Southeastern Brazil Part II Oct 21—Nov 06, 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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We convened Part II of our Southeastern Brazil tour in the São Paulo international airport, several 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. We birded through one afternoon and another morning of intermittent drizzle and light rain, which no doubt cost us a few species that we normally see here. Most significantly, the weather always seemed to take a turn for the worse in the evening, which cut down significantly on our nightbirding success. But enough of what we missed, how about all that we saw?

Black-cheeked Gnateater (male), Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013

Black-cheeked Gnateater (male), Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

For starters, we scored three of the “Big Five” antshrikes—Tufted, the rare White-bearded (no fewer than 5 individuals!), and the appropriately named Giant—always a crowd-pleasing trio. Scope views of a pair of Swallow-tailed Cotingas exchanging places at their nest were also a highlight, as was finding a trio (1 male, 2 females) of rare Black-legged Dacnises. And, there was that fabulous pair of Pileated (Red-capped) Parrots that dropped into the fruiting tree off the rear deck of Pica-Pau that first morning. Those two spent more than 30 minutes feeding sedately right in front of us—a rare treat from a species that is normally seen in high-flying flocks passing overhead. There was also 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 (including a flock of stunning Brassy-breasteds that descended to eye level right in front of us). I particularly enjoyed our tyrannulet blitz on the last full morning, when we scored Bay-ringed, Oustalet’s, Mottle-cheeked, Rough-legged, and São Paulo tyrannulets in fairly rapid succession. That same morning, we were treated to excellent scope studies of a singing Bare-throated Bellbird, followed by a Black-cheeked Gnateater and a Rufous-capped Antthrush, both of which were almost too close to focus our binoculars on! A short time later, I managed to lure a Solitary Tinamou right into the trail, for uncommonly good views. That evening (our last in the park), we finally scored the spectacular male Long-trained Nightjar, after being weathered out on three previous attempts.

Gray-bellied Hawk (juvenile), Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013

Gray-bellied Hawk (juvenile), Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

For all of this, when I think of the highlights of our visit to Intervales, four stand out above the others. Topping everything was our trio of rare Gray-bellied Hawks (a.k.a. Gray-bellied Goshawk), the juvenile of which I taped in to a mostly bare tree, where it sat calling for an extended period while we soaked up the scope-filling views. As I pointed out at the time, juveniles of this species are cryptically similar to adult Ornate Hawk-Eagles in plumage (to an amazing degree!), but are much smaller, with less of a crest, unfeathered tarsi, and underparts that are more spotted than barred. While we were watching the calling juvenile, two adult Gray-bellied Hawks (almost certainly the parents) came screaming in, buzzed the youngster once, and disappeared off into the forest. In a half-hour, I had more than doubled my previous total (= 2) of Gray-bellied Hawks seen, and this marked the first time we had recorded the species in over 20 years of Southeast Brazil tours! Ranking a distant second on the rarity meter, but thrilling nonetheless, was the fabulous pair of Stygian Owls that we spotlighted that one night shortly before the storm hit. Then, there was the unusually confiding pair of rarely seen Red-and-white Crakes that paraded back and forth for our viewing pleasure (thanks to being baited in by Betinho!). And finally, there was the magnificent Red-ruffed Fruitcrow that was making habitual dawn visits to an outside building light to hawk enormous moths that had been attracted to the light during the night. Seldom does one ever get to see this spectacular cotinga as well as we did.

Buff-throated Purpletuft, Fazenda Angelim, Ubatuba, Brazil, October 2013

Buff-throated Purpletuft, Fazenda Angelim, Ubatuba, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Intervales is always a hard act to follow, but the next venue on our itinerary was the coastal resort of Ubatuba, which promised its own set of highlights. Our first morning found us at Fazenda Angelim. 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, the purpletufts played hard to get. While searching for the purpletufts, we entertained ourselves with excellent studies of a Spot-backed Antshrike, scope views of a group of infrequently seen White-thighed Swallows, a nesting pair of Long-tailed Tyrants, snazzy Scaled Antbirds, a low-soaring White-necked Hawk, and many others. Eventually, a Buff-throated Purpletuft showed, and when it did, it showed well, dropping down to within 12 feet of the ground for superb viewing. On our way out, we even managed great looks for all of the normally elusive Spotted Bamboowren, which is not a wren at all, but rather, a tapaculo.

That afternoon, we headed to Folha Seca, where the hummingbird show must be witnessed to be appreciated. Amid the hundreds of hummers (comprising 11 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 nearby areas and managed to find a hyper-responsive pair of showy Blond-crested Woodpeckers (that just never wanted to perch anywhere too close), multiple male White-tailed Trogons seemingly battling for access to a female, and a neck-breaker of a Black-capped Becard. We also netted nice studies of three more Spot-backed Antshrikes, two pairs of Spot-breasted Antvireos, Unicolored Antwren, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Yellow-rumped (Whiskered) Flycatcher, a Gray Elaenia that taped down out of the canopy to eye level, several Eye-ringed Tody-Tyrants, and a very cooperative pair of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, among others. Later that afternoon, we drove a short distance up the coast to Pereque, where we were to spend just one night.

Festive Coquette (male), Folha Seca, Ubatuba, Brazil, October 2013

Festive Coquette (male), Folha Seca, Ubatuba, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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 Crescent-chested Puffbird, Orange-eyed Thornbird, Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, wing-snapping White-bearded Manakins, skulking Squamate Antbirds, and a much-better-behaved pair of Blond-crested Woodpeckers. After a delicious lunch at Adelia’s house, 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 just as it was getting dark, and began winding our way up the curvy, bumpy park road. 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 early (although an hour later than usual) for the highlands. By the time we arrived at the Agulhas Negras road, dawn had long since broken, and the skies, although not clear, did not portend rain. Regardless, there were very few birds 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 one of its usual song perches, 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.’

Brassy-breasted Tanager, Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013

Brassy-breasted Tanager, Intervales State Park, Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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 Buff-throated Warbling-Finches offered little resistance, whereas skulking Rufous-tailed Antbirds, Mouse-colored Tapaculos (northern form), Rufous-tailed Antthrush, Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, and a Speckle-breasted Antpitta had to be patiently lured out from hiding. A stunning male Black-capped Piprites showed nicely early on—always a relief to get this important bird under our belts as quickly as possible. As we approached midday, the weather took a rapid downturn, and before long, we were engulfed in mist and fog. Amazingly, despite the fog, the Plovercrests (northern emerald-crested, purple-breasted form) were attending their lek, and it wasn’t long before we had a singing male filling the scope. As we drove higher, we got above the fog, and broke into some rather intense sunshine. Perversely, that made for less than ideal birding conditions as well, since our target birds were reluctant to leave the gloom and shelter of their dense bamboo thickets for the bright, open gaps. 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 glued itself to a perch at the edge of a bamboo thicket, allowing us scope-filling views of its head! Shortly thereafter, we scored big with good studies of the endemic Itatiaia Thistletail, and followed that up with an eleventh-hour Rufous-backed Antvireo. Oddly, the antvireo had been the first bird I heard when we stepped out of the bus in the morning, but it had managed to elude our binoculars until the end of the day.

The remainder of our time in Itatiaia was spent at lower elevations, but here too, there was much to see. Best of all, the bad weather held off longer than predicted, allowing us to enjoy the diverse avifauna of the park’s middle and lower elevations until late the following afternoon. 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 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, a mixed-subspecies pair of Surucua Trogons, White-bibbed Antbird, a pair of very responsive Black-billed Scythebills, Slaty Bristlefront (at last!), and Black-throated Grosbeak, not to mention an up-close-and-personal encounter with some Brown Capuchin Monkeys. Visits to lowland pastures and marshes below the park rounded out our lists with a number of open-country species. The weather finally caught up with us late on our last afternoon, and the following morning the fog was so thick and the drizzle so constant, that it soon became apparent that we were flogging the proverbial dead horse by staying out. We retreated back to the hotel, where we could bird off the deck, getting repeat close views of Saffron Toucanets and Brown Tanagers, as well as our first Scaled Woodcreeper. After lunch, we left the drizzle behind and headed in the direction of Rio, with REGUA as our ultimate destination.

Crowned Eagle, Serra das Araras, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013

Crowned Eagle, Serra das Araras, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Well into our drive, we were descending from the Serra das Araras along the Dutra, the freeway that connects Itatiaia and Rio, when I spotted a large, perched raptor on the hillside up ahead. The thing looked HUGE. As I leaned farther forward in the shotgun seat, Carlos (our driver) began slowing down in anticipation of my shout to stop. “STOP! I think there’s a Crowned Eagle perched above us!” The problem, as Ricardo was quick to point out, was that there was no pullout, and essentially no shoulder on which to stop. That didn’t deter Carlos, who obediently stopped and pulled as far to the right as he could, while the busy freeway traffic reacted by shifting to the left lane. I had to stick my head out the window to see the raptor, which was now slightly behind our van and straight up the nearly vertical hillside. One quick look through the binoculars confirmed what I already knew—the bird was an adult Crowned Eagle! I was torn, because our position on the road was clearly tenuous, but at the same time, we were dealing with one of the rarest and most spectacular raptors of the continent, and one that I dearly wanted the group to see. “We’ve got to take at least a quick look,” I offered. But the bird was impossible for people to see without getting out. We slid open the door, but there was really nowhere for people to stand, and I was really worried about the traffic careening past. Fortunately, the eagle had attracted the attention of some pesky Tropical Kingbirds, which were now harassing it without mercy. Its breaking point reached, the eagle launched from its perch and sailed downslope, disappearing around the bend before all but a couple of people could get on it. We quickly closed the door and resumed driving downhill. As luck would have it, we came across a pullout 1–2 km ahead that allowed us a place to safely pull off the road.

We hopped out and started scanning the slopes above, and in no time, Ricardo had spotted the bird. I soon had the scope trained on an adult Crowned Eagle that everyone could enjoy at leisure! Crowned Eagle (or Crowned Solitary Eagle as it is sometimes called) is primarily a bird of the cerrado and chaco habitats of southern Brazil, eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. In length, it is about the size of a Crested Eagle, but it is much bulkier, averaging about midway between a Crested Eagle and a male Harpy Eagle in weight. It is much rarer than the Harpy Eagle, with a global population, judged by BirdLife International, to number only between 350–1,500 individuals! This was a very big deal indeed! After we had each taken multiple turns at studying the eagle through the scope, it launched into flight once again. But this time, its trajectory took it straight towards us! After several powerful flaps, the enormous bird set its wings and came gliding straight overhead. I was snapping pictures up to the moment it began gliding away from us, and only then did I re-holster my camera. No sooner had I done that than a White-tailed Hawk came stooping down on the Crowned Eagle from above! Now, White-tailed Hawks are large raptors, but they are dwarfed by Crowned Eagles. As the hawk screamed down from above, the eagle executed a mid-air roll, and presented its massive talons. That was all it took for the hawk to reconsider and get out of Dodge! The whole interaction was spectacular, but it had transpired so quickly that I never had a chance to go for the camera. Nonetheless, we were all ecstatic over our luck in seeing yet another rare and seldom-seen raptor.

Black-banded Owl, Guapiacu (REGUA), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013

Black-banded Owl, Guapiacu (REGUA), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our last major venue was REGUA. The marvelously restored wetlands there added several marsh inhabiting birds to our list, among them such prizes as Capped Heron, Rufous-sided Crake, and Black-capped Donacobius. The REGUA forest trail system was also productive. For the first time ever, we dipped in our quest for the Shrike-like Cotinga, but our long hike was not completely in vain. We scored big when we turned up a responsive male Salvadori’s Antwren that stayed with us and offered superb studies. This foothill species has a geographically tiny distribution, although it is locally not uncommon on the slopes of the Serra do Mar. The problem is that the few trails that penetrate its altitudinal range are mostly too steep and narrow for group birding, and hence, it is missed by most tours to southeast Brazil. For as far as we hiked, we were still pretty much at the lower elevational limit for Salvadori’s Antwren, so finding one and seeing it as well as we did was a huge consolation prize for missing the cotinga. Our hike also produced Yellow-eared and Yellow-throated woodpeckers, Rufous-capped Motmot, multiple Rufous-breasted Leaftossers, our best studies yet of foraging Black-capped Foliage-gleaners, a dazzling male Pin-tailed Manakin, a very territorial Temminck’s Seedeater, and many, many other specialties. We also used REGUA as a launching base for a day-trip to Sumidouro, where, among other things, we enjoyed lengthy, eye level encounters with multiple Three-toed Jacamars, and finally connected with the always-entertaining Streamer-tailed Tyrants. Back at REGUA, on our final evening, we concluded our night birding with a flourish, when we ended up with stunning views of Tawny-browed Owl and Black-banded Owl, giving us a combined total of 8 species of owls seen for the trip (Part I & Part II).

Golden Lion Tamarin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013

Golden Lion Tamarin, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, November 2013— 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 connected with three different troops of tamarins, each of which included youngsters that remained piggybacked on their respective 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 Copacabana. The tour concluded with an excellent dinner at one of Rio’s finest churrascarias. The next morning, some of the group opted for a city tour that included a visit to Corcovado, while others among us slept in and caught up on packing. By that evening, we were all winging our way back home.

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 our various local guides (Celso, Gabriel, Raphael, Margit, and Ricardo), 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!