Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Minas Gerais

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was the first WINGS tour to Minas Gerais, and what a trip! After being welcomed to Brazil by a large group of Toco Toucans, we were happy to find a pair of the critically endangered Brazilian Merganser in the crystalline waters of the São Francisco River. 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, the beautiful Helmeted Manakin or the common but so elegant Fork-tailed Flycatcher. It’s also where we had an incredible encounter with no less than three Giant Anteaters; a male plus  a female carrying a young baby. We also enjoyed a few days at the peaceful Caraça Monastery, where we discovered fantastic species such as the colourful Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted Tanagers, the elusive Rufous Gnateater, the very local Serra Antwren, the adorable Hyacinth Visorbearer and the simply superb Swallow-tailed Cotinga, just to name a few! We also had a memorable meeting with Maned Wolves each evening as they came to the steps of the monastery to get their plate of chicken bones just a few meters from the happy visitors. And even if our visit to the Espinhaço Mountains near Serra do Cipó was a bit spoiled by some heavy rains, we enjoyed a beautiful walk in that pristine scenery and unique vegetation, and found a pair of Spot-tailed Nightjar, a species that will be voted as one of the five best birds of the trip, together with the Brazilian Merganser, Swallow-tailed Cotinga, Red-breasted Toucan and Hyacinth Visorbearer!

IN DETAIL: After an early flight to Belo Horizonte, we met Paulo our driver and quickly began our long journey towards São Roque da Canastra. After only 30 minutes’ drive, we did a stop by Pampulha lake, where we immediately found a group of 13 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. A Swallow-tailed Hummingbird also gave us a great show, and we also found some other common species such as Sayaca Tanager, Masked Water Tyrant, Cattle Tyrant, Chalk-browed Mockingbird and Bare-faced Ibis. What a nice introduction to Brazil!

We spent most of the day on the road, traveling through agricultural landscapes, fields mined by hundreds of termite nests, patches of secondary forest, or intensive sun-grown coffee plantation. Just before arriving to São Roque, we stopped to a small wetland to stretch our legs and bird a bit. Very quickly we found a nice list of new birds, including 100+ of the beautiful Chestnut-capped Blackbird (bird of the day for many of us; not usual for a blackbird!), a lovely pair of Campo Flicker, magnificent views of three stunning Toco Toucan, a nice Yellow-browed Tyrant, a flock of Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, the minute Common Tody-Flycatcher, and a cute Grassland Sparrow.

We had three full days to explore the São Roque surroundings and the adjacent Canastra National Park.  Protecting almost 490,000 acres (200,000 ha), Canastra N.P. preserves the headwaters of the São Francisco River, which flows eastward from the park, and in the south feeds the Rio Grande which is a tributary of the Parana River. For our first day here, we explored the lowest part of the reserve, following the São Francisco River and searching for the endangered Brazilian Merganser. Doing regular stops and scanning the river, we (actually quickly) found a pair with two young chicks of this terribly endangered species. Even if the population slightly increased in the area during the recent years, the world population is still estimated below 300 individuals. The Canastra National Park is the best area to look for that bird, and conscious of this, we enjoyed prolonged views of the pair. During our drive towards Casca d’Anta (a waterfall of the São Francisco River), we did several stops finding lots of fantastic birds such as Red-legged Seriema, Gray-cowled Wood-rail, Black-throated Saltator, Crested Black-tyrant, Gilt-edged Tanager, Buff-necked Ibis, and Campo Flicker.  After a deserved mid-day break, we explored a small wetland near São Roque, finding an incredible variety of birds. A group of Streamer-tailed Tyrant displayed atop of a nearby bush, while hundreds of Chestnut-capped Blackbird where perched in the reeds together with a few Yellow-rumped Marshbirds. We also had great views of a pair of White-bellied Seedeater and a few Plumbeous Seedeaters, as well as on Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Streamer-tailed Tyrant, Black-capped Donacobius and a cute Masked Yellowthroat. But the most remarkable find at this wetland was hearing an Ash-throated Crake which them came to the tape and crossed the road, offering a great view to everyone in the group. In the nearby fields, we also enjoyed an excellent view of a pair of Red-legged Seriema (one of them singing from the top of a huge termite nest!), and had a scope view of a nice Laughing Falcon; probably the same bird seen a bit latter carrying a false corral snake.

We spent our second 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 day driving through a beautiful landscape, finding a long list of fantastic new birds at every stop. In the cerrado, we first found a beautiful pair of Collared Crescenchest, followed by a super cute Gray-backed Tachuri, a pair of Black-throated Saltator, a few Lesser Elaenia, and two pairs of the superb White-eared Puffbird. What a start! During a stop in gallery forest, we had a prolonged view of a singing male of Rufous-winged Antshrike, and also a pair of responsive Spix’s Spinetail, a Little Woodpecker and a Masked Yellowthroat, but only glimpsed (but heard well!) a Brasilia Tapaculo. In the grassland, we found lots of specialties too. We all admired the display of the Cock-tailed Tyrant, found a total of 12 Greater Rheas, and enjoyed splendid views of the stunning Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrant competing with the Fork-tailed Flycatcher for the title of ‘most elegant bird’. The song of the common but secretive Red-winged Tinamou accompanied us the whole day, but luckily we flushed one at the end of the day on our way back to São Roque. Other great birds today included White-rumped Tanager, a pair of Firewood Gatherers on their nest, a young male of Blue Finch, substantial numbers of both Gray and White-rumped Monjita, a few Crested Black-Tyrants, and even a Chapada Flycatcher. Scanning the flocks of numerous White-collared Swift, we had good looks at Great Dusky Swift as well as Sooty Swift. And for the heard-only species, let’s mention the Dwarf Tinamou heard at the end of the afternoon. Now a trip to Canastra N.P. would not be complete without a sighting of Giant Anteater, and we had incredible views of this spectacular animal! We were able to enjoy a very close encounter with a great male and a female carrying a young baby on her back. Memorable views! It was now time to drive back to our hotel in São Roque for a great dinner and a good night’s sleep.

