March 12, 2013

Things one sees whilst camera trapping (forgive the lack of photos...)

When putting out camera traps, I carry a backpack full of photographic equipment, yet I don't usually bring my good camera with me, because often my guide and I cross water on foot or end up floating down Payamino River for 3 km. Unusually, yesterday I had a motorised canoe at my disposal, because I was filling the points of my camtrap grid furthest from camp, and it would have taken me more than one very gruelling day to get them out otherwise. The motorised canoes are wide and strong, and through most things still get wet in them, I'd be comfortable to carry my camera in a dry bag in these boats, as there'd be no need for my camera to be submerged. Unfortunately, I wasn't expecting my guide to turn up until today and so got ready in a fluster yesterday, forgetting my camera.



Yesterday whilst camera trapping the biggest group of squirrel monkeys I have ever seen was jumping around the canopy above us, some with offspring clinging to them. We don't often see squirrel monkeys, and in fact most people in camp have only seen habituated ones in zoos, on the Napo pier of Coca, or in other regions. But putting out the camera traps usually involves going where other people don't often, so I've seen groups a couple of times.

Later on, something heavy dropped from a tree just as I walked past. There was a lot of clambering going on in the tree. After circling it I caught a glimpse of a long, dark, bushy tail. At first I thought it must be a big monkey of some sort – howler, maybe? It was panicking at the fact we were lingering there, so was running along branches, tree to tree. My guide said it was eating another animal, it was carrying something around. He shouted at it and chased it from the ground until it leaped out of the tree and darted off. Then we saw the whole body and realised it was a tayra (well, my guide claimed it was a tigrillo, which technically means ocelot in Spanish, but I've come to realise it's what the local Kichwa call just about every small- to medium-sized mammalian carnivore). It wasn't eating something, it had an infant clinging to it, which it left perched on a very thin tree as it darted off through the forest. The tiny tayra just hung there quietly and looked at us, following us with its gaze till we were gone. Hopefully the mother will have gone back to rescue it.

After positioning the last camera, we clambered back through the chaotic understory of secondary forest to the canoe. The motorist had left his very young assistant there and was upriver a little at his father's finca. We went up to meet him there, where a newly-carved canoe had been mounted on a series of logs at the edge of the vertical bank. The new canoe was warm and covered in black soot, and beneath it and the logs upon which it was mounted wash a large bed of still smoking ash. Before their first voyage, canoes are burnt to finish the wood and "make them float better"; I presume the man I asked was referring to how it helps retain the quality of the wood rather than suggesting it increases buoyancy.

In Payamino there are two types of canoe, punting ones and motorised ones. There are three large motorised canoes, driven by qualified community members who receive a small salary from the government to take people up and down river. However, most families have at least one small punt of their own, which they push up and down river with long sturdy sticks, rather than paddles. A bit like the gondolas of Venice.

From its size, the new canoe was obviously destined to hold a motor – plus, the large space at the back of it was dead giveaway. After much pushing and heaving and pulling on ropes, the canoe was in the water and everybody involved was covered in soot. It was a nice experience. I did feel rude for politely turning down the shot of "25" (practically pure alcohol) I was offered for helping.

I returned to the station stained up to my waist in mud (from getting stuck and falling over whilst camera trapping) and up to my face in soot. And photoless, despite the great things I saw. However, sometimes it is good to step back from the lens and appreciate a scene or an occasion for what it is, rather than becoming preoccupied with immortalising it in a few shots.

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