Small forest river, Corcovado Nat'l Park, Costa Rica.

Swimming in rainforest rivers

Our species has first evolved along tropical river banks - we still have a lot of adaptations for swimming and diving. For some reason, in our time most people think of tropical rivers as a place to be infected by parasites or be eaten by crocodiles, anacondas, cannibals... you name it. Traveling in a rainforest, I discovered (for myself - some people had already done it before), that swimming in rainforest rivers is a comfortable and relatively safe way of getting around, and one of the best ways of seeing wildlife.

wolf wolf wolf
Maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus ), Parque Nacional Rio Pilcomayo, Paraguay.
moth moth Alas, it's not the best way to take photos, even with a waterproof camera. moth moth
Geometrid moth, Parque Nacional Calilegua, Argentina. Butterflies, Parque Nacional Calilegua, Argentina.
Baird's, or Central American, tapir (Tapirus bairdii), Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.
Brazilian tapir
(Tapirus terrestris),
Rio Alto Manu,
I've often tried this way of travelling on Rio Manu, Peru. It flows through the World's most diverse nature reserve, it isn't too swift, nor too slow, it's usually cool in daylight hours and warm at night. What is even better, it meanders so much that in some places you can drift downstream for miles and then come back by foot in half an hour. You can also swim from one ranger station to another, or arrange a boat to pick you up. You can stay in the water for hours and still feel comfortable. ibis
Scarlet ibis
(Eudocimus ruber), Chechereviche,
agouti agouti agouti
Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), Finca Ecologica, Costa Rica.
Hawk Buteogallus
at nest,
Corcovado, Costa Rica.
The main advantage of this method is that only your head is above the water, so the wildlife doesn't realize you are human, and pays little or no attention to you. From the river, you can see animals which are normally extremely difficult to get a glimpse of: tapirs, ocelots, bush dogs, harpy eagles, and jaguars. Once I saw three jaguars in one day! Well, it was the first day of the rainy season, and all wildlife was on the move, but you can always count on excellent sightings. kite
Kite Elanoides
, Cerro de la
Muerte, Costa Rica.
macaw macaw macaw
macaw Scarlet macaws (Ara macaw) playing in the wind, Corcovado, Costa Rica.macaw macaw
Fighting amazons (Amazona
), Corcovado, Costa Rica.
In the Upper Amazon and other lowlands, it is a good idea to ask local people about locations of colpas on river banks. Colpas are mineral deposits often visited by wildlife. In Manu area, there are two world-famous colpas de guacamayos, visited daily by huge flocks of macaws and smaller parrots. Costa Rica's Corcovado Nat'l Park also has colpas, but few people know about them. birds
Fighting amazons (Amazona
), Corcovado, Costa Rica.
monkey monkey mothquail quail
Central American spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi),
Corcovado, Costa Rica.
Urania leilus moth,
La Selva, Costa Rica.
Black-breasted wood quail (Odontoporus
), Braulio Carillo Nat'l Park, Costa Rica.
Red brockett deer (Mazama americana), Manu.
Other colpas are visited (mostly at night) by gallinaceous birds (for pebbles, I think), ungulates, larger rodents, monkeys, butterflies and moths. The deer on the photo to the left was photographed on such a colpa from a tree. guan
Black guan (Pipile unicolor),
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Common visitors of colpas in Manu, left to right: red-billed parrot (Pionus sordidus), blue-and-yellow macaw (A. ararauna), military macaw (A. militaris), scarlet macaw (A. macao).
Groove-billed toucanet
), Rancho
Grande, Venezuela.
It's a good idea is to create bait stations along the river banks. Fruit and seeds placed in traditional bird feeders will attract all kinds of birds; raw meat is good for birds of prey; same meat hanging on a low branch would lure carnivores; a pile of grain would get you good views of rodents. You can also try to attract ungulates to river banks if you have enough salt or fruit. After making bait stations, you can use them for weeks, swimming by and watching your guests. bird
Rufous-tailed jacamar
(Galbula ruficauda),
Costa Rica.
bird bird bird
bird bird bird
