Friday, November 27, 2009

Bearded Vultures in the Eastern Cape high demand for all the wrong reasons

The Bearded Vulture Gypaetus Barbatus is without doubt one of the flagship-species of the Maloti-Drakensberg mountain range in South Africa and Lesotho and is currently listed as ‘Endangered’ in the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is therefore no surprise that this species is the focus of one of the primary initiatives of the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and its partners in the form of the Bearded Vulture Task Force. The Task Force was established as a result of the Population Habitat Viability Analysis process that took place in April 2006 and has been working hard at addressing all the issues that affect the southern African population of this species.

Adult Bearded Vulture soaring over the Maloti-Drakensberg

Part of the activities of the Task Force is for all role-players to get together twice a year to coordinate and plan their work across the range of the species and participants from KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, the Free State and the Eastern Cape attend these meetings which are chaired by the species coordinator, Sonja Krüger. The latest was held in the small Eastern Cape Town of Matatiele and it was great to be able to set in place monitors in some of the areas where monitoring of sites were rather poorly covered among other issues covered during our deliberations.
One of the people attending the discussions is a local community-based guide from this area of the Eastern Cape, Thulesile Nganga*, who has been working among the rural communities in this part of the Bearded Vulture’s range for several years and has gathered a lot of information on the use of local wildlife in the muthi trade of the area. We were rather surprised when he pulled a package from his back-pack which contained the head and a foot of a young Cape Vulture which he purchased from a local dealer!

Thule with a Cape Vulture head and foot bought from a healer in town

Thule also provided us with valuable insights into the demand and uses of Bearded Vultures in particular among the isiXhosa-speaking communities in this part of the Eastern Cape. Although some of the aspects mentioned hereafter need further investigation, it is quite frightening to think of the impact that these use have on the Bearded Vulture in addition to the other factors that contribute to the current conservation status of this species.
At this stage there are 6-7 traditional healers practicing their trade in this area and each of them use at least one vulture in a year. Bearded Vultures are by far the most sought-after species of vulture to be used in these parts and their relative rarity probably contributes to the greater demand and higher status. Traditional healers prefer that birds are captured alive as the head needs to be removed while it is still living so that “the brain does not flow down into the spinal chord” and the muthi loses its potency. Birds are often shot out of the air with a bow and arrow and the grounded bird is then killed. This contradicts the use of poison which is wide-spread elsewhere in South Africa and the rest of the continent. The use of poison is however a far easier, less time-consuming and cheaper way of getting hold of birds and could over time replace this belief and practice in the area.
The range of uses of vulture parts in this area is also considerably wider compared to our current knowledge of practices elsewhere. Although vultures are also used for clairvoyant purposes here, and betting on soccer and horse-races, were specifically mentioned, the following information was also obtained:
• Vulture bones are used during circumcision ceremonies. Due to the secretive nature of these rituals, the exact purpose and beliefs in this regard are poorly understood

• Vulture feathers are popular items of decoration with young boys
• The bill is used to protect young herd boys in the mountains
• Talons are burnt and used in a mixture of herbs to treat fever in children
• There is a higher demand for vulture parts during certain cultural events
Information about area-specific beliefs and uses of vulture parts are vitally important in assessing the scope and extent of the threat that this poses for an endangered species such as the Bearded Vulture. The recent establishment of a Zululand Raptor Working Group in partnership with the Wildlands Conservation Trust will in time also be of similar value to acquire more substantive information on vulture uses from this area. It is currently known that vulture populations in Zululand are under severe pressure from harvesting of birds for use in traditional medicine and information acquired through the community based fieldworkers will assist in expanding our knowledge and play an important role in determining our future strategies to address this threat.
*Name has been changed to protect the informant’s identity

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Birding and other Adventures on our South American trip - October/November 2009

24th of October 2009

After both of us had to get up at 03:00am to finish some last-minute work, Thea and I finally set off on our long-awaited 2½-week trip to South America. We were collected at home by a shuttle company representative and driven to the airport, not a bad option to consider if the cost of parking at OR Thambo International Airport is considered!

Check-in was a drawn-out and at times frustrating affair with long waits in queues until we could finally settle down for a quick breakfast before having to board. What we didn’t realize, was that this frustration with the check-in would be even greater later. Thea also quickly bought herself a new book for the trip and we then boarded our flight which took off not long after the scheduled time.

A 10½ hour flight in a confined space is not one of my favourite experiences, but it was OK because we were allocated seats next to each other and didn’t have any unwanted immediate neighbours. Both of us were really fatigued after almost a month of relentless working to try and reduce as much of a back-log as possible once we got back home and tried to get at least some sleep on the crossing of the Atlantic. However, I was as usual just about unable to get any sleep during the flight and I really envy people that are able to fall asleep under such conditions at the drop of a hat.

