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.