segunda-feira, janeiro 02, 2012

Birding Innuendo in Brazil - IV

Leaving behind the sunny beaches of Ilha Bela, from the previous chapter, we will now head to the inland state of Minas Gerais, home to several colonial towns that prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to the rich mineral deposits, including gold, diamonds and other gems, that were found by the Portuguese colonists. Ecologically, Minas Gerais is placed between the tropical forests of the SE coast and the savanna-like habitats of the Brazilian plateau, offering us a different bird assortment.

Estrada Real
After the flight to the state capital, Belo Horizonte, we rented a car to travel to the UNESCO world heritage town of Diamantina. To get there we took the MG-10 road, which partially overlaps the ancient Estrada Real, the "king's road" through which the gold and gems would flow down to the coast, to Paraty and Rio de Janeiro, to be loaded into ships bound for Europe. The MG-10 crosses beautiful country, including stretches of tropical forests, savanna-like cerrado habitats and the Serra do Cipó Natural Park. 
Our first stop was the Serra do Cipó area, where we took a nice hike through the forest to find the local cachoeiras (waterfalls). My first sightings of the day includes peach-fronted parakeets Aratinga aurea and the cattle tyrant Machetornis rixosa. True to its name, this tyrant was in an open field, feeding on the ground between grazing cows and horses. Of course the sky was often riddled with the usual black vultures and on the trees you could here the melancholic song of the tropical kingbirds. While walking in the forest we could ear, more than see birds, and most sightings were in more open patches. This was the case for my first Dubois' seedeater Sporophila ardesiaca, a small, bicoloured bird that was eating small seeds on the sides of the road. When we finally got to the Cachoeira Grande, the largest waterfall in the region, we were awarded not only we a breath-taking scenery, but also with a variegated flycatcher Empidonomus varius. This flycatcher can be easily confused with the smaller piratic flycatcher Legatus leucophaius which has a similar head pattern and brownish back, so be on the lookout for the diagnostic rufous tail and prominent white wing edgings.

Cachoeira Grande at Serra do Cipó Natural Park
As we continued on the "king's road" we crossed the Cipó mountains where I spotted a beautiful campo flicker Colaptes campestris, a large woodpecker with a black and white barred body and an attractive yellow neck and face. Eventually we got to the town of Conceição de Mato a Dentro. Up to here the road was nicely paved, despite the occasional pot hole. Between Conceição de Mato a Dentro and Serro, over a distance of 60 km, the road quickly became little more than a forest track. Our car, a Fiat Palio, behaved beautifully, having no problem crossing, dirt, sand or even small stretches of mud, but to this day I wander if the trip would have been possible with worse weather! Despite the scary looking road, the scenary was beautiful, with some stretches of pristine rain forest and I managed to spot blue-black grassquits Volatinia jacarina and the exuberant chestnut-capped blackbird Chrysomus ruficapillus. There were also plenty of ground doves and among the more common ruddy ground-doves I spotted a scaled dove Columbina squamata with its unique, completely scaled plumage.

Chestnut-capped blackbird Chrysomus ruficapillus (photo from
Eventually we made it to Diamantina, although the previously silver car became dirt brown in the process. The city centre was, as promised, full of beautiful colonial building, with white walls and brightly-coloured windows and doors. The typical tile roofs looked beautiful on the photos, as did the thousands of crystals and brightly coloured gems that you can buy on the souvenir shops. One of the local landmarks is the Casa da Glória, a large manor house composed of two buildings linked together by a blue wooden bridge. Just outside this monument I spotted a swallow-tailed hummingbird Eupetomena macroura, the largest hummingbird in SE Brazil at 16 cm long. The town was always covered by a circling column of vultures, and in-between the ever-present black vultures you could also spot turkey vultures Cathartes aura and I managed to spot my first lesser yellow-headed vulture Cathartes burrovianus.
We took a little trip to the nearby natural area of Biribiri, a place were beautifull waterfalls mixed with rocky walls and savanna-like vegetation. There I managed to spot my first southern house wren Troglodytes musculus, a bird much easier to ear than to see. Next was a picui ground-dove Columbina picui, which has an unmistakable black, white and brown wing and tail pattern when taking flight. I think my favourite bird that day was a white-eared puffbird Nystalus chacuru with its kingfisher-like bill and prominent head-pattern. 
Eventually we stopped in one of the waterfalls to take a swim and had the opportunity to spend some time looking at the large number of swifts descending on the river waters in search of insects. Beside the more abundant sooty swifts there where also biscutate swifts Streptoprocne biscutata. These are quite beautiful, with their broken white collars, but be careful as they are quite hard to differentiate from the white-collared swift Streptoprocne zonaris. The lack of a fork in the tail is a good hint!
Biribiri still had a few more species to offer. First, a group of very vocal chopi blackbirds Gnorimopsar chopi were aggressively mopping a southern caracara which got too close. Next was a pair of cliff flycatchers Hirundinea ferruginea, beautiful birds with a striking orange pattern on the wings and tail. The day ended with the sighting of a white-tailed kite Elanus leucurus on our way back to Diamantina.

White-eared puffbird Nystalus chacuru (photo from
On the next day we continued our trip through Minas Gerais, heading to another beautiful colonial town, Ouro Preto. However, the weather changed and the heavy rains made bird-watching virtually impossible. On the next chapter of my Birding Innuendo in Brazil we will head to the "Marvelous City" and see which birds the immense metropolis of Rio de Janeiro has to offer.

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