Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rio Azul Jungle Lodge – My First Visit

I’ve long wanted to visit Rio Azul Jungle Lodge, and the owners have been offering to host me for an inspection visit for several years. I’ve just not had the free time to follow up on it. But during the first planning stages of this current private tour a year and a half ago, my clients did their research and asked if I’d be willing to change my usual Mato Grosso itinerary a bit to add a few days at Rio Azul. That didn’t take any convincing.

It’s only 39 kilometers (24 miles) from Cristalino Jungle Lodge the way the Bald Parrot flies, but it’s amazing how different the habitats and resulting bird life is – all reflecting a simple difference in geology. It takes nearly 3 1/2 hours of travel to get there, starting with the boat ride from Cristalino Jungle Lodge to the Teles Pires boat launch, where two taxis from Alta Floresta had been hired by Rio Azul to meet us. From there we drove north to a ferry to cross back to the east side of the Teles Pires.

From there we drove in a zigzag fashion mostly northward through patches of forest and many miles of cattle pasture (some of it the legacy of the former governor, now in jail for corruption, as he used state-owned equipment to clear the land), passing an active Jabiru nest, Burrowing Owls, and other birds that have invaded the region in the past 30 years or so. Here are a couple Google Earth screen captures that show the location relative to South America (southeastern Amazonia, nearly in the center of the continent), and just NNW of Cristalino in the state of Pará.

Rio Azul has only seven cabins, and their idea is to stay small, hosting groups of either birders or fishermen (but not both at the same time), and keep groups to about eight people or fewer. The owners, Carlão and Ivani, have created a paradise and continue to work here themselves, as guide, boatman, and chef. It was a wonderful experience. The closed eyes and odd expressions in group photo here shows why one should always take multiple shots..

One main attraction here is the Rio Azul river itself, a tributary of a tributary of the Teles Pires (which itself is a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon). People can fish here, but for the Komi family, a place to wade and swim was a draw (though while the parents and I went birding on two days, the boys and the nanny went fishing with Carlão).

One had to watch for stingrays, and we did see a few. They’re not really dangerous as they don’t bury themselves in order to ambush. You do have to watch where you walk, but they are obvious and shy, swimming away before you can get very close as long as you’re not running through the water. The water here is unbelievably clear and full of fish. The stingray diversity is surprisingly high (I think I heard eight species) and hints at a very different geology millions of years ago when there was a large inland sea connected at times to the ocean. The genus here is Potamotrygon, which simply means “river stingray” from ancient Greek (recall Hippopotamus, meaning "horse of the river," but then it makes me wonder about the quail-dove genus Geotrygon, which must mean “ground stingray”).

Potamotrygon, stingray

Two of the prize birds that my clients hoped to see here are best seen by taking a boat ride on the river, which we did our first morning. We passed the remains of a bridge that was demolished by the Brazilian air force after the millions of square kilometers on the north bank of the Rio Azul was declared a military reserve but only after settlers had already built the bridge and started to clear the rainforest. So like Cristalino, Rio Azul lodge is adjacent to one of the largest and best-protected continuous tracts of forest in the southeastern Amazon.

The first of the two targets was a fabulous hummingbird. Crimson Topaz is large, almost all glittering red with a yellow throat, and possessing two elongated tail feathers that cross and extend well beyond the other tail feathers. I don’t have my 50x Canon PowerShot on this trip (in for cleaning and repairs), so this photo is almost a joke. It does document my only lifebird of the trip as it was diving down after grabbing an insect over the river – the two long tail feathers point up, the bill points down.
Crimson Topaz

The other target bird, which we saw from the exact same spot in the river was a group of seven Bald Parrots perched in a leafless tree by the river edge. Here’s a photo of one I took at Cristalino Jungle Lodge in 2006, just four years after this very strange species was first described to science (it was the first record from there, where there are still only 3 or 4 records, straying from near here, no doubt).
Bald Parrot

With the two main specialties under our belt, we could relax and enjoy whatever new birds we found – and there were plenty. We took three other boat rides, one in the early morning before breakfast on a successful search for the elusive Zigzag Heron. We had amazing views of it and raced back for breakfast. Here’s a video our return on that trip to give an idea of what it’s like.

