Our trip to Posada Amazonas and the Tambopata Research Center: November 13 through November 19, 2001
Guides: Edwin Salazar & Daniel Gomez
Travel party: Chris, Maryann, Leslie, Don, Kevin and myself.
This trip was booked through Rainforest Expeditions.
Chris Hickey has some good pictures of our trip on her website at http://www.caiquemom.com/peru/.
November 13. Our trip into the jungle began at Puerto Maldonado in the southern Peruvian Department of Madre de Dios. We arrived by TANS Airlines and were picked up by agents of Rainforest Expeditions. They first took us to the local office to check in. Here we checked excess luggage containing clothes from the Andes leg of our trip that we would not need in the jungle. After this brief stop, they took us to the river landing and boarded the boat to the Posada Amazonas lodge. We arrived at the lodge in the afternoon and were greeted with glasses of cool juice. We were instructed in the house rules—there is no electricity in the rooms, but a special person is assigned to light the gas lamps that are set in high niches so the he does not disturb your privacy. Every room has a lock box. This was not so much intended for safekeeping valuables as for much as for storing food. You need to lock up food so as not to entice wild critters. Finally, the plumbing cannot accommodate toilet paper, so you are obliged to place it in the small wastebaskets provided next to every toilet. Except in certain instances, such as when you must travel by boat, breakfast is at 7 AM, lunch is at 1:30 PM and dinner is at 7 PM. Then we got our room assignments.
The quarters were as described at the Rainforest Expeditions website—spacious rooms, with private bathrooms open to the jungle on one side. We settled in and, after a visit to the bar and the purchase of a T-shirt, we had a buffet dinner at 7 PM. I might add that all the meals were tasty. There were two vegetarians in our group, one visitor and one guide, and neither had a problem with the food. We ate dinner with our Peruvian guides. One, Daniel Gomez, had recently received is degree in forestry, and the other, Edwin Salazar, was working on his degree. At the end of the meal, the guides discussed the next day’s activities—it was the tower first thing in the morning and then the two small colpas at Posada later in the morning. After watching a VCR tape on macaws, I washed off the sweat of the day with a cold shower by candle light. The lodge offers warm water showers, but it ran out before I took my shower. I got to bed at the late hour of about 8:30 PM. I slept well.
November 14. There is a different rhythm to life in the jungle. We got up early—4:30 AM—to get to the tower before the birds became too active. Without electricity in your room, the only entertainment at Posada is the bar where you can buy beer or a variety of mixed drinks from a very creative bar tender. So, its early to bed and early to rise, and you do not miss much sleep. We got to the tower shortly after sunrise. The tower is 35 meters high and provides a good view of the world above the canopy of the rainforest. This was our first glimpse of our quarry and we were very excited to see so many parrots. Mealy and yellow-headed Amazons were a common sight, as were blue and gold macaws, green-wing macaws and scarlet macaws. Most were flying above the canopy, but many landed in the upper branches of tree canopy near us. We also saw white-breasted toucans and many other passerines. (See the list at the end of this section for some of those we saw.) Our guides were able to identify most of the birds from their sound. They claimed to have heard a blue-headed macaw, but were unable to confirm this by a sighting. The closest that the parrots came to us was a pair of green-wing macaws that landed in a treetop not more than 30 feet away. We saw many other birds. The most spectacular was the paradise tanager—a bird that sports seven different bright colors. Of course, the highlight for me was the sighting of a white-bellied caique. The guides called it a white-bellied parrot. It was hanging upside down inspecting a nesting cavity. I wondered if its mate might be inside since I have observed that the males of my breeding pairs often peer into the boxes while the female is sitting. The guides told us that a pair of caiques had used the cavity in the past for nesting, but had never seen any chicks fledge. They suspect that the chicks or eggs were subject to predation by toucanets. The guides also informed us that caiques move about in the canopy and seldom venture much above it.
After spending the early morning in the tower, we returned to the lodge at 7 AM in time for breakfast. Following breakfast, we went to a blind over looking a small clay lick where macaws gather. Three pairs of green-wing macaws visited the lick while we were there. They were spectacular and not more than thirty feet away. We had less success at the other lick that smaller parrots, such as the cobalt-winged parakeet, frequent. While we heard many birds, none landed and we eventually abandoned the effort. We returned to the lodge for our 1:30 lunch. After lunch, we visited Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake for a lazy circuit of its waters on a catamaran. There are giant otters in this lake, but since they are not usually active in the afternoon we missed them. We got to see many birds though. These included hoatzins, one of the most unusual birds in the world because they have a digestive system more like that of a cow than of a bird and their chicks have claws on the wings for climbing. I had seen hoatzins on my previous trip to Ecuador, so the most interesting new species for me was the laughing falcon. It takes its name from its call. This falcon specializes in snakes. We did not see this snake, but a group visiting the lake earlier in the day saw a fer-de-lance on the trail leading to the lake. This is perhaps the most deadly of the venomous snakes in South America. We returned to the lodge for supper, a restful evening, and another early bedtime.
November 15. We got up at 4:30 AM again and trudged to the tower. We saw many amazons and macaws, but there were fewer birds this morning than the previous day. This was probably due to the light rain that overtook us while we were there. Fortunately, it was not a thunderstorm! After being overwhelmed by the large parrots the first morning, we took more notice of the smaller parrots. We got some good views of the dusky-headed parakeet, the black-headed parakeet, the white-eyed parakeet and the dusky-billed parrotlet. We also got a good view of a pair of blue-headed parrots exploring a stump some 50 yards away. Unfortunately we did not get a second glimpse of the white-bellied caique.
After breakfast, we packed and boarded the boat for the Tambopata Research Center. It takes about 7 hours by boat to reach the Research Center. As you move up the Tambopata River, you move further and further from civilization. We stopped at two ranger stations on the way. We were required to register at each. After the first ranger station, there were still some small farms, but after passing the last ranger station it was all wilderness. Along the way we saw many birds and animals. We saw capybaras grazing in the grassy borders along the river and turtles sunning themselves on logs. We also saw many waterfowl including the Orinoco goose, wild muskovy ducks, storks, herons, cormorants, etc. We reached The Center late in the afternoon and were introduced to Maria. She runs the day-to-day affairs there. We got a new set of house rules. The meal hours were the same, but you were not allowed to wear boots in the building—you could go barefoot, wear socks, or wear sandals. The floors were clean and shiny with a rich wood sheen. It was highly recommended that you wear socks, long pants and long sleeved shirts from dusk to dawn in order to avoid insect bites. Finally, we were instructed not to feed the Chicos, i.e, the hand reared macaws from an earlier era that fly free in the area.
Since we arrived late, there was no time to make any bird viewing jaunts and we settled in, had a beer at the bar, and went to supper. We were entertained by one of the Chicos, a scarlet macaw, that arrived shortly before supper and raided the marmalade. After supper, Dr. Donald Brightsmith gave a short talk on his work. We also mingled a bit with the young students doing research as well as the temporary help from Earth Watch. A number of volunteers from this organization were assisting Dr. Brightsmith with his research on macaws. They spent most of their time monitoring nest sites and parrot visitation to the clay lick.
November 16. Up before dawn as usual. This morning we took the boat to a sandy beach on an island opposite what is billed as the largest parrot lick in the world. Here we could view the the birds without disturbing them. From this vantage point you can see the whole clay lick and you quickly realized that different species went to different areas on the lick. The larger birds tended to go to the more open areas while the smaller ones preferred to stick near the edges and the vegetation. That was where we saw the caiques, orange-cheeked parakeets and white eye-parakeets. We were also able to see all the different macaw species in the area that visit the lick. Chris and I noticed that there was one caique that had more black on its head than the rest suggesting that it might be an immature bird. Seeing blue-headed macaws was a special treat. They are rare visitors to the lick and our guides had only seen them five times before. Volunteers from Earth Watch were also present on the island engaged in counting the parrots as part of Dr Brightsmith’s research. I spent most of my time watching the caiques and the orange-cheek parakeets. The orange-cheek is a beautiful parakeet of the Pionopsitta genus unknown in aviculture. After a couple hours, during which I lost track of time, most of the birds abruptly left and this wonderful natural show came to an end. We returned to the TRC lodge for breakfast.
After lunch, we climbed a short tower in the palm swamp to observe the nests of the blue and gold macaws. We saw at least three pairs. Their nests in the tall palm stumps were quite evident. However, we did not see any blue and golds entering them. Two volunteers from Earth Watch were also on the tower monitoring and they said that one of the nests was occupied. Our biggest excitement was when a group of five cobalt-winged parakeets landed on one of the trees near the tower. This tree had a large termite nest on one side and we watched as the parakeets descended one at a time and entered the termite nest through a hole in its very bottom. It turns out that Donald Brightsmith had studied this relationship between the termites and these parakeets for his doctoral thesis.
On our way back from the palm swamp, darkness set in and we encountered one of the students from The Research Center. She was studying the unique relationship of the tarantula with a species of small frog that shares its burrow. She had covered all her lamps with red filters because the frogs were sensitive to the light emitted by regular lamps. The relationship of this large spider with this single species of frog had only recently been discovered.
November 17. On this overcast morning, we went to the blinds that overlook the lick from above. Chris and I wanted to see the caiques so we went with Edwin to a set of three blinds from which we could not actually see the lick, but we were able to see the parrots perched on the trees near the lick. Some of the caiques would go to the wall of the lick and return with small pieces of earth that they chewed and manipulated with their feet. The caique with the black on its head returned. We were able to see it at a much closer range this time. The black on its head extended to surround one of its eyes like a mask. I tried to get a better view of its eye to determine if it had an orange-red iris typical of adults, but without success. I made a quick count of the number of caiques and was able to count 15 in view at one time. There seemed to be two “tribes” of caiques. One arrived early and the other late. We also got good views of the orange-cheeks, white-eyed, blue-headed pionus, as well as the large macaws. With all the activity I again lost track of time, but the passing of a roadside hawk abruptly ended our morning’s viewing. The hawk sent all the birds flying and the set of late arriving caiques were unable to get to the lick that morning before we left. Two members of our party went to a different blind overlooking where the large parrots usually settle on the lick. Unfortunately they saw fewer parrots than we did. In general, there were fewer parrots at the lick this morning—probably because of weather conditions.
We got back to the lodge just as it began to rain. The rain kept us confined to lodge for the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon. After it let up, we followed one of the young crews inspecting the macaw nests. They were supplementing the bedding matrix in the artificial nests. For this they have to climb ropes to the nest, chase away the birds, inspect the nest and add the bedding. The first nest they inspected was occupied by a pair of scarlet macaws that had not laid any eggs yet —possibly because of insufficient bedding. The second artificial nest that was checked also housed a pair of scarlets but it was just in front of the TRC lodge, and we were able to watch the inspection process in comfort. This one contained eggs. The eggs were carefully removed, supplemental bedding added, and the eggs returned. The parents soon returned and resumed their normal activity.
That evening we did a night trek to the frog pond. We saw very few frogs, but we did see a lot of other things. Among these were a giant tree snail, a pink-toed tarantula, an orange water snake that our guides could not identify, a caiman, and group of bullet ants. We carefully avoided the bullet ants—since these are capable of inflicting excruciating pain. One of our guides told us that he had the misfortune to be stung and had to spend a week in bed.
November 18. We returned to the same blinds above the lick as yesterday. It was a beautiful day without overcast or threat of rain. There were many more birds than the previous day. Edwin brought the tripod scope this morning so we could see the caiques more clearly. The caique with the black on its head returned. Looking through the scope, I thought that I detected an orange iris. Chris disagreed. So while I thought that this particular bird might be an adult variant, Chris continued to believe it was an immature bird. In addition to the caiques, we saw many more birds than the previous day. In the bright sunlight of the morning the orange-cheeks were dazzling. Every time one flew we got a bright red flash from their under wing. There were also plenty of white-eyed and dusky-headed parakeets. The macaws also moved into the small parrot area, possibly because somebody on the island beach disturbed their normal activity by standing too near the lick causing them to feel less secure. After the activity died down, we returned to the lodge for breakfast.
After breakfast it was time to return to Posada Amazonas. We packed up our gear, which by now was appropriately smelly and grungy. The trip back took less time because of the river current and we ate lunch on the way. Lunch was chicken and rice cooked in banana leaves. It was quite tasty. We arrived at Posada Amazonas in time to make one last trip into the jungle. For a change of pace, we decided to visit the giant kapok tree. This tree is truly awesome. You may easily hide within its buttress roots. It is reputed to be about 600 years old.
That evening we packed for the trip out of the jungle and our return to Lima. I was happy that I had held back one clean change of clothes for the trip.
November 19. Our last morning and we had to leave early to catch our flight from Puerto Maldonado to Lima. The flight had a stop in Cusco, but there was no time to get off. We arrived at our hotel in Lima in the afternoon. It was glorious to have a hot shower again!
Lars Lepperhoff offers a description of his trip there in his 2001 article entitled "Gelbschenkel-Rostkappenpapageien im Rengenwald Westamazoniens" in Gefiederte Welt (April, pp. 114-117). He describes the same tree we saw from the tower at Posadas Amazonas, but he was lucky enough to see young caiques enter and leave the nest hole. He also noticed a "swarm" of insects at the nest hole. Edwin Salazar, who was his and our guide, stated that they were attracted by the chicks' droppings. However, Lepperhoff saw fewer caiques at the Tambopata Research Center colpa. Since he visited at a different season, this may explain the differences.
If you are planning a trip to the Amazon River basin. They are a number of good books that you can read. The best that I have found is John Kricher's A Tropical Companion. If you can only afford a single book, his is the one to buy. Some books of historical interest are available free on the internet. One is Henry Walter Bates' The Naturalist on the River Amazons. Bates traveled about Amazonia between 1847 and 1859, at first with Alfred Russel Wallace and then alone. Wallace and Charles Darwin later became famous for independently arriving at the concept of Evolution. Bates' ideas greatly contributed to this concept. Bates is best known for his description of "Batesian mimicry." A second on-line book is Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt published in 1914. This book describes his trip down the "river of doubt" that he called Rio Dúvida, but was later named in his honor by the Brazilian explorer Col. Rondon. This trip was so arduous that Roosevelt's early death at age 60 is often attributed to it. The first half of the book describes his trip trough the Pantanal and provides nice descriptions of the abundance of wildlife in the area. In the second half of the book, he became so preoccupied with his party's difficulties in negotiating the rapids and waterfalls of the "river of doubt," he devoted less to descriptions of the local flora and fauna. It is unlikely you will encounter the difficulties of these early explorers, but, if you are like me, it is good to get a feel of the area where you plan to travel before you go.