inyathi

Brazil, Birds, Beasts and Big Waters

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Brazil

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Birds, Beasts and Big Waters

From watching the incomparable sight of thousands of wildebeest leaping headlong into the Mara River to approaching a majestic bull elephant on foot, from bhundu bashing at speed after wild dogs hunting impala to sitting quietly amidst a family of mountain gorillas, Africa undeniably offers some of the greatest wildlife experiences you can have anywhere. However for me even the finest black-maned lion cannot compare to the beauty and majesty of a wild tiger nor can any wildlife experience on mainland Africa compare to standing in an Asian forest listing to the wonderful duetting song of gibbons. So inevitably at some point the wildlife enthusiast has to venture away from the wild shores of Africa to enjoy some of the amazing wildlife experiences that the rest of the world has to offer. At first thoughts turn perhaps to Asia after experiencing some of the best that this continent has to offer the mind inevitably turns to the Americas and in particular the world’s third largest species of cat. To stand the best chance of tracking down a jaguar there is really only one place to go which is why last October I found myself on a TAM flight to São Paulo in Brazil.

 

Although my primary reason for choosing to go to Brazil was to see jaguars as quite a keen birder it’s hard to ignore the fact that the country has over 1,800 species of birds so seeing a good number of these was another major reason for wanting to go to Brazil. It’s not too surprising there are so many birds given what a huge country Brazil is, though to put things in perspective thanks to the Andes Mountains Ecuador despite being just a fraction of the size has over 1,600 species. Having such a huge list of birds makes Brazil a great country for birdwatching but also a very challenging one certainly for the amateur birder. As is true of most of the rest of South America, to stand any chance of seeing a lot more than just the commonest most conspicuous species you really need to be accompanied by a good bird guide. Unless you’re an exceptional birder and really know your stuff you’ll most likely be lost without a really good bird guide. This is why I opted to do a serious Brazilian birding and jaguar trip with Tropical Birding and then follow that with a brief look at one of the greatest natural wonders in the world Iguaçu Falls. From past experience serious birding trips can be very good for seeing all kinds of interesting mammals as well so I had high hopes of adding quite a few new species after all Brazil has I believe more species of mammal than any other country in the world. Aside from jaguars and other cats I was particularly keen to see giant otters an animal I’d previously only glimpsed once in Ecuador and maybe with luck a giant anteater or two and some armadillos or perhaps a sloth to name just a few.

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Really looking forward to this trip report and hearing more of the frequently overlooked, yet iconic 'new world' species.

 

Hope you were lucky with jaguars, armadillo, anteaters and the 'flashy' birds from this part of the world.

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Very much looking forward to reading more. Brazil is definitely on my list of country to visit sooner rather than later, and it sounds my interests (mammals and birds) fit yours well.

 

I've looked around at various group trip options, and the photography and mammal ones are too short for my taste, and the birdwatching ones don't leave enough time looking for jaguar, so I'm intrigued how all that turned out for you.

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Betting this will Be a Beaut!

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Betting this will Be a Beaut!

 

I don’t know about that but I can certainly promise it will be well illustrated

 

I’m guessing that to most non birders the average birding trip report can seem like just one great long list of birds and even as a pretty keen birder I find such reports can be a little boring and are really only of interest to serious “bird nerds” so I’ve decided to try not to write that kind of report. This report has been quite a long time in gestation because I think every trip report needs a good few photos but the trouble is I took over 7,000 so choosing just how many to post has proven a bit of a challenge. Although I’ve decided I don’t want to list all the birds I thought as this was for the most part a serious birding trip I should at least include lots of bird photos but then I obviously also want to include the other wildlife and a representative selection of landscapes. Well even limiting myself to a single photo of each bird species albeit with a few exceptions for special birds has still left me with an awful lot of photos, indeed if I upload them all I might achieve the record for the most photos in a trip report. This certainly wasn’t my intention when I decided to start this report in fact I was planning to leave out half the birds but then I changed my mind and decided to include just about every species I took a passable photo of. I should perhaps point out that having said that I won’t be posting thousands of pics the following photographs will still only be a very small fraction of my Brazilian photos.

 

 

 

Getting to Brazil from the UK is easy now that the Brazilian airline TAM fly direct from London to São Paulo from there we would need to fly on to Cuiaba capital of Mato Grosso, since the main part of the trip would be entirely within Brazil’s third largest state, Mato Grosso means thick bush an indication of what the region was once like and thankfully still is in certain places as we would soon discover. Despite having checked the luggage all the way through to Cuiaba after arriving at São Paulo we had to collect our bags in order to go through customs which involved pushing the bags past a customs officer sat on a stool in the corner who appeared so bored she might as well have been asleep for all the attention she paid to everyone. This was actually something of a relief as I had a couple of packets of biltong in my bag that I’d bought on the spur of the moment and packed without really thinking. I guess because when going to Africa the immigration/customs forms don’t generally ask if you’re carrying any food at least I don’t think so

 

3rd Oct 2012

 

Having arrived at 07:00 we then had to wait in a cafe for over an hour because the check-in wasn’t open and then wait another few hours the other side as our flight didn’t actually leave until after 11:00. I wouldn’t have chosen to waste a whole morning at São Paulo Airport but there weren’t any earlier flights, to save time at the other end we opted to have an early lunch at the airport a wise decision as the in-flight meal on this and subsequent flights consisted of a sweet bread roll, a cheese triangle and a cookie.

