Some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever witnessed has been within the borders of the country of Brazil. I’m just going to say it –the country is amazing. The landscape of Brazil is as diverse and exquisite as it is large. And being the 5th largest country by area in the world, that is saying a lot! After leaving the lush Atlantic rain forest we traveled to the Cipo Plateau just north of Belo Horizonte, a much drier habitat but still beautiful in its own right. (In this post we were visiting spots 5, 6 & 7 on the map below!)
Low scrubby, flowering flora is amazing to walk through and if you look close at the small flowers or unique leaves (which I highly recommend doing) I think you’d like it too. How could you not? In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a habitat I enjoy admiring more. We spent our first morning wandering up a mountain side where the views peering down into the valley and gazing up the steep trail were equally spectacular. We arrived just before dawn in the small village of Lapinha de Serra and located the start of the trail which leads up into the mountains. Although the first gate we arrived at was locked, we quickly found another gate that was open and in the process found our first target of the morning, Cipo Cinclodes! (And good thing we did because it ended up being the only one we saw for the trip!) The impetus for this morning’s hike was Rock Tapaculo, a highly range restricted and recently split endemic. Like many Scytalopus it’s small, dark, and downright adorable. The hike up the mountain was fairly lackluster due to high winds, but the views were amazing and when we reached the area that our friend Caio Brito, of Brazilian Birding Experts, had recommended, we quickly heard our target bird calling in a steep vegetated ravine. We crawled down into the ravine and soon had a Rock Tapaculo running around inches away from our feet doing what tapaculos do best –being adorable. Although we also heard a number of Cipo Canasteros in the area, the high wind made it nearly impossible to find them, so instead we retreated back to the car and started the drive back down to the main area of the plateau.
On our way back to town we were lucky to have a group of Cinereous Warbling Finches frolicking in the scrub near the road, arguably one of the more difficult birds to find so we were happy to have that out of the way. Eventually we made it back to the town of Serra do Cipo and onto the main plateau that is known to produce our target canastero. Actually, this site is the place most people visit when they bird the area. It took us awhile to find a “trail” to walk and at first we spent some time bush-wacking in the heat of the day. Feeling woozy, I opted to rest in the car when we did find a trail so Ross went off alone, but not before we both had excellent views of the apparently common Hyacinth Visorbearer coming to feed on the flowers nearby. It was the heat of the day, but getting a decent look at Cipo Canestero proved to be exceptionally tricky, even for Ross and he had to concede with distant views. The afternoon wasn’t a total waste though, as Ross managed great views of more Hyacinth Visorbearer, Blue Finch, Grey-backed Tachuri, and Black-throated Grosbeaks.
We ended the day trying for arguably one of the most difficult birds to get a sighting of in all of Brazil, Marsh Tapaculo. It’s not hard to see why a skulky and secretive bird the size of a ping pong ball that lives in thick grassy reeds is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Regardless, we were prepared to give it a shot and surprisingly had a response from a Marsh Tapaculo right away. This was the only motivation we needed to crawl into the reeds ourselves and set up in a slight opening hoping to get the bird to come into a place where we might actually see it. In the hour or so that we spent crouching down in the marsh, we heard at least four individuals but never did catch a glimpse of one. You could say that the attempt went exactly as planned. Neither of us really expected to see this proverbial needle in a haystack but you should always try regardless. I felt bad for Ross because dusk came and went almost immediately into his 7 hour drive to our next location. BUT in order to cram as much as one can into a week of birding Brazil, long night drives are essential. A short two hour nap at a truck rest stop was the only sleep Ross got that night, but eventually we arrived in Botumirim to try for the one bird that prompted this whole trip to begin with.
And when I say “bird that prompted this whole trip” I really do mean “bird that prompted this whole trip.” In fact, we wouldn’t have come to Brazil if it wasn’t for the Blue-eyed Ground-dove.
The appropriately named Blue-eyed Ground-dove with striking sapphire blue eyes is found exclusively in Brazil and was thought to be extinct. Let me say that again. EXTINCT. As in gone from the planet never to be seen again. Or so everyone thought. Last seen in 1941, this species was known only from a few museum specimens. So when ornithologist Rafael Bessa reported his findings of a pair in the wild, it rocked the birding world. You may or may not know that depending on how into birds you are, but for anyone out there wondering, when a bird that is thought to be gone forever is re-found, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Almost exactly three years to the day of discovery, we went to go see it and were certainly among the first people to do so, as the site was only released to the public two months prior to our visit. If you visit the site, you are required to take a guide, however the only guide for the park, Marcelo, was unavailable at the time of our visit. Luckily, after exchanging a few e-mails with Albert, we were given permission to visit without Marcelo. The only downside was now we were on our own for finding a bird with an estimated population of less than twenty. (Just the way Ross likes it.) We arrived before first light and began our search. We got excited when we saw a group of doves perched in a tree, but upon closer review they turned out to be Ruddy Ground-Doves instead. Surely it couldn’t be that easy. We found Scaled Doves soon thereafter, of course finding all of the small doves in the area. It was now almost 8AM and we hadn’t come any closer to finding our main target. There were plenty of cool birds in the area including Horned Sungem, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, and Cinereous Warbling-Finches, but where were the doves? Of course we were a bit nervous, but the rocky cliffs and boulders laced with scrubby growth and a bright blue sky made for a nice backdrop. I have to admit however, that sometimes it’s hard to stop and appreciate where you are standing when you have such an important mission at hand. This bird was after all, the whole reason we planned a trip to Brazil.
Finally we heard the distinct pygmy-owl sounding song of a Blue-eyed Ground-Dove. What a relief! It was 8AM at this point and a single Blue-eyed Ground-dove was quickly spotted perched in a tree singing his heart out. All of the other small doves in the area were skittish but this friendly Blue-eyed Ground-dove didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence and allowed for unobstructed close-range views. In fact, he was so un-phased by us being there that at one point he flew from his perch towards us, landing almost at our feet. We spent some time watching and enjoying this adorable creature who seemingly was resurrected from the grave of extinction. And just like that the number one target for the trip was in the bag.
On the other side of town is another rocky outcrop that has been known to contain that target that I’ve mentioned several times already that I hadn’t yet seen, Cipo Canestero. So off we went. The trail was easy in my opinion, and in just under 20 minutes we had made it close enough to the summit to try for our last remaining target. We hike fast. Ross had briefly seen the bird from a distance and I’d definitely heard it, but we both wanted more. Unfortunately for us, no such luck. It was midday and we did manage to have an individual sing twice but couldn’t locate it. With exhaustion setting in for Ross who had been up driving all night, we opted to call it quits and head towards Monte Claros. We weren’t really looking for anything else unless it jumped out into our face, but the trail back down did produce a few nice birds. We hopped into our vehicle and headed towards Monte Claros. Unfortunately, the main draw for our visit to this town, Parque Nacional de Lapa Grande, only allows entrance before 4PM so we were forced to have an early night and it proved to be very beneficial sleep.
The next morning we met Warley, a ranger for Parque Nacional de Lapa Grande and he escorted us into the park before the opening time of 8AM so we would have the best chance to find White-throated Woodcreeper whose genus is known to typically only call in the earliest hour of the morning. You certainly do not need a guide in the park, but if you want to get in before dawn, you have to have one. Although we were early, we didn’t manage to find any woodcreepers willing to play ball so had to cut our losses and move on to our two remaining targets, Reisler’s Tyrannulet and Dryforest Saberwing. We walked through the lush park following a river and passing a cave along the way where we soon had Minas Gerais Tyrannulet before coming to a relatively generic patch of forest that Warley recommended hanging out in. So we did. And eventually we were rewarded with an inquisitive Dryforest Sabrewing who came to investigate the sound of a pygmy owl that Ross had played and ultimately two Reiser’s Tyrannulets. Reiser’s Tyrannulets are only known to occur reliably from a few sites thanks to very patchy distribution, so we spent some time with them and Ross managed both photographs and audio recordings. We checked out the other side of the park which was as dry as the other side was wet. It was interesting how different this habitat was from where we had just been but it was equally birdy and produced nice views of a Cliff Flycatcher despite no obvious cliffs in the vicinity, and arguably the next best target we had in the park in the form of Caatinga Black-Tyrant. The dry area was very birdy and we managed Stripe-backed Antbird, Black-bellied Antwren, Planalto Woodcreeper, Walger’s Woodcreeper, Sooty-fronted Spinetail, and Sao Francisco Sparrow, but before we knew it, it was time to head back towards our car and get on the road. Of course any trip to Parcque Nacional Lapa Grande wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Lapa Grande so we stopped to check out this amazing cave complex that apparently goes on for 2.2 kilometers!
We finished up the morning by stopping at a brick wall with flowering cacti and were treated to superb views of five Dryforest Sabrewings coming to drink the nectar. These hummingbirds are similar to Grey-breasted Sabrewing but have an entire Amazon Rainforest in between, isolating this population and making a case for why it was recently split. It was a short morning birding but luckily we still managed to squeeze a lot into a little bit of time thanks to the help of our new friend Warley. The remainder of the day was spent behind the wheel of our trusty Jeep Renegade navigating 7 hours and 650 kilometers of road to get to our next destination, Canastra National Park. Stay tuned!