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Change of plan

Sunbittern Eurypyga helias - Tambopata Alex Durand

Sunbittern is one of the birds that is easily seen at the new Lodge that is being built near Puerto Maldonado. Photo: Alex Durand

Sometimes one has to make a change of plan. A great idea needs to be modified because the external conditions have changed. The initial conditions two years ago was that the communities of Amarakaeri  reserve had four lodges spread out along the eco-touristy fluvial route down the Alto Madre de Dios river to the Blanquillo area and the spectacular Macaw-clay lick, Giant Otter lake , the Tapir clay-lick and 12 species of monkeys. This is the heart of the wild Manu at the edge of Manu National Park and the richest, most bio-diverse place on earth. Finally, the indigenous communities had the means of getting their piece of the cake of the lucrative eco-tourism industry. Had they really?

I was invited to fam trip (“fam” is tour operator lingo for familiarizing trip) by the community company Wanamei two years ago and it became very clear already on that tour that the communities would not be very prepared to run the lodges with all the logistics involved. They needed a commercial partner. Kolibri Expeditions had sustained talks with Wanamei about starting to market the route to birders.  Many birders are prepared to take some logistical deficiencies, as long as the birding yield is great. This way the communities would slowly get into the operation and do it well.

To market the product I organized a big give-away of one free trip per departure to prominent bird bloggers as well as Twitter and Facebook users, who would help spreading the word on Social Media platforms. We also offered a pretrip to young birders at a much reduced price – with the idea that young birders would be even more resilient to logistical problems as long as they saw the birds.

So far, in theory, this looked interesting and feasible as well as a novel marketing approach. We just finished the first two trips in May. One Young Birder trip on May 17 and the first regular departure for bloggers with Bill Lynch as host on May 23.  The coming hosts and takers of these trips are of course curious to know how it went and what was seen, why I will deal with this below.|

I shall principally deal with the logistics here. The birding result from the trip shall be seen on the Facebooks, blogs and Flickr accounts of the participants.

Here are the names of the participants of each group and their Facebook and Flickr accounts. For Facebook you will need to be friends with them to see the photos and walls.

Young birders:

Alex Harper          Facebook

Ross Gallardy       Facebook

Josh Wentz          Facebook

Briana Adams       Facebook

Blogging trip.

Josh Shramo         Facebook

Bill Lynch               Facebook Flickr

Dana Patterson    Facebook


Maybe I have not been all that clear but running a rain forest lodge is a logistical nightmare, especially in the Manu area. Supplies can only be brought in by truck/air and boat. It is expensive. Contact with outer world (Cusco) is via short-wave radio with a minor obstacle in between – the Andes! Reception is often very poor and it may be days before a message can actually come across. Furthermore, everyone else (the competion and the rivals) will hear about your logistic deficiencies (more common than organization). Some of the more renowned lodges have put in Satellite Telephone/Internet services which of course is the solution to connectivity problems. But in order to afford the service there is a need of a continuous stream of visitors. It’s a Catch-22.

When you put indigenous community into the equation there is yet another factor. Community in the Amazon doosn’t exist. The communities we see today are families lumped together by the church or the  geo-political “progress”.  We need your oil, Indian!

In reality, the natives in the amazon are grouped by their kin. Their family or the clan is what is important. This is a major factor why community projects imposed from the outside rarely are successful.

Budget Manu Lodges.


End of the Manu road. Worked well. This lodge has been in used almost continuously for two years and the community now has some experience of managing it. The birding is very good along the roadside and at the lodge itself. We only stayed one night here, but may opt to two nights in the future.

Centro Medicina Tradicional.

Situated on the other side of a river island. The river arm next to the lodge has been cut off, so it was hard to get there.  Time was wasted on the first Young birder trip and the second trip did not even try. A nearby budget lodge called Yanayacu was used instead. They were a bit unprepared for our arrival but did provide showers and beds with mosquito netting.

The toilet had a huge Tarrantula nesting, which maybe is not the kind of jungle experience the clients want.


