Southeastern Brazil Part I Sep 25—Oct 09, 2010

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, Southeast Brazil Part I served up its usual share of exciting birding, producing 413 species, of which a whopping 154 were regional and/or Brazilian endemics (not to mention the many distinctive and endemic subspecies that will eventually be elevated to full-species status).

Curitiba was our jumping-off point for exploring the restinga woodlands of Santa Catarina, as well as for the cloud forests of the Serra da Graciosa. We got things off to a nice start on what was largely a travel day, with a nice assortment of waterfowl (including White-cheeked Pintail, Rosy-billed Pochard, and Silver Teal) and open-country birds, not to mention an active lek of Plovercrests (southern subspecies loddigesii), all near Curitiba, and all before lunch! After an especially good lunch at a nearby churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue), we headed south to Itapoá, with a major stop to search for the recently described Marsh Antwren. The antwrens showed nicely and in short order, allowing us to soak up incandescent male Brazilian Tanagers in the same marsh. We finally tore ourselves away and headed on to Volta Velha, where some exceptional caipirinhas and a delicious dinner awaited.

The next morning dawned heavily overcast and threatening to rain. We birded the clearing for a short period, waiting to see what the weather would do. In the process, we were treated to a gorgeous male Black-backed Tanager, one of the snazziest and most range-restricted of our target birds. When the weather showed no signs of imminent change for either better or worse, we headed into the forest. The dull, overcast conditions kept bird activity depressed, but you wouldn't know it from our morning's list. A male Squamate Antbird at point-blank range got things going, and this was followed by nice views of a Spot-backed Antshrike, Unicolored Antwren, a pair of Crescent-chested Puffbirds, a very inquisitive Rufous Gnateater, a dazzling Swallow-tailed Manakin, and multiple Restinga Tyrannulets. After a little work, we secured nice views of the very rare and highly localized Kaempfer's Tody-Tyrant. We were not so lucky with the Yellow-legged Tinamou, which tortured us by calling from oh-so-close without offering so much as a glimpse. The skies, which had been threatening all morning, started to open the tap, but the resulting drizzle and mist actually helped us by forcing a mixed-species flock out of the canopy and down to eye level. For a short, glorious period, we enjoyed minimum-focus studies of stunning Red-necked, Green-headed, Azure-shouldered, and Flame-crested tanagers—a veritable rainbow of colors. As the flock moved on, the rain picked up, and we headed back in for lunch, still without some of the target birds that we were hoping for. 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, Yellow-throated Woodpecker (the endemic red-throated subspecies), Pale-browed Treehunter, Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, and Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant. Best of all was a most cooperative White-breasted Tapaculo that hopped circles around us before jumping up on a log in plain view.

Birding in and around Curitiba was packed with highlights. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the male Sickle-winged Nightjar that appeared right on cue, and then allowed us to approach to minimum focal distance, flying only when three totally clueless locals nearly stepped on the bird (this, despite the fact that it was dark, the bird was in the center of a spotlight beam, we were aiming cameras at it, and Rapha and I both called out to them and asked them to stop)! Other highlights that come quickly to mind include the responsive Long-tufted Screech-Owl, the spritely pair of Sharp-tailed Tyrants, the Freckle-breasted Thornbirds, the repeated good studies of Canebrake Groundcreeper, and (with apologies to Myrna, who just happened to be standing in the wrong spot) the exceptional views of the always-elusive Wetland Tapaculo. For sheer comic relief, the twin toddlers chasing the Southern Lapwing chicks, only to get strafed into a state of tears and terror by the adult lapwings, was worth the price of admission!

The Serra da Graciosa introduced us to an entirely different avifauna, that of the cool, wet slopes of the Serra do Mar.  It was here that we enjoyed perhaps the most amazing continuous streak of success with forest skulkers that I have ever experienced with a group. It started when a Speckle-breasted Antpitta sang too close to the trail to ignore. We bushwhacked into the forest a short distance, with the intent of giving the antpitta a whirl. In the midst of working on the Speckle-breasted, I heard a Variegated Antpitta sing slightly further back. It took some time before we had all secured a good look at the Speckle-breasted, and the Variegated Antpitta had long since ceased singing. But, we had already ventured some distance off the trail, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to at least try to get the Variegated singing again. It took only a few seconds of playback before the Variegated responded. I continued to give it playback, but the bird wasn't budging—we'd have to go to him. We crept closer and closer until it sounded as if the bird was right in front of us. At one point, I heard a single, somewhat distant call of a Slaty Bristlefront, and Rapha and I exchanged a quick grin. The bristlefront would have to wait, because we literally had bigger fish to fry. Finally, I ventured the opinion that the antpitta was probably hiding in one of the clusters of bromeliads that adorned the trees in front of us—I'd had this experience before with this species, which routinely ascends to heights of 10 or more meters off the ground. After scanning everywhere else, Rapha conceded that the bromeliads were probably the best bet, and within minutes he had located the songster, buried in a bromeliad about 7 m above the ground, with only its head sticking out from cover!

