Tuesday, July 16, 2019

El Negro, El Negro!

Greetings Everyone,
We are in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon searching for primates, birds and other wildlife while heading upriver in a collective boat from Los Amigos Biological Station (see the previous post) to Pacal Port. It was a pleasant afternoon with sunny skies and calm winds. There were a few other passengers and many crates of eggs, sacks of rice and mining equipment onboard.

Collective Boat

It was getting close to sunset but we had one more stop to make at the village of Mazuko before reaching our destination. It turned out to be a long delay as the boat captain and mate had to unload all the supplies then wait for someone to pay for them. I was anxious to reach Pacal Port by dark and was hoping that our guide would still be waiting to meet us. Finally, someone showed up to sign for the deliveries and the boat was on its way.

Unloading Mining Equipment

We pulled into Pacal Port just as the sun was setting and I was relieved when our guide, Ciro, came up and introduced himself along with our cook, Betty, and boat driver, Lider, who would be with us for most of the remainder of the trip. I was surprised when transferred to another boat for an additional 35-minutes upriver to our final destination for the night at Boca Colorado. I don’t know why the collective boat only goes as far as Pacal Port and not all the way to Boca Colorado. 

By the time our boat docked at Boca Colorado, it was dark and we had to carefully make our way through a maze of boats and up slippery boards to the town with our bags including all the food and water for our stay at Manu Birding Lodge. Ciro was hoping to get a vehicle to take us across town to our hotel but none were available. We started walking carrying heavy loads toward the center of town and were finally able to hail a tuk-tuk to take us the rest of the way.

Tuk-tuk in Boca Colorado

Boca Colorado is very much a frontier town carved out of the Amazon Rainforest to accommodate the thousands of gold miners who have flocked there to seek their fortunes. I was shocked to see the muddy streets lined with shops, restaurants, and houses. Fortunately, our hotel was located in a “quiet” section of town and we’d only be here for one night.

Marc at the Fiori Hotel

I was eager to leave Boca Colorado the next morning and head further upriver past the gold mining operations. No doubt illegal mining is having a disastrous effect on the environment and the people who live here.

Dredging for Gold along the River

About 30 minutes upstream, we left the gold dredging behind and entered an area of pristine rainforest. It was nice to be on our own boat and enjoy the wildlife along the river at our own pace. We observed many birds along the way including  Large-billed Terns, Collared Plovers, Cocoi and Capped Heron, Black Skimmers, Great Egret and several Spectacled Caimans basking on the sandbanks.

Spectacled Caiman

We arrived at Manu Birding Lodge in the early afternoon and settled into our room before heading out to explore the surrounding forest and encountered our first primates, a family of Colombian Red Howlers near the river and later a troop of Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarins near the lodge.

Colombian Red Howler

The next morning our boat took us downriver to the nearby Blanquillo Macaw Clay Lick. When we arrived at the viewing platform, flocks of Blue-headed, Orange-cheeked and Mealey Parrots were already at the clay lick. 

Blue-headed Parrots

It is generally believed that parrots eat clay to neutralize toxins in their diet. A bit of excitement occurred when a Roadside Hawk swooped down and snatched a Tui Parakeet in its talons. Predators are also drawn to these clay licks for an easy meal.

Roadside Hawk with a Tui Parakeet

We spent the remainder of the morning on the viewing platform hoping that the Red-and-Green Macaws would show up in greater numbers but they didn’t. Ciro told us that at this time of year they don’t come in big flocks. On the way back to the lodge, Marc spotted two Capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, on the river bank.


Giant Otters had eluded us on this trip so the following morning we made a visit to Blanco Oxbow Lake for one last attempt to find them. On arrival at the lake, we discovered that the pontoon boat didn’t have any paddles so Lider had to make do with a pole. It was slow going and the lake was large, time was running out as I wanted to get back to the lodge to see the tamarins.  There were many great birds, Hoatzins, Wattled Jacana, Macaws, and the bizarre Horned Screamer but no otters. Finally, I heard them before I spotted them on the far end of the lake. A family of five were fishing and luckily heading back toward the dock so we did our best to keep up with them. Marc used a plate and I used a broom as makeshift paddles but couldn’t get close. The sun angle wasn’t great for photos but at least the otters were found!

