Chapada da Diamantina, Bahia: February 11-15, 2013

In Central Brazil, there are a lot of different chapadas, a Portuguese word that best translates to plateau in English: Chapada dos Veadeiros, Chapada Imperial, Chapada dos Guimarães, and Chapada do Araripe, just to name a few.  But none of them compare to Chapada Diamantina, an immense and spectacular series of cliffs and chasms that compromises a less arid version of Monument Valley, or perhaps even the Grand Canyon.  As it’s geographically isolated in the interior of Brazil, deep within the state of Bahia, this national park is home to several endemic bird species, including the Hooded Visorbearer, Diamantina Tapaculo, and Sincorá Antwren.  In addition, it serves as the meeting point of several unique biomes – the Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, and Caatinga – making it one of the more diverse sites for birding in the country.

I’ve been hoping to visit this particular chapada ever since I learned we’d be moving to Brazil, but the trip was always a question of having sufficient time and resources.  Finally, during the last Carnival vacation Aimee and I had ten days to consider making the thousand-kilometer drive from Brasília; otherwise, it would necessitate a costly flight to Salvador on the coast and then require renting a car – most likely a tiny Fiat – and driving at least five hours into the interior.  After discovering Ciro Albano’s excellent article in Neotropical Birding on birding in the state of Bahia, which covers Chapada Diamantina in great detail, I decided the trip was definitely worth two full days of driving, even though gasoline costs nearly six dollars a gallon in Brazil.  We ended up staying in three different towns in the region and birding a dozen different sites, frequently resorting to the GPS coordinates in Ciro’s article as well as other recent trip reports.

Caetité

This small town in southeastern Bahia was a nice stop over for us at the end of the first day, located about ten hour’s drive from Brasília depending on the driver’s aggressiveness behind the wheel (we stayed at the comfortable but costly Hotel Porto do Sol).  With typical concision and accuracy, Ciro describes the directions to a roadside patch of deciduous woodland and scrub about 25 km away that contains a wonderful variety of Caatinga endemics, as well as the highly localized Minas Gerais Tyrannulet.  We found the site without trouble and within minutes were scoring lifers, such as the Cactus Parakeet, Gray-Headed Spinetail, Saphire-Spangled Emerald, and Silvery-Cheeked Antshrike.  After a bit of work off the road, we also called in a White-Browed Antpitta for great looks before I scared it off with the shutter noise from my camera, the lens of which increasingly malfunctioned over the course of the dusty trip. 

The only sign of the endangered Minas Gerais Tyrannulet, which is supposedly relatively common at the site, was a group of four to six similar-looking Tyrannidae that stayed high in the canopy and remained frustratingly backlit in the early morning light.  As it inhabits the understory and is more uniquely patterned, the delicate Narrow-Billed Antwren proved easier to find and identify, coming in close in response to playback.  This species is also a country and regional endemic and its status is described as near-threatened.  The primary stress factor for both species is habitat loss, which in this part of Bahia is principally due to charcoal production, mining, coffee farming, and cattle ranching.  Interestingly enough, wind farms have sprung up along the ridges surrounding Caetité, and Aimee and I stopped several times to admire the sleek 21st century windmills that look like they belong more in Scandinavia than Central Brazil.

Notable birds seen: Cactus Parakeet, Saphire-Spangled Emerald, Red-Stained Woodpecker, Red-Billed Scythebill, Gray-Headed Spinetail, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, White-Browed Antpitta, Silvery-Cheeked Antshrike, Planalto Antshrike, Narrow-Billed Antwren, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Streaked Flycatcher, Buff-Breasted Wren, Red-Eyed Vireo, Gray-Eyed Greenlet, Flavescent Warbler, Hooded Tanager, Guira Tanager, Gray Pileated Finch.

