Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Comfort Zone

El Panecillo and La Virgen de Quito

I'm back on the road again! My husband and I have been in Quito, Ecuador for the past week or so while he is completing a teaching fellowship. We have spent afternoons and weekends when he is not working getting to know a bit about Quito, exploring, wandering and taking in lots of the new sights, sounds and tastes. The food is delicious, our Spanish is improving and we're having a great time!  Ecuador is a beautiful and interesting country and people here are friendly and kind.

Anteaters and Monkeys Decorate the Basilica del Voto Nacional

Our hotel is conveniently located near several universities and midway between the main tourist areas, the Historic Old City (a Unesco World Heritage site) and Mariscal Sucre (a hopping area with lots of restaurants, bars and a big craft market.) The hotel is bordered by two busy roads and the traffic is fast, loud and smelly (largely due to the buses that tear by, spewing black exhaust). The road is kind of scary to cross. Pedestrians just wait for a gap, or a lull, and run for dear life. There is a big park nearby, but we have been warned by several people that it is not safe to walk there. E-bird lists some excellent bird sightings in that park, but given the warnings, walking with binoculars or a camera just doesn't seem smart. So, I have not had much of a chance to just get out and explore on my own the way I would like to. I have done a bit of birdwatching from the hotel room and was pleasantly surprised to see an American Kestrel in a tree across the street. It was being harassed by a big green hummingbird that I couldn't quite identify, but suspect was a Sparkling Violetear. Great Thrushes and Eared Doves perch on the utility lines, and the occasional butterfly floats above the traffic, too far away for me to ID from my hotel perch. I've been eager to get out and see some of Ecuador's abundant nature! You can just imagine how excited I was this weekend when we took two outings away from the hotel area and I was able to pull out the trusty cameras! (Full disclosure--before you start to feel bad for poor pitiful me, you should know that I will have more opportunities to explore and go birding in the next weeks when we visit locations outside of the city and then head to the cloud forest in Mindo and the Gal├ípagos Islands.)

Busy Streets from our Hotel

Eared Doves on the Wires

Our first expedition was to TeleferiQo, a tram that takes you part-way up Volcan Pichincha, overlooking Quito. Quito is already quite high up--9000 plus feet. The base for the gondola starts at 10,000 plus and lets you out at over 12,000 feet. We low-landers could really feel the altitude! But we had a week to acclimate before going up and it wasn't so bad. In fact, we hiked up another 20 minutes or so to get the best views. We reached a point at just below 13,000 feet where I just did not have the air or strength to go higher, so I stopped and let the rest of the group trudge upward. (People can hike an additional 3-4 hours to the crater of the volcano, but we weren't quite up to it.) We had a spectacular view of the city of Quito and of the many snow tipped volcanos in the distance. 

Volcan Cotopaxi Surrounded by Clouds

TeleferiQo Tram and Quito Below

A sign at the gondola station warned us to be careful with fire to help protect the endangered Spectacled Bear. Our host told us that just last week one of these small and rare bears (the only kind of bear in South America) was seen walking around the station, a very special occurrence. I hoped the whole morning for a repeat, but alas, it was not to be. I did see some Llamas, though, which was some consolation.

Spectacled Bear Care


On the slowww hike up, I caught a quick glimpse of small bird with a long tail that I now believe to have been a type of hummingbird called a Trainbearer. The hillside was alive with pretty butterflies that I have not yet identified. They stopped to feed on the stubby daisies and dandelions that hugged the ground, protection against cool, dry mountain air. I saw bee-flies, Swallows and several Sierra Finches. I could have poked around looking for birds and butterflies for hours, but we needed to get back. Still, it was wonderful to spend the morning in the sunshine and sweet mountain air. By the way, the sun is VERY strong in Ecuador, although the temperatures are moderate (60's-70's). And the sun rises very early and sets at about 6:30pm.

Dainty White Butterfly

Sierra Finch

The next day we took a cab to the Quito Botanical Gardens in Parque La Carolina, where I hoped to find some hummingbirds. Again, we were told to be careful in the park outside of the gardens, but once inside we would be safe. When we got there, and as the morning passed, I understood why. Parque La Carolina is a huge and very popular urban park, with lots of recreational activities. By noon the park was densely packed with families, street performers and vendors. Pickpocketing or robbery would be easy. But the botanical garden was fenced and you had to be buzzed in, so there were not nearly as many people. It was very relaxing to walk through the lush greenery and flowers, away from the noise and smell of the traffic. There was so much life in this small pocket of green in the middle of the city! We were met almost immediately with one of the long tailed Trainbearer hummingbirds. It flew off before we could get a good, long look, but it was a good sign of things to come. Hundreds of white butterflies danced in the treetops and fluttered through the dark green shadows. Beds of Lantana and other kinds of Verbena in sunny spots attracted orange butterflies that resembled Gulf Fritillaries, but were not quite the same. I saw huge Sulphurs, Some Painted Ladies, and a few small Skippers. Curiously, I did not see any blue butterflies or Swallowtails of any kind. And other than the giant Treefrog at the garden entrance, we saw no herps at all. There is a vivarium in the park with reptile and amphibian displays, but we didn't go there.

