Friday, March 27, 2009

Quilting Adventures - New Braunfels, Texas

What a treat it was to teach this amazing group of students for five days! We were one of four classes at Quilting Adventures run by Barbara Quinn and Alice Kolb. Located on a beautiful campus, the classrooms were huge, well-lit, and our every need was instantly take care of. As for my personal room, well I was in a Sunday House, a tiny little individual house, where a goody bag awaited that included a bottle of wine! The food was fabulous, the facilities were terrific, and I don't think you can find a better deal for a five-day workshop that this one.
Ann Gehin design in progress.

Each student created their own design, and although they didn't finish everything, they were far enough along to see how the design would look and they had acquired enough skills to finish their project at home.
Janice Schindeler design in progress.
Kathy Voss design in progress
Rex McCaskill design in progress
Kit Kucinkas design in progress
Marge Eadie design in progress
Marilyn Wilson design in progress
Naomi Ruth Pabich design in progress

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Birding Venezuela

Birding Venezuela Team
Top Row (L-R): Tour leader, Jim Black, John Parmeter, Mike Parmeter, Lane Leckman, Jerry Theis, Tim Jenkins. Front Row (L-R): Sam Sanborn, Jerry Oldenettel, Yours Truly, Mark Watson.
Sam and me, propping up our fearless leader, Jim Black. No, in reality, he just blinked! He runs Chupaflor Tours in Albuquerque, NM,

The Last Bird

Photo by Jerry Oldenettel

It looked as if we'd never find this little fellow with the ordinary name, Buffy Hummingbird. We'd spent most of one afternoon trolling through dry thorn scrub along the northern coast of Venezuela without success. Unfortunately, much of the habitat had been cleared and was devoid of nearly all vegetation for some mysterious purpose. It began to look like the little hummie, endemic to only this small region was not to be. For some of our group, this was one of the must-see birds for their purpose in being here was to see hummingbirds instead of raptors or Harpy Eagles. We walked down a trash-filled alleyway, dodging the smelly puddles and dirty diapers until we came to a clear stream that emptied into a lagoon. Everything looked just about perfect, but no hummie responded. Then, Jerry pulled out his Ipod, on which was loaded -- none other than the mating call of the Buffy Hummingbird. It took exactly less than one minute before the little fellow zoomed right over and perched right in front of us. Happy birders all. Then, it was off to Caracas and home.

About Those Venezuelan Birds

All photos by Jerry Oldenettel

The sheer number of Venezuelan bird species alone is enough to overwhelm one. However, there are always a few that will remain forever etched in my memory. Thank you to Jerry Oldenettel for providing these photographs.

Shown above is the Venezuelan Troupial, the country's national bird. It's a type of oriole and remarkably colorful. Notice the pale blue, luminous patch around the eye. He has a unique song that was easy to learn on the day that four of us played hooky from the more dedicated members of the team. The troupial arrived shortly after our host at the lodge placed fresh bananas or other fruit in the baskets around the yard, always announcing his arrival before we were able to see him.
What can I say? Green-rumped Parrotlets in love.
An amazing number of raptors were observed during our two-week stay. Above is a Savanna Hawk that was remarkably cooperative.
And then, there was the elusive Rufous Crab-hawk. On our last day, we had an outing to the mangrove swamp, boarding two motorized launches that crept into the densely vegetated, but narrow waterway. It seemed logical to me that the target bird of the trip, a Rufous Crab-hawk, would eat crabs. So, I anticipated arriving at an oceanside beach where there would be an abundance of crabs -- for the birds to eat.

Our boats traveled farther along the now-widening waterway, and it eventually became a passage wider than most rivers I've seen. Still, there was no beach in sight. After two or so hours of ever-expansive waterways, our Venezuelan guide pointed to a tall, dead snag, high above the forest to a pair of raptors, the elusivie Crab-hawk. As I looked around at the dense mangrove forest, I wondered how the bird had gotten its name for there were surely no crabs anywhere near here.
That is, until we pulled in beneath the overhanging mangroves to get a look at a small flycatcher nest and discovered that the forest was literally crawling with crabs, big and small. Tree Crabs were so plentiful that they plunked into our boats with regularity, scuttling along the bottom of the boat until one of our softer hearted guys released them back into the wild. And now, you know the rest of the story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Road to Carupano

