Northeastern Brazil

We took two back-to-back birding tours from Jan. 18 – Feb. 18 with Field Guides, Inc. (Nowhere but Northeast Brazil and Bahia Birding Bonanza). These tours visited the states of Pernambuco, Ceara, and Bahia in northeastern Brazil, with the bulk of the time spent in the latter. These areas are well southeast of the mouth of the Amazon, and northeast of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. We had toured for four weeks in southeastern Brazil in 2008 with the same principal leader, Bret Whitney, who is the top expert on the birds of Brazil. Although there was a moderate degree of overlap between the birds expected in northeastern and southeastern Brazil, there were still about 157 species of birds that were possible in the northeast, which we had not seen previously.

Common Marmoset, Pernambuco, Brazil
Above: Common Marmoset, Pernambuco, Brazil. This was one of the six new mammals we saw on this trip. 

Onshore winds from the Atlantic Ocean bring moisture to northeastern Brazil, supporting humid habitats at lower elevations and close to the coast. As the terrain rises inland towards low mountains and plateaus, the air is cooled, leading to rainfall and drying of the air, eventually creating a rain shadow to the west. These elevation and rainfall gradients produce a number of distinct habitats that vary widely in their characteristics. Among these we visited the following, arranged approximately in the order they would be encountered proceeding from the coast inland: (1) Mangroves in salt and brackish water;  (2) Restinga, an attractive open woodland growing on nearly pure white sand; (3) Atlantic Forest, a fragmented band of humid jungle paralleling the coast; (4) Mata-de-Cipo, a dense forest rife with lianas (woody vines), found in a small area centered on Boa Nova National Park; (5) Caatinga, an arid, mostly deciduous forest that has almost entirely been replaced by non-native acacias from Africa, due to disturbance and feral goats; and (6) Cerrado, a fire-adapted savannah found on plateaus, here at the northeastern edge of its distribution, which continues southwest to the borders with Paraguay and Bolivia.

Masked Water-Tyrant, Pernambuco, Brazil
Above: Masked Water-Tyrant, Pernambuco, Brazil. This species, seen most days of the trip, is generally found near surface water, but typically not in marshes.

Our trip began in the coastal city of Recife, in the state of Pernambuco, where, from the 15th floor of our hotel, we watched Green Sea Turtles feeding in the surf. Using the towns of Palmares and Tamandare as bases, about 60 miles southwest of Recife, we spent three days birding in areas with a number of range-restricted birds, such as Pinto’s Spinetail and Long-tailed Woodnymph. In Tamadare, one morning well before sunrise, Eileen was sitting quietly, having coffee at the beach, when two Brazilian White-eared Opossums came out from a hedge twice and entertained her for a few minutes, a thrilling experience! This was a life mammal and the only one seen the whole trip. We then flew about 400 miles northwest to Fortaleza in the state of Ceara, and drove south to the Serra do Baturite, an abruptly rising mountain range. Most of our time here was very rainy, but we managed to see a fine assortment of species, including White-lined Broad-nosed Bats, found roosting on the underside of a palm frond with the thermal scope; Ceara Gnateater; and Gray-breasted Parakeet.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Pernambuco, Brazil
Above: Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Pernambuco, Brazil. This diurnal owl is only about six inches high. Playing or imitating its call can bring in small songbirds that actively try to drive the owl off; this behavior is referred to as mobbing. 

Continuing south, we explored lovely sandstone formations near Quixada, where we saw perhaps our best caatinga habitat. Highlights here were Pygmy Nightjars, White-naped Jays, and Rock Cavy, an unusual mammal that is closely related to Capybara. Still further south, we explored the Chapada do Araripe, a plateau with an elevation of about 3000 feet. We had 13 lifers in one day here, the most of any day on the trip, and this included two exceptional species: (1) Araripe Manakin, a stunning bird occurring only in a few drainages fed by natural springs, which maintain an exceptionally high humidity; and (2) Buff-fronted Owl, a very challenging species to see; it is in the same genus as our Saw-Whet Owl and is equally adorable.

Araripe Manakin, Ceara, Brazil
Above: Araripe Manakin, Ceara, Brazil. This species has one of the smallest ranges of any bird occurring on a continental landmass.

Four of the five next days involved very long drives through the arid interior, leaving Ceara state, crossing Pernambuco (where we had good birding near Petrolina, featuring great views of Stripe-backed Bittern), and finally entering Bahia, where we spent the bulk of the trip. The primary purpose of the multiple long drives were to enable us to visit the scenic breeding grounds of one of the most beautiful birds in the world, Indigo Macaw. These large parrots breed in sandstone cliff faces in a single remote canyon system southeast of Canudos. Seeing their intense blue color against red rock at sunrise, as birds milled about, calling continuously, was the most magnificent experience of the trip! It truly is one of the greatest avian spectacles on the planet. A major surprise, while I was scanning treetops in the bottom of the canyon, from our perch on the rim, was spotting one of my most wanted birds – the diminutive Pearl Kite – perched and enjoying the first rays of sun.

Indigo Macaws, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Indigo Macaws, Bahia, Brazil. The world population of this species is only about two thousand pairs, all of which nest in a single extensive canyon system.

Two days later we were on top of Chapada Diamantina, another plateau, where we found the finest assortment of flowering plants on the trip. These included two species of Vellozia, a new family of monocots for us, related to Pandanus; two fine orchids, Encyclia alboxanthinum and Epistephium lucidum; the exquisite scarlet Calliandra mucugeana; and a lovely relative of pipewort, Paepalanthus pulvinatus. Between the flowers, the fetching cerrado scenery, and eleven life birds – including fabulous looks at Collared Crescentchest and Sincora Antwren – this was my favorite location of the whole trip.

Stripe-backed Bittern, Pernambuco, Brazil
Above: Stripe-backed Bittern, Pernambuco, Brazil. This is a secretive species, usually remaining hidden in cattails and other aquatic vegetation, but we were fortunate to see several of them.

After flying to Salvador on the coast, the first tour ended and the second began. On the first day, heading northeast and parallel with the coast, we made a stop in an isolated, cerrado-like habitat that yielded one of Eileen’s most wanted birds, Horned Sungem, a spectacular hummingbird. Our next stop, in high-quality Atlantic Forest northwest of Acu da Torre, produced the mammal of the trip, Northern Maned Three-toed Sloth. The mother slowly munched on leaves while a youngster, clinging to her back, peeked around occasionally to check us out. This species has a very small range and low world population, though it apparently is doing well in this area, with good production of young at least during the last few years with higher than normal rainfall.

Sincora Antwren, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Sincora Antwren, Bahia, Brazil. This trip was excellent for seeing members of the neotropical antbird family; we found an impressive 35 species.

We spent an excellent day and a half birding near the coast in the general vicinity of Conde. The highlights here were exceptional freshwater marshes, harboring the enigmatic Azure Gallinule (with young), Pinnated Bitterns, and Ash-throated Crake; mangrove-lined estuaries that we explored by boat, finding Rufous Crab-Hawk, Little Wood Rail, and a disjunct population of Gray-breasted Parakeets; and prime restinga habitat, with an unusually shaped flowering cactus, Melocactus voliaceus. Returning to Salvador, we flew to reach several interesting birding locations about 150 miles to the southwest.

Passiflora cincinnata, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Passionflower, Passiflora cincinnata, Bahia, Brazil. Visible in this photo from near to far are the three styles, five stamens, numerous coronal filaments, and eight of ten tepals (the term used when petals and sepals are very similar).

