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?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Peru Haiku #1

Friday, September 28, 2007
Caracaras watch
Night like a misty shroud falls
Jungle turns gray black

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Shelter from the Storm

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Late in the day, just as the heat was starting to abate, the sky to the West began boiling up a thunderstorm stew. We were unprepared for how fast these tropical storms come upon you. In Ohio, if I saw this sky, I'd know I had an hour or two to get the tractor in, the windows shut, the lawn furniture covered. In the Amazon, in a matter of 10 minutes, you will find yourself in a gale.

Waiting out the afternoon storm.

The staff of El Delfin rolled down transparent tarps to keep the rain off the top deck where we were sitting. And the captain nosed the boat into shore. The bow was tied off on a large tree trunk. Was the weather going to be that bad?

Mopping up the rain that blew under the tarps. In the Tropics everything gets a little wet.

All the rest of us could do was run through the bird list, check the field guide, and doze off to the thrum of the engine and the patter of the rain.

Roadside hawk.

When the rain poured itself out and the tarps were rolled up, we spied the creatures who had no shelter from the weather. A wet roadside hawk was perched just near the boat.

We wondered how our fellow humans had fared in their dugouts and small shelters. I love the primitive vista of this image.

Soon the weather broke and we saw a dark form in a treetop far above the bank where El Delfin had sheltered on the shore.

What was it? We did not know at first...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Amazon Morning

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tuesday's dawn came fast, but the mist rising off the river and out of the humid woods held the sunlight at bay for several hours--a respite from the tropical heat that was not althogether unwelcome. Cutting through the mist were the calls of birds from every direction.

We were still motoring upstream on the Rio Ucayali, passing small settlements that were waking up just as we were.

El Delfin in the mist.

Upper deck, El Delfin.

The mist covered everything, including camera lenses, making the upper deck of our boat look mistier than it really was.
Beautiful tropical splendor everywhere I turned.

Getting drinking water.

The people living along the Amazon and its tributaries will fill up water bottles or other containers and let them sit all day long until the sediment settles out, then the water is considered drinkable. But if you or I drank it, we'd be meeting the vengeful Señor Montezuma soon enough.

A huge stump leftover from a tropical tree. It may have been hollowed out as a boat.

As the mist cleared, we embarked on the skiffs and headed to shore for a morning birding outing. The non-birders among our group stayed behind on El Delfin sleeping and enjoying a full breakfast. We eschewed the desayuno for the chance to find some island endemic birds.

Lesser hornero. A cool bird, but a name by which no human male would like to be known.

One of our first new birds of the day was a lesser hornero.

The photographers among us had plenty to shoot. This is Chris Knights, a farmer from Norfolk in England, who is also a world-class bird photographer.

There was a Peruvian couple living on the island we landed on. The woman was washing clothes at the river's edge while the man repaired his fishing nets, strung between two pieces of driftwood nearby.

Lesser yellow-headed vulture.

Vultures coasted past, looking for a dead fish, a bit of trash, or anything else to eat. Everywhere you look in the tropics there are vultures--soaring, sitting, hanging their wings out in the sun. They serve an important role here, eating dead flesh before it can become a vector for disease. If I'd kicked the bucket here on this island, there would have been vultures all over me before the shine left my eyes.

We heard a lot of small birds calling and singing. We did not get great looks, but we did see a handful of the island endemics, including white-bellied, red-and-white, and rusty-backed spinetail. This last one is also known as Parker's spinetail, for the late and legendary tropical ornithologist, Ted Parker. Spinetails put the skulk in skulker--I did not get any photos.

This island had a broad sandy beach, perfect for scanning for loafing nightjars, shorebirds, and swallows.
Usiel, a guide from El Delfin, came along. When he spotted a bird, he shot his machete into the sand so he could put two hands on his binocs.

White-headed marsh-tyrant.

We reboarded the skiffs and ventured to another river island, this one much larger. Upon landing we walked through some planted sandy fields of beans to a nearby marsh which was home to a white-headed marsh-tyrant--a very cool-looking bird.

Oriole blackbirds.

Oriole blackbirds were everywhere, sounding very much like our yellow-headed blackbirds, which is to say, like someone retching.

As we climbed up a short rise we came to a large field of rice growing in a low, marshy area. Flocks of parakeets circled over the rice, steeling for a few seconds, then taking flight again, all the while screeching loudly. I was mesmerized by the swirling flocks. One second they'd be invisible--green birds against green grass and jungle. Then they would turn and their red and yellow colors would flash brightly.

Can you see the parakeets in this image? There are two distinct species.

How about now?

Or now? Larger birds with red spots are white-eyed parakeets. Smaller ones are dusky-headed parakeets.

These are all white-eyed parakeets.

Most of our looks at parrots and parakeets during the trip were fleeting, heard-only birds or birds zipping overhead.Sorry for the poor quality images.

And then it was time to head back to El Delfin for our own breakfast and a bit of downtime.

While we motored back to El Delfin,we passed several large river ferries, carrying passengers and goods. The stern was loaded with many, many bananas. The upper deck was strung with hammocks for folks who want a nap during the journey.

