Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu, Rio de Janeiro: December 20-23, 2009

As if living and working in Ecuador wasn't enough of a privilege for a birder, I have also been fortunate enough to travel during my vacations to other South American countries, such as Peru and Suriname, thanks to Aimee's position at Lonely Planet. When she told me that she was being considered as one of the writers to update the Brazil guidebook, my head started spinning with possibilities. Would her region include part of Amazonia or the Pantanal? Maybe it would contain some Atlantic rainforest instead? Given Brazil's incredible size and bird species diversity, it ultimately didn't matter. Regardless of where she was assigned to research, I could tag along and observe some amazing birds.

As with our travels last summer in endemic-rich northern Peru, Aimee and I were required to compromise on this trip between her profession and my passion. There's no way I can visit every site on a typical birding tour of the region because she has a job to do, albeit a job that takes her to many beautiful and interesting tourist sites. Although she was assigned the far southeastern states to cover, she generously me allowed a few day's of birding at one of the famous reserves a few hours outside Rio de Janiero; in turn, I agreed not to drag us to every state park and private reserve in the states of Parana, Santa Catarina, and Porto do Alegre while she was trying to research her territory.

Just seven percent of Brazil's original Atlantic rainforest remains, but there are still a wide variety of birding options in the region. I ultimately decided on the private Reserva Ecologica de Guapiacu, or REGUA, in part because it was one of the few bird lodges open during this time of year, strangely. A three-night stay yielded two full days of birding with an afternoon and early morning excursion after arrival and before departure, respectively. Like other lodges in the region, such as Serra dos Tucanos, a full and meaningful visit to REGUA necessitates at least a week, as many important day trips can be made to higher elevations and different habitats to pick up additional species such as the Three-Toed Jacamar, Gray-Winged and Swallow-Tailed Cotingas, Restinga Antwren, Hooded Berryeater, and White-Bearded Antshrike. Sadly, we didn't have the time to make any of these excursions, as again these trips of ours are about compromise, but the birding around the lodge was simply outstanding and a surprising number of endemics were seen.

Opened in 2004, the lodge itself is set on top of a small hill looking west out over an impressively restored wetlands system towards the spectacular Serra dos Orgaos, a lushly forested mountain range boasting spectacular granite peaks that humble those of Yosemite Valley. Having visited a wide variety of bird lodges on our travels in South America, and spent a hefty sum doing so, Aimee and I were shocked by the quality of the lodge itself and its posh rooms given the cost of our stay. It's a good thing our room was so comfortable too as Aimee fell ill on our first day, spending the rest of our visit in bed or watching the nectar and fruit feeders.

With private excursions outside the reserve being too expensive and time-consuming for a party of one, I decided to structure my visit around three bird habitats: Atlantic rainforest and woodland via the Waterfall Trail and the 4x4 Trail; wetlands via the various Wetland Trails; and scrub and open country via the grounds of the lodge and the access road to the Waterfall and 4x4 Trails. There was one other guest present during our stay, an affable English birder from Manchester, who was nearing the end of a ten-day stay, having birded all over the region in the company of one of the lodge's best local, Portuguese-speaking guides, Adilei Carvalho da Cunha. I accompanied the two of them on the start of the Waterfall Trail for an hour and for a half day on the 4x4 Trail, picking up a few additional species that I certainly wouldn't have seen on my own, including the spectacular Spot-Backed Antshrike. As always, getting a guide is a good idea even for experienced birders in the neotropics, especially considering the reasonable rates, $30 a day in this case.

After traveling from Rio to REGUA by bus and taxi, the first bird of significance that Aimee and I encountered was a female Red-Billed Currasow, a species that was originally extirpated and then reintroduced at the reserve. This individual bird spends most of its time hanging around the grounds of the lodge and also constitutes the reserve's logo, its delicately feathered crest prominent in profile. After dropping off our belongings, we checked out the fruit and hummingbird feeders, which were dead in terms of activity except for a sole Burnished-Buff Tanager picking at a massive bunch of bananas. Deciding that we had plenty of daylight left to make a full circuit around the wetlands we geared up and strode out into the blazing late afternoon sunshine.

