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Frogs: Just Gotta Love Them

December 13, 2010

Frog (Phyllomedusa tomopterna)

Frog (Osteocephalus species)

Frog (Hyla Rhodopepla)

Poison dart frog (Ameerega hahneli)

The Search for Anacondas

December 12, 2010

Palm

12.11.2010

Here in Peru there is a special word for palm swamps – aguajales. Dark, brackish water and a high density of native palms characterize these ecosystems. The palm swamps also have a relatively high density of alluvial gold, so they are quickly becoming endangered. Thankfully, there is a beautiful palm swamp about 30 minutes from the station and it is home to three anacondas – one believed to be around 18 feet long.

Yesterday we set off at around 10am in the hopes of encountering one of the legendary snakes. It is best to visit around noon if you want to see the anacondas because they come out of the water in the heat of the day to warm up. We arrived at the swamp to find a submerged boat and spent half an hour bailing it out with a milk jug. A small hole also revealed itself, but we decided to take the risk. With equipment in hand, we set out on the water and began to paddle around. After a few circles of the perimeter we realized that luck was not with us – we would have noticed an 18-foot snake.

Disappointed, I switched lenses and began to explore the landscape of the swamp. The reflections were stunning when the wind calmed down. We saw a group of bats resting on the underside of a palm and a pair of macaws soared overhead.

After an hour on the water, we heard what sounded like a large tree falling down. A few minutes later a loud chorus of clicking came from the side of the swamp and a few grunts echoed in the forest. We pulled up to the dock and stood on the boat platform, trying to glimpse the creatures moving in the forest. As soon as we reached the shore, the smell was more distracting than the sounds. It was like rotting meat in a soup of fermented milk. It permeated the air. I put two and two together and correctly guessed that a group of white-lipped peccaries had moved into the area. Peccaries are large wild boars and the clicking was the sound of their tusks.

We climbed off the boat and I let Gabriel go in front with the machete as we approached the group. Peccaries are known to be highly aggressive, especially when they are in large groups with young. They are often in groups numbering in the hundreds. I guessed that there were about 30 in this particular group, based on what I could see through the brush. I took a few pictures as I crouched and crawled along the boardwalk. One finally made eye contact with me and we stared at each other until it overcame its fear and began to approach. “Tap the machete on the tree,” I told Gabriel. The ringing sound sent the group into a rampage and they tore through the forest like a heard of bulls. “That was more than 30,” was all my quickly beating heart would allow me to say.

Aguajal at noon

Ben Apple and Gabriel Chait in the boat.

White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari). Common name: Huangana

Palm Swamp

Slideshow: Forest

December 12, 2010

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Peke-peke Diaries: The Los Amigos River

December 11, 2010

Los Amigos River

12.10.2010

I woke to the sound of a grandfather clock chiming. It was 4:45am and I was rudely pulled out of a sleep cycle by a sound that should be foreign seven hours from civilization. Ben turned off his iPhone alarm and I realized that I was in fact still in the Amazon and not in my grandmother’s stately Southern home.

We gathered up gear and went to the kitchen to find some cookies because breakfast doesn’t start until after 6am. Pascual, one of the cooks, emerged with a plate of hot pancakes. We quickly rolled them up to facilitate consumption while hiking.

Ben, Gabriel, Pablo, and I set off into the forest just as it was becoming light in the clearing. Stepping under the canopy at that time of the morning is like stepping into a closet. The trees above are fighting so hard for the light that they cover every square inch of sky. We flipped on the headlamps and began the 1.7-mile hike to the port on the Los Amigos River. It’s been raining lately so I kicked up frogs every few yards and paused to see if they were photo worthy.

We arrived at the port at exactly 6:00am and could hear the peke-peke boat chugging up river to meet us. I had arranged a morning river trip up the Los Amigos River to see wildlife along its shores. The Los Amigos Conservation Concession starts at the fork of two rivers – the Madre de Dios and the Los Amigos. The Madre de Dios is the larger of the two and is filled with gold miners. The Los Amigos is smaller and shallower – enough to prevent gold miners from dredging the bottom. With the hopes of experiencing a more pristine river ecosystem, we climbed into the peke-peke with two of the concession’s conservation promoters and began the journey upstream.

I love boating in this region because it allows you to see the forest. This is truly a location where you frequently ‘can’t see the forest for the trees.’ The trees are so massive that a single trunk can fill your plane of vision. On the river, you begin to appreciate the diversity of species and the complexity of the forest structure. Giant kapoks and cecropias tower above more petite species. Saplings fight for the right to light and the ability to photosynthesize. Incredibly, some saplings stay small for decades just waiting for a large tree to fall. Tree falls are one of the only times that the understory is able to access the power of the sun.

The river is also a prime location for birdwatching. In the forest, birds are obscured by leaves and branches or by limited lighting. Some birds’ activities are entirely restricted to the canopy, making it almost impossible to get a good look. Within the first few minutes on the river, I spotted red-capped cardinals, yellow-rumped caciques, scarlet macaws, and cocoi herons. White-banded swallows wheeled over the river, occasionally perching on snags of wood protruding from the shallow river. It was spectacular.

