Southeastern Brazil Part II Oct 10—26, 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 II tallied 400 species, over 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 convened Part II in the São Paulo international airport, a bunch of us having just flown in from Porto Alegre, having carried over from Part I. Our first destination was Intervales State Park, my own personal favorite among the many great spots in southeast Brazil. Intervales never fails to deliver a huge serving of Atlantic Forest endemics and just plain great birding, and such was the case again this trip, despite less-than-ideal weather. In fact, we lost significant portions of two days to rain, which certainly cost us a number of species that we usually see here, the most notable being the Long-trained Nightjar and Helmeted Woodpecker.
Tropical Screech-Owls, Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 12, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
But enough of what we missed, how about all that we saw? For starters, there was the clean sweep of the "Big Five" antshrikes—Large-tailed, Tufted, Spot-backed, the rare White-bearded, and the appropriately named Giant—always a crowd-pleasing bunch. Scope-filling views of a male Swallow-tailed Cotinga on its nest were also a highlight, as were the prolonged studies of multiple rare Black-legged Dacnises feeding at flowering trees, and the cozy pair of Tropical Screech-Owls (one a rufous-morph, the other a gray-morph) tucked into their day-roost in the vine tangle. There were good views of such skulkers as Squamate Antbird and Orange-breasted Thornbird, and we continued our run of tapaculo success (carried over from Part I) with nice looks at Slaty Bristlefront, Spotted Bamboowren, Mouse-colored Tapaculo, and White-breasted Tapaculo. There was the noisy lek of male Plovercrests (southern taxon loddigesii), a Dusky-throated Hermit on a song-perch, a Serra Tyrant-Manakin at minimal focal range, and a parade of colorful tanagers coming to our improvised fruit feeders. But for me, two birds stood out above all others. Our planned owling was curtailed by near nightly rains, but we still made progress in our march to the "Trilogy Total" of 14 species seen when we scored scope studies of a fabulous Stygian Owl, a first for one of our Southeast Brazil tours. This sinister-looking bird was voted "Favorite Bird" of the trip, and definitely stole the show at Intervales. But the Stygian Owl was nearly matched in the "Wow!" department by the smashing views we had of a male Blue-bellied Parrot that perched in front of us at eye level for a few seconds before rocketing off.
Leaving Intervales did not mean we had left the rain behind us, as the drizzle continued throughout our long travel day to Ubatuba. Along the way, we stopped for a surgical strike on the recently discovered but still not formally described "São Paulo Antwren." Miraculously, the rain stopped just as we arrived at the designated marsh, and held off long enough for us to do the requisite trail maintenance and locate a responsive pair of antwrens. We all enjoyed wonderful close studies of a bird that still lacks an "official" name—not an everyday event—before the rain drove us back to the bus and on to Ubatuba.
Festive Coquette, Folha Seca Ubatuba, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 16, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
The next morning found us at Fazenda Angelim, where scope views of Buff-throated Purpletufts, point-blank studies of a pair of Black-cheeked Gnateaters, lengthy studies of nest-building Golden-rumped Euphonias, and an encore performance of Black-legged Dacnises stood out as particular highlights. That afternoon, we headed to Folha Seca, where the hummingbird show must be witnessed to be appreciated. Amid the hundreds of hummers (comprising 13 species) were good numbers of showy Festive Coquettes and impressive Saw-billed Hermits—if it hadn't gotten dark, we might still be there! The next morning, we returned to Folha Seca, and managed to net such prizes as Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Slaty Bristlefront (the northern form, which will soon be split from the southern birds that we saw previously on Part I and at Intervales), Unicolored Antwren, and Red-necked Tanager before we had to return to the hotel to pack up. By that afternoon, we had relocated to Pereque in Rio de Janeiro state, and the rain had relocated with us. Fortunately, we salvaged the otherwise dreary afternoon by finding a lovely pair of rare Black-hooded Antwrens (lost to science for a century until rediscovered in 1987) and a nesting pair of Orange-eyed Thornbirds.
Black-hooded Antwren, Pereque, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 18, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
The next morning looked to be a repeat of the rain theme, but a perched, sub-adult King Vulture along the road was apparently the curative agent for the bad weather, because the skies eventually cleared and we enjoyed a fabulous morning of birding. Highlights included both Buff-bellied and Crescent-chested puffbirds, more Orange-eyed Thornbirds and Black-hooded Antwrens, a Buff-throated Purpletuft, a pair of manic São Paulo Tyrannulets, close studies of Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, and a parade of raptors that included Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, Laughing Falcon, and Rufous-thighed Kite. After lunch we headed for Itatiaia, our route initially taking us along a beautiful stretch of coast that really showcased the Serra do Mar on what turned out to be a lovely day.
