Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Cuvier's Beaked-Whales and Pelagic Seabirds in New York

A way offshore pelagic from Brooklyn in July

Looking back at the blog, I seem to have stopped writing about my local birding and natural history adventures.  I guess the world-birder-travel stuff seems so much more exciting, and the local trips perhaps seems repetitive year-to-year.  But I still get out locally most weekends when I'm in New York, so here's something from closer to home.

Monday, July 22 - 130 miles South of Brooklyn

For most of my 28 years living in New York, pelagic trips were an exercise in futility.  The gulf stream, warm water, and most interesting birds are a very long way from shore in New York.  In North Carolina you can be looking at a wide range of pelagic species an hour from the dock, but in New York you have to steam for 8 hours overnight to get into good water and stand a decent chance of seeing good birds.  For years, folks tried to see things closer in ... I chartered a few boats myself with mixed results ... and then an enterprising chap called Paul Guris got it all properly worked out.

Paul (and his better half, the lovely Anita) is a sea-birding impresario who puts together pelagic trips along the East Coast, mostly in New York and New Jersey.  In my opinion, he single-handedly turned New York pelagic birding from futile to productive over the course of the last five or six years.  Boats now get regularly filled, get out to good waters for decent amounts of time, and see excellent birds.  Indeed over the last few years, Paul's "Paulagics" have turned up Fea's Petrel, Trinidade Petrel and made previously mega birds like White-faced and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and Black-capped Petrel into regular, gettable birds in New York.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels
This year the boat captains have been making things difficult but when the opportunity to sail on a July 'Paulagic' came up, I signed up quickly.

I should say straight up, I am not a good sailor.  I have been seasick on pelagic boats all over the world, and may unfortunately be semi-famous for it.  I have never been on a Brian Patteson trip in North Carolina without contributing to the chum line and have even failed to hold it together on the relatively placid waters of Monterey Bay.  But 'you don't look, you don't see' so I keep going, keep optimistically taking my dramamine (which unfortunately usually puts me to sleep for half of the trip) and keep soldiering on.  Sea-birds are important ... and cetaceans are even better.

So 9pm Sunday night and off we go again (how do you spend your Sunday nights?).  There's a certain amount of socializing on these trips as they gather together a broad group of New York birders who don't get to see each other every week, but I tend to try to find a quiet bench and spread my sleeping bag early.  Once I've taken my dramamine I'm down for the count, and sleep most of the night, but this time I was vaguely aware that it wasn't the smoothest passage out to the deep water.  Turns out we passed through several thunder storms and took a detour around others, but by dawn we were out where we wanted to be ... over 7,000 feet of water, 130 miles South of New York City.

As the sun came up, the steel gray waters were choppy and the smell of diesel and chum permeated everything on the boat.  I frankly felt somewhat queasy all morning, even passing on the egg and cheese sandwiches that they cooked up in the galley (and I love egg and cheese sandwiches).  But there's something special about dawn on a pelagic trip and, no matter how awful you feel, the excitement of being out there in the deep water takes over and we all staggered to the railing, ready to bird.

Leach's Petrels only show up close to dawn.  It's a strange fact and I'm not sure it applies everywhere, but on New York pelagic trips, the Leach's Petrels are typically seen early in the low light, and then vanish mysteriously.  I'm not sure why, or where they go, but for veteran pelagic birders, the first half hour on the chum slick is Leach's Petrel time and sure enough, they showed up on cue that morning.  A few Band-rumped Petrels showed up too so we got a quick reminder on ID by 'jiz' with the bouncing flight of the Leach's contrasting with the purposeful direct fight of the Band-rumped.

Leach's Petrel
Then, over the next few hours we slowly filled out the list of pelagic birds.  The numbers weren't big, but we got most of the species we expected.  There were a few Great Shearwaters, a couple of Cory's Shearwaters and Audubon's Shearwaters along with a single Manx Shearwater surprisingly far offshore.  An hour or so in I picked up a fast moving back and white bird and called it, but blanked on the name, even though I knew what it was ... Black-capped Petrel.  This species used to be a 'mega' for New York but it's now seen regularly and annually on these trips so we've all gotten a little blasé about them.  Still, in global terms, a very rare bird and they are always fun to watch.  We looked out for it's even rarer cousins too, but it didn't happen that day.