bird Tanagers and honeycreepers are usually the most colorful visitors to Neotropic bird feeders. Upper row: Ramphocelus passerinii (males and females); second row - male R. sanguinolenta with male Chlorophanes spiza (left), female Ch. spiza (center), Tangara larvata with Piranga flava (right); third row: male Cyanerpes cyaneus with thrush Turdus grayi (left) and with Thraupis palmorum (right), bottom row, left to right: Chlorospingus canigularis, Th. episcopus, P. flava, P. rubra. Arenal Observatory, Costa Rica. bird
bird birdbird bird
Groove-billed toucanet
), Rancho
Grande, Venezuela.
Rare pampas deer
), Chaco
Nat'l Park, Argentina
This method worked well in savannas and dry forests along Uruguay and Parana rivers. Once I observed 11 species of birds and 3 species of mammals feeding on a pile of fruit together. mara
Mara (Dolichotis
), a large
hare-like rodent of
Pantanal, Brazil
Open palm savanna of
El Palmar Nat'l Park, Argentina - a great place
to look for wildlife.
Agouti D. fuliginosa,
Nest of lesser hornero
(Furnarius minor),
Jatun Sacha, Ecuador.
Greater kiskadee
(Pitangus sulphuratus),
Arenal Observatory, Costa Rica.
Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochoerus),
Pantanal, Brazil.
Gray mazama deer (M.
), Manu.
Anoura geoffroyi bat,
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Glossophaga leachi
bat, Monteverde.
Hummingbird feeders attract not just birds, but also mammals and insects, especially at night. bird
Saturnid moth,
La Selva, Costa Rica.
G. soricina bat,
bird bird bird bird
Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola),
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Yellow-throated euphonia (Euphonia hirundinacea),
Arenal Observatory, Costa Rica.
Green-fronted lancebill
(Doryfera ludovicae),
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, not all species of hummingbirds can be attracted to feeders. Some, like lancebills and swordbills (Ensifera), can't use them because of bill shape. Others, like hermits (Phaethornis), prefer to stay in deep forest. Small species are often chased away from feeders by larger ones. To see them all, you still have to hike/swim into the forest, looking for flowering trees and shrubs. bird
Green-fronted lancebill
(Doryfera ludovicae),
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
bird bird birdbird bird
bird bird bird bird bird
bird bird Feeder-visiting hummingbirds of Central America, upper row, left to right: Campylopterus hemileucurus (3 photos), C. cuvierii, Heliodoxa jacula; second row - H. jacula (2 photos), Chlorostilbon mellisugus, Elvira cupreiceps, Florisuga mellivora; third row - Colibri thalassinus (2 photos), Lampornis castaneiventris (2 photos); bottom row - L. castaneiventris (2 photos), Calliphlox bryantae ( 2 photos), C. thalassinus. Monteverde, Costa Rica. bird bird
bird bird bird bird bird
Rufous-tailed jacamar
(Galbula ruficauda),
Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Oxbow lakes are of special interest. Their flora and fauna are completely different from what you normally find in rivers. Besides, water is often transparent there, making oxbow lakes (called cochas in Western Amazon) excellent sites for snorkeling. Giant otters, hoatzins , and many beautiful wading birds can be found here, along with many small "aquarium" fishes. otter
Giant otter (Pteronura
), Manu
Nat'l Park, Peru.
Cocha Otorongo (Jaguar Lake), Manu.
Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoatzin), Cocha Cashi, Manu.
Oxbow lake, Chaco Nat. Park, Argentina.
Water lily (Nymphaea),
Tortuguero, Costa Rica.
The immense system of fresh- and saltwater channels of Mosquito Coast (Caribbean side of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras) is another type of landscape best explored by swimming. Avoid "touristic" channels, and don't get too close to shore at night - some local mosquitoes are carrying malaria. Don't be scared by giant tarpons (Megalops atlanticus) splashing around - they are harmless. flower
Passiflora flower,
Corcovado, Costa Rica.
Beautiful channels of Mosquito Coast can be followed for hundreds of miles.
Honduran white bat (Ectophylla album) is the
only bat endemic to Central America. It is the
size of a ping pong ball, with snow-white fur
and golden-yellow wings, ears, and nose.
Families of these bats spend days in tents made
of banana or Heliconia leaves.
Mosquito Coast is also a great place to search for bat tents. Look for folded or strangely hanging leaves of bananas, heliconias and palms along forest trails and waterways. Of about six tent-making species in the area, white bat is the smallest, the cutest, and the most difficult to find.bats
Sunlight coming through the leaf makes their
white fur look green. Finding such tents in the
rainforest isn't easy, but once found, the bats can
sometimes be petted or even hand-fed. Other
tent-making bat species are much less tame.
La Selva, Costa Rica.
bird bird bird
Fiery-billed aracaris (Pteroglossus frantzii), Corcovado, Costa Rica.
Blooming seiba (Seiba
), Manu Nat'l
Park, Peru.
Flowering and fruiting trees always attract wildlife, from insects to tapirs. If you find a large tree with lots of flowers or fruit on a river bank, it's a good idea to visit this place every few hours, day and night. Don't forget to look underwater: many fish species of tropical rivers feed on fallen fruit and flower petals. Bats, monkeys, toucans, parrots, trogons, hummingbirds are regular visitors of such trees in the Neotropics. In the Paleotropics, expect to see elephants, rhinos and other large mammals in their shade; sunbirds, flowerpeckers, moths, and fruit bats - in their canopy. dove
, Finca
Ecologica, Costa Rica.
Olingo (Bassaricyon gabbi), at a hummingbird feeder, Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Kinkajou (Potos flavus) near bird feeders,
Arenal Observatory, Costa Rica.
Kinkajous and olingos (arboreal animals of raccoon family) regularly visit fruiting and blooming trees, and occasionally - bird feeders. Their relatives, kakomitzles (Bassariscus sumichrasti), also show up sometimes.kinkajou
Kinkajou (Potos flavus) near bird feeders,
Arenal Observatory, Costa Rica.
bird bird bird bird bird
Trogons Trogon collaris (two left pictures) and T. massena, Costa Rica.
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo
), Costa Rica.
Red-tailed hawk,
Costa Rica.
Carnivores, such as birds of prey, also visit them often, attracted by abundant prey. bird
Caracara Milvago
, Panama.
Kite Chondrohierax
, Costa Rica.
Blue-crowned woodnymph (Chlorostilbon colombica),
forest edge hummingbird, Sierra del Muerte, Costa Rica.
Harpy eagle
(Harpia harpyja), Manu.
Toucans Rhamphastos ambiguus and Rh. sulfuratus,
Corcovado, Costa Rica.
Abandoned plantation,
Rio Napo, Ecuador.
Old clearings and abandoned plantations are also "hotspots". Here you can see many canopy species of birds, bats and butterflies on eye level. Semy-synantropic creatures, such as tairas (Eira barbata), and coatis (Nasua) often visit such places. flower
Caesalpinia shrubs are common on
many abandoned plantations.
coati coati coati
White-nosed coatis (N. narica), Costa Rica. Note the difference in color between highland (center) and lowland populations.
Ameiva lizard, Corcovado.
Beetles, rodents and lizards are also very interesting in places with decaying logs. Woodpeckers and other birds such as motmots are attracted to insects breeding in dead wood. plantation
Oryzomus alfari rat, Finca Ecologica.
bird bird birdbird bird bird
Motmots and woodpeckers of Central America, left to right: Momotus momota, M. platyrhynchum, M. martii, Dryocopus lineatus (2 photos), Melanerpes pucherani. Costa Rica.
Waterfall, Rio Napo,
When swimming in rainforest rivers, pay special attention to mouths of tributaries. Small creeks entering main channel are often biodiversity hotspots. Turtles, crocs, crab-eating raccoons (Procyon cancrivorous), dozens of interesting fish species are most easy to see in such places. By entering small streams, you get a chance to see Neotropic otters (Lontra longicaudis), water opossums (Chironectes minimus), pacas (Agouti paca), various fish-eating rats and reptiles. Small waterfalls provide moisture and oxygen-rich water for many species of amphibians and rare plants. tracks
Tracks of crab-eating
raccoon, Corcovado.
Assorted turtles and American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), Venezuela.
Rio Sucio, Braulio Carillo NP, Costa Rica.
It's better to undertake swimming trips during the dry season, when most of sunken logs and stumps are visible, wildlife is staying close to water sources, and there are nice shallows to rest on, watching butterflies, skimmers, terns and lizards. view
Rio Rincon, Corcovado Nat'l Park, Costa Rica.
owl owl owl owl
Nocturnal birds of riparian forests, left to righ: Asio clamator, Glaucidium brasilianum (2 photos), Nyctibius grandis. Corcovado, Costa Rica.
Overgrown forest stream,
Corcovado Nat'l Park, Costa Rica.
You can also walk up small streams more easily during the dry season. Many birds of riparian forest nest during dry months to avoid flooding of their nests. Swimming in mountain or foothill rivers, try not to get caught by sudden rain - the river can rapidly turn cold, very swift, and can smash you into some underwater tree trunk.

Rio Manu
Dry season haze above Rio Manu, Peru.
Water hyacinth-covered lake near
Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica.

Part 2