Amazon River Cruise Jan 21—31, 2016

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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During our weeklong trip on the Río Amazon, Río Ucayali, Río Marañon, and various tributaries of these rivers, we experienced no measurable rain and also were witness to one of the lowest river water levels for this time of year that has been reported. This dryness was, undoubtedly, the result of a particularly strong El Niño year. Most days were partly cloudy to cloudy and pleasant, although we had one particularly sunny and hot morning on our visit to the Río Zapote. Despite the low water levels we were still able to access and navigate all of the small creeks that we planned to visit, although access by boat to river islands was not always possible. And, surprisingly, there were still good numbers of gulls and boobies at Pucusana, although cormorant numbers (Guanay and Neotropic) were down somewhat.

No overview of a cruise like this would be complete without mentioning highlights. These will be many different things to different people, but a few of the following should surely be included: the Horned Screamers (immense and ancient); the Black Hawk-Eagle (because it was so close); numerous Blue-and-yellow Macaws (especially the pairs gathered riverside in early morning light); the many kingfishers (the low water helped); five Gilded Barbets at La Posada; Black-tailed Antbird (a rare and local species); Long-billed Woodcreeper (unusual appearance); Point-tailed Palmcreeper (because we made such an issue of it!); River Tyrannulets (because they were cute); Plum-throated Cotinga (so blue and so far away); Black-capped Donacobius (best display and antiphonal duet); Caquetá Seedeater (with a name like that…you just want to see it); Oriole Blackbird (common, but real eye candy). You’ll have many more to add. I liked the Night Monkeys, the Saki Monkeys—all of the monkeys actually. I also liked the river dolphins because these freshwater creatures have such an interesting distribution and live in a world all their own (blind and all), and because of the local stories that have evolved about them. Yes, if in doubt about who got your daughter pregnant…the dolphin did it!

The great complexity and diversity of a rainforest avifauna is certainly as well illustrated in Amazonia as anywhere. Our daily routine generally included early morning and mid-afternoon ship departures to explore small creeks, or work along the forested riverbanks of the Amazon and Ucayali. After spending a week searching for some of the avifaunal pieces in this greatest of all natural jigsaw puzzles, we hopefully leave with a better appreciation of how this diversity fits together. And, not all the pieces are in the forest. There is a rich river island fauna, a sprinkling of long distance migrants (e.g. Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow), and both white water (muddy really) and black water rivers, as well as igapó (swamp), várzea (seasonally flooded) and terra firme (high ground) forest. And then there are all those microhabitats—moriche palms, tank bromeliads, dead curled leaves, and so on, and all of these components 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.

Our ship’s crew did a great job of feeding us and looking after us, even bringing cool (frozen in most cases) towels into the field, and the coolers, both shipboard and on the skiffs, were always well-stocked with cold water. Muddy boots were cleaned and dried after any land-based excursion, and we shopped whenever little impromptu vendors in boats came around. On most evenings the ship’s bands (there was a new one every night) played during happy (oh, or was it “Harpy”) hour. And when some of you were thinking of skipping a morning, or an afternoon, David always told you which ones not to skip. With so much going on, it all went quickly, and a lot of adventure and learning were compressed into a relatively short span of time. 

Steve presented three lectures, Dennis provided an update on our navigation, and Segundo guided our group on a short visit to an Amazonian village, as well as providing numerous impromptu discussions of life in Amerindian communities, and he never missed an opportunity to interact with local fisherman and “fisherboys” (remember the little boy holding the giant Tambaquí fish!). 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.