The Atlantic Rainforest, South-eastern Brazil - May, 2011
TEXT ONLY VERSION
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 email@example.com.
Birding Trails and Extension Excursions
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.
Wednesday (Day 1)
Following an overnight flight, we landed at Rio mid morning, and were picked up from the airport by our guide from Serra dos Tucanos lodge, Cirilo. The journey from here to the lodge took around 1½ hours, during which we picked up a few early birds for the trip. Lunch was due to be served at 1pm, and since that left half an hour free by the time we arrived, suitcases were torn apart for valuable birding gear and we were camped out in front of the bird feeders in the garden in no time. Andy, co owner of the lodge with his wife Cristina, has laid out the garden with spaced nectar and fruit feeders, which attracts a plethora of visitors from the surrounding thick forest. The balcony behind the building is bedecked with seats to casually watch the birds from, but we preferred to be much more up close and personal. Also, with no other birders in the lodge at the time, we didn’t have to consider anyone else.
First and most obvious are the hummingbirds, which flash past your nose at every opportunity, while touring the range of feeders non stop, as well as harrying other species. Most volatile of the hummers seemed to be the Sombre Hummingbirds, which were not only the most numerous, but also the most aggressive. They seemed particularly partial to harrying the larger Saw-billed Hermits, which then landed away from the throng in the denser vegetation. Violet-capped Woodnymphs were only slightly less common, and slightly less aggressive. Once watched, we tried to pick up their regular perches, which were used at irregular times. The Brazilian Rubies kept their own company, and also preferred one set of feeders.
We had expected to see a greater range of Tanagers on the fruit feeders, although the few that were present didn’t disappoint. The male of a pair of Ruby-crowned Tanagers had been usurped by an earlier lone male, which proudly boasted the red crown which the replacement lacked. A trio of Golden-chevroned Tanagers kept together, while a Burnished Buff Tanager was represented by a lone drab female. Euphonias were in various states of dress, from rich male Chestnut-bellied, Violaceous, & Orange-bellied, to the more confusing females and ragged transitional males (Violaceous of the latter). A pair of Blue-necked Chlorophonias were stunning.
We spent over 3½ hours in the garden, adding Parakeets (Plain & Maroon-bellied), Long-billed Wren, and pairs of Blue Dacnis amongst others, before deciding to venture further afield and tackle the lodge trails. These are reached from a gate in the corner of the gardens, and lead straight into some quite dense forest. There are only a couple to follow, and the order of the day was to walk slowly, quietly, and to listen for calls rather than look for the birds. We spent almost two hours here, and while the birds were quite hard work, due to sparse distribution and concealment in the leaves, we were rewarded well, with emphasis on the antbirds which we unearthed. First and easily the treasure of the finds was a Rufous-capped Antthrush, skulking in the undergrowth not far from the track. We were lucky to pick it up, since it was silently walking the wet leaves on the damp ground, but did afford excellent views. Eared Pygmy Tyrant was calling, but needed craned necks to pick out this tiny bird in the canopy above. The two pairs of Plain Antvireos that we saw were a little easier, but still enjoyed the safety of denser leaves. When we exited the forest, it was around 5pm, and the light had already started to go, with action around the feeders much less than earlier.
Thursday (Day 2)
Once light had fallen the previous evening, a very light drizzle had started to fall. This made a difference to our destination today, since rain would lead to low cloud cover on the high altitude extensions, and therefore would result in an alternative trip. However, the morning began with blue skies, so the first choice remained. Before leaving for this at 7am, which strangely seems to be the standard departure time for excursions, we had an hour to scan the garden again. All eyes were on the fruit feeders, since this was reputedly the best time for the regular attendance of Blond-crested Woodpecker. It did have a distant stare at the banquet on offer from the safety of the trees, but was no doubt nervous of our presence, and so made a hasty exit. The converse was the case for the Spot-billed Toucanets, which spent most of the hour on the fruit feeders to the rear of the garden – they had no problem with us gauping at them.
The journey to the lower extension of the high altitude trip took about an hour, the last leg of which veered off from one of the towns, and up a bumpy cobbled side road, which climbed steadily up to our destination. Once out of the car, we walked along the track to view a small plot or two of farmland set amongst the hills. A Picazuro Pigeon greeted us, before we gazed down on a smallholding, which offered a trio of richly coloured Cinnamon Tanagers raiding one of the orange trees. Much closer to us, in fact in the bushes lining the track, a pair of Spix’s Spinetails led a merry dance, constantly calling, but not offering anything that could be termed a decent view initially. After some time and eventual half reasonable views, we plodded further along the track towards an avenue of trees (where the van was now parked), and stirred up good numbers of passerines on the way – Saffron Finches, Double-collared Seedeaters, and Rufous-collared Sparrows clustered along wires and low bushes, with a Chalk-browed Mockingbird on the ground. Once at the avenue, a major treat in the form of a trio of Red-legged Seriemas was offered, as they strode slowly across a hilly meadow opposite. The smallholding at the base of the avenue was equally as good, seeming to jump with birds – a pair of nesting Pallid Spinetails, Scaled Woodcreeper, a pair of Yellow-eared Woodpeckers, and Slaty-breasted Rail in the field amongst them.