The good weather was to hold for our stay in Itatiaia, and, in terms of impacting our birding, for the remainder of Part II. Our day along the Agulhas Negras Road produced most of the hoped-for highland specialties, from Rufous-backed Antvireo and Speckle-breasted Antpitta to Thick-billed Saltators and Bay-chested Warbling-Finches. Oddly, the Plovercrests (northern emerald-crested, purple-breasted form) were not attending their leks, but we still managed to see a few foraging males at lower-than-usual elevations along the road. Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Rufous-tailed Antbird, and Itatiaia Thistletail all showed nicely as well. In fact, our only real miss was Black-capped Piprites, which was neither spontaneously vocal nor responsive during our stay in the park. But the real prize of these mountains is the Black-and-gold Cotinga, and it remained quiet for an uncomfortably long time before starting to sing that morning. After some searching, I eventually spotted a singing male, and we enjoyed lengthy studies through the scope. But it is the voice of this bird that really captures the imagination. Ernest G. Holt, who conducted the first real ornithological survey of the Itatiaia highlands in 1921–22, wrote evocatively of his first encounter with the bird Brazilians call the Saudade. That account was later republished by David Snow (1982) in his classic monograph The Cotingas, and I include an excerpt here:
"I had been long hours in the saddle. Now, amid lengthening shadows, I was traversing the upper reaches of the forest zone…Unexpectedly there floated out upon the thin, clear air a vibrant note, a long-drawn plaintive whistle that rose in pitch and intensity, and then faded away in a mere thread of sound—withal so sad, so mournful, that it seemed the cry of some languishing wood sprite rather than a vibration of purely organic origin. With every sense alive, I craned my neck to see the tallest treetops. Nothing moved except a great sparkling drop which fell from a rosette of bromeliads high overhead to splash into a puddle in the trail. After a tense moment, the disembodied voice drifted again through the trees, this time joined by another, the two singing in unison. I turned in my saddle then, and looked back and down as well as up, for the air seemed filled with sound, but the notes died away, leaving on every hand only silent green gloom. It was not until weeks after, when I trudged those high trails day after day, that I stumbled by chance upon the owner of that wonderful voice."
The remainder of our time in Itatiaia was spent at lower elevations, but here too, there was much to see. Perhaps the hardest task was just getting away from the hotel, whose feeders swarmed with activity throughout the day, but especially during the breakfast hour. Between the bevy of colorful tanagers and hummingbirds at the feeders, the mobs of Dusky-legged Guans and Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails parading up and down the driveway, and the mixed-species flocks that regularly circulated through the treetops below the swimming pool, it was nearly impossible to get anywhere else on schedule! When we did get away, park trails produced a number of memorable birds, among them, Atlantic Royal Flycatcher (at its nest), Black-billed Scythebill, White-bibbed Antbird, and Cryptic and Rufous-tailed antthrushes. Visits to lowland pastures and marshes below the park added a number of open-country species, none of which were more memorable than the pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants performing their rollicking duets.
Shrike-like Cotinga, REGUA, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 22, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
Our last major venue was a new addition to our itinerary—REGUA. The marvelously restored wetlands there added several marsh inhabiting birds to our list, among them such prizes as Masked Duck, Capped Heron, and Rufous-sided Crake. The REGUA trail system gave us displaying male Pin-tailed Manakins, more Blue-bellied Parrots, Black-cheeked Gnateater, a neck-breaking Brazilian Pygmy-Owl and, best of all, a sensational male Shrike-like Cotinga. A dusk excursion to nearby pastures led to a magical encounter with multiple Giant Snipe. We stood in hushed silence, with thousands of fireflies lighting up the night, as the snipe began to display overhead. Time and again, their vocalizations would yield to the powerful rush of wind through tail feathers that signaled a dive—a sound that seemed too powerful to be made by a mere bird. After a few tries, we managed to get one on the ground, in the spotlight. Half again as large as the familiar Wilson's and Common snipes of North America and Europe, and possessed of an outsized bill, the Giant Snipe is indeed an impressive beast of a bird, particularly when illuminated by spotlight. Our last day at REGUA saw us making a day-trip to Sumidouro, where, among other things, we finally caught up with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and enjoyed lengthy encounters with multiple Three-toed Jacamars. That evening, we concluded our night birding with a flourish, when we ended up with stunning views of Barn Owl, Mottled Owl, and Black-banded Owl, giving us a grand total of 13 species seen for the trip (we would add Striped Owl during the course of Part III).
Giant Snipe, REGUA, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 23, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer
Our final day began not with a quest bird, but a quest primate, as we traveled to some privately owned forest in pursuit of the rare and endemic golden lion tamarin, a spectacular, charismatic little primate that is an icon of Brazil's Atlantic Forest. There, we spent extended time watching a troop of 11 tamarins, replete with two youngsters that remained piggybacked on their fathers. Afterwards, we went to the nearby Golden Lion Tamarin Reserve, where we were given a talk about the ongoing conservation efforts to save the tamarins. In the afternoon, we made a short stop at some windswept restinga scrub at Praia Seca to see the endemic Restinga Antwren. Then, it was on to Rio and our beachside hotel at famous Copacobana. The tour concluded with a rousing dinner at a nearby churrascaria. Most of the group opted for a tour of Corcovado and Tijuca National Park (led by Ricardo) the next morning, prior to flying home, or, continuing on to Part III (Espírito Santo) of the trilogy, with Andy.
Golden Lion Tamarin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 24, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer`
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 saw a bunch of really special birds, and had great fun in the process! I want to thank Ricardo and Fernando, 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. Stygian Owl
2. Streamer-tailed Tyrant
3. Shrike-like Cotinga & Giant Snipe (tied)
4. Blue-bellied Parrot & Three-toed Jacamar (tied)