Spring Quarter 2016

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It’s never too late for a happy childhood or a good education, so I’ve been trying to sneak in more non-fiction. 7 non-fiction, 10 free library books, 2 physical books (1 used).

My favorite book was “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” because what’s not to love about gripping tales of Enlightenment Age explorers? I mean, this was a guy that was Charles Darwin’s hero which seems more important in an era where people are building replicas of Noah’s Ark and putting in dinosaurs and unicorns. Science, damnit.

  1. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
  2. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur
  3. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  4. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  5. Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
  6. The End of the World as We Knew It by Nick Cole
  7. The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham by Steve Kemper
  9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  10. The Painter by Peter Heller
  11. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  12. Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition by Tim Birkhead
  13. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
  14. Zero K by Don DeLillo
  15. The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World by Brian Allen Carr
  16. Super Extra Grande by Yoss
  17. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Goodreads.com. Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Father’s Day

One of my favorite photos of my dad was taken in the pre-digital age where we printed pictures out on paper and sent them out in the world to survive or not survive. I don’t know where this picture is right now, so it may only exist in my head. I had most of my photos of my dad in a leather case that my sister took with her when she’d been living with us and moved out. (She took all my underwear too, but I digress.)

It’s a photo of my father flying fishing in Feather River canyon. He’s about a 100 yards away so that he’s a small figure in a big landscape. His back is turned toward the camera. He’s completely focused on what he was doing. My mother gave me the photo years later, so I’m not even sure he ever saw the picture or knew that it existed.

I never heard the story of where or why he picked up fly fishing, but he was good at it and it made him happy. It sustained and nourished him.

He died a year or so after I graduated from college.

And for the last year, while we worked on this project of the land and the building of a house, I can’t help but think how he would have loved this project. This would have been so interesting to him. He would have been right there, giving me advice that I didn’t ask for and making notes on the architectural drawings, taking drives to see how the land was doing.

He would have been a complete pain in the ass.

And if I’d complained, he would leaned forward in his chair on the patio, sweaty at the end of the day, his work boots unlaced, his shirt unbuttoned, and said, “You’ll thank me when everything’s done right.”

How to Drive an Engineer Crazy

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Let’s say you’ve decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve been to 5 different stores and 3 farmer’s markets to get just the right ingredients. You’ve spend a week doing prep. You’ve been up all night to make sure the turkey was just the right color brown and the stuffing is this interesting mixture of sweet and savory guaranteed to surprise and delight and you even have the “cranberries ala Bart”, the gelatinous cranberry mixture out of an Eisenhower era cookbook because somebody really loves it. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it. And you put everything out on the table, you “release” the dinner. Everyone takes 1 bite and declares it the worst thing they’ve ever eaten, you are the world’s worst cook and an evil person because you did this to deliberately ruin their holiday. You are a drunken flying monkey version of Satan.

So, there’s tears and hateful things are said and doors are slammed after yelling that they are never coming back. When you discover that the problem was that you didn’t put the salt and pepper shakers on the table. You don’t put a lot of salt and pepper on things, so you didn’t think about it. The dinner probably needed a little more salt and pepper on things, but this never came up. Everyone was too busy having an emotional reaction to tell you clearly what the problem was.

The same thing happens with software. I build something and release it and what I get back is “this software totally doesn’t work”, “this software sucks”, “you made the software suck on purpose”, “you are a drunken flying monkey version of Satan”, and my personal favorite that comes up at least once a week “this would never have happened before Steve died”. None of this is actionable. None of this tells me what problem you’re having or how to fix it. Sometimes if you just explained it to me with your big boy language skills and your inside voice, it’s as quick and easy as walking over the cabinet and getting the f***ing salt and pepper shakers that I ALREADY HAVE.

But the other half of the equation is that users can’t always articulate what’s wrong, they just know that it is. When you get it right, they will sometimes give grudging feedback that one of the idiots working on the code must have hit a couple buttons accidentally and now it’s working the way it’s supposed to. Duh, this was how it always supposed to work, why were you too dumb to see that?

My only fallback at times like these is to say that if they’re reacting so violently to my software, then they really do care, they really do want it to work for them. Just because someone is being mean to you, doesn’t mean they’re not on your side?

Right?

Twenty-nine months in — travels with fiddle

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I haven’t talked about the whole fiddle thang in months, but I am still standing in my bedroom most nights sawing away, trying to slowly improve. I switched instructors. It wasn’t that I had a problem with the second fiddle instructor, he took me a long way down the path of appreciating how music was constructed, recognizing the girders and beams, and how my instrument fit into that. But the “new” fiddle instructor, the third fiddle instructor, (and I put “new” in quotes because I started working with her last December) has started me down a path of playing completely by ear, of understanding the song from the inside out, rather than the outside in. We have no sheet music. She sends me a little audio recording of song and that’s how I learn a song. Sometimes she gives it to me in one key and I’m supposed to play it back to her in a different key. And when I play it back to her the following lesson, she doesn’t say “you’re missing an E there”, she says “no, you don’t have it yet, go back and listen”.

I was raised on sheet music, it’s my comfort zone, and this is taking a big step outside of that comfort zone.

I kept both the second and third fiddle instructors for months, but they were going in different directions and I had to choose a single path. And the reason I choose her path was that this whole playing by ear thing is an important step to the whole “playing” with music, to listen to the people you’re playing with and react and echo what they’re doing. I am reminded that the word for what I’m doing with a musical instrument is that same word for what children do in a playground.

No. I’m not there yet. And I’m sure my friend Phyllis will cheerfully post how this song freaked out her cats. But another thing that I love about fiddle instructor number 3 is that apparently there is a Suzuki violin instructor thing that you have to give 2 positive feedbacks for every criticism (or as one of my co-workers put it “a shit sandwich”) and she doesn’t give false criticism. When she gives me an attaboy, I have earned it. And I appreciate this because I’m old enough that I do not need or enjoy smoke being blown up my ass.

Like I said. This is a journey.

So, 667 hours in, I give you Sunny Side of the Mountain.

Dominican Republic and Snorkeling with Humpback Whales

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The first time someone talked to me about swimming with whales I envisioned a small paper craft cartoon scene with tiny swimmers with big fins and happy figure eight shaped whales spouting fountains of water next to them. It was a scene out of a children’s book, full of smiles and sentences that rhymed. Because whales in person, right up there in your face, are nothing like the whales in children’s books. They’re bigger and longer, with a subtle eel-like grace. And they’re wild animals. Saying, “I’m going out to swim with whales today” sounded suspiciously like “I’m going to go play in traffic with sentient school buses that don’t necessarily want to play with me”.

But there’s a place in the Caribbean where it’s heavily regulated and licensed and you go out in a live-aboard dive boat for a week and swim with humpbacks. The company I’ve gone with twice now is Conscious Breath out of Florida. The whales are there to give birth and breed for the next season. So, most of the whales you will have encounters with are the mother and calf combination, where the mother is resting lower in the water column coming up every 20 minutes or so to breath, but the young calf has to come up every 5 minutes or so. (You’re in about 80-100 feet of water over a limestone reef 75 miles offshore.) If everything gets timed correctly and the mother whale is amenable, you float in the water in a group of 8 or so and the calf will come check you out. They’re a week or so old at that point, so think 1 to 2 ton puppy. This is all done in open water, so if the mother is not comfortable with this, she just flicks her tail and her and the calf are gone.

I won’t break this trip down into days because the days are remarkably similar. You get up at 7:30, eat breakfast, into the smaller tenders / whale chasers by 8 am, out on the water, in the water, you’ll spend 5 minutes to an hour with an particular whale, in for lunch around noon, out again at 1 until 6pm or so, back for a shower and a beer with the sundown, dinner, a presentation, and bed. The dive boat holds 16 or so people, the tenders that go out are 8 people each.

You fly in and out of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. We stayed the first couple nights on land to get over the jet lag and do a preliminary snorkeling trip to make sure all the camera equipment and the snorkeling gear was working. A little horseback riding on the beach.

sunrise

sunrise

horseback rider

convict tang

school of fish

ballyhoo

After much deliberation, I went with the Nikon AW1 underwater camera. It’s a mirrorless, 14 MP camera that comes with 2 available lens. The advantage being that you don’t need a housing, it’s sealed, so that it’s a lot less awkward than a DSLR in a housing. A DSLR is going to a foot or more in diameter, weigh 15-20 pounds (though it will be neutrally buoyant underwater, it still has momentum and drag against the water). And you can quickly and easily change the settings where a DSLR you set it up, make all decisions before you get in the boat, because it’s locked and loaded for the most part. And I have never taken one of these trips without someone’s housing flooding and the DSLR inside going to Valhalla.

In fact, my hesitation about the Nikon AW1 was that this was the camera I took to the South Pacific in 2014 and it got water inside and was ruined halfway through the trip. Do you give a camera model that has failed you another chance? I decided yes, though I took a Go Pro with me so that I would have a backup underwater camera. Fortunately, I did not need it.

But once out there on the Silver Banks, you get in the water with the whales and time just stops.

humpback calf

The mothers are producing milk for the calves, but the calf doesn’t attach to a nipple. The mother pumps out her very thick, fatty, clumps of milk and the calf immediately slurps them into its baleen. Sometimes you’ll see the milk floating in the water near the mother.

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback calf with mother

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback mother and calf

humpback calf

You don’t touch the calf. You hang in the water and wait to see if the calf approaches you.

swimmers with whale (griet)_v1
(Photo by Griet Laval Van Malden)

humpback calf with swimmers

humpback calf with swimmers

And if you’re lucky, you’ll have your underwater camera still in your hand when the whale decides to breech. That’s our dive boat in the background for scale.

humpback breech

When you’re not in the water with the whales, you’re in the tender watching the breeding behavior — tail slapping, spy hopping, breeching, pec slapping. And a group of males all fighting each other for dominance, called a rowdy bunch, where they are just whacking on each other, slamming each other with their jaws. They’re bloody and puffing like steam engines. (You do not get in the water with a rowdy group.)

humpback breeching

humpback breeching

humpback pec slapping

humpback fluke slapping

rowdy group (male breeding behavior)

rowdy group (male breeding behavior)

And then you get back in the water with the mother and calf and are privileged to watch how affectionate they are with each other. It is sad to know that maybe 50 percent of calves don’t make it. It’s a long way back to their feeding grounds in the Arctic and some of them will not survive that long a journey.

humpback mother and calf

humpback mother and calf

humpback calf

humpback calf

It’s a luxury to have a block of time to focus on just one thing — the humpback whales. To have a moment where you are fully present and it’s just you and these truly enormous animals who tolerant you with benign grace. You end up comparing your feeble attempts to penetrate the surface of the water and swim in their world with their breeching behavior where they crack the surface of the sea. There are places where the sea seems bottomless, the sky seems endless, and yet you meet somewhere in the middle.

Winter Quarter 2016

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Ah, a new year. Fresh pages. Undiscovered books. My favorite books for the quarter where “M Train” which is a lovely meditation on how determining what is important to you and no one else and “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise” which is the almost true story on misremembered friendship.

  1. The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America by Brian Kevin
  2. Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #3) by Ransom Riggs
  3. A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
  4. The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman
  5. Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos
  6. M Train by Patti Smith
  7. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
  8. Firefight (Reckoners Book 2) by Brandon Sanderson
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  10. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce, #6) by Alan Bradley
  11. West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein
  12. The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
  13. Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Kinky Crustaceans, Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep by Marah Hardt
  14. Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Goodreads.com. Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Nine months in — the new house

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the hill on New Year's Day

This picture is from New Year’s Day when we ran up there to check out how the property was handling the rain. Was it one big mud puddle? Had the dirt road up to the top of the hill survived? And the good news was that everything was draining well, no standing water. A tree had fallen across the dirt road and still being city folk, we did not have the chain saw in the back of the truck.

The house on the hill was always envisioned as a place to retire to, so we’ve been in no real rush to complete the project. Take our time, make sure everything is right. It’s a good thing we feel this way because the project is going really really slowly.

We’ve descended into the morass of septic tank placement, window placement for adequate winter lighting, whether stove hood technology will allow us to put the stove on the center island, refrigerator selection, and should we have a wine closet? The architect and his assistant have completed a preliminary design review with the Marin county planning department. And there weren’t a huge amount of surprises here. As the arborist told us last summer, the planning department is going to tell you that you can’t cut down any trees (we have hoped to thin one particular clump of pine trees to improve the view), and they did, but that’s not strictly true. As part of the construction process, we will have to have an arborist prepare a vegetation plan for fire safety and you can get some trees cut down as part of that process. We going to have to redo some of the geological and percolation tests because they’re sixteen years old and the percolation tests (for the septic tank) were done before that clump of trees we want to thin grew and you don’t want to put the leech lines where tree roots are going to disrupt them.

