Ecuador Forest Birds
Earthwatch 1998/9
Tom Davis

Last updated: February 6, 1999

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Tom with pole

The author in Ecuador

Here I am in the jungle holding one of the bamboo poles that we used to support the mist nets. If you look closely at the pole at about my head level, you can see some white and black cords around the pole -- these are the "trammel lines" of the mist net.

Zen and Mist Nets

I should have been a Zen monk, not a computer programmer.

At least that's what I decided after my experience as a volunteer helper on my most recent Earthwatch expedition (Ecuador's Forest Birds, 1998-99). The things I like to do most are those with the highest Zen component --- things that require total concentration and shutting every distraction out of your mind.

For the Forest Birds project, the Zen activity involved untangling birds from the nets. The so-called "mist nets" are nearly invisible nylon mesh nets about 12 meters long and 2.5 meters high, strung between a couple of bamboo poles. The size of the mesh varies, depending on what kinds of birds you're trying to catch. For hummingbirds, the standard mesh is 24 millimeters; for "average" birds, 36 millimeters, and if you were primarily after large parrots or toucans, your net would have even larger holes.

The nets have 5 "trammel lines" that are stretched tightly between the supporting poles, but the net between those lines is not stretched tightly at all. Almost any bird that flies into the loose, nearly invisible net becomes entangled. My favorite job was to untangle the birds and carry them back to a "banding station" where they were weighed, measured, examined, banded, and released.

Each tangle is different, and the bird may be held by a single thread, or may be wrapped up in the center of what appears to be a Gordian knot. When you find an entangled bird, the goal is to get the bird out as quickly as possible without harming the bird or the net.

Your problem is complicated by the fact that the bird may be struggling, mosquitos may be trying to eat you alive, you may be hot or tired or hungry, sweat may be pouring off your forehead and stinging your eyes, and there may be other birds tangled in the same net awaiting your attention.

If you try to hurry, the tangle will just get worse; each time you move a thread, you should know exactly why you're moving it, and you just have to ignore any discomfort or complexity.

When you come upon an entangled bird, your first job is to figure out which direction the bird was flying when it hit the net. If it hit the north side, heading south, then you'd better be on the north side of the net trying to untangle it or you'll find that there's always at least one layer of netting between you and the bird.

The advice above is almost too obvious for words, but unfortunately it's often hard to carry out in practice. The struggling bird may wind itself up in a horrible knot, with its little feet clenched around another knot of net. Especially if it's near the ground, it may have run back and forth under the net and effectively gotten tangled from both sides. The problem is often complicated by the fact that a bunch of twigs and leaves are snarled up as well. Bay-headed Tanager

Bay-headed Tanager

This is one of the prettiest birds we caught -- the Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola).

But no matter whether it's a one-thread tangle or a double-black-diamond Gordian knot, it's critical to concentrate fully on what you're doing. With the one-thread tangles it's very easy for the bird to escape; with the Gordian knot, almost everything you do will make the tangle worse, so you've got to select operations that improve the situation.

Two years previously I'd volunteered on the same project, and had thoroughly enjoyed the untangling, but I was a little concerned that I would have to relearn the technique. My fears were groundless and as soon as I touched my first bird, it all came back to me.

That's not to say that I am an expert --- there were certainly folks on the project with much more experience and ability than I have, and I asked for help on a couple of occasions, but I never felt more calm and relaxed than when I sat down to work with a tangled bird.

I don't think that any of the other volunteers had worked with mist nets previously, so part of the job was to show the newcomers how to untangle birds. You untangle a couple while they're looking, and from then on you're on the lookout for situations of the right complexity for them. In addition to the degree of entanglement, you've got to consider what sort of a bird it is. It's harder to hurt a larger bird accidentally, but some of the larger birds tend to get their feet horribly entangled and there's nothing more discouraging for a beginner than to spend five minutes pulling stands of net loose from a bird's claws one at a time, and then to lose the grip on the leg for a half second, allowing the bird to get the claws even more hopelessly entangled than they were before. Although hummingbirds are quite delicate, they are sometimes good birds for beginners to try since they never get a death-grip on the net with their feet.

But generally, you'd like to give a beginner a stronger bird to work with, especially since some of the stronger birds (the tanagers, for example) have a nasty bite, making them ideal subjects for somebody else to handle. Really big birds like parrots or raptors can probably take your finger off, so they are really scary to work with. Given the small mesh size we used, it would be very unlikely that we would have to "tangle" with such a bird.

But it was sure hard to let the beginners work with a bird --- I wanted to do it so badly that I had to keep my hands in my pockets so that I wouldn't try to help.

This isn't the only Zen-like Earthwatch project I've done --- I particularly enjoyed the Costa Rican Caterpillars expedition. Hunting and raising caterpillars doesn't have a particularly high Zen component, but I worked on a sub-project with the very large and very venomous "bullet ants" (Paraponera clavata). We were measuring the amounts of various adulterated sugar solutions that they would eat, so we had to put out little feeding tubes for the ants that could be retrieved and weighed later. Putting out the tubes for the ants was easy; getting them back was another story. The tubes swarmed with the giant ants and we had to knock the ants away one at a time until there was an opening when the feeder tube could be retrieved.

The ants keep coming and coming, so you just have to wait for the right moment, and then you can't hesitate --- you reach in and take the tube. You never knew when that instant would occur, and you couldn't hurry it up.

That work similarly involved total concentration, since one error could result in a sting that was described as feeling like "being injected with boiling sulfuric acid and then twisting the needle for four hours." But as long as you didn't panic, and remained relaxed, there was very little danger. My mind dropped into the same "Zen state" on that project.

The Expedition Begins

The flight to Ecuador was uneventful, although it seemed to take forever --- San Francisco at 9:00 am to Houston to Quito to Guayaquil at 11:00 pm (which was only 8:00 pm, San Francisco time, but it seemed much later). I got my bags in Guayaquil and was about to hail a taxi when somebody said, "You're from the Earthwatch group, aren't you?," and offered me a ride back with his driver. It was Tyler, another member of the expedition who recognized me from the Earthwatch tag on my backpack. Tyler had arrived the day before, but his luggage had not, and he'd had to return to the airport to pick it up since it came on my flight.