 

Chapada dos Guimarães

 

At Cuiaba Airport we were met by our guide Andrew who then drove us to our accommodation for the next 2 nights the Pousada Pehasco in the Chapada dos Guimarães. The drive up was spectacular heading towards the high cliffs that form the edge of the Chapada I didn’t take any photos from the bottom as we didn’t stop but the view from the top was no less spectacular. A bat falcon flying along the cliffs and some chestnut-fronted macaws passing overhead provided additional interest and a good start to the birding.

 

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The road also passes plenty of interesting rock formations, the combination of dry bush/woodland and red rock looked much more like parts of Australia than how I imagined Brazil would look.

A couple of birds we saw on the way

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Sayaca tanager (Thraupis sayaca)

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Rufous-collared sparrow (Zontrichia capensis)

 

Late afternoon we arrived at the Pousada which was a nice enough place to stay though it might best be described as being like Brazilian holiday resort. The accommodation consists of bungalows with modest sized rooms that are much like hotel rooms the world over with the usual air-con, TV, mini-bar etc, each room also has a little veranda equipped with a hammock and a stunning view.

 

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Two common birds seen in the garden

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Grey monjita (Xolmis cinereus)

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Rufous-bellied thrush (Turdus rufiventris) Brazil’s national bird

 

The buffet style food which seems to be the norm in Brazil was pretty good, which can make it difficult not to eat too much especially at breakfast when you’re offered pão de queijo cheese bread little puffed up cheese balls that are something of a Brazilian/South American specialty and should be eaten while still warm straight from the oven. Followed by chocolate cake this appeared to be an almost essential part of the Brazilian breakfast, I think I could grow to like a country that has chocolate cake for breakfast after all they always say it’s the most important meal of the day. It certainly mades having to get up at around 05:00 each morning just a little easier. :)

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Great start to your trip report. Am really looking forward to all of it, especially since I will visit the Pantanal myself this September. :)

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The principal habitat in the Chapada dos Guimarães and indeed most of Mato Grosso is cerrado a mixture of dry savannah woodland and grassland in this case mostly woodland somewhat akin to rather stunted Miombo as found in certain parts of Africa. Cerrado is sadly a fast disappearing habitat and much of it has already been lost to agriculture indeed if anything it may be even more threatened than the Amazon if only because it doesn’t get the attention that the Amazon gets. Fortunately a huge area of the Chapada dos Guimarães is protected as a national park. Being so much drier the Chapada is home to a whole variety of species not found in either the Pantanal or the Amazon and we hoped to see as many of these as we could.

 

For the next day and a half we birded the local area, like most visiting birders we didn’t actually go into the national park as it’s possible to find all of the target birds without doing so. Instead we concentrated our efforts along a wide stretch of dirt road running through what was mainly very dry low stunted woodland, the weather wasn't good but the birding certainly was

 

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Black-faced tanager (schistochlamys melanopis)

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Red-crested finch (Coryphospingus cucullatus)

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Masked yellowthroat (Geothlypis aquinoctialis velata)

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Scarlet macaw (Ara Macao)

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Rufous-winged antshrike (Thamnophilus torquatus)

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Peach-fronted parakeet (Aratinga Aurea)

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Blue-winged macaw (Primolius maracana)

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Mr & Mrs Rusty-backed antwren (Formicavora rufa)

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White-eared puffbird (Nystalus chacurus)

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Saffron finch (Sicalis flaveola)

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Burrowing owl (Athena cunicularia)

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Like the way this report is going and l love that Puffbird!!!

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@@inyathi your trip report and photos of Brazil and its birds bring back many fond memories...looking forward to more!

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Along another smaller road through some riverine/gallery forest

 

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Female band-tailed manakin (Pipra fasicauda)

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Amazonian motmot (Motmotus motmota simplex)

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Black-fronted nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons)

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Pectoral sparrow (Arremon taciturnus)

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Sharp-tailed streamcreeper (Lochmias nematura)

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Rufous-tailed jacamar (Galbula ruficauda)

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Blue-crowned trogon (Trogon curucui)

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Channel-billed toucan (Rhamphastos vitellinus culminatus)

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Pheasant cuckoo (Dromococcyx phasianellus)

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and along the cliff top trails immediately below the Pousada.

 

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Cliff flycatcher (Hirundinea ferruginea bellicosa)

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Rufous-browed peppershrike (Cyclarhis gujanensis)

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So we got a pretty good haul of birds by the end of our time in the Chapada, but no mammals. While cerrado provides a home for many interesting mammals most notably the maned wolf and the giant anteater the Chapada dos Guimarães is unfortunately not the place to see them. Though of course to see some of these species you really need to go out at night which we didn’t do but then the bush was so thick that it’s unlikely we would have seen much if anything if we had. There are other more open areas of cerrado in Brazil where it is possible to see rather more mammals. Brazil is home to a huge variety of different monkey species many of which can actually survive in surprisingly small patches of forest so I suspect that there may well have been monkeys in the forest that we visited but we didn’t see or hear any. I did at least see one wild mammal while having dinner in the main restaurant which looks out over the bush/forest above the cliffs a large rat like creature descended one of the wooden pillars holding up the roof. I was sure this had to be an opossum of some kind but unfortunately there isn’t (to my knowledge) a good mammals guide for Brazil or South America and the only book I had was a very out of date copy of Neotropical Rainforest mammals which doesn’t cover cerrado so I wasn’t able to determine the species. Even if we didn’t see any other mammals I concluded that there must be some somewhere because along the sides of the main (tarmac) road were signs in the shape of howler monkeys, giant anteaters, armadillos etc warning of animals crossing.

