Chapada dos Veadeiros, Goiás: March 28-29, 2012

Since I moved to Brazil in November of last year, I’ve had a great deal of free time, much of which I have spent either birding or planning birding trips. I’ve visited a wide range of habitats throughout this huge country, seeing and occasionally photographing some of the best birds of the continent, including Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Capuchinbird, Swallow-Tailed Cotinga, and Ferruginous-Backed Antbird. I’ve also made a serious effort to learn the birds of the Cerrado, the biome within which I live in Brazil, tracking down many of the rarer or localized species, including Cinerous Warbling-Finch, Black-Masked Finch, Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Cipó Canastero, and Gray-Backed Tachuri. It’s been a great run, but it’s come to an end, as I finally have to return to work. Fortunately, I still have a lot of great birds left to search for on weekends and vacations, including Brazilian Merganser, Red-Legged Seriema, Hyacinth Macaw, and Cock-Tailed Tyrant.

To celebrate the end of my long period of unemployment, I returned for a couple days to the Chapada dos Veadeiros, a beautiful area of rolling grasslands and rocky cliffs three hours north of Brasília. While there is a national park here, access is only permitted to guided groups during limited hours, and birding is better accomplished along roadsides and within private reserves called RPPN’s (Reservas Particulares do Patrimônio Natural). I’ve already visited the region a few times and become familiar with the regularly occurring avifauna, but this trip I would follow up on a few tips from local bird guide Rafael Teixeira as well as Bradley Davis of Birding Mato Grosso, who leads customized nature tours throughout Brazil. Despite my best attempts, I had been unable to locate several flagship birds of the Cerrado on my own, including Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, and Black-Masked Finch. I figured that if I could see a few more of them before starting my office job next week, perhaps I could work with a freer conscience and not be nagged by any nemesis birds.

I started the trip with a stop at the Pousada dos Anoes, a private reserve with basic lodging available, located to the right off of highway GO-118 at km 142. Bradley had told me that this was his favorite site to bird in the region, and it’s easy to understand why, as the reserve protects an excellent variety of habitat, including open and shrubby grasslands and deciduous and humid forest. Access to the different sectors of the reserve is by car along a circuit of dirt roads that reach multiple spectacular viewpoints while passing along several reservoirs and directly through mature forest. The structure reminded me a little of game parks in East Africa, where you’re basically on a driving safari looking for wildlife; only here you can actually get out of the car and walk around freely, as there is no danger of being attacked by predators. Happily, I was the only visitor, and after picking up a detailed map from the amiable owner, I was free to explore and bird without worry all day.

As it was still early morning, I decided to start birding in the open grasslands before the sun rose too high in the sky. At my first stop I tried a little playback for Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant and immediately had a response from a group of about eight individuals, including several juveniles. This tiny but charismatic flycatcher is now listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss, as the undisturbed grasslands that it prefers have been radically diminished due to industrial agriculture on a massive scale similar to that of the American Midwest. Although the bird clings picturesquely to tall stalks of grass, it’s small size and nervous nature make it difficult to photograph within a decent range, and I feel lucky to have obtained these cropped but still respectable images. While I’m definitely pleased with the image quality of my new camera, a Nikon D5100, I’ve been thinking more concretely about getting into digiscoping, where you physically attach a point and shoot digital camera to a spotting scope (situations like this one, where the bird poses in the open but at a distance, are perfect for digiscoping). Maybe I’ll after a few months when I make some money, I’ll take the leap.

After stopping at several viewpoints, where I enjoyed spectacular, sweeping views of the landscape as well as a soaring Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, I continued to bird the open grassland, which was in full bloom with many colorful flowers. Not surprisingly, I encountered several Horned Sungems here, in one instance finding two males disputing over a territory. It’s easy to see why this is such a coveted hummingbird as the fierce-looking male possesses two rainbow-colored feathered horns. Amazingly, a juvenile male came within a few meters from me to feed at a flowering shrub while I scrambled to video the action. Although the results are less than perfect, there’s great potential here once I master how to keep the subject in focus (make sure to expand the videos to full screen so you can enjoy the birds in high definition). Before moving on into the campo sujo, or shrubby grasslands, I made sure to play tape for the Black-Masked Finch, Dwarf Tinamou, and Ocellated Crake, but to no avail.

My luck continued as I quickly drove into the midst of a large mixed flock. White-Rumped Tanager, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Black-Throated Saltator, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, and Campo Suiriri were all immediately evident, especially the tanagers, which raucously joined together in song on several treetops. A steady tapping revealed a male Checkered Woodpecker, and I also spotted another male Horned Sungem preening on an exposed perch. A Small-Billed Tinamou chick gave me a brief surprise as I thought it could be a Dwarf Tinamou at first; although it was colored similar to an adult Small-Billed Tinamou, it lacked the distinctive red bill. I noted an ethereal White-Rumped Monjita before deciding it was time to walk a forested trail as it was blazingly hot in the exposed Cerrado. Driving back around to the Caminho do Silêncio, a forested trail near the headquarters of the reserve, I stopped to have some lunch and reflect on the morning’s successes. Resorting so frequently to playback isn’t very noble, but birds of the savanna can be difficult to find once the early morning activity has died down.

