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Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Matto Grosso, Brazil,
Volunteer TRIP Report – Graeme Wallace
11th July – 12th September 2005 and 26th October – 21st November 2005
Summary of the Trip
Between July and September 2005 I had the good fortune to spend two months as a Volunteer Guide at Cristalino Jungle Lodge in the southern Amazon. I subsequently returned between October and November 2006 to fill a gap in the volunteer programme. This Trip Report briefly summarises my experiences, together with detailed lists of the many wonderful birds and mammals encountered. I would also suggest any reader also refers to the excellent trip reports of Frank Lambert/Joe Tobias and Mark Pretti/Karen Blumenthal which can be found on the Cristalino website.
As night gave way to misty dawn, from my room I would hear the buu-buu-bubuuu call of Spectacled Owl gradually fade, the call of Cryptic Forest Falcon resonate through the forest, the haunting cry of Zig Zag Heron as it drifted across the river, the fluty descending whistles of Buff-throated Woodcreeper (which acted as my alarm clock)and the loud sharp whistles of Long-billed Woodcreeper. Dawn at Cristalino has to be the greatest highlight. There were many other great moments and I enjoyed meeting many interesting people, helping them encounter the extraordinary life in the forest, not least because in doing so I also learned so many new things and as a result became a more observant birdwatcher and better naturalist which was immensely rewarding..
Specific highlights include;
First Visit 11th July – 12th September 2005
The juvenile Harpy Eagle in the forest fragment in the hotel grounds at Alta Floresta was beginning to roam more widely but was still dependent upon its parents for food and could often be seen at the nest sometimes with an adult bird bringing in a monkey. Across the Teles Pires river the forest at Cristalino, in common with much of Amazonia, was in the grip of a prolonged drought when during June to September 2005 it rained only once. Water levels on the Cristalino river were at, or near to, an all time low exposing large areas of sandy riverbank. The forest too was exceptionally dry, streams dried up, many trees leafless and rocky areas such as the Serra and Secret Garden characterised by dry, brown, crumbling vegetation, wilting bromeliads, and shrivelled pineapple plants. Surface water in the forest was virtually non-existent and only a few remnant pools remained in the sandy river beds. Few trees were in flower or fruit during July-mid August but, despite the harsh dry conditions, from mid August onwards some trees managed to find the necessary reserves to put out leaves, flowers or fruit. In the forest at the end of August there was a spectacular if brief blooming of golden yellow Tabebuia whose flowers were soon consumed with relish by the local Red-handed Howlers. Mammals such as Brazilian Tapir were seen regularly on trips along the river as were larger craccids such as Razor-billed and Bare-faced Curassow and, whilst still very scarce, both jaguar and puma were encountered more often than was the norm. Both Giant Otter and River Otter were seen regularly, sometimes close to the lodge. Amphibians and reptiles were scarce, for example no-one saw the undescribed Dendrobates usually present on the Serra and apart from Rainbow and Common Boas there were few reports of other snakes. Anaconda were seen rarely, usually when sunning themselves on rocks in the river, but caiman remained common at night. Forest dwelling passerines proved difficult, many species sang for only short periods in the morning or not at all, birds were unresponsive to tape and the lack of insects appeared to result in fewer and smaller mixed flocks. On the plus side the dry leaf litter and lack of cover made it easier to see ground foraging species such as tinamous, curassows and trumpeters and where fruiting trees such as melastome could be found they were usually attended by large mixed flocks containing several species of brightly coloured tanagers and honeycreepers. The Borboletas track proved good in this respect and despite dry conditions on the Serra, tanagers, honeycreepers and hummingbirds could still be found in good numbers where there was a flowering tree. The Serra also proved excellent for Puffbirds with some groups reporting 4 or 5 species on a single visit including specialties such as Spotted and Brown-banded. At dusk the remnant pools in the river beds on Taboca and Rochas proved to be a magnet for birds and exceptional views could be obtained of such species as Spot-backed, Dot-backed and Scaled Antbird, White-winged Shrike Tanager, Black-spotted Bare-eye and Bare-eyed Antbird as they came in to drink and bathe. Obligate antbird activity was high with good numbers of antswarms attended not only by Black-spotted Bare-eye, Bare-eyed and Scale-backed Antbird, but Plain-brown and White-chinned Woodcreepers, Black-girdled Barbet, occasionally Spix’s Guan and Trumpeters and exceptionally Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo. Butterfly activity was at its peak with clouds of spectacular butterflies attending puddle parties to take minerals from the exposed sandy riverbank and throughout the forest, but particularly at the Saleiro, many species could be seen in a single day including metalmarks, sulphurs, daggerwings, cotones, swallowtails, morphos, clearwings and heliconians as well as the skippers that from part of the antswarm cycle of life, feeding on the excrement of agitated antbirds
So, despite the unusually dry conditions and, on some days, the the problems of smoke and poor visibility caused by farmers burning huge areas of grass and stubble, the quality and variety of flora and fauna to be seen and experienced remained exceptional.
