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