Monday, January 19, 2009

The Canopy, 15 January 2009

It was raining cats and dogs, or perhaps howlers and jaguars, when we set out this morning. And then it rained harder. When we got to the metal towers, the rain let up significantly, so we were able to see many of the usual birds known at Sacha. Efraim and Ivan started immediately. We climbed the 120 feet to the first tower, stayed briefly, and then moved across the bridge to the middle tower. The scope was out and the crimson- headed woodpecker was the first sighting. Toucans, both many-banded and the larger species, were frequent sightings. There were beautiful parrots, always in pairs and flying from tree to tree. A stubborn spangled cotinga in brilliant blue modeled for us on a branch nearby. We saw howlers far in the distance. Two nun birds landed on a wire and stayed for a while. Trogons and kites and vultures appeared. The list got longer and longer. We were harassed by bees that did not sting but buzzed around us and would not leave. Efraim kept killing them, but more and more came. I think they liked our sweat or someone’s perfume. What was amazing was the ability of both Ivan and Efraim to see birds that were hardly visible and quickly line the scope up so we could see. I did not have binoculars, but even if I did, I find that the big scope supplied by Sacha is so much more effective than the binoculars I have used. I usually can’t find anything until it is pointed out to me. Then I can use my camera to find the bird. I did take photos this time in the hope that I can blow them up and see the birds in the photo.

I have no problem climbing up the stairs to the tower. I concentrate on not looking down, and I can tolerate the experience. I am anxious crossing the bridge from one tower to the next, but I focus on moving forward and keeping my range of focus very narrow. I find myself worried about slipping on the way down, but I watch every step. We are a bit above the canopy on this walk, I think they built it too high, and it could be more interesting if we were right in the canopy rather than above it, but we still see many birds, and today was a wonderful experience.

We talked about the Houarani, the Indians on the other side of the river, at Yasuni National Park. They are considered very savage and unpredictable. They have been known to have a high rate of murder, which is why they never settled in one place, but had a tradition of blood feuds and killing each other. The wives were expected to die along with their husbands if the latter were killed. It was when a group of women who did not want to follow their husbands to death escaped the community and made contact with some missionaries, that the Western world learned the Houarani language and traditions. They have been in contact with Westerners more and more, especially with the oil companies, which have made deals with them to use their land. They still kill each other and have been known to kill outsiders too. There is a story of a priest who had a good relationship with the locals and worked to help the community and support hem in their dealings with companies and the government. For some reason, they blamed him for the death of a chief and he was killed, much to the surprise of those who new how much he had supported the Houaranis. They are characteristically short and stout and still use poison guns to kill monkeys and eat them. Now many have guns and hunt. They know that locals and foreigners are afraid of them, and they take advantage of that.

The local guides at Sacha are mostly Quechua. They are part of the Naparunis, who live along the Napo and were originally Andean people who migrated along the river after the Spanish conquered the Inca. They are more gentle than the Houaranis, and are more likely to colonize and stay in one place. Several some from Tena, a place far up river near Casa de Suizo, which is the resort that was first built by the original owner of Sacha. They are knowledgeable about the forest and can see and hear things belonging to the forest almost instinctually. But they are not originally from the Amazon. There are many indigenous tribes. One of the guides is from the Schuar, a group of Indians who are from the south of the river and are known as head-shrinkers, a practice that has been long since abandoned. Apparently there are only two known preserved shrunken heads, which are in museums in Europe. The government is monitoring one tribe of Amazon people who have not yet had contact with Westerners and thus far have not expressed the wish to do so. They are observed form afar. No doubt one day they will be influenced by modern society.

We looked for a sloth. There was a group of students who had been to the metal towers two days prior and had seen one. I asked why we saw so few here. I remember seeing dozens in Costa Rica. Apparently the reason is that there remain harpy eagles in Ecuador, which prey on sloths. Efraim has seen harpies on several occasions. They have huge nests where they remain for a year at a time. Once a child approached a guide in the village, thrilled to have killed a ‘big bird’ with his gun. The bird turned out to be a harpy, so Efraim has not seen any recently, but they are around, and still prey on monkeys and sloths. The smaller animals have to adapt to life with a huge predator, and so the sloth remains hidden and less visible to the visitor. The encroachment of oil companies and colonists and the destruction of the environment has forced many animals to retreat further into the forest and thus are less available to the tourist. There used to be huge groups of pigs, and along with the pigs, jaguars, ocelots, and pumas, but the pigs have been hunted almost to extinction, and with them the big cats. There are tapirs and more cats on the other side of the river. Yasuni is a large reserve with a research station associated with Pontifica Universidad Catolica de Ecuador. Eric will be traveling there to work on research projects after the group leaves for Baltimore.

The group on the third tower had seen black mantled tamarinds playing in a tree close by but by time we got there, the monkeys were gone. We were lucky to see as many birds as we did. Mornings are best for bird watching!

We walked back to the lodge. We ran into several frogs, and I learned from one of the students (Nicole), that all the frogs in the rainforest are in danger of extinction. There is a fungus called chytrid, which suffocates the frogs. She is working on a thesis about this disease and the efforts made by scientists to save the frogs. There is a group that is working at Catolica, that is breeding the frogs in captivity and hoping to reintroduce the frogs to the wild when a cure for the disease is found. The frogs are dying all over the world, and some people believe that global warming influences the success of the fungus in some climates. She will write her paper for the course on this subject, so I will be interested to read about her work. Each student is required to write a paper to get a grade for the course. I enjoy the breadth of topics chosen each year and look forward to reading them. The professors also read their journals, which are most often less interesting.

