Although I’ve been living in Central Brazil and birding the Cerrado for over six months, I realize that now, having been to Serra da Canastra, I’ve only been dabbling. While there might be a few localized species that aren’t typically found at this magnificent national park, it offers far more habitat, and more birds, than any I’ve visited of its kind. Encompassing over two hundred thousand hectares, the reserve contains vast tracts of undulating savanna and offers access to patches of mature gallery forest. Having read plenty of trip reports covering the site, my imagination was running wild picturing Red-Legged Seriemas striding through the tall grass, dapper Cock-Tailed Tyrants braving gusts of wind from their perch, and Giant Anteaters dismantling towering termite mounds. Amazingly, these images pretty much summed up my experience, although the level of bird activity itself wasn’t extraordinary. Add to this the small chance of spotting a Brazilian Merganser, one of the world’s rarest waterfowl, along the translucent headwaters of the Rio Saõ Francisco, and it’s no wonder this is considered the best Cerrado birding site in Brazil.
Having come from living in Tanzania and Ecuador, where most people are usually too poor to travel or too rich to want to travel in their own country, I’ve struggled to share the wilderness of Brazil with other Brazilians on my adventures, much like I do in the U.S. I knew that Serra da Canastra, like Yosemite National Park, would be a popular destination on holiday weekends for visitors from Saõ Paolo and Belo Horizonte, and so I’ve been waiting until there was an American holiday to visit, where I might have the wide-open spaces of the park more or less to myself. Amazingly, I also found a round-trip ticket on Gol Airlines for only 60 reais. The national park is about a five-hour drive from the state capital, and it can be considerably longer depending on your savvy in navigating the industrial traffic in and around Brazil’s third largest city. I decided to make the drive at night, when I wouldn’t have to worry about passing slow busses and lorries on the winding country roads. This proved to be a good plan, although I arrived in Saõ Roque de Minas so late that I simply slept in the car the first night. The following three nights, I stayed at Chapadaõ da Canastra (R$100 per night), where the management is familiar with birders and happy to make accommodations and provide information.
Two days is the minimum length for a visit to the park: one full day for driving the dirt tracks of the upper part, and one day to access the lower part and scan the river for the Brazilian Merganser along the way. The lower entrance to the park, where the Rio Saõ Francisco plunges impressively off the plateau, offers the best tract of gallery forest in the area. Refreshingly, visitors to both parts of the park are allowed to explore on their own without a guide, although access is still only from 8:00am to 6:00pm, which means you’ll miss the prime hours for finding tinamou and nothura wandering out from the protection of the tall grass. While there are a few trails to hike and places to get out and stretch your legs, I still felt like I birded from a car for four days (if you’re renting one, it’s definitely worth upgrading to have a little more room, and having a 4x4 with more clearance would be a treat, too). Aside from birding different Cerrado habitats as well as gallery forest, while driving back and forth from Saõ Roque de Minas to Vargem Bonita, you’ll also pass through kilometers of agricultural fields and scrubland that were productive for more common birds, such as Toco Toucan, Yellow-Rumped Marshbird, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, and even Red-Legged Seriema.
Having slept a few hours in the backseat of my Fiat on the first night, I was ready to launch a birding assault on the open grasslands of the upper part of the park. There weren’t a lot of Cerrado species that I hadn’t already seen, but Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Red-Legged Seriema, Campo Miner, and Brasília Tapaculo were some that I hoped to track down on this trip. First, I spent a few hours birding the shrubby hillsides leading up to the park entrance. As there isn’t much campo sujo habitat inside the park, it’s a good idea to work this area over pretty well, where I found Cinnamon Tanager, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, White-Eared Puffbird, and Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, among others. I also had a few lucky finds along the road, including a male Blue Finch, several Cliff Flycatchers, and a social group of Cinereous Warbling Finches. At dawn on my first morning, there was a large flock of Golden-Capped Parakeets flying high overhead, although I could only identify them based on their flight call. In the evening, I also tried for nightjars along this road, inspired by my review copy of Nightjars of the World. One actually flew out and landed in the road in response to a recording of the Scissor-Tailed Nightjar, although it didn’t have the diagnostic two long outer tail feathers.
