Amazon River Cruise Feb 18—28, 2016
Posted by David Ascanio
As our flight to Iquitos gained elevation, leaving arid Lima behind us, participants that had a window seat enjoyed the snow-capped peaks and glaciers as we passed through the Andes. As soon as we were on the eastern side of the Andes, we noticed that these mountains were dropping to an extensive green carpet, so big that the word “extensive” seemed insufficient. Approaching Iquitos we noticed windy rivers, flooded forest, and oxbow lakes. From the air this vegetation seemed homogeneous. Yet, the days to come would be an eye-opening experience that provided an understanding of the complexity of this “apparently” uniform, vast green biome.
Black-tailed Antbird— Photo: David Ascanio
Excited to learn about this part of the world, we explored the Amazon using skiffs to reach the flooded forest and look for hard-to-see birds such as the Black-tailed Antbird, or little-known primates such as the Pygmy Marmoset. Every morning we were delighted with macaws flying overhead, as well as parrots and parakeets calling as they broke the silence of the night. Around the bend of the river was a canoe, and on it, a kid proudly showing, with hands up, the fish he had just caught. As the day warmed up, bird activity along the river dropped dramatically, and then it was time to look for feeding flocks or birds under the flooded forest, or to find a raptor perched on an exposed branch.
The afternoons were a great opportunity to look for birds missed in the morning, or on any previous days. We also took some time to learn about the myths and legends of the Amazon, to follow-up our route on maps, and to bird from the upper deck, seeing canopy species at eye level!
Our first day on the Amazon River welcomed us with Pink River Dolphins moving at the river’s surface and an endless number of birds calling from all directions. There were spinetails, seedeaters, caracaras, blackbirds, kiskadees, oropendolas, caciques, flycatchers, and parakeets. It seemed to us that every morning brought a celebration of life!
The second day found us on one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, the Ucayali (meaning “canoe breaker”). A morning exploration in Yarapa gave us amazing views of the smallest primate in the world, the Pygmy Marmoset. Also, we enjoyed shocking views of two species of toucans and a pair of Red-throated Caracaras displaying. After the midmorning break, some participants visited a community while others returned to the Yarapa River using the skiffs. We continued birding until around 11:00 AM when a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws flew across the river, screaming as if they were saying: Too warm! Go back to the ship! In the afternoon we made a shorter field trip to a swamp and admired the flowers and spiny leaves of the Amazon Water Lily, the largest in the world. The day rounded-up with Great Black Hawk perched on a branch and a golden sunset, typical of the Amazon.
After a nice coffee and a rich breakfast, our third day started in a unique way: with superb views of Blue-and-yellow Macaws guarding their nest site. This day we decided it was time to look for less common or confiding species. For that, we visited Yanallpa River, and it paid off well, with a male Black-crested Antshrike, plushcrowns building a nest, Pygmy Antwrens, feeding flocks, and an astonishing Sungrebe swimming across the river. In the afternoon we continued to look for rare species and were rewarded with views of Pale-billed (Bay) Hornero and Sand-colored Nighthawk.
Our furthest away point in the Ucayali was El Dorado River, and we visited it during our fourth day. Although we planned to use the skiffs, we were discouraged by heavy rain. Nevertheless, we didn’t give up and enjoyed a wonderful morning birding from the upper deck of the ship. Because we were contiguous to the Varzea (flooded forest of a white water river), we were able to see Coraya Wren and the Amazonian forms of Blackish Antbird (now called Riparian Antbird, Cercomacroides fuscicauda). We heard Black-throated Antbird, saw Orange-fronted Plushcrown, and learned to tell apart Purple-throated from Orange-bellied Euphonia. Later in the morning we enjoyed Segundo’s lecture about the Amazon, and he shared many of the legends he heard when he was a child. Another lecture, this time by Usiel, provided some facts and figures about the Amazon region. The morning ended with a Hoatzin express: we went to look for this bizarre species in the rain! Towards the end of the day, we waited in our skiffs for sunset and explored the flooded forest in the dark. There were Sand-colored and Band-tailed nighthawks, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, toads, frogs, and fireflies. Yet we were determined to see more, and we got it. As we approached a vine hanging from the canopy, we noticed movement and, as we got closer, we discovered an Amazonian Milky Opossum moving along the vine. Furthermore, as we were watching the opossum, we heard a soft descending laugh, a voice hardly confused with anything else. After we called, it flew over our heads and landed on an open branch. There it was, the incredible Spectacled Owl.
Our fifth day found us again in Yarapa where we saw, again, the Pygmy Marmoset, along with superb views of Paradise Tanager, Band-tailed Antbird, Chestnut Woodpecker, and a small group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows. Some decided to pay a visit to a community, and the local people welcomed them with chants and games. The rest of the group chose to continue seeking Amazonian wildlife.
Our last full day in the Amazon offered a unique opportunity to look for different birds, and for that we visited a terra firme forest trail contiguous to an abandoned lodge. The trail crossed patches of riverine and terra firme forest, the latter a type of habitat that never gets flooded (not even during the peak of the rainy season). In this area we came across feeding flocks and enjoyed Gray Antwren, Dusky-throated Antshrike, Fasciated Antshrike, Common Scale-backed Antbird, and much more. We also enjoyed close views of woodcreepers and a troop of Dusky Titi Monkeys.
On our last morning, prior to disembarkation, we visited another distinctive habitat, one that hosts high insect density and thus, some specialists that feed almost exclusively on insects. It was a sedimentary river island, which by the time of our visit was flooded, but the willows and shrubs were still hosting some birds that were new to us including Lesser Wagtail Tyrant and Parker’s Spinetail. After another delicious breakfast we said goodbye to La Estrella Amazonica and took the flight back to Lima. From the plane’s windows, the Amazon now looked very different compared to when we landed just a week ago.