Posted by: Eric | 20 Dec 2011, 8:34 am

It is done.

Well, I’m back.

After a surprisingly pleasant, easy, and uneventful pair of flights between Rio de Janeiro and Denver, I returned to Colorado on December 15th thus concluding 11 1/2 months in South America. I was picked up at the airport by a good friend and was brought back to Fort Collins to reunite with my truck and the storage locker that has all my other stuff (which feels a lot more burdensome now than it did a year ago – but more on that later). The weather was nice on my return, although unmistakeably different and a clear reminder that my neotropical travels are over.

I departed from Ipanema around quarter to 5 in the afternoon by taking the direct bus from the zona sul to the Galeão International Airport. The bus cost R$9 (~US$5), in contrast to what would have been a R$60 direct transfer in a taxi ($40). Even at the very end, I was finding ways to be economical and doing things how I wanted. It took over an hour and half to make it to the airport, but time is something I had plenty of, and the bus ride gave me a chance to see as much of Rio and get my last real views of South America before I left. The bus drove along the main avenues adjacent to both Ipanema and Copacabana beaches before going by Sugarloaf Mountain, downtown and then heading north to the airport. A hard rain fell as the bus made its way out of the city, falling like a curtain that was signaling that the show was over and it was time to go home. At the airport, I encountered something I’d seen so little of the past few months – other Americans, all waiting to check in for the flight that I was taking. Somehow, in all my time in Brazil, I’d seen very few Americans in all, not even at the nature reserves where I worked. It was peculiar to once again hear that Texas drawl (most of them that I saw and heard were Houstonians there for work apparently), but a clear sign again that I was really leaving, and returning to a culture that maybe I wasn’t as familiar or comfortable with as I’ve been thinking I was the past few months.

I had a window seat on the widebody flight, in 34L. The seat paired with mine was empty on the flight, surprising given how full the flight was otherwise. This meant that I had the whole row to myself, and you can bet I was pretty happy about that. I spread out my stuff and my legs to get comfy for the 10-hour flight to Houston. We took off just before 11pm and during the night we had a fairly bright waning gibbous moon illuminating the cloud deck below. The GPS on the in-flight TV monitor showed our path northwestward, and we made a beeline over the bulk of Brazil. It took our plane well over 5 hours to cross the breadth of the country, which should give you an idea of how big Brazil really is. During that flight, we actually passed very close to the Cristalino lodge where I volunteered for nearly 2 months. It was cloudy, and even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have seen any of it anyway for it would have been pitch dark below, but just knowing that it was there was a comforting thought. I felt honored and proud to now be associated with that place, despite all the angst I endured while I was there. It is the forest that I love, and I just know that I will go back there someday to once again be a guide for visitors and be in the thrall of it. Flying over it and bidding it farewell for now was poetic, at least for me.

I slept periodically during the long red-eye flight, but most of the time I reflected on where I had gone, what I had done, who I had met, and what happened to me in the course of the year. I felt fulfilled in just the way I had dreamed I might be, but not in a gloating way, but just in a peacefully accepting way. A quiet way, like I had proven what I needed to prove to myself, and that it was enough.

We arrived in Houston at 5am, and we efficiently made our way through the quiet airport to Immigration, where I encountered my first English-speaking border official in a year. Strangely I felt like I was not going to understand what he was going to ask me so I rehearsed a couple responses in my head. In the airport while I waited for my flight to Colorado, I rediscovered the bagel – a breakfast food that I had completely forgotten about. I found myself gawking at the Einstein Bros. counter and taking in the savory smells. I could hardly believe I had not even thought of bagels for so long, and it felt like a foreshadowing of what I was going to be experiencing on my return to the States in the next several days and weeks. I’d been thinking that after being in Brazil that I wouldn’t experience all that much culture shock given the level of development and advancement there, but maybe it’s going to be more than I realized after all.

Since I’ve been back I’ve gotten my new phone, my truck, some fresh cottony clothes to wear for the first time in a year, begun my apartment search (with a deal that closes later today), gone out to eat with friends, and prepared to head to Kansas City to spend the holidays. There is a sense of normalcy in the things I’ve been doing as I return to life here, but it doesn’t really feel like normalcy all the same. And I’m glad for that, because I don’t want this experience here to be the same as it was, and I know that it won’t be. I have learned too much about the world I want to be involved in, about the role I want to play and the dreams I now realize I have, to go through the kinds of motions I used to and do so with the same misgivings or doubts I once had.

But more about that storage locker. I had pondered the strangeness of my situation months ago, knowing that all my material possessions were boxed and holed up in a storage unit thousands of miles away. By most standards I was essentially a homeless person, although I had plenty of places to stay and things to do. South America was my home, and I was happy with that. I was traveling light – well, relatively anyway, carrying about 50 lbs worth of stuff with me. Even that at times felt bulky and excessive, but I could not see how I could do with any less than that on my person. Now that I’ve returned and I can see my storage unit again, I see how, well, wealthy I am in a material sense. On my back now it’s not just fifty pounds but perhaps fifteen hundred pounds. A bed, a couch, books, shelves, musical instruments, a teevee, a stereo…I had long considered all this to be essential for my North American life. And it probably still is – that is, it’s essential if I am going to be a participant and contributor to the society that I know and have been educated on how to be involved in. But after that year of traveling with only what I could carry in my hands and on my back, I see an absurdity to this that I didn’t see before. I don’t say this to imply that I am on the verge of selling all of it and living as a hermit in the hills. No – rather, all I am saying, at least right now, is that I am just acknowledging the absurdity of it but will continue to embrace it. But me embracing it doesn’t make it any less absurd.

Ipanema during my last evening in South America.

Ipanema during my 347th and final evening in South America.

There are still a couple more things I want to write about here, mostly about the countries of Peru and Brazil. I never really summarized my thoughts and feelings about these places, and I want to do that before shuttering this blog. In the meantime, I have created a new blog which I will be using starting now to share my thoughts and ideas on life going forward, post-Neotropical. I will announce it officially in the next day or so.

Posted by: Eric | 13 Dec 2011, 7:06 pm

The Neotropical Index

Today was the last full day of my South American odyssey.

I had a hard time writing that sentence. It doesn’t quiet seem real to me yet that it is just about over, and that I will be heading back to North America, Colorado, and Fort Collins in less than 24 hours. I may even be back there by the time you read this. Everything I’ve written here, and a great many things that I’ve not written about, all have happened since January 1, and now that we’re just two weeks or so away from the next January 1, I guess it’s time to summarize things a bit, reflect a bit more on what happened, and try to grasp the totality of it.

With friends from Reserva Guapi Açu – clockwise from me, Raquel Locke, Stephan (volunteer, partially hidden), Nicholas Locke, Adelei (bird guide), Helen (lodge host), and Steve Brookes (lodge guest), Nov 29 2011

For starters, I thought it might be interesting to compile a Neotropical Index, modeled on the famous Harper’s Index, to apply some numbers and quantify what the year has been. Bear in mind that some of these numbers are just estimates, but everything should be correct to within an order of magnitude.

  • 348: the total number of days that I traveled
  • 4: number of countries visited since Jan 1
  • 292,000,000: combined population of all those countries
  • 3: land border crossings made
  • 2: number of countries I was in during their independence day celebrations
  • 28: number of cities or appreciably sized towns that I stayed in
  • 1: number of city parades I was invited to join while in progress
  • 31: the span in degrees latitude of all the places I went to in South America this year.
  • 48: approximate span in degrees longitude
  • 19,340: the highest elevation in feet I stood upon (summit of Vulcán Cotopaxi)
  • 19.5: number of weeks spent actually living in lowland Amazonian rainforest
  • 3: pairs of underwear worn all year
  • 50: weight in pounds of everything I carried with me
  • 3: separate packages of miscellanea shipped to my sister from April to July
  • 1,208: estimate of number of species of birds identified
  • ~450: number of bird species I made sound recordings for.
  • 12: number of monkey species seen
  • 4: total number of separate collared tamanduas (anteaters) photographed
  • 12,000: total number of photographs currently stored on my memory cards
  • 59.5: elapsed time in hours of all the sound recordings made from Jan 26 to Dec 9
  • ~150: number of trees planted in agroforestry plantations in Peru
  • 1: number of ATM cards lost and then successfully replaced
  • 97: hottest temperature in degrees F (at Cristalino in September)
  • 1: total number of people I encountered in 2011 who I had met before 2011
  • 11,200: pageviews on this blog as of a few moments ago

Well, that’s probably a good start.

There were several occasions this year, even recently, where friends and acquaintances have asked me if I was having or had “the time of my life”. Now I can’t just give a straight answer to a seemingly innocuous question. No, I have to parse it to death. Was this year “the time of my life”?

Amazon Tree Boa, at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge

This year in South America was designed to accomplish many things all at once – it was very ambitious, especially for me. I had no idea how much I was actually going to accomplish or how I would feel at the end, and there was even question in my mind before I left whether I would even survive the year. I had no idea how I was going to react to everything that I thought could happen. I did imagine a year where I grew personally and outgrew so many of the things that have held me back in my life – the dependencies on other people, the doubts I’ve had in my own capability, fear of failure, reflexive reactions, and disconnectedness from my own values. But I didn’t really know what it would look like to be past all that when it finally happened.

Looking back at things since early November, I see now that leaving Cristalino was really the time when I emerged as a new person with a new outlook. I certainly have had to put some things together in my self-concept since then, but I now see Cristalino as the chrysalis where I underwent a very painful self-examination under the most challenging circumstances. Sure, I wasn’t being detained against my will, but that’s actually part of the point – I had the opportunity to leave, but I also knew that if I ever wanted to stop being the same miserable person I had been for so much of my life, I had to stay and stick it out. I was confronted directly with everything there that represented the things that get under my skin – kinda spooky now that I realize it. It was my desire for self-improvement that made me stay the course though, even as that course itself had an uncertain outcome. Thus, Cristalino served as the microcosm of my South America journey as a whole.

Kicking back on Praia Vermelha do Sul, near Ubatuba, southeastern Brazil (Nov 30 2011)

So in that sense yes, it was the “time of my life”. A yearlong party it most definitely wasn’t. But I regret nothing about it. It had to happen before life could go on. And now that it has happened, I am very ready to return to Colorado and reconstruct the life I had carefully deconstructed a year ago.

How do I know this? This may sound funny – it certainly feels funny to type this, but frankly I’m ready to party my ass off. That is not a sentiment I’ve had at all this year. I’ve been carrying so much serious, so much heavy, so much contemplation and aloofness with me, that I started to wonder if that was an indelible part of my persona. I hate thinking that I am just this unfun, serious and humorless person, but that is how I have been for much of this year. Well, I needed to be – there was a lot of shit to work through. But the past couple weeks at REGUA, and especially the past few days here in Rio, I have felt joyous and optimistic in a way I have not been since…hell I don’t know. It feels new. And that’s how it always should feel.

The view west from the top of the cable car route on Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açucar), Rio de Janeiro (Dec 12, 2011)

My flight gets in to Denver around 10:30am on Thursday. I’m getting picked up by a very good friend and should be back in Fort Collins by midday. At that point, the odyssey is truly complete, and a new one begins.

Just as a teaser, I’ll be starting a new blog not long after I return. That blog will be more about the new journey (the metaphorical one) that I start on Dec. 15th. Neotropical will soon fade away, but do look for at least one more posting here where I announce the new name and address. Oh, and I’ll see if I can write up some summaries of my impressions of both Peru and Brazil – those belong here as well.

Sunset on Ipanema

Posted by: Eric | 10 Dec 2011, 1:51 pm

The end of an era

Several hours ago at Reserva Guapi Açu I packed up my belongings and started walking out to the road that connects to the outside world, to wait for the bus that would take me to the nearby town of Cachoeiras do Macacu, and then a bus to Rio de Janeiro. Before I made it to the road, Raquel Locke, co-manager of the Guapi Açu Bird Lodge and the entire reserve, drove up looking for me, to see me off. She joined me and walked me to the front gate, where we talked for about 20 minutes before the bus arrived.

