Sunday, February 28, 2010

Day with Mingui

Macaw Pair Flying

Mingui, the patriarch of the local Huaorani family, offered to take us out on his boat for the day ( and charged double the usual price). He took Eric and the group of scientists out for the afternoon, so he had a very lucrative day. There was a community of indigenous people near the station for years, but some time ago there was a disagreement amongst the members of the community, and the town was burnt to the ground. Everyone except Mingui's family left to settle elsewhere. Mingui has been very helpful with the research station and gets along well with Pablo, the director of the station, and has scared everyone away except for his family, which turns out to be a good thing for the scientists.

Cruz Caspi

It was his son Bolivar who took us out our first day here, and the resemblance between Mingui and Bolivar is obvious. Mingui is a small and wiry man in his 40s or 50s. He showed up in a long dugout canoe with an outboard motor. He asked Pablo for fuel for his boat. We learned very quickly that he could either drive quickly down the river or stop completely. He was unable to slow down or linger, so the riverbanks swept by and we were all frustrated that we could not see much with the world sweeping by so quickly. I am not sure what Mingui understood about our wishes. He was very accommodating when we hiked to the claylick and he found beautiful macaws screeching in the trees and throwing discarded fruits and nuts down to the jungle floor. Unfortunately the clay lick was empty because of the rains of the past few days; the animals wait for the clay to dry somewhat to visit. We found a second claylick nearby, also abandoned.

Blue and Gold Macaws

The river was swollen after so much rain and the water extended far up the river bank. We wore lifejackets on the boat, and since Mingui had difficulty starting the boat, or slowing down or stopping and restarting, I wasted far too much time worrying that we would end up in the water. Our boat was crudely dug out of a very long log, and felt tippy all day long.


We zoomed back to the research station after our short walk, but I kept looking for dolphins where there were huge bends in the river, or where another stream came in. Finally, I saw three backs and then spouts coming to the surface, so we waited in the little basin, so I could convince Mel and Debra of what I had seen . They are grey bottle nosed dolphins, one of two species in the Amazon. I have seen the pink ones on the Amazon when we traveled with the alumni a few years ago. We were all excited to see them today. I felt lucky to have identified them. I kept asking Mingui about finding them, but he was not particularly interested or inclined to look for them.

Swallow Tailed Kite

Eric and his gang took the boat for the afternoon while Mel and Debra and Pamela and I had an uninspiring walk in the afternoon. I hoped to see the hoaztin birds near the lake. Debra was convinced that she had seen them the day we were out with Bolivar, but I was not so sure. They look like prehistoric birds (like dinosaurs) and have a spectacular crest and a long fang on their wings, but the lake was so flooded it was unrecognizable and perhaps the birds had moved to another part of the lake, which was inaccessible to us because there was so much water. We had planned to extend our walk to a night hike, but rushed back so as not to be clambering over the bridges and logs in the dark.

Our time at Yasuni is over. We catch a ride to the river at Pompeya tomorrow at 8 and take the Sacha Lodge motorized canoe back to Coca. Another early morning!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bird Identification

Sunrise From the Tower

White necked Puffbird

Our plan today was to watch the sunrise from the observation tower, so we ate breakfast at 5 and were off by 5:30. It was dark and a bit spooky as we sloshed through the mud on the trail. Pablo, the manager of Yasuni, drove the van to the trailhead and accompanied us. Each of us wore hardhats, harnesses and gloves. The ascent is a little unsettling because it is a simple metal ladder, which goes straight up to the sky. We had the choice to attach ourselves to the ladder with the harness, but that was complicated (to hook in with a carabiner for a few rungs, then disconnect and rehook a few rungs higher etc), so we climbed directly up. There are two platforms to rest on, which I used each time, because despite feeling reasonably calm mentally, my legs were shaking uncontrollably all the way up. I was convinced that the whole tower was shaking along with my legs, and as I felt it sway, I was sure I would make it crumble and fall. Once at the top, I sat down in the middle of the platform for a while, conquering my fear, and convincing myself I was fine. I did not move' til my legs and therefore the whole tower stopped shaking.