With a few dozen birds already under my belt, I tore off into the park just after 8am. Progress along the steep and rocky road was actually quite difficult, and I barely steered the Fiat through a couple rough patches. Following John van der Woude’s instructions from his trip report in 2001, I stopped at a small patch of stunted forest a few kilometers beyond the entrance, where the power lines cross above the road. Sneaking through the ferns down to the creek, I played a recording of the Brasília Tapaculo, which appeared unobtrusively just afterwards, coming within a meter of where I was standing but still nearly impossible to detect. I’ve certainly seen less impressive tapaculos, but the lackluster encounter left me wondering why birders are so keen on finding them. Perhaps it’s that ornithologists are still struggling to find the dividing line between species, resorting to molecular techniques instead of the traditional distinctions based on appearance and call. At any rate, the tapaculo proved relatively easy to find and surprisingly vocal in other forest patches on the plateau, including a pair at the source of the Rio Saõ Francisco. I also heard one calling in the gallery forest in the lower part of the park on the following day.
Cruising further along the plains, I stopped the car to look for pipits in the rocky sections and play tape for nothuras in the grassy ones. The pipit issue is a difficult one, as both Hellmayr’s and Ochre-Breasted Pipits are supposedly found side by side during certain times of the year. Even after photographing both at close range, I’m still not confident in the distinction, as neither species was vocalizing in a manner similar to the recordings I had with me in the field. My technique for finding pipits was simply to drive very slowly and wait until a small sparrow-like bird flushed from the edge of the grass along the road (they’re obviously more slender than a sparrow and have a slightly longer tail). Then, I would stalk after it through the grass, keeping my distance enough so that I didn’t flush it again. In my experience, if pipits aren’t displaying in their classic form, it’s really a challenge to identify them. I even found one that was remarkably yellow in color, but that’s still no guarantee it was a Yellowish Pipit. With respect to nothuras, the issue is much simpler: you won’t see one unless it wanders into the road. I tried stalking Spotted Nothuras, taping them into the open, and even trying to flush them, all without success. The same was true for Red-Winged Tinamou.
When I first conceived this trip during moments of repose at work, I considered how sweet it would be to linger long over a male Cock-Tailed Tyrant. I pictured the wide grassy plains punctuated with red earth termite mounds, my scope set up nonchalantly in the deserted road, and the wind buffeting bird and me both. When the exact opportunity finally presented itself, I made sure to realize that longing, even taking an uncharacteristic swig of whiskey in celebration. The delightful behavior of these flagship birds of the Cerrado has been much written about in trip reports so I won’t dare compare them yet again to toy or model airplanes. I will make a few remarks on what proved to be my favorite bird of the trip, though. First, I was surprised that they don’t actually occur in fields solely covered in grass, like I had imagined (I found very few birds in this microhabitat). They seem to prefer mixed grassy areas, where there are also tall wildflowers and a few spare shrubs. Second, not enough mention is made of the female, which is short tailed and chunky with a big head and has a rich buffy wash to her breast and flanks (these features are all in contrast to the male). Third, I’m sure I heard them giving brief alarm calls when I approached too closely, trying for a good photograph (they’re supposed to be silent).
Given their size and wide dispersion, Cock-Tailed Tyrants are easy to overlook, but it’s inevitable that you’ll run into a few pairs on the long drive over to the upper part of the Casca d’Anta. In the same habitat, I regularly found groups of social Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrants, as well as a few inquisitive male Black-Masked Finches, which usually stay hidden on the ground during the heat of the day. Grassland and Rufous-Collared Sparrows, Black Crested-Tyrants, and White-Rumped Monjitas were common. Continuing along the road, I encountered a long narrow strip of burned grassland, where I hoped to find the Campo Miner, which has supposedly adapted to this natural but ephemeral microhabitat. Despite extensive searching I failed to turn up a single bird, although I saw my only Red-Legged Seriema within the park here. There are some obvious similarities between the seriema and the Secretary Bird from the savannas of East Africa (both are long-legged predators of open grasslands), but having now seen both I can assure you that the seriema is by far the more charismatic and delightful of the two. When I surprised one in the burned grassy area, it tore off faster down the road than I could safely follow in the car.
Raptors in this part of the part include White-Tailed Hawk, Southern Crested Caracara, Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, and the rare Crowned Solitary Eagle. I encountered them all except for the eagle, which was recorded a few months ago on the high-voltage power lines near the Visitor’s Center. I finally arrived at the Casca d’Anta around noon, greeted by the crystal clear waters of the Rio Saõ Francisco. There is a bathroom here and a short trail, where you can walk to the edge of the plateau and watch the river plunge below. There is also a 3km trail that continues down to the lower park entrance, but it’s steep and difficult and doesn’t offer access to habitat that you can’t find by car. Unfortunately, this is the only access point to the river on the entire plateau, and the chances of finding the Brazilian Merganser here are slim to none, especially on a weekend when other tourists will be riding their motorcycles around, swimming in the river, and having a picnic in the parking lot. Despite being the only one there this afternoon, I didn’t see the merganser either when I arrived, figuring optimistically that I would have a better chance in the lower part of the park.
Having walked to the end of the trail and taken some photographs of the waterfall and the river far below, I returned towards the car, thinking lazily about my plan for the rest of the afternoon and contemplating a nap. Breaking out of my reverie for a moment, I looked ahead a hundred meters and spotted a male Brazilian Merganser preening on a flat rock in the middle of the river, right where visitors would normally be swimming and having a good time if it were a holiday weekend. I dropped down on my hands and knees and crawled into better position, where I could observe and photograph the bird without disturbing it. I managed to get within twenty meters of the merganser as it swam and tossed its crest around roguishly, but the light was flat and gray as storm clouds moved overhead. Eventually, the bird became aware of my presence and flew away upstream, its “doubled” white wing patches clearly visible in flight. I greedily followed up this incredible sighting by chasing upstream a kilometer, looking for places in the gallery forest where I could sneak down to the river and stake out the merganser as it swam upstream. I gave up after an hour, still elated by the intimate encounter (it’s not uncommon for birders to spend a week in the region without finding one, even from afar).
Returning back to the entrance gate, I planned to bird the few patches of stunted forest with more seriousness. Passing through the grassy fields littered with termite mounds, I stopped to scan for Giant Anteaters and Maned Wolves, missing both. On Sunday, I would return to the upper part of the park and have much more success in finding mammals, noting two Giant Anteaters and a Pampas Deer. The Giant Anteater almost defies description, as its appearance is so bizarre. When I first noted a slow moving, furry creature laboring up a grassy slope nearby, I was compelled to leave the car and investigate on foot for a closer look. Apparently, these animals rely mostly on their sense of smell for locating prey and predators, and I was able to approach within two meters by coming from downwind. At this range, I could see clearly that there was also a baby anteater riding on its mother’s back, as the mother awkwardly sniffed out food with her huge, elongated nose. Eventually, the anteater became alert to my presence and turned towards me to sniff out my location and gauge whether I was a threat. I captured a few moments on video before retreating to the car.
At the spring where the Rio Saõ Francisco originates, I birded around the forest edge, finding a pair of endemic Gray-Backed Tachuri. Stopping to drink from the spring itself, which is a rare treat, I flushed a Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper. Then, while trying to tape it in, I provoked a pair of Brasília Tapaculo, which surfaced in a neighboring tree and then proceeded to vocalize with uncommon urgency. I had never seen a tapaculo species act so aggressively, and so I hung around for a while, hoping to take a decent photograph (I didn’t). Eventually, I wandered off and found a pair of singing Great Pampa-Finch, which are very similar looking to the endemic Pale-Throated Pampa-Finch that I had seen at Serra do Cipó a few months ago. As it had been raining intermittently during the afternoon and was now approaching sunset, the level of bird activity was high for a short while, and I noted Highland Elaenia, Cinnamon Tanager, and Plumbeous Seedeater, among others, in quick succession. Before leaving the park, I stopped to reflect over another slug of whiskey. I had pushed the limits of endurance on my first day of the trip, having birded all day without much sleep, but I had found a few lifers I had long dreamed about, including Brazlian Merganser, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, and Red-Legged Seriema.
Hanging out in Saõ Roque de Minas later that night, I noticed a significant uptick in activity, which foreboded ominously for the upcoming weekend. Tough guys were racing about on motorbikes or blaring music from the speakers in the trunks of their cars. The sound system in the pizzeria I was eating at couldn’t compete with all the ambient noise, and the restaurant quickly filled up with big families, some rich folks from the big cities far off and some humbler folks from the town itself. Brazil is currently experiencing profound socioeconomic change, and millions of citizens have recently risen from poverty into the middle class thanks to social welfare programs and a general economic boom. Both the World Cup and the Summer Olympics are coming to Brazil within the next four years, and foreigners are flocking to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to explore new opportunities. I’ve heard analysts compare Brazil’s situation with post-war U.S. in the 1950’s, as national infrastructure projects take off and the new consumer class searches for ways to spend its disposable income. How will Brazil’s natural environment withstand these changes? Does the Brazilian Merganser have any role to play in the country’s bright future?
