Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

August 2017

Vol. 45, No. 4

About Books: Where Tanagers and Butterflies Sport About

Mark Lynch

The New Neotropical Companion. John Kricher. 2017. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

At mid-day the vertical sun penetrated into the gloomy depths of this romantic spot, lighting up the leafy banks of the rivulet and its clean sandy margins, where numbers of scarlet, green, and black tanagers and brightly colored butterflies sport about in the stray beams. Sparkling brooks, large and small, traverse the glorious forest. (Bates, Henry Wallace. The Naturalist On the River Amazons, p. 56)

I was only nine years old when my parents gave me a present that would further spark my interest in the natural world, especially the tropics. The Wonders of Life On Earth, the “special de luxe edition,” was a large format, colorful book published by the editors of Life magazine. I still have my original copy. This was an introduction to the writings and theories of Darwin, filled with color photography and superb illustrations of wildlife from around the world. Two three-page fold-out illustrations immediately drew my attention. One was a sampling of the myriad types of colorful and weird insects found in a Brazilian rain forest, and the other was a painting of a classic ant swarm, with other attendant creatures, on a Neotropic forest floor. I used to gaze at these pictures for what seemed like hours. Here was a place that was dark and mysterious but dense with life, where unusual creatures flew, such as antbirds or the “Big Winged Masked Lantern Bug” (now known simply as lantern fly). “Could such a place be real?” It was then that I decided I would visit the Neotropics when “I grew up.”

As an adult, I have visited different parts of the Neotropics over the years, and each experience has never failed to exceed my childhood dreams. I have seen ant swarms and attendant antbirds, marveled at the large and colorful butterflies, and seen more species of birds there than any other place on the planet. But, as of this writing, I have yet to see a lantern fly, still one of my most wanted Torrid Zone species.

I was not the only one enthralled by The Wonders of Life on Earth as a young person. John Kricher’s dedication in The New Neotropical Companion reads: “To my parents, who introduced me to the world we live in and to the wonders of life on Earth.” Those are references to both the large format nature books published by Life magazine and The World We Live In, which has inspired any number of biologists, ecologists, and natural historians.

John Kricher is a professor of biology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, who has a genuine talent for writing about the complexities of rain forest ecology. Although he has authored important academic books about the subject, he is most widely known for his books written for general audiences like birders.

There were earlier versions of this book. Kricher’s original book was simply called A Neotropical Companion and was published in 1989. It quickly became a natural history classic, affectionately called “the little green book.” Keep in mind that this was published at a time when it was still a big deal to take a birding trip to Costa Rica or Brazil. There were very few tour groups that catered to birders, and tourist facilities in some parts of the Neotropics were spartan or nonexistent. There were not always high-quality field guides to the places you wanted to go. Finding yourself facing a dark green lush wall of a rain forest, it was all you could do just to spot and identify a bird. At the time, few birders knew anything about the ecology of where they were or how those species they were gleefully ticking fit into that ecology. “ I wrote it at a time when field research in tropical ecology had really begun to burgeon.” (Kricher 1989, p. 9)

In 1989, A Neotropical Companion changed that. Here was a book that described how the trees and vines grew and how a rain forest functions. It taught you how to look for evolutionary patterns. A section called “A Rainforest Bestiary” (Kricher 1989, pp. 276–331) introduced the birder to the other denizens—or at least representative forms—of the rain forest. Finally, a section on “Neotropical Birds” (Kricher 1989, pp. 211–275) gave an overview of the groups and families of birds found there, focusing on their “adaptations and basic ecology” (p. 212) and the extreme avian species diversity in the Neotropics. A Neotropical Companion was beautifully illustrated with line drawings by Andrea S. LeJeune, and included that lantern fly I long to see. The problem was that as fine as these drawings were, black and white illustrations can never capture the full riotous beauty and complexity of the rain forest, particularly the landscapes. Still, A Neotropical Companion, though thick, was small and portable enough to bring with you or at least dip into on your plane ride south.

Which brings us to The New Neotropical Companion. Since 1989, Kricher has written much more about rain forest ecology and has taken and led many more trips to the jungle. This is a greatly expanded version of the original book filled with beautiful color photography on almost every page that makes the text come alive. The text has been thoroughly updated to include the latest information on subjects like the importance of rain forests as carbon sinks or how the El Nino/Southern Oscillation affects the climate of the region. This book is nothing short of a thorough undergraduate course on rain forest ecology. But don’t think that it is a dry, technical text. Kricher has added the meaningful word “companion” to the title. Unlike an academic course, this book is thoroughly enjoyable to read and really geared for the interested novice. On every page Kricher conveys his excitement, his wonder of this unique place. Kricher is personally taking you on a tour of the tropics, and he is great company.

Early on, the reader is taken on “A Sample Walk in a Panamanian Rainforest” (pp. 62–68), which will have you booking your next trip as soon as you can get away.

Rain begins, soft at first, soon more intense. We are surprised at how little of it seems to wet us. The dense, leafy rain forest canopy intercepts most of the rain. Soon the shower ceases, though for a while the steady dripping from the canopy makes it seem as if it is still raining. A loud snap, not too distant, indicates that a big branch or perhaps a full-size tree, has fallen. (p.62)

Later in the text, there will be in-depth discussions about rain forest leaves with their drip tips and about how forest gaps are formed and why they are important. A new section will be appreciated by anyone who has gone on an organized field trip anywhere: “Trail Etiquette: Top Ten Tips” (pp. 68–70) includes:

7. Be aware that you may not be the only one in the group with a camera. Digital photography has provided unrivaled opportunities to document wildlife. The illustrations that grace this book are a testament to that reality. Even small point-and-shoot digital cameras are now available with extremely good telephoto capacity. But, alas, I have seen some overzealous photographers push folks out of the way to get positioned for a clear shot. So please don’t thrust your 500mm lens in front of someone’s field of vision so you can get the “perfect shot” of the Swallow Tanager (Tersina viridis; plate 435) perched in the open. Of course, if you are alone, shoot away.” (p.70)

There is so much interesting information in this book it is impossible for any review to summarize it. But Kricher’s goal is this: “There are two words to keep in mind as I accompany you through the pages of this book: observation and interpretation” (p.12). “My goal will be to teach you how to spot patterns, to observe, to see, and to understand a tropical ecosystem as an ecologist does” (p.13).

My only caveat about this wonderful book is a minor one. With all the new information and the abundant color photography, The New Neotropical Companion is really too big to put in a back pack and probably too heavy for some of you to even consider packing. No matter, plan your trip and read chapters as you count down the weeks and days.

The New Neotropical Companion gives you the information and the concepts you will need so that on your next trip to the rain forest you are not simply ticking species. You will enjoy the whole spectacle of a place with the most species of almost everything including “one third of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species” (p.12). Whether in the dark depths of a rain forest, or in a unique elfin forest, or on the foggy and windy heights of the páramo, Kricher teaches you why this environment is important, what needs to be sustained, and what bird and wildlife to look for there. Yes, there is even a photograph of a lantern fly (p. 360).

Literature Cited

  • Bates, Henry Wallace. 1962. The Naturalist On the River Amazons. University of California Press.
  • Kricher, John. 1989. A Neotropical Companion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Life Magazine editors and Lincoln Barnett. 1960. The Wonders of Life On Earth. Special De Luxe Golden Book Edition. New York: Time Inc. and Golden Press. 
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