Black-capped Petrel (old photo from N. Carolina)
Beyond the birds, today turned out to be a great day for cetaceans.  First up were a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, a good contrast to a later pod of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins.  The stars of the day, from a dolphin perspective, though were undoubtedly a large pod of Risso's Dolphins that stayed close to the boat for a long time and gave great views.

Risso's Dolphins


I also got a New York State life cetacean, a species I'd seen several times in North Carolina but nowhere else, when we bumped into a pod of CUVIER'S BEAKED-WHALES.  This species is a true oddity, with their white heads and goose-like 'beaks', they just look ... well, odd.  They are also famous as the deepest diving mammal species in any ocean (deeper then Sperm Whales, or even Elephant Seals).  That diving ability means that views are typically brief as when these guys dive, they are gone for a while, maybe 40 minutes before they surface again.  We were lucky then to get a decent view on the surface before they headed down to the depths.  A very cool species.

Cuvier's Beaked Whales
All too soon however, it was time to start making the long run back to shore with a plan to be back at the dock around 9pm.  They way in is often dull.  The die-hard birders persevere and may add a few things (a hammerhead shark sp. and a sea-turtle sp. in this case) but it's generally pretty birdless.  Being a cynical old birder, and high on dramamine, I usually sleep most of the way back in and that was pretty much the case that day.  When we got close to shore though, the weather started to look a little challenging.  We'd been avoiding thunder storms all through the trip, but as we got back closer to Brooklyn,  it was obvious that we were going to have to pass though one in order to get home.

Ahead of us was a wall of black.  The seas were blue and the skies were clear where we were, but we were going to have to go through some very dark and scary looking waters.  As we got closer everyone made their way down to the cabin and when we hit the edge of the storm, all hell broke loose.  From relatively calm seas the waters turned to ugly boiling churn with waves breaking over the bow and thumping down against the sides of the cabin.  It quite literally went dark, from day to night, and as the captain labored to keep the bow into the waves, our progress slowed to a crawl.  Then things got really ugly, a brush from a water-spout slammed the side of the boat and several of the large (12 foot by 3 foot) plastic windows on the boat cabin exploded out of their frames and crashed into the cabin with wind and waves blasting in behind them.  Scenes from the end of the Titanic movies came to mind, and there was me without my dinner jacket.  We did remain surprisingly calm though and I found myself pressed up against a window with other passengers trying to keep the remaining panels in their frames.  Everyone was soaked and a bit rattled but after a very tense 15 minutes or so, the maelstrom started to subside, the sky slowly lightened, and we passed out of the roaring waters and back to calmer seas.  Phew!  'Cheated Death Once Again' as my old friend Steve Howell is fond of saying on pelagic trips.  Definitely an experience ... but let's not do that again please.

So back at the dock and safely home an hour later.  While the trips can be a bit of a slog, the distances long, and the birding time short, you do get to see really good species.  Every time I get off the boat I think that I won't do another for a while.  Then the email goes out announcing a new trip, and I inevitably sign up ready for a new adventure ... who knows what we might see out there next time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tapirs and Caiman on the Rio Cristalino

A Short Stay at the Legendary Rio Cristalino Lodge in Mato Grosso

Back in 1995, I went to Brazil for the first time.  I flew to São Paulo, changed planes and flew on to Cuiaba, then spent a week birding in the Pantanal and in the nearby cerado habitat.  It was a low budget trip, we stayed in very basic accommodation and I could only afford to take part in the first week of what for others was a two week trip.  I saw 273 species of birds, most of them new for me, and I saw my first Giant River Otters and Giant Anteaters.  Despite the trip being so short I was quite simply entranced with the country and figured that I'd be back.  Indeed, since that trip I've made more than a dozen trips to Brazil, ten of them specifically for birding.

After I left Brazil that first time, the group of birders I was with went on to Alta Floresta and spent a week at the Rio Cristalino Jungle Lodge, where they saw a ton more birds and several Brazilian Tapirs.  Not to worry I thought, I'll probably get there before too long ... then 24 years passed by in a flash ... and I never did get round to going Rio Cristalino (and never saw a tapir of any sort).

In the meantime, two of my good birding friends, Carlos Sanchez and Rich Hoyer, both worked as guides at the Cristalino so I kept being reminded that I really ought to go, and yet somehow I just couldn't get organized to fit a visit into my schedule.  I knew it would happen someday though and it turns out that 2019 was the lucky year.  This year my Summer unexpectedly opened up and I decided to expand a long-planned  NorthEast Brazil trip,  grabbing the opportunity, and a room at the lodge at short notice.  Game on ...


Sunday, June 23 - Thursday, June 27 - Cristalino Jungle Lodge

A long travel weekend.  On Saturday I'd flown from New York to Bogotá and then on to São Paulo (sacrificing time for a cheap business class seat on Avianca).  I'd spent Saturday night at the airport Marriott at Guarulhos then taken an early Sunday morning flight to Cuiaba and, despite a delay, just made a connecting flight to Alta Floresta.  From there, my fellow lodge guests and I were met and driven an hour or so to a boat, then had a nice quick ride up the river to the lodge.  Made it ... finally.

Once we got oriented I, and two fellow birders who I did not know beforehand, got assigned a birding guide.  I wasn't thrilled to be lumped with other birders who, although they turned out to be delightful people and charming company, didn't initially strike me as 'hard core' birders.  However, I was happy to be assigned Sidnei Dantas as a guide ... another talented young ornithologist and a good friend of a friend.  And everything worked out in the end.

Pompadour Continga 
Once settled in, the routine for the next few days was set.  Up before dawn for a delicious breakfast, birding until lunch time, a huge and scrumptious Brazilian meal for lunch, siesta, more birding in the later afternoon until just after dark, shower, bar time, more mouthwatering Brazilian food for dinner, then collapse into bed.  I would quite happily spend the rest of my life doing exactly just that, at least in a place like Cristalino with amazing food, a great wine list, and awesome birds.  Perhaps the perfect vacation and so very different from the logging camp I'd stayed in the last time I made it to the Amazon.

A Pai da Mata made with fresh local herbs.  The lodge had a full bar and a good
wine list ... I only allow myself one cocktail every now and then, this was the one
and it was worth it.
Over the next 4 days we birded steadily and accumulated a list of nearly 250 species (or put another way, more species than I saw in the UK during the entirety of my childhood).  Of these, around 30 were lifers for me, nothing super rare, but some good birds.

Red-throated Piping Guan
Perhaps the best birds we saw were some local forest specialties like Alta Floresta Antpitta along with a good selection of antbirds, antshrikes, antwrens, woodcreepers, foliage-gleaners, and the many other mixed flock species from the forest interior.   Some of the ant swarms we saw were quite active and we were able to get to grips with a few ant-followers like Bare-eyed Antbird (although no ground-cuckoos unfortunately) plus there was always the comedic relief (for others) of seeing me high-stepping down the trail to get through a swarm of angry ants (army ants are one of the few things on earth that can persuade me to break into a brief run).

The time on the trails was mixed in with quite civilized boat rides along the rivers.  The birds here weren't quite so special but there were lots of big, photogenic things to keep us interested.  On the big charismatic bird front, I also finally caught up with Razor-billed Curasow, an amazing cracid that I'd long wanted to see.

Hoatzin and Sunbittern

Beyond the river-bank birds, the boat trips offered the best chances for other types of life and we did manage to see quite a few good things.  Spectacled Caiman were not uncommon on the river but one night we also managed to spot-light a Cuvier's Dwarf-Caiman in the fading light, a life crocodilian for me. These small heavily armored little crocs have large numbers of bony plates in their skin, which has protected them from the handbag trade, although being small and shy they are still rarely seen.

Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman
On the mammal front we did see five species of primate - including Red-handed Howler Monkey, Red-nosed Bearded Saki-Monkey, and White-whiskered Spider-Monkey - two species of peccary, some bats,  and several Neotropical River Otters (who doesn't love encounters with otters?).

Neotropical River Otter
The absolute highlight of the trip for me though came one morning as we motored upstream in the boat and I noticed a large brown lump in the morning mist a few hundred yards ahead of us.  I couldn't quite make out what it was but my brain slowly processed the shape and saw that it was moving ... it looked a bit like a horse.  I got my bins on it as it sank low into the water so I could just see the top of it's head and ears ... and it raised it's trunk (!).   "Anta!" I shouted.  One of the few moments where I actually remembered the Portuguese word for an animal but couldn't for the life of me remember the English word.  So I kept shouting "Anta! Anta!" and gave directions as best I could as the Brazilian Tapir made it's way to the river bank and vanished into the dense undergrowth.  Finally my first tapir, after many, many years of wanting to see one.  I was ecstatic but had to quickly reign in my excitement when I realized that, while the guide and the boatman had both seen the animal, my American birding companions had somehow managed to miss it.  Guilty feelings all around ...  but I was quietly smiling to myself for the rest of the day.

Gray-headed Kite
By contrast, the best bird of the week was one that we never saw.  The others had opted to take an afternoon off so Sidnei and I were happily off up a trail working an ant-swarm and hoping for ground-cuckoos when he pointed out a distinctive trill.  The bird was loud and close but we couldn't see it, and it did sound awfully familiar.  Sidnei's theory was that it was a Peruvian Recurvebill,  a very good bird for this location and one rarely seen here in recent years.  Playing a recording confirmed the ID but, although we worked on it for quite a while, we never did get a glimpse.  Such is forest birding unfortunately, but still a good record.

Great Black Hawk
Night walks were also a great experience, being out in the forest after dark is always a treat.  Although we didn't see any large nocturnal mammals we did see lots of nightjars of several species, a Great Potoo and several owls.  Then there were always the cool smaller things like trapdoor spiders and whip-scorpions to make the night interesting, or odd tree-frogs, bats, spiny-rats, centipedes and giant crickets.  A great variety of life right outside our doors.

Blackish Nightjar roosting on one of the cabins

On the last full day, for a change of scenery, we went down to the main river and birded some of the sand islands there.  Pied Lapwings really do look a lot like Egyptian Plovers (I can say that now that I've seen the plover) and we spent a fair amount of time attempting to lure a Glossy Antshrike within range of the camera.  This was the place we were told to look out for Harpy Eagles but alas, none came to see us, although we did see two different Ornate Hawk-Eagles during our stay there.  Next time ... for me with Harpy Eagle, it's always next time ...

Pied Lapwing and Glossy Antshrike 

All too soon though it was time for me to head back to the real world.  I really could have stayed at least an extra few days but my plans were set, so back to Alta Floresta then Cuiaba and on to São Paulo.  I did bring a souvenir with me though ... on the flight to Cuiaba my ankles and lower legs were itching uncontrollably, and it only got worse during the day ... Chiggers!  Not my favorite invertebrate and I had 'gotten them good' so for the entire duration of my stay in São Paulo I had something to remember the Amazon.  Still, it was worth it, and I'm already plotting my next trip to the Amazon ....

Ceará Specialties and the Araripe Manakin

A week chasing specialty birds in Ceará State, NorthEast Brazil.

Back in 2017 I joined a one-week Field Guides birding tour of Northern Bahia led by Bret Whitney.  I rarely do organized group tours but the dates were good, I'd long wanted to go to Bahia and it offered the chance to bird with Bret, a legend who discovered or named many of the specialty birds of NorthEast Brazil.  The tour was great and we saw some real star birds, the one downside though was that the other participants had just finished the Field Guides 'Nowhere but NorthEast Brazil' trip so all week I had to hear about all the amazing birds they'd seen the week before, many in the state of Ceará.  Two-and-a-half years later I'd arranged to get there myself and I had a list of target birds I really wanted.

The view from the mountains looking out over the plains of Ceará.
Saturday, June 29 - Guaramiranga

Since leaving Mato Grosso I'd had a few days in a nice hotel in São Paulo where I'd caught up with friends, eaten amazing food, and let my chigger-ravaged legs heal (it wasn't pretty).  That morning I'd flown up to Fortaleza, a city famous for beaches and unfortunately for it's high crime rate, met up with old birding buddy (and now PhD'd Ornithologist) Pablo Vieira Cerqueira, gotten in a rental car and headed straight out of town.

Our destination for the first few days was Serra de Baturité an isolated little mountain range standing out above the dry, mostly agricultural, plains of Ceará.  Considering all I'd heard about NorthEast Brazil and the deforestation, and massive environmental degradation that the region has been subject to, the mountains here were quite a surprise.  They had real tropical forest on them and the weather was cold, cloudy and wet in contrast to the sun-baked plains down below.  Indeed these mountains are a relic of the time when the Amazon Rainforest was connected to the Atlantic Rainforest.  The climate changed, the forests retreated from the NorthEast but these tiny fragments were left behind on their isolated mountains.  They were also left with a relic population of Amazon-like forest birds, isolated for long enough, many have now become distinct species or sub-species, and that's what we were here to see.

