Araguaia Valley, Tocantins: June 3-7, 2013

According to some accounts, the principal source of the mighty Araguaia River is located in Emas National Park, where it begins a 2600 kilometer journey northwards through Central Brazil before it ultimately joins with the Tocantins River. About midway along, in a particularly flat stretch, the river is bisected by the Ilha do Bananal, the largest fluvial island in the world. The Araguaia National Park and the island itself form a massive natural and cultural reserve, protecting the indigenous people as well as flora and fauna of the region. While it’s well off the beaten birding track, this part of Brazil boasts a handful of endemic bird species, including the spectacular Kaempfer’s Woodpecker, which was only rediscovered in 2006 after being known from just one specimen collected in 1926.

Located in a transition zone between the Cerrado and Amazonia, the avifauna around the town of Lagao da Confusão consists of an interesting mixture of species, including some freshwater wetlands birds usually targeted in the Pantanal, such as the Jabiru Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, and Agami Heron. Much of the rich fluvial land outside the principal reserves has been converted to agricultural use, but there remain ample stands of swampy vegetation and much riverine deciduous forest is still intact. Depending on your attitude towards undescribed species, there are either four or five endemic species to be found: Kaempfer’s Woodpecker, Bananal Antbird, Crimson-Fronted Cardinal, and Araguaia Spinetail, as well as a new Certhiaxis species, similar to the common Yellow-Chinned Spinetail.


Similar to the Pantanal, the best option for visiting the middle Araguaia Valley is to stay at one of the cattle ranches along the river that have been partially converted into pousadas, or inns. While the principal recreational activity is sport fishing, the infrastructure at these pousadas is certainly functional as a base for birding: simply request an early breakfast and substitute binoculars for fishing poles on boat excursions. In particular, Pousada Praia Alta, located 30km from the town of Lagoa da Confusao, is targeting visiting birders, and the son of the owner of the fazenda, Eduardo, knows multiple territories for most of the regional specialties. While not a bird guide of the highest caliber, he has experience organizing small groups as well as working with larger tours from Field Guides over the last three years led by Brett Whitney.

With my time remaining in Brazil fast running out, I weighed my options for a final birding trip.  Should I chase country endemics yet again in the Atlantic Forest, organize an expedition to Eastern Amazonia, or go after the Araripe Manakin and other Caatinga specialties in Northeastern Brazil? Having lived and birded principally in Central Brazil over the last two years, I decided to take a road trip north to the state of Tocantins instead. While I would have the chance to see relatively fewer new species, I would at least be able to hold my head high when considering my commitment to birding the region. Two recent birding trip reports were invaluable in organizing and executing my own visit to Pousada Praia Alta: Bradley Davis’s successful trip with a client in October 2011, and the short but detailed survey by Eduardo’s cousin, who works as a bird guide in the Southern Pantanal.


I took three days off from work adjacent to a weekend in order to have three entire days for birding, the one-way ten-hour drive occupying most of a day on either end. Of course, one could also fly to Palmas and arrange transport with the pousada, a more manageable a three-hour drive, but monetarily I probably broke even driving my own car, a comfortable 4x4 with high clearance. Along the BR-153 highway, I noted a wide variety of wildlife, including several dead Giant and Collared Anteaters along the side of the road, victims of the merciless semi-truck traffic. While keeping an eye on the road, I saw plenty of birds as well, including Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw and several different raptor species, such as White-Tailed Hawk. Having left Brasilia before dawn, I arrived at the pousada with enough time to organize a boat excursion for later that afternoon, a wonderful way to unwind and get introduced to the avifauna of the region.

