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Old Sunday 31st August 2008, 14:21   #1
Andrew Whitehouse
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Balbina Forest and Stresemann's Bristlefront

I posted this elsewhere but here's a short report on my visit to this excellent site earlier this week, together with a few details on access, as best as I can remember them.

Last Sunday morning I set off in a Fiat car with Dave Willis, our aim being to head to the border of Minais Gerais and Bahia to Balbina Forest, henceforth known as the home of Stresemann's Bristlefront. I must confess that this was a bird I hadn't heard of until recently but it's very much on the rare side, as this suggests.

On Sunday we did some birding in Rio de Janeiro state, enjoying an instructive mixed flock of Biscutate and White-collared Swifts near Guapimirim and some Three-toed Jacamar action at Somodouro. We had a look for Rio de Janeiro Antbird at Carmo but by then it was late in the day and not much was singing. I did manage to see Green-barred Woodpecker and Rusty-margined Guan.

On Monday we headed purposefully north to the small rural town of Bandeira, which we knew was only a few kilometres from Balbina. But we weren't sure in which direction. We did a bit of asking. We did a bit of driving. Actually the environment guy at the Prefectura in Bandeira was enormously helpful, and told us that the bird had been very good news for him. He got in touch with a few locals and by the end of the day we reckoned we had a good idea of where to go.

It rained quite a lot overnight and we set off at five in the morning ready for a long and possibly slippery climb up the hill to the forest. There was a lot of slipping, a few wrong turns, a lot of asking and a bit more walking than we'd hoped for. Anyway, here are some directions that might prove helpful to anyone trying to visit.

Bandeira is to the north of the larger town of Almenara. The drive from Almenara takes about 45 minutes, the first part along a new road in the direction of Jordania and then along a dirt road on the left. Balbina is reached initially along the good dirt road going from Bandeira towards Macarani. Turn right on this 8km after leaving the town then follow this road for around 1.5km. You'll then see a low road going to the left with a gate across it. Go through the gate and take the lower of two tracks. This climbs up via a few gates and houses. If it's a bit wet, you're probably better off leaving the car at the bottom of the hill. If it's dry, you could probably get a reasonable distance along it. The entrance to the forest that we went to was round into another valley along a slippery path through scrub, but there are probably other entrances. Here's a map of the area. The red circle is approximate and the site might actually be a few km from where I've put it!

The forest is not particularly extensive and most seemed to be on a hilltop rather than in the valley bottoms, but we didn't go to the whole forest so there could be more that's lower down. There was one mostly good and clear trail through the forest, which we didn't follow all the way through. Presumably there is another access point at the other end. There was also a side track, that continued lower down.

Apologies for the lack of real precision - there are quite a few tracks in the area! Asking local people directions for 'Mata da Balbina' should be helpful though. There's a small, basic but cheap and comfortable pousada in Bandeira, which is near the petrol station that you pass as you enter the town from Almenara. The proprietors got a bit confused by our early morning habits, but perhaps if more birders visit they'll get used to it!

Anyway, some birds. Below the forest were some new species (at least for me) in the scrub, with Rufous-winged Antshrike perhaps the best. Others were Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-bellied and White-throated Seedeaters. Eventually we found our way along the slippery path overlooking a densely scrubby valley, where the low vegetation merged into some taller forest. Soon we were hearing the repetitive frog-like song of Rio de Janeiro Antbird and eventually we managed some very close views of a male and female. Another pair were heard later on. In the same area we heard but didn't see a Black-headed Berryeater.

The slippery path gave way to a good track through some nice forest and there were plenty of birds around. In an area of bamboo I had decent views of a couple of dainty Fork-tailed Tody-tyrants. Dave thought he heard some Touit parrotlets and I had very brief views of what I suspect was a Golden-tailed Parrotlet. I kept hearing a very loud emphatic call and eventually we had great views of the source: a Cinnamon-vented Piha. These hefty thrush-like birds seemed to be lekking just below the trail. There was a really good mix of stuff in the forest, with highlights being Saffron Toucanet, Black-billed Scythebill, Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner, Pin-tailed Manakin, White-bibbed Antbird, Gilt-edged Tanager, Drab-breasted Bamboo-tyrant, Black-throated Grosbeak, Rufous Gnateater and Wing-barred Piprites. We also heard Brown Tinamou and several Sharpbills.

A couple of very scarce birds were found in the afternoon. I had good views of an attractive Bahia Spinetail and we found two groups of Three-toed Jacamars. On our way back down, a pair of Golden-capped Parakeets were sitting in a treetop.

So what about the Bristlefront? Around the middle of the day I decided to try playing Nick Athanas's recording from xeno-canto. We both very quickly realised we'd already heard something like this a couple of hours earlier! Retracing our steps we tried the recording again and soon had a response. The bird seemed close (although I think we heard a more distant individual too) but was in thick cover and seeing it from the trail seemed unlikely. So, we headed in to the understory and waited, playing occasional bits of the Athanas recording and some recordings that we'd been able to make. At first it seemed to be back across the other side of the path, but then it got closer. Occasionally it would stop singing for several minutes before starting up again several metres away. It seemed to be circling us, but not getting any closer. Eventually I had tantalising glimpses of a bird stealthily darting along the ground, but nothing conclusive. Then, after perhaps an hour, I saw a bird perched up for several seconds, belting out a round of its liquid song: Stresemann's Bristlefront. All a bit heart-stopping. After this, we both had some more good views from time to time, with the bird moving over shorter distances and closer to us.

There were a couple of interesting things about our encounter with the Bristlefront. Firstly, it appeared to be in female-type plumage being brown above and rich rufous below. Secondly, it was giving a different song to the Nick Athanas recording, with a protracted two-note stuttering ending. It actually seemed to respond much more to the Athanas recording than to our recordings of its own song, often coming in just before the end as if in a duet.

Eventually we left it in peace, after a truly memorable experience.
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Old Tuesday 2nd September 2008, 23:36   #2
sclateria
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Terrific stuff Andrew! I envy you the Bristlefront, that's one I've been scheming to get after since Nick came back with recordings after Romulo Ribon rediscovered the bird.

Balbina appears to have a very interesting mix of birds. Ribon also found the recently-discovered Pink-legged Graveteiro, Blue-throated Parakeet and perhaps best of all - Banded Cotinga - in the area. To my knowledge the area is still totally unprotected; we need more pioneering birders such as yourself to get out there and demonstrate the importance (by putting up our cash as tourists) of these rare and threatened birds.

For anyone thinking of checking it out, there are nearby sites where one can probably find Red-browed Amazon and Slender Antbird.

Very nice, very nice indeed...
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Old Wednesday 3rd September 2008, 01:55   #3
Andrew Whitehouse
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Hi Brad - I think the American Bird Conservancy and World Land Trust both seem to be talking about buying the forest, although I'm not sure if this has happened yet. I think northeastern Minais is an interesting and not very well-known area for birds, which I hope to return to. I'd like to see the Graveteiro particularly.

PS: Have been birding with your pal Scott the past couple of days.
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