Saturday, 20 August 2016

Macaws at the Chuncho claylick, largest colpa in Amazonia, Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Listening to macaws gathered in palms over a claylick must be the happiest sound on earth. In zoos they sound raucous, but in the wild, they are ecstatic, as they patiently wait for a safe moment to descend on what seems to be their shrine. The scientists at Tambopata Research Centre have been studying their behaviour at Chuncho claylick for years, and have various theories as to why the macaws, parrots and mammals all come here to eat the mineral rich clay. The cliffs at the side of the creek are carved into caves by their beaks. 

The first morning I was there, the macaws gathered in the trees while the mealy and blue headed parrots came down to feed first, flocks of them. The macaws are easily spooked, just the shadow of an eagle and they flew past, their tails streaming behind them, like blue, yellow and red sunrays. They gather always in twos or threes, monogamous, longlived couples with their single juvenile chick. Their calls are like the voices of sunrays passing through a delicious but dangerous planet. The claylick, or colpa, must contain sacred salts or minerals, essential for their health, but what I saw was how they worshipped it, perched for hours before descending. 

Even when they did dare settle, one would usually be a lookout, and I noticed that the lookout faced us over on the opposite side of the creek. They knew we were there and when one of our groups tired of waiting for them to come down and left, it was a signal. Then down they came, much to our delight; we'd been waiting since dawn and it was now noon. 

In the photos below you can see blue and gold macaws, red and green macaws, mealy parrots, blue headed parrots, and scarlet macaws. In the last picture, Laura from TRC and a scientist volunteer are with the tame wild scarlet macaws which were hand raised as chicks. They were once near extinction so the scientists removed the second chicks from nests (that the parents neglect so they die) and hand raised them. They nest up in ironwood trees near the centre and return for banana treats and reguarly steal the breakfast of guests. While I was there Tobasco stole my breakfast bun and the butter. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Harpy Eagle, Madre de Dios Peruvian Amazon

It's hard to believe that just over two weeks ago I was standing in primary Peruvian rainforest looking up at a harpy eagle! It's rare to see one, but here was this two-year-old juvenile, calling for his mother, and bobbing his head and crest to look down on us. I also saw the blur of his mama, but Brian saw her crashing through the trees, all six-foot wingspan. We were up in the hide opposite the mammal clay lick at the time, and our guide Berli was elsewhere, we later discovered he was harpy eagle hunting, calling until he got a reply. We stood there under the tree watching the juvenile for maybe an hour. Brian took these photos. 

It's hard to believe what's happened since in Britain, but I'm clinging to this image of a young harpy watching us – humans from another continent, strangers in his home. What does he make of us? We wound our long way back to the boat, but before we left his haunt, Berli showed us the emergent ceiba tree where the huge nest was hidden behind a philodendron right at the top. We passed a large burrow and Berli said it belonged to an armadillo but it was empty. This made him rush back to the juvenile to check – that tail hanging below it was not tail-plumes but the armadillo's tail.

Further down the track we almost stepped on fresh jaguar marks, and next to them, older ones. The pawprints were as big as my hand. Perhaps the jaguar was watching us? The harpy is also known as the jaguar-of-the-skies, being one of the apex predators of Amazonia, and the most powerful eagle in the world. Their main prey is howler monkeys and sloths, though they are not the eagles with the widest wingspan, that's the Philippine eagle, but they are the most powerful, with the larger female's wings reaching only six or seven feet across (shorter than the Philippine eagle's, so that it can swoop among branches of the canopy rather than soar). Its talons are six inches long and its grip can crush any skull.

How elated I was then, and how crushed now, not by a harpy eagle's claws, but a predator I don't understand, a dangerous power crashing through the canopies of Europe and America, not beautiful like the eagle, but ugly, skull-crushingly ugly.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Boatmen and Peccaries, Madre de Dios Peruvian Amazon

The first time we saw white-lipped peccaries they were in the soccer pitch next to the boatmen's hut. The soccer pitch is where the guides and staff at Tambopata Research Centre relax after lunch before the evening excursions. The small pitch is next to the hut where the boatmen sleep. When we went there searching for peccaries on a forest walk our guide Berli explained how dedicated the boatmen are to their boats, which is why they sleep here instead of at the centre, close to the riverbank. Every two hours all through the night, one will wander down the steep steps to the boats to check on them, but as the river was dangerously high at this time, with flotillas of trees floating downstream, they would be sleeping in their boats under a blanket. Here is the creek where they moor them, around the corner from the steps we used to climb up and down the high banks.

