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Field Notes
Boat
Photograph by Joel Horn
Susan McGrath

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Two bat scientists took me along to band bats at the University of the Pantanal's research station-ecolodge. We set up mist nets in the waning light and retired to drink beer around a small fire as darkness fell.

At the first net check, disaster: A hummingbird had become badly entangled in the net. Eliane Vicente, the younger one of the scientists, worked nimbly to free it, but to no avail. Cursing, she whipped a pair of shears from her pocket and sliced the expensive net until the tiny bird was free.

"If I let it go now, it'll die," she said. "It's burned up all its energy. It needs glucose. What can we give it?" She whirled toward our little campsite. At her direction, I poured a little Coke into the bottle cap. Eliane held the bird's head up to the cap. A tongue as narrow and transparent as a fishing line flashed out and lapped up the dark liquid. A second capful went the way of the first. Eliane bent over, kissed the air above the bird, and let it go.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I'd contracted to fly to Fazenda Santa Sophia with a bush pilot I didn't know. It was already getting dark when I met him, and we sprinted to his car to drive to the airstrip. We could smell his car from 50 feet (15 meters): A jerry can of gas had tipped over in the trunk, and gallons of fuel were sloshing around in it. He laughed, righted the can, and we flung ourselves into the car and roared away, he sluicing around every corner on two wheels, me hanging out the window, gasping for air.

At the airstrip he rolled the plane under an overhanging fuel pump, climbed onto the wing, and began filling his tanks. I looked up at the startling sound of a waterfall. The nozzle had slipped and gas was flooding over the top of the plane and cascading to the ground below. Another maniacal laugh.

"If the window pops open while we're in the air, just pull it shut," he said as we took off. Five minutes later, a great gust blew my hat to the rear of the plane. My entire door had swung open. The pilot hooted with laughter. I slammed it shut.

"I don't exactly have Santa Sophia's coordinates," he said.

"Is that it?"

"How should I know?" I squeaked.

"Must be," he answered, and, dive-bombing the strip, slammed to a bouncing stop. "Admit it, Susan," he said. "I'm one of the craziest pilots you've ever flown with."

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

While I was at Santa Sophia, rancher Bia Rondon, her grown son Pedro, some friends of his, and I canoed down the Rio Negro to a beautiful stretch of white sand. Bia set a watermelon to cool in the shallows, and we all went for a swim, careful to stick to the water overlying white sand, avoiding the piranha-frequented darker patches. Caimans basked at the water's edge. They ignored us, but one got a gleam in its eye when it spotted that lovely pale green watermelon and began to slink over. Bia's chocolate Lab spotted the would-be melon thief and raced over to do her duty, barking furiously. For the remainder of the picnic, the fat dog trotted ceaselessly up and down the beach with a self-important air, dashing at encroaching caimans, careful never to get too close. I doubt a caiman could have gotten its jaws—however capacious—around that rotund watermelon, but you never know. Once, Bia told us, a caiman made off with an entire treasured wheel of Parmesan brought as a house present by a visitor from town.