Messing about on the River
Is there anything better than birdwatching from a boat? Even by previous memorable boating trips, this morning’s outing along the Manu River, Peru, is something special. It started at dawn, the orange sky glinting off the fast-flowing surface, with macaws and parrots squawking above us as they moved from one area of thick rainforest to another.
We sped northwest up the Manu, breakfast in hand (including delicious fresh, hot corn provided by our own, personal chef!) and were joined by hundreds of Sand-coloured Nightjars darting alongside and over the boat looking for one last mothy-meal before settling to roost on the many sandbanks in the river.
Muscovy Ducks waddled away from the water’s edge as we approached, joined by Pied Lapwings and Collared Plovers. Parrots, macaws, and parakeets continued to drift nosily over the river and we paused to admire Black Caimans, Jabiru, Wood Storks, Black Vultures, and a handful of Orinoco Geese.
To cap it all, about two hours into the ride, a glowing rainbow arced over the forest. I was already in a state of serenity but now my senses went into overload. Nature was once again proving the ultimate mind healer, stripping away cares and worries like a storm strips away deadwood from an ancient forest. Several religions strive for a state of enlightenment and I am pretty sure I can touch it from here if I stretch; here on my little boat in the midst of this wilderness. To quote a line from a song by Faithless: “This is my church; this is where I heal my hurts”.
After the cathartic boating adventure, we moored up and then made a short trek through the forest to transfer to a punted raft along a deserted oxbow river. More serenity in the shape of Hoatzins – a strange prehistoric-looking bird that feeds on leaves but has to sit around waiting for its poorly-developed digestive system to work on the food – evocative calls of Screaming Pihas and yet more parakeets flying over.
The peace was soon shattered by a harsh squeal as a family group of Giant River Otters broke surface a few hundred yards away. We slowly punted towards them, trying not to spook the animals. We needn’t have worried, for as soon as they saw us, they swam closer to have a look!
We managed to spend nearly an hour with these amazing animals, as they fed, argued, groomed, and played before us. Now and again, one or two would swim up to our raft to inspect their enthralled visitors before continuing with their entertaining ottery goings on. In the end, we dragged ourselves away to give incoming visitors a chance, leaving the otters as we had found them, which is precisely how wildlife watching should be.
I am in Peru, by invitation of PromPeru and Crees Foundation, to sample the delights of what the southern part of the country has to offer. And, boy, does it produce the goods!
Any trip to Peru will start in Lima. It is worth taking a day or two in this sprawling city to see the sights and also visit a few birding spots where you can find species you won’t see anywhere else on your holiday.
Our bird guide for the day was Fabiana Huaman, who first led us to Árboles de Olivio, an urban park where we saw local specialities such as Long-billed Mockingbird, Pacific Parrotlet, Scrub Blackbird, Amazilia Hummingbird, and the gorgeous dark morph variety of Vermillion Flycatcher; all in an environment where the birds are used to noisy people, so get your cameras ready!
About an hour south of central Lima is the bustling fishing village of Pucusana. From here it is possible to take a thrilling boat ride around a seabird nesting island where you’ll be overwhelmed by legions of birds such as Inca Terns, Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Guanay and Red-legged Cormorants, a few Humboldt Penguins, as well as South American Sealions.
In the harbour and its surrounding rocky shoreline, you should see Surf Cinclodes – an endemic to this coast – Blackish Oystercatchers, Grey, Belcher’s, Grey-hooded, and Kelp Gulls, and ubiquitous Turnstones.
For a bit of variety, drop in at Pantanos de Villa, a superb marshland not far from Pucusana where you will find a different set of species. Here, the reeds hold Many-coloured Rush-Tyrants (as striking as the name would suggest), Wren-like Rushbirds, Least Bitterns, and Peruvian Meadowlarks while the ponds are home to Cinnamon Teal, Andean Coot, the spectacular Great Grebe, and many more sought-after goodies.
EXPLORING THE FORESTS
To get to Manu and those amazing River Otters, it is best to fly to Cusco and access the forests from there via minibus and boat. This also offers the irresistible chance to break your trip with a visit to the on-everyone’s-bucket-list Inca site of Machu Piccu.
Breathtaking doesn’t even begin to describe the Machu Piccu experience but a birdwatcher is never off duty. While gawping at the scale of this World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World sites, you may also encounter Inca Wren, Sclater’s Tyrannulet, and Highland Elaenia, with Torrent Ducks and Giant Hummingbirds almost guaranteed from the train (or the Machu Piccu Choo-choo as I like to call it) on your way up there.
It was in Cusco that we met our wildlife guide for the Manu portion of the trip: Jose Padilla. A day’s slow, birdy drive later, we were in the Manu National Park: a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a long day ‘in the saddle’ but meant we were in the heart of the Cloud Forest ready for an early start for one of the highlights of the whole trip.
At dawn the next day, we excitedly made the short drive to a covered platform in the forest. Before we even reached the viewpoint, we could hear the strange, otherworldly calls of our target bird deep in the forest: Andean Cock-of-the-Rock.
For the next hour, I was privileged to watch at least seven males of this iconic orange/red and black cotinga as they hopped from one moss-covered branch to the next, cocking their heads in display, trying to attract the hidden females. I don’t know about the ladies but I was certainly impressed!
We walked back to the lodge from the Cock-of-the-Rock lek and were nearly overwhelmed with wildlife sightings. There were White-capped Dippers and Sunbitterns on the fast-flowing river; there were Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals perched in trees; Rusty-backed Oropéndolas gave their wonderfully evocative calls from nest trees by the side of the road; there was a family group of Woolly Monkeys high in the treetops above the road and many species of amazingly colourful butterflies fluttered by – including species such as Manu Oressinoma, Rusty-tipped Page, Humboldt and Blue Perisamas, and many Red-banded Altinotes.