Fortunately, the weather during the entire flight was great and turbulence minimal and we finally touched down 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled 17:00pm local time at Guarulhos Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Customs also seemed like a walk in the park and we were then directed to the baggage carousel where we waited over 45 minutes for all the bags, etc. to be off-loaded. Of course, our bags just never showed!

Realising that there was a problem I had a walk and a look around and managed to spot both our bags on a trolley parked on the apron through a window behind the carousel. There was a door right next to it and, realizing that our bags were clearly not going to be off-loaded, I jumped over the carousel, opened the door and shouted to the guy in attendance that he still had our bags. Language is clearly an issue and his English was properly better than my non-existent Portuguese, but not by much. It was evident that this avenue of communication was not going to help and I turned around and started looking for assistance from one of the counters further back from the baggage area. A young man that was substantially more fluent in English finally managed to make radio contact with the guy outside by our bags and prevented him from driving off. He was joined by another, considerably more serious looking fellow that asked if he could see my passport. This I handed over and he promptly turned on his heels and walked off with it! Now, being torn between the safety of our bags and getting my passport back, I didn’t quite know what to do. The bags won when I saw the gentleman walking into an office an getting behind a desk-top computer, at least I would be able to pinpoint him later, or so I thought.

The young guy finally managed to convince the baggage handler to send through our two bags and it was a huge relief to take ownership of these again. Turning around however, we were confronted by three serious-looking fellows with gold badges clasped to their belts, telling me that they were federal police and that I had contravened airport regulations by jumping over the carousel and opening the door to the apron. This was quite a serious offence and could be punishable by being extradited back to South Africa. After about 5 minutes of explaining and further intervention by our Good Samaritan airport official, my passport was returned and we were allowed to go. Not a great start to our South American travels.

When we finally arrived in our room at the Ibis Gaurulhos Hotel not too far from the airport about an hour later, it became obvious why the baggage handlers didn’t plan to off-load our bags. The check-in genius at ORTIA had seen our rather extensive e-tickets and decided to book our luggage into transit all the way to Cusco in Peru where we were only scheduled to arrive 24 hours later! It clearly didn’t matter to her to ask if this was in order or whether we had any arrangements for the lay-over in Brasil. To put it very mildly and, considering that I nearly had a first-hand experience with the South American prison system, I was less than impressed!

The Ibis Hotel is in a very built-up area and we decided to relax in the lounge of the hotel for the rest of the evening, having a few beers and watching the people go by. As with my previous visit, it was very obvious that Brazil is a place with lots of very good looking people, especially the ladies who, when younger than 40 almost all looked as if they could be working in the fashion industry! We finally went to bed at 20:30pm local time, considering that it was already well past midnight at home and that we had a 21-hour day behind us, sleep came rather easily.

25th of October 2009

Needless to say, our bodies and minds were still attuned to South African time and daylight-hours and we were both wide awake by 02:00am! I decided to check out internet access and was happy to learn that I could still access e-mail via the hotel’s WLAN. Sadly, the internet connection was more problematic and I couldn’t access any of the usual sites or start blogging. We also received some SMS’s and a phone call from my mother which was quickly terminated when she realized that she would have to carry some of the cost!

We were ready and waiting in the lobby of the hotel just after 06:00am and the transit-bus finally collected and delivered us at the airport for our next flight to Lima, Peru. Once again, it was a bit of a tight affair with us having to be helped through due to the long queues waiting for other flights and we made it to our boarding gate with about 5 minutes to spare. I am amazed that, certain airport staff working at check-in counters, etc. are unable to speak any other language than Portoguese, especially considering the fact that it is an international airport! However, most of them are very helpful and friendly, certainly a far cry from the often more surly treatment one gets in South Africa, in particular with certain national carriers! Also of interest was the extent of security checks which sound very similar to that of the US and we even had to take our shoes off before walking through the security gates. With my usual short straw in hand, I was asked to do so 3 times until they realized my 2 copper armbands are what is tripping the alarm! Well, got through and we’re on our way… only two more airports today.

One aspect of the trip that has been slow to get going is the birding. Considering the amount of time available and our locations in the initial stages, I suppose it’s not surprising. However, the first sighting of a bird that I had was in the plane shortly after touch-down in Sao Paulo when a flock of five ibis-like birds flew low over the grassveld surrounding the tarmacs. Subsequently, I have been able to confidently add Rock Pigeon, Black Vulture and Rufous Hornero to the list. Three species that need to be confirmed are a common Thrush of which I also saw plenty on my previous trip to the continent, a Caracara-species, some Swifts and Lapwings that very much resembled our Blacksmiths. No problem in predicting that the birdlist stands to improve substantially in the next few weeks!

I am happy to say that we finally arrived in Cuzco after nearly missing the connecting flight from Lima. However, friendly ground staff at the airport were very helpful and we got to our seats with a few minutes to spare. Passage through the security gates at Lima was once again a bit of a gauntlet and I ended up stripped of everything remotely metallic, except for the lead in my pencil, before being let through! Our transfer from the airport arrived promptly and we were taken to our hotel, the Inka Andes while being informed of some of the sights and sounds. Arriving at the hotel, we were checked in and treated to a drink of tea extracted from Coca-leaves, the same stuff that cocaine is produced from and also from which an extract to make Coca-Cola is derived. The taste is quite good, once you get the knack of sipping through the leaves.

Cuzco is an amazing place which is difficult to describe in a few words. It feels as if the place is steeped in history and the many churches, monuments, etc. attests to this area’s past . Walking the cobble-stone streets and looking at the buildings, it is certainly worlds removed from what we are familiar with in South Africa, but in a good way. The place has a sense of character which few towns in South Africa can ever aspire to and the local people are very friendly. Most of them rely on the tourism sector for an income and sell wares at their stalls or act as tour guides. It was a very enjoyable afternoon spent walking the streets and browsing the stalls for a variety of stuff.

The main square in the city of Cuzco, high in the Andes at 3400m asl

At 18:30pm we met with our guide, Miguel, for a briefing about the Manu Adventure Tour which will start at 04:30am tomorrow morning and will last for the next 5 days to hopefully boost our bird-list considerably. We both are feeling the effects of long flights and the altitude by now and it will be good to get to some lower altitudes to get rid of the headaches, shortness of breath, etc. Cuzco after all lies at an altitude of 3400m above sea-level, higher than the highest point in southern Africa.

Monday, 26th of October 2009
After very little sleep due to the fact that we were still not fully adjusted to the time difference, we woke up very early and started preparing for our 5-day trip into the Manu National Park which forms part of the Amazon catchment and promised to deliver some good quality birding, the main purpose of coming here in the first place. We were collected at our hotel by our guide, Miguel and his support team at 04:30am and we drove to the first site that he wanted to visit to show us the local birds.

We arrived at Lagos Guadalcalpa about an hour after our departure and just as it became light ebough to see. Our first bird for the trip was an Andean Gull that flew over the water and called as it went past us. This was quickly followed by several new species as we walked along the edge of the lake. We later veered into some dry brush away from the lake where we were able to notch up several more species, including the rare and endemic Yellow-billed Tit-tyrant as well as the Giant Hummingbird, a spectacular species and Thea’s first ever sighting of a member of this family. This was quickly followed by sightings of other members of this family such as the Black-tailed Trainbearer and the endemic Bearded Mountaineer. We also had the opportunity to visit the remains of a very old settlement called Kaňaracay which was apparently established even before the Inca kingdom came about. Walking down the road from there, we had an excellent sighting of the Bearded Solitaire, another member of the large Hummingbird-family and an endemic to the area. Not a bad way to start off the first bit of decent birding we were able to do on the trip.

From there we proceeded towards our first over-night stop on the tour, San Pedro Lodge in the Manu National Park. The route traversed some very diverse and beautiful country and at times literally took our breaths away. We left the main road and started climbing up one of the many deep kloofs along a pass that took us from an altitude of about 3300m to the highest point at 4800m in a matter of about 2 hours. The sheer drops and never-ending winding road passed several small settlements along the way and it was amazing to see how intensively some areas are cultivated against almost impossibly steep slopes. The old joke about breeding animals with one set of legs shorter on one side to enable them to better cope with steep slopes would certainly apply here. Crops varied from corn (mealies), wheat, barley, potatoes and onions and each piece of land seems to be lovingly tended and a system of rotational planting also seems to be in evidence.

Of course, birding certainly played a significant part in our activities and me managed to add several more species to our list. Andean Flicker, Mountain Caracara and another endemic hummingbird, the Golden-tailed Saltator added to our growing list of species. Both of us felt the effect of the increasing altitude, but any discomfort was quickly blown away by our arrival at a high-altitude lake that have a few minutes before experienced a hail-storm which left most of the country-side covered in a white blanket of ice which we initially mistook for snow. Disembarking to have a look at some of the birds on the lake, the substantial drop in temperature was evident and we quickly grabbed for a jacket to keep warm. Species encountered here included Andean Goose, Andean Lapwing, Crested Duck, Puna Ibis and Silvery Grebe. This is really an amazing area with some very special birds and apparently not a site visited by many birders and definitely not the standard run-of-the-mill tourist.

Stormy weaher over the high Andes at about 4800m. The white stuff on the
ground is actually small hailstones!

