Trip Report Brazil
to São Gabriel da Cachoeira and Borba
30th July to 16th August 2004

This trip had been planned for 2003 but that was when I broke my shoulder so we had to abandon the trip. We still had our internal plane tickets which were valid for a year.

Our objectives were to revisit the São Gabriel da Cachoeira area (I didn't have a camera when we visited in 1998) and to look for some of the specialities around Borba. We would be joined by Marco della Seta.

Friday, 30th July 2004:

We were up at 7:30 and at the airport by 8:30 in time to learn that our flight to Manaus had been delayed until 14:00. I suppose that we should always check before leaving for the airport but we rarely do. Eventually we arrive at Manaus at 17:00 when we check our flights to São Gabriel da Cachoeira and hire a car from Localiza. We decide on a Fiat Palio with air conditioning which would cost us R$680 (£125) for 4 days.

We were staying at the Hotel Tropical where we had a good discount as part of the flight deal with Varig. We had hoped to spend the afternoon birding the hotel grounds but the flight delay prevented this. However, we went for dinner with our good friend Ricardo Parrini and his girlfriend.

Saturday, 31st July:

Up at 5:45 and off round the policies of the hotel where I had a few photo opportunities including White-throated Kingbird, Sulphury Flycatcher, Orange-fronted Yellow-finch, Tui Parakeet and Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper.

After an excellent breakfast we headed off towards Presidente Figueiredo stopping off at one of the Mauritia Palm groves to call in and photograph Point-tailed Palmcreeper. We also stopped at the Campina at km 41 on the BR 174 which was a bit quite at that time of day but we did see Saffron-crested Tyrant-manakin and I managed to get a poor photo of Pelzeln's Tody-tyrant.

At Presidente Figueiredo we checked in to the Cachoeira de Urubui Hotel then set off to the Lajes Reserve. Again it was very quiet and there was no sign of the Crimson Topaz which is normally found near the entrance although we did see a pair of Willis' Antbird which were very skulking and didn't want their photo taken.

We went round what used to be a circular trail but, by the time we had covered 80% of it, the trail ran out so we had to retrace our steps. I lost the Better Beamer attachment for my flash in the undergrowth and it was impossible to find. Luckily I had brought a spare with me and I attached some Elastoplast tape to various surfaces so that it would not slide off so easily in future. There were very few birds and my only photo was of a Green-tailed Goldenthroat which was singing in a tree.

After a shower we went off to the Cantina de Xodo for a reasonable meal.

Sunday, 1st August:

Up at 5:30 to a beautiful dawn and off to the Cavernas de Maruaga where we hoped to see Cock of the Rock. We were greeted by a sign saying that the reserve was closed but we went in regardless. It was a pleasant walk which included walking through a stream which swamped our boots but things were very quiet and we saw no sign of Cock of the Rock.

On the way out we met a young lad who told us that the reserve had been closed since April because people had been capturing Cock of the Rock for sale. True or not, the reserve was a bit of a sad place today.

We then headed up to the Iracema Falls Hotel but, being a Sunday, the place was swarming with day trippers. However, after a snack we drove south to a side road at km 85 which had a reasonable stretch of forest and even a few birds.

Monday, 2nd August:

Up at 4:30 and off to the INPA tower where we arrived by 6:00 am to see a magnificent sunrise over the forest.

There were quite a few birds around and I took photos of Spotted Tanager, Yellow-backed Tanager, a female Pompadour Cotinga as well as some poor shots of Olive-green Tyrannulet and Ash-winged Antwren. These shots were poor because I was too high up on the tower when the birds came past. I would have been better staying at the second top platform as far as photography was concerned. I did get some excellent shots of Paradise Jacamar which was very cooperative and perched on the tower itself. It is interesting to see the very brown head on this bird.

We left the tower at about 10:00 am and headed into Manaus. We didn't have a hotel booked which rarely causes us a problem but it did on this occasion. Having gone round a few at the cheaper end, all of which were full, we ended up back at the Hotel Tropical where they agreed to give uis the same discount as before.

After lunch we went to the airport to check out the situation for flights to Borba because Rico Airlines had suspended flights to Borba for the past few months ever since one of their planes fell out of the sky killing all on board. We decided that an alternative albeit an expensive alternative would be to charter a small plane or Aero-taxi as they are called here.

It was fortunate that we did call in at Rico because we discovered that our flight to Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira was tomorrow rather than Wednesday as we both thought.

We had a good meal at one of the restaurants on the Ponta Negra and went to bed early in preparation for our early start the next day.

Tuesday, 3rd August:

A bad start since, for some reason, I had forgotten to set my alarm. Fortunately, Jeremy woke at 5:00 am only 15 minutes later than planned and so we got to Terminal 2 in good time where I was dropped off with the luggage while Jeremy went to Terminal 1 to drop off the hired car.

We arrived at São Gabriel da Cachoeira at about 10:00 am and got a taxi to the Hotel Waupes - not exactly top of the range but very convenient and reasonably clean if you disregarded the mould growing on most of the walls.

Eduardo, the hotel owner, had tried to contact the boatman for us but had not managed this so we went out with his recommended taxi driver, Barbosinho, who took us out on the road to Cucui. We had been told that Fiery Topaz was always at the flowering trees to be found about 5 kms from the start of the dirt road. Unfortunately, it was not around during the hour or so that we spent there and there was precious little else.

That evening we had dinner at the famous Dona Iris. The food was good but the piece de resistance was her hand-made potato crisps. She is a remarkable woman and it would be ungracious to guess her age but she has 9 children, 30 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. She was born in nearby Venezuela and has a very busy restaurant manned almost entirely by some of her grandchildren.

Wednesday, 4th August:

We are so far west of Manaus that dawn and dusk are almost one hour later so we had arranged with Barbosinha to leave the hotel at 6:00. He arrived at 6:15 which was acceptable if a little disappointing. We birded along a side road between the road to Camanaus and the Rio Negro and I managed to get some good photos of birds such as Gilded Barbet, Mouse-coloured Antshrike and Warbling Antbird. There was a very obliging Black-bellied Cuckoo foraging low and eating a large hairy caterpillar but the star of the day was a beautiful Black-faced Hawk which sat perched for about 15 minutes apparently undisturbed by our presence.

After lunch at Dona Iris' we go out in the boat with Sr. José, who is the caretaker on King's Island, and go up one of the igarapes or creeks. It is relatively quiet but I took some reasonable shots of Buff-throated Woodcreeper and Black-chinned Antbird.

Dinner at Dona Iris' again.

Thursday, 5th August:

Out at 6:00 with Sr José who took us across the Rio Negro to the Trilha dos Indios. When we were last here in December 1998, the river was very low and we had a walk of over 1 kilometre through igapo forest but now that the river is at about its maximum the igapo is entirely flooded and we land on terra firme forest. There is quite a lot of action but few photo opportunities except for a female Amazonas Antbird (a recent spilt from Black-headed Antbird)

Back for lunch (at Dona Iris') and we meet up with Marco della Seta who is joining us for the rest of the trip.

After watching a military parade pass in front of the hotel (we are told that the Minister of Defence is on a flying visit) we go by boat above the rapids and into another igarape where amongst others we saw Blackish-grey Antshrike and Stipple-throated Antwren - a bird normally associated with terra firme forest.

Dinner at Dona Iris'

Friday, 6th August:

Up at 5:30 and the taxi took us to the road to the ó village which is another track between the Camanaus road and the river where there is some good white-sand forest. We see some good birds including a distant Black-headed Parrot, Cherrie's Antwren, Dusky-chested Flycatcher, Brown-headed Greenlet and a female White-vented Euphonia. The bird of the day was probably Yellow-throated Antwren which is normally seen only in the canopy but, on this occasion was in some low trees in a clearing.

After lunch (at Dona Iris') Jeremy phoned to fix up the charter plane for Borba and to book the hotel there. We then went to a stretch of forest recommended by Barbosinha which turned out to be less virgin than we had hoped but provided a pleasant walk with a few birds until the rain started.

Dinner at Dona Iris'.

Saturday, 7th August:

We set off early with Sr. José and travelled about 30 minutes downstream where there is a trail on the right bank of the Rio Negro. Since we were last here about 5 years ago, the forest bordering the river has been cut down and manioc has been planted however we were shortly into good terra firme forest where we found Spot-backed Antbird and Golden-headed Manakin.

While we were trying to track down a Pearly Antshrike that we could hear close by, there was a fairly heavy shower of rain which brought a variety of responses from our small group. Marco donned an elegant Italian cape, I produced my trusty Marks & Spencer umbrella and Jeremy took a photograph.

It took a while for the forest to settle after the rain but as we were returning to the river we came across an ant swarm. It was a curious swarm in that we could see the birds but we could see only a few ants and after about 30 minutes everything went quiet. During that time, however, we saw Amazonas Antbird, White-plumed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, Amazonian Antshrike and Chestnut-crested Antbird . I managed to get a few photos but the light was very poor and I set the camera to 1000 ISO which makes the images very grainy.

After lunch we went to the igarape near town and then went back to Dona Iris' for dinner. There was a religious procession that evening in honour of Santo Alberto at the end of which, amongst lots of fireworks, two rafts were set out on the river all lit up with hundreds of candles.

Sunday, 8th August:

We went back to the road just this side of Camanaus this morning but it was very showery and we only managed a few hours of birding. I managed to get some good shots of Crimson-crested Woodpecker and of White-lored Tyrannulet which is normally found only in the canopy. On the way back to town we saw a young Osprey which had not flown back for the northern summer.

After lunch we went out on the road to Cucui as far as the Equator but there was no good habitat and few birds to be seen apart from a band of Maroon-tailed Parakeet who didn't hang around long enough to have their photo taken.

Our routine was badly shaken that evening because Dona Iris' was closed since she went to mass on Sunday. We had planned to go to another well-known restaurant called Casa do Conde but it too was closed so we ended up at a lancheria who proved very reluctant to serve us with beer.

A rather disappointing day was capped by a danceteria opposite the hotel bursting into life with incredibly loud music. This was a shock since São Gabriel da Cachoeira had been such a quiet town by normal Brazilian standards. Thankfully the music stopped at midnight but the effects were still to be seen the next morning.

Monday, 9th August:

Out by 6:00 and across the river to the Trilha dos Indios. A relatively quiet morning in the terra firme but we did see Pearly Antshrike at last and I managed to photograph the nominate sub-species of Red-necked Woodpecker which shows no cinnamon on the wing.

A Pectoral Sandpiper and a Collared Plover were on the beach at lunchtime then we went with Barbosinha to the Tapajós Road.

We then had our final dinner at Dona Iris' marked by an extra portion of those excellent potato crisps.

Tuesday, 10th August:

We had a long lie until 7:00. Mysteriously the Visa sign which had been prominently displayed until the day before had disappeared by the time I went to pay the bill. I told Eduardo, the owner that I had expected to pay by Visa and I was a bit short of ready cash so he reduced the daily rate from R$ 30 to R$ 25.

We were at the airport an hour before the Rico plane was due to leave and our bags were thoroughly checked by the Federal Police before they could be checked in to Rico. As we were waiting for our plane, a small jet with "United States of America" emblazoned on the side arrived and out stepped a 3-star general to be greeted by as much pomp as the local Brazilian battalion could muster.

We arrived in Manaus on time and discovered that Rico had reinstated their flights to Borba and, while there was no space on their next flights out, they could book us on to a return flight on 16th August.

So we went by taxi to the Aero Club where we caught our chartered aero-taxi, a twin-engined Piper. It was a lovely flight of about 30 minutes and we flew sufficiently close to the ground to see more details of the landscape than normal including a good view of the meeting of the Solimões with the Negro.

Borba Airport is delightful but we did not expect such a total lack of movement. How were we going to get to our hotel? Fortunately there was a working public phone so we phoned the taxi driver, Natan, but he did not answer. We phoned the hotel and they said they would send a taxi. After more than half an hour, the airport gardener suggested that he could go and find some transport for us. A Combi eventually arrived followed by two motor-bikes or "moto-taxis" that had been sent by the hotel. We climbed into the Combi and as we drove to the hotel we realised that there were only very few cars in Borba (well there are very few roads and none longer than 35 kms) and even fewer taxis.

We checked into the adequate Lana's Bella Hotel who sent word for Natan who seems to have the monopoly on taking birders around Borba. We had a rather unpleasant session trying to negotiate what we thought was a reasonable rate and eventually we settled on R$ 120 per day for the 5 days which turned into a total of $600 and he would throw in the final 6th morning and transport to the airport as part of the package. There might be an alternative to Natan but we didn't want to risk our trip to Borba. I suppose the best way to avoid this haggling would be to book everything through Andy Whittaker's Birding Brazil Company.

Wednesday, 11th August:

Up at 4:30 and out by 5:00 which proved to be too early by about 30 minutes. Natan picked us up in his amazing car and drove us to the Rio Mapia where we picked up the boatman and local politician, Barroso (14 votes received in the last elections for town councillor) who took us slightly downriver to the Santo Antonio trail. This started at an Indian house in a clearing where we were greeted by the matriarch, Dona Lucilla and her grand-daughter Jacqueline who offered us an excellent cup of coffee. We had to wait until the chief, Ademir, appeared to give us permission to walk along the trail. They were very charming and helpful and we were given permission to bird along their trails.

We spent the morning on the trail which, like most terra firme birding, proved slow although we did see a couple of mixed flocks and I managed to get a photo of White-shouldered Antshrike.

We went back to Borba for lunch and in the afternoon Natan took us to the INCRA road where we spent most of the time at a fruiting tree which was attracting a superb number of interesting birds including Brown-banded Puffbird, Brown-chested Barbet, Spangled Cotinga and White-tailed Cotinga. Elsewhere on the road we saw 2 pairs of Dot-winged Antwren sallying out from the undergrowth into the road to capture insects and a Hoffman's Woodcreeper.

Thursday, 12th August:

After an excellent breakfast served in a room that could have served as a set for Fellini, we head back for the Rio Mapia where Barroso takes us upstream to the Sao Raimundo trail. His boat is about as serviceable as Nathan's car. On the way we have excellent views of Buff-cheeked Tody-tyrant but I didn't manage to get a decent photograph.

We had decided to spend all day on the trail in our search for an antswarm and, hopefully, the very localised Pale-faced Antbird as well as other obligate antbirds. Although we came across a few mixed flocks, we failed to find an antswarm but we did find a Caninana snake which reared up at a tree fall and scared the living daylights out of us.

Barroso picked us up at 15:30 and we had a pleasant time drifting downriver for a couple of hours.

Friday, 13th August:

Was this going to be our lucky day?

We set off to the Rio Mapia and the Santo Antonio trail with our objective set on finding an antswarm. Again we had no luck so I had to console myself with distant shots of Yellow-throated Flycatcher, a series of shots of lekking Red-headed Manakins and an enormous moth with a wingspan of about 25 cms known as a White Witch, the largest moth in the world. We managed to lose the trail and so had to bushwhack our way back to the river. Fortunately, we had compasses and had taken a bearing as we entered the forest. On the short boat trip back I managed to get a reasonable shot of a Band-tailed Nighthawk in flight.

On our way back to Borba, Natan took us to a place he called Campo das Flores. I'm not sure if he was being ironic but it was a real dump and far from having any Bald Parrots, a species which has been reported in Borba, it had no parrots at all.

We had been looking forward to a meal that Nathan said he was organizing at a local restaurant but that failed to materialize (not a great surprise) so we went back to our usual place. There were some political "comicios" or meetings in front of the hotel in the evening with the usual fireworks, sirens and loud music. It hadn’t been the best of days.

Saturday, 14th August:

Breakfast at 4:30 and off to the INCRA road by 5:15. Quiet a lot of activity at the fruiting tree but no new photo opportunities. We birded the road for several hours and saw a Plain-winged Antshrike that was sounding like a Mouse-coloured Antshrike.

Back at noon for lunch then I crashed out for a couple of hours siesta. Late afternoon was spent at the INCRA road again.

Sunday, 15th August:

Up at 4:30 and out by 5 to drive to a trail near the river Mapia. On the way we had a puncture – not an uncommon occurrence judging by the speed with which Nathan replaced the wheel.

The trail was fairly short and there had been a bit of clearing going on but amongst others we saw Spotted Puffbird, Black Hawk-eagle, Grey-chested Greenlet and a very obliging pair of Bronzy Jacamar.

After lunch we went down the "Estrada da Lixeira" near town where there was some reasonable forest which was beginning to be cut down. It had rained heavily over lunch-time and we managed to see a Slate-coloured Hawk drying itself up in the trees. This was only one of the 12 species of raptor that we were to see today. I also got good shots of Buff-throated and Lineated Woodcreepers.

For dinner we had pre-ordered a special "gallina caipira" but the only thing special about it was the price at about double what we had been paying for our evening meal.

Monday, 16th August:

Breakfast at 4:30 and out to the INCRA road for a last look. Some shots of Red-necked Woodpecker and White-tailed Cotinga but I spent quite a while taking shots of what I thought was Ruddy Pigeon but which later turned out to be Plumbeous Pigeon with the help of the experts at BirdForum.

Back to the hotel for 8:30 and a shower then off to the airport with Nathan. We had been told to be at the airport an hour before the flight so we duly arrived at 9:25 to find only a guard and a gardener at the airport. By 10:00 I was wondering if the flight had been cancelled but at 10:15 Borba’s other taxi turned up carrying the 3 Rico staff who duly checked in the 3 passengers – us.

The flight arrived at 10:25 from Manicoré with 3 passengers on board the 18 seater Bandeirante and we had a pleasant flight back to Manaus where we transferred from the local terminal to the international terminal.

Our trip was not quite over though. Marco was keen to see Point-tailed Palmcreeper and had noticed a stand of Buriti palms quite close to the airport. We persuaded a taxi to take us there and wait for us while we marched up and down quite a busy road playing back the tape but to no avail. Hardly surprising with all that noise about.

And so we finally ended our trip. It had been extremely pleasant with great company but we did miss out on quite a few of our target species. Fortunately, this gives us an excuse to go back one day in the future.

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