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ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

The Boy in Brazil: July-August 2006 (1 Viewer)

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
I'm just back from three and a half weeks birding in Rio de Janeiro state, southeast Brazil, from 11th July - 5th August. I had a rather wonderful time, clocking up 318 species and, with this being my first trip to the Neotropics, almost all were new for me. Over the next few weeks I'll post descriptions of day-to-day birding but I'll start with some bits about where I stayed etc.

Basic itinerary:

11/07/06 Flew with Air France from Aberdeen via Paris to Rio.
12/07/06 - 22/07/06 Arrived at Rio airport early morning and picked up by driver and taken to Serra dos Tucanos lodge near Cachoeiras de Macacu. Staying at Serra dos Tucanos with regular excursions elsewhere.
22/07/06 - 27/07/06 Staying at the lodge at Reserve Ecologicia Guapi Assu (REGUA), also near Cachoeiras de Macacu.
27/07/06 - 30/07/06 Travel by bus via Rio to Itatiaia National Park, staying at Hotel Donati.
30/07/06 - 31/07/06 Travel by bus via Rio to Angra dos Reis. Staying at Hotel Londres overnight with some birding in the morning.
31/07/06 - 03/08/06 Travel by boat to Ilha Grande, staying at Overnativa hostel.
03/08/06 - 05/08/06 Travel by boat and bus to Rio. Staying overnight at Botafogo Easy Hostel, then flight via Paris to Aberdeen, arriving back on 5th.

More detailed description of sites:

Serra dos Tucanos


Serra dos Tucanos is a birding lodge a few miles north of Cachoieras de Macacu on the road to Nova Friburgo. The lodge is set in some excellent forest through which there are a number of trails. The gardens of the lodge have a number of feeders which are very good for some seriously laid back birding. The lodge is run by English birder Andy Foster and his wife Cristina and provides full board accommodation. Andy also runs excursions most days. During my stay I birded as follows:

12/07/06 Birding the lodge grounds.
13/07/06 Serra dos Orgaos National Park.
14/07/06 High altitude trail at Pico Caledonia near Nova Friburgo.
15/07/06 Bamboo trail near Theodoro in the morning. Birding the lodge grounds in the afternoon.
16/07/06 Birding the lodge grounds.
17/07/06 High altitude trail lower section near Nova Friburgo.
18/07/06 Coastal excursion to Praia Seca.
19/07/06 Morning excursion to Theodoro Trail. Afternoon, birding lodge grounds.
20/07/06 Three-toed Jacamar excursion to Sumidouro and Duas Barras.
21/07/06 Excursion to wetlands at REGUA in the morning. Afternoon, birding the lodge grounds.
22/07/06 Birding lodge grounds in the morning.

I thought Serra dos Tucanos was an excellent place to stay and Andy has a very good set up, with excellent excursions often into less well-known areas but also lots of possibilities for doing your own birding. Andy knows the area and the birds extremely well and is also able to put up with unending banter from guests with good humour. I managed around 265 species during my stay at the lodge, including some very difficult endemics. The accommodation is comfortable and they were able to provide me with some good vegetarian food.



Having visited REGUA towards the end of my stay at Serra dos Tucanos and having met a few of the staff, I realised that there were quite a few species to be seen there that I hadn't already encountered. The reserve has a substantial lodge, with panoramic views out over the wetlands and forests towards the Serra dos Orgaos mountain range. Full board at the lodge was $80 per night but if, like me, you stay for five days or more you get a 20% reduction. The price covers pretty much everything including transport to the trails. Your money also goes towards the conservation of the site.

The reserve is very extensive and they're developing a good system of trails. The wetland area is fairly small but the birding is very enjoyable, with a tower hide giving great views. This area is quite low down and there's some important low altitude forest with different species to those I'd seen at Serra dos Tucanos. Many of the trails go much higher up into the mountains, so a very wide range of species is possible.

During my stay I birded as follows:

22/07/06 Wetlands in the afternoon.
23/07/06 Sao Jose trail in the morning then wetlands in the afternoon.
24/07/06 Waterfall trail most of the day then light blue trail and wetlands late afternoon.
25/07/06 Very long walk taking in Waterfall trail, Elfin Forest trail and Lost trail.
26/07/06 Birding the light blue trail and wetlands
27/07/06 Birding the wetlands early morning

I'd have to say that my stay at REGUA was the highlight of the trip for me with excellent birding and very good company. The accommodation and food was of a very high standard. Remarkably, for most of the time I stayed at the lodge I was the only resident.

If and when I go back to southeast Brazil, I shall definitely pay another visit. They're doing excellent conservation work too.

Itatiaia National Park


I stayed at the Hotel Donati, which lies well within the national park and has excellent birding within the grounds. The accommodation is okay but, for the price you pay (around £50 a night for me) it needs a 'lick of paint'. The food, which is included in the price, was very good and, as with other places, voluminous. I was impressed that they seemed to cater for vegetarians - I even got vegeburgers one night! Both full days I had in the park, I birded the trails between the Hotel Donati and the other hotels (the Simon and the do Ype). I didn't do any really high altitude birding at Itatiaia.

I was ready to be slightly disappointed by Itatiaia, given it's huge reputation, but was actually rather impressed. The forest birding, whilst good, isn't actually any better than lots of other places you can go to but the birding in the hotel grounds is excellent, and that's where I saw most of the really good birds.

Angra dos Reis

I stayed here overnight, waiting for a boat to Ilha Grande. There's actually some good forest around the town but it seemed to be inaccessible. I saw a few interesting birds along the shore front in the morning though. The town itself is nothing special. If you arrive by bus, there's an information office about Ilha Grande at the station, which is about a mile from the city centre, although it was closed when I arrived late in the afternoon. There's a tourist office on the way into town, which was pretty unhelpful. Boats leave for Ilha Grande from the main pier in the centre of town. There's a big ferry that goes but a number of other boats take passengers on a regular basis. The info office at the bus station seemed to know about the latter and even sold me a ticket. The main tourist didn't want to tell me about them, it seemed.

Ilha Grande

I stayed at Overnativa hostel in the main village of Abraao.


The hostel's good value and can be booked online. There're heaps of other places to stay on the island though, so I reckon you should normally be able to turn up and find which one you like best.

Ilha Grande is, as the name indicates, a big island which is covered in forest. No cars are allowed and so all travel is either done on foot, by bike (a bit hilly though) or by boat. There are some good trails into the forest, which is really nice although, with it being an island, the species list is probably more restricted than elsewhere.

I enjoyed birding on Ilha Grande, partly because I didn't know too much about what I might see. I picked up a few good species there, although there's nothing you couldn't bump into on the mainland. It would be a good place to go if you wanted to combine birding with a beach holiday.

Rio de Janeiro

I stayed for my final night at Botafogo Easy Hostel:


The hostel is good, located in a central and relatively safe part of the city and can be booked online. On my final morning, I birded the famous botanical gardens in Rio, which are about 15 minutes away by bus. I paid four Reals to get into the gardens, which are very laid back (lots of old folks doing Tai Chi) and a safe place for relaxing birding.


It was very much a game of two halves for weather. The first two-and-a-half weeks was completely dry with hardly a cloud in the sky most of the time. There was some low cloud high in the mountains on the high altitude excursion at Serra dos Tucanos but that was about it. Temperatures were around the mid-20s during the day in the mountains, a bit warmer and sometimes hot lower down. Early mornings and evenings could be fairly cool (you could often see your breath first thing) and I'd recommend taking a fleece if you go in their winter. The folks at REGUA, who are also farmers, were complaining about the persistent dry weather and there were lots of brush fires.

From 29th July onwards the weather turned, with a cold front hanging over the mountains. There was cloud almost constantly with regular and sometimes heavy rain. Temperatures struggled into the low twenties even on the coast.

Despite the wet end to the trip, I reckon I was pretty lucky with the weather. If the rain had been in the first week, that would have been more frustrating and I'd have missed out on a lot of birds. Insects also weren't too much of a problem and, although I got the odd bite, were never a nuisance.

There's a lot to be said for visiting this area in their winter, with temperatures comfortable, the weather relatively dry and the insects not a big problem. Birds aren't singing as much as they would during the breeding season and this means they don't respond as well to playback, but there are lots of entertaining mixed flocks.


Getting around by bus between cities is fairly easy and cheap and the buses are very comfortable. Changing buses at Rio de Janeiro rodoviaria (bus station) is fairly straightforward, although you need to find the kiosk of the company that goes to where you want to go. Buses to Itatiaia are run by Cidade do Aco and buses along the coast to Angra and Parati are run by Costa Verde. The bus station seemed pretty safe to me, although it's in a bit of a rough looking neighbourhood. There's loads of security guards around and I think the only danger is likely to come from pickpockets.

I quite often got taxis e.g. from Serra dos Tucanos to REGUA (70 reals, about £17), Itatiaia village to Hotel Donati (25), Rio bus station to Botafogo (25) and Botafogo to the airport (31). On most of these journeys there are buses which would be cheaper but perhaps more hassle. Incidentally, contra some of the guide books, there seem to be public buses running from Itatiaia village to the hotels within the park so if you want to stay at the cheaper places in the village then you should be able to get high up into the park fairly cheaply and easily.

People and language

Away from tourist areas like Rio and Ilha Grande, not many people speak much English, although in practice this didn't create many problems for me because I was with people who spoke both English and Portuguese. I used the Lonely Planet Brazilian Portuguese phrase book, which is fairly good and helpful with pronunciation.

People are basically really friendly and helpful. You normally get greeted when meeting people out on trails, which isn't something you get in some parts of the world. I faced no security difficulties and never felt in danger from anyone. You'd still be wise to use common sense and keep valuables out of sight in city areas though. Nobody much seemed to be talking about football, after Brazil's world cup failure.


Brazil is pretty good value and the whole trip cost me less than £2000. I reckon I could have done it a bit cheaper if I'd stayed in less comfortable accommodation but an advantage of staying at lodges like REGUA or Serra dos Tucanos is that everything is included in your bill so you don't really need any cash. If you have a credit card or Visa debit card you should be able to use at least some ATMs but probably not all, even if they have Visa signs on them. The Banco do Brasil ATMs at the airport eventually worked for me and some of the ATMs in Rio rodoviaria worked. If you're near a reasonably sized town you should be able to get cash somewhere, although it may take time to sort out.

I'll post daily summaries of birding, with a few photos, over coming weeks. I didn't take that many bird pictures (was too busy looking at them!) but got a few nice ones, as well as some landscapes.
Sounds like a great trip you had Andrew. I'm looking forward to reading all about it.

Day One: 12th July

After arriving early in the morning at Rio airport, waiting ages to go through immigration and then trying and eventually succeeding in getting money from a cash machine I was on my way to Serra dos Tucanos. The two hour journey took me through the northern part of Rio - not the best bit, I think it's fair to say - and then north through mostly agricultural areas.

Arriving for the first time on a continent and then travelling to accommodation is always a somewhat fraught experience for a birder. Almost every bird is likely to be new and I had plenty of 'oh, that looked interesting - no idea what it was' moments. But I did manage to identify a few species, some of which were actually fairly familiar - the flocks of Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets and the ominous looking Black Vultures that seemed to be perched on every lamp-post. My first new bird was the slender looking Neotropical Cormorant, many of which were along the shore in Rio, and I was soon seeing flocks of Magnificent Frigatebirds drifting on the thermals above the harbour and small squadrons of Brown Boobies sailing past the long causway that runs across the inlet lying adjacent to the city. On the way north, Southern Lapwing was noticed in a field and I figured out that most of the hirundines I was seeing were the very smart Blue-and-white Swallows. Approaching Cachoeiras de Macacu I could see tall mountains in the distance and as soon I was through the town the road began to take me into some beautiful rainforest along a steep-sided valley. After a few kilometres I arrived at Serra dos Tucanos and was soon shown to my room by Cristina.

Something I had often imagined before my trip was that first experience of proper birding in South America - hopefully seeing lots of remarkable new birds almost instantly. So it proved, with me looking out onto the hummingbird and banana feeders in the garden of the lodge and seeing an ever changing selection of tanagers and hummers. At the hummingbird feeders, as they almost always were, were Sombre Hummingbirds - each one guarding a set of feeders with great vigilence. Trying to get past these sentries were the more colourful Violet-capped Woodnymphs - perhaps the most widespread hummer of the trip - and a few Bananaquits. The tanagers tucking into the bananas that are put out every morning included the luminous Green-headed and jet black Ruby-crowned Tanagers. Three species of euphonia - Violaceous, Orange-bellied and Chestnut-bellied - were also in attendance. Best of all were the stunningly coloured (and named) Blue-naped Chlorophonias. Periodically, the feeders would be invaded by parties of Plain Parakeets - much more impressive than their name suggests being a beautiful leaf green colour with a subtle blue tone on the flight feathers. On the lawn a pair of smart Masked Water Tyrants hopped about, looking rather like Wheatears despite being unrelated.

Soon I was off for a walk along some of the trails that stretch upwards from the garden and into the forest above. I hadn't got any further than the swimming pool next to the garden when I encountered my first mixed flock of the trip - hordes of birds streaming through the trees at all levels. Most were the multi-coloured Red-necked Tanagers but amongst them were a pair of the diminutive Yellow-lored Tody-flycatchers and a Streaked Xenops, scuttling through the branches like a strange nuthatch. Around the front of the lodge there was plenty of activity in the trees by the river and, although I struggled to identify a few birds, I managed to pick out a pair of the warbler-like Chestnut-vented Conebills and a Fawn-breasted Tanager - a bird I only saw on one other occasion on the whole trip. When I finally got to the trails, I was soon seeing more tanagers: an incredible male Brazilian Tanager was brightest of all but I was equally impressed by the pair of Red-crowned Ant-tanagers. These were accompanied by a lumbering White-eyed Foliage-gleaner, which looked rather like a gangling acrocephalus warbler. One group of birds I was really looking forward to encountering were woodcreepers and my first view was of the biggest in the area - a White-throated Woodcreeper. Further along the trail, I had point blank views of a characterful Rufous-browed Pepper-shrike. Of course, I was constantly hearing strange sounds, normally from birds I had little chance of seeing. Eventually I tracked down the birds making the peculiar 'synthesizer' style sounds - male Blue Manakins. These are stunning looking birds with bright blue and black plumage and a striking red crown. Further along, the trail became quieter and I decided to head back to the lodge for lunch.

At lunch I met some of the other guests staying, Pete from Nottingham and Scott from Arizona (and originally Yorkshire). They both kept me entertained for the next ten days. After lunch I was seeing more new birds around the feeders. Brazilian Ruby and Saw-billed Hermit both dropped into the hummer feeders and Palm, Sayaca, Burnished-buff and Golden-chevroned Tanagers were all visiting the bananas, as well as an impossibly colourful male Blue Dacnis. Around the edge of the garden I could see Rufous-bellied and Pale-breasted Thrushes, the ever-present Great Kiskadees were calling noisily from around the pond and a Chestnut-crowned Becard was flycatching from the bare branches of a tree. A few larger birds were also appearing. First, a Squirrel Cuckoo with its unfeasibly long tail arrived into the trees at the back of the garden and then a couple of Maroon-bellied Parakeets visited the bananas. Best of all was a furtive Saffron Toucanet, which looked shy but stayed hacking at the bananas for several minutes. I only saw these gorgeous yellow and red toucans a couple more times on the whole trip.

I was pretty tired from my overnight flight and reluctantly had a quick nap but still had an hour or so to wander the grounds again before night fell. The light was gloomy under the trees but I was able to pick out some excellent new birds many of which were endemic to the Atlantic forest - a Spot-breasted Antvireo, a skulking and almost tailless-looking Star-throated Antwren, the small Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a brilliantly-marked Ferruginous Antbird. A Masked Yellowthroat, just as smart and as skulking as their North American cousins, was near the edge of the garden, where Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a Tropical Kingbird were perched up on the wires. Eventually I was back at the lodge in time with a little while before dinner, when I could write my notes and look at the fireflies flowing at the back of the garden.

So that was my first day of birding in South America - all of it pretty much on my own. I struggled a bit to keep up with the action on occasions but had still managed over fifty species, most of them new. The pace didn't slacken the following day.
Sounds ace! Was there for a fortnight last year, loved every minute and this brings it all back. Look forward to hearing the rest.


We are so lucky here in BF land to have great reports like this. Cheers Andrew.

John...surname, Envious :t:
Great trip report so far. This will be really helpful to some of us still just "dreaming" about a trip to Brazil. Looking forward to more.
Day Two: 13/07/06

I was up early to go on my first excursion from the lodge to Serra dos Orgaos National Park, around an hour or so's drive away. Breakfast provided just the five new birds around the gardens. First was a large dark bird with a long yellowish tail that flew overhead - I eventually figured out it was a Crested Oropendola. A distant circling raptor caught the attention of Andy and was identified as a Southern (or Crested) Caracara. A Swallow-tailed Hummingbird whizzed through the feeders and over the roof. A flycatcher perched up on a dead tree in the forest was checked out in the scope and proved to be a Grey-hooded Attila. But the pick of the bunch, although still only giving brief views, was a splendid Blond-crested Woodpecker, sneaking down to the feeders just briefly. This is a fairly big woodpecker with its creamy blond head contrasting against a jet black body.

On the way to the park, we called in at some roadside fish ponds and I was able to see a few of the commoner water birds of the area, like Least Grebe and Wattled Jacana. In the distance an Amazon Kingfisher was attending to a nest hole in a sandy bank and much better views were had of a Southern Caracara as one loafed about on the edge of the ponds.

The first long stop was at a car park low down in the national park. I had already come to the realisation that forest birding can be quite slow in the tropics but the array of birds zipping around in the trees here was something else. I could scarcely keep up with the new and attractive birds appearing minute by minute. A glorious Flame-crested Tanager, the male black with a pale throat and tufted orange crown, settled on the ground for a few seconds and overhead stubby Ashy-tailed Swifts circled. In the trees flitted a Red-eyed Vireo, Buff-throated Saltator and a diminutive White-barred Piculet. The latter were certainly a favourite throughout the trip - brilliantly busy and sometimes noisy woodpeckers, hardly bigger than a Goldcrest. Other woodpeckers soon began to make an appearance. Yellow-eared and Yellow-throated Woodpeckers were both very neat and a Lesser Woodcreeper was also exploring the branches. Perhaps the best bird that was picked out here, although I didn't realise it then, was an Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner - my only definite sighting of this hard to identify species on the whole trip. More impressive at the time was a Pale-browed Treehunter, a big streaky foliage-gleaner that makes a living by trashing about in bromeliads and which gave great views as at sang in response to Andy's playback, its tail vigorously trembling with the effort. Even better was to come, as Andy first of all picked out a smart male Spot-billed Toucanet, with its green-skinned 'goat eyes', perched quietly in a tree. Just a few metres away was a wonderful Rufous-capped Motmot - the only motmot in the region. It sat around at leisure, drooping its long tail downwards, before disappearing away into the forest.

On our way to the high altitude car park we had time to draw breath for a coffee and admire the huge 'Finger of God' pinacle that towers above the main road through the park. The car park was well above 1000 metres in elevation and we were soon climbing higher as we followed a trail upwards through some glorious forest. Soon there were new sounds to hear - the resonant cooing of Plumbeous Pigeons and the explosive 'wolf-whistle' of Hooded Berryeater, an endemic Cotinga that was one of the target species for the day. Drifting persistently in the air were the eerie 'Star Trek communicator' calls of a closely related species, Black-and-gold Cotinga. Easiest on the ear were the pleasant cascading songs of White-rimmed Warblers, a few of which eventually revealed themselves.

The journey up the trail was initially fairly quiet, although a few Brassy-breasted Tanagers were moving through the canopy and a Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner was a good bird to get in a mixed flock. My list of woodpeckers with yellow in their name burgeoned further with good views of a couple of Yellow-browed Woodpeckers. Best was a languid male Black-throated Trogon that arrived almost immediately in response to playback and gave a glorious show as it sat aloof in the trees. My first ever trogon and every bit as impressive as I'd hoped. Other new birds were the lemon yellow Golden-crowned Warblers, a female Pin-tailed Manakin and a male Yellow-legged Thrush that dashed quickly through the canopy.

Things began to liven up when we found ourselves in forest dominated by bamboo and antbirds were to the fore. Antbirds of the genus Drymophila are a bit of a southeast Brazilian speciality. I'd already been impressed by Ferruginous Antbird but today I was able to see the very similar but much more localised Bertoni's Antbird and also Rufous-tailed and Ochre-rumped Antbirds. All are different combinations of orange, buff and black and white streaking and all were seen well and sometimes side-by-side. Together with them were Rufous-backed Antvireos and Variable Antshrikes. A bull-necked White-collared Foliage-gleaner was another bamboo specialist that appeared in the understory. At one stage I didn't know where to look as two fantastic new birds appeared almost simultaneously. First was a beautiful soft blue Diademed Tanager, its plumage topped by a white cap and red tuft. Then, nervously pacing over the ground was a Brazilian Antthrush, with intricate pearl-spotting on the underparts. Two species of tyrant were amongst the teeming hordes - a Grey-hooded Flycatcher and an Ochre-faced Tody-flycatcher. On the way back down a tiny Drab-breasted Bamboo-tyrant was moving swiftly through the lower branches in the same area.

Hooded Berryeater was proving tricky to see but eventually I managed good views of three different individuals. These are brightly coloured thrush-like cotingas, mostly yellow with a black hood and rufous wings. One bird was living up to its name by plucking berries from the low branches of a tree towards the top of the trail. These weren't the only elusive birds that we found, with some shuffling in the understory turning out to eminate from two Dusky-legged Guans. These huge turkey-like birds were surprisingly easy to miss but gave remarkable views once I was on to them.

Eventually we emerged out of the forest and into a more open area from where we could enjoy fantastic views out across the trees and down to the lowlands below. We decided to stop here for lunch in the hope of picking out a Black-and-gold Cotinga perched in the canopy. Well, we waited, played recordings, and waited some more. We could hear plenty, some not far away, but they always seemed to be on the wrong side of the trees. Whilst we waited a few other birds appeared. A tricky one for the inebriated birder to say (not that I was of course) was a Blue-billed Black Tyrant and nearby a subtly-plumaged Olivaceous Elaenia was flycatching. Very much a 'birder's bird' that one. Hummingbirds were also out in the sun but rarely stayed for long. A Scale-throated Hermit dashed by and a male Plovercrest bounded through the flowers, only briefly approaching close enough or staying still long enough for his Lapwing-like crest to be seen. As we headed back down, having given up for today at least on Black-and-gold Cotinga, a smart White-throated Hummingbird gave reasonable views.

We stopped for a break by a dried-up waterfall and soon there were birds moving through. Most were Furnariids, including a Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner and an excellent Sharp-billed Treehunter - very small and neatly streaked. As the sun drifted behind the mountains and the forest darkened, we were treated to perhaps the birds of the day on the long march back to the car park. A flurry of movement came at the side of the trail. Some birds had flown but three were left and proved to be beautiful Spot-winged Wood-quails. They sat almost motionless just a few metres away for several minutes before following their companions into the undergrowth.

Eventually we arrived back at the car park and started on the long drive back to the lodge. It had been a remarkable day in this fantastic national park. The birding had been hard but when I counted up the species I'd seen or heard over 90. Over 50 had been new for me - the most I've every seen on any day anywhere. I'm left to wonder if I'll ever improve on a day like this.
Excellent reports! Looking forward for more and glad you had a good time here in Brazil.

Will go out fishing this weekend but always keep an eye out for birds. The offshore waters right now are teeming with Magellanic Penguins as well as some big Albatrosses and Frigates.
Day Three: 14th July

This was the day of the high altitude excursion to Pico Caledonia near Nova Friburgo. Andy warned us that it would be a day of quality rather than quantity because high up in the mountains there aren't huge numbers of species but it's where many of the rarest and hardest to see endemics are to be found. The reason that Pico Caledonia has started to develop a reputation for rare birds is more a reflection of its accessibility than its habitat, which is similar to many other high mountain areas in the region. On top of the mountain are a number of communications towers and hence a road leads steeply upwards almost to the top. In the few years that Andy has been visiting the site he's discovered two of the most enigmatic endemic birds in southeast Brazil: Grey-winged Cotinga and Itatiaia Thistletail. These were the two main targets for the day.

As we set off on the road northwards, it soon became apparent that the day wasn't going to be entirely cloud free. Swirls of mist began to cloak a few mountain tops and sometimes drifted downwards to the valleys. After driving through the suburbs of Nova Friburgo and up the steep cobbled road to the mountain, we stopped overlooking a broad forested valley. The cloud had dispersed to some extent but it was to reappear from time to time through the morning. We began by scanning over the wide sweep of forest below and soon I had seen, albeit not very well, yesterday's missed target: Black-and-gold Cotinga. I picked out one as it flew over the treetops and perched up nicely in a tree, the only problem being that the tree was the best part of a kilometre away and was almost impossible to point out to anyone else. The vivid yellow on the wings still shone even at that range. Naturally enough the bird had moved on by the time I got my scope set up but a few others were seen, either in flight or perched at even greater distance. Their plaintive whistling song was an almost constant companion as we walked up the hill.

Other birds could be seen near where we'd parked. The occasional flock of White-eyed Parakeets, with their distinctive yellow toned underwings, darted over and a chattering Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet was seen well. All the way up, the commonest bird seemed to be the lovely Diademed Tanagers, which I had much better opportunities to enjoy today. A little higher we encountered a lively mixed flock full of some nice high altitude passerines: Rufous-crowned Greenlet, Grey-hooded Flycatcher, Variable Antshrike and Rufous-backed Antvireo. The smartest members of the flock were the beautifully crisp looking Bay-chested Warbling-finches. These are immaculate grey, white and red birds that were seen on a few occasions during the day. Nearby I was chided for my enjoyment of another new bird: Rufous-collared Sparrow. Over the coming weeks I was to see a few more of these. Whilst I'd still claim that they're rather nice, I'd admit that they eren't quite as good as another roadside bird I saw in the same area. A quiet shuffling in the verge revealed, much to Andy's loud astonishment, a Large-tailed Antshrike. This is an almost crow sized, tar-black antbird with a hefty tail. Like other big antshrikes it's normally very difficult to see, but here it was hopping about just a few metres away.

Soon we began to hear the thin whistle of 'the big one' - Grey-winged Cotinga. This species was discovered just over 25 years ago and has a very restricted range in the Serra dos Orgaos area. It tends to be found higher up than it's near relative the Black-and-gold Cotinga and is very thinly spread. Andy reckoned that fewer than a hundred people have ever seen the bird (although I heard another estimate of around two hundred later in the trip!). Like other cotingas, it doesn't really do a lot except sing from exposed but often out of sight perches and we were hoping that one might be revealed by regular scanning of the tree tops.

Just as we stop above a small valley, Andy suddenly gets excited. "That's it: that's Grey-winged Cotinga!" He gestures towards a line of trees just a couple of hundred metres up the hill. Sure enough, a thrush-sized bird is perched up, nice as you like, on a bare branch. Andy quickly sets up his scope, looks into the lens and..."It's a female Black-and-gold." Hearts sink. Andy explains that he can't see any obvious grey in the wing. I soon have my scope set up and console myself with getting a much better view of a Black-and-gold Cotinga. The bird was sat, very happily, with its front on to us. After a few minutes Andy starts raising a few points. It's remarkably yellow underneath for the normally uniform olive-green female Black-and-gold. There's pretty obvious grey on the face too. What's more, it's slim and elegant, not like the much dumpier Black-and-gold. It was certainly hard to see any grey in the wing but then it was front on to us. Perhaps if it turns around? Or maybe starts calling. Andy plays the song of a Grey-winged Cotinga. Watching the bird, I see it visibily start paying attention, stretching its head forwards. But no sound. After ten minutes or so of almost no movement, the bird slips off rapidly into the trees, revealing nothing else of its identity. Interesting, but frustrating. Andy starts talking about being 80% sure it was a Grey-winged.

Higher up the hill, Andy starts scoping from a rather rickety looking hang-glider platform. The rest of us stand gingerly at the other end. Then Andy shouts that this time he's definitely got a Grey-winged Cotinga. We carefully, but rather rapidly, step out onto the platform. I find the bird in my scope - much more distant and looking rather non-descript greeny grey but its sideways on and definitely with grey in the wing. Soon the bird flits out of sight. Andy's absolutely happy with this bird being a Grey-winged Cotinga, although I'll be honest and say the views of this bird were much less inspiring, if more definite, than the first bird.

Whilst perched precipitously on the platform we were able to enjoy much more thrilling views of a terrific Black Hawk-eagle - all bulging wings and long tail - as it soard over the mountanside, calling constantly. Nearby were a few very fine endemic tyrants: Velvety-black Tyrant and the dove grey Shear-tailed Grey Tyrant. Even better was another high altitude specialist that had thus far eluded us, a delightful pair of Serra do Mar Tyrannulets. Like many other small tyrants, these were actually much smarter in real life than any fieldguide illustrations seem to show. I was impressed by the regular loud bill snaps they were giving as they moved furtively through the scrub.

Soon we had moved above the treeline and into an area of low scrub and tussocky grass. This is where our other target, Itatiaia Thistletail, could be found. We passed through the security below the towers, watching a Rufous-thighed Hawk soar overhead as we waited, and headed up the 600 or more steps to the top of the mountain. It was strange to pass into an area that seemed almost entirely birdless and, despite regular playing of their calls, there was no sign of any thistletails. We stopped to have lunch at the top of the mountain, enjoying the appropriately Scottish climatic conditions on Pico Caledonia. No birds were about aside from the odd soaring Black Vulture and a pair of Rufous-collared Sparrows. Eventually we began our way down the steps. Towards the bottom a brown, long-tailed bird - rather like a big Whitethroat - shot past and into a bush. Eventually it reappeared and, after what must have been a couple of hours of fruitless searching, here finally was an Itatiaia Thistletail. A good bird, and hard to see, but remarkably plain looking with just a white supercillium standing out from the brown plumage as it appeared intermittenly in the thick cover.

It seemed like we had cleaned up on the big stuff but it had been hard work. There were still a few more good birds to be had on the way down. Rather smarter looking than the thistletail was the closely related Pallid Spinetail - much brighter than its name suggests. A White-tailed Hawk drifted and hovered over a forested ridge and Plovercrests gave fleeting views as they dashed from flower to flower.

We arrived back at the car and, with a few hours of the now warm afternoon left, decided to make some stops on the drive back down the mountain. First stop was at a rather ordinary looking area of roadside scrub. Andy started playing a recording of our target bird and soon we were treated to decent views of a smart Dusky-tailed Antbird - grey and white but beautifully marked. Further down was a flowering tree full of tanagers and hummingbirds. The most exquisite of the tanagers were a vividly colour pair of Hepatic Tanagers - the male crimson red and the female yellow. White-throated and Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds gave good views in the tree and it was here that I finally got prolonged and close views of a male Plovercrest. There are many incredibly beautiful hummers in the world but this one must be up there with the best of them. The elegant crest I expected but the brilliant purple 'Cadbury's Dairy Milk' throat, caught by the afternoon sun to reveal impossible richness of colour, was extraordinary. Finally, Andy stopped by an open area of fields and said "I think I can see a new bird for Andrew". Quite a fine new bird it was too, a bizarre, strutting Red-legged Seriema. These birds are almost like bustards and have remarkable elongated bristles at the base of the bill. A befitting end to a day that had certainly lived up to providing the promised quality.

A few days later I asked Andy what his opinion now was of the first cotinga that we'd seen and he said he was now completely happy that it was a Grey-winged Cotinga. Having looked at the illustrations in HBW I have to agree - despite the grey wings not being obvious it was absolutely fine for one and very different to the plump, olive-green female Black-and-gold. Andy was now encouraging all of us to join his exlcusive 'Grey-winged Cotinga' club, with very 'reasonable' annual subscription rates. I've yet to sign up but still feel I'm a bit privileged to have seen one.

To see the lengths that others have gone to try and see this bird, have a read of this:

Day Four: 15th July

Today the excursion was only for half a day, to the 'bamboo trail', which climbs through thick bamboo forest near the village of Theodoro about twenty minutes drive from the lodge. We set off early as usual, at around seven am. The weather was clear and remarkably chilly first thing, with breath condensing into misty plumes. As with some of the other excursions, the journey took us along the winding main road to Nova Friburgo, which passes through one of the few areas of southeast Brazil that's still predominantly forested. Incongruous amongst the rainforest are the large billboards at the roadside that seem, almost exclusively, to advertise lingerie. Possibly this was because the road continues on to Muny, a small suburb of Friburgo that, for reasons that remain unclear, appears to be the lingerie capital of Brazil. I didn't buy anything there.

The start of the bamboo trail is in an area of houses and a new birds were seen around the gardens. A Rufous Hornero, a plain brown bird almost like a Nightingale that builds distinctive 'oven' nests, was seen scurrying about. An elegant passerine flycatching from a fence post turned out, somewhat to my surprise, to be a female Black-goggled Tanager. A group of Crested Oropendolas drifted low overhead, giving much better views than I'd previously had of the smart crow-like birds.

The trail then entered an area of forest along a stream and here I was able to see some more members of the incredibly diverse tyrant flycatcher family. There were the tiny White-throated Spadebills - almost looking like baby birds with their short tails and large mouths. More conventional were a Sepia-capped Flycatcher and a Yellow-olive Flycatcher - two species that turned out to be relatively common in the forest in this region.

The aim of the excursion was to see birds that are specialists of bamboo forests. For anyone who hasn't been to the area, bamboo grows very big in Brazil in tall and dense stands with individual trees reaching several centimetres in diameter. Not surprisingly, many of the bamboo specialists are tricky to see in this thick cover. In fact, for the first couple of kilometres it seemed as if we weren't going to see anything. Sometimes the forests can be incredibly quiet and this was just such an occasion. The only sounds were the occasional noisy flock of parrots passing, unseen, over the canopy. Our main pastime was to try to see the elusive Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. It had become something of a running joke that Andy would play his recording at a suitable spot and would garner... absolutely no response. This was certainly what happened today.

Eventually birds began to appear. One or two were bamboo specialists I'd already encountered such as Drab-breasted Bamboo-tyrant and White-collared Foliage-gleaner. Other Furnariids were also moving through in busy flocks - Sharp-billed Treehunter and White-browed Foliage-gleaner amongst them. A Pale-browed Treehunter was making lots of noise as it demolished a bromeliad and a Whiskered Flycatcher was seen moving quickly about in the canopy. A trogon slipped quietly into a tree above and proved to be a female Surucua Trogon, quite compact and greyish looking. Brazilian Antthrush was seen very nicely as it scampered through the thick stems of bamboo and a Green-winged Saltator, a big finch with a long white supercillium, appeared in some streamside trees. Perhaps the most notable species, which proved, very tricky to get good views of, was a Greenish Schiffornis. This bird looks rather like a female Manakin and has a loud, simple whistled song. It's hard to see as it perches quietly on branches but eventually one came in overhead and gave some fine views.

