Postcards from Peru

West Palm Beach, Friday, April 9, 1999

We've been planning a trip to Peru for many months now and are finally on our way. Preparations included shots for hepatitis and yellow fever and the malaria pills we started taking a week ago. We've also bought some serious rain gear and some serious insect repellent. I needed to get some long-sleeved cotton shirts and was happy to find two made of naturally colored Peruvian cotton (one sage green, the other rust red). I'd been intrigued by the article in this month's Scientific American about an anthropologist's discovery that native Peruvians have been breeding strains of cotton of several different colors for millennia. (Looking at ancient textiles through a microscope, he had begun to suspect that the color was not from dyes. "Was it possible that some cotton was naturally pigmented? The answer--often derisively given--was categorically no: cotton is white." Then he sought out a Peruvian anthropologist, a descendant of the Mochic ethnic group, who showed him fields of colored cotton as they drove from the airport.)

This will be a very short birding trip with no time for seeing even Machu Picchu, as we need to get back soon to the Y2K grind. I wasn't planning on this week setting a new record for awfulness; then on Tuesday Lee came home from an offsite meeting very ill with food poisoning (as did several of our colleagues). He has had a wretched few days but refused to consider cancelling the trip and even managed to finish the income taxes before we left Princeton late this morning (detouring past the Woodrow Wilson School to see the magnolia trees at the height of their spring glory).

The flight to West Palm Beach was uneventful. I studied Birds of Colombia (the closest one can get to a field guide for Peruvian birds) trying to get my mind wrapped around some more of the almost 600 birds on the Tambopata list, but it's almost hopeless. I also read an amusing Australian novel called Magpie (Peter Goldsworthy and Brian Matthews), in which two authors war over ownership of the characters in the book and finally go to Family Court for a custody settlement. One of the blurbs on the back of the book has a great Nabokov quote: "When I sit down at the desk I can feel my characters cringe."

We are settled in a motel here in "West Palm" for tonight. Lee is again too ill to eat, so I've put him to bed and sent out for a pizza for me. I am starting to read Trogons, Laughing Falcons, and Other Neotropical Birds, the latest book by Alexander Skutch, the 95-year-old dean of Neotropical birders. In his preface, he calls the book "possibly the last I shall write about birds".

The beautiful birds with a handicap of whom I tell in the first chapter are trogons. They nest in holes they carve for themselves in tree trunks or other materials, using short, broad bills less efficient for this task than the sharp, chisel-like beaks of woodpeckers. Difficulty in finding a trunk neither too hard for them to excavate nor so far advanced in decay that it collapses leads them to investigate different sites for their nests.... Trogons' search for a place for their eggs led to the most fantastic behavior of a pair of birds that I have witnessed in nearly seven decades of bird study....

This pair of [Slaty-tailed] trogons continued to frequent our garden [in Costa Rica]. One morning the male...flew to the chickens' roost, to begin the most fantastically inappropriate behavior that I have witnessed in any bird.

The chickens' roost had a wall of rusted corrugated metal and it was in that that the trogons spent days trying to excavate a nest (and ignoring the nest box that Skutch built to try to help them out):
I could not decide whether they were confused by the color of the metal, whether they behaved in this extraordinary manner because they were frustrated by repeated failures to find an adequate nest site, or whether, like children with a noise-making toy, they were fascinated by the sounds.
The Tambopata bird list has nine species of trogons, including three species of quetzals, all ones we've never seen. (Well, we have a very short (but glorious!) trogon list: Resplendent Quetzal and Elegant Trogon.) I've been trying to memorize the undertail patterns of the nine species in case we're lucky enough to find any trogons in Peru.

Lima, Saturday, April 10, 1999

We wakened in West Palm Beach this morning to the calls of Boat-tailed Grackles. We'd intended to do some early morning birding, but Lee was still not well, so we slept late and then headed to one of the zillion malls to buy a replacement bag. (The "IBM--Solutions for a Small Planet" bag that I won last week burst its zipper during the flight from Newark--not my only disappointment with IBM recently.)

We had our minds ready for hiking in the rainforest, so driving through the endless Florida sprawl was a bit of a turnoff, particularly as we couldn't help regretting that so much swampland has been filled in to make room for the sprawl. However, the search for a luggage shop did give us the sight of our life drive-through pharmacy. We kept being passed by trucks from Artistic Statuary, Inc., and finally had the treat of seeing the place itself.

I was amazed to hear myself telling the people at the luggage shop that tomorrow morning we will be flying over the Andes to a small town where we will catch a "large passenger canoe" to go upstream for a few hours. How small the world has become!

We were soon repacked and on the road to Miami. We had some time before the flight from Miami to Lima, so Lee had made plans for us to stop at Miami's Greynolds Park, enticed by this description from its Web page:

Trails encircle a mangrove wetland and allow close views of the courtship activities, nest building, and rearing of chicks in a wading bird rookery....Nesting begins in late February and continues through the summer. You can expect to see cattle egrets, great egrets, anhingas, white ibis, tricolored herons, little blue herons, green herons, and double-crested cormorants. The birds roost here throughout the year and are stirring to watch as they return for the evening.
We were greeted at the gate by a jolly, snowy-bearded man who was obviously Santa in summer clothes. After we'd paid the admission fee, we asked if he had a birders' guide. His answer: "Oh, we have no birds! They all went away two years ago. We got rid of the alligators, and the birds all left. We don't know why."

We went on in to see for ourselves, and, sure enough, Old Rookery Road was very, very quiet. We walked along the water for a while and found Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Ringed Turtledoves and some black-and-white geese with red wattles on their faces. The park was very pretty but we think it's about time for them to update their Web page.

The check-in area at the airport was a madhouse, but gave us a chance to watch the vendors selling a service we hadn't known existed, having one's luggage shrink-wrapped (to prevent pilferage). A good many seasoned-looking travellers were taking advantage of the service, but I didn't want to have to deal with un-shrink-wrapping in the jungle.

The flight to Lima was comfortable and gave me another opportunity to study Birds of Colombia and to read more of the Skutch book. Skutch has a beautiful description of White-eared Hummingbirds leaving their nest:

To leave the nest, birds of other families step onto the rim before taking flight, but the hummingbirds departed more directly. Still sitting on the eggs, they spread and vibrated their wings and rose with little apparent effort, as though they were lighter than air and ascended because hidden moorings had been severed.
We arrived in Lima around 9:30pm. We were met at the airport by Ofelia and Hugo from Rainforest Expeditions, who whisked us to our hotel along a cliff-bottom road bordering the ocean, with a view of city lights along the curve of the bay.

We are staying in Miraflores, once a resort town where the wealthy of Lima came to escape from the summer heat but now absorbed into Lima. Our hotel (the Miramar Ischia) sits atop a cliff with only a narrow park separating it from the ocean. It was built as a private home but has been converted into a really lovely hotel with about a dozen guest rooms. It is owned by an American man and his Peruvian wife, who greeted us warmly. The man described the restoration of the building as a labor of love. The rooms are light and airy and decorated with wonderful artifacts (mostly textiles and pottery). The furniture is ornately carved and very handsome.

Our room has big windows overlooking the ocean, but we will miss the view. It is 11:30 now and our alarm is set for 3:15.

Posada Amazonas, Sunday, April 11, 1999

Ofelia and Hugo picked us up at our hotel in Lima at 4 this morning and then stopped nearby for Carole, who will be with us for the next few days. Carole told us that she had had her pocket picked by a very small boy while out shopping yesterday, but that she had lost only a small amount of money.

At the airport, we were grateful that we had Ofelia to take care of the practicalities, such as paying our departure taxes. She couldn't join us in the gate area, however, so the three of us did our best to understand the gate change announcements without knowing Spanish.

Sitting across from us as we waited to board the plane was an older woman dressed in traditional Andean attire, a bright pink brocade dress, an embroidered jacket, and black, flat-rimmed hat. Her two very long black pigtails were joined at their ends.

The sun was just rising over the Andes when we got aloft, turning the snowcaps a golden yellow--a really lovely view.

We flew east all the way across the country (and slightly south) to the small frontier town of Puerto Maldonado. As the plane approached the town, we could see below us a large, very sinuous river with many oxbow lakes.

All arriving passengers were required to produce proof of yellow-fever vaccination.

We were met by Alicia, a charming young entomologist who will be our guide for the next few days. We were also joined by Marilyn, who manages an Audubon sanctuary in Connecticut and is clearly a very good birder. We clambered up into the back of a small truck and were driven through Puerto Maldonado to the riverbank.

Puerto Maldonado has grown to a population of 5,000 in the past ten years. Alicia pointed out that it now has "two signals of traffic". The traffic consisted mostly of bicycles, motorscooters, and three-wheeled vehicles built from bicycles or motorscooters. (With two wheels in the front, these vehicles carry cargo or goods for sale; with two wheels in the back, they have space for passengers.) The town was obviously poor but hopeful, a home for pioneers out to find a way to make a living for their families.

When we got to the river, we turned our plane tickets over to another person from Rainforest Expeditions to hold for our return and then struggled down the muddy riverbank and into our boat, a motorized canoe painted bright blue, with room for about ten passengers and their baggage.

The trip up the wide, winding river was very pleasant. We were kept cool by the blue plastic canopy of the boat and the breeze from the boat's motion. The clay banks on either side of the river were topped by rainforest with occasional small clearings for subsistence farms. The houses had thatched roofs (and in some cases satellite dishes). There were Snowy Egrets along the banks and what were probably Roadside Hawks. Marilyn identified the swallows as White-winged. Parrots flew over squawking. Women accompanied by small children did their laundry in the muddy river. The boatman pointed out a Tayra (a large black weasel) fleeing up the bank from the sound of the boat.

After about three hours, the air became filled with the querulous calls of macaws, and the trees on the left bank were splashed with bright red. We had reached the "clay lick" near the Posada Amazonas Lodge, where macaws and other birds come to eat the clay. We had a few glimpses of Scarlet and Red-and-Green Macaws before the boat pulled over to a wooden staircase descending from the jungle.

When we got to the top of the staircase, we found a bench surrounded by rubber boots and were instructed to select a pair of boots that fit and to put them on, as we had a 20-minute hike through muddy trails ahead of us. We had barely started up again when we came upon a troupe of Dusky Titi monkeys in the trees on either side of the trail.

The trail was indeed muddy, so we were hot and ready to sit down when we reached the small clearing for the lodge. My immediate impression was of a Polynesian village. The lodge consists of half a dozen airy buildings sitting on high platforms, with high thatched roofs. The building materials and methods are of native Peruvian origin, but there was clearly a good architect involved. The "lobby" building has no walls at all; it is just a roofed platform with a few simple wooden chairs and several hammocks suspended between the pillars. It is decorated tastefully with a few elegant touches, such as a tall vase of pampas grass. We were immediately handed glasses of a refreshing yellow juice (from a fruit related to the tomato).

Monica, the assistant manager, greeted us and gave us a brief orientation speech. She asked us to conserve water (which should be easy with cold showers) and to carry our trash back to Puerto Maldonado. She also told us to be sure to tuck the mosquito netting over our beds into the mattress all the way around before going to sleep.

Our room is in a nearby building reached by a path paved with large wooden rounds. The walls are of split cane lath spaced to let air through and they go only high enough to afford privacy. There is no ceiling, nor any back wall. (There's no need for a wall, because the thick forest comes to within a couple of feet of the room.) The room is quite large and has a private bath.

As soon as we had our bags in our room, we headed for the diningroom, which is another building with no walls and a high graceful thatched room; it is also decorated with a few elegant artifacts. The kitchen is the next building over. Workers were constructing what will be a covered walkway between the kitchen and the diningroom. (The lodge has been open barely a year.) Lunch was good Peruvian home-cooking, starting with a nice soup and more of the yellow juice.

Lee is feeling better but decided to take the afternoon off. Carole and Marilyn and Alicia and I met at 3 for an "ecology trip", a rubber-booted hike through the beautiful forest. We heard many bird calls, particularly the "wolf whistles" of the Screaming Pihas, but saw few birds in the heavy forest. There was a species of Guan leaping about in the trees, and near the end of the hike we saw Variable Chachalacas flying to their roost tree for the night. Several times we heard monkeys calling in the distance.

Alicia showed us a butterfly with transparent wings resting almost invisibly on a plant near the trail.

Leaf-cutter ants were carrying their burdens across the trail, and we soon found their huge nest, an area of about 20 by 30 feet, with many entrances. The tunnels were being extended by workers who were coming out to deposit little balls of clay and then hurrying back to dig more. At another entrance, the cutters were carrying in pieces of leaf, and Alicia showed us one who was also carrying a much smaller ant.

Alicia also showed us a crisneja palm from which the thatched roofs are made. The palm fronds are attached to cross bars of cane spaced about six inches apart. From below, the fronds make a pretty herringbone pattern. The whole roof is less than an inch thick but quite waterproof and will last about 15 years. Because the thatch is so thin, the roofs are very light, which allows the beams to be much smaller than one would expect. Twenty families in the local Ese'eja community wove the 10,000 palm fronds for the roofs here. (The lodge is jointly owned by the community and Rainforest Expeditions.)

The end of the trail was an incredibly enormous tree estimated to be at least 900 years old.

We were glad we'd brought our flashlights for the return trip. We arrived at the lodge in time to see the Black Vultures settling into their roost tree near the lobby. We found Lee there looking rested. He'd spent part of the afternoon in a hammock and was chatting with a young American diplomat and his father.

I was very hot and headed off to get a shower before joining Lee and the others for a talk with Patricia, the manager of the lodge, who had just returned from a holiday in Lima. She told us about the history of the Tambopata Macaw Project, Rainforest Expeditions, and the Posada Amazonas Lodge. As she talked, we could hear oropendolas calling in the nearby trees. A pair of their long hanging nests flanks the entrance to the lobby.

The Macaw Project was begun in 1989 to investigate methods to increase the productivity of wild populations of macaws. The Tambopata Research Center (where we will be soon) was built to house this research and to provide a place for scientists doing other rainforest research to stay. Because of the difficulties of getting funding, people in the project decided to start an ecotourism business to bring in money, inviting tourists to Tambopata. However, Tambopata was too far from Puerto Maldonado to make the boat trip in one day, so a decision was made to build another lodge along the way and, after extensive negotiations, a joint venture was established with the Ese'eja Native Community.

The Canadian government lent most of the funds for building the Lodge, as part of a program for assisting development projects by native peoples. (In Peru, these projects had always been in the highlands before.) Eduardo Nycander, one of the founders of the Macaw Project and a principal of Rainforest Expeditions, designed the lodge. (He is a professional architect who did his thesis on native building materials and methods.)

The lodge reverts to the native community in twenty years. In the meantime, they get 60% of the profits and are being trained to do many of the jobs.

When Patricia asked for suggestions, I urged her to put up some hummingbird feeders. She said they had looked in Lima but none were to be found.

Dinner was by candlelight. It included a lovely squash soup and a potato salad with a sauce made of a relative of the papaya.

Alicia told us that she is preparing to defend her thesis in a few weeks and then will be looking for funding for a project she hopes to do to study the relationship between one of the species of monkeys and a species of katydid that the monkeys particularly like to eat. (A study has been done from the point of view of the monkeys, but she wants to understand it better from the point of view of the katydids.)

Marilyn told us at dinner that a few days ago in Lima she had been subjected to a slight roughing up by a gang of pickpockets, who had tried to pull off the pouch she has attached to her belt. They didn't succeed in taking anything, however.

After dinner, we all went just a few feet down one of the trails to see an Emerald Boa (about a meter long). It was gorgeous as it hung by its tail about 15 feet above the trail looking for its next meal.

When we returned to our room (by flashlight), we found kerosene lanterns glowing in openings high in the walls, just enough light to let us find our way to the beds and pull down the mosquito netting.

Posada Amazonas, Monday, April 12, 1999

We were up at 5 this morning and had a quick breakfast of a pancake and a banana so that we could be down the trail to the river and in the blind near the clay lick before the smaller parrots arrived.

The blind is a roomy structure of cane, thatch, and camouflage cloth with wooden benches. We were told that it washed away three weeks ago when the river was 35-40 feet higher than it is now and has since been rebuilt.

The clay lick is just a place on the cliff above the river that the birds happen to prefer. Chemical analyses have shown no apparent difference in the composition of the clay here from elsewhere along the river, but this place has been chosen. Eating into the cliff, the birds have produced an artificial-looking alcove with a smooth back wall and flat floor.

Alicia explained that there are three theories as to why the birds (and quite a few mammals) come to the clay licks: that the clay contains minerals that are lacking in their diet, that the clay contains minerals that sequester the toxins in the fruits they eat, or that it is merely a social activity.

The smaller parrots are said to arrive at the clay lick by 6:30 each morning, but they didn't arrive at all today (although we heard parrots flying over and calling in the trees above the blind all morning, tantalizingly out of sight).

Our first birds of the morning were some little brown birds flitting around on the river bank. After some poring over the book, Marilyn concluded that they were Drab Water-Tyrants. We were reassured by the book's description of their status and (very specialized) habitat: "Common but thinly spread along steep eroded banks of larger rivers, esp. where snags, exposed roots, and driftwood are present (not grassy river banks or smaller rivers)", exactly the habitat here.

Lee pointed out a pair of glittering green birds in the foliage of the clay bank. They turned out to be Broad-billed Motmots. I was terribly pleased when I discovered that they had a nest burrow in the bank.

A bird calling loudly and persistently right outside the blind finally allowed us a glimpse that showed him to be a rusty black with blue on his face and therefore one of the many species of antbirds. (The bird list here includes antshrikes, antvireos, antwrens, antbirds, antthrushes, and antpittas.)

Bill (the diplomat's father) spotted two White-throated Toucans (black and white bodies with red and yellow patches around the tail, blue skin around the eyes and yellow borders on the huge black bill) in a tree across the river. Trying to identify them, we read that the White-throated can best be distinguished from the Yellow-ridged by their call, so it was very obliging of them to fly across the river and sit in a tree above the blind for half an hour calling all the while. The call was like a puppy yelping, transcribed in the book as "eeof whe-whe". Later, Lee followed them up the trail trying to get a better look and found himself being examined by a monkey, who came down lower in the tree to look him over.

Alicia and Carole left to go to Tambopata, turning us over to Aviana, an ebullient young woman who recently received a college degree in tourism and who glows when she says she loves her job. I was impressed with how well she has learned the bird calls in only a month. (She identified our toucans immediately.)

We'd been told to expect the macaws to begin arriving around 10:00 and they did finally start coming, first the Red-and-Greens and then the Scarlets. It is difficult to describe how beautiful Scarlet Macaws are. (Last evening at dinner, Marilyn said she prefers Scarlet Macaws to even Resplendent Quetzals; now that I've seen them, I can see why she might.) The National Geographic article on Tambopata (January 1994) calls the Scarlets "winged rainbows" and that's about right, though rainbows are never so vivid. From the book:

Identification: 35". Very long pointed tail. Bill whitish above, black below. Mainly scarlet with yellow median upper wing coverts (conspic. when perched or in flight from above); flight feathers, rump, and short outer tail feathers blue; bare white skin on sides of head without markings.

Similar species: Red-and-Green Macaw is even larger, has green (not yellow) upper wing coverts, deeper, more scarlet (less red) plumage, and up close shows red-feathered lines on bare face.

The Scarlet Macaws actually have some green on their wings, too, so they shade from bright red to bright yellow to bright green to bright blue, like a rainbow.

Rainbows aren't usually so noisy however. There was constant calling back and forth between the macaws in the trees and others flying over. Whatever the calls mean, they always sound quarrelsome.

The macaws mate for life and almost invariably fly in pairs, or in groups of three including the most recent chick. The pairs began settling into the trees around the clay lick, waiting to make sure it was safe. While they waited, they preened one another, a very touching sight. (Bill's son described them as "making out"--certainly they seemed to be displaying affection as they nuzzled one another's faces.)

Meanwhile, two Spix's Guans were on the clay lick, and they were definitely eating the clay. They were joined by some Ruddy Pigeons and later by some Rock Parakeets. (These are endemic to Peru, so "they aren't in the book", but they are mostly parrot-green and quite similar to the Maroon-tailed Parakeet, which is in the book.)

A Red-crested Woodpecker (similar to our Pileated) flew right up to the blind and perched beside it before noticing us all and flying away. And Marilyn identified the sweet call of a Great Tinamou, though we never saw it.

We watched for a couple of hours as the pairs of macaws gathered closer and closer to the clay lick and got louder and louder, but in the end something suddenly spooked them and they all flew off shrieking without getting any clay today. We waited to see whether they might return and then headed up the trail to the lodge for lunch. On the way, we saw more monkeys and a Black-fronted Nunbird (with a wonderful curved red bill that was translucent in the bright sun).

The Emerald Boa was still in the tree, but now in daylight it was entirely coiled up, like a snail shell, and very well camouflaged against the leaves.

Lunch included a good noodle soup and a split pea dish and a really tasty chicken and french fry dish that was said to be an adaptation of a traditional dish.

A trip to a native farm was scheduled for the afternoon. Lee and I opted instead for a cold shower and a nap. After I woke, I stood at the railing at the back of our room and birded from there. I got Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers and Dusky-headed Parakeets and a glimpse of a Chachalaca standing on the top fronds of a palm tree. (The Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers are much prettier than I would have guessed from the illustration in the book, black with red bellies bordered with black-and-white stripes and a red crown above the yellow eye and eye tuft. They seem to be quite gregarious, like our Acorn Woodpeckers, but not so loud.)

We've had several native grains at the meals so far, but the "grain" at dinner this evening was actually crumbled plantain, very good.

