Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Restoring Brazil's Atlantic Forest

Greetings All,
After leaving the southern Amazon we flew to Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 10.  A pesky weather front had moved in to shroud the surrounding mountains in clouds.  We passed on the tour to Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountains as there would be limited views.  We did manage a brief visit to the Tijuca Forest surrounding the city.  It is claimed to be the world's largest urban forest covering 32 square km.  The rainforest here has been restored as the original forest had been completely cleared by Portuguese colonists to make way for sugar and coffee plantations.  Replanting was carried out by Mayor Manuel Gomes Archer in the second half of the 19th century to protect Rio's water supply.  In 1961 Tijuca Forest was declared a National Park.  Today the vegetation is so dense that it has been estimated that the ambient temperature of surrounding areas has been lowered by up to 9 degrees C!  We stopped at the Vista Chinesa viewpoint where a pagoda-styled gazebo had been erected to commemorate China's unsuccessful attempt to grow tea here.  We admired a partial view of the city nested at the base of the mountains.


View of Rio from Vista Chinesa
 
That evening as we were enjoying dinner in the restaurant on the top floor of our hotel we were treated to a view of the city and of the colossal statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain.  The light emanating from the statue was reflected by the clouds giving off a spiritual glow.

View of Rio from Our Hotel Restaurant
  
The following day we drove for about 2 hours north of Rio to visit the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu  (REGUA), another project to restore part of Brazil's imperiled Atlantic Forest.  To learn more about REGUA and how you can help click on the link below.


Only 7% of the Atlantic Forest remains making it one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth!  It is also one of the most biodiverse and endemic-rich biomes in South America.   Here is a map showing the original and current areas of the Forest:

Original Versus Remaining Area of Atlantic Forest

REGUA protects 9100 hectares of Atlantic Forest and plans on purchasing more land as resources permit.  A staggering 930 species of birds are found in the Atlantic Forest including 200 species which are found nowhere else on the planet!  REGUA is home to around 470 species and we spent nearly 3 days here birding with our guide Wes.  For a complete list of birds found at REGUA click on the following link.

Checklist of the Birds of REGUA

We woke to rain on our first morning and let the birds and mammals come to us.  Hummingbird feeders and platforms with bananas had been set up around the Guapi Assu Bird Lodge to attract the birds.  The Common Marmosets took advantage of this feeding opportunity and raided the banana feeders.  They looked comical in their rain-soaked coats with scraggly tails.

Common Marmoset
 
Common Marmosets are endemic to Brazil but their natural geographic range includes the northeastern and central forests of the country.  They were introduced to this area and have become somewhat of a pest.  There is concern that they may overcompete and breed with the local species of marmoset hastening its demise.

The hummingbird hierarchy was in full swing with the more aggressive Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds and Black Jacobins chasing off the more timid Glittering-throated Emeralds.

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird
 
The Maroon-bellied Parakeets visited one of the platforms and we were able to get some decent photos.

Maroon-bellied Parakeets
 
The rain finally let up and we braved the elements to visit some recently restored wetlands.  The area is now home to Capybara, Broad-snouted Caiman and many bird species including Common Gallinule, Capped and Cocoi Herons, Wattled Jacana, Ringed Kingfisher, Moustached Wren, White-winged Becard and White-bearded Manakin.  As we were returning to the lodge for lunch, we spotted what looked like a Blue Dacnis high in a tree.  'Take a close look at the legs'" Wes advised,  "often times a rare Black-legged Dacnis is mistaken for a Blue Dacnis".  Sure enough a closer look revealed the characteristic black legs of the near threatened and highly sought after endemic of Brazil's Atlantic Forest, the Black-legged Dacnis!

Black-legged Dacnis

Every evening over 750 Cattle egrets come here to roost in the trees surrounding the wetlands. 

Roosting Cattle Egrets

The next morning we hiked along the Green Trail to a waterfall, encountering many birds and a group of inquisitive coatis along the way.

South American Coati
 
The birding was challenging in the dense rainforest with overcast skies but Wes managed to find many species for us.  In just 5 weeks he had learned most of the birds in the area by both sight and sound!  I struggled to remember the names of the birds as most were lifers (first time we've ever seen them) for us.  One of my favorites was another endemic of Brazil's Atlantic Forest, the Black-cheeked Gnateater.

Black-cheeked Gnateater
   

The trail ended at the 150-foot falls cascading over a series of rock ledges.

