Drop #168: Crumbs

cappuccinoJohn is having lunch with Sandra. ‘You have some crumbs on your shoulder,’ she says, pointing, then staring at them till he brushes them off.

Two minutes later she stops mid sentence to tell him he has something in his teeth. ‘What is that, basil? Here, I have a toothpick.’ He accepts it, removes the culprit, then returns his attention to her so she can finish her story.

A few minutes later she interrupts him to ask what that stuff is in his hair. ‘Those pesky crumbs again. How did you manage that?’ She leans in and picks them out, one by one. ‘There. All better.’

Sandra goes to the bathroom to pee. When she comes out of the stall, a woman putting on makeup looks up at her reflection.

‘Woah!’ the woman says. ‘Bull’s-eye.’

‘What?’ Sandra says, then checks the mirror. She immediately sees it: a massive bird poop above her right ear at the hairline, blobbed thick and wide in white and greenish brown, seeping a full inch down her face in three gooey strands. ‘Oh my God!’ she says, grabbing at the paper towel.

Back in the dining room the cappuccinos have come, each served with two biscotti. John eats his and quickly helps himself to Sandra’s before she gets back. He gobbles them up, spilling crumbs down his face and onto his lap. His first sip leaves a foam mustache on his lip, and the cutest smudge of powdered chocolate on the tip of his nose.

By EM Vireo

Not Concrete

Most who haven’t been to Hong Kong think the city is all skyscrapers. Only concrete, metal and glass. Not so. I had the chance to go out into its further reaches the other day. I took some photos:

no smog

These boats were only buckets now:

perspective

leaf water

I was quite alone, but of course I had many friends to keep me company:

magpie perch

white eye

family

The butterflies, moths and dragonflies were out in force, and particularly lovely:

color at rest

pairs

hangin on

Some, however, had not reached their destination:

gotcha

But could anything be lovelier than the lilies I encountered?

shades of black

reflections

store now open

I found the idyllic lily ponds hard to leave.

up and round

But eventually did, by way of this peaceful path:

way through

And onwards, out towards the rigid buildings and business of humankind. But not before one final visitor landed on my wrist (band), resting a while, as if to bid me farewell:

skinny visitor

And now I bid farewell to you.

E.M. Vireo

South Africa, from Mountain to Ocean

Road to the mountainsSouth Africa: where I am originally from; where I left long ago. Long enough to lose an accent and for people to ask me my nationality when I walk around the cities I used to live in. I was there in December for two weeks, for a wedding, for Christmas, and as always, for the nature. In its endless richness, I always feel I belong. This time it was the Free State bush, the Drakensberg mountains, and the coastal scrub of the Western Cape. The city of Cape Town is pretty special too. I took some pictures; find them below, with some sparse commentary.

Of course, I took a bunch of shots of birds, so here are a couple of those. This guy found himself a perfect perch:

Yellow-fronted Canary

Yellow-fronted Canary

And this little fellow posed nicely for a close-up:

Cape Batis

Cape Batis

But it was about the landscapes too. I was there in the summer for a change and it all looked so stunning. South Africa is a great country for a road trip. The sheer number of places and landscapes you can cover within a few hundred miles, be it beach or mountain or African bush. The roads are excellent and the drivers skilled and courteous and there’s plenty accommodation along the way, from lovely little guest houses to game reserve chalets, to top notch hotels. And as I already mentioned, the scenery is stunning, framed under crisp blue skies and pleasing clouds.

On the road

On the road

But while we’re on the subject, there are few places more scenic than the Drakensberg (Dragon mountains) on the east of the country. Here’s some evidence:

Drakensberg sunset

Drakensberg sunset

We spent a few days there in the Golden Gate Highlands Park, where bearded vultures cruise the cliffs, and Springbok roam the grassy plains.

Mountain dam

Mountain dam

This classic scene was particularly tasty:

Solitude

Solitude

But I’m sure The Cape doesn’t want the Drakensberg grabbing all the attention. Here are a couple of very different landscapes from The West Coast National Park, near Cape Town:

Multi-colored salt marsh

Multi-colored salt marsh

And this was right next door, facing the other way. Check out the flamingoes, just chilling:

Flamingoes in the lagoon

Flamingoes in the lagoon

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a picture of the gorgeous city, embracing the slopes of Table Mountain, itself. Here she is at dusk:

Cape Town

Cape Town

What a funky city. I hadn’t been there in 18 years. Geographically, it’s spectacular; I mean: you’re next to the mountains and the sea, but besides that, there’s just a cool and interesting vibe. I have to say, the mix of black and white feels pretty special here. Interactions are lively and pleasurable. They were too, on route, when we stopped to buy things or have a cold drink, but here, in the city, it was more pronounced, with everyone just getting on with it, being busy, doing their thing, working, selling stuff, being creative, vibing off each other. The word multicultural is used so quickly and broadly nowadays, and often takes on a clichéd quality but here, the mix of cultures really does seem fresh and full of potential. South Africa really does seem to shout: ‘Yeah, with our incredible and diverse resources: our people, we really have a good thing going forward.’

