five favourite birding sites

We’re newcomers to birding. Of course we have always noticed the unknown and unusual birds we encountered in our travels. However, it was during our year in Latin America that we started to pay closer attention to our feathered friends. It helped that our wandering that year took us into the rainforests of the Amazon, down to Patagonia, across the water to the Galapagos Islands, and to both coasts of Costa Rica. That might also explain why these locations are among our favourite places for bird watching.

King Penguins near the Strait of Magellan.

Number 5. Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)

Quite frankly, we include Patagonia because we saw two of our favourite birds here: penguins and flamingos.  On Tierra del Fuego, Chile, we crawled along a sandy ridge to get close, but not too close, to watch a small group of King Penguins hanging out in the grass near the water. We also saw hundreds of Greater Flamingos gathered in a lake on the island, it’s quite something to see them in flight. Later we watched penguins congregating along the beach on Isla Martillo in the Beagle channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. Mostly Megellanic penguins except for a goofy Gentoo penguin that popped up out of the water and seemed to stagger around perhaps feeling a bit of place. [Watch them here!]

Unknown Amazon eagle about to grab lunch.

Number 4: Amazon (Brazil)

We managed to visit three regions of the Amazon River – the basin in Ecuador, the mouth of the river in Brazil, and the area where the Amazon and Negro rivers merge, 1500 km inland. All featured lots of birds, but the rainforest upriver from the junction at Manaus yielded the greatest variety of birds. We travelled into the rainforest by boat and on foot to see numerous species of parrots, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, along with the wattled Jicana, whistling ducks, grey-necked cormorants, Caracara hawks, Anhinga, Hoatzin, and the orange-fronted yellow finch, just to name a few. We also got bit by fire ants and stung by tiny gold bees!

Blue-footed booby showing off the blue!

Number 3: Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

This will surprise no one! There is an almost overwhelming richness of wildlife here, including large colonies of birds such as the Wavy Albatross and frigatebirds. We also saw Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and you know by now how we feel about that! We toured around the islands by boat, regularly landing to hike into areas and islands that are entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation and observation. We came across brown pelicans, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nasca boobys, brown noddys, finches, various herons and gulls, smooth-billed anis, red-billed tropic birds, a short-eared owl.

Marabou storks scavenge for food, sometimes fighting with vultures over carcasses.

Number 2: The Serengeti (Tanzania)

The Serengeti is a vast open gravelly plain, with rivers and lakes scattered here and there that provide the large animals with water to drink and a place to cool off. In or near the water is where you also will find the birds, although often just one or in a small group. What they lacked in number they made up for in their sometimes very wild appearance. Vultures, secretary birds, Kori Bustads, ostriches, superb starlings, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed cranes, Mariboo storks, and blue herons. Also have to mention nearby Mangara national park and the thousands of flamingos feeding in shallow water of Lake Mangara. 

One of many keel-billed toucans that dropped by to say hello.

Number 1: Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica)

The truth is, there are birds all over Costa Rica. It is hard to single out one national park or conservation area for special mention. We have been in the country four times and have hiked into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walked along both coastlines, and got up before dawn to see a Resplendent Quetzal in the rainforests near San Gerardo de dota. But it was our repeat visits to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast that ended up being quite remarkable for birding. There was a variety of shrubs near the small house we were staying in and trees all around. Every morning over coffee we would watch different birds perch nearby, eat bugs, berries or tree fruit, hang out, and eventually fly away. We enjoyed seeing keel-billed toucans, black-necked Aracaris, black-cheeked woodpeckers, social flycatchers, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds, blue-grey tanagers, streak-headed woodpeckers, blue-black Grassquits, and those are just the ones we were able to identify. In the “neighbourhood” we also spotted brown pelicans, whimbels, frigatebirds, kingfishers, and the exquisitely named Montezuma Oropendola.

revisiting the amazon

unconquered_large_paperSince the start of the new year, it has been mostly damp, cold and a dull gray in Vancouver, with just a couple of short days of sunshine. In other words, perfect weather for reading a book that transported me right back to Amazonia, marvelling at parrots, macaws, and monkeys, and ineffectively trying to prevent insect bites.

