The Hunt For The Scarlet – Banded Barbet and other Mythical Beasts. Part One – Being there!

Scarlet-banded Barbet by Alex Durand

The topographical map of the isolated region of southern Loreto, in the wilds of northern central Peru, boasts several still-unnamed peaks. We were interested in just one, known as Peak 1538. This unromantic name records the altitude above sea level of this Lost World-like mountain. Conan Doyle could have used an image of 1538 for the dust jacket of his famous novel, and to us it looked like it might still be home to dinosaurs, or some other species lost in time!

In 1996, whilst exploring the headwaters of the Cushabatay River, members of a biological expedition from Louisiana State University in the United States found a striking new species of Barbet (a close relative of the Toucan), which to this day has only been recorded within a few acres of remote forest on a forbidding ridge of 1538. The Scarlet-banded Barbet is truly spectacular and it scientific name Capito wallacei is in honour of Robert B Wallace who supported ornithological exploration by Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science.

Such a discovery is the ornithological equivalent of finding a sunken galleon full of lost treasure and was the product of years of dedicated study. Dr. John O’Neil, the LSU expedition leader and mentor, has been in the business of finding birds previously unknown to science for decades and has probably found more species than any other person alive today. As we had not heard of any subsequent expedition attempting to emulate O’Neil’s feat, we decided to go and see the bird for ourselves. With the help of information supplied by John O’Neill and Dan Lane of LSU we succeeded in forming a small, select group of like-minded enthusiasts also interested in seeing this truly spectacular creature.

Day One: On a balmy evening in May 2002, 6 years after the discovery, in the frontier town of Pucallpa in the central Peruvian Amazon I (Barry Walker of Manu Expeditions, ex-pat Englishman who has been living and birding in Peru for more 28 years), together with Ramiro Avendañio, an experienced expedition cook, and our local expert Orlando Rivas, a native of Pucallpa and member of the original LSU team, met Colin Bushell as he stepped off the flight from Iquitos with the rest of the expedition members. They were a well-travelled and experienced group; Nigel Driver, Chris Collins, Graeme Green, Dave Odell and Barry Wright had come from the UK and were joined by Mark Sokol, a native of California.

The first thing on our agenda was cold beer. Indeed, impressive quantities of the local brew were quaffed as I delivered a “put the fear of God into them and then it can only turn out better” speech as we sat in the tropical gardens of the Sol del Oriente Hotel in Pucallpa. A Tropical Screech Owl hooted in someone’s back garden nearby, competing in vain with the cacophony of moto-taxis cruising the streets in large marauding bands beyond the garden wall. The owl served as a reminder that this was in fact not a military operation but rather a birdwatching trip. The food was poor and took an ice-age to arrive, but we were already filled with beer and the adrenaline of expectation. We retired wondering if we would really manage to achieve our objective. All of us, me more than anyone, were preoccupied with thoughts of what lay ahead. After all, I had outfitted the trip and was responsible for logistics and would be the one responsible for failure if anything went wrong.

Day Two: An unusually late start for people like us as we took a leisurely breakfast by the hotel pool, with Gray-capped Flycatchers and Bananaquits joining us for cold coffee and scrambled eggs. “Thank Christ Ramiro will be cooking after tomorrow”, I thought. After I had somehow weathered an exhausting barrage of questions from Mark on where to see every bird in Peru, we gathered our kit and headed for the airport.

Hurry up and wait. The plane we had hired to go to some grass airstrip at the end of the world was not there. It was still in Satipo and we were forced to sit around as its estimated time of arrival was modified from twenty minutes to half an hour, then forty-five minutes and so on.

Lunch was an uneventful couple of chicken sandwiches and a can of beer at the airport restaurant –a lack-luster event only enlivened by me squeezing the top off the mayonnaise jar and pouring a liter or so of the stuff over my sandwich, me and all living things within a three-foot radius.

Our shouts of joy upon the plane’s arrival were soon cut short by yet another snag which came as no surprise to those of us who were already Peru veterans. The aircraft was too big and the airstrip too small and wet. It was time to rethink and put out of our minds the annoying realization that the pilot could have pointed out this minor hitch when we had contracted him three months earlier. We decided to send the big plane as far as the asphalted strip at Contamana with most of the team, while I would go straight to Pampa Hermosa in a small 4-seater which would then shuttle everyone, together with the gear and supplies, from Contamana to Pampa Hermosa.

Several hours later we were finally all assembled at the local football pitch in what turned out to be a surprisingly large town and school was cancelled so that everyone could watch the curious gringo road show. Down at the river with all our gear we realized that the two boats we had hired would not be enough. A sad sounding Striped Cuckoo lamented resignedly in the mango tree above our heads. A third boat was immediately commandeered and by 4:00pm we were finally on our way upriver along the Cushabatay River. But were we actually moving? Close scrutiny of the riverbank told us that we were, but only just! We all realized then that it was going to be a long, long trip, but as I was the only one with either a map or a GPS, I was the only member of the team who knew just how long it was actually going to be…

Two hours later the sun began to set and we moored on a beach which none of us will ever forget. As we congratulated ourselves for finally embarking on our trip, the first ominous whining of mosquitoes pierced the evening air. Just ten minutes later it was impossible take a breath without inhaling several dozen insects. The beach we had chosen was, without a doubt, the most mosquito-infested place I had ever experienced in all my years in South America. And this was unanimous. None of us had seen it so bad, except Orlando, who informed us nonchalantly that the Ucayali River was much worse! No wonder nobody has gone birding there! We survived until morning, but little sleep was had. Only our cook Ramiro’s three-course meal and an ample dose of alcohol delivered orally got us through the night.

