Birding in Peru
‘Probably the best place to watch birds in the world’. That’s how Manu, in the heart of Peru’s Amazonian rainforest, is usually described. But for birder, author and wildlife TV producer STEPHEN MOSS, did birding in Peru’s Amazonian Rainforest live up to the hype?
I love birding. But rainforest birding, in which the chances of seeing a particular species are usually in inverse proportion to its rarity and desirability, is my idea of hard work.
You spend hour after hour walking through dense foliage, in thick, humid air, and listening for the sounds of the birds hidden within. Just occasionally, one ventures out, and our guide José Antonio calls out its increasingly improbable name: ‘Manu antbird’, ‘wedge-billed woodcreeper’, ‘black-fronted nunbird’, before it vanishes once again into the forest.
So I was relieved to learn that a good proportion of our birding in Peru and Manu would be done in a much easier and more comfortable way: along the water. The only way to get into the Manu rainforest, an area half the size of Switzerland without any roads, is by boat, along the Madre de Dios and Manu Rivers.
We had the ideal vessel: fast yet manoeuvrable, with open sides giving an all-round view, and a covered canopy to ward off the sun and occasional rain. As a mobile hide, it could hardly be bettered – and it came with built-in air-conditioning from the welcome airstream as we headed downriver.
Photo credit: Red-and-Green Macaws on the clay lick, Manu Birding Lodge
Our first stop was the famous macaw clay lick close to Manu Learning Centre, our comfortable and well-equipped lodge. We made an early start, as these gaudy, colourful and noisy birds fly in soon after dawn, in order to obtain the minerals they need to neutralise and digest the toxic fruit on which they feed.
As we waited, watching the sun come up above the misty mountain backdrop, a host of other species entertained us: a fasciated tiger-heron feeding along a sandbank; sand-coloured nighthawks hawking for insects above the running waters; and delightful white-winged swallows flashing their wings in the early morning light.
Then the show began: no fewer than seven species of parakeet, parrot and macaw, each more colourful and splendid than the last. Sadly, the ominous presence of a great black hawk meant that none actually came into the clay-lick itself; but we still enjoyed their dazzling flights overhead. Read more: Birds of Peru: a gift to the world
The next day, we headed further into the heart of Manu: first along the Madre de Dios and then the Manu River itself. A host of waterbirds appeared around every bend of the river: herons and egrets, kingfishers and skimmers – the latter living up to their name by dipping the longer lower part of their bill into the water, to grab tiny fish just beneath the surface. We also came across a burrowing owl perched on a log, flocks of giant cowbirds, and best of all, the very rare Orinoco goose, one of the most elusive waterfowl in the world. Read more: Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
Birds weren’t the only attraction: huge black caimans loafed on sandbanks or lay half-submerged in the water like giant logs, ready to ambush some unsuspecting victim. A tayra – a member of the weasel family that looked like a dark pine marten – appeared briefly along the riverbank, and once we glimpsed a capybara – the world’s largest rodent.
Photo credit: Giant River Otters, InkaNatura Travel
But of all the mammals found in this amazing place, there was one I really wanted to see. I’ve always loved otters – two of the highlights of my career at the BBC Natural History Unit were when Bill Oddie and I filmed a European otter feeding on the shores of the Moray Firth in Scotland, and when we travelled to California to film the charismatic sea otters feeding on clams off Monterrey. So when I discovered we might have a chance of seeing the world’s largest otter – the aptly-named giant river otter of South America – I could hardly contain my excitement.
The otters live not on the river itself, but on one of the many ox-bow lakes formed when the river changed course, cutting off these kidney-shaped waterbodies and creating a self-contained ecosystem ideal for these huge and elusive animals.
Giant river otters are very rare indeed: the global population estimate is somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000, on a par with the tiger and giant panda. As we boarded a small but stable catamaran and headed out onto the ox-bow lake, José Antonio told us we had a 50:50 chance of seeing them: just one family lives on this lake, and they would either be at one end or the other.
We mentally tossed a coin and headed right; which fortunately turned out to be the correct choice. At first, things were very quiet: only the odd ringed kingfisher, a striated heron perched on the lakeside vegetation, and king and greater yellow-headed vultures soaring overhead.
Then we spotted them: a break in the glassy surface of the lake, followed by another and another. But how close would they allow us to get? The answer to that question turned out to be very close indeed: our expert boatmen steered us to a few metres away from a family of at least six otters. We watched in awe and delight as they swam around the boat, approaching us and staring as if curious about these strange intruders into their territory. Some hauled themselves out onto logs to groom themselves and one another; two squabbled over a huge fish; and a youngster issued a series of high-pitched squeaks as it demanded food from its mother.
Known as ‘river wolves’, these huge animals – more than two metres long and weighing over 70 kg (about twice the weight of a large dog) are along with the jaguar the top predator here on the Manu. They’ll happily hunt baby caimans, and even jaguars leave them well alone.
Photo credit: Manu Birding Lodge
After 20 minutes or so, during which the sound of camera shutters was occasionally punctuated by our muted exclamations of delight, we decided to retreat and leave the family in peace. But of all the many creatures we encountered on our birding in Peru and Manu adventure, the giant river otter was for me the most extraordinary and beguiling.
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Birder, author and wildlife TV producer