Planes, Trains and Antbirds - Mato Grosso, Minas Gerais and The Atlantic Forest: 17th August - 7th September 2003

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT

Participants: Ian Merrill


by Ian Merrill

"We have notched up an amazing 630 species in the last twenty-two days, in what has been one of the most enjoyable trips ever. Highlights are too numerous to list, but include 66 Brazilian endemics and no less than 67 'antbirds', for me the epitome of Brazilian birding"

Sunday 17th August
Brazil is a vast country and Sao Paulo a huge city, in fact the largest on the South American continent. Its grey concrete form sprawls across the flat Rio Tiete plain for as far as the eye can see as the Varig DC10 touches down at Aeroporto Guarulhos in the early morning light. Today's visit to Sao Paulo is to be a brief one, however, so Graham Finch, Martin Kennewell, Dave Wright and I find a quiet corner in which to sip our first Brazilian coffee and study our newly purchased maps as we await the connecting flight. Unable to resist a quick airing of our bins we spend fifteen minutes outside the domestic terminal where Blue-and-white Swallow and Picazuro Pigeon make the first notebook entries in the surprisingly chilly air.

A three-hour internal flight whisks us over a billiard-table-flat landscape of grassy plains and deep into Brazil's south western flank. Punctuated by the evenly-spaced crowns of large trees, the pasture has been scorched yellow by a fierce tropical sun. We disembark at Cuiaba, a large modern city located at the northern limit of the vast Pantanal wetlands and the gateway to the southernmost reaches of the Amazon Basin. We have just six hours to spare around Cuiaba and the stopwatch is started as we leap into a taxi and speed northward towards Chapada dos Guimaraes National Park.

Passing the concrete tower blocks we then weave through low terracotta-tiled suburbs before the road cuts a straight line into dry cerrado scrub. It delivers us to the base of a magnificent orange sandstone escarpment whose vertical cliffs rise high into the clear blue sky. The road climbs through the National Park amid spectacular scenery, widely toted as some of the best in all Brazil, and on to the afternoon's destination of Veu de Noiva.

The Veu de Noiva overlooks the horseshoe-shaped head of a steeply-cut valley, where a high waterfall flumes over the red sandstone cliffs and into the forested gorge below. Accolade of 'first tick of the trip' goes to a group of Chopi Blackbirds feeding beside the café, with our first Swallow Flycatchers close behind, hawking insects around the rim of the gorge. We follow a precariously steep trail down into the forest below, but the bird-less heat of the afternoon leaves us sweaty, panting and with little to show for our exertions.

Back at the viewpoint Crested Black-Tyrants hunt from bush-tops, small flocks of White-eyed Parakeets call raucously overhead and a party of screaming Biscutate Swifts treat us to a flypast. One eye is permanently on the watch, however, and soon we have to make tracks back towards Cuiaba. We stop briefly at the base of the escarpment where huge, gaudy Red-and-green Macaws are flying in to roost, complimented by a treetop Peach-fronted Parakeet and a pair of Misto Yellow-Finches.

Upon reaching the city limits our schizophrenic taxi driver, until then a mild-mannered speed-limit-watcher, thrusts his right foot to the floorboards and proceeds to give us a heart-stopping high-speed tour of the sights. He deposits us trembling at the bus station to ponder what manner of pill he must have popped!

We book our seats on the overnight bus to Alta Floresta and soak up the sights and smells of the typical run-down Latin American bus station for an hour-or-so, psyching ourselves up for the impending fourteen hours of automotive fun. When our bus arrives we are pleasantly surprised at its modern appearance and comfortable reclining leather seats. Maybe the 625 km northward journey won't be so bad after all?

The driver soon winds up the revs and the air suspension gives us top-deck passengers the impression of sailing a stormy sea as we swerve to miss potholes on the badly maintained road. Bags and belongings rain from the parcel shelf as the bus negotiates a series of chicanes and we speed onwards into the dark Brazilian night.

The flickering video screen bursts into life and we are just getting into the plot of the subtitled 'B-movie' western when our vehicle glides to an unexpected halt. The minutes tick by and the pitch darkness beyond the tinted glass indicates that we are far from any scheduled bus stop. Descending to the first deck we find an empty cab and an open driver's door; all very disturbing. Following muffled voices to the rear of the bus a huddle of figures is found, glowing in the hazard-lights, pointing at various dusty engine components and offering bemused comments in unintelligible Portuguese.

We are clearly in a little bother, but no one can explain exactly what is the cause or the antidote! Mobile phones are deployed and we can only assume that a rescue party has been summoned. We really are out in the back-of-beyond, but at least the absence of light pollution allows us to enjoy a most exhilarating night sky, complete with a clearly visible Magellanic Cloud (the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the Milky Way) and shooting star performance.

After three hours at the roadside a battered old replacement bus rolls up and, sheep-like, we follow the rest of the passengers onto our new means of transport. The spacious velour seats are in desperate need of shampoo and fumigation, but at least we're back on the road and more than ready for a few hours of sleep.

Monday 18th August

The lightening sky gives way to a burning orange sunrise, viewed between the tatty curtains, as the old girl bumps relentlessly northwards. Daylight reveals the very bleak scene that now surrounds the bus on all flanks. Pasture and cereal fields dominate the savannah-like panorama. Occasional bleached remnants of huge trees tower above the dry grassland and regular piles of cleared trunks are heaped at the roadside. Periodically a small tract of relatively intact forest reveals what the land once held before the torch and chainsaw were employed. It's one thing to read about the devastation of the Brazilian rainforests, but quite another proposition to view mile upon mile of the catastrophic consequences of Man's greed at first hand. A very sobering way to start the trip.

Daylight hours provide a better feel for the bustling little towns that dot the route northwards, where regular stops allow leg-stretching at strategically placed cafes. 50 Centavos permits access to the local bathroom facilities which is a sound investment after one has seen the horror-story inaccurately signed as a toilet at the rear of the bus! Sweet, strong coffee and choice items of an indeterminate savoury origin keep up our resolve as the northward expedition rolls on. By 08.00 am the sky is clear blue and the heat from the sun intense.

Huge roadside timber yards become a regular feature and lines of trucks hauling massive logs slow our passage. Stocking areas are piled high with the trunks of mighty hardwoods, raped from the nearby forest, and piles of sawn timber stretch away into the distance. More food for thought.

Finally at 11.00 am, 15 ½ hours after our embarkation, a huge sigh of relief marks our arrival at Alta Floresta bus station. A quick taxi-ride through the surprisingly large and very clean town brings us to the Floresta Amazonica Hotel where we need to make our arrangements for the final leg of our never-ending journey into the Amazon. The lovely Zuleica has everything under control and an hour later we are fed, watered and in a minibus bumping along the dusty farm roads that lead to the Rio Teles Pires. Although we are nearing our rainforest destination it is worrying to note that uninterrupted cover of virgin forest is not reached until a very short distance before the banks of the river.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge is located in a 165 Acre tract of lowland rainforest that has been preserved as the Cristalino State Park. This figure of 165 Acres seems ridiculously tiny after the devastation that has taken countless hours to navigate by road during our northward journey. The Lodge is a rather expensive location in which to stay but the fact that one is promoting the preservation of one of the most diverse and threatened habitats on the planet mitigates such concerns. The Lodge also gives access to some unique birding sites and it is with great excitement and anticipation that we board the small boat that will convey us to our final destination.

The Rio Teles Pires, which flows into the Rio Tapajos and ultimately the Rio Amazonas, is around 700 metres wide at this point. We travel a short distance upstream before diverting up the Rio Cristalino, a wonderful tree-lined tributary no more than 70 metres from bank to bank. Dense forest stretches away from the shore and occasional rocks break the smooth dark surface of the river to form turbulent eddies of white water. A pair of Bare-faced Currasows stand at the water's edge, while one of four different species of kingfisher seems to occupy every available perch. We round the final bend and a Sunbittern appears beside the landing stage to greet us, together with a Paradise Jacamar that sits in the trees amongst a large group of Swallow-Wings.

The small brick and timber buildings which will be our home for the next five days are set unobtrusively in a river-side clearing. Our accommodation is a clean timber hut with high-security insect screening to keep the rampant mosquitoes at bay and a large fan hangs from the ceiling to counteract the soaring humidity.

We ditch our kit and rush out to make the most of the last couple of hours of daylight. After an introduction to Francisco, our bird guide, and American volunteer workers Cindy and Richard, who will act as translators, we re-board the boat for the short crossing to the Kakoa Trail. A well-maintained track winds its way through fairly open riverine forest and good birds instantly begin to materialise. One of the first is a smart male Black-girdled Barbet, almost instantly joined in the canopy by a Red-necked Aracaris. Red-headed Manakin and Amazonian Oropendula are added to the list, but all too soon the forest begins to slide into darkness. We hurry back towards the river and almost tread on an Ocellated Poorwill! Refusing to fly off, the small nightjar repeatedly alights on the trail where torchlight picks out his every detail.

The fact that the boat's engine refuses to fire is overshadowed by the success of our first hour at Cristalino, though when we begin to grind over half submerged rocks we start to become more concerned. Fortunately the two-stroke roars into life just before we teeter into an uninviting section of rapids and we are soon whisked back to a welcome shower and hearty meal.

Some time is spent exchanging notes with Alex Kirschel, the resident English bird guide who is rather unfortunately due to leave Cristalino the next day. The species on offer at this site are truly mouth-watering! Torchlight views of Night Monkeys provide the evening performance, but the first horizontal bed in three days is difficult to resist for long.

Tuesday 19th August

A pre-dawn breakfast means that we are in position in the stunning, pristine forest on the Saleiro Stream at first light, and this morning we are almost outnumbered by the guides, as Alex, Francisco and Cindy all join in on the rounds. The habitat consists of rather dry, flat and relatively open forest and consequently birding is fairly easy with little in the way of thick understorey vegetation in which our quarries can conceal themselves.

A pair of Spot-winged Antbirds are the first target species to be seen, with Golden-green Woodpecker, Black-faced Ant-Thrush and Great-billed Hermit following in rapid succession as the morning brightens. The boldly marked, terrestrial Ringed Antpipit, Snow-capped Manakin and Cinereous Antshrike are all added to the list as we make our way round the Saleiro Trail. Mixed bird flocks are a surprisingly regular feature of Cristalino and soon we are sorting our way through a noisy mid-storey group containing Long-winged Antwren, Spix's and Long-tailed Woodcreepers, plus a stunning Blue-necked Jacamar which displays a whole spectrum of wonderful metallic colours.

An open area allows us to enjoy a scope-full of the colourful, endemic Crimson-bellied Parakeet, before the reverse leg on the Rocky Trail produces a fine male Blue-crowned Trogon, Plain-throated Antwren and Striped Woodcreeper. A return to the Lodge should have signalled a time to get our breath back following the onslaught of birds, but a canopy flock right beside our cabin produces another frenzy of ticking activity. This time we see Grey-crowned Flycatcher, Grey-chested Greenlet, Turquoise Tanager, the curious canopy-dwelling Tooth-billed Wren, Rufous-winged Antwren and the sturdy form of a Chestnut-winged Hookbill. What a morning!

A welcome shower and compulsory de-ticking session proceed lunch. The small bloodsuckers are rife in the forest and manage to find the most delicate areas on which to take hold! Lunch, as with all meals, is an extensive eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet of tasty local dishes consisting of fresh vegetables, meat and fish.

Fully revitalised, we start the hot afternoon session with a very smart Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher and a flock of Dusky-billed Parrotlets beside the river. A journey down river provides a very welcome rush of cooling air plus fantastic close-up views of Greater Yellow-headed Vultures that perch on rocks mid-channel. A treetop Red-throated Piping-Guan is a tick for all, but the sheer exhilarating experience of cutting our way through a glass-smooth Amazonian tributary flanked with huge evergreen giants is worth the effort alone.

We emerge back into the main channel of the Teles Pires and glide down to a huge river island a kilometre downstream. Pied Lapwing, Large-billed Tern, and Drab Water-Tyrant greet us on the sandy shore before we secure our mooring rope and set off inland. It's a strange place, half natural riverine forest and half building site, as a gang of labourers beaver away on some form of large brick development. The noise does not seem to have upset the birds, however and minutes after landing we have found a superb female Glossy Antshrike, jet black with delicate white wing and tail markings and a bushy bright-ginger crest. This river island specialist is one of our targets here, as is the handsome little humbug-striped Amazonian Streaked Antwren which emerges from the scrub soon afterwards.

Other species recorded as we make our way down the long, narrow island include the endemic Dusky-billed Woodcreeper, Large Elaenia and Bare-necked Fruitcrow. Top slot, however, has to go to the female Amazonian Umbrellabird whose ultra-distinctive, bulbous-headed silhouette is seen swooping over the marsh at the limit of our walk.

Leaving the island we make our way a short distance back along the Rio Cristalino before cutting the engine and drifting back downstream in silence, to await the fall of darkness. With the roar of the engine muted the croak of frogs and chirps of Pauraques take the lead in this stunningly tranquil soundscape.

As the sky blackens, so the forest's nocturnal inhabitants emerge. We set off up river with the beam of our spotlight probing the densely vegetated banks and within a few minutes have homed in on our first eye-shine. Soon the boat has been manoeuvred to within touching distance of a Ladder-tailed Nightjar that feeds by darting over the river from its perch on a low branch overhanging the water.

Further upstream numerous pairs of red-reflecting eyes line the water's edge and close approach reveals that they are Square-headed Cayman, small fish eating crocs with boldly striped underparts and a distinctive square plate of armour on the rear of the head. The basking Cayman allow the boat to pull alongside so close that when they do shoot for cover the thrashing tail splashes all aboard. One even scoops a fish into the boat that then wriggles across the deck!

Final surprise of the night is a beautifully marked Paca, caught in the spotlight at the water's edge. This close relative of the Agouti sports lines of white spots down its warm reddish flanks and makes for a fine note on which to conclude a superb opening day.

