Southeastern Brazil Part II: Best of the Atlantic Forest Oct 12—26, 2015

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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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 actually experienced pretty typical amounts of rain on Part II this year, and although it no doubt affected our birding success to some extent, its overall impact was relatively minimal.

Swallow-tailed Cotinga

Swallow-tailed Cotinga— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Nonetheless, we tallied 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 450 species in 25 days of birding, including more than 160 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 at least 15–25 of these subspecies that we recorded during our tours are likely to be elevated to separate species status in the near future.

We convened Part II 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.

A full recounting of the many highlights from our four full days here would require several pages, but a number of special sightings come quickly to mind. There were the scope-filling views of Swallow-tailed Cotingas exchanging places at their nest, the rare Black-legged Dacnis, the obliging Red-and-white Crake, and the responsive White-bearded Antshrike for starters, and those highlights all came in just on our first morning in the park! There was also the noisy lek of Purple-crested Plovercrests; the covey of Spot-winged Wood-Quail with downy young; the pair of Spot-billed Toucanets that sat, as if hypnotized; the impressively large-billed pair of White-throated Woodcreepers; the skulking Slaty Bristlefront (southern vocal type) and Rufous-capped Antthrush that performed so admirably that one afternoon; the unusually bold Tufted Antshrike; the rare Black-fronted Piping-Guan that posed for an extended time; the singing Bare-throated Bellbirds; the perched Rufous-thighed Hawk; and the day-roosting Common Potoo and Tropical Screech-Owls. High on my personal list of highlights was the fabulous Stygian Owl that we spotlighted one night after having just come from seeing an incredibly cooperative male Long-trained Nightjar. In fact, the Long-trained Nightjars put on a show for us on two consecutive nights, treating us to multiple close passes the first night, followed by a sitting bird that froze in our spotlight beams the next evening. And then, there was the magnificent Red-ruffed Fruitcrow that was making habitual dawn visits to an outside light to hawk large moths that had been attracted to the light during the night. Seldom, if ever, does one get to see this spectacular cotinga as well as we did.

Long-trained Nightjar

Long-trained Nightjar— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Topping everything was the eleventh-hour Helmeted Woodpecker along the Carmo Road on our last full morning in the park. There had not been a sighting in over two weeks, despite the presence of multiple groups of birders hot to find what, arguably, is one of the rarest of Atlantic Forest endemics, and what, almost certainly, is one of the rarest of South American woodpeckers. Our bird was a female, and when first heard it was hundreds of meters away, but it responded to my playback like a heat-seeking missile, rocketing to us and then working its way to the top of a nearby tree, from which it called repeatedly before taking off once more. After the woodpecker, everything else was pure gravy, including the magnificent Rusty-barred Owl that we scored that evening, on the last of our four attempts.

Helmeted Woodpecker

Helmeted Woodpecker— 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. But first we had to get there—no mean feat, given that we had to drive all of the way back to São Paulo, and then on to Moji das Cruzes, where we bade farewell to Caesar and Fabio, met Oswaldo, and exchanged our two Sprinter Vans for a microbus before heading to Biritiba-Mirim for a surgical strike (successful!) on the recently described São Paulo Antwren, followed by a long, tediously slow drive through one beach resort after another. The next 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 normally a great place for them, but on this intermittently rainy day, the purpletufts played hard to get, resulting in nothing more than a leader-only view of one hurtling overhead. While searching for the purpletufts, we entertained ourselves with dynamite studies of a snazzy Black-cheeked Gnateater and an unusually cooperative Fork-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, a skulking Spotted Bamboowren, scope views of more Bare-throated Bellbirds and a group of infrequently seen White-thighed Swallows, more dapper Scaled Antbirds, and a soaring White-necked Hawk and Mantled Hawk in the same binocular field, among many others.

Fork-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant

Fork-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

That afternoon we headed to Folha Seca, where the continuing rain did little to dull a hummingbird show that 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, Green-backed Trogon, Unicolored Antwren, a much closer White-necked Hawk, and a very responsive Slaty Bristlefront (northern vocal type) that walked in practically to our feet. We couldn’t resist an encore visit to Jonas’s feeders, where, as Terry put it, “the feeder show alone is worth the price of the entire trip!” Later that afternoon we drove a short distance up the coast to Paraty, where we were to spend just one night. Before heading to our charming hotel, we made one last birding stop on the edge of town that resulted in great views of our first Robust Woodpeckers of the entire trip, as well as nice studies of a rare Buff-bellied Puffbird, another endemic that was new for this segment of the tour.

