Jungle Dawn Chorus

Starting out in the morning fog on the Las PiedrasThe dawn chorus in the jungle has a particular bass beat, like a deep wave washing through the dense trees, or like the earth itself is exhaling. What is that, I wonder. I’m sitting in a dinky plastic pack raft on the Las Piedras River, in the Amazon of Peru, cradling my camera, and straining to see something in the green on green on green that lines the river. I’ve set out with three others on this foggy dawn float, but they are already a bend and a half down the river so I feel alone. Alone with the caiman lounging on the sandy banks and the Pied Lapwings tip-toeing along the river’s edge. Alone with the Parakeets that flock across the river, screaming their destination and their joy. Alone with the Sunbittern and the Hoatzin, birds that seem created from an artist’s fantasy of a bird. Alone not at all.



Howler MonkeySwept into this stream, cradled by my boat, I feel embraced by the land as if at a big family reunion. Every bit of me is there, a perfect meditation that is not focused in on my breath, but out on the breath of the land. What is that? The sound, hollow, almost mystical, fills my bones and I lean back in the raft as I flush downstream in the silty river. And then I remember what our guides told me: the sound that is so deep is not birds, but howler monkeys.   

At home in the Hudson Valley I bird mostly by ear. Once the spring leaves come in it’s hard to lay eyes on a bird so learning the bird songs is necessary if you want to know who is stopping by on your driveway or singing near the feeder or sliding out of the reeds in the Tivoli Bays. But the denseness of leaves in the Hudson Valley is a joke compared to the jungle where the green is often so dense it blocks out all light. In this denseness birds thrive, and I know they are out there: the songs punctuate the air. There is no attempt at harmony here, no overall tune, but rather it’s every bird for himself, a great crazy medley that leaves me delighted and baffled.

Hoatzin!But on the river: you do get to see things, the little birds, the Water Tyrants, that come to the river’s edge for some water, a bug, a slap of sunlight. Or the Yellow-billed Terns that course up and down the river. Or the Amazon Kingfisher, cackling away on a fishing expedition.  Hoatzin fumble about in the bushes, so clumsy, then pose for a photo.

Mid-float I arrive at a sandbar where on a drying log Sand Nighthawks are roosting for the day. I pull onto shore, and shove myself out of the boat (which is leaking just a bit, so it’s become soft; I do a bit of repair work with some duck tape and have faith it will get me back to the station). I walk close enough to the birds to see clearly and to take photos but I don’t want to disturb their day-time snooze, which looks, through my binoculars, like the perfect morning meditation. Are we all meditating out here, at peace with the self and the land?

Sand Nighthawks roostingSoon, the sun rises, more birds sing, and then I hear a motor on the river and it’s Paul, our guide on this trip. He’s in the long wooden boat with his mother, who is making her first trip to the jungle. “Isn’t it great seeing your son in his proper habitat?” I joke with her. But it’s not really a joke: Paul belongs here just as the Tapir and the Jaguar do. And I think it’s sweet that he’s taking her out for a morning boat ride. But that’s not his goal: he’s checking on me. Paul is the best of guides, letting people do what they want to do, giving us our freedom here in this big place. So I have to wonder: have I really been out here so long that even Paul has become curious of my whereabouts? I have. A float that should have taken an hour and a half has stretched to four hours.  “You good?” he calls across the water, thumbs up.

I nod and smile and give a thumbs up that says, “More than good.” Excellent. Never been better. Happy. And off he goes to leave me with my happiness.

Pied Lapwing--the bird that kept me company all morningFour hours of meandering, of observing, of delighting. Four hours during which I am not thinking about breakfast that waits for me, or the mess that our country is in (in fact, for two solid weeks I had not a single political thought, which is a shift for a MSNBC junkie), I am not over-thinking a small heartache. And if none of these things matter, than neither does time, an hour just like four. And perhaps space either, the land here infinite, the land here precious down to a grain of sand.

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