Where the Tinamous Sing
On Feb 29th,1832 Darwin got to walk in the Brazilian rain forests for the first time in his life. By that time he had been a naturalist for many years. After that Darwin loved the rainforests deeply and returned reflectively to them for the rest of his life, reliving his long adventure in youth that he converted into the masterful book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle.’ He never physically returned there. Though his descriptions later sounded like longing. He romped and shot through that lovely book, through those woods. I had never been to any rain forests until now. I mostly walked instead of romped when I was there, though I was not often alone. I shot things with a modern camera device that Darwin would be astonished by. Oh, and my mouth hung open a lot. Though nothing of consequence ever flew inside.
The city of San Jose Costa Rica is no preparation for rain forests. It is bustling and bus-filled. Apparently the expansion of public transportation is in high gear. And the air is still clear. They are ahead of us in some of their limitations on pollution, with inspections and regulations and such. Small autos abound, zipping skillfully among the lumbering Mercedes buses, Volvo buses, buses of unknown heritage and design, buses of limited longevity and buses of shining testament to tourism. The roadway infrastructure seems maintained and secure. Speed limits are mostly painted on the surface of the road, saving money on signposts. The powerline structures are positively scary. Looking like tangled metal and stripped wire pasted and spliced and warped into semblances of phone poles and sagging power grids. Just looking through the windows my hair seemed to stand on end. I expect to see the burnt frames of quick-roasted birds piling up on the streets below the wires. But I see no such thing.
Strange birds flit in strange trees everywhere. Even in the city. It is the end of the dry season and the trees are in heavy flower all over town. We do not know their names. Except for the tall trunks standing rank and rank in the park across the street from our hotel. They are Rainbow Eucalyptus trees and I know they are not native to this countryside. They are a fine choice for planted trees however, the bark is long strippings of bright contrasting color. I think they come from Australia and Norm tells me all Eucalyptus trees come from Australia. His period sounding like “you dunce.” The trunks shoot far up into greenery that shifts nicely in the light. Schoolchildren and parrots call in different directions. Young lovers spoon in the shadows of hummingbirds. The genetic cousin of a mimosa sprays aromas across the field where Kiskadees and Tropical Kingbirds track. Strange butterflies pause on the leaves at my feet. Even the dead leaves are different. I live for this kind of otherworldliness. I am in the land of nameless things. Well, except for the birds. We studied those.
Signposts in Spanish. Cheryl stands against a background of layered traffic and looks up at a warbler. The schoolgirls wave. Something about Coke. Something about beer. Costa Rican beer, by the way, is descended somehow from German brewing skills. Even the labels look German. So this stuff is not pounded out from roots and leaves. It is well refined. I am proud for Costa Rica. Their air is clear. Their beer is tasty. Their schoolchildren wear white uniforms under bell towers full of parrots.
The driver of the van that will take us to rain forests is prompt and speaks excellent English. Just being the one who will take me to rain forests for the first time makes me want to give him a hug and lift him into the air. It could make him nervous however, so I refrain and just shake his hand. He has never been to the U.S. He has children and lives right here in this blooming, luscious city. I am not sure he understands his own luck. I tell him the city is beautiful. He nods. The bags are stowed. The van is an underpowered Toyota but I like it just the same. We all climb in. It is taking us to Darwin’s country.
The place where the road gives way to mists draped over jungle is relatively close. We are edging through tangles of cars and roadside venders, men selling sunglasses from racks on the run, women dangling plantain phalluses on sticks and then we are suddenly in green leafiness. The city was crawling with humans in places. Below the road to my right in the parklands there can be no walking, if there are humans down there then they are made of shattered bone. The steepness is stupefying. It is obviously what kept the place intact so long. Waterfalls launch out there into exaggeration and vapor. They fall from streambeds to just white plunges of humidity, spackled moisture on one more section of canyonland trees. After this: tunnels of greenery. Tree ferns and leaves the size of tent tops. Bird calls echo and bounce around inside some familiarity that I did not create. I look for the lift of strange eagles.
We cross a bridge that spans a great rocky waterway. Two rivers converge, one yellow, one clear. I think they are named the yellow and the clear rivers, in Spanish. One is lucia, the other, I forget. We are over and off, the river like a retinal impression, to more green and then we are falling into a valley of palms and coffee plants. The world seems excessively flat after all that rumpled highland of wild. The mountains we were just inside are plunged up into the cloudcover to the south. We have fallen from grace in our underpowered Toyota.
And then we are there.