Stopping at a bridge over an unknown stream, we found a group of children playing in the water. One girl had a pair of swimming goggles and was diving into the clear water. We waved and they waved back. As I moved on, Mark remained behind snapping photographs. Shortly, he joined the birding team, followed soon after by a stream of Venezuelan kids. It was clear that Mark was the hero of the day to this small band of adventurers. As they crowded around, I ran back to grab my camera and capture the image. The fish near Mark's head; well, that's another story.At one point, Mark leaned over and whispered quietly into my ear so as to not be overheard by the hard core among us, "I also am interested in things other than birds". To me, it was like the sweet sound of fresh raindrops on a drought-stricken desert. Another team member who shared my passion for all the sights and sounds of our surroundings. So, when the birding bus pulled over at yet another stop and the group strolled down a dirt road in search of avian rarities, we remained behind, in the shade, checking out other forms of wildlife, like this anole couple. The female is peeking out from the safety of the burrow.
Just a beautiful butterfly
Photo by Mark Watson

We came upon this truck with a religious figure painted onto the back of box. Imagine our surprise when we passed them and discovered it was a refrigerated container filled with fish.
Photo by Mark Watson.

Man with donkey. Photo by Mark Watson.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Photo by Mark Watson.
Moving north from El Palmar toward the Paria Peninsula, we encountered the Carnival boys and girls. The boys, painted blue or black from head to toe, extracted a payment of coins to allow passage.
Photo by Mark Watson
Although they look serious, it was all in good fun. By evening, the Zocalo (city center) was packed, often forcing us to detour around the community to reach our lodging. The festivities went on until the wee hours of the morning, at about the same time as all the roosters woke up. The birding team became ever more sleep deprived.
Photo by Mark Watson
A not-so-enjoyable Carnival costume. Fortunately, this one was on the side of the road and didn't manage to collect a toll from our bus.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

After the Harpy

Our little entourage moved on to the Imitaca Forest Reserve dominated by rampant vegetation accompanied by particularly thick muck. Those in the back of monster truck from Hell were nearly thrown out the open back when the truck hit an especially large ditch which our driver plowed through. It proved to be the road collapsing over a broken culvert and now we were on the wrong side of the only road out. Everyone walked back and waited to see if the trucks would make it.
As the day grew longer, Sam opted for a snooze.
Followed by another member that needed to take a load off his feet,
and his legs.
The day grows long when it begins at 4 a.m. Along about noon, or later as the rain forest heats up and the sun beats down relentlessly, a siesta is just the right thing to do. Mark opted for the blue jeep for his nap. I, on the other hand, was skulking through the jungle, searching for an elusive antbird. It took a while, but we finally found him, walking on the ground beneath the vegetation, circling us continuously while singing his territorial song. I didn't capture the little Ferruginous-backed Antbird on film, but intrepid photographer, Jerry Oldenettel posted the image on his Flickr page.
The trees in the Imitaca, with higher water levels than other areas we had been, had an even higher number of prop roots supporting the trees. In fact the main trunk of most trees no longer reached the ground.
Leaf cutter ants built huge mounds in the forest
and the ants were busy carrying bits of leaves across the road, always in perfect ant formation.
The structure of many of the plants is simply superb.

Good-bye Rainforest

The edge of the rain forest. Will Venezuela survive the current regime and the rampant destruction of its natural wonders? Most shocking during the trip was the huge transmission line that ran from the Orinoco River, through old-growth forest, all the way to Brazil. In its path is a 1/4 mile wide clear-cut through supposedly protected areas like the Imitaca Forest Preserve, and Canaima National Park.
Look at the leafless tree in the background. This is where the juvenile Harpy Eagle waited for food deliveries. While this might seem like an ideal spot to watch for his parents to bring food, it is grim evidence of the slash and burn agriculture that is rampant throughout Venezuela. It takes two years to raise a juvenile Harpy Eagle to independence, during which time the parents are tied to the nest. Their nesting habitat is dense lowland tropical rainforest with an adequate supply of sloths and monkeys which are hunted beneath the canopy. The nest is within the patch of woods on the right. As you can see, it has been cleared almost right up to the nest. Where will this pair of adults have to go now to find another suitable location for their next nest?
The burned tree stumps were much in evidence at the viewing point for the Harpy Eagles. If you look carefully, you will see a small vegetable garden on the right side. Rainforests are dependent on the constant decomposition of organic matter to provide nutrients to the vegetation. When the cycle is broken through clearing, soils only support crops for 3-4 years before being depleted of nutrients. This leads to more clearing. During our trip, we often saw smoke from fires burning the forest.
Good-bye rain forest.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Harpy Quest

