Dreams are powerful tools that can help guide anyone to success and happiness. They represent some cherished aspiration, an ultimate ideal of achievement.

The word sylvan refers most directly to a setting associated with the woods. Reflecting on the vigorous life that abounds in sylvan settings is a very powerful force in my life. For me, this word evokes feelings of transcendence, clarity, and unity.

A Sylvan Dream is a dynamic compilation of my life dream. It is an attempt to seek out and document the truth, beauty, and clarity that exists in this world.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wow, It's the end...

Well, tomorrow night it is back to the States.

I have been fortunate to watch six full moons in Peru, the last one being just a few days ago in Cusco, during an early morning walk back from the discos as the night was fading to twilight. For awhile, staring up at each moon only made me feel tied to the places on which I could envision that same moonlight shining down - back home, the people, the places, the memories...Until my fourth moon, after a walk on the trails around the research station. Once the other guys climbed in their tents, and ceased rustling around as they wriggled into their sleeping bags, I looked around the moonlit valley, and traced the clouds up to where they just looked like ghostly feathers streaking across the full moon. I felt a fullness in my feet that hadn't been around for awhile. I was rooted there and then.

It is just a simple and trite thought to be truly present in a moment, but it is a thought that I feel constantly challenges me. Finally, I could feel the full weight of where I was, and knew that I was in the right place. That night, it was only once I felt this perfect sensation of placement that I then felt my heart reach back to the places I missed back home, and I know some of those places felt my happiness that night.

Of course six months abroad, living like this has changed my life, taught me much, and given me ample thoughts on how to change my life and those around me for years to come. However, suddenly in less than 30 hours, all I have grown familiar to in the past 6 months will be gone, and I will be dependent on my memories and writings to remind me. I am excited to get back to the life I know I love back in the states, and I am equally excited to see how the life I have developed over this long long trip will complement the coming years.

I will definitely miss Peru extremely, and if I do not return here in the coming years, I will be very surprised. See you all soon.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the right path...

I have arrived in Paucartambo for a day to catch up on some e-mails and what not. The following are two journal entries from the recent weeks.

There are days when ya just know ya just got it right, when things seem impossibly good, and then they get a little better.
After a few hours of searching for nests up and down this mountain creek a few miles from the station, the sun finally crested the edge of the deep ravine and cast brilliant blue light into the booming pools of water tumbling past me. There was nothing else that made sense in that moment other than to just get in. So, I laid my backpack, binos, clothing, and boots along side the river on some rocks, and jumped in. Well, no, I eased in, sat down in the water and managed to hyperventilate in the frigid water for about five seconds before I jumped up and out. Some exclamations escaped my lips, who knows what. After a few more minutes in the sun, I felt I was ready for the real shock of swimming up in the rapid where a small torrent fell two feet into the pool that swirled and spit splashes of icy water on my bare skin.
I quickly walked into the edge of the sandy-bottomed pool, jumped into the deepest part, and swam like a frog in the current for perhaps ten seconds before running back out. The pool was just large and deep enough to swim in. The icy water rushing over my eyes, the clarity of the rocks around me - all was perfect. The last time I felt a moment like this in such frigid mountain water was several years ago now, back in Quilcene, Wa. I would ride a borrowed bike down Linger Longer Rd. a few times a week after work and go for a swim in the Little Quilcene river. At the bottom of the deepest hole, I would cling to an exposed tree root, holding myself on the cobblestone creekbed as I stared up at the blue summer skies. A few times swallows glided in the air above, and something seemed oddly perfect to be staring into that realm while kidding myself into feeling aquatic for so long as my lungs allowed.
After laying on the rocks for a few minutes, I decided to hike up the creek and look for some more nests along the banks, and left my clothing behind. There is something about being drenched in frigid water while bathed in intense mountain sunlight that made me stand there smiling, dripping wet and naked, wondering how things could feel any better at that moment. Once I sat back down to warm up and dry off an hour later by my clothing, a few butterflies landed on my legs, probing for salty sweat. Their violet-blue wings mesmermized me as they winked in the late-morning sun.
Ever so slowly, I think my travels are revealing to me that I have people in my life, people who influence my thoughts on a daily basis, people I miss when I am away, everyday people I truly love who make me feel at home. For awhile in my life, I felt alone to the point that I felt accustomed to thinking I really was alone, and that I might not be able to find other people who felt the same about life as I did. But as I stare over the mountainside at the misty clouds that blow condensation into my hair, I am finding the elation I feel in seeing such beauty generates an undeniable longing to have some people here with me now. Someone with whom I can argue over the intrinsic value of such so-called nature, someone to share a barely noticeable grinning glance with as two squirrels pass by unaware of us watching from our treestands, someone to lay in a cozy bed with as we lazily watch the sunrise on the mountainside, someone to lay on a blanket with in the sun as the spray from a nearby fountain kisses wispy drops of rain on our bare skin, someone with whom a normal commute to work can become one of the most memorable mornings of the year...
From shadows of such self-imposed times of youthful loneliness, I am finally acknowledging that I have never really been alone at all, and I am beginning to see it´s not only places so far from man´s hand that I need to see, but I need others at my side in whom I know resides a similar glowing ember as green as these forests through which I am so lucky to roam each day. It may be the path less travelled, but that does not make me alone or unique on this path.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wet and Beautiful

The early morning light opens my eyes around 5am each morning as it creeps up over the mountaintops on the opposite eastern side of the valley some mile or two away. The mornings are crisp, and the first thing I do as I sit up and slide out of my bivvy sack is put on my sweatshirt that I use as a pillow, and slide on my pants I have beneath my legs where I sleep.

After a year hiatus, the cold mornings have broken me, and I now drink coffee again. Cupping the mug in both my hands, I watch birds flit by on the mountainside as the daylight grows, the clouds sweep up the valley from below, and I await breakfast.

The days are long, slow, and inconcievably enjoyable. I hike thirty minutes or so to my site, and prepare for the morning's work, putting on one thermal layer, raincoat, and rainpants. As I leave the trail and begin creeping up through the thick forest, I half wince, half relish the first cool drops of water that fall on my cheeks from the mossy branches as I weave through the thick vegetation, climbing, half crawling up the mountainside. From time to time, I find myself staring off through the low canopy as thoughts of home, future plans, missed people, or a beautiful birds catch my attention. One morning, a red flash far off through the canopy caught my attention, and I smiled as my eyes focused on the mountain toucan I have been seeing every few days. I called to it through the woods-a mixture of a hen chicken and a veloci raptor-and the toucan's head jerked to the side, slowly shifted 90 degrees, and then jerked to the other side. Over the next twenty minutes I called them to within a few meters of me, and watched them pass in the canopy above before continuing with my work.

Searching for nests is hard and tedious. I think to do this work and not go crazy you must either really love doing, or just be a very diligent person. I just really love roaming through the woods in a grid-like pattern each day taking part in essentially the hunt to end all easter egg hunts. When my eyes fall upon a small grass-lined opening in a ball of moss hanging from the side of a tree, my heart jumps a little bit. Most of the time I reach inside to just find an empty cavity, just a shadow of a home. One time I saw something odd in the obscure darkness of the rainy forest peaking out at me, and as I reached up and poked it in confusion the face of a mouse recoiled from my finger. This old nest had been taken over by a family of five jungle mice. Not what I was looking for.

As I head back up the mountainside on my way back to lunch around 1230, usually the skies have thickened in confusion over whether it was time to rain or not. A thick mist descends upon the mountainside, and for awhile that is all you think it is when suddenly ten minutes later I realize my shoulders are damp and the chill is licking at my sides. I brush my hand over my beard to find it rather wet but not dripping. Each day it seems this is how the rain comes, subtly sneaking dampness into your clothing, making you realize you should have put on your rain gear.

For me, this is a blessed place, a haven, and a mirror into the person I am trying to be.

I would like to write more but my time is up in this small internet cafe in the mountain town in which I have chosen to pass my day off. I hope you all are well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Macchu Picchu

Sweat dripped liberally from my brow and into my moustache as I made my way up the side of the mountain towards the entrance to Macchu Picchu. Daylight was just fading to pale blue behind the mountains surrounding me. It felt great to push myself hard up a mountainside again. It had been awhile,

Once we got into the park, people started running ahead like maniacs to the other side of the park to the other entrance to Wayna Picchu, which only allows 400 people a day. Once we had secured a place in line to hike up to Macchu Picchu, I took some time to walk around for some early morning photos before the park got filled with other tourists.

The morning had closed in quickly with cloud cover. The sun shown brightly through the clouds, and as it rose above the mountains on the eastern edge of the valley a single tendril of light reached down to Macchu Picchu for a few minutes.

Once we got our tickets to hike Wayna Picchu later that morning, our 25 year old Peruvian guide, Juan, took us around to show us the city. He highlighted the significance of certain parts of the city, its architecture, and its temples. I estimate I missed a fair amount of what he was saying, since it was all in spanish, but I rathered to stumble through understanding his perfect spanish, than have him struggle to explain himself in broken english. Without seeing this place, explaining much of it isn't that interesting. To see it in person is awing. People always talk about how the rocks line up perfectly, with no gaps whatsoever, and this is true where the most attention was paid, at the temples. All of the temples at Macchu Picchu were essentially built to worship some aspect of the earth that the ancient civilation was grateful for. The earth that nurtured them was their god, and the attention they paid at reflecting nature in their designs and rituals was very acute.

Later, we climbed up to Wanya Picchu, and from there the view was amazing. Macchu Picchu looked like some sand castle inlaid with moss and small rocks. We sat up there for awhile taking in the view, but all in all this was a very different experience for me.

I think this was the first time I have been to a place that is one of the wonders of the world for its natural splendor as well is its human heritage. Given time alone up there, I would have sat for hours observing the place, but as it was, teaming with other tourists, I felt no need to sit and dwell. There were a group of people sitting in a circle in one of the temples up on Wayna Picchu. In some circumstances I could have felt myself doing that, but it wasn't the same. I knew going into it that I would be surrounded by other people who may have very varied reasons to be up there. So, I went up there to try and take in as much of the awesome history and beauty this place has to offer, and enjoy it for that.

Sitting upon Wayna Picchu as I looked at the surrounding valley, mountains, and Macchu Picchu below, I felt a solid pleasure in this civilization's legacy. I found it very enheartening to witness the labor that must have taken lifetimes to build. I saw it as the devout result of an understanding by another human culture that realized there was something much greater than their life, their culture, their humanity. Granted, the work was most likely performed by slaves or the poor of the culture, and there were no doubt many darker sides of this culture that this beautiful relic doesn't depict, but this will be true for anything regarding humanity, be it 2000 years ago, today, or far into the future.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

We pulled our bags from the boat after nosing into the mud and sandbag riverbank at Labrinto this morning, and I decided to step into a corner store to relieve some liquids. I was overcome with a bout of staring as I waited for the bathroom to open up. There were plastic wrappers of food and candy hung all over the walls, and there was a TV in the corner. I was overwhelmed.

Everything went very smoothly getting to Cusco. I have left the steamy thickness of the jungle, and entered the thin chill of the Cusco air. Walking the streets brought a welcomed shortness to my chest. I love living at altitude.

Now it seems time to delve into the gregariously extroverted hostel life style for a few days.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Moving On In One Week

Well, here I am sitting under a near full moon, one night past, looking back almost four months of life in the jungle here. I haven't left an area about the size of three college campuses in over 4 months. I don't think there has ever been a time in my life I have lived for so long without ever leaving about a 7 kilometer radius. Just going to school each day growing up in Pennsylvania meant going nearly this far from my home.

The time here has brought about quite a mound of experiences, and has given me a period of time I am sure I will continue to reflect on for many years. I have found a pace and satisfaction in this lifestyle that I will continue to value in my daily life. I have found limits in my life that I have been trying to reach for some time. In many ways, living in the jungle around a completely new culture, mixed in with completely new people has acted as a sieve. I feel I am leaving my time here with something very valuable - a clearer picture of what this life is all about.

In one week, I will be getting on a boat with my two backpacks and guitar, taking a 3 hour ride downriver in a motorized wooden canoe, then taking a one hour drive over a huge, dusty, and rocky road to the airport, and flying to Cusco. I will rest and relax in Cusco, adapting to the elevation for about seven days before heading off into the mountains in a bus to another ACCA field station, named Wayqecha, which I believe is the Quechua for Friend, or Brother. The station there is situated on the mountainsides, at about 9000 feet asl, within a cloud forest. I do not know what it looks like yet obviously, but from what I have been told, it should fit my passions accurately, and in a totally different way than the jungle has.

I will be at this field station until early December. Over the next two months, I will surely have much time to reflect on my thoughts and notes about my lifestlye in the jungle, all the while experiencing very new ways of life in the high cloud forests of the Andes - a completely new landscape, climate, accent, assemblage of birds and wildlife all together, all draped in moss, bromeliads, and orchids, or so I am told.

Please Keep in Touch!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Long-Awaited Rain


The rain took its time, but it got here. It was a hard and sustained thunderstorm, beautiful with sweet tasting rain that soaked my hair and beard as I ran around with Meredith in the soccer field. In just ten minutes, the field was two or three inches deep in some places. The rain brought a fresh and reviving coolness back to my skin that it hadn’t felt since early June.
As I stood there licking rain from my moustache, I watched Meredith dance around in the rain like a ballerina. It made me think back to a time when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen, on one of the last days of school, when a small group of friends came over to my house, and an early summer thunderstorm came too.
We were standing outside plucking sweet honeysuckle blossoms from the large bush growing next to our burning barrel in the back yard when the winds blew in over the ridge behind my house. Ten minutes later, puddles and rivulets of rain water ran down my driveway, picking up heat from the asphalt as it went. We kicked and splashed the hot water at each other, which felt oddly disgusting. We followed the water into my yard, running and sliding through the grass in our bare feet as we went down the hill behind my house, across the path leading to other houses, through an unused field, and into the 5 foot wide and 3 foot deep ditch running between some houses and the woods.
What would start out with shy wading and playful splashing would slowly bring out the true countryside boys we were. In five minutes time we would all be thigh deep in the muddy torrent, wrestling and dunking each other. Every boy knew from many learned experiences that any fine wrestling match in the water was never complete without savage and repeated dunking matches, ranging from hair pulling to full-fledged over the head, back suplexes. Once we got one another down into the frothy slurry, it was always important to dunk them two or three times, making sure that each successive dunk was more impressive than the last. In between bouts of all-out dunking wars, we would try to swim in the mini rivers, or we would just sit down in them and see who could get rolled the farthest in the current.
Games like this growing up were always competitions, but it wasn’t really about the competition. I find it surprising how even from a very young age, most of the games we learn as kids are simply precursors to the life we lead as adults. Of course we don’t realize anything of the sort at the time, but who is it from that we learn how to play? Who is it from that we learn to be a boy, who later becomes a man? Games are simply intimations of the hierarchical trappings of society. The best memories of mine are often based on games like this. For us boys, it was one of the only times it was considered normal to be running, giggling, wrestling, and having all out loving fun.
Sooner or later, one of the house owners close to the gutter would peak out the back door and yell at us, “Get outta that gutter!” They probably would have complained about how we were on their property and it was dangerous for kids to play in such gutters. However, deep down I think adults who have forgotten how to be a kid themselves at heart jealous and bitter towards those who still know how to have pure fun themselves.
Meredith continued to dance in the rain, as she was accustomed to doing, and I continued to walk around sucking the sweet rain from my facial hair, looking up into the sky as rain fell heavily upon us, feeling a bit of a heavy heart at not really having a way to show how joyful I was of the rain. Sure, people can say, “If you want to dance, dance. If you want to giggle and run around in the rain, do it,” but that’s not the point. The point is how amazing formative experiences can be in the rest of our lives.
I stood there in the rain, missing my childhood friends, and while I smiled at the wonderful memories I had of playing in the rain, I longed for a close friend to play and wrestle around with in the vibrant rain.

Monday, September 8, 2008


The sound of rain on the thatch roof was the second thing I noticed after slowly becoming aware it was time to take a step outside to relieve all the refresco I had drank at dinner the night before. I reached between the mosquito net and the bed, and felt numbly around for my alarm clock on the floor - 438am, two minutes before my alarm. I walked through the wet grass over to the edge of the forest, and turned off my head lamp to look up into the skies. Despite the light rain falling, it was still possible to see some stars shining through the breaks.

I turned to walk back towards the dormitory, and as I turned my headlamp back on, two bright yellows lights caught my eye on the edge of the forest. Only once I looked up at them did I realize they were actually eyes and not lights shining back at me from less than 20 feet away. They looked huge, and they were several inches separated. They were perhaps 6 inches off the ground, so for a second I figured it was some large rodent making its way to the fish carcass someone else had left laying out in front of the dormitory. A second later a shot of adrenaline pushed my heart into my throat as the eyes lifted to about three feet off the ground, then a second later dropped back to a few inches from the ground. My jaw dropped, and I froze. I could envision the animal moving perfectly behind those eyes. I was still several steps away from the stairs leading back to the dormitory door, and as I slowly took the steps, my light illuminated the animal's face, the lines running along its nose, and the spots along its cheek bones. It was a jaguar.

The local name for the Jaguar is, Otorongo. This apparently means, kills in one silent leap.

The fear I had always imagined feeling at seeing a big cat in the wild became reality. A sickness welled up within my stomach, and all I could concentrate on was getting inside. I slowly made it to the top of the steps, gazed at the jaguar's unerring stare for one more eery second, then turned and walked as quickly as I could to the door.