Giant Otter

Rushing back to the lodge hoping that the tamarins had not already visited, Ciro told us that the lodge manager, Wilson, puts bananas out daily on a platform to attract the primates. He does this not for the tourists but for his family to enjoy the monkeys. In fact, we were the only guests staying at the lodge who knew about the feeding platform. I was hoping to get a better view of an Emperor Tamarin and waited for them to show up.  Only a troop of Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarins came at 12:35, they were warier than expected even with daily feeding. A heavy rain shower blew in and we sought refuge in the dining room.

Weddell's Saddle-back Tamarins

That afternoon we hiked a mile into the forest to a tapir clay lick where a hide 25-feet above the ground had been built. We decided to spend the night to see what animals visited the clay lick picking 3 mattresses at the far end of the hide as more guests were expected to join us. 

Marc in the Hide

The sun set and I heard voices coming through the forest. Five or maybe six people climbed the stairs to the platform in the darkness - it was hard to tell. Their guide kept telling them to be quiet and show no lights. At 7:10 Ciro said a tapir was in the clay lick but it was invisible in the darkness. At 7:15 a second tapir showed up and finally, I could make out its shape in the rising moonlight. Nobody turned on a light and I wondered if we’d spend the night watching them in the dark. A third tapir showed up at 7:31 and the other group asked if a light could be turned on. Ciro used my light to illuminate the tapir eating clay. We took many photos and it didn’t seem bothered by the light or camera flashes.

South American Tapir

Once the family had seen a tapir they headed back to the lodge. We put down our mosquito nets as a few bats were flying around. Marc and Ciro went to sleep but I got up periodically to check the clay lick with my light. Every time I looked there was a tapir or sometimes two in the clay lick. Sometimes I would wake Marc so he could take photos.  

South American Tapir

I checked the lick until about 2:40 am when it started to rain. At sunrise the next morning, the clay lick was empty. 

Tapir Clay Lick

We packed up our stuff and retrieved a trail cam set up the night before. Upon reviewing the videos, they showed that tapirs visited until 5:30 am and that a Brocket Deer came around 2:40 but I must have just missed it.  Fortunately, the rain had stopped but the trail was muddy. We spotted a few Amazon Red Squirrels, too difficult to photograph in the dense forest. We decided to spend the day around the lodge waiting for the tamarins to show up. In the meantime, Marc photographed hummingbirds and bees in the garden. 

Festive Coquette

We could hear Toppin’s Titi Monkeys and I spotted one in a tree near the lodge. The Yellow-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas were busy nest building. I was hoping that the tamarins would arrive early today but the Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarins returned at about the same time as yesterday. They were very wary so Ciro suggested moving into Wilson’s family’s kitchen to use as a blind. We watched the tamarins as they cautiously came to the platform for bananas. They knew something was different with strangers in the kitchen watching them. Once again only the Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarins showed up. Where were the emperors? The group left and we went to lunch almost an hour late. 

Delicious Lunch

After lunch, we resumed our tamarin stakeout. A second group arrived around 3:30. Wilson and his wife were in their kitchen and invited us to come in to watch the second group. Once again it appeared to be just Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarins but Wilson’s wife whispered  “el negro, el negro”. We all saw it about the same time, a smaller all-black monkey hanging out in the back but in the open on a horizontal tree branch. I told Marc to take the photo! It was the extremely rare Goeldi’s Monkey! Ciro had said that they came to the feeding platform but I didn’t believe him. The monkey sat in the open affording us great views and photographic opportunities.

Goeldi's Monkey

Apparently, Wilson’s wife knew that this monkey was different but she had no idea how rare it was. The second group left and we waited for the third group which apparently has two Emperor Tamarins.  However it was 4:30 and time to let the family have their kitchen back. Thanking them for allowing us the opportunity to see this rare marmoset. I was overcome with emotion and was on the brink of tears. Now, the family knows how special this monkey is!

Goeldi's Monkey

After dinner, we set off to look for the Forest Rabbit or Tapeti that lived in the garden. Not finding any, we continued down a trail to look for other nocturnal mammals. At first, it was quiet but then heard something moving through the trees. They were Black-headed Night Monkeys! Finally, they paused long enough for Marc to get some decent photos.

