Brazilian Specialties Nov 02—20, 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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Our 2008 Brazilian Specialties 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. A new marsh stop treated us with great studies of eight species of herons, including Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Whistling Heron.

The next morning found us birding restinga forest in coastal São Paulo. Here, in addition to great looks at 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 30 species mobbing a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Among the mobbers were stunning Green-headed and Flame-crested tanagers (down to eye level), Blue Manakins, Ochre-collared Piculets, and Long-billed Wrens. A wonderful flock of Azure Jays and a spectacular pair of Blond-crested Woodpeckers added to our color extravaganza.

On to Intervales State Park, a true gem and a highlight of any Brazilian birding trip. This World Heritage Site protects a vast area of Atlantic rainforest that abounds with birds. We were ecstatic to find not one but two active Swallow-tailed Cotinga nests, and were privileged to observe through the scope the exquisite colors of both parents as they fed their young. Their camouflage against the backdrop of their small lichen-covered nest and the surrounding branches was incredible. As always, highlights were almost too many. Tops among them were breathtaking scope views of a male Blue-bellied Parrot, and wonderful close studies of the lovely Red-and-white Crake. Antbirds ruled, 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 White-breasted Tapaculo (foraging at our feet), a well-behaved Spotted Bamboowren, and a Mouse-colored Tapaculo.

Other memorable moments included stellar views of Black-throated Piping-Guan, Brazilian Pygmy-Owl, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Hooded Berryeater, Bare-throated Bellbird, Rufous-capped Motmot, Squamate Antbird, Half-collared Sparrow, 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, a Variable Screech-Owl too close to focus on, a Common (Gray) Potoo, a rarely seen Silky-tailed Nightjar (amazing scope studies), a brief, but close Ocellated Poorwill, and multiple 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 endemic flowers attracting not only our attention but also that of two stunning hummers, the endemic Hyacinth Visorbearer and the minute, but long-tailed Horned Sungem, both of which gave repeated close views. Up on the top we were rewarded with three neat endemics: Cipo Canastero, Gray-backed Tachuri, and Pale-throated Serra-Finch. Striking Yellow-billed Blue Finches were common, and gave excellent close views. A nice surprise was a tiny Checkered Woodpecker.

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 and a skulky Chestnut-capped Foliage-gleaner, which provided the requisite good bird fix to sustain us through the rest of the drive. A stop at a very productive marsh added an extra treat in the form of Masked Ducks.
 
Our next few days were spent exploring Serra da Canastra National Park, a delightful region of grassy plateaus dissected by crystal-clear streams and spectacular cascading waterfalls. An extensive fire several months prior had transformed the park into a spectacular blaze of color with a myriad of exotic flowers and a fresh carpet of grasses and sedges, a botanist's delight! Our trip highlight was the 20 minutes we spent with a family of five of one of the world's rarest ducks, the Brazilian Merganser. We had exceptionally close scope studies as they rested on a sun-drenched beach and swam in the crystal-clear waters of the stream.

Mammals are always a highlight of a trip to Canastra, and this time was no exception. One of South America's best is the odd giant anteater. We observed two, one of which was feeding, undisturbed, at close range. Bird highlights included magnificent studies of a breathtaking male Helmeted Manakin, multiple Red-legged Seriemas, Toco Toucan, Golden-capped Parakeet, Black-masked Finch, the rarely seen Ochre-breasted Pipit, Campo Miner, Brasilia Tapaculo, 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. Our hummingbird show this year was unforgettable, as feeders swarmed with the likes of Stripe-breasted Starthroats, Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, White-vented Violetears, Fork-tailed Woodnymphs, stunning male Sapphire-spangled Emeralds, and the long-tailed Planalto Hermits.

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 (the peaks of which reach 6,000 feet), pockets of Atlantic rainforest, cerrado and gallery forest along crystal-clear streams makes this a magically peaceful location. 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. Birding was excellent, and among our many prizes were superb views of a Mantled Hawk as it flew low over the monastery, swirling flocks of thousands of Biscutate Swifts, Red-eyed Thornbird, Serra Antwren, Velvety Black-Tyrant, Green-backed Becard, Cinnamon-vented Piha, and spectacular eye level encounters with the colorful Golden-rumped Euphonia and endemic Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted tanagers.

All in all, a very congenial group of birders enjoyed a bunch of really exciting birding highlights, including totals of 440 species and an impressive number of nearly 150 Brazilian/regional endemics, not to mention superb mammals, numerous wonderful meals, great Brazilian ice cream, and lots of fun, too.