Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology student Vanessa Merritt spent her summer in Guyana teaching Operation Wallacea students about bird banding. The experience provided Vanessa with extensive bird banding experience that solidified her passion for ornithology.

You would think that after spending almost six weeks in Guyana this past summer, I would have gotten used to surprises.  Unexpected occurrences were common in my daily routine of bird banding, from exciting bird species such as the Royal Flycatcher (pictured), recaptured bird individuals from four years prior, fascinating snakes like emerald tree boas or insects like enormous walking sticks (also pictured).

But on the second-to-last day of my stay in Guyana, I didn’t expect anything thrilling as I went to my hammock to take a much-needed nap.  I had been awake since 4:30 a.m. banding birds, working even more intensely than usual because I no longer had students to assist me in the process, which left me and my banding partner, Joris, to untangle and process all of the tropical species.  Oh yeah, I was looking forward to my nap at 3:00 in the afternoon, nice and cozy in my hammock.

Twenty minutes later, when I had just fallen into the semblance of sleep, I heard the assistant entomologist, Peter, call out “VANESSA!”  I bolted up, unable to see anything from under my rain fly “Yeah?” I said. What in the world was happening? Peter yelled “The sloth is on the ground!!!”

Some context: earlier in the day, a three-toed sloth had been spotted high up in a tree nearby our camp.  I had gone to see it in the morning, and then again right before my nap. But when I visited the tree that afternoon, I hadn’t seen the big, furry creature.  I figured it had just moved to another tree. 

I scrambled out of my hammock, fumbling with the zipper and half-falling out in an attempt to get out, muttering expletives under my breath in my excitement.  I shoved my feet into flip flops and ran over to where Peter was on the trail, and we started speed walking toward camp like there was no tomorrow. Of course, one of my flip flops decided to break at that moment, the strap separating from the sole.  Screw it. I took off both of my flip flops and started running.

Thirty seconds later, I approached a crowd of staff members on a trail near camp.  But I couldn’t see the sloth, and they all seemed to be looking a few feet above the ground instead of on the forest floor itself.  But then I saw why–the mammalogist was holding the juvenile sloth! He had hooked the sloth’s back claws to his belt and was holding its front claws in his hands.  The sloth had been about to climb back up a tree after having pooped (sloths only go on the ground about once a week to poop, otherwise they stay in the trees) when the mammalogist simply picked it up.  Don’t try this at home, kids! He is a trained professional. Soon, everyone had gotten a turn to hold the sloth’s front feet, with its long, smooth claws. I could not believe this was happening! After a quick paparazzi, the mammalogist gently set the sloth on a tree trunk and the usually slow creature began to move with unexpected speed up the tree.  Bye bye, suckers!

Holding a sloth was one of the highlights of the trip, but as I looked at the view from a treetop walkway on the night before leaving the rainforest, I knew the most important part of my stay in Guyana had not been the unbelievable, how-is-this-actually-happening moments.   It was the validation that I am following the right career choice–working with birds in the field. Even after perpetual early mornings, challenging situations, and lack of Western, modern-day comforts, I loved my job. I loved constantly being outside, even in the sticky heat, and felt fulfilled every night after a day of banding birds.  So even though holding the sloth was an unforgettable memory, the most valuable part of my experience in Guyana was the day-to-day routine that allowed me to realize that I belong in field ornithology.