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The image on the left is a leaf being chowed down by a group of caterpillars. I saw them when I was waiting for birds on the top of a tall observation tower, and since I was there for a long time, I could check back from time to time to see their progress. They chewed up the leaf pretty fast. I'd guess that they ate about two or three centimeters per hour.
What was interesting to watch was their jockying for position which is impossible to show in a single photo. Apparently, the positions on the outsides were not as desirable, and after a caterpillar arrived on the outside, it would crawl behind the others to the middle and force its way in. In the image here, there are three caterpillars about to force their way in.
Also notice on the far left there is a caterpillar head sticking out from below. There was an equivalent lineup of caterpillars working on both sides of the leaf. It must have been really yummy!
Click on most of the images (except this one) to get a larger version.
I suppose I deserved this -- it was my first trip to South America in years where I was a full-blown tourist instead of a volunteer helping with some biological project. I was at the La Selva Jungle Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, and the speaker was from Stockton, California -- not too far from where I live.
She took a bunch of pills every day and to keep them organized, each morning the put the morning, noon, and nighttime collections in three small plastic bags. She then placed the bags in an ashtray in her room. Sometime after noon, the maid had found an ashtray with what appeared to be a couple of tiny empty plastic bags in it and so she tossed the contents into the garbage.
"I don't smoke! Why would I put things in the ashtray that I wanted to throw away?"
Since the customer is always right, the manager did get someone to plow through the day's garbage and was able to find the missing bags so things ended well. But it was all I could do to keep myself from suggesting that next time she leave her important things in the garbage can instead of the ashtray. Clearly if I were an employee in such a place I'd be fired within a day for being rude to the customers.
It was near the end of 1999 with millenium fever and fear of the Y2K bug gripping the United States. When I signed up for my third stint of a bird-banding Earthwatch project in Ecuador, I knew it would be tricky to get airline flights. By the time I started looking, flights on exactly the days I wanted were unavailable, unless I wanted to pay first-class rates which would have added another $700 to my fare. But if I went a week early, I could save a bundle, so I arranged to fly to Ecuador on December 13 for the Earthwatch project that was to begin on December 20 and last until January 3, 1900 (oops -- I mean 2000).
There were some logistics problems, of course. To get to La Selva, I had to fly to Quito, spend the night, and fly to a small town named Coca in eastern Ecuador where I would catch a boat to ride downriver for about two and a half hours to the lodge. The Quito-to-Coca flight is in a small plane, and I was informed that there was a strict weight limit of 20 pounds. Since the Earthwatch trip required that I bring rubber boots, a tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress, I was going to be considerably over the limit.
The main office for La Selva is in Quito, and so I arranged with the La Selva folks to meet one of them at the airport where I would unload the equipment I didn't need at La Selva and they could store it at the Quito office. La Selva always has someone at the airport anyway to make sure that the visitors get on the right plane, so it seemed like a good solution.
I flew from San Francisco to Miami to Quito the night before I was to fly to Coca and arrived approximately at midnight. On the flight from Miami to Quito I sat next to a high-school foreign-exchange student from Colombia who had just spent four months in Rhode Island, and was going home for the holidays. I was quite encouraged with my Spanish because we began talking in English and by the end of the flight had drifted over into Spanish as being easier.
In Quito, to get through immigration, I had to select one of about ten lines, and as Murphy's Law guarantees, I managed to pick the slowest. The guy at the front was apparently just learning his job, and for every new person, he seemed to require help from a supervisor. I finally got to the front of the line, where I explained that I was staying for three weeks, and only after I left did I notice that he had written that I was going to be in Ecuador for 10 days on the slip of paper I'd have to show upon exit. By the time I noticed it, it was far too late to do anything, so I figured that at worst I'd get a good chance to practice Spanish when I exited. Nobody ever seemed to notice, however.
My bag seemed to be the last one off the plane as well, so I was basically last in line at customs, and to my horror, they were opening lots of bags, so the customs wait was for another eternity. I did have to open my bag, but the inspector only poked around a little bit. I'm sort of glad, since if he'd gone carefully though the first-aid kit, he'd have discovered some interesting items for which I wasn't carrying prescriptions, but there was no hassle -- just a long delay.
I think I woke up the guy at the Hostel where I had reservations, and when I finally got to my room, I found that there was no bottled water. But I did have my water purification tablets, so instead of waking up the poor guy again, I made a couple of liters of water with that.
The next morning I got a cab to the airport and arrived about a half hour before I was to meet the La Selva representative, so I decided to change some money from dollars to sucres. The exchange rate had changed drastically since the last time I was in Ecuador; previously, it had been about 6500 sucres/dollar, but now it was about 17000 sucres/dollar. As I waited in line at the bank, I was approached over and over by people who wanted to exchange their sucres for dollars and were offering slightly better rates. I wasn't sure if it was legal (in some countries, black-market currency exchange is highly frowned upon by the government), so I just waited in line since I'd probably only save a dollar or two by dealing with the people. It seemed to take forever, and I finally got my money and was back to the rendezvous point only a couple of minutes late.
But there was nobody there.
The La Selva Lodge people had my tickets, so I paged them, and waited some more. Finally, about fifteen minutes before my flight was to leave, a guy walked up and said that he was a guide at La Selva, and that it looked like the official representative wasn't going to make it, so he helped arrange the flight, and we left my excess baggage at the counter with instructions to give it to the official representative when she arrived -- which didn't give me a really great feeling. But we decided to wait until the last possible moment to board, and just before the last possible moment, the La Selva person showed up, said the traffic outside was a nightmare, and took my excess baggage back to their office.
The guide's name was Effy, and I flew with him to Coca, where we boarded a bus to the riverside boat landing, caught the boat 20 minutes later, and headed downriver.
As we left Coca, I hauled out my binoculars to see what I could see on the boat ride. Surprisingly, there was almost no bird life for the first half hour, but then things picked up a bit and I saw some birds. Of course I didn't have the bird guide book (it was heavy, so I left it in Quito, counting on the fact that there would be guides at La Selva) so except for the obvious birds, I had a hard time identifying much of anything. Effy slept for most of the boat ride.
There was a pretty impressive military presence, both in Coca, and even on the river. I guess we were quite a bit closer to the border, and there's a lot of petroleum in eastern Ecuador. Anyway, the airport was pretty busy in spite of the fact that there was only one scheduled flight per day. All the other flights (and there are many) are for oil company employees, and for military. There was even a checkpoint on the river where I had to show my passport to somebody in the Ecuadorian army. I was a little nervous that he'd notice the recent entry to Peru, with whom Ecuador was recently at war and is still battling for oil rights in the Amazon, but if the guard did notice, he didn't say anything.
The river -- the Rio Napo -- blew me away -- I'd never been on such a large river, and we were still far upstream -- the Napo is just a "tributary" of the Amazon. It moves pretty fast, has lots of junk floating in it, and looks just like the photos of all the giant tropical rivers I'd seen in the nature shows.
But just on the paddle trip I saw the weirdest bird of the trip -- the Hoatzin. It's vaguely related to the cuckoos, but looks almost totally prehistoric. It's the size of a large chicken, makes strange sounds, and apparently the young Hoatzins have claws on their wings to help them climb around in the bushes.
When we arrived at the dock in front of the lodge, there was an unbelievable cacophany of birds that sounded to me like oropendolas, but were the smaller, closely related, Yellow-rumped Caciques. Both are members of the blackbird (Icteridae) family. They built nests just like the oropendola nests -- giant bags of woven threads of vegetable material hanging from branches. The tree right in front of the lodge must have had 100 such nests, and all the birds were shrieking and jockeying for position.
Sitting on one of the branches was a little flycatcher that I later identified as a Short-crested Flycatcher, and the caciques were giving it a pretty hard time. One theory of why this might be was suggested by Effy -- caciques and oropendolas sometimes enter into a symbiotic relationship with a variety of wasps that builds nests intermingled with those of the birds. The birds don't bother the wasps and the wasps protect the birds from other "nest parasites" -- birds like the cuckoo that lay their eggs in the nests of the hosts. Effy's theory was that by harassing the flycatcher, the caciques were helping the wasps -- flycatchers would love to eat the occasional wasp. But I've got my doubts about the theory, since I got a lot of chances to watch cacique/flycatcher interactions, and usually there were none.