Black-headed Night Monkey

Ciro joined us and was happy that we had finally got good photos of the night monkeys. I had my light but totally forgot my binoculars. It’s difficult to shine my light for Marc to get photos and to use my binoculars at the same time. Upon review of the photos we found that Marc had also captured an Eastern Lowland Olingo! No wonder the night monkeys were so agitated.

Eastern Lowland Olingo

The following day we made the long journey back to Cusco. Thunderstorms with heavy downpours had moved through during the night but were now tapering off. At 5:30 am we left the lodge for Boca Colorado.  It rained off and on our downriver trip but we stayed dry. On the way, Ciro spotted a Brown Agouti feeding on the shore and Marc was able to get some good photos. 

Brown Agouti

We arrived at Boca Colorado around 8:00 and had to negotiate mud and a slick board to get to our awaiting vehicle. 

Ciro and Lider Helping Marc

Saying goodbye to Lider, we piled into a pickup truck along with Ciro and Betty for a 1-hour drive to a river crossing. Upon reaching the river we transferred to a small boat for the crossing. It was very shallow and a bit tricky to maneuver the boat past rocky shoals. On the other side, another vehicle was waiting for us. We said goodbye to Betty as she was to take the bus back to Cusco from here.

Last Boat Ride

A taxi took us along with Ciro to Puerto Maldonado and joined the paved road from Cusco when I drifted off to sleep. The driver dropped us off at the airport where we said goodbye to Ciro and checked into our flight to Cusco with little time to spare. We’d like to thank Ciro for his tireless energy in trying to find all the animals on our wish list. Our sincere gratitude goes to Betty for cooking us delicious meals lovingly presented and to Lider who skillfully drove our boat and poled us across Blanco Lake to see the otters. What a hard-working team who went out of their way to make us happy!

Tomorrow we’d fly home to conclude an amazing trip to Peru. 

We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

    Peru Mammal List: June 21 - July 18, 2019

No.         Species Scientific Name  Comments
 1Mountain Viscacha Lagidium viscacia Machu Picchu 
 2Shock-headed Capuchin Cebus cuscinusLos Amigos 
 3Large-headed Capuchin Sapajus macrocephalus Los Amigos, MBL 
 4Gray’s Bald-faced SakiPithecia irrorataLos Amigos 
 5Toppin’s TitiPlecturocebus toppiniLos Amigos, MBL
 6Black-faced Black Spider Monkey Ateles chamekLos Amigos 
 7 Colombian Red Howler MonkeyAlouatta seniculusLos Amigos, MBL
 8Bolivian/Peruvian Squirrel Monkey Saimiri boliviensisLos Amigos, MBL
 9Weddell’s Saddle-back TamarinSaguinus fuscicollis ssp. weddelli Los Amigos, MBL
 10Bearded Emperor TamarinSaguinus imperator ssp. subgrisescensLos Amigos 
 11Black-headed Night MonkeyAotus nigricepsLos Amigos, MBL
 12Goeldi’s MarmosetCallimico goeldiiMBL
 13Bicolor-spined Porcupine Coendou bicolorLos Amigos 
 14Forest Rabbit (Tapeti)Sylvilagus brasiliensisLos Amigos, MBL
 15Amazonian Brown Brocket Mazama nemorivagaLos Amigos 
 16TayraEira barbaraLos Amigos 
 17South American CoatiNasua nasuaLos Amigos 
 18Eastern Lowland OlingoBassaricyon alleniMBL
 19Brown AgoutiDasyprocta variegataLos Amigos River
 20Collared PeccaryPecari tajacuBlanquillo Claylick
 21CapybaraHydrochoerus hydrochaerisLos Amigos River
 22South American TapirTapirus terrestrisLos Amigos, MBL
 23Giant OtterPteronura brasiliensisBlanco Lake
 24Amazon Red Squirrel Sciurus spadiceus or igniventriMBL
 25Mousesp.?MBL clay lick
 27Batsp.?Los Amigos, MBL
 28PumaPuma concolorLos Amigos 
 29Lowland PacaCuniculus pacaLos Amigos 

           For the 140 bird species seen and photographed by Marc go to his list on iNaturalist:

Peru Bird List w/Photos

Our route map:

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Striking Gold in the Madre de Dios

Greetings Everyone,
After a very successful trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, it was time to venture into the Amazon to look for wildlife. A short flight took us from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado located at the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios Rivers. Like Cusco, Puerto Maldonado has grown tremendously since our last visit in 2001 and can now be reached by road from Cusco. It was raining as we checked into our hotel for the night.

