As the boatman jabbed his long stick in the mud and pushed the boat from the shore, we realized that the Rio Madre de Dios would serve as our road the for next nine days as we made our way from Atalaya to Puerto Maldonado.
It was mid-afternoon and we were not going far – across and down the river a short way to the Amazonia Lodge. During our ride, I spotted familiar species feeding along the river banks or sandbars, such as Snowy and Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorant.
“Burrowing Owl,” Dick exclaimed. I looked up to see two Burrowing Owls standing at opposite ends of log lying on one of the sandbars.
According to their website, the lodge is located in the foothills (1,600 ft.) on the west slope of the Andes where the montane forest merges with the upper tropical forest. It meant that we only had to contend minimally with mosquitoes – only chiggers were our scourge.
After about 30 minutes, the boat pulled up to the sandy bank so we could get out and climb up the embankment (with a little help from the lodge staff for Sue and I!). While we started walking .3 mile to the lodge, our luggage was being unloaded onto wheelbarrow to make the same trek.
The dense growth on either side of the forest trail suddenly gave way to a large grassy area with multiple hummingbird feeders and a banana post for song birds. While Lelis negotiated our rooms so that Sue and I would not have to descend the steep stone stairs with no hand-rail in order to use the shared bathrooms during the night, we feasted our eyes on Masked-crimson Tanagers.
In 1983, when the current owners were operating a tea farm, a trio of wildlife biologists spent several months documenting the bird species in this location. They were so excited at what they experienced, they convinced the Yábar family to provide hospitality to birders – and brought a group the following summer to prove their point.
The following morning, before our morning walk through the forest was cut short by thunder and enough rain that we had to return to the lodge area, we were fortunate to observe one of the smallest passerines in the world – a Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant. When we reluctantly retreated, the comfortable chairs on the large porch outside the rooms enabled us to continue enjoying the birds.
A Social Flycatcher seemed to be enjoying the rain.
Over the course of our four-night stay, we spent all of our ‘free’ time on the porch enjoying a variety of species, e.g. Gray-breasted Wood-Rail prancing across the grass and onto the stone-slab feeder for some quinoa,
a Russet-backed Oropendola carrying nesting material,
and a myriad of hummingbirds, including a Sapphire-spangled Emerald who seemed to ‘own’ that particular twig perch.
Ron was able to capture a photo of an elusive Rufous-crested Coquette.
An iridescent-trimmed type Urania moth species attracted our attention as it gathered moisture from the mud.
Birding the forest trails fine-tuned our observation skills.
Most of the species we observed stay hidden deep in the under-story, making them next to impossible to photograph. Many were one of the ‘ant’ species – Antshrike, Antvireo, Antwren, Antbird, Antthrush or Antpitta.
“How can we tell where to look?” Sue asked Lelis after he called in a White-lined Antbird.
“Each type of species tends to specialize in a specific elevational area of the forest. An Antshrike is generally found at the upper edges of the mid-story, an Antwren in the middle, Antbirds prefer the under-story, and an Antthrush or Antpitta is found on the forest floor,” Lelis explained. “Also, some are specialized as to habitat, such as a bamboo forest.”
Not only were these species well concealed in the thick tangly bushes, their coloring blended in with the shadows, with males tending towards shades of gray and females shades of rusty-brown. “Maybe these birds inspired the book title Fifty Shades of Gray,” I thought to myself.
Lelis had to coax the birds into making an appearance by playing their call and waiting for them to respond. We might glimpse fleeting movement or hear the rustle of leaves before getting the opportunity to have a view that provided all of the identifying characteristics.
“This requires a lot of patience,” Joy commented.
Lelis did his best to assure that everyone got a good look, although there were a few species whose appearance was so brief that it did not meet my standards to be able to mark it as seen on my checklist.
We had to watch out for ant trails, and sometimes ant swarms, which made it difficult to locate a place to stand. While not all of the ‘ant’ species consume ants, these insects are an important part of the ecology that supports the bird life.
One of my favorites was the Silvered Antbird, which twitched its tail when it sang.
Lelis surmised it was a Puma.
After four nights at Amazonia Lodge, our boat crew from Atalya arrived to transport us further down the river, a several hour ride, to the Manu Wildlife Center. They would be our means of transportation for the next five days.
The Manu Wildlife Center was an amazing place. It was thrilling to have Scarlet Macaws roosting in the trees near our cabin.
On our first day we spent seven hours exploring one of the forest trails. At one point the forest reverberated with what sounded like a car alarm and a police siren – Screaming Piha and a Cinereous Mourner defending their territories.
On our way back to the lodge, we stopped to watch a troupe of Saddleback Tamarins. “They eat the bark on the trees,” Lelis explained.
In our late-afternoon birding on ‘the Grid’ trails we were fortunate to be able to see a piha as it made its call. “Its throat pulses when it lets out its scream,” I exclaimed.
The birding that day was challenging, since the forest was alive with mosquitoes.
“I didn’t put repellent in my nose,” Sue stated disgustedly as she tried to discourage one of the pesky insects.
As I steadied my binoculars to try and spot one of the hard-to-see species, I was distracted by mosquitoes trying to enter my ear canals.
“In the 23 years I have brought birders to this location, I have never seen them so bad,” Lelis told us.
The next morning before we headed out to visit the canopy tower down-river, I decided I needed to take drastic measures and tied my piece of no-see-um net babushka-style under my hat.
While the stairs of the tower seemed formidable,
it actually didn’t seem difficult to ascend the stairs. “There are 230 of them,” stated Ron who had counted.
While there were no mosquitoes on the tower, my netting provided protection from bees and wasps. Not long after we arrived at the platform, our boat crew emerged at the top of the stairs carrying large receptacles on their shoulders with our breakfast.
As the sun began burning off the mist, the bird activity increased. Yellow-rumped Caciques squabbled in the nearby trees.
A mixed flock of tanagers flew into the tree tops some distance away. We watched them through the scope before they flew off. Before long, they returned, this time feasting closer and closer until we were able to get good binocular views of both Opal-rumped and Opal-crowned Tanagers sitting in the same tree,
and Magpie Tanager that thrives over a wide range of elevations.
We were delighted when a Squirrel Cuckoo and a pair of Yellow-crowned Amazons stopped by.
Not long afterwards, we enjoyed great views of a Violaceous Trogon.
We returned to the area late in the afternoon on two different days to explore sections of an oxbow. Our boat crew paddled us on a unique pontoon boat.
Highlights of these trips included a number of pairs of asthmatic-sounding and prehistoric-looking Hoatzins,
a flock of Horned Screamers, a type of waterfowl that we encountered in a marshy area,
Lesser Kiskadees darting along the water’s edge,
and a majestic Black-collared Hawk.
On another day we traveled down-river to a bamboo forest, where Lelis was excited to see an Amazonian Parrolet. “Of all the times I have been here, they have never been at this location,” he told us excitedly as he recorded the moment with a digiscoped photo.
As we walked along the trail we were delighted to see a family of Giant River-Otters scurry across the trail. “The mother is probably taking the baby to the river for the first time,” Lelis explained after we saw her carrying a baby by the back of the neck.
Other treats included Double-toothed Kite,
and Rufous-headed Woodpecker.
On our final afternoon, we visited Manu Wildlife’s tower. As we walked the trail to the tower, we stopped to look at a Pale-legged Hornero,
a Bluish-fronted Jacamar,
and a pair of White-eyed Parakeets near the stream behind the cabins.
From the tower, I finally had the opportunity to take a picture of a pair of Black-fronted Nunbirds.
As I took off my shoes outside the dining hall while it was still dark on the morning we left, Lelis pointed out a Tapir that had wandered up to the foot of the stairs. While this one is semi-tame, we didn’t have to wait for hours at the blind in hopes they would come to feed.
We made our final trip down the river, stopping at the clay licks on the way. It started to rain as we walked the trail to the blind.
“When I came here about 20 years ago,” Marilyn relayed, “there was a floating blind.”
“Since then the course of the river changed and the clay lick is now about 0.5 miles from the river,” Lelis explained.
The boatmen delivered breakfast while we waited for the birds to come in.
“Little Ground Tyrant,” Lelis pointed to the edge of a boardwalk leading from the blind.
Some Mealy Parrots and Yellow-crowned Amazons flew in and perched on the top of a bare tree, trying to decide whether to visit the lick. Finally, some felt brave enough to fly closer,
and then go to the cliff areas that were protected by over-hanging branches. They didn’t stay long.
“Toucan,” Ron called out. We had been busy watching a Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. Lelis quickly set up his scope so we could see a stunning pair of Cuvier’s Toucans.
“Take a look at the Ringed Kingfisher,” Dick suggested a while later. “It is trying to beat the scales off of a large fish it caught.”
It continued banging the fish against the tree branch where it was perched, and then finally flew off with it.
The rain finally abated and the macaws started arriving. Like the parrots, they first perched high up in the tops of the trees along the edge of the cliff. At one point, I counted almost 75 macaws. After a while, a few began moving further down into trees along the sides of the cliffs.
and then we were off for a several hour ride down the river to the mining town of Colorado. Not only did we have to walk across two planks to get from the boat to the shore, but the boatmen had to carry our suitcases across it!
Since we were late in arriving, Lelis had to find our scheduled transportation in the small village. Before long, three taxis pulled up. After a stop at the ‘public’ baño, our taxi driver sped out-of-town, leaving the other two taxis behind. Mud flew up as he maneuvered the winding road. Two religious talismans hung from the rear view mirror. If he tapped the brake as he careened around a corner, one light would come on.
If he pressed hard on the brakes, both lights came on!
We arrived safely at the river where we waited for the other two taxis. Lelis arranged for transport across the river where our van and driver awaited us. From there it was about a two-hour drive to Puerto Maldonado.
The next morning we did some birding for lowland specialties before heading to the airport, stopping first at a field along the main road.
After crossing the field, we were rewarded with a pair of White-throated Jacamars.
It was a Sunday morning and traffic was beginning to pick up along the road, with lanes on either side for vehicles having less than four wheels.
Our next search was for a Point-tailed Palmcreeper. We walked along the road in an area with stands of palms,
most of which were not adjacent to the highway. Finally, a palmcreeper flew across the highway and landed in the top of a palm giving us all good looks.
“Dusky-headed Parakeets,” Lelis motioned to a nearby tree where three were perched.
Our final stop was in the village of La Pastora where two Turkey Vultures and a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture were circling together. “Look at their under-wing pattern,” Lelis suggested. “The dark area of the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture extends further out on the wing than on the Turkey Vulture. It can help you identify them when they flying and you can’t see the head.”
We gathered at the Puerto Maldonado airport before taking our flight to Cuzco. Marilyn would continue on to Lima to join up with her next adventure – a rafting trip in Honduras, while the rest of us headed to Machu Picchu.