I am sad to learn that this lodge could not be used at all. I was very impressed by the birding here two years ago and our guide Alex Durand praised the place with great birds that included Elusive Antpitta.
The trail was overgrown now and hard work. The young birders did see some good birds here, but the boat staff headed on the lodge area to see it was totally deserted without beds. The first group decided to head on to Blanco Lodge and the second group did not bother to even try.

Blanco Lodge.

This is the key lodge in the system of lodges as it is very close to macaw clay lick and the Giant Otter lake of Cocha Blanco. Furthermore there is a tower nearby overlooking the small Cocha Nueva lake. We knew in before hand that the water supply to the lodge was not working, as all the tubing was broken. When the lodge was build all the PVC tubes were not laid in deep trenches but too close to the ground, why people later have trod on them resulting in smashed tubes.

The cabins and the main dining-hall/kitchen building were infested by termites. While the young birders found that quite fascinating, it was not at all appreciated by Bill Lynch’s group. The mosquito nets were not present with the first group, while some mosquito nets were arranged by the boatmen of the second group.

After hearing of some of the problems of the first group, I made arrangements to let second group to come back via Amazonia Lodge at the bottom of Manu road. While this was appreciated and added many good observations it also lead to more travel time. Furthermore, Bill Lynch’s group had bad luck with the weather. A Patagonian cold front known as friaje was present during most of their trio, which lowered the general birding activity. The Young birder group were lucky with a massive Army Antswarm at Blanco which positively added to their experience. Both groups saw Giant Otter and visited the Macaw Lick. The macaws at the macaw lick never came to the mud wall to digest the clay, but kept flying around perching on nearby brances.

Operating problems

All this show that there are severe problems operating this trip, and frankly I don’t think it is worth our while, if the lodges are not accessible and improved. We thought we were going to be able to arrive some agreement with community company Wanamei, who managed the set-up, however some of the individual communities are no longer interested in having Wanamei as operator and prefer to make a deal directly with individual companies.  This makes our participation as lodge operators more difficult as we wanted to operate a network of lodges. It is no problem of buy the services of another operator though once they get strarted, but to me it seems likely that CMT and Charro are decaying even more as they are less attractive for non-birders. Blanco can possibly be turned around because of its strategic position, but it will take some while before it is offered to the public and as good or better than other nearby more basic options.

Another complaint was that was that the transport sections were too long. The lodges lying between  Shintuya and Blanco was too log without CMT and Charro as stepping stone. Too much time is lost in a program as short as only 8 days if the lodges are too far in between. In any case, I shall have to make it clear in the programs that there is a lot of travel.

Alternative program – Budget Tambopata

We still have many booked trips for the community programs, why I must find alternatives for these.  The costs of the Manu program with alternative lodges will simply become too expensive, especially if the group size is less than 7 people. What further make it difficult to operate within the budget I originally set for the trips, is the fact that the flight prices for foreigners with LAN have increased since last year, and the alternative airline to Puerto Maldonado – Star Peru – does not give return prices for open jaw routes.

Suddenly the perfect alternative emerged from nowhere, solving many issues of the deficient community program. The brothers of Kolibri Expeditions’s top guide Alex Durand are building a lodge in vicinity of the Infierno community near Puerto Maldonado. This is just a stone’s throw away from the more famous Posada Amazonas, with access to Giant Otter lake and macaw lick by 30 minutes of boat on the Tambopatata .  Right now it is more of a camp than a lodge, although cabins are being built. Having said this, they have a dining room and kitchen, toilets and showers, and a platform with beds and mosquito netting. The Young birders spent two nights here and the report the trail system was excellent. Alex Duran made a 3 day recce to check what birds are there and compiled a birdlist of 370 species. Birdwise there is no difference to Manu.  There is good bamboo at the lodge with all the specialist birds. The main advantage with Manu is Tapir and the large number of monkeys. You will see monkeys in Tambopata as well, but there will be fewer species.

Purus Jacamar - Galbalcyrhynchus purusianus. Tambopata. Photo: Alex Durand

Purus Jacamar is an uncommon Jacamar of flooded forest, which is difficult to get in Manu but easier in near Puerto Maldonado.

Overall, we solve several issues with the community program this way. Let’s list the advantages.

