Monday, January 19, 2009

Morning Hike, 14 January 2009

6 AM wake up call. It was raining much of the night. The sounds are wonderful in the morning. More frogs and crickets and birds too. The birding group was to go to the tower earlier, but the rain kept them in bed a little longer. Maya and I were off with our group by 7, and by then the rain was lessening. I like the forest after it has rained, it feels fresh and clean and the bugs seem to be scarce. I put loads of 100% DEET anyway, but I am much less worried about bugs this time, I am not sure why, but I am spraying less often than I have in former years. We start our walk behind the lodge and first off, one of the guides has a small boa constrictor wrapped around his forearm…the snake is beautiful and shaking in fear. Sometimes it feels as if our hikes are a magic show, and the native guides keep pulling rabbits or frogs or snakes or monos out of their hats for us to admire. They know where the animals are and make it seem as if all is by chance, but in fact it is all well rehearsed for the visitor.

One of the students, Nicole, is researching frogs, and she is very bold in her efforts to find them. Our guide picks up several poisonous frogs, one with the colours of the Ecuadorian flag, and apparently deadly if attacked. The indigenous people use the frogs’ excretions to make poison dart guns, which can kill monkeys and other prey as well as humans! There was a less colourful frog that was equally toxic, but far less attractive. We found some toads too (a toad is different from a frog in that frogs are slimy to the touch and toads are dry to the touch- the frogs use their skins to breathe) which were the same colour as the underbrush, and very frightened of us as well. We walked in ‘primary forest’, original jungle which has never been cut down. Most of the colours are green and brown, there are very rare flowers and I imagine this relates to survival; anything that stands out is subject to easy predation. It is more adaptive to look more like the rest of the environment. We found a wonderful lizard, which was dramatically green and was very cooperative with photographs! Another lizard later on was much larger and sleeping on a branch near the lake 9 called a caiman lizard).

We admired the big trees, my favourite being the kapok tree, with its massive buttresses. I remember from years' past, that the natives believe that the devil lives inside that tree, and can take away babies from their parents. At night it can be particularly dangerous. I believe that using one’s machete to whack the buttresses can be an effective way to signal over a long distance. We encountered several fig trees wrapping around another tree thereby squeezing the life out of the original tree. Our guide, Efraim, explained many examples of symbiosis in the forest, a tree or a brush growing on another tree, an ant living inside a tree and using it but also protecting it from other predators. I admired the many fungi, hanging on to their hosts in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the fungi are the most colourful things we see. We stumbled onto a group of owls sleeping in the trees, I think there were five of them, their eyes closed but very aware of our presence.

We ran into the creek called Anaconda. We climbed into a canoe and floated silently. One of the lenses on my Nikon was not working for the first part of the walk, but I changed my lens and was delighted to finally have a working camera. I find myself looking at the vegetation in a different way, suddenly wanting to capture every branch and leaf and flower we encountered. I think I see differently with and without a camera, not that one way is better than the other, just different. Sometimes I like NOT having a camera, because I am more apt to see with a wider lens. With the camera in my hand, I see through the lens that I have and miss the wider picture. What I see through my lens however I see more intently.

Suddenly, a large group of squirrel monkeys were jumping across the trees overhead. There appeared to be over a hundred, with their expressive faces, curious, but also eager to get away from us. I tried and tried to catch a photo, but they were moving quickly and I was not as lucky as I had wished. I need a faster eye and a faster hand and a faster camera! Not long after the squirrel monkeys had left us, about six howler monkeys moved more slowly from branch to branch a further distance away. Such an incredible red colour! I did not hear the howling, but I believe the guide Ivan heard them before he saw them. I am always amazed at the guides and their ability to see and hear so much!

We heard many birds, but saw few. Oropendula were about, with their distinctive water sound, Aracari (toucans) were calling, parrots were screaming at each other, and there were many other bird sounds I am sure, but I am unable to identify them as of yet. One day I hope to cock my head to one side and distinguish which bird is singing to us. We saw the Hoatzin nesting. Apparently, one female is serviced by five or six males, who bring food to her while she sits on her eggs. There are no predators for the adult birds, so if they survive as eggs (monkeys like the eggs!) and through childhood, they live many years. We saw a heron sleeping in a tree, not too interested in our passage and waiting for nightfall to hunt.

We focused on some plants too. Ajowasca, the garlic vine, which, when the leaves are boiled, the vapour can be inhaled to help with bronchitis. The bark can also be ground up and made into a mush and ingested for the same purpose. Chichiwasca, which has use as a treatment for stomachaches – actually has a high content of salicylic acid. Chimbura, the leaves of which can be rolled into lengths to be used to make very strong rope, also made into chigras, which are sacs that are indestructible. Another plant which can be used to make a powerful painkiller, far more effective than the opiates we use. Our guide told us that Abbot researchers came to the forest and extracted this chemical and patented it, which angered the locals, who feel that everything in the forest belongs to them. There were so many other details, I should write them down as we walk, or have Maya do so. She is so very observant!

