Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Boat Trip on the Río Nangaritza

We drive for several hours, navigating small villages and heading into ever more remote reaches of Ecuador, until eventually we arrive at Cabañas Yankuam, 3 km from the village of Orquídeas and very close to the Peruvian border. At long last! We have arrived in the Cordillera del Cóndor!

Cordillera del Cóndor, from Maycu Reserve (Photos by Narca)

Isolated from the eastern slope of the Andes, the Cordillera rises to about 9500 feet. We have descended into humid, lower montane habitat, with Amazonian affinities, yet the range's isolation has resulted in a biota unique in Ecuador. This cordillera (or mountain range) is another region of phenomenal biodiversity: in fact, it may have the richest flora of any area of its size in all of South America. The Cordillera del Cóndor is also one of 107 Important Bird Areas in Ecuador, and expeditions sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation have explored the range, looking for birds. At least one species is known only from here and adjacent Peru––the Orange-throated Tanager.

For a while, the location of this border was in dispute, and armed conflict between Ecuador and Peru stalled biological investigations. A peace treaty was signed in 1998, which established the border's location, and the region is now calm, although there's still a military presence. Interestingly, for the first time anywhere, conservation groups played an important role in resolving an international conflict. The treaty includes provisions for conservation of the region. The US also played a role in establishing peace, with the involvement of President Clinton, and the use of US satellite mapping.

After further thought and refinement, the Condor-Kutuku conservation corridor peace park was established in 2004. The Cordillera del Cóndor has thus become a model for establishing peace parks in unstable border regions.

Our base is Cabañas Yankuam, a simple ecolodge with very good food and a very kind staff.

Doorstep of Cabañas Yankuam, an ecolodge

After arriving, we relax, keeping an eye on the garden behind the lodge, where Glittering-throated Emeralds seem to be the resident hummingbird.

Glittering-throated Emerald

Our first day, we tag along on a boat trip down the Río Nangaritza to the Shuar village of Shaime, saving the tanager and our immersion in the forest of nearby Maycu Reserve till a bit later.

Boat trip on the Río Nangaritza, with local guide Diego

The waterway winds between sheer, forested cliffs, replete with waterfalls, and under a new bridge that amazes us all.

Bridge over the Nangaritza, adorned with a fantastical sculpture

Sculpture of a Shuar shaman riding a toucan

Our destination is the Shuar village of Shaime, where most of the folks head off on a vigorous uphill hike through deep, slippery mud to the Maze of Illusions. While the rock formations sound interesting, several of us elect to bird in the lower part of the trail instead. Warbling Antbirds, living up to their name, are a treat. The invertebrates catch our eye as well.

A glittering true bug near Shaime

Check out this Megalopyge moth caterpillar!

Flannel moth, or puss moth, caterpillars look benign, even cuddly, but beware! Their venomous spines are so potent that a species in the US is on the list of the Ten Most Dangerous Bugs (with "bugs" used loosely, since Deer Tick and Black Widow also made the list!). This 4-inch-long Ecuadorian beast is much larger than its US relative. It metamorphoses into a very hairy moth, but I haven't located a photo of the Ecuadorian adult.

After time on terra firme and lunch, we continue floating the river. Swallows are near-constant companions, especially Southern Rough-wings, Blue-and-blacks, and White-banded Swallows. I also see one which is not in the Ecuador book, but which is very familiar from boat trips I've done in Brazil: a single, graceful Black-collared Swallow, flying with a few of its White-banded cousins. Unfortunately, I'm not able to photograph it, and records committees like proof of vagrants like this one! So if you are going to the Río Nangaritza, ¡ojo! –– eyes open! You may be able to document a new bird species for Ecuador.

White-banded Swallow

Blue-and-black Swallow, very like our Tree Swallow, 
but notice the black undertail

Soon we disembark for a short walk along the bank, where a small oxbow lake has attracted a colony of Hoatzins. What fun! We weren't expecting to see this resident of the Amazon basin.

An impressive Hoatzin, seemingly impressed with us as well

Hoatzins are remarkable birds, the size of a pheasant. Their young possess two claws on each wing, which they use in clambering onto branches and out of water. Their diet is primarily leaves and fruit, and they are foregut fermenters –– unique among birds! Microbes living in their crops break down (ferment) the leaves. A similar strategy is used by ruminants like cows, while we humans are hindgut fermenters.

Just where this species fits into the overall scheme of bird taxonomy remains a mystery, and study of their DNA hasn't resolved the enigma. Right now, geneticists have set out to do a complete sequencing of the Hoatzin's DNA, a feat that has only been accomplished for nine other birds. Perhaps that will help resolve the mystery of the Hoatzin's origins and affinities.

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