The monkeys respond to the first light, roaring like lions, their little bodies making extraordinary noise compared to their size. Their calls range from a loud roar to a throaty creaky warble, as family members reassert their claim to their turf, and account for their members.
The sky is a blue-red as the sun rises from the Caribbean, across lake Nicaragua, then the old colonial city of Granada, and finally across Laguna de Apoyo, the little spring fed lake which sprung up 23,000 years ago, when the volcano blew and formed a perfect crater, and where I live in the winter. The morning begins early, 5:30, and I almost always want to be part of the show on my upstairs veranda.
The performance begins in a wooded amphitheater. The lake is round, the deepest (over 175 meters) in Central America, and blue, fed by hot springs (83 degrees) and graced with mineral-rich mud used in a popular spa on the Pacific. A variety of fish species live in the lake, including six species of mojarras unique to this Laguna. Apoyo is the biggest and cleanest bodies of fresh water in Nicaragua, maybe all of Central America. Water temp hovers between 83 to 84 degrees farenheit, warm and clean and perfect for swimming. Development in the Nature Reserve is minimal, and MARENA (the government agency charged with preserving Nicaragua’s natural resources) has issued a moratorium on any future building. Near to Apoyo Resort is the Estacion Biologica Proyecto Ecologico, where research, environmental education, and conservation efforts are carried out, and scuba diving and a Spanish school are available. They also offer a variety of walks with trained and well-informed guides to see birds around the Laguna as well as Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua.
The Laguna de Apoyo offers stunning views of Vulcan Mombacho (mombacho.org) which towers to the south. (Http:Vulcanmombacho.com) The forest ring that covers the slopes of The Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, designated in 1991, is home to a tropical dry forest ecosystem with over 500 species of plants, trees and orchids.
Mammals living here include variegated squirrels, opossums, anteaters, pacas, jaguarundis, howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the guatusa. They’re all shy, so you are lucky to catch a glimpse now and again, except for the monkeys, who live in the resort and you see on a daily basis. Reports are that Pumas live on the south, uninhabited side of the caldera. There are 220 species of butterfly, 700 bird species documented in Nicaragua, and 225 in the Laguna Reserve, 65 of them migratory! among them:
The Guardabarranco, also known as the Turquoise-browed Motmot, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Squirrel Cuckoo, Lesser Greenlet, Olive Sparrow, Long-tailed Manakin, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Northern (Baltimore) Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow, Green Heron, Painted Bunting, Great Kiskadee, Great-tailed Grackle, Chestnut-capped Warbler, and the Blue-tailed Hummingbird. Canivet’s Emerald is the smallest of the ten hummingbirds recorded in the Nature Reserve. It’s nest is only four centimeters wide, and often found only one meter above the ground.
There must be berries on the trees today; the birds’ discourse this morning is as busy and varied as a marketplace in Marakesh. Often during the early morning hours I can hear at least three birds’ song, sometimes four or five different little birdsongs, trilling, chirping, yodeling like the Montezuma Orapendula who live in a tree nearby, tweeting, twittering, babbling, warbling, hooting, an occasional raspy cry along with the unmistakeable whooping sound of wings.
Living in the Nature Reserve gives one a stereophonic experience of birdsong. It gives a special tweak to the senses, to be treated to such sensory delight as natural surroundsound, accompanied by the smells, breezes, and by all the chatter of the wildlife.
But especially so at daybreak. Then, the dry rainforest comes alive, smelling fresh and with a symphony of sound and texture….and although I sit outside on my upper veranda, covered by a thatch roof but open to the breezes, no pernicious biting insects are flying to disturb my peace and coffee. The outer reaches of the caldera encircle me with almost perfect symmetry.
At 5:40, I can identify 6 different voices amid the whoosh of flapping wings: the plaintive cry of a dove, the chatter, rhythmic twittering, and staccato chirping of small choruses. I can hear individual notes, an occasional two note imperative, the thumping ten note call that sounds like a squeaky mattress in heavy use. A succeeding cascade of lower notes implores, sweet invitations and dire warnings all. The sky is busy with discourse and engagement. It is the morning marketplace, negotiations enthusiastically pursued. Cries, responses, and exuberance.
By 6:30, the orchestra has slowed down, but is still vibrant, just not as massively urgent and pressured and hormonal. A dove coos, voices are less intent, still a single note, repeated, then quickened, plaintive, please join me, be with me…
At 6:51, there are the first moments of total silence. They don’t last long. The whomp of wings continue as the Orapendulas fly by, then some light chatter as the community of birds becomes quieter and settles down. The frantic display of dominance or hunger or just the expression of ones’ vibrancy and lust for life, is over for now. The massive marketplace recedes, it’s vendors resting from their exertions.
It’s their world, it is abundantly clear, and I am so privileged and grateful to be part of it. It’s like being backstage at the Met, getting close up to all that talent.
So: why do birds sing in the morning?
It’s an excellent time to sing, in part because the dim light and coolness of the morning make it unsuitable for foraging. The relative coolness allows their sound to travel further. It is also a social salute to the day. Birds live in a fission-fusion society, a highly fluid environment comprised of changing small groups, much like their flock behavior in the sky, breaking up, reforming, moving on.
It is typically the males who feel the need to make their presence known at daybreak, but sometimes the female may reply, in a similar voice. She may visit several different males’ perches for days before selecting a mate. Scientists speak of “contact calls” made by birds, that can be altered in seconds, becoming divergent, or less alike, or convergent, and more alike another bird’s sound. These distinctions signal either “stay away” or “”come and see how cool I am”. If the female responds, more typically in African and Australian deserts, then a series of rapid convergence calls occur, with the male altering his calls to mirror the female’s, using a classical sales’ technique.
The range of frequencies at which birds call varies with the ambient sounds in the native habitat, and high traffic areas have been associated with decreased reproductive success. Distress or warning calls are usually brief, and can be used to create a “mob” if the intent is to threaten and repel an owl or another predator. Alarm calls span a wide frequency spectrum, have sharp onsets and terminations, and are repetitive.
A bird’s larynx differs from a human’s in many ways, chief among them being its’ placement between bronchioles and lungs. An avian’ voice box is called a syrinx, Greek for “pan flute”. Muscles and membranes vibrate in magical ways…..
The nightingale “holds” up to 300 different love songs in their repertoire, the brown thrasher 3000….
The canary can take up to 30 mini-breaths per second….
The cowbird uses 30 different sounds…
The chafinch may sing his song half a million times in a season….
British musicologist David Hindley slowed the skylark’s birdsong and found similarities between it and both Beethoven’s 5th symphony and Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fuges. Apparently, Skylarks follow the rules of a classical sonata when changing tune. Hindley describes the use of “variations of rhythm, relationships of musical pitch, and combinations of notes can resemble music”, including “arch-shaped and descending melodic contours in musical phrases”.
The morning voices at Apoyo can transfix you with their beauty, and are an affirmation of the life force with its natural enthusiasm, joy, and hope for another good day.