Published: July 7th 2009May 29th 2009
Gustavo, Carlos and I sitting on the log in the stream (I forgot to mention to them that they needed to sit very still!)
It started raining as I sat on the sofa in the lodge waiting for my group to leave. It wasn’t just any rain either, it was a torrential downpour reminiscent of the rainy season and I wasn’t really all that happy to see it. As I sat and talked to the three tourists that would be making the journey up river with me, my mind wandered to my lonely backpack, the one that I had left leaning up against a tree near the river. I thought of all of my dry clothes and my electronics and my extra books and I wondered if, after nearly five exciting years on the road, the pack’s ‘water resistance’ still functioned as it did when I first bought it. I didn’t linger too long on my belongings though. The mist-filled air flowed into the dry spaces under the lodge’s roof and shattered the sticky, morning heat and the calming roar of falling water soothed my tensions and brought a relaxed smile to my face. It was really an ideal way to start my new adventure in the rainforest.
When the guides that were leading our little expedition up river arrived I confirmed with them
Heads in the Jar-O
The large head and the spiky tail under it belong to the bushmaster, or shushupe and the small head is that of a fer-de-lance - This jar was the closest I got to either snake (that I know about!)
which port we were leaving from and then I set off ahead of them into the rain-soaked jungle. I had my poncho on, but I had discovered in my first week in the forest that it offered little protection from such a downpour. The trail that had been dry when I walked up to the lodge less than half an hour before now resembled a small stream and it was getting deeper with every passing moment. I knew it was futile to try and stay dry, so I decided to have some fun instead! I sloshed through the water and I splashed in the puddles and I sang my favorite Jimmy Buffet songs as loudly as I could, doing my best to follow in his footsteps by ‘growing older, but not up!’ I came to the familiar turnoff for Casa Tio Tom, my former home, and I turned the other direction and headed down a series of stairs into a ravine that led to the river. I found my backpack exactly where I had left it up against a tree next to the path. I hoisted it up onto my shoulder, happily surprised that it didn’t weigh as much as
A Creature From Your Nightmares
This giant beetle was amazing. He was walking around the lodge late one night, so we all took some pictures of him and then I picked him up and set him down in the forest (so he wouldn't get mushed.)
a fully waterlogged pack of its size should have weighted - Perhaps it’s water resistance was still working for me after all! I walked to the edge of the forest and then walked down the slick staircase towards the beach. I did a brief experiment in gravity on the way down the stairs, but I managed to make it safely to the waiting boat. I placed my bags in the cargo area and then I took a seat in one of the forward facing seats that were unique to the boats that went further up river into the reserve and national park - They were better for viewing wildlife and were much more comfortable! The rest of the group arrived about ten minutes later and then we pulled out into the river and headed into the unknown!
The worst part of having the storm raging around us was that the rain shields that ran the full length of the canopy on either side of the boat were lowered. The shields were made of clear plastic, but they were thick and dirty enough to where we could only see a faint blur of the scenery along the banks of the
Looking Down River
The Upper Tambopata River was amazingly beautiful.
river. We did have a full view out the front of the boat and the driver could see around the shields, so we just had to rely on him and a bit of luck for the wildlife sightings. The good thing about the shields was that they turned the area under the canopy of the boat into a wind tunnel of sorts. We (I) enjoyed a strong, chilly, and somewhat damp breeze in our faces - It was a pleasant change from the usual jungle atmosphere! After about ten minutes or so the rain started to lighten up some. Eventually we shed the low clouds and fog that had been producing the rain. The ominous clouds began to take form in front of us, which meant it was clearing up where we were, and then the rain stopped all together. We stopped the boat and rolled up the shields and then we continued on our journey up river.
The forest along the banks of the river was thick and beautiful. In places there were small clearings with little houses in them and, occasionally, larger farms and plantations. The river was somewhat wild, but still well used. About an hour
Capybara on the Tambopata
This was the first family of capybara that we saw on our journey up river to TRC. The big one that is walking up the slope had big gashes in its back.
into the journey we passed our first gold-mining operation. It was made up of a dredge and a floating processing plant, which resembled a mix between the floating post-apocalyptic set of ‘Waterworld’ and an old mining town. As we passed them by, I watched as the operation dumped its mercury-laced wastewater out of a large diameter pipe right into the river. It was a sad sight to see, because I had read a recent report that placed the blame for the majority of the world’s mercury pollution, which is making many types of fish inedible throughout the world, on similar gold mining operations throughout the Amazon Basin, particularly in Peru. Not only are a small minority of greedy men poisoning the same river that their families rely on for food, but they are poisoning the worlds largest river system and all of the oceans of the world at the same time - The sea holds one of the most important sources of food for all of us, yet we are sacrificing it so that we can have a few useless ornamental trinkets made out of shiny, yellow metal. Surely in our modern world of technology we can come up with
On the Tambopata River
The river turned wild after we passed through the last checkpoint and entered the reserve and national park.
a cleaner, more efficient way of extracting the metal from the ore! We passed one more operating dredge that was as dirty as the first and then we passed an even more alarming mining operation that was using a water cannon to erode the bank of the river, undermining the forest and turning the river muddy brown in the process - I am sure that the gold being mined along the Tambopata River is flowing into the rich coffers of the world’s big mining companies and is eventually making its way to the developed world, so why are they still using technology that was out of date at the end of the nineteenth century? Is it just greed?
I had heard many stories over the previous weeks regarding the difficulties of navigating the river north of Refugio Amazonas. Stories of boats getting stuck on the many submerged obstructions were common and they generally ended in most of the people in the boat getting out and pulling the boat over a treacherous, unseen river bottom. I knew that the nature of the river would change from the wide, placid waters that were common down river to a rapid-filled, fast-flowing torrent.
Colpa el Chuncho
This colpa was on a lovely stretch of river.
I also knew that the potential for even bigger problems grew the further up river we got. My friend Cesar once told me a story of his first journey up to the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). He made it up river safely, but on the way back down they were helping tow a broken peke-peke, which is a canoe-like boat with a lawn-mower engine that is mounted on a pivot and has a long propeller shaft (it makes a ‘peke-peke-peke…’ sound when it is running). The peke got caught in an eddy and turned sideways, perpendicular to the flowing water. My friend watched in slow motion as the boat flipped in the rough water, spilling its load and occupants out and lodging it up against one of the grounded trees. The force of the flipping boat started to pull their boat sideways as well and all my friend could do was watch. Luckily the boatman managed to cut the towline before they followed in the peke’s wake. Nobody was seriously hurt in that incident, but the peke was badly damaged and most of its cargo was lost! I was excited when we reached our first rapid. The water was churning
The sun finally came out on our journey, but the clouds continued to threaten.
up higher than my shoulder in places. It seemed like it would have been a fun rapid to run in a raft, but I wasn’t so sure that the same would be true for the long, narrow boat that we were in. Luckily, our boatman was well acquainted with the river and knew exactly where to go. A bit of water sloshed into the boat and it was a bumpy ride, but it was also an enjoyable one - I had never run rapids against the flow before, so that was a new experience for me!
At about the halfway point of our journey up river we arrived at the Malinowski River Checkpoint. The checkpoint served as the entrance to the Tambopata Nature Reserve and the end of the commercial use of the river. Beyond the Malinowski River the Tambopata was truly wild. There was no gold mining, no farming and no (legal) hunting. The Tambopata Research Center was the only lodge that was permitted to operate in the reserve and national park and it was still two hours further up river! I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at both Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas, but for the first
Another view of the stormy skies.
time I was bound for a true wilderness! We all got out of the boat and climbed the long staircase up to the small clearing that served as the Peruvian government’s most remote outpost on the Tambopata River. We reached the small building that served as the museum and visitor center for the reserve, but there was nobody there. We shouted, “Hello?” and then a man ran out of the adjacent kitchen building, a bit surprised to see us. I was also surprised to see him. The man’s name was Jim and he was a retiree from Ventura, California who was staying at the post as a volunteer, teaching English to the guards. I told him that my dad lived in Ventura as well, so we reminisced a bit about his ocean-side home, though he had been away for years. After I finished filling out my permit related paperwork Jim bid us farewell and we headed back down to the river and the waiting boat. A moment later we shed the last vestiges of the developing world and headed into the untrammeled jungle!
As we passed the Malinowski River I got to see another strange phenomenon that I had
The Red Howler Monkey
These guys were right above us on the trail and easy to see.
read a lot about. The muddy orange tint that the river had had to that point ended abruptly and turned to clear, blackish water. A closer inspection revealed that the Malinowski River was flowing the same orange color, but there was a crisp line separating the orange waters of the Malinowski from the black water of the Tambopata, which continued for some distance down river before the water from the two rivers merged - It was a strange sight to see! Shortly after we passed the confluence of the two rivers we made our first stop near the shore to admire a large family of capybaras that were basking on the rocks. A few minutes later, the clouds broke a bit and we had warm sunshine for the first time in our journey. The sun stayed with us for the rest of our trip up river, though the massive, puffy clouds remained a constant, but picturesque threat! We kept our eyes firmly on the banks of the river, hoping to spot the illusive jaguar or some other magnificent beast. In some places the trees lining the banks got closer together as the river narrowed, but in other places the banks
There were a lot of these guys welcoming us to TRC as well.
were far apart, separated by gravelly islands and long stretches of mild whitewater. A few stretches of river seemed impassable with giant logjams and tumultuous mountains of water, but our skilled boatman managed to navigate his way through each obstacle without incident. At one point we thought he had met his match as the boat came to a jarring stop and the prop dug into the rocky river bottom with a loud ‘clank’. We seemed to be firmly stuck, but one of the guides climbed up in the bow and managed to pole us past the shallow spot and we were underway again. Along the way we spotted a few lovely herons and a few more groups of capybara, but the scenery was the highlight for me. The wild riverbanks reminded me of my time in Africa, with the notable exception of the absence of large wildlife. In places huge vertical bluffs of orange clay rose up from the black water, giving way to the green trees, which were only fifteen feet or so above the river at their highest point. One of the more picturesque bluffs we found, which was located in a sweeping, shady bend in the river,
This colpa is the largest avian clay lick in the world and there were huge numbers of macaws there.
was also one of the Tambopata’s few known clay-licks, known as Colpa el Chuncho- It was a lovely stretch of river, despite the lack of birds when we passed. After another hour or so we came around a bend in the river and gasped at the amazing views of the not so distant Carabaya Mountains - I had known that TRC was close to the mountains, but I didn’t imagine they would be so beautiful! A few moments later we ran aground on a rocky stretch of beach in view of the mountains. Our journey up river was over - We had arrived at the Tambopata Research Center!
We eagerly piled out of the boat, thanking our boatman as we went, and then we clambered up the small set of stairs into the forest. I had no idea where the lodge was, so I walked with the tourists. The forest around us was very different from any I had seen further down river. There were no ancient trees like the ones at Posada Amazonas and there was not a brazil nut tree in sight. The canopy was actually very close to the ground, which I quickly found out was
The Blue-Headed Macaws
It isn't really easy to see, but the blue-headed macaws are on the clay lick in the lower right side of the picture (the bird completely surrounded by orange). There are also a few mealy parrots.
great for watching wildlife. Despite the lack of large trees, the forests around TRC were very open and beautiful and, excluding the lodge trails, completely untrammeled. I was carrying all of my gear, but I completely forgot about the load when we came across our first group of animals. They were a family of howler monkeys that were in the trees just above the trail. I had not been able to get so close to the noisy monkeys at any of the other lodges. We watched as the troop moved along a large branch, from one tree to the next. They were glowing a bright, rusty red in the afternoon sunlight and we had a fairly unobstructed view. The last two animals to cross over the branch were a mother and a baby. At first the baby was clinging to mom, but she was apparently trying to teach it self-reliance, so she dropped it on the branch alone and jumped into the next tree. They baby sat there dumbfounded for a few moments and then tentatively found its way along the branch to the rest of the group - I was just as excited as the tourists with our welcoming
Blue and Yellow Macaws
They were not the easiest birds to get pictures of, but this one turned out OK.
committee to TRC! We walked a little further and then came across a large group of white-winged trumpeters that were walking along the trail, completely calm in our presence. A bit further down the path we came to some warning tape and a big, crumpled up plastic barrier. The warning tape had the words, ‘Loro machaco’ written on them. I excitedly jumped up to the tree that was marked. I knew that the flags designated a spot along the trail that I had heard a lot about in the previous week - Apparently every group that had made the trek out to TRC in the previous week or so had gotten to see the same loro machaco, or green tree viper, sitting on a small branch close to the ground for most of each day. Sadly, the branch, which I knew from the photos my friend Daniel had shown me, was empty. I continued on to the lodge with the rest of the group and then I dropped my bags and boots in the lobby.
Jenny, who was part of the lodge management staff, greeted all of us in the lobby. She showed the two groups of tourists to
Gustavo was right to laugh when I told him I hadn't seen many red-bellies - They were everywhere at TRC
their rooms and then she led me down to the far end of a long corridor that linked the dining areas with the science and guide building. We walked past the tourist rooms, which lined the center part of the corridor and then passed the lovely communal bathrooms - She told me that everybody shared the bathrooms, tourists and researchers alike. She introduced me to Gustavo, the project manager for the macaw project at TRC, and then she headed back down the corridor to the dining area. Gustavo led me up the stairs to the second floor of the thatched building, which served as the researcher lodging and offices. He showed me into a small room with two beds in it and said it would be my room. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked down at the modern, spring-filled mattress on my bed - I was going to sleep well at TRC! Gustavo then showed me the office area and the lab area and explained what activities we would be doing. He then asked if I was interested in going with him on his afternoon census walk. I said yes and then went off to explore the rest
Sitting in the Trees
The blue and yellow macaws were the most plentiful large macaws at TRC.
of the lodge.
All of the thatched buildings at TRC were linked together with a network of elevated, covered walkways. The large clearing the lodge was located in was surrounded by a wall of forest on all sides with several large trees that stood above the rest. I stood for a few moments and looked across the clearing to one of the largest trees. There were dozens of macaws flying around the clearing and squawking in the trees. The forest had been filled with the sounds of huge numbers of macaws ever since I had stepped off of the boat, but it was the first time I actually saw them - It was obvious that there was a huge population of macaws at TRC. When I got to the bar area Jenny handed me a welcome juice, something that was reserved for the tourists at the other lodges - It seemed that the research volunteers at TRC were treated well, which made me happy. As I sipped my juice I stood at the balcony overlooking a volleyball court that was in a clearing next to the dining room. The game that was going on between some of the staff
Brown Capuchin Monkeys
The brown capuchin monkeys, with their usual companions the squirrel monkeys, were common at TRC.
was put on hold to welcome another visitor. The new visitor was a tayra, which is a small animal in the weasel family that is about the size of a small dog, or a very big house cat. The tayra, I knew from some of my friends, was a regular visitor to the lodge, but it was still exciting to see such an illusive animal so close. I took a few blurry pictures of him and then he ran off into the forest.
I met Gustavo back at the office at the appointed time. We donned our rubber boots, grabbed a machete and a notebook and headed out into the forest. We were doing a census walk on trail C-C1 - I initially had a hard time keeping the trails straight in my mind due to their letter designations, being more difficult for me to remember than the names such as ‘mammal’, ‘Jihasa’, and ‘Candenado’ that were used at the other lodges. The forest we were walking through was considered flood plain, being that it was just a few feet above the river. The usually thick litter of dead leaves on the forest floor was absent, having been scoured
These guys were everywhere.
away during the recent rains. As we walked we talked about the forest and about what I had done down river. Gustavo also tested my knowledge of the birdcalls. I think I surprised him with how well I knew them. In fact there was only one that I missed, the red-bellied macaw, and it was more due to my not having had a lot of contact with them down river. When I told Gustavo that he laughed and said that I would see huge flocks of them at the Colpa in the morning. Our walk was fairly uneventful. We found a few groups of scarlet macaws up in the trees near the river and we had to hack our way through a section of bamboo forest, but other than that it was fairly silent. Back at the lodge Gustavo got me set up with everything I would need at the colpa in the morning and then we took the rest of the day off.
Dinner at TRC was much like it was at the other lodges, but, with fewer staff, it was not a rush to get food. After dinner I decided to head back out into the woods
Looking Towards the Carabaya Mountains
The river was very rocky around TRC and the mountains were close.
to try and find some wildlife. I paused at a shelf stacked high with jars containing the preserved remains of several of the forests small animals - It was a macabre scene. The jars contained everything from small snakes and bats to a baby macaw, but one of the jars caught my eye - It contained the heads and tails of two large bushmaster snakes and one fer-de-lance, all with their fangs exposed. TRC had a good reputation for having lots of snakes. Just three months before one of the researchers found a three-meter (9 ft) long bushmaster snake on one of the trails close to the lodge. I saw pictures of the beautiful snake as it peacefully rested in a large coil. I heard about how the girl found it by nearly stepping on it as she cleared the brush from beside the trail with a machete - The snake didn’t even try to bite her. I also heard the gleeful stories of how one of the boatmen decided relieve the world of yet another magnificent specimen of the rapidly disappearing bushmaster. I heard every excuse in the book regarding why the big snake had to be killed: “Shushupe
A Jungle Stream
This was a beautiful spot that Gustavo showed us during one of our walks. It you follow the stream in this direction you will reach the Tambopata River.
(bushmaster) is too dangerous to leave so close to the trail!”, “ There are too many tourists around to leave it alone!”, “Those snakes are very dangerous!”, “I have known many people that were almost bitten by them (as they were trying to kill them)!” Essentially all of the ‘men’ of the jungle, people that have a reputation of extreme toughness, are nothing more than quivering babies that have to eliminate everything that they are scared of! I pointed out to all of them that the snake is not all that dangerous unless they get close enough to it to get bitten. A three-meter snake sitting peacefully coiled three meters off of the trail is not able to bite somebody walking on the trail without first moving, because its biting radius is between one and a half and two meters. To kill the snake with a swing of the machete requires the person to get close enough to hit the snake with a machete - I am taller than most people I met in the forest and I would have to be standing right next to the snake to kill it!
