We were up before the dawn to catch the animals as they awoke. When we first returned to the lake, it was covered in thick fog, keeping the temperature low and obscuring the banks. But just after the first hour, the sun forced its way through, clearing the mist, and drawing out the animals.
Several herons and egrets gingerly high-stepped their way around the bank, occasionally opening their great wings to cross. Three different types of kingfishers perched on branches of the decaying logs.
The black-fronted nunbird looked just as modest as its namesake, clothed in black except for its dark red beak. Chicken-like Hoatzins perched in trees, bobbing their crowns of feathers. These birds actually have two stomachs to process their food, something I’ve never heard of outside of ruminants. A chemical produced by one of the stomachs results in a particularly awful odor and taste, leading the locals to nickname it “stinky bird.” The bird isn’t particularly smart either. When its chicks are threatened, they jump into the water, even though carnivorous caimans lurk in the depths.
One thing that surprised me while birdwatching is how similar many Amazonian species are to birds at home. The Neotropic Cormorants looked close enough to the Double-crested Cormorants I saw in my Field Biology class that I could identify the family. Egrets and herons are both common in Round Lake, where my parents kayak. Just as on the Manu River, terns also abound on Machaias Seal Island in Maine.
Along with the birds, we also spotted a number of monkeys. The first was the saddle-backed tamarin (also known as the Brown-mantled tamarin), a small, red-brown monkey. The day before, we had spotted one biting into and sucking on fruit, but we got a much better look this time. A few minutes later, we came across a couple of Titis, very light brown small monkeys, asleep in a tree. Having woken them up, they looked at us curiously, wondering why these large hairless creatures were making noise.
Although most of our wildlife spotting occurred by chance, Fiorella sometimes tried to increase our odds. Thinking she had heard the call of the pygmy marmoset, the smallest Amazonian monkey, she played the call on her iPhone. After hearing a distant response, she played it again. Our back-and-forth paid off when the ball of fuzz appeared briefly, darting between the branches. Also called a “pocket monkey” because of its size, the pygmy marmoset disappeared just as quickly as it showed up.
Although Fiorella had a bunch of MP3s of specific animal calls, one of our boat drivers, Arturro, was nearly as good as the real thing. He was from one of the indigenous communities and appeared intimately familiar with the jungle. He almost never wore shoes and I was grateful for his seemingly intuitive knowledge of the river.
After a few hours, we headed over to the second oxbow lake, about 20 minutes away by boat. Although this one is closed off to visitors, they have an observation platform. From it, we spotted some red howlers across the water, named for their brilliant fur. Fortunately, their size and color made it possible to pick them out from the foliage. They were our best sighting, as the midday sun heated the air and many animals were settling down for their mid-afternoon rest.
We took a slightly longer trail back to the boat, where Fiorella showed us a kapok tree that dwarfed everything else, including us. In contrast to my other “big tree” experience with Yosemite’s redwoods, this had tremendously wide roots, but a much more slender trunk. Some of the indigenous groups believe the spirit of the rainforest lives in the kapok. While this makes sense to me, considering the tree’s sizable presence, it also reminded me of Disney stereotypes.
After lunch, we returned to the lake with two new visitors – a middle-aged man and Joey, his 13-year-old red-headed, freckled son. Joey was nice, albeit incautious about the dangers of the jungle. Wearing Vibram Five-fingers without socks, he discovered he had a fire ant struggling to pinch through his shoe. We removed it, but if the ant had been an inch higher, he would have been in terrible pain. He also had a tendency to ask very 13-year-old boy questions like, “What would happen if the otters gave their alarm call and we kept getting closer to them?”
Nonetheless, the otters must have liked him. Even though only two of the six otters were out on this excursion, they were much bolder than before. They spent most of the time wrestling with each other, playing an otter version of King of the Hill. One would climb up onto a log and the other would tackle and drag her under the water. If one managed to conquer the log and the other didn’t notice, she’d slip off of the log and turn the game around. We suspect they were the two juveniles, and like human teenagers, they never seemed to tire of their game.
Our attention span ran out before theirs did, especially when we heard a huge troop of squirrel and white-fronted capuchin monkeys on the opposite bank. The monkeys had been peacefully resting in the trees when a hawk eagle swooped down and tried to snatch one of them. Although the attempt failed, the monkeys went into panic mode, screeching and moving around to confuse the predator. While that tactic might have worked on the hawk eagle, it drew our attention. We got a good look at least ten monkeys!
Bizarrely, one of the otters didn’t like being ignored. Feeling left out or just curious, he followed the boat all of the way across the lake. He emerged near enough for the drivers to practically touch him. I wonder why he was so intensely interested in us, when he wasn’t earlier?
As dusk settled in, we headed back to the dock. Learning from the day before, we had our headlamps at the ready, accompanied by a giant flashlight Joey was carrying. Getting into the boat to cross the river, we saw the long-nosed bats darting and flitting in the shadows.