No Bird Is an Island

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Reillo is concerned that the tree is being infested by termites and that the fertile jacos will be driven out. To determine how much damage the termites have already done to the tree, Reillo intends to "probe" the nest cavity with a still camera to see what is going on inside. He has brought along an ad hoc contraption that consists primarily of yellow fiberglass tubes, one inside the other, that can be expanded outward like a telescope to 40 feet. Attached to the end of the tubes is part of a fishing pole with a tiny camera taped to it. The plan is to maneuver the camera into the nest cavity and snap a picture.

Reillo, who is six feet, four inches tall, holds the camera/fishing pole precariously over his head as Sheets provides geographical guidance. But Reillo is facing a pretty fundamental problem: The probe is too short. "We need the 50 foot," he says in irritation. "I was off by just enough to make this a pain in the neck."

Despite the seemingly critical problem of not being able to reach the nest cavity, Reillo is determined to get a picture. He and Sheets heave a decaying log, about four feet long, lengthwise against the carapite tree, and Reillo climbs atop it. Termites swarm at his arms. Balancing the pole overhead, he somehow manages to maneuver the camera into place -- only to lose power.

The probe is brought back down to the ground, the batteries and wires checked to make sure everything is in place, and Reillo again guides the camera into the nest cavity. But once more the camera blacks out. Finally it's determined that the problem is a splinter in the fishing pole. After some electrical tape repairs, power returns to the camera, and this time Reillo successfully snaps a picture of the jaco nest. By the end of the process, he is sweaty and caked with the rich soil of Dominica.

All for what? A black-and-white image of something blocking the nest cavity. It could be termites, or it could be wood ants -- which are less problematic -- or it could be something else entirely. The picture is inconclusive.

We drive on for a few minutes and climb a hillside overlooking a citrus grove. Almost immediately a squawk is heard and Reillo stops in midsentence to survey the scene. He can spot a parrot and discern its origin as easily as most people tell their left shoe from their right. Two jacos then dart across the sky in tandem, Reillo tracing their path with his finger. The birds are mostly green with a splash of blue on their heads and another swatch of red across the neck. After a few minutes, accustomed to our presence, more jacos soar by, sweeping down to perch momentarily and steal a bite of tangerine off the trees.

"I guarantee you, at least 20 birds can see us right now," Reillo says in awe. "Here we're looking at one of the rarest parrots on earth and yet on any given day you can come up here and see one."

What we don't see, though, is perhaps more telling: Throughout a day of traipsing in and around the proposed area for Morne Diablotin National Park, not one sisserou parrot is spotted or heard.

Paul Reillo has known greater frustrations than tottering on a rotten log in the bush while balancing a camera prone to power outages over his head. At a similarly remote location more than a decade ago in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, Reillo was studying the breeding habits of stalk-eyed flies, which feature exaggerated eye stalks that grow to almost twice their body length. As Reillo descended from a forest shrouded in clouds after a day of field work, logging trucks rumbled by headed in the opposite direction. The trucks were on their way to systematically remove the very habitat that enabled stalk-eyed flies to survive.

At the time, Reillo was engaged in postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland at College Park. He had earlier earned a doctorate in zoology from Maryland's Baltimore County campus and was on a career path that could have led to a tenured faculty position. Reillo describes the encounter with the logging trucks in Malaysia as a "cathartic moment" in his thinking about conservation work and academia. He came to the realization then that the "continued pursuit of esoteric academic questions was absolutely ludicrous in light of the fact that the ecosystem as a whole was being destroyed." And Malaysia was far from an aberration: Similar environmental destruction was being repeated all over the globe -- especially in poor tropical countries, where the vast majority of the world's biodiversity exists.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko