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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

BRAZIL – SERRA DOS TUCANOS AND RIO DE JANEIRO, NOVEMBER 2005

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
As last year, this was an opportunity I could not resist for birding on the back of a business committment in Brazil, this time in Rio de Janeiro. Having done a fairly ambitious trip last year, this time I was content to do something more modest. The Serra dos Tucanos birding lodge in the Atlantic Rain Forest, within easy reach of Rio seemed the ideal option for a few days birding. With plenty of endemics, hopefully overlap with the species seen last year would not be too great.

General
My visit to Serra dos Tucanos was arranged direct with the lodge, as an individual - I was not part of an organised tour or package. Even so, arrangements for this trip were pretty straightforward compared with last year - just e-mails to Serra dos Tucanos. But note that their phone line is a bit intermittent, so e-mail responses can be a bit delayed. No internal flights were needed. I paid the extra for transfers to/from Rio - seemed much easier than making my own way!

Flights
I flew Air France, Heathrow to Paris and then overnight to Rio. Return by the same route. Quite good food on the long haul flights, but beware the grotty terminal 2F at Ch de Gaulle airport.

Serra dos Tucanos
This is a dedicated birding lodge set up and run by Andy Foster. It houses small numbers of guests (7 in total when I was there), in comfortable en-suite accommodation. No A/C, but my ground floor room was not too hot. I understand the upper rooms in the lodge itself were rather hotter, though. One word of warning - despite the idillic location, the lodge is very close to the main road, and there was some noise from lorries labouring up the road, all through the night. There is also has a swimming pool!

The lodge benefits from secure, delightful grounds, and strategically placed hummingbird feeders and bunches of bananas that attract Tanagers etc. You can sit in a comfy chair on the veranda, drink in hand, and watch the exotics coming and going - very relaxing birding! Alternatively, you can spend hours trying to get good photos of the passerines that hardly ever stop moving for more than a few seconds!

In the immediate vicinity is a steep hillside with a network of trails, which you can explore on your own - a good introduction to rain forest birding.

The lodge organises optional daily excursions. These cost me, as an individual traveller a considerable amount extra, on top of the accommodation/food cost. When I was there there was a good arrangement whereby (very) full day trips (7am to late afternoon) were alternated with half day excursions (7am to c.1pm - a good half day!). The excursions are planned in advance, and so if you are keen on a particular trip (see their website for details) or bird, it is well worth making your views known in advance - they do their best to accommodate their various guests' wishes.

When I stayed, the other guests consisted of three different pairs of birders, two of whom were staying for 2 weeks, who didnt know each other in advance. On occasion, the complete lodge is booked up by birding tour parties.

The staff were very pleasant, and the food fine though somewhat lacking in variety. Andy led all the excursions and was a brilliant birder - clearly knows his Brazillian birds inside out, both by call and sight. He had a tape playback/recording machine which worked well on occasion, bringing birds out of the impenetrable undergrowth to within a few feet of us.

Weather
The end of November is the start of summer in the Rio area, and the weather was quite mixed. The day I arrived was hot (c. 30 C?) & sunny all day, but there was rain, sometimes very heavy, on all other days while I was at Serra dos Tucanos. This didn't affect birding too badly, but did not help the photography. On the last day, it rained heavily nearly all day.

While in Rio, mainly for business, there was also some rain - seemed to coincide with our freer times towards the end of our stay!

Daily Narrative

16 November 2005
The flight was on-time landing at Rio de Janeiro at around 07:40. With virtually no sleep on the plane, and a lengthy queue for immigration, I was very pleased to locate the Serra dos Tucanos driver instantly after emerging into the arrivals hall. There then followed a very hot, and slow crawl out of a congested Rio. But there were some interesting birds to be seen even from the car - plenty of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Black Vultures soaring over the road. Also various Egrets, including Great.

