiny Tim would pop out his breathing tube to say hello within a few seconds. It was kind of fun.

But yesterday my perspective abruptly changed. While watching a group of howler monkeys in the jungle canopy, I noticed one with something strange on its neck. Closer inspection revealed about thirty goose-egg-sized lumps swollen into one disgusting mass around the poor animal’s throat: massive, pus-filled, tormenting, bot flies. It looked awful. Staring back at me, from the throat of a howler monkey, was the dark future of Tiny Tim.

I’d decided on superglue, so, yesterday evening, Abby carefully covered him with a layer of glue while Rebekah (who had been having nightmares in which Tiny Tim grew to more than a foot long) monitored the action in our air-conditioned office. Tiny Tim, for his part, didn’t like this very much and visibly tried to wriggle to the surface while Abby and Rebekah ran play-by-play commentary, but the glue formed an impenetrable, sticky barrier, so he eventually retreated back into his hole to die. I could feel sharp pricks as he writhed in panic, but it was a satisfying feeling. We let the glue set under some athletic tape overnight.

Today, before dinner, half a dozen researchers gathered in anticipation of Tiny Tim’s exhumation. Since he was on my back, Amy volunteered to squeeze him out. As I sprawled facedown on a table in the lab, she peeled off the layer of dried superglue then put a firm finger on each side of the lump and pushed, hard.

Millimeter by millimeter, Tiny Tim’s suffocated body emerged to a chorus of oohs and aahs. He was still tiny by bot fly standards, and, when I finally got a glimpse of his whole body, I was a bit disappointed. Grasped by a pair of tweezers in the lab’s sterile illumination, he looked frankly pathetic. But under a magnifying glass, I could see rows and rows of sharp spines and an undeniably maggot-like body, all created by a transformation of my own flesh.

Since bot flies don’t want their hosts to die, they produce chemicals to ward off infections and a bot fly complication is rare. Once Tiny Tim was out, my body would heal itself just fine. Rebekah presented me with a purple Hello Kitty band aid and I was good to go. Tiny Tim now resides in a souvenir vial of preservative alcohol on my bedside table.

So, what should I name the next one? Femme Bot?

Margay

At 1:30 this afternoon, near the end of an eight-hour block of tracking Wedge-billed Woodcreepers through the jungle, I noticed a flock of agitated antshrikes mobbing something in a tree just off the transect I was working on. Thinking that they might have found a roosting raptor, I plunged into the undergrowth to see what the fuss was about.

It took a minute to spot: a dense clump of fur about 20 feet off the ground, tucked above a couple of horizontal branches. Upon closer inspection, the fur had spots. Some kind of cat!

Tiputini has one of the highest densities of jaguars in the world (about 22 per 100 square kilometers, according to camera trap data) and is also home to jaguarundis, ocelots, and margays, but all those tropical cats are rarely seen. Some researchers have worked at Tiputini for years without encountering a single feline. So I was extremely lucky to discover one within three weeks of arriving here!

The cat was small, so obviously not a jaguar. I couldn’t decide if it was an ocelot or margay (both of which are about the size of a bobcat), but it was very cooperative, probably because it had spent the entire day asleep. It barely flicked an eyelid as I jockeyed for the best photo angle.

After a few minutes, I realized it would probably stay there until dusk. A moment of indecision: should I tell anyone? I was working alone with no radio, and the station was about a mile and a half away by muddy trails. Ah, what the heck; I tore off in search of Rebekah, tracking woodcreepers about a half kilometer away. When we returned, the cat hadn’t moved a muscle, so I left her there and ran all the way back to Tiputini to spread the news. An hour later I was back at the site with Abby and Sara; the cat still hadn’t budged, and I had run more than three miles in rubber boots.

The photos seem to show a margay, which has a slightly longer tail, flatter head, and bigger eyes than an ocelot (otherwise they’re nearly identical). Sweet – now, to find a jaguar …

Dropped From 130 Feet

On my first full day off at Tiputini, I decided to climb the canopy tower at sunrise. A set of rickety metal scaffolding ascends to a platform in the fork of a huge ceiba tree which towers over the surrounding jungle, 130 feet above the ground – it’s a great spot for canopy birds and monkeys.

