Isn’t the title a non-sequitur? Birders do not have bad days. Sure, some days are better than others, but even if target birds are not found, searching for wildlife is always fun. Nonetheless, if you asked me if there ever was a bad day, well, yes there was.
Imagine this. You are outside. The sky is dull gray. Above you, way up in the sky, is an enormous swimming pool. Hold that thought.
It began when our guide and driver picked us up in the pre-dawn from our little hotel in Cuzco, Peru. I could see our young guide, Ellie, was distressed the moment she saw me. You are a birder, she said.
Later she lamented, As soon as I saw those big binoculars, I knew. Through some mix-up, her company had not provided a birding guide. I later suspected they sent her because no one else wanted the assignment. She was a young guide, new to the company. It was just my wife Mary and I, so tips would not be what they could be with a larger group. It was early April–the off-season. Bad weather was a possibility.
Fortunately, Ellie had an engaging personality, was good company, and was eager to please. Our ultimate destination was famous among birders, Manu Jungle Lodge, reachable only by boat. Ellie told us she had contacted the staff that morning. There had been a huge storm. The lodge was damaged, but we could still come.
The Madre de Dios river was at such a high stage, however, that we had to cancel some birding and leave earlier in order to spend extra time fighting the current and avoiding obstacles in the small boat. Moreover, stopping for bird and wildlife viewing enroute was also off the agenda because of the flood.
Despite the setbacks, this was Peruvian Amazonia! We were exhilarated by the constant flyovers of macaws and the expansive view of massive thunderheads rising above the sea of green jungle. We enjoyed waving to the riverside inhabitants. Often, they were bouncing along in much smaller boats with their tiny motors, known as peke-pekes because of their sound.
Ellie explained that some were trying to scavenge the large logs floating by. Logging itself was illegal but salvaging a downed tree might provide enough income for months. We were feeling satisfied, even if we had already missed many birding opportunities. Perhaps, because of fighting so much current and dodging so much flotsam; we needed a fuel stop at the only small village on this part of the river, Boca Manu. From here we would leave the Madre de Dios and head upstream on the Manu River.
Remarkably, the proprietor of the small riverside fuel station could not be bothered to fuel the boat during his lunch break. Or, maybe it was our boatman who conspired with him to lengthen the interval with some food and drinks before we were once again headed upriver. There was no birding. We waited in the village bar and marveled at the moldy pool table covered only by a thatched roof. While the day slipped away, a pet parrot added to my consternation by perching on the back of my chair and persistently nibbling on my hat.
Although Manu National Park is truly trackless wilderness, there was a park entrance pass that was needed and a park ranger to be found. We slowly motored upstream past our lodge to find the small, thatched roof structure that served as park headquarters. They already had our names on a list. No money was exchanged—that was probably taken care of in Cuzco. The only reason I could fathom for the check-in was to waste another couple of hours.
At last, in the proverbial gathering darkness, we reached our destination. The lodge was, perhaps, 200 meters from the river. The boat “dock” consisted of a mudbank that required scrambling up two to three meters
Birds and wildlife were everywhere. There must have been 100 Squirrel Monkeys overhead almost immediately. I managed brief looks at interesting birds—a Purplish Jay and a Yellow-rumped Cacique. I only wished there had been more daylight. Being so near the equator, sunset passes quickly and we were soon in the dark at the lodge, but not until we reviewed the damage.
The storm had brought down many trees. Luckily, the sleeping quarters, kitchen, and dining area were not damaged, but the separate bathroom/shower building had suffered a direct hit wiping out one-quarter of it. An outdoor cooking area and some storage buildings were demolished. Most of the trail system associated with the lodge was so badly-damaged, it was impassable. The lodge workers, most of them life-long residents of the area, said it was the worst storm in anyone’s memory. They had gone out during the storm to hang on to the concrete pilings that supported the lodge, fearing a tree would crush them if they stayed inside.
We were the only guests, which was good because rooms were small cubicles with partial walls. Guests were not allowed outside after dark. Both Fer-de-lance and Bushmasters, two of the world’s most dangerous snakes, were present, as were caimans. (The Black Caiman is the most abundant native crocodilian and supposedly there was a 15-footer in the lake.)
