|George Olah - PERU (Part 1)|
Studying parrots in South America? Sounds exciting, but reality is sometimes much more extreme than your expectations. The first hand travelogue of zoologist George Olah with photos and videos straight from Peru.
I will spend my next 9 months here in South-America. The aim of my journey is to visit 3 South-American countries: Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where hopefully I will participate in several field researches for shorter or longer periods.
06th June, 2008 – Lima, Peru
I realized again how faraway South-America is from Hungary: 1.5 hrs Budapest-Frankfurt + 11 hrs Frankfurt-Caracas + 4 hrs Caracas-Lima + the waiting at the airports. Because of the 7 hrs time difference, my whole travel fit in one single day, which became a really long one. It would be an exaggeration to say that everything went well, since we almost crash-landed on the Atlantic Ocean... The announcement of the captain interrupted one of the movies a bit nervously. According to this, somebody was smoking in the toilette (which is strictly prohibited on an airplane), and a small fire arose. Luckily, it was controlled inside the toilette but according to the captain, the smoker put the life of the whole crew and the passenger in danger with this act. We were flying over the middle of the ocean, and there were no airport in 4-5 hrs vicinity, if we had needed one in case of an emergency landing. Apart from this, I arrived without problems and surprisingly with my luggage, because the airline couldn’t manage to lose it this time.
Since I arrived on Monday I spent 3 days in Lima, the capital of Peru, visiting museums and acclimatizing. It is wintertime here on the southern hemisphere (in Lima around 19 °C or 66 °F), the days are very short, at 6 P.M. it’s already dark, and in addition I haven’t seen the sun yet due to the thick clouds. From the Pacific Ocean a smog-like cloud covers the city and on the mornings the rain is sifting. I know it’s not a good slogan for tourists.
Lima is quite a dirty mega-polis, worst than Mexico City. Its transportation is horrible, because there are no subways here, or suburban trains which could make the transportation easier. If we look at the streets we can barely see private cars but there are so many taxis, combis and collectivos. These solve the public transportation here and surprisingly quite effectively. The combis are small microbuses, crossing the city hectically on quite a high speed. They don’t have numbers (that would be too logical), the only subscripts they have are the roads’ names where they run more or less, which obviously doesn’t mean anything for me. On the first day I went for sightseeing by foot but I soon realized how big the distances are here. So on the second day I was brave enough to take one of this microbus-like something, which can be stopped in any place in any time (there are no bus stops), moreover there is no need to stop it, because they “collect” the people. But you have to be very quick, because in general they don’t stop they just slow down and the controller “help you up” (understand: push you in) in the back of the tidy microbus, so the passengers end up sometimes in each other’s laps. First time I found it a bit weird, but I’ve already used to this kind of transportation, which is very cheap by the way, for 1 Peruvian Nuevo sole (around 0.33 USD) they almost bring you through the city. If you already know the main roads, it’s easy to take advantage of this system, hopping on and off from one combi to another, there are so many of them. They run a bit of a life-treating way (like everybody here); the transportation morals are not very high over here. Almost every night I saw a crashed combi in the news but the passengers usually survive the accidents. Okay, it doesn’t count that frequent since this is a mega-polis with 8 million inhabitants.
Yesterday I visited (with combis again) the ruins of Pachacamac, which is situated at the Lurin Valley, 40 km from Lima to the SE.
This pre-Inca historic site was already occupied from the Early Intermediate period (from 200 A.D.) by the local ethnical groups, worshipping Pachacamac, the god of the prophecies. This was a well known pilgrim place respected even by the Incas, conserving the original cult of this place. Its buildings and pyramids were made of adobe (clay brick), which are quite in an eroded shape today. Many parts of the ruins were reconstructed and excavations are still in progress today.
Leaving the city of Lima suddenly a strange mix of desert and ocean unfolds before our view. At the ruins I saw many American Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and I met a Peruvian dog type, the Peruano, which is quite bizarre.
Tomorrow morning I will travel on a domestic flight to Puerto Maldonado, which is the drainage basin of the River Amazon and belongs to the ‘selva’ (rainforest) region with its tropical climate.
10th June, 2008 – Puerto Maldonado, Peru
It was not too heart breaking to leave the busy city of Lima, but it was odd to go to the airport again like I would already travel home... An Argentinean taxi driver took me to the airport, even gave me his mobile number to call him when I return to Lima to pick me up. It’s always good to know a taxi driver in Lima :)
This time the flight only took 3 hrs but we had a stopover in Cusco. Puerto Maldonado (the capital of Madre de Dios region) welcomed me with its humid, tropical climate. It is located at the foot of Eastern Andes in the drainage basin of River Amazon. When everybody has picked up their baggage, I suspected they lost mine again… :( The baggage claim record has been progressing when they “found” it next to some animal shipment…
Puerto Maldonado is literally a dusty town, because it’s full of dust thanks to the motorcycles. Yes, there are only motorcycles here! This is the public transport like the combis in Lima, only they can transport just one person, for 1 Sol to anywhere. I arrived with Percy, a botanist from Cusco, and after the lunch we went to the town visiting some of his friends.
So we took a mototaxi, as they call here. But my mototaxi only took me until the center. I thought this is our destination when I saw Percy passing next to us. I couldn’t believe this since I didn’t even know where we were heading exactly. Fortunately there are many mototaxis, so I immediately took another one (all these happened in seconds) telling the driver: “Follow that other motorcycle!” He looked at me a bit strangely but he stepped on the gas and I almost fell down. I had to hold on strongly, because in addition most of the roads aren’t paved. Unfortunately at one of the bends we lost them but after a short searching I arrived at the correct location too…
We spent the rest of the day in the town, then we returned to the Rainforest Expeditions headquarter. The research I will take part in is in collaboration with this eco-tourist company (www.perunature.com). The company has 3 lodges along the River Tambopata, one of them is the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) – where we were heading –, the furthest one on the river, far from everything in the deep jungle. In that lodge the researchers share place with the tourists and the Rainforest Expeditions is responsible for the management (food, electricity, drink-water, transportation, etc).
We left next day at dawn and after an 8 hrs motorized boat trip upstream on the Rio Tambopata we arrived at TRC. On our way we had to stop at 2 control points where all our permits were checked and they also registered the tourists one by one.
About the lodge and the research I will write later because we don’t have much electricity, it’s already a miracle that we have internet here… :)
15th June, 2008 – Tambopata Research Center
The Tambopata Research Center (aka TRC), where I arrived at a week ago, is situated in a beautiful place deep inside the Peruvian rainforest. It’s hard to imagine a more isolated place than this. In spite of this isolation, we are living in surprisingly luxurious circumstances, because as I mentioned in my previous letter it’s also a lodge of the Rainforest Expeditions visited by rich tourists. So it’s really not a ravaged place. Sometimes even the field zoologists deserve some comfort :)
Every house here is made of wood, standing on piles, connected by small corridors (bridges). We, researchers, have an own house with private sleeping-rooms (!) and separated areas for the laptops, books, and other equipments. It’s noticeable that this is a long-term running project (initiated 10 years ago), because everything runs very organized.
The kitchen and the dining room are situated in another building. We also get meals 3 times a day just like the tourists, but we can eat only after the food for the tourists was served. We eat very good local food with the staff, prepared by the cooks. Blady, the chef is a very nice and always happy person.
The shared bathrooms (4 for gentlemen, 4 for ladies) are in a separate block. Like every room here, they are opened towards the jungle and (like the other rooms) they don’t have doors just a curtain and an “occupied” sign… :) Of course there is only cold water but I think nobody minds it. The tourists rooms are a bit better than the ours, but there are no many rooms since just a few tourists come all the way here and they rather visit the bigger lodges nearer to the town.
Sometimes we eat dinner with the tourists in the dining room and after dinner we give them a presentation about the research in English using laptop and projector. Like all tasks, it’s also scheduled for the volunteers of the project.
There are many types of research here at the same time, but the main one is the breeding biology of big macaws (in the breeding period) and their foraging ecology witch also deals with their clay eating behavior. Here, 5 minutes from the lodge on boat, you can find the biggest known clay-lick (or “collpa”) on the world, according to the number of bird species and the individuals visiting it daily.
Video: P6160088 Yellow-crowned Amazons (Amazona ochrocephala) and Blue-headed Parrots (Pionus menstruus) on the clay-lick. An albino individual of Blue-headed Parrots is also visible.
Our main activity during these months is the daily observation of this clay-lick which means that we have to be ready sitting in the boat at around 5 A.M., which transports us to the observation point on a small island. At this time it’s still dark and even the forest is just about to wake up usually with the howl of the howler monkeys… :)
Video: P6120925 Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus) eating on a Cecropia tree, Southeastern Peru, Tambopata River
At the clay-lick the macaws, parrots and parakeets are arriving at the morning: the 3 big macaws (Ara ararauna, A. macao, A. chloroptera – even the boats and laptops have these latin names :)), and like 10 more species which I wouldn’t like to put here, but there are also guans, caimans, peccaries, agoutis, spider monkeys and so on here. The diversity of the animal and plant species is huge. Although we are in the dry season now, sometimes it’s raining all day in the rainforest…
Not only birds, but also mammals are visiting the clay-lick, right now we have some researchers here studying them. In addition other projects are also using the research center and we help them sometimes too, but I will write more about this later.
If somebody is interested in details, here on the project homepage can find more information about the project and can download most of the publications:
Because these days it rained a lot and because the internet only works with solar panel we weren’t able to connect with the satellite which provides us the internet connection. In addition the second generator also stopped working, so in the whole lodge we are using candles and kerosene lamps to light. I’ve been told that it’s quite usual here, I don’t mind. Right now I’m trying to send this mail at the light of a kerosene lamp (using the rest of our batteries) hopefully with success…
20th June, 2008 – Familiarizing with TRC
We are not bored too much nowadays here in the research center. In the last few weeks I was only familiarizing with the nature around us and probably I will continue doing this for a while. We even have an own “library” with full of nature guides and books about the local flora and fauna. For the project it’s important that I learn ASAP to identify the macaws, parrots and parakeets even just listening their calls, because most of the times in the forest we cannot see but only hear them.
Our main activity is still the observation of the collpa, 20 days of a month (10 times all day long from 5 A.M. to 5 P.M. and 10 times only at the early morning). During that time we have to record continuously (every 5 minutes) how many individuals of what species are on the collpa.
Besides, every day we conduct census in the forest, going to special locations and recording the macaws, parrots or parakeets pearching or passing by. We are doing this to compare the observed number of species and individuals at the collpa and in the forest. The results so far suggest a strong correlation, so when we observe just a few individuals of whichever species at the collpa, we cannot see or hear that many parrots of the same species in the forest either. So it’s possible that they are migrating during that time when they are not present here, traveling maybe several hundreds of kilometers. The aim of the recent studies is to respond the questions: which species goes where, when and why? Many individuals have already received radio telemetry collars seeking their migration ways.
Video: P6180250 Army ants in the Peruvian rainforest, Southeastern Peru
It’s not easy to navigate in this rainforest, so the other important thing is familiarizing us with the trails (there are many of them) which lead kilometers deep into the forest. Scientifically this forest is called seasonally flooded tropical primer rainforests, so in the rainy season they get flooded by the flooding river, that’s why our buildings are standing on piles. Although we are in the dry season now, some places are so muddy that we can only pass in rubber boots. This is quite a useful thing because over many streams there are no bridges, so we are just walking through it.
Video: P6180318 View from the tower near TRC in the palm-swamp. The preferred breeding habitat for the Blue and Yellow Macaws (Ara ararauna).
We spend a considerable amount of our spare time studying the guide books which always seems a never ending story. There are a lot of tree species in the forest, e.g. we have a big identification book just about the palms.
All right, this is not everything what we do in our spare time. In this week for example Henry, our motorista (this is how they call the drivers of the motorized boats) trained me to drive and navigate his boat in a shallow part of the river… :)
Since we are not just a research center, tourists are also brought here but there aren’t many problems with them. Usually they only stay for a few nights and sometimes the bats between the bamboo walls of the bathrooms scare them…. :)
By the way, a new generator was installed this week and the sun came out too (charging the solar panels for the internet), so now we can communicate with the outside world more often via internet.