At this point, I got some pretty interesting news -- I was the only person who had signed up for the "Amazon Light Brigade", and consequently, the entire show was going to be run for my benefit. The downside would be that I wouldn't be meeting many new people, but I would have two guides (Effy and Guillermo, a "native" guide) all to myself. Since there's plenty to do around the lodge, we decided to start with the standard light brigade program, but to play things by ear, and I could spend a couple of nights at the lodge as well. But I still had private guides, so I couldn't possibly lose.
In fact, one of the best things about private guides is that with no other guests, we could just speak Spanish the whole time, and I learned as much Spanish as I did about birds.
As any novice birdwatcher can tell you, there is all the difference in the world between an expert and an amateur when it comes to spotting the little buggers in the field. Whenever we heard a bird, it was either Effy or Guillermo who spotted it first (and usually it was Guillermo). I made it my personal goal that during my stay at La Selva, I would find at least one bird before they did, and luckily we had six days of hunting and hundreds of birds, so I was able to achieve my goal -- twice.
And what's really embarrassing is that even after they'd spotted a bird, I still couldn't find it, even with complete descriptions: "Go to the crown of the cecropia tree, and from the center, go to the edge at 2 o'clock, and the bird is on the perfectly horizonal branch two meters from the outside edge."
To which my response was almost always, "Where?"
But they were very patient, and there were only a few birds that got away before I eventually spotted them. At first, I was concerned that speaking in Spanish would be a big handicap for me to find the birds, but I generally understood the descriptions just fine -- when I did finally find the bird, it was right where I'd understood them to say it was.
Although if I put my mind and all my concentration to it, I can understand about 98% of what's said in Spanish, if I am not concentrating, I get almost 0%. I think that's a giant difference between being proficient and being fluent. Effy's English is quite a bit better than my Spanish, but one night both of us were sitting at a table in the lodge and I was reading the bird guide while Effy was listening to bird tapes. We were planning to look for some antbirds the next day, so he was reminding himself of the calls of some of the more obscure ones, and the tape consisted of a long series of bird calls, preceeded by the name of the bird in English. I was reading and not paying any attention to the calls, and every now and then, Effy would say "What was that?" -- he was concentrating on hearing the name in English, and just had not understood it, but, although I was paying no attention, almost always I could "replay" the mental audiotape in my mind and tell him what the announcer had said.
Of course these guys had a huge advantage -- both of them had been guides at La Selva for more than 12 years, and both were specialists in birds. They knew almost all the calls, they knew where the birds hang out, they know roughly where to look for the birds, et cetera. In fact, for some of the rarer birds we sought, we'd just go to what appeared to me to be a random spot on the trail and they'd make some calls, or even pull out a tape recorder with the song on the bird on it, and within a few minutes, the little bird would come out to investigate.
This practice of "calling birds out" is considered unfair by many birdwatchers, and if you do it too often, it can't be good for the birds, to be interrupted to come investigate the sound of a possible mate or rival. Some people carry around cassette recorders so if they hear a bird, they record it and then play back the recording, which is surprisingly effective. I was just glad to see the birds, and considering the remote spots we were in and the general lack of people, I doubt that the few calls we played made a huge difference in the lives of our birds. I had heard that right near the lodge the songs had been played so often that the birds barely react to them any more.
In fact, later when I was back at the main lodge, I talked to some folks who did the standard package, and they said that it was pretty clear they were on well-travelled trails. For example, there's a balsa tree with a thousand cuts in it since each guide chops out a small piece to show the folks in the group. At least they all hack on the same tree. There were a few other similar "well-worn" sites.
At about 4 pm, we packed up and took a walk to the first campsite that took a couple of hours and included a longish boat ride in another lagoon ("mandicocha", where "mandi" (I think) is the Quechua word for "water hyacinth", which clogged half the lagoon) where we saw quite a few birds. We got there at about 6 pm, just as the sun was going down. Then Effy and I sat down to the first of many meals that had been prepared at the campsite. There was even wine to go with dinner!
In fact, one of the differences between the "Light Brigade" and the regular trip is that there is no charge for alcohol on the Light Brigade. I didn't take full advantage of this, but I did have wine with every meal, and did have quite a few beers when I arrived, hot and sweaty, at my destination. The beer there is has a very low alcohol content -- 3.6% -- while beer in the United States is rated at 6% to 7%. But at least the bottles in Ecuador are double-size.
The next day we got up early and hiked to "the tower" to be at the top around sunrise. The tower is in a huge old Ceiba (Kapok) tree, about 30 meters from the ground. There's a sort of spiral staircase wrapping around the tree that leads to a fairly large platform on the top. On the left is a photo taken from the top of the tower, pointed straight down.
The tree rises above most of its neighbors, so there is a tremendous view in almost all directions, and it was easy to look into the canopy formed by thousands of nearby trees. We saw about 35 new bird species in the few hours we were up there. The best one was the Great Potoo -- a big bird that's sort of like a nightjar or an owl, is active at night and during the day is basically invisible, sitting on a branch and completely blending in. For a long time I couldn't make out the bird although I knew it was there because the trunk of the "tree" was made of feathers instead of bark. After about 5 minutes of staring at it I could figure out where the head was.
That afternoon was another tour by boat where we went out of the main lagoons and into the twisted little passages of mangrove swamps. Guillermo sure had to do a lot of hacking with his machete to get us through some spots, and this was in spite of the fact that the water level was very high. I can't imagine getting though in low water conditions. Lots of birds and monkeys, though, including a spectacular view at sunset of a perfectly-lit Blue-and-Yellow Macaw perched on the top of a branch.
One tree that was blocking our way came out of the water at an angle and had a trunk perhaps 20 cm in diameter, and Guillermo began hacking away at the base with his machete. It was hard wood and hard work, and since he was cutting right at the water-line, there was a lot of splashing in addition. After much energetic hacking, the trunk was cut about half through and still showed no signs of giving when suddenly the whole top of the tree just snapped off, perhaps 2 meters from the water. The base of the tree was completely sound, but the top was completely rotten. We nearly fell overboard laughing as the tree took it upon itself to separate at a location completely different from where the chopping was taking place. Luckily we didn't get clobbered by the falling top of the tree.
We did a heck of a lot of bush-whacking when we heard an interesting bird. The instant we stepped off the trail I was as good as lost, and it was interesting to note that every two meters or so Guillermo would snap a branch or cut a blaze in a plant. There is no way to tell direction, everything looks the same in all directions, and it's all basically flat.
We spent a huge amount of time chasing the Wire-Tailed Manakin, and I got a couple of quick glimpses is all. But it was glorious fun following the bird whereever it went through all manner of mud, bushes, and vines. At one point I had to step into a sort of hole and duck under a huge termite nest that was hanging over the hole.
At least it had been a termite nest. The termites were long gone, and the soft material becomes a great place for various animals to excavate homes. Quite often, for example, you'll see bird nests in them, and if there are still termites, you'll see a woodpecker take a huge nest apart in search of food.
But this ex-termite-nest didn't have a bird in it. It was hollowed out, but there must have been 20 bats in it that came roaring out, terrified, just as I ducked underneath. It was an amazing experience, but I'll bet my pulse rate approximately doubled within a couple of seconds!
Apparently the "Amazon Light Brigade" isn't a big seller, because as we moved on, the trail got less and less marked, and Guillermo was constantly clearing the trail as well as blazing marks on trees whenever he was sure we were on the trail. He and Effy told me they hadn't been on the trail in about a year, and it was clear that not many others had been, either. On the equator, in the Amazon basin, a hell of a lot of vegetation can grow in a year!
In one area we made two or three large loops before finally finding some traces of the old trail. Suddenly, Effy and Guillermo froze and I noticed that Guillermo suddenly got a very solid grip on his machete. Effy told me that the growling we had just heard was a jaguar. After a few seconds, however, they started trying to call it with the same growling/purring sounds, but although we heard it a couple more times, we saw nothing. Effy said that in his 12 years of guiding there he's only seen 2 jaguars. Later on we did find some tracks of a really large cat which they claimed was our jaguar.
Finally, we came to a better-travelled trail that led to the shack where we were to spend the night. "Tienes brujula?", asked Effy. "Do you have a compass?"
Well, that's just what you want to hear from your guide, but it turns out I did have a small one on the zipper-pull of my backpack. Effy knew that we needed to go east on the trail, and we were pretty turned around, so although it wasn't perfectly clear which way was east (the compass was sure, but the trail wasn't particularly interested in going in a fixed direction), so we made our best guess and started off.
An hour later, we came to a trail that was a super-highway compared to what we'd been on, and there was another "encouraging" comment from Effy: "Shit! We're in Peru!". (Well, really more like, "Hijo de puta! Estamos en Peru!") Actually, we weren't in Peru, but we had gone the wrong direction on the trail and now had a long march on the "super-highway" to get to the shack. When we finally got there, we were fairly pleased to see civilization, and after all, it had turned into a sort of "mini-death-march".
"Civilization" turned out to be a shack where a family lived, and a tent for me on the deck, but under roof. We were near a navigable tributary to the Rio Napo, so in time we weren't far from the main lodge, and dinner, et cetera had obviously been brought in via river.
Again, there was evidence that the "Light Brigade" doesn't happen often -- the children at the house found my presence strange, and there was a brand-new outdoor toilet with a bunch of newly-cut foliage around it to shield it from the view of the world. I did notice that the foliage already had a bunch of the big "conga" ants on it (Paraponera clavata -- known in Costa Rica as "bullet ants") that have an other-worldly sting. You can bet that I checked the seat very carefully before sitting down, and that I didn't just blindly grab at the toilet paper when I was done.
But in spite of the fact that they don't do the "Light Brigade" often, they pulled it off quite well -- there was cold beer awaiting our arrival, and a nice dinner complete with wine.
Obviously there wasn't a shower, but the river was nearby and I just went in with all my clothes on and washed as usual with soap. Then I stripped off the clothes, washed again, rinsed out the clothes, wrung them out, and put them on again. They were completely dry within a half hour. Those nylon "jungle clothes" are wonderful! Drying clothes with body heat in the Amazon is doubly-good -- the clothes dry quickly, and due to the 100% humidity, they might never dry hanging on a line, and the other advantage is that the damp clothes provide the wearer a half-hour of evaporative air conditioning.
Of course while I was swimming in the river, I couldn't help but think about a topic that had been discussed in the "Travel Medicine" class at Stanford that I attended just before my trip to Ecuador which was the "candiru".
The candiru is a small catfish, a couple of millimeters in diameter and perhaps three or four centimeters long, that frequents rivers in the Amazon basin of Peru and Ecuador. There's no question that the fish exists -- what's questionable are the rumors that it is "urinophilic" -- when it senses the urea of urine in the water, it follows the scent to the source (somebody peeing in the river) and doesn't stop just because it encounters body parts. In additon, the fish has backward-pointing spines, so after entering the orifice, it gets stuck and has to be surgically removed.
From what I can tell, the candiru myth is just that -- a classical urban legend (well, maybe not "urban" in this case), but otherwise it has all the appropriate characteristics -- nobody who tells the story has been personally involved, but there is always a "friend of a friend" who was. And of course there are no records in any hospitals of ever treating the condition.
But I sure didn't pee in the water while I was swimming, and I was assured by Effy that "just a couple of months ago there was a case in the hospital in Coca".
The wire-tailed manakin that I got a glimpse of turned out to be important. Although I just got glimpses on the "death march", when I got a great view of the same bird a couple of days later, it got 100% of the votes not only for "bird of the day", but for "bird of the trip". With only one person voting, such landslide 1-0 votes are common.
But Effy probably had a different view of the manakin. Since he's out in the jungle all the time, he regularly uses the mosquito repellent called DEET. It's the only stuff that really works, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of dissolving plastic, which composes the vast majority of modern watches and watch-bands. So Effy is in the habit of carrying his watch in his pocket when he's traipsing, DEET-covered, through the jungle.
Finding the manakin required about an hour of heavy-duty bushwhacking, and somewhere during that period, Effy's pocket ripped open and the watch was lost. He was quite confident of being able to find the watch, and I rated his chances slightly less than a snowball's chance in hell. But Effy had an ace in the hole -- the watch's alarm was set to 6:00 am, so he figured that if he could be nearby at 6:00, the alarm would lead him to the watch. He returned to the area a couple of times during the time I was there, and so far, my "snowball's chance in hell" estimate seems accurate. To make matters worse, the watch is black.
That night, I was really pleased to be securely zipped into the tent as there was a fairly heavy rain outside, and an even heavier rain -- of cockroaches -- from the thatch of the roof over the porch.
Apparently one of the adviors is Philip DeVries, the guy who wrote the "Butterflies of Costa Rica" book.
I spent a couple of hours in the butterfly enclosure taking photos. On the left is a photo of a blue morpho butterfly (I don't know the exact species). You cannot see the irridescent blue of the upper wings, but it is difficult to photograph that. When the upper wings are showing, the butterfly is flying, and morphos fly very fast.
On the right is, I believe, some species of the genus
Caligo. I wanted a photo of its proboscis, and I got it,
but what I think is interesting about it is the "red eye" that
I got on all the little fruit flies that are eating the rotting
banana at the same time as the Caligo. I doubt that a "red eye
reduction" on my camera would have helped ...
Then we took a ride up and down the huge river, sticking closely to the sides to look for birds and animals that like to live near the shores. There's a giant "salado" -- a sort of salt-lick for birds -- near La Selva, and normally it is covered with a variety of parrots and macaws. We weren't disappointed, but the viewing was a bit tough, as the boat drifted by the salados fairly quickly. We did make multiple passes, and saw 4 different species of parrots.
We then motored down the river to an island where there were reports of the umbrella-bird, but an hour of searching failed to turn anything up.
Next on the agenda was a hike on the other side (the south side) of the Rio Napo which, for a change, wasn't dead flat, so I got a good opportunity to review my skills in climbing steep muddy slopes in rubber boots. We spent most of our time looking for obscure little ant-birds which was pretty interesting -- they are tough to see since they're almost always hidden in the undergrowth, and even when they're nearby, I had a hard time finding them. Effy and Guillermo showed incredible patience in pointing them out to me.
I'm certainly not a great bird-watcher, but by now I have done quite a bit of it, and when I'm out with friends at home who have never done it, they think of my ability to spot birds in the same way that I think of Guillermo's ability. So maybe you can say that I'm "intermediate". I suspect that Effy and Guillermo think that I'm basically blind since it took so long to spot the birds, but my theory is that I'm just more honest. Lots of people claim that they see the birds even if they don't, just to make the guides feel good. I didn't do that, so we spent more time looking.
Birdwatchers come in all varieties, ranging from merely crazy to totally insane. The worst are the "twitchers" or "listers" who are only interested in checking birds off a list to get as many as possible. The instant they see a bird, they check it off, and they lose all interest in that bird, since they've already seen it. At the other end of the spectrum are folks who love the birds, take extensive notes, and may or may not keep a grand total of birds. I try to do more of the latter, but my competitive instincts cause me to keep a count as well. The total certainly does give some indication of how much you've seen, and during the La Selva trip I did see more than 150 different species of birds, which I think is pretty impressive. The list of most of them appears at the end of this document.
But it's also tough to say what is meant by "seeing" a bird. If somebody you're with gets a great view of a bird and a positive identification, but you just see it when it takes off so all you get is a back-lit cloacal view of a flying bird in the distance, can you say you've "seen" the bird? Opinions vary. What if you get a good look, but not good enough for a positive ID, but your guide is certain of the ID? What if you just hear the bird?
My personal rules are sloppy, but if I get a good look and the guide says it's a Cinereous Ant-shrike, then I say I've seen a Cinereous Ant-shrike. If I'm on my own, and not positive of the ID, I haven't. The most bizarre listing scheme I've heard of is apparently fairly common in the big birding group tours. If anyone in the group, guides included, gets a positive ID on the bird, or even on the bird's song, everyone in the group checks it off as having been "seen". So when somebody tells you they "saw" 250 birds at La Selva in 3 days, they may be using this latter definition of "seen".
Anyway, I think that the bird of the day was a sort of cotinga-like bird (about robin-sized) that one would think would be tough to spot since it sits without moving most of the time high in the canopy, and is colored a fairly uniform gray that blends in fairly well. But its name gives some indication of why it turns out not to be too tough to find -- it's called the "Screaming Piha".
The scream is almost other-worldly. It's hard to imagine that such a small bird is capable of so much noise. It's often the first bird call visitors to La Selva hear, since if any of them scream within a couple of kilometers, you'll hear them. But today the screams were a lot louder than usual, and it didn't take to long to follow them to a tall tree where we got a magnificent view. We even stopped under the tree to eat our box lunches. Luckily the bird was 50 meters away, or I'd probably be suffering some hearing loss as a result.
We saw more jaguar tracks on the way back to the boat, as well as a spot where a smaller cat (a marguay?) had captured and taken apart some bird. There were feathers and small cat tracks all over.
With the exception of the woman mentioned in the introduction, all the other guests I met were nice, interesting folks, but I didn't get to know any of them very well. The night I arrived was the final evening for one set of guests, their replacements arrived late in the afternoon of the next day, and were only there for two nights before I left.
After my warm shower, I lay down in a hammock with a beer and binoculars, and watched the Ospreys patrolling the lagoon. I was really lucky to see one dive in and fly off with a pirana-shaped fish, just like in the National Geographic specials. There was also every evening a huge flight of Sand-colored Nighthawks over the lagoon, presumably "hawking" insects.
The final days at the lodge were similar -- we spent the days looking for birds and animals, and continued to see new ones. The only type of bird that we didn't see much of were the water birds like herons and egrets. Apparently the high water level makes it harder for them to find food, so they tend to be elsewhere.
I went back with Effy since he had to be there to greet the next set of La Selva guests at the airport. I slept a bit on the boatride back to Coca, and caught the plane from Coca to Quito without incident.
I think if I visited again, I would just take all my stuff to La Selva rather than go through the hassle of leaving some of it in Quito. Apparently it only costs about 50 cents per extra pound, and the folks at the airport certainly didn't seem concerned with a lot of extra baggage in the form of military and oil well equipment that was going on to our plane.
When I got to Quito, I was faced with a couple of cross-town taxi rides that took a couple of hours total since it always seems to be rush-hour there. Also, the tickets to Coca are clearly printed with a weight limit of 20 kilograms -- not 20 pounds -- although the folks at the La Selva headquarters assured me that 20 pounds is correct.
The other thing that concerned me a bit was how I was going to get to Guayaquil. I didn't have any reservations, but the La Selva people told me there are flights every hour or so, almost none of them full, and if worse came to worst, I could take the 8-hour bus ride.
I got to the airport at 2:29, and the first available flight was at 2:30, so I got in line to buy tickets for the 4:00 flight. I was standing behind some folks who had questions about everything, and were taking forever, when a guy got behind me in line who seemed pretty agitated. When the clerk finished with the people in front of me, he jumped in front of me and said it was important that he go first because he wanted to get on the 2:30 flight to Guayaquil. I basically told him to go to hell since I was also trying to fly to Guayaquil.
Luckily, the plane was delayed by about a half hour, so both of us got on the 2:30 flight that actually left at about 3:00. We arrived at the national (rather than the international) part of the airport, and it was amazing how different it was. In the international airport you're immediately surrounded by people who want something -- to exchange money, to give you a taxi ride, to get you a hotel room, et cetera. Things are totally laid back in the national airport, and I actually had to look around a bit to get a taxi to my hotel. The long, hot shower there was great!
I then went out to try to purchase some sun-block since I'd run out at La Selva, and that was easier said than done. Apparently the natives don't use it, and when I finally found some for sale, it was clear that it had been on the shelf for a long time. In reality, you don't need much of it in the rainforest since you're usually pretty shaded, so I had only brought a very small tube from the United States. But when I opened it, I found that the small tube was mostly full of air -- there was only 1/4 ounce of sunblock in it, although the tube was big enough to hold perhaps six times that much. Deceptive packaging. I also knew that the walk we'd be going on to get to the Earthwatch project might be very sunny, so I'm glad I went to the trouble of finding the sunblock.
I met Ellen at about 6:30 and since she'd had a late lunch, she wasn't very hungry, so we wandered around a bit, stopped in a restaurant for a beer, and then wandered some more, trying to give her a bit of an appetite. Finally, we walked out to the waterfront on the river, and I remembered a place I'd eaten a few years earlier that had pretty nice seafood. We went there, and it was pretty much as I'd remembered it, except for the prices.
Due to the economic downturn, the meal was essentially free. I think we spent five dollars for a full meal for both of us.
There was much more evidence of the downturn on the walk back to the hotel. The streets were packed with little kids begging for money. In past years there had been a few; this year there were hundreds, and they were much more aggressive. They'd grab your arm and just hang on. It was really sad. In fact, in just the three weeks I was there, the value of the sucre dropped from 17000 per dollar to 23000 per dollar, and a week after I returned home the president of Ecuador was trying to get the dollar to be the "official" currency of Ecuador, whatever that means.
I dropped off Ellen at her hotel, and the three-block walk back to mine was even more intense in terms of begging.
The region is fairly inaccessable, and is part of a reserve that belongs to a "comuna" of perhaps 600 people who live in a collection of tiny towns perhaps 100 kilometers northwest of Guayaquil. Nobody knows exactly what birds are there -- some are endemic, some are migratory, and there are always some surprises. The region is extremely poor, especially this year, and there were thoughts of trying to get some tourist money from crazed birdwatchers if there was anything interesting about the local species.
Our job was to catch as many birds as we could, identify, weigh, measure, and band them, and then release them. On the left is a photo of a Speckled Hummingbird being processed. Here, the examiner is blowing on the feathers to expose the belly of the bird to discover the condition of its brood patch. The brood patch characteristics tell you whether the bird is in breeding condition or not.
It's interesting (and easy to see in this photo) that the feathers of a bird are not uniformly attached to its skin. The shafts of the feathers are connected to the skin in clumps, and some parts of the skin are basically naked. But the feathers are long, it appears that birds are uniformly covered.
Since the project is now a few years old, there is the possibility of catching birds that were banded in previous years, and the possibility of recaptures from the same year. Captures from previous years give some idea of how long the birds live, and recaptures on the same trip give some idea of how many birds are there, and how far they move. There's even a tiny chance of catching a migrant that might have been banded in the United States or elsewhere.
Dusty is banding in a few different regions of Ecuador with different Earthwatch teams of volunteers, but the site we were visiting is the most remote. To get there you spend a day on a bus to get to a coastal town where you spend the night, and then early the next morning you take trucks and busses to the "trailhead" where all your stuff is loaded on mules and you ride a mule or hike to the so-called "casita" which takes about 4-5 hours at a quick pace.
Nothing is available at the casita, so virtually everything needs to be hauled in -- sleeping bags, tents, a stove, gas fuel, water, food, et cetera. The casita itself is a simple building that has a floor raised perhaps 2 meters above the ground and it is 6 meters by six meters. There are walls and a roof, and the area under the floor has benches and tables for a work area for cooking, eating, et cetera.
A couple of days before we were to arrive Dusty had sent up a couple of Ecuadorian assistants, Pascual and Mauricio, to get the stove, fuel, food, and dishes up with one mule team, and we carried our personal stuff, a bit more food, and all the research equipment. There are no regular visitors to the casita, so to get additional things, you have to send notes out with the mule drivers and the new stuff (if it's available) arrives a few days later.
Another table filled with more Earthwatchers, and we introduced ourselves -- Egon and Margrit from Germany, Vince from Chicago, and Masaru from Japan. Dusty and her husband Mark came in a little later, as well as Ana, Dusty's Ecuadorian counterpart. I of course knew Dusty and Mark since I'd done the same project on two previous occasions, and I had met Ana on the previous trip but didn't know her well because circumstances had kept us working at different sites throughout that trip, and I only got a chance to meet her before and after the expedition.
I liked Jack a lot, and the others seemed fine, but you never know on first meeting who you're going to be most compatible with. My experience is that I can't usually tell who I'm really going to like, but I can often tell who I'm really not going to like. Luckily, there appeared to be none of the latter type on the trip, but of course time would tell.
Well, almost all our stuff.
Dusty and Ana were planning to do a survey of the local peoples' attitudes toward some protected forest, and needed to make hundreds of copies, so Ana took off at about 9:00 to do it. But apparently there is no Kinko's in Ecuador, and it took over two hours to copy 400 sheets of paper, so everybody sat on the bus waiting for an hour and a half and we finally got going a little past 11:00.
I wasn't particularly surprised. I knew Dusty pretty well from two previous trips, and I knew that her sense of time is pretty bad -- she very often underestimates how long things will take. In this case, I didn't particularly care -- it was probably as comfortable on the bus as it would have been in the hotel lobby, and I didn't have any urgent business in the little town of Montanita where we were planning to spend the night.