Flying into Puerto Maldonado

The following morning we were met bright and early by Cesar, our guide for our trip up the Madre de Dios River to the Los Amigos Biological Station (or CICRA) where we would spend the next 5 nights in search of primates and other wildlife. A van delivered us to Puerto Laberinto where we would catch a collective boat upriver. It was a crazy place with locals dropping stuff off to be delivered along the way. A woman with a microphone seemed to be in charge. She was announcing arrivals and departures of various boats or so I assumed. Finally, it was time to board and Cesar said we should sit in the far back. We were the only two tourists on the boat. It was filled with a lot of stuff for delivery including chickens in a cardboard box, sacks of potatoes, eggs, bottles of coke and beer, napkins and mining equipment. Cesar explained that the locals were mining for gold all along the Madre de Dios River and that these people were going to their camps. 

Collective Boat

Just when I thought we were ready to leave, someone would pull up with more stuff to load into the boat. Finally, we were underway. It was a cold, gray day as a friaje or cold front was moving through. As we picked up speed, the wind blew spray into the boat. The people up front were getting drenched. Now I know why Cesar suggested we sit in the back. Fortunately, we had our Windstopper and rain jackets to keep us warm and dry. There was also a tarp along each side of the boat that people pulled over them. 

Staying Dry

We stopped here and there along the way to let a person or two off at a mining camp. At one camp the poor mate and the boat captain had to move the heavy mining equipment off the boat by themselves. They used ropes to pull or boards as levers without help from the village.

Gold Mining Equipment Delivery

We arrived at the village of Boca Amigos and finally, men from the village came to help hoist the heavy sacks of potatoes up the steep wooden stairs. By this time most of the passengers had already disembarked but the chickens were still hanging on in their cardboard box. 

 Potatoes Delivery

We left Boca Amigos and 10 minutes later we were at Los Amigos Biological Station. Established in 2000, Los Amigos is a 360,000-acre training site for young scientists and conservationists. 

Los Amigos Biological Station

A staff member was at the boat launch to meet us and carried our duffels up a steep set of wooden stairs to the lodge. We were shown to our cabin set high on the bank of the river.

Our Cabin

It was a roomy cabin with both a double and a twin bed, a desk and chair, two luggage racks and a large private bathroom. We’d be very comfortable here for the next 5 nights. 

Inside Our Cabin

We settled in then went to the dining room for lunch. There were five large wooden tables and we had our own. We were served by the chef which was a bit upscale from the researchers, students, and volunteers who had to go to a window to be served. There were maybe 15 other people here including Arianna, the station manager. 

Dining Room at Los Amigos

After lunch, we headed out to explore some nearby trails in the forest. We spotted some interesting birds but the only mammal seen were two Shock-headed Capuchins. It turned out that these monkeys are not readily seen in the area and we were lucky to find them on our first afternoon out. 

Shock-headed Capuchin

Late that night, I was awoken by a chattering sound. I went outside to investigate and found a porcupine foraging under our cabin. I woke Marc and told him to grab his camera. He was able to get some great shots at close range of this bizarre-looking creature. It turned out to be a Bicolor-spined Porcupine, a lifer for us!

Bicolor-spined Porcupine 

Some early morning birding yielded a Bluish-fronted Jacamar. Marc caught him tossing a butterfly into the air before getting it just at the right angle to swallow!

Bluish-fronted Jacamar

We spent the next 4 days exploring the trails around the station in search of the remaining 10 species of monkeys that are known to inhabit the area. Surprisingly, 9 species were found very near to the station, many on a road that led to the river and we came to refer to it as “Monkey Alley”. Our first close encounter was with a family of Toppin’s Titi foraging in a tree next to the road. These tiny, inquisitive monkeys were first described 100 years ago but until recently had not been studied.

