The sun rises at 6 a.m. in the jungles along the Tambopata River in eastern Peru. Faint whispers of light are just beginning to announce its arrival through the dark at 5:30. At 4 a.m. everything is pitch black. Beneath the trees there is neither moonlight nor starlight. In fact, there are no trees to be seen. The nightjars and potoos can find their way, to the sorrow of the moths and night-scurrying rodents but when we are wakened we can’t see our own feet. Breakfast is at 4:30 and by 5 we are on the river with our guide. Rodolfo is a 32 year old member of the Ese’eja people who have long lived on the river and in the jungles, unbothered by the Inca or, until the great rubber run from the 1880s to the 1920s, by much of modernity.

Dawn on the Tambopata

Dawn on the Tambopata

We had been with Rodolfo for 48 hours or so, from breakfast to dinner, on 8 hour walks through a mud-trailed jungle in search of birds — from the large, loud, colorful Macaws to the quiet, tiny spots of brown and gray endemic Antbirds and Creepers. I am not one who believes in shamanism, mystical powers, x-ray vision or super hearing; Rodolfo came close to changing my mind. The story begins a few days earlier.

The first ten days of our trip to Peru had been divided between a thorough, guided instruction into the Inca past of Cusco — the vital center of 16th century Quechua culture– and Machu Picchu, the sacred Inca link to the sun, the moon and the three levels of existence. We had learned of the importance of the condor, messenger between the dead and the upper world, the puma, representative of the living world, and the Apus, spirits of the mountains. We had seen the terrific plunder by the Spaniards of Inca temple and shrine to build their own temples and shrines; built less well, many were unable to withstand the periodic earthquakes. We had seen the bloody Christs and the living poor, hawking their “authentic” wares in the Plaza of Arms and the Plaza of Happiness.

The transition from areas troubled by man to those not so troubled began one hundred yards from Aguas Calientes, the hot springs jumping off point for the steep climb to Machu Picchu. We stayed at a lodge run by Inkaterra, one of a growing number of eco-culturally embedded travel and lodging associations in Peru, and in fact, around the world. Some are for-profit, some are non-profit, indeed NGOs (non governmental organizations) with standing in that network; all dedicated to rescuing native habitat, training and employing native workers and bringing outsiders to notable national landmarks, of cultural, ecological or historical importance.

Baby Slippers

Baby Slippers

orchidinkaterra The Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was built on the grounds of an old coffee and tea plantation. Small plantings are maintained by employees to provide the hotel dining room with both, and enough to package and sell to the guests. The 15 acres of mountain jungle boasts some 327 species of orchids, each flowering in its own season. Guides are available to show you whatever is in bloom, from ‘Baby Slippers,’to strange and wonderful Kefersteinia coechlinorum

That was just the beginning for us. After the ruins and the history we’d come to see birds. Peru has more bird species than Europe and North America combined, 1804 at latest count. Inkaterra was a great place to start. Within minutes of stepping onto the path with our guide — “call me Joe”– we were stunned by the sight of one of the world’s strangest birds, the Cock-of-the-Rock. It is brilliant crimson, with no easily visible beak. Its wings are a drenched black topped with white, in vivid contrast to the red. And he there he sat! His lady friend, less vibrant but rich in browns and earthier reds came over to cuddle for a while.

Cock of the Rock --wbk

Cock of the Rock --wbk

Not much further down the trail we came to the hummingbird feeders with six or seven species darting in and out for quick sips, from the ubiquitous green-and-white humming bird to the aggressive chestnut breasted coronet. The little booted-racket-tail was the one we cheered for, darting in after the coronets had had their fill.

We hooked up with Joe again in the morning. At the end of the forest and river-bank walk he returned us to the garden to reveal the liveliest gem in the crown. All around the open lawn and pool, bananas had been affixed to trees, between ten and fifteen feet off the ground. Tanagers and oropendala swarmed them like sailors at portside bars. Within minutes we had seen the absolutely fabulous paradise tanagerparadise tanager with its lime green head, splash of red back, black wings and aqua blue underparts. Next to it hung the saffron-crowned tanager, as though God were playing with prisms in the sunshine when it came time for their coloring. Then, swooping out of the trees with loud whooping calls came twos and threes of dusky-oropendolas, the first I had ever seen, and the first of many related species we would see in the days to come.