I laid back down in bed a minute later, and waited for the adrenaline to get out of my system. I stared at the cieling until twilight began to show through the plastic covering the apex of the roof, then I got up and went to eat some breakfast.

I have wanted to see a big cat for so long, because I always thought it would be one thing I knew could frighten me to the bone. The way those eyes stared into me was captivating and terrifying. From the time I looked at them, to the time I got back to the door I never took my eyes off them, yet all my mind was screaming, "GET AWAY!!!"

That was a fear I have never felt before. It was a fear of self preservation. It was not cool, it was not exciting, it was exactly what I expected. Although it was maybe thirty seconds long, not once did anything cross my mind other than concentrating doing whatever I had to do to remain in the same state I was in at that moment - alive.

That being said, I want to see another one, but you can bet your ass I am a little more scared to walk to my cabin at night.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Notable Thoughts and Moments

I am trying to post more, but I have been busy trying to keep up with my real journal on a daily basis. So, here are some short thoughts, events, or quotes from the past week.


“If I can’t walk outside and piss in my own damned yard, then I ain’t livin’der.”

This is just something that made me laugh out loud in response to a thought I was having one day as I was walking outside to pee. When I think about the places that I have lived and I loved the most, I have always just been able to walk outside and pee in the yard, and it turns out the places I haven’t liked so much, I couldn’t walk outside and pee without risk of cops showing up. Accordingly of course, I had to throw some good ole Pa accent in it.

“The surrender to Nature’s irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena.” ~ Demian, Hermann Hesse

This is a quote that struck me perfectly as I was reading Demian for the third time this week. It may not be as striking out of context, but I hope it will compel some people to look up the book. It has been very influential in opening my eyes inwardly.

I doubt there will be few times in my life when I can say something as abnormal as,
“Yeah, I didn’t get too much sleep last night, the night monkeys were raising hell in the trees outside my cabin all night.”

One night, there were monkey making so much noise outside my cabin maybe 15 feet from my head. Since the cabins are screened in, it was rather noisy. They were fighting, cooing at each other, and yelping as they jumped through the trees, and it seemed as soon as they disappeared for awhile, then they were right back. How often am I going to be awakened by rare nocturnal monkeys...

And finally... I saw a jaguar yesterday morning, staring at me from less than 20 feet away. Hopefully, I will find some time to write about this later today, or soon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Good Morning - Pt. 2

It was an early morning. We headed back down the trail towards CM1, (the other research station) and met Marco waiting for us by the boats. He yanked the modified lawn mower engine to life, and a moment later we were lurching upstream in the river. We squinted into the sun as we looked around the river banks and into the clear blue skies for animals.
Bright white egrets stalked around wooden debris jutting into the river, plucking unwary minnows from the current, while most of the large Cucoi herons perched stoicly upon the tree trunks speckled around us in the river. Their wings slumped away from their sides, and their beaks hung agape as their throats undulated, panting air like a dog.
Once in awhile some of them would become a little too uncomfortable as we passed in the vibrating peki-peki, and with a lazy, fluid motion they would crouch and turn away from us, them jump into the air like a puppet, as if they had just been lifted by invisible strings. A few feet into the air they opened their wings, casting a wide shadow across the water a foot or two below them. With slow, labored wingbeats they float away through the air, craning their neck momentarily to be sure they are not being pursued. Through my binoculars I follow their wingtips as they pass barely an inch above the water with each stroke. I smile, catching a few swirls in the water where their wings come closest to the surface. They are such a large bird, yet they master such delicate and graceful flight.
Up ahead I see an odd, black, lanky form sticking up from the water’s edge. What at first appears to be an animal, then an odd tree stump, turns out to be a spider monkey wading in the water up to its chest. I point it out to every one else just as it spots us coming up river. It turns to run back across shore, stopping momentarily on the long river bank to stare us down, then turns and continues running the fifty meters of so across the large gravel bank until it disappears into the safety grass close to the trees. It appeared as though it was about to swim across the fiver, but perhaps it was just seeking to cool off and have a drink on this very hot day.
Waves of heat rippled over the sandbar like mirages in the desert. Above us, a cloud of kites, vultures, falcons, and storks swirled around in the thermal, quickly rising into the sky. With the river being so low recently, these exposed riverbanks create perfect islands of heat, which these birds take advantage of to navigate long distances, sometimes only flapping several times an hour.
As we leave the sand bar behind us, I look ahead upriver to see the storks cruising out ahead of us now. Wings slightly curved, I could see the feathers close to their body rippling in the wind as they accelerated past us. Just as they were getting low enough for me to see the black and white of their wings again, they broke out of the descent, banking back into the lazy swirl of another thermal rising above the next sandbar perhaps a half mile upstream. In the two or three minutes it took for us to get directly beneath them again, they had become specks in the sky once more. Looking over my shoulder, they dropped out of the thermal and descended rapidly towards the horizon, disappearing over the jungle canopy to the next unseen thermal lying just upstream around the river bend.
Amidst one of these clouds of climbing birds, I watched several falcons and kites stoop down out of the sky upon some unseen prey below. Dropping several hundred feet in only a few seconds, I can rarely help but gasp or yell to draw the spectacle to other’s attention. I watched one Plumbeous kite drop towards the sandbar, grappling with some smaller creature the size of a huge dragonfly or a hummingbird for a few seconds before pulling out of the stoop to avoid hitting the ground. I watched the prey streak away in the other direction inches off the ground, still unsure as to whether it was a hummingbird or a dragonfly. Down here, they are of very similar sizes.
While the air may feel fresh as the peki-peki labours upstream, once we land back at CICRA, the air sits heavily upon us again. By the time we have arrived at the top of the staircase some 240 steps later, sweat drips from my face, but at least it is lunch time, which means some cool, sweet refresco awaits my parched lips.

A Good Morning - Pt.1

We went down to CM1 this morning in attempts to finish collecting data for the final birds we need to finish collecting at one of our three field sites. Today, we were simply attempting to record the songs of four birds that we had already caught in mist nets during the previous weeks. While we sat in wait for the birds to show up in response to the speakers sitting along the trail shouting their song into the forest, the sun rose through the trees, and sweat quickly began to dampen my shirt. A family of howler monkeys moved through the trees high in the canopy above us, stopping momentarily to gaze at us as we stared through out binoculars. A moment later I could hear the sounds of their urine showering down through down the leaves. Excremental bombs slapped upon the forest floor with a smack – a howlers attempt to help potential threats keep their distance. Luckily this morning the air was moving away from us through the forest, wafting the dank smell of zoo away from where Claire and I sat. We took a few photos of some interesting green, blue, red, and black grasshoppers that glide through the air on bright white wings after shooting themselves into the air. Walking down the trail some days, we encounter a pocket of fifteen or twenty of these hoppers, and they explode around us like a mini fireworks display surrounding us beneath the shade of the forest canopy.
Finally, we hear the call of one of our subject species calling back to us from up the trail. Without a word, Claire and I pace quickly towards the singing bird. She hands me the speakers as she pulls the microphone from a leather holster and untangles the chord from the recorder. Crouching at the trail’s edge once we get close enough to the bird, she begins recording the bird as it sings in defense of its territory. The screen of the recorder jumps erratically as it records the song, along with the toucans and cicadas screaming in the canopy above. As long as we can get close enough to the bird while it sings, it should be loud enough to differentiate the notes of the bird we want from the ambient noise of the forest, which can become deafening some days. With the last month’s dry heat, the katydids and cicadas have come out in full force, mastering the sound waves of the mid-day heat. After 830 or 9 in the morning, some places in the forest are overcome with a cacophony of this insect chorus. A few days previous, Claire and I sat waiting almost an hour for the insects to quiet down so that the birds could actually hear the speakers playing their song over the noise of the forest. Claire and I sat and talked, laughing as we had to nearly yell at each other to be heard.
Once Claire recorded enough songs for later computer analysis, she gives me a knod, and I step off the trail into the forest to search for the singing bird. In order for our recorded songs to be useful, we have to be 100% sure that each bird we record is the individual we think it is since their song is being analyzed in conjunction with blood samples we have already taken during previous visits. Sometimes it is simple. If we are lucky, the birds are drawn in close enough by the phantom intruder that we can see their identifying color bands from the trail. However, more often than not, these birds seem to have some recollection of what happened the last time they laid chase to an intruder in their territory. So, while they will sing in defense of their territory, the more often we visit their territory, the less likely they are to come close enough for us to see their leg bands.
Today, we are lucky. After changing position in the forest three times, I got back out onto the trail and ran ahead of the birds as they worked their way farther from us. I sat waiting, and each minute, their call got closer and closer, until they came hopping and flitting past me. While trying to track them through dense foliage about 2 feet off of the ground, I desperately attempted to keep them in focus and spot the color bands around their legs. At each perch these birds spend about three seconds or less standing still. So, once they move, I have just that amount of time to try and follow them, focus, see the colors on their legs, attempt to tell whether it is male of female, decide on which legs the color bands are and, if I can see really well, attempt to decide what combination the bands occur on each leg. Sometimes there are up to four bands on each bird, two per leg. It is often as simple as just spotting one or two of these bands, and knowing whether it was on the female or male. Then, I can go to the data book, and check the combination with the individual we think it is to be sure of its identity. However, once in awhile we have birds living close to each other, and while we attempt to not let it occur, every once in awhile neighbours may end up with similar color combinations, making it very important to see exactly what is on each bird’s leg. Today, I was able to see a yellow band on the right leg of the male as he perched sideways two inches off the ground for about two seconds, and about two minutes later I got the female’s combination-red on the left leg, white and silver on the right-as she perched just barely within view sideways on a sapling two feet off the ground. Thus it only took about thirty minutes of following them around in the woods today before we realized some success. This part of the research is by far the most challenging and my favorite part of this work, and it allows me to put to use skills I have been attuning since I was a child. It is not very dissimilar from the way I grew up hunting. For I must be somewhat quiet as I stalk the bird, I must get close to it and, just as I need to be accurate enough to shoot something to kill it, I have to be skilled, quick, and accurate with my binoculars to spot the bird and read the color bands on its leg. Even better, in the end I walk away successful, yet still having killed nothing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Blog Problems

I am sorry for the silence on my blog. I have been away on and off at another research station where I do not have internet access. It has been nice to get away from it here and there.

However, I returned after this last trip to find the lower row of my keyboard is not functioning anymore,thus I cannot sign into my computer. So, this will no doubt limit my blogging until I am able to hopefully have a new keyboard sent to Cusco, where I pick it up the end of september, and hopefully everything will be ok. Until then, I hope to update when possible, and keep in touch via e-mail if you would like to get in touch with me.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mi Cabana

The majority of the land that the research station (CICRA) I am living at rests on is a large clearing, perhaps roughly five football fields in total area. There are four main large buildings that are perhaps the size of an average American house. These buildings are framed in concrete; the rest is made of wooden framing, and thatched roof. There is no wood paneling really to make walls, so the building is pretty much a wooden frame closed in screen mesh.
This lends the feeling of being outside at all times, and thus being indoors only really means respite from the bugs,
and the rain, but the roofs leak a little bit. While I am sure some families have air conditioning somewhere in Peru, I have only heard of air conditioning in banks, and that was in Lima. Around the rest of the station are a meager smattering of nice cabins, and a football (soccer) field where we play a few times a week.
Behind the station, a sand trail leads back to the water tower. Water is pumped from an adjoining spring into large plastic drums lifted high in the concrete tower. This height provides enough pressure to push the water through several hundred feet of pipes to the main buildings and surrounding cabins, some of which have bathrooms. On the way to the water tower, a few small paths jut off from the main sand path.
These small paths lead to about five other small cabins peppered through the jungle. These are also wooden frame cabins with thatch roofs, screened in with mesh. These cabins are set up in size and layout like a double college dorm room, but usually only one person sleeps in them.
In the oppressive mid-day heat, I find my cabin quite relieving. Even as I write this, hanging in my hammock wearing only mesh shorts, I am still sweating. As soon as we return from our fieldwork for the day, I retreat to the cold showers close to my cabin, and relish in the frigid water as it pours over my head and chest delightfully.
I often look out the screen to watch some capuchins or tamarins moving past in the trees just outside, and imagine myself standing in some mountain waterfall. I spend the afternoon writing, playing my guitar, or reading, but it usually ends with me waking up an hour or two before dinner to squirrel monkeys and brown capuchins crashing through the trees around my cabin.
Many nights I return to my cabin shortly after dinner. Laying my bag next to my nightstand, I grab a lighter, and light a few candles that I have stuck into some old spirit bottles. Each candle burns for several hours, so the twenty four candles I bought almost two months ago now are just starting two dwindle. I hang my hammock up, pull my bed stand over to my side, and spend the rest of the evening usually just like the afternoon. I read, write, or play my guitar until it is late enough to go to bed, or I just fall asleep by candlelight.
Large moths and other insects ping loudly against the screen closest to the candlelight. I feel bad for the damage I must be causing to these large beautiful moths as they slam against my cabin, but then figure there is little difference between these large moths and all the minute flies that fall beside the candle with a sizzle and pop every few minutes - no difference besides my valuing a charismatic moth over a biting fly. Inevitably, I let the thought fade out of my mind, for I am thankful to have the light of these candles over electric running into the cabin.
Soon after I hear the generator cut out around 930, I decide it is time to sleep. Brushing my teeth on my porch, I dodge some moths bombing at my headlamp while simultaneously whale spouting my mouthful of water and toothpaste into the dark. I stand around for a minute or two scratching my chest as I look around, to be sure there is nothing else I am forgetting to do before bed. I then blow out the candles, half the nights playing karate kid, punching or kicking the candles out with a puff of supreme prowess any eight year old would be jealous of. I slide under the small space where my mosquito net is not tucked under the mattress, and then shake the sand off my feet as I sit on the edge of the bed. In the few minutes it usually takes to fall asleep, I lay on my back wide-eyed, looking into the night. Sooner or later they are usually met with a ghostly green glow. I sit up and look around, to find a small firefly swirling around outside my cabin. Some nights I can hear wings sputtering in the air like some oversized beetle treading through the air. This is another, much larger firefly. A pale green light glows when it lands on the overhang of the roof, but as soon as it takes off, it is replaced by a halo of bright orange light shining from its abdomen.
Some nights, a large gecko softly scampers across the screening close to my head, but most nights it is a mouse-like marsupial. Loudly and relentlessly they scamper back and forth, up over my roof, and eventually down the inside of my wall. Before moving into the cabin, I used to wake up to nice little marsupial gifts in the form of excrement on my floor or on some hanging clothing, but in this cabin, they don’t bother me that much. So, whereas I used to get out of bed and smack them with a sock, I only do that here if they don’t leave after awhile.
I dream the night away, half of the time waking up thrashing my foot or arms in the midst of some crazy dream. One night I woke up throwing my pillow as I sat up abruptly in bed. My pillow and headlamp bounced off the mosquito net and landed on my legs. I laughed out loud. I don’t know exactly why, I but I have very intense dreams here. Luckily, they are almost all good now. Luckily, despite all this restless dreaming, I feel rather rested when it is time to get up. Three or four days a week I find myself with enough energy to get up early to do yoga. I had been teaching Frances while she was here, but now since she has left to return to college, I get up at 4am to do yoga by candlelight before heading off to work at 530. My mind slowly lets go of the night, and I feel the tension leave my neck and back as I move through sun salutations. Cockroaches often shoot from the dancing shadows across my hands or stomach when I am lying on my back doing crunches. However, they are rather common here, and don’t have as much of a disgusting connotation as they do back home. The mornings are nicest when a calm breeze rustles through the trees, refreshing the air in my cabin, bringing a slight coolness to the sweat forming across my back. The rest of the mornings I get up around 450am, and head up to the comedor for a quick breakfast before we head out on the trail a bit before sunrise.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Thoughts about Expectations


Early one morning I was dreaming about two random people I have never seen having a discussion after a high school English class. The teacher was a young, frumpy lady wearing an amorphous green muumuu-like dress. The student was essentially the same, but younger. The girl was having trouble finishing any writing assignments in class. After some prodding from the teacher, the girl shared that she wasn’t allowed to write about what she wanted because people wouldn’t like it, and they would make fun of her.
The teacher sighed and sloughed down into a chair next to the girl. Then she shared a similar story how she has wanted to write a book her whole life, but she felt that no one wanted to read a book written by a woman like her.
As I watched this scene unfold, a quote materialized, and as if I was watching television, a torn strip of old parchment scrolled through my vision like a marquee screen. Written fluidly with a quill, I read the following words in black ink,

“Society isn’t stopping us from doing anything. Only our perception of what society expects us to do keeps us from accepting the possibility of our dreams as reality.”

As I read this quote, the scene behind it dissolved into a deep green curtain, and the quote echoed in my mind. I slowly realized I was waking up from a dream, and listened as a voice resounded the quote again. I sat up in my bed, checking my clock to see it was 359am, one minute before my alarm was to go off. I slinked beneath my mosquito net, grabbed my journal laying on my bed stand, and quickly scribbled down the quote as my dream faded.

