A close inspection of the distribution maps in a Birds of Brazil field guide will show that there are a handful of bird species found in the state of Acre and nowhere else in the country. Given it’s remote location in the far western corner of Brazil, sandwiched between Peru and Bolivia, it’s possible to find southwestern Amazonia endemics here that birders usually have to visit Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru in order to find. In addition, there is a fair amount of bamboo dominated humid forest in Acre, which is home to a fascinating group of bamboo associated bird species, including Peruvian Recurvebill, White-Cheeked Tody-Tyrant, and Manu Antbird, just to name a few. Considering its uniqueness in Brazil, and the fact that birders almost never come out this way, I was thrilled to have a chance to really blaze a trail of my own, so to speak.
Of course, it’s not as if there aren’t ornithologists who haven’t trolled the area for decades, carefully recording and collecting the very same birds I was interested in seeing for myself. And despite what the satellite imagery portrays of the region, there has been considerable deforestation along the roads and around the town, so it’s not as if you can simply walk out of the hotel with your binoculars and into good habitat. As a result, I made sure to rent a car and have some birding contacts set up before I arrived in Rio Branco. If I wanted to do some relatively serious birding, I would have to be resourceful and rely on the true pioneers for help. Fortunately, Edson Guilherme, a professor of Paleontology at the Federal University of Acre (UFAC) was happy to help me get started and access two forest reserves associated with the university.
On my first to the campus, I arrived in the late afternoon to meet Edson, who was ready with his camera and rubber boots when I finally found him. We talked birds as he briskly shuffled me along the trail, pointing out spots where he had seen, or captured in mist nets, notable birds in the past. He told me a painful story about having been familiar with the Rufous Twistwing for almost a decade, thinking it was just a morph or subspecies of the Brownish Twistwing, and then being shocked when it was formally described in 2007 as a new species. It’s probably rather painful to know you missed out formally discovering a new bird and having the privilege of naming it. David Wolf had a similar experience at Podocarpus National Park in Southern Ecuador, with the Foothill Elaenia. Edson also showed me where he, Andrew Whittaker, and Kevin Zimmer photographed a male White-Cheeked Tody-Tyrant, only the second record for Brazil. Then, he introduced me to the park guards and left, generously giving me free reign for the next couple of days.
Although it was getting late, I managed to note a few bird species before it got dark, including Olivaceous Flatbill, Red-Bellied Macaw, Moustached Wren, Black-Fronted Nunlet, and Undulated Tinamou. I also surprised a group of Emperor Tamarin, perhaps the coolest looking monkey I’ve ever seen with its ridiculously long white moustaches. I also kicked up a few Common Pauraques after dark along the trail, also stopping to take in the sound of a calling Amazonian Antpitta from deep within the tangled undergrowth. I had tried playing recorded calls of White-Cheeked Tody-Tyrant, Rufous Twistwing, and Bamboo Antshrike that afternoon but without hearing any response. As choked with bamboo as parts of the Parque Zoobotânical are, could it really contain, at only 100 hectares, as many bird species as the park list claims? (Edson admitted later that the list needs to be updated.)
I had my chance the following morning and was in the field early enough for the commencement of the dawn chorus, an Amazonian orchestra of sorts with birds calling at all frequencies from the forest floor to above the canopy. While I had studied the songs and calls of my target birds, namely the bamboo associated species, my ears are not as highly attuned as those of bird guides and ornithologists, and I probably overlooked quite a bit. Edson had explained that this was the breeding season of the Rufous Twistwing, so I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t call or respond to playback. The White-Cheeked Tody-Tyrant was also a long shot too, as it had only been recorded at UFAC once. You might say that ornithologists Zimmer and Whittaker were incredibly lucky, but I think they make their own luck. How many rarities have the rest of us mortals narrowly missed because our eyes or ears were too untrained?
Still, I did get my binoculars onto some nice birds that morning. A male Fiery-Capped Manakin was definitely a highlight, responding fiercely to playback of its modest, insect like call. Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbird was relatively common and could be heard calling occasionally throughout the morning. I spotted a Gray-Necked Woodrail creeping around the shores of one of the swampy areas, where it was easy to find Wattled Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and Social Flycatcher. A closer inspection of the scrub along the swamp revealed what was probably a Plain Tyrannulet, looking similar in size to the Southern Beardless Tyrannulet but more subdued in appearance and with yellow instead of rufous colored wing bars. Another attempt in the bamboo yielded a Red-Billed Scythebill, Reddish Hermit, and a Black-Tailed Trogon overhead, but no bamboo associated species.
I figured that if I wanted a chance to find these bamboo associated species, I would need to get out of town and find some less fragmented forest, or at least a significantly larger reserve. I stopped by Edson’s laboratory afterwards, and met a bunch of his students who were hard at work despite there being a countrywide strike at all of the federal universities. Two masters degree students were laboring over bird skins and developing their taxidermy skills, and a handful of undergraduates had just returned from collecting birds from the mist nets they had set up. Remarkably, Edson pulled out a Rufous-Breasted Piculet from one of the bags, proof positive that the Parque Zoobotânico was certainly large enough to contain bamboo associated species. He also showed me a live Tui Parakeet and Olivaceous Flatbill before handing them back to his students, who were enthusiastic enough about their work but I suspect not quite aware of what a treat it was to see some of these birds up close.
When I described my modest observations from the morning, Edson was quick to suggest that I visit a larger university reserve 25km outside of town along the road to Porto Velho. Fazenda Experimental Catuaba (FEC) is about 820 hectares in size, containing much more expansive bamboo stands, or tabocal, as well as some varzea and humid forest. He quickly rattled off the birds I could find there, using their scientific names of course, which left me scrambling to piece together a picture of what might be possible. Bamboo Antshrike, Peruvian Recurvebill, Black-Faced Cotinga, and Yellow-Breasted Warbling-Antbird were just a few of the rare or localized species that I could potentially see. Then, he volunteered his two graduate students to accompany me, Tatiana and Edilaine, and explained carefully to them that I was a birder whose goal was to add as many birds as possible to my life list.
While I was thrilled with his arrangement, I‘m always a little taken aback about the cultural chasm that separates ornithologists from even the most hardcore birders. First, there is the insistence on only using scientific names, which I admit is useful for keeping in mind taxonomy when discussing different species and their relationship to others, but is also a bit impractical since few people understand Latin anymore and are basically just memorizing names they can’t pronounce. Then, there is their insistence on not using binoculars in the field, which drives me crazy as sight records and observations are surely as valuable as any other type. Ornithologists seem to never take being in the field seriously unless there are mist nets and microphones involved. Finally, it’s their general air of condescension that gets on my nerves, as if birders weren’t a key piece of the conservation puzzle, helping make nature reserves in developing countries sustainable by paying for entrance fees and guides as well as for transport and accommodation.
I don’t meant to sound ungrateful because the following morning’s visit to FEC was a real treat, if not for the birds encountered there, then simply for having access to just the habitat I was hoping to find in Acre. A caretaker helped us clear the trails through the bamboo with a machete, while I tried playing tape for various specialties after the dawn chorus ended. A warbling antbird was vocalizing spontaneously, as they frequently tend to do, but I suspect it was the Peruvian and not Yellow-Breasted Warbling Antbird, both of which are on the reserve’s bird list (the plumage and voice distinctions were too subtle for me to parse in the field, so I’m basing my identification on probability). A calling male Black-Spotted Bare-Eye also responded nicely to playback, relatively speaking of course, as bare-eyes are obligate ant swarm followers and don’t appear to claim and defend territories like other antbirds do. The young ladies with me proved keen enough but again they were without binoculars or extensive knowledge of bird songs and calls.
So, I was basically birding on my own while bringing along the additional disruptions of a machete-bearing guide, two chatty university students, and a dog that went bounding noisily through the undergrowth, enraging all the Moustached Wrens and Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbirds in the neighborhood. Finally, the group encouraged me to go off on my own through the bamboo, and I had a chance to catch sight of a few of the desired species. Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant was heard calling all morning, but it wasn’t until I was alone that I was able to get my eyes on one. In the distance, I also heard a calling Goeldi’s Antbird, which I reeled in successfully using my iPod. This male responded very aggressively, coming in quite close several times so that I could clearly see its red eyes and white interscapular patch, which is just visible in this photograph. A vocalizing foliage-gleaner also sparked my interest, but it wasn’t until following up afterwards that I realized it was the widespread Buff-Throated Foliage-Gleaner and not one of the bamboo associated ones, such as the Dusky-Cheeked Foliage Gleaner.
We noted a few other widespread birds, such as Dusky-Headed Parakeet, Black-Tailed Trogon, Turquoise Tanager, and Chestnut-Eared Aracari before I realized that it was time to get to the airport. I was flying next to Cruzeiro do Sul in the far western corner of the state, where I heard that I might find some good campinarana, or white sand forest not too far outside of town. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts setting up transport in advance, I was unable to rent a car and do any birding in that area, which, I could tell from my views from the airplane, is certainly promising. Although this was a considerable disappointment, such are the challenges of birding in remote Amazonia, where good habitat is still difficult to access from towns and paved roads, which are almost always bordered by deforestation, the forest being ever on the horizon.
Notable birds seen: Undulated Tinamou, Wattled Jacana, Purple Gallinule, Grey-Necked Woodrail, Common Pauraque, Red-Bellied Macaw, Dusky-Headed Parakeet, Reddish Hermit, Black-Tailed Trogon, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Amazonian Motmot, Buff-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Red-Billed Scythebill, White-Flanked Antwren, Peruvian Warbling Antbird, Southern Chestnut-Tailed Antbird, Goeldi’s Antbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, Plain Tyrannulet, Olivaceous Flatbill, Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant, Fiery-Capped Manakin, Band-Tailed Manakin, Moustached Wren, Turquoise Tanager.