Southeastern Brazil Part I Sep 29—Oct 16, 2008

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Once again, Southeastern Brazil Part I served up its usual share of exciting birding, producing over 400 species and a whopping near 150 regional and/or Brazilian endemics.

We started in Iguaçu, where, besides the spectacle of the world's greatest waterfalls, we were treated to exceptional views of a pair of the endangered Black-fronted Piping Guan, an impressive pair of Robust Woodpeckers, and wonderful scope studies of an unusually cooperative Red-ruffed Fruitcrow. In between came close encounters and point-blank views of such avian eye candy as the improbably coiffed Blond-crested Woodpecker, spectacular Spot-billed Toucanets, Red-breasted Toucans, an elegant Black-throated Trogon, and the dressy Plush-crested Jay, not to mention, Collared Forest-Falcon, Common Potoo, Ochre-collared Piculet, Short-tailed Antthrush, Saffron-billed Sparrow, and an endearing pair of São Paulo Tyrannulets. For all of that, my personal favorite highlight was provided by our stunning encounters with an amazingly well-behaved Pearly-breasted Cuckoo that came in close right above our heads!

Curitiba was our next jumping-off point for exploring the restinga woodlands of Santa Catarina, as well as the cloud forests of the Serra da Graciosa. We got things off to a nice start on the first afternoon by securing great views of the recently described Marsh Antwren, not to mention incandescent male Brazilian Tanagers in the same marsh. Despite a cold front causing torrential rain the first day, dawn broke the following morning with sunshine, and the restinga woodlands yielded one highlight after another, including Yellow-throated Woodpecker (at eye level); a  singing Spot-backed Antshrike; eye level views of dazzling Black-backed Tanagers; a point-blank Squamate Antbird and an equally cooperative Scaled Antbird; inquisitive Unicolored Antwrens; a wonderful Gray-hooded Attila; and count-the-feather studies of three localized endemic flycatchers—the Restinga Tyrannulet, Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant, and the very rare and only recently rediscovered Kaempfer's Tody-Tyrant.

The Serra da Graciosa introduced us to an entirely different avifauna—that of the cool, wet slopes of the Serra do Mar, where the far-reaching calls of Bare-throated Bellbirds and Hooded Berryeaters presaged great looks of males of both species. Intermittent light rain literally dampened bird activity throughout our morning, but it didn't stop us from securing nice looks of a tape-responsive pair of Rufous-breasted Leaftossers, a stunning Blue Manakin, Brazilian Ruby, Bertoni's Antbird, and a very inquisitive Scale-throated Hermit. Our morning birding was followed by a typically sumptuous Brazilian lunch, during which the weather improved slightly. Our next stop was a visit to an active lek of snazzy Plovercrests, these being the black-breasted southern subspecies loddigesii.  We followed that highlight with excellent studies of a pair of elusive Canebrake Groundcreepers. Dusk found us in position in scenic grassland for a try at the rare, and seldom-seen, Sickle-winged Nightjar. Despite the unseasonably cold weather, the nightjars appeared on cue and delighted us with excellent scope views of a calling male perched on a low stick (showing off its bizarrely shaped wings). The next day, exploration of Curitiba's marshes produced Freckle-breasted Thornbird, along with great looks at the seldom seen Marsh Tapaculo (one of Brazil'shardest-to-see species). Topping a wonderful day with dusk owling, we were teased by a calling, tantalizingly close Buff-fronted Owl that we just could not see in the thick bamboo. However, stunning views of a male Long-trained Nightjar with its amazingly long tail streamers was a spectacular consolation prize.

On to Rio Grande do Sul and quaint São Francisco de Paula, where prehistoric-looking moss-draped araucaria woodlands and windswept, plateau grasslands treated us to a delightful mix of forest and open country birding. Our mornings on the escarpment trails netted numerous prizes, from exceptional views of Mottled Piculet, Sharp-billed Treehunter, Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, and Brown-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant to a well-behaved Mouse-colored Tapaculo and brief views of Blue-bellied Parrot. But the real stars were a pair of Vinaceous-breasted Parrots that alighted in a nearby araucaria tree and proceeded to treat us to a captivating repertoire of behaviors ranging from allopreening to courtship-feeding. However, that break with delicious homemade hot chocolate with cream came very close too!

The grounds of our hotel yielded a most cooperative group of Azure Jays, close studies of a lovely Long-tufted Screech-Owl, Green-chinned Euphonia, White-throated Woodcreeper, and stunning Chestnut-backed Tanager. Nearby open country yielded loads of new birds, including such perennial favorites as Plumbeous Rail, Long-tailed Cinclodes, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Black-and-white Monjita, Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch, and flocks of colorful Saffron-cowled Blackbirds. The late spring rewarded us with a "trip first" in the form of a White-banded Mockingbird, as well as an immaculate White Monjita.

Then, it was on to Itatiaia National Park, a perpetual favorite. However, very dry conditions dampened vocalization, and flock activity also seemed to be way down. Although the weather clearly impacted us on a few birds, we still managed to see most of the expected species, along with a few bonus birds. The number one highlight for many of us had to be the male Black-and-gold Cotinga in full display, bowing and posturing with wings spread like a canopy, showing off the golden color to maximum advantage. This is only the second time in 18 years of birding the park that I had witnessed this display behavior—SPECTACULAR!

Other highlights included a sensational pair of White-bearded Antshrikes (15 years in a row for this rare endemic on this trip), and an equally superb male Large-tailed Antshrike on the Agulhas Negras Road. We also enjoyed exceptional studies of both subspecies of Red-eyed Thornbird (soon to be split as separate species), as well as the always-entertaining antics of displaying Streamer-tailed Tyrants in the lowland marshes below the park. The bamboo was seeding in a number of spots, which was responsible for the presence of both Uniform Finch and Temminck's Seedeater. A nice hike produced exceptional looks at a bowing male Slaty Bristlefront in full song. That voice is my personal favorite of all the neat Atlantic rainforests sounds. Picturesque trails clad with bromeliads and multiple bamboo species rewarded us with excellent views of a hard-to-see Cryptic Antthrush; an in-your-face pair of enigmatic Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrants; a stunning White-bibbed Antbird; an outrageous Black-billed Scythebill; and an amazingly responsive White-browed Foliage-gleaner (an easily missed species). The feeders at our hotel treated us to Frilled Coquettes at minimum-focus-range, as well as the antics of a family of lovely Saffron Toucanets as they stuffed themselves at the fruit feeders and plucked insects from the veranda lights. Rufous-backed Antvireos at eye level, exceptional views of Black-capped Piprites, and Plovercrests (this time the purple-breasted nominate form) at their lek were just a few of the many other highlights from Itatiaia. My personal trip favorite, however, was a wonderful Bicolored Hawk that I taped in, rewarding us exceptional studies of this rarely seen forest raptor. Finally, we should not forget to mention the delightfully bright orange "Sapo Pingo de Ouro" (drop of gold frog).

All too soon it was time to return to Rio, where some said their good-byes, while others embarked on Part II, Espírito Santo, where a whole new group of Atlantic Forest endemics awaited.

Favorite Birds of the Trip (as voted by the group)

1. Bicolored Hawk
2. Wetland Tapaculo
3. Pearly-breasted Cuckoo
4. Long-trained Nightjar
5. Black-billed Scythebill