As for nature calls during the night, we were handed a bucket. But there was beer and wine, and the food was good. Ellie had apologized about her lack of knowledge of birds, but she had already proven to be a good spotter and a hard worker. We planned a morning bird walk for 5:15AM. I went to bed expecting a great day.
Just before dawn the rain began. I will go birding in almost any weather. But this rain went beyond “almost.” I asked that you imagine standing outside under a swimming pool. Now imagine the bottom of the pool suddenly vanishes. No wind. It was not a pounding rain. It was a heavy, thick onslaught of water, a vertical flood. We did not even bother to find Ellie to discuss our options. We stayed in bed.
Near mid-day, the rain decreased, and we had some time in the forest. The trails were gone. Where blown-down trees did not block the way, the path was underwater. We sloshed rather than hiked. Birding itself consisted of Ellie spotting the bird which I would attempt to identify. This limited the number of species checked off, but they were all new to me and I had a fine time. I remember lifting a glass of wine to my wife that evening as I perused a guidebook on Peruvian birds and saying, What could be better than this?
But that night, the roaring rain returned, and so, came THE DAY. Anyone with tropical birding knowledge would recognize the area we were in, Manu National Park, as one of the most biodiverse locations in the world. How could it be possible on my second day in the park to find only three species of birds new to me and identify just a handful in an entire day outside? Here’s how.
A crucial objective of our visit was to see Giant Otters, an endangered species found only on oxbow lakes in Amazonia. Indeed, my non-birding wife was especially desirous of seeing them. This trip, for once, had a wildlife viewing objective as important to her as seeing birds were to me.
Oxbow lakes also harbor wonderful exotic birds with beautiful and intriguing names such as Hoatzin, Rufescent Tiger-Heron and Black-capped Donocobius. We had seen these the evening before from our lodge’s small, jungle catamaran–a platform balanced between two dugout canoes. Sadly, we did not see the resident Giant Otters. The lodge workers speculated that the otters had moved out because the high water had breached one end of the lake. An oxbow lake, a few hours upriver, was now considered the most likely location for viewing.
Otters are active in the early morning, so we needed to leave just as it was light enough to see. I remember Ellie telling us that she and the boatman had discussed whether it was safe to go, and decided it was. We should have taken that as a cue after hearing roaring rain again that night.
The trail to the dock was now under a few inches of water. I heard birds calling all about but had to ignore them to watch my feet and not be tripped by submerged roots and fallen limbs. We had been instructed not to reach for nearby shrubs and branches for balance as we splashed along because every insect, spider, and snake would have climbed out of the water. My stomach was churning as much as the river as we rushed our way past a tantalizing mixed flock. I noticed that Mary was simply silent.
Later, when I asked, Mary said she had decided to be silent because if she openly acknowledged her fear; she would have insisted we return. Her desire to see the otters was also a motivation.
When we reached the “dock,” which you recall was a mudbank, we were shocked to see that the river had risen more than a meter. Instead of having to scramble down a 2-3 meter bank, we had to one-by-one stand on the edge of the bank and step down into the boat. The boatman held the boat in place by gunning the engine against the current.
Mary and I stepped in. Then came Ellie. I can still see the crack forming in the top of the bank as she walked to the edge. The bank collapsed. She fell into the river.
Fortunately, she was able to grab the side of the boat or it would have been a dangerous rescue situation. The swift water would have quickly carried Ellie downriver with few places to reach shore.
With the boatman’s help, Ellie dragged herself into the boat. She threw back and wrung out her long, black hair to shake off the water and then turned on her camera. She smiled, regaining her composure, looked over to me and said, It’s ok. But I had noticed something else. What about your binoculars? I asked. She jumped up feeling all around. She had already told us that guides have to supply their own gear and that her binoculars were her biggest expense. (Binoculars that can stand up to the tropics, typically cost much more than a “good-enough” camera.) Now, they were gone. There was no hope of looking for them. Nothing to do now but head for the oxbow lake and the otters.
Ellie sat glumly in the back of the boat, wet and cold in the early morning. I understood enough Spanish to hear her tell the boatman she would not make enough money from this trip to replace the binoculars.
I had been eagerly looking forward to this boat ride because the boatmen are adept at spotting wildlife, especially birds, and then maneuvering the boat so clients can have easy views. Not this time. The river was in such major flood and there was so much flotsam that all attention had to be focused on navigation. Several times there was a loud “thump” as we hit a submerged log. The wild-eyed terror in my wife’s eyes did not help. I too could visualize hitting something big enough to overturn the boat or break the propeller. The going was slow, but eventually, to our relief, we reached the “short” trail to the oxbow lake. The boatman, after tying off the boat, motioned for us to stay seated. He went off for a few minutes and returned to tell us that parts of the trail were three to four feet underwater.
The boatman and Ellie conferred. We understood later they debated whether to return to the lodge or to try another trail. We wished we had been able to vote to return, but we were not asked.
More bumping upstream in the boat found us at a different trail, which we now learned was known as the “long” trail. This trail had only a foot or two of water. We had to move with great care to avoid falling and because of the extra effort of lifting water-laden boots over the many obstacles. Not wanting to soak my binoculars and camera, I had been anxious on the boat. That anxiety was now replaced by desperation at the bird shapes I detected with my peripheral vision and the sounds I could not even acknowledge as we slogged and splashed. I realized we were probably too late in the day if the otters followed their normal behavior pattern. At least, I thought, the birding will be sensational.
Our conveyance at the lake, just as at our lodge, was a platform balanced by a dugout canoe on each side. Both dugouts, however, were overflowing with water.
Imagine my frustration. It was now almost noon. The best time for birding was over. I was thinking, If we had stayed at the lodge, I would have seen 50 species by now. I had only seen a couple on the perilous boat ride.
The boatman handed me a half-broken old milk jug for bailing. It promptly shattered. I was desperate to get into the lake to see some birds! Wasn’t that why we had come? The boatman looked at my as if I was crazy as I bailed frantically with my bare hands. He and Ellie calmly splashed water from the other side with the small paddles. Finally, the boat floated, after a fashion. It was clumsy and slow anyway—more so now because it was so waterlogged.
Slowly, we turned the boat around and with the boatman in one of the dugouts and Ellie paddling in the other, we headed into the lake. Almost immediately, Ellie began to describe a bird we had not seen. Where? I said. There! she said, as she jumped up and pointed, just as she had pointed out wildlife last night on the lake at our lodge. Except, our lodge’s catamaran lacked the 2×4 frame over the dugouts– the one into which she had just rammed her head.
Now Ellie lay, crumpled on the platform. We tried to help her up. We tried to commiserate. She just kept her head down, covered by her arm, waving her other hand to tell us to stay away. The night before she had described her guide training, and how she was a recent graduate. Now I was thinking, she’s been taught, you must never cry in front of clients. After several minutes and several futile tries to help her, all of which elicited her waving response, she sat up, blinking back tears. She pointed the boatman onward. I said, I’ll paddle. She only nodded and sat forlornly on the platform.
You guessed the rest. We paddled all about the lake. I could not paddle and look for birds at the same time, and although a few flew by, no one was in any mood other than to see the damn otters and get out of here. But there were no otters to be seen. We were too late in the day. Hot and sweaty, we returned to the trail and trudged back to the boat.
Ellie revived and pointed out a few plants, but mostly all we wanted was for the perilous boat ride to be over. Our return was enlivened by the loss of the so-called dock, and the river having risen another meter. The boatman had to run the boat up near the edge, and with the motor revved, he could hold it in place for a few seconds. One passenger would jump into the arms of one of the waiting workmen. Then another circuit was made, and then a third until we were all out. The boatman waved good-bye and motored off. Slogging back to the lodge in the near darkness, I was taunted, maybe haunted, by the cries of unfamiliar birds whose silhouettes I could barely make out against the darkening sky.
Fortunately, this “bad” day was part of a much longer trip which encompassed many wonderful experiences. We had spent two days at Manu Cloud Forest Lodge where we watched eight Cock-of-the-Rocks displaying simultaneously. That sight was worth the entire trip. And, even on the bad day, here is what I wrote in my journal about the last minutes of sunlight: Back at the lodge, I walked out and sat on the dock. As the sun set, a capped heron flew by in the golden light with its plumes seemingly on fire. A small leafless bush emerging from the flooded lake had a white-winged swallow on every branch. A social flycatcher screamed—there was a faint rainbow to be seen in the gathering mist—maybe this hadn’t been what we wanted, but it was quite a memorable day.
