Sunday, January 3, 2010

To Iquitos And Back

After arriving in Tarapoto we found ourselves a nice hotel with wifi and air conditioning, living in the lap of luxury for us, and settled in to what would become the hotel we spent the most time sitting around so far this trip.
Early the next morning we headed out to our main birding destination from this town, the Tunnel as it is called, which is just a tunnel on the road to Yurimaguas. The Tunnel has some interesting birds that only occur there and one other place in all of Peru, and their closest other known ranges are in Venezuela and northern Brazil. Those birds are Plumbeous Euphonia and Dotted Tanager, and along with a few other key species, were our main targets at this location. The Plumbeous Euphonia also occurs at the Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve, and the Dotted Tanager also occurs in the Cordillera Azul.
We had two days set aside to bird this location, and for the first day we hopped a mototaxi just before dawn to take us to collectivo “station”, per usual, and got to the tunnel with high expectations. Unfortunately the only way that we knew how to bird the area the first day was from the road, and there is quite a bit of traffic there. We spent most of the morning walking along hot asphalt in the fumes of passing cars, buses and trucks. The birding was fairly good though, with Wattled Guan, White Hawk, Koepcke’s Hermit, Napo Sabrewing, high numbers of Cliff Flycatchers (17), and our long overdue first Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks for the trip.
Toward the end of the morning we discovered a great trail that crested a ridge and led into wonderful forest, with no exhaust, cars, or human activity of any sort. Well, except the teenager that walked by carrying a car battery, heading away from the road, but who really knows what that was all about. Probably carrying the power for some small village.
The next morning we headed straight to the trail first thing, birding a flock en route to the ridge crest, and once we got there I split off from the others to walk the ridge trail, while Andrew and Chris went down the backside of the small mountain as we had the day before. They of course had some birds that would have been lifers for me, but I am personally happy with what I had. Some of the highlights of birding the ridge trail included a confiding flock of 12 Ivory-billed Aracaris that came in to check me out for a while, many White-winged Tanagers, two Gould’s Jewelfronts, quite a fancy hummingbird, and the crowning pair, Dotted Tanager and Plumbeous Euphonia!
The euphonia was loosely associating with a mixed feeding flock, and the tanager was loosely associating with some Yellow-bellied Tanagers in another mixed flock. Andrew had a Dotted Tanager downslope, but Chris sadly never managed to see one. We eventually met up a few hours later, and had some other good birds, including a pair of Blue-naped Chlorophonias and a White-throated Woodpecker to round out the morning, and the day for that matter, as we happily lazed the rest of it away in our air conditioned room, as opposed to roasting in the 95+ degree heat.