For our third morning in this area we birded a nice patch of forest, looking for a few other species. We were very successful, without walking much, of finding Planalto Tyrannulet, a pair of Sooty-fronted Spinetail, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, two cooperative pairs of White-shouldered Fire-eye, a Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, great views of both male and female Helmeted Manakin, a Cinnamon Tanager, and two White Woodpeckers. But the icing on the cake was, without any doubt, a great view of a Red-breasted Toucan singing atop a tree. After our mid-day break, we walked along a lovely river bordered by gallery forest near São Roque. In a nearby field, a hundred of Black Vultures were feasting on a dead cow, joined by two King Vultures and a few Southern Caracaras. Along the river, we found a group of no less than 18 Golden-capped Parakeets including a few young still being fed by the adults. We also had nice views of two Rufous-tailed Jacamar, a pair of Rufous-headed Tanagers, Swainson’s Flycatcher, a lovely Yellow Tyrannulet, and a Rufous-fronted Thornbird. An Ocellated Crake was also calling from a grassy hill and a colourful Toco Toucan perched close to us with a baby bird in his bill, swallowing it entirely, showing how serious of nest predators toucans can be.

It was now time to leave São Roque and Canastra N.P. for our next destination, the beautiful Caraça Monastery. Unfortunately, these two locations are separated by more than two hundred miles, and considering the Brazilian roads and traffic, it took us the whole day to get there. Nevertheless, we found some time for birding on the way, adding a selection of interesting species. Just after leaving São Roque we stopped at a nice wetland we’d previously visited on the way in to the area. After having great views of several known species such Guira Cuckoo, Chestnut-capped Blackbird or Masked Water-Tyrant, we also discovered a pair of the superb Great Antshrike. After playing their call, a pair of Blackish Rail came in the open, while a Rufous-sided Crake was more secretive and appeared only briefly at the edge of the vegetation. During our various “stretching legs” stops, we also found a pair of Yellow-browed Tyrant building a nest, a few Burnished-buff Tanagers and Cattle Tyrant. But our most productive stop was our lunch stop. While having a succulent meal on an open terrace, we had magnificent views of a large group of Biscutate Swifts, and also found  Variegated Flycatcher, a White-throated Kingbird, and a small group of introduced Common Waxbill. Arriving at the end of the afternoon at Caraça, we 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. All were charmed by this peaceful location, where we birded the monastery garden to familiarize ourselves to what will be our home for the next two days. Obviously, the Dusky-legged Guans own the place and are everywhere! In the flowering bushes we found no less than seven species of hummingbirds in just half an hour, including Glittering-bellied and Sapphire-spangled Emeralds, White-throated Hummingbird, a Brazilian Ruby and Planalto Hermit. We also had a nice flock containing a few Gilt-edged Tanagers and a pair of Pallid Spinetail, while a few White-barred Piculet and a pair of Long-tailed Tyrant were perched in the same tree. After our excellent dinner, we also enjoyed a unique experience: seeing a wild Maned Wold at only two meters away.  The priests have fed wild Maned Wolves for 35 years now, and it has become a real tourist attraction. Every night a few Maned Wolves come to feed on a plate of chicken bones and consider the many tourists as part of the landscape, allowing them to have a memorable encounter with these impressive and beautiful creatures. During our stay 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 Dusky-tailed Antbird, Black-capped Antwren, White-backed Fire-eye, and even the elusive Tufted 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, and also waited patiently to get a view of Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. 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 Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher and Drab-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant. In the semi-open cerrado habitat we were delighted by fantastic views of a few males of Hyacinth Visorbearer (200th Jane’s hummingbird species! Congratulations), a nice male Serra Antwren, and a pair of Pale-throated Pampa-Finch.

The monastery garden continued to be very birdy too. That’s where we did all our pre-breakfast birding and found fantastic bird such as Orange-eyed Thornbird, Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Magpie and Golden-chevroned Tanager, Cliff Flycatcher, Velvety Black-Tyrant and even a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Finally, we also had cracking views of a beautiful pair of Swallow-tailed Cotinga, easy winner of the “5 best birds of the trip” contest!

It was now time to visit our last destination of the trip: Serra do Cipó in the Espinhaço Mountains. This isolated range is home of the very local Cipo Canastero, but after a couple of hours walking through wonderful scenery and discovering amazing and unique vegetation, we failed to make contact with this endemic bird. We did find a Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finch and enjoyed a last view on the superb Hyacinth Visorbearer, so birds were still to be had.

After a week of beautiful weather, some heavy rain unfortunately arrived to spoil our last morning, limiting our birding to short sallies between heavy showers. Surprisingly, it’s between these showers that we made a great find, a pair of Spot-tailed Nightjar, seen well perched on a dead trunk! The trip finished at the Belo Horizonte airport after a last wonderful Brazilian meal.

-Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 14 November 2017