Unfortunately, our adventure was not over. Typically, egress from Manu Lodge is via a 4hr boat ride followed by a 4 hr drive ending up in Puerto Maldonado from where we would fly to Lima and home. The rains, however, had flooded some roads such that we had to go by boat for more than 200 miles and ten hours. Because of the trip’s length, we had to leave at first light. There was so much water, the lodge workers used a dugout to ferry our luggage to where the small riverboat would pick us up. We had to wade in the dark through water up to our waists in some places—again, being careful not to touch any surrounding branches. Fortunately, no one fell.
Having to do the long boat ride, was more bad luck because the ordinary route to Puerto Maldonado offered some birding. We were warned that this river trip was going to be a mad dash with no wildlife or other stops because of the distance and the need to avoid hitting flotsam. Moreover, as we were to learn, with the river in flood, there were no banks to approach. At mid-day, when a bath room stop was becoming critical, there were no safe places to land because the river was out of its banks. All of us were “up to our eyeballs” by the time we could make a landing.
Our destination was within the Laberinto district, Tambopata Province. Reviewing the map today, I believe it was at the small town of Fortuna—a very rough looking place. This was the supply center and access point for an illegal gold mining boom. All the nasty elements associated with a “gold rush” were evident. The river had been full of dredges blowing river sand all over. None of these activities are legal. They are destroying the river and the jungle. The surrounding countryside was devastated.
The village was full of rough looking people including obvious prostitutes. Although it wasn’t apparent what might have changed, Ellie told us it would not have been safe for us to be in that village even a couple of years earlier. She related having seen boatloads of prostitutes being taken to the dredging camps when she had embarked from here as part of her guide training a few years previous.
A couple of unkempt men walked to about 3 meters from us and stood and stared–one for at least 15 minutes. Was he deciding whether to rob us or was he lamenting the loss of the previous lawlessness when he would not have had to decide? It was unnerving.
Ellie said we should not wander about. I did enter a store to buy soft drinks and had to endure boring stares of the others inside. Outside, there were numerous men with bicycle taxis waiting for fares that never came. There was a long line of “peke-peke’s” at the dock, run-down, cobbled together buildings, and stray dogs. The place was sad both in terms of what is happening to the environment and that any humans should have to live like this.
It also struck me how we gringos are so at the mercy of our hired help in such situations. We had Ellie, a diminutive young woman and our boatman who, at least, was a native of the area. He mostly spoke his native language, knowing only rudimentary Spanish and no English at all. He left to find us a ride to Puerto Maldonado as we sat feeling very conspicuous.
Finally, after what seemed a long time with no sign of our boatman, he returned and indicated a car would be coming. We were relieved until we saw the car. I do not recall now, the make and year, but it was something like an early 1960s Ford Falcon—ancient, small, beat-up and rusty. We piled in.
Ellie told us the drive would be about two hours. The dirt road was in reasonable condition considering the recent rain but I mouthed the word “lunatic” to Mary, referring to the driver, as we bounced along much too fast for the conditions. We kept a hand up to keep our heads from being bashed against the roof as we bounced mostly through jungle scrub. I continued to be chagrined as unfamiliar birds flew up from the roadside bushes or passed overhead. And then, abruptly, after one particularly jarring jolt, the car stopped.
The sun was now at the horizon. It would be dark soon. When discussing the incident later, Mary and I had the same thought, this is where we get assaulted. The car had stopped inexplicably. We were, in our minds, in the middle of nowhere. We had seen no other vehicles. We had no defense. There were no cellphones here. We looked around to see where the driver’s accomplices might be hiding.
The driver mumbled and gestured. He raised the hood, pulled wires off, and replaced them. Then he slammed the hood and attempted to start the car. The starter was grinding away, but the engine was apparently not getting any gas. I am no mechanic, but there seemed to be no reason or plan for what the driver did under the hood. The fact that there had not been any obvious repair had made me suspicious.
Was he waiting for someone? Or, if this is innocent, are we going to spend the night out here?
It was as if he thought banging on various engine parts would cause the engine to have a change of heart and start. Miraculously, after at least 20 minutes and several more excursions under the hood, the car, as inexplicably as it died, suddenly started. Later, in our hotel room in Puerto Maldonado, we breathed a great sigh of relief. I hope to go back to Manu someday, but in the dry season!