Funded by the Duttenhaver Fund
Earthwatch Institute in Peru
Eight students and four adult mentors were the lucky participants in a two-week expedition to the Peruvian Amazon in July 2010 as part of the Duttenhaver Conservation and Field Study Program generously sponsored by the Duttenhaver Fund. The student-mentor team assisted scientists with ongoing studies examining the ecology and conservation of macaws in the Tambopata Natural Reserve. In addition to gathering scientific data, they also helped build, repair, and install artificial nest boxes designed to increase the birds’ nesting success.
This is the third consecutive year that the Duttenhaver Fund has sponsored the field study program. The gift was inspired by the donor’s belief in the positive impact of international travel and study and matched the Zoo’s interest in developing field opportunities for students evaluating a future in biological science.
Read on to learn about their experiences…
Daniella Camarillo, L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
It is difficult to express in words the gratitude I feel to have been able to experience the most amazing trip of my life! Since I received the notification saying that I had been accepted to join a group of seven students and four adults to go on an extraordinary journey to Peru to study the macaws of the Peruvian Amazon, I have been excited to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime trip! I just couldn’t believe that something this amazing would happen. I knew that this trip would completely change my life, especially during the pre-expedition dinner when we all had the opportunity to meet the generous and kind donor of this unique trip, Mrs. Duttenhaver. I truly appreciate all that she has done for us, and I know that she will be pleased to know that all of us will be sharing our priceless experiences with our community to inspire others to dip into the waters of outdoor adventure with an important scientific purpose of conservation of endangered species. Thank you!
Now, to start off, the full day of traveling to reach the Research Center was the most exhausting part of the trip, but also the time that I felt the team started bonding. We all were provided the opportunity to find each other’s likes and dislikes and respect each other’s ways, which is very important if we were going to be working together as a team. Next, I just could not get enough of the “Discovery Channel” look of the forest as I peered down at the bright and dark green leaves blending in with the moist soil of the Peruvian Amazon. It took my breath away! I could only imagine the life that exists within a forest rich with a variety of exotic animals and plants. The diverse wildlife ready to be seen through my young eyes seemed so tantalizing as I sat in the airplane seat. Right then and there, I no longer thought about the many hours of waiting and anticipation in the airports or the constant struggle to keep my suitcases together. I only thought of the amazing adventures I would have in such a wonderful, wild, untamed forest in the Peruvian Amazon. Once I stepped off that plane, I felt a warm gust of humid air welcoming me to the mysterious country of Peru.
On the last day, I woke up to a sunny and clear morning as I packed my bags to go back home. I really enjoyed this trip not only because it was filled with scientific adventures, but also because it came with the package of bonding time with the kids and guides, eating food that was delicious, listening to music and sharing stories while learning about the Peruvian culture, working at the clay lick site, climbing ropes to access macaw nests, slashing through the jungle with a machete, and being bitten by mosquitoes many times. As I was in the boat, gong back to Refugio Amazonas, chewing gum and listening to the water splashing against the sides of the boat, I tried capturing and saving the natural beauty of the Peruvian landscape to be imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. I will truly NEVER forget this priceless trip!
Alex Chen, L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
All the students and mentors went to Peru for three different reasons: large bugs, ice cold showers, or waking up at 4 a.m. But this wasn’t all we got! We were pleased when, upon arrival to Tambopata Research Center (TRC), we were greeted by a cold front that no one, not even the locals, expected. Geared up for intense humidity and heat, the chills down our spine were sent not only by the 8 degree Celsius weather we attempted to fend off with layers and blankets, but also the spook of the forest surroundings at night. Even with all these unforgettable experiences, we had to be grateful for the opportunity and quickly took responsibility in accomplishing what we had traveled so far for.
We made up down time by working on indoor activities, and on days it was “lightly raining” some of us made our way into the forest for yet another hike. Physically, I worked together with others building a macaw nest box, hiking multiple kilometers to do trail markings, climbed trees, and even wrestled! Mentally, I learned to make use of what is around you.
