Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 2

Holding on as the boat plowed onward. Note the angle of the horizon!

When I left off the story yesterday, we were in rough waters offshore, about 30 km south of Pucusana, motoring toward Isla Asia, one of Peru's famous guano islands. Along the way we were seeing a lot of interesting things, including large groups of southern sea lions.

Southern sea lion.

Females and young southern sea lions.

We'd already been out for several hours but the trips was not even half over. We were getting cold and wet and various parts of our bodies were aching from the boat pounding the surf and from holding on tightly to the rails. I was standing next to the captain when one of our group asked how much farther we had to go to see the guano islands where the Humboldt's penguin colonies were. It was less than an hour, but several of the group immediately began asking about shortening the trip.

The captain, Stefan, came up with a solution. He would let four of us off at a fishing village, if he could call his partner on the radio phone to make the arrangements with a local fisherman. There was nowhere to dock our boat and no harbor, but he felt confident that a local boatman could be hired to come out beyond the surf line to fetch some of our party. But only four could go. The rest, Stefan pointed out, would be needed to help keep the boat weighted and balanced for the long trip home.

First, however, we needed to get to Isla Asia, where the guano-producing seabird colonies were. We were closer now, and could catch smelly whiffs of the island on the sea air. Birds in the air were coming and going in a beeline to the colony. Just then, a dark cloud caught my eye. Though binocs I could see it was a huge gathering of birds in a feeding frenzy. I shouted and pointed and we set off after it.

What we found there was amazing. Guaney and red-legged cormorants, Peruvian boobies, Peruvian brown pelicans, and Inca terns all swooping and diving after school of fish. Thousands of birds wheeled in the dull-gray sky, above a roiling sea only slightly darker. Squadrons of boobies dove headlong into the surf hitting the water like a cluster of missiles. We watched awestruck until the birds began moving off, the fish that were not eaten having dispersed.

A fine frenzy of feeding.

Soon we reached the Isla Asia. Stefan maneuvered the boat close to shore so we could attempt to take photos and video. I did not get anything much better than documentary images because the light was poor and the boat's motion caused much blurring. So I tried simply to watch with my eyes as much as I could. To take in the spectacle. The stench here was overpowering. Fish and ammonia. I was surprised there was no retching given all the stimuli in that direction.

Humboldt penguins were among the first birds we saw. They looked like stranded cruise ship passengers still in their formal dinner attire.

Humboldt penguins.

Huge numbers of Peruvian brown pelicans were on Isla Asia, doing their part to keep the island covered in white guano.

Peruvian brown pelicans.

Humboldt penguins (front) and Inca terns (back).

Everywhere we looked on the island there were birds, though sometimes we had to look closely to see just how many there were.
Thousands of guanay cormorants on Isla Asia.

Parts of the island were black with birds. Stefan explained that these birds represented just a fraction--only 15%--of the population that was here in the 1920s. Back then there were millions of birds, but then advances in anchovy fishing allowed the local fishermen to over harvest, and the birds' populations crashed and have never recovered. He explained that it has been nearly impossible to get complete protection for the birds and the islands, mostly for political reasons. Stefan and others working for bird conservation, are slowly changing things in Peru for the better. But it's a race against time.

Guanay cormorant pattering to a take off.

In my previous post I mislabeled this species as a guanay cormorant. It's a red-legged cormorant (note red legs).

Isla Asia. The dots are all birds.

Peru's guano islands are uniquely situated to create huge amounts of natural fertilizer. The islands have no vegetation. The climate is dry. And the ocean is rich in oily fish, which makes for LOTS of bird poop. The poop or guano dries on the rocky islands and the nutrients in it are locked inside. It is harvested and used on crops all over the world.

Guano harvesters erected walls to help capture the guano.

As we left Isla Asia, all white-washed rocks and screaming, pooping birds, I thought to myself "What a sh*tty view!"

We motored eastward to the village on the rocky coastline. It was now time to decide who would leave the boat. Just four could leave, and four had to stay. Some polite verbal dancing ensued and four souls prepared to leave the boat. I had already decided to tough it out. I was feeling fine, and, after all, these were my final hours in Peru. May as well live large.

