It was not just around the Lodge at Taricaya Ecological Reserve that we encountered wildlife. Each day whether we were walking to and from observation platforms, flower cutting, weeding, maintenance or even clearing trails, we were immersed in jungle wildlife. Of course we also went out on specific walks looking for wildlife.
The first of such walks occurred on only our second day at Taricaya, during which we encountered a fer-de-lance, a species of snake whose bite can kill in 20 minutes. Considering we were between 1 and 2 hours up river from the nearest town and hospital it was not a good idea to get bitten!
Later that first month the whole volunteer team decided to walk the perimeter of the entire reserve. It would take most of the morning but we were not half an hour in when the heavens opened and huge raindrops began to fall from sky and trees. In a matter of moments we were soaked. But the jungle is a warm place even when wet. It was not long until the rain stopped and only a short time later we were dry again. While slipping and sliding, squelching and stomping our way along the trail our guide talked about the medicinal properties and uses of many of the plants. He also showed us a ‘walking tree’. An incredible species of palm whose roots move so that the tree slowly walks towards space and light within the dense forest.
The walk took us on some very interesting trails and areas not often visited including through some rather swampy areas. The murky muddy water came above the knee as you sank into soft sticky mud. It was a rather wobbly crossing as one leg and then the other got stuck. Once again there were birds everywhere, from Blue-grey Tanagers to Russet-backed Oropendulars. Many were simply heard, like the Screaming Piha, remaining hidden amongst the dense vegetation. There was a plethora of colourful butterflies and damselflies, and ants. Fire ants, army ants and even a nest of bullet ants so called because their bite is supposed to feel like being shot with a bullet. Not one to test out though.
On a few occasions we ventured out on the trails after dark, and the jungle after dark is a different prospect and a different place. All kinds of weird and wonderful sounds can be heard, from insects, amphibians and mammals. The lighting of a torch immediately brings a swam of moths and insects appearing and disappearing in the glow of the light. The sounds seem even more intense when out walking, and when the torch is switched off total blackness descends. The black is impenetrable with only a mere hint of shadows, a deeper black, hinting at the trees and foliage around us. As your other senses kick into overdrive the sounds become even more intense. Such walks brought encounters with beautiful tarantulas, horned frogs, opossums and the sounds of caimen slipping into the creek.
Another walk during the day led us to the bottom of the tree where a canopy observation platform sits hundreds of metres up. It had to be one of the biggest trees I have ever seen, not only in height, but its tremendous girth. From here we headed to a beautiful glade, an oasis of open space and sunlight surrounded by the greens and browns of the jungle. The glade was full of plants with small white flowers, clinging to which were hundreds of orange, black and yellow butterflies, patterned like tigers. Moving back into the jungle we passed a couple of muddy puddles, fresh with tapir footprints. Then I heard again that Screaming Piha, and for the first time it sounded loud and close. It is one of the most characteristic sounds of the Amazon jungle, and yet it is infrequently seen. On quietly approaching the tree I looked up, and there sitting in the branches above was the drab, dullish grey bird from which that distinctive whistle comes.
Our walks out on the trails of course brought us encounters with many of the birds we saw around the Lodge, and many more. There were woodpeckers hammering on trees, kites, eagles and vultures would be glimpsed in gaps overhead and there would be brief flypasts by bright colourful parrots, like the Chestnut-fronted Macaw.
Then there were mammals. More rendezvous with those charming squirrel monkeys, but also sightings of saddle-backed tamarins and dusky titi monkeys, and glimpses of Amazon red squirrels.
It was while walking back to the Lodge after observations one morning in November that I glimpsed my first coatis. It was a strange noise coming from the undergrowth that first caught our attention. Like something was pulling bark from a tree. Looking carefully there were four of these rather unusual looking mammals. A long flexible nose, dark face with white markings, a rufous brown coat and long stripey tail. Later in our stay we would encounter a troop of between 30 and 40 coatis feeding in the trees above us. A couple sauntered down a tree, stared at the group of humans before running off. The rest of the troop then made its way down and left in one long single file line.
Then there were peccaries, barrelled shaped, small-legged, large headed with a characteristic snout. Pig-like mammals, known to sometimes be aggressive when encountered on trails. Mostly however we tended to glimpse them crashing away through the undergrowth or heard them grunting and rustling, hidden by tree and bush. On just one occasion we came across them in the middle of the trail. They froze. We froze. For a moment we stared. Then they went hurrying off into the undergrowth.
There were glancing peeks of other mammals too; a grey brocket deer, a fluffy weasel-like tayra, capuchins and a bat that roosted in a termite mound. The staff and other volunteers told stories of encounters with cats, from jaguars to pumas. While we did encounter cats in the wild ourselves, we did have inspiring encounters with the cats that came into rehabilitation programme… but that’s a story for another day.