Field Guides’ inaugural run of the “Great Rivers of the Amazon: Birding the Madeira-Tapajos Interfluvium” tour might be described as a complicated success. Complicated in a “mother-naturedly” kind of way, as the tour was preceded by nearly three months of extraordinarily dry conditions that dictated we alter our route quite dramatically. Successful in that we generated a fine list of specialties of the central Amazon, made some exciting discoveries about what occurs where, went birding in numerous places no one had ever before investigated, and had a whole lot of fun living on the boat for nigh on two weeks.
Trouble started just before the tour got underway: the entrance to the interfluvium on the Rio Uraria (often spelled Araria), a narrow waterway near the town of Nova Olinda do Norte, had dropped to levels too low for our big boat, the Cichla Ocellaris, to get in. So, I arranged for the Cichla to depart Manaus two days early to make the huge loop around to Maues thence back west to the Madeira while Pepe and I took the group to Borba, an old town on the right (east) bank of the Madeira a couple of hours above Nova Olinda do Norte. I’d been to Borba three times over the years and knew we’d find good birding in the vicinity, while giving the Cichla time to get around to the upper Uraria. Plan B worked to perfection… but the fires had not been put out. Literally. People all across the Madeira-Tapajos region had been taking advantage of the very dry conditions that had prevailed for many weeks to set fire to forest and fields on a massive scale. Thus, a pallor of smoke hung over the landscape and rivers and settled over the towns all along the east bank of the Madeira. The loss of primary forest during this period, especially around towns with significant human populations (like Nova Olinda do Norte and Borba), was devastating, and heartbreaking to witness. This included a large amount of forest that these people had not intended to destroy, lost in the spread from burning fields and second-growth. Our first morning at Borba was the worst. Every bird was colored orangey-brown by the bright sun attempting to shine through the haze, and every breath we took carried the smell and taste of the smoke. There was no escape from it; all we could do was carry on and try to find some unburned forest and campina habitat to have a chance at finding the many great birds inhabiting this region of Amazonia. Sadly, good habitat near town that I’d worked as recently as October, 2013, was completely wiped out in the fires. Fortunately, we eventually managed to access both campina and tall terra firme forest to find a number of “Mad-Tap specialties”, particularly the little-known Brown-breasted Barbet, Hoffmann’s Woodcreeper, and the rarely seen Pale-faced Bare-eye at an army ant swarm – but what a fantastic bird to see, surely among the “most hoped-for” on everyone’s list. Unfortunately, there was no sign of White-breasted Antbird there (darn!). Despite monumental effort, we could do no better than a shape flying overhead and lots of song from the as-yet-undescribed species of shrike-vireo I discovered not far from Borba in July, 2010. The campina yielded brief but good, close views of the distinctive (species-level) form of Least Nighthawk we have been working on for years now (it’s “getting there”, don’t worry!), and truly superb studies of a pair of Amazonian Scrub-Flycatchers.
As we departed Borba on the speed-launch, headed down the Madeira to Nova Olinda do Norte, I quietly but ardently hoped that we’d arrive in a couple of hours to make the short (10 kilometers) overland drive to the Uraria, and there find the Cichla Ocellaris waiting for us. This was a HUGE unknown, really, because any number of things (key miscalculations in speed of the Cichla on the Amazonas and/or parana dos Ramos, or the Uraria by us; accidents; “acts of God”) could easily delay her arrival by hours, or a day or more. I won’t keep you in suspense. On arrival at Nova Olinda do Norte, we learned that the Cichla had dropped anchor at the prescribed meeting point a mere two hours ahead of our arrival, having motored some 45 hours non-stop from Manaus. HALLELUJAH, baby! And just like that, we were perfectly back on-track with the planned itinerary. Depressingly, however, widespread burning had left this entire region under smoke just as dense as we’d seen at Borba. There was nothing to do but head down the Uraria, planning to wake up next morning on the lower Rio Abacaxis. We did indeed make that run, but awoke to yet more deep purple smoke on the waters ;-) Then, to add insult to injury, two weird things happened: our local guide got fouled up with his directions getting us to the main birding trail and, amazingly, a sudden, fairly hard rain came up, the first the locals had seen in about three months. Thus, that morning produced little of much interest (except for a dynamite pair of Glossy Antshrikes and a few other river-edge birds), and we got drenched getting back to the Cichla. But then, we were on the Cichla, in a wild part of the Amazon, and you just can’t have a really bad day, ever, on those boats! That afternoon we got in some very productive birding with the scopes set up at the edge of tall forest, and enjoyed seeing toucans, woodpeckers, and a variety of flycatchers. Unfortunately, however, it rained hard the next morning, shutting us out of birding a fine terra firme forest trail that I’d very much wanted us to work. When rain hadn’t let up by late morning, we had to move on, and so turned the bow back east and motored on to the Rio Paracuni, a small tributary of the Urariá that looked promising on satellite imagery. The rain followed us along. The long dry period was over, we would soon discover, as rain or the threat of it accompanied us for much of the rest of the tour. This had the very welcome effect, however, of washing the smoke out of the atmosphere, and just a couple of days later we were seeing little of the haze that had so dominated the air for the first five days.
