Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - January, 2005
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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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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 to 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.
Timing and weather
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 presumable 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.
Arrival at Rio
Fortunate to have the window seat on the incoming flight, the first birds of South America for me were numerous Great White Egrets in their hundreds lining the banks of the rivers and concreted estuaries of Rio, just before touching down at the airport. The first of the Black Vultures were also seen just before landing (and on the short trek to the airport terminal). It was these 2 species, along with the as usual ubiquitous feral pigeons, which were easily the most numerous species evident. One or two swallows were seen on the journey but were not seen well enough for identification. The only other species of note on the journey to the hotel were 2 Roadside Hawks, doing exactly what their name suggested, sat on perches next to the main highway. On arrival at the hotel, and from the hotel room itself, streams of hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds passed along the length of Copacabana Beach towards thermals around Sugarloaf Mountain.
The Botanical Gardens
After hurriedly unpacking and putting together all the equipment required for an afternoons birding, I stepped out of the hotel and quickly caught one of the multitudinous yellow cabs. Despite the fact that there is a direct bus service to the Botanical Gardens from the hotel, this method of transport across town was slow, and I was advised that the yellow cabs were safe to use and the best option. This proved to be the case, with the journey only taking about 20 minutes and costing 11 Real (around £3). The taxi dropped me off directly outside the entrance, where entrance fee was only 4 Real.
The location of the Botanical Gardens is on the outskirts of the main city, which still means that it is bounded by suburbanisation. Yet it is quite a sizeable oasis, and as time progresses, it can be seen to be rich in birds. There are also plenty of people meandering around the numerous soft tracks of the gardens, but they only occasionally form a disturbance problem. At first, it seemed that the park was full of Kingbirds, Short-crested Flycatchers, Southern Rough-winged Swallows, Kiskadees, and small groups of escaped Waxbills. During the first 1½ hours, I walked the length of the gardens, which is about 500-600 metres. This turned up many more species, in particular Masked Water-tyrant, Blue Dacnis, and male Violet-capped Woodnymph hummingbird. At around 1:20pm, I received a text from a birding colleague who was by then also on his way to the gardens.
As soon as we met up at the entrance to the gardens, we found ourselves watching another 3 Masked Water-tyrants. From the same spot, and following a loud call, we had excellent views of a Channel-billed Toucan, which was a little surprising in such an urban park. We spent the next 2½ hours wandering the gardens. Initially, birds were a little bit few and far between. Then, in the corner of the gardens, we spent about an hour in a continuous passage of bird parties or feeding individuals. Tanagers in the guise of Sayaca and Palm predominated, in addition to Kiskadees, the odd Social Flycatcher, and more Short-crested Flycatchers. In amongst these were less numerous and newer birds (to us), including Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds, Black Jacobin, Yellow-lored Tody-flycatcher, and at least 5 Green-headed Tanagers.
Having seen some Brazilian Squirrels earlier in the day, rustling in the trees above was mainly ignored, until we realised that this was due to the presence of Common Marmosets. We eventually managed to pin down around half a dozen of these wonderful little primates. Time was marching on, but the birds kept appearing, with notable additions of 2-3 Plain Parakeets and much greater numbers of Maroon-bellied Parakeets (initially not showing any red on the belly, they were eventually shown to sport this feature). I had seen 2 Grey-necked Wood-rails when first wandering around the gardens alone, but just as we were about to leave, with an exclamation of “so much for any more wood-rails!”, we coincidentally looked to the left to the sight of a limping individual right out in the open.
Leaving the gardens to return to the hotel was easy. There were plenty of yellow taxis passing by, and we even found one stationed directly outside of the main entrance touting for business. The taxi took us along the length of Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, which were largely uninteresting apart from the numerous Magnificent Frigatebirds still patrolling above. On closer inspection, small numbers of Brown Boobies could be seen passing lower down over the sea.
After a full days conference session, we escaped the hotel at about 5pm. Time only allowed for a walk alongside the beach to the military buildings at the end of the promenade. We had been told that this could be visited and the birds looked for in the wooded installation, but it appeared that entrance was only on a Saturday, and cameras not allowed. Amazingly, and despite the surrounding busy urbanisation, there were quite a few birds to be seen in the tree lined avenue and around the installation. Most common were Tropical Kingbirds, as well as both Sayaca and Palm Tanagers, but almost equally as common were very busy Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds. Before we were ushered away from the military buildings, we did manage to see a gradually increasing number of hirundines. These were initially seen to consist almost exclusively of Rough-winged Swallows, but we eventually managed to pick out a few Blue-and-white Swallows, and latterly some of the larger Brown-chested Martins. As time progressed, these hirundines came closer, eventually flying around us and just around our heads. Surprisingly, there was also a pair of Masked Water-tyrants on the lawn here.
Rain seemed to have fallen constantly through the night, and was still doing so at 7:30 after breakfast. Always looking on the bright side, this also seemed to have kept human disturbance on the beach to a minimum. I spent just over an hour getting shots of the few species of seabirds from the waters edge. These consisted of 3 types, with Magnificent Frigatebirds in abundance, and also the odd Brown Booby passing by quite close to the shore. There was also a small collection of 4-5 Kelp Gulls early on, and the strange sight of 2 Tropical Kingbirds hopping around the sand looking for insects on the ground. As the hour progressed, the rain slowed almost to a stop, although the clouds overhead seemed to indicate that this would be anything but a dry day.
