Manu N.P., Peru 2014

     In July of 2014, a small group of teachers and I explored the Manu National Park, Peru for a week. We made arrangements to drive in and out of the Amazon Basin from Cusco, Peru.  

Area map of the Manu National Park in Peru 2014

     Manu Biosphere Reserve is situated in the remote, southwestern region of the Amazon basin.  It is one of the largest, and definitely the only untouched reserve, in the Neotropics.  This unique reserve covers an area of one million eight hundred thousand hectares, (19 000 squire km) of undisturbed and pristine forest which has the greatest biodiversity on earth.  For this reason, in 1987 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared it a world heritage site.  We started our drive from Cusco, Peru and headed northeast toward Paucartambo. Peru  Once there we continued to the Andes mountain crest to a place called Ninamarka, pictured below.

 Ancient Inca ‘Chullpas’ burial towers near Ninamarka, Peru 2014 in the Puna

     A chullpa is an ancient Aymara funerary tower constructed for a noble person. The Aymara are an indigenous ethnic group in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America. They lived in the region for many centuries before becoming a subject people of the Inca.  Chullpas are found across the Altiplano in Peru and Bolivia.  This archaeological site contains 17 chullpas of 2.5 meters of height.

Sign entering the Manu National Park, standing next to my native guide, (he was a professor that was raised in the Manu Rainforest)

     Parque Nacional del Manu starts from the eastern slope of the Andes, which means that the biosphere protects one of the planet’s most important wildlands.  the majority of Manu consists of tropical rainforest.  However, it does include three other highly distinct ecological levels: the puna (a high altitude tundra like area); the mysterious cloud forest with it’s little studied ecosystems (pictured below); and the mountain rainforest.  Up to 14 different life zones has been discovered inside the biosphere.

“Cloud Forest on the boundaries of the Manu

     Manu has became famous for its possibilities to observe especially the fauna but also the flora of Amazonian rainforest.Chullpas are found across the Altiplano in Peru and Bolivia. The chullpas in Nina Marka are located between Cusco and Paucartambo (Peru). This archaeological site contains 17 chullpas of 2.5 meters of height. Higher chullpas are found in Sillustani near Puno in Peru. 

Waterfall coming off of the Andes,  found within the Manu cloud-forest

     Parque Naciional del Manu is the habitat for around 1000 species of birds, (including seven species of colorful macaws), 13 different species of monkeys and hundreds of other mammals.  It is also the refurge of many endangered animals, including the Jaguar, Ocelot, the Black caiman, the Giant otter and the Harp eagle. 

Trogons Quetzals found within the Cloud Forest of the Manu Cloud Forest

     Dale Child, one of the biology teachers on the trip, waited his whole life to see a  rare species of Quetzal bird.  My local guide pointed one out on the first day.  Quetzals are a primitive group of birds that is mostly pan-tropical in distribution.  They can be found in locations of up to 3000 m elevation.  All are notable for their beautiful mainly green colors, which are often glossy or metallic.  The Trogon, Quetzals are characterized by their strongly graduated and square-tipped tails, their weak feet with two toes forward and two back, and their upright posture. 

A Blue-Crowned Motmot bird found in the Manu cloud-forest.

     Pictured above, the Motmot are a small, interesting neotropical bird.  They are most related to kingfishers.  Their long often racket-tipped tails are their most famous feature.  They frequently swing these tails from side to side, imitating the action of a pendulum.  Apparently the racket tips on the central tail feathers develop because of weak attachment of the feather barbs.  These then break off during preening, (not seen above).  Generally, Motmots are sluggish, inconspicuous birds, habiting higher elevation cloud forests. 

Tapir Salt Lick in the mountain rainforest of Manu National Park

     After spending the night at the Pantiacolla Lodge we caught a motorized long boat down the Rio Alto Madre de Dios at Santa Cruz village. Pictured above, we spent the night waiting for a Brazilian Tapir.  Brazilian tapirs are mostly nocturnal, partly diurnal; and solitary.  They have a very compact body-shape which helps it to penetrate dense vegetation.  Even though we viewed one at night, I was unable to capture it with a reasonable photo.  So that morning, I got the picture of the Tapir Salt Lick. 

Along the Alto Madre de Dios River near Atalaya port.

     After spending another night in the rainforest at the lodge, we sat in the  jungle waiting for another spectacular bird, (pictured below).  The Cock-of-the-Rocks gets its name from living near rock outcrops along the forested eastern flanks of the Andes.  They have a fowl-like fill, strong legs and toes, and a permanent erect disklike crest.  This latter feature is common to both the sexes.  This crest partly covers the bill, making the bird look as if it does not have a bill.  In Manu, the Cock-of-the-Rocks (pictured below), is a male.  Only male Cock-of-the-Rocks are brilliant orange-red; the females are a drab, lackluster brown.

Cock-of-the-Rocks in the Manu National Park, Peru
Leaving the jungle after a long night in the rainforest, (early morning sun on the Alto Madre de Dios river).

      We followed the entire Alto Madre de Dios in our boat. The Alto Madre de Dios river stretched about 150 km in length.  It gets its water from the snow peak of Pucara from southeast of Paucartambo.  Smaller rivers like Pilopata and Pini Pini and Tono form the Alto madre de Dios, which later joins the Manu River.  At the confluence, we visited a small community called Boca Manu.  There we took a breather to interact with some of the locals catching fish. 

One of the locals at Boca Manu, showing his daily catch of Piranha

     The Amazon basin and via Manu River is home for the infamous 35 cm piranha.  Though they are widespread and , to put it mildly, extremely abundant, piranha are only potentially dangerous when water levels are low and food supply is poor, concentrating the already hungry predatory fish and putting any potential protein source at risk of attack.  Piranhas are more beneficial to the ecosystem, keeping the waters clear of dying animals.  When conditions are normal, piranha are of no danger to swimmers.

Morning sun on the Manu River, (Manu means “dark” in the local language)

      In the morning we visited a place about 30 km downriver from the Manu Wildlife Center where a clay lick at Tamba Blanquilla attracts flocks of colorful parrots and macaws.  The Manu River turns into the bigger Madre de Dios river at this site. The Tamba Blanquilla is a 10 m tall clay exposure in the Madre de Dios river bank. The birds arrive in strict order. Smaller birds such as blue-headed and mealy parrots arrive at dawn. The larger parrots and bright macaws pitch up between 8-10 am, and perch in the nearby trees for an hour or two before partaking of the clay. They use the kaolin mixture to neutralize the chemical defense poisons in their plant food.    Below is the early morning arrival of the “Blue Headed Parrot”. Parrots are an anatomically homogeneous group of birds.  You’ll notice in the brief video, that they are noisy, social, and heavy, hooked bills and yoke-toed feet.

Tamba Blanquilla on the Madre de Dios in the Manu Biosphere Reserve


The Scarlet Macaw at the “Clay Lick” 2014

     In native queshua language these licks are known as “Ceolpas”, which means salty clays.  In Manu, typical areas of macaw salt licks are the (Scheela Butyracea) palm trees, known as Shebonal.  Few nutrients, a high concentration of aluminium, and little organic material characterize this area. 

I’m standing across from the viewing area of the Tamba Blanquilla “Macaw Lick” 

     It is not surprising that macaws use these high aluminium concentrated clay to cure their stomach aches.  Aluminium hydroxide medicines are also used as anti-acid for humans. The macaws need to visit the licks every tow or three days and they may fly as far as even 100 km to reach them.  High concentration of clay is found only at certain levels on the lick, and the macaws can be seen to feed only at those levels.  A sparcity of these levels often leads to fights between macaws for a space. Only Red-and-green Macaws, have been observed to frequently visit the Blanquillo clay lick.

Down the Madre de Dios, we visit some Oxbow Lakes 

     Flow dynamics of the river can become unstable (typically during the high-water period). During this instability, it is possible that the river will cut a new channel.  this effectively isolates a meander and creates an “oxbow lake”.  An oxbow lake is a habitat of essentially standing water, providing yet another kind of riverine habitat, where water stagnates rather than flows rapidly.  These lakes are plentifully stocked with fish and rich in nutrients.  This enables them to give life to other kind of animals and plants.  The most well-known inhabitants of the oxbow-lakes are the giant otters and the black caimans. Many bird species live only on the oxbow lakes. Pictured below are Hoatzin, (oil birds) in the oxbow lake pictured above.

Hoatzins found on an oxbow lake near the Madre de Dios river. 

     The hoatzin is a peculiar neotropical bird.  It’s overall appearance suggests a primitive, almost prehistoric bird.  However, recent biochemical and anatomical evidence suggests an affinity to cuckoos.  The hoatzin is the only species in its family and they inhabit only South America.  When they feed on marsh plants, they swallow and grind these food into a large bolus in their oversized crop.  the bolus slowly ferments and then is digested.  from this amalgamation of partially decomposed leaves the bird gets an unpleasant musky odor.  this can be so unpleasant that in many places hoatzins are known as “stink birds or oil birds”.  Hoatzin mate for life.  Their practice of constantly copulating even out of the breeding season, maintains the relationship of the couple, so avoiding the possibility that another male would take possession of the female.

At the oxbow lake we visit a tree hut at the top of this large Cecropia tree.

     The photo was taken high on a jungle-tree observation point, looking across the Amazon Jungle towards the Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean.  This is an excellent example of the Tessaria grove being taken over by the Cana brava trees.  Once established, the Cana brava faces slow invasion by pioneer forest plants such as the rapidly-growing genus Cecropia tree.  In time the Cecropia trees will form their own canopy.  This canopy is about 15-18 meters high.  Underlying Cana brava is killed by the shade from this canopy.

At the top of a Jungle Observation point in a large Cecropia tree 

     Further down the Madre de Dios river, near Puerto Colorado we see this this larger “White Caiman” sunning itself on the river beach. 

A White Caiman along the Madre de Dios river, near Puerto Colorado.

     White caimans are relatively small and highly adaptable crocodilians.  The body of the adults is a dull shade of olive-green.  They rarely grow to 3 m long.  We left the Madre de Dios river at Puerto Colorado and trucked across  the island to Puerto Carlos where we picked up our trucks that was shuttled over and headed back towards Cusco.  Below is the is small stop to stretch my legs in the Andes Mtns.

I’m standing by a group of Lhamas on my way back from the Amazon Basin with the Andes Mountains behind me, (Abra Pirhuayani @4725m & Alcamarinayoc)
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