The Amazon Research & Conservation Center

28th November 2018

Adventures at an Oxbow Lake! (10/15 – 10/20)

10/15:

Mark and I had a chance to visit a lodge that had been built along an oxbow lake. We arrived in the afternoon, after an almost 2 hour boat ride up river from LPAC. Our main goals for this 5-day stay were as follows: to capture and whitebox a Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger), to see and photograph a potential Harpy Eagle nest and set up two mirrors for the MISS project. I was also hoping to see and photograph Giant River Otters and the Hoatzin, both species I haven’t seen before.Sounds simple enough (except I was extremely curious to see how one successfully whiteboxes a caiman and survives) but, as with everything else in the Amazon, things are never quite that simple…..

It turns out that we were the only people to be staying there for these 5 days, so we had the entire area to ourselves! It was a beautiful place: aside from our platform, there were small pleasant looking huts constructed here and there around the property. Fruit trees and flowering plants and bushes grew along the sandy paths to each hut. Many species of birds sang and foraged around the clearing. High up in a tree near the edge of the clearing was a large colony of nesting Yellow-rumped Caciques. Another path led to a small, wooden platform with a roof at the edge of the lake, in front of a small dock containing a catamaran and a few kayaks. We walked out to the edge of the lake to look at the stunning view: thick, green forest grew up to the very edge of the lake with fallen trees and large branches scattered here and there across the water, providing perches and basking spots for various birds and turtles.

After dark tonight we set out to accomplish our first goal: capturing a Black Caiman, hopefully finding one that would measure about a meter in length. We set out in the catamaran; I did most of the paddling while Mark shined his flashlight along the lake edge, looking for eye shine that would signal the presence of a crocodilians. It did not take long to spot one; Mark captured it, a small one less than a meter in length. We continued on….and then Mark spotted a bigger one on the opposite side of the lake. We paddled slowly toward it and slowed to a crawl once we got very close to the bank. Then we stopped and observed it quietly for a moment. Mark handed the smaller caiman to me and  very slowly moved to the edge of the catamaran, trying not to scare away the larger one. It was sitting in very shallow water with mostly just its head sticking out. After a few minutes Mark was able to move close enough to where it sat silently, and then he made his move, jumping into the water right on top of the unsuspecting caiman! He grabbed its neck and there was much thrashing around and splashing as he struggled to get the caiman onto the catamaran. I released the smaller one back into the water and helped him hold the bigger one down until he was able to get a good grip on it, then I paddled us back to the dock. We were now in possession of a one meter long caiman, what to do with it until we were ready to photograph it?We found an empty burlap sack and managed to trap it in there, placed it in the bathroom of our room, and by then it was time to call it a night. Taking a shower while sharing the bathroom with a large caiman was definitely a new experience…..

 

10/16:

Today we set up mirrors #13 and #14. We carried two boards, eight mirrors and two camera traps along the trail that leads around the lake. One was set up further back in the forest along a wide open path that was close to a section of intersecting trails. The second one we set up closer to the lake edge, where it could attract the attention of mammals traveling down to the water. It was tiring work and took the better part of the day to complete, but we were satisfied at the end of the day when we finally finished everything, minus setting the one camera trap, which we decided to do the next day. We also took out the Black Caiman to whitebox it during the afternoon. We were staying in a room with screened walls and we set up the whitebox in a corner of the room. There was enough light plus less of a chance for the caiman to escape that way. Mark held firmly onto the caiman as he brought it over to the whitebox, then placed it carefully into the box. It sat calmly for us for the most part and we were able to successfully photograph it from the side. Then it was time to remove it from the box and get photos from the top and belly. Mark grabbed a towel and went to place it over the caiman’s head. The caiman, however, decided it was time to stop playing nicely with us and made a mad scramble to escape the box. The was a minute of chaos and confusion as it clambered out of the whitebox, bending the box out of shape as it pressed against the screened wall. Mark and I initially jumped back, then Mark quickly moved forward with the towel and siezed the caiman before it could do anything else. He managed to get it calmed down after a bit, and we were surprised to find that the whitebox was still in one piece. Our subject stayed relatively calm after that, allowing us to capture the rest of the photos that we needed.

 

10/17:

We went back to the trail to clean off the mirrors and set up the one camera trap. We were attacked by a swarm of sweat bees by one of the mirrors. They don’t sting but they constantly land on you, so it was great fun getting covered in bees while trying to work. We shook them off after we finished and started walking away, and all was well. We took the caiman out to the lake edge and took some more photos of each of us holding it. Then Mark decided to try capturing a photo of the caiman sitting on a log sticking out into the lake. We waded out into waist deep water with the caiman and Mark’s camera and tripod. We set up the tripod in the water next to the log and focused the camera on the log. We set the shutter to rapid fire and I stood ready to take the shot. Mark placed the caiman onto the log and held it there. The caiman did not look thrilled. In one quick moment Mark released it while I clicked the shutter. The caiman immediately made a thashing movement and disappeared into the water. We were disappointed that none of the shots turned out very well, however we were glad that we were able to get good shots in the whitebox plus some shots of us holding it. We spent some time focusing on the Yellow-spotted River Turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) as well. Mark needs to whitebox this species and we made multiple attempts to capture an adult while they were basking in the sun. Unfortunately turtles are quick to disappear into the water when one gets too close and there is usually no sneaking up on a basking turtle. We took kayaks out on the water and I did manage to sneak up and capture a juvenile that way. We whiteboxed it and I took some photos before releasing it. Later in the afternoon we spotted the Giant River Otters further out in the lake. There were 3 or 4 of them swimming by, their heads and bodies bobbing in and out of the water. They made these loud, high-pitched squeaking calls to each other. They were fun to watch but unfortunately not close enough to capture good photos. I saw quite a few Hoatzins and managed to get a few photos. We were not able to observe the Harpy Eagles sadly, but overall it was both a successful and adventurous trip! I was very grateful to have been able to join the Untamed Photography team to such an amazing place.

 

 Story written by Intern Jaime Thomas

Story written by Mark Fernley