I went to Isla de Ometepe because I wanted to try out some new recording equipment, and then promptly recorded evidence that I don’t really have my new recording equipment figured out yet. It was the first time in several years that I had been outside the comforts of city life, and to tell the truth on this trip I still didn’t stray very far from those amenities.
It takes me a little while to settle into travel, to settle into the novel and the break from routine. A fellow traveler once told me it usually took him about two weeks to get loosened up. I told him I thought that seemed like a reasonable amount of time. This opinion not withstanding, however, I could only manage a 10-day escape from my home and work this year. Not really sufficient time to break completely free from the stress and tedium, but better than nothing. Given the time constraints, deep cultural exploration or reconnoitering a vast landscape was not an option and thus my intent was simply to settle in to a single place and get lost in the details of my new surroundings … to indulge in a bit of tranquil, mindless appreciation.
Accordingly, upon arriving in Ometepe all I wanted to do was sit in the roomy Adirondack chair on the porch of my village hotel and revel in the sight and sound of birds flitting about in the trees before me. Did I want to walk? No. To sit and look was fine, and between clumps of vegetation there was a decidedly non-urban distant skyline, replete with an active volcano. I had a sweating beer in my hand and a bird guide in my lap, and I jotted down the names of birds I could identify from the comfort of the chair: Groove-Billed Anis, Great Kiskadees, the ubiquitous White-Throated Magpie-Jays.
Bird names have intrigued me since childhood, and a list of species names resident to my home state of Kansas is infinitely more familiar to me than the physical characteristics of the birds themselves: Wood ducks, bobwhites and English sparrows, blue herons and yellowlegs and curlews; thrashers, nighthawks and great-tailed grackles. Chickadees and Baltimore orioles; the prettily-named state bird, the Western meadowlark, and the sandhill crane–a name which also seems particularly evocative of the state.
I managed to glean a handful of the Spanish names for the local birds. Among my favorites was pecho amarillo (literally, “yellow breast”), the name for the kiskadee, which, with its blunt descriptiveness, is reminiscent of our own “robin redbreast.” “Egret,” meanwhile, translated to garzón. Like the French garçon, this word–“waiter” in English–evokes a sense of professional bearing and dignity that the bird itself certainly possesses. Likewise, the Spanish name for the White-Throated Magpie-Jay, urraca, sounds terribly similar to “huracán,” the Spanish word for hurricane, a very apt description for the bird. Their conspicuous, noisy presence was unavoidable … walk beneath a group perched in a tree above you and you will get roundly squawked at until you leave their vicinity; walk down the road and one after another they drop into the open air before you, crossing from tree to tree as if attached to a zipline. Common as they were, however, to get a decent photograph of one was nearly impossible (actually, was impossible, for me anyway, for I never got one).
Eventually I gave recording a shot. In the mornings, before sunrise, I made several stabs at recording a lone howler monkey, a solitary individual evidently, that hung out in the vicinity of my hotel. In the following track he is actually overshadowed by a rather vocal bird (anyone have any ideas what kind of bird that could be?) and the plethora of roosters calling from the village. (Note: This recording is a little on the quiet side, so you might want to turn the volume up a bit; careful, though, there is some thunder around 2:00 which is suddenly louder)
The specie of howler monkey found on Ometepe is the Mantled Howler Monkey (alouatta palliata), known in the local parlance as a “congo.” For the sake of comparison, I’ll include here a recording of a group of howlers I recorded in Belize. These represent a different species, the Black Howler Monkey (alouatta caraya), which are known to the Belizeans as a “baboon.” They were, you’ll notice, a considerably more enthusiastic bunch, and I managed to plant a microphone nearly in their midst.
Despite the brevity of the trip, details did come to me. A simple bus ride offered a wealth of moments: A woman somberly placing a humble flower, little more than a weed really, into the hair of her elderly mother sitting beside her, the two of them positioning it just so; a strapping bus porter, accustomed to negotiating the chaos of the crowded bus, taking a baby from a mother as she finds her place to sit, and handing the baby back as easily and naturally as if handing over an apple; a big, bounding, happy dog, excited by the hubbub of the arriving bus, falling quickly into sadness as he realizes he is being left behind.
A hike through the woods, not unexpectedly, revealed an abundance of details.
As well as the spectacular:
Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole trip was when I rounded a bend in a trail and
spotted this owl butterfly. My brain flew into overdrive, for I had no idea what I was looking at. Somewhere deep in my thought processes I think I realized I was looking at a butterfly (and not half a disembodied owl head), but that realization did not come to surface very rapidly and in response to this sight I spent several seconds in stunned silence, ever-so-slowly pulling my camera from my bag and praying the animal–whatever it was–wouldn’t fly away … I could not have been more surprised if I had rounded the corner and seen a giraffe. Hooray for the owl butterfly!
Finally, here is a recording. A single bird–of what specie I do not know–chittering away in the tree top above me, then breaking into song for a moment before flying away: