We did not linger long in this boomtown. Stepping out into the tropical heat already in the 90s at 7 am, we gathered our luggage and staggered over to a small bus. Black caracaras and an assortment of vultures cut across the horizon and fork-tailed palm swifts sliced the air above us. Welcome to the tropics, amigo.
We hiked into the jungle on a single track path, visions of fer-de-lances and bushmasters dancing through our sleep-deprived heads. The morning haze lifted just in time for the heat to settle down on us. The air, thick as pancake batter, was moved only by the singing of hidden birds and droning insects. We stopped halfway into the jungle for a breakfast hauled in for us in coolers. They even had cold camu-camu juice a local fruit juice very high in vitamin C. Then it was back on the trail...
Our guides were two of Peru's most avid and knowledgeable birder/ornithologists: Noam Shamy, an expatriate Israeli who co-authored along with Jim Clements, the current Birds of Peru field guide, and Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, a Spaniard who had come to Peru as a missionary, but left the church to pursue birds and conservation. Pepe has, in recent years, discovered five new bird species in Peru! All of them endemic species in very specialized habitats.
Ancient antwren a white sand forest endemic.
After a two-hour hike, it was decided that the heat was sending the birds to their siestas, so we trudged back out to the road. There at the bus we were greeted with cold waters and--salvation in cotton--rolled-up frozen washcloths. What a clever way to get your core temperature back down below 200 degrees F!
While we were cooling off, one of our party spotted a zone-tailed hawk swooping amid a kettle of vultures--both black vultures and lesser yellow-headed vultures.
The zone-tailed hawk mimics a vulture in shape, coloration, and flight style. After all, what living creature has anything to fear from a carrion-eating vulture? Surprise! I'm a HAWK! Not a vulture. This bird had already snatched a lizard and was eating it on the wing.
Our best look at a bird so far--not a lifer for me, but definitely a tropical birding scenario.
Among our group I was happy to see my old friend Chris Harbard, formerly of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England, now a freelance journalist and columnist for BirdWatch Magazine in the UK. Chris had a good friend and super birder along, Steve Rooke of Sunbird Tours in the UK. Between the two of them they spotted nearly all the good birds we were to see on the trip. I felt lucky to have them along. And they bought me a beer or two, too.
Soon we were back in the bus, driving to the end of the highway and Nauta, where we'd board an Amazon river boat. Along the way we saw small villages, roadside shops, and families sitting in the shade, watching the day go by.
Emerging from the bus into the scorching sun at Nauta, we saw the Marañon River, one of the tributaries of the upper Amazon. It was brown--the color of coffee and the buzz of outboard motors alerted us to the main mode of transport here--small boats. Chestnut-bellied seedeaters played in the grass on the riverbank. LIFER! Yellow-headed caracara! LIFER!
"Time to get on the skiffs, amigos!"
"But wait--there are birds here!"
"You'll see more birds soon, don't worry!"
We boarded two skiffs, our luggage boarded another, and we were shuttled to our main craft, El Delfin, a recently refitted, three-tiered river boat catering to tourists coming to see the Amazon in Peru.
As we left Nauta, we left behind the signs of permanent settlement for the next several days. We cruised up the Marañon to the Rio Ucayali, past the mouth of the Amazon, and into the wild .
The riverboat reminded us all of the African Queen, and the setting was not that much different from the movie--except that Bogie and Kate Hepburn were not aboard. Periodically I felt the urge to shout out "Ohhh Cholllly!" just like Ms. Hepburn.
Already the sun was dropping lower and I was reminded that days in the tropics have sunlight only from 6 to 6. When it starts to get dark, it gets dark fast.
With the cooling river breeze, the air full of smells of the water, mud, wood smoke, and tropical musky-ness, I began to relax. A cold beer helped me cool down further. I scanned the tree tops with my binocs--the birds were becoming active again.
After years of dreaming and wondering, I was finally in the Amazon.
I thought to myself, "I could get used to this!"