Atlantic Rainforest and Savanna
1 - 18 October 2007
Nick Athanas & Scott Olmstead
Tour report by:
Photo right: Black Jacobin by Scott Olmstead
All photos were taken on the tour
Ask me what comes first to mind when I hear the world "Brazil", and I might mention the great birds, nice Brazilian hospitality, the Churrascurias, Caipirinhas, futebol, beaches covered with sun-loving locals, the beautiful landmarks of Rio, and the like. We saw all of this on our tour (though often from a distance!), but one of the more incredible features was the weather: The weather was good, and sometimes too good. A mild cold front for the first week of the trip gave us welcome temperatures in the lower elevations, a few clouds, but no rain. In fact, apart from a brief storm at Canastra, we had no rain at all for the entire trip. Once the front moved away, hot and dry conditions prevailed for most of the rest of our time, even up in the mountains. This made bird activity quieter than might normally be expected, yet we still managed to see a greater proportion of the endemics and regional specialties on this tour than on any previous one I have led. How often can you see every cotinga on the list including the ultra-rare Gray-winged? We had an amazing run on antbirds, missing only Great Antshrike, the most widespread of them all. The birds truly did perform spectacularly despite the drought, and we even had a few unforgettable mammal moments: a rare Oncilla in the road, that beautiful Maned Wolf at Caraça, and one lucky person even saw a troop of Muriquis, or Woolly Spider Monkeys: the biggest and one of the rarest of the New World monkeys.BIRD LIST
Everything went smoothly, with a near total lack of logistical problems. Long drives are an unavoidable part of birding tours in Brazil, but the comfortable van, convenient restaurants, good luck with the traffic, and the occasional impromptu birding stop made them easy to bear. I still have not had a flat tire on a Brazil tour, a streak that I hope continues for many years. Our group was pleasant and entertaining, not to mention helpful with finding birds and getting people on them, and that always adds to the enjoyment (and the list).
Intervales State Park
Once we had all arrived in São Paulo (more or less on time, luckily), we drove the 4.5 hours to Intervales State Park. It may seem a bit out of the way, but the fantastic birding here always justifies it. We had a big flock even before we could dump our suitcases in our rooms, including the endemic Azure-shouldered and Golden-chevroned Tanagers. Eager to be out birding, we first called in a male Large-tailed Antshrike near the lodge that was too close to focus on, then went down to see one of the Swallow-tailed Cotinga nests that Luis, the local bird guide, had staked out (photo below). Later in the afternoon we birded near the research station, where the highlight was a Serra Tyrant-Manakin, the only one we saw well the whole tour.
Swallow-tailed Cotinga nesting at Intervales (Photo: Nick Athanas)
We had two full days at Intervales, and they were loaded with beautiful birds. Luis was, as always, very helpful in finding some of the local specialties. His knowledge of the local birds and their vocalizations is pretty impressive. We spent most of our time on the Carmo road, which descends through lush montane forest laden with bamboo. Here we saw Hooded Berryeater, Cinnamon-vented Piha, Giant and Tufted Antshrikes, Squamate, Ochre-rumped, and Bertoni's Antbirds, Green-chinned Euphonia, Saffron Toucanet, and some southern Atlantic Rainforest specialties like Ochre-collared Piculet and Scalloped Woodcreeper. The rare and endangered Black-fronted Piping-Guan was one of our most hoped-for birds, and we finally got it on the second day after having only glimpses on the first. A stop at Luis's Plovercrest lek near the start of this track was worth it to see the distinctive southern race of this cool little hummer, with its blue crest and white border around its breast (photo below).
Birding around the headquarters themselves can be surprisingly good, and we took some time after lunch to see the "soon-to-be-split" southern race of Red-eyed Thornbird and a nice Dusky-tailed Antbird.
In the afternoons we birded a different track with some surprisingly good mixed species flocks. We had great studies of two uncommon flycatchers, Oustalet's and Sao Paulo Tyrannulets, nearly side-by-side, as well as Ochre-breasted, White-collared, and White-browed Foliage-gleaners, Sharp-billed Treehunter, and out first Spot-backed Antshrike. Bare-throated Bellbird was easy to see along here, with males "bonking" from several open trees (photo above). At dusk, Luis's spot for Long-trained Nightjar was so good that we came back again a second night, where it put on the most amazing show, flying circles around us, undulating up and down almost as if it were being flown like the kites so popular among Brazilian children. Check out Scott's photo below; that tail is like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps... well, you get the idea. While I never took a vote, this seemed to be the consensus for "bird of the trip". It also happened to be Phil's 8000th lifer, a milestone that very few have ever reached, and well worth celebrating with a round of caipirinhas that evening.
Long-trained Nightjar at Intervales. (Photo: Scott Olmstead)
After a few failed owling attempts, we finally made the extra effort and spent a few hours after dinner on our last night. We hit the jackpot, first with a fierce-looking Variable Screech-Owl very close, then, with a lot more work, a fabulous Rusty-barred Owl, looking down at us somehow sadly, giving it's amazing song (click here to listen).
It was a long drive to get from Intervales to Ubatuba, but traffic through São Paulo was light, and we broke it up with a stop at a marsh east of the city for a couple of nice antbirds: the new population of Parana Antwren that could prove to be a new species, and a handsome Rufous-capped Antshrike. The birding around Ubatuba was really terrific, and the lingering cold front made it a lot more pleasant than it otherwise would have been. We spent our first morning at Folha Seca, which even without Jonas's feeders would be a top birding site. I was surprised to find that the bamboo here was seeding, and two nomadic seedeaters, Buff-fronted and Temminck's, proved to be surprisingly common here. A mind-blowing Blond-crested Woodpecker was next, but we were quickly distracted by our most hoped-for bird here: a Slaty Bristlefront sang in the open right beside the road for us. After feasting our eyes on that, a big and beautiful White-throated Woodcreeper hitched up a tree nearby, and then soon afterward someone spotted a soaring White-necked Hawk, which was soon joined by another. A clearing was so full of birds that we hardly knew where to look - mostly common ones, but fun in any case to watch Red-rumped Caciques and several different becards nesting, with Piratic Flycatchers waiting to move in if the chance arose. White-chinned Sapphires and tiny Reddish Hermits buzzed around and a variety of tanagers came through the canopy. Later on we found some mixed flocks with the endemic Unicolored Antwren and Scaled Antbird, and found our only Crescent-chested Puffbird of the tour. Relaxing at Jonas's feeders was a nice respite, and we saw ten different hummers as well as tanagers, euphonias, and honeycreepers on the bananas. Jonas has invented a double-layer hummer feeder that seems to be bee-proof - maybe he should patent the idea!
Our visits to the base of the Corcovado peak failed to turn up the hoped-for Russet-winged Spadebill, but we did find a distant Black-and-white Hawk Eagle and our best sighting of White-eyed Foliage-gleaner.
The Angelim private rainforest reserve was pumping as well. We saw a Buff-throated Purpletuft almost a soon as we arrived, and then tracked down a singing Spotted Bamboowren for a great view. Farther down the track we found a Pale-browed treehunter, then lucked into a great mixed flock with Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, Salvadori's Antwren, and Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant. If that wasn't enough, we were treated to a view of a rare Buff-bellied Puffbird eating a huge katydid on the way back. (Watch Scottīs video here.)The last afternoon we headed back to Folha Seca, where a Mantled Hawk put in a brief appearance, then a few Blue-bellied Parrots flew over (though it was a rotten view). Better was the family of Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrants, where one very busy adult was trying to keep two fledglings fed.
A Buff-bellied Puffbird eating a katydid. (Photo: Nick Athanas)
On our way to the Guapi Assu Ecological Reserve (Regua), we had time to stop in the scrubby forest north of Perequê to look for the rare and local Black-hooded Antwren. While this bird alone is reason enough to go there, I have never had a slow morning at Perequê - this time we had Spot-billed Toucanets even before we got to the site, and in a neighboring tree were two Saffron Toucanets - now that is a hard combo to match. The Black-hooded Antwrens behaved well for us, as we all saw several males and a few of the group saw a female. After a few more nice sightings like Hangnest Tody-Tyrant, Frilled Coquette, Robust Woodpecker, and Rufous Gnateater, we settled in for the long drive to Regua (with a welcome stop at a terrific churrascuria).
Thanks to the light traffic through Rio, we arrived a bit earlier than expected. After settling into the lovely Guapi Assu Bird Lodge, we had time to take a walk around the nearby wetlands. When I first visited Regua back in 2004, the wetlands were just a few small, overgrown ponds. There were some nice birds in them, to be sure, but what they've done in the last few years is nothing short of amazing! The place is now teeming with herons, egrets, ducks, grebes, rails, snipes, blackbirds, and plenty of others. There aren't only common birds here; in recent years, the Regua wetlands have become known as one of the best places to see the rare and imposing Giant Snipe. We saw them on two different evenings, and once we had two birds fly very low and close for an unusually good view. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
As we walked around enjoying the spectacle on the wetlands, we encountered an enthusiastic young birder named Eduardo Gelli. With his excellent English and impressive knowledge of the birds and their vocalizations, it was a shock to learn he was only 15! Later that night he gave us a nice slideshow of the birds of the region, very eager to share his knowledge with us. It was a pleasure to get to know him. That evening we also met Nicholas Locke and his wife Raquel, the managers of the reserve, who told us all about what was happening on the reserve, and as always, went out of their way to make our visit here one of the highlights of the tour.
We spent the better part of a day on the Waterfall Trail. It's somewhat of a long walk, but the trail isn't too difficult. Birds came slowly but steadily as we encountered Southern Antpipit, Yellow-eared Woodpecker, lots of sharp Pin-tailed Manakins, and the Atlantic Forest races of Turquoise Tanager and White-flanked Antwren, both likely splits. After later morning, there was still no sign of the hoped-for Shrike-like Cotinga, when we finally reached the start of the Red Trail. Thanks to a rumor that there was a Russet-winged Spadebill up there, we decided to do the first few hundred yards of this very steep trail. No spadebill again, but it all became worthwhile when Adelai, one of the park rangers, came running up announcing that he had found a Shrike-like Cotinga. Fortune was with us again as the cooperative male sat singing by the side of the trail long enough for everyone to feast eyes upon it.
Hoping to find Blue-bellied Parrot, Adelai and Phil carried on up the steep Red Trail while the rest of us went back down to the waterfall for lunch, then walked back down to the van. It was a bit of a shock when they caught up with us later, not having seen any Blue-bellied Parrots, but having encountered a troop of 15 Muriquis! This is the biggest and one of the rarest of all the New World monkeys, and not even Nicholas has ever seen this beast after living half his life at Regua.
We rose extra early one morning to make a special visit to Pico da Caledônia, the highest mountain on the east side of the Serra dos Ôrgãos mountain range. This mountain has become well known among birders lately, as has been found to be the easiest accessible site to find the ultra-rare Gray-winged Cotinga. A steep road goes all the way up to the narrow band of montane forest that this bird needs. With the help of Nicholas's powerful Land Rover, we got to within a few hundred yards of the site, and birded our way up the steep cobblestone road, enjoying nice views of Mouse-colored Tapaculo, Bay-chested Warbling-Finch, Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Rufous-backed Antvireo, Rufous-tailed Antbird, Brassy-breasted Tanager, and a few others along the way. We heard the cotinga very quickly, and with the cloudy weather we thought that, with patience, we actually had a chance to see it. So began our vigil, as we scanned treetops trying to track the source of that ghostly call. Finally, after well over an hour, Phil, Keith, & Nicholas had an ever-so-brief view of a "probable" just instants before the clouds came down and enveloped the tree it was in. Over the next hour and a half, we had to wait for holes in the fog where we might finally see out over the canopy again. As it so often is with birding, patience was finally rewarded when Dick spotted it in the same tree, and this time the clouds stayed up long enough for everyone to get it in our scopes. A distant but clear view of this mega-rarity made it all worthwhile.
All too soon it was time to leave Regua behind, but on the way to Itatiaia, we went out of our way again for another endemic antwren, this one restricted to a narrow band of coastal scrub to the east of Rio. Fortunately Restinga Antwrens are common in their remaining patches of habitat, and we had no difficulty finding a confiding pair. A male Sooretama Slaty-Antshrike was a nice bonus before we headed on to Itatiaia.
By the time we arrived at the hotel, the cold front had been pushed back by an area of high pressure that made it unusually warm even high up in the mountains. We feared that the hot and dry weather might make things difficult here, but our time at Itatiaia was as good as anywhere else we had been. We first started in the lower area of the park near our hotel, where White-bearded Antshrike, one of the scarcest of the Atlantic Forest endemic antbirds, was high on our target list after having unexpectedly missed it in Intervales. It wasn't easy, but we finally did have a terrific view of a male working in a bamboo tangle. Two pretty antthrushes, Such's and Brazilian, are usually easier to see here than elsewhere on the itinerary, and we managed great views of both with a little less difficulty than usual. A stunningly handsome male White-bibbed Antbird was also surprisingly easy as he paraded around a nice open bamboo thicket just off the trail. A passing birder very kindly showed us a roosting Tawny-browed Owl (Photo right, Scott Olmstead), which saved us the trouble of having to go look for it at night. The feeders at the Hotel do Ypê were slower than usual, but we did find a trip-exclusive Blue-naped Chlorophonia, even better views of a male Frilled Coquette, and some close views of several other tanagers that we had seen previously. Flowers around the Hotel Simon brought in the endemic Dusty-throated Hermit, a bird that had eluded us up until that point.
The higher parts of the park on the Algulhas Negras road were, if anything, even better than the lower areas. One of the first birds we found was a handsome male Black-and-gold Cotinga, sitting on a perfectly exposed branch and singing it's eerie wailing song (photo below, Scott Olmstead). Working up the road, we found flocks with Bay-chested and Red-rumped Warbling-Finches, Diademed Tanager, Thick-billed Saltator, Greenish Tyrannulet, and some other birds previously only seen up on Pico da Caledônia. Moving higher up the road, we finally found the flock we were waiting for: the one with the Black-capped Piprites in it. This scarce and enigmatic bird (photo from a previous trip here), which can't possibly be a manakin, is easy to miss up here, and it was nice to see it as well as we did. Higher up the mountain, the forest peters out into a dense brushland with a few araucaria groves. This is the haunt of the off Itatiaia Thistletail, and we walked around a marshy area and found quite a lot of these subtly pretty birds moving around in the scrub. The nearby araucaria grove gave us the expected Araucaria Tit-Spinetails, as well as possibly the best view ever of a singing Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper.
The poor state of the road kept us from going up any higher (the scenery is nice, but there aren't any key birds up there), so we drove back down and checked into our hotel at the start of the road. We planned a short afternoon outing to look for Speckle-breasted Antpitta. Finally at dusk, we heard one down the slope. Too late to see it, but we knew where to look the next morning! We were out there bright and early, and discovered to our surprise that it was not that difficult to go down off the road after the distantly singing antpitta. Even better, as we approached it, the understory grew thin, and we knew we had a shot at it. Within minutes we had out first glimpses, though it took a bit more time to get everyone a good view. The morning wasn't over yet, as just before we got back in the van, Joe spotted a cat 100 yards down the road, and incredibly it stayed there just long enough for eveyone to get binoculars on it! After some discussion and consultation of a mammal field guide, we all concurred that it was an Oncilla - a rare cat indeed and a lifer for all present! For several of the group, this featherless creature became the best sighting of the tour! Breakfast tasted a lot better after that, and we set off on the fairly long drive to São Roque, making good time and even having time for some afternoon birding (Toco Toucan, Sooty-fronted Spinetail, Hooded Tanager, Stripe-breasted Starthroat) before arriving at our hotel, the Pousada Barcelos, just before dark.
Serra da Canastra NP
Best known for it's Brazilian Mergansers, this area would be a fantastic birding destination even without rare ducks. The combination of cerrado scrubland, tall grasslands, gallery forest, and open fields gives a nice variety of birds, and complements the Atlantic Forest nicely. On our first full day, we concentrated on the lower parts of the park, where there is easier access to the São Francisco river and therefore better chances to find the critically endangered Brazilian Merganser. We arrived at the crack of dawn, trying to beat the crowds and ensuing clouds of dust that would inevitably appear on this holiday weekend. Our first try only turned up Muscovies, and we headed towards the main park entrance, which suddenly was opening an hour earlier as Brazil had switched to daylight savings time that very morning. Despite our rush, we did stop to look at a cracking Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and our best Red-legged Seriema before the gates. Much to our disappointment, the drought prevailing over much of Minas Gerais had left the Casca D'Anta waterfall not much more than a trickle, and water levels here were so low that it was not surprising there no mergansers. We did enjoy seeing a male Helmeted Manakin dressed like royalty as well as a few other birds in the gallery forest like Flavescent and White-bellied Warblers, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, and Rufous-headed and Gilt-edged Tanagers. Large numbers of Great Dusky Swifts were nesting around the waterfall, and it was nice to see them so well. Heading back out towards Vargem Bonita, it was now mid-day and we were starting to stress over the lack of mergs. A quick stop at a wooden bridge changed our fortunes abruptly as finally a pair of Brazilian Mergansers came screaming down river, flying right past us at close range! Great flight views, though brief. However an hour later we finally had a single bird swimming in the river, at exactly the same spot we had first checked at dawn with no success. It was a good day!
The upper parts of the park with its tall grasslands and vast open spaces are a world apart and totally unlike anything else on this tour. The park gates don't open until 8am, so we spent a productive hour and a half birding the cerrado below the entrance. We finally found a flock of the beautiful endemic Golden-capped Parakeet, and picked up a huge bonus, several Cinereous Warbling-Finches that came in to mob a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. With those under our belts, we passed through the gates into a different world. One of first birds was a Black-masked Finch (photo left, Scott Olmstead), which sat up in the open for at least five minutes! They only do this early in the morning, then go down into the grass and become very hard to find. Soon after, we started seeing the fantastic Cock-tailed Tyrants (photo above, Scott Olmstead). In fact, we saw more of them than I have ever seen in a single day, they seemed to be everywhere, the males looking a lot like toy airplanes as they flew around the grasslands. Working our way farther into the park, we stopped for evil-looking Gray Monjitas, cute Sharp-tailed Tyrants, and tried unsuccessfully to see a Brazilian Tapaculo. Fortunately in the same place we found our only Gray-backed Tachuri and several Tawny-headed Swallows.
These grasslands burn fairly regularly as part of their natural regeneration process, and one bird, the Campo Miner, has evolved to specialize in these recently burned areas. Thanks to the drought, we knew there had to be some burned areas somewhere, and Bruno, the manager of Pousada Barcelos, helpfully told us where to look. It was long, bumpy drive on a corrugated dirt to get there, but it was worth it! We quickly found one doing its hover display, then enjoyed watching one run around on the ground, occasionally perching up on termite mounds. While eating lunch, a bulky Red-winged Tinamou walked across the road, and Scott ran over to flush it, so we all got to see the red wings as it flew away. An afternoon walk through the grasslands failed to turn up any pipits, but we did flush up a Spotted Nothura, which flew away giving its distinctive ringing call.
A Campo Miner surveying its territory from the top of termite mound. (Photo: Scott Olmstead)
We headed back east, making a quick stop at a city park for a nice pair of Three-toed Jacamars (click for a photo from a previous trip), then passing the sprawling city of Belo Horizonte and continuing on to Caraça. This old and historic monastery has been converted into a lodge set amid spectacular mountain scenery. There is an odd mix of Atlantic Forest and scrubby savanna, and while the birding can be great, it is a beautiful mammal, the elegant Maned Wolf, that is really the star attraction here. For many years now, the monks have been putting meat out on the church steps every night to feed these wild animals, and they come in most nights. One look at these beasts and you realize that they are definitely not tame!
A Maned Wolf coming in to eat raw chicken on the church steps.
(Photo: David Pantle)
However, this was a birding trip after all, so we didn't spend all of our time admiring the huge puppies. One of the star birds here is yet another endemic antwren, the Serra Antwren, and we found it easily, along with other goodies like White-breasted Tapaculo, Pale-throated Serra-Finch, Drab-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, more Swallow-tailed Cotingas, and out best view yet of Yellow-browed Woodpecker.
Serra de Cipó
This mountain range NE of Belo Horizonte was our last stop on the tour, and is best known for the canastero of the same name. The first afternoon, we did not worry about the canastero, and instead concentrated on other things, like the outrageous Hyacinth Visorbearer. We had seen one badly at Caraça, but this time we had some great close views of a male. A nearby road through some cerrado and farmland produced the hoped-for Yellow-billed Blue Finch, coming in from a huge distance to check us out, and then a single White-rumped Tanager (photo right, Scott Olmstead). Some last-ditch nightbirding was a hit as we got scope views of a singing Spot-tailed Nightjar, then called a Band-winged Nightjar in to land right in the road in front of us.
On our last morning, we made an effort to be high up the mountain at daybreak, hoping to hear the Cipó Canasteros singing at dawn. The wind was annoyingly strong, and at first we only had Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finch. We carried on until we found an area sheltered from the wind, and suddenly there was one singing close by. Soon we had seen two canasteros and heard another, and after watching them for a time we even found a nest. Scott examined it later and found that it had three eggs. With a little time left still, we went back down to the cerrado road and finally located a perched male Horned Sungem, with certainly made Joe the "hummer-aholic" very happy. We even saw about five more of them the rest of the morning! But time was up and we had to head for the airport in Belo Horizonte to catch our flights, and suddenly the trip was over, but memories will linger on for a long time to come.
This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of us. Taxonomy and nomenclature follow:
Clements, James F. 2000. Birds of the World: A Checklist. Fifth Edition. Vista, CA: Ibis Publishing Co.
I have also included the last updates to the list. The 2007 version of the Clements list has now been published. Apart from the taxonomical order in some of the families, it is almost the same as the last update to the fifth edition.
I have put in comments for nearly all the endemics, near endemics, rare species, and sightings of particular interest. Common and widespread species are usually listed without comments.
Marmoset sp. (Callithrix sp.)
Brown Capuchin Monkey (Cebus apella)
Masked Titi Monkey (Callicebus personatus)
H Brown Howler Monkey (Alouatta guariba)
Southern Muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides)
Guianan Squirrel (Sciurus aestuans)
Southern Bamboo Rat (Kannabateomys amblyonyx)
Spix's Yellow-toothed Cavy (Galea spixii)
Red-rumped Agouti (Dasyprocta agouti)
Tayra (Eira barbara)
Crab-eating Fox (Cerdocyon thous)
Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus)
Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus)
We had just spotted a Cipó Canastero! (Photo: Scott Olmstead)