30 May, 2010

Belize Bird of the Week #4 – Great Kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus

The Great Kiskadee is a very common bird throughout Belize. Its range extends from Texas to the north down through Uruguay and Argentina to the south. Each morning, the kiskadees woke us up with their calls that, to me, sound like “Christopher! Christopher!” It is in the tyrant flycatcher group, and at our place in Belize is the largest of the flycatchers.

Kiskadees are handsome birds with very striking white bands just above their eyes and a black mask that extends from the beak back across the eyes.  The one in the photo below posed for me high up in a Cercropia tree right across from our back veranda.

The view of this kiskadee from below shows that the undersides are bright yellow.

The edges of the wings and tail have a cinnamon color that distinguishes it from the broad billed kiskadee.

The great kiskadees are very active, social birds that are comfortable around humans. One of their favorite places to nest is at the downspouts of rain gutters. Here is one bringing additional material to its nest on our cabana.

Kiskadees often sit in a favorite tree and fly out to catch insects. Here one is sitting in our tamarind tree in between forays for flying insects.

You sure don’t want to be the insect getting this bird’s scrutiny! Be sure to click to enlarge for maximum effect!

22 May, 2010

Belize Birds of the Week #2 and #3 – OvenBird and WaterThrush

Last week’s bird of the week was the lovely rufous-necked wood rail. This week‘s birds were photographed at the same time and place as the rail. The place is the edge of the marsh that borders Black Creek at the north end of our property.

The marsh is a lush, dense tangle of ferns, orchids, white, red, and black mangroves, buttonwoods, and lots of other plants that I don’t know the names of (yet!). Five years ago, we cleared out much of the fallen and dead trees that had been caused by a hurricane in the late 1990s, but the marsh has been left untouched. Consequently it is almost impenetrable by people. For the lizards, possums, coatis, gibnuts, snakes, and ground loving birds it is a haven from birds of prey and jaguars that live in the area.

These photos are heavily cropped and not very sharp; the day was overcast, the marsh dim, and I was pretty far away. I include this photo because it shows the ovenbird standing atop the remains of an old termite nest.
Yes, that black stuff that looks sort of like lava is an old termite nest that used to be in up in a tree. These nests can be quite large, often more than 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. I’ll write about termites in the future – they are very interesting creatures and deserve a post of their own (get it? a ”post” of their own. ;-)).
Ovenbirds have cream colored eye rings and streaked breasts, both of which are easily observed in the first 2 photos.

A very distinguishing mark is the orange crown bordered by dark streaks that show up so well in the photo above.

The white, unstreaked throat helps distinguish the ovenbird from the waterthrushes  
which have streaks all the way up the underside of their beaks. In the dim understory it can be quite difficult to tell these birds apart. Looking at these photos, it is pretty obvious that these are 2 different birds, but at the time I was taking the photos, I had assumed they were one and the same. Enlarging the photos and lightening them made it clear that the waterthrush lacks the prominent cream eye ring of the ovenbird, but does have a light colored streak above the eye that with just a quick glance could be confusing. And the waterthrushes are browner than the olive green of the ovenbird. Based on its appearance and ranges, I can’t tell if this is a northern or a Louisiana waterthrush. Perhaps someone else can comment?

15 May, 2010

Belize Bird of the Week - Rufous-Necked Wood Rail (Aramides axillaris)

I was taking pictures along the edge of the marsh on the north end of our property when I saw a movement back in the shadows of the marsh. What could that be? It is sort of reddish and skinny. Could it be a possum?  No, it doesn’t move like a possum. Is it a snake? No, not long enough and too high off the fallen tree trunk. It’s a bird! Creeping, tip-toeing really, along a downed tree I can see a bird emerging from the gloom of marsh.
The head, neck, and breast are cinnamon colored, that is why I thought “possum” at first.
But this bird has lovely subtle blues and greens along with the cinnamon. It is really first-rate!   This is a Rufous-Necked Wood Rail.

These rails are very secretive and usually are more active at dusk than during the day.
They are described as “Apparently rare (but doubtless in part only overlooked) in mangrove swamps …seemingly very local and recorded from only 3 localities…” It seems we are hosting a rarely seen, if not rare, bird.

13 May, 2010

Of Ramps and Ramsons

My tale of ramps begins last June when I spotted these flower stalks coming straight out of the ground with no evidence of leaves.
I had no idea what plant they were, and so I followed their maturation into the fall. The flower parts are very simple, I suppose “reduced” is the proper botanical descriptor. They are a greenish yellow in color and terribly difficult to photograph.

I think the photographs are more aesthetically pleasing and informative when changed to monochrome.

