Chapada dos Veadeiros, Goiás: May 19, 2013

I’ve made a point to bird a new site each time I visit Chapada dos Veadeiros, an expansive region of rocky hills, grassy plains, and deciduous and riverine forest located just a few hours’ drive from Brasilia. Access to the national park of the same name is through the town of Sao Jorge but is limited to narrow hours and requires the company of a guide; however, good Cerrado habitat can still be found along most roadsides, and there is also a number of private reserves offering less restricted access for birders who want to take advantage of the early morning hours. The region is known for being one of the last strongholds of the critically endangered Brazilian Merganser, and on Sunday I planned to visit a complex of waterfalls, as Cataratas do Rio dos Couros, an where it is occasionally seen.

Shortly after dawn I broke up the drive with a few hours of birding at one of my favorite private reserves in the area, Pousada dos Anoes. Much like being on safari in East Africa, here you can drive a narrow dirt track through a variety of habitats, passing several small reservoirs and ultimately reaching a lookout with beautiful 360-degree views. Upon entering, I headed straight for the campo limpo section, where I quickly found a trio of Cerrado specialties: Shrike-Like Tanager, Black-Masked Finch, and Sharp-Tailed Grass-Tyrant. The deciduous forest nearby was unusually quiet, so I moved on to a more humid patch of forest, where I noted Saffron-Billed Sparrow, Hooded Tanager, and Black-Capped Antwren. With the morning bird activity tapering off around 10am, I decided to move on.

The dirt road to Rio dos Couros branches off from the GO-118 highway connecting Brasilia with Alto Paraiso just a few kilometers past Pousada dos Anoes. I’ve actually tried to reach the waterfall site once before, but a critical bridge was in disrepair, and the detour involved a complicated series of unsigned turns. Currently, it’s a straight 30km shot that crosses several bridges and passes through areas of undisturbed habitat, finally reaching a signed turnoff to the right. From here the road steepens and worsens in quality, necessitating a car with good clearance, if not a 4x4. It also forks several times, but you should arrive at the parking area if you always stay to the left. I ended up wandering for quite a while but picked up some excellent birds, including the endemic Chapada Suiriri, or Chapada Flycatcher, distinguishable from the more common Campo Suiriri mostly by its call and display.

Arriving at the parking area at midday, I was relieved to see only a few other cars present. Considering its beauty and natural attractions, Chapada dos Veadeiros can get crowded on weekends and holidays, especially at waterfalls that offer opportunities for swimming and diving. I spent an hour hiking up and down the bank of the crystalline Rio dos Couros, which flows down a series of small natural terraces, forming a long and dense network of pools and rocky islands, perfect habitat for the Brazilian Merganser. While I struck out on the target bird, I enjoyed stretching my legs and taking in the surrounding landscape that seemed to resonate under the endless blue sky. Indeed, for mystics and hippies, Chapada dos Veadeiros is considered to be a natural vortex of cosmic energy, owing to its ancient crystal rock formations.

Heading back in the early afternoon, I stopped along the road, where on my right was an area that was burned a few months ago, and on my left an area of campo sujo, or mixture of grassy fields and bushes and trees. Here, three Horned Sungems were battling it out over a territory of yellow and red flowers, and I was able to approach one within a few meters, as it kept returning to the same perch after each confrontation. One of the flagship birds of the Cerrado, this hummingbird is somewhat erratic and can be quite difficult to find and even then is typically only seen in flight. Seen at just the right angle, which is not quite captured in this photograph, the male is spectacular in appearance with its two rainbow-colored crests looking like horns when raised in moments of aggression.

Returning to the car, I flushed a flock of small birds up from the ground in the regenerating area, and a quick glance through my binoculars revealed the dandy Coal-Crested Finch. Another erratic Cerrado specialty, this finch has adapted to the cycle of natural and anthropogenic fires that sweep through Central Brazil, and it is frequently seen in recently burned areas feeding on seeds that have opened in the searing heat. There were nearly fifteen birds in this flock, and I tracked them for nearly an hour in search of the perfect photograph, which never quite materialized. I’ve definitely gotten better at stalking birds, but my telephoto lens is on its last legs, and I’ve been seriously considering making the jump to a prime lens. Driving slowly, I picked up a few more birds on my way back to the highway, reflecting on the way home how it had taken me just one day to see a half dozen Cerrado specialties that took me over six months to find after arriving in Brazil.

Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Spotted Nothura, Pied-Billed Grebe, Buff-Necked Ibis, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Swallow-Tailed Hummingbird, White-Vented Violetear, Horned Sungem, Fork-Tailed Woodnymph, Amethyst Woodstar, Toco Toucan, Campo Flicker, Pale-Breasted Spinetail, Rufous-Fronted Thornbird, Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Black-Capped Antshrike, Chapada Suiriri, Highland Elaenia, Sepia Capped Flycatcher, Sharp-Tailed Grass-Tyrant, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Pale-Bellied Tyrant-Manakin, Helmeted Manakin, Curl-Crested Jay, Buff-Breasted Wren, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Flavescent Warbler, Burnished-Buff Tanager, Hooded Tanager, Shrike-Like Tanager, White-Rumped Tanager, Green-Winged Tanager, Black-Throated Saltator, Plumbeous Seedeater, Black-Masked Finch, Coal-Crested Finch, Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Saffron-Billed Sparrow.

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