By October 10, 2007 1 Comments Read More →

The Search for the Grey-winged Cotinga

All adventures end at precisely the same point. Thirty seconds into the hot shower, a stream of dirty water runs down the drain.
It takes with it the mud, changing skin color from blotchy grey
to pink, uncovers the until-now forgotten scrapes and cuts, and
exterminates the thriving ecosystem of bacteria and fungi, each
with its own distinct and pungent smell, to which one’s skin had
been playing host. This is exactly when one has the first dangerous
notion that the last days or weeks might have been fun.

Most adventures start the same way – packing one’s gear and heading
to the airport. As I do so, I correct myself: this is not how this
adventure began. The search in remote and unexplored Brazilian
mountaintops for one of the world’s rarest birds was born in my
comfortable, air-conditioned laboratory.

Professor Maria Alice dos Santos Alves, of the State University
of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I are sitting in front of a large
computer monitor. On screen is a satellite image of the State of
Rio de Janeiro. Overlaying other information, the computer tells
us is that one of the biologically richest areas of the planet
has been barely explored. Someone has to go – not “because
it’s there” – but precisely because in short order it may
not be. This is one of the most damaged and threatened ecosystems
on Earth.

topo map

Within days, Maria Alice prepares her grant proposal to the National
Geographic Society’s Committee on Research and Exploration. Within
the year, she, her graduate student, Alline Storni, and I are stuck
in remote cloud forest, abandoned by our helicopter pilot. We have
noodles, tea, and trail bars for another two days and no idea what
is the best path, if any, to take us out. Any path has to be one
we cut ourselves.

Like a doctor, I work where my “patients” – species
– are the least healthy, that is, in the greatest danger of extinction.
Malevolently, human actions have destroyed over 90% of two-dozen
special areas worldwide that hold the least healthy species. These
are the species with the smallest geographical ranges. It’s easier
for human actions to exterminate a species with a small range than
a larger one. The rainforests along the Atlantic coast of Brazil
team with them. Some 8000 species of flowering plant, 200 species
of birds and no one knows how many other plants, animals or fungi,
are unique to these forests. Less than 6% of the forests remain.

This is the front line of conservation. Maria Alice and her colleagues
must provide Brazilian State and Federal agencies with the best
possible advice to prevent extinctions. She is spending a sabbatical
at Duke University, working with Clinton Jenkins, one of my research
group. Using satellite images, data on elevation, and a broad knowledge
of where bird species occur, they’ll produce detailed predictions
of where are the richest and most vulnerable parts of the Atlantic
Forest. Spending other parts of her sabbatical visiting museums
in New York, DC, and in England, she compiles where early ornithologists
collected specimens. It’s all clean, comfortable work. She turns
up each day, stylishly dressed, sometimes from the results of shopping
expeditions with my wife. From past experience, I know that Maria
Alice also handles tents, mud, and rain with equanimity, a crucial
test that Clinton passes less certainly.

The computer predictions find that the birds have been collected
where the computer thinks they should be and not where they shouldn’t.
Maria Alice and Clinton point to the glaring exception. The grey-winged
cotinga, discovered in 1980 by Michael Brooke, has been found on
only two mountaintops.. Along a hundred mile ridge of mountains
inland of Rio de Janeiro, others areas of high elevation forest
should also be home to this species. There are no records – of
this or any other species. Is the grey-winged cotinga more widespread
– and so perhaps less threatened – than we thought? What other
species occur here? What is happening to these forests? This is
biological terra incognito – as exciting to us as those
large blanks on the maps were to geographical explorers of the
19th century. Should these areas be conservation priorities?

August 2003 and I’m in Rio for a brief visit. Unexpectedly, the
State government provides a helicopter for a day. Its two pilots
quiz Maria Alice about her work, then become enthusiastic supporters.
They give their day to fly us along the mountain chain from Serra
do Tinguá in the west to Desengano in the east. It’s brilliantly
sunny, with puffy white clouds for dramatic effect. We have a great
day, with unrivalled views of the forests even if Alline does look
a little green. Helicopter rides are particularly unnerving when
the land falls away several thousand feet in a second as the helicopter
crosses a ridgeline.

Three eastern mountaintops are visible from the city of Rio itself;
Tinguá is the closest and so inaccessible that our pilots cannot
find a place to land. They can at Araras, the next site, and east
of Três Picos – three giant, sheer-sided pillars of granite
rising several thousand feet from the forest below.

We work eastwards,
preparing for the exploration that will begin in December –
mid-summer in the southern hemisphere. We land, check the safety
of each landing place, and record it to the nearest yard on
our GPS. Unbroken forest stretches for miles, but we also see
the encroachment of farms that reduce the forest to tiny fragments,
ones we know will be too small to support many of the original, unique
and likely unknown species.

