Blog #5: Dawn Awakening

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Rio Japurá, Brazil
© E. Rodrigues
Headlamps at Dawn

Pre-dawn in the Amazon and it's time to go out and open mist nets. Time to roll out of the comfort of my hammock. Sometimes late in a trip, if I’m awakened from a deep sleep by my alarm, it'll take a moment for me to even remember where I am.

Getting ready requires dressing and packing up gear by headlamp (see above photo) while trying not to make too much noise for those lucky enough to be able to continue sleeping. And it's always a good idea to check and ensure that sure nothing has climbed into my boots during the night. With luck, I still have some dry socks—for me, one of the toughest things here is having to put on wet socks in the morning, but it happens. If there's time, I’ll have some warm coffee from the thermos on the dining table and maybe some crackers.

Surrounded by forest that stretches up into the night, the blackness away from my own headlamp is noticeably oppressive—no haunted house could be more intimidating than hiking into the dark, damp forest on a narrow trail. But time is of the essence, and I step into the night, where the darkness is punctuated by sounds of dripping, crackling, and the occasional short outburst from frogs.

My headlamp illuminates any direction I turn; primarily it's locked on the ground so that I don’t trip over ever-present roots on the trail, but it also catches eye-shine from snakes as well as hundreds of spiders and other insects in the dark understory (see Photo #1 below). I hustle on into the darkness and duck through a narrow stretch of trail, only have to brush my face free of webs, spun that night by some unseen orb weaver.

As I emerge onto a more open stretch of trail, a bat flies down the path toward me, almost grazing my face before wheeling off into the night. In the distance, I hear a loud and haunting growl that I now know to be a nocturnal bird called the Great Potoo (see Photo #2 below), but years ago, the first time I heard this sound, I thought it might be jaguar. Another noise, like that of someone waving a large piece of sheet metal off in the distance, is a Spectacled Owl. A tinamou, a game bird of the forest floor, gives a loud and eerie set of long, ethereal, and gradually rising whistles.

I travel on, stumbling over more large, wet roots. As I take a long step over a big log on the trail, I pull up when my headlamp reveals a large tarantula lurking on the other side—where my foot would have landed. Later, far off in the darkness, a creaking sound turns into a louder cracking, and a large unseen branch gives way high in the canopy and crashes through the vegetation to the ground.

Sometimes on these mornings, I think to myself that dawn will never come, but it always does. One of the first hints is the incredible outburst of the Howler Monkeys, which sound like a howling freight train, ending with a set of low emphatic hoots. High up in the canopy where the howlers spent the night, they know that dawn is coming.

Slowly but surely, the haunted house gives way to the first songs of birds, harbingers of the day to come. Blue-crowned Motmots hoot softly with a whoop-whoop in the still black understory (see Photo #3 below.) I listen closely to the sounds of the night birds because with luck, I might hear something less common, like a Zigzag Heron or a Long-tailed Potoo.

All these seemingly scary things are just another part of the daily cycle of life here. Although I never know what to expect, I've come to recognize the many sounds and have learned to respect the needs of the orb weavers and the bats to get their food. This is no haunted house; it's just another morning in the understory of one of Earth's greatest tropical forests. What could be better than that?

More soon,

© E. Rodrigues
Snake Surprise
© A. del Campo
Common Potoo
© J.D. Weckstein
Blue-crowned Motmot