Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tapirs and Caiman on the Rio Cristalino

A Short Stay at the Legendary Rio Cristalino Lodge in Mato Grosso

Back in 1995, I went to Brazil for the first time.  I flew to São Paulo, changed planes and flew on to Cuiaba, then spent a week birding in the Pantanal and in the nearby cerado habitat.  It was a low budget trip, we stayed in very basic accommodation and I could only afford to take part in the first week of what for others was a two week trip.  I saw 273 species of birds, most of them new for me, and I saw my first Giant River Otters and Giant Anteaters.  Despite the trip being so short I was quite simply entranced with the country and figured that I'd be back.  Indeed, since that trip I've made more than a dozen trips to Brazil, ten of them specifically for birding.

After I left Brazil that first time, the group of birders I was with went on to Alta Floresta and spent a week at the Rio Cristalino Jungle Lodge, where they saw a ton more birds and several Brazilian Tapirs.  Not to worry I thought, I'll probably get there before too long ... then 24 years passed by in a flash ... and I never did get round to going Rio Cristalino (and never saw a tapir of any sort).

In the meantime, two of my good birding friends, Carlos Sanchez and Rich Hoyer, both worked as guides at the Cristalino so I kept being reminded that I really ought to go, and yet somehow I just couldn't get organized to fit a visit into my schedule.  I knew it would happen someday though and it turns out that 2019 was the lucky year.  This year my Summer unexpectedly opened up and I decided to expand a long-planned  NorthEast Brazil trip,  grabbing the opportunity, and a room at the lodge at short notice.  Game on ...

Sunday, June 23 - Thursday, June 27 - Cristalino Jungle Lodge

A long travel weekend.  On Saturday I'd flown from New York to Bogotá and then on to São Paulo (sacrificing time for a cheap business class seat on Avianca).  I'd spent Saturday night at the airport Marriott at Guarulhos then taken an early Sunday morning flight to Cuiaba and, despite a delay, just made a connecting flight to Alta Floresta.  From there, my fellow lodge guests and I were met and driven an hour or so to a boat, then had a nice quick ride up the river to the lodge.  Made it ... finally.

Once we got oriented I, and two fellow birders who I did not know beforehand, got assigned a birding guide.  I wasn't thrilled to be lumped with other birders who, although they turned out to be delightful people and charming company, didn't initially strike me as 'hard core' birders.  However, I was happy to be assigned Sidnei Dantas as a guide ... another talented young ornithologist and a good friend of a friend.  And everything worked out in the end.

Pompadour Continga 
Once settled in, the routine for the next few days was set.  Up before dawn for a delicious breakfast, birding until lunch time, a huge and scrumptious Brazilian meal for lunch, siesta, more birding in the later afternoon until just after dark, shower, bar time, more mouthwatering Brazilian food for dinner, then collapse into bed.  I would quite happily spend the rest of my life doing exactly just that, at least in a place like Cristalino with amazing food, a great wine list, and awesome birds.  Perhaps the perfect vacation and so very different from the logging camp I'd stayed in the last time I made it to the Amazon.

A Pai da Mata made with fresh local herbs.  The lodge had a full bar and a good
wine list ... I only allow myself one cocktail every now and then, this was the one
and it was worth it.
Over the next 4 days we birded steadily and accumulated a list of nearly 250 species (or put another way, more species than I saw in the UK during the entirety of my childhood).  Of these, around 30 were lifers for me, nothing super rare, but some good birds.

Red-throated Piping Guan
Perhaps the best birds we saw were some local forest specialties like Alta Floresta Antpitta along with a good selection of antbirds, antshrikes, antwrens, woodcreepers, foliage-gleaners, and the many other mixed flock species from the forest interior.   Some of the ant swarms we saw were quite active and we were able to get to grips with a few ant-followers like Bare-eyed Antbird (although no ground-cuckoos unfortunately) plus there was always the comedic relief (for others) of seeing me high-stepping down the trail to get through a swarm of angry ants (army ants are one of the few things on earth that can persuade me to break into a brief run).

The time on the trails was mixed in with quite civilized boat rides along the rivers.  The birds here weren't quite so special but there were lots of big, photogenic things to keep us interested.  On the big charismatic bird front, I also finally caught up with Razor-billed Curasow, an amazing cracid that I'd long wanted to see.

Hoatzin and Sunbittern

Beyond the river-bank birds, the boat trips offered the best chances for other types of life and we did manage to see quite a few good things.  Spectacled Caiman were not uncommon on the river but one night we also managed to spot-light a Cuvier's Dwarf-Caiman in the fading light, a life crocodilian for me. These small heavily armored little crocs have large numbers of bony plates in their skin, which has protected them from the handbag trade, although being small and shy they are still rarely seen.

Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman
On the mammal front we did see five species of primate - including Red-handed Howler Monkey, Red-nosed Bearded Saki-Monkey, and White-whiskered Spider-Monkey - two species of peccary, some bats,  and several Neotropical River Otters (who doesn't love encounters with otters?).

Neotropical River Otter
The absolute highlight of the trip for me though came one morning as we motored upstream in the boat and I noticed a large brown lump in the morning mist a few hundred yards ahead of us.  I couldn't quite make out what it was but my brain slowly processed the shape and saw that it was moving ... it looked a bit like a horse.  I got my bins on it as it sank low into the water so I could just see the top of it's head and ears ... and it raised it's trunk (!).   "Anta!" I shouted.  One of the few moments where I actually remembered the Portuguese word for an animal but couldn't for the life of me remember the English word.  So I kept shouting "Anta! Anta!" and gave directions as best I could as the Brazilian Tapir made it's way to the river bank and vanished into the dense undergrowth.  Finally my first tapir, after many, many years of wanting to see one.  I was ecstatic but had to quickly reign in my excitement when I realized that, while the guide and the boatman had both seen the animal, my American birding companions had somehow managed to miss it.  Guilty feelings all around ...  but I was quietly smiling to myself for the rest of the day.

Gray-headed Kite
By contrast, the best bird of the week was one that we never saw.  The others had opted to take an afternoon off so Sidnei and I were happily off up a trail working an ant-swarm and hoping for ground-cuckoos when he pointed out a distinctive trill.  The bird was loud and close but we couldn't see it, and it did sound awfully familiar.  Sidnei's theory was that it was a Peruvian Recurvebill,  a very good bird for this location and one rarely seen here in recent years.  Playing a recording confirmed the ID but, although we worked on it for quite a while, we never did get a glimpse.  Such is forest birding unfortunately, but still a good record.

Great Black Hawk
Night walks were also a great experience, being out in the forest after dark is always a treat.  Although we didn't see any large nocturnal mammals we did see lots of nightjars of several species, a Great Potoo and several owls.  Then there were always the cool smaller things like trapdoor spiders and whip-scorpions to make the night interesting, or odd tree-frogs, bats, spiny-rats, centipedes and giant crickets.  A great variety of life right outside our doors.

Blackish Nightjar roosting on one of the cabins

On the last full day, for a change of scenery, we went down to the main river and birded some of the sand islands there.  Pied Lapwings really do look a lot like Egyptian Plovers (I can say that now that I've seen the plover) and we spent a fair amount of time attempting to lure a Glossy Antshrike within range of the camera.  This was the place we were told to look out for Harpy Eagles but alas, none came to see us, although we did see two different Ornate Hawk-Eagles during our stay there.  Next time ... for me with Harpy Eagle, it's always next time ...

Pied Lapwing and Glossy Antshrike 

All too soon though it was time for me to head back to the real world.  I really could have stayed at least an extra few days but my plans were set, so back to Alta Floresta then Cuiaba and on to São Paulo.  I did bring a souvenir with me though ... on the flight to Cuiaba my ankles and lower legs were itching uncontrollably, and it only got worse during the day ... Chiggers!  Not my favorite invertebrate and I had 'gotten them good' so for the entire duration of my stay in São Paulo I had something to remember the Amazon.  Still, it was worth it, and I'm already plotting my next trip to the Amazon ....

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