Into the northern highlands of Peru

We entered Peru as the light faded completely, so our first impressions were vignettes illuminated by pools of light from bare bulbs, of late evening scenes, families, groups and individuals, sitting outside small single storey homes and shops, in hammocks, doing chores, children playing. Crossing the border from Ecuador brought us our first encounters with mototaxis too, the typical transport of small-town Peru, motorbikes with bench seats at the back under an awning. We passed through a fruit growing region with piles of fruits, and boxes stacked high, for sale or for transport to larger markets. At last we pulled into Piura, and toasted our arrival in Peru with the bubblegum flavoured, flourescent yellow coloured Inca Kola, before collapsing into the worst hostel of the trip. We woke covered with a constellation of bedbug bites in their telltale clusters, and set off for the mountains once again.

Our next destination was Chachapoyas in the northern highlands, but all direct buses ran at night, something we had decided not to do on mountain roads in the rainy season. Instead, we bussed first to Chiclayo, paused for lunch in the sweltering main plaza, and then continued to Jaen where we spent the night. Chachapoyas was now in our sights, and the next morning we took a mototaxi and then two combis (shared taxis or minibuses) to hop between Jaen, Bagua Grande, Pedro Ruiz and finally Chachapoyas. It was a fun journey, first crossing the Maranon river, the young Amazon, high up in the mountains but wide even here. Then along a palm tree-lined road in a lush broad valley of vivid green rice fields, with scrubby red-earth hillsides rising up, and hazy blue mountains beyond. We turned south, away from the Maranon which was continuing towards Iquitos, and now the road followed a raging chocolate brown river, at the bottom of a steep ravine, with the road virtually carved out of the rock. Eventually we hairpinned our way up and out of the valley and arrived in the peaceful colonial town of Chachapoyas. The buildings were painted white, and the large plaza was lined with dark wooden balconies. Peru

Peru (2)

From Chachapoyas we headed to Huancas canyon close by, and then ventured to Kuelap, an archeological site to rival Machu Picchu in importance and setting. We descended to cross the river and then climbed up the other side, with staggering views of vast green mountains and valleys in all directions, the unpaved track clinging to the side of the mountain. At last we arrived at Kuelap, on the highest peak around. Peru (9b)

Peru (10)

A vast wall concealed the ruins inside, but instead of there being buildings on ground level on the other side, the wall was actually the edge of solid platform of stone. We enjoyed exploring the overgrown site as it felt like it had only recently been discovered. There were three levels built on top of each other, the most recent bearing the rectangular buildings of the Inca in contrast to the Chachapoyan circular buildings that were built first. The function of the site is still not fully understood – not quite a fortress or a city, but with homes still complete with pestle and mortar rocks, and guinea pig tunnels in the kitchen. The steep paths leading up into the compex have grooves worn into them from llama hooves, there were sacred carvings on the walls, and a temple was aligned with the sun at the solstice. A very mysterious place.   Peru (17)Peru (27)Peru (25)Peru (23)

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The Interoceanic Highway: coast to coast through a biodiversity hotspot

There is now a road that links the Pacific with the Atlantic across South America. The Interoceanic Highway starts on the coast of Peru, goes up and over the Andes, and then down into the Amazon. It links the Peruvian coast with river ports on Amazon tributaries, as well as connecting to the road network that extends across Brazil. It travels through one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

A road along this route has existed for many years, but it is only recently that it has been widened and paved, making it fit for freight trucks, and easier and faster for all vehicles to travel along it. When I first visited Los Amigos Biological Station in 2008, the first section of the journey, from Puerto Maldonado to the small river town of Laberinto (where we scrambled into a boat for the journey up the Madre de Dios river to the research station), was an exhilarating drive along mostly unpaved road. We bounced along, stones flying up around us, the fractured windscreen of the taxi evidence of many previous journeys along this route. We would leave a plume of dust rising up behind us. At times we would navigate around workers taming this stretch of the highway. It was a fairly slow and uncomfortable journey.

By the next year, this journey was quick and smooth, fresh tarmac all the way. In Puerto Maldonado itself, the first supports of a vast red steel bridge were growing up on the banks of the Madre de Dios. Today this 720m bridge, and all sections of the highway, are complete.

Photo from http://www.waagner-biro.com © 2012 Waagner-Biro AG

A road such as this is a boon for trade. But the Interoceanic highway has been a highly controversial development. Roads are inevitably linked with migration to previously inaccessible areas, bringing loggers, miners, farmers, and growing human populations. Where roads lead, deforestation follows.

As the impact of roads is now so well known, with lessons learned elsewhere in the Amazon, the Amazon Conservation Association has been working for some years to establish a corridor of protected areas to help mitigate the road’s impact. By linking Manu National Park, Peru, in the north with Madidi National Park in Bolivia in the south, via a number of other protected areas including the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, this corridor will be invaluable in ensuring the conservation of biodiversity in this region.

This short film (it is only 8 minutes long) gives a glimpse of life in Puerto Maldonado and along the Interoceanic highway, and some of the consequences of its development.

You can support the conservation of this region by donating to the Amazon Conservation Association or Amazon Aid Foundation.

The best commute in the world, and searching for a subflava in a gold mine

One of the main questions we were investigating was the importance of rivers in structuring populations of our chosen antbird species (the Peruvian warbling antbird Hypocnemis peruviana, yellow-breasted warbling antbird H. subflava, and the chestnut-tailed antbird Myrmeciza hemimelaena). In other words, how connected are individuals on one side of a river with those on the other? Are they equally likely to mate with those on near and far sides of a river? And if there are river effects, do these differ between species, depending on their ecology and behaviour? (These are questions at a local scale, that form part of broader questions relating to the diversification of Amazonian birds; more background information about the project is given in an earlier post.)

It is possible to look at population connectedness by using genetic analysis of blood samples. In a technique analogous to DNA fingerprinting, individual patterns of genetic markers can be described for each bird. Instead of using these to work out the relationship between two birds, the distribution of markers within a whole population can be assessed. Clusters in the data reflect groups of individuals that are more closely related to each other than to other groups. These clusters can then be matched with their geographical location, and if they fall on opposite sides of a river, then this would suggest that the river is a barrier to gene-flow (interbreeding) between populations.

Our analyses are still not complete, so the final part of the story is not yet known, but all this meant that we needed to cross the river to collect samples. Instead of setting off into the forest in the morning, we would descend the 250 stairs from the high upland terra firme, down to the riverbank. We’d scramble into a boat, and if the engine started quickly, we’d be on our way in the dawn twilight, watching the sky change colour, and the mist rise from the river. It was only a short journey down river, either 10 minutes to the village of Boca Amigos, or 20 minutes to a satellite station belonging to CICRA, known as CM1. But it was a beautiful way to travel to ‘work’, one that I never failed to appreciate, and one that was always different depending on the weather and light.

Boca Amigos is a small village, home to a handful of families, with most houses also seeming to double as a shop or bar. There’s a small school, and a football pitch, as can be found in every Peruvian community no matter how small. We’d arrive before many people were up, and would quietly walk between the houses to reach the trails into the forest beyond.

The journey to Boca, and our exploration of the surrounding forest, also brought home one of the less beautiful aspects of life in the Amazon: gold mining. We would pass mining dredges on our way downriver (in fact we could hear them, generators running late into the night, from CICRA).

The price of gold keeps on rising, and the opportunity to make a decent living in the jungle by mining gold continues to attract migrants, particularly from the Andes. The work is tough and relentless, but profitable. It results in huge mounds of gravel, deforestation, and leaves behind desolate expanses of bare ground, and pits filled with polluted water.

