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.