As we moved further along, a large bird could be heard moving about in some dense bromeliads. Andy got excited when he caught sight of the bird: it was a Giant Antshrike. True to this species' reputation, it was a challenge to entice into the open. Eventually I had a tantalising view of this big, barred, magpie-like bird as it perched briefly in the open. Another slightly frustrating experience of a much sought after bird and I hoped I'd manage a better view later on.

Perhaps the species that we most wanted to see was a strange species of tapaculo called a Slaty Bristlefront. As we went along the path we heard this bird's loud and distinctive song a few times but it was always coming from very far into the forest. As we returned one was singing from closer to the trail and we decided to have a shot at getting it to come out. Andy played the recording. The bird responded. Was it getting closer? Maybe. Keep trying. And so on. It always seemed to be just out of sight at the bottom of the small ridge we were looking down. Eventually we realised it wasn't going to play ball and we carried on disappointed.

A few more birds were picked up as we continued back to the van: Rufous Gnateater and Rufous-capped Spinetail were seen fairly briefly and a Plain Antvireo - a common bird in the forest as it turned out - was seen well.

After lunch back at the lodge, I had another chance to explore the nearby trails. In the garden a smart new addition to the list was one of the finest hummers in Brazil: a Black Jacobin. This is quite a big hummer with its black plumage set off by a mostly white tail and flanks. Also in the garden I got better views of Masked Yellowthroat and Buff-throated Saltator.

I soon managed to find a very busy mixed flock, which gave me some new species as well as better looks at birds I'd seen before. A couple of warbler-like Streak-capped Antwrens were moving busily through the canopy and a tiny Eared Pygmy-tyrant was flycatching. Spot-breasted Antvireos were calling loudly and a Ferruginous Antbird looked brilliant with the sun on it.

Following a tip off from Andy, I retrieved my MP3 player and speakers from my bag and had my first go at using playback. The bird I was hoping for was Black-cheeked Gnateater and, very rapidly, I could hear a few birds responding. Eventually I had some fine views of a male - an absolutely brilliant bird with rufous crown and black mask. The females proved trickier and for a while I thought I was seeing Rufous Gnateaters. Later on, Andy corrected me, telling me it was too low for that species and that, contra the pictures in his own fieldguide, female Black-cheeked look very like Rufous.

An impressive bird to get a view of was a Scaly-headed Parrot. I'd previously seen a few of these big, stocky parrots flying overhead but was pleased to find one perched up in a tree. These are quite dark birds with a distinctive red vent. Otherwise birding in the forests was a bit frustrating with lots of interesting noises but nobody to tell me what they were. One species that was being more cooperative was the normally hard to see Star-throated Antwren, which, like the gnateaters, responded very well to playback, suddenly coming out from the undergrowth to have a look at what was going on. The final bird of the day was a Rufous-thighed Hawk, perching silently on a low branch before slipping menacingly off through the forest.
Day Five: 16th July

Today was a quiet day with no excursions and so I was able to fully explore the trails at the lodge. First thing in the morning I headed up the Extension Trail that wanders up the hill for a kilometre or two. Something that surprised me in Brazil was how quiet early mornings in the forest could be. I suspect this is mostly a feature of the winter months when birds aren't singing much and it's not normally until the sun gets above the hilltops and through the trees that feeding flocks really start getting busy. At Serra dos Tucanos, which is in a steep-sided valley, this takes a few hours. I did, however, get one very good new bird on my early morning wander. A rustling in the leaves at the side of the trail was followed by a dark brown bird flitting upwards before coming down again. It was a Tawny-throated Leaftosser and I enjoyed some great views as it rumaged amongst the leaf letter, almost like a strangely-shaped Blackbird. At the top of the trail I saw a large brown woodcreeper, which I later figured out was a Plain-winged (or Thrush-like) Woodcreeper - a good endemic.

After breakfast I set off again and soon heard a bird singing from the riverbed that I recognised: a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. After my previous experiences, I wasn't optimistic about being able to catch sight of it. It was singing from somewhere along a short riverside trail and I'd just set off along the trail when a plump, short-tailed bird shot past me and into cover. From the size and shape it was clearly the streamcreeper but, try as I might to entice it back out of cover by playing a recording, it stayed silent and elusive.

I then followed the Extension Trail again and this time things were livelier with some good mixed flocks of tanagers, mostly consisting of Brassy-breasted, Red-necked and Black-goggled Tanagers. Amongst them were a pair of Yellow-backed Tanagers, although I was suffering a bit from 'tanager neck' by the time I picked these out in the high canopy. A Black-tailed Flycatcher, very similar to the Whiskered Flycatcher I'd seen yesterday, was in the same area. On the way down I stopped at a viewpoint to overlook the valley and was able to pick out some Grey-rumped Swifts as they drifted over the forest on the other side. In the trees nearby I was initially confused by a small yellow and blue passerine until I saw the white wing-bars and realised it was a Tropical Parula. Back at the lodge a pair of noisy Social Flycatchers, rather like budget-sized Kiskadees, were in the garden.

In the afternoon I was back on the trails and, following a tip-off, I spent some time looking across the valley to a very large tree that towered above the others. Eventually I caught sight of the big and brightly-coloured bird I was looking for - a Channel-billed Toucan. Soon another appeared and, with the scope, it was possible to get reasonable views as they moved through the trees. Other good birds around the garden were a couple of Flame-crested Tanagers in a mixed flock and a Grey-hooded Attila that perched up obligingly in a dead tree.

A day for 'consolidation' and for picking up a few missing species but it was clear that I'd now seen a lot of the commoner forest birds of the area. New species were going to take a little more work and travel from now on.