It was now time to tackle the more strenuous part of the day – the haul up the upper extension. The van parked up amongst the trees at around 1500m elevation, and the plan was to walk up the track to just below the summit, which is at around 2000m. This was no easy matter, since the track was steep in many places, although the temperature wasn’t too uncomfortable (at around 17oC). The cloud had also started to close in by now, with a rolling mist replacing the earlier sunshine. This left us with very little in the way of a view, and quite often poorer resolution of the birds. Most of the way was through fairly thick forest on a well paved road, with open areas (not always visible in the conditions) along the way. Early signs were of typical slow forest birding, with calling birds few and far between. On the ascent, we did manage to tempt out a Rufous-tailed Antbird, but much better views were had of a couple of Diademed Tanagers, Serra do Mar & Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulets, and a briefly perched Plovercrest. The only other addition before we reached our terminus was a small group of Rufous-fronted Greenlets. The intermittent blue sky through the predominant mist allowed glimpses of the radio masts at the top of the climb (and the constant sound of grasscutters), but Cirilo told us that general admission here wasn’t allowed. We sat and had lunch on an open grassy area, which at times of better visibility commanded excellent views. Once satiated, we found that a nearby area of bushes offered a good handful of species – a pair of endemic Thick-billed Saltators, a chasing pair of Plovercrests, Pallid Spinetail, and a Rufous-collared Sparrow.
The descent wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the ascent, although the steepness still took its toll on the knees. In addition, the mists began to clear. A small group of Brassy-breasted Tanagers was seen early on in the descent, but didn’t give much of an indication as to the shower of a bird wave that was to follow. We had spent some time trying to locate the calling Black-and-Gold Cotingas, which despite being above our heads, defied location (it was fortunate that we had seen a female higher up some time earlier), when a few birds in an overhanging tree ahead turned out to be Black-goggled Tanagers. This was the prelude to a fantastic flythrough of feeding birds, which not only lasted for about 20 minutes or so, but also started up again to a lesser extent a short time later. Many of the birds were also fairly low down, although the density of the foliage made many difficult to see clearly. A sample of the contents of the bird wave were Streaked Xenops, White-browed Foliage-Gleaner, Squirrel Cuckoo, Brassy-breasted & Diademed Tanagers, Golden-crowned & White-rimmed Warblers, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The most common member of the clan turned out to be Bay-breasted Warbling Finch. Before reaching the van again, a small group of Yellow-headed Caracaras were wheeling overhead.
It was still only 3pm, and despite Cirilo suggesting that we make our way back, we persuaded him to spend more time back at the lower extension again. This proved to be a good move. Within minutes of arriving there, we had added 3 species not seen earlier – Velvety Black-Tyrant, Rufous Hornero, and Bran-coloured Flycatcher. An old man stopped us from his car, relating tales of a productive walk for views and birds just above us – we tried this and were predictably disappointed. Back along the avenue of trees again, and further exploring the local area found it to be much quieter than before. However, when we were making our way back to the van again, another mini bird wave emanated from the trees below, containing birds such as Scaly Woodcreeper, Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, Brassy-breasted Tanager, and Pallid Spinetail.
Friday (Day 3)
Today’s plan was for what is probably the longest distance travelled during one of the lodge’s excursions – the Three-toed Jacamar trip. Before that, of course, was the obligatory hour over breakfast touring the garden (or more literally, carrying breakfast around the garden while looking for new birds). It had seemed yesterday that the Blond-crested Woodpecker was a little shy of our presence, so we crammed into the hide first thing, and were rewarded with the appearance of the selfsame bird shortly after, this time happily feeding on one of the hung bunches of bananas. There was conversely no visit from the Spot-billed Toucanets this time, but the hummingbird feeders were graced with the presence of a Black Jacobin, which had been reported to have left for the Winter. The Long-billed Wren was calling again near to the pool, but this time rewarded our tracking efforts with a prolonged calling display.
Three-toed Jacamar excursion
The journey to the excursion area took around two hours, and passed through a couple of unkempt and large towns, where the morning traffic slowed our progress considerably. Shortly after traversing the second of these, we turned off the main road on to a minor well kept paved road, and parked in an open valley, surrounded on either side by grassed hills, with a small stream and pasture land to one side. Slowly walking along the roadside, we quickly spotted perched Roadside Hawk (on a fence post) and American Kestrel (on a dead tree further up the hill). We scanned the stream for some way, but were only rewarded with a small group of noisy Chopi Blackbirds flying in. Just before the van picked us up again, a Cattle Tyrant was spotted amongst grassy tussocks with a group of Ruddy Ground Doves.
