Amazon River Cruise Jan 10—20, 2013

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—their unusual, often novel songs, duets, and breeding activities. We made a point of visiting as wide a variety of habitats as possible, including river islands with their early successional growth stages, várzea (or floodplain) forests, riverbank and creekside habitats, moriche palm groves, and terra firme or high ground forest, all with the aim of a more well-rounded Amazonian experience. A few people also visited an Amerindian community, or went fishing one afternoon.

White-eared Jacamar in vicinity of Rio Ucayali.

White-eared Jacamar in vicinity of Rio Ucayali.— Photo: David Ascanio

 
   

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 came away with a better appreciation of how this diversity fits together. And, not all the pieces were in the forest. There is a rich and varied river island fauna. There was a sprinkling of long-distance migrants (e.g. Eastern Kingbird; Yellow Warbler; Barn and Bank swallows), and there were both white water (muddy really), and black water streams. Each of these components contributes, in various ways, to the overall diversity of birds in Amazonia.

For decades the Iquitos area has been under intense pressure from hunting and trapping of birds and mammals for food, and it was once an important 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. And, there are some encouraging signs such as daily sightings of large macaws (albeit still in small numbers) and parrots.

During our weeklong trip we experienced only a single small rain delay of about an hour one afternoon, but we did have one night with a dramatic thunderstorm. Most days were partly cloudy to cloudy and pleasant, with afternoons of sunny skies and higher temperatures and humidity. Water levels were quite high again this year (as in 2012), and certainly higher than is normal at this time of year. High water brings floating material (flotsam) moving down the major rivers, and one afternoon we even observed a Horned Screamer placidly riding a small log that was drifting downriver. High water permitted easy access even to small creeks. This is an advantage for birding and an important reason for visiting at this time of year. A downside to high water is that it may bring more mosquitoes, although we experienced few or no mosquitoes during our boat excursions; one forest walk in terra firme forest was an exception, although one rarely goes anywhere inside lowland rain forest without encountering at least a few mosquitoes.

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 shipboard and on the skiffs were always well-stocked with cold water. Muddy boots were cleaned and dried after our land-based excursions, and on 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 this trip ranks as likely the best cruise for mammals that David and I have experienced since we began doing these trips some eight years ago. The week went quickly and a lot of adventure and learning 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.