After two busy weeks in Rio de Janeiro, I spent a few days birding some of the remaining Atlantic Forest before returning back to Brasília. Remarkable for its high level of bird endemism, this celebrated region contains a variety of habitat but is now nearly 90% deforested and highly fragmented. Originally I considered staying at one of the excellent birding lodges a few hours away, such as REGUA or Serra dos Tucanos, but after perusing the bird lists for the possible excursions beyond their private reserves, I realized that I really wanted to focus on the montane specialties, especially a glorious variety of cotinga species, which I could easily do on my own while birding on public land. Serra dos Orgãos, my decided destination, is a spectacular national park just an hour’s drive outside of Rio, and while the fabulously shaped granite peaks can draw big crowds, there are plenty of forested trails for birders to find a little solitude and plenty of first-rate birds.
The logistics of my trip were fairly straightforward, although Rio’s notorious traffic complicated matters a bit. I left our short-term apartment in Ipanema for the international airport at 3am on Saturday morning, where I rented a car and drove out towards Teresópolis, the city from which you can gain access to the upper part of the national park. Driving at this ungodly hour is relatively painless, as long as you can stay awake, and I managed to arrive safely at the top of the mountain pass near the turnoff to the national park well before dawn. Unfortunately, entrance isn’t permitted until 8am, which creates a problem for birders as several of the cotinga species found inside the park, including the Black-and-Gold and Grey-Winged Cotingas, only inhabit the upper regions, requiring a strenuous hike of several hours directly uphill on a forested trail. The best solution is to bring camping equipment and stay inside the park, either at the campsite just beyond the visitor center, or at the first campsite along the Pedra do Sino trail, a tough trek of about three hours' duration.
Having put together this trip at the last moment, I was more than a little unprepared to mount an expedition for the rare Grey-Winged Cotinga; in fact, I didn’t even bring a raincoat and had to wear four shirts to keep warm while birding all day. I planned to spend Saturday night in Teresópolis and bird the early morning hours at a site nearby called Garrafão, which is basically a short, forested road that branches to the right just after a gas station at km 95 (it became famous in 1996 when the mythical Kinglet Calyptura was rediscovered there). As usual, throughout the trip I followed John van der Woude’s detailed site notes and maps without difficulty, even though they’re now over a decade old. Towards 8am both mornings, I planned to zip back up the hill to the national park, where I would then bird the Pedra do Sino trail as well as the newly constructed elevated boardwalk, Trilha Suspensa, which passes through the subcanopy of hillside forest, including several stands of bamboo. With good weather and a little luck, I would add more than a handful of Atlantic Rainforest endemics to my country list.
Although it had been stormy in Rio during the end of the week, Saturday morning opened with clear skies, and I walked the forested roads at Garrafão for an hour or so, reacquainting myself with some of the bird sounds of the Atlantic Forest: Surucua Trogon, Lesser Woodcreeper, Variegated Antpitta, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, Grey-Hooded Atilla, and White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, among others. A few modest street lights had attracted moths and other insects all night, and a large flock of birds swept through to clean house, including Red-Crowned Ant-Tanager, Black-Capped Foliage-Gleaner, and Black-Goggled Tanager. I also found a pair of vocal Star-Throated Antwrens in the leaf litter off the road, as well as a Rufous Gnateater, before heading off to do some serious birding in the national park. It’s hardly worth mentioning that I didn’t see the Kinglet Calyptura, nor has anyone had a confirmed sighting since October 1996.
There was a bit of a bottleneck at the park entrance, where scores of hikers were waiting to enter the park as well, but I managed to fill out the necessary paperwork and pay the fee (R$ 32.50 including trail and car fees) without too much of a delay. Jamming uphill on the cobblestone road, I was impressed with the amount and quality of protected habitat within the reserve, although my eyes were trained on the tree line of the upper part, where the clouds were already filling in. Would I make it to the appropriate elevation in time while the visibility still permitted me to scan for calling cotingas? Parking the car at the abandoned pousada well below the trailhead, as instructed at the entrance gate, I raced uphill on foot, stopping only to photograph a massive flock of Brassy-Breasted Tanagers, one of the loveliest birds I’ve ever seen. It was tough to pass by several large mixed flocks without checking them out, but I had targeted cotinga species on this trip and would have to be single minded in my pursuit to succeed.
The Pedra do Sino Trail begins at the end of the road, and by the onset I had outpaced all the hikers who were slowly loading up their packs for the weekend trek. The trail itself is paved in stones, and my feet would be killing me later that afternoon as I had neglected to bring tough soled hiking boots. I stopped once during the next hour to confirm that the low trilling call I had heard several instances was indeed the Rufous-Tailed Antthrush, but otherwise I was determined to reach the first campsite before the Grey-Winged Cotingas stopped singing. A high-pitched whistle stopped me in my tracks all of a sudden, the sound of which could only come from a cotinga. Attempting to coax the bird out into the open with my iPod, I figured I would soon lay my eyes on a male Black-and-Gold Cotinga, but several hours, and calling birds, later I had come up empty. I simply could not locate the calling birds, or spot them inside the bromeliad-clad canopy. Meanwhile, the weather had turned for the worse, and it grew cloudy, damp, and cold.
Downtrodden, I headed slowly back down the trail for lower altitudes and hopefully other birds. The elevated boardwalk proved productive in the late morning yielding my first Brazilian Ruby and some bamboo specialists, including the terrific White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner and less impressive Drab-Breasted Pygmy-Tyrant. White-Throated Spadebill and Blue Manakin were common, and several flocks of Maroon-Bellied Parakeets passed noisily overhead. Stopping for lunch back at the car, I shut my eyes for a while and tried to let go some of my accumulated frustration. I had worked hard all week, slept for three hours, and passed up hundreds of birds for a chance at seeing two highly localized cotingas, missing them both badly. Maybe this trip wasn’t destined to work out, I wondered. A small group of birds passed by next to the car producing Rufous-Crowned Greenlet and White-Browed Foliage-Gleaner. Well, it had already been a four foliage-gleaner day, including a Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner at Garrafão earlier. Maybe tomorrow would be similarly productive in unexpected ways, I rationalized.
I spent over an hour that evening driving around the busy streets of Teresópolis looking for a vacant room in a pousada or hotel, much like John van der Woude had done years ago. Located as close as it is to a megacity, Teresópolis fills up with Cariocas every weekend for one reason or another (this weekend it was because of a soccer tournament and an unrelated festival). Eventually I would end up staying at the very same hotel as John, the Hotel Villa Nova; you might as well just head straight there if you visit, even though it’s an overpriced dump at R$ 130 per night. Regrouping, I loaded my iPod up with a few more calls and read over the birding trip reports I had collected, piecing together a more extensive list of target birds so as to not set myself up for such disappointment again. After a few beers and some picanha and fries later that night, I was feeling in better spirits and ready to repeat the excursion the following day.
After seeing nothing new at Garrafão, I got an early start in the park, where they let me in at 7:30am. Along the way to the trailhead, I came ridiculously close to glimpsing a group of calling Spot-Winged Wood-Quail just below the road. Then I stopped to sift through a mixed flock overhead, noting the striking Rufous-Backed Antvireo, another Atlantic Forest endemic. A harsh call from above directed my attention overhead, where I came face to face with a Saffron Toucanet. There’s simply no Ramphastidae that comes close to this one in terms of coloration, and it was shocking to see one in person. Elated, I moved on to the Pedra do Sino Trail, where I was shortly tracking a Hooded Berryeater in the canopy. It turns out that I had dismissed the call several times on the previous day, which had sounded to my ears like a forest pigeon. Still watching the berryeater, one of my four target cotinga species, I was aware of a larger bird eyeing me from above, a male Spot-Billed Toucanet. Another jaw-dropper, this Atlantic Forest endemic also has a creepy, rectangular-shaped iris, which only added to the sensation that today was turning out weird and wonderful.
Further up the trail, I tried again for a Black-and-Gold Cotinga that was calling from somewhere nearby. Supposedly the bird changes direction frequently when calling from the same post, making it seem as if it’s moving locations. This, combined with the steepness of the trail and the uneven height of the canopy, can make locating the cotinga very frustrating indeed. Finally, a burst of playback provoked it to change perches and I watched relieved as a male swooped in, all black with blazing gold patches on its wings. Looking a lot more nunbird than cotinga, it called a few times and then returned to its previous perch, again hidden from view. Two cotingas down, two to go, I thought, and wondered if my luck would hold as I considered making the rest of the hike up to the tree line to go for Grey-Winged Cotinga. Instead, I turned back and was rewarded with a pair of Black-Throated Trogons, a Rufous-Breasted Leaftosser, and another mixed flock with several Rufous-Backed Antvireos, just narrowly missing seeing a Sharpbill that was calling from within the flock.
Back near the beginning of the trail, I picked out a densely vegetated gully to try for Rufous-Tailed Antthrush, a pair of which responded beautifully to playback, strutting back and forth in the leaf litter almost at my feet. After noting another Rufous Gnateater, Rufous-Breasted Leaftosser, and White-Rimmed Warbler, I returned to the Trilha Suspensa to work the bamboo sections again in search of more specialties. By this time unfortunately, my iPod was out of power, and I had little chance of seeing either Rufous-Tailed or Bertoni’s Antbird. I did manage to find another Black-and-Gold Cotinga calling above the latter section of the boardwalk after thirty minutes of careful searching. This is one species that would certainly be easier to seek out in the company of a guide who is already familiar with an individual bird’s favored perches. This part of the trail also apparently passes through a Yellow-Browed Woodpecker’s territory, and I heard one call hauntingly each time I passed through. After missing yet another Sharpbill in a mixed flock, I realized that it was time to return to Rio de Janeiro to catch my flight back to Brasília.
Traffic was heavy but still flowing smoothly on the highway, and I was able to steal a few looks at the magnificent Serra do Mar on the way back. While there’s not much lowland Atlantic Forest left in this area, the steep hillsides are still thickly blanketed in vegetation and no doubt full of birds. In retrospect, it was a tough call to skip the chance to see Grey-Winged Cotinga, but I still had a good haul of birds for a short weekend trip. If I could do it again, I definitely would have brought camping equipment and distributed my birding effort more equally over the higher and lower elevations of the national park. Outside of Nova Friburgo, there’s another higher altitude site called Pico da Caledônia, which offers similar chances for the cotinga but involves a lot less effort (from the sound of it you can access the appropriate habitat by car, or at most it takes a short walk). Other elfin forest and tree line specialties to be found there include Plovercrest, Diademed Tanager, Itatiaia Spinetail, and Bay-Chested Warbling-Finch. While these were also tough birds to pass up, I’ve got to save a few for my next trip.
Notable birds seen: Brown Tinamou, Maroon-Bellied Parakeet, Plain Parakeet, Red-Capped Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Scale-Throated Hermit, Brazilian Ruby, Violet-Capped Woodnymph, Surucua Trogon, Black-Throated Trogon, Saffron Toucanet, Spot-Billed Toucanet, Yellow-Browed Woodpecker, White-throated Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Lesser Woodcreeper, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner, White-Browed Foliage-Gleaner, Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Black-Capped Foliage-Gleaner, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, Rufous-Breasted Leaftosser, Plain Xenops, Variable Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Rufous-Backed Antvireo, Star-Throated Antwren, White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, Brazilian Antthrush, Rufous Gnateater, Black-and-Gold Cotinga, Hooded Berryeater, Blue Manakin, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, Yellow-Olive Flatbill, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, Drab-Breasted Pygmy-Tyrant, White-Throated Spadebill, Chestnut-Crowned Becard, Grey-hooded Attila, Golden-crowned Warbler, White-Rimmed Warbler, Rufous-Crowned Greenlet, Black-Goggled Tanager, Red-Crowned Ant-Tanager, Brassy-Breasted Tanager, Golden-Chevroned Tanager, Chestnut-Bellied Euphonia.