At dinner, we met Aldo, an intense young biologist three years out of college and the manager of the Tambopata Lodge. We will be going with him to Tambopata early tomorrow. He mentioned that he recently got a good photograph of Blue-headed Macaws at Tambopata. He'd been in a blind near the clay lick there photographing macaws and had suddenly seen two macaws of an unknown species, so he started clicking. The Blue-headed are a Bolivian species that seems to be expanding its range.

Before we went off to bed, Aldo showed us an amazing video about Harpy Eagles (using a battery-powered video player) with really good shots of a chick from just after it was hatched until it took its first flight. One of my Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers had its nesthole in the same dead tree just below the eagles' nest. The woodpeckers were too small to be eagle prey, but there was a wonderful shot of the eagle chick watching the woodpeckers curiously, learning to triangulate with its eyes by shifting its head left and right like its parents did. (These eagles are enormous and prey primarily on monkeys and sloths; they also take macaws.)

Tambopata, Tuesday, April 13, 1999

We slept in this morning at Posada Amazonas, giving me the leisure to lie in bed listening to the astounding dawn chorus, which I somehow didn't notice while scurrying around yesterday morning.

We spent a while before breakfast trying to identify the oropendolas in the tree next to the diningroom. Aldo says they're the Green, but Marilyn says they're the Olive. I'd know the gurgling calls and the yellow-trimmed tails of oropendolas anywhere (after a week in Belize with a flock of Montezuma Oropendolas building their wonderful nests in a tree by our veranda--the name "oropendola" means "hanging nest"), but that's as much as I got.

We did, however, get a good close look at a pair of undeniably Blue-headed Parrots.

Breakfast was the ancient Andean non-cereal grain quinoa, nicely crunchy with strawberry yogurt poured over it. As Aldo and Marilyn and Lee and I sat eating, Aldo called out "Blue-headed Macaws" and we all dropped our spoons and dashed outside too late to see a pair of them flying over.

Soon we were off up the river to Tambopata in the speed boat, rather than a canoe, so we had a much shorter trip than is usual. We stopped twice at government checkpoints to get permission to proceed into the preserve and to sign in with our passport numbers. Once we were in the preserve, there were no farms, nor any other people.

We were barely out of sight of Posada Amazonas when Aldo pointed out two Black Skimmers skimming along the river. He was surprised when Marilyn told him that we think of skimmers as ocean birds.

We soon passed a Black Caracara in a tree (caracaras belong to the falcon family; the Black has a conspicuous orange face). Later we saw two hunting on a sandbar near a Snowy Egret.

Later the boatman called "Amigo, amigo" and pointed to an otter running up the riverbank.

The river meanders lazily. And the boat had to meander within the meanders to follow the channel. When the sun was on my right, I knew that ten minutes later it would be on my left.

Big turtles sunned themselves on driftwood snags along the riverbank. The air was full of butterflies, even out over the river--blue, red, white, orange, yellow. And along both banks, there were flocks of yellow and orange butterflies flying close together in a line, a line that undulated and sometimes did loop-the-loops.

I noticed Aldo going over some obviously computer-generated reports (on the guests to be arriving over the next few days), so I asked him how they were transmitted. He said they were generated in Lima and sent from there to Puerto Maldonado electronically. From Puerto Maldonado to Posada Amazonas, transmission is strictly by canoe. (Alicia had already told us that she goes to Puerto Maldonado to read her email.)

Along the way, Aldo served us each a snack in a little blue plastic bag (a packet of crackers, a chocolate bar, an apple, a mint). He seemed disappointed when none of us took him up on his offer of cold water. Later he handed out a very good picnic lunch, rice and chicken with olives and raisins, all wrapped in a banana leaf tied up with bark twine. (This was remarkably similar to a Chinese picnic treat that I learned to prepare in a cooking course long ago, except that the Chinese version uses lotus leaves.)

Beyond the confluence of the Tambopata River with the Malinowski, the Tambopata remained quite wide but was very shallow and full of fallen trees. What appeared to be an ash fall from an ancient volcano formed a resilient layer that wasn't as readily eroded as the clay and left small islands here and there. Aldo turned his attention to the water, watching for snags and shallows. When I asked him how he could tell where the water was too shallow, he seemed to be unable to explain other than that he'd learned from the boatmen (and his own mistakes) over the past three years. I was reminded of Mark Twain's days as a riverboat cub pilot described so lovingly in Life on the Mississippi.

I had never before seen palm trees as driftwood.

I got a brief glimpse of a large kingfisher sitting on a snag in a back eddy. It looked black and white in the dim light, but I suspect it was an Amazon Kingfisher (described in the book as "oily green").

Near the end of the trip, Aldo pointed out a White-Necked Heron (Cocoi Heron), very like our Great Blue, but with a black crown and the white neck.

We wouldn't have spotted the river entrance to the Tambopata Research Center, but the boatman knew it well and we were soon being given a friendly greeting as we plunged into the beautiful forest.

The Tambopata lodge is similar to the one at Posada Amazonas, not as elegant, nor as large, but much easier to reach from the river. It is set in a small clearing with papaya trees around it and flowering ginger plants to attract hummingbirds.

One climbs up some wooden steps to a roofed, slat-floored porch with benches along the sides and racks to hold muddy boots. Only after getting down to stocking feet does one step onto the veranda proper and its shiny mahogany floors. The kitchen, dining area, bedrooms, and bathrooms are joined by covered walkways similar to the ones being built at Posada Amazonas, so there is no need for shoes. The bedrooms are smaller but quite comfortable; the back wall is again just a railing, so that one is always in the forest.

We found Carole and Alicia in the lodge; there are no other guests just now, except Carina, another young biologist here to do some research. Carole greeted us with the comment that Tambopata is hotter and has more mosquitos even than Posada Amazonas, but we shrugged that off; we've dreamed of being in this place for many months now and already love it, bugs and all.

We were served some nice juice in the dining area and had a chance to meet three of the "chicos", the hand-reared macaws that drop by when they want a handout or some society. There were two Red-and-Greens and a Scarlet. Santivo, the friendly waiter, greeted their arrival with a grin and "Oh, chico, chico" and fetched them some crackers from the kitchen, which pleased them very much. Marilyn commented wryly that giving them crackers seemed too much of a stereotype, but they definitely wanted crackers. It took me a moment to work out why they looked so odd feeding themselves the crackers (which they hold in one "hand" as they nibble)--their opposable digit is on the other side from ours.

Aldo told us that there aren't many chicos around just now, because it is breeding season and many of them are now just old enough to breed. Everyone is hoping soon to be seeing some chicos returning with the abraded tails that are the result of nesting in tree cavities.

As soon as we got settled in our rooms, we were eager to head off into the forest with Aldo. We'd been gathered on the veranda waiting for him just a short while when the Scarlet chico flew over to join us. It proceeded to scrape its beak along the narrow gap between the floorboards with great intensity of purpose, but it didn't do anything with the dust it scraped up and we had the distinct impression that we were being shown off for. When the chico grew tired of that, it clambered about over a bookcase, using its beak as a third claw and always climbing, rather than flying, to get up higher.

Aldo led us (panting--his legs are long) up into a bamboo forest along the crest of the riverbank cliff, where we found a group of Red Howler Monkeys napping and browsing in the trees. We paused at an overlook to view the river and saw a big black-and-white Jabiru stork flying along. (The book describes the Jabiru as "huge Pleistocenelike bird with grotesquely large black bill".)

There were great numbers of macaws flying over, two-by-two. In addition to the Scarlets and Red-and-greens, we had our first glimpses of both Chestnut-fronted and Blue-and-yellow Macaws and are longing for better looks at both. We're hoping we will remember the call we heard when Aldo again identified Blue-headed Macaws by ear.

At the end of the trail was another overlook down into a valley cut by a side stream of the river. Right at the edge of the cliff was a nicely shaded bench. And in the tree right in front of us when we sat down were half a dozen Common Piping-Guans! These are very handsome large black-and-white birds with blue facial skin and shaggy white crests. They stayed around for several minutes and gave us a very good look.

The four of us spent the rest of the afternoon on the bench there at the top of the cliff and it was quite wonderful. The most stunning birds were the tanagers, the Vermilion and the Silver-beaked, the former a glowing red and the latter so red that it was black. (The list of tanagers for Tambopata goes on and on, including Opal-rumped, Opal-crowned, Paradise, Green-and-gold, Yellow-bellied, Blue-necked, Beryl-spangled, Orange-eared, Saffron-crowned, Black-goggled, and a couple of dozen more, all glorious.)

The other real treat was the tiny White-throated Jacamar, a Peru endemic not in our book. A nice Bat Falcon perched too far away for a really good look. The flycatchers were probably the Social (but too far away to hope to make out the vermilion crown). Also: Barn and White-banded Swallows, Black-fronted Nunbird, Blue-headed Parrots, Black Caracara, Variable Chachalacas, and Crested Oropendolas.

We stayed until almost dark and then made our way back to the lodge by flashlight. The day had been quite warm so we were ready (well, as ready as it's possible to get) for a cold shower before dinner.

Dinner was a nice soup (Aldo insists on soup, just as his mother always made), spaghetti, manioc, and a traditional raisin gelatin dish that (not surprisingly) hadn't quite jelled in the high humidity, all served by candlelight.

Aldo warned us at dinner not to leave anything out in our rooms that the chicos might play with. Since none of the rooms has an outside wall, the chicos are free to come and go as they please. They are particularly fond of taking children's toys off into the woods, but they've also been known to dismantle a camera lens out of curiosity.

Each room has a small wooden box mounted on the wall to serve as a safe, just big enough for one's passport and wallet. Aldo told us that some months ago a guest had complained to him about the bird droppings on his bedside table, so Aldo went to investigate and found a Dusky-headed Parakeet in the unlocked safe (this was a parakeet that had been hand-reared after it was found as a baby lost from its nest). So, Aldo took the bird out of the safe and locked the safe but left the key in the lock. As he watched, it flew up and perched on the safe, turned the key with its beak, pulled the door open, climbed in, and then pulled the door shut after itself. So, now, when the safes are not in use, they are kept locked, with the key hung on a nail on the wall nearby.

We've read that we have about a ten percent chance of seeing a jaguar while we're here, which would be wonderful. Aldo told us about some guests a few months ago who actually saw two different jaguars in a three-day period. One of those jaguars had killed a tapir and moved the carcass farther away each day, leaving a trail that was easy to follow, so people were able to see the jaguar over a period of several days.

After dinner, Alicia took us along a walkway to look at a tree where five Chachalacas were roosting close together in a row along a branch, four adults with a young one (about a third as big as the adults) snug in the middle of the row. Alexander Skutch writes that he had been watching the nest of a Grey-headed Chachalaca from a blind for several days when an intruder scared her away. When she hadn't returned after two days, he took the three cold, wet eggs home and put them under his broody hen Diana. A week later, three little Chachalacas were hatched. They learned to follow Diana and eat the tidbits she scratched up for them, but they wouldn't sleep under her wings as she expected them to. Even when very small and mostly naked, they roosted lined up in a row on a horizontal beam, just like these five.

Afterward, we could hear Aldo ordering supplies via radio-telephone, which seems a terribly frustrating way to communicate.

Tambopata, Wednesday, April 14, 1999

We dressed hurriedly by flashlight after Aldo called us at 4:15 this morning. While we ate a quick snack of saltine crackers, he examined one of our "Metropolitan VM Users' Association 25th Anniversary" flashlights and asked whether flashlights are a traditional anniversary present in the U.S. (We'd been very pleased that these little flashlights were given out at the MVMUA 25th anniversary party a couple of weeks ago, as they are exactly what we needed for our trip.) Marilyn showed us how to unscrew the part that holds the lens and turn it upside down to form a base, converting the flashlight to "candle mode". What a breakthrough! It has been so awkward doing things like combing one's hair while holding a flashlight.

And, speaking of flashes, we spotted a flash or two of distant lightning while we nibbled the crackers but assured ourselves that there wouldn't be rain.

We were in the boat by 5 and on our way just a short distance to a sandbar with a good view of the cliff that we sat atop yesterday afternoon. That cliff is the famous Tambopata clay lick.

It was barely light as we put our little folding stools in a row facing the cliff and sat down to begin waiting. Soon there were flocks of the smaller parrots flying above us calling loudly: Blue-headed Parrots, Dusky-headed Parakeets, and White-eyed Parakeets (shaped like miniature macaws and flying low in loudly chattering flocks).

As the sky lightened, other birds sought out the river margin. We looked behind us just in time to see a Jabiru swooping around to land on the shore. A Black Caracara hunted not far away. A Roadside Hawk surveyed the riverbank from a low perch nearby. Two big Orinoco Geese landed further down our sandbar ("upper mandible black, lower red; legs reddish; head, neck, chest, and center of breast pale creamy buff; otherwise mostly chestnut becoming dark green on lower back and tail").

More and more flocks of parrots flew over noisily (or, more likely, the same ones again and again, not quite sure where they really wanted to be), and then the macaws started arriving in pairs, the big guys (the Scarlets, Red-and-greens, and Blue-and-yellows) mostly settling into the trees at the top of the cliff and the smaller ones (the Red-bellied and the Chestnut-fronted) sometimes landing but mostly flying about in larger and larger flocks (the two species, which are very similar, flocking together).

Aldo explained that every morning the two smaller species form a large flock that performs this very noisy and conspicuous display to verify that it is safe to land on the cliff (where they will be rather exposed to eagles). The larger macaws never go to the clay lick until the smaller ones have chosen the spot du jour.

The Red-bellied and Chestnut-fronted Macaws are about the same size (18-20") and both are predominantly green with touches of blue and red. Like all macaws, they have bare skin on their faces, yellow in the Red-bellied and white in the Chestnut-fronted. They are easy to tell apart in a mixed flock because the Chestnut-fronted are dull red under their wings, while the Red-bellied are dull yellow-green.

Before it was really light enough to see colors, Aldo pointed out a pair of the elusive Blue-headed Macaws in a big dead tree on the cliff above us. They, too, are small mostly-green macaws. One identifies them (according to our parrot book):

From sympatric Chestnut-fronted and Red-bellied Macaws by dark bare skin on face, more extensive and obvious blue feathers on head, and pale bill. Bare red skin around eyes diagnostic at close quarters.
Soon a family of three Blue-and-yellow Macaws landed in the same tree. It was our first chance to appreciate the beauty of the Blue-and-yellow Macaws. They are really stunning. ("Unmistakable. 33"; very long pointed tail; black bill; bright cerulean blue above and orange yellow below, incl. under wings and tail; forehead green; upper throat black; bare sides of head white with narrow lines of black feathers.")

And then the rains came.

I would have been perfectly happy to sit there in the rain, but the macaws don't land on the clay lick when it is raining and had begun to disperse. (Aldo says the clay sticks to the roof of their mouth if it's wet.) Alicia assured us that the boat would soon arrive to pick us up, unless the boatman had gone back to bed and wasn't wakened by the gentle rain. Just then, the boat came around the bend and we headed back to the lodge.

We were just dropping our things in our rooms before breakfast when Alicia called us to come quickly to see a Tayra (the black weasel) who had climbed one of the papaya trees to check on the ripeness of the fruit. Despite such competition, the cook had managed to capture some deliciously ripe papayas for our breakfast.

Silver-beaked Tanagers sat in a nearby bush while we were at breakfast.

After breakfast, we were called to the other end of the lodge to see the Brown Capuchin monkeys in the trees a few feet away. I was fascinated by the intelligence in the eyes of the alpha male, who was constantly checking on what all the others were doing and whether they were safe.

When the rain ended, Aldo, Nelsen (Aldo's young assistant), Marilyn, and I took the boat again to go to an oxbow lake not far from the clay lick. (Marilyn translated as Aldo called in Spanish for "four chairs and a machete".) We left Lee in one of the hammocks on the veranda. His assignment is to watch the ginger plants and get a good look at the hummingbird that is feeding on them. (Marilyn has determined that it is one of the dozen Hermit species (all very similar brownish-olive); she wants Lee to ascertain the shape and relative length of its bill. I showed him Plate 16 in the book, so he understands the challenge before him.)

There was a caiman swimming about in the little inlet while we were getting out of the boat. It was probably 5-6 feet long. We could see little more than its eyes and snout, which were beautifully camouflaged as a lump of mud. It lurked not far away as we climbed up the slippery clay bank.

Nobody had taken the trail to "the pond" for a while, so Aldo had to slash the trail with the machete. We couldn't help enjoying the fact that this slowed him down enough that we could keep up with him (but only just enough).

We soon came to an area where there were tapir tracks in the mud, their three-toed prints as big as my hand. Soon after that, the trail became impenetrable, so Aldo told us to stay while he scouted out another way. When he returned, it was with the news that he had seen a Rufescent Tiger-Heron (a bird I'm longing to see).

I had unwisely settled for a pair of rubber boots that were really too large (not wanting to make a fuss), so I was in trouble when Aldo led us into a boggy area and said we'd be OK if we ran through the mud. I bogged down and found myself completely unable to move. His advice to turn my feet sideways in the boots helped, but then I lost my balance and got rather muddy. Aldo finally, somehow, pulled me out and we made it to the little lake after about an hour on the trail. Before we had even sat down, we saw a beautiful Capped Heron (white with a black cap, blue face and blue bill).

Once we were settled, Aldo went off (to my embarrassment) to try to hack a better return path.

Since we've arrived at Tambopata, we've mostly seen Nelson studying the bird illustrations in the Guide's Handbook, so we were glad to be able to show him some real birds. Almost immediately, a small kingfisher sat briefly on a snag across the pond but didn't wait for Nelson to find the kingfisher page. It soon returned, however, and there was no doubt that it was a male Green Kingfisher, a beautiful little bird that I've longed to see (and that I failed to find in either Costa Rica or Belize). From Birds of Colombia:

Male dark shining green above with narrow white collar almost encircling neck and several rows of white spots on wings; outer tail feathers mostly white (conspic. in flight), below mostly white with a broad chestnut band and green spots on flanks.
In the bright light, the green looked almost sage, and the effect of the white spots on the wings was of lace. It was a really lovely bird and very gracious about posing on the snag for us (between short dives into the pond to catch tiny fish).

(I was happy later when Marilyn told me that seeing this bird meant that she had seen all of the Peruvian kingfishers on this trip. The Tambopata list includes Ringed, Amazon, Green-and-rufous, and American Pygmy Kingfishers, in addition to the Green. Of course, I'm also hoping for a female Green (which doesn't have the chestnut band). I overheard Lee telling somebody earlier today that we get to travel only to places that have kingfishers.)

Later we had a rapid fly-through of what seemed to be an even smaller kingfisher. I'd like to think it was a Pygmy.

Oh, but I should tell be telling you about the Hoatzins! I've been dreaming for years of seeing Hoatzins. As George Plimpton said in an article in Audubon magazine last year:

The species is not uncommon, ...but it is so odd and prehistoric looking--a kind of turkey-size pterodactyl--that it captures the imagination.
Our first sign of the Hoatzins was a sound like a bunch of toy steam locomotives, and then the trees across the pond revealed several large, somewhat clumsy birds:
24-26". Unmistakable prehistoric appearance. Long-necked, long-tailed, and with long, frizzled rufous crest. Large bare ocular area bright blue; eyes red. Mainly bronzy olive above boldly streaked buff on hindneck and mantle; shoulders and broad tail tip buff; throat and breast buffy white; rest of underparts and primaries chestnut.
Or, in Plimpton's words, "red-eyed, blue-throated, with a frizzle of crest like a rock star's hairdo".

When we were on Cape York last year, the Australian birder Peter Slater showed me a Pheasant Coucal and said, "That's what an Archaeopteryx looked like". I knew at once he was right about that; Archaeopteryx had had time to become so beautiful. Looking at the Hoatzin, one suspects that that's what Archaeopteryx's ancestors looked like--before they'd evolved enough to get the bird look all pulled together.

The Hoatzin is a peculiar neotropical bird treated by some as most closely allied to galliformes but recent biochemical evidence suggests an affinity to cuckoos.
Young Hoatzins still have claws on their wings! If threatened in their nest (which is always built over water), they drop into the water, swim to safety, and then use their claws to climb back to their nests.

Though it looks so primitive, the Hoatzin is a very specialized bird that has evolved the ability to digest leaves and shoots of marsh plants. It has a large crop for fermenting the leaves, which makes it heavy for flying and accounts for its awkwardness (and for its common name "stinkbird").

It was a joy to see them so well and to have the time to savor them. They remained in the trees around the pond most of the time we were there. Now, I just hope Lee gets a chance to see them, too.

The other new bird for me was the Greater Ani. One sat very near and gave me a good look at its remarkable bill ("black bill compressed with arched ridge on basal portion of upper mandible ('broken nose' profile)", which is even more extreme than those of the Smooth-billed and Groove-billed Anis we saw in Central America.

I would have been happy to stay by the pond all day, but we were expected to return to the lodge for lunch. Marilyn kindly volunteered to carry my binoculars on the return trip so they wouldn't get another dunking in the mud, but I managed this time (with Aldo's help) to get through the mud without either falling or becoming stuck.

We had had macaws flying low over us the entire time we were at the pond. Now, there were eight Blue-and-yellow Macaws in one tree on the cliff as our boat passed by on the way back to the lodge. How beautiful they are! (At lunch later, Marilyn said that she's beginning to think she prefers them even to the Scarlet Macaws and I had to agree.) The Macaw Project hand-reared some Blue-and-yellows, in addition to the Scarlets and the Red-and-greens, and some of those chicos are known still to be alive but they don't come to the lodge for handouts.

