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Views From the Amazon (1/06)

Animal Sightings You Won't See On the Long Trail

In the deep of winter, sometimes it’s fun to think about places where the wind isn’t howling, the snow isn’t blowing, and you don’t have to dress in layers. Burlington Section member Dot Myer sent these recollections of her recent trip with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science to the Amazon area and the Galapagos Islands.

Hoatzins, marine iguanas, poison dart frogs, little black monkeys swinging in the trees, sea lions, green forest dragon, flocks of parrots and paraqueets, frigate birds and blue-footed boobies, tarantulas! Toto, I don’t think we’re on the Long Trail any more!

We were floating along the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon, when we first began to see exotic birds. The real excitement began when we heard squawking and saw a flash of wings right next to our thatch-roofed cabin. There were hoatzins in the bushes right near us. These large birds with ragged crests are among the most primitive birds. Their babies have hooks on their wings (like reptiles) so they can climb back to their nest if they fall out. Hoatzins are one of the few birds that can eat leaves, because they have multiple stomachs like cows.

We saw toucans, orependulas (like orioles), a black hawk eagle, spoonbills, jackamars, and many others. A screech owl made her nest in the dining cabin. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds of herons: Great blue, Little blue, Green, Lava, Striated, Zigzag.

For one of the best excursions, we had to get up before 5:00 in the morning and leave at 5:30. We went to some clay licks, which are like salt licks. Every day at about 7 or 8 o’clock large flocks of parrots come to eat the clay, which they need for their digestion. There were about four different types of parrots there. Most prominent were yellow-crowned parrots, but all were beautifully colored.

We saw small black tamarinds (monkeys) swinging in the trees, and one red monkey as well. We saw a tarantula, poison dart frog, green forest dragon, millipedes, and other creepy-crawlies. We were pleasantly surprised to find there were very few flying, biting insects. We saw less of these in four days than you would see in a half hour in Vermont in late spring.

Even more amazing than the Amazon animals were those of the Galapagos. There we not only saw birds, mammals, and reptiles; we saw them doing interesting things. And they were right next to the trails. We saw male frigate birds with their brilliant red throat patches swollen to enormous sizes for courting. We saw blue-footed boobies stretching out their necks and walking around each other, the males whistling and the females grunting. (Blue-footed boobies don’t have to do anything more than walk around to be interesting. They walk with a real goose step, slowly and deliberately, lifting each foot high as though to make sure everyone sees their beautiful bright blue feet.)

The mammals were not to be outdone by the birds. Young seals flopped right up to us and smelled our shoes. (We weren't allowed to touch the animals, but they were allowed to touch us and almost did.) We saw both land and marine iguanas that were about three feet long, as well as much smaller lava lizards.

The giant tortoises, for which the Galapagos are so well known, are now extremely rare. From the 1500s to the 1800s, sailors captured them for meat. About 100,000 tortoises were captured and eaten. Later, non-native animals (goats, dogs, pigs, etc.) were introduced to the islands. They competed with tortoises, which are vegetarian, and other native animals for food. As a result of these things, the tortoises are extinct on many of the islands and rare on others. We did not see any in the wild.

However, we did see a number of small tortoises at the Darwin Research Center, which raises tortoises for re-introduction to their native islands. We also saw a few very large ones, more than three feet across their carapaces. One very large, very old tortoise named Lonesome George is believed to be the last of his sub-species. Another one, called Diego, was of interest to me because he lived in the Bronx Zoo about the time I visited it as a child. I may have seen this very tortoise before!

We did see sea turtles in the wild. On our last day we went to Turtle Cove and saw turtles with shells about the size of a child’s “flying saucer” swimming all around us. A great ending to a great trip!