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The Search for Formicarius rufifrons


In 1981, a young ornithologist named Ted Parker was poking around the forest near Cocha Cashu Biological Station in southeast Peru's Manu National Park, when he heard a bird song he didn't recognize. Hardly surprising, considering that Manu harbors more bird species than any other conservation area in the world (around 1,000, many of them largely unknown), except that Parker was not an ordinary birder. With his now-legendary talent for identifying vocalizations, Parker knew that this was a species he had never heard before. And if Parker didn't know it, chances were neither did science; he seemed to have stumbled onto a new species, not unheard of for Peru at that time, but still remarkable in a relatively well-known place like Cosha Cashu.
Too remarkable to be true, in fact--once in hand, the true identity of the elusive singer was established as Formicarius rufifrons, the Rufous-fronted Antthrush, described from a few specimens collected in the 1950's, then summarily forgotten, going unrecorded for the better part of three decades before being resurrected by Parker's superhuman ears. This was not a new species, then, but one long-lost, whose basic biology was still completely unkown. This antthrush is not a particularly striking species--both males and females are plump, long-legged, cock-tailed birds, predominantly brown and gray with a dark orange forehead. Its uniqueness comes from its choice of habitat; they favor seasonally flooded forest with a thick understory of Heliconia and bamboo, usually near the edge of rivers or oxbow lakes. This is an extremely specific and patchily distributed habitat, periodically inundated in large floods, which probably explains why the birds were able to escape detection for so long.

Even today, twenty years after Parker's find, and with song and habitat known, Formicarius rufifrons has only been found in a handful of locations, all in Madre de D'os or just over the border in Brazil and Bolivia. The Birds of South America describes it as "Rare to locally uncommon (and very hard to see)," while Birds of Peru labels it "uncommon and extremely local" and lists a whole six locations where it has been observed. In southeast Peru, an area rife with rare, endemic, and elusive birds, the Rufous-fronted Antthrush is among the scarcest and most mysterious species, perhaps one of the most difficult to find birds on the planet.

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But they are at TRC. And I have only two weeks left in Peru, so it is high time I make a concerted effort to track down one of these suckers.

Unfortunately, this is not a straightforward process of strolling along trails through the forest, listening for the bird's song. The antthrush's preferred habitat occurs in only one small patch that is not directly accessible from the lodge's trail network. It is on a semi-island in the river, separated from the main shore by a twenty-meter-wide channel of variable depth, depending on recent rainfall. From this channel the main bank rises steeply to a fifty-meter bluff, which extends back upriver about a kilometer to the entrance to the lodge. The clay lick is part of the bluff, and the tip of the island furthest upriver is used as a viewing point for the lick. A hundred meters down the channel from the viewing point, the island is bisected by a second, smaller channel, perpendicular to the main shore and to the long axis of the island. On the far side of this dividing channel is hidden a small, dying oxbow lake known as the Fish Pond, and it is the forest floor around the pond which the local Rufous-fronted Antthrushes haunt.

There are three basic ways to reach the Fish Pond from the lodge, each hinging on the level of the river, which can fluctuate dramatically from day to day or even hour to hour. The least adventurous method is to take a boat down the channel between the bluff and the island to just past the smaller channel, from which there is a trail to the pond (visitors interested in fishing for pirhana are sometimes taken here). This scheme requires not only high water levels to make the channel navigable, but also motoristas who are available and willing to both drop you off and pick you up, preferably sometime before breakfast the following day--not always a guaranteed prospect. Unfortunately, they tend to be reluctant to transport me, a non-tourist, to anywhere but my station across the river, so unless my day happens to coincide with a rare tourist trip to the Fish Pond, this option is not open to me.

The second way to reach the pond is to be dropped off at the clay lick viewing site at the island's tip (which is always accessible by boat via the river), then bushwhack to the smaller channel and ford it on foot, which is theoretically possible during low-water periods. This plan is similarly dependent on willing boat dirvers, though there are frequently toursits being dropped off at the island. The problem with hitching a ride with tourists is that they never stay at the site for more than two hours, hardly enough time to reach the pond, search for the bird, and catch the boat back.

