Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Ara Project

Well, the countdown has officially begun! I have less than a week before I finagle my possessions into my backpack, board a plane and make my way solo on various modes of public transportation to Punta Islita, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Less than three weeks before I begin my month-long hiatus from being a vet and become a volunteer at The Ara Project.

Check it out here:
For those who may not know, The Ara Project is a government-supported conservation endeavor for Great Green and Scarlet Macaws. These two species are the only native macaws of Costa Rica, and their numbers have been consistently declining. They are both listed CITES I (threatened with extinction). And they are both absolutely gorgeous.

By Eric Kilby from Somerville, MA, USA (Great Green Macaw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I kept a travel blog when I went to Ireland last year and I know that some of my friends and family enjoyed the updates, so my plan is to do something similar this time. I won’t have access to the Internet very often, so posts may be a little sporadic. And also, I make no promises that the content might interest you; my posts may be rather bird-centric. I’m not a crazy bird lady at all.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A New Direction: Parrots

Two things you need to know about me before you read this:
1. I am a parrot owner.
2. I went to Costa Rica to work for a couple months this summer.

When I was in Costa Rica, I wasn’t studying parrots, but I did get the privilege of going behind the scenes at a couple wildlife rehabilitation clinics and I did do some observations of parrots in the wild.  What I saw and learned was eye-opening and powerful.  Life-changing, really.

Wild animals are illegal to own as pets in Costa Rica.  This includes any wild parrot, even if it is non-native to the region.  The reason is simple: Costa Rica’s people pride themselves in being environmentally forward-thinking, and want to protect threatened species (as so many Central and South American parrots are).  That’s what the legislation says.  But in actuality, Costa Ricans have a long history of keeping wildlife as pets.  A fascinating survey in 1999 reported that approximately 24% of households kept wild animals, the majority of them parrots. 
Fines were just recently increased to more formidable amounts, and more parrots are being surrendered or confiscated.

The rehabilitators I met had whole flocks of these “pet” parrots in their facilities.  They were keeping these birds in large flight cages with same or similar species, feeding them natural foods they could find in the wild, and monitoring them to see if they were performing normal behaviors indicating that they would be able to be released. The rehabilitators were surprised to learn that a vet interested in wildlife conservation, a.k.a. me, owned a parrot.  I would say they were even a little bit judgmental.

I adopted my parrot (a young black-capped conure) a few years ago from a woman who worked at Petsmart.  She told me that my bird came from the store she worked at, that she had felt sorry for him for not being bought for so long.  She decided to bring him home, but he didn’t get along with her other conure.  One of them had to go.  Beyond being from Petsmart, I don’t know my bird’s history.  He doesn’t have a band.  However, since importation of most parrots into the U.S. has been illegal since 1992, and the large pet store chains generally follow the rules, I am pretty confident that he is a captive-bred bird and my possession of him did nothing to deplete wild flocks.

But there’s another issue at stake here: animal welfare.  The rehabilitators introduced me to the parrots that they were trying to prepare for release into the wild.  Most of the birds, once put into the large flight cages after being quarantined, had to learn many new skills that they did not acquire in captivity.  They had to learn to climb up branches, fly, forage for food, interact appropriately with members of their same species, and avoid humans.

I watched wild red-lored parrots  (Amazona autumnalis) one morning from the porch of my cabin.  I could hear them calling as they wheeled towards me in a small flock.  They landed in a tall, leafless tree and I watched through my binoculars as they perched together, in pairs, and preened one another.  I also watched the descent of a horde of orange-chinned parakeets  (Brotogeris jugularis) attracted to a pile of fruit placed by the staff of the dining hall where we ate our meals.  I saw how one or two birds would initially find the fruit, and then call to the rest of the group until 20….30…40 parakeets were perched on the watermelons and papayas like fat green locusts.  I saw huge flocks of parakeets in the city of Alajuela, and in Quepos, to my lasting delight, I saw a single pair of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) far away in the distance, calling raucously and heading purposefully towards the mountains.

And I realized that parrots are never alone.

Yet, many of the birds at the rehabilitation centers came from situations where they were housed by themselves in tiny cages, with barely enough room for them to move.  The amazing thing is, these birds do learn the required skills, albeit slowly.  In the flock setting they are placed in, they learn from each other how to be “normal.”  The whole experience has provided me with many questions about keeping parrots as pets, and if my own bird fares well with a schedule that demands I work and leave him alone 10-12 hours a day, 5 days a week. 

For the next few months, I will be exploring companion bird ownership in the United States and other countries, how we can improve bird welfare, and parrot conservation efforts.  My blog has previously been an eclectic mix of subjects but this will be my focus for the time being.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I came to Ireland seeking renewal, and I found it on the Cliffs of Moher.  Mostly because of this lovely lady, and the restful place she gave us to stay.