Wednesday 20th August

Another pre-dawn breakfast is followed by a rapid march to the spot where the previous evening a party of Dark-winged Trumpeters had been observed flying up to roost. Allegedly. The day dawns and nothing happens. Checking a little further down the track we hear the distant calls of what can only be the Trumpeters dropping from their roost site. Our frustration is later brought to the boiling point when we hear that the previous evening's informant, a less-than-amenable local tour guide, has 'mistakenly' given us the wrong directions. Our 'stake-out' is conveniently a hundred metres out. Luckily for all concerned the ignorant Brazilian and his tour party have departed by the time we return to the Lodge.

Let's start again. We take a boat upstream and within minutes see a spectacular pair of Amazonian Razor-billed Currasows standing at the water's edge, male with bright-orange, swollen bill and female with curious frizzy 'hair-do'. The boat deposits us at the start of the Serra Trail. Richard, our stand-in bird guide for the morning, warns us to creep slowly over the top of the bank as tinamous favour this area. We stealthily peer over the rise. And find a fat man wearing some skimpy shorts!

The morning's plans really are falling apart. We quickly set off up the inclined trail in the hope of finding some less disturbed sections of forest and thankfully, before long, are in the midst of a canopy flock. Curve-billed Sythebill and Rufous-rumped Foliage-Gleaner are new birds and spirits lift. The trail now rises steeply through rocky terrain with ropes positioned to ease the ascent. An excited cry from our boatman summons our attention and we gather around the spot in the leaf litter where he has located the most amazing amphibian. Sitting amongst the brown leaves is a dazzlingly vivid, three-centimetre long, black and yellow poison-arrow frog. Naturally, this stunning little creature is photographed and filmed from every angle as Richard describes how it is only recently discovered and is yet to be formally described to science.

Reaching the summit of the rocky escarpment we emerge into a strange landscape of huge, rounded pale-grey boulders and dry, leafless deciduous trees. It is quite a surprise to escape from the dark green depths of the lowland forest into such an open environment and we find that the area supports a very different set of birds. Rufous-bellied and Violaceous Euphoinias, Opal-rumped and Red-billed Pied Tanagers plus Pied Puffbird are all found in the bare treetops, while a roosting Blackish Nightjar is disturbed from the ground.

Our boatman continues to impress when he lifts a large flat rock to reveal a roosting huddle of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats in the minute gap below. Wonderful close views of these endearing little creatures reveal their 'free tail' poking out well beyond the rear of the wing. Hummingbirds are well represented in this section of the forest with Amythyst Woodstar, Long-billed Starthroat, Grey-breasted Sabrewing and Black-eared Fairy all recorded. A pair of colourful Hellmayr's Parakeets perches briefly in the branches and overhead White Hawk plus a soaring pair of huge Crested Eagles are seen.

We have been warned of the insect problems at this site and true to form 9.00 a.m. signals the onslaught of the sweat bees. Although they don't bite or sting the presence of these insects on all areas of exposed flesh is rather irritating and as their numbers increase to plague proportions we beat a hasty retreat back down the hill.

Following the trail back to the river we branch off onto the Kacau Trail to complete a return loop. Plain-brown Woodcreeper and Screaming Piha, owner of the most distinctive call in the forest, are new to the trip but the greatest excitement is realised when we stumble upon a huge army-ant swarm sweeping across the forest floor. An active ant swarm is the epitome of the Neotropical rainforest and when such a swarm is sighted one can be sure of finding some excellent birds.

A number of species have developed into specialist swarm-followers and tend the ants to seize any insects that are disturbed by the marauding army. So we tuck our trousers into our socks, grit our teeth and stride forth into the moving carpet of large, angry ants that sweep over the forest floor. First swarm-tenders to appear are a pair of stunning Black-spotted Bare-Eyes, with jet-black head and underparts, a broad blood-red eye-ring of bare skin, and an intricately spotted rufous-red back. A pair of White-chinned Woodcreepers, though somewhat less captivating, are also a species tied to the swarm and hunt exclusively from the lowest boughs. A Spix's Guan is an unexpected swarm-follower and a pair of rather elusive White-backed Fire-Eyes does their utmost to remain concealed in dense vegetation.

After an hour of ant bites and formic acid the thin-socked and swollen-ankled member of the party starts to flag and we reluctantly drag ourselves away from this incredible forest spectacle and on to ant-free ground for some respite. The remainder of the Kacau trail continues to produce quality birds and we have added Warbling and Scale-backed Antbirds, plus Grey Antwren, by the time we return to the river. We also now know what Brazil Nuts look like in the wild, after being shown a mighty Brazil Nut Tree with the forest floor below carpeted in its fruit. The nuts actually fall to the ground in a hard husk, the size of a small coconut. These husks are, in fact, so hard that only the sharp teeth of the Agouti can penetrate to the nuts contained inside. It's interesting to see the neatly bitten Agouti access holes in many of the fallen fruit.

After a brief lunch-stop we are waterborne again, this time following the current down the Rio Cristalino. It seems impossible to travel for more than a few minutes on this incredible watercourse without making another startling discovery. This afternoon's first surprise is an impossibly tame and stunningly beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle which refuses to fly from its perch on a low, bank-side limb as the boat noses to within twenty metres. Rich-rufous neck and breast band, heavy black breast-barring and long black crest are all soaked up with relish.

Half a kilometre further on and we have a Giant River Otter porpoising in front of our bow wave. What an afternoon! What a place! The huge animal moves at high speed, maintaining its lead of the boat, the otter's great girth giving the impression of a large log breaking the surface. Eventually it retires to the shelter of some overhanging branches from where it bares its teeth at us before diving deep and away in the murky water.

This afternoon's destination is the southernmost end of the New Trail that terminates some way downstream on the Teles Pires. We are dropped off in the open riverine forest and commence our walk under gathering dark storm clouds. The fine weather experienced over the last couple of days has almost let us forget that we are in a rain forest, but now our reminder is here and we scarcely have time to commit the Greater Schiffornis to our notebooks when the heavens open. Brolleys are unfurled for the first time on the trip and remain in place for the entire walk back to the Lodge. Predictably little is seen and we hit the dormitories at dusk in a rather soggy state.

Thursday 21st August

A fascinating aspect of the avian diversity of a rainforest is the preference of different species for different levels within this fantastic habitat. Hence any worthwhile rainforest birding destination will have some means of access to the upper canopy and the different set of birds which inhabit it. This morning we set out for Cristalino's answer to this requirement, an amazing 53 m high steel tower that transports non-agoraphobic birders well clear of the forests uppermost branches.

Roughly four metres square in section, the structure has concentric sets of stairs running up each face which, at least over the lower levels, feel relatively secure. As strong winds are not a feature of the climate it is secured simply by means of a system of tight steel cables anchored to the ground.

At first light we position ourselves on the lower landing stage, actually within the canopy. Following the previous evening's downpour the forest is dripping wet and an incredibly atmospheric foggy mist hangs just above the lush green treetops. As the mist starts to lift the birds that were previously just sounds come into view, starting with a pair of attractive White-bellied Parrots that perch on a nearby branch. White-lored Euphonia, Grey Antbird, Flame-crested Tanager and White-naped Xenopsaris all pass through close branches while Kawall's Parrot and Ringed Woodpecker land close by.

Francisco decides that it is time to venture up another 20 m to the upper level as the mist is now clear and it will soon be very hot. Not being a big fan of heights I take a deep breath, think of England and set off up, without looking down. Without the comforting effect of the surrounding canopy one feels incredibly exposed as the climb progresses well above the treetops. To make matters worse the swaying motion of the structure is greatly amplified at this high altitude but eventually, white knuckled and sweating, I reach the top.

It has taken a little nerve, but the reward is the most breathtaking of views imaginable. From well above the highest tree the forest stretches as far as the horizon. In the early morning light the colours are unbelievably vivid. Every shade of green is represented in the canopy, which has an almost iridescent quality. Burning bright yellows and reds of various tree species in flower drop further splashes of colour onto the living canvas.

If the colours of the vegetation are vivid, then the colours of some of the bird species that make their home in this section of the forest can only be described as stunning. Scarlet Macaws by the pair and small groups of Blue-and-yellow Macaws pass through the treetops calling constantly, their plumage literally glowing in the intense sunlight. Bright turquoise male Spangled Contingas sit on exposed, uppermost branches, standing out from the green foliage like little metallic beacons; we count four different birds in the vicinity of the tower! Double-toothed Kite and King Vulture perch a little further afield, while Chapman's and Pale-rumped Swifts can be identified with ease as they dart below tower-level. We finish off in style with White-necked Puffbird and Curl-crested Aracaris before making the equally nerve-wracking and tender-footed descent back to very welcome terra firma.

The interior of the forest seems very dark and gloomy after the dazzling sunlight and colours above the canopy but our eyes soon adjust as we walk the Kaja Trail and pick out the inhabitants of the lower levels. White-crested Spadebill, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin and Cinereous Mourner are all seen with little effort, but all of Francisco's tape recording skills are needed to coax out a striking male Black-faced Antbird. Bird flocks are yet again a feature of our walk and this-mornings flock highlights are a very welcome White-winged Shrike-Tanager, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops and Golden-fronted Piculet.

Today's post-lunch excursion takes us on another of the ever-pleasurable boat journeys, this time back down the Rio Cristalino where a 'flock' of four King Vultures are soaring overhead. This afternoon we venture as far as the south bank of the Teles Pires, to walk the Butterfly Trail. We hardly have our feet on dry land when a White-crowned Manakin appears, but this is only the entree as Francisco patiently tapes in the real target bird. After more than a little coaxing a stunning male Spot-backed Antbird takes up a prime spot from which to sing, displaying his intricately marked plumage to full advantage.

Francisco is on excellent form this afternoon and his next trick is to produce a Long-billed Woodcreeper that proceeds to sit on a low bough and call incessantly. I'd be the first to admit that the woodcreepers are not a personal favourite of mine, but this is an absolute crippler and must surely be the star of its family. A huge beast of a bird, its bright rufous upperparts contrast with white breast, supercilium and streaked underparts. It is, however the ridiculously long, gently decurved ivory-white bill that land this amazing bird at the top of the list.

The trail winds through low, bamboo-dominated dry forest and the birds continue to appear. Black-tailed Trogon is another tick, but it is soon eclipsed by another awesome 'antbird'. It is again Francisco's skill with the tape and microphone that bring a Rufous-capped Ant-Thrush onto an eye-level bough and fill the screen of MK's video recorder. It proceeds to strut back and forth on the bough, like a diminutive Moorhen with a dazzlingly bright chestnut cap.

Before our loop has returned us to the river, daylight has begun to fade and nightbirds begin to call. A Little Nightjar gives a low flypast, followed by the large form of a Common Potoo that glides to a trailside tree in response to playback of its unearthly call.

Very contented with our afternoon's work we board the boat for the journey back to the lodge. Travelling on the wonderful river systems is stunning by daylight; at night the experience is without parallel. We edge gently into the huge, mirror-flat expanse of the Amazonian tributary in darkness, beneath a huge sky containing more stars than can be counted and the wide smoke-like band of the Magellanic Cloud. The water reflects the light from the sky to reveal a wide silvery ribbon bounded on both sides by the unyielding blackness of the forest.

The engine is cut and we drift quietly with the current to a chorus of frogs and insects, as flashes of distant lightning momentarily brighten the sky and reveal the silhouetted form of the tall dark treetops. No one seems to mind that the owls fail to answer their tape-recorded calls and we simply sit back and soak in the atmosphere of this uniquely tranquil setting, made all the more inspiring when one visualises where, on the map of the World, we actually sit.

Friday 22nd August

As today's early boat ride up river commences, a thin carpet of mist hangs over the smooth water of the Rio Cristalino. First distraction takes the form of another Amazonian Umbrellabird, this time a male flying across the river, though this excitement is almost instantly superseded by DW's cry of "Tapir!" We speed towards a large brown shape in the water, close to the far bank and it materialises into the unique long-snouted profile of a Brazilian Tapir, with just head and shoulders clear of the surface. Apparently such aquatic activities are not unusual as tapirs often immerse themselves to cool down and provide respite from the forests marauding insects. Our tapir dives below the surface a couple of times as it tires of our attention before hauling his large bulk from the river and running off up the bank. Amazing!

Channel-billed Toucan and a roosting Great Potoo conclude our boat ride and we are landed at the Haffer Trail which loops through a section of forest rich in bamboo and thus favoured by a number of species specialising in this habitat. The action is predictably quick to start with a female Blackish Antbird making an appearance in the first few metres of the trail. One of our main targets follows virtually instantly, as a pair of Manu Antbirds work their way through a bamboo thicket calling constantly. This bamboo specialist was only described to science just over ten years ago; such is the enigmatic quality of the vast and relatively unexplored Amazon Basin.

Next on the menu is a Southern Nightingale Wren, with a male taped in to a few metres distance, followed by a pair of striking Dot-winged Antwrens of the distinctive emiliae race. Similarly the next new species, Striated Antbird of the subochracea race, is a strong candidate for a future split. The bamboo really is alive with activity and Olive-backed Foliage-Gleaner plus Wing-barred Piprites quickly follow. A pair of long-overdue Rose-breasted Chats show off their dazzling combination of blacks, greys and reds leaving a Cinnamon Attila relatively dull in comparison. White-eyed Tody-Tyrant of the distinctive griseipectus race tests our woefully inadequate 'Souza' field guide to the limit, while the frustrating behaviour of an incredibly skulking Noble Ant-Thrush does the same for our patience!

A White-flanked Antwren entertains us during a brief wait for the boat, which whisks us down to our final destination of this leg of the tour, the Kakoa Trail. Time is against us, but our quick circuit produces a fine Rufous-necked Puffbird and a farewell bird flock that includes Yellow-throated and Red-stained Woodpeckers plus a Striped Woodhaunter. It is, however, somehow fitting that our final tick at Cristalino should be yet another addition to the incredible list of 'antpersons', this time in the form of Band-tailed Antbird, a specialist of river edges.

