The expedition continued
Day Five: After a short boat ride, we reached the trail at last which was later named by others, Boca de Chambira. We separated our gear in order to leave most of our stuff in the boats and take the bare minimum with us for the assault on the peak. It was blissful to enter the forest at last. Its shade enveloped us and familiar bird song surrounded us. Chestnut-crowned Foliage-gleaner, Spot-backed Antsbirds, Plain-winged Antshrikes, Plumbeous Antbirds and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets welcomed us back into their world. We hiked in slowly, birding along the way. A mixed under-story flock comprising Whiskered Flycatchers, Cinereous Antshrikes, White-flanked Antwrens and Tschudi’s Woodcreepers grabbed our attention. Sweating in the mid-afternoon heat, we arrived at our next camp by a clear, rushing stream, Quebrada Paco, where we relaxed and readied ourselves for the next day.
Day Six: Faced with a climb of around one thousand meters that day, we breakfasted before dawn before packing our gear and were ready to leave at first light. Anxious to get started, we ignored a singing Fulvous Antshrike just beyond the camp, leaving it for on the way back (which was a mistake, we never heard it again). The only birding done that day occurred during the breaks we took to catch our breath during the climb. It was a soul-destroying trail. Many times, we slogged up a slippery slope, gaining a few hundred meters in altitude only to descend again. This happened over and over again and only after lunch did we notice any real upward progress. We separated into two groups, the slow group and the even slower.
Colin, Dave, Nigel, Chris and Barry Wright went ahead in the slow group, whilst Mark, Graeme and I followed in the slower group.
The radio crackled into life at around 2:00pm. “We’re at a lookout point and the guides have pointed out the 1000-meter campsite. Its still a long, long way away” said Colin with his usual flair for understatement. My heart sank. It was going to be tough. The teams met up for lunch, only to driven on again by marauding insects. Carrying huge packs of supplies and all our gear, our porters overtook us silently without even breaking into a sweat. It was an impressive performance, which made us all feel like wimps.
We continued up and up, and it suddenly seemed that we were really gaining altitude. Annoyingly, Graham insisted on checking his altimeter every thirty paces or so. An ex-trekking guide used to dry high altitude conditions when hiking, I had grossly underestimated how much I would sweat in these tropical rainforest conditions and my water was now running out on the ascent, with no prospect of more fresh water until we made camp. Graeme and Mark were carrying much larger amounts of H2O and, in a good show of team spirit, gamely shared their ration with me. I immediately named them honorary knights of Cusco’s Cross Keys Pub and awarded them free beer for life. “I hope I get out of here to enjoy it” observed Graeme. He never did I shut it down some years ago.
It was getting late so I buzzed Colin on the radio. “Where the bloody hell are you?”, I asked. “In Camp, just arrived” came the smug reply. “OK, we’ve just passed a landslide with a steep climb and a ceiba tree. How close are we?” Pause… “A long way –an hour plus” replied Colin to our dismay. “Well, send Ramiro down with liquid whether he wants to or not and make it sharpish!” Presently, Ramiro came bounding down the trail like a mountain goat loaded with enough bottles of cool aid to give us the impetus we needed to struggle into camp just before dark, where we were welcomed in their usual low key but concerned way by our speedier companions. We were now all safe and sound and within striking distance of our target. Spirits were high. The last stretch was in sight and as the sun sank behind the forest the view over the lowlands was marvelous.
Day Seven: May 18th 2002 -Barbet Day! Barry Wright went bounding down the trail like an antelope. I decided (mistakenly, as it turned out) that this would be an easy day and began birding slowly through a poor soil ridge-top forest. Those who hung back with me were rewarded with sightings of a Rufous-winged Antwren and the- “soon-to-be-described” form of Fuscous Flycatcher. Sharpbills whistled overhead and Gray-tailed Pihas chimed out now and again. We were struck by the complete lack of Tanagers of the genus Tangara, a normally conspicuous group of frugivores in the Peruvian mountain forests, but conspicuous by their absence here. We soldiered on. The going was good initially, but all to soon we were confronted with another soul-destroying loss of altitude before we finally found ourselves on the flank of the mountain with the final ascent before us. This was straight up hand-over-hand stuff using vines and tree roots to haul ourselves up. I was carrying a raft of sound equipment and it was by no means easy. Up we went, stopping often to rest. Its started to feel cooler and bromeliads began to appear.
As if in tandem with our spirits, the altimeter started to slowly climb. “I’m in the promised land” said Colin over the radio. This meant that he had reached 1,250 meters above sea level and was now in ideal Barbet habitat. We were one hundred meters below him, our hands full with an unusual sounding Tapaculo which responded splendidly to tape. On one rest break with Graeme we sat exhausted under a fruiting melastome bush (a known magnet for frugivorous birds) and in popped a Manakin. We had been alerted of the existence of a perhaps new species of Manakin and differences between this an its near relative the Striped Manakin had been explained to us, so it was a milestone moment to see this new soon-to-bespecies. Well “soon” is relative – only now 21 years later in 2017, due to the difficulty of collecting comparative data, was it officially described and given the name Painted Manakin Machaeropterus eckelberryi and named in honor of Don Richard Eckleberry, a prolific US illustrator who was one of the country’s foremost bird painters, Al Gilbert, past president of the Society of Animal Artists, said, ”Don was probably in stature comparable to Roger Tory Peterson in the field of wildlife art and bird painting.” Dr. Durbin Rowland of the University of Chicago wrote of the first volume: ”Each bird seems to have sat or rather perched for a portrait rich in distinguished traits, right in stance, in coloring and even in feathered personality.” Audubon, the professor said, would have been thrilled.