With a few hours to kill on Saturday afternoon we set off in search of our first main target, the GRAY-BREASTED PARAKEET, a very local endemic species with a world population numbering perhaps 250 birds.  There are very active conservation efforts underway to help this species and at several sites we saw nest boxes put up specifically for them.  One of these sites was a small guest house with lush gardens that served as a reliable stake-out for the parakeets so we took up places on a terrace behind the main building and waited for the parakeets to come to us.  It soon became obvious that the parakeets weren't actually all that far away because we could hear them calling from the dense canopy of a nearby tree.  Hearing and seeing were quite different things though and it took a while before the birds flew and landed in a place where we could get views through the dense leaves.  Great bird, and a great start to the trip target-wise.

Gray-breasted Parakeet
Sunday, June 30 - Guaramiranga

Today was a full day to explore the Serra de Baturité and to get to grips with the local endemic birds. We'd managed to bump into two, the Ceará Gnateater and the diminutive Buff-breasted Tody-Tyrant the night before so now we had a very specific list of things we needed to track down.

Ceará Gnateater 
Buff-breasted Tody-Tyrant
We spent much of the morning at Parque das Trilhas where we connected with the local form of Gould's Toucanet (common in the absence of other toucans and aracaris), Band-tailed Manakin, Lesser Woodcreeper (Northern) and Red-necked Tanager.  Our main target here was the Ceará Leaftosser which, although officially still part of Rufous-breasted Leaftosser is another isolated form and almost certainly a future split.  The leaftosser played hard to get for a while but eventually surrendered and like all 'islands' (and these mountains are an island) it seemed that the number of species was small (with a high percentage being endemic) but that each species was relatively common in the absence of competition.

Band-tailed Manakin
Rufous-breasted Leaftosser (Ceará)
With all the targets in the bag by lunchtime we really only had one thing to focus on so spent much of the late afternoon birding session making a concerted effort for the local population of Short-tailed Antthrush, another tiny relic population that might constitute a good species given it's isolation.  Unfortunately there may only be a handful of individuals left in this population and, while we both independently thought we heard single calls along the trail, we never did get a look at this species.

Monday, July 1 - Hotel Pedra dos Ventos

An early start, some local birding, and then we came down from the mountains and into the hot, dry plains.  We drove all morning through Caatinga habitat, then climbed up into some rocky outcroppings to find our hotel for the next night and some very different birds.  It was as though we'd left Brazil and teleported to Arizona.  The rocks, the cactus, the thorn-scrub, all looked very familiar to me.  Of course, the birds were quite different.

Still in Brazil, although it looks a lot like Arizona here.
Our main target birds at this site were both supposed to be close to the hotel buildings, so before lunch we took a few minutes to walk around the pool area and look for the PYGMY NIGHTJARS that were supposed to breed within feet of the bar and the pool.  The tiny area of rocks and cactus, perhaps 60 feet by 30, with people walking around and through it seemed improbably for nightjar habitat.  Sure enough though, after a careful search we found three of them, totally trusting their camouflage, sitting right next to the tables of the hotel dining area.  Later that evening we watched them hunt around the pool area, they really are tiny and very delicate in flight.  An awesome species, and one I'd long wanted to see.

Pygmy Nightjar
That afternoon we headed out to bird the scrub around the hotel which, again like Arizona, looked empty at first sight but was actually packed full of birds.  Our main targets were the local White-browed Guans which conveniently came to corn put out by the hotel's owner along with several White-naped Jays, another lifer.  The last target bird and potential lifer there took longer to find though but eventually we managed to lure a stunning Ochre-backed Woodpecker into view.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan.

White-Browed Guan
Ochre-backed Woodpecker
Tuesday, July 2 - Sítio Pau Preto

Another travel day, another change of scenery, this time ending up down in the caatinga at a wonderful little pousada run by a local ornithologist.  With a half dozen potential life birds for me in the area we spent the afternoon chasing them all down.  Many weren't actually that rare or hard to find so we quickly bumped into them.  Two birds however were special and took a little more time.

