Floresta Nacional de Jamarí, Pousada Ecológica Rancho Grande, and Porto Velho, Rondônia: July 28-31, 2012

Work responsibilities can often take one abroad, sometimes to very birdy countries, such as Brazil. Who hasn’t felt that thrill of sneaking in a little birding while on a work related trip? But occasionally work can take one to even more remote locations within these countries, such as Rondônia and Acre, two remote states in the far western corner of Brazil that have long captured birders’ imaginations. Thus, I felt both obliged and privileged on my recent trip to the region, where I managed to bird a variety of sites, encountering a few excellent southern Amazonia bird specialties, in addition to carrying out my job.

As long as I was comfortable arriving in Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, at 2am on Saturday morning, I would have the entire weekend to go birding at whatever sites I could find in the northern region of the state. While there has been a steady trickle of foreign birders visiting Pakaas Palafitas Lodge on the border with Bolivia, I found very little information about recent birding trips to other destinations in the area. Finally I came across Andrew Whittaker’s 2003 report summarizing his research in the state, including his observations from a private reserve about four hours’ drive southeast from Porto Velho. Although their extensive bird list was no doubt a bit dated, Pousada Ecológica Rancho Grande looked as good as any other option I could find. At the last minute, I also scraped together permission to visit Flona Jamari, a large sustainable use reserve located along the way just off highway BR-364.

In what has become a tiresome but reliable routine for me on my weekend travels in Brazil, I pieced together a few hours’ sleep Friday night while on the plane and then hit the ground running in Porto Velho early on Saturday morning. Renting a car at the airport and driving southeast, I arrived at the entrance to the reserve just after 5am. Without having written authorization to enter, I wondered whether the guards at the gate would give me a hard time, but they appeared eager to let me in, only informing me not to drive on the roads leading out to the various mining and logging sites within the reserve, which wouldn’t be a problem as they were clearly marked.

I drove around in the dark for thirty minutes to acquaint myself with the roads and the different birding possibilities before it got light. From what I could see with my spotlight, there was good forest along the 4km dirt road from the ICMBIO headquarters towards Madeflona, a logging concession within the park. I also found a large swampy area that was probably flooded in recent years, considering the number of dead trees still emerging from the water. Before it got light I was able to determine that the nightjars resting on the road were Ladder-Tailed Nightjars, which is a relatively easy distinction to make between Common Pauraques, for example. Finally the sky started to brighten, and I parked the car and started exploring on foot.

The morning started off very well as I heard a Great Jacamar calling; a pair came zooming by in response to playback, and I was able to locate them overhead without too much trouble. Various parrots, macaws, and parakeets started screeching and flying overhead, and I spotted a pair of Red-Fan Parrots perched hawk like on a snag in the distance. Then, I stumbled upon an excellent Brown Jacamar calling from more open woodland along a dip in the road. With unknown antbirds singing or churring from either side of the road, I became a bit discombobulated, looking up the road for answers, where I saw a Brazilian Tapir stroll across and slip quietly back into the forest. The antbirds turned out to me Moustached Wrens, but I did shortly afterwards find Black-Throated and Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbirds nearby. After lucking onto a pair of foraging Black-Girdled Barbets, a flyover of a sub-adult male Pompadour Cotinga, and a group of Red-Billed Pied-Tanagers that literally fell out of the sky and landed at eye level, I was satisfied with the results along the forest edge and decided to find a trail somewhere into the forest.

There are a couple of options along the entrance road, so I geared up with my rubber boots and escaped the growing heat. This time of year in the southwestern Amazon it is terribly dry, especially in Rondônia, where the deforestation has been extensive. I asked many people in the region when the last time it rained was, and they consistently game me answers of two to three months. Indeed, walking along the trails was almost dangerous, as huge dead leaves and branches kept falling down around me, no doubt scaring away some of the birds. Still, I located a Blue-Cheeked Jacamar in the gloom, and I was able to rile up a male Snow-Capped Manakin well enough to get good lucks, but not good photographs. After stopping at the swamp to look for raptors and waterbirds and finding only a Bat Falcon, I resolved to continue on to the pousada for some late afternoon birding.

A few Pearl Kites hunted lizards from the power lines along the dirt road that connects the national forest to the highway, but along the road the forest had been cut back to horizon, as is the norm in Rondônia I would find. The highway itself was packed with industrial traffic, and passing 26-meter semi trucks in my miniscule Fiat was a little harrowing. I heard that a lot of imported materials arriving in the country actually are shipped up the Amazon and Madeira to Rondônia, where they are then trucked to São Paulo. Taking this route instead of using a coastal port could explain a lot about why consumer goods are so expensive in Brazil. Aside from all the trucks and a few hydroelectric projects, there was little of interest to see along the highway, except all the Red-Breasted Blackbirds of course. Foolishly, I never stopped to get a photograph of a male, which colored in extraordinary contrast to its environment.

Given the dry weather and surrounding deforestation, the forest reserve at Rancho Grande looked pretty pathetic, and I wondered if it was worth birding here at all given the goodies I encountered at Flona Jamarí. But I made a loyal round of the trails late that afternoon and saw a few decent birds, including Amazonian Motmot, Double-Toothed Kite, and a large group of lekking Purple-Ruffed Fruitcrows. The pousada itself has an interesting history, as it was founded nearly forty years ago during a totally different era in Rondônia, and is well constructed and maintained. From the old photographs in the dining room, it looks as if the same family still runs the place. On Saturday night they offer a lively churrasco, grilling a variety of delicious meats and serving nearly frozen beer. Somehow I managed to finish my meal without passing out, having worked all day Friday and birded all day on Saturday, grabbing only two hours’ rest in between.

I decided to make the best of it at the reserve on the following morning, hitting the trails around 6:30am for the dawn chorus. A series of churring calls from the undergrowth caught my attention, and I worked hard to get good looks at a pair of Black-Spotted Bare-Eyes, one of my favorite birds of Amazonia. I nearly had a photo of them both out in the open relatively speaking, as they’re ridiculously shy, but my hands were full with binoculars, iPod, and speaker. Continuing on along the trail, I realized that the habitat was more extensive than I had originally thought. A group of Elegant Woodcreepers and a male Collared Trogon, both found vocalizing low in the understory, rounded out the early morning bird activity.

An irate spider monkey announced my arrival in a clearing from overhead, as it angrily shook several branches of the tree it was occupying. Unfortunately, all the commotion scattered the mixed flock I was trying to work over, and I was only able to identify a male Saturnine Antshrike before all the birds had moved on. Walking slowly but noisily in the dry leaf litter with my rubber boots, worn to protect myself from ticks and chiggers, I snuck up on a pair of Broad-Billed Motmots that I had somehow noticed without scaring away. A pair of tiny Plain-Throated Antwrens then caught my attention, distinctive by their wing spotting and method of foraging very low to the ground. Throughout the morning I had heard a Striated Antthrush calling, but somehow I had overlooked downloading its call from xeno-canto in preparation for the trip (I have seen this densely patterned antthrush once already in the Ecuadorian Amazon). Instead of backtracking at the end of the trail, I opted to hike back to the pousada out in the open, rewarded with my first male Vermilion Flycatcher in Brazil.

After I quick lunch at the pousada, I headed back towards Porto Velho with plans to stop at Flona Jamarí for some late afternoon birding. The return trip only served to emphasize that the state of Rondonia has long been colonized, its once continuous forests converted to a threadbare quilt of forest fragments and extensive cattle farms. Good habitat, and thus good birding, looks only to be found on the edges of the state. Once inside the entrance gate at Flona Jamarí, where I easily talked my way in again, I drove around the same road from before looking for mixed flocks. White-Fronted Nunbirds indicated their presence, and I noted a pair of busy Bar-Breasted Piculets noisily tapping away as well as another pair of Black-Girdled Barbets. Up near the entrance to Madeflona, I might have scored the bird of the trip, a magnificent male Razor-Billed Curassow that I first flushed back from the road and then watched feed in a dense bush nearby, its impressive red bill protruding above the foliage occasionally. My short weekend exploring Rondônia had hardly produced an impressive bird list, but I was happy with the few standouts I managed to find.

A few days later I would have the opportunity to visit a farm outside of Porto Velho, where there was still some substantial forest left at the far end of the property. Although I only birded the forest edge for a few hours, I still had a nice haul of birds, including Paradise Jacamar, Chestnut-Capped Becard, and Black-Girdled Barbet. The owners had also rescued an active nest of Dusky-Headed Parakeets, three of which were still doing fine, now in a woven basket. Although the hydroelectric project just outside town is wreaking some environmental destruction, including through this farm where workers were erecting towers to support high-tension electrical lines, there is still some decent birding to do in the general area. Although I didn’t have a chance to visit myself, near the town of Candeias do Jamari there is plenty of forest remaining, which can be accessed by several balneários, or bathing areas, found along the river, such as Balneário do Rio Preto. Despite its proximity to Porto Velho, Wiki Aves has records of both Harpy Eagle and Nocturnal Curassow photographed here.

Notable birds seen: Muscovy Duck, Brazilian Teal, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Wattled Jacana, Yellow-Billed Tern, Pearl Kite, Gray Hawk, Double-Toothed Kite, Bat Falcon, Greater Yellow-Headed Vulture, Black Caracara, Red-Throated Caracara, Spix’s Guan, Razor-Billed Curassow, Common Pauraque, Ladder-Tailed Nightjar, Scarlet Macaw, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Dusky-Headed Parakeet, Red-Fan Parrot, Mealy Parrot, Madeira Parakeet, Collared Trogon, Blue-Crowned Trogon, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, Broad-Billed Motmot, Amazonian Motmot, White-Throated Toucan, Lettered Aracari, Great Jacamar, Paradise Jacamar, Blue-Cheeked Jacamar, Brown Jacamar, Black-Girdled Barbet, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, White-Fronted Nunbird, Bar-Breasted Picculet, Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker, Strong-Billed Woodcreeper, Elegant Woodcreeper, Saturnine Antshrike, Plain-Throated Antwren, White-Flanked Antwren, Dot-Winged Antwren, Black-Throated Antbird, Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, Gray Antwren, Vermillion Flycatcher, Chestnut-Crowned Becard, Black-Tailed Tityra, Masked Tityra, Black-Crowned Tityra, Short-Tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, Snow-Capped Manakin, Dwarf-Tyrant Manakin, Pompadour Cotinga, Purple-Throated Fruitcrow, Bright-Rumped Attila, Grayish Mourner, Gray-Chested Greenlet, Moustached Wren, White-Winged Swallow, White-Banded Swallow, Turquoise Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanager, Red-Billed Pied-Tanager, Flame-Crested Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Purple-Throated Euphonia, Grayish Saltator, Buff-Throated Saltator, Crested Oropendola, Red-Rumped Cacique, Yellow-Rumped Cacique, Red-Breasted Blackbird, Yellow-Browed Sparrow.

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