Brazil: Amazonian Wilderness on the Rio Roosevelt Mar 30—Apr 10, 2006
Posted by Andrew Whittaker
A vast carpet of every hue of green one can imagine lay spread out below us?virgin Amazonian rainforest stretching as far as the horizon, and dissected only by a thin winding black line. As our planes droned closer, the black line resolved itself into the waters of the Rio Roosevelt. Moments later we found ourselves descending over the forest, where several massive emergent trees, each in full flower, seemed to reach up to greet us. The planes passed low over the breathtaking rapids of the river, and then touched down on the private airstrip, where we were now enveloped in forest.
We had arrived in our Amazonian paradise, one of the most remote places, apart from the Antarctic, on our planet. Over the next seven days we would hear no planes or cars, nor encounter any other people aside from the lodge staff. Best of all, we were based in a plush, air-conditioned lodge, and we were the only guests. The Rio Roosevelt and its surrounding forest remains every bit the wilderness that it was in 1914, when ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and the Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon made their historic exploration of what was then called the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), but the living conditions have improved considerably! Our meals would be first-class, and a highlight for all, as we enjoyed a variety of exotic, freshly caught Amazonian fish, among other equally delicious Brazilian fare.
But as nice as the creature comforts were, they weren't our reason for being here. We were here for the birds, and for the adventure of birding in a true wilderness setting. And we weren't disappointed. Swirling flocks of Red-bellied Macaws graced the rapids of the Roosevelt in the early morning sun, as part of a daily ritual in which the birds partake of algae from the boulders, possibly to counteract toxins ingested from eating unripe fruit. We also enjoyed Blue-and-yellow, Scarlet, and Red-and-Green macaws, along with Madeira Parakeets and Kawall's Parrot along the same riverbanks.
Witnessing a large army ant swarm being attended by ant-following birds is one of the most fascinating natural history experiences that one can ask for. This year we were treated to multiple ant swarms, the largest of which provided nonstop excitement. After a slow approach, which enabled the birds attending the swarm to acclimate to our presence, we were rewarded with excellent views of the poorly known Pale-faced Antbird, a range-restricted endemic that had been seen previously only by a relative handful of birders! We also thrilled to the antics of both the stunning White-breasted Antbird and the magnificent Black-spotted Bare-eye, as they alternately battled one another for the choicest positions above the swarm, while zapping up arthropods that were fleeing the ants.
Close encounters with Rufous-necked and Collared puffbirds, Black-bellied and Chestnut-belted gnateaters, Rusty-belted Tapaculo, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, and both Flame-crested and Snow-capped manakins provided other memorable snapshots from our forest walks. We also marveled over the wonderful songs of a pair of Musician Wrens that paraded on a fallen log in front of us. We were constantly reminded that we were in a true wilderness by multiple close encounters with magnificent Razor-billed Curassows, even watching one at point-blank range at the edge of a forested stream as it gently plucked and ate leaves. Daily encounters with groups of primates (we observed a total of eight species) including the delightful Prince Bernhard's Titi-Monkey (described to science in 2002), provided exciting mammalian counterpoint to the many avian highlights encountered.
Afternoon boat trips provided a relaxing way to bird and many highlights, including knockout views of Golden-green Woodpecker, Orange-cheeked Parrots, Blue-cheeked Jacamar, a rare austral migrant Rufous-tailed Attila, and Dot-backed and Spot-winged antbirds. Best of all was an extremely tape-responsive Zigzag Heron, which hopped into full view and proceeded to raise and depress its feathers in some sort of aggressive display.
Our ultimate birding highlight came on a forest trail, when I heard a soft "bock" from the canopy?"Crimson Fruitcrow!" David soon spotted our prize, a stunning perched male, its dazzling, glossy crimson plumage vibrant in the early morning sunlight. Over the following ten minutes we watched, spellbound, as the male compressed his feathers following a display above the canopy, while up to four females chased him around. We were amazingly privileged to observe this rarely seen and spectacular huge cotinga in all its glory. Finding it was a complete surprise, since there are only one or two previous records from south of the Amazon of this basically Guianan species.
And although the group wasn't there to see it, I would be remiss not to mention my chance encounter during an afternoon break when a rarely seen Short-eared Dog walked out into the sun on a forest trail in pursuit of a group of Dark-winged Trumpeters! All too soon this fabulous trip was over, and, as we flew back over the forest towards civilization, I was already missing the Rio Roosevelt and wondering what unexpected highlight next year's trip will bring!