Surrounding the lodge is some fine Amazonian rain forest (though we are here during the winter/dry season and therefore no hint of rain). The early morning sun through the canopy lit up this red-trunked tree beautifully. With the recent Scientific Reports article that lists 11,676 species of tree in the Amazon Basin, I will be lucky to eventually know no more than about 0.5% of them by the end of my lifetime.

Very common in the taller forest was this vine, new to me. It is Heteropsis flexuosa, known as Titica (prounounced "chi-CHI-ca," and used widely for the fibers in the aerial stem and roots. The family is Araceae, same as Philodendron and the familiar skunk cabbage.
Heteropsis flexuosa, Titica

Heteropsis flexuosa, Titica

We had some good birds in this taller forest, including at least three different Guianan Gnatcatchers (or Para Gnatcatcher by some who split it), a very rare bird at Cristalino but much easier here.
Guianan Gnatcatcher

Mixed flocks had many of the same birds as at Cristalino (such as Chestnut-winged Hookbill and Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleaner), but Rusty-breasted Nunlet seems more regular here, as was Brown-banded Puffbird. This is one of two we saw and several that we heard every day.
Brown-banded Puffbird

My friend Brad Boyle identified this Voyria spruceana for me. It’s in the family Gentianaceae and gets its nutrients from underground fungi – though who knows if it gives anything in return or is just a parasite.
Voyria spruceana, Gentianaceae

Speaking of fungi, though this is the dry season with not much around, I did find this nicely dried out Lentinus crinitus, identified using the downloadable fabulous new field guide by Jean Lodge and Susanne Sourell
Lentinus crinitus

We saw several of the really interesting birds here in a shorter forest as well as more open scrub that grows on an isolated patch of very low nutrient white sand along the entrance road – a feature that like the stingrays also harkens to an ancient inland sea.

We had the first local record of the widespread but patchily distributed Plain-crested Elaenia, as well as a brief but good views of Blue-tailed Emerald. But I was totally blown away when a pair of Rufous-crowned Elaenias popped up in response to my recording and playback of an unknown vocalization, a quiet “grrrr” sound from the scrub. A few hundred kilometers separate this occurrence from the nearest other record, and I wasn’t even aware that the species occurred south of the Amazon. I had seen it 17 years ago in the Gran Sabana of Venezuela and then again just last year in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima. I got recordings, which I appended to my eBird submission and can be heard on the Macaulay Library’s website here.

The plants in areas of white sand are fascinating. I especially took to the melastomes here. This appears to be Sandemania hoehnei, a real white sand specialist. The paper is Renner, Susanne S. 1987. Sandemania hoehnei (Melastomataceae; Tibouchineae): Taxonomy, Distribution, and Biology. Brittonia, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 441-446.
Sandemania hoehnei, Melastomataceae

This is a Macairea sp., and though most of these melastomes have very tough leaves, presumably for water retention, this one is also unusual in having fewer than the normal number of primary veins running from the base to the leaf tip.
Macairea sp., Melastomataceae

Macairea sp., Melastomataceae

But even stranger is this Microlicia sp. with perfectly typical flowers but very tiny leaves folded down against the stem.
Microlicia sp.

Microlicia sp.

This probable Remijia sp. in the family Rubiaceae was notable in being stunningly fragrant, noticeable from at least 15 meters away.
Remijia sp., Rubiaceae

I was excited to see my first Mauritiella armata, a palm with the local name of Buritirana. It’s is related to Mauritia palms (famous among birders for the species that depend on it) but is much slenderer and with this notably armored trunk.
Mauritiella armata, Arecaceae

Mauritiella armata, Arecaceae

I recognized these fruits as Euphorbiaceae (see the three stigmas), but it took a bit of searching to find its name, Mabea angustifolia.
Mabea angustifolia, Euphorbiaceae

One of the most prominent shrubs here is a yellow-flowered member of the family Malpighiaceae, probably in the genus Byrsonima. Rather than offering nectar to pollinators, it’s much like our SE Arizona Krameria in having oil instead. I found the Brazilian bee expert Felipe Vivallo to identify this huge and stunningly patterned bee as Centris (Ptilotopus) americana (with Doug Yanega pointing me in the right direction with the genus). The name in parenthesis is a subgenus, useful in understanding insect taxonomy where genera can have hundreds of species.
Centris (Ptilotopus) americana

And this is Epicharis (Xanthepicharis) umbraculata, also in the subfamily Centridinae and also collecting oil (as well as pollen, visible on the legs). Dr. Vivallo may be using these photos in an upcoming article on the biology of this subfamily.
Epicharis (Xanthepicharis) umbraculata

Other special birds that we saw in this white sand area were Green-tailed Goldenthroat, Pale-bellied Mourner, and a pair of these Spotted Puffbirds.
Spotted Puffbirds

Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting find was a pair of Ocellated Crakes in the short grass pasture just outside the gate of the property. The nearest record is about 600 km away, and we found them only when I got the strange urge to play the song, even though I didn’t have the slightest expectation there would be a response, which was indeed almost instantaneous, and only 50 meters away. We actually saw one bird when I shone my green laser pointer over the location where I saw the weeds move, in order to get Jarmo and Inger to look in the right direction. That didn’t totally spook the birds, and with further playback I saw a rufous face and red eye peek out of the dense grass less than a meter away from my feet. But typical for the species they stuck to the densest grass and didn’t cross any of the open areas. My recordings also appear on the Macaulay Library website.

We saw a few butterflies, many which I recognized from Cristalino. This is the swallowtail Battus belus, which amazingly was caught by the quick and patient six-year-old Alex with his bare hands. Will he become a politician, actor, entrepreneur, or entomologist?
Battus belus, Belus Swallowtail

This clear-winged beauty is Haetera piera, Piera Satyr.
Haetera piera, Piera Satyr

Metalmarks are my favorite: the tiny Sarota gyas with the furry legs…
Sarota gyas

…and Mesosemia philocles, sometimes called an “eyemark.”
Mesosemia philocles

But even skippers can be colorful, such as this Pythonides jovianus, Variable Blue Skipper.
Pythonides jovianus, Variable Blue Skipper

We saw very few moths this time, not only because it has been very dry, but also during the full moon porch lights tend to not attract as many insects. This sphingid is Callionima parce, Parce Hawkmoth.
Callionima parce, Parce Hawkmoth

This is a silk moth, Therinia buckleyi, which wasn’t at the lights at all but resting during the day on a leaf in the understory.
Therinia buckleyi

This one is a day-flying metalmark-moth Hemerophila sp., in the family Choreutidae.
Hemerophila sp., Choreutidae

I went out at night three times, and during the first walk Jarmo and I found this Corallus hortulanus, Amazon Tree Boa. It started striking blindly the moment it sensed my infrared signature from about 3 meters away, so I didn’t even try to pick it up (not that I haven’t been bitten with little ill effect by several wild boas over the years); the traces of DEET on my hands probably wouldn’t have done it much good anyway.
Corallus hortulanus, Amazon Tree Boa

I took the whole family including the kids on a short night walk to see if a tarantula was out of her burrow, but we first stopped to marvel at a long and very busy trail of this army ant Eciton sp. probably E. hamatus.
Eciton sp., possibly Eciton hamatus

I actually saw but was not able to photograph one of the parasitic silverfish, different that the one I had seen with E. rapax inSE Peru last year

The tarantula was out, but not very far out of the burrow, and not for long, as they have many possible predators and retreat at the slightest tremor. This is probably in the genus Acanthoscurria, but Google searches on tarantulas deliver so much noise it’s hard to get any good identification information. Species limits are probably not very well known here anyway, considering that only just this year was the common genus Aphonopelma sorted out for North America.
Aphonopelma sp., tarantula

On one short night walk I took on my own, I came across this very small tarantula, with a body only about 3 cm long.
tarantula, Theraphosidae

Judging from the eye arrangement, this is a wandering spider, family Ctenidae. Its rather slender appearance had me thinking it was a wolf spider (Lycosidae) or a prowling spider (Miturgidae), so it was good I got some shots of the eyes.
wandering spider, Ctenidae

wandering spider, Ctenidae

This appears to be Micrathena cyanospina, an orb weaver (Araneidae), though I did not detect any blue tint to the amazing, long spines on the abdomen.
Micrathena cyanospina

This is the very widespread but always fascinating Araneid, Nephila clavipes, the Golden Silk Orb Weaver. The yellowish tint to the silk here is real.
Nephila clavipes, the Golden Silk Orb Weaver

The way it holds it legs, and then finally the eyes, convinced me this colorful thing was a crab spider, family Thomisdae.
crab spider, Thomisidae

After our 10 days of Amazonian birding and natural history fun, we headed back to Alta Floresta via the Teles Pires ferry for our flight back to Cuiabá. And then onward to the Pantanal.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Higher Cult of Mortals

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

It’s amazing what you can see in just five days at Cristalino Jungle Lodge. On this private tour I’m currently leading for a Finnish couple (with their two kids and a nanny in tow), we saw and heard almost exactly 300 species of birds in just four full days at Cristalino, including some really good ones. Three of them I’d seen only once before (and two were lifers just last year in other parts of Brazil), one was a bird I had only heard before, and two were new for the private reserve’s already huge list, nearly 30 years old.

The title of this blog is stolen from a Robert Cushman Murphy quote after he had seen an albatross. But we now belong to a truly select group of very fortunate humans who have laid eyes on a Scaled Ground-Cuckoo – the bird I had heard once before while leading a tour here. Quick history on this species here, with nearly unicorn status anywhere: One was glimpsed here in the late 1980’s, and then not again until the early 2000’s. A couple more sightings followed, but it still wasn’t settled as recently as five years ago what species they referred to, so brief were these sightings (Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo is similar and also very little known). Then began Jorge Lopez’ quest to document the bird. For the past four years he and Francisco de Carvalho Souza, both fabulous local guides and boatmen who have been working for Cristalino since about the beginning of the enterprise, have been quietly and very gradually habituating these extraordinarily shy birds to a bird bath and feeding station (with earthworms). About three years ago Jorge let me and others in on his secret with the first photos. Then last year he had video to show. But he didn’t think the birds were ready to show tourists until this year, and even now it turns out to be a very iffy prospect. Apparently one bird or a pair will come in two or three days in a row, then vanish for 3 weeks or a month, confirmed with motion-sensitive camera traps. On one of our afternoons this past week, Jorge told me that his previous day’s worms had vanished, and that the cuckoos must be coming; he suggested we change the afternoon plan to boat upriver and sit still for an hour watching his feeder from a screened bench in the forest. OK, change made! We waited only 1/2 hour before we heard the bill snapping between two birds, and one came in three times to eat the worms he hung from little nooses over the bird bath. While we waited a Barred Forest-Falcon came in for a drink as well. As far as I know we were the first lodge guests to have this privilege. Jorge has taken a few of the local guides and special friends there, and until now perhaps only six people had seen them. One of the local guides has been there 10 times without seeing it. The next day, Jorge dared take a larger group of 9 well-behaved birders from a Rockjumper tour, hoping the birds would come a third day in a row. They didn’t, highlighting again for us how lucky we were. I had my spotting scope set up on the spot and digiscoped these grainy shots in the dark forest understory.
Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Scaled Ground-Cuckoo

Another one of the surprise birds was a Black Manakin, a first record for the Cristalino area. We saw it briefly a couple times, Jarmo Komi snapped some photos, and I sort of forgot about it, as we proceeded to see another 75 species that day. At lunch we showed the photos to some others, eliciting mostly shrugging of shoulders. But at our evening checklist session, we came to the manakins, and that’s when it hit me what it was. Birds are known from very isolated locations about 50 km north and about 100 km south, but in both places on a very short, scrubby and viny forest on white sandy soils. This was an immature male, probably a bit lost after dispersing from one of those areas, having found a bit of similar looking habitat on the Manakin Trail. This is my photo of Jarmo’s camera screen.
Black Manakin, Jarmo Komi

Then another amazing find, right after the manakin, was this Rufous-tailed Attila, a little known bird in the Amazon Basin where it apparently winters very sparsely. In the austral spring it heads back to the more temperate SE Brazilian rainforest to breed. Stupidly, this is my third one here of about 6 local records now, to the consternation of all the local guides, some of whom have Cristalino lists larger than mine.
Rufous-tailed Attila

On our hike up the Serra, we tooted in this Amazonian Pygmy-Owl which was precisely the lure we needed to bring in the continuing female Fiery-tailed Awlbill, which we saw briefly, but didn’t get photos of. I had seen one 9 years ago, the photo of which was the first documented record for Cristalino and the state of Mato Grosso.
Amazonian Pygmy-Owl

The final “rarity” I found was a Striped Cuckoo on the lodge grounds. This is a common bird with a large range, but it is a recent invader to the shrubby pastures that were all pristine rainforest just 30-40 years ago. Well within the forested Cristalino reserve it was a big surprise. I first saw it feeding on moths and spiders on the side of the guides’ dorm, and then it flew up to the roof of the old kitchen where it sat for a couple minutes as it raised and lowered its crest while thumbing its black alula. The photo isn’t worth sharing.

One of the hallmark birds for Cristalino is the Cryptic Forest-Falcon. They’re not rare here, but they can be very quiet and sometimes shy, unlike this bird that perched over our heads. It was here at Cristalino some 20 years ago that Andy Whittaker first recognized this as being different from the more widespread Lined Forest-Falcon, and he described it as a new species in a paper published less than 14 years ago.
Cryptic Forest-Falcon

Cristalino is so much more than just birds. This family of Giant Otters was in the river as we were arriving, and we drifted downstream with them until they clambered on this rock. What a greeting committee!
Giant Otter

Inger spotted this very quiet Southern Tamandua in a vine tangle over one of the trails one afternoon. I’ve seen only 3 or 4 here over the years.
Southern Tamandua

I went to the rocks on my own one evening to look at fish. I had never seen this long-nosed thing before, and there were several there. It appears to be a pike characin of some sort, according to Gavin Bieber.
pike characin

Gavin suggests this is an Ancistrus sp., bushy-nosed catfish, and that’s about the closest you can get to an actual name for virtually any fish here, so little known is the piscifauna.
Ancistrus sp., bushy-nosed catfish

This butterfly look-alike is actually a cane-borer moth in the family Castniidae. Best match with online photos is Castnia icarus, the prettiest I have seen.
Castnia icarus

While on the Serra we saw the usual Cyrtopodium sp. orchids, even some in bloom, but new to me was this Encyclia cachimboensis, a plant which I’ve obviously walked past several times, but never in bloom. It has a wonderful floral perfume, slightly spicy.
Encyclia cachimboensis

Encyclia cachimboensis

Butterflies on the beach were underwhelming, despite my efforts. It’s perhaps too early in the season; numbers seem to peak just before the rains in early September. Neographium thyastes, Orange Kite-Swallowtail is always a nice find though.
Neographium thyastes, Orange Kite-Swallowtail

I’m slowly trying to learn spider families, most of which can be identified simply on the basis of the eye placement. Most spiders have eight eyes, and a while back I had already identified the common large, flat spiders on the rocks by the river as members of the mostly neotropical family Trechaleidae.


This much smaller one looked very similar, but it was on a tree trunk well inside the igapó forest on the Manakin trail. A close-up of the eyes shows that it has the same arrangement so I assume it’s in that family.


A final photo of dawn at Tower 1, a memorable vista with an unforgettable soundscape.