And rain, as it turned out. No sooner had I switched off my headlamp then a downpour ripped out of nowhere. I huddled on my high perch under an umbrella and watched the sodden sunrise (and a Paradise Tanager) for half an hour before giving up. Umbrella in one hand, I grabbed my pack to climb down.

But one zipper wasn’t quite zipped and, as I lifted the backpack to my shoulder, my 100mm image-stabilized lens slipped out at just the wrong moment. I watched in horror as my prized macro lens arced gracefully over the handrail and flipped slowly through space before gravity kicked in. Several heavy heartbeats later, a wet thud echoed up from the forest floor, 130 feet below.

I raced down 118 steps of scaffolding and searched the ground for a few minutes before discovering my camera lens a few inches from one of the tower’s concrete support pads, lens cap about 10 feet away. I expected it to be smashed to smithereens but the lens was incredibly intact for a high-tech meteorite. The glass wasn’t even scratched; it must have landed in a patch of mud or bounced through some leaves on the way down. Amazingly, it survived a fall that probably would have killed me.

The focus and image stabilizer, though, were knocked loose, so, for now, I’ll have to hope it can be fixed when I get home. Oh well. After dropping two different camera bodies in Australian rivers last year, drowning another one in a Costa Rican thunderstorm last winter, and losing my binoculars on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, a lens isn’t such a big deal. But it is expensive…

I spent the rest of the day birding and found some goodies: Blue-and-yellow, Scarlet, and Red-and-green Macaws; a Long-billed Woodcreeper; and a pair of Slender-footed Tyrannulets building a nest. Oh, and I saw my 2,000th life bird this week – a Yellow-billed Nunbird. Makes it all worth it!

1,999

As I write this, my life list stands at 1,999 species. It’s likely that I’ll hit 2,000 this very afternoon, since, at Tiputini, practically anything is possible. What bird will it be?

I arrived on Friday after spending 24 hours in international airports and eight hours on a small plane, a bus, a boat, another bus, and another boat, working steadily deeper into the remote Amazonian lowlands of eastern Ecuador. I will be studying Wedge-billed Woodcreepers at Tiputini Biodiversity Station for the next three months.

The station is located on the bank of the Tiputini River alongside Yasuni National Park and run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. It’s a popular stop for study abroad groups from the United States, so the facilities are pretty good. We get electricity for six hours a day, cooked meals, and maid service.

This is the “drier” season at Tiputini. By way of introduction, I got soaked in an intense thunderstorm during my first morning in the humid rainforest, slipped on a muddy slope, landed on a sharp stump, and ripped a 2-inch hole through the seat of my field pants before pouring several inches of water out of my rubber boots. Lesson learned: always bring your umbrella…

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the process of getting settled in to jungle life. This place is full of canopy walkways, boardwalks, towers, muddy trails, and canoes – and 500+ species of birds!

Ecuador Bound

The holidays are over and it’s time to head to the tropics!

Tomorrow I catch a flight to Quito, Ecuador, then I’ll travel onward via small plane and boat to Tiputini Biodiversity Station, one of the most remote research stations in the world. I’ll be studying Wedge-billed Woodcreepers there for the next three months, spending most of my time wandering around in pristine Amazon rainforest. And, of course, seeing a lot of birds, and taking lots of photos ;)

So it’s time to kick this blog into gear. I’ve been home for the last two months, working on a few writing projects (two books and a new magazine column – more to come over the next few months), enjoying some local birding and a bit of regular life, and planning ahead. 2011 was awesome – Costa Rica, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Maine – and 2012 is looking just as great…

Stay tuned. As I get settled in Ecuador this week, I’ll be posting updates here. Who knows what adventures await?

 

Wild Book Signing

At Portland’s Wild Arts festival yesterday, I shared a small table with Robert Pyle, that internationally known butterfly expert, conservationist, and author. We spent almost five hours signing books; I sat behind a glossy stack of Among Penguins, while Bob’s 15 or 20 titles formed an impressive mountain covering his side of the desk. Along with a dozen or two other authors in the room, we were busy. The place was packed with hundreds of people.

A woman with her small child approached my side of the table, looking worried. “I told my kid that s-a-n-t-a would be here, but I guess it’s too early in the season for someone to be dressed up,” she explained. “Do you think Bob would mind playing along a bit? He’s the closest lookalike I can find.” I glanced over at the butterfly expert, who bore a striking resemblance to Kenny Rogers with a big, fluffy white beard, as he signed a book for someone else. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

Another lady approached and grabbed a copy of Among Penguins. “Would this be suitable for an 11-year-old?” she asked, flipping through the photo section in the middle. I answered, honestly, that I didn’t know; maybe she could read the first chapter to get a feel for the writing. After a while, she looked up. “Is there any sex in this book?” No, I said, nothing like that. She bought a copy and went away smiling.

Half an hour later, a different woman stopped to ask, “Would this book be suitable for a 12-year-old in the seventh grade?” I grinned. “Well, someone else just bought a copy for their 11-year-old…” I explained.

Jay and Susan, birder friends of mine from Portland, stopped by to say hi and gave me an early Christmas present: a foot-long, shimmery holographic ruler of penguins which seemed to walk and flap their wings as you twisted the ruler. I stuck it in front of my name plate propped on the table, and, for the rest of the day, random people kept stopping to admire it. “Look at that, honey! Penguins!”

Bob, the butterfly guy, leaned over after we’d been signing books for about two hours. “Would you inscribe one to Bob and Thea?” he asked. It was nice gesture, and I passed him a signed copy of Among Penguins. About an hour later, he leaned over again. “I can tell that I’m going to enjoy this, after listening to you talk about it for the last three hours!”

It was fun to chat with people about penguins all day. The Wild Arts festival was even bigger than I’d imagined, and well-organized. Volunteers constantly circulated among the author tables offering water, coffee, or to swap in if we needed a break. The artists and authors were an awesome group of people. I ended up selling 25 or 30 copies of my book. Great success!

 

Penguins at the Rotary

“See that table, in the corner?” asked Pat, President of the Grants Pass Rotary club in southern Oregon, just after lunch today. “They’re a little hard of hearing back there. If they hold up a giant sign that says LOUDER, lean in to the microphone. They’re brutal.”

I was about to give my penguin slideshow for the 20th time this year. I’ve talked at retirement homes, Audubon and Natural History societies, bookstores, and college classes, but this was my first service club. They run things a bit different, as it turns out.

“We have some business to discuss before your show,” said Pat, “so grab a plate of food, sit down, and enjoy the meeting.”

The room, adjoining a pub in Grants Pass, was packed – 140 people. My grandparents, who live nearby, sat at reserved places near the front of the room. When Pat gave me the signal, I took a hammer and hit a large bell to begin proceedings.

I’d been asked to sign a pack of penguin-themed balloons, bought at the dollar store, which were given to the first person who could guess the name of another club member after hearing a quote they’d posted on Facebook. In the midst of this, the table in the corner raised their LOUDER sign. A new member was inducted to the club and lectured about how to get rid of his “red badge.” Someone gave a brief and direct speech concerning the eradication of polio disease. Songs were sung, and standing ovations were given.

My talk went really well, people laughed in all the right places, and I sold and signed about 30 copies of my book – all that I had left in stock! Guess I need to order some more, since I have a few more shows to do before Christmas ;)

(If you’re curious, you can check out the tour schedule.)

 

Playing With Panoramas

My dad and I are prowling the sagebrush country of southeast Oregon this week, birding and photographing stuff. Our carmometer registered 17 F this morning, typical early winter weather at Malheur, and most birds have migrated south (no wonder birders never come here in November). But the high desert is beautiful this time of year…

Photographing that scenery is a challenge. My camera arsenal is mostly designed for faraway specks; I’ve been lugging around my 600mm lens all weekend, which weighs 11.8 pounds and is worth about as much as my car (life’s priorities). That’s great for birds and the occasional furtive coyote, but no so ideal for landscapes. Even my 100mm lens, relatively tiny, is no good for a wide scenery shot. Luckily, I can take panoramas!

