Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist
Part 2 – In the Wilds-a Life Time of Odyssey
An especially memorable trip was to Peru. One Peruvian destination was to a remote lodge high in the Andes. To get there we had to travel on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It was one-and one-half lanes wide heavily used by huge grain trucks. You had to play chicken with the trucks. One vehicle had to back up to a spot where vehicles could barely pass. There was not a guard rail. In fact, one edge was so sheer that political prisoners and politicians were executed by pushing them over the edge.
Our destination was a run-down resort. When we got there the generator was scheduled to turn off in 30 minutes. We were advised to quickly take a shower. There were two bare wires coming out of the shower wall heating some sort of donut-shaped ring around the shower pipe. After a fast rinse holding our breath and a granola bar, we got into bed when there was a knock on the door. It was Rose Ann who insisted we get up to see something. We rushed to the rear of the resort to her room. She had gone into the bathroom flushed the toilet and a small neotropic opossum emerged into the bowl. The resort did not have a septic system. The effluent flushed into the lawn. Small opossums lived in the pipes and swam up stream when forced to. The resort even had implements to extract the opossums. We only stayed there one night. Later after a few Pico Sours we speculated that the opossums had likely developed a field guide of their own.
On another trip to Peru we went to Manu, the most bio-diverse national park in the world. It was speculated that there were sections where no humans had ever been and likely unknown tribes. We camped out on the banks of the Manu River. Now there are two eco-travel lodges where we camped. We traveled down the river in dug-out canoes with outboard motors. They made enough noise that the jaguars along the banks were flushed out so we only found their foot prints. The river had piranhas making bathing a little awkward. You had to be quick.
On one of our trips to Ecuador we were alerted to look for the Andean Cock of the Rock, a large reddish-orange bird. It is often found on a low hanging branch over a fast-moving stream when not in its breeding assembly site called a lek. At one of our stops there was a very distant and deep ravine with a stream. I just knew the bird was going to be there but no luck. As we were walking back to the van, I stopped and looked again. In the center of the stream was a large rock with a shadow on the surface that did not look right to me. I asked Rose Ann to set up the Questar to take a look. It was a Torrent duck asleep with its head underneath a wing. A new bird for all of us except for Rose Ann of course. Apparently, this story has become a legend and frequenly retold to new birding groups when at that location.
Bolivia, we found to be beautiful and exotic. The capital La Paz is at 12,000 feet. The air is so thin that the landing strip at the airport is five miles long. The planes could not take off with a full load of fuel and have to finish fueling at lower elevations. One time after returning home from Bolivia someone asked me “what was Bolivia like?” I had to stop and think and finally had to admit that we only saw birds. From that day forward we always went a day or two early and did cultural things first.
Recently I just returned from Ecuador. Again, we flew to Quito. We drove to the Wildsumaco Lodge high in the Andes. Heavy rains produced massive land-slides delaying the normal three-hour road trip to five hours. Of course we stopped along the way to see unique species. The lodge was very comfortable located in the center of a huge tract of land that has been privately preserved. Year round the temperatures there are 70s during the day at 50s at night. Numerous feeding stations enabled us to see 31 species of hummingbirds. We hiked on well-maintained trails and did road trips by van to get to more distant locations and different habitats. There were several unique features at the lodge. Two pairs of the Andean Cocks of Rock were in the woods nearby as well as others in their leks. An uncommon feature was a white sheet hanging from a horizontal support with a bright light shining on it at night. Numerous birds fed on the moths that were attracted to it. A forest floor bird feeding station attracted the most difficult to see antpittas. These secretive forest floor birds have large eyes, egg-shaped bodies, hardly any tails, long legs and are generally brown. Worms were distributed for the antpittas to feed on. The only other way to experience these birds was to be lucky enough to find a swarm of foraging ants.
We saw flower percers, foliage cleaners, all kinds of shrikes, antwrens, chat-tyrants, many different flycatchers, toucans, trogons, hawks, vultures, parrots, parakeets, a rare Hawk Eagle, multitudes of brightly colored tanagers and many other new species for us including a Napo Black-mantle Tamarin monkey. In total, we saw 259 species in just seven days. And to top it off, on our return to Quito we found at about 14,000 feet the uncommon Spectacled Bear and two cubs. This is the only bear in South America.
We came home over-whelmed from the experience. This trip reconfirmed that Ecuador is a safe, drug free, beautiful country with friendly, happy people and is relatively inexpensive. I traveled with three wonderful companions and was reminded of past trips when I was much younger, hence this narrative.
Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin, is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga.