Text and photos by Walter H. Wust
(LIP-jl) — The cloud forests of Peru’s Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary are home to a host of incredible creatures which often remain invisible to hikers. Come with us and discover the secrets of their lair.
It was a dizzying gorge, more than 100 meters deep, plunging straight down to the river. Between the moss and the orchids, thousands of yellow-leafed epiphytic plants clung to the rock walls while the white foaming torrent pounded on the rocks below. The roar of the waterfall was deafening, drowning out the birdsong.
Huddled on a narrow ledge, we watched the river rush through the canyon, whose rock walls have been polished by centuries of continuous erosion. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a pair of shapes make headway against the current, practically effortlessly. Every now and then, they halt at one of the vast polished boulders, before pushing off again into the swirling currents, as if defying the mighty Vilcanota River.
It is a pair of torrent ducks (Merganetta armata), one of the most extraordinary creatures to inhabit the mountain rivers. Commonly found in any highland body of water at altitudes over 1,000 meters, these birds, which will only live in clean, pollution-free water, have been doted by nature with the astounding ability to swim through the wildest rapids, making them their undisputed habitat.
The apparent risk of living in such an environment is compensated for by access to abundant food, for which there is no competition: the larvae of thousands of insects amongst the rocks, submerged in water rich in oxygen. Another species, albeit smaller, shares the rapids in search of smaller insects and larvae. This is the water blackbird (Cinclus leucocephalus), a tiny black-and-white bird no bigger than a sparrow which has literally learned to swim underwater in search of food.
As quickly as they arrived, the ducks flutter upriver. We decide to stay beside the river to photograph the dazzling variety of wildflowers. A purple fuchsia brims over with nectar for the ever-hungry hummingbird. The tiny bird will pollinate each flower with the pollen that clings to its feathers.
In another bulb, a pair of emerald green beetles appear to struggle clumsily inside the brightly hued flower. A little further away, fruit has proved to be irresistible for legions of colorful butterflies, while a slight movement amongst the leaves points to the presence of caterpillars, which in appearance look like something out of science fiction.
The forest is also home to two other creatures, as beautiful as they are elusive: the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the pudú or sachacabra (Pudu mephistopheles). The spectacled bear is South America’s only bear species, and lives out a vegetarian existence hidden deep in the cloud forest; the sacahacabra is a species of dwarf deer which stands just 30 centimeters high. The animal waits for sundown before setting off in search of shoots and fallen fruit, hidden by the undergrowth, making it invisible to predators.