Southeastern Brazil Part I Oct 02—14, 2015

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 Southeast 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 a bit more than our fair share of bad weather during Part I, with about average precipitation during Part II.  Nonetheless, we tallied 338 species on Part I (including the Iguaçu Falls Pre-Trip), 97 of which 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 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.

Great Dusky Swift

Great Dusky Swift— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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 hikes along the river were highlighted by close encounters with Toco Toucans, mobs of elegant Plush-crested Jays, restless bands of kaleidoscopic Green-headed Tanagers, 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 on the exposed rocks.

Most of our birding at Iguaçu was conducted in the interior of the forest, along the Poço Preto Road. Being out before dawn allowed us fabulous views of Variable (Black-capped) and Tropical screech-owls, as well as the opportunity to hear the forest awaken. There is an undeniable magic in hearing the changing of the shift, as the trills of screech-owls and the emphatic calls of Short-tailed Nighthawks cruising above the canopy yield to a reverberating chorus of Rufous-capped Motmots, wing-rattling displays of guans, ringing whistles of Solitary Tinamous, and the steady barking cadence of Barred Forest-Falcons. All of this presaged some exciting birding to come, as we spent most of two days birding the 11 km of jeep track through lush Atlantic Forest. Highlights were many, ranging from superb views of the rare (and endemic) Russet-winged Spadebill to displaying Spot-billed Toucanets, a Southern Antpipit glued to a branch as it belted out its memorable song just 15 feet in front of us, a scope-filling Sharpbill, and a dapper pair of Creamy-bellied Gnatcatchers mobbing my owl calls. There were also confiding Southern Bristle-Tyrants and São Paulo Tyrannulets, impressively coiffed Blond-crested Woodpeckers, incandescent male Band-tailed Manakins, and an eleventh-hour pair of Buff-bellied Puffbirds.

Southern Antpipit

Southern Antpipit— 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. An earlier than usual departure from Iguaçu meant an earlier than usual arrival in Curitiba, allowing for a few hours of birding before heading to lunch. My plan was to focus this bonus time on trying to find a Canebrake Groundcreeper, a rare endemic that can be difficult to pin down later in the day. Rapha agreed that this was our best use of the extra time, and we went straight to our most reliable groundcreeper spot. We hadn’t been on-site 5 minutes before a groundcreeper responded to my playback, and in a few more minutes, we had secured great looks for all. Beautiful studies of Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Olive Spinetail, and Rufous-capped Spinetail followed, as did a non-Furnariid interlude with an inquisitive troop of Black-tufted-ear Marmosets. On our way out of the park, we had an encore performance from the Canebrake Groundcreeper that put even the earlier great views to shame!

Canebrake Groundcreeper

Canebrake Groundcreeper— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After what had proven to be a real furnariid-fest, we shifted our attention to rails, with a trio of species (Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Blackish Rail, and Plumbeous Rail) offering up superb studies. Other open-country birds followed, from a skulking Dark-billed Cuckoo to a singing Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch, to White-crested Tyrannulets carrying nesting material. Eventually, our grumbling stomachs reminded us that breakfast had been many hours earlier, so we headed for an especially good lunch at a nearby churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue), after which we drove 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 several nice views of two different pairs. While thus engaged, I heard (to my great surprise) a distant Kaempfer’s Tody-Tyrant, a rare endemic that we had never before recorded in this particular location. After a bit of playback, the bird popped into the open some 50 m out, remaining visible for good scope views for a few minutes before coming in much closer for even better looks. This was most unexpected good fortune, for the Kaempfer’s was to be one of our primary and more difficult target birds for the next few days, and one that was far from guaranteed. Several stunningly bright Brazilian Tanagers that intermittently sprang from the marsh to perch atop emergent clumps of vegetation added colorful counterpoint to the more subtly plumaged tody-tyrant and antwrens. Calling it quits for the day, we headed towards Itapoá and our next lodge at Volta Velha. Just a few kilometers down the road, an unplanned, abrupt stop yielded an immaculate male Bare-faced Bellbird sitting out in the open.

Kaempfer's Tody-Tyrant

Kaempfer’s Tody-Tyrant— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We had all of the next day plus the following morning to bird Reserva Volta Velha. Some of the best action was right around the main clearing, where the fruit feeders attracted a steady parade of colorful tanagers, among them, multicolored Black-backed, Red-necked, and Green-headed. The feeders even brought in Plain Parakeets and Blond-crested Woodpeckers, whereas playback lured other goodies (among them, White-spotted Woodpecker, Ochre-collared Piculet, Azure Jay, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Three-striped Flycatcher, and Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher) from the contiguous forest for superb studies. And, of course, the resident pair of Burrowing Owls provided plenty of entertainment. Walks along the forest trails produced other memorable highlights, although, sadly, there were no Yellow-legged Tinamous vocalizing, and we managed only a single heard Kaempfer’s Tody-Tyrant that refused to cross over to our side of the Sai-Mirim (making our discovery of the bird at Garuva the previous day all the more fortunate!). 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, Gray-hooded Attila, and a host of other endemic passerines. Overcast skies, which had been a near constant of our stay, finally bore fruit just after we started our hike on the last morning. The resulting drizzle dampened bird activity and our spirits, although we soldiered on enough to turn up Rusty-breasted Nunlet, Pale-browed Treehunter, and Green-backed Trogon (but not the usually reliable Yellow-throated Woodpecker). By midafternoon, we had bid farewell to Volta Velha and were on our way back to Curitiba.

Red-necked Tanager

Red-necked Tanager— 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. Our fears of continuing rainy weather proved unfounded, and instead, we enjoyed cool temperatures with a high overcast sky that kept birds active for much of the morning. In between mixed-species flocks, we amused ourselves with the likes of multiple Hooded Berryeaters, displaying Bare-throated Bellbirds, Rufous-breasted Leaftossers, and a group of amazingly responsive Brassy-breasted Tanagers. With the clock ticking, 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 made a number of streamside stops to scan (unsuccessfully) for Fasciated Tiger-Heron. Unfortunately, the rocky-strewn river below every pullout was already occupied by numbers of people, so any tiger-herons were likely hiding out along some inaccessible stretch of water. As Rapha and I were returning to the van after yet another unsuccessful river-scan, Shirley called my attention to a bird that she had just spotted inside the forest near the edge. I looked up just in time to see something plump and brown dart from a branch, but it seemed to stop a short distance away. I tracked it down, and a quick check confirmed my initial, naked-eye impression—Crescent-chested Puffbird! This was a great pick-up on a bird that we had devoted much fruitless time searching for at Volta Velha, and one that I was resigned to missing for the trip. Fortunately, it sat while everyone bailed out of the van, and it remained perched for lengthy scope views.

Crescent-chested Puffbird

Crescent-chested Puffbird— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After scoring the puffbird, we drove back to Curitiba, intent on heading to a private property (which we had already secured permission to visit not 72 hours earlier) for some late afternoon birding, followed by a search for nightbirds. Oddly, when Rapha called the landowner to remind him of our imminent visit, he was told that we could not come on this day after all! Rapha did manage to secure promises that we could visit the next day, which was not completely reassuring given the seemingly volatile mood swings of the landowner. I was particularly disappointed knowing that the weather conditions for this afternoon and evening were ideal for nightbirding, whereas a front was forecast to move into the area late the following day. But, there was nothing we could do but roll with the punches, so we drove over to the zoological park to finish out the afternoon.

