My Top Ten Birds Seen in Brazil

The list filled up quickly when I picked my personal top ten birds of Brazil. While my country list is relatively short, I’ve lived here for two years and taken the opportunity to make several trips to each major biome, seeing my principal target species more often than not. Most of the species below should come as no surprise then, but I also wanted the list to represent a variety of bird families and geographical regions. Of course, the quality of the encounter matters, too – long, close looks at a relatively common bird are generally worth more than a flyover of a rare one.

Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyja: Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso

The Harpy Eagle must be the most sought after bird of the neotropics. Sightings are rare, as mating pairs have enormous territories and are sit and wait hunters, never soaring over the forest canopy. When they are seen, they’re typically spotted from canopy towers, and occasionally you’ll meet someone with an incredible story of having surprised one on the forest floor, tearing into its prey. By far the best bet for seeing a Harpy Eagle is to visit an active nest, a half dozen of which are monitored in Brazil. Aimee and I visited two different nesting sites in Mato Grosso, spending long hours marveling over these magnificent eagles in the scope while witnessing a wide variety of behavior, including an adult female feeding an eaglet.

Agami Heron, Agamia agami: Lagoa da Confusão, Tocantins

Rare, shy, and nocturnal to boot, the Agami Heron is another very difficult bird to find. You can spend long hours drifting in a dugout canoe in the Amazon, staring intently into dense, swampy vegetation without seeing one. Part of the difficulty is due to their dark coloration, a rich blend of maroon, green, and blue hues. But when you finally do spot one, with its rapier-like bill protruding impressively from the shadows, it will often tolerate a close approach. While I had seen this heron on a few occasions in Ecuador, I was hoping for classic views of the bird out in the open during the dry season in the Pantanal; however, it wasn’t until one of my last trips, this time to the middle Araguaia Valley, that I finally had the encounter for which I was hoping.

Hyacinth Macaw, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus: Pantanal, Mato Grosso

Happily, the world’s largest parrot species is also one of the easier ticks in the Pantanal, with most visitors spotting the Hyacinth Macaw on their first day in the region. Thanks to conservation efforts and cooperation from cattle ranchers, a bird that was once faced with extinction has rebounded nicely here, although it is generally absent from the rest of Central Brazil. Regardless of which pousada you choose to visit in the Pantanal, there were no doubt be a few Hyacinth Macaws swooping spectacularly about the farm, perhaps even nesting in one of the manduvi trees, whether in a natural cavity or a nest box.

Capuchinbird, Perissocephalus tricolor: Serra do Navio, Amapá

Anyone who has seen David Attenborough’s documentary “The Life of Birds” has no doubt been captivated by the scene of lekking Capuchinbirds, shot precariously from the canopy of the rainforest. In it, dozens of males are filmed in display, emitting their strange mooing calls forty meters above the forest floor while their bodies contort with the effort. While almost all cotinga species involve the spectacle of the male, the Capuchinbird is unique in its bizarreness. My first encounter with the species in the northern Amazon was a classic one, as I tracked down a lekking site at Serra do Navio near the border with French Guiana. While I only glimpsed a few skittish males from below as they bellowed from the canopy, I was rewarded with much better looks at several individuals feeding with mixed flocks in terra firma forest near Presidente Figueiredo, where I took this photograph.

Collared Puffbird, Bucco capensis: Cristalino Lodge, Mato Grosso

More of a personal choice than a recognized top-ten bird of Brazil, the Collared Puffbird became something of a nemesis bird for me as a I visited the Amazon repeatedly, first in Ecuador and Peru, and then in Brazil. While not terribly rare, the puffbird is another sit and wait species typically only noticed when calling at dawn or dusk. Even then it can be difficult to spot, as it perches motionless in tangles of lianas and vines. Having come close on my own, I didn’t finally see the bird until the final moments of our trip to Cristalino Lodge, when our guide Jorge first heard it calling while we were still in the canopy tower. Racing down the stairs and across the forest floor, we searched in vain as the clock ticked away. Just before we had to turn back to catch our departing boat, Aimee pointed it out perched exquisitely in the understory.

Ferruginous-Backed Antbird, Myrmeciza ferruginea: Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas

Another species I had seen before moving to Brazil, the Ferruginous-Backed Antbird is still one of my all-time favorite birds. Terrestrial and territorial, this classic antbird responded innocently to the masterful use of playback by Mario Cohn-Haft, whom I had the pleasure of birding with on my visit to the famous INPA observation tower outside of Manaus. Coming right up to us, within a meter of our boots, this male paraded back and forth across a fallen tree, calling proudly as it surveyed the scene. After Mario gave me the thumbs up, I briefly illuminated the dark forest floor to capture this photograph.

Swallow-Tailed Cotinga, Phibalura flavirostris: Intervales State Park, São Paulo

Strange and strikingly patterned, the Swallow-Tailed Cotinga is one of the flagship birds of Southeastern Brazil. After spotting a few of them along the forest edge at Santuario da Caraca in Minas Gerais, I got a much better look at three nesting birds at Intervales State Park. Apparently the species can tolerate degraded habitats, as all three nests were in decorative bushes near small buildings at the park headquarters. The photograph doesn’t do the bird justice, as it’s one of the most unique in all of South America.

Blue Finch, Porphyrospiza caerulescens: Cristalino, Goiás

Another personal favorite but unlikely a top ten target on any visitor’s list, the electric Blue Finch is a burst of color and sound in the rocky savannas of Central Brazil. It took me nearly six months to finally catch one singing at Serra do Cipo, but once I became familiar with its preferred habitat, I was successful on many occasions stirring the bird into action using playback, including at several sites near Brasilia. On this particular occasion, a male popped up from the ground without provocation, as I birded one of the trails in a private reserve called Linda Serra dos Topazios.

Brazilian Merganser, Mergus octosetaceus: Serra da Canastra, Minas Gerais

The critically endangered Brazilian Merganser remains at very few sites in Central Brazil. Inhabiting the rocky, crystalline streams of Serra da Canastra, Chapada dos Veadeiros, and only a few other sites, the Pato-Mergulhao, or diving duck, is definitely one of the most sought-after birds in Brazil. Amazingly, I spotted a solitary male on my first day at Serra da Canastra, but haven’t seen one since, despite many long hours of scanning. Recent records in the Chapada dos Veadeiros are from Catarata do Rio dos Couros and within the national park itself, a six-hour hike from the town of Sao Jorge.

Long-Trained Nightjar, Macropsalis creagra: Intervales State Park, São Paulo

While theoretically I would like to see more owls and nightjars, I don’t enjoy the practice of using playback in the forest in the middle of the night. My most meaningful encounters with nocturnal birds have always been fortuitous, surprising birds from the car or while on foot coming back from a long day’s birding. This spectacular male Long-Trained Nightjar jolted me awake at the end of a midnight drive from Sao Paulo to Intervales State Park. While not Brazil’s rarest nocturnal bird, this encounter certainly eclipses my unsatisfying looks at the White-Winged Nightjar in Emas National Park.

Honorable Mention: Red-Legged Sereima, Sunbittern, Crested Eagle, King Vulture, Horned Sungem, Crimson Topaz, Festive Coquette, Pavonine Cuckoo, Curl-Crested Aracari, Saffron Toucanet, Striolated Puffbird, Kaempfer’s Woodpecker, Cipó Canastero, Slender Antbird, Banded Antbird, Bare-Eyed Antbird, Black-Spotted Bare-Eye, White-Bearded Antshrike, Collared Crescentchest, Blue Manakin, Pin-Tailed Manakin, Sharpbill, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Black-and-Gold Cotinga,  Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, Chestnut-Backed Tanager, Crimson-Fronted Cardinal, Yellow-Shouldered Grosbeak, Scarlet-Headed Blackbird.

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