With a break from school in March, Ross immediately decided he wanted to spend this uniquely long amount of time off (~4 weeks) visiting a mega diverse country full of extremely threatened birds. A place where almost every birding report paints a sad picture and usually reads something like “…go now because pretty soon there will be no forest left to see.”
Our destination? Brazil. The largest country in South America, and also the fifth largest in the world both in terms of land area and population. With so much space, there are certainly many birds that call this country home; but with so many people, there are a lot of mouths to feed. To put it bluntly, the pressures to grow crops have meant the destruction of the native forest and certain areas of the country have seen it worse than most. With flat lands making it easy for crops to grow, humans have moved in and essentially destroyed most of the land. Forests have been torn down to build towns and cities or turned into fields for cattle to graze or land to grow soybeans or cane sugar.
On this particular visit to Brazil, we were planning to visit the Northeast region, an area particularly threatened, but also very unique. The “Northeast” region of Brazil is pretty large and actually encompasses three main ecosystems in the form of Caatinga, Cerrado, and Atlantic Forest. If you just thought “great, not sure what any of those are”, I’ll tell you. Caatinga is an arid area full of smaller scrubby trees and several species of cacti, while the Cerrado is a savannah-type habitat with brush and grass dominating the landscape. Finally the Atlantic Forest is classified as a rain forest, and hopefully it goes without saying that this is an area characterized by tropical jungle scenes meaning high species diversity and endemism. The Atlantic Forest is especially interesting because it is a tropical forest isolated from the Amazon along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This area is known as a biodiversity hotspot because many trees, plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and fish can be found only within this ecosystem. Looking at a Google Earth screenshot, you can see how little forest actually remains, 12% of the original forest is all that is left to be exact (per The Nature Conservancy) with some sites saying as little as 8% remains (Arkive).
Obviously we were visiting Northeast Brazil to tick the birds before some of them are gone forever. The exact locations we visited are shown on this map:
I’m going to be posting a series of events from our trip to Brazil, and for simplicity sake, I think that it will be easiest to follow along if I type this up in “journal” form and go day by day. So hope this helps! Enjoy!
March 2nd – Leave from Charlottesville, drive to Washington D.C and hop on a plane headed for Bogata, Colombia. We spent most of the day travelling without any hiccups which is always nice. From Bogata we took a plane to Brazil and after 24 hours of travel, we finally reached our destination of the Northeast Brazilian city of Recife.
March 3rd – Our plan was simple: arrive in Brazil, pick up our rental car and get on to driving! We arrived ahead of schedule and hoped to have enough time to find at least one bird before dark. Unfortunately we had a few issues sorting out our rental car once we arrived, but with only a minor delay, it was a race against time to find a Forbe’s Blackbird, a Brazillian endemic, before dark. With a known location for this rare endemic about an hour south of Recife, we raced south to try and reach the location before it was too late. We arrived at the small marsh just before dusk and quickly had a responsive pair. Easy! After we had sufficient looks, we got back on the road because Ross had a long drive ahead of him, an all-night drive to be exact.
March 4th – We arrived in Crato, the town outside of our target birding location around 3AM. It was a long night of driving for Ross but it would be pointless to get a hotel now knowing we would be leaving at 5AM, so Ross just pulled into a gas station to sleep for a bit before starting on a full day of birding. I however had been asleep during the 8+ hour drive through the night to get there. In Crato we had plans to get all kinds of birds while birding the scrubby tree, cactus-type habitat known as Caatinga. We started the day walking along a trail and picked up birds such as Great Xenops, White-browed Antpitta, Ochre-cheeked Spinetail, Caatinga Antwren, Stripe-backed Antbird, and Black-bellied Antbird, along with a pile of other common birds found in this habitat. We spent the morning in the Caatinga and around mid-afternoon, went to see one of Brazil’s most charismatic and recently discovered species, the Araripe Manakin. Oddly, this bird is found in a local “water park” and was only discovered in 1996! Although this was one of our main targets of the whole trip, we didn’t even try for this bird until midday because the waterpark is such a reliable place to get it. The afternoon was exceptionally successful and we had great views of several Araripe Manakins! Along with that, we had a slew of interesting birds including Straight-billed, Planalto, and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Golden-green Woodpecker, and Planalto Hermit while walking up and down the nicely maintained trail designed for waterpark guests to visit, but I suspect that foreign birders enjoy walking along that trail much more than anyone else. We walked the nice trail until what seemed to be the end as it turned to dirt, but figured we would continue on. We stopped at one point to scan, but unfortunately for Ross, he was too busy looking at the sky to notice that he had put his right leg in a swarm of fire ants. We continued walking but it wasn’t long before the “ants in my pants dance” began. We managed to get all of the ants off of Ross but not before they did some damage to his right leg. Despite the swelling, we continued on and planned to keep a close eye on that poor leg. That evening we went back into Caatinga habitat near where we were in the morning to finish out the day and continue on our search for White-browed Guan, a Brazilian endemic that we had missed that morning. We walked along an old flight line path that eBird showed the bird could be found, but didn’t hear nor see a single guan.
March 5th – With several target birds to find in the Caatinga, we spent another morning in Crato walking up and down the same trail as yesterday looking for more of the habitat’s specialties. It was a productive morning and when it started to get warm we made our way to the town of Quixada, stopping to bird along the way. The Caatinga habitat full of small shrubs, prickly trees and several species of cacti continued on for miles along our drive so we stopped in several nice looking sections and picked up several more Brazilian endemics such as Caatinga Cachalote, Campo Troupial, Red-cowled Cardinal, Pale Baywing, Scarlet-throated Tanager, White-throated seedeater and had great looks at White Monjita sitting on a line. At one point during this drive Ross and I saw something small crossing the road, but it was moving in a way that we didn’t recognize a lizard, bird or mammal move. As we got closer we saw that the mysterious creature was actually a Tarantula crossing the road! Neat right?!
We finally made it to the town of Quixada, passing some of the most amazing rock formations we have ever seen! Unfortunately we never got a decent picture to share of these spectacular mountains! Our destination in this town was a very nice hotel built right on a cliff next to a slab of rock where Pygmy Nightjars roost during the day. As we arrived to Hotel Pedra dos Ventos, the nice girls working showed us where the birds usually sit. We quickly had great looks at 3 roosting Pygmy Nightjars, including one sitting on an egg! The birds themselves are camouflaged perfectly so that you wouldn’t even know they were there. The small egg looked exactly like a pebble, making it equally as camouflaged as its disguised parent. These adorable night birds were awesome to see so well in the daytime, but with dusk approaching quickly we wanted to move around the hotel grounds to search once again for White-browed Guans which we had missed the day before. But with Ross’s ant-bitten leg swelling to double the size, we contemplated going to the hospital instead. Although it looked awful, it did look like a normal immune response so instead of spending the night in an ER, we kept a close eye on it and instead spent the evening staked out next to a lake on the hotel’s property that White-browed Guan are known to drink from. Once again, we failed to see a single guan. The abundance of water in the area meant that the birds that usually come to one or two watering holes, had more than enough water to drink from and weren’t coming to the usual locations. In fact, as we sat at the lake it began to rain so we decided to cut our loss and head back to the hotel to eat dinner. Turns out two birders from the UK were touring with Ciro Albano, the top birding guide in Brazil and we joined them on the terrace for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, eating food, talking with others, and watching the nightjars wake up from their sleep and begin catching insects in the night. As we sat outside on the covered patio, the light rain turned into a torrential downpour and Ciro informed us that this area of Brazil had been in an extreme drought and they hadn’t seen rain in this region for FIVE YEARS! We spent that night at the hotel for simplicity’s sake and Ross finally had a good night of sleep.
March 6th – We left Quixada at 3AM and made our way north to Serra de Baturite, an area well known to birders for many interesting species. Our only birding stop in this area was the Hotel de Remanso. The grounds of this hotel include a series of well-maintained trails and we proceeded to walk them for the morning. The rain from last night continued and the birding was fairly slow. In between rain sessions, wind, and fog, we picked up a few of our targets and had great views of Grey-breasted Parakeet (a very localized endemic), Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, Ceara Gnateater, Ceara Leaftosser, Northern Lesser Woodcreeper, Buff-breasted Tody-Tyrant, and Gould’s Toucanet . We had originally started the trail on the road outside of the gated hotel, but after walking the 3 mile loop, ended up on the hotel property. It was still raining and we didn’t see anyone around so we let ourselves out of the gate and still managed to call the day a success. We opted to get on the road and begin driving to our next destination.
More to come soon, stay tuned!