Our four days at Cristalino Jungle Lodge have provided some of the best tropical forest birding we have ever experienced and it seems a terrible shame to have to prise ourselves away, with so many good birds still on offer. It has, though, been a superbly productive visit and we still have a huge amount to squeeze into our packed itinerary in the coming weeks. Our final boat trip on the Rio Cristalino takes us downstream to the Rio Teles Pires and then upstream on a rather lengthy detour necessitated by a recently defunct road-bridge.

A minibus is waiting for us at the landing stage and soon we're bumping our way back towards 'civilisation'. The term should be applied very loosely in this instance, however, as Man's influence on the landscape has brought about what must be one of the most depressing scenes we have ever witnessed. Where lush green lowland rainforest once stood, maybe no more than a matter of months ago, is now a scene of total devastation. Dead and dying forest giants stand over scorched brown stubble, grazed by skinny cattle. Large swathes of erosion leave sterile bleached earth, which demonstrate the fragility of the soil structure below. It is mid afternoon but the sun is already turned an eerie red by the smoke and ash hanging in the atmosphere, a symptom of the uncontrolled clearance and burning. The tinted glass gives the sky an unearthly grey cast that contrasts with the fiery ball, framing the skeletons of the huge trees in what can only be described as a truly apocalyptic scene.

Rather subdued, we are deposited at Alta Floresta to await the pleasure of another long, overnight bus journey. Now old hands at the procedure, we settle down in the comfy seats and do our best to dream of tapirs and antbirds for a thankfully uneventful fourteen hours.

Saturday 23rd August

Bus station to taxi to Avis Car Rental office is painless, as is the collection of our shiny new Volkswagen estate. Navigation out of Cuiaba, via a well-stocked supermarket, is a little trickier but by mid morning we are speeding south on good roads.

Leaving the city, the road traverses dry cerrado scrub as it descends to the vast wetland basin of the Pantanal. An area the size of France, the Pantanal forms a huge bowl at the heart of South America, stretching across the borders of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Its boundaries follow the upper watershed and then the slow winding course of the Rio Paraguai that ultimately meets the sea at Buenos Aires. Interestingly the water generated in the Brazilian Panatanal will ultimately pass the very Argentine sites in which we were birding some two years previously and 2000 kilometres to the south.

The small town of Pocone signals the last chance to fill the petrol tank and drive on a tarmac road for many a long mile. South of Pocone the Transpantaneira commences, a never-ending red-dirt road cut in a straight line through lush wetlands and characterised by dozens of seriously dilapidated timber bridges. The builders of the road had intended it to reach Corumba on the Bolivian border but this plan never came to fruition and the road is now a dead-end terminating at Porto Jofre beside the Rio Cuiaba. This was a great blessing from the point of view of the area's wildlife and now the economy of the region is heavily influenced by the ecotourism attracted to the superb array of habitats.

We have deliberately timed our visit to coincide with the end of the dry season when water is in short supply and wildlife teems around any remaining lake and pool. The fact that material to build the Transpantaneira was scooped from borrow-pits closely following its route, and that these then filled with water, leaves much of the avian interest literally lining the course of the road.

The roadside pools and marshes are teeming with waterbirds of all description, along with countless Yellow Caymen. Fish are visibly concentrated in the rapidly receding water and flocks of Great and Snowy Egrets, Large-billed Terns, Jabiru plus various kingfisher species feast on the easy pickings. Limpkins, Black-collared Hawks, Snail Kites, Roseate Spoonbills, Grey-necked Wood-Rails, Whistling Herons and Southern Screamer line our route. Plumbeous Ibis and Chaco Cachalaca are new birds and we have only travelled a few kilometres down the road when the number one target of this leg of the trip flies into view.

The stunning Hyacinth Macaw is the largest parrot in the world and with its indigo-blue plumage, contrasting with bright yellow cere and eye-ring, it is surely one of the most beautiful. Our first of many sightings of this near-endemic species is of a bird typically using its huge black bill as a third limb to help it manoeuvre along a fruiting tree limb. A little further on we come across another inspiring tree-top spectacle as a group of four handsome, endemic Chestnut-bellied Guans feed in the top of a sulphur-yellow flowering tree, their deep-rufous underparts contrasting with the daffodil-coloured blooms.

Passerines are much in evidence as well as long-legged species. Red-headed Blackbird, Golden-winged Cacique, Epaulet Oriole, Yellow-billed Cardinal, Rufous Hornero and Black-capped Donacobius are all recorded as we continue south. The dusty road runs through alternating blocks of pasture, scrubby woodland and wetlands and the decrepit timber bridges which span the latter get progressively worse after we pass Pixaim. Their wooden construction is clearly decades beyond the sell-by date and gaping holes window the green water below. Large mammals are also in evidence with small groups of Capybara grazing beside wetland pools and a very attractive rusty-red Marsh Deer feeding knee-high in water right beside the road.

We take our final twilight stop at some likely looking woodland around the 100 kilometre mark and are instantly greeted by Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, Little Woodpecker, Troupial of the distinctive croconotus subspecies and a party of noisy Grey-crested Cachalotes. Toco Toucan, destined to be a numerous species as the trip progresses, is our last new bird of the day. A tick is always welcome though, especially as this impressive bird with huge orange bill, black-spotted at its tip, is the original 'Guinness Toucan'.

Fairly sure that it's about 15 km to our proposed overnight lodgings we set off as the light fails. Or at least we try to. The bloody car won't start! Though far from being knowledgeable mechanics it seems obvious that the problems relate to a faulty immobiliser. This is not an ideal spot to break down as passing vehicles are few and far between. When a truck is finally flagged down its helpful occupants are unable to allay our mechanical plight and are travelling in the wrong direction to give us a lift.

Darkness falls, no more vehicles appear and we draw straws for the long walk to the next habitation. Mosquitoes are now getting ferocious and the potential walk is made even more daunting by the fact that we're not at all sure how far it will be! The two losers of the straw-draw are about to set out when a set of headlights appear and a large 4WD pulls up. Again the language barrier complicates the issue but eventually MK and GF set off into the night with the 'Good Samaritans'. DW and I are resigned to a long wait but miraculously a different 4WD pops up less than an hour later to ferry us the 15 km to the Pousada Jaguar where the proprietor thankfully speaks English and has already set about smoothing over our car problems. Avis will be sending a new vehicle in the morning.

The Pousada Jaguar is little more than a canteen and a couple of rooms set beside the Transpantaneira but this evening it's the most welcome sight in the world after the potential night in a sweaty, mosquito-ridden car. We had planned a session of spotlighting from the car this evening, but these plans are obviously thwarted. After a magnificent meal we therefore set out on foot, Maglites in hand and with long trousers and insect repellent deployed, to see what we can find.

Upon reaching the first bridge, via an obliging Pauraque, a sweep of the water below reveals dozens of pairs of red eyes. The numbers involved really are astounding, and the eyes of the Yellow Cayman give the impression of an airport runway as they light up in unison. Potoos clearly find the habitat to their liking too and we locate two Great and one Common Potoo in the next half kilometre, sitting out on high, exposed branches.

GF's sudden call of "I see green eye-shine!" immediately has pulses racing. Only cats reflect green light and the possibilities in this area are exciting to say the least. All beams focus on the roadside scrub and moments later a large spotted cat is glimpsed through the bushes. Not bulky enough for Leopard, but certainly of 'large-dog' proportions, it can only be an Ocelot. Presently it moves into the open, revealing its beautifully marked coat and we are amazed when rather than chasing off into the night it proceeds to stop and wash it's paws!

It's a totally stunning conclusion to what had all the makings of a disastrous night. After a shower in a cubicle full of tree frogs we take shelter under the mosquito nets to see out a sweaty night.

Sunday 24th August

A huge breakfast is served before first light and as we set out on foot hundreds of Snail Kites are wheeling up from their roost, silhouetted against an orange sky. We walk south along the Transpantaneira towards an area of gallery forest recommended to us by Peter Kaestner. Progress is slow, hampered by a stream of new birds. Buff-bellied Hermit, Turquoise-fronted Parrot, Pale-legged Hornero and Buff-fronted Ibis are all seen in the first half-hour. Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Rusty-fronted Tody-Tyrant and White-lored Spinetail are hot on their heels. A wonderful Yellow-collared Macaw perches in a high treetop and is soon joined by a Chestnut-eared Aracaris.

We have now reached an area where tall gallery forest bounds the road on both sides and here the birding is even better. Buff-breasted Wren and the unicolor race of Thrush-like Wren (whose plain breast doesn't look at all 'thrush-like'!), Rufous Casiornis, Purplish Jay, Great-rufous Woodcreeper, White-crested and Plain Tyrannulets are all notched up. We even get a good view of a normally ultra-elusive family, as a party of Undulated Tinamous feed close to the road. Mammalian stars of the morning are a family of Black-and-gold Howler Monkeys who sit obligingly in the treetops. They get their name by virtue of the fact that males are black and females goldy-brown.

After following a trail through some lower, more scrubby, forest we stumble across a huge, slow moving, bird flock which occupies us for a good hour. Its members include Chestnut-vented Conebill, Hooded and Grey-headed Tanagers, Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Creamy-bellied Thrush, Ashy-headed Greenlet and Green-backed Becard. What a bonus to be able to stay with birds for long enough to identify them rather than chase the tail ends of elusive little brown-jobs through the bushes!

After a session with the photogenic Hyacinth Macaws which nest close to the Pousada Jaguar we start to retrace our steps back north along the Transpantaneira, in the new top-of-the-range hire car which Avis have efficiently delivered. The sky is clear blue and temperatures have soared, so most of the afternoons birding is done with the aid of air-conditioning. The spectacle and numbers of birds is incredible, in particular the egrets and cayman, but we fail to add anything new to the list. Highlight of the drive is an Anaconda, which is spotted cooling down is a shallow roadside pool. At a mere four metres in length it has to be considered a 'baby'!

Dryer areas are characterised by low, scrubby vegetation, presumably secondary in nature, with occasional stands of larger trees. Many of the trees are in flower; in particular a species whose crown sports a mass of bright sulphur-yellow blooms and this phenomenon adds wonderful blobs of colour dotted across the green landscape. Evenly distributed pyramidal termite mounds, constructed of pale earth, dot the regular blocks of grazing pasture. Further evidence of 'natural engineering' is provided on the roadside telegraph poles, which support either spherical hornero nesting 'ovens' or the oversized stick nests of Firewood Gatherers.

The frequent sight of a Hyacinth Macaw further enlightens the journey, often as a huge indigo-blue, long-tailed form flies between its favoured palm grove. Similarly parties of Capybara are a welcome distraction, grazing the short turf in damper areas.

It's late afternoon by the time we reach the turning for Hotel Fazenda Santa Tereza, which takes us away from the Transpantaneira and through scenic pasture lands to the well appointed pousada where we will be spending the night. White-rumped Monjita hunts around the buildings and our first Swallow-tailed Hummingbird feeds in the garden. Dozens of brightly coloured Yellow-billed Cardinals are attracted to grain beside the reception and a particularly affectionate Collared Peccary is quick to welcome us!

We have just enough time for a trip on the Rio Pixaim, so rapidly board the small boat and set off upstream in the wonderful, low late-afternoon sunlight. The Pixaim, around thirty metres wide, meanders tightly between lushly vegetated banks, where the boatman cuts the engine to drift quietly in the gentle current. Cayman and various heron and egret species abound, including some very confiding Boat-bills. A Pale-crested Woodpecker flies low over the river and at the limit of our cruise we take a short walk to an area of open water where a number of Band-tailed Nighthawks are feeding. Great birding but no sign of the promised Agami Heron; where are we going to connect with this most elusive of Neotropical species?

Dinner at the lodge is followed by a rather unproductive night drive along the Transpantaneira so we call it quits and hit the sack early.

Monday 25th August

A grey sky, cold wind and drizzle; this isn't in the brochure! We're amazed to walk out, post breakfast, into a very inhospitable clime. The weather has taken a dramatic turn overnight and fleeces and brolleys need to be deployed. We make our way across the pasture to bird an area of cerrado and gallery forest, accompanied by our now-devoted peccary. The open areas support a number of pairs of both Rufous-fronted and Greater Thornbirds, each with large, hanging nests of thorny twigs.

A Brazilian bird guide, Paulo Boute, who we had bumped into the previous day, has recommended the site to us. Paulo, a rather over-serious fellow, has stated that Mato Grosso Antbird is 'unmissable' at this site. We never like such committed statements and apprehensively enter the gate into the low scrubby woodland.

We have a frustratingly slow start, but our ever-keen peccary does his best to keep up spirits and flush any skulkers from the forest floor. Eventually we hit a flock and again it proves to hold a great diversity of species, many of which are easy to keep up with and actually identify! Lineated Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo and Masked Gnatcatcher are all present in force. Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant and Campo Flycatcher are picked out and next a pair of extremely smart Large-billed Antwrens. As is the case with this genus, sexes are totally different. The male is smartly marked but in uniform black-and-white, while the female has a stunning bright-rufous head and breast. A treetop Helmeted Manakin's appearance is all too brief, but a Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant is much more obliging as it forages at low level.

Hopes of catching up with our 'unmissable' species are fading fast as we reach the edge of the forest, when again we drop on a small feeding flock. An extremely smart Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, with white underparts and supercilium plus a fine yellow bill feeds on a low trunk. Equally impressive Great and Barred Antshrikes perch on low bushes but it is a skulking black bird which grabs our attention. Eventually a fine male Mato Grosso Antbird emerges, jet black with contrasting delicate white edges to its wing covert feathers. Finally on the list and infinitely missable!

The drizzle has stopped by the time we return to the pousada, but it's still cold and grey. Bags are packed and sad farewells made to our peccary as we set off north. A group of Tawny-bellied Seedeaters are seen as we drive out of Santa Tereza, and we have not been back on the Transpantaneira for long when a road-crossing Neotropical River Otter causes an emergency stop. New birds are a little thin on the ground, with Black-backed Water Tyrant being the only trip tick until we stop to study a group of cardinals feeding on the ground beside a café. Here we are very pleased to find a couple of Red-crested Cardinals, which are larger than their Yellow-billed cousins, have paler grey backs, and sport wonderful crests atop crimson-red heads. A pair of White Woodpeckers concludes our Panatanal birding and we leave the Transpantaneira very pleased with the results of our two day whistle-stop tour of this fantastic site.

Back on paved roads we soon make Cuiaba, to be greeted at dusk by rush-hour traffic and persistent rain. Eventually we navigate through the sprawling city and find the familiar road north to Chapada dos Guimaraes. Upon entering the National Park and climbing the escarpment we enter a bank of low cloud and drizzle. By the time we reach Chapada Town the drizzle has become torrential rain and it's blowing a gale! Our walk to the restaurant takes us past palm trees shaking violently in the winds and as we later plan our attack for the following morning we can't help but wonder if we'll be getting out of the car at all if this weather persists.

Tuesday 26th August

"The shower's on fire!" A close brush with electrocution is not a good way to start the day, as flames flicker from the nest of old wires that feed the water heating apparatus. Things don't get better when we take a look out of the dining room window and see a misty windswept scene in the gathering light. Fortunately Ralph, the friendly proprietor of the Hotel Tourismo, is the purveyor of one of the best breakfasts in all Brazil! Ten different breads, eight sliced meats and four cheeses make the decisions difficult but as the weather looks so uninviting we decide to work our way through each in turn. After copious amounts of food, washed down with gallons of excellent fruit juice and strong coffee, we decide to risk the outdoors.

Picking our way through the thick low cloud we find the turning to the much-fabled Agua Fria Road and follow its dirt surface out of the town and into the cerrado. The road traverses the first ridge and unbelievably we drive into clear sky! We can't believe our luck as the cloud lifts before our eyes and by 08.00 we are bathed in glorious sunshine. Now that the area is fully visible we can see why it is credited with such an impressive species list. The brick-red dirt road cuts through vast, rolling swathes of scrubby bushes and patchy grassland making pristine cerrado habitat.

We park up just beyond a rather unsightly rubbish dump and find that the area is alive with birds. Dazzling crimson Red-crested Finches are common with many feeding on the dirt road. Black-throated Saltator, one of the more distinctive members of the genus, is numerous in the scrub, as is the boldly marked White-rumped Tanager. Wing-banded Tanagers do convincing impressions of Great Grey Shrikes and every other fence post seems to support a Burrowing Owl!

A number of pairs of the near-endemic Rufous-winged Antshrike are located, the smart males having neat black caps, barred chests and, not surprisingly, rufous wings. Black-faced Tanager is another new bird and very straightforward to identify, but one of our main targets at this site presents a few more problems. When a family party of flycatchers is found, which we strongly suspect of being 'the boys', copious notes are taken. A little post-trip research later proves that these distinctive birds, overall pale grey with faint wingbars and 'super, plus a pale lemon wash to the lower belly and undertail, are indeed Chapada Flycatchers. This newly described endemic, only a separate species since 2001, has yet to make an appearance in a field guide.

The nondescript Plain-crested Elaenia is the common flycatcher of the area, but in total contrast our first White-eared Puffbird can only be described as stunning. With white breast, contrasting black cap and neck patch and large orange bill, he sits kookaburra-like on a high vantagepoint. This little flurry has all taken place within two hundred metres of the car, already gaining this site the accolade of one of the best visited, and we now continue along the road hardly daring to imagine what will appear next!

We come to a halt close to a small chapel, a couple of kilometres further to the north. First bird we clap our bins on is another major target, the stunning little Coal-crested Finch. The male's white cheeks contrast with warm peachy underparts and a black throat and crest. We find that the Finch is actually not uncommon in this particular area of cerrado, mixing with the large numbers of Plumbeous Seedeaters feeding amongst the grasses.

Next bird is the endemic Cinnamon Tanager and then a pair of extremely handsome Rusty-backed Antwrens. Upon returning to the car we all concur that the weird laughing call that we have been listening to must be that of Red-legged Seriema. It obviously has ventriloqual qualities, but we agree on the apparent source and set off through the cerrado. A sweaty hour later and we have nothing to show for our troubles; this performance is set to have many a repeat run in the week to follow!

A final session of cerrado-bashing a little further north produces a split-second Collared Crescentchest and a Tataupa Tinamou which is only marginally more obliging. Another seriema-chase leaves us with Wedge-tailed Grassfinch and a very nice Red Brocket Deer, but predictably no seriema.

Considering the foggy start it's been a totally stunning morning and we treat ourselves to coffee and cake at a café overlooking the very scenic forested valley below Chapada town. Our gen has been very reliable up to now, but falls down badly when we try to locate an area of allegedly good forest at a site called Portao Da Fe. After a number of circuits of the 'Chapada Ringroad' we cut our losses and head up the Radio Station Road which is considerably more obvious. Here we round off the day walking a road that passes through some blocks of good mature forest, though access away from the tarmac proves difficult. We still manage a few new birds, however, in the shape of Lettered Aracaris, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Curl-crested Jay and Yellow-ridged Toucan. We even pull in a mammal tick, when an Azara's Agouti runs across a roadside field.

Plans for a wild evening of celebration are thwarted when we find that the wine in our favoured Fellipe Restaurant has a distinct twang of antifreeze and we have to resort to the usual bottles of tasteless Skol, the ubiquitous Brazilian beverage.

Wednesday 27th August

We will find Portao De Fe if it kills us! Ralph's monster breakfast is taken early and we depart with his advice on how to locate the fabled forest. There is obviously some sort of breakdown in the Brazilian to English communication and yet again we find ourselves touring the remote corners of Chapada town becoming more and more frustrated.

Having all but given up on ever locating the site we are driving west, away from the town, when we miraculously spot a sign for 'Portao De Fe'. It is nowhere near where either our report or the good hotellier have indicated! In an elated state we make our way through the huddle of buildings, which make up the Centro De Trinamento Ami, to the lushly forested valley beyond.

Instantly we are amongst a bird flock and see Chivi Vireo, White-Bellied Warbler, Green-barred Woodpecker and Plain Antvireo. Following a dirt road to a small village in the valley bottom we find the cultivated areas to be full of birds. Numerous tanagers, Purple-throated and Thick-billed Euphonias plus White-wedged Piculet feed in a fruiting tree, as the scents of wood-smoke and cooking breakfast drift temptingly past. Exotic blooms of flowering bushes are attracting scores of hummingbirds, including Cinnamon-breasted Hermit, Long-billed Starthroat, White-vented Violetear and a single Dot-eared Coquette.

It's a wonderful setting but with one eye on the watch, and an afternoon flight to catch, we make our way back to the woodland for another stint amongst the huge trees. This time the highlights are a very smart Moustached Wren, a superbly obliging Small-billed Tinamou that crouches and shows us its cryptically dotted undertail, Planalto Woodcreeper and a Southern Amazonian Red Squirrel.

Our drive back to Cuiaba includes brief stops at both Veu De Noiva and the National Park Campsite, but the sun is now high and little of avian interest is recorded in the heat of the day. The hire car is dumped, a wad of postcards hastily penned, and we board our flight back towards the Atlantic.

Upon arrival at Sao Paulo all goes smoothly until Localiza produce a vehicle the size of a Ford Ka into which we are all expected to squeeze. A rapid rescheduling ensues and by 22.00 we are heading into downtown Sao Paulo in a nice shiny Fiat estate.

Navigating across Sao Paolo, a city of over twenty million people, is quite an experience. The local equivalent of the M25, which runs parallel to the Rio Tiete, is in a state of reconstruction but we battle onwards past a series of huge, brightly-lit shopping centres and hotels. MK's navigation, with a less than adequate roadmap, comes up with the goods and after less than an hour we emerge on a superb northbound multi-lane toll road.

Thursday 28th August

The miles are eaten up on the new tarmac, but by 01.00 we are starting to get dangerously tired.

Before we left the UK, Peter Kaestner had informed us that if we became weary on an overnight drive and needed a few hours sleep we should book into a 'love motel'. These shrines are distributed quite widely and are paid for by the hour! A 'love motel' duly appears in the distance, easily picked out by the glowing pink neon heart adorning the rooftop. MK, our public relations specialist, approaches the hatch to secure our accommodation and is heard to utter the unforgettable lines "We're English, we just want to sleep, no shaggy-shaggy", to a bewildered cashier!

A few minutes later we are settling down for a much-needed couple of hour's shut-eye. The scene is unforgettable; a luxurious, marbled-tiled and gold-tapped room with four hairy blokes lying shoulder to shoulder on a huge circular bed below a mirrored ceiling! We don't have time for intimacy, however, as the alarm blasts out at 03.00 a.m. and we're soon back on the road. Slowly the grey sky brightens to reveal rolling hills and a series of extensive lakes. The hillsides are largely cleared for pasture with an occasional block of cerrado remaining.

In the course of our travels it has become apparent that the scale of our map has helped to disguise the vastness of Brazil. A small dot on the map regularly turns out to be a city the size of Nottingham which must then be navigated with no street plan and minimal signposts! We persevere, however, and eventually find the appropriate road complete with an arrow to Serra da Canastra. The tarmac turns to dirt without warning at 100 km/h and then winds onwards through the deforested hills.

An obliging roadside Tataupa Tinamou and a fly-over Muscovy Duck cause momentary distractions, but our minds are now focussed on one thing. Every trip has its target birds and in Brazil one species stands out from the rest. It was probably fifteen years previously that Nick Gardner had shown some slides of his groundbreaking travels in South America and one particular image had always stuck in my mind. It was taken through some branches and partially obscured, showing a pair of dark sawbill ducks swimming along a forested stream. Nick had described the bird's great rarity but it meant little at the time.

Brazilian Merganser is the most threatened duck in the World, with less than 250 individuals surviving, and was for long thought to be extinct until rediscovery in 1948. It is now also a Brazilian endemic, with populations in surrounding countries seemingly extinct. An inhabitant of shallow, fast-flowing rivers it is also reliant on surrounding stands of gallery forest within cerrado vegetation. Habitat destruction and hunting have brought it to the verge of extinction and now Serra Da Canastra is undoubtedly the best site in the world to search for this highly sought-after species.

Soon after passing through the small town of Vargem Bonita, the Rio Sao Francisco comes into view. The watercourse is no more than thirty metres wide and snakes through a scenic though sparsely forested valley whose backdrop is the huge rocky escarpment of the Serra da Canastra National Park, its summit disappearing into the low cloud base. Soon the dusty road descends to run close by the crystal clear and often turbulent waters and we park up to begin our quest.

Having arrived in a totally new area we are confronted by a very different set of birds. White-rumped Swallows swoop overhead and Sooty Tyrranulets hunt from the large sandstone boulders that line the river. White-barred Piculet and the endemic Yellow-lored Tody-Flycatcher are seen in the scrub beside the river and upon returning to the parked car a male Helmeted Manakin appears at eye-level next to the road. Jet black, with bright crimson mantle, crown and spiky forward-facing 'helmet', he really is a stunner.

In spite of some great birds the tension begins to mount as the hours tick by and more of the riverbank is scoured. Constantly calling, but seemingly invisible Seriemas do nothing for the morale! It is actually a surprisingly disturbed area, with vehicles constantly bumping along the road close by the river, and much of the surrounding forest has been cleared. Do we move on or do we continue the search of this section of the river? No one will admit it but we all know that seeing this one bird will, to a large extent, make or break the trip. With shoulders drooping lower, we set off in different directions to continue the search.

Distant muffled cries turn to a clearly audible "Merganser!" as a red-faced MK comes running over the brow of a hill. In a panicked instant we're all back in the car and speeding to the location of his find. Falling from the car and onto the dusty road, a frantic few minutes pass by until the dark forms of four large ducks are located swimming upriver. The views are brief, but conclusive, as the birds round a bend in the Sao Francisco. The mixed emotions of relief and elation are released in a flurry of expletives and hugging, from which MK is lucky to escape unscathed!

So we all have Brazilian Merganser on our lists, but now we want to see them properly. They are incredibly elusive and a further two hours is spent clambering through dense undergrowth and slipping on wet boulders before we eventually have the family party in an accessible position. The pair of adults with two almost fully-grown young are resting on some riverside rocks and allow our concealed approach to within 40 metres. Now that we are able to study them properly we can see that they are not only extremely rare but also very attractive birds. The adults have deep, bottle-green heads with shaggy double crests trailing behind, that of the male being somewhat longer than the females. The male's elongated tertials drape over the twin white windows of his folded speculum, which appears larger and more obvious than that of the female. Paler underparts are intricately barred darker and when he raises himself to stand the male shows bright orange-red legs. The two younger birds have a dark brownish crown and nape which contrasts with pale throat and fore-neck, giving the impression of a giant 'redhead' Smew, but with large white eyelids!

When the birds decide to swim back upstream we leave them in peace and float back to the car on a euphoric high. We have just seen the best duck in the world, the pressure is off and we can enjoy the rest of this superb area.

A small marsh en route back to Vargem Bonita has resident Blackish Rail and Yellow-rumped Marshbirds and, almost as importantly, the town serves a good selection of cold drinks and confectionery. It's a sleepy little place of whitewashed walls and red tile roofs and we receive a cheery welcome from the friendly locals who seem to want to make quite a fuss of their gringo birding guests. As we eat our corned beef sandwiches a lady dressed in black, who looks at least 100 years old, pauses from her knitting to watch us in a bemused manner. Lazy Latin American music drifts from an open window and across the deserted town square where the clock on the ornately-painted Catholic Church chimes on the hour at three o'clock. We're in another world with a different pace of life and it all looks rather appealing.

As we eat our picnic lunch a Yellow-browed Tyrant perches on a telephone wire and a Planalto Hermit visits a flowering shrub. Our gen makes reference to a certain house which puts out hummingbird feeders but our attempts to ask directions are futile and we end up driving the streets until we chance upon the said residence, attracted by some wire-perching hummers. The garden is filled with hummingbirds of half a dozen species, but it is the endemic Stripe-throated Starthroats that are the main attraction as they are rarely seen at any other site.

With our targets for the day well and truly bagged we set off toward Sao Roque De Minas where we intend to spend the next couple of nights. En route we see a pair of endemic Golden-capped Parakeets and witness a brief flypast by a couple of Great Dusky Swifts. With our accommodation secured we carry on past Sao Roque and climb up the dirt road towards the National Park entrance. Above the limit of cultivation the hillsides are covered in low scrub and an occasional small tree. The backdrop is amazing, with the Park's cerrado-shrouded, rugged mountains overshadowing a steeply cut wooded valley below.

Good birds have been seen in the past from a small track to Capao Farro and as we walk steeply downhill we are pleasantly surprised that most are still there! Grey Pileated Finch, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Green-winged Saltator and Cinereous Warbling-Finch are all new birds; we really can't believe just how successful the day has been. Eye-shine on the track as we descend in the dark turns out to be a Band-winged Nightjar that is dazzled by the lights and allows approach to within touching distance. What a finale!

A fine celebratory dinner is taken in the Paredao Da Canastra, where consumption of the excellent vegetarian pizza is constantly interrupted by visits from the proprietor's gorgeous daughters who are keen to practice their English. Reluctantly we oblige!

Friday 29th August

Having taken an early breakfast in our hotel, the Casca D'Anita, we play out another game of 'Chase the Seriema' which can actually be heard from inside our room! The results are predictable, but we do find a Grey Monjita during our abortive search.

As on the previous day, the upper level of the Park is shrouded in low cloud. We spend some time below the cloud base, with Scaly-headed Parrot the highlight, but soon the air of anticipation gets the better of us and we climb into the mist. After paying a minimal entrance fee at the gates we make our way higher, past dark bushes and strangely shaped montane plant species that drift in and out of the mist. A pair of Spotted Nothuras feed beside the track but we doubt whether we will be able to see anything smaller in these conditions.

Stopping at our first 'stakeout' we start to clamber about in the damp bushes, below a buzzing power line, making the most of any thinning of the clouds. MK hears a distinctive call, shouts us over and soon we are all enjoying spectacular views of a ridiculously obliging Brazilia Tapaculo. This highly localised endemic should skulk at ground level in the densest vegetation, but instead he chooses to hop through the open branches of some shrubs that span a small stream! A few minutes later a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper is even more showy as it sings from an exposed roadside perch in response to playback of its call.

We work our way slowly upwards, wondering what is hopping and flying through the dense mist, until at 10.30 the clouds miraculously part and the Sun beams down on a stunning landscape from the deep blue sky. The panorama is of rolling hills, with the plateau of Serra da Canastra National Park stretching to the horizon. The brown grassland is punctuated with tall red termite mounds and small shrubs, many of which are bearing flowers of vivid violet and yellow shades.

We park up and follow the line of a shallow valley, through a carpet of flowering plants and with the line of the watercourse marked by a winding string of lush green shrubs. A Red-winged Tinamou is flushed from the grass and whirrs away on distinctive rufous primaries. Great Pampa Finches and Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finches are common, but it is a distant black-and-white bird perched on a termite mound that is our first real target of this habitat. After a little cautious stalking we are within photographic distance of a cracking little Cock-tailed Tyrant, so named because of its bizarrely erect tail, which is even maintained in its display flight. With immaculate pied plumage and a blunt yellow bill, this migrant flycatcher is a very local bird of east-central South American grasslands.

Minutes later we have located a pair of endemic Grey-backed Tachuris, which we are still admiring when a Sharp-tailed Tyrant pops us in the same clump of vegetation! Looking totally unlike the illustration in 'Souza', this stunning bird resembles a bright Whinchat with a long, spiky tail. In the same valley Ochre-breasted Pipits perform their song-flight, a pair of Spix's Spintails work through the low vegetation and a distant Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle hangs in the wind.

Clearing the brow of a low hill we come across a Giant Anteater who is just as surprised as us by the unexpected meeting. He turns tail and trots off up the hillside with a surprising turn of speed. We drive a little further through the Park and at the next stop see a low-flying Aplomado Falcon and an all-too-brief Black-masked Finch. Our Giant Anteater luck is clearly in and a few kilometres later another animal is spotted, this time a female which is actually carrying her infant in piggyback. Giant Anteaters have notoriously poor eyesight and hearing, so by approaching upwind we manage to creep to within an amazing five metres of the feeding animals. The female uses her powerful claws to rip open termite mounts and lick up the multitude of tiny inhabitants while her offspring nonchalantly sways around on the top deck. The young anteater, an exact miniature replica of his mother, with mis-proportioned long drooping snout, huge bushy tail and boldly striped flanks, occasionally shows us his long, thin pink tongue. Another incredible moment in this incredible country.

Further progress is briefly halted when Lesser Nothura, an endemic and our third tinamou of the day, is caught loitering on the road. Finding a spot with a suitably panoramic outlook we unpack our provisions and set about making a few sandwiches. We've only consumed a few bites when GF casually asks, "Does anyone want Maned Wolf?" Corned beef and tomatoes fly in all directions as we grab cameras and optics. On a ridge, maybe a kilometre away, is the unmistakable form of a Maned Wolf. Discarding our dinner we set off in pursuit as the Wolf disappears over the rise.

The Maned Wolf is distributed through central Brazil, Peru and Paraguay, though it's former range included parts of Uruguay and Argentina. Habitat destruction and persecution have led to extinction over much of it's former range and it is now listed in the CITES 'endangered' category. Taxonomically it is a very interesting species, being far removed from all other canids. It seems to be the sole surviving member of a South American genus, making it totally unique. The largest South American canid, at a metre in height, it is primarily a nocturnal species. This makes our observation particularly interesting, though daytime occurrences seem to be far from unusual at Canastra.

We rapidly cover the ground to the ridge, over which the wolf disappeared, passing another Giant Anteater en route! Carefully peering over the brow we find that we are less than 70 metres from this most awesome of creatures. A Maned Wolf gives more of an impression of a long-legged fox than a true wolf, though it's actual taxonomic affinity is close to neither. His coat is rich red-brown and rather long, causing it to shimmer in the breeze. With a fox-like face and oversized ears, which constantly adjust alignment, he obviously has the most acute of hearing. A blackish 'mane' runs down the hind-neck and shoulders, giving the English name to the species, and the long bushy tail ends in an extensive white tip which is visible at great distance. The most distinctive feature of this stunning animal, however, are its long legs extensively black over their tibial portion. This is clearly an adaptation to life in an environment predominated by long grass, and he demonstrates their usefulness as we continue to watch, totally engrossed in his every move.

Being careful not to disturb him, we follow in what is obviously a hunt for small mammals which inhabit the grassland. Upon hearing his quarry he makes a series of pounces into the grassy clumps, in an identical manner to the Ethiopian Wolf, which hunts similar prey in a similar habitat but a whole continent away. We watch him gulp down an unfortunate mammal in one go, then continue his search for more.

Our Maned Wolf experience lasts for nearly an hour, until he crosses a marshy area and we decide it is best to leave him to hunt in peace. Our concluding vision is of this incredible animal walking elegantly away though short grass, with long dark legs clearly visible and white tail tip trailing behind. It is a trip of many highlights, but our wolf is right at the top of the list.

We can't leave without a visit to the Casca D'Anta waterfall, a famous site where the Rio Sao Francisco descends from the plateau to the valley far below, but sadly we only have time for the briefest of looks at this incredibly beautiful spot. Close to the waterfall a Least Nighthawk is feeding high over the cerrado and a distant pair of Greater Rheas graze, while a male Band-winged Nightjar is seen on the ground during our twilight journey back. A quick tally reveals that we have seen no fewer than eleven Giant Anteaters in the course of the visit to the park.

Another amazing day is concluded with another celebratory meal in the company of our new friends at Paredao Da Canastra, which includes an impromptu display of playing card tricks from the ever-obliging proprietor!

Saturday 30th August

Our host at the Casca D'Anita has clearly had a heavy night and there seems to be plenty of alcohol still in his bloodstream as breakfast is served somewhat later than usual! Having done no true forest birding in the Canastra area we set out to find some suitable habitat and eventually track down a block of good forest close to the town of San Jose Barreiro and south of the Rio Sao Francisco. For some reason one small valley seems to have escaped the axe, surrounded on all sides by agricultural land.

We have a long day of travelling ahead, so limit ourselves to a strict two hours but this brief slot proves highly productive. Variable Antshrike, Plush-crested Jay, Reddish-bellied Parakeet and White-shouldered Fire-Eye are all recorded, but the best bird isn't even a tick. A fantastic male Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, jet black with shiny flame-red bib, is located low in a tree. As we watch he inflates a chest pouch, extending his dazzling ruff, and lets out a deep booming call. Good looks at a pair of Tufted-ear Marmosets complete our allotted time and then we're off for a long drive east.

The roads are good but the drive to Cipo is a bit of a grueller, made much worse by the fact that we have to negotiate the huge sprawling expanse of Belo Horizonte en route. The drive takes around six-and-a-half hours in all, through a fairly uninspiring landscape of pasture and arable fields, and we arrive at Cipo with just an hour of daylight to spare.

Apparently a new road has been constructed up the steep hillside and through the established birding sites but we are armed with an up-to-date map, tried and tested by Peter Kaestner, and we decide to carry out a quick recce of the area. Beyond the group of hotels and shops that are clustered around the Serra do Cipo National Park entrance, the tarmac turns to dirt and begins to wind steeply up the side of a series of dry rocky hillsides. The scenery is spectacular as the hills rise abruptly from a low plateau, but soon we are entering the low cloud-base and visibility falls accordingly.

Following our directions to the letter we park beside the appropriate road gully and set off on foot. After clambering about in the difficult, undulating terrain for half an hour and just about managing not to get lost in the dense mist, we are fairly happy that we have the correct spot for the morning's assault.

Back down in the town we find a superbly appointed and remarkably cheap couple of rooms at the Pousada Das Bromelias and plan our attack on Cipo over steak and chips.

Sunday 31st August

The rooms are wonderful, the breakfast is awesome! Despite much strong competition the stunning array of fine breakfast fare at the Bromelias has to be the best yet. Full to bursting-point we set off up the hill.

Clouds still shroud the summit so we spend the first hour concentrating on some scrub at lower altitude. Blue-winged Parrotlet and Hepatic Tanager are amongst a handful of new birds. We also catch up with our first dazzling little endemic Hyacinth Visorbearer, with deep indigo underparts and creamy breast band, cut by a shining green 'visor'.

Ascending to the site scouted on the previous evening, and finding the sky now clear, we set out in a determined search for Cipo Canestero, an unobtrusive little endemic furnariid only discovered as recently as 1988. The next five hours are spent searching every inch of the bleak hillside, consisting of tough, dry grassland and weathered limestone crags. In one slightly more vegetated gully we eke out Grey-backed Tachuri, Cinereous Warbling-Finch, Pale-throated Serra-Finch and numerous Visorbearers, but the Canestero fails to show. We really can't figure out what is going wrong and try different sites at different altitudes but all to no avail.

The sky is clear and the heat intense so we take a break for a cold one and a chance to weigh up our options. Another slog at the original site gets the casting vote and we retrace our steps. In the late afternoon sunlight the scenery is spectacular, with the dark-grey, wind-etched crags meeting a deep-blue sky above a waving sea of grassland. The splendour is sadly tainted by the lack of our target bird however, and at 17.00 we reluctantly call it quits. Presumably Cipo Canesteros spend their lives burrowing under bloody rocks?

Most trips produce one 'site from hell' and this is certainly ours. The daft thing is that someone else could visit the same site the next day, see the target birds in half an hour and leave extolling the virtues of the place! Such is the unpredictability of birding and reason why it is usually so much fun.

The next four hours are spent travelling towards Caraca, our birding site for the following morning. Navigation proves extremely tricky with our small-scale map and the dark roads are torturously winding and strewn with huge articulated lorries. Finally we arrive at Santa Barbara, the nearest town to Serra De Caraca, and are amazed to find an incredibly picturesque little colonial settlement with cobbled streets and historic whitewashed buildings.

We drop on a brilliant little local restaurant, the Uai, where the wonderful Cristhina soon brushes aside the memories of our terrible day. We have a fantastic evening of food, drink and broken-English merriment, so good in fact that we are locked out of our hotel, where some persistent door-hammering is required to secure our late-night entry.

Monday 1st September

A daylight inspection reveals the true grandeur of the Hotel Quadrado. Presumably dating back to early Portuguese colonial times, the high-ceilinged rooms have thick shutters on the windows and huge rough-sawn wooden floorboards underfoot. The décor is immaculate in taste and application and the bathroom could win design awards! As per usual, however, there is little time to admire our surroundings as there are birds to be found. Breakfast is consumed in a cavernous banqueting hall, with an open balcony overlooking the cobbled street below and we vacate our incredible lodgings as first light brightens the Town Square.

It's half an hour's drive to the Parque Natural do Caraca entrance gates, where we are lucky to time our arrival to coincide with a car load of staff who let us in early. The Parque protects 27,000 acres of pristine forest centred around Caraca Monastery and it is to this landmark that the winding entrance road leads us. After a lengthy drive we finally round a bend to see the amazingly atmospheric sight of the Monastery's tall spire poking out from a veil of mist which carpets a low valley set in lush forest.

Our chosen spot for the morning is the Tanque Grand Trail, which cuts through the forest close to the Monastery. We seem to have made the right choice and are instantly met by a mixed flock of gorgeous Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted Tanagers in an explosion of metallic greens, yellows and blues. Eastern Slaty Antshrike, Pallid Spinetail, Blue-naped Chlorophonia and Rufous-crowned Greenlet are new birds, but the star has to be lured out of the dense undergrowth by recorded playback. Eventually a pair of stunning, endemic Serra Antwrens emerges beside the track. The male is a rich rufous-brown above, with black face and underparts, narrowly fringed white.

