Sunday, September 30, 2007

Amazon Nocturne

Sunday, September 30, 2007
In the post before last I alluded to a dark form in the trees above where our Amazon boat, El Delfin, had been temporarily moored during an afternoon thunderstorm. That dark form, as many of you guessed,turned out to be a sloth--a male three-toed sloth to be precise.

Three-toed sloth.

This was my first-ever look at a sloth in the wild. Their faces are haunting, reminding me of one of those monkey heads carved out of a coconut. And they move like sedated furry snakes from limb to limb through the trees. This guy was taking his time and seemed completely unconcerned about the gathering thunderstorm.
As the male sloth reached the outer limbs of this branch we got a clear view of the orange patches on his back. Such a cool creature...

As the rain slackened we boarded the skiffs for an evening excursion up a small tributary. Having the shoreline habitat closer than it was on the big river made the birding better and easier. Too bad the light was fading.

On the left hand shore, a feeding flock caught our attention and I called out an all-blue bird I saw swoop into the center of a tree. It was a plum-throated cotinga! This is a bright blue bird with a purple throat and a white eye. Cotingas are a tropical family of birds, somewhere between a thrush and a flycatcher. They can be hard to see because they are not very active. But once you spot them they may sit for a long while.

This bird did and I used my new green laser pointer to get everyone else on the bird, describing a large circle around the bird. I found the laser pointer to be utterly useful for jungle birding, when saying things like "It's in the top of that large green-leafed tree" just won't cut it.
Plum-throated cotinga (if you squint your eyes).

I got a crummy shot of the cotinga in the low light. But at least you can see the blue plumage, dark throat, and white eye.

As we left the cotinga, one of our skiff's passengers screamed. A fish had lumped into the boat and was flopping around in the bottom. As one of the passengers reached down to pick it up to toss it back into the river, our guide said "Please be very careful of his teeth and spines!" Michael, an American tour packager and avid fisherman, picked up the fish. Dave, another outdoorsman touched the fish's mouth and promptly for a bad bit on his index finger. This was not a piranha, but it still packed some wicked teeth! Could it be the influence of all those hopped-up outdoor adventure shows where it's not enough to just LOOK at an animal, you've also got to HANDLE it? I'm not casting aspersions here, just wondering....

The offending fish was released to the dark water once more.

Soon it was too dark for birding so we turned our attention to spotlighting other wildlife, such as caimans. Our guide leaned out over the bow and snagged this juvenile caiman from the shallow water.

Caimans are lovely to look at. Little ones like this could not hurt you unless you invited them to bite you. In the days to come we'd see much larger caimans that actually licked their chops as we motored past in small dugouts.

One of the birds we got close-ish to was this ladder-tailed nightjar. We also saw (poorly) a greater potoo--one of my quest birds.

Ladder-tailed nightjar.

Soon enough the bugs were getting bad putting thoughts of bad tropical diseases into our tired heads, so we began motoring back to the big boat. It was pitch black at this point and the guide had to shine the flashlight ahead of us to try to see the best route through all the shallows and submerged logs. WHAM! We hit a mudbar and everyone grunted. I hit my forehead on the wooden seat in front of me and the passenger next to me cracked his seat's support. It was more of a scare than an actual accident--no one and no gear was lost overboard. Still, it made us proceed with caution.

Heading back to the boat.

Once back on board El Delfin we cleaned up, had a drink, and headed for dinner. After yet another delightful meal, we were told we'd be going on a little hike the next day. The ship's crew began passing out knee-high rubber boots. Our destination? A large inland lake with the very evocative name El Dorado. The Gold!

What sort of adventure would tomorrow hold?


On September 30, 2007 at 8:02 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

I've never thought of sloths as particularly visual creatures, but the ornate markings and bright color on this male sloth argue otherwise. What a gloriously beautiful animal. Sedated furry snakes indeed!
Did you know they have to descend to the ground to defecate--and they do that once a week?

On September 30, 2007 at 8:21 PM Sara said...

Fascinating picture of the sloth and the color patterns on his back. Is the orange area hair or skin ?
The Plum-throated Cotinga looks like a beautiful bird and seeing it in person must be very exciting. However, boating after dark sounds a little too exciting, I glad to know that BOTB and company weren't carried off by insects or bounced overboard to the toothed critters ! Be careful out there....oh right, you're already back. :>

On September 30, 2007 at 9:21 PM Mary said...

I saw a nature show on Saturday morning about two-toed sloths and they do defecate (infrequently). Perhaps it's because thay hang upside-down all the time?

Your sloth is much brighter and eye-pleasing than the ones I saw.

I think your trip has become a bit dangerous. Glad you are back home!

On September 30, 2007 at 9:28 PM Anonymous said...

Wow! This is much better than a soap opera. We are loving your reality show, complete with a dummox who just had to touch that fish's mouth.

Thank you for sharing this great adventure with us. Can't wait for the next episode!

On September 30, 2007 at 9:35 PM Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

The three-toed sloth is my daughter's favorite critter. She loved your picture.

On September 30, 2007 at 11:45 PM Bill of the Birds said...

I learned that three-toed sloths actually climb down from their tree to defecate on the ground. Not sure why that is, but consider it your obscure fact for the day.

Sara: I believe the orange area is hair.

On October 1, 2007 at 6:34 AM Jayne said...

Oh my... I never imagined a sloth was that large. Such an interesting face too. The trip back to the mother ship sounded a wee bit scary to me. Glad you all made it through the fog safely, if not a bit bumped up.

On October 1, 2007 at 8:03 AM Anonymous said...

Yikes again. I would have had white knuckles on the most available grip on that boat trip. The sloth is amazing. I would love to see one in its natural habitat, up close and personal. What an amazing creature. I guess moving at the rate they do, going to defecate several times a day is out of the question. There would be no time for eating.

On October 1, 2007 at 12:24 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Congratulations on posting one of the top ten worst bird photos.
You could have said it was an ivory bill and the photo wouldn't rule it out.
Are you really sure there's a bird in that photo?

We saw several two toed sloths in Costa Rica and they are supposed to be rare, Never did see a three toed.

On October 1, 2007 at 12:25 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Considering the size of the sloth aren't you glad they come down to the ground.
Aren't you glad cows don't fly?

On October 1, 2007 at 5:07 PM elizabird said...

My favorite sloth fact is they are great swimmers. In the flooded seasons they swim out to discover new territory. The footage of a swimming sloths is something to behold. Glorious!

On October 6, 2007 at 7:12 PM KatDoc said...

I didn't know that sloths had any bright colors, other than the green they pick up from the algae that tends to grow on their fur. That orange is pretty neat.

I did know that they descended to the ground to defecate once a week. But, did you know that sloths use communal middens for their toilette, and that this is one of the few opportunities these solitary creatures have of meeting members of the opposite sex? Imagine the stories you might tell your children: "Well, I had to go to the bathroom, and there was your Father, and ..."

This is another great post, Bill, but please, be more careful!