A few years ago, I was sharing some thoughts about life with a close friend. While we were chatting, I remember writing to him a thought of mine stating expectations are poison. I feel that the emergence of this quote in my dreams brings about an evolution of this original view regarding the potential negative effect of expectations.
Expectations about the way we want events in our life to unfold poison the potential of enjoying the reality of each moment before us. Rather, perhaps it is our connection to our expectations that bring about pain. It is ok to expect a certain outcome of an event, but to become attached to this outcome, something that isn’t even real yet, what use is that? Perhaps only once we have ceased to expect desirable (expected) outcomes can we accept each moment as it comes. Void of such expectations we begin to live in the reality of each moment, and I feel only then do we truly begin to live.
This quote suggests that the expectations with which society weighs us down impose a sense of self-denial on our daily life. Our perspective of society poisons our mind into believing that while we have freedom of choice in our life, we still have guidelines that society expects us to follow. These pervasive expectations of our society can easily make us forget that dreams are the impetus for change in this world. Unhappiness comes from the faulty belief that we cannot turn our dreams into reality. Do not let your perception of what society expects of you keep you from bringing change about in this world.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Of Dreams and Delusions


Several years ago while still studying at Bucknell, one day I checked a science news website to read “New Bird Species Found!” Following the link, I learned how a previously known species had just been discovered in Belize, where it had never been seen before. As a picture of the bird popped up next to the article everything else melted away for a few moments, as I stared motionlessly at an electric blue bird with a deep purple throat and a doll-like yellow eye that seemed to stare vacuously at me from the webpage. Learning that discoveries like this were still occurring in the world began to revive my childhood dreams of visiting South America to behold such exuberant examples of beauty for myself. I showed this photo to many people, and eventually the image crept into the deeper folds of my mind. I found myself taking leave from my class conversations to daydream about trudging through a dense and steamy jungle someday, to hopefully look up one day and see this bird standing before me.
Since receiving the newest field guide on the birds of Peru for Christmas, I often flipped to the page where this cotinga stood staring back at me. I would stare at the bird for long periods of time, lost in its beauty, as if just to stare at it might give me some premonition, some calling as to where I could find it waiting in the forest.
Searching for birds is not much different than the pursuit of some coveted love affair. If I was a woman, I would be forever skeptical of a ‘birder’. One needs only to sit around them for a few minutes before their painfully obvious obsession with beauty becomes apparent. While the type of man undoubtedly varies across many spectrums of creepiness, pretentious-ness, and other similar adjectives, all of these men have this weak obsession for beauty in common. For many of these men, I believe this obsession for birds is a reaction, as well as a coping mechanism, to horribly failed relationships in which love was mistaken for obsession and acquisition of beauty.
While I find myself falling somewhere in the midst of this category, I feel in the end it is how you appreciate an object for what it is, not what status it holds in your mind. Beneath a dress, they may seem like the most beautiful breasts, but when the dress is finally slumped against the wall in a pile on the floor, you are still just looking at breasts. The same holds true for birds. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is all.
However, despite this realization, I unwittingly felt such youthful aspirations seeping back into my mind, and I was awash in my teenage self. As I let the promise of this bird’s beauty lull me into obsession, I was once again balancing on the line separating reality and covetous delusion.
While out on a walk looking for birds today by myself, I stopped in a sunny clearing where a bamboo-like plant called carrizo grows tall. Amidst this field of carrizo, a few old trees stand alone beneath the blazing sun. Hearing a woodpecker tapping away, I began to randomly scan one of these trees in search of it. I followed the trunk of the tree up to its shady canopy, and suddenly there was a burst of electric blue in my binoculars. My mouth dropped wide open. Sitting motionlessly, its bright yellow eye shining back at me eerily; there was the Plum-Throated Cotinga.
And so, there it was, a bird I have been dreaming about seeing for three years. I looked around, as if someone should suddenly have appeared for me to high five. Clinging to the projected meaning of this moment, I let out a little yell, did a little booty dance on the trail, seriously I did, and then looked through my binoculars again. In doing this, I was reminded of what it now meant for me to check off a dream on the list.
Seeing this bird doesn’t necessarily make this day or this six-month trip any more special than it would have been without it, but it symbolizes the culmination of a dream that has lived in me for a long time. When dreams become reality, it is easy fool yourself into sentimentally clinging to the moment, as if you can remain crystallized in its revelry, but from such sentimentality often comes a skewed and painful understanding of reality. The challenge in realizing a dream come true is in treating it as you would any other moment of your life. Each moment has its clear meaning, which does not vary from one to the next.
In this way, I feel I am learning how to navigate my life through a matrix of dreams. While each dream I find shining in the night sky may tell me I am on the right path, the night would be rather dark and lonely without all the other stars in the sky. So, while realizing my dreams gives me bearing on which to set course for future dreams, I try to seek out and enjoy the light that each moment shines on me. And with some time and diligent, concerted effort, I may slowly learn how to perceive the reality of each moment as a dream come true. Until then, I at least know I am on the right path.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

El Aguajal

note: If any of these photos aren't uploading properly, please make a comment or e-mail so I can correct the issue. Uploading and posting photos is difficult at times from a remote satellite link in the Amazon.


Hoping to find an area where the researchers and hunters don’t frequent, Frances and I chose to visit some rather neglected trails here at CICRA for our Sunday hike. After another wonderfully lazy breakfast of pancakes with strawberry jam and queso and a bowl of papaya, we headed out onto the trail.
Thirty minutes later we turned onto a little known trail, Mauritia, named named for one of the most abundant species of palms we would soon find ahead. After navigating around several downed trees, the trail plunged down into the aguajal, or palm swamp, after only a few hundred meters. What in a forest is a simple trail of dirt, becomes a matrix of miniature islands in the aguajal. Rootwads of various swamp plants create unsteady stepping-stones amidst a sea of murky swamp water and mud. At first, we spent much time attempting to avoid getting wet, but it only took about fifteen minutes before we both had fallen in up to our thighs, filling our boots with murky, tepid swamp water.

photo by: Frances Buerkens

Around the edges of the swamp, the palm trees grow densely enough to form a shady canopy. In such shade, vines creep along palm trunks, and multicolored lichens blotch the bark like an abstract artist’s canvas.

photo by: William Minehart

Small clumps of saplings and other brush fill in the spaces between the larger palms, otherwise we Frances and I would be not be able to manage this wading hike at all. Surrounded by bright silver columns of the palm trunks that shine with various shades of green disorients you with a beautiful monotony. While managing one stretch of particularly wobbly islands, I paused for a moment straddling the muck we had still been avoiding, I looked over to see this odd creature that seemed more like it should be in Alice in Wonderland than here in a palm swamp. I giggled a little bit, calling it to Frances' attention so she could take a picture of it.
photo by: Frances Buerkens

As we work our way farther into the center of the swamp, the trees spread out, giving way to thick meadows of aquatic grasses and sedges, sometimes thick enough to walk over, but often not. Having abandoned hopping from island to island of sparse vegetation awhile ago, we took to wading through the swamp with abandon, each of us gasping as we unexpectedly slumped into holes up to our thighs or hips. We periodically stopped to pour the chocolate water out of our boots and to wring out our socks, but the pointlessness of this quickly became apparent.
Thick stalks of vanilla orchids become numerous towards the center of the swamp; sometimes obscuring almost all the palm trunk they grow on. Fed by an endless supply of water below, thick waxy leaves the size of basset hound ears glow an illuminant lime green, contrasting sharply with the yellow haze bearing down on everything beneath the mid-day sun.
Small tufts of waxy white bristly leaves stick out from small crevices on surrounding saplings and palm bark. Some of these minute bromeliads are scarcely greater than the old growth communities of hair growing from a grandfather’s useless ears, while some others resemble large pineapples. Long red spikes extend from this prickly plant when flowering times arrive. Blossoming, they unfurl trumpeting tongues of some the most stunningly contrasting electric yellows, oranges, reds, and purples. These flowers offer a surprising vibrance from a plant that is otherwise dull and seemingly perpetually on the verge of death.
Small periwinkle pedals glinting in the bright sun caught my eyes as we waded through the swamp. These petite blossoms reminded me of snapdragons back home, yet they hung from the tips of the grass stalks.
Ahead a small inflorescence of white and yellow flowers coming from a terrestrial orchid bobbed in the breeze just above the surrounding vegetation. A few of the nearby plants had mature seed pods that were beginning to split open to spread their powdery seeds into the wind as they dried out. I picked a few off the stalk, broke them in my hands, threw them into the air, and with my most god-like voice said, “I am the disperser, go forth and reproduce!” A modest cloud of white powder spilled out of the airborne ovaries, and quickly dissipated like a puff of smoke into the breeze. Frances and I chuckled for a moment, and then waded on.
photo by: Frances Buerkens

Pausing under the shade of some larger palms along the way, we scanned our surroundings as we shared some water and cookies. Only occasionally breaking the relative silence, we commented on the animal paths of varying sizes zigzagging across our so-called trail, or stopped to watch a spider move around its web. The spider webs here prove to be quite strong. We traced one long guy line from a web almost ten feet to a nearby palm tree after it got caught on my earring as I tried to pass. We avoided breaking any webs when possible, but some were inevitably covering the easiest way for us to pass through this rather strenuous path. One line snapped as loudly as loudly as the tip of a 6x fly-line as Frances pulled it from our path. At another spot we stopped to take a few photos of a large spider perched in the center of its illuminated web. As we jockeyed for perfect photo position, we noticed it was suddenly spinning an unfortunate fly in a coffin of silk.
photo by: William Minehart
As we worked our way back out of the swamp, the palms closed back in around us, and we often found ourselves following more of a tapir path than anything man-made. We jumped from time to time, as flat sticks protruding from the mud immediately resembled the head of a snake. Frances let out a shriek as we came around one corner, but she began laughing in mid air as she jumped back. I looked down to see the black and yellow head of a tortuga peaking around at us uneasily from its shell.
photo by: William Minehart
For many people, I suppose continually sinking up to your thighs every few steps may not be the ideal six hour Sunday hike, but Frances and I both commented on the pleasant pace of travel a swamp demands. Over four and a half hours, we covered a meager 3.5 km of swamp. Sometimes one hundred meters would take five to ten minutes. At this pace, your eyes have much more time to see the little things they are designed to filter out when one is hiking much faster on a well-traveled dirt trail. Here’s to slowing down. What are not allowing your senses time to perceive?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

La Dia de las Garrapatas


I hit the snooze alarm more times this morning than I care to admit. I finally woke up lying on my back with one arm draped over my face. Slowly coming to consciousness, I realized the sounds outside did not match me lying in bed. The first birds were beginning to sing, and the howlers were growling to life, but usually Claire and I were on the trail already when I heard these noises. I rolled over to reach for my alarm, but knocked it to the floor. Wrestling with my mosquito net, I climbed halfway beneath my bed before finally finding that I had ten minutes to be ready for work. No Good.
I was surprised by how much my damp pants had dried during the night as I slid them on. Pulling a damp shirt from the musty armoire, I felt what I thought to be ants begin to crawl all over my hands. Dropping the shirt to the floor, I looked into the armoire. My headlamp illuminated a mass of brown termites building a tunnel system beneath my clothing. Shaking my head in mild disgust, I shuffled the remaining clothes around my armoire to disturb their construction with small hope that it would perhaps encourage their departure by the time I returned in the afternoon. Leaving my usual shirt on the ground with the termites, I slid my last semi-clean cotton shirt on, and headed out the door.
Luckily Don Pasqual already had some breakfast ready for a group of students who were departing early. So, I bolted a plain fried egg sandwich with some stale bread, slid on my rubber boots, and headed out with Claire.
While we often run into a few groups of monkeys beginning their morning commute between feeding spots, or see several interesting species of birds during the nearly hour-long walk to our sites each morning, many days are rather uneventful. Some mornings, I look up to see we have arrived to our work site with surprise. Despite this, I am finding these mornings equally cathartic. While I am not present in the moment before me, giving my mind time to churn through distracting thoughts of challenging memories and future choices get me closer to focusing on the present.

The first pair of birds proved to be unresponsive to our speakers today. So, we moved down the trail to our second pair, which we weren’t even sure to be a new pair or not since we were so close to the first territory. We set up the net; continually removing snagged bamboo brush from it. We returned to the shadows after turning on the playback speakers to lure the birds into the net, hopefully.
As soon as we sat down, we noticed two Bullet Ants locked in battle atop a bamboo stem (These ants are named so because their sting apparently feels like being shot). This must have been serious, for these usually solitary creatures aren’t seen together very often, which is odd for the majority of ant species that usually thrive only within the shelter of a highly social hierarchy. One individual stood stoically atop the cut bamboo stem while below him, half inside the stem, another ant, which I presumed to be another male, clutched one of the first ant’s legs in his jaws. Curling his abdomen while upside down, he continually reached for the other male attempting to deliver one of their legendary stings. They stayed relatively motionless like this until we looked up a few minutes later to find two birds hanging in the net. These would be the first of this species (Hypocnemis subflava) Claire and I had caught.
After making our way carefully along the nets to the birds, I placed the male into a cotton bag and pulled the draw string after removing him from the net, and then helped Claire remove a difficult tangle where the net had become looped around the female’s head with two separate strands of netting.
Claire pulled the male out of the bag after sitting down, and I hung the bag with the female in it on one of the bamboo spurs next to our work spot on the trail, then slid on a long sleeved shirt to keep the insects off while we worked with the birds. A dark spot on the right cuff of the shirt caught my attention. Lifting it closer to my eyes, they widened in slight terror to see a crawling mass of minute ticks. They had already begun to spread out over the shirt, and as I traced their path up my arm, it quickly became evident that I was covered in them. After I showed Claire, she scanned her clothing, and found they were crawling all over her too.
With bird already in hand, and another one waiting to be processed, we decided it would be hopeless to even attempt removing the hundreds of ticks that we could already feel climbing up our necks and under the sleeves of our shirts. So, we took all the measurements, feathers, and blood of both birds, trying not to notice the hundreds of pen point sized ticks. Simple.
I don’t even remember at what point this happened anymore, but amongst all of this, I was moving to close the net up after catching the two birds, and I noticed something black crawling across my shoulder. I look over to see a new Bullet Ant crawling toward my neck. I tried to swat it off a few times quickly before abandoning my shirt. Yanking it off as quickly as possible, I left it on the ground for a few minutes until I saw the ant crawl away. Claire and I smirked at each other, rolling our eyes as if to ask “What Next!”
We pack up the net to move on with no added problems, and despite all the bad jungle omens, we were in good spirits with hopes to catch a few more birds before lunch.
After waiting some twenty minutes at the next site, Claire and I begin to chuckle at how much we now resemble our smaller relatives of the jungle who spend so much time grooming. We sat there the whole time without sharing a word, just plucking ticks off of ourselves. Moving from site to site, we continued picking more and more ticks, but they seemed endless. By the time we stepped back out onto the main trail from our tick-infested trail from hell, we emerged with no more birds in the book, but at least the ticks were not obviously crawling all over us anymore.

Anxious to begin my afternoon, which now entailed removing the plenitude of parasites embedded in my body and clothing, I asked Claire if she was comfortable walking back alone, and then took off at a slow jog after putting the machete in my backpack.
It felt good to shuffle down the trail. Sweat quickly began to trickle down over my eyebrows as I found my running breath. After two especially thick cobwebs wrapped around my face, I knelt down and snagged one of the long stems of a cecropia leaf from the trail to wave in front of me as I ran. Hiking on these trails always reminds me of ‘mountain biking’ on the trails around Pinchot Park back in Pennsylvania with Silas when we were young. Amidst failing breaks, flat tires, and breaking bike seats, we always loathed being the unlucky one to go first down the trail in the early morning. Every hill, every corner, virtually all the trail offered an endless slew of cobwebs. We spit and wiped them from our faces as we sped down the trail, trying to avoid all the rocks and oncoming trees. Who knows how many of our countless wrecks were due to the distraction of disgusting cobwebs wet with morning dew. Despite this, we still headed out each morning on our bikes, until one day Silas threw his bike into the woods with a scream after a particularly unpleasant crash. The next morning we became fishermen, or boys who fished…
Fifteen minutes later I shed my wet boots and socks on the porch outside the comedor, and headed in for lunch. Small pools of sweat gathered where my forearms rested against the bench table as I gulped my food. We went around the table sharing stories and sightings from the morning, and I showed everyone a few of the ticks on the inside of my bicep while sharing the details of our interesting morning.
After a deliciously chilling shower, I cracked open an unpleasantly warm drink back in my cabin, lit a candle on the stand next to my bed, and sat down with some tweezers. Over the next forty minutes I counted eighty-two or eighty-three puffs of smoke exhale from the tip of the candle flame, each one of them a tick pulled from my body. Later, Frances graciously removed the remaining ticks from the areas I could not manage. We too shared a chuckle over how similar we had become to our distant relatives as she rummaged through the hair on my face and neck, plucking another one with a delightful, “Oh, there’s another one!”
After all this, cleaning the termite mess from my armoire seemed trivial. As the setting sun shined through the trees, I shook off my clothing, swept the termites and all the tracked-in sand out the door, off my porch, and walked to dinner.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Good Morning

7/13/08 - Happy Birthday Sara. I am thinking of you.

The early morning sun shot through the trees on the horizon as we ate a fine breakfast of pancakes with strawberry jam and queso, along with freshly cut papaya. A refreshing breeze wafted through the comedor, but the clear blue skies above the station spoke clearly of the ensuing heat. After breakfast we sat around, deciding what to do with our lazy Sunday morning. I opened my mac to check in on some e-mails before planning to head out into the woods.
Never underestimate the power of some good ole rock from the good days. Some CCR songs can always pick me up and inspire an active day any time, especially after a rough morning when some cold hair of the dog would be nice. Proud Mary had me rollin’ and ready to go look for some birds.
Striding across the soccer field to the trail some time before nine, the direct sunlight immediately coaxed a sticky sweat to form beneath my shirt. The shade of the forest was immediately relieving, but we continued to sweat as we hurried to catch up with the group of birders ahead of us. A few hundred yards up the trail, animals were crashing through the leaves, the tell tale sound of monkeys. We looked up to find some squirrel monkeys crossing the trail over our heads. They hurriedly worked through the understory in search of insects disturbed by the larger capuchins they follow through the jungle all day, every day. We snapped some shots as they moved away from us, but the dim light was not encouraging and we still had a group to catch up with.
Peeping noises came from the forest around us as we walked, and we eventually spotted one of the traps a few meters off of the trail where small wire mesh cages held young chickens. These were set here early in the morning by the researchers we were headed out to find. While they arrived just last night, they had already headed out onto the trail in hopes to quickly catch a new bird to this area that has been sited several times recently by some of us here at CICRA. It is a rare black-faced hawk, supposed to only reside in the North of Peru, far from here. Catching this bird to collect genetic information will shed light as to whether this species has a range much greater than originally suspected, whether it is perhaps a different morph of another species, or perhaps even a new species all together. It is most likely the same known species, and we are just now getting a better glimpse into this bird’s range as more knowledgeable people frequent this area. Nonetheless, it is very rare, and only one has been sited here.

Loops of fishing line glint in the tendrils of sun slicing through the dim forest as we pass. These loops will snare an unsuspecting hawk as it swoops down to land on the peep placed safely inside the wire mesh cage. We pass about ten of these traps along the trail until we find the researchers around the next bend, relaxing supine atop a poncho spread out across the trail. I smirk at first, but after my last week’s experience with various insects (story to come), I don’t blame them at all. I have even begun to carry a collapsible tripod seat with me over the last two weeks.
Diego, Frances, and I mill around for the next thirty minutes looking for birds until it is time to pass back by the traps to check for the hawk. We stop to look at some spider webs glinting in the sun around the trail, and especially remark over one orb web. This inverted hemisphere of densely woven silk seemed unlikely to catch anything other than attention as it conspicuously sparkled silvery white like a disco ball, yet several minutes later as we passed by again to go check the traps, the light had shifted and although it was only a foot off the trail at eye level, it had become invisible again. A few subtle notes of a flycatcher song drew our attention to the glowing leaves overhead. Diego found it quickly, but it took me ten minutes or more of searching until the petite gray and white bird flitted from its shadowy perch beneath the leaves, betraying its camouflage as it snatched an insect in mid air. This family of birds is well known for its astounding diversity, yet notorious for the fact that many species appear virtually identical to even the trained ornithological eyes crawling through these forests.
To accurately identify and learn field identification for these birds, one must not only know the possible plumages one may encounter in specific habitats, but one must also be able to pick out minute differences in their vocalizations. Take a minute, and say these next few ‘words’ out loud in your highest pitch possible.



“turp~ip~ip~ip ip ip ip”

If you think you could pick the differences in these songs out of the forest air, then perhaps you should fly to Peru tomorrow. And just in case you weren’t sure, the way each is written above is based on a complete ‘language’ birders use to learn these songs, and yes there is definitely a difference in the way the apostrophes, hyphens, and tildes are pronounced.
After thirty minutes had passed, we headed back down the trail, stopping momentarily to inspect each trap for a hawk or signs of a predator’s presence, but there were none. Since the researchers were planning on bringing the hawk back to the station for photographs should they have caught it, we decided to head back to the station. Along the way, I decided I wanted to stop at a spot where I have been seeing an especially bright manakin in hopes of photographing him. We dipped off onto a side trail we’ve been using to net a few of our antbirds, and sat in the foliage for a while, looking around. The first time I saw this bird we were waiting for a pair of our subject species to fly into our nets when suddenly the bright flaming orange head of this male caught my attention from where he stood, blazing in the sunlight. I nearly yelled as I watched each feather glisten a waxy brilliance through my binoculars. White emotionless eyes stared blankenly at me for a few minutes as the male stood motionlessly before me. Finally, after perhaps a minute, I looked away for a moment, and when I looked back only a bobbing Carrizo branch met my eyes.

We sat for perhaps ten minutes inside the dense foliage of the understory, perched just above a steep drop to a small densely covered spring below, but soon my interest in exploring overcame my distaste for sitting still. While the stream was only forty feet below, our want to see this bird kept us moving as slowly and quietly as we could until we were standing in the deep mud of the spring thirty minutes later.
We gazed around us, inspecting the clear water trickling over the deep in which mud we stood. A tall tree fern towered over us, casting a lacey drapery of long reaching fronds over the blue skies. We waited silently for a long time, shrugging to each other every few minutes, acknowledging the obvious. A deep sucking sound gasped from each hole as I moved another step forward every few minutes to keep the mud from climbing up over my sinking boots.
Finally a short murmur of a birdcall came from above. It was a single note with a melancholic minor pitch that rose at the end. I called back into the void until a dark green puff of feathers appeared above us flickering its wings excitedly as it searched the understory for the intruder. I wasn’t sure, but it appeared to be a female manakin, possibly the same species as the male we were in search of. She circled around us for ten minutes as I continued calling to keep its irritated attention while Frances tried to get a good glimpse of her through my binos. Then suddenly she disappeared, as most birds seem to do after a certain period of time. They seem to just lose interest or decide it must not be the intruder they thought.
We ascended the embankment on the other side of the stream, and came across a clearwing butterfly on our way back out to the sand path leading around our cabins. This individual stayed still enough for me to snap a picture before it popped off the leaf, and fluttered away like a red blotch of paint come to life.

Frances and I shared interest in lunch as we turned onto the sand path headed in the direction of the station. Another high pitch call coming from just off the side of the trail barely caught our attention. We looked over to see several titi monkeys looking back at us from some branches.

Frances mentioned how often she awakes from hot afternoon siestas to this group hanging in the trees outside her cabin. We watched them feed on some bamboo shoots for a few minutes as they hopped from tree to tree before running up into the top of a cecropia tree in search of fresh seeds.

This individual ate with comical exuberance. What a little gremlin. Look at those pirhanna teeth!

Friday, July 4, 2008

For the Love of Early Mornings

With each change in my lifestyle, I tend to experience large changes in my sleeping habits, but a few things generally remain constant: I rarely sleep much, other people think my sleeping habits are rather crazy, and my internal clock appears to not run in accordance with a common schedule.

A sharp pain in my crotch shocked me to life. As I squeezed the epicenter of this quaking pain, hoping to kill whatever was biting this very important appendage, I reached over my head with my other hand, frantically fumbling through the dark for my headlamp. The pain subsided as my numb fingers felt for the switch of my headlamp, and I hoped I had killed the intruder. Even in a cabin covered in window screening, in a bed beneath a fine layer of mosquito netting, and beneath several sheets, insects are as pervasive as the oppressive the humidity here. They find their way to my body during the night, and while I am able to almost completely avoid itching all day long, I awake well before sunrise, scratching at these blemishes with abandon.
Lifting up my sheets, I slid my shorts down to inspect the damage, to see three reddish brown dots glinting in the light. When I was in Australia for a semester, we had a Tropical Disaster Game, in which students were given points for the intensity and frequency with which they encountered such tropical disasters as malaria, denge fever, box-jelly stings, ticks, leeches, stinging trees, snakes, etc. As I stared down my pants at these three ticks happily anchored in my ‘man-parts’ I was again reminded of winning this game several years ago. The amount of ticks and leeches that found their way to my genitals over a semester is what put me on the podium.
“You gotta be kidding me,” I half chuckled through an incredulous grimace as I sat up in my bed. I contemplated getting up for a few minutes to go get my tweezers at my desk in the lab until another shot of penetrating pain shocked me even more awake, and I decided to get up. After throwing on my damp field clothing, I slid my shoes on, shoved a rum bottle cap and candle into my pocket, and headed out of my cabin. Stumbling up the sandy path towards the lab at 230 am, mosquitoes and other insects buzzed before my headlamp, periodically landing on my face. Just after blowing one of these mosquitoes away from my lips, something flashed in front of my face and I felt a faint puff of air against my lips. Before I could realize what happened, again the bat flitted through the light, snatching another insect from the air, inches from my face.

I have been waking up early a lot lately. The amount of sleep I get here is rather ridiculous compared to what I am used to. While it is getting light around 430 or 5 back home, it gets light here around 6 all year, which means it also gets dark about the same time since we are in the tropics - the land of constantly unchanging sun. The lights cut out here when the electricity cuts out, which cuts out when Marco shuts off the generator, at about 930 in the evening. At this time, everyone usually filters off to his or her room to prepare for bed. Some read or write for a while under the light of their headlamp or candle, but most people are asleep very early.
The last two weeks I have been finding myself waking up around 230 am, after a solid 5-6 hours of sleep, which is what I have been used to for about 7 years now. I lay there for thirty minutes or so, waiting to fall back asleep, and suddenly wake back up at 430 to my alarm telling me it is time to get ready for work, and I feel completely groggy and confused. In college I had developed a method to get myself out of bed and out of my room as soon as I awoke in the morning any time after 5am, whether with my alarm or not. This worked rather well for me. My productivity in college went way up, I often woke up before my alarm, and I found myself rarely getting tired or grumpy during the days. So, I have decided to embrace this lifestyle again while I am here in the Peru, even if it means getting up at 230am. I figured what better morning to resume this practice than when I woke up to the shocking pain of three insects sinking into the softest flesh on my body.
Within the grasp of my tweezers, all of the ticks came out completely painlessly in less than a minute. I then dug a fingernail into each one, cutting them in half, and flicked their pieces into the darkness around me. I find it odd that ticks down here sincerely hurt when they bite, while most of their North American counterparts can sink well into our flesh without detection for days.

Down in the comedor, I found some matches in the kitchen next to the gas stove, lit a match, and held it to the bottom of my candle momentarily, then pressed it to the inside of the rum cap until it held fast. My nose wrinkled involuntarily and I exhaled sharply as a tendril of sulphury smoke invaded my nostrils. As I sat and read, little explosions puffed from the flame. Mosquitoes fell onto the table next to the candle, stiff legs in the air, no wings left; all of them a minute Icarus in their own right, having flown too close to the sun illuminating the paper and pen before me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fifty-Cent Piece Dreams, A Day at CICRA, II

photo by: Will Minehart

Although the weather has been quite variable since arriving here, ranging from forty degrees one morning, then eighty-five the next, our clothes are usually damp with sweat about ten minutes after taking off for our morning’s work as the sun is just breaking the horizon. We usually hike a few kilometers each morning, sometimes as much as ten, as we move from site to site up the trail, stopping at the yellow flags we have placed on small saplings, denoting the presence of another antbird’s territory.
We move through the forest playing these birds’ songs, waiting for them to come flying in to defend their territory. They flit through the understory, shaking their wings and calling back in defense of their home, but little do they know we are only crying wolf, at least today.
In the coming days, the antbirds hear the phantom intruder again, and usually fly in with equal vigor to dispatch the threat. As they dart around in search of the intruder, an invisible hand sweeps out from the void, and suddenly they are hanging, still able to move and flop around in the air they were just flying through a minute earlier, but very few escape.
Watching from afar, we see the net jump, and a black ball of netting forms where the bird struggles in vain. We turn off the speakers singing the song of the phantom intruder, and move in to collect the bird from the net. This usually takes a minute, but sometimes it can take longer, depending on a multitude of ways a bird can rarely become severely tangled. Usually removing a bird entails holding onto both feet after you have untangled the thin netting from its claws, then simply backing the bird out of the net as you remove the loops of netting that have slid over the two wings first and then finally the head. In perfect instances like this, you are left with a bird sitting indignantly atop your fingers as you hold its legs.
However, if nets are not set to the appropriate tension, there are sticks pushing against them for the birds to grab hold of, or it gets tangles around the bird’s tongue, which is forked in the back of their throat, the results for the bird are potentially grim. To an amateur, a snared bird looks hopelessly entangled, and death seems immanent short of cutting the bird free. In reality, removing the bird is relatively simple, but I do recall one time during a hot day in Pennsylvania when a tiny wren had been overlooked in one of our nets where it was tangled on the ground. In the time it took me to find the exhausted bird, it had become extremely tangled, and it had been laying in the direct sunlight.
I struggled for some time, talking to the bird to calm my racing heart. Carefully rolling the bird around in my hands as I searched for the easiest place to begin, I thought of the family of wrens I watched grow up in a bird-box in my neighbor’s lawn one summer. At that moment, holding that bird in my sweating hands, I questioned the rationale of such invasive research practices. Stopping several times, I allowed the bird to hang in the net again as I took a few breathes and looked around me in exasperation as if some help might materialize from the briars surrounding us.
I eventually unraveled the hundreds of strings imprisoning the bird, and an hour later I set the wren in the shade of a raspberry bush. I came back thirty minutes later to find it still sitting there, but as I leaned in for a better look, it flitted away through the brush. Every time I take hold of a bird’s legs as it hangs in the net, I remind myself to remain calm so as to minimize any possibility of worsening this tenuous situation.
These mist-nets are amazing contraptions, and are ironically of very similar texture and density as those lunch ladies or even you may have worn if you have ever worked in the food industry. When hung properly they are virtually indistinguishable in the early morning light. We always chuckle on the trail when one of us gets caught or literally walks right into the net moments after setting it up. We then know we have set a good net, and despite being completely black, you have to focus hard to discern it from the rest of the forest.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
National Geographic and other such organizations have done an amazing job of glorifying the sexiest parts of science and field research, but as many people say, it is really far from glamorous or exciting. Amidst days that can easily feel downright lethargic and unrewarding, work that is initially illuminated with inspiration can easily become obscured within the shadows of this dark and humid rainforest.
The nature of this work makes it very difficult to aptly describe. It would be easy to romanticize this research, only describing the most attractive parts of the position, but it would shed no light on the basic reasons why there are people out here doing this in the first place.
Even the actual act of recording data is so anally structured that you are often too stressed and focused on collecting data in the correct way that you fail to even take enjoyment in the fact that you are holding a living creature in your hand. When else do we ever come into direct contact with a living wild animal?

Holding a bird, I can barely feel its almost nonexistent papery weight. Just flip a fifty-cent piece in the air. This is all that these creatures weigh. The beating of their heart sends a slight vibration through my hand. Their head follows my fingers, snapping back in defense the moment I put them within reach. You can feel the texture of each feather as softly as a whisper in your ear, and you can see how the pattern on each contributes perfectly to the whole.

photo by: Will Minehart
This is the reason I began this work. So long ago I sat in my yard, staring at robins. I never realized then, as they hopped around in the lush summer grass, plucking long worms from nowhere that they would never be interested in the seed placed conspicuously beneath the box sitting in the middle of the yard that was propped up by a stick with a string tied to it. Why I spent so many hours staring out from behind the shed in my yard, holding onto the other end of that string in vain still makes no more sense to me than the subconscious driving attraction I feel in the midst of a beautiful woman. It is never enough to simply see when attraction is concerned. Some internal force yearns for more, driving me to touch, to reach out and affirm the physical existence of such beauty as though to only see without touch can still leave its existence in question. A feather found shining in the light dappling the trail brings out the voyeuristic side in many of us. I know many who find it impossible to pass by a fallen feather without picking it up. Some of us hide them in books, removing them from time to time to admire their brilliant color and to feel their softness against our cheeks. Others adorn their cars or rooms with such ornaments of refuse, and despite their timely fading in the sun, they still shiver in the wind when the windows are down and the music loud.

However, these are not the thoughts that cross my mind as I hold calipers up to the beak of these petite kites with hearts. I do not feel any realization of my ultimate attraction as I hold a capillary tube to the vein of this tiny bird to collect a sample of its meager blood supply as it lies helplessly in my sweaty hands.
I sometimes question, rather every time we catch a bird, the stress I perceive us imparting on it forces me to question this work. But as I see a sheepish smile spread over one of the other researchers I am working with as he holds up one individual to closer inspect this species plumage patterns, I see a glimmer of passion in his eyes that reminds me what it felt like to finally hold a live bird after so many years of senseless attraction and even obsession with this distant beauty.
In such passion there is a pure love present that is both selfish and benevolent. For every time I look into the eyes of a bird in my hands I see a smile spread across the face of that three year old I used to be, hiding behind that shed in the yard I grew up in, hoping that the string in my hand attached to the trap thirty feet away would eventually turn into the reality of a bird in my hands. However, in those eyes I also see the frail reminder of the responsibility I feel within my chest to protect the world that makes it possible to feel the reality of this little feathered dream.
So, when people ask me to describe what I do on a daily basis, especially now when I am so far from home in the Amazon, I find it hard to answer them clearly. I am going out into the jungle every day, finding where specific birds are located, catching them, putting little identification bands on their legs, and then extracting all the data I can from each bird just shy of taking its life. This is all in the name of science, and in this particular project it is to hopefully gain more insight about exactly how one single species can diverge into many, even though they may live a kilometer or only a couple hundred meters away from each other.
I hate snagging a bird out of the air, smashing its supreme grace with an invisible net, and I doubt anyone doing this work enjoys extracting the integrity from a bird as it lies supine in their hand, bleeding slightly from a vein in their elbow so that we can later compare its DNA to their relatives'.
Nonetheless, at the moment this is one of the very few methods we have to gain the vital knowledge necessary to testify to the intrinsic value and need for conservation that most people doing this work feel moved to be a part of. For me, it is the only way I have found possible to exact some societal value to my life while still achieving the dreams of that kid who still stares with hope from the depths of my memory.

photo by: Will Minehart