Serra Bonita, Bahia: June 25-26, 2013

In planning this trip, I had nearly overlooked making reservations to visit Serra Bonita, which consistently receives rave reviews from birders. Billed as a research station cum lodge, the reserve is located in the forested hills of Southeastern Bahia, which is a bit of the beaten track, almost needless to say. Although their website cautions visitors to schedule their trip several weeks in advance, I was thrilled to get a quick response from Vitor, its founder, just a day before my prospective stay. Given the wet weather and the interminable lines of slow moving trucks on the highway, I didn’t reach the access road until dark.  I charged up the first few kilometers in my Fiat, but started burning rubber on the wet cobblestones while attempting to ascend a steep section. After three tries, I gave up and committed to walking the remaining four kilometers.

Leaving the car behind, I grabbed my essential gear and set off in the darkness, climbing a steep gradient. The wind was rising fast, and soon rain was pouring down. Within minutes I was drenched, straining to find my way up the hill with only the dull glow of my cellphone to guide me. Recalling my days as a cross country runner in high school, I dug deep and charged uphill, imagining all the wonderful birds awaiting me the following morning. It was with great incredulity that I realized an hour later that I had overshot the entrance road to the reserve by a kilometer and reached the radio antennas at the top of the hill. Stunned, I worked my way carefully back down the slippery road and eventually found the turnoff.

After traversing the entrance road, which is prime birding territory, I started exploring the compound, hoping to find someone to show me to my room. A crack of light under the door of the first building revealed that someone was home, and I knocked hopefully voicing the most plaintive “boa noite” I could muster. The door opened to a lovely long haired woman, who kindly let me in and made me a sandwich. Indeed, they had been waiting for me, but given up once night fell and the weather worsened. We set off back into the storm together, and she finally led me to my room, which was immaculately constructed and graced with little details that would warm the heart of any field researcher, such as a wireless internet, an ample desk, a superhot water heater, and a dry closet. Within minutes I was toasty warm, sipping whisky, and downloading more bird calls onto my computer.

Unsurprisingly, it was still raining when I awoke at dawn the following morning, but I religiously put on my wet field clothes and soggy shoes and trudged down the road in search of birds. Eventually, I ended up at the research station, where I would take my meals with the other residents and presumably the owners of the reserve, Vitor and Clemira. I made my way around the back of the building to the fruit feeder, where a mob of wet passerines had gathered, including Violaceous Euphonia, Green-Headed Tanager, and Green Honeycreeper, among others. Soon Vitor himself came by to greet me warmly, wearing a Howler Monkey around his neck in the fashion of a scarf. He seemed happy enough to welcome me despite my unusual arrival, and we chatted amiably about my birding prospects for such a short stay. Soon enough he padded back to his lab and left me with the tanagers.

As I would discover over the next two days, Vitor and Clemira are exceptional people. Having also worked as a agricultural engineer for Embrapa, the Brazilian research intitute, Vitor’s primary vocation was that of a lepidopterist, and over the last four decades he has amassed over 300,000 butterfly and moth specimens in his private collection, now housed in the research station at Serra Bonita. His wife, Clemira, worked as a university professor at the federal university in Brasília, where they both lived during the city’s halcyon days (although I really enjoy living in the unique capital city, it’s hard to argue that the city’s best days aren’t already behind it). Having both retired, they decided to invest in conserving some of the forest, where Vitor had done such extensive field work, buying up small parcels of land at a time. With awards from National Geographic and the Ford Foundation, they have set the bar high for private conservation efforts in Brazil, and despite having recently garnered the support of WLT, ABC, and TNC, they still have guests regularly ask how they can contribute.

The rain abated slightly after breakfast, and I spent the next few hours birding the entrance road, making my way down to a site where the Pink-Legged Gravateiro has been nesting in recent years. Apparently, the gravateiro also accompanies mixed canopy flocks, but I didn’t see much beyond tanagers and flycatchers up there. As always, I paid more attention to understory flocks, incredibly finding several Rufous-Brown Solitaire, the Atlantic Forest race of which is quite rare; indeed, several birds that are normally considered rare are relatively common at Serra Bonita. A terrific Sharpbill lingered long and relatively low overhead as I exclaimed my amazement at this unique cotinga (it was too wet to bother taking out my camera). Other goodies in the flocks included Spot-Breasted Antvireo, White-Eyed Foliage-Gleaner, and Spot-Backed Antshrike, and I was pleased to find another pair of Black-Throated Grosbeaks.

After lunch I spent another half an hour at the feeder as a group of gorgeous Red-Necked Tanagers descended from the canopy and went after a tray of bananas. Another wet foray finally yielded a Pink-Legged Gravateiro sitting at eye level on the top of a tree way back from the road. Looking distinctly thrush like in shape, the bird is difficult to misidentify with its unusual pink legs. Another pair swooped into a tree a few minutes letter, although they took off again without doing anything acrobatic. Back at the research station, I checked out the hummingbird feeder in the growing darkness, as Sombre Hummingbird, Brazilian Ruby, and Violet-Capped Woodnymph squabbled over fructose to sustain them through the night. On the following morning I only had an hour or so before having to return to Porto Seguro, and while I spotted a few more good birds, including Pin-Tailed Manakin, Crescent-Chested Puffbird, and Eye-Ringed Tody-Tyrant, I missed other key site specialties according to Ciro Albano, such as Plumbeous Antwren, Bahia Tyrannulet, and an undescribed treehunter species.

Notable birds seen: Maroon-Bellied Parakeet, Sombre Hummingbird, Scale-Throated Hermit, Violet-Capped Woodnymph, Brazilian Ruby, Black-Throated Trogon, Surucua Trogon, Golden-Spangled Piculet, Crescent-Chest Puffbird, Black-Capped Foliage-Gleaner, White-Eyed Foliage-Gleaner, White-Throated Woodcreeper, Scaled Woodcreeper, Plain-Winged Woodcreeper, Pink-Legged Gravateiro, Spot-Backed Antshrike, Rufous-Winged Antwren, Spot-Breasted Antvireo, White-Shouldered Fire-Eye, Gray-Hooded Attila, Rufous-Brown Solitaire, Grayish Mourner, Blue Manakin, Sharpbill, Pin-Tailed Manakin, Tropical Pewee, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Masked Water-Tyrant, Euler’s Flycatcher, Chestnut-Crowned Becard, Yellow-Browed Tody-Flycatcher, Eye-Ringed Tody-Tyrant, Sepia-Capped Flycatcher, Gray-Hooded Flycatcher, Black-Capped Becard, Golden-Crowned Warbler, Eastern Slaty-Thrush, Moustached Wren, Magpie Tanager,  Azure-Shouldered Tanager, Golden-Chevroned Tanager, Rufous-Headed Tanager, Black-Goggled Tanager, Red-Crowned Ant-Tanager, Red-Necked Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Violaceous Euphonia, Green-Headed Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Black-Throated Grosbeak, Pectoral Sparrow.

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