The latter lesson was learned one day when I was in the forest fixing trail markers with guides Daphne and Johny. We realized that we didn’t bring a pair of scissors to cut the old string. So we made use of a spiny plant—we broke off a spike and used that to cut away at the yarn!
At the beginning of the trip, the tiniest spider freaked me out, but by the end, I had adapted to the point where bugs the size of my thumb couldn’t even make me flinch.
All of us grew in many other ways during the trip. We all gained some muscle, ate more than we ever had before, and got to get up close and personal with the nature that presented itself to us while in Peru. Each of the members of the team put in so much effort to give their own personal strengths to the team: Sydney, leadership; Lydia, culinary; Patrick, intelligence and dedication (and everyone else too!).
From waking up when it was still dark to make cinnamon rolls for the staff, to staying up late to go on a night hike or bond with the other students, I tried to make the most of every experience I could. I took some risks, like bringing a candle into the cold showers for warmth, and took advantage of the opportunities presented, like going to the clay lick early one morning though I was sick with a fever.
Everyone says that the clay lick was the reason we all went to Peru, but I’ll be the one to admit it—it looks just like a cliff. But that’s exactly it. It’s not the clay lick itself that draws people—tourists, scientists, and students alike—to Peru. We go to Peru to see the macaws and parrots that fill the clay lick. And just like the clay lick, it was the people that made our expedition amazing; the surroundings just accented their qualities and made the whole experience exciting.
Patrick Sysiong, L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
There is nothing quite like starting your morning with the sight of over 10 different species of birds together in one area. It feels as if you’re watching the World of Birds Show, but multiplied by 100—and more magical. Within several minutes of your arrival at the colpa—the largest clay lick in the world—chirps and squawks signal the arrival of parrots and macaws. Within 20 minutes, the colpa becomes bustling with activity. Researchers busily record the birds’ arrival times and activities. This was a typical day at the colpa, one of the many duties at the Tambopata Research Center.
South America has the highest biodiversity in its fauna, flora, and environment; Peru was certainly no exception. Everywhere you look, whether on the trails, around the lodges, or on the boat, there’s always something bizarre or spectacular; whether it be a tayra running along the edge of the forest or a “chico” macaw perched within the lodge. Rain or shine, there was never a dull moment. Every person had their own daily duty, a specific research task assigned to them, to do in the morning or afternoon. These duties consisted of observing the birds on the clay lick or checking up on macaw nests hanging on enormous ironwood trees. During the breaks in between, there was always a nature walk given by one of our guides, Richard or Ruben.
After a long day of work, some of the volunteers would just sleep for a while on the comfortable hammocks at the lodge. To end the day, there would usually be a presentation by Daphne, the co-manager of the Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon project, or another researcher at the TRC. The presentations would help us get a better understanding of the macaw project and what the researchers, like lead scientist Dr. Donald Brightsmith, would do out in the field. Then it would be time to hit the sack, with the calls of nature lulling everyone to sleep.
My favorite task was going out to the colpa to count the different species of psittacids that landed on the clay lick. The typical colpa day would start off with waking up to a blistering cold morning at 4:30 am. At 5, we would start our journey from the TRC to the boat that would take us to the colpa. We would reach the colpa start setting up the scopes at around 5:30. My favorite moment is when the parrots and macaws start flocking to the clay lick in numbers. Once the first psittacids were on the colpa, we began to count the numerous birds on the lick.
Being at the colpa taught me to be more aware of my surroundings, because researchers have to listen closely for certain parrot calls to record their arrivals. One day, I hope to return to the TRC as a volunteer. I would like to thank Mrs. Duttenhaver for allowing me this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Dianne Quiroz, Zoo Magnet School Student
In one way, I suppose that this “life-changing experience” is just one of many that I will come across during the course of my life. But to take it for granted as just one in the medley that will come, would be as foolish as knowingly cutting a hole in the cup that I am about to drink from. And for that reason, I can only see myself complaining about how life is so unfair for having to make the trip so short, for bringing an end to such a great experience.