When we returned from the pond, Lee was no longer in the hammock. He had spent part of the morning photographing the chicos, who make wonderful photographic subjects, being beautiful, not shy, and, if self-conscious, only to the extent of wishing to show off. (Carole told us that she'd seen one of them in a vacant guest room playing with the lighter provided for lighting the candles. We have to hope it won't figure out how to strike a spark.)

At lunch, there was talk of the illicit trade in live animals, which is a problem throughout Amazonia. Aldo told us that he'd been to a biological conference in Iquitos and that he and some friends had gone early one morning to an area of town reputed to be the center of this activity; they were offered an amazing variety of animals by men who pulled long snakes and such out of pockets in their coats.

We rested in our room for a while during the hottest part of the day. One couldn't think of sleeping, however, with so many birds visible just beyond the railing. Lee photographed a couple of the chicos up in a papaya tree eating the ripe fruit. The cook will have to move fast to keep up with them.

In the trees at the edge of the clearing, there are usually some Black Vultures and the local Chachalaca flock, but this afternoon there were also Violaceous Jays (really lovely) and Crested Oropendolas ("only large Colombian oropendola with all white bill ... central tail feathers black, rest bright yellow"). Oropendola tail feathers are a really incredible yellow, like pure sulphur. We've a book of Amazon art, much of which, particularly the headdresses and dance masks, features featherwork. The yellow oropendola feathers are almost as popular for featherwork as the long red plumes from the tail of the Scarlet Macaw. (There is a photograph in the book of a Harpy Eagle kept captive so that its molted feathers could be retrieved for featherwork. The talons are fearsome.)

George Plimpton described the nests and calls of the Crested Oropendolas:

I was especially taken by the oropendolas, a species related to the orioles. Their nests are socklike appendages hanging in clusters from the branch tips of tall, often isolated trees--enormously elongated versions of a Baltimore oriole's nest, as if that bird, familiar to me on Long Island, in New York, had kept building until its nest reached the length of a grandfather clock's pendulum.

As the females create these structures, the males gather nearby, calling to them in a steady succession of croaks and gurgling noises (described in The Birds of Colombia as "plup, plup, plup, plup-loo-upoo"). This they do while falling forward, still hanging onto the branch with their toes, until just before they reach the vertical, upside down, at which point they flap their wings to come back up and regain their balance.

Our afternoon trip was to "the palm swamp". Alicia kindly first took me to the boot room where we selected a pair of rubber boots that came much closer to fitting me. It was a good thing, too, because soon Marilyn, Carole, Alicia, Carina, and I were sloshing through the swamp after Aldo, with water coming to near the top of our rubber boots. (So sheltered has my life been that this was my first experience of walking through a swamp other than on a boardwalk.) We had our first view of Saddleback Tamarins in the trees on the way to the swamp. Later there were Spider Monkeys, too.

After quite a lot of sloshing, we reached "the tower", a five-sided structure of steel scaffolding, about 45 feet high. It was set up in an area where there are some "semi-artificial" nests of Blue-and-yellow Macaws. (The nests are called semi-artificial because people in the Macaw Project lopped the heads off of the palm trees to hasten their decay. The Blue-and-yellows wait until a certain beetle has hollowed out a cavity in the trunk of the palm large enough for them to use as a nest. The availability of such cavities limits the number of pairs that can breed each year. I can remember seeing a photograph taken here of a pair of Scarlet Macaws with their white faces flushed red with anger because another pair was trying to usurp their precious nest hole.)

Aldo climbed up the tower to set up a harness rig and then Alicia demonstrated its use. Aldo assured us that climbing the tower without the harness was easy, but the harness made it a bit safer. Having been so wimpy as to get stuck in the mud this morning, I was determined to redeem myself by doing the climb, so up I went, acrophobia and all.

There was no ladder per se; one just climbed up the bars of the scaffolding: take four giant steps up one side of the tower, then move around the corner, take four giant steps up that side, then back to the first side, and so on, up to the top, remembering to move the harness attachment up with each step.

I wasn't afraid at all, but it was rather strenuous in such heat. It was a good thing that Aldo warned me just in time not to smash my head into the bottom of the wooden platform at the top of the tower. I might have needed the harness after all.

The view from the top was well worth the climb. The forest was much more open and a different shade of green up closer to the canopy. A troupe of Squirrel Monkeys sat in some trees nearby at about the same height as the top of the tower. A pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws sat even higher, in the top of a really tall palm tree, and shrieked at me. They may have been the pair who raised a chick in the nearby nest tree. I could see the nest hole clearly. Aldo said that the BBC had been here photographing the nest up until three weeks ago when the chick fledged.

I had had a faint worry that I might panic going down, but I was fine. We got back to the lodge after dark, tired and really muddy. (I have been carefully rationing my "clean" clothes so as to have something more or less presentable to wear on the plane home, but this is definitely the last day I can wear this pair of pants.)

Lee told us that he had gone for a short hike with Santivo, who had come to get him to see the monkeys in the trees at the edge of the clearing. They had followed the monkeys and had heard one of them fall to the ground, a fairly unusual occurrence. When they got to the spot from which the loud PLOP had come, they didn't find a splattered monkey, so it must have survived. They had also gotten a good look at an agouti.

(Santivo is such a nice man that the chicos will let him scratch the backs of their heads. They clearly enjoy it but don't trust other people enough to allow it.)

Lee reported at dinner that the hermit hummingbird has a long straight bill, which certainly simplifies matters, as there is only one hermit with a straight bill in Birds of Colombia, the Straight-billed Hermit. But, wait, that's not in the Tambopata list, which does have Needle-billed Hermit, which gets only a Note in Birds of Colombia ("much like Straight-billed Hermit, but rump and underparts bright cinnamon buff (like Tawny-bellied Hermit) and tail tips rufous").

I tried to convince Aldo that he really needs half a dozen hummingbird feeders hanging from the edge of the veranda. (I'm sure he would find himself totally addicted to hummingbird-watching in no time.) He told us that a hummingbird photographer had visited (with all the fancy gear one needs to photograph hummingbirds) a couple of years ago. He stayed two weeks, just photographing among the ginger plants around the lodge, and got ten species of hummingbirds. (There are 33 hummingbird species in the Tambopata bird list. So far, we know we have a hermit species and "a green one". Ah, well, if there were hummingbird feeders here, Lee would never get me back to Princeton.)

Aldo told us that he has asked the men to go out tomorrow to open the trail to the pond. "I said I wanted a trail like a soccer field!"

He also gave us his "speech" about the Macaw Project. Since it began in 1989, the project has been trying to understand the limitations on growth of macaw populations in order to develop techniques for helping endangered populations recover. They chose this place to work because it has a large non-endangered macaw population to study. The scarcity of suitable nesting sites clearly limits the population here. Further, the Project found that, as with many other birds, macaws tend to use the "an heir and a spare" strategy of laying clutches of two eggs even though the second-hatched chick almost invariably dies of malnutrition unless the first falls victim to a predator, disease, etc.

In addition to lopping off the heads of palms, people in the Macaw Project also experimented with constructing artificial nests for the macaws. The first kind they tried was made of another kind of palm, which has a thick bole halfway up the trunk. They cut the boles out, hollowed them, and hoisted them up into trees. Macaws nested in them successfully, but hoisting the heavy wooden nests was very hard work, especially in swamps. The next thing they tried was nest boxes made from plastic pipe, which were much lighter. (There is one such by the trail near the lodge.) Those actually worked as well and were much easier to handle. The results indicated that providing artificial nest holes can help a macaw population grow.

They addressed the infant mortality problem by removing the second chick from a number of nests, taking it to the Center, and feeding it there. After each chick was well established, it was returned to the nest and its sibling was taken to the Center to be fed for a while. This all worked fine. The chicks were not rejected by their parents and both had the benefit of being trained to be macaws.

However, as Aldo said, "the imprinting is a problem". Although the chicos are referred to as "imprinted birds", they clearly are not imprinted in the classic sense of the textbook baby gulls, who followed the first big moving creature they saw after hatching and ever after viewed themselves as members of that species, whether human or gull or some other. The chicos clearly know they are macaws. They spend their time with other macaws and behave appropriately. Those that are old enough have formed pair bonds.

However, they have no fear of humans, and that is definitely a problem for this project. The chicos are quite safe here, but if the same techniques were used on an endangered macaw population whose worst hazard is being captured for the pet trade, the lack of fear would be a death sentence. From A Guide to Parrots of the World (Juniper and Parr) about the wonderful Hyacinthine Macaw:

Formerly common in some areas... Now occurs rather patchily with recent and probably continuing declines owing principally to illegal domestic and smaller, but significant, international trade in live birds.
Even worse, Spix's Macaw:
Virtually extinct; known wild population consists of a single bird (male)... Proximate cause of rarity has been trapping for live bird trade. About 30 specimens in captivity (1994) but systematic breeding for release beset by legal difficulties and logistic difficulties involving "owners".
So, another round of experiments is in order. Aldo said that they think they might be able to use captive macaws to feed the young when they are taken from their nests. And, of course, there is the hand puppet technique that has been used with the California Condors. However, I think they are likely to have a very hard time keeping these macaws from learning that humans can be the source of food. They are clearly very intelligent and know a good thing when they see it.

Tambopata, Thursday, April 15, 1999

Aldo woke us at 4:15 again this morning. As we nibbled our crackers before leaving for the boat, Marilyn commented that saltine crackers have become a staple food for us, and Aldo lamented the "six kinds of very good bread in Lima". Lee said he'll never be able to eat another saltine without thinking of the chicos.

The river had risen several feet overnight. "There must have been rain in the highlands." (We can see distant blue mountains from the river.)

There was still a bit of fog in the trees at the top of the cliff when we got to the sandbar this morning, but soon we had good sunlight. There were more macaws of all kinds this morning than yesterday.

As we waited for them to work up their courage to go to the lick, Aldo told us about sitting here one morning with the cliff covered with macaws eating the clay when one of the lovely White-necked Herons innocently flew by quite close to the cliff. One of the macaws must have seen it out of the corner of its eye and given the eagle alarm, because the cliff suddenly exploded with screeching macaws, causing the terrified heron to make a sharp left turn.

(We've read that the macaws will sometimes mob an eagle, but Aldo has never seen that happen.)

While we waited, we watched a Spotted Sandpiper very nearby, and a White-winged Swallow perched long enough for me to figure it out. Two little birds that Aldo didn't recognize perched in some of the flood debris behind us on the sandbar. Marilyn later did some research and figured them out:

Yellow-browed Sparrow--the stripe-headed sparrows with yellow patches around their eyes. (Not at all similar to the picture in the Colombian book... the Peruvian race is much brighter.)
As the birds continued to gather, a bright green tree down near us became crowned with Scarlet Macaws, a dazzling sight in the bright sunshine. And a dead tree up on the cliff filled with Blue-and-yellow Macaws, the sun making them glow in turquoise/blue and yellow/orange. The pairs flying low over us were even more stunning.