Two gates and the road ends in reception buildings and the guest houses tucked under trees. From that moment on, strange birds are in the air. Strange lizards and frogs. Strange insects. We have arrived in the ultimate otherworldly. La Selva Biological station, Costa Rica.
Dr. Leslie Holdridge, God bless him, was the one who started the whole La Selva thing, selling 5 or 6 hundred hectares of mostly primary rain forest to the fledgling Organization for Tropical Studies. I think they gave six thousand dollars for it or something like that. What a damn bargain. He bought it in 1953 when rain forest land was already rapidly vanishing. He tried some experiments with sustainable forest crops, trying to create money-making methods of raising crops without leveling all the forests. He didn’t have much success. Though the attraction of the forest preserve itself now makes money in a manner of speaking. It has expanded by chunks to its current form. Over four thousand acres now, centered on the original forest section and blending southward into rumpled elevations that lead on to the higher volcanic slopes of the park to the south. La Selva is in the northeastern part of the country on the Caribbean slopes.
Hummingbirds zing. At home we have one species, here they have 25, just in this one area. Their wing noises vary, their chatter varies, the speed of their motion varies. One that is a brilliant green with blue reflections and a red tail is the most common. It is forever around the main open areas. We always look. A large purple-bloomed bush in the center of things attracts all manner of winged things including these. A Scarlet-rumped Tanager sits in her nest there. This is the other everywhere-bird, a dazzling looking blackbird with a rump so bright he shows it off to frighten the neighbors. We are not frightened. We stop and stare. At one point a huge lizard and its huge lizard partner, a Striped Basilisk pair pop out of the bush. They do some sexual positioning on the ground. The male is a dragon headed thing, in browns and yellows. There is another Basilisk around that is brilliant green, veiled and finned like a dinosaur. This Striped female lurches back up into the bush and the tanager will have none of it. He knocks her to the ground. One could sit in a lawn chair in front of this one bush and enjoy the long day.
From the suspension bridge, things are never the same. A Caiman basks. Kingfishers of various kinds seem to appear and disappear on different days. Some green, some blue. Great long fish swim against the current in the clear water that looks three or four feet deep. We learn that these are like many of the fish here: they eat fruit. They often wait in the water under the best fruiting trees. I am on the bridge when a curly haired woman approaches with a handful of wild guava. “Now here comes a fish fan,” I say. She smiles and says, “I love these fish.” She tosses the fruit one at a time into the water and these huge fish launch themselves into the air. The lucky fruit catcher thrashes and cuts wildly in the river, shoved and banged on all sides by the other hungry neighbors. You can often see the yellow fruits shooting around under the water for ten or fifteen seconds after they are tossed. She watches every event and walks back toward the main area. I learn later from her picture she is the director of the whole place.
In the deep woods we gape a lot. The plant life is richer than Darwin even mentioned. Every green branch has more green life on it and some of that green life has its own green life. Even the fenceposts have come back to life. Fruits and flowers break out in yellows and oranges and reds inside other greenery. A fallen branch from one of the tall Kapok trees looks like its own small world of life. These are the trees that stretch 200 300 400 feet above us with the huge buttressed trunks gone all mossy and decorated with age. Each one commands a full stop and some leaning attention. High in many of them, the Oropendolas play and feed. Making that singular, gyrating, cranky, buzzing wind-up noise they make which is literally indescribable beyond what I just tried. I think I will hear it now for good and forever. There is a tree full of the great pendant nests on the grounds of the research field. Crow-sized birds, they seem to be the busybody replacements for crows here in the lowland rain forests. In one memorable event I saw two locked together by the beak and thrashing each other in freefall almost to the ground. They broke and came back up where two others were hurrying along a branch. They all fought and pelted each other until the one bird got what everyone was after: a beak full of bird eggs out of some unknown nest aside a bromeliad. He scarfed them like the bird under pressure that he was.
The noises of the rain forest are as new a landscape as the visuals. In the shade of the woods the insects make noises even during the day. We assumed many of the loudest sounds were large species of katydid and we saw a few extreme katys but could not hear them singing directly. We just called them the Car Alarm Katydid, the Siren Katydid, the Star Wars Katydid by the very loud noises they generated. This was along with the other noises of crickets and frogs. The other noises of things undefined (lions and tigers and bears, oh my). At night the sound was just a tremendous disassociated din. It became the white noise in our sleeping, along with rain on the rooftops. And there was the bird noise of course.
