West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Crazy adventure, part II

So this was how I found myself, after a frantic two days at home writing job applications and a couple days of travel, trundling down the red clay road to Puerto Infierno in the back of a taxi with a Dutch entomologist who I’d known for a little over a week.

Fortunately he turned out to be a nice guy, and the place we visited turned out to be even more beautiful than pictures could convey. The lodge was set back from the bank of the Río Tambopata, a couple hours upstream from Puerto Infierno, a complex of thatched huts set around a soccer field with paths leading back into the forest. Oropendolas and caciques, nesting in the palm trees above the lodge, emblazoned the air with their bizarre warbling songs. Nearby, a few cleared areas (chacras) close to the river held bananas, plantains, carambola (star fruit), pineapple, and other crops. And the forest… on my first trip to Peru we mainly stayed on the river, and I had only a few short walks into the jungle. I also knew nothing about botany at the time. This time, I could really appreciate the diversity of what was around me—one of the richest forests on earth, with ten times as many species in a hectare (c. 300) as in the entire British Isles (33).

Close to the lodge it was mostly secondary forest, dominated by an aggressive species of climbing bamboo in the genus Guadua, locally called paca. “I guess I have a love/hate relationship with paca,” John commented dryly as he hacked through the umpteenth fallen tangle of it with his machete. It would be probably more of a pure hate relationship if he wasn’t studying a genus of flies that happens to breed on the cut stems. I helped him set up Malaise traps in a couple places near where we’d cut up a bunch of paca clearing trails, and he got some good specimens.

Further back from the river, the secondary forest gave way to old-growth lowland tropical forest: giant buttressed trees festooned with vines and lianas; palms and small trees filling in the understory; the muted calls of birds and insects filtering down, blending into one stillness. All the green in the world. It was the end of the dry season and leaves crackled underfoot. As dusk drew on, fireflies lit up the understory with traveling flashes of golden light.

We walked in the forest every day and most nights as well. I realized I’d never spent much time in the forest at night in La Selva—I had always considered it an advantage of working with plants, in fact, that one can study them by daylight. But there is much to be said for the forest by night. We spotted kinkajous, a mouse opossum, many species of frogs, and a few lovely little tree snakes. We saw several species of tarantulas, although, to my lasting regret, the fabled Bolivian blue-leg (the size of a dinner plate, and sounding almost too much like a Harry Potter monster to be believed) never materialized. (Pictured: the also charmingly-named pink-toed tarantula.) Molting katydids, milky pale and alien-looking before their skins hardened, hung from the undersides of leaves. The sounds are different at night, too; more urgent and layered.

On our second day at the station, a cold rain settled in. (It does get cold, surprisingly cold, in this part of the world—air masses moving down off the Andes can bring the temperature down to 6° C; 42° Fahrenheit). We were running low on food, too. The rain apparently made the road to Puerto Infierno impassible—no surprise there—and the planned shipment wouldn’t arrive. Fortunately there was plenty in the chacras. John ventured out to check his Malaise traps and returned with a load of green plantains, avocados, and carambola. Two of the Peruvian guides went fishing in the late afternoon, when the rain let up, but they returned with three tiny fish, the largest about the size of a deck of cards. We made an excellent meal of patacones with guacamole and fresco de carambola. And half a bite of fish.

We hiked out one afternoon to the nearest oxbow lake, mostly filled in with reeds and vegetation. John paddled a dugout canoe through the narrow channel between reed beds. I watched macaws fly over in formation, their elegant long silhouettes contrasting with their raucous, obnoxious calls. Near the channel, hoatzins stalked about the bushes looking and sounding like something out of the Mesozoic. From around one bend we saw a ripple crossing the channel that looked like an anaconda—if it was a caiman, the head would have been visible—but we couldn’t paddle fast enough to get close before it vanished into the reeds.

Coming up next: anaconda!


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