We left Romero Rainforest Lodge just before sunrise, heading down the Manú River and into the unknown. The sickly-sweet scent of uvos – a mango-like fruit – wafted across the murky waters, hanging heavy in the humid air.
As dawn broke, birds started to appear out of nowhere. Flocks of sand-coloured nighthawks lived up to their name, hawking acrobatically over the surface of the water to seize unseen insects with their broad bills. As the sky began to lighten, they were joined by black skimmers: elegant, tern-like birds whose huge bill is longer at the bottom than the top, as we could see when one kept pace with our speedboat. Overhead, pairs of gaudy blue-and-yellow macaws flew high over the rainforest, as if in slow motion.
I was in Peru, with a team from the Crees Foundation – which carries out scientific research and runs wildlife tours in Manú – and for me, this was the chance of a lifetime. That’s because with more than 1,000 different kinds of birds, Manú National Park is the very best place on the planet to go birding.
We had already enjoyed some of the most memorable experiences of my life, including penguins, pelicans and boobies on a boat trip off Lima; a family of giant otters gambolling right in front of our boat; and a score of different hummingbirds, a dozen species feeding on the flowers at Manú Learning Centre alone. But now we were heading even deeper into Amazonia, and the best was yet to come.
The further we got upriver, the more waterbirds began to appear: stunningly beautiful capped herons, whose buffish-yellow underparts are set off by a neat black crown; horned screamers, huge, piebald, turkey-like birds with a single feather protruding unicorn-like from their forehead; and an old favourite, the roseate spoonbill, whose impossibly pink plumage once led my son James to dub it the “strawberry-yogurt bird”.
But of almost 300 different species of bird I saw on my whistlestop tour of Peru, the highlight was definitely the hoatzin. With its unusual name – which derives from the Nahuatl language of Mexico – and even more unusual habits, the hoatzin is a clear frontrunner for the title of the world’s most bizarre bird.
We had first come across them a couple of days earlier, as our guide José Antonio punted us expertly across the shallow waters of a lake. The first one I saw looked like a pheasant stuck up a tree, so clumsily was it perched. A closer approach revealed a bird surely designed by a committee: with a long tail, round wings, a blue face, staring crimson eyes and a Mohican hairdo that would not be out of place on a punk rocker.
Hoatzins are hopeless fliers, but even worse at landing, crashing noisily into the foliage before looking round with their permanently surprised expression, as if hoping nobody has seen them. Uniquely amongst birds, their young have claws on their wings to stop them falling into the water and being eaten by caimans; which given the size of some of the reptiles we saw seems a sensible precaution. Never before have I come across such an extraordinary bird, in quite such a wonderful place.
•Stephen travelled to Peru courtesy of Promperu and the Crees Foundation.