Last night a well-wrapped package arrived from the American Museum of Natural History: a box of tropical owl specimens. Officially, I am back to work on color plates for Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. I slowly and carefully opened the box and removed each skin from its sheath of crinkly paper, examining them one at a time and reading the tags tied to the crossed dried feet, small strips of old yellowed paper gone transparent with time and fat from the skins. Collector’s data is typed or hand-lettered depending on the age of the specimen. A specimen of Glaucidium brasilianum, ferruginous pygmy owl, was an especially remarkable historical item. In spidery script the tag said the tiny owl was collected in Princeton, Trinidad on March 21, 1893 by none other than Frank M. Chapman (founder of the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count, among other notable accomplishments). I can’t even describe the feeling I had holding it, but it approached a birder’s religious veneration.
Reaching our field station in the Amazon involved many plane changes and long flights over ocean and Andes. We deplaned onto the brilliant hot tarmac of Iquitos amid green waving palms and the boom of a gun, not in salute to our arrival but as futile deterrent to the swarms of vultures soaring overhead. Because of the vultures, the airport is closed much of each day. From late morning to mid-afternoon when the air heats up, the thermals support their circling numbers. A municipal dump nearby attracts hundreds of black, turkey and yellow-headed vultures, a hazard to aviation. A man with a gun is hired to stand at the end of the runway and blast away at the birds. I suspect he is window-dressing for visiting officials as he is not a very effective vulture-repeller. Why not close or move the dump? Because this is Iquitos.
We spent a day in town buying supplies for the expedition. The streets are noisy and smoky with 2-stroke engined moto-cabs going every which way, gussied up in tropical colors and slogans and dangling decorations. They are designed to hold two passengers but sometimes contain five with all their packages and whatever they can hold onto, careering around corners and dodging pedestrians and dogs. When it rains, which it will, heavily, the driver raises a plastic shield to keep out about 20% of the downpour. A ride across town will cost you 1 or 2 soles (30 or 60 cents). It’s worth every penny.
Mike and his colleague Steve and grad student Natalie, who would be running experiments on ants and litter fauna in the rainforest, spent the day getting permits and paperwork, buying quart bottles of ethanol, kilos of salt and other scientific necessities, while I grabbed practical things like laundry detergent and a plastic bucket to wash clothes in. In a small hardware store on a side street I found a pair of rubber boots in my size for walking around the jungle and purchased bottles of drinking water to stay hydrated and alive for the next few hours. Thirst is a killer in that scorching heat and humidity. I also bought a packet of chocolate wafer cookies for rainforest emergencies. The boys bought white rum and whisky for the same purpose.
Here’s what it’s like to ride in a motocar around Iquitos:
We spent the night in an Iquitos hotel and next morning caught a boat traveling up the swift mud-colored Amazon to the Rio Napo, soon leaving it for a quiet tributary which led between tall vine-hung riverbanks and giant trees and the wild sounds of a mysterious world, a well-wrapped package to be opened slowly and carefully with great anticipation, filled with awesome wonders.