Exploring the Amazon with photographer Jessica Suarez

Exploring the Amazon with photographer Jessica Suarez, photo of Jessica SuarezThe morning is cool and a rainstorm seems inevitable today as clouds hang low over Villa Carmen Biological Station. Today is one of my last days as an artist-in-residence with Amazon Conservation and I’m anxious to retrieve my camera trap that I left a month ago in a dip in the trail on one of my favorite hikes. Trail nine is steep, gaining several hundred meters of elevation in under a kilometer. As I hike, macaws and parrots keep me company from tree tops, dropping fruit as they eat and chatter. As soon as I reach 800 meters I suddenly realize that I am hiking through clouds. This section of forest with its tall trees cloaked in mist is just magical. 

I make my way up to the small mirador and watch as waves of clouds move through the space obscuring and then revealing the bluish-green mountains and the confluence of rivers below. I spend time filming for my 360 video project, attaching the camera to trees hoping to relay the experience of this special scene. My primary project for my artist-in-residency is to pair 360 video with photos, camera trap images, audio and writing to re-create an immersive experience of what it’s like to be in the Amazon rainforest. As David Attenborough says, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no will care about what they have not experienced.” My hope is that this project will help others experience a bit of this amazing rainforest that has completely besotted me.

Exploring the Amazon with Jessica Suarez, Margay cat
Margay captured on a camera trap April 4, 2017, trail 9, Villa Carmen Biological Station.

As I sit and spend a few more moments absorbing the beauty of this place, a mixed flock of birds flit between branches above me. I start photographing them and identify stunning Paradise tanagers, and even a Masked tanager, a new bird for me! Finally, I wind my way down from the mirador to the dip to discover what wildlife my camera trap has seen over the past month. I can hardly wait to hike back to the station to see what images will emerge.

As I return to my cabin, the wind has picked up and thunder rumbles nearby. I quickly cover my backpack and pull out my rain jacket and as I descend the trail, the rain arrives refreshing and clean. Halfway down the trail I hear the familiar whimper of capuchin monkeys. One large fellow eyes me warily before disappearing all the while calling out to his troupe.

Later when I put the camera trap card into the computer, I am swept away with pictures of jaguars, margays, pumas, jagarundis, pacas, agoutis, opossums and giant armadillos. While I hope one day to see some of the animals in person, it is enough to know they are out there, walking these same trails I did, protected and safe. 

Andean bear researcher recounts visit to indigenous conservation reserve to track species

Andean_bear_researcher_recounts_visit_to_indigenous_conservation_reserve_to_track_species_Greetings from Peru amid the rainy season! My name is Flynn Vickowski and I am a Fulbright grantee studying the Spectacled, or Andean, bear, classified by the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable to extinction. The Spectacled bear is the only bear native to South America, is mainly herbivorous and has spectacle-like facial and chest markings that are unique to each bear. Main threats to the species include human-bear conflict (poaching), habitat fragmentation and lack of knowledge of distribution. Through the terrific help of ACA, I am working on capturing images of the bears to identify presence and habitat use in an area not previously researched. ACA aided me with establishing a connection with the indigenous Queros community of the Wachiperi tribe and the Queros welcomed me to do my research in their conservation concession located in the Amazon River Basin.

The Conservation Concession Haramba Queros Wachiperi extends over 6,975.99 hectares (~27 sq. mi, or 17,240 acres) and is situated between two of the most biodiverse protected areas in Peru, Manu National Park and Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. [ACA was a key partner in helping the indigenous community establish the concession]. Studies show bear presence in both areas thus the concession may serve as a biological corridor between the two that promotes movement and genetic flow.Oso bear sign

Camera traps are an excellent, non-invasive way to monitor wildlife. Over the course of three field trips in the fall, I explored the concession and looked for sign of bears such as footprints, claw marks on trees, bear trails, scat, food scraps and resting platforms in trees. I deployed a total of 12 cameras in possible bear habitat. Now I need to wait for the rain to stop so I can check the data collected.

On my final fall field trip, I replaced the memory cards from cameras deployed in previous field trips and got some previews of the magnificent wildlife in the concession. Although no bears were detected in those first two months, the cameras captured some photos of puma, armadillo, tapir, birds, anteater, paca, agouti, tamandua, deer and jaguar! 

Andean_bear_researcher_recounts_visit_to_indigenous_conservation_reserve_to_track_species__Jaguar.jpgAdditionally, I presented at the Queros monthly meeting in December and they were very engaged to see camera trap photos of the wildlife. The Queros expressed their continued desire to support my project and to work together to promote the concession so that more researchers will come to conduct studies.

Villa Carmen was my home from August to November between field trips and I feel so lucky to have gotten to know the wonderful staff. I feel welcome every time I return. It is a stunning atmosphere tucked away in the jungle with miles of trails for observing monkeys, birds or taking a swim in the river. I am looking forward to returning in March!

Check out a full recap of Flynn’s field trip and experiences in the Amazon at her blog: https://bearfootperu.wordpress.com/

Malia Obama visits Villa Carmen biological station in Peru

Malia Obama visits Villa Carmen biological station in PeruLast year, we had the honor of hosting former President Obama’s daughter Malia Obama at our Villa Carmen biological station in Peru. The trip had to be kept under wraps until the group returned to the U.S. for security reasons. She visited the station as part of a three-month gap year program with Where There Be Dragons to examine social movements and environmental conservation efforts in the mountains and jungles of Bolivia and Peru.

