FOR A CHANGE, A HOWLER
Tony King, Las Cuevas, Chiquibul forest, Belize, Wednesday 24th May 1995
Perhaps today was also destined to be one of those days. (Not one of those days, rather one of those days that banishes the ghoul of recent those days to the depths of your memory, even tainting them with a humourous fondness that in reality could not have been further from the cold truth felt with every last atom in your body at the time. However, memory always has been a selective gift, and, all things considered, all the better for it.) The clutch in the land rover was fixed, albeit most unsatisfactorily and certainly temporarily, the sun, rising god-like behind the magnificent epiphyte-laden sacred Ceiba tree, cut hearteningly through the morning mist in a way that it had not done for nearly a week, and the pair of macaws that heralded the day ahead glistened so scarlet as they passed by you could but stand transfixed 'til they melted out of ear-shot. The best bode, however, was that the usual corned beef tortillas that made up our packed lunch had just for today been substituted with the most tender of Belizean fried chicken. Such was todays special reception.
The clean-so-clean vehicle started with a smoothness unrivalled since the unexpected can of Sunday Guinness, and was soon in combat with an Ocellated Turkey, in all his wattled and beautiful ugliness, as he stamped and gobbled in defence of his two lucky ladies; no doubt his humbling surrender to the great white machine would soon also be assigned to the realms of fond memories, at least once he had shown again why his blue fleshy nose ornament hung so so low during this season.
As we once again entered into our forest workplace, we were greeted by the sound of two more macaws gracing the sky above, followed by the metallic flash-and-hum of what may well have been a Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus as it is popularily known), but to any mortal (as opposed to an experienced Meso-american ornitholigist) it was simply a magical blue blue hummingbird, and the tone of the day was well set.
For a calm day, the quantity of debris falling from the canopy around us was becoming increasingly absurd, and the customary groaning of the trees was becoming ever more regular and non-vegetable like. Looking up we saw them looking down. One. Quosh? No - excitement. Two, this one hanging by its tail. Marvel. Where's the camera? Three. Absolutely something else. The three black howler monkeys, or baboons as they are known locally, shifted uneasily in the canopy, breaking twigs and dropping them at us. Without the hysteria of the spider monkeys, they would casually make a move, then rest a while before exerting any more energy. Sometimes excrement was an easier option than foliage, so that came down too. Not with any particular effort for direction, just to make their statement.
That statement, however, was not enough to satisfy our greedy inquisitiveness - after all, an encounter with a howler is not bona fide without a good howl. To start with it seemed as though the enthusiastic but rather weak howling of the two grounded primates would be the only contribution to the vocal communication; however we were not to be disappointed, as our arboreal companions did rise to the bait and join the symphony. As it turned out it must have been another rather humbling experience, for while the large male extended outwards and upwards the full glory of his bassoon lips and howled, or rather roared, so that his fruit shook and his throat burnt with passion, his two smaller colleagues uttered what could best be described as that mournful crying associated with an imminent nappy change, and often turned their attentions to their tick-laden armpits, scratching so vigourously I can quite imagine the distribution of their bodily hair to be quite the reverse of our own. Whatever effect the impressive display of the one was having on us, it was reversed by the ridiculousness of the contibution from the two backing vocals, and we could but stand and laugh, in the most sympathetic manner of course, at these great defenders of the forest roof.
For such large animals, their eventual retreat was so swift and discrete, we did not notice even in which direction they made their way, and no amount of further taunting howling could induce them to throw back their heads and raise their voices to the heavens to put us once more on their trail. No doubt, content in the knowledge that we offered no threat to the continued well-being of their home, they were happy to settle down and let the hotter hours of the day pass them by, chuckling as they did at the sweaty efforts of the two imitation baboons twenty metres below them to further their own species understanding of this lush wonderland. "Why bother, mon, just taka ya time and drinka ya soup..."