Brazilian Specialties Oct 26—Nov 13, 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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This tour certainly lived up to its name, producing an impressive tally of some of Brazil's rarest and most spectacular birds and mammals. But a mere recounting of all the specialties we saw cannot do justice to the experiences themselves, because it was the quality of our views that was perhaps most impressive of all. Time and again, we didn't just see one of our target species—rather, we had the kind of prolonged, up-close-and-personal studies that sear the experience into your brain.

Our first major stop was the coastal restinga forest near Intanhaém in the state of São Paulo. Here, our major quest bird was the endangered Red-tailed Parrot, and indeed, we enjoyed nice views of perched and flying birds on our first afternoon. But that was merely an appetizer for the scope-filling studies in near-perfect light that we enjoyed the next morning, as we watched a territorial pair allopreening and flaring their tails, while simultaneously demonstrating their vocal repertoires. Other highlights from the restinga ranged from point-blank Long-billed Wrens and Unicolored Antwrens to fancy Blond-crested Woodpeckers and incandescent Brazilian Tanagers, not to mention a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by everything from Red-necked and Green-headed tanagers to White-chinned Sapphires and Versicolored Emeralds.

Helmeted Woodpecker, Intervales State Park, Brazil, November 1, 2010

Helmeted Woodpecker, Intervales State Park, Brazil, November 1, 2010— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Intervales State Park was our home for the next six days and, as always, it delivered rare and wonderful birds in spades. Chief among the many highlights had to be our double-dose of rare Helmeted Woodpeckers. First, we were treated to an active nest of the species, with the male tending the nest and occasionally poking his head out of the cavity to look around. Patience paid off when the female returned to the nest to take her turn, and we got brief looks at both birds out of the nest. But this too paled in comparison to the views we had a few days later on another trail, when a male Helmeted Woodpecker responded to a single playback by rocketing in to a bare trunk right in front of us, hitching his way up, then moving to another open, but somewhat more distant trunk before vanishing from sight. It was a stellar performance from what is probably the rarest woodpecker in all of South America.

Other highlights at Intervales came with dizzying frequency. There was the fruiting palm festooned with no fewer than eight Green-chinned Euphonias. There were the multiple encounters with spectacular Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (including one on a nest), and the lightning-strikes-twice visits paid us by the rare Black-legged Dacnis. Or what about the crippling views of feeding Red-capped Parrots, the singing Black-cheeked Gnateater that was so close we could barely focus our binoculars, or our mascot—the impressive Large-tailed Antshrike that paraded around almost at our doorstep? Then there was the feeder spectacle on the day that rain forced us to bird from the balcony of our chalet. We watched a steady procession of colorful birds ranging from Azure-shouldered Tanagers to Golden-winged Caciques vying for fruit. For some, the winner in the "best spectacle" category would have been the magnificent Plovercrest lek, with tiny little violet-crested males doing their best punk-rocker impersonations. Nocturnal forays yielded wonderful views of endemic Rusty-barred Owls and cosmopolitan Barn Owls, as well as point-blank Common Potoos and, at the eleventh hour, three mind-blowing Long-trained Nightjars. Along the way, we saw all of the "Big 5" antshrikes, some skulky tapaculos (topped by superb views of the Spotted Bamboowren that was painstakingly lured in by my iPod—yes, that "Repeat" mode is a keeper!), White-rumped Hawk, Atlantic Royal-Flycatcher, and more endemic tyrannulets than you could shake a stick at. Even the tyrannulets showed to maximum advantage, with such canopy species as Bay-ringed and Oustalet's dropping down to give us binocular-filling, eye level views.

It would have been easy to just stay at Intervales until they kicked us out or until we had seen every species on the park list, but there were some very different birds, mammals, and habitats awaiting us in Minas Gerais. So, it was off to Belo Horizonte, and on to scenic Serra do Cipó National Park. The campo rupestre and páramo-like habitats here were in stark contrast to the lush, humid forest of Intervales, and the highly endemic flora reflected those differences. The avifauna was far less diverse, but no less special, as we were treated to excellent studies of such treats as Hyacinth Visorbearer, Gray-backed Tachuri, Blue Finch, Pale-throated Serra-Finch, and Cinereous Warbling-Finch. As usual, the endemic Cipó Canastero proved an elusive and worthy adversary, but persistence on our part was eventually rewarded with satisfying scope studies of a bird with a mouthful of nesting material. I would also be remiss not to mention the cute little black-ear-tufted marmosets that scampered about the grounds of our hotel like so many long-tailed gnomes.

Our drive to São Roque de Minas (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 a quintet of rare and enigmatic Three-toed Jacamars and a pair of secretive Chestnut-capped Foliage-gleaners, which provided the requisite good bird fix to sustain us through the rest of the drive.
 
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, followed by recent rains, had transformed the park into a spectacular blaze of color with a myriad of exotic flowers and a fresh carpet of grasses and sedges that had even the most myopic birders amongst us breaking out the macro lenses and getting in touch with our inner botanist! Our trip highlight here was watching a lovely pair of Brazilian Mergansers for 45 minutes. We had nice scope studies in good light as they alternately hauled out on rocks and cruised back-and-forth in the stream. I would give runner-up honors to the responsive pair of Brasilia Tapaculos, neither of which had read from the tapaculo playbook of how to behave around birders. They just blasted out of cover and paraded around in the open (even perching on rocks and bare branches to sing), making the whole process almost too easy. The dapper Black-masked Finch and the furtive pair of Ochre-breasted Pipits offered more resistance, but ultimately the views of both rivaled those of the tapaculos. Campo Miners were still present, which is never a given for these fire-following nomads. We even watched one bird carrying food to a nest. Spritely Sharp-tailed Tyrants were seemingly fearless in checking us out, whereas displaying male Cock-tailed Tyrants had us in hysterics as they hovered like tiny helicopters over the grasslands. The grasslands swarmed with Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finches and seedeaters of multiple species (including a couple of flashy male Black-bellieds) that flushed in waves before the advance of our vehicle. And then, there was the one that got away; we had an oh-so-close pair of Dwarf Tinamous sound off less than 20 feet from us, but neither playback nor a group sweep through the area managed to pull them out of cover.

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 a minimum of 15 individuals in one afternoon, and approached one obliviously foraging individual so closely that those of us with telephoto lenses couldn't fit the whole beast in the frame! The other mammalian highlight was provided by a magnificent maned wolf that, while distant, nonetheless put on a real show of foraging, with his tail spiking skyward as he exhibited his pouncing prowess again and again to our delight. And then there were the multiple legless lizards that kept crawling out onto the park roads. One of my personal highlights from our time in the park was the spectacular emergence of winged termites following the big rainstorm, not to mention the feeding frenzy of birds (everything from seedeaters to tanagers) that were flycatching them!

 Our final destination was the beautiful Serra da Caraça, and its 200-year-old monastery set in truly breathtaking surroundings. A combination of rocky serras (the peaks of which reach 6,000 feet), pockets of Atlantic rainforest, cerrado, and gallery forest along clear-running streams makes this a magical location. Our birding here was impacted by fairly persistent rain, although we still managed to find the recently described Rock Tapaculo, the localized Serra Antwren, responsive pairs of Orange-eyed Thornbirds and Blackish Rails, and still more Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (including some seen from our rooms!). 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 monastery to feed on raw meat provided by the Fathers.  These magnificent predators, with the pelage of a red fox, the ears of a bat-eared fox, a black horse-like mane, and black, stilt-like legs, have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. To have them feeding within 15 feet of you is simply breathtaking.

All in all, a very congenial group of birders enjoyed a bunch of really exciting birding highlights, including more than 400 species of birds (of which more than 130 were Brazilian and/or regional endemics), not to mention superb mammals, numerous wonderful meals, great Brazilian ice cream (Kíbon!!!), and lots of fun, too.  I'll be sending out the promised CD of photo highlights this week, and hopefully, the photos will revive vivid memories of some outstanding experiences. It was great traveling with you all, and Andy and I hope to see you back on future Brazil trips—after all, that visa is good for several more years!