Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dr. Alexander F. Skutch 20 May 1904 - 12 May 2004.

     Late last night, around midnight in fact, Miriam and I returned from a two week adventure in Costa Rica, where we shared many outstanding experiences with other birders, some known to us and others whom we met for the first time. I will prepare a report of the entire trip in due course, but this will take a little time; all of the photographs are not yet uploaded from the card onto the computer even, let alone the narrative begun.
    There is much to blog about in the meantime, however.
     One of the signal highlights for me was a visit to Los Cusingos, the former home of Alexander Skutch, one of the greatest ornithologists of all time. 
     When Skutch decided to make Costa Rica his home, he chose a site at an altitude of around eight hundred metres, near the rapidly flowing Río Peñas Blancas in the southern part of Costa Rica, not far from the Talamanca highlands and near the border with Panama. 





     Fittingly he chose for the name of the property Los Cusingos, representing the Fiery-billed Araçaris Pteroglossus torquatus, with whom he shared the forest. It was a name easily understood by his less than literate neighbours and it was important to Skutch that they understood the designation.




    It was the presence of nearby unspoiled forest that so attracted Skutch to the area, presenting as it did so much scope for research into avian behaviour. At the time standard practice was to shoot birds as specimens for laboratory and museum study. Skutch wanted none of this and wished only to study the birds in life, to see how they coped with their surroundings, what they ate, how they secured their food, how they built their nests, how many eggs they laid, what was the incubation period, what predation they were subjected to, did one or both sexes participate in nest construction, what materials were used...and so on. Skutch was a consummate and dedicated ecologist before the term was even coined. In the process he made huge discoveries about birds, including the hitherto unrecognized concept of helpers at the nest- i.e. the young from one generation helping to raise succeeding broods.
     He garnered world wide fame and had numerous important awards bestowed upon him, none of which affected him at all, and certainly never lured him from the simple home he had built at Los Cusingos where he was happiest - without running water or electricity  - at a time when he could have accepted teaching positions in any of the major ornithological centres of the world. 




     In the process he became known to his fellow Costa Ricans as Don Alejandro, a term of both respect and endearment, worth more to him I am sure than all the other honours heaped upon him.
     Charlie Gomez, who knew Skutch well, and was associated with him one way or another for many years, told me a story which illustrates in a small way the sheer humility of this great man. At one of the various awards ceremonies which he agreed to attend, Charlie opted to drive Don Alejandro and his wife Pamela though the traffic nightmare of San José and attended the event with them. Skutch was presented with a pair of Swarovski binoculars, absolutely top of the line, with the latest perfection in optical technology. Charlie said he never saw Skutch use them even once, always preferring the trusty old binoculars he had used for years.




     An essential tool when bushwhacking through virgin forest is a machete, and Don Alejandro never ventured far without one. Here it is in its scabbard as though waiting for another skirmish with recalcitrant vegetation.



     Living so far from centres of civilization one needed to be self-sufficient and no doubt this manual sewing machine was put to good use.



     The wife of Alexander Skutch was Pamela Lankester, daughter of the English botanist and ornithologist, who left the wealth, comfort and prestige of her parents' home to dwell with Skutch in this lonely, spartan outpost - surely a testament to true love and kindred values if ever one existed. I took this picture of a picture on the wall showing the two of them together at Los Cusingos.



       It was Nancy Newton, a member of our group, who perceptively noticed that the shoes on display were the same as those worn in the picture.



     The following views show the simplicity of Alexander and Pamela's life together; a life filled with stellar achievement and an exceptional contribution to the world of ornithology. Their tenacity in clinging to their values is inspirational to say the least.







     Not for them a soft and billowy mattress to lie upon. 




     Perhaps their few items for personal grooming are as close to luxury as they experienced.




     No doubt after a long day in the field they looked forward to a period of quiet relaxation on their porch, with Gartered Trogons Trogon caligulatus and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans Ramphastos swainsonii to keep them company.





     I have several of Dr. Skutch's books and will now make a dedicated effort to obtain a copy of all the rest.




