In October 2016 we rejoined Mark Pretti on another of his tours, this one to the heart of the Amazonian rainforests near Manaus. Here the world’s largest river, the Amazon, meets its largest tributary, the Rio Negro.
More than just a birding trip, this tour offered us the opportunity to explore the ecosystems of the two rivers, including várzea (floodplain forest seasonally inundated by whitewater rivers), igapó (seasonally inundated by blackwater rivers such as the Rio Negro), terra firme (rainforest that is not inundated), rainforest canopy, white sand forest, and river islands. We traveled near the end of the “dry” season (making it hot and humid, as opposed to hot and raining), so the water levels were much lower; the várzea and igapó areas that would have been navigable by boat in the rainy season were now up to 25-30 ft above the water line and walkable (albeit quite steamy).
What follows is a general trip description with some photos. If you want to skip directly to the photos, click here.
Click any photo below for a larger version.
From Manaus we traveled west to the Anavilhanas Archipelago, a series of river islands in the Rio Negro. We stayed at the Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge, an over-the-top resort that seems to cater to wealthy Brazilians and the occasional foreigner who wants to experience the Amazon without actually getting their feet dirty or hair mussed. They didn’t quite seem to know what to do with a group of birders. But it was a comfortable base for exploring the terra firme forest, and we had several boat trips in search of river island and igapó birds. We also had an unforgettable up-close look at pink river dolphins. (They are really porpoises, but the local tale is that Jacques Cousteau called them dolphins, so dolphins they are. Click here for a cool video.)
Leaving Anavilhanas, we returned to Manaus and early the next morning caught a short flight west to Tefé. 90 minutes later by boat we arrived at the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. A floating lodge is eminently sensible when you consider how the water level of the river can fluctuate! Built upon huge logs that are said to last longer in the water than dry, every bungalow had a porch with hammocks and a view of the river … not to mention mosquito nets in the room, bats roosting outside during the day, and, er, some rather large “water bugs” (ok, cockroaches) that mercifully only came out at night. (There were a few fatalities, but largely we left each other alone.)
While the lodge is named for a primate, the red uakari (looking like a shaggy abominable snowman with a very red face), the most noticeable creature in the reserve was the huge pirarucu fish. Fly fishermen come to this lodge just to try to catch (and release) one of the beasts, which can be up to 3 meters and 220 lbs….although most we saw were about half that size. The fish seemed to enjoy thrashing around in the water … all night even, right outside our bungalow screened windows. The fish-slapping dance from Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to mind more than once.
We had three full days at Uakari, and thoroughly explored the river, “lakes”, and the forest. It was definitely the most challenging part of the trip, with the unrelenting heat and humidity that lasted well into the night. No a/c at this solar-powered lodge and they asked you not to run the ceiling fans all night … and you couldn’t take a swim in the river to cool off because of the caimans (alligators) and piranhas … so that, the fish slapping, and thinking about cockroaches induced us to toss back a caipirinha or two and to simply be oblivious.
We’ve had similar challenges on past trips, thinking back to eastern Ecuador in particular, but Uakari takes the prize. But for all the discomfort…fabulous birds! As well as five different primates: brown capuchin, common squirrel monkey, black-headed squirrel monkey, red howler, and the iconic red uakari.
Our last lodge was Pousada Aldeia Mari Mari, back closer to Manaus. North of the Amazon and east of the Rio Negro, the area sported both terra firme and white sand forest. The highlight at Mari Mari was the lek of Guianan cock-of-the-rock, an improbably neon orange bird that looked (to Liza, at least) like a giant shrimp that needed shelling. Many other wonderful birds in the forest, however, not to mention comfortable cabins (with a/c! when the power wasn’t out, that is), and an inviting river in which it was safe to swim.
We ended the trip back in Manaus, enjoying a great boat trip out to the “meeting of the waters”, where the black water of the Rio Negro mixes with the cappuccino-colored Amazon. Past the confluence of the rivers we explored a couple of the river islands, relatively young islands in different stages of development and plant succession. On the last island, the numerous skimmers and terns weren’t too pleased with our being there, their screeching dive-bombing maneuvers were something Hitchcock (youtube video!) would have appreciated. Lunch was a plentiful Brazilian buffet at a floating restaurant (it was said during the rainy season, the restaurant would be up to 20 km farther away!).
All in all, this was a fabulous trip, even if the conditions were challenging at times. Our tour-mates were great fun, and Liza has a serious case of camera envy now (Misty Vaughn, I’m looking at you). Mark Pretti was, as always, a marvelous guide, making this a true nature tour and not just about birds.
Again, for more photos, click here.
Liza also had a very good time introducing her Buddy Bison to the Amazon; you can check up on his adventures here.