August 31, 2012

How to Spot a Monkey in the Rainforest

Saddle-back Tamarin
The key to spotting monkeys with your eyes is, simply put, using your ears. Ideally, you would take the time to memorize their calls; the bird-like whistles of tamarins and squirrel monkeys, the woops of dusky titi monkeys, and the grunts of capuchins and howlers. Once you can pick the sound out of the rainforest soundtrack, you have a much better chance of spotting a monkey.

 However, the easiest way to spot them is much simpler: while monkeys are great climbers, they’re not exactly elegant climbers. They jump, swing, and crash through the trees. So listen for the crashing, the rustle of leaves up above, then wait… and usually a monkey (or a hundred monkeys1) will soon come into view.

Red Howler Monkey

These are some of my favorite shots of the monkeys I’ve gotten during my two weeks at Posada Amazonas. Monkeys tend not to sit still long enough to get a good shot, not to mention the strong back-light of the sky, so getting a decent photograph takes some patience to say the least.

Squirrel Monkey
August 27, 2012

Butterfly Basics, Part 1


Butterflies, one of my favorite groups of organisms to work with, are equally as complex and interesting as they are beautiful. Here are a few answers to common questions I get about them as I walk around the lodges with a jar full of stinky rotten banana butterfly bait:

Hey Phil, what are you doing with that jar full of stinky rotten bananas?

Rotten fruit is a staple food source for a lot of butterflies (more info below),
Cithaerias pireta, often seen along trails in the Amazon.
Image by Phil Torres
and making a rotten fruit bait to place in a trap is a great way to sample butterflies without harming them.

My recipe: 6 mashed, rotten bananas (3 with peel, 3 without), 1/4 cup of sugar, half cup of beer, and half cup of water. Put in a jar in the sun for 3-5 days, shake and release the gas build up every morning and night. It doesn’t smell great, but butterflies love it. And it smells much better than my rotten fish bait I use as well.

What do butterflies eat?

Just like in the rest of the world, many butterflies in the tropics feed on nectar. Nectar provides a great source of energy essential for active flying and reproduction. However, butterflies here also feed on a variety of other sources, for a variety of reasons, including: mud, wet stones, feces, tree sap, rotten fallen fruit, urine, carrion, bird droppings, fungi, animal secretions, and pollen. Many of those food items provide male butterflies with the minerals and organic compounds necessary to create a pheromone, or chemical scent, to attract a female.

The white hairs visible here smell great. These are the pheromone-emitting
androconial hairs, which in this case smell like fruit loops.
Image by Phil Torres

Additionally, the neotropics (New World tropics like Peru) are home to the only group of butterflies that have adapted the feed on protein-rich pollen, the Heliconius butterflies, giving them an advantage over many butterflies in being able to live for 2-3 months, rather than 2-3 weeks like most butterflies. Butterfly feeding is one of the many areas of their biology that hasn’t been studied thoroughly. Scientists don’t know, for example, why some butterflies prefer to feed on rotten fruit over nectar when they have similar sugar compounds.

Why do butterflies have bright colors?
The colorful Morpho menelaus makes me happy.

In general, the bright colors are used to deliver a message. That message may be for a conspecific (butterfly of the same species), showing that they are either suitable/nonsuitable to mate or to let a male know they are in another male’s territory (you can wave a blue handkerchief at a male blue morpho and get a quick aggressive response).

The colors are also used as a message to predators like birds or monkeys, stating clearly: don’t eat me, I’m poisonous.

Many butterflies have evolved to tolerate poisonous plants as a caterpillar and use those toxins against predators. Birds tend to learn pretty quickly, and if a bright orange and black butterfly causes it to get sick once, it likely won’t try to eat one again. This does get complicated when butterflies that taste delicious to birds mimic the poisonous butterflies, only pretending to be toxic (called Batesian mimicry), but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

Many butterflies gather on the muddy river shore to feed on minerals in the sand.
Image by Phil Torres

August 25, 2012

"You're Welcome, Amazon" -Africa


On an epic voyage, dust from a single valley in Africa takes a 5000km flight across the globe, only to land in the Amazon. It’s not just any old dust. It’s rich in iron and phosphorous, which are essential for fertilizing plants...

and it weighs a total of 50 MILLION TONS.

For anyone that has visited the Amazon and looked down, you’d be quick to note that below the thin layer of dead leaves is reddish/orange clay- pretty terrible for growing plants. However, plants here have adapted in various ways- most significantly through shallow, wide roots that can absorb nutrients in the upper layers of the soil- to take advantage of any minerals and nutrients they may come across.

