“He who has seen the intimate beauty of nature must become either a poet or a naturalist and, if his eyes are good enough and his powers of observation sharp enough, he may well become both.”     Konrad Lorenz

Portoviejo Ecuador – A petite wetland anchors a corner of Parque Las Vegas, which provides an easy respite from the more-hurried pulse of the city. A half-hour timeout at the park provides an important dose of Vitamin D as well as an upgrade from the pollution from city traffic. My half hour almost always extends to one or two hours, and I return home with a soul re-boot.

Can you find the Striated Heron?

The Patient Striated Heron

The Purple Gallinules roam the entire pond as if their colors grant them royalty status!

Three Generations of Purple Gallinules

Nature almost always offers a private show, which sometimes reveals its darker side. I often wondered why the Common Gallinules cowered on the far side near a thick border of cattails. They blended into the deep shadows, and every so often a little black orb of a baby moved just enough to betray its presence.  I assumed that they were cautious and doting parents, unlike their cousins the Purple Gallinules that paraded their multi-generation clan in easy-to-view locations.

The bashful Common Gallinules on the far end of the pond.

On alert – Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule retrieving Water-lily fruit

A perpetual evolution of the more-colorful species provides easy viewing from the walkway that bridges the pond. Half-grown juveniles, that were babies only a few months earlier, help feed the newest generation. Where the Purple Gallinules tend to five or six precious orbs of big-footed black fluff, the Common Gallinule adults dote one one or two.

Common Gallinule and Chicklet

These two species illustrate yin and yang – the moon and the sun, the feminine and the masculine, cold and hot… The Purple Gallinules aggressively patrol their section of the pond; their babies roam a vast marshy playground of Water Hyacinths.  The more-bashful Common Gallinules retreat to more-distant areas and avoid conflicts.  The babies shadow the parents, almost always swimming – and never roaming too far from the cover of the cattails. 

The images that follow show the Purple Gallinule chicklets in various activities.

Two fast-growing chicklets with one juvenile. (Purple Gallinules)

Oh, it must feel great to stretch those fast-growing bodies! (Purple Gallinule)

They look as if they feel they are royal children and entitled to rule over their kingdom!

Dining on just-retrieve water lily fruit.

The territorial adult and juvenile Purple Gallinules dart and dash after Wattled Jacanas and Eared Doves that encroach on their turf. The more-peaceful Common Gallinules keep a low profile.

The Purple Gallinules provide easy observation of all phases of growth, yet the Common Gallinule babies appear for a few weeks and then vanish.  I’ve never seen a juvenile of the latter species.  Usually two appear, bashfully peering from the shadows or clinging near the parents.  A week or so later, only one can be found – and then nothing, until a few months later when the cycle repeats.

The Purple Gallinules often dash after the Wattled Jacanas, which seem to enjoy the impromptu scrimmages!

Three Striated Herons guard various sections of the pond.  Maybe they line up to observe activity in the gallinules’ arena!

The adorable Parrot-billed Seedeaters

Nature sometimes provides moments of insight. One day the Common Gallinules paraded their young one to the “yang end” of the pond. Several generations of Purple Gallinules roamed their home turf. Green Kingfishers darted from cattail perches to spear unsuspecting minnows. Striated Herons lurked in strategic shadows and awaited their next catch. The wary Wattled Jacana perused the shallows in its patient search for food.  A Great Egret added its elegant presence to the setting.

Striated Heron

Great Egret

One day in September of this year,  I watched the Common Gallinule family swim to the yang end of the pond.  They provided easy photo ops as they meandered into a narrow funnel of water that curved around the back side of the water hyacinths, where thick cattails provided ample cover. The little baby stayed near the adult in front, and then vanished into the thick protection of the water hyacinths. The adult continued forward, and the baby remained absent from the scene.

Warning – this story turns ugly.  

Suddenly the gang of Purple Gallinules dashed in the direction of the baby, and the next few minutes solved the mystery of what happens to the baby Common Gallinules.

The idyllic scene turned into a brief-but brutal slaying ground, where the parent bird attempted to defend the little one. Those big feet serve not only to walk on floating debris, but also to fight and kick. Outnumbered, the parent bird watched as a cluster of adult and juvenile Purple Gallinules chased and caught the little one, which broke away three times and dashed for safety – until the final catch – by a juvenile, resulted in its death. The entire group of feathered savages participated in the battleground feast, while the parents of the murdered chicklet nervously watched from a safe distance.

Do birds experience grief?

I now understand why the Wattled Jacana maintains an alert status while foraging the floating corral of vegetation. I understand why the doves bolt for safety when a gallinule suddenly darts in their direction. I understand why the Common Gallinules lurk near the cattails on the yin side of the pond, and why the babies swim close to the parents.

I felt physically sick for another day. The stunning beauty of the Purple Gallinules no longer seemed as brilliant. They allowed a glimpse into their true nature. How could I have adored them for so long without ever realizing their darker side, their true nature?

There were lessons for me that extend beyond the gallinules; it’s so easy to be blinded by the pretty side, to chose not to see the ugly side.  How does one remain neutral and not judge.   Is it best to acknowledge the good and the bad, adjust one’s perception, yet agree that we all have the dark and the light? How can one species be so peaceful while its cousin displays a barbaric side? The gallinules easily personify human nature.  I turned inward to process these concepts.

PART TWO

“The very idea of “managing” a forest in the first place is oxymoronic, because a forest is an ecosystem that is by definition self-managing.” ― Bernd Heinrich, The Trees in My Forest

At the end of November I visited Parque las Vegas for my dose of Vitamin A and nature; approaching the pond, I noted changes and altered my pace. Workers were clearing the cattails on the ‘yang’ end of the pond. Moving closer and scanning the scene, I saw workers scalping all vegetation on the ‘yin side’ where the Common Gallinules found solace.  They had cleared almost half and were taking a break.  Nearby one man moved a water sprinkler, and his choice of attire suggested that he was in charge.

He said that the vegetation was being cut for the health of the pond and its water; I asked if it all had to be cut, and he provided the easy reply, ‘It will grow back fast.’ I attempted to tell him about the migratory Soras which visited last year, and that they might return any time. Their presence was of importance, not only to that little pond and Portoviejo, but for the entire country of Ecuador. (He did not seem to be interested!)

I pointed to the ‘little islita’ in the middle, the one where the ‘little black and white birds had a nest’ and asked if he would spare cutting it. He nodded, and I thanked him, then walked to the bridge to photograph the Masked Water Tyrants and note the progress. One bird was on the nest, while the other displayed its normal flighty and nervous behavior. 

Not wanting to witness the removal of the rest of the vegetation around the edges of the pond, I returned home and thought it best to avoid the park for a while.

“The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” Piet Mondrian

Two weeks passed before I returned to the park and its marsh-like pond. The altered landscape would assault my senses, and I dreaded the return. I hoped that the man in charge honored his word to spare the islita.

This past Sunday after a weekend of intense painting, I awakened with a strong sense of anticipation. “Go to the park,” my inner voice nudged.  After nine hours of sleep, my body was still tired and protested, “But I’m still exhausted.” Painting is sometimes like giving a transfusion and leaves me drained, and it sometimes takes a few days to recover after a serious session.

I noted the strong ‘nudge’ again – and paid attention. “There’s something there to see – and it’s not a common sight,” I thought, “and if I don’t follow this sense of urgency, I’ll always wonder about what I missed.”

Packing drawing materials and camera into my bag, I headed for both parks in the area. The petite park by the museum has an interesting tree that deserves a serious sketch. Considering a stop there first, I thought, ‘No. Go to the segua now.  The tree can wait.’

Slowly recovering from its scalping, the little wetland no longer had its natural appeal. It looked like a generic and sterile garden where its human occupants feared close contact with nature. A dark blue-grey heron waded the shallows where the cattails once stood on the yang end of the pond. Caramba! Instant gratification! The Tri-colored Heron is common on the coast, but not here. The absence of vegetation allowed easy photos of this medium-sized heron, and a Wattled Jacana posed nearby for comparison in size.

This Tri-colored Heron seemed to be taking a vacation from the beach and brackish waters! For the next half hour I photographed the resident birds. The Common and Purple Gallinules shared the hyacinth area in harmony while a new generation of Purple Gallinules explored their playground. Striated Herons lurked along the water hyacinths while a Green Kingfisher, also robbed of its preferred cattail options, perched sky high in the treetops!

The Masked Water Tyrants’ islita remained untouched, and one stayed on or near the nest while the other replicated its normal behavior – gleaning insects and flitting from various areas then reporting back to the nest. Three Parrot-billed Seedeaters landed briefly on the papyrus before flying to new locations. Their preferred native bushes provided seeds, but those options were now absent, as was the nesting ‘fluff’ from the cattails.

I realized that I was being too protective; the park was a park, and it required maintenance. I had told the crew boss that’s why God gave us men and women – many hombres prune with a less-sensitive eye.  On retrospect,  maybe the difference is between creative types and non-creative ones, or simply ‘sensitive or insensitive’ people.

“Artists cannot help themselves; they are driven to create by their nature, but for that nature to truly thrive, we need to preserve the precious habitat in which that beauty can flourish.” – William Morris/textile designer

The Tri-colored Heron, my prize for the day, flew to the yin end of the pond and provided more easy photos. It spooked another bird which flew low over the water and landed at the islita and triggered my ‘bird alert’ senses. I’d seen that bird shape and flight behavior before, and I hoped it was the visitor from the northern hemisphere.

Yes!

A Sora was back!

Double Caramba!

Without seeing it fly to the base of the papyrus, I would never have spotted it at the water’s edge. I scanned the scalped perimeters of the pond and wondered if all three from last year had returned. If so, where were the others, or did they chose to resume their migration in search of better habitat?

After a few minutes, this one flew to a small circle of water hyacinths and quickly vanished into its dense leaves.  My concerns returned.  Will the cattails regrow fast enough to provide a safe hiding place for this Sora and others?   Was this petite bird one of the three that visited a year ago?  If so, was it surprised to find the altered landscape?  Will the Sora become easy prey to the predatory gallinules?  Where will it sleep at night?  Will it remain in the pond or will instincts nudge it to better wintering grounds?  

La Gringita the observer considered this tiny bird, and like the Brown Wood Rails wondered why she felt so protective of the species.  Who would speak up for them if she didn’t?  Did anyone else care about the welfare of the resident birds?  Will man ever learn that sometimes nature has a right to its own rhythms, or to prune half and let it recover before pruning the other half? There are many sensitive stewards on this planet, yet there are also many who do what’s always been done – because that’s what they know.

Some things will never change; the predators will pounce on the victims; man will whack back nature, many times without pondering the short or long-term effects. Nature teaches us, however, to adapt and bounce back. We move forward, one day at a time, quite like the cattails and the Soras.