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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: The Northeast - Bahia the Beautiful

with Indigo Macaw

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The Bahia, Brazil tour went beautifully year, with great birds, fabulous scenery, amazing wildlife, and a very harmonious and diligent group of participants. Our bird list of nearly 375 species will be hard to beat in the future, and it made my job enjoyable to have all the participants so vigilant and active in spotting birds and helping to get each other on everything. When it comes to choosing the favorite birds of the tour, it’s often a little challenging to remember back nearly two weeks, so the Indigo Macaw experience on our second day near Canudos clearly made a lasting impression. With around 40 birds raucously flying around in a picturesque sandstone canyon landscape, and several pairs perched and squabbling over potential nesting nooks, it was a side trip to the north of the state well worth the effort. Farther south, the Chapada Diamantina area, with its stunning landscapes and hyper-local distributions of strange plants and animals, gave up a few of its specialties, such as Sincora Antwren and Collared Crescentchest, and we lucked out with three species of tinamous seen, such as two Spotted Nothuras in the stunted shrubland south of Mucugê. The pair of Burrowing Owls at the Byzantine Cemetery right by town were also a big hit. Farther south yet, the area near Boa Nova offered an amazing contrast in the rapid transition of ecoregions from the dry Caatinga to the wet Atlantic rain forest, and here we enjoyed Swallow-tailed Hummingbird and Pygmy Nightjar in the former and Spot-breasted Antvireo and Striated Softtail in the latter – in birding sites only 25 minutes from each other. The moths, spiders, and plants at Serra Bonita reserve were spectacular, and the bird soundscape here was fabulous. We heard the amazing descending whistle songs of Sharpbill almost everywhere, so it wasn’t a surprise that we had great views of several; a big surprise though was getting great views of an Ash-throated Crake that inhabited the overgrown pasture of the farm located in the middle of the otherwise forested reserve. Our drives were often long between hotels, but we broke them up with quick stops at wet areas, a result of what had apparently been a late and abundant previous rainy season. By far the most exciting highlight at one of them was a stray Pinnated Bittern, far from its southern Brazil breeding distribution. We ended the tour at the tropical coastal resort town of Porto Seguro, sort of the Miami of Brazil, and the large, protected track of lowland forest of Estação Veracel added several nice endemics to the list. The main highlight here though was a pair of Mottled Owls (a likely split from Central American birds), one of which perched low in the understory much closer that we had originally thought.

IN DETAIL: While our first day might have been just written off as a travel day with no birding, we indeed saw some good stuff this day. A bathroom break at a random gas station that had some habitat behind it gave us an Aplomado Falcon perched distantly. We heard both Spotted Nothura in the field and a Fulvous-crowned Scrub-Tyrant very closely in the scrub where it belonged, but both remained invisible. We made a brief stop to look out the van windows at one roadside marsh which had Black-necked Stilt and Wattled Jacana among others, as well as for a single Spot-backed Puffbird perched on a powerline. Given that it was right along a main highway in the afternoon, we would surely see more while out birding on foot…but we never did. Upon arriving at our lodging right in the Indigo Macaw Reserve, we were greeted by a Black-throated Saltator. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking down a sandy wash that was surprisingly birdy given how dry the region looked. We had amazing views of the often secretive Red-shouldered Spinetail, a regional specialty. Black-bellied Antwren was a good find, while the more colorful Campo Troupial, Red-cowled Cardinal, and Cactus Parakeet showed well.

