Itatiaia National Park, Rio de Janeiro: April 6-7, 2013

Brazil’s oldest national park and most hallowed birding site doesn’t need much of an introduction, as it’s been covered extensively in trip reports by visiting birders to Southeastern Brazil.  But considering the spectacular birds you’ll encounter there, a visit is far from banal, and it’s even possible to have the place basically to yourself like we did recently.  Ranging from 600 to 2800 meters in altitude, the reserve and its environs encompass a wide range of habitat, stretching from humid lowland forest to high altitude grassland.  A large number of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest endemic species are found here, including the Black-and-Gold Cotinga, Slaty Bristlefront, White-Bibbed Antbird, and Brazilian Ruby.  The park even has a bird named after it, the Itatiaia Spinetail, which is found only in shrubby areas above 1850 meters.  Considering its location just off the highway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the site is easy to access with a basic rental car, and independent birders should have no trouble staying productive throughout a four or five day stay, depending on the rest of their itinerary in the region. 

The logistics laid out in Forrester’s Birding Brazil haven’t changed much since 1993.  There are several lodging options in the town of Itatiaia itself as well as within the park, but the most convenient, and likely the best from a birder’s perspective, is Hotel do Ypê.  Simply birding the grounds of the hotel can be rewarding, and trails branch out in several directions, including the Tres Picos Trail, which I focused on for its extensive bamboo habitat.  The access road also offers excellent birding and provides better visual access than the narrow trail, which was quite overgrown in parts.  Instead of hiking up to higher altitudes on one of the trails, I’d recommend driving around to the back side of the park, which entails returning to the Via Dutra and heading 26 kilometers towards the town of Itamonte, before turning off onto a dirt road towards the peak of Agulhas Negras (this is referred to as the Agulhas Negras Road in trip reports).  From here you can access montane forest, elfin forest, and high altitude grassland, as well as a stand of Araucaria, a conifer native to Southern Brazil.

As I had to travel to São Paulo for another work related conference, I planned to spend the weekend before at Itatiaia, birding all day and relaxing by the fireside at night.  Aimee took some time off to come along, which made the whole trip a lot more fun than one of my typical weekend birding binges (a similar trip I made to Intervales State Park was a marathon of birding and driving that resulted in less sleep during the entire weekend than I would normally get on a single night).  We arrived at Congonhas airport on the commuter flight from Brasília around 8pm, rented a car at the nearby Localiza location, and sped along the Via Dutra towards Rio, arriving at Itatiaia around midnight.  Winding our way up into the park, we finally arrived at the hotel, which is located practically at the end of the road.  Composed of a series of A-frame cabins and modest buildings all hugging the hillside, the hotel has a real mountain lodge feel and is surrounded by well preserved montane forest.  After building a fire and tipping back a beer, I called it a night, resolving to search for Tawny-Browed Owl the following evening.

Stumbling out of the cabin a few hours later, I was enchanted by the expansive view looking out over the valley below, where a grey blue pool of clouds had gathered during the night.  In the half light of dawn, Cliff Flycatchers were already gathering on the apex of several cabins, and Dusky-Legged Guans were striding about expectantly, as if I had some berries in my pocket.  Skipping a careful inspection of the hotel grounds, I had just enough time to walk down to the entrance of the Tres Picos Trail before the dawn chorus got into full swing.  Tuning my ears to the regular calls of the White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, Rufous Capped Spinetail, and Ferruginous Antbird, I started picking out a few more birds of interest, including the Spot-Breasted Antvireo, a pair of which were foraging overhead.  To get oriented I walked relatively quickly towards the defunct Hotel Simon and gauged the birding potential of the Tres Picos Trail, which indeed looked quite narrow and overgrown.  Since I only had three hours before I met Aimee for breakfast, I decided to work over the wider trail between the road and Hotel Simon. 

Although I always wear a hat birding, I usually turn it around backwards when I’m in the forest, even if it exposes my forehead more to mosquitoes, which were already swarming me profusely.  Thusly, I became aware of an ominously large silhouette passing silently overhead and perching nearby: the terrific Black Hawk-Eagle, known in Portuguese as the Gavião-Pega-Macaco, which is loosely translated as the monkey eater.  Not uncommon at Itatiaia, the hawk-eagle is generally seen soaring high above, no doubt in search of troops of monkeys, its distinctive black and grey wing patterning easily identifiable from below.  I turned my cap back around in an effort to match its threateningly raised crest, but the raptor stared me down imperiously and swooped off to another perch.  Perhaps the presence of a massive raptor had stirred up the passerines, but all of a sudden I was surrounded by a diverse mixed flock of understory birds, including two of my all time favorites, the White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner and White-Bearded Antshrike, the latter of which I could only find the less impressive female.

While still making sense of all this activity, I heard some powerful and puzzling shrieks nearby.  I don’t find myself saying “what the hell was that?” much anymore, having birded in the neotropics for nearly eight years, but this was an unusual call to hear coming from bamboo understory.  A few seconds later I put it together that it was probably one of my target antshrikes.  Indeed, a male Tufted Antshrike responded immediately to playback of its song, showing itself briefly, and I found a female even closer alongside the trail, which proceed to sing a few times in response.  Having cycled through the calls of the other antshrikes on my iPod, I then heard a Giant Antshrike way up the hill start singing.  This is the last of the “big five” Atlantic Forest antshrikes I have left to see, having ticked the others at REGUA and Intervales, so I was ready to drop everything in hot pursuit.  Unfortunately, as I couldn’t bushwhack uphill through bamboo, there was nowhere to really go, and after singing a few times, the Giant Antshrike fell silent.  Antbirds, or Thamnophilidae, don’t cut if for a lot of birders, but it’s an incredibly diverse family, and visiting birders to Brazil would do well to study these stellar photographs of the “big five” before determining their target list: White-Bearded, Spot-Backed, Tufted, Large-Tailed, and Giant Antshrike.

Returning back to the hotel for breakfast, I settled down with Aimee at a table overlooking the fruit and nectar feeders.  There was one other bird photographer digiscoping in the garden below, but otherwise the guests seemed oblivious to the explosion of color just outside.  First, a family group of Green-Headed Tanagers sampled the papaya and then focused their attention on a banana.  Then, a breath-taking male Burnished-Buff Tanager swept in, quickly followed in succession by a pair of Palm Tanagers, a Chestnut-Bellied Euphonia, and a Golden-Chevroned Tanager.  A pair of Ruby-Crowned Tanagers snuck in to attack the banana as well, while oversized Red-Rumped and Golden-Winged Caciques raided the hummingbird feeders, probing inside with their long, pointed beaks as the feeders swayed violently back and forth.  A lone Saffron Toucanet finally made an appearance, slipping in and out with a chunk of papaya before I could move into better position for a photograph.  Despite the commotion at the fruit feeders, the hummingbird feeders attracted steady attention from hoards of Brazilian Ruby, Violet-Capped Woodnymph, and the occasional Black Jacobin.

Eventually, Aimee and I made our way back down to the Tres Picos Trail, where we intended to work up an appetite for the big Saturday barbecue at the hotel.  The mosquitos were in full force though, and I had neglected to bring any repellant, making it very costly to stop for birds; however, when I heard White-Bibbed Antbird calling nearby, I insisted.  It took ten minutes, and at least ten bites on my hands and face, to lay my eyes on this gorgeous but retiring antbird, but it was time and blood well spent.  This section of the trail was chock full of birds at the moment, and we stalwartly searched through the mixed flock while immersed in a cloud of mosquitos.  An otherworldly Black-Billed Scythebill was just overhead, using its spectacular bill to dig out beetles from a tree cavity and then thrashing them violently against a tree branch.  Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Surucua Trogon, Variable Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, and Rufous-Crowned Greenlet were all bustling about, but I was quickly losing patience with the persistent buzzing and biting.  At one point, Aimee pointed out what she thought was an antshrike but I had waived it off as a foliage-gleaner, perhaps looking at a different bird than she was.

As we pushed up the trail, we left the mosquitos behind, although the path was becoming increasingly overgrown, especially in the bamboo sections.  According to several maps, the trail rises to the higher altitude portion of the park, but the outlook wasn’t promising, as we were already crawling through tight corridors on our hands and knees.  Deciding to turn around at one point, I was talking to Aimee about my near miss with the Giant Antshrike earlier that morning and showed her the related plate in the field guide.  “That looks a lot like the bird I saw in that flock,” she speculated, as my spirits plummeted.  Instead of playing the blame game, we raced back to the scene and were immediately joined by our airborne, bloodsucking assailants.  I played a bit of tape for the antshrike in what looked like perfect habitat, but apparently it had moved on with the flock, if it had even been there in the first place.  I resolved to come back the following morning to investigate further.  Before rejoining the lower part of the trail, which is much wider and connects the road with the old Hotel Simon, we watched a Brown Tinamou scurry ahead of us on the trail.

