Atlantic Rainforest and Savanna
13-30 October 2008
Tour leader: Nick Athanas
Photo right: Shrike-like Cotinga at REGUA
This is the fifth time I've done this itinerary and again it was a fun and very productive trip. It's a fast-paced tour that covers a lot of ground, but that gives the chance to sample a great variety of habitats and go for lots of those very localized endemics that Brazil is so famous for. Some rain in the middle kept things cool in the lowlands, and though it may have cost us a couple of raptors, it did not dampen spirits, and we really did quite well despite it. Otherwise it was clear, hot, and sunny for at least two-thirds of the trip. Some notable highlights included fantasic views of all the "big five" antshrikes, great cotingas like the Shrike-like pictured to the right and even the ultra-rare Gray-winged for some, 30+ antbirds, all the possible ground antbirds, and the Maned Wolves of Caraça. Perhaps most important, we again had a wonderful group of people from four different countries, all helpful, respectful, and fun to travel with. It makes all the difference on a trip. Thank you all for coming!
The trip started in Guarulhos, a city located on the northeast edge of the megapolis of São Paulo. Pierre and Phillipe's flight from Toronto happily landed on time, and we headed out in our Mercedes van. It was good to leave the traffic-choked, smog-enshrouded metropolis behind as we drove west then south for several hours to Intervales State Park. I always love starting a trip here. The lodges and cafeteria are right next to the forest and there is always something to see. I barely had time to check in before the first of many Swallow-tailed Cotingas turned up, followed by a fantastic Chestnut-headed Tanager, here at the northern limit of it's range and a first for us on this itinerary. A parade of more common tanagers followed as we quickly saw Ruby-crowned, Sayaca, Azure-shouldered, Golden-chevroned, and Diademed, all of which we would see many more times through the trip. A beautiful White-throated Woodcreeper followed, as well as the usual gamut of common species, before we headed off down the road to a stakeout for Long-trained Nightjar just before dusk. This bird certainly did not disappoint as it put on a stunning show, flying around over us and also perching for a while at very close distance on a tall stump, a terrific finale to what was just the first day.
Intervales has miles of wide dirt tracks that snake through forested hills laden with bamboo, and we spent the next two days working them as much as possible. Each morning we had an early Brazilian style breakfast, met up with a local ranger named Faustino (who is already a good birder and getting better every day), and headed out into the forest. The first day we worked the Carmo track, always my favorite, and as usual there was plenty to keep us busy. A pair of nesting Bay-ringed Tyrannulets started things off, followed by the first flock of Maroon-bellied Parakeets. Working slowly down the road we picked up Ochre-collared Piculet, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, several Robust Woodpeckers, Rufous-capped Spinetail, Buff-fronted and Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaners, Spot-breasted Antvireo, Bertoni's and Ochre-rumped Antbirds, Sharpbill, Cinnamon-vented Piha, Brown Tanager, Half-collared Sparrow, and the very local Green-chinned Euphonia. Good views of a pair of the rare Black-legged Dacnis was very satisfying, and lekking Blue Manakins blue everyone's mind. A brief view of a Crescent-chested Puffbird turned out to be the only sighting of the tour. It took a special effort to get the tiny and unassuming Brown-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, but amazingly everyone got a good view in the end (that doesn't happen often). Just before lunch, we finally spotted our first Bare-throated Bellbird after having heard them all morning, then got distracted by a Plovercrest lek. Faustino had to cut a trail with his machete to get us down near the birds, and it took a lot of time to finally spot one of these beautiful hummers, chirping form inside dense growth. Still, the result made the late lunch all the better.
After a siesta, Faustino found a roosting Tropical Screech-Owl, then we headed back out to the Carmo track to bird a different section. Hooded Berryeater finally gave us the looks we hoped for, and we found a massive flock of Olive Tanagers. Amazingly, a Brown Tinamou showed briefly on the edge of the trail, a bird that is rarely seen despite it's relative abundance. We spent much of the rest of the afternoon looking for Black-fronted Piping-Guan, a rare bird that sadly never showed for us, but this slight disappointment couldn't dampen the great experience that is Intervales.
The next morning, after stopping at the forest edge to see Gray-hooded Attila and Shear-tailed Gray-Tyrant, we birded a different track through forest with a more open understory and less bamboo. This made it easier to find some of the shy skulkers, and we connected early with surprisingly easy views of Rufous-breasted Leaftosser and Short-tailed Antthrush, which sat up on a low branch and sang for ages. Variegated Antpitta is a super-shy bird, but with patience about half the group managed to get some decent views of this tough skulker. Activity continued throughout the morning, with four different woodcreepers (including Scalloped), both Pale-browed Treehunter and Sharp-billed Treehunters, and I especially enjoyed seeing both Sao Paulo and Oustalet's Tyrannulets almost side-by-side. Later in the morning, a big mixed flock came through in a whirlwind of feathers, and it was hard to know which way to look. The first Brassy-breasted Tanagers grabbed everyone attention, but the sudden appearance of a Spot-backed Antshrike caused a stir. But it was the distinctive ringing song of a Giant Antshrike that pulled us away from that crazy flock. While not an endemic, this amazing antbird, by far the biggest of the family, is always a top priority on this tour, and we followed it's song down the trail, eventually pinning down a singing male for prolonged scope views. Just before lunch, we stopped at the marsh near the cafeteria to see the southern race of Red-eyed Thornbird. Later in the afternoon, we birded some secondary scrub for Serra Tyrant-Manakin and Olivaceous Elaenia, before heading back to Carmo for one last try at the guans. While they still didn't show, Wilfried managed to spot a Buff-bellied Puffbird, a great find.
Our final morning only gave us a few more hours of birding before making the very long drive to Ubatuba, but those two hours provided some of the trips best birds. Perhaps the most notable was the male Large-tailed Antshrike that sat up in the open in full view and even allowed itself to be digiscoped! If that wasn't enough, a confiding pair of White-bearded Antshrikes hopped around in the branches over our heads for many minutes. And then there was the Rufous-tailed Attila... We had heard at least six different individuals over the previous two days, but they were always either two far away or unresponsive to playback. Finally, just when it was time to leave, it full in to the trees right by the dirt track we were birding, and we all got it. This is an odd austral migrant, breeding in the Atlantic Forest region, and the migrating north into the Amazon in the austral winter. It's a bird that has always eluded me, and it was one of my two lifers on the tour.
Our long drive to Ubatuba was broken up by a short stop in a marsh east of São Paulo for the endemic Paraná Antwren. Strong winds made it tough, but we finally nailed it down at the eleventh hour for great views. We finally arrived at our quiet hotel with its great restaurant, and enjoyed a relaxing dinner with some beers and caipirinhas.
The winds of the previous afternoon had signaled a change in the weather, and the morning dawned cool and cloudy. However, it was still dry and we enjoyed a great morning with a load of good birds at the private reserve of Fazenda Angelim. White-eyed and the terrific Black-capped Foliage-gleaners were in a flock with the endemic Unicolored Antwren almost as soon as we started. A Spotted Bamboowren started singing shortly thereafter, and we all scrambled inside a bamboo thicket and called it in so close that bins were not even needed. We had barely returned to the trail when a soft high-pitched whistle betrayed the location of the tiny, cute, and highly endangered Buff-throated Purpletuft, but they were then trumped by a glorious pair of Tufted Antshrikes that pretended like we weren't even there. They were quickly followed by a responsive Red-eyed Thornbird (the northern race with the weird orange eye). There were many other amazing birds that morning, like Scaled and Ferruginous Antbirds, Rufous-capped Antthrush, Rufous Gnateater, Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, and our first Green-headed Tanagers. After a nice buffet lunch by the sea, we drove to Folha Seca and Jonas's justly famous hummer feeders. A great place to spend the afternoon since the skies opened up just after we found a Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and it rained the rest of the day. Hummers love the rain and kept of coming, as we watched swarms that included Saw-billed Hermit, Sombre and Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, Black Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Festive Coquette, Violet-capped Woodnymph, Versicolored and Glittering-throated Emeralds, and Brazilian Ruby.
