Birding in the Western Amazon

The Western Amazon

The Western Amazon Basin, which shares its birds with the Republics of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, is the most diverse area on the planet for birds, and indeed, most species of living organism. There are, for example, up to 300 species of trees and 1000 species of butterfly per hectare here. Only large mammals are at a lower diversity here than elsewhere, as the climax Amazonian forest has had so many millennia to develop that it is in a constant cycle of decay and re-growth and all nutrients are tied up in the well balanced ecosystem. As a result there is little protein on the hoof and large mammals (and traditionally indigenous tribes) occur in small numbers over large areas. Birds however, have reached the summit of evolution here, and there is a mind-boggling array of species in the Bird Continent (South America)with a remarkable number of species in the Western Amazon. When the great southern continent Gondwanaland broke up during the Cretaceous period, the land mass that is now South America broke off from present-day Africa and drifted north west until it came to rest against modern Panama and Costa Rica and formed a permanent land bridge. Before this land bridge to North America was formed, South America was an island continent of low relief for about 100 million years. As South America separated from Africa, it must have carried some primitive passerines ( perching birds). Modern descendants of this primitive stock include the manakins (pipridae), the tyrant-flycatchers (tyrranidae), the cotingas (cotingidae), the ovenbirds and woodcreepers (furnariidae), the tapaculos (rhinocryptidae) and the ant birds (thamonophilidae). The other passerine families that exist in South America are almost certainly of northern origin; they spread south when the Central American land bridge was formed. The colonist families of northern origin belong to the oscines or true songbirds, the southern group of Gondwanaland origin; the suboscines are deemed more primitive. Classification is controversial and in constant flux. There are two major theories that are offered as explanations of why there are so many birds in the Western Amazon. the first suggests that during the last Ice Age, water was locked up in ice sheets and there was less moisture in the atmosphere available to produce rain, dramatically reducing the rainfall. Continuous rainforests broke up into separated patches (refuges), isolated from each other by large stretches of grasslands or savannah, in which birds evolved over time. When the ice retreated and rainfall increased, the rainforest once again flourished and advanced and refuges were reconnected, but the species, although they had the same common ancestors did not recognise each other. They had evolved in isolation and become distinct, thus producing a high number of different bird species. According to the second theory, the incredible number of species in the Western Amazon occurs because it is close to a variety of different ecosystems and habitat zones and has a complex mosaic of micro-habitats where birds have found a narrow niche to evolve. The wet and dry savannahs to the south in Bolivia and Brazil, the towering Andes that border the Amazon to the west, and the Llanos wet grasslands of Venezuela to the north have each contributed species that have evolved in these areas, which have in turn colonised the Amazon rainforest. On first glance the Amazon looks pretty much the same, although a casual observer might note the difference between seasonably inundated varzea forest and the never-flooded tierra firme forest. However even the most casual of visiting birdwatchers to the Amazon can, with some care, differentiate between a wide variety of habitats and micro-habitats that make up a complex mosaic, and the careful birdwatcher will note that many of the bird species seen have some very specific habitat preferences. These include the river islands in large Amazonian rivers, bamboo patches, ox-bow lakes, flooded varzea forest, transitional floodplain forests, tierra firme forests, stands of riverside cane, areas of willows along the rivers, tree-fall gaps, small streams and palm swamps. In these different areas and forest types different bird species evolved to produce an avian diversity of astonishing proportions.

