A Sunrise to Remember – Back to Brazil

With only enough time for a short break from work (9 days to be exact), we decided to skip the Fourth of July festivities back home and head to Minas Gerais for a quick, but action packed week of chasing down some of Brazil’s rarest birds. One bird in particular may have brought us here, but we were excited to chase down some other endemics in the heart of Brazil’s cerrado biome.

Minas Gerais is a state located in Southeastern Brazil in the same way that Pennsylvania is a state in Northeastern America.

After leaving Washington D.C. around 10:00 a.m. it was a long day of travel before we landed at the Rio de Janerio airport just after midnight. We made our way to the Localiza car rental desk and after having to wait over an hour (!) we were finally on the road just after one o’clock in the morning! Although it had already been a long day, we still had a three hour drive to get to our first birding location!

As we headed up the steep road from Nova Friburgo towards Pico da Caledonia,  we started to climb in elevation which was important, as our main target, Grey-winged Cotinga is only reliably found above 1600m. We originally planned to drive to the top of the mountain along a very steep radio tower road, but as we reach the end of the road, a large wash out prevented us from going any higher. This was ok, as we were already pretty high up. Ross took a quick nap, but after an hour it was starting to get light and therefore time to start birding! We had driven our car as far as we could go, parked, and started on the steep trek up the old cell tower road. Eventually we had climbed high enough to watch the sunrise above the clouds and while we were enjoying this amazing sight, we could hear our target cotinga calling off in the distance. Instead of attempting to describe the scenery involved in an early morning climb up a mountain, I’ll let these photos speak for themselves:

We made our way higher up the road and finally found a cotinga calling fairly close to the road. Unfortunately, the viewing was less than ideal and after waiting around a while we figured it’d be best to go find a different one that we might actually be able to see. Luckily it didn’t take long until we had another Grey-winged Cotinga calling from the hillside and this time we were in a nice open area with good views of the surrounding forest. It took quite a bit of scanning, but finally Ross picked the bird up in flight as it flew in close and landed. Unfortunately it didn’t stay long and before I could get on it, the bird took off, flew past us and down the hillside. Less than ideal looks, but we were happy to at least have the pressure off. We birded the steep road back down wondering if walking down a steep road is actually harder than walking up. (If you’re interested in my opinion, I actually don’t mind a steep climb up and while living in Hawaii would always say I’d much prefer to hike up Koko Head twice than have to walk down.) Anyway this road was steep but I’ve certainly hiked up (and down) much steeper so we simply birded down the hillside, trying again for the Rufous-tailed Antthrush that we heard along the road on the way up. We bumped into several other targets in the form of White-throated Hummingbird, Green-crowned Plovercrest, Rufous-backed Antvireo, Rufous-tailed Antwren, Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Serra do Mar Tyrant-Manakin, Bay-chested Warbling Finch, and also a Black-and-Gold Cotinga that flew in and landed above our heads.

It was an enjoyable morning full of birds, hiking and amazing views. I don’t think you can ask for much more. Except for maybe a pizza delivered to you at the top when you’re hungry. At least lunch didn’t disappoint and we found ourselves quickly settling in to the comforts of a Brazilian staple, the Churrascuria. With all you can eat buffets of food and fresh rotisseries of meat it’s no wonder these are a favorite for Ross! The World Cup was on TV and we wished we could stay and watch, but then again, the birds weren’t going to watch themselves so off we went to the site for Restinga Antwren, a patch of coastal shrubland in eastern Rio de Janeiro state.

Restinga Antwrens live in a specialized habitat known as restinga, (surprise surprise) comprised of low shrub found in between the ocean and the inland habitats. Restinga is a somewhat sandy kind of habitat found just off of the beach so the birds that call this area home are most threatened due to habitat loss. It was midday day and hot when we arrived, but this range restricted, endangered endemic is locally common and pretty easy to find. It only took a few minutes (seconds really) until Ross had called in a pair just next to the car. After enjoying the antwrens for a while (although they did a good job of hiding from the camera!), we headed back north to try and find a cheap hotel near our next destination, Regua.

Once again we were up before dawn and quickly found ourselves at the entrance gate to Regua, one of the premier bird watching spots in the Atlantic Rainforest. We were excited about our visit to this reserve and although it is quite pricey to stay here, the entrance fee for a day visit is a lot more affordable ($15 US per person). Luckily Ross was able to coordinate a day visit through the owner Nicholas and as dawn broke, we set off down the trail towards the observation tower with one main target in mind, Shrike-like Cotinga. Along our walk in we encountered a number of fun lowland atlantic rainforest species including Blond-crested Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Gnateater, and Black-googled Tanager. Although we didn’t have any specific information on stakeouts for the continga, we knew the area around the observation tower had been productive in the past so decided to focus our attention there. It was a very birdy morning and it didn’t take too long until Ross heard a Shrike-like Cotinga calling further up the trail. We quickly made our way in the direction of the calling bird and soon had great views of a male perched above our heads! With our main target accounted for, we spent the rest of the morning enjoying the preserve picking up some other goodies including White-mantled Hawk, Unicolored Antwren, Southern Antpipit, and of course some Capabara!

Unfortunately, with a very packed schedule ahead of us, we had to leave Regua around 11:00AM and start the long drive north to Belo Horizonte. Luckily, we had one more target to get along the way, and a quick stop south of Carmo quickly produced the range restricted Three-toed Jacamar. From here it was another 8 hours north to our next birding stop along the Cipo Plateau. It wouldn’t be trip to Brazil without a lot of driving! Stay tuned!