After watching the birds of the coast and mountains of Peru we flew east to Puerto Maldonado, a frontier town in the jungle on the Tambopata river. The Tambopata is a tributary of the Amazon, and is absolutely vast. We were to stay a jungle eco-lodge on its banks, about an hour and half away by bus and boat.
The first thing we noticed as we climbed sweatily up the steep riverbank and through the forest was the loud birdsong. It seemed to fill the hot, humid air. We were struck immediately by the burbling not-of-this-world calls of the russet-backed oropendolas (Psarocolius angustifrons).
A colony had woven its long nests at the top of a tall tree in the lodge area. I have never heard a sound like it. Later, lying down naked under the mozzie nets to try to escape the heat, the oropendolas’ whoops and chatter lulled me to sleep.
There were so many birds to enjoy here, but I was especially looking forward to seeing one of the most iconic South America species; the scarlet macaw (Ara macao). There were plenty in the jungle surrounding the lodge. Doesn’t ‘Scarlet MacAw’ sound like a film star name? It’s pretty apt, these are birds with Hollywood qualities: technicolor plumage and visible character.
Many of the fruits they eat contain toxins which they must neutralise if they are going stay healthy. To do this, they swoop down to exposed areas of earth and dig away at the clay with their beaks and eat it. The clay contains minerals to help their digestion. The lodge had set up some hides for visitors to use to observe them without frightening them. We sat for perhaps and hour and a half, watching a group of eight macaws leaping around in a tree a quarter of a mile away. For a large bold-looking bird, they are actually quite timid and while we sat they never found the courage to come down to the clay lick. They must have spotted a predator which we couldn’t see.
Moth returned to the clay lick the next afternoon while I went swimming in the river and got some really good close-up views. All I got was eaten alive by blood-sucking insects in the short time it took me to get out of the river and get dressed. That’s two weeks ago now and they still itch!
Many species of psittacidae eat clay. At a different clay lick, we watched in wonder as perhaps 100 cobalt-winged parakeets (Brotogeris cyanoptera) busily excavated at a mud cliff.
The sound of their calls was shrill, constant and deafening. And then suddenly something disturbed them, probably a toucan, and a cloud of green, flashing blue wings took off as if one organism, and disappeared in the forest.
Very early one morning, after a boat ride and a walk through the forest, we arrived at an oxbow lake. It was quiet, cool and still, and the sun rose gently through a milky haze. We boarded a raft and the boatman paddled us out slowly, slowly, slowly so as not to disturb the creatures living here. We’d come primarily to try to see giant otters, but there were also hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin) living here.
This was a bird I had wanted to see since I first became aware of them in David Attenborough’s BBC Life of birds series as they are so peculiar. According to wikipedia: “The Hoatzin is arguably the most enigmatic living bird in regard to its phylogenetic relationships. No satisfying evolutionary hypothesis has been proposed, and the situation has actually become worse with the availability of DNA sequence data.”
An evolutionary conundrum! Come on Science, this bird must have some very cool things to teach us. The hoatzin chick has hooks on its wings and clambers about in trees much as the ancient archaeopteryx would have done. How fab is that?
As we watched the hoatzins, a ringed kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) flashed passed.
It was so hot and humid in the jungle that doing anything at all, even just sitting still, and the sweat ran off me. But actually sitting still is very good for watching birds. You notice the little ones.
Moth spotted this gorgeous vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) going about its business from his perch as he waited at the macaw lick.
Photos: Moth Clark