Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso: February 15-18, 2012

Long before my recent trip to northern Amazonia was even a remote possibility, Aimée and I had scheduled to visit Cristalino Jungle Lodge in southern Amazonia during the five-day Carnaval holiday weekend. Since the halcyon days of the great neotropical ornithologist Ted Parker, Cristalino has been famous as one of the best sites in the Amazon for birding, with nearly six hundred bird species having now been recorded in the private reserve. Even though we live reasonably close by in Brasília, the flight to Alta Floresta, the access point to the lodge, wasn’t cheap, and so I decided to spend a few extra days in the area, birding some of the remaining forest fragments to make up for our relatively short stay. I spent three days at the Hotel Floresta Amazonica, exploring the small, fifty-hectare private reserve that remarkably boasts a Harpy Eagle nest. Bradley Davis of Birding Mato Grosso also took me out to a riparian forest patch thirty kilometers out of town for a half day of as well.

In retrospect, this was a smart decision as Aimée and I could spend more time searching for difficult but rewarding terra firma bird species at Cristalino, such as Banded Antbird and Collared Puffbird, instead of worrying about ticking more common species, like Band-Tailed and Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbirds. The obvious reason to stay in Alta Floresta, though, is that a one-month old eaglet currently inhabits the nest. Indeed, I spent nearly eight hours watching the nest from a respectful distance through my scope, observing a variety of interesting behavior from the mating pair of adult eagles, including the male dropping off a capuchin monkey and the female bringing in leafy branches to ward off insects. Should you be headed to Cristalino in the next six months, it’s an easy thirty-minute stop on the way to the lodge from the airport, although there’s no predicting what the eagles will be up to at any given moment. I also understand the adult eagles will visit the nest less frequently as the eaglet grows up and eventually leaves the fragment to establish its own territory within the next year. Considering the widespread deforestation in the region, that’s a sad prospect, and I heard from Bradley that the previous offspring was found dead at eight months.

The hotel offers a variety of birding opportunities, including plenty of relaxed forest edge birding, a modest network of forested trails, and some marshy areas. The trail through the terra firma forest fragment, called the Trilha das Primatas, starts behind the football field at the hotel, and branches off in several directions, which I didn’t fully explore. I found the Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbird here relatively easily and watched with delight each time as a flock of Crimson-Bellied Parakeets swooped through the forest, even though they never perched in sight. There were a few understory flocks that included some of the region’s more common antwrens, antshrikes, and woodcreepers, but overall the bird diversity is certainly less than what you would find in any fifty hectares of terra firma forest at Cristalino. Birding the forest edge from the football field and near the fishponds was more enjoyable, and there were lots of parrots, tanagers, toucans, kingfishers, and woodpeckers to study carefully in the scope. Accommodation at the hotel is expensive but pleasant with a swimming pool, air conditioning, and a decent restaurant. You’ll have to lunch in town during the week, but Alta Floresta appears a prosperous place with plenty of tasty buffet options.

By far the most productive birding I did in Alta Floresta was with Bradley Davis at his favorite forest patch outside town. He’s Canadian and has lived and birded in Mato Grosso for years, guiding at Cristalino and offering customized birding and natural history tours throughout Brazil. His knowledge of the birds of southern Amazonia is outstanding, and I certainly couldn’t identify anything, whether by sight or sound, before he did. With deft use of playback on his iPhone, Brad helped me get onto to some good birds, including Glossy Antshrike, Sungrebe, Speckled Spinetail, Dot-Backed Antbird, Short-Tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Gray-Chested Greenlet, and Bar-Breasted Picculet. Brad is also terrific at imitating calls, a common trait I’ve noticed among the best birding guides, and his Amazonian Pygmy-Owl imitation kept the birds active for much of the morning. The river itself was almost up to the level of the road, which prevented us from doing any serious searching for Amazonian Antpitta or Varzea Schiffornis, but I was happy enough to bird the forest edge and pick up tips from an expert birder.

Aimée arrived on Friday afternoon, and we spent the day relaxing at the lodge and watching the Harpy Eagles from an unobtrusive position behind the blind. She loved glimpsing the eaglet, of course, which frequently cried loudly to be fed and thrashed about the nest on occasion. Later on at the fishponds, we surprised a Capybara and several Caiman, while noting Scarlet, Red-and-Green, Blue-and-Yellow, Chestnut-Fronted, and Red-Bellied Macaws. A flock of lovely Turquoise Tanagers also came down from the canopy to feed in a fruiting tree at eye level. It had been almost four years since Aimée and I had last paid big bucks to do a serious birding trip together in the Amazon, and I wondered whether it was going to be successful (our trip to Sacha Lodge in Ecuador had been eye-opening but intense at times). I had spent time with her beforehand reviewing the birds of the region in various field guides and asked her to research on her own a few of the highlight birds, such as Rose-Breasted Chat, Agami Heron, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, and Crested Eagle, so that she might have a better context for appreciating them should we be lucky enough to find them. Still, it’s a lot to ask your partner to spend their entire vacation sweating and swatting mosquitoes while searching for obscure antbirds.

Notable birds seen: Green Ibis, Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Swallow-Tailed Kite, Harpy Eagle, Sungrebe, Ruddy Pigeon, Chestnut-Fronted Macaw, Red-Bellied Macaw, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Scarlet Macaw, Red-and-Green Macaw, White-Eyed Parakeet, Crimson-Bellied Parakeet, Madeira Parakeet, Mealy Parrot, Yellow-Crowned Parrot, Blue-Headed Parrot, Golden-Winged Parakeet, Little Cuckoo, Reddish Hermit, Rufous-Breasted Hermit, Gray-Breasted Sabrewing, Long-Billed Starthroat, Black-Tailed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Lettered Aracari, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Lettered Aracari, Bar-Breasted Piculet, Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, Crimson-Crested Woodpecker, Cinammon-Throated Woodcreeper, Straight-Billed Woodcreeper, Strong-Billed Woodcreeper, Plain-Brown Woodcreeper, Striped Woodcreeper, Speckled Spinetail, Glossy Antshrike, Chestnut-Backed Antshrike, Amazonian Antshrike, Plain-Throated Antwren, Amazonian Streaked Antwren, Blackish Antbird, Band-Tailed Antbird, Dot-Backed Antbird, Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbird, Bare-Necked Fruitcrow, Band-Tailed Manakin, White-Winged Becard, Forest Elaenia, Yellow-Crowned Tyrannulet, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Short-Tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Piratic Flycatcher, Dusky-Chested Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee, Short-Crested Flycatcher, Black-Crowned Tityra, Masked Tityra, Bright-Rumped Atilla, Red-Eyed Vireo, Gray-Chested Greenlet, Black-Capped Donacobius, Thrush-Like Wren, Crested Oropendola, Yellow-Rumped Cacique, Turquoise Tanager, Blue-Necked Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Yellow-Bellied Dacnis, Rufous-Bellied Euphonia, Golden-Bellied Euphonia, Chestnut-Bellied Seedeater.

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