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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Minas Gerais

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: We just finished up another fantastic tour to Minas Gerais during which we visited three very different areas of this beautiful Brazilian region. First, the natural and preserved grasslands and gallery forests of the scenic Canastra National Park where we found some superb birds such as the elegant Sharp-tailed Grass-Tyrant, the charismatic Red-legged Seriema, the beautiful Helmeted Manakin and the common but so elegant Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We also found a pair of critically endangered Brazilian Mergansers and had an incredible encounter with no less than four Giant Anteaters, including one seen only 20 meters away from us!

We also enjoyed a few days at the peaceful Caraça Monastery, where we discovered fantastic species such as beautiful Dusky-tailed and Ochre-rumped Antbirds, the elusive Large-tailed Antshrike, the very local Serra Antwren, the sparkling Hyacinth Visorbearer, and the adorable Hangnest Tody-Tyrant, just to name a few.  We also had a memorable encounter with a Maned Wolf coming to the monastery to get his plate of chicken bones just a few meters from happy viewers.

And even though our visit to the Espinhaço Mountains near Serra do Cipó was a bit impacted by some heavy winds, we enjoyed a beautiful walk in pristine scenery and unique vegetation, and found a beautiful male Blue Finch and a stunning Horned Sungem, two species that would be voted among the top five best birds of the trip, together with the Least Nighthawk, Large-tailed Antshrike and the display of the Cock-tailed Tyrant.

IN DETAIL:The participants on the 2022 Minas Gerais tour also participated in the previous Southeast Atlantic Forest tour and flew from São Paolo to Belo Horizonte the last day of the Southeast Brazil tour.

After a night at the airport hotel in Belo Horizonte, we met our driver Paulo and began our long journey towards São Roque da Canastra. After only 30 minutes’ drive, we made a stop at Pampulha Lake, where we quickly found a Southern Pochard, a widespread species (even found in Africa), but whose American population, having crashed in the last decades, is now almost restricted to Brazil. We also found some common species such as Sayaca Tanager, Masked Water Tyrant, Cattle Tyrant, Chalk-browed Mockingbird or Bare-faced Ibis. What a nice introduction!

We spent most of the day on the road, traveling through agricultural landscapes, fields mined by hundreds of termite nests, patches of secondary forest, and intensive sun-grown coffee plantation. After arriving in São Roque in the afternoon and checking in at our hotel, we did some late afternoon birding along the Rio de Peixe just north of the little town. During our short walk we had great views of both Red-breasted and Toco Toucans, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Peach-fronted Parakeet, Savanna Hawk, the lovely Bran-colored Flycatcher and Guira Tanager. A splendid male Helmeted Manakin showed very well too.

We had three full days to explore the area surrounding São Roque and mostly the Canastra National Park. Protecting almost 490,000 acres (200,000 ha), the Canastra NP preserves the headwaters of the São Francisco River which flows east from the park, and in the south feeds the Rio Grande which is a tributary of the Parana River. On our first day here, we explored the lowest part of the reserve, following the São Francisco River and searching for Brazilian Merganser. Making regular stops to scan the river, we glimpsed two shy birds of this terribly endangered species. Even though the population in this area has increased slightly in recent years, the world population is still estimated below 300 individuals. The Canastra National Park is the best area to look for it, but this species is usually difficult to find.

We made several stops on our way to Casca d’Anta (a waterfall on the São Francisco River), finding lots of fantastic birds such as Red-legged Seriema, White-barred Piculet, a total of 11 Toco Toucans, Gilt-edged Tanager, a tree full of Swallow Tanagers, Buff-necked Ibis and a few wild Muscovy Ducks. After a short hike we also enjoyed spectacular views of the Casca d’Anta waterfall and found dozens of Great Dusky Swifts hanging on the cliff or on their nest behind the falls. A Green Kingfisher was also seen along the wild São Francisco River.

We spent our second day on top of the Canastra NP plateau, visiting cerrado habitat as well as gallery forest and extensive natural grassland. It was a long day driving through a beautiful landscape, finding a long list of fantastic new birds at every stop.

In the cerrado, we found a large flock of Golden-capped Parakeets feeding just on the side of the road, followed by a lovely Black-masked Finch, a beautiful Collared Crescentchest singing from on top of a rock, super cute pairs of Gray-backed Tachuris and Sharp-tailed Tyrants, a singing Blue Finch, a pair of Curl-crested Jays, a few Lesser and Plain-crested Elaenias, and the handsome Cinnamon Tanager. What a great start! During a stop in gallery forest, we had a prolonged view of a pair of Rufous-winged Antshrikes, and the best look at Brasilia Tapaculo you could ever hope to get. In the grassland, we found lots of specialties too. We all admired the display of the Cock-tailed Tyrant, found a family of Greater Rheas, and enjoyed splendid views of Fork-tailed Flycatcher, one of the most elegant birds. The song of the common but secretive Red-winged Tinamou accompanied us all day. At a patch of recently burned grassland, we discovered no less than four displaying Campo Miners, a highly specialist species living exclusively on recently burned fields.

