Brazilian Highlights Nov 04—20, 2006

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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Our 2006 Brazilian Highlights tour started with a bang, when our first stop yielded a newly discovered Formicivora antwren that has yet to be named. This antwren, which is clearly a close relative of the Marsh Antwren of Paraná and Santa Catarina, is known only from the state of São Paulo, and was considered endangered from the moment of its discovery two years ago. We held our collective breath as a pair of these handsome birds paraded around the low marsh vegetation in front of us.

The next day found us birding restinga forest in coastal São Paulo. Here, in addition to scope studies of the endangered Red-tailed Parrot, the rarely seen Buff-bellied Puffbird, and the always dazzling Brazilian Tanager, we were treated to the unforgettable scene of more than 20 species mobbing a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Among the mobbers were stunning Green-headed Tanagers, Blue Manakins, Ochre-collared Piculets, Long-billed Wrens, and wonderful Azure Jays.

On to Intervales State Park, a true gem and a highlight of any birding trip. This World Heritage Site protects a vast area of Atlantic rainforest that abounds with birds. We were ecstatic to find an abundance of seeding bamboo, which provides a highly ephemeral yet irresistible lure to a number of nomadic bamboo specialist birds, some of which are among the most difficult Atlantic Forest endemics to find under other circumstances. Our high expectations were paid in full with the rarest bird of the trip, a Purple-winged Ground-Dove. Our view was brief, but considering that there are only a handful of documented records in the past 20 years, we were fortunate indeed. The bamboo was also alive with other more expected endemics, including Buff-fronted and Temminck's Seedeaters, and Uniform Finches.

The bamboo birds represented just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and, despite a freak cold front and resultant rains, highlights were many. Tops among them were magnificent views of the extremely rare Helmeted Woodpecker and breathtaking scope views of a male Blue-bellied Parrot. Antbirds rule, as evidenced by the stunning, in-our-face views of White-bearded, Tufted, Large-tailed, and Spot-backed antshrikes. However, an incredibly responsive pair of Giant Antshrikes parading around in the open stole the antbird show, and provided an unforgettable experience.

Intervales also started our lucky tapaculo streak with an amazingly responsive Slaty Bristlefront (foraging at our feet), White-breasted Tapaculo, and the recently described (2006) but long-known Scytalopus notorius (aka the Mouse-colored Tapaculo), a bird whose English name has yet to be finalized. Our friendly local guide Luis had previously located nests of both Variegated Antpitta and Atlantic Royal Flycatcher, so we enjoyed wonderful studies of both rarely seen species.

Other memorable moments included stellar views of Mantled Hawk, Black-throated Piping-Guan, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Hooded Berryeater, Rufous-capped Motmot, Squamate Antbird, and both Saw-billed Hermit and stunning Plovercrests on leks. Night excursions were also very productive, capped by a male Long-trained Nightjar?with its impressive tail streamers?flying within a few feet of us, then landing within 30 feet for incredible scope views. A wonderfully responsive pair of Rusty-barred Owls and both Common (Gray) Potoo and Short-tailed (Chestnut-banded) Nighthawks also showed well.

Then it was on to Minas Gerais state where we started at Serra do Cipó National Park. The lush alpine vegetation of the Espinhaço Mountains was breathtaking, with spectacular flowers attracting not only our attention but also two stunning hummers, the endemic Hyacinth Visorbearer and the minute, but long-tailed Horned Sungem, both of which gave repeated close views. Unfortunately, strong winds, cold weather, and mist hampered our efforts to track down the Cipo Canastero, and despite much work only a few people managed views. Other specialties of the region, including Cinereous Warbling-Finches, Collared Crescent-chest, and Gray-backed Tachuri were much better behaved, and offered excellent views.

Our drive to São Roque (our base for exploring Serra da Canastra) was broken up by lunch at a wonderful churrascaria (Brazilian barbeque) where we were served an ample and tasty feast. A birding stop in a nearby park rewarded us with the rare and enigmatic Three-toed Jacamar, which provided the requisite good bird fix to sustain us through the rest of the drive.


Our next few days were spent exploring Serra de Canastra National Park, a delightful region of grassy plateaus dissected by crystal-clear streams and spectacular cascading waterfalls. An extensive fire a few months prior to our visit had transformed the park into a spectacular blaze of color with a myriad of exotic flowers and a fresh green carpet of grasses and sedges, a botanist's delight! On our first day we were lucky to enjoy fantastic close encounters with a pair of one of the world's rarest ducks, the Brazilian Merganser. We had exceptionally close studies, to the point of being able to track their foraging beneath the surface in the clear waters of the stream.

Mammals are always a highlight of a trip to Canastra, and this time was no exception. The first of our many giant anteaters was found sleeping within a huge, hollowed-out termitarium, and we also had great views of both maned wolf and the rare pampas deer. Bird highlights included magnificent male Blue Finches, Black-masked Finch, the rarely seen Ochre-breasted Pipit, Campo Miner, and the tiny Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrant. Meanwhile, displaying male Cock-tailed Tyrants had us in hysterics as they hovered like tiny helicopters over the grasslands. Hummingbird feeders at our hotel were swarming with the likes of Stripe-breasted Starthroats, Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, Fork-tailed Woodnymphs, and Sapphire-spangled Emeralds.

Our final destination was the beautiful Serra da Caraça and its 200-year-old monastery set in truly breathtaking surroundings. A combination of its rocky serras (peaks reaching 6000 feet), pockets of Atlantic rainforest, cerrado and gallery forest along crystal-clear streams makes this a magically peaceful location. Birding was excellent, and among our many prizes were the stunning Swallow-tailed Cotingas, swirling flocks of thousands of Biscutate Swifts, Red-eyed Thornbird, Serra Antwren, Cinnamon-vented Piha, and spectacular flocks of the colorful endemic Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted tanagers. However, it would be difficult for anything to top the thrill of watching elegant maned wolves materializing out of the darkness onto the steps of the ancient monastery to feed on meat provided by the Fathers.

All in all, a very congenial group of birders enjoyed a bunch of really exciting birding highlights, including almost 400 species and an impressive number of 131 Brazilian/regional endemics, not to mention superb mammals, numerous wonderful meals, great Brazilian ice cream, and lots of fun, too.