We'd been at El Dorado for nearly 24 hours, when (after a nice lunch of fish, rice, and beans) we began the journey back to the village Manco Capac and from there, back aboard El Delfin.
We'd had a good morning of birding around El Dorado, followed by a short presentation on the conservation initiatives the local villagers were putting in place. The hope is that by managing the resources better other things will follow, such as a reduction in slash-and-burn subsistence farming and hunting, and eventually, more ecotourism. Scanning the guest book at the El Dorado field station I could see that a variety of groups had passed through, including some nature documentary crews and film crews scouting for jungle locations for shooting, as well as a few adventure nature tour groups.
We said our thank yous and goodbyes and boarded the dugouts for the trip back. Lucky for us the rains of the night before had raised the water level, so we did not run aground nearly as much as we had on the trip out.
It was just as we were leaving the El Dorado landing that I had a moment of panic. Riding in a dugout is a matter of balance. When someone shifts or tips the dugout a bit while boarding, you have to be ready to shift your weight to the other side to compensate. My Canon 30D camera with its 300mm lens was sitting on my lap. As I shifted to help re-balance the dugout, it tumbled, LCD-screen first into the muddy bottom of the boat. I snatched it up and frantically began wiping. Gritty mud caked every surface and seeped into every crack. I spent the next hour just picking out little bits of now completely dried mud. Then I realized there was nothing more I could do. So I said a little prayer to the digital camera gods that it would be OK. And I got back to birding and taking pictures (which seemed fine...).
Before long, we were off the lake proper and onto the small river that feeds it. With the banks closer, we got some good looks (and shots) at birds. This area must be the horned screamer capital of the world--we saw at least 24 of these huge birds along the way back.
At the end of the waterborne portion of the return trip, we climbed up a muddy bank to the ranger station. This station is at the end of the trail leading back to Manco Capac--so we knew we had the eight-mile walk ahead of us--and it was the heat of the day once again. A confab of teenagers from Manco were there to carry our bags, scopes, and other gear. They stood shyly off to one side of the landing, smiling and making comments to one another. I am sure we looked pretty ragged, sun-burned, and hot. We chugged some water, grabbed a sandwich made for us by the cooks at the El Dorado field station, and headed across the clearing to the trail head.
Once inside the jungle, the sun no longer held us in its fiery fingers. I zipped open the legs on my pants and wet down a doo-rag for my head, all in an attempt to keep the heat and humidity at bay. Being in motion helped. Otherwise I could have easily seen how one might go stir-crazy with the close air, the insect noise, and the imposing deep green of the jungle on all sides.
The birds must have watched us pass, silently enjoying their siestas. But their absence did not last long.
Our group was strung out over a mile or two of trail. The birders stopping often to listen or look. The non-birders humped it for Manco, where we were told we would be able to purchase a cold beer. Chris Harbard and I told jokes back and forth as we walked, which helped the miles pass more easily. We caught up with Pepe Alvarez just in time for him to hear a manakin calling. It was a male wire-tailed manakin and it was a stunner! I crept within 30 feet of it as it sat, looking around slowly. It looked like a tiny feathered piece of candy stuck on a vine against the green jungle backdrop.
A bit farther on we encountered a troop of tamarins--saddle-backed tamarins to be exact. They jumped from tree to tree like hyper jungle gnomes--very catlike in their movements, but monkey like in their appearance. Weird.
Pieces of the trail began looking familiar, and like trail horses who can smell the barn long before they see it, we picked up our pace, stopping only for really special birds. And here, all of a sudden, was a bird song that stopped Pepe in his tracks: A black-spotted bare-eye was calling from a clearing just off the path. We carefully stepped into the underbrush and down a bank. The bird was close! There! Movement! There it is!
Not everyone got to see it and my look at this very shy creature was only about six seconds long. But long enough. It's related to the antbirds and antthrushes and true to its name, it has bare skin all around its huge eyes. Pink skin on a black head surrounding a red eye. In the deep shadows of the ground in the rainforest, where this critter lives, its coloration helps it blend in perfectly--unlike the orange sherbet colors of the manakin we'd seen a few hours earlier. Wish I'd gotten a picture of the bare-eye but I was not quick enough.
At long last, we could smell the wood smoke from Manco. And distant dog barks. At long last we came to the end of the jungle trail and stepped back into the brilliant sunlight on the edge of the village. We stagger-strode across the futból pitch and found the main drag--a cement sidewalk that led us to the center of the village. There, a blue building beckoned to us like the mermaid calls to the lonely sailors--cerveza fria amigos!
A case of large bottles of beer was produced, some small jam jars, and a bottle opener...I'm not sure a beer every was more appreciated by yours truly.
I'll leave you here for now. Tomorrow we'll finish up our cervezas and head back to El Delfin. We've still got a mile or so to walk to get to the river...