In September, Maria Alice assembles her team. Alline and Clinton
are obvious choices. So, too, is Michael Brooke. Only Maria Alice
and Alline will visit each computer-predicted forest in turn. Others
will join in teams depending on their availability. I cannot be
an official member, for I sit on the Committee for Research and
Exploration. (I recuse myself from the assessment of Maria Alice’s
grant proposal.) At the last minute, Clinton must back out. Maria
Alice invites me and I cash in frequent flyer miles for a ticket.
One December afternoon, I load my backpack as low, black rain clouds
blow across the North Carolina sky. Just like a summer’s day in
the north of England where I grew up and where I learned my field

Into the mountains

Friday, December 5th, 2003. We lunch improbably in a
luxurious home on the Fazenda Itatiba high in a valley a few miles
from our intended camp. “It won’t be like this when we get
to camp!” we joke with the fazenda’s administrator, Argélio.

The helicopter cannot carry everything we need in one trip, but
will ferry the team and equipment in short trips between the fazenda
and the camp. We’ve hired a private company this time. I just wish
its pilot wasn’t wearing shiny black shoes, pressed black trousers
and a white, starched shirt with epaulettes that vaguely suggest
a naval uniform. I fly on helicopter surveys across the world each
year. Most pilots wear fatigues or tattered shorts, repudiate fashion,
and have flight helmets that sport small insignia that hint of
a previous life (“Da Nang”, for example) that one never
brings up in conversation.

There’s a break in the clouds and I’m off. Knowing the risks,
I ensure that my tent, pack, water bottle, and the remains of last
night’s pizza are with me. As we cross into the next valley, the
clouds break. Over the landing spot, it’s bright sunshine. The
pilot doesn’t land and circles around. I jab my finger energetically
at the flat area of grass and smooth rocks on which we had landed
in August.

As we land, I know from experience that he should keep the engine
running, holding the helicopter under power in case it slips. He
reduces power and I prepare to get out. He signals me to stay inside
it. OK, I understand that rule: he wants to shut down completely.
Hell no, he then gets out. If wind tips the helicopter,
the still rotating blades will hit the ground and the resulting
shrapnel will turn me into hamburger. I get out, grab my gear and
move well away from the helicopter. I notice I’ve a companion,
a worker from the fazenda. In a minute, the pilot is off.

Fifteen minutes later, he’s back in our valley, but isn’t coming
this way. He lands a mile or more below us in a depression. We
wave. We strip off our shirts and wave them. Through the binoculars,
I watch Alline and Maria Alice unload gear and the helicopter leaves.
We will never see it again.


A silence descends. I slap on the sunscreen; I had the good sense
to pack. My companion calls Maria Alice on our radio. “I told
at the pilot it wasn’t the right place, but he said your site was
not safe,” she tells me. “So, why didn’t he then come
to fetch us?” I ask. “I screamed at him that he had
to. He ignored me and left.” “Well,” I reply, “you
have too much stuff to walk up to us, we’ll have to come to you.” “Your
companion is called Gilmar” Maria Alice tells me. He wasn’t
expecting to stay and has nothing but the clothes he’s wearing.

Between us, we can just manage to pick everything up. It takes
us three hours to reach Maria Alice and Alline. By that time, the
sun has turned to rain and we’re sodden. The route is partly a
bog filled with tussock grass six feet tall. A few yards takes
us five minutes – and another five to get our breath back. We 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 the machete, then come back for the gear, and
repeat the process. We’ll have to make “the hole” our
camp and explore from there. It would take three trips to get to
our planned destination with all our gear – at best, a long and
exhausting day.

Maria Alice has already set up our mist nets. The nets catch small
birds as they fly between the trees. My job is to listen for the
grey-winged cotinga, to play a tape of its song to entice it to
respond, and to record songs of birds we do not recognize.

We set up tents in the rain, glad we have a third for Gilmar.
The final insult is the gas stove doesn’t work. As one attaches
the burner, it’s supposed to puncture the 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 quickly before all the gas escapes. Hot noodles taste
so good in the field.

hot noodles

Saturday, December 6th starts cold and misty, then variously
fogs, drizzles, sheets, spots, torrents, and all the other forms
of rain for which we Britons have so many names. We band birds
and listen for songs. Gilmar cuts a trail up the hillside to our
north – the direction of “home,” the fazenda. “Just
in case something goes wrong,” we tell ourselves.

