Visiting the Manu Wildlife Center Part 1
21.07.2010 - 22.07.2010 32 °F
We were off early in the morning for our trip to the Manu National Park with Inkanatura as our tour operator. We boarded a small commuter plane with two older couples, Joe and Dionne from Australia and Irene and Walter from Switzerland. The flight itself was a little under an hour, but the landing was a bit frightening. The Boca Manu “airport” was a grassy field with only one small open hut. As we disembarked, we were hit with a wall of hot, humid air. A group of tourist leaving on our plane shouted out to us “it’s fun, but get prepared to sweat.” We were greeted by our guide when we landed. She resides in Cusco but lives weeks on end at the nature center. She was one of the more educated and knowledgeable people we met in Peru. Without any television, internet, or newspapers, she somehow stayed informed of current events in the world.
We were transferred to the Manu Wildlife Center on covered, motorized canoes. The cool wind from the swift boats was a good break from the constant humidity. The shoreline was fairly repetitive, but our guide’s sharp eyes spotted a pack of red howler monkeys eating clay on the banks. We slowly edge closer to them while they eyed us suspiciously. We saw several other fauna including white egrets, groups of turtles basking in the sun, and the ever present yellow-headed vultures circling above.
Manu Wildlife Center consisted of several bungalows with two beds and a bathroom completely enclosed with mosquito nets and curtains. There was no electricity, only candlelight. The rooms were pretty hot because they had partial walls for privacy that prevented the full breeze from making it inside. Instead, we spent most of our time in the large main lodge. There was a fully stocked bar, several tables in the dining area, and many chairs to lounge. We preferred to rest in the hammock area which got the best breezes. There was also a small library of books with pages soggy from the 100% humidity. Twice a day, they ran their generator allowing us to recharge our camera batteries. The food was pretty good considering that all ingredients have to be flown in on our flight.
The first afternoon we walked along the trails around the MWC. It was reminiscent of the "I Shouldn't Be Alive" episode where a couple almost dies when they got lost in the Amazon. The vegetation is repetitive and there are no discernible landmarks. It can be a deathrtrap if you go without a guide. We travelled for an hour when suddenly our guide stopped us and told us to look up. There were squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys feeding on fruit in the trees all around us. Eventually they melted deeper into the jungle. The sounds of of the animals (especially macaws) are very distinctive and startling. It would be very frightening to be out there alone. There are so many bizarre looking plants and trees. Of course there are mosquitoes and flies everywhere. I protected myself with pants, long sleeve shirts, and a bath of DEET.
The next morning, we took the boats out to the macaw clay lick on a nearby island. In order to situate ourselves in the viewing blind before the birds arrived, we left the lodge before the sun came up. Our guide explained to us that the jungle fruits are deficient in adequate minerals for a bird’s diet. Therefore, they must eat clay from exposed cliffs. Everyday, they risk getting eaten by jungle cats and predatory birds in order to supplement their diet.
The “blind” was actually a large wooden platform situated about 50 yards from the clay lick. There were comfortable plastic swiveling chairs bolted into the structure. It was covered yet open enough for the breeze, making it fairly cool during our wait. There was even a small toilet in the facility. I was happy that I had brought some 10x42 Nikon binoculars to see the birds. The guides even had a powerful tripod-mounted scope for those close-up shots. My only regret was that my zoom lens was only a 70-300mm. I wish I had just a little further reach to get some closer shots.
The parrots were the first to arrive. Hundreds of them perched in the upper branches of the adjacent trees cautiously looking out for danger. After what seemed like an eternity, they slowly edged down the trees towards the cliff. Finally one parrot made it to the exposed clay and started feeding. All of a sudden, the air was filled with a cacophony of squawking. My vision was filled with streaks of green and blue shapes darting about. Just like that, all the parrots were gone. They got spooked before most had fed. I was annoyed because we had just spent 2 hours waiting to see them.
Luckily, the real show was just about to begin. We spotted the macaws and their distinctive silhouettes flying towards us. Up to that point, I had never understood the allure of bird watching. I have always thought that birds just perch there and do nothing but chirp. The macaws were much different. They exhibited much more distinctive and interested social behavior. They always travelled as pairs with the occasional triplet signifying their offspring. They came in small groups from all different directions to that one spot, as if they had arranged for a group breakfast. Just like the parrots, they slowly made their way to the cliff edge. All it took was one brave bird to initiate the feeding before all of them followed shortly. On the periphery of the group, there were always a couple of macaws perched on branches watching for any predators. After awhile those guys would fly in and start feeding while another would trade out and take watch. It was an amazing site. With my camcorder propped up on my gorillapod, I was able to tape the whole sight and take about a billion pictures. After about 4-5 hours total at the clay lick, we headed back to the lodge and rested in the afternoon.
We visited the tapir lick that evening. Sherri was pessimistic when she heard that the previous night’s group spent 5-6 hours there and saw nothing. The facility was another raised wooden platform with individual mattresses safely covered by mosquito nets. We were all already miserably hot and sweaty from the hour-long walk to get there. Unfortunately, there was no breeze, so we suffered in the stifling heat. We ate our packed dinners of rice and chicken fingers (actually pretty damn good) and waited. And waited. And waited. I dozed off eventually. I was awakened to loud whispers of our guide alerting us to the arrival of a tapir. She used a small spotlight to illuminate the creature which was only 15 feet away below us. Apparently, tapirs have poor vision so it was not bothered by the bright light. It was an ugly creature—like a cross between a small hippopotamus and a horse. It was covered in mud like a pig. Our guide estimated that it weighed about 500 lbs. After munching on the clay for 20 minutes, the tapir amble off into the night. I was ecstatic for our luck. On the way back to the lodge, our guide pointed out several toads and found a small non-poisonous snake.