 

If you’re not a birder I suppose you might wonder whether it’s worth visiting the Chapada dos Guimarães but I think if you have enough time then perhaps it is if only for the incredible views and interesting rock formations, also there are various waterfalls which we didn’t visit but might well be worth looking at.

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Very much looking forward to more of this report. Beautiful photos so far! I would love to visit Brazil - in fact, our 14-year-old is going on a trip to mostly Argentina but will spend 1 day in Brazil to see the Iguazu Falls from both sides. She's going on a tour with her Spanish teacher leading some kids from her Spanish class - the Spanish teacher leads a group of kids who have just finished eighth grade to a different Spanish-speaking country each year. We wanted to go meet her in South America at the end of the trip and travel some more, but the tour company made it so difficult to do that (i.e. they couldn't guarantee then that she would get to travel TO Argentina with her group if she wasn't going back home with them, and she wouldn't want to travel all that way alone) that we scrapped the plan. It'll have to be another time. Please, continue!

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Great start!

Looking forward to the rest.

 

I absolutely loved Pantanal an Iguazu, so I'm hoping it was the same for you.

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Really looking forward to hearing more - any details about snake sightings (particularly anacondas) would be much appreciated :D

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The Amazon

 

After a short mornings birding we headed back to Cuiaba Airport for lunch at a por-kilo restaurant these are common in Brazil and operate as the name suggests on the basis that you pile as much or as you want onto your plate from the buffet put your plate on the scales and then pay according to the weight. After a good meal we boarded our plane for the short flight north up to Alta Floresta. In the north of Mato Grosso the cerrado gives way to the Amazon rainforest or at least it used to, the last part of the flight was really pretty depressing, looking out of the window I began to wonder where the hell’s the rainforest?

 

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Over the years I’ve seen plenty of shocking news reports about the destruction of the Amazon and now I was seeing it for myself, what would once have been continuous solid forest is now a mixture of pasture and crop land with the occasional strip or small island of trees in amongst. It was as if the whole southern edge of the Amazon had just been eaten away, as we got closer to our destination some of the forest patches got somewhat larger.

 

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This was a more hopeful sign perhaps we would find some proper forest after all. Alta Floresta is a dusty frontier town with nothing much to recommend it built by people who came to exploit /destroy the rainforest in the hope of creating a better life for themselves. Our ultimate destination was Cristalino Jungle Lodge but first we needed to stop at their base on the edge of town the Alta Floresta Hotel. This seemed like a pleasant enough hotel though we hadn’t actually come to stay after checking in for the lodge we completed the ubiquitous waiver forms or what I call the if I get eaten by a lion or stomped on by an elephant form though it in this case maybe it should be if I end up inside a giant anaconda it’s entirely my fault. :D Aside from checking in we had another rather better reason to be there, paperwork done we headed out into the garden and then into the little 190 acre patch of forest on beyond in the hope of finding one of South America and the Amazon’s most iconic birds.

 

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It's not just the birds that are colourful this grasshopper was like a jewel

 

However since it was already two o clock in the afternoon we weren’t too hopeful of success just before reaching the end of the trail we were surprised to see a troop of white-whiskered spider monkeys (Ateles marginatus).

 

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This was really nice as I’d never seen wild spider monkeys before and it was very interesting to watch them making using their prehensile tails as an extra limb.

 

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As our time was limited I couldn’t stay and watch them for too long.Though wonderful to see we did think that perhaps the presence of these monkeys so close to the trails end might prove to be a bad sign, just around the corner we came to a rather old and decayed screen made from palm fronds on beyond in the fork of a large tree was huge stick nest.

 

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It seems amazing but enough monkeys of various different species are able to survive in this tiny patch of forest to support a pair of harpy eagles one of the world’s most powerful raptors. The pair of harpies had this year (2012) successfully raised their single chick and it was this chick that we hoped to find, seeing it was always going to be a long shot, as we knew that it had already left the nest. However it was still taking food from the parents so there was a chance that it might be sitting somewhere near the nest, however scanning every branch of the nest tree soon revealed that it wasn’t. Nor was it in any of the other trees nearby perhaps if we’d had more time and had actually been staying at the Hotel or had come a little earlier in the year then we would have seen it. Well I guess we would just have to keep our fingers crossed and try again on our return journey. The spider monkeys were still where we left them so I was able to take many more photos before we had to leave aside from these monkeys we did also manage to find a beautiful white-tailed trogon and a white-necked puffbird (I didn’t get any decent photos of either) so though disappointing not to see the eagle it certainly wasn’t a wasted journey.

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After our search for the harpy we jumped in to the hotel Land Rover for the start of our journey to the lodge much like the flight this proved decidedly depressing as we passed through mile after mile of cattle pasture grazed by large herds of white Brahma cattle the most common breed in Brazil. I was really beginning to wonder where we were going as there didn’t seem to be anything resembling actual rainforest anywhere. The drive along this long stretch of dirt road took roughly 2hrs including a brief stop next to a grove of palm trees to look for a point-tailed palmcreeper which Andrew called in without too much difficulty. When we finally reached the end of the road I walked down to the edge of the Rio Teles Pires and surveyed a much more promising scene, the opposite bank of this sizeable river was clearly covered in rainforest here at last was the Amazon I’d come to see.