That morning on the Paracuni was a real beauty. Except for the fact that we were in a place that no one (including me!) had ever birded, the day started like most mornings in the Amazon, with a walk into tall, fairly quiet forest, not a lot happening right off the bat. This was a brand-new trail, opened an hour earlier by our crew of woodsmen. First came a couple of encounters with mixed-species flocks that produced nice views of several understory species. Listening to a distant canopy flock, I heard a nice surprise: a dawn-singing Glossy-backed Becard, unknown (but not really unexpected) in this area. We managed to pull in the pair of becards for good views on dead branches high overhead, and a pair of Red-necked Aracaris and a Bar-breasted Piculet also graced the scope. Further along the trail, Yellow-throated, Golden-green, and (magnificent!) Red-necked woodpeckers all showed up. Then a pair of Bald Parrots, a spectacular Mad-Tap endemic described to science less than 20 years ago, rocketed overhead. I hollered to “Look up!”, but there was no chance to see them through the dense rainforest canopy. I mentioned to folks that it was a good sign, just hearing them, and that we’d “stay tuned” as we walked further into the forest. We didn’t have to go too far before I heard the distinctive calls of a perched Bald Parrot. The bird was dreadfully far off, but I told folks, “Occasionally, these birds will actually fly in and land close in response to playback, so please hold very still in case that happens.” I played a loud recording of calls several times over a period of a couple of minutes, then suddenly, a pair of Bald Parrots blasted in to perch a mere 20 feet in front of us, exactly where we were all silently praying they would appear! It was a stunning moment, and every single person present did exactly the right thing: they looked at the birds quietly, without pointing or saying a word, as they raised their bin’s slowly. The pair of parrots, shocked to find a bunch of gringos at very close range, simply froze in place, barely moving a muscle, and stayed put for more than three minutes. They were so close that we dared not move to put the scope on them (and they were literally too close for the scope), but as they calmed down over the next several minutes, and moved around us curiously (they may never have seen a human being at close range) we all enjoyed repeated scope studies of these gorgeous, bizarre parrots. Check out the video embedded in the triplist, below!
"OK, what’s next?" somebody fairly innocently asked. I said (as I usually do), “Who knows, that’s what’s so fun about birding, especially in places where nobody has ever birded!” It didn’t take too long to get to what was next: a fabulous, perched White-browed Hawk! The bird flew before all could get onto it, but a recording soon brought it back for superb scope viewing, relatively low in the forest midstory. Onward. We eventually came to the end of our trail. Looking at the spot, it struck me as right-on for Black-bellied Gnateater, so I said, “I’m gonna just toss out a little bait for Black-bellied Gnateater, looks great for it here.” Almost instantaneously, a dashing male bounded out of the understory. Most folks weren’t ready for it (especially so quickly!), and it was tricky getting everyone into position without spooking the bird, but we soon had all bin’s properly trained, and he eventually performed even better, allowing prolonged viewing for most of us. Black-bellied Gnateater is high on my list of Amazonian favorites, and we were really happy to find this pair (a couple of lucky folks got to see the female as well) and get everyone a good view. Not to be greedy, but we’d sure been hoping for a nice swarm of army ants, where we might be able to make up the lost shot at Harlequin Antbird on the lower Abacaxis. There was still plenty of time…
We made our way eastward to the town of Maues, and, after a stop to refuel and re-provision the galley, we headed south into the night, ascending the ocean-wide Rio Maues-acu. It was Halloween, and Kathy ably assumed the role of Mistress of Ceremonies, getting everyone ready for festivities that evening by showing up in costume (any costume one might scrape together) for the checklist session/happy hour. It was great fun, and hard to pick a clear winner among the complement of imaginative outfits around the dining room, as you will see in the video! October 31 was also a landmark birthday for Linda, which we celebrated with a top-deck cookout under starry skies. We awoke next morning as we made our way slowly up a narrow sidestream of the main river. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was mostly at our backs as we scanned the banks and near-range treetops for birds and other wildlife. We saw at least seven Sungrebes (and more than 50 on the whole trip!), mainly because the water was so low that these skulkers were exposed to view instead of hidden behind river-margin shrubbery. Pepe picked up an adult Agami Heron, and skillful maneuvering of the Cichla got us into position for a good scope angle. We spent a night there, which allowed us to put in a couple of terra firme forest trails to explore that afternoon, and the next morning.
