by Nathaniel McIntosh, Greenheart Travel Correspondent Scholarship Winner in Peru
Most of this week is spent doing work in the bio-gardens in the somewhat nearby town of Salvacion. To get to this town we have to take the motorized canoe (called the peky peky by the Peruvian staff due to the sound it makes) up the river for about 35 minutes, then we have to walk for another 30 minutes to get to the residential area of the town. The bio-gardens in this town are an attempt to help the families in the town become more self reliant and even gain some income by growing and selling fruits, herbs, and vegetables. They have about 50 gardens so far and are trying to build more. This weekly task involves very hard work in hot weather with people who don’t speak a lot of English.
My limited Spanish is growing quickly and coming in handy more and more each day. I speak more Spanish than any of the other volunteers and a few of them look to me to interact with the Peruvians and translate. HA, didn’t think this would happen when I was still in Cuzco. In building the bio-gardens, we help clear land, dig and soften the beds for plants, plant seeds, build and put up fences, build ladders, saw wood and bamboo for rooftops and supports, shave bark off bamboo, and construct rooftops for the gardens because too much rain will kill the plants. This is hard, sometimes back breaking and soul shattering work that leaves you exhausted, but it’s worth it to see the work get done and know that you are helping improve the lifestyle of a family.
The families are always very grateful and help with the work that needs to be done. This work takes most of the day and we don’t usually have to do anything once we get back to camp. Sleep is a very welcome reprieve on these days. We take the last hour in Salvacion to walk 15 minutes into the town center and buy anything that we need such as snacks, toiletries, and batteries. The townsfolk are nice and quick to welcome us, maybe they just want us to spend some money but I’ll choose to believe otherwise. The quick ride back to the project is one of the most relaxing rides that I can have. The rocking of the boat, the beautiful scenery, and my exhaustion put me in an incredibly relaxed state and make me wish we could just ride in this boat forever. I still can’t get over the fact that I’m in the jungle and that it’s so extraordinarily beautiful.
Tuesday early morning is spent at the culpa. To get to the culpa, we have to take the canoe up the river for about 10 minutes. From a hide on the beach, we have a great view of the clay lick. Birds come to this clay lick to eat some of the clay, they do this to either supplement minerals in their diet or neutralize natural toxins in the food they eat. We go to this clay lick to observe which birds go to the clay lick, how many there are, if they land or not and when, and how many tourists are there. This allows us to observe the change in the numbers and types of birds that show up over time, differences in when they show up, whether anything (such as boats, predatory birds, or people) disturb the birds, and the change in the number of tourists that show up. Because the birds start to show up early, we have to leave camp at a little past 5 am. This also requires me to get up at about 4:30.
When we get there, we write all our observations for birds and tourists on a data sheet. We figure out the type of birds that are arriving mainly by the sound of their calls but also by the size of the bird, the way they fly, and the color pattern if visible. None of the birds want to be the first to land so the birds circle quite a bit before they land. They are spooked pretty quickly by things, such as excess noise and predatory birds, and don’t always land. This activity only takes a couple of hours because the birds don’t stay very long. We get back to camp in time to eat breakfast around 7:30.
After breakfast, it starts to rain and causes all other activities to be post-poned. Activities are postponed in heavy rains because it becomes too dangerous to be in the jungle as trees can fall, trails become too slippery, and stream levels can rise. Instead of our planned activities, we work on “Spanglish” with the Peruvian staff. This where we get to learn Spanish and teach English to the Peruvian staff, this is always pretty fun. After Spanglish, we listen to a presentation on Amazonian birds, given by one of the staff, then relax for the rest of the day.
Thursday morning is spent doing mist netting on a trail that is about 45 minutes away. During mist netting, we use four nets that have been set up the day before to try to catch birds. Two nets are set up east to west and two nets are set up north to south. Because we need to raise the nets before the sun comes up, we need to leave camp at 5 am, which requires me to get up once again at 4:30. Luckily for me I’ve adjusted pretty well to getting up early but this still takes the cake. When we get to the site, we raise all the nets then walk to a nearby spot to set up and wait. We check the nets every 20 minutes for 4.5 hours to look for birds and clear out any bugs and leaves. When we catch a bird, the staff member carefully takes it out of the net. We take it back to our waiting spot to weigh it, take various body measurements, sex and age it, use our bird book to try to figure out the species, take a lot of pictures, put plastic rings on its legs, then let it go. This helps fill in the puzzle of what species of birds are here in the forest. The more they know about the species here in the forest, the easier it is to try to gain support for the conservation of it.
On my first mist netting, we catch only 2 birds and in the last half hour that we were out there. When its time to go, we take the nets down and move them to the next spot for the next day. After lunch, I spend the afternoon helping sort leaf litter. There are leaf litter traps set up all around the forest a few feet off the ground. These traps catch anything from sticks to bugs, leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit that fall from the trees above. The leaf litter is gathered from these traps each month then sorted into 3 bags that separate sticks from leaves and seeds/flowers/fruit into each bag. After sorting, the biomass is dried out in an oven and weighed. This allows us to measure how much biomass is produced in each forest type (destroyed, primary, and secondary) and see how it changes over the year as well as how climate change affects it.
This is a fairly easy yet tedious task that goes by much better with the use of my iPod. Luckily for me, I get to leave leaf sorting a little early because I have to help make dinner for everyone. This is one of my favorite things to do because I get to learn some Peruvian recipes, help cook my dinner, talk to the chef (we became buddies pretty quickly) and his assistant mainly in Spanish (which further improves my Spanish), and taste the food while its being made (I’m always hungry hehe). To finish the night off, I go with a researcher and another volunteer to do night transects. In this we walk the trails with our headlights until we get to newly cut paths, not clean trails. These paths range anywhere from 50-150 meters long. When we get to a transect, we walk down the transect very slowly looking for any amphibians or snakes. Nighttime is the best time to do this because more animals are out, especially on wet days. We leave at about 7 pm, catch a few frogs, salamanders, and newts then head back and get back to camp around 11.