Though I've spent almost a year guiding in and enjoying the world-class wildlife of the state of Mato Grosso, I had only spent a short time in Brazil's Atlantic Forest before finally getting around to bringing groups there in August of 2012 and 2013. This bioregion is famous among naturalists for three things - its tremendous biodiversity, its high level of endemism, and its highly endangered status. With only about 10% of the original forest remaining, many species have become scarce and a few are now extinct. Fortunately there is a growing awareness of the unique nature and value of the region, and on this route we're able to enjoy some of the finest examples of intact Atlantic Forest........as well as the world-class spectacle of Iguazu Falls.
Starting in Rio de Janeiro, we head north to Guapiassu Bird Lodge, the home of the Reserva Ecologica Guapiassu (REGUA). From this comfortable home base with nice rooms, excellent food, warm hospitality, and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, we're able to experience a variety of habitats and see, enjoy, and learn about many species. We're fortunate to enjoy the expertise of one of the local guides, Adilei Carvalho, whose knowledge of the area and its wildlife is exceptional. The lodge grounds, with banana and hummingbird feeders, are good for many of the more common species such as burnished-buff, Sayaca, Brazilian, and palm tanagers, red-rumped cacique, four species of swifts (white-collared, biscutate, gray-rumped, and lesser swallow-tailed), blue dacnis, purple-throated and violaceous euphonias, ferruginous pygmy-owl, social flycatcher, yellow-headed caracara, and several species of hummingbird including swallow-tailed, violet-capped woodnymph, white-chinned sapphire, glittering-throated emerald, and rufous-breasted hermit. At night common long-tongued bats take over where the hummers leave off, and one can get good views and even decent photos of them. The banana feeders are often visited in the mornings by diminutive white-tufted-ear marmosets. Though this is an exotic species in the area (it's normally found farther north) and is displacing the native buffy-tufted-ear marmoset, they sure are cute.
A nearby constructed wetland is part of an impressive restoration project that addresses the loss of low lying wetland areas to agriculture in the area. This rich area with nice, flat trails attracts many water and edge species. Gorgeous white-faced whistling-ducks are fairly common as are capped, striated and cocoi herons. Though irregular, this can be a good spot to see masked duck......siting out in the open! White-headed marsh-tyrants flycatch over the ponds, while masked water-tyrants and wing-banded hormeros glean from the ground. Pairs of chattering yellow-chinned spinetails work the dense shrubs, and purple gallinules probe through the aquatic vegetation. With a little luck, we've seen skulky rufous-sided and ash-throated crakes. The second growth around the ponds is very productive and we've enjoyed chestnut-backed and Sooretama slaty-antshrikes, fuscous flycatcher, yellow and Planalto tyrannulets, yellow-browed flycatcher, pileated and red-crested finches, lemon-chested greenlet, moustached wren, and others.
The forested trails near the lodge climb into the mountains where some beautiful birds can be found, including many Atlantic Forest endemics. We enjoyed gray-hooded flycatcher, gray-hooded attila, black-capped, white-eyed, ochre-breasted, and buff-fronted foliage-gleaners, black-cheeked gnateater, blue manakin, white-throated and lesser woodcreepers, rufous-capped antthrush. southern antpipit, scaled antbird, brown-backed parrotlet, red-capped parrot, eye-ringed tody-tyrant, crescent-chested puffbird, and others in these nearby areas. Certainly one of the highlights are good looks at spot-billed toucanets, an endemic that everyone always wants see and that we always have seen. While bare-throated bellbirds are commonly heard, seeing these canopy dwellers can be a challenge. We had great luck in 2013 and had a snow-white male preening below the canopy, providing great scope views and excellent photos. REGUA is pretty good for mammals, particularly brown-throated three-toed sloths. We've seen quite a few, including a female with a super-teeny baby as well as a few individuals close enough to see some of the many commensal insects that live on their fur. We've also seen capybara, Guianan squirrel, brown capuchin monkeys, and Azara's agouti in the area.
One of the evening highlights at Guapiassu is the search for the giant snipe in nearby pastures. With patience, and the skills of one of the local guides, we were able to get close views as well as good photos. While tropical screech, ferruginous-pygmy, and burrowing owls are fairly easily found by day, the larger species, tawny-browed, mottled, and black-banded, are more challenging, and the best we could manage was heard-only tawny-broweds.
A nearby remnant marsh is a great spot for some wetland and open country species, and here we've had great looks at striking streamer-tailed tyrants, white-eared puffbird, white-rumped swallow, and, thanks to the knowledge and skill of Adilei, decent looks at a blackish rail!!
From Guapiassu we make day trips to the nearby Serra Dos Orgaos National Park. This large area of intact forest is impressive and rich in birds. At our starting point in the lower portion of the park, we've excellent looks at a pair of rufous-capped motmots. These gorgeous birds are one of the few motmot species without the racket-shaped tail tips. They are also perhaps the shyest motmot on Earth (and I've seen them all except Trinidad). Though we hear them in many locations, they are always a major challenge. A pair of pale-browed treehunters, bromeliad-foraging specialists, often give excellent views, as do singing yellow-legged thrushes, one of four species of thrush in the area. The park is great for mixed flocks, which, at the lower levels, often have black-goggled, green-headed, flame-crested, yellow-backed, and red-necked tanagers, olivaceous and lesser woodcreepers, streak-capped antwren, sepia-capped and ochre-bellied flycatchers, crested becard, buff-fronted foliage-gleaner, and yellow-green grosbeak. A few special birdsthat we've enjoyed but which don't ravel with flocks are star-throated and unicolored antwrens, black-cheeked gnateater, and eared pygmy-tyrant.
At higher elevations in the park, an amazing boardwalk goes for about a kilometer through rich cloud forest, providing eye-level views of portions of the canopy as well as from-above views of the forest floor. As soon as we arrive and exit the van, we almost always hear a hooded berryeater which has a nearby territory. This shy bird, however, was seen only briefly before it flew off. We've heard the calls of Brazilian antthrush and variegated antpitta from the walkway, and though we've been very close to the antpitta, it remains on the heard-only list. The antthrush, however, once passed closely enough to the boardwalk for a few people to get good views. Though we visit the upper area in mid afternoon, luck has been with us as we've encountered several good mixed flocks. The action can be brisk as mottle-cheeked tyrannulets, streaked xenops, rufous-backed antvireo, sharp-billed treehunter, white-browed foliage-gleaner, yellow-eared woodpecker, pallid spinetail, rufous-browed peppershrike, and a few others pass through. Flocks of fruit eating birds have included azure-shouldered tanager, golden-chevroned, and brassy-breasted tanagers. We once had over a dozen brassy-breasteds feeding at eye-level just a few feet away. We've also had good views of white-throated spadebill, white-shouldered fire-eye, rufous-capped spinetail, the rare and endemic brown tanager, and white-browed woodpecker in this area. A pond and stream at our lunch spot is part of a sharp-tailed streamcreeper's territory, and while it can be shy, we've had a few decent views of this odd furnarid.
One of my favorite features of REGUA is that it is more than a bird lodge. It is also a center for some of the best conservation work being done in the Atlantic Forest. With education, research, reforestation, and land acquisition projects, it's success is setting a fine standard in the region and in Brazil.
From Guapiassu we head to Serra Dos Tucanos Lodge, located on the edge of another vast tract of good forest in Tres Picos State Park. This comfortable and very well-run lodge is well-known for its banana and hummingbird feeders, and we discover why upon arrival. We spend our first afternoon enjoying the feeders and adjacent trails. Whereas swallow-tailed hummingbirds can be the dominant hummer species at Guapiassu, at Dos Tucanos, it's the common but endemic sombre hummingbird. A few other species - violet-capped woodnymph, black jacobin, and saw-billed hermit - are able to make there way in though. The banana feeders are a birder's (and photographer's) dream with a near constant parade of colorful species - three thrushes (rufous-bellied, creamy-bellied, and pale-breasted), several tanagers (green-headed, ruby-crowned, sayaca, azure-shouldered, palm), plain and maroon-bellied parakets, and several euphonias - chestnut-bellied, orange-bellied, purple-throated, and, if that isn't enough, lots of blue-naped chlorophonias. Around the grounds we've found the colorful Atlantic Forest race of channel-billed toucan, black hawk-eagle, black-and-white hawk-eagle, long-billed wren, yellow-eared woodpecker, long-tailed tyrant, and plain-winged woodcreeper. Some attentive listening and looking along the stream that passes through the property has led to great views of a sharp-tailed streamcreeper.
The lodge trails have a few steep sections but are well worth the effort and patience as we've found a few special things here. Surucua trogon, side-by-side spot-breasted and plain antvireos, more blue manakins and black-cheeked gnateaters, scaled antbird, blond-crested woodpecker, rufous-capped antthrush were all great, but the star has to be the very ornate pin-tailed manakin. In a family of pretty striking birds, the pin-tailed stands out as perhaps the most beautiful. This species can be elusive and can be found at almost any level of the forest. While we've had quite a few views of birds well above us, we've been fortunate to have a few at eye-level......and even more fortunate to have a good photographer with us at the time!