What I hear on the trail is not encouraging. Scientists know almost
nothing about the grey-winged cotinga. It’s supposed to live just
below the tree line – just where we are. It’s the other fact worries
me. The bird is supposed to occupy forest at a higher elevation
than its closest relative, the black and gold cotinga. The latter’s
song is one of the extraordinary sounds of the Brazilian mountains
– a pure whistle several seconds long, that rises mid-point to
half a note higher. The altimeter says we should be too high for
it. It’s so common here that the overlapping whistles create a
continuous dissonance. Black and Gold

I return, soaked. As evening draws in, we’re all too cold to eat
outside, so we eat inside my tent. Dinner is a protracted affair,
hot noodles, soup, trail bars, nuts, chocolate, dry fruit, hot
chocolate to drink. We’re all in our sleeping bags
to keep warm, our wet clothes piled up around us. Tomorrow
night we’ll be warm again, back at fazenda in the next valley,
where the owner’s generosity has extended to a night at his

Sunday, December 7th. I have never learned to love the
sensation of getting out of a toasty, dry sleeping bag, and pulling
on cold, damp rain gear, soaked socks and boots. It’s raining;
I will be wetter yet within minutes. Only hard work will generate
the body heat to warm the cold clothes.

workingBy 1pm, we’re hearing our helicopter every 15 minutes, or at least
think we are. None appears. We have no radio and cell phone connections
in the “hole”. Gilmar takes a radio and cell phone and
heads up his rough trail. After an hour, from his perch above the
forest, he can reach us by radio and the outside world by cell
phone. The pilot is still at home. That means at least an hour
to get to the helicopter in the Rio de Janeiro traffic, longer
still to reach us. “I was expecting you to call me,” he
tells us. Maria Alice is furious, for we all know how clear her
instructions had been and the impossibility of us calling him from
where he left us. “Come in under the clouds and head up the
valley from the southwest,”

I ask Maria Alice to tell Gilmar to tell the pilot. The valley
floor is still clear and the clouds above it are showing patches
of blue sky. “If you can’t make it today, come first thing

The pilot has abandoned us in a terrible place, one from which
we cannot call the outside. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t
have been here. If he doesn’t arrive in the morning, it will be
a disaster. Even if we can walk out, we’ll have to abandon all
our gear and will be lucky to carry out our cameras and sound recording
equipment. At some later date, we’ll need to come back by helicopter
to recover it. This could delay the expedition for days, even weeks. “What
do I tell National Geographic?” Maria Alice worries. It could
be a lot worse: we have food.

Monday, December 8th morning. We pack for the hike out
and by 9am are on our way. My tent is left up, with our gear packed
as neatly as we can inside it. When we reclaim all that we must
now leave, we want to be able to load it quickly. The rain has
eased a bit.

The way out is simple and daunting. We know where we are and where
we want to be – to the nearest yard from our GPS. It’s not far
– a few miles – it’s just that there is a very large mountain in
the way. We must go around it. Is to the left or the right better?
Gilmar has told us the bad news: the forest has bamboo thickets,
but above the tree line is worse. There are open areas, but they
are bare granite on slopes too steep to climb. We also know that
the fazenda’s elevation is 1500 feet below our camp. Climbing up
the mountain between us will be hard, but also mean that we’ll
have to climb down those 1500 feet – plus every extra foot we climb
up along the way. Accidents are more likely going down than going

cloud forestBy lunchtime, we’re back in camp, wet, muddy from boots to hat,
and smelling of rotten vegetation. After a thousand foot climb,
we get radio and phone reception. We call the pilot, who incredibly
thinks that we were going to call him to let him know when to come.
He flew from Rio the previous afternoon, but gone to a town ten
miles away and found it to be in the clouds. That really angers
us. We’ll get a bill for a thousand dollars for a trip that didn’t
come close to us at a time when the weather was good in our valley.

We also reach Argélio at the fazenda by radio – and that’s
the important news. He’s coming to find us and he’s not coming
the short way. He’s coming up a different valley, though quite
how and where is beyond me. Something about a tractor, I’m told.
One thing we have learned: there are no grey-winged cotingas here.
We hiked to the tree line this morning, but all we’ve heard were
black and golds.


Afternoon. Gilmar and I head up the opposite side of
the valley from our trail. On the steep, but just accessible, granite
slopes, we see a small cleft. It opens into a spectacular valley
running southwards, that joins another, even larger valley coming
in from the west. At its far end is the massive granite pillar
of one of the Três Picos. Beyond this valley to the south,
thick, white clouds cover the lowlands east of Rio de Janeiro.
Everything we can see is forest – surely one of the largest tracts
of forest left in these mountains. This is a glorious, wonderful
place to be stuck!

At the valley’s end – it looks miles away and thousands of feet
below us – is a bright green spot. It’s a pasture and we see three
men, tiny specks even through binoculars. Gilmar is talking to
them on the radio. He takes off his shirt, puts it on a stick and
waves it. I take off my blue rain jacked and do likewise. How on
Earth they are going see us in the middle of this mountain beats
me. We wave vigorously and, improbably, they do.

bright sunshinePerched on the granite bluff, I spend the afternoon looking across
it, listening. Abundant black and golds call. We’re above an exposed
ridge, where the wind stunts the trees; this is supposed to be
the grey-winged’s prime habitat. If it were here, I would hear
it. Clouds fall into the valley, then are swept up into the sky,
and from time to time brilliant sunshine turns misty
grey greens into bright patches of green, with yellow and purple
flowering trees adding highlights. By 5pm, our rescuers are in
shouting distance in the valley below. At 730pm, just as it gets
dark, six of them enter out camp.

Stuart PimmTuesday, December 9th. It blew hard last night, but there
was little chance I would lose my tent – it
had 7 men sleeping in it. (I took the small tent that had been
Gilmar’s.) Still, the wind snapped one of my tent’s poles and it’s
oddly misshapen at first light. After a few days of isolation,
the number of people around camp – 10 of us – seems strange. There’s
a trail bar and a cup of tea for everyone, one lump of sugar in
each cup. That exhausts all our food, but we’re happy. To run out
of food before leaving, would have been inexcusably bad form. To
leave our equipment
behind would have been a disaster too:
we just have enough helpers to carry it out.

It’s downhill all the way, sometimes steep, sometimes through
dense bamboo thickets, but mostly through forest with a closed
canopy that shades the forest floor and keeps it free of undergrowth.
Every step, I’m watch my feet, careful in where I place them, and
use every handhold the trees and lianas afford. This is not the
place to sprain an ankle.

standing aroundAn
hour down, I see a bright orange frog on the ground. It’s about
the size of a dime and, as I admire it, others
see another, then more. There’s a colony of about a dozen of them
within a few yards. Bright and conspicuous, they are advertising
that it’s not a good idea to touch them. When our companions do,
we warn them not to touch their eyes or
lips with their
fingers. “What are they?” we ask. “Does
anyone know?” While we don’t, Maria Alice’s colleague at the
university is a frog specialist, and we’ll ask him. We’ve done this
before elsewhere and the answer has sometimes been that no one has
seen the species before.

We descend past other frog colonies, down into the valley, below
where we black and gold cotingas whistle. Soon, we’re hearing bellbirds
– crow-sized, white cotingas, that sound like cracked bells. There
are more of them than any place I’ve ever been. Their hearing so
many rivals works them up into a calling frenzy. The canopy is
now far above our heads, the going more open, flatter. We come
to a real trail. For the first time in days, we can stride along,
rather than tentatively place each foot down. I feel warm. My clothes
are drying. Three hours after we started, we’re in the open pasture
we saw yesterday, looking back to where we’ve come, marveling that
anyone could see us from this distance.

frogWe hike along another trail, find another clearing, hike more,
and then in the next clearing there’s a tractor. How many people
can you fit on a tractor? Ten – and their equipment – is the impossible
answer. However much I still don’t believe it, I still have the
memory of riding down the valley on the back of a tractor, down
a narrow trail a 4×4 would not navigate, past, then around the
granite domes of Três Picos. Not fast, not elegant, but down
and down, warmer and drier with each slow, bumpy mile. Eventually,
we walk stiffly the last few yards to the hot showers.

By 7pm, we’re on the beach at Ipanema, having a beer with Michael
Brooke and discussing our plans. We should be in Arraras by now,
but Maria Alice will need a day to regroup, check the equipment,
buy food, and most important of all, find another helicopter pilot.
I will now miss Araras, for I must leave on Friday night. My body
demands I spend tomorrow soaking in a hot bath and drying my gear.
Michael arrived two days ago and hasn’t come this far to watch
the beach. We set our alarms for 5am.

cloud forestWednesday, December 10th. By 830am, Michael and I are
slogging up a trail in Serra dos Órgãos National Park heading
for where he found the grey-winged cotinga 20 years ago. It’s my
only hope to see the bird now and, importantly, to see how the
forest here differs from that near Três Picos. Every muscle
hurts as we climb hour after hour, stopping only for me to catch
my breath. We climb up through where the black and gold cotingas
are whistling, then leave them below us. We listen, straining to
hear the grey-winged’s call. No such luck. The forest looks just
the same as it did in Três Picos.

Why weren’t grey-wingeds there? Why were black and golds so common
there, but not here? We hike down, leaving the Park at dusk.

Thursday, December 11th. There’s so much excitement in
Maria Alice’s apartment as we pack the food, organize and check
the equipment. In an instant, they’re off, and I’m alone. I wash
my gear, write my notes, check my e-mail, enjoy a beer on the beach,
listen to the BBC World Service after dinner. I wasn’t expecting
a phone call. From high on the ridge at Araras, exactly where they
should be, exactly where I should be, Maria Alice has excellent
reception. “Wish you were!” Next morning, the phone rings
again. “We have grey-winged cotingas calling all around us” she
tells me. You really should be there!” “Yes,” I
think, “I really should be.”

1 Comment on "The Search for the Grey-winged Cotinga"

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