A few photos:

1. The gardens at Serra dos Tucanos
2. Plain Parakeet on the feeders
3. River at Serra dos Tucanos - Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper country
4. View of the lodge and garden
5. Very bad picture of a Masked Water Tyrant on the lawn


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I am just begining to study your incredible report.I am sure I will have plenty of qustions as i am planning on birding the area in December.I just got the Souza book in english ,which books were the most helpful for you as an ID guide?
GREAT birds so far!
stephen bahr
Hi Andrew

I also fell into the female Black-cheeked/Rufous Gnateater trap in the lodge grounds. Sounds like you had an ace time - you've got me gripped on quite a few (that Cotinga chief amongst them), but I did manage to fluke a Bristlfront, creeping through the undergrowth while we were all crouched down waiting for an Antthrush to arrive that Andy was calling in! Looking forward (with some trepidation!) to the rest.


Stephen - the most helpful book was the small field guide produced by Andy and Ber van Perlo for Serra dos Tucanos guests. The pictures are good for most species and it's easy to carry around. I'm not sure whether it's available unless you stay at the lodge though - you could email them and ask I suppose. If you're going out of Rio de Janeiro state it probably won't cover quite a few of the species you encounter.

I got a copy of the new edition of Souza just before I left but hardly used it all. The pictures are really pretty bad. Otherwise, I'd recommend making lots of photocopies from Ridgely & Tudor and/or HBW. I also took the de la Pena guide to southern South America. It's okay - and much better than Souza on the species it covers - but I didn't use it much. If you take a laptop with you the Remold CD Rom guides would be useful. I'd also recommend Xeno-Canto for getting hold of songs and calls:


James - well done on the Bristlefront. Judging from your report you got lots that I didn't manage!
stephennj said:
I am just begining to study your incredible report.I am sure I will have plenty of qustions as i am planning on birding the area in December.I just got the Souza book in english ,which books were the most helpful for you as an ID guide?
GREAT birds so far!
stephen bahr

A trio of birders from Michigan was staying at the same time as me and had constructed their own field guide by scanning the relevant plates from Birds of South America (the one illustrated by Guy Tudor that they only published the first two volumes of) and HBW, then cutting, pasting etc and printing it off. They ended up with an A4 sized ring binder of plates and ID notes (gleaned from various sources) - proved quite useful. Would probably be easier to take digital photos of the plates, and manipulating them from there (I had a play around at doing this when I got home - couldn't resist - and while time consuming it's fairly simple to do). Also playing around with the images would probably help one with familiarisation with the species likely to be encountered.

Hope you have a great time out there in December. (I'm sure you will!)

Day Six: 17th July

Today I was back with the excursions and we were off again to the high altitude area near Nova Friburgo, but this time we stayed lower down. Before setting off I enjoyed great views of a Blond-crested Woodpecker in the garden of the lodge, giving its loud, ringing call.

The trail took us through a mixture of open country and wooded river valleys giving the feel of parkland. The first good bird was a smart Rufous-capped Antshrike, which unlike some of its relatives, was very cooperative and confiding in response to Andy's playback. In the same area a Spix's Spinetail eventually gave reasonable views, although I never saw this species really well anywhere on the trip.

This was the first time I'd had the opportunity to bird in more open agricultural habitats and so I was soon picking up some new species. Campo Flickers were smart and noisy, Chalk-browed Mockingbirds very conspicuous and Cliff Flycatchers were perched up on dead trees or hawking after insects almost like swallows. A deep green Glittering-bellied Emerald was perched up on the fence wires and Saffron Finches were flitting about in the grass.

Soon we reached an area where we could overlook the gardens of one of the rather plush mountain retreats that are in this area. Amidst the immaculate lawns and vintage cars there was an impressive array of tyrants. Shear-tailed Grey-tyrants, Planalto Tyrannulets, Blue-billed Black Tyrants and Velvety Black Tyrants all gave fine showings. Brief views were had of a Southern Beardless Tyrannulet. Perhaps the smartest birds here were the soft buff-and-grey-coloured Cinnamon Tanagers - rather like Bullfinches and fairly common at this altitude. Another species that was reminiscent of something more familiar were the Hooded Siskins, sounding a lot like their European relative and looking equally smart when one was eventually seen perched.

The trail continued on through some scrubby river valleys and for a while we were hearing more than we saw. White-shouldered Fire-eye, Red-eyed Thornbird and Mouse-coloured Tapaculo all sang from time to time but were resistant to the charms of our recordings. One of the species we were particularly hoping to see was Swallow-tailed Cotinga but our searches of the treetops were coming to naught. However, there were compensations. One bird that did respond to playback was a Thick-billed Saltator - a scarce high altitude endemic - and we were very fortunate to pick out a Tiny Hawk, perched up in a tree for several minutes. Also seen along the trail were some of the good birds we'd seen higher up a few days earlier like Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Plovercrest and White-throated Hummingbird. Overhead a group of swifts emerged and at least some of these could be identified as Biscutate Swifts - a big black species with a partial white collar and square-ended tail. Some good raptors also appeared with Black Hawk Eagle again giving fine views and a dark looking White-tailed Hawk also drifting over. A new bird, although one I would see lots more of, was a Yellow-headed Caracara.

We returned back along the trail, still without having seen Swallow-tailed Cotinga. Staking a claim for bird of the day was an incredibly marked Green-barred Woodpecker seen brilliantly in a trailside tree - a cryptic mixture of yellow, green and red with intricate spotting and barring. I was also impressed with the 'aptly named' Boat-billed Flycatcher - a kiskadee with a bill you wouldn't mess with.

On the journey back to the lodge we took a detour along a dusty track that runs south of the main road and through some good forest. We made quite a few stops, not always seeing much but eventually managed some very fine views of White-shouldered Fire-eye - a species that had eluded us earlier. This is quite a large black antbird, with a long tail and the red eye and white markings on the wings that give it its name. We also managed to get some good perched views (albeit still distant) of a Black-and-gold Cotinga as it sang serenely.

So a day with some more very good birds, although a few frustrations along the way. The next day was at the seaside.
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