Friday, July 22, 2016

Al Fin

14 July 2016

I had a very hard time going to sleep last night. I think I just had so much running through my head (an uncomfortable belly filled with pork) & an unexpected feeling of awkwardness coming back into civilization. I really wasn’t expecting that, considering it was only 3 weeks. There’s also a little bit of sadness that the field work is over for me now & I’ll be heading back to “reality” soon. Though I realize all vacations end like that & I’m not dreading going back home by any means, just trying to process stuff, I suppose.

Black-billed peppershrike

Black-billed peppershrike

Female White-sided flowerpiercer
Female Green-and-black fruiteater

I will miss the birds, the cloud forest, Tatiana’s arepas, & Loki a little bit too ;) I will NOT miss the damn rooster, being awake before 7am, freezing cold water, biting insects, scrambled eggs or cold rice & beans. I’m really looking forward to fresh vegetables, hot water & sleeping in late (!), a washing machine, never eating eggs again, warm weather & dry socks! :)

Streak-necked flycatcher

These were my favorite & I will miss them

I had to laugh at myself that my body woke itself up around 4am today, regardless of the fact that I didn’t need to – but was thankful that I was able to go back to sleep for a full, glorious 10 hours of sleep last night! Now I need to shower, charge my stuff, grab some food, & head to the airport in order to meet Nick in Bogotá tonight, followed by a quick week-long vacation in Colombia together. But not before playing for a while the adorable new addition to the hostel!!

Watch out Nick, this is gonna be our lives VERY soon!!!! ;)

Always Be Flexible

13 July 2016

My last day to wake up at 4am!! (…at least until I start teaching at Pasadena next month, but at least that’s only 1 day a week.) I joined Mario & Luke for a half-day of mist netting; sadly, Tatiana’s knee was hurting her a lot & she decided to rest it for the day. Of course, we didn’t catch much, being the 3rd day at this site, but it was nonetheless eventful. I followed a large brown snake along the path for a while. We finally had a brief respite of sun that I think even the snake was trying to take advantage of (I was surprised that having gone without sun for so long, hiking about 30 minutes in broad daylight already had my face slightly sun burned). Not sure what species it was; didn’t get a good look at the head, but don’t think it was venomous. I also had to disentangle a poor little streak-necked flycatcher (probably my favorite bird here because they’re so common; cute little guys that can’t tear your hands a part) that must have been struggling in pretty badly because when I finally got it out, I noticed that its neck was raw & bloody. Poor thing was quite entangled & must have been trying to wiggle its way out for a while, severely rubbing against the net. I felt so bad for it I wasn’t at all bothered when it frantically flew out of my hands once I had freed it from the net (Shh, don’t tell Mario). There’s nothing we could have done for it anyway – it would have just been kept it in captivity to be processed for even more time – so at least it got to fly away without being molested by humans any longer. Whether it lives or not, I have no idea, but it might heal on its own. Fingers crossed.

Blue-winged mountain tanager

Blue-winged mountain tanager

I kind of felt like the harbinger of death after that. Since I was going back to Cali today, Mario decided this would be a good time to collect some hummingbird species for the University of ICESI’s bird collection. So after we captured 3 hummingbirds of a particular species that the museum was lacking, Mario didn’t release them: he just left them hanging on a tree in a bag so they would slowly freeze & starve to death (hummingbirds have a very high, demanding metabolism to keeps their bodies really warm). I realize museums have been collecting live species like this for centuries & it’s all in the name of science, but it still felt bad to “kill” them (i.e. let their body temp drop until they slowly fall asleep & never wake up). Harbinger of death.