During our July stay at the Napo Wildlife Center, an Indigenous-owned and operated eco-lodge deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, we crossed paths with author Scott Wallace. He was stopping for one night on his way home after spending time even deeper in the rainforest, working with a photographer and researching an article for National Geographic. The resultant article and photos, decrying illegal logging in the rainforest, are in the January issue, now on the newsstands.

When we talked, he looked rested and in good health. It was a short assignment, perhaps without the discomfort, hunger, fatigue, and uncertainly he experienced when he traveled for three dramatic months by dugout canoe and on foot through virtually uncharted territory deep in the Brazilian rainforest in 2002. It is that perilous journey that is so compellingly described in Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

The purpose of the expedition, led by rough and tough frontiersman Sydney Posuello, at the time head of the Department of Isolated Indians, was to gain some sense of the numbers, range, and relative health of an uncontacted tribe known as flecheiros, or People of the Arrow. The trick was to do this without actually making contact with this extremely isolated group because contact inevitably resulted in the transmission of disease for which isolated Indigenous people’s had no immunity or cure. This meant the 30-person crew had to forge their own trail through untamed jungle, camp overnight and hunt for food without drawing the attention of the Arrow People, whose reputation was to greet visitors/intruders with a shower of poison darts. The expedition didn’t always go as planned.

With every page I was back in the rainforest myself, sometimes in a large canoe gliding along a flooded area between tall trees and hanging vines, watching monkeys watching us; sometimes struggling to manage my way along a narrow trail as birds and snakes scattered around us. Admittedly, most of the time on land we were following a modest trail and not blazing one ourselves, but we faced similar challenges, especially the voracious appetite of unknown insects. Every time Scott describes being bitten, I feel again the sting of the tiny wasps that attacked us along one trail, or the fire ants that didn’t appreciate our presence along another rough path. We were told the caimans were not as aggressive as their crocodile cousins, but like Scott we stayed clear of them just the same.

Although our chance encounter with the author was in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, later in the year we travelled by boat on a stretch of the same Amazon tributary (Solimoes) he travelled in the book. Of course he ventured hundreds of kilometres further upstream from Manaus than our small tourist excursion would ever dare – but along with wildlife sightings and insect bites, we also experienced the stormy weather he frequently describes in Unconquered. One night our boat pulled into a side channel and then abruptly ran hard into the jungle – we thought the captain had left the helm or lost his marbles until we saw the crew throw ropes around the trees to hold us fast to shore – a storm was coming.

From our protected spot nestled in the trees we watched lightning crack across the sky and the rain come thundering down. It was only in the morning that we learned that the captain of a larger boat loaded with tourists had decided to brave the storm. The Amazon, however, can clearly be very unforgiving – the boat was completely blown over and capsized; initially several passengers remained missing and presumed drowned. Eventually all 28 passengers and crew were accounted for, but the boat and everyone’s luggage went straight to the bottom of the Amazon.

We were in the area for only a few days, but we also witnessed a rapid drop in water levels, just the way Wallace describes – fortunately our paddlers could still find a way around shallow areas and tangled treefalls where just a few days before roaring streams had carried us through a flooded forest. Thankfully, unlike Wallace and the rest of the expedition, we didn’t have to carry our luggage overland through the mud and bugs to catch our flight back to the city. Maybe it was a good thing I read this book after my own forays into the Amazon!

The Unconquered provides an exciting view from deep inside the rapidly disappearing Amazon rainforest. Despite the effort to designate and protect areas of the jungle for Indigenous use only, enforcement is minimal and as ineffective as the bug spray in our backpacks. Non-Indigenous loggers, miners, and hunters are taking everything they can get and leaving nothing behind but destruction and death.

This book is a great read, but for the sake of the People of the Arrow and other Indigenous groups under threat throughout the Americas, I encourage everyone to engage with groups like Amazon Watch, Amnesty International, and others working to protect human rights and the environment before it’s too late.

swimming with pink dolphins

As planned, we made our way to Manaus, 1500km up the Amazon River from the coast, to do a 6 night, 7 day boat trip on the Amazon. Manaus has a population of around 2 million people, the largest city on the Amazon. When we arrived in Manaus it was quite warm… 40 degrees. After checking in to a B&B we asked our host about a place to have dinner. He told us not too much was open in the neighbourhood, as it was Sunday, but gave us directions to a brand new shopping mall about six blocks away. Now, I am not really one for food fairs, but we wandered over and found a very nice, but expensive restaurant/pub tucked in behind the food fair. On the menu there was quite a few imported beers… one was $78 for a 355m bottle. Needless to say, we didn’t buy that one. The food was good though.