Festive Coquette

Festive Coquette— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

 

 

 

A pre-dawn start the next morning netted us a Tropical Screech-Owl that I spotlighted near the swimming pool as we were walking to the bus. An hour later we pulled into the town of Pereque, which was to provide us with an excellent morning of birding. The highest value target here was the endangered Black-hooded Antwren, a species lost to science for over 100 years and only rediscovered in 1987. But before arriving at the antwren site, I wanted to stop at another spot for a last chance at the Buff-throated Purpletuft that we had missed the previous day. A bit of searching eventually yielded a purpletuft teed-up in the top of a distant tree. Playback brought it closer, and the scope brought it closer still, resulting in good looks for all of this very special bird. With the purpletuft under our belts, we could turn our full attention to the Black-hooded Antwren.  It took disturbingly long for the antwrens to get vocal and active, but eventually we ended up with repeated great views of individuals and pairs from four different territories. We also scored wonderful studies of another pair of Robust Woodpeckers, some ridiculously confiding Rufous-tailed Jacamars, multiple Orange-eyed Thornbirds, a pair of hyperactive São Paulo Tyrannulets, wing-snapping White-bearded Manakins, a Yellow-rumped (Whiskered) Flycatcher building a nest right over the road, a very bold Chestnut-backed Antshrike, and an even bolder Lemon-chested Greenlet. After lunch at a good kilo restaurant in town, 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 the town of Itatiaia with time for a productive birding stop at a nearby marsh before winding our way up through the park to the Hotel do Ypé, our home for the next three days.

Robust Woodpecker

Robust Woodpecker— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Two of our three days in Itatiaia were spent at middle elevations, a short walk or drive from the Ypé. 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, the stunning Saffron Toucanets that had a habit of dropping in to the fruit feeders just as we were sitting down for meals, 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, the impressively robust endemic subspecies of Variegated Antpitta, a pair of White-bearded Antshrikes, White-bibbed Antbird, very responsive Black-billed Scythebills and even more responsive White-rimmed Warblers, yet another actively nesting pair of Swallow-tailed Cotingas, male Swallow-tailed Manakins, and snazzy Gilt-edged Tanagers, not to mention up-close-and-personal encounters with Brown (Tufted) Capuchins and Southern Masked Titi-Monkeys (the latter with a baby in tow).

Saffron Toucanet

Saffron Toucanet— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The cherry on top of any visit to Itatiaia has to be the time spent in the higher reaches of the park, where breathtaking scenery constantly competes with many of the most sought-after endemic birds for one’s attention. Our second morning saw us leaving well before dawn for the Agulhas Negras Road. By the time we arrived, dawn had long since broken, and the skies, although not clear, did not portend rain. Regardless, there were surprisingly few birds singing, and, 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 took some anxious moments of scanning before Ricardo spotted the male on a different song-perch from the one that this particular individual usually occupies. A bit more maneuvering was required to get the bird in the scope, given that the roadside vegetation between us and the bird had grown markedly since my last visit, all but obscuring the once expansive overlook. Once we found the right spot to place the scope, we were able to enjoy lengthy, marvelous studies of the cotinga. 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.’

Black-capped Piprites

Black-capped Piprites— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Slowly, but surely, most of the rest of the highland specialties presented themselves over the course of the morning. Restless groups of Brassy-breasted Tanagers and Buff-throated Warbling-Finches offered little resistance, whereas skulking Rufous-tailed Antbirds, Mouse-colored Tapaculos (northern form), Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, and a Rufous-tailed Antthrush had to be patiently lured out from hiding. Smart-looking Rufous-backed Antvireos were better behaved than on my last trip here, but Thick-billed Saltators were conspicuous only in their absence, at least until a responsive pair finally showed in late morning. I was particularly pleased to hit on a stunning male Black-capped Piprites early on—always a relief to get this important bird under our belts as quickly as possible—and even more pleased when it dropped from the canopy to less than 15 feet above ground to inspect us. Higher up the mountain, we flushed a female Blue-billed Black-Tyrant from its nest, located some striking male Green-crested Plovercrests on song-perches, and pinned down some endemic Itatiaia Spinetails (Thistletails), as well as a White-vented Violetear that posed nicely. We dipped in our attempts to improve upon our less-than-stellar views (from Intervales) of the Large-tailed Antshrike, but we did find a pretty little Maldonada Redbelly Toad, an endemic of these highlands, and one that I had never seen before. On our way back down the mountain, we lucked onto a White-rumped Hawk that soared right over us, and then, finally, secured great studies of a pair of Bay-chested Warbling-Finches that I heard out the window of the van near the bottom of the road. Acting on a tip from Ricardo, we made one last stop in the highlands before heading back to our hotel. This time, we were in open, marshy country, where Ricardo had previously seen Ash-throated Crake and Giant Snipe. We arrived in late afternoon and hung around waiting for dusk, in the hopes of seeing the crepuscular snipe displaying. While waiting for the snipe, we scored big by finding not only a responsive pair of the crakes, but also an animated trio of spectacular Streamer-tailed Tyrants that put on a real show. As dusk settled on the valley, the Giant Snipe emerged on cue, displaying high above us, and, at one point, shooting by at close range as I tracked it in the spotlight.

All too soon, our time at Itatiaia had come to an end, and, along with it, so had our time in Brazil’s amazing Atlantic Forest. For several of us, it had been a sojourn of more than three weeks, producing some truly memorable birding. 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 particularly want to thank Ricardo and Betinho, as well as our various drivers (five in all!), 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!