After 20 minutes, Ben pointed to a beach on the side of the river – “What’s that?,” he asked. It was a capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), a medium-size mammal that looks like an inflated guinea pig. It was sitting on the side of the river with four or five young. It was bathed in golden light and sat still for a stream of photos before leading its babies into the forest.

We went on to see red howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and more species of birds. At one point, we pulled over to the side of the river for a quick break and I went out with my wide-angle to photograph the river. I was quickly scared back to the boat by the sandflies.

All in all it was a successful river trip. Photographing from a moving boat is always challenging, but seeing is just as rewarding as taking pictures. The trip downriver was hot and sunny. I had the men turn off the motor and let us drift downstream for a while; we were guided by large pieces of bamboo they used to push us off the bottom. We returned to the station for a hot lunch and a cold shower.  I plan on repeating the trip in three days to see what I can see. For now, it’s back to the understory.

 

Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)

Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana)

Red Capped Cardinals (Paroaria gularis)

Hidden Beauty

December 10, 2010

Owl Butterfly

12.09.2010

Recently I traveled to Lima to attend the Fulbright Scholars Thanksgiving Luncheon. While there, I had the opportunity to present a selection of my images. After my presentation, one of the other scholars asked me a question – “Where do you find all of these animals?” She went on to explain that her brief experience in the jungle left her overwhelmed. All she saw was green and none of the animals she had read about in books presented themselves. I remember having the same feeling during my first jungle walk. I had great expectations after reading a book called “The Great Kapok Tree” as a child. In the book, the jungle is teeming with life and all the animals live in an and around one giant kapok tree. My first rainforest experience was in Belize when I was a freshman in college. I expected to see giant red beetles sitting on lush green leaves and snakes hanging from vines. Instead, I found a beautiful forest that seemed devoid of animal life. It is only now, after over four years of experience, that I am able to uncover all of the diversity. I walk at what seems a frustratingly slow pace. I scan the ground for snakes and watch for insects and frogs that hop out of the way of my massive boots. I pause in front of tree trunks and examine every inch of bark until I find the world of camouflaged insects and animals pressed flat against the wood. Then, I bend to the ground to flip over leaves in the hopes of finding a weevil or butterfly hanging on the underside. It is only in this way that I find the rich variety of life that is in the jungle.

I have posted this set of images from the Los Amigos Conservation Concession as an illustration of how cryptic and camouflaged many of the animals are!

Camouflaged frog on tree.

Spider

Notes from the Field

December 8, 2010

 

Crested Forest Toad

 

 

12.06.2010

Field notes, Los Amigos Conservation Concession

At a time when I thought I would be alone in the jungle, three charming young men have joined me in my journey. Ben is a friend from college who is helping me out, Gabriel is another Fulbright scholar, and Pablo is Gabriel’s German-Peruvian field assistant. This morning we headed out after breakfast for a full day in the field. I was skeptical. Animals are skittish and a group of four people walking in a dry jungle with crunchy leaves seemed like a recipe for seeing nothing. I was pleasantly surprised.

We started on a trail in the flooded forest that is full of huge trees. We found a frog and a crested forest toad in our first 15 minutes in the jungle. Four people scare away the mammals, but it is helpful to have four pairs of eyes and ears. Walking through the forest with them today brought home just how much I miss when I am on my own. In a place where everything is flighty, cryptic, or camouflaged, it is easy to walk by creatures left and right.

Check out what we found . . .

 

Emperor Tamarin

Cup Fungus

 

 

December 8, 2010

 

Crested Forest Toad

12.06.2010

Field notes, Los Amigos Conservation Concession

At a time when I thought I would be alone in the jungle, three charming young men have joined me in my journey. Ben is a friend from college who is helping me out, Gabriel is another Fulbright scholar, and Pablo is Gabriel’s German-Peruvian field assistant. This morning we headed out after breakfast for a full day in the field. I was skeptical. Animals are skittish and a group of four people walking in a dry jungle with crunchy leaves seemed like a recipe for seeing nothing. I was pleasantly surprised.

We started on a trail in the flooded forest that is full of huge trees. We found a frog and a crested forest toad in our first 15 minutes in the jungle. Four people scare away the mammals, but it is helpful to have four pairs of eyes and ears. Walking through the forest with them today brought home just how much I miss when I am on my own. In a place where everything is flighty, cryptic, or camouflaged, it is easy to walk by creatures left and right.

Check out what we found . . .

Emperor Tamarin

 

Cup Fungus

 

Notes from the Tower

December 6, 2010

Sunrise over the Los Amigos River, Los Amigos Conservation Concession

12.06.2010

 

Notes from the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, Madre de Dios Department, Peru

Waking up at 3am is never fun, and yet it is almost always worth the trouble. This morning I lay in bed at 2:55am, paralyzed with fear of the darkness outside. My sleepy delirium filled me with images of giant snakes and hungry jaguars, irrational fears that do not linger during the daytime. I pulled myself out of bed at 2:59pm and turned off the alarm to save the other researchers from its annoying jingle.

