Birding Despite Disability

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Pandemic Birding in Brazil, Part II: São Paulo

During the first leg of the trip, while we were still in Manuas, birding with Gabriel, we got a message from our São Paulo guide, Caio Brito; it turns out there would be a COVID-related impact to the trip after all. The state of São Paulo had just decided to shut down Intervales State Park, where we had planned to spend two days and nights. So Caio had to scramble to make a new plan that would get us into the same habitat and obtain new lodging as well. Luckily he was able to do so, and Plan B turned out to be better than Plan A.

(E) São Paulo, (F) Intervales State Park (not visited), (F1) Mini-Pantanal at Tanquã, (F2) Parque do Zizo, (G) Guaraú , (H) Salesópolis, (I) Ubatuba, (J) Campos do Jordão

Since the airport (GRU) is on the east side of the city, we started on January 1 heading due east to the Salesópolis area, where the main target was the endangered São Paulo (or Parana) Antwren, which we saw well. Bare-throated Bellbirds are everywhere here and make a constant racket.

Male and female Bare-throated Bellbirds, Salesópolis
Bran-colored Flycatcher, Salesópolis

After a few hours we reversed directions and circled back north and west of the city, up to Piracicaba, so that we could be on a boat the next morning to explore, by boat, the “mini-pantanal” (at Tanquã) near there. This was not part of the original plan, but it was well worth the extra drive. We got audio recordings of, and even saw for a moment, a Yellow-breasted Crake, and also found a pair of Stripe-backed Bitterns that were willing to be photographed.

Stripe-backed Bittern, Tanquã

Next we headed south towards our replacement site for Intervales: we would go to Parque do Zizo to get our Atlantic Forest birding. On the way we found a pair of Red-legged Seriemas crossing the highway. If I was a small mammal or reptile I think I would regard these as the most terrifying, nightmare beings. Since I am not, I can enjoy them as the striking, modern dinosaurs that they are.

Red-legged Seriemas

Parque do Zizo is a fantiastic little place. It is very basic, with no wifi and no cell service, but electricity is available. On our first evening, as twilight started (and with my camera in the room charging, of course) we had quite the adrenaline surge: a Solitary Tinamou, of all things, calmly walked into the middle of the camp. It seemed oblivious to us and came within about four meters of us, picking up fallen bits of fruit before slowly fading away into the night. I will gladly forego wifi for a confiding and bold tinamou.

Parque do Zizo

In addition to the three of us, there was another couple of naturalists there to do photography, and a cook was on the premesis to keep the wood-fired stove going and make delicious meals and coffee.

Kitchen at Zizo

As we were driving to Zizo, Caio warned us about the large number of snakes in the area. When we arrived, the other couple informed us that indeed, they had just seen a coral snake on one of the trails. The camp had a few extra pairs of snake gaiters and I needed little convincing to don them before spending the next morning on a long and overgrown trail.

Prepared for snakes
Very birdy trail at Zizo. Not so snakey.

Alas we saw no snakes at all, much less a coral snake. But we did manage to find a couple of Pileated Parrots, a very, very good bird indeed.

Pileated Parrot, Parque do Zizo

The fruit feeders were full and kept plenty of tanagers around, including the stunning Green-headed Tanager and Red-necked Tanager.

The poorly-named Green-headed Tanager, Parque do Zizo
Red-necked Tanager, Parque do Zizo
Black-goggled Tanager, Parque do Zizo

After two nights there we continued south to the coast, specifically towards the city of Guaraú and the nearby little town of Itanhaem, which marks the northern limit of the distribution of Red-tailed Parrots. This was our first visit to restinga habitat. The area was very birdy; thoughtfully, a noisy Ferruginous Pygmy-owl had set up shop right where we were, so it wasn’t necessary for anyone to imitate the incessant whistles in order to get all the area songbirds bouncing around.

Red-tailed Parrot, Itanhaem

This is also a good place for the ariel subspecies of the Channel-billed Toucan.

Channel-billed Toucan (ariel), Itanhaem
Aptly-named: Blond-crested Woodpecker, Itanhaem
Red-breasted Toucan, Itanhaem
Scissor-tailed Nightjar, Itanhaem
Black-backed Tanager, Itanhaem

Next we would head up the coast and then turn north towards the highlands, northeast of the capital city. Along the way, we passed through farmland and marshy areas that Caio said might hold another one of our Nemesis Birds, the dreaded Pinnated Bittern. As we were speeding along one stretch, at 40 MPH or so, Claire suddenly shouted for him to stop, based on some distant speck she saw in this rice field:

Do you see the bittern?

I don’t know how she ever saw it, but there it was: just a thin, yellow, dagger bill thrust straight up. Occasionally it turned to show its head. See why I married her?

Pinnated Bittern, rice fields south of Campos do Jordão

In our three trips here, we have seen only a fraction of this huge country, but it is hard to imagine it has any other place quite like the city of Campos do Jordão, northeast of São Paulo. It has the highest elevation of all cities in Brazil, at over 5,300 feet (1,628 meters) and so attracts a lot of tourists escaping the tropical furnace of lower elevations. The climate here, at least for our trip, was one of those perfect, rare combinations of temperature and humidity such that you don’t even notice the air – like being in a state of perfect equilibrium with it.

