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Birding on September 11th, 2001

I have been meaning to write this post for a while and it just occurred to me that given today’s date, now would be a good time to relate my 9/11 story. I wasn’t in New York at the time and was actually almost as far away from the USA and civilization as one could get but never felt closer to home. I wasn’t in Costa Rica either but this blog is as good a place to tell my story as any. If you were hoping for something related to birding in Costa Rica rather than another neotropical birding hotspot where this story takes place, check back real soon for posts about a recent trip to Laguna del Lagarto and what went down at the first Costa Rican Birding and Nature Festival.

September 11th, 2001, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), Peru

It was a usual, fine morning deep back in the wonderful, roadless, trackless expanse of rainforest known as Tambopata. As a volunteer on the Tambopata Macaw Project, I would have boarded a boat just before dawn to be dropped off on the island across from the Tambopata Clay Lick, but it was my day off from counting the screaming masses of parrots, parakeets, and macaws. Instead of heading to the other side of the river with count sheets, a lawn chair, and optics, I birded sans observation rules for the pure fun of it. That meant searching for whatever lifers I still needed on the 500 plus list at TRC while listening and looking for anything else that came my way. Among the network of trails near the research station/eco-lodge,I opted for  taking one that accessed floodplain forest, bamboo thickets, and small oxbow lakes. As with all of the trails in this wilderness area, it could potentially turn up anything from a rare Harpy Eagle to tanager flocks or even a Jaguar while giving a fair chance at niceties like Agami Heron, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, and a host of antbirds.

Needless to say, birding the trails at TRC is exciting from the moment you step into the forest until the second you come back to the research station (and even then, it’s still pretty exciting all the way back downriver to Puerto Maldonado). I can’t say that I saw a Harpy on that morning or any once in a lifetime sighting. I encountered the species I usually ran into although the horrible events that were to take place later that morning overshadowed any memories of them. Those would have been birds like Amazonian Antpitta- a secretive inhabitant of bamboo thickets that reveals itself with slow-tempo, low, whistled notes. I probably saw one of the Chestnut-capped Puffbirds that lived along that trail and must have heard the inconspicuous “tink” call of the Fiery-capped Manakin and the chortle of bamboo-loving White-lined Antbirds.

I am sure I also had a few other choice species along with flyovers of macaws, White-eyed Parakeets, and White-bellied Parrots. Those and so many other avian candy store Amazonian species were par for the course at TRC. Volunteering for the macaw project was a blissful, carpe diem time surrounded by a ridiculous array of birds, plants, amphibians, and everything else that comes together to form those Amazonian rainforests. I also worked with dozens of fantastic people, including biologist guides from Lima and friends who were born and raised in Tambopata, Peru. Two of those people were Marcos and Ingrid. Like several of the staff at TRC and Posada Amazonas, Marcos originally hailed from Cuzco. He was a short, twenty-something guy with curly hair accompanied by a ready smile and laugh. He was the main cook at TRC and loved what he did. I’ m pretty sure he still works there and must be quite the accomplished chef by now.

Ingrid, a cheerful gal from Ica, was interning at Rainforest Expeditions and having the time of her life while learning how to show the Tambopata rainforest to guests from around the world. She was always telling me about following the herds of White-lipped Peccaries, and wanted to learn more about the birds at Tambopata while perfecting her English skills. Her passion for nature and  biodiversity were typical of all of the guides at TRC and like many of them, she went on to have some amazing adventures in biodiversity. Ingrid in particular has become a hero in my eyes because she spends most of her time with her equally heroic husband working on sea turtle conservation from the coasts of Central America to California.

I can’t help but talk about Marcos and Ingrid because they were the ones who broke the news to me when I got back to the lodge. As usual, after an hour or two of early morning birding, I made my way back to TRC and  walked into the kitchen to eat breakfast and catch some conversation while being semi-entertained by the exotic sounds of techno-cumbia. I think just Marcos and Ingrid were there and they were listening to the radio, our only form of contact with the outside world. It was in Spanish and not all that clear but I could see that they were listening to it more closely than other mornings. Marcos was leaning close to the radio and Ingrid had a pained look on her face. She looked truly worried so I asked what was going on.