It was up here near their huts that we first saw peccaries, though were very aware of their presence as we could hear their screams from the lodge, their grunts and teeth-clacking like machine-gunfire, and see their tracks in mud. Most of all, we knew they were around because of their smell, which is like stale sweat. One of the main differences between climax rainforest with scattered human presence dotted along the riverbanks, and the pristine rainforest around Tambopata Research Centre, is the stench, much more pungent in the pristine forest. Apart from TRC, noone else is allowed to lodge inside the national reserve, so the diversity of wildlife is much richer. Even the trees there are more pungent, with names such as 'garlic tree', 'shit tree', and 'camphor tree', with smells that deter foragers from eating their leaves.


The peccaries crossed our path, stopping every now and then to look at us and to guard their young. Their passage took about twenty minutes as herds are vast. The next day we went down the creek to the Colorado clay lick, one of the largest in the world, to observe macaws and parrots, but found it occupied by the herd of peccaries. It is thought that mammals and parrots eat the salt-rich clay to neutralise the toxins in their diet, but research is ongoing as this has not been proved. More about the spectacle of macaws and parrots at another clay lick in a future post.


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Peruvian Amazon Madre de Dios, Tambopata National Park introduction

I'm going to make a pictorial record of my trip to the Peruvian Amazon on this blog, as an aid to writing poems, so this is an introduction. I went to the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon basin and stayed in two lodges. The first, Refugio Amazonas, is in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Park, in the deep Amazon basin, climax rainforest but not totally pristine as there are goldminers here and there along the riverbank, mango farmers, and a couple of other small lodges. Access to Refugio ecotourism lodge is 4 hours by river, after a stupendous flight from Lima via Cuzco, over the Andes then the meandering Tambopata River and its oxbows, to the world capital of biodiversity: Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town.

I was looking down onto the vast coils of the serpent of Amazonian myth, fallen from the sky. I mentioned the sky-river to our expert guide Berli, of Amahuaca heritage, and he told me there is a scientifically acknowledged river in the sky, that the clouds above these waterways hold more water than the rivers themselves. It was along the meanders in this photo that we were carried, in a small powered longboat from the indigenous port of Infierno, 20 miles upstream from Puerto Maldonado, along the Tambopata, upstream towards the Purna foothills. Those boat journeys, down the centre of the river where it is cool with the breeze and mosquito free, were exhilarating, with Berli and other guides spotting caiman, capybara, turtles, monkeys, herons, vultures, and much more, along the banks, through their binoculars. Brian, my husband, who accompanied me, took these photos of the spectacled caiman with his Lumix camera bought specially for the trip. Butterflies and flies drink its tears and the caiman tolerates them though gets nothing from them.

We stopped at the buffer zone National Park guard checkpoint, and it was there that I got bitten by dozens of sandflies, having foolishly just worn a sleeveless tee shirt. Those bites still itch and scar my upper arms two weeks later! From then on I buttoned up in Nosilife mossie proof shirts and trousers from neck to ankle, the ankles tightly sealed with drawstrings. As there is the risk of Leishmaniasis at the deeper lodge 4 hours further upriver, Tambopata Research Centre (the only one in the Park and the remotest lodge in Amazonia!), and this nasty disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, it was essential to keep bites to a minimum.

One tenth of the scientists who work at this centre longterm contract the disease for which there is no prevention, only an unpleasant lengthy cure by intravenous antimony. It is impressive that despite this the scientists continue to do their crucial work, specifically with macaws, but also making a census of the wildlife left in pristine climax forest. At the buffer zone station their main task is to make a census of arthropods and insects there, and take DNA samples of each sub-species. New species are being discovered daily, so this is a herculean task.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Dangerous Liaison: Aramis and Simara the jaguars


Yesterday the ninth of December was a historic day. I went to the Parc Zoologique de Paris at Vincennes just as it opened because I'd heard that at last Aramis the black jaguar and Simara the spotted female had been brought together. But no luck, as I suspected this event is closely supervised and is only allowed for short periods, and when a senior keeper is available. Alas, Simara was queen of the front enclosure and Aramis in the back paddock. I had not seen Aramis close up for a year and was disappointed. The keepers have been waiting until the young gold jaguar was old enough, until she is big enough for Aramis who is a huge young male. It's dangerous to bring them together. I strolled around the zoo and spent time with all my animal friends then at a quarter to four I went to check on A and S just before I went home. No change.

Then a serious looking keeper materialised and the dividing mesh door slowly slid open.

Aramis bounded into the larger enclosure and they rolled together in the twilight. Then, for a moment, it looked as if they were more interested in food, as they are always fed on re-entry into their night-quarters and it was that time. Then Simara butted Aramis in the dark corner. Deep growls issued and I gasped.

