There is only one way to get to Manu Wildlife Centre and that is by boat. There are no roads through these parts linking the towns of the Amazon Basin. I had looked forward to the tranquillity of the boat trip, despite the estimated time of seven or eight hours on the river. After yesterday’s toil it was going to be pleasant sitting on my arse.
We woke up this morning to the sound of rain on the roof and it definitely got me thinking how un-tranquil our river trip would be if the rain was coming down for seven hours.
The short hike through the forest from the lodge to the departure point was also made a little interesting as we scrambled for ways to make sure our stuff didn’t get wet this close to the end of the trip.
Fortunately, the rain was light and, aside from a short squall in the first few minutes of the boat trip, the conditions were close to idyllic.
The boat trip turned out to be everything I’d hoped for. The constant soothing motion of our boat over the river was a far cry from travelling by car and the busy birdlife was an even more distant cry from the hard grind of yesterday’s forest birding.
We continued to rack up the lifers and new trip birds with terns, raptors, vultures, parrots and macaws, but the highlight for me were the two species of nightjars that Alex spotted as we cruised down the river. The flock of Sand-coloured Nighthawks and the single Ladder-tailed Nightjar were proof enough for me that owling is for the hardcore birders and riverside nightjar viewing is for softer people like me.
I do need to mention that we have travelled in parallel over the last week with an American birding couple in their late 50s/early 60s who are both very well-travelled and experienced birders. They had invited three guides that had guided them in the past in Bhutan, Brazil and Uganda to spend three weeks with them in Peru, revisiting sites they’d explored 20 years ago, showing their three companions the wonders of Peru. They were self-guiding and seemingly doing a great job of it as their list call every night had many of the same species we had.
At first, we avoided too much engagement with them as the days were long and I was mostly exhausted and needed my bed but, on our last night, I had quite a long chat to Jeff (the 62-year-old Californian). He has a world list of 5,200 species, the extraordinary quantum of which I can now appreciate, and he’s spent many weeks in South Africa as he is a cycad-specific botanical expert and the Eastern Cape, Barberton area and the Zuurberg are to world cycads what Manu is to world birds.
Why this aside? Well, as we sat enjoying a quiet moment on the veranda of the Amazonia Rustic Camp (I’ve chosen to drop the word “lodge”), some of his group asked him if he wanted to go owling.
He animatedly exclaimed “Owling?! Are you kidding? Owling’s shit. Why would I want to traipse around in the dark for hours, hoping to see maybe one owl, after a hard day of birding in the field? I’d much rather relax and drink a cold beer.”
Suddenly, I liked Jeff a lot more than I had five minutes before that.
Incidentally, he found the only beer at Amazonia Rustic Camp as they arrived and squirreled it away in the freezer, saving it for their second night. I told him he should feel very guilty for not sharing.
Anyway, we made one or two stops along the river, including a rather depressing stop at the river-side village of Boca Manu, which is a fraction downstream from the confluence of the Manu and Alto Madre de Dios rivers. It’s about as remote as one gets and the populace looked as though they knew there was simply no way out. It used to be a boat building town but trees are no longer allowed to be felled from the forest so they rely on log scraps that are washed down the river during the flood season. It seems as if times are now pretty tough. I was tempted to make up for lost time with a cold beer or two, which were available, but instead I opted for a cold coke, also about as rare as a Peruvian Recurvebill at Amazonian Rustic Camp.
We eventually reached Manu Wildlife Centre after eight hours on the river and 172kms travelled. My estimate wasn’t that far off. We listed over 60 species of birds and I actually got a chance to take one or two photos, which has been a practical impossibility in the dark forest.
Manu Wildlife Centre is a breath of fresh air compared to Amazonian Rustic Camp. The rooms are great, the camp is nice and neat and tidy and they have hammocks. As we arrived, I went straight to the hammock, climbed in and told Alex and Juan that I was going to sacrifice 20 afternoon lifers for a chill in the hammock. Garret looked at me with dagger eyes, so I tore myself away and donned my full body kit to avert the mosquitoes, which are here in their masses, ready to head into the forest.
It’s also very humid down here but actually not that hot. As it turned out we had the most wonderful afternoon meander. There were actual birds in the forests surrounding the lodge and I could see them for just about the first time on this trip. In a momentous moment in time I had my bins on an Olive-backed Foliage-gleaner for at least 30 seconds before Alex even saw it. Once again there was a toucanet and a few woodpeckers and that lifted it to an extremely good walk. We also saw the most bizarre looking aracari called a Curl-crested Aracari, which has the closest resemblance to a ‘70s perm of any bird I’ve ever seen. Some of you may know the sitcom “That 70’s show”. If you know Donna’s father, you may know the hairstyle I am referring to.
Golden-eared Toucanet (female)
Golden-eared Toucanet (male)
The only complaint I had regarding this afternoon was that I was swindled into an owling walk. Alex took us for three hours away from the lodge in one direction and then we were only allowed to turn back once it got dark. To be fair, we did see an Ocellated Poorwill (a kind of nightjar) as darkness dropped in amongst the tall trees but how many owls do you think we saw or heard?
Nil. Nought. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.
In the inimitable words of Jeff, the cycad guy, owling is shit (don’t worry, my children have heard me say far worse and so have Juan and Alex). After half an hour of still-standing in the darkness, with Alex blasting sound playback of every known species of owl that has ever occurred in the Peruvian Amazon to no effect, my withdrawal symptoms from three days without beer started to set in and I decided, with explicit permission from Alex and Juan, that I take a walk back to the lodge on my own, in the darkness.
Don’t freak out, because nothing bad happened, although there are jaguars in these parts, but ironically, I did experience one of the highlights of the trip on that homeward jaunt on my own.
I’m not much of a mammal guy, so I’m not sure how significant this was, but about ten minutes down the trail a huge ghostly white armadillo bumbled across the path in front of me. It was about the size of a golden retriever (my reference point as we own two of them) and instead of running away it paused for ten seconds on the path and stared at me with its woefully poor eyes. And then it turned around and crashed through the leaves away from me. I believe it’s called a Giant Armadillo and I’m not sure I’ll ever see one again.
Apologies for the exceptionally long missive today but I’m realizing I may only have your attention for one or two more days, plus I spent eight hours in a boat today and there wasn’t much else to do.
I believe there’s WiFi here but I’m still sitting in darkness and it’s anybody’s guess if this will send but if it does at least you’ll all be caught up by 7:30 tomorrow morning.
- Total day birds: 77
- Total trip birds: 607 (broke through with ease)
- Total trip endemics: 36
- Mike day lifers: 33
- Mike total lifers: 497
- Garret day lifers: 19
- Garret trip lifers: 373
- Bird of the day: Curl-crested Aracari
Click here for day 19