Today felt like a relaxing tropical island holiday compared to yesterday. Alex (who is firmly in charge of the time keeping) allowed me to sleep until 5:15. What?! That’s a picnic.
The other bonus was that there was no car involved. We simply walked off the veranda of this amazing lodge and into the forest.
The property of the lodge has a mixture of open forest clearings, tropical and bamboo forest. There are also a few oxbow lake-type things, which is where the hoatzin hang out.
The hoatzin is considered to be the world’s most prehistoric living bird. It is the closest link between birds and reptiles. The young birds hatch with small claws at the end of their “hands” which is about halfway between their shoulder and the end of their wings. Gosh, that is the most awful anatomical description of a bird ever written. The young hoatzin use their claws to clamber on branches and stay off the ground and away from predators. They’re yet another iconic world bird and these were the first I’d ever seen. They’re fortunately pretty common in the ox-bow lakes of the Amazon so we saw plenty of them.
The diversity of habitat meant that the birding was first class. It was probably our best morning so far and lifers came at every turn.
The theme of today’s birding was looking for ant-thingies. For non-birders (and maybe even some birders), the ant-thingies are a “super-group” of neotropical birds that live in the thickest parts of the forest and, for the most part, are incredibly difficult to see. It was birding made for me (tongue firmly in cheek). Weirdly, though, I was actually remarkably on form this morning. Come to think of it, the vegetable broth we had for dinner last night was full of carrots. I’d even be inclined to suggest that Garret used more expletives than I did.
I was in such good form today that I spotted our bird of the day – Rufous-breasted Piculet (a piculet is basically a miniature woodpecker). I spied it sitting quietly on a horizontal branch, whilst looking through seven or eight layers of foliage, trying to find one of the ant-thingies. It even took a while for Alex and Juan to see it, mostly due to my poor directions and not their diminishing birding skills. Thank goodness they did eventually figure out where I was pointing as I’d have had a tough time trying to identify it without their help.
The methodology with the ant-thingies is to use playback. There are some birders that are ethically opposed to playback, but of the 19 ant-thingies we saw today (6 Antshrikes, 3 Antwrens, 6 Antbirds, 1 Bare-eye, 1 Antpitta and 1 Antthrush), we only saw two that did not require playback. So, I guess that means that you’d have to settle for far fewer birds on a trip like this without playback.
There were two broad methods. The first was when Alex or Juan would hear one of them deep in the forest and play the call of the bird to attract it out. The second method Garret described as “fishing”, where we’d get into suitable habitat and Alex or Juan would try a range of calls that might work.
They were frighteningly successful in almost every instance as the birds would slowly come through the foliage towards us and we’d get glimpses of a head or a wing or a tail. Eventually the full bird was pieced together, with a fair smattering of f words in between, and we’d move onto the next one. It was tiring but rewarding work.
One of the two that didn’t require playback may also be considered to be cheating by the purists. One of the young lodge workers had a stake out for Amazonian Antpitta and has been feeding it mealworms on a daily basis. We arranged a rendezvous with him at 7:30 and we followed him into the forest. He was carrying a small mat of soil and grass, like a square of instant lawn, and a jar full of mealworms. We arrived at a bench, which looked along a clearing in the forest to a small corner where he placed the mat of soil and grass and then he carefully laid out four or five little worms on top. He then started to call the bird, but his methodology was not to play the song of the Antpitta but rather to call it like he was calling a cat. He’d named it “Chico” and he quietly called “come Chico, come Chico”, interspersed with whistles and clicks. As ridiculous as that sounds, it worked like a charm. Within a minute or two he spotted it deep in the gloom, stepped back to stand with us and Chico popped out, ever so briefly, but long enough to snap up a mealworm, and then it dashed back into the forest. It was a brief encounter, but a wonderful one.
After our five-hour stroll through all the habitat types at Villa Carmen we had lunch and then bade farewell to my favourite overnight spot of the trip so far.
It was an hour-long bumpy road to the tiny informal port in the marginally less tiny village of Atalaya on the Rio Alto Madre de Dios (upper mother of god river) where we boarded our boat to take us to Amazonia Lodge. Our only stop along the way was in the middle of a degraded patch of forest where Alex called out a small family group of Yellow-billed Nunbird. It didn’t seem that remarkable to us, just another bird for our lists, until Alex told us that it is THE only spot in Peru that he knows of where these gregarious birds occur. We humbly accepted the beautiful gift and marked off another bonus.
The end of the Manu Road in the port town of Atalaya was the end point for our journey with Daniel (strictly speaking it does travel another few kilometres along the river), so we wished him well on his seven-hour journey back to Cusco. It’s hard to believe he had to drive all the way back in one afternoon and evening a distance that has taken us about six days. Daniel has shown remarkable interest in most of the birds we saw but, somehow, I don’t think he’ll stop for anything on the way back up Manu Road.
The boat trip was very short but it was one of the highlights of the trip so far. Travelling by boat is just so serene compared to the jolting of the car on the bumpy roads. It truly felt like the real Amazon as we cruised down a few rapids and watched macaws and oropendolas fly overhead, crossing from one side of the river to the other.
The boatman dropped us off at a small clearing in the forest at the edge of the river where we were met by two guys with wheelbarrows who loaded our bags and led the way through the forest (including a tricky stream crossing) to our lodge. It was the most rustic approach I’ve ever had to an overnight location.
We’re now at Amazonia Lodge, which is about as remote as we’ve been and possibly the most basic. Lodge is a stretch but the bed is clean (sort of) and the food is tasty.
You’ll only read this in a few days’ time as there is no WiFi but, even worse, there’s no beer.
- Total day birds: 97
- Total trip birds: 530ish (without WiFi we can’t upload our lists).
- Total trip endemics: 35
- Mike day lifers: 40ish
- Mike total lifers: 430ish
- Garret day lifers: 37 (Garret knows these numbers without loading up)
- Garret trip lifers: 335
- Bird of the day: Rufous-breasted Piculet (with some very close contenders, most notably Grey-breasted Crake, which took an absolute age to find)
Click here for day 17.