With all the traffic it took just over 2hrs to get to Serra dos Tucanos, which was in a beautiful situation in a valley surrounded by steep, forest covered mountains. I then spent some time before the other guests arrived back from their half day exercusion, getting to grips with the birds on the feeders, which were numerous and brilliantly coloured:

Green headed Tanager
Green headed Tanager (click for bigger pic)

 

Violaceous Euphonia

Blue Dacnis (male)

Blue Dacnis (female)
Blue Dacnis (male)

Blue Dacnis (female)

Especially notable were the Green Headed Tanagers, Blue Dacnis and Violaceous Euphonia, as well as Golden Chevroned and Ruby Crowned Tanager. Hummers only a few feet away on the feeders included Black Jacobin, Saw Billed Hermit, Swallow-tailed and Violet-capped Hummingbird.

Black Jacobin Saw Billed Hermit
Black Jacobin Saw Billed Hermit

Later in the afternoon the keener guest birders led a trip along the trails leading up the hillside directly from the lodge grounds. This was quiet at times, but their sharp eyes picked up a real goody in the form of a Spot-billed Toucanet - sitting really close to us by the path (possibly the bird of the trip). Also another good endemic was a Red-necked Tanager, and both White Barred Piculet and Scaly Headed Parrot were seen on the return. Also a brilliant red Brazillian Tanager (another endemic) appeared as the rain began to fall back near the lodge (in fact this species frequented the lodge area around & beyond the pool, and occasionally on the bananas).

After dinner at 7pm, I was more than ready for some sleep!

17 November 2005
Today was to be a full days excursion up the "high altitude trail", which left at 07:00, after a 06:30 breakfast. After a drive of around 1hr, Andy parked the minibus on the lower slopes of the mountain, at around 1450m (the summit is >2000m). There then followed a slow, and very bird filled walk up a broad metalled road, which was pretty steep in places (too dangerous for the minibus). Early on we saw birds such as Hooded Siskin and Burnished Buff Tanager to wet the appetite. For a bit of variety, a Sharp Shinned Hawk sailed over soon after. Higher up, we saw Rufous Browed Peppershrike and then the more specialist higher-altitude birds began to appear, with the exquisite Plovercrest, Diademed Tanager and some small gems in the form of Rufous tailed Antbird and Mouse coloured Tapaculo. At around 1900m we reached a point which was declared suitable for an early, well earned lunch. This spot produced more high altitude goodies in the form of Green-winged Saltator and Blue-billed Black Tyrant. Unfortunately, it then began to rain (heavily) so we had to abandon any hope of reaching the summit region and the haunt of Itatiaia Spinetail. Fortunately, the rain then abated shortly, so we escaped a real wetting.

Digiscoping was not well suited to this form of birding, but having lugged everything up here, I was determined to give it a go, and managed some distant shots of a couple of the local specialities:

Diademed Tanager Green Winged Saltator
Diademed Tanager (distant) Green Winged Saltator (in the rain!)

The descent was a good deal easier than going up, with plenty more species seen, including Rufous Gnateater, White rimmed Warbler and Pallid Spinetail. Near to the minibus, Andy had distant views of a Black and Gold Cotinga, but it had gone before anyone else could get on it. Grrh!

After returning to the minibus, we drove a short way to a Swallow Tailed Cotinga site. Fortunately at least three obliged in nearby trees, without the need for further walking! Also seen here was Fawn-breasted Tanager (poorly) and Scaled Woodcreeper (better views)

Swallow Tailed Cotinga Swallow Tailed Cotinga
Swallow Tailed Cotinga (click either to enlarge)

After this highlight, we returned to the lodge around 17:30 - a long day, all told. Around 34 lifers today - good reward for all the walking.

18 November 2005
Today started with a less energetic half day excursion along the nearby Cedae Trail, again starting at 07:00. This was more of a true forest trail than yesterday, and at lower altitude provided a different set of species. Being relatively new to this activity, I find it pays to stick close to the leader on this sort of walk!

Initially broad, this track gently descended to start with to some buildings, and then narrowed to a path and climbed up through the forest. Again the weather was a bit mixed, with some light rain which may have dampened bird activity somewhat, as it was slow going at times.

Near the start of the trial was however pretty productive, with Rufous Headed Tanager almost by the minibus, and then Star Throated Antwren, Plain Ant Vireo and the bird of the day, Rufous Crowned Motmot, in quick succession. These were shortly followed by Blue Manakin, and a brief glimpse of a Ferriginuous Ant Bird.

A bit lower down the trail, we were lucky to find both Rufous Capped Ant Thrush and Black Cheeked Gnateater in the same place. After the buildings, ascending the narrow path, we came across a delightful pair of White-throated Spadebill building a nest. Some of the party stopped here to photograph them, but I pressed on upwards with the remainder of the party. This was pretty productive, with several new species including Red crowned Ant Tanager and Streak capped Antwren.

The return back followed the same route up to the minibus, which we reached at around 12:45, was quieter, but the morning had netted me about 17 lifers.

After lunch at the lodge, I returned to the lodge grounds in search of more pics, and also had good views of a Squirrel Cuckoo near the pool, where a Crested Becard was found nesting.

Golden Chevroned Tanager Crested Becard
Golden Chevroned Tanager Crested Becard

Two species of Parakeet were also seen regularly on the bananas by the lodge, Plain Parakeet and Reddish Bellied Parakeet:

Reddish Bellied Parakeet Plain Parakeet
Reddish Bellied Parakeet (click to enlarge) Plain Parakeet (click to enlarge)

19 November 2005
Today was the all day Three toed Jacamar excursion which involved a fair amount of driving, interspersed with various stops, some with short or medium length walks. A good change from the forest birding of the last 2 days.

Again we were off at 07:00, heading up the same road as two days ago, and through the town which appears to be the lingerie capital of Brazil! This time I was in the front of the minibus, and benefited almost immediately, seeing a Channel Billed Toucan fly across the road (the rest in the back dipped!).

Our first stop was to bird bushes right by the road, where we picked up Gilt edged Tanager and also a Dusky Legged Guan on the road edge in the same general area. After quite a drive, we turned off onto a track and had a good short stroll which produced White eared Puffbird and Common Thornbird as well as more Tanagers - this time Orange Headed and Cinammon. There was also an impressive Grey Headed Kite overhead, and a nice (but common!) Masked Water Tyrant on wires:

Dusky Legged Guan Masked Water Tyrant
Dusky Legged Guan (hand held camera, not a digiscope shot!) Masked Water Tyrant

There was then more driving with several short road-side stops, which produced a very tame pair of Blue winged Macaws (pic below), and various marshy areas which contained a different species mix such as Southern Lapwing, Wattled Jacana, Striated Heron etc (all species seen last year in the Pantanal and elsewhere). But Fork Tailed Flycatcher was new, and impressive with its very long tail streamers.

At around 12:00, we turned off the tarmaced road, onto a dirt track towards the Three Toed Jacamar site. We arrived here shortly, and all piled out to find these very localised and sought-after birds almost immediately. I managed some pics, but it was difficult as they were silhoettes (see below). I have to say that the more common Paradise Jacamar seen last year at Cristallino was actually a more impressive bird!

Shortly afterwards, the rain which had been threatening for some time arrived with a shortish burst. This quickly made the dirt track very slippery. We then had some hairy moments when we came across a Brazillian truck heading uphill towards us, and sliding all over the road! Fortunately, we managed to squeeze by without it hitting us. We then pressed on to end of the dirt road, to make sure we would not get stuck in the mud, only stopping again when nearly at the main road. Here we saw White rumped Monjita, and the impressive Greater Ani. Shortly afterwards, we then turned off the main road again, and drove a short way along a dirt track and stopped for lunch. This was a pleasant spot, which produce various birds including Blue Winged Parrotlet. Fortunately, the rain was long gone, and it was getting quite hot in the midday sun.

After lunch, we went for a longer walk along the track (Andy was concerned about driving and getting stuck if it rained again). At one point, things didn't seem to be going too well, and none of Andy's recordings were producing any birds! However, this phase suddenly stopped and quality birds began to appear. First off was a Variable Antshrike, then a delightful pair of Crescent Chested Puffbirds which stayed nice and still on a branch for plenty of digiscoping at a reasonable range (see below). More goodies at this spot were a very distant Magpie Tanager, and a tiny White Bearded Manakin.

