"IS that what I think it is?" Molly Calderon wondered aloud, jumping off her stool on the verandah of the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWMC).
"Yes it's a grey hawk!" she exclaimed, peering through her binoculars. Calderon scrambled to her feet, positioning the telescope to face an immortelle tree where the bird was resting. In a matter of seconds, we're taking turns, marvelling at the sight of the grey hawk as it teetered on a branch of the immortelle.
"It almost looks like a golden eagle," gasps American visitor, Allison.
As Calderon stands at the side, clutching her binoculars and on the look out for further movements, I make sure to stay out of her way, mindful that she is on the job, doing what she does best. As cliche as that sounds, there is really nothing else that Calderon - a naturalist tour guide at AWNC would rather do. Everything that inhabits the skies and the earth below fascinates Calderon.
"You see those cornbird nests over there?" asks Calderon as she points to the nests hanging like teardrops from a hog plum tree.
"It takes the cornbirds three and a half weeks to build those nests. I have watched them day in, day out build those nests, they have no fingers, no needles, I've watched as they use their beaks to sew dried leaves from heliconias and torch ginger lillies together to make those nests, I've seen how they gather dried cocoa leaves to use as bedding for their young. I don't understand how anybody could look at that and not love it."
When Calderon is on duty leading a group of visitors ranging from bubble-gum smacking, iPod wielding teens to avid bird lovers who leave the frigid cold of North America to search for oilbirds in Trinidad's north coast, Calderon is constantly on the alert, her eyes on the look out for anything new. Back and forth, up and down - her eyes scan the skies and search the branches among trees, looking for something with which to thrill her audience. Calderon is proof that we don't have to go far or dig deep in books and magazines to find people who can tell us everything there is to know about nature, sometimes those very people are walking the trails of places like AWNC.
As the last of Lawrence Calderon's 17 children, Molly had an unbreakable bond with her father whom she idolised. Calderon (Lawrence) was the first nature guide at the AWNC and worked alongside the difficult and tempestuous Asa Wright herself. The days spent toiling in the hot sun, taking orders from the rough, robust Wright was a subject often discussed around the dinner table on evenings.
"He used to talk about her. She was not an easy person from what I was told. But my dad loved nature, so he forgot about the rest and just did his job," says Molly.
Her father, a 'cocoa panyol', taught his youngest child everything there was to know about nature. He watched on as Molly collected frogs and insects and tied strings onto the backs of cicadas (flying insects an inch long) and used them as kites until the insects untangled themselves and flew away. He was also a protective father, reciting prayers in Spanish upon his daughter's head when Molly as a little girl, had a dangerous encounter with a nine foot bushmaster that lay inches from her face, ready to strike. Everywhere her father went, Molly was at his heels. It wasn't long before Molly, in her father's footsteps began hunting as a teenager, heading out with him every two weeks.
"We made sure to kill just one animal and one animal alone. Dad said it was to control the pests that were damaging our crops, I'm glad I had the experience but I don't hunt anymore," she says. The days spent picking cocoa, splashing around in the cool river waters, pounding breadfruit in a mortar, drinking spring water directly from the springs and climbing chenette trees as a child only solidified in Calderon's mind what she wanted to do later on in her life.
"I wanted to be exactly like my dad. I knew a job in an office was not for me. I needed to be outdoors with nature, for me being a naturalist tour guide was my dream job," she says.
But with no vacancies for a guide available at the time Molly first applied, she opted to work as a waitress at the nature centre. For a year she waited tables, counting down the days until a position for a tour guide would finally open. Her father died in her arms before he got to see her dream come true. But the knowledge and love for wildlife and nature lives on in Calderon.
For the past ten years since she has been a naturalist tour guide at AWNC, she has been charming visitors with her smile and impressively vast knowledge of plant and animal life. Today she knows 30 bird calls, from the eerie 'whoop' of the blue-crowned mot-mot to the 'phew-phewww' calls of the squirrel cuckoo - Calderon knows them all.
"Is it easy to confuse all these bird calls?" I ask.
"No, because each of the birds have distinct calls," she answers. She purses her lips and whistles a familiar melody to a rufus brow peppper shrike. Seconds later as the bird returns the greeting, Calderon gives me a wink. "Now you try,"she says.
When my attempt at serenading the bird falls flat, Calderon smiles.
"You just need a couple of months to get it right," she says.
"How about a couple of years?" I respond with a laugh.
One would imagine that after doing tours at the AWNC for ten years, things can get boring. Quite the opposite, Calderon assures. Some days are exciting, like the day when when she unknowingly stood next to a coiled mapepire as she lectured a group on snakes. Then some days her tours can take a comical turn thanks to the animals themselves, like the golden headed manakin that performs the electric slide and the moon walk on tree branches to attract females, or the cornbird which shows off its rump while flapping his wings to draw a mate. Yes her workdays are long and often times the workload is heavy, but boring? Never. Most of all, the animals teach us humans valuable lessons, says Calderon and best of all, these lessons are for free.
Of all the animals she has worked with, the creature that impresses Calderon the most is the bachac.
"When you look at the bachac, you can't help but notice that they are very structured, orderly, everybody has a part to play," says Calderon as she kneels to examine a large bachac nest as bachacs carrying tiny yellow petals on their backs march single file into several holes landscaping the large colony.
There are workers who get the leaves, they then pass it to others who chew on the leaves and spit it out, then there are those who urinate on it and finally mold grows on the deposits which they can then feed on. Their queen can live for up to 30 years, and they are very loyal to her. When she dies, the whole colony dies. So when she is gone, it's almost as if they have nothing to live for so they starve themselves and eventually die. But if you look at them closely while they are at work, you'll see that no one goes off course, they work as a unit and get the job done. It's so simple. If they get it, why can't we?"
Instead of looking at the outdoors as simply 'bush', try taking some time out every day to appreciate the wonders of nature, Calderon advises. In her field she has seen many more foreigners than locals enjoying the wildlife that this country has to offer. She'd like to see more locals and particularly youths expand their knowledge and love of our flora and fauna.
Says Calderon, "If foreigners can see and appreciate the beauty of what we have here, then I believe there has to be a way to get the locals more involved. I want them to just come by, take a deep breath, open their eyes, look around and take it all in. I find it hard to understand why people can't see the beauty and life in this 'bush'. Let's enjoy what we have and cherish it."
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