The dawn of my own Amazon Trails

Cameron RuttBanding, Field Work, Science1 Comment

My first trip into the Amazon Rainforest could be broken down like this. Day 2: Discover snake in camp toilet. Day 3: Spot first venomous snake. Day 6: Get soaked in drenching morning downpour while felling trees. Day 7: Get bit by an owl. Day 9: Finally dry off and begin to beat back the encroaching mold.

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This Amazonian Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium hardyi) made sure to leave an impression on me, both literally and figuratively. A rare capture at the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), despite hearing this species regularly, I never wound up actually seeing it in the field. 22 June 2015.

Of course, this terse summary barely scratches at the surface. I have been spell-bound by the Amazon ever since I was a little kid. More than any other single region, it has had a certain enchanting lure about it. In reality, I think part of this is due to the fact that one of my favorite childhood computer games was “The Amazon Trail” (released in 1994). As my sister and I navigated the upriver waters of the Amazon – in pursuit of the village of Vilcabamba – we encountered some of the native wildlife en route. At last, after 20 years, the characteristic, but previously virtual cries of the Screaming Piha that I first heard from my Pennsylvania home so long ago, were actually real. The local name for this bird – o capitão da mata (or, “the captain of the woods”) – does it much more justice, for although it is not much to look at, it easily compensates with some serious vocal flair.

Unfortunately for me, it turns out that languishing in an office for more than a year of graduate school has done little to prepare me for field work this time around. And my lameness quickly showed. Upon our arrival, my two mateiros (“bushmen”) and I got right down to business and with the sole use of a machete, began clearing trails, opening up mist net lanes, and cutting down small trees to use as mist net poles. Blisters surfaced on my hands like warts on a toad and at one point or another my palms appeared like those of a kid on the first day of strawberry season. The work was hard and my hands woefully soft. I had forgotten, too, what it was like to witness the mastery of a man and his machete. Obviously, such opportunities to hone these skills are scare in the U.S., but for these guys it simply appears to be a razor-sharp extension of their arms. What a conductor can accomplish with an orchestra, the destructive wizardry of these guys causes even the thorniest of plants to bow low before them. Meanwhile, in stark contrast, I can be found next to them hacking at plants as though I’m swinging emptily for the bleachers.

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This glittering Yellow-billed Jacamar (Galbula albirostris) was a would-be lifer when I unsuspectingly plucked it out from a seemingly ordinary bird bag. This was among some of the more glamorous species we captured, although Great Jacamar, White-plumed Antbird, and a number of manakins were all in the running. 20 June 2015.

The nature of this first research trip meant that I had little time for exploration prior to the start of fieldwork. And on the second full day we were up well before dawn to begin re-sampling the first of a series of small forest fragments in order to see what the continued effects of forest fragmentation and isolation is for understory birds. What this meant for me, however, was that I was often presented with a lineup of bird bags that contained lifers as this is not only my first time in Amazonia but also my inaugural visit to the whole of northern South America. And with my incredibly poor communication (I would hesitate to even call them) “skills” it was a bit like that childhood game of reaching into a mystery grab bag. Other than heft, I was clueless whether I was going to pluck out a jacamar, puffbird, hummingbird, manakin, or antbird. Eventually, this culminated in an entirely new experience for me: the anticlimactic lifer. Of the 46 species we captured, 39 (85%) were new to me at the time of processing. This led to subsequent birding attempts in which I tried to re-find these species in a free-flying setting, often with much worse results as few natural experiences can exceed the quality of a bird view in-the-hand. Despite my best efforts, I never managed to satisfactorily relocate 21 of the species we had previously captured…

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Adult male Scale-backed Antbird (Willisornis poecilinotus). Antbirds are seldom clad in flashy colors (typically grays, blacks, browns, and whites) and this one is no different, but its subtle beauty makes it my favorite to date. 23 June 2015.

Although I’ve had the great fortune to visit some of the farthest reaches on Earth (remote islands in the Pacific, the Antarctic Peninsula, a field camp in the Alaskan tundra, etc.), I’ve still not managed to eclipse visible signs of humanity. Perhaps this makes obvious sense because, after all, if I’m there, then it cannot be pristine or untouched. Still, it is noteworthy to me that nowhere on Earth can you completely escape the footprint of humanity (especially planes and satellites). Here again in the Amazon, I looked up one day to try and find the rumble of a plane flying overhead, an otherwise mundane feature of ordinary life. But here, where the mechanical noises of humans are so greatly reduced, this sound once again becomes exceptional.

With the inevitable mustiness of field-weary clothes momentarily cleansed, a quick catch-up on worldly news and media, and a fresh batch of supplies, I’m all set to return for a second stint. And who knows what we’ll next encounter on the trails…