Near Pocoes, we visited a Mata-de-Cipo vine forest, featuring Swallow-tailed Manakin, and a beautiful bedrock knoll with flowering Melocactus attracting about half a dozen species of hummingbirds, including Ruby Topaz and Swallow-tailed Hummingbird. A full day was spent in Boa Nova National Park, where our favorite sightings were of Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (superb views), Black-billed Scythebill, and the colorful Channel-billed Toucan. The next day was mostly spent in transit to the coast at Itacare, but we did detour to see the unusual Pink-legged Gravateiro, a bird that was not discovered until the 1990s, despite its range being easily accessible by good roads in a reasonably populated area. It is restricted to the large trees that shade cacao plantations  (cacao is the small tree in the mallow family from which chocolate is derived) and it builds bulky stick nests that can be spotted from a distance.

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Bahia, Brazil. This rather large hummingbird was one of 29 species seen on the trip.

We spent a day and a half near Itacare, where the primary target was the extremely secretive Bahia Tapaculo. Tapaculos are a family of songbirds that live on the ground, usually in densely forested areas where they are extremely hard to see. A number of the species are truly tiny, and often dark-colored, making their detection even more difficult. We spent three hours with a local guide, hunkering down during two cloudbursts, before seeing this species twice, for a few seconds each time. I was able to locate the tapaculo twice in the thermal scope as it approached the first time, so we were ready when it crossed the one small gap in the vegetation where it could be briefly seen walking through. Other exciting finds in this area included Kinglet Manakin, Opal-rumped Tanager, and Black-eared Fairy, a hummingbird that checked out its reflection in the van windows.

Red-legged Honeycreeper, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Red-legged Honeycreeper, Bahia, Brazil. Honeycreepers are a small group of snazzy tanagers that frequently feed on nectar.

We transferred to four-wheel-drives to reach the remote Serra Bonita Lodge at 2600 feet elevation. A full-day hike yielded two difficult species, Bahia Tyrannulet, found only at high elevations in a few areas, and Rufous-Brown Solitaire, as well as Crescent-chested Puffbird and Wied’s Marmoset, all lifers. We continued to the coast at Porto Seguro, our final base, from which we explored the VERECEL Preserve for two days. Highlights here in the alternating dense forests and openings were fabulous looks at White-winged Potoo; a juvenile Common Potoo we could approach closely on its day roost; Hook-billed Hermit, a range-restricted hummingbird; a beautiful Tiger Rat Snake crossing the road; and a nice selection of hummingbirds.

Common Potoo, juvenile, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Common Potoo, Bahia, Brazil. This juvenile bird, a nocturna;l species on its day roost, allowed us to approach well within ten feet of it, relying on its protective coloration and pose, which make it look like a broken-off stub off a branch. 

In total, we saw about 119 life birds, 76% of the possible lifers, an excellent hit rate. Our total trip list was about 455 species, so about one in four birds were new for us. We saw ten mammal species, of which six were new. The birding was pretty intense, so we did not have a lot of time to pursue other groups, but we did note about 19 species of plants, 9 herps, and a few insects. It was an exhausting but exhilarating month of immersion in neotropical birding, which we hope will be complemented by two trips later this year, to Guyana and the Rio Negro in Amazonian Brazil.

Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, Bahia, Brazil
Above: Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, Bahia, Brazil. This colorful species is always a favorite! 

3 thoughts on “Northeastern Brazil

  1. Fabulous pix and a great narrative thank you Brian!! We love the mixture of sightings from our natural world – birds, mammals, plants and so on. We need to see more of Brazil so we have to discuss these tours with you & Eileen in more detail. They sound quite tough – long days driving & hiking, hot, humid & wet conditions. We know you really like the guide. We can chat in Borneo.

    By the way, we have not yet made travel arrangements for that. We may try for an extra day or two in Singapore, HK or Manila but nothing firm. We do not plan to do anything until late March/early April.

    Have a good recovery!

    Rhys & Terry


  2. Another two fabulous trips – was so fun to read your notes!! How is Brett doing post-pandemic?

    All is well here – record rains and snow for southern CA… which we are hoping can relocate to our reservoirs!!

    More trips planned? We are staying close to home – Bob is dealing some heart issues, ie, atrial fibrillation – so we need to get that sorted. Hope to go to Clear Lake in April and Oregon in July.

    You take care and keep traveling for us! Connee and Bob ________________________________


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