Southeast Brazil Part I & Iguacu Falls Pre-trip Sep 26—Oct 10, 2009

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Once again, our Southeast Brazil Part I tour served up its usual share of exciting birding, producing over 400 species and a whopping 149 regional and/or Brazilian endemics.

We started with the Iguaçu Falls Pre-Trip, where the spectacle of the world's greatest waterfalls provided the backdrop for one of the rarest and most spectacular cracids in South America, the Black-fronted Piping-Guan. We watched two birds at length as they fed on small fruits, alternately pacing back and forth and giving the high-pitched whistles from which they derive their name. Nightbirding was exceptional on this visit to Iguaçu. We had barely begun the first morning (predawn) when I heard what sounded like a Long-tailed Potoo. Since there were no records of this species from the park, and since some Ciccaba owls give similar calls, I assumed that what we were hearing was some odd vocalization of the resident Mottled Owl. But when the bird continued with the same call, even in the face of playback, I decided that it had to be a Long-tailed Potoo after all. I taped the bird and moved us to a slightly different spot inside the forest, and then tried playback. Suddenly, I caught the silhouette overhead, and hit it with the spotlight. There, circling above us, with its long, broad tail flared, was a Long-tailed Potoo! The bird perched in the midstory, yielding spectacular views. This bird represented the nominate, or first-named subspecies of Long-tailed Potoo, which is endemic to the Atlantic Forest region of southeast Brazil, northeast Argentina, and northern Paraguay. These Atlantic Forest birds have a range that is hugely disjunct from the more widespread Amazonian birds, and may be worthy of recognition as a separate species. We see this bird with some regularity on our Southeast Brazil Part II (Espírito Santo) tour, but in nearly 20 years of birding southeast Brazil I had never seen it outside of Espírito Santo. On top of this, Iguaçu Falls National Park is one of the more intensively birded spots in the entire region, and yet this was a first park record.

After such a find, almost anything would be anticlimactic, but the next day, on our second attempt at predawn owling, we not only scored the potoo once again, but followed with exceptional studies of both Variable and Tropical screech-owls, as well as Mottled Owl! Of course, there was much more to see after sunrise, and once again, Iguaçu delivered. In addition to such "regulars" as Surucua Trogon, Rufous-capped Motmot, Spot-billed Toucanet, Blond-crested Woodpecker, Ochre-collared Piculet, White-eyed and Ochre-breasted foliage-gleaners, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Southern Antpipit, São Paulo Tyrannulet, Southern Bristle-Tyrant, Plush-crested Jay, and Guira Tanager, we were treated to great views of three of the more localized and tougher Atlantic Forest endemics, the Buff-bellied Puffbird, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, and Russet-winged Spadebill, not to mention the more widespread but typically unpredictable Rusty-breasted Nunlet. During the course of working on a Short-tailed Antthrush (seen, but not without a struggle), I discovered an active nest of a Rufous Gnateater, and we all ended up with exceptional studies of the bird hunkered down in its nest. And who could forget the views we had of the magnificent perched King Vulture? That is one of those widespread Neotropical birds that, for whatever reason, you seldom see perched, especially right above your head.

With the pre-trip behind us, it was on to Southeast Brazil Part I, where Curitiba was our 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 of what was largely a travel day by securing great views of the recently described Marsh Antwren, not to mention incandescent male Brazilian Tanagers in the same marsh. Most of our first day at Volta Velha was spent birding under the protection of umbrellas or the eaves of the dining room as we waited out a big rainstorm. But all was not lost, as I managed to tape in a Spot-backed Antshrike (to eye level!) and a beautiful pair of Black-backed Tanagers, and the combination of feeders and fruiting trees ensured a regular procession of other goodies within our binocular range. Particularly memorable was the group of 7 Swallow-tailed Kites that sat shedding water in the big tree directly in front of the dining room. It's difficult to look both elegant and miserable at the same time, but those kites pulled it off with a panache befitting one of the world's most striking raptors. Not to be outdone, a magnificent White-necked Hawk circled low over the clearing, allowing excellent studies of what is probably the rarest raptor endemic to the Atlantic Forest. When the rain eventually let up, we headed into the forest, where a lovely male Squamate Antbird was among the first to greet us. We had barely recovered from the adrenaline rush of seeing the hawk and the antbird when we noticed an animal in the trail ahead. It was a tayra, a very large mustelid, and it was coming down the trail toward us. At first the big weasel appeared oblivious to our presence, but eventually he paused to study us, allowing superb views in the process. Eventually, the animal decided to give us a wide berth, and skulked off into the terrestrial bromeliads that were providing much of the ground cover. Fortunately, our schedule called for a second morning of birding at Volta Velha, and we made the most of our second chance, securing superb views of such specialties as Saw-billed Hermit, Pale-browed Treehunter, Unicolored Antwren, Kaempfer's Tody-Tyrant, Restinga Tyrannulet, Gray-capped Tyrannulet, and the dazzling Red-necked Tanager. Displaying South American Snipe over the pasture adjacent to the palmito plantation was an unexpected bonus.

Back in Curitiba, we sampled from a diverse menu of avian delicacies. At one stop it was Canebrake Groundcreeper and Blackish Rail, at another it was an active lek of Plovercrests, and at a third, it was a spritely pair of Sharp-tailed Tyrants. The rarely seen Sickle-winged Nightjar, Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Red-and-white Crake, and Wetland Tapaculo were also tracked down, although the latter two species managed to avoid being seen by most people in the group. 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 good looks at males of both species. Slaty Bristlefront, Dusky-tailed and Bertoni's antbirds, Rufous-breasted Leaftosser, and Brassy-breasted Tanager were just a few of the goodies that we saw here, but the morning was stolen by the crippling views that we secured of the Canebrake Groundcreeper, a skulking endemic that can be an absolute bear to see.

The morning birding was followed by a typically sumptuous Brazilian lunch, which, in turn, was followed by an experiment. Our local guide, Raphael, had suggested we try a boat trip to Superagui National Park. This large park straddles the boundary between São Paulo and Paraná states, and preserves a number of pristine offshore islands, as well as coastal mangroves and Serra do Mar forest. The scenery alone is worth the trip, but our goal was to reach a particular island that is the roosting site for large numbers of the spectacular and endangered Red-tailed Parrot. This parrot is one of the rarest and most localized of the Atlantic Forest endemics, being confined to a narrow littoral strip between the Serra do Mar and the nearshore islands, from southern São Paulo state in the north to northernmost Santa Catarina state in the south. The global population is estimated at less than 5,000 birds. Raphael and I had mulled over the possibility of a surgical strike for the parrot the night before and decided to go for it. We wound our way down the Serra da Graciosa to the coast, and then made our way to a small fishing village to look for a boat to hire. Finding a boat on short notice was not easy, and took some time. Timing was becoming increasingly critical, and therefore, we blasted past Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds on the way out in order to reach the island in time. As we approached the island, we began seeing pairs and small groups of parrots making their daily commute. Once in place, we thrilled to the sight of more and more parrots settling into the palm trees, and watched as they fanned their tails (displaying their trademark red band) and dangled by their bills and feet from the fronds. The varied calls of the parrots combined with the persistent grunting of hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants (also roosting on the island) to create a veritable cacophony of sound.

With the sun starting to set, we reluctantly turned back towards the mainland. As we approached a small islet that was covered by mangroves, a shout went out from the boatman. His words were drowned out by the noise of the engine, but there was no mistaking the incandescent vermilion blobs that were sprinkled over the mangroves and the adjacent sandy beach—Scarlet Ibis! In fact, there were more than 80 of them! As we turned the boat and approached the islet, the ibis took flight, swirling around and around the boat as the last remnants of sunlight caused the birds to glow like the embers of a dying fire. Raphael had mentioned Scarlet Ibis as a possibility when we discussed the merits of doing the boat trip, but we both thought it an outside possibility at best. Our gamble had paid off in a big way, as we scored not only the Red-tailed Parrots, but also the unexpected Scarlet Ibis, a bird that had been extirpated from coastal Paraná (and much of its historic range in Brazil), but which is now on the way back. Virtually all in the group agreed that the boat trip was one of the real highlights of the tour (and a "keeper" for future trips), and the Scarlet Ibis tied for first in the voting for "Favorite Bird of the Trip."

On to São Francisco de Paula, where moss-draped araucaria woodlands and windswept, plateau grasslands treated us to a delightful mix of forest and open-country birding. Our morning on the escarpment trails netted numerous prizes, from exceptional views of a pair of rare White-rumped Hawks, to multiple Mottled Piculets, to Araucaria and Striolated tit-spinetails and a well-behaved pair of spectacular Vinaceous-breasted Parrots that I pulled in with the tape. Upon alighting in a nearby araucaria tree, the pair proceeded to treat us to a captivating repertoire of behaviors, ranging from allopreening to singing to fanning their nape feathers, all while filling our scopes! The grounds of our hotel offered a most cooperative Long-tufted Screech-Owl, noisy Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails, an impressively big White-throated Woodcreeper, Red-breasted Toucan and Chestnut-backed Tanagers on the feeders, and an eleventh-hour pair of Green-chinned Euphonias. Nearby open country yielded loads of new birds, including such perennial favorites as Red-legged Seriema, Plumbeous Rail, Long-tailed Cinclodes, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Black-and-white Monjita, and Saffron-cowled Blackbird, as well as a particularly obliging Red-winged Tinamou. One of the many highlights came when we found a Planalto Tapaculo, a species just described to science in 2005. The bird was quite tape-responsive, and provided everyone in the group with good views. This was the third time in four years that we have seen this species since its formal description. Low-foraging groups of big Biscutate and Sooty swifts (both endemics) made the drive to Aparados da Serra National Park worthwhile, in spite of the fog that prevented us from seeing Itaimbezinho Canyon.

Then, it was on to Itatiaia National Park, a perpetual favorite. In contrast to my past few trips here, Itatiaia was not suffering from drought. Rather, the normal spring rains of November had come early, and the region was being hammered with rain. We enjoyed mostly good weather during our stay, but we did lose most of one day to heavy rains, costing us a few species of forest interior birds that we virtually always see. Nonetheless, 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 Speckle-breasted Antpitta that offered such superb views that it ended up tied with Scarlet Ibis for "Favorite Bird of the Trip." Prolonged studies of a singing male Black-and-gold Cotinga, a lek full of "Purple-breasted" Plovercrests, soaring Black Hawk-Eagles, and a virtual parade of nifty little endemic flycatchers were among our other highlights from our day on the Agulhas Negras Road. Other gems included a sensational pair of White-bearded Antshrikes (16 years in a row for this rare endemic on this trip) and an equally superb pair of Giant Antshrikes on the Jeep Trail, an unexpected pair of bizarre Swallow-tailed Cotingas near the hotel swimming pool, whacking-big Robust Woodpeckers also poolside, a Dusky-legged Guan on its nest, and the usual parade of hummingbirds, tanagers, and other frugivores (can you say "Saffron Toucanet"?) at the feeders lining the balcony of the hotel dining room. We also enjoyed good views of both Orange-breasted and Orange-eyed thornbirds (both split off from what was called "Red-eyed Thornbird"), as well as that perpetual crowd-pleaser, the Streamer-tailed Tyrant, in the lowland marshes below the park. The bamboo was seeding below the Hotel Donati, which was responsible for the presence of three nomadic bamboo specialists—Buffy-fronted and Temminck's seedeaters, and Uniform Finch—as well as an impressive concentration of White-eyed Parakeets. Picking up a just-arriving Rufous-tailed Attila and securing exceptional views of the rare Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant on our last morning were also notable. All too soon, it was time to return to Rio, where some said their goodbyes, while others embarked on Part II, Espírito Santo, where a whole new group of Atlantic Forest endemics awaited.

Along the way, we enjoyed numerous wonderful meals (including visits to multiple churrascarias), sinfully good icy caipirinhas, and loads of famously friendly Brazilian hospitality. All in all, a most congenial group of birders saw a bunch of really special birds, and had great fun in the process! I want to thank our local guides, Oliver, Raphael, Margit, and Ricardo, each of whom added greatly to our trip. It was great fun birding with you all, and I look forward to seeing you on future trips. After all, that Brazilian visa is good for five years, and there are bunches of more birds to see! 

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

Iguacu Pre-Trip:

1. Long-tailed Potoo
2. Blond-crested Woodpecker
3. Black-fronted Piping-Guan

Main Tour Part I:

1. Speckle-breasted Antpitta and Scarlet Ibis (tie)
2. Streamer-tailed Tyrant, Swallow-tailed Manakin, and Scale-throated Hermit (three-way tie)