Tree Frog Greeting

White Butterfly on Lantana

Fritillary-like Butterfly On Lantana

This turned out to be a wonderful spot for birds. Though I only spotted 2 types of hummingbirds, the gorgeous Sparkling Violetear hummingbirds gave us quite a show, buzzing the hanging flowers and bromeliads. Great Thrushes chirped from the bushes, sounding a little like their northern cousins, the Robins. Rufous-collared Sparrows had me convinced there was some kind of Towhee calling "Drink a Your Tea". A Vermillion Flycatcher zipped past us to land in a tree. It was so beautiful that I almost hyperventilated as I snapped picture after picture. They are my husband's new favorite bird. We saw several of them, both male and female, at other locations throughout the garden. At one point I was torn between photographing the Vermillion to my left, the Violetear to my right, or the Saffron Finch at my feet. A few yards away, a Rusty Flowerpiercer tore open aloe flowers. Such choices!

Vermillion Flycatcher

Sparkling Violetear

Saffron Finch

Rusty Flowerpiercer
I had really hoped to get a good shot of the Trainbearer and cajoled my tired hubby into taking one last walk through the most flowery areas before we left. I had almost given up when I spied someone pointing a camera, and there it was! A Black-tailed Trainbearer!  I got a good look, but the rascal was too fast for me to get more than a blurry mess of a picture. I'm determined to get one good shot before we head home. The morning was so much fun. I felt like I was in paradise. 

Black-tailed Trainbearer (The head and bill are near the top of the flower and the tail is the dark diagonal line)

While we were in the garden I was floating on air. I told my husband that I really didn't need much to be happy--just set me up with my camera and wildlife and plants to observe and I can be content for hours or even days. This is my comfort zone. Sure, I love traveling--staying in hotels, eating exotic meals, visiting interesting buildings and museums. But when it comes down to it, I get my biggest thrills when I'm outside, surrounded by the world's natural wonders. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016


Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana
I spent the entire day inside yesterday, painting our kitchen. (It looks great, by the way.) I had the radio on all day and by the afternoon I reached a point where I just had to turn it off. My brain and heart are exhausted after the events of the last few weeks. The Orlando night club massacre, the car bombs in Baghdad, police shootings, the 5 murdered police officers in Dallas, and the constant heated rhetoric of our upcoming presidential elections. The attack in Nice this week was the last straw for me. I just can't take it any more. I think this is hitting me hard because my husband and I were just in Nice a month ago and I still have the vacation images from that beautiful, happy place fresh in my mind. But the pain and hate and negativity are just starting to overshadow everything and I can feel myself losing spirit. So I took action today and got my butt outside to take photos. I know it always helps me feel better, which is something I always forget until I'm doing it.

Silver Spotted Skipper on Lantana

I decided to go to the State Botanical Gardens to look for butterflies. They have a lot of Lantana and Zinnias, butterfly favorites, so my chances were good.  Stepping out of the car I caught a low flying Mississippi Kite out of the corner of my eye as it whizzed over the parking lot. I followed it out into the gardens and forgot everything but the pursuit of nature.

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly

The first thing I found was a tiny, juvenile Black Racer on some stepping stones in the grass. I was afraid it was dead because it didn't move away when I came in close. But when I touched it with my shoe it reared up, shook its tail like a rattlesnake, and struck at my toe. Not dead! I took a bunch of photos and pointed it out to several other visitors, including a little boy who wanted to keep it and bridal party having a photo shoot. The snake was probably happy to get away from all the attention.

Juvenile Black Racer, Maybe 8 Inches Long

Next up was a pair of armadillos, digging without care right next to the wedding photos. The wedding photographer called me over this time. The armadillos were not at all afraid of people and I was able to get pretty close for some good shell shots. I pointed them out to some visitors who had never seen an armadillo before. They are the weirdest animals, and they cause so much damage. I feel bad for the landscape crew, but I love watching them. 

Armadillos Ignoring me

I followed the call of a bird that turned out to be an Indigo Bunting, way up in an oak tree. The call led me down a path lined with tall red Swamp Hibiscus flowers. I got in the way of some bumble bees on a mission for nectar and was buzzed several times. Movement in the leaves turned out to be a baby Carolina Wren, whose parent zoomed in and scolded it away from me. Ahead a little further, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher picked bugs off of the Magnolia leaves. 

