Some twenty-four hours after leaving home, we arrived at the Serra dos Tucanos lodge, to a chorus of squeaky nocturnal tree frogs, and yet it was still Friday! Roll on Saturday and all the magical birds of the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest.
Stepping out onto the verandah at dawn, the bird activity was so overwhelming, that we didn’t know which way to look first. The sugar feeders under the eaves were buzzing with numerous frenetic Sombre Hummingbirds, plus a few Violet-capped Woodnymphs and a Brazilian Ruby with a glittering pinkish red throat. Several bird tables piled high with bananas were alive with a dazzling variety of exotic looking dainties with equally exotic sounding names like Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Bananaquit, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Orange-bellied, Chestnut-bellied and Violaceous Euphonias, Green-headed, Burnished-buff, Azure-shouldered, Sayaca, Golden-chevroned, Ruby-crowned, Brazilian and Palm Tanagers and Saffron Finch, all before breakfast, which was interrupted by a visitation from a Saffron Toucanet, high in the trees above the lodge. Then along came a lovely pair of Spot-billed Toucanets. The female has a green and plum-coloured body, while the male is mainly green and black with golden ears. Both have patterned bills and bizarre ‘goat’ eyes, surrounded by bright green skin. Other garden birds at the lodge included a mixed flock of Maroon-bellied and Plain Parakeets, plus Great Kiskadee, Rufous-bellied and Pale-breasted Thrushes, the cheerful sounding House Wren and a Blond-crested bombshell of a woodpecker, which looks exactly like it says on the tin! All this by 8.30am. We spent the whole day birding in the grounds and marveling at the sheer brilliance of the birds, with such stunningly vibrant colours, and as the sun moved from right to left across the sky, other visitors to the garden included Crescent-chested Puffbird, a White-throated Woodcreeper, big enough to snatch a six inch lizard, and a Masked Water-Tyrant, which walked across the lawn like a cross between a Wheatear and a Pied Wagtail. Imagine doing a BTO style garden bird survey with this lot everday!
After an easy day yesterday, it was time to do some ‘work’ and so we headed down the Cedae Trail not far from the lodge. It was hard work spotting birds in the tall dense forest but we were rewarded with plenty of new and exciting sightings like Golden-crowned Warbler, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Black-capped and White-eyed Foliage-Gleaners, Lesser Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Streak-capped Antwren, Spot-breasted and Plain Antvireos, Ferruginous Antbird and Spot-backed Antshrike, with a devilish hook to its beak. Other notable sightings here included Black-throated Grosbeak, which is actually black all over, but with a coral-red bill, the tiny White-barred Piculet, caught in the scope just above us as it hammered into a thin branch, the even tinier Eared Pygmy-Tyrant and a very showy White-shouldered Fire-Eye which pumped its tail as it called in full view in front of us. On top of all this we had great scope views of Black-goggled and Rufous-headed Tanagers, but stars of the show for me were a roving flock of Red-necked Tanagers in absolutely fabulous blue, red, green, yellow and black livery. Not bad at all for a morning’s ‘work’.
A lazy afternoon back at the lodge produced the usual suspects, with the addition of iridescent Blue-and-white Swallows, the endemic Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher and a Saw-billed Hermit raiding the feeders at teatime.
We had a lovely sunny day for going up high via a curvaceous road, which seemed to have a lingerie billboard on every dangerous bend! Apparently the nearby town of Novo Friburgo is big in underwear. Anyway, back to the real birds, and as soon as we were out of the minibus, we came face to face with a pair of Large-tailed Antshrikes, calling right in front of us. This was the first in a long list of well-seen quality birds. In the next fifteen minutes, one spot alone produced close views of two Rufous-crowned Greenlets, a Bay-chested Warbling-Finch, a Serra do Mar Tyrannulet and male Dusky-tailed and Rufous-tailed Antbirds, followed shortly after by a male Variable Antshrike and then a Brassy-breasted Tanager, feeding on fruits at eye level, with a complex pattern of the most amazing combination of vivid colours, including a bright blue eye ring. A little lower, we all had great views of a pair of calling Rufous-capped Antshrikes along with Tropical Kingbird and a trio of graceful Shear-tailed Grey-Tyrants, while a couple of Roadside Hawks performed a circling flight display. A posing ‘Roadie’ later that day showed just how finely detailed the breast markings are on this smart raptor, as each feather appears to be hand painted. Further on, pastures below the towering granite domes produced handsome Southern Lapwings, with ruby eyes and a lovely bronze sheen on the forewings, plus a glossy purple male Shiny Cowbird and smart Rufous-collared Sparrows. Along this lower trail we soon found Rufous-capped and Pallid Spinetails and Planalto Tyrannulet, followed by a male Double-collared Seedeater and a Squirrel Cuckoo in a nice sideways pose, showing off a deep red eye, yellow beak and a tail at least as long as its body. The next two hours either side of lunchtime were very quiet but then things came back to life with a White-throated Hummingbird, a White-rimmed Warbler with a delightful clear descending musical song and a Yellow-headed Caracara on a post. As we admired a pair of Burrowing Owls with starring yellow eyes and heavily feathered eyelids, a male Campo Flicker flew by and landed on a branch to give a superb view in the scope. This large woodpecker with a jet-black crown and throat and rich yellow cheeks had a high wow factor, whereas the next star bird, a dear little Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, with a grey cap and mask and gorgeous peach throat evoked a big aaah. Last new ticks for the day were Creamy-bellied Thrush and Picazuro Pigeon, reminiscent of a Woodpigeon, but with an ornate striped neck pattern.