I’ve actually never tried this before. I don’t know why. It’s awesome. You take a bunch of overlapping photos and then stitch them together into one image (I did these by hand in Photoshop, but there are some programs that’ll do panoramas automatically).

One side effect of this is that the resulting picture is enormous – I could print one of these out poster-size and you’d be able to see every little detail. The files are also off-the-scale huge; Photoshop kept crashing as I manipulated half a dozen full-resolution photos into one. Maybe I need a bigger computer?

It’s pretty satisfying to build the panorama, watching edges line up and magically disappear. If you ever try one, be sure to keep your camera on manual exposure so that adjoining images match correctly. And stick to static scenes; animals and moving objects (like a tree in the wind) are apt to mess things up – though I got lucky with some cows in a field.

As usual, click on any photo to see a larger version ;)

Malheur NWR Headquarters

Moooooooooooooooooo

A Lonely Willow Tree

 

That Big Bad Birding Movie

Half an hour ago, I watched closing credits roll on The Big Year at our local theater in Eugene. It’s been out for more than two weeks, so I’m probably the last birder on Earth to have seen it. But, hey, I’ve been living on a remote island in Maine for the last month; what can you do? (Yep, I’m back home in Oregon now, beginning a big new project – so stay tuned).

I’m lucky to have caught the movie still in theaters. It cost $57 million to make and has grossed a pitiful $7 million at the box office. People haven’t exactly been flocking to see a film about competitive birdwatching, even if it does star Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. And, after seeing it myself, I admit: it won’t win any Oscars. At least the birds were accurate… more or less.

But who cares? I had heard that Birding magazine, where I work as Associate Editor, features prominently in several scenes. Sure enough, the climax of the whole movie arrives with the latest issue of Birding (a real mockup with Owen Wilson on the cover) and the main characters rushing to their mailbox to tear it open. How often does your magazine show up in a major Hollywood motion picture?

Awesome.

It’s been fascinating to follow the whole process of this movie being made – first the three crazy birders vying to break the North American big year record in 1998, then Mark Obmascik’s page-turning book about their endeavors (which I have read several times – guess I’m a nerd), then, incredibly, the announcement of a partially fictionalized Hollywood version of the story to be filmed and released in 2011, with a couple characters based on people I know personally. Over the past few months, I’ve watched with amusement as birders across the country posted excited updates on various email lists: Steve Martin talked about eagles on Letterman! stills have been leaked! the poster is here! the trailer is out! this will change the face of birding!

That last sentiment was probably a bit hopeful, and, in a bizarre discussion on the American Birding Association’s blog this week, led to a snipey argument about whether the American public is too dumb to enjoy birding. Eh, whatever. Me, I enjoyed watching the movie because I enjoy watching birds, and, yes, I enjoy watching people watch birds. But I’m not holding my breath for The Big Year 2

63 Saw-whet Owls in 9 Hours

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After a full day of banding songbirds, Ed and I stayed up almost all night catching owls. Conditions couldn’t have been better: clear, calm, and cold with no moon. Though we have caught a few owls every night this week, last night was the best yet – 63 saw-whets! We finally turned into bed at 4:00 am, slept an hour and a half, and headed out at dawn for another field day of banding songbirds. It never stops…

Saw-whet Owls are just unimaginably cute. I can’t get over it. Those big eyes and soft, soft feathers get me every time. And saw-whets are normally very hard to find; before banding them here, I had seen exactly two in my whole life. Handling 63 in one night blows my mind!

Shrike!

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A northern cold front brought a nice collection of winter migrants today, and Ed and I banded 86 new birds at Petit Manan Point – very solid. We were pretty stoked about catching our first tree sparrow of the fall until Ed came running back from a net run with a Northern Shrike, definitely the most awesomest bird of the entire season so far!

Shrikes have murderous hooked bills designed for tearing apart other, smaller birds. This one tore us up, too, as we took its measurements, but the bloodshed was worth it…