Now came what was for me the most exciting part of the tour, a week in the Amazon at the jungle lodge on the Rio Cristalino. Our boat journey to Rio Cristalino was notable for amazing views of an adult Ornate-Hawk Eagle but we arrived at the lodge too late to get much birding done. The highlights of an evening walk were Blackish Nightjar and Black-throated Antbird.
On our first full day we were straight in to the thick of it with a hike up the Serra 2 trail. A Razor-billed Currasow on the boat journey to the trail head was fortunate indeed as it turned out to be the only one we saw. This species is usually reliable at Rio Cristalino but the rains had started and many animals which are generally found at the river edges during the dry season were being seen far less frequently since the onset of the rainfall. Serra 2 was a great success and highlights included Gould’s Toucanet and Long-billed Woodcreeper which remained high in the canopy whilst Xingu Scale-backed and Spix’s Warbling Antbirds gave excellent views as did the chief target on this trail, Alta Floresta Antpitta. A massive stroke of luck was finding two Black-girdled Barbets in a fairly low tree off the trail resulting in some unusually great views. By the time we reached the granite outcrop it was really hot and sweat bees plagued us but it was worth it for the views of Tooth-billed Wren (another species usually seen from canopy towers) and Striolated Puffbird. Returning for lunch a Glossy Antshrike was a nice welcome back by the floating deck at the lodge. In the afternoon we took our first trip to the ‘Pocinha’, a small waterhole set up inside the forest by local guides. Birds come here in the dry season in the late afternoon and it affords remarkable opportunities to get superb views of numerous difficult species. It was a little quiet on our first visit but we saw several good birds, the best being Dot-backed Antbird and White-winged Shrike-Tanager.
Our second day began with a clamber up the canopy tower on the same side of the river as the lodge. It is really too high and as a result most of the birds are very distant. It was slow going but we did see some nice birds including Curl-crested Aracari, Ringed and Scaly-breasted Woodpeckers, Scarlet Macaw, Spangled Cotinga, Bare-necked Fruitcrow and White-browed Purpletuft. A walk around the Saliero Loop Trail was hard work but produced Great Jacamar, Saturnine Antshrike, Large-headed Flatbill, Red-headed and Snow-capped Manakins and the smart Wing-barred Piprites. Lunch was interrupted by a day roosting Crested Owl right by the lodge.
We took a bit of a boat ride in the afternoon before returning to the Pochina. It was fairly quiet but just as we headed in for the trail head the boat man yelled Harpy Eagle, Harpy Eagle! I intuitively looked as high as I could but the bird was actually remarkably low down and sitting almost right above the trail head.
This was my other ‘most wanted’ bird of the trip and we enjoyed close range views for some thirty minutes or more before it flew across the river, landing still within view but further away and against the sun.
Harpy is seen regularly along the Rio Cristalino but again I think we were fortunate as sightings had reduced in frequency since the rains had begun. That said, the following day one was seen with a Howler Monkey though I am not sure if the kill was witnessed. When we finally got to the Pocinha the stunning day continued with repeated views of Dot-backed and Spot-backed Antbirds, White-crowned Manakin and Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin whilst the highlight was several visits by the amazing and weird looking Bare-eyed Antbird. This last species is something of a speciality at Cristalino but is an ant swarm follower so if you don’t find an ant swarm your only option usually is to trawl around the forest desperately hoping one is responsive to play back. The Pocinha spared us that fate and our encounter with Bare-eyed Antbird is a prime example of just how useful the ‘Magic Pond’ can be.
We started day three with a hike up the Serra 1 trail where the best birds found from the outcrop were White-necked Puffbird and Pompadour Cotinga. A number of hummers were seen in the higher elevation forest as well as Southern White-fringed Antwren and best of all a Pied Puffbird. The previous night Eduardo had taken Warren and I out to a hide to look for Brazilian Tapir as it was no longer being seen regularly on the river. We had failed as the hide was full of photographers but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we found one in the river the following afternoon. The animal quickly moved in to the forest where it could be seen through gaps in the screen of vegetation. Eduardo played a recording of a Tapir vocalisation and incredibly it emerged and re-entered the river (whether in response or by coincidence we shall never know)!
Though the Dr. Haffer’s Trail was extremely quiet we did get good views of our main target species there, Rufous-capped Nunlet. Returning to the lodge we had had another riverside encounter with a bird which would have been far easier a few weeks earlier before the rains started, an Agami Heron. This one was an immature bird nowhere near as striking as the adults but pretty remarkable nonetheless. It was followed by our second Zigzag Heron of the trip.
At the base of Tower 2 the next morning the stand out bird for me was a Banded Antbird though the Uniform Woodcreeper which came in to the same area was more unusual. Kwall’s Amazon, White-bellied Parrot and a group of White-nosed Saki Monkeys were the best of the sightings from the tower. The highlight of a race against time to reach the bamboo along Fransisco’s Trail was a brief view of a Tapajos Hermit. An afternoon along the Brazil Nut Trail was slow and though we tried hard to coax a Cryptic Forest Falcon in to view the bird just would not show itself and the best bird of the session was a superb Musician Wren.
As I left after breakfast the following day I heard Toni mention an anteater and though Giant Anteater has actually been recorded at Rio Cristalino I guessed correctly that this was going to be the largely arboreal Southern Tamandua. It was low down on a trunk and we all had great looks though I squandered some of my time with it by foolishly running back to my room for the camera (always carry it with you in an environment like that). Heading off along the Rio Teles Pires we found Blackish and White-browed Antbirds in quick measure before stopping off at an adjacent island where we enjoyed great views of Amazonian Umbrellabird. Black-collared Swallow and Amazonian Tyrannulet were among the better birds picked up along the way to our next stop at Ariosto Island. Here we had excellent views of the main target species, the stunning Flame-crowned Manakin. Other good birds included Undulated Tinamou, Cinnamon Attila and the diminutive Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, the smallest passerine on earth. Lunch was interupted by a rapid ‘twitch’ for a four metre long Green Anaconda on a river island some ten minutes upstream from the lodge. Though the animal is resident on the island it had not been seen for weeks so yet again our luck was in.
Shortly after we started out down the Cocoa Trail that afternoon we found the most extraordinary moth. I reckoned it must have been the best part of one foot from wingtip to wingtip and it turned out I was about right. When we got back to the lodge I asked a girl who was studying butterflies about it and she told me we had seen a White Witch, the world’s largest moth with a maximum wingspan of 32cm. Though the species has a large geographic range we were I think fortunate as the student herself had yet to find one.
White Witch by Warren Hardman
White Witch by Warren Hardman
A Dusky-tailed Flatbill, superb views of a stunning male Snow-capped Manakin and a frustratingly awkward Tapajos Scythebill were the avian highlights along the trail.
Rio Cristalino was action packed to the last with a final mornings haul that included Collared and Brown-banded Puffbirds, Bamboo Foliage-gleaner, Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak and Emilia’s Marmoset.
As I understand it the birding at Rio Cristalino has changed. Some species have gone or all but gone whilst many which were once common are now less numerous. It is interesting to speculate as to why this might be and tempting to attribute it to climate change and de-forestation in surrounding areas leading to a ‘drying out’ of the forest. It is however still the most incredible place and ranks with Danum Valley in Borneo or the Bwindi National Park in Uganda in my book as one of top single localities you can visit. I hope this account gives some idea of just how exciting it can be.