I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday reflections

A chilly, jangly view of New York, refracted in a headlight.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Urban poetry

Kind of. I thought this sign was funny and never got around to posting it before this.

I've gone through one round of antibiotics and two bottles of Robitussin since getting sick the last day in Panama, and though I'm definitely better I'm still hacking all night and all day. I stayed home today, giving my co-workers a day off from listening to me cough (and peering nervously through my door to ask if I'm all right in the aftermath. Yes, I'm that loud.)

Anyway, if you happen to be in Guayaquil and in the need of some laser surgery, please tell Dr. Gimenez Vera I sent you.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday bird blogging

This is a sanderling, a common shore bird just about anywhere in the world. This particular bird was enjoying the unique ambience of San Cristobal in the Galapagos.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday reflections

The funhouse colors of Times Square reflected in a rather mundane office building's windows.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Urban poetry

Getting back to a routine slowly: I've been sick since Panama, and have too many things going on that I have to handle with half a brain.

So late but better than never, here's a piece of urban poetry in the Bronx. These metal plates represent sandhogs (the construction workers who build the tunnels and caissons underground) who were killed in the line of duty, laid out in a sidewalk with a rippling pattern like water.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Astronomy Tuesday

One last look at the Galapagos -- a radar image from the European Space Agency.

The largest island is Isabela, which is composed of multiple volcanoes that have basically merged their lava into one island. The large island to the right of Isabela is Santiago.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday bird blogging

A lava gull, at Cerro Brujo. They're another vulnerable species; they only exist in the Galapagos and there are only a few hundred of them.

I like the footprints in the sand behind the bird.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday reflections

This must be New York.

I've been sick with a hacking cough since I came back from Panama, and going through countless pictures of birds and sea lions has eaten up all my free time, but I woke up this morning feeling better, finally, and also feeling for the first time I'm home.

Now I guess I can finish unpacking.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Astronomy Tuesday

This photo from September was taken on a day when there were no big storms anywhere on our planet.  After the devastation in the Philippines this past weekend, I thought we could use a glimpse of a time when the planet wasn't yelling at us.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday bird blogging

Here's one of the few good bird photos from Panama. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present -- the violaceous trogon!

And it's just as cool as its name.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saturday reflections

It will be several days before regular blogging resumes, while I try to catch up with the backlog of Galapagos and Panama entries.

In the meantime, here's a hybrid: Saturday reflections, Galapagos style. I love the way the wet coat of this sea lion at Punta Suarez reflects the sky and the black lava rocks on Espanola.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Local wildlife

I don't actually have to go on supervised walks to see wildlife here. There were howler monkeys jumping through the trees outside my room, and here's a black vulture, a cattle egret, and several capybaras on the lawn of the main lodge.

Monday, November 4, 2013

I guess that's why they call it a "rain" forest

Heavy, steady rain all afternoon, but I didn't mind. I got to spend some quality time scratching the bites I acquired on the hike this morning -- I didn't actually see any insects apart from the leafcutter ants, but they were obviously there. I was wearing insect repellant, but the bugs apparently just thought it was a nice condiment for the delicious filet de Kathleen they were munching on.

I made coffee in my little kitchen (thanks for the free upgrade, Gamboa Resort!) and checked some emails, but mostly I sat on the balcony and watched the mists shifting over the trees through the veils of rain. It was like being inside of a cloud.

Chagres River

We turned back at the river. The water was choked with greenery along the banks, which were slippery mud. Though I slid down to the water's edge to get a clear picture of those canoes, I like the picture of the water taken from back on the trail. Dark, mysterious, jungly -- that's how it felt there in the trees.


I love this tiny frog. Its back looks like a leaf; when it jumped down to the forest floor it vanished immediately. If it wasn't moving you couldn't see it.

I've a feeling we're not in the Galapagos anymore

I signed up for a nature walk in the forest this morning. The air was thick and wet, smelling of mud and leaves and damp wood, as different from the sere, raw Galapagos as it's possible to be. 

We saw agoutis, huge rodents something like two-foot long guinea pigs with pink ears, leafcutter ants carrying stems and stalks many times their size, and enormous spider webs that made me grateful not to be encountering the spiders involved. I didn't take many pictures; the heavy canopy kept most of the light from reaching the trail, and keeping my footing and not tripping over the tree roots took most of my concentration.

Rain forest

I'm staying in Gamboa, which is about an hour outside Panama City. (In the picture of the canal below, if you follow the bottom section of the canal up to where it branches out into a "Y" shape, that's where I am. Hi!)

