Sunday, November 30, 2014

Phantoms of the Flooded Forest

Greetings All,
We woke to a beautiful view of Lake Tefe from our hotel room at Pousada Multicultura.  Tefe is a town of 60,000 people located around 400 miles up the Amazon from Manaus.

Lake Tefe

We spent a quiet morning in Tefe before meeting our naturalist guides, Fernanda and Aline, and transferred by boat to Mamiraua Reserve, our final destination.  We were joined by a couple from France and a German man for the one-hour boat ride up the Solimoes River turning off on the Mamiraua Channel which leads to Uakari Floating Lodge, our home for the next week.  The entire lodge floats on rafts at a bend in the channel.  

Uakari Floating Lodge

Fernanda introduced us to the staff and we settled into cabin #4 overlooking the channel.  A Great Egret, Rufescent Tiger Heron and Striated Heron hung out on the walkways connecting the bungalows.

Striated Heron

Many fish, including the Arapaima or the Piracacu as it is called here, and the "Monkey Fish" or Arowana splashed in the lagoon.  The Pirarucu is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and can grow up to 10 feet in length and weigh as much as 400 pounds!   It was once hunted to near extinction but now thanks in part to the creation of the reserve, it's numbers are increasing.  The 'Monkey Fish" have two long tentacles or barbels  protruding from their mouths.  The males use these strange appendages to herd their offspring into their mouth for safe keeping!


It felt like we had arrived in paradise.  We took a walk in the jungle on the Interpretive Trail.  The forest here is very unique.   For three months, from May-July, the forest is completely flooded and is known as the Varzea.  The water rises by as much as 10 - 15 meters (30 - 50 feet!) submerging everything lower.  Plants and animals have to adapt to this annual flooding to survive.   As a result the plant diversity is lower and the trees are smaller here than in the rainforest on Terra Firma.  A large tree had broken off blocking the trail and as we went around our local guide spotted a Brown-throated Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus) on the trunk!  Sloths are difficult to see in the forest, cultivating green algae in their fur as camouflage, but for some reason this one chose to climb up the short trunk of the tree that had broken off.  Perhaps it had made its weekly trip to the forest floor to defecate and simply climbed back up the wrong tree.  Lucky for us as we got great views and photos.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

The next morning we woke to the sound of rain.  We hung out on the deck surrounding the restaurant watching the Hoatzins trying to stay dry.  Hoatzins are strange looking birds, considered by some to be descended from the Archaeopteryx or the "original bird" transitional between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds.  Feathers protrude from their heads resembling a punk hairdo.


Hoatzins are comically poor fliers but the chicks are strong swimmers and when threatened employ the unique strategy of tumbling into the water below, swimming to the nearest tree and climbing out using claws at the bend of their wings, just like prehistoric Archaeopteryx!

Finally the rain let up and Marc and I went for a walk in the Varzea.  It was difficult to spot animals in the canopy but we managed to see some forest birds including this brightly colored Scarlet-crowned Barbet.

Scarlet-crowned Barbet

Suddenly, out local guide Markuinho became very excited.  "Uakari, Uakari" he called to us in a hushed tone.  Sure enough there he was high up in the canopy, one of the rarest monkeys in the world and the reason we had come to Mamiraua.  The White Bald-headed Uakari (Cacajao calvus calvus) is a strange New World monkey with thick white fur, a bright red bald head and a stumpy tail.  I could barely make him out with my binoculars but somehow Marc was able to capture a photo.

First Glimpse of a White Bald-headed Uakari 

Back in 1983 a Brazilian primatologist, Dr. Jose Marcio Arys, came to Mamiraua to study the White Bald-headed Uakari.  He found that they have a very restricted range and that in order to save the Uakari, their habitat must be protected.  In 1990 the Government of the State of Amazonas declared the Mamiraua an ecological station where 90% of the land was strictly protected and 10% allocated for research.  Thousands of people had been living in the reserve and now had to be forcibly relocated. Six years later a compromise was reached when Mamiraua Ecological Station was changed to Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve, the first of its kind in Brazil.  Here is a map of the reserve with more than one million hectares of Varzea protected. 

Map of Mamiraua Reserve

The model is simple.  People are allowed to live in the reserve and extract resources such as trees, fish and certain wildlife on a sustainable basis.  Ecotourism is allowed in certain areas and contributes to the livelihood of the local people.  The challenge for the future is to develop a management plan based on science and to stick to the allowed quotas.  Right now the state does not provide resources for enforcement and it is left up to the local communities to protect their natural resources.  We returned to the lodge happy that we had at least seen a glimpse of the Uakari.

The next day we continued our search for the Uakaris but only got a quick peek at one from our canoe tour.  We weren't ignoring the other animals.  Another monkey endemic to Mamiraua is the Black Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri vanzolinii).  Unlike it's more common cousin, the Common Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri sciureus), the Black Squirrel Monkey has a black head and a black line that runs from the crown to the tip of the tail.  Both species live in Mamiraua and Marc was able to photograph both for comparison.

