Fieldwork in a new locale necessarily brings with it a steep learning curve. Everything is foreign from the lay of the land to the host of simplicities that we all take for granted in a familiar location, like knowing where to find those mundane features of ordinary life: ATMs, groceries, and other various appliances (try finding a decent spatula around here!). If you need a specialty item, forget about it. Then there’s the data critical knowledge of actually being able to recognize your study organisms by sight and sound; in a foreign ecosystem, this is no small task and the process can span months. All of these differences are ever more exaggerated in an international setting, where foreign infrastructure, customs, and bureaucracy all pose their own unique and significant hurdles. (Shamefully, I even found myself “bragging” to someone here in Manaus, Brazil, about Amazon.com and it’s two-day delivery system…) But perhaps steeper than all of these is language.
Conducting fieldwork with a small crew of Brazilians who solely speak Portuguese can be quite comical (or frustrating, depending upon who’s shoes you happen to be occupying). And in the past few months, I’ve completely reverted back to being a small child and must be watched like a hawk lest I stray too far from my leash. Multiple times I have been given very simple and explicit directions such as “Please leave this bag here” or “I will lock the gate” only to have adults watch – in awe, I suspect – as this “adult” proceeds to do the exact opposite. In my defense, bumbling a single word (“leave” or “I”) can change the meaning rather radically. I can feel their eyes watching me to see whether or not my subsequent actions betray understanding or something else entirely. On too many occasions, I look up to discover disapproving faces. I find, too, that I spend much more time here trying to decipher what is most likely correct based upon the present circumstance or pondering the overarching strategy behind something…as language fails to convey these “subtleties.” At times, it can feel like I’m looking at a 1000 piece puzzle, but with only a few dozen pieces at my disposal.
In English, I often find myself concerned about connotations and selecting just the right word to convey a precise meaning. In Portuguese, however, connotations vanish faster than my Snickers in communal house space (which also disappear with startling velocity…c’mon!). Recently, I found myself trying to describe a candle as a fogo pequeno (“small fire”); I now know that the appropriate word is vela. Obviously, I’m not even in the realm of connotations here as my limited vocabulary barely comes within sight of synonyms. I feel as though I have been given a coarse chisel or a large paintbrush with the unrealistic expectation that I should carve or paint something intricate. I simply don’t know how to express many things or if I think I do, it’s unclear whether my intended message was actually received unscathed. In order to say something in Portuguese, I am still very much in the mindset of thinking up an English sentence and then trying to force that thought into Portuguese. More often than not, I don’t actually know how to translate those English sentences. My brain therefore flips through one English sentence after another much like someone would swipe through Tinder profiles (nope, nope, nope…).
One of the more difficult and underrated aspects of group birding is the ability to describe where a bird is. Just try and have a non-birder tell you where a bird is sitting and the difficulty is usually self-evident: “It’s right…there!” This is difficult in one’s native tongue, but approaches the realm of impossibility in a foreign language. I’ve even hesitated remarking about a bird altogether due to the ensuing obligation of providing some sort of additional follow-up. This task becomes even more monumental when hawk-watching as there are few landmarks to begin with. During my first stint in the field, I tried in vain to describe a distant, high-flying raptor. I quickly realized that my vocabulary was deficient in sky-related words (to start with, sky, cloud, and gray were all notably MIA). I largely reverted to the age-old method of pointing…somehow, in spite of me, he eventually found the hawk, too.
With some of the trickier species we catch, I like to get a second opinion just to make sure I’m pinning the right name on the Furnariid. Or I’ll sometimes quiz my assistant to see whether she’s been paying attention to the female manakins, foliage-gleaners, or woodcreepers we’re catching. Naturally, this little interaction requires language and it seriously back-fired on me the other day. While expounding upon the unique feature of a certain woodcreeper, I merely attempted to say that you can identify this bird due to the presence of spots (pintas) on its back, but inadvertently said pintos instead. Of course, this extraordinarily similar word instead describes an anatomical feature unique to males. Thus, I was evidently using the presence of penises to correctly identify Chestnut-rumped Woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus pardalotus).
Needless to say, the Portuguese word for “spot” has been suspended indefinitely from my vocabulary…