I’ve been working at my new job for a month straight now, and I actually like it enough to simply relax on the weekends and reset my sleeping deficit. I haven’t been feeling as much anxiety during my leisure time to get out and accomplish things, a sentiment that plagued me in Ecuador and Tanzania, where I felt like once Friday evening came, it was time for me to start really living, leaving the house at 4am on Saturday morning to bird the Choco lowlands or to arrive at Makumi National Park in time to catch the Black-Backed jackals before they called it a day. Maybe I’m slowing down a bit in my mid 30’s, or maybe Central Brazil is less inspiring than my previous two host countries. Regardless, I turned back the clock on Saturday and headed out to the Chapada dos Veadeiros region well before the sun had even thought about rising.
My destination was the Pousada dos Anoes, where on my previous visit the final bird of the day was a magnificent Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle with a fresh kill in its talons. Bradley Davis of Birding Mato Grosso originally recommended this excellent private reserve to me, which contains a variety of well-preserved Cerrado habitats, including mature gallery forest and rolling grassy plains. The pousada is located about two hour’s drive from Brasília on the way to Alto Paraiso, and the rough, two-lane highway passes through many long kilometers of monoculture, mostly corn and soybean. If the destination weren’t as inspiring, and the birds that awaited me as alluring, then I would have been depressed by the drive. The Cerrado is the world’s most biodiverse savanna, but it’s being trashed at an alarming rate. With over a third of the biome already converted to agriculture and less than 2% protected in federal reserves, the outlook is bleak.
But it’s problematic to criticize Brazil, which is currently converting much of its natural environment into arable land, similar to how the United States did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who am I to question the country’s development strategies as I speed along in my imported, gas-guzzling SUV fortunate enough to have a post-industrial perspective on the world? Given Brazil’s position in the tropics though, the environmental loss, at least measured in terms of biodiversity, is much greater than what occurred in North America. And it’s particularly frustrating to witness the Cerrado go unprotected after the country has dramatically slowed deforestation in the Amazon during the last decade, although these gains have just recently been threatened as Brazilian lawmakers last week passed a liberal revision of the forestry code. So what is Brazil’s fate, I wondered, perhaps a little fatuously, as I sped past Turquoise-Fronted Amazons gathering to raid crops and Red-Winged Tinamous squashed dead in the road.
I arrived tired and more than a little annoyed, as the sun was already too high in the sky. I made straight for the first section of campo limpo beyond the gallery forest section of the reserve, hoping to catch the end of the dawn chorus, in which the usually furtive birds of the open grasslands are more active and can sometimes be seen singing in the open. Spotting a perched male Black-Masked Finch in the distance, I scrambled to piece together my audio equipment, but was dismayed to find that I had forgotten to bring a screwdriver to open the speaker and replace the battery. There was no way I was birding all day without playback, so I smashed the speaker open on a rock and cradled the circuit board gently in my hand for the rest of the day. This is a great area for Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, a unique and tiny flycatcher of undisturbed grasslands, and I was soon onto a group trying for better photographs than I had previously managed (they’re responsive to playback, but don’t approach close enough; their small size doesn’t help, either).
After lucking onto a pair of Grass Wrens, I figured it was too late in the day to lure nothuras and tinamous into the open, and instead I headed towards some of the reserve’s gallery forest. Stopping along the way for some of the more emblamatic birds of the Cerrado, including the White-Rumped Tanager and Horned Sungem, I finally made it into the cool shade of the forest, where a pair of Saffron-Billed Sparrows awaited me feeding out in the overgrown road (I’ve waited for months to see these boldly patterned but inconspicuous birds). Indeed, one of the charms of birding this particular reserve is driving around on its narrow, rough dirt tracks. This is the same type of driving I did many times while on safari last year in East Africa, although those tracks sometimes passed through treacherous black cotton soil, which could stop a Hummer if it dared tread. Here, there is little need to fear, whether driving or on foot, and the birding is better too, I think.
I’ve had the most success birding the gallery forest along the Caminho do Silêncio, which is a wide path that runs alongside a creek fed by several natural springs. There are always a few interesting mixed flocks to be found here, regardless of the time of day, and it’s an especially good area for spotting the Rufous-Capped Motmot. I finally ticked the Planalto Woodcreeper, which was in small a flock with a pair of Large-Billed Antwrens; an inquisitive male Black-Goggled Tanager also came in close in response to playback of the woodcreeper’s plaintive call. Helmeted Manakins are common along the path, and there’s always seems to be a Greenish Schiffornis nearby (these are two calls are worth learning to distinguish before your first birding trip to the Cerrado). The best find of the afternoon was a Rufous-Capped Motmot that I surprised as it was burrowing into the side of a ravine. It didn’t flush far, and I was able to sneak a few photographs and some video as it nervously flicked its long tail back and forth like a grandfather clock.
I took a short nap in the car before returning to the open grasslands of the reserve, where I tried to turn up something new. I’m starting to doubt that I’ll ever see a Red-Legged Seriema or Cock-Tailed Tyrant, both flagship birds of the Cerrado that I probably won’t encounter until I finally visit Emas National Park, a massive and treeless savanna on the border between the states of Goiás and Mato Grosso do Sul. Activity picked up as the sun set though, and I enjoyed Toco Toucans flying overhead, more social Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrants, and a combative collection of territorial Gray Monjitas. Eventually as the sun set, the Red-Winged Tinamous started to call, and I made a valiant attempt to see one, at one point sprinting down the track to cut one off in the direction that I though it was headed. Perhaps the birds are ventriloquists though, as the closer I thought I approached, the further they seemed to move away. Driving home at night after a long day of birding is never fun, but it was almost better to enjoy the stars overhead than to witness those empty fields again.
Notable birds seen: Greater Rhea, Brazilian Teal, Buff-Necked Ibis, White-Tailed Kite, White-Tailed Hawk, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, White-Vented Violetear, Horned Sungem, Glittering-Throated Emerald, Fork-Tailed Woodnymph, Rufous-Capped Motmot, Rufuos-Tailed Jacamar, Toco Toucan, Andean Flicker, Lineated Woodpecker, Planalto Woodcreeper, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Sooty-Fronted Spinetail, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, Plain Antvireo, Black-Capped Antwren, Large-Billed Antwren, Campo Suiriri, Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Pearly-Vented Tody-Tyrant, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, Yellow-Olive Flatbill, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Greenish Schiffornis, Helmeted Manakin, Curl-Crested Jay, Grass Wren, Yellowish Pipit, Masked Gnatcatcher, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Flavescent Warbler, Burnished-Buff Tanager, Black-Goggled Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Black-Throated Tanager, Plumbeous Seedeater, Black-Masked Finch, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Grassland Sparrow, Saffron-Billed Sparrow.