Wildlife Watching on the Amazon River

As we travel through one of the small rivers that feeds the Amazon our guides point out animals that are so far up in the trees, or so well camouflaged that it takes me ages to see what they are pointing at.

Suddenly the skiff driver cuts the engine and our guide signals to us all to be quiet. In the trees above us is a monkey making its way down a branch and towards a weaver bird’s nest. The monkey grabs the elaborately woven nest, which hangs down below the branches, and begins to pull it up. When it finally gets to the bottom of the nest it carefully reaches inside and steals one of the eggs.

Weaver birds weave one nest for the entire colony and each nest has different chambers inside it. Each chamber is usually ten to 15 centimetres wide and there can be between five birds and 100 individuals nesting chambers in a single nest, providing a home for between ten and 400 birds.

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We hear a splash and a barracuda jumps into the skiff. It flops about on the floor and our guide tells us to lift our feet as he tries to catch it. He gets a firm grasp of it and slowly prises its mouth open, showing us why having this fish near bare feet is not a good idea.

This small fish has a set of ferocious fang-like teeth and they have a reputation as fierce predators, although they rarely attack humans. This sabre tusk barracuda can grow to almost one metre long and will feed on any fish that can fit into their mouths. Their teeth extend from the bottom of their mouth upwards and can grow to almost three centimetres long. Luckily this fish is quite small and our guide tosses it back into the river, unharmed.

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Soon we reach a small lake, where we see vultures standing on floating logs. American black vultures can be found in the Amazon rainforest, South America and North America and have a wingspan of one and half metres. They are scavengers and feed on carrion, but will also eat eggs and newborn animals. In populated areas they feed at garbage dumps. If frightened while on the ground the black vulture will vomit anything it has just eaten in order to reduce its weight for a quicker take-off.

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Nearby is a group of horned screamers. These peculiar looking birds are also known as donkey birds, due to the donkey-like sounds that they make. The local saying is that this bird is five animals in one – it walks like a duck, fights like a vulture, flies like a turkey, sounds like a donkey and tastes like chicken. These large birds can weigh over three kilograms and their long toes allow them to walk on floating vegetation and water lettuce.

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A pod of tucuxi dolphins swim past. These freshwater dolphins resemble the bottle nose dolphin, although they are slightly smaller, measuring between 130 to 180 centimetres. Like other dolphins they communicate by using a variety of clicks and whistles to advise others of nearby danger, a desire to mate, the location of food or a number of other things. They are very sociable and are known to frequently and openly approach humans.

High up in the branches our guide spots a male three-toed sloth. Our guide whistles, mimicking a bird, and the sloth very slowly turns around towards us (their extra neck vertebrae allows them to turn their heads by about two hundred and seventy degrees). The sloth is the world’s slowest animal and it is so sedentary that algae browns on its furry coat. Sloths sleep between fifteen and twenty hours a day and eat leaves that are intoxicating and difficult to digest, meaning that they only need to come down from the trees once a week to urinate and defecate. When on land their back legs are very weak and their long claws are a hindrance. They dig their claws into the ground and use their strong front legs to pull themselves along the ground. Once their have urinated and defecated they will bury it to hide their trace from predators and return to the treetops.

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As the sun begins to set a troop of squirrel monkeys travel through the branches above us. These small, new world monkeys, are very social and move in troops, often made up of around 40 individuals but that could contain as many as 500. They are excellent at climbing and leaping between the branches, yet their tails are not prehensile and are used to help them balance.

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