After careening through the air in big circles from one end of the cliff to the other and back into the woods, over and over (and making lots of noise), the small macaws finally chose today's place on the cliff and settled to eat the clay very near us, their parrot-green backs pretty against the red cliff.

The large macaws had begun to join them when somebody gave an alarm call, and the cliff exploded, just as Aldo had described it. For a minute or so the air above us was filled with an amazingly colorful mixed flock of macaws circling and shrieking. Then they settled on the cliff again but, alas, very far away. They were joined by the other parrots. With the spotting scope, Aldo identified Mealy Amazons, Dusky-headed, and Yellow-cheeked, but they were too far away for us really to see with binoculars and they didn't stay long enough for us to look through the scope.

When they were gone, we headed back to the lodge with a good idea of how glorious a sight the clay lick must be on a lucky day.

Breakfast was a really delicious banana porridge; I wish I could get it at home. After breakfast, we all leaned over the diningroom railing to see both Red Howler and Brown Capuchin monkeys in the big tree across the lawn.

When Lee and I got back to our room, there were Black Vultures on the lawn eating papayas that had fallen from one of the trees. One of the Scarlet chicos saw me standing at our railing, so he flew over, and naturally I dug into my backpack for a packet of crackers and put them on the railing for him. That drew another chico, so I had to find another packet of crackers. Carole came in to take a picture of the chicos and Lee and me and all was amicable until the crackers were gone. Then, the first chico flew to my bedside table, where I had put the two little blue plastic bags with the remains of our snacks from the boat trip. He had no trouble recognizing that there was a packet of crackers in one of the bags and was about to fly off with it, so I grabbed it and put it into a zipper case. Well, he certainly knew how to deal with smart-ass tourists who do nasty things like that. He bit me on the hand, not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to communicate his annoyance. When that didn't work, he bit my arm and then my waist. So, I reopened the negotiations and we agreed on another packet of crackers for the chicos, whereupon a third one flew up and Lee had to put more film in his camera.

Waiting to go out on our next walk, I finally saw the hermit flitting among the ginger blossoms. I got some color but no idea of the bill.

Aldo and Marilyn and I headed up to the bench on the cliff for some hot late morning birding. (She and I were both relieved to see when we got there that the bench is shaded even at that hour.)

Not far from the lodge, we found a group of little Dusky Titi monkeys. I've been reading Alexander Skutch's chapter on how the behavior of the smallest New World monkeys (especially the tiny marmosets and tamarins) has converged to resemble that of the birds with whom they share the rainforest environment:

Three species of titis of the family Cebidae share some of the birdlike habits of callitrichid monkeys, although the titis are larger, weighing up to about 3.5 pounds, and lack the adornments of tamarins and marmosets. At night titis huddle together with interlaced tails on large, sheltered boughs in the forest canopy--much as the black cuckoos called anis and some other birds sleep pressed together in a row. When the titis wake at dawn, their loud, prolonged, modulated whooping duets ring through the woodland, announcing their presence and reminding one of the dawn chorus of gibbons in forests of the Orient, or of the dawns songs of birds. Later in the day, they chirp and twitter like tamarins. Also like tamarins and marmosets, the monogamous male carries his single infant on his back. The dusky titi monkey, widespread in South America, eats many leaves and fruits; the two other titis are more frugivorous. Like other monkeys, they share with birds and some other mammals the important activity of scattering seeds through the woodlands, thereby perpetuating the diversity of species.
We had our most memorable bird before we reached the bench, an utterly glorious female trogon that Aldo spotted in a tree along the trail. The female trogons are confusingly similar and none of us had the book with us, so we stood there admiring her and trying to figure out who she was: grey head and neck, an irregular white band, then a wonderful peachy red breast (like a female Vermilion Flycatcher), and a grey tail with scallops of white along the edge. She sat there calmly while we gazed. Skutch has written:
Trogons are dignified birds. They perch upright, with their tails directed almost straight downward, sometimes slightly forward beneath the branch. In many years spent in forests where they dwell, I have never seen them fight.

The New World trogons eat both berries and small invertebrates, which they pluck from twigs or foliage on graceful sallies from their perches, without alighting beside the fruit, insect, or spider.

We watched her for several minutes before she flew. Aldo went down the trail a bit to search for her, while Marilyn and I looked from where we were. Since I'd not seen which way she went, I was totally lost and the next thing to fill my binoculars was her mate's stunning red breast. More Skutch:
Long ago, amid pines, oaks, and other broad-leaved trees in the mountains of Guatemala above 8,000 feet, I studied Mountain Trogons; they are known to the local people as "auroras", apparently an allusion to their red breasts, more intensely colored than Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn".
The male was even more glorious than his mate: blue-purple head and neck, yellow bill, red eye ring, green shoulders, narrow white band above the crimson breast, and black-and-white striped tail below it: a Blue-crowned Trogon. I whispered, "Marilyn, I've got the male!"; she came quickly and I found myself using the same words I'd used to guide Lee to the male Elegant Trogon I found in Arizona, "Just look for the bright red patch in the middle of that tree."

The two of us watched him until he flew off. We then caught up with Aldo, who had found the female again and greeted us with, "I think she was the Blue-crowned". We were happy to confirm that.

A bit further along the trail to the bench, we stopped at an overlook and found another great bird, a Bluish-fronted Jacamar, sitting in a sapling a few feet away from us. (This is a mostly green and rufous jacamar with a metallic blue-green sheen on its head.) We were too close, however, so it didn't stay long.

A bit further still and I acquired another survival skill. I knew, of course, that when one sees a stream of army ants crossing the trail, one jumps across that stream. Now, however, there was a stream going along the trail. The trick is to run very fast, clomp, clomp, clomp, right through the ants. As soon as one gets beyond them, one shakes one's boots vigorously.

The bench, though shaded, was hot and buggy, but still a very good place to be. We were amused to see Aldo purposely letting the mosquitos on his arms swell up full of his blood before smashing them, but even he finally asked for some of Marilyn's insect repellent.

I found some glittering green birds in the vines on a distant clay bank and we finally figured out that they were more of the Bluish-fronted Jacamars. Near them was a flock of small parrotlets. Aldo gave us a thrill by saying he thought they might be the newly-discovered Manu Parrotlet (which occurs here and at Manu), but when the flock came closer we had a clear view of the bill, which was not yellow, but dusky above and pale below, so these were the very closely related Dusky-billed Parrotlets, pretty little birds, mostly green with dark blue rumps and upper wing coverts.

We also had Brown-chested Martins, Silver-billed Tanagers, a brief glimpse of a Blue-gray Tanager, and a good look at a Red-capped Cardinal. (I would have found this beautiful red, white, and grey cardinal more exciting if we hadn't had them as yard birds on Kaua'i last year, where they brought their mustard-capped young to feed on the bread we put out for them.)

(Checking Marilyn's list later, I found Yellow-headed Vulture, which I somehow missed entirely. She didn't know, however, whether it was the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture or the Lesser.)

On our way back down the trail, we watched a small (probably) antshrike scolding a snake for several minutes and then finally spotted the snake slithering away up a tree.

And Aldo showed us a wonderful poison-dart frog, black with lime green stripes, carrying its well-grown tadpole on its back.

After lunch, Aldo and Carole left for Posada Amazonas, where Aldo is to meet a wildlife photographer who will be coming here.

In the late afternoon, Alicia, Carina, Marilyn, Lee, and I went back to the pond. The new trail was so magnificent that it took us less than five minutes to get from the boat to the pond. Lee laughed at us for having needed an hour to do it yesterday. Today there was just enough mud for me to show him some tapir tracks.

The viewing was as good as it was the first time. Before we sat down, we had an Amazon Kingfisher! This was a male; he was practically an enlargement (11" vs. 7.5") of the Green Kingfisher we saw yesterday, except for not having the white wing spots. He hunted from a snag in the pond and we got a very satisfactory look.

Then we checked out the other snag and there was the female Green Kingfisher! She was a really beautiful little thing and continued to hunt from one snag or the other the entire time we were at the pond.

And the Hoatzins came and stayed, so now Lee has seen them, too.

Alicia pointed to something whitish behind a leaf on a branch at the other side of the pond. I looked and looked and concluded that it was another leaf, but Marilyn is much better at this than I am and figured out that it was a Ladder-tailed Nightjar fast asleep. I didn't believe her until it stirred in its sleep and moved its tail.

We weren't really ready to leave when we heard the boat coming for us. On the trail back to the water, Alicia showed us a tiny frog (about an inch long) with eye spots on its back legs to make a scary face at anybody who might be sneaking up behind it.

Just before we went down the bank to the boat, I found a very large red feather on the ground. Turning it over, I was delighted to see that the other side was blue. Scarlet Macaw. Carina seemed shocked when I said that it wouldn't be legal for me to take it home (but I did take it back to the lodge to enjoy for a few hours).

Though he didn't know it at the time, Lee got badly bitten by something while we were sitting by the pond. His legs are covered with splotchy bites, not from mosquitos. Whoever it was seems to have preferred men, as none of the rest of us got a single bite.

At dinner, Marilyn told us that when she was on the Amazon last week her guide took her to a native village where they were given a blowpipe demonstration. While that was going on, she and her guide (also an ardent birder) noticed two large birds on a snag and turned their binoculars in that direction. They were pleased to see a Bat Falcon and a Lineated Woodpecker and then horrified that they had drawn the attention of the men with blowpipes to the birds and that the men had started shooting darts at the two birds! Fortunately, they were able to stop them before either bird was hit, though Marilyn did see little chips of wood being knocked out of the tree around the woodpecker.

Posada Amazonas, Friday, April 16, 1999

There was rain during our last night at Tambopata but it stopped in time for the 5am trip to the clay lick. (With Aldo away, Alicia let us sleep until 4:30.)

Alicia had suggested that we bring our rain gear with us, but her brow furrowed when she saw that Lee's rain jacket is bright red. (Aldo had told us before our first morning at the clay lick to wear subdued colors and to sit quietly on the sandbar, making no sudden motions.) I was able to turn the jacket inside-out so that only the navy blue lining showed, so all was well.

We had a glorious morning at the clay lick!

There were more than a hundred Red-bellied and Chestnut-fronted Macaws in the flock swirling about the cliff to choose today's spot, flying very fast and calling constantly for twenty minutes or so.

When they alighted, we had hit the jackpot; they were right in front of us. Once the smaller macaws had settled, the big ones started coming down from the trees at the top of the cliff, clustering together on the cliff by species, so that there was a crimson patch of Scarlet Macaws next to a vivid blue patch of Blue-and-yellows right above the parrot-green of the smaller macaws. And then the other parrots came, too. The most gorgeous were the Mealy Parrots, with bodies as big as the smaller macaws and glowing in aquamarine. Soon, too, there was a big patch of Blue-headed Parrots and a smaller patch of the Yellow-crowned. The spectacle lasted about twenty minutes, with much coming and going of individual birds.

