around," Victor continued. "I was kind of lost in thought. Anyway,
there were very few birds. I said, 'Let's sit down.' I wanted to tape these
thoughts. I didn't want to lose them. We were chattering about the preservation
problem. I said, 'We're in the forest. Be quiet.' All of a sudden I heard it,
except you don't hear it. You feel it. It kind of creeps into your
consciousness. I said to Mary Ann, 'There it is.'
"I am bad at
sound directions. I have a partial hearing loss in one ear. I asked Allison and
Mary Ann and Tom where it was coming from. They said, 'Across the creek.' That
meant back down the trail and up a hillside. But after we got up the hillside
we couldn't hear it. Through the brush I could see light at the top of the
ridge. I said, 'I've never been to the top of this ridge. Let's go there.' We
pushed to the top of the ridge. There was a beautiful view, a valley and a wide
sloping forest on the other side. There was a path on the top of that ridge.
But we couldn't hear the guan any longer."
It was a bitter
moment in the life of a great bird watcher. It was as though he were the only
person in El Triunfo who had not seen a guan. He looked desolate when he
realized his recorded guan call was not going to summon one and that his last
chance to see a guan was gone. But he merely said stoically, "Let's follow
this path back to camp."
The ridge path
was steep and grew steeper. The bird watchers, lagging far behind, out of
breath, were widely spaced when Victor put down his parabolic microphone and
motioned for silence. He was on a high point of the ridge, in a kind of country
favored by quetzals, and he put a quetzal call into the tape recorder, hoping
to call in one of them as a parting gift.
The call of the
quetzal is a low double note, sounding like wahco, wahco and a whistled
whee-ooh. Everybody had long since learned to remain absolutely silent and
motionless when Victor worked the parabolic microphone or turned on the tape
recorder. Now, simultaneously with the recorded quetzal call, a guan began
calling, but Victor, close to the tape recorder, did not hear it. It was a dull
grunting sound, so porcine that the first reaction was, what are pigs doing up
here? At first there was no bill-clacking or mooing, just a low steady
repetition of the snorting grunt that pigs make while feeding.
preoccupied with the quetzal tape, still had not heard the guan, and an awful
fear gripped those who had. They could not call out to him, and they were
afraid that if they moved, they might frighten the bird away. But Allison,
closest to him, whispered urgently, "There's the guan!"
"I shut off
the tape recorder," Victor said later in his report, "in order to hear
what she was saying. And then I heard the bill-clacking. I walked along the
ridge, and there it was. It was just standing there! Just after spotting it, I
had this terrible conflict. I just wanted to soak it up, but at the same time I
wanted to make sure everyone saw it, but I didn't want to take my eyes off it.
The others came along quickly, and we watched it for 10 minutes. Then it began
walking back and forth on the branch, clacking its bill for a minute or two,
looking around, getting more agitated. It jumped up to another branch, and when
it did it went ohh—waugh!, its most agitated call.
watching it hopping around. Then some tree growths got in the way, and we
couldn't see it. I thought we might go down the slope to the base of the tree,
where our nearness might disturb it and start the bill-clacking again so we
could locate it. But it just vanished. The same thing happened to Alexander
Skutch; he described that mysterious disappearance in a German ornithological
publication, Grzimeks Tierleben."
Nobody saw the
horned guan again. No one got a picture of it. There were new tape recordings
now of its wilderness call, but that was all. Back in civilization Plimpton
managed to locate Harrison. He was pleased to have his money and belongings
returned, and interested to learn where his pack had ended up.
There was no
question in Victor Emanuel's mind but that the El Triunfo trip had been a
glorious success. We had set out to find the horned guan, and we had found it.
For less dedicated searchers the results were not so clear-cut. "We find
there what we seek," Skutch wrote in A Last Home of Mystery. "But in
spite of beauty, tranquillity and endless variety, the forest at last becomes
oppressive.... We lose our proud pose as the lords of creation and come at last
to feel what we actually are, small, bewildered creatures wandering timidly
amid forces immeasurably more powerful and enduring than ourselves."