  • less travelling and more birding efficient.
  • beds with good mosquito netting
  • working toilets
  • running water
  • a great trail system
  • Access to Harpy Eagle nest with NO surcharge.
  • return flight tickets Lima-Cusco allowing birdng at all different altitudes along the new Transoceanic highway between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado. It also gives almost a full day of birding in Lima.
  • Overall the number of species in 8 days will be much higher with this alternative program with more different types of habitat and more time in field and less time lost on transport.

Here is the new 9 day  program that we shall run in August replacing the community program while the condtions are not great. It has one extra day added to sample the cloud forest more amply. For other programs we shall run the same program over just 8 days. Young birders up to 25 years old have a special price of $699 for 8 days trip (airfare and Lima day not included) and $609 for 7 days (later programs) .

Links to previous posts with background about the Amarakaeri Manu community lodges:

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Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp in Lima.

Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp. Photo: Dawn Fine.

Birders meetup in Maine. Now we shall do the same thing in Lima. Photo: Dawn Fine.

Dawn Fine created a group for birders using internet services such as Twitter, Chirptracker, Facebook and birding bloggers. She called it Birders who Blog, Tweet or Chirp  on Facebook. Soon there was a web page and a forum, and while the activity on both sites at times is a bit stale, the most important thing is that there are regularly live meetups arranged . Dawn has the advantage that she is always travelling. She lives in mobile home with her husband Jeff and they travel where the birds and nature are. Dawn blogs practically daily at Dawn’s Bloggy Blog. Every so often she announces that she will be in a place and touts out a new meeting with friends she knows from the social media interface under the Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp. These meetings have been very successful and lots of fun. Not only putting face to a name, but also educational  as the excursion members  have different experiences and knowledge and together it is a huge knowledge tank. Furthermore the idea of meeting up for real is a sound action against the critics who argue that friendship within Social Media is shallow, and that real friends can’t be made on the internet. It does not have to be birding all the time. Sharon Stietler aka Birdchick regularly arranges “birds and beer ” – a bit of afternoon birding and then off to the pub for a pint (or two!).

Social Media Meetups were not created by birders though. With the popularity of Twitter, tweetups have become a fashionable word. Regularly tech geeks or bloggers meet up. The gurus (who in a way are competing for the same crowd) are making events together on regular basis (and most often charge for them) and they are well attended, but for birders this is an interesting way to get to know other birders locally and those that happen to pass through.

So for the first time I call for a  meetup/tweetup in the Birders who blog, tweet and chirp spirit in Lima, Peru on Saturday May 29. I was thinking of  two parts for a program.

07.30-9.00. Parque Ramon Castilla in La Aurora, Miraflores.

09.30-12.30. Pantanos de Villa.

Everyone is welcome, you don’t have to be connected on  Facebook or Twitter with me.  Spread the word with your contacts on the internet. Also use newer services such as Google Buzz and Four Square, and mailing lists as well to reach more people. I’d be interested to know how many people there are in Lima who like birds?

There is no cost involved except for entrance fee at Pantanos de Villa. I can offer a free ride for some people to Pantanos de Villa (first come-first served), as well as coordinate rides for those who are without a vehicle.

Enter your intention to participate in the comment section below and if you have any questions.  The meetup will be bilingual, although Spanish will be spoken more of course.  There will be a Spanish version of this blogpost on the Incaspiza Blog.

Oh, one more thing… if you do use social media, please put your user name on a large sticker on your chest, so you can be identified. You will most likely be known only by your user name, but not your face, so it is a good  idea to let people know who you are. Social events such as this may also give unexpected business opportunities, although this is not the prime reason for the event. In any case don’t forget your business cards.

See you next Saturday May 29, 2010. I hope to do my next tweet up, where-ever I will be for a short holiday in June,  the following in Rio de Janeiro around July 14 or 15 (Hope to run Rio de Janeiro Marathon on July 18) and in Rutland, UK for the British BirdFair in August. At least once a month, I shall call out for a tweet-up. You can obviously do the same with your followers and Facebook Friends whereever you are. You shall be spreading the birding gospel. And we all know: “More birders =>More eco-tourism =>More bird Conservation”. This will be fun!

If we can’t come to Lima on this occasion here is a short resumè where I will be during 2010. See ya!

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Peruvian Sheartail  in flight- Thaumastura cora. Photo: Alfredo FernandezIsn’t it lovely to see new birders form. Well, here is a Peruvian kid – Alfredo Fernandez who has been birding for two year. As many new birders he birds with the camera. I  was amazed by his great photos shown in this piece, so I thought it would be nice to share these with the readers of this blog and also let you know Alfredo

Who is Alfredo?
My name is Alfredo Fernández G and I am 16 years old.

How long have you been birding?
Since I came back from a trip to Tambopata in July 2008. In December 2008 I went birding with you at Pantanos de Villa.
Why do you watch birds?
Watching animals have always been a passion for me. I spent hours in the park as a small boy or watching Animal Planer etc.

Why birdwatching?
Watching birds and animals in generala,  give me an sensation that can’t be described and which I can0t feel with other hobbies.

Which species gave such an impact on you that you felt you had to keep on birding?
I was amazed by a Harris’s Hawk. Such a large magnifiscent bird in the middle of the city, largely unknown to people in general in Lima.  I could not believe such a bird could exist in this urban environment.

What is your birding equipment?
I bird with my camera a Nikon D200 with a 70-300 VR  zoom hoping to replace it  with a 300mm F4)
y un flash sb600, and with this equipment I have made 90% of my shots. Before I hada a point and shoot with a good zoom.

What are the five best birds you have seen?
Difficult question, but probably the best top five would be

5. Amazon Kingfisher
4. Bald Eagle
3. Osprey
2. Harpy Eagle
1. Peruvian Sheartail

What are the five most wanted birds for you?
5. Swallow-tailed Kite
4. Green Kingfisher
3. King Vulture
2. Paradise Tanager
1. Marvelous Spatuletail

How many species have you seen?
I have not seen that many species yet, but I love Raptors and Hummingbirds.
Someone, get this guy a pair of binoculares soon!
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Long-whiskered Owlet on film

Long-whiskered Owlet. Photo: Shachar Alterman

Long-whiskered Owlet. Photo: Shachar Alterman

Ever since I read the news about Shachar Alterman’s discovery and filming of Long-whiskered Owlet near Esperanza on January 25, 2010, I had the intention to do a blog post interviewing Shachar.  Finally got all the ingredients together – that is time in front of the computer and the inspiration.

First the facts.

The Long-whiskered Owlet Xenoglaux loweryi was first found on an LSU expedtition in 1976 and described in 1977. It should take until 2002 until Dan Lane and other LSU researchers obtained a recording of its song, after having mistnetted one and kept it in the tent overnight. In February 2007 David Geale and Juvenal Ccahuana managed to find and photograph one in the wild (outside a mistnet) for the first time but again far from the road on a gruelsome trail within the ECOAN conservation area at Abra Patricia. In May 2008 Frank Lambert and Nick Athanas found and recorded one 50 meter from the Long-whiskered Owlet Lodge.  A few people have heard it at the Owlet Lodge since, but as far as I know no more sightings.

When I was with a group at the Abra Patricia Lodge, I check an email giving details about yet a new site for the Owlet, very close to Abra Patricia. The Long-whiskered Owlet had been video-filmed for the first time by Shachar Alterman.

I got a mail from Shachar the other day asking if I would not consider to bring birders to the Esperanza site where he filmed it. Interesting prospect! Could it really be possible to sell a trip including a long muddy walk, sleeping in a moist hut with lack of the cosy comforts of Abra Patricia Lodge just a stone’s throw away. After reading Shachar’s great account about his search for the Owlet (highly recommended reading), I was even less sure it could be done.

BUT…..Maybe, if one considered the following:

  • Lack of Owlets at the Owlet Lodge. Sure it has been recorded there and Nick Athanas and Frank Lambert got excellent views and recordings. But, after that very few people heard it and as far as I know the last two years noone has seen it. My last stay at the lodge coincided with the discovery at Esperanza. Yet no see and no hear during the beautiful moonlit night in January at the Owlet Lodge. And we did try a lot. We were tempted to go to for it, but the comforts of the lodge struck us paralized.
  • The hit rate has been very high at the Ezparanza.
  • The cost at Abra Patricia is now 120 dollars per person including meals. Not budget birder friendly.

So the type of person that would go would be someone that can support less comfort, does not mind hiking a muddy trail and someone that would like to spend less money.

Interview with Shachar Alterman and Noga Shanee

To get a better idea what to expect I interviewed Shachar and Noga Shanee. Noga is founder of  Neotropical Primate Conservation.
How come you ended up going on the primate expedition? Did you specifically look for the owlet?

Shachar: I first visited Peru last July on a two-weeks birding trip with a local guide name Eduardo. Our main target species was the Owlet. We spent four or five nights in the LW Owlet lodge, and I only imagined hearing it once. On returning I published a small diary in an Israeli news-site. Noga Shanee, the co founder of the NPC read it and made contact, claiming they have the Lechucita in the forests near them. Of course I didn’t believe it a bit, but when she contacted me a couple of months later, looking for a birder to volunteer in a survey they were doing in some potential nature reserves, I jumped at the opportunity.

This led to a one month journey in some of the most remote corners of the north-eastern Andean slopes, and to many unforgettable birding and nature experiences (Read Shachar’s great tale on the Owlet expeditions here. ). The highlight of course was the discovery of the new LW Owlet’s population in the forests above La Esperanza on the 24th of January this year.
Tell me about the infrastructure at the camp site. Are there beds or mattresses to sleep on. Any cooking facilities? Can porters be arranged from Esperanza?
Shachar: Housing in La Esperanza is very basic. I slept in the volunteers’ apartment, but Noga, as part of her project, is insisting on Lodging the visitors in the house of the local village people – running water, matresses and food included. In the forest itself we all sleep in a forest hut, equipped with basic beds and matresses (a sleeping bag is still needed), with running water nearby and a burning fire to cook food on. No porters were hired, but you can hire horses to carry your equipment to the hut. The walk itself is steep and very muddy (boots are heavily needed), but in a slow pace you can make it in 3-4 hours. I did it with a heavily loaded backpack but it would have been much easier with a horse close by.
What other birds can be seen on a trail?
Shachar: Noga got a full list of  birds watched regularly in and near the forest. I can mention a few: Rusty-tinged Antpitta (abundant and very responsive!), Chestnut-crested Cotinga, Lulu’s Tody-Tyrant, Rufous-banded Owl,Vermiculated Screech-Owl and White-throated Screech-Owl, along with the usual mixed flocks in these altitudes.
Lulu's Tody-Tyrant Photo: Shachar Alterman

Lulu's Tody-Tyrant Photo: Shachar Alterman

It is worth mentioning that the forest is rich with other very interesting wildlife: the endemic Yellow-Tailed Wooley-Monkey and Nocturnal Monkeys, Ocelot (we ran into a mother and a cub the night we found the Lechucita) and the Spectacled Bear are seen quite regularly there.
Yellow-tailed Woolly-Monkey Photo: Shachar Alterman