Sure there are the famous stories of bushmasters
The Cat-@#&^ Plant
This is the tree responsible for the Devil's Gardens, though, as this one demonstrated, they are not always in a clearing. They are named for part of a male cat's anatomy (see the small pod at the base of the leaf).
attacking unprovoked. I have read of entire columns of heavily armed, jungle-trained soldiers dropping their weapons and bounding into the forest along the trail to avoid a marauding shushupe, I have heard first hand of how people have been chased by them, narrowly escaping with their lives and of course I have heard about countless deaths attributed to the bushmaster. Most of these stories also included encounters with sixty foot long, man-eating anacondas, snarling jaguars around every corner and schools of piranha that were able to strip some poor oarsman to the bone and cartilage in ten seconds flat - It is the nature of Amazonian story telling to greatly exaggerate the ordinary into the extraordinary. Generally the people that tell those stories are either trying to sell a book or are sheep that are incapable of independent thought and believe every story they hear. I have also read countless accounts of nonaggressive encounters with shushupe and I have had the privilege of spending time in the forest with scientifically minded people who have had their own encounters with the bushmaster. Generally their stories, while still exciting, didn’t contain the element of danger that the other stories are filled with.
Flowers at the Lodge
The jungle was full of lovely plants.
Normally their stories involved a bushmaster coiled near the trail that didn’t react at all to their presence, even after they had walked past it several times. Occasionally the snakes would retreat quickly into the safety of the forest. On rare occasions the snake would show aggression by lifting up the front part of its body and staring at my friends until they left the snake in peace. I would be interested to see statistics on deaths attributed to the bushmaster with an honest account of how the bite, or the aggression happened - I would bet that most of the people that got bitten were bitten in the act of trying to kill the snake!
The fact that the bushmaster is subjected to such persecution inside an important national part and reserve is alarming. Every tourist I talked to about it was appalled that such a thing could happen at TRC. Even the ones that hate snakes had paid a lot of money to travel out to the deepest jungle outpost on the Tambopata River to see the forest at its primordial roots. They all wanted an intact forest experience, not one that had been ‘sanitized’, with every
At the Edge of the Clearing
This giant iron wood tree serves as a nest during the mating season.
danger removed - That is what zoos are for! I had heard about the ‘sanitizing’ of the bushmaster early in my stay at Posada Amazonas. It had made me angry enough to draft a letter to the Peruvian authority over the national parks, INRENA, but I thought better of sending it. I knew that the forest without the bushmaster would not as bad as having no forest at all and places like TRC play a huge part in the forest’s protection.
Despite the two recent shushupe executions I had been told about at TRC, including one entire nest, my main goal outside of my work with the macaws was to find one. I pulled on my boots and set off into the dark forest alone. It was a bit strange being out there by myself. The forest was eerily silent. Not even the insects were buzzing. I followed the well-maintained trails near the lodge, walking slowly scanning the trail and the forest all around me. After about ten minutes of walking I began to get the feeling that the forest was closing in around me. I wasn’t able to see as far into the darkness as I had at
the beginning of the walk - My headlamp was fading again! At about the same time I noticed that, I heard the rustling of leaves behind me. I turned around and saw a faint, rounded blur of gray crossing the trail about fifty feet away. As I cautiously walked towards it, the blur of gray turned into a large armadillo. It was about the size of a basketball, so it was probably a nine-banded armadillo! Before I could get close enough to get a picture it spotted me and shot off into the undergrowth and disappeared. It was a great sighting though! I turned around and continued down the trail in the direction I had been walking. I reached a fork in the trail and I turned left and continued walking. A few falling branches and some heavy breathing told me that the howler monkeys I had seen earlier were still in the tree above the trail, but I couldn’t see them. I continued walking for another few minutes until I saw the ‘loro machaco’ flags appear in front of me - I had reached my planned destination!
Right about the time I reached the flags and started looking
A close up of a red and green macaw.
for the snake my headlamp started blinking and then it was dark! This was not a new thing for me, though I can think of better places to have a light go out than standing next to a tree that has served as the residence of a dangerous snake for the preceding few weeks. I blindly took a few steps backward into the center of the trail and then I dug down in my pockets for the extra set of batteries that I had started carrying after my mishap in Refugio’s forests. I then opened the headlamp and cautiously pulled the batteries out one by one, trying not to pop the small plastic cover off of the terminals - The designers of my new headlamp had ‘engineered’ the battery compartment to explode into a pile of difficult to assemble pieces when you remove the batteries. As I pulled my last battery out I heard the popping sound that I was trying to avoid - I also heard a twig break in the forest nearby. Luckily, I managed to hold most of the compartment together. I fumbled with the pieces and finally got them back to where they needed to be
These are the two chicos that came to visit us on the beach. One was a scarlet macaw and the other was a red and green.
and then I put the batteries back in, hoping that I put them in the correct way. I pushed the power button and an explosion of light shot through the forest - I was no longer blind! I took a quick look around me to make sure that I was not about to be eaten and then I turned my attentions back to the loro machaco. I examined the tree and all of the trees around it. The green tree viper was nowhere to be found - The loro machaco had moved on! I retraced my steps back to the lodge and then I drifted off to a wonderful night of sleep.
I woke up to the beeping of my watch - It was four thirty in the morning! I jumped out of bed and got my things together. I met Gustavo outside of my room and we walked down to the lobby where the tourists were waiting to walk to the boat. We all left the lodge and headed into the dark forest, Gustavo leading the way. Ten minutes later we emerged onto the riverbank and found the boat waiting for us. The horizon was glowing red, slowly
devouring the deep blue of the star-filled sky above us. The choppy water of the river was a kaleidoscope of color as it flowed by. We all loaded into the boat and then we headed up river a little further, using a flashlight to see the floating obstructions in front of us. A few moments later the boat gently nudged the muddy bank of an island in the middle of the river. Gustavo and I were the first off of the boat. We immediately headed into the thick forest of trees, bamboo and tall grass. Ten minutes later we emerged into a clearing amongst the trees. There was a small sunshade set up next to us and across the clearing was the narrow river and, beyond that, the sheer, red-clay bluffs of Colpa Colorado, the largest avian clay lick in the world.