Would we, could we, did we see the Harpy Eagle?
It's the bird that inspired me to take this trip, the Harpy Eagle. I always said that if I could see a wild Harpy, the world's largest eagle, found only in lowland tropical rainforest, I would die a happy woman. I had been warned that it might be a challenge to find the bird. So, being of a cautious nature, I snapped a photo of this painting in the Puerto Ordaz hotel.
Photo by Mark Watson.
This was our earliest departure, by far, of the whole trip. Promptly at 5 a.m. we assembled near our bus, only to learn that our tranportation of the day was none other than an old, beater 4WD truck with a handmade, black metal canopy with boards running along each side. Those at the far back end, had to hang on tight to ensure that they were not tipped out. Jerry T and I are full of enthusiasm as we depart, destination unknown, time of drive unknown, condition of roads unknown, but full of trust.
Mark W. and Jerry O. were similarly enthusiastic as we departed. However, our enthusiasm was rather short-lived when we realized the truck belched exhaust into the compartment in the back, burning our eyes and making it hard to breathe.
The monstrous truck that was our avenue to the Harpy Eagle site.
An indigenous family lived near the nest and the woman made coffee for us while we waited for the rain to end. Would it end? Would we have to hike in the rain? Would the rain ruin our chances of seeing the eagle?
Our Venezuelan guides: Javier is the smaller man, and he drove the equally dilapidated blue jeep. After the rain stopped, the whole group trooped off through the muck. Within about 1/4 mile, we came to a clearing in the jungle where the family was growing their vegetable garden. Looking to the west, a large bird was perched atop a leafless tree.

Photo by Mark Watson.
It was the immature Harpy, waiting for a food delivery. The not-so-little fellow or gal seemed oblivious to our presence, almost as if it saw groups of people often. It was about 18 months old, already flighted, and just learning about hunting. It would not be independent of its parents for another six months.
While we watched, the adult male flew over likely checking on the well-being of his offspring. The youngster sat patiently for what seemed like a long time before disappearing into the forest. Later, on the way out, we also observed the adult female perched about a mile from the nest. While it was a thrill to see the largest eagle in the world, I had expected it to be harder, to be a slog through the mud with voracious insects nipping at any exposed skin, something akin to the African Queen. In reality, it was more like going to visit your cousin who lives in the country, and then walking to the back of his property to see the hawks that nested there -- almost as if we didn't work hard enough to earn the experience.

Welcome to Hotel Parador Taguapire

El Palmar is the closest town to the Imitaca Forest Preserve. It is the staging area for expeditions into the preserve, particularly for those who seek the mythical and often elusive Harpy Eagle, the world's most massive eagle. We had scheduled two days in the hopes of locating one of them.
Constructed of cinder blocks, the rooms in Hotel Taguapire resembled a jail cell painted a violent shade of pea green. But, a little cheer was added with and equally violent shade of nearly royal blue, perahps a cross between indigo and hunter green. The door was built of steel. There were no worries that anyone could possibly break into your room.
We shared our room with at least two other companions, one of which was a tree frog that lived in the shower. Apparently camera-shy, capturing his image was a lesson in high speed photography. That first flash drove him right up the wall, literally, with the camera woman pointing the lens increasingly higher with each click of the shutter.
Our other companion was our spider friend that hid in the corner near Sam's bed. I assured her that he/she wasn't poisonous and would almost certainly be gone in the morning, even though I had never seen this kind of spider before and had no knowledge of its biological history. Fortunately, she was no worse for wear in the morning when, indeed, the spider was gone and it was not in her boot.
The saddest thing about traveling in a third world country is all the wasted plastic. Because we couldn't drink the tap water, bottled agua was our friend. Unfortunately, the hotel provided the agua in tiny little bottles - many of them. We suspect that there is no such thing as recylcing in the small towns of Venezuela.

Now, lest you think poorly of our accommodations at Hotel Parador Taquapire, the host and his workers were quite gracious and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. They put out fresh fruit several times daily which attracted a wide variety of colorful fruit-eating birds, including the Venzuela Troupial, a member of the oriole family. To see a photo of this bird, visit Jerry Oldenettel's website and scan through the Venezuela album.

One day, four of us decided to play hooky from the dedicated birders that comprised the remainder of the group, opting instead for a leisurely morn watching the feeders and the birds that occupied the habitat beyond the fence. Our host plied us with endless cups of coffee, soda, beer, steak and fries for lunch, smiling all the time as we practiced our novice Espanol.