Mist Rising

The view was spectacular, with trees repeating themselves over and over in each direction. The mist was rising, but unfortunately because of the cloud cover we did not see a pink sunrise as we had hoped. And we saw few birds as well. There was a toucan in the distance, and a very friendly puffbird (black and white and puffy). We resorted to an uncomfortable discussion centred around the local indigenous people and their difficulty adjusting to modern civilization. Pablo felt that they had been given many opportunities to modernize, but were not doing a good job of conserving the forest. They had hunted all the monkeys and the tapirs and peccaries (for wild bush meat, which is valuable and is sold at the weekly Saturday market at Pompeia) and have expanded from a total of 500 inhabitants when oil exploration began in the 60's to 2500 today. They are not interested in preserving the forest, they use it and abuse it and are lured by the money and the consumer goods the oil companies give them. They don't work, have many children to feed, live on handouts, are not educated, and are destroying their forest and their way of life. My feeling was that it was the oil companies who brought destruction with them and the Houarani are being destroyed along with the forest, but Pablo clearly felt that the locals were doing the destroying. It is interesting that his viewpoint is not uncommon amongst the scientists and Ecuadorians that I meet.

Debra on the Tower

We lost interest in looking for birds we could not see, and descended from the tower, arms and legs and heads intact, and trudged out of the forest. I sat on the balcony of the research station for the next few hours and saw many more birds flying about and nesting and making lots of noise.
Masked Crimson Tanager

Eric joined us for our walk this afternoon, when we tried to return to the Laguna trail, but were unable to get too far along since the stream we had crossed yesterday was up over a metre and the bridge we had crossed was a few feet under water. We chose another trail, where we saw ants and dragonflies and trees and a few frogs, but no vertebrates (no mammals!). We were all disappointed. Perhaps it is true that the Houarani have scared all the animals away. At one point we all smelled a wild smell, perhaps a big cat, but I am sure it was long gone by the time we tromped through its space! Yasuni is supposed to be the most biodiverse part of the planet!! But with all the oil exploration in every direction, I imagine that many of the native animals are frightened away. It is disconcerting to hear the oil pumping station a few miles away, and trucks and buses on the road outside the research station. Hardly the pristine corner of the forest!

Bat Identification

On the other hand, the jungle is like that. It is full of life and activity, but most of it is hidden and does not reveal itself. It shows itself if it wishes to be seen, and perhaps after the rain, the animals are still hiding, and will show themselves when they are ready, perhaps not for us!

Bird Watching

Friday, February 26, 2010

Frog Songs

Morning Downpour

I did not know that frogs can sing. This evening the sounds of the cicadas are drowned out by the croaking of frogs, which somehow sound like birdsongs or perhaps like ducksongs. The cicadas have drifted into the background while the frogs are loud and insistent. Perhaps they are here tonight because of the incredible downpour we had last night. Sometime in the early hours, thunder and lightning woke us up from our sleep, and blasted our part of the jungle and brought rain which lasted until about 11 AM. Unfortunately that meant that animals were hiding and did not show themselves to us, so our hikes through the jungle both in the morning and the evening were uneventful.

Jungle Beehive

More Jungle Bees

Jungle Colour

It is evident that we are far more observant and appreciative of the plants and animals we see here than anywhere else. At home, I do not stop at each plant and bird and animal I encounter and comment on its species and habits. We walked with ' Bolivar', our young Houarani guide, who spoke some Spanish and no English, and when coaxed told us about some traditional uses of plants and vines. He found a stem, which when grated and cooked in warm water for ten minutes or so, will cure stomach ailments in less than two hours, or at least before modern medicines will work. He showed us another tree root which worked as an anitvenom from snake bites, and yet another which worked for arthritis and sore joints. Bolivar was not very talkative and never smiled, but he explained the use of several plants for medicinal treatments and cooking techniques and explained that these traditions are passed down from generation to generation.

Jungle Frog


Luscious Colour

Tame Tapir

I told him we wanted to see monkeys, so we did run into a group of squirrel monkeys, but most of the animals stayed away after the rain, so we focused more on plants and plant uses. I find that it does not matter if I see alot or a little, I simply like to hike through the forest and look at what I see. Bolivar was able to identify bird species though their birdcall, and we tried to follow the sound of the toucans and the parrots and perhaps even the harpy eagle, hoping to see each of the species, but were not successful in our efforts. The most emotion I saw from Bolivar was when we crossed a stream close to a small waterfall, and he almost jumped up and down for joy when he saw a bunch of fish in the water. He rushed us back to the research station after that; I believe he planned to return with a fishing rod or fish poison to collect his dinner.

We found some frogs and millipedes and insects, and added to the plant information, feel reasonably accomplished after our first day in Yasuni, one of the most biodiverse spots in the world. We are reminded over and over that the animals hide after the rain, and will return if it does not rain tomorrow. We are up at 5 AM tomorrow to see the sunrise and the morning birds at the tower.