The second stop, not far along the road from the first, was a more enclosed valley, with marshy pasture and low reeds to one side. Cirilo had been expecting one or two goodies here, but none of his wish list seemed to appear, including Serra Antwren, which he was dutifully trying to tape lure from the trees. A Savannah Hawk was spotted perched some distance away, and the first of a good number of Masked Water Tyrants played near to the road. Before leaving, we walked to the entrance gate of one of the farms, and were rewarded with a group of Blue-winged Parrotlets in the tree overhead and a Violet-capped Woodnymph feeding close to.
Before taking a refreshment break, we stopped in the car park of a roadside cafe overlooking some impressive pasture land in the surrounding hills. This should have been a quiet lookout, but this solitude was interrupted by some roadworks nearby. The landscape was perfect for birds such as (the absent) Seriemas, but we only succeeded in picking out a Glittering Bellied Emerald, Brown-chested Martins and a hunting American Kestrel. Cirilo was disappointed at the low showing of birds so far, although we had still enjoyed the experience. Just down from this stop was a rather nice small town, compact and with an alluring central square. We parked up here and were taken to what appeared to be a regular haunt for the birding day trippers – a small cafe with some excellent friendly staff. We were offered a drink and what looked like pastry filled with cheese, delightfully embellished with the juice from a jar of fiery hot peppers. The application using a straw seemed the sensible option, but we made sure not too much was applied.
From the town, we took a track which wasn’t tarmacked, and took our first stop next to a couple of farmsteads, with open pastured hills to one side, and marshy pasture the other. This was quite a little hotspot, since the White-tailed Hawk we had seen just before stopping was followed by a perched Yellow-headed Caracara. Rufous Honero was also followed by a small group of Rufous-fronted Thornbirds playing amongst some stacked logs. The marshy pasture to the left played host to a family of Chestnut–capped Blackbirds, and a Yellow-browed Tyrant hawked from the bushes. A White-barred Piculet made a brief appearance before flying on. Walking a little further, the bird life increased even more, as the habitat became more varied. The open pasture widened to a larger area, and the red track was overlooked by an avenue of tall trees. Chalk-browed Mockingbirds and Smooth-billed Anis greeted our arrival at this point, following sightings of White-rumped Monjita and a pair of Black-capped Donacobius. As we arched towards the trees, a couple of Whistling Herons were spotted in the open pasture. The trees and tall grass behind were full of birdlife. A pair of Yellow-chinned Spinetails were eventually lured close in, and two hummingbirds in the shape of Glittering-bellied & Sapphire-spangled Emerald were alternating between feeding on the flowers beyond the trees, then resting briefly on the branches. A Bran-coloured Flycatcher refused to come close, but Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Yellow-olive Flatbill were overhead. A second Yellow-browed Tyrant patrolled the locality, and a Hooded Siskin was picked up before departing.
Progress along the track from here entered some very open and hilly pasture to both sides. We stopped to try to spot Firewood Gatherer, but were only rewarded by the impressive sight of the nest – a monumental structure in the fork of a tree which apparently can house 5 pairs of birds. A passing walker had warned us that a herd of not so friendly cattle were being moved just around the corner – a poignant piece of information, since this was the location of our next stop. It has to be said that some of the steers didn’t look too friendly, and even one of the older cowpokes helping with the task showed a good turn of speed while escaping a charge. They cattle were being moved into some sheds next to the track, and it was in here that we were to look for Band-tailed Hornero. These sheds are apparently its regular favoured spot for feeding, and we did find it in the selfsame sheds after only minimal searching. Another White-rumped Monjita was on wires, with a pair of impressive Aplomado Falcons on two separate dead trees some distance away. These were a long awaited and welcome sight, since a single bird from the Texas release scheme had been seen in 2005, but couldn’t be sworn to have wild credentials. Tawny-headed Swallow was also expected here, and one was duly picked out from the attending Blue-and-white Swallows. A White-tailed Hawk which had been perched was hovering in the distance.
Despite being just turned 2pm, it was now time for lunch, and we had this while stopping somewhat further on surrounded by close hills overlooking a marshy pasture. Hirundines were here again, with Blue-and-white & Southern Rough-winged Swallows being joined by three more Tawny-headed Swallows. We ate our sandwiches on the move while searching for more birds, and were quickly rewarded by another brace of Whistling Herons. A couple of Blackish Rails were entertaining us with their chase me chase you antics. On the track itself were Masked Water Tyrant, Chalk-browed Mockingbird and Rufous Hornero
The drive to the site of the Three-toed Jacamars found us leaving the track and rejoining a tarmacked road, and then travelling for about 15 minutes to eventually park at a nondescript group of smallholdings. This was backed by a couple of open sand faces, which apparently are where the birds reside. We were very optimistic about seeing them, but expected something of a wait. Not so! A quick blast of Jacamar song from the MP3 player and a pair of birds were almost instantaneously within sight. They are said to stay loyal to their nest site all year, and their confiding and sedentary behaviour couldn’t argue with this. We spent some time watching these enigmatic endemics, but also found some good birds here in addition. More Blue-winged Parrotlets graced the Jacamar tree, as did a pair of Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatchers and single Glittering-bellied Emerald. The same was true for a White-barred Piculet, and Yellow-olive Flatbill. The area where this track met the main road was fairly wet, and played host to drinking Saffron Finches, Rufous Hornero, and Chalk-browed Mockingbird. Red-rumped Caciques and Guira Cuckoo passed through, and a Blue-black Grassquit was seen on the opposite side of the road. Last two notable birds seen before leaving were a female White-headed Marsh Tyrant and flythrough Roadside Hawk.
Saturday (Day 4)
After a couple of days on the road to various sites, the absence of our guide meant that some more local birding in the vicinity of the lodge was in order. A lot of the day’s birding today was to be spent in the lodge grounds, broken over midday by a short ride to the Cedae Trail up the road. This meant that we spent four hours within the grounds to start with, which seemed to fly over. As yesterday, we wolfed breakfast to get to the hide as early as possible, and were again rewarded with the presence of the Blond-crested Woodpecker, which unfortunately chose a fruit feeder out of view from the hide. However, a pair of Golden-chevroned Tanagers and an Orange-bellied Euphonia did grace “our” table with their presence. For some reason, we then made our way down to the bridge over the stream, and were nicely surprised by the presence of a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, calling as loudly now as it had done before first light (it could clearly be heard from my bedroom). The hummingbirds seem to be active early here, with the Sombre Hummingbirds leading the way. They remained the dominant species both in terms of numbers and aggression, again followed by Violet-capped Woodnymph. Only a single male Brazilian Ruby was seen, although it made up for its lack of congeners by being very showy. A Swallow-tailed Hummingbird also made an appearance. The variety of other birds seemed a little low, although numbers of Plain & Maroon-bellied Parakeets tried to boost numbers. Even the Great Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers were absent, although a Chestnut-capped Becard passing through more than made up for this. Even Spot-billed Toucanets were represented by just one diner at the fruit table. However, this still made for an interesting morning, which still seemed to fly by.
Our driver from the organised tours was enlisted to ferry us to this nearby trail, which also meant that the cost could be kept down (when compared to drafting in a local taxi, as if often the case when more guests are present). As we were about to climb into the van, a Black-and-White Hawk Eagle was spotted overhead – hopefully a sign of good birding ahead. The Cedae Trail is only 10 minutes drive uphill from the lodge, and we were dropped off at the entrance, which clearly stated there should be no entry. So we entered and spent just short of 2 hours descending the trail as far as we could, and then doubled back to fill in the next two hours. Most of the trail is through thick forest, with only irregular views of the sky, and our walk started off slowly bird wise, becoming increasingly better as we progressed. Walking along a mud and cobble track, we were a little surprised to be passed by an old VW, but these must have been workers from the processing plant at the end of the road. A Rufous-bellied Thrush greeted us almost as we entered the trail, and we thought that would be it for the first twenty minutes, until a White-barred Piculet and Olivaceous Woodcreeper gave us heart. Then, after crossing a stream and rounding a sharp bend, we doubled our Woodcreepers with a Plain-winged congener. A little further, and a Yellow-eared Woodpecker was seen briefly. The fun began when a pair of Red-crowned Ant Tanagers was picked out of the dense vegetation. Knowing that they are regularly to be found in company, we searched the area until we unearthed singles of Olive-green Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Euphonia, Bananaquit, and another unidentified Woodcreeper in close attendance.
Our time in the forest was almost half way spent, when we reached the terminus of the walk in the form of the works (in reality a small house), but had been forewarned of the presence of dogs, so turned around and started our ascent of the trail. Not much happened, apart from a small group of Green-headed Tanagers in the canopy, until we reached the corner with the stream running under the track again. A Chestnut-bellied Euphonia and Streak-capped Antwren signalled the start of a bird wave. As we slowly ascended the trail, a Black-capped Foliage-gleaner preceded a group of Red-necked Tanagers and another 2 White-barred Piculets. These were again in the canopy, but lying on my back made watching them so much easier! A couple of calling birds deep in the undergrowth were tantalisingly hidden, despite making us aware of their presence for some time. We reached the entrance bang on time for the return journey, but only after finding a (relatively) very confiding White-throated Spadebill at eye level near to the exit of the trail.
After lunch at the lodge, we headed back to the gardens again, where the amount and variety of birds seemed to have increased. There was even a pair of Common Marmosets on one of the fruit feeders. A pair of Masked Water Tyrants had appeared for the first time, totally unconcerned of our presence on the lawns. The nectar feeders again had Saw-billed Hummingbird which had been absent during the morning. Green-headed Tanagers were supposed to be easy to see on the feeders, but had waited until now to put in appearance – they remained in the grounds of the garden for the rest of the afternoon. The afternoon was broken by a cup of coffee watching the feeders from the veranda, where small wars seemed to be continuously at play amongst the hummers. Chief agitators were the Sombre Hummingbirds, which seemed to lap up a scrap with either their own, or preferably Saw-billed Hermit and an ill at ease Brazilian Ruby. Some time was spent watching the forest from the vantage point beside the swimming pool, and this turned up Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-barred Piculet, Chestnut-crowned Becard, Long-billed & Southern House Wrens, and a pair of very confiding juvenile Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatchers. Great Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers had reappeared, with Blue Dacnis once again gracing the feeders. Sayaca Tanager was finally seen in the garden, with a male Blue-naped Chlorophonia in close attendance. The rounds of the garden included regular visits to the stream without luck, until the light had started to fade and we once again picked out the Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. We watched this to-ing and fro-ing under the bridge until the light was almost gone.
Sunday (Day 5)
With Cirilo (the guide) away for his second day of wedding duty, we again took the opportunity to do our own birding around the lodge and one of the local trails – the Theodoro. This proved to be one of the best day’s birding in a long while, both for quality of birds and also the constant appearance of something interesting. Add to that the fact that we were finding all of the birds ourselves for extra pleasure. The plan was to spend the whole morning around the lodge, have an early cooked lunch, and then be dropped off at the Theodoro Trail for the afternoon. With the usual start to the day around the gardens, we also wanted to devote most of the morning to the trails in the forest to the rear, and this proved to be an excellent choice.
This morning’s member of staff preparing breakfast didn’t understand the minutae of birding – you eat breakfast as early as possible and on the run when there are birds to be seen. She insisted on locking the dining room outer door until the clock struck 6am exactly, but hadn’t counted on my counter insurgency measures of sneaking in through the kitchen. Despite this, the regular Blond-crested Woodpecker managed to reach the bird table as the last mouthfuls of cake were still being chomped, but impressed nevertheless. The Slaty-breasted Wood Rail managed to creep into the scope view at the same time. First order of the day was to head back down to the stream. After passing the first Pale-breasted Thrushes of the trip, we quickly picked up the resident Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper in the vicinity of the bridge, this time in better light than the previous evening. During this time, I scanned the trees above and managed to pick out Crescent-chested Puffbird. We had waited many a long trip for our first of this family, and it was worth the wait! Back to the gardens, and both Long-billed & Southern House Wrens were found singing. Before breaking for the trails, I scanned the valley from the swimming pool area, and managed to pick up Scaly-headed Parrot at the top of one of the distant trees – our first definite member of this species.
After spending about 2½ hours doing the rounds, we headed for the trails. The aim was to cover all 3 in the three hours until lunch, but the lower trail to the water box (and only the first part of this) was easily the most productive, as well as the circular trail being blocked by a fallen tree, so most of the time was spent there. Activity was from the ground to the canopy, and there were few times, apart from when on the upper trails, when there was no activity. Things got off to a great start when we found a first year male Blue Manakin only metres into the walk, sporting a bright orange cap to augment his olive green coat. Just around the corner, a Black-goggled Tanager preceded a Whiskered Myiobius and Plain Antvireo directly over our heads. After completing most of the water box trail and turning back when we realised it was quiet, we managed to pin down two separate Star-throated Antwrens after some effort – they are noisy but elusive! In the canopy, the regular Plain Antvireos were joined by a couple of Spot-breasted Antvireos, sporting much more prominent spots than had been expected. As we turned up the steps to approach the upper trails, we were handed the prize of a stunning Black-cheeked Gnateater, one of our top hoped for birds. The extension trail was fairly quiet save for a Plain Antvireo and a couple of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, so we headed back to the Gnateater spot. This was rewarded with even better views of the bird, this time stationery for some time. We celebrated this with a sit on the well worn, and overgrown, seat next to the trail, and even this was rewarded with a huge White-throated Woodcreeper nearby, and a passing wave of Red-necked & Green-headed Tanagers through the canopy to the front of our perch.
We were dropped off at the barrier indicating access to the Theodoro trail after lunch, and after only a couple of minutes of passing through the pathway, came across our first bird wave. This consisted of Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Plain Antvireo, and a couple of Whiskered Myiobius. In addition, all were at almost eye level and next to the track – much easier than craned necks for the canopy. This set the style for the afternoon, since there were very few times when there was nothing to see or to hear, and the trail varied from very open to narrow and enclosed. This made for a very enjoyable forest birding experience. After passing a Planalto Woodcreeper hacking into a bromeliad for large insects, and a Variable Antshrike, we came upon a fairly open section. At the start of this, a smart White-throated Hummingbird was holding court, and the first of 4 large Hermits passed through. One of these seen later had the correct credentials for the sought after Scale-throated Hermit known to be here. Back into the enclosed forest track, and some patience following the source of unknown calls eventually dragged out the first of two Black-capped Foliage-gleaners, with a second subadult male Blue Manakin in attendance. Before the turn back point in the walk, we also saw Lesser Woodcreeper.