We set up our chairs and the telescope and then we filled in the data sheet and started waiting. We waited for about half an hour before the first birds started showing up. Once the sun was shining on the clay bluffs the show started. I immediately understood why Gustavo had laughed at me when I said
The Jungle Pirate
"Arrr Matee" - Me posing with one of the chicos.
I hadn’t seen many red-bellied macaws down river. I watched in awe as what looked like hundreds of the small green macaws flew circles in front of the clay lick, a process called ‘dancing’ due to its graceful, flowing movements. The dance was more than just a beautiful show. The macaws do the dance as they carefully scan the area around the colpa for predators. Only after the dance has been concluded without seeing any predators will the birds start landing on the colpa. Eventually birds started leaving the flock and landing on the clay. There were huge numbers of chestnut-fronted macaw and red-bellied macaws at first. Shortly after they started landing the large blue and yellow and scarlet macaws started descending out of the treetops that they had been congregating in. About twenty minutes into the show the area in front of the colpa was completely covered with hundreds of macaws, both big and small. It was one of the most magnificent natural wonders I have seen anywhere!
All of the activity was on the clay lick farthest from us, next to where the tourists were watching. I asked Gustavo if they only stayed over there and he
A Different Kind of Canopy
The forest around TRC didn't have the large majestic trees that could be found down river, but it was still lovely.
told me that they usually started over there and then followed the sun across the bluff. As if the macaws had heard my question, there was a huge flush from the trees and the colpa. Hundreds of colorful birds took to the air and flew in our direction, accompanied by the beautifully deafening sound of hundreds of birds squawking in unison. It was a magical experience. They flew directly in front of us and then above us and then they settled all over the place. A few minutes later they started landing on the clay lick directly in front of us. The next half hour was an amazing show. I scanned the bluffs with the telescope, counting the birds as I went. Gustavo noticed a few birds sitting in the top of a dead tree alone. He moved the telescope and then happily said, “Blue-headed macaws!” I got my first good glimpse of the endangered birds that morning through the telescope. A few minutes later I was doing another count when I found the two blue-headed macaws on the colpa eating clay - Yesenia, the project manager at Posada Amazonas, had told me long ago that she never saw the
A White-Lipped Peccary
This is a very bad picture of one member of the huge herd of peccaries around TRC.
blue-headed macaws on the colpa at Posada Amazonas, even though they were common there, so I knew it was a special occasion. As the last of the birds left the colpa we started packing up and then headed back to the boat. We found boundless smiles on everybody’s faces when we got there - They had been as amazed as I had been with the show! Three turtles slid down off of a log and plopped into the water as we started the motor and then we headed back to the lodge. There was a large tayra waiting at the port when we got there, but he had disappeared by the time we got out of the boat. Breakfast was waiting for us when we got back - We had all experienced one of nature’s most amazing spectacles and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet!
The magnificent colpa was the main focus of my time at the Tambopata Research Center. Every morning, excepting two rainy mornings, we followed the same schedule. Some days I would stay all morning, eating a box breakfast, or I would go for the early morning shift, returning to the lodge for breakfast, and then
A Close Encounter of the Jaguar Kind
This large pugmark was not in the trail fifteen minutes before when I walked through. A few steps further down the trail I startled the jaguar, which was about ten feet from me - Sadly, I didn't see it, just the moving leaves as it ran away!
spending the afternoon back at the colpa. I often had amazing shows with the macaws and parrots. Some times I just sat and watched the clay without seeing a single bird. It was on one of those days that I had one of my more amazing animal sightings at TRC. I had seen nothing all day and I was very bored. I had moved into the forest a bit to get out of the intense afternoon sun. As the sun retreated below the trees I walked back out into the clearing. It was almost time to leave, so I packed up my camera gear and I was preparing to pack up the telescope when I heard a thud off to my right near the river. When I looked I saw the leaves swaying a bit and then a deer walked out of the brush less than twenty feet from me. We stared at each other for a few moments without moving and then the deer turned back to grazing and calmly walked into the forest. When she was out of sight I quickly grabbed my camera and headed into the forest to try and get a picture. I found her
In the forests around TRC.
less than ten feet down the trail in the forest. She was still calm as she stood still and posed for the camera, though she was a bit too far away to get a good picture. It was amazing, because seeing a deer for more than a split second is a rare thing in the Amazon!
When I wasn’t at the colpa I spent my time walking on the trails in the forest doing censuses. I often went out alone, but sometimes I walked with Gustavo and Carlos - Carlos was the guy that met me at the airport in Puerto on my first day in Peru; he had come up to TRC to help out for a while. It was the walks with Gustavo and Carlos that were the most fun. They both had boundless knowledge of the forest and were really enthusiastic about being amongst the trees. One of the walks we did together was only to get acquainted with the area. We followed the trail, trail ‘B’ I think, up onto the terra firma and then down into a large palm swamp. We climbed up a shaky ladder to the top of a rickety old tower
In the Jungle
The forests around TRC
in the palm swamp where we sat for a while and watched the birds playing in the palms. When we left the tower we climbed back up onto the terra firma. Carlos walked in front of our small expedition, manning the machete. Gustavo, who was a botanist by training, pointed out the interesting plants and fruits as we went, as well as pointing out the different nest sites that the macaw project monitors. For my part, other than being a ‘tourist’, I kept my eyes on the forest floor looking for the snakes that I knew were there. At one point Gustavo stopped and led us down a steep side trail where we found a picturesque stream in a small quebrada - He told us that we could follow the stream down river to the Tambopata, or up river to the mountains. I of course wanted to follow it to the mountains, but he said it would take weeks! We returned to the main trail and continued walking, turning down a few other side trails to see census points along the way.