Bird Watching Tools in the Amazon

Binoculars with good light gathering capabilities and close focusing in the 8x to 10x range are recommended. A spotting scope with a 25x50x fixed wide angle lens can be useful for more lethargic species such as trogons (trogonidae) and puffbirds (bucconidae), and a great asset if you have access to the rainforest canopy in the form of canopy walkways or static tree platforms. A telescope is a great help for scanning the distant tree crowns for cotingas (cotingidae) or observing feeding aggregations of birds at a distant fruiting tree. A recorder of some kind and a shotgun microphone can be a useful tool for enticing difficult species out of their tangled abodes, though experience and care is needed with this kind of equipment. There are still comparatively few field guides in South America, although several projects are underway. There is an excellent Field Guide for Colombia by Hilty and Brown, and an imminent Field Guide for Ecuador by Ridgely and Greenfield. Birds of Peru is scheduled to be published in 2004 and Bolivian and Brazilian guides are in the pipeline. At the time of writing, however, birders must use a combination of books for the Amazon and carry a fairly comprehensive library. Recommended literature includes: A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Stephen L. Hilty and William L. Brown. Princeton University Press 1986. ISBN 0-691-08372-X Birds of South America Volume 1. Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor. University of Texas Press 1989. ISBN 0-292-70756-8 Birds of South America Volume 2. Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor. University of Texas Press. 1994. ISBN 0-19-857218-2 A Field Guide to the Birds of Machu Picchu. Barry Walker and Jon Fjeldsa. PROFONAMPE 2002. ISBN 9972-778-05-2 A Field Guide to the Birds of Peru. Clements and Shany. Ibis Publishing Company 2001. ISBN 0-934797-18-8. The Birds of Ecuador. Paul Greenfield and Robert S. Ridgely. Cornell University Press. 2001 ISBN 0-8014-8722-6 Annotated Checklist of Peruvian Birds. Theodore A.Parker, Susan Allen Parker and Manuel Plenge. Buteo Books 1982. ISBN 0-931130-07-7 Many traveling birdwatchers compile their own customised field guides by scanning or colour photocopying existing plates including relevant paintings from the excellent Handbook of the Birds of the World series by del Hoyo , Elliot and Sargatal (Lynx Editions, Barcelona) and other bird family monographs that seem to be appearing in increasing numbers at the moment. Whichever aids to birdwatching you carry, remember that the rainforest is always humid and that equipment must be waterproofed or be tried and tested in humid conditions. Equipment failure whilst on a birdwatching trip can be a very frustrating experience indeed.

How to look for and watch Birds in the Amazon

The Amazon is perhaps one of the worlds greatest challenges for a birdwatcher. Ornithologists and birdwatchers who have lived and worked in the Amazon for long periods still see new species that have eluded them for many years, often in an area they have walked countless times before. Every excursion in the Amazon is a learning experience. Some birds only sing for a few weeks out of the year and even then many are very, very hard to see, for example the antpittas (formicaridae) and the rails and crakes (rallidae). Patience is needed for many species and, on a first trip to the Amazon, some small flycatchers (tyrranidae) and antwrens (thamnophilidae) will initially go unidentified. There are birds everywhere you go; it is possible to watch birds on an Amazon river cruise, a three-day visit to a rainforest lodge or even in the gardens of hotels in large towns or cities. If a trip is being planned specifically for birdwatching, then a rainforest lodge is the obvious choice as a base; 500 plus species is the norm at most Western Amazonian localities. Around lodge clearings, over rivers and along lake edges, many of the more prominent species such as herons (ardeidae), parrots (psittacidae), large flycatchers (tyrranidae) and oropendolas (icteridae) will be seen, but it is in the forest interior that the more enticing and mysterious birds such as antbirds (thamnophilidae), ovenbirds (furnaridae) and manakins (pipridae) will be found. When choosing a lodge, some factors should be taken into account: is the area protected and are the large indicator species such as guans (cracidae), currasows (cracidae) and trumpeters (psophilidae) still there?. Does the lodge have access to an ox-bow lake and canoes on the lake? Does it have access to the rainforest canopy in the form of canopy towers or walkways? Are there stands of bamboo that trails pass through and are there plenty of trails traversing different forest types? Is there a nearby macaw lick? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you have a good birding lodge. There are several lodges in the Western Amazon that meet this criteria but some of the better known include Cristalino River Lodge (see p.xxx) in Brazil, the La Selva, Sacha and Kapawi Lodges (see pp.xxx, xxx and xxx) in Ecuador, Amazonia Lodge, Exlornapo lodge, Manu Wildlife Centre and Tambopata Research Centre (see pp.xxx, xxx, xxx and xxx) in Peru. Wherever you go, explore all the habitats at your disposal and make sure you walk through different parts of the forest on different trails. Try and visit seasonally flooded, terra firme and transitional floodplain forests, bamboo patches, ox-bow lakes, river margins and use any tree towers available. Birds in the Amazon are most active from dawn until about 10am and so early starts are essential. Take a siesta during the heat of the day and follow it with some late afternoon birding. Walk slowly and be alert for bird sounds; learn to recognise the distinctive sounds of an approaching canopy or under-story flock (see below) and the special calls made by antbirds at an army ant swarm (see p.xx).

Canopy Flocks and Under-story Flocks

Many different species in the Amazon flock together in mixed feeding flocks that roam through the forest together. There are two main types: canopy flocks and under-story flocks. They defend a communal territory against neighbouring rival flocks and, when the two kinds of flock join together, there can be as many as 80 species of birds together, usually a pair of each species. Each flock has a leader, the cohesive element in the group, which is always of the same species; in the Western Amazon canopy flocks are led by fulvous shrike-tanagers (lanio fulva) in the north and white-winged shrike-tanagers (lanio versicolor) in the south. Under-story flocks are led by cinereous antshrikes (thamnomanes caesius) in the north and bluish-slate antshrikes (thamnomanes schistogynus) in the south. The advantage of being part of a flock is that there are more pairs of eyes to look for predators such as forest-falcons (micrastur spp.) and all species in the flock have distinctive alarm calls that other flock members recognise as warning signals. There is little competition for food as each species looks for prey in a different place; antwrens (thamnophilidae) glean the undersides of leaves, or investigate dead leaf clusters, woodcreepers (dendrocolaptidae) probe into bark, foliage-gleaners (furnariidae) rummage in dead palm leaves, tanagers (thraupidae) search for small fruits, trogons (trogonidae) for large anthropods and flycatchers (tyrranidae) seek flies in the shady under-story, and so on. Learning to recognise the calls of the flock leaders will help greatly when trying to locate these species-rich flocksin the Amazon, birds of a feather do not necessarily flock together.

Some of the Birds:

Manakins (Pipridae)

Some of the most enigmatic and interesting species in the world live in the Amazon; perhaps the most enigmatic of all the Amazonian species are the manakins (pipridae), similar to tits (paridae) or chicakadees (paridae), compact, stocky and energetic. They can be difficult to see unless you find a display area. Most hover-glean for small fruits and many have modified flight feathers that make whirring and snapping sounds. They live mainly in the forest interior, sometimes coming to the forest edge for fruits. They have elaborate courtship displays that vary from species to species, where two or more brightly coloured males display at courtship arenas known as leks in ornithological terms. Females are shades of olive. To illustrate the complexity, lets take a look at the flamboyant display of the blue-backed manakin (Chiroxphia pareola). Two males perch on a gently sloping branch about a metre off the ground, giving a loud characteristic song throughout the day. When a female arrives, attracted by the singing, the males go into full display, jumping over each other, cartwheeling and sidling on the branch and calling more and more rapidly until they suddenly stop dead still and one bird gives a loud swee..ee..eek. After that only one male continues to display, crouching and singing softly and periodically making short, slow circular flights with rapidly fluttering wings. This may culminate in copulation. Manakin leks can be found scattered around the forest and several gaudy species can be encountered, including red-headed (pipra rubrocapilla), round-tailed (pipra chloromeros), wire-tailed (pipra filicauda), blue-crowned (pipra pipra), band-tailed (pipra fgascicauda), golden-headed (pipra erythrocephala) and fiery-capped manakins (machaeropterus pyrocephalus).

Cotingas (Cotingidae)

Another brilliantly plumaged family that, like the manakins (pipridae), is strictly American, is the cotinga family (cotingidae). Mainly found in the immense Amazonian rainforests, many species are showy, with deep reds and shades of mauve, purple and blue, like the lustrous blue cotingas (cotinga spp.), being common. In the foothills of the Andes, variations on green are more common and in the bellbirds (procnia spp.), almost totally white plumage occurs in two of the species. Cotingas (cotingidae) eat fruit and mainly live high in the rainforest canopy; they include the dazzling blue (cotinga nattererii) spangled (cotinga cayana) , plum-throated (cotinga maynana) and purple-breasted cotingas (cotinga cotinga), the fruiteaters (pipreola spp.) of the foothills including the gaudy fiery-throated (pipreola chlorolepidota) and scarlet-breasted (pipreola frontalis), the strange looking amazonian umbrellabird (cephalopterus ornatus) with its crown of feathers and long bare wattle, the striking andean cock-of-the-rock (rupicola peruviana) of the hill country that croaks and dances daily in a raucous display at favourite dancing grounds and the jay-like black-necked red cotinga (phoenicircus nigricollis). These are real prizes to be found and enjoyed by visitors and many can be seen with ease if you have access to a tree tower.

Toucans, Aracaris and Toucanets (Ramphastidae).

Toucans and their allies, the aracaris and toucanets (ramphastidae) are often found feeding in the same fruiting trees that cotingas (cotingidae) attend. They are South American counterparts to the hornbills (tockus spp.) of the Old World and are readily recognised by their large colourful bills and the astounding ability to lay their tail flat over their backs. Raucous and brightly coloured, this family is a conspicuous member of the rainforest bird community. They nest in holes in trees and roam the forest in groups searching for fruit, supplemented with insects and not beyond raiding nests of other birds for nestlings and eggs. Aracaris (pteroglossus), the smaller members of the toucan family, include chestnut-eared (pteroglossus castanotis) - perhaps the most familiar, ivory-billed (pteroglossus flavirostris), curl-crested (pteroglossus beauharnaesii) - with its curiously curled, plastic-like crown feathers, many-banded (pteroglossus pluricinctus and lettered (pteroglossus inscriptus) - named for the strange scribble-like markings along the cutting edge of the bill. Among the toucanets (aulacorynchus spp.) is the emerald (aulacorynchus prassinus) and the croaking golden-collared (selenidera reinwardtii). The large toucans of the Amazon that are a characteristic sound of the late afternoons and evenings in the forest include the yellow-ridged (ramphastos culminatus) and Cuviers toucans (ramphastos cuvieri) that sit up in bare trees and yelp in unison as the sun sets over the rainforest canopy.

Tanagers (Thrapidae) and Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)

The treetops are also the home of another typically American family, the tanagers (thraupidae), whose colourful beauty has led many people to paint and study them. They are important distributors of seeds of rainforest trees, shrubs and vines: To stand in bright morning sunshine before a tree laden with ripening berries is one of the great delights of bird-watching in tropical America. Among the constantly changing throng of birds that gather for the feast are, brisk, tiny manakins, flycatchers large and small, plainly clad thrushes and vireos, wood-warblers and woodpeckers. But, nearly always, the tanager family provides the greatest number of species and individuals and most of the colour, said renowned sage Alexander Skutch. Tanagers (thraupinae) have perhaps reached their greatest diversity and gaudiness in the misty cloud forests and foothills of the Andes, but they are well represented in the Amazon. They draw attention to themselves with distinct foraging calls as they move through the rainforest canopy, often accompanying toucans (ramphastidae), aracaris (pteroglossus spp.) and cotingas (cotingida spp.) in mixed canopy feeding flocks or feeding aggregations at fruiting trees. The honeycreepers (cyanerpes spp) and dacnis (dacnis spp.) are specialised tanagers that are designed to extract nectar from flowers; their bills are thinner and longer than those of true tanagers and are well suited for probing the corolla of flowers and extracting nectar with a fringed tongue. They are brightly coloured little birds, the males being strikingly black and purple, deep blue, turquoise, green and bright yellow, although the females are duller. Often the honeycreepers (cyanerpes spp.) and dacnis (dacnis spp) will be found in the same flowering trees as hummingbirds (trochilidae). Brightly coloured hummingbirds tend to be found in the canopy and can be difficult to see, whereas the under-story is dominated by the drab hermit hummingbirds (phaethornis spp). Euphonias (euphonia spp.), brightly coloured and musical small tanagers, and true tanagers pluck berries and supplement their diet with insects whilst perched. At a fruiting or flowering tree in the rainforests of the Manu Biosphere Reserve, the following might be seen in the same tree at the same time: green and gold tanager (tangara schrankii), masked tanager (tangara nigrocincta), red-billed pied tanager (lamprospiza melanoleuca), guira tanager (hemithraupis guira), turquoise tanager (tangara mexicana), masked crimson-tanager (ramphocelus nigrogularis), white-winged shrike tanager (lanio versicolor), yellow-crested tanager (tachyphonus rifiventer), white-shouldered tanager (tachyphonus luctosus), yellow-backed tanager (hemithraupis flavicolis), green (chlorophanes spiza) and purple honeycreepers (cyanerpes caeruleus), blue (dacnis cayana), black-faced (dacnis lineata) and yellow-bellied dacnis (dacnis flaviventer) , orange-bellied (euphonia xanthogaster), thick-billed (euphonia laniirostris), white-vented (euphonia minuta) and rufous-bellied euphonies (euphonia rufiventris)a vision to whet anyones appetite for Amazonian birding.