The wide trail passes through mature forest with several branches down to a stream that empties into the large reservoir. I encountered several flocks with typical birds of gallery forest, including Black-Goggled Tanager, Grey-Headed Tanager, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, Streaked Xenops, and White-Bellied Warbler. It wasn’t difficult to locate Greenish Schiffornis and Helmeted Manakin either, as both were quite vocal during the midday heat. Heading down to the stream at a few points, I tried for Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, a widespread but unique ovenbird that secretively creeps along streambeds foraging for insects and other invertebrates. I finally got a response near the end of the stream before the reservoir, where again I managed to record some shaky video of the diminutive bird doing its thing. Feeling very good about my visit so far, I returned back along the trail, stopping dead in my tracks when I caught some motion in the dark understory. Raising my binoculars, I landed on a Rufous-Capped Motmot, another excellent lifer for me, which is found in southern Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

Ready to move on to my next stop, Portal da Chapada, where I would camp for the night, I slowly drove back to the highway along the entrance road. Again, I noticed a quick flash of movement on my right as a large bird flew up from the ground and perched in a tree. Incredibly a Black-and-White Eagle turned its head back towards me with a Guira Cuckoo grasped tightly in its talons. With very few records of this gorgeous predator in Central Brazil, I had trouble believing my own eyes, worried that it might be a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle or something even more obvious. Nope, I was right, and my confidence in the identification made me recall a white-colored raptor I had seen earlier that morning, soaring impossibly high above the forested part of the reserve. Supposedly, this is the hawk-eagle’s preferred hunting technique, diving into the forest once it has located its prey, although it sometimes hunts from a perch as well. Given that the bird requires well over 1000 hectares of forested habitat as a hunting territory, it’s the best endorsement of the reserve and its surrounding environment that I can imagine.

Breaking for a brief lunch in Alto Paraiso, I made my way along the road to Sao Jorge and the entrance to the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park. Stopping to photograph a group of perched Peach-Fronted Parakeets in a roadside shrub, I was surprised by a pair of Streamer-Tailed Tyrants that flew into the same tree. This relatively magnificent flycatcher inhabits humid grasslands with shrubs and small trees, which can be found in several places along the road. As I soon discovered, the best part of finding the Streamer-Tailed Tyrant is observing its wonderful display, which involves flashing wing raises and boisterous calls. With so many species being secretive and difficult to find, especially for the hardcore birder, birds like the Streamer-Tailed Tyrant that restore a sense of fun to the endeavor.

Unlike our last weekend visit to the Portal da Chapada, another RPPN in the region with good accommodation, it was empty and quiet, with only a few day visitors to the waterfall and swimming hole. I set up my tent at the campground (R$25 per night), and walked the three-kilometer ecological trail, which is composed primarily of an elevated walkway through gallery forest. As I was exhausted and it was late in the day, I didn’t see much in the forest, but I escaped into the surrounding grasslands at one point to find another pair of Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrants. Aside from disturbing a group of Rusty-Margined Guans headed to roost and an Undulated Tinamou moving silently along the forest floor, it was an uneventful walk, but the trail definitely has potential as an excellent birding site. I had been out in the wind and sun all day long, and when it finally set I could feel my eyes burning in relief. It’s definitely worth birding in sunglasses in the Cerrado, as the environment is so exposed and the tropical sun so merciless.

I was up with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl the next morning, packing up my tent before sunrise. With plans to follow up on several tips from Rafael, I headed out in the car towards the Morro da Baleia, a rocky hill shaped like a whale from one angle. There are several dirt roads heading out to the right from the highway in the general direction of the hill, all of which pass through ample undisturbed grassland that Rafael told me was good for Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Black-Masked Finch, and Cock-Tailed Tyrant, as well as Dwarf Tinamou, which he explained took five days of trying for him to finally see. I did find a confiding pair of Black-Masked Finches along the dirt road several hundred meters before the Rancho do Waldomiro. The male preened confidently in front of me as I took photographs and video in the early morning light. Other good birds in this area, as well as along the road to Boa Esperança, included Black Crested Tyrant, White-Rumped and Gray Monjitas, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Red-Shouldered Macaw, White-Rumped Tanager, and Tawny-Headed Swallow.

Next, I drove out towards Sao Jorge, branching off to the left before town to Vale da Lua, another private reserve with ample forest containing White-Naped Jay, according to Rafael. It’s a popular site with lovers of waterfalls and swimming holes, and I quickly realized that my own pursuit was at odds with the other tourists and resident hippies visiting there. The entrance road is probably the best bet for finding a flock of jays, although I didn’t have any luck. I imagine on weekends the site is unpleasantly packed and the road busy with car traffic, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re also interested in exploring the naturally sculpted rock riverbed. Indeed, maybe I’m missing the point a little by not stopping for a swim myself; after three days of birding in the Cerrado, one at Poço Azul outside Brasília and two here in the Chapada dos Veadeiros, I felt burned up and dried out by the harsh climate. Although I had the time and the liberty to push my stay for another day, I decided to head back to Brasília for the comforts of home. With over a year and a half left in the region, I’ve got to ration a few new birds for the future, including the endangered Brazilian Merganser, which inhabits the crystal clear streams of the national park itself.

Notable birds seen: Small-Billed Tinamou, Rusty-Margined Guan, Whistling Heron, White-Tailed Kite, Gray-Headed Kite, Savanna Hawk, Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, Red-Shouldered Macaw, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Yellow-Chevroned Parakeet, Horned Sungem, White-Vented Violetear, Swallow-Tailed Hummingbird, Rufous-Capped Motmot, Rufous-Tailed Jacamar, White-Eared Puffbird, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Toco Toucan, Checkered Woodpecker, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, Streaked Xenops, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, Plain Antvireo, Campo Suiriri, Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, Crested Black Tyrant, Brown-Crested Flycatcher, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Helmeted Manakin, Greenish, Schiffornis, Curl-Crested Jay, Tawny-Headed Swallow, Burnished-Buff Tanager, Grey-Headed Tanager, Black-Goggled Tanager, Black-Faced Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Green-Winged Saltator, Black-Throated Saltator, Black-Masked Finch, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Stripe-Tailed Yellowfinch.

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