When I finally checked in at the hotel I was told that guests receive a complimentary fruit basket, and when did I want it? I asked for it as soon as possible, knowing that I'd be off at the crack of dawn the next morning to meet with the rest of the team. In the meantime, I liberated a beer from the minibar and consequently was pretty relaxed when the guy arrived with the fruit basket.

The basket was impressive --- a half pineapple, an apple, a banana, a quarter of a canteloupe, a big bunch of grapes, some cheese and strawberries, a big chunk of watermelon, and a small bottle of wine. I drank all the wine and ate most of the fruit, set the alarm, and almost immediately fell into a coma-like sleep. The fruit looked so good that it didn't even cross my mind not to eat it (being in Ecuador with God-knows what diseases and all), but I heard later that Margie and Jennifer (see below) had decided not to take a chance. Well, I was lucky and had no problems.

At the hotel checkout counter the next morning, I ran into three other folks from our group --- Jeane, Margie and Jennifer --- and we took taxis to the 9:00 am rendezvous at the Palace hotel.

At the Palace, I met everyone else, and was overjoyed to learn that Andrea (whom I'd met two years previously on the same project) was going to be with us. Andrea is extremely competent, intelligent, and best of all, shares somewhat my sick sense of humor, so I knew there'd be at least one volunteer who I really liked. (Not that I was really worried --- I usually like almost everyone on Earthwatch trips since the kind of folks who sign up for them are usually as nutty --- well, maybe half as nutty --- as I am.)



After proof-reading this article, Andrea reminded me that in addition to being "extremely competent" and "intelligent" I should add that in addition she's also beautiful and all-around wonderful. I don't know how those adjectives were omitted from the first draft.

On the right is a photo of the beautiful and all-around wonderful Andrea, birdwatching during a break in the action at the bird-banding station.

It was also great to see Dusty (the PI, or "Principal Investigator") as well. I'd exchanged occasional emails with her, but hadn't seen her for two years, when she taught me how to work with birds in mist nets.

We did some brief introductions, and then hopped on a bus bound for Manglaralto where we'd spend our final night in civilization.

Tyler is a lawyer from Nebraska who was visiting South America for the first time, but he had had some experience with catching bats on a project in Nebraska. Apparently the technique is similar to what we used for birds using mist-nets. He's a really nice guy, and I already owed him a favor for the ride into Guayaquil from the airport.

Margie and Jennifer are both from the San Diego area of California. Margie is about my age and teaches biology (mostly marine biology) in a college there. Jennifer is a student at the college and Margie was one of her teachers. Margie had a lot of experience working with marine mammals and birds, and I think this was one of the first biology projects she had done that was out of sight of the ocean. I had never done a project within sight of the ocean, so between us we had things pretty well covered. I don't think Jennifer had ever done anything remotely similar.

Jeane is a writer of romance novels and lives in Beverly Hills in the Los Angeles area. I had communicated with her earlier via email. This was the fourth Earthwatch project for both her and me.

Freddy is from Germany, and is a PhD student in molecular biology. He and I seemed to have quite a bit in common. Well, at least he laughed at a lot of my jokes, and it turned out later that both he and I had independently memorized huge portions of the sound-track for the movie "Pulp Fiction".

Ray and Kathleen are a couple from New Hampshire. Ray is a dentist, and Kathleen works in his office, and also as a teacher. She's interested in language and was currently teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). She and Ray had done a number of Earthwatch trips before, and in fact had met Dusty on one where they studied howler monkeys in Costa Rica. I wish I had Kathleen's talent for language --- I've been strugging with Spanish for quite a while, and although she had only recently begun to study it, Kathleen was able to communicate almost as well as I.

Vidul was originally from India, but lived in the New York City area working in the finance area of a large manufacturing company as his first "real" job. He had done at least one other Earthwatch trip --- an archeological dig in Mallorca.

Tyler, Margie, Jennifer, Jeane, Freddy, Ray, Kathleen, Vidul and I were the "official" volunteers.

Also with the group were Andrea, who has been helping Dusty for a couple of years on her projects, Dusty's husband, Mark, who teaches Chemistry at Kansas State University with Dusty, but is fanatically interested in birds, and a couple of Ecuadorian ornithologists, Ana and Orfa.

The plan was to split the group in two, with half of us going up the hill to "The Casita" with Dusty for high elevation netting, while the other half stayed below in a small town called "El Suspiro" with Ana and Orfa to do low elevation netting and to work half of each day with the kids in the local village on environmental education. Then we'd switch after a week so that all the volunteers got to try both, although Dusty, Mark, and Andrea were to remain above and Ana and Orfa below.

Things started out wrong --- all of Mark's luggage had gotten lost, so he and Andrea remained in Guayaquil either to try to find the luggage (it never appeared), or to purchase enough stuff so that he could survive for a couple of weeks in the wilderness. The first destination of the bus was the airport so Mark and Andrea could start working on the luggage problem, but the bus driver was from out of town, and had no idea where the airport was. Guayaquil isn't exactly a small city (it's the largest in Ecuador), so the driver wandered quite a bit before we figured out that he was lost, and it took an hour to get to the airport (usually a 10 minute trip from the hotel).

After we finally let off Mark and Andrea, things went better, and we arrived in the little coastal town of Manglaralto late in the afternoon. We planned to spend the night there, and then take off for the research sites early the next morning. I had taken exactly the same trip two years earlier, before the El Niño phenomenon. It was almost unbelievable how much things had changed --- instead of being very desert-like, huge areas were covered with greenery, and some morning-glory type plant had gone nuts and was climbing over and strangling almost everything else.

A lot of the bridges had been knocked out the previous year by the El Niño flooding, and we crossed quite a few temporary structures, some of which were pretty exciting to drive over. One section of the road was still closed, or at least was in such bad shape that it was better for the bus to leave the road to drive on the beach for a couple of kilometers.

