11 September 2011

The Amazon: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

A bird flies across the evening sky some distance away; Miguel calls out to Jairo and revs the outboard motor, steering the canoe towards the tree where the bird landed. Another of the birds crosses. In silhouette, it looks a little like a small, heavy-billed stork, but the identification doesn't click until Jairo tells us — it's a white-throated toucan, the largest of the toucans in this area. Another first for me; not just the species, but the group — the first toucan I've ever seen.

But I wonder about what it means to say I've seen a white-throated toucan. The silhouettes of birds flying in the darkening sky; a few seconds during which I didn't even know what I was looking at? This is an aspect of the birds, but not the same as a protracted period of watching, noting the shape, the colours, the behaviour; listening to the calls, watching them feed. Sometimes the brevity of an encounter's inevitable — I remember the momentary glimpses of botos (freshwater dolphins) breaking the surface of the river, and the second or two as the otter slipped into the water (a sighting, Jairo says, about as rare in this area as seeing a jaguar) — and perhaps this is bordering on semantics — I saw the bird but don't know it — but the substance of my frustration remains.

Sometimes, however, second chances arrive. At the laguna I finally get a good look at Greater anis, after missing the earlier sightings of these strange, long-tailed, heavy-billed birds. We see botos again, too, as we start fishing for piraña (I catch eight, and try to put them back with as little harm as possible to the fish and my fingers) but if we hadn't seen the documentaries, we'd have no idea what these river dolphins looked like. For us, they're a splash, a gasp, a glimpse of a pale greyish-pink hump, ripples spreading; nothing more. Later we move to the middle of the lagoon and swim in the murky water, with much nervous joking about swimming with pirañas. I'm glad I've seen the documentaries and read Richard Conniff's excellent book, and in truth I don't feel at all apprehensive, even when Jairo tells us the lagoon's also home to stingrays and electric eels. I assume he and Miguel wouldn't be swimming if the risk was worth considering. Besides, the water feels lovely. The laguna has a distinct thermocline, a layer of warm, almost bath-like water over much colder water. After the first few people have stirred it up, the water becomes a patchwork of cold and warm — a curious sensation.

By the third evening I realise I'll miss these swims — the feeling of being in the water, the knowledge I'm swimming in one of the innumerable headwaters of the giant, wonderful Amazon, surrounded by everything from caimans and pirañas to monkeys (we've seen five species: squirrel monkeys, white-throated capuchins, woolly monkeys, sakis, and a pair of night monkeys), gorgeous tarantulas and countless birds, including the weird hoatzins that fascinated me almost from the time I developed an interest in birds, meaning almost as far back as I can remember. I'll miss the social aspect of larking about with friends, too. I've been lucky with this group, some of whom I've known only for a few days, the others a few weeks at most.

That question again — what does it mean to say you know someone? People can go for years without getting past the stage of saying "Hi", yet strong and lasting friendships can develop within a matter of days. Circumstances can influence this; the intensity of the situation can forge friendships remarkably fast, and in the same way, the intensity of an encounter determines what one sees. I could have looked at white-throated toucans in a zoo, but could I justifiably say I'd seen them? The tendency to think of things — animals, in this case — as objects in an environment seems to miss the point: they're part of their environment and when they're removed from it, they're incomplete and so is that environment. Perhaps this is a rationalisation of not having seen white-throated toucans close up and in detail, but for me it's a consolation. I've seen white-throated toucans, not as specimens or objects for inspection, but on their terms, as an integral part of their environment: flying in the warm dusk over the Laguna Grande.

1. "Jairo" is pronounced, roughly, "HAI roh". Our guide for the whole four days, he speaks excellent English, has a degree in ecology, and did an excellent job. 
2. I wrote this post from journal notes while on Isabela Island in the Galapagos. If it’s a little rough and lacks links, it’s because I’d rather be out enjoying the wildlife ;^) [Update: added the link to Richard Conniff's book. I think he's a wonderful writer,]

1. Red-bellied piranha
2. Samona Lodge, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
3. Ruby dart frog.
4. Jairo and a friend from a nearby lodge wait for night on the Laguna Grande so we can look for caimans. We found them, including a very large black caiman.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

Pete, I had never heard of hoatzins! What an enigmatic, unusual bird! (did you hear them make any sounds or smell them?)
Your writing (as always!) is stellar (links or no links).
Also, do you ever make any short videos? The sounds must be incredible. Hasta pronto. Maureen

Zhoen said...

