Emas National Park, Goiás: April 27-May1, 2013

Taking a road trip to Emas National Park was always a sure thing for us, ever since I learned we would be moving to Brasília and subsequently purchased the Birds of Central Brazil field guide by Ridgely and Tudor. As it’s the largest protected grasslands in the country, a visit to other famed Cerrado reserves, such as Chapada dos Veadeiros, Serra da Canastra, and Chapada da Diamantina, would only serve as a prelude, I imagined. At well over 1000 square kilometers of rolling grassy fields and patches of swamp forest, the park is home to a variety of large mammals, including Jaguar, Maned Wolf, Brazilian Tapir, and Giant Anteater, and it also shelters a number of threatened bird species, including the recently rediscovered Cone-Billed Tanager. But while the promise of Emas is indeed great, we found the bounty of the site highly dependent on season and luck, and access tightly controlled by the inclinations of our guide.

The dry season in Central Brazil stretches from May through October when humidity levels can plunge to single digits. The luxuriant grassy fields are baked to a crisp, and sweeping fires are ignited by occasional lightening or for agriculture and cattle ranching purposes. In fact, almost the entire park was wiped out by fire in 2010, decimating the once thriving Giant Anteater population. These burned areas are excellent places to find terrestrial birds that normally secret themselves away deep in the tall grass, including Ocellated Crake and Lesser Nothura, but they have also become stages for adaptation, as Coal-Crested Finch, Campo Miner, and White-Winged Nightjar have all evolved to utilize recently burned areas for different biological purposes. Towards the end of the dry season, diverse flocks of migratory seedeaters in breeding plumage surge through the park, including rarities such as Rufous-Rumped, Chestnut, Dark-Throated, and Black-Bellied Seedeaters. 

While September might be the ideal time to visit with respect to birding, at the start of the rains in November and December, the ubiquitous termite mounds exhibit an eerie luminescence at night as beetle larvae feed on termites attracted by the softly glowing light. During the rainy season itself, some of the park’s roads become impassible or restricted to 4x4 vehicles, but a visit during this time of the year, from December to April, is still feasible, and there are plenty of resident bird species to admire. Our guide also suggested that there are times of year in which the chances are greater to encounter the park’s principle animal attraction, the Maned Wolf, indicating that the beginning of the dry season was one of those times, coinciding with the end of its mating season. Considering we spent three full days driving through park and encountered only one Maned Wolf by chance, I would recommend a visit to Santuario do Caraça in Minas Gerais instead if you simply had to see one.

Aimee and I arrived in Brazil in November 2011, and during the following year we took a wildly successful trip to the Pantanal. Now with our departure date looming in just a few months, we decided to make the best of it and visit the park out of prime birding season, even if the chances were slim for the major avian targets: Cone-Billed Tanager, White-Winged Nightjar, and the above mentioned migratory seedeaters. We took a few days off from work, bridging a weekend together with a midweek Brazilian holiday to create a five-day window.  Without a doubt the park is only infrequently visited because of its considerable distance from any major city with an airport; arriving from either Cuiabá or Brasília necessitates over 8 hours of driving. At least the roads were in good shape, with the only incident of note being an encounter with a dead Giant Anteater, a heaping mess of long appendages and fur on the side of the road.

Before arriving at the park we stopped in the city of Mineiros to pick up André Luis de Oliveira, who would be our guide (if it wasn’t already apparent, significant excursions into the park are only permitted in the company of a local guide). Fabiano Oliveira, an accomplished bird guide from Mato Grosso, had originally put me in touch with both André and the owner of the pousada where we stayed, the simple but peaceful Pousada Recanto das Emas. This pousada was a particularly excellent tip, as it’s both economical and located relatively close to the southern park entrance, saving us the extra hour of driving every day necessitated by staying at a hotel in the town of Chapadão do Céu. Although I didn’t understand it when I was planning the trip, the earnest André would actually accompany us the entire time, staying at the pousada and taking all of our meals with us, a dynamic that began to wear on our nerves a bit, if only because Aimee and I can barely tolerate each other after an entire day of driving together around in the car parsing drab tyrant flycatchers.

In the late afternoon, we entered the northern entrance of the park, which is flanked by oversize sculptures of the park’s wildlife attractions, including two shiny metallic Greater Rheas as well as a lifelike Maned Wolf, Giant Anteater, and Pampas Deer.  The plan was to slowly wind our way to the southern entrance of the park, spotlighting for nocturnal mammals and birds along the way. From the start we encountered some good birds, hearing Rufous-Sided Pygmy-Tyrant and Black-Masked Finch and seeing Yellow-Faced Parrot and White-Tailed Goldenthroat.  As dusk fell, we registered three different Short-Eared Owls perched on the top of distant trees, all taking off in looping flight as we approached by car.  We then stopped several times in the dark to inspect roadside termite mounds for luminescence, which has been recorded at other times of year besides the beginning of the rainy season, but didn’t witness the phenomenon for ourselves.  Scattering dozens of Burrowing Owls on the road, we only managed to record several Crab-Eating Foxes during the rest of the drive.

Before entering the park the following morning, we stopped at dawn near a swampy forested area near the pousada. It’s worth imagining for a minute how the original landscape has been dramatically altered outside the park: the endless grasslands have been burnt and plowed into equally expansive fields of cotton, corn, and soy, while many of the swamp forests have been chopped down and planted with sugar cane.  A few of these, as well as narrow corridors of gallery forest, remain and appear as exotic islands in a sea of monoculture. Blue-and-Yellow Macaws boomed from the nearby forest, as we searched the marsh for signs of the rare Pinnated Bittern, picking up Lesser Grassfinch, Rufescent Tiger Heron, and the first of many, many Plumbeous Seedeaters for our troubles. Continuing towards the park entrance, we stopped to gawk at a recently planted field littered with Greater Rhea, Red-Legged Seriema, and Pampas Deer as if it were a petting zoo.

There is a wide variety of Cerrado habitat to be found within the park, each harboring specialized bird species: grassy fields nearly without bushes or trees are referred to as campo limpo; areas with bushes and trees but no grass are known simply as cerrado; and a mixture of grass and bushes and trees is called campo sujo.  When cerrado goes undamaged by fire, it can grow tall depending on soil quality and form a continuous canopy, creating dry forest known as cerradão. Mata ciliar or mata de galeria is verdant humid forest that flanks waterways or clusters in poorly drained areas; these areas can also produce dense stands of buriti palms, where the highly adapted Point-Tailed Palmcreeper dwells. There are a few pools located along the different rivers originating in the park, but we didn’t visit any large lagoons, if there even are any within the park (park maps don’t reveal any). Any decent local guide should help you access all of the different Cerrado habitats found within the park.

After enjoying a few common species at the park entrance, including Toco Toucan, Red-Shouldered Macaw, and White Woodpecker, we stopped several times along the road to the park headquarters, scoring Coal-Crested Finch, Collared Crescentchest, White-Eared Puffbird, and Shrike-Like Tanager in the campo sujo.  We parked briefly to explore the forest near the headquarters, where we found a family group of Bare-Faced Curassows, as well as huge flocks of Chopi Blackbirds and Curl-Crested Jays mobbing a birdfeed table. Striking out on Planalto and Henna-Hooded Foliage-Gleaner, birds I’ve seen quite a few times in protected areas around Brasília, we headed out to a campo limpo area in search of some of my targets: Lesser Nothura, Ocellated Crake, Bearded Tachuri, and Long-Winged Harrier. The wide open area was stacked high with termite mounds, some twice as tall as Aimee, and subtle wildflowers brought some visual relief to the overwhelming green grass, red earth, and blue sky.

We had a few responses to playback of Ocellated Crake, but there’s a good reason why this bird is known in Portuguese as o Fantasma do Cerrado, or the Ghost of the Cerrado. Most records take place in recently burned areas or in instances where the bird is lured into a vegetation gap or perhaps across a road with playback. André didn’t really have a plan for getting us onto the bird (I’ve seen guides clear grass and stash the iPod and speaker across a gap), but he was certainly familiar with the species and persistent with playback, much to Aimee’s chagrin. Meanwhile, we scanned the hillsides fruitlessly for signs of Giant Anteater or Long-Winged Harrier.  Moving on, we found a sizable flock of small passerines, including Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, and Plumbeous Seedeater. A Black-Masked Finch popped up from the grass attracted by the commotion, as well as several Grass Wrens.  Eventually, we heard a family group of Sharp-Tailed Grass-Tyrants nearby, with which a solitary Bearded Tachuri is sometimes loosely associated, André explained.