Day Three and we already felt as if we had been in the field for a week. We even ignored the attractions of the river islands –Parkers and White-bellied Spinetails, Olive–spotted Hummingbirds and Lesser Hornero’s called to us in vain from the salix bushes beyond the beach. When a Black and White Antbird called, Colin looked at me wryly and shook his head as if to say “Forget it, let’s go”. Hot coffee, pancakes and syrup awaited us and as we ate we swapped memories of the night’s mosquito wars.

A full day on the river lay before us, spluttering along against the current courtesy of the ubiquitous Briggs and Stratton 12.5 horsepower engines known locally as peccy-peccy’s, which are the poor man’s only means of transport in this part of the Amazon. Life on the river can begin to pale after the sixtieth Pied Lapwing sighting and the ten thousandth Canarywinged Parakeet. A miserable looking Jabiru moping on a beach seemed to reflect my own feelings. As the sun punished us mercilessly; I noticed that the river appeared pristine and I likened it to the Manu River of southeastern Peru, which I know well. Occasionally, we passed huge, floating rafts of mahogany logs manned by sun beaten and sand fly-ravaged locals, or the odd hunting camp where peccary skins were hung out to dry.

The river and the surrounding area had just been declared a protected area under the grand title of the “The Cordillera Azul/Rio Biabo National Park” and indeed we had gone to some trouble to obtain the necessary permits to make our trip “official”. Nobody seemed to have told the locals yet. It’s business as usual along the river and a daily fight to survive anyway you can, such as selling mahogany to the saw-mills of Pucallpa. None of us could blame them, we had all seen the extreme poverty these people endure, and until someone provides them with an alternative way of life their suffering will continue. After all, Britain is the world’s number one importer of mahogany and if we hadn’t created the demand then these desperate people would not fell the trees.

The stories told by our boatmen of the logging and gold camps high up the Pauya River, complete with gold rush town saloons and good time girls, seemed to indicate that it is the drug barons who currently provide that alternative way of life, and not eco-tourists like us.

In the distance, a solitary peak crowned with seven distinct bumps loomed out off the steaming rainforest. It was Siete Puntos, Barbet Peak, Hill 1538, or whatever you want to call it. I looked at the riverbank to judge our speed and then looked back at the peak. “No way”, I thought, “It’s too far. We’ve miscalculated, we’re not going to make it”. One of the three engines chose that moment to begin misfiring. Colin drew a finger across his throat in an unmistakable universal gesture. Just before sunset we landed at a beach below the confluence of the Cushabatay and Pauya rivers. We dubbed it the Pauya River Camp, and it was heavenly! No mosquitos, a refreshing swim in the river, the moon and stars above us. Paradise! Spectacled Owls called and Ladder-tailed Nightjars flitted across the beach as we held a “State of the Expedition Pow-Wow”. “Its quite simple”, I say, “We are not going to make it in the time we have allotted ourselves. We haven’t calculated for the high water and stronger current, which is slowing us down, and we have a dodgy engine. We have two choices: call it a day, retreat and go birding somewhere near Pucallpa, or use the two days we have reserved at the end of the trip to do some relaxing birding at a comfy lodge on Yarinacocha lake to get to the Barbet instead”. My speech was met with silence, and I felt like the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro must have done as he drew that famous line in the sand and asked his desperate and despairing men to cross it and follow him further into the unknown to ultimately conquer the mighty Inca Empire. But Nigel and Little Barry looked at me as if I was daft (and I began to think that I was). It was unanimous, there was nothing else for it, we’d come this far and we weren’t going to give up so easily. Onward!

The Barbet Peaks and the Cushabatay River (Siete Puntos)

Day Four dawned fair and promising. We were unable to hire a replacement engine in any of the small farms we passed, so we crowded into two boats and dispatched Orlando downriver with the third boat to fix the malfunctioning peccy and inform civilization that we would be delayed by at least two days. “Nos vemos en el pico” said Orlando as he waved goodbye, and I was not the only member of the group wondering whether or not we would.

We hoped to make the trailhead that day but didn’t. Instead we spent another day crawling upriver, gradually getting closer and closer to our objective, our boredom relieved by noisy groups of Black-headed, Orange-winged and Short-tailed Parrots. It was certainly a great way to see parrots and macaws if nothing else. As the river twisted and turned the peak seemed to change position, sometimes in front of us, then off to our right and suddenly behind the boat, when we found ourselves chugging away from it. The GPS confirmed what we could see with our own eyes –that after three hours we were no closer to our objective. The boats gradually became separated and we, the tail enders, arrived at camp well after dark -to the relief of our companions who had begun to grow anxious.

Our guides then told us that it would take us another twenty minutes to reach the trail head. Our spirits lifted at the prospect of finally getting off those damned boats and on to our own feet. Ramiro cheered us up with his excellent food once more and we polished off the last remaining couple of beers, reasoning that it would be senseless to carry them up the hill. A pair of Crested Owls duetted nearby and a Common Potoo lulled us to sleep.

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.

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