For me the two principle target birds of the wetlands were the Giant Snipe and Masked Duck, but the list of birds commonly seen on the trail is quite extensive, including some forest border endemics such as the Crescent-Chested Puffbird, Sooretama Slaty-Antshrike, and Yellow-Lored Tody-Flycatcher. Slowly making our way along the trail with the marsh to our left and the woodland border to our right, we observed a number of fine birds, including Brazilian Tanager, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Capped Heron, Chestnut-Capped Blackbird, Savanna Hawk, Purple Gallinule, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, and Campo Flicker. Meanwhile, the sun was setting in spectacular fashion behind the Serra dos Orgaos, the granite peaks shaded a deep purple in comparison with the blazing orange sky.

On the following morning we tagged along with our fellow guest and his guide as they started up the Waterfall Trail in search of the glorious Shrike-Like Cotinga, or Elegant Mourner. One of the rarest and most enigmatic birds of South America, this small but delicately patterned cotinga has also been observed in the foothills of the eastern Andes of Ecuador, where it is known as the Andean Laniisoma. Most recently it was seen and heard at Wildsumaco Lodge last year, where Jonas Nilson documented it over a period of several weeks. REGUA is supposedly the most reliable site in the world to find this legendary cotinga, although it's not as vocal during this time of year and is typically found at higher elevations than the lower section of the Waterfall Trail. With all this in mind, I decided that Aimee and I would be better off birding on our own, sweeping up the more common birds of the trail and hopefully a few endemics as well, instead of setting off on a wild-goose chase for one particular bird.

We soon parted ways after the guide taped in a Southern Antpipit and White-Throated Spadebill, leaving Aimee and I at a nice stand of bamboo where there was a Blue Manakin lek. Odd but charismatic, these manakins provided us with a good hour of enjoyment as we marveled at the male's striking coloration and boisterous display. Right in this area, we also found a pair of sallying Rufous-Tailed Jacamars and a calling Saw-Billed Hermit, the latter species an Atlantic rainforest endemic. Although it was still relatively early in the morning, Aimee's energy was starting to wane, and it was clear that she wasn't just tired but growing sicker, seemingly by the minute.

Pushing on ahead up the trail, albeit very slowly, we came across an understory mixed flock with Buff-Fronted and White-Eyed Foliage-Gleaners, the latter bearing such a striking white throat that I figured at first glance it was the White-Bearded Antshrike (it's worth noting that I didn't have a field guide with me on the trip and was basically birding with just a list). Aimee took a seat on the trail while I tried to parse the antwrens moving with the flock, noting Unicolored and White-Flanked Antwrens as well as a gorgeous male Scaled Antbird, which I only saw briefly as I had neglected to download its call on my iPod and couldn't reel it back in. Moving a few hundred meters further up the trail, we encountered a spectacular Blond-Crested Woodpecker, with Aimee getting decidedly better looks than me, as I was teasing out a Black-Cheeked Gnateater from the undergrowth along the trail, another fine Atlantic rainforest endemic.

With midday fast approaching and Aimee growing increasingly weary, I decided that we should stop for lunch early, before heading up the steeper part of the trail that began to switchback up a hill. Eye-Ringed Tody-Tyrant and Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher called noisily in front of us as we ate our sandwiches and discussed our options for the afternoon. Unsure whether we were even on the right trail at this point, I judged that we should turn around and slowly make our way back to the car, where our fellow guest and Adilei had planned to meet us later in the afternoon. Ultimately Aimee headed all the way back to the car to rest, as I was intent on following up every call and combing every mixed flock for new birds.