For months before our wandering into the Costa Rican forests we had the songs on the computer of hundreds of the birds there (La Selva’s list has over 400 birds). So there were many of them we had heard. We were supposed to know them. This does not mean you could instantly sort them out. But you could classify the possibilities much more efficiently than if everything was unknown and unexpected. Quite a few we quickly learned just from repeated exposure. The lovely Motmots called all the time. The Oropendolas as I mentioned, the second species of which is much shyer and prefers the deeper woods. The noises it makes were alien and liquid. Several of the Trogons were chatty as were the Short-billed Pigeons which one could term incessant with their “who cooks for you,” song. Some birds became background noise. But for me there was a singular exception in three of the calls. All from the same bird family: the Tinamidae.
The Tinamous are birds of the New World and there are 46 species which range from Mexico to the tip of South America. They are ground loving birds. And they are generally forest lovers. When the forests go, they go. At least in the Central American sections. Apparently there are some savannah lovers as you go towards the southern point of South America. Costa Rica has five species of Tinamou. Three species inhabit La Selva’s forests. The other two are highland birds. This is one of those bird groups that birders want to see because they are elusive, though, in the rich habitats of Costa Rica, they are not that uncommon. At La Selva, when the sun started to go down the Tinamous called. Around the living area the calls were mostly the Great Tinamou. This call from close range is extraordinary. A rising vibrato of thrumming whistles is the best I can do. They can sound like they are right on top of you. And most of the birds in this group have a ventriloquist’s skill. I never saw one making the sound. I heard one make a short noise of alert and I heard one make a continuous singing whir as it flew off away from my suddenly opened umbrella.
The Slaty-breasted Tinamou is the middle sized bird of the La Selva trio. It is grayer bodied and has bright red legs. We heard them mostly on the west side along the river trail in the secondary growth forests. And the call is one of the most mournful sounding noises in nature that I have encountered. It beats the Roadrunner for serious “oh, the weary world” sound. The ones I heard were two noted birds. Stiles calls it a ‘deep hollow resonant whistle.’ If you make a whistle with vibrato and slur it downward in imitation they call back and call back. I spoke to two birds for a good ten minutes. This is now my current record for speaking to a bird. I had a few minutes tops with Roadrunners before. And a few back and forth responses with Barred Owls and Bobwhite. This sound of the Slaty-breast is a dreamy pleasure that I could learn to miss. Made me want to hear all the Tinamou noises from one end of the continent to the other.
Bo and I tried to penetrate deep into the primary forests to see what was what in these real woods. Not many places in the world where there are accessible trails into true lowland rainforest. Once you are in the tallest and richest woods there, with creeks flowing and the Chestnut-headed Oropendolas gurgling and scrabbling, the birds mostly tend to thin out. Here and there an antbird will call. Ochre-bellied Flycatchers seem to talk out there in the netherworld. We watched for other things. Mammals and snakes and such. One mammal group in particular we watched for. And in one great thrash of branches on the primary woodland trails we found one of them.
We could hear small purring noises, like questioning barks. I couldn’t be sure they weren’t using these to keep the members of the group on each other’s radar. There seemed to be quite a few of them up in the trees. We kept trying to get a better look and then one launched across a 30 foot space and grabbed a palm frond, then walked up a branch into the midst of some red berries. With a full frontal view we could see the face and markings of the White-throated Capuchin.
Only about 50 of the world’s monkey species occur in the New world. Four species occur in Costa Rica and three of these are in La Selva. The Howler monkeys are spread out in most areas of the station. They tend to be human tolerant and were constantly in the trees around the river when we were there. Family groups mostly. They were responsible for one of the great noises of the Costa Rican forests. One of the loudest sounds in nature supposedly. Great booming howls or woofs that would ring out in early morning and occasionally at night. If they were close to you, you paid attention. They are kind of the brutes of the local monkeys. And the much smaller spider monkeys completely avoid them. The quaint fact about Howlers that visitors should know is that, according to Mr. Wainwright, my favorite mammal writer for the area, “…frequently indifferent, Howlers are sometimes irked or scared by people, and they like to express such emotions by urinating or defecating on their observers, often with startling accuracy.” My staff at home all secretly hoped I would experience that jungle event.
Capuchins on the other hand were apparently very intelligent monkeys. Not to take anything from the somewhat lethargic, leaf-browsing Howlers, these monkeys we saw were positively energetic and alert. The difference between fruit eaters and leaf eaters I suppose. You would think that in the rain forests leaf feeders would abound. But leaves are a tough food, heavy on fiber and toxins. The youngster Capuchin that leapt across the space behind the others as we watched made a definite point of coming down a bit closer and staring right at us as if to make sure we were real and in our place. I couldn’t help thinking it was young enough that it had never seen other humans. Its face showed some quick signs of disbelief. Perhaps a little horror. Perhaps a slight hint of disdain. Seemed about right.
Several individuals later, a larger Capuchin climbed across and came down closer. He grabbed some big vines and positively rattled them, shaking some leaves loose. We could tell up close that he was older and sage. Obviously in charge of the threat posturing. We took him at his word and moved on, astonished at the first monkeys we had truly interacted with in the woods.
Many things astonished in the rain forest. The first Toucan. Which we all gawked at like children. The first Blue Morpho. The second Blue Morpho. The third Blue Morpho. Baby Agoutis popping out of a hollow log. The night time pose of the large and stoic Smoky Jungle Frogs. A female Great Currasow that ran down the trail at us then ducked into the woods, then came out and ducked back and came out one more time, all the while examining us with that stunning hairdo of hers and giving these short little exclamatory purrs at us. At another walk, in the sudden dense rain, the one that surprised us after several absolutely dry days, surprised us out there in the far forest of steep slopes and shadow and root tangle, the boggy patches of sucking mud, we were crossing a very tricky section and dripping, dripping and panting. Bo was actually leaning on a trail marker with his sock foot in the air and reaching down into the mud where his calf-high boot was completely gone out of sight. I was inspecting a tree trunk sized vine for stray bullet ants before holding onto it to make a circular swing around my own succulent patch of muck when a huge butterfly landed about six inches from my nose. It was one of the Owl Butterflies. Massive things, bigger than most bats. This was the species with purples and goldens on the inside. It sat there flashing its wing-eyes at me and I reached up behind it and took it in my hand. Pictures do not do it justice. I forgot about the rain for a bit. Bo reached some final rearrangement in his boots and socks that stayed. I can see that trail when I close my eyes.
Like many naturalists I guess, I get maudlin and quiet sometimes when I have to leave such places, even after our generous week in the place, where we were so free to wander as we pleased. At the end, you walk around somewhat dazed, your bags packed up, still trying to see what you had not noticed before. The bird calls coming with some sort of familiarity. Along the road out the Little Tinamous sang. They are higher and not quite as vibrato as the Greats, but they still make you stop and listen, pucker your lips and Tinamou right back at them. We saw several run across the open trail near the road there. They are like big tailless quail, hurrying out of the light.
On the ride back I ask the driver to stop at that great crossing of the yellow and clear rivers that we zoomed over on the way there. He pulls off on the far side, all the traffic headed opposite us toward holidays on the beaches for Easter weekend. The city, he tells us, will be empty and quiet while everyone is gone. He relishes the thought. I walk out on the concrete bridge that looks as though it was made by some of the same guys that made the telephone lines back in town. On the span itself, the bridge bounces what seems like ten or more inches up and down with each traffic crossing. Norm thinks this is why there are no swallows nesting on the bridge. A few honk at the crazy American on the bridge with binoculars. It is quite a ride. A Toucan calls on the far shore. Something else strange and unknown sings above the river, which is far enough down I don’t think I hear it. The water roaring down to where we have been already. The green hills shed mist above us.
The driver is proud of his country. And he hands me a large format book of many of the birds of Costa Rica while we ride back. He seems to know many of them. And he has Spanish names for the blooming trees we see. I ask him if he has been to the United States and he shakes his head. He wants to go to New York City some day. He wants to see one of the gleaming cities that he has seen on television and in the magazines. We can’t have those buildings in San Jose, he tells me, too many earthquakes. The tallest building in San Jose is twenty stories tall. It is a bank building. I think I have seen trees at least that tall this week. But I do hope it for him, his city dream. I hope he gets to go and wander in the streets. Perhaps his astonishment will be the same as mine inside the rain forests, the world of displaced humans emotionally akin. I know he does not look out the window at the forests on the way back. He does point out the soccer stadium and he smiles. And I recall that after the third or fourth toucan, I didn’t stare at them anymore. At the large windows of the airport I look for just one more tarmac toucan out there though. But it is just pigeons aflutter, a tilting vulture and distant mountains that are what I need already again. Already again. I feel like a damn junky. And we are all out of smack. Or jive. Or horse. Or whatever they are calling it now. I second Darwin’s urge to the tropics. Purple-crowned Fairies, Rufus Motmots and Tinamous: it sounds like Tolkien made them up.
Though I have them now for good. As indelible as these things can be in a forgetful human head.