By the end of August, the seeds were setting, and what a surprise they were – lovely, shiny black spheres that are more interesting to look at than the flowers were.
I still did not know what they were, but kept searching with the help of the internet to try to identify it. Finally, I stumbled onto it – ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as wild leek. Ramsons (Allium ursinum), also known as wild garlic, are a close relative found in the UK. The main difference in the 2 is that ramsons flower while the leaves are still present and the ramps don’t flower until the leaves are gone. And the flowers are more developed in ramsons.  For a picture of ramsons in bloom click here.  I have been reading a number of blogs from the UK that have recently mentioned ramsons.
Fast forward to spring 2010 and now we can see the classic lily leaves in the area where I first saw the flowers last year.

I harvested a few plants to try to cook. The bulbs are very delicate, almost translucent, and the stems are a lovely magenta.

They are quite pungent, even Max noticed. :-)
I decided to use them in an omelet for Sunday brunch along with morels, sweet baby red peppers, and Camembert cheese.
The omelet was delicious. The ramps (leaves and bulbs) added a sort of wild gamey flavor that went well with morels and cheese. I froze the unused part for future dishes.

Ramps grow in the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern US and in the northern states up into Canada.  They do not tolerate hot weather.  Every spring throughout the Appalachian Mountains there are ramps festivals.  You can read more about the festivals and find links them here.

10 May, 2010

A Bit of Belize

I have such a backlog of things to blog about. This calls for frequent but short segments to make headway. Today I have just a handful of photos from Belize. These are of birds that are really too far away to make a good picture, but are exciting never-the-less.

The first day we were there, we walked to the back of our lot to Black Creek. I looked up and saw a large bird flying high overhead. I quickly snapped 4 or 5 shots, not even checking to see what bird it was. As I focused on focusing and panning, somewhere in the back of my mind a little voice was shouting “Wood stork! Wood stork!” And indeed it was. They are listed as “irregular” in Central America, and although I have seen them before, this was the first time I had managed a photo.

Here are 2 soaring birds in one frame. The one in the lead is an osprey with a black vulture in lazy pursuit. I didn’t see until I downloaded the images to my computer that the osprey was carrying a fish in its talons. No wonder the vulture was tailing it! Check out the second photo for a closer view of the osprey and fish. 
Both of these birds are local residents of our very own beach.  The last photo shows one of the 5 or so resident black vultures on a favorite perch.  Kind of cute in his own way with that sparkle in his eye, don't you think?

09 May, 2010

Happy Mothers’ Day!!!

to all the mothers out there and especially to my Amazing Mother. I know you will read this, Mother, so I will try not to embarrass you too much.

The previous sentence gives a clue to one of the many amazing things about my mom – at 90 years of age she is an avid computer user. She first started using a computer in her 80s (or was it late 70s?) so she could keep up with her children and their families by email and she soon added web surfing, playing games, reading my blog, linking to photo websites posted by her children and grandchildren, and googleing medications and birds and such. She gets quite perturbed when her computer is down!

Although she will deny it, she is smarter than all of her kids, maybe even all her kids put together. She holds her own in playing scrabble and cards. She is quite the card shark and plays to win whether it is bridge, canasta, kings on the corner, snitch, or gin rummy.

One of the things that I especially appreciate about her is that she has always been up to try something new, whether it is a new food or a new place to visit. I don’t know if it is nature or nurture, but all of her children like new experiences too. So – here is to you, Mother. Thank you for all that you have done for us and all that you have taught us. We are outrageously fortunate to have you as our mom.

Below are some "virtual" flowers for your enjoyment.  A hibiscus growing in front of our cabana in Belize, daffodils from our house in Minnesota, and finally a banana flower and young fruit also from Belize.

08 May, 2010

May Already

Wow – it has been quite a while since I last posted a blog entry, February 20th to be exact. Where did the time go? A lot has happened that has interfered with blogging. Work has been especially demanding, we had a fun trip to Georgia to help my mother celebrate her 90th birthday in March, we spent 2 weeks in Belize in April, we are in the midst of updating our kitchen, spring yard work is upon us, and work is still demanding! Although I haven’t been blogging, I have been taking photographs of our trips and the spring awakening of our gardens and woodlands in Minnesota.

First was the birthday celebration. My 3 sibs (2 older sisters and 1 younger brother) and I all live far away from our mother; she is in Georgia and we are in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and North Carolina. But we managed to orchestrate a lovely party for her held at the restaurant of a family friend. We went to the restaurant beforehand to put up decorations. A number of my mother’s friends were on hand to help us celebrate, too.
And one of my sisters baked a wonderful cake from a recipe that came from our mother’s hometown in North Carolina.
We were able to visit for a couple of days after the birthday celebration and really enjoyed each other’s company. We do nerdy things like play scrabble and cards and go for walks through the neighborhood. And we eat, a lot. While eating one meal, we are planning the next. We have a wonderful time together.

When we returned to Minnesota, it was time to prepare for our trip to Belize in April. We spent 2 wonderful weeks in Belize. More about Belize in the next posts, but I’ll just say now that it was a good trip. Spring had finally sprung by the time we got back from Belize. Our daffodils, which had started blooming before we left, were in full bloom when we returned and bare tree branches were showing the first signs of green.