Amphibians: Frogs in my Amazon kitchen.

Have just seen a program in which David Attenborough talks about a fungus, the chytrid fungus,that is decimating frog populations around the world. It is an awful thought that we could lose these fascinating creatures. Here is a diary piece from my last stay in the forest:
Frogs and toads frequented the kitchen. The photo shows one of my favourites. A large frog, orangey brown, with dark stripes. I hate cockroaches, the only insects I can’t bear, and these frogs ensured that they were not a problem, so were welcome living pest controllers. They moved easily about the wooden walls of the kitchen, securely attached by their sucker like feet and could frequently be found between the large serving spoons, forks, knives, colanders and saucepans that hung from hooks on the walls.
They do not stay in the kitchen entirely though. One day I was taking, carefully, the washing from the line, when something large and cold slapped onto my chest. I froze rigid thinking it was a snake, but the frog then jumped back onto the wall, leaving me shaking with fright. The eyes of these frogs are amazing. They are a dark blue with red flashes surrounded by a golden filigree edge, like precious jewels. Stunning.
There were tiny, brightly coloured frogs too. They do not like the walls of the lodge, instead preferring cool, dark, damp places. I found a particularly pretty one; tiny, pink and white and delicately patterned, in the toe of a Wellington boot. I went to pick this pretty frog up, but my hand was grabbed and pulled away. It was poisonous, as are most small frogs. I learnt on day one in the rainforest that many creatures like closed-in footwear. I was told never to put on a pair of shoes or boots without investigating the toes first with a stick and this I did religiously.


Astrocaryum Vulgare, my favourite tree.

A tree that means a lot to me is the Astrocaryum vulgare. It is a palm tree, the seeds of which produce a black wood. Indigenous people, unable to afford gold, used the black wood for marriage rings.
Christian missionaries wore them as a sign of solidarity with the poor. A symbol of a desire for equality, social justice and human rights.
I was given by friends both a solid black wood ring and an Amazon gold and black wood ring. The man who gave me the gold and black wood ring said the gold symbolised the richness of the country I came from and the black wood the forest he came from, forever entwined. I wear them everyday to remind me of the forest to which I am eternally bound.


Zebra-Heliconius Butterflies. Brazilian Amazon Butterfly.

Zebra-Heliconius Butterflies are one of the thousands of butterflies that fly through the forest every day.
They are nectar feeders, favouring Passiflora, but as can be seen they have a soft spot for water melon. I would cut them a large slice just so I could watch them.
The adult Zebra butterfly is toxic to potential predators ie. birds, reptiles and amphibians, so is able to wander through the forest at a leisurely pace.


Saffron Finches

Saffron Finch.

I spent many months in the Amazon Rainforest over a number of years. On occasion I spent weeks in my lodge completely alone. I befriended a couple of pairs of Saffron Finches, who kept me company like friendly neighbours.
The finches would visit every day, several times a day and call to me. If I was in a room out of sight the male would perch on a branch on the tree closest to the lodge and call until I came out. Then he would tweet, turning his head this way and that as I spoke to him. The male was yellow with a jaunty orange cap, his mate was a dull greenish brown.
One afternoon I heard the male calling and calling to me. When I came out, I was surprised to see the female beside him, as she usually preferred to peck on the ground while he tweeted with me. She had nesting material in her beak. I swear they brought it to show me.

I wrote a poem in their honour.


Katydid insects


Katydids. There are about two thousand species of katydids in the Amazon. They feed on flowers and fruit and are themselves a source of protein to many different kinds of animals.
Just read in Science News that Copiphora gorgonensis katydids have ears below their knees, which are smaller then a grain of rice. They have an eardrum on each leg. Its air pressure on these drums that produce vibrations, that are picked up by sensor cells which detect frequencies. They hear in a similar, but simpler way than humans. How fascinating is that.

Aracari, Chestnut-eared Aracari. Pteroglossus castanotis. Amazon Rainforest Bird.

Chestnut-eared Aracari. Scientific name: Pteroglossus castanotis

A raucous yell from a tree close to the lodge, always made me smile. It told me the Aracari was in town.
The Aracari looks like a smaller version of a toucan, with a huge black beak that looks heavy, but which is very light. It’s predominantly black body is relieved with a vibrant, custard yellow, breast, striped with a thick, scarlet band and across its cheeks is a chestnut patch, like a blush. But certainly not a blush of shyness. The Aracari is a charmer. Loud and cheeky, its one of my favourite birds.
The Aracari favours forest close to rivers, so was perfectly at home close to the lodge and made daily visits. It fed on fruit and insects and stole, when it got the chance, the eggs of other birds.


Twitchers, Bird-watchers

I always thought Twitchers were a born breed, a bit odd, now I am one of them. I came to bird watching late in life. Living in the Amazon Rainforest for any length of time you become a twitcher by default. Rare and unusual birds fall into your lap, or more likely, perch on a nearby tree daily.
I was told by Amazon rainforest guides that twitchers come complete with camouflage gear, heavy boots, expensive equipment and long lists of birds. I came to the task with pink or blue floral pyjamas, flip flops, and a little digital camera. And, I wouldn’t dream of having a list. Whatever I see is a blessing. I don’t creep up on the birds either. Instead I talk to them softly and greet them with delight.
In this way I have actually befriended birds. Saffron finches visited daily, as did Silver-beaked Tanagers, Anis, Yellow-Rumped Caciques and one of my favourites, a gorgeous Aracari. A Striated Heron, several Ringed Kingfishers and Wattle-necked Vultures shared the harbour side with me.
The pleasure I get from bird watching is to see the interaction between the birds, and between them and their environment. My guide friends tells me that once the twitchers have ticked off the bird and photographed it, they immediately want to go on to the next bird on their list. Not all of them, of course, but the guides found it difficult to understand what actual pleasure some got from the encounter. The habitat, habits, and characteristics of the bird held little interest for them.
Just read Bill Oddies new blog…with similar views.


Giant Centipedes

Last night watched Dominic Monaghan on Wild Things as he journeyed to Venezuela, in search of a Giant Centipede. He abseiled into vampire bat filled caves with an oxygen mask and travelled hundreds of miles on dusty roads in rusty vans in search of this creature.
I could have shown him them, over a nice cup of Brazilian coffee, while he relaxed in a rocking chair in my Amazon home, but then I suppose that doesn’t make good television. They often ripple across the floor boards or over the rafters in search if bats and vermin. If my friendly orange footed tarantula, Carmen, doesn’t get them first.