Friday 23 December 2016

Drama on the Tambopata River, Madre de Dios, Peruvian Amazon

You never know what dramas are unfolding on the Tambopata River in the Peruvian Amazon. We steered the canoe to photograph a great black hawk perched on a dead branch when our motorista  saw the huge golden catfish sticking out of the sandbank behind some driftwood. It was only when we got closer that we also saw the spectacled caiman, all two-three metres of him, though mostly he was slunk in the water, his snout in his prey. Our guide Paul Francisco Condori Vilca (aka Jungle Paul) took this photo and the close ups of the caiman's and catfish's heads below. My husband Brian photographed the hawk and the whole scene. They and the motorista and navigator all leapt onto the logs to take photos while I stayed in the boat. I can't leap easily off a narrow canoe prow, being hydrophobic. 

Paul explained that great black hawks prey on baby caimans. The hawk was no doubt waiting to feast on the catfish, but the spectacled caiman was waiting for the hawk to descend so he could catch the hawk! They stayed in this deadlock for about twenty minutes, then the caiman pulled the catfish under and re-emerged further back. The female horseflies on the catfish were also on the caiman's head,  they too were waiting for a meal. It was a spectacular find, and back at Tambopata Research Center that evening we toasted it with pisco sours before falling into bed at nine, for the usual four am rise.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Second Trip to the Peruvian Amazon, Tambopata National Reserve, Madre de Dios region

This is the view from the top of the 30 meter scaffolding canopy tower over the Madre de Dios rainforest, late afternoon, taken on the first day of our arrival in the Peruvian Amazon, when we stayed in a lodge in the outer buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve, one hour upriver from the Ese'Eja native community of Infierno. This particular lodge, Posadas, is in the Ese'Eja's protected primary forest, which means there is a high diversity of creatures, many of which can be seen from the bedrooms, which are missing an outer wall. It is possible to lie in bed and watch monkeys and toucans flying through the trees.

On this, our second trip to the Peruvian Amazon basin, we saw so much wildlife, took so many photos, that I'm starting the blog with just the landscape and the trees, the rainforest and the Tambopata River, its oxbow lakes and creeks, islands and ponds. We trekked in the heat and humidity and mosquito clouds of the wet season. Luckily, although we arrived in rain, and the forecast was for rain and thunder every day and night, we only had one afternoon of deluge, when all excursions were cancelled. There were occasional spectacular night storms, surprise downpours, and lots of sun, not that we could see it in the forest understorey where it is always twilight. 

After two days in Posadas Lodge we went upriver six and a half more hours, deep into the pristine Tambopata National Reserve, to stay at Tambopata Research Station. There are no other humans allowed in this national park so the forest is undisturbed. It was my second stay there, and I could get addicted to it, despite the discomfort of always being sweaty, having to take three showers a day and having to wear gumboots for the mud, and cover up from neck to toe against the insect hordes and spray insect repellant every half an hour. We got up at 4am most days, fumbling in the dark with torches, and the best experiences were usually those treks and boat-trips before breakfast, when the wildlife was at its peak.

The highlight was a jaguar. But there were other equally enthralling encounters: the giant river otters that swam towards our catamaran, a king vulture on river logs, capybaras mating, a harpy eagle chick, a hoatzin chick, a large caiman eating an even larger catfish, nighthawks roosting on the river, a scissor-tail kite  – the list goes on. Almost all spotted by our eagle-eyed guide Jungle Paul, who also took some of the best photos with his huge zoom-lens camera. Most of these pics here I took with my iPhone, which is good for landscapes and also for close-ups. But I didn't take the view from the canopy tower, sadly my vertigo prevents me getting up there. I did try on our last trip, and almost got to the top, then the narrowing and steeper steps started to sway with the slightest breeze and I was spooked.

 The creek entrance to Colorado clay lick and the island observation pond, here I am waiting for the boat to take us back to TRC. The colours!

 View of the Madre de Dios rivers from the plane from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado

 TRC port

 Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake, a solitary cormorant in the far distance on a branch sticking out of the water

 Oropendola nests

 The afternoon deluge

 The oxbow lake Tres Chimbadas where we saw the giant river otters

The men's gumboot rack, the women's is on the other side of the entrance to TRC. This is mainly for the scientists and their assistants, young people who can climb giant trees like monkeys to monitor macaw nests

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Beach studies, St Bees Cumbria, and the Elements Festival launch!

 I've been on St Bees beach in a large caravan for over a month now, with a view onto the open sea, from my temporary home three vans back from the front. I can also see the sandstone head, its rocks and rockpools. The other cliffs south of the beach are limestone, though these too are red. Now that it's almost October the default weather is wind that rocks the caravan, sometimes driving rain, and yet the clouds can suddenly clear and the sky turn dazzling blue. I've done quite a bit of writing here, as well as teaching, on my West Lakes residency, and in just over a week's time I'll be home, then off to work elsewhere, but I'll be back mid October for a series of events for the visionary Elements Festival, which is all about diversity and minorities, and over 60's, quite a feat for such a rural outpost, thanks to Tonia Lu who dreamt it all up. I'll read some of my brand new residency inspired poems at the launch of the festival this Saturday, at Penrith Old Fire Station. 