We awoke the next morning to fog (but still no rain), but it soon cleared, leaving us with warm, somewhat muggy conditions for the rest of the morning. Our first stop took us to a nearby marsh, where Rapha had spent several years banding birds. We were dismayed to see that the ornamental pines lining the road had grown even taller and denser since our last visit, reducing viewing opportunities for the wetlands considerably. Of more concern was that a large portion of the marsh had recently burned, and much of the charred, woody vegetation had been cleared and piled between the dirt track and the reed beds, creating a barrier that would make luring birds out of the reeds difficult. Indeed, the resident pair of Freckle-breasted Thornbirds proved minimally responsive, and we weren’t getting so much as a peep out of the Marsh (Wetland) Tapaculo. We did better with White-vented Violetear, Rufous-capped Antshrike, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and Gray-throated Warbling-Finch, all of which showed nicely, and a demonstrative group of 8 White Woodpeckers was a bonus.  As the sun rose higher, I was becoming increasingly concerned about our odds of getting either the tapaculo or any rails or crakes, in what was normally our best spot for both. In desperation, we climbed over some mounds of burned vegetation and made our way down to the edge of one corner of the marsh. Rapha went to work landscaping one of his custom tunnels in the reeds, and when it was finished, I planted my speaker and tried some playback of our target species. In short order, we succeeded in luring pairs of Rufous-sided Crakes and Red-and-white Crakes back and forth across the gap in marsh vegetation. But as we have experienced before, the crakes came for the playback, but stayed for the bugs! In creating the small tunnel for viewing purposes, Rapha had stomped down a patch of reeds, stirring up hordes of insects and aquatic larvae out of the surrounding muck in the process. The crakes, initially drawn across the gap in responding to playback, quickly took note of the ephemeral smorgasbord at their feet and forgot all about the playback. Both species returned time and time again to the tunnel, seemingly oblivious of our presence, and instead, intent on foraging opportunistically on the aquatic life that we had disturbed. This resulted in unparalleled viewing conditions for seeing these shy little marsh phantoms, and we took full advantage. 

Red-and-white Crake

Red-and-white Crake— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

In the late afternoon, we headed to the private property from which we had been rebuffed the previous day, intent on picking up a few more marsh/grassland birds before sundown, with nightbirding to follow. Lesser Grass-Finches and sprightly Sharp-tailed Tyrants showed well, but I had one eye on the sky and the ominous looking dark clouds that were moving our way as dusk descended. After some waiting, and after failing to hear any Sickle-winged Nightjars, we began spotlighting. Twice, our searching beams picked up nightjars in flight, but we could manage nothing more than a couple of brief, distant views. Back-and-forth we went, but it wasn’t happening, and flashes of lightning in the distance were growing nearer. We were on our last pass out of the marsh, resigned to looking for owls in the surrounding forest, when Rapha spotted some distant eyeshine in his torch beam. I put the scope on it, and, indeed, it was a Sickle-winged Nightjar, but barely identifiable. After quick views by all, we began the process of bushwhacking our way through the wet grassland toward the nightjar, which I was doing my best to keep in the spotlight (while narrowly avoiding what would have been an inglorious face plant in a wet area that was less solid than it looked). We soon closed to within lethal viewing range, and the bird, a beautiful male, obliged us by remaining glued to his perch, allowing for crippling views! When we were done, I walked over and gave him a gentle nudge with my hand, and the bird, which had seemingly fallen asleep, reluctantly lifted off, revealing its bizarrely shaped wings for the entire group to see. We were less triumphant in our owling efforts, as the normally cooperative Long-tufted Screech-Owls offered only a couple of fly-by looks, and the Rusty-barred Owl remained silent. We did manage good looks at a pair of Common Potoos and a surprise Bristle-spined Porcupine (thanks to yet another good spot by Shirley) before the impending storm finally caught up with us, and rain drove us back to the van.

Sickle-winged Nightjar

Sickle-winged Nightjar— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Bidding farewell to Rapha and to Curitiba, and with fingers crossed for improved weather, we flew to Porto Alegre, met up with Margit and then settled in for what proved to be a very wet drive to São Francisco de Paula. The weather had taken a pronounced turn for the worse, and, indeed, much of Porto Alegre seemed to be under water! Margit told us that the region had experienced unprecedented rains and subsequent flooding over the past months. Lunch at a churrascaria en route to São Francisco de Paula was a good remedy for the cold, damp weather outside, but the steady drizzle made birding even the hotel grounds an exercise in futility, so we scrapped our birding plans for the afternoon and took advantage of the downtime to catch up on notes, photo-editing, and laundry.  Conditions were better the next day, although not markedly so, but we still managed to slog through a misty, damp morning in the nearby escarpment forests of the Colinhas de São Francisco. In spite of the nuisance of having to constantly wipe our optics dry, we still obtained great views of a number of special birds, among them, Vinaceous-breasted Parrot, White-browed Woodpecker, Dusky-tailed Antbird, Striolated and Araucaria tit-spinetails, Sharp-billed Treehunter, Hooded Berryeater, Green-chinned Euphonia, and Chestnut-headed Tanager. The afternoon found us working the windswept, plateau grasslands, where we began chipping away at the many open-country specialties of the region.

Planalto Tapaculo

Planalto Tapaculo— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day was devoted almost entirely to the open country known as the Rota de Campos de Cima da Serra, a scenic route that spans the high plateau between São Francisco de Paula and Cambará do Sul (and beyond), and which includes the spectacular Aparados da Serra National Park. The weather cooperated early, but went south on us in mid-morning for a brief period, although not before we had cleaned up most of the birds we were looking for. One stop, in particular, proved to be a veritable gold mine, yielding count-the-feather views of Long-tailed Cinclodes, Straight-billed Reedhaunter, Firewood-gatherer, Hooded Siskin, and an insanely bold Hellmayr’s Pipit, not to mention fly-by Red-spectacled Parrots and a rare (for the area) Long-winged Harrier. Other stops netted everything from Whistling Herons and Buff-necked Ibis to Long-tailed Reed-Finches, Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finches, Sooty Tyrannulets, and dapper Black-and-white Monjitas. 
Although we were without rain for most of the day, Itaimbezinho Canyon was socked-in with fog, denying us views of one of Brazil’s most spectacular scenic wonders. Accordingly, we did not linger long at the canyon—just long enough to eat our picnic lunch, which we shared with a habituated group of Azure Jays. Leaving the park, we came across a large feeding concentration of big swifts, no doubt driven to lower altitudes by the heavy cloud cover. We spent some time sorting through the flock, picking out all of the usual suspects, most importantly, the Biscutate Swifts, which are regional endemics. Afterwards, we began searching the araucaria woodlands in earnest for Planalto Tapaculo, a species described to science in 2005. After a bit of searching, I hit on a pair of birds, one of which ended up performing well and allowing lengthy studies for all of 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. Not long afterwards, the rain returned with a vengeance, so we called it a day and drove back to the Hampel.

Speckle-breasted Antpitta

Speckle-breasted Antpitta— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We were to get no break from the rainy weather on our last full day in São Francisco de Paula, but, again, we slogged through a mostly misty, drizzly morning of birding the moss-draped araucaria forest that makes up much of the Hampel grounds. This was a “clean-up” day, devoted to finding the odds and ends that had eluded us to this point. Most of these were skulkers of the forest interior, and, indeed, we had our hands full with trying to pin down several of these notoriously difficult birds. A “Southern” Mouse-colored Tapaculo proved particularly difficult, offering only brief views, but we did much better with Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Short-tailed Antthrush, and a pair of Brown Tinamous, all of which I taped in to binocular range for close views. We used our midday break to dry out, while keeping a close eye on the feeders, and in the process, scored a snazzy male Amethyst Woodstar. In the late afternoon, we returned to the open country and were successful in finding Red-legged Seriemas, although not in finding any Red-winged Tinamous or Spotted Nothuras.

The next morning, it was time to return to Porto Alegre to catch our flight to São Paulo, where better weather and newly inbound participants were waiting for the start of Southeast Brazil Part II, and where a whole new set of Atlantic Forest endemics beckoned!
Along the way, we enjoyed numerous wonderful meals (including multiple visits to some very good 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, Oliveiro, 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!