Brazil: Alta Floresta's Cristalino Jungle Lodge Jul 28—Aug 07, 2013

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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The Cristalino Jungle Lodge (CJL), out of Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso, Brazil, has developed a world-class reputation as a “must-visit” site for Amazonian birding. The late Ted Parker was the first ornithologist to discover the Alta Floresta area, and his inaugural visit (with Mort and Phyllis Isler) in 1989 resulted in numerous important ornithological discoveries. In 1991, VENT became the first tour company to bring birding groups to Alta Floresta, with one group led by Bob Ridgely and Victor Emanuel, and the other led by Ted Parker and me. Ted and I, and our group, were the first birders to stay at the CJL (then called the Rio Cristalino Camp), which, in 1991, was a rustic little camp with two dormitory buildings, shared baths, and a single loop trail. How things have changed! In a little more than two decades, the CJL can now boast of modern cabañas, a brand new dining facility and meeting center, an extensive network of trails, and two canopy towers that allow birders access to a whole other world. And, the official bird list for the Alta Floresta area has swelled to 586 species, a net increase of 124 species since I published the first survey of the local avifauna in 1997. Although VENT has continued to operate yearly tours to Alta Floresta, I had not been there since 2005, a few years after construction of the first canopy tower. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to my return visit to Alta Floresta and the CJL with our 2013 VENT tour.

Green Ibis, Rio Cristalino, Brazil, July 2013

Green Ibis, Rio Cristalino, Brazil, July 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

To my thinking, a complete Amazonian birding experience has to feature three essential experiences:  quality time spent birding forest interior trails in unspoiled habitat; time spent atop a canopy tower, experiencing an avifauna that is largely inaccessible from ground-level; and time spent birding along rivers, the very lifeblood of tropical forests, from boats. In all of these respects, the CJL delivered, presenting us with a rich tapestry of birding and natural history experiences that we shall not soon forget.

Our afternoons were devoted largely to boat trips along the lovely black waters of the Rio Cristalino. It augured well when our afternoon transfer by boat to the lodge treated us to great views of a perched Red-throated Caracara, followed by a pair of Razor-billed Curassows on the same stretch of riverbank where I saw my lifer back in 1991! Indeed, our various boat trips produced daily sightings of magnificent Razor-billed Curassows, elegant Capped Herons, and bizarre Sunbitterns and Green Ibis, not to mention hordes of Swallow-winged Puffbirds and commute flights of a number of species of parrots and macaws. The river-edge forest also offered up such uncommon treats as Collared Forest-Falcon, Brown-banded Puffbird, Bronzy Jacamar, Cream-colored Woodpecker, and Long-billed Woodcreeper, not to mention a snazzy male Flame-crowned Manakin on its song perch. Topping everything was the opportunity to view displaying Amazonian Umbrellabirds that were lekking in riverine forest on one of the larger islands in the middle of the Rio Teles Pires, not far from the mouth of the Cristalino.

Flame-crowned Manakin, Rio Cristalino, Brazil, July 2013

Flame-crowned Manakin, Rio Cristalino, Brazil, July 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We devoted two mornings to vigils atop the two canopy towers, followed later in the mornings by hikes along associated trails. Tower 1 produced a perched White-browed Hawk, a pair of impressive Red-necked Woodpeckers, Black-bellied Cuckoo, a rare Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and a virtual parade of psittacids, ranging from Blue-and-yellow and Scarlet macaws to Kawall’s, Orange-cheeked, and Red-fan Parrots. Best of all was some stellar mixed-species flock action which, on one day at least, had us rubbernecking from one new bird to the next for a solid 45 minutes! We had Tooth-billed Wrens and Sclater’s Antwrens almost close enough to touch, a sunbathing Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo that appeared to be in a trance, elegant Red-billed Pied Tanagers, flashy Turquoise Tanagers, and even flashier Spangled Cotingas. We were also on the receiving end of great performances by Lineated Woodcreepers, White-browed Purpletufts, Crowned Slaty Flycatchers, Yellow-margined Flycatchers, and many, many more. Tower 2 proved less productive for parrot flights and mixed-species flocks on this trip, but it boasted a nearby fruiting tree that attracted roving groups of gaudy Curl-crested and Red-necked aracaris, as well as two pairs of endemic Black-girdled Barbets. A distant Double-toothed Kite that flew right at us and then perched in a nearby bare tree was a treat, but the pair of White-necked Puffbirds that sat there for 20 minutes really stole the show. An Amazonian Royal Flycatcher nesting near the base of the tower proved nearly as confiding, and was the icing on the cake for each of our visits there.