All I have now is the recollection of what I did during those 14 days of bliss. The beginning and end were almost exactly the same—two long flights and an eight-hour layover in Lima. There go two full days. Now to Refugio Amazonas, which was just a rest stop in between the town of Puerto Maldonado and our ultimate destination, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). That was two full days as well. All that is left is ten days at TRC, which was the whole point of the expedition.
Day 1: We went to the clay lick, waking up at four in the morning to be there when the macaws, parrots, and other wildlife first arrived. To be there as the sun rises, silence broken by the calls of birds flying overhead is indescribable. And there goes the most prominent day of the expedition. The rest I can’t recall by number, only by a series of experiences and emotions fluctuating with time.
Nature walks, conversations with the guides and staff, late nights with the other students, nest building, and other interactions dominated most of our stay at TRC. And with such events came the building of bonds set for lifetimes among students and mentors and guides and staff. Finally it came time to say goodbye, the mood heavy with feelings of friendship and a genuine sadness; it was over. The boat rides, the hiking, the hammering nails, the surprising wildlife visits of the tayra and chicos (macaws that had been handraised at the TRC and still return years later), occupying space only in my memories.
From the exotic and truly amazing I am brought back to the predictable state of my life, enjoying the last few days of summer before I head to college. Wallowing in the wish of extending my time in Peru is beside the point; instead I accept that I am back. And though still in awe of what has happened, I set everything aside, only for reference, and continue with my life. Yet on sudden impulse questions of the sort “Will I really not see these people again?” pop up in my head and those fourteen days come back. They create an overcoming sense of change in my life, serving as a reminder of that which I am capable of—and I’m sure that the memories from this trip will always be there, influencing the decisions I make.
Melinda Grodske, Zoo Magnet School Student
The world is full of amazing and beautiful places, and I had the opportunity to visit one of them, along with 11 other lucky friends. We went to Peru from July 10 through July 24 to the eco-tourism lodges along the Tambopata River. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I hope to go back very soon. I also encourage anyone with a love of travel and adventure to go and experience the beautiful rainforest. I was lucky to be chosen by for this trip, which is sponsored by a Linda Duttenhaver, a wonderful woman who wants to spread the love of nature to students like me.
We had a very long and exhausting trip to get to our destination, but it was totally worth it. We came into the Puerto Maldonado airport after an 8-hour flight and an 8-hour layover. Then we went on an hour-long bus ride, and after a three-hour boat trip we arrived at Refugio Amazonas, the first lodge we stayed at. The lodge was a beautiful sight to behold after a hot and tiring walk through the darkening jungle. The next day we toured a local farm, tasting fresh fruits straight off the trees. Then we continued for another 6 hours on the boat to the lodge we would stay at for the remainder of our trip—Tambopata Research Center. This lodge is the closest one to the clay lick, which is at the center of an ongoing research study involving macaws.
Our group helped the researchers with many projects. We collected data at the clay lick, went on foraging walks and census walks, and performed trail maintenance. Much of our time was spent in the lodge because of a cold front that made it rain for 5 days. A big lesson I learned is to be prepared for anything. Some of our team members did not bring cold weather clothes, because we were in the topics.
Some other fun activities we participated in were nest hanging, rappelling, nest box building, and data entry. In our free time, we gave each other temporary tattoos with ink made from the huito fruit. Our guides were amazing! They were constantly hanging out with us, taking us on long jungle hikes, teaching us to climb trees or just chilling in the hammocks telling ghost stories.
The staff was always very professional and kind. The food was amazing!!! I would go back just to be fed like a god again. I had the most amazing time, and I am sure that all the other team members were as sad to leave as I was. I think my favorite part of the trip was all of us being together and giving each other tattoos. Those times we all seemed to be calm, relaxed, and just enjoying our time together. I cannot wait to go back some day, but until then I will have my memories and pictures to keep with me for forever.
Edgar Hernandez, Zoo Magnet School Student
A DAY IN THE LIFE for me in Peru was so surreal. Everything about it seemed straight out of a book where everything is perfect. Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat was just something that really touches you. Who knew that a place so peaceful and green could ever exist? Living in L.A., it’s hard to imagine. The staff at the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) were so nice to us that sometimes I would wonder, are these people real? They didn’t even know us, and from the first day we arrived, they made us feel like family.
Some of the places that they took us to were just out of this world. For example they brought us to a canopy tower that’s over 100 feet tall. We climbed and climbed and once we got to the top, all we saw were huge trees as far as the eye could see. They also brought us to the clay lick—or as the Peruvians call it the “Colpa”—and we sat there in the dark waiting for the sun and the birds to come out. Once the sun rose, a couple hundred macaws and parrots soared in the air as one, doing their dance before they actually landed and began eating the clay. On the second to last day, they brought us to a lake where we maneuvered a boat with paddles. We got to see hoatzins that were nesting on the lake shore, and the water was filled with piranhas.
A day in the life in Peru wasn’t easy, but it didn’t matter because we knew that even though the work was hard the reward was greater. A regular day at TRC meant being up and ready by 4:30 in the morning, and the day didn’t end until 9:00 at night. We learned so many things, for example, how to climb trees using the “jumars,” measure soil compaction, build macaw nests, perform nest maintenance, and do clay lick observations. The first step was learning to tell apart the different species of macaws and parrots.
Being in Peru was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I learned a lot in and I made a lot of memories that I will never forget. I made several new friends there, like Johnny, Richard, Daphne, Ruben, Sophia, Vanessa, and Pachanga. To my Prew Crew: You guys are like family to me now. We went through a lot together like the cold front where the weather was 8 degrees Celsius, to use just enjoying the beauty of a country named Peru.
Sydney Macapagal, L.A. Zoo Student Volunteer
Participating in a field study program in Peru almost feels like a dream. Though weeks have passed since the expedition ended, it’s still hard for me to believe that I was in the Amazon helping researchers with the Macaw Project. I mean, did I really stay in a lodge that only had three walls, opening right to the rainforest? And help build large wooden nest boxes for the researchers to study macaw chicks? And witness the biodiversity that the rainforest has to offer through my own eyes? Those experiences almost sound like fiction, but they were all very real. This expedition in Peru gave me more than a chance to get away for the summer—it allowed me to learn and grow in the world’s greatest classroom.
This being my last summer before college, participating in this expedition was the perfect transition between childhood and adulthood. I was away from home, yet not completely on my own. I was responsible for waking myself up in time for the day’s activities, but I wouldn’t be left behind in case I didn’t wake up. I learned to use tools and other handy-man skills, but I didn’t have to build my own house. As the trip progressed, I was even able to assert some independence and stay in the darkening Amazon forest by myself to measure the soil compaction of a trail. There was so much preparation for my future in those two weeks, and though life at home has taught me many lessons, I don’t think I could have had that hands-on experience at home.
Though I left my family for two weeks, I gained another: the Peru Crew. At the pre-expedition dinner, we were a quiet bunch of students who had met only a few times previously; however, the countless meals, hikes, showers, and late-night talks in candlelight brought us closer, so much so that we now know each other’s deepest secrets, pet peeves, and even bathroom schedules. We went from that quiet bunch to an almost rowdy group that wrestled, played, and danced to music through portable speakers—and were often told to lower our voices at night. Truthfully, getting to know the rest of the crew, and simply hanging out with them on lazy breaks in orange hammocks was my favorite part of the trip, and though we will all soon be separated by miles and miles as we head off to college, I’m sure that we will keep in touch and reminisce about all of the fun that we had in Peru.
This expedition did more than change my life. It allowed me to grow up before I head off to college, gave me close friends who I feel like I’ve known forever, and even gave me memories that most people can only experience through the television. And though all of these experiences feel still like a dream, it is a dream that I will remember and cherish forever.