Waterfall at the end of the Green Trail
 
On our final morning in Brazil we drove for about an hour to Serra dos Órgãos National Park to look for more birds.  The sun was finally breaking through the clouds and Marc finally had some light to work with.  We birded along a paved road getting some very nice sightings.

Birding in Serra dos Órgãos National Park
 
My favorites were the Grey-hooded Attila and the Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher.

Grey-hooded Attila

Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher
 
We drove to another section of the park at a slightly higher elevation to look for more species.  By now the clouds had cleared and we were greeted with bright sunshine.  It was still dark in the rainforest but Marc with his trusty 300mm lens was able to get some great shots.

Birding in Serra dos Órgãos National Park
 

A colorful Brassy-breasted Tanager was bathing in rain water that had collected in the base of a bromeliad high up in the canopy.

Brassy-breasted Tanager
 
 
Everyone was thrilled when a Spot-billed Toucanet paid us a visit.  Usually these birds stay high in the canopy but this one came a little lower to check us out.

Spot-billed Toucanet
 
Unfortunately, we had to return to the lodge after lunch.  We had to pack up and return to Rio for a 9 PM flight.  The clouds had cleared and we were finally able to get a view of the rainforest and the Serra dos Órgãos Mountains from our balcony.


View of the Serra dos Órgãos Mountains

Thanks to the dedicated folks at REGUA, this part of the Atlantic Forest is now protected and will continue to harbor a myriad of bird and animal species.  A special thanks to our wonderful host Thomas and our guide Wes for finding and identifying the birds for us!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Amazon Odyssey!

We returned to Cuiaba the morning of September 5 for the 1 hour flight to Alta Floresta, the gateway to the Southern Amazon.  Our destination was the Cristalino Lodge set in an 28,167-acre private reserve along the Cristalino River in the Southern Amazon.   It is just north of Alta Floresta on the map below:

Cristalino Lodge, North of Alta Floresta

We met our guide, Stephan, who was to accompany us during our stay.  That afternoon we visited one of the 165-foot observation towers on the property.  As we approached the tower we could see a large troop of White-whiskered Spider Monkeys feeding in a tree nearby.  These monkeys are endemic (only found here) to the area and were one of the animals I had wanted to see.  We climbed the tower to get a better view of these agile primates.  They swung from branch to branch with ease using their strong prehensile tails.  Many of the females had tiny babies attached to their tummies or hanging onto their backs.

White-Whiskered Spider Monkey

We watched the troop as they fed on the tender new leaves.  As dusk approached the monkeys moved off to more dense vegetation for the night.  One remained behind.  "Was he a sentry keeping a lookout for predators, an old member that couldn't keep up or had the troop simply forgotten him?" I wondered.   From below another monkey climbed back up to the abandoned individual.  "Had she returned to help the elder down?" I naively thought.  Wrong, she had returned for a bit of monkey business!  The couple proceeded to mate high up in the canopy!


White-whiskered Spider Monkeys Mating


We watched as the monkeys unabashedly performed for a good 30 minutes!  When their secret trist was over they nonchalantly resumed feeding.  Wow, what a start to our visit!

The next day we revisited the tower and the monkeys were still feeding in the vicinity.  The monkeys behaved themselves and we were able to focus on the birds.  We saw many species but my favorites were the Black-faced Dacnis and the Curl-crested Aracari.

Black-faced Dacnis

Curl-crested Aracari
That afternoon Stephan took us to a hide set up in the forest.  On the boat ride to the blind, Stephan spotted a small troop of Red-handed Howler Monkeys in the trees along the river - another new primate species for us.
Red-handed Howler Monkey


The boat driver dropped us off and we hiked a short distance into the forest to a wooden bench hidden with palm fronds so we could sit and watch the secretive forest birds that came to drink at a "bird bath" set up nearby.  We were concerned that the thunderstorms in the area might prevent the birds from coming but after a slow start they arrived in spades.  A total of 16 species including Snow-capped and White-capped Manakins, Spotted-backed Antbird, White-winged Shrike Tanager and Bare-eyed Antbirds came to drink.

Snow-capped Manakin


Spot-backed Antbird

Bare-faced Antbird
As we returned to the lodge along the river we used a spotlight to search the banks for nocturnal creatures.  Two species of caiman, the Spectacled and the Dwarf, ply the waters here.

