To see one of the most exciting ornithological finds of the past 20 years, I had to stand in line. In front of me stood a man in a tank-top and flip-flops. Behind me were two women with beach towels slung over their shoulders. Beside them were giddy children hopping up and down, about to burst with anticipation.
I was giddy, too. But not for the same reason. When the water park opened for business at 10 a.m., the line filed through the turnstile and down the walkway. At a little thatched hut selling flippers and swim goggles, the flip-flop crowd funneled left, toward the waterslides. I bore right onto a clean, paver-stone pathway enshrouded by jungle trees.
Almost immediately, a friendly song chimed from the trees: too-too, toot-toodle-oo! My companion, Brazilian biologist Alberto Campos, whispered one word: Soldadinho!
Soldadinho do Araripe is the Brazilian common name for the Araripe Manakin. First described in a scientific journal in 1998, the soldadinho (or “little soldier”) quickly made the most-wanted list for globe-trotting birders touring Brazil. As an isolated endemic, it’s a rare get for any life list—a manakin that in all the world lives only in a 30-mile-long forested stretch in the northeastern state of Ceara, along the eastern side of the Araripe plateau. The bird’s true appeal, though, is not its rarity, but its striking beauty.
The male Araripe Manakin has a crest that "shines like a red bulb."
A female Araripe Manakin wears more camouflaged colors and has a smaller crest.
Another cheerful song burst from the trees, and a songbird’s silhouette flashed to a bare branch overhead. I glassed it through binoculars to see a bird cloaked in bright white plumage, with a dazzling crimson headdress—indeed clad in an officer’s regalia. The soldadinho looked left, then right, granting me a view of its profile and its blazing red pompadour. Looking at this brilliant bird is a bit like looking at the sun; red spots lingered in my eyes, emblazoned, for a few moments after the manakin flew away.
A gurgling brook flowed alongside the paver-stone path where I stood. About 500 feet upstream, there was a grotto that hid a spring, the source of water for this moist ecosystem, and this water park. Herein lies the conflict for soldadinho, the reason it’s an IUCN Red List critically endangered species. Both bird and people need this water: the manakins nest by the water and only live in wet forests; the people tap into the water for all their human endeavors—agriculture, urban growth, water parks.
But the manakin and the people here are not adversaries. In fact, the people celebrate the bird, and the bird may be the best hope for keeping the water flowing for the people.
A Fire-Crested Bird
Alberto Campos had his own luminous experience with the Araripe Manakin back in 2003, when he drove eight hours from the regional capital of Fortaleza to investigate reports of a new bird species discovered in the Chapada do Araripe, or Araripe plateau.“The first time I put my eyes on it … it shines, you know? That crest shines like a red bulb,” he recalls. “It’s an amazing, memorable experience.”
The first time I put my eyes on it … it shines, you know? That crest shines like a red bulb.
~ Alberto Campos
At that time, Campos was a biologist who had cofounded a conservation group called Aquasis on Brazil’s northeastern coast to help endangered marine animals such as dolphins and manatees. Now, a decade and a half later, Campos was taking me on a tour of his group’s on-the-ground conservation efforts for the Araripe Manakin, 300 miles away from the ocean. If it seems odd that a marine nonprofit would become the most ardent advocate for a forest songbird, the explanation lies in the species’ biology—because this bird relies on water every bit as much as a manatee.
This video offers a rare glimpse of life at an Araripe Manakin nest, where the highly camouflaged female provides all the care for the young.
“We have found nests not exactly on top of running water, but really, really close to it, right above,” says Campos. He says that along streams grown over with vegetation, the birds construct small nest cups among the vines and branches that dangle just above the stream’s surface.
Rainwater falls on the top of the Araripe plateau, percolates into the soil, collects in underground pools, and then migrates sideways to emerge as springs on the side of the plateau—a process that can take thousands of years. Illustration by Bartels Science Illustrator Phillip Krzeminski.View larger image.
And yet, this wet-forest manakin lives in the caatinga biome, a semiarid region about 7 degrees south of the equator. To be precise, the Araripe Manakin lives in a moist-forest oasis in the middle of a scrub-brush landscape, a topographical peculiarity that’s like a Hawaiian cloud forest dropped into the sagebrush country of Utah. The moisture comes courtesy of the chapada, an old Portuguese word for plateau. The tabletop of the chapada acts like a 4,000-square-mile rainwater catch basin. Whenever rain hits the ground on the plateau, it slowly percolates into the soil and collects into underground pools. The water then migrates sideways, reemerging as hundreds of natural springs on the plateau’s side to feed a humid forest habitat. It may take thousands of years for raindrops to funnel from the chapada’s dusty, scrub-brush top to the slopeside gushing founts amid gallery forests.
Araripe Manakins only occur in these wet forests on the side of the Chapada do Araripe, a global range about half the area of Manhattan. Because this bird is tucked away in a relative postage stamp of South American forest, it wasn’t described by science until the very end of the 20th century—though it was almost discovered twice before. In 1860, a Brazilian zoologist from the natural history museum in Rio de Janeiro collected 4,000 specimens of various wildlife species on a biological survey of the Chapada do Araripe. His collection almost certainly included an Araripe Manakin skin, but today that skin may be lying on the bottom of the ocean. The expedition’s boat was lost in a shipwreck on the return to Rio. Then in 1930, a German crew of geologists, entomologists, and ornithologists made a collecting sweep through the area. But that collection at the University of Freiburg was bombed out in World War II.
They warned young Francisco … not to make this bird angry, because it was o dono do agua—owner of the waters.
As is often the case, locals knew about this bird long before scientists discovered it. An old-timer who lives in the city of Crato, at the bottom of the chapada, tells of the stern warnings he encountered as a young boy prowling the forested slopes with his machete in the 1950s. Now 77 years old, Francisco Xavier Rodrigues says that in those days people up in the hills told of a red-headed bird that lived at the springs, the galo de nascente (or cock of the springs). They warned young Francisco not to shoot at this bird with his slingshot, not to make this bird angry, because it was o dono do agua—owner of the waters. If the bird is disturbed, they would say, the water will stop flowing.
Local talk of a strange red-headed bird attracted a college biology student named Weber de Girao Silva to the Araripe plateau in 1996. Silva was invited by his professor, Artur Galileu Miranda Coelho of the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, to go birding near the grotto. There was no water park here then, no buildings or paved pathways, just a dirt trail along a forested stream.
Ornithologist Weber de Girao Silva stands near the place where he discovered the Araripe Manakin in 1996. Twenty years ago this region was forested, but today the area of Silva’s discovery is a water park. In a small private forest reserve in a corner of the park, some manakins still persist.
“Let’s go to the exact spot,” said Silva when he joined me at the water park. Today he’s a middle-aged ornithologist with salt-and-pepper hair. He hopped over a guardrail, off the paver-stone path, and scurried uphill, stopping about 100 yards up the slope above me to brace himself against a tree. A tangle of jungle vines cascaded down the rock face behind him. When Silva leaned against that tree two decades ago, he recorded science’s first official sighting of the Araripe Manakin—the one that stuck.
“We saw a white bird fly onto a branch,” Silva reminisced about the day that changed his life. “In this moment, the sun was behind the bird, and the light on the crest lit up like a lamp … o fogo.” (Like fire.)
“And Galileu asked me, ‘What the hell is that?’ I answered, ‘This is not a usual thing.’” Then Silva glanced down at his arm: “My hairs are raising up, right now, as I tell this story!”
News of the discovery made the local newspaper, but the article ended on this ominous note:
Although unknown by science, the species is already threatened. The place where this specimen was found will be transformed into a water resort, laments Galileu.
Lament was all the college professor and his student could do. The water park developer was a powerful local mayor. The park was built in 2000, with the stream from the grotto supplying all of the water for the pools and slides.
Silva is still troubled today by how it all went down, the construction of a water park at the discovery site of a new bird species. He felt powerless to stop it.
“I was 20 years old,” he says heavily today. “It was a gamble.”
It was Silva who called Campos at the nonprofit Aquasis and asked about adding the Araripe Manakin to their endangered species program. After seeing the bird himself, Campos agreed and hired Silva as the chief ornithologist on a project to save the bird.
A big part of that project has been local outreach. Aquasis has conducted several public meetings on Araripe Manakin conservation—meetings that have been attended by representatives from Arajara Park, the park that emerged from where the bird was discovered.
Arajara is the only one of five water parks in the region to get involved in manakin management, making the trail to the grotto into a private forest reserve and maintaining the native vegetation of fruiting trees and shrubs that are the mainstay of the manakin’s diet. Arajara has even adopted the bird as one of its attractions, hosting birding tour groups and selling Araripe Manakin T-shirts in the souvenir store.
“If we can put people in touch with this bird, with the nature, we want to give people that experience,” said Caroline Sambaio Saraiva, a daughter of the now-deceased park developer. She currently assists her mother in managing Arajara. “There are many water parks in the world, but you cannot copy this forest. I think we can offer both, a water park and environmental sustainability.”
“We have found nests not exactly on top of running water, but really, really close to it, right above,” says Aquasis biologist Alberto Campos. He notes that Araripe Manakins tend to build their Lilliputian nest cups woven from leaves among the vines and branches that dangle just above the surface of streams.
Females incubate and take care of nestlings, while the male devotes his time to vocally defending his territory—singing more than 500 songs per hour.
Today Araripe Manakins persist in the park, their cheery songs a testament to the species’ adaptability as long as accommodations for its habitat can be made. And even Campos admits, Arajara is a great place to see this bird.
“In other forests, Araripe Manakins stay up high in the canopy,” he says, but with the elevated walkways here, “they come right down to see you at eye level. It’s perfect for photos.”
I spent that afternoon luxuriating in Araripe Manakins all over the trail—watching one land in a tree branch below the walkway so I could see how the crimson ribbon runs down its back, listening to a constant toodle-oo chorus from the treetops. Finally I headed with Campos over to the restaurant hut for cheese tortillas and a beer. Pop music thumped in the background, punctuated by happy shrieks from splashing kids.
“Some people who favor the environment want to remove this place, but that won’t work,” Campos said frowning. “BUT, if we could stop building water parks … a freeze, no more parks. And manage the ones that are here sustainably. We can live with that.”
Campos took a sip of his beer and watched a little boy shoot down a waterslide and out of the mouth of a dinosaur statue. He smiled: “This park makes people happy.”