Who growled? I couldn't tell, but was worried as one of them kept snarling. The keeper strained to see what was happening. But out they leapt, and Simara led the way, round the banana bushes, poolside path, right up to the front rock where just before she had rolled like a queen. Up Aramis climbed to join her and they tussled. I knew they were unlikely to mate; Simara doesn't yet seem to be in heat, so I guess this is a protacted courtship for solitaries who must meet only to reproduce.

As you can see from my iPhone pics, Simara took the lead and jumped on Aramis's back, biting his neck, and wrestling with him. Poolside saplings got flattened as they play-fought rough. Their canines flashed. Would he get injured? He fought back and then I saw how much bigger he is than her. He was being gentle with her, even though she often drove him to the water trough to drink, exhausted by her constant attacks.

Then the hatches opened to their night-quarters and the dangerous date was over. I went back to my rented flat happy. I kept thinking about the sheer joy they expressed. It was like world enemies making a pact and enjoying the entente, all the boredom of solitude and captivity gone.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The River Lynher in Cornwall Where I Now Live!

At last, after years of yearning to live in the country, I have moved to south east Cornwall from east London. We moved early September but I've been travelling nonstop since then and have only now started to settle in and explore the landscape. Yesterday we walked on Bodmin Moor, very close to us, and this morning we crossed the fifteenth century Stara Bridge, about two miles from our house, along the River Lynher, following the muddy path through Stara Woods. The Lynher is a fast flowing steep river with rapids, dizzying to look into, so it was with some terror that I crossed a suspension bridge over it that swayed and bounced as I clung to the rope sides. The suspension bridge reminds me of a trek I did in the Annapurnas, over more terrifying bridges, but at least those were wider! The third photo below was taken by my husband halfway across, no way would I ever let go of the ropes to do that!

The other two photos were also taken by him, after a long trek through the woods to upper cascades on a tributary of the Lynher. Along the riverside there are sandy banks where kingfishers might be spotted, so we'll be back often in case we get lucky. The Lynher is also a hundred yards from our house, and quite wide at that point, we can hear it from our garden but we are up a hill so out of the flood zone. Our front garden is wild, rather like a miniature Bodmin Moor, with hummocks and impossible-to-mow grass, and is bordered by a Cornish wall. The back garden is where my den is, from it I can observe goldfinches, chaffinches, and wrens peep in through my windows. The patio doors look out onto the low back wall and a back field where three very fat pet pigs have their snouts buried in clover.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Simara running rampage, I have moved!

Last time I was at Vincennes Zoo, for the summer nocturne opening hours, Simara the young female jaguar ran rampage in her pool under the waterfall. She ran back and forth and pounced at the water, racing towards me. I've never seen nature so forceful. She kept it up for an hour while I watched. It was 9pm, I was alone in front of her cage. Afterwards I wound my way towards the exit, but thought I'd check if the fossa was out, preparing myself for disappointment, as he hides in his den most of the time. He wasn't at first, so I turned homeward, then remembered to check the other window. There he was! That night I wrote two poems, one featuring Simara and one about the very strange fossa from Madagascar. Both poems are attempts to describe what it was like for my mother to go mad, to be in the throes of mania and psychosis, in my book in progress Mama Amazonica.

It has been a turbulent time for me, for the first time in thirty years I've moved house, from London to Cornwall, to a remote rural spot near Bodmin Moor. My cat-love of my life Shiva died just before the move. I haven't quite settled in yet, but the garden office is set up, and the beds have finally arrived. When the settees come perhaps Basil my Siberian forest (rescue) cat will come out from his camp under the bed. Mouse who is feral is in paradise in the garden and fields. Yesterday she saw sheep for the first time, her eyes went huge, then she looked outraged that they were reaching into the lane-grass by our gate to munch grass. Molly also ventures out to explore and hunt.

With me came 145 books submitted for the TS Eliot Prize, as I'm chairing the judging panel this year. I sat on my campbed reading one after the other, making notes, keeping the boxes safe among the hundreds filled with my books and household stuff. I'm writing this in the Holiday Inn at Heathrow, at 5am, on my way to the Dromineer Festival today to read. From there I'll go to Swindon Poetry Festival, then Preston, then teach for the second time this year at Ty Newydd. I got back from Totleigh Barton, teaching an Arvon poetry course last week. November will be quieter, it will. December I'm going back to Paris to see Simara and hopefully Aramis the black jaguar, and who knows what? I've one year left to finish my book. Maybe they'll be together by then, and he won't be stuck in the back enclosure. What I've learnt from my many visits is that it's worth sticking around all day, even if they're asleep in the bushes, they will eventually emerge, just like poems.