Following a very enjoyable birding trip to Ecuador a couple of years back, where we found a lodge in the cloud forest to use as a base for the week with excursions to other habitats and altitudes, we were keen to try to duplicate this type of trip on the eastern side of the continent. It didn’t take long to locate Serra dos Tucanos, a lodge run by Andy and Cristina Foster in the Atlantic rainforest only an hour and a half drive to the North of Rio. It is situated within the Tres Picos State Park, South-east Brazil. We had found the details of the lodge on the internet, but also met up with Cristina at the Rutland Water bird fair the previous August, where the details of what was on offer seemed too good to be true. We were offered a mix of good birding around the lodge itself, and also varied trips from there.
The main question seemed to be when to go and how to get there. Many people plump for the breeding season, which is in the Austral Spring, equivalent to the Northern Autumn. One of the main down sides is that this is also the rainy season, and anyone who has been to a rain forest at that time of year knows that it is not only uncomfortable and difficult to use optics, but can also act against transport through the habitats. This is certainly true of this location, where some of the excursions in the past have been cancelled or rerouted due to poor conditions of the tracks. We were also informed that good birds tend to be present all year round, with more individual singing birds in the Spring, but more mobile bird flocks in the Autumn. We were there in the latter, and did find some excellent bird waves, which were not as daunting as some we have experienced elsewhere around the world. The beauty of our May timing was that the weather tends to be cooler (between around 16oC during the night and early morning to mid 20’s through the day) and drier – all but one of the days were without rain. The further benefit of this time of year is that fewer birders are present. For non-socialites such as ourselves, this is a major plus, and it turned out that we were the only guests in the lodge, leading to undivided attention from the bird guide and staff (and a 13 seat minibus for just two!). Flights to Rio were mainly from the hub airport at London Heathrow (we used the Brazilian TAM airways booked through British Midland). There are both direct flights and those touching down in Sao Paulo, where a new plane is boarded – we were on the latter, which may have been cheaper.
A few tips for the trip:
· Biting insects are present, so repellent is beneficial
· From the UK, no Visa is required
· We didn’t take any Brazilian Real (the local currency), since all food was provided, and we paid by Visa card at the end of the stay
· A telescope is useful, despite a lot of the birding being in forest
· Electricity sockets are of the European two round pin design. The lodge didn’t have the newer Brazilian 3 pin style
· Mobile phone coverage is variable, and generally poor at the lodge. There is a wireless internet connection, which is fairly slow, and best used near the pool where the router is located
· Snakes are apparently common in the area, the most regularly encountered being the highly poisonous Lancehead (apparently – we love to see snakes, but missed out totally during our stay)
· At this time of year, first light is at 6am, and last light at 5.30pm
· An excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil by Ber van Perlo is now in circulation, and is the definitive guide to the country. We found the descriptions to be detailed enough, and the illustrations are visually of a good quality, although some of the colours are not quite as in the field
Serra dos Tucanos Lodge (www.serradostucanos.com.br)
Andy and Cristina have now run the lodge for about 9 years, and it is an impressive affair. It consists of the main building with accommodation for 14 people, surrounded by well kept gardens, and then bounded by tropical forest. There is a gate to the edge of the garden which leads to a few trails through the forest – these are well worth the effort. 8 staff are employed, including Cirilo, the bird guide. He has been guiding for only a year and a half, but you wouldn’t think so when he is in the field – he is good at both visual and call ID. The food has to be mentioned, since it is excellent. Three meals a day are on offer. Breakfast is served at 6am, which is around the same time as first light, so can be munched on while watching the first visitors to the garden (usually Sombre Hummingbirds at the nectar feeders and Blond-crested Woodpecker at the fruit feeders). Lunch is either at 1pm, or taken as packed lunch if on an excursion, with the evening meal at 7pm. Those staying for more than a week will find that the same meal is served on that particular day, giving seven on offer through the week).
There are 3 options for birding from here. The obvious one is to bird the gardens and adjoining trails. With a list here alone of 200 or so species, it is well worth spending some time doing this. Some of the local trails, such as Cedae, Theodora, and Bamboo, can be easily covered without a guide. They are only 10-15 minutes drive from the lodge, and Andy can arrange for the transport. This is either by using his own driver (which we did at a cost of 40-60 Reals), or a local taxi firm if there are a few guests wanting to do separate trips, which would be more expensive. Then there are the half and full day excursions with driver and guide, which are up to 2 hours drive away – details and prices for these can be had by emailing the lodge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Serra dos Tucanos trails
A gate in the corner of the grounds, behind the restaurant, leads on to a paved track which will eventually find the three trails. There is a bench just up and to the left of this first part of the trails, but the view is restricted by the trees. Staying on the lower level (toward the water box) is highly recommended – we found that most of the bird activity was along the first 30 or so metres of this. Climbing some roped steps reaches the Circular and Extension Trails, which tended to be a lot quieter (although not entirely birdless!). Just to the right of the top of these steps is a well aged bench. It was just in front of this that we had our Black-cheeked Gnateater, and sat for a while and watched a bird wave in relative comfort.
The entrance to this is next to a police station, and directly opposite the Bamboo Trail. Despite this, the latter is apparently much more enclosed. The drive from the lodge only takes around 15 minutes, and we were taken as far as the van could go, which is about 100m from the road, where a well worn barrier is sited across the aged tarmac track. The trail goes on for some way – we walked for 2 hours and there was no sign of an end, and has narrow original tarmac in some places ranging to wet mud in others. The trail gradually descends down into the valley, with steep slopes which are almost entirely well wooded on both sides. This ranges from comfortably open to very narrow in other places. We found the whole trail to be of constant interest, with a good range of birds throughout.
This is the closest excursion to the lodge, located only 10 minutes drive or so uphill along the main road. It is easy to miss on the left as the hill is ascended, and greets you with a no entry sign. This is due to the fact that there is a working plant at the end, although they are more than happy for birders to cover the track. The only note here is that there are apparently guard dogs at the house at the end, so the return should begin when this is seen. The trail takes about 4 hours to cover there and back, allowing for slow coverage and time to look and listen for the birds. The track is generally of good quality, although the latter half is in constant shade, and so will become very muddy in rains. The habitat is thick forest to either side of the track, which gives rise to typical slow forest birding. We did have a couple of small bird waves during our visit.
Three-toed Jacamar Extension
As its name suggests, this trip is based on the highly sought after endemic, but many other speciality birds can also be seen. This is probably the most distant trip from the lodge, since it takes 2 hours to arrive at the first point of interest, and about the same amount of time to leave the last, which is usually the site for the Jacamars. Most of the day is spent clambering in and out of the vehicle, with all localities being next to the road, so little walking is necessary. Before a tasty snack is taken at a cafe in one of the small towns, a few stops are made within hilly valleys, the last one overlooking the wide expanse of meadows below a roadside cafe. After the snack stop, the road becomes a red dirt track, where a few more stops are made. This takes up most of the day, following which the main road is again rejoined, and a 15 minute drive then finds the roadside location of the Three-toed Jacamars. It would seem that this trip can be vulnerable when in rainy weather, since part of the dirt track becomes difficult to traverse.
High Altitude Extension
This is in two sections – the lower and the upper - and is listed in the booklet provided as two separate full day trips. However, we covered both in one day. This is easily the most strenuous of all the excursions, since the upper section involves walking up a track which ascends around 400 metres. It is weather dependent, since rain and low cloud can obscure not only views of the scenery, but also of birds which are not always close by. The drive to these takes around an hour, with the lower extension covered first, and usually within site of the vehicle. The route passes through open pastureland and meadows within the hills, so birds can be easy to see. Red-legged Seriemas are relatively regular here. The upper section is mainly through thick forest on a concrete track, so the birds need to be worked for. Lunch was taken on an open grassy area below the summit, where the vegetation starts to thin out, and good views can be had on a clear day (apparently!). Cotingas are a speciality here, but the upper section can offer a good range of Tanagers, Flycatchers, and Antbirds with luck.
This spot is reached after an hour’s drive from the lodge, as usual from this direction passing through the pain in the backside that is Nova Friburgo, a sprawling town that is quite large and invariably busy, thus holding up progress on the way. Portao Azul is not far from here, since it is reached via a turning in the town, and then a short drive up a cobbled road. A right turn is taken from here on to a well made dirt track, and this is the birding spot. There are constant birds to be seen and heard along here, the plan of action being to slowly walk the track for 4 hours or so and enjoy. It is probably the best site for quality birding on the trip. The track is initially bounded on one side by thick forest up a slope, with much more open views and sparser trees to the other. Beyond this, there is small farmed area, after which lies a large pond / small lake which is surprisingly absolutely birdless (on the water). The track then continues for a short way through an avenue of mixed deciduous and conifers.
Macae de Cima
This site is best known for calling Bare-throated Bellbird during the breeding season, but can offer some interesting birds (which can generally be seen elsewhere) in stunning mountain scenery. Only 30 minutes drive from the lodge, a bone-breaking drive up a potholed track eventually levels out at around 1400m, where the track is walked for the birds. The mountains are covered in thick forest, with the track bounded by this on both sides.
Serra dos Orgaos National Park
This park is just over an hour’s drive from the lodge, and there is an entrance fee of 11 Reals for Brazilians, and 22 Reals for visitors. It is an excellent alternative to the much closer Bamboo Trail, since it offers a similar selection of potential species, but they are easier to obtain good views of, since the trails here are more open. It is divided into two sections, an upper and lower, which are about 20 minutes drive from each other, and set about 400m above sea level. The lower section is a tarmac road descending gradually downhill through thick forest on both sides. The upper section is along a very soundly constructed boardwalk, which passes over the understorey below, to a maximum of 11 metres above the ground. It bisects a mix of elderly second growth forest, containing good quantities of bamboo, and had good visibility through the trees in much of the length. It ends in some downward steps, which can then reach the road to ascend again to the car park.
The Wetlands - Reserva Ecologica de Guapi Acu
This location had been wetlands in the past, but had then been reclaimed as farmland until 2002, when the land was again set aside as a national park and turned back to managed wetland. It is only 40 minutes from Serra dos Tucanos, and unlike many of the other localities visited, is at a lowland elevation. There are two reasons for visiting here – some enticing lagoons for waterbirds, and an area of lowland forest which offers a different range of birds to the higher elevations. The reserve is traversed on a circular route, first through forest, which is initially enclosed to finally open with mountain views, then a track bisects the two main of the three lagoons. The latter is good for gallinules and other water birds such as the stunning Capped Heron.