Compared to the driveway and parking lot at the hotel in Montanita, the bus we were riding was pretty big, and it wasn't easy for the driver to get in. We really wondered how in the heck he was going to get out again. That evening we began placing bets on how many times the driver would have to put the bus into reverse to work his way out. The estimates ranged from 3 to 20, and one popular option was "5, but he'll take out the fence".
We also stopped for other random stuff -- some hammocks, some batteries, et cetera. As you get further from Guayaquil, it gets trickier and trickier to find things. We managed to get ripped off on the hammocks, but we did at least get a pair. In camp we were tired enough that it didn't really matter that we got the coarse weave. And the hammocks we purchased turned out not to be particularly new, either -- some of the cords were quite worn.
On the bus ride, I took the opportunity to tell Jack a particularly funny joke that involved a gorilla and a particular hand sign that got him laughing so hard that I was forced to tell the joke to the whole bus. The joke goes something like this:
It seems there was this guy visiting the zoo and standing outside the gorilla cage. His arm itched, so he scratched it, but the gorilla notices, and scratches his arm in exactly the same way. So the guy sees this, and pats his head. The gorilla copies him and pats his head in exactly the same way. So the guy scratches both armpits and the gorilla again follows suit.So from then on, the "gorilla hand signal" was used extensively within our group. I was even required to translate the joke for our Ecuadorian assistants once we got to the casita.
Next, the guy puts his finger on his face and pulls the skin down under his eye, exposing slightly more of his eyeball, and the gorilla goes berserk. He grabs the guy through the bars, slams him against the bars repeatedly, and then heaves him to the ground. The zookeeper comes up to the injured man and asks what happened.
The guys says, "I just did this ...", and illustrates the hand-eye signal.
"Oh," says the zookeeper, "That signal means 'fuck you' in gorilla language."
So the guy goes to the hospital, but after a few days, he's recovered, and he returns to the gorilla cage. He scratches his arm, and the gorilla, a little suspicious, also scratches his arm. The guy pats his head, and the gorilla follows suit. Similarly with scratching under the armpits. Then the guy reaches into his pants, hauls out a salami, slices it off with a razor-sharp knife, and then he hands the knife to the gorilla.
The gorilla gives him the hand signal.
Dusty had planned lunch at a certain beach, and we stuck to that despite the late start, so we had a very late lunch, and I don't think anyone was very hungry at dinner when we finally arrived in Montanita. The main downside of the late start was that there was almost no time to do anything in Montanita -- we got there just a half hour before sunset. Ana and I did a little birding and a couple of people managed to get a quick dip in the Pacific, but that was about it.
The place we stayed was a surfer haven -- mostly college-aged kids on a "surfin' safari". There was lots of loud music, too, but it did shut down before anyone wanted to go to bed.
In the Earthwatch Briefing Dusty had told us all to bring rubber boots, but a few people had ignored the advice and all they had were hiking boots. In Guayaquil, Dusty had said that was no problem, and she herself was not going to wear rubber boots, so there was no real need to try to buy them in Guayaquil. Of course as soon as she saw the mud in El Suspiro, she changed her mind and put them on. The folks without the boots were just out of luck.
There are basically three routes to get to the casita from El Suspiro. There's a long, meandering path along a river that is completely flat until you get to "heartbreak hill", where you basically climb up a "wall" to get to the casita. Then there's a shortcut that goes over a fairly big hill and leaves you at the base of heartbreak hill, and finally, there's the "La Ponga Trail" that's a long, gradual climb that leaves you a bit above the casita.
Given the choice, the mule drivers always go over the hill, so that's what we did.
There were two mule teams -- the one with the majority of our equipment, and a couple of mules that went along with us to carry backpacks, if we wanted, and so that people could take a ride if they got tired. The main mule team went directly to the casita and arrived long before us. We took our time so that we could look at birds on the way up. We went pretty slowly for the first couple of hours and saw lots of birds, but it was clear that unless we picked up the pace, we wouldn't get to the casita in daylight, so we did speed up. Things get pretty gloomy past about 3 pm inside the actual casita building, and it's a pain to set up your tent, sleeping bag, et cetera, in the dark, so I was glad we picked up the pace.
There was a fair amount of mud -- nothing horrible, but I was sure glad to have the boots. The mud was never deep enough to go in over the tops of the boots, but I sure felt sorry for the folks without the rubber boots. In a sense, it wasn't so bad for them -- after a short time it was impossible to get any more mud on their boots and pants, but it is a real pain to take them on and off. At the end of every working day at the casita, those poor folks had to dig into the mud with their fingers to find the bootlaces and try to untie them, and there was a similar problem every morning. Those of us with boots just stepped into and out of them.
Except for some mud it was a pretty nice walk -- we saw a lot of new birds and I got a chance to talk with most of the other folks. During the early part I walked at the front, typically with Vince, Ana, and Masaru. For the final part of the hike up "heartbreak hill", I decided to stay at the very tail end since I at least knew how to get there and could make sure that nobody got mixed up.
As we went up the last hill we started running into a significant amount of mud, and we slowed down quite a bit, but we were only about ten minutes behind the rest of the group when the last of us finally got to the top, and we did get there early enough to be able to see what we were doing as we set up our sleeping areas in the casita.
Vince had a hammock-like tent and if he wanted to hang it up, there was only one reasonable place to do so, and it wasn't all that reasonable. The two supports weren't really far enough apart, and the middle of his hammock forced him to sleep sort of like a pretzel. But it was nice for the rest of us, since there was then a lot of room under his hammock to store other stuff. Most of us had stand-alone tents or in the case of me and Ana, stand-alone mosquito nets, but Egon, Margrit, and Masaru had mosquito netting that required stringing ropes to various attachment points to rig them. We were pretty short on attachment points, so we had to juggle things around a bit to get everybody to fit.
The biggest scare occurred when we had an arrangement that looked good, but Masaru had volunteered to help Dusty and Mark with some project and so his area wasn't set up. We decided to set up his tent for him, and opened it up. It was a three-person tent that was vastly too large to fit. Luckily, it turned out to be an emergency tent that Dusty had brought up just "in case", and Masaru in fact had one of the smallest mosquito-netting tents.
After a few days, Vince decided that he didn't like sleeping like a pretzel and that he was going to re-rig his hammock in such a way that it was stretched out more tightly. The proposed arrangement involved a rope stretched across the main walkway about three feet above the ground, and the objections were strong enough that Vince decided to move outside, and to stretch his hammock between a couple of trees. His hammock was completely enclosed, so it didn't matter much if it rained, and he claimed to be a lot more comfortable as a result. And of course none of us complained -- there was a lot more room in the casita as a result.
And a few days later I was really thankful that there wasn't a trip wire running across the main walkway ...
I've talked to Dusty about this, and she says that most people like the cooking. My experience has been the opposite -- I've told people about Dusty's trip, and quite regularly I get the response that when they learned that volunteers are required to cook they eliminate the trip from consideration. Of course the "most people" who Dusty talks to are folks who come on her trip, so they're self-selected not to mind the cooking too much, or even to like it.
But with 12 people, and two people on duty to cook, you're only on about one time in six, and that's tolerable for me.
But this year Dusty's instructions to me and Vince were that "the staff is not going to cook -- just the volunteers". I didn't say anything, but was really pissed. Eliminating the five staff members from the cooking schedule approximately doubled my cooking duties, so each of us would be spending a third of our time cooking and cleaning up.
So rather than having cooking duties almost every day which would happen if we had two people each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with six of the seven of us on duty every day, Vince and I decided that it might be better just to assign days to pairs of people, so each pair was responsible for the whole day. So each of us was to cook three of the 10 days, and somebody would be stuck with 4.
Of course the more I thought about it, the more pissed I got, but I didn't say anything -- I was just annoyed.
I explained that I tried to do a good job whether I liked it or not, and that I resented the fact that almost one third of my time was spent cooking. Some of the volunteers agreed with me, and some didn't mind the cooking, but I raised such a stink that we decided to re-think the cooking assignments.
The staff were assigned to fill in their share of the cooking slots, so I was happy with the outcome -- especially since I (and most of the other volunteers) had already now had credit for 3 meals, so almost half of my cooking duties were over.
Dusty gave me the "gorilla hand signal".
On the left is a photo of Mark, not with his owl, but rather with a hummingbird. To make sure the hummers were OK after processing, we often fed them sugar water, and that's what Mark is doing here. The clear film cannister in his left hand is filled with sugar water, and the hummingbird is perched on his right. Mark would offer the hummingbird as much food as it wanted, but it was free to leave at any time.
Only on one occasion did Mark get in trouble for this -- it turned out
that one of the hummers we caught was a glutton, and appeared to be
willing to drink sugar water until it exploded. When it finally
tried to take off, it crashed into the ground since its stomach
was so overloaded. It required a couple of attempts before it
could successfully fly away. Mark still insists that "it's impossible
to over-feed a hummingbird." Some of us aren't so sure...
We had nicknamed the owl "Yuri".
Consequently, much of Mark's spare time was spent in search of Yuri. He played tapes of related owls at night and recorded the calls of any owls he heard, and then replayed those, hoping to attract Yuri.
Of course since he did his work at night, most of it was done very close to the casita since long hikes at night in the jungle are not much fun. So whenever he was trying to do recording, he insisted on silence from the rest of us, which got to be a bit annoying if it went on too long. People had worked hard during the day, and being told to be quiet for long periods in the evenings when we wanted to be sociable didn't always sit well -- especially when it began to seem that every evening would be spent doing silent owl recordings.
On Christmas eve, Mark was out recording for perhaps the third night in a row, and he was clearly getting frustrated with us since we couldn't be counted upon to remain silent for long periods. We were whispering, and I chose that moment to whisper the following Christmas joke to Vince:
It seems that Santa was having a very rough year. Not only were the prices of toys going through the roof, but the elves were threatening to strike, the reindeer were sick, and Rudolf's nose wasn't shining. There were too many bad children, and Santa was exhausted from all the time he was spending at shopping malls with screaming kids on his knee.It's an OK joke, but the moment was right, and Vince went into hysterics, but was trying to do it silently so as not to interrupt Mark's tape recording. Vince's hysterics were contagious, and pretty soon everyone at the table had tears in their eyes, even if they hadn't heard the original joke, and everyone was trying, without too much success, to laugh silently. Of course it was hopeless, and when Mark complained, that was even funnier.
The pressure continued to build, so Santa started drinking a bit too much eggnog, Mrs. Claus noticed the missing rum that Santa used to "medicate" his eggnog, and started giving him grief about that. Finally, on Christmas eve, Santa was on the verge of a total nervous breakdown when there was a knock on his door.
It was a tiny angel, carrying a Christmas tree.
"Where do you want me to put this?" asked the angel?
And that's how it came to be that we now decorate our Christmas trees with a little angel mounted on the top (with the tree stuck up his ...).
And not only did the joke provide great hilarity that night, but continued to provide it throughout the rest of the trip, and the expression, "where do you want me to put this?" was second only to the "gorilla eye signal".
When Vince and I were cooking the Christmas meal, I had far too much time on my hands and decided to carve the carrots in the soup to look like Christmas trees and angels. It was easy to do the trees -- I just cut a long "slug" of carrot into a shape that was tree-shaped, and then it could be sliced into lots of little trees where each slice was a tree. The angels were a different story and each one had to be carved individually. Vince joined me, and the design of the angels began to vary, and some slightly pornographic angels were in fact produced.
Vince is an amazing cook, and it was a real pleasure to work with him. I'm a fairly good "mechanic" in the kitchen but Vince not only had the technical skills, but also a pretty good imagination. He produced about 50 crepes that day that we used for both a main dish and for dessert, and for breakfast the next day. The quality of the crepes was as good as anything I could have produced at home with all the best equipment.
And as a postscript, it turns out that Yuri is a new species, as Mark discovered on returning to the United States. Apparently there has been a lot of reorganization by the biologists of the screech owl group, and Yuri was "split" from Otus vermiculatus to a new species Otus centralis, the Choco Screech-owl. Click here for a photo of Yuri.
But with mud all over the place it was sure hard to keep the sandals clean -- under the casita things were fine, but to get to the toilet, or to the shower, or even to get from under the casita upstairs, you had to walk outside, and that meant there was mud.
The walls of the casita had rotted away, and had recently been replaced with new wood, but the old rotting bamboo lay in a heap down the hill a bit. Also, a large tree had fallen, and been cut up to make the boards to recover the walls, and consequently there were a lot of random-sized wood chips around, and we gathered those to "pave" the most heavily used trails -- to the bathroom, the shower, and most important, the five or six steps you had to take to get from under the casita to the base of the steps leading up to the sleeping area.
The paving was moderately successful, but it was still a constant battle with the mud -- the bamboo and wood chips got covered with mud, and although everyone tried to scrape off their shoes well, you could see the mud gradually working its way up the steps into the casita, and every few hours someone needed to scrape the mud off the stairs. Boots upstairs were, of course, completely forbidden (although in desperation one day Vince crawled across the floor on his knees with his boots in the air because he had to get to his tent, and couldn't stomach the thought of digging into the mud to reach his laces). We did have pretty good luck in keeping things upstairs non-muddy, but it was sure a lot of work.
And since it rained every day, the trails got terribly muddy. Just rain doesn't do this, but rain intermingled with lots of people walking on the trails can turn them into a sea of mud. Luckily there weren't many mules involved, because mules provide the most efficient method of turning a merely wet trail into a nightmare.
A Collard Trogon that we caught in the net. This was the
"best" bird that I extracted from a net this trip. They're
big birds, and look a little scary, but they are very gentle.
This one was in the middle of a moult, so he lost a bunch of
feathers in the bird bag. When he came out of the bag at
the banding station together with a bunch of loose feathers,
I just told everyone that I'd plucked him.
The trails we used to service the mist nets provided a perfect case study. After you open the nets, somebody needs to check the nets regularly for birds, and since the nets were arranged in a linear manner along the trails and the trails didn't loop back, every time the nets were checked, the checking team had to walk out and back along the trail, churning it up multiple times every day.
The morning after we arrived at the casita we got up early to do the first day of netting. Pascual and Mauricio had already set up the nets since they'd gotten to the casita a couple of days ahead of us. Dusty wanted to run the nets for three days each at two different sites -- one near the casita, and the other on the "ridge" up above us. The first set was near the casita, arranged in two sets of nets -- the "wet" side and the "dry" side. The "dry" side was "wet" so it doesn't take too much imagination to imagine what the "wet" side was like.
It was also raining at 6 am when the nets were to be opened. I thought it was too wet to open them, but they were opened anyway. Normally in mist-netting operations, the nets are closed at the first sign of rain both because it is very rough on the birds to hang, soaking wet, in the nets as they can get chilled and die, but also because you get bad data -- many fewer birds are out foraging in the rain, so you get unrepresentatively small samples. In addition, in most mist-netting operations, you try to get to every net every 20 or 30 minutes, but with the seas of mud, we couldn't move quickly and it took an hour to do a single net run on the "wet" side, assuming that we didn't catch anything. With some birds in the nets to untangle, the typical runs were taking an hour and a half -- far too long for the bird's safety, I thought.
It's also difficult enough to untangle birds in normal circumstances -- but if they're in the net for an hour and a half, they can really entangle themselves, and if the net is soaking wet, it is impossible to work with as the wet net is glued to the wet feathers on the bird. We did a lot of cutting of nets on the first couple of runs since we simply couldn't see what was going on. I was working with Mauricio, and I let him do the cutting, which we had to do about three times on the first run. In contrast, the previous year with dry weather, I only cut once when the bird was highly stressed and "tongued" -- the net was tangled behind its tongue.
Miraculously, we didn't lose any birds that morning, but I'm sure it was really rough on them, and it's impossible to know if some of them died after processing, just due to the fact that they were exceptionally stressed. Of course, the total number of birds we got was far less than what was normal on previous years in good weather. On the left is a photo of Margrit with a bird that has already been processed.
The next morning it was absolutely pouring, and Dusty decided not to open the nets at 6. We waited until 7 when the rain had tapered off a bit and netted for an extra hour. The third day it was still pretty wet, but we also netted then.
In previous years, with good weather, we typically got about 100 or 110 birds on the first day, perhaps 75% of that on the second day, and 50% on the third. The birds figure out where the nets are and learn to avoid them. This year we got capture rates with the same rough percentages, but more like 50, 35, and 25 birds on the three days, due to the rain.
After the third day of netting, we had to move all the nets up to the ridge. It wasn't clear if we could get them all set up in one afternoon, but we were determined to try. We carried all the poles and nets up the hill and split into two teams to set up two net runs of ten each. The limiting factor was machetes -- we only had two, so Mauricio took one and went one direction with half of us while Pascual went the other way. The machetes are used to dig holes for the poles, and the others on the team could string on the nets, et cetera.
Here's a quick description of the process:
But we did manage to get all twenty nets set up that afternoon.
Here's a group shot of most of us at the banding station on the
ridge. Clockwise, starting with Ellen (seated) we have Masaru,
Egon, Ana, Pascual, Margrit, Dusty, Vince, and Mauricio (leaning
against the tree).
The next day we had to get up even earlier since the banding station itself was a twenty minute hike up the hill, and we had to haul all the banding equipment, books, et cetera, up to the station so that we'd be ready to open the nets at 6 am. We got up at about 4:45 to do this.
Unfortunately, when we got up the next morning, it was raining pretty hard. By the time we did the first net run to check for birds, there were again some totally drenched animals, and this time I used scissors liberally to get one of them out. After a couple of hours the rain stopped, and we got a fair number of birds for the rest of the day -- perhaps 80 of them.
The next day was perfect weather, and we got about 100. The third day on the ridge we were back down to about 80.
Dusty realized that the data from the first three days was bad because of the wet weather, so decided to move the nets back down to the original sites and to do three more days of netting. So we again hauled all the poles and nets down and set them up again around the casita.
But the birds do remember where the nets were, even a few days later, and although the next day below was good weather, we only got about 40 or 50 birds, so by running the nets in the rain for three days, it was now impossible to get good data for the casita sites. It was raining hard the next day, so Dusty just gave up on collecting more useless data. I'm not sure what she's going to do with the data she has because it was pretty wet, and will be hard to compare to the data from the previous years.
Since the original plan had been to collect data for six days -- three at each site, there was a lot of extra time allocated to doing observations of hummingbirds to see what flowers they preferred, and Ana was working on her own project to count the various sorts of flowering plants in a set of six quadrants. When the plan was to do three more days of netting below, I was afraid that would basically eliminate any chance Ana had of getting data, but with the rain, there was time to collect that data. Various of us helped her -- marking off a rectangle around certain of the nets that was 12 meters long and 10 wide, and then counting various types of plants and the number of flowers on those plants in each quadrant. At least I learned to recognize a few plants in the process.
Some people tried to extract the birds and found that their vision wasn't good enough, so volunteered to do other things. Jack and Egon, for example, spent a great deal of time testing flowers for nectar production. They'd cage some flowers so birds and insects couldn't take the nectar, and measure the nectar after a certain time. It seemed tough to do, since the rain also may have tended to wash nectar out of the flowers. But as a consequence, I didn't work with either of them very much.
Also, by chance, I didn't work much with Ellen or Masaru since we were assigned opposite net runs and we pretty much alternated each day, so I was never on their team.
Since Mark and Dusty live in Kansas, of course they had followed the story much more closely than I had, and Mark even had a recording on his computer of a song entitled, "Monkeys", sung and composed by John McCutcheon to "celebrate" the occasion. It's a great song, and the chorus goes like this:
There ain't no monkeys in youThe complete lyrics (and an MP3 recording) are available at Monkeys.
There're none in me I know
And there ain't no monkeys in Kansas
'Cause the school board told me so
Bart caused trouble almost from the beginning -- he nearly got castrated and beheaded on the truck ride from Barcelona to El Suspiro, and then when we got ready to load him on the mules, the mules freaked out and started bucking -- they didn't want to be near that strange little yellow man.
He stood around camp all week, and on his last day we even made a place for him at the table so he could "eat" with us. But I was really worried about Bart -- it was always 100% humidity, and the cardboard and paper mache seemed completely soggy. I wasn't sure he'd even catch fire. We took a couple of cardboard boxes out of the garbage that had also spent the week in the same humidity, and tried to burn them, but we couldn't light them.
We did have a lot of isopropyl alcohol, so we tried pouring a bit of that on the cardboard, and it burned fine, but just the alcohol -- after the alcohol was exhausted, the fire went out, and the cardboard was barely singed.
So I took matters into my own hands -- it got gloomy in the afternoons, so we had a big propane-powered lantern burning at the main table so people could work. We hung Bart with cords a few inches over the lantern with the cords rigged so we could shift Bart around to "toast" as much of his body as possible. We toasted him for a couple of hours in total, and there were some parts that even seemed moderately dry. We also took candles and dripped wax onto the drier parts of the body so that if they did catch fire, they'd generate a lot more heat. We also preferentially heated the feet and legs, figuring that if we got those to burn, the heat would help dry out the chest and head.
When New Year's eve finally arrived, there was a great deal of doubt
about whether anyone would be awake to usher in the new millenium. I
had been on three previous Earthwatch trips over the new year, and
because we had worked so hard during the days, nobody had ever managed
to stay awake until midnight. But this year Vince was determined to
What we'd done in previous years was to celebrate the new year for some other time zone, so this year that was the back-up plan. Berlin entered the new year at 6 pm, Ecuadorian time, for example, so helping the Germans celebrate was no big deal. The new year in London was also easy, but as we waited for the 8 pm new millenium in Reykjavik (actually, Reykjavik is in the same time zone as London, but we were working without maps) it became clear that a lot of folks wouldn't make the casita new year, and we decided it was time to toast Bart. But even with a couple of hours of drying over the lantern, Bart was very hard to light -- he went out two or three times and there was tons of thick smoke (probably filled with carcinogens, because we suspected that the builders of Bart might not have been completely careful in using only non-lead-based paints).
Then somebody got the idea of oiling him up with kitchen oil, and that's what finally did the trick, although three or four applications of oil were necessary to get the fire going properly. We sure could have used a quarter litre of gasoline.
And even my incredibly clever idea of putting popcorn into Bart didn't pan out -- it eventually burned, but it never popped.
Margarit wasn't feeling very good, and wasn't too happy about the billows of thick smoke that seemed to go directly from Bart into the sleeping area of the casita, but at least the construction was of such low quality that the smoke could leave not only through the doors but though hundreds of slots in the walls, and even though a couple of spots in the roof.
After Bart was gone, a bunch of folks went to bed, and the rest of us
waited up for the new year in the Azores. There was almost no
alcohol, which probably partly explains why we were able to stay
awake -- we'd gotten up at 4:45 am and worked hard on the birds all
day. We had a couple of liters of sangria -- wine diluted with
fruit juice -- for all twelve of us.
We tried singing songs, telling jokes, and finally, what was most successful, was to tell stories about how we'd almost killed ourselves on previous adventures. That was quite entertaining, and when we celebrated the new year in Rio de Janiero, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. By the time we celebrated the new year in Caracas, we were confident we could make it to the new millenium.
At about 11:45, Masaru disappeared upstairs and returned with a bottle of whiskey and accidentally woke up Ellen, who came downstairs to join the celebration. So there were six of us awake at the casita new millenium, and the world didn't come to an end, and there weren't even too many airplanes that fell out of the skys due to Y2K bugs in their navigation systems.
All the whiskey disappeared, and apparently a lot of it disappeared into Ana, as I was able to learn a couple of choice Spanish phrases as she stumbled out of her sandals in the mud outside the casita, and wound up standing in mud up to her ankles (and previously clean socks).
Of course data entry is pretty boring, but I decided on the basis of the work I did there that if I ever do research of my own, I'll be the one to enter the data. The reason is that if you find something strange on the hand-written data sheets, and if those were only written a couple of hours previously, it is often possible to question the person who wrote it down and figure out what was meant.
But what also impressed me was how entering the data forces you to look at each entry. I'm no expert on birds, but I knew more about those birds than most of the volunteers, and I usually worked with Mark on data entry, and he knows a lot. As we entered the data, we caught lots of things just because of what we knew -- if the weight of a bird seemed wrong, you knew it because you knew roughly what that sort of bird should weigh. And there were all sorts of other things that came up that we noticed only because we were checking the data for consistency as we were entering it, rather than just blindly copying the data.
One of the things that we discussed most was traveller's diarrhea. The standard treatment is to take a course of antibiotics (Ciprofloxin, usually) for two or three days, but apparently recent research has shown that a single dose works as well as a two or three day course. I also learned that there is no real danger in using something like Immodium to plug yourself up in case of a problem.
I got to test that knowledge at La Selva. Luckily I was back at the lodge when I awakened at 3 am and hurried into the bathroom. After I came out, I took the Cipro and hauled out the Immodium. Of course that's when I discovered that the Immodium in my first aid kit had expired four years previously. But I went ahead and took it, as well as another dose at 5 am when I had to get up again, and it seemed to solve the problem completely.
But up at the casita, things didn't work out quite so nicely. At the end of the day that we'd moved all the nets up the hill to the ridge I was pretty wiped out, and discovered that I had almost no appetite. In fact, I felt a little nauseated. Within a half hour after dinner, I suddenly had to make an emergency run to the bathroom where I had a pretty good case of diarrhea. So I returned to the casita, went up to my tent and got out the first aid kit with the Cipro and the Immodium.
You're supposed to take the Cipro on an empty stomach, and since I'd only been able to swallow a couple of tablespoons of dinner, I figured my stomach was pretty empty. I swallowed the Cipro and within two seconds was really pleased that Vince hadn't hung his hammock across the main walkway, as I was just able to get to the door of the casita travelling at full speed to vomit a big load out of the second floor and into the woods. For this I earned the temporary nickname of "hurler". My stomach, as it turned out, was not empty.
After that I felt better, and I figured I'd upchucked the Cipro and the Immodium, so I took another batch and went to bed. I made a whole bunch of trips that night to the bathroom with diarrhea, but at about 2 am I woke up completely nauseated again. This time I was able to make it down the steps and into the forest before I hurled again, and this time the amount that came out was amazing -- it was the entire lunch, apparently completely undigested -- my digestive system had apparently shut down. So I wondered if any of the Cipro had been absorbed. I figured probably not, since I wasn't absorbing food, and even if my stomach had been working, I took the Cipro on essentially a completely full stomach. So I took a third Cipro and yet another dose of the expired Immodium.
I made a couple more diarrhea trips that night, but my nausea was completely gone, and I hardly minded them ...
When I got up the next morning, it turned out there was an epidemic -- Vince, Ellen, Mark, and Dusty also had various combinations of nausea and diarrhea. There were all sorts of theories about what caused it, but obviously we don't know. Vince was the worst -- he looked completely dreadful all day long, and Ellen was a close second. She had gone to sleep nauseated, and had the presence of mind to put one of those huge plastic bags near her tent which she made use of in the middle of the night. She got the nickname "bag lady" as a result.
And a couple of days later Margrit also got it, and Masaru felt pretty nauseated on the way out, so he perhaps had a mild case. Even Jack was sick when we finally got back to the hotel in Montanita, but that may simply have been from exhaustion.
In any case, I think a lot of doses of Cipro were consumed by the team. None of the locals, of course, got sick, making it less likely that it was food poisoning and that it was simply some kind of bacterial infestation from the water, in spite of the fact that we had been extremely careful with our water supply.
The other symptom that all of us shared is that after about a day of misery, all the nausea and diarrhea disappeared, but we were completely exhausted -- we climbed the stairs into the casita not alternating steps, but by stepping with both feet on each step. And our pulse rates the next day were very high -- mine is normally 60 at rest, and it was 90. Vince's is normally even lower, and he was running a resting pulse of 90 as well.
And there was one other sad note -- Mark got back to the United States, felt fine, and decided that there really wasn't any point to continuing his malaria drugs so he stopped. He informed me by email that he had a "cycling fever", and a couple of days later that he thought it was malaria. It wasn't malaria, but it turned out to be something just about as bad -- typhoid (probably). Typhoid protection supposedly lasts for 5 years and it had been 4.5 for him, so he was "on the cusp". Apparently it's a bit difficult to diagnose malaria, since you have to look for the little plasmodia at the right time -- just after your red blood cells have broken open -- which occurs when you've got the high fever. If you look at the blood at other times during the cycle, they are sometimes hard to find. In a sense it's probably better to get sick in Ecuador, since the docs there have certainly seen a lot of cases. Mark's doctor in Kansas probably hadn't seen too many cases that year ...
By chance, when I got that note from Mark, I had just received a note from Ellen saying that she still felt a bit nauseated as she had for the entire trip, and had decided that perhaps it was due to the Larium and that she was going to stop. I told her about Mark's problem, and I hope she reconsidered.
I think most of the volunteers were on some sort of malaria drug, either Larium, Doxycycline, or something else. Most malaria in Ecuador is resistant to the older, safer anti-malarials. The Larium is rumored to have some bad side effects, but you have to take the Doxycycline every day. The German couple took their malaria pills every day but claimed it was just "Viagra".
It did take a bit longer (about six hours) to walk out, but the trip out was almost without incident. There was a place where a landslide had blocked the regular trail but there was another possibility that Pascual had never seen before. We were alreay more than two hours into the walk, so there wasn't much choice -- we took the alternative trail. It eventually wound down to a stream and disappeared, but it was easy to walk down the stream bed in rubber boots, and after about a half hour in the stream bed, we came back to the La Ponga trail. The whole exercise probably only cost ten minutes.
The last part of the trip was fairly level, but long and hot, and I stuck with my strategy of staying at the rear of the pack. This time I spent a great deal of time with Mark whose bad ankle was giving him some trouble but we had a great time yakking away. We evenually caught up with Dusty, and I was getting anxious to get to the beer at El Suspiro, while Mark was more and more interested in birdwatching in spite of his bum ankle so I left him with his wife and hurried on ahead to join Ellen and Jack for the last couple of kilometers into town.
Masaru was nauseated on the walk out, so he rode a mule for a bit, but was later replaced by Ana, who somehow injured her knee and it finally got so painful to walk on that she just couldn't go on. Luckily, it apparently wasn't permanent damage and according to a note I got from her after I returned, her knee was more or less back to normal.
Of course when you get near town, things get confusing. There are some ugly river crossings, and it's not obvious exactly where to go. I didn't much care, and would hurry ahead and back off if there was an obvious error, but Jack was surprisingly resistant to these little adventures. In retrospect, I think he was much more tired than I imagined, and really didn't want to take an extra step in the wrong direction. When we did finally arrive at the hotel in Montanita and he got sick, it may have been simply due to exhaustion. I've certainly been so tired that I just threw up, and the day after, Jack seemed more or less normal -- not completely destroyed as the rest of the epidemic sufferers were. But we did spend that next day mostly on a bus, so it's hard to say.
Even when we got to El Suspiro we still had to wait for the truck, load all the stuff on the truck, take the truck to Valdivia where we got it into the bus, and then there was an hour bus ride to Montanita. But there was beer available in El Suspiro, so the rest of the trip was easy.
In Montanita, there was a gal who offered massages: 5 dollars for women and 10 dollars for men "because they have more muscles". Vince said in that case he'd need a 20 dollar massage, but he settled for the 10 dollar version. After the massage, he was pleased to tell us how the masseuse had asked him if he were married, but after a careful reconstruction of what happened, it turned out there was some language confusion.
She had asked him how he felt, and he meant to reply "tired" ("cansado" in Spanish), but he replied "casado" (married). She then asked him about his wife, which is what caused the confusion. Unfortunately, she was not so impressed with his 20 dollar musculature to propose marriage on the spot.
The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. We collected some money to help out Pascual and Mauricio, and used Mauricio's to purchase some building materials for him in Valdivia -- he wanted to have some cinderblock walls for his house, and enough money was collected to more of less pay for it. He took him with us to Valdivia and the gift was a surprise.
Then returned to Guayaquil, dropping off Pascual at his house near Salinas. There was a farewell dinner and everyone but Jack attended -- Jack had to leave early to catch his 12:30 flight which he discovered to his horror was at 12:30 am, not 12:30 pm.
Vince, Ellen, and I were on the same flight from Guayaquil to Miami, where we split up and went our separate ways. My "non-stop" flight from Miami to San Francisco in fact stopped in Dallas, and when we stopped, we were informed that it was not only a stop, but a plane change. There were a bunch of other folks on the flight who were also positive they'd been told it was non-stop, but what can you do? I arrived in San Francisco at about 9:00 pm, California time.
I'm still getting up far too early in the morning, after having changed my internal clocks to get up at 4:30 am in Ecuador, which is 1:30 am in California. This morning I finally managed to sleep until almost 7 am.
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