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.
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.
Red-headed manakin (Pipra rubricapilla)
Grey elaenia (myopagis caniceps)
Great jacamar (Jacamerops aureus)
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.
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.
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.
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.