One thing that was a bit mind-boggling was the area around the city of Salinas where a lot of folks who have gotten rich from shrimp farming (or maybe drugs) were building fantastic houses on beautiful beach-front property. There are a lot of comparable places in the United States, of course, but the houses really stood out in comparison with the relative poverty of most of the other little towns. Almost none of it had been there two years previously.

We had a relaxed afternoon in Manglaralto where we went bird-watching in town and on the beach, and had dinner together in a small beach-front restaurant. We'd dined in the same restaurant two years ago, but at the time it wasn't beach-front. El Niño had removed the front row of houses on the beach.

On our bird walk we saw lots of martins, some tanagers, quite a few herons, and lots of sea birds. There were also dozens of Vermillion flycatchers in town --- one of the prettiest birds in the world, as far as I'm concerned. The males were in their most brilliant red (well actually vermillion, I guess) plumage.

Mark and Andrea arrived in Manglaralto late and exhausted, having survived the bus trip from hell. Apparently on Sunday afternoons (or at least on certain Sunday afternoons), there are so many vacationing Ecuadorians who want to return to Guayaquil that the roads to the beaches are made one-way going toward the city --- the wrong way for Andrea and Mark. Many bus transfers later, and after having seen much more of Ecuador than they had planned to, they arrived, tired and hungry, at the motel.

The motel is run by Claude and Myriam, people who together with Dusty formed the organization called "PAN" --- "People Allied for Nature". I'd met them two years previously, and it was nice to see them again. Another PAN member, John Walker, had been on the team two years earlier, but due to recent knee surgery decided not to take the trek to the Casita this year. John is an investor in the motel enterprise, and informed me that "it wasn't losing money too fast". I liked John a lot, and was looking forward to working with him.

The motel is very nice, and I knew it would look fabulous at the end of the trip. Gray-and-Gold Warbler

Gray-and-Gold Warbler

This is a Gray-and-Gold Warbler (Basileuterus fraseri). I thought that with that unmistakable rufous spot on the head that it would be trivial to look him up when I got home. Unfortunately, there is no book of the birds of Ecuador, and I tried to look him up in the "Birds of Colombia" book, which usually works pretty well. But not in this case -- the Gray-and-Gold Warbler is not found in Colombia.

Trek to the Casita

The next morning, Tyler, Freddy, Ray, Kathleen and I, together with Dusty and Mark, took off early for the Casita --- the home base for the high altitude team. ("High altitude" is an exaggeration --- the Casita's elevation is about 550 meters.) There are two ways to get there --- over the hill and along the river. Dusty wanted to go along the river so we could do some birdwatching, although it was a bit longer. She estimated four hours for the trip.

The most important thing I'd remembered from two years before is that although Dusty is quite good at almost everything she does, her sense of time is terrible, so I emptied my backpack into the dufflebag the mules were taking up except for my binoculars and my two one liter water bottles. I then added a 4 liter water jug to the pack, padded with a towel. I also carried a roll of duct tape in case the water bottle sprung a leak and a couple of Clif bars for snacks. I don't think anybody else carried much more than a liter of water. I figured that at worst I'd get some good exercise carrying all that extra weight, and at best, I'd have a bunch of friends for life.

We saw lots of great birds going in --- hawks, kingfishers, various tanagers, anis, flycatchers, et cetera. My favorite sighting was when we got a fantastic view of a Laughing falcon who sat on a bare branch and posed for us for many minutes. The most "useful" bird we didn't even see as we walked in --- the White-bearded manakin. During mating season, the males gather in so-called "leks" to compete for females. The lek was easy to hear, but it was buried in some pretty dense undergrowth, so we couldn't see it. The noise that the males make sounds like a fart, followed by the snapping of fingers. Later in the trip, after making a noise that's the unavoidable result of eating lots of beans, you could always snap your fingers and say, "Manakin lek!"

We did catch a lot of manakins, and we did eat a lot of beans. I wonder if we were doing some unintentional "calling".

After three hours of very slow walking (whenever we saw a bird, we stopped to watch, and often pulled out the bird guide to check our identification or to learn more about the bird), we arrived at a sort of mini-waterfall where we had lunch. The final climb to the Casita, according to Dusty, began 15 minutes beyond the waterfall. It is known as "heartbreak hill", since it is very steep and often hot. It's so steep that even if you've ridden horses to the base, you have to climb it on foot. I remembered that it took an hour to climb on the previous trip, although Dusty thought it was more like 45 minutes.

After a couple more hours of walking, this time not so slowly, we were not yet at heartbreak hill, and we encountered a couple of Ecuadorians on horses who said it was at least an hour to the base, riding. By this time, I was making all sorts of friends by refilling water bottles from my 4 liter jug, and after a bit more than another hour of hard hiking when we finally got to the base of hearbreak, we were almost out of water.

Our guide said that the usual way up the hill was out of the question because of impossible mud, so we detoured in such a way that the trip up the hill took an extra 40 minutes, for an hour and 40 minutes total. We were completely out of water and pretty dehydrated when we finally got to the Casita. It took 9 hours total and we barely had time to unpack our bags before it got dark. Luckily, Mauricio and Pascual, the two Ecuadorian assistants I'd met two years ago, had arrived at the camp since the previous day and had cooked us a huge dinner.

Blister Surgery

Doctor Dusty

In his new boots, Tyler managed to generate a huge blister on the bottom of his foot, so for the first couple of days he stayed near the Casita and did far more than his share of the cooking. Of course we had the usual argument about whether to pop the blister or not, and in in end he finally decided to do so. We had plenty of antibiotic cream and plenty of bandages to protect it, so I'm convinced he did the right thing. A couple of days later he was more or less back to normal.

The image at the right shows Tyler and Dusty working on the blister, with Andrea and Freddy in the background.

Hauling Poles and Trapping Birds

The next day we set up mist nets. Dusty wanted to have 20 nets on the ridge above the Casita so we decided to set up 10 the first day and 10 the second. It's quite a steep climb up to the ridge, and takes about 15 minutes unburdened, but we were carrying the poles for the mist nets. The nets are about 2.5 meters high and 12 meters long, so the poles are made of bamboo and are about 3 meters long and 4 or 5 centimeters in diameter. They were freshly cut, and I learned something about bamboo as a result --- in fresh bamboo, all those little compartments are not hollow -- they're filled with water, and they are far heavier than they look. Most of us managed to carry, with a great deal of difficulty, 2 poles up the hill. As much as it boggled the mind, Mauricio and Pascual, who are both pretty small people, each carried 4 poles.

