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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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