Toppin’s Titi

Also feeding in the forest along the road was a large troop of Black-faced Black Spider Monkeys, another new species for us. These endangered primates swung gracefully through the trees using their long limbs and strong prehensile tails.

Black-faced Black Spider Monkey

Also encountered was a second species of Capuchin Monkeys, the Large-headed Capuchins. We watched as the youngsters ripped thin branches from the trees to chew off the tender bark.

Large-headed Capuchin

Amazingly, a fourth species of monkey, the Bolivian/Peruvian Squirrel Monkey, was foraging in the mix. They leaped high across the road from one tree to another with great agility and precision.

Leaping Squirrel Monkey

In the afternoon we hiked to Cocho Lobo, an oxbow lake, in search of the resident Giant Otters. Unfortunately, the otters weren’t at home but we did find another group of Black-faced Black Spider Monkeys foraging in fruiting trees and the prehistoric Hoatzins huffing in the bushes.


On the walk back from the lake, Cesar found our 6th species of primate, Gray’s Bald-faced Saki! Why a monkey would evolve with such a thick, furry coat in the hot tropics is beyond me.

Gray’s Bald-faced Saki

Back at our cabin, some of the students were watching something from a nearby bench. It turned out to be a family of Colombian Red Howler Monkeys feeding in the trees below the river bank.

Colombian Red Howler Monkeys

We had now seen 7 species of monkey but where were the tamarins? The Emperor Tamarin, in particular, was the species that I most wanted to see. Fortunately, we had a few more days to find them.

The next day while exploring the trail to the airstrip we found some rather large scat. We speculated that it may have been left by a Jaguar! A trail cam strategically placed revealed the culprit when he returned to bury his droppings.


We revisited “Monkey Alley” and this time we got lucky, a troop of Emperor Tamarins was scurrying along tree branches! Allegedly named for the German Emperor Wilhelm II, I couldn’t see the resemblance since the tamarins’ mustaches droop down and Wilhelm’s is plastered up. 

Emperor Tamarin

We followed them back to the lodge where they were joined by a second species of tamarin, Weddell’s Saddleback Tamarin. We noticed that they were tagged with colored beads. When we returned to the station we chatted with one of the researchers, Dr. Mini Watsa. She was teaching a course entitled “Long-term Primate Field Studies: Behavioral, Parasitological and Spatial Monitoring”. The tamarins had been tagged as part of this study.

Weddell’s Saddleback Tamarin

Emperor Tamarin

That evening we returned to our favorite viewpoint overlooking the Madre de Dios River for sunset. As I was scanning the far shore with my binoculars I saw a Tayra, a large member of the weasel family, looking for a meal along the river bank. It was too far for a good photo but the sun setting over the river was much easier to capture.

Sunset Over the Madre de Dios River

After dinner, we donned our headlamps to look for nocturnal mammals around the station. So far we had only caught glimpses of Forest Rabbits (Tapeti), a Paca and a few other unidentifiable rodents. Finally, we got a decent look at a Black-headed Night Monkey, our 10th species of primate! They proved to be quite shy and it was difficult to get a photo with one looking at us.

Black-headed Night Monkey

A third visit to "Monkey Alley" paid off with a very close encounter with Gray’s Bald-faced Sakis. I had read that other groups had found them difficult to find, walking many miles to locate them. Yet here they were literally hanging out in the trees above our heads very near to the station.

Gray’s Bald-faced Saki

We knew it was a long shot, but we were still hoping to find the 11th species of Monkey, Goeldi’s Marmoset. I asked Arianna when was the last time she has seen one and she replied that it was months ago. Often referred to as a ghost because of the scarcity of sightings, we had no luck with spotting this rare monkey. We didn’t leave disappointed though. We had seen 10 of the 11 primate species found in the area plus a whole host of birds and other wildlife. Maybe we didn’t find gold in the classic sense but we sure struck it rich with incredible wildlife sightings. A big thank you goes to Cesar our guide who helped us find an amazing array of animals and birds.

Marc and Cesar

We were grateful to Arianna and the staff at Los Amigos for providing us with tasty meals and a comfortable stay. We bade a fond farewell as we continued our journey upriver to our next destination. Stay tuned to see what treasures await us at Manu Birding Lodge.
We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

Our route map: