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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Monday, 28 July 2014

On This Day, 28 July; Peruvian Independence Day, Cocha Salvador

On this day in 1821 the Argentine General José de San Martín, having led the Army of the Andes (comprising Chileans and Argentinians) to victory in Lima over the last significant Spanish stronghold in South America, declared Peru to be independent. True independence actually took a little longer, but this is the day of national celebration every year. I'm not going to attempt an overview posting on Peru here - apart from anything else there is so much of the country that I've not yet seen. 

Instead I'd like to draw your attention to this wonderful country today by introducing you to just one magnificent and remarkable lake, deep in the Amazon basin. Cocha Salvador is a very large oxbow lake, a former great bend of the Manu River cut off by floods and now forming a deep still backwater with rainforest down to the shores.
Primary rainforest on the shores of Cocha Salvador.
The Manu Reserved Zone is a vast wilderness within the Manu Biosphere Reserve, inhabited by indigenous people and only otherwise accessible to researchers and visitors accompanied by authorised and environmentally trained guides. Cocha Salvador is in this reserve, not in Manu National Park as often claimed in web sites of companies who go there - the park itself is closed to all visitors except authorised researchers. It is near to Machiguenga Lodge, owned and operated by the Machiguenga people. I have to say that last time I was there the project was not thriving, but I'd love to be told that things have improved since then.

The lake is accessible by boat along the river, then a short walk through the forest before embarking on simple heavy rafts, poled along; only one group at a time may be on the water, by booking through the Parks Service. 

We arrived at dawn for a highly memorable excursion.

Sunrise over Cocha Salvador.
The key aim of any visit to Cocha Salvador is to encounter one of the most impressive, and rarest, big mammals in South America. The big oxbow lakes - and they are few - are key habitats for Giant Otters Pteronura brasiliensis, an endangered species across their northern Amazon Basin range. Heavy hunting for skins has reduced its numbers to no more than 5,000; it is listed as Endangered. Even in remote Manu it is estimated that only a dozen families survive. One of these is in Cocha Salvador.
Giant Otters really are big - up to 1.8 metres long and weighing 30kg, though in pre-hunting days much larger individuals were reported. They are highly social, unlike most other members of the weasel family, and each animal may eat up to 3kg of fish a day, so large rich hunting grounds are needed.


They are also highly vocal, and their squeals, whistles and whining calls help to locate them.

They are far from the only large animals in the water though, and there is an ongoing struggle with the Black Caimans Melanosuchus niger, the largest member of the alligator family, which can grow to five metres long. Both otters and caiman prey on each others youngsters; the otters will also team up to attack larger caiman.
Big Black Caiman, Cocha Salvador.
Waterbirds are also abundant, especially in the forest fringes.
Amazon Kingfishers Chloroceryle amazona hunt from perches. These are
large kingfishers, up to 30cm long. This is a male.
Tiger-Herons are a secretive group of herons, sometimes regarded as the most primitive of living herons.
Fasciated Tiger-Herons Tigrisoma fasciatum are widespread in northern South America and Central America,
but are most readily seen in quiet backwaters such as Cocha Salvador.
This is a young bird.
Unlike the tiger-herons, Great Egrets Egretta (or Ardea) alba - or perhaps a complex of closely related species - can be found throughout the world. They are always a delight, even in remote places where rarer birds are also on offer.
Limpkins Aramus guarauna are always exciting to see, as the sole member of their family. They live on
big water snails, and gained largely unrecognised exposure by providing the call of the
Hippogriph in the Harry Potter movies.
And it's not often you can see two single-member families in one morning's outing (bird-nerds value
such things!), but we managed it on Cocha Salvador. Sunbitterns Eurypyga helias are not bitterns at all; their
closest relative seems to be the enigmatic Kagu of New Caledonia.
Muscovy Duck descendants can be seen in farmyards throughout the world, but their
wild ancestors Cairina moschata can generally only be encountered now in remote Amazon waters.
(Their odd name incidentally has nothing to do with Moscow, but was a reference to the supposed
musky smell of the meat.)
Dead trees in the water support big colonies of hanging nests, belonging to Yellow-rumped Caciques Cacicus cela, common members of the icterid family - the 'North American blackbirds' whose ancestors crossed south on the Isthmus of Panama a few million years ago.
Yellow-rumped Cacique colony (above) and an owner-builder (below).
 

And on the way back to the basic wharf, don't forget to keep an eye into the tree-tops - monkeys are a highlight of the Amazon.
Colombian Red Howler Monkey male Alouatta seniculus; their pulsing roar, like a great wind,
is one of the sounds of the Amazon for me.
So, Happy National Day to my Peruvian friends - and thank you for sharing Cocha Salvador with me!
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