Ben and I quickly assembled gear and donned headlamps as we ventured outside. There are only 5 people at the station right now and we didn’t hear or see signs of human activity. The stars were brilliant. Without a cloud in the sky, I knew we’d picked a good morning to climb the 180-foot metal canopy tower. It’s better to avoid the climb when there is a possibility of thunderstorms.

We set off into the jungle, down one of the wider trails. A bat swooped at my headlamp and I jumped back. Even when you know you’re okay in the dark, entering the jungle in the dead of night is intimidating. We scanned the side of the trail with our headlamps to look for light in the eyes of animals. I found a few stick insects and Ben quickly spotted a yellow frog. An anole lizard slept on the top of a leaf. We walked on, listening to the forest. The night noises are difficult to describe. It is so quiet in the forest and yet there is a steady buzz of insects. I think of it is a loud silence. Then, occasionally, the silence is broken by the cry of a night monkey or one of the many unexplained, unknown noises. You often turn to your companion as if to say, “What was that?,” and yet you know they have no idea.

At 4:30am, the sky started to lighten. We booked it to the tower, watching the ground in front of us for snakes and branches. The tower is around 180 feet tall. It is actually a radio tower and consists of three sides and a ladder that goes straight up. A cable extends the length of the ladder and it is to this that we attached our harnesses. I tend to be ambitious and my first climb proved that I should be less so. Climbing 180 feet with a full camera bag is virtually impossible. This time I slung the camera body over my shoulders with the 17-40mm lens in the mount. Ben carried my 100-400mm in his small shoulder bag. After 10 to 15 minutes I reached the top. My arms were shaking because I had rushed up at the sign of pink on the horizon. The trees were dark, but the fog over the river was just starting to glow purplish blue. Ben joined me at the top and we waited as the sun peaked over the horizon. Macaws flew over the treetops and we could look down on them as they ventured off in pairs. We were at least 80 feet over the canopy and had an exaggerated birds-eye-view. Birds do not fly that high.

The sun bathed the forest in sweet light and the white-capped Andes revealed themselves in the distance. It was an opportunity to appreciate the vastness of the forest and the close proximity if its buffers. With the Andes so close at hand it is easy to understand the importance of conserving not just the Amazon basin, but also the highlands from whence the rivers flow.

We stayed at the top for over an hour, listening to the oropendolas’ bubbly call and the screams of howler monkeys in the distance. When the sun got too bright we tied up our harnesses and made the climb down, pausing at the small platforms to appreciate the canopy from different viewpoints.

Now its naptime.

White capped peaks of the Andes seen in the distance

Ben Apple Climbing Down

Fog near the Los Amigos River

Gabby of the Jungle

December 5, 2010

Ben Apple (Friend from Brown) and Me in the Jungle

I ran into Ben Apple, a friend of mine from Brown, on the streets of Cusco two weeks ago. He kindly agreed to join me in the jungle for nine days in the Los Amgios Conservation Concession. Greetings from the Madre de Dios River!

Me canoeing in an oxbow lake

Gold: Buyer Beware

December 4, 2010

Gold mining along the Interoceanic Highway

A journey along the Interoceanic Highway between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado is an incredible opportunity to see the transition from Andes to Amazon – from highlands to lowlands. The forest changes dramatically over the course of 4000 meters and you are able to appreciate the diversity of plant and animal life that exists along the gradient.

We stopped every 30 kilometers to take photos on both sides of the road and marked the points with a GPS unit. I plan to do the same drive in June or July of 2011 so that I can photograph the same spots and monitor any changes in deforestation along the highway.

In addition to photographing the forest, I took images of the gold mining along the highway. Gold mining is one of the major threats to this region of the Amazon. Gold is washed down the rivers from the Andes and is deposited in the river sediment. Alluvial gold is very difficult to extract and deposits are small, but the opportunity for profit far exceeds other opportunities in the area.

Gold mining poses a threat in a number of respects. First of all, to mine the gold, the miners dredge the rivers and destroy forest on the sides of the rivers. They carve holes into the riverbanks and turn over the soil and sediment. Secondly, the method of extraction is extremely harmful to the environment. Miners use raw mercury to extract the gold. The raw mercury adheres to the gold and then the miners burn off the mercury and keep the gold deposits. The mercury that is burnt off is deposited nearby – often in the rivers and streams. It is then taken up by fish and other organisms and it bioaccumulates in the food chain (much like DDT), finding its way into birds and other animals. The negative health effects of mercury on the miners and their families are another issue – the miners inhale the mercury everyday and the water here is contaminated with both mercury and lead. In the United States, there is panic if a thermometer breaks – here your daily bread is poisoned with mercury.

I will cover gold mining further in the coming weeks as I join a gold miner in his mine and learn about the entire process. For now, check out these images of mines along the Madre de Dios River and along the Interoceanic Highway.

Lesson of the day: BUY “GREEN” GOLD that is mined using more sustainable practices.

Gold mine along the Madre de Dios River

Gold mine in the rain along the Madre de Dios River