Hammocks for weary passengers--what a concept.

These two Peruvians seemed happy to give us a smile and a wave from their camp. Note the parakeet the woman on the right has as a pet.

I have a lot more to tell you but need to stop now. It's time to meet the Sandman. Mas mañana le prometo.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Upper Amazon

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
We enjoyed our first meal aboard El Delfin with a late and very large lunch. Fresh fish, various fruits, and a frozen dessert made from local fruits. I entered a food coma almost immediately and only came out of it when it was announced that we'd be taking a late afternoon birding excursion on the boat's two skiffs after siesta time. Es perfecto!

Strange fruit, but delicious when peeled and mashed into ice cream.

But I could not sleep--there was too much to see. So I went back to the top deck for some birding. Immediately I was fascinated by the various craft plying the river. Boats, rafts, and floating objects of all shapes and sizes were drifting downstream as we motored upstream.

Heading to the market.

Bananas heading to Nauta and then to the world beyond.

We passed small camps and settlements on the shore. The human population along the Amazon and its tributaries relies primarily on fishing, hunting, and small-plot farming. The effects from this subsistence living has greatly reduced the region's flora and fauna. Natural resource organizations and conservationists are rushing to preserve large tracts of rainforest. And they are beginning to work with the local communities to develop more sustainable means of living, including developing ecotourism projects. More on this in a future post.

Check out the footholds cut into the mud bank for access to the river below.

Washing day.

We passed many small dwellings that were not much more than campsites, though they probably were lived in nearly year-round and vacated when the floods of the rainy season swelled the river beyond its normal banks.

We also passed commercial boats including ferries, cargo craft, and even large skiffs full of gringo ecoturistas, who waved at us as though they were very happy to see us.
Turistas blancas.

Soon it was time for our own skiff adventure. We divided into two groups and headed off farther upstream in search of birds and other creatures to see. Among the group were at least three serious photographers and a few of us who were dabbling at being serious. We traded advice (I got much more than I gave) and asked photo questions freely.

"Hey what F-stop are you shooting at right now?"
"Is that an IS lens?"
"Are you completely KILLING that kingfisher?"
"Hey look at THIS shot I got!"
"Does anyone know how to turn the flash off on one of these things?"

It was pretty fun taking pictures of parrots overhead (all bad images) and passing large-billed terns (blurry as a vanilla milkshake), and the dark-green jungle. The light was good but failing fast so we motored over to the sunlit shore and right away had good luck.
One of El Delfin's two skiffs.

Ted Stedman was with our group on assignment for Outdoor Photographer magazine.

Along the Amazon and its tributaries raptors and vultures perch and prowl for food. It must be because this is the only edge habitat for miles around in this roadless region. But I have never seen so many birds of prey along any river, ever.

First among our photographable raptors was a yellow-headed caracara.
Yellow-headed caracaras. After a while I did not bother photographing them.

Farther downstream we came across a drab water-tyrant, sort of a cross between a wagtail and a warbler. It was flycatching midges on the muddy bank of the river.

Drab water-tyrant. Which begs the question: How can you be both drab AND a tyrant?

Riverside roadside hawk.

Here in the roadless Amazon there are many, many of the common hawk of Latin America known as the roadside hawk. But they are jokingly referred to as riverside hawks here--no roads! One of our El Delfin guides told us that at least 11 times and laughed his cabeza off every time.

Short-tailed parrots showing off their best field mark.

Flights of parrots and parakeets zipped back and forth across the river giving us impossibly bad looks. Without the knowledgeable ID skills of Pepe and Noam, we'd never have known what ANY of them were. All of them called loudly. None of them perched within our view.

It wasn't just birds, though. We found a small line of bats clinging to a mid-river snag. I have no clue what species these are, but they stayed put until we were right next to them , then flew in unison, like shorebirds avoiding a peregrine, and then settled back down on another snag farther up the stream. Perhaps one of my experienced tropical naturalist blog lurkers can help me with the ID here. Scott, are you there?

Some kind of river-loving bat. Later in the night they entered our cabins and feasted upon our blood. Not really. But Liam asked me that.

My favorite tropical tanager, the blue-gray, hove into view in a small flock. Too far for decent photos, but nice to see again. These BGTans were fancier than those I'd seen in Mexico and Guatemala. These had pale-blue wingbars which only added to their allure.

[Don't tell the blue-grays, but over the next few days I saw some other tanagers that really set my eyes on fire--bay-headed tanager and something called a paradise tanager! They really laid me low.]

Blue-gray tanagers (the tiny blue spots in this photo). Formerly my favorite tanager.

Soon enough the sun was down and it was starting to get buggy, so we turned the skiffs downstream and caught El Delfin in the middle of the river. Soon it would be dinner time, then, I hoped, a good night's sleep. I was still running a bit of a snooze deficit from the weekend before.
Ohhh Cholllly LOOK at that looooovely boat.

I did sleep, but could not WAIT to experience dawn on the Amazon. It was just hours away.

It's another pisco sour sunset....