During the following few hours while birding on my own, I had some considerable success, first tracking down the vocal but sedentary Gray-Hooded Attila. Amazingly, I approached it close enough to take some decent photographs, as the bird gazed slowly about with its beak spread wide open. Later on in a mixed flock, I found White-Barred Picculet, Greyish Mourner, Yellow-Throated Woodpecker, and Spot-Breasted Antvireo, struggling with the identification of the antvireo but taking thorough notes and cross checking them with the field guide at the lodge later that evening. The bird of the day, though, was the fantastic Crescent-Chested Puffbird, a pair of which I encountered at the same patch of bamboo where Aimee and I had observed the Blue Manakins that morning. This endemic puffbird is similar to the White-Whiskered Puffbird, which is commonly encountered in the western lowlands here in Ecuador, but it's more boldly streaked and graced with a bold white and black crescent shape on its chest.

Although Aimee had had a rough day and I hadn't made it very fall along the trail, I had seen some terrific birds and a host of endemic species, from hummingbirds to manakins to antbirds. The rest of our party had had no luck with the cotinga on their taxing hike to higher elevations, so I felt particularly proud as I reeled off to Adilei in my shaky Portuguese the list of birds I had seen and identified on my own. He generously corrected me on the confusingly-named White-Eyed Foliage-Gleaner, though, explaining that he had only seen the White-Bearded Antshrike once at this low of an elevation. On the drive back to the lodge, we stopped in several places for Whistling Heron, Burrowing Owl, Guira Cuckoo, and Yellow-Headed Caracara. The cuckoo in particular is real clown of a bird, perching on fence posts and generally looking ridiculous.

Aimee slept in the following morning while I accompanied our fellow guest and Adilei up the 4x4 Trail in search of the Eastern Striped Manakin. Having missed the Striped Manakin several times in Ecuador, my expectations for seeing this species were low; I simply wanted another chance to see more Atlantic rainforest endemics. Happily our guide helped us track down a number of excellent birds, including the outstanding Spot-Backed Antshrike, which might have been the bird of the trip. White-Necked Hawk, Rufous-Capped Motmot, Surucua Trogon, Yellow-Eared Woodpecker, Sooretama Slaty-Antshrike, Scaled Antbird, Plain-Winged and Lesser Woodcreepers, Black-Capped Foliage-Gleaner, Gray-Hooded Flycatcher, Eye-Ringed Tody-Tyrant, and Blue Manakin were the other Brazilian endemics seen. While we eventually missed the Eastern Striped Manakin, we did come across a magnificent Hook-Billed Kite perched next to the track, no doubt feeding on the many lizards scurrying about forest floor.

Later that afternoon back on the Wetlands Trail, I picked up some more good birds including Red-Cowled Cardinal, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, and White-Bearded Manakin. I also startled a group of Capybaras near the shore that plunged violently back into the marsh, scattering water birds in all directions. With a huge storm fast approaching, I hustled back to the lodge along the trail, flushing three female Masked Ducks as I quickly rounded a corner. Instead of swimming deep into cover, they sat in the open water long enough for me to fire away on my camera, capturing an acceptable record shot from a considerable distance. These striking but secretive ducks are widely distributed in the Americas but never easy to find, and I practically skipped with joy back up to the lodge as rain increased from a drizzle to a deluge.

Passing on a night walk with the guide, and therefore missing the opportunity to see the Giant Snipe, I decided to relax with Aimee and catch up with her about the day, which she spent reading a novel and watching Black Jacobins and Swallow-Tailed Hummingbirds from the veranda. Although we had to leave by 8:00 am on the following morning in order to catch our plane in Rio to Iguacu, I managed to spend a final few hours on the Wetlands Trail, picking up the Dark-Billed Cuckoo, Chestnut-Backed Antshrike, and Yellow-Lored Tody-Flycatcher, the last endemic seen of my brief stay. Clearly, it had been a productive and rewarding visit to REGUA, although I was a bit disappointed with the activity at the feeders, especially in comparison with those at Serra dos Tucanos, where the spectacular Spot-Billed and Saffron Toucanets are regularly seen. Still, with more time, and a bigger budget, this lodge would be the ideal base for birding the entire region, especially in the opposite season.

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