The Blank, Black Page

Peru2018- 253

Lightning, a hallmark of the rainy season, exposes an overlook in the Tambopata Research Centre.

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The night is a blank, black page,

whose chapters form,

from sleeping hours shorn,

the neglected novels of our lives

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Consider this as a Trust Fall exercise. A fall, back into the void. Trust that there is something there to catch you. To catch your attention.

Robbed of one of our most vital senses, there’s a vulnerability which comes with navigating the night. It’s not only our maladapted eyes, but our other senses which have dulled with disuse, and which assail our conventional notions of safety and security. The  footprints of fear, dragged across these fallow pastures of perception, are then planted in the fertile fields of the imagination.

Our relationship with the night has evolved over the course of human history from an unfathomable void, to an ever-receding pocket of the unknown. Current tools like night vision and IR cameras bring sight back to a blind darkness, and illuminate a rich nocturnal diversity.

A naked tailed armadillo (Cabassous unicinctus) emerges from a subterranean feeding site in the Tambopata Research Centre.

Why go out at night?

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A moulting cicada (a behaviour almost uniquely observable by night), after pumping hemolymph to unfurl its wings, dangles until the wings are sufficiently hardened for flight. Photo from Refugio Amazonas.

Beyond the obvious statement, that this is the only time to see nocturnal animals engaging in behaviour, one can also point to other clear benefits.

  1. The conditions are cooler and more pleasant
  2. Depending on the season, there might be fewer mosquitoes
  3. One can approach closer, and observe in greater detail animal behaviour
  4. One can generally see a greater abundance of animals (Chiefly reptiles/Amphibian/ insects)
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    An Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) dangles from a liana, poised in anticipation of passing prey. Photo from the Tambopata Research Centre.

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    Nighttime can be the only time to observe certain behaviours, like these rainfrogs (Pristimantis sp.) locked in amplexus at the TRC.

  5. Conditions for photography are substantially different, with studio-style lighting or backlighting being possible for certain subjects

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    A female hooded-mantis (Choeradodis sp.) from Refugio Amazonas, grooms herself on the edge of a leaf. Backlighting with a flash from behind can help reveal textures and colours otherwise unobservable.

  6. UV light can be used to observe a world beyond the visible spectrum
  7. Lastly, the value of the psychological challenge; confronting ones fears and the unknown, are a worthwhile exercise, while still operating within a safe environment

While night walks can be enjoyed with nothing more than a flashlight or headlamp, some additional considerations and accessories will certainly improve the experience.

Risks

There are generally few risks inherent to a night in the rainforest; however, disorientation (getting lost), or not watching where one is walking (careless injury) are the most obvious hazards and flying insects can be attracted to one’s flash-/headlight, leading to stings.

Of greater concern is the increased exposure to nocturnal mosquitoes and sand flies (Lutzomyia spp.) which can be vectors for disease (Repellent, and long pants/sleeves is sufficient for all but the most merciless of areas.

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This small and seemingly innocuous nocturnal fly can be a vector for Leishmaniasis, a particularly nasty disease which results in necrotizing skin lesions. Photo from Puerto Maldonado.

Time of night

Just like how the hours of the day can be optimized along different lines (sunrise/sunset greater bird/primate activity), the night can likewise be organized along similar lines. Dusk hours, between 7 and 9 are generally peak periods of activity, with many nocturnal animals waking up from their diurnal slumbers. 9pm-2am represents opportune hunting and feeding times. 2am-6am shows a gradual decrease in activity as animals prepare to return to the safety of their shelters.

Equipment

1) The quality of one’s flashlight/headlamp in my experience is directly proportional to one’s ability to explore and ultimately enjoy the experience of a night walk. I use a Fenix LD22 flashlight because:

  1. It is reliable, well constructed, waterproof
  2. Takes AA batteries which are readily available anywhere (can be borrowed from others if/when forgotten), and can be standardized with other electronics.
  3. Good light output (300 Lumens), and battery life
  4. Small, streamlined profile
  5. Flashlight vs. Headlamp is a personal decision, though I like the form factor of the flashlight, as well as the flexibility to readily pass it to other people, or spotlight finds. It also minimizes the number of head-on insect collisions.

2) I use a Browning Trail Camera which has high quality IR night video.

3) Permethrin-treated pants can help prevent ingress of ticks, and other biting insects

4) It’s often very difficult to determine the weather at night, especially if one intends to be out for more than 1 or 2 hours. In this case, a lightweight, pocketable poncho can be a God-send in an unanticipated downpour. One should also carry either a waterproof bag, or else Ziploc bags for one’s electronics.

5) An ultra-violet flashlight is not something that everyone will need or want, but it can be insightful to see a world beyond the visible spectrum, and can present a great age-independent learning opportunity (these range from the very cheap (~$5) to thousands for professional forensic grade).

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A scorpion with cockroach prey under UV light at the Tambopata Research Centre.

Silence, especially in today’s day and age, where overstimulation is the norm, can often be seen as uncomfortable, as a vacuum which needs to be filled. However, a break from our busy choreographed lives, turning off the lights, and letting our eyes adjust to the dark, and our bodies to the rhythms of the rainforest, can sensitize us to the wonders, otherwise washed away in the maelstrom of the moment.

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A constellation of bioluminescent click beetles twinkle on the banks of Refugio Amazonas Lodge.

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The biochemical reactions producing light are thought to attract winged prey, like ants and termites, into the waiting jaws of the beetle larvae.

Though dread may dwell within our hearts in darkness as we journey into night, it’s worth remembering nature’s lustrous legacy… “Tiger, Tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night…”*.

A puma (Puma concolor) visits a camera trap at Posada Amazonas, Peruvian Amazon.

*Full Poem

The Tyger – William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
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