Expedition Diary: Inside a Rain Forest Quest

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Between us, Gilmar and I can just manage to carry everything we unloaded. The route down to Maria Alice and Alline is partly a bog filled with tussock grass six feet (two meters) tall. A few yards take us five minutes—and another five to get our breath back.

Gilmar and I head for a low forest, only to find it's a tangled thicket of bushes and bamboo. The only practical solution is to park the gear and cut a trail with our machete, then come back for the gear and repeat the process.

It takes us three hours to reach Maria Alice and Alline. By that time, the sun has turned to rain and we're sodden.

Maria Alice has already set up our mist nets, which catch small birds as they fly between the trees.

My job is to listen for the gray-winged cotinga, to play a tape of the cotinga's song to entice it to respond, and to record songs of birds we do not recognize.

That evening, glad that we have an extra tent for Gilmar, we set up our shelters in the rain.

The final insult is that the gas stove doesn't work. As you attach the burner, it's supposed to puncture the gas canister through a rubber seal. It doesn't.

The prospect of cold food for two days sinks in. Out comes a pocketknife. We puncture the canister and screw on the burner before all the gas escapes. Hot noodles taste so good in the field.

Saturday, December 6, 2003

The day starts cold and misty, then variously fogs, drizzles, sheets, spots, torrents, and all the other verbs we Britons have for rain.

As the rest of us band birds and listen for songs, Gilmar cuts a trail up the hillside to our north, in the direction of "home," the fazenda—just in case something goes wrong, we tell ourselves.

Scientists know almost nothing about the gray-winged cotinga, other that that its closest relative is the black-and-gold cotinga. The black-and-gold's song is one of the extraordinary sounds of the Brazilian mountains—a pure whistle several seconds long that rises by half a note midway through the call.

They say the gray-winged cotinga occupies forest at a higher elevation than the black-and-gold cotinga. That worries me, because I'm hearing plenty of black-and-golds, which suggests we're too low. And if we want to climb higher, the going is anything but easy.

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