The main objectives of the trip are Humaitá, where we want to see some of the interesting habitats and birds of that region of the Rio Madeira, and Thaimaçu, a fishing lodge near Alta Floresta where the newly described Bald Parrot Pionopsitta aurantiocephala might be found.
On our way to Humaitá, we planned to spend a couple of days at the Chapada dos Guimarães and to explore the area around Vila Bela de Santíssima Trindade which we hope will be as rich in birds as it is in its name. Then on our way to Thaimaçu, we plan to spend a few days at the Cristalino to sample the delights of the tower that has been built since our previous visits.
As you will see, "the best laid schemes gang aft agley" and we don't spend one day according to our original itinerary until we hit the Cristalino on 3rd April.
There are 3 of us on the trip, Jeremy Minns, Ricardo Parrini and myself, so the emphasis is as much on getting good sound recordings and good photographs as it is on seeing new birds. Unfortunately, Ricardo can only be with us for the first half of the trip but this is the half where we are covering relatively unknown ground, which is what interests him.
In the course of the trip we see a total of 362 species with an additional 77 species heard only to give a grand total of 439 species. Of these 151 species are photographed. Total kilometres driven are 10,930.
Friday, 21st March:
Jeremy and I are up at 5:00 am and we pick up Ricardo, who has travelled from Rio, at the São Paulo Bus Station at 5:30 am. Off on the long and rather boring road through São Paulo state taking the Castello Branco and Marechal Rondon Highways up to the state border at Tres Lagoas. But it's good to be back on the road and to sample once again the delights of a litre of freshly squeezed orange juice for R$ 2.00 and free black coffee when we stop to fill up the Land Rover with diesel.
Crossing the state border into Mato Grosso do Sul, we gain an hour with a change in time zone and head along a much improved BR 282 towards Campo Grande from where we turn north on the BR 163 and we finally reach Coxim at 6:30 pm. We have driven almost 1,300 kms in just over 13 hours.
We stay in the Coxim Hotel at R$ 70.00 (approx. US$22) for the 3 of us sharing in one room. Over dinner we discuss the itinerary and decide that we should try to maximize our time in Humaitá by cutting out the Chapada dos Guimarães. Jeremy is rather keen to do a short extension along the Transpantaneira where there had been recent reports of large numbers of Cracids ranging across 6 different species but this idea is also sacrificed in order to maximize time at Humaitá.
Saturday, 22nd March:
After breakfast at 6:00 we are off on the road by 6:30 am. We leave a lot of traffic at Cuiabá and Várzea Grande and hit Pontes e Lacerda at around 5:00 pm. From here we take a branch road off to Vila Bela de Santíssima Trindade keeping an eye open along the road for suitable pieces of habitat for the morning. We have driven about 1,000 kms today in about 11 hours.
There is not a great choice of hotels in Vila Bela de Santíssima Trindade but we decide on the Bela Vila Hotel at R$ 20 per person per night in separate rooms.
Sunday, 23rd March:
Up at 4:45 am and on the road by 5:00 am. We find some remnant forest on the Fazenda Tourmalino at Km 56 on the road back to Pontes e Lacerda with a remarkable number of photogenic birds such as Blue-and-yellow Macaw Ara ararauna, Red-bellied Macaw Ara manilata, Cream-colored Woodpecker Celeus flavus, Lineated Woodpecker Dryocopus lineatus and a very obliging Black-throated Antbird Myrmeciza atrothorax. There are also some Spider Monkeys Ateles belzebuth and Brown Capuchins Cebus apella. A very irate farmer approaches us early on assuming that we are hunters and it takes a while before we have him looking through our binoculars and becoming quite friendly. This whole process rather spoils an otherwise good recording of Little Cuckoo Piaya minuta.
Back on the main road in some cerrado habitat we see a Suiriri and, more in hope than expectation, Jeremy plays back the Chapada Flycatcher Suiriri islerorum recording. To our great satisfaction this produces a positive response from 4 birds and the diagnostic wing and tail fluttering. During the course of photographing and recording this newly described species, Ricardo shouts at me about a seedeater which I assume is Capped Seedeater and I take a couple of photos before getting back to the Suiriri and a rattlesnake which I find lurking in the long grass.
Back at the car Ricardo says he is sure that the seedeater was all black on its upperparts. I check my digital images and he is right. We have found Black-and-tawny Seedeater described by Ridgely & Tudor (1989) as "rare and virtually unknown in life". However, Luís Fábio Silveira and Fernando Mendonça d'Horta, in their paper "A Avifauna da Região de Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade, Mato Grosso" (Papéis Avulsos de Zool., S. Paulo 42(10):265-286) state: "The cerrados of Vila Bela de Santíssima Trindade probably contain the largest population of a globally threatened species, the Black-and-tawny Seedeater, Sporophila nigrorufa, as well as many other cerrado specialists and deserve immediate conservation measures"
Searching in the tall grass beside the seasonal water pools at the side of the road we find considerable numbers of Black-and-tawny Seedeater with a relatively high proportion of male-plumaged birds. In fact, it is the most common Sporophila around although we are also privileged to see one male Rufous-rumped Seedeater S. hypochroma and one male Dark-throated Seedeater S. ruficollis as well as a couple of Plumbeous Seedeater S. plumbea. Coordinates for this Sporophila paradise are 15º 3.4' S, 59º 44.2' W.
Lunch beside the rio Guaporé was very pleasant and produced a sighting of Pink River Dolphin Inia geoffrensis to add to our sightings as far afield as the Anavilhanas Archipelago on the rio Negro and the rio Araguaia at Caseara.
In the afternoon as we search for some more remnants of Amazonian forest we hit a local beauty spot at a waterfall in the Parque Estadual Ricardo Franco. Being Sunday, it is full of people but we do a scout for the following morning and I manage to get some reasonable photos of Red-headed Manakin Pipra rubrocapilla.
Monday, 24th March:
Up at 4:45 am and off to the waterfalls at the Parque Estadual Ricardo Franco where an entrance block is being built. It is a lovely place but a bit devoid of birds. The river sounds do not make it ideal for sound recording and the only decent photo I get is of a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl Glaucidium brasilianum. That's the way I like my owls - during the day and not taking up any beer-drinking time!
Although we feel there is a lot more potential around Vila Bela de Santíssima Trindade, we decide that we can't afford to devote any more time here. After breakfast at 10:00 am we leave for Ji-Paraná. We pass some good forest habitat near Comodoro and some campina white-sand habitat near Vilhena. We resolve to visit these on our return journey.
We stay the night at the Hotel Plaza, Ji-Paraná at a cost of R$ 25 per person per night.
Tuesday, 25th March:
On the road by 6:45 aiming to reach Humaitá in time for an evening scout.
We arrive at Porto Velho and the ferry over the rio Madeira by noon. The river seems aptly named since there are large numbers of tree trunks floating downstream. The stream is remarkably fast considering that we are only 85 metres above sea-level though we must be around 3,000 kms from the sea as the river flows.
So we made our way slowly along the road to Humaitá. The road is not in great shape but we have certainly seen worse until we arrive at a single lane bridge over a small river some 30 kms this side of Humaitá. It looks as though there has been an accident because there are a couple of lorries at either end of the bridge. As we approach, it looks less like an accident and we stop and ask around. It would appear that the good citizens of Humaitá, fed up with the state of the road to Porto Velho, have decided to block the road in protest until something is done. Well they weren't exactly the good citizens more the local taxis and one or two sundry hangers-on led by a wee shite called "Dr Terrinha" who is apparently a local town councillor (or "intellectual" as we call them in Scotland). No amount of pleading will let us through so here we are, 3,600kms from São Paulo and only 30 kms from the town we have been aiming for and we are stuck. The only thing for it is to leave the wee shite and his cohorts and head back to Porto Velho where we spend the night at the Hotel Sumaúma at R$ 40.00 per person per night.
Few birds were seen today but I got reasonable photos of Spangled Cotinga Cotinga cayana and a fine group of adult male, female and juvenile Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis.
Wednesday, 26th March:
On the basis of "so near and yet so far" we decide to return to the road block, a 2 ½ hour drive, and see if the situation had changed. Our decision is helped by the fact that there are a couple of nice tracks into forest on the way. We are on the ferry by 5:00 am but have to wait until some enormous soya-carrying barges are manoeuvred on the river before we can cross.
At noon we arrive at the road block to find chaos reigning: a bus from Porto Velho has been blocked in by taxis; people have been "held" overnight; one man is threatening to set fire to some taxis; it is pouring with rain again; there is no sign of the wee shite; and so when armed police arrive we decide that discretion is the better part of valour and head back to Porto Velho but not before I have photographed Dusky-headed Parakeet Aratinga weddellii and Golden-collared Toucanet Selenidera reinwardtii.
We remember seeing something on the internet about a newish lodge at Guajará-Mirim about which Andy Whittaker had been very enthusiastic so we decide to head in that direction. By late afternoon we have arrived at the Pakaas Palafitas Lodge and settled in to our very comfortable chalet. The lodge itself has a massive building at its centre with reception, eating areas and a swimming pool and has 28 chalets or cabins raised up on stilts with boardwalks connecting the chalets and running into some very reasonable riverine habitat. We are the only guests.
Thursday, 27th March:
Up at 4:45 am but breakfast not ready at 5:00 as promised. We drive about 30km to some really nice forest but the day is much better for sound recordists than it is for photographers.
We return to the hotel at about 2:30 pm and wander around the grounds where I get reasonable photos of Tui Parakeet Brotogeris sanctithomae, Black-fronted Nunbird Monasa nigrifrons and White-vented Euphonia Euphonia minuta.
Friday, 28th March:
Up at 4:45 am and back to the same bit of forest we saw yesterday. Lots of good birds but most are in the canopy so not great for photos. I think at one stage I have seen something like a Brazilian Tanager Ramphocelus bresilius up in the canopy but a second look showed it to be a male Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea in full breeding plumage and on its way back north - a rare sighting for Brazil. My shots of Slate-colored Seedeater Sporophila schistacea are all out-of focus.
I spend the afternoon doing some admin on my photos while Jeremy and Ricardo go into town to change the oil in the Land Rover and various other chores. They find a good marsh on the way back with some reasonable birds.
Saturday, 29th March:
In the morning we go up the rio Pacaás Novos to a small settlement where we go for a walk through some secondary forest. On our way back down river we see a pair of Lesson's Seedeater Sporophila bouvronides with a juvenile. Unfortunately, the only photo that turns out well is of the juvenile.
In the afternoon we are on the rio Mamoré where I get a fine photo of a flying Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin. We put in at a river island, which is actually Bolivian, but the water is too high for us to land.
Back at the hotel we bird the boardwalks and find some good birds including Chestnut-capped Puffbird Bucco macrodactylus.
Sunday, 30th March:
Up early and on the road in the forest by 5:30. Photos include Broad-billed Motmot Electron platyrhynchum and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher Terenotriccus erythrurus. One of our main reasons for coming back to this bit of forest is to try to track down White-breasted Antbird Rhegmatorhina hoffmannsi, which we have been hearing with some frequency but have yet to see. Our efforts on this occasion were not rewarded. There is compensation when we hear and then see Striped Woodhaunter Hyloctistes subulatus.
We leave the Pakaas Palafitas Lodge at 2:00 pm (this cost us R$112 each per day all found) and drive back to Porto Velho where we stay at the Sumaúma Hotel again.
Monday 31st March:
Up at 3:00 am in order to get to Km 148 on the road to Humaitá where we want to return before heading back south. Our plan is to be in the forest at dawn and we are - and it is pouring with rain. So we sleep for about an hour and begin to bird at about 7:00 am. Highlights are Guianan Flycatcher Polioptila guianensis, Long-tailed Woodcreeper Deconychura longicauda and Snethlage's Tody-tyrant Hemitriccus minor.
