Written by and photos courtesy of Fergus Eakin
I would like to share my experience, as a research assistant, on the Peruvian Opwall expedition. As an ecologist I have been captivated by the rainforest since the first time I ever watched a David Attenborough documentary. Unfortunately, there isn’t any tropical rainforest in the UK. So I signed up with Opwall and believe me, no matter how high I put my expectations I could not have been disappointed. The location for this research site is truly amazing. We were in the middle of the Pacaya Samiria reserve surrounded by nothing but dense forest far from civilisation. The surveys we completed really allowed us to appreciate and understand just how much life the Amazon supports. Every day we would see families of monkeys, dolphins, piranhas, caimans and hundreds of insects including spiders. Personally, I most enjoyed the survey on the wading birds and so this is what I specialised in.
A typical day as a tropical bird ecologist would start by waking up at 5:00am, this was great as I felt that everything else in the forest was waking up at the same time. My first survey was then from 6:00 to 8:00. Typically 6 or 7 of us would set out on one of the smaller boats for a 5km river transect. These few hours were the highlight of my day. Whilst floating along with the river current our job was to record the species, group size, habitat and activity of all the wading birds we saw. Some of the birds we could always count on seeing were the Neotropic Cormorant, Horned Screamer, Cocoi Heron and my favourite the Ringed Kingfisher. After this there was breakfast, lunch and then the second survey from 16:00 to 18:00. This would be an exact repeat of the morning methodology. There was definitely something special about being awake to watch the sun rise at 6:00 and set at 18:00 every day. When repeating these surveys I was also lucky enough to be there for some of the rarer sightings. Such as the Jabiru, which was only seen on the very last day and flew 5 metres above our heads. Unforgettable. One of the students on this survey even managed to get an amazing photo of this moment which you can see below.
The Wading bird survey was particularly exciting due to the annual migration which was happening whilst I was there. Every year, as the water level decreases in the surrounding flooded forest, there is a migration of fish from the forest to the rivers closely followed by hungry wading birds. In other words, the birds were all flying from miles around and grouping directly where we were completing our survey. In the first week of the expedition we would count around 30 birds and enjoy the relaxing survey. I could not have imagined what I would then see in the last week. In a single survey we would record more than 600 birds. The experience itself was simply two hours of non-stop frantic counting.
My free time then gave me the opportunity to help on all the other surveys and learn about the wider ranging ecology of the forest. I might participate in mammal transects from 9:30 to 12:00, fishing bats from 18:30 to 19:30 or amphibians from 21:00 to 00:30. Finally all the remaining gaps of my day would be filled socialising with some amazing friends; doing various yoga classes, games of cards, eating, celebrating birthdays and generally just avoiding the sun by any means. Normally, I would go to sleep at 22:00 when the generators were turned off and wake up to repeat it all over again. Falling asleep was amazing in its own right because I loved listening to the noise of the rainforest. This was a beautiful experience. The sounds of thousands of insects calling to one another. I definitely miss being able to fall asleep to this music. In the end I only wish I could have continued this life for much much longer!
So thanks to Operation Wallacea and thanks to everyone I shared this adventure with!