First of all I’ll explain the phases. We are spending most of our time in the field in ARCC (Amazon Research and Conservation Centre). It’s currently a tourist lodge based along the Las Piedras River in Madre de Dios. To get there from The Fauna Forever house based in Puerto Maldonado it takes between 5 and 10 hours first travelling by car and then by boat up the river. This is all weather-dependant so if it has rained a lot then the roads are closed and we have to take a longer boat ride which increases the overall travelling time.
This long travelling time means it makes sense to stay in the jungle for phases of about a month before coming back to town to restock on snacks, toiletries and use the internet. Whilst in the field there is currently no internet access and the only contact to the outside world is either by radio or sending an old fashioned letter down with one of the supply boats. This seclusion is amazing and when I first woke up to the sounds and sights of the jungle (having arrived in the night so not really seeing anything) it was a surreal experience. Being away from the girlfriend, friends and family does wear on you after a while but there are always things to keep you busy in the jungle.
During the first 10 days I pretty much felt like a kid in a candy store (excuse the American-ness). There was so much to explore and learn, and learn I did.
Of course the first time I tried to sharpen a machete I chopped the top of my thumb off despite being told to sharpen away from the blade. It was however extremely cool (at first) to be given a massive knife and told to slice my way through the jungle but the novelty somewhat wore off after cutting my first herp transect for Brian (herpetology coordinator) and having to nurse my blisters for the rest of the phase. Harry came off worse than me whilst clearing a trail for a pitfall trap (I’ll let Harry explain pitfall traps). Somehow he managed to let a machete slip out of his hand only to have it deflected into his arm by a tree for the first of many injuries Harry would receive. This all happened after the health and safely talk in which we were told to wear lanyard to avoid these accidents.
Animals were the main reason we all came to Peru and it did not disappoint! The diversity and abundance of birds, mammals and herpatofauna is unbelievable in ARCC! We used this introductory phase to experience as much as we could of everything and start to choose our projects. It was clear after a few days that Harry wanted to concentrate on herps, whilst Freddie and I leaned towards birds.
I think the sheer number of species of birds swayed me and I was becoming a lot more interested in the morning mist netting sessions with Jaun (ornithology coordinator), despite the ridiculous hour of 04.30 we have to be up for breakfast.
For those that don’t know, mist netting is where a series of big nets of about 12m long and 3m high are set up on poles along transects (trails) to with the objective of catching birds to try and measure diversity and in long term studies abundance and population of birds in the area. The nets are very thin and especially in the shade of the forest are very hard to see, hence the name mist nets.
Once the bird is extracted from the net we firstly put a small aluminium ring, with a specific code on, around the birds tarsus (leg), so that if caught again the bird can be identified. We then take a series of general body measurements as well as more complex data such as cloacal protrusion and brood patch of the bird, which helps determine the sex, and juvenile plumage and molt limits of the feathers, which helps determine age and the stage of feather growth.
There’s so much to describe about ARCC, but I don’t want to bore people. However, one of the main attractions of this particular site is the beautiful Lago Soledad or the Lake of Solitude. It’s home to a family of 6 Giant River Otters which are a spectacular and scary sight when they venture close to the boat. A whole host of Black Caiman also call the lake their home; some with sizes in excess of 4m which is again a spectacular and terrifying sight! Piranha and many other fish species are a sight in themselves but it’s the birds they attract which transfix me the most. From the numerous cormorants splashing along the water surface to the solitary osprey that soars above, they really are awe inspiring!
Other on-going projects which we were tagging along in -and probably annoying the hell out of the coordinator with our lack of knowledge about- include Brian’s pitfall traps and herp night walks to try and find as many species of amphibians and reptiles as possible. This meant we got to have a go at hands-on catching of frogs, lizards and snakes (mainly leaving these to Brian) which made me feel very manly/ very flinchy when a little harmless vine snake would try to bite my arm. Lucy’s camera trapping project produced some amazing footage of the larger elusive mammals that are harder to see like jaguars, ocelots, pumas, tapirs and a lot of rats and her Black caiman project had us looking down cabradas (streams) and on the lake both catching and taking non-invasive measurements to try and find population size and looking for a relationship between the size of the head and the size of the rest of the body. Juan’s bird walks were brilliant and since we’d never been in the Amazon before all the birds we saw were new and I’ve already mentioned the mist netting project with Juan.
Wrapping up this first phase we had to seriously start thinking about potential projects and working with birds was a definite for me but it was a question of which species or technique in particular. Freddie was pretty set on mist netting and Harry on the pit fall traps but my ideas were still a bit up in the air. I wanted to continue with the mist netting because we were seeing so many new birds and learning all the techniques so I’ve stuck with that throughout which is contributing to the coffee addiction I’m developing but what would I chose to do my project on. Check out my next blog for the answer to this enthralling cliff-hanger. dun dun duuuun………