Friday, January 3, 2014

Danielle and Alexandre's Quest for the Galo-da-Serra

This is the next post about our Amazon trip!

As you may remember from the last post, we made plans with the travel agency to go on another day trip to a city called Presidente Figueiredo. The city is just over an hour away (inland) from Manaus and is known for its waterfalls and for being home to the bird I was dying to see, the galo-da-serra, or cock-of-the-rock.

As you'll read in detail in the next post, the travel agency flaked at the last minute! We were up early and ready for a hiking adventure and then left at our hotel. We decided to take matters into our own hands, and planned our own trip to the small rainforest town! We rented a car and packed for a possible overnight trip (details on the logistics in the next post). We called a few of the pousadas (hotels / farm-hotels / bed and breakfasts / inns / I'm not going to translate this anymore) in the town to get an idea of the pricing and availability, and all were open with vacancies and not too expensive (all were around R$100 a night per couple in the off-season). So we didn't reserve anything -- we just headed off into the rainforest in our little rental car! Alexandre thought we were riding a spirit of adventure and searching for some cool Amazonian experience; I knew that all I really cared about was seeing my magical bird.

Once you get out of the city limits of Manaus, BAM! You are in nature. There is nothing but wilderness between Manaus and Presidente Figueiredo, except for the occasional fishing campsite or chácara.

The land had spots that looked all desert-y and space-like because of the lack of rain. There were out-of-this-world and impossible-to-capture slates of land which were actually river and lake beds, exposed in the dry season. 

It's hard to miss the town of Presidente Figueiredo, because it's the first town you come upon if you're taking the only highway out of Manaus. We had read online that the town had a tourism office, so we stopped in there to see what was what. Alexandre was asking general polite questions about the town and the tourist activities available, but I cut to the chase:

"It's my dream to see the cock-of-the-rock," I explained to the two employees. "Where should we go to do that?"
"Well, Betão has quite a few on his property," one of the employees explained, as if we, too, were friends with this man named Beto. "He offers hikes out to see the birds for R$50."
"Does he have a pousada on his land?" I asked.
The employee thought for a moment. "I think so, yeah. I think he rents out some of his rooms."

I turned to Alexandre. "So we could just stay there, and then wake up early to go see the birds!"
We hadn't even decided for sure if we were going to sleep in the town yet, but Alexandre is never one to rain on my parade. "Let's go check out his place, then," he said.  The employees gave us directions and told us that this Betão referred to his property as "Aldeia Mari-Mari." It was 14km away from Presidente Figueiredo on another highway, and then another 5km or so on a dirt road. Off we went!

After the 14 kilometers, we came upon this sign:

That dirt road...what were we getting ourselves into?

 Finally, we ended up at Mari-Mari.

At the entrance to the property, there were some partially constructed cabins, and at first, that was all we could see. Were we at the right place? Was anyone there? There was a car, though, so Alexandre walked off down a semblance of a trail to see what he could find.

What he found was this wonderful place:

He came back up the hill to the car, where I was waiting. Now it was his turn to be excited.
"Oh WOW, this place is so cool! The couple is so interesting! I talked to Betão and he said we could stay here tonight. What do you think?"
This was the bird place, so of course I agreed.
We carried our stuff down to the rooms, and I met Betão's wife, Ana Paula. She was bubbly and laid back at the same time. She had just finished cleaning up the room we were going to use, since the current guests were on their way out. She encouraged us to get settled in quickly so we could go swimming, in this:

It's a clear, cold creek that runs through their property. The cold water was so refreshing in the heat of the day. It was interesting because some of the creek bed was sand, some was formed by rocks, and some was covered in moss (so probably more rock). There was a tiny sand bank that made for a perfect bench at the edge of the creek.

We splashed around in the creek and talked to our new hosts. They had a toddler-aged son who was growing up on the land. We played with him a bit, since he was very curious about us. He kept pointing at the hair on Alexandre's toes and calling to his mom to see. He also pointed to my freckles and asked "dó-doi?" or "owie?". We tried to explain politely in kid language that our hair and freckles were normal and just different, but his mom flat out told him, "they aren't Indians like you, son!"

Being this deep in the mata and away from the city meant significantly cooler temperatures than Manaus proper, and as soon as the sun started to set, we decided to take a break from the now-chilly water.

I insisted that Alexandre take a little walk with me around the property to look for birds. Sunset is good birdwatching time, and I had been hearing a lot of parrots and what I was pretty sure were macaws. Unfortunately, we didn't see any new birds on our walk, but we did get to see a beautiful sunset over the Amazon:

We were the only guests, so though Ana Paula offered to cook us dinner, we declined and decided to head back into town to try something there (and to buy some beer for the four of us).

It was a Saturday night, and Presidente Figueiredo didn't seem to have any police. The town was a little chaotic, especially compared to the tranquility of the pousada. There were a handful of cars owned by uneducated young men (a social group which I am convinced causes many of the world's problems) that were all boasting disproportionate sound systems. A handful of sound systems feels like a lot in a one-street town.

We found a little sandwich shop and decided to eat there. It was tasty and seemed to be the standard fare among locals on a Saturday night. The only food option along the main road was a series of sandwich shops.

I was about halfway through my sandwich when these three little boys came rushing up to me. They were about 5, 7, and 10, I'd guess. One pointed to my sandwich and asked anxiously, "Can I have some?"

They came up so fast and were so nervous and out of breath and I was a little stunned. I took a second to look at them. They seemed somehow eager and embarrassed at the same time. They were also skinny and wearing very dirty clothes.

"Are you guys hungry?" I asked. I mean, I knew the answer. I was just so surprised. They nodded, so I just handed over my sandwich.
"No, no! Just a bite!" the middle boy said, almost frustrated. I think that was the embarrassment talking.
"Do you all want some?" I asked, looking at them. They nodded. "So just take it and share it," I said. The decision was obvious. What was I going to do, keep eating it? Say no? I'm an adult and I can understand hunger if I feel it. They took the sandwich and ran off.

The encounter was so quick but it really shook me. Since Alexandre had already finished eating, we asked for the bill and walked over to the market across the street. We bought our beer as planned, but also bought the boys some snack foods. They were easy to spot on the one main road. I wish we could've done more. I guess we could have. I don't know. The exchange is still bothering me.

When we got back to the pousada, two other young women from Manaus had arrived. They were friends and apparently went up to Presidente Figueiredo once in a while as a weekend getaway trip. They were just OK. One was a chatty Cathy know-it-all, and since I already fill that role in groups, things felt a little cramped. ;)

We stayed up talking with Betão and Ana Paula and the two other guests. Ana Paula had actually gone to college close by our current home, and her and Beto's relationship had been similarly whirl-winded to ours. It was fun to exchange stories of love at first sight. :)

We went to bed kind of early because Betão explained that I had to wake up at sunrise if I wanted to get some good birdwatching in. Even though we only had a little fan and we had to keep our wooden windows closed because there were no screens, the room felt cool and I slept so well! I think it was the silence and the fresh air.

As promised, I woke up at 5:30 to start my bird search. Alexandre rolled over and told me to wake him up if I saw any galos-da-serra or anything else that was particularly cool. Betão had explained to me that the galos-da-serra tend to come around the creek at sunrise to feed on the açaí berries that grow along the creek bed. So I hung out there, and the family dog kept me company. Beto and the baby woke up around the same time, but then went off somewhere in their pick-up with a bunch of trash bags in the bed. I think the family has to take their trash into town.

As pretty as the creek was at sunrise, I wasn't seeing any cocks-of-the-rock! But I was hearing a LOT of macaws (!!), so I decided to go toward the sound.


I'd never seen blue and yellow macaws in the wild before. When my friend Bianca and I went to the Pantanal, we saw lots of red and green macaws and also hyacinth macaws, but not these ones! They're just as beautiful.

I had a moment of "holy moly, I'm in the Amazon rainforest, watching wild macaws!" It was breathtaking.

After I calmed down, I meandered back toward the creek bed to keep my eye out for the cocks-of-the-rock. On the way over, I heard a bird calling. It was loud, so I knew it was probably big, but I didn't recognize the call. Then I heard another of its kind return the message somewhere nearby. A few steps closer, and then I saw them! Red-billed toucans!

Here's the first caller:

Her friend soon came to join her:

Turns out it was a booty call! 

ohhh shoot!

That was just spectacular. The circle of life and all that! I definitely woke Alexandre up for that one.

I had just about given up on the cock-of-the-rock. The sun was completely out by this time, and I was trying to console myself with the fact that I got to see macaws AND red-billed toucans, and toucans mating, no less! I walked back over to the açaí trees and just hung around a bit. I mean, what else was I going to do in the Amazon before seven o'clock in the morning?

Turns out my last-ditch effort was not in vain. Suddenly, and ever so quickly, a cock-of-the-rock came out of the brush across the river and over to the açaí tree above me!

I gasped, and squealed, and fumbled to try to get a picture. I was also yell-whispering "Alexandre! Alexandre!" but he was too far away. I only got this one shot before I scared the bird away with my anxious human-ness.

Now that I'd gotten a glimpse of my beloved bird, I was even more eager to go on the promised hike to look for them. Unfortunately, Betão hadn't come back yet, so I continued to wander around and take pictures of other birds that I could see.

 I think these were streaked xenops (bico-virado-carijó), but I'm not sure.

 I actually used my zoom buttons correctly on this sayaca tanager (sanhaçu-cinzento)

I have no idea which yellow finch this is.
Exciting! A racket-tailed coquette! These only exist in this part of the Amazon and on a tiny strip of coast in the Brazilian Northeast. (Do you know how hard it is to get pictures of hummingbirds?)

Any guesses? The whole belly was that reddish-brown color. It caught a bug, so that was cool.

I guess I'm not as good at identifying birds as I thought I was. Thrushes, maybe?

During my wandering time, Betão came back and everyone else woke up. Ana Paula made a delicious breakfast with fresh cajú juice from the cashew apples that grow on their property. After everyone had eaten, Beto asked if I was ready to go look for the galo-da-serra. Of course I was! Of course, Alexandre came, too. But then Beto invited the other two guests, who agreed half-heartedly, as if seeing this bird was something they could take or leave.

We had to first cross a fallen tree to get to the other side of the creek. Then we walked through the forest for about 10 minutes. The ground was spongey and it wasn't clear where the fallen debris ended and where the actual soil began. The foliage was dense and there was no trail, but Beto knew his way around, and somehow recognized places where we needed to turn or avoid stones. He didn't even wear a shirt or shoes.

Betão and Alexandre

Here, you can see one of the women on our walk. I was a little irritated that they came because they wore flip flops to walk through the freaking Amazon Rainforest, so they kept whining about their fears of snakes.

They kept chatting and fiddling with their cell phones (which kept saying, "NO GPS SIGNAL FOUND" in robotic English), but then Beto told them to be quiet so we wouldn't scare the birds away.

Suddenly, Beto stuck his arm out, the universal sign for "shut up and stop walking."  He called me to the front of the line, and then pointed. In a little clearing (actually, a cock-of-the-rock "court"), there they were! A lek of Guianian cocks-of-the-rock!

Betão explained that they were very skittish, so we couldn't get too close. He snapped his fingers and clicked his tongue to get their attention. He said that if we stayed very still and were lucky, the birds might get curious and come closer to us. They didn't (I blame the fidgety girls), but I was still able to see them well and get some decent pictures:

booty shakin' (aka courting or displaying)

more booty shakin'

Here's a video of one preening (sorry for the shaky hands):

I think I could've gotten better pictures and videos if I had been less excited and if I knew how to use my camera better!

They were overall pretty quiet, but sometimes they called out to each other. You can hear the sound here. (Click on "detalhar som" under the main picture on the right.) Unlike the mot mot, the cocks-of-the-rock were less graceful and somehow more aware of their beauty.

We sat there and watched them for about 10 minutes. I tried to be so quiet and careful; it was their land, and I was just allowed to be present in it for a while.

I could've stayed there all day (especially since Beto got my hopes up that the birds might come closer), but those darn girls asked if we could leave, if I'd had enough.  I guess they were BORED watching this rare and amazing creature in the wild!

Alexandre said that this adventure made him actually enjoy my birdwatching hobby, and inspired him to join me in it more often. He said the cock-of-the-rock turned into this mystical legend to him, and that when we finally got to see it, it felt like he'd accomplished something special. :)

If you're interested in traveling to Manaus or seeing the cock-of-the-rock for yourself, check out my next post on tips for traveling to Manaus.

UPDATE: This is Amazon Post three. You can read post one here, post two here, and my general tips about Manaus here.


  1. I was so excited to see if you got pictures that I'm pretty sure I was holding my breath while I read, and I tried to read as fast as I could.

  2. Very cool. And the place you stayed at looks wonderful! Great adventure!

  3. Moro em Manaus e adoro as cachoeiras de Presidente Figueiredo.


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