Another interesting walk we did together was on the island. That walk was one of the more
In the Jungle (2)
The forests around TRC.
difficult walks I did. The island was mostly thick bamboo forest with occasional trees. The trail, which had three census points on it, was difficult to follow due to the ever-changing nature of the bamboo. We spent a long time hacking through the jungle, occasionally startling a group of squirrel monkeys or a lone razor-billed curassow. We also encountered several giant isula ants in close quarters - It would have been a bad day if any of us had been bitten by them! Our walk on the island helped me to imagine what it was like for the early explorers (and modern ones) to blaze a new trail through the dense jungle - The hardships that fill many of the better exploration journals were brought to life before my eyes, though in a controlled way.
While I enjoyed the camaraderie of being on the trail with my friends, my most exciting experiences at TRC happened while I was walking alone. Two of those experiences stand high above all of my other experiences in the Peruvian Amazon in regards to their sheer, adrenaline pumping excitement. One of them happened on a routine census walk near the lodge. For the preceding
A Flight of Color
It was an amazing sight to see such huge numbers of macaws and parrots flying together.
two days there had been a large herd of white-lipped peccaries in the forest surrounding the lodge. From time to time they even came into the clearing near the buildings, so we all had gotten a really good look at them. During my afternoon walk I startled a pair of the peccaries that were right next to the trail. They exploded into motion, running away from me - That alone was exciting! I figured that the whole herd had moved on with them, so I didn’t pay them any more attention. About half an hour later I was walking to my last census point when I heard some strange sounds. At first I though somebody was screaming for help. I continued listening, knowing that many of the animals’ calls can sound like that when they are bounced around beneath the canopy. I heard the sound again, this time a lot closer, and I was certain that it wasn’t a human, but I had no idea what it was. I continued walking towards my designated point. The intermittent screaming sound got louder, but another sound, a deep, nasal grunting, started to fill the air and it was more troubling. By that
On the Colpa
Some of the amazing activity on the colpa.
time I knew I was dealing with a large herd of peccaries, but I wasn’t sure where there were - I continued walking. I startled another small group of teeth-clicking peccaries as I reached my census point. They quickly moved away from me, so, thinking the coast was clear, I took out my notebook and started the census.
There was a small group of monkeys in the tree next to me and they started getting obnoxiously vocal, jumping from tree to tree, clearly excited. The grunting sound started getting louder again until I could make out specific animals. I had heard the tortured, banshee screams and nasal roars of the peccaries before and I was no stranger to being surrounded by the teeth-clicking beasts, but the sound reverberating through the forest then was louder than any I had heard to that point. It was clear that the herd was massive and I was stranded in the middle of it with a small group of terrified monkeys! It only took a few moments more before the musty smell of the herd was filling my lungs with noxious fumes. I looked for a tree to climb but there were none big
Another Shot of the Colpa
Note the birds flying in the upper portion of the picture in the dark section.
enough (or small enough) for me to get out of their reach. I was standing in ankle-deep mud in the middle of a swampy clearing - I hoped that they would simply go around me. Some of the peccaries were rooting in the mud less than fifteen feet from me. I could see them clearly and my camera was hanging around my neck, but photography was the farthest thing from my mind. A group of blue-headed macaws flew over me, so I took advantage of the distraction and recorded them on my census sheet - The pigs got closer! I was being perfectly silent, so I jumped a bit when a branch fell off to my right, crashing with a heavy thud on the muddy forest floor. The peccaries exploded into a terrifyingly loud stampede that shook the ground all around me. The animals that I could see were running away from me so I positioned myself so that a large tree was behind me and then I watched (and held my breath) as the rest of the heard just ran past me! Slowly the rumbling ceased and the monkeys calmed down and then I calmed down as well. The
In the Trees
More Macaws in the trees above the colpa.
whole encounter lasted for about ten minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.
My second encounter was far more exciting! It had been raining for two days, so we had all been sitting idle at the lodge, bored out of our minds. Just after lunch the rain stopped, so we all headed off to do the census points that we had planned ‘just in case the rain stopped.’ I only had one point to do, but it was at the tower, which was a long walk through the forest. I was excited, because I knew that it was a lot easier to find snakes after a rain. I grabbed a machete and set off into the forest. I knew the trail well, though I had only been on it once, so I was able to put most of my attention into scanning the ground for snakes. I was also keeping an eye out for fresh animal tracks in the muddy surface of the path. I made it up onto the terra firma without finding anything and then I continued down into the palm swamp. I paused to investigate a strange ‘rattling’ sound that was coming from a small section
Reflections of a Turtle
The river turtles were always around.
of dry land with a little tree growing up out of it. The rattling sound resembled the ‘false rattle’ that is often made when snakes shake their tails wildly in the leaves, imitating a rattlesnake. I was being cautious, because I knew that the bushmaster was known to give that kind of warning alarm when somebody gets too close to them! I scanned the entire area without finding where the sound was coming from, though I had narrowed it down to the small tree or a large hollow looking log at its base - I decided that it was best to stay on the trail and continue walking, being that it was likely a snake and possibly a dangerous one, which I had no interest in playing with when I couldn’t see them! As I walked away from the small tree the sound stopped, so I am certain that it was a warning of some sort.
The mystery animal excited me, so I was extra vigilant as I scanned the ground in the palm swamp. Sadly, I didn’t find anything else before I reached the tower. I made it to the top of the tower about five minutes before
A Lovely Bird
I don't know who this is, but he was lovely.
my appointed census time, so I scanned the treetops and surrounding forest for a few moments and then I started taking notes. In the distance I spotted a few toucans talking to each other and then some mealy parrots, but other than that the census was fairly quiet as far as birds went. I was standing on the half-rotten top platform of the tower. Below me in the swamp I heard something moving through the undergrowth. I stood at the rail and watched for several minutes as I waited for the birds to arrive, but I never saw anything and I quickly lost interest. About five minutes later I finished the census and climbed back down to the elevated walkway that snaked its way through the swamp. I grabbed the machete, which I had left leaning against the platform and then I headed back towards the lodge. I almost fell over as I stepped down on the first muddy patch in the trail, almost destroying a fresh jaguar footprint that hadn’t been there fifteen minutes before! I immediately realized that not only was the animal that I had heard below me in the tower a jaguar, but that it may
The chico program revealed that it was possible to hand-rear macaws. It has also led to a potentially new line of research to see how much butter it takes to make an obese macaw.
still be in the area! I took a quick ‘proof’ picture and then I cautiously proceeded along the trail. I hadn’t taken five steps before the large green leaves about ten feet away from me off of the left side of the trail exploded into motion! I jumped and readied myself for what ever was coming, knowing that there was only one animal it could have been - The jaguar! Luckily, I didn’t fit the large cat’s prey profile, so it ran in the other direction. I knew that it was a jaguar that was running away from me, so I did everything in my power to get a good view of it. Sadly, the thick undergrowth at the edge of the palm swamp provided the elusive cat plenty of hiding places, so I didn’t even get a fleeting glimpse! I decided to follow the trail in the direction that the cat had run, which was also the shortest route to the lodge, hoping to encounter the jaguar further down the trail. Sadly, with the exception of another search for the mysterious ‘rattling’ animal beside the trail, I didn’t encounter anything else that night. I know that my encounter with
This guy spent a lot of time at the lodge begging for food.
the jaguar didn’t count as a ‘sighting’, but it was amazing to know that I was so close to such a magnificent creature of the Amazon! It was well after dark when I reached the lodge. Gustavo and Carlos were getting ready to come looking for me, so they were relieved to see my headlamp emerge out of the forest. They were also excited when I told them about my encounter with the jaguar - They gasped a bit when I showed them the picture of the cat’s pugmark, telling me that what I had thought was a small jaguar was actually a very large one! By the time I showed up for dinner the whole lodge was excitedly talking about the jaguar that was roaming in the forests nearby!
While my days at TRC were spent in excitement out in the forest, my nights were spent relaxing and writing and, most nights talking. On my first night at the lodge I discovered that being the only fluent English speaker working on the macaw project had its privileges. Gustavo came up to me and asked if I would like to do the ‘charla’. I had no idea what a
The staff always had help cleaning the breakfast table at TRC.
charla was, so we worked through a series of hand signals and common Spanish words and I discovered that ‘charla’ meant talk or informal presentation. At TRC it was customary for the research staff to give a presentation on the state of the macaw populations around the research center and the research activities of the macaw project. Since most of the tourists were English speaking the job landed in my lap. Despite any misgivings I had about getting in front of a group of people and giving a talk, I immediately said I would do the charla. I knew the material I would be talking about well and I also knew that the charla started with the researcher eating dinner with the tourists and I had been longing for the food the tourists got ever since I started working in the Amazon nearly two months before. Gustavo quickly went through the Power Point presentation in both English and Spanish (as would be expected, the Spanish one had a bit more information in it) and then I headed down for dinner.
My first presentation was the most difficult, but, luckily, I had been on the boat with the tourists I
I don't think I ever had a better view out of an office.
was presenting to and I knew them well. I managed to be the last person to go through the food line, so I was able to pile my plate high - The tourists must have thought I was a pig! I enjoyed the wonderful meal, which included lots of vegetables, and I talked a lot about the project with the tourists. After dessert (another delicacy I had not seen a lot of in the jungle) I set up the project’s ancient laptop computer and then started into the presentation. I started with a basic description of what made a macaw a macaw - Mainly their powerful, floating beaks and their ‘special’ feet (I forget the actual, hard to pronounce word they had for the type of foot the macaw has, but it essentially works like an opposable thumb, allowing the macaw to grip and manipulate its food.) I then went into the main threats that the wild macaw (and parrot) populations are facing. I had the help of some graphically depressing photos that really brought to life the problems they face. To illustrate the biggest threat to the macaws (as well as virtually every other living thing on the planet)
At about the same time I had my deer encounter in a similarly steamy forest several thousand miles away my girlfriend also spotted one - It was almost like we were together! I know, the deer is hard to see - Look for the two glowing eyes on the right side of the photo.
I had a full-screen photo of a sweeping green field with a faint line of dark green on the horizon. We all knew that habitat destruction, whether it is for cattle grazing, agriculture, road construction, or the mindless practice of selective logging, was quickly eliminating the world’s forests and wildlife populations. It is a fact that has regularly gotten a lot of press the world over, so everybody capable of thinking for themselves knows about the destruction of the world’s forests. We, like most people, had been able to push the ongoing deforestation of the Earth to the back of our minds; after all, I hadn’t seen a single ‘Save the Rainforest’ add in years - Much like ‘Save the Whales’, the slogan, as well as the once productive movement, has lost popularity in favor of the new, all encompassing, but sadly vague ‘Stop Global Warming!’ It was a really powerful image for me as well as everyone else at the table - It was difficult to imagine a world without the Amazon Rainforest, especially from our vantage point beneath its majestic trees, yet right in front of us there was photographic proof that we were sitting in an embattled
On the Island
The bamboo forests on the island were different, but still beautiful.
exception to the deforestation rule in the Amazon Basin.
The second of the big threats to the macaw populations I talked about, local hunting, had a photo of several beautiful tourist trinkets that are available in any shop in the forested regions of the tropics. There were lovely fans and headdresses decorated with colorful feathers - They are the type of beautiful works of art that would be prized parts of the world’s great ethnological museums and private collections, ones that would be difficult to pass up for the casual, uninformed tourist. Everyone at the table gasped when I pointed at the lovely fan and informed them that at least four macaws had died to bring that one ‘knickknack’ into the world - Each macaw has two feathers of the type used in the fan and they can’t fly (or live) without them! The moral of the story is, “Don’t buy souvenirs that contain feathers unless you can prove that they are from a chicken!” - You won’t be allowed to take them home anyway.
The third threat to the macaws that I talked about was also the cruelest - The illegal pet trade. The process generally entails
The Mountains of Mystery
I have often wondered if the mountains in the distance are still hiding Gran Patiti or other lost cities.
the ‘collector’ finding a macaw nest in one of the ancient iron trees that macaws use for their nests. He then cuts the tree down in order to reach the baby macaw - Many birds don’t survive the fall, not to mention the destruction to the forest. If the macaw survives the ‘extraction’ then it is anesthetized and sealed inside a tiny, straight-jacket-like plastic tube with breathing holes cut into it. The tube is then crammed into the luggage where it begins the long journey to America or Europe. It is estimated that less than twenty percent of the birds actually survive the journey and most of those are confiscated in customs. The few birds that do survive to become a pet are generally so traumatized that they pick out all of their feathers, which makes them look more like a rabid chicken than a beautiful macaw. If you must have a pet macaw then be sure and buy one that is captive bred and please don’t lock them away in a tiny cage!
I finished the upsetting part of the talk and then went into the fun part of the presentation - What is it that the Tambopata
The Fading Stream
The waterway that separates the island from the colpa is slowly being reclaimed by the forest as the river moves.
Macaw Project does? I quickly talked about why we need to protect the macaws - If the macaws were not there then the huge reserve we were in would not likely be there either! I first talked about the early days of the macaw project. How it had started at TRC back in 1989 as a strictly scientific venture and then how it morphed into the important eco-tourism program it is today. I then went into some of the early research, mainly the captive breeding program they did for several years in the ‘90s. The macaw generally lays two to three eggs as an insurance policy, but only one of those eggs grows into an adult macaw - Basically, if the first chick is healthy then it is the one that is fed, leaving the others to starve. The project took the starving chicks out of the nest and hand reared them. The purpose of the project was to see if hand rearing was a viable option to artificially boost the wild numbers of some of the critically endangered macaws and it was a success. The ‘chicos’, as the hand-reared chicks are known, thrived. Most integrated into the wild populations
and took wild mates and eat natural food - Essentially they are wild macaws. One of the side effects of the hand rearing at TRC was that the chicos still enjoy the company of humans. It is not a desirable trait, being that they become easy targets for poachers, but the chicos tend to be a highlight for a lot of the tourists staying at the lodge. The picture that accompanied the ‘and they eat natural foods…’ slide was of one of the chicos raiding the sugar jar at the coffee stand, which always got a laugh. The chicos were always around during mealtime and generally their begging antics brought them great rewards of bananas and butter - I watched one of them carefully peal the foil top off of a plastic butter packet and lick the butter out! I had my own chico encounter one morning when I was monitoring the birds as they arrived at the clay lick. We were standing out on the huge beach when two large scarlet macaws landed next to us. They walked up to us clearly wanting a banana, which they got. They eventually ended up on our shoulders, which made for some
memorable ‘jungle pirate’ pictures.
The last part of the presentation was about the current research being done in the macaw project. The research now focuses on clay lick use and breading biology. The current theories as to why the birds eat clay are that the soil acts as a mineral supplement, particularly with salt, which is lacking in their diet, but important for their health and that they eat the clay to neutralize the toxins that they get by eating so much fruit. The scientists also believe that the colpas serve as a meeting place for the birds. The breeding biology section was always a favorite part of the presentation. There was a series of photos that showed the different development stages for the chicks, starting from newly hatched to 90 days, when they were ready to leave the nest. Some of the pictures were shockingly ugly - The kind of ugly that is so ugly that it is cute! After their eyes opened and their feathers started coming in they became very cute. I always enjoyed that part of the presentation. At the end of the presentation I talked a bit about my role as a volunteer with
Looking in the Log
This giant millepede-like creature was as big around as my index finger.
the project - People were always surprised to learn that I was an engineer, not a biologist! I ended up doing the charla almost every night of my stay at the Tambopata Research Center, which I really enjoyed.
On my last day at the lodge Gustavo, Carlos and I headed out to the clay lick itself. After a humorously circuitous journey in the peke-peke, which I had had to repair (with the help of another peke-peke pilot) the night before, Gustavo finally piloted us to the shore (he was not very experienced as a peke driver.) We climbed up through the dense vegetation to the slippery red clay bluffs and we collected feathers. The feathers, which were naturally shed, were going to be used for DNA testing, so we had to be careful not to touch their points. After we had collected all the feathers we could find we paused to take a few pictures of each other at the colpa - Carlos posed as a macaw feeding on the clay, which was hilarious. We took one last walk through the forest on the way back to the lodge where Gustavo spotted a large snake, but it was gone
Learning to Drive
Gustavo as he tried to get us there in the peke...
by the time I got there - I had not had very good luck finding snakes at TRC, having only briefly seen one small one on the island. Back at the lodge we said our good byes and exchanged our contact information. Both Carlos and Gustavo gave me shirts to remind me of my time in the forest - All I could leave them in return was a pile of stinky, but still useful, jungle clothes, which I was not taking back with me. I was packed up and ready to go by the time I went to bed.
I woke up to a raging rainstorm the following morning. Gustavo told me the jungle was crying, not wanting me to leave and he pleaded with me to stay. At breakfast, as if the forest was trying another tactic to talk me into staying, Gustavo spotted a large mussurana right next to the lodge - The mussurana had become my favorite snake in the forest, having encountered it on three different occasions. We watched as it swam through the deepening water in the ditches and rooted through the grass looking for food. Eventually it disappeared under the building and I
A Giant Macaw
This is Carlos eating clay like a macaw at the largest clay lick in the world - We were there on a feather gathering mission.
went to eat. Later, one of the staff, a small, happy man that had the distinct, un-blurred features of a forest native, excitedly told us that he had found the snake again out in the clearing and it was eating something. I quickly donned my poncho and braved the downpour. The snake had finished swallowing what ever it was eating, but I still got very close. I decided not to even try to catch him, having had bad luck with my previous attempts, so I just knelt down and watched him. Oddly enough, the big snake turned in my direction and slid through the wet grass until it was less than a foot from me. I stayed still, so that when it finally sensed my presence it was startled and lurched quickly backwards and shot off in the other direction - Finally, on my last morning at the lodge I had a good snake sighting!
It was still pouring when I said farewell to my friends and headed down to the river and the waiting boat. TRC was everything that I had hoped it would be and then some. I took one last look at the forest and the
Looking official in my jungle garb.
mountains, which were still obstructed by the storm, and then I took my seat and said good-bye to the Tambopata Research Center. We still had the exciting rapids and wild shorelines of the Tambopata to look forward to, so we didn’t linger on our memories of TRC for too long. Who knows what was in store for us down river - The group that arrived at the lodge the day before had seen a jaguar…
There are more photos below