Several news outlets have since reported on the teenager’s trip to Latin America, including the New York Times.

ACA’s Third Birdathon Prepares to Take Flight

Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossopis ctanea) perched on a branch, ready for the Birdathon. (Credit: Glenn Bartley)

Birds at both Wayqecha and Villa Carmen are getting ready for their closeup. From October 1 to 11, 2014, a group of Wisconsin birders will have their binoculars at the ready to spot species like the giant hummingbird (“the Schwarzenegger of hummingbirds”), the cock-of-the-rock, the gray-breasted mountain toucan, or even the undulated tinamoubut how many will they see in total? That’s the question we all want to know! [Left: Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossopis ctanea) perched on a branch, ready for the Birdathon. Credit: Glenn Bartley]

The group will journey all the way from Wisconsin to southeastern Peru, along a high- to low-elevation route that includes multiple days at ACA’s Wayqecha and Villa Carmen Biological Stations. This area, located where the eastern slopes of the Andes meet the Amazonian lowlands, is one of the world’s most incredible biodiversity hotspots and hosts an exceptional array of unique and endangered bird species. Group leader and lifelong conservationist Craig Thompson has been leading Birdathons here since 2011.

Through this event, Craig and his group are also raising money for the conservation work at the core of ACA’s mission. Want to join in? You can make a per-species pledge, with a correct guess qualifying to win a copy of the Birds of Peru field guide. You can also make a fixed donation to ACA online or via check (make sure to note your donation as “Birdathon”). Thank you for your support and stay tuned for this year’s species total!

What Kinds of Habitat Will the Group See?

Gray Breasted Mountain ToucanThe landscape shifts dramatically between Wayqecha and Villa Carmen, which means the birds who live in each habitat zone will change, too. Driving between the stations, the elevation drops from 9,875 to 1,700 feet. The birders will pass through puna, cloud/elfin forest, cloud forest, lower montane forest and premontane rainforest in the span of a day.

These videos from Wayqecha show a taste of the bird diversity found at the station, which lies in the buffer zone of Manu National Park. Manu is a colossal protected area twice the size of Yellowstone and world-renowned for its off-the-charts biodiversity (it’s home to ten percent of the planet’s bird species!). As the birders make their descent toward Villa Carmen, they will travel along the Manu Road. 

Hoatzin Bird

According to Craig, the gray-breasted mountain toucan (Left: Andigena hypoglauca) is one of the birding stars at Wayqecha. Other favorites to spot at the station include the golden-headed quetzel, and more than 25 species of tanagers. (Photo credit: Rick Stanley)

Did you know that that biological station is one of the most concentrated sites for viewing or studying bird diversity in the world? There are over 500 species known in its immediate area; all of North America has just north of 700 known bird species. The hoatzin (right) (Opisthocomus hoazin) is one of Craig’s star birds to see at Villa Carmen. (Photo credit: Daniel Huaman)

Villa Carmen celebrates 3 years of conservation research!

People on boatToday ACA’s Villa Carmen Biological Station & Reserve celebrates its third birthday! In 2012 alone, Villa Carmen welcomed over 800 researchers, students, government officials, conservationists, volunteers, and birders, while steadily enhancing facilities to include a new lab and dorm space, an extensive trail network, organic gardens, and more.

Villa Carmen rounds out ACA’s network of three biological stations, which are strategically positioned to span the vast array of unique ecosystems from the high Andean cloud forest to the lowland Amazon basin.

In just three years, Villa Carmen has established itself as a bustling hub for scientists and conservationists. Over 150 researchers have visited the station from institutions around the world, cataloguing more than 590 species of plants and animals, and leading 38 research projects to date, studying everything from native fish and ants, to woolly monkeys and spectacled bears. Villa Carmen has also hosted numerous field courses on biodiversity, climate change, conservation, and culture, such as this group from the University of Minnesota (right).

Villa Carmen is also a living laboratory for best practices in sustainable agriculture, and shares lessons learned with residents from surrounding communities. Villa Carmen grows its own local organic crops, while researchers study ways to enhance soil fertility using biochar. Last year, Villa Carmen hosted an international workshop on sustainable agriculture where world experts and local Amazonian farmers shared techniques and experiences.

Motion-Sensing Cameras Capture Elusive Wildlife

Jaguar on motion sensing camerasVilla Carmen’s camera traps photograph a diverse array of wildlife, allowing researchers to catch a glimpse of many rare and endangered species in their natural habitat, including:

  • 10 individual jaguars, including 2 pregnant females
  • A female giant armadillo with her pup
  • Lowland species including tapirs, giant anteaters, short-eared dogs, and curassows
  • Rare birds like the white-cheeked tody tyrant, rufous-vented ground cuckoo, and grey-bellied hawk
  • 28 different species in total so far!

Innovations in Biochar

Research at Villa Carmen has focused on biochar, a form of charcoal made by cooking plant biomass under reduced oxygen levels, producing a porous surface ideal for the growth of beneficial soil fungi and bacteria. When introduced to tropical soils, biochar not only sequesters carbon, it also boosts plant yields by as much as 40%, which reduces deforestation and carbon emissions, all while making use of the abundant but underutilized resource of fast growing bamboo.