The third 'big' target of my trip was GREAT XENOPS, an odd giant in a group of tiny treecreeper-like birds that are common in a wide range of forest habitats.  This big brother of the group turned out to be easy to hear but not at all easy to see in the dense thorn scrub, and it took a concerted effort before we were finally able to get partial views in the thick vegetation.  Needless to say, my photos weren't great, but at least I got a few record shots and that, plus four other life birds (and a couple of local forms that may one day be species) made for a memorable afternoon of birding.

Great Xenops skulking.
 On the way back to the pousada, local knowledge paid off big time when we were guided directly to a single White-naped Xenopsaris (no relation to the Xenops) a scarce bird here at this time of year and another lifer.  That followed by a home cooked meal and a swarm of Least Nighthawks overhead at dusk made for a great end to the day.  With a star bird ahead for tomorrow.

White-Naped Xenopsaris
Wednesday, July 3 - Crato

Today was the last of the big target birds but we thought we'd stop off and quickly pick up a lifer White-browed Antpitta for me on the way.  Needless to say, whenever you say you'll 'quickly' pick something up the birds don't cooperate, so we ended up spending several hours and only hearing, but not seeing, the antpittas.

With the day ticking on though we had to leave and drove up over the Chapada do Araripe (plateau) to look for, you guessed it, the ARARIPE MANAKIN.   In Portuguese this bird is called Soldadinho do Araripe (Little Soldier of Araripe) which describes it's distinctive plumage, reminiscent of a 19th Century solider in dress uniform.  It's so distinctive in fact that you have to wonder how this bird remained undiscovered until 1996, but somehow it did.  Most likely it was it's rarity that kept it hidden, with recent population estimates as few as 150 individual birds (up to as many as 700) and a world range of just a few square kilometers, it's one of the rarest and most range-restricted birds on earth.  Luckily it's habitat is well known and accessible to birders.  The entire known world breeding range is encompassed in the grounds of the Arajara Waterpark which is open to the public only on weekends but which lets birders in (for free) on other days.

So to the waterpark we went, signed in and wandered past the empty attractions to an area of shady riparian forest along a clear, fast moving, stream.  Soon enough we heard manakins calling but had to wait a long while before we caught a glimpse of one shifting it's perch and then sitting still on a hanging vine.  Once we found one bird though it was easy to follow and I was able to get some decent photos.  A truly spectacular bird and a global rarity.  This one is on a lot of birders' bucket lists ... but no longer on mine.

Araripe Mankin, just spectacular ....
On the way back we also made another stop for White-browed Antpitta and this time we were lucky enough to see one well.  Another home cooked meal and more nighthawks and our time in Ceará was done, with new adventures to look forward to ahead.  It really was a wonderful week (well 5 or 6  days) with some truly memorable birds, great company, and interesting places.  There are still a few birds in the NorthEast I haven't seen though, so perhaps there's another trip in my future one day.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Red Cliffs, Blue Macaws.

A Long Road Trip to Northern Bahia in Search of a Bird Named after a Victorian Poet

Growing up in Wales, my image of Brazil was pretty simple.  The Amazon rainforest, literally bursting with Jaguars, Tapirs, monkeys and tropical birds of all sorts, started a block inland from Copacabana Beach and stretched across the whole country.  It's laughable now, but maybe not so different from what a lot of people still explicitly expect Brazil to be.  The forests, the beaches, and the cities still pretty much represent almost everything we see of Brazil in the media in the North and, while we might now know that the forest is being cut down and assume that there's more farmland out there somewhere, we still almost never see anything of the other wild habitats that comprise a lot of the interior of the country.

The movie Rio (and it's sequel) portrayed a very similar version of Brazil.  The rare macaw "Blue" was presumably a Spix's Macaw but most of the action takes place in Rio de Janeiro or in the Amazon rainforest, which in the movie seems to be quite close by.  In reality though, if you want to see a blue macaw, you have to go to quite different habitats.

There were once four species of blue macaws.  The Hyacinth Macaw is perhaps the easiest one to see, and lives in the vast wetlands of the Pantanal where it's regularly seen by eco-tourists and birders (I saw them in 1995).  The Glaucous Macaw is long extinct, and the  Spix's Macaw is extinct in the wild (like the movie though, there are plans to re-introduce them from captive bred stock and to re-create some of the riverine gallery forest they once inhabited, now mostly cut down).  The last one of the group, the Lear's Macaw barely survived it's own recent brush with extinction, being reduced to as few as 60 individuals at one point.  Today it lives in a few sites in the State of Bahia where it clings on in the last few stands of native palm trees scattered across dry country largely deforested for agriculture.  The species is heavily protected and slowly bouncing back from the brink but still very much at risk.
Where the Lear's Macaws are ... not the Amazon.



There's something about Lear's Macaws that makes them special.  Partly because it captured the attention of so many interesting people.  The species was first described by Charles Lucien Bonaparte (yes, a relative of *that* Bonaparte) in 1856 and discovered in the wild by Helmut Sick (another famous ornithologist).  Bonaparte named it after the poet, writer and artist Edward Lear who's famous painting of the species was done from life in a zoo rather than from the more usual dead model favored by his contemporaries (insert Norwegian Blue Parrot jokes here).  Lear was a polymath and a 'character' who might have been happier in the 1960s than his own era, now best remembered for his published 'nonsense' poetry for children (The Owl and the Pussycat, etc.) but turned his hand successfully to almost every art form - painter, illustrator, poet, composer, author - in his day.  His bird paintings, many done while working as a 'paid' illustrator for John Gould (John Gould did not paint the 'Gould' prints that you see in every antique print shop) are among the best bird art produced during the Victorian era.  Taken together, the history of this species is just, well .... fascinating.

From Wikipedia - the Lear's Macaw
by Edward Lear (it wasn't called that
when he painted it)
More recently, there's a trend towards trying to eliminate the 'non-descriptive' names of many bird species and the powers-that-be have officially re-named this species the more neutral 'Indigo Macaw' to avoid any connection to the Victorian era and colonialism I suppose.  I'm personally not a fan of historical revision in ornithology especially when the name here honors such an interesting person (and perhaps one of the only, if not the only, historical LGBT figure with a species named after them).  Losing Lear's Macaw would be a shame, so I'm going to stubbornly carry on using that name.  Call it whatever you want in other languages (ironically the Brazilians rather sensibly call it Arara de Lear in Portuguese) and leave the history alone please.

So after that long introduction, and rare trip to the soap box, you've probably guessed that I've long wanted to see a Lear's Macaw.  So how does one do that?

Thursday, July 4 - Canudos, Bahia

Today was a long drive.  Pablo Viera Cerqueira and I started the day at Sítio Pau Preto in Ceará State and basically drove South all day across dry, dusty Caatinga habitat that had all the charm and variety of West Texas cow country.  This was not the Brazil of the Amazon, these huge expanses of thorn scrub dotted with rough-and-tumble little cow-towns cover a huge swathe of the interior of the country.  We drove for basically 12 hours straight South through the states of Ceará, Pernambuco and Bahia and saw very little variety save for the odd river (with riverine gallery forest long since cut down) or cow-tank.  Sometimes it takes a while to get to where the birds are.


Our goal for the day was the famous macaw reserve at Canudos, established to protect a nesting and roosting site for the Lear's Macaws at a place once famous for poaching the few remaining birds.  Each night the macaws fly in to roost on the red cliffs before heading out again at dawn in search of scattered stands of native palm trees where they feed.  We arrived in the evening, settled in to the basic but well maintained rooms at the visitor center, made a quick side-trip into town for pizza, then crashed exhausted planning to be rested and ready for a pre-dawn date with the macaws.  The stars that night were truly spectacular, something this city dweller is constantly shocked by when I manage to get away from ambient light.  I fell asleep watching them through the gap between the walls and the roof of my room ... another reminder that birding takes you to the most amazing places.

Friday, July 5 - Canudos

A 4am start and a meeting with two local guides who had coffee and a four-wheel-drive vehicle ready for us.  The drive in to the macaw site was long, slow, bumpy and very dark, and when we arrived there still wasn't enough light to see very much so we sat on a log and waited.  After a while the first signs of life started to stir; a calling Small-billed Tinamou, chipping Rufous-collared Sparrows and a singing Black-throated Saltator out there somewhere in the graying darkness.  Then, as the sun broke the horizon behind distant clouds, the screeching of Blue-crowned Parakeets and Cactus Parakeets on the wing unseen in the gloom, followed by the heavier squawking of macaws.