Scarlet Rose Mallow (Hibiscus coccineus)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the Magnolia

A flash of yellow drew my attention to a Zinnia patch where I saw a pair of Goldfinches picking seeds from the spent flowers. Swallowtail butterflies wafted around, trying to elbow their way in to sip nectar. A little skink on the sidewalk watched for grasshoppers.

Goldfinch in the Zinnias

Giant Swallowtail on a Zinnia

Five-line Skink Looking for Bugs

It was hot and humid with storm clouds building in the west. Sweat poured down my face and into my eyes, temporarily blinding me with sunscreen. As I looked for a place to sit and wipe my eyes, I noticed a huge bed of Hyssop flowers, almost moving with the buzzing of bees, flies, wasps, butterflies and moths. My eyes stopped stinging and I shot photo after photo. If you want a good plant to attract pollinators, try Hyssop. Wow!

American Lady and Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Hyssop

Buckeye on Hyssop

Gray Hairstreak on Hyssop

Juniper Hairstreak on Hyssop

More conversations with other visitors about what I was doing with my head in the Hyssop patch. Then the thunder moved closer and louder and I packed up and went home. The familiar call of a Mississippi Kite made me look up and I saw a pair soaring overhead, too far away for photos.

Silvery Checkerspot

Driving home I felt like I'd been to a retreat. I hadn't thought about anything but what was in front of me for the whole morning. I felt refreshed and rested and reminded of the beautiful world around me. And of the basic kindness and friendliness of the people around me. I just needed a realignment. And to turn off the news and get outside. Always a good idea.

Fiery Skipper on Periwinkle

Monday, June 20, 2016

Join the Butterfly Trail!

Discovery Day at the Carter Center

This past weekend my husband and I had the pleasure of attending the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail Discovery Day at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta. The Butterfly Trail was established when former First Lady, Mrs. Carter became concerned after learning about the plight of the Monarch Butterfly and wanted to do something about it. She contacted Annette Wise, Program Director at the Jimmy Carter Education Program, who helped her start a butterfly garden at her home in Plains, Georgia to increase public awareness of the problem, especially for children, and to teach about the importance of planting milkweed. By creating her garden in Plains, Mrs. Carter inspired the creation of other butterfly gardens across the state and the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail began. Now the trail includes over 300 public, private and school gardens across the state of Georgia and the U.S. The pollinator garden at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta is one of the gardens on the Butterfly Trail. Up until a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, but now I know a lot more and have already added our garden to the trail map!

The Pollinator Garden at the Carter Center

Proclaiming Pollinator Week and Recognizing the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail

We spent a fun and informative morning learning about butterflies and their habitat. We listened to speakers, including Mrs. Carter (!) who talked about the project and the importance of butterfly conservation. We watched a fun children's play about monarchs and visited the discovery stations. The activities were geared to children and it was very exciting to see the enthusiasm of the next generation of conservationists! At the end of the morning we purchased some native butterfly host and nectar plants to bring home to our own garden. It was a wonderful and uplifting day.

Mrs. Carter Speaking About Monarchs

Discussion After the Children's Play

Educational Stations

Creating Seed Balls

Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed

Male and Female Monarchs

Monarch Body Prints to Test for Presence of a Protozoan Parasite
To Learn More About Citizen Science Projects Like This, Click HERE

The Local North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Chapter Had an Activity Table
Find Your Local Chapter and Join HERE

Butterfly Host Plants Native to the Georgia Piedmont Region

The migration of millions of Monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico and back again every year is one of the world's natural wonders. But loss of habitat, development, the disappearance of milkweed (the Monarch caterpillar's host plant), pesticide use and other factors have all contributed to drastic declines in the population of the amazing Monarch Butterfly and threaten their existence. Monarchs are important pollinators and are wonderful and beautiful to look at. Their decline can be seen as an indicator of greater troubles in the world's ecosystems, and protecting them and their habitat will help other pollinators, as well as the creatures (like us) who depend on the pollinators. Learning about and protecting Monarchs and other butterflies and pollinators is an excellent way to teach people, young and old alike, about the interdependent web of life. Conservation efforts are already paying off and the numbers of Monarchs are on the rise again. You can be part of the solution! To learn more about the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, click HERE. It is easy to add your garden to the list of stops along the trail. Celebrate National Pollinator week by joining in!

A Pollinator Visits the Garden

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

If You Build it, They Will Come. And Then What?