With a full day in the Canudos area, we really had one target, the Indigo Macaw, to which we devoted the first three hours of the day. Starting down the road well before light, we arrived at the cliffs right as the first macaws were starting to fly from the roosts but before it was light enough to see the trail clearly. A distant Least Nighthawk called, and that would be the only one for the tour. After it got light enough to see, we walked to the cliff’s edge where the macaws were a truly spectacular experience in an equally marvelous setting. Some 20 pairs flew around, cavorted, argued over potential nesting sites, and socialized as they must do every day. Blue-crowned Parakeets, Cactus Parakeets, and Turquoise-fronted Parrots added to the cacophony, which a Black-chested Buzzed-Eagle looked upon with desire. On the way to breakfast we birded the dry woodland where a Stripe-backed Antbird gave us unusually good views. After breakfast we birded the same habitat looking for more of the regional specialties and admiring the many species of cactus in such varied shapes and sizes. The tiny pink flowers of the Melocactus zehntneri were a surprising nectar source for the Glittering-bellied Hummingbird, but even more surprising was the nearly invisible flowers of one of the dusty roadside bromeliads which sustained a Broad-tipped Hermit that gave great views. We found Silver-cheeked Antshrike, the red-eyed Barred Antshrike, and a Short-tailed Hawk in the later morning before retreating to town for lunch. We checked the reservoir behind town where Snail Kite, White-faced Whistling-Duck, and Bahia Wagtail-Tyrant were the better finds. After an afternoon siesta, we birded back through the caatinga, seeing White-naped Jays and more Red-shouldered Spinetails before ending at dusk by a cliff overlook. Here we heard a distant Band-winged Nightjar calling which before long became a very close pair of Band-winged Nightjars on the rocks just a few yards away. On the trudge back to the van, we flushed a male Scissor-tailed Nightjar, but it vanished before everyone could get on it. The tracks in the sand were fun to explore, and after dark the formidable-looking bullet ant relative Dinoponera was out hunting, presumably looking for termites.

Another driving day – and what would prove to be an extraordinarily long one at that – should have been devoted to just driving and no birding, but that would be no fun. The day ended with about 75 species, and every stop was worth the time. Maybe we could have given up the early morning birding by the lodge, but it was amazingly birdy down the sandy wash, with many Red-shouldered Spinetails in the open, Cobalt-rumped Parrotlets showing nicely, a Striped-breasted Starthroat, and a Broad-tipped Hermit for our hummingbirds of the day, and a Long-billed Wren that showed its namesake well. Just as breakfast was being served calls of a King Vulture came from one of the lodge workers, and we rushed out to see it soaring over the dry caatinga and sandstone cliffs. Stops along the long drive to Lençóis were for stretching as much as birding. At our first such stop, Variable Oriole and a very close Green-barred Woodpecker were highlights. A noisy group of Chestnut-capped Blackbirds and Southern Pochards were highlights on the outskirts of Capim Grosso, but we couldn’t ignore the many egrets and night-herons, the group of Wood Storks, and of course White-headed Marsh-Tyrant. Brazilian Teal joined the White-headed Whistling-Ducks at our last roadside pond stop before we had to make the rubber hit the road to avoid getting in too late.

Our first morning out of Lençóis was spent south of the town of Palmeiras, where many caatinga specialties awaited us. Planalto Slaty-Antshrike came early on, becoming lifer #5000 for Mark. Silvery-cheeked Antshrike and East Brazilian Chachalaca were among the many fun birds at the first stop, and while working our way up the river valley we added Ultramarine Grosbeak and Great Xenops. A Tropical Screech-Owl perched in plain sight was mobbed by a Black-capped Antwren, but that pesky São Francisco Sparrow never did make a squeak. Farther down the road we had good views of a Collared Crescentchest. In the late afternoon we birded a road close to our hotel where blooming heartseed vines were attractive to many hummers, including Ruby-topaz Hummingbird. We stayed until dark, hearing several Rufous Nightjars and Yellow-legged Tinamous and calling in our second Tropical Screech-Owl of the day.

On our second morning from Lençóis we birded the road where we had ended the previous day, where Frilled Coquette and a pair of Crested Becards were good finds. A Reddish Hermit came in very close to inspect a few in the group as well. On our way to the Morro do Pai Inacio area, we were caught up again in the roadworks that slowed us down, but a Planalto Hermit inspecting very inch of the tanker truck stopped in line in front of us wouldn’t have made it to the list otherwise. Our first try for Sincora Antwren brought us Small-headed Elaenia and Spix’s Spinetail, and we then left just enough time at the Morro to connect with a very cooperative Pale-throated Pampa-Finch and a pair of lovely Hepatic Tanagers. Curious Guira Cuckoos were at our hotel, and a Masked Water-Tyrant was just upstream at the bridge by our lunch restaurant. We completed the relatively short drive to our Mucugê hotel in time to bird the fascinating habitats in the rock and sandy areas north of town. It was very quiet, but a single Gray-eyed Greenlet showed very well.

The caatinga south of Mucugê was very active. First birding the very short scrub on sandy soil, we quickly found the signature Rufous-sided Scrub-Tyrants. Scanning the airstrip on a whim amazingly produced a Red-winged Tinamou walking out in the open. Other memorable birds in this habitat included Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch and the shrike-like White-banded Tanager. Pushing our luck with the tinamous, we casually tried for Spotted Nothura and to our surprise two appeared out of the scrub. At one point, a White-rumped Swallow flew at us and continued north, presumably a spring migrant. We walked the nearby forest trail where two Hangnest Tody-Tyrants appeared at very close range, and while most of us were taunted by the song of a White-browed Antpitta, at least three people were lucky to get either glimpses or good views. The last bird of the morning was a pair of adorable Rusty-backed Antwrens before we went back to the hotel, with a short stop at the Byzantine cemetery and its very confiding pair of Burrowing Owls at their nest. In the afternoon we enjoyed amazing views of Biscutate Swifts whizzing by in amazing light before we wandered down the road to a trusty territory of the super local Diamantina Tapaculo. After seeing that bird well, we were entertained by a boisterous flock of beautiful Gilt-edged Tanagers.

Sincora Antwren was our main target for our early morning birding. Before that we were distracted by a White-bellied Nothura that our driver Paulo spotted walking down the sidewalk at the edge of town. We watched it for a couple minutes as it crossed the road, was flushed by a passing car, then came back out again. When we arrived at the trailhead, we thought we had the targeted antwren right away, but it turned out to be the visually extremely similar but vocally very different Black-bellied Antwren, slightly out of habitat. With it was a Southern Yellowthroat and a visible (finally) Fulvous-crowned Scrub-Tyrant. It wasn’t long before we had amazing views of a pair of Sincora Antwrens a very short and pleasant walk down the trail. Another highlight from here was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that flew over early on our walk. As we were leaving it flew over again back the way it came with some food item in its talons; breakfast for the babies, presumably. We then faced a long drive to Boa Nova, with only brief birding stops that yielded Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Savanna Hawk on a nest, and Wing-banded Horneros, as well as a tremendous, deafening downpour during our lunch break, the area’s first of the season (and the only rain we would see in two weeks). After checking in to our hotel, we birded some habitat nearby where we lucked into a pair of the town’s mascot, Slender Antbird. Sapphire-spangled Emeralds were guarding their food source, here the pink flowers of Melocactus ernestii, and we called in a very adorable White-crested Tyrannulet.

We departed early for a morning of birding in the very different wet forest, but darn it, birds right along the road made us stop before we got there. Two blooming Inga trees right next to the highway were the attraction, and a gorgeous male Ruby-topaz Hummingbird finally made it on everyone’s list. After tallying quite a few more things here, we got to our first humid forest habitat of the tour, amazingly only 20 minutes down the road. Atlantic Black-throated Trogon (fresh from the splitting block), Striated Softtail, Gray-hooded Attila, and Frilled Coquette were just a few of the more memorable sightings from this amazing five hours of birding (just shy of 100 species). In the late afternoon we viewed Slender Antbird once again in its distinctive, viny and terrestrial bromeliad-choked habitat. Nearby we got invited to a private ranch with some unusual open rocky habitat where Swallow-tailed Hummingbirds dominated the blooming cactuses and bromeliads. The best find here was a pair of the incredibly well-camouflaged Pygmy Nightjars.