From Dos Tucanos, we make a day trip to higher elevations. Though the forest here is a bit fragmented, there is a good variety of species and habitat types. At our first stop, which we make primarily to look for an unusually confiding pair of red-legged seriemas, these unusual birds practically run up to the van and proceed to serenade us (if you can call it that) with their wild calls. Though I've seen these birds many times in other locations I've never seen them close enough to see that most of their feathers are finely barred and that the feather structure on their head and neck is similar to that of the ratites to which they are not related. While the seriemas do their thing we're kept busy by glittering-bellied emerald and white-throated hummingbird, rufous hornero, green-backed becard, shear-tailed gray-tyrant, saffron finch, brassy-breasted tanager, and campo flicker. A walk down the trail leads to good views of a shy pair of dusky-legged guans and also pretty good views of a pair of skulky orange-eyed thornbirds. Heading upward, we enter some good forest with lots of activity. Once one of the highlights was a Serra Do Mar tyrant-manakin, which not only perched nicely for us but proceeded to regurgitate, and then deposit on the branch where it was perched, three white seeds with sticky coats. Having previously discussed the seed dispersal strategies of mistletoes, this was great lesson reinforcement. Other birds in the area include diademed tanager, velvety and blue-billed black-tyrants, crane hawk, rufous-capped and variable antshrikes, golden-crowned warbler, rufous-capped and Spix's spinetails, and rufous gnateater. We've had a few glimpses of the skulky giant antshrike and its cousin the large-tailed antshrike, and though we'vre heard these birds in several locations, they're two of the most elusive species. Also elusive is mouse-colored tapaculo, which we were once lucky enough to see well enough at close range to see that it was a female...........which is saying something for a tapaculo.
A side trip in the higher elevations takes us to a display area for black-and-gold cotinga whose exotic whistle we'd previously heard from a distance. The local guides know one of its favorite spots, and, on cue, the beautiful bird has been there giving its fascinating, high pitched, two-note call.
Both the REGUA and Serra Dos Tucanos areas are good for two endemic raptors, white-necked hawk and mantled hawk. These uncommon birds are nearly identical except for their tail pattern. What's so interesting to me about their plumage similarities is that they are in separate genera. The white-necked, in the genus Buteogallus, is a cousin of black-colored raptors like common black hawk, great black hawk, and solitary eagle. The mantled is in the genus Pseudastur and an obvious cousin of the widespread white hawk. This appears to be a god example of convergent evolution, and their seems to be an evolutionary advantage to this color pattern in the Atlantic Forest.
Our final leg of the journey is a trip to Iguazu Falls, a world-class, bucket-list site. I had been told by many friends that if you're going to make the effort to go to Iguazu, you should stay at one of the hotels inside the park right next to the falls. Here I offer a belated thanks to these folks as they were right. We've stayed at both the Iguazu Sheraton on the Argentinean side and the Hotel Das Cataratas on the Brazilian side. Both have front-row seats of not only the falls but also of very good forest on both sides of the border. The grounds of these very comfortable hotels are equally good for birds and wildlife. Southern lapwings, red-rumped caciques, and plush-crested jays, cattle tyrant, eared dove, yellow-fronted woodpecker, swallow tanager, variable oriole, short-crested flycatcher, rusty-margined guan, collared aracaris and Toco toucans, are fairly common at both locations. While we had hoped to catch even a glimpse of the rare black-fronted piping guan, I wasn't quite prepared for our eventual sightings. It turned out that one of these guans had a night roost not far from one of our balconies, at the Sheraton, and each evening it passed by giving some decent views. One day one of my sharp-eyed participants spotted a piping-guan pretty well hidden near a busy trail. The bird was preening and we had outstanding views in great light. I've seen many piping guans but never one so well.
Trails near each hotel provide access to good forest with almost no other people. Here we've run into several blond-crested woodpeckers, which, after being fairly elusive in the Atlantic Forest, are perhaps a bit easier to see here. Rufous-winged and streak-capped antwrens, southern antpipit, black-goggled tanager, Surucua and black-throated trogons, ochre-collared piculet, white-bearded manakin, sirystes, Guira tanager, red-crowned ant-tanager, green-winged saltator, robust woodpecker, and three species of foliage gleaners (white-eyed, buff-fronted, and black-capped) are among the many birds we've found here. We've also found several mammals including brown capuchin, Azara's agouti, South American coati, collared peccary, and Brazilian guinea pig.
The falls themselves live up to their reputation. While they can appear as a small white dot when flying into or out of Foz do Iguazu, up close they are still white but anything but small. They are a major tourist destination (with obnoxious, at least for nature enthusiasts, helicopter tours), and the falls-view walkways can be crowded in the afternoons on the Argentinian side, but the landscape and images are dramatically powerful. The Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) is unlike anything I've ever seen. The combination of power, sound, water quantity, and scale is unforgettable. One of my participants perhaps said it best - "You've seen one waterfall, you've seen them all........as long as that one is Iguazu." One of the payoffs for staying within the park is access to the viewing trails outside of regular park hours when there is almost no one else there. It is often said that Argentina has the falls and Brazil has the views, and I'd have to agree with this. Enjoying the walkways with almost no one around - except for perhaps another black-fronted piping guan perched in the open - is a special experience, as is the viewing of hundreds of great dusky swifts circling in the mist or clinging in to the cliff faces where they can sometimes be seen surprisingly well.
The Atlantic Forest and Iguazu Falls have exceeded my expectations in terms of comfort, scenery, and wildlife, and I can't wait to go back next year!
Green-headed Tanager, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, and Maroon-bellied Parakeet by Misty, Larry, and Mary Vaughn