 

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After a brief introduction to our boatmen and guide Geralio we quickly sped across the wide expanse of the Teles Pires and in to the much narrower channel of the Rio Cristalino.

 

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This little black water river looked exactly how I imagined a minor tributary of the Amazon would look; things were definitely looking up, after only about 20-30mins we reached the beach/landing area for the lodge.

 

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Cristalino Jungle Lodge is a nice small lodge some of the original bungalow rooms are little basic perhaps but some of the newer ones are relatively luxurious. I’m not usually one for luxury, basic is fine so long the bed’s comfortable the food is edible and the location delivers plenty of wildlife but I have to say that the Amazon jungle is not the most comfortable environment to be in so a bit of luxury at the end of the day is no bad thing. Even so I was quite happy with my basic room which consisted of a couple of beds, a ceiling fan, a small table and chairs, a wardrobe and some shelves for clothes and a simple ensuite bathroom.

 

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The main rooms

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The lodge would be our base for the next four days which would be spent intensively birding the 29,652 acres (46 square miles) of surrounding forest that make up the Cristalino Reserve or a small part of it, hopefully with luck we might get to see some interesting mammals as well. Each day we pretty much followed the same routine. To see birds and other wildlife you have to be out at the right time which usually meant having breakfast at 05:00 or sometimes even at 04:45, some fresh fruit a few fresh pão de queijo a bit of chocolate cake and some Brazilian coffee made getting up at this hour somewhat less painful. We would then be taken by boat out to one of the forest trails and after a good morning walking and birding we would boat back to the lodge for lunch usually around midday.

 

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To my slight surprise most days the middle of the day/afternoon was bright and sunny which was very handy for drying wet clothes it gets very hot and humid in the forest so when walking you obviously tend to get very sweaty. Although the lodge will happily do your laundry as is often the case there’s no guarantee that they’ll get it back to you in time so I tended to do my own, or at least my morning shirt which would be dry before going out again in the afternoon.

 

Instead of a swimming pool they have a nice sundeck out on the river and a cooling swim in the Cristalino during the heat of the day was very pleasant. It’s perhaps a little disconcerting swimming in a black water river but really there’s nothing to fear the local caiman are too small to be of any danger and the fish even piranhas are generally pretty harmless.

 

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Once things had cooled down sufficiently the rest of the afternoon was spent like the mornings going out in the boat and then walking in the forest.

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1. Getting off to a good start

 

Our first morning began with breakfast at 04:45 followed by a fairly short boat ride to the start of a trail over on the other side of the river which leads to Cristalino’s new canopy tower. Starting so early meant that it was still pretty dark in the forest so there wasn’t much to see on the way.

 

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We reached the base of the tower at about ten to five, getting up in to the canopy is an essential rainforest experience and one not to be missed even if you’re really not good with heights and I’m not. As with their original tower located back behind the lodge this tower is 50m high, so climbing the stairs up to the main platform which is at canopy level was quite a challenge but well worth it. The views over the forest are stunning and it was wonderful to see a landscape of nothing but trees in every direction after the devastation we seen on our journey to Cristalino.

 

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Aside from the great views being up in the canopy gives you the opportunity to see a variety of birds that you won’t see at least not easily from down below. Through binoculars and our guide’s telescope we were able to get great views of some amazing birds some quite far away and some very close.

 

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Blue & yellow macaws (Ara ararauna)

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White-throated toucan (Rhamphostos tucanus cuvieri)

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Gould’s toucanet (Selenidera gouldii) displaying

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Violaceous trogon (Trogon ramonianus)

 

Thankfully the tower didn’t move around too much so when I needed to I could watch and photograph the birds without being to bothered by how high up I was, though I found that holding on to the nearest metal rail or strut helped quite a bit. There is a smaller second platform right at the top of the tower but I felt no need to go any higher up, other than for the chance to get perhaps an even better view of the forest there isn’t really any point in going to the top as it’s really too high for bird watching.

 

Besides struggling with being the best part of 50m up in the air there is unfortunately another problem to contend with, as the day starts to warm up sweat bees start to arrive, at times my hands were completely covered in them. While these tiny bees are (in my experience) entirely harmless they are incredibly annoying flying into your eyes, your ears or crawling up your nose usually just when you’re trying to get your bins or camera onto a bird. A little less harmless though thankfully not quite so annoying (if only because there were fewer of them) are the wasps these tiny yellow wasps not much bigger than the bees are also attracted to sweat. Fortunately the wasps don’t seem to get in to your eyes, but they do as I discovered several times have a mildly painful sting, thankfully the pain is fairly short lived. By the time the bees and wasps are starting to get really annoying it’s probably about time to head back down, the bees do have an unfortunate tendency to follow you down but once you’ve walked a certain distance they suddenly disappear.

 

After about three hours up in the canopy we’d had enough and descended, back down to the trail and slowly birded our way back to the boat.

 

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A long way up

 

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One of the Amazon's many colourful beetles

We carried on further up river and re-entered the forest to look for the flame-crowned manakin.

 

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Rio Cristalino

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Flame-crowned manakin (Heterocercus linteatus)

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Collared trogon (Trogon collaris)

After a very successful morning we returned to the lodge around midday.

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Just after 15:00 we jumped back in to the boat and headed up river again.