A damp start reminded us we were in a rainforest, but it did not deter the birds and so within 200 yards of the drop off point for the Theodoro Trail, we had a Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail striding to and fro across the track ahead of us, along with great views of a strangely named White-browed Woodpecker, which has a brightly patterned red and yellow head, plus fantastic views of the stonking White-throated Woodcreeper. A few minutes later, Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike and a magnificent male Pin-tailed Manakin all showed really well. All along the trail, the cool moist conditions produced a steady stream of new birds including excellent views of Sharp-billed Treehunter, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Buff-fronted and White-browed Foliage-Gleaners, Bertoni’s Antbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Streaked Xenops, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, with a very broadly based beak when viewed from below, Rufous Gnateater, like a dumpy Robin, and a male Rufous-backed Antvireo at eye level. We even managed to glimpse the ultra-skulking Slaty Bristlefront, which has a strange sonar-like pinging call. By now the clouds had parted and a Short-tailed Hawk soared across the short-lived clear blue sky, as it poured all afternoon and into the night.
It was back to blue sky and sunshine for our day trip to the Serra dos Orgaos National Park with its spectacular towers of smooth rock. A brief stop at a fish farm en route netted Southern Rough-winged Swallow and three quarrelsome Amazon Kingfishers in a ménage à trois. In the lower section of the park, the first bird was a Grey-hooded Attila, which shot into view like a rocket within an instant of being ‘called’, while a Scaly-headed Parrot also gave good views once located in the dense foliage. Other close encounters included Green-winged Saltator and Star-throated Antwren.
“Quick there’s a Sloth”, although there was really no need to rush as the strange creature was still there five hours later when we returned in the afternoon! It had a coat like a doormat, three large claws on each hand and a smiling expression as if contented to be just hanging out in the sunshine. Initially it was laid back on a thin branch with both hands behind its head as if having nothing to do other than sunbathe, and we wondered why else it was up there in the top of a dead tree, supported only by brittle branches. With such a carefree attitude to life it did little apart from the occasional scratch and a turn of the head, as if bored with the world below, but it was still five star entertainment.
The upper section of the park at around 8,500 feet was surprisingly quiet as it is prime forest habitat, but we still spotted Euler’s Flycatcher, Drab-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, Large-headed Flatbill, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and Dusky-legged Guan. Back in the lower section, we relocated ‘our’ Sloth, just twenty yards from its original perch, though it must have got there via the ground, making a total journey of about 45 yards. That’s a speed of about 9 yards per hour! We also found Thrushlike Woodcreeper and a Grey-hooded Flycatcher, eating fruits rather than flies. Back at the lodge, with eight bottles or rum to work through, the frog chorus included one individual with a deep-throated ‘song’ sounding like someone hacking at a hollow tree trunk with a blunt axe, at a frequency faster than a human heartbeat. You just couldn’t make it up.
More sunshine today, where we spent the morning at Portao Azul. No sooner were we out of the minibus, than we were enjoying nice views of a Red-eyed Thornbird, followed by Dusky-tailed Antbird, Chicli Spinetail, Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher and Long-tailed Tyrant with a superbly long and graceful two pronged tail. Further along our stroll, we came upon a male Blue-billed Black-Tyrant, which is all black with a red eye, whereas the female, which we saw later, could be of a different species, as she is bright rufous with stripy underparts. We also collared a Half-collared Sparrow with an intricate head pattern of black and white stripes, and a two-tone black and yellow bill. Other notable sightings this morning included Tropical Pewee, Social Flycatcher, Grey-fronted Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Hangnest Tody-Tyrant, stunning Gilt-edged Tanagers and a male Amethyst Woodstar, which is a tiny hummer with a deeply forked tail and a glittering purple throat.
After lunch we drove on to Macae de Cima, where the thickly forested steep slopes rang to the monotonous creaking iron gate song of Black-and-gold Cotingas, although spotting one among so many tree tops was a real headache. Eventually we got a black speck high up the valley framed in the scope and were able to see the orange bill open slightly before hearing each one line song, and through the swaying leaves, we could make out the yellow wing patch. Next we switched from the black speck to search for a white speck betrayed by a single but regular resonant metallic “dong”. Being pure white and Jackdaw-sized made for less of a challenge than the Cotinga and we soon had the scope fixed on a Bare-throated Bellbird, sitting proud on a prominent perch, clearly showing the bare green skin around its face. So, that was a happy ending to the ‘black and white minstrel show’.
The trip to the Guapi Açu wetlands was choc full of fantastic sightings including some en route such as Southern Caracara, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, Savanna Hawk, a continuously calling Striped Cuckoo and a Whistling Heron which stalked its grassland patch with a curious swaying Cobra action. At another stop off we saw Blue-black Grassquit, White-browed Blackbird, Brown-chested Martin, a couple of White Woodpeckers and a flock of Guira Cuckoos, equally at home on the ground or in trees. A little later we had the magnificent sight of six of these bizarre birds, with crests and long tails, on one branch. The wetlands overflowed with colourful bird life including Purple Gallinule, Yellow Tyrannulet, Orange-winged Amazon, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Red-rumped Cacique, Yellow-browed Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, White-flanked Antwren and Black-capped Donacobius with starring yellow eyes. And still they kept coming. As well as 27 Moorhens in one bush, we had Least Grebe, Brazilian Teal, Masked Duck, Capped Heron, Long-billed Wren, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Tail-banded Hornero, Wattled Jacana, Common Tody-Flycatcher, a pair of tail quivering Sooretama Slaty Antshrikes and a couple of Ringed Kingfishers caught in the act! Try picking a star bird out of that lot.
We had a glorious sunny day for the Three-toed Jacamar excursion, a 125 mile safari through a range of habitats with a potential bird list of up to 110 species, and we began very well at the first stop with a succession of good birds like Chalk-browed Mockingbird, White-rumped Swallow, Bran-coloured Flycatcher, Rufous Hornero, White-eyed Parakeet, Cattle Tyrant, a handsome Magpie Tanager, and both light and dark phases of White-tailed Hawk. The next viewpoint was also highly productive with four Campo Flickers, two Burrowing Owls, two Crested Black-Tyrants and a Tropical Kingbird all within a few yards of each other, plus a fly-by American Kestrel and a pair of Red-legged Seriemas, doing the same stalking job as Secretary Birds do in Africa. By now the outing had developed into a full throttle bird race as we tried to set a new record, but we still found time for morning coffee. By 10.30am we had added Common Thornbird and Narrow-billed Woodcreeper to the list, whilst admiring the exquisite outline of a pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants with amazing tail streamers, which treble their body length. Next stop produced Tawny-headed Swallow and Masked Yellowthroat, and at the next we had White-rumped Monjita and White-eared Puffbird, my star of the day, with a serious hook to its substantial red bill. By noon, a fantastic male Surucua Trogon, with big dark eyes in a navy head and a very deep yellow belly, made a total of sixty species, followed by Southern Beardless Tyrannulet before lunch. Next came Short-crested Flycatcher, a Barn Owl, snoozing on one leg and a pair of endemic Three-toed Jacamars, with spears for bills and alert eyes ever watchful for passing insects, which they would dart for and catch in mid air. Late additions to the day list included Chicli Spinetail, Dusky-legged Guan and Crested Oropendola. The bird log that evening came to a very respectable total of 94 species, and after dinner, once all the lodge lights went out, the garden twinkled with hundreds of flashing fireflies. Who needs science fiction?
Another clear blue sky for the Bamboo Trail, although for most of the day we were in deep shade as the jungle here is so dense it is almost a machete job. At the start of the trail, one tree had White-crested and Southern Beardless Tyrannulets and a nice female Green-backed Becard, with a brown cap, grey face, yellow breast and rich rufous wing coverts. Next up was a superb male Blue Manakin with a bright red cap which actually glowed when caught by a shaft of sunlight, and then a White-rimmed Warbler performed a wonderful song and dance act at eye level. Next on stage was a female Giant Antshrike, with the black and russet markings of a Tiger, with backing vocals by the Bare-throated Bellbirds, which seemed to spend all day making that unmistakable ringing sound. Eventually we got good views of their tree top act. Despite the dense vegetation, we also saw Hooded Berryeater, Ochre-rumped Antbird, White-collared Foliage-Gleaner, Greenish Schiffornis and Yellow-legged Thrush, plus a Sharpbill with a streaked breast like a Song Thrush, but with a song like a falling bomb, and a Black-billed Scythebill, with a ridiculously fine curved beak for probing into the many Bromeliads which festoon the taller trees. Lucky Pauline also saw the skulking Serra do Mar Tapaculo!
By now we had seen some awesome scenery, various exotic and colourful butterflies and over 200 species of birds, including many endemic to the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil. A big thanks to the staff of the lodge for making our stay so pleasant and a special well done to Pete, our guide, without whom most of our magnificent sightings would not have been possible.