When they'd had their fill and adjourned to the trees, they sat quietly (well, quietly for macaws) and we had time to admire them. A few Common Piping Guans flew into the tree that seems usually to be reserved for the Blue-and-yellow Macaws, and they co-existed amicably.

A small flock of Scarlet Macaws coming from the cliff swirled low over us. We noticed one bird circling down lower and suddenly she was sitting on Lee's shoulder--a chico, of course. She sat there for several minutes (time for plenty of picture-taking) obviously hoping we'd brought some crackers with us. Since we hadn't, she finally gave up on us and jumped up on Lee's head so that she could take off, leaving treadmarks on his scalp.

Once the cliff was quiet, a Snowy Egret appeared at the base, followed soon by another. There was a complex interaction between the two of them, which, as Marilyn said, could have been "either love or war" and then they flew off, one pursuing the other.

We also had a Muscovy Duck near us on the sandbar.

Then we headed back to the lodge for a lovely breakfast, quinoa with strawberry yogurt, fried bananas, and fresh papaya.

And then, alas, it was time to pack. Rummaging through our bags, I found two pairs of truly clean socks that I'd forgotten I had. I couldn't have been happier if I'd found chocolate!

Before we left our room, I opened our last packet of crackers and put them on the railing, trusting that the chicos would find them before the housekeeper did. Marilyn described this act as "leaving a tip for the chicos".

Alicia did an amazingly good job of packing up the three Tambopata posters Lee bought me, to keep them dry on our coming boat trips.

Sitting on the veranda waiting for our lunch to be packed, we got a good view of a red squirrel. On the trail down to the boat, we had an agouti.

As the boat headed out into the river, we savoured one last flyover by a gloriously beautiful pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws.

And then on the trip downstream to Posada Amazonas, we had that greatest of luxuries for a birder, a boatman who knows the importance of slowing for good birds (and even circling back for a second look). We had close views of Orinoco Geese and Muscovy Ducks and a kettle of White-collared Swifts. A Snowy Egret and a Giant Cowbird sat side by side on a sandbar.

When we stopped at the first station to sign out of the reserve, we found a dozen different kinds of butterflies on the clay near the water--a butterfly clay lick aflutter in blue and green and red and yellow and orange!

Further on, the boatman's assistant sitting in the front of the boat to navigate spotted a big turtle on the bank, so we circled back for a look. He later took a lot of ribbing about his "stone turtle".

When we stopped at the second station, the others went to take care of the formalities, leaving Lee and Marilyn and me in the boat, which was suddenly overrun by sandflies. Marilyn was wearing shorts, so her legs got badly chewed. Despite my long sleeves, I lost most of an arm. Lee remained unscathed.

It was raining by the time we got to Posada Amazonas, and the boatmen had let down the clear plastic side curtains. We had made such good time that we hadn't yet eaten our picnic lunches (again wrapped in banana leaves), so we took them to the diningroom, where we were joined by Aldo and Carole. Aldo's first words were, "Did you get the Rufescent Tiger-Heron?" No, sigh. Next, "Where did the macaws land this morning?" Right in front of us!!!

The news at Posada Amazonas was that they'd had an amazing variety of snakes while we were away and that the wildlife photographer who is to go to Tambopata with Aldo is stuck in Lima trying to get his equipment through Customs. (Aldo is clearly chafing to return to Tambopata. He is lucky to have found his perfect place so early in life. We all had a good laugh at dinner the other evening when Lee teasingly suggested that Aldo must have been hand-reared at Tambopata.)

The rain had stopped by the time we had eaten the nice baked apple dessert, so I was eager for the scheduled hike to an oxbow lake (where I'd been promised a Ringed Kingfisher), even though the afternoon was the hottest one yet. By time for the hike, however, there was distant thunder, so we waited to see if the rain would come our way, and it did. So, no Ringed Kingfisher for me. But I had to admit that I was ready for one last cold shower and a nap. By the time I woke, the rain had cooled the air enough that Lee had retrieved the blanket and bedspread he'd removed from his bed when we arrived.

At dinner, we were advised to wear our muddy boots to the airport in Lima, where the shoe-polishing urchins do a good job of cleaning them, but that seems hardly fair. Somebody at the next table was holding forth on the Y2K problem, asserting that if there were such a problem "IBM surely would have hired a bunch of computer experts to fix it years ago". I refrained from going over and introducing myself as a computer expert who is about to go home and slave some more on the Y2K problem. When the conversation at our table turned to cold showers, I had to admit that it's all I can do to keep from screaming when I step into one. Aldo was incredulous, "You mean Americans take hot showers even when it is hot outside?"

After dinner, Aldo put on a videotape about the Manu National Park, assuring us that much of it was actually filmed at Tambopata. We had viewed it at home before coming to Peru, but it was good to see it again, now that we've been in these wonderful forests.

As we were chatting afterwards, Aldo mentioned that he knows somebody who has seen the color plates for the Birds of Peru that is to be published (at last) later this year. It is apparently being done as a sort of supplement to Birds of Colombia, which probably makes economic sense but seems likely to be rather cumbersome in the field. It is already inconvenient that Birds of Colombia assumes that one knows the North American birds that come here as migrants. Last week, Marilyn's guide told her he wanted to show her a small black-and-white bird that was a complete mystery to him. Of course, she was immediately able to identify a Black-and-White Warbler. She plans to send him a North American field guide as soon as she gets home.

Birds of Colombia is published by the Princeton University Press. We wish we had known to bring along a few for gifts, as they are hard to come by in Peru because of import restrictions. And, of course, being lugged around a rainforest is a hard life for a book, so they tend to go to pieces after a while.

How sad we will be to leave here in the morning!

Lima, Saturday, April 17, 1999

In Tambopata the average daytime high temperature is between 82 and 93 F and the average nighttime low is between 62 and 73 F. Nevertheless between May and July, cold fronts from Argentina can sweep into southwestern Amazonia and push daytime highs down to 50 F and the nighttime lows to 43 F. Thus, during that season always be potentially prepared for cold and drizzle.
Our last night at Posada Amazonas was filled with thunder, lightning, and rain. We were wakened once by the crash of a tree falling quite nearby. And when our 3:30 wakeup knock came, we were amazed at how cold it had become. I imagined all the Dusky Titis and Chachalacas huddling really close together on their branches.

I've become inured to crawling out of bed in the dark and pulling on wet, dirty clothes, but crawling out of bed in the dark and pulling on cold, wet, dirty clothes was a real shock to my sensibilities.

I was soon distracted, however, by the fact that Lee's flashlight had burned out, so I had to acquire another survival skill real-time and change first the batteries and then the lamp in his flashlight by the rapidly dimming light of my flashlight.

Fortunately, we had organized the bags during daylight, so we were soon all packed, dressed, and on our way to breakfast, and then down the dark, slippery trail to the canoe for the trip to Puerto Maldonado.

(Yesterday afternoon, while it was still horribly hot, I asked Lee to buy me two of the Tambopata T-shirts, one with a row of macaws on a branch, the other with a row of monkeys on a branch. (One of the monkeys is holding one of Alicia's giant katydids.) He reported back that they were out of T-shirts so he'd gotten sweatshirts. That was fine, but I couldn't imagine why they would even have sweatshirts. Now I know. Indeed, Aldo liberated one from the shop before we went down to the canoe, which was a good move on his part.)

We were a rather quiet group, sleepy and cold and huddled together for warmth as the canoe moved quickly downstream. Shortly after dawn, the boatman pulled over to the riverbank, because he'd been asked to stop for a woman who was about to give birth. I held my breath as Aldo helped her down the steep, slippery bank and into the boat. She had been wise enough to bring a blanket for warmth, but the next two hours must have been long ones for her.

When we got to Puerto Maldonado, we were shepherded into a makeshift bus, a flatbed truck that had been augmented with wooden benches and a thatched roof. Lee and I looked at one another and giggled, remembering our similar ride around Australia's Saibai Island on the back of a garbage truck.

The guides were all glad for the chance to visit Puerto Maldonado. It's where they come to do their laundry, phone their parents, and get a bit of nightlife. But it's so ugly compared to the rainforest; the poverty is relieved here and there, however, by somebody's flower garden.

In front of the airport, an old man with desperate eyes offered to clean my disgustingly muddy boots. He glanced significantly at my feet to remind me that I could hardly deny that I needed his services. But the guides were bustling us inside and I didn't stop.

Aldo and Alicia had us through the various lines in no time and then there was hugging and picture-taking and waving goodbye before we left them to go into the departure lounge.

While we'd been standing in the first line, an enormous spider had come out of my backpack. Later, its mate had crawled out, scurried across the floor, and got stepped on. So, when we got into the departure lounge, Lee went (gingerly) through my backpack to see what else might be lurking there. He brought out a well-nibbled apple and then shook out some little apple bits, which made me remember that in the early morning darkness I had thought I saw something small and furry scurrying away from my pack.

The flight to Lima was easy with not much to see but clouds. Ofelia gathered us up and took us back to Miraflores, where we were soon checked into the same room we'd had a week earlier, but this time we could appreciate the view of the flower-filled park at the cliff edge and the ocean beyond.

(Although the clifftop view is beautiful here, it was very sad to see, as we drove along the road at the bottom of the cliff, that the area between the road and the ocean has been used for many years as a garbage dump (illegally). The garbage goes on for miles. In the wealthier jurisdictions, the dump is now being covered with dirt, but the dirt and garbage are piled so high that one can no longer see the ocean from the road, which must once have been very scenic. Ofelia pointed out fishing boats in the water offshore and said the fish are not safe to eat because of the pollution from the dumps.)

We were very glad the hotel had a room ready for us so early in the day, as we both really wanted some sleep (and, only then, a hot shower). When we woke, I contrived to make us a small lunch of the non-nibbled apples and saltines from my backpack.

We had only this one afternoon in Lima, which we knew we shouldn't waste. Ofelia had offered to take us on a driving tour of the city, and others had advised us to spend the afternoon at the Gold Museum or the Indian Market, but (after a bit of negotiating with one another) we concluded that we really didn't want to do anything. Actually, after a week with no electricity, I wanted very much to curl up with a good book. And Lee wanted to go out with his camera, which he did, taking with him a wifely hint that if he happened to encounter any chocolate, it would be well received.

And I curled up with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Simon Winchester), a really delicious book. The madman of the subtitle was an American doctor who had served in the Northern Army during the Civil War but later developed schizophrenia and murdered a man in London. He was confined to an asylum in England where he accumulated a large collection of books and where he became one of the most important contributors of the quotes in the definitions in the OED. Here's a bit I particularly liked:

The "English dictionary", in the sense that we commonly use the phrase today--as an alphabetically arranged list of English words, together with an explanation of their meanings--is a relatively new invention. Four hundred years ago there was no such convenience available on any English bookshelf.

There was none available, for instance, when William Shakespeare was writing his plays. Whenever he came to use an unusual word, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context--and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples--he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select any one volume that might help: He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he had chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or had used it in the right way in the proper place.

Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, "look something up". Indeed the very phrase--when it is used in the sense of "searching for something in a dictionary or encyclopaedia or other book of reference"--simply did not exist. It does not appear in the English language, in fact, until as late as 1692, when an Oxford historian named Anthony Wood used it.

Since there was no such phrase until the late seventeenth century, it follows that there was essentially no such concept either, certainly not at the time when Shakespeare was writing--a time when writers were writing furiously, and thinkers thinking as they rarely had before. Despite all the intellectual activity of the time there was in print no guide to the tongue, no linguistic vade mecum, no single book that Shakespeare or Martin Frobisher, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nash, John Donne, Ben Johnson, Izaak Walton, or any of their other learned contemporaries could consult.

Consider, for instance, Shakespeare's writing of Twelfth Night, which he completed sometime at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Consider the moment, probably in the summer of 1601, when he has reached the writing of the scene in the third act in which Sebastian and Antonio, the shipwrecked sailor and his rescuer, have just arrived in port and are wondering where they might stay the night. Sebastian considers the question for a moment, and then, in the manner of someone who has read and well remembered his Good Hotel Guide of the day, declares quite simply: "In the south suburbs at the Elephant/Is best to lodge".

Now what, exactly, did William Shakespeare know about elephants? Moreover, what did he know of Elephants as hotels? The name was one that was given to a number of lodging houses in various cities dotted around Europe. This particular Elephant, given that this was Twelfth Night, happened to be in Illyria; but there were many others, two of them at least in London. But however many there were--just why was this the case? Why name an inn after such a beast? And what was such a beast anyway? All of these are questions that, one would think, a writer should at least have been able to answer.

Yet they were not. If Shakespeare did not happen to know very much about elephants, which was likely, and if he were unaware of this curious habit of naming hotels after them--just where could he go to look the question up? And more--if he wasn't precisely sure that he was giving his Sebastian the proper reference for his lines--for was the inn really likely to be named after an elephant, or was it perhaps named after another animal, a camel or a rhino or a gnu?--where could he look to make quite sure? Where in fact would a playwright of Shakespeare's time look any word up?

One might think he would want to look things up all the time. "Am not I consanguineous?" he writes in the same play. A few lines on he talks of "thy doublet of changeable taffeta". He then declares: "Now is the woodcock near the gin". Shakespeare's vocabulary was evidently prodigious: But how could he be certain that in all cases where he employed unfamiliar words, he was grammatically and factually right? What prevented him, to nudge him forward by a couple of centuries, from becoming an occasional Mr. Malaprop?

When Lee returned, he had chocolate and no more film.

From our windows, I could see the wonderful flower beds in front of the hotel (echoing those in the park across the road). On our way out to dinner, Lee took me to see the back garden, which is even more lovely.

We walked along the park a couple of blocks to a restaurant that Ofelia and the hotel had recommended. There were lots of kids in the park, skating and skate-boarding. A colorful hang-glider was suspended in the air just above the cliff.

The restaurant, which is called El Senorio de Sulco, was delightful. It features Peruvian creole cuisine, served very elegantly. It is decorated with folk wood carvings, brightly painted and very charming. We were given a table by a window with a view of the sunset over the Pacific and children playing in the park. Our appetizers were manioc with a mustard sauce and a stuffed pepper with chiles. (We've been surprised that none of the food we've had in Peru has been at all peppery; these chiles were not hot ones.) Lee had a really delicious stewed beef and I had a very nice roast pork dish with a fruit sauce. There was red currant juice to drink with the meal, and dessert was sol y sombre, a bowl containing two puddings, one rice and the other a purplish fruit, all really good.

Ofelia says we must be at the airport by 4am for our 7am flight, though she can't understand why, so we've asked for a 3am wake-up call.

Princeton, Monday, April 19, 1999

Driving through Lima early Sunday morning to be at the airport by 4, I noticed that even at such an hour there were many, many people hard at work at really marginal jobs, such as sweeping the streets with small brooms or selling softdrinks at stoplights. There was also a significant police presence (and the policemen looked like soldiers).

When we checked in with the airline, the man said, "It's a good thing you got here so early; this flight is way oversold. Things are going to get ugly later." So we were grateful to Ofelia for getting us there when she had. (Travel to and from Peru has been complicated by the recent bankruptcy of the national airline, which is the one we were originally booked on.)

Imagine my delight when we got through the security point at the airport and found shops! I'd been regretting not having found the time to shop for Peruvian textiles. After scouting things out, I made a raid on a shop that specialized in alpaca knitwear. The first order of business was to select a tiny red-and-gold sweater (very Peruvian looking) for our new grandniece Kamille and a pretty grey-and-white afghan for my mother. And then two sweaters for myself.

We went off looking for breakfast and found a cafe that had reasonable chocolate croissants (and my first Diet Coke since leaving home). While munching, I had second thoughts, so I dragged Lee back to the alpaca shop and got two more sweaters. (Well, the prices were very good.)

I also chose some nice folk embroideries and a small wood carving of a Scarlet Macaw (to make me smile by reminding me of the chicos).

We were happy to run into Marilyn in the departure area and to have another chance to thank her for having shared her expertise with us.

On the flight from Lima to Miami, I read an amusing book called How Proust Can Change Your Life (Alain de Botton). Here's a good bit:

Proust had a friend called Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld. He was an aristocratic young man, whose ancestor had written a famous short book in the seventeenth century, and who liked to spend time in glamorous Paris nightspots, so much time that he had been labeled by some of his more sarcastic contemporaries "le La Rochefoucauld de chez Maxim's." But in 1904 Gabriel forsook the nightlife in order to try his hand at literature. The result was a novel, The Lover and the Doctor, which Gabriel sent to Proust in manuscript form as soon as it was finished, with a request for comments and advice.

"Bear in mind that you have written a fine and powerful novel, a superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship," Proust reported back to his friend, who might have formed a slightly different impression after reading the lengthy letter which had preceded this eulogy. It seems that the superb and tragic work had a few problems, not least because it was filled with cliches: "There are some fine big landscapes in your novel," explained Proust, treading delicately, "but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It's quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it's been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull."

We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn't the moon shine discreetly? Don't sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren't cliches just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?

The problem with cliches is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Cliches are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

The moon Gabriel mentioned might of course have been discreet, but it is liable to have been a lot more besides. When the first volume of Proust's novel was published eight years after The Lover and the Doctor, perhaps Gabriel (if he wasn't back ordering Dom Perignon at Maxim's) took time to notice that Proust had also included a moon, but that he had skirted two thousand years of ready-made moon talk and uncovered an unusual metaphor better to capture the reality of the lunar experience:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to "come on" for a while, and so goes "in front" in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.
We had a long layover in Miami. After going through Customs and lugging our bags a zillion miles to another terminal (where the man checking them in warned us explicitly not to leave anything of value in the bags being checked to Newark--sigh), we relished our first pepperoni pizza in what seemed ages. We had time to browse in a bookshop and then had a pleasant chat about Peru with a friendly pilot while standing in line to buy some chocolate chip muffins to take home with us to have for breakfast.

On the flight from Miami to Newark, I read a really fascinating book called Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism (Neil Ascherson). It is an account of the history and pre-history of the Black Sea region, but also tells the story of the archaeologists who worked out the pre-history.

I hadn't known that Russian and Ukrainian archaeologists were subjected to a Stalinist purge very much as the geneticists were, because their discoveries didn't accord with the party line. In the case of the archaeologists, their mistake was to show that there had been waves of migrations through the region; the party line demanded "autochthony", that cultural change be explained by progressive developments in one settled people. Many archaeologists died in slave-labor camps because of this before Stalin one day declared that autochthony was nonsense.

Ascherson also gives some very absorbing accounts of contemporary Russia from time spent there attending professional conferences:

It was halfway through the second night on the Moscow barricades, the second night of the vigil around the Russian parliament, that I heard the shooting begin. It came from a few hundred yards away, from the underpass on the Sadovaya boulevard behind the parliament building. When I reached the place, this is what I saw.

A bearded priest was walking through blood. He could have found a way not to tread in the scarlet pools and rivers across the roadway, but that would have meant taking his eyes off the tanks ahead, crouching half-hidden in the underpass tunnel. So he walked straight on, slowly, his head up, not looking at what was under his feet.

Behind the priest came two captured armoured vehicles, each carrying a dozen human beings clinging to the turret, to the gun, to one another. Driven by amateurs, they moved in low gear, in violent lurches which made the riders sway and grab for support. The tracks moved over rubble and burned metal, over the glass of smashed trolley-bus windows, then over the sketchy rectangles of sticks laid down to keep walkers away from the blood. Afterwards, the people came back and rebuilt those enclosures and made them into shrines.

The procession behind the priest went slowly down the slope towards the tunnel-mouth of the underpass, in a deafening uproar of tank engines mingled with the outcry of hundreds of people leaning over the parapets on either side. They went on until the bows of the tanks which had gone over to Boris Yeltsin touched the bows of the lead tank still loyal to the army command. Then the demonstrators sprang on board and raised the Russian tricolour and yelled at the crew inside to surrender.

In that night, between 20 August and 21 August 1991, the coup failed. Most of the foreign journalists wrote afterwards that it had been bound to fail; its preparation had been feeble, its organization slovenly and chaotic, its leaders drunk and irresolute. But I was there too, and I do not think so. In most of the provinces and republics of the Soviet Union, the leadership submitted or rallied to the plotters. The people, appalled but resigned, for the most part did nothing; if the usurpers had held on for another few days, the coup against Gorbachev might have consolidated. Only the determination of a few thousand people in Moscow and Leningrad, challenging the will of the plot leaders to slaughter them, broke their nerve.

The front line of the Moscow resistance was a chain of women holding hands. They made a cordon across the far end of the Kalinin Bridge, looking up the dark boulevard along which the tanks would come. Every few minutes, somewhere in the distance, tank engines rumbled and bellowed and then fell quiet again. Behind the women, who were both young and old, stood an anxious support group of husbands, lovers and brothers with flasks of tea, transistor radios and cigarettes. When I asked the women why they stood there, and why they were not afraid, they answered: "Because we are mothers."

Afterwards, when it was over, a Russian friend of mine who had been at the barricades said simply, "A handful of good, brave people saved Russia." I still believe that she was right. The defenders stood around the White House of the Russian parliament and around Boris Yeltsin for two rainy days and nights. On the third morning, the sun came out and the plotters ran away.

We finally got home just past midnight and have been properly scolded by Purmudgeon and Lightning and are looking forward to sleeping until at least 6am for a change.

Love to you all,

Melinda Varian / Office of Information Technology / Princeton University / Melinda@Princeton.EDU
19 Apr 1999