Birding Despite Disability

Obsessions Don't Care About Limitations

Pandemic Birding in Brazil, Part III: The Breathtaking Northeast

After completing the São Paulo leg, we arrived in Fortaleza at 2:30 AM. We started mid-day on the following day with ornithologist Ciro Albano. We are getting quite spoiled with these outstanding guides from Brazil Birding Experts. We’ve had great guides here and there around the world, but not three like this on the same trip.

More good news: getting out of the rainforests and into the caatinga did wonders for my terrible photography skills, so the images that follow are improved from the previous ones!

Unlike our time in Amazonas and São Paulo, here we would proceed cross-country, from Fortaleza down to Salvador over nine days, with an excursion to the west as well, to the Chapada Diamantina region, where we would spend most of our time. The total distance travelled would be comparable to that between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Map of the northeast corner of Brazil, with various markers.
(K) Fortaleza, (L) Guaramiranga, (M) Quixadá, (N) Potengi, (O) Canudos, (P) Chapada Diamantina / Lençóis, (Q) Praia do Forte

Our first stop was for endemic Gray-breasted Parakeets at Guaramiranga, not far from Fortaleza, one of the principal sites where nest boxes were used to help move this bird from Critically Endangered to Endangered status. Ciro has been one of the leaders in this effort and we felt quite fortunate to be shown these birds by one of the biologists responsible for their continued survival.

Green parakeet perched. Purplish tail, maroon belly, black face, white chest, blue on nape, red in shoulders.
Gray-breasted Parakeet, Guaramiranga

This place was thick with mango trees, and every step on the trail seemed to involve stepping on one. I thought I would cry; it is nearly impossible to get decent mango in the USA, and after living in SE Asia we have really gotten a hankering for them. And then here they are, going to waste, everywhere.

A forest path covered with ripe yellowish mangoes
All these excellent mangoes, wasted!
Perched oriole, bright orange, black head, tail and wings with a white patch, yellow eye.
Campo Troupial, Guaramiranga

Heading south, the next stop was our first sample of the dry caatinga habitat, near Quixadá. We stayed and birded at an unlikely place, a hotel/swimming resort called Hotel Pedra dos Ventos. We were there on a weekend, arriving at mid-day, and were surprised when Ciro led us towards a very noisy, busy pool full of kids in order to… do some birding?

Pygmy Nightjar roost, between a restaurant and a racous swimming pool

In the middle of this place there is a rocky outcrop dotted with cacti, which Pygmy Nightjars have gotten accustomed to using as a day-roost. The area has a railing around parts of it and I imagine that few pool users would be inclined to go anywhere near those thorns. Perhaps the nightjars use it because the nearby human activity keeps some of their predators away? It does not seem to bother them.

Pygmy Nightjar, Hotel Pedra dos Ventos
Pygmy Nightjars. See the fluffy gray baby?

That is not the only attraction here for birders. White-browed Guans frequent the grounds, as do White-naped Jays, Spot-backed Puffbirds, and many other caatinga specialties. We even got a White-bellied Nothura not far from the building.

Spot-backed Puffbird, Hotel Pedra dos Ventos
White-bellied Nothura, Hotel Pedra dos Ventos
White-naped Jays, Hotel Pedra dos Ventos
Black-bellied Antwren, Hotel Pedra dos Ventos

Heading south from here to Potengi, we stayed one night and birded at Sítio Pau Preto, another great spot to keep collecting caatinga specialties such as Silvery-cheeked Antshrike and Great Xenops. We also found a handful of female Masked Ducks which was a welcome surprise.

At Sitio Pau Predo with Ciro and the owner Bob
Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Sitio Pau Predo
Pileated Finch, Sitio Pau Predo
Masked Duck, near Sitio Pua Predo

From Sitio Pau Predo it isn’t far to Arajara Park, another unlikely place (it features a water-park for swimming) to go birding. And not just for any species, but the wonderful Araripe Manakin, a bird that, as unlikely as it seems, was only first described in 1998.

Arajara Park, where Araripe Manakins nest

The bird occupies a foothill region only about 30 miles in length and is found nowhere else. They were not hard to find, looking like little white darts zipping around in the forest.

Araripe Manakin, Arajara Park
Former Nemesis Bird, the Gray-lined Hawk, Arajara Park

Another nice pick-up in the area was a White-browed Antpitta.

White-browed Antpitta, near Araripe region

Continuing south we headed towards the small town of Canudos, stopping first for Blue-winged Macaws.

Blue-winged Macaw, near Canudos
Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Canudos

Canudos was chosen for its proximity to the Lear’s Macaw reserve (Estação Biológica de Canudos). We’d be there the next morning well before sunrise, in order to watch the macaws leave their roosts and fly down the reddish canyons. Many nesting pairs remained there all morning.

Estação Biológica de Canudos
Lear’s (or Indigo) Macaws, Estação Biológica de Canudos
Blue-crowned Parakeets at Canudos
Estação Biológica de Canudos

After the morning with the macaws came the longest single drive of the trip, taking about eight hours to get down to Chapada Diamantina, with a few stops along the way near the small town of Bonito where we found Narrow-billed Antwren and spectacular Gilt-edged Tanagers.

Gilt-edged Tanager, near Bonito

At our next site we would spend three nights and two days: more time than at any other location for the entire trip. For good reason. Chapada Diamantina should make any short list of utterly unique and magical birding locales.

Chapada Diamantina

This area has a variety of habitats including cerrado, caatinga, and humid and gallery forests. About 400 species are possible in the national park that encompasses everything here. It is reportedly quite popular but we hardly saw any other people. The birds were abundant and often confiding. This is my favorite kind of habitat, since it is better lit than forest interiors and I have less trouble locating birds.

Spotted Piculet, Chapada Diamantina. Not sure how or why I got such a good photo of a tough bird.
Pale-throated Pampa-finch, Chapada Diamantina
Hooded Visorbearer, Chapada Diamantina
Plain-crested Elaenia, Chapada Diamantina

Get this: Chapada Diamantina is such an enchanted place that I not only actually manged to see a greenlet there, I even photographed it. Now this is strange. I have long regarded these sprites as divine punishment sent from the birding gods, flitting endlessly though dark and bright backlit overhead trellises of canopy branches and leaves. Impossible little buggers designed to make me question why I would ever make it my hobby to go looking for them. Birds that make Phylloscopus warblers seem cooperative in comparison. If Shakespeare had been a birder, he might have called greenlets a thwart, disnatured torment.

But here one was, calm, at eye-level, and the idiot auto-focus of this Nikon P900 didn’t even try to focus on the deep leaves. Inexplicable.

Gray-eyed Greenlet, Chapada Diamantina
Helmeted Manakin, Chapada Diamantina
Sao Francisco Sparrow, Chapada Diamantina
White-rumped Tanager, Chapada Diamantina
Copper Seedeater, Chapada Diamantina
Sharp-tailed Tyrant, Chapada Diamantina
A pollen-smattered Brown Violetear, which has a very isolated population in Chapada Diamantina. Soon to be split?
Pectoral Antwren, east of Chapada Diamantia
Official Best Bird of the Trip: Horned Sungem, Chapada Diamantina

The final long drive involved about six hours of driving east towards Salvador, where we would eventually fly out from in two days. North of there is Praio do Forte and a nice little birding lodge at in Mata de São João, called Aruá Hostel. A couple of biologists own this place, and they spared no effort in getting us some very hard-won looks at a recalcitrant Fringe-backed Fire-eye.

Helping a well-fed Boa Constrictor cross the road

Our final morning of birding involved a boat tour of mangroves north of Praia do Forte. Mangrove Rails, a split from Clapper Rails, were easy there, not nearly as shy as their northern relatives.

Mangrove Rail, Praia do Forte
Golden-capped Parakeets, Praio do Forte

The main target was the Rufous Crab Hawk, which eBird lists are a rarity here. Getting a rarity is always good – putting a photo of it in the eBird report is even better. I recorded it screaming and will be uploading the audio next; though it is the last, chronologically, of 517 recordings that I made and have yet to analyze, clean up, and upload to eBird and xeno-canto.

Rufous Crab Hawk, Praia do Forte

Reflecting on the trip as a whole, it was a nice assortment of statistics in the end. We got the largest number of lifers in Amazonas; the largest total number of species in São Paulo; but in the Northeast, Ciro got us the highest percentage of all possible target species, per the list that we had supplied him with: 90.8%. Moreover we got every single endemic species that was possible given our route. That is remarkable. My rule of thumb has always been to expect to get 50% of the targets to avoid being disappointed.

Since southern Bahia holds even more specialities, and since we know what kind of quality guiding we will get with Ciro, Caio, and Gabriel, we plan to come back in a few years and clean up here.

It is ironic that after spending over eleven years becoming fluent in Spanish (still one of the most rewarding things I have ever done), partly to aid in birding travel, we would find our best birding to be in the only big country in the entire Western Hemisphere that uses neither English nor Spanish. While we can understand written Portuguese quite easily, the spoken language is still quite alien to our ears. If it doen’t wreck my Spanish, I may have to take a shot at it…

The last thing seen by untold millions of Western Hemisphere insects: the full attention of a Tropical Kingbird.

Thanks for reading!

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