Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I crunched down the gravel road. The humidity was such that I could see my breath, and sweat left my body in sheets as my five fingers and I moved through the cut in the jungle. But I ignored the clouds of biting insects and reveled in the fact that Many-banded Aracari, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, and Lanceolated Monklet – even Violaceous Jays and Golden-browed Sparrows – were species all likely to be missed by my fellow (relatively speaking, unsweaty) Sanderlings.

Wait. The above is just part of the legions of lies I’ve told in the last week, for there actually weren’t clouds of biting bugs at Yasuni. And no…I didn’t actually really go running in Amazonia. To spare the gory details, I’ve thrown up in more Latin American countries than most people will ever go to. Ecuador was no exception. While at Yasuni, I generally felt horrible enough that even normal birding took incredible willpower. So, Common Potoo is the only species on my SWSA list thus far.

However. I had the most ethereal experience my last night (and no, this has nothing to do with an extremely forward Policia Nacional at Quito airport...). Since it involved copious amounts of sweat and five fingers, I suppose it's appropriate to share:

We crunched down the gravel road, pinning trees, ditches, and the ground in the beam of our spotlights. Strange eyeshine, humidity, and the Brazilian Wandering Spider-filled jungle pressed around us, while my pizza-laden stomach added its patent threatening vocalizations to the night. Just three of us were determined enough to trade the luxuries of air conditioning and wireless for the foreboding drizzle. But who can be seduced by a hot shower when temptress potoos, Crested Owls, and Nocturnal Curassows lurk in the shadows?

I was particularly enthralled with the curassows. Mysterious, nocturnal, and poorly-known turkeys of the tropics, they boom out siren songs from high in the canopy. They're just the kind of bird that compels one to go out. Stalk. Beat the odds and DEFEAT.

"Hey, we should listen for a bit." -- A surprisingly complex concept, even though our activity of choice was primarily auditory. Our discussion of Candiru, Columbia, and TPL drew to a sudden halt as we strained to hear anything above the dripping jungle. Moths whirred by; a Crested Owl growled from the distance, and my obstinate stomach readily responded. But in the distance, Nocturnal Curassow booming emanated like some primitive tribal drum. Goaded by a primal hunting urge, we crept towards the low whooping. It accompanied us through a meadow promising to augment my 142-bite chigger collection, and taunted us as we paused, uncertain, at the edge of the jungle. Drawn by an invisible force, we plunged in. Carefully picking our way over logs and through vines, we stopped at the bottom of a gully and shone our lights into the canopy. Failing to pin the well-concealed bird in our beam, we cut our lights and stood in the oppressing dark. The curassow was so close that I could feel every note course through my body. It resonated within me, making my heart pound in unison, my head tingle...even chilling me.

Satiated, yet at the same time lusting over the curassow, we cautiously left the jungle. It would have been foolish to continue over trail-less, unknown terrain -- and somehow -- seeing the curassow would have almost detracted from standing at the bottom of a gully in a night so black you couldn't see your own nose, while being filled with the beat of the Nocturnal Curassow.

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