The cheapest and easiest way to extract gold is to use mercury. Mercury is therefore being constantly washed into the river, entering the forest ecosystem and food chain, and is likely to be having a terrible effect not only on the forest species but also on human health. The whole issue of mining is complex and controversial: the needs of people and the protection and conservation of the rainforest requires a careful balance, which has not yet been reached. It is an issue right across Amazonia. Although the blue-tarpaulin covered mining camps that we walked through behind Boca were small-scale, some mining operations have an impact on a much greater scale, and anyone who has flown between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado will have seen a huge scar in the otherwise mostly unbroken rainforest canopy.

Mist-netting around a gold mine was not something I had expected when I set off for Peru. It was shocking to see the devastation of the mines. We would climb over huge felled trees, and navigate around the pits, trying to hear our species singing above the noise of the generators.

We found birds adjacent to the mines, and were defecated on from a great height by a group of howler monkeys who objected to our presence, so jungle life continues in the adjacent forest. This gave some hope that once abandoned, the mines could be reclaimed by the forest. But I have no idea how long it will take for all traces of the mines to be gone, as the ground has not simply been cleared, but excavated, and the effects of mercury – invisible and far-reaching – are likely to persist for much longer. Working there also gave us a more personal perspective on the whole situation. We exchanged buenos dias with miners as they were preparing their breakfast, bemused at the site of us with our microphones and mist-netting gear, and they came to our rescue when our boat engine wouldn’t start. It is easy to say that the mining should be stopped – and heartbreaking to learn about the extent of the destruction across Peru and beyond – but is not easy to achieve, especially whilst also ensuring the livelihoods of those who currently depend on it. A much more in-depth and eloquent report on gold mining can be found on the Smithsonian magazine website, and an award-winning new film, Amazon Gold, documents the destruction of the Peruvian rainforest for gold. The trailer below is well worth a look.

Zen and the art of outwitting a small bird

A working day started soon after 4am, so we could be at our chosen spot by sunrise. In the dark, I would scan the floor for dangerous creatures, shake any more from my clothes, and tip my boots upside down just to make sure before putting them on. Despite my fears of spiders, snakes, scorpions, cockroaches, centipedes…I think I only ever found a frog, in a boot, once.

I’d meet my field assistant in the comedor, and we’d quietly go through our morning routine, filling water bottles, stocking up on breakfast snacks, and then assembling the various bits and pieces we needed in the field: a toolbox full of needles, tubes of ethanol, capillary tubes, bird rings, rulers, and scales, speakers, mp3 players, mistnets, bird bags, bamboo poles, machetes, microphone and sound recorder.

Setting off into the forest, the low light – if any at all – would turn to almost complete darkness as we entered the trail system and walked under the canopy. It took a while for the light to reach us through the trees, so we made our way by the light of our headtorches, which would catch the blue shine of spiders’ eyes on the forest floor.

It felt exciting to head off into the forest while many were still asleep at the station, seeing the first of the new jungle day, and enjoying the sound of the nightshift merge into the dayshift. It also meant we got to walk face first into all the spiders’ webs that had been constructed across the trails over night. We’d walk waving a stick or machete in front of us to catch the webs first.

Rainforest sunrise

We were out to find three particular species of bird. All three are antbirds, small, insectivorous birds that lives in the understorey of the forest. One species, the chestnut-tailed antbird (Myrmeciza hemimelaena) barely gets above the ground, zipping between dense tangles of vegetation half a metre off the forest floor. The other two are usually found between 1–4 metres off the ground; one, the yellow-breasted warbling antbird (Hypocnemis subflava) has a tendency to be found in bamboo patches, while the other, the Peruvian warbling antbird (Hypocnemis peruviana) is usually in the broad-leaf forest matrix. Finding them was easy, because they are all highly territorial, defending their patch of forest against intruders. We could mimic an intruder, by playing the song of each species on our speakers, prompting an angry, defensive bird to head in our direction. Generally, this would bring both male and female birds towards us, as they defend their territories together as a pair, and sing duets to do so. The challenge once we knew where they were was to work out where to put a mist-net with the highest chance of them flying into it.

