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From a platform high in the air, a birder sings: how far, how perilous, how impressive The Bird

By Mark Wilson
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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MADRE DE DIOS — One of the world’s largest and most powerful raptors, a female harpy eagle, peered down at us, 120 feet below on the forest floor, as my Peruvian guide, Sixto Duri Valdivia, clipped my ascenders to the 9mm climbing rope that reached upward into the Amazon rain forest canopy.

The eagle perched close to her chick’s nest in a large ironwood tree. We stood at the base of another big ironwood, its massive buttress roots angling into the soil. The trunk rose straight, smooth, and branchless to a dizzying height. One hundred feet up, a 4-by-4-foot platform of thick cedar planks awaited me. It would put me at eye level with the nest, just 60 feet away.

Valdivia and his wife had built the platform over four days, in anticipation of my arrival. For the next week I would spend most of each day perched on my observation deck, privy to the life of a harpy eagle pair and their chick — a rare look at one of the world’s most impressive eagles. In a forest of abundant, mind-boggling life and infinite destinations, I would do what few tourists do: Sit tight on one spot and the let world open to me.

Valdivia had given me a 20-minute climbing lesson. We checked the ascenders one last time. I was ready to climb on this warm, humid morning.

“Go slowly,’’ Valdivia said.

“Why? So I don’t scare her?’’ I said.

“No,’’ he said. “She might attack.’’

Valdivia hadn’t mentioned that harpy eagles have rapier-like talons, some longer than a grizzly bear’s claws. Normally they use their powerful feet and deadly talons to catch sloths and monkeys. They weigh from 9 to 20 pounds (females are heavier) and can have a 7-foot wingspan.

Despite some apprehension, this was where I most wanted to be. My wife, Marcia, and I had traveled to southeastern Peru because of a lead on the nesting eagles. Using e-mail and Web searches, I had scoured Central and South America looking for just such a situation. A lodge in the Rainforest Expeditions lineup promised a harpy eagle nest a short walk away. Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil had held possibilities, but ulti mately it was Peru, with its more than 1,850 species of birds, the second highest count of any country, that snared us. It promised to be a naturalist’s paradise and a birder’s mecca.

The day before we were to leave, Marcia finally was able to get a cast on her broken ankle, after 2 1/2 weeks of heavy swelling. We would be staying at Refugio Amazonas, a large, fairly new eco lodge on the Tambopata River, not far from the Bolivia border. Marcia would hang out at the lodge nursing her leg, birding, having shamanic cleansings, and drinking fruity concoctions. Each morning I would hike a mile-and-a-half-long trail into the rain forest to climb to my canopy seat.

That first day I started up tentatively. The big female eagle eyed me as I climbed. I couldn’t have gone fast if I wanted to; the heat and humidity had me sucking wind. At 30 feet, I was drenched with sweat, with 70 feet still to climb.

After what seemed like half an hour I finally hauled myself onto the platform. The eagle had moved higher in her tree, seemingly unfazed. I set a tripod, mounted a 500mm lens, attached my digital Nikon SLR, and unfolded my chair. The new rule? Tie everything to the tree. We would have no plunging $7,000 telephoto lens.

Valdivia soon joined me. He carefully checked ropes and anchor straps for damage, mumbling something about termites and ants cutting straps. He stayed for an hour, then left.

Left alone I focused on the large stick nest, constructed in a crotch of the ironwood. Fresh greenery adorned it. The 4-month-old eaglet, buff-colored and more than 30 inches long, spent equal time peering at me and snapping at insects buzzing its head and body. The insects soon discovered me as well, and one type of orange and black fly, the back of my hands.

The eaglet resembled its parents in shape but not coloration. An unruly crest of feathers capped the chick. Its parents sported the same impressive crest but they bore a slate gray back and chest band, and their crests had darkened.

Each morning I looked forward to the walk to the platform. At my prompting, Valdivia would identify the birds calling high in the forest. Once we stopped to examine a large hole in the ground — the lair of a tarantula.

Another time we heard rustlings and rounded a bend to find a family from India who had just spied a tapir. Valdivia pointed out a ring of bark on the ground around a fire tree, which periodically sheds, and a sugar fruit, a butternut-size hard fruit.

We passed several massive Brazil nut trees that were even larger than the ironwoods. They are so valued for their nut crop that if you cut one down you could go to prison, Valdivia said.

On my forest platform day after day, as I waited for good light or interesting eagle behavior, I tallied a list of birds I saw: yellow-rumped cacique, blue-crowned trogon, red-stained woodpecker, violaceous jay, spangled cotinga, Gould’s jewelwing, golden collared toucanet, pavonine quetzal, curl-crested aracari, and red and green macaw.

Most days, a band of 60 white-lipped peccaries, or wild pigs, noisily bulldozed by, on their way to eat at a nearby clay lick. The clay coats their stomachs and absorbs toxic alkaloids contained in some of the fruits they eat. From on high I could hear and see the peccaries coughing and squealing as they jostled for position in the clay. Monkeys and parrots also came for their clay ration.

One day, the wind picked up and I felt as if I was at sea, tossing on the deck of a ship in an ocean of waving greenery. I felt twinges of seasickness, 335 miles from the nearest ocean.

Most days were warm and still. One such afternoon, while the chick was sleeping, I turned to see a large green snake four feet away. It was swallowing a bat, headfirst. The snake lolled across my climbing rope, blocking my escape route. Half an hour later, it dropped to a tree 30 feet below.

I still don’t know if it was venomous.

Mark Wilson can be reached at wildshot@earthlink.net.

If You Go

www.perunature.com
877-870-0578
Rates and customizable packages available.
Rainforest Expedition runs three lodges on the Tambopata River in southeastern Peru. They are staffed by area residents and accessible by outboard riverboats from the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, which has daily jet service from Lima. Birding and wildlife watching at the lodges is world class.
Meals are served in open air dining halls, buffet style, and are not fancy. Showers are cold; bathe midday. Rooms are open to the forest on one side and guests sleep under mosquito nets, though in July (winter), the busiest tourism month in Peru, mosquitoes were rare. July and August are the driest months; we saw no rain in our nine-day stay, though temperatures can dip into the 40s at night.
A guide assigned to each visitor or group is the key to understanding this biologically rich area. Adventure activities include canopy climbs, rain forest biking, kayaking, and fishing. Holistic activities might include aromatherapy, a rain forest mud bath, or a visit with a shaman.
Posada Amazonas, a 30-bedroom lodge, is closest to town, about two hours by riverboat.
Refugio Amazonas, the newest, has 32 bedrooms and is about four hours upriver from town.
The Tambopata Research Center is the most remote (6-7 hours by boat from Puerto Maldonado; short stays not recommended) and simplest of the lodges, but offers unparalleled looks at macaws and parrots coming to a large clay lick. Chances of seeing large mammals are best here.