Amazon River Cruise Jan 12—22, 2012

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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In a large and diverse avifauna such 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, as well as their unusual, often novel songs, duets, and breeding activities. In a way, this is more important than numbers on a list (well, at least for me). 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) forests, all with the aim of a more well-rounded experience. And, for some of you, there was the opportunity to visit an indigenous community, and for others, even a little fishing trip.

We experienced rain one night with rain and a hard downpour on two afternoons, one beginning almost at dusk. These weather conditions are typical for the Amazon. Most days were partly cloudy to cloudy with a few partial days with mostly sunny skies. Remarkably pleasant temperatures prevailed throughout. Water levels were high, in fact somewhat higher than might be expected at this time of year, and as a result we witnessed a lot of floating material (flotsam) moving down the major rivers. The high water permitted us to travel virtually unimpeded wherever we pleased, making access even to small creeks easy. This, in fact, is a great advantage and one of main reasons for visiting at this time of year. A downside to high water is that it inevitably brings more mosquitoes, and on our only upland (terra firme) forest walk we found where a number of the Amazon's mosquitoes live.

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 (even Blue-winged Teal and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers), and soil and water types strongly influence the natural vegetation and, in turn, the birds in them.

For decades the Iquitos area has been under intense pressure from hunting and trapping of birds and mammals for food, and it has been a supplier of caged wildlife and wildlife products for international markets. The results of this history of persecution are immediately obvious to naturalists—species that are edible, or have value for their hides, feathers, or for cage purposes, are absent or rare. More recently, selective cutting of trees for lumbering has become a problem, even in remote areas. This, combined with a dramatic increase in human population during this same period of time, suggests a future of hard decisions and discipline if Iquitos is to remain as wild as it is now, much less return to its more pristine earlier condition. Nevertheless, the Iquitos area remains one of the top rainforest destinations anywhere in the New World with an overall diversity that may just be the highest anywhere in the world.

Our ship's crew did a great job of feeding us and looking after us, even bringing cool towels into the field, and the coolers, both ship-board and on the skiffs, were always well-stocked with cold water, as well as ponchos for a couple of rain showers that we experienced. Muddy boots were cleaned and dried after our land-based excursion, and some evenings a band appeared to play during happy hour—actually a different band each evening, but always with the same musicians. Our mornings and late afternoons were filled with plenty of new and exciting birds and a few mammal sightings. And during the course of the trip most of you managed a fair amount of shopping, some of you a fishing trip or a village visit, and everybody seemed eager to check yet one more river island or creek for possible new birds.

The week went quickly and a lot of adventure was compressed into a relatively short span of time. Contrasting our first day along the coast with the utterly different Amazon experience, one begins to appreciate the tremendous diversity of habitats and wildlife that Peru offers to those who are willing to spend the time and effort to visit them. We thank all of you for participating in this cruise and hope to see you again soon.