Understory Birds : Tinamous (Tinamidae), Trumpeters(Psophiidae) and Ovenbirds (Furariidae)

Not all birds are treetop dwellers and brightly coloured, and it is in the shady under-story and close to the trunks of the giant rainforest trees that the more sombrely coloured bird families find their home. The rainforest floor provides a great food source in the form of fallen fruits or insects and grubs hidden amongst the leaf-litter. Foraging on the forest floor, however, is a risky business because of predators and most forest floor species are extremely wary; dedication and stealth from the bird-watcher are required here. Often currasows and guans (cracidae) will venture onto the ground from their leafy sub-canopy to take advantage of fallen fruits and can startle as they flush noisily into the cover of trees. The tinamous (tinamiidae) are more often heard than seen; the haunting call of the great (tinamuis major) or bartletts tinamou (crypturellus bartletti) on a moonlit night is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. Undulated (crypturellus undulates) and cinereous tinamous (crypturellus cinereus) often give their whistled calls on the hottest of tropical afternoons. Tinamous (tinamiidae) are sought after by many experienced Amazonian bird-watchers and there is no easy way to find them; scurrying down a jungle trail may give a glimpse, or you may be lucky and find a pair quietly feeding underneath a fruiting fig tree. Although their calls betray their presence, sightings are all too few. If you are lucky, a flushed tinamou may reveal a nest of brightly coloured porcelain textured eggs. Male tinamous incubate the eggs and look after the young, and the females may lay eggs in nests of different males. The tinamous (tinamiidae) share the forest floor with wood-quails (phasianidae), whose evensong rings through the forest at dusk and after dark, and the strange trumpeters (psophiidae). Trumpeters (psophiidae) are shy and one of the first birds to disappear if there is too much human impact. They are related to cranes and rails and have a well developed social behaviour, patrolling their territory in family groups, keeping in contact with low purring and whooping calls which escalate into the full song of guttural humming notes if they sense danger. They sing at full moon also, and eat insects, fallen fruits, lizards and snakes. Many Amazonian tribes keep trumpeters as pets in their villages as they are good watchdogs, raising the alarm if an intruder or snake is in the vicinity. The ovenbirds (furnariidae) are denizens of the shady forest as well, seldom coming out into full view. They are shades of brown and chestnut and can present identification problems until their songs and behaviour are learned. The foliage-gleaners (automolus and philydor) and leaf-tossers (sclerurus) are common members of mixed feeding flocks; the automolus foliage-gleaners keep low in thick undergrowth, while the philydor group are more conspicuous and forage higher. They specialise in rummaging in dead leaf clusters and investigating palm leaves or throwing aside leaf litter in search of insects. Some are bamboo specialists, always found within large bamboo stands, such as the peruvian recurvebill (simoxenops ucayalae), with its strangely upturned bill used for cracking off pieces of bamboo to search for grubs and its nanny-goat like call, and the inconspicuous brown-rumped foliage-gleaner (automolus melanopezus). Unless you look for these birds in bamboo you will not see them, a good example of how important it is to examine the available literature about what a bird does and where it lives in the forest in order to find it, rather than just looking at a picture. Other ovenbirds (furnariidae) include the spinetails, woodhaunters and the horneros who build mud oven-like nests on exposed branches along the ox-bow lakes (horno is Spanish for oven). One of the largest and more complicated groups, now placed in the ovenbird family, is the woodcreeper (dendrocolpatidae) sub-family. Woodcreepers (dendrocolpatidae) climb trunks and large tree limbs in the manner of a woodpecker (picidae) (no relation). They are drab brown and olive with varying amounts of streaks and spotting and identification is difficult. One way to deal with this group is by learning their songs and calls but even this is complex as many species imitate each others calls and each species gives a variety of calls, dawn songs, dusk songs, etc. The common buff-throated woodcreeper (xiphorhynchus guttatus) gives a bewildering variety of calls and it is worthwhile learning this well in order to be able to compare all other woodcreeper species to it. Some woodcreepers (dendrocolpatidae) are most easily encountered at army ant swarms, for example the plain-brown (dendrocincla fulginosa), strong-billed (xiphocolaptes promeropithyncus), barred (dendrocolaptes certhia) and bar-bellied woodcreeepers (hylexetastes stresmanni). One species, the white-chinned woodcreeper (dendrocincla merula), is an obligate army ant follower and is never found away from such swarms.

Army Ant Followers:

Obligate army ant followers are birds that, as part of their survival strategy in the forest, are always present at army ant swarms. They dont eat the carnivorous ants, which are full of formic acid and unpalatable, but prey on the fleeing grasshoppers, spiders, other insects and even frogs, that are trying to escape the marauding hoards of ants that carpet the forest floor. This is one of the great wildlife experiences of the Amazon and to watch an ant swarm in full swing with attendant birds is a wonderful bird-watching spectacle. Spiders and grasshoppers run and jump in panic trying to escape the ants only to be snapped up by a waiting attendant bird. Many of the species that attend the swarm are of the antbird (thamnophillidae) family, which, although consisting mostly of non ant-following species, derives its name from a few species of professional army ant followers, like the white-throated (gymnopithys salvini) and lunulated antbirds (gymnopithys lunulata) and the bare-eyes (phlegopsis spp.) - spectacular members of the antbird family and a real prize.

Antshrikes, Antbirds, Antwrens, Gnateaters (Thamnophiidae), Anthrushes and Antpittas Formicariidae).

Some species are not obligate army ant followers but attend periodically at swarms; these include the hairy-crested (rhegmathorina melanosticta), sooty (mymeciza fortis), plumbeous (myrmeciza hyperythra) and white-browed antbirds (myrmoborus leucophys).. The majority of the antbird (thamnophiliidae) family are to be found occupying various niches in the forest away from ant swarms. They vary in size from small to medium sized birds and up to 30 or 40 species may be found at the same locality in the Amazon. They consist of several groups: antshrikes, antbirds, antwrens, gnateaters, anthrushes and antpittas. The latter two are terrestrial and sometimes considered a separate familythe ground-antbirds (formicariidae). They are inconspicuous and shy and often only betray their presence with far carrying calls and songs. Antpittas (formicariidae) are the stuff of legend and their names often reflect thatfor example, the Elusive Antpitta! (grallaria eludens) The antwrens, antshrikes and antbirds (thamnophiliidae) are more easily seen and occupy many habitats and levels in the forest, often accompanying mixed species flocks. Most show great sexual dimorphism with males being shades of grey and black and females exhibiting shades of brown, buff and rufous. They feed by gleaning foliage for insects at all levels from the ground to the sub-canopy. Some are restricted to bamboo, such as the ornate (myrmotherula ornate) and Ihrings antwrens (myrmotherula iheringi), some to lake edges and swamps such as the Amazonian streaked antwren (myrmotherula surinamensis), the band-tailed antbird (hypocnemoides maculicauda) and the silvered antbird (sclateria naevia). Some never descend from the canopy, like the chestnut-winged (terenura humeralis) and sclaters antwrens (myrmotherula sclateri), and some prefer mid-levels and are much more likely to be seen, such as the white-browed (myrmoborus leucophrys) and black-faced antbirds (myrmoborus myotherinus), the dusky-throated antshrike (thamnomanes ardesiaca) and the white-flanked (myrmotherula axillaries) and long-winged antwrens (myrmotherula longipennis).

Predators: Falcons, Kites and Eagles

Antbirds (thamnophiliidae) have to deal with predators in the form of forest-falcons (micrastur spp.) that lurk in vine tangles following mixed feeding flocks, just waiting for a chance to dash out and snatch an unwary bird. Birds of prey in general, as in other parts of the world, have occupied virtually every rainforest niche. Plumbeous (ictinia plumbea) and swallow-tailed kites (elanoides forficatus) hawk above the rainforest canopy for large flying insects, sharing this aerial enviroment with a variety of swifts (apodidae spp.). Double-toothed kites (harpagus bidentatus) follow monkeys, snatching large tasty insects flushed as the primates move through the forest. Accipiters like bicolored (accipiter bicolour)and tiny hawks (accipiter superciliosus) dash through undergrowth also after smaller birds. Snail kites (rostrhamus sociabilis) and black-collared hawks (busarellus nigricolis) specialise in lake edge habitats. Ornate (spizaetus ornatus), black (spizaetus tyrranus) and black and white (spizastur melanoleucus) hawk eagles share the canopy with short-tailed (buteo brachyurus) and slate-coloured hawks (leucopternis schistacea). The most powerful eagle in the world lives here; the magnificent harpy eagle (harpia harpyja), over-shadowing the closely related crested eagle (morphnus guianensis) by only a centimeter or two. These eagles reach up to 40 inches in length and they feed on large arboreal mammals such as monkeys (cebidae) and sloths (bradypodidae). Despite their size, the harpy ((harpia harpyja) and crested eagles ((morphnus guianensis) are difficult to see as they seldom soar and usually keep within the tree crowns and usually only show themselves when crossing rivers or clearings.

Nocturnal Predators

At dusk there is a changeover. As diurnal mammals go to sleep and nocturnal mammals awake, so do the predators that have evolved to feed on them; hawks, eagles and falcons (accipitridae) are replaced by owls (strigidae), and the nocturnal insect population is preyed upon by nighthawks, nightjars (caprimulgidae) and the strange potoos (nyctibiidae). Spectacled owls (pulsatrix perspicillata) give their long reverberating calls, screech-owls (otus spp.) hoot around rainforest lodge clearings, the magnificent crested owl (lophostrix cristata) replaces the eagles hunting in the sub-canopy and the tiny Amazonian pygmy owl (glaucidium hardyi) trills in the canopy between insect-hunting bouts. The cosmopolitan nightjars and nighthawks (caprimulgidae) occupy various niches, searching for insects and moths in the canopy, along rivers and in the under-story. Potoos (nyctibiidae), South Americas answer to the frogmouths (batrachostomus spp.), sit motionless all day mimicking dead tree limbs and they become active at dusk giving haunting cries as the sun sets or at full moon, and silently float through the forest catching moths during the night.

Along the Rivers and Lakes

Not all Amazonian birds inhabit the forest; many are best looked for and found along tropical Amazonian rivers and ox-bow lakes. As the mighty Amazonian rivers drop in level during the dry season between June and September, many birds take advantage of the exposed sandy beaches to raise their young. On little disturbed rivers (unfortunately harder and harder to find), orinoco geese (neochen jubata), muscovy ducks (cairina moschata), pied lapwings (vanellus cayanus), collared plovers (charadrius collaris) and sand-coloured nighthawks (chordeiles rupestris) nest. Two freshwater terns, the dainty yellow-billed (sterna superciliaris) and the more powerful large-billed terns (phaetusa simplex), share the fish according to size and take advantage of the beaches for breeding along with the black skimmers (rynchops niger). Hidden just a few metres inside the forest are the ox-bow lakes formed as the rivers meander and finally cut through the narrow neck of an exaggerated loop, leaving the old river bed as a lake. The life cycle of these lakesfrom being newly formed to returning to forest after a lengthy process of colonisation by aquatic vegetation and colonial plants such as Cecropia spp followed by Ficus spp.,can take several hundred years. These lakes create a distinct habitat that is used by the rivernesting terns (laridae) and ducks (anatidae)). Herons (ardeidae) are a great feature of these ox-bow lakes, and also inhabit the rivers. The more conspicuous species, such as the snowy (egretta thula) and great egrets (egretta alba), the white-necked herons (ardea cocoi) and roseate spoonbills (ajaia ajaia) are easily seen in numbers along the rivers, as well as American wood-storks (mycteria Americana) and the giant improbable jabiru (jabiru mycteria), South Americas equivalent of the African maribou (leptoptilus crumeniferos). The shy and unobtrusive species are, however, mostly found under the overhanging vegetation, along the shady shores of the ox-bow lakes. The much sought after agami heron (agamia agami) is here, alongside striated (butorides striatus) and boat-billed herons (cochlaerius cochlaerius). If you are lucky you may see a pinnated (botaurus pinnatus) or stripe-backed bittern (ixobrychus involucris). Green ibis (mesembrinibis cayennensis) and anhingas (anhinga anhinga) also find a home here, the latter often swimming with just its elongated neck showing above the water and the body submerged, giving rise to one of its other namessnake-bird. One strange ox-bow lake inhabitant is the hoatzin (opisthocomus hoazin), a prehistoric-looking turkey-like bird that grunts and hisses in the lakeside vegetation. The hoatzin (opisthocomus hoazin) is a member of the cuckoo family and, despite its looks, not prehistoric at all. It nests on flimsy stick platforms in bushes above the water and the nestlings have a strange evolutionary development, a hook on the bend of the wing. This enables the young birds to clamber back up to the nest after they have ejected into the water to escape the attentions of a predatora neat defence mechanism and a good survival strategy.

Flycatchers

Also here on these tranquil lakes and rivers are conspicuous flycatchers, and tropical kingbirds (tyrannusmelancholicus), social (myiozetetes similes) and gray-capped (myuozetetes granadensis) flycatchers, great (pitangus sulphuratus) and lesser kiskadees (pitangus lictor) area fairly common sight. The tyrant-flycatcher (tyrannidae) group is an enormous family, which ranges from small tody-tyrants (todirostrum) and tody-flycatchers (hemmitriccus), canopy elaenias (elaenia and myiopagis spp.) and tyrannulets to the large noisy attilas (Attila spp.) and mourners . Not all are found along the lakes and rivers; indeed, the vast majority are to be found in the forest interior, inhabiting all niches and habitats from the canopy to the ground. Many specialize in bamboo thickets, such as the dusky-tailed (ramphotrigon fuscicauda) and large-headed flatbills (ramphotrigon megacephala), the white-cheeked tody-flycatcher (poecilotriccus albifacies) and the flammulated bamboo-tyrant (hemmitriccus flammulatus). Others, like the sulphury flycatcher (tyrannopsis sulphurea) and citron-bellied Attila (Attila citriniventris), like stands of palms. Many are canopy dwellers and until their calls and songs are known, they can be almost impossible to see and identify.

Parrot Family: Parrots, Parakeets, Parrotlets and Macaws

The Parrots, Parakeets, Parrotlets and particularly the Macaws (psittacidae) are as much a part of the Amazon as are Giant Otters (pteranura basilensis) and Brazil Nut Trees. Wherever you arecanoeing on an oxbow lake, taking a leisurely river trip or walking through the rainforest on a sunny afternoonthe constant chatter of parakeets or the explosive cries of the macaws are a constant companion. Noisy, gregarious and gaudy, they are everywhere, and include the tiny dusky-billed (forpus sclateri), Amazonian (nanopsittaca dachilli) and scarlet-shouldered parrotlets (touit huetti), the great flocks of white-eyed (aratinga leucopthalmus), dusky-headed (aratinga weddelli), cobalt-winged (brotogeris cyanoptera) and tui (brotogeris sanctithomae) parakeets flying over the rivers in the evening, the big amazon parrots such as mealy (amazonas farinose), yellow-headed (amazonas ochrocephala) and Orange-winged Parrots (amazonas amazonica) to the smaller short-tailed parrots (graydidascalus brachyurus) blue-headed (pionus menstuus) and orange-cheeked parrots (pionopsitta barrabandi) and the great, noisy and colourful scarlet (ara macao, red and green (ara chloroptera) and blue and yellow (ara ararauna )macaws. The big macaws, and their smaller relativeschestnut-fronted macaws (ara severa) and red-bellied macaws (ara manilata) in the palm swampsare an integral part of the makeup of the Amazon and no trip to the Amazon rainforest would be complete without a visit to one of the great wildlife spectacles: a macaw lick. There are several macaw licks close to lodges in the Western Amazon: macaws, parakeets and parrots all attend these clay river banks. Great numbers gather at these traditional sites to eat clay, which is essential to their digestion, acting as a neutralising agent for the mild poisons that exist in the limited variety of fruits they are obliged to eat during the dry season from July to September. Its rather like a human taking kaolin for an upset stomach. Just after dawn, great numbers of blue-headed (pionis menstruus), mealy (amazonas farinose) and yellow-headed (amazonas ochrocephala) parrots, with a sprinkling of the gaudy orange-cheeked parrots (pionopsitta barrabandi), gather at the lick. Often dusky-cheeked (aratinga weddelli) and cobalt-winged parakeets (brotogeris cyanoptera) are present too, adding to the astonishing clamour. After they have had there fill, and as if to an invisible signal, they fly off the lick in a crescendo of noise and colour, circling briefly before heading into the forest, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. It is now time for the macaws to gather. In pairs and family groups of three and four, the gaudy macaws fly in, calling in a subdued manner, and begin to gather in the trees above the lick. As the numbers grow they seem to gain in confidence and drop lower and lower until they are just above the lick. Suddenly, one brave soul drops onto the clay bank, signalling for all and sundry to join the party. For perhaps an hour the great colourful macaws caw and squabble on the bank as they get their bi-daily intake of clay. Suddenly, as with the parrots that preceded them, they leave the lick in a swirling multicoloured mass and break up into family groups and pairs to get on with their daily routine in the forest. The lick is then deserted and silent until the next day. A sight to see indeed. Bird watching in the Western Amazon holds something for all and here we have mentioned only a few of the families and species to be found. There are plenty of easy-to-see and interesting birds for less intense observers and difficult identification problems to keep in-depth observers busy for years. There are still mysteries to be solved and too many questions to be answered in a single lifetime. You will find yourself asking, why do they fly in large numbers over the river at dusk? What does that bird feed on? Why does it do that? Where does it nest and what does its nest look like? One thing is for sure, the Amazon will never lose its attraction and magnetism for birdwatchers, bird lovers and ornithologists alike.