A mist-net between two bamboo poles, supported by orange cord

The trick was to anticipate which branches or tangles of vegetation would be most appealing to the birds, and the route they might take from one to another, and to put the net between them. Sometimes the trail itself was suitable, other times we’d need to clear enough space to fit the 12 metre long net. We’d loop it onto two bamboo poles, pull it taught, and tie the poles to suitable trees nearby. The net extended from the ground up to almost 4 metres, and consisted of 4 parallel pockets running the length of the net. It was hard to see, and if positioned out of the light would be almost invisible, to us as well as the birds (and on one occasion a furious large Amazonian squirrel that thrashed about until it thrashed itself free). The speakers would be placed on the ground in the middle of the net, with the appropriate song playing on a loop. When a bird flew into the net, it would fall into the pocket just beneath it, unhurt but slightly tangled. We’d keep a close eye on the net and quickly extract a bird once it was caught. It would be put into a small cloth bag until we were ready to process it a few minutes later.

Bird bags on our machetes

So that we would know if we saw, or caught, the same bird again, we put small rings on their legs – one metal ring with a unique number, and then three coloured rings in a unique combination. I’d measure the length of the wing, tarsus, beak, and weigh the bird, as well as take a couple of drops of blood from the vein under the wing for genetic analysis. Within a few minutes the birds would be released back into its territory.

Taking a blood sample from a chestnut-tailed antbird. Photo credit: Frances Buerkens http://www.francesbuerkens.com

But it wasn’t always so simple, and we must have spent many hours watching birds come towards the net, fly over it, stay just next to it, and not fly into it. There was nothing we could do but watch, and will the bird to fly where we wanted it to. Sometimes we’d re-position the net and try again, sometimes it would be so close for so long that we couldn’t give up, but sometimes the birds were just not going to fall for our tricks. Add to that a swarm of ants, a nest of tiny ticks, bamboo spikes or wasps and a day in the field was often a lesson in patience and calm. We’d head back for lunch in the heat of the day, brandishing hard-won blood samples, the forest quite different to how it had felt at dawn, anticipating cold showers, ‘clean’ clothes, and tasty food.

Ants all over my binoculars

Los Amigos Biological Station – a hub of biological research in the Amazon rainforest

Los Amigos Biological Station (aka CICRA) sits at the confluence of the meandering Madre de Dios and Los Amigos rivers in SE Peru, high on the terra firme, with more than 60 miles of trails extending in every direction. Getting there is an adventure in itself, and it is a real privilege to be able to live in such a wonderful place.

The view as you gasp, out of breath, at the top of the stairs, and marvel at your new home. Photo credit: Tom Beattie

The forest, despite having been disturbed in the past by logging and mining (and still suffering from both of these in places), still hosts an abundance of wildlife. The trails extend through various habitat types, from bamboo patches to swamps to floodplain, and there are lakes where you can paddle canoes to birdwatch, otter-watch, and anaconda spot.

Cocha Lobo, in search of giant otters

And a sleepy anaconda found in Pozo don Pedro

The facilities are amazing – various accommodation options from shared dorms to private cabins; a large comedor, a communal space and dining room, where 3 tasty meals a day are served; laboratories; a library with desk space for researchers; and of course a football/volleyball pitch.

The library

You can even visit as a tourist, if you want to see what life is like at one of the most active Amazonian research stations. Please do, because you’ll be supporting the protection of this forest, and it needs all the help it can get.

A private cabin for two. Photo credit: Tom Beattie

Living here for months on end is a brilliant but slightly bizarre experience. Communal living with perhaps 15–20 other people, the trials and tribulations of fieldwork, and isolation (internet access aside) make for a close-knit community, sharing highlights, triumphs and disasters from the day in the field over meals.

The enthusiasm of other researchers is infectious, and this lovely short film gives a glimpse of moth diversity at CICRA, and the entomologists that love them.