Ochre-rumped Antbird and Black-capped Antwren are also new additions, as is the endemic Wied's Tyrant-Manakin which makes a brief appearance high in the canopy. Thoroughly satisfied with our couple of hours in the forest we drive on to check out the Monastery and surrounding area. A large flowering tree beside the car park is attracting a stream of hummingbirds, which zoom in and out of the canopy uttering high-pitched calls. Brazilian Ruby, White-throated Hummingbird, Violet-capped Woodnymph and the striking Black Jacobin are all present in force, as well as our first Golden-chevroned Tanagers.

Caraca Monastery, built in 1717, was Brazil's first Gothic church. Overlooking a low, forested valley, it is a most impressive structure with a tall, slender spire standing above ornate, weathered stonework and impressive flights of steps. High whitewashed terraces flank the main Monastery building, and these in turn overlook a neatly manicured garden terrace. Here regular feeding entices the forest birds and Dusky-legged Guans flock to the surrounding trees, while Magpie and Ruby-crowned Tanagers feed on the steps with a large flock of Yellow-bellied Seedeaters. Velvety Black-Tyrants hunt from abutment walls, so close that wine-red throat patches are clearly visible. The Monastery and its wild surroundings exude a deeply tranquil quality and yet again it's a struggle to leave this wonderful setting. The final big drive of the trip lies ahead, however, and at 11.00 we set a course for Sao Paulo.

The brief leg to Belo Horizonte takes us round bend after bend on the road endured the previous evening, but once we reach the city multi-lane carriageways commence and we make surprisingly quick progress through the urban concrete sprawl of the huge city. A mass of tower blocks stretch far into the distance beyond which are never ending low-rise suburbs; it all seems rather out-of-place for a city that is, to all intents and purposes, in the middle of nowhere.

Back in a rural landscape the fast dual carriageway takes us on a winding route through deforested hills converted to pasture and arable crops. The small pockets of remnant forest and scrub seem to be in a process of constant removal and the plumes of smoke from clearance fires seem to be permanently in view at some point on the horizon. And this is pretty much the same story for the next eight hours, the time it takes to reach Sao Paulo. A predictably frantic struggle through lane-after-lane of slow-moving traffic ensues. This time, though, we don't even need a map to tell us that we have reached the 'M25' as the stench from the Rio Tiete, seemingly an open sewer, informs our nostrils that we are heading in the right direction.

The hire-car is dumped at the airport and we jump onto a courtesy bus to our chosen hotel. Our driver clearly has ambitions to emulate his Brazilian Grand Prix heroes and it is very fitting that we tear, at break-neck speed, along road named in honour of Ayrton Senna!

After a rather mediocre dinner at the Best Western we go to bed on the thoughts of the final, and potentially most amazing, leg of the trip. For the next six days we will be birding in the fabled Brazilian Atlantic Forest.

Tuesday 2nd September

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest region forms a wide band, running essentially parallel with the coast and some 500 kilometres wide, between the Rio Grande do Norte and the Rio Grande do Sul. It owes its existence to the elevated atmospheric humidity brought by maritime winds. The humid winds condense when reaching the coastline and climbing to the higher altitudes of the Serra do Mar mountain range, to bring large volumes of rain to the region.

Because of its isolation from the main rainforest blocks of South America, the Atlantic Forest has evolved an extremely diverse and unique mix of vegetation and forest types. The region can actually be split into two areas. The Coastal Atlantic Forest is of relatively low elevation and stretches in a narrow strip 50 to 100 kilometres wide. The Interior Atlantic Forest stretches over the foothills of the Serra do Mar and related mountain ranges and reaches altitudes approaching 3000 metres.

The entire Atlantic Forest region once included more than 1.4 million square kilometres of tropical and subtropical rainforest. Large-scale destruction of the Forest began four hundred years ago with the arrival of the Europeans. First valuable timber was cut and then the fertile lands of the coastal plain were converted to agriculture, where coffee, banana and rubber plantations flourished. Now only eight per cent of the original area remains, mainly in the south-east of the original range, where a landscape of steep escarpments has made access difficult. These areas are centred on the slopes of the Serra do Mar Mountains in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Parana States.

The habits within the Atlantic Forest, and the birds that rely upon them, are now amongst the most endangered on Earth. Our remaining six days are to be spent in this incredibly important and fragile area, certainly the most important in which we have ever been birding. It is a very short space of time in which to attempt to catch up with a huge number of extremely rare and localised species, but we have a secret weapon up our sleeves with which we intend to maximise the use of every last hour. We have enlisted the services of Edson Endrigo (, reputed to be amongst the best bird guides in Brazil; the next six days will establish whether he can live up to our extremely high expectations!

At 05.30 a jovial and enthusiastic Edson meets us in the hotel lobby. He introduces us to our driver, Juarez, we load our belongings into the spacious white minibus and are soon heading east and away from Sao Paulo. Edson explains his plans for the next few days, as we get to know each other over a breakfast-stop on the outskirts of town. He also guarantees that Juarez has been specifically selected for his level-headed qualities and lack of the local Ayrton Senna driving mentality! We are instantly endeared to the young Sao Paulan, of Italian descent, and soon realise that he is superbly organised and certainly means business on the birding front. A successful ex-mineral dealer, he is also a brilliant bird photographer, as reference to recent editions of the Handbook of the Birds of the World will testify. He has now turned his attentions to virtually full-time bird guiding, where his skills honed in the pursuit of photographic perfection can be employed to please fare-paying foreign birders in search of the most elusive Atlantic Forest endemics.

Eventually we turn off the main Sao Paulo to Rio road and head south, first through low, dry hills and then into pristine tracts of lush Atlantic Forest. The highest peaks are shrouded in wet, misty cloud but as we start to descend the steep, winding road towards the coast the weather brightens. Marvellous views are afforded over the dark-green forested lower slopes, to the coastal town of Ubatuba and the turquoise-blue Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Our first destination is a site well known in Brazilian birding literature, Fazenda Angelim, located close to Ubatuba. A fezenda is a Brazilian farm, but Angelim is far removed from any farms that we have ever seen. It is actually a large tract of prime Coastal Atlantic Forest, virtually at sea level, owned and preserved by a conservation-minded Norwegian couple.

We have scarcely exited the minibus when dazzling Brazilian and Red-necked Tanagers and not-quite-so-dazzling Black-goggled Tanagers are located in the low canopy. A large timber gate and high fence separate the fazenda from the cultivated land closer to the town, and entering the gate we make our way down a wide track through the lush, damp forest. Yellow-legged Thrushes are common and a male White-bearded Manakin materialises a few metres away.

Edson immediately sets to work, taping in a stunning Ferruginous Antbird with black-and-white striped head-pattern and rich rufous-orange underparts. Rufous-headed and Flame-crested Tanagers follow, along with Plain Parakeet. The haunting chimes of Bare-throated Bellbirds have been audible since our arrival and soon one is located, calling from a bare branch high in the canopy.

The wide, grassy trail continues for no more than two hundred metres before opening out into a large clearing in the forest where a number of small buildings have been constructed. The presence of this development has no adverse effects on the bird populations, however, with new species coming so thick and fast that we struggle to keep up with our notes! Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker and an outrageous pair of Blonde-crested Woodpeckers, with massive peroxide-tinged hair-dos, frequent the cleared area. Also in this area is a Buff-bellied Puffbird, a recent split from White-necked Puffbird and now a scarce Atlantic Forest speciality in its own right.

As we progress beyond the clearing and further up the trail, the true bird-conjuring skills of Edson become more and more apparent. His acute hearing plucks out the briefest call of a distant target species before it is recorded or tempted closer by playback. Astonishingly he will regularly have more than one species on the go at once, sometimes whistling one whilst delivering playback to another or juggling alternate cassettes to keep two species interested. His cassette juggling exploits, between pockets, player and case are destined to become a source of entertainment over the next few days; not that there are any bird-less moments which need filling by such a sideshow!

Next new bird is the excellent little Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant, followed instantly by an awesome duo of Tufted and Spot-backed Antshrikes. Spotted Bamboowren takes more luring from the dense bamboo, but soon this amazing tapaculo is sitting in full view at eye-level, displaying it's long, cocked tailed and intricately dotted plumage. The first of many Star-throated Antwrens and dazzling Blue Manakins follow, but the pair of beautifully-marked Scaled Antbirds are a much greater prize.

Sao Paulo Tyrannulet is a good endemic tick and even better is the owner of a fantastic rich, tumbling call that emanates from the dark forest floor. Again a good deal of playback is required before the dark form of a Slaty Bristlefront, with a strange spiky crest protruding from his forehead, hops into view through a tangle of low branches. White-eyed and Ochre-breasted Foliage-Gleaners forage in mid-canopy at the limit of our trek, before we start a slow walk back towards the entrance.

Returning to the clearing another session with the tape recorder lures in a pair of much-hoped-for Buff-throated Purpletufts to the treetops overhead. These tiny cotingas resemble upright piculets, with distinctive barred underparts and a warm buff throat, but rarely any purple tufts! A pair of Spot-breasted Antvireos boost the 'antperson' list still further, before the arrival of what is arguably the morning's star-attraction. Taped to the floor and in full view at the edge of the track, a crippling male Squamate Antbird displays by raising his tail and opening his mantle feathers to display a dorsal snowball of white.

Even now we haven't finished and before we reach the gate we add a superb, static Saw-billed Hermit, Streak-capped Antwren and Black-capped Foliage-Gleaner to our immense list. It's 13.15 and we've just had possibly the best four hours of quality, non-stop birding in our lives! Heads spinning, we drive through the extremely smart up-market resort-town of Ubatuba to a well-appointed sea-front restaurant. Here we watch Kelp Gulls and Magnificent Frigatebirds feed in the bay as we feast on fine seafood and run through the totally unbelievable highlights of our first morning in the incomparable Atlantic Forest.

Rapidly depositing our bags at the splendid-looking Recanto das Palmeiras Pousada, where we will be spending the night, we leave Ubatuba and follow the winding coast-road south. Passing sheltered bays that harbour expensive yachts and golden sandy beaches, we finally turn inland and onto an obscure dirt road known as the Folha Seca Trail. Bumping through an area of open secondary growth, a brief stop produces an endemic Red-eyed Thornbird, before we enter another block of fantastic Coastal Atlantic Forest.

Our first forest-stop delivers Unicoloured Antwren and a pair of exquisite Black-cheeked Gnateaters. Resembling tiny antpittas, the male has a stunning head-pattern of black mask contrasting with bright chestnut crown. A little further on we tape out a wonderfully obliging Long-billed Wren, and next the set of both Tawny-throated and Rufous-breasted Leaftossers. Lesser Woodcreeper, Reddish Hermit and Neotropical River Warbler are all new trip birds and we conclude the day with Rufous-capped Motmot and White-throated Woodcreeper.

Back in Ubatuba we dine on the finest pizza and a number of celebratory beers. Any doubts about our choice of guide have been exorcised without trace and we go to bed high on a mixture of euphoria and excited anticipation.

Wednesday 3rd September

From the veranda of our pousada we have a clear view of the forested hillsides high above Ubatuba and from the appearance of the prevailing cloud Edson predicts that it will be a good morning to make an assault on some forest at a much higher altitude.

Retracing the steep, winding route which had brought us down to Ubatuba on the previous morning we arrive at Nucleo Santa Virginia, a state-run national park at an elevation of approximately 900 metres. Thankfully we're just below the cloud base, though wisps of mist periodically drift through the trees and occasional light drizzle dampens the lush foliage.

First tick after vacating the minibus is Shear-tailed Grey-Tyrant, perched in a low treetop, followed immediately by Surucua Trogon of the orange bellied auriantius race known colloquially as 'Brazilian Trogon'. A Giant Antshrike calls stridently but refuses to emerge from dense cover though thankfully a nearby Large-tailed Antshrike is much more obliging and proudly demonstrates her large tail to full advantage!

The Park is quite a recent feature and has a series of very impressive new administration buildings, and shiny FWDs, though it is manned by some of the most miserable characters we have come across in all Brazil. Thankfully our smiling guide knows how to win their affections and soon he has secured the key which will let us into the Rio Ipiranga Trail. We drive the short distance to the chosen trail, the first few kilometres of which are dominated by introduced eucalyptus trees.

In spite of the unfavourable habitat we find Grey-hooded Flycatcher, Red-rumped Warbling-Finch, Ochre-faced Tody-Tyrant and Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet within sight of the gate. White-spotted Woodpecker and Buff-browed Foliage-Gleaner are new birds, but the pick of the bunch is a Dusky-tailed Antbird with a finely striped black-and-white front end and dusky-brown hindquarters. Striding onwards, with Edson beating a rapid pace, we catch up with Sharp-billed Treehunter, Greenish Schiffornis and the wonderfully vocal White-rimmed Warbler.

Edson's amazing skill is again demonstrated when he tells us to watch a particular horizontal stick, set in a gap in the dense bamboo, before playing a recording. Instantly a male Rufous Gnateater pops up in it's allotted spot! A tiny, short-tailed bird, pale orangy-rufous with a grey 'super, he proceeds to sing from the predicted perch. More endemics follow, in the form of Serra do Mar Tyrant-Manakin and Brown-breasted Bamboo-Tyrant, then a Scaled Woodcreeper.

We are now in a tract of wonderful virgin forest, though the trees fail to reach a great height at the increased elevation. Another superb antbird, this time Bertoni's, is enticed by the tape, before pulses quicken after Edson picks out the call of another big target species. A few blasts of the requisite tape recording and we have an awesome Hooded Berryeater sitting right above us. The size of a plump thrush, this endemic cotinga is canary-yellow with rich-rufous mantle and a jet-black head and neck. Stunning!

Rounding a bend in the wide trail we are confronted by the strange sight of Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail walking around in the open; this turns out to be the first of many encounters with this attractive forest-dwelling rail with a liking for jeep tracks. Next chapter from Edson's bird-finding repertoire is the taping-in of Pale-browed Treehunter, which flies a good hundred metres across the valley bottom to investigate the source of the taped call. Is there no end to this man's talents?!

The return walk to our waiting minibus adds Yellow-browed Woodpecker, Rufous-capped Spinetail and Grey-rumped Swift to another bumper list. Again we finish the morning almost breathless after such an amazing onslaught of outstanding birds. We're rapidly running out of verbs and expletives to express our excitement!

A rapid lunch is taken in another fine Ubatuban restaurant, after which we make our way to a house on the very edge of town with a couple of well-positioned hummingbird feeders. The somewhat dilapidated property is located within an area of cultivation and plantation crops, but the fruit feeders and sugared water attract some star forest birds. Azure-shouldered Tanager and our first Chestnut-bellied Euponia feed on strategically placed bananas while a Sombre Hummingbird perches up close by. Star bird is a male Festive Coquette that is attracted to the feeder hanging in a porch-way. The tiny jewel hovers, bee-like, to display a characteristic white rump-band and elongated green cheek-tufts with neat black tips. This isolated Atlantic Forest chalybeus race seems destined to be split as a full species in the near future. The brief visit is rounded off by the welcome appearance of a Sharpbill, a scarce cotinga that brings back memories of a visit to the Venezuelan Escalera some eight years previously.

Thanking our hosts, we set off northeast, on the main coast road towards Rio. One of the biggest surprises is just how much forest remains intact. The next two hours are spent in transit along the coast and for the majority of time huge swathes of lush, pristine forest carpets the hills. A rare cause for optimism in the usually depressive realms of habit conservation, maybe?

The coastal scenery is most spectacular in this part of the world, with rounded hillsides shrouded in dense green forest sloping down to contrast with pale sandy beaches and a deep-turquoise sea. Offshore, numerous forested islands rise steeply from the clear waters, all clearly visible as the road hugs the coastline.

At 16.00 we leave the main road to pass through the small town of Pereque and into the cultivated lands and secondary forest beyond. The detour is taking us into the tiny known range of an extremely rare endemic, thought extinct until it's rediscovery in 1988, the Black-hooded Antwren. Strangely it's preferred habitat is secondary growth and cleared areas and this is exactly the scene that greets us as the minibus bumps to a halt.

This is one of the big target birds of the Atlantic Forest leg of the tour and we have set aside an evening and the following morning to continue our search if necessary. We follow a track through the scrub and have only been at the site for one or two minutes when a male Black-hooded Antwren appears at our feet! It's yet another stunner and we can't believe our good fortune. We watch a party of three birds work their way through the dense, low vegetation from which they rarely emerge to any great extent. The male is jet black, with a rich brown mantle, narrow white flanks and thin white wingbars.

Hangnest Tody-Tyrant, Versicoloured Emerald and Violaceous Euphonia are all seen close by in the open habitat. Edson tapes in a handsome male Chestnut-backed Antshrike with characteristic ease and we're on our way. Another overwhelming success!

After a short distance of further northeast travel on the coast road, Edson initiates a shortcut and we traverse a series of winding country roads though the dark hills. At 20.30 we reach our destination of the Hotel Simon, situated within Itatiaia National Park. It's a rather strange old place, very run-down and dilapidated considering all the good write-ups it has prompted in birding literature. As we are shown to our very fusty-smelling rooms we get the impression that we are the only guests in the extensive complex; never a good sign!

We enjoy dinner and a few beers in the shabby 1970s décor of the spacious and virtually empty dining room, but our surroundings can do nothing to dampen spirits after what has been another day of absolutely phenomenal birding.

Thursday 4th September

It's always exciting to obtain your first daylight views of a site at which you arrived under the cover of darkness. The Hotel Simon is in a fantastic location, affording views over huge tracts of high altitude Interior Atlantic Forest as the day dawns on Itatiaia. Low cloud leaves banks of mist moving across the hillsides where blue sky and sunshine alternate with cold, damp cloud.

After an early breakfast we set off to the Tres Pecos Trail, which conveniently begins behind the dirty-looking waters of the Hotel Simon's swimmingpool. As we make our way along the narrow, slippery path the first shafts of sunlight are cutting through the dense stands of bamboo. At an altitude of 1100 m the morning is crisp and cold, with breath appearing as a mist of condensation in the still air.

Birds are plentiful and we quickly notch up Scaly-throated Hermit, Blue-billed Black-Tyrant and Black-billed Scythebill. The latter has an absurdly long, sharply decurved bill with which it dextrously probes the many epiphytes and bromeliads that hang from every bough. A small flock of Saffron Toucanets, with distinctive peachy-orange underparts, pass through the treetops while Black-tailed Flycatcher and Eared Pygmy-Tyrant feed at much lower levels.

As we walk on, banks of cloud continue to drift in and out, giving the lush forest an incredibly atmospheric feel. A number of large feeding flocks are encountered, with White-browed and Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners amongst the many species noisily moving through the trees. Euler's Flycatcher is a particular dull addition to our list, but the next bird falls at the opposite extreme. Edson's tape pulls in an immaculate White-bibbed Antbird which proceeds to call from a low log just off the track. He has a black mask contrasting with white supercilium and throat, an intricately scaled upper breast, and performs a party-piece of exposing a white ball of ruffed mantle feathers. Yet another awesome antbird is added to the list.

A huge and aptly named Robust Woodpecker alights on a rotting limb and soon afterwards the tape draws in a superb furnariid which Edson affectionately describes as "The Animal". White-collared Foliage-Gleaner is one of the largest members of its genus and displays a huge white bib and complete collar which contrast with dark brown upperparts; surely the ultimate foliage-gleaner?

The next hour is spent in search of loudly calling and frustratingly elusive antpittas and ant-thrushes, which spirit about the bamboo clumps. Varigated Antpitta is glimpsed for a nanosecond, but eventually patience provides us with prolonged looks at gorgeously marked Rufous-tailed and Cryptic Ant-thrushes. Taxonomic and name-changing confusion reign with this pair; some would say that we'd seen Brazilian and Such's Ant-Thrushes!

Our descent provides distant views to the deforested lowlands, now that the cloud has dispersed, and still the quality birds continue to fall. A pair of Spot-billed Toucanets are very welcome and very handsome, the male showing a contrasting combination of black, yellows and reds, with a neatly spotted bill. A Surucua Trogon this time shows a red belly, assigning it to the nominate surrucura race.

When Edson announces the owner of a distant call, deep in a dense bamboo stand, and begins to draw it in with playback, we struggle to contain our excitement. It takes some time to tempt the quietly calling bird through the dark foliage, but eventually he becomes visible through breaks in the bamboo leaves. White-bearded Antshrike is one of the rarest and most elusive of Atlantic Forest bird species, and furthermore is an extremely attractive bird. His brown body-plumage contrasts with jet-black bib and cap, separated by creamy-white throat, cheeks and nape. This monotypic genus is set apart from the majority of its congeners but a very heavy and un-hooked bill.

Grey Elaenia completes our walk on the Três Picos Trail and again Edson has produced a stunning array of the rarest and most sought-after species. We can't help but wonder how long it would have taken us to amass such a bird list without his help. Days, weeks or even months?!

After a bite to eat we take a ride down the winding dirt roads which cut through the forest and link the various hotels strung about the lower section of the park. Stopping at one of Edson's stakeouts, it takes just the briefest burst of recorded song to lure a cracking little Southern Antpipit into view. He sits right out in the open and sings loudly, with boldly streaked white throat glaringly obvious amongst the dark understorey.

The grounds of the Hotel Donati have allegedly been reliable for Swallow-tailed Cotinga in recent weeks, so a thorough search of the area is instigated. Ashy-throated Swifts fly overhead, while in the landscaped gardens White-crested Tyrranulet and Pin-tailed Manakin are seen; but sadly no Swallow-tailed Cotinga.

Moving on we spend an hour around the feeders at the Hotel Do Ype. The rather plush hotel is alive with birds and we wonder why we aren't staying at this fine establishment rather than our fusty old relic. Numerous hummingbirds buzz around at touching-distance, and the equally tame passerine gatherings include the endemic Yellow-olive and Brown Tanagers. Large quantities of film are exposed and videotape run through cameras, recording the dazzling colours which can be seen at their best in the bright afternoon sunlight. A large group of marauding South American Coatis descend to feed in an extremely photogenic manner with long, banded tails held high and sharp teeth crunching through large quantities of corn.

Final stop of the day is at the Cantinho Dos Esquilos, known locally as the Chocolate Shop, where more feeders attract a slightly different set of birds. The target coquette is absent but a diminutive Dusky-throated Hermit does oblige and hovers around the feeders for long periods. A Planalto Tyrannulet is the final entry in the notebook as we return to the Hotel Simon at dusk.

Though back at our lodgings, the day's birding is far from over and Edson has a final trick up his sleeve. We are joined by an English birding acquaintance for an 'owling' session; by amazing co-incidence, Richard Saunders, who had accompanied us on the MV Agulhas' voyage to the Antarctic pack ice some nine months earlier is booking into the same hotel. It's a very small World.

Edson's tape fails to produce the goods at the Hotel Simon so we descend a little further downhill and try some more playback from the road. Almost instantly a very large owl swoops up to a telephone wire, then to a banana plantation below. We make our way into the garden of an Australian artist who gives us a very warm welcome and allows us to search with spotlights from his patio. A few minutes later we locate a magnificent Tawny-browed Owl, at eye level and a mere thirty feet away in a banana tree. It's a huge beast, closely related to Spectacled Owl, warm sandy-brown on the breast with a blackish face and pale rufous eyebrows plus moustaches partially encircling dark eyes.

It's a fantastic conclusion to another superb day; but we're getting used to them by now!

Friday 5th September

A 03.00 start is a bit of a shock to the system, but necessary to make the long drive to the Agulhas Negras Road before first light. The route takes us back downhill to the main road, a short distance west on the dual carriageway and then up the steep, winding road to Caxambu. Finally we take a fork onto a dirt road which ultimately leads to Agulhas Negras Peak, an altitude of 2,787m.

At the allotted spot the minibus stops and we all jump out into the very cold air below a sky so full of stars that there seems little room for blackness in-between. A couple of bursts of the tape get no response; no problem, we have another site. This time, a couple of kilometres further on, the Rusty-barred Owl recording is instantly answered by two birds that are very close by. Soon we have them in the spotlights and the video is rolling as these excellent large strix owls call from a low, exposed bough.

The sky is now beginning to lighten and the stars rapidly disappear until an inverted Orion and finally just a bright Venus, low to the horizon, remains. As we continue our journey up the winding road the new day dawns above the thick cloud blanket which is now far below our position high on the mountainside. As the sun nears the horizon we are treated to a fantastic rainbow-spectrum of light, with pale oranges burning deeper towards the horizon, then turning to rich indigo blues before reaching the band of white cloud; it's worth the early alarm for the mountain-top sunrise alone.

The road takes us higher and we move above the tree line, into a land of rocks and sparsely vegetated slopes. The steep green hillsides run down to a now-continuous blanket of white cloud, through which dark conical peaks protrude in the distance. When the sun clears the horizon it casts a deep orange light onto the surrounding mountainsides, finally bringing a feeling of warmth to the sub-zero scene.

At the gated entrance to the National Park we begin to scour the coarse grass and sparse vegetation that covers the hillside. A thick layer of white frost is lying in the hollows and we walk rapidly in an attempt to keep up body temperatures. Rufous-capped Antshrike and Itatiaia Thistletail feed in the low scrub and dazzling Diademed Tanagers hop about the short grass.

A little lower down we concentrate on the low clumps of dense bamboo, which harbour more high altitude specialities. A lekking group of Plovercrests is located, where males sit on low branches uttering high-pitched calls, a behaviour that seems rather strange for a hummingbird. They are stunning creatures, with large, deep-blue frontal shields and metallic green crests with an elongated central feather that wouldn't look out of place on a lapwing! Over the last few days Juarez, our driver, has developed a growing interest in the birds that we've been chasing. He's obviously been cultivating his English too and is heard to exclaim, 'Mega', when he first puts his bins on this little jewel of a hummingbird!

A little use of playback brings out a surprisingly obliging Mouse-coloured Tapaculo and nearby a pair of Thick-billed Saltators sit on the frosty bushes. Serro Do Mar Tyrannulet, our next new bird, is a rare high altitude endemic and a very attractive little bird, with rich lime-green upperparts and a neat white eye-ring and lores.

Descending still further we manage to get ourselves into the warming rays of the Sun, which is now climbing higher in a deep-blue sky. The views change around every bend and are quite stunning, with a vista of row-upon-row of dark peaks now emerging through the flat layer of white cloud. Tape playback brings a Rufous-tailed Antbird out into the open, though the constantly calling Speckle-breasted Antpitta remains but a dark shape in the dense bamboo.

As the altitude decreases, so the vegetation increases in size. A large stand of tall Araucaria Pines is our next port of call. These attractive trees, endemic to southest Brazil and neighbouring Argentina, have long branches tipped with large, bottle-brush like, clumps of needles. Reminiscent of Monkey-puzzles, they support their own species of furnariid, which is totally reliant on the tree for survival. A brief burst of playback brings us a pair of Araucaria Tit-Spinetails, which move through the branches much like a pair of Crested Tits of the Scottish Highlands, similarly crested, but with rufous back and long pointed tail.

Below the Araucarias a belt of taller deciduous woodland commences and it is here that we need to concentrate for another set of highly sought-after species. Edson's imitation of a drawn-out whistled call soon solicits a response but a little perseverance is needed to draw its source in closer. Eventually a dark bird flies onto a nearby tree and we can savour a stunning Black-and-gold Cotinga at close range. He's a plump jet-black bird with orange bill and a large yellow patch in his primaries, and is happy to sit and repeat his mournful call from just thirty metres away on an eye-level branch.

Following the road on foot we see large numbers of both Bay-chested and Red-rumped Warbling Finches and are delighted to catch up with the very localised endemic Rufous-backed Antvireo. Final new bird on the Agulhas Negras Road is Black-capped Piprites, a very smart endemic manakin which is behaving in a very unobtrusive treetop manner.

It has been yet another overwhelmingly successful morning, with every one of the target birds safely in the bag. Back on the tarmac road, Edson miraculously picks out the call of a Grey-bellied Spinetail at sixty kilometres per hour and an emergency stop secures this species onto the bottom of the morning's lengthy bird list.

A celebratory brunch stop is in order and we descend upon a roadside shop that purveys fine, freshly cooked pastries and cake. The cheese pasties are so good that we devour the entire stock and have to wait for a new consignment to be baked while we peruse the huge array of pickled 'objects', even purchasing some as presents for a few lucky recipients back home!

The drive back to Itatiaia is broken by a stop at Ferenza Do Pinahal, when a tape is played close to a small marsh and a pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants instantly alight on the telephone wires above our heads and display wildly. The strange performance involves alternate birds bobbing down and flicking open their wings, whilst delivering a raucous duet.

By the time we reach Itatiaia the early start is beginning to catch up with us and our stakeout at the Cantinho Dos Esquilos is more of a snooze in the comfy chairs. Though touting itself as the 'Chocolate Shop' we are very disappointed to find that the stunning array of fare stretches to just two varieties of chocolate, both of which are fairly abysmal! On a brighter note the hummingbirds are much tastier and the target Frilled Coquette, a male, appears after a dozy hour's vigil. The dazzling little bumblebee of a bird hovers delicately around the feeders, showing spiky red, paintbrush-like crest and white-striped cheek-tufts to full advantage.

A late afternoon return-visit to the Hotel Do Ype feeders and then the grounds of the Hotel Donati end the day. The Donati again fails to yield our Swallow-tailed Cotinga and we have to make do with a pair of brightly coloured Red-breasted Toucans and a somewhat less inspiring Thrush-like Woodcreeper. A Gray-hooded Attila, which calls loudly from the densest patch of undergrowth on the whole mountain causes frustration to peak, so we decide to call it a day and return to our prestigious accommodation.

Saturday 6th September

With few target species remaining after such an outstanding couple of days, we commence our morning back at the Hotel Donati. Black-throated Grosbeak, plus Yellow and Grey-capped Tyrannulets are new, however cotingas with forked tails are notably absent.

As we walk back across the lawn, shoulders sinking lower, conversation swings to the remaining target species and which ones are best seen at which sites. The name 'Intervales' keeps cropping up. By the time we've reached the minibus Edson has been convinced that the rather lengthy drive to Parque Estadual Intervales, located some distance southwest of Sao Paulo, must be done! We don't count our chickens just yet, though, as a number of logistical arrangements must be confirmed before the change in itinerary is formalised.

In the mean time we pay a visit to the small marsh just south of Itatiaia town, where Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Yellow-chinned Spinetail are seen on arrival. A little persuasive taping is necessary before a pair of Rufous-sided Crakes venture out of the dense reedbed, but once they get the idea they put on a real star-performance.

The mobile phone is in action for the next ten minutes, before a smiling Edson turns round from the passenger seat and announces, "We're going to Intervales". We hit the westbound dual carriageway grinning from ear to ear and knowing that the trip is going to end with a real bang!

The fast road carries us through cultivated lowlands and bare hillsides that would once have been the Atlantic Forest. Before long we are entering the outskirts of Sao Paulo, which covers a vast, dry plain. Sprawling low concrete housing in the suburbs turns into a never-ending procession of tower blocks to form one of the most densely populated areas on the Planet. We recognise our return to the 'M25' and view the slick of foul-smelling black filth that runs beside it; this is the first time we've witnessed the delights of the Rio Tiete by daylight!

The crossing of the City is thankfully incident-free and by 14.00 we have left the main road and are speeding towards our destination. In fact we are probably doing 100 km/h when MK shouts, "Stop!". A rapid reversing manoeuvre is employed and seconds later we are watching the number one 'bogey bird' of the trip. Red-legged Seriema is finally on the list!

A pair of birds is sitting quietly in a pasture field, sheltering from the heat of the day below a thorn bush. A burst of playback soon livens them up and they start a duet of wild laughing calls, delivered from rapidly pumping necks. As their excitement mounts they actually run towards us on long red legs, showing off bizarre spiky crests to the full. This is certainly a good omen for the coming twenty-four hours.

At the town of Ribeirao Grande we leave the new tarmac and take a dirt road which snakes its way through low rounded hills which stretch as far as the horizon. It's a familiar scene of deforested habitat-devastation with a few clumps of trees remaining and the smoke from a clearance fire constantly in view.

Eventually the forest cover begins to dramatically increase and soon we reach the entrance to Parque Estadual Intervales. The Parque protects 41,000 hectares of Atlantic Forest at an altitude of around 700 to 900 metres and interestingly supports a cross section of bird species that occur in both Coastal and Interior Atlantic Forest habitats.

As we check in at the reception Edson's acute hearing picks out a call above the office banter and we are soon legging it back down the entrance track. After a short burst of playback a large bird hops into a close bush and a few seconds later a male Giant Antshrike alights atop a very low telegraph pole and scolds us with large black crest raised in anger. We tell DW to stand to the rear, fearful that this monster of a bird may carry him off for supper! The size of a magpie and by far the largest of the antbirds, he has grey underparts and white barring to a black mantle and long tail. What a start!

It's already 16.00 so we rapidly speed off to Edson's chosen starting point. Passing by a series of administration and accommodation blocks in a large clearing we see that the park is well-maintained and efficiently laid out. A dirt road leads through the rather dry forest, which we follow until Edson signals a stop. The tape recorder is instantly deployed and the playback is instantly answered. Peering into a block of dense bamboo we find a fantastic male Crescent-chested Puffbird, a rather scare endemic. As we watch he continues to call, each time expanding his throat to reveal an area of white feathering above the black and orange chest-bands.

A different track leads to another stakeout and we assemble beside a strategically pruned break in the dense undergrowth. A tape is played and soon a bird appears in exactly the spot that Edson has told us to watch. As if on cue the White-breasted Tapaculo first calls with his dark-grey back towards us and then lifts his head to reveal a gleaming white throat. We're starting to like it here.

Next stop is an area of damp marshland where our recording of Red-and-white Crake goes unanswered. Still, it would be boring if everything was too predictable! The light is now fading fast and by the time we reach the next stop the sun is well below the horizon and most birds have gone to roost. A short burst of recorded call instantly brings the sparrow-sized silhouette of a Least Pygmy-Owl into the tree above us. Here, our powerful spotlight reveals his boldly streaked breast and piercing yellow eyes.

A little further back towards the HQ we stop again. Now the full moon is shining so brightly that it casts clear shadows from the branches overhead and the Southern Cross is plainly visible. Our Mottled Owl playback appears to fall on deaf ears and we return to the minibus. Half a kilometre later Edson exclaims that he's made a mistake and we're now at the proper Mottled Owl site. A roll of the tape confirms his suspicions, when a deep voice instantly responds. Before long we have a Mottled Owl sitting in the spotlight, a large and well-marked bird with rich-rufous mottling on its upper breast. We decide we'll let Edson off with his minor cock-up!

The return drive is made with all eyes glued to the surface of the dirt track, as we need to see a very special nightjar before we sit down for dinner. Distinctive reddish eye-shine gives away the presence of a sitting bird so we kill the engine and stealthily approach the spot. The owner of the glowing eyes is one of the most impressive nightjars in South America and as he lifts into the air, in the full beam of the spotlight, a pair of ridiculously-elongated black-and-white tail streamers swirls after him. We wait at his favoured spot and a few seconds later our Long-trained Nightjar returns to the road. It's interesting to note how he sits with his body on the bare earth, but with his wonderful long tail-plumes resting in the track-side grass. This is not just co-incidence as we note the behaviour every time both this bird and another individual land. Maybe he just wants to keep his mate-luring finery clear of the dirty soil? Whatever the reason he's a stunning bird, both beautiful and very rare, with a range restricted to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil and northern-most Argentina.

It's only 20.30, we've seen a bag-full of the most incredible birds, and dinner tastes particularly good! There is only time for one beer, however, as we have one final mission to complete. Just weeks earlier Edson had discovered a calling Buff-fronted Owl at Intervales, a fairly widespread species but one which is very local and notoriously difficult to see throughout South America. After some perseverance his playback gets a distant response.

The source of the call seems to lie deep within dense undergrowth and it refuses to be drawn closer. It is obvious that we will need to venture 'off piste' and Edson leads the way; by now we are so confident in his abilities that if he told us we needed to take our shirts off and stand on one leg in order to see the bird we'd obey him! The next hour is spent trying to approach first from one direction, then from another, invariably with progress thwarted by impenetrable scrub. The dew-dampened grass is up to neck-height and things are really looking very bleak when a new avenue through the tangled vegetation is found to lead us closer to the source of the calls. Finally a dark silhouette can be seen, clinging to the near-vertical step much in the manner of a bay-owl.

The spotlight is employed to reveal an absolutely amazing little Aegolius owl, the same genus as Tengmalm's and the saw-whets. His breast and facial disk are a bright rufous-orange that contrasts with a dark chocolate-brown back and face markings. The latter forms a dark border to the facial disk and dark eyebrows above his burning orange eyes that give a rather feline expression. In the spotlight he squints his eyes to slits and tilts his head forward to reveal a chocolate cap, seemingly as a camouflage mechanism. When he drops from his perch we leave him in peace, all totally elated by one of the trip's most unforgettable moments.

In spite of a few celebratory beers sleep is impossible for some time, adrenaline still pumping and thought of our owl still buzzing in our brains.

Sunday 7th September

A pre-dawn breakfast allows us to take full advantage of every minute of daylight, as birding time will be at a precedent today; we fly home from Brazil at 22.40. Our destination for the first, and most productive, few hours of the day is the Carmo Trail.

The Atlantic Forest habitat of Intervales is subtly different from the sites visited previously, being made up of a series of wonderfully lush steep-sided valleys hung in pristine forest and dissected by clear babbling streams. As we commence our walk the sun is just climbing high enough to illuminate the multiple shades of green foliage and the forest is alive with birdcalls.

Playback beside a more open, scrubby area attracts a Green-chinned Euphonia to sing in a nearby treetop. Confusingly, it has a dark blue chin, but it is a very rare bird. Next tick is another particularly good one, Blue-bellied Parrot, an endemic in a genus of its own and with a very distinctive long, broad tail. A flock of Temminck's Seedeaters feed low in the seeding bamboo, grey and white males sporting conical yellow bills and an Ochre-collared Piculet forages close by. The latter is a relatively recent split from White-barred Piculet, showing a very distinctive cinnamon-brown nape.

Edson's voice-recognition skills help to sort our Rough-legged Tyrannulet, but we are competent enough to call a Chestnut-headed Tanager on our own! Mantled Hawk is a good raptor-tick, being confined to the Atlantic Forest, and Buffy-fronted Seedeater, though not the most stunning bird in the World, is even more range-restricted. Three-striped Flycatcher and Cinnamon Piha further enhance our list, in a morning of absolute top-quality birds.

The tyrranulets, many of which present serious location and also identification problems, are a speciality of our guide and Edson's final act on the Carmo Trail is to produce two of the stars in adjoining trees. First an Oustalet's Tyrannulet is taped in, with distinctive facial pattern and long, constantly-cocked tail. We are still making notes on this species when a Bay-ringed Tyrannulet appears on cue, this species told by its occasional tail-cocking and chestnut cheeks.

Absolutely over-the-moon at the success of our morning we bump back towards the accommodation blocks, but with one final bird on our minds. Swallow-tailed Cotinga still presents a mighty hole in our trip list, not least because most other visitors to the region seem to see it with relative ease.

Arriving in the large clearing which houses the HQ we set out to check all the large trees between the reserve buildings, apparently a favoured area for our final goal. It is now scorching-hot, with a fierce sun burning down from a clear sky, and things do not look at all promising. We've only been searching for a few minutes, however, when MK shouts us all over to announce that he's located a pair of Swallow-tailed Cotingas in a tall eucalyptus!

It's very fitting that it is this stunning bird which rounds off our visit to this remarkable area. Right on cue the male, a surprisingly small bird, swoops down to feed at low level on a lichen-covered branch. He has a jet-black mask which contrasts with a bright lemon-yellow throat patch, while upperparts and upper-breast are strongly barred black on a yellow background. A deeply-forked, swallow-like black tail seems strangely out of place, making him look even more exotic. A real stunner, he is certainly one of the avian highlights of our trip.

A relaxing lunch follows and while we sip a post-dessert coffee beside the restaurant bird-feeding area, Intervales provides us with one final surprise. An unidentified and dazzlingly-plumaged tanager joins the group of Azure-shouldereds and we have to resort to the field guide to place his identity. The fantastic combination of turquoise-blue, chestnut and yellows are reminiscent of a tanager-shaped European Bee-Eater, making him a Chestnut-backed Tanager and a real last-minute bonus.

Early afternoon sees our reluctant departure and we retrace our route back towards Sao Paulo. The only excitement on the return leg is another pair of Red-Legged Seriemas that stand on the verge beside the main road, as if to prove the theory that once a tricky species has been seen it becomes miraculously commonplace.

As dusk falls we join the jostling, multi-laned congestion that is Sao Paulo's rush hour, before diving around a series of back-street short cuts which land us at Edson's plush apartment. Our guide, now revered by all as the Brazilian birding Messiah, makes a valiant attempt to tape out a Striped Owl in the trees beside the apartment block but we only manage a shadowy flight view.

It is doubtful whether one man has been praised and thanked so much in the history of bird-guiding, as we leave our new friend vowing to return and travel to the northeast before too many years have passed. Hiring Edson has certainly been the best decision of the entire trip and we depart still struggling to comprehend how many incredibly rare and unforgettable species we have seen in the previous six days.

A short drive to the airport and farewells to Juarez are all that remain of our time in Brazil. Cristalino, the Pantanal and even the Brazilian Mergansers now seem to be months away. We have notched up an amazing 630 species in the last twenty-two days, in what has been one of the most action-packed, productive and enjoyable trips ever. Highlights are too numerous to list, but our totals include 66 Brazilian endemics and no less than 67 'antbirds', for me the epitome of Brazilian birding.

Our trip has only covered one small corner of the vast country and we leave determined that we will return to visit more of it's unique habitat; we just hope that it remains intact for a sufficient period to allow us to fulfil our desires.

Ian Merrill