Like any good birder working in Rio de Janeiro for the week, I skipped the beach for the Botanical Garden on Saturday morning (R$ 6, 8am-5pm). Although the city is equally renowned for its traffic and crime as for its beauty, the park is perfectly safe on the weekend, and there were literally hundreds of wealthy Cariocas wandering around the verdant grounds this morning with much more expensive camera gear than I have. I even noticed quite a few bird photographers, although no one besides me was actually watching birds through binoculars. The Botanical Garden itself boasts the usual variety of exotic plants and protects a bit of remaining Atlantic Rainforest. It also borders the much larger Tijuca National Park, which encompasses the iconic Corcovado and Cristo Redentor; consequently, the bird list for the park is nearly 200 species and still growing (I humbly submit this stunning Seven-colored Tanager as an addition to the list, which no doubt was once a caged bird).
Just as Lee Dingain describes in his blog post on the site, the garden is remarkable for how tame some of the birds are, and I had close encounters with Slaty-Breasted Wood-Rail, Rusty-Margined Guan, and Channel-Billed Toucan, all of which were clearly habituated to the presence of people. Atlantic Rainforest endemic Green-Headed Tanagers and Maroon-Bellied Parakeets were also feeding on fallen fruit right next to busy footpaths and occupied benches. Although the Botanical Garden is not quite a zoo, it can take a little bit of the fun out of birding when you don’t have to work at all to find the site specialties. There is a trail on the south side of the park though that passes through more proper Atlantic Rainforest, where you’ll feel like you’re actually birding and not watching people feed the pigeons. I managed to spot a Yellow-Eared Woodpecker here in a small flock and followed a pair of feisty Yellow-Lored Tody-Flycatchers for a while.
This is an interesting time to be in Rio de Janeiro, as the city is hosting a massive United Nations conference on sustainable development this week, twenty years after the first Earth Summit that addressed climate change. Rio+20, as it’s commonly known, aims to secure the ecological future of the planet while addressing the billion people still living in extreme poverty. Such an impossibly ambitious goal is bound to inspire criticism and cynicism, much of it well founded; for example, read the recent editorial in the Washington Post entitled, “To Fix the Climate, Take the Meat off the Menu,” which questions how serious the conference is about climate change if meat is still the main component of almost every meal served. Cattle ranching is, of course, one of Brazil’s most important industries, and one of the primary causes of both tropical rainforest destruction and methane gas production. From a birder’s perspective, I guess it reduces to the question of cows or birds? Excepting Cattle Egrets and Tyrants, you can’t really have both.
Rio is a sharply delineated city in many senses – fancy apartment buildings flank favelas while massive granite peaks spike up abruptly from the beach – but birding sites like the Botanical Garden, a buffer zone between city and wilderness, help you remember that critical issues like climate change and sustainable development are always addressed through compromise. To wit, note President Dilma Rousseff’s delicate veto of parts of Brazil’s new forestry code, which managed to pacify the powerful coalition of politicians and agricultural lobbyists that proposed the bill while also maintaining important environmental protections in the Amazon, such as prohibiting the clearing of riverine forest. I don’t expect 50,000 delegates to actually go vegetarian this week, just like I don’t expect them to resolve the world’s crises; but I do demand that they make a concerted effort, even if the result is as unsatisfying as watching toucans in the park.
Notable birds seen: Rusty-Margined Guan, Magnificent Frigatebird, Cocoi Heron, Slaty-Breasted Wood-Rail, Maroon-Bellied Parakeet, Channel-Billed Toucan, Yellow-Eared Woodpecker, White-Bearded Manakin, Yellow-Olive Flatbill, Seven-Colored Tanager, Green-Headed Tanager, Violaceous Euphonia, Common Waxbill.