Oh, and a quick note about the wine. It’s damn good and cheap, which is always a bonus. It just seemed to me that you could buy loads of stuff for 5 bucks that drank like you would have paid 30 or 40 bucks somewhere else. Inky and chocolatey Pinotage and Shiraz. Crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Those cats know what they’re doing.
But back to the countryside, and animals. We didn’t get to the big game parks this time, so no lion and elephant, but we did spot tis interesting scene during a quick visit to a game reserve set up beside, or rather, as part of the grounds of a large nuclear power station. How’s this for juxtaposition:
Zebra lines under power lines

Zebra lines under power lines

By the way, joining the zebras in this picture are Eland, the second largest antelope in the world (its cousin, the Giant Eland being the biggest), and South Africa’s national animal, the Springbok. Leopard tortoises were common here too.

So, I’ve circled back to nature and wildlife: what a surprise! But honestly, I’ve been to loads of places, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Malaysia, and they are incredible in their own right, but I just think the best nature in the world is in South Africa. Maybe I’m biased, cause that’s where I found it first and where it first moved me, so when I go back, it’s like a return to the source. I instantly feel different, excited, keen. And there is so much habitat variation – desert, mountain, savannah, riverine bush – whatever you’re in the mood for. The landscapes are stirring, the coastline long and alive, the sky immense and soaked in stars.

So, in honor of SA’s great nature, here are a few more shots of the creatures one find’s there. Since we didn’t do the big game thing, these are all going to be birds.

'Yes, I'll have 2 grams of cured mayfly larvae and four of your juiciest termites. Having guests over for dinner.' (Black-chested prinia)

‘Yes, I’ll have some cured mayfly larvae and your 3 juiciest termites. Having guests over for dinner.’  (Black-chested Prinia)

And always a treat to see an owl in the wild.

'Oh, I see you there.' - Spotted Eagle Owl, roosting on the ground

‘Yeah, I see you there.’ – Spotted Eagle Owl, roosting on the ground

Seat of thorns - Masked weaver

Seat of thorns – Masked weaver

Some good photos, I think, but one is missing; in fact, on this trip, I missed possibly the best photo I might have taken to date: perfect set up in the Drakensberg: I was on the right side of the flawless light – soft late afternoon sun showing mild pinks and oranges, perfect subject: 2 Rameron pigeons – a large, impressive densely purple pigeon of the Southern African mountains with white spots and bright yellow bill, feet and eye ring, close and motionless on a rugged rock. Only problem was, I didn’t have the camera on me. Doh! Look, I’m no pro and I don’t make pics the priority. My equipment is amateur: 100-300 mm zoom, which any nature photographer will tell you is just not good enough, but I’m happy with snapping what’s close enough – what presents, cause there’s a lot on offer, even with limited gear. A lot of it is just being in the right place and making a bit of effort to record what’s there. You just have to have your camera handy. But this time, I didn’t. We’ll have to leave those gorgeous birds to memory and imagination. That’ll do too.

Hope you liked and got a taste. Back to the Dropping Board now. Till next time, be well, travel safe, and look both ways when you jaywalk.

All pics, taken and missed, by EM Vireo

Nature Portraits from Panama

Some pictures I took in Panama, for now. Drop 100 is coming soon, so look out for that.

buff throated slatator

buff throated saltator

sucking nectar

sucking nectar

collared aracari

collared aracari

howler monkey

howler monkey

crimson backed tanager

crimson backed tanager

three toed sloth

three toed sloth

broad billed motmot

broad billed motmot

southern bentbill

southern bentbill

coati

coati

golden hooded tanager

golden hooded tanager

blue chested hummer

blue chested hummer

summer tanager

summer tanager

all pics by E.M Vireo

Seen from the dining room

Yesterday:

 

and today:

 

Doesn’t really matter what the food tastes like. Welcome to Panama.

 

 

Breath: A Meditative, Photographic Journey Through the Jungles of SE Asia

Drop #75

Breath:

A meditative, photographic journey through the jungles of SE Asia.

 

All photos taken by E.M. Vireo

 

Air rushes in, from high to low. Atmospheric, systematic, clean and alive, it replaces old with the new. From above, the canopy is showered in sunlight, though scattered clouds pattern the dense mantle here and there with globular shadows. Tributaries snake brown curls through the green, as the forest’s many denizens carry on unseen.

Though it’s still morning, it’s already hot. A Crested Serpent Eagle circles up high, riding warm drafts to cut up the sky. Below it, swallows and swifts fly frenzied fugues as they feed on the wing, snapping up and gnat, mosquito and moth, expertly skimming the reaching treetops.

The forest here is extensive. It links three countries but never did know where the one began and the other ended. Vines hug branches, fungi neighbor mosses, bromeliads grow on the trunks of trees, and that’s all the geography this ecosystem needs. A long valley links old growth with a swath of lowland jungle, rivers and ponds, which all pitch in and get along.

Collared Scops Owl

We go in, take it in, past the highest points of the tallest forest giants, into the midstory, leaving the light behind. We almost missed the Collared Scops Owl, snug in it’s high daytime roost. Let’s not disturb it, and move quietly by, past the point where the jungle blockades the sky. Only the most opportunistic rays of sun will get through, to be caught on route by a net of endless leaves. No, there are not five or six greens here; there are millions. This is the realm of the high altitude frugivore, and no place for acrophobia! Great, Pied and Wreathed Hornbills have found the same fruiting fig as the monkeys, who are happy to share.

