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Birding Peru part 9 - Amazonia & Rio Tambopata

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 

August 26, 2012 - Morning in Puerto Maldonado and boat ride up the Rio Tambopota

When my alarm went off on Sunday morning I felt much better than the previous day.  I still wasn't 100%, but I popped some pills for my stomach and hoped for the best.  We headed down to the lobby and snagged a taxi to the airport for our 9:00am LAN flight to Puerto Maldonado.  Before I passed out the night before I spent about an hour emailing the main office for the Explorer's Inn and our driver for after we left the jungle to let them know about the changes in our travel plan.  I also emailed our final hotel to see if they could get us earlier train tickets to Machu Picchu since we were now flying back to Cusco 4 hours earlier.  We never heard back from the Explorer's Inn (not even in the days and weeks since the trip--more on this in my final recap), but the hotel we were staying at let us know that our driver would be there for us, and they would try to move our train tickets up to earlier in the afternoon.  We made it to the airport, through security, and the flight in from Lima arrived on time.  We boarded, and our flight left on time as well, flying up over the east slope to a cloud covered Amazon.  We didn't see the jungle until we were several minutes from landing--then the green carpet appeared below us, our first glimpse of the Amazon Rainforest.  It is something else to see so much green from above.

Huntsman's Spider--One of the first jungle creatures we saw in Puerto Maldonado

The plane landed to cooler than usual temperatures--the humidity wasn't even noticeable.  We grabbed our bags then headed to the parking lot to find our ride.  After several minutes of looking it became apparent the Explorer's Inn had sent no one to pick us up, despite letting them know 16 hours ahead of time that our flight had changed and we would be coming in the next morning.  One would figure that if the people didn't arrive when they were supposed to that they would probably be showing up some time soon after... But not the Explorer's Inn.  We talked to a porter in the parking lot who wailed us a taxi to their office.  Only it wasn't a taxi, it was a rickshaw--a motorcycle with a carriage attached to the back that can carry 2 to 3 people and some luggage.  These are popular throughout Peru, so it was fun to get to ride on one, especially in this remote place.  The office was literally 3 minutes from the airport--along the way I spotted several PALM TANAGERS and a number of BLACK and TURKEY VULTURES.  Once at the office I tried to explain to the guy there what had happened.  We finally got on the same page about the flight cancellation and who we were.  He told us that the boat wouldn't be leaving until 11:30am because we were waiting on other 4 tourists and a scientist to arrive on a later flight.  I asked how much it would be to charter a boat up the river--but he lamented that it was not possible.  Another 1/2 day wasted away from the jungle.

Grainy shot of a distant Crane Hawk with a snake.

Sam spent most of the next few hours sitting in the office while I wandered around the yard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a new bird or two.  Several PALM TANAGERS were a constant, while WHITE-COLLARED SWIFTS circled high in the air with the vultures.  Several TROPICAL KINGBIRDS were make volleys from the trees across the road, while WHITE-EYED PARAKEETS made passes over the yard and made a ruckus from the tops of the trees.  I picked out one YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE and assumed because we were in an open area that it was a LESSER--but couldn't be positive.  While watching the kingbirds across the road I spotted a CRANE HAWK flying past with a snake in its talons.  A SNAIL KITE was also seen circling rounding out the raptors from the edge of town.  Out of nowhere a small flock of birds came into the yard.  The first one I got in my binoculars was a RED-EYED VIREO--that was a bit of a let down.  It was followed by a PLAIN TYRANNULET and a couple small gray birds higher up in the trees I couldn't see.  A few minutes later a SMALL-BILLED ELAENIA appeared perched on the other side of the yard while all the while a HOUSE WREN sang from the overgrown yard next door.

The Plain Tyrannulet at the Explorer's Inn Office

Finally around 11am the others started arriving, and shortly after 11:30 we loaded into a van for a "short" ride to the dock.  I figured this would be a 5 minute trek across town--boy was I wrong.  Sam had gotten into the van and had to sit in the very back because the tourists who got in the van first decided to be complete jerks and sit at the front.  Common courtesy would tell anyone with a brain to go to the back if you get in first, or wait to get in if you want to sit forward.  I was near the front, but wasn't too worried since this would be a quick drive.  After a few minutes we were on a dirt road--after about 15 minutes the driver pulled over and our guide told us we would have another 45 minutes in the car before our 2 hour boat ride up river.  Unbelievable.  I sat in silence the entire ride, and just wanted to get out.  We passed fragmented and burned stretches of forest.  Fields, shacks, and small villages along the way.  Birds were scarce though.  When we finally pulled into the parking area where the "dock" was located I scurried down a road just wanting to see some birds.  I was delighted when a BLACK-FRONTED NUNBIRD popped up on a limb long enough to get a good look before disappearing into the undergrowth.  All the while a BROAD-BILLED MOTMOT was calling  nearby.

