Manaus, Brazil: Amazon Rainforest & River Islands Sep 05—18, 2016

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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Manaus, Brazil yet again proved to us why it is the greatest gateway for exploring its mystical and vast Amazonian rainforest, immense waterways, and multiple exciting habitat types simply exploding with a mega avian diversity. At fruiting trees we delighted to a feast of colorful cotingas, parrots, macaws, aracaris, manakins, and barbets, while our exciting night excursions produced the much wanted and mythical Rufous and White-winged potoos. As we have become accustomed, this year’s Manaus trip again rocked with 384 species including countless splendid gems. Highlights included wondrous male Crimson Topaz (displaying), and in-your-face views of some of the world’s great birds such as male Purple-breasted Cotinga and magnificent lekking Guianan-cock-of the-rock. Again we managed superlative views of the rarely seen Collared Puffbird and poorly-known Dusky Purpletuft, as well as the endemic Pied Tamarin. Nobody could ask for much more!

Purple-breasted Cotinga

Purple-breasted Cotinga— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Manaus, Brazil 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) where we 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 while exploring the avian riches of both white and black water river islands. The vast Amazon rainforest enchanted us as we experienced it in full, from the exotic life in the canopy (from a superb canopy tower) to walking secluded forest trails and remote roads amongst towering emergent trees brimming with life and incredible colorful birds, not to mention all those unique sounds, amazingly pleasant scented flowers, and fascinating animal and plant life.

This tour is carefully planned for the exploration of two extremely different avian endemic centers: the Guianan shield and Imiri. This year our plans rapidly changed after I confirmed (before the tour officially started) with my friend Tomaz that a nearby private forest reserve had many excellent small fruiting trees with several amazing cotingas and colorful tanagers enjoying the feast! What an incredible bonus, as the first official bird of the tour was a mouth- watering male Purple-breasted Cotinga down to 40 feet, and we enjoyed outstanding scope views of a group of Caica Parrots feeding so close!

Our first full day of birding was a wonderful day exploring the rich birdlife on river islands in the mighty Amazon where we witnessed the amazing dynamics of the fierce Amazon River as its high waters ripped apart my favored river islands and changed the map and everything else too. However, we managed to enjoy most of the great riverine specialists and many interesting migrant boreal shorebirds and breeding terns.

Jacana protecting nest

Jacana protecting nest— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Pre-dawn found us drifting in our private launch over the famous “meeting of the waters” where the Negro flows into the Amazon without mixing for 5 miles. As dawn broke, we were exploring a picturesque sand bar/beach alive with displaying Large-billed and Yellow-billed terns, Black Skimmers, and Collared Plovers all nesting. Then we worked the different types of transitional vegetation in the várzea forest (white-water flooded forest). We got off to explore  various islands to seek out endemics such as Castelnau’s Antshrike; Parker’s, White-bellied, and Pale-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 Conebill and more. A first for the tour was Buff-necked Ibis carrying nesting material. After our 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 cute Squirrel Monkeys and wonderful close-up looks at the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper and recently re-discovered Zimmer’s Woodcreeper and, of course, the famous giant vitória-régia (Royal) Water Lilies and the sleeping giant of the varzea, a monster Kaipok tree! Observing a pair of Jacanas chasing off a Striated Heron set on eating their eggs on the waterlilies was a highlight for me!

Wire-tailed Manakin

Wire-tailed Manakin— Photo: Andrew Whittaker



The following day we crossed the mighty Rio Negro over the new impressive road bridge to the west bank into the “Imeri endemic centre.” Here, based in the quaint riverine town of Novo Airão, the wooded grounds of our family-run forested lodge 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 Festive Parrot; Klage’s, Cherrie’s, and Leaden antwrens; Ash-breasted and Black-chinned antbirds; Blackish-gray Antshrike; Green-tailed Jacamar; fabulous close up studies of Band-tailed Nighthawks (including the new split) that danced to playback just above our boat, and much more. However, stealing the limelight were a dazzling male Wire-tailed Manakin holding us spellbound only 30 feet in front of us in the sunlit understory, and a neat Tiny Hawk!

Pink River Dolphin

Pink River Dolphin— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Always a mammal highlight was the pod of wild Pink River Dolphins we observed so well at close quarters as they came in to feed on fish, taking them within feet of us! 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 very delicate creatures, as we witnessed when several of the pod came in to be fed. 

The rich west bank terra firme forest trails here produced many a highlight such as Ivory-billed Aracari, Brown-banded and White-necked puffbirds, stunning Orange-cheeked Parrots, Gilded Barbet, a well-behaved pair of White-browed Purpletufts, newly described Duidae Woodcreeper and rarely seen Ocellated Woodcreepers, White-fronted Nunbirds, and stunning Yellow-browed and White-cheeked antbirds; alas, Pearly Antshrike did not show well. A fantastic night excursion brought us a magical White-winged and Common potoos experience. However, I’m sure Novo Airao will also be remembered for its incredible fiery sunsets, amazing Milky Way, and great meals of delicious fried macaxeira, fresh tropical fruit juices, fresh fish, tambaqui and famous peacock bass, and those wonderful caipirinhas!

Our next adventure, after returning to Manaus and resting up in our comfortable hotel, was decided by popular demand to revisit the fabulous private forested farm with the amazing fruiting trees. We were rewarded with superb close looks at male Spangled, Pompadour, and Purple-breasted cotingas; Golden-headed and White-throated manakins; Paradise Tanager; Black-faced Dacnis; and many more gems.

Black-spotted Barbet

Black-spotted Barbet— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


The following day at dawn found us beginning our exploration of the different “Guianan Shield” avifauna within the huge towering canopy emergents (some over 175 feet tall) on 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 third 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, Guianan Puffbird, and a rarely seen pair of Glossy-backed Becards. A canopy mixed-species flock and a nearby flowering tree gave us exceptional views of singing Black-spotted Barbet; Red-billed Pied, Yellow-backed, Spotted, and Flame-crested tanagers; Rufous-throated Sapphire; and Red-legged and Short-billed honeycreepers. Flocks produced Waved Woodpecker, Guianan (Lineated) Woodcreeper, both Spot-backed and Ash-winged antwrens, Olive-green Tyrannulet, Painted Tody-Flycatcher, and Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo just to name a few. With little fruit, parrots were scarce, but we managed stunning views of a close fly-by of Blue-and-yellow Macaw and a wonderful look at an Amazonian Pygmy-Owl in response to playback. Later we visited a very picturesque white–sandy belt campina forest where we had mega views of Bronzy Jacamar.

Bronzy Jacamar

Bronzy Jacamar— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


The forested trails and gardens of our next simple lodge at Presidente Figueiredo as usual produced a series of non-stop highlights such as macaws, Black-faced Hawk, Orange-winged and Dusky parrots, an excellent Collared Puffbird, stunning Crimson Topaz, Great Jacamar, Dusky Purpletuft, and rarely seen Spotted Antpitta. This year the Acai palms full of fruit (right by our cabins) were alive with tame Channel-billed Toucan, Green Aracaris, and Painted Parakeet!

Other Guianan highlights included Curve-billed Scythebill, stunning White-fronted Manakin, Black-headed Antbird, and Guianan Warbling-Antbird. 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 and, of course, the special Acai ice cream.

The trip highlight for all and arguably one of the world’s greatest birds was the incomparable male Guianan Cock-of-the-rock lek and an experience of a lifetime! Permanently engraved in our minds will be this magical half-an-hour we spent observing them, spellbound, as up to 12 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! They completely ignored 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 videos whirled! Hard to follow such a spectacle, but we managed stunning studies of feeding Sapphire-rumped Parrotlet and saw the rare Pelzeln’s Tody-Tyrant that Kevin Zimmer and I rediscovered. Night birding by our lodge produced the poorly-known and lovely Rufous Potoo and some very tame Blackish Nightjars.

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock

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


Our last morning by the lodge produced amazing studies of a hundred or so Red-bellied Macaws feeding on Acai along with confiding Blue-and-yellow Macaws. Finally, visiting our last exciting micro habitat, the stunted white-sandy belt campina, we were rewarded with Guianan Slaty Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, poorly-known Pale-bellied Mourner, Black Manakin, and Spotted Puffbird, but unfortunately it was difficult for the other campina specialists to respond to tape this year. 

You were a truly wonderful group 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 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. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy reading this report and, of course, happy birding!