It seemed like a lot of work, but we did get 10 nets set up in the morning and goofed off in the afternoon.

Most of the successive days were similar --- we'd get up at 4:45 am, eat breakfast, and get on the trails by 5:45. (On New Year's Day, Dusty let us celebrate, and we didn't have to be on the trails until 5:46.) This allowed us to have most of the nets open for the 6:00 am sunrise, and we'd trap birds until 11:30. It was pretty exciting doing that climb in the dark for the first time, but at least we weren't carrying poles. You've just got a little flashlight, you're climbing in steep mud, and your imagination is running wild with snakes and spiders being the main topics. Actually, it's pretty safe --- the big rubber boots go up to your knees and it would be tough for a snake to get much venom through them.

Trapping birds involves checking the nets every half-hour or so, untangling any trapped birds, putting them in bags, and returning with them to the banding station which was set up at a central location relative to the nets. At the station, the banders would inspect, measure, and band the birds. For certain species, we'd take a tiny drop of blood to do DNA matching with similar birds from other parts of Ecuador. This would allow Dusty to learn how closely related are the various populations and to learn something about migration patterns and evolutionary trends. Although the coastal mountains where we were are a long way from the Andes, certain birds that we found there are more closely related to Andean species than Dusty had first expected, and she was trying to find out why.

Drawing blood Saving blood

Equipo Vampiro

The images here show a couple of steps in the process of drawing blood. On the left, a bird is being pricked with a needle to get some blood flow. After the prick, a capillary tube is used to suck up a tiny amount of blood. Finally, the blood is blown out of the capillary tube into a storage tube that contains a mixture of chemicals to preserve the sample until it can be taken back to civilization for analysis.

"Equipo Vampiro", of course, translates to "Vampire Team".

With only 10 of the 20 nets, the first day wasn't too frenzied. We closed the nets at 11:30, and the banders finished with all the birds we brought in by about noon. I think we got about 60 birds, total. I'm a little fuzzy on exactly how the other 20 poles made it up the hill. I remember hiking up with Andrea with each of us carrying a couple of poles, but I think most of the work was done by Pascual and Mauricio. In any case, we did set up the other 10 nets that afternoon on the ridge, and got back to a very late lunch at about 2:00. We goofed off for the rest of the afternoon.

The next day was total chaos. There were so many birds with 20 nets that at times the banders were 15 birds behind. There were three people capable of doing the banding --- Dusty, Andrea, and Pascual. They would hold the bird, do the various measurements and evaluations, and read off the results to a scribe who dutifully wrote down everything and made sure that all the data were taken. Usually it was one scribe per bander, but during the more chaotic parts, we were short of people, and one scribe would be listening to two streams of data and writing like a madman (or madwoman, depending). The most bizarre moment was probably when Andrea (who's from Austria) was reading off data to Freddy in German, and I was taking simultaneous notes from Pascual and Dusty in Spanish and English respectively. Pascual is beginning to learn English, but when he was stressed, it was far easier just to use "puro español".

Since Pascual has been helping Dusty for so long, and it seems like he will probably continue to do so in the future, and since he is such a hard worker, some of us decided to give him a "scholarship" to study English. I think we collected enough money for three months of lessons, including not only tuition, but enough to support his family for those months while he wouldn't be working. It didn't cost all that much, and I think it may be one of the most valuable gifts we could have given him. Of course while he's strugging through his classes he'll probably hate us all for putting him through it, but when it's over I think he'll be very pleased with the results.

The most amusing thing that happened on that day was while I was scribing for Dusty, and we were both exhausted. For each bird there are about 20 pieces of data that need to be taken (weight, sex, body measurements, types of parasites, breeding and plumage status, et cetera), and at the end before she released each bird Dusty would always ask, "Have I left anything out?"

A quick check showed one empty data slot for the bird, and without thinking, I made my reply: "I need sex!"

Freddy and I were on lunch duty that day, so we left at about noon to start cooking, and the rest of the group finally finished all the banding and got back to the Casita at about 1:30.

When mist nets are up in the same place day after day, the birds get wise to them, so after the peak (of about 110 birds) on the second day, the number of captures declined as the days went on. With the nets already set up and a declining number of birds, we began to have a bit more time to relax in the afternoons.

We had sent down a note with one of the mule supply teams telling the other half of our team about the difficulties we'd had in coming, and suggested that when the exchange of the teams occurred, that the other team bring plenty of water, that they not dawdle, and that they ride horses or mules for as much of the trip as they could. Apparently the note frightened them a bit (I think they thought of themselves as the weaker team), and in the reply it was clear that at least one of them was thinking of just staying below due to knee problems.

Dusty was worried about being short-handed above (with a full exchange, we five volunteers would be replaced by four or possibly only three people). Since there are fewer birds below, and since we were planning to move all the nets and possibly have another chaotic day, I volunteered to remain above and the other four would swap with the four (or possibly three) people coming up.

It was the right thing to do to help Dusty, and I liked the fact that I got to know the people on the other half of the group much better than I would have had I stayed with the original group. I'm sorry I missed out on learning something about the types of birds at the lower site, and that I did not get to know Ana or Orfa very well, both of whom seemed to be very interesting people. I also missed the chance to interract with the Ecuadorian kids in the village below, which would have been a lot of fun. On the other hand, I think the conditions were nicer (read: cooler) up at the Casita, so I was thankful for that. I'm pretty allergic to heat.

After the final day of netting for the first team we were done with the birds by about noon, so some of us decided to walk up to the "pasture" for a good view, and possibly to see some hawks. Dusty said it was a 20 minute climb with only 2 "minor major climbs" so I was counting on an hour, but it only took us a half hour.


Kathleen in the pasture

It was great! There was a blazing sun and it was hot. Around the Casita where we had been working, we were nearly always in total shade, and it was sometimes even a bit chilly if there was fog. Most folks wandered around and looked at stuff, but Kathleen and I just took off our boots and socks and sat in the grass, wiggling our toes. A half hour with the hot sun beating down on my black boots managed to dry them inside and out for the first (and last) time during the trip.

The photo on the left is of Kathleen, celebrating the removal of her boots.

Swapping Teams

The day of the exchange was a sort of day off for me. We cleaned up the Casita, repaired some damage (one of the benches at the dinner table had broken to the great surprise and dismay of the four folks sitting on it), and we built a new bench so that the dinner table would have enough seats for everyone to sit comfortably.

I washed my clothes, took a shower, and generally organized my stuff. We cooked a huge lunch for the other team and had lots of liquids ready for them, but since they were previously warned, they didn't have too much trouble. "Heartbreak hill" was obviously an exhausting climb for a couple of people, but all four made it up, and I think that once it was over, they were pleased to see that they could do something like that.

During the day, before the other team arrived, we joked about what to do when they arrived. I suggested that to see if they were still coherent that we give them a mental status test of the sort physicians do to see if the minds of their injured patients are at least functioning at a minimal level. Typically, such exams contain questions of the form, "What is today's date?", "Count backwards from 100 by 7s: 100, 93, 86, ....", or "Who is the president of the United States?" We abandoned the idea, however, when we realized that due to the ongoing impeachement trial of Clinton that we ourselves didn't know the answer to the third question.

The next day the new Casita team went up to the ridge for one final pass at the nets there and we had a fairly easy morning. On the way down, we decided to haul down some poles and set up as many nets at the new sites closer to the Casita as we could. I think Dusty was counting on doing 10, and secretly hoping that we might get as many as 15 nets set up.

Well, there was a bad outbreak of testosterone poisoning, and all the males, myself included, (and some of the females seemed to be affected as well) began to push the limits of what they could carry. I carried 4 down, and Mauricio and Pascual each had 10! All in all, we were amazed that in one trip down, we recovered 37 of the 40 poles. And this was supposed to be the "weaker" team.

We had lunch, and right afterwards most of the team went down the "dry" side of the hill from the Casita to set up 10 nets, and I went back up to the ridge to retrieve the last 3 poles. When I got down, so much progress had been made on the dry side that Dusty, Mauricio and I decided to take off and haul some poles to the "wet" side. (Later, we called the dry side "Club Med", and the wet side "Devil's Island" --- there was a "slight" difference in the amount of mud involved.)

Either Mauricio or Pascual had left the 10 poles he brought down tied together, so Dusty and I each took an end and staggered off into the mud. With Mauricio and Vidul, we had all 20 poles that we needed for all 10 nets. We had an awful time with what was effectively 5 poles each, and it was impossible to imagine how Mauricio and Pascual had managed with 10 --- Mauricio probably only weighs 45 kilos. It was a long and painful trip to the first net site, but after that it got a lot easier since we dropped off two poles at each site, and our brains were still functioning well enough to remember to drop the two heaviest poles each time.

By the time we got all the poles out to the net sites I was completely wasted and actually started feeling chilled, so I excused myself, returned to the Casita, took a very quick dip in the river to get off some of the mud, dried off, put on dry clothes, and collapsed into the hammock. After about 15 minutes I started to feel like a human again, and that was lucky because Vidul and I were on to cook dinner. The others slaved away in Club Med or Devil's Island while we made a ton of food, and by the time everyone crawled back into camp, all 20 nets were set up!

Often, as we were hiking down the muddy trails hauling the heavy poles, we'd begin whistling the "Colonel Bogey March" --- the tune made popular in the movie classic: "Bridge on the River Kwai" --- in which an insane British colonel Nicholson in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the second world war gets obscessed with building the best possible bridge for his Japanese captors to show them what the British soldier is capable of doing. We decided that Dusty was like the Japanese commander, driving us to get an impossible amount of work done, and while all the volunteers were trying to sabotage her work, one of us, Andrea, played the part of colonel Nicholson and was keeping us in line and making sure that all the work was of the highest possible quality in spite of the fact that she should have been on the side of the volunteers. It is hard to whistle while you're carrying 4 poles, however.

The next day, as we predicted, we were completely swamped with birds, having 20 nets, all in new locations. The Casita itself was between the two sets of 10 nets, so the banding station was at the dinner table, and that was very nice. I worked on the Devil's Island side with Pascual, and the trail was so long and muddy and there were so many birds that it was totally impossible to visit the nets every half hour. It usually took much longer than that to do a single loop, so we aimed for a one hour cycle time.

On that first day at the new sites I got the biggest fright of the trip. We knew that the trail was long, so we started a bit earlier, and opened up the first couple of nets while it was still pitch dark. On the way back from that first pass, we found that we had a bat tangled in the net. It wasn't a tiny bat, it seemed to have giant needle-sharp teeth, and all I could think was "Rabies!"

Luckily the bat wasn't badly tangled, and we had a huge supply of the cotton bags we used to carry the netted birds back to the banding station. I wrapped my hand in all of them, and got the bat loose except for its teeth which were locked into the net. Then I pulled gently and Pascual poked at the bat's mouth with a stick until it let go. I then took the bat far from Pascual and threw it as high and as hard as I could. Puffbird

White-whiskered Puffbird

The tanagers weren't the only birds that bite. Here's a White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis) that's just nipped Andrea's finger. You can still see the bump on the bitten finger.

The next day was much easier (for me at least). I did the Club Med side, and there were fewer birds. On the final day of netting, I did Devil's Island again, but the number of birds was even lower, so it wasn't hard. In fact, there were so few birds by the end that Pascual and I were getting lazy and not replacing the bird bags in our pockets when we delivered birds, since as the day goes on there are generally fewer and fewer of them captured. It was a rude shock to get to the first net (after a considerable walk) and find 5 birds in the net. We had 6 bags between us, and 9 more nets to check.

I inadvertantly "helped" when one of the birds slipped out of my hand and escaped. It had gotten its tongue tangled in the net which is often a nightmare to undo, and I was so relieved when I got the tongue free without incident that I dropped my concentration and the bird was gone in an instant. I feel pretty good about my record, however; that was the only bird I lost on the whole trip. (I nearly lost another one very early on when it came untangled much more quickly than I'd expected. It got free from my hands, but just as it started to fly, I "hip-checked" it into the net where it got tangled again to the great amazement of whomever was working with me. I'm not even a hockey player, but maybe all that Zen concentration caused me to do exactly the right thing.)

Luckily, there weren't too many other birds, and we came back with all six bags full, and Pascual carrying one bird in each hand, for a total of 8.

We spent the afternoon taking down the nets for the final time and hauling the poles back to the Casita. I went back to the four-pole load, but Mauricio was determined to top Pascual and eventually staggered back to the Casita with 12 of them on his shoulder!

Back To Civilization

We were to return to Manglaralto the next day, and the plan was to meet guides with horses for each of us at the bottom of Heartbreak hill at 9:00. We started walking at about 8:00 and I went last and got to the bottom at around 9:20. I don't know anything about horses and figured I'd have a lot better chance of remaining healthy if I just walked.

Vidul came to exactly the same conclusion, so we took off walking while the other people were being loaded onto the horses and we managed to stay ahead of all of them except for Margie for the entire trip. We even had time to bathe at the waterfall on the way out. We saw quite a few birds on the walk out since there were only two of us and we were usually well ahead of the horses, and not making much noise. Of course I brought neither the bird book nor a pair of binoculars, so exact identification was tough, but we saw some nice kingfishers, a toucan of some sort, as well as a bunch of raptors, including a Swallow-tailed kite.

It took us five and a half hours total to walk out at a good clip, and we bathed, chased after crayfish in a stream, and basically lazed about for a half hour, so at a good, but not unreasonable, pace it takes five hours (going down Heartbreak and along the river).

The rest of the trip was uneventful for me, and as far as I know, everybody got safely home. I think Kathleen and Ray may have killed their travel agent when they returned, however.

Ray, Kathleen and I shared the same plane out of Guayaquil which stopped in Panama City on its way to Newark, New Jersey. In Panama City we all changed to a plane headed for Houston. I didn't mind changing planes, but Ray and Kathleen certainly did, since they were trying to get to Newark. Their travel agent arranged for them to get off the direct flight to Newark, go to Houston, and then to change planes again there, finally getting on a Newark-bound flight. They tried to change their travel arrangements in Panama City, but had no luck, so they flew with me to Houston.

First Aid

This trip represented the worst luck (with respect to health) I have ever seen on an Earthwatch expedition. With about three days to go, Margie slipped in the mud, caught herself on her straightened right arm, and managed to break it. Of course we didn't know it was broken, but it sure seemed like it might be, so I got to play doctor and splint it. There was pain, a little swelling, but no discoloration or deformation, so Margie was convinced that it was "just a stress fracture" and insisted on staying, and even on helping out however she could. I would have been out of there. Mauricio and Margie

Mauricio and Margie

Here's a photo of Margie wearing the splint we put on, and Mauricio is standing to her left. The photo is taken inside the upper section of the Casita.

I can't tell for sure, but I think the shiny plastic thing she's holding in her left hand is one of those high-tech inflatable splints that sprung a leak. Luckily, we also had a low-tech aluminum "SAM" splint along (which she's wearing).

I was truly amazed by her great attitude and by how much work she was willing and able to do in spite of the fact that she's right-handed and her right arm was in a splint. When she finally got to Guayaquil and got an xray, the doctor was able to verify that the arm was broken, with four stress fractures, two minor and two not so minor.

After consulting with our "quack" books (the first-aid manuals), we decided to splint the arm straight. We found illustrations of arms splinted both straight and bent, and besides, it was very painful for Margie to try to bend her arm. The doc in Guayaquil said we probably should have bent the arm, but when he bent it to put on the cast, Margie said that it hurt so much that she would never have let me bend it for the splint.

When her arm was hanging down, Margie's arm would swell up, so she tried to prop it up when she could, and sometimes she just held it up in the air making a sort of Nazi salute. I did have a little codeine in my first aid kit, and although she initially didn't want any, I think Margie was fairly pleased that I had some after trying to sleep the first night.

Ray also had a bat to take out of a net, but wasn't so lucky with his as I had been with mine --- he was bitten on the hand while he was trying to get it out of the net. Ray's bite occurred while he was below in the village, so we in the Casita didn't learn about the accident until the next day when the fellow with the supply mules brought up a letter. Although the probability that the bat was rabid is small, Dusty recommended in her return letter that he return to Manglaralto or even to Guayaquil, if necessary, to get the rabies treatment. Ray and Kathleen had to go to Guayaquil for the shots, but were able to get the most modern (French) vaccine there. After the initial shot, you wait two or three days to get the next one, so there was no reason for them to return to the United States, and they were able to join us for dinner on the team's final night in Ecuador. Ray seemed in good spirits.

A couple of days before the end of the trip we were trying to use up the rest of the Casita food which included a bunch of large cans of peaches. The cook put them all into a large, deep frying pan and heated them up together with their syrup, as well as with a little rum. But the handle of the frying pan had worked its way loose, and as it was being carried to the dinner table, the pan twisted relative to the handle, and most of it spilled. Andrea got a big load of very hot syrup in her lap, and Jean got a much smaller amount on her hands.

I've never seen anyone take off her pants as fast as Andrea did (I'll have to remember the hot syrup trick if I ever have to start dating in the future). Luckily there was a 4 liter bottle of water on the table, and all of that was poured into her lap and on her legs within a few seconds of the spill. The result was a small blister of a second degree burn on one finger (probably because she used that hand to pull off her pants), and only first-degree burns on the legs. She claimed it was like a bad sunburn, and it sure could have been worse. Jean's burn was even more minor, so we (and especially Andrea) were extremely lucky.

Finally, on the last night in Manglaralto, Freddy got a bad case of diarrhea. He started a course of antibiotics the next morning, and after a few hours he felt better, but decided to remain behind for a day in Manglaralto rather than to beg for trouble by risking a long ride in a bus without a toilet.

All in all, I was really pleased that I'd bothered to take a course called "Wilderness First-Aid" during the previous year. I sure didn't like making use of the knowledge, but at least I was reasonably confident that we were doing the right thing while we were playing doctor.

I was incredibly lucky and only had a couple of minor problems. On the day from hell when we moved all 20 nets I was so exhausted and soaked with sweat that I started feeling quite chilled, but as soon as I washed and changed to dry clothes, I felt fine. In fact, since I was chilled, I initially put on a "fleece" jacket, but in less than a minute I was too hot and took it off. Then suddenly I had to go to the bathroom and I may have had some minor urinary tract infection because although it really felt like I had to go, nothing much came out, and it burned a bit afterwards. I must have made 20 trips to the bathroom that afternoon with similar results, but I kept drinking tea, and by evening I seemed to be back to normal.

The other problem I had was that I'm apparently quite attractive to females (well, female mosquitos, anyway, which are the ones that do all the biting). I think I had a couple of hundred bites on each hand from the wrist down. My palms were even covered with bites which has never happened before. I was wearing permethrin-impregnated clothes with long-sleeved shirts and that protected the rest of my body fabulously well. I had a small number of bites elsewhere --- probably acquired during showers.

My hands itched like hell, especially at night. I became obscessed with using DEET, although that didn't help much with the bites I already had. I've read somewhere that high doses of some of the B vitamins make you taste bad to mosquitos, and I think I'll try that next time.

Camping Arrangements


The Casita

The Casita is a building that's about 6 meters square and is supported by 9 posts arranged in a 3 by 3 pattern. Underneath there's a dirt floor where we had the cooking, cleaning, and dining area, while above was an area with a wooden floor, a roof overhead, and with walls of split bamboo. It's about 4 or 5 years old and although the main supporting posts are still in good shape, there are a couple of rotten floorboards and the bamboo walls have more than a few gaping holes. But that's how it goes in the jungle.

In the photo of the casita, Dusty and Mauricio are standing near the water barrel.

Most of us slept on the wooden floor above the dining area and it's sort of like a giant slumber party. Dusty and Mark were in a large tent, but the rest of us pitched our various tents on the floor of the Casita and had sleeping bags inside. The tents were to avoid mosquitos and whatever other creatures lived there. Some people had standard backpacking tents and others of us had tents that were basically just a mosquito net.

Everyone was pretty religious about keeping the tents zipped up because it's a real chore to kill all the mosquitos inside if you forget. I also took special care to bang on my boots in the mornings to make sure nothing had crawled in during the night, but in spite of all my care, it just took one mistake to get a centipede as a bedfellow. The night before my pants were still wet, so I had the bright idea of draping them over the top of the tent for the night rather than bringing them to bed with me. The next morning, without thinking, I just unzipped enough to haul in the dry pants and they carried a passenger. Luckily I found it before we got a chance to become better acquainted.

There also seemed to be quite a collection of small scorpions living up there --- Mark found one crawling on the lens barrel of his camera, and Margie found four or five while she was sweeping out the sleeping area (with a broken arm) on the last day. Everybody was reasonably careful, and there were no unfortunate scorpion incidents.

We always had two or three snorers, but most folks were so tired that they'd fall asleep almost instantly. I know I'm one of the guilty parties, but I know I'm not alone, and I can assure you that the problem was not limited to the males.

For some reason, I always had trouble getting to sleep, and that's unusual --- I hardly ever have trouble at home. I didn't even take naps during the day, in spite of how attractive the hammocks were. I'd toss and turn for about an hour every night, no matter how hard I'd worked during the day. I had some Halcion (a sort of sleeping pill that I'd planned to use to sleep on the airplanes), but I used it a bunch of times in the Casita, and even it didn't seem to help much.

Another thing that was strange is that since I was almost eaten alive by mosquitos my hands and sometimes my ankles itched like crazy and I started taking a Benedryl or two (diphenhydramine) in the evenings to alleviate the itch. (For some reason my first aid kit didn't have anything like Lanacaine and had only a tiny amount of cortisone.) Benedryl is supposed to put you to sleep, but it didn't seem to have that (in this case desirable) side effect on me.

The worst night for me was the final night with the first team. Ray brought down a chess set and he and I played a couple of games. Then Freddy showed some interest, so he and I started playing. We decided that standard chess was too boring and took too long so we started playing blitzkrieg, or "lightning" chess. We only played about three games, but by the end, my mind was churning so fast it was impossible to slow it down. I took two Benedryls and two Halcions and was still wide-awake two hours later.

We took turns cooking, and for each meal there were two people responsible. Breakfast was easiest --- basically your job was to make sure there was hot water, and to make sure that snacks were available to take into the field. The only drawback is that you had to get up a quarter hour early.

Lunch and dinner were major meals, and it seemed impossible to make too much food. After seven or eight hours in the field, we all became eating machines that just kept going until all the food was gone. The food was pretty simple --- lots of beans, rice, and potatoes --- but there were vegetables, fruits, and cans of tuna and sardines for protein. We even got a chicken for the New Year's Eve dinner. It started frozen at the bottom of the hill, and was still pretty cold by the time the mules hauled it up. Two chickens would have been a lot better --- one chicken doesn't go far with 10 hungry people.

After the excitement when we spilled the hot peaches on Andrea, people were still hungry enough to eat the "table peaches" although we weren't hungry enough to eat the "ground peaches".

There were a few memorable meals, but I think Ray's creation was the best. He started with a pineapple with the skin peeled off, to which he added "ears" made out of watermelon. Some additional raisins made a sort of face, and the whole thing was decorated with some coconut cookies. He then added a little rum, and tried to set it afire as a sort of flambé. Well, it didn't catch fire, so he added more rum and tried again. It still didn't work, so he used a knife to cut some holes in it so it could soak up even more rum. Finally, he gave up on the flambé idea, but by that time everything was saturated in rum, and it sure tasted good!

We decided that it would be best for the cooks to be responsible for their own cleanup afterwards, and although it made the cooking that much more of a chore, at least you got it all over with at once, and it encouraged the cooks not to make too much of a mess.

