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Field Notes Close to home or in a far away jungle, there is always something marvelous to see.

Manu National Park and Rio Madre de Dios

PERU | Tuesday, 20 April 2010 | Views [995]

Wooly monkey

Wooly monkey

Believe it or not it took us 12 hours to drive the 230 km to Manu National Park on Sunday. Even allowing three or four hours for rest breaks, lunch by a beautiful waterfall and a bird walk we averaged only 25 miles per hour, not too bad considering the condition of the road and the hundreds of switchback turns as we ascended into the cloud forest then back down towards the jungle.

Fernando, our guide and owner of EcoManu Tours, grew up in the area and enjoys birding.  Our other companion, 24 year-old Luke from the UK, will either end up liking birds or murdering us.  William, the driver, has done wonderfully on a road that ranks with the worst in Borneo.  The heavy rains of March closed the road for three weeks and there are still washed out areas that are barely wide enough for a vehicle.  It gets really hairy when you meet an oncoming truck!

The rains have also knocked out the hydroelectric power plant so there is no electricity at our hostel in Pillcopata.  We have been able to download the photos but haven’t been able to identify all the birds we have seen.  We are sure of these: red-backed hawk, two female gold-headed quetzals, masked trogon and a flock of cock of the rocks.

The rain began around two AM on Monday.  It is a nice sound and it’s good to be warm after Cusco but it doesn’t make for comfortable walking for good photography.  There is also the concern that more of the “Peruvian Death Highway” may wash out, stranding us, or worse.

We skipped the visit to a coca farm.  Coca paste (and cocaine) are no-no’s but coca leaves are a daily part of Andean life.  Chewing the leaves, which are available at every breakfast buffet is supposed to help you adapt to the altitude, as does drinking mate de coca or coca tea.  Instead we drove to Atalaya, Fernando’s hometown.  It’s one of 7 towns on the Madre de Dios River that borders Manu, the most distant is 50 miserable kilometers away by road.  If anything it was raining harder as we boarded our long, narrow boat on the Alto Madre de Dios (upper mother of god) river on our way to our lodge.  The Madre de Dios flows through Bolivia into Brazil before meeting the main Amazon.

It was a short ride through the raging river to rustic Soya del Oro lodge.  Amazingly the rain stopped although the river continued to rise all day.  We are actually on the edge of the park; it requires at least a week to access the interior.  This will be enough for now.  We discovered several new hummingbirds (colibri) and a bluish-fronted jacamar right outside our room before lunch.  Fernando decided it would be too muddy for the scheduled jungle trek –all uphill – so we went farther downstream and hiked to an oxbow lake.  If you doubt that birds are living examples of dinosaurs one look at the hoatzin would change your mind.  The young even have claws on their wings like the proto-bird archaeopteryx, which they use to climb trees until they fledge.  Hoatzin are rare in the world but are common in their range and it was great to watch their mating rituals.

We ‘cruised’ the lake on rafts made of balsa logs; sort of Huck Finn meets Kon-Tiki.  Moving slowly was a good way to approach the birds and we enjoyed watching Luke pole his own raft; like punting on the Thames he says.

Parrots and macaws regularly visit clay licks, areas rich in minerals they need to counteract the poisons from the leaves that make up their diets.  Visiting one just downstream from the lodge would be one of the highlights of the trip.

We started out at 5:30 Tuesday morning with a beautiful Amazon sunrise and arrived across from the clay lick as flocks of parrots, parakeets and macaws arrived.  Fernando says they perch in the trees until they are certain there are no predators, mostly falcons, in the area.  Suddenly, a rarely seen king vulture glided by.  It was a real treat for us, but an alarming sight for the parrots, who mistook it for danger.  Vultures are carrion eaters and no threat to parrots but the moment was spoiled for the birds.  No photos today; such is the way with nature.

Connie’s head cold has affected her ears so she wisely skipped the jungle hike.  The trail is a streambed in the rain and it was steep and slippery.  Its last user, as far as we could tell from the tracks, was a tapir.  We could hear many birds but seeing them in the canopy is difficult and photographing them is impossible.  Luke got his thrill when we spotted a group of wooly monkeys swinging from branch to branch high above us.





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