Life at the Top
By Katrina Macht
March 17, 2003
Whoever said the forest is a quiet, peaceful place has never wandered the trails of BCI.
The forest is alive with a cacophony of sound, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. The forest is even noisier in the dry season. From the soft crackle of leaves on the forest floor, to the background buzz saw of cicadas, to monkeys noisily scampering through the canopy, the forest is a continuous symphony. For me, a person whose ability to distinguish camouflaged animals is seriously wanting, sound is the portal to discovering many of these elusive jungle dwellers.
At no time was that more apparent than on my last day on BCI. I awoke shortly after 5:30 a.m., hurriedly dressed and, with flashlight, camera, and binoculars in hand, made a dash for the canopy tower in the predawn darkness. To be alone in the forest, enveloped by the last remnants of night, was an indescribable experience. I climbed the 150 feet to the top of the tower, arriving just as day was beginning to break. Cloud cover meant there was no sunrise to witness, but the changing dawn sky was payoff enough for the climb. From atop the gently swaying scaffolding, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the forest, I watched the earth become light again. Before day broke, I was serenaded by the dawn chorus of howler monkeys. I counted six different troops across the island, greeting the day with their distinctive refrains, broadcasting their territorial rights to one another. Tentative low grunts soon became loud, sustained roars, as their combined voices engulfed the island. It was surround-sound howler harmony and it took my breath away.
As day quickly overtook night, toucans and parrots joined in the raucous chorus, flying from one emergent tree to another. Birds were everywhere, or so it seemed. Daylight revealed three keel-billed toucans - Toucan Sam's cousins - perched out in the open, at eye level, so close I felt I could reach out and touch them. They appeared to be distinguished birds of the forest, until they took off in flight. In flight they looked rather comical, top heavy and undulating, because of their enormous bill. It almost seemed they wouldn't stay aloft because of the weight of their bill, as they constantly fought to gain altitude. Mealy parrots, on the other hand, had no problem with flight. They dominated the treetops with their noisy, gregarious calls, winging from one tree to another, usually in pairs. I had no idea there were so many parrots on this island; before my early morning vigil their presence had only been revealed to me in chattering squawks and occasional silhouetted figures flying high over head.
I sat on my treetop perch for more than an hour, among the emergent trees above the canopy, marveling at a world I never would have known existed from the forest floor. Even with binoculars, seeing the canopy life from the forest floor is a major challenge, often not a successful one. To view the richness of the jungle from an up close and personal vantage point was an unforgettable experience. I was amazed at the layers of forest I could see from this perspective: certainly more than the four described in books. The trees were anything but uniform in height and everywhere I turned no two trees were alike. The canopy itself was not at all continuous, but was interrupted by numerous breaks of various shapes and sizes. How extraordinary to look down at it all! The canopy tower provided me a remarkable window into life at the top and it was a gift to be there at dawn, when the earth below was still dressed in shadows.