Our travels continued from here and we almost immediately started to drop down towards the Manu National Park, but this was still many kilometres over bad roads and several hours away. Once we started the descent, we entered a much drier area which obviously received a lot less rainfall than where we came from and the next 2-3 hours were rather dusty and bumpy until we reached the last big town before getting to the entrance to Manu National Park. Two incidents along this section that stand out in my memory, is the wedding that we drove past taking place mid-afternoon on a Monday where a large group of folk dressed in traditional garb were having a great party, singing and dancing like there was no tomorrow. Imagine that happening on a Monday afternoon in South Africa?!

The other was of the large truck that caught us from behind, almost shoved us aside and passed us in a cloud of dust to hurtle along the pass at a frightening speed. How it managed to get down from the pass in one piece can only be ascribed to luck and mercy. Sadly we came to know these trucks much better in the coming days as they are a major factor on the narrow, winding tracks and are apparently also the major agents for the exporting of illegally harvested hardwood as well as a certain grade of coca-leaves which drug-dealers are keen to get their hands on, the trade of which is of course illegal. A birding highlight along this stretch was the sighting of Torrent Duck on at least two occasions in the riverbed along which we drove at some stage. This was a species that I wished to see ever since watching Attenborough’s “Life of Birds” for the first time more than 10 years ago as these birds are very adept at making a living gleaning their food from underneath boulders and fast-flowing rivers in the area.
We finally reached the entrance to the Manu National Park quite late in the afternoon, but not before undergoing a change of drivers which we were later to learn was because of the fact that the driver that was actually supposed to be accompanying us on the trip had a major hang-over after celebrating his birthday the day before and was incapable of driving us! This forced the manager of the fleet to initially drive us himself until he encountered one of the drivers returning with a group of clients to Cuzco and summarily ordered a change of staff, resulting in the new driver taking over while the boss returned to Cuzco with his clients. Having become used to our first driver, who was very good and considered our needs as a priority, it was a bit of an effort to get used to the new driver who seemed more intent on getting us to the Lodge rather than to make a scenic drive out of it. Fortunately, Miguel realized this and started to very carefully manage the speed and approach of the new fellow with great gusto.

The habitat changes dramatically once you approach Manu National Park and, from a very arid and dusty environment, it changes rather rapidly to lush, tall montane forest, generally referred to as “cloud-forest”. This is certainly an apt name for the area as we experienced almost constant overcast conditions with the mist often blocking the view substantially during our drive. We managed to make a few stops to bird before it got really dark and this was the occasion where I made my first acquaintance with the family of Tanagers, a large group of birds of which most members are very vividly coloured and will take your breath away when you see them. The first Tanager to cross our paths in this area was the aptly-named Scarlet-bellied Montane Tanager, a magnificent bird with a bright vermillion breast and belly. Other species encountered on this rather short afternoon were Azara’s Spinetail, Chestnut-bellied Mountain Tanager and our first encounter with the Great Thrush.

Chestnut-bellied Mountain Tanager Delopthraupis castaneoventris 

When the light became so bad that we couldn’t see the birds at all anymore, our driver was instructed to get us to camp as soon as was reasonable. We finally arrived there just before 20:00pm, tired but satisfied to have arrived after a long day on the road, Needless to say, the last leg was punctuated by meeting with several large trucks approaching from the front and our vehicle being forced to make way, sometimes having to reverse several hundred metres in the process.
Tuesday, 27th of October 2009

Another night of little sleep finally dawned into a new day on which we were scheduled to go and look for and observe the lekking behaviour of the Cock-of-the Rock , Peru’s national bird. We met with Miguel at 04:45 and walked from the San Pedro Lodge to the area where vehicles are parked to find that the driver was struggling the get our vehicle started. It finally did get going with a huff and a push, but set off around a corner and Manual suggested that we walk to a site where the birds should be displaying. We reached the area in question to find that it has been fenced off from the road and access was only possible through a padlocked door to which Miguel didn’t have the key. He asked us to stay at the site and set off to go and find a key. I must admit that it was rather frustrating to hear the birds displaying and calling on the other side of the fence and not being able to get there to photograph them. We even managed to get a few glimpses of the birds through a hole in the fence, but these were only fleeting views.