Female Collared Inca hummingbird (already falling into death sleep)

Female Collared Inca hummingbird

She'll make a very pretty museum specimen

When we closed up shop around midday & headed back to the station for lunch, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Tatiana had scored some chicken from the neighboring farmer. Real meat (not just canned tuna or defrosted hotdogs – something the farmer brought to us before under the guide of “salchichón”)! Sadly, however, the person coming to pick me up didn’t arrive as planned around midday (of course); she arrived at around 2pm with an Englishman who is now also joining the group. Just my luck that now that I’m leaving, when I’m feeling more comfortable & really confident in the work, we get more foreigners that I can talk to! Part of me is regretting leaving early but arrangements have been made & either way, the timing works out better for me & Nick anyway; so what’s done is done.

Mountain cacique

Mountain cacique

So as the Colombians went for a (2 hour!) stroll around the place to catch up with old friends, Luke & I sat around & got to know the English guy (who, I was surprised to learn knows even less Spanish than I do – thank goodness he’s got Luke going into this!) & I got caught up on a first-hand account of Britain leaving the E.U. When the Colombians finally came back to the station, I was informed that we still wouldn’t be able to leave until after 7pm now because the woman picking me up has a specific license plate number that isn’t allowed to enter Cali between the weekday hours of 5-8pm (I guess Cali has some regulations to try & control traffic congestion). And since it takes an hour to get into Cali from here, we would have to wait. Brilliant. Thanks.

Feeding aqua de panela to (non-specimen) hummingbird

Speckled hummingbird

So everyone but me & Tatiana went off into the forest for another 2.5 hours to help Mario track his bird nests. We stayed to process some data & just hang out. There was no real reason for me to get back to Cali early, other than to have some time to relax & check email, reconnect to the outside world (i.e. call my mom so she doesn’t keep worrying unnecessarily), but I have to laugh at the idea of “best laid plans…”. Just like previous field work, everything has to be flexible; schedules, I’ve learned, are really a nebulous thing in the field.

Flavescent flycatcher (so tiny & cute!!)

I finally got back to Cali around 9pm. It was kind of a sad goodbye at the station. Mario & Tatiana seemed generally sad to see me go, which was nice to think I had contributed something positive even if for such a short time. (I also made a gift of my 1st aid kit to Mario with the liquid bandage & alcohol swabs – he thought that was funny.) And I too was a little reluctant to be leaving early, as mentioned before. I think, too, Tatiana was not looking forward to now being the only girl in the group. ;) Although we did get a nice treat when the English guy just dropped trou (underwear still one but enjoyable nonetheless) to change his pants in the middle of the common room. So maybe there’ll be perks, after all ;)

Spotted barbtail

I was exhausted upon arriving back at the hostel, having been up since 4am, & was surprised to receive such a warm, familiar welcome from the hostel staff. Very nice guys. There’s a lot more people at the hostel right now (mostly, of course, young 20-something Europeans who quit their jobs to travel in South American for a year or so), so I joined them when they ordered some take out from a local BBQ place (eating a bunch of ribs after nearly a month of vegetarianism did not turn out to be such a good digestive decision) & got to hear about their travels. I don’t know if it was my sheltered upbringing, my ignorance of the world at that age, or just the insular culture of the U.S. (or a combination thereof), but it never occurred to me that I had the ability to just leave everything behind & travel around the world for a year as a single 20 year-old female with no agenda, no plan & very little money, just willingness & a passport. My nearly 40 cranky old self is definitely envious of their youth & cajones.

Penúltimo Dia

12 July 2016

Got into an interesting conversation with Mario & Tatiana this morning about what it was like growing up in Colombia the last 20 years during the guerilla wars & the drug cartels. They said they’re happy about the recent peace accords in Cuba made between the Colombian government & the FARC, but are still slightly skeptical that it will be lasting peace. Fortunately for them, they grew up in a fairly largish city outside the capital of Bogotá, so there wasn’t too much danger in their immediate vicinity. But they definitely recognize how much better things are now. There’s no longer a curfew by which you have to be indoors or you run the risk of being shot on site, no questions asked. People are now able to travel around the country on vacation, rather than sticking close to home. Pretty much the entire eastern half of the country (the Amazonian region, where the indigenous tribes that were unlucky enough to be discovered by the guerillas were enslaved to cultivate coca or killed if they refused to do so) & the three Andean mountain regions (including Farallones!) was controlled by either the FARC or the paramilitary when they were growing up.

