Southeastern Brazil Part I Sep 28—Oct 10, 2012

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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In 2012 we offered for the second time 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!). The inaugural (2011) tour was so successful that it left us champing at the bit for fall (austral spring) of 2012 to arrive so that we could do it all over again! Once again, each segment of the tour met our lofty expectations, and the Trilogy as a whole provided an unsurpassed survey of the spectacular and highly endemic southeast Brazilian avifauna. Part I (including the Iguaçu Pre-Trip) tallied 339 species, 106 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 545 species, of which 182 (33.3%) were regional and/or Brazilian endemics! These figures become all the more impressive when you consider that many of the wider ranging species not included as "“endemics" in the preceding tally, are represented in southeast Brazil by distinctive subspecies endemic to the Atlantic Forest region, and that many, if not most of these subspecies will be elevated to separate species status in the near future.

We started with the Iguaçu Falls Pre-Trip, where the spectacle of the world's greatest waterfalls provided the backdrop for some great birding. Our repeated hikes along the river failed to produce any Black-fronted Piping-Guans, but we had better luck with the magnificent Toco and Red-breasted toucans, the elegant Plush-crested Jays (including an active nest), 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, and was matched only by the wonder of seeing clusters of the same birds through the scope as they clung to the slightest of slippery purchase behind the cataracts.

If there was a consistent thread running through this year's Southeast Brazil Trilogy, it was, as in 2011, one of exceptional night birding. Those participants who completed Parts I & II saw an impressive 11 species of owls—a slight drop from last year's record-setting 14 species, but staggering nonetheless! It all started at Iguaçu, where our first pre-dawn excursion netted us fabulous studies of Tropical and Variable screech-owls, as well as a most responsive Common Potoo.

Pavonine Cuckoo, Iguacu Falls National Park, Brazil, 9/28/12

Pavonine Cuckoo, Iguacu Falls National Park, Brazil, 9/28/12— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

As night yielded to day, the impressive pre-dawn chorus of Rufous-capped Motmots presaged some exciting birding along the Poço Preto Road, where highlights included superb views of a pair of impressive Robust Woodpeckers, displaying Spot-billed Toucanets, a perched Rufous-thighed Kite, an incredibly well-behaved Short-tailed Antthrush, spritely Southern Bristle-Tyrants and skulking Southern Antpipits, four incandescent male Band-tailed Manakins at a lek, a dapper male Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher mobbing my owl calls, pairs of Solitary Tinamous and rarely seen Violaceous Quail-Doves in the jeep track, a responsive Sharpbill, and, best of all, a Pavonine Cuckoo that roared in to check us out, and then sat for portrait views. Registering somewhat lower on the rarity scale, but exciting nonetheless, were the numerous fancy Blond-crested Woodpeckers and Surucua Trogons, the territorial pair of Green-barred Woodpeckers, the obliging Saffron-billed Sparrow, and (for the second consecutive year) a lone Saffron Toucanet. After such an amazing first day, our second day of birding along the Poço Preto Road was almost bound to be a letdown, and it was, but only because of the weather, which had taken a decided turn for the worse. We still managed to pick up a few new birds in the early morning, highlighted by a Rusty-breasted Nunlet and crippling views of a juvenile Barred Forest-Falcon. Soon thereafter, the rain began, and although we soldiered on for a few hours beneath the canopy of our jeep and cart, it soon became clear that further birding was a lost cause.

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. An earlier-than-usual flight out of Iguaçu put us in Curitiba with much of the morning still in front of us. After uniting with Don, Sally, Bob & Rapha, we headed to the zoological park, where the entrance road offered excellent birding topped off by a visit to a Plovercrest lek. This was followed by an especially good lunch at a nearby churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue), after which we headed south to Itapoá, with a major birding detour near Garuva. Here, our primary focus was on seeing the endemic and only recently described Marsh (or Paraná) Antwren, and we were rewarded with nice views of a pair and another individual. We were also treated to nice views of a responsive pair of Blackish Rails, scope views of Scaled Chachalaca (just split from Speckled Chachalaca), lots of incandescent Brazilian Tanagers, and a singing male Sooty Grassquit, among others.

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 our 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 (after much effort on our parts), 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 pair of impressive White-throated Woodcreepers, the Crescent-chested Puffbird that finally put in an appearance (and then showed nicely), the multiple Green-backed Trogons, and the array of dazzling tanagers, highlighted by endemic Black-backed and Red-necked tanagers.

Birding in and around Curitiba was packed with highlights. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the show put on by the lovely Red-and-white and Rufous-sided crakes that took turns parading back and forth across the tunnel that Rapha constructed in the reeds. Most crakes and rails have an inherently high degree-of-difficulty to see, but the Red-and-white Crake is a true marsh phantom. What was particularly amazing is that both species of crakes continued to show well even when we weren't trying to see them! In fact, they were a major distraction in our efforts to see the real phantom of the marsh—the Marsh Tapaculo. Although it came close several times, the tapaculo never showed itself, perhaps sensing that it could not possibly compete with the crakes in the "gee, wow" department. The same marsh produced Plumbeous Rails, Freckle-breasted Thornbirds, and a snazzy little Mottled Piculet, among many other prizes. A city park yielded stellar studies of the rare and elusive Canebrake Groundcreeper, which actually froze in place for prolonged, scope-filling views. Our nightbirding efforts also regained momentum, as we netted the bizarre Sickle-winged Nightjar and sensational views of a Rusty-barred Owl.

Rusty-barred Owl, Curitiba, Brazil, 10/2/12

Rusty-barred Owl, Curitiba, Brazil, 10/2/12— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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, excellent scope views of a singing male Bare-throated Bellbird, mobs of colorful Brassy-breasted Tanagers, a cooperative pair of White-browed Foliage-gleaners, the always breathtaking Giant Antshrike, and a Slaty Bristlefront that paraded right past us and then hopped up onto an exposed perch to sing. For all of this, the true star of the show may have been a wonderful margay that strolled out into the track ahead of us, not once, but twice! On our way down the mountains toward the coast, we stopped to appreciate a Channel-billed Toucan and a Red-breasted Toucan book-ending the crown of the same bare tree.

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. For whatever reasons, the parrots were largely missing in action this year, although we did see about 40 birds (compared to 200–500 on our previous visits), including several that perched nicely and showed off the red in their fanned tails. It may have been that on this particular day, the parrots were simply late in commuting from their feeding areas. We also managed to find about 10 Scarlet Ibis among a large group of herons and egrets going to roost on a tiny islet of mangroves.

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 a pair of Green-chinned Euphonias (feeding on spittle bugs and/or the exudates produced by the bugs), fruit-hogging Red-breasted Toucans and snazzy Chestnut-backed Tanagers on the feeders, and a lovely 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 pair of Barred Forest-Falcons doing their best impressions of heat-seeking missiles, multiple Mottled Piculets, an improbable-looking Black-billed Scythebill that sat glued to a sapling at eye level, a responsive pair of Blackish-blue Seedeaters and an equally responsive pair of Dusky-tailed Antbirds, a skulking Chestnut-headed Tanager, and two pairs 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 (feeding young at a nest), Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Firewood-gatherer, Black-and-white Monjita, and Saffron-cowled Blackbird. Scope studies of a Red-winged Tinamou were a treat, as were the fly-by looks at a record total of 48 Red-spectacled Parrots.

Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Sao Francisco de Paula, Brazil, 10/7/12

Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Sao Francisco de Paula, Brazil, 10/7/12— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The weather gods were really on our side the day we traveled to Aparados da Serra National Park, as we enjoyed mostly sunny skies throughout the day, in spite of the dire forecasts for rain starting in the afternoon. For the second consecutive year, 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, offering prime conditions for studying their subtle differences. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the canyon and the swift extravaganza, and 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 sixth time in seven years that we have scored this species since its formal description.

All too soon, 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 various local guides, Oliveira, Raphael, and Margit, 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 ten years, and there are bunches of more birds to see! 

Favorite Birds of the Trip, Part I (as voted by the group)

1. Red-and-white Crake
2. Rusty-barred Owl, Speckle-breasted Antpitta & Black-billed Scythebill (tied)
3. Blue-bellied Parrot