Other great birds today included White-rumped Tanager, a pair of Firewood Gatherers on a nest, substantial numbers of both Gray and White-rumped Monjitas, a few Crested Black-Tyrants, Sooty Tyrannulet, White-throated Kingbirds flycatching side-by-side with Tropical Kingbirds, Burrowing Owl, two King Vultures and Aplomado Falcon. Scanning the flocks of numerous White-collared Swifts, we had good looks at Great Dusky Swifts and found three Sooty Swifts! Now, a trip to Canastra NP would not be complete without a sighting of Giant Anteater, and we had incredible views of this spectacular animal. We were able to enjoy a very close encounter with one of four anteaters found today – unforgettable! Staying in the park until dusk, we got great looks at a singing Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper but heard only the song of a Spot-tailed Nightjar before it was time to drive back to our hotel in São Roque for a nice dinner and a good night.

On our third morning we returned to the gallery forest bordering the Rio do Peixe near São Roque and some agricultural fields bordering the Canastra NP. Some of the great birds found this morning included a stunning pair of White-eared Puffbirds, a group of lovely Plush-crested Jays, a pair of Flavescent Warblers, a beautiful Black-throated Saltator, two responsive Sooty-fronted Spinetails, a pair of Yellow Tyrannulets building a nest, a singing Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, and repeat views of the charismatic Guira Cuckoo.

After a well-deserved mid-day break, we explored a small wetland near São Roque, finding an incredible variety of birds. A pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrant displayed atop a nearby bush, while hundreds of Chestnut-capped Blackbirds were perched in the reeds together with a few Yellow-rumped Marshbirds. We also had great looks at Plumbeous Seedeaters, as well as Yellow-bellied Elaenias, a cute Southern Yellowthroat, Bare-faced Ibis and two Pileated Finches. But the most remarkable finds at the wetland were three difficult species seen well by the whole group: a Blackish Rail, followed by an Ash-throated Crake, and then two Rufous-sided Crakes.

It was now time to leave São Roque and Canastra NP for our next destination: the beautiful Caraça Monastery. Unfortunately, these two locations are separated by more than two hundred miles, and considering the Brazilian roads and traffic, it took us most of the day to get there. But we found some time for birding on the way and added a selection of interesting species. Just after leaving São Roque we stopped at a nice wetland, and after finding a few old friends like Burnished-buff Tanager, Chestnut-capped Blackbird and Masked Water-Tyrant, we also discovered a pair of the superb Black-capped Donacobius, a lovely female of White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, a pair of Yellow-chinned Spinetails and even two Turquoise-fronted Parrots!

Arriving at Caraça, we were all impressed by the beauty of the monastery surrounded by such a wonderful landscape, set in the middle of beautiful forest and cerrado. All charmed by this peaceful location, we birded the monastery garden to familiarize ourselves with what would be our home for the next two days. Obviously, the Dusky-legged Guans own the place and were everywhere! We found several pairs of Cliff Flycatchers breeding on the monastery and a pair of Velvety Black-Tyrants breeding in the garden. Other common species contacted daily in the garden included Saffron Finch, Streaked Flycatcher, Slaty-breasted Wood-rail, White-throated Kingbird and Orange-eyed Thornbird. After an excellent dinner, we enjoyed a unique experience: seeing a wild Maned Wold at only two meters’ distance! The priests have been feeding wild Maned Wolves for 40 years now, and it’s become a real tourist attraction. Every night a few Maned Wolves come to feed on a plate of chicken bones and consider the many tourists as just part of the landscape, allowing a memorable encounter with these impressive and beautiful creatures.

During our two full days at the Caraça Monastery, we explored various trails through old secondary growth and other interesting habitats. In the forest areas we found a very different set of birds than the previous days, including antbirds such as Dusky-tailed and Ochre-rumped Antbirds, Black-capped Antwren, White-backed Fire-eye, and even the elusive Large-tailed Antshrike (seen well!) along with some colourful tanagers like Gilt-edged and Brassy-breasted Tanagers. We also found some quality flycatchers, including Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, Drab-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant and the cute Hangnest Tody-Tyrant. In the semi-open cerrado habitat we were delighted by fantastic looks at a male Hyacinth Visorbearer, a few Serra Antwrens and Cinnamon Tanagers, and several pairs of Pale-throated Pampa-Finches.

It was now time to visit our last destination of the trip: the Serra do Cipó in the Espinhaço Mountains. Amidst the wonderful scenery and unique vegetation of that isolated range we got great looks at some other interesting birds such a beautiful male Blue Finch, a few Least Nighthawks flying overhead at dusk, and a splendid Horned Sungem perched just a few meters from the group during our final minutes of birding here.

The trip finished at the Belo Horizonte airport after one last wonderful Brazilian buffet.

-          Fabrice Schmitt



Created: 09 November 2022