Amazon River Cruise Jan 23—Feb 01, 2009

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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Our January 2009 Amazon River Cruise provided an exceptional opportunity to see birds and wildlife along the Ríos Amazon, Ucayali, and Marañon, and various tributaries of these rivers. We experienced some rain, as might be expected, and one hard downpour late one afternoon. Light or intermittent drizzle continued throughout the morning on the day allotted to the high ground (terra firme) forest, and this reduced bird activity and created some muddy conditions on the trails. Overall, however, weather conditions were typical for the Amazon and generally quite pleasant. The high water levels of all rivers and tributaries permitted us to travel virtually wherever we pleased, making access even to small creeks easy. This, in fact, is a great advantage and one of the main reasons for visiting at this time of year.

In such a large and diverse avifauna 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 and their unusual, often novel songs, duets, and breeding activities. In a way, this is more important than numbers on a list. We made a point, in fact, of visiting river islands and early successional growth habitats, várzea or floodplain forests, riverbank and creekside habitats, and terra firme or high ground forest, all with the aim of a more well-rounded experience. And, of course, who could forget our memorable visit to an indigenous community and one, remarkably enough, headed not by a man, but by a middle-aged woman.

The great complexity and diversity of a rainforest avifauna is, perhaps, better illustrated in western Amazonia than anywhere else in the world. We began the trip birding in very light, misty rain along the Iquitos waterfront where we saw a surprising number of birds, and later steamed up the Amazon for a visit to a river island late that first afternoon. 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 hopefully came away with a better appreciation of how this diversity fits together. And, not all the pieces were in the forest. A rich and varied river island fauna, some long distance migrants, and soil and water types strongly influence the natural vegetation and, in turn, the birds in them.

For decades the Iquitos areas has been under intense pressure from hunting and trapping of birds and mammals for food, and it has been a 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.