Kathleen doing dishes

Kathleen doing dishes

We were always worried about disease (I think I'd prefer 10 broken arms to one case of cholera), so we took fairly strong precautions with the food preparation and clean up. Any fruits or vegetables that were to be eaten raw were first washed in a solution of water containing something called "Vitelin" (that's the little bottle on the left in the photo), which was supposed to kill the major bacterial germs. We washed the dishes in soap and water, and after the wash, each dish was rinsed in a solution containing some chlorine bleach. We then let them air-dry rather than using a possibly infected towel. Even then, we weren't 100% successful --- Freddy got sick, but while he was at the lower site; perhaps they weren't quite so fastidious (or perhaps Freddy wasn't).

At one point, there was a water shortage problem. All the drinking water was hauled up in 5 gallon jugs by mule, and Claude, our supplier below, seemed to think one jug a day was sufficient. That's only about a half-gallon each, and sweating as hard as we were, that's not much water. Besides, if you have to pour a gallon in the lap of anyone who gets a load of peach syrup in her lap, it goes pretty quickly. I also managed to "wash the floor" with about 10 liters of fresh water when I knocked over the main water jug as I was trying to pry a board loose to repair some other damage. We started boiling water for a couple of days until our desperate plea for more water was answered.

Possibly more serious than the water shortage problem was a toilet paper shortage problem that we discovered at the same time. (We "discovered" both problems when the resupply mules failed to bring either water or toilet paper.) As it was, it was pretty close, but if we'd had a single case of diarrhea, it would have been a disaster. Andrea doubled her reading rate so that if worse came to worst, we could use the early pages of the novel she was reading in the latrine. For Andrea, it was a terrible dilemma -- was it worse to run out of toilet paper or reading material?


Since my favorite thing to do was untangle birds, whenever possible I tried to arrange to be out patrolling the nets and not in the banding station. The result, of course, is that a lot of birds that came through that I didn't get a look at.

I usually left my camera at the station, and made it clear that anyone who felt like it was welcome to snap off a couple of shots of anything that looked interesting. Mark and Ray both did so for me. It's hard to recall exactly what birds I photographed, but it doesn't look like they took any photos of birds I didn't see myself.



The "best" bird we got was an owl, and as I write this, we're still not sure of the species. It's genus is surely Otus, but it might be any of three or four species. Luckily, Yuri (as we called him) is now one of the most photographed birds in Ecuador, and with all the photos and videotape it shouldn't be hard for Dusty to find an expert to help figure out Yuri's species.

Pascual and I found Yuri in our net and one look at the beak convinced me that untangling him might be more than a Zen exercise and that it would be far better for Pascual to do it. In other words, I chickened out.

But Yuri was extremely docile, and after we finished with him at the banding station, he just stood there on the ground for a half-hour or so before he finally decided it was time to leave.

Sometimes the birds got a little more stressed than we liked, especially when the banders were behind, and the birds had to wait in the bags for a long time. That's particularly hard on hummingbirds which are tiny anyway. Sometimes when we were finished measuring them, they would not fly away, but would just sit in your hand until they warmed up.

Mark particularly liked the job of hummingbird resuscitation, where he'd hold the bird in his hands until it warmed up, freeing the bird bander to get to work on the next bird. Mark also mixed up a batch of sugar water to make a miniature hummingbird feeder, and many of them chowed down quite a bit of it before flying off. He claimed it was the best job in the world.

Mark spent a huge amount of time working on bird songs --- he seemed to be particularly good at remembering them, and he recorded as many as he could, and practiced with various tapes of calls he'd brought down with him. I seem to have almost zero ability in that department.

The main difference between this expedition and the one two years previously was the amount of electronics at the Casita. Mark is a hardware junkie, so there were two laptop computers, various tape recorders, and a huge lead-acid battery to keep everything running. I maintained a perfect record of not even touching a computer while I was there. All the data was entered at the end of each day, usually by Andrea who did it because Dusty agreed to take over her cooking responsibilities in exchange.

We had two more bird visitors to the Casita that were very interesting --- a pair of Double-toothed kites were building a nest almost directly overhead, and you could watch them from the hammocks.


In addition to the birds, there were plenty of other animals around to entertain us. We heard howler monkeys every day, and almost every day we saw them climbing around in the trees very near the Casita. We spent quite a bit of time watching them --- Dusty knew a lot about them, having researched them a few years earlier in Curú in Costa Rica, where she had led a howler Earthwatch project and first met Kathleen and Ray.

When there were howlers in the nearby trees, you had to exercise a bit of caution because of the amazing amount of shit and piss that rained from the skies when they were around. But overall it was wonderful to have them as companions and to be able to watch their antics nearly every day. I might have a different attitude if they had done more howling at night, but they seemed to keep to their curfew pretty well and it was never due to their howling that I was unable to sleep.

One night during dinner we heard what sounded like howler shit raining down from a tree, but that seemed unusual, since shit showers usually occurred during the day. It turned out to be peels from a guayaba fruit coming down, thanks to a kinkajou. I hope we didn't blind it due to the number of flashlights that we shined up into the canopy to take a better look. We did get a pretty good view, however.

Other mammals included a bunch of squirrels, and Andrea saw an anteater. We saw tracks of an armadillo once, and of course there were the bats ...

Snakes, of course, worried people the most. There are some pretty poisonous snakes there --- the Fer de lance, for example --- but I don't think anyone got a positive ID on one. I saw three or four small (less than 30 cm) snakes slithering off into the bushes, but they all looked like they were coloubrid types. Others in the group saw some larger examples.

There were plenty of interesting insects and spiders as well, but nothing totally mind-boggling. I was not pleased, one afternoon, to find that somebody had failed to clean the honey jar and it was being swarmed by a bunch of honey bees. According to everything I'd read, they were almost surely the Africanized "killer bees". As soon as the jar was clear of bees, I snatched it and gave it a thorough washing.

Dusty Relaxing

Dusty Relaxing

All in all, it was a great trip --- we saw lots of wildlife, caught lots of birds, and had plenty of adventures to tell about afterwards. I hope Dusty got all the data she wanted.