Tropical Forests

Mayan Temple Ruin, Chan Chich, Belize

What is it about tropical forests that says “Forest Primeval”? The dense canopy that lets little sunlight reach the ground? The huge trees variously covered with lichens, bromeliads, vines, and algae? Tropical rain forest – stuff growing on stuff, growing on stuff. Subtropical oak-pine forests – lichens and huge trees. The national flower of Puerto Rico – a tiny orchid that grows on the moss and lichens on tee trunks. Belize – house plants climbing up tree trunks – vines hanging everywhere. El Volcan de Nieve, Mexico – 8,000 ft elevation – oak-pine forest. The ground is shaded, but there’s not the wild profusion of things growing on things. Rather, a profusion of understory shrubs and other plants. Fallen tree trunks covered with moss.

If one sits on a shaded veranda with a cold beer or a warm cup of coffee and listens during the day there’s something of a cacophony of animal sounds.  Mostly birds, but sometimes mammals or amphibians. At El Yunque, the dominant background sound is the call of the coqui frog. They live in the bromeliads up in the trees and call incessantly – co-qui, co-qui – aptly named. Around the villages in the mountains is heard the call of the domestic rooster – the national bird of Puerto Rico it seems since they are around every bend in the road.

At Chan Chich it is birds. Parrots seem to predominate up in the canopy, but down at ground level, there are the melodious blackbirds and ocellated turkeys. The turkeys don’t have much to say, but the blackbirds are opera stars. Oropendolas are the dominant sound in the dawn chorus and a large part of the daily cacophony … and there are hummingbirds – no noise except for the chitter that accompanied a chase.

Two mammal sounds dominate the daytime at Chan Chich. At dawn, dusk, and at intervals throughout the day there is the sound of howler monkeys. The various troops calling to let one another know where they are. Well named – they produce a loud roar that seems like it should come from some fierce predator. On occasion, there may be the shrill scream of a distressed spider monkey. A young monkey, apparently abandoned by parents, swinging through the trees making piteous cries.

Night in the Chan Chich forest. Frogs calling from small ponds and the river. The soft sound of running water. Insects – probably tree crickets or other leg violin players. Tracks along the footpath in the morning – El Tigre and a cub.

At El Volcan de Nieve there is the call of trogons. A rather raucous call for such a beautiful bird – when they can be spotted. Bright red and green that disappears in the forest canopy. Lots of songbirds tweeting and twittering, but overall a quiet forest.

Night in the pine-oak forest is utterly quiet. No nearby ponds or streams to harbor frogs – and salamanders make no audible sound. Bats visiting night-blooming flowers and catching insects above the understory. Their calls are inaudible. Walking up a ridge, checking mammal traps at dusk – oppressive silence – is that soft sound El Tigre? Just after dawn at the top of the ridge; campfire ashes – still warm.

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