Published: June 2007
Jennifer Holland

What was your best experience during this assignment?

One warm night, photographer Christian Ziegler, a researcher from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and I took a trip up in the "canopy crane" to observe bats feeding on night-blooming treetop flowers. The canopy crane is a regular construction crane that was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution in 1990 to give researchers access to hard-to-reach heights of the forest. The crane took us up to some 200 feet (60 meters) in the air. We were in the gondola, in contact with the operator by walkie-talkie. We'd tell him where to steer us and off we'd go, swinging around as if on some sky-high carnival ride. The view was extraordinary: the broccoli tops of the amazingly lush forest, the fluffy white flowers that attracted nectar-feeding bats, and, off in the far distance, the bizarre architecture of Panama City. A gorgeous bat hawk landed atop the crane at one point, and toucans occasionally burst from one tree to another. As the evening came, the city lights glowed along with the stars.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

I was staying in the dormitory-like facility owned by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, sharing the space with a woman who had come to work on a howler monkey project. One evening she went to put on a shirt that was lying across a chair and was surprised to meet a scorpion inside the folds. It managed to graze her arm before she got it off her. Luckily she wasn't truly stung, but it then took us at least half an hour to get the thing out of the room, and that night we both worried that she really had been stung and would wake up sick as a dog. (She didn't.) I'm a fan of arachnids, but I was not inclined to get to know this one better. I stepped very carefully around the room—and outside it—from then on.

What was the strangest experience during this assignment?

It was a little unusual—though a very positive experience—to sit in a flight tent, where bats were placed temporarily for some special close-up photo shoots. I suspect that most people probably would wave their arms madly, swatting and shrieking, and run for cover if a bat were to swoop anywhere near them. But in this case, having been won over by these lovely little animals in previous days, I wanted the bats to fly near me. So I sat on a stool at the center of the tent. They'd land on the tent walls and hang out for a bit, then suddenly they'd take off and do a few laps around the space. It wasn't a huge tent, so they really couldn't avoid me entirely. They'd come in close, using echolocation calls to figure out what I might be (a tree? a predator?) before veering off to one side and landing again. I loved feeling the tiny rush of air from their wings tickle my neck as they zipped by. I suspect I might be called quirky for enjoying such a thing.