The next day we started our boat cruise on the Amazon. We arrived at the Tropical Hotel for our 2pm departure and met our trusty guide, Hugo. Along with five other men, we walked to our home on the river, the Amazon Clipper. Turns out, I was the only female passenger. At first I thought how weird it would be, but these guys were pretty nice… three from the States and a dad and his son from Mexico.

It was a pretty amazing trip. We hiked into an eco-reserve to see giant water lilies, we enjoyed numerous early morning canoe rides (getting a wake-up call by Hugo at 5:30am) as well as afternoon and evening canoe excursions. We saw dozens of species of birds (the photos below just scratch the surface) and lots of creepy creatures on the jungle walks. The evening canoe rides brought us face to face with caimans, boas, and many nocturnal birds.

Our second day in, we put on long pants, tucked our pants into our socks (just in case ants decided to climb on us) and jumped off the canoe onto a very muddy bank to do our first jungle walk. We were happily walking looking at trees and stuff… Don was third in line and I was behind him. Suddenly, we were being stung and slapping at something we couldn’t see and damn, did it hurt. I took off running and the little beings that turned out to be some tiny, gold wasp, stopped stinging me. I was told I should have stayed still, but who can do that when you can’t see what is getting at you. Unfortunately, someone stepped on another wasp nest and I was stung again, as well as the young man from Mexico. In all I had 20 stings and Don had about half a dozen or so. The bites are still resurrecting themselves and still bother us. Hopefully they will stop soon. I must say I lost patience with walking in the jungle that day.

After our walk, we could go swimming in the river. Don and Ernesto, the Mexican dad, were the only ones to take advantage of this opportunity. Hugo, our guide, told Don to get away from the bank of the river as that is where the anacondas live… he quickly did that… no anacondas were spotted that day.

Day 3 we went to the “meeting of the waters” which is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas (aka Rio Solimoes) meet. The line between the two rivers is very distinct; Rio Negro is dark and slow moving while Rio Amazonas/Solimoes is cooler, faster and muddier. They finally mix about 15 km downstream. Apparently, lots of fish hang out at this spot (confused by the change in water speed and temperature), attracting lots of grey dolphins who feast on the disoriented fish.

That afternoon, we dropped off our Mexican friends as they were only doing the first portion of the trip. We were told we would be getting off the Amazon Clipper and would transfer to the Premiere to join with 11 others. The new folks were from Australia, England, South Africa (newlyweds… she was originally from Germany), Spain, Italy and a young man from Germany, along with us and the three Americans we were now a group of 16.

It was wonderful to chat with the women… no offense to the men, but I really enjoyed hanging out with kindred spirits.

The Premiere boat is much bigger and you can walk around your bedroom (couldn’t do that in the Clipper… just had room for yourself to go from the door, past the bunk bed and into the bathroom… shower was over the toilet… pretty tight space), the air conditioner worked really well and the bathroom was more conventional.

We did the same type of things as the first leg… canoe rides, jungle walking, swimming (which I did do this time… the water is amazingly warm). On both legs of the journey you could go piranha fishing. I didn’t do either one, but Don went on the second outing with observer status… he didn’t fish, but watched others do their best. According to our American friends, fishing during the first leg was more lucrative, everyone caught piranhas that day… the second time out only half the group got a bite.

My favourite part of this section of the trip, and maybe overall, was hanging out with the pink dolphins. We did see some from the deck of the Premiere boat, but it was fleeting glances, they don’t jump and arch the way other dolphins do. One of the afternoons we went down one of the many channels of the Rio Negro to Recanto do Boto, a dolphin preserve. We were told that the young man, who fed the dolphins, swam in the river as a young child. The pink dolphins started to swim with him and over the years, the spot became a sort of protectorate for the dolphins. They come to him when he slaps the water with fish and the dolphins allow people to touch them as they are being fed. They are totally free, no cages, no nets… just the river.