We looked for more sloths without success, and knocked on a few trees looking for night monkeys, which are known to peek out when curious, but none made an appearance today. We saw armadillo holes, huge dug up dirt near anthills, but no armadillos. We heard monkeys, and were told that the black-mantled tamarinds were nearby, but I saw none. I saw some more squirrel monkeys, but not as large a group as we had seen yesterday.

Time feels very different here. The first time that I came to Sacha, I stayed for a week with Eric, and we wandered through the length and breadth of the property and saw every species of monkey, examined every medicinal plant and took our time looking for animals and whatever else we could find. The times that I have been here with the students, we have always been here the same number of days, but each time it feels shorter. We do the same things and have similar experiences, but this time, I feel that I have just arrived, and would like more time to adjust to the rhythm and the sounds and the smells and the ambiance. Leaving tomorrow is too soon, I am not ready to say goodbye to this place.

List of birds seen:
Spangled cotinga
Russet-backed orpendula
Yellow-billed toucan
Turquoise tanager
Crimson-crested woodpecker
Yellow-bellied euphonia
Yellow-headed vultures
White-throated toucan
Double-toothed kite
Black-headed parrots
Pied puff bird
Opal-crowned tanager
Ivory-billed toucan
Violacious jay
Nun birds
Blue dacnis
White-tailed trogon
Masked tanagers
Blue-grey tanager
Green honey-creeper
Red-eyed veriot
Cream-coloured woodpecker
King vulture
White-necked puff bird
Black-tailed trogon

Afternoon Hike January 15, 2009

Maya played beautiful music this afternoon. Bach and Oskar Reiding. Our neighbours are a couple from Amsterdam and Vienna and the man has been an opera singer. He has spent most of his career singing at the Vienna opera, but has known famous conductors and singers the world over. His daughter is a well known soprano, and sings in New York at the Met quite regularly. I did not recognize the names he presented to me. We heard him singing in the shower yesterday when Maya was practicing, clearly inspired by her talent. He was impressed with her and encouraged her to continue practicing.

Our hike this afternoon was not eventful. We visited the pygmy marmosets at the back of the cabins and predictably found a very cute little creature sucking the sap off the tree. He was not particularly fearful, just acknowledged our presence and kept on sucking. We continued further and did not run into many animals. We focused on plants. There is a wild ginger that has a glue-like substance in the stem and is used to help close wounds and also to prevent infection. Wild garlic is used to treat cough and bronchitis. Dragos blood is the sap of a tree which oozes out as a dark black substance which when rubbed becomes white. It works to treat skin irritations and also is ingested and works to calm gastroenteritis. It is sold all over Ecuador in little bottles and is the most common medicinal resource in the Amazon. Knowledge about medicinal plants has been handed down from parent to child on through the generations. Uno de gato is recently developed and is effective for prostate cancer. There is a frog which produces a substance that is an extremely strong painkiller and has been developed by Abbott . They tried to breed the frogs in captivity, but the captive frogs did not produce the painkiller. There is a huge lawsuit going on between the Ecuadorian government and the pharmaceutical company regarding the rights to the medicine, originating in the rainforest, but developed by Abbot. The medicine is not yet on the market because of this. The natives believe many of the vines and plants in the rain-forest have properties that aid against cancer but they also believe that good and bad spirits affect the illness and that part of the treatment is removal of bad spirits. The shaman takes Ayawasca, a hallucinogenic vine, that puts him in a trance and enables him to detect and dispel these influences. The local people still believe in the spirits of animals and objects and their effect on their lives. They believe that illnesses are caused by bad energy, and the shaman is able to see that bad energy and remove the bad spirits. The shamans I have seen have assured me that they can manage almost any ailment. The most common cause of illness in this area is Tuberculosis.

Local tribes still make chicha, a drink that is made from corn or yucca and chewed in the mouth to initiate fermentation. The final product is alcoholic and is used to create an altered state. The thought of saliva used for fermentation is off-putting. I have never tried the drink.

I remember that during past trips to the forest, I have learned about many of the medicinal herbs and plants, and have always been astonished at how the indigenous people adapted to their environment and found all sorts of treatment for ailments. Most impressive was the Cruscaspi, a flowering plant which is used for contraception. I was told that a certain concentration was effective for short periods of time, but that higher concentrations using the bark as well, could sterilize women for much much longer.

We looked for more monkeys and did see squirrel monkeys at a distance. The howlers were not howling. We found a tarantula and her infant and a non-poisonous snake. We ran into a massive leaf cutter anthill and watched the ants work. I love that there are security ants along with the workers. We watched the ants descend a huge tree and head for their nest. Nearby were clay towers inhabited with the bees that have a symbiotic relationship with the ants. No-one knows what this relationship entails, just that the two live in close proximity. Evidence of armadillos but no armadillos. Ivan showed us how to make a roof out of palm leaves.

We canoed across the lake again and looked for what we could find on the shore. We did see some birds, including egrets and a limekin making noise. When we returned to the lodge, we encountered Eric’s group. They were thrilled to tell us they had seen an anaconda. That is so rare! They also saw a kinkaju. I guess we did not see very much this afternoon, but it was an enjoyable walk. Maya came with us this afternoon. She was quiet and intrigued. She is remarkably patient and involved on our walks.

Dinner was followed by skits from each group of students. They were fun this year, mostly poking fun at Eric and his research. My group of students had not planned much and came up with one of the more offensive skits. I was disappointed that they had not thought things out and came up with an unkind joke. Eric tells me they are just children and not to take anything that seriously. I am just hurt.

We leave tomorrow morning for Coca and then Quito. A 6 AM wake-up call!

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