 

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We soon spotted a pair of Muscovy ducks swimming ahead of us, a nice bird to see in the wild so much better looking than the domestic ones.

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Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata)

 

Rounding the next bend I was really quite surprised to see a pair of capybaras on a little sandy beach.

 

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Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) the largest rodents in the world are extremely common in Brazil but in my mind I associated them more with great wetlands like the Pantanal than rainforests like the Amazon. So I hadn’t expected to see them here however they are at home in the rainforest though they do occur in much smaller numbers because there’s less accessible vegetation for them to feed on. Unlike many other mammals they’re active during the day which makes them rather easier to see.

 

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After not much more than forty minutes in the boat we reached the start of the Brazil Nut Trail that goes through an area of forest where these trees are abundant.

 

Brazil nuts

One of the most important and certainly best known trees in the Amazon is the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) although they are commonly called Brazil nuts they do in fact grow in a number of other South American countries as well. Most people who consume Brazil nuts at least outside South America probably have very little idea of what the tree that produces them actually looks like, how the nuts develop or that virtually all the nuts are harvested from wild trees growing in the rainforest. The Brazil nut tree can grow up to as much as 50 meters in height and unusually for such a large rainforest tree does not produce buttress roots.

 

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The nuts in a sense resemble hard brown orange segments and are actually formed inside a fruit that does look somewhat like a hard brown wooden orange in fact the outer shell of the fruit is so hard that only rodents like the (rabbit sized) agouti are capable of gnawing their way in. The agoutis feed on the nuts or seeds as they should really be called taking the surplus that they can’t eat and burying them around the forest and are thus the main seed distributer for the Brazil nut. Although though the trees do in fact produce valuable timber the economic value of the nuts is considered far more important such that in Brazil (and Bolivia & Peru) it is illegal to fell Brazil nut trees. As a result what tends to happen is if someone has forest that they are determined to clear they leave all the Brazil nut trees but when these trees are left isolated in a sea of pasture or crop land it is unlikely that they will ever fruit again, so there will be no more nuts defeating the object of the law. The reason for this is that Brazil nut tree flowers are only pollinated by a particular species of bee and only by the large females which are strong enough to get into the flowers; the male bees depend on and pollinate a particular species of epiphytic orchid Coryanthes vasquezii which doesn’t grow on Brazil nut trees. So no surrounding forest, no orchids, no orchids no bees, no bees no Brazil nuts this is why it’s almost impossible to grow Brazil nuts successfully in plantations. So you might say if you want to save the Amazon rainforest eat more Brazil nuts but if the nuts are over harvested then that can reduce natural regeneration of the trees, so you need to ensure you leave enough for the agoutis to carry away and plant.

 

Soon after five we made it back to the boat and then boated up and down the river as the light faded in search of the elusive zigzag heron. Being very secretive these birds are not at all easy to find they are best located by their calls however they usually only call at dusk which makes the task even harder. We could hear their calls, described as a forcefully exhaled ooh but despite much searching we were unable to locate one. However we did manage to find a boat-billed heron, a nocturnal species that looks not unlike a black-crowned night heron except for its large (almost shoebill like) boat shaped bill.

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Boat-billed heron (Cochlearius cochlearius)

 

Shortly afterwards we found a paca these rodents are much smaller and red brown in colour with white spots much like a deer fawn we picked this one up with a spotlight as it attempted to hide in amongst the roots of a fallen tree. Pacas are entirely nocturnal so not nearly as easy to see and I was very pleased to have seen this one though I wasn’t able to take any photos in fact all I could really see through my bins was a patch of red/brown fur with white spots. Not a bad end to our first day at Cristalino.

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2. Just another average day in the Amazon

 

Before setting off on our second morning we were informed that our regular boatmen Geralio could take us out to the start of the Cacao Trail just across the river from Lodge but another boatman would have to collect us at the other end. On this particular day there happened to be an election taking place and in Brazil voting is compulsory so all the lodge staff had to taken in shifts into Alta Floresta to vote. This made no difference to our plans, some years previously Andrew had worked at Cristalino as a volunteer guide so knew all the trails extremely well. Saying goodbye to our boat we set off along the Cacao Trail (Trilha do Cacau) for what proved to be a successful mornings birding.

 

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The Forest

Rainforest Birding

 

Rainforest birding is always seriously challenging especially in South America, just within the Cristalino region there are some 600 species (so far recorded) that’s roughly half the bird species found in the whole of the Amazon. So birding at Cristalino isn’t too easy but with the right guide you should be able to rack up a pretty good haul and if you’re looking to increase your life list then Cristalino is a great place to visit. For the serious birder inside the forest really the only way to see most of the birds is to call them in, for this you need an iPod or similar loaded with bird calls and ideally some sophisticated recording equipment or least a good mic so you can record birds on the spot and play them straight back. If you’re lucky you will chance upon a mixed feeding flock or you’re guide will find one because he’s heard the calls of one of the species that lead these flocks, then things can get pretty exciting with birds coming thick and fast from every direction. Actually getting your binoculars on to these often pretty small birds as they move through the tangle of vegetation isn’t easy which is why the best bird guides these days are equipped with laser pointers. The trick is not to shine the light on the bird but on the branch it’s sitting on or the tree trunk or a leaf or anything close enough for everyone to get on to the bird but not so close to scare it away, the guide should know from experience how different bird species will react to the light.

