Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve been spending my time applying for graduate schools. I always expected that I would have a light bulb moment when in an instant I would know exactly where and in what I should do my doctorate, but instead it’s been a slow build that has drawn me to a place where I feel confident and excited to embark on this next step, wherever it may lead me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned in Trinidad, and as I’m sitting down to write this multiple months after the fact, I’m grateful for how that internship clarified my research interests. Going from other internships where I’ve had more managerial responsibilities to this one in which I had none, it gave me a chance to relax and observe how the project is run. I could compare this to what I might do in similar situations, without the stress of actually making those decisions. I realized that while I will always gravitate towards people who can teach me something new or challenge my ways of thinking scientifically, I want to be more than a field tech. Even though playing around in the jungle is exciting, I care a lot about the theory and science behind what I do and ultimately feel more fulfilled when I have a role in shaping the questions and methodology rather than just carrying out the fieldwork.
Most of all, I felt as though I pushed my boundaries and sense of comfort while I was in Trinidad. I remember one time when we were finishing up Elena’s project and we discovered another waterfall slide. This one was much, much shorter than the Taylor slide, but for some reason, once I got to the top I was petrified. I guess the fear of drowning that had spawned after the plunge at Taylor was too fresh in my mind, but I knew that there was very little possibility of getting injured on this much shorter drop. I was shocked at my body turned traitor and the way it refused to let me jump. Our manager John was absolutely wonderful, and sat at the top and waited for me to get over my fears, while we talked through my stumbling block. He’s had a lot to overcome in his own life and is fearless to the point of becoming an adrenaline junky, but it was so refreshing to have his carpe diem perspective at that moment of indecision. Finally, after far longer than it should have taken, I took a deep breath, plugged my nose, and pushed off. This time, when I hit the water, I didn’t inhale, and it was shallow enough that I quickly found the bottom and stood up. Moreover, it was fun. There were so many moments like that on this trip where I was scared (rationally or not) and worked through it. That’s what I love about this line of work—there’s always something unexpected, and I’m constantly learning not just about the natural world, but about myself as well.
My final month in Trinidad was the highlight of my time there. Because the recap team members are on staggered three-month shifts, it was an almost entirely new group my final month and it was fun to help train the two new interns. Every group of people has a different dynamic, and different personalities that mesh well or clash with each other; while I got along with every single person in my first two months, the combination of personalities was far more harmonious my final month. I was so busy that I didn’t take any notes while I was there, so here are a few highlights.
Before the recaps started, we took a boat tour through the Coroni Swamp. It’s a famous park in Trinidad where you can find their national bird, the Scarlet Ibis. We saw flounders peering at us from their froglike eyes above the water, tree snakes coiled above our heads, silky anteaters dozing in the bushes, and finally, yes, the impossibly colored ibises. They were brilliantly bright, and the flocks of them set a striking image against the dusky sky.
One of our managers for the final month was named Jack. He was not an entirely unfamiliar presence since he had been Josh’s intern working with the rivs. He had been working in Trinidad for multiple years with the guppies and on other projects, and seemed utterly at home there. In my mind I started nicknaming him “Jungle Jack” because he would frequently disappear into the forest and reappear with bananas, mangoes, nutmeg spice, or heartwood for making machete handles. He was unpredictable and highly knowledgeable; if you could keep up with him, you were always assured an adventure and probably some insights (but if you couldn’t, you were liable to wind up lost off-trail). Between him and his girlfriend Robyn, who had worked at Asa Wright and was an incredible birder and a very thoughtful person, I soaked up as much information as I could about the jungle in that final month. Chris, Robyn, Seba (one of the new interns, from Italy), and I often went on birding excursions and found a wonderful array of species, from trogons and tanagers to parrots and antshrikes.
During that final month, David Reznick, the researcher who runs the guppy project, came out to visit. He only had a little over a week in the country, but he took us out collecting guppies in parts of the country I’d never been to. One collection site we visited was at a colonial-style mansion that had been taken over by the jungle. Its white-washed walls were covered with vines, plants poked through its broken windows, and its columns sunk into the mossy ground, all bathed in shafts of sunlight through a break in the rains. While he was around, David gave us guppy talks on some of the various aspects of the project and explained a lot of the background concepts and history of the research.
For my final break, we traveled to Petite Taka Rib, an isolated section of coast along the northern part of the island. We got there on an incredible motor-boat journey, speeding between rocky spires and the shoreline, while pelicans wheeled overhead. We stayed with an old friend of Jack’s who lived in a shack overlooking the waves and rented out simple rooms to beachgoers. We relaxed on the beach and played in the rough waves, while Jack and Robyn maneuvered their paddleboard like a surfboard.
A short hike through the jungle brought us to another beach, this one with a small cove for snorkeling. I spent hours paddling around exploring the new underwater landscape. This area required much more attention to my surroundings, with strong waves and large underwater boulders, and an aggressive current near the mouth of the cove. I had to circle a large tower of rock in the middle, giving it enough leeway that a strong push wouldn’t crash me into it; and on either side the rocks were sharp and shallow. But the challenge gave me something to work against, and I watched the schools of colorful grunts hiding on the leeside of the coral clumps, pumping their own fins against the tide. There were aggressive damselfish and colorful wrasses that darted between protective clumps of coral. The bottom was full of coarse pebbles and shells, a beautiful mosaic background for the colorful fish that moved above it.
Finally, Robyn came to get me and announced it was time for the much-anticipated football game. Ashley, one of the interns, had arranged an Americans-versus-Europeans flag football game on the beach at dusk. We played until we ran out of light, explaining some of the more obscure rules to the dubious Brits, and I even scored a few touchdowns, but the Europeans got the final point and immediately declared it too dark to continue. We hiked our way back and dried off while drinking rum and watching the stars come out.
That night, we took a walk along the beach and were incredibly lucky to see a sea turtle coming to shore to look for places to lay her eggs. She was impossibly large, even though I knew she was rather small for a sea turtle, and looked ancient and prehistoric. She labored slowly along the beach, leaving strange marks in the sand from her flippers, and ignored us all as she maintained her line back into the waves.
In the final days before I left, we took a last trip to see the oilbirds. Oilbirds are wholly unique creatures and are one of the big birding draws for Trinidad (although they also live in South America). They are the only bird in the world that is both nocturnal and frugivorous (eats fruit), while still retains the ability to fly. They’re colonial nesters and can pack into caves by the thousands. They are able to find their way in the darkness with a combination of stellar eyesight, and echolocation. Yes, that’s right, echolocation. They are the only birds known to science that have that ability. Asa Wright, the island’s famous nature center, owns the most well-known cave, but heavily controls access to it out of concern for disrupting nesting behavior. It’s an important step to mitigate peoples’ impact on the birds, but their requirement that you spend two nights at their resort before you can be guided to the cave seemed ridiculous to us when we lived just down the road (not to mention that it means the local people don’t have access to viewing these unique animals). Instead, Jack took us to a different oilbird cave outside of our little valley.
The first time I embarked on the oilbird trek was actually the end of my first month in Trinidad, when Jack took a group of us to the cave as a send-off for the grad student Josh. We parked along an unremarkable stretch of winding jungle road and started off as the sun was setting and unseen dogs howled from nearby homes. Already dark beneath the canopy, we hiked up a small rocky stream before turning off to a muddy trail. At first, I gloried in hiking without a heavy pack full of fish, but the slippery, steep, rocky, dark trail soon exhausted me nonetheless. We struggled up the twisty path, through dense thickets of heliconia and banana that overhung the path and gave it a distinctly adventurous feel. The second time I hiked it, the trail somehow seemed even longer than the first time. We were rewarded my final time with a brief glimpse of the elusive brocket deer, now almost hunted to extinction. On the first trip, however, the heliconias and bananas disguised a large leafy plant that was covered with spikes growing directly out of the leaf face that immediately stabbed through my pants and left thistle-like welts that soon stung with sweat. Despite that and the frequent muddy slipping, it was a rewarding hike, with plenty of large colorful spiders, long centipedes, and even the occasional bird before it got too dark. A few times, Jack characteristically disappeared into the darkness and left us to intuit the way, returning with large, hard nutmeg seeds, covered by red rubbery strings of mace. We stopped for a rest at a small creek to watch the rivulus fish and Josh showed us the (mostly unsuccessful) technique for catching them by hand.
Finally, we crested the ridge and felt the blast of cool breeze that flowed up to the spine of the mountain. Tall, amorphous and twisting ficus trees ringed the small clearing. On the second hike, a nearly full moon greeted us from a clear sky. Maybe it was just how tired I was by that time in the hike, but on both trips that spot felt magical. Then came the deep rocky descent to the cave. As we began to climb down, we started to hear something below. Jack had gone ahead and was lost in the darkness, so we could only whisper to ourselves about what it might be. Holly mentioned hearing that oilbirds have pretty crazy calls, so we tried to discern the strange noises as we descended the mountainside. The calls got louder, and considerably more disturbing—something of a mix between barks and screams that reminded me of howler monkeys. By the time we got down to the mostly dried-out creek bed we figured that the sound could only be one of two things: oilbirds, or a horde of monstrous nightmare beasts.
As we approached the giant black gap in the mountainside, framed by jagged dark rock smoothed and pitted by seasonal water flow, its looming darkness stretching above us and dropping down like a tunnel to the center of the earth, I was immensely thankful that I knew that the source of the noise was actually a colony of birds, and not a swarm of ghouls that was about to burst forth and attack. The scene was decidedly eerie. From the cave, there was a cacophony of sound: hisses, screams, rattles, throaty croaks, and caws all echoing over on each other and amplified by the cave entrance. It reminded me of the sounds I heard at carcasses in the Mara—hyenas whooping and giggling, vultures hissing, and maybe the moan of a wounded wildebeest—but all layered together, and much, much louder. I cannot imagine being the first person to walk into that cave, not knowing what lay inside; if I had found the place on my own before I’d heard about oilbirds, I don’t know that I would have the guts to go in.
The joke of all of this is that the animals making these horrific noises are mottled brown, dumpy birds with overly wide mouths and whiskered faces, who are busy regurgitating fruit pulp into their incredibly fat babies that are twice the size of the parents and sit in a “nest” made of bird shit. Not exactly a threatening animal. That description (and the smell) aside, they can be quite beautiful animals. They look almost hawk-like in flight, and they flutter like a pigeon while they navigate using echolocation, spreading their wings and showing off the striking white spots on their flight feathers. They blend in with the rock face, but every sweep of the flashlight reveals more fluttering activity, more large eyes staring back from ever deeper in the winding tunnel of a cave.
We didn’t want to impact the birds too much, so we tried to use red lights or just turn off the headlamps every few minutes and sit in darkness, listening to the waves of noise and occasionally feeling the brush of an air current as one flew over our heads. The second trip was no less impressive, and it was a childish sort of fun to watch the others’ react to the menacing sounds for the first time. It’s by no means an easy hike, but well worth the trip, and remains one of my favorite moments from my time in Trinidad.