Second Visit 26th October – 21st November 2005
Conditions had changed significantly when I returned to Cristalino in late October. The rainy season had begun, the daily build up of heat and humidity released into spectacular thunderstorms in the late afternoon with the evening coolness being a welcome reprieve from the stifling heat of mid-day. Mornings remained relatively cool and pleasant, the forest was green, new growth evident, river levels had risen, tree frogs were calling at night, on fallen logs everywhere there was spectacular and sudden growth of many species of fungi and mushroom, avian activity seemed more intense but butterfly numbers had diminished. Mixed flocks led by Cinereous Antshrike seemed larger, more vocal and hung around longer, although the new growth in the forest made it more difficult to get good views. Some of the bamboo specialists such as Manu Antbird, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, Chestnut-capped Foliage Gleaner, and Chestnut-throated Spinetail were much more in evidence but ground foraging birds such as Dark-winged Trumpeter, Rufous-capped & Black-faced Antthrush and tinamou species were rarely encountered. With the onset of the rains antswarm activity had declined noticeably and “obligate antbirds” were rarely seen, the Paraque that called incessantly at night in the main clearing had fallen silent and sightings of curassows on the riverbank were much less frequent. On the other hand the previously silent Zig-Zag Heron could be heard calling every morning together with Cryptic Forest Falcon. Long-billed Woodcreeper could be also heard or seen most mornings in the clearing where the previously barren Calliandra tree began to bloom attracting 5-6 different species of hummingbird. Despite losing most of its new flowers daily to the afternoon rains it put out new blooms every morning. Castanheira trees began flowering, carpeting the forest with their cream-coloured blooms and the bromeliads and pineapple plants on the Serra were a magnet for hummimgbirds, including a Fiery-tailed Awlbill which was a first record for Cristalino and represented a large range extension. Sadly it was during this period that the remains of the juvenile Harpy Eagle were found in the forest fragment at AF, apparently too decomposed to determine the cause of death. This event seemed to trigger the adult birds into retending the nest where they could be observed from the new hide sensibly constructed a considerable distance from the nest .
It was a great privilege and pleasure to be able to spend 3 months in the spectacular and unspoilt primary forest of Cristalino and be immersed in the incredible richness and biological diversity found there. I am therefore most grateful to Dona Vitoria for the opportunity and to Zuleica , Plinio and Andre for their kindness and assistance throughout. At CJL the local guides Francisco, Jorge, Sebastian, Ubaldo and Alfredo were unfailingly helpful and happy to share their immense knowledge of the forest. I will remember with great affection Ubaldo’s skills of mimicry, particularly in whistling up Musician Wrens on Castanheira when my tape failed and Francisco for his extraordinary knowledge, acuity of senses and the amount of personal time he devoted helping me try to find Black-banded Owl. To the other staff at the lodge Joao, Luciana, Hose, Carmen and Bibi my thanks for the great food, clean rooms, laundry and smiling company. The list is long but there are others I must mention. To Braulio Carlos, Andrew Whittaker, Judy Davis, Lelis Navarette, Guliano Bernadini and Alex Lees my thanks for generously sharing information and tapes. Guides Will & Gill Carter and the visiting film makers Pat and John Banks not only were great company but opened up the world of butterflies to me and finally my thanks must go to the many guests I had the pleasure of showing around Cristalino Jungle Lodge – it was an unforgettable experience.
Full Species Lists (600kB .pdf)
Notes on Sighting of Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo ( Neomorphus geoffroyi) at Cristalino Jungle Lodge.
Sighting 1 on the Castanheira Trail on Thursday 28th July 2005.
In the early morning I had taken clients around the Serra Trail following which they kayaked back to the lodge and I walked back down the Cacao Trail to the riverbank opposite the Lodge. It was mid-morning , quite hot and, in general, bird activity was low. However about 600-900 metres from the end of the trail I encountered an antswarm some 15 metres off the trail. There was considerable activity and the swarm was attended by 4-5 Black-spotted Bare-eye, 7-8 Bare-eyed Antbird, Scale-backed Antbird, White-backed Fire-eye, Plain-brown and Black-banded Woodcreeper. Curve-billed Scythebill and Emelia’s Antwren were also seen.
The swarm moved slowly towards the trail where I was standing and after watching for about 10 minutes I was suddenly aware of a large bird flying in to my left which perched momentarily on a partly obscured branch 5 metres above the ground before flying into cover further from the trail. I had only an impression of a large ivory bill and a dark blue back but little sense of shape. Shortly afterwards I heard the sound of what I know now to be bill clapping coming from the cover into which the bird had flown.
I continued to watch the swarm for about another 10 minutes as it progressed towards me when, again, a large bird flew in and perched 0.5 metre from the ground on a sapling about 8-10 metres from where I was standing.. My immediate impression ( bizarrely) was to compare it to an oversized Asian Great Barbet probably influenced by the large ivory coloured bill, the decurved upper mandible and the overall dark blue colour of the upperparts. The shape and posture of the bird resembled the road runners of south western USA and clearly this was a Ground Cuckoo.
