Manaus, Brazil: Amazon Rainforest & River Islands Sep 17—29, 2015

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


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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From the much-wanted mythical Rufous and White-winged potoos to a mighty and rarely seen Crested Eagle, this year’s Manaus trip rocked! From countless splendid colored gems such as Crimson Topaz and Guianan Red-Cotinga to the in-your-face views of some of the world’s greats, such as the magnificent lekking Guianan Cock-of-the-rock and Wire-tailed Manakin, nobody could ask for more!
Manaus offers delightful birding and a mega number of species. Nestled deep in the heart of the greatest avian-rich ecosystem on our planet, the immense Amazon rainforest covers a vast 2.124 million square miles (5.5 million km²) where we joyfully immersed ourselves into this mega birding and natural history bonanza. Experiencing the wonders of two of the world’s mightiest rivers (the Amazon and Negro) was a blast, exploring the avian riches of both white and black water river islands. This was closely followed by the enchanting, vast Amazon rainforest, and we experienced it in full, from the exotic life in the canopy (from a superb canopy tower) and by walking secluded forest trails among towering emergent trees just brimming with life and incredible colorful birds, unique sounds, amazingly pleasant scented flowers, and fascinating animals.

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock

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

This tour was planned for the exploration of two extremely different avian endemic centers. However, this year our plans rapidly changed, after I confirmed (before the tour officially started, with my friend Marcelo) that a stunning Rufous Potoo was today on a recently found daytime roost (in fact, it’s since proven to be a nest)! So thanks to Marcelo we were privileged to observe, at close range, the bird of the trip! Mimicking a clump of dried leaves, we all marveled over the position of the specialized fine white feathers that were pushed forwards, imitating (I think) a type of white lichen. A truly amazing adaptation of camouflaging its presence, it even swayed in the wind like a leaf! What an incredible bonus and first bird officially on the tour!

For our first day of birding, we had a wonderful day exploring the rich birdlife on river islands in the mighty Amazon where we witnessed the dynamics of this young, fierce river, as its high waters had ripped apart my favored river islands and changed the map and everything!

The following day we crossed the mighty Rio Negro over to the west bank into the “Imeri endemic 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 and fantastic opportunity to study a family of cute and poorly-known Spix’s Night Monkeys at their daytime hideout. Next up, and always a great success, were our enjoyable boat trips to the world’s largest (and for me most beautiful in the world) 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 successfully found most of these black-water riverine endemics and other specialties such as Klage’s, Cherrie’s, and Leaden antwrens; Ash-breasted and Black-chinned antbirds; Blackish-gray Antshrike; Ringed Woodpecker; Green-tailed Jacamar; Band-tailed Nighthawks (including the split) that danced to playback just above our boat; the recently rediscovered Zimmer’s and the amazing Long-billed Woodcreeper; a Slate-colored Hawk; Sungrebe; and many more. However, stealing the limelight were the Crested Eagle and an incredible lek of 4–5 dazzling male Wire-tailed Manakins holding us spellbound as they confidingly displayed only 30 feet in front of us in the sunlit understory! Another mammal highlight was the pod of wild Pink River Dolphins we observed so well at close quarters. These are really impressive at almost 7 feet long with a unique pink color, an articulated backbone (allowing them to hunt through flooded forests), and a 1.5 foot-long thin beak full of teeth; however, they are so-so delicate creatures, as we witnessed when several came in to be fed.

Igapo forest

Igapo forest— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

The rich terra firme forest trails here produced many a highlight such as Brown-banded and White-necked puffbirds; stunning Orange-cheeked Parrots; Gilded Barbet; a well-behaved pair of White-browed Purpletufts; Palmcreeper; White-fronted Nunbirds; the stunning Yellow-browed Antbird; Rufous-capped Antthrush and a really smart male Chestnut-belted Gnateater lighting up the understory; Glossy-backed Becard; and a host of euphonias. Novo Airão I’m sure will also be remembered for its incredible fiery sunsets, amazing Milky Way, and those great meals of delicious fried macaxeira, fresh tropical fruit juices, fresh tambaqui, famous peacock bass, and those wonderful caipirinhas!