After soaking up the rare opportunity of watching the antpitta sing over and over from close range, our minds turned to the Slaty Bristlefront that we had heard some 20 minutes earlier. I played the tape, and before we knew it, a pair of Slaty Bristlefronts were hopping steadily toward us and giving great views. Just as they were coming into view, a Short-tailed Antthrush called from farther upslope, and now Rapha and I were laughing. "It's like every hard-to-see bird in this forest is right here," said Rapha.

After scoring the trifecta with the Slaty Bristlefront pair, we decided to go for the clean sweep with the antthrushes. Several minutes passed without a response, and just when I was thinking we had gone to the well once too often, the reply came back. Soon, we had a pair of antthrushes coming in, and with a little maneuvering, we all enjoyed binocular-filling views of one of the birds as it hopped off the ground onto a log. Finally, we could exhale. I looked at my watch and realized we had been off the trail for almost two hours—but it was an amazing run indeed during that two-hour stretch.

Our morning birding in the Graciosa was followed by a typically sumptuous Brazilian lunch, which, in turn, was followed by our 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. On the way out, we made a point of swinging by a tiny islet where we had seen a flock of 80+ Scarlet Ibis in 2009. Sure enough, there was a single Scarlet Ibis stalking the edges of the mangroves, although low tides and surrounding sandbars kept us from approaching too closely. Happy to have the ibis under our belts, we headed for the parrot site. As we approached the island, we began seeing pairs and small groups of parrots making their afternoon 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. With the sun starting to set, we reluctantly turned back towards the mainland. As we approached the islet where we had seen the lone Scarlet Ibis on the outbound trip, we were delighted to see that the mangroves were now covered with incandescent vermilion blobs—Scarlet Ibis! In fact, there were nearly 120 of them! As we turned the boat and approached the islet the ibis took flight, swirling around and around as the last remnants of sunlight caused the birds to glow like the embers of a dying fire. This spectacular species had been extirpated from coastal Paraná (and much of its historic range in Brazil), but is now recolonizing many areas long deserted.

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 was made more challenging than normal by persistent fog, but we still managed some spectacular studies of a well-behaved pair of Vinaceous-breasted Parrots. 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 scope! We also managed point-blank views of Mottled Piculet and Chestnut-headed Tanager, a trio of Green-chinned Euphonias, a Brown Tinamou that walked across the path in front of us, and a Striolated Tit-Spinetail that put the term "tape responsive" in a whole new light when it actually landed briefly on Myrna's shoulder!

The grounds of our hotel offered a most cooperative Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, noisy Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails, an impressively big White-throated Woodcreeper, Red-breasted Toucan and Chestnut-backed Tanagers on the feeders, and a very obliging Speckle-breasted Antpitta. 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. But nothing could top the ridiculously responsive pair of Red-and-white Crakes that gave us several close passes in a relatively open corner of one marsh. These spectacular little rails are normally among the most difficult-to-see of a family that is renowned for its secretive ways, and few previous groups have been lucky enough to see them at all. Our looks were by far the best I've ever had, and were exceptional enough that Red-and-white Crake was voted Favorite Bird of the Trip.

The weather gods were actually on our side the day we traveled to Aparados da Serra National Park, and for the first time in the last 3–4 years, sunny skies allowed us to take in the full splendor of spectacular Itaimbezinho Canyon, which is surely one of the scenic wonders of Brazil. En route to the canyon, we continued our string of successes with the tapaculo family by securing excellent views of the Planalto Tapaculo, a species just described to science in 2005. This was the fourth time in five years that we have scored this species since its formal description.

Part I concluded with a visit to Itatiaia National Park, a perpetual favorite. We enjoyed mostly good weather during our stay, but we did lose most of one morning to a freakish windstorm, 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. Prolonged studies of a singing male Black-and-gold Cotinga, a lek full of purple-breasted Plovercrests, a snazzy Black-capped Piprites, a pair of spectacular Large-tailed Antshrikes that seemed to imprint on us and follow us everywhere, and a virtual parade of nifty little endemic flycatchers were among the highlights from our day on the Agulhas Negras Road. Other gems included a sensational male White-bearded Antshrike (17 years in a row for this rare endemic on this trip), an unexpected nesting pair of bizarre Swallow-tailed Cotingas and an even more surprising nest-building Black-legged Dacnis pair on the grounds of the old Hotel Simon, and the usual parade of hummingbirds, tanagers, and other frugivores (can you say "Saffron Toucanet"?) to the feeders lining the balcony of the hotel dining room. We also enjoyed good views of both Orange-breasted and Orange-eyed thornbirds, as well as White-eared Puffbirds and Half-collared Sparrows, in the lowland areas below the park. The bamboo was still seeding in patches below the Hotel Donati, which was probably responsible for the continued presence of two nomadic bamboo specialists—Buffy-fronted Seedeater and Uniform Finch. And, to top it all off, we had a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo (the first I have seen in the park) singing near the Donati as well. The icing on the cake was our sensational view of the resident Tawny-browed Owl on the grounds of our hotel. All too soon, it was time to return to Rio, where we met up with inbound participants for the start of Southeast Brazil 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, our compact group of birders saw a bunch of really special birds, and had great fun in the process! I want to thank our local guides, Marcelo, 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)

1. Red-and-white Crake
2. Red-tailed Parrot & Rusty-barred Owl (tie)
3. Multiple birds tied for third