It was pretty cool to touch this huge being. Their skin is really smooth and they have peg like teeth. I was wary of the teeth, but nothing untoward happened. All the folks who were there had a marvelous time and the dolphins were happily fed.

On our last jungle walk, no wasps were sighted, but our guide, Fernando, found a tarantula and her babies in a hole in the ground. It had been covered by leaves and a web that the mom had spun to protect her babies from predators. I didn’t think much of this until someone gave me a flashlight to hold so others could take pictures. The tarantula was huge!! It didn’t move out of the hole, but the babies were getting a bit active… likely because of the light. After we all had a look, Fernando put back the leaves and the mom now had the job of making the web again.

We also learned on the walk how to protect ourselves from jaguars when you are lost in the jungle by yourself and you just have a camera and a machete. We learned how to make a spear to pierce the jaguar as it is lunging at you. I personally think one should set up your camera to take photos of the incident so when someone coming along the trail finds the camera, there will be a record of your demise. One quick lesson won’t stop a hungry, irritated jaguar.

We also learned how to quickly make a blow gun out of palm trees, make darts, in order to hunt if we are lost in the rainforest.

Last day was kind of sad… I really enjoyed our fellow travellers and many have promised to stay in touch. I hope we can do this.

We’re now on our third day of rain in Panama City. The first two days featured thunderstorms that lasted about two hour followed by partial clearing and the return of heat and humidity. Today however, it started raining three hours ago and shows no sign of letting up. Feels like Vancouver!

Happiness to you, our friends and family!
Keep smiling!

(The video posted below is low resolution because we have a poor internet connection here in Panama and couldn’t upload the HD version — will try to post the sharper version at a later date)

return to the amazon

After a month on the beach in Rio, it was finally time for us to pull up stakes and head north, to the 400-year old city of Belem near the mouth of the Amazon River. We really loved Rio and have many, many more stories to tell, it wasn’t all just fun on the beach! We visited the official Carmen Miranda museum (ironically, for such a flamboyant actor, it is located in a virtually unmarked and non-descript concrete bunker, plunked in the middle of a desolate strip of old parkland, hardly visible to the three lanes of highway traffic zooming by on two sides). Fascinating historic information, film clips, and costumes inside.

We also visited several museums and art galleries, including the famous Oscar Niemeyer-designed “spaceship” art gallery in Niteroi (awesome building, less than awesome art inside), and we discovered a pedestrian-only souk (market) just north of the downtown core. We climbed small hills to look out from old forts, and took the train up to the top of Corcovado and stood in the shadow of Cristo Redentor. The concrete figure is perhaps the most well-known landmark in all of South America; it certainly enjoys the best view of the city one can imagine.

We also took in the national museum, the museum of modern art, a cultural centre downtown with a Salvador Dali exhibition (works based on the Divine Comedies) and an exhibition of illustrations and designs by Argentine cartoonist Linears, and another arts centre with several floors of photo-based exhibitions, and more – Rio is a big city with lots to do. We also did a one-day trip to Angra dos Reis for a boat cruise through coastal islands. It was not much of a cruise, too crowded, a lame itinerary, and a long bus ride there and back. Not recommended.

Of course we sampled more than a few bars and botequims – very small bars where most of the clientele is seated in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, or standing – glued to televised futbol matches, or talking loudly (we noticed the men and women here have BIG voices). We mostly avoided gringo bars – they often charge as much as the equivalent of $15 US just to enter – more than our entire beer budget for the night.

Having said that, one late afternoon we had been walking along the beach and stopped in at a gringo bar that not only did not charge admission, but was offering free happy hour snacks. We sat at a table away from the entrance, next to a table of young women, one of whom introduced the group as students. Later when I went to visit the restroom, they asked Deborah if we were interested in taking one of them home! Deborah gently turned down the offer, and they apologized for saying anything. When I returned and Deborah told me what happened, we then realized there were a lot of women in the bar, and we watched as men came in and the women would take turns offering their services – like you would see in the saloon in old westerns.

