Amazonian Brazil: Alta Floresta Jul 31—Aug 11, 2005
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
Never before have we seen Alta Floresta so dry. As of the beginning of our trip, the area had gone over 90 days without rain, and the forest showed it. Trails were covered with crackly dry leaf litter, the deciduous forest atop the Serra Trail was devoid of foliage, and everything looked water-stressed. The impact on the birds was obvious. With few insects around, most birds had shut down any semblance of breeding activity, which meant relatively little spontaneous song, and little or no response to tape playback. The impact was most noticeable with ground-foraging birds such as leaftossers, antpittas, and antthrushes, which announced their presence with a few brief songs at dawn, and then went silent for the remainder of the day. Even some of the most common species were silent and, therefore, seemingly absent. We clearly had our work cut out for us!
In spite of conditions that were far from ideal, we still tallied an impressive 330 species seen in one week of birding, with another 68 species that were only heard. We fared well with most of the regional specialties, including stellar views of Crimson-bellied Parakeet, Black-girdled Barbet, Bare-eyed Antbird, and Tooth-billed Wren. The canopy tower was especially good to us, while also illustrating the unpredictability that comes with great biodiversity. Andy and the Antbirds (sounds like a sixties band!) were treated to an amazing parrot show from atop the tower, racking up 12 species, including an enviable five species of macaws. They topped this with scope views of a rarely seen Gray-bellied Goshawk, with digiscopes to prove it! Two days later, Kevin and the Woodcreepers found far fewer parrots flying around (although notching knockout looks at the poorly known Kawall?s Parrot), but were treated to a dazzling parade of both Curl-crested and Red-necked aracaris, and Black-girdled Barbets, with a perched White-browed Hawk thrown in as raptor-of-the-day. Our day atop the Serra Trail yielded an impressive seven species of puffbirds (out of 11 species for the trip), including slam-dunk views of Spotted, Striolated, and the seldom-seen Brown-banded.
Part of the magic of Amazonian birding is that long stretches of near total inactivity can be shattered in a heartbeat by the frenzied arrival of a mixed-species flock containing 30 or more species, all of them barreling across the trail at warp speed. We experienced both the feast and the famine while birding the forest trails, but it was often isolated sightings in between the monotony and the frenzy that made the most lasting impressions: a stunning male Rose-breasted Chat sitting in full sunlight; an Amazonian Pygmy-Owl sallying out and nabbing a large butterfly; a Banded Antbird working its way toward the tape recorder in serpentine fashion; a Musician Wren belting out its impossibly beautiful song; a male Chestnut-belted Gnateater with its white post-ocular lighting up the forest; or exceptionally cooperative Dusky-cheeked Foliage-gleaners and Long-tailed Woodcreepers that offered up uncharacteristically great studies. And who could forget the spotlight views of a pair of Razor-billed Curassows going to roost?
We saved the best for last, spending our last morning birding the forest fragment adjacent to the Floresta Amazonica Hotel in Alta Floresta. Our quarry was a juvenile Harpy Eagle that had fledged from a nest just two months before. The bird had been virtually glued to the nest site for some time after fledging, but in the past two weeks prior to our arrival it had become far less predictable, often roaming hundreds of meters away, and failing to be seen on some days. Our worst fears were realized when a check of the nest site failed to turn up the bird. When we still hadn?t located it three hours later, Andy and I really started to sweat. Luck was with us though, as we pulled it out at the 11th hour, with the entire group enjoying scope-filling, knock-your-socks-off views of the crested monkey-eater of Mato Grosso! We walked away from this mythical bird after admiring it for nearly an hour—it was literally the last bird of the trip.