Breakfast back at the lodge was no quieter but no one was complaining. Food was interrupted several times by sightings of a Torrent Duck on the river, Booted Raquet-tail and Violet-fronted Brilliant hummingbirds on the feeders, and a few species of tanagers in the trees. Our stay here was all too brief but we had a lot more of Manu Park to explore!
Manu National Park covers over 1.7 million hectares and has three designations of protection: completely protected, a buffer zone – where some agriculture and sustainable logging is allowed and encouraged – and unprotected areas. Unfortunately, illegal mining and logging takes place in the buffer zone, as enforcement is rather lax.
Our next port of call was in the buffer zone, where we stayed at the Crees Foundation’s Manu Learning Centre. Crees – which stands for Conservation, Research and Environmental Education towards Sustainability – has been accredited by the Rainforest Alliance and is a non-profit organisation that aims to prove that ethical and sustainable practices can produce and create an improved future for wildlife, indigenous communities and businesses. Crees offers Internships for students in conjunction with several international universities and accommodation for eco-tourists such as our happy band of travellers looking for a bit of wilderness birding!
Certainly, our arrival at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) was greeted with dazzling wildlife. Rather rudely, after a thrilling three hour motorised canoe journey along the Madre de Dios River, we almost brushed past the official welcoming party choosing instead to gawp at glittering Rufous-crested Coquette, Rufous-webbed Brilliant, and Blue-tailed Emerald hummingbirds, many gorgeous butterflies and ‘Gavina’, the Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth who was hanging out in the lodge’s gardens!
MLC is situated in an area of regenerating secondary forest. It was truly amazing to witness just how fast the habitat had recovered since it was clear-felled just twenty years ago. To my untrained eye this forest could have been here for millennia. Researchers had recently discovered a new species of tree frog but I was particularly interested in a project placing camera traps in tops of trees to see what creatures passed through. Results proved some animals, for example Kinkajou, which was rarely glimpsed by people and so thought rare, were, in fact, very common in the trees at night. This research drove conservation measures for such animals in this and surrounding forests.
My time at MLC was spent squelching along the muddy trails looking for wildlife or stalking hummingbirds and butterflies in the garden during ‘rest periods’ (though there really is no rest in such a biodiverse habitat as a rainforest!).
Highlights included prolonged views of the lovely Gavina, Manu and White-browed Antbirds, a large group of Bolivian Spider Monkeys, inquisitive Red Howler Monkeys, and Leaf-cutter ants are always a delight to watch as they form a moving green river through the forest.
We were also treated to a dawn boat ride to witness a parrot lick. The diet of parrots and macaws is a toxic one and these birds have to visit a clay-lick every day or so to take onboard some clay, which lines their stomachs and helps protect against poisoning. Our best efforts were thwarted by a majestic but unwelcome Great Black-Hawk that unhelpfully perched below the cliff face. Understandably, the parrots and macaws didn’t come down to ‘feed’ though we managed to tick off nine species of Psittacidae in glorious early morning light with snow-covered mountains and verdant green forest as a backdrop: another magical pre-breakfast!
It was time to move on. The next section of this whistle stop tour of south-eastern Peru was at Crees’s Romero Rainforest Lodge, scene of the cathartic morning boat ride along the Manu River described earlier. Our arrival was no less exciting than at MLC: “quick, there are some tamarins on the lawn”. This was Jose’s excited words as I was trying to exit the canoe safely and balance my large backpack so I could negotiate the steps up the muddy bank!
Sure enough, I was greeted by the sight of Andean Saddle-back Tamarins and the incredible-looking Emperor Tamarin feeding on bananas right in front of lodge buildings. Not long afterwards, we were munching our own delicious supper rustled up by the chef we had brought with us on the boat from MLC. I could get used to this pampering!
As well as close encounters with the Giant River Otters from Romero, some of the Romero Lodge wildlife perhaps came a tad too close for some tastes; Gladiator Tree Frogs – the largest tree frog in the world – visited at least two separate bathrooms during our stay and several flying insects flitted around my electronic tablet as I worked on it in my room. It is strange to think I could be being buzzed by a new species to science as I compile my considerable wildlife sightings list for the day!
The trip ended at another lodge on the Madre de Dios River: the Manu Wildlife Centre. This luxurious rainforest lodge was the scene of a night trek to try and see a Tapir. A sleeping platform, complete with mosquito nets, has been set up overlooking a clay-lick. Just like parrots, some mammals have to partake of life-saving clay to neutralise their toxic diet.
Unfortunately, a Tapir didn’t show for us on our last night and it was a disappointed, weary, sweaty but philosophical group that trudged back to the main accommodation in the dark with Amazonian Pygmy-owl calls ringing in our ears. Fatigue and lack of sleep didn’t prevent us from flopping into the bar to toast a truly astonishing, wildlife-packed trip into ‘Deepest, Darkest Peru’. We literally managed to drink the bar dry before an all too brief visit to our beds!
Looking back, there are plenty of reasons to return to Peru. Tapir is one, of course, but there’s also Harpy Eagle, many snakes, frogs and lizards, hundreds of butterflies and quite a few species of skulking antwrens, antbirds, antpittas and antshirikes, not to mention ants. And Paddington Bear: we didn’t find Paddington Bear…
Many thanks to Fabiana Huaman and Jose Padilla, our superb bird guides. A huge thank you to the back-up staff at Crees (skillful boatmen, chef, etc) who were second to none in their expertise and attentiveness. Thank you to Jayki Camargo from PromPeru for making this trip happen! Finally, many thanks to the other trip participants for sharing their expertise and good humour throughout.