The following day was Christmas, and we had decided to take a day off, a present to ourselves one could say. Basically that involved sleeping in, eating copious amounts of junk food, watching copious amounts of sub-par television, and generally enjoying ourselves.. We went out for a fancy dinner, courtesy of my parents, thank them so very much, and after watching the locals celebrating like crazy for a while went to bed.
Christmas is really such a huge deal down here, easily the biggest holiday. Everyone dresses up in their finest clothes, every single store has some decoration of red, green and/or gold, and there are people dressed in santa suits giving rides around and around the main square, in some form of vehicle that has a cardboard shell made to look like a sleigh. I can tell you right now, Latin American Santas are a sight to behold, especially when driving a sleigh-like contraption rapidly in large circles around the plaza.
The square itself gets fancied up, in Tarapoto they put a stage up, had about a 50’ tall fake tree, dressed the light poles as angels, and put as many twinkly objects on the fountain as possible. The church on the main plaza was packed as well, standing room only and spilling out into the street when we were headed back from dinner that night. It likely stayed that way until midnight. The revelry continued all night I’m sure, but we were tired from doing nothing all day, so we had no sleeping troubles at all.
In the morning we were planning to go birding again, but when we woke up we decided to take another day off. Our latest grand plan was to go to Iquitos, a place that we didn’t think we would be able to make it to this trip.
Iquitos is in the deep Amazon, and is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, quite a claim to be able to make. We were originally planning to fly there from Lima, but when we tried to book our tickets we found out that there is a ridiculous “gringo tax” that amounts to over $200 extra EACH WAY for a flight there. That put it out of our budget and out of our minds, until Andrew out of idle curiosity looked up flights from Tarapoto to there, and found out that they only cost a little over $250 a head, roundtrip.
We decided that that was worth it, and bought tickets for the day after Christmas, departing at 5:45pm for a 1h flight. Of course we had to check out of our hotel by 1, so we spent four hours playing Hearts at the airport in the cafeteria area. Andrew won.
When our plane arrived, a nice small real jet plane, unlike the prop plane we took before, we piled on and took a lovely short flight over the foothills of the Andes into the Amazon as the sun set behind us. There weren’t that many people on the plane, and I had an entire six seat row to myself! This was a lot nicer than the usual crowded buses or coopertivos with people almost sitting on you much of the time.
Arriving in Iquitos after dark, while waiting at the baggage claim we were accosted by a man trying to get us to use his hotel, and after hearing him out, it actually sounded like a good deal. Included taxi to the hotel, and 55 soles a night (less than $20) for three people in two rooms with televisions and fans. The taxi to the hotel turned out to be a nice 8 person Mercedes van, so things were just getting better and better. It turns out it would be the best deal we would get in Iquitos, a city where people mostly expect to give you less for more money. The nighttime view of the fairly dingy city of Iquitos wasn’t much bettered during the daytime, overall it was pretty trashy, hot, and not easy on the eyes.
Our goal here was to bird the Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve, a very fun place name to say, and a very good birding site as we found out. The special thing about this place is the soil that the forest grows on, being very nutrient-poor “white-sand forest”, where the substrate really is pure white sand. There are many species that only occur in white-sand forest, and there is one bird that only occurs in this one reserve in the entire world, with two other species occurring there being endemic to Peru. As it turns out, they all have the local place names, being Iquitos Gnatcatcher (park endemic), Allpahuayo Antbird, and Mishana Tyrannulet. Funny how that works. There are also many other white-sand specialists that we were targeting here, and we ended up doing quite well.
The daily routine here was to get up at about 430 and walk a little over a mile along the road to the trailhead, hearing such birds as Crested Owl on the walk out, it being still quite dark out, and then walk through the forest using headlamps until we reached our destination for dawn chorus, all the while hoping to avoid the snakes that were certainly lurking just out of sight.
We spent two full days and an afternoon at this reserve, and the birding was good enough to justify at least a few more days, likely at least a week. Some of the more thrilling moments of our time there included, but were not limited to: spotting a pair of Brown Nunlets while taking a break on a log, and eventually calling them within 20 feet of us at eye-level at perfect light; at that same spot having a booming Salvin’s Curassow, a pair of Pompadour Cotingas, and hearing a Brown-banded Puffbird as well; discovering a roosting juvenile Crested Owl RIGHT ABOVE the trail, no more than 15 feet away; having a pair of color-banded Allpahuayo Antbirds come within 15 feet or so to check their own voices out that Andrew was playing back to them; and watching a great canopy flock swirl through one tree repeatedly, and finding such birds in it as Paradise Jacamar, Iquitos Gnatcatcher, Mishana Tyrannulet, and Ancient Antwren.
It is also nice to see our own birds from home down there, the coolest of which was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, which undoubtedly migrated from Canada and will do so for hopefully many more years. It’s interesting to think of how many species of bird one of our migrants have seen, I mean, we saw this Gray-cheeked Thrush right near the Allpahuayo Antbirds, which it surely hears daily. How often do you look at a thrush and think “I wonder how many Peruvian endemics this bird has seen?” The truth may be more than you think.
The only downside to this place, besides it being very hot and not having any fans in the rooms, is the fact that the closest dinner spot is oh, about 12k away, which is slightly prohibitive to having a nice meal without walking almost 15 miles roundtrip.
