Five days in Rio de Janeiro included a couple of sessions pure birding over a period of one full day and one half day. We stayed in the Le Meridien hotel on the eastern end of the Copacabana Beach, one of many high rise hotels adjacent to the rather bland 4km length of the beach. The beach fills up exponentially with people as the day progresses, but some good birds can even be found in this area (Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, tyrant flycatchers, and Masked Water-Tyrants in the broken avenue of trees, passing seabirds over the water, and a few extra common species around the military premises at the end, although you have to be wary of using optics here). Buses do go from the hotel regularly, but the yellow taxis which constantly pass by were recommended to me – they are relatively inexpensive and safe to use. The unit of currency in Brazil is the Real. These can only be bought from within the country, and are useful for incidentals such as taxi fares, snacks, etc. Larger purchases can be by either $US (apparently £UK also but I didn’t put this to the test), and credit cards.
When I initially found out that I was going to Rio, my first reaction was that any birds seen would be incidental, since I harboured the worry that safety was a high priority here, which would limit flexibility of travel, and that movement per se in such a country with a small amount of free time to spend would limit the distance I could go. The worry about safety seems to be well founded – wandering around at night in anything other than a large group is a definite no, but even daylight hours can present a significant chance of crime (bearing in mind that birding usually entails carrying around a clump of expensive equipment). That is the down side over with, because there is also a significant up side to the birds within the city. Aside from the usual sites that Rio has to offer the day to day tourist, it also contains within the city boundaries one of the largest urban forest parks in the world - the Tijuca Forest, and the south-eastern edge of this forest is bounded by the Botanical Gardens, which are quite large and safe to cover.
Before departing for Brazil, I had attempted to get a guide ahead of time, knowing that one of the days in Rio would be free. After looking on the Birdpal site ( www.birdingpal.org ), and doing a search for guides in the area, I did receive numerous replies. However, most were not able to help, since almost all seem to be based in Sao Paolo, which is much larger than Rio, and a couple of hours drive to the South. I did get a positive reply from Richard Raby ( www.brazilbirding.com ), who is currently setting up a lodge for birders a little distance away from Rio. After meeting him at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water in August, we agreed on a days birding and the costs involved. However, since he lives some distance outside of Rio, the only practical way to do this was to be picked up the previous evening and stay in a hotel near to the sites, which we were unable to do. He ruled out picking us up early morning due to safety worries. He did give us some useful information on birding in the Rio city vicinity. Our birding therefore consisted of two main sites, and also some incidental time on one of the tropical offshore islands:
The Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (www.jbrj.gov.br)
This botanical garden covers quite a large area (137 hectares, with 54 hectares of forest). The north-western edge of the gardens bound the lower slopes of the Tijuca Forest, hence the potential to feast on forest species that would not normally touch an urban based environment. The two main entrances are on the Rua Jardim Botânico road, and both have security guards posted. Entrance cost is 4 Reals (about £1). The journey from the hotel to the gardens cost between 12 and 16 Reals (£3-£4) depending on the traffic, and taxis were very easily flagged down outside of the gardens on return. Free maps are available, but there are also regular maps of the area posted throughout the gardens, with the always helpful “you are here” logos for lost souls.
The Tijuca Forest
This forest is almost wholly surrounded by the greater city of Rio, but is a fabulous place to see a range of South American birds. Buses do not generally go to the entrances of the forest, and taxis do not pass the exits in any appreciable numbers, so it is best for casual birding visitors to use the services of a guide. We used a fellow called Al (Alcides Maia: e-mail email@example.com; tel 55 (021) 9294-2704), who turned up at the hotel at 6am with a jeep and driver, and cost us $135 for the 6 hour trip. This is well worth the money and time, since it expands the amount of species and diversity that can be seen in the botanical gardens. His method was to walk the tarmac roads throughout the forest, in addition to visiting one or two sites such as a waterfall and small pond, and walk slowly along listening and looking for birds. Being typical forest birding, these were in fits and starts, but some impressive birds were seen during the morning.
Ilha do Bernardo
One of the days in Rio consisted of an organised cruise to this small tropical island. We were driven 1½ hours to the North of Rio by coach, then transferred to a small boat for transport to the island. On the downside, it rained almost all day, making the boat ride in particular more than a little uncomfortable. On the plus side, the small island presented an opportunity for more birding (up a small track to its summit), with some species being seen only here. Seabirds were in small numbers, but a couple of skuas were observed over the sea, and 2 species of caracara were also seen from the boat.
January in Brazil is almost the middle of Summer, and Rio lies on the Tropic of Capricorn. The sun is thus almost vertically above, and hence has some heat blasting down on the area. However, it is also probably the wettest part of the year (the rainforest is presumably there for a reason!), and so temperatures can vary between 20ºC when it is raining, and mid 30’s plus when the sun is out. We experienced both! It is therefore worth packing both sun block and wet weather gear. Apparently, the best time for a birding visit is between August and October, which is Spring time, and also generally drier. The wet weather did bring out some biting insects. Sunrise in the morning was about 6:15, and sunset around 19:15.
I couldn’t find an ideal book on the identification of Birds in Brazil. There is one available (“All the birds of Brazil” by Deodato Souza), but I didn’t manage to locate a copy, and the write up seems to indicate that the illustrations are basic. Two books that are useful cover the North and South of the area:
“Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica”, by Martín de la Peña and Maurice Rumboll, a Collins Illustrated checklist, is portable and covers a good percentage of the potential birds. The descriptions are basic and the drawings adequate.
“Birds of Venezuala”, by Hilty, published by Princeton Press, is an excellent backup, since it again covers a good percentage of the potential species, and has good illustrations with even better descriptions.