After arriving at Taricaya Ecological Reservein the Peruvian jungle back in 2006 we quickly settled into a routine. Each morning breakfast was at 7:30am. 8am and we would head off in teams to undertake one of the projects, planting and weeding flowers, maintenance, building or looking after the animals in the rehabilitation programme. Three days a week we would get up early to undertake observations at one of the platforms located around the reserve. Lunch was at 12 and work started again between 3 and 5pm. Dinner at 7pm. Lee and I also got into the habit of going for a wander around the Lodge area after lunch. During these wanders we would record the birds, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that we encountered. In truth we were on the look out all the time, whether we were wandering around the Lodge, undertaking activities or even just relaxing in the hammocks under the trees. Where possible we would take pictures, but if not we made notes and drew pictures, ready to look up what we had seen later on, or describe it to one of the members of staff. Wherever we were or whatever we were doing Lee and I were always keen to try and identify what we were seeing. Birds were ‘easiest’ for us having a lot of experience with birds and using identification guides back home. The butterflies, amphibians and reptiles were harder but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t give it a go and my notebook was soon full of descriptions and drawings.
Even when relaxing and swinging gently from the hammocks I would watch mesmerised by beautiful butterflies, splashes of brilliant colour against the greens and browns of the jungle, birds like Colbolt-winged Parakeets and Russet-backed Oropendulars would work their ways in the tree tops, on one occasion an Amazon Kingfisher spent a few moments perched on a branch nearby. In the gaps overhead we would catch glimpses of kites, vultures and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. Hummingbirds would flit around the foliage or gracefully hover around the feeders in front of the dining room windows, delicately drinking the sweet water.
Butterflies were everywhere in a bewildering array of colour and patterns. From bright blue morphos, owl butterflies and luminescent yellow and black butterflies and swallowtails. One favourite had to be the ’88’ butterfly, a striking black and white butterfly with a splash of blood red, whose pattern formed the letters 88 or 89.
Lizards skipped over the walls of the buildings, rustling through the leaves and thatch, scuttling over the tin. Geckos walked across the screens of our bedroom windows. The largest lizard I saw was a golden tegu, first seen while balancing at the top of a ladder nailing mosquito netting to the nursery building. A giant sauntering along the river bank. Next one ambled past the bedroom window, before it was seen again amongst the animal enclosures.
There were frogs, especially at night, calling in the dark. Around the Lodge in daylight volunteers often came across giant cane toads.
Even in the Lodge surrounds we came across snakes, slithering across the boardwalks and open spaces, between the undergrowth. On one occasion I was stopped mid stride on the way back to my room, confronted by a dark brown snake with a frog in its jaws, a squeal cut brutally short as the snake disappeared into the bushes. Another day and a shout from the animal enclosures sent us running to find one of the locals holding onto a very large yellow and black snake. Once brought out and bagged, it still made a bid for freedom, finding the one hole in the bag. Turned out to be a 2 and 1/2 meter yellow tailed cribo!
Then there were mammals. There were always some kind of mammal within the vicinity of the Lodge, even before we got out onto the trails of the reserve. Most of the time it was troops of monkeys, particularly squirrel monkeys, passing through. Occasionally we would catch sight of dusky titi monkeys, and often we would hear the haunting sounds of howler monkeys. Like a fierce wind howling through the trees, only for it to stop abruptly. The howls of howler monkeys can travel kilometres through the dense jungle. At nightfall on one evening two of the staff members found a slender mouse opossum, a small mammal rather like a mouse but with large black eyes. On another night while walking along the boardwalk Lee and I came across a paca, a large rodent with white spots down the flank. The animal was rooting around in the undergrowth, and snuffling under the boardwalk seeming quite unafraid of our presence. It turns out this individual was an animal the team had rehabilitated and released earlier in the year. It was exciting and wonderful to see that animals part of the programme are thriving once released.
But it was the squirrel monkeys that really provided some incredible mammal encounters around the Lodge. Troops of them would regularly make their way through the Lodge area, jumping nimbly from branch to branch in numbers anywhere from a handful to a hundred. Many times they stuck to the tree tops, but when they came down through the lower trees we were treated with really good views and often saw young babies clinging to their mothers backs. One early morning, on waking to see a couple of volunteers off, a large group came crashing through and then hung around for well over an hour. There were mothers and babies, juveniles chasing each other, adults grooming and feeding, all kinds of behaviour. As they moved off they began to leap between the trees, clearing gaps a few metres wide right over our heads.
I never tired of seeing squirrel monkeys with their character and charm, and one other encounter sticks in my mind even all these years later. One morning in November I woke to the sound of a troop crashing through the trees just outside my bedroom. Opening my eyes I could see them through the window screen. Climbing out of bed I headed out the door and watched them feed on the fruit in the trees overhead. They would grab pieces in their little hands, pieces twice as large as their heads, taking a couple of bites before promptly dropping them onto the tin roof of the next building with a tremendous bang. The sound would make them all jump and start squealing and chattering amongst themselves before simply carrying on with the next piece of fruit.
And all this was over two months, just in the vicinity of the Lodge. There is so much more. So many more encounters on the trails and from the observation platforms. So much more to come… But for now here are just a few of the stunning butterflies I saw.