Back at the hotel, I was inquiring about a beer at the bar when I noticed the fruit feeders were being bombarded by Saffron Toucanets.  Aimee and I moved cautiously out onto the patio, where we able to join them at close range.  At one point, she was only two meters from the fruit tray, where six toucanets were greedily gobbling down papaya.  Originally placed in its own genus, the toucanet was grouped together taxonomically with the araçari in 2004 based on molecular analysis.  In its general behavior and long-tailed appearance the Saffron Toucanet seems very much like the Pale-Mandibled Araçaris I watched so many times in northwestern Ecuador, although this toucanet’s uniform yellow coloration is totally unique.  Seeing a bird at a feeder can often cheapen the experience, especially when there are lots of people around, but this encounter was definitely satisfying considering the sheer beauty of the male and the interesting ways in which the family group interacted.  Since I never did get that beer, we left the toucanets to finish their meal in peace while we headed up to the pool to have our own.

Lunch was a fantastic spread of grilled meets, tangy salads, and ice cold beer, and it took a concerted effort for me to head out once more on the Tres Picos Trail in the late afternoon.  Again, the bamboo stands yielded long looks at three specialties: White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner, White-Browed Foliage-Gleaner, and a boldly patterned male White-Bearded Antshrike, definitely one of the best birds I’ve seen in Brazil.  While I scored decent photographs of the White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner, brightening the gloom with my powerful flash, the antshrike remained securely overhead and mostly out of sight except for the occasional glimpse through my binoculars.  At dusk I pushed ahead to where Aimee had maybe seen the Giant Antshirke and played some tape in hope of a response.  While I was met with silence, along the way back I flushed a Collared Forest-Falcon that swooped silently past me to perch briefly still in sight.  With its back to me, it turned its head to watch me move into better position, its unique nape pattern clearly visible.  Originally I had intended to look for Tawny-Browed Owl here this evening, but without mosquito repellant it would have been maddening. 

Our plan on Sunday was to bird the upper portion of the park along the Agulhas Negras Road, but considering the hotel was so comfortable, I decided to let Aimee sleep in while I birded the Tres Picos Trail one last time to look for the Giant Antshrike.  I ticked a number of new birds for the trip, including Rufous-Capped Motmot, Maroon-Bellied Parakeet, White-Barred Piculet, and Rufous Gnateater, but I had neither sight nor sound of the last of the “Big Five.”  At the same spot as the previous evening, just 200 meters from the trailhead, I savored even better looks at the White-Bearded Antshrike as it responded nicely to playback, although not quite nicely enough to afford any photographs.  Compared to the previous morning, my ears were already much more attuned to the birdsong, and I noticed several White-Bibbed Antbird territories closer to the hotel.  Along the road, I also checked out a pair of Surucua Trogons more carefully, noting the male of this subspecies has a yellow instead of red colored belly.  After a few short hours, I returned to the hotel for breakfast, and Aimee and I finally set out towards the town of Itamonte around 9am.

Considering the late hour, we raced up the Agulhas Negras road to the upper sections of the park, where the montane forest becomes more stunted and eventually transitions to high altitude grassland.  We had a quick glimpse of a singing male Black-and-Gold Cotinga in the distance, after stretching our legs in a relatively open area near a large lake, but there was no mixed flock activity around.  Since the skies were still clear, I decided it would be best for us to start birding seriously from the top of the road and to make our way down gradually as the clouds set in.  I stopped the car about a kilometer short of the park entrance, hearing some bird song as we drove past with the windows down.  Indeed, we found a small flock containing both Bay-Chested and Buff-Throated Warbling-Finches as well as an Itatiaia Spinetail deep in cover.  The Bay-Chested Warbling-Finch is a particularly exquisite bird with rich splashes of color on its flanks and breast, making it considerably more attractive than the drabber Cinereous Warbling-Finch found in Central Brazil.  A little high near the park entrance, we had much better looks at the relatively long-tailed Itatiaia Spinetail, its rufous chin patch clearly visible

Visibility dropped dramatically during the next fifteen minutes as the clouds settled in around the mountain peaks, but bird activity ticked way up.  We parked the car in the middle of a big mixed flock on our way down towards the lake, picking up all sorts of goodies at close range, including both warbling-finches again, Velvety Black-Tyrant, a terrific male Diademed Tanager.  Near the lake there is also a large stand of Araucaria trees, where we called in a pair of Araucaria Tit-Spinetails that proceeded to forage busily in the crown of a tall tree nearby.  These unique looking conifers are quite interesting to study, although I understand they are not native to the Itatiaia region itself, but rather further south in Rio Grande do Sul.  More high-pitched whistles broke our concentration on the tit-spinetails.  Although we had seen two Black-and-Gold Cotingas already, they had been nearly 500 meters away, and without having my birding scope handy we were definitely interested in getting better looks.  Trip reports refer to a certain tree in the area bird guides call the Cotinga Tree, and while I can’t say for sure that we found it, I will admit that at one point we witnessed three males singing from one tree just overhead. 

Playback, patience, and a bit of luck will generally deliver any bird, but planning is a critical part of any birding trip.  Getting back into the car with a couple hours left before having to return to São Paulo, I noticed that the empty fuel light was already on.  Although we had nearly half a tank before setting out that morning, we had burned most of it up racing around in the high altitude.  I could only hide the fact from Aimee for so long, and we decided it better to roll back to Via Dutra in neutral than to spend the remaining drops of gasoline chasing birds.  Talk about bad planning.  Although we had bagged a good number of site specialities already, I would have liked to have spent a few more hours searching for Black-Capped Piprites, Variegated Antpitta, Rufous-Tailed Antbird, and Plovercrest, among others.  Eventually, we did make it to a gas station in time, putting over 40 liters of fuel into a 40 liter tank, celebrating with an Itaipava and some pão de queijo at the food court.  Considering the traffic we would face reentering the megacity of São Paulo, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal to leave a few hours early after all.

Notable birds seen: Brown Tinamou, Black Hawk-Eagle, Collared Forest-Falcon, Dusky-Legged Guan, Slaty-Breasted Woodrail, Maroon-Bellied Parakeet, Planalto Hermit, Black Jacobin, Brazilian Ruby, Violet-Capped Woodnymph, Surucua Trogon, Black-Throated Trogon, Rufous-Capped Motmot, Saffron Toucanet, White-Barred Piculet, Yellow-Browed Woodpecker, Plain-Winged Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-Throated Woodcreeper, Scaled Woodcreeper, Black-Billed Scythebill, Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, Itatiaia Spinetail, Rufous-Capped Spinetail, Pallid Spinetail, White-Collared Foliage-Gleaner, Ochre-Breasted Foliage-Gleaner, Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, White-Browed Foliage-Gleaner, Tufted Antshrike, White-Bearded Antshrike, Variable Antshrike, Spot-Breasted Antvireo, Plain Antvireo, Star-Throated Antwren, White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, Ferruginous Antbird, Ochre-Rumped Antbird, White-Bibbed Antbird, Rufous Gnateater, Black-and-Gold Cotinga, Blue Manakin, Gray-Capped Tyrannulet, Yellow Tyrannulet, Gray-Hooded Flycatcher, Cliff Flycatcher, Black-Tailed Flycatcher, White-Throated Spadebill, Velvety Black-Tyrant, Long-Tailed Tyrant, White-Rimmed Warbler, Golden-Crowned Warbler, Rufous-Crowned Greenlet, Red-Rumped Cacique, Golden-Winged Cacique, Black-Goggled Tanager, Rufous-Headed Tanager, Golden-Chevroned Tanager, Ruby-Crowned Tanager, Green-Headed Tanager, Diademed Tanager, Thick-Billed Saltator, Chestnut-Bellied Eupohnia, Bay-Chested Warbling-Finch, Buff-Throated Warbling-Finch.

1 comment:

  1. Hermosa serie de fotos y especies tropicales, muy diferentes de donde vivo, aquí ya se fueron muchas para el norte y llegan las del sur en esta época. Espero este invierno darme una vuelta por el norte de Argentina y sur de Brasil y ver algo parecido a estas especies
    Saludos

    ReplyDelete

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