I continued to ponder these questions the following morning, as I searched the lower sections of the Rio Saõ Francisco for more mergansers. Outside the park, the river still runs clear for now, but certain sections are busy with recreational activity on the weekends, as people from Vargem Bonita and other towns gather along the banks of the river to blast music and drink beer. Disturbed by the scene, I pushed on ahead to the park entrance, where I hurried down to the river to scan for the merganser before anyone else arrived. According to the park ranger, a mating pair of mergansers had been well documented in this section of the river last year as they nested in a tree cavity near the picnic area. Despite not finding them myself this morning, I took heart that the mergansers could raise a brood successfully and withstand the pressure of human activity nearby. Maybe the world population would stabilize at a few hundred then, thanks to the national park here at Serra da Canastra and the one at Chapada dos Veadeiros, closer to Brasília.
There’s also a trail that passes through gallery forest up to the base of the waterfall. I birded this area for a few hours and found a few good birds, including White-Rimmed Warbler, Pin-Tailed Manakin, Grey-Hooded Flycatcher, White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, and Gray-Eyed Greenlet. Eventually, the trail filled up with visitors, and I decided to return to Vargem Bonita and search for a site in town that had hummingbird feeders frequented by the endemic Stripe-Breasted Starthroat. In a field on the way back, I found a pair of Red-Legged Seriema and stopped to shoot some video as one foolishly decided to cross the road in front of an oncoming motorcycle. I also stopped at another merganser stakeout that is described in several trip reports. A few kilometers short of the park entrance is a humble farm and restaurant called Buteco Ra. They’ll let you walk through their fields down to the banks of the river, where they’ve cleared the gallery forest and set up basic facilities for camping. I didn’t find any mergansers here or on Monday morning, but it’s been a reliable stake out in the past. In Vargem Bonita, I found a few houses with a hummingbird feeder, including a gift shop of sorts that sells artisanal products, but I didn’t see any birds in attendance besides the common Swallow-Tailed Hummingbird.
The following two days played out similarly to the first two, as I continued to score good birds and contemplate the crowds. Looking back, the best moment of the trip was almost certainly finding a Brazilian Merganser, although my encounter with the Giant Anteater was a close second. The biggest miss was probably dipping on the Campo Miner, or perhaps not seeing a single tinamou or nothura. As this is the only grasslands site in Brazil where I’ve found the Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Blue Finch, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, and Black-Masked Finch, as well as Cerrado endemics like the Cinereous Warbling-Finch, Gray-Backed Tachuri, and Brasília Tapaculo, I would wholeheartedly recommend it as the top Cerrado birding site in Brazil, despite having taken this trip report as an opportunity to discuss the role of conservation in the country’s future. Living and working here, and only birding in my spare time, I realize that I’m on a slightly different journey than the typical birding tourist, who would hopefully be able to appreciate the trip here a little less critically.
Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Brazilian Merganser, White-Tailed Hawk, Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, Aplomado Falcon, Red-Shouldered Macaw, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Golden-Capped Parakeet, Striped Cuckoo, Scissor-Tailed Nightjar, Pauraque, White-Collared Swift, Planalto Hermit, White-Eared Violetear, White-Eared Puffbird, Toco Toucan, Campo Flicker, Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, Streaked Xenops, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, Rufous-Winged Antshrike, Planalto Slaty Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, Brasília Tapaculo, Highland Elaenia, Sooty Tyrannulet, Gray-Backed Tachuri, Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Gray-Hooded Flycatcher, Bran-Colored Flycatcher, Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Crested Black Tyrant, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Eastern Sirystes, Cliff Flycatcher, Rufous Casiornis, Helmeted Manakin, Pin-Tailed Manakin, White-Bearded Manakin, Tawny-Headed Swallow, Grass Wren, Hellmayr’s Pipit, Ochre-Breasted Pipit, Gray-Eyed Greenlet, Tropical Parula, White-Rimmed Warbler, Orange-Headed Tanager, Black-Goggled Tanager, Cinnamon Tanager, Green-Winged Saltator, Black-Throated Saltator, Blue Finch, Plumbeous Seedeater, Cinereous Warbling-Finch, Black-Masked Finch, Gray Pileated Finch, Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Great Pampa-Finch, Stripe-Tailed Yellowfinch, Hooded Siskin, Yellow-Rumped Marshbird.