We showered after our walk, with the intent to wash off all the DEET so that we could go to the butterfly farm without being toxic to the insects. I am writing this while Maya plays Bach and Reiding on her violin. Eric returned from his time on the towers looking at birds. He saw howlers and tamarinds and lots and lots of birds. He was up late last night, catching fish for his research. I love catching fish in the dark in Orquidea, but could not leave Maya alone in her bed here, so missed out on the fun. Consequently, I did get a good night’s sleep and feel energetic today. The walk this morning was easy. We will climb the kapok tree today and watch for birds at dusk, after lunch and fishing for piranhas. Tonight is barbeque night on the balsa, which is a huge event!

Afternoon on top of a Kapok Tree January 14, 2009

The food here is super yummy and I invariably eat far too much. Some of the food is Ecuadorian, and there are certainly local touches, but generally the food is continental. The founder was Swiss, and the food is suitably European. It is difficult to move after lunch, but we wandered to the balsa (dock) to fish for piranhas unsuccessfully (Jamie caught two ‘sardines’, I do not think they are sardines, but they were not edible piranhas anyway). The native guides did not catch fish either. It was hot and muggy so many of the students dove off the dock, and Maya joined them soon after. I worked on photographing diving moving swimming human specimens.
Our next hike was at 4 PM. We paddled through Orquidea, a river that flows either into or from Pilchicocha, I am never sure, since I have seen it flowing both ways. I love paddling across the lake and watching the paddle hit the water, which is dark with tannins. One cannot see far into the water. I know there are many fish, particularly piranhas, but only occasionally do I see a fish jump. Entering Orquidea is a magical experience. One slides in quietly, and we are soon enveloped by vegetation on either side and above us. One hears cicadas and crickets, an occasional bird, and sometimes a frog, but the latter come out later and are louder when we return in the dark. We see a striated heron and a blue heron as we enter the creek, and later a much larger brown tiger heron waiting for prey next to the water. There are many freshwater mangrove trees and palms and water lilies whose flowers come out at night. We try not to make a sound. We see black clouds in the water, which turn out to be massive groups of tadpoles clumping together for safety and darting out occasionally for a peek around. Our guide, Efraim, tells us that the only way for them to survive is to remain in large collections.

The river is dammed up at the end to make it possible for the canoes to land. Our first destination after we disembark is the zipline. I remember the first time I did the zipline was with Eric and Washo. I had not been told where we were going or what the plan was, so it was a surprise to encounter the zipline, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Actually, the zipline is located outside of the boundary line of Sacha. One crosses a meter wide space between Sacha land and the community. There is clearly an arrangement between Sacha Lodge and the local people to bring tourists past the confines of the lodge. The zipline experience is always fun. The students enjoyed themselves, but for Claire, who shuddered and screamed softly.

The wooden tower is in a massive kapok tree, which is enveloped but a fig and has many symbiotic bromeliads growing all over it. Symbiosis is the norm here. Trees live on and in and around other trees, there are ecosystems in leaves, ants that protect plants and vice versa.
We saw several toucans, or aracari, as they are called here. Always a delightful sight. There were howlers in the distance, howling on occasion and then moving away. Small little birds populated the top of the kapok tree and wandered in and out of the bromeliads. Bird-watching is truly much better in the mornings. We looked for a sloth that had been seen a day earlier, but did not find it. There were orpendula nests and we saw many russet-backed and white ones flying back and forth. Although I have seen many birds on the towers at Sacha, I have never documented what I have seen. I am not yet a ‘birder’ although I do enjoy the birds. We walked back to Orquidea and paddled gently back. When we arrived at Pilchicocha, we took our time returning to the lodge, and ran into kingfishers and herons along the banks. A huge caiman was lounging under the balsa, and several ani were flying back and forth near the lodge. The Hoatzin are always close to the lodge, huge birds perched in the top of the trees around the lodge. We returned in time for the barbeque on the balsa. Lots and lots of meat in many forms: pig, chicken, beef, sausage…they like their meat here. I was looking forward to Tres Leches dessert, but this time we were not lucky! Eric lectured on electric fish after dinner, which kept several non-Hopkins guests staying later to hear it. At some point he lost his audience. Fishing for electric fish with Marcelo, Rudiger, Eric and Maya, was our evening entertainment. Marcelo has always been the best fisherman and again caught the most fish. Generally we did not see many fish. I believe that the water level is so high, many fish are hiding further back from the riverbank. We were all super tired after our fishing expedition and fell into bed exhausted. Eric stayed up later to try to set up a video system to monitor his fish. Erika and Rudiger’s student Vincent, went to the Napo to try to catch the electric fish with huge nets, but were entirely unsuccessful and very frustrated.

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