Coming back, one of the strangest sights of the day was a Brazilian Ruby bathing in a stream flooding over the path, totally unconcerned with our presence. Further bird parties were encountered on the return walk, the best containing Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, a pair Pallid Spinetails, White-browed Foliage-gleaner, and Plain Antvireo. Another had a pair of Lesser Woodcreepers in attendance with a second pair of Pallid Spinetails. A bird that gave us a lot of trouble was Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. We had watched and listened to the lodge bird just that morning, but hearing and seeing the same features on a skulking bird which seemed to be nowhere near water totally threw us at the time. A White-rimmed Warbler on the path was also a little novel. When we reached the spot where the White-throated Hummingbird was still in attendance, a pair of unmatched birds on a log proved to be White-shouldered Fire-eyes – this was the best (yet brief) view we had of them, since they subsequently kept to the deep vegetation. Nearby, the second White-throated Woodcreeper of the day showed off just how big a bird it is when in flight.
Monday (Day 6)
With 2½ days of the trip to go, we sat down the previous evening to decide on what plans would give us the most enjoyment birding wise. Cirilo seems to count the Bamboo Trail as one of his favourite sites, but we decided against this. The factors dissuading us from following his favoured spot were that it is a very enclosed and dark trail, which wouldn’t suit our preference for photography. In addition, it would seem that a lot of the birds potentially on offer could be seen at the national park. So it was that today we would spend some time at Portao Azul, and then call in at the mountainous location that is Macae de Cima. The usual hour long lodge garden foray offered as its new treat today a massive tight flock of White-collared Swifts overhead, following the predicted showing of the Blond–crested Woodpecker before 6.30 at the fruit feeders. We checked the stream again for the Streamcreeper and Puffbird, but to no avail.
Considering that this site basically consists of a dirt track, of which no more than a mile is covered, a lot of time can be spent here and an excellent variety of birds seen. In fact, we spent the first 2 hours or so just walking what must have been no more than 200 metres, with birds more or less constantly in view. As soon as we clambered out of the car, we were in amongst birds new to us, the very first being small hummingbirds. A female Frilled Coquette danced around in the flowers next to the track, showing off her banded rump, pumping tail, and slightly rufous throat. She was quickly followed by a Reddish Hermit on the same group of flowers. Neither bird had the good manners to rest on a nearby branch. There then followed a series of birds which were no more than a few metres in front of us, but provided a challenge to merely see them well, since they kept well into the vegetation, and were constantly on the move – Orange-eyed Thornbird, Blue-billed Black Tyrant, Rufous-capped & Pallid Spinetail, and Variable Antshrike were good examples of these. Thankfully, Yellow Tyrannulet, White-throated Hummingbird, and female Glittering-bellied Emerald were more generous with their performances. We continued our very slow but deliberate progress along the track, and were rewarded with brief views of Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, and even briefer views of the notoriously skulking Dusky-tailed Antbird, of which there was a brace. A couple of Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaners reappeared constantly within the low bushes to our right, and an Olivaceous Woodcreeper flew over them. Looking high, we picked out a female Surucua Trogon resting directly under some high palm fronds, and a little further on, a pair of Saffron Toucanets were at a similar height. When we scanned the tops of the trees in the distance, we could easily make out a Cliff Flycatcher Long-tailed Tyrant sharing the upper storey of the same tree. This track is reputed to be one of the best spots for Half-collared Sparrow, and this proved to be the case this morning, with a skulking twosome of separate birds eventually being seen half well.
The track now opened out into a small cultivated farm to the rear, and a small private plantation to one side. After picking out Green-winged Saltator in the opposite trees, we entered the beginning of the plantation and dug up a bit of a Tanager fest! The more common Golden-chevroned & Sayaca Tanagers were quickly joined by a trio of Magpie Tanagers, followed by Black-goggled & Burnished-buff lower down and closer. At the tree canopy over the track, which was by now much lower in our vision, we could make out a small bird wave, which included in its ranks Gilt-edged & Rufous-headed Tanagers. Not to be outdone, the conifers over the entrance sported an active (and endemic) Grey-capped Tyrannulet, as well as Yellow-legged Thrush. From the edge of the plantation, our second Surucua Trogon of the morning (and the trip – this time a male) was rested for a short time opposite and a stunning Green-backed Becard hunted down the oranges within. We made our way a little further along the track to eat our lunch beside a decent sized pond, which bizarrely had no birds on it whatsoever.
Sustenance completed, and we once again made our way along the track, which by now was in the form of a low avenue. A female White-bearded Manakin preceded a much more showy male. In an opening with spaced out larger trees, a Yellow-browed Woodpecker pecked away at the bark. We tried to lure out Drab-breasted Bamboo Tyrant unsuccessfully at the turning point, but did see White-browed Foliage-gleaner instead. On the return, a Long-tailed Tyrant was again in the company of a Cliff Flycatcher, with a pair of Hooded Siskins just before reaching the van.