“Amazonian” Royal Flycatcher, Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Trail birding, as always, was unpredictable from one morning to the next. The forest looked very different to me, largely because much of the Guadua bamboo had died off since my last visit to the region. Episodic, localized bamboo die-offs are a natural phenomenon that occurs approximately every 10–20 years (depending on the species of bamboo) following a mass seeding event. Once the bamboo has seeded and died, it eventually collapses, which substantially changes the structure of the forest understory. Birds that specialize on eating the seeds of bamboo are highly nomadic, and may be extremely abundant during a seeding event, but then disappear after the die-off, not to be seen again in that locality for a decade or more. But even the insectivores that are specialized in foraging and nesting in bamboo stands tend to disappear for a period of years once the bamboo dies off. This has proven to be the case along the Cristalino, where such bamboo specialists as Peruvian Recurvebill, Dusky-cheeked Foliage-gleaner, Cherry-throated Spinetail, Ornate Antwren, Manu Antbird, and Striated Antbird have all become much scarcer since the bamboo stands collapsed following the last seeding event a few years ago. In spite of this, we managed to scratch out a few individuals or pairs of some of these species, along with other bamboo specialists such as Rufous-capped Nunlet and the recently described Tapajós Scythebill.

The CJL trail system yielded a number of other gems, among them, perched Crimson-bellied Parakeets, Blue-cheeked Jacamar, Snow-capped Manakin, and Rose-breasted Chat. One morning, while birding the Tower 2 loop trail, we stopped to watch the antics of a troop of Brown Capuchins and a lone White-nosed Bearded Saki monkey that was tagging along with them. In the course of stepping off the trail to better see the primates, I flushed an Ocellated Poorwill from its nest. The poorwill got away before most people saw it, but I carefully noted the location of the nest, and we brought the entire group back on another afternoon for rare, binocular-filling views of the incubating female. The Serra Trail wowed us with a pair of rarely seen Purple-throated Cotingas, a perched White Hawk, a close fly-by from a male Hook-billed Kite, and nice studies of a pair of Tooth-billed Wrens, but the spotlight was stolen by the pair of White-browed Purpletufts at their nest (complete with the amazingly cryptic nestling, which looked for all the world like a little clump of whitish lichen).

Southern Tamandua, Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Brazil, August 2013

Southern Tamandua, Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

On two afternoons, we visited a small, drying pool in the riverine forest. This site was magical! Partially concealed behind some camo netting, we sat spellbound as a virtual parade of birds materialized out of the forest to drink or bathe in the watery depression. The list of species seen at the pool over the course of our two visits spanned the taxonomic spectrum, from Razor-billed Curassows to Pará Foliage-gleaners, and from Red-headed and Snow-capped Manakins to White-winged Shrike-Tanagers. Particularly impressive were the repeat visits from a number of antbirds, including such elusive obligate ant-followers as Black-spotted Bare-eye and the endemic Bare-eyed Antbird. At one point, a Tayra appeared out of nowhere, strolled past (seemingly oblivious to our presence), disappeared behind a big log, popped up like the proverbial weasel that it was, took a good look at us, and then got out of Dodge!

And that reminds me:  the mammals put on a pretty amazing show for us throughout our stay. We enjoyed numerous encounters with primate troops, including some particularly enthralling studies of White-nosed Bearded Sakis and White-whiskered Spider Monkeys. There was the lovely little Ghost Bat that we saw roosting under a palm frond near the Saleiro, the Tamandua that we watched ripping apart a termitarium near the boat launch, the Brazilian Tapirs that swam across the river near the Serra trailhead, the aforementioned Tayra, and even a Giant Otter that some of us saw as we were leaving the camp on the last day. All of this in addition to hordes of butterflies, colorful Ameiva Lizards, bizarre Peanut-headed Bugs and Rhinoceros Beetles, various turtles and caiman, and a lovely blackwater river surrounded by largely untouched Amazonian forest. It all added up to a superb immersion in what is clearly a birder’s paradise. Thanks to all of you for helping to make my return to Alta Floresta so special. You all were great fun, and we shared a lot of laughs and truly special natural history experiences along the way. Andy and I look forward to seeing you on other Brazil trips in the future—after all, there’s a lot more Brazil to see, and those visas are good for 10 years!