“Three down, one to go” I remember thinking, referring to the four very special birds we hoped to see on that mountain.
Pressing on, we suddenly found ourselves there. The trees were now festooned with moss and epiphytes. A fruiting melastome we had been advised of over the radio produced bird an immature male example of the previously seen Painted Manakin. The front runners had seen neither the Manakin nor the Tapaculo as yet, but word came over the radio that some of them had had a brief but good sighting of a Barbet. Finally, after the days on the river and the difficult climb, we were in full birding mode, and out came our recording equipment and microphones.
The entire group re-assembled in the mossy forest and we walked on slowly, all our senses alert. I caught some leaf movement to my left and something told me that this was it. And suddenly there it was in all its glory –the Scarlet-banded Barbet, the bird we had suffered so much to see.
Chris, Dave and Nigel were right there with me and had to stifle their simultaneous gasps of astonishment. We now found ourselves watching a pair of Barbets as they displayed on the exposed branches above our heads. It was like a press conference. Video and audio recorders, microphones, binoculars and still cameras were all focused on these glamorous creatures as they performed their bizarre display routine and warbling into the microphones. We soaked it all up, exchanging thumbs-up signals and broad grins. Thank Christ for that, we all seemed to be thinking. We’ve done it! The ultimate neo-tropical twitch in the bag! But little did we know (see the postscript below)
We spent the night on the peak and saw more Barbets, as well as other interesting birds such as the Jet Manakin, Slaty Antwren, Wattled Guan, Short-tailed Antthrush, the local Boanparte’s Parakeet, Black-bellied Cuckoo, Gould’s Jewelfront, Amazon Barred Woodcreeper, Spotted Nightingale Thrush, Golden-faced and Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet. And as if that weren’t enough, a very co-operative pair of Subtropical Pygmy-owls (Glaucidium parkeri) completed for me a set of birds named in honor of my late friend Ted Parker.
Day Nine saw Orlando arrive at the peak, having announced to the world that we were fine, to inform us that our third boat was now up and running. Over the next few days we retraced our steps back to Pampa Hermosa. It was mostly downhill and we continued birding, finding Sooty and a female Lunulated Antbird at an ant swarm along the way as well as the fourth bird on our hit list, the Dotted Tanager, in a mixed flock of Honeycreepers, Dacnis and other Tanagers. Traveling easily downriver, we skipped ‘mosquito beach’ and reached Pampa Hermosa unscathed, where we did some public relations work with the local school and authorities and then drank the town dry as we celebrated late into the night. But this was Peru, and our journey was not over yet!
Day Twelve: A little before dawn of the next day, the heavens opened and it rained so hard I was sure the planes would not be able to get to us. We were desperate to leave Pampa Hermosa. There was nothing to keep us there now. Our little four seaters made it in around midday, aquaplaning across the soccer field, just as the sun began to find a way through the clouds. As we flew to Contamana the sky was so overcast that we were forced to navigate a gap a few hundred meters high between the rainforest canopy and the cloud base.
The pilot’s GPS told him that Contamana was down there somewhere and eventually, after circling around for a while in zero visibility, he found the airstrip and put the plane down gently. After three more similar shuttle flights we were all in Contamana and we transferred to our larger plane, which fishtailed down the waterlogged runway during takeoff and flew through frequent showers on its way to Pucallpa.
Perhaps due to Ramiro’s excellent cooking, our plane was overweight on the return journey, so we left him behind with a pocketful of local currency and instructions to make his own way out. He joined us successfully that afternoon.
It had been a tough but enjoyable trip and we had achieved our objective, which we knew in our hearts had been an exceptional feat. We had learned a lot and any future repeat of the trip would be a much more streamlined affair. But would we go back and do it again? Probably not, there are so many other expeditions waiting to be done and so little time and tempus transit et veterescent has to be factored in!
“We predict that the new barbet will be found in the ridge system to the north of Peak 1538 and that it probably occurs to the west as well,” wrote the discoverers, John O’Neill, Daniel Lane, Andrew Kratter, Angelo Capparella and Cecilia Fox Joo. How right they were.
TO BE CONTINUED
Barry Walker M.B. E is a British birder and naturalized Peruvian who has lived in Peru since 1980. Barry has been a pub and restaurant owner, a twitcher in the UK, a lost city explorer, a bird and wildlife tour leader, an educator and environmental consultant and with his Peruvian wife runs Manu Expeditions Birding and Wildlife Tours. He currently holds the post of British Consul in Cusco.