Amazon River Cruise: Birding and Natural History Odyssey Jan 20—30, 2011

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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Our 2011 Amazon River Cruise found us on the Ríos Amazon, Ucayali, and Marañon, and tributaries including the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, as well as a pre-trip day along the coast near Lima. We enjoyed great weather with only a single daytime rain, which occurred during a midday siesta and lecture time. Overall, weather conditions were remarkably pleasant with less humid conditions than in the past and few or no insects during outings. River water levels were lower than on previous trips, but did not impede entrance into small creeks. The low water levels did restrict access somewhat to river islands on the next-to-the-last morning. The lower water levels, however, are always associated with fewer mosquitoes, which is a favorable trade-off.

In such a large and diverse avifauna as that of the Iquitos area, much of one's enjoyment comes from the sum of visiting the many different habitats in which birds live, and in observing their behaviors; their unusual, often novel songs and duets; and their breeding activities. We made a point, in fact, of visiting river islands and early successional growth habitats, várzea (or floodplain) forests, riverbank and creekside habitats, and terra firme or high ground forest, all with the aim of a more well-rounded experience. Each of these habitats contains its own special subset of birds. Perhaps one of the most difficult things for new visitors to the Amazon region to understand is that not all birds here occur in all habitats. Most birds, in fact, are quite specific with regard to the habitats in which they live, so this is one of the main reasons for attempting to visit many different sites and habitats.

The great complexity and diversity of a rainforest avifauna is, perhaps, better illustrated in western Amazonia than anywhere else in the world. Our daily routine varied somewhat, but generally included early morning and mid-afternoon ship departures to explore small creeks or work along the forested riverbanks of the Amazon, Ucayali, and Marañon. After spending a week searching for some of the avifaunal pieces in this greatest of all natural jigsaw puzzles, we hopefully came away with a better appreciation of how this diversity fits together. And, not all the pieces were in the forest. A rich and varied river island fauna, some long distance migrants, and soil and water types strongly influence the natural vegetation and, in turn, the birds.