Dwarf Caiman

On our second full day we did a hike in the morning to a rocky outcrop above the rainforest.  On the way we passed through a bamboo thicket where we heard Dusky Titi monkeys calling.  These shy primates are nearly impossible to see in the dense tangles of bamboo and we had to settle for hearing them only.  We paused at a dead tree where Stephan challenged us to find the bird.  I had no difficulty.  Can you spot the bird in the following photo?

Can you Find the Bird?

From the viewpoint we could see over miles of unbroken primary rainforest interspersed with dry patches on the higher ridges.

View Over the Rainforest

On the walk back from the viewpoint Stephan became very excited by a tiny bird he spotted in the forest.  The bird perched on a nearby branch giving us great views and many photographic opportunities.  Stephan identified the bird as a Rusty-breasted Nunlet and confirmed that it has only been seen at the lodge 6 times!

Rusty-breasted Nunlet

We were enjoying another delicious lunch when one of the lodge guests told her guide that she spotted some monkeys near the floating dock.  She showed him a photo she had taken and he told her they were White-nosed Bearded Saki Monkeys!  There's no time to eat when there are animals to look at.  I rushed off to see them and arrived as they were foraging low in the trees.  Marc joined me and was able to get some good shots.

White-nosed Bearded Saki Monkey
These monkeys have pink noses, not white.  Where did their name come from?  It turns out these Sakis got their name from a dead specimen where the skin on and around the nose had faded to white. I was thrilled to get such a close look at these endangered monkeys endemic to this region of Brazil.

As we headed back to the restaurant we could hear what sounded like someone chopping down a tree with an ax.  As we peered into the rainforest we could see that the noise was made by the Brown Capuchin monkeys trying to open Brazil nuts!  They were banging the massive nuts against the tree branches in an attempt to crack them open.   
Brown Capuchin with a Brazil Nut


That afternoon we cruised the black water of the Christalino River looking for animals and birds coming to drink. We came around a bend in the river and Stephan spotted a Brazilian Tapir lounging in the water to escape the heat and biting flies.  He fled into the forest at our approach but soon returned and put on quite a show for us.


Brazilian Tapir


The Brazilian or South American Tapir is the largest land mammal in South America.  Tapirs are excellent swimmers and divers and feed on aquatic plants, fruits, grasses and leaves.  They have a mobile snout resembling a mini elephant trunk that they use as a snorkel when swimming.
Brazilian Tapir

We saw 3 more tapirs further upriver but they didn't stick around long.  

After dinner we took a walk around the lodge looking for the resident Azara's Night Monkeys.  We heard a rustling in the forest and went to investigate.  Our torch revealed a Southern Tamandua or Lesser Anteater foraging for termites and ants!

Southern Tamandua

The next morning we visited the second tower on the other side of the river.  

Marc Climbing the Tower

The birds were out in full force feeding on a caterpillar swarm in the nearby trees.  I recorded 33 species but I'm sure Stephan saw many more.  My favorites were the Pompadour Cotinga and the Red-necked Aracari.

Pompadour Cotinga

Red-necked Aracari

On our fourth and final night we went out before dinner in a last attempt to find the night monkeys. Stephan spotted a very tiny mouse hiding under a dried Cecropia leaf and we got a glimpse of a Four-eyed Opposum but no monkeys.  After dinner Marc and I went out to search for the monkeys on our own.  We were down near the floating dock when Stephan came running up.  He and his wife Claudia had found the monkeys near the boat launch!  We rushed off to where Claudia was waiting with the monkeys still in view.  We were actually seeing one of the three subspecies of Azara's Night Monkey, the Feline Night Monkey (Aotus azarae infulatus).  These tiny primates are monogamous with the males staying around to help raise the babies and provide food.



Azara's Night Monkey 

On our final walk the following morning we encountered a family of Collared Peccaries trotting down the trail.  They paused just long enough for Marc to get a photo.


Collared Peccaries

Although our stay was brief we managed to find with Stephan's expert help many of Cristalino's spectacular birds.  With a whopping 586 species of birds this area is a birdwatchers' paradise.  We were also very lucky with the mammals seeing at least 14 different species.  Many thanks to Stephan and the staff at Cristalino Lodge for making our stay very rewarding and extremely memorable!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

 
For those of you who have made it to the bottom of this post here is the answer to the bird quiz.  The bird is located in the center of the photo on the right side of the tree.  It is a Common Potoo, a nocturnal bird related to Nightjars.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Armadillos and Anteaters

Greetings All,
I wondered "How do you top seeing 7 Jaguars and Giant Otters in the Pantanal?"  Although these animals are the Pantanal's most charismatic inhabitants, there are plenty more intriguing creatures to search out.  We returned to Porto Jofre where we were greeted by three beautiful Hyacinth Macaws. The Pantanal is the last stronghold for these endangered parrots whose numbers have been decimated by habitat loss and the pet trade.



