While planning a three-day weekend trip to Belo Horizonte, I realized that I would be within reach of several renowned birding sites in the state of Minas Gerias. So after Aimee and I spent a few days exploring some of the cultural and historic points of interests in the area, such as the beautiful colonial town of Ouro Preto, I struck out on my own in a rental car to do some serious birding while she returned to work in Brasília. My first stop was Serra do Cipó, a national park protecting rocky, high-altitude Cerrado, which harbors several bird species endemic to Brazil that are difficult to find anywhere else.
The primary targets here include the Cipó Canastero, an isolated ovenbird species that was only described in the late 1980's and is related to the canasteros of the distant Andes and Patagonia; the Gray-Baced Tachuri, a diminutive and delightful flycatcher that is local to high altitude, rocky grasslands; the Hyacinth Visorbearer, a small but tough hummingbird that braves these windy highlands; the Pale-Throated Serra Finch, a chunky and long-tailed finch that skulks in the bromeliads and shrubs; and the Cinereous Warbling-Finch, a more arboreal finch found in widely dispersed pairs. In addition to these country endemics, the site is also reliable for Blue Finch, Cinnamon Tanager, and Horned Sungem, among other Cerrado specialties.
Combing through trip reports on the Internet, I realized that Serra do Cipó is a classic hit-or-miss birding site, as birders either rejoiced or despaired over their experiences there. Apparently, the season and weather can greatly influence bird activity. It’s also a tricky site for independent birders to be successful at because it requires both good luck and intimate local knowledge, as it involves a fair amount of unmarked locations and route finding. Instead of the usual half day, I budgeted an additional day for my visit and prepared thoroughly in advance by collecting a lot of information about where and how to find each target species. I also made sure I had multiple audio recordings uploaded on my iPod, including all the different songs and contact calls of the specialties.
Given its proximity to Belo Horizonte (the two-hour drive is reasonably well signed, although passing through the town of Lagoa Santa is a little confusing), the national park is popular with Brazilians who typically enjoy the streams, waterfalls, and forested trails in the lower section. Most birders focus on the high altitude rocky grasslands, choosing to stay at one of several pousadas just beyond the town of Serra do Cipó (I stayed at Pousada Chapeu do Sol, which at R$100 for lodging and three meals a day was a good value if somewhat Spartan). John van der Woude, in his excellent site notes, recommends the more pleasant Pousada Chão da Serra, which is accordingly more expensive. I'm not sure whether the birding site I visited is actually in the national park though (I did not have to pay an entrance fee), and it's possible that I was trespassing on private land.
Although most of the specialties can probably be found along the roadside, the Cipó Canastero requires considerable effort and is frequently missed. Here’s my best attempt at directions. Drive approximately 4km uphill from Chapeu do Sol, riding up and over a summit, and park the car along the road near the 110 km sign. Crawl under the barbed wire fence on the right and search for a trail that leads up the rocky ridge for about two kilometers. The trail winds along unclearly past smaller rock outcroppings, and it branches off several times in different directions (biologists were clearly doing field work in the area when I was there, and there was also a small weather data-collection station set up along the first grassy plateau). As this is an open area though, in good weather it should be generally obvious how to follow the ridge up and to the right from the road. Eventually, the trail leads gently down to a second expansive grassy area bordered on the far end by a large rocky slope with many slanted boulders covered in moss and bromeliads.
My moment with the canastero only came after five hours of searching each modest rock outcropping in the area, exploring well beyond where I needed to. Happily, in the course of looking and listening for the canastero, I found several other target species, including a pair of Gray-Backed Tachuris, a Pale-Throated Serra Finch, and many beautiful Hyacinth Visorbearers. The weather was spectacularly clear and sunny, having stopped raining heavily for weeks only just a few days ago, and I was in high spirits wandering around by myself, feeling as if I were back in the high Andes where I lived for six years. Stripe-Tailed Yellow-Finch, White-Vented Violetear, Gray Monjita, Grassland Sparrow were common, and I also noted Aplomado Falcon and several Hellmayr’s Pipit (I’m identifying it here based on Nick Athanas’s 2008 trip report).
Finally, I arrived at the rocky slope described above and clambered over the boulders into the middle of the habitat (if you want good photos of birds, you can’t simply look from the edge unless you have a lot of glass; as always, it’s important tread lightly, though). Within minutes I was staring down at a Gray-Backed Tachuri and a Cipó Canastero foraging together right below me in the shrubs and bromeliads. I watched amazed as the canastero hopped among the rocks, disappearing only to reappear and call again. Aggressively territorial, the bird seemed hard to miss except for the fact that I had been searching for it all morning. After a few photos, I left it in peace.
I walked directly back to the car along the trail described above, stopping as I approached the road when I heard the distinctive call of the Blue Finch. An emblematic but elusive bird of the Cerrado, the male Blue Finch has captured my imagination, and I have often daydreamed of seeing it, especially while birding my local patches in Brasília. It was with great relish, then, that I scanned for it among the rocky slopes as it flitted about variously from perch to perch on boulders, shrubs, and trees. I finally took a well-deserved break and shortly realized that I was still missing a couple of key birds. Just as I was fortifying myself for another few hours of walking around the hilly terrain, I heard some excited bird chatter in a densely vegetated ravine nearby. A pair of Cinereous Warbling-Finches was foraging in the top of a tree, and then swooping in melodiously came a singing Cinnamon Tanager.
If Serra do Cipó is indeed a hit-or-miss site, then I had truly landed a hit, not only sweeping up all of the target species in one brilliant morning but photographing them too (photography is always easier in open grassy areas, but it still requires a degree of luck to get a decent shot, as my colleagues at Wiki Aves will no doubt attest). I bolted down my ample lunch at Chapeu do Sol and hit the road for Santuário do Caraça, an old monastery that has been converted to a nature park that contains a remarkable variety of habitat, including both Cerrado and Atlantic rainforest. I would need the extra day there, as I am relatively unfamiliar with the birds of southeastern Brazil, having only made one trip to REGUA in 2009.
Notable birds seen: Aplomado Falcon, White-Vented Violetear, Hyacinth Visorbearer, Cipó Canastero, Gray-Backed Tachuri, Gray Monjita, Brown-Chested Martin, Hellmayr’s Pipit, Cinnamon Tanager, Blue Finch, Cinereous Warbling-Finch, Grassland Sparrow, Pale-Throated Serra Finch, Yellow-Rumped Marshbird, Stripe-Tailed Yellow-Finch.