Here come three Spectacled Langurs, with their long limbs and tails, and endless curiosity.

Spectacled Langurs

What has grabbed their attention now? A paradise tree snake slithering by. This tree has plenty for all: reptile, bird, primate and bug. And where there are insects, there are those that prey on them. A Flying Lizard glides in, flaring its throat flap as it lands. He’ll snap up a tasty bug soon enough – well, at least, that’s the plan.

Flying Lizard

Further – we take it in deeper, absorb it all, reaching the jungle’s lower level: a shaded, often quiet place, but not right now. A White Rumped Shama sings, a Drongo calls loudly, and the cicadas drone ominously on a repetitive loop. Four, five, six kinds, all of different pitch, timbre and length. It looks so still, but if we pay attention, we will start to notice movement:

Magpie Robin

A female Magpie Robin drops onto the forest floor, looking for grubs in the leaf litter, while her partner serenades her from a low perch. One of the river’s small side streams flows by here, letting in a few intrepid rays of sun. A butterfly has found itself a lovely patch, showing off the electric blue on its back,

and on the rivulet’s shallow banks, hundreds more have collected to mine the mud for minerals. Aesthetically, the gathering is beyond what any of us can articulate, with its dazzling display of color, line, pattern and shape  –  just look at the geometry in these five pastel beauties.

One takes off, flying with a delicate jitter, following the sway of the stream past a Red Raffleasia, a parasitic flowering plant that gives off quite a stink, avoiding the hungry spider, waiting patiently on its impressive web,

and landing some ways away, on a twig above a pond, on which a droplet has formed. The smallest union of water with itself, it reflects the tiniest beam of dulled light.

And here, we (all of us) reach the end of our inward journey. We can take in no more, not this time, and now, must expand again, moving back out with the damp, rising heat. Out, out, back into the air, the cycle continues till we’re no longer there. We must give back all we’ve soaked up, to take it in once more – this is the system that sits at our core.

So, broadening our view, we notice droplets all about, clinging to leaf, flower and spike alike.
An ant drinks from one with two busy front feet. Hydrated, it will soon fall back into work, beautifully automatic. In fact: there are its colleagues running up a trunk, carrying the spoils of their clinical work.
The mossy pond, into which the streamlet flows, is aflurry with life. Damsel and dragonflies flit all about,

Damselfly (perches with wings raised or closed)

Dragonfly (perches with wings spread)

and here is a Waterhen, sneaking around the edges, thinking it’s invisible. Maybe it is! The Striated Heron nearby is using the same ploy to catch fish; why not, it’s been working for generations.

Whitebreasted Waterhen

 A Stork-billed Kingfisher flies by in a flash of blue and warm brown,

Stork-billed Kingfisher

and on a bright red heliconia at the water’s edge, sits an even brighter Olive-backed Sunbird. It’s a male, and he’s ready to outshine all the others to pass on his genes – but first, some tasty nectar.

Olive-backed Sunbird

On the ground, nearby, a troop of Macaques, with little ones in tow, forages for fallen fruits and nuts. Some are too young to keep up, but can hitch a ride.

Blue-winged Pitta

They flush a Blue-winged Pitta, which flashes the bright white patches in its wings as it flies; then lands on a rotting stump colonized by rows of mustard colored mushrooms. The air is humid, but there blows a little breeze to replace the old with the new – bringing freshness and oxygen to what would otherwise become stagnant. It’s always shifting, and ensuring new life, this place that can appear so still. And speaking of which: a new shoot has shot through a dead leaf on the ground. What will it become?
Above it, another has sprouted on a low twig, its veins, an ode to symmetry. Countless others like it, humble and perfect, embrace their twigs to make up branches, and these, join trunks to form trees. The tallest is the Tualang, reaching 80 meters long, with buttress roots angling off a main trunk thick as twenty men. Each massive specimen, that came from seedling centuries ago, has taken its place with oozing grace, to sit here and produce. It is a favorite of nesting giant honey bees, whose massive combs hang off high branches. But Dipterocarp trees dominate the jungle here, along with Durians, Kapoks and Figs, each a densely populated ecosystem, offering shelter, sustenance, real estate, and shade, and having done so, for many decades, without complaint.

Forest Giant

We climb up the sturdy trunks, passing squirrels, trogons, tree frogs and wasps, to their tallest branches, where a gibbon swings, delivering its haunting, undulating song. But (though it’s tempting to stay and take in the show), we keep moving out, past the forest’s last grasp, back out into the air, where the sun isn’t lost.

Back above the canopy the forest recombines into one green mass – its diversity hidden, its intricacy masked. Out, out we give in to the wind, this one breath spread about, and offered to the sky. And now, with nothing left to give, there’s room once more, to let it all back in. Again and again for the length of a life, it’s out, and in, end and begin. So quick and automatic, we do it without thought, but each breath unites us with everything.

By E.M. Vireo