It was long thought that the most significant source of any minerals that did feed the Amazon rainforest were from the rivers which are full of all sorts of nutrients from the upland volcanic Andes they start in. When flooding occurs, the plants rejoice- sandy deposits layer the earth and provide an essential source of minerals needed for growth.

However, this new study, published here, shows that a huge source of the minerals that keep the Amazon thriving come from the continent next door, Africa. Incredibly, dust storms take up thousands of tons of dust every day from a dry, salty river bed and blast across the Atlantic Ocean to end up in the Amazon. The millions of tons per year that are deposited are likely to be found to be incredibly important, it can account for plant growth in areas that otherwise have little access to the mineral-rich rivers.

So, much thanks to one small valley in Africa, the Amazon blooms.

Click to see more articles by biologist Phil Torres
August 24, 2012

A New Face Around the Lodges...


It’s my first morning at Posada Amazonas, and I just spent two hours watching a family of endangered Giant River Otters hunt as 3 species of macaws soared overhead. Not a bad start.

That is one popular otter.

For the next two months, I will have the pleasure of contributing blogs, tweets, and facebook updates for Rainforest Expeditions as I do research and explore the area surrounding the three lodges that the company manages in Tambopata. I’m not even a day in at my stay and I’ve already seen some of the most remarkable plants and animals the Amazon has to offer. And I'm pretty stoked.

As a biologist, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the field on conservation research projects throughout Latin America (find out more about me here). This has allowed me to see the diversity that the Amazon has to offer, both in the organisms, in the landscapes, and in the extent it has remained ‘untouched.’ I’m always quick to tell a tourist in an area like this how lucky they are to see these incredible creatures- so much of the Amazon isn’t like this anymore. Monkeys and jaguars have been hunted out, big trees have been cut down, and incredible cultures have been tarnished.

Additionally, I’ve seen the bad side of ecotourism. From uninvolved indigenous, to poor waste and forest management, to keeping wild pets; not all ecotourism companies get it right or do it sustainably. During my time here, I’ll be sharing stories from Rainforest Expeditions’ programs and highlight some of the great ways they keep it clean and sustainable.

Showing off a red-tailed boa found on a night survey.

Most of my posts will be about the forest. From the absurdly knowledgeable guides, I’ve already learned that macaw colors can be hard to see in the sky because they are a pigment, unlike many birds which are light refractant; that over 20,000 giant river otters were killed over two decades for their pelts, making the population dangerously low and nearly absent from the actual riversides (they’re now generally isolated to oxbow lakes); and how the Brazil Nut is harvested, just to name a few. Time will only tell what the actual forest will be able to teach me during my research.

I hope you check back on the blog and please feel free to ask me any questions you may have about the programs or the forest. Also, if you come as a tourist while I’m here, come say hello!
August 16, 2012

A Short List of Dos and Don’ts for Building Jungle Lodges


I know these are the proverbial tips of a fish in a small bowl. That doesn’t matter, I hope they help!

Do pick high ground.
The Amazon floodplain is wide. And I mean wide. When we built Tambopata Research Center we had a couple of Ese’eja friends recommend the site. “My granddaddy never saw this land flood” they told us. Rivers however, have a time scale in centuries, and floodplains are several kilometers wide in the upper Amazon (much wider in the lower). In 1990, we built the lodge about 100 meters from the river. By 2004, the river passed a few meters from our porch and we had to move the lodge 500 meters away, to higher ground. Think in the time scale of rivers, not humans.

Do use cement below the ground.
Jungle lodges that our clients like are contextual – wood, palm frond, bamboo, etc. However, wherever we’ve found one good place to cheat. Let me explain: the columns holding the lodge up are made of wood. Even the best wood won’t outlast cement in the moist rainforest underground. So we assemble a cement post below the ground, with a beautiful wooden one above. It’s aesthetic and lasts a lot longer.

Do prune your trees.
If you have palm frond roofs, or roofs of any vegetable material, worry about the trees on top of them. If there are branches overhanging your roof, it may be the beginning of the end of your beautiful palm frond roof. Water will drip from the branches unto the roof. Leaves will fall on it, carrying fungi and disease. Shade will be cast, keeping the roofs wet for longer periods of time.  Be sure pruning scissors are part of your equipment from day 1.

Don’t use shihuahuaco wood (Dipteryx micrantha).
I already posted on the fantastic ironwood, or shihuahuaco, tree. I explained its growth rate is so slow (eighty or one hundred years to be harvestable), that is logging it is practically like mining it. I also described how it hosts literally dozens of species, my favorite being nesting macaws. It is great wood and would make a great lodge. But please don’t use it.

Don’t build on lake shores.
Don’t build your lodge on lake shores.  According to the Frankfurt Zoological Society, they are prime habitat for the critically endangered giant river otter. Lake side habitat is prime for otters burrows, and that’s where they have their pups. If you cut the forest off the edge of lake, they will stop using that area. And otters need all the habitat they can get. 

Don’t garden.
Can you beat the rain forest? Then don’t worry about gardening. Let the forest do its job. Our lodges greatest asset is that there are no walls between guests and primary tropical rain forest less than five meters away.

Please share more dos and donts for building in the jungle. And come see for yourself how our Amazon jungle lodges are built!
August 07, 2012

PODCAST: Wildlife Photography in Peru's Amazon Jungle

I recently sat down with Rick Vecchio of FerTur Travel to share some of my personal story, explain what the amazon jungle photography tours entail, and to offer expert advice on taking photos in Peru’s southern Amazon jungle. - Jeff

Click to here to listen to the interview:

To book a tour you can follow these links:  

For six years, photographer Jeff Cremer has practiced his craft in Peru, documenting the people, wildlife and natural beauty of high mountain plateaus, remote coastal desert and mega-diverse Amazon rain forests.

Jeff offers an all-inclusive, five-day Amazon photography tour designed for small groups (4-6 people max!). The tours are based in the eco-lodges of Rainforest Expeditions and are geared toward the beginner and intermediate photographer. The program includes in-the-field instruction, as well as formal workshops. You don’t even need to bring a camera. All of the standard and specialty equipment is provided.

Rick Vecchio: To start, Jeff, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. Where are you from originally and how did you get involved in photography?

Jeff Cremer: Well, I’m originally from Pueblo, Colorado and I’ve been in Peru for about six years now. I started in photography when I was doing astrophotography out on the prairies of Colorado. I just went out there with my telescope and stuff and used to take pictures of galaxies and stars and planets, and all that. And after a while I thought maybe I would turn my camera towards more terrestrial subjects, and I started photographing that stuff as well.

RV: So what drew you to Peru and Peru’s rainforest?

JC: I was basically living in Costa Rica for a couple of years, and I thought, ‘Hey I’ll come to Peru and check everything out.’ I knew there was Machu Picchu. I knew there was the Nasca Lines. I knew there was the Amazon jungle. So I came to Peru and I stayed. At first it was like a two-month trip and then it turned into about six years. And then I took a trip to Iquitos a long time ago, and I was in the Amazon Jungle and it blew my mind. I thought it was really, really cool. And then I just fell in love with the Amazon and that’s where I stayed.

RV: Tell us about your photo tours. Who are they for? Where do you go? What do clients have to bring?

JC: Our photo tour is for anybody who’s interested in photography. It can be a beginner, an intermediate, an advanced photographer. And where we go is through Rainforest Expeditions lodges in Tambopata Peru, and that’s in the Tambopata National Reserve. So, we go to all three of the rain forest lodges — that’s Posadas Amazonas, Refugio Amazonas and the Tambopata Research Center.

And each lodge offers something different, as far as photography goes. So, like, for example, Posadas Amazonas works with a native community and you can have interaction with some of the native people there. They also have a lot of different clay licks. They also have about a 30-meter-tall jungle canopy tower. You can climb up and look over the canopy. They also have a lake with a family of giant river otters, so we can go out and photograph that.

Refugio Amazonas has another canopy tower. They also have a clay lick. They have a lake out there, as well. You can see Watson birds and macaws and tucans. Bat falcons are out there… a lot of cool stuff.

And then the Tambopata Research Center is well-known for the largest macaw clay lick in the world and every morning dozens of macaws and parrots come out there and eat clay because of the salt content, and they need salt for their diet. It’s a cool thing; it’s almost like a natural wonder of the world. It’s amazing to see all of the macaws come out there, and we get the opportunity to photograph that. And in-between, when we’re doing transfers — that’s on giant canoes with big outboard motors, and we get a lot of time on the Tambopata River: sea turtles covered with butterflies; Capybaras; and then there is always the chance to see a jaguar. And so, you know, there are other things a rain forest has to offer, but we touch on all the best sites for a photographer.

As far as what the clients have to bring, I always say just bring your sense of adventure, because we provide all of the photography gear. We provide cameras, lenses, tripods, all the pro stuff. You just have to come out there. You want to have an adventure, want to learn stuff.  I provide all the rest. You know, Photoshop, all the instruction, everything… It’s a really cool time.

RV: The most important question of all — to photographers, at least — What’s your kit? What glass do you carry with you? What other equipment?