Ibicoara

On the unexpectedly long drive from Caetité to Mucugê, our next stop over, we made a detour towards Ibicoara to search for the Diamantina Tapaculo in a patch of ferns along the banks of a river, again described in detail in Ciro’s article.  As it was late in the afternoon, I thought we had a respectable chance at getting a response to playback, but all the successful reports I read involved an early morning visit, which would necessitate a night in Ibicoara (supposedly there is also a good Sincorá Antwren site outside of town).  We didn’t record much bird activity in the half hour that we stopped here to stretch our legs, except for an active group of tiny Yellow Tyrannulets, a delightful Tyrannidae as well as an easy one to identify.  No doubt there would be other similar sites to find the tapaculo, I reasoned, as we sped onwards towards Mucugê before it got dark.

Mucugê

Not far beyond Mucugê is a good site to try for Sincorá Antwren, which inhabits the eroded rocky hillsides common in the region.  Aimee and I didn’t get any response in the late evening, but on the following morning around 10am a female came in quickly to a brief burst of tape.  She responded with the following call, not in the bird’s characteristic song, which would later lead to confusion as the very similar looking Rusty-Backed Antwren apparently makes the same call.  Shortly another mating pair came down from the top of the hill and joined the female in response; however, the male looked very much like the male Rusty-Backed Antwren, complete with rufous flanks.  So which species was it?  Although I’m inclined to be pessimistic in situations like this, it certainly could have been a female Sincorá Antwren and a male-female pair of Rusty-Backed Antwrens.  All three birds inhabitated the appropriate habitat of the Sincorá Antwren, but that’s how it is with splits sometimes: there are often individual shades of gray between species.

Earlier that morning we had visited the Cerrado site outside of town that Ciro describes in his article.  Indeed, I had dragged Aimee out of bed at the Pousada Mucugê for a chance at a few difficult but unimpressive Cerrado endemics, such as Rufous-Sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Gray-Backed Tachuri, and Shrike-Like Tanager.  We had celebrated Fat Tuesday the night before with a few beers and a mellow fish fry in the street side seats of a restaurant, a far cry from the epic debauchery our friends were experiencing in Rio de Janeiro.  Happily, rising well before dawn was worth it, as we easily found every target species along the first kilometer of a quiet dirt road, including a surprise group of Sharp-Tailed Tyrants, a species rarely noted in Bahia.  In particular, the unassuming Rufous-Sided Pygmy-Tyrant was a rewarding lifer for me, who has logged so many hours in appropriate habitat without having heard its uniquely chipping call. 



Notable birds seen: Aplomado Falcon, White-Tailed Hawk, Cactus Parakeet, White-Vented Violetear, Horned Sungem, Collared Crescentchest, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Sincorá Antwren, Rufous-Sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Gray-Backed Tachuri, Sharp-Tailed Tyrant, Cliff Flycatcher, Shrike-Like Tanager, Cinnamon Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Grassland Sparrow, Plumbeous Seedeater.

Lençois

Another long drive from Mucugê finally led us to Lençois, the usual base for visitors to the Chapada Diamantina.  In this charming colonial town, we stayed at the Pousada Casa da Geleia, which is recommended by Ciro and other traveling birders for its nectar and fruit feeders, as well as for its amiable owner, a bird enthusiast with a wealth of local knowledge and contacts.  He and I sat down together for an hour to discuss birding sites and news before Aimee and I headed out to the iconic Morro do Pai Inácio for celebrated sunset views of the surrounding chapada.  Atop this remarkable mesa, the Hooded Visorbearer can be located among the few shrubs and bromeliads that grow in the rocky terrain.  It took us an hour to find a male at the far viewpoint, but ultimately it allowed us close inspection as it chirped away aggressively from its perch.

The endemic Velvety Black Tyrant is relatively common on this windswept plateau as well, although it’s hard to stay focused on the birds and not be distracted by the sweeping views of the adjacent plateaus.  It’s obviously a popular place with other tourists, but the guides will let you explore the plateau on your own in search of the visorbearer.  Along the entrance road, it’s said that Pale-Throated Serra-Finch is common, although we didn’t find a single one on this evening nor the following late morning as we stopped on our way back from Palmeiras.  Ciro also mentions another nearby site for Sincorá Antwren, but we didn’t have any success here either.  Ultimately, the region is so vast and there is so much good habitat, that you could pick any side road or trail and find your own sites for these target species.  With enough time, it’s probably best considering that the individual birds at the sites described in Ciro’s article are probably getting played out.

Notable birds seen: Hooded Visorbearer, Violet-Capped Woodnymph, Caatinga Cacholote, Great Antshrike, Campo Troupial, Velvety Black Tyrant, Baywing, Red-Cowled Cardinal.

Palmeiras

Although we had seen several Caatinga specialties already, I had been looking forward to visiting the dry eastern slope of the chapada all trip.  Outside of the town of Palmeiras, there is a riverbed bordered by deciduous woodland and tall scrub, where Caatinga endemics like Scarlet-Throated Tanager, Great Xenops, Caatinga Antwren, and São Francisco Sparrow are regularly spotted.  The site is easily accessible by road, and while there’s a bit of truck and motorcycle traffic, the sightlines are generous and birdsong is well amplified in the narrow valley.  After an hour’s drive, we arrived just before sunrise as the dawn chorus kicked in.  The first song I recognized was the high-frequency notes of the São Francisco Sparrow, calling just after the bridge.  Mistakenly opting for photographs instead of video, I failed to capture a decent record of the bird, but it came within meters of my feet as it staked out its territory in song.

We worked the road up and down for a few hours with relative success, noting Broad-Tipped Hermit, Spotted Piculet, Ultramarine Grosbeak, Long-Billed Wren, and the distinct Caatinga subspecies of Barred Antshrike.  Hooded Tanager was also common.  Throughout the morning, Stripe-Backed Antbird and Caatinga Antwren could be heard calling but remained frustratingly out of sight.  Also heard on occasion but not seen was Great Xenops, Tataupa Tinamou, and White-Naped Jay, again all Caatinga specialties.  Almost ready to call it a morning, Aimee and I wandered down into a pasture near the stream, where I heard an angry troop of cacique-sounding birds.  As a Roadside Hawk flushed from a nearby tree, I finally put two and two together, realizing it was a group of Scarlet-Throated Tanagers.  A dozen of them swooped in to a bare tree as a I blasted their call from my iPod, the females basically indistinct from any old blackbird, but the males with blazing red throats.

Notable birds seen: Broad-Tipped Hermit, Planalto Hermit, Spotted Piculet, Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, Planalto Slaty-Antshrike, Caatinga Barred Antshrike, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Crowned Slaty Flycatcher, Flavescent Warbler, Tropical Parula, Red-Eyed Vireo, Long-Billed Wren, Scarlet-Throated Tanager, Hooded Tanager, Ultramarine Grosbeak, Gray Pileated Finch, Masked Gnatcatcher, São Francisco Sparrow.

For me, the region definitely warrants a return trip to explore further the sites described above as well as to search for new ones.  The area outside of Andaraí on the western side looked particularly promising to me as we drove by, with a variety of side roads as well as trails leading to waterfalls and swimming holes.  For those choosing to travel by public transport, there are lots of hiking trails leading from Lençois that pass through intact scrub and woodland, as well as quiet roads that pass through mature gallery forest not far from town.  Swampland outside of Lençois is another opportunity for birders with plenty of time to rack up even more species.  For those with their own transport, it’s important to understand that each side of the chapada supports a slightly different climate and level of precipitation, and if the region is birded thoroughly it should preclude having to make another trip deeper into the Caatinga or Cerrado to look for regional specialties.

2 comments:

  1. Great report Derek, I visited the same sites in late Sep 2012. We had the tapaculo in that spot between 1015-1115 AM one each up and downstream of the bridge. Struck out on the Sincora Antwren everywhere and missed the "numerous" pampa finch on the road up the mountain as well. Fantastic place that I hope to get back to someday.

    Kevin Thomas
    USA Ebirder

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for your comment, Kevin. Congratulations on the tapaculo!

    ReplyDelete

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