Another interestingly sticky point was the guest cottage. Because we’re planning for a small kitchen, it’s considered a second unit which will require us to have more parking. But we’d already planned a two car garage and a two car covered carport and we have to have this large paved area for the fire truck turnaround. And the second unit has to be of a minimum size. (And I’m not sure what that minimum size is at this point.)

All checklist items are just things to work through. We’re right on the cusp of starting to bring in the army of consultants to prepare pre-construction reports. I’m sure that’s what I will talking about in the next progress report.

But the big problem at the moment is that the architect has come back with a preliminary price tag that exceeds what I wanted to pay. He’s estimating $600 a square foot (and including the garage and carport in that square foot calculation). But we have not begun to talk materials and maybe we don’t build the guest cottage. (Though everyone I’ve told that to has said, “NOOOOOO, not MY guest cottage. You gotta make that work.”) Dropping the guest house would, according to the architect’s estimates, drop the price by $300,000 to $400,000.

We have a builder that we’ve signed up, so I’ve asked if we could get some back of the envelope, rough estimates from him. It’s probably time to have the talk about material trade offs. $600 a square foot seems high, but it’s a virgin site that needs infrastructure brought in, the hill needs to be sculpted with large equipment.

On the lighter side, I have signed up for a beekeeping class because the world needs more bees and I now have a place to put down a hive or two.

Previous progress reports are here:

  1. Six months
  2. Three months

Fall Quarter 2015

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My favorite book of the last 3 months was The Fly Trap, a charming combination of science, observation, memoir, and history, not just history, but a story you’ve never heard before about an individual that very little comes up when you type in the Google search. It was a Christmas present from my husband who seems to scrub the dusty corners of the internet to find me amazing books that I have never heard of. But the book that took a month and a half to read was the 910 page non-fictional study of Teddy Roosevelt, his relationship with Taft (why were friends, why they stopped being friends) and how they helped encourage the development of modern investigative journalism. It’s a barn burner, unfortunately that barn houses a couple million cows, so it took awhile.

  1. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
  2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  3. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
  4. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  5. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  6. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
  8. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
  9. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
  10. The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg
  11. Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Goodreads has come up with a handy page to summary my reading year.

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Goodreads.com. Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

My experiment with the Oyster book service as a way to keep the cost of feeding my reading habit has come to an end. (And it’s true that I bought none of the books this quarter.) Oyster going out of business was easily predicted. To make the subscription cost ($9.99 a month) you needed to read a least 2 books a month (assuming that most books cost around $9.99). Most people don’t read 2 books a month. And they never had the latest book that everyone was talking about. To get that I had to get in the queue to the digital books for the local library. (Which can be a lengthy wait. I’m still waiting for a book that I put on hold a year ago. And you’re only allowed 8 holds.)

Amazon Tchotchke

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The woven straw animals and the carved piranha whistle I bought in the various villages as we passed through the Amazon.

Peruvian tchotchke

Peruvian tchotchke

Peruvian tchotchke

Peruvian tchotchke

Peruvian tchotchke

Yes, I do have a shelf in my house filled with Nautilus shells and ceramic policemen from Prague and wooden carvings of hippos and stone faces and weird unlicensed windup toys and don’t ask about the cupboard full of whimsical teapots…

