The Search For The Holy Grail Of Birds In The Brazilian Amazon With Brad Davies

Spot-backed Puffbird one of the so many birds we enjoyed, but not THE bird.

The Brazilian Amazon 2008. Our friend Brad Davies was waiting for us, Brad was to help us on this leg of the journey and we knew we were in good hands. We had birded with Brad in Ecuador previously and had kept in touch, now living and working in Alta Floresta he was just the man to help boost our list. Brad is Canadian, in his mid-twenties but has packed a huge amount of birding into those years, having spent the majority of his biding career in South America. He had recently married a local girl, the lovely Jessica. Alta Floresta has a real frontier town feel to it, on the edge of the vast Amazon wilderness, it is bustling but sort of run down at the same time. Luckily our hotel was only minutes from the air field so we soon dumped our gear and went birding. Brad’s tiny Fiat car bumped along the rutted dirt roads to a small marsh on the edge of the forest. Our target was Grey-breasted Crake but we drew a blank and Brad was really apologetic, we assured him after eight months of non-stop birding we knew some birds would not show, no matter how hard we tried. Brad had plan B and the next marsh soon produced the crake and Brad visibly relaxed. I guess he was very fired up for our arrival and was determined to get us a huge number of birds so to start by missing the very first one must have hurt! The light was failing but Brad was not done, we drove to a patch of forest and stood listening and watching, at first nothing, then came the distinctive calls of parrots, coming our way. Four Red-fanned Parrots flew in and landed on dead branches and through the scope we had good looks, a great way to end our day.

We enjoyed super views of Burrowing Owls - but even these were not THE bird.

Back at the hotel Brad told us that the following day we would have a chance, only a chance, of a very special bird, I would not sleep well, the anticipation of possibly seeing it kept my brain buzzing!

When I was a school boy, even then passionate about birds, I looked forward to the long summer holidays. At school I was never a keen scholar, always looking out of the class window for passing birds rather than at the blackboard. It was not very fair for a young birder to attend a school overlooking an estuary, flocks of waders and wildfowl were always going to win over maths and physics, it was a wonder that I left school with the meagre qualifications that I did. But my bird identification skills were coming along nicely!

We watched huge Ringed Kingfishers in the bird rich wetlands of Brazil.

When those summer holidays did come around we usually set for a family trip in our camper van, it should have been idyllic but sadly my parents almost constantly argued about everything and anything and my older brother, Richard, and I were in a confined space with warring parents, far from ideal. But we did see birds and looking back I must have been very persuasive as we had holidays in the marshes of Suffolk, far from the rugged mountains of Scotland where my parents would have chosen, Richard as I recall had little interest in where we went, he was usually reading comics in the back. But each holiday my brother and I received some extra holiday pocket money and this was to last the duration of the trip and could be spent as we pleased. For Richard it was a daily fix of comics and sweets throughout the trip and kept him amused as we made yet another stop for a roadside bird. For me though the holiday cash meant just one thing, a new bird book.

My parents and Richard could never understand it and always asked the same questions “Are you sure you want to spend all your money on just one book?” and “there won’t be any money for sweets if you buy this book you know?”

I knew very well, money was short in our house and there was no chance of an extra hand-out once the pocket money was gone. I also knew a bird book would be a lot more use than sweets and comics whose pleasure would soon be gone, a bird book would last. So each summer I added to my small, but oh so precious, collection of bird books. One year when I must have been about nine years old I spotted a book that I wanted badly, after the usual questions and the usual answers the money was handed over and I had my book. The title was The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Prey and the on the front cover was an eye-catching gruesome scene of a Harpy Eagle tearing apart a monkey, what nine year old budding birder could resist such a book? I read and reread the book cover to cover that holiday but it was always the Harpy Eagle that gave the greatest thrill. Not once did I ever dream that I would ever see one but something about it, the massive power and sheer size, had me hooked on this raptor. Forty years later and here I was in the forests of Brazil about to set out to look for a Harpy Eagle, good things come to those who wait, I prayed. If I was ever to see this mythical bird that been in my head all this time then Brad was the man to stand next to. Brad had studied a pair of these awesome birds here at Alta Floresta in a patch of forest right behind our hotel! The bad news was the single massive chick had recently fledged and left the nest and had not been seen for some days. We set off in the relative cool of dawn and headed for the huge bare tree where the pair of Harpy’s had nested. Strangely when the youngster had left the nest the adults had completely dismantled the nest stick and stick.

Where the huge Harpy Eagle nest had been in the main "Y" of the trunk.

We stood and gazed up at the mighty leafless tree and Brad explained where the nest had been, not a single twig remained, weird. I had never heard of a large eagle of any species doing this before. We scanned and searched, searched and scanned but nothing. Of course we did see plenty of birds including some new for the year. First up was one of the smallest passerines in the world, Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, a bird with a name bigger than it! This was a tiny bird making our familiar Goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird look positively chunky! Then came the crazy looking Red-necked Woodpecker, surely the inspiration for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker? A Short-tailed Hawk zigzagged through the canopy like a miniature guided missile, how did it not collide with the branches at that speed? We stood and listened to the haunting call of a Brazilian Tinamou and crept low to see a pair of handsome Chestnut-tailed Antbirds before straining our necks to catch a glimpse of Straight-billed Woodcreeper high above. We picked up two new hummers with Long-tailed and Reddish Hermits both seen well. But no Harpy Eagle came our way. We trudged back to the hotel for a break in the now very hot mid-day sun. We had seen some wonderful birds in an impressive forest but we did not feel like celebrating the morning, we had not seen a Harpy Eagle, undoubtedly the most wanted bird of the year. We had been asked many times by fellow birders and journalists

“Which is the bird you would most like to see during The Biggest Twitch?”

Every time, thanks to the Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Prey, the answer had always been: Harpy Eagle.

Brad suggested a few ideas for the afternoon birding session, but for once the lure of another bag full of new species for the year was not what we wanted. All we wanted to do was return to the forest to search for the Harpy.

We spent the entire afternoon in the forest, one of the most frustrating times I have ever experienced as a birder. After about an hour into our search Brad suddenly froze and put a finger to his lips. We stood stock still and silent, then we to heard a thin high pitched call, surely not? But Brad knew the call well, it was the juvenile Harpy Eagle! It called again and again but where was it? The jungle was very dense here and trying to a view up into the canopy way above us was extremely difficult. Moving off the trail was even more difficult and impossible to do silently, no matter how hard we tried, the last thing we wanted was to disturb the bird and have it slip away unseen. We scanned until our necks ached so much it was really painful to keep looking up into the kaleidoscope of greens above us. You could hide an army of eagles up there and still not see one. As dusk fell we had to admit defeat, we had been so close to our holy-grail bird but denied a look at the beast. We were gutted beyond belief. Even a Blackish Nightjar showing well on an out-house roof back at the hotel failed to lift our spirits. Brad really felt for us, he could see how much the Harpy meant to us and vowed that we would try again in the morning.

At dawn we were back near the nest site and again straining our necks to the canopy hoping for a look at that huge raptor above. Nothing moved or called. Then a movement did catch our eye, no eagle this, but a very pretty bird. A tiny Rose-breasted Chat was catching flies above us and showed off in the early morning sun, lovely but only a minor distraction from the job in hand. We waited and scanned. Then came the thin rather plaintive call of the juvenile Harpy Eagle, he was still here and sounded closer than yesterday! The tension was electric; could we find it this time? Luckily he was calling regularly, perhaps hungry and hoping for a parent to bring breakfast? Today we went for a more pro-active approach and split up and very slowly and as silently as possible made our way through the dense jungle towards the calls. We all scanned above us after each step, painstakingly inching forward desperate to see the bird but fearful we might flush it. I stepped over a fallen log into a tiny clearing where a little more of the canopy was visible and raised my binoculars. A sea of green leaves and tangle of grey branches then, it was there! A huge pale grey and white eagle sat looking down at me, a Harpy Eagle! Wow! What a beast every bit as impressive as that book cover, staggering. Now what to do? I could not shout as the bird might fly. I hissed as loud as I could and luckily, although in the dense undergrowth I could not see them, both Ruth and Brad were only meters away and soon all three of us were gazing at this awesome bird. I managed to set the scope up and find an angle to view the bird. With the extra magnification every detail was visible, the massive meat-hook of a bill, designed to tear monkeys apart, the out of proportion thick legs, strong enough to pluck a sloth off a branch in flight. The head look enormous as the bird had a fanned crest part raised giving the face an almost owl-like look at some angles. A Harpy Eagle at last! It was another of those magic moments when time stands still and you just soak up the bird in every detail. The eagle looked down on us and seemed happy we were no threat and soon lost interest and continued to look around and call for food, but none came. We blasted of dozens and dozens of photos and just enjoyed this beautiful bird. Finally we crept away leaving the juvenile Harpy Eagle in its forest and us feeling totally elated!

That "Aahhhh" moment after you have seen your Holy Grail Bird, Harpy Eagle, with Brad.

Brazil has spectacular birds and even the sunsets are pretty special too.

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