A Father-Son Adventure in Peru's Amazon
The most visible and dramatic action is on the lake, which is ruled by three giant otters, seven feet long from snout to tail. They drape themselves like leopards on dead tree branches sticking up in the water, frolic incessantly, and cruise the lake with their heads held high, sending rings rippling out over the still surface. There are a few 12-foot caimans here, which look like floating logs, approaching imperceptibly until they’re within striking distance of their quarry.
The border of the lake is packed with soaring trees and shrubbery cabled with vines that sag with the vegetation of other plants using them for scaffolding. As we paddle along, a mixed troop of squirrel and brown capuchin monkeys comes out of the understory. One curious squirrel monkey teeters out to the tip of a branch, 10 feet from us. Seeming no less threatened by our approach, the hoatzins flap to a perch 50 feet away. They are primitive birds with unkempt cockades. Young hoatzins have claws on their elbows to pull themselves up branches. We pass a wattled jacana picking its way over the vegetation tumbling into the water, and a rufescent tiger heron standing on a low branch a hundred feet from a juvenile agami heron. With its wispy, light-blue crest, glossy green and chestnut back, and long rapierlike bill, it is one of neotropical America’s most dazzling birds, as well as one of the rarest members of the heron tribe.
It rains hard through our second night, breaking the drought. By daybreak the forest has sprung back to life. Joyous bursts of birdsong blend with the pulsing quake of frogs and insects. Rising with the howlers, we head up the still mist-shrouded river to a ccollpa (clay lick) visited by half a dozen species of parrot. The ccollpa is a smectite- and bentonite-rich, yellow-brown cliff on a bluff 300 feet above a sweeping bend. Pepe has built a blind 150 feet from it, and we spend the morning inside being as quiet and still as possible. We watch a tapir swim across the river below, and, rounding the bend, a thatched peque peque, a river skiff with a lawn-mower engine, carrying a family of loggers with some beams in tow.
At about 6:30 a.m., 30 white-bellied parrots (actually golden-green), with a few mealy parrots mixed in, land on the cliff and peck out balls of clay. The clay is thought to help the parrots’ digestion, neutralizing the alkaloids and other toxins in the seeds they eat. At 7:00 two red-and-green macaws come flying up the bend and double back, apparently scouting out the situation. They fly over the blind several times, seeming to note that there are humans in it. The question is, what kind of humans: hunters or birdwatchers? They land in the crotch of a cecropia tree that is growing out of the cliff. We can see the red lines on their white cheeks.
More macaws arrive in twos and threes until there are 30 of them. Several couples hang upside down from branches and groom and snuggle, stealing glances at us. Then by turn they swoop down to the cliff and return to their perches with clay balls, which they hold in one foot and nibble. After half an hour they all leave, and it is the turn of a similar number of smaller scarlet macaws. At the ccollpa there seems to be a literal pecking order.
Zach and I walk along the six miles of trails that loop around the lake with Juan and Narciso, who moves slowly and quietly, pointing out things that Juan interprets for us. Juan could be mistaken for an Indian with his mixed Japanese and Brazilian parentage, but he is a modern, urban Peruvian. He is a step removed from the world of the forest, but he has fallen under its spell and is good at spotting big birds like a Spix’s guan (a dark-brown, turkeylike bird with a featherless ruby-red throat), the razor-billed curas-sow (sheeny steel-black with a red bill), and a herd of collared peccaries that we creep up on and watch from behind a huge garlic tree until they sense our presence and bolt. He shows us medicinal plants for treating arthritis and rheumatism, diarrhea and constipation, kidney and prostate ailments, hangover, headache, and fever, as well as the cashapona,or walking palm, with a mesh of thin, splaying prop roots that, like the adjustable legs of a tripod, move the slender, straight trunk around to give it the best shot at the sunlight.
Zachary is focused on the forest floor. He notices things that elude even Narciso, like a yellow-footed tortoise and a five-inch-long baby fer-de-lance, the snake responsible for the greatest number of fatal bites in the Americas. Juan and Narciso agree it is a type of fer-de-lance known as thejergonsacha. Its dark- and light-gray diamonds blend perfectly with the sun-mottled leaf litter. Narciso nudges it with a stick, and it plays dead.
Zach picks up a batrachian the size of a fingernail—a toad, he pronounces. How do you know? I ask. “Frogs are wet, and toads pee on you,” he says. He discerns a nightjar so well camouflaged among the leaves that it is only an outline. You could spend your life—and some do—studying just one category of the organisms on the forest floor: the seeds, the snails, the spiders, the beetles, the ants, the sapitos and the ranitas—the little toads and frogs. On a fallen tree we find a rubbery pink earlobe-shaped fungus that Narciso says is delicious. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies patrol the forest, flashing creamy blue. Resting on a leaf is a small blowtorch-blue metalmark butterfly with red along its hind wing.