Yesterday we had to wake up at a heinous hour to get to the field before la madrugada. We were going birding, and even the most passionate ornithologist will concede that early mornings are a persistent professional inconvenience. But, as I’ve noted, biologists’ preferences regarding field of study rarely seem to be the result of logical thought. Some people just really like birds, I guess.
Fortunately a ride in the STRI bus, which I’ve taken to calling El Cerdo, is likely to awaken even the drowsiest of grad students at the earliest of hours. A squat, shaking, rattling old beast of a thing, El Cerdo provokes in me a feeling that mixes respect with surrender. His windows clatter back and forth in their panes. A mysterious noise comparable to a large and irritable mouse sounds from the roof at random intervals. Whenever we hit a bump at more than 30 km/h everyone is lifted into the air like airplanes encountering turbulence before being slammed back down into their seats. Note that said seats are not exactly plush. Nevertheless, El Cerdo has proven far more reliable than his appearance or ride quality would suggest. In our journeys across the isthmus and into the forest we’ve subjected the old brute to some seriously rough terrain, which terrain he’s traversed stubbornly, if not all that smoothly.
But anyway, so by the time we reached the field site and were disgorged from El Cerdo with slightly compressed vertebrae, I felt awake and excited and ready to see some cool birds. And lo, cool birds I did see. All we had to do was stand in a small clearing and look up. Birds came by like they wanted to show off for us. A few of the more memorable sightings included a flock of toucans with fiery yellow patches on their breasts, green and red parrots with glossy eyes and smiling beaks, and a tiny brown hummingbird hunting for nectar. These eye-catching specimens were complemented by a host of more common wrens, wood-creepers, and antbirds. We got very close to some of these latter species after they were caught in our “mist nets” – thin strips of latticed thread hung in folds between poles in the forest. The birds crash into them and get tangled in the layers of netting. So long as they’re rescued by a human before hurting themselves in the struggle to escape, they’re not harmed. After being disentangled, the birds were stuffed into bags by our ornithologist guide and brought them back to the clearing for a public viewing.
Of course, since this is biology, and proper biology requires unearthing the creepy and repulsive, a closer look at the birds showed their cuteness to be just the thin atmosphere around a planet of filth. For one, whenever the guide tried to hold the birds he would get crapped on. Which, fair enough. In fact probably deserved, considering the abduction by mist net and following involuntary exhibition. Next, our guide, after wiping the gelatinous bird doo from his fingers, palm, and clothes, blew on some birds’ bellies to separate the feathers. This showed that birds have angry pink skin the colour of an Irish sunburn. In fact, beneath the feathers bird bodies are totally grotesque, with ridiculous bulging pectorals (for flight, of course), distended stomachs, and knobbly limbs. We also found that the birds were crawling with parasites: gray and orange wormy things about the width of a string of thread.
I prefer seeing birds from a distance, where I can maintain my illusion of them as pretty, elegant, and clean (though of course I recognize it’s easier to do science on them from up close).
The one bird we didn’t see, which I am absolutely dying to get a glimpse of, was the Harpy Eagle. Everything I’ve heard about Panama’s national bird paints it as an outrageous engine of terror and death. One STRI researcher told us about the time a Harpy slammed into his back, landed on the road in front of him, and started marching forward with wings outstretched like it was about to Mike Tyson KO him. Now, for real. Listen: THAT IS THE MOST CRAZIEST BUSINESS I EVER HEARD OF. Imagine being a meter-long, monkey-eating raptor of carnage with a two-meter wingspan, scimitar claws, and the ability to strike without warning from the sky like a gosh-dang Predator Missile. Imagine being all that, and thinking, “nah, man, too easy. I’m gonna take on this fool on foot.”
For better or worse, though, there were no Harpy Eagles for us yesterday. We just spent several peaceful hours watching the birds manoeuver elegantly through the forest’s tangled foliage. I think it was the contrast that made El Cerdo’s turbulent lumberings along the dirt road leading away from the field site even more bone-jarring than usual.