The Rio Tambopata and Amazon Jungle

The dock was more of a steep staircase down to the water, where boats were tied to the handrails.  There were no docks here on the Rio Tambopata, only stairs with boats tied to them.  We got on the boat and sat near the front--I wasn't going to have the tourists who wouldn't even adjust so my wife and I could sit together in the van ruin the boat ride for our already shortened trip in the jungle.  And then we were off, making our way up river, a mighty tributary of an even mightier tributary of the mightiest river in the world--the Amazon.  This is where I would see the most birds of the trip--this area contained the most diverse number of birds and butterflies in the world--surely I was in for an exciting river ride! 

Insert crickets chirping here... Where was the wildlife?

The two hour boat ride produced a grand total of 9 turtles, 13 life birds (maybe 50 actual individuals), a SOLITARY SANDPIPER, and several 1,000 butterflies.

A Solitary Sandpiper along the river

I will admit, the butterfly flocks were impressive.  Too bad our tour operator opted to ignore the most abundant wildlife along the river and instead take us as fast as possible to the inn.  I think one of the biggest let downs was the amount of time spent going to places, or doing nothing, and just passing up a spectacle that was really the 2nd most impressive thing I saw in the jungle.  There were no caiman, no capybara, no large flocks of birds, no terns, no swarms of vultures, no other wildlife of any kind.  This was the jungle?  This was a let down.

Swarms of Butterflies on the rivers edge.

We did see birds like a SWALLOW-WINGED PUFFBIRD perched on snags over the river.  There were both WHITE-BANDED and WHITE-WINGED SWALLOWS catching bugs over the water.  I spotted a COCOI HERON sitting in a pile of rocks which our guide argued was a Cattle Egret until I showed him a picture I snapped to prove him wrong.

Cocoi Heron along the Rio Tambopata

The occasional CASQUED and CRESTED OROPENDOLA flew across the river, and a GREATER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE sat on a snag that I saw just long enough to get a picture. A PALE-EYED BLACKBIRD perched on a snag in the river was a great surprise, as was a SOLITARY BLACK CACIQUE that flew by.  We did spot two large flocks of egrets along the river--one was of several CATTLE EGRETS on the bank, and the other was a flock of SNOWY EGRETS in the tree tops.

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture along the Rio Tambopata

We had to stop at the edge of the Tambopota Reserve to sign in--this meant walking up one of the awesome sets of stairs into the jungle.

Stairs to the check in station for the Tambopata Reserve

Luckily it provided me with great views of a circling PLUMBEOUS KITE.  While we were at the shack waiting to put our information down a pair of BAT FALCONS were flying around and calling like crazy in the trees above.  After the short stop it was back down to the boat.  I took a minute to admire the gorgeous butterflies on the bank, including one of the coolest green and black butterflies I've ever seen.

Stunning butterfly along the river

Back in the boat it was only a few minutes till we were at the stairs to the world famous Explorer's Inn.  It is recognized as having the worlds largest bird list for a single location at over 600 species.  The river didn't produce as expected but surely this place would--it was jungle, it was the Amazon jungle, and I could already hear birds as we made our way up the stairs.

A SHORT-CRESTED FLYCATCHER greeted us at the top, before we made our way down the foot path towards main building and housing area.  The foot path was rough--it needed some major work and looked like it hadn't had much done in maybe 30 years--this seemed to be the general state of almost everything here.  Sam later mentioned that it reminded her of the place we stayed the first week in Costa Rica--in that it had a ton of potential but the people in charge weren't putting the money needed for proper upkeep into the place.  The grounds are a large opening off the river at the edge of the jungle.  A large soccer field makes up the majority of the open space.  The 4 or 5 housing buildings sit on either side of the main building and restaurant.  Behind that are where the employees stay, and further back the forest.

Oropendola or Cacique Nests in a tree towering above the jungle

Our guide led us into the main building which was rustic, but had character--we were in the jungle after all.  Outside YELLOW-RUMPED CACIQUE and OLIVE OROPENDOLA were making a racket.  A pair of SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS never ventured far from the trees around the main building and were easily seen from inside. The assistant manager greeted us and began to introduce us to the history of the place, and talk about some of the wildlife.  Then he started talking about rules--a number of things that were not mentioned on the Explorer's Inn Website.  The first rule was that we could not walk the paths outside of the immediate grounds, without a guide.  So here is a place with like 50 miles of trails through the jungle, and they brag about being able to explore these trails on their website--but once here they tell us we can't go on them?  Then they let us know we can't go to the canopy tower without a guide, and that no guides are going this afternoon.  After rattling off more non sense, they then ironically tell us the remainder of the afternoon is ours to do as we wish.  That meant we could sit in our room, sit on the porch outside our room, sit in the main building, or wander around the soccer fields and house.

I could already tell our time in the jungle was not going to be what I expected.

24 life birds this morning / 118 total trip life birds / 160 total trip birds
Photos from Puerto Maldonado and Rio Tambopota on TimAveryBirding.com

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Anonymous Mary said...

By the looks of your pictures it was an amazing place despite what you didn't see?

October 3, 2012 at 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I've really enjoyed your trip reports thus far. Makes me want to go to Peru.

October 3, 2012 at 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Pat ODonnell said...

Your account of flying into PEM brings back a lot of great memories. Quite a few species actually show up at the edge of and near town. Greater Yellow-headed Vultures are the expected species around there but who knows if a Lesser Yellow-headed might show up too?

The ride to the dock can produce a lot of nice birds but I guess it is pretty quiet at that time of the day anyways. Yep, not too much seen along the river except during early morning, late afternoon, or after rain. Nevertheless, Pale-eyed Blackbird is really good for the area! Caimans, Capys,and more birds are more likely much further upriver due to river traffic and settlements along the stretch to Explorers Inn.

I hope you ignored those rules and ventured out anyways! At least a lot can show up right by the rooms and keeping where you can see forest edge and look into the canopy is actually a pretty good strategy for seeing raptors and tons of species but I would be pretty upset myself! From your description, it is really sounding like Posada Amazonas is a much better choice. More expensive but much better service, can walk trails alone, always have a well trained guide, better management, etc. Well, I hope to read that you got to see a lot of great birds in any case.

October 4, 2012 at 7:49 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Mary: It absolutely is an amazing place. I want to go back to the jungle, just try something a little different and spend more time and various places to really have a better experience.

@Mark: Glad you are enjoying them. I say go for it! You only live once, and there is so much to see on the planet.

@Pat: Thanks for the comments. I saw a few GYHV while in the jungle--I had read that recently LYHV were more expected in open, burned, and deforested areas than the Greaters--but a distant flyby is just that, a distant flyby... Oh well.

The ride to the dock was miserable to be honest. We were crammed in the van, and made zero stops. This was one of those places I would have loved to have spent some time getting out and checking the fields, clearings, etc.

I had read a lot of reports abotu the boat rides and the wildlife seen on the trip up to the inn, which is why I was so surprised--seeing a few turtles really didn't cut it for the jungle experience. Afterwards I wished I would have gone to the Tambopata Research Center so that I would have gotten way deeper into the jungle and further up river. That or have gone to the Amazonia Lodge and the upper stretches of the Rio Madre de Dios. Next time right?

Of course I ignored the rules! :) Check out my next couple posts where I talk about it a little. I figured the clearing at the inn would be the best place for a lot of species, but also figured to spend a great deal of my free time in the canopy tower. From my time in Costa Rica I knew I wanted to be at those edges where the birds spent most of their time.

I can tell you this much--the bus for those going to Posada Amazonas was packed full--where our van was packed with guides, researchers, and 6 tourists. Everyone we talked to in Cusco at the airport was going there, and apparently we made a slight oops on that front. As for the great birds, more to come...

October 4, 2012 at 8:21 AM  
Anonymous Pat ODonnell said...

Ah, those frustrating distant flybys... Well, if it was quartering somewhat near the ground and reminded you of a harrier, I would call it a Lesser Yellowhead.

Yes, that does sound miserable, such a shame! Yeah, it is worth it to bird that road- I have had a lot of good stuff there, especially Purus Jacamar, Silky-tailed Nightjar, Black and white Hawk Eagle, etc. Never enough time to bird all of the spots though.

I am kind of surprised that others saw so much on that stretch of the river. I guess it varies though. I actually saw my only Anaconda along that part of the river but just once out of maybe a 100 trips past that part?

Glad you ignored the rules, now to read about the birds you saw!

October 5, 2012 at 7:22 AM  

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