Upper Amazon Travels: Trip To Tabatinga

Mario Cohn-Haft - May 1997

    Our last morning in that spot, we walked out a different trail and came upon this haunting song. I knew it was the elusive Antpitta, and really wanted to see it. We got tons of tape recordings and I finally got some brief looks, including one entirely diagnostic one when Curtis flushed it out onto the trail, but I wasn’t able to collect it.

Although we didn’t have spectacular luck in those first 5 days, we still had over a week left. We spent the weekend in town and made morning boat trips. One day, we went up a small, slow, creek that flows into the Amazon from the south just a few miles downstream from town. Although the creek flowed with muddy “whitewater,” the surrounding flooded vegetation looked just like the blackwater “igapo” I’m used to around Manaus, rather than the “varzea” forest typically associated with whitewater rivers. And sure enough, the birds there were typical blackwater birds. Interestingly, the locals called these woods igapo, but they explained their use of terms the same way I’ve heard them used by locals elsewhere in the Brazilian Amazon, namely that igapo is flooded forest while it’s flooded, and várzea is what it’s called when it is dry. In other words, they’re temporal descriptions that can be used for the same woods at different times of year. You can easily see how from that usage you might get the definitions that used to appear in older natural history texts, that varzea is seasonally flooded and igapo permanently flooded forest. The locals might say about a floodable forest, “no that’s not igapo; igapo has water in it.” “Always?” asks the gringo. “Yes, always” would be the answer, because if it doesn’t have water in it it’s called varzea! These terms are confusing and need some work from the botanists. (This reminds me of the “campina” vs. “whitesand forest” situation, with a mess of terms and different vegetation types that are only vaguely correlated.) Anyway, regardless of what you call it, this whitewater flooded area looked like blackwater flooded forest and had blackwater birds.

Back in Tabatinga we hired some guides to take us to a particular patch of forest on the north bank of the river where we were especially interested in documenting birds. As my research is in biogeography, a vital part of it is the mapping of where different species live, and especially how the rivers of the region separate distinctly different species and subspecies of birds. Birds of the north bank are not necessarily the same as the birds of the south bank.

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