JC: So when clients come down, I give them access to a lot of different equipment. Some of the stuff that I carry is a 600mm/F4 lens for a Canon. That’s a gigantic pro sports lens and wildlife lens, it’s huge. It weighs about 15 or 20 pounds. That hooks onto a carbon fiber tripod with something called a Wimberley head, so it balances a lens really well, and you can move it around to catch pictures of birds in flight and when you’re moving down the river you can swing it around really fast and take pictures of capybaras and stuff on the river.

I carry a couple of macro lenses: a Nikon 105mm F/2.8 macro, and then I carry a very special Canon MP-E 65 and that’s a really high-powered macro lens and it can get five times life-size on the subject. I mean you can take a picture of the eyes of an ant or the wing scales on a butterfly with that. I carry other lenses: a 1-400mm Cannon, a 7200mm/2.8 Nikon.

I got some wide angles. We also have a gigapixel camera that allows people to take 360° photos or take 1000 photos and then combine them into one super high resolution photo.

And then I have automated focus stacking devices that are good for really extreme macro subjects and you can do special processes with that to get high-resolution macro photos. Then I have a 17 inch Mac Book Pro and I’ve got Photoshop on there, focus stacking programs, HDR programs, plug-ins for Photoshop. Clients get access to all of that on their tour.

RV: Two questions: How have advancements in camera technology changed the way you work? And the follow-up question to that is, with all this advanced equipment that you are taking into the jungle, what do you do if it flips over the side of the boat and goes into the drink?

JC: I’ll answer the second question first. Everything is insured. So, if it falls in the water I got insurance on it. But please don’t have an accident.

How advancements in camera technologies changed the way I work? I’d say there’s not so much of a learning curve anymore, right, because you fire off a bunch of photos and you can see instantly the results that you’re having, you know, when you make changes to ISO or aperture or shutter speed, you can see the results that’s having on a picture right away and then make corrections to it.

Also you can, you know, Photoshop allows you to do a lot of editing and stuff like that. You can crop the photo very quickly. You can change the colors. You can change brightness, saturation levels and stuff like that, and it makes the pictures pop. And HDR techniques… we can get very high dynamic range in the photo and get really cool effects. The focus stacking, you know, that’s something that wasn’t possible years ago. So you can take a picture of, maybe, the head of the ant. Normally the head of the ant will be in focus and then the tail of the ant won’t be in focus.

With focus stacking, a robotic focuser moves the camera throughout the length of the ant. It will take a photograph of each different focus point. You bring all those photographs into the computer and it magically kind of fuses them together and only fuses the in-focus parts, so the entire and will be in focus and that’s a very new technology assembly.

And the same with the gigapixel stuff. You know, taking a thousand or five thousand pictures and stitching them all altogether for a super-high resolution photo. That really is a game-changer. You can take crazy, high-resolution stuff and huge panoramas. It’s very cool.

RV: How huge is huge?

JC: How huge is huge? I have the record for the largest picture in Peru and that’s about 22,000 megapixels and that’s equivalent to about 22 gigapixels. So you could take something like that and print it out maybe, depending on the resolution, you know, maybe 50 meters long by at least 10 meters high and it will be still full resolution, maybe 300dpi. And that was made with 3060 photos fused together using almost a supercomputer. Yeah, we can get pretty big on stuff like that.

RV: So you can get very, very big and very, very small.

JC: Yeah.

RV: Do you see directly any effects on animals or the forest from human encroachment in the time that you’ve been working in Tambopata and the Peruvian rain forest?

JC: I haven’t seen many effects of human encroachment in Tambopata, but in other parts of the Amazon, I have seen a lot of the ethics of human encroachment. So, one of things I’ve seen, like, I went up to Iquitos and basically, I didn’t see much. I went out there wanting to see all sorts of animals and stuff like that and I really didn’t see that much and a lot of the reason is because all the people up there in Iquitos, they killed all animals and they’re eating them. So, when you go out into the jungle, you don’t see much.

Out in Tambopata, it’s a little bit different of a story. So, we work with the native community to promote ecotourism. And then we’re also in the Tambopata National Reserve, and that’s a protected area and they have park guards and checkpoints and stuff, so it’s not like this Holocaust of animals like you see in the market in Iquitos. It’s more, they’re providing value to the standing forest through ways of ecotourism and you’ve got a lot more opportunity to see wildlife.

RV: What do you do to minimize your footprint when you’re out there, particularly with less experienced amateur photographers who you’re guiding?

JC: How we minimize our footprint out there? Well, like we say, it’s an eco-lodge, right? So everything is ecologically friendly. We use biodegradable soaps. We’re using solar power. At night there’s a generator and that’s only run at night for a few hours. Garbage that is generated from the tourism operation is boated off to Puerto Maldonado, the nearest city, and it’s disposed of properly. And then, you know, we try not to interfere with the animals as much as possible. You know, we just leave them alone and just take pictures of them.

RV: And what about the size of the groups you’re taking into the forest?

JC: Normal size of a group… two or three people. I do a maximum of six. You know, we don’t want to have these big, huge tour groups tramping through the forest, and making all sorts of noise and stuff. Then we want to get good shots and then I want to be able to give a lot of one-on-one instruction to the clients. So, we keep the group sizes pretty small.

RV: And in your time photographing in the Peruvian rainforest, what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen?

JC: That is a good question, and it’s a difficult question to answer. There’s a lot beautiful stuff out there in the rain forest. Once you get the eyes to spot the different things, you know, you can see a whole lot of different stuff. So, I mean, there are harpy eagles out there, there are the capybaras, all sorts of different birds, and then, you know, you have stuff at the macro level, or a small-scale. And there are all sorts of different ants and ant colonies: leaf cutter ants, army ants. There’s a real tiny little insect called a leaf hopper. Those are really cool to photograph.

Small grasshoppers. Glow worms, those are really cool. I’ve been taking glow worm photos lately. Those are about 3mm long and they have these tiny little jaws and hide in the embankment and some dirt. It’s really crazy.

A lot of beautiful stuff.

I’d say as far as a bird goes, a royal flycatcher is a pretty beautiful bird, and that has, like, some feathers on the back of its head and when it wants to mate, or when it’s scared, it puts those feathers up on the back of its head and then it dances around in this really robotic looking dance, and that’s really cool. That’s really beautiful. I like the royal flycatcher a lot.

RV: How do different animals react to being photographed?

JC: The animals react pretty well, you know. We try to stay really, really quiet, extremely quiet so they don’t even know that we’re there. And then a lot of times, we’re at a really long focal length and truthfully they just act normally.

RV: And for some of those animals, where you’re doing macro photography, and you’re right up there, very close, is there any behavior that you see with any particular kind of animal or species that’s surprising?

JC: Some things… There’s something called jumping spiders and those are really, really tiny spiders, about half the size of your pinky fingernail, and they live all over the place. They live on logs, they live on leaves, they live on the side of trees. And they’re kind of curious by nature, so when you go out there to take their picture, they’ll kind of start moving their head left and right, and kind of looking at you, examine the camera. Then they get scared so they’ll take some steps back, and then they’ll walk up and take a look at the lens again. And they’re territorial, too. So, if you scare off a little, tiny jumping spider, it’ll kind of run under a leaf, and then maybe a minute later, it’ll come and start defending its little home again. I think jumping spiders are really, really cool. They’re friendly, they’re nice, they’re curious and they have a lot of personality.

RV: Now, even though Tambopata has its beaten paths for visitors, and it’s known as a very safe destination for travelers, it’s still the jungle. There’s no shortage of peril if you don’t follow safety guidelines. So my question is, what’s the closest encounter you’ve had with something deadly?

JC: Well, to tell you the truth, the jungle being a crazy, dangerous place for tourists, I think, is a misconception. I think out there in the jungle it’s pretty safe. It’s not crawling with poisonous snakes. It’s not crawling with venomous spiders.

The closest encounter I’ve had with something deadly? Not in Tambopata, but I was up on the border between Ecuador and Peru, in the native tribal area, and these people make a living by capturing bushmaster snakes and they milk the venom to sell as a medicine to different pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe. So one time a guy walked in with a basket. I said, ‘Hey,what’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s a couple of giant bushmaster snakes.’ And I looked in the basket and there they were. Yeah, I’d say that was the closest I’ve come to being with something deadly.

RV: For the photographers you take, what makes a good photo in the rainforest?

JC: Well, I would say that a good photo, anywhere, is when it allows somebody see the world in a different way. It enables a person to think about something that they never thought of before, or it fuels an emotion, or maybe ask a question. I think those are good photographs. Let’s say you have a photograph, and the lighting is not exactly right, or it’s not totally sharp, or something like that, as long as it moves a person to ask a question, or feel something, or stop and think, I think that’s a pretty good photo.

RV: Thanks Jeff for taking the time to talk with us today.

JC: You got it. It was a pleasure being here.

RV: For more information about the rainforest photo tours with Jeff Cremer, visit our webpage: or our blog, For Peruvian Travel Trends, I’m Rick Vecchio.
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