Macae de Cima
In contrast to the track we had spent so many hours on this morning, this site is set against stunning mountain scenery, and wall to wall forest on its slopes. The birds are also more difficult to pin down, and are in smaller numbers. The site is best known for Bare-throated Bellbird in season, whose distant views must be worth the bone-shaking drive up. We parked the van at a suitable spot, and patiently waited out some skulkers, following a very showy if brief Scale-throated Hermit. We had luck to varying degrees with three of these – Rufous-capped Spinetail was in the open briefly, a pair of Orange-eyed Thornbirds whizzed past our heads repeatedly to land back in the shadows, and brief views were had of a pair of Dusky-tailed Antbirds. A little higher, a White-collared Foliage-gleaner, which had been calling regularly, finally appeared in the open for a few seconds. At the bend in the track, a trio of Blue Manakins included a male, female, and immature male, with a much drabber Greenish Schiffornis close by. A Drab-breasted Bamboo Tyrant kept more to the understorey in the same area. We meandered down the track, picking up White-barred Piculet and a rather excitable hound on the way, before trying to lure a calling Variegated Antpitta into view. Optimists! On the way back to the van, we scanned some overhanging trees below us to pick up a small assortment of Scaled Woodcreeper, Yellow-eared Woodpecker, and Golden-chevroned & Rufous-headed Tanagers. Our last treat of the afternoon was to stop of half way back down to the main road to scope a distant calling Black-and-gold Cotinga to add to the female on the High Altitude excursion.
Tuesday (Day 7)
Serra dos Orgaos National Park
The rain battering off the roof of the lodge through the night signalled the first significant downpour of the trip, but we hoped that leaving the area to travel the hour plus to Orgaos might find an improvement. It didn’t! We parked the van in the wet car park at the low level of the park, to alight into a light shower, although not light enough to negate the need for wet weather clothing. Luckily, the track covered during the next two hours plus is tarmac, so generally easy to cover even in the wet, although there were some slippery patches in places. It seemed likely that many of the potential birds were going to be high up towards or in the canopy, which made keeping the lenses on the optics dry difficult. However, the first significant bird made light of this, since it was the notoriously skulking Star-throated Antwren, which obliged us with good open views and flypasts over the track. A little further down, a pair of Red-crowned Ant Tanagers kicked off a bit of a feast of birds, with a mixed flock including Flame-crested & Golden-chevroned Tanagers, Plain Antvireo, Golden-crowned Warbler, and a Yellow-throated Woodpecker a few trees away. A couple of Olivaceous Woodcreepers and separate Lesser Woodcreeper were not part of the flock. At the bottom gate, where we were to turn around, a pair of Sick’s Swifts flew by. We should have known not to take off the wet weather gear, since shortly after doing this, the rain began to fall in earnest – not torrential, but enough to make birding difficult, and also to totally quieten down the birdlife. We didn’t see another bird on the climb back up to the van, and Cirilo even suggested that if the rain continue, we go back early.
We then drove the 20 minutes or so up to the upper section of the national park, where we ate our lunches in the dry comfort of the inside of the van. We started after noon, and the upper part of the park (which is along a well constructed boardwalk) in light drizzle. However, the finding of a group of Spot-winged Wood Quail, which we were able to quietly approach to only a few metres, seemed to indicate the end of the rain, and also the beginning of the excellent birding. The boardwalk follows the contour of the mountain for some way, and is a well constructed piece of engineering, allowing us to see from the undergrowth below to the tops of the canopy in relative comfort. At the same point as the Wood Quail, a male Blue Manakin posed above us, with a White-bibbed Antbird being located to the side of the walk a little further along. Only a few metres further, a pair of tiny Eared Pygmy Tyrants played around in full if not energetic view. A second White-bibbed Antbird was picked out from underneath an elevated section of the boardwalk. Three species of Woodcreepers were subsequently seen before the boardwalk turned into downward steps to the river – Olivaceous, White-throated, & Lesser. Just before the turning point, a small group of Tufted Capuchin monkeys were seen briefly below us, with another 2 against the horizon. A Squirrel Cuckoo greeted us at this point.
The decision as to whether to descend the steps, and from the base make our way back up to the van via the road was easily overrode by the need to return the way we had come – along the boardwalk. We had unfinished business with one or two notable absentees, making this was a no brainer. It also turned out to be an excellent couple of hours for good birds. Again from the top of the steps, a flock of Tanagers was seen to be passing through, including Black-goggled, Red-necked, & a good number of Brassy-breasted. Another Olivaceous Woodcreeper, this with an almost yellow breast, was also here, as well as a couple of Spot-billed Toucanets. Then came what was probably the sighting of the day, if not the trip. A Pin-tailed Manakin was hopping briefly from tree to tree above us, and quickly came to rest on a favoured branch where it posed for at least 5 minutes. There then followed a mad period when a string of individual species which are often hard to find appeared either alone or in pairs – Rufous Gnateater (pair, initially one landed on hand rail and then again on the opposite side); Mouse-coloured Tapaculo (pair – both seen well in the undergrowth); Giant Antshrike (female, which had called a few times before being pinned down); and Rufous-breasted Leaftosser (individual seen tossing leaves!). If this wasn’t sufficient, we then locked on to a bird wave, which we followed for some time. Many of the birds eventually came quite close, and included Scaled Woodcreeper, Chestnut-crowned Becard, White-rimmed Warbler (several on the boardwalk and its hand rails), White-browed & White-collared Foliage Gleaner (both next to the boardwalk), Brown Tanager (pair above), and Surucua Trogon (a posing male). Just for good measure, a Euler’s Flycatcher was hawking from the hand rail in front of us.