Rufous-breasted flycatcher

It speaks a lot to how things have changed for the better that we’re even here, able to do an ecological study in former guerilla territory with no concern for the safety of the forest. Mario hopes this kind of work will help get his country back on its feet & help build an ecotourism industry (like Peru & Ecuador have). Colombia is blessed with both the Amazon & the Andes, with tremendous potential to bring in tourist & research dollars – but also contains tremendous natural resources & minerals. The government just needs to take advantage of tourism, rather than selling the country off piece by piece to foreign mining & drilling companies – which so many of these tropical countries do, sadly.

Blue-winged mountain tanager

Blue-winged mountain tanager

Blue-winged mountain tanager

Today was my last full day here – I leave (if all goes well) tomorrow afternoon. I will most likely join the crew for half day of field work, then head back to the station to be picked up at lunch time (fingers crossed). So I was trying to take advantage of my time & enjoy the forest, the sounds, the sights, (even the bird smells), the work, the birds. These creatures are really amazing: such beautiful plumage & such vast evolutionary diversity! It’s been really interesting learning about their different habitats & behaviors. I will really miss working with them & am really thankful I got the opportunity to do so.

Female v. Male Glossy-black thrush

We had a little bit of a death-defying scare today, at least for the birds (no humans were harmed). We had a rush of tanagers in the nets midafternoon & couldn’t process them all quickly enough, so I think their body temperatures started to drop (it’s very hard to keep your hands warm the entire time, the ambient temperature is so cold). Normally we just keep them in a cloth bag & stick the bag in our shirts so that our body heat keeps them warm until we’re ready to handle them. But with so many birds coming in, we had 3 that started to get really listless & wobbly; their eyes started to close as if they were going to sleep & they refused to fly away when we released them outside. All abnormal behaviors. We were afraid they might die on us, so we kept them warm for about 30 minutes in our shirts. They were still listless, so we perched them on some branches outside the tent to see if they would rouse & take off. They didn’t. So we tried a hail mary & fed them some agua de panela (sugar water is not something they would normally eat, since they’re not hummingbirds). Surprisingly & thankfully, they started to drink it, which we hoped would give them enough energy to revive. It didn’t seem like it would, but an hour later, after backing off & just giving them some rest on the branch, they finally flew off. Phew! No dead birds on our hands!

White-tipped sicklebill

Back at the station, after my first round of packing (I’m sure there will more shuffling & leaving of things behind tomorrow to lighten the load), Tatiana & I attempted to make a cross between arepas & pupusas with the left overs that we had. We were missing key ingredients to make either one, but thought a haphazard hybrid might be possible. Sadly, replacing butter with oil created a rather hard arepa but one that didn’t stick together, so we could stuff it with beans, like a pupusa. Not the greatest, but edible & something different at least. (I’ll be glad when my diet consists of more than just cold rice & beans) ;P

Wrapping Up

11 July 2016

The rapport of the group since Luke got here yesterday has been very different for me – a lot better than before. I think having 3 native Spanish speakers, all close friends, was kind of hard for me. They spoke fast (as a native speaker in any language would) & it was exhausting to try & keep up with the conversations. But with Luke here, the conversations are slower & since he is not a native speaker, he has a tendency to annunciate everything in order to get the right words out – this is a HUGE help for me & I can follow along with his conversations a lot better. It works out to be kind of a nice trade: he knows more Spanish & can help me translate things, while I know more about processing & handling the birds, so I help him out with that (in English, of course).