Closer examination revealed the head, neck and mantle to be dark blue in colour, wings also deep dark blue shading to purplish black on the flight feathers. It had a dark shaggy crest which it raised and lowered regularly much in the manner of the Bare-eyed Antbirds close by. The eye appeared red with paler blue orbital skin contrasting with the dark blue of the head. The overall impression of the underparts were of a lightish buffy base; the throat and upper breast were scaled grey bounded by a broad but possibly incomplete black band across the upper breast. The vent was red but appeared to cover a smaller area than suggested by some illustrations.. The tail was greenish purple. The bird was observed for between 5-10 minutes. It was not seen to walk on the forest floor but remained on its low perch cocking its head back and forth, constantly raising and lowering its crest. Occasionally the bird would dart a short distance from its perch to grab some fleeing prey item, the manner of its movement again remarkably similar to the ant-birds with which it was associating. It was not heard to bill clap while in view.
Sighting 2 on the Taboca Trail on Sunday 30 October 2005
Around 4.30 pm on a hot humid afternoon of 30th October at CJL I walked the first 100 metres of the Figuera trail from the back of the bungalow clearing before taking the fork onto the Taboca Trail planning to walk out to the dry streambed at 900 metres on Taboca before returning the same way. The trail was quiet but after 200 – 250 metres as I walked up a slight incline between rocks on a bend on the trail a large bird hopped up from the ground and perched on a thick horizontal vine some 1.5-2.0 metres off the ground and about 5-10 metres from where I was now standing very still.
It was immediately apparent that, astonishingly, this was another Ground Cuckoo. First impressions were of the unmistakeable pale ivory bill with decurved upper mandible, shaggy crest consisting of 4 or 5 feathers raised and lowered constantly, blue orbital skin and a large broad tail which was constantly cocked. The bird remained perched on the vine giving a largely unobscured view for about one minute giving time to take in greater details of its plumage beyond the first impression noted above.
Overall the bird was dull in appearance and its colouring quite unlike the Neomorphus that I had seen on the Cacao Trail earlier in the year. The upper parts were generally dull brownish/chestnut green as was the broad tail ( This in marked contrast to the deep blue of the first bird on the Cacao Trail.) and the feathers of the shaggy crest appeared dark black/brown. The throat and breast were patterned with densely packed horizontal grey chevroned lines on a dirty buffy base. The chevroned lines terminated in a thin breast-band which separated the throat and upper breast from the remainder of the unmarked underparts which were a dull-buff. ( This barely distinguishable line was in marked contrast to the very obvious black breast-band of the first bird on the Cacao Trail). I did not observe any rufous on the vent but the lower part of the bird was somewhat obscured by vegetation. One other noticeable feature was that the blue orbital skin bordering the dark red eye did not surround the eye, rather it began above and below the eye halfway back before extending out onto the neck. In other words there was no blue orbital skin on the front half circle of the eye and the extension on to the neck of the bird of the blue orbital skin at the rear half circle of the eye was quite long and prominent. The bird appeared very nervous and agitated constantly and energetically ducking and bobbing its head and tail as it looked around but remained on the vine for about 1 minute before dropping to the ground where I believe it walked, rather than flew off.
Discussion and Conclusions
Because of the importance of this species, the paucity of sightings in general and at Cristalino ( 3 known brief views/glimpses in the last 20 years) I have either circulated these descriptions or discussed them with some of Brazil’s foremost ornithologists and my thanks go to Andy Whittaker, Dr Peter Petterman, Braulio Carlos and Alex Lees for their comments. Based upon these conversations and review of available literature at the lodge, particularly the illustrations in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, I offer the following thoughts- if not conclusions. There is absolutely no doubt that both birds were Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo. (Neomorphus geoffroyi). - the subspecies however are much more difficult.
Regarding the Cacao sighting the closest match to the illustrations in HBW would strongly suggest the subspecies N. dulcis but as this is an isolated population from the Atlantic forest of SE Brazil and therefore biogeographically it seems impossible this subspecies could occur at the Cristalino.(A Whittaker pers.obs). Following the e-mail exchanges referred to above it further appears that he description does not fit easily with current known forms and may prove to be an as yet undescribed subspecies. Research of museum skins is being undertaken by Whittaker and Lees in Brazil and the UK.
Review of the available literature at the lodge particularly the HBW illustrations clearly confirm the Taboca bird as a Ground Cuckoo. As regards subspecies the most likely candidate would be squamiger, said to occur on both sides of the "Lower Tapajos", while ssp. geoffroyi would be found further east. ("Para", HBW) but according to Pinto (1978) from Maranhao to Rio Madeira (called by him "amazonicus"), which would probably include the Cristalino region (with squamiger more in the north (P Pettermand pers.obs)
In summary it seems likely that the Taboca bird is ssp. squamiger with the Cacao bird possibly an as yet undescribed form but with the lack of good information on this species for example in terms of age related plumages or, sexual dimorphism it is impossible to be certain. Whether or not there can be 2 distinct subspecies on either side of the Cristalino also seems questionable. Clearly more information is needed but what is not in doubt is that Cristalino is becoming a good place to have a chance of seeing this mythical bird.
Full Species Lists (600kB .pdf)