Although I could speak Spanish, I think I had to hear them tell me what happened at least four times and when Ingrid told me, I recall seeing the same careful, resolved look as one who bears the news of a family member’s death. She didn’t tell me to sit down but she was seated and it seemed like I should sit down too. She said, calmly “Patrick, they are saying that planes flew into the World Trade Center and maybe it was a terrorist attack.” I am sure my first response was, “What?” because what she told me most definitely did not compute. I had to have her and Marcos tell me something like four times because I must have heard wrong. After all, even though I speak Spanish well, what they said just didn’t sound right. How could that make any sense? A bombing or some kind of terrorist attack at the World Trade Center? No way! They must be saying something else. I don’t think it was until I actually heard the fuzzy voice of the woman on the radio say that planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and that it appeared to be an attack did I actually accept what happened and even then I wasn’t entirely sure.

There were no pictures, no television footage, and I didn’t know how bad it was but I knew it had the potential for being incredibly bad. As the news sunk in, I felt my heart dragged down with it into a well of horrible realization. I probably swore and by the concerned, almost frightened looks on the faces of Ingrid and Marcos, I probably didn’t look like someone who took the news all that well. They were worried too but they hadn’t realized what that day might eventually mean. I said, “There are thousands of people who work in those towers and 30,000 of them might have been killed! There is almost certainly going to be a war over this.” I don’t know if I said, “let’s hope there isn’t” but I would have liked to have said that.

While we were taking in this horrible news, a small group of British birders came to TRC to walk the trails. One of them was a young naturalist who was volunteering at Explorer’s Inn and like everyone who camped out on the river island, his arms were just dotted like Measles in no-see-um bites. Tourists who wanted to experience the clay lick (“the colpa”) but didn’t stay at TRC camped for the night on that island and this was one of those groups. It was a good site for the rare Scarlet-hooded Barbet, Fine-barred Piculet, and other cool species with equally cool names but it was also a haven for blood-sucking, six-legged freaks. While scratching bites and applying enough DEET to melt your prize Leico binos,  they awoke to the Psittacid extravaganza on the clay lick and followed that up with a visit to TRC.

Since this group was focused on birds, I asked if I could join them. I was relieved when they let me tag along because I felt a strong need to do something other than hanging around the kitchen at TRC but I didn’t want to go birding alone. I wanted companionship and didn’t want to talk about the attacks just yet. So as not to ruin the birding, I kept the news under wraps and focused on finding things like Goeldi’s and White-lined Antbirds and Fiery-capped Manakin. We did find a few of those and other birds and I daresay they were pleased to have someone along who knew the vocalizations. I was happy just to be out with other birders.

The walk was a short one because they had to head back downstream. Before they got on the boat, I somehow managed to tell them about the World Trade Center. I said I didn’t know exactly what had happened but told them what I knew- that the towers had apparently been bombed or attacked with planes. I don’t know who those birders were but I do recall the horrified, worried looks on their faces that must have mirrored my own after Ingrid and Marcos had related the same news to me.

After they left, we were once again left to the radio for news until a boat eventually arrived with a newspaper that showed us that nightmare of the towers in flames. My friend and fellow American macaw project volunteer Rudy Gelis arrived on one of those boats. We were both pretty shaken up by the attacks but most of all, we realized we were damn mad. I wanted to find out who was responsible and I didn’t feel like bringing them to justice because my emotions were urging me to sing the war song.  We both hoped that the attackers would be found out and dealt with but also knew that an entire nation probably wasn’t behind the attacks.

Many trips ended up being cancelled to Tambopata in the following months while others took advantage of the low airfares. I met and shared Amazonian birds with some of those people and they told me about happenings and reactions in the states as a result of 9/11. I loved soaking up the birds and diversity of Tambopata, Peru but I never missed Niagara Falls, New York more than during those days right after September 11th, 2001.

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