Manaus, Brazil: Amazon Rainforest & River Islands Sep 19—30, 2014

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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Manaus is nestled deep in the heart of the greatest avian-rich ecosystem on our planet, the immense Amazon rainforest, covering a vast 2.124 million square miles (5.5 million km²). We immersed ourselves in this exciting natural history bonanza, experiencing the wonders of two of the world’s mightiest rivers (the Amazon and Negro), the river island specialties, and walking trails through towering rainforest brimming with life, incredible colorful birds, and fascinating animals.

Wire-tailed Manakins at lek

Wire-tailed Manakins at lek— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Planned for the exploration of two extremely different avian endemic centers, we began by first crossing the mighty Rio Negro to its west bank to the “Imeri centre.” Here we were based in the quaint riverine town of Novo Airão in our family-run forested lodge. The wooded grounds gave us a unique opportunity to study a family of cute and poorly-known Spix’s Night Monkeys at their daytime hideout.

Next up, and a great success, were our enjoyable boat trips to the world’s largest riverine archipelago, the Anavilhanas. The calm, black waters of the Negro formed an immense mirror image of forested banks and its stark, flooded igapó forest. During our day-and-a-half exploration of these unique islands, channels, and lakes, we sought out most of its black-water riverine endemics and other specialties such as Klage’s, Cherrie’s, and Leaden antwrens, Ash-breasted and Black-faced antbirds, Blackish-gray Antshrike, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Ringed and Cream-colored woodpeckers, Green-tailed Jacamar, Band-tailed Nighthawks that danced above our boat, the recently rediscovered Zimmer’s and the amazing Long-billed Woodcreeper, and many more. However, stealing the limelight was an incredible lek of 4–5 dazzling male Wire-tailed Manakins that held us spellbound as they confidingly displayed only 30 feet in front of us in the sunlit understory! Another mammal highlight was the pod of Pink River Dolphins we observed being fed at close quarters. These are really impressive at almost seven-feet-long with a unique pink color, an articulated backbone (allowing them to hunt through flooded forests), and a foot-long odd-shaped beak full of teeth; however, as they came in to be fed, we could see that they are delicate creatures.

The rich terra firme forest trails here produced many highlights such as the stunning male Black-necked Red-Cotinga, a well-behaved Lined Forest-Falcon, a displaying pair of White-browed Purpletufts (showing off their amazingly bright purpletufts), several Spangled Cotingas, Orange-winged Parrot, the rare Pearly Antshrike, Yellow-browed Antbird, and a smart male Chestnut-belted Gnateater that lit up the understory. Novo Airão will also be remembered for its fiery sunsets, amazing Milky Way, and great meals of delicious fried macaxeira, fresh tropical fruit juices, tambaqui fish, and those wonderful Caipirinhas!

Lined Forest-Falcon

Lined Forest-Falcon— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Our next adventure, after returning to Manaus and resting up in the comfortable Tropical Hotel, was to enter the world’s mightiest river, the Amazon. Pre-dawn found us in our private launch exploring the fascinating white-water river island specialists and later observing the famous “meeting of the waters” where the Negro flows into the Amazon without mixing for 5 miles. Dawn found us exploring the different transitional vegetation in the várzea forest (white-water flooded forest). We visited various islands to find such greats as Black-and-white Antbird; Castalnau’s Antshrike; Parker’s, White-bellied, Pale-breasted, and Dark-breasted spinetails; River Tyrannulet; Riverside Tyrant; a Striped Owl; White-eyed Attila; Tui Parakeet; Chestnut-bellied Seedeater; Pearly-breasted Conebill; Brownish Elaenia; and more. Picturesque sand bars were alive with displaying Sand-colored Nighthawks, Large-billed and Yellow-billed terns, Black Skimmer, and Collared Plovers, all nesting. After a great meal on a floating restaurant, we walked along an elevated boardwalk through the mid-story of the várzea forest and were rewarded with a foraging group of Humboldt’s White-fronted Capuchins, a flock of prehistoric-looking Hoatzins and, of course, the famous massive vitória-régia (Royal) Water Lilies.

Bronzy Jacamar

Bronzy Jacamar— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

The following dawn found us beginning our exploration of the different “Guianan Shield” avifauna from within huge towering canopy emergents, off the famous well-constructed INPA canopy tower. Unusual dry weather “global climate changes” produced a rare weather phenomenon with strong, warm dry winds, the first time I have ever experienced this here. Unfortunately, the small birds did not like this change; however, the raptors loved it! We had a bumper raptor morning with Ornate and Black-and-white hawk-eagles, migrating flocks of Hook-billed Kites, Red-throated Caracara, many stunning White Hawks, Double-toothed Kite, Bat Falcon, and Great Black Hawk. A canopy mixed-species flock and flowering tree gave us exceptional views of a pair of singing Black-spotted Barbets; Red-billed Pied Tanager; Yellow-backed, Spotted, and Flame-crested tanagers; Red-legged and Short-billed honeycreepers; Spot-backed Antwren; Olive-green Tyrannulet; Gray Elaenia; and Pied Puffbird. Parrots were scarce with little fruit, but we managed stunning views of a pair of Caica Parrots as they flew almost through the tower in response to playback, and several macaws. The nearby sandy-belt campina forest reserve with its interesting stunted vegetation provided a stunning Bronzy Jacamar and the odd-sounding and looking Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin.

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Night birding at the pleasant and birdy forested hotel at Presidente Figueiredo rewarded us with the mythical Rufous Potoo (we had, unfortunately, only heard White-winged before); owls this year were a real nightmare, not calling or responding! Forested trails and the gardens as usual produced a series of non-stop highlights with the best being a group of three rarely seen Dusky Purpletufts, Red-fan and Dusky parrots, an excellent Collared Puffbird, Stunning Crimson Topaz, Great Jacamar, Green and Black-necked aracaris, a gorgeous Guianan Toucanet, Curve-billed Scythebill, Golden-headed and White-crowned manakins, Brown-bellied Antwren, Black-headed and Guianan Warbling antbirds, and an oh so close Spotted Antpitta experience. Again, more outstanding food included Pirarucu fish (a prehistoric-looking predator and one of the largest fresh water fish in the world), freshly squeezed cupuaçu, and passion fruit juices certainly can’t be left unmentioned.

The trip highlight for all was our visit to a Guianan Cock-of-the-rock lek, an experience of a lifetime! Staying permanently engraved in our minds will be those magical 20 minutes that we observed, spellbound, as 20 blazing-orange males bill clapped, called, and displayed their bizarre and specialized rump and tertial feathers while hovering just a few feet above their well-kept ground courts. Wow! They completely ignored our close presence (only 30 feet away) as cameras clicked and videos whirled! Hard to follow such a spectacle, but we managed to see the recently described Pelzeln’s Tody-Tyrant too.

This was a truly wonderful group (with great eyes), and it was my pleasure to be able to share so many special Amazonian moments with you all. I do hope I passed on some of my immense passion, enthusiasm, and understanding of the magical Amazon rainforest, certainly my favorite biome. I’m already looking ahead to my return next year!