Though I'd spent almost a year guiding in and enjoying the world-class wildlife of the state of Mato Grosso, I had only spent a short time in Brazil's Atlantic Forest before finally getting around to bringing groups there in August of 2012. This bioregion is famous among naturalists for three things - its tremendous biodiversity, its high level of endemism, and its highly endangered status. With only about 10% of the original forest remaining, many species have become scarce and a few are now extinct. Fortunately there is a growing awareness of the unique nature and value of the region, and some effective conservation work is being done. On this route we enjoy some of the wrold's finest examples of intact Atlantic Forest........as well as the world-class spectacle of Iguazu Falls.
Starting in Rio de Janeiro, we head north to Guapiassu Bird Lodge, the home of the Reserva Ecologica de Guapiassu (REGUA). From this comfortable home base - with nice rooms, excellent food, warm hospitality, and stunning views of the surrounding Serra do Mar - we're able to experience a variety of habitats and see, enjoy, and learn about many species. We're fortunate to enjoy the expertise of one of the local guides, Adilei Carvalho, whose knowledge of the area and its wildlife is exceptional. The lodge grounds, with banana and hummingbird feeders, are good for many of the more common species such as yellow-backed, Sayaca, Brazilian, and palm tanagers, red-rumped cacique, four species of swifts (white-collared, biscutate, gray-rumped, and lesser swallow-tailed), blue dacnis, purple-throated and violaceous euphonias, ferruginous pygmy-owl, social flycatcher, yellow-headed caracara, and several species of hummingbird including swallow-tailed, violet-capped woodnymph, white-chinned sapphire, glittering-throated emerald, and rufous-breasted hermit. At night common long-tongued bats take over where the hummers leave off, and one can get good views and even decent photos of them. The banana feeders are often visited in the mornings by rusty-marginged guans and diminutive white-tufted-ear marmosets. Though this is an exotic mammal in the area (it's normally found farther north) and is displacing the native buffy-tufted-ear marmoset, they sure are cute.
An adjacent constructed wetland is part of an impressive restoration project that addresses the loss of low lying wetlands to agriculture in the area. This rich spot, with nice flat trails, attracts many water-based and edge species. Gorgeous white-faced whistling-ducks are fairly common as are capped, striated and cocoi herons. Though irregular, this can be a good spot to see masked duck......sitting out in the open! White-headed marsh-tyrants flycatch over the ponds, while masked water-tyrants and wing-banded horneros glean from the ground. Pairs of chattering yellow-chinned spinetails work the dense shrubs, purple gallinules probe the aquatic vegetation, and greater anis and chestnut-capped blackbirds are fairly common. With a little luck, we've seen skulky rufous-sided and ash-throated crakes as well as blackish rail. The second growth forest around the ponds is very productive and we've enjoyed chestnut-backed and Sooretama slaty-antshrikes, fuscous and Euler's flycatchers, yellow and Planalto tyrannulets, yellow-browed tyrant, pileated and red-crested finches, lemon-chested greenlet, Brazilian tanager, chestnut-vented conebill, white-barred piculet, pileated finch, long-billed and moustached wrens, white-bearded manakin, and others.
The forested trails near the lodge climb into the mountains where some beautiful birds can be found, including many Atlantic Forest endemics. We enjoyed gray-hooded flycatcher, gray-hooded attila, black-capped, white-eyed, ochre-breasted, and buff-fronted foliage-gleaners, black-cheeked gnateater, swallow-tailed manakin, white-throated and lesser woodcreepers, rufous-capped antthrush. southern antpipit, scaled and ochre-rumped antbirds, rufous-capped motmot, black-throated trogon, brown-backed parrotlet, red-capped parrot, eye-ringed tody-tyrant, crescent-chested puffbird, and others in these and nearby areas. Certainly one of the upper trail highlights is having good looks at spot-billed toucanets, an endemic that everyone always wants see and that, so far, we've yet to miss. While bare-throated bellbirds are commonly heard, seeing these canopy dwellers can be a challenge. We had great luck in 2013 and had a snow-white male preening below the canopy, providing great scope views and excellent photos. REGUA is pretty good for mammals, particularly brown-throated three-toed sloths. We've seen quite a few, including a female with a super-teeny baby as well as a few individuals close enough to see some of the many commensal insects, mostly moths, that live on their fur. We've also seen capybara, Guianan squirrel, brown capuchin monkey, and Azara's agouti in the area.
One of the evening highlights at Guapiassu is the search for the giant snipe in nearby pastures. With patience, and the skills of one of the local guides, we've been able to get close views as well as good photos. As a bonus, we sometimes see South American snipe as well. While tropical screech, ferruginous-pygmy, and burrowing owls are fairly easily found by day, the larger species, tawny-browed, mottled, and black-banded, are more challenging, and the best we've managed so far are heard-only tawny-broweds and mottleds.