Next morning we returned to Folha Seca and had to deal with some spells of rain through the morning. Activity was down from yesterday, but with some work we saw Black-cheeked Gnateater, Slaty Bristlefront, Thrush-like Woodcreeper, Gray-hooded Flycatcher, Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher, and Red-necked Tanager, among other more common birds. A White-necked Hawk that disappeared into the mist was such a dreadful view that sadly no one could put it on their lists. An Amethyst Woodstar was the only new hummer at the feeders, but it was the Blond-crested Woodpecker that stole the show. He flew back and forth over the clearing a few times before finally sitting where he could be admired by all.
The rain still wasn't finished on the day we left Ubatuba. We had an important stop to make en route to Guapi Assu near the town of Perequê, and the pouring rain made prospects dim. Luckily, it let up just long enough for us to hit our two main targets, the local and endangered Black-hooded Antwren and the pretty Squamate Antbird which we had missed in Intervales. A bonus was the endemic Yellow-eared Woodpecker, here at the southern limit of its range, and the first time I'd ever seen it here before.
We arrived at Guapi Assu during a break in the rain, and we headed straight down to the restored wetlands not far from the lodge. They get better every year, and we all enjoyed a bit of "easy" birding. Waterfowl were present in good numbers, including Brazilian Teal, White-faced Whistling-Duck, and more Masked Ducks than I'd ever seen in one place before. The handsome Capped Herons were a hit, and endemic Tail-banded Horneros were strutting along the edges. Near the wetlands there is a recently reforested area that is now bursting with young trees, and here we found a nice male Chestnut-backed Antshrike, and tried a Long-billed Wren - he proved shy at first and it took us two more attempts over the following afternoons to finally have a nice clear view of a pair. Rain then set in, so we abandoned any ideas of nightbirding and headed back to the lodge.
Next day was again cool and cloudy, but fortunately the rain held off, since he spent most of the day walking on forest trails up in the reserve. Local guides had told us that there was a singing male Shrike-like Cotinga about 2.8 km from the start of the trail system, and there wasn't anyone of us who wasn't going to give that a go! It's hard to rush through this forest though, and we stopped to look at a variety of birds on the way up like the "soon-to-be-split" White-flanked Antwren, endemic Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrants, Southern Antpipit, Star-throated Antwren, Spot-billed Toucanet, and a few fabulous male Pin-tailed Manakins. The cotinga singing exactly where promised as we arrived, and after some brief distant views, we tracked him down off the trail for mega close-ups (his photo headlines this report). There was also a bit of excitement when Wilfried found a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper at a little brook, before we headed bacl to the lodge for a break. The hummers were active at the feeders, and while there wasn't anything new, we enjoyed seeing beauties like the Swallow-tailed Hummer below. In the afternoon, we hit the wetlands again, this time determined to do some nightbirding even though the rained started up again, and our persistence was rewarded with stunning views of the scarce Striped Owl, as well as a Common Potoo and a few Pauraques.
Finally the weather cleared up overnight, and a beautiful sunny dawn saw us on our way up to Pico da Caledonia, the highest mountain in the region and the only easily-accessible spot for the rare and fiendishly-difficult Gray-winged Cotinga. After a few hours of hearing its distinctive ringing calls, the cotinga did put in one brief appearance on a distant treetop, but sadly only a few of the group got to the scope in time to see it. The trip was still worthwhile for some nice looks at Rufous-capped Antshrike, Blue-billed Black-Tyrant, Mouse-colored Tapaculo, Rufous-tailed Antbird, and Bay-chested Warbling-Finch. We special stop on the way back to Guapi Assu to find Dusky-tailed Antbird, which obliged nicely, and also found our only Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulets of the trip. Again we returned to the wetlands late afternoon, enjoying the beautiful weather. The wrens finally came out, the rails didn't (again), and a single Giant Snipe flew over right after dusk for just a silhouette view. A male Scissor-tailed Nightjar floating over the marsh was nice, and we again tracked down the Striped Owl for Dotty and Judy.