Hyacinth Macaws
 
We drove back up the Transpantaneira Highway passing by a Yellow-tailed Cribo that was sunning itself on the road.  This nonvenomous snake is the longest member of its genus and can grow up to 10 feet in length.

Yellow-tailed Cribo
 
Our next stop was Araras Eco Lodge, one of the first cattle ranches in the area to be converted to an Eco Lodge.  Here conservation is the focus and the proprietors, Andre Von Thuronyi and his wife Aquilla, run several projects to help the beleaguered Hyacinth Macaws and protect 6,670 acres of wildlife habitat.  We spent a few days searching the trails and smaller rivers for more obscure wildlife.  During our first walk we encountered a pair of Whistling Herons fishing in a weed-choked pond.

Whistling Heron

We arrived at a working farm where many colorful parrots were squawking in the trees.  This part of the property is used to raise cattle, horses and sheep and to also rehabilitate parrots rescued from the pet trade in order to return them to the wild.


Blue-fronted Parrot
 
At night we went out in search of nocturnal animals.  Our drives invariably turned up Crab-eating Foxes and Crab-eating Raccoons.  As its name implies these raccoons eat crabs and other crustaceans but its diet also includes amphibians, turtle eggs and fruit.

Crab-eating Raccoon
 
The next day we went canoeing on the Rio Claro.  Tucked in among the vegetation was a secretive Agami Heron considered to be one of the most beautiful herons in the world.  We silently glided alongside it to admire its stunning plumage and impressive bill.

Agami Heron
 
Emanating from the forest were high-pitched calls.  "A bird?', I asked Tadeu.  "No, a tiny monkey called a Black-tailed Marmoset", he replied.  I desperately wanted to see these primates but they remained hidden in the dense vegetation. We returned to the canoe dock where a buffet lunch complete with a barbecue had been set up for us.  As we were eating, two inquisitive Black-tailed Marmosets came down to check out our picnic spot.  We got wonderful close-up views of these seriously cute monkeys after all!

Black-tailed Marmosets

That evening we walked along a boardwalk to a tower to watch the sun set.  Along the way, a troop of Brown Capuchin monkeys frolicked in the trees over our heads.  One cheeky individual looked at us in utter disdain.  "Who were these terrestrial-bound creatures invading his domain?" I could imagine him thinking.

Brown Capuchin

A little further along the boardwalk, an Azara's Agouti scurried along on the forest floor.  Finally we were able to get a look at this shy animal that typically fled and hid at our approach.


Azara's Agouti

We climbed to the top of the tower for a bird's-eye-view over the Pantanal.  At this time of year the wetlands are drying out and the birds, fish and caiman are restricted to shrinking pools of water.
 

View from the Monkey Tower
 
On one of our early morning drives we came across a Six-banded or Yellow Armadillo searching for grubs in the dry grass.  This prehistoric-looking animal is covered with a leathery armor shell to protect it from predators.  Armadillos have poor eyesight and we were able to approach closely.  This fellow had to stand on his hind legs in order to get a whiff of us.  Once he caught our scent he scurried off into the bushes.

Yellow Armadillo
 
On our last afternoon we took a drive along the Transpantaneira Highway in search of more wildlife. A female Capybara was attempting to cross the road with her 4 pups.  They scampered back into the swamp as we approached.


Capybara Family
 
In the late afternoon a large flock of Great Egrets, Jabiru Stork, Rosette Spoonbills and Wood Storks had gathered for their last meal of the day.

Pantanal Flock
 
On our final morning walk we encountered another odd creature with very poor eyesight, the Southern Tamandua or Lesser Anteater.  He was searching the savannah for a meal of ants and termites.  He stopped his foraging and stood on his hind legs to better hear or smell us.  He didn't seem overly concerned about our intrusion and ambled off to continue his foraging.

Southern Tamandua
 
After an amazing week of wildlife viewing, it was time to leave the Pantanal.  A big thanks to our very knowable and fun guide, Tadeu, for sharing his backyard with us.  What a privilege to visit one of the "Wildlife Wonders of the World", Brazil's Pantanal Wetlands!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc