Water, Water, Everywhere – Brazil’s Final Leg

For the final leg of our week-long visit to Brazil, we headed back towards Rio De Janeiro with a stop over at Serra de Canastra National Park, a national park in the cerrado biome of Brazil found on the watershed between the São Francisco and Parana rivers. Essentially this is a national park built around a waterfall. The São Francisco River is the 4th longest river in all of South America and during our visit we got to see the small spring that the whole river originates out of. How can I put in to words how humbling it is to stand in front of just a seemingly insignificant bit of water and know that it becomes something so big? We were obviously visiting to search for a few endemic species of birds, but we certainly were going to take advantage of the beautiful atmosphere that we found ourselves in. If you look at the map, we took a bit of a detour to visit this stunning national park (number 8) before heading down closer to Rio de Janeiro (9 and 10 below.)

We didn’t arrive until after dark, as it was a 7 hour drive to get there from Lapa Grande where we had been the previous day. It was a hurry up to get there, check in to a hotel and go to sleep kind of night. Unfortunately we never did manage to eat dinner! Oops. We’d been trying to avoid that ever since a friend told us she was concerned about travelling with us because we never seem to eat. I promise we love to eat but on rare occasions it just doesn’t happen! The following morning we woke up early to drive around different viewpoints along the Sao Fransico River, one of Brazil’s most important rivers and scan for our most important target, the critically endangered Brazilian Merganser that calls this river home.

As we were driving around I spotted Casca d’Anta, the 180m waterfall that the national park is here for. I remarked at how nice it was and Ross simply said “Why does everyone care about waterfalls? They’ll make a national park around a waterfall but no one cares about a critically endangered duck.” He’s probably right. Very few people even know about, let alone care that there are only approximately 200 individual Brazilian Mergansers left on this planet. Either way, we spent the first two hours of the morning driving around and checking every view point that we could find. Who doesn’t love spending the wee hours of the morning down on a river? Life could be worse. Unfortunately we never turned up our target before it was time to head into the national park. We didn’t have an option to go in any earlier as the park doesn’t open until 8AM. We were the first ones in line, the first to pay our entrance, and the first to walk inside. I think we were only in the park 10 minutes before we had an incredibly brazen Brasilia Tapaculo come out and practically do a dance for us. I’m not joking, the thing was so cooperative we have photos, sound recordings, and even a video to prove it. (And it was still there later in the afternoon when Ross took a local guide and his client to see it.) From there we trekked onward to the waterfall where we had the whole Casca d’Anta Waterfall to ourselves. It’s a good thing Ross brings me on these birding trips because he would have skipped viewing the waterfall altogether which would have been a shame — it was beautiful! At least the hike provided ample opportunity to scan for ducks along the river but again no such luck. We thoroughly enjoyed having the waterfall all to ourselves and then walked back out, seeing Great Dusky Swift and Helmet Manakin along the way, and resumed what we had started earlier in the morning, scanning for ducks any chance we could find along the river.

The Brazilian Merganser is known to occur on this river but there simply are so few left in existence that finding some can be challenging. For six hours we checked vantage points along the river, often having to walk (well usually run) down little trails to get access to good views of the water. We were getting a bit desperate when we made a random stop along the road, one that I’m sure we had checked first thing that morning, and peered up over the berm. Finally Ross managed to spot a pair of Brazilian Mergansers! The only problem was that they were very far away and after about two minutes of distant views, disappeared behind a bend in the river. We drove down the road a few hundred meters and were able to relocate the birds, but this vantage point was also quite far away. Fortunately there seemed to be a few trails heading down to the river, so we climbed under the barbed wire, hiked down and hid relatively close to the river which resulted in fantastic up close views of a pair of these rare ducks. Fantastic!

I must mention that if rental car companies knew exactly the kind of abuse a hard core birder will do to a rental car, they probably wouldn’t rent to birders. We’ve done our fair share of small rental car abuse over the years, so instead of taking a small car up the precarious roads, we rented a Jeep for this trip, something with a little bit more clearance. Despite our forward thinking, you can’t plan for freak accidents and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the freak accident that occurred just before we found those ducks. We had just bought one of those 20L jugs of water (had finished one already and just bought a second) and had only filled up my 1L Nalgene twice since opening the jug. We were driving around looking for ducks when I notice that the floor under where I was sitting was wet. Further inspection found that nearly every inch of the floor was soaking wet. Turns out the jug that was hanging out in the back of the trunk like the first on did, literally shattered thus pouring 18 liters of water into our car. It’s a miracle no electronics were harmed especially since Ross’s recorder was on the ground in the back seat, but our whole car became a soggy wet mess and was flooded from the inside out. The only thing you can do in a scenario like this is to laugh because what are the chances?!

Wringing out excess water on the side of the road.

After finding our Mergansers we opted to head up to the top of the plateau and bird around the grasslands at the top, and of course look out from the other end of Casca D’anta! The habitat at the top is not the same lush green as the bottom of the park and instead is a mixture of a few rocky outcrops, a bit of stunted vegetation, a whole lot of grass, and an innumerable count of termite mounds.

What loves termite mounds more than anything else? Giant Anteaters. And we were fortunate to come across one frolicking in the grass, along with several of our target birds such as Firewood-gatherer, Cock-tailed Tyrant, Sharp-tailed Tyrant, and our biggest target, Campo Miner. At the end of our visit we had concluded that the park slogan should read “Serra de Canastra: small miner, big tapaculo” because as you might guess, the miner was small by miner standards and the tapaculo big by tapaculo standards.

The following morning we wanted to get into the park before 8 and the only way to do so is to hire a “guide.” So we found Chico and went on our merry way at the ripe hour of 6AM. When it’s dry the road to get up the plateau is not bad, but any rain and I could see why a 4WD vehicle becomes absolutely necessary. The fine powder would turn to mud and you’d slide everywhere. This time of year that is not the case, and we made it up in a mere 15 minutes. In fact, it was still dark when we were let into the park but with this earlier start we were provided a chance to see the world wake up around us. We started the morning at a small patch of forest standing next to the spring  which just happens to be the beginning of the mighty Sao Francisco River. A Brasilia Tapaculo put on a quick show, but soon it was time to turn our attention to our last few remaining targets and in little time we had seen Spotted Nothura, Red-winged Tinamou, Ochre-breasted Pipit, and Black-masked Finch. It was a quick morning and soon we were on our way to our next stop, doing the whole “maximize seeing as many birds as you can in one trip” thing that Ross does best. (By hazing himself into driving and driving and driving some more.)

[Insert a 5-and-a-half hour drive break here. And be sure to picture Ross driving to get us to our next destination as quickly as possible. But thanks to some big trucks on small Brazilian roads, and a few curse words later, we didn’t arrive until just an hour before sunset to Itatiaia National Park.]

We did squeeze as much as we could out of that hour and got Itatiaia Spinetail, Blue-billed Black-tyrant, and nice looks at a Mouse-colored Tapaculo out of the way, along with the first of many amazing views of the incredible mountainside. We stayed at a pretty expensive little hotel on the mountain by Budgetbirders standards ($75USD per person!) but couldn’t really do much about the price because we had already driven down a bad road to get there and turning around would have only resulted in hours more of driving precarious roads in the dark and loss of sleep. It was a rustic mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere, rustic being the operative word. Believe me that the pile of blankets and heated mattress were well used in the cold temperatures of our lodge with no heat!  The bad road we had gone down the night before turned out to be a good thing though because when we went to leave the following morning, we flushed a nice male Streamer-tailed Nightjar from the dirt track. He flew up showing off his elegant streamers, the long feathers would drag behind him as if he were a kite. He then landed right in front of us. Had the camera and flash been set up we could have turned out some top notch photos of this incredible night hunter, but alas we had to settle with top notch views instead. Not too shabby either way you slice it. The mental photo in my mind is surely enough in my book! It was spectacular and one of the most stunning nocturnal birds I’ve ever seen. Overall the morning was productive and despite the cold temperatures up on the mountain, bird activity was high. I suppose we had to try a little to get decent views of Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, in their signature Araucaria trees, but such is the game. It wouldn’t be fun if they all came easy now would it? At least Buff-throated Warblering-Finch made up for it and didn’t require much effort at all. Before we knew it, it was time to head back down the mountain, but not before seeing a slew of other cool birds including Large-tailed Antshrike, Grey-capped Tyrannulet, Grey-bellied Spinetail, White-rumped Hawk, and Red-breasted Toucan. 

From here, the race continued as we just had a few hours left to drive over to see our very last bird of the trip, the range restricted endemic, Black-hooded Antwren, whose habitat has been almost entirely destroyed. A small town, Mambucaba, still contains a few pairs so we headed there and although we gave ourselves what we thought was “extra” time, we didn’t arrive with much to spare and spent the next hour walking the dirt track still turning up two pairs of Black-hooded Antwrens.

And just like that our trip to Brazil concluded. We snagged a Marriott hotel room right next to where the Rio 2016 Olympics took place, paid for entirely with Ross’s points that he had earned through work. Hopefully that negates the expensive night on the mountain! By the time we dropped our trusty rental car off at the airport the following morning, Ross had clocked 4000km in our week long trip! AKA, 2485 miles. AKA the distance it would take to drive across the United States!
Unless something slipped through the cracks, we didn’t miss a single target bird for the trip, seeing a grand total of 213 species! Although, that number probably sounds small, it’s all about quality over quantity for Ross who is systematically visiting areas of the world so as to not need to come back someday! A success for sure!

Views of Olympic Village outside our window.

Next up on the agenda is a trip to India come January. Until then, it’s back to work!