Traveling in Brazil during the Christmas holiday has twice proven very difficult, as lodges, hotels, and restaurants throughout the country shut their doors, especially those located in renowned birding destinations such as the Amazon, Pantanal, and Atlantic Rainforest. Aimee and I finally had four days to get out of Brasilia and explore the country, but I was repeatedly thwarted in making arrangements for a trip to an environment that offered opportunities for birding as well as relaxation. Eventually, I cobbled together a trip to the state of Mato Grosso, combing short visits to Chapada dos Guimaraes and Serra das Araras for tastes of birding both the Cerrado and Amazonia; however, because of the holiday I had to make significant sacrifices on the quality and duration of our stay at both sites.
Mato Grosso boasts three different ecosystems – Cerrado, Amazon, and Pantanal – each with a distinct avifauna, and independent birders visiting during the dry season, from July to October, would be wise to spend a few weeks exploring all three. Since we live just a short flight away in the country’s capital city, I imagine we will make several trips to the state, as flying to Cuiaba (TAM, R$500 for two people) and renting a car (Avis, R$115 per day) is simple and relatively inexpensive compared to visiting the coast, for example. Our busy itinerary involved driving to Chapada dos Guimaraes from Cuiaba (1.5 hours), staying there for two nights at Hotel Turismo (R$283 per night for a double room), returning to Cuiaba for the night at Hotel Portal da Amazonia (R$118), and driving to Pousada Curripira d’Araras (2.5 hours) for the day before flying back to Brasilia.
While I was frustrated that so many lodges and reserves were closed during this period, I was generally impressed with the level of customer service we encountered throughout our trip. Speaking Portuguese, however poorly at times, certainly helped smooth the way, but Aimee and I were routinely presented with helpful information and guidance by staff at the airports, car rental agency, hotels, and restaurants. For example, I overloaded my carry-on luggage by 15 kilograms with optical equipment (the limit on domestic flights is 5 kg) but was kindly waived through, and we were able to exchange our original rental car for a brand-new Volkswagen Gol when the front axel started making odd vibrations. Although it still irritates me that access to national parks is so restricted in Brazil (the hours at Chapada dos Guimaraes are from 9am to 4pm, and a guide is required except for the Veu da Noiva waterfall), I was really encouraged by my many positive interactions with a wide variety of Brazilians.
In preparation, I sifted through a large number of trip reports to get a better sense of the birding potential in the Chapada dos Guimaraes region. While I had originally sought the services of a birding guide to help maximize our time there, I eventually abandoned the idea after learning more the region as well as about their availability (five out of six of the recommended guides I contacted were already busy) and costs (one guide asked for R$180 per day not including transportation). The basic strategy is to divide time between birding the shrubby grasslands, which are plentiful even outside protected areas, and the dense gallery forest, which is found mostly on private reserves. Aimee and I spent our two mornings birding the dirt road to Agua Fria, and then the early afternoons birding gallery forest along the Vale da Bencao road and the private reserve at the end of the Vale Jacama road. We also spent a few hours during the middle of the first day at Veu da Noiva, which is more of a glorified lookout than a birding site.
The wide dirt road to Agua Fria is not marked, but coming from town it’s an obvious right turn off the highway located approximately halfway between Chapada dos Guimaraes and Veu da Noiva. After passing some houses on the right, the road crests a hill and descends down through good campo sujo habitat, slowly rising past a series of pastures and tree farms. I was shocked by the high volume and speed of traffic along the road, and it certainly felt like an inappropriate place for a guide to take a group of birders, but the area was productive and yielded many Cerrado specialities. On both mornings, we only made it about 5 km down the road before turning back when activity died down in the heat of the day. For reasons of safety and security, I didn’t stray far from the car or much into the field, but there were plenty of birds to be found right along the side of the road.