After I discussed my target species with Eduardo, making it clear birds exactly I was hoping to see, he took me out to a nearby river island, a reliable territory for an undescribed Certhiaxis species. To me the bird looked exactly like the common Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, with perhaps a little less yellow on the chin, although I imagine this characteristic varies significantly among individuals within the same species. The call is perceptibly different though. Around the island I also ticked Glossy and Barred Antshrikes, Gilded Hummingbird, and Pale-Legged Hornero. The river was full of typical species, including Black Skimmer, Large and Yellow-Billed Terns, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Pied Plover, Bare-Faced Ibis.  As dusk approached, new species were noted down by the water’s edge, such as Bare-Faced Currasow, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Green Ibis, and Sunbittern, while Golden-Collared Macaws streamed overhead.

I had asked Eduardo about the possibility of seeing Agami Heron here, but he had demurred, noting that the water was still too high, not yet leaving enough exposed river bank. Still, he swung by a section of the river where he regularly finds the heron in the height of the dry season. Easily enough, there was a dark colored and slender heron sneaking down to the river to feed. Eduardo cut the motor and paddled us in cautiously as the heron waded belly deep into the water to hunt. Creeping steadily downriver, it suddenly squawked and flew up into cover, having surprised another Agami Heron moving in the opposite direction. Having missed this rare and beautiful bird on several trips to both the Amazon and Pantanal over the last two years, I was truly euphoric after this encounter, ruminating with great pleasure over my grainy photographs later that evening.


We decided to visit the same island the following morning, exploring some seasonally flooded riverine forest as well. Before arriving at the island though, we surprised some local fishermen that were illegally using nets instead of fishing poles. We gave chase and confronted them angrily as they attempted to paddle into cover and ditch their boat for the security of the forest. Eduardo decided to contact the authorities from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental federal institute, returning to camp to make calls and organize a search party. Meanwhile, I hung out on the island, locating the new Certhiaxis species without trouble and searching around for other interesting birds. I also kept my eyes on the two fishermen, who stashed their catch and gear, fleeing the scene on foot. With our assistance, the IBAMA inspectors eventually found and seized a huge cooler of fresh fish on ice, but they were unable to locate the principal contraband, that is the net.

Eventually, we moved on to do some more birding, noting four kingfisher species and the spectacular Hoatzin on our way to a small trailhead. In the partially flooded vegetation, I noted Little Cuckoo, Glossy Antshrike, Ashy-Headed Greenlet, White-Fringed Antwren, and Buff-Breasted Wren. A bit of playback aroused a pair of Band-Tailed Antbirds, the male of which became very aggressive while fanning its tail and raising a hidden patch of white feathers on its nape. Lettered Aracari, White-Wedged Piculet, and Rufous-Tailed Jacamar were also present along this short trail that provided access to a small oxbow lake nearby. All the while, Eduardo gave me plenty of space, preferring to show me areas for birding and then backing away and minding his own business. Judging from our conversations, he’s definitely interested in birds and becoming a better birder, but he had forgotten his binoculars in Palmas and was struggling to appreciate the tiny and cryptic antbirds, wrens, and flycatchers we had seen along this stretch.


Before returning to the pousada for lunch, I tried playback for a few species from the comfort of the boat. Rusty-Backed Spinetail was an easy tick, and a magnificent Long-Billed Woodcreeper proved to be just nearby, responding inquisitively to a few whistles in imitation of its haunting call. A pair of American Pygmy Kingfishers was busy fishing from low perches deep in cover, and we occasionally heard a subtle splash as they dove in after their prey. Alongside our boat a river dolphin surfaced for air a few times, offering brief and partial glimpses of this endangered animal. Back at the pousada, I spent a while poking around the grounds ticking a few common species, such as White and Green-Barred Woodpeckers, Orange-Fronted Finch, and Palm Tanager. I spotted an immature Long-Billed Starthroat perched in a tree and watched in fascination as dozens of Blue Ground Doves collected on the tall sandbar across the river – hence, Pousada Praia Alta – where someone had spread grain, presumably to attract wildlife.

