Birders Flock to Tambopata
I still remember the first time I ever saw pictures of the Tambopata region. It was the January 1994 issue of National Geographic in the cover story titled “Macaws: Winged Rainbows” featuring stunning photography by Frans Lanting. One beautiful image of a clay wall covered with red and green macaws seared the concept of a “clay lick” into my mind forever.
Scientists still debate the purpose of clay licks, but leading theories suggest that a lack of sodium in the diet of parrots and macaws in the western Amazon causes the birds to eat sodium-rich clay to supplement their diets. (It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of birds eating dirt.)
Because of the sodium level in local soils, most large clay licks are located in southeastern Peru. The most celebrated of them all – the one made famous by National Geographic – is the Colpa Colorado clay lick near the Tambopata Research Center. There are so many macaws in the Tambopata Reserve that the Macaw Project decided to base itself here to conduct research on macaw behavior and reproduction. Quite predictably, hardcore birders and researchers started flocking to the Colpa Colorado clay lick and the forests surrounding the Tambopata Research Center. In the world of birding, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Blue and yellow macaws
Accompanied by a burning red sunrise, we head out for the Colpa Colorado clay lick at 5 o’clock in the morning. I’m not a morning person, but when it comes to birding, the early bird not only gets the worm but the best clay lick spectacle as well.
Even as we position our tripods and spotting scopes, the birds gather around us. Dozens of scarlet macaws and blue and yellow macaws swirl in the skies above and gradually settle into the surrounding trees. Next, blue-headed parrots, mealy parrots, red and green macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws, red-bellied macaws… but not a single bird lands on the clay lick.
“They’re checking out the area,” whispers our guide Pepe, “They won’t move down to the clay walls until they’re sure there are no predators around.”
Pepe knows his stuff. He has worked at the Tambopata Research Center, been involved with the Macaw Project, worked with professional photographers including Lanting, and guided birding trips for years. Within minutes, a lone rebel of a blue-headed parrot descends to the lick; seconds later, assured that the coast is clear, an entire flock follows.
Blue-headed parrots and chestnut-fronted macaws
Pepe announces new arrivals, “Orange-cheeked parrots, white-bellied parrots, yellow-crowned parrots, cobalt-winged parakeets, dusky-headed parakeets, white-eyed parakeets…”
A road-side hawk lands nearby. The smaller birds scatter in a whoosh of organized chaos that looks strangely like a school of flying fish. Startled, the larger parrots and macaws shoot straight up. The skies are now a mad frenzy of bird activity.
Colpa Colorado, Tambopata’s most famous clay lick
“Blue-headed macaws, blue-headed macaws,” screams Pepe excitedly, “over there, over there.”
Everybody strains to locate the rare birds. Apparently, that’s a serious notch on the birder’s belt. The sight of thousands of birds screeching and darting in every direction sends chills down my spine. We’ve experienced a great deal of Mother Nature’s greatest shows: mountain gorillas in the D.R.C., aye-ayes and singing indris in Madagascar, grey whales in Baja, orangutans in Borneo, whale sharks in the Philippines… the list goes on. The spectacle at Colpa Colorado easily belongs on every list of nature’s best. Amazingly, the Tambopata region offers a great deal of icing for that macaw and parrot cake.
Much More than Macaws and Parrots
While the focus of most documentaries and tourist brochures tends to be the macaws and parrots, the licks also attract a variety of other bird life as well as several kinds of mammals. All around us, oropendolas make their electro-gurgling sound, like someone just sat on a synthesizer. A razor-billed curassow stares at itself in a pool of water. Pepe makes a whooping call to attract it. The entire scene is my own personal National Geographic moment.
Of course, the Colpa Colorado clay lick is the superstar of Tambopata, but there are several other impressive clay licks along the Tambopata River including the Chuncho lick and the small but impressive lick near the Posada Amazonas lodge. We visit them all. At Chuncho we even had the luck to spot two phenomenal king vultures circling above. There’s another major notch for that birder’s belt.
Beyond the licks, the forests along the Tambopata River are filled with birds (as well as an incredible variety of mammals, reptiles and spectacular insects.) Over ten days, we explore the trail systems not only at the Tambopata Research Center but also at the Refugio Amazonas and the Posada Amazonas, two lodges further downstream. Pepe leads us along river banks through bamboo forests and palm swamps deep into floodplain and terra firme forests. The quality of the trail systems at each site is excellent and provides the perfect opportunity for birders and other wildlife enthusiasts to fully explore what Tambopata has to offer.
Wherever we go, we discover new birds: beautiful Orinoco geese, colorful Amazonian motmots, impressive greater yellow-headed vultures and a white-bearded hermit hummingbird with its slender, curved bill. We encounter the surreal wing-rattling of the blue-throated piping guan and the bizarre “ha-ha-ha” call of the laughing falcon. We push our way through the undergrowth to glimpse the white-throated toucan and the channel-billed toucan high up in the canopy. And with the help of canopy towers and a thrilling canopy tree climb, we ascend to the canopy itself. It’s a whole new world up there.
Another highlight worth mentioning is the Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake just upriver from the Posada Amazonas, which provides an excellent opportunity to view gorgeous hoatzins and noisy horned screamers as well as wetlands birds such as the tiger heron. Visitors float across the lake on hand-paddled catamaran platforms which are stable enough for spotting scopes and heavy camera tripods. It’s a serene experience quietly floating across the lake at dawn as clouds of steam drift above the water. While there, keep an eye out for black caimans and the resident family of giant otters as well.
So is Tambopata just for birders? Absolutely not! Yes, birders come to Tambopata for the birds, but you don’t have to be a birder to enjoy Tambopata. The forests are filled with wildlife, much of which will be featured in our upcoming posts.
But developing an interest in birds will make your jungle experience much more rewarding. Birders don’t just see more birds, they see more of everything because they are looking much more closely and pursuing every sound. One sad visitor lamented over her lunch that she still hadn’t seen any monkeys. “There’s a troop of monkeys right there,” I said pointing to the tree in front of her. How did I know they were there? I was watching oropendolas. 🙂
Greater yellow-headed vulture
Tips for Visitors Interested in Birds
The number of macaws and parrots at the Colpa Colorado and the nearby clay licks fluctuates throughout the year depending on the availability of food. Birds tend to move out of the area during the months of April to July. Numbers pick up again in August and gradually increase until they peak in early January. But be aware that the rainy season usually begins in late November, which makes hiking along the trails a bit more of a challenge. Rain also often prevents the birds from visiting the clay licks.
If you want to find out more about The Macaw Project or are interested in volunteering, visit their website.