Southeastern Brazil Part I Oct 11—23, 2013

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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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Once again, our Southeastern Brazil Tour delivered the bonanza of Atlantic Forest endemics, southern grassland specialties, and all-around great birding that we have come to expect from this region. But no two trips are ever exactly alike, and, as is always the case, the relative success of this tour in any given year, at least as measured in total species count and number of endemics seen, comes down to weather. And as we all know, the weather isn’t what it used to be, anywhere! We encountered perhaps a bit more than our fair share of bad weather during Part I, with about average precipitation during Part II. Inopportune rains and wind during Part I cost us Red-tailed Parrot and a number of waterbirds from our canceled boat trip, a number of montane goodies in the Serra da Graciosa (virtually all of which we caught up with on Part II), and, likely, a few owls and nightjars out of Curitiba.

But it was the longer-term weather pattern that likely had the bigger impact. Far southern Brazil experienced a particularly harsh winter (June–August) in 2013, as a number of huge cold fronts came up out of the south and lingered for days. Curitiba even experienced accumulated snow on the ground for the first time since the 1970s! As a result, the normal October–November breeding cycles of many birds (particularly insectivores) seemed to be thrown off significantly. The various austral migrants (Short-tailed Nighthawks, Sick’s Swifts, elaenias, becards, Rufous-tailed Attilas, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, etc.) had all arrived in force, but many of the resident species that should have been vocal and in full breeding mode were curiously non-vocal and inconspicuous. This phenomenon was much more pronounced in the far south (Curitiba to Porto Alegre) than it was in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and, accordingly, had a bigger impact on our birding in Part I than in Part II. Nonetheless, we tallied 318 species on Part I (including the Iguaçu Falls Pre-Trip), 90 of which were regional and/or Brazilian endemics, and 393 species on Part II, a whopping 144 of which were regional and/or Brazilian endemics. Those folks who took the entire tour (Parts I & II, plus Iguaçu) racked up nearly 500 species in 25 days of birding, including an impressive 170 species of 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 tallies 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.

Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Reserva Volta Velha, Santa Catarina, Brazil, October 2013

Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Reserva Volta Velha, Santa Catarina, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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. We arrived in Curitiba (by way of São Paulo) in mid-morning, with time for a little birding before lunch. After uniting with David, Patricia, and Gabriel, we headed to the zoological park, where the entrance road offered excellent birding topped off by a visit to a Plovercrest lek and a check of the waterfowl on a nearby lagoon. A male Southern Pochard and several White-cheeked Pintails among the throngs of whistling-ducks and Brazilian Teal were fortuitous finds. 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 male. After our fairly surgical strike on the antwren, we spent some time with some incandescent Brazilian Tanagers and a dapper Yellow-browed Tyrant before heading to our lodge at Volta Velha. As we were checking in, a trio of Short-tailed Nighthawks waged what was either a display or an aerial dogfight low over the lodge clearing.

We had all of the next day plus the following morning to bird Reserva Volta Velha, and that time paid off with numerous highlights. Sadly, although we located three different ultra-rare Kaempfer’s Tody-Tyrants, none of them offered more than a quick glimpse for a couple of people. Fortunately, two other little flycatchers with very restricted ranges, the Restinga Tyrannulet and Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrant, showed beautifully, as did Spot-backed Antshrike, Unicolored Antwren, Scaled Antbird, Pale-browed Treehunter, Rufous-capped Spinetail, Gray-hooded Attila, and a host of other endemic passerines. It will also be hard to forget the animated male Swallow-tailed Manakins at their lek, the ridiculously confiding Eared Pygmy-Tyrant and Ochre-collared Piculet (both of which were studied below eye level and at minimum-focus range), the noisy mob of Azure Jays, the multiple Green-backed Trogons, the Southern Lapwing steadfastly sheltering its eggs from the brief but violent hail storm, or the array of dazzling tanagers, highlighted by endemic Black-backed and Red-necked tanagers. By the late afternoon of Day 3, we had bid farewell to Volta Velha, and we were back in Curitiba.

Plumbeous Rail, Piraquara, Parana, Brazil, October 2013

Plumbeous Rail, Piraquara, Parana, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next morning saw us headed to the Serra da Graciosa, where we would be introduced to an entirely different avifauna, that of the cool, wet slopes of the Serra do Mar. Note the emphasis on “wet”! We arrived to find the crest of the Graciosa enveloped in mist, and that mist was to stay with us, off-and-on, throughout the morning, alternately showing brief signs of clearing, and then degenerating to light, but steady rain. Making good use of our umbrellas and rain gear, we still managed to see a number of birds, but activity levels (and particularly, vocalization) on the part of most birds were decidedly compromised. Among the prizes here were some low-flying Sooty Swifts, Scaly-throated Hermits on song perches, male Hooded Berryeaters, excellent scope studies of a singing male Bare-throated Bellbird, good looks at a just-returning Rufous-tailed Attila, a responsive pair of Dusky-tailed Antbirds, Brown-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, and mixed-species flocks whose members ranged from Azure-shouldered and Fawn-breasted tanagers to Sharp-billed Treehunters and Lesser Woodcreepers. With the clock ticking and the weather worsening, we concluded our morning in the Graciosa and headed downslope to Morretes, where a typically sumptuous Brazilian lunch awaited. After pigging out on a combination of barreado (a traditional slow-cooked meat stew served with farinha de mandioca, for which the region in general, and Morretes in particular, is famous) and seafood, we continued down to the coast, aiming for a scheduled boat trip to Superagui National Park. Unfortunately, the weather had not improved, and, if anything, was worse at the coast, where the wind was whipping up some big whitecaps offshore, and the rain was continuing at a light, but steady pace. After consulting with the boat captain, we decided to cancel the trip. Our primary quest was to see Red-tailed Parrots returning to their evening roosts on the islands after a day of foraging on the mainland, and, given the weather, the captain thought it likely that the parrots would have already gone to roost early. Besides, in a small speedboat, without a cover of any kind, it was clear that the trip would leave everyone soaked and miserable. We had little recourse but to head back to Curitiba, worried that this turn in the weather might be signaling that a front had settled in, and thus offering dim prospects for the next day’s birding in Curitiba.

Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Rota de Campos de Cima da Serra, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, October 2013

Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Rota de Campos de Cima da Serra, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Fearing the worst on weather, we awoke to skies that were heavily overcast. But at least it wasn’t raining! And, as we began our final day of birding in and around Curitiba, the weather actually began to improve, with occasional patches of blue sky. The better weather was reflected in increased bird activity. Topping everything perhaps, was our luck with rails, as we were treated to three species of rails (Plumbeous Rail, Red-and-white Crake, and Rufous-sided Crake) seen in the same marsh in the morning, followed by stellar views of multiple Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails and Blackish Rails at another location in the afternoon. Our first stop also treated us to superb views of Freckle-breasted Thornbird (here at the northern edge of its range), Long-tailed Reed-Finch, and Striped Cuckoo, among many others. City parks produced highlights ranging from an albino Rufous-bellied Thrush to Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner to some very engaging Black-tufted-ear Marmosets. Unfortunately, we got nothing more than a single vocalization out of the usually easy-to-hear but always-a-nightmare-to-see Wetland Tapaculo. It was a bigger blow when the same Canebrake Groundcreepers that had behaved so well for us in the past (including last year) proved only marginally responsive this year. Although it called back several times, it never came close enough for us to see. By late afternoon, the weather was showing signs of turning once again, and although we made a valiant effort, our planned nightbirding excursion was a disappointment. Despite minimal precipitation, the howling wind and light mist made for a lethal combination. The Sickle-winged Nightjars weren’t calling, and we could manage nothing more than a couple of brief distant views. We did succeed in bringing in a Common Potoo and a pair of Long-tufted Screech-Owls, but each gave us only a single pass before losing interest, and we got zero response from the normally cooperative Rusty-barred Owl.

Bidding farewell to Rapha and to Curitiba, and with fingers crossed for improved weather, we flew to Porto Alegre, and then drove to São Francisco de Paula. The weather was, indeed, much better here, and was forecast to remain that way for the next two days before taking a turn for the worse. Trying to take full advantage of what promised to be ephemeral good conditions, we hit the ground running in our exploration of the ambient moss-draped araucaria woodlands and windswept, plateau grasslands. The grounds of our hotel offered raucous Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails, bugling Green Ibis, singing Araucaria Tit-Spinetails, fruit-hogging Red-breasted Toucans and snazzy Chestnut-backed Tanagers on the feeders, and furtive White-rimmed Warblers, “Southern” Mouse-colored Tapaculos, and a more-challenging-than-usual 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, flocks of screeching Maroon-bellied Parakeets, dazzling Diademed Tanagers and Glittering-bellied Emeralds, skulking Gray-bellied Spinetails, and an unusually cooperative pair of Chestnut-headed Tanagers. Nearby open country yielded loads of new birds, including such perennial favorites as Spotted Nothura, Red-legged Seriema, Rufous-capped Antshrike, Long-tailed Cinclodes (feeding young at a nest), Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Firewood-gatherer, Black-and-white Monjita, and Saffron-cowled Blackbird. A Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper foraging in the shallows in the middle of a stream was a bonus, and we were treated to some exceptional performances from Hellmayr’s Pipit, Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch, Lesser Grass-Finch, Great Pampa-Finch, and Hooded Siskin, among many others.

Planalto Tapaculo, Cambara do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, October 2013

Planalto Tapaculo, Cambara do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, October 2013— 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. For the third 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. Six miles in length, and nearly a mile deep, this rugged canyon is lined above by picturesque Araucaria-dominated forest. Squadrons of big and noisy Biscutate and White-collared swifts patrolled the airspace above the canyon, allowing repeated opportunities for studying their subtle differences under good light. For the first time ever, our picnic lunch at the canyon attracted a group of striking Azure Jays intent on handouts. We alternated between eating our lunches and baiting the jays, with occasional timeouts whenever the swift flocks wheeled overhead. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the canyon and the swift extravaganza, and began birding our way back to São Francisco de Paula, with a focus on locating a Planalto Tapaculo, a species just described to science in 2005. The warm, sunny weather, although great for canyon viewing, was far from ideal for finding the tapaculo, a strict denizen of shady, mossy banks and forest interior. It took some searching, and one frustrating aural encounter with an unresponsive individual, before we hit on a responsive bird that gave us all good looks at its boldly black-barred, brown flanks and vent, marks that (along with its paler gray color and different vocalizations) distinguished it from the sympatric “Southern” Mouse-colored Tapaculo (which we caught up with the next day). This was the seventh time in eight years that we have scored the Planalto Tapaculo since its formal description.
The bad weather arrived, as predicted, on our third day in the region. The fog was so thick at the escarpment that it was impossible to distinguish colors or field marks unless a bird was within 20 feet. That, combined with mist and strong winds, sent us back to the lodge early, and we spent the remainder of the day watching the feeders (Amethyst Woodstar!) and making short forays around the grounds for selected targets, which resulted in eye level studies of a pair of Green-chinned Euphonias and a fearless male Mottled Piculet. 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!