She thanked me for coming and said that I was welcome to come back anytime. I told her that I had a great time there, and that I really loved everything about the reserve – the landscape of course, but also the motivation behind the reserve’s creation, the energy that goes into protecting it, and the amazing birds that inhabit the Mata Atlantica. It was really a beautiful moment, and as Raquel starting talking in her characteristically rapid but clear Argentinian accent, I just marveled at where I was, at who I was talking with, at how far I had come, and how much love I felt for all that surrounded me. She stressed again that I can come back anytime and that she would love to have me as a lodge host, to help guide and direct visiting English-speaking guests. I immediately started calculating in my mind how soon that could actually happen. It probably won’t be for a while, but it’s hard to say – I have no idea how this or any of my experiences this year will gestate in my mind, or in my heart.

Raquel Locke and me out by the veranda of the Guapi Açu Lodge.

This year I volunteered at four main locations – the Yachana Reserve in Ecuador, the Manu Learning Center in Peru, the Cristalino Jungle Lodge in southern Amazonian Brazil, and of course Reserva Guapi Açu north of Rio. Raquel actually asked me at one point where my best experience was this year, assuming the answer would be Cristalino. I had to explain to her that for me it was the journey itself, from start to end, and that I can’t really pick any particular place as my favorite. All were so instrumental into making me the person I am now becoming, although for her sake I did stress that REGUA was one of the first places I had arranged to be a volunteer, and the last place for me to visit. In a way REGUA has been a set of bookends for my odyssey, beginning as a dream in my mind way back in spring 2010, and finishing only a few hours ago.

Working near Salvación, with the crew from CREES at the Manu Learning Center in southeastern Peru

And with that, I am now on the verge of finishing the odyssey outright. I arrived in Rio around 2pm, after an easy bus ride back. Once in Rio, I got on a bus/subway connector that took me practically to the doorstep of my hostel here in the heart of Ipanema. The whole thing only cost me R$23 (~$14), to go from the reserve a hundred miles away to one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the world. I’ll be here in Rio until mid-day Wednesday before leaving for the airport, and taking a 10-hour winter-migration flight to the northern hemisphere.

After checking the butterfly traps at the Yachana Reserve, in the Ecuadorian Amazon last February

But before that happens, I will be taking a few days off here as Rio launches into summer, doing very little I hope in the meantime; some blogging (!), some beach time, a little Xmas shopping, a little trip up to Sugarloaf Mountain (weather permitting – it’s a bit cloudy and drizzly today). I want to revel a bit in the thought of what I have done, to marvel at the scope of my own ambition and daydream a while. I want to look around at yet another miraculous location that I have had the courage to make my way to unassisted. I will also give myself time to fully recognize that this city marks the end of an era, where I put my time and money where my mouth was, and volunteered to help the birds where they live. I confronted my greatest insecurities and began a process of long-overdue maturation. In this year of exploration I have opened myself up to the world, and in return a whole continent has opened itself up to me. I keep saying that I can’t describe how much this means to me, of how long I dreamt of having this ability, of having this whole reservoir of experiences that I can now draw from for the rest of my life. But it’s the theme of the moment, so let me celebrate, let me take it all in while I’m still here, just a few days more. Soon enough I will come back, ready to take on the next monumental set of challenges. But today, and the next few days – this belongs to me. This is my victory lap. I’ve waited decades for something like this, and finally it is here.

I’ll blog once more before I leave, to provide a final assessment and summary of my thoughts and feelings. Until then, please tip a glass of your favorite beverage to me, as I will be doing to you. Saúde!

Nicholas and Raquel Locke, me, and Rick Simpson and Lise Simpson - celebrating a great day of birding in Ubatuba, Brazil, just a week ago.

Posted by: Eric | 5 Dec 2011, 5:05 pm

Every siren is a symphony

In less than 2 weeks I will be boarding a plane in Rio and heading back to the US. Although I am still here at Reserva Guapi Açu I have already begun some preparations for my return. It hasn’t been hard, straddling the distance between here and home either electronically, or in the metaphorical, psychological sense. And in thinking about what I am already starting to do, I thought I might expound a bit more on that in this post, to flesh out a few stray thoughts I’ve been having. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve engaged in this much navel-gazing, so I figure I’m due.

Glittering-throated Emerald, at the Folha Seca feeders near Ubatuba, Brazil

This post is not my final post while traveling – I will almost certainly post at least once or maybe twice more before leaving, perhaps from here at REGUA and again in Rio. But in recent days I find my mind already geared to leave, and sometimes I almost imagine that I’m already on my way back. What do I even mean by that? I guess I mean that I feel like I have learned as much personally, and maybe even ornithologically that I am going to on this trip. That’s a strange thought, and very unfamiliar for this year. All year I have felt so ensconced in this journey, that I had a virtually endless path ahead of me, and after about a month or so in Colombia I had already felt that I had gained so much. In the mornings after I wake up now, I tend to lie there for a while and my thoughts almost always center on where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I have to say, I am sometimes overcome by the mere thought of it all. I can barely believe that I have almost finished this, that I have accomplished what I set out to do. It is so rare for me to feel this kind of awe about anything that I have done. It is a level of respect that I have almost always directed towards others, towards my friends and family, and towards many of you who are reading this now. But to feel that for myself? That is alien. But I’m learning to get more accustomed to it.

Highland Elaenia, near Teresopolis, Brazil

It’s nice right now, to have the time and freedom to begin this kind of reflection on the entire year, all the while still living it, still being here in Brazil, still being able to find new bird species and make sound recordings, still learning more about the Atlantic Forest and meeting lodge guests from around the world, still knowing that I have another few days in Rio de Janeiro to spend, to be a tourist a bit longer, and to try to use my broken Portuguese in its native habitat. This is what I mean by straddling this divide – mentally, I am both here in the moment and already halfway around the world, back in Colorado and thinking hard about what I am going to do for the remainder of December after I return. I have already placed an order for a new cellphone which will be waiting for me when I arrive. (I had let my old account expire and I even left my old phone in Colombia.) I have made some arrangements for returning to Fort Collins, and already have my flights in place for visiting with family in Kansas City around Christmas. In this way I really do feel like I’m in two places at once.

Praia Vermelha do Sur, southeastern Brazil

And this has been helpful in another way that I did not anticipate. Being in this happy limbo state has allowed me to take a new perspective on myself, to recognize and accept certain aspects of my being that I haven’t always been comfortable with. I’ve come to understand how important it is for me to feel prepared for anything, and that my compulsive planning instincts are not always a reflection of fear or not having confidence in myself. I’m really quite pragmatic, and I shouldn’t feel like I have to prove to myself anymore that I can think on the fly – I know I can. From an emotional standpoint, I’ve come to accept that I don’t have to feel such longing and hoping in order to prove to myself that I can still feel.

Golden (?) Tegu, at the Guapi Açu wetlands. It's a very big lizard that I was lucky to get a photo of in the open like this.

Back in July my friend Megan was perusing my iPod and noticed that I was a fan of Coldplay. She told me that a new song from Coldplay had just come out, and she had it on her iPod. Seeing as how I am not able to load any new music onto my iPod until I get back to the States, I asked to listen to it then and there and was really blown away by it – Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall. It felt anthemic to me, and I immediately adopted it as one of the anthems for my odyssey.

…Maybe I’m in the black / Maybe I’m on my knees

Maybe I’m in the gap between the two trapezes

But my heart is racing and my pulses start

Cathedrals in my heart….

Back in July, the line about the gap between the trapezes for me meant the incredible leap I was taking emotionally in just traveling like I had. It meant I was feeling all that air and empty space beneath me, placing my trust in things I could not yet see. It still means these things, but now it also takes on the meaning of being here in South America and still living this staggering year all while preparing for what I’m beginning to think is going to be an equally daunting adventure starting on December 15th.

The magnificent Streamer-tailed Tyrant, near Sumidouro, Brazil

There are many mundane things I will have to consider when I return, but I can already tell that South America will not be an abstraction for me. It will be just as real and tangible in the weeks and months afterwards as it has been this year as I’ve lived it, especially with the 11,000+ photos and nearly 60 hours of sound recordings I’ll be processing. The impact of it will be felt for months and years, and by the time it begins to diminish if it ever does, I have a very strong feeling that I will be back here anyway, embarking on another journey to explore this awesome continent.

Saw-billed Hermit, at the Folha Seca feeders near Ubatuba, Brazil

Posted by: Eric | 27 Nov 2011, 5:15 am

Mais coisas aleatorias do Brasil

Some more miscellanea from Brazil….

  • Wow. I did not realize how much I love squash until I came to Brazil. Is it just here or is it always this good everywhere?

where I live at REGUA

  • The owl continues to eat well, and I have located the pair of adult Tropical Screech-Owls in the area, although not their nest. I will probably need to release the owl in the next week or so, and I have an idea for where that will be. Again, I’m not happy with having to do that when I think the owl isn’t really ready, but at this point I see no other option.

Showing the owl to some REGUA visitors

  • We had a substantial rain the other day, which was followed in the evening by one of the most deafening frog choruses I have ever heard in my life. There’s a small patch of wetland near the dormitories, and I went down there with my recording equipment to document the phenomenon. It reminded me of the sound of an aging air-conditioning unit with increasingly rusty parts, or that contraption they use to lay down asphalt on roadways, except the noise is all frogs. They went at it all night and well into the next morning. Simply awesome.
  • The volunteering experience here is quite different from all the others I’ve done. It is surprisingly unstructured, and most days I have no idea what I’ll be doing on the next one. There are several reasons for that: 1) they are in the process of changing their volunteer program, reducing or eliminating the invitations to volunteers in their “gap year” and instead trying to find more “mature” volunteers, like, um, me. 2) there are no telephones here at the reserve, so communication between the volunteer area, the lodge, and Nick and Raquel’s house consists of physically going from one place to another. Actually, that’s not entirely true – just this afternoon, I was able to get on Facebook chat with someone up at the Lodge while I was down the hill here on the computers near the dorms. (How strange to be in a place with no phone service but fairly decent internet connectivity.) 3) In this time of year things are actually starting to shut down here on the reserve, as rainy season kicks in more and more and the lodge visitor traffic starts tailing off. That means fewer projects to work on, and fewer tourists to guide on the trails.

A view of the reserve from the "Green Trail", near 250m elevation

  • Last week on a visit to Serra do Orgãos National Park I saw two hummingbird species, a Brazilian Ruby and a White-throated Hummingbird. Respectively those were hummingbird species #99 and #100 for the year. I will be hard pressed to ever see 100 species of hummingbird in a year for the rest of my life. You have to go to a lot of different places in Central and South America to see that many species.
  • On a related note, I’ve been doing some bird-list maintenance, in order to figure out roughly how many birds I’ve seen in all this year. By my current tally I’m not far from 1,200 species overall. I am also getting very close to having 2,000 species on my all-time world life list. (I started the year at a little over 1,000.) The problem is that I will likely reach that milestone but not know for several more weeks or even months if I reached it or which bird was actually #2000, because of the time it takes to go over all my notes, photos, and sound recordings. I just know I’m very close though. By the way, that means I’m close to having identified 20% of all the bird species in the world now.
  • I’ve had a few really fascinating conversations recently with the aforementioned Nick, who is the owner/manager of the reserve and bird lodge here. He paints an interesting picture of the problems with conservation in this part of the world, in this area which has seen so much habitat loss. It is providing me with so much material for the presentations I will be giving next spring in Colorado – I hardly even know where to start, there is so much to say on the topic.

Our current work project - painting the new elevated blind at the wetlands

  • I find myself in a very good mood these last several days. I feel like an onus has been lifted from me, and I pause now and again and feel, well, stunned frankly at what I’ve done during this odyssey. Knowing that in less than 3 weeks I will be back in the States really cheers me up – so much has been accomplished and I look forward to resting on my laurels a bit and figuring out exactly what the hell I did this year. I’ve got stories. What you’ve read on the blog here is just a fraction of what’s happened.
  • That said, I am also feeling a decrease in my stamina for getting up early and birding, or going on excursions. I find that I am wanting to spend more mornings lying-in, and wanting to space out the outings a bit more, so I am not going out on the trails twice a day, or even on consecutive days. I think this is a result of feeling like I have almost reached a limit to what my brain can store without having had a chance to adequately process all the input from nearly a year’s worth of prior experiences. I was in Colombia almost a year ago now, and I still haven’t had a chance to organize my pictures from there or listen to my sound recordings! Now, multiply that by 10 and you begin to grasp what awaits me when I return.

One of the three cane toads that frequent the volunteer area. They come out every night to snatch insects attracted to the fluorescent lights.