When we got hungry the first night there we decided to try to try to hitch a ride in the right direction while walking to shorten the distance needed to hitch. We had walked almost five miles, trying to hail down every passing vehicle, when a large semi truck finally stopped. After telling him where we wanted to go, by this point anywhere with food, we all hopped on the truck as we could, with Chris and Andrew riding on top of the trailer part, about 25 feet in the air, and me balancing on a small ledge between the cab and the trailer. It was possibly the most fun I have ever had on a moving vehicle.
Arriving at the town about 6k later, we asked at four restaurants that were just closing before we finally found one that was open. Relieved, we ordered omelettes, and some anonymous meat for Andrew, and ended up talking to a nice guy who was at one of the two tables at this eatery, while we waited on a nearby bench for our food. He was curious about our birding, per usual, and proceeded to tell us of all the venomous snakes that frequented the reserve that we were staying at, and how fierce they were and such. Always nice to hear such things about places where you will be hiking at night. We eventually bade him goodbye, ate our food, and took a mototaxi back to the reserve, where we gladly fell asleep almost instantly. A night of adventure.
The list of good birds seen at the reserve goes on and on, but we managed to get almost all of the specialties, with our only big misses being night birds, where we dipped on White-winged and Rufous Potoos, although we lucked out by seeing a Long-tailed Potoo flying around a pasture at dusk. In addition to the birds mentioned above, we had Collared Puffbird, Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin, White-plumed Antbird, Pearly Antshrike, White-browed Purpletuft, and “Chamizal” Flycatcher, currently a subspecies of Fuscous Flycatcher, but a certain future split.
After glutting ourselves with many lifers, photographs, and recordings, sweating our body weight daily, and all in all enjoying ourselves immensely, we made our way back to Iquitos and civilization, where we enjoyed such modern conveniences as air conditioning and ice cream. Good stuff.
With only one more objective in the Iquitos area, we got up early the next morning and asked our mototaxi to take us to a place where we could rent a boat for the morning. We arrived at the waterfront right near a market, and humanity was everywhere, especially for early in the morning. The second the mototaxi stopped we had people trying to get us to use their boat, and eventually we settled on one guy who would rent us his boat until 11am for 80 soles, so about $9 a head. We headed out onto the large sluggish river, where we were within 10 or 20 miles of being at the confluence of the Napo River coming in from Ecuador, and the Ucayali, the river that we were on. When they converge they become the true Amazon River. So close, yet so far, to seeing the real Amazon. Some day soon. In any case, the river was still impressive, multiple miles wide, but our goal was to get out to the middle of it, and bird some of the river islands.
River islands are an interesting habitat, simply separated from land by, in some cases, a matter of hundreds of meters, but they have species on them that are never recorded from the mainland, and just hang around on these mostly seasonally flooded islands for their entire lives. There are multiple sorts of islands, each one with different vegetation heights, different vegetation types, and different endemics. The trick is to find a young second growth island, which were flooded while we were there, and on that island we got such specialties as River Tyrannulet, Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant, Lesser Hornero, Parker’s Spinetail, White-bellied Spinetail, Olive-spotted Hummingbird, and Riverside Tyrant, all river island only birds.
The other river islands that should be visited are ones with actual forest on them, rather than the bushes on the young islands, and you want forest that is dominated by trees in the genus Cecropia, a very good type of tree for birds. En route to the Cecropia-dominated island we had nice large flocks of Yellow-hooded Blackbirds and some Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns. It was slow going, because with the pitiful motor on our boat we were moving at a fraction of a kilometer of an hour.
When we finally arrived at the island, 45 minutes to travel a mile at most, we disembarked after an incredibly ineffectual landing by our driver, where we got stuck on an easily avoidable log for about five minutes. Immediately we started getting more interesting birds, in the form of a couple Fuscous Flycatchers and some Castelnau’s Antshrikes, one of the more glamorous of the antshrikes. We knocked off the targets here as well, even though it was incredibly hot under the pitiless sun. Bicolored Conebill, Leaden Antwren, and Black-and-white Antbird were the new river island birds, and one of my personal favorites that we had was a nice garden variety Yellow Warbler. A soaring Great Black-Hawk threw us for a loop for a while, and some Brown-chested Martins on the way back in the boat were an overdue trip bird.
This was possibly the only day this trip where Andrew got more lifers that I did, being that I visited a river island in Ecuador, and it was a new habitat for him. Chris got oodles as well, with the same being true for him.
Our business done in Iquitos, we had a last lunch and headed off to the airport for another afternoon of waiting, where we imagined we would be sitting around in an air conditioned lounge eating ice cream, as we have in all the other airports this trip.
Of course, we get there, and it turns out that this is a quite old airport, there are about 15 chairs to sit at, and there are over 100 people waiting, easily. We sat on the ground near the ATMs inside and used the wifi for a few hours in the 95 degree weather without any form of respite except some overly sweetened iced tea. The airport was gringo-land for sure, the most white faces I’ve seen in my time down here, likely a sight that won’t be topped until we get to Cuzco.
After an uneventful flight back to Tarapoto, where I once again got an entire 6 seat row to myself, we checked into a different hotel than we had stayed at previously, just across the street. Bad idea, we spent 20 soles less for a place that had no air conditioning, no internet, and was on the fourth floor, as opposed to 20 more for a luxurious almost suite with wifi, powerful A/C, and a minifridge. If you ever go to Tarapoto, I would recommend the Hotel Altamira.
One dinner with excessive amounts of lemonade later, we were off to sleep with the alarm set for five. The story of our birding the next day and from then on deserves its own post.

Take it easy, and Feliz Navidad to all,

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