Blue Winged Macaw Crescent Chested Puffbird
Blue Winged Macaw (click to enlarge) Three Toed Jacamar Crescent Chested Puffbird (click to enlarge)

We then walked back along the way we had come, with Andy playing his recordings almost continuously. Suddenly, he heard a reply, and we all walked through a gate into a field with various bamboo clumps. In one of these, the tape lure produced for us brief glimpses of a Rio de Janeiro Antbird! As Andy said, this is the rarest bird I am ever likely to see! According to Andy, there is currently only one known site for this bird in the world, and we were at it! Also there was a Green Barred Woodpecker here.

This was about it. Despite plenty of scanning of the hillsides, there was no sign of Red Legged Seriema (this is now my Brazillian bogey bird, having dipped last year as well). The drive back took around 2hrs, with a brief stop at an impressive viewpoint which had mountain/rock formations ("Finger of God") and the bay, with a distant Rio de Janeiro behind.

I believe the total group list for today was around 100 species, with 27 lifers for me. Very good, considering the overlap on water birds etc seen last year. A long and tiring expedition, though, with a return late afternoon, but well worth it with the Jacamar and Antbird sightings.

20 November 2005
This was my last day at Serra dos Tucanos, and a bit of a wash out, with heavy rain virtually all day. It was a Sunday, and Andy's day off, so I had been hoping for some more birding and digiscoping around the lodge. But this was not very productive due to the conditions. However, prolonged viewing of the feeders and bananas produced two more lifers - Buff-throated Saltator and Chestnut Bellied Euphonia.

I was advised to depart early afternoon to avoid the Sunday evening congestion caused by everyone returning to the city after the weekend (apparently nearly 1 million leave the city each weekend). As I found later, Rio traffic is bad enough during the week! This early departure time worked well, and the traffic was not too bad, so the journey to my hotel took around 2.5hrs.

Rio de Janeiro (20 - 28 Nov)

Hotel Pestana & Copocabana Beach
This comfortable hotel for the business part of my trip was right across the road from the famous Copocabana beach, and had very good views from its swimming pool at the top - on about the 15th floor. When I arrived Sunday afternoon in poor, almost cool weather, I was impressed by the sight of 100s of Magnificent Frigatebirds streaming past my window (on the 11th floor).

In better conditions later in the week, other non birders had what can only have been Swallow-tailed Hummingbird round the elevated hotel pool, while I had reasonable views of several Kelp Gull and Brown Booby offshore, though I didn't dare take any optics onto this notoriously unsafe beach.

Sugar Loaf
A 2 stage cable car costing around 35BR (c. 10) takes you to the top of this lump of rock, with superb views over Rio. Strongly recommended. Notable birds included a Brazillian Tanager in bushes at the half-way station, the usual Black Vultures, a few Magnificent Frigatebirds, and even 2 Brown Booby way below in the bay.

Botanical Gardens
I had read various other Internet accounts of birding the Botanical Gardens, which sounded well worth a visit. There was some time to spare on the Saturday before my flight home, but unfortunately the weather was again poor with heavy rain early on. After some indecision, and a late breakfast, I decided to get a taxi there (at BR25 = c. 7 this was more expensive than indicated by other birder's reports. Maybe there has been taxi fare inflation recently). Due to the early conditions, I made the wrong decision to only take bins with me, leaving 'scope and camera in the hotel (partly also due to unfounded security concerns).

Despite the rain, there were quite a few reasonable birds in the Gardens, which seemed secure, with a few guards around. The most notable were several (4+) Channel billed Toucans, which were quite approachable (later on in the morning it brightened up a bit, and I reckon I could have got some reasonable pics, if I had brought all the gear along). There were also several tame Dusky Legged Guans around, and a few rather more retiring Grey Necked Wood Rails - but even they were right out in the open in places. There were also some Tanagers, including Green-headed and the more universal Sayaca and Palm. Raptors included a pair of probably Roadside Hawks, and some falcons which might have been Bat Falcons (not seen well).

Quite a good spot to spend a relaxing few hours. Nothing very rare, though and no lifers. Probably it would have been a better place to visit before staying at Serra Dos Tucanos than afterwards.

When I had finished here, it proved very easy to hail a Yellow and Blue Taxi for my return to the hotel (which was cheaper than the way out - BR20). No security problems at all.


Systematic List

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All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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