Southeastern Brazil Part I Oct 01—12, 2011
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
In 2011 we premiered the new-and-improved version of our long-running and perennially popular Southeast Brazil tour. Heeding the calls for shorter tours, while striving to provide a thorough survey of Brazil's Atlantic Forest, one of the world's true hotspots of endemism and biodiversity, demanded some changes and some creativity. And thus was launched the "VENT Southeast Brazil Trilogy," a somewhat expanded and revamped version of our classic Southeast Brazil tour, divided into three complementary segments (plus a pre-trip!). And then, we held our collective breath for the results, which, by any measure, were a grand success. Part I tallied 350 species, nearly a third of which were regional and/or Brazilian endemics! Those folks who took the entire Southeast Brazil tour (the "Trilogy") racked up a staggering total of 536 species, of which 181 (33.7%) were 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 some great birding. As is often the case, the biggest prize netted from our walks to the falls was the rare and spectacular Black-fronted Piping-Guan, although, sadly, this year it was seen by only some of the early-arriving contingent on an optional pre-tour hike. We had better luck with the magnificent Toco Toucans, the mobs of fearless Plush-crested Jays, a nest-excavating pair of Lineated Woodpeckers, and, of course, the hordes of Great Dusky Swifts. Watching as hundreds of these large swifts careened out of the sky and disappeared behind the thundering wall of water was, as always, both mesmerizing and unforgettable.
Tawny-browed Owl, Santa Catarina state, Brazil, October 2011 — Photo: Kevin Zimmer
If there was a consistent thread running through this year's Southeast Brazil Trilogy, it was one of exceptional night birding. Those participants who completed the Trilogy saw an astounding 14 species of owls—more than I have heard of anyone seeing in a single trip! It all started at Iguaçu, where consecutive pre-dawn excursions netted us a completely unexpected Tawny-browed Owl and Spectacled Owl (possibly a mated pair!), both of which homed in on my audio playback of Mottled Owl calls. We haven't recorded a Pulsatrix of either species at Iguaçu in at least 15 years, so to be confronted with two species of these big owls was surprising to say the least. More expected were the Tropical and Variable screech-owls, the Short-tailed Nighthawks, and the Common Potoo (the latter seen roosting by day).
Of course, the conclusion of night birding at Iguaçu only signaled the beginning of some action-packed days along the Poço Preto Road, where highlights included superb views of the rare Russet-winged Spadebill, multiple Creamy-bellied Gnatcatchers, a pair of impressive Robust Woodpeckers, spritely São Paulo Tyrannulets and Southern Bristle-Tyrants, a pair of rare Buff-bellied Puffbirds (one of which made a spectacular sally to catch a huge katydid), a displaying Spot-billed Toucanet, and scope views of a singing Short-tailed Antthrush. Registering somewhat lower on the rarity scale, but exciting nonetheless, were the numerous fancy Blond-crested Woodpeckers and Surucua Trogons, the dust-bathing Green-barred Woodpecker, the glowing ember that was the male Band-tailed Manakin on his display perch, the incredibly obliging Saffron-billed Sparrow, and the lone Saffron Toucanet that brightened the gloom during our rain delay on the second afternoon.
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. After uniting with Andy, Sandy, and Rafa, we enjoyed an especially good lunch at a nearby churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue), and then 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 time to soak up several incandescent male Brazilian Tanagers in the same marsh. A pair of lovely Black-backed Tanagers also treated us to some point-blank views, and, although we would see more of them over the course of the next 48 hours, it was good to have this localized endemic under our belts.
We had all of the next day plus the following morning to bird Reserva Volta Velha, and that time paid off with numerous highlights, none better than the repeated superb views of the ultra-rare Kaempfer's Tody-Tyrant. Two other little flycatchers with very restricted ranges, the Restinga Tyrannulet and Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant, also showed nicely, as did Squamate Antbird, Spot-backed Antshrike, Unicolored Antwren, Pale-browed Treehunter, and a host of other endemic suboscine passerines. It will also be hard to forget the multiple male Swallow-tailed Manakins that performed so well, the noisy mob of Azure Jays, the male Rufous-winged Antwren that descended to eye level to check us out, the dazzling "Ariel" Toucans, or the four elegant Swallow-tailed Kites that alternately perched in the big tree outside the dining room and soared low over the clearing.