Juvenile Andean motmot
It almost makes me wish I was staying a little longer because the experience & camaraderie is a lot more comfortable & enjoyable now. I understand new jobs/situations always have a learning curve & growing pains in the beginning. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long to really feel comfortable here. But it’s still been good & I’m glad I got the experience. Last night, I was feeling kind of sad that I only have 2 more days left because we were having a good time together & I’m really loving working with the birds.  But then I woke up at 4am this morning & remembered: “oh yeah, I’m ready for this part to be over”. ;P It didn’t help that last night Loki was going ape shit, barking & crying for a really long time (poor little puppy, the farmer chains him up outside at night). It was keeping everybody awake & we didn’t find out until the morning the cause of the ruckus was a fox that had crept into the chicken coop last night & eaten one of the chickens. Mario sadly informed me that the rooster had not been the victim. >:(

Female masked trogon

Masked trogon

Masked trogon

Weighing the masked trogon

Exhausting morning aside, today was an AMAZING day for birding catching! The new site is a prime location because we caught over 30 birds today – more than any single day since I’ve been here! We estimate that there must be quite a few nests in the area, as we keep recapturing some of the same birds we’ve banded before. One of which was a woodpecker, which sadly tried to tear my hands apart as if they were a tree; another was a beautiful female trogon & one that I actually caught (she says triumphantly) was a juvenile male Andean motmot!! (It hadn’t yet plucked its 2 central tail feathers into a female-attracting pendulum.) The motmot was HUGE with such BEAUTIFUL feathers of emerald green & iridescent blue! We ended up having to tie its mouth shut with a ponytail holder, though, as it’s serrated beak (normally used for eating large insects, lizards, frogs, small rodents) would have torn apart my already scarred hands. But it was an amazing specimen & I was so excited to see one so close up!!

Andean motmot tail!

My motmot

Beautiful wings!

Very string beak

Andean motmot

I seriously need some pets in my life because working with animals just reminds me how much they can add to your life & make you so happy (even if they are trying to claw & bite their way away from you). ;P

Hike of the Navigator

10 July 2016

Every morning, Mario heads out before the rest of us – he says he’s a fast walker & wants to make sure he gets there by 6am (we usually get there at 6:30am) – which is fine with me because the hour-long hike up the mountains is hard enough, I’m not trying to rush it. But he claims said hike is only 1km & it takes him 25 minutes to get up there! Tatiana & I told him there’s no way in hell it’s only a kilometer (just over half a mile) & how on earth can it only take him 25 minutes to climb up & down 2 sheer cliffs in the mud?! But he swears that’s all it takes him. So Tatiana got up early & tried to keep pace with him (which she wasn’t able to do), while I stayed behind & waited for Luke.

Photographing a black solitaire

Tawny-bellied hermit

I was definitely nervous about leading him to the site, as I’m not very good (or used to) navigating by landmarks. Plus, things like big rock, bigger rock, fallen log, other fallen log, big tree, dead tree…they all kind of look the same & it’s easy for me to get lost (which is why I’ve been relying on Tatiana to lead the way each day – even though each time, I’m making mental notes on the path & different landmarks). So I was really nervous about leading Luke but feeling good that so far, I was doing well. I passed this log & that boulder & this incline, until I realized I was in a section of forest that didn’t look familiar (as odd as that sounds, since it’s just a clutter of green & trees all around you). But fortunately I didn’t lead us too far off the right path. We had about a 10 minute detour & then I found the right trail (way to confuse the new guy!). Unbeknownst to Mario, however, I had used my iPod’s pedometer to clock the distance to the camp site. So minus the getting lost part, the hike took us 45 minutes (I guess being nervous made me move a lot faster, which may account for why I got lost) & turned out to be just over THREE kilometers form the station, not 1km. Mario conceded the distance but emphasized that it wasn’t a competition…even though he had to clarify that he reached the site in only 23 minutes today. ;P

Male Collared Inca hummingbird
Male Collared Inca hummingbird

I’ve finally run out of books to read (sorry, Melissa but I won’t be returning the books I borrowed – they did not survive the conditions – I can get you new ones!), so I’m just living off of podcasts right now. Which is kind of good & bad. I love listening to the stories but have to admit that the monotonous NPR voice does tend to put me to sleep. Hopefully what I have will last the next 3 days, as I can’t download any new ones until I get back to Cali. (Casi casi!!)