Our next adventure, after returning to Manaus and resting up in the comfortable Tropical Hotel, was to revisit 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 a picturesque sand bar/beach alive with displaying Sand-colored Nighthawks, Large-billed and Yellow-billed terns, Black Skimmer, and Collared Plovers all nesting. Then we went on to work the different types of transitional vegetation in the várzea forest (white-water flooded forest). We explored various islands to seek out endemics such as Black-and-White Antbird; Castalnau’s Antshrike; Parker’s, White-bellied, Pale-breasted, and Dark-breasted spinetails; Band-tailed and Lesser horneros; Lesser Wagtail Tyrant; Riverside Tyrant; White-eyed Attila; Short-tailed Parrot and Tui Parakeet; Spot-breasted Woodpecker; Chestnut-bellied Seedeater; Pearly-breasted and Bicolored conebills and more.

After our great meal on a floating restaurant, we walked along an elevated boardwalk through the midstory of the várzea forest and were rewarded with a foraging group of cute Squirrel Monkeys and wonderful close up looks at Spotted Puffbird, Long-billed Woodcreeper, and a flock of prehistoric-looking Hoatzins, Capped Heron, and of course the famous massive vitória-régia (Royal) Water Lilies (not too well this year) and the sleeping giant, a monster Kaipok tree!

Wire-tailed Manakins at lek

Wire-tailed Manakins at lek— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Dawn the following day found us beginning our exploration of the different “Guianan Shield” avifauna from huge, towering canopy emergents (some over 175 feet tall), the famous well-constructed INPA canopy tower. Unusual dry weather, “global climate changes,” produced a rare weather phenomenon with strong warm, dry winds for the second year running. In fact, we experienced some of the hottest temperatures on record for over 90 years! Although this made birding more challenging, we had a fantastic bumper morning with many stunning White Hawks, a wonderful Guianan Toucanet pair, Guianan Puffbird, Pompadour Cotinga, and the rarely seen Racket-tailed Coquette. A canopy mixed-species flock and fruiting tree gave us exceptional views of four singing Black-spotted Barbets; flocks of Paradise, Opal-rumped, Yellow-backed, Spotted, and Flame-crested tanagers; Red-legged and Short-billed honeycreepers; Lineated Woodcreeper; both Spot-backed and Ash-winged antwrens; Olive-green Tyrannulet; Gray Elaenia; and Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo just to name a few. Parrots were scarce with little fruit, but we managed stunning views of Caica Parrots as they flew almost through the tower in response to playback, and several macaws.

The forested trails and gardens of our next lodge at Presidente Figueiredo as usual produced a series of non-stop highlights including Red-Fan, Orange-winged, and Dusky parrots; Sapphire-rumped Parrotlet; Lined Forest-Falcon; an excellent Collared Puffbird; stunning Crimson Topaz (observed males fighting in the scope); Great Jacamar; Spangled Cotinga; Green Aracaris (an amazing group of almost 20 in one tree!); Curve-billed Scythebill; Golden-headed and White-crowned manakins; Brown-bellied Antwren; and Black-headed and Guianan warbling-antbirds. More outstanding food included Pirarucu fish (a prehistoric-looking predator and one of the largest fresh water fish in the world), and freshly squeezed cupuaçu and passion fruit juices.     

The trip highlight for all and arguably one of the world’s greatest birds was the incomparable Guianan Cock-of-the-rock lek and an experience of a lifetime! Permanently engraved in our minds will be this magical half-hour we spent observing them, spellbound, as up to 9 blazing-orange males bill clapped and occasionally called and displayed, showing off those bizarre specialized rump and tertial feathers while aloft vertical stems just a few feet above their well-kept and clean ground courts. Wow—completely ignoring our close presence (only 30 feet away). Unfortunately, this year the unusual record high temperatures made the lek much quieter. However, cameras continued to click and whirl! It was hard to follow such a spectacle, but we managed to see the recently described Pelzeln’s Tody-Tyrant, too.

Finally, visiting our last exciting micro habitat, the stunted white-sandy belt campina,  we were rewarded with mega views of Bronzy Jacamar and Guianan Slaty-Antshrike, but unfortunately it was just way too hot for the other campina specialists to respond to tape.

You all were a truly wonderful group (with great eyes), and it was my pleasure to be able to share so many special Amazonian moments with you. I do hope I passed on some of my immense passion, enthusiasm, and understanding of the magical region the Amazon, certainly my favorite biome. I’m already looking ahead to my return next year! I do hope to see all of you again on one of the many exciting VENT adventures I lead. I hope you enjoy reading this report and, of course, happy birding!