     I cannot end this narrative without recounting the experience of my good friend Ruth Marie Lyons who corresponded with Dr. Skutch from time to time over a period of many years and used to send him his favourite kind of work shirts as gifts. Just before his death, Ruth Marie visited Los Cusingos and was privileged to meet the great naturalist, frail and in failing health. She was reluctant to ask Dr. Skutch to sign her book due to his frailty, but was thrilled when he volunteered to do so. I am sure that the quavery signature, inscribed as she stood by his side, is one of Ruth Marie's most treasured possessions. It certainly would be mine. No doubt it was one of the last autographs he registered.
      It would be a tad hyperbolic to call my visit a pilgrimage, but it was certainly an homage of sorts. I will obviously never get to meet this great man but visiting his home was the next best thing. It continues as a centre for the study of birds and I know this would have pleased him immensely.
     Ruth Marie actually planned the itinerary for this trip and was with us when we visited Los Cusingos. I owe her a great debt of thanks for including it on our list.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

An Owl in My Pants

     Everyone is familiar with the expression Ants in My Pants but how many have had an owl in their pants? I may just be the exclusive member of a club of one!
    One of my pants had a little hole in it and Miriam jokingly suggested that she repair it by having an owl look out from a cavity. Well, I jumped right on that idea and here is the result.




     Miriam points out that this is not exactly her best work since she had to work inside the pant leg trying not to catch the other side of the leg in the stitching - not exactly the easiest situation apparently.
     I think I may have started a new trend. Don't tell Miriam but I think I am going to get other pants and cut little holes in them. Maybe I'll have a woodpecker next time, perhaps a nuthatch...the possibilities are endless!
     If you feel motivated to use this technique I know of course that you will want to send royalties to Miriam for her brilliant idea.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A Winter's day at SpruceHaven (Tracks in the Snow)

5 January 2016

     Yesterday we had our first real winter's day of the season and when I started my walk at SpruceHaven it was quite glorious - bright sunshine to cast long shadows on the snow, hardly a breath of wind and a temperature of minus 17°C. It made me feel sorry for those people who live in climates where they never experience the exhilaration of a pristine winter's day. I was dressed warmly and it was a pleasant experience to meander at will in the stillness and serenity of fresh snow. I have tackled birding at 44°C in Ethiopia and I can assure you that it is far more difficult, and I suspect more dangerous, to be out in those conditions, than well dressed at the temperature yesterday.
     As I left the area around the house, having parked my car in the driveway, the following scene greeted me, instantly reinforcing my pleasure at being out and about.


     What the picture does not reveal, of course, is the sound of American Goldfinches Spinus tristis and Black-capped Chickadees Parus atricapillus welcoming me to their world.
     I had decided that this would be a day to examine tracks in the snow so I turned around to see my own footprints - Homo sapiens might as well be the first.



     I have always promised myself that I would one day undertake a serious study of imprints left by animals, but never have found the time to do it, or something else has gotten in the way, so my level of proficiency is still rudimentary. The joy in seeing them and trying to figure out what has happened is not diminished, however.



     Here you see the long shadow caused by the bright sunshine in a cloudless winter sky.


     What animal left the following tracks? A fox perhaps? A hungry coyote looking for a meal?


     The most common bird yesterday was American Goldfinch. Conservatively there were sixty of them, feeding not only on the well-provisioned feeders at the house, but also on the various seed heads in the wildlife corridors created by Dave, Jamie and Sandy. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of these plantings and the beneficial impact they have for wildlife - and not only birds, so many other organisms benefit from the rich habitat created by careful selection of native species.



     Here you see rodent tracks, much like tunnels without a top, formed as the animals scurry from one patch of cover to another. These impressions in the snow are probably created by microtus voles.



     What stories do these tracks tell? I have tried to come up with an answer but have not succeeded. In life there should be a few mysteries, however. Every question does not have to have an answer.



     Here are more rodent runways; they meandered and crisscrossed the margins of dense vegetation everywhere.


     Other tracks with stories to tell to the experienced observer...



     Although there was little wind while I was walking, there perhaps had been earlier, and the snow in places had a kind of shingled look. The picture does not really do it justice. An accomplished artist with an eye for the interplay between light and shadow, form and contour would really be able to capture this splendidly.


    The following images of the wildlife corridors capture the diversity of their vegetative structure and composition. I cannot adequately express my appreciation for the job our stewards of nature have done in forming this buffer zone to traverse through the agricultural fields and connect the different habitats of the SpruceHaven sanctuary. They remind me so much of the ancient hedgerows of Britain, rich in wildlife, providing food and shelter; now so frequently lost to the relentless imposition of industrial farming. Here they are being restored.





     In these final pictures of rodent tunnels you can clearly see where the end of the tunnel connects with the vole's underground burrow.



     As I approached the house on my return from the woodlot, I saw this Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens with a peanut in its bill, obviously taken from the feeder near the front door, looking for a place to cache it for consumption at a later date. Unfortunately the top of the head is foreshortened a little, but I thought the picture interesting enough to include anyway.


     Sprucehaven, SpruceHaven - a haven indeed, a haven for all its diversity of creatures, but a haven for me too. What a joy to explore all its wonders.