After cruising over 1300 kilometers up the Amazon River from Macapá to Manaus, Aimee and I spent a day soaking in the humid atmosphere of one of the most unique cities in the world. Located at the confluence of the Negro and Solimoes Rivers, Manaus is an urban island positioned in the middle of Amazonia and containing over 2 million inhabitants. Although Manaus probably reached its historical apex in the nineteenth century during the rubber boom, the city continues to thrive thanks to a system of federal investments and tax incentives. Tourists might stop in Manaus for a quick visit to the spectacular Amazonas Opera House on their way into the rainforest, but the city is really a showcase for modern, industrial Brazil, boasting car and phone manufacturing and chemical production as well as a vigorous trade in commodities, such as timber and nuts.
The Manaus region has long been a hotspot for ornithology and birding, as it offers relatively easy access to several distinct avifauna within Amazonia, including those of terra firma and campina forest north and south of the river as well as flooded forest and river islands of the Anavilhanas archipelago. When I learned with only a few days’ notice that I would have the opportunity to bird the region, I immediately considered staying at one of the ecolodges in the area, as this was the easiest, most productive, and safest was to bird Amazonia in Ecuador, where I lived for six years. I was shocked though by the price of accommodation at several lodges I researched and dismayed to learn that most don’t offer birding programs or even cater to birders’ basic needs, such as offering a pre-dawn breakfast. As it is the rainy season in Amazonia, I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money without having a good chance of encountering antbirds at army ant swarms (supposedly obligate ant-followers are more frequently encountered during the dry season).
After reading through many trip reports, including Simon Allen’s excellent report from his extensive travels in the region in 2003, and again soliciting the helpful advice of Bradley Davis of Birding Mato Grosso, I realized that I could productively, and cheaply, bird for a week while based in the town of Presidente Figueiredo, which is located approximately 100 km north of Manaus and connected by a newly resurfaced tarmac road. There I would have access to multiple sites offering terra firma forest, palm swamps, and white sand forest, or campina, all travel between which I could manage myself with a basic rental car and my burgeoning Portuguese skills. So, I rented a Fiat at the Localiza booth at the airport (R$175 per day), stayed at the Hotel Cachoeira do Urubuí (R$90 per night including breakfast), and took basic meals at a restaurant on the main square in town, working my way through a mind-blowing list of birds, such as Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Crimson Topaz, Black-Faced Hawk, Ferruginous-Backed Antbird, Orange-Breasted Falcon, Capuchinbird, Dotted Tanager, Ringed Woodpecker, Black Manakin, Point-Tailed Palmcreeper, and Red Fan Parrot.
On the drive to Presidente Figueiredo you’ll pass by several good birding sites, including the palm swamp at BR-174 km 82 (km 120 is just as good). There is also a white-sand forest, or campina, reserve at km 44 managed by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA), and at km 50 you’ll see the access road to the famous canopy tower also managed by INPA (arranging permits to visit these INPA reserves requires patience and Portuguese and is probably best accomplished by contacting Andrew Whittaker of Birding Brazil). Surprisingly, there’s a lot of good forest right along the highway, which would make for excellent birding if it weren’t for the overloaded semi trucks rumbling by every few minutes on their way north to Boa Vista or Venezuela. Any of the forested dirt roads running to the east or west of BR-174 are worth exploring, although they become dangerously slick in wet weather (I personally recommend the road west at km 83). In Presidente Figueiredo itself, the Parque Municipal das Orquídeas has a wide trail passing through terra firma forest as well as stunted forest and campina. Hotel Iracema Falls north of town at km 115 has a productive access road and several short, forested trails. Perhaps my favorite site of all was a track that branches to the north 10 km down the Ramal Urubuí, a dirt road that leads west of Presidente Figueiredo, again recommended to me by Brad of Birding Mato Grosso.
I realize that a trip like this isn’t what most people have in mind when they’re planning what is likely a once-in-a-lifetime visit to northern Amazonia; however, you can certainly bird the region independently provided you have some basic site notes, resources like a rental car, and a sense of adventure. Personally, I find my expectations sometimes become grossly outsized at remote and expensive ecolodges, where any bird less than a rare and spectacular one is somehow unimpressive, and a rainy morning can feel like the apocalypse when you’re paying $500 USD to wait it out. Why not experience a bit of Brazil while you’re birding the Brazilian Amazon, rubbing elbows with the day laborers at the buffet restaurant and listening to the pagode pounding all night at the club next door to your hotel? Joking aside, however you choose to bird the region you’ll experience an incredibly rich and diverse avifauna and no doubt see some of the continent’s best birds.
On my first day, I was fortunate to bird in the company of Robin Doughty, professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austen, who had a day’s leave from teaching geography onboard the Semester at Sea ship. We started the day on the entrance road to Hotel Iracema Falls, where I had earlier secured permission to arrive at 6am. Five splendid Scarlet Macaws awaited us in the mist still at their roost, and a White-Hawk settled in a tree above us briefly before leaving to hunt for giant earthworms from another perch. We lined up Blue-Headed and Red-Lored Parrots in the scope before driving past an immaculate perched Black-Faced Hawk. It was quiet along the trail down to the waterfall where he had hoped to find Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, but back on the entrance road we encountered a pair of Guianan Toucanets at eyelevel. After a fruitless visit to Parque Municipal das Orquídeas, we ticked some common birds of Amazonia in several cleared areas and did some road birding at two swamps along the BR-174 highway. The bridge at km 82 was especially productive, yielding Point-Tailed Palmcreeper and Red-Bellied Macaw, and we saw a Spangled Cotinga fly by at another overview.
On the following day, I returned by myself to Hotel Iracema Falls, focusing more on the little brown jobs that Robin was less than enthusiastic about seeing. After finding Dusky Antbird, Black-Throated Antbird, and Coraya Wren in the undergrowth along the entrance road, I heard a Collared Puffbird calling from within the forest. Frustrated by my failed attempt to locate this rare and spectacular bird, I moved on to the waterfall trail, where I found a large group of birds foraging together including Capuchinbird, Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, and Cayanne Jay. Feeling rejuvenated, I launched a campaign on the campina and stunted forest of the Parque Municipal das Orquideas, where I was determined to find the site specialties, including the tricky Pelzeln’s Tody-Tyrant. The stunted forest begins just after the first boardwalk about a kilometer down the trail, where I saw plenty of Saffron-Crested Tyrant-Manakins, Northern Slaty-Antshrikes, and Bronzy Jacamars but was unable to get my binoculars on the tody-tyrant, which is apparently inimical to playback (I’ve heard from several sources that the key is simply to wait and listen for the call, and then to stalk off into the forest searching overhead in the canopy). Amazingly, I found another Capuchinbird foraging with a flock along with a beautiful Chestnut Woodpecker, and on my way out of the park I reeled in a pair of Red-Billed Woodcreepers from the confusion of a large mixed flock.
Later in the afternoon, I made a visit to the palm swamp at km 120 along the BR-174, where a pair of Point-Tailed Palmcreepers made an appearance without provocation. The other specialties, Sulphury Flycatcher and Red-Bellied Macaw, were hidden away up in the palms, while Lesser Kiskadee, Green Kingfisher, Wattled Jacana, and Red-Billed Cardinal continued their activities during the heat of the day. I drove out on the Ramal Urubuí in the later afternoon to scout the track I was planning to bird on the following morning. The ramal, or logging road, leads west from the north end of town, past the popular bathing area on the river. Before the turnoff to the right 10 km down the road, I stopped to check out some perched parrots in my scope. Two Red Fan Parrots were preening each other in the dying light, raising their expressive neck feathers occasionally into a spectacular fan, and a Green Oropendola perched in the distance. The track itself begins a hundred meters beyond the sign for Vivenda Fennix, and if you park at the beginning of the road you can walk it apparently for many kilometers through hilly terra firma forest. I picked up Pied Puffbird and Crimson-Crested Woodpecker before calling it a day.
Waking up even earlier than usual to make the thirty-minute drive to the dirt track described above, I noticed a falcon perched at the forest edge behind a small plantation. Scrambling to set up the scope in the road, I confirmed that it was an Orange-Breasted Falcon and then watched through my binoculars as it swooped right towards me and just overhead as it crossed the road into the forest beyond. In quick succession at the beginning of the dirt track I had Coraya Wren, Black-Headed Antbird, Warbling Antbird, and a group of Rufous-Throated Antbirds. Further on down the road near a clearing, I spotted a pair of Black-Faced Hawks preening in the first light of the day. Both Thrush-Like and Variegated Antpittas were calling near the forest edge on other side of the road, but I pushed on until I found a large mixed flock including a terrific pair of Ringed Woodpeckers. Given that I wasn’t feeling well that morning, I simply lay down on my back in the middle of the track and watched the flock in comfort, noting Yellow-Green Grosbeak, Black-Spotted Barbet, and Paradise Tanager, among others.
Feeling somewhat better, I continued along the road seeing Golden-Spangled Piculet, Red-Necked Woodpecker, Black-Tailed Trogon, and a female Pompadour Cotinga. After finding another mixed flock with Spotted Tanager, I decided to turn back. It was a smart move because I had run out of water and was growingly increasingly fatigued in the heat. The birds kept coming though, and I was forced to stop at two more mixed flocks, noting Opal-Rumped Tanager in one and Chestut-Rumped Woodcreeper in another. Although a few cars had passed me, as well as some well-armed hunters on foot, it had been a gloriously peaceful morning of birding as well as highly productive. I planned to return later in the trip. In the afternoon, I stopped at km 120 again to check for Moriche Oriole and then birded a forested trail at a new hotel under construction nearby. The owner’s family is currently working at the Hotel Cachoeira do Urubuí, where I was staying, and he kindly let me explore the wide 1 km trail on my own. Although it was midafternoon, I found a nice flock including Spot-Backed and Brown-Bellied Antwrens. Avoiding a rain shower, I then drove down to km 82 in the late afternoon, and not encountering much action there decided to explore a side road at km 83. Here at the first swamp, I celebrated my first Crimson Topaz, watching three males display for a female for nearly fifteen minutes while getting great views in my scope.
On Sunday, I had arranged to visit the INPA canopy tower at km 50 with American ornithologist Mario Cohn-Haft, who has lived and worked in Manaus for decades, and Anselmo d’Affonseca, an accomplished Brazilian bird photographer also based in Manaus. Feeling very fortunate, I climbed to the top of the tower happy to have even a slim chance of seeing Crimson Fruitcrow or Harpy Eagle, both of which have been recorded from the tower but not with any regularity. Birding with Mario was a real education as he pinpointed the location of obscure tyrannulets in mixed canopy flocks and reeled in tanagers, woodcreepers, and antwrens from all sides with his iPhone; it was also pretty comic as he was wearing cheap sandals, had forgotten to bring a hat and water, and had loaned his only binoculars to one of his students. From the top level of the tower, we recorded Dotted Tanager and Chapman’s Swift early in the morning, and saw Slender-Footed, White-Lored, and Olive-Green Tyrannulet all up close. Pink-Throated Becard, Curve-Billed Scythebill, Painted Tody-Tyrant, Buff-Cheeked Greenlet, Ashy-Winged Antwren, and Golden-Collared Woodpecker were all spotted in a very large insectivorous flock. Other good finds, for me at least, included Red-Billed Pied Tanager, Red Fan and Caica Parrots, and Paradise Jacamar. Once the heat of the morning set in and activity died down, we returned to the forest floor for a pair of delightful Ferruginous-Backed Antbirds that approached within a meter of where we were standing thanks to Mario’s expert use of playback and their apparently confiding nature.
After realizing that this particular morning would not rival some of the epic mornings that he and Mario have spent up on the tower photographing rare birds at nearby flowering and fruiting trees, Anselmo spent a few hours stalking Variegated Antpitta near the base of the tower, mistakenly passing under it as it called from several meters overhead. The highlight of the morning for me was probably hearing Mario’s wild story of discovering a completely new jay species in remote campina in Southwestern Brazil in 2003, his self-described most significant contribution to science. It sounds like he’s sitting on quite a few more new bird species too, hopefully soon to be described. Later in the morning we stopped at the campina reserve at km 44, where he generously explained exactly where I should look for Pelzen’s Tody-Tyrant and Black Manakin should I return on the following morning (it had already started raining, and he was soon soaked having forgotten any rain gear as well). After we parted ways, I sat around for a while and reflected on the morning, waiting for the rain to stop. Resuming in the later afternoon, I noted Fuscous Flycatcher, Bronzy Jacamar, and Black Manakin briefly before retiring for the day.
My flight for Manaus didn’t leave until the late afternoon, so I had a full morning left to chase after any bird species that still lingered unseen on the regional list. It was an easy decision to return to the dirt track off the Ramal Urubuí, and this time I made an effort to get my eyes on the Variegated Antpitta. After several hours’ of effort, I had only succeeded in flushing one from a perch, as it called in a tree, basically unseen. It was a thrilling chase though, reminding me of my days stalking antpittas in the Ecuadorian Andes. The morning’s highlights included Gray Hawk, Marail Guan, White-Crowned Manakin, Guianan Gnatcatcher, Yellow-Billed Jacamar, Cinereous Mourner, and great looks at a Caica Parrot feeding overhead. On the way back to Manaus I stopped again at km 44 for a quick tour of the campina, this time getting better looks at a male Black Manakin, what proved to be a very elusive bird for me on this trip. Again, permits to this reserve are available through the INPA office in Manaus control. Although the entrance is right along the road and access is weakly gated, the trails are notoriously labyrinthine, and more than one birder has gotten hopelessly lost while seeking out a calling Pelzeln’s Tody-Tyrant overhead.
Notable birds seen: Osprey, Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, Swallow-Tailed Kite, Orange-Breasted Falcon, Bat Falcon, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Black-Faced Hawk, Black Caracara, Red-Throated Caracara, Yellow-Headed Caracara, Marail Guan, Burrowing Owl, Scaled Pigeon, Common Ground-Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Scarlet Macaw, Red-Bellied Macaw, Caica Parrot, Blue-Headed Parrot, Orange-Winged Parrot, Red Fan Parrot, Red-Lored Parrot, White-Eyed Parakeet, Short-Tailed Swift, Chapman’s Swift, Band-Rumped Swift, Fork-Tailed Palm-Swift, Eastern Long-Tailed Hermit, Straight-Billed Hermit, Reddish Hermit, Crimson Topaz, Black-Eared Fairy, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, Black-Tailed Trogon, Blue-Crowned Motmot, Green Kingfisher, Bronzy Jacamar, Paradise Jacamar, Yellow-Billed Jacamar, Black-Spotted Barbet, Green Aracari, Guianan Toucanet, White-Throated Toucan, Channel-Billed Toucan, Black Nunbird, Pied Puffbird, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker, Golden-Collared Woodpecker, Ringed Woodpecker, Red-Necked Woodpecker, Golden-Spangled Piculet, Golden-Green Woodpecker, Crimson-Crested Woodpecker, Chestnut Woodpecker, Wedge-Billed Woodcreeper, Chestnut-Rumped Woodcreeper, Curve-Billed Scythebill, Red-Billed Woodcreeper, Point-Tailed Palmcreeper, White-Flanked Antwren, Cinereous Antshrike, Northern Slaty-Antshrike, Dusky-Throated Antshrike, Brown-Bellied Antwren, Gray Antwren, Ash-Winged Antwren, Spot-Backed Antwren, Warbling Antbird, Dusky Antbird, Black-Throated Antbird, Rufous-Throated Antbird, Ferrinous-Backed Antbird, Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Capuchinbird, Spangled Cotinga, Pompadour Cotinga, Screaming Piha, Black-Tailed Tityra, Pink-Throated Becard, Cinereous Mourner, Saffron-Crested Tyrant-Manakin, White-Crowned Manakin, Black Manakin, Whiskered Flycatcher, Gray Elaenia, White-Lored Tyrannulet, Slender-Footed Tyrannulet, Olive-Green Tyrannulet, Yellow-Crowned Tyrannulet, Painted Tody-Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, Gray-Crowned Flycatcher, Ruddy-Tailed Flycatcher, Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Sulphury Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee, Red-Eyed Vireo, Slaty-Capped Shrike-Vireo, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Buff-Cheeked Greenlet, Guianan Gnatcatcher, White-Winged Swallow, White-Banded Swallow, Southern Rough-Winged Swallow, Coraya Wren, Buff-Breasted Wren, Long-Billed Gnatwren, Green Oropendola, Red-Rumped Cacique, Red-Billed Pied-Tanager, Yellow-Backed Tanager, White-Shouldered Tanager, Silver-Beaked Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Opal-Rumped Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Dotted Tanager, Flame-Crested Tanager, Fulvous-Crested Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Red-Legged Honeycreeper, Purple Honeycreeper, Black-Faced Dacnis, Golden-Bellied Euphonia, Red-Capped Cardinal, Yellow-Green Grosbeak, Orange-Fronted Yellow-Finch, Yellow-Browed Sparrow, Chestnut-Bellied Seedeater.