Amazon River Cruise Jan 09—19, 2014

Posted by Steve Hilty


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 2014 Amazon River Cruise took us to the Río Amazon, Río Ucayali, and various tributaries of these rivers. We opted to go further up the Ucayali this year and forgo 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, but we did have some midday rainstorms that conveniently coincided with our lunch and early afternoon break periods. Most days were partly cloudy to cloudy and pleasant, with sunny skies and higher temperatures and humidity in the afternoon. Water levels were high this year (as is normal), but still several meters below peak levels, which were clearly indicated by watermarks on trees. High water brings floating material (flotsam) moving down the major rivers, and on a number of occasions we observed Snowy Egrets and other birds “rafting” downriver on driftwood. High water permitted easy access even to small creeks. This is an advantage for birding and an important reason for visiting at this time of year.


Hoatzin— Photo: David Ascanio

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 varied somewhat, but generally included early morning and midafternoon 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. There is a rich and varied river island fauna. There was a sprinkling of long distance migrants (e.g. Eastern Kingbird, Yellow Warbler, Barn Swallow), and there were both white water (muddy really) and black water streams. Each of these components contributes, 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 and duets; and their 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.

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. This year we surely saw more macaws, both Scarlet, and Blue-and-yellow, than on any previous trip, and this is a gratifying sign.

Red-and-white Spinetail

Red-and-white Spinetail— Photo: David Ascanio

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 great 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, and on several evenings the ship’s band 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. A couple of lectures filled brief afternoon spots, and David kept the group apprised of forthcoming activities. 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.