The sea itself has swept into me, in all its terrifying splendour, the St Bees sandstone also has fed into the poems, one was written in Fleswick Bay, when I had it all to myself one glorious August day, and another aspect that's gradually seeped into my bones is the iron ore mining of Copeland's industrial past – our workshops are held in Florence Mine, where the miners' shower rooms are converted into a beautiful arts centre. This has led me to research my own mining past, in the depressed coal mining village of Llanbradach in the Rhymni valley, south Wales, where I lived with my estranged mother as a teenager for five years, under the shadow of the slagheap. She lived there much longer. I'm thrilled that I've written about this for the first time ever, because what a fascinating thing coal is, and the shallow sea-swamps of the Carboniferous, with their mega-insects!

The Irish Sea is wild in wind, roars like an open furnace, sometimes it's white with fume over glassy waves, sometimes bronze, pewter, or polished aluminium. People aren't swimming in it anymore, not even paddling, though on my daily walks along the mile wide sands that are revealed at low tide I wear sandals so I can paddle through the channels that lace the shore.  People mainly walk their dogs, usually in pairs, only a few family groups left. It's unusual to come across others walking alone, but when I do I tend to take photos (all these are with my iphone), and there are boats alone out there, sometimes paragliders above me too. For me, these frames of walkers, dogs with their shadows, seabirds, whether they're oyster catchers, a heron, or gulls, or boats alone on the horizon, are studies in solitude. 

Saturday 10 September 2016

The Lion's Mane Jellyfish of West Cumbria

Imagine coming across this on the beach. When I found my first, I took a photo and back in my caravan at St Bees, tried to identify it on google images. I guessed it was a jellyfish as it wobbled slightly when touched with a shell, but it could have been a giant eye, it looked like a giant eye washed up after the night's storm. It was surrounded by smaller blobs without the luminous red and tan colours. Those smaller clear jellyfish I'd seen before on other beaches, but my creature looked like it might be a lion's mane jellyfish. And the smaller clear ones? Moon jellies that the lions feed on! The lions that haunt Arctic waters can grow to be the largest jellyfish in the world, but these ones in the Irish Sea are more modest, the largest I found was a foot across.

Since then I've been obsessed by these sea-cats and the process of seeing them is quite strange. Once I see one I look around and usually find others scattered nearby. What's more, my feet seem to know where to walk, as if they've developed eyes. I think I've seen about fifteen by now, and some are striped like tigers or mint humbugs. Maybe one or two were compass jellyfish? Some have more mane to them and these larger ones have 'eyes' that look more like organs, bloodied even, like they've met with a violent death. I want to see more but I'm also aware these are freshly dead creatures and I don't want them to die.

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Waves at St Bees, Cumbria, my West Lakes writing residency

It's been ten days since I moved into a large caravan on the beach of St Bees for my West Lakes writing residency, on the north-west coast of Cumbria. I'm taking part in the Elements project, a brand new festival celebrating age and diversity, and my role is to write poems, lead 6 workshops and 4 daytrips with my over 60's group and take part in the Elements festival in October, with a series of readings by me and the group, the whole thing dreamed up by Tonia Lu. I'm grateful to Tonia because since I've been living here I've become acquainted with the terrifying sea. Yes, I am terrified of the sea, in this case the Irish Sea – on a fine day I can see the Isle of Man on the horizon, and on my coastal cliff walks northwards I might glimpse Scotland, which is apparently only 25 miles away. Because there's so much to write about I'm focusing on waves today, and some pics of them taken with my iPhone, on the windier days. IPhones are good at capturing animals in motion, as I discovered when I took pictures of the jaguars in Paris zoos, but here is an altogether larger animal, with a multitude of claws, fangs, fur that sometimes seems made of ice, other times molten glass veined with kelp, and which has a roar like a mile wide glass kiln with the door wrenched open, the beast inside revealed. I've worked with glass so I remember that sound well, and the white heat.

Hopefully some of the poems I'm writing will go into my next book Mama Amazonica, due out from Bloodaxe in autumn 2017, but I'm putting together the rough manuscript by the end of this September, so am concentrating on the task, except it's not a task but a wild adventure which I'm very much enjoying, enthralled by my subject ma mère la mer. I'm not only writing mother sea poems – because I'm also still on those post-Peruvian Amazon trip ones – but interesting to bring the sea in now. I can see the monster from my caravan which has floor to ceiling windows in the front. 

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.