Saturday 11 November 2017

Butterflies and moths of the Peruvian Amazon: writing Mama Amazonica

I've been meaning to collect all my photos of butterflies, moths and caterpillars taken in Tambopata National Reserve last year, so here they are, some taken by me with my iPhone and some by Brian with his camera. Of course these are only the ones we managed to capture, and don't include the zipping morphos like a blue lightning flash, or the clearwings transparent as glass, or the moths that sometimes bumped into our flashlights on nightwalks, the leaf butterflies that resemble dead crumpled leaves. But I've looked up their names and labelled them as well as I could. Some were big as my hand. 

The clouding ones, that gather on the clay riverbanks to suck minerals, greeted us almost every time we walked the narrow plank off the boat and climbed the slippery mud steps then endless steep and rickety wooden steps up the sheer bank. What a contrast they made, with the dirt of the mud and leaf litter and their silky luminous colours. In my poem 'Black Caiman with Butterflies' in Mama Amazonica, butterflies are "the beauty of the world", but it's a beauty that needs to drink mud and caiman and turtle eyes, that, like the metallic morphos, must feed on rotting fruit.  

There were times too when our guides, Berli Carpio on our first trip and Jungle Paul on our second, did not know the names of the butterflies, and there might well have been ones we saw that have no names, that have never been seen before. In our lodge at Tambopata Research Center entomologists are cataloguing new species every month.

 Phoebis philea and Anteos menippe butterflies feeding on minerals in mud

 Lasaia agesilas butterfly on the riverbank


 Caterpillar seen on nightwalk in forest trail

 Uranius dayflying moths on riverbank

 Lasala agesilas with 88 butterfly and horsefly on riverbank

 Hummingbird hawkmoth

 Sphinx moth I saw on the dinner table, large as my hand

 Dyson's blue doctor with 88 butterfly (see also first pic of Blue doctor)

 small morpho?

 Owl butterfly seen near the pond in the island

Red-barred Amarynthis 

 Mystery caterpillar on nightwalk in forest

 More Uranius moths (and why not?)

 Julia butterflies or flambeaux on an oar in oxbow lake

 Flambeaux and snowy-whites drinking caiman tears


Thursday 9 November 2017

Strange Birds of the Peruvian Amazon, Writing Mama Amazonica

After the miracle of seeing a jaguar in the wild, comes the miracle of seeing the jaguar-of-the-skies, or harpy eagle. We saw this juvenile on our first trip in June 2016, and a chick in the nest on our second trip in December of that year. We also caught a glimpse of the mama! She is larger than the male, with a 2 metre wingspan, and she crashed through the canopy in a flash of ivory and black, like a giant Holy Ghost. She is the most powerful eagle in the world, with harpy talons. She was a visitation, a Mama Amazonica, and I tried to write about her in my seventh collection Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017), in a poem that also features that armadillo the juvenile eagle is clutching in his talons as he learns to hunt. The juvenile gawped at us for at least half an hour, and didn't quite seem to know what to do with his catch, you can just spot the armadillo tail below him. On our way down over the tangle of hillside roots, we saw the hole the armadillo once lived in.

 This is a greater Ani. They make a strange coughing or croaking sound  and cluster at oxbow edges and forest margins.

The most haunting song in the Amazon basin is surely from the pale-winged trumpeter just before dawn. The first time I heard it I thought that maybe it was a generator coming on, though Tambopata Research Center doesn't use generators but solar panels for energy. I thought of the wind playing overhead cables like a harp. And I thought of aliens – surely they had landed in the forest depths? It was a vibrato hum that went right through me and made the roof of my mouth tingle. It was almost four am, two hours before equatorial dawn, and the male howler monkeys had not yet started the first rumbles of their thunderous roars. The titi monkeys were still asleep and had not yet uttered their quarrelsome screaming barks. As the trumpeters faded, bats crashed into the network of strings overhead, a mesh designed to stop roof-nesting tarantulas from dropping on guests in their bed, or at least onto our mosquito veils which swathed the beds. My room was a cubicle in a traditional Ese-Eja wooden long house made from palm leaves, the outer wall open to the night and the jungle. The jungle frequently invaded: macaws, mouse possums, wolf spiders, bats, and who knows what, gobbled any food left out of the safe.

These are black skimmers, quite rare I think, we didn't see many. Here they are on a sandbank on the Tambopata.

A cocoi heron, saw many of these along the river and in oxbow lakes, larger than European herons.

The magisterial king vulture, photo by our guide Jungle Paul. All the other pics are by Brian Fraser.

Another miracle – I have written and read legends about these kings for decades. First time I saw them they were flying above TRC, the second time was here on the riverbank, scroll down to the next pic for the story! I've also seen them in the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, even a chick in the nursery! That couple, N'goro anhd Margo are ancient. There's a poem about them in Fauverie.

So here are the two king vultures, always first at the feast, while the black vultures and black hawks wait for their turn. The 'feast' is a giant golden catfish that's caught by a spectacled caiman. I've written about that incident in a previous post, but the gist of it is that the caiman had his snout up the catfish's thorax. It was the king vultures that drew us to the pile of driftwood, where we discovered the unfolding drama. The black hawks are waiting to eat the catfish, but might also follow the caiman to his lair, to eat his babies. 

Saturday 9 September 2017

Some mammals of the Peruvian Amazon: research for Mama Amazonica

Capybara on Tambopata river
There are other mammals in Mama Amazonica – a wolverine, a snow leopard and two giraffes – but it's the Amazonian ones that I'm obsessed with. I love wolverines, have read everything about them, and watch the two at Vincennes zoo in Paris every time I go there, snow leopards are special though the only ones I've seen are in zoos too, and the herd of giraffes at Vincennes fascinate, but nothing comes close to jaguars for me. They are the pitbulls of the cat world, muscular, with jaws that could crack the moon, yet otherworldly, with their coats of stars or giant hooker's green waterlily leaves slowly drifting across a sunlit lake. 

I knew I would probably not see one in the rainforest, or at its margins along the riverbank. So I teased the guide and he humoured me, scheduling extra rivertrips on both of my visits to Peru. We saw so many creatures, and here are just some of them, along the banks or up in the treetops. But no jaguar. Not even an ocelot. 

Until the journey back from the research lodge deep in Tambopata National Reserve, back to the lodge in the buffer zone hours downriver. Scroll down and you can see him, and I've written about him before in a previous post. I've also tried to write about him in the last poem in Mama Amazonica, struck by Pablo Neruda's line "like a river of buried jaguars" from The Heights of Macchu Picchu. 

Imagine seeing a jaguar in his vast home, the place that takes hours to cross by plane!  

Photos by Brian Fraser and Jungle Paul

Capybara with cowbird

we find a jaguar!

Paul F Condori our guide Jungle Paul's photo

White-lipped peccary lookout male watching us as his herd pass, clacking his teeth together to scare us away

peccary herd at the clay lick

Dusky titi monkey baby with mama, her back to us

Photo of giant river otter in oxbow lake, following our catamaran, by Paul F Condori

Red howler monkeys



Monday 4 September 2017

Some Birds of the Peruvian Amazon, research for Mama Amazonica

Great egret
To celebrate the publication of Mama Amazonica from Bloodaxe this September, here are just some of the birds I saw in the Peruvian Amazon, mostly on the Rio Tambopata banks, and in oxbows or around our lodge Tambopata Research Center. Such glory! The book may deal with trauma, but here is a counterbalance of beauty which I soaked up on my two trips to pristine rainforest. Here is what must be preserved, a world only partly visible, many species as yet undiscovered, unnnamed. Here is what I want to celebrate in my poems, along with the terror. 

Most of the photos were taken by Brian Fraser, a few by me with my iPhone, and our guide Jungle Paul took the super-sharp night-hawk.

crested oropendola

Rufescent tiger heron

Cormorant in Oxbow Lake

Black-tailed trogon

Roseate spoonbill

Red-capped cardinal

Azure gallinule

Blue-throated piping guan

Horned screamer

Mama hoatzin with chick in nest on fish pond in island

Night hawk on Tambopata photo credit Paul F Condori (Jungle Paul) our guide

Night hawks on the Tambopata, sleeping on driftwood

Monday 3 July 2017

Black Caiman with Butterflies, Mama Amazonica and mental illness

 Mama Amazonica will be out later this summer from Bloodaxe, and I'm both excited and nervous. It's already available for preorder on Amazon! And the Poetry Book Society has selected it as their Autumn Choice, which is like a dream. Much of the writing of it was dreamlike, and came from my two trips to the Peruvian Amazon, and much of it came from the terrors of family trauma and mental illness, and a longing to make a book where I could love my psychotic and manic depressive mother. Mania, and depression – that old black caiman, haunt it, as in this poem 'Black Caiman with Butterflies'. The photos were taken by Brian Fraser, on the long journey up the Tambopata River, towards our lodge Tambopata Research Centre, deep in pristine rainforest only accessible by strict border checkpoints, no other lodge in the whole national reserve.

Black Caiman with Butterflies

Depression is a black caiman
lying on the sand,

mud-slicked from the deep,
impassive in her armour.

Nothing can get through to her,
she’ll lie there for hours, unblinking.

How to explain then
the appearance of butterflies?

Sparking flambeaux, snowy-whites,
at the corner of her eyes,

as if the beauty of the world has come
to perch on her, to drink her tears.

     (previously published in The Poetry Review)