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Pandemic Birding in Brazil, Part I: Abundance in Amazonas

Claire and I started our 14-day home self-quarantine yesterday, after a month in Brazil. I hope that will be enough time to finish parsing the 1,500 photos and several hundred audio recordings that we brought back. This was our single most-productive birding trip: 672 species and 284 lifers over the course of 25 days in the field.

Wire-tailed Manakin, Novo Airão

We birded three regions, starting in Manaus, in Amazonas, then making a long trek roughly circling São Paulo, and finally a linear tour of the northeast, through the states of Ceará and Bahia, starting in Fortaleza and finishing in Salvador. Here I will cover the Amazonas portion; the other parts will be described in later posts.

Three target areas

With this trip, Brazil has become our total species leader, and it isn’t even close. We have spent no more than 50 total days birding there over the last few years, with 802 species ID’ed during that time. (Previous trips included the REGUA reserve near Rio de Janeiro, the pantanal in Mato Grosso, and the cerrado around Brasilia.) By comparison, in 27 years in the USA we have recorded 554 species, for second place. Even three trips each to Colombia and Ecuador have gotten us no more then 540 birds in either country.

Pied Puffbird, MUSA tower in Manaus

I began setting this trip up many months ago, in the late summer, when the COVID situation had seemed to have stabilized. Brazil was one of the few destinations openly accepting US tourists, and not only was there no testing needed to enter, they had just dropped their requirement of buying travel insurance (which I have never bought and never plan to buy). And unlike our visits in 2019, we did not even need a visa.

Paradise Jacamar, near Manaus

Once we arrived on the December 21, however, we learned that they would tighten restrictions for entry the follwing week. Proof of a negative COVID test is now required. Similarly, the US policy would change a week after we came home – a negative test is now needed to get on any US-bound plane.

Waved Woodpecker, MUSA tower in Manaus

Follwing the health guidelines in Brazil was really no different from in the US. We were religious about mask-wearing while indoors, obsessive about hand-washing, and always socially distant. Airports and other areas with potential congestion never had any crowded areas. Protocols at restaurants were more strict than those I have seen here at home. And since the bulk of our time was spent out in the rainforest or the caatinga, we crossed paths with few people overall.

We did the entire trip wtih Brazil Birding Experts and they were absolutely outstanding in every way. They made a customized package based on our specific species target lists, put us in good lodging, fed us safe food (Brazil is one of the few countries where we have never gotten sick from eating), were flexible as needs and circumstances changed, and most importantly, got us tons of target species and great looks. All three guides were patient with me, too – my eyesight restriction means that the guy with the laser pointer often has to work far harder to put me on a bird than he would for other people.

Guianan Puffbird, MUSA tower, Manaus

I was quite excited when first making travel arrangements because there was a cheap, direct flight from Miami to Manaus. A few weeks after booking that and paying for the trip, the flight was cancelled, meaning that we had to do it the normal, long way: fly all the way down to São Paulo first, then backtrack up north to Manaus.

When you compare the sizes of the USA and Brazil, adjusted to take out the distortions in scale due to map projections, you can see just how much extra travel that entails. It would be similar to making a trip from South America up to Miami but with a plane change in northern Minnesota.

Same scale comparison

In any case, it was worth the effort. We left on Decemeber 20th and had most of the 21st to rest up in São Paulo before flying back up to Manaus the next day. I was looking forward to being near the Tropic of Capricorn on the 21st due to the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction, which would have been quite low in the sky in Minnesota – here, it would stand high above the sunset glow. No such luck! It was rainy the entire day and night.

White-lored Tyrannulet, Novo Airão

A few weeks before the trip I got an email from our guide in Manaus, and it was a bit like getting a letter from a rock star – it was from Gabriel Leite. This was a name I knew well from my audio playlists, because I’ve been downloading bird calls from Xeno-Canto for years and it seems that one out of every four MP3 files I have for South America bear his name as the recordist. Always exciting to know that your guide will know the local songs intimately.

Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Aldeia Marí Marí

Amazonas is a huge state, over 600,000 square miles in area, about the size of Mongolia, and 20% larger than all of Peru. According to eBird, Amazonas has 913 species reported, but the majority of these would appear to be possiblities around Manaus, making it a great base for exploring the várzea and terra firme habitats. The tea-colored waters of the Rio Negro meet the milky Amazon river here, so crossing over the water means huge changes in species assortments.

(A) Manaus, (B) Presidente Figueiredo, (C) Novo Airão, (D) Manacapuru

Most of the drives we had to do were only a few hours long, and being at the start of rainy season, the weather was not a big factor.

Little Cuckoo, Ilha da Marchantaria

Gabriel was a great guide, knowing where the birds were and putting us on them efficiently. Some of the areas where we focused included Presidente Figueiredo, 100km north of Manaus, good for Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock and Painted Parakeet; Anavilhanas National
Park (with over 340 river islands on the Rio Negro) near Novo Airão, for a seemingly endless parade of antbirds; Marchantaria Island on the Amazon River with various spinetails and a cooperative Little Cuckoo; and the MUSA tower in Manaus, for many canopy birds.

With Gabriel, MUSA tower

Eight days here netted us 124 lifers and 257 total species. eBird tells me that I have at least another 80 or so in the same area. So we are happy that we did not overlook this locale – we’d done three prior trips into the Amazon basin, in Ecuador and Peru, and I mistakenly thought that the Brazilian Amazon would therefore have little to offer – not the case at all. Some of the notable observations: we saw, heard, and recorded a number of Capuchinbirds, whose calls sound like a cross between a band-saw and a cow; we got a total of 33 different antbird species; 13 woodcreeper species, and both of the topaz hummers. We also saw a perching White-winged Potoo, which was an amazing find by Gabriel.

No Amazon trip is complete without my favorite species of all time, the bizarre Hoatzin.

The lifers came so fast here that photography was a challenge. In the next two legs I’d have better luck getting a few good shots. More to come soon.

Wire-tailed Manakin, Novo Airão

2 responses to “Pandemic Birding in Brazil, Part I: Abundance in Amazonas”

  1. Superb photos and great write up, looking forward to the next installment.

  2. Wow! 672 species, 284 lifers and you took only 1,500 photos!?!! Are you sure you’re not missing a zero or two on that number. Lol. I’m sure it was a great trip and can’t wait to see the blogs come out. William

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