This is Mary Theresa White, and her bed and breakfast, Atlantic View Inn in Liscannor.  This is where we got treated like part of the family, and mothered in the best of ways for three days.  We got to meet her son and hear him practicing the Irish language for a test at school, and we got to toss an egg shaped toy for her much-loved dog Rocko to play with.  We were served fantastic Irish breakfasts (bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and toast), heaping bowls of different fruits, tea and coffee at all times of the day, and when we came in we always heard Mary calling out, "Girls, girls," and knew we had to go check in with her.

Her husband, like many men in this area, is a farmer and they keep cows.  We took a long walk down their little country lane and just spent an evening watching all the animals of the countryside.  It was such a joy to watch the calves play next to their mothers in grass filled pastures.  The sun was setting and we marveled at everything, from a climbing rose bush on a house to the swallows that were darting through the sky.  I felt a deep peace and acceptance, looking at this fertile land full of new life balanced on the edge of the harsh, unforgiving cliffs.

The Cliffs of Moher are truly magnificent.  We went to the visitor's center, which is at the highest point on the cliffs, and followed a path down to the next town, Doolin.  Before we started our journey, we talked to a guide.   He told us, in typical Irish fashion, slyly and with a mischievous look in his eye, that the walk to Doolin would be fairly easy for fit people like us, would probably only take an hour and we could also likely walk back up after eating lunch there.  Two and a half hours later, we found ourselves staring at a sign at the base of the cliffs near Doolin informing us that we had just descended 300 km and walked 8 km (about 5 miles), and the hike was labelled at "extremely strenuous."  It was a GOOD walk!  Much longer than expected, and we ended up getting taxied back up after getting lunch and a Guinness in Doolin, but I loved it.

Our walk led us on the cliffs' edge and through various livestock pastures.  There were no rails or guards at any time and the wind was blowing intensely so it felt very dangerous and wild to be walking on those cliffs.  We took in incredible views and crept up to the edge of a rock outcrop at one point to peer over and stare far, far below.  Though many people visit the Cliffs of Moher, few do the longer hikes along the cliffs and we mostly had the path to ourselves.  A friendly farmer's dog ran with us for a while, and other than that all we had for company was each other and the wind, grass, sea and sky.

The following day we took a boat out to the Aran Islands, just off the coast at the mouth of Galway Bay.  Mary arranged our boat charter and got us a deal, after we were asked multiple times if we were ok on boats.  When we started the trip, we realized why.  Particularly on the Atlantic, before entering the bay, the water was rolling and the waves were large, even though it was a calm day.  We decided to get off at the first and smallest island, Inisheer, because we heard it had good natural areas and we didn't want to stay on the boat longer (well, Melinda and I didn't... We were feeling a little seasick).

On Inisheer, we didn't really know what to do so we took a cart ride tour, and thus began one of the strangest interactions we've had with the Irish.  Our driver was blunt and unsmiling and took it upon himself to tell us how Inisheer is just a place for tourists now, though families still grow potatoes and might keep a couple cows.  It's a surreal place where every patch of earth was once covered with slabs of limestone.  The slabs were broken off by the originally inhabitants to build stone walls and to reach the soil beneath.  Our driver told us a small amount of history but mostly just pointed out random things, such as the school, the hospital and the racquetball courts.  I felt like I was being shown a human zoo.  However, we did get to hear him speak Traditional Irish (Gaelic) to other people, which was beautiful, and we liked the way he talked to the horse, Jack.  After that we went to a nice pub (seemingly meeting everyone else there who had gotten off the boat with us) and got a Guinness with a shamrock formed from the foam.  We decided to leave Inisheer on an early afternoon boat and took a trip back by the Cliffs of Moher, where we saw hundreds of guillemots and plenty of puffins (totally the highlight of my day).

The next day we returned to Dublin and prepared to go on our long journey home.  We said goodbye to Mary regretfully.  If you ever go to the Cliffs of Moher, I hope you consider staying in her lovely home.  Going from the cliffs to Dublin was a little bit of a culture shock, but by the evening we had settled in and were visiting a couple pubs where we saw and participated in amazing traditional music.  It was a fitting end to the trip, a celebration of where we'd been.

I usually fall in love with the places I travel to sooner or later, and experience some degree of loss and sadness when I'm forced to return to normality.  However, as I was walking through the airport in Orlando, preparing to take my third plane in 24 hours to reach my job training destination in Raleigh, I realized that spending two weeks with my friends, Anna and Melinda, wasn't just a great time, it was a time where I regained perspective, energy and hope for a future.  The people we met and the things we did will always be a part of my story, but I can't dwell on them and become unwilling to be present in the rest of my life.  It's time to live.

Friday, May 22, 2015

When God created the Universe, He decided that some things should remain a little mysterious.  Some things are meant to inspire awe and wonder, and questions as well.  They were created to ignite our own creativity, in poetry, story, art and song.  We went to the Giant's Causeway on Sunday, and the mix of legend, science and history that surrounds it is fascinating.

Our guide was Catherine, park ranger and naturalist, who told us how the hexagonal rocks were either formed from lava flows, or built by a giant trying to reach Scotland to fight an enemy.  She told us about the Bay of Cows, where farmers would graze their herds in the winter in the sheltered bay but did risk losing some to a watery demise whenever there were storms.  There was also a bay for the sheep, too, and a path leading down to it from the cliffs where shepherds would take the sheep down on their shoulders in the spring, one by one.

Catherine also knew plenty about flora and fauna and told us about wild orchids, sea otters, and the rare chough.  The chough is a type of crow that is very rare Ireland and supposedly only 50 breeding pairs remain.  One such pair lives at the Giant's Causeway.  Seeing a chough is a rare treat for Ireland birders, and I hope to be able to see m myself one day.

A pair of chough also raise young on Rathlin Island, a small 8-mile piece of rock between Ireland and Scotland that has a village with 70 residents and a school of 7 students.  It can only be reached by a thirty-minute boat ride, which for us was pretty much the greatest thing ever because the water was choppy and we had an unbelievably good time sitting out on the deck.  We went to Rathlin primarily to reach the seabird colony on the northern side of the island and find Atlantic Puffins.  The colony was amazing, but we didn't really get great pictures of puffins because there were few of them, they were far away and were surrounded by thousands of guillemots and gulls.  We found them by looking for their little orange feet.

On Rathlin, we also saw seals, eiders, and a rare wildflower known as the early-blooming orchid.  We found those nestled in the grass of a churchyard, and it turns out they were blooming late, seemingly just for us to be able to delight in seeing them.  God is good.

One of the men who had been on the crew of the boat was also standing in a local craft shop that we entered after we had toured the colony.  We were in the shop marveling at some beautiful photography of the puffins and other Rathlin wildlife when a woman told us, "Those are Tom's.  He's standing behind you."  And so we were introduced to Tom, whose job is literally to ferry people to his island on a boat and do wildlife photography.  He is very skilled and you can see his work here.  He talked to us for a while about photography and the plants and animals of Rathlin, and back on the boat on the way home he told us to watch the waves, and maybe if we were lucky we'd see a minke whale or bottlenosed dolphin.  We asked to take a picture with him when we left the boat, and I think we're all somewhat envious of the life he leads, because it seems amazing.

Traveling to another culture does put one's place In the world in perspective.  How many people, if they met me, would be envious of my career path as a veterinarian, the place where I live and the culture I am part of?  I have many good things... And yet I see these seemingly happy Irish people living in this harsh and beautiful landscape and wonder if there's something I'm missing.  Can I just share things about nature with people who come visit me and give it expression in art?  That's what I really want to do.

The Giant's Causeway and Rathlin were also in the same vicinity of Carrick-a-Rede bridge, a popular place for tourists to see and cross a rope bridge that was originally built by fishermen to haul salmon out of the bay and over to the mainland.  Melinda and I had a great time crossing the bridge, and Anna gets a gold star because she managed to cross as well, putting aside a tremendous fear of heights.

We stayed in the north for a couple nights, and there are so many good memories... Visiting the dark hedges, befriending an adorably silly group of old Yorkshire motor bikers who decided to teach us about their home (most of which we didn't fully believe), eating amazing food at the inn at Bushmills, and finding out about the mysterious widgets that live at the bottoms of cans of Guinness and make them foam when you open them.  Driving the Coastal Causeway of Northern Ireland, "an area of outstanding natural beauty," we headed south on Monday for the Cliffs of Moher and the next part of our adventure.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

We were made to fulfill dreams.

The Ouessant sheep (pronounced "wessant" by some of the people we met) are thought to be the tiniest sheep in the world.  The rams only stand at their tallest 50 cm high, or about up to my knees.  As you can see from some of the pictures with a group of ouessants standing next to a giant Swiss Black-nose, these are tiny animals.  They are hardy, easy to keep in harsh conditions and have been bred to produce black wool, though other color varieties exist.  When we first stepped into their pasture the babies all came running up together to investigate, which was one of the most adorable things I've ever seen.

Melinda loves these sheep to death and her enthusiasm for them is contagious.  They are not a common breed and to see them in a location such as the Isle of Man is amazing.  We may have got made fun of by the locals a little for flying halfway around the world to find sheep, but it has been worth it in every way.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The flight to the Isle of Mann was amazing, and I have never met more friendly security guards than in the Dublin Airport.  I have this little spork multi tool thing on my bag that really threw them off, and it was hilarious.  The man checking the screens that scan carry-on bags told me it "looked really strange on my screen," and another asked, "but really, what's it for?!"  But it didn't make them angry or suspiciously; they were smiling. And people apologize whenever something inconvenient happens, such as when I wasn't able to carry a drink onto one of the buses.  

We arrived on the Isle of Man two days ago not really knowing what to expect (or at least I didn't).  I didn't even really know this tiny island existed until recently when I found out from Melinda that we could find the Ouessant sheep on a certain farm there.  I mean, that's what this trip was all about, finding this rare breed of the tiniest sheep in the world!  I don't know quite how to classify the Isle of Man.  It uses the British Pound, is only a short plane hop from Dublin, and has a rich heritage of intermingled Vikings, Celts and Christians.  Oh and there's Manx cats, and a big motorcycle race called the TT, too.  But even after learning all that, the only thing I understand for certain is that this island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Think, for example, of waking up every day to see the sea framed by rugged hills and green pastures full of cows and sheep.  The fields are full of rabbits, pheasants and jackdaws (there don't seem to be many natural predators).  The banks lining the roads are covered in different flowering plants of all kinds.  There are only five or six major fishing towns on the island, which you can easily reach within a few hours' drive.  Between that, there are farms.  That's it.

We had a cottage booked, but we had not arranged transportation and were planning on using the bus system.  We knew our destination to be Cammal Farms in Kirkmichael, but had no way of contacting anyone and had to ask many locals before we found our way.  

This video just about sums up everyone's feelings during that time.

Julia: Is the Go Pro actually on?
Anna: omg where are we going?  How are we going to get there?  We're lost!!
Melinda: sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

Two buses and a few hours later, we ended up in The Mitre, the oldest pub on the island.  The staff there kindly provided us directions to the Farm and made us sandwiches and chips to go (best tasting chips ever because by this time we were starving!).  We walked the rest of the way, about a mile up into the hills with our luggage.  But it was so beautiful and we were so close to our destination and we had chips so it didn't matter that much at all.  We finally reached the farm and settled into our little barn-like cottage, watching the sun set over the hills.

The next day we visited an ancient castle in Peel, learned some history of the island in the museum of Mannanan, and climbed a hill that gave us gorgeous views of the surrounding country.  When getting directions, we were given instructions like, " just go down the hill," or "just head north for a while."  On the first bus we took, a whole village of old fishermen took it upon themselves to help us find our way, but finally just wished us good luck and instructed us to talk to "the nice young bus driver."  And half of them looked a little tipsy so we did decide the bus driver was the best bet.
We never became seriously lost, and on an island of 85,000 people, most everyone knows how to help you or where you're supposed to go.

Standing on a big hilltop overlooking Peel, I thanked God for this trip, my friends and the unbelievable view.  It was a mountaintop moment for me and I hope the memory will nourish me in those days to come when acedia sets in and life seems like endless drudgery.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

If I didn't need to make a living, I would go back to school in a heartbeat, and if I could, I would go to Trinity College.  The library would be reason enough.  At the Long Library, books are treated with the respect they deserve.  We watched a member of the restoration team painstakingly dust the individual pages of one volume.  They also had a children's exhibit running and I was able to find my favorites.

    • We received a tour around Trinity's ground from a Ph.D history student named Caoimhe (pronounced "Queevah").  She did a great job and told us to go look in the geology building as well as seeing the obligatory Book of Kells.  The geology building has stone carvings along the outside depicting native Irish flora and fauna, but as Caoimhe informed us, the sculptors got more creative towards the top and added animals like flamingo, monkey and platypus.  Inside the building were two skeletons of the extinct giant deer that used to live in Ireland.

Caoimhe let us take a picture with her!

The Book of Kells is one of Dublin's most well-known attractions and was well worth the visit.  It's a beautiful illuminated manuscript of the 4 books of the gospel.  One thing that isn't apparent from pictures is the decorated lettering and illustrations are ridiculously intricate but also very tiny.  The most famous page is the Chi Rho, which symbolizes Christ and is full of other icons of faith.  It's beautiful.

Another interesting thing about the book was the monks put their own personal touch on the pages, leaving messages outside the borders of the text.  One such message was about the monk's feelings of solidarity with his white cat, Panger Ban. 

I was so inspired by the Celtic art that I drew my own depiction of Panger Ban, too.