As we departed the hotel at 9:30 and travelled North to our embarkation point for the cruise, the weather gradually deteriorated to a rain soaked day. From the coach, Smooth-billed Anis could be seen in some numbers when the last of the ramshackled buildings of the city were finally left behind, but not much else was to be seen. The boat pulled up at the dock in the continuing deluge, and we were at first glad to see that there was a cover over it. This only handed out a marginal respite, however, since the higher winds at sea provided ample opportunity for a soaking. The cruise lasted around 2 hours, and through the murk we made out Crested Caracaras on top of the predicted passing Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Once at the island, we made straight for the covered restaurant and its tantalising delicacies. While tucking into the nosh, the rain gradually reduced to a light sprinkle, and we made the most of the last hour on the island. The island we were on was part of an 18 mile chain of sandbanks and tropical islands off the coast, and was quite small (probably no more than 100-200 metres in length), and seemed to consist of 2 joined hillocks which were tree covered. One of these hillocks had a path to the summit, and it was this that we climbed for our short birding session.
Despite the small size of the island, it did hold an interesting population of birds, some of which were only seen here. Among the usual noise and sight of the ubiquitous Bananaquits, we found Tanagers in the form of Brazilian and Sayaca (with a yellow/orange headed grey species later to be identified as Orange-headed Tanager), a couple of Red-eyed Thornbirds, Rufous-crowned Greenlet, Velvety Black-tyrant, and a female Masked Yellowthroat. On the initial ascent, we had disturbed a Yellow-headed Caracara from its treetop perch.
The journey back was uneventful, and slightly drier, but we did see a tree full of Roseate Spoonbills on the approach to Rio.
The Tijuca Forest
After some discussion with the organisers of the conference over the last few days, they managed to put me in touch with a chap called Al, who was able to organise a mornings birding in the Tijuca Forest. He and his driver picked us up in a jeep at 6am at the hotel. In the clearing rain, they took us on a half an hour ride to the forest, and we started to bird along one of the tarmacked tracks through the forest from our drop off point. The rain had now stopped, and under the cloud and sight of the Christ the Redeemer statue, a few birds started to show, the first being a trio of Green-headed Tanagers. As time went by, and the light quickly improved, bird parties started to appear with a vengeance. Most of these parties seemed to be in clearings over the track, and could be quite mixed bunches of species. Initially difficult to identify, but easy to see Flycatcher, turned out to be Sepia-capped, one or two of which were seen later on in the walk. The earlier Green-headed Tanagers were added to by very close and feeding Red-necked Tanagers, seemingly constantly backed up by Golden-crowned Warblers, feeding and calling continuously in small flocks. Small ant eating birds were represented by superb views of Sooretama Slaty-antshrike and almost at the end of the first walk a couple of Scaled Antbirds. All had been preceded by a very noisy but difficult to see Star-throated Antwren, which eventually showed well briefly but rewardingly. Just before being picked up by the jeep again, we found a few euphonias feeding on small fruiting trees next to the path (including a couple of male Chestnut-bellied Euphonias), and a Laughing Falcon was found perched on the other side of the valley. At the end of this walk, the rain started to fall in earnest again, and was to continue for almost all of the day.
We were then taken to a quite spectacular waterfall in the forest. We were led through a short track to this, and saw only one bird well here - a Buff-throated Saltator. At the waterfall, the rain continued to fall even harder, but was not sufficient to hide a small raptor just above the tumbling torrent – a Plumbeous Kite. While watching it, the bird left its perch and caught a lizard from next to the falls.
The last stop with Al was at a small pool at the edge of the forest. He had optimistically promised duck here, but none were to be seen. This was more than made up by a brief view of a Rusty-margined Guan, which was high in the trees in a small clearing through the leaves. In addition to the numerous Social Flycatchers and Great Kiskadees, were Yellow-lored Tody-flycatcher, as well as a pair of Violaceous Euphoinias seen just before we left for the Botanical Gardens, and a Streaked Flycatcher flew in and perched some way off at the opposite side of the pool.
The Botanical Gardens
Al had dropped us off at a different entrance to the gardens from that taken on Monday, since he told us of the best way to reach the forest margin of the gardens. After paying our fee, we were heading to the entrance of the gardens proper, but were diverted by a Cliff Flycatcher hawking insects from a house roof, and small numbers of Double-collared Seedeaters feeding on a lawn. After a tasty lunch of quiche at the café, we headed through the gardens in the rain to explore the lower slopes of the Tijuca Forest within the gardens. This proved to be quite a fruitless search, only turning up a Grey-necked Wood-rail and some distance passerines in the canopy. We spent a couple of hours searching the gardens again, and it was noticeable that activity was less than on Monday, when the weather was much brighter and more settled. Most obvious birds today were Tropical Kingbirds, Palm Tanagers, and Great Kiskadees. However, more Channel-billed Toucans were seen today, and even better and more static views of Swallow-tailed Hummingbird and a female Violet-capped Woodnymph. Roadside Hawk was also seen perched at the top of a conifer here, and as we left the gardens, a superb male Purple-throated Euphonia was in the area of the seedeaters and, naturally, a further pair of Masked Water-tyrants