Birders typically visit the same site repeatedly, in part to become familiar with the resident species, but also to find something unexpected. Some take this routine to an extreme, birding their patch almost exclusively throughout the year. With the right location, say somewhere in the Chocó Cloudforest or on a river island in the Amazon, I could see this practice being extremely rewarding. But for me, a big part of birding is exploring new places, even if it sometimes involves revisiting the same habitat. In fact, I’ve now birded in the Cerrado dozens of times, but as long as I’m doing it in a different place, it still feels relatively new. This was my reason for recently visiting an unheralded site outside of Cristalina, a town a few hours’ drive south of Brasília, more famous for its semi-precious stones than its birds.
The centerpiece of this private reserve is the crystal clear water of the Rio Topázio, which would be prime habitat for the endangered Brazilian Merganser if it were protected at greater length. Perhaps because of the rocky soil, the river is not bordered by gallery forest, which significantly limits the number of bird species found in the reserve and reduces its potential as a birding site. The habitat is predominantly cerrado sensu stritu, that is, grasslands interspersed with trees reaching up to six meters in height. To arrive, simply follow the BR-040 from Brasília to the town of Cristalina, where you take the BR-050 to the right. Just after the Hotel Topázio, take the dirt road to the right, where you’ll see signs for various mining concessions as well as a small sign for the reserve. Branch off to the right yet again after a few kilometers (you’ll see another weathered sign for the reserve), pass a tree farm on the right after a while, and then continue a few more clicks to the left. Given that the surrounding habitat has mostly been cleared for agriculture, you shouldn’t have much trouble sniffing out the reserve’s location.
Before locating the reserve myself, I spent a productive hour or so birding the open fields along the dirt roads, finding Greater Rhea, Red-Legged Seriema, Aplomado Falcon, Yellow-Faced and Turquoise-Fronted Parrots, among others. After entering the gate and descending to the left down to the headquarters, I paid my entrance fee (R$ 10) and headed off on foot on my own. A sunny day in the Cerrado can shut down bird activity quickly, and all birdsong can seem to die out within an hour or so after dawn. Such was true this Sunday morning, although I’ve birded long enough in the Cerrado to know that birders are occasionally rewarded with a few avian surprises if they stick it out in the field all day. Having brought my ridiculous sun hat and long-sleeve clothes, I was prepared to make a day of it regardless of how quiet things initially seemed.
At the onset of my walk, a male Horned Sungem zipped in right in front of my face, probably to size up the interloper or determine whether I was a flowering shrub. Other than a few hummingbirds though, it was dead quiet and I wandered the trail without encountering a single bird. After some serious pishing I finally had some birds to watch, noting an agitated group of Shrike-Like Tanagers consorting with a stolid pair of White-Eared Puffbirds. Black-Throated Saltators started calling in response to all the commotion, and a Rufous-Fronted Thornbird surfaced as well. Pushing on in the growing heat, I crested a hill and descended the other side back down to the river, where I heard a pair of Collard Crescentchests calling from beyond the far bank. I figured pursuing them for a while would eventually lead me to other birds, which it did, including a pair of open country flycatchers, the Campo Suiriri and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet.
Making my way back across the river, the day quickly kicked into high gear as I flushed a gorgeous male Blue Finch from the ground and stalked it for an hour with the help of a few bursts of song from my iPod. Taking a break to photograph a feeding female Horned Sungem, I felt as if the excursion was now a success, having racked up a half dozen sought-after specialties in just a short morning (before I moved to Brazil, I used to spend hours ogling photos of the exquisite Blue Finch and Horned Sungem and pondering the evolutionary oddities that are the Red-Legged Seriema and Greater Rhea). Encountering another mixed flock off the trail, I recommenced my pishing routine, coolly noting the Shrike-Like Tanagers and then nearly shouting in excitement as a pair of Coal-Crested Finches suddenly appeared nearby. Uncommon and local due to habitat loss, this finch has proven nearly impossible for me to find, and I had basically given up all hope of seeing it, with a future trip to Emas National Park being my last resort. Amazingly, here was a beautiful male in all its crested splendor, a precious and short-lived gem of the Cerrado.
Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Buff-Necked Ibis, Aplomado Falcon, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Turquoise-Fronted Parrot, Horned Sungem, White-Eared Puffbird, Toco Toucan, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, Collared Crescentchest, Campo Suiriri, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Tawny-Headed Swallow, Shrike-Like Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Blue Finch, Plumbeous Seedeater, Coal-Crested Finch, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch.