Sunday, April 5, 2020

Minas Gerais Birthday Extension

January 17, 2020

The second half of my post-birthday extension in Brazil was to the state of Minas Gerais. The attractions here are Maned Wolf at the Caraça Sanctuary and the wild grasslands with chance of Giant Anteater at Canastra National Park. I planned on two nights in each place to keep the trip affordable, and 16 of my friends joined me for this part of the adventure. Having departed Cuiabá on a pre-dawn flight I thought we’d have some time for birding once we got to Caraça the same afternoon. It’s only about 3 ½ hours from the Belo Horizonte airport, unless there is a traffic issue. There was a traffic issue. At least we got some birding in while waiting for the line of vehicles to move.

It seems to have been highway construction that caused the long delay, but in any event it took us about 6 hours and 15 minutes. In any event, we were in time for dinner, and right afterward we assembled on the porch in front of the church entrance. In a short time our hoped-for guest appeared – Maned Wolf, Chrysocyon brachyurus (this photo is from my tour year before last).
Maned Wolf

January 18 was our one full day in the lushly forested valley and naturally scrubby hillsides of Canastra. It’s a gorgeous place, with plenty of draw for even the non-birders – waterfall hikes being a favorite. There are birds everywhere, including many Dusky-legged Guans right around the buildings.
Dusky-legged Guan

We saw many local specialties such as this Dubois's Seedeater, which looks like a washed-out Yellow-bellied Seedeater (and some consider them to be one variable species).
Dubois's Seedeater

Surely a caterpillar host for a local species of swallowtail, this is pipevine is Aristolochia smilacina.
Aristolochia smilacina

Not all skippers are brown and boring; This firetip is Sarbia soza, and it’s first for its species on iNaturalist.
Sarbia soza

This wasp-mimicking katydid was a stunner. It even flicked its wings like a tarantula hawk. Thanks to iNaturalist, I labeled it as a Scaphura sp.
Scaphura sp.

We then had a long day’s drive across the state of Minas Gerais to São Roque de Minas, with a lunch stop where we saw both White-rumped Monjita and this Gray Monjita in an adjacent field.
Gray Monjita

Like Caraça, we had just one fully day at Canastra, which I divided into two halves. The morning was devoted to driving up the São Francisco River (locally nicknamed Velho Chico, which I roughly translate as Old Frankie), making frequent stops at all likely places for the super rare Brazilian Merganser. We practically wrung the river dry without a single duck of any kind. Our driver knew birds though, and he had a way with tinamous. First he coaxed a Small-billed Tinamou to walk across the road, then a little later he got this Spotted Nothura to walk out in the open and sing at point-blank range.
Spotted Nothura

I found another pipevine (Aristolochia), this one much larger, but I don’t have a species name for it yet.

The other half of the day was spent on the top of the national park, primarily in search for Giant Anteater. On the way up our driver stopped opposite this Red-legged Seriema which was perched by the side of the road. It was unfazed and unimpressed by this big bus.
Red-legged Seriema

Alas, we never did see a Giant Anteater, despite our odds being pretty good (the November WINGS tour has never missed it so far). Perhaps a bit of a consolation for the mammal watchers was this Pampas Deer, Ozotoceros bezoarticus.
Pampas Deer, Ozotoceros bezoarticus

While some of us birded, the non-birders enjoyed a lovely walk along the road through the magnificent grasslands. We stopped for just a few, such as this local Ochre-breasted Pipit, which was a lifebird for me just this past November.
Ochre-breasted Pipit

Pearly-breasted Seedeater turns out to be very common this time of year; in November only a very few were starting to set up territories.
Pearly-breasted Seedeater

I had hoped we could rush along to the end of the road at the top of the waterfalls of the São Francisco, where we would have one last chance at the merganser, but not only were there more specialty birds to see (like Sharp-tailed Grass-Finch, Black-masked Finch, and Cock-tailed Tyrant), but our bus was excruciatingly slow on these dirt roads, not going more than about 10-15 km per hour. It was getting to be dusk while we were still a few kilometers before the falls, so we made one last stop for plants when Jake spotted a Brazilian Merganser flying super fast, way out over the grasslands! Most of the group got it, missed by those who were standing on the wrong side of the bus and never saw which way it was flying. Not the best views ever, but still a magnificent find.

The plants here were also just amazing. There are several confusing genera in the family Eriocaulaceae, but all are fascinating, distant relatives of grasses called pipeworts.

Also typical of this region is the family Velloziaceae, most closely related to the Cyclanths and screwpines. This one is Vellozia peripherica.
Vellozia peripherica

This gorgeous member of the amaranth family is Gomphrena arborescens; it had me fooled as a composite at first glance.
Gomphrena arborescens

Monday, March 30, 2020

Pantanal Birthday Extension

January 13-16, 2020

My 50th birthday celebration at Cristalino Jungle Lodge was just five nights, and when planning this whole thing I knew that for most of my friends that wouldn’t be enough time to warrant the long flights to and from Brazil. I also figured that while many would be perfectly capable of organizing their own add-ons (and some did before and after the trip), I could entice a few more to join the group if I organized something for them myself. So I planned a post-Cristalino extension to the Pantanal and Minas Gerais, capping it at 20 (including myself). The itinerary was planned to include some enticements for the non-birders in the group – especially mammals, but also the locations themselves. For my part, I was very interested in seeing these areas I know well in the middle of the rainy season, when bird numbers and their activities might be different than in the dry season, and when plant phenology is likely to be drastically different.

We had much of the first morning at Giuliano and Lisa’s Aymara Lodge. One highlight was this Tropical Screech-Owl in the garden which was tooting away unsolicited in the daylight hours (or maybe it heard my mobbing tape from a few hundred yards away and an hour earlier).
Tropical Screech-Owl

Someone also poked their head in the abandoned building that hasn’t yet been restored and found roosting bats. This one looks just like the ones we identified as Pallas’s Long-tongued Bat, Glossophaga soricina, on my tour a few years ago from just a bit farther south. The genus name means “tongue-eater,” and virtually all online photos are like this one, showing the tongue sticking out of the mouth as if they were in the midst of eating one.
Glossophaga soricina

By late morning we were headed south for the long drive to the end of the road at Porto Jofre. We did have time for a few roadside stops. These Greater Rhea were certainly a hit with the group.
Greater Rhea

Even the non-birders were impressed by this fabulous Scarlet-headed Blackbird.
Scarlet-headed Blackbird

Finally at the end of the road, we boarded our two boats to head upriver to our lodge for the next three nights. We were told it would be a minimum of 50 minutes, possibly up to 30 minutes longer if we made stops.

But wait – Tim left his spotting scope on the bank by the buses; good thing our driver Rogerio noticed!

Finally, after more than two hours, we arrived at Pousada Recanto do Jaguar, but shortly before arriving the lead boatman spotted a jaguar swimming across the river. Most of the group got to see it – but not everyone, and we never did see more than its head out of the water – all too soon it went up into some low overhanging willows and disappeared.

For the next two full days we took boat rides out into the Pantanal – on the Rio Tres Irmãos, Rio Cuiabá, and various tributaries and channels that connected the two.

Late on the first morning, we finally connected with our number one target: Panthera onca! This one was extremely cooperative, and we were able to spend more than 20 minutes with her. I was later able to find out from Paul Donahue that her name is Ibaca.
Jaguar, Panthera onca, Ibaca

This freed us up to explore the region the rest of our stay, while also hoping for another jaguar. We passed by this huge Cocoi Heron heronry. When I come here on my tours, we don’t see them nesting, but then again I’d never been this far upriver.

This Rufescent Tiger-Heron was in just perfect light on the dock at the lodge.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron

This was the middle of the rainy season, and though it was still a few weeks away from the typically highest river levels, word was that the water was extremely low for this time of year. Perhaps that helped our chances for seeing jaguar, but we did not find another one on these boat rides. There was some nice thunderstorm action, in any event, making for beautiful skies. Take this incredible irisation above the cumulonimbus clouds.

We had great hosts during our stay. This is a low season for them, so I’m sure they were glad to have us in any event. This Junior, the super friendly bar tender, server, and general helper.

We got word from Giuliano that one of the rickety bridges that we would have cross on our return had been damaged by one of the many heavy trucks laden with cattle, as the ranchers were preparing for the upcoming high water levels by trucking them to higher ground. To fix it, a crew would be arriving at dawn the next day, dismantling and rebuilding it, taking all day. That would strand us here, causing us to miss our flight to Belo Horizonte! Later in the evening he came up with a plan: He negotiated with the crew to postpone their dismantling the bridge until 8:00 a.m. instead of 5:00 a.m. It would be about 3 1/2 hours travel time from our lodge, so we departed at 4:00 a.m. At one point, when Mich spotted eyeshine that clearly was not a caiman or potoo, he screamed for the boat to stop, and we had dim views of a very large Jaguar sitting on the bank well behind a curtain of foliage!

Apparently the bridge wasn’t so damaged that we couldn’t drive across it, which was a surprise to me (I thought we’d have to walk across, transferring our bags by hand to a waiting pair of new vans), but it did mean that we had to rush there, driving through some of the best birding in the Pantanal, without stopping, during the best time of day. We flushed dozens of all four species of cracids (Bare-faced Curassow, Chestnut-bellied Guan, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, and Chaco Chachalaca), hundreds of White-tipped Doves, and waved goodbye to all the Limpkins, Jabirus, and Southern Screamers along the roadside. One good catch was a White-headed Marsh-Tyrant by a bridge as we drove slowly across it. After crossing the damaged bridge, we had plenty of time for some stops in the middle stretches of the road, and at one stop we had Hook-billed Kite and a very rare Rufous-thighed Kite at the very same time.
Hook-billed Kite

Rufous-thighed Kite

A new passionflower for me was this Passiflora quadriglandulosa (with thanks to Yero Kuethe for the ID).
Passiflora quadriglandulosa

Also new for me was this spectacular milkweed vine, Schubertia grandiflora.
Schubertia grandiflora

For the non-birders we added some nice mammals. This Marsh Deer, Blastocerus dichotomus, was cooperative.
Blastocerus dichotomus

On the entrance road to Aymara Lodge, where we returned for lunch, was this incredible Brazilian Tapir, Tapirus terrestris, unusual in being out in the open in the middle of the day. That it was unafraid of our vehicles a few feet away wasn’t so unusual.
Brazilian Tapir, Tapirus terrestris

At the lodge this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture might have been inspecting the compost pile, or perhaps it had a nest in the nearby forest patch.
Lesser Yellow-headed Vultur

A Gray-headed Kite – our third “kite” (despite the name, they’re not closely related and probably just should have been named hawks) for the day was also a great find.
Gray-headed Kite

Finally, as we were finishing lunch, I heard a vaguely familiar sound in the trees overhead the dining room. There were a pair of Hyacinth Macaws getting all lovey-dovey with each other, oblivious to the crowd that was gathering below.

Finally, it was time return to Cuiabá for an early night to bed for tomorrow we would have a very early start. We made a stop to snap this Ringed Kingfisher just outside the van windows.
Ringed Kingfisher

And of course there was the obligatory group photo at the Pantanal entrance sign.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Cristalino Birthday: Day 5 – To the Pantanal

January 12, 2020

This is the last morning at Cristalino Jungle Lodge for me and my remaining 31 friends who joined me for this half-century bash. Our departure isn’t until after 10:00 a.m., so while some chose to sleep in, pack, and hang out around the lodge clearing, I joined Gilmar and his group – which was now just Brad and Cindy – for a sunrise visit to Tower 2, named the Ted Parker Tower. This is one outing where hard-core birding groups usually get up later than general ecotourists – if you want to see the sunrise, you have to get there before birds are actually visible. Since Gilmar guides mostly non-birders, he scheduled us to depart well before it started getting light, and we hiked the kilometer by headlamp. The sunrise was gorgeous, worth the early start on its own, but we actually had some birds we would have missed with a typical birding arrival. As we got to the top, a pair of Short-tailed Nighthawks were calling close by, unseen. I whistled their staccato, slightly-upslurred note, and they circled us closely, but I never was able to get a glimpse against the dark canopy below. But looking above, the sky was getting light, and Brad spotted a nighthawk flying high – but this one was very high, making a beeline southward, and had the typical long, pointed wings of a Common Nighthawk, here on its wintering grounds.

As it got light, we delighted in lots of bird activity close to the tower, including Pompadour and Spangled Cotingas, toucans, aracaris, and parrots. One of the more surprising sightings was of a very young King Vulture perched in a distant tree, and we later learned that the group hiking to Serra 1 were on the trail below that bird and saw it as well. In this photo are a White-browed Purpletuft and two Short-billed Honeycreepers.
White-browed Purpletuft and two Short-billed Honeycreeper

The light was also perfect for people watching on Tower 1.

As we gathered back at the lodge, we finished packing, put our bags out, signed the guest book, finalized our bar bills, and gradually gathered by the dock. But that took quite a while, and there was time to look for interesting things in the understory. This diurnal metalmark moth (family Choreutidae) is Ornarantia ophiodesma, rather common, but so small it’s often overlooked.
Ornarantia ophiodesma

Steffen was looking for a reported turtle that walked away when he looked under a leaf and found this amazing caterpillar. It’s Parasa flora, a moth in the family Limacodidae.
Parasa flora

Finally we were all together for this group photo. What an amazing group of people. I love you all.

The Brazilian guides were terrific, and I hope they had as much fun as the rest of us.

To the Pantanal: While all 32 of us flew from Alta Floresta to Cuiaba, we then split up a bit. Christoph went on to Curitiba and Iguazu, and 11 flew back to their respective homes. But 20 of us boarded two Mercedes Sprinters and began the 3-hour drive to the northern Pantanal for a 10-day extension that I organized with the help of my friends Giuliano and Lisa Bernardon of the travel company Birding Pantanal. They bought an old run-down lodge, fixed it up just this past year, renamed it Aymara, and we are among the first groups to stay here. We arrived after dark, and those on the left side of the first bus got to see an Ocelot on the entrance road to the lodge.

After we got a bit settled in and had dinner, most of us took a walk back down the entrance road hoping for some interesting mammals. We did see some Common Pauraques and heard plenty of frogs. This small Brazilian Orange-banded Tarantula, Acanthoscurria juruenicola, was on the side of the road.
Acanthoscurria juruenicola

For me the biggest thrill was finding this blooming cereoid cactus and then discovering that it smelled sweetly of ripe coconut! I’ve had it identified as Mirabella minensis, formerly Cereus mirabella.
Mirabella minensis

Mirabella minensis