Russet-crowned warbler

My knee is doing better. Still really bruised and stiff both at the start & at the end of the day, but I am able to hike without a walking stick (which is nice, as I find those things really cumbersome when they get stuck in the mud or in the vines above my head). Though I still have to be careful, as a misstep & the slightest twist in my knee sends shards of pain through my leg…so still not 100%, but way better.

Sepia-brown wren

Sepia-brown wren

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my improvised cooking here isn’t too bad. Mario asked me to make the lentil-veggie burgers again. He seems to like them a lot; says that they’re the closest thing he has to meat around here. So that’s good, I guess :) What I have really enjoyed eating, though, are Tatiana’s arepas con queso (yup, Nick, we have squeaky cheese that does not get refrigerated). They’re little fried patties of masa (essentially corn flour) heaven that I normally only get to eat once a year when I visit New Jersey & force Javier to make them for me (Thanks, Javy!). But sadly, we have finally run out of cheese & butter, so no more arepas. :(

Angry Bird

Shredded to Bits

9 July 2016

I’m happy to report that Mario & Tatiana got over their malaise today. They were a bit more relaxed & chatty with me, which made me feel good. Feeling the odd man out, unable to communicate, is always a terrible feeling. But we bonded over the struggle to handle 4 large & very aggressive hooded mountain tanagers at once. I needed Mario’s help to get them all out of the net; one of the poor guys had gotten the net tangled around the grooves in its tongue & I was afraid it would writhe so much it would rip its own tongue off – which I’ve seen happen & is terrible (fortunately, with his help all tongues were in tact). It must have been a small flock of the tanagers passing through because while we were trying to disentangle the 4 from the net, there were 2 others screeching at us from nearby trees.

A queue of waiting birds

Hooded mountain tanager wings

Hooded mountain tanager

While these are beautiful birds & a still photo makes them appear quite calm, I assure you, they are anything but! They are incredible strong & incredibly hostile in defending themselves against sudden man-handling by large, strange, stinky mammals. We had to process them in an assembly line so they wouldn’t shred any one person’s hands if we held them too long (it took almost 2 hours to get all 4 done). As mainly fruit eaters, their beaks are incredibly strong, not to mention their raptor like claws with half-inch long daggers for nails & vice like grips. It. Was. Painful. So of course we’re griping & arguing with these poor birds the whole time, laughing at each other as we share our “dolor”.

Hooded mountain tanager

To keep them from biting, we wrapped their beak w/1st aid tape

There was a surprise when we got back to the station tonight: Luke from the Netherlands. It makes me feel a little bit better about the lack of info I got in coming here, knowing that I’m not the only one. Mario was told that an American male would be coming to the station last Wed. & that was all he knew (the male part was right), but it never happened. Then on Friday, he got a call & was told that the guy would be coming on Sunday. Surprise, surprise, he showed up on Saturday! Poor guy arrived around 9am to an empty station (the farmer at least unlocked the house for him) and waited around all day for us to come back around 6:30pm. I immediately switched to English & was so relieved to be able to talk to someone again (his Spanish is way better than mine, so he’ll have no problem here). I was also, as I said, somewhat relieved to hear that he wasn’t given any info about conditions here either. So I did my best to give him a bit of an orientation: explain the ways of the station & what he should expect in the field tomorrow. He’s a recent biology undergraduate from southern Holland, who has done lots of work with birds & plans on spending the next 3 months in Colombia with this organization working on the country-wide cataloguing project. He’ll move to the next station with Mario & Tatiana next week, but they’ll only be there for a month, so I’m not sure (& neither is he) where they’ll send him after that.

Either way, it’ll be nice to have someone I can easily turn to for English translations over the next 4 days :) So thanks for coming, Luke!