Then we head back through Porto Velho and south as far as Ariquemes where we stay at the Hotel Verona.
Tuesday, 1st April:
Near Ariquemes we manage to find a small patch of forest that is in the process of having some timber extracted. Quite quiet but, on the way back to the car, we find a small group of Madeira Parakeet Pyrrhura snethlageae, a species recently described by Leo Joseph as part of his work on the Painted Parakeet P. picta complex. We have superb views through the scope but they are a bit distant for my photos to do full justice to such a beautiful bird.
After a second breakfast we hit the road for Comodoro and manage to put in a quick scout in an interesting looking piece of campinarana which is on the point of being turned into a housing development just north of the town. Ricardo gets very excited at a certain call and, very uncharacteristically, plunges off into the white-sand forest with Jeremy and me in his wake. The call is of a Pale-bellied Mourner Rhytipterna immunda and, despite the fading evening light, I manage to get a couple of photos.
We stay in the Hotel Romax at R$ 30 per person per night and have an excellent meal at a nearby restaurant.
Wednesday, 2nd April: A bit frustrating as we go back to the promising bit of campinarana and very little is calling. I do get some photos of Natterer's Slaty Antshrike Thamnophilus stictocephalus and there is an interesting mixed flock.
After breakfast we set off for Cuiabá where we drop Ricardo off at the airport and hope that he manages to get a flight back to Rio that evening.
The road north to Alta Floresta is terrible - much worse than when we drove it 2½ years ago. We stop at Posto Gil, which isn't even a one-horse town but it has a simple hotel called Pousada Gil at R$ 20.00 per person per night. I think Posto Gil's claim to fame might be that it lies on the point where the Amazon River Basin is separated from the Paraguay/Plate River Basin.
Thursday, 3rd April:
We leave Posto Gil at about 6:30 and the journey north is relieved by excellent views and photos of a band of Yellow-faced Parrot Amazona xanthops that, apart from their yellow faces, are remarkable for their small size.
We arrive at the hotel in Alta Floresta at about 3:30 pm, have a word with Zuleica and Dona Vitoria and are introduced to Alex Lees, a volunteer guide just arrived from England to whom we give a lift. Slightly inaccurate directions take us past the entrance to the Fazenda Cristalino and we get stuck behind some lorries before we can retrace our steps. In pouring rain and as darkness falls, we pick out what looks like a tree fallen across the road. Suddenly, the tree moves and Jorge from the lodge appears from underneath a tarpaulin. The river is very high and the usual landing place is under water so we leave the Land Rover at the side of the road and load everything into the boat. Within half an hour we are in our dormitory and looking forward to a few days at Cristalino.
Friday, 4th April:
Just after midnight I hear an owl followed by Jeremy shuffling outside with his torch. I decide to let him locate the bird and, when he does, he is kind enough to let me know and we are both outside the dormitory in our pyjamas taking very good photos and recording Southern Tawny-bellied Screech-owl Otus usta. A good start to our stay.
Up at 5:15 and off to the tower where we climb to the top 50 metre platform. The views are superb and I get a photo of Red-and-green Macaw Ara chloroptera from above but it's really too high for taking photos of birds. I get some excellent photos of Curl-crested Aracari Pteroglossus beauharnaesii from the 30 metre platform.
After breakfast, we are off on a trail and Alex Lees, who has excellent eyes and has really done his homework on the birds, spots Black-bellied Cuckoo Piaya melanogaster and then we are waylaid by a fruiting tree where we spend the next few hours before lunch. It is full of honeycreepers and dacnis with visiting aracaris and the star turn of a pair of Black-girdled Barbets Capito dayi. A photographer's paradise.
After lunch we are on the river and, as night falls, we hear quite a few Zigzag Heron Zebrilus undulatus singing. We decide to go back to the tower to see if any owls are about but it starts to rain so we head back to camp for our third shower of the day.
Saturday, 5th April:
Up early to try to see the Zigzag Heron. We had heard about 5 singing yesterday but there is a known territory on the other bank of the river. It's such a difficult bird to see but I manage to get some great photos. It was only later that we notice that it is building a nest, a typical untidy stick platform built in a bush about a metre above the surface of the water, Hopefully, it will not be disturbed so much in the future now that it is known to be nesting.
After breakfast we are off on the Serra trail and I get good photos of Bare-necked Fruit-crow Gymnoderus foetidus, Blackish Nightjar Caprimulgus nigrescens and Madeira Parakeet Pyrrhura snethlageae, part of the Pyrrhura picta complex studied by Leo Joseph.
After lunch, I spend more time at the nearby fruiting tree and then we are off to the tower where I get some good photos of Tooth-billed Wren Odontorchilus cinereus and Slaty-capped Shrike-vireo Vireolanius leucotis, both birds very difficult to see unless you are about 30 metres above the ground.
Sunday, 6th April:
Up at 5:15 am and off to Haffer's Trail, the first part of which is under water. It's a nice trail but today it proves better for recording than for photography.
After lunch and a siesta, we go up the tower again and wait till nightfall when we hear Amazonian Pygmy-owl Glaucidium hardyi calling. While it approaches with play-back we don't manage to see it. We have better luck with Black-banded Owl Ciccaba huhula looking extremely dark on the breast and belly. Unfortunately, it doesn't hang around long enough to get its photos taken.
Monday, 7th April:
Up at 5:15 am and on the tower by 6:00 am. We see several distant birds including Red-fan Parrot Deroptyus accipitrinus but the real excitement comes with a mixed canopy flock that passes by fairly close. Amongst the birds in the flock are White-winged Shrike-tanager Lanio versicolor and Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak Parkerthraustes humeralis.
We say our goodbyes to everyone at Cristalino Lodge and head towards Alta Floresta where we meet up with the pick-up that will guide us to Thaimaçu Lodge. We leave at 12 noon on a 160 km / 4 hour journey to Thaimaçu but come across a couple of lorries stuck in the mud on the road. Shades of Humaitá, methinks - will we ever make it to our destination. Jeremy tries to pull one of the lorries out with the Land Rover but with no success. After a couple of hours, a tractor manages to shift one of the lorries and we are through, arriving at Thaimaçu at 6:30 pm. We have a long chat to Carlos Arroyo, the owner, who is interested in attracting more birders to what is essentially a fishing lodge.
Tuesday, 8th April:
Up for breakfast and off with our guides, Natal and Joel by 5:45. We follow a very good trail mainly through campina and campinarana white-sand soil forest though locally they refer to this habitat as cerrado. Hemitriccus feature heavily and I manage to get a photo of White-eyed Tody-tyrant H. zosterops griseipectus and of Zimmer's Tody-tyrant H. minimus which Jeremy has been trying to see all trip. On a couple of occasions we have a canopy flock of mainly tanagers and I also get some reasonable shots of Cinnamon Tyrant-manakin Neopipo cinnamomea. Not surprisingly, I think that I am taking photos of Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher Terenotriccus erythrurus and it is only on checking an enlarged photo in the evening that I realise it has no rictal bristles and has a large-looking eye.
After lunch our main objective is to see the Bald Parrot Pionopsitta aurantiocephala and we are fortunate in that a flock seems currently to be feeding at a fruiting tree near the lodge. After an anxious wait we eventually see a small flock of about 5 and I manage to get one or two photos in very poor light. What a strange bird. Were it not for its bald head it could be classed as a very attractive bird from its colouring alone.
Wednesday, 9th April:
Breakfast at 5:30 and off on the terra firme forest trail behind the landing strip. Quite a lot of birds are singing but there are few photo opportunities. I spend my time on a pair of Blue-cheeked Jacamar Galbula cyanicollis.
In the afternoon I decide to concentrate on getting some better photos of Bald Parrot and am lucky that a flock of about 20 are back at the fruiting tree.
Thursday, 10th April:
Up at 5:30 and across the river by 6:00 am by which time we have seen a beautiful male Amazonian Umbrellabird Cephalopterus ornatus but not well enough for a photo. However, I do get a good photo of Red-throated Piping-guan Pipile cujubi nattereri. It is a nice trail starting off in campinarana where we find a fine variety of manakins including Red-headed, White-crowned, Snow-capped, Fiery-capped and Flame-crested Manakin Pipra rubrocapilla, P. pipra, P. nattereri, Machaeropterus pyrocephalus, Heterocercus linteatus. I also manage to get a cracking photo of Screaming Piha Lipaugus vociferans and reflect on why it took Dalgas Frisch 40 years to see this bird. We christen this trail the "Manakin Trail".
In the forest above the campinarana, we find an ant-swarm. I manage to see Black-spotted Bare-eye Phlegopsis nigromaculata while Jeremy sees Bare-eyed Antbird Rhegmatorhina gymnops.
After lunch we go up-river where there is beautiful crystal clear water in many places. There are lots of Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin but the star bird is Slate-colored Hawk Leucopternis schistacea, which must be close to the limits of its range here. As night falls we watch a pair of female-plumaged Bare-faced Curassow Crax fasciolata settling down to roost in a tree well away from Jaguars and other predators.
Friday, 11th April:
We leave at 6:00 am on a 40-minute ride up-river. The trail is a bit short and a tad quiet but I manage to see Southern Nightingale-wren Microcerculus marginatus well but briefly on a couple of occasions. On our way back we hear Silvered Antbird Sclateria naevia and manage to bring them into view at close range with play-back.
After lunch we go back on the first trail we did on Tuesday. It is quiet but we do see a noisy troupe of White-nosed Bearded Saki Monkeys Chiropotes albinasus, and a pair of Razor-billed Curassow Mitu tuberosa high up in the canopy.
Saturday, 12th April:
We decide to do the "Manakin Trail" again but go the other way round. The main feature of the morning is Amazonian Pygmy-owl Glaucidium hardyi, which we track by voice for about 40 minutes before we see it. In fact, it is much higher than it sounds and must be at least 30 metres above us.
After lunch we set off to a forward camp at the rio Cururu. It is about a 50 minute drive through a mixture of rain forest and campinarana. It's a strange little encampment, quite comfortable in palm-covered tarpaulin huts and we have 6 people looking after the two of us! It pours with rain over night and the hut proves to be waterproof but noisy.
Sunday, 13th April:
Up at 5:30 am we work back along the road. Jeremy finds a lot to record but there is not too much to photograph. Of great interest is Yellow-browed Antbird Hypocnemis hypoxantha, which is fairly common and represents quite a large range extension. It is made more interesting when Jeremy sees Warbling Antbird H. cantator closer to the river.
We spend some time on the river but, after lunch we head back to Thaimaçu Lodge. On the way we disturb two groups of Dark-winged Trumpeter Psophia viridis, which were close to the road.
Monday, 14th April:
After breakfast we leave Thaimaçu and head back to Alta Floresta and southwards. The road seems less busy and the journey less arduous and we manage to get south of Posto Gil ending up after 860 kms in Nobres where we spend the night at the Pousada São Jorge at R$ 25 each in separate rooms for bed & breakfast. The owner mistakes us for priests - it must be the beard and sandals!
Tuesday, 15th April:
We drive all day, a total of 1,030 kms and arrive at Aguas Claras, just before the state border with São Paulo, and stay the night at the Hotel Beira Rio for R$ 25 per person per night which seems to be about the standard for roadside hotels on this trip.
Today we count 243 Greater Rhea Rhea americana grazing on the soya fields of Mato Grosso state to add to the 33 we saw yesterday. It is interesting that a bird which seems to have adapted so well to soya fields and which seems relatively common is still classified as "Near Threatened"
Wednesday, 16th April:
Up and off by 6:30 to arrive back in São Paulo by 4:00 pm. Jeremy back to his family and me off tomorrow to my family in Scotland
It's been a great trip and we've seen some great birds, made some good recordings and taken some good photos. What more could anyone want?
Possibly a list of the birds that we saw and heard. If so carry on to the Trip List.