The third route to the pond is, happily, not constrained by boat driver moods, but it does require very low water levels and a bit of an exploratory spirit. On paper, it involves hiking along a trail from the lodge skirting the edge of the bluff, bushwhacking down the slope, wading across the channel, and bushwacking again to the pond. After a week of low rainfall, I deem this option finally feasible and decide to embark immediately after lunch. I stuff waterbottles, binoculars, and one of the lodge's semi-sharp machetes into my pack, pull on my perpetually reeking rubber boots, and set off down the "A" trail, covering ground about ten times faster than normal--usually I stop frequently to find birds, look at ants, admire the view from the bluff-top, but today, a specific quest is at hand, and the many wonders of the rainforest must wait.

At this point, I still have only a vague idea of where the Fish Pond is, having gleaned minimal information from guides who had been there before via Route #1, so my only thought right now is to find a place where scrambling down to the channel seems possible. I do know that there was once an old blind at the channel's edge used for observing caimans, and on a previous outing I had seen the remains of a trail leading down to the site, so my present plan is to try that spot. Twenty minutes of hiking brings me there, and machete in hand, I start down the steep slope. I can only chop awkwardly with my left arm, as my right hand was stung by something yesterday and has swelled up like a rubber glove filled with water (last night at dinner the kitchen guys told me a story about one of last year's researchers who was strapped in a harness ninety feet off the ground observing a macaw nest when he was attacked by killer bees--he received over 400 stings and barely survived the boat ride to the hospital in Puerto Maldonado. I was lucky, they said, to only have a mano gordo).

I am making slow but steady progress down the bluff; the trail is overgrown but still discernible, and the channel at the bottom is growing closer. Most of the clogging vegetation is dead bamboo shoots--two-inch-thick hollow tubes of tough, fibrous, pungent material with an abundance of long thorns that stick on my backpack, clothes, in my hair, through my skin. Whacking through each stem is like opening a surprise package on Halloween: first a group of termites comes boiling out, then a band of bullet ants appears (inch-long creatures who derive their name from their famous sting, which feels like a gunshot), then the white slime from a three-inch grub I've just sliced through drips to the ground and runs down my machete blade.

I've made it halfway down the bluff now, but I'm starting to get concerned. The trail seems to vanish into a web of angry plants ten meters in front of me. And this task is taking far too long; the dwindling sunlight almost certainly will not see me all the way to the Fish Pond and back--I'll have to come back tomorrow and start from this point. I take one more whack at the bamboo and step forward to survey the tangle ahead. From behind me suddenly issues an indignant hum. I whip around to see a legion of wasps flowing purposefully from the bamboo shoot I had just sliced. Visions of lying unconscious in a boat flying downstream toward a doctor flash through my head. I feel a stab on my shoulder, another on my nose as I turn and charge into the thick vegetation, snapping branches, ripping vines, hurdling logs before plunging futilely against the impassable thicket across the trail. I wince with anticipatory dread, but the buzzing has stopped--the wasps have started to settle back into their mangled nest. I kneel on the muddy clay, trying to slow my sprinting heart and steady my breath, thanking some higher power that the wasps did not deem it necessary to pursue me further.

But I still have to get back past their nest. And the bamboo stem is now leaning across the trail at a steep angle, leaving a very awkward passage. Assuming the wasps will let me pass at all, whether I touch their nest or not. But I have no choice. As I creep back toward the nest, I can see a mass of them perched quietly around the edge of the freshly-cut opening. Poised for revenge, I think wryly. I am within two meters of the stem again, down on hands and knees now, slinking forward slowly, quietly, eyes fixed to the bamboo, alert for any sign of unhappiness in the wasps. Now my head is directly under the nest, my red bandanna inching forward barely a foot under the brooding insects. Shoulders pass through next, then hips, completely flattened to the ground now --wasps still quiet. Legs are halfway through, and I decide to speed up the process just as the angry drone flares up for a second time. I sprint up the slope as fast as rubber boots and slippery clay allow, and the buzz soon fades--I feel ridiculously fortunate that these wasps are genuine homebodies. The Rufous-fronted Antthrush will remain a mystery to me for one more day.

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The next morning, I am barely able to open my right eye; one entire side of my face has swelled up from the sting on my nose. After my morning clay lick session, I opt to go birding on established trails for the afternoon and give my face some time to deflate, so the quest is postponed for tomorrow, my day off. Twenty minutes after breakfast the next day I am back on the old blind trail, staring down at the wasp nest a healthy distance below me. I had hoped that the bamboo stem might have fallen down and the wasps abandoned it, but, alas, this is clearly not the case. I am not inclined to challenge the wasps again, yet I am not optimistic about making it down the bluff without the help of even an overgrown trail. Reluctantly, I choose to initiate Plan B, which I had just formulated three minutes ago when I noticed another pseudo-path leading from the "A" trail diagonally down the slope in the opposite direction from the old blind trail. Reluctantly, because this second path appears to have been created by a herd of white-lipped peccaries, large forest pigs that I generally try to avoid. There are impressive animals, without a doubt, and I am always pleased to see them from a distance, but a herd of eighty of them slogging noisily through the forest toward you can be a trifle intimidating. You can hear them coming from a fair bit away, and the sound of the herd builds and becomes more complex as they draw nearer, like the finale of some twisted, disgusting symphony. First come deep, rumbling grunts, like a whole troop of bass drums, then a wide assortment of sounds vaguely reminiscent of typical barnyard pigs or, perhaps more accurately, a pack of wolves tearing apart a moose carcass--oinks, squeals, snorts, barks, snarls--and finally, when the herd is almost upon you, you hear something like a bunch of cats throwing up hairball after hairball. Quite horrifying really--and these are animals capable of taking out jaguars if properly motivated, which is why I tend to respect their personal space.

But for my present purposes, the peccaries' path of destruction comes in handy. The problem is that the pigs' trail is an appropriate height for pigs, not for 6'-3" humans, so the opening in the vegetation comes to only just past my knees. But that's still half as much machete work as I would do otherwise--unless... it might be fun to get a little muddy, I think. Plus, my right hand is still swollen, and my left is blistered from the machete round of two days ago , so I'm looking for an excuse to keep the blade in its sheath. After the requisite moment of hesitation and self-doubt, I drop to my hands and knees and duck into the opening. It is a perfect fit, barely, and I can slide along slowly without too much hassle. This is an entirely new perspective on the rainforest: with most of my body now within convenient biting range, every little crawling creature demands at least a glance, some particularly threatening ones earn a quick flick out of my path. I inch onward and downward, pausing occasionally to saw through a rogue vine blocking the path. After twenty meters of worming forward, I am suddenly smitten with an acute flash of self-realization, and the utter ridiculousness, stupidity even, of my present situation abruptly halts my movement. An impressive selection of wretched scenarios parades through my brain: uncovering a nest of bullet ants or a tarantula burrow, coming face to face with a bushmaster (the largest of South America's poisonous snakes), or, heaven forbid, the peccaries deciding they want to use their trail in the next five minutes. Granted, any of these could happen anytime in the rainforest, but here, surrounded on all sides by walls of spiky bamboo, there are no routes of escape.

