Chapada dos Veadeiros, Goiás: October 13, 2012

Inspired by a photograph published recently on Wiki Aves, I decided that it was finally time to find one of the flagship birds of the Cerrado that had eluded me thus far, the Campo Miner.  Terrestrial and inconspicuous, the Campo Miner inhabits grassy fields, preferring areas that have recently been burned, which makes its distribution somewhat patchy and erratic.  In addition, its status is listed as vulnerable due to widespread habitat destruction, as most of the grassy plains in Central Brazil have been converted to agricultural fields in the last few decades.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time birding in the Cerrado, considering all these factors it’s no wonder I’ve missed, or overlooked, this bird.  I’ve even explored the expansive Serra da Canastra National Park, where it’s most frequently noted, and still missed it.  With fresh information about a burned field in the Chapada dos Veadeiros region where the miner was recently recorded, I hit the road early on Sunday morning determined to spend all day searching.

I’ve visited the Chapada dos Veadeiros a half dozen times, although it’s a bit far from Brasília for a day trip, at well over two hour’s drive away.  The road is straight and has been resurfaced though, and I’m more or less comfortable driving it in the dark.  Each time I visit the area I try to bird somewhere new, such as the many private reserves, agricultural fields, and side roads, as access to the national park is limited to guided group tours.  A wide range of habitats can be found in the region, including gallery forest, deciduous woodland, grassy fields, rocky fields, and Cerrado sensu strictu, although it can be challenging to cover them all in a single day.  I’ve even found disturbed habitat to be productive, depending on which crops have been planted in the agriculture fields and whether some of the original vegetation still remains around the borders.  In general, it’s a rich and rewarding area to explore, and I’m only now developing a sense of where to find certain sought-after species, such as Blue Finch, Spot-Backed Puffbird, and Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant.

Following up on information from Ana Cavalcante, who owns a pousada in Alto Paraíso and guides birding excursions in the region, and from Alexander Lees, a Brazilian ornithologist, I headed down a dirt road towards Cataratas do Rio dos Couros, which branches to the left off the GO-118 about 20 km south of town.  I didn’t make it very far down the road before I was discouraged by the lack of proper signage, and decided to head back, not seeing any burned fields as advertised.  There were still plenty of fallow fields to stop and look for the Campo Miner though, and while I didn’t have any success I did record Campo Flicker, Plumbeous Seedeater, White-Tailed Hawk, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Shrike-Like Tanager, and Red-Winged Tinamou.  Driving down a side road towards an area that had been burned several months ago, I stopped at an overgrown irrigation canal near some gallery forest, where two Streamer-Tailed Tyrants were doing their thing (watch the video below, if you’re not yet familiar with their amazing territorial display).

Attracted by the commotion, a variety of other birds surfaced from the marshy vegetation, including Greater Thornbird, Black-Faced Tanager, and Yellow-Chinned Spinetail.  Taking advantage of their proximity to shoot a few photos, I was temporarily distracted by a massively billed female emberizine finch.  The individual was most likely a seedfinch, either Lesser or Great-Billed Seedfinch, but even with decent photographs, I’ve been unable to make up my mind about its identification.  Regardless, the populations of both in Brazil have been reduced dramatically due to their popularity as caged birds, possessing complex and melodic songs.  In Suriname, Aimee and I have actually seen men bring their caged birds to urban public parks, where they compete in birdsong battles, a more peaceful version perhaps of dog or cock fights found in another Latin American countries.  There were no Campo Miners in this area either, so it was time to try my luck on another road.

Driving next towards the town of São Jorge, which harbors the formal entrance to the national park, I noticed another recently burned area along the road towards Morro da Baleia, a hill shaped like a massive whale.  After making a few stops, where I tried playback without success, I arrived at what seemed like the perfect area for a Campo Miner: the expansive fields were littered with termite mounds and rocky outcroppings and were now regenerating here and there with native grasses and wildflowers.  A brief burst of the miner’s simple, loud, and repetitive call provoked an immediate response, as one shot up into the air and performed its display flight.  Rising 20 m above the ground, the miner hovered above its territory, flashing its richly colored wings and blaring out its call for ten seconds before vanishing behind a termite mound.  I stalked it carefully from behind another mound, watching intently as it poked about nervously.  The Campo Miner is certainly not to be confused with a spectacular bird, appearing drabber than a Rufous Hornero, although its behavior is definitely charismatic.  But it is one of the most representative birds of the Cerrado, perhaps the worst protected biome in South America.

Very pleased with this outcome, I eventually moved on to try for the Spotted Nothura calling nearby.  A half hour of patient posing behind a fence post resulted in crippling looks, as the bird came in close in response to playback.  Rising occasionally above the sparse ground cover and singing its trilling song, the nothura revealed the extent of its richly patterned plumage, which camouflages it well from predators soaring above.  I’ve heard the Spotted Nothura many times and also seen a few crossing the road between fields, but as with other tinamou species, it’s unusual to see them so well.  Buoyed by these successes, I decided to explore the deciduous forest at Vale da Lua, where I hoped to find White-Naped Jay, another Cerrado specialty that I’d yet to see.  Driving back towards the main road with my windows down, I heard the distinctive ringing song of the Blue Finch nearby.  Who can resist the beautiful male, whose plumage is so beautifully saturated with color in the right light, providing such dramatic context for that brilliant yellow bill?

The holiday weekend crowd at Vale da Lua quickly killed my buzz, as the entrance road was packed with dusty compact cars braving the bouncy drive to the private reserve, which is home to several crystal clear swimming holes.  Indeed, the parking lot was packed with people blasting music and drinking beer, not the ideal birding environment.  I walked the forested entrance road a few times and explored a trail leading towards São Jorge, encountering several mixed flocks.  Highlights included Blond-Crested Woodpecker, Green-Backed Becard, Surucua Trogon, Ochre-Cheeked Spinetail, and Fuscous Flycatcher.  The female Green-Backed Becard in particular was a stunner, the lime green breast band and rufous shoulders in sharp contrast.  From the edges of the forest, I also heard both White-Eared and Spot-Backed Puffbirds calling periodically, but saw neither.  Relieved my car hadn’t been broken into by some of the revelers hanging around, I was happy to leave and head off to another site despite the productive birding.

Two other difficult Cerrado birds that have been nagging at me are the Giant Snipe and Dwarf Tinamou.  Supposedly, there’s a good site for the snipe just across the road from Portal da Chapada, where I also heard Ocellated Crake calling once.  The tinamou is much more difficult though, from what I understand, although I heard one along a side road north of Alto Paraíso on my last visit to the region.  Again, I hit the site in the late afternoon and was greeted with a single call in response to playback.  Given the density of the ground cover, it’s likely impossible to actually see a Dwarf Tinamou at this site, but it’s likely a territory (the side road is the first right along the GO-118 as you head north and leads to several popular waterfalls).  Just before the sun set, I also came face to face with a male Black-Masked Finch, like the Campo Miner another vulnerable Cerrado specialty, but one I’ve seen several times.  Considering that the rainy season has barely begun in Central Brazil, I decided to head straight home instead of stomping around in the dusk to try and flush a snipe.  I’ll be back in a few months with another target species, I’m sure.

Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Spotted Nothura, Red-Winged Tinamou, Aplomado Falcon, Savanna Hawk, White-Tailed Hawk, Red-Shouldered Macaw, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Burrowing Owl, White-Collared Swift, White-Vented Violetear, Surucua Trogon, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Toco Toucan, Campo Flicker, Blond-Crested Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, Campo Miner, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Ochre-Cheeked Spinetail, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Greater Thornbird, Firewood Gatherer, Streaked Xenops, Planalto Slaty-Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Black-Capped Antshrike, Sepia Capped Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, White-Rumped Monjita, Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, Eastern Sirystes, Brown-Capped Flycatcher, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Green-Backed Becard, White-Winged Becard, Black-Crowned Tityra, Curl-Crested Jay, Buff-Breasted Wren, Tropical Parula, Flavescent Warbler, Guira Tanager, Chestnut-Vented Conebill, Burnished-Buff Tanager, Black-Goggled Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, Green-Winged Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Lesser Seedfinch, Blue Finch, Plumbeous Seedeater, Black-Masked Finch, Gray-Pileated Finch, Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch.

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