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.


  1. 1) Why is a Bald Parrot bald? The head resembles a vulture. Is there any info as yet as to whether it feeds on cadavers or attacks live animals?
    2) Did you see any orchids, whether magnificent, average or minuscule? This is my 'thing'. Thanks.

    1. Hi Rohan,
      1) Good question! I don't think anyone really knows. They mostly eat tree seeds and fruits like other parrots. I suspect that sexual and social selection for the physical appearance is more likely than any adaptation to the physical environment.

      2) This being the middle of the dry season (and with the coolest temperatures of the year), there were few orchids in bloom during our stay. I did see two species in bloom at Cristalino Jungle Lodge just to the south:

  2. Thanks Richard. The reason I asked whether the Bald Parrot may eat meat was partly because I had a vague recollection (that I have now had a chance to check out) that the Kea Parrot of New Zealand has the reputation of attacking live sheep for its flesh/fat.

    Thanks for the info on orchids.

    Greetings from Colombo, Sri Lanka.


  3. Hi Richard, very nice trip and great report.

    In this area I know only the Cristalino Lodge. This is very luxurious and high-priced. How are the prices in the Rio Azul?

    Best greetings from Germany Steven.