A bird nerd in the Amazon: Understanding the diverse ecosystem

If a watershed can be thought of as a puzzle, a myriad of pieces that intricately fit together, the Amazon Basin would be the world’s most difficult puzzle. For decades researchers have been studying the Amazon to better understand pieces and how they connect, and to uncover those unknown. I had an opportunity to learn more about this incredibly complex system and see firsthand a fraction of the amazing diversity of life that calls this place home on my trip to the Brazilian Amazonia.

A city for the birds

Our first day was spent in the bustling and sprawling city of Manaus in Northern Brazil along the banks of the Rio Negro, just upstream of where its black water meets the white water of the Amazon River. As a ‘bird nerd’, I was looking forward to the possibility of seeing different and amazing birds. The open habitats of the river and urban environment provided some of the best looks at birds that have managed to make a living with humans. The birds were hardly shy; many of them hung around the hotel and in the trees along the water’s edge. Black vultures were omnipresent, blue-gray tanagers, yellow-browed sparrows, and social flycatchers sat close by intently searching for food, while oropendolas flew back and forth to their bizarre pendulum shaped nests. Dragonflies and damselflies perched and patrolled the river, hunting for their own dinner and dessert. Unfortunately I was unable to find any books on odonates — an ancient order of carnivorous insects, which includes dragonflies and damselflies — for Brazil or the Amazon.

birds on rooftop
A blue-gray tanager perched on a rooftop in the city of Manaus. 

Into the jungle

We took a boat ride along the rivers to a location where giant lily pads were known to grow. Our guide talked to us about the incredible importance of the river and its massive system of tributaries to the local people. It’s a resource for transportation and food, among other things. This was quickly made clear when we passed other tourist boats, enormous tankers, boats with the top floor full of hammocks, and a fisherman speeding by in his skiff. We got off the boat and walked through a flooded forest, known as a varzea, on a very narrow and only slightly claustrophobic boardwalk, while the murky waters of the river slowly crawled beneath us.

Here we saw squirrel monkeys climbing around the trees, the first time I had ever seen a monkey not in captivity. But to me, even more intriguing and exciting, was seeing a damselfly that belongs to the family Pseudostigmatidae odonate, also known as helicopter damselflies. They are the largest species of damselflies in the world and have the biggest wingspans of any odonate. Their larvae live out their lives in water filled tree holes or bromeliads, and specialize in feeding on web weaving spiders. The lily pads at the end of the boardwalk were all bigger than a pizza pie, I couldn’t believe their size. There we saw a small caiman, more dragonflies, and more birds. Tomasz Falkowski, my fellow birdwatcher, had spotted what we thought was maybe an owl, cryptically perched looking nearly just like a limb of the tree it was on. After looking at the guide, it turned out to be a great pootoo, something he was really hoping to see.

Canopy watch

We left Manaus early the next morning so that we could watch the sun rise over the rainforest from a tower built 30 meters up into the canopy. Here, we saw and heard the forest come roaring to life with birds singing and calling; flying above the trees as the rays of pink and orange sprawled across the sky. From here there was a striking dichotomy: to one direction looked like an endless forest, and to the other direction was an endless city. Here I met Cassiano Gatto, a Ph.D. candidate at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) studying birds in Brazil, who was joining us for our trip to Camp 41. Over the next few days we became buddies as I incessantly asked him about this bird I saw or that bird I heard.

From barren to brimming

After a ride in our four-wheel trucks over some serious terrain, we made a stop at a plot of land that has been used to study the impacts of deforestation on the Amazon rainforest for decades. There we saw the effects of increased sunlight and wind penetrating into the forest.

We finished our trip to Camp 41 on foot, trekking through the foreign world of the jungle. It was unbelievable to see the density of plant life around us from the floor to the canopy, compared to the plots we had just seen. When we arrived at camp, we were greeted by Dr. Tom Lovejoy and a gorgeous pink and red dragonfly who sat atop our taut clothesline. There was also a group of greater yellow-headed vultures and a young king vulture, who were particularly fond of a dying tree overlooking camp. There they would spend hours soaking up the rays of the sun, wings spread wide.

pink dragonfly
Part of the welcoming committee, a pink and red dragonfly at Camp 41 sits on the clothesline. 

birds in tree
Vultures sunbathing in the tree-tops. 

I quickly learned that in the rainforest you often don’t see the birds, you just hear them, because the majority of them are spending their days 30 meters up in the canopy, through layers and layers of vegetation. Luckily, Cassiano could name nearly every sound we heard, so I tended to stay nearby him. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse through openings created by blowdowns, seeing scarlet macaws and white hawks fly over. After a heavy rain, giant earthworms that can be several feet long emerge, and the hawks had a feast. One of the most fascinating things to me was when we came across a small invasion of army ants crossing the trail. Cassiano stopped me and we looked closer, watching them march across, intent on achieving their mission. A short distance away in the forest, he pointed out some rustling in the leaf litter, and a small group of birds calling. There are dozens of birds that specialize at feeding on these ants, following them as they go. We flipped through page after page of these species, and it put me in awe thinking how much ant biomass must be required in the forest to sustain so many birds. A very short distance from camp, we went to see the nest of the most powerful raptor in the world, the harpy eagle. Though we didn’t see a bird itself, the massive nest was big enough for myself and a friend to comfortably sleep, and the tree that was managing to hold its entire weight was colossal itself. 

Our humble abode

Our dwellings back at the camp were humble, we slept in hammocks with a bug net and tin roof over our heads. The food was incredible, and we were free to wash up in a modest pool in the small creek meandering through the forest that had been dammed. 

The camp provided an opening that gave us the best view anywhere of the birds that were around us. I woke up early every morning to stand and listen to those around as they awoke, and Cassiano of course helped. When the light began to show some of these denizens, they never disappointed. Hummingbirds zipped around and tyrannulet birds hurried through the treetops. Possibly, the most striking was an otherworldly looking paradise jacamar that just briefly perched on a branch at the edge of camp. Though I wasn’t able to get many decent shots of the birds of the rainforest, I had a little better luck with one of my other favorites, odonates. One afternoon I walked down to the stream with just my camera, and it was more than I could have asked for. I was amazed at the damselflies and dragonflies I saw, as well as their Lepidoptera friend. The striking colors and patterns were unlike anything I had ever seen. I haven’t been able to identify the species yet, though one day I may search through identification collections to solve the mystery.

Scientists in action

Our crew went for several walks with Dr. Lovejoy’s colleague Jose Luis (ZeLuis) Camargo who told us more about the incredible watershed system. We went to see some of the student research that was also going on in Camp 41. Some graduate students were studying the elaborate dance that a species of manakin bird performs on its stage of a downed log, referred to as a lekking site. We also walked to a forest plot where researchers were adding selective nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen, and calcium to the soil,  to compare responses between multiple plots. It was intriguing to learn about all of the great research being done in the forest, but more than that, these narrow trails showcased an unbelievable diversity of life.

My trip to the Brazilian Amazon was unbelievable. I know I’ve used that word on more than one occasion, but it’s the first word I use every time someone asks me about it because I can’t find any better adjective to describe my experience. It was truly amazing to see the beauty and overwhelming diversity of life from a huge river and forest down to a single tree. My story to every person about my trip varies with one detail or another, but the one consistent part of the story is always that I can’t wait to go back.

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