Amazon River Cruise Mar 20—30, 2014

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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We opted to go further up the Ucayali this year and forego a short visit to the Río Marañon because we feel the wilder upper section of the Ucayali offers better opportunities for birding and mammal viewing than does the Marañon, which has more Amerindian settlements and a far greater number of villages, gardens, and human intervention. During our weeklong trip we experienced essentially no delays due to rain. Most days were cloudy to partly cloudy and pleasant with spectacular late afternoon skies and some gorgeous sunsets. Water levels were a little higher than in January, but still several meters below peak levels, which were clearly indicated by watermarks on trees. Rising river levels bring an abundance of floating material (flotsam) down the major rivers, and on a number of occasions we observed Snowy Egrets and other birds “rafting” downriver on driftwood. High water also permitted easy access to oxbow lakes, flooded marshes, and even the smallest creeks, as well as river islands. This is an advantage for birding and an important reason for visiting during the high water period of the year, which is generally December or January through May or June. High river water levels, of course, have almost nothing to do with rainfall around Iquitos, but are determined by rainy seasons far to the north and south in the Andes and other river tributaries.

A male Plum-throated Cotinga descends low in search of small berries.

A Plum-throated Cotinga descends low in search of small berries.— Photo: Steve Hilty

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 generally included early morning and late afternoon ship departures to explore small creeks or work along the forested riverbanks of the Amazon or Ucayali and small tributaries. 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 are in the forest. We discovered a rich and varied river island fauna and witnessed firsthand a remarkable overnight roost of White-winged Parakeets and Yellow-rumped Caciques. We also observed firsthand a remarkable example of long distance migration of mostly young Fork-tailed Flycatchers from southern (Austral) regions, all of them moving northward across Amazonia during their austral winter season. Simultaneously, the Fork-tailed Flycatchers were joined by many flocks of Eastern Kingbirds beginning their northward movement. Other long-distance migrants in smaller numbers included Barn Swallows, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, and a few Yellow-green Vireos, all moving northward for the boreal summer.

We also experienced white water (muddy really), and black water streams (but a bottle of this water isn’t really that black, as we found out!), both of which contribute, in various ways, to the overall diversity of birds in Amazonia. 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. To this end we tried to visit as wide a variety of habitats and microhabitats as possible including river islands, várzea forest, and moriche palms among others.

Monk Saki Monkey on Rio Zapote.

Monk Saki Monkey on Rio Zapote.— Photo: Steve Hilty

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. However, we have noticed that in the past few years we are beginning to see macaws and large parrots in greater numbers again, and this year, once again, we surely saw more Blue-and-yellow Macaws than on any previous trips, as well as a remarkable increase in the number of sightings of Monk Saki Monkeys. All of this is a gratifying sign of improvement.

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 be the highest anywhere in the world.

Our ship’s crew did a superb job of feeding us and looking after us, even bringing cool towels into the field. The coolers, both shipboard and on the skiffs, were always well-stocked with cold water. Muddy boots were cleaned and dried after the land-based excursion to the village. On most evenings the ship’s bands (several names but always the same musicians) played during happy (or was it “Harpy”) hour. The week went quickly and a lot of adventure and learning was compressed into a relatively short span of time. Three lectures filled brief afternoon spots, as did a couple of map overviews given by Johnnie. 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.