The Atlantic Forests of Brazil are amongst the world's most important and threatened habitats. Scientists believe that the lowland forests are some of the richest areas on earth for tree diversity, with as many as 450 different species per hectare - over half of which can be found nowhere else. These areas are therefore as valuable, in ecological terms, as the Amazon, but are far more threatened in that since the arrival of Europeans on the continent some 400 years ago around 90% of the forests have been destroyed to make way for agriculture, mining, coffee, banana and rubber plantations.
Sadly, despite a network of quite exceptional national parks and other protected areas, the pressure on the Atlantic forests continues in the form of urbanization, industrialization, agricultural expansion and associated road construction.
One of the most spectacular and beautiful of the parks is Itatiaia (pronounced Ita-tchy-a and meaning "sharp stone" in the language of the native Americans who inhabited this area before the arrival of the Portuguese). Established as Brazil's first national park, Itatiaia covers 300 square kilometres of primary humid montane Atlantic forest, with cloud and elfin forests on the upper slopes of the Serra da Mantiqueira. It lies between the bustling metropolises of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and is a popular weekend and holiday destination for locals seeking to escape the city. As a result there is a surprising range of accommodation to be found within the park.
The very high level of biological importance of the Atlantic Forests, combined with the significant threats to their continued existence, made this a high priority part of the world for me to visit. The forests hold almost 200 species of bird that can be found nowhere else on earth. I was determined during my brief nine-day visit to see as many of these birds as possible, and there was no better place to begin this quest than Itatiaia.
The three and a half days that I had allowed to spend in the park were never going to be enough to walk all the trails, or even to see the most of the birds on the park's list, but it did give me a very good sample of the beauty of these evocative forests with their incredible variety of trees, flowers, bromeliads, orchids, fungi, insects and of course birds. Brightly coloured Maroon-bellied parakeets flew over the tall canopy trees, while colonies of Red-rumped Caciques tended their pendulous nests swinging from the tall branches of the trees. Tanagers and cotingas of the most vivid colours fed on fruiting trees, while a variety of woodcreepers (all with variations of dull brown plumages) worked their way up tree trunks pausing to prize insects and grubs from behind the bark.
Beneath the forest canopy a mind-boggling array of antbirds, ranging from the diminutive Russet-backed Antvireo to the magpie-sized Giant Antshrike, skulked in the dense vegetation. It took considerable patience and field craft to see these denizens of the forest floor. Several times we encountered boisterous troops of Brown Capuchin monkeys gorging themselves on ripe seedpods and fruits.
However, perhaps of the many wildlife encounters experienced at Itatiaia perhaps the most memorable were those with a host of hummingbirds. Several of the hotels put out nectar feeders to attract these tiny jewels of the avian world. I spent many happy hours sitting within a few centimetres of the feeders with up to eight different species of hummingbirds feeding on the sugar solution in the feeders right in front of my face. As the birds hovered at the artificial flowers on the feeders, their buzzing wings fanned my forehead. Many times birds with such evocative names as Brazilian Ruby, Frilled Coquette, Glittering-bellied Emerald and Black Jacobin danced on the air in front of me-sometimes staring me in the eye before darting back to the feeders or chasing off another rival hummingbird.
Such fabulous encounters with hummers must be one of the greatest avian spectacles in South America. I certainly never tired of admiring the precision of these birds' aerial maneuvers and their stunningly handsome plumages, many of which are iridescent, changing colours with the different angles of sunlight.
The same feathers on a hummingbird can appear to turn from black to lime green to purple to scarlet within the space of a single second. It is one of the most dazzling light displays in nature.
After spending a few days at Itatiaia it was time to drive further north to another famous park-Serra dos Orgaos-so named because of the pinnacles of rock which resemble the tall pipes of a church organ. While hosting many of the same species as Itatiaia, Orgaos is one of only two known localities for a very rare and little-known bird-the Grey-winged Cotinga. Very few ornithologists have ever seen this secretive bird, which can only be found in the stunted elfin forests near the top of two mountains.
To stand any chance of finding this bird we began our ascent of the mountain trail at four o'clock in the morning. After an energetic hour climbing in the dark, dawn broke, with a cacophony of bird song. It was very difficult to ignore this and to continue pushing for the summit, but that is what we had to do in order to reach the habitat of the cotinga. After another four hours hard walking we finally reached the elfin forest. It then took us the rest of the day searching hard before we managed to see our target species feeding at a fruiting tree. Elated by our good fortune we birded all the way back down the mountain, finding other gems such as Black-and-gold Cotingas, Sharpbills and Hooded Berryeaters, along with Sharp-tailed Streamcreepers. A Ferruginous Pygmy-owl led us a merry dance before we finally located him calling in the canopy. All this delayed our descent and we ended up having to walk the last hour in the dark. It had been a long and tiring day, but our weariness paled into insignificance as we reflected on joining a tiny band of birders who have seen the Grey-winged Cotinga (which it has to be said was one of the dullest birds we saw all day - but beauty always lies in the eye of the beholder!).
With my time in the Atlantic forests drawing to a close we still had a couple of treats in store. Near the seaside resort town of Ubatuba lies some secondary scrub habitat that provided one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip. It was here that we located a family of Black-hooded Antwrens. This bird is confined to a very tiny area and was for more than 100 years believed to be extinct. Then in 1987 a young birdwatcher described a bird he had seen to his more senior colleagues in the local bird club. Perhaps naturally the more experienced birders were dismissive when the young man identified the bird form a book as a Black-hooded Antwren. After all no one had seen this bird alive for more than a century. Luckily in this case the exuberance of youth was not dampened by experience. The youngster took a scientist to the site and together they erected a moist net and soon caught one of the birds. They photographed it in the hand and then released it again. At the next meeting the lad put the photos on the table - the expressions on the more established birders' faces must have been some sight! Luckily this species has come back from the brink and, while still threatened, it is surviving in secondary habitats that have been heavily modified by man's activities.
Not all of the 200 or so very special birds of the Atlantic Forests are going to be so fortunate. It is impossible to visit these majestic forests without being overawed by the incredible beauty of the trees and the immense diversity of life. However, even in the early years of the 21st Century these forests are on fire. Driving between national parks we saw many forested hillsides burning. The Atlantic forests are such rich ecosystems - the "Crown Jewels" of the biological world-and yet they, and the animals and plants that live within them, are disappearing as the fires rage. These rich forests are being cleared to make way for monocultures of grass to feed yet more cattle.
The Amazon Basin
Dense palls of smoke from swathes of burning Amazonian forest turned a 50-minute flight to reach the Amazon Basin into a marathon 13-hour bus ride. The problem was not that so much of the land was on fire - being burnt to create cattle pasture - more because the pilots could not see the airstrip through the dense palls of smoke.
This alarming news did not bode well for my short stay within the Amazon rainforest. However, exploring some of the richest habitats I have ever seen the following week proved to be inspirational. Leaving the small logging and cattle town of Alta Floresta, at the southern edge of the Amazon Basin, I soon arrived at the banks of the Rio Teles Pires. After scrambling into a small wooden boat we travelled upriver before turning into a tributary which led to the Rio Cristelino Jungle Lodge. This was to be home for the next five days.
The construction of a number of modest eco-tourist lodges within the Amazon has made it possible for people to travel to such places with relative ease. I visited with eight other birdwatchers and, surprisingly, we were the only guests at the lodge for most of the week. We were met by Will and Gill Carter, dentists from Texas who were on a two-month sabbatical acting as volunteer natural history guides for the lodge. Their knowledge and experience of the area and its wildlife together with their enthusiasm to share as much of it as possible enhanced our short stay enormously.
We spent more than 50 hours walking deep into the Amazon jungle. I felt massively privileged and excited exploring the unique forests. There was such an abundance of life that at times it became overwhelming. Peering deep within the forest it seems impossible to find two trees of the same species - such is the rich diversity of life. The canopy covets most of the light but below the tall trees is a whole range of understory plants. Others, such as bromeliads, orchids and other epiphytes, have completely abandoned fixing their roots into the soil attaching themselves to the trees growing high up on branches instead.
The forest floor is a rich carpet of leaves - a constant supply of food to a truly bewildering array of fungi that go to work recycling nutrients within the decaying leaves, and returning them to the soil. Throughout the forest, there is an abundance of insects ranging from brightly coloured butterflies, armies of industrious ants, and some impressive beetles, including several which are luminescent at night. This is a verdant ecosystem that is beautifully in balance.
Occasionally the trees overhead shook as brown capuchin and bizarre-looking red-faced saki monkeys fed above us, pausing occasionally to peer down - their curiosity overcoming a natural caution. Twice at dawn we encountered Brazilian tapirs bathing in the waters of the fast-flowing Rio Cristelino. We were extremely lucky to see these animals as they are normally shy and secretive. Both tapirs allowed close approach before scurrying up the riverbanks and crashing off into the dark forest.
Among the rich variety of life we encountered a host of tiny creatures, many of which were more than willing to feast upon us. Our group suffered to some extent from parasitic ticks, mosquitoes, sand flies and sweat bees. The latter had no sting, but were particularly annoying as they rapidly covered any exposed skin or crept into ears and eyes, even disappearing up nostrils. There were also sweat wasps that did have stings which they were happy to use, as I can vouch. Amazonian lowland rainforest is the single richest habitat for bird variety on earth. Indeed, this was the main reason our party had travelled to the area.
During our stay we managed to see no less than 340 different species, including some extremely rare and secretive birds with wonderfully evocative names, such as Razor-billed Curassow, Sungrebe, blue-cheeked Jacamar, Brown-banded Puffbird, Rufous-capped Nunlet, Red-necked Aracari, Gould's Toucanet, Curve-billed Scythebill, Natterer's Slaty-antshrike, Bare-eyed Antbird, Black-spotted Bare-eye, White-browed Purpletuft, Pompadour Cotinga, Screaming Piha, Amazonia Umbrellabird, Snow-capped and Swallow-tailed Manakins, Rose-breasted Chat and Opal-rumped Tanager.
The variety of birds was staggering ranging from dull-coloured skulking species of the dark forest floor to many outrageously colourful toucans, cotingas and tanagers in the canopy. At Cristelino a 50-metre tower enables visitors to climb high above the tree tops to gaze down in wonder at flights of brilliantly coloured scarlet macaws and white-bellied parrots, while all around, through 360 degrees and as far as the eye can see there is only pristine rainforest. It was one of the most heartening sights I have ever seen - wilderness at its absolute best.
Several times we used the small boats to travel along the black waters of the Rio Cristelino, cruising close to Paraguayan Caiman (a type of crocodile), and marvelling at the great trees that line the riverbanks.
In the nineteenth century the eminent naturalist Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, spent several years near Manaus in the central Amazon Basin. He realised that there are three different types of river in the basin, each with its own different fauna and flora. Black-water rivers, such as the Cristelino, drain from infertile, sandy soils covered by stunted vegetation. Their waters are acidic and stained dark brown from the tannins and acids that leach from the forest leaves. Visibility in black water is never more than two metres, compared with only 15 centimetres in white water, which is found in the rivers that drain from the Andes and are loaded with silts and sediments. The third type of river has clear water with excellent visibility (up to ten metres) because it flows from less eroded rocks resulting in very much lighter silt loads.
The black waters of the Cristelino flow into the white waters of the Teles Pires which in turn eventually merges with others to form the greatest river on earth - the mighty Amazon. It is hard to comprehend the scale of this river. It carries about one fifth of all the world's running freshwater delivering 175,000 cubic metres of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second. More than 1,100 tributaries drain an area of six million square kilometres. The river is so vast that ocean-going ships can navigate 3,700 km inland.
It seemed that we had only just arrived and yet all too soon it was time to move on. The heavens opened and the rain poured down upon us as we left. There was no shelter in the small open boats and we rapidly became drenched. However, even this was a fabulous experience for as quickly as the rains came they stopped and the skies turned blue again. Within the tropics it is almost as if the sky cannot bear to part with the moisture that it carries. The strength of the sun is so intense that as soon as the rain has stopped it seems that the water rises back into the sky as it evaporates in thick mists which shroud the forests and dance over the rivers.
For a naturalist, a visit to the Amazon is like a journey to the very beating heart of the fascinating planet we live upon. It is a journey which never ceases to amaze in relation to the richness and variety of life found there. Yet all this is very much at risk with huge areas of lowland rainforest still disappearing at alarming rates to the sound of chainsaws and the flicker of fire.
Shortly before I left, Sebastiao, a local guide, showed me an immense Brazilwood tree. It had an incredible girth and was so tall that I could not see its crown high up in the dense canopy. Sebastiao found some nuts at the bottom of the tree, and used his machete to cut and trim a couple for me. I ate one, and then looking at Sebastiao with understanding, threw the other deep into the forest in a symbolic gesture of re-growth and regeneration of these most special forests. Long live Amazonia!