Moments later, a Peruvian fisherman rowed out over the smashing surf to our boat. He took two passengers at a time back to shore. I thought I saw one or two of the guys kiss the sand when they reached terra firma.

The rescuer of our comrades at sea.

Chris Harbard and Chris Knights head to shore.

As Steve Gantlett departed, he snapped a shot of those of us left on the boat. Thinking, perhaps, this shot could be used later on to identify the bodies. Steve, who is the editor of Birding World magazine in the U.K., is an excellent bird photographer. After we both got home, he sent me this image (below) and I have to admit I was shocked at how small the boat looks.

That's me, BOTB, in the orange jacket still aboard the Little Outboard That Could. Photo by Steve Gantlett.

The boat trip home had following seas and winds, so it was a little shorter in duration. It did have quite as much slamming over waves and the trip outward, but for some reason we got a lot wetter. We did not stop for many birds, though we did see a few more Peruvian diving petrels (much too small, shy, and fast to photograph), and a load of bottle-nosed dolphins.
Soon enough the calm waters of the harbor at Pucusana hove into view. It was a happy sight.

Pucusana harbor at long last.

This fisherman had an Inca tern as a live bow ornament.

We spent an hour or so thawing out over a seafood lunch at a cafe on the waterfront. What a pleasure to sit and watch the comings and going of the town and its harbor. The people of Pucusana were very friendly and very interested that we were there to see their birds.

Our lunch spot in Pucusana. ¡Comimos pescado muy rico!

I had Chris Harbard take a snapshot of me at the harbor in Pucusana. I was thinking how odd it felt to be back on dry land. Then I realized I was farther south in the New World than I'd ever been. I was pondering that, in a few hours, I'd be getting on a huge plane and flying back northward, across the equator, through the night, passing over thousands of miles of jungle and ocean and all the people and creatures and wonders they held.

The nasal calls of the Inca terns would soon be replaced in my ears by the sweet whistled songs of northern cardinals. I was leaving Peru with a world of memories inside of me.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Peru Pelagic Part 1

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To close the annoying directions box, click on the X on the upper right-hand corner.

As a part of the overall Peru itinerary, those of us attending were given the option of taking a pelagic trip at the end of the week-long adventure. A few days before the scheduled trip we got the word that the company that was scheduled to take us out on the Pacific Ocean to look for albatrosses and other wonders had been closed down. One of their party boats had capsized and the government closed the company down for safety inspections.

We had mixed feelings about this. I am not a worried traveler, but the seas off Peru are famously rough and unpredictable. I did not want to go out in a dinghy. But nor did I want to miss out on all of the birds I'd hoped to see: especially Inca terns and Humboldt's penguins. Our group began lobbying for an alternative boat, or even a land-based trip to somewhere birdy along the coast.

Eventually, thanks to the tireless resourcefulness of our hosts, two different trips were planned. One all-day trip close to shore and one that would go farther out. Alas I could only take the closer-to-shore trip because of the timing of my return flight to the U.S. that night and the time-eating vagaries of packing and security.

So at 5 am, outside our Lima hotel, we met our guide for the day, Stefan from Nature Expeditions Peru. Stefan is an expatriate German who is a dedicated marine life conservationist. He and his wife are the founders of Mundo Azul, a non-governmental organization working to protect marine mammals in Peru's waters. He talked about his work and what we could expect to see during the day's boat trip.

Pucusana harbor, full of small fishing boats.

Pucusana harbor.

Stefan drove us 30 or so kilometers south to his company's office in the coastal fishing village of Pucusana. There we were outfitted with rain suits (and I was reminded that a Latin American XL size garment is approximately equivalent to a U.S. large). As we walked down the hill to the picturesque harbor, we stared seeing birds. It was a foggy, overcast day, but the cameras still came out and we did out best to get some good bird photos.

Our pelagic trip group all geared up and ready to get soaked.