A nearby remnant marsh amidst extensive cattle pasture is a great spot for some additional wetland as well as open country species (mostly ones coming from the cerrado to the west), and here we've had great looks at striking streamer-tailed tyrants, white-eared puffbird, white-rumped swallow, white-browed meadowlark, yellow-rumped marshbird, white woodpecker, and, thanks to the knowledge and skill of Adilei, good looks at blackish rail!!
From Guapiassu we make day trips to the nearby Serra Dos Orgaos National Park. This impressively large area of intact forest is rich in birds. At our starting point in the lower portion of the park, we've had excellent looks at rufous-capped motmot. These gorgeous birds are one of the few motmot species without the racket-shaped tail tips. They are also perhaps the shiest motmot on Earth (and I've seen them all except Trinidad Motmot). Though we hear them in many locations, they are always a challenge. Pairs of pale-browed treehunters, bromeliad-foraging specialists, often give excellent views, as do singing yellow-legged thrushes, one of four species of thrush in the area. The park is great for mixed flocks, which, at the lower elevations, often have black-goggled, green-headed, flame-crested, yellow-backed, and red-necked tanagers, olivaceous and lesser woodcreepers, streaked xenops, spot-breasted antvireo, streak-capped antwren, sepia-capped and ochre-bellied flycatchers, crested and chestnut-crowned becards, buff-fronted foliage-gleaner, and yellow-green grosbeak. A few special birds that we've enjoyed but which don't travel with flocks are star-throated and unicolored antwrens, black-cheeked gnateater, blond-crested and yellow-eared woodpeckers, white-thighed swallow, long-tailed tyrant, and eared pygmy-tyrant.
At higher elevations in the park, an amazing boardwalk goes for about a kilometer through rich cloud forest, providing eye-level views of portions of the canopy as well as from-above views of the forest floor. As soon as we arrive and exit the van, we almost always hear a hooded berryeater which has a nearby territory. This shy bird, however, remains in on my BVD list - better view desired. We've heard the calls of Brazilian antthrush and variegated antpitta from the walkway, and though we've been very close to the antpitta, it remains on the heard-only list. The antthrush, however, once passed closely enough to the boardwalk for a few people to get good views. Luck has been with us as we've encountered several good mixed flocks in the area. The action can be brisk as mottle-cheeked tyrannulet, streaked xenops, rufous-backed antvireo, sharp-billed treehunter, white-browed and buff-browed foliage-gleaners, yellow-eared woodpecker, pallid spinetail, rufous-browed peppershrike, scaled and Planalto woodcreepers, and a few others pass through. Flocks of fruit eating birds have included azure-shouldered, golden-chevroned, and brassy-breasted tanagers. We once had over a dozen brassy-breasteds feeding on Melastome fruits at eye-level just a few feet away. We've also had good views of white-throated spadebill, white-shouldered fire-eye, rufous-capped spinetail, the rare and endemic brown tanager, and white-browed woodpecker in this area. A pond and stream at our lunch spot is part of a sharp-tailed streamcreeper's territory, and while it can be shy, we've had a few decent views, including in the scope, of this odd furnarid.
One of my favorite features of REGUA is that it is more than a bird lodge. It is also a center for some of the best conservation work being done in the Atlantic Forest. With education, research, reforestation, and land acquisition projects, it's success is setting a fine standard in the region and in Brazil. On one of our evenings, we'll receive an excellent presentation on REGUA's work from Nicholas Locke who founded the organization.
From Guapiassu we head to Itatiaia National Park, located in the Serra da Mantiqueira. Here we stay at the Hotel Donati, which, while not a "birding lodge" is one of my favorite places in the Atlantic Forest for birds, wildlife, scenery, and quiet ambiance. This comfortable and well-run hotel is set amidst excellent forest, has very good food, and has good birding right from the grounds. Often upon our afternoon arrival, we're treated to some "rush hour" avian traffic. Hummingbird feeders attract Brazilian ruby, violet-capped woodnymph, and scale-throated hermit, and fruit feeders (including plates of fruit at the windowsills of the restaurant) bring in dusky-legged guan, pale-breasted and yellow-legged thrushes, chestnut-bellied euphonia, and many tanagers, including olive-green, green-headed, ruby-crowned, sayaca, black-goggled, Brazilian, and palm. Around the grounds and along the trails we've found the colorful Atlantic Forest race of channel-billed toucan, black hawk-eagle, plain-winged and lesser woodcreepers, Surucua trogon, swallow-tailed and pin-tailed manakins, Araucaria tit-spinetail, pallid and rufous-capped spinetails, greenish schiffornis, ferruginous, rufous-tailed, and ochre-rumped antbirds, gray-capped tyrannulet, rufous-headed tanager, black-throated grosbeak, frilled coquette, orange-eyed thornbird, variable antshrike, white-bibbed antbird, velvety black-tyrant, white-bearded antshrike, cliff flycatcher, blue-winged parrotlet, Such's antthrush, and more.
Once, one of the highlights was a rough-legged tyrannulet, which not only perched nicely for us but proceeded to regurgitate, and then deposit on the branch where it was perched, two white seeds with sticky coats. Having previously discussed the seed dispersal strategies of mistletoes, this was great lesson reinforcement. Though uncommon, we've occasionally seen two endemic raptors in Itatiaia - white-necked hawk and mantled hawk. These two species are nearly identical except for their tail pattern. What's so interesting to me about their plumage similarities is that they are in separate genera. The white-necked, in the genus Buteogallus, is a cousin of black-colored raptors like common black and great black hawks. The mantled is in the genus Pseudastur and an obvious cousin of the widespread white hawk. This appears to be a good example of convergent evolution, and there seems to be an evolutionary advantage to this color pattern in the Atlantic Forest.
A side trip to the higher elevations of Itatiaia takes us to about 7000 feet where the habitat is reminiscent of Andean cloud forest with bamboo thickets, tree ferns, lots of Melastomes (and the fruit-eating birds that favor them), many epiphytes, and Ericaceous plants. One of the highlights along the road is a display area for the endemic black-and-gold cotinga. While their exotic two-note whistles travel large distances through the forest, these shy birds can be well hidden, and the natural ventriloquism of their vocalizations adds to the challenge of the search. We have, however, gotten lucky and found this beautiful bird on several occasions. Other special birds that we've seen in the area include shear-tailed gray-tyrant, brassy-breasted tanager, diademed tanager, blue-billed black-tyrant, golden-crowned warbler, Spix's spinetail, rufous gnateater, rufous-backed antvireo, sharp-billed treehunter, scaled woodcreeper, black-capped piprites, Serra do Mar tyrannulet, buff-throated and bay-chested warbling-finches, mouse-colored tapaculo, and one of the world's coolest hummingbirds, the plovercrest. While we North Americans don't think of plovers as having crests, in South America the southern lapwing is a common and conspicuous bird, and it has a lovely and fine crest though the crest is often held down. The plovercrest has a similarly shaped crest, thus the name, but the plovercrest often raises it to its full and rather bizarre height.
Our final leg of the journey is a trip to Iguazu Falls, a world-class, bucket-list site. I had been told by a few friends that if you're going to make the effort to go to Iguazu, you should stay at one of the fancy hotels inside the park right next to the falls. Here, I offer a belated thanks to these folks as they were right. The Hotel Das Cataratas, on the Brazilian side, is a front-row seat for not only the falls but also for 185,000 acres of excellent forest. The grounds of this luxurious hotel are home to a nice suite of birds that prefer edges and open spaces - southern lapwing, red-rumped cacique, cattle tyrant, eared dove, rufous hornero, gray-breasted martin, swallow tanager, variable oriole, short-crested flycatcher, rusty-margined guan, masked tityra, pale-breasted thrush, collared aracari and Toco toucan. These fairly common and widespread birds are joined by two spectacular regional endemics, plush-crested jay and yellow-fronted woodpecker. The hotel grounds are also a fantastic place to get superb views of perched scaly-headed parrots and blue-winged parrotlets, both of which can be common.
Trails adjacent to the hotel provide access to good forest with almost no other people. Here we've run into blond-crested and robust woodpeckers, rufous-winged and streak-capped antwrens, southern antpipit, black-goggled tanager, red-breasted toucan, Surucua and black-throated trogons, ochre-collared piculet, white-bearded and band-tailed manakins, sibilant sirystes, Guira tanager, red-crowned ant-tanager, magpie tanager, green-winged saltator, and three species of foliage gleaner (white-eyed, buff-fronted, and black-capped). We've also found several mammals around the grounds and in the forest, including brown capuchin monkey, Azara's agouti, South American coati, collared peccary, and Brazilian guinea pig.
The falls themselves live up to their reputation. While they can appear as a smallish white dot when flying into or out of Foz do Iguazu, up close they're still white but anything but small. Though the falls are a major tourist destination, the Brazilian side is wonderfully quiet with far fewer people than on the Argentinian side. Adjacent to the hotel is a falls-view walkway which offers dramatically powerful images and encompasses pretty much the entire series of small to massive dropoffs that make up about a mile and a half of "falls". The Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) is unlike anything I've ever seen, and a special walkway takes you right to the heart of it. The combination of power, sound, water quantity, scale, and even the smell is unforgettable.......especially at sunset with few people around. One of my participants perhaps said it best - "You've seen one waterfall, you've seen them all........as long as that one is Iguazu!!" One of the payoffs for staying within the park is access to the walkways outside of regular park hours when there is almost no one else there. It is often said that Argentina has the falls and Brazil has the views, and I wholeheartedly agree with this. Enjoying the walkways with almost no one around - except for perhaps a black-fronted piping guan perched in the open - is a special experience, as is the viewing of hundreds of great dusky swifts circling in the mist or clinging in to the cliff faces.
The Atlantic Forest and Iguazu Falls have exceeded my expectations in terms of comfort, scenery, and wildlife, and I can't wait to go back next year!
Tanager, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Black-fronted Piping-Guan, and Maroon-bellied Parakeet by Misty,
Larry, and Mary Vaughn