Finished yet? No chance! On the journey back, and in the half light, Cirilo pulled the van to a sudden halt to pick out 5 Roseate Spoonbills (new to him), 7 Brazilian Teal, and a Common Nighthawk (new to Serra dos Tucanos list) flying over them and the small pool which they were inhabiting.
Wednesday (Day 8)
The Wetlands - Reserva Ecologica de Guapi Acu
The rain of yesterday was now a memory, with the sun rising over the mountains this morning, although there was a worryingly increasing mist over the valleys as we made our way towards the wetlands. Since this was our last day, and we only had the morning to go out before leaving for the airport, we had asked Andy to break with custom and leave at 6.30am. This meant that early morning mist was still lying in the lowlands, but it still lifted fairly soon. We had asked to stop at a garage in one of the towns to film the resident Burrowing Owls, but the trio that awaited us when we stopped next to some open pasture near to the reserve were in much more appealing surroundings, with the mountains peering above the layer of mist to the rear. There was also an offering of more birds here, with singing Band-tailed Hornero singing in a bush above the road, and 3 Black-necked Aracaris in the trees on the opposite side of one of the fields. On fence posts to the rear of the open pasture, and trees to the side, a busy group of Yellow-headed Caracaras were either perched or chasing, with a more static brace of Savannah Hawks looking on.
After Cirilo had made conversation with the workers, we headed into the forest trail, and spent some time just a little way in. This is because various antbirds were good to see here, and we succeeded in finding the three on offer – White-flanked Antwren, then Sooretama Slaty Antshrike, followed by a more elusive Chestnut-backed Antshrike. Small parties of almost wholly female type Blue Dacnis seemed everywhere, with noisy Red-rumped Caciques more vocal than visible. A Common Tody-Flycatcher was the first of the trip, since it has a preference for the lower altitudes. The track became a little more winding and more enclosed, with a slight increase in the scourge that is the mosquito, when we had a very vocal Moustached Wren flying between the bushes around us, notoriously keeping to the shadows. Shortly after this, it was good to see open space again, with the mountains and valley below being lit by the mid-morning light. It didn’t take long here to admire an Eye-ringed Tody-Flycatcher showing very well just above eye level, but full marks must go to the small lek of White-bearded Manakins further down the slope. The clicking and buzzing was unusual, and it was a pleasure to see our first ever lekking Manakins of any species. Just above these birds, as well as a White-flanked Antwren, we tried to pin down a flycatcher showing ochre underparts and darker olive/grey head, but didn’t have good enough views to specifically identify either Grey-hooded or Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. The trail through the forest then met up with a larger track, which wasn’t far from the lagoons. This area was particularly enjoyable, however, since a male White-bearded Manakin chaperoning a young bird preceded a second active lek (more manic even than the first), and a pair of Chestnut-backed Antshrikes were followed in the open for some time.
So then to the wetlands. During the whole week of the trip, this was the first time that this type of habitat had been encountered, so we were looking forward to seeing a different mix of birds. The lagoons and surrounding area didn’t disappoint. The track we were on bisected what must be the two most interesting pools, which for all their youth, look well established and well fed with accompanying vegetation. This gives ample opportunity for birds to hide if necessary (is this why no eclipse Masked Duck were seen?), although many birds obliged in the open. Most obvious bird is the ubiquitous Common Gallinule, followed by Wattled Jacana and Purple Gallinule. All were very obvious by their open water preference. Picked out amongst these were a few Least Grebes, Brazilian Teal, and White-faced Whistling Duck. The prized bird which we had been hoping for, Capped Heron, was first seen flying over the open water and landing to the rear up high, but persistence paid with much closer views of birds feeding out in the open further round. Within the reeds, a single White-headed Marsh Tyrant hawked in the middle of the lagoon, but 2 pairs of Yellow-chinned Spinetails were much closer, if not always confiding. Over the spot, a small flock of White-collared Swifts was followed by a more distant kettle of Vultures, which also harboured a thermalling Black-and White Hawk-Eagle. A Ringed Kingfisher was picked out flying along the lagoon edge, with a Striated Heron in the bushes. Just before we had to leave, a stunning adult Rufescent Tiger Heron flew from the shallows to a tree in the centre of the lagoons, then to subsequently pose with wings folded back while sunning itself.