Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Mato Grosso: February 18-22, 2012

Among the top birding destinations in the entire Amazon, Cristalino Jungle Lodge doesn’t need much introduction. Protecting nearly 30,000 acres of different habitat in southern Amazonia, Cristalino definitely meets the loftiest of conservation goals, including promoting scientific research, developing environmental awareness, and promoting responsible tourism. During the dry season from June to October, the lodge is host to high-end birding tours from all over the world, and some of the best neotropical birders have honed their chops here working for months as volunteer guides. The bird list contains nearly six hundred species, and visitors will undoubtedly track down several hundred of them from the two observation towers, on the extensive trail network, and by boat along the Cristalino River. Despite visiting in the rainy season for only three full days, Aimee and I still saw some outstanding birds, including Crested Eagle, Banded Antbird, and Collared Puffbird, the latter being one of my nemesis birds.

I’ve stayed at quite a few ecolodges in the Amazon by now, mostly in Ecuador, and I’m impressed by how consistent the birding experiences have been. Regardless of the lodge, on each occasion I’ve worked with an excellent private guide, spent 10-12 hours in the field per day depending on the weather, and explored a wide variety of habitat, including terra firma forest canopy and understory, varzea, and river island. I’ve glimpsed some of the most rare and difficult-to-see birds of the Amazon, and each trip has certainly been worth it, despite the overlap in avifauna at the different lodges. Cristalino Jungle Lodge is unique for being the most costly of all the lodges, which originally came as no surprise considering how expensive everything is in Brazil. Even the price of the short plane ride from Brasília to Alta Floresta (R$1300 round trip) made me pine for the days of $180 USD flight from Quito to Coca and back. What surprised me, though, was the overall quality of the accommodation, which suffers in comparison to Sacha Lodge in western Amazonia, for example (to be fair, the superior rooms are quite posh). Although new dining and common areas are currently under construction, these improvements will likely be accompanied by a further increase in price.

It probably didn’t help that we visited Cristalino during Brazil’s most exuberant holiday, Carnival, or that there were twenty German university students staying there, presumably doing research. With the staff blasting live music at night, most of the other guests partying until late, and the students drying their laundry on every exposed branch around the bungalows, it felt a little bit like we were the odd ones out, getting up at 5am, spending all day in the field, and hoping to be asleep by 9pm. Fortunately, we had the first-rate guiding services of Jorge Lopes all to ourselves, who has worked at the lodge for fifteen years and has a profound knowledge of the reserve’s avifauana (to give the lodge an idea of my expectations for the trip as a hardcore birder, I forwarded a copy of my wish list, or the birds I hoped to see). Jorge doesn’t speak English, but he does have his own audio equipment and a good spotting scope. Should you speak Portuguese, you’ll find him to be thoughtful and well spoken, with interesting views on conservation as well as fascinating stories about his encounters with wildlife. Bradley Davis, a Canadian birder whose experience at Cristalino goes back almost a decade, of Birding Mato Grosso is also available to guide independent birders at the lodge.

As is customary, we didn’t arrive at the lodge on the first day until nearly 5pm (it would have cost an additional $95 USD per person to leave Alta Floresta at 9am instead of 3pm, and we were content that morning with birding the forest fragment at Hotel Floresta Amazonica and observing the Harpy Eagle nest). We did manage to do some birding in the late afternoon down at the floating dock on the Cristalino River though, noting Paradise Jacamar, Short-Tailed Nighthawk, and Bare-Faced Curassow, among others. The river was running quite high, and I quickly realized that all the typical dry season observations of Razor-Billed Curassow, Brazilian Tapir, and various large cats coming down to the water’s edge were not possibile this time of year. I was immediately at ease with Jorge, who took a relaxed but completely informed approach to our casual birding session, giving me credit for my knowledge and experience but also engaging Aimée about what she was seeing and hearing. We talked a little bit about my goals for the trip, but not in an anxious or assuming way, and decided on visiting the new fifty-meter canopy tower the following morning for some of the canopy specialties, including Curl-Crested Aracari and Black-Girdled Barbet.

On the walk from the river to the base of the tower, we messed around for a while playing tape for Barred and Cryptic Forest-Falcons, Tawny-Bellied Screech-Owl, and Rufous-Necked Puffbird, the latter of which Jorge had heard calling on the previous morning. Having had no response, we ascended the tower on a beautifully clear morning and were quickly onto a calling Brown-Banded Puffbird nearby, where it would remain perched motionless for the next hour. A pair of spectacular Curl-Crested Aracaris surfaced in a tree immediately next to the tower, and I quickly ditched my binoculars for my camera to record the moment. Jorge proved very sharp-eared, picking out different parrots, tyrannulets, woodcreepers, and woodpeckers from the din of the dawn chorus. A pair of Yellow-Shouldered Grosbeaks came in ridiculously close in response to playback, which would have been the highlight of the morning if it weren’t for the Crested Eagle that calmly sailed by the tower chased by a pair of frantic Red-Throated Caracaras. The eagle crash landed on the top of a tree and perched briefly before slowly making its way over to the older canopy tower, where Brazilian bird guide Fabiano Oliviera was waiting for it, a lifer for him. Bradley later told me that he sees Crested Eagle at Cristalino once for every six to eight times he sees Harpy Eagle, which should give you a sense of just how lucky we were that morning.

Black-Girdled Barbet didn’t prove difficult from the tower, and we also had nice looks at Greyish Mourner, White-Browed Purpletuft, and Red-Necked Aracari, as well as a variety of tanagers, including Opal-Rumped and Paradise. Back on the forest floor, we worked hard for Banded Antbird, finally getting a good look at an exquisite male just as an anteater came up behind us noisily in the leaf litter. There’s also a Pavonine Quetzal territory near the base of the tower as well, but it was unresponsive to playback. A few days later Jorge would hear the quetzal passing by the lodge with a mixed flock, again without seeing it. To close out the morning, we found a mixed understory flock including Saturnine Antshrike and White-Winged Shrike-Tanager, both good southern Amazon ticks for me. Aimée was holding up pretty well despite the ridiculous amount of mosquitoes that were hounding us along the trail. At one point we looked at each other in horror after noticing that a dozen mosquitoes were feasting on Jorge’s thinly covered shoulders and back.

Although it rained briefly after lunch, we were back out in the field by mid afternoon, headed out towards an unassuming island on the Teles Pires River. Activity there was decent, and we picked up Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous-Tailed Jacamar, Chesnut-Bellied Seed-Finch, Chesnut-Backed Antshrike, Drab Water Tyrant, and various euphonias, including White-Vented and Rufous-Bellied. We dipped on the Flame-Crowned Manakin, which Jorge had heard calling, but we were all unable to dig out of the riverside vegetation before it fled across the water. The highlight of the excursion that afternoon was tracking down several displaying male Amazonian Umbrellabirds at a lek, which was probably the best bird of the trip for Aimée. She watched incredulously from the boat as a magnificent male bowed over a branch, raised his crest, and lowered his thick, feathered wattle in a display of sexual selection that rivals that of any other cotinga or manakin on the continent. Sated, we returned to the tower trail for another try at the screech-owl, which Jorge expertly located after a tense half hour of searching in the mosquito-thick dusk.

Rain plagued us on the following day, and we didn’t leave the lodge until well after 8am for the Serra Trail. Even after we arrived at the trailhead it continued raining, not stopping until we had finally reached the relatively open area at the top of the trail. Here we searched for Spotted Puffbird and Fiery-Tailed Awlbill and scanned the forest canopy below for raptors, parrots, and cotingas, but activity was low due to the wet weather. The highlight of the excursion was calling in a Striolated Puffbird for extended looks and some digiscoping (the routine was that Jorge would grab Aimée’s point-and-shoot camera and digiscope photos using his scope). I never seem to have any luck with puffbirds, and so this was a particularly rewarding moment for me, making it difficult to leave the bird behind after only half an hour of enjoyment. On the rocky hilltop we also picked up Rufous-Winged Antwren, Natterer’s Slaty-Antshrike, Short-Tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-Bellied Thorntail, Red-Stained Woodpecker, and Golden-Crowned Warbler. Looping back to the boat on the trail, we added a few bamboo specialists such as Large-Headed Flatbill and White-Shouldered Antshrike, as well as the excellent Rose-Breasted Chat. Actually, it would have been easy to forget about the lost hours of birding that morning if the entire afternoon hadn’t been rained out as well. We ascended the old tower with hopes that it would clear up, but lightening forced us back down again, where we managed to pick up little else besides Snow-Capped Manakin.

Thankfully, it was clear the next morning, and we decided on birding Haffer’s Trail to look for more bamboo specialists. First, we tried fruitlessly again for Cryptic Forest-Falcon, and then we headed up the Cristalino River and stopped along the riverbank in an open area to look for Brown Jacamar, which turned out to be a distinctively different subspecies from what I had seen before. Along Haffer’s Trail, Jorge was frustrated by the by the general lack of responsiveness to playback, but I thought we did relatively well in the bamboo section of the trail, noting Rufous-Capped Nunlet, Manu Antbird, Striated Antbird, and Dusky-Tailed Flatbill, as well as Ornate Antwren, Curve-Billed Scythebill, Cinereous Mourner, Black-Throated Trogon, and Moustached Wren. We just missed a calling Amazon Royal Flycatcher too, which was a bit of a blow for me. Returning to the trailhead, we also located two beautiful Blue-Cheeked Jacamars, and then found a pair of Bronzy Jacamars along the river from the boat in their usual location. It was a three-jacamar morning, you might say.

After lunch I followed up on a hot tip from Bradley, who told me that he had seen Gould’s Jewelfront, a rare and gorgeous hummingbird, at the flowering bromeliads in an open area behind the lodge known as the Secret Garden. Indeed, there was a striking male present as well as two Gray-Breasted Sabrewings. Despite a few bursts of rain, the weather looked like it would hold up all afternoon, and so we headed out to the Cacao Trail at 3pm. We immediately stepped off the boat into an antswarm, the size of which we only gradually became aware of after walking several hundred meters down the trail. Not hearing any antbirds though, Jorge played some tape of the Bare-Eyed Antbird, and we had a great response with birds seemingly calling from all around us. After an hour of arduous hunting, being attacked by mosquitoes all the while, Aimée and I finally had good looks at this difficult Brazilian endemic (I also had fleeting glimpses of Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, a more ornate and very skittish antbird). Although there aren’t many chiggers during the rainy season, the mosquitoes were very intense, and I was truly impressed with Aimée as she fought through the distractions and discomfort to get looks at what can only be considered an obscure and unspectacular bird.

At this point in the late afternoon, we were off to another trail, this time to search for the Chestnut-Belted Gnateater, another difficult but rewarding skulker. Again, after another hour of effort, we had both gotten onto a very irritated male gnateater that was rocking back and forth on a sapling in the understory and calling vociferously. It’s one of those birds that are impossible to see with the naked eye, but once you have them in your binoculars it’s inconceivable that you could miss them. With a storm bearing down on us, there was no time to search for Cryptic Forest-Falcon again, and we raced back to the lodge, arriving at the dock only a few seconds before a dense curtain of rain swept past and engulfed the lodge. We had basically spent the last three hours to see only two birds, but I think everyone was satisfied with the excursion, especially with having witnessed one of Amazonia’s famed antswarms. Jorge lamented that we hadn’t taken the Cacao Trail that morning and caught the ants at a higher level of activity, but considering that I had already seen most of the species that might have been present at the swarm, I was happy with how things worked out. Before calling it a day, we planned to hit the old tower the following morning, which would be our last, to search for Pompadour Cotinga and White-Browed Hawk.

Greatly relieved that it wasn’t raining again, we set out along the trail network behind the lodge for the old tower. Jorge heard a Long-Tailed Potoo calling nearby, and we spent a few anxious minutes thinking we might actually see one, before realizing we had no chance to spot it in the dark (scanning with a spotlight usually just scares off the bird). We decided to return in a few hours in hopes that it would roost in the same area. Up on the tower, it was foggy, and the first hour was very slow; however, the sun burned through earlier than usual, and we were soon hauling in birds, including Black-Bellied Cuckoo, Red-Necked Woodpecker, Great Black Hawk, Masked Tanager, and the unique Tooth-Billed Wren. Amazingly, Jorge also called in a White-Browed Hawk, lining it up for respectable views in the scope. This Leucopternis was a nice compliment to the Black-Faced Hawk I encountered north of the Amazon River earlier this month. With time winding down on our stay, Jorge suddenly claimed to have heard a Collared Puffbird calling from the understory far below. We scrambled down the narrow stairs of the tower to a well-know territory nearby, but the puffbird proved much less responsive than we had hoped. Just before turning around and heading back to the lodge in order to leave on time to catch our plane, Aimée spotted one dart in just overhead. After celebratory hugs and some hurried digiscoping, we raced off to catch the boat, leaving the Long-Tailed Potoo for another visit.

Despite my general skepticism about the value of the trip (I was gouged at the Hotel Floresta Amazonica as well, where they put me in a suite without asking my preference), I will almost certainly return to Cristalino, definitely during the dry season when the river is low and there’s a better chance for finding large mammals. Also, during periods of serious drought, there’s an incredible phenomenon called the Magic Pool, where timid understory birds of all families come to the same area to drink and bathe, one after the other. To keep costs of the trip down next time, I plan on flying instead to Cuiabá and taking the overnight bus to Alta Floresta. Although it’s an eleven-hour trip, long-distance busses in Brazil are very comfortable, and I understand that the road is relatively safe and in good condition. Looking back on the trip, I’m just pleased that Aimée had a good time and made serious strides as a birder, an activity that will no doubt continue to take us all over this country and beyond.

Notable birds seen: Muscovy Duck, Red-Throated Piping-Guan, Bare-Faced Curassow, Anhinga, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Capped Heron, Green Ibis, King Vulture, Double-Toothed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, White-Browed Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Crested Eagle, Red-Throated Caracara, Black Caracara, Bat Falcon, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Scarlet Macaw, Red-and-Green Macaw, Red-Bellied Macaw, Crimson-Bellied Parakeet, Santarem Parakeet, White-Bellied Parrot, Red-Fan Parrot, Kawall’s Parrot, Mealy Parrot, Black-Bellied Cuckoo, Tawny-Bellied Screech-Owl, Short-Tailed Nighthawk, Blackish Nightjar, Ladder-Tailed Nightjar, Black-Eared Fairy, Black-Bellied Thorntail, Gould’s Jewelfront, Grey-Breasted Sabrewing, Black-Tailed Trogon, Black-Throated Trogon, Brown Jacamar, Blue-Cheeked Jacamar, Bronzy Jacamar, Paradise Jacamar, White-Necked Puffbird, Brown-Banded Puffbird, Pied Puffbird, Striolated Puffbird, Collared Puffbird, Rufous-Capped Nunlet, Black-Girdled Barbet, Curl-Crested Aracari, Red-Necked Aracari, Yellow-Tuftued Woodpecker, Red-Stained Woodpecker, Yellow-Throated Woodpecker, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, Red-Necked Woodpecker, Spix’s Woodcreeper, Curve-Billed Scythebill, Fasciated Antshrike, Natterer’s Slaty-Antshrike, White-Shouldered Antshrike, Amazonian Antshrike, Saturnine Antshrike, Ornate Antwren, Plain-Throated Antwren, Long-Winged Antwren, Banded Antbird, Rufous-Winged Antwren, Striated Antbird, Spix’s Warbling Antbird, Manu Antbird, Bare-Eyed Antbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, Chestnut-Belted Gnateater, Short-Tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, White-Crested Spadebill, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Drab Water Tyrant, Crowned Slaty Flycatcher, Greyish Mourner, Large-Headed Flatbill, Dusky-Tailed Flatbill, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Spangled Cotinga, Bare-Necked Fruitcrow, Snow-Capped Manakin, Black-Crowned Tityra, Cinereous Mourner, White-Browed Purpletuft, White-Winged Swallow, Tooth-Billed Wren, Moustached Wren, Flame-Crested Tanager White-Winged Shrike-Tanager, Masked Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Opal-Rumped Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Yellow-Bellied Dacnis, Yellow-Shouldered Grosbeak, Chestnut-Bellied Seedeater, Chestnut-Bellied Seed-Finch, Rose-Breasted Chat, Golden-Crowned Warbler, Red-Rumped Cacique, White-Vented Euphonia, Rufous-Bellied Euphonia.

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