Black Squirrel Monkey and Common Squirrel Monkey

The following afternoon a surprise awaited us, a visit to Mamiraua Lake.  As we entered the lake we stopped to check out a troop of Black Squirrel Monkeys when one of the guides spotted some Uakaris on the other side of the lake!  Finally, Uakaris that were out in the open for more than a few seconds.

White or Bald Uakari

We watched as they forged high in the canopy feeding on seeds and fruit.  For such a large monkey without a prehensile tail, they are quite agile.  We watched them for a good 20 minutes before they disappeared into the forest. By now dusk was approaching and we stayed at the lake to enjoy a glorious sunset.

Sunset over Lake Mamiraua

The Black Skimmers appeared flying low over the surface of the lake to scoop up fish in their long bills.

Black Skimmer

Markuniho pulled out the spot light so we could see the many Black Caimans plying the lake looking for a meal.

Black Caiman

We arrived back at the lodge for a late dinner after a very memorable visit to Lake Mamiraua.  

The next morning we explored another area of the reserve in search of more wildlife.  A tree had fallen over a narrow channel blocking the entrance to a small lake.  We maneuvered under it and entered a lake full of Great Egrets, Wattled Jacanas and the bizarre Horned Screamer.  At first I thought there was a stick coming out of the head of one of the birds but all the birds have it.  It's not a feather or a quill but is a cornified structure that is loosely attached to the skull and grows continuously.  This gives the species it's name and some refer to this strange bird as the "unicorn of the avian world".

Horned Screamer

Colorful Yellow-hooded Blackbirds were fluttering about in the floating meadows singing a melodious tune.

Yellow-hooded Blackbird

That afternoon we were treated to great views of a Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus) family feeding in some cecropia trees close to the lodge.  A youngster broke off a branch with large umbrella-shaped leaves and attempted to stuff the whole thing in his mouth.

Red Howler Monkey

Up one of the main channels Markuniho spotted two Uakaris in the open high up in a tree.  We got a good look, particularly of their stumpy tails, as they came down the main branches and into the security of the deep forest.

White Bald-headed Uakari

We possibly spotted the same two Uakaris on a hike in the same area the following morning.  Wow, we were so fortunate to get five sightings of the elusive White Bald-headed Uakari!  That afternoon we returned to Lake Mamiraua to explore some of the backwater lagoons.  To our amazement there were many Pink River Dolphins in the Lake.  It's difficult to get a good view of them as the surface quickly to breathe but this afternoon they were putting on quite a show!  At one point our boat was surrounded by the playful dolphins and Marc managed to get some decent photos.

Pink River Dolphin

As we continued into one of the back swamps we could hear many birds chirping in the reeds.  Suddenly, we flushed a large flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  The sky filled with hundreds of birds as we motored deeper into the lagoon.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Back at the lodge we had two guests for dinner, Dr. Tony Martin from the University of Dundee in Scotland and a Brazilian vet.  They were in the Reserve working on the Boto (Pink River Dolphin) Project.  Every November Tony comes to capture dolphins and mark them so individuals can be identified.  We were wondering how letters and numbers got on some of the dolphins in Marc's photos and now we knew.

Marked Pink River Dolphin

The dolphins are actually branded, not very pleasant but the only way the dolphins can be identified without recapturing them.  Tony has been coming to the reserve since 1994 and has made some startling discoveries about the dolphins.  Most important and quite sobering is that their numbers in the reserve are going down.  In 2000 there were about 13,000 dolphins.  Today only half remain.  Hundreds are killed every year and used as bait to catch catfish!  It turns out that the dolphins were the true winner of the World Cup.  Hosting this major sporting event focused the world's attention on Brazil and the plight of the dolphins received much attention.  As of January 2015, the fishery leading to the killing of Botos will be banned.  Yeah!  

All too quickly our week at Mamiraua has come to an end.  What an amazing place where White Uakaris still swing through the high rainforest canopy, Botos glide through the murky waters and Jaguars stalk the jungle trails.  Not all the phantoms of the flooded forest are easy to see but it's nice knowing they are there!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Slow Boat to Tefe

Greetings All,
From the Arctic to the Amazon!  We are in Brazil exploring the central Amazon region.  Our journey started in Manaus, just a 5-hour flight from Miami.  Manaus is a bustling city of 2 million people in the heart of the Amazon.  Here is a map showing where Manaus is located in Brazil.

Map of Brazil Showing the Location of Manaus

The city owes it's existence to the rubber boom that took place at the end of the 19th century.  The most iconic site in Manaus is the Opera House, that's right - an opera house, in the middle of the rainforest.

Manaus Opera House

The wealthy rubber barons from Europe wanted to bring the culture of their homes to the Amazon. They constructed an opera house with ornate balconies, columns and murals painted on the ceiling.

Murals on the Ceiling of the Dome

Balconies of the Opera House

Opened in 1896, the Opera House is still in use.  We spent 2 nights in Manaus at the Hotel Tropical which is also the site of a zoo.  It was sad to see the animals of the rainforest in small cages but they appeared healthy and well cared for.  It provided a good introduction to some of the animals we were likely to see such as squirrel, capuchin and howler monkeys, macaws and parrots and other birds as well as jaguars and an ocelot that we would be extremely lucky to see.  Suddenly, I noticed that a monkey had escaped from his cage!  A closer look revealed a small troop of black and white monkeys visiting the zoo. When we looked them up we discovered they were pied tamarins (Saguinus bicolor), an endangered primate species found in a restricted area in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest!  Here they were just outside our hotel in Manaus!