A bit of early morning birding near Boa Nova before our onward drive was very busy, with Orange-headed Tanager right on the main highway where we stopped first to catch everyone up on Yellow-browed Tyrants – and where we also saw a pair of Blackish Rails walking out in the open. We had to beat away the Southern Mouse-colored Tyrannulets with a stick and thereby were able to spot a furtive Fuscous Flycatcher in the thickets, and Pale Baywings were a good addition here. The drive to Serra Bonita wasn’t too long, and breaking it up with stops that resulted in a Zone-tailed Hawk, a very unexpected Pinnated Bittern, and a more expected but still amazing Least Pygmy-Owl made it seem shorter. We arrived at our home up on the mountain of Serra Bonita for the next three nights with some quality afternoon birding time. Sharpbill was a surprise sitting in a tree right by our rooms, and the overlook nearby was really busy with tanagers, a White-throated Spadebill, and an in-your-face White-chinned Sapphire.

The morning dawned foggy at the top of the hill, so we took the trucks down to bird the lower elevations of the entrance road. White-shouldered Fire-eye and Green-backed Trogon were among the more memorable birds there, but it was also a morning for cavity nesters – Black-necked Aracari, Yellow-throated Woodpecker (here with a red throat), and Yellow-fronted Woodpeckers were all spied poking their heads out of dead trees. After our first Mantled Hawk soared over, we returned to the cooler higher elevations where the birding continued to be good. A family group of Striated Softtails chattered away, multiple Sharpbills made themselves visible, a Swallow-tailed Manakin male showed off, and a hard-to-find Bahia Tyrannulet came down out of the canopy. After lunch we enjoyed Spot-billed Toucanets at the fruit, and two pairs of Buff-throated Purpletufts were super lucky finds.

We started our second full day at Serra Bonita near our rooms, where bird activity was high and included the local Plumbeous Antvireo. Spot-billed Toucanets were also in the trees nearby, the male teeter-tottering as he croaked his song. We then tried out a trail above the antenna road where we found yet another Bahia Tyrannulet while finding a Pale-browed Treehunter, a lovely orchid, and some stunning bromeliads. A Lemon-chested Greenlet was in one of the mixed flocks with groups of the stunning Green-headed Tanagers and a Chestnut-bellied Euphonia. Back at the lodge’s feeders, Sombre Hummingbird was finally seen well by all. In the afternoon we walked down the road, where a White-shouldered Fire-eye hopped out in the open. We were surprised to hear an Ash-throated Crake in the overgrown fields halfway down, but we gave it a shot and ended up getting decent views of this skulky rail.

Before leaving the Serra Bonita area we birded the lowest elevations of the reserve where White-eyed Parakeet was a bit of a surprise and Peach-fronted Parakeets showed well. The Banded Cotinga didn’t appear during our vigil at Fazenda Paris, but we did get Black-tailed Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, White-chinned Sapphire, and Black-necked Aracari here. A quick check at a nearby marsh produced the hoped-for Black-capped Donacobius right along the road. The drive to the coast at Porto Seguro passed by quickly enough. Afternoon birding by the mangroves was windy and noisy with traffic, but we still managed to pull out Bicolored Conebills. At the Veracel Reserve we had just enough light to see some daytime birds, including a White-flanked Antwren, and then as it got dark, we had lots of owl activity. A pair of Mottled Owls came in quite close and low, but the two Pulsatrix sp. species that could have been either Tawny-browed or Spectacled stayed out of sight, and a Black-capped Screech-Owl may have been spooked by the larger predators. It was still fantastic to hear their amazing vocalizations.

On our final morning, we returned to the Veracel reserve where we picked up several new birds. Sooretama Slaty-Antshrike and Band-tailed Antwren were two of our main targets, and along the way some people caught up with White-winged Becard and Dubois’s Seedeater. Manakins and hummingbirds were quite diverse here, highlights being Blue-backed Manakin and Rufous-throated Sapphire, the latter seen performing an amazing sputtering display flight. Any calling Celeus woodpecker here is worth having a closer look, and we ended up getting great views of a Blond-crested Woodpecker, seeing the mostly black back with just some paler scaling. Not to be forgotten amongst all the votes for favorite birds that reflect some of the prettiest and rarest, the Bananaquit, known in Brazil as cambaçica, finally gets a mention for being a charismatic and constant presence in so many of the habitats during this fabulous tour.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 15 December 2023