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February 16, 2009 / stephanie

Puerto Maldonado Bird Banding Expedition

Bienvenidos a Peru

Last summer I signed up to volunteer with the second annual bird banding expedition at the Centro de Educación, Ciencia y Conservación Tambopata (CECCOT; in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. It definitely was an unforgettable experience and like nothing I’ve been through before! We had a great group of volunteers and two awesome leaders, Ursula Valdez and Danel Froehlich, Ph.D. students at the University of Washington. I found out about the trip through the ornithology job listing ( and had never previously heard about the work they were doing at CECCOT and didn’t know anyone else going on the trip. But since I love bird banding and have always wanted to visit the Amazon Rainforest, I thought it would definitely be worthwhile!

I left on the morning of September 19th and met with the rest of the group at dawn of the next day in Lima. We then took two more flights from Lima to Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. We arrived at the lodge via a motorcade of motor-taxis pictured below.

Motorcycles and motor-taxis replaced almost all the cars in town.

In the jungle 6 kilometers from town our lodge had limited electricity and no running water, a pit toilet, and although our rooms were shielded from the rain we were otherwise open to the elements of nature. So basically there were bats and owls and bugs living in our huts with us!

Oh, but of course we had mosquito nets! Surprsingly, there were very few mosquitos while we were there, but I’m still glad we had the nets. Although insects and spiders (!) were everywhere in the rainforest they were never really a problem. The most pesky bugs were the so-called “sweat bees.” Not a technical term, but if you’re sweating, these tiny insects will land on you and eat or drown in your sweat. But yes– without so many bugs to eat there would not nearly be as many birds in the tropics.


Our lodge was right on the shore of the Tambopata River. Here is a view of the first day we arrived. At the end of the week, this river rose and devoured the sandbar shown here. The Tambopata is something of a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon River and I got to swim in it almost every day! Climbing onto the muddy banks afterwords, I never got very clean, but it was definitely refreshing on some of the hot days we had.

Mot Mots and more

The bird life in Peru was astounding and sometimes overwhelming. The guidebook had at least ten pages full of hummingbird species, if not more. But flipping through the pages, you find out at they aren’t just “hummingbirds” persay; they have fantastical names like woodstars, emeralds, comets, racket-tails, sunbeams and sapphirewings. Our most common species that we caught in our mist nets was the Rufous-breasted Hermit. Our second most captured species was the Band-tailed Manakin, male is shown below.


Quite surprisingly, we caught around 2 dozen of these manakins but scarcely ever saw one flitting through the foliage. I swear I saw one once but it was just a glimmer of reddish-orange and it was gone. The males take around three years or more to grow their stunning plumage. The younger males and females are a duller green. This species forms leks, meaning that the males perform displays in groups in order to attract the attention of females. During one morning of banding, we caught about 3 males in the same net at the same time! So we thought they may have been in the midst of practicing their dance display.

Another popular species was the Blue-crowned Motmot. That’s me holding one in the second picture. Although motmots became a common sight around the station, they are just fantastic looking birds with amazing feathered rackets on their tails that they swing around like a clock pendulum.

Motmots were actually one of the biggest birds that we banded. Oh, of course except for this guy, a gorgeous Roadside Hawk.

We only caught one bird of prey, with the help of a carefully constructed hawk trap that involved a caged baby chick as a lure. Raul, Sam and Sam’s dad Jim worked on these traps for a whole day so we were all glad that their efforts were rewarded.


During my week in Peru, we were banding up to 20 birds a day and sometimes more. Here are a few more I caught on camera:

Chestnut-capped Puffbird


Buff-throated Saltator (Watch out this guy bites down hard!)

White-browed Antbird female

Chestnut-tailed Antbird female

Black-spotted Bare Eye

Barred Antshrike

Warbling Antbirds Pair


If you were wondering, yes there are a lot of different antbirds in Peru, and antshrikes and antthrushes, antvireos, antpittas, and more. And for every species of ant-eating bird in Peru, there are probably another billion ants. Leaf-cutter ants, spiny ants, bullet ants, army ants and more! Of course, those last few ants don’t sound very appetizing. Afterall, bullet ants possess the most painful sting of all stinging insects, which of course is where their nickname comes from. But it seems to be, if there’s an ant out there, there’s a bird that might just eat it. And if there’s an ant that knows how to defend itself, it might just end up in my shoe! Yes, this actually happened, not a bullet ant but a biting ant. Our group was warned that the rainforest was full of biting, stinging things and we might as well come to terms that something would happen to all of us eventually. But bee stings, chiggers, ant bites, bird bite, I managed to survive OK.

Lago Sandoval

And although we were all innoculated against Yellow Fever and many of us were taking preventative medicine for Malaria, some of us were not expecting to face the other side effect of travel, a hasty bout of the flu. About half of our group was struck down with the flu on the day we took a trip to Lago Sandoval. Midweek, we took a morning boat ride down the Madre de Dios river, viewing the coastal wildlife, and then took a 2 hour hike to the lodge we would be visiting for one night. Along the way, we saw gorgeous butterflies, the world’s smallest perching bird – the Short-tailed Pygmy Tyrant, tanagers, monkeys, and trogons.

Titi Monkey

My illustration of a Blue-crowned Trogon

Striolated Puffbird

Lago Sandoval

At night, a group of us took a canoe trip around the lake and spotted the eye-shines of caimans with our flashlights. We found that the lake was literally full of caimans, which are lizards similar to alligators, and some of them were over 6 feet long. Of course I discovered this after taking a nice long swim in the same lake. We took another canoe trip the next morning and found a look out post. From our vantage point, we saw flocks of macaws, a toucan-like bird called an Ivory-billed Aracari, and Toucans. We could hear the roar of howler monkeys echo over the lake as terns and kingfishers skimmed over the water. Lago Sandoval is also home to otters and big clumsy birds called Hoatzins. Unfortunately, my camera did not fare well at taking pictures aboard a canoe, so this was the best picture I got:


Hoatzins are bumbling, prehistoric birds that make breathy-hissing sounds. The baby hoatzins have an extra claw on their wings so that if they fall from the nest, they may clambor back up the tree. These birds appear so clumsy when they fly you can hardly believe they haven’t become extinct as a game bird. But their magical survival trait? They apparently taste horrible!

Sandoval was magnificent, but I think we were all glad to get back to CECCOT afterwards. The staff at CECCOT were amazingly hospitable and friendly and the food was incredible! Most of us volunteers did not speak the best of Spanish, but we did get to practice quite a bit. And one thing I did learn was that “lobos del agua” actually means otter, and not the literal translaton which would be “wolves of the water.”

So of course, I have probably just scraped the surface of what it’s like to spend ten days bird banding and birdwatching in the Peruvian jungle. I could probably keep going but I’m going to have to leave you with this taste for now. For more, visit my web album and the CECCOT homepage, Thank you so much to Daniel Froehlich and Ursula Valdez for coordinating this amazing project and research and thank you to the staff at CECCOT, Pepe & Teresa, Raul, and Julissa.

Bluish-fronted Jacamar

Daniel and Debbie processing the Roadside Hawk

Team Motmot-Debbie and I in our matching motmot shirts



Leave a Comment
  1. Shady Character / Mar 1 2009 1:57 pm

    I found your blog through the facebook group. What a fantastic experience in Peru! I got to experience some of South America and its birds back in January and am already wanting to go back. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m off to see your web album now.


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