Night, the Jungle, And You

One year ago today in the Amazon rainforest.

New Year’s Eve is a time for looking back on the year. It’s been a remarkably good one as a matter of fact, with a lot of highlights for just short 12 months. I wish I could give you each and every highlight, but instead, I will leave you with a single, elemental highlight of my 2009.

Night in the Amazon rainforest.

Sleeping flycatcher caught in the headlamp's beam.

Of all the highlights the highest by far was going to a remote field station north of Iquitos, deep in the Amazon rainforest along a small tributary of the Rio Napo, a year ago today. Lit by oil lamps and torches (made from hole-punched baby formula cans full of kerosene, of all things) the forest seemed to close in around us as the sun set.

Research in a lamplit jungle field station. Left to right: Natalie Clay, Mike Kaspari, Steve Yanoviak

Best of all were those sounds of the night.

This may or may not be a ten pound frog.

Owls, potoos, frogs, bats, and the Nocturnal curassow’s weird humming song all were wonderful soundtracks for the Amazon, especially from within the cozy confines of a mosquito-netted bed where I felt as safe as a tent caterpillar. Up above in the woven thatch roof there were rustlings and flutterings and flappings and every now and then frogs and big bugs lost their grip and fell through the air to land with a splat.

Sometimes, unable to sleep, I would crawl out from under the net and sit on the balcony to listen to the pattering of the rain and watch owls and nightjars flutter up to catch bugs around the lamp’s flickering light. Mystery and beauty went hand and hand. On these occasions I’d bring out my field recorder and grab an aural snapshot to take home with me.

Some kind of blood-freezing spine chilling owl, or an Amazon banshee from hell.

We went on night walks now and then. Many interesting creatures inhabit the night and avoid the day. Wearing headlamps gives you a thoroughly focused view of the vegetation and the strange life revealed in the spotlight’s beam. Birds slept beneath leaves a couple of meters above the ground, easy to find. Red-eyed tree frogs called everywhere. There were snakes out and about, and lizards and giant millipedes and a katydid called a Spiny Devil.

Listen to this one with your eyes closed, and imagine for a moment that you are falling asleep to the sound of rain on the roof, far away in the Amazon forest.

(I tried one canopy nightwalk, by the way. I was told, “beware of the paper wasps- they wake up when they see your light and will sting your face. When you hear he buzzing sound, turn off your light and hold very still”. So, of course, when the buzzing began I panicked and couldn’t figure out how to turn off the three-way headlamp. A complete disgrace, I was. I peeled off my headlamp and tossed it. I’m lucky I didn’t bail out over the side of the canopy ropewalk. It was a loooong way down.

Red eyed tree frogs- you know, those cute calendar froggies you see everywhere- this is what they sound like.

My first bird drawing of 2009- Ruddy Quail Dove. Happy New Year!

This was my New Year’s Eve bird of 2008- an ochre-striped antpitta. Beautiful bird, seen at dusk. Here you hear the two-note call with the second note down-slurred. It’s joined by a second bird for a duet.

Ochre-striped antpitta, all legs and no tail. Seen at dusk, ACTS field station, Peru.

My New Year’s wish to you is that you have wonderful, special adventures and great joy for the coming year. As the poem goes, ” the world offers itself to your imagination*”. Be open to that call, and be sure to take it up on the offer when it comes along.

*Mary Oliver, Wild Geese from Dream Work ©1986

8 thoughts on “Night, the Jungle, And You

  1. Jan says:

    Debbie: Thanks for posting this so that I can live vicariously again through your adventures. I’ve been once to the Sam Noble exhibit and am going again this weekend-I can say it’s one of the most memorable i’ve ever seen.

  2. Julie Zickefoose says:

    Glorious. The addition of jungle sounds just does it for me. I don’t know how you do that but I’m glad you do.

    It’s so important to be thankful for all we get to experience, and I feel that in this post. That spiny grasshopper, my God!

    Say, could your sleeping flycatcher be a female manakin? Mighty green and cute…looks kind of Pipra-esque to me. Smoked out the Science Chimp, you did.

  3. zeladoniac says:

    Manakin’s a good guess- I thought it might be one of the bazillion little flycatchers they have there in the Amazon. I think we need to go back there and find it, pronto.

    The sounds do it for me, too. I wish there was some way to record smell. Nothing like the aroma of vegetative decay to bring back the romance of the jungle!

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