Once an Urban Habitat 
I recently learned that the yard at our old house in Florida is being re-landscaped, a year after we sold it. As is their right, the new owners are making the house their own, including the garden. We are doing the same with our new home. They may have plans for new flower patches, but for now the colorful array of native wildflowers and butterfly host plants that I put in over the span of 10 years has been removed and is being replaced with sod. I feel heartbroken about it, but I can also see that the yard as I left it took a certain amount of specific care (that I was willing to give) or it would quickly get out of hand. It was probably a lot crazier than many people are comfortable with. I was always on the lookout for sprouts from aggressive plants so I could pick them while they were small and easy to control. Because the yard was my baby, I knew what the weeds looked like and when to start yanking out spiderwort, pipevine, blue curls and goldenrod before they took over. The new owners may have initially intended to keep the garden but perhaps it just got to be too much work for them to keep up with. Or maybe they didn't like that kind of yard. I get that. A wildlife habitat yard is not for everyone. And it is their house, to do with what they choose. I wish that they weren't replacing the garden with sod, which is a terrible waste of water and has no wildlife value, but that is another story.

By Mid Summer, it Could Get Crazy

The thing that is nagging at me the most is the loss of habitat. We had created a wildlife sanctuary in an urban neighborhood, and now it is gone. There were a lot of beautiful and interesting native plants in our yard, some rare or endangered that I rescued and propagated. We rarely had to water and never used fertilizers or pesticides. We composted the fallen leaves in place as mulch. What is going to happen to the native bees and butterflies that used the nectar and host plants in the yard? Where will the tiny pinewoods snakes, glass lizards and southern toads hunt and hide? I planted foxtail grasses and berry bushes, and left the seed heads on flowers in the winter for the birds. Will they be expecting to find seeds in that space when they migrate next year? Where will the families of brown thrashers who tossed through the leaf mulch go for their bugs? What happens to wildlife when we create safe spaces for them, but then take it away? This must happen all the time. Homes switch owners. People move. Neighborhoods change. Yards are redone. Empty lots get developed. But what happens to the wildlife? I guess the creatures move on and adapt, if they can. If there are other suitable habitats nearby, which is not always the case, especially in the city. I know of only a handful of wild, native yards in our former neighborhood, so I worry. I tend to anthropomorphize, and I keep imagining bewildered pipevine swallowtails, bees and baltimore orioles trying to find their way back to a home that is no longer there. But short of some sort of homeowner's covenant that requires nature friendly landscapes, you can't force future owners of property to carry on the plans of the past inhabitants. So what can you do? Is creating a backyard nature habitat ultimately futile? I would like to think not. In the end, I would venture that, to mangle Tennyson, "'tis better to have created a garden and lost it than to never have created one at all". We made a difference, if only for a few years. One thing that could help would be to make sure that the wildlife garden you create is not the only one in your vicinity. If you are going to create a backyard nature habitat, encourage your neighbors to plant at least a little patch of sanctuary in their yard, too, so that the loss of one habitat won't be catastrophic.

Brown Thrasher Feeding Chick

Woodland Poppymallow (Callirhoe papaver), Endangered and Rescued

Glass Lizard on the Front Porch

Pipevine Swallowtail Eggs in the Front Yard

But the question remains--what happens to the wild places after they have been preserved? What happens when the next generation does not share the conservation ethic of its predecessors? Can any place be preserved forever? This is playing out all over the country. Our national program of wilderness preservation in National and State Parks and public land, "the best idea America ever had", is being viewed with new sets of eyes. These eyes do not see wild majesty that should be left alone to protect it for the future, as President Theodore Roosevelt did when he dedicated the Grand Canyon as a National Monument, saying "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see. Keep the Grand Canyon as it is." These new eyes don't see the point. They see instead vast tracts of wasted opportunity. Empty land for off-road recreation or new sub-divisions, untapped resources to be exploited, money to be made. Anti-government activists in the West occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for weeks in a violent takeover, claiming that the land belonged "to the people", not to the government. My beloved Paynes Prairie State Park Preserve, as well as other state parks in Florida, is being seriously examined by the Governor and the aptly named Department of Natural Resources as a potential source of grazing, logging and hunting fees. Oil derricks pump and chug across the beautiful and remote high desert of Utah. It is so discouraging. Personally, I think we should be preserving more, not less of our land, and am intrigued by the idea proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson who believes that we should set aside half of the earth, free from people, to protect our planet's biodiversity. Our fragile interdependent web of life is at risk from human activity and we are all going to suffer if we don't act to protect as many of the earth's biological systems as we can. We humans are not alone on this planet.

Somewhere in Desolation Canyon, Utah

On a happier note, we have a new wildlife garden in the early stages at our new home in Georgia. It is still very new and young, and we had a native plant landscaper start the planting for us this time so it wouldn't take 10 years. Soon it will be humming and buzzing and alive with wildlife. And at least 3 other houses on our street have similar gardens, so we have strength in numbers. But someday someone else will move into our house or our neighbors' houses and they may want a new garden. And then what will happen to the wild places when we are gone?

Starting Again