Yet the Rufous-fronted Antthrush awaits. I press on. A minutes later, my persistence is rewarded. The peccary trail opens onto a small spring bubbling from the hillside that flows all the way down to the channel in a path gloriously free of plants. After five minutes of sliding down the slick clay (occasionally on my back), I reach, at long last, the shore of the channel. Elation at finally reaching this point quickly fades to dismay, as I realize there is no chance of wading across on foot. The channel is substantially larger (and dirtier) than it had looked from the bluff top. I stick a dead branch into the water, it submerges two feet, and with minimal effort I can push it through the mud at the bottom. The water at the middle would probably reach my waste, and bottom sludge would surely suck me in entirely, or so my imagination would have me believe. In any case, I seem to have reached a dead end. As if to emphasize this point, the head of a very large spectacled caiman suddenly emerges from the water near the far side of the channel. I judge it a solid eight-footer as it turns and swims toward the channel mouth in the distance. Probably pirhanas, leeches, and horrible microscopic parasites swimming around in there too, I think with frustration.

Well, I'm here now. Might as well explore a bit--maybe there'll be some cool waterbirds or something. I start hiking up the narrow strip of mud between the water and overhanging plants, and my wish is soon granted: a large, gaudily-patterned bird flies toward me along the opposite shore, landing clumsily on a branch jutting over the water. It is a Sunbittern, an odd, chicken-sized bird with a long bill, tiny head, slender neck, thick body, and remarkably plumaged wings with intricate black, gray, and rufous markings. This is one of the distinctive tropical birds I've been wanting badly to see, and I am relieved that the morning's efforts have not been completely wasted. I decide to walk a tad farther before heading back to the lodge for lunch. The next few minutes yield no new birds, but just before I am about to turn back, I notice a well-defined set of animal tracks emerging from the forest and following the edge of the water in the direction I'm walking. They're clearly from a very large cat, jaguar or puma--I don't know enough to tell them apart--but either one would be a fair bit larger than I. Last night there had been a brief but fierce rainstorm, so these are no older than early this morning. And as my alertness level abruptly increases, I hear a low rumbling in the distance. Not from some large predator, as my imagination briefly believes, but from an approaching storm. The sky above me is still deep blue, but the weather is approaching from the northwest, where the bluff shields my view. Time to head back; getting caught by a tropical deluge while crawling up a peccary trail does not greatly appeal to me.

I stare ruefully at the opposite shore, knowing that somewhere over there, strolling contentedly around the forest floor, is a little gang of Rufous-fronted Antthrushes. I cannot help but chuckle at the absurdity of the situation: for a kid from Ohio to see this bird, he has to fly to an entirely different continent in a different hemisphere and then over the second-highest mountain range on earth into a little town on the edge of a vast forested wilderness, take a boat six hours upriver into that wilderness, make his way down a bluff of slippery clay through a mess of thorny plants harboring hordes of attacking insects to a shore patrolled by big, hungry cats and and an army of cantankerous swine, then cross a moat filled with sharp-toothed beasts, and finally, once he's in the right spot, actually go and try to physically see the infernal things as they hide in their shadowy homes on the rainforest floor, all the while trying to avoid spontaneous tropical thunderstorms.

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I've realized by now that I'll have to get lucky even to get to the Fish Pond by the time I leave, let alone find the antthrush. However, five days later, luck arrives in the form of a tourist named John, a very nice British fellow who works for Conservation International. He is also a keen birder (which is, surprisingly, not very common among the visitors) and wants to have a go at the antthrush. He is accompanied by Pat, a guy from Buffalo, NY who worked on the macaw project last year and has hung around since then, offering his services as a guide to Rainforest Expeditions and generally killing time until he heads off to graduate school. Pat is an excellent birder with a lot of experience in South America, and he saw Rufous-fronted Antthrush here last year, so I figure my chances are much improved if I tag along with him. With the two recent storms, the channel is just deep enough to allow boat passage, so Pat arranges for the motorista to drop us off during late afternoon, when the birds are more likely to be singing. As we step off the boat, I peer down the channel, trying to make out where the forest had spit me out the previous day--but it is of no consequence now, I'll be at the Fish Pond in a matter of minutes.

The seldom-used trail to the pond is, thankfully, relatively clear, aside from the spider webs strung across the opening every few feet. Most are just minor annoyances, sticking in our mouths and eyes, causing us to spit and blink violently as we walk, but a few belong to the imposing Golden Orb-Weavers, massive yet beautiful things that build webs so sturdy we practically bounce off of them. Fortunately the thickest strands are bright yellow, presumably to alert clumsy mammals like us before we blunder into them, so we're able to avoid most damage to the webs and ourselves. The orb-weavers still cause numerous detours, though, as we're loath to wipe out such impressive structures with a swipe of the machete. After a bit more effort than necessary, we soon attain the shore of the pond (I resist the urge to break into a victory dance) and start listening. There are lots of birds here, and we occupy ourselves for half an hour watching tiger-herons, kingfishers, nightjars, becards, horneros, tanagers, and parakeets, but the object of the trip still has not announced its presence. We are becoming restless; Pat keeps glancing at its watch; he suggests that we keep walking the trail around the perimeter of the pond. Just as we begin moving, Pat freezes, his hand cupped to his ear. And then I hear it too, a series of quick, clear whistles, rising in pitch and then falling again, just as I've listened to a hundred times on tape. This is the bird. There is an excited silence among us as we exchange glances with raised eyebrows and slight smiles. So the Rufous-fronted Antthrush does actually exist. And there's one singing just on the other side of the pond.

We hoof it around to the opposite side of the water and stop to listen again. The bird is still calling persistently, about one-hundred meters into the forest. Our luck holds: there is the trace of a trail leading off in that general direction (why it's there I can't imagine, but I am not about to complain). A bit of deft machete wielding by Pat halves the distance betweeen us and the bird, which is whistling away every twenty seconds or so. The song is easily imitated, and Pat performs it admirably, calling back to the bird after every series of whistles. The antthrush responds properly, moving toward us slowly, thirty meters away, then twenty, then fifteen, then it is only a few strides away, still singing, and still invisible. The undergrowth here is impossibly thick, consisting mostly of the ubiquitous bamboo and Heliconia, which sport enormous leaves like banana trees that obscure large portions of the forest floor and cast severe shadows over anything below them, including small, wary, dark-gray birds whose very existence is predicated on secrecy.

The antthrush has stopped moving toward us, and now seems to be pacing back and forth parallel to the trail, never coming closer than about twenty feet. The three of us space out, Pat in the middle, still carrying on his conversation with the bird. John and I both know this is probably our best chance to ever see Rufous-fronted Antthrush, and the adrenaline is flowing freely. The bird continues to walk back and forth, and we labor heroically to penetrate the vegetation with our eyes, contorting our bodies like some ridiculous trio of interpretive dancers. John is leaning forward on his hands, face scraping the ground, one leg stretched behind him, looking ready to start the 100-yard dash as he strives to see underneath the plants. I take the opposite approach, standing on my tiptoes on a fallen log, neck craned upwards, praying that the bird will step into one of the few gaps between the leaves. Pat is standing more or less normally, but, as he attempts to find the proper angle of observation, his whole torso is jerking violently around as if trying to avoid a hail of poisonous darts. We play this game for a full half an hour, the antthrush teasing us mercilessly, still pacing, still singing cheerily, secure in its shadowy refuge. At one point John emits a strangled yelp; "I saw its bloody tail," he growls exasperatedly.

Our desperation is growing, and the sun is setting. The boat will be back in ten minutes to pick us up. I resist the urge to charge into the undergrowth; I know it would accomplish nothing except cause the bird to shut up and disappear, not that that would really worsen our situation. The shadows are deeper than ever, and the sounds of dusk--chachalachas hollering and oropendolas bubbling--are starting to sweep through the forest. The antthrush takes its cue and falls silent. No amount of zealous whistling from Pat can rouse it again. Resignedly, we begin the slow walk back to the boat. The Rufous-fronted Antthrush has won another round.