One last remembrance of Rio for now: we were lying on the beach, soaking up the 29 degree Celsius sunshine, when Deborah noticed something in the water about 100 feet out or so. We watched for a few minutes; others were also starting to take notice. Was it a shark? A sea turtle? It came closer, and then we could tell for sure – a penguin! We had travelled all the way to the very southern tip of South America to see penguins, and here one was splashing about at Copacabana Beach!

We scooted up the Brazilian coast to Belem on Friday, and on Saturday did a 6-hour boat cruise to get ourselves near the mouth of the Amazon River. The water was surprisingly warm (well, surprising to us, anyway), fast moving, and very green – no underwater visibility at all. After a dip in the river it was time for lunch – and just as we got into line the wind picked up, the clouds moved in, and within minutes there was a tropical thundershower that dumped more water on us in 15 or 20 minutes than a whole day of rain in Vancouver. It was quite amazing, the clouds moved on, there was a bit of sunshine, then the process repeated itself an hour later with another deluge. During the following break, we made a run for the boat (docked 20 minutes away) because sure enough, we were in for one more cycle of thunder and rain before getting back to the city.

Belem is a large city with a population approaching two million – and quite a skyline as you’ll see below. Oil tankers wait in a long row along the river opposite the city, it happened that a large group of fellow passengers were in the marine shipping business – we’ve never seen so many people get so excited every time we passed a tanker or other freighter. Oh by the way, the most common question we got from the Brazilians on board (there were no other non-Brazilians on the cruise, even though there were at least 100 passengers), was “what are you doing here?” – apparently not many foreign tourists bother visiting this isolated outpost. We were an oddity, and some fellow passengers even asked to have their pictures taken with us!

At the end of the day, we headed for a brewpub we discovered the night before, the Amazon Beer bar and restaurant. A brewpub overlooking the Amazon River – how amazing is that! The timing was also good; as the first round arrived, one more cloudburst soaked everything it sight so it was just as well we were under a very protective patio roof.

Last night we moved again, this time to Manaus, another isolated city of 2-million but 1500 km upriver. We’re here to do a six-day boat ride that takes in the junction of Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro, at the very heart of the Amazon as they say, complete with canoe excursions and rainforest walks, so we’ll be out of internet range for about a week.

A happy long weekend to our fellow Canadians!

magical time in the amazon basin

Deborah and Don have just returned from four days deep in the Amazon rainforest. They stayed at a lodge owned and operated by the Kichwa Community of Anangu, located within Yasuni National Park. They’ve agreed to a share some trip highlights with our readers.

DON: When we were deciding which lodge to visit, we avoided those in the province nearest the border with Colombia – the Canadian government recommends against travelling in the rainforest anywhere near Colombia – and focused on what was available along the Napo River. When we read that the Napo Wildlife Center was owned and operated by the local Indigenous community, and met a variety of eco-tourism standards (and was well-reviewed by TripAdvisor contributors), we were sold. We later also learned that as soon as they decided to embrace eco-tourism as a community development tool, they banned hunting in the area in order to allow wildlife to flourish and be less afraid of people. Motorized boats are not allowed within the tourism zone around the lodge, so people and materials are hand-paddled in and out (one hour with the current heading out, two hours against the current heading in!). Each tour group includes a freelance naturalist and a guide from the community, and all lodge staff are hired from the community. The lodge itself features 16 cabins, some duplexes, built on stilts with thatched roofs, an open-air dining room, and a small observation tower. The cabins are spacious, and the beds come with mosquito netting, although as one would expect, creepy-crawlers do make their way into the cabins. All in all a wonderful place to spend three nights!

DEBORAH: We usually travel alone and visit most places by ourselves, so this was a real treat to hang out with the same people as a group for the whole visit to the Napo. We were introduced to Danny, our guide, as we got off the plane in Coca. In our paddling canoe we met Meliton, our community guide. As tourists, we finally introduced ourselves to each other over dinner the first evening. In our group were Emma and Waheed from Australia, and Cynthia and Bruce with two of their sons, Aaron and Jason, from Southern California. It was a very good group to be with. Everyone was very engaged and loved being in the rainforest. Thanks to all for helping to make it a magical experience!

DON: After ten days touring the Galapagos Islands, canoeing and hiking through the Amazon rainforest was a completely different experience. While vegetation on the Galapagos is mostly twisted, sparsely distributed, wind-sweep scrub-bush, the rainforest is extremely lush, dense, and diverse. We were told that hundreds of species of trees can be found in every square kilometre, and 10s of thousands of species of insects lie in wait to buzz and feast on visitors – and we have the bites to proof it, DEET repellent notwithstanding. On the Galapagos Islands, one has to step over or around the birds and animals that are lounging everywhere – they pay tourists little attention, going about their daily business of eating, sleeping, and doing mating dances. In the rainforest, hikers have to search long and hard through thick vegetation to find the monkeys running along branches just below the canopy, or the birds perched on the top branches.

The birds and monkeys in the rainforest move amazingly fast – so not only is it hard to spot them, it is even harder to aim and focus a zoom lens in the right direction as they zip by. The wildlife in the Amazon is exceptionally diverse, but few and far between. We were really fortunate to see a great range of monkeys and birds, only some of which are pictured below.

DEBORAH: One of the most off the wall, humorous moments of the trip occurred when a young guest ran up to the lodge dining room, where we were talking and having coffee, to tell us he had spotted Giant River Otters. I looked through my binoculars and sure enough, they were in the lake just in front of the lodge. The group of us ran down to the dock. On the way, Danny joined us and confirmed the sighting of the otters. We asked Danny if we could take one of the 20-foot canoes and we jumped in (no cushions but with 4 paddles). Danny was at the back, with Aaron at the front and five of us in between. We did our best to get to the otters. Unfortunately, no one except Danny had experience in this type of canoe.

It was quite a site for the observers on the shore. We spun around in circles, went right when we wanted to go left and then left when we wanted to go right. We learned that our best paddling was in reverse. Can you imagine this group trying to get across a lake paddling backwards! It was quite delightful!

Anyway, we did not get to the otters, but spotted a caiman, a relative of the alligator. We then put our efforts into getting close… not a chance… we were really pathetic. At one point, the order of canoeists changed… it was really scary… out of seven people… three decided to stand up at the same time… I was sure we were going to tip and end up in the lake. Fortunately, they devised a plan for safe movement. It really didn’t help our canoeing though.

We heard really cool, loud noises coming out of the brush just in front of us… it sounded like the otters were having an argument… perhaps children disagreeing (there had been three of them). Danny encouraged us to go down a stream off the lake to see if we could find the otters. We then waited awhile and the otters did not come any closer, so we decided to head back… it was so much easier, we could paddle backwards really well and got back to the lake in no time.

I don’t know whether it was because we weren’t chasing anything or if we just got better, we glided very smoothly back to the dock as if we really knew what we were doing.

It was such a lark, such a spontaneous thing to do, and for me one of my most entertaining highlights of this trip.

DON: An amazing aspect of the Amazon rainforest is simply how big it is. We paddled and then hiked to the lodge’s well-placed observation tower – attached to a massive Kapok tree like a fire escape at the back of an old building. More than 200 steps up you reach a platform braced between the tree’s massive branches, the perfect place from which to enjoy a commanding view that reaches to the horizon in every direction. And this is only a small part of Ecuador’s tiny share (2%) of the Amazon rainforest. Our tour guide (Danny), and community guide (Meliton) worked together to find and point out birds hiding in the trees or perched on the top branches. Meliton was particularly good at spotting solitary birds perched hundreds of feet away. Two types of brightly-coloured macaws treated us to a fly-by, while toucans and others made us work harder to see them, sometimes only with the aid of a powerful birder’s telescope Danny brought with him. We saw about 20 different species of birds as well as a three-toed sloth, the only creature that day that stayed still for more than a few minutes!

DEBORAH: We had to get up at 5am the first morning we were at the Napo. Breakfast was at 5:30 and we were on the canoe at 6am down the Anangu Creek, which was our major waterway in and out of Anangu Lake and our lodge. It was a two-hour paddle to what they call “The Warehouse” where workers and goods are transferred from motorized boats to canoes for taking to the lodge. We hopped from the canoe to a long boat with motor and headed to the Napo River to see the clay lick on the shore that attracts large Mealy Amazon and Yellow-crowned parrots, and the smaller Blue-headed and Dusky-headed parakeets to feast on the minerals and salts in the clay at this specific bit of river-bank. Eating this clay apparently offsets the toxic build up from the flowers, fruits, seeds and nuts they eat on a daily basis. Early in the morning on sunny days are the best times to view this really cool activity.

We tried an hour later or so to view the clay lick that is inland about 800 metres. It was a well-kept trail and as we got closer to the viewing area the sound of the parrots was quite deafening. Unfortunately, the birds were very high in the trees as they had been scared by raptors circling the area. We waited in the viewing hut for about an hour hoping the birds would come down to the forest floor, but when we counted at least eight hawks flying about we knew there was no chance that day that the parrots would come down – they only have to visit the clay lick once a week to stay healthy. We left disappointed that nature doesn’t always fit into tour schedules!

That night, with the support of our guide, our 8-person group took a vote and decided we would pass on paddling down a second nearby creek and instead return to the forest clay lick the following afternoon. We were so glad we did! When we arrived at the clay lick we could hear the birds about 40 feet up the trees (the day before they were very much higher). We quietly sat on small stools to watch… with our binoculars and cameras ready. We were encouraged when a group of the birds came down to around 30 feet… then 20 feet… then one of the birds (after about 10 or so minutes) flew down to the bottom of the wall where the clay lick was, then another bird and then hundreds of birds flew down and frolicked in the clay and mud. They were so enjoying themselves, chirping, flapping their wings and rolling in the clay. The noise was really loud… we figured anywhere from 600 to 800 birds participated that day… then the forest got really quiet, and all of a sudden the birds burst forth from the clay pond, many flying straight for and through the viewing hut. Don almost had one fly right into him… it was so cool!!! Danny said they had been frightened by a false alarm that a predator was nearby, evidenced by the fact they returned to the clay lick almost immediately and enjoyed themselves again… fewer birds though. They did the loud chirping, playing and licking clay, then quiet and off they flew again. They came back… again fewer birds. They did this for about four more times and then we had to leave as a large tour group was coming in. It was an amazing thing to watch and apparently it is rare for the birds to return after an alarm has been raised. We were really treated to a special event and all were extremely happy we had decided to go back.

DEBORAH: Our last night at the Napo Lodge included an after-dark canoe ride around Anangu Lake looking for caimans. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We had heard lots of splashing sounds from our cabin (we were right at the lake’s edge) every night as we were going to sleep so I wasn’t sure whether we would see huge angry beasts or what.

When we got into the canoe, Danny had a very strong search light (reminded us of what the FBI might have) that he shone around the edges of the lake in the reeds and grasses. It was amazing to see red eyes show up all around the lake as we moved across the lake. Apparently, caimans are not anything like their cousins the alligator. Alligators would make sure they took some sort of initiative against us, but the caimans were quite kind and did not attack. We got really close to all sizes of caimans. We could see young caimans about two feet long, with their whole bodies visible in the murky water. As we paddled around the lake, some of the caimans dove under the water just before we reached them. We didn’t wait for them to emerge as they can stay under for hours at a time.

The longest caiman we spotted was just before we headed back to the lodge. It was between 12 to 14 feet long. It just floated in the water, with its eyes very red, and let us enjoy its company. They were neither afraid nor aggressive. Another very special experience… I have never been that close to such a great creature.

DON: Visitors reach the Napo lodge by boat from Coca, a small city dominated by the movement of oil workers on their way in and out of the Amazon. About 30 minutes along the Napo River from Coca, on our way to the lodge, we stopped briefly to discuss an oil flare visible from the river (pictured below). Our guide lamented that the practice of burning off excess natural gas was not only a waste of a good source of energy, but represented 24/7 destruction of the environment, something that is not allowed in most western countries. I appreciated that he wanted to point this out to a boatload of tourists, giving us something to think about as we headed into one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and the purest air on earth. It also brought to my mind the landmark civil suit brought against Chevron resulting from its purchase of Texaco, the oil company that first exploited and terribly spoiled a huge area of the rainforest just north of here (Amazon Watch has the full story).

DEBORAH: This has been our first foray into the amazing Amazon. We will be travelling to Brazil next month and the plan is to spend a couple of days at the mouth of the Amazon and then do a river cruise into the heart of the Amazon. We look forward to more magical times!