Which takes us back to the Tambopata river at 5 a.m. in the morning. In two days we had learned that birding at Machu Picchu and Inkaterra was a bit like being set down in an unfenced zoo for birds. Raise your binoculars and there they were. In the jungle with Rodolfo it was more like we were at birding bootcamp. The first morning up at 5; the second at 5:30; then 4. Then off to deep jungle birding. If there were big birds they were 40 feet straight overhead. The backs of our necks were so sore after several hours we had to walk around with our heads hung and noses pointed to the ground to ease the strain.

The birds at eye-level or just above, in the underbrush or lower story of the trees were uniformly tiny, quiet and shy. Once binoculars are moved off their distance setting, focusing has to be shifted for relatively short distances, chasing the moving birds. Rudolfo, a modern guide with his green laser pointer, would show us a large tree. “Just behind,” he would say, “behind the leaf.” We could see the green dot in the binoculars, but what did “just behind” mean? Everything just behind was blurred and out of focus. Slowly we’d rotate the focus wheel, slowly, slowly. Another limb would come into focus, as the green dot became a blur. A small sweep up and down with the glasses. Nothing there. Back to the green dot. Refocus. There was something! A motion. A spot of red. And gone! Not seen clearly enough to be be called a sighting. Rudolfo was patient. We began again. It was a rule of the guides he said. If one person saw a bird, all had to see it. We were glad we weren’t with 12 others. And this is the heart of my story.

I am not one to believe in super powers in vision or hearing but 32 years in the jungle gave Rodolfo something like it. I’ve been on plenty of birding trips with some very good spotters but I’ve never experienced anything like the eyes and ears this man had. It’s one thing to be able to spot a bird after stopping, scanning for a moment or two in the direction of a suspicious flutter. But time and time again we’d simply be walking down the trail, in the aptly called bamboo forest, near an ox-bow lake. Bamboo and ironwood trees, enormous Brazil nut trees, palms and ferns grew in profusion with scarcely anything that could be called a clearing. We’d be walking, watching our feet, listening to the sounds. He would say, almost casually, “over there, a brown throated wood creeper.” It was nothing he could have gotten a good fix on. By motion, location, a spot of color, a whisper of a song, he knew what it was — like a kid from the US ’50s could identify from a portion of a rear fender disappearing up a street, a ’55 Chevy. And he did it not once, or twice but literally hundreds of times.

A flock of noisy birds passed overhead and without looking he would say, “White bellied parrots, ” or “cobalt winged parakeet.” We’d look up. They were not much larger than mosquitoes in the sky. Their screeching sounded the same to us. Yet to him they were as different as the baying of a beagle and the yipping of chihuahua.

White Throated Tinamous

White Throated Tinamous

Late in the afternoon, heading into the lodge, exhausted and slipping in the slick mud, Rodolfo suddenly froze. “A tinamou!” he whispered, and pointed to our right. Nothing, of course. A bramble of dead and living trees, a dusk like darkness covering everything. We knew to look at the ground. Tinamou is a grouse like bird, plump and a ground feeder. It’s big as birds go but all we could see was dark earth. “It’s right behind the branch,” he said. “Moving to the right.” We stared. We lifted our glasses. We focused and refocused. “See the green dot,” he said. “Yes.” “That’s the bird.” The green dot was on a patch of leafy forest floor, brown and black, dim yellows — which moved! Ever so slightly. Then the dove like head came into view, and there it was, pecking pecking at some savory item beneath the leaves. And once seen, of course, it was impossible not to see. I looked away and looked back. There it was, plain as day — as plain as it had been to Rodolfo from ten yards away.