We were now well into the range of the spectacular, yet rarely seen Golden Parakeet. I decided the best strategy for spotting these birds might be to tie up to the east bank, in a shady spot, and do a post-breakfast “big sit” for an hour or so, to watch for parakeets and other birds waking up to the rising sun, in perfect light across the stream. Good call! Our plan worked really nicely, as aracaris, toucans, jacamars, trogons, raptors (including another White-browed Hawk!), and parrots seemed to appear in procession… but there was no sign of Golden Parakeets. The mega-highlight that morning was Pepe calling out, “Bret! Look at this bird!” I immediately got to the scope, and Pepe was right, he had spotted a fabulous (if very distant) adult male White-tailed Cotinga! The bird stuck for a couple of minutes, but not really long enough for everyone to get soul-satisfying views. After a hiatus of perhaps 10 minutes (during which a trio of Red-fan Parrots showed up), we found the cotinga again, this time considerably closer, and all got to scope it at length. This fancy cotinga is endemic to lower Amazonia, east of the Rio Madeira, but its distribution is poorly known, especially relative to the other two members of the genus Xipholena (Pompadour and White-winged cotingas).
It was now time to hit the trail, barely 07:00(!), as we made our way into tall, undisturbed forest that, once again, no biologists or birders had ever investigated. We enjoyed numerous fine sightings of birds that morning, but two species were outstanding: a super-cooperative male Banded Antbird that stood on a log right in front of us for several minutes (check out the video, below; we walked away from him!), and, after considerable effort chasing around a canopy flock, the newly described Sucunduri Yellow-margined Flycatcher. I had discovered this bird, and recognized its distinctive song as representing an undescribed, species-level taxon, back in 1995. But it was not until 2013 that Brazilian colleagues and I managed to gather enough data to present its formal description, christening it Tolmomyias sucunduri in the Special Volume (#16) of The Handbook of the Birds of the World (see taxonomic notes in the triplist, below). Three additional days in this general area were also very productive, particularly a morning on a clandestine logging road we found. I’m sure you all remember well that very steep climb up from the river to the terra firme terrace (the video will “refresh” you ;-), and the parrot that rewarded us! This and all other steep riverbank ascents were greatly facilitated by our trusty boat crew, who installed steps and handrails for us. Another event I know all of you will never forget from that day was our twilight canoe trip along that haunting stand of ancient Eshweilera trees, with caprimulgids all around us, Band-tailed and Lesser nighthawks overhead, and displaying pairs of Ladder-tailed Nightjars cutting circles around the boats.
At this point in the tour, I’d hoped that we’d have found Harlequin Antbirds (restricted to the eastern half of the Mad-Tap interfluve), and, of course, Golden Parakeets – yet both remained at large. We were quickly counting down to blast-off for the return trip to Manaus as well. I made a decision to ascend another small tributary, where we’d stand a good chance of hearing and seeing fly-over Golden Parakeets (which I could bring down to perch with playback) as well as open trail into tall terra firme forest, here deep in the range of Harlequin Antbird. We would have the balance of the afternoon, and the following early morning, then hightail it downriver. The sun beat down relentlessly as we gingerly pushed upstream on the narrow igarape (small Amazonian stream). Only a mile or so above the mouth, the water became too shallow to proceed (we actually got stuck for a half-hour). After lunch and a siesta (which was our rhythm every day of the tour), we started another big-sit vigil for parakeets. It was so sunny on the top deck, however, that I gave up after an hour and a half, and called for everyone to board the canoes for exploration upriver, as far as we might be able to go. Not 20 minutes later, as we drifted beneath shading trees along the narrow stream, we heard a flock of Golden Parakeets screaming from the area back toward the boat! Daggummit, that flock of parakeets would have been in perfect view from the top deck, but it was invisible to us, in the canoes. Our trail-choppers put in a good path for us late that afternoon. Near dusk, most of us had returned to the mothership to clean up for dinner, but Pepe, Jesper, and Harry stayed in the canoe that went to pick up the choppers – and were rewarded with a flock of a dozen Golden Parakeets flying over the ridge above the stream – congratulations, you lucky rascals! I figured these sightings boded well for a big sit early next morning.
Dawn found us at the breakfast table, on the top deck of the Cichla. It was a fine morning and bird activity was good, among the highlights being another fine male White-tailed Cotinga that performed multiple aerial displays for his (unseen, by us) desired mate. I tried to make a little video of that bird, which I’ll drop into the list, below. But no Golden Parakeets showed on the scene. Finally, we needed to get onto the newly cut trail. It was a great trail, for sure, but we saw few birds of note (not many new species) and no ant swarm. This stung, for sure, because it meant closure to our hope of finding Harlequin Antbird. Thus, strangely(!), we missed both White-breasted and Harlequin antbirds on the tour, but had a great encounter with the (generally much more difficult) Pale-faced Bare-eye. Such are the highs and lows of one’s birding life!
