I was recently in Southeastern Brazil for two weeks of work and had the connecting weekend to myself. Of course this meant I had to find an effective and enjoyable way to do some Brazilian birding! First things first, I needed to get through the first week, and as the days ticked off I found myself enjoying the unique people and culture of Brazil more and more. After enough time passes in a new place, you start to feel comfortable and settle in and find your way into a routine. I felt welcomed each time I ventured slightly out into the enormity of the city that is São Paulo. However, after a week of workplace communication in a foreign country and language, paired with jaunts to local city eateries by night, I was looking forward to a weekend of being out in the forest listening to much more familiar sounds. While the calls and songs of birds a continent away would be new, the symphony of nature would no doubt be playing a well acquainted tune.
“While the calls and songs of birds a continent away would be new, the symphony of nature would no doubt be playing a well acquainted tune.”
As with most birding trips, good planning is a necessity and the unique nature of a trip out of the United States has its own challenges. Many birders utilize an array of well organized guiding outfitters and services to link up with other like-minded folk to find target birds. These trips can be expensive, but also incredibly rewarding, as careful planning goes into making the endeavor a successful one. These trips usually are made up of groups from 6-12 people and need to be scheduled months if not years in advance. Birding Tour Companies often publish a yearly program guide that hopeful attendees can pick and choose from. The tours are most often 2 or more weeks to account for travel time and allow for multiple opportunities at many targets and better overall coverage. Shorter trips happen, but the scope is less extensive and the total species on offer are far leaner.
This meant that my solo trip with a small amount of time and a large amount of target birds, with minimal advanced notice, would be hard to schedule. Especially in a foreign country! This is why I was very happy to find Carlos and was thrilled when he was able to not only accommodate my request for a individual guide for a weekend, but also offered up varying suggestions and possibilities to see some of Brazil’s wonderful birds! (If you are in Southeastern Brazil and want to see birds I highly recommend him! Professional, considerate, safe and an excellent birder. It was exactly as I hoped, and I hope others get to enjoy his passion and expertise. Check out his site and Flickr for tons of good content and contact details.)
We would be heading up to some of the few remaining pieces of preserved Atlantic Forest habitat to search out birds at elevation in this unique ecosystem.
Hitting the Road! Heading out to do my first South American, Brazil Birding!
I was picked up Friday evening at my hotel by Carlos and his wife Viviane who had traveled down from their home in Campinas. We hurled ourselves into the normally dodgy traffic out of town heading north west. We crawled along with the workers headed home, the happy hour crowd, and those seeking respite in the suburbs and farmsteads that run along the cities edge. A 45 minute trip on a Thursday can become a 2 and a half hour test of your sanity on a Friday, and this one was especially difficult. Late in the evening we finally made it to our hotel after winding up the climbing road into the Atlantic forests of Itatiaia National Park. Sleep would come easy with a long day behind us and an exciting one to come.
Waking up surrounded by nature is always exhilarating and opening the curtains Saturday morning to views of the rising hills and vast forest surfaced a rush of adrenaline and excitement. We started the morning birding on the hotel property on its various trails and paths. We quickly saw the resident White-eyed Parakeets and local White-throated Hummingbirds there to greet us with calling Picazuro Pigeons on the phone wires in the distance while Blue-and-white Swallows swirled above. We added Rufous-collared Sparrow (or as the locals call them Tico Tico), Saffron Finch, and a flyover Chopi Blackbird before heading down the hill from the hotel to a small marsh area surrounded by excellent habitat that provided my first moment of awe of the day. We came across three Warbler species in this area (White-browed and Golden-crowned Warblers and a Masked Yellowthroat) along with the jaw-dropping beauty of the Brassy-breasted Tanager. Color was not sparred on the Brassy-breasted and we added Diademed, Cinnamon, Fawn-breasted, and Ruby-crowned Tanagers for good measure. We got a great look at a Variable Antshrike and then popped onto a wonderfully vibrant and insanely active Rufous-crowned Greenlet! (A fav of mine for the trip for attitude alone!) On the walk back up we added Highland Elaenia, and a quick flyby Yellow-headed Caracara along with others. Whew. Its all wonderfully overwhelming. These are the days you dream about as a birder when you head to an all new place and we were just getting started.
Below are some of these amazing birds we saw in the morning:
The Road up to Pico das Agulhas Negras! (Black Needles Peak)
We headed out up towards the rising peak of Pico das Agulhas Negras to start our birding excursion on the upper part of the road. This oldest national park in Brazil has two sections that are often covered for birding & we would start our morning at the bottom of the upper section. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by the morning chorus and Carlos and his well trained ears were picking up & pointing out birds. We saw Pallid and Spix’s Spintails, the delightful Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher & Mottle-Cheeked Flycatcher.
We then came across a White-spotted Woodpecker which briefly had all of my attention until multiple Red-breasted Toucans came flying just above us and stopped for pictures and closer examination. I was jumping for joy inside. A Toucan, and a looker at that!