Although I’ve birded a variety of Cerrado habitats already in Brasilia, I noted immediately that this area seemed much wilder and hence more typical than what I had previously experienced, as the calls of White-Eared Puffbirds, White-Rumped Tanagers, and Red-Legged Seriemas resounded throughout the morning. It didn’t take long to find Rufous-Winged Antshrike and Rusty-Backed Antwren, and we attracted Checkered Woodpecker and Campo Suiriri with the help of playback. Black-Faced Tanager, Black-Throated Grosbeak, Curl-Crested Jay, Plumbeous Seedeater, and Shrike-Like Tanager were common, and male Blue-Black Grassquits were displaying seemingly everywhere. Our best find was definitely the spectacular Horned Sungem, and we saw four individuals during the two mornings we spent here; in fact, one male perched just a few meters away for a few seconds before being chased off by another. It’s never easy to get good looks at hummingbirds in the field, especially low-feeding ones, and I’ve heard that groups regularly miss the sungem on trips to the region.
Because we live in Central Brazil I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to see every bird on the list during this trip, and we missed Rufous-Sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Coal-Crested Finch, Blue Finch, Cinnamon Tanager, and the newly described Chapada Suiriri (I still tried for them with playback without success). Red-Legged Seriema also proved very difficult to actually see, although there were several calling nearby; despite its size, it seems to skulk in the bushes and tall grass. We saw several perched Peach-Fronted Parakeets and Blue-Winged Macaws, and a likely Small-Billed Tinamou crossed the road in the distance in front of us (I heard them calling several times). While there are clearly other options for birding campo sujo in the area, this is the only site that we explored, based on many comments that I read in trip reports stating that the road to Agua Fria was clearly the most productive for Cerrado specialties. In general, I didn’t appreciated birding this site because of all the traffic and environmental degradation (there’s a big trash dump on the opposite side of the first valley).
The Veu da Noiva site is a stunning lookout over a densely forested canyon and an 86 meter waterfall (entrance is free). Aside from a short walkway down to the lookout from the parking lot, the site is closed to further exploration, leaving birders with little more to do than scan the treetops and wait for something interesting to fly by. That proved to be a decent strategy for us as we watched a pair of gorgeous Red-and-Green Macaws pass by several times while sipping drinks on the patio of the cantina located nearby. We also spotted Cliff Flycatcher, Swallow Tanager, and White-Eyed Parakeet. I’ve read that the site is also great for Bat and possibly even Orange-Breasted Falcons, Crested Black Tyrant, and roosting swifts, including the endemic Biscutate Swift, but we weren’t allowed to stay past 4:30 in the afternoon (supposedly you can arrange in advance with the park manager to stay after hours, but I was too annoyed to ask for more information). Disappointingly, I only noted a few Blue-and-White Swallows.
After enjoying lunch at the nearby Restaurante das Cachoeiras while sitting out a downpour, we visited the road to Vale da Bencao, which passes to the right through gallery forest on the way from Veu da Noiva to the town of Chapada dos Guimaraes. It was very quiet, but I thought it would be a good time and place to search for manakins, as Helmeted, Fiery-Capped, and Band-Tailed Manakins are all regularly found in the region. After watching a pair of Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycatchers forage in the dense undergrowth along the side of the dirt road, I heard a faint metallic sound at widely spaced intervals. Recognizing the confusing call of the Fiery-Capped Manakin, I carefully reeled it in using playback. Aimee was the first to spot an exquisite male, and I let her enjoy it without rushing over and potentially scaring it off. My patience was rewarded a few minutes later with my own prolonged looks at this shy but spectacular manakin, and I was about to fire off a few photographs before a car zoomed by and spoiled the moment. That’s the risk you take when you’re birding public roads, I guess.
