Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Matto Grosso, Brazil. 6th December, 2008
The Cristalino Lodge has a large thatched dining hall cum verandah, complete with rustic tables and chairs and – for the indolent – hammocks and old-fashioned deck chairs. Gradually, in the evening, as groups of guests with their guides and interpreters straggle back from the forest or the river (or the sun loungers), beers are ordered and news of the day’s excitements is exchanged and the day’s digital pictures flashed up on camera screens.
But there is never a time here when you should be looking inwards – half an eye should always be kept on the lawns and the shrubs and the forest edge just yards away – even when it’s pitch dark. Because this outdoor dining hall is an excellent spot to catch intimate views of the World’s largest living rodent – the capybara – without walking a step or even standing up.
So as I sat here earlier this evening, looking at a huge Amazon flat fish being barbecued on an open fire in preparation for an alfresco supper, somebody with sharper eyes than me detected two large and two not so large shapes dimly lit up by the fire.
I flashed on my spotlight revealing two chunky adult capybaras with their offspring. The family had come to graze the Cristalino lawns for their favourite food – grass.
Capybaras, restricted in their distribution to the New World, like densely vegetated areas adjacent to bodies of water. They probably reach their greatest population densities in the famous Brazilian Pantanal – some 350 miles South of Cristalino – a region of natural open grassland and gallery forest with numerous lakes, ponds and swamps. But they’re common here too.
They feed on aquatic vegetation as well as grass and are proficient swimmers, keeping all but nostrils, eyes and ears below the waterline. With their partially webbed feet, they can swim underwater for long distances. Adults grow up to 3 to 4 feet long and are a foot and a half at shoulder level. I frit one in the shrubbery as I arrived at the verandah early yesterday morning – and it was certainly big enough and noisy enough to frit me back.
That encounter wasn’t planned but I had arrived early hoping to see another of Cristalino’s verandah specialities. First out onto the lawns, however, were a couple of agoutis, all energy and nerves, racing around in the early morning light. Rodents again, relatives of the familiar guinea pig, but larger, longer-legged and slenderer. These are true forest dwellers, adapted for life in the undergrowth with their special physique – head and front part of body quite slender and low to the ground for pushing through dense vegetation, bulkier at the rear, but, for the moment, finding life easier on the lawn.
Five minutes later, I was facing the wrong way again.
‘Here they are’ said Bill. And I turned round to see a bird (or rather two) which were right near the top of my Cristalino wish list. Just emerging from the interior of the forest, but only yards away, were a stunning pair of Bare-faced Curassows, ground-dwelling birds the size of turkeys – and amongst the most vulnerable of all rainforest dwellers. Stately, unsuspicious and slow-moving, these birds and other species in the family disappear from the forest under the slightest hunting pressure. But this pair at Cristalino, Bill told me, had a nest site close to the Lodge and paraded the lawns on many an early sunlit morning, still truly wild but with no reason to fear.
The male is a formally attired bird, black with white trimmings and a curly crest but the female is a truly beautiful bird, lusciously and finely barred black and white on her uppers and tail and beautifully decorated in cinnamons and blacks below, her black curls tipped white.
And these were not the only curassows we saw, a testament to the pristine, undisturbed condition of the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve and its crucial wildlife value.. The day before yesterday on a trail (or rather off a trail) some kilometers from the Lodge, Jorge stopped me and pointed ahead. Eventually some thirty yards further on, on the other side of a stream, I saw two large black shapes, heads hidden for the moment as they bent down to feed quietly on the forest floor. Patience! The shapes moved slowly and unconcernedly, still somehow keeping their heads out of view. Stand still, Rog! Be patient! Their camouflage is terrific considering how big they are, I thought.
And then, finally one emerged into an opening in the understory. Nearly 3 feet from bill to tail tip, resplendent in black and chestnut with a broad white tail tip and a spectacular red and yellow bill, a birdwatcher’s dream! A Razor-billed curassow! The pair fed quietly together, moving gently away from us before disappearing into the forest again. We saw four more that day – a pair drinking at the edge of the Rio Cristalino and another pair deep in the forest.
They all belong to one of the most endangered bird families on the planet!
And in the next Cristalino blog, the mastermind behind this wonderful Reserve.