Pied Tamarin
Early the next morning we took a taxi to the New Manaus Dock to pick up our riverboat, the Rei Davi, for the trip up the Amazon to Tefe.  When we arrived at the dock at 5AM, it was bustling at this early hour and our driver wasn't sure where to drop us off.  He asked a few dock workers who pointed to a yellow dock on the river below and left us in the middle of the chaos to find our boat. We climbed down some steep stairs to the dock and searched for the Rei Davi but there were no boats there with this name.

Has Anyone Seen the Rei Davi?

We asked around and finally understood that the boat had not yet arrived but would come at 6AM. To my relief we finally saw a large riverboat approaching and I could just make out Rei Davi written on the bow.

The Rei Davi Approaches

We clambered aboard even before the boat had docked and climbed to the top deck to look for a cabin but they all appeared occupied.  Marc returned to the dock and found a man issuing tickets and he gave Marc the key to suite #5, located on mid deck.  When we opened the door I was shocked.  It was a metal box with twin bunks, a plastic chair and nothing more. 

Our Suite, Aka "The Box" 

Yikes, I thought we should have opted to bring a hammock like most of the locals.  At least we had a secure space to lock our duffles and packs and went to the top deck to hang out.  There were fewer people here and we settled into plastic chairs for the long voyage to Tefe. 

Marc Settling in for the Long Voyage to Tefe

Finally, we were underway and left the sprawling city of Manaus behind.

Leaving Manaus

We headed south at first along the Rio Negro to the confluence with the Rio Solimoes, then headed west along the Solimoes, the main tributary of the Amazon.

Map of our Voyage from Manaus to Tefe

The river here is about 3 miles wide and is very developed.  Most of the forest along the banks had been cut down to make way for villages. Every once in a while we'd pass larger towns, certainly not what I expected in the heart of the Amazon.  It began to rain and we moved our plastic chairs under a roof.  Most of the locals sought refuge in their hammocks.

The Locals Sleep in Hammocks

There isn't much wildlife along this stretch of the river but amazingly we caught glimpses of gray river dolphins. 

Gray River Dolphin

We had been advised not to eat the food on board as some tourists recently got ill.  We had purchased nuts, crackers and sandwiches for the journey from a store near our hotel on the previous day.  After the sunset we joined the locals to watch TV showing Brazilian soap operas and comedy shows.  I couldn't understand a word of Portugese but it was still entertaining.  Around 10PM I couldn't stay awake any longer. We had been on the river 10 hours and had only traveled 100 miles, just 300 more miles to go!  I reluctantly returned to our suite (aka "The Box") to sleep.  Fortunately, we had brought our silk liners, the sheets didn't look too clean but there was air conditioning!  Around 1AM we awoke to 3 blasts from the ship's horn.  There was music blaring as we came to a stop.  "Where in the world are we" I groggily thought, "we can't be in Tefe yet".  Marc got up to investigate and found we were in Codajas, about the halfway point.  We let some passengers off and others got on.  We resumed our course and I drifted back to sleep.
We awoke around 6AM the next morning, almost 24 hours into our journey.  I couldn't wait to escape "The Box" and returned to the top deck for some fresh air.  The weather had cleared and there was less development along the river, "now this is more like it," I thought with relief.  We retrieved our plastic chairs and continued our watch of life along the Amazon.

Marc back in our Plastic Chairs

The larger towns had given way to small communities of Ribeirinhos or people who live along the river.

Typical Ribeirinhos' House

Most eke out a living fishing and growing bananas, manioc and corn along the river banks.

Ribeirinhos Fishing

We switched from side to side of the boat as the sun direction changed or to get a closer look along the shore.  We chatted with the only other westerners on board (the boat holds up to 533 people), a couple headed to Tefe to do volunteer work.  Around noon we arrived at Coari to let passengers off and on.

Dock at Coari

There were some pink river dolphins swimming about but we only got glimpses as they came to the surface to breathe.

Pink River Dolphin
As we continued up the river the settlements became smaller and further apart.  Some of the locals passed the time playing cards, watching soccer on the TV or snoozing in their hammocks.  We just sat in our plastic chairs taking it all in.  As the sun set for a second time I really wanted to be off this boat.  We were moving at 11 mph and at this rate would not reach Tefe until around 10PM.  Finally, after 40 hours of boat travel the lights of Tefe came into view.  Music was blaring to greet our arrival and we were among the first to disembark.  We grabbed the first taxi, an ancient pickup truck with a slightly drunk driver and told him to take us the Hotel Multicultura.  At first he didn't understand but when we wrote it down he seemed to know the place.  Marc climbed in the back with our luggage and I in the front with our driver.  I had to remind him where we were going as he seemed to have forgotten after 5 minutes.  Finally, around 11PM we arrived at the hotel.  We had survived the slow boat to Tefe!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc