India – The Little Rann of Kutch

Desert habitat, while beautiful in its own right, looks amazingly barren upon first glance. The truth is, it is quite barren, at least relatively speaking. You can scan out into the distance and see nothing more than a blue sky above, a brown, cracked Earth below, and a mirage of what appears to be an ocean of water thanks to the incredible heat distortion reflecting off of the ground. But there are plants and animals that call this harsh habitat home if you take a closer look. And we were here to see them. We were heading to the Little Rann of Kutch and if the above description paints any kind of picture for you, that is exactly what we saw when we got there. Continue reading

India – Siana – Where Ross hits 6,000

Ross Gallardy will be the first to tell you that 6,000 life birds isn’t a real milestone. Six thousand is just another number on the way to seeing the birds of the world. It’s something that happens when you’ve found yourself on a few corners of this blue planet chasing after those charismatic creatures with wings. And truthfully I don’t think Ross ever planned for his life list to go the way it did, or at least not as fast as it did, and hitting 5,000 was the real “big deal,” at least to him. Five thousand was always the life-long goal, but here he was exactly 1 year, 3 months, and 9 days later hitting another “milestone” when another lifer was spotted perched in a tree. It’s not a stunner, it’s not the most exciting bird in the world, it’s not even endemic to India, but (spoiler alert) Eastern Orphean Warbler was number 6,000. And in my opinion, 6,000 is a real milestone, an impressive milestone, and something that is not to be taken lightly, even if Ross doesn’t think much of it.  Continue reading

India – Jaisalmer – THE Great Indian Bustard

This whole trip to India started because of one particular bird but along the way we had been birding a few locations (here and here) searching for range-restricted endemics working our way towards the number one target. But the time to tick the number one target had finally come.

I hate to paint such a depressing picture, but the fate of Great Indian Bustard does not appear to be a good one. Let me just put it bluntly — the bird is hanging on by a thread. Unfortunately, the numbers are so few already that unless strict conservation measures are put in place it probably won’t survive more than another decade, maybe two. The Great Indian Bustard or GIB as it is often affectionately referred to as, is the largest terrestrial Eurasian bird. It is somewhat turkey-like in appearance and frequently roams the plains of arid habitat hunting for beetles or grasshoppers or whatever seeds it can find. Historically, the Great Indian Bustard was distributed throughout Western India, spanning 11 states, as well as parts of Pakistan but the entire population is now estimated at only 150 individuals with a very patchy distribution. Now they are mainly confined to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat with the highest density found in Desert National Park.

Before I bore you with the specifics, just know that habitat loss is one of the main reasons that the population of GIB is declining. The amount of arid grassland that the birds can live in has been declining due to widespread animal grazing and the installation of wind turbines, electric pylons and new roads. All of these human activities are having negative effects on an already fragile ecosystem. With habitat loss comes species loss.

Desert National Park, one of the last remaining footholds for the bustard, is a sandy, desert, grassland environment in the west Indian state of Rajasthan and is one of the largest national parks in India. It is made up mostly of sand dunes, but does contain areas of suitable grassland habitat for the bustard. Unfortunately during our trip to Desert National Park I saw no less than several hundred goats INSIDE of the park’s borders eating whatever they could get their teeth on, so you can imagine the grassland habitat that was once widespread in the park is now nearly wiped out. Desertification at its finest. In fact, the only grassland habitat left inside of Desert National Park are the areas that were fenced off. But during the course of our visit it became clear that the fenced off areas meant to keep out grazing livestock are not respected by the humans that call these sandy dunes home. We spotted several locals within the fenced areas harvesting various plants. These people also put additional pressure on the bustards by flushing them throughout the day as they continue doing their daily activities. 

I mentioned in an earlier post that The Great Indian Bustard was the main purpose of our entire trip. It was New Year’s Eve when we arrived at Jaisalmer, a bit of a tourist destination for Indian locals, made famous by the 12th-century fort in the city center and it’s proximity to Desert National Park where people come to ride camels and “go on safari.” Due to the holiday, we spent our night in a dormitory as no other lodging was available, falling asleep to the sounds of blaring music and hoping that the next day would be a successful one! Prior to our visit to Jaisalmer, Julien had coordinated for us to have a local guide inside of the park to show us to the areas where the bustard can still be found. Before first light on New Year’s Day, we met up with Urash, our local guide, to start on our adventure searching for GIB. Urash had brought along a driver and a high-clearance vehicle which we were informed were necessary as parts of the road in the park were quite sandy. Even with the higher clearance, this vehicle still wasn’t a 4×4 and a few times we got stuck in the sand and had to do a quick dig/push to get back on our way. Luckily we never got too stuck — each time was merely a quick inconvenience versus any type of real disaster. (But in case you were wondering, it might be possible to take your low-clearance vehicle in from the south entrance to the park. The roads from that end seemed more suitable.)

It was dark as we drove in and we all started asking “what would be the first bird of the year?” This is a common question among birders as they start out a new list of birds for the year. Every year one bird gets the distinction of being the first bird seen. We all were staring intently out the windows scanning for bustards figuring the first bird of the year would be a lark or wheatear or raven that flew overhead or perched up on the side of the road. You know, something common. I don’t think any of us expected what happened next. Suddenly, as we were driving in Urash yells out “bustard!!” pointing directly in front of our car! Sure enough there were five Great Indian Bustards in flight. Somehow the most critically endangered bird any of us were going to see for the whole year was bird numero uno! Urash amazed us once more when he miraculously spotted where the bustards had landed out in the grassy field. Somehow he had seen the bustards naked eye, meanwhile the rest of us struggled to even see them with our binoculars. I’m serious, these birds were quite distant and despite their size, blended in with their backdrop. How is it that local guides around the world have such incredible eyesight?! Needless to say we were standing out in the desert of India staring at Great Indian Bustard, our biggest target of the trip and somehow our first bird of 2019. If anyone has a better first of the year bird than this, please let me know–  I’m 99.9% sure it cannot be outdone.

Our views were distant, but clear and unfortunately not as long as we had hoped and before we knew it, the GIBs disappeared behind the grass. Not to be undone, Urash hopped over the fence and asked for a camera. We were confused at first as to why he wanted the camera but eventually determined it was so he could go take a picture for us. It was a nice gesture, but clearly he didn’t understand that birders really don’t want to have the local guide take the picture, they want to take it themselves. Anyway, Urash hopped over the fence and started walking towards the Bustards. He didn’t speak a single word of English outside of “bustard” so it was through a lot of charades that we were communicating. We had no idea what he was doing. Clearly the fence does not deter the locals. Was he about to go flush a critically endangered species? The answer was yes and soon the five birds were in flight before he even got close to them. These birds were clearly wary of humans but seeing these airplanes in flight was something to admire. The six of us had a good idea of where the birds landed, after all we had a better vantage point for watching them fly off, but we had no way of communicating this with Urash. When he returned to us, he motioned us into the car and we drove off to some point and stopped. But no Bustards. We directed the driver back towards where we thought they landed and eventually we did see them again. When we did, Urash wanted us to walk out to them, but knowing how skittish they were with Urash walking the first time, and not wanting to flush a critically endangered species if we could help it, we hoped driving would get us closer. It didn’t. Unfortunately, these wary birds flew off at first sight of our vehicle and we were still a few hundred meters away! Maybe we should have listened to Urash and walked out? We’ll never know if that would have been the better option. All we knew was these birds feared humans. Even though we meant them no harm, the fact that they avoided humans was probably for their own safety.

The next five hours were spent driving around Desert National Park in the back of a rickety Jeep. We drove all around, up and down, searching for better views of our bustards. At one point while it was still early morning, we stopped at a small hut in the Thar Desert and met the family that lived there. I did a quick count of the people standing around and they totaled no fewer than 14 individuals, most of which were under the age of 10! The hut was no bigger than a standard living room in the U.S. so I sincerely hope that not all of them lived there, but realistically I know that more people than I like to think did in fact call that mud/straw hut home. They offered us drinks, but we had to decline for our own gastro-intestinal safety because if the exterior was any indication of the interior sanitation, we would be in a world of trouble if we indulged. Urash on the other hand enjoyed a hot cup of tea before we headed off. They had a sign reading “Save the Bustard” that they proudly showed off to us and waved as we drove away to continue on our bumpy ride in our rickety jeep. I think Urash wanted to drop us off back in town after we had seen the birds, but we explained that we were very serious birders and were committed to seeing this bird better, not really caring what we had to do to achieve that so we continued on and spent the rest of the day in pursuit of THE Great Indian Bustard. Let me spell out for you exactly what riding in a rickety jeep on a bumpy, dirt road for five hours feels like: one uncomfortable ride. 

Over the course of our morning and afternoon, we spotted several vultures in the form of White-backed, Red-headedand Himalayan Griffin, while we were out driving and driving and driving. We also found a few other good birds including lots of Desert Wheatears, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Trumpter Finch, and Laggar Falcon. We checked several known spots and probably some lesser known ones, but no bustards.

When we got close to the initial location from early this morning, a grand total of 7 hours later, we found them again. Since we were still about 400 meters away, we got out of the vehicle and were about to put them in the scope, but some locals walking down the road flushed the group of three birds we had spotted. Uh oh, not again! Luckily this time we were able to follow and see them again, but even at 400-500 meters away, we could tell they were wary of us so we stayed in our vehicle until they disappeared out of site behind some bushes. We took another side road and finally were able to get within about 300 meters (our closest looks yet). We once again stayed in the car for fear of flushing them and luckily this time they remained calm as they fed out of sight over the hill. Urash wanted to try and get closer, but we had been flushing bustards way too many times that day so we told him we wanted to leave them be (he seemed quite confused, but oh well!). Luckily after leaving this group of three we quickly found another group of four that were only about 200 meters away. Awesome! Even better looks than the last group. In total we saw at least seven birds, possibly twelve if the first five we saw in the morning weren’t a part of these latter groups. (More likely it was only 7 though.) We enjoyed these bustards until they simply walked away from us out of sight, giving a whole new meaning to the common phrase in birding “walkaway views.”

In the end, Great Indian Bustard was seen and seen well, but still we left the park with an impending feeling of doom knowing the fate of the species is rather grim. I truly would like to see a miracle for the GIB, but one can’t be too optimistic. If you found this interesting at all or want to read a more detailed report, check out Bird Life International’s website to read more.

India – Tal Chappar

After a long drive, a few snacks for dinner, another night in an adequate but far from clean hotel, and an hour more of driving in the early morning, we arrived at our morning birding location about an hour southeast of Tal Chappar. As you know, we were independently birding Western India, stopping at a few known sites for localized and endemic birds.

Our next target on the agenda was Indian Spotted Creeper, an Indian endemic with a patchy distribution in central India. Once we arrived, we spent our morning walking around a sandy habitat bordering a small village of houses searching for our main target, Indian Spotted Creeper. Continue reading

India – Harike – Indian Beginnings

As you probably read in my last post, we were birding India with a few friends.

The fact that it was the wee hours of the morning when we met up with our birding compadres at the airport probably worked to our benefit as we exited India’s largest and most bustling city, New Deli, with relatively little traffic. We were warned that the smell of the air would be unpleasant, but the scent of pollution and various other objectionable smells was still a shock as we drove through the night. Ross and I, along with Stephan and Claudia, were very fortunate to arrive at the airport and simply hop into the rental car for the trip. Julien and Killian, who had arrived a day before, had to deal with the royal pain of actually renting the car. Apparently few foreigners rent a car in India so when Julien and Killian arrived and asked for the Avis desk at the airport, they were told it didn’t exist. Continue reading

Headed to India

A few days ago I was talking on the phone with my sister and in the middle of our conversation I mentioned that I needed to pack. “Pack for what?” she says and I reply “India.” Immediately she starts saying “WHAT? You’re going to India?! You didn’t tell me that!” Surely I did. Didn’t I? My sister claims I never told her I was going to India, and proceeds to tell me that it would be nice for people to hear about something BEFORE we do it instead of always reading about it after the fact.

Because we love to travel, Ross and I prioritize it. Right now we both work full time jobs so we can’t just pick up and travel for extended periods of time, but Ross was given the week of Christmas off and opted to take a week of vacation along with it. So we settled to leave December 26th and be in India for as long as we could, a total of 18 days.

Joining us for this trip is Stephan Lorenz, a bird guide for Rockjumper and High Lonesome Bird Tours, his wife Claudia Cavazos, and two Swiss birders, Julien Mazenauer, a bird guide for BirdQuest and his friend Killian Vaucher.

Why India you might ask? Well, this whole India trip was Ross’s idea. He wanted to go see Great Indian Bustard before it goes extinct. Because going extinct it will. There’s not really a good program in place that could save this species before it disappears, especially because habitat loss, power line collisions, and hunting continues to be a huge problem and the population is already estimated to be no more than 100. One hundred. That’s it. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s also motivation to get over to India before this one is gone for good. Certainly there are other species out there that number less and will go extinct soon as well, and believe me they are on the list to see ASAP too, but this one is in a critical situation and took priority. Future birders won’t be able to ‘tick’ this large, grassland dweller and we wanted to be sure we do while it is still an option. It’s one of the heaviest flying birds by the way. So with Great Indian Bustard in mind Ross decided that we needed to get over to India and from there birthed a rough itinerary that has since become more refined as Stephan, Julien and Ross acquired more data. In case you are extra curious, right now that itinerary looks like this:

 

The six of us are renting a vehicle in New Delhi, specifically a van large enough to accommodate us all, driving northwest towards Hairke, before driving south along India’s western, Pakistan border. We will fly to Mumbai for two days to see Forest Owlet, a bird that was not seen after 1884 and thought extinct until it was rediscovered 113 years later. It is endangered and endemic. And it’s an owl. So naturally the $25 plane ticket from Ahmedabad to Mumbai was worth it to tick this one. (Yes, flights are inexpensive within the country.) Along our route, we are hoping for several other endangered targets.

This is a quick trip for us, focused on quality over quantity. But while I’m on the topic of numbers, both Ross and Stephan are slated to tick their 6,000th birds on this trip! Who will get there first? What species will be number 6,000?  I’ll keep you updated! Stay tuned for more!

A quick google image search of Great Indian Bustard in case you were wondering what the bird that sparked the trip looked like!

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. Continue reading

Back From The Grave of Extinction – Brazil – Belo Horizonte, BEGD, & Lapa Grande

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!

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!

 

Ranomafana – Madagascar – The Last Hurrah

It’s always funny when you picture in your head how a place is going to be and then you show up and it’s vastly different. Honestly I had no expectations and didn’t know what to expect but Ross had pictured in his mind walking wide, flat trails similar to the ones we ventured down in Andasibe. Sure, there were wide trails, but flat they were not. In fact to get to all of the areas we visited, climbing in elevation was absolutely necessary. Madagascar is nothing if not unique. We had been all over the country and had seen a lot of very unique creatures, and yet the last park on our list, Ranomafana National Park, number 15 on the map below, still had a slew of fauna we had not yet encountered. Several birds were on the docket along with a few new mammals and reptiles.

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