-----

So Route #1 worked to perfection, until the part where we actually had to see the bird. Route #3 frankly kicked my butt. This morning I plan to resort to my one remaining option, Route #2. With the recent arrival of two guacamayeras to take my place, I have the entire morning to devote to the search, as well as a proposal to the boat-drivers that was luckily accepted last night over dinner. They have agreed to drop me off with the tourists and pick me up when they collect Angelica, who is on clay lick duty this morning. I stock up on fruit and galletas, which I have to filch from the storeroom in the dark of early morning before the kitchen staff is up. Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, I step onto the boat with the tourists: this is it, the final shot, the last hurrah, the grand finale, my last little bout of Amazonian birding before heading back to America. Tommorow I begin the journey home. Tough to believe; tomorrow's trip seems surreal, just as this place did when I first arrived. In two months here, I've seen almost 350 kinds of birds, including most of those endemic to the lowlands of southeast Peru. There is still a painful gap in my list, though, which I have one more chance to rectify.

There are four tourists today, and as they set up their folding chairs and telescopes on the island's tip, I cannot help but wonder what they think when the silent young man in muddy clothes and torn rubber boots that had come with them suddenly marches into the bushes, machete in hand (and perhaps a slightly wild look in his eye), humming the music from The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf and company are trekking heroically over the Misty Mountains. But my image to a group of random strangers is the least of my concerns. My one focus presently is reaching the small channel, which I accomplish easily; the vegetation here is blessedly sparse, at least relative to my past few bushwhacking experiences. I am now standing eight feet from where John, Pat, and I were dropped off last week, with the main channel on my right and the smaller creek directly in front of me. With a feeling of foreboding, I try the stick test again, dipping a branch experimentally into the channel; all four feet of it disappear, and I almost lose my balance on the steep, slippery bank as I fish for the bottom. Unbelievable--this channel is a lot narrower, but definitely not any shallower than the larger one. For a moment I think about trying a flying leap across, but quickly reconsider when I remember the slippery bank, the rubber boots I'm wearing, my perpetually stiff ankle, and the several hundred dollars worth of optical equipment hanging around my neck.

My only option at this point is to walk along the bank further into the island, hoping for a location where crossing is feasible. The vegetation grows thicker and thicker as I move further up the channel, leaving me with only a narrow band of mud at the water's edge on which to walk freely. My luck holds, though; the channel is getting wider but shallower, and through my binoculars I can see that it is reduced to a muddy trickle a few hundred meters away. I soon reach the point and survey the situation: the channel has become more or less a fifteen-foot wide puddle of reeking mud, a delta of sorts where the stagnant stream I've been following fizzles out into the forest. I am surrounded on three sides now by dense thickets, so I must cross here or nowhere. Praying that the duct tape job on my boots hold up, I take a tentative step into the muck, and promptly sink in past my boot. Flailing to keep my balance and pushing with the one leg still on solid ground, I tug violently, wrenching my foot free of the mud. Unfortunately, I also wrench it free of the boot. Dangerous curses flow freely from my mouth as I stretch one hand toward it while anchoring the other to the nearest tree trunk. After a long bout of pulling and wiggling, the boot slips free with a tremendous squelch--the mud's suction power is nothing less than extraordinary.

But the situation is surely worse in the deeper parts of the channel, so this is still my best bet for getting to the Fish Pond, as unattractive as it may be. I pour at least a liter of mud out of my boot before putting it back on, trying to ignore the sliminess and rotting stench. I think for a few minutes, then decide that the best approach would be to construct a series of stepping stones across the mire. Unfortunately, material for the project proves scarce, and it takes me a solid half an hour before I find enough pieces of dead wood that I deem sturdy enough to distribute my weight over the hungry mud. I toss one out a few feet in front of me, followed by another a few feet beyond that. With a bit of luck, my heaves space the logs fairly evenly; with even more luck, they float obediently on the surface of the mud. Part of my mind insists that as soon as I stick my weight on them, they'll sink just as fast as my boot did the last time, while my optimistic side believes that they'll slow the descent into the mud just long enough to let me bound across safely to the other side. Only one way to find out.

I stow my binoculars securely in my pack, stretch my legs briefly, and take a deep breath of thick, stinking air. Think dainty, I tell myself, light and dainty. I bounce onto the first log, arms splayed for balance, and quickly dance across the others--a mere five steps brings me to opposite bank. The forward momentum I've been frantically trying to maintain almost takes me into a nose-dive, but at least I'm across. The logs had done their job, but they were now completely submerged; a return trip this way will require more construction. But I have at least three hours until I have to worry about that. The quest again comsumes my thoughts: the Fish Pond is now within reach, and with it the Rufous-fronted Antthrush. A short time later I am back at the mouth of the channel where the trail begins, looking back at where I had stood an hour and a half ago. After ninety minutes, I have come a grand total of eight feet.
No matter--I have switched to bird-finding mode, and thus begin my lonely but determined pacing along the Fish Pond trails. The day is very warm and humid but slightly overcast, which I welcome. I actually think it's easier to find birds in the understory when there is no sun to be broken into a myriad of shadows and flecks of light, many of them uncannily bird-shaped. But sun or no, I don't have a prayer of seeing the antthrush unless one of them sings, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be their activity of choice at the moment. Perhaps a little prompting is in order: I lick my lips and burst into a whistle long-rehearsed (much to the amusement of Vladi, the lodge chef, last night at dinner). Surprisingly, it sounds rather good to my ears--the antthrushes can't help but be seduced by that, I think. I briefly lose myself in visions of dozens of little birds trotting perkily out of the bamboo, tails raised excitedly, eager to greet their new neighbor. Reality slaps me rudely--there are certainly not dozens of antthrushes hanging out here, and even Pat's professional imitation could not draw the few that are here out of their dark havens.

So I stand there making Rufous-fronted Anttrush noises, trying to sound casual, fighting to keep my underlying desperation out of the whistles. It's a tough crowd this morning, though, and no responses come. I walk slowly back and forth around the pond, my mouth dry from persistent whistling. More than two hours pass, and the desperation is growing. I decide to give myself another thirty minutes to find the bird, which will leave an hour to get back to the pick-up spot (for some reason I tell myself the return trip will be quicker). And then one sings. Almost directly in front of me, twenty meters off the trail. I whistle back, the sudden surge adrenaline causing my pitch to shoot up a bit. The antthrush doesn't seem to notice and responds, slightly closer this time. This is it, I tell myself. I'm finally going to see this thing, and then I can go home, sleep in a bed without mosquito netting, drink water with ice cubes in it, eat peanut butter sundaes, and regale anyone who cares about my epic search for Formicarius rufifrons.

I whistle again, trying to coax it even closer. Again it responds, again slightly nearer, but still behind the ubiquitous shield of bamboo. I am crouched on one knee, eyes burning from the strain of staring into any slight opening in the stems, unwilling to blink, reluctant even to breathe but for my dire need to keep up my conversation with the bird. It continues to whistle back enthusiastically, and my ears direct my gaze toward the source, but it has stopped moving. Just like the bird with Pat and John, this antthrush is singing meters away, yet remains invisible. I keep whistling. The bird stays put. I glance at my watch--ten minutes left. I scan the vegetation again, searching for some sort of opening to look through. The anttrush sings again. And once more. And then it is silent. I whistle in a vain attempt to revive it, but no success. The bird that never showed itself in the first place has vanished once more.

So that's it then--time to head back to the boat. I decide to gamble on a new route, and, with predictable irony, it works wonderfully; I find myself on the opposite side of the island from where I started, on a pleasant gravel bank along the main river. As I hike around the perimeter of the island back toward the pick-up spot, free of nasty plants, I cannot help but reflect on my attempts. I hadn't seen the bird, but I'd sure gotten dirty trying, and in the process come to know this environment just a little more personally. And really, I almost think it's better this way: the Rufous-fronted Antthrush will remain in my memory just as Ted Parker found it twenty years ago, a mysterious voice floating out from the floor of the Peruvian rainforest.

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