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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Minas Gerais

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: It’s hard to imagine a more packed long week of birding including such a variety of habitats. Going from a shrubby cerrado and seasonally dry woodland at Cipó, to wet Atlantic Rainforest at Caraça, then to a curious mix of woodland, gallery forest, and savannah-like grassland at Canastra, we tallied 263 species of birds, only seven of which were heard. This was all in just eight days plus a couple hours, and even in those last couple hours we kept seeing new species. The grand hallelujah of the tour were the Brazilian Mergansers which at first were inexplicably elusive during a long day of searching, during which we still happened to see over 100 other species. But we eventually caught up with them, and we had excellent views of this super rare duck. Burrowing Owls, close to the road and very common at Canastra, made it close to the top of the favorites, as did a male Horned Sungem that perched at close range, showing some incredible colors in those horns.  Other species mentioned as being particularly memorable included a female Frilled Coquette building a nest right over the road at Caraça, an unbelievably cooperative Collared Crescentchest (after I had warned everyone to be ready for an impossible-to-see skulker), two King Vultures sitting in a tree, and a pair of Black-capped Donacobius duetting and doing their moves, proving what a taxonomic oddity they really are. And of course mammals featured prominently. Maned Wolf appeared early and at great length on our first evening at Cipó, and Crab-eating Fox came the second evening. Giant Anteater was something everyone really wanted to see, and finally in the late afternoon a very distant animal was spotted by our driver Marcelo. We spent a long time on the roadside watching it through the spotting scope as it thoroughly searched the distant slopes, wandering back and forth. We were perfectly happy though, so it was quite a surprise on our last full day to be walking a woodland trail and have one nearly at arm’s length right next to the trail. We had a fun group that worked well together so everyone got on every bird as best as possible, and our always friendly driver Paulo contributed with his own spotting skills and interest and knowledge of local birding spots.

IN DETAIL: Our first full day at Cipó had some really great birds. We had to make a stop when a flock of White-collared Swifts were swirling around next to the road where we could look down on them over a valley, some zipping by right over our heads. We also had to make a quick stop for our first Red-legged Seriema strolling through the grass, though we would eventually see several much better. When we finally got to the distinctive-looking rocky habitat called campo rupestre, we immediately had a pair of singing Cinereous Warbling-Finches, never a guaranteed endemic. At Lapinha da Serra we found the requested Peach-fronted Parakeets perching politely, then had a busy mixed flock that had gorgeous Burnished-buff Tanagers, Cinnamon Tanagers, and three kinds of thrush – Pale-breasted, Rufous-bellied, and Creamy-bellied. We had our first acquaintance with the delightful and common Masked Water-Tyrants, and while looking for an uncooperative Chestnut-capped Foliage-gleaner that eluded most the group, a Yellow-browed Tyrant showed well. A nice surprise here was a Dark-billed Cuckoo, possibly a late migrant, and as we were departing the area we were treated to excellent views of a gorgeous male Helmeted Manakin. While we were foiled by the elusive canastero in the afternoon near our hotel, we managed to catch up with the habitat-specific Gray-backed Tachuri and Black-throated Saltator, as well as a very curious female Hyacinth Visorbearer and White-vented Violet-ear. Though it wasn’t to portend a tour of many owling successes, our first attempt this evening did net us a very handsome Tropical Screech-Owl right on our hotel grounds.                    

An early morning start to the plateau of Serra do Cipó resulted in a superb showing of a male Blue Finch despite the odds – it was windy, and nothing was singing. We escaped the persistent wind and had a fabulous morning on the Serra Morena road, where White-eared Puffbird and Plumbeous Seedeater were early new additions. Towards the end of our mile-long walk we found a bunch of new birds – White-barred Piculet, Planalto Hermit, Horned Sungem, Sooty-fronted Spinetail, and all three Myiarchus flycatchers (Swainson’s, Short-crested, and Brown-crested). Once we arrived at Caraça, we made what was to be a short stop for photos of the monastery from a viewpoint when the song of a Large-tailed Antshrike distracted us, and some time later we were rewarded with great views of this skulking hulk. This very evening we took our seats at the entrance to the church after dinner and were treated to a most amazing Maned Wolf.

If anyone lost sleep at having missed the Dusky-legged Guans in the late afternoon the day we arrived at Caraça, they were assured restful nights the next morning, as an estimated 18 were tamely feeding on the monastery’s handouts. Same with the delightful Cliff Flycatchers, treating the walls of the buildings as if they were a cliff. Velvety Black-Tyrant was yet another species practically in our rooms, nesting on the wall on our way to the dining halls. We didn’t have to wander far during our two days here to see more great birds. A pair of Robust Woodpeckers were often visible from the garden; our best views of White-shouldered Fire-eye was right by the parking lot; and Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail and Orange-eyed Thornbird were a only short walk from our rooms. The small reservoir nearby was also a great spot for birds, producing something new with every visit. Swallow-tailed Cotinga was our main target as we scanned the tree tops, and on one visit suddenly one was on an open perch, but just as the first participants got on the bird, and just as the scope was being firmly aimed and focused, it flew. Further attempts to find it or another brought instead views of a super cooperative Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner along side tanager flocks that included Golden-chevroned, Rufous-headed, Brassy-breasted, and Gilt-edged. From the reservoir a short trail led us to fabulous views of White-bibbed Antbird and a Common Potoo presumably on a nest, as it was fixed to the same perch where we had seen its eyeshine the night before.

We did venture a bit farther abroad, mostly on foot. A stroll down the road resulted in our best views of a Lesser Woodcreeper investigating a split low in a tree trunk that may have been a nest. But more obviously building a nest right overhead was a female Frilled Coquette, which we watched gathering spider web and lichens, repeatedly returning to add them to her thimble-sized structure. Not much farther down the road we had a nice sighting of the common but often elusive Swallow-tailed Manakin, and a Pin-tailed Manakin was in the same spot. Gray-capped Tyrannulet, a Brazilian endemic not often seen here, was discovered by its distinctive call note, and we got good views to see how it differed from the much more common Planalto Tyrannulet.

One morning’s hike took us to some stunted habitat where a male Hyacinth Visorbearer sang from several close perches, and the target Pale-throated Pampa-Finch performed nicely. From here we heard call notes of a rare Bicolored Hawk, but it never did show. Other good birds from this trail and nearby trails included Dusky-tailed Antbird, Hangnest Tody-Tyrant, Serra Antwren, Tufted Antshrike, and Surucua Trogon. A big surprise was a singing male Blackish-blue Seedeater in a patch of bamboo, probably a wandering individual.

A trail in another direction led us to a known territory of Rock Tapaculo, which everyone finally got to see as it moused around in the thickets, often choosing an invisible spot from which to sing. We were lucky to find a Sibilant Sirystes at the same spot where the trees were rather short; trying to see one in tall forest from the understory can be futile. The whole length of the trail was good for several other species, and here we had our best looks at White-browed Warbler (though it was much nicer to hear), while Drab-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant and Yellow-eared Woodpecker showed well while we failed to see the sneaky gnateater.

On our second night, a Maned Wolf showed well again, and those willing to wait out a bit longer were treated to a much more timid Crab-eating Fox. Strangely, on the third night, no animals showed before we all went to bed. Butterflies weren’t terribly abundant at Caraça, but we enjoyed some stunning Common Morphos and eventually were able to put a name to a small checkerspot-like metalmark that is apparently a very local endemic, named after this very location, the Caraça Metalmark.

A final bit of early morning birding at Caraça failed to produce the Swallow-tailed Cotinga, but we still added some good species – Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner was at the little reservoir, Gray-hooded Flycatcher appeared in a mobbing flock of birds, and one of the Blackish Rails inexplicably decided to wander about out in the open.  We broke up the long drive westward at Lagoa Pampulha in the city of Belo Horizonte where Southern Pochard was a successful target, but a Limpkin and several Bare-faced Ibis were also good additions. One last birding stop at a marsh not long before we arrived at our next hotel was productive. We first flushed a pair of Brazilian Teal, the best view we would have of this species. Yellow-chinned Spinetail and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds populated the marsh, while a utterly fearless White-barred Piculet and nearly as bold Barred Antshrike were in the nearby shrubbery. As we left Rufous-tailed Jacamar appeared in a dead tree out in the marsh, rather atypical habitat for this forest species.

We had three full days based out of São Roque de Minas, with many great birds that made two days of no merganser quite tolerable. We eventually caught up with a pair super rare Brazilian Merganser in the mid-morning of our third day, checking a spot that had been free of ducks on the first day. Other birds that appeared at the many stops in the São Francisco valley included Purple-throated Euphonia, Black-tailed Tityra, Chivi Vireo, Hooded Tanager, Plush-crested Jay, Pileated Finch, and Planalto Hermit. Dropping down to the river in many spots meant that we tallied quite a few Sooty Tyrannulets, and waiting vigil for the ducks eventually produced excellent views of Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. A marsh stop resulted in three excited Streamer-tailed Tyrants high overhead. On the way to the view the Casca Danta waterfall a White-throated Spadebill showed itself well to all, and the perched Great Dusky Swifts were very visible thanks to rather normal water levels. On our return trip to look for the sawbills, White-tailed Kite and Plumbeous Kite were good additions. We saw a few nice butterflies in the valley as well, such as at the streamcreeper spot, where we watched a lovely swallowtail that turned out to be the critically endangered Burchell’s Cattleheart.

Bird highlights were numerous in our day on top of the mountain, starting with Rufous-winged Antshrike, Hellmayr’s Pipit, and a cooperative Brasilia Tapaculo on the way up. In the wide open grasslands a few pair of Ochre-breasted Pipit were skylarking overhead, a pair of Greater Rheas were walking around in the distance, and Sedge Wren (Pampas) was singing mostly hidden. We stopped at a known spot for Firewood-gatherer, whose nest was more impressive than the bird, and we managed to find a few seedeaters here, including Pearly-bellied Seedeater (only a female sat long enough for good views). Tawny-headed Swallow, White-tailed Hawk, and Burrowing Owl were easily spotted as we drove along, but we had to make special efforts to find Sharp-tailed Tyrant, White-rumped Tanager, Great Pampa-Finch, and Black-masked Finch, which all eventually appeared. A highlight of the day was an amazingly cooperative Collared Crescentchest at our lunch stop, as was a Spotted Nothura that crossed the road and was eventually seen by all when it finally flushed from the grass; a Red-winged Tinamou seen by the first vehicle wasn’t so cooperative. Sooty Swifts were a good addition at our final stop of the day. Pampas Deer and Tapeti (Brazilian Cottontail) were nice mammal sightings, but it was hard to beat the Giant Anteater, despite its being nearly a mile away.

We got in some good birding closer town, including Orange-headed Tanager and Buff-necked Ibis right in the hotel gardens. Down one side road we had a Savanna Hawk, two White Woodpeckers, a perched Curl-crested Jay, and our only Yellow-faced Parrot, which flew over very nicely. A private reserve at the base of the mountain added a few birds, such as Squirrel Cuckoo and Plain Antvireo, but a Giant Anteater in the forest understory just off the side of the trail was a huge surprise. We also saw a South American Coati here, and Forest Cracker butterflies were surprisingly common along the trail. We had time to bird a nearby marsh, where White-headed Marsh Tyrant was a nice addition, as was a pair of singing and swaying Black-capped Donacobius, a bird we had been trying to locate. Our night birding wasn’t so productive, with merely a very elusive Common Pauraque, but the more interesting find was a tiny Gray Slender Opossum high in a tree.

We had one last bit of excellent morning birding on foot from the hotel; had it been our first morning we would have been overwhelmed with the  74species in just two hours. New additions were Stripe-breasted Starthroat, Laughing Falcon, White-crested Tyrannulet, and the locally uncommon Masked Gnatcatcher, but we had excellent views of so many species, it was a great way to end the tour.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 19 December 2019