- AMERICAN LEAGUE FRENZYSeptember 11, 1967
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Some hikers moved as effortlessly as strollers on a city street. Dave Johnson studied the woods and the rocks along the path with something like admiration. Minturn Wright, the Academy of Natural Sciences chairman, and Rod Thompson, the coal-mine owner, moved slowly and steadily onward while almost everyone else rested. They looked like a lawyer and his client walking to an important appointment in the business district, their calm features showing none of the ravage and strain evident on almost everyone else's faces. W. E. Saunders, a well-known ornithologist, has written that you could measure the loss of your hearing ornithologically. At the age of 60 he found he could no longer hear the notes of the golden-crowned kinglet. At 65 he could no longer hear the song of the cedar waxwing. At 68 he could not hear the Cape May warbler. Saunders understated the cost of bird watching. By mid-afternoon I could not even see any birds. In fact, I could hardly see the trees. In a way Allison had an advantage over the rest of us. Never having been camping before, she thought all outdoor recreation Was like this. Bird-watching stops were now perfunctory—the pretext that they were to look at birds was dropped. They were to rest. I noticed that instead of scanning the trees, Allison was staring straight upward at heaven. Later she told me that she had once read a newspaper account of a helicopter that landed in the yard of a Mexican prison and plucked out an important convict; she was hoping it might come back and rescue her.
I was reduced to walking 200 steps and stopping, counting slowly to 100 before walking another 200. By four in the afternoon I was walking 100 steps and counting to 200. Soon I was down to 50 steps and repeating the Lord's Prayer. Somewhere along about here I began to have hallucinations. I thought I was the last climber in the line, but suddenly there was somebody behind me. An Englishman, tall and extremely pale, materialized on the trail and lifted my pack off my back. "Let me help you with this," he said. It was not an Englishman, it was George Plimpton. He walked on ahead, staggering a little from the weight of my pack and that of the mysterious Harrison. My first reaction was one of deep gratitude, followed by an impulse to ask him if he would carry me, too. I met him again, half a mile on. He was sitting beside the trail with the two packs beside him, looking exhausted. I picked up my own and went on. He seemed pleased.
About seven o'clock we tumbled and slid into the broad clearing at the summit. Camp was made in darkness on the banks of a small stream, a quarter of a mile from the settlement. "We will get up at five o'clock," said Victor, "and start out as a group as soon as it is light. Then we will separate into small groups to cover as much territory as we can, in the hope that somebody will hear the guan calling, and we can concentrate in that area."
The cloud forest is inanimate. The cloud is a filmy, gossamer vapor rather than a fog; it drips down unevenly, like a sagging tent, sometimes only an arm's reach overhead, more often entangled in the lower branches of the trees. There is nothing to compare it with. Sometimes it suggests film sets for German expressionist movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or those old scary illustrations of Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, but mostly it seems displaced, rolling slowly and billowing gently among the motionless trees. Looking down from a ridge in the sunlight, the cloud is a milky, wavelike expanse of piles of vapor, through which dark branches project like those of trees partly submerged in a flood.
The call of the horned guan is a low, vibrant, mooing sound that seems to radiate in all directions; it is almost impossible to determine where it is coming from or from what distance. "You don't hear it," Victor said. "You feel it. It is the heartbeat of the cloud forest." Every ornithologist who has studied the call has remarked on its ventriloquial character. Blake said, "Few sounds in nature are more difficult to trace...the most unpredictable bird I have ever hunted." Authorities are uncertain about the call itself, sometimes describing it as a soft, distant lowing, or as a resonant dovelike sound, or as a low, mooing booming. The amateur bird watchers among us were more imaginative; they said it was like a cow mooing and snoring at the same time, or like a foghorn muffled by distance, or like the bass strings of a giant harp.
On the first day it was heard only once, faint and untraceable. On the second day it was not heard at all. If it really was the heartbeat of the cloud forest, the forest was dead; there were no vital signs. We were now divided into small groups, straining our ears over wider expanses. Victor and the experts carried a parabolic microphone, borrowed from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, to record the call of the guan in the wild. Victor also carried a large tape recorder with an amplifier and a battery of tapes of the calls of birds—quetzals, trogons, even the horned guan.
We split up into small groups so that we could cover more territory and enhance our chances of spotting a guan. Our group of four was assigned to the trails that ran down the Pacific slope from El Triunfo. Except in the early morning, before the sun burned off the cloud, there was little chance of finding a horned guan in that direction. This may have been just as well. Neither Tom and Mary Ann, nor Allison and I, were skilled enough to add any scientific information about the bird if we saw it. There was, however, a chance that we might see the second great rarity of El Triunfo. Back in 1866 Dr. Jean Cabinis, editor of the Journal f�r Ornithologie in Berlin, reported a new species of tanager in Central America. It was a small green-and-blue bird, the upper back a light metallic green, the lower back and rump a soft, washed blue. This was the azure-rumped tanager, tangara cabanisi, and a specimen was given to the Berlin Museum. Two years later P. L. Sclater, secretary to the Zoological Society of London, received another specimen, shot at Costa Cuca near the border of Guatemala and Mexico. These two stuffed birds were the only proof that the tanager really existed. "Extremely rare," says Peterson and Chalif's A Field Guide to Mexican Birds. In 1937 an azure-rumped tanager was collected on Mount Ovando in Guatemala not far south of El Triunfo. Two more were collected in Chiapas in 1943.
We did not find it. But rounding a bend in the trail, coming out of the thickets, we did see the Pacific beyond a wide expanse of headland. On this side of El Triunfo the mountain dropped almost straight down; an ancient trail, even steeper than that from the coffee plantation, threaded around ridges and spurs. Along this trail in 1972 an expedition saw three azure-rumped tanagers and the species has been observed several times since. We saw other treasures—a black-throated jay, a brown-backed solitaire, a spotted nightingale-thrush—but we failed to see a trace of the tanager. It was not possible to spend much time looking for it, or for anything. While going down the steep trail was easy, our problem lay in getting back up to camp before dark.
By the end of the third day Victor appeared to be growing a little desperate, even though the guan had been seen once. Bill Failing, a former Army counterintelligence officer, spotted it as it flew across the trail, but it was merely glimpsed, and it produced no sound.
Bird-watching books assert that the great advantage of the sport, or pastime, or hobby, or whatever it is, lies in that it can be practiced anywhere. Start in your own backyard. "It is not necessary to walk vast distances," says A Guide to Bird Watching. Wide varieties can be found in "cultivated fields, farm buildings, orchards, ungrazed wood lots, stream borders, springs, cattail swamps, sedge marshes, conifer groves, sandy fields, cliffs, bogs, golf courses, airports, cemeteries and so on."