We continued on this way coming across some peppy Black-capped Piprites and watched them dangle and flash about. Just wonderful birds! Then it was on to encounter a bird I had been very much looking forward to. The Plovercrest! In your mind, the birds you covet and have yet to see in nature can carry an almost mythical quality. This bird was one of those for me. The Plovercrest is a small iridescent green hummingbird with a vibrant purple flashy throat and this most fantastic long feathered crest. The surprisingly loud singing males tend a Lek made up of a group of Plovercrests and we were right in the middle of them! The lighting wasn’t the best (for pictures), but I got amazing looks at a beautiful male holding court and marveled at this little ball of feathers and ferocity. Small tail, small stature, large style large spirit! YES. I was genuinely happy to add the Plovercrest experience to my best birding memory database.
Still further up the hill, we paused and ate lunch overlooking a bridge above the expansive trees below. We reveled in the moment a bit, and listened to stories about the regions birds and an especially funny anecdote about an interaction between Carlos and a hill of ants. While sitting, we also were lucky enough to marvel at the eery and beautiful vocalization of the Black-and-gold Cotinga heard just off in the distance.
“…I once again was reminded of the priceless value of a local experienced guide.”
As you advance in your birding experience, you become subconsciously more aware of bird whistles, chips, calls, songs and even types of movement in the space around you. Like a blip popping on to a monitored radar screen, the noise immediately draws your attention to a target area for further scrutiny. The song I heard there was unlike any I had heard (not any big feat mind you, with my limited travel outside the US) and one I wouldn’t have guessed was coming from a bird. The tonal whistle rises steadily and loudly for 3-5 seconds and sounds more like an overheating radiator pipe than an on territory calling bird. It’s overwhelming in its uniqueness as if natural selection rewarded the bird with a noise sure to be heard and impossible to confuse. The song adds to the want and desire of most birders who visit the area hoping for a peak at the Black-and-gold Cotinga. In fact, we heard a few Black-and-gold Cotinga calling! One on either side of the road seemingly sounding off to announce the edge of their territory, we searched each high point for a solid black bird with the golden splash, to no avail.
This is all a common experience for the Black-and-gold Cotinga, so we would not be deterred. Then, seemingly magically, Carlos pointed to a far off tall towering tree about 10 branches from the top to a small, unmoving target. There it is he said. I was both overjoyed and thoroughly impressed at the seemingly miraculous spotting from hundreds of yards away of a non-moving bird. “How in the world did you see that?” I said. That’s the Cotinga tree he said with a sly smile. This is a usual spot Carlos had seen the bird at before and I once again was reminded of the priceless value of a local experienced guide. So here he is in all his splendor, missing head and all. My Black-and-gold Cotinga thanks to Carlos and his Cotinga tree! (Yes, it is the black spot on the right side of the blurry, cropped picture. Proving even a “bad” picture can have a meaningful sentimental value)
We pushed on and added more amazing birds like a striking female who sprung from her nest, nicely hidden in the rocky face of the wall lining the road to survey the current visitors and their intentions. “Just us friendly birders here to explore and take in your beauty” I thought! She had one small egg in her nest, and we moved on to allow mommy to come back and continue her campaign. After a bit of a walk we came up on a significant stand of trees. (Beautifully unique evergreen coniferous trees that appear as though their top is adorned with a Palm Tree type growth of long branched evergreen that makes them stand out from all their surrounding tree peers) These fantastic and increasingly rare endemic trees held another highly anticipated bird for me the Araucaria Tit-Spinetail! Sure enough, within minutes of our arrival we were examining this little beauty and it’s long tail and bold crest. I couldn’t help but get excited and offered an exuberant fist bump to Carlos for his find. What a bird!
As we neared the end of the road (we didn’t got all the way up to the top of the rock formations but were essentially at the top at an altitude near 9000 Feet) we got a look at another gem. This long tailed, spotted beauty is called a Large-tailed Antshrike and Carlos mentioned our good luck at getting such great looks and photos. I certainly felt lucky. We tallied a few other birds and then got back in the truck headed back down. Luck hadn’t stopped shining on us though as Viv spotted an enormous Dusky-legged Guan on the roadside as we winded our way down! Reminding me of the Chachalacs I have seen in South Texas the Guan deftly climbed a nearby tree and took to watching us as we exited.
We got back to the hotel, did some more trail birding picking up the fantastic Blue Manakin and even got to share it with a family with children sharing our binoculars and directions to the bird back in the trees to their great enjoyment. Who knows, future birders may had just seen their “Spark Bird.” Those moments are super valuable. Light was dwindling so we headed back to the hotel restaurant for what was an outstanding meal! The hotel has a honest, real chef on site who produced a plate suiting the Brazilian cuisine with a tender steak and warm potatoes which seem to be a part of almost all meals in Brazil. And I wasn’t complaining! Everything we ate was phenomenal the entire time we were there. A perfect ending to a perfect day. A quick group review and tally had the day’s haul at 75 Life Birds! It simply doesn’t get much better than that! I felt like a kid on Christmas opening another presents every 5 minutes for the entire day. Truly a day to be thankful for in this wonderful country of Brazil.
Lots more pictures from my trip on my Flickr Photostream. I will be putting up the Day two blog shortly which was an equally awesome day in Brazil! Check back soon.