And the Amazon is more than expected as well.


pohanginapete said...

Maureen, thanks! We didn't get close enough to smell them (and the smell might only be obvious if they've been killed and opened up), but we certainly heard them. The sounds they make — much hissing and wheezing and croaking — seemed just as prehistoric as their appearance.
    I've never developed an interest in video, although the thought has crossed my mind. If I did it, I'd want to do it well, and that would require more effort and learning than I'm prepared to put in at the moment. Maybe some time in the future — maybe something about whio?

Zhoen, thanks. It should have been obvious, I guess. It seems implausible to have a river the size of the Amazon without something going on beneath it. Whether that can be considered a "river" rather than the usual aquifer is probably even more a matter of semantics than my question about the difference between seeing and knowing.

robin andrea said...

Interesting to think about what it means to see something, to really see it. I have never kept a life list of birds. I have always remembered the ones I really saw, and forgotten the others. I suspect you will remember the white-throated toucan, how ever brief the encounter.

pohanginapete said...

Robin, I'm not a lister, either, and I'm sure you're right about my memory of the toucans.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I remember the first few times I saw Whio and they appeared to me to be just ducks on a river called blue ducks. But through spending time in their environment and being fortunate enough to come across them and watch their fluid understanding of the river and mountains, they became the whio.
Another enjoyable chapter of your journey pete. Rave On!travel well.

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb. Every encounter with whio in their true environment remains special to me, even if I no longer remember them all. I guess I've been lucky to see them so often, and in so many places. I count myself fortunate, too, that every whio I've seen in our mountains has been unbanded; while I accept the great utility and the need to band birds, I can't help feeling a little sad to see those rings. Thanks for the good wishes, too, Robb. I'll look forward to catching back when I get back.

vegetablej said...

Yikes...waiting for Caimans in the dark. And swimming with piranha. You must have no fear, Pete. Me, I'm shaking a bit just thinking about you doing that. I hope you were watching with a telephoto lens. :)

pohanginapete said...

VJ, the risk was trivial. Caimans rarely attack people and they're mainly fish eaters; pirañas mostly feed on other fish too and apparently constitute a danger to humans only in certain areas under highly specific conditions (e.g. where people live over the water and are constantly throwing discarded food in — the pirañas learn to associate anything thrown into the water with food.
    We did inadvertently get too close to a very large caiman and Jairo seemed pretty uncomfortable about it, but we backed out with no harm done.

Anne said...

I have been traveling myself, so am just catching up on your 3 most recent posts. What a varied and exciting trip, full of unforgettable sights and experiences! I am thinking about zoos -- they are useful in some ways as havens for some threatened species, as places of research and education, and they give many people an opportunity to see and appreciate aspects of nature they would never otherwise know of. On the other hand, they are sad places of captivity in an artificial surrounding. But I guess I would look at the toucans in the zoo just to know more about the wonderful creature I had seen in its own wild place.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, thanks for those thoughtful comments. I agree, and as much as I dislike seeing animals held captive, I still can't resist them. Perhaps they bring the wild with them, even if only to a small degree.

Lydia said...

Ah, this is a wondrous post, Pete. The kind of observations that, if preserved, might become famous for their humble insights.

I think that red-bellied piranha is so darned cute. Pretty, too.

Jairo sounds like a marvelous guide and human being. You are immeasurably fortunate to have a journey like this, and we are the same for being able to amble along from home, dreaming.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, you're right about Jairo. When I first met him his appearance — black T-shirt, wrap-around sunglasses, military belt pack, etc. — left me with misgivings, but as soon as he started pointing out things to us his genuine love of the place came through. We were indeed lucky.