Fortunately, Miguel returned with the vehicle and driver and he suggested we go to an alternative site to see if we could get views of the birds there. We were driven a few kilometres up the road to another site that was fenced off from the road, but whose padlock refused to budge due to rust. Miguel promptly assisted us in getting around this obstacle by breaking away some of the very rotten wall and allowing us to climb through. Once inside, we were almost immediately entertained by the sight of over twenty male Cock-of-the-Rock spread out in a small area on perches as they were displaying and calling trying to outdo one another in the hope of attracting the attention of females that may be interested. The males are probably one of the most spectacular, yet odd, birds that I have ever seen. Apart from the white eyes, vivid scarlet head, chest and shoulders, black belly and tail, they also have 4 pairs of grey-white feathers on the back. By far the weirdest feature is the feathers on the forehead that form a bulbous protruberance that at the bottom extends to the tip of the bill, often making it seem as if the bird has no bill at all. These feathers are fluffed out and the birds jump, bow and flap their wings while calling in there attempts to catch the attention of the females of which we were lucky enough to see two during our visit to the site. The females then decide on which male she will mate with depending on which display she likes best. What the criteria are, I am not sure and, looking at their dull appearance in comparison to that of the males, one wonders what all the fuss is about.

While all this was going on, I was frantically trying to photograph some of the displaying birds. I must admit that I am not a great exponent of flash photography at this stage and found it quite frustrating to work in the poor light conditions with limited experience of using the equipment that I have under such conditions. It also didn’t help that there were often unwanted branches, leaves and other obstacles in the way of the constantly moving birds that one wanted to shoot. Fortunately, Miguel was kind enough to borrow me his tripod as this provided a great deal of stability during shooting and the few photographs that were usable in the end can largely be ascribed to this. I have undertaken to seriously study the art of flash photography after this! However, none of this could detract from the 90-minute long spectacle in front of us and it was indeed a privilege to be able to personally observe a phenomenon that isn’t at all common in southern African birds. We left the viewing platform very satisfied after enjoying excellent views of this spectacular species.
We decided to walk back to the Lodge and to continue our birding along the way. Our first species was sitting not 10metres from us about 200m down the road, but none of us saw it until we had walked right past. It was a spectacular Blue-crowned Motmot, about twice the size of our local Rollers and more colourful with its iridescent plumage and long tail. It was however very obliging and returned to its original perch for a photograph before heading off into the forest. For the next two and a half hours we slowly made our way back to camp and were treated to a spectacle of Amazonian Cloud Forest birds. This included a range of Tanagers and this family of birds easily cemented itself as an all-time favourite with us in the days to come. The names of the different species do not even come close to do justice to the dazzling array and combinations of colours on the various species that we were lucky to see. This ranged from the very common Silver-billed- to the really breath-taking Paradise-, Grass-green-, Masked-, Blue-grey-, Bay-head- and Saffron-crowned Tanagers. In addition to the Tanagers, there were also a range of other species too many to mention, but it is worth mentioning that we had our first sighting of a large raptor for the trip in the form of an adult Solitary Eagle as well.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruvianus, the national bird of Peru

We also met with a small family of local people waiting for a lift along the side of the road where Thea was very impressed to find that she was at least a head taller than any of the ladies in the group! This stop also included our first sighting of a local monkey species in the form of Brown Capuchin. Most notable however, was the appearance of our driver, Walter walking down the road sans our vehicle. It turns out that the vehicle skid down an embankment when he tried to make way for one of the timber trucks and that it was well and truly stuck. He continued to camp to try and arrange for assistance to get the vehicle out of its rather precarious position hanging half-way down an embankment. We eventually arrived arrived back at camp with a substantially boosted bird list and a new-found fascination with the biodiversity of the Cloud Forest. It was also not surprising when a typical tropical downpour occurred shortly after our return to camp. This actually turned out to be more than just a passing shower or two and the inclement weather stayed with us until well into the next morning.

Despite the continuing drizzle and rain, Miguel recommended that we still go out and try to get some birding in. This turned out to be a good decision as we were able to add Amazonian Umbrellabird, Roadside Hawk and Blueish-fronted Jacamar to our list. We bravely decided to walk the last few kms back to camp and, as could have been predicted, the rain closed in and the light went making birding virtually impossible. It wasa group of three wet and bedraggled birders that finally arrived back at camp just before 18:00. When we got back to camp, we found that a group from Eastern Europe had also checked in and were staying there for 2 nights. The rest of the evening we spent down-loading images and chatting to Miguel about the plans for the next day.

Wednesday, 28th of October 2009

After my first night of really decent sleep, we awoke a 04:15am and started packing to depart for Erika Lodge deeper in the Park. Bad news was that it was still raining and our first 2-3 hours on the road was quite a wet affair, especially when we jumped out of the vehicle to look at birds. Despite the inclement weather, we still notched an sizeable list of new species including birds such as Plumbeous Kite, Blue-headed Parrot, Long-tailed Tyrant, Speckled Chachalaca, Spix’s Guan and Smooth-billed Ani. The habitat changed considerably from tall montane forest to more open forest-areas interspersed with open areas covered with grass where a whole different range of bird species were recorded.

At about 09:00, we arrived at a farming settlement that was also developing a lodge and where, according to Miguel, a range of good species could be found. We decided to have breakfast here and were finally rewarded for our patience when the clouds lifted and the rain disappeared. With that, the birds started to appear and we could add several more species to our list including Pale-legged Hornero, Blue-backed Grassquit, Magpie Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager and Squirrel Cuckoo. Miguel also became very excited when I pointed out two large parrots flying and calling overhead. These turned out to be a pair of Military Macaws which is not a very common species in this particular area. After a short walk through a forest patch that didn’t produce too much in the way of birds, but almost saw me fall through a rather rotten wooden footbridge (a great way to encourage anyone to try and lose some weight), we continued our journey to Erika Lodge.

A stop was made at the first small town we came across called Patria where Miguel introduced us to the local owner of the bakery, a tiny old lady who proudly showed us her enterprise and allowed us to sample some of her produce. Bread is still baked here in the traditional manner and it really tastes good too. However, I’m not sure if too many people would even recognize the place for what it is as it does not even resemble anything that we would associate with a bakery. Nothing wrong with what she produces though and Miguel bought a whole bag full of rolls for our use during the remainder of the trip.

Our journey continued and we finally reached the next town and the main centre of human settlement in the area, also called the gateway to Manu National Park, Pillcopata. Here there are several shops, a service station and other utilities and a large bridge crosses the impressive Rio Piňini towards our final destination. We managed to stock up on cold drinks, water and even found some Peruvian red wine which we planned to enjoy over dinner the next two nights. The shopkeeper was very friendly and the purchases very reasonably priced and she also allowed us to take a picture of her and the business. Thea and I wandered down the track through town while Miguel and his team purchased some fuel for the boat that was to transport us to Erika Lodge later that day.

Stocking up on bread from the local bakery in Patria

Once all the necessary supplies were obtained, we continued towards the last stop before we would board a boat to the Lodge, a small town called Atalaya, which is situated approximately 450 a.s.l. The road here follows the river until it joins another before it heads over a substantial ridge before descending to the banks of the Rio Alto Madre dos Dios and the docking area for our boat. The vegetation here is incredibly lush and decidedly tropical with forest extending as far as the eye can see in all directions. We were amazed by the range and spectacular beauty of some of the flowering plants as well the large numbers of epiphytes growing in the trees. As always, birds were eagerly sought and we were rewarded with sightings of a number of new additions to our list, including Greater Yellow-headed Vulture which we found perched with wings outstretched trying to dry its feathers after all the rain and which remained in one spot long enough for a decent photograph. Other great sightings included two species of Trogon within an hour of each other, namely Blue-crested- and Black-tailed Trogon, Crested Oropendola, Chestnut-fronted Swift and Fine-barred Piculet.

View of the Rio Alto Madre dos Dios above the town of Atalaya

Our arrival at Atalaya coincided with the return of the rain and we hastily packed the boat after paying an entry fee into the Park as well as a boat tax, there seems to be no escaping having to pay taxes even here in the back of beyond! The Rio Alto Alto Madre dos Dios is a fairly wide, but very fast-flowing tributary of the Manu River which forms a tiny part of the massive Amazon basin. I used to think that the eastern parts of the Zambezi river was fairly fast-flowing, but this river makes it seem fairly sedentary by comparison and the boatsman had to know his stuff to ensure that he transported us safely to our destination a few kilometres downstream. Along the way, we also managed to record a few more bird species, this time largely associated with the river, namely Fasciated- and Capped Heron, Neotropical Cormorant, Snowy- and Great Egret and White-winged Swallows which swept low over the fast-flowing water. Upon our arrival at the Lodge, we had to wade through fairly thick mud as the river had risen and subsided in the previous 24 hours and the going was quite sticky until we reached firmer ground.

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes melambrotos

Erika Lodge as basic, but well-equipped with very friendly staff and we were shown to our room by the manager of the Lodge, whom everyone refers to as Doctor. After settling in, we decided to make ourselves comfortable in the garden and to see what birds could be recorded here. The last daylight hour didn’t produce too much and it was great to have a shower to wash away the sweat and stickiness that the long journey produced. Dinner was great, but the Peruvian wine that we bought for Thea proved to be less of a hit with us Safricans who are generally used to a drier variety of the stuff. I could only manage a sip or two before graciously returning it to the bottle!
Thursday, 29th of October 2009

We once again rose early as we were instructed to be at the docking area at about 04:45am if we wanted to get to the Parrot Lick in time to see the spectacle of large numbers of parrots feeding on the clay substrate. This is done to supplement their diet and, in some cases, to neautralize some of the potentially harmful substances in the food that they eat. Getting to the docking area, we were surprised to find no one there. When I went to enquire at the guides quarters, it turns out that everyone had a bit of a jol the night before and over-slept! Miguel joined us rather sheepishly with the excuse that his alarm didn’t go off. The delay wasn’t too serious though and we managed to get going pretty quickly, once again heading a short distance downstream to the riverbanks where the parrots congregate.

Sizeable flocks of birds were already heading towards the lick and were calling loudly as they did so. We were however only able to get to within about 250m of the area where they were feeding and had to observe them doing so through a telescope. This is due to the fact that the river has changed its flow during the last wet season and now only allowed an approach at such a long distance. I must admit that I was slightly under-awed by the spectacle, having seen footage and photographs of similar sites elsewhere in the Amazon. However, we were still able to record no less than 7 species of parrot at the lick, the highlight of which was a fly-past of a single, massively large Blue-and-Yellow Macaw that passed right over our heads. Seeing this free-flying bird in its natural environment made me wonder how we as humans can even think about keeping them in captivity in our homes, mostly as single, very expensive display pieces when they are so clearly more happy in their natural home. Most of the parrots are also very sociable birds and the keeping of single birds, if any, is actually quite a tragedy. Our stay at the parrot lick site was also rewarded with our first sighting a wader, namely Spotted Sandpiper and we also had a fleeting glimpse of a Curve-billed Scythe-bill. The return trip to the Lodge also produced the first Kingfisher of the trip in the form of Amazon Kingfisher, a species that resembles our Giant Kingfisher, but which is smaller in size.
After breakfast, Miguel suggested that we depart for a nearby Lodge which had an excellent garden where an array of hummingbirds could be recorded. This we did and what an experience this turned out to be! No less than 4 species of hummingbirds were recorded and I decided to take up the challenge of trying to photograph them. This is certainly no easy thing as these diminutive little birds are serious candidates for a daily dose of Ritalin because they never sit still or hang around to feed on the same flower for more than a few seconds! The next hour was thus spent trying to catch just a few half-decent images of these pretty little devils for posterity. Fortunately, this did seem to pay some dividends as I now do have some images that are worth looking at.

On our return to Erika Lodge, we went for a walk through the forest downstream towards the area where canopy tours are offered. This walk didn’t really offer a huge number of new birds, but a highlight that will forever be etched in my mind is the sighting of two adult King Vultures in flight, continuously circling over our heads for the next 45 minutes. This bird is one that, in my current area of work, I have come to be quite interested in, especially after the contacts made through the International Vulture Awareness Day in September. The picture of the bird depicted on the IVAD09 website speaks for itself and when the opportunity arose to get to an area where this bird is found, I was really hoping to be able to see it. Other species seen on the walk, included Black-fronted Nunbird, Swallow-tailed Wood-nymph and Yellow-tufted Woodpecker.

Male Rufous-crested Coquette Rophornis delattrei

The sun finally came out in full force at about 11:30am and we immediately realized that we were in the tropics as the heat and humidity increased considerably in the next few hours. We decided to take it easy for the first time since leaving home and spent the next few hours lazing about and photographing the vast array of butterflies that frequents the Lodge gardens. The sheer number and brilliance of these insects were astounding and once again reflected the great diversity of just about anything here! According to Miguel, Manu National Park boasts a list of over 3000 species and new species are apparently discovered on a regular basis. It was certainly an interesting challenge as they, similar to the hummingbirds, also don’t sit still for a moment and often just simply refuse to open their wings to show off their breath-taking colours. Another thing to keep in mind was the fact that an array of little wasps also frequented the area and were not averse to having a go at using their stings on you. Thea and I both still bear the scars to prove this!

Morph butterfly resting its large wings

While lazing the early afternoon away, I noticed two helicopters intermittently flying along the opposite side of the river, transporting large pieces of equipment and dropping them of about 2-3kms away from the opposite riverbank. Upon enquiring, I learnt the worrying news that the Peruvian government recently prospected for and found a substantial oil deposit in the area and have decided to start drilling in this unspoilt area. There is little doubt that this development will have a substantial impact on the environment, existing livelihoods and communities in the area and the community of Atalaya is currently protesting this development vehemently. Considering that Manu is registered as a World Biosphere Reserve more needs to be done and there’s little doubt that, if they do not receive substantive outside backing, this will go ahead regardless.
Miguel suggested that we head off to Michu Wasi oxbow-lake after tea and arranged for a boat to take us to the other side of the river to start our walk. It was still very hot and we were sweating profusely during the intial stages of the walk. This was however easily forgotten with our first views of the Archeopterix of living birds, the Hoatzin, when a small group of these very vocal creatures were flushed and noisily flapped through the rather dense vegetation. One of them was obliging enough to pose for a few photographs which made the celebration of our first sighting of this species even more special.

Our initial excitement about this sighting soon seemed rather superfluous, especially once we reached the oxbow-lake and could see in excess of 25 of these birds perched at various spots along the lakeshore. The area turned out to be quite a significant breeding site for this species and we counted not less than 9 nests and two birds mating. One of the nests contained a very small chick and two eggs which we were able to see when the incubating briefly left the nest for a wing-stretch. It was quite amazing that this species could so quickly become a bit of a trash-bird, but the excitement of seeing this species will certainly not disappear quickly.

Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoayzin, a modern-day Archeopteryx

According to Miguel, an old man decided to start looking after the area and managed to obtain community support to stop fishing and hunting around it. He erected perches and now charges people to visit the area, the proceeds of which goes to enable him to continue with his good work. Among some of the inventions that he came up with, is the building of two floats which people can use to lazily drift on the shallow lake to observe the wide range of species that occur there. Among those seen, it was also great to see American Purple Gallinule in it’s natural range and the lake had a number of these birds foraging in the vegetation fringing it. We were also able to add two more Kingfisher-species to our list, namely Green- and Ringed. Another feature of the lake is a sizeable mixed breeding colony of Crested Oropendula and Yellow-backed Casique in a large palm tree on the one bank.

We stayed at the lake until just after dark and slowly made our way back to the river and waiting boat to take us back to camp. It was quite difficult walking without flashlights which Miguel suggested we don’t use due to the fact that there were some flying bugs frequenting the marshy area that are attracted to lights that could give one a nasty, burning bite that causes a lot of discomfort. Thea slipped at one of the makeshift wooden bridges in the dark, but fortunately was not hurt. That evening over dinner, one of our tracelling companions, who turns out to be one of the co-owners of Manu Adventures, approached me with a request to use some of the pictures I took on the trip on their marketing materials. I agreed to do so in exchange for one of their company shirts for both Thea and me and proceeded to process some of the many images I took on the day, before going to sleep.

The stunning beauty of Machu Wasi oxbow lake

Friday, 30th of October 2009

We arranged to leave Erika Lodge for our return journey to Cuzco at just after 06:00am. The journey by boat up-stream too decidedly longer than traveling with the flow of the river and the spray at times was quite extensive. We did however reach the little town of Atalaya in good time and met up with our driver and vehicle to start the 10-hour drive back to civilization.

The route we followed was initially the very same we came by, but looked very different due to the clear and sunny conditions that now prevailed. The biggest challenge, as on the way down, was the vehicles approaching from the front on the very narrow roads, especially on the leg through the Cloud Forest where the sheer drop on the one side was dizzying to say the least. Evidence of the danger was provided by the wreck of one sedan parked on the side of the road that had the misfortune to collide with one of the timber-trucks that came hurtling down the pass. We had several close shaves and Thea in particular didn’t enjoy this part of the trip. Rising in altitude from 450m asl to 3560m in a matter of 3 hours didn’t help either and she was feeling decidedly woosy by the time we stopped at the entrance gate to Manu for lunch. A major compensation on this leg of the trip was our first and second sightings of a members of the Quetzal-family, namely Golden-headed Quetzal which also very obligingly posed for photographs on both occasions. It was really great to see these “Trogons on Steroids” in their natural environment.

After lunch, we proceeded to Cuzco through the very dusty and dry section of the route to Procartambo where we deviated from the route we took on Monday. What was quite worrying by now, was the need to regularly stop and fill the vehicle’s radiator with water and the throaty noises emenating from the gearbox every time the driver changed gears. I was getting really worried that we may not make it back to town before dark and the driver’s visible relief when we finally reached the tar road was obvious. If we thought that the end of the trip was just around the corner, we were seriously wrong as it took another 2 hours to finally reach the outskirts of Cuzco. We did however travel through very scenic country that included the Sacred Valley of the Inca and it was very impressive to see the terraces and other stryctures established by this culture in the area. The valley seems to be very protected from the strong winds that prevail in this area and is still intensively cultivated to this day. The small town of Pisa is located in the valley and the extensive crops around it makes an important contribution to food production for the country.

Golden-headed Quetzal Pharomachrus auriceps

We finally arrived in Cuzco at just after 17:00pm and said our good-byes to Miguel and the rest of the bunch that traveled back with us. It was a good thing that we only found out here that our driver’s nick-name was “Muerto” or “Death”, as I’m sure that it would have added a decidedly different atmosphere to the trip back. We were very relieved to finally put our bags down and try to get relatively clean after 5 days of travel. Sadly, our warm water system hadn’t yet fully kicked in and we had to be satisfied with cold showers.

Thus came to an end one of the best birding experiences I have ever had and one which can be highly recommended. Our guide, Miguel Garcia, is one of the best community based guides I have ever had the pleasure of working with and his eagerness to find all those special birds never waned throughout the trip. If you are interested in making use of Miguel in future, you can contact him at

Our journey from Cuzco continued the next morning, but more about that later...