 

When I say it can get pretty exciting I mean it can if you’re a serious birder, if you’re not interested in seeing a dozen different antwrens you may just think that birders are well just a little bit crazy. You set off up the trail, your guide then hears one of the birds he’s looking for calling somewhere behind you so you all turn round and go back down the trail, he then records the bird and tries to call it in, only for it call again from back the other way so you then head off back up the trail. He then realises that you won’t be able to find it from the trail and you need to go off-piste so you then carefully negotiate your way through the undergrowth to get into the middle of some bamboo thicket or such like in the hope of getting a decent glimpse of the bird. A bird that most people would think was a pretty boring LBJ and when you do actually see it you would swear that you’d already seen it yesterday but of course that was an entirely different species of antbird, antshrike, antwren or whatever that just happens to look almost exactly the same.

 

While birding is not generally what you’d call a dangerous activity it’s not without its hazards especially when you’re going off-piste all the time, in the Amazon after a while you start to think everything bites, while you may be lucky enough to avoid the ants (I wasn’t) you will in certain places get eaten alive by mosquitoes and when you’ve returned to the comfort of your room you will likely discover that you’ve gathered a fair collection of tiny ticks. So it’s a good idea to tuck your trousers into your socks and wear lots of insect repellent and also to have a gadget for removing ticks by far the best I’ve come across is the O’Tom Tick Twister and I would certainly recommend getting some of these not just for the Amazon but if you’re going to be walking anywhere in the world. I should say in case I’ve put everyone off that if you stay on the trails then insects aren’t nearly such a problem, if you spend a lot of time going in to the undergrowth as we did then you get bitten rather more or at least you do if you haven’t applied plenty of Deet.

 

Along the Cacao Trail we encountered a number of really good feeding flocks recording loads of new birds most of which I wasn’t able to photograph. Here’s a few I did get.

 

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Red-headed manakin (Pipra rubricapilla)

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Grey elaenia (myopagis caniceps)

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Great jacamar (Jacamerops aureus)

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Ringed woodpecker (Celeus torquatus)

 

In fact by the end I felt that there’d been almost too many birds to take in, even so it had been good so far and there are many other beautiful creatures in the Amazon beside the birds like this owl butterfly, easy to photograph with the wings closed not so easy with the wings open unless your guide catches one.

 

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Owl Butterfly (Caligo idomeneus)

 

Although this particular trail is pretty short because we were walking very slowly most of the time and doing a fair bit of back tracking and going off piste it took us the best part of five hours to reach the trails end on the river bank at about 11:00. We sat down on the river bank expecting our substitute boatmen would arrive shortly to collect us, well by about 12:00 he hadn’t arrived and not hearing any sign of a boat engine it seemed he wasn’t coming clearly he’d forgotten. So we were now stranded in the forest with no way of communicating with the lodge and no idea how long it would take before someone noticed that we hadn’t returned for lunch. Andrew then decided that there was really only one option he would have to swim back to the lodge and tell them to send a boat. We were just slightly taken aback at this suggestion, my initial reaction was that’s crazy you can’t be serious, but he was serious. He assured us that he was a strong swimmer, he’d swum in the river many times and really it wasn’t that far, so he would be perfectly okay and he would be going down stream with the current. Well we thought he was mad but he wouldn’t be dissuaded, removing his boots, camera, binoculars and recording gear but not his glasses he climbed down the bank waded out in to the river and quickly disappeared behind a tangle of vegetation.

 

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Yellow-spotted River turtles (Podocnemis unifilis)

 

A little while later we were passed by a boat coming back from upstream they clearly saw us waving as they went by and were no doubt a little surprised when they passed Andrew in the river. Not too long after that a boat finally arrived to collect us, heading back it soon became clear that the lodge was much closer than I’d thought. Thanks to the other boat the message had got back rather quicker so we actually arrived back just in time to find Andrew happily swimming towards the sundeck. It was a huge relief to see that he had made it back safely; clearly swimming back hadn’t been such a crazy idea. At the time when we were waiting for the boat because we’d been birding for about five hours I’d had no idea how far we’d actually walked. It seemed like a long way but of course it wasn’t and I now know that the Cacao Trail is actually only about 1.5kms or 0.93 miles in length. The river goes around a number of bends between the lodge and the far end of the Cacao Trail so the distance by river is just a little further, I would say looking at Google Earth it’s probably just a little over 2kms or 1.3 miles. Which I suppose really isn’t that far, at least it wouldn’t be if you’re walking but if you’re swimming well then perhaps it is quite far, it’s certainly further than I’d want to swim. A pretty extraordinary end to a mornings birding but when Andrew arrived for lunch suitably dried off he shrugged off what he’d done as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, all in a day’s work for a bird guide. We were very grateful that thanks to his heroic efforts we were back at the lodge enjoying a nice lunch and not still sat in the forest.

 

Sometimes you don’t have to go out looking for the birds this one was in a tree outside the dining room.

 

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Dusky-billed parrotlet (Forpus sclateri)

Had we stayed stuck in the forest much longer it would have been somewhat inconvenient but I’m sure somebody would have come to look for us eventually. Although we might have got a little hungry and we could have all ended up getting very wet we weren’t in any real danger but the Amazon can be a dangerous place.

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The Amazon rainforest holds many dangers but what is the most dangerous thing in the forest? Well it certainly isn’t the piranhas, giant anacondas or army ants of Hollywood imagination. Nor is it the unseen bushmaster one of South America’s most dangerous snakes or even the Brazilian wandering spider the most venomous spider in the world. No the most dangerous thing in the forest I believe is something far less exotic than any of these deadly creatures.