Studying the maps at this juncture, we reckoned we had time for two good morning birding sessions and two afternoon bouts before we needed to be back in Manaus for international flights. But I also wanted to get us back there in time for a quick late-afternoon dash to the Ducke Reserve at the edge of town, where Marcelo Barreiros had found a nesting Rufous Potoo several weeks earlier; I’d learned that the fast-growing chick was still on the nest. Potential snafus were many, mostly having to do with low water levels north of Maues impeding our passage to the main trunk of the Rio Amazonas. Should we find that the waterways were now too shallow, we’d lose perhaps a full day to rerouting the Cichla. Information from local river pilots of vessels of similar size was, “Yep, it’s real low and dropping, but you’ll probably be ok if you go through in the next 1-2 days.” Of course, we didn’t pass along all of this information to you beloved passengers, it only would have raised fears of a late arrival in Manaus, with the associated anxiety. So, I decided to simply go for it, and we sailed straight along into the night…
Happily, we awoke next morning at precisely the point I’d marked with my GPS. The sky was heavily overcast and it was spitting rain as we boarded the canoes and did a swing around some open areas, seeing Lesser and Wing-banded horneros, Orange-fronted Yellow-Finches, and assorted other species as I sussed out a propitious spot for a landing that might produce a wealth of “whitewater” birds new for our trip. In this poorly known area (I had never been through this part of our route), we might well find several species new for the Mad-Tap interfluve… if we could access the proper habitats. I spotted a house set back from the river edge, on a low bluff, high enough that it probably would not flood every year. As we pulled the canoes up and started to make the steep ascent to the level of the house, the owner of the place came out to meet us. I immediately struck up a friendly conversation with him, and quickly realized that here was a heart of gold, a caboclo (river-person) who was ready to accept these unheralded visitors with open arms and lead us back through his watermelons, beans, and corn to the distant forest edge I had indicated was what we wanted. Light rain accompanied our single-file procession through the tangle of agriculture and second-growth, and then, amazingly, it stopped just as we stepped foot under the canopy of tall, seasonally flooded (= varzea) forest. Birds were zipping around and singing everywhere in there! We tallied something on the order of 50 species in an hour, all in a scope of 100 yards. Highlights included Varzea Piculet, White-throated Woodpecker, Scaled Spinetail, and Plain Softtail, all essentially unknown from the region. All three of the flooded-forest woodcreepers – Striped, Straight-billed, and the little-known Zimmer’s – came into the same set of treetrunks, right in front of us, for perfect comparisons. We even pulled up the distinctive but enigmatic C. t. snethlageae “subspecies” of Red-billed Scythebill, a bird very few people have seen – fantastic!
The balance of the tour played out as we returned to Manaus, as the boat crew had to deal with a series of low-water detours and a new round of thick smoke from the burning of forests east of Manaus. We had dropped some four hours behind schedule, but still managed to make it to Manaus with just enough time to dash out to Ducke. A quick stop on the way in, at a place I’d had pretty good luck with Black-faced Hawk (sister-species of White-browed Hawk) over the years, paid off bigtime as a fine adult called back to us a couple of times then flew in for a minute or so of scope viewing – excellent! And the Rufous Potoo chick, a fascinating little creature, was indeed “home”, sitting stock-still on its stub, awaiting nightfall for a feeding from its parents, who we were unable to locate on their day roosts that must have been in the immediate vicinity. After a relaxed final dinner aboard the Cichla and lots of heartfelt good-byes from all, we made our way to the airport in plenty of time for flights home.
What a grand tour this was! I’m so thankful to all of you for trusting us to get it right – a true exploratory journey in the heart of the Amazon. We’ll do another run in 2017, moving the dates to August, when water levels will be high enough to guarantee easy passage. And I think I’ll keep Borba in the route, having appreciated our three days there despite the widespread burning and significant loss of forest near town. Pepe and I greatly enjoyed birding with all of you, and send our best wishes for an enlightening and safe 2016 ahead! I'll make relatively few comments in the body of the following list, and try to get it online for you promptly now, after a long, year-end delay (thanks for you patience!).
Com grandes abraços para todos voces! -- Bretche
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Other neat creatures:
Smoky Jungle Frog
Gladiator Tree Frog
Sphinx Moth Caterpillar
Totals for the tour: 374 bird taxa and 12 mammal taxa