We returned to the pousada for a big lunch, heading back out after a short rest around 2pm. The plan was to visit a distant patch of mata ciliar, one of three sites where André has seen the Cone-Billed Tanager; however, we were quickly sidetracked as he spotted a dark figure on the road ahead, a Maned Wolf. We stopped the car and let it approach warily on impossibly long and wobbly looking legs. Of course, the wolf isn’t actually awkward, but rather perfectly adapted to stalk prey in the tall grasslands of the region, and I’ve seen amazing videos of one bounding through grass in pursuit of a tinamou. We were able to track the wolf a bit after getting out of the car, eventually loosing sight of it as it moved off the road and deep into the campo sujo. Moments like these are pretty rare on safari, and Aimee and I have learned to accept them with a zen-like attitude, remaining focused but avoiding emotional highs. André was all high fives though, and he definitely had a better sense of just how unlikely an encounter this was.

It was a long drive to the Cone-Billed Tanager site, although we saw a few Red-Legged Seriemas along the road, stunned by their stupidity as they preferred to sprint in front of the car for many kilometers instead of fleeing to the side for safety.  Give the time of day, the forest patch was unsurprisingly dead quite and no Cone-Billed Tanagers were seen despite the best efforts of our guide’s iPod. André pointed out that this not the right time of year for males to be singing in demarcation of their territory, but that he has seen pairs come in silently to investigate playback throughout the year. Heading back towards the southern entrance gate, we stopped briefly at a viewpoint to tick Chapada Suiriri, and then at dusk we encountered a Brazilian Tapir on the road. This massive and docile creature creates a sizable roadblock, and we stopped for a few minutes in silence to marvel before it stalked off into the grass. There is an old airstrip near the park headquarters where we had looked for White-Winged Nightjar the night before, driving at a snail’s pace and spotlighting the ground and bushes to the side. Finally, we saw a male in flight, clearly very light in color, but not what I would call very satisfying views.

We started off our second full day at another marsh outside of the park, this one located off the road towards Chapadão do Céu. André explained this was a good spot for Giant Anteater as well as migratory seedeaters, and we did find a good size flock of them, containing Plumbeous, Capped, and Double-Collared Seedeaters.  Other noteworthy observations here included Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, Yellow-Rumped Marhsbird, and Green Ibis. On the return drive, we were impressed by the quantity of parrots and macaws feeding along the roadside in fruiting trees that were planted by farmers to distract the hoards of White-Lipped Peccaries from decimating their crops. Blue-and-Yellow and Red-Shouldered Macaws, Yellow-Faced and Turquoise-Fronted Parrots, and Peach-Fronted and White-Eyed Parakeets were all feasting on berries and seeds, their naturally occurring populations no doubt inflated by this abundant food source.  Throughout our trip we couldn’t help but notice that the most abundant wildlife was definitely found along the park boundaries.

Back inside the park, we visited another Cone-Billed Tanager site, Lagoa da Capivara, a short drive from the park entrance. Along the road, we dug up Rusty-Backed Antwren, White-Rumped Tanager, and Pale-Breasted Spinetail. Considering it was relatively early in the day, I felt this was our best chance so far to bag Cone-Billed Tanager, but down near the river we again provoked no discernable response by using playback. A pair of White-Striped Warblers, a more widespread inhabitant of swamp forest, came down to the water’s edge, and we also spied several female Helmeted Manakins, but saw little else of note. In addition to housing a mating pair of Cone-Billed Tanager, this site has several records of Crowned Eagle as well as Great-Billed Seedfinch, although both are still encountered only very rarely. Before heading back for lunch, we visited some nearby campo limpo in search of Ocellated Crake, Lesser Nothura, and Beareded Tachuri, but again lots of playback resulted in little. Worried that Aimee was getting bored, I opted for a 3pm start later that afternoon.

Returning to the same campo limpo area late in the afternoon, we stopped the car short of a giant rattlesnake that was as thick as my thigh in the middle.  After it slithered into the grass, we were enjoying a Grass Wren while André was playing tape for Bearded Tachuri as there was a group of Sharp-Tailed Tyrants vocalizing nearby. Finally, the tachuri darted in, a tiny, delicate flycatcher distinctive for the male’s dark-spotted facial mask. This particular tachuri had more of a five o’clock shadow than a full beard, but we considered the find a big success nevertheless. I nearly walked away from the encounter with some outstanding photographs but could never manage a viewing window completely clear of the tall grass swaying in the wind, which was an obstacle that plagued my photography throughout the trip but definitely added to the romantic ambiance of the park. After dark, we had another quick glimpse of a White-Winged Nightjar in flight, this time a female, as well as a pair of the endemic Hoary Fox on the road. While leaving the entrance gate, we then stumbled into a pack of thirty to forty White-Lipped Peccaries, an unsettling sight.

On our final day, we started off at the third and final Cone-Billed Tanager territory, this one situated in the forest near the bridge across the scenic Rio Formosa. There’s a decrepit boardwalk trail that passes into the forest and then around towards the back, along which we stopped many times to play tape. Noteworthy observations here included a pair of Bat Falcons, a Crane Hawk, and a lovely Gilded Sapphire, a distinctive hummingbird with a copper colored tail. André pointed out that the bamboo in the understory of the forest patch had died recently and explained that the Cone-Billed Tanager has shown a marked preference for such habitat.  Perhaps that’s why we hadn’t found the tanager yet, or perhaps we were simply searching for it in the wrong season when it’s quiet and unresponsive. Still, it was another beautiful cloudless day in Emas National Park, and there were plenty of other birds to seek out in its windy and wild grassy expanses.

There’s another pousada in construction near the southern entrance of the park that will soon have private access, albeit informally. Far back in a corn field someone had cut through the barbed wire fence that borders the park, and we slipped in here whenever the entrance gate was locked and the park guards were away. This southwestern section of the park was good for humid campo limpo and we found a large seedeater flock, including many Cock-Tailed Tyrants but no Marsh Seedeaters. Standing sentinel on a fence post in the distance was a magnificent Long-Winged Harrier, which allowed us close approach in the car. This trip did not yield many lifers for me, but the harrier was definitely one of them, as I’ve yet to seriously bird the pampas region of southern South America. We also heard several Ocellated Crakes vocalizing in the luxuriant grass, but were hopeless in the attempt to actually see one.  Final highlights that evening included an ethereal pair of Barn Owl seen well along the roadside in the moonlight.

Our trip to Emas National Park certainly didn’t disappoint, but it was a bit anticlimactic for me having lived in Central Brazil for almost two years and spent a great deal of time birding in the region already. Both Aimee and I would have much preferred exploring the park on our own; with a map, our 4x4, and my knowledge of habitat and calls, we would have easily found the same number of species, perhaps even more considering how much less time we would have spent driving around between territories and resorting fruitlessly to playback. Still, those our the rules of the park, and André was simply being attentive to the list of target species that I had sent him in advance. With six new birds to add to my country list, as well a magnificent encounter with the Maned Wolf, I can’t help but feel the trip was worthwhile, even if my trip to Serra da Canastra, for example, was more inspiring. With trips to the Pantanal and Araguaia Regions coming up, I’ll soon be rounding up my time birding Central Brazil.

Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Red-Winged Tinamou, Bare-Faced Curassow, Muscovy Duck, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Whistling Heron, Buff-Necked Ibis, Green Ibis, White-Tailed Kite, Snail Kite, Roadside Hawk, Short-Tailed Hawk, Long-Winged Harrier, Crane Hawk, White-Tailed Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Aplomado Falcon, Red-Bellied Macaw, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Red-Shouldered Macaw, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Short-Eared Owl, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Common Potoo, Paraque, White-Winged Nightjar, Swallow-Tailed Hummingbird, White-Vented Violetear, Gilded Sapphire, White-Tailed Goldenthroat, Fork-Tailed Woodnymph, White-Eared Puffbird, Toco Toucan, White Woodpecker, Campo Flicker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Rusty-Backed Antwren, Collared Crescentchest, Chapada Suiriri, Plain-Crested Elaenia, Sooty Tyrannulet, Sharp-Tailed Grass Tyrant, Bearded Tachuri, Vermillion Flycatcher, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Helmeted Manakin, Curl-Crested Jay, Tawny-Headed Swallow, Grass Wren, Masked Gnatcatcher, White-Striped Warbler, Flavescent Warbler, Burnished-Buff Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Plumbeous Seedeater, Double-Collared Seedeater, Capped Seedeater, Black-Masked Finch, Coal-Crested Finch, Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Lesser Grassfinch, Yellow-Rumped Marshbird, White-Browed Blackbird.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog. Do you organize bird watching tours here in Brasília?


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