His hearing was as acute. And to help us, and encourage the birds, he carried an iPod with local bird songs and calls. Hearing something as keenly as a new mother hears her child, he would stop and pull out the iPod and a pair of small speakers. He’d dial up Red-billed Scythebill: “titti-ti-tee-tee-tee-tui.” “There!” he’d say. “Oh, flew away. Over there!” By the fifth day we were learning to flatten our focus and see the millisecond flash of small bodies from branch to branch. We never knew the flight pattern, length of a glide, likely landing place that he did. We’d see the flit and, proud of ourselves, announce, “Whoops, gone.” He’d turn 100 degrees to the right and point. “Up there, second white forking branch to the left, in front of the palm; two meters out, facing away.

It would have been discouraging if it weren’t so much like magic: How did he do that!?

It was truly the kind of experience one sees in gifted athletes, placing a curve ball within inches of a given spot, doing an improbable fall away jump shot with elbows and arms all around. It was the result of decades in the jungles, a natural gift and extreme attention to what he saw and heard. Not all the guides were so gifted, neither the city kids from Lima nor his friends from the Ese’eja community. It was like being on a tour with someone who had invented the birds and placed them there, modestly showing off his handiwork. The jungle was a quiet, mysterious home which he loved being in, and showing off to friendly strangers. Within minutes of dropping us off at the airport several days later, he was picking up another couple to return to what “I love doing.” It became a solace and an adventure to us as well. With a friendly cold front up from Argentina and the mosquitoes in a merciful mood, we were far more at ease deep in the jungle than a few days later in car and smog choked Lima.

We had many exiting moments.

Hoatzin - Tres Chimbadas Lake, Peru

Hoatzin - Tres Chimbadas Lake, Peru --wbk (Click to be amazed)

The most improbable bird might have been the inspiration for Dr. Seuss creatures — the shy, fat, multi colored and configured Hoatzin — with its heavy breathing alarm call. Another that created great excitement because it appeared out of nowhere to sit and show off his colors was the round tailed manakin. Round_tailed_manakin

Of course the river had other tales to tell. We saw white caimans and the world famous largest rodent, the capybara. From the top of 120 foot observation tower we could see the incredible flatness of the river flood plain. For 360 degrees the horizon is flat, barely marked by the distant fringes of trees. 10s of thousands of years of run-off from the Andes to the west, the rising and falling of the distant ocean at the mouth of the Amazon and shifts in rainfall and river flooding have created something like the flatness of Kansas and Iowa covered with meandering rivers and primeval jungle.

Rural poverty peeped out from the muddy banks, familes whose prize possession was a “canoa” and a 15 HP motor. Pirate gold sluicing went on in places, the muck sucked up from the river bottom and filtered into gravels small enough to pass through a mercury wash hoping to capture enough gold to feed the motor and the family. Larger boats carry gasoline and beer up river to larger mining operations. Families pool together banana crops, an occasional pig or litter of cuy [guinea pig] and take them downriver to the Puerto Maldonado, the biggest town in the area.

River Gold Sluicing, Tambopata River, Peru

River Gold Sluicing, Tambopata River, Peru

Supply boat - Tambopata River

Supply boat - Tambopata River

According to Rodolfo, whose father was one of the community people who negotiated the contracts with the eco-tour outfits [ours by the way, Peruvian owned,] life has improved markedly in the last ten years or so for people in the area. He and other guides are making very good money. All the workers at the lodges are Peruvian. The food served is overwhelmingly from local provisioners as are the services at the small airport that is now taking several flights a day. Both Rodolfo and his father have been sent to other community-tourism cooperatives for observation and sharing lessons. Several years ago, the Eje’Eja and The Posadas Amazonas won second place at a world-wide gathering of similar endeavors in South Africa, bringing $30,000 dollars into the community for further development.

It was a great trip, even in the mud rimmed clothes. Find a friend and go! You’ll long remember it, birder or not. Dozens of young adventurers at the lodges were getting up at 5 a.m. without complaint to see the parrots and macaws the clay-licks, getting their dietary supplements of iron and mud. In five days we identified some 150 species of birds we had never seen before — and this was with rain and the cold-front suppressing many of them. For a baseball fan this would be like seeing games at every major league park in a summer, with several no hitters, record breaking home runs and a triple steal along the way.

July is the middle of the “dry” season, by the way. The guides helped us find right-sized boots and worried like farmers about what is happening to the weather….

More photos at http://picasaweb.google.com/wbkirkland