Monday, October 1, 2007

The Jungle Road to El Dorado

Monday, October 1, 2007
The next day dawned misty and humid, though the air near the river was still somewhat cool. I had lost track of what day of the week it was--a nice change from a normal work week back home. As we ate our breakfast and gathered up our gear, we all felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about the day ahead of us.

We'd been instructed to pack for staying overnight in the jungle and implored to pack lightly. We would not need our dress clothes--our accommodations would be quite rustic. And there would be lots of mud--hence the Wellies we'd been given--knee-high rubber boots that were good protection from water, mud, and snakes, but not the best footwear for a long hike.

And this hike was to be of indeterminate length. "Four hours easy walk!" was what we were told. Translated into birding time, we knew it would be longer, but how much longer?

We got on the skiffs and headed for our landing spot. Along the way we saw pink dolphins in the river. And we spied more black-collared hawks and greater black hawks along the shore.

Part of a pink dolphin in the Upper Amazon tributaries.

Greater black hawk.

Black-collared hawk.

Soon we landed along the lefthand shore and climbed the bank up away from the river. At the top of the bank, waiting for us, were more than a dozen local villagers ready to guide us to El Dorado and help us get our gear there safely. They offered to carry our packs and scopes so we could be less weighed down during the long hike. It took a bit of getting used to, having someone carry your gear for you. But when we got a mile or so into the jungle, where the air was hot and wet in your lungs, and you felt yourself teetering on the edge of sanity, we were all happy for the help.

We gathered along a road through a banana plantation just above the river. It was still misty in the early hours and the birds were mostly heard and not seen.

Family heading to the river near Manco Capac.

We parted to let several parties of local villagers pass through our group. They were headed to the river to get water, wash clothes, and to sell and buy and trade for food and other necessities. The young girl in this family was Liam's age, (7) but much smaller. Still she pitched in to help her parents.

Who ARE those strange, pale people?

She was intrigued enough by us to stop walking and turn around to look again at us. I later learned from one of the villagers that many villagers in remote regions believed in a long-held myth: that the white-faced people were evil and were here to peel away and steal the faces of the locals. This might explain why the kids in one village were so wary of me. But more on that in a later post...
Our porters and guides to El Dorado waited for us in Manco Capac.

Our gear porters waited for us to catch up in the small village of Manco Capac at the head of the trail to El Dorado. I believe some of them probably wondered why we brought so much stuff with us. This was one day when I was glad I did not bring a spotting scope to Peru. There would be other days when I wished I had brought it.

Slash and burn plot near Manco Capac.

Just outside Manco Capac we started out hike by walking through a patch of what used to be jungle but would now be converted to agriculture. This type of agriculture is common in the tropics, but many people are now finding that while slash-and-burn farming nets good yields for a few years, it is not sustainable. Many local villages and both government and non-governmental agencies are promoting ecotourism as a more sustainable way to make a living. The El Dorado project is one such venture.

Related to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but not close enough!

Less than a mile into the rainforest, we came upon this large black and white woodpecker drumming with double raps on a huge dead snag. I grabbed this image as it flew overhead. Clearly it is not an ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean, what else could it BE?

A bit farther along the muddy trail, we came across a clearing. In the trees on the far side of the clearing, there were a dozen or so birds foraging in the canopy. One bird flashed white as it came in. At first I thought it must be a rose-breasted grosbeak, but the bill looked all wrong. So I pointed it out to Noam and Pepe, our expert birder/guides. They were immediately excited--it was a very unusual bird.

White-breasted bird....hmmm. A rose-breasted grosbeak? No...

A closer look, but still not close enough.

That's better! It's a purple-throated cotinga! A rare bird indeed!

Plumbeous antbird, male.

The birding was getting good as the rain clouds disappeared and the baking sun came out. This made the birds more active. Pepe and Noam heard a good bird and halted our movement. It was an antbird--a male plumbeous antbird. Pepe recording its song and played it back. Th bird immediately responded and came closer. I managed to click off a few shots--this was a very confiding bird.

There were other birds, too. A huge cocoa-brown woodpecker lurched up a tree trunk--a ringed woodpecker. We heard dozens of other species in the deep jungle--birds we'd never see.
Somebody's jungle workshop making a new dugout boat.

Scarlet-crowned barbet moving through the canopy.

Long-billed woodcreeper far overhead, but showing its best field mark.

After a few more miles of jungle trail passed underfoot, we came upon this large tree with what looked like a dark cavity on the upper trunk. But it wasn't a hole.

It was caterpillars gathered together for warmth and protection. One of our local guides said, in Spanish, that all day long birds would be coming by to eat a caterpillar or two. And that tomorrow there'd be just a few caterpillars left.

Mile after mile we walked. The heat came down and quieted the birds. Now we looked at butterflies and insects and wondered if we'd ever make it out of this steaming jungle. I was getting tired. My water bottle was nearly empty. But I thought, the village we were heading for must be near...

Sure enough, a village appeared through the trees. It was one building. WAIT! This is NOT our destination? "No my friend, we still have a boat ride to get to El Dorado!"

Far down the bank below us there were three skiffs. Our gear was loaded into one and our group of hikers split into two groups to board the skiffs. And off we went.

Boarding the skiffs for El Dorado.

Immediately we began seeing waterbirds, including this large-billed tern.

Rufescent tiger heron.

And this rufescent tiger-heron--what a beautiful bird!

Our dugouts did not have much clearance. We ran aground every other minute--was it the low river level or our overfed bodies? Almost three hours later, baked by the sun, butts hurting from the wooden benches of the dugouts, we pulled in to El Dorado.

The dugouts had little clearance above the waterline.

To be continued...


On October 2, 2007 at 2:29 AM Heron said...

Spectacular birds and oh my, such an arduous journey to see them. Bill, you really earned every new check mark on that life list !

On October 2, 2007 at 6:46 AM Jayne said...

The markings and colors on all those birds is just so breathtaking. What a journey you took to get to see them all. I am tired just reading about that "little hike."

On October 2, 2007 at 2:34 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Ah the glamor of international birding.
It isn't all beer and tacos my friend.

On October 2, 2007 at 3:07 PM Anonymous said...

It just gets better and better. We are indeed fortunate that you are so willing to share this opportunity. Great narrative and great shots.

On October 2, 2007 at 3:27 PM Trixie said...

What birds, what plants, what narration. I cannot wait for the next installment.

BTW, my girls both swore that the pink dolphin was a beluga.

On October 3, 2007 at 9:07 AM Mary said...

Fabulous, exotic birds! I'm in awe. I particularly like the shot of that little girl who turned around to get another look at you... very sweet.

If I sat here and read everyone one of your Amazon posts - back to back - I'd be exhausted and would take a 12 hour nap. I can't imagine how you felt at the end of each day.

On October 6, 2007 at 7:28 PM KatDoc said...

Pink dolphins - WOW!

Rather you than me, my friend. This is getting too much like hard work.