  • I’ve reserved the hostel where I’ll be spending my last 4 nights in South America. It’s 3 blocks from Ipanema beach in Rio.
  • Time to start thinking about getting a ride back from the airport in Colorado…

The Mata Atlantica, above the Reserva Guapi Açu wetlands. All this area in the foreground was cattle pasture as recently as 10 years ago!

Posted by: Eric | 21 Nov 2011, 4:44 pm

Bird in the hand

I mentioned a few days ago that I have been taking care of a fledged Tropical Screech-Owl chick while volunteering here at REGUA. I’m happy to report that the chick has been doing pretty well the past few days, and has been eating pretty much everything I feed it. I’ve developed a pretty regular daily routine, modeled quite closely on the kind of routine they use at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.

Tropical Screech-Owl (Megascops choliba). I think the Latin name means "Cute and angry."

For example, I do two “bird checks” a day – one in the morning, and one more in the evening. This consists of just lifting the cloth cover briefly to make sure the bird is OK. Otherwise, I stay mum while in my dorm at all times, suppressing my usual self-dialogue and making sure not to bang around too much with my stuff. During the day the bird has the place to himself, and I’m guessing it makes for a nice quiet relaxing environment for him. By late afternoon, I “pull food” from the freezer – basically just the hunk of beef that I’ve been allocated for now – and let it thaw for a bit before cutting off a few strips. I then take out a chicken bone, mash it, and crumple it into the beef strips to provide some calcium content with the food.

These are the feathers that the bird shed on that first, stressful day. You can see that they are all left-winged outer primaries.

When I have everything set for cleaning the cage – a replacement newspaper and “feeding mat”, which is just one of my bandanas folded up into a neat square – I open the cage and carefully take the bird out. It’s getting trickier these past few days, as he is becoming rather acrobatic in that birdcage, and I have to carefully snag his feet in my fingers. Sometimes I miss and he latches his foot onto my finger, requiring me to extract the talons from my skin. Yes, that does hurt in case you’re wondering. Mostly though, I get him and can remove him from the cage. I then have him in my hand and either put him in a holding box so I can replace the newspaper, or, like I did tonight, I just held onto him with my right hand and did all the busy work with my left. Doing it this way saves me from having to grab him a second time from inside that holding box, which I imagine is plenty stressful for him anyway.

The holding box, which I am trying to use less of these days. This is also the box he arrived in. I have no idea where the Scrabble board came from. The bird and I never play.

Either way, I place the food in his cage on the “mat”, and return him to the cage shortly after that. I close the door, drape the cloth overhead, and I’m done. I don’t get him out for any other occasion than this, and other than the 2 bird checks he doesn’t see a single human being the rest of the day.

His living space - minus my bandana/feeding mat, which I started using after I took this photo

A few nights ago, probably around 3:30am I heard him crying to a pair of distantly calling adult Tropical Screeches. I felt awful, wishing I could have just given him away right then to those far-away birds. As much as I’m doing for this little beastie I’m still nowhere near as good an owl-parent as a real screech. I’ve not heard him calling since that night though.

His home away from home

So what is my plan? At this point, I’m still hoping we can find an active nest in the area to release him into. I’m not optimistic though, and the reality is that after I leave, there will be no one here capable of giving care to this bird. Ideally, say, if we had a real raptor care facility, we’d move him to a larger flight cage, give him some live-prey tests with real mice to see if he knows how to hunt, and only when all his flight feathers were back (or at least most of them) would we think of turning him loose. Instead, he will have to be released before I go, which is now less than 3 weeks away. I really do not like this idea because the bird is not ready for prime time, and won’t be for several more weeks. I’ve done some research into screech-owl nest phenology (the timing of development of hatchlings into nestlings, into fledglings and so on), and at least in the case of the Eastern Screech (data for the Tropical Screech is not available) they are usually dependent on their parents for at least 2 months after fledging. I don’t know how long this bird has been fledged, but I’d guess only a couple weeks at most. That means if I delay his release as long as possible, he’ll still be released a few weeks prematurely. I’m going to have to hope that he’ll learn quickly how to care for himself in the wild. It will be yet another emotional moment for me when that day comes.

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