I'd arranged an airport pickup from the resort where I'm staying, so I found Jose standing outside customs with a big sign with my name on it. His English was only slightly better than my Spanish, but somehow we managed to understand each other pretty well.

It wasn't completely dark when we left the airport, so I got to see a little of the Pacific coast, and the ships waiting to enter the canal. There were at least a dozen, stretching almost to the horizon, in a neat line like schoolchildren on a field trip. Then Panama City, brand new towers of office buildings and expensive hotels, many still under construction, giving way to grittier streets, traffic, and crowds coming from a holiday celebration -- one of Panama's many independence days. (Jose told me but I've forgotten; this one may have been for independence from Colombia.)

My fingers itched to take photos -- a truck piled high with drums, a supermarket with no front wall, stalls selling fruits and vegetables, rusty balconies hanging over narrow streets. After a week of birds and sea lions, it felt good to be in a city again, and such a photogenic city at that. Clearly, I will have to come back.

The last part of the road to Gamboa was along the canal, and that was even better: container ships looming high above us in the darkness, like a Surrealist's steampunk dreams.

So I didn't see the view from my room until this morning, when the thick mist instantly fogged my lenses. But you get the idea. It's stunningly beautiful here.

A man a plan a canal Panama

This is an Envisat radar image of the isthmus of Panama from space, courtesy of the European Space Agency. The canal is just to the left of the center of the picture; you can locate the two ends of the canal by looking for the clusters of green dots above and below the land mass. Those are ships entering and leaving the canal, and the large lake in the middle is part of the waterway.

What I had never realized is that because of the way the isthmus curves, the canal is at an angle from northwest to southeast, and the Atlantic is on the northern, western end. So to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, you travel to the southeast, which is completely counterintuitive. In parts of Panama, the sun actually rises over the Pacific.

I didn't see the actual canal when I was flying in from Guayaquil yesterday evening, just a few ships that seemed to be headed in that general direction as we approached the coastline. And for an unpleasant half hour or so I thought I might not get to see the canal at all.

Because I didn't have a pen.

One had broken early on in the trip, and another ran out of ink when I was trying to give someone my email address on the way back to Guayaquil. And I think the room service waiter at the hotel kept another one, because that's gone too. So although I usually have at least half a dozen pens in my various bags, and I always fill out any necessary forms on the plane to get it over with, yesterday I arrived at Panamanian immigration with nothing but a blank form and a hopeful smile.

Fortunately the very kind agent lent me her pen, and I filled out the form there. (The other passengers on my flight had long since vanished, so at least no one was waiting behind me.) Unfortunately, there was another hurdle -- Customs had its own form to fill out, and the bored woman behind the counter had no interest in helping me. She waved me off in the direction of a nearby counter, which had pads of custom declaration forms and nothing to fill them out with.

And while there had been dozens of airport shops before the immigration check, there was nothing between Immigration and Customs but linoleum. The only other passengers, a couple from Buenos Aires who were clearly very confused because they asked me -- a woman who was about to fill out the form in eyeliner -- for help answering some of the questions, didn't understand my very bad Spanish-plus-pantomime request to borrow one of their pens.

Finally, I noticed airport workers taking a break nearby and one of them, a man who will forever be one of my heroes, lent me his leaky Bic, and I was finally allowed into Panama.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Back on the mainland

We flew back to Guayaquil from the airport on Baltra this morning, some of the group going on to Macchu Picchu, some to Quito, some heading home. I'm leaving for a few days in Panama tomorrow before heading back to New York, back to work, back to reality.

There was an optional bus tour of Guayaquil this afternoon but I skipped it. I'd rather hold on to the Galapagos mentality a little longer before heading to the rain forest, and honestly, I'm tired. I sat by the pool and read for a few hours, went through some of my thousands (really!) of pictures, and had a pizza from room service. Not all the blessings of civilization are necessarily negative.

While we waited for our flight this morning, I saw the passengers coming off the flight from Guayaquil with their sunhats and backpacks, most of them headed for the Endeavour, and I was a little envious. If they were anything like me, they had no idea how magical a journey they were about to take. It's so rare that something so long-anticipated lives up to expectations, but this trip exceeded them in every possible way.

The trick will be hanging on to that sense of serenity once I'm back home. There were finches in the airport gobbling up all the dropped or unattended tortilla chips, and maybe in a few million years they'll be their own species: Geospiza doritus. We all have our niche; some of us just get to choose it consciously.

Friday, November 1, 2013


The rim of the caldera that forms Darwin Bay on Genovesa, and a closeup of the rocks.


