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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Minas Gerais

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This year’s WINGS tour to Minas Gerais was beset by several long and heavy rains (this was the 4th rainiest November in the Minas Gerais weather records!), but we had a great trip anyway, finding a wonderful selection of fantastic birds. This year we began our trip by a visit to the Espinhaço Mountains near Serra do Cipó were we enjoyed a beautiful walk in the pristine scenery and unique vegetation, finding several endemic and very localised species such as Hyacinth Visorbearer, Horned Sungem, Cinereous Warbling-Finch, Black-throated Saltator and the beautiful Blue Finch. We then enjoyed a few days at the peaceful Caraça Monastery, where we encounted fantastic species such as the colourful Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted Tanagers, the elusive Rufous Gnateater, the very local Serra Antwren, and the simply superb White-bibbed Antbird and Large-tailed Antshrike, just to name a few. We also had a memorable meeting with a South American Tapir on one of the forest trails, and with Maned Wolves each night when they visit monastery to get their plate of chicken bones just a few meters from visitors. In the natural and preserved grasslands and gallery forests of the scenic Canastra National Park we found superb birds such as the elegant Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrant, the charismatic Red-legged Seriema and Toco Toucan, the beautiful Cock-tailed Tyrant and the common (but so elegant) Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We also had an incredibly close encounter with a Giant Anteater here. On the very last day of our trip we were very happy to find a critically endangered Brazilian Merganser in the crystalline waters of the São Francisco River.

IN DETAIL: We left early from our Belo Horizonte airport hotel, where we all met the previous day, to drive towards the Serra do Cipó in the Espinhaço Mountains. On the way to Lapinha da Serra we had a first stop in some very good Cerrado, where we quickly found some of the more common inhabitants: numerous Plain-crested and Lesser Elaenia, a Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, both Burnished-buff and Cinnamon tanagers, an impressive Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, and several Chalk-browed Mockingbirds. We even found our first Brazilian endemic, a stunning male Hyacinth Visorbearer.

Walking around a dry lake at the village of Lapinha da Serra we had great views of open habitat species, including several Firewood Gatherers on their massive nests, flocks of Peach-fronted Parakeet, a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, White-rumped and Gray Monjita, the fantastic Fork-tailed Flycatcher, several Grassland Sparrow singing from fence posts, a pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants with their incredible display and several groups of Stripe-tailed Yellowfinch. On the last patches of water, we found a few White-faced Whistling-Duck and Brazilian Teals, while overhead a large group of White-collared Swifts were calling. It was now time to drive to the village of Cipo for lunch and a rest at our lodge. Later in the afternoon we took an enjoyable walk in the superb cordillera where, in addition to the unique vegetation, we had fantastic views of a few Horned Sungem, two Black-throated Saltator, and the lovely Gray-backed Tachuri.

Despite a rainy morning, we had a very birdy walk along the Serra Morena road. After pishing and playing a bit Tropical Screech-Owl recording, we quickly attracted plenty of flycatchers including Suiriri, Swainson’s and Bran-colored Flycatchers, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Highland Elaenia, but also a few Pale-breasted Thrush, a Green-winged Saltator, Sayaca and Cinnamon Tanagers, Plumbeous Seedeaters and a few Glittering-bellied Emerald. A Tropical Screech-Owl even came in. We also had superb views of a displaying male Horned Sungem, one of the most beautiful hummingbirds of the trip. The most unexpected surprise of the morning was finding a small group of the uncommon and local Cinereous Warbling-Finch. No less than four of them came very close to us, giving great opportunities for photography. And before leaving the beautiful Serra do Cipo, we made a short stop at a stake-out spot for Blue Finch and enjoyed amazing views of a singing male, which offered stunning views just a few meters from the group.

It was now time to leave Cipo for our next destination, the beautiful Caraça Monastery. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon at Caraça and were all impressed by the beauty of the monastery, standing in the middle of untouched forest and cerrado, and surrounded by such a wonderful landscape. Unfortunately, the heavy rain didn’t let us bird the beautiful garden of the monastery, and we had to wait to following day to explore this peaceful place. After an excellent dinner, we enjoyed a unique experience: seeing a wild Maned Wold at close range. The priests have fed wild Maned Wolves for 35 years now, and it has become a tourist attraction. Every night a few Maned Wolves come to feed on a plate of chicken bones and consider the visitors part of the landscape, allowing them to have a memorable encounter with these impressive and beautiful creatures. During our staying at Caraça monastery, we had amazing repeated views of at least two different wolves.

During our two full days at the Caraça Monastery, we explored various trails through pristine and very interesting habitats. In the forest areas we found a very different set of birds than the previous days, including antbirds such as Black-capped Antwren, White-backed Fire-eye, and even the beautiful and elusive Large-tailed Antshrike, some colourful tanagers like Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted Tanagers, and a few great furnariids such Scaled and Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Pallid and Rufous-capped Spinetail. We also waited patiently to get a stunning view of White-bibbed Antbird. We heard several lekking Swallow-tailed Manakins and had excellent views of this beautiful bird. A pair of Rufous Gnateater also performed very well, and we enjoyed nice views of White-browed Warbler, White-barred Piculet and Drab-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant. During a night walk, we also had fantastic views of a Tawny-browed Owl while its mate was calling deep in the forest. But the most unexpected find here was an adult tapir leaving the understorey of the forest and crossing our trail just a few meters ahead of us. Unbelievable!

In the semi-open cerrado habitat we were delighted by fantastic views of two male Hyacinth Visorbearer, a male Serra Antwren, a very cooperative Rock Tapaculo, a cute Hangnest Tody-Tyrant and a whole family of Pale-throated Pampa-Finch. The monastery garden was very birdy too. We did all of our pre-breakfast birding here and found fantastic bird such as Orange-eyed Thornbird, Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Blackish Rail, Golden-chevroned Tanager, nesting Cliff Flycatcher, Velvety Black-Tyrant and even the rare Shear-tailed Gray-Tyrant. We found no less than six species of beautiful hummingbirds attracted by the garden flowers: Planalto Hermit, Brazilian Ruby, Stripe-breasted Starthroat, White-throated Hummingbird, Sapphire-spangled Emerald and Black Jacobin.

After enjoying our days at Caraça Monastery, we headed towards the Serra da Canastra N.P. Unfortunately, these two locations are separated by more than two hundred miles, and taking into consideration Brazilian roads and traffic, it took us the whole day to get there. When crossing the city of Belo Horizonte, we made a quick stop at Pampulha Lake, where we quickly found a sought-after Southern Pochard, a widespread species (even found in Africa), but whose American population crashed in the last few decades and is now almost restricted to Brazil. We spent most of the day on the road, traveling through agricultural landscapes, fields dotted with hundreds of termite nests, patches of secondary forest, and intensive sun-grown coffee plantations. Just before arriving in Sao Roque we stopped at a small wetland to stretch our legs and bird a bit. Very quickly we found a nice list of new birds, including the beautiful Chestnut-capped Blackbird (bird of the day for some of us, rather unusually for a blackbird!), a lovely pair of White-eyed Parakeet breeding in a termite nest, a family of stunning White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, a nice pair of Yellow-browed Tyrant, a responsive Yellow-chinned Spinetail and close views of a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

We had three full days to explore the Sao Roque region and Canastra National Park. Protecting almost 490,000 acres (200,000 ha), Canastra N.P. preserves the headwaters of the São Francisco River which flows east from the park, while in the south the park feeds the Rio Grande which is a tributary of the Parana River. Unfortunately, our two first days at Sao Roque were interrupted by heavy rain, sometimes stopping our birding activity for long hours.

On our first morning here, we explored the lowest part of the reserve, following the São Francisco River and searching for the endangered Brazilian Merganser. Because of the recent rains the river was running so fast that it was very hard to look for this rare duck. Making our way towards Casca d’Anta (a waterfall of the São Francisco River), we made a few stops finding some great birds such as Red-legged Seriema, Guira Cuckoos, and a very wet family of Burrowing Owls. We also found an amazing dead tree were we counted no less than 32 Toco Toucans! In the gallery forest surrounding Casca d’Anta, we had some great views of White-throated Spadebill, Euler’s Flycatcher, Golden-crowned and Flavescent Warblers, and a very quick view of a male Helmeted Manakin. We drove back to the hotel for lunch, where we stayed the rest of the day due to the rain, watching the birds coming to the feeders, including Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Blue Dacnis, Scaled Dove and Double-collared Seedeater.

During our second morning we did some short drives around Sao Roque, birding mostly from the vehicles. Even if the conditions were difficult due to the weather we found some nice birds, including several views of the charismatic Red-legged Seriema, an Aplomado Falcon, Sooty Tyrannulets, Crested Black-Tyrant, or Yellow-rumped Blackbird. The rain began to stop around lunch time so we decided to drive back along the Sao Francisco River. At a stop at a small wetland we found a pair of Rusty-collared Seedeater, had some great views of displaying Black-capped Donacobius, admired more Streamer-tailed Tyrants, and found groups of Golden-capped and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. A few Muscovy Duck and Brazilian Teals were also found feeding in a wet field. Spending some time in a little forest patch along the Sao Francisco River, we found a group of Maroon-bellied Parakeet, a stunning female Pin-tailed Manakin, a lovely Rufous Casiornis and a singing Chivi Vireo.

With the rain ending, we were excited to spend our last day on the top of the Canastra N.P. plateau visiting cerrado habitat as well as gallery forest and extensive natural grassland. It was a long driving day through a beautiful landscape, finding a long list of fantastic new birds at every stop. In a patch of gallery forest we had a nice view of a singing male Rufous-winged Antshrike, while a bit later we had a stunning, prolonged look at a singing Brasilia Tapaculo singing on an exposed branch. In the grassland, we found lots of specialties as well. We all admired the display of a Cock-tailed Tyrant, found more than a dozen of Black-masked Finch, and enjoyed splendid views of the stunning Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrant (now competing with Fork-tailed Flycatcher for the title of ‘most elegant bird’). We found several groups of Pearly-breasted and Plumbeous Seedeaters and a pair of displaying Ochre-breasted Pipit. Suddenly a Chaco Eagle crossed the horizon, adding lots of excitement to the group. Other great birds today included White-rumped Tanager, a pair of Firewood Gatherer on their nest, substantial numbers of White-rumped Monjita, a few Crested Black-Tyrants, and even two Red-winged Tinamous crossing the road. And for heard-only species, I should mention the Ocellated Crake heard just a few meters from us but who never made an appearance. We had our picnic lunch at the upper part of the Casca d’Anta waterfall, and once we finished our sandwiches and were ready to go, our driver Marcelo called the magic word: “duck!”. Unbelievably, a Brazilian Merganser appeared on the Sao Francisco River during our lunch and offered amazing close views! It stayed about 5 minutes before taking off, leaving us with huge smiles on our faces. Despite a slight increase in the local population of Brazilian Merganser in recent years, the world population is still estimated to be below 300 individuals. Canastra National Park is the best area to look for this bird, which we were aware of as we enjoyed prolonged views.

Now a trip to Canastra N.P. would not be complete without a sighting of Giant Anteater, and we found no less than seven of this spectacular animal! We were even able to enjoy a very close encounter, spending around 20 minutes at less than 50 meters from one of them. An unforgettable view. It was now time to drive back to our hotel in São Roque for a great dinner and a good night.

For our last day we had some pre-breakfast birding at a nearby wetland, enjoying views of many species already seen the previous days, and even adding Bare-faced Ibis, Green-barred Woodpecker and Sooty-fronted Spinetail to our trip list. It was now time to pack and drive to the Belo Horizonte airport for flights back home.

-Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 12 December 2018