Amazon River Cruise Feb 21—Mar 03, 2013

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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Even more than the mighty Andes, the Amazon River is the singular landmark that more people are likely to identify with South America than any other. At almost 4,000 miles in length, the river passes through Brazil for most of its course; however, it originates in Peru, flowing for several hundred miles in a northeasterly direction before exiting the country. The Amazon is many things: a river of legend, a river of history, and a life-sustaining conduit for people and commerce. The region drained by the Amazon is so massive that the great river and its tributaries are collectively referred to as “Amazonia.” Here, in Peruvian Amazonia, we spent an epic week exploring the venerable waterway from the comfort of a riverboat.

Without a boat, the Amazon is not easy to know. Few roads penetrate the surrounding vast jungle interior, and seasonal flooding submerges much of the region for months at a time. Travel by car, rail, and even by horse is literally impossible in most areas, which is why boat traffic is the essential means of transportation.

Unlike land-based tours to Amazonia, which focus on birds that occur in both varzea (seasonally flooded) and terre firme (above floodline) forest types, an Amazon River cruise is primarily a varzea-type trip. Whereas a land-based trip concentrates on a limited area, an Amazon River cruise brings exposure to a broad swath of territory. While fewer birds are seen on a cruise than on a land-based trip, the joys of a river cruise lie in its efficacy in delivering a more diverse travel experience.

It is with fond remembrance that we look back on our Amazon River journey. Whether one’s favorite memory was plying the river’s main course in the first light of day, or witnessing a glowing sunset from the top deck, or streaking up a winding tributary on an evening skiff ride, this trip offered something for everyone. Back channel excursions each morning and afternoon revealed a matrix of riverine ecosystems and habitats replete with birds, mammals, and reptiles. So much was seen during our time together that listing particular standout sightings, like our encounters with Scarlet and Blue-and-yellow macaws, or the hawks, toucans, and cotingas we noted on a daily basis, fails to capture the full breadth of our experiences. Rather, a partial roll call of the variety of birds we saw representing a multitude of families conveys the supreme diversity of Amazonia. We recorded 11 species of bitterns, herons and egrets, and ibis; 5 species of vultures; 17 types of parrots, including 3 macaws; 5 species of kingfishers; 8 species of woodpeckers; 6 types of woodcreepers; and 9 species of blackbirds, orioles, and oropendolas, in addition to a great many other birds. Mammals were much in evidence as well, with sightings of Pink and Gray river dolphins and four species of monkeys. With regard to the latter, especially memorable was the family of night monkeys seen at close range from a tree cavity, and the Monk Saki Monkeys Victor spotted in a tree on a stormy last afternoon.

With a nod to the trip’s more-than-just-birding approach, other activities included a morning skiff exploration of Pacaya-Samaria National Park and a return frog-hunting expedition by night, attending staff lectures on Amazonian ecology, trying our hands at piranha fishing, and visiting an indigenous community.

While seeing the Amazon was the trip’s whole purpose, it should be remembered that a first day on the coast south of Lima provided a remarkable contrast to what was to come. Here, where the Atacama Desert reaches its northern limit, the northward surging Humboldt Current brings a bounty of nutrients within its cold waters. In the fishing village of Pucusana, the spectacle of cliffs stacked with Humboldt Penguins, Peruvian Boobies, Red-legged Cormorants, Inca Terns, and South American Sea Lions presented a clear demonstration of Peru’s remarkable biogeography.