We've seen many small reef sharks this week, but this Galapagos shark off the side of the ship this afternoon was at least eight feet long.


There's not much here. Genovesa is a ring of bare rock, with scraggly grass and bushes, mangrove and these cacti.

No reptiles to eat them, so they don't grow very tall.


When I could stop looking at the birds long enough to look around me, I did appreciate the austere beauty of the island. These tide pools, for example.

I've had to zoom in on this picture a few times to convince myself that the rock formation in the top center is not actually a giant iguana.

Avian fashion

This is a Galapagos dove, along with another swallowtail gull. It is interesting how many of the bird species unique (or endemic, as the naturalists say) to the Galapagos have such vivid eye rings.

For the gull, which is the only nocturnal gull in the world, the red ring may have something to do with improved night vision. For the dove, I think it's just a fashion statement.

Expecting to fly

This young boobie was everyone's favorite.

He waddled out of the tall grass to the open area on the trail, stretching out his wings, giving them a flap or two, and then folding them up again. This is it! Gonna fly now!

He got a running start and flapped furiously, but remained firmly on the ground.

Hmmm. Not sure what the problem is. I've watched mom do this a hundred times. She just goes flap, flap, flap and then bam -- she takes off!

He tried over and over, managing a brief hop or two (which is probably all he can do until he loses more of that heavy down on his wings.) But he just seemed so delighted with himself, so proud of being a big boy who can fly, even if he couldn't quite pull it off yet. I know I'm anthropomorphizing like crazy here, but he really did seem to be showing off for the cameras.

Strong difference of opinion

I'm not sure what the problem was, but these Galapagos mockingbirds were very annoyed with each other.

It started with two of them squawking and wagging their tails at each other. Then one mate got involved, which made the other mate jump in as well. All four of them waxed indignant for several minutes, then the mates flew off and it was just the two birds strutting and complaining. They were still at it when I left to find boobies.


There were lots of chicks and juvenile birds, but we also got a rare look at birds still in the nest. This baby booby, peeking out of a nest deep in the mangrove, makes me think of Liberace.

All in the family

Under a rocky overhang above the tideline, two adult swallowtail gulls hovered over a chick.

The chick was sleeping when I first saw it, curled up against a very uncomfortable-looking rock, but it soon got up and started pestering its parents for food.

Speaking of bird behavior

This was possibly the most amazing behavior I saw, and I was able to capture it at least a little. (While we had more freedom to wander when we were on a beach, there were still restricted areas where we had to watch the birds from a distance.)

There was a group of probably a few dozen female and juvenile frigatebirds, along with some boobies, in a patch of scrub above the tide line.

This young frigatebird looking so hopefully at Mom wanted to be fed.

The female started to feed the chick, and a male frigatebird swooped in, grabbed her beak, and tried to steal the baby's food.

This happened several times -- as soon as the baby got its beak inside its mother's (the females regurgitate food and the babies eat it from their mouths) the male flew in and kept it from getting fed.

Finally the male left them alone and the chick was finally able to eat.


I know this is many more photos of birds than most humans can possibly find interesting, but the magic of the Galapagos has been not only in seeing these unique species, but in the opportunity to observe so many aspects of animal behavior that we rarely get to see. Our day at Genovesa was particularly full of examples of birds going about their bird business in full view of some very lucky humans.

This booby, for example, had been wrestling with a much bigger branch, trying several times to yank it off the bush, before finally settling for this one.

Then he flew off to the nest, below, and proudly presented his prize to his mate.

Red-footed booby

We've seen thousands of blue-footed boobies and quite a few Nazca boobies, but Genovesa was our only chance to see the third Galapagos booby species, the red-footed booby.

The other boobies have fairly plain faces, but the red-footed is ridiculously colorful. And I love the way the bird's belly reflects the color of those cherry-red feet.

Another unusual fact about those feet: they're prehensile. Though they're webbed like those of other seabirds, they can grip, so red-footeds can sit on branches, looking down on the lowly Nazcas that can only sit on the ground.


A Nazca booby taking off from the lava rocks on Genovesa.

This is probably the least graceful picture of a bird in flight ever. The booby looks like its name, as though it's jumping off the rock wearing some unflattering protective gear.


Our last stop. Genovesa barely qualifies as an island; it's just what's left of an ancient volcano, a crescent of rock rising maybe 100 feet above the waterline.

We were the only human visitors today. Just us, a few sea lions, and thousands of amazing birds.

Like this guy, a juvenile frigatebird.

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