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


Aline Alegria Marinelli said...

Eee! Very nice! It was nice have you here, enjoying and appreciating so much! I'm happy to be able to follow you here.. Around the world.. Good lucky, always! I hope to see you again somewhere.. Especially 'cause I know that this "somewhere" would certainly be a wonderful place!

Anonymous said...

We traveled to this amazing place in 2014 as well, but during the high-water season. A very nice write-up and your wildlife photos are fantastic. Thanks for sharing.