The weather remained sunny and clear, and would for the rest of our tour. Off we went early next morning from Guapi Assu, making a big detour to the Atlantic coast to see the critically endangered Restinga Antwen in the coastal scrub. Strong winds blowing offshore didn't help with seabirds, but some coastal lagoons held White-cheeked Pintails, Yellow-billed Terns, Gray-hooded Gulls, and a few wintering shorebirds. Lunch was in an excellent churrascuria (Brazilian steakhouse) on the outskirts of Rio. While crossing the Niterói bridge (13.3 km, the longest in South America and the 19th longest in the world), we even got to see Rio's famous landmarks Pão de Açucar and Cristo Redentor in the distance. We drove through the hot afternoon to Itatiaia NP and the wonderful Hotel do Ypê with it's feeders, mountain views, and great service. The hummer feeders were always good, and the gaudy Frilled Coquette was even putting regular appearances along with more species like Black Jacobin and White-throated Hummer. The fruit feeders were strangely unpopular, but at least the Saffron Toucanets put in a few appearances. Some afternoon birding near the lodge gave us a few goodies like Red-breasted Toucan, Gray-capped Tyrannulet, Pallid Spinetail, and best of all, a White-bibbed Antbird that required a special effort. Judy lucked out and saw a rare Blackish-blue Seedeater in the bamboo behind here cabin, the only sighting on the tour, and after dinner a Tawny-browed Owl showed up just outside, which we all saw well in the spotlight.
I like to think of that full day at Itatiaia as "antthrush day", since by that point in the tour those are always the key species to look for. This time was no exception, as we put in serious time to see the two endemics, Brazilian Antthrush and Such's Antthrush. As usual they were not easy, but in the end almost everyone saw each one, and at point both species were nearly side-by-side! There was time to look for other birds too, and we connected with perched Pileated Parrots, Buffy-fronted and Temminck's Seedeaters, Uniform Finch, Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, Drab-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, Gilt-edged Tanager, and Black-billed Scythebill.
The Algulhas Negras traverses the higher elevations of Itatiaia NP, and is the easiest place on the tour to see the high-elevation specialties. A few we had seen already at Pico da Caledonia, but many were new, like Red-rumped Warbling-Finch, Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Greenish Tyrannulet, Rufous-backed Antvireo, and Black-capped Piprites. Working our way up the road, we stopped to see Black-and-gold Cotinga, Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, a Swallow-tailed Cotinga building a nest, a huge lek of Plovercrests, and finally the endemic Itatiaia Spinetail at a scrubby little marsh. By lunchtime, we had seen almost all of our targets, so check into our hotel at the start of the road and took a break during the heat of the day, finding our first Velvety Black-Tyrants. Late in the afternoon, we went back out with one main thing on our minds: ANTPITTA. The pretty little Speckle-breasted Antpitta seems to have become much harder to see in recent years, and so far we had not even heard one. I played for it along a likely stretch of road, and finally one responded distantly down the slope. Off the road we went, down a surprisingly gently slope until we were very close, and patiently called it. He came, though unfortunately to a spot where only half the group could see it, then disappeared down the slope for good. But that's often the way it is with these guys, and I still enjoyed the experience. We did return briefly the next morning and try again, but never got close, but we also finally had a decent look at a Gray-bellied Spinetail to make the trip more worthwhile.
It was time to leave the Atlantic Forest behind for a few days as we headed north into drier areas, stopping a few times along the way for Streamer-tailed Tyrant, Toco Toucan, and few others, before arriving at São Roque de Minas. This normally quiet town was in the midst of their annual Cheese Festival, which had unfortunately been rescheduled due to clashing with local elections the previous month. Brazilians love to party, and loud music from a nearby concert made nights rather restless for us.
We had two full days in Canastra, and the most "famous" bird that occurs here is the critically-endangered Brazilian Merganser. It was a pity that for the first time ever on our tours to Canastra, we failed to see this duck, despite many hours of searching appropriate stretches of river. We did not spend every waking moment searching (there are way too many other cool birds occurring here to do that), and spent plenty of time in a variety of habitats. Gallery forest had Helmeted Manakin, Saffron-billed Sparrow, and Plush-crested Jay, the tall grasslands were good for some very localized specialties like Sharp-tailed Tyrant, Cock-tailed Tyrant, and Ochre-breasted Pipit, along with more common birds like Gray Monjita, Firewood-gatherer, Great Pampa-Finch, and Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch. Most unbelievably, some of the group actually saw a Dwarf Tinamou. Herman almost stepped on one and flushed this quail-sized bird out of the grass, causing it to fly right in front of us for a few seconds before dropping down again. I played back to it and it responded with its very distinctive erratic, whistled song, though never did show again. This is one of the hardest birds in all of South America to see and it was my second lifer of the tour. In the cerrado we saw Black-throated Saltator, Plain-crested and Lesser Elaenias, Cinnamon Tanager, Gray-backed Tachuri, Pileated Finch, and Plumbeous Seedeater, and a stakeout nearby once again produced a flock of beautiful and local Golden-capped Parakeets. Even the farmland was fun to bird with lots of Red-legged Seriemas, some Yellow-browed Tyrants, White-rumped Monjitas, Yellow-chevroned and Peach-fronted Parakeets, White-throated Kingbirds, Orange-headed Tanager, and plenty more. Hummers were scarce until we finally checked the feeders in Vargem Bonita and saw White-vented Violet-ear, Planalto Hermit, and a female Stripe-breasted Starthroat. Both days were, long and hot, yet very productive for birds and we made the most of them.
We drove east towards Belo Horizonte, making a short but sweet stop at Fernão Dias State Park for the endangered Three-toed Jacamar. A single bird was in the same place as last year, and we also added Flavescent Warbler and Dark-billed Cuckoo, before carrying on to Caraça. This lodge was converted from an ancient monastery, and is a beautiful place to stay in a spectacular reserve surrounded by rocky peaks. Without a doubt they are most famous for their Maned Wolves. About 20 years ago they started putting meat scraps out on the church steps for these handsome beasts, and ever since they have been regular visitors almost every evening. A priest told me that the wolves were coming in especially early lately, so had to cram in a few hours of birding before a rushed dinner. The still-hot afternoon made it very quiet, but he did find our main target, the pretty Serra Antwren, and also had our best views of Biscutate Swifts when a big flock flew low and in front of the mountains. On the way back we found a mixed species flock with Gray-eyed Greenlet, and there were yet more Swallow-tailed Cotingas near the Emperor's Bath. The resident Blackish Rails in the goose pond came out at dusk, and we ran in to grab a bite to eat before heading to the church steps to see the wolf coming in. It's not the most natural of settings, but they are still wild animals and it is always nice to see such a beautiful animal up close. Despite the beautiful evening, our owling session was a complete bust despite having heard Ocellated Poorwill from the steps.
We had rather few targets on our morning bird walk at Caraça, and we did well in finding them. It was cloudy and cold before breakfast, and things started quiet. We stopped to see the Blackish Rails again, and managed to find our only Green-backed Becards. After breakfast (where you get to fry your own eggs on a wood-fired iron stove), we had better luck, finding some great mixed flocks led by Sirystes, with Black-capped Antwren and Scaled Antbird in them along with plenty of other old friends from earlier in the trip. A White-breasted Tapaculo came in ridiculously closely, hopping around right at our feet and too close to use bins on. With that, we packed up and drove on to our last destination, the Serra do Cipó. A short walk through the grassy campos in the afternoon produced some electric male Blue Finches and several endemic Cinereous Warbling-Finches, and some nearby cerrado gave us the neat duo of White-banded and White-rumped Tanagers. Winds came up out of nowhere at dusk and made our nightjarring almost impossible, having only poor views of Spot-tailed Nightjar before having a great dinner at the nearby Chapeu do Sol.
Hard to believe it was already the final morning, and we were on a mission for just three more endemics. We set off hiking up into the mountains, soon finding the first of several Hyacinth Visorbearers. Our goal was some rocky outcrops about a mile from the road, and they soon loomed up in front of us, though we stopped to watch a singing Hellmayr's Pipit on the way. Luck was with us that morning, as a Cipó Canastero was already calling as we walked up onto the rocks, and pretty soon it was scuttling around the boulders, sometimes coming up to sing. Never had it been so easy to find! But there was still the Pale-throated Serra-Finch to find, and it took a couple more hours to finally track down a bird singing near the side of the highway a lot lower down. With only another hour to spare, we tried the cerrado road again, enjoying repeat views of some of the birds we had seen before, and finding one new one, a Narrow-billed Woodcreeper. We headed back to the hotel to pack up, then drive to Confins airport for one final, fancy, celebratory lunch before catching our flights out. Another great trip, and I hope I can do it again next year!
This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of the group. 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.