Southeastern Brazil Part II Oct 08—24, 2012
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
We convened Part II of our Southeast Brazil tour in the São Paulo international airport, most of us having just flown in from Porto Alegre, and 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 one day (and most of our opportunities for night birding) to rain, which certainly cost us some species that we usually see here, the most notable being the Long-trained Nightjar. But enough of what we missed, how about all that we saw? For starters, we scored three of the "Big Five" antshrikes—Tufted, the rare White-bearded, and the appropriately named Giant—always a crowd-pleasing trio. Snagging great looks at a couple of rare Black-fronted Piping-Guans was particularly sweet given that we had missed the species in Iguaçu on Part I. Scope-filling views of no less than three different Swallow-tailed Cotingas on their nests were also a highlight, as were the prolonged studies of a nest-building pair of rare Black-legged Dacnises. There were count-the-feathers 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 (southern form), Mouse-colored Tapaculo (southern form), 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. I particularly enjoyed hitting the tyrannulet trifecta with exceptional studies of Bay-ringed, Oustalet's, and São Paulo tyrannulets coming in rapid succession on the same morning. And, there was that fabulous pair of Pileated (Red-capped) Parrots that dropped into the fruiting tree off the front deck of Pica-Pau during the mid-point of our rainout morning. Those two spent more than an hour feeding sedately right in front of us—a rare treat from a species that is normally seen in high-flying flocks passing overhead. That rain-delay was further brightened by a lovely pair of Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers that were initially attracted to our makeshift fruit feeders, but then clung stubbornly, at eye level, to an open tree trunk in what seemed like a silent but defiant protest to the rain. On our last afternoon, we even scored a perched pair of Blue-bellied Parrots, an encore performance for folks that had been on Part I, but a most welcome find for this second segment of the tour.
Leaving Intervales, we set off on our long travel day to Ubatuba. Along the way, we stopped for what I had planned as a surgical strike on the recently discovered but still not formally described "São Paulo Antwren." Unfortunately, when we arrived at the marsh there was no sign of the pair of antwrens that had behaved so well for us in 2011. Our search quickly moved beyond the realm of "surgical" and began to take on a tone of quiet desperation before we finally heard the response we were waiting for. With a bit of coaxing, we all eventually enjoyed good (if somewhat brief) studies of a bird that still lacks an "official" name—not an everyday event—before the ticking clock drove us back to the bus and on to Ubatuba.
The next morning found us at Fazenda Angelim where, once again, the weather gods had decided to test us with more rain showers. After a brief rain delay, we worked our way down the entrance road and into the main clearing. Our primary target was a diminutive little endemic called the Buff-throated Purpletuft. It is an unobtrusive, canopy-dwelling species of uncertain affinities, formerly placed in the family Cotingidae. Angelim is a great place for them, but on this day, they were not in their usual spot. The rain continued intermittently, which resulted in stretches of umbrella birding on our parts. Fortunately, we hit on a cluster of small fruiting trees that proved to be a major bird magnet. It didn't take long to figure out that our best strategy was to simply stake out those trees and let the birds come to us! My notes indicate no fewer than 21 species visited the trees for fruit, but it was the number of individuals of each that was even more impressive. Those trees were literally swarming with birds, including groups of gorgeous Red-necked and Green-headed tanagers; bunches of Yellow-legged, Creamy-bellied, and Pale-breasted thrushes; showy Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers; and a virtual parade of fruit-eating flycatchers and becards. Best of all, we ended up getting nice scope studies of our only Buff-throated Purpletuft when one individual dropped in to partake of the tiny fruits. We even tallied a female Black-legged Dacnis for good measure. In between sessions at the fruiting trees, we spent some time working patches of bamboo at the forest-edge, which rewarded us with point-blank views of a Scaled Antbird and, after some effort, nice studies of the elusive Spotted Bamboowren.
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 portrait studies of both Tawny-throated and Rufous-breasted leaftossers, Spot-breasted and Plain antvireos, Black-cheeked Gnateater, Slaty Bristlefront (the northern form, which will soon be split from the southern birds that we saw previously on Part I and at Intervales), and Unicolored Antwren. A hot tip from some other birders that we encountered resulted in us taking a slight detour on our way back to town. Although it took us a little while to sort out the less than perfect directions, we eventually found their spot, and the bird that we were looking for, the diminutive Salvadori's Antwren. This foothill species has a very localized distribution, but it is locally not uncommon on the slopes of the Serra do Mar above Ubatuba. The problem is that the few trails that penetrate its altitudinal range are just too steep and narrow for group birding, and hence, it is missed by most tours to the area. This was a most fortuitous pickup, and, given that the antwrens were foraging with a mixed-species flock, it ended up netting us nice looks at some other species as well. By evening, we had left São Paulo state and relocated to the town of Pereque in the adjacent state of Rio de Janeiro.
Pereque provided us with an excellent morning of birding, highlighted by great looks at a couple of pairs of endangered Black-hooded Antwrens, a species lost to science for over 100 years, and only rediscovered in 1987. We also scored wonderful studies of Orange-eyed Thornbird, Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, wing-snapping White-bearded Manakins, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, an unexpected White-thighed Swallow (perched) and many others before the morning was out. After lunch we headed for Itatiaia, our route initially taking us along a beautiful stretch of coast that really showcased the Serra do Mar. We arrived at Itatiaia in the late afternoon and spent the better part of a productive hour birding a marsh in the lowlands below the park boundary. Upon arriving at the hotel, we were informed that the weather forecast called for relative calm and little rain the following day, but that rain was predicted for at least the next few days after that. Based on that ominous forecast, I switched my planned order of activities around, with the intent of squeezing in our long day of higher elevation birding before the rains hit.
Accordingly, the next morning saw us leaving very early for the highlands. By the time we arrived at the Agulhas Negras road, dawn had broken, and the skies were mostly clear as advertised. But, the weather forecast had failed to mention the wind. A strong wind was blowing from the start, and it was having a clear impact on bird vocalization. In fact, there was almost nothing singing when we first started birding! Most notably absent from the usual dawn chorus was the defining voice of the Itatiatia highlands—that of the Black-and-gold Cotinga. The cotinga is the real avian jewel of these mountains, and, on this morning, it remained quiet for an uncomfortably long time before starting to sing. Once the cotinga did begin to sing, it wasn't long before Ricardo had spotted the male on its usual song perch, and we all 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.'
Slowly, but surely, most of the rest of the highland specialties presented themselves for our approval. Restless groups of Brassy-breasted Tanagers, Thick-billed Saltators, and Bay-chested and Buff-throated warbling-finches offered little resistance, whereas skulking Rufous-tailed Antbirds, Rufous-tailed Antthrushes, and Mouse-colored Tapaculos (northern form) had to be patiently lured out from hiding. Best of all was a stunning male Black-capped Piprites that showed nicely, an all the more welcome find for me, given that we had missed this lovely endemic in 2011. As the morning progressed, the weather took a rapid downturn, and before long we were engulfed in mist and fog. Not surprisingly, the Plovercrests (northern emerald-crested, purple-breasted form) were not attending their leks, and birding conditions had devolved into fog-induced gridlock. We had little recourse but to drive higher, hoping to actually get above the weather. That tactic worked, but only for a short time, as the fog and mist continued moving upslope instead of down. Persistence finally paid off in the form of a lovely male Large-tailed Antshrike (the only one of the "Big Five" antshrikes that we were still missing) that popped out of the bamboo a few minutes after I had ceased playback, and then hopped around practically at our feet like a devoted pet. We decided to name him "Lester." Shortly thereafter, we scored big with excellent studies of the endemic Itatiaia Thistle-tail before the weather drove us completely out of the mountains.
The remainder of our time in Itatiaia was spent at lower elevations, but here too, there was much to see. Best of all, the weather turned out to be better than predicted, allowing us to enjoy the diverse avifauna of the park's middle and lower elevations. 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, Swallow-tailed Cotinga (on a nest), Atlantic Royal Flycatcher (near an active nest), Robust Woodpecker, Saffron Toucanet, White-bibbed Antbird, Cryptic (Such's) Antthrush, Speckle-breasted Antpitta, and Black-throated Grosbeak. We also enjoyed some fabulous studies of the endemic masked titi-monkey, as well as of the more wide-ranging brown capuchin monkey. And, who could forget the fabulous Tawny-browed Owl seen right from the hotel parking lot? Visits to lowland pastures and marshes below the park rounded out our lists with a number of open-country species.
Our last major venue was REGUA. The marvelously restored wetlands there added several marsh-inhabiting birds to our list, among them such prizes as Masked Duck, Capped Heron, Rufous-sided Crake, and Black-capped Donacobius. The REGUA trail system gave us displaying male Pin-tailed Manakins, more Blue-bellied Parrots and Black-cheeked Gnateaters, a neck-breaking Brazilian Pygmy-Owl, a Common Potoo brooding a chick, and, best of all, a sensational male Shrike-like Cotinga. On one day, we made a dusk excursion to nearby pastures to search for the nearly mythical Giant Snipe. With darkness gathering around us, we stood in hushed silence, as the snipe began to vocalize in the distance. After a few tries, we managed to lure one to the ground, but it flushed before we could fix its location. Fortunately, there was just enough light left that I could make out the outline of the bird, and fortune smiled on us again when the bird flushed towards us rather than away from us. As soon as it jumped I hit it with the spotlight, and we were treated to relatively close, illuminated fly-by views. 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. We also used REGUA as a launching base for a day-trip to Sumidouro, where, among other things, we finally caught up with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and enjoyed lengthy, eye level encounters with multiple Three-toed Jacamars. On our final 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 total of 8 species seen on Part II, and a grand total of 11 species seen for the trip.
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, among them four youngsters that remained piggybacked on their respective parents. 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 and Sooretama Slaty-Antshrike. Then, it was on to Rio and our beachside hotel at famous Copacabana. The tour concluded with an excellent dinner at one of Rio's finest churrascarias. Some of the group opted for a tour of Corcovado (led by Ricardo) the next morning, prior to flying home, or, continuing on to Part III (Espírito Santo) of the trilogy, with Andy.
Part II of our 2012 Southeast Brazil tour tallied 388 species, over a third of which were regional and/or Brazilian endemics! 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 Cesar, 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 (as voted by the group)
1. Shrike-like Cotinga & Large-tailed Antshrike (tied)
2. Robust Woodpecker & Yellow-fronted Woodpecker (tied)
3. Black-capped Piprites, Three-toed Jacamar & Black-and-gold Cotinga (tied)