Along the way we stopped by a small store to buy some water and snacks for the trip. Three of us went in looking for something to eat--something bland in case of rough seas and food that did not want to stay eaten. My friend Steve Rooke from Sunbird Tours in the UK wanted some chocolate, so he asked in his pigeon-Spanglish for some.

It often amazes me how products in other countries are named. What means yummy and delicious in one country might mean something completely different in another. The woman behind the counted pointed to a chocolate-covered cookie product called, of all things, Choco-Bum. Steve nearly collapsed with laughter.

Steve Rooke with his Choco-Bum.

This sounded like a physical malady for which one might want some Imodium. We immediately bought six Choco-Bums.

Back outside, we waddled down to the boat, sweating now inside our rubberized pants and jackets. Turnstones and sanderlings poked around the harbor mudflats.

Ruddy turnstones foraging on a fishing boat.

Immature gray gull in Pucusana harbor.

As I was sorting through the gulls, feeling certain I was seeing both gray gull and band-tailed gull, the shout was heard: INCA TERN!

The captivatingly gorgeous Inca tern.

And there it was, in all its dark-bodied, white-whiskered beauty. Such a stunning bird. But no time to bliss out. Stefan was shouting for us to get on the boat. "We'll see hundreds more Inca terns!" And he was right. But the looks were not quite as nice from a bobbing boat as they were from solid, unmoving land.

Inca terns courting.

As the final guy (and we were an all-male trip) stepped onto the boat, which was a medium-sized outboard--something you might ski behind on a lake) the stern dropped down to even with the water's surface. This made a whole lot of sea water slosh into the boat when Stefan gunned the engine. We all got soakers. Stefan then began to rearrange us according to our weight and just about the time we got into the first of the rough water outside the harbor, we realized that we'd need to hold on at all times with at least one hand. This made using binocs or holding a camera a it more challenging.

It was hard to photograph the Inca terns from the bobbing and rolling boat.

We motored to some rocky islands just outside the mouth of the harbor and Stefan maneuvered the boat close enough for us to see birds but far enough out to keep from getting smashed on the rocks. He did a fine job of it, too. Birds were everywhere. We chummed in some Inca terns. Band-tailed gulls followed.

Band-tailed gull adult.

Red-legged cormorant.

On the islands we spotted blackish oystercatchers (related to our black oystercatchers), several red-legged cormorants (possibly the most beautiful cormorant ever--and that's an oxymoron I guess). [Thanks to Chris H. for the corm ID tips.]

Blackish oystercatchers.

Also present were Peruvian brown pelicans (seemingly more colorful than ours), and a very weird bird called a cinclodes--sort of part sparrow, part bunting, part creeper. It lives like a purple sandpiper on the barnacle-covered rocks near the water line but it looks like some kind of weird songbird.

Peruvian seaside cinclodes.

There were many southern sea lions, too, in various shades of brown and gray. Looking at us impassively as they basked on the rocks. Huge males were surrounded by smaller females and we could hear their grunts and barks mixed in with the bird sounds, the ocean crashing on the rocks, and our outboard motors.

I had taken a spot in the bow so I could take some photos. This was a great spot to be until we broke out into the open ocean, headed south along the coast for some larger islands where our other quest birds lived. We were heading into the prevailing wind and sea and I felt like the guy on the Morton's Salt cannister getting blasted by the salty spray. Strangely I began talking like a pirate and making cracks about wearing Old Spice cologne. This seemed to help lessen the chill of the water running right down my face, onto my throat, and down my chest. Brrrr...

Pervian boobies! Once away from the harbor, these massive creatures were everywhere. Flying alongside the boat effortlessly. Diving gannetlike into the ocean. My first-ever boobie species. [Insert your own joke about boobies here].

Peruvian booby.

We were now far enough out into the ocean that we were riding swells--huge swells! Stefan had to be completely watchful so we did not get caught by one broadside. We had one memorable close call when everyone shouted out their favorite expletive. I think it was at that moment that I realized that it was completely possible that we could capsize.

It was raining slightly and the mist was trying to hide the mainland from our eyes. I began to wonder about the number of large men we had on a rather small boat. Of course we all had life jackets on, but the boat was really bucking and rolling. So far no one was sick.

I asked Stefan a few questions--questions that were probably on everyone else's minds, too.

BOTB: Hey Stefan! How long could someone survive in the water if they fell in?
Stefan: Only a minute or so--it's cold. You would die fast.

BOTB: And what's the load limit for this boat?
Stefan: It can safely hold 8 passengers.

BOTB (counting): OK. There are 8 of us plus you. That's 9, right?
Stefan: Yes but I don't think they count the captain in those numbers...


Lots of bodies for one small boat a mile or more offshore in rough seas.

Stefan asked for another volunteer to stand up next to him, on the windy/splashy side of the boat to help keep things balanced. I volunteered, thinking I wonder what Davy Jones actually keeps in his locker? Stuff from his time with The Monkees?

For the next two hours I stood as we motored south. My hands gripping two different cold metal railings, my knees aching from the pounding of the boat. My optics were tucked away. It was far too hard just holding on for dear life to pretend that we could do any birding.

We were heading to the "guano" islands where Peruvians have, for centuries, harvested the poop from nesting colonies of seabirds. This is used for fertilizer to increase crop yields.

Stefan shouted to us "We will be at the guano islands in about an hour! We will have 30 minutes there, then we must start home again! In the meantime watch for the Peruvian diving petrel!"

One by one we nodded blankly. And wondered if we'd make all the way and back again. The sea showed no sign of helping us. Over the thrum of the laboring outboard, I began to hear murmurings of a mutiny....

Far in the distance, Isla Asia, one of the Peruvian guano islands.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Trek Back to Manco Capac

The field station at El Dorado where we spent the night.

We'd been at El Dorado for nearly 24 hours, when (after a nice lunch of fish, rice, and beans) we began the journey back to the village Manco Capac and from there, back aboard El Delfin.

We'd had a good morning of birding around El Dorado, followed by a short presentation on the conservation initiatives the local villagers were putting in place. The hope is that by managing the resources better other things will follow, such as a reduction in slash-and-burn subsistence farming and hunting, and eventually, more ecotourism. Scanning the guest book at the El Dorado field station I could see that a variety of groups had passed through, including some nature documentary crews and film crews scouting for jungle locations for shooting, as well as a few adventure nature tour groups.
Blue and yellow macaws--huge, brilliantly colored birds.

We said our thank yous and goodbyes and boarded the dugouts for the trip back. Lucky for us the rains of the night before had raised the water level, so we did not run aground nearly as much as we had on the trip out.

Back in the dugouts, keeping our balance.

It was just as we were leaving the El Dorado landing that I had a moment of panic. Riding in a dugout is a matter of balance. When someone shifts or tips the dugout a bit while boarding, you have to be ready to shift your weight to the other side to compensate. My Canon 30D camera with its 300mm lens was sitting on my lap. As I shifted to help re-balance the dugout, it tumbled, LCD-screen first into the muddy bottom of the boat. I snatched it up and frantically began wiping. Gritty mud caked every surface and seeped into every crack. I spent the next hour just picking out little bits of now completely dried mud. Then I realized there was nothing more I could do. So I said a little prayer to the digital camera gods that it would be OK. And I got back to birding and taking pictures (which seemed fine...).
Amazon kingfisher.

Before long, we were off the lake proper and onto the small river that feeds it. With the banks closer, we got some good looks (and shots) at birds. This area must be the horned screamer capital of the world--we saw at least 24 of these huge birds along the way back.

Wattled jacana.

At the end of the waterborne portion of the return trip, we climbed up a muddy bank to the ranger station. This station is at the end of the trail leading back to Manco Capac--so we knew we had the eight-mile walk ahead of us--and it was the heat of the day once again. A confab of teenagers from Manco were there to carry our bags, scopes, and other gear. They stood shyly off to one side of the landing, smiling and making comments to one another. I am sure we looked pretty ragged, sun-burned, and hot. We chugged some water, grabbed a sandwich made for us by the cooks at the El Dorado field station, and headed across the clearing to the trail head.
Meeting up with our porters at the El Dorado guard house.

Once inside the jungle, the sun no longer held us in its fiery fingers. I zipped open the legs on my pants and wet down a doo-rag for my head, all in an attempt to keep the heat and humidity at bay. Being in motion helped. Otherwise I could have easily seen how one might go stir-crazy with the close air, the insect noise, and the imposing deep green of the jungle on all sides.
On the jungle trail, heading back to Manco Capac.

The birds must have watched us pass, silently enjoying their siestas. But their absence did not last long.
There are some mighty large trees in the Amazonian rainforest.

Our group was strung out over a mile or two of trail. The birders stopping often to listen or look. The non-birders humped it for Manco, where we were told we would be able to purchase a cold beer. Chris Harbard and I told jokes back and forth as we walked, which helped the miles pass more easily. We caught up with Pepe Alvarez just in time for him to hear a manakin calling. It was a male wire-tailed manakin and it was a stunner! I crept within 30 feet of it as it sat, looking around slowly. It looked like a tiny feathered piece of candy stuck on a vine against the green jungle backdrop.
Wire-tailed manakin showing its namesake field mark.

Such a brilliant bird!

A bit farther on we encountered a troop of tamarins--saddle-backed tamarins to be exact. They jumped from tree to tree like hyper jungle gnomes--very catlike in their movements, but monkey like in their appearance. Weird.
Saddle-backed tamarin

Pieces of the trail began looking familiar, and like trail horses who can smell the barn long before they see it, we picked up our pace, stopping only for really special birds. And here, all of a sudden, was a bird song that stopped Pepe in his tracks: A black-spotted bare-eye was calling from a clearing just off the path. We carefully stepped into the underbrush and down a bank. The bird was close! There! Movement! There it is!

Stopping to look for the bare-eye.

Not everyone got to see it and my look at this very shy creature was only about six seconds long. But long enough. It's related to the antbirds and antthrushes and true to its name, it has bare skin all around its huge eyes. Pink skin on a black head surrounding a red eye. In the deep shadows of the ground in the rainforest, where this critter lives, its coloration helps it blend in perfectly--unlike the orange sherbet colors of the manakin we'd seen a few hours earlier. Wish I'd gotten a picture of the bare-eye but I was not quick enough.

At long last, we could smell the wood smoke from Manco. And distant dog barks. At long last we came to the end of the jungle trail and stepped back into the brilliant sunlight on the edge of the village. We staggerode across the futból pitch and found the main drag--a cement sidewalk that led us to the center of the village. There, a blue building beckoned to us like the mermaid calls to the lonely sailors--cerveza fria amigos!
We made it back to Manco Capac in the late afternoon.

A case of large bottles of beer was produced, some small jam jars, and a bottle opener...I'm not sure a beer every was more appreciated by yours truly.
I have no idea what the name of this tavern was, but it could have been named Nirvana as far as we were concerned.

I'll leave you here for now. Tomorrow we'll finish up our cervezas and head back to El Delfin. We've still got a mile or so to walk to get to the river...

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Monday, October 01, 2007

The Jungle Road to El Dorado

The next day dawned misty and humid, though the air near the river was still somewhat cool. I had lost track of what day of the week it was--a nice change from a normal work week back home. As we ate our breakfast and gathered up our gear, we all felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation about the day ahead of us.

We'd been instructed to pack for staying overnight in the jungle and implored to pack lightly. We would not need our dress clothes--our accommodations would be quite rustic. And there would be lots of mud--hence the Wellies we'd been given--knee-high rubber boots that were good protection from water, mud, and snakes, but not the best footwear for a long hike.

And this hike was to be of indeterminate length. "Four hours easy walk!" was what we were told. Translated into birding time, we knew it would be longer, but how much longer?

We got on the skiffs and headed for our landing spot. Along the way we saw pink dolphins in the river. And we spied more black-collared hawks and greater black hawks along the shore.

Part of a pink dolphin in the Upper Amazon tributaries.

Greater black hawk.

Black-collared hawk.

Soon we landed along the lefthand shore and climbed the bank up away from the river. At the top of the bank, waiting for us, were more than a dozen local villagers ready to guide us to El Dorado and help us get our gear there safely. They offered to carry our packs and scopes so we could be less weighed down during the long hike. It took a bit of getting used to, having someone carry your gear for you. But when we got a mile or so into the jungle, where the air was hot and wet in your lungs, and you felt yourself teetering on the edge of sanity, we were all happy for the help.

We gathered along a road through a banana plantation just above the river. It was still misty in the early hours and the birds were mostly heard and not seen.

Family heading to the river near Manco Capac.

We parted to let several parties of local villagers pass through our group. They were headed to the river to get water, wash clothes, and to sell and buy and trade for food and other necessities. The young girl in this family was Liam's age, (7) but much smaller. Still she pitched in to help her parents.

Who ARE those strange, pale people?

She was intrigued enough by us to stop walking and turn around to look again at us. I later learned from one of the villagers that many villagers in remote regions believed in a long-held myth: that the white-faced people were evil and were here to peel away and steal the faces of the locals. This might explain why the kids in one village were so wary of me. But more on that in a later post...
Our porters and guides to El Dorado waited for us in Manco Capac.

Our gear porters waited for us to catch up in the small village of Manco Capac at the head of the trail to El Dorado. I believe some of them probably wondered why we brought so much stuff with us. This was one day when I was glad I did not bring a spotting scope to Peru. There would be other days when I wished I had brought it.

Slash and burn plot near Manco Capac.

Just outside Manco Capac we started out hike by walking through a patch of what used to be jungle but would now be converted to agriculture. This type of agriculture is common in the tropics, but many people are now finding that while slash-and-burn farming nets good yields for a few years, it is not sustainable. Many local villages and both government and non-governmental agencies are promoting ecotourism as a more sustainable way to make a living. The El Dorado project is one such venture.

Related to the ivory-billed woodpecker, but not close enough!

Less than a mile into the rainforest, we came upon this large black and white woodpecker drumming with double raps on a huge dead snag. I grabbed this image as it flew overhead. Clearly it is not an ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean, what else could it BE?

A bit farther along the muddy trail, we came across a clearing. In the trees on the far side of the clearing, there were a dozen or so birds foraging in the canopy. One bird flashed white as it came in. At first I thought it must be a rose-breasted grosbeak, but the bill looked all wrong. So I pointed it out to Noam and Pepe, our expert birder/guides. They were immediately excited--it was a very unusual bird.

White-breasted bird....hmmm. A rose-breasted grosbeak? No...

A closer look, but still not close enough.

That's better! It's a purple-throated cotinga! A rare bird indeed!

Plumbeous antbird, male.

The birding was getting good as the rain clouds disappeared and the baking sun came out. This made the birds more active. Pepe and Noam heard a good bird and halted our movement. It was an antbird--a male plumbeous antbird. Pepe recording its song and played it back. Th bird immediately responded and came closer. I managed to click off a few shots--this was a very confiding bird.

There were other birds, too. A huge cocoa-brown woodpecker lurched up a tree trunk--a ringed woodpecker. We heard dozens of other species in the deep jungle--birds we'd never see.
Somebody's jungle workshop making a new dugout boat.

Scarlet-crowned barbet moving through the canopy.

Long-billed woodcreeper far overhead, but showing its best field mark.

After a few more miles of jungle trail passed underfoot, we came upon this large tree with what looked like a dark cavity on the upper trunk. But it wasn't a hole.

It was caterpillars gathered together for warmth and protection. One of our local guides said, in Spanish, that all day long birds would be coming by to eat a caterpillar or two. And that tomorrow there'd be just a few caterpillars left.

Mile after mile we walked. The heat came down and quieted the birds. Now we looked at butterflies and insects and wondered if we'd ever make it out of this steaming jungle. I was getting tired. My water bottle was nearly empty. But I thought, the village we were heading for must be near...

Sure enough, a village appeared through the trees. It was one building. WAIT! This is NOT our destination? "No my friend, we still have a boat ride to get to El Dorado!"

Far down the bank below us there were three skiffs. Our gear was loaded into one and our group of hikers split into two groups to board the skiffs. And off we went.

Boarding the skiffs for El Dorado.

Immediately we began seeing waterbirds, including this large-billed tern.

Rufescent tiger heron.

And this rufescent tiger-heron--what a beautiful bird!

Our dugouts did not have much clearance. We ran aground every other minute--was it the low river level or our overfed bodies? Almost three hours later, baked by the sun, butts hurting from the wooden benches of the dugouts, we pulled in to El Dorado.

The dugouts had little clearance above the waterline.

To be continued...

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Amazon Nocturne

In the post before last I alluded to a dark form in the trees above where our Amazon boat, El Delfin, had been temporarily moored during an afternoon thunderstorm. That dark form, as many of you guessed,turned out to be a sloth--a male three-toed sloth to be precise.

Three-toed sloth.

This was my first-ever look at a sloth in the wild. Their faces are haunting, reminding me of one of those monkey heads carved out of a coconut. And they move like sedated furry snakes from limb to limb through the trees. This guy was taking his time and seemed completely unconcerned about the gathering thunderstorm.
As the male sloth reached the outer limbs of this branch we got a clear view of the orange patches on his back. Such a cool creature...

As the rain slackened we boarded the skiffs for an evening excursion up a small tributary. Having the shoreline habitat closer than it was on the big river made the birding better and easier. Too bad the light was fading.

On the left hand shore, a feeding flock caught our attention and I called out an all-blue bird I saw swoop into the center of a tree. It was a plum-throated cotinga! This is a bright blue bird with a purple throat and a white eye. Cotingas are a tropical family of birds, somewhere between a thrush and a flycatcher. They can be hard to see because they are not very active. But once you spot them they may sit for a long while.

This bird did and I used my new green laser pointer to get everyone else on the bird, describing a large circle around the bird. I found the laser pointer to be utterly useful for jungle birding, when saying things like "It's in the top of that large green-leafed tree" just won't cut it.
Plum-throated cotinga (if you squint your eyes).

I got a crummy shot of the cotinga in the low light. But at least you can see the blue plumage, dark throat, and white eye.

As we left the cotinga, one of our skiff's passengers screamed. A fish had lumped into the boat and was flopping around in the bottom. As one of the passengers reached down to pick it up to toss it back into the river, our guide said "Please be very careful of his teeth and spines!" Michael, an American tour packager and avid fisherman, picked up the fish. Dave, another outdoorsman touched the fish's mouth and promptly for a bad bit on his index finger. This was not a piranha, but it still packed some wicked teeth! Could it be the influence of all those hopped-up outdoor adventure shows where it's not enough to just LOOK at an animal, you've also got to HANDLE it? I'm not casting aspersions here, just wondering....

The offending fish was released to the dark water once more.

Soon it was too dark for birding so we turned our attention to spotlighting other wildlife, such as caimans. Our guide leaned out over the bow and snagged this juvenile caiman from the shallow water.

Caimans are lovely to look at. Little ones like this could not hurt you unless you invited them to bite you. In the days to come we'd see much larger caimans that actually licked their chops as we motored past in small dugouts.

One of the birds we got close-ish to was this ladder-tailed nightjar. We also saw (poorly) a greater potoo--one of my quest birds.

Ladder-tailed nightjar.

Soon enough the bugs were getting bad putting thoughts of bad tropical diseases into our tired heads, so we began motoring back to the big boat. It was pitch black at this point and the guide had to shine the flashlight ahead of us to try to see the best route through all the shallows and submerged logs. WHAM! We hit a mudbar and everyone grunted. I hit my forehead on the wooden seat in front of me and the passenger next to me cracked his seat's support. It was more of a scare than an actual accident--no one and no gear was lost overboard. Still, it made us proceed with caution.

Heading back to the boat.

Once back on board El Delfin we cleaned up, had a drink, and headed for dinner. After yet another delightful meal, we were told we'd be going on a little hike the next day. The ship's crew began passing out knee-high rubber boots. Our destination? A large inland lake with the very evocative name El Dorado. The Gold!

What sort of adventure would tomorrow hold?

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