The Amazon List

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Birds

  1. Javiru (Javiru Mycteria)
  2. Muscovy Duck (Cairina Moschata)
  3. Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Brasilianus)
  4. Anhinga (Anhinga Anhinga)
  5. Capped Heron (Pilherodius Pileatus)
  6. Boat Billed Heron (Cochlearius Cochlearius)
  7. Striated Heron (Butorides Striata)
  8. Black-Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax Nycticorax)
  9. Great Egret (Ardea Alba)
  10. Snowy Egret (Egretta Thula)
  11. Cocoi Heron (Ardea Cocoi)
  12. Horned Screamer (Anhima Cornuta)
  13. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes Aura)
  14. Lesser Yellow-Headed Vulture (Cathartes Burrovianus)
  15. Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture (Carthartes Melambrotus)
  16. Black Vulture (Coragyps Atratus)
  17. Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia Plumbea)
  18. Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus Urubitinga)
  19. Slate Colored Hawk (Leucopternis Schistaceus)
  20. Osprey (Pandion Haliaetus)
  21. Black Collared Hawk (Busarellus Nigricillis)
  22. Roadside Hawk (Buteo Magnirostris)
  23. Black Cara Cara (Daptrius Ater)
  24. Yellow-Headed Cara Cara (Milvago Chimachima)
  25. Red-Throated Cara Cara (Ibycter Americanus)
  26. Black Hawk Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus)
  27. Speckled Chachalaca (Ortalis guttata)
  28. Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres Cachinnans)
  29. Wattled Jacana (Jacana Jacana)
  30. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis Macularis)
  31. Large-Billed Tern (Phaethusa Simplex)
  32. Yellow-Billed Tern (Sterna Superciliaris)
  33. Least Tern (Sternula antillarum)
  34. Blue & Yellow Macaw (Ara Ararauna)
  35. Chestnut-Fronted Macaw (Ara Severus)
  36. White-Eyed Parakeet (Aratinga Leucophthalma)
  37. Dusky-Headed Parakeet (Aratinga Weddellii)
  38. Cobalt-Winged Parakeet (Brotogeris Cyanoptera)
  39. Tui Parakeet (Brotogeris Sanctithomae)
  40. Canary-Winged Parakeet (Brotogeris Veriscolurus)
  41. Mealy Parrot (Amazona Farinosa)
  42. Festive Parrot (Amazona Festiva)
  43. Smooth-Billed Ani (Crotophaga Ani)
  44. Greater Ani (Crotophaga Major)
  45. Hoatzin (Opisthocomus Hoazin)
  46. Great Potoo (Nyctibius Albicollis)
  47. Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus Albicollis)
  48. Black-Tailed Trogon (Trogon Melanurus)
  49. Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle Torquata)
  50. Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle Amazona)
  51. Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle Americana)
  52. White-Eared Jacamar (Galbalcyrhynchus Leucotis)
  53. Black-Fronted Nunbird (Monasa Nigrifrons)
  54. Scarlet-Crowned Barbet (Capito Aurovirens)
  55. Lettered Aracari (Pteroglossus Inscriptus)
  56. Chestnut-Eared Aracari (Pteroglossus Castanotis)
  57. Cream-Colored Woodpecker (Celeus Favus)
  58. Lesser Kiskadee (Pitangus Lictor)
  59. Greater Kiskadee (Pitangus Sulpuratus)
  60. Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus Melancholicus)
  61. White-Winged Swallow (Tachycineta Albiventer)
  62. Brown-Chested Martin (Progne Tapera)
  63. Southern Rough-Winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx Ruficollis)
  64. Black-Capped Donacobious (Donacobius Atricapilla)
  65. Red-Capped Cardinal (Paroaria Gularis)
  66. Plum-Throated Cotinga (Cotinga Maynana)
  67. Masked Crimson Tanager (Ramphcelus Nigrogularis)
  68. Masked Tityra (Tityra semifasciata)
  69. Blue-Gray Tanager (Thraupis Episcopus)
  70. Russet-Backed Oropendola (Psarocolius Angustifrons)
  71. Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius Decumanus)
  72. Yellow-Rumped Cacique (Cacicus Cela)
  73. Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax Mexicanus)
  74. Yellow-Hooded Blackbird (Chrysomus Icterocephalus)
  75. Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)

Mammals

  1. Three Toed Sloth (Bradypus Variegates)
  2. Greater Fishing Bat (Noctilio Leporinus)
  3. Southern Long Nosed Bat (Leptonycteris Curasoae)
  4. Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri Sciureus)
  5. Black Capuchin Monkey (Cebus Negrifrons)
  6. Monk Saki Monkey (Pithecia Monachus)
  7. Saddleback Tamarin (Saguinus Fuscicollis)
  8. Peruvian Spider Monkey (Ateles chamek)
  9. Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta Seniculus)
  10. Peruvian Night Monkey (Aotus Vociferans)
  11. Pink River Dolphin (Inia Geoffrensis)
  12. Gray Freshwater Dolphin (Sotalia Fluviatilis)
  13. Amazon Yellow Crowned Brush Tailed Rat (Isothrix Bistriata)

Reptiles

  1. Green Iguana (Iguana Iguana)
  2. Yellow-Spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis Unifilis)
  3. Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriata)
  4. Red Tailed Boa (Boa constrictor)
  5. Red-Backed Poison Dart Frog (Ranitomeya reticulata)
  6. Barred Leaf Frog (Phyllomedusa Tomopterna)
  7. Black Caiman (Caiman Niger)