 

After lunch I headed over to the sundeck as usual taking my reading book and my cameras and binoculars.

 

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After a cooling swim in the dark waters of the Cristalino I sat and read my book. However after a while I suddenly noticed that the sky the other side of the river had grown awfully dark, I put down my book and picked up my EOS 350D to take some shots of the trees against the dark steel blue/grey clouds.

 

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Then suddenly the wind got up creating a great spiral of leaves over the forest, there was clearly quite a storm coming, after watching the first few flashes of lightening I decided it would be unwise to hang around any longer. I hadn’t brought my poncho, I wasn't worried about getting wet myself but I was worried about my cameras, so I grabbed my stuff and decided to make a dash for the lodge. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to make it back to my room but I thought I would at least be able to reach the dining room before the rain came down. When I reached the path back through the trees to the garden I was shocked to see a sizeable tree branch lying on the path, I hadn’t heard it come down but it definitely hadn’t been there when I’d walked out to the deck.

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So perhaps the most dangerous thing in the forest is actually the wind and falling trees or branches. Walking in the forest on another day I felt decidedly nervous when the wind got up. Despite it being a long way from the deck back to my room I actually managed to make it all the way back just before the rain which then came down in torrents I guess I’d been very lucky.

 

It continued to rain solidly until nearly four when it finally stopped we decided to go for just a fairly short walk down along the Bamboo Trail at the back off the lodge this provided us with perhaps one of the strangest animal encounters of the trip.

 

After walking for perhaps not quite an hour we noticed the dark shape of an animal standing on its own in a little stream bed and realised it was a white-lipped peccary, a very pig like animal normally found in large herds. It seemed a little agitated by our presence and started to make an extraordinary and very loud clacking noise with its teeth as peccaries do when they’re alarmed. It was odd to see one of these animals on its own and when we stopped to take a look we could see that it was stressed, it clearly knew we were there yet made no attempt to run away. We decided to leave the poor beast and carry on to find some more birds a little later we returned the same way expecting to find that the peccary had gone and were amazed to see it was still there. So I decided to try and get some photos using my flash, again expecting the peccary to run off as I approached, but it didn’t instead it just clacked its teeth again and then turned around several times on the spot appearing to bite at its rump or hind leg it seemed to be in pain or certainly sick.

 

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White-lipped peccary (Tayasu pecari)

 

The only explanation we could come up with for this extremely odd behaviour was that it might have been bitten by a snake. Whatever the case unless it miraculously recovered from whatever was wrong with it I assumed it wouldn’t last much longer and might very likely fall victim to a jaguar or puma which would probably be a blessing.

 

After taking just a few photos we left not want to cause the animal any further stress and carried on walking back through the wet forest to the lodge, a somewhat strange end to a rather eventful and decidedly unusual day, certainly a day I won’t forget in a very long time.

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@@inyathi

 

Just caught up with this...truly a brilliant report!

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@@Paolo thanks for the kind words

 

@@africapurohit no anacondas I’m afraid but one gorgeous snake coming up next watch this space

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3. Snakes for breakfast and monkeys for lunch

 

From past experience I’ve found that seeing mammals in rainforests can be a bit of a challenge often more so than seeing the birds. However spending so much time walking in the forest I felt sure that we would at the very least see both squirrels and monkeys if no other mammals. There are at least six or seven species of diurnal monkeys at Cristalino so I was just a little surprised and disappointed that after two whole days we hadn’t seen a single one. (We did see a Neotropical pygmy squirrel somewhere before we left). With two and a bit days left we must surely find some monkeys somewhere before leaving.

 

Our third morning got off to a good start when it was announced during breakfast that one of the staff had caught a beautiful coral snake the night before, the snake had been kept in a dustbin over night. After breakfast this colourful but very venomous snake was released to return unharmed in to the forest.

 

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coral snake (Micrurus surinamensis I think)

 

Disappointingly I only saw one other snake in Brazil a small harmless boa of some kind also at Cristalino curled up on a beam under the eaves of one of the buildings, unusually I didn’t have my camera with me so I didn’t take a photo.

 

After the brief excitement provided by the coral snake we walked over to the boat and set off back up the river spotting this nice bird on the way

 

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Razor-billed curassow (Mitu tuberosum)

 

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The river in the early morning

 

We returned to end of the Cacao Trail where we been stranded the day before from there we took another trail the Sierra Trail that goes up a fairly steep rocky hill up on top of which is an area of what’s referred to as drought deciduous submontane forest. This rocky much drier more open habitat supports a bunch of species not found in the wetter forest below, although a little steep in places it wasn’t too hard going and there was a rope alongside to help you up. Close to the top we stopped at a viewpoint which provided us with an excellent view over the forest, and was a great place from which to scan for birds with a telescope.

 

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Great to see so much forest

 

After we been there for the best part of two hours spotting all kinds of birds I put my eye to the telescope and to my amazement found I was looking straight at a whole troop of spider monkeys hanging about in the top of a tree. They were an awfully long way away so I was very glad to have already seen them so well back at Alta Floresta even so it’s always nice to be able to watch animals that are completely unaware of your presence. They were much too far away to get decent photos with my 100-400mm lens but I took a shot anyway.

 

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White-whiskered spider monkeys Cristalino's signature species

As the time approached 09:00 it was starting to really warm up and just like when we been up the canopy tower the sweat bees arrived, signalling it was time to move on.

 

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The dry rocky landscape of the Sierra Trail

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Amongst the rocks there were pools of water supporting various dragonflies I don't know the species

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Paradise jacamar (Galbula dea)

 

After about an hour and a half of successful birding walking across this pretty open rocky terrain it was starting to get punishingly hot and we agreed that it was probably time to head back down. As my water bottle was nearly empty it was a relief to get back under the shade of the lower forest and then to the boat. While it had been a great walk it was nice to know that we would soon be back at the lodge for lunch and wouldn’t be stranded this time as Geralio had accompanied us up the Trilha do Serra so this time we had both a boatman and a boat.

 

Back at the lodge

 

I returned to the room to change out of my sweaty clothes and then headed for the dining room a few minutes’ walk away having taken quite a bit of exercise I was quite keen to get to lunch. Reaching the small strip of forest that separates the rooms from the main buildings I was delighted to find a whole troop of boisterous tufted capuchins feeding in the trees. I always carry my cameras with me even when going to lunch just in case so my own lunch was considerably delayed while I photographed the monkeys having theirs.

 

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Tufted capuchin (Cebus paella)

 

During my afternoon swim I rescued this beautiful caterpillar from the river I’ve no idea what species it is.

 

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In the afternoon we took the boat in the opposite direction heading downstream spotting some common birds along the way

 

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Green ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis)

back to the Rio Teles Pires to bird some of the islands in the river to look for birds not so easily seen elsewhere.

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Rio Teles Pires

 

We soon found most of our targets which was fortunate because at around twenty past four a storm came in and we had to take shelter in some abandoned buildings for about half an hour while it seriously poured with rain. The rain finally stopped just before sunset having so our birding had been cut somewhat short and we decided it would be best just to head back to the lodge as quickly as possible in case the rain returned.

 

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Sunset on the Rio Teles Pires

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@@inyathi your ID of the snake is correct (also known as the Surinam Coral Snake) - beautiful photo and happy it was released unharmed. Enjoyed the caterpillar photo too.

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4. Ants and antbirds

 

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Another group going up river

Heading up river again ourselves, we saw quite a few nice water birds, on our way to the forest.

 

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Sunbittern (Europygya helias)

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Sun grebe (Heliornis fulica)

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Rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)

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The Amazon Rainforest

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Rio Cristalino

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This morning we walked the Dr Haffer Trail which is characterised by lots of dense bamboo thickets and is particularly good for birds. Not too long after entering the forest we heard the whooping calls of a group of dusky titi monkeys but we couldn’t see them. So Andrew recorded their calls and tried to call them in, this didn’t appear to work at first and I feared it might actually drive them away but eventually the titis responded and came to have a look, which was great. However they were moving so quickly through the tangled vegetation that while I was able to get a reasonable albeit brief view of one through my binoculars try as I might I couldn’t get any photos.

 

In the Amazon even birds that are supposedly quite common often have a fairly restricted distribution within the forest because they favour very specific habitats like bamboo thickets for example. So a lot of birds can be seen along this trail that you may not see along other trails notably various antbirds most of which we managed to find. All over the Neotropics there are a whole host of different birds with names prefixed by the word ant, e.g. antbirds, antshrikes, antwrens, antthrushes, antpittas etc this is not because these birds eat ants but generally because they follow ant swarms catching the insects and other invertebrates trying to escape from the ants. If you manage to find for example a column of army ants then you will likely find a fair few of these birds, if you can’t find any foraging ants then you need to call the birds in. Of course if you do find any ants it is best not to get too close, in the rainforest in my experience almost all ants have a tendency to bite. On this walk I made the mistake of stepping off the trail to try and get a better view of a bird and must have accidently disturbed an ants nest, they weren’t army ants they were some much smaller orange variety luckily I didn't get too many on me as their bites were quite painful, thankfully the pain was short lived. Despite the ants this was another great bird walk that ended with some beautiful crimson-bellied parakeets but I had no more lucky photographing any of the birds than I’d had with the titi monkeys.

 

Back at the lodge I found this beautiful lizard in the garden.

 

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Striped Forest Whiptail (Kentropyx calcarata)

 

In search of an umbrella

 

In the afternoon we went out for just a fairly short walk finding more nice birds like this puffbird.

 

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Brown-banded puffbird (Notharchus ordii)

 

All the time that we were walking I could hear the extraordinary calls of red-handed howler monkeys a sound somewhat akin to the noise of a high wind they sounded really quite close but we never saw them, we also at times heard them from the boat but again never saw them.

 

Returning to the boat we set off down river back to the Rio Teles Pires thanks to the rain shower the previous afternoon we’d missed our opportunity to search for one of the rainforest’s stranger looking birds the Amazonian umbrellabird. At around dusk male umbrellabirds have a tendency to sit up on the top of tall trees and emit strange low didgeridoo like calls and they can often be seen on forested islands in the Teles Pires. The Amazonian species is entirely black with a crest that slightly resembles an umbrella and a long inflatable wattle hanging from the neck which it uses to amplify its call, the male is a big bird in fact it's the largest passerine bird in South America. Sure enough after a good deal of searching a male bird did appear but so briefly that I wasn’t quick enough with my camera mind you the light was pretty low so it’s unlikely I would have got a decent shot. Still even without any photos it was a very nice end to the day and a definite highlight of my time birding in the Amazon Rainforest.

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