Later in the afternoon, we briefly birded a road adjacent to the river to try for Araguaia Spinetail but got no response from playback. A midsized hermit then swooped in to investigate us, fitting the description of the Maranhao Hermit, another country regional endemic. After picking up a few new birds, such as Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycathcer and Great Antshrike, we moved on to a neighboring farm, heading towards a patch of remaining swampy forest where Eduardo had had success locating the Bananal Antbird. From what I observed at several farms during the trip, the individual soy and rice fields in this region are separated by an elevated grid of roads and irrigation canals, which are mostly still lined with native vegetation. This absence of clear cutting, combined with the presence of some original stands of swamp forest, sustains a healthy population of birds and mammals. For example, we saw dozens of Marsh Deer grazing in the fields and large groups of waders and ducks gathered at small pools, including Horned Screamer and Orinoco Duck. According to Bradley Davis’s trip report, in the right season this is perfect habitat for migrating seedeaters as well (in October 2011, he recorded Marsh, Dark-Throated, Rufous-Rumped, and Chestnut Seedeaters, as well as more common species).


Although we struck out on the endemic antbird and didn’t really have a chance to see anything new, I definitely enjoyed this type of birding, and we lingered after sunset to look for mammals and nightjars. We saw dozens of Pauraque on the road, and a curious Crab-Eating Fox approached the car within a few meters. Streams of bats and nighthawks were feeding over the irrigation canals, but it was difficult for me to identify them. One was particularly light colored, and I wondered whether it might be a Sand-Colored Nighthawk, but without another experienced birder present, I was doubtful. Back at the pousada we looked around the grain silo for the resident pair of Barn Owls, but apparently it was still too early. After a few beers and another hearty meal of grilled meat and fish, I crashed in my room for the night. Eduardo mentioned the following day that the owls were flying around the pousada shortly after I went to bed.

We were back at the same patch of swamp forest early the following morning, where two male Bananal Antbirds responded immediately to playback. While the male is equal in appearance to the Mato Grosso Antbird, their calls are certainly different; on the other hand, the females are unique, but female antbirds don’t typically respond to playback in the same territorial manner as males. Although this patch of forest looked promising, there was no other sign of bird activity here, so we continued along the end of the road towards the mighty Rio Araguaia. The ferry is no longer in operation, as the indigenous community on Ilha do Bananal has shut off access to visitors, and so we admired the island from afar. There’s another large farm at the end of the road, where Eduardo has seen Crimson-Fronted Cardinal and regularly records Orinoco Goose.

The narrow strip of vegetation along an irrigation canal that Eduardo pointed out didn’t look very promising, especially with a propeller plane buzzing overhead and spraying pesticides over the soy field; however, it only took a few minutes for us to locate a pair of Crimson-Fronted Cardinals. There was nowhere for them to go, and I was able to track them up and down the canal for thirty minutes, never succeeding in obtaining good photographs, but enjoying their company nevertheless. I also kicked up a pair of Long-Tailed Ground Doves, my fourth lifer of the morning. In the afternoon, we set out again in search of the Araguaia Spinetail, visiting a variety of sights along the river with the appropriate habitat of dense, dry scrub. At one point, we came across a Brazilian Tapir swimming across the river, which abruptly turned around and charged away into the riverine vegetation. We only managed a brief, distant reply from the spinetail and dusk, but resolved to return to the same sight the following day.


Our target bird on my final full day was Kaempfer’s Woodpecker. After much searching, Eduardo’s cousin had discovered a territory at a farm just outside of Lagoa da Confusao. Apparently, the woodpecker’s habitat is gallery or deciduous forest with a bamboo understory, and sure enough the forest along the entrance road to this particular farm revealed a few patches of bamboo. Unfortunately, the owners of the farm had just cleared and burned a hundred meter strip of the forest, exactly where the woodpeckers had first been sighted several years ago. To make matters worse, there was a sizable charcoal production operation eating away at the forest from the opposite side. Despite the obvious habitat destruction going on right before our eyes – the sound of chainsaws and the smell of burning wood were overpowering – we heard a woodpecker vocalizing as soon as we exited the car. Playback yielded a few flyovers and eventually a three-second glimpse of a gorgeous male before the pair fled the scene.


After birding a short track and picking up a few new more species for the trip, including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, and White-Flanked Antwren, we returned to try for the woodpecker again. I even returned the follow morning before I drove back to Brasilia, but got nothing in response to playback. Eduardo had put it bluntly: “dias contados.” Indeed, the woodpecker’s days are numbered at this particular site, although photographic records from Wiki Aves show the bird has many known territories in the region. No doubt Eduardo and his cousin will find another appropriate site. Our last excursion later that afternoon finally yielded my last target bird, the Araguaia Spinetail, and we also spotted another Agami Heron hunting on an open beach after sunset. Having seen all my target birds, I opted for an early return the following morning, very pleased with both the birds and the company I found at Pousada Praia Alta.

Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Undulated Tinamou, Bare-Faced Curassow, Hoatzin, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Horned Screamer, Muscovy Duck, White-Faced Whistling Duck, Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Orinoco Goose, Brazilian Teal, Striated Heron, Black-Crowned Night Heron, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Agami Heron, Cocoi Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Buff-Necked Ibis, Green Ibis, Bare-Faced Ibis, Limpkin, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Maguari Stork, Jabiru, Osprey, Snail Kite, Black-Collared Kite, White-Tailed Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Grey-Necked Wood Rail, Giant Wood Rail, Sunbittern, Wattled Jacana, Pied Plover, Black-Necked Stilt, Yellow-Billed Tern, Large-Billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Pale-Vented Pigeon, Long-Tailed Ground Dove, Scaled Dove, Blue Ground Dove, Gray-Fronted Dove, Golden-Collared Macaw, Yellow-Chevroned Parakeet, Orange-Winged Amazon, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Little Cuckoo, Greater Ani, Guira Cuckoo, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Burrowing Owl, Band-Tailed Nighthawk, Pauraque, Ashy-Tailed Swift, Maranhao Hermit, Swallow-Tailed Hummingbird, Gilded Sapphire, Glittering-Throated Emerald, White-Tailed Goldenthroat, Long-Billed Starthroat, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, Ringed Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Rufous-Tailed Jacamar, Swallow-Winged Puffbird, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Lettered Araçari, Channel-Billed Toucan, Toco Toucan, Green-Barred Woodpecker, White-Wedged Piculet, White Woodpecker, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, Kaempfer’s Woodpecker, Blond-Crested Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Long-Billed Woodcreeper, Band-Tailed Hornero, Pale-Legged Hornero, Araguaia Spinetail, new Certhiaxis spinetail, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Rusty-Backed Spinetail, Greater Thornbird, Glossy Antshrike, Great Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, Black-Capped Antwren, White-Flanked Antwren, Band-Tailed Antbird, Southern White-Fringed Antwren, Bananal Antbird, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Black-Backed Water Tyrant, White-Headed Marsh Tyrant, Rusty-Margined Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, White-Rumped Monjita, Short-Crested Flycatcher, Black-Tailed Tityra, Curl-Crested Jay, Brown-Chested Martin, White-Winged Swallow, Chalk-Browed Mockingbird, Black-Capped Donacobius, Buff-Breasted Wren, Yellowish Pipit, Masked Gnatcatcher, Ashy-Headed Greenlet, Orange-Headed Tanager, Purple-Throated Euphonia, Palm Tanager, Hooded Tanager, Bananaquit, Chestnut-Vented Conebill, Silver-Beaked Tanager, White-Lined Tanager, Crimson-Fronted Cardinal, Grayish Saltator, Double-Collared Seedeater, Yellow-Browed Sparrow, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Orange-Fronted Yellow-Finch, Chopi Blackbird, Chestnut-Capped Blackbird, Yellow-Rumped Cacique.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot Derek to give to anyone so beautiful informations and fotos of super high quality. You will be a guide for us, birding full time around the world, these years in South America.
    Claude Marie-Jo

    ReplyDelete

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