Serra do Navio, Amapá: January 27-28, 2012

I have been fortunate to have made several birding trips already since I moved to Brazil just three months ago, but nothing as spectacular as a lengthy excursion to northern Amazonia. When Aimee was asked at the last minute to accompany the Semester at Sea ship as it cruised up the Amazon River from Macapá to Manaus, I leapt at the opportunity to tag along. Having done some birding in Suriname in 2009, I was thrilled to return again to the spectacular Guiana Shield, which contains the largest undisturbed tropical rainforest in the world and is home to nearly 1700 bird species, including Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Crimson Fruitcrow, and Capuchinbird.

I planned to arrive a few days early in Macapá, which is the capital city of Amapá and located in the Amazon River delta, in order to visit Serra do Navio, a remote mining town and celebrated birding site. With less than a day to prepare I reached out to several helpful sources to collect logistical information about the site, including Bradley Davis of Birding Mato Grosso; Augusto Alves, a Brazilian birder and photographer who lives in Macapá; and Rick Simpson, who maintains Jeremy Minns’s extensive Brazil site notes on his birding services website. As it is currently the rainy season in far northeastern Brazil, I also made some desperate phone calls to pousada managers, bus station employees, and rental car agents in Amapá to determine the condition of the 125 km dirt road from Porto Grande to Serra do Navio.

Arriving at 3am in Macapá, I rented a small Fiat from the Localiza booth in the airport and slept curled up in the backseat for a few hours (there’s bus access to Serra do Navio as well but I didn’t have any time to waste). I sped out of the city before dawn, cruising along the excellent paved road to Porto Grande past enormous eucalyptus farms and trashed Cerrado. The weather was clear with only a few scattered clouds, and after assessing the condition of the dirt road, I decided to push on ahead to Serra do Navio and skip birding the Porto Grande area (Jeremy Minns mentions that the Hotel Sonho Meu has a trail through good terra firma forest, but it’s since closed, and no one I talked with knew anything about it). The road was indeed long and muddy, but it was also wide and firmly packed, and I felt that it would be passable even after a day of heavy rain, which would be the worst-case scenario (I could not afford to miss our ship that was scheduled to leave for Manaus on Sunday morning).

Bradley had kindly sent me a Google Earth map pointing out the productive birding roads in the area, as well as the location of the Capuchinbird lek, so when I arrived in Serra do Navio at 10:30a, I immediately parked the car and started birding. I quickly found a mixed flock in the understory containing Cinereous Antshrike, Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, White-Flanked Antwren, Dot-Winged Antwren, Plain Xenops, and some curious greenish female manakins. After some effort, I had brief looks at an accompanying male White-Fronted Manakin, a terrific little bird that I failed to see again on my trip. Further down the road and higher in the canopy were Green Aracari, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, Fasciated Antshrike, and Yellow-Throated Woodpecker. The weather help up nicely as I birded straight through the afternoon, suffering a bit from the extreme heat and humidity, but staying productive as I worked my way down to the river.

I asked some locals on the road whether they knew anything about the Capuchinbird, referring to it as the Maú as it’s supposedly called in Brazilian Portuguese. After getting confused looks in return, I played the tape of the bird’s call, which is no doubt the strangest sound I’ve ever heard a bird make, and they admitted they hear the Vaca Bravo, or angry cow, all the time along the upcoming stretch of road. Having seen the incredible segment on the Capuchinbird in Attenborough’s The Life of Birds series that includes several minutes of canopy-level footage of lekking birds, I simply had to see it for myself. Little did I realize just how difficult a proposition that would be from the forest floor. Hours later and with a severely strained neck, I could confidently tick the bird, but I was no way near satisfied (the photo was taken later at the Parque Municipal das Orquídeas in Presidente Figueiredo).

Near the Capuchinbird lek itself there is a large new clearing in the forest, where construction on a community center is currently underway. The small residential neighborhood at the beginning of the road happily blasts music all day as well. I judged that I only heard four different individuals making their incredible growling call, which is significantly less than the number of birds lekking together in The Life of Birds, and it’s questionable how much longer they can tolerate the growing pressure and encroachment in the area. In the forest at the base of the lek there were also MacConnell's Flycatcher and Mouse-Colored Antshrike, and on the following morning a spectacular Chestnut Woodpecker appeared just meters away from me (I flubbed the photo).

Before arriving at the river where there’s a popular balneario, or bathing area, as well as a decent trail leading into the forest, I stopped to watch a group of Black Nunbirds and a Cinnamon-Throated Woodcreeper ruthlessly destroy a wasp nest on a water tower. The indignant wasps tried to pelt the woodcreeper with stings, but it was undeterred as it tore the mud from the stucco walls of the tower. The folks in town were generally puzzled by my presence there, as the community appears almost entirely dedicated to the industrial mining of manganese, but the area is clearly opening up to visitors, and Serra do Navio is now officially being promoted as an ecotourism destination. I stayed at Pousada Santa Barbara (96-3321-1139), a comfortable but pricy hotel that is often booked solid with guests associated with the mining industry.

I was up early the following morning hearing a pair of Spectacled Owls in the forest behind the pousada, and at first light I was birding along the same stretch of road, focusing this time on the antbirds that were calling in the undergrowth. Dusky, Warbling, and Black-Headed Antbirds all showed well, and I later found a pair of Rufous-Bellied Antwrens along a footpath leading through the forest back to town. Another few hours of effort didn’t yield any better looks at the Capuchinbirds, which proved remarkably skittish despite their impressive size. At one point after many long minutes of search I finally found a calling bird overhead that was looking straight down through the leaves at me, thirty-five meters below in the near darkness of the understory. Before I could even raise my binoculars though, it dropped warily out of sight.

I raced back to Macapá passing through a few rain showers but nothing torrential, and it seemed as if my fears about the wet season were overblown. The dirt road connected Serra do Navio with Porto Grande is called the Perimetral Norte, and the forest on either side is sadly trashed. There are a few palm swamps along the way that are good for various raptors and kingfishers, as well as more widespread species like Swallow-Winged Puffbird. Bradley also pointed out the possibility of finding Point-Tailed Palmcreeper there, which I didn’t have the good sense to look for at the time. In retrospect, was twelve hours of birding worth ten hours of driving? Considering that I was unaware of any accessible Capuchinbird leks in the region north of Manaus, where I would be birding next, of course it was worth it. With more time and effort, one could also probably gain access to much better forest further outside of town and closer to the mining operations.

Update: Special thanks to Dr. Alexander Lees for his help with multiple identifications from this trip, including the MacConnell's Flycatcher and Cinnamon-Throated Woodcreeper.

Notable birds seen: Anhinga, Swallow-Tailed Kite, Yellow-Headed Caracara, Eastern Long-Tailed Hermit, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Black Nunbird, Green Aracari, Black-Necked Aracari, White-Throated Toucan, Yellow-Throated Woodpecker, Chestnut Woodpecker, Wedge-Billed Woodcreeper, Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, Cinnamon-Throated Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Fasciated Antshrike, Cinereous Antshrike, Mouse-Colored Antshrike, Amazonian Antshrike, White-Flanked Antwren, Dot-Winged Antwren, Rufous-Bellied Antwren, Warbling Antbird, Dusky Antbird, Black-Headed Antbird, Capuchinbird, Screaming Piha, Golden-Headed Manakin, White-Bearded Manakin, White-Fronted Manakin, MacConnell's Flycatcher, White-Headed Marsh-Tyrant, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Yellow-Rumped Cacique, Silver-Beaked Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Violaceous Euphonia.

5 comments:

  1. Hi, nice account, just to let you know the 'striped woodcreeper' is actually Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper (Dendrexetastes rufigula) though. abracos, Alex

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  2. Good call, Alex! I admit that was a pretty lazy identification attempt. I've made the appropriate changes to the trip report.

    Have you been to Serra do Navio? I would have loved to spend more time in the region, especially in the company of experienced birders.

    Best regards,

    Derek

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  3. Hi Derek, I'm off up there next week, so thanks for the gen! I also just noticed that your Thrush like Mourner is
    McConnell's Flycatcher (Mionectes macconnelli). cheers, Alex

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  4. + captioned latin of the cacique should be 'cela'. abracos

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  5. Thanks again for your help with the identifications, Alex. I often struggle to identify birds correctly when I'm seeing them for the first time, as was the case with the mourner/flycatcher.

    Have a great trip!

    Best regards,

    Derek

    ReplyDelete

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