Birding in and around Curitiba was packed with highlights. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the male Sickle-winged Nightjars, one of which fluttered past us at close range, showing off its bizarre wings, and the other of which froze in our spotlight, allowing us all crippling studies. When it finally did fly, it bounced right off my chest and then disappeared into the night! Close behind in the "wow" department was getting repeat good views of the elusive Wetland (or Marsh) Tapaculo for everyone in the group! Getting anyone to see one of these phantoms of the marsh is an accomplishment, but having 15 of us see it well was unprecedented. And speaking of "marsh phantoms," it was also noteworthy that several people saw the notoriously difficult Red-and-white Crake in the same marsh. Plumbeous and Blackish rails showed nicely for all, as did Freckle-breasted Thornbird. Our owling efforts also regained momentum in Curitiba, with nice studies of a pair of endemic Long-tufted Screech-Owls and an endemic Rusty-barred Owl. And, while the Canebrake Groundcreeper was poorly behaved, offering little more than glimpses, we did enjoy an active lek of male Plovercrests (purple-crested loddigesii) and a fine assortment of waterfowl.
The Serra da Graciosa introduced us to an entirely different avifauna, that of the cool, wet slopes of the Serra do Mar. Among the prizes here were Hooded Berryeater, Rufous-breasted Leaftosser, and numerous colorful tanagers. But the stars of the show were the male and female Slaty Bristlefront that paraded past us again and again, offering up one minimum-focus-view after another.
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. Upon arriving at 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. On the return trip, we swung by a small mangrove-covered islet where we have seen roosting Scarlet Ibis on each of our last two tours. As we approached the islet we were delighted to see two incandescent vermilion spots among the hordes of Neotropic Cormorants. Upon closer approach by the boats, the mass of cormorants took flight, and the pair of ibis went with them. Around and around they swirled before settling back into the mangroves, the two ibis nearly glowing in the low-angle light. We had scored Scarlet Ibis for the third consecutive year! 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.
Chestnut-backed Tanager, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, October 2011 — Photo: Kevin Zimmer
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. The grounds of our hotel offered noisy Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails, singing Araucaria Tit-Spinetails, eye level studies of Rough-legged Tyrannulet, fruit-hogging Red-breasted Toucans and snazzy Chestnut-backed Tanagers on the feeders, and a very obliging Speckle-breasted Antpitta along the trail system. The nearby escarpment forests never fail to produce, and this year was no exception, as we thrilled to spectacular Vinaceous-breasted Parrots with their nape feathers fanned, a singing Mouse-colored Tapaculo almost too-close-to-focus-on, multiple Mottled Piculets, an improbable-looking Black-billed Scythebill, a scope-filling Green-chinned Euphonia, and a pair of dazzling Blue-bellied Parrots that played hard-to-get, but still showed nicely in the end. Nearby open country yielded loads of new birds, including such perennial favorites as Red-legged Seriema, Plumbeous Rail, Long-tailed Cinclodes, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Striolated Tit-Spinetail, Black-and-white Monjita, and Saffron-cowled Blackbird. Seeing a pair of big Red-winged Tinamous at what appeared to be their nest was a treat, as were the fly-by looks at a pair of rarely seen Red-spectacled Parrots in perfect early morning sunlight just an hour earlier.
In fact, the weather gods were really on our side on the day we traveled to Aparados da Serra National Park, as we enjoyed sunny skies throughout the day, in spite of the dire forecasts for "rain and worse rain." For one of the few times in recent memory, the grand weather allowed us to take in the full splendor of spectacular Itaimbezinho Canyon, which is surely one of the scenic wonders of Brazil. Squadrons of big and noisy Biscutate and White-collared swifts patrolled the airspace above the canyon, but our views of these birds at the canyon were eclipsed by our studies of large mixed-species aggregations of swifts over an insect hatch several miles outside of the park. There, we delighted in side by side comparisons of low-flying Biscutates and White-collareds along with a sprinkling of Sooty Swifts, partaking in what could only be described as a feeding frenzy. Eventually tearing ourselves away from the swift extravaganza, 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 fifth time in six years that we have scored this species since its formal description. Only afterwards, as we were headed back to São Francisco de Paula, did the skies open up, delivering not only the predicted torrent of rain, but also a pretty impressive show of thunder and lightning.
After a rare sleep-in morning the next day, it was time to return to Porto Alegre, to catch our flight to São Paulo, where we would meet up with inbound participants for the start of Southeast Brazil Part II, and where we would bid our fond farewells to a few folks who were leaving us. A whole new set of Atlantic Forest endemics was waiting, as were several more species of owls and tapaculos!
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 group of birders saw a bunch of really special birds, and had great fun in the process! I want to thank our local guides, Oliveira, Raphael, and Margit, each of whom added immensely to our trip. It was fun birding with you all, and I look forward to seeing you on future trips. After all, that Brazilian visa is good for ten years, and there are bunches of more birds to see!
Favorite Birds of the Trip (as voted by the group):
1. Sickle-winged Nightjar
2. Slaty Bristlefront
3. Tie between Black-fronted Piping-Guan and Wetland Tapaculo
4. Tie between Scarlet Ibis and Speckle-breasted Antpitta