Birdwatching in the Atlantic Rainforest near Sao Paulo, Brazil
Altitude is everything in Brazil's magnificent Atlantic Rainforest
Published: February 20, 2009
|In Brazil, there's a saying, probably of Indian origin, that in the rainforest, there are more eyes than leaves. It shouldn't be taken literally, of course, but it goes a long way toward explaining the huge amount of life in these delicate ecosystems.|
I was born and raised in Brazil, and I have always been fascinated by rainforests and their inhabitants, their delicate and interconnected relationships, the organized chaos.
The animal life may seem scarce at first glance. You won't see monkeys or tree snakes on every other tree, it's true. But once your senses adjust, once you get into the rhythm of the rainforest, you start to see life all around, and birds especially.
My country is home to at least 1,822 species of birds in all - roughly20 percent of the world's total - and 232 endemics, yet it has received relatively little attention from the international birding community. That's surprising, but I know there's a good explanation for it: Brazil woke up to eco-tourism in general and birding tourism specifically only recently. Until a few years ago, few if any lodges and hotels specialized in birding, guides were rare, and no field guides to Brazil's birds had been published. Talk about a waste of time and resources!
Fortunately, all that is history now. If a poll were made of the main features of a great international birding destination, the answers would be easy access, comfortable hotels and lodges, extensive trail systems, knowledgeable English-speaking guides, up-to-date field guides, safety, economic and political stability, friendly people, good roads, reasonable prices, well-preserved and scenic habitat, and of course, lots of fantastic birds, with many endemics to boot. Southeast Brazil's Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Rainforest, has all of that and more.
From windy and rocky hilltops over 9,000 feet high to lush coastal rainforest growing beside scenic beaches, the birdlife is incredible. Parrots, hummingbirds, toucans, trogons, woodcreepers, antbirds, tapaculos, cotingas, manakins, tanagers - these are just a sample of the diversity that makes such a profound impression upon all first-time visitors.
The origins of the jungle and its rich biodiversity date back about 80 million years, to the separation of South America from Africa. Mountain ranges rose along the coastline of the new continent, most notably the 200-mile-long Serra da Mantiqueira and the 900-mile-long Serra do Mar, which is actually a series of mountain ranges.
The mountains blocked the humidity-loaded wind coming from the newly formed Atlantic Ocean, causing abundant rainfall and the right conditions for the nourishment of a rich tropical forest.
Originally extending along most of the Brazilian coastline, the Atlantic Rainforest was the first place early Portuguese explorers set foot in 1500, and its exploitation - the harvesting of native trees and the trafficking of parrots and other colorful birds - started right from the very first expedition.
More than 500 years later, very little of the original forest cover remains. In areas of the northeast, pretty much all that is left are small fragments. Ironically, it's in the southeast, the most developed region of the country, that the largest blocks of virgin rainforest still stand, protected by bird-rich nature reserves.
Probably the easiest access to the reserves is via the busy and modern city of São Paulo, the financial center of Brazil and the third largest city in the world. São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport receives several daily flights from the United States. Once there, most birders count on the help of local birding guides or just do it on their own, renting a car at the airport.
Because altitude varies dramatically throughout the Atlantic Rainforest, and because species found at sea level do not occur much higher, and vice versa, birders who want a good introduction to the magnificent birds of this part of the world should visit locations at different altitudes. Three areas are my favorites: Parque Nacional do Itatiaia, Parque do Zizo, and Ubatuba.
Below the black needles
Itatiaia, Brazil's oldest national park, is located in the Serra da Mantiqueira on the border of the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, about 140 miles northeast of São Paulo.
The park is split into an upper and a lower area. Each has its own entrance. The high area, about nine miles northwest of the town of Itatiaia, is crowned by the angular Pico das Agulhas Negras (Black Needles Peak), at 9,144 feet high, the highest mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
Access is via a gravel road that starts in rainforest that usually provides Rufous-tailed Antbird and Large-tailed Antshrike. The rainforest habitat soon changes to araucaria groves and high-altitude grasslands with shrubs - great places to look for Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, the beautiful Plovercrest hummingbird, Diademed Tanager, Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, and Itatiaia Thistletail. The highlight, however, is a bird that produces a long, haunting whistle: the Black-and-gold Cotinga. Its range is very restricted. This road is probably the best place in the world to see it.
The lower part of Itatiaia has a more typical tropical rainforest, as well as the park headquarters and an adjacent museum. Hotel do Ypê, Hotel Simon (recently renamed the Itatiaia Park Hotel), and other accommodating hotels are also located there.
Each one keeps feeders that attract several tanagers and many hummingbirds - Black Jacobin, Violet-capped Woodnymph, Frilled Coquette, and Brazilian Ruby - as well as Saffron Toucanet, Red-rumped Warbling-Finch, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and other treats for the eye. This is also one of the few places where you can see both races of the Surucua Trogon: surrucura, with a red belly, and aurantius, with an orange belly.
Along the Ouro Fino
One spot that is growing in popularity is a private reserve in the middle of a large Atlantic Rainforest remnant near São Miguel Arcanjo in southern São Paulo State - the Parque do Zizo.
Just 94 miles southwest of Guarulhos airport, it is located in the Serra da Paranapiacaba (part of the Serra do Mar), but its average altitude is lower than that at Itatiaia, so the mix of species is different. But what makes the place truly special is its isolation, making it possible to see a great number of rare birds. Where else would you have the chance of seeing, on the same day, the striking but vulnerable Helmeted Woodpecker, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and Buff-fronted Owl?
Several trails pass trees festooned with bromeliads, thick lianas falling from the canopy, giant ferns, and everything else that makes that classic rainforest scene. My favorite is called Ouro Fino (fine gold), which eventually passes beside a mountain creek of the same name.
For the first couple hundred yards, the trail leads through some secondary woodland with a lot of bamboo - a great place to look for Robust Woodpecker, Crescent-chested Puffbird, Giant Antshrike, Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Ferruginous Antbird, and the vulnerable brown and black White-bearded Antshrike.
As the trail reaches the primary rainforest, you can expect to see Solitary Tinamou, Rufous-capped Motmot, White-throated Woodcreeper, the vulnerable Salvadori's Antwren, Short-tailed Antthrush, Cinnamon-vented Piha, and Hooded Berryeater. The path provides many great views of forested valleys, good spots to look for soaring raptors, especially Mantled Hawk and Black Hawk-Eagle. An Ornate Hawk-Eagle is always a possibility too.
As you go downhill, you reach the Ouro Fino River and scenic waterfalls. Keep an eye out for Fasciated Tiger-Heron standing by a boulder. Other typical birds in the area include Black-throated Trogon, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, and Riverbank Warbler. Before the trail is done, you pass through a damp forest, the territory of Rufous-breasted Leaftosser, the vulnerable, spectacularly crested Atlantic Royal Flycatcher, and lekking Blue (or Swallow-tailed) Manakins. A birding day at Zizo is not done without some owling in the evening. Chances are good you could find Tawny-browed and Buff-fronted Owls right next to the lodge.
At the foot of mountains
About 90 miles east of Guarulhos, Ubatuba is a tranquil town on a quiet bay by the sea, with many scenic beaches. Because of them, it's advisable to stay away during the summer vacation and holidays. The best hotels for the birding tourist are located inland, at the foot of the forested Serra do Mar. There are many to choose from, but I prefer private nature reserves, so I can be sure my money is going back to the environment. A great one is the Reserva Guainumbi, which offers good lodging, too.
The word Guainumbi means "hummingbird" in the native Tupi language. At first sight, the visitor will see that the reserve is aptly named, since Saw-billed Hermits, Festive Coquettes, and many other tropical jewels fly around the lodge all the time. In the rainforest itself, you can expect to see many species that are not as common in higher altitudes: Buff-bellied Puffbird, the ariel race of the Channel-billed Toucan, Scaled Antbird, Slaty Bristlefront, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Bare-throated Bellbird, Yellow-legged Thrush, the vivid Brazilian Tanager, and many others.
Ubatuba is also one of the best places in the world to find the tiny cotinga called Buff-throated Purpletuft. But there are more rare cotingas to be seen, as the area is also where the equally small and mythic Kinglet Calyptura (Calyptura cristata) was last spotted.
Rediscovered in 1996 after more than 100 years without a confirmed sighting, the species qualifies as critically endangered not only because of its tiny population, estimated to be fewer than 50 individuals, but also because of its minuscule range, about three square kilometers. The bird has not been reliably recorded since 2006, but there's always a chance. What a great way that would be to end a trip to the Mata Atlântica!
|Octavio Campos Salles is a photographer and birding guide. He lives in São Paulo.|
|"Doing" Brazil right|
Brazil is a country of spectacular avian riches, but it's also huge - much too large for a birdwatcher to see in one, or even two, visits. So how many trips would you have to make to be able to say you "did" Brazil?
According to well-traveled guide Paulo Boute of Boute Expeditions, the answer is four, and each trip should last a minimum of two weeks.
Trip No. 1, he says, would explore the Pantanal, Serra das Araras, and Chapada dos Guimarães National Park in the western state of Mato Grosso, and then Itatiaia and Ubatuba in the Atlantic Rainforest, with a possible extension to Intervales State Park. "This would give visiting birdwatchers lots of birds, getting up to 400 species of birds or more," says Paulo, "and the birding is easy."
Trip No. 2 would cover the Amazon Forest, including such destinations as Manaus, capital of Amazonas; Alta Floresta in Mato Grosso; and Carajás National Forest in Para, the best spot for the Black-chested Tyrant.
The Northeast would have to wait for a third trip. Some of the world's rarest and most endangered birds occur there. Among them: the critically endangered black, white, and red Araripe Manakin, known only from the north-eastern slope of the Chapada do Araripe in the state of Ceará.
Trip No. 4? That would explore the South of Brazil, starting at the State of Parana and birding all the way to the border of Argentina and Uruguay. -Chuck Hagner, Editor
Guides and lodging
Octavio Campos Salles
Paulo Boute, Boute Expeditions
Hotel do Ypê, Itatiaia
Itatiaia Park Hotel (Hotel Simon), Itatiaia
Parque do Zizo, São Miguel Arcanjo
Reserva Guainumbi, Ubatuba