Campos do Jordão, the Switzerland of Brazil

Here there are no shortage of gorgeous Araucaria pines, and in them, of course, Araucaria Tit-Spinetails and Vinaceous-breasted Parrots. Black-capped Piprites is another speciality here that we ticked easily.

Spix’s Spinetail, Campos do Jordão
Planalto Tyrannulet, Campos do Jordão

A local guide in Campos had a good location for Striped Owl – we missed it on the first try but found it a night later. This has to be the most aesthetically pleasing owl species we have ever had the fortune to see.

Striped Owl, moments before capturing a rat, Campos do Jordão
Is there a more beautiful owl species? I cannot think of one.

Another bird that I managed to record, but which we didn’t see, was the Sharpbill. We can hardly complain, though. More than on any other trip, many normally skulky birds were willing to show themselves for a moment. Below is the only clear shot I have ever had at any kind of foliage-gleaner that I can recall.

Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Campos do Jordão

A few more photos from Campos below. We dipped on the Hellmayr’s Pipit so we’ll have to come back at some point. Just a fantastic place to bird and to hang out.

Greenish Tyrannulet, Campos do Jordão
Maroon-bellied Parakeet, Campos do Jordão
Black-and-gold Cotinga, Campos do Jordão
Plush-crested Jay, Campos do Jordão
Olivaceous Elaenia, Campos do Jordão
White-rumped Monjita, Campos do Jordão

Finally we started the last leg, which was to head southeast to the coast once again, stopping along the way at Reserva Guainumbi. There is relatively new eco-lodge here where we stopped for a few hours for lunch and birding, called Pousada Oikos. The owner here a nice assortment of feeders, the best food of our entire 25 days in Brazil, and a spot for Red-and-White Crakes.

Red-and-white Crake, Pousada Oikos
Brazilian Ruby, Pousada Oikos

From here, going down towards Ubatuba on the road marked SP-125, one gets lovely views of the Atlantic. One also gets to tour a bizarre graveyard of hubcaps: the endless series of tight, descending curves make car brakes heat up so much that the temperature gradient and thermal expansion cause countless hubcabs to be jettisoned from passing vehicles. There are hundreds and hundreds of them littering this road for miles.

Not a good photo, but a great bird: Frilled Coquette, Ubatuba

Birding had been amazing so far, but is impossible to maintain a streak of good fortune while on a month-long trip, and now we had reached the point in the journey where several things would go wrong all at once. Sadly it happened at an otherwise charming locale, through no fault of the owners.

The place was Ninho da Cambacica, a birding-centric B&B with a huge deck, splendid views, tanager-covered fruit platforms and mobs of hummingbirds on the dozens of feeders hung all over the place. The room even had a jacuzzi:

Not your typical birding lodge amenities

We got great birds here too, such as Tufted Antshrike, Frilled Coquette, and Buff-bellied Puffbird. So what went wrong? For starters, the power had been knocked out a day before. No power meant no hot water, so the jacuzzi would go unused. At least we didn’t have to look at it, sitting there idle in the dark.

The owners did run a generator for us for a few hours, but I then discovered that the camera battery for my Nikon was refusing to charge, which would leave me to take photos with my cell phone, ugh. (I later found a different adapter that worked with the Nikon, luckily, because the next leg of the trip would have the best photo opportunities.) I dropped a glass soap dispenser in the shower, literring the entire bathroom floor with shards – the pump mechanism somehow ended up in the (then unflushed) toilet bowl and needed to be fished out. Fun times.

On the following morning, we got up at 4:30 to head up to the State of Rio de Janeiro to look for the range-restricted and striking Black-hooded Antwren. But since the same day included a long drive back to the airport to catch a flight up to Forteleza, it is customary that the forces of nature conspire to prevent travel: and so, about a kilometer out, we found a large tree, a meter in diameter, had fallen across the road during the night.

After the tree was removed

A neighbor with a chainsaw was eventually located and after a few hours the path was cleared. It still left us with just enough time to head up towards Rio and get the antwren. So in the end our bad luck streak was a pittance to pay for these spectacular birds. We felt terrible for the owners of the B&B – they have had a such a paucity of customers due to the pandemic, and then when we show up they lose electricity. It did get fixed the following day at least, as more guests arrived. Anyway, if you plan to bird around Ubatuba, please go to Ninho da Cambacica – great birds, very nice owners, and the jacuzzi await.

The ubiquitous and confiding Rufous Hornero

With that we headed back to GRU for the red-eye flight to Fortaleza. And while São Paulo did not match our lifer count from Amazonas, we did get more total species in the eight days down here; 290 species with 81 life birds; the lifer count would have been much higher except for our trip to nearby REGUA in 2019.

In Brazil they know how to fill a wine glass. None of this half-full, elegant BS like in a US restaurant. Seriously. Why do they do that with wine, but not with beer, or water, or soda?

Next up: The northeast states of Ceará and Bahia.

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