Brazil: Amazonia on the Rio Roosevelt Mar 24—Apr 03, 2016

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Full of anticipation and with great excitement, we boarded our private charter to the famous Rio Roosevelt, “River of Doubt,” and its pristine Amazonian wilderness and plush lodge. No sooner had we left the bustling town of Porto Velho and the murky waters of the mighty Rio Madeira behind than a vast green carpet unfolded before us, stretching to the horizon. We were mesmerized by the huge Amazon rainforest below, which was bisected by remote meandering rivers (both black and white water) including the largest, the Ji-Parana (an important biogeographical barrier), and patches of stunted sandy-belt campina forests and natural Amazonian savannahs. After an hour or so we started our gradual descent over the rainforest. Like magic, one could pick out immense, colorful flowering 150-foot emergents, and at last there it was, our first breathtaking view of the remote and spectacular Rio Roosevelt. Its turbulent and infamous white water rocky rapids were clearly visible amongst the black waters and the sandy beach of the lodge (where Roosevelt himself camped on April 21, 1914). Before we knew it, we had landed on the remote airstrip—our gateway to this Amazonian paradise.

Rondonia Woodcreeper (endemic)

Rondonia Woodcreeper (endemic)— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 

In fact, we had arrived in one of the most remote places (apart from the Antarctic) on our planet. Over the next eight days we would hear no planes, no cars, or encounter any other people or boats. Best of all, we were based in a plush air-conditioned lodge (which we had all to ourselves) and pampered like royalty. This enabled us to explore and enjoy this rich Amazonian wilderness and its wildlife in real comfort, unlike president Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down the River of Doubt (before the river was named after Roosevelt) when he and his crew had almost starved. However, our cuisine would be first-class and a highlight for all, with an incredible variety of scrumptious freshly caught and traditionally prepared Amazonian fish dishes, Brazil’s world-class beef, freshly roasted Brazil nuts, exotic fruit, famous minas cheese, and desserts to die for—all in all, a true gourmet’s delight.

Our first walk on the trail behind the lodge produced the bird voted number one of the trip! Using my Bluetooth speaker, I managed to coax a splendid alpha male Dark-winged (green-winged) Trumpeter to walk out of the forest (away from its group) and into a sunspot on the trail no more than 40 feet in front of the whole group! Its iridescent green wings dazzled us, and “wows” and gasps of glee from the group were followed by celebrations for a new family for many in our group. This lodge has to be one of the best places in South America to see this enigmatic family!

Barred Forest-Falcon

Barred Forest-Falcon— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-dawn the following morning found us in the exciting canopy tower (a fifteen-minute walk) behind the lodge. Here we were spellbound, as dawn broke in the realm of the canopy, with unusual sounds and scents filling the air and colorful avifauna at eye level. We enjoyed several majestic male Spangled Cotingas gleaming in the sun, showing off their amazing colors from tree-top perches, while the endemic Kawall’s Parrot (described as recently as 1989) gave us great scope looks. Other gems included Amazonian Trogon; Paradise, Opal-rumped, and Red-billed Pied tanagers; Paradise Jacamar; the recently split endemic Rondonia Woodcreeper; and a superb male Crimson Topaz displaying at a flowering tree on our walk back to the lodge. The tower highlight, for me, was Bob spotting the 7 Common Nighthawks at dawn, flying high east on migration!

Most mornings we began our exciting days by motoring along the picturesque Rio Roosevelt as the forest awoke to begin a pleasant walk along one of the several well-kept trails through towering forest. These produced countless birding highlights that enchanted our walks, including Barred Forest-Falcon (the Cryptic, sadly, only heard and non-responsive this trip); close encounters with a well-behaved Rufous-necked Puffbird; the recently split Natterer’s Striolated Puffbird; the newly described (2013) Manicore Warbling-Antbird; a simply stunning Ferruginous-backed Antbird; Rufous-faced and Spot-backed antbirds; a gorgeous Chestnut-belted Gnateater (snethlagae to be split); sadly, no sign this year of Black-bellied or even any antswarms and their much sought after endemics; White-crested Spadebill; and a stunning male Blue-backed Manakin of the yellow-crowned race.

Manicore Warbling-Antbird (recently described)

Manicore Warbling-Antbird (recently described)— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 

I am sure the crazy high rainfall in December/February following a long drought caused most of the insectivores to breed early so, unfortunately, we experienced post breeding with many birds extremely unresponsive. Mixed species understory flocks produced the recently described (2013) Roosevelt (Stipple-throated) Antwren, Elegant Woodcreeper, and several foliage-gleaners. We also marveled over the wonderful songs of skulky Musician Wrens and a Gray-necked Wood-Rail along the secluded Esperanca stream.        

Swirling flocks of macaws graced the riverbanks in the early morning sun, as they visited specific trees to extract beaks full of pulp holding specific chemicals they require to help counteract the toxic chemicals they ingest when eating unripe fruit. We enjoyed daily flocks of stunning Blue-and-yellow, Scarlet, and Chestnut-fronted.

Another highlight was our very productive pilgrimage to a magical campina trail that I opened way back in 2004. Here we encountered two newly described species in 2013: the Chico Tyrannulet (discovered here) and the Aripuana Antwren. Sadly, the weather did not help, so we only managed to hear the recently rediscovered Buff-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher, but did get super studies of Bronzy Jacamar and brief looks at Spotted Puffbird, too.

Blue-and-yellow Macaws

Blue-and-yellow Macaws— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 

During our stay we were constantly amazed by this true wilderness, enjoying multiple daily encounters with groups of primates (totally oblivious of humans) or encountering Trumpeters due to no hunting pressure. This site certainly has to be one of the best Amazonian lodges ever to observe primates! We enjoyed observing a total of eight different species including the delightful Prince Bernhard’s Titi Monkey (described as recently as 2002), the odd-looking Red-nosed Bearded Saki, Common Woolly, and Black Spider monkeys. For me, the highlight was the rarely seen and very poorly-known Aripuana Marmoset! 

Our afternoon boat trips were as popular as ever and a super-nice relaxing way to bird. Switching off the motors and drifting down the Roosevelt—there is no better way to appreciate the amazing cacophony of unusual noises from the forest while enjoying those fabulous sunsets. Highlights included Red-throated Piping-Guan; a very close roosting Sungrebe in a low tree; sadly, this year Zigzag Herons gave us only fleeting glimpses; Ladder-tailed Nightjars; Broad-billed Motmot; all five kingfishers; magnificent male Pompadour Cotinga; Endemic Glossy Antshrike; Long-billed Woodcreeper; and both Dot-backed and Silvered antbirds feeding so close they were almost in our boat. And let’s not forget our fabulous afternoon termite emergence at the lodge following the heavy rains, with amazing non-stop bird action!

You were a fabulous group and I really hope you enjoyed our delightful Amazonian wilderness experience as much as I did. I do hope my enthusiasm in attempting to describe the incredible complexity of this fascinating biome (the richest and most diverse on our planet) rubbed off on you all! All too soon this fabulous trip was over, and as we flew back over untouched forest towards “civilization,” I was already missing this unique, wonderful Amazonian site and wondering what unexpected highlights next year’s trip will bring!