The Peru Chronicles-Part Three

Talking To Trogons(and other animals on the Wild Side)

Our quest is to spot as many birds as we can in five days.  We certainly won’t run out.  After all, there are over 550 species of birds in the Tambopata region of Peru’s Amazon basin.  But if it is left to me, I may only identify a dozen or so by trip’s end.  One of the reasons is that I am not really a bird watcher.  Sure, I have made nature documentaries about birds.  I use to go for an annual gathering of the tribes in southeast Arizona every May and partied hardy with the wildest group of talented birdwatchers you will ever meet.  And yes, I now help the national park on Bonaire four times a year doing shore bird counts as a volunteer.  But in all these endeavors, I have felt like an imposter.

Bird watching is not a talent that comes instinctively to me.  It does not flow through my DNA.  I feel as incompetent spotting birds as I did playing bass guitar in a band for four years or being a Little League pitcher as a kid.  Yes, I did all those things, but I never really excelled at any of them.  I knew deeply that no matter how hard I tried, I never would fully succeed, but I enjoyed doing them anyway.  I attained some level of competency, but missing was that comfortable groove, that delicious chill of achieving success.  No regrets.  We all have our limitations.

So I now find myself severely challenged in an environment that I have never experienced. I am in the jungle.  It is a snarled mess of buzzing growth that defines chaos to my untrained eyes.  Vines tangle with trees.  Plants are difficult to differentiate as everything is über interwoven.  It is a place where you don’t want to stand still for too long for something will walk on or over you, guaranteed.  There are even 40-foot trees called “walking palms” that actually move laterally over time, uprooting themselves in a desperate search for sunlight.  It reminds me of the Ents in Tolkien’s fantasy world.  And then there are the sounds.  What I think is a bird is actually a frog or an insect.  When the red howler monkeys start, it is a low frequency, industrial roar that drones on endlessly.  Every living thing here is on a vegetative podium, voicing its organic opinion vigorously.  It is a sound track that would make Johnny Weissmuller simply smile.

But all is well for me deep in the jungle for I have my trusted Brazilian guide who is enamored with Peru.  His name is Joelson ‘Fino’ Teixeira Toledo.  Fino has spent five years in the Tambopata.  His keen ears and sharp vision allow us to see motmots-birds with two tails, seven species of macaw, various smaller parrots, five kinds of toucans and other birds that look like they are fresh out of a Henri Rousseau painting.  But Fino is no James John Audubon, who in the 19th century captured birds on canvas with paint and moxie. Rather, Fino is a dude who could rival techno savvy Steve Jobs on his best day at a Mac convention.  This morning, we are searching for trogons—neotropical birds with broad bills, weak legs and Kodachrome plumage that would make Lady Gaga drool.  Fino whips out his iPod, quickly scrolls through a list 1800 bird calls all of which can be heard in Peru, and dials in “Blue-crowned Trogon”.  The iPod is hard wired to his waist-belted amp box that projects a whistling sound, whew, whew, whew, whew, whew.  Within minutes, we are directed by Fino to point our binoculars up a tall finca tree at 60-degrees, follow the bare limb to the right for four feet, and glance above into the greenery.  Sure enough, we spot both female and male Blue-crowned Trogons.  This is no easy feat as trogons are notorious for remaining still in the presence of humans.  I know this all too well as I stalked the Elegant Trogon through Arizona’s Cave Creek Canyon one hot summer with thirty pounds of camera gear.  But that’s not all.  Fino beckons howler monkeys in an attempt to engage in grunting conversation.  He hisses at an electric green boa constrictor complete with white polka dots hanging in a tree above our heads.  He chatters to five-foot long rivet otters frolicking in a steamy lake.  The hombre must have a Masters in jungle jive.

A trogon photographed through a spotting scope.

For the next five days we play ‘follow-the-leader’.  On rare occasions, Hettie or I spot a bird first before Fino sees it and he compliments us enthusiastically.  But usually it is our trusted guide who is first and urges in a loud whisper, “Look-look- look- look- look- look!”  He barely contains his excitement while we frantically glass the canopy.  By trip’s end, Fino is my bird-spotting hero.  Because of him we get to see over 130 species plus assorted other animals.  Strangely, he seems a bit disappointed by the number.

Before I left for the Amazon, my good friend Tom urged me to read The Lost City of Z, a harrowing story about 19th century explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett whose obsession with the jungle led to his permanent disappearance.  Tom warned of what Fawcett found to be an unstoppable lure into this incredible, overwhelming morass of biota.  He asked me after I came back what I thought of the place.  I tried unsuccessfully to explain my compulsion to return.  I knew better.  But during my last hour on the Rio Tambopata, Fino told me of a place further upriver—12 hours by boat—where seven species of macaws flaunt their rainbow plumage, where softball-sized Brazil nuts fall from towering trees, where civilization is abruptly refused entrance.  Obsession?  Nah, not me.  Now where is that credit card?

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3 thoughts on “The Peru Chronicles-Part Three

  1. I, too, made a film with bird watchers. A member of the Tucson Audubon Society also had an I-pod loaded with bird sounds. She told us that it wouldn’t be right to use it to attract birds, but was fine for “verifying songs” of particular species while birding. Still, she played the song and the birds answered back. How can you resist that?

    • Dear Patrick,

      For a Beltway Bandit, you sure do get around! I also have no problem with the iPod playbacks. The birds don’t seem to mind.

      Hettie and I head to Ecuador in a week. Five days of eco-lodges in three cloud forest zones and then three days in the capital of Quito. KLM is ending direct flights there from Bonaire at month’s end, so we thought we would jump on it.

      best, Patrick

      • A USDA crew went to Ecuador in the late 80’s. Videographer Ron Hamilton and ARS Plant Explorer Calvin Sperling (who died young a few years later). I made 2 VNRs from those tapes: The Plant Explorers (pre-dating the Soil Explorers) and The Hunt For Wild Potatoes. I still have that big box of betacam tapes. A beautiful place. You guys will love it.

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