Yellow-tailed Woolly-Monkey Photo: Shachar Alterman

What can you guarantee for a group that only have one shot – by staying one night at the campsite? I heard from my friend Noam Shany that he also saw the owlet recently. So could you go through the positive and negative sightings since January?
Shachar: As for the Owlet, I believe chances are very good, and frankly, can’t think of a better place. The night we found it, it took us less then an hour, and we heard at least another five. The following expedition succeeded on tracking it, but a second before lighting on it a group of nocturnal monkeys just scared it off… So they got only a glimpse of it flying. Noam Shany’s group spent 3 nights there, because it was heavily raining, but succeeded of seeing it for one second – ome meter away of the group! – before it took of. Noam told me he wants to go back there and have another go. Noga told me a 4th group went there and succeeded in seeing it very closely and for a longer time. So, by now the statistics are very very good – 4 out of 4, even though not all sightings were as satisfying as the one we had.
Noga: It is actually 5 times out of 5 now, as. I went to an area which is a little bit further and three individuals answered me simultaneously. The first time we heard it in June 2008, was never really confirmed, the guy didn’t use playback and couldn’t record it well enough to recognize, but he was sure that he had heard it.  June may actually be a good month as it is supposed to be dry season and the trails will be easier to walk.
When it was recorded were there any common denominator of the weather conditions, full moon, overcast, rain, etc?
Noga: Nothing I can think of, from my experience during nights here in the forest, there are nights when the forest is all alive and noisy and nights where it seems totally abandoned. These can be consecutive nights, so I don’t think that it has much to do with the moon. We never tried to look for the owlet in the rain because her call is very quiet and we would not be able to hear it through the noise of the rain.
Has anyone tried to worm feed the Ochre-fronted Antpitta?
Shachar: Unfortunately no Ochre-Fronted Antpitta was located in these forests yet, so can’t tell you much about worm-feeding there.
The description of the lodging conditions at Esperanza in Shachar’s article does not sound too inviting when people could stay in Pomacochas or Abra Patricia very comfortably.  I am sure many of my future groups would prefer a hotel than the basic overnight conditions in Esperanza – and opt only for one night in the forest hut. Is this at all possible?
Noga: Shachar was  over reacting a bit, I lauged a lot while reading his shower description. It is not too bad. We would like the communities to have as much income as possible, but you are welcome to sleep in Pomacochas or Abra Patricia, come here in the morning and start walking to the forest. There is absolutely no problem with that.
Why is the Esperanza site better for the owlet than the Owlet trail at the Owlet lodge?
Shachar: My answer is very simple: At La Esperanza you get to see the Owlet. At Abra Patricia Owlet Lodge you only pay for it;-). Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Owlet lodge, we saw a lot of great birds and the staff there were wonderful.

What are the chances of Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey? It is a species I have long wished to see, and it will certainly be a good bonus.
Noga: There are 6 groups of yellow tailed woolly monkeys living around the area where you would be visiting. There is a 99% chance of being next to at least one of the groups,  however, they are sometimes very quiet and hard to see. Usually you can at least hear them, and we see them all the time. You would need a bit of luck, but it is probably the best place to see this species.
Noga, you mention Andean Night Monkey in one of your mails. What is that? A different form or a good species?
Noga: Aotus miconax, good species and endemic to Amazonas and San Martin,
Unstudied, Vulnerable, but very easy to see here.
Gunnar: Wow, another endemic monkey species the. I was not aware of this!
Someone ought set up monkey watching trips – as there are three endemic primate species in the region if one include also the Rio Mayo Titi-Monkey lower down.
Andean Night Monkey Aotus miconax. Photo Noga Shanee

Andean Night Monkey Aotus miconax. Photo Noga Shanee

What altitude is the Hut?
Noga: Altitude of the hut is about 1900m. Lower than Abra Patricia, although the trail goes up and down

Future of Yellow-tailed Whoolly Monkey and Long-whiskered Owlet at Esperanza?

I am not going to give you all the anwers because I don’t know. Let’s discuss the issue here in the comment section. Will birders pay at Abra Patricia when most species can be seen from the road or on the Esperanza trail?

I´ll only answer this question myself before letting you loose. A definite YES!! The fee is for using the trails, visiting the feeders and use of the observation tower is $US20 which I believe is a one time fee, although this should be checked. The trails give access to species like Cinnamon Screech-Owl, Wattled Guan, Royal Sunangel, Ochre-fronted Antpitta, Bay Antpitta, Bar-winged Woodwren, and Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant that still have not been recorded on the Esperanza trail. Also, the trails are very well maintained.  Behind the lodge at I have seen the rare Rufous-vented Whitetip. The lodge area is also great for White-capped Tanager. Staying at the Lodge is 80 dollars per person plus 20$ for each meal (the trail fee included is included for those that stay at the lodge).  In contrast staying at Esperanza is 20 soles per person (roughly $7.50 and 4 soles for meals  ($1.50). I imagine that most birders shall end up staying at Abra Patricia anyway because comfort is just so much better, and even if one go to rough it for one night, most people want to come back to the comfort at Abra Patricia.

What do you think is the best strategy for the locals to get birders and primate lovers to stay at Esperanza? Is it viable to attract birders to this project with such basic conditions? Would you be willing to go? So should the new site be seen as a threat to existing eco-tourism business at Abra Patricia, which is empty during long periods? Interesting questions and even more interesting are your comments below.

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