Although we generally appreciated the scenery of the region, including the sheer cliffs, precarious rock towers, and rolling scrubland, Aimee and I hadn’t really enjoyed ourselves birding until we visited a private reserve at the end of the Vale da Jamaca road, owned and managed by Mario Friedlander, an amiable Brazilian photographer and conservationist. The turnoff is on the left heading towards Campo Verde a few kilometers from the town of Chapada dos Guimaraes, although the sign is only visible when coming from the other direction. Mario’s property is at the end of the narrow dirt road, where you can park and enter through a gate. We found him on Christmas day with machete in hand, doing work in the yard, and after explaining the mission of his reserve and the layout of his property, he allowed us to independently explore the loop trail that passes for 1 km through gallery forest, even providing us with gaiters as protection from snakes (entrance fee is R$10).
Midmorning can be a productive time in dense forest, and we were quickly onto a variety of birds, including Blue-Crowned Motmot, Red-Necked Woodpecker, and the delightful Band-Tailed Manakin. Aimee and I actually had the good fortune of finding a display site and watched in awe as a brilliant male repeatedly displayed on the same branch for a female nearby. Most manakins exhibit some type of extraordinary courtship ritual, and the Band-Tailed Manakin appears to do a quick sidestep along a branch while partially raising its flattened wings and tail, exposing the white band on the underside (manakins typically move so quickly in display that it’s hard to appreciate just exactly what they’re doing). I also managed to sneak in close and use my flash to capture a few decent photographs. Later on the trail we found Plain Antvireo, Gray-Headed Tanager, and Silver-Beaked Tanager before arriving at an intimate waterfall, where we took a rest.
After sharing a cup of tea with Mario back near the entrance of the reserve, we watched an impressive mixed flock move along the forest edge. Large-Billed Antwren called frequently overhead while Blue Dacnis, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, and White-Wedged Piculet foraged frantically about. I spotted a Brown Jacamar perched on a small twig and raced to get the scope set up for better views, but it dashed away and didn’t respond to playback. A group of noisy Black-Fronted Puffbirds arrived and further increased the din, as we wrapped up our visit with Mario, who congenially describes himself as a radical conservationist. He’s also a very accomplished photographer and produces a magazine called Afromundo, which focuses on the cultural and natural aspects of the Quilombola region of Brazil and Bolivia, including many terrific photos. Finding the manakin and visiting with Mario were both rewarding experiences, and the site is easily worth a full morning of birding.
A perfect visit to Chapada dos Guimaraes definitely would have involved staying in an ecolodge, such as Pousada do Parque which also has gallery forest habitat, and birding more productively with a guide, such as Fabiano Oliveira, who surfaced in several trip reports I read and was also recommended by the manager of our hotel (email@example.com). There are quite a few other sites in the area worth exploring as well, including other patches of gallery forest and roads that pass through campo sujo similar to the Agua Fria road. Depending on your pace and the weather, two to three full days of birding should be enough time to find most of the Cerrado specialties including a couple of surprises, such as Pavonine and Pheasant Cuckoos, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and Dot-Eared Coquette. Unfortunately, Blue Finch is rarely seen in the area, judging from the trip reports I read, but I should have another chance next weekend as we visit Chapada dos Veadeiros next weekend.
Notable birds seen: Swallow-Tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Southern Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Red-and-Green Macaw, Blue-Winged Macaw, White-Eyed Parakeet, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Burrowing Owl, White-Vented Violetear, Horned Sungem, Blue-Crowned Motmot, Brown Jacamar, White-Eared Puffbird, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Channel-Billed Toucan, White-Wedged Piculet, Checkered Woodpecker, Red-Necked Woodpecker, Rufous-Winged Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Large-Billed Antwren, Rusty-Backed Antwren, Campo Suiriri, Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycatcher, Cliff Flycatcher, Fiery-Capped Manakin, Band-Tailed Manikin, Curl-Crested Jay, Blue Dacnis, Burnished-Buff Tanager, Purple-Throated Euphonia, Swallow Tanager, Gray-Headed Tanager, Silver-Beaked Tanager, Black-Faced Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Red Pileated Finch, Plumbeous Seedeater, Shiny Cowbird.