Lear's Macaws
More like Middle Earth than Brazil 
The Macaws were eventually visible as silhouettes, noisily flying around in small groups or perching on distant cactus.  As it got lighter still, they morphed from black silhouettes into 'indigo' blue birds contrasting beautifully with the red rock and green vegetation.  They seemed to keep their distance though and I struggled to get any photos, which surprised and frustrated me as I've seen so many beautiful photos from this site.  Better, or more patient, photographers than I have captured some truly stunning images here and made this site a mecca for birders.  Still, photos aside, we got good looks and we had the magical experience of seeing this very special bird flying around in this amazing world of rugged red cliffs .... one of the truly iconic images of birding in Brazil.  Definitely an experience I'll long remember.

Not quite in focus ...
All too soon our allotted time was up and we made our way back to the reserve HQ and a wonderful local breakfast prepared by the reserve staff.  These folks really do have the macaw experience worked out, all very slick from start to finish.  Then, fed and happy, we started the long drive back North to Ceará hoping to arrive in Juazeiro do Norte in time for dinner, some rest and a 3am flight to São Paulo.  Somehow it seemed even longer driving back and we both agreed that this was an awful lot of driving for a single life bird.  Was it worth it?  Of course it was ....

Bat Falcon and Blue-crowned Parakeet
sharing the same red cliffs


P.S. on the subject of blue macaws, the Rainforest Trust is raising money to create safe habitat for the release of Spix's Macaw back into the wild.  The species has been extinct for some time but luckily, various zoos and other collectors were persuaded to loan birds to breed a captive population.  Releasing the birds requires safe habitat for them to live in so this part of the project is critical if we want a third species of blue macaw back in the wild.  Just something to consider.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Quest for the Blue-eyed Ground Dove.

A Journey to See One of the Rarest Birds on Earth

It's three a.m. and the baggage-drop line at the airport in Juezeiro do Norte (in Ceará State in Northeast Brazil) is simply not moving.  We'd left the hotel at 2am in order to be on time for our 3:20am plane to São Paulo and, after waiting on line now for 40 minutes, it's pretty obvious that we aren't going to make the flight.  I'm tired and grumpy and haven't yet had coffee.  My companion, biologist Pablo Vieira Cerqueira, seems calm but I can tell that even he's getting slightly stressed as the line stubbornly refuses to move and the four uniformed GOL employees dawdle along with the bag-check process at their own good speed.  This is the first of three flights planned for the day, so missing this flight would almost certainly waste twenty-four hours.  This is not shaping up to be a smooth travel day.  Ah, the joys of World-Birding ....

Saturday, July 6 - Botumirim, Minais Gerais

We made it in the end.  The boarding process that morning was so delayed that the airline decided to wait for the passengers rather than leave on time and empty.  A one-hour delay into São Paulo and we were still able to make connecting flights to Belo Horizonte and then onto Montes Claros in Northern Minais Gerais.  Then a near four hour drive to the town of Botumirim where the mostly dirt streets throbbed with the sounds of a local religious festival.  By the time we made the little three-room local hotel, the only one in town, we were tired, hungry and exhausted after 18 hours traveling.  The restaurants in the town were closed for the festival (or more likely just so full as to not be gringo-friendly by that time) so the owner of the hotel kindly agreed to cook for us.  Never has a home cooked meal and a can of cold beer been so gratefully received.

Home cooked Escondidinho ... perfection.
Sunday, July 7 - Botumirim, Minais Gerais

Today was ground dove day.  We had come here to search for the rare BLUE-EYED GROUND DOVE a bird long thought extinct but recently rediscovered at a single site near town.  There are estimated to be only 22 living individuals of this species in the world and extensive searching in recent years has failed to turn up any more since the original re-discovery.  This is a very rare bird, and one that justified slogging half way across Brazil to try to see it ... OK, so I'd been a bit grumpy the day before, but now I was excited.

Before dawn we met our local guide, the charming and softly-spoke Marcelo Lisita Junqueira, who works as the warden at the reserve for the doves.  Birders are permitted to visit here with prior arrangement (and permits) but are chaperoned to avoid habitat disturbance and to ensure that local (and very sensible) rules like the ban on playing recordings to attract the birds, are observed.  The trade off though is that Marcelo knows exactly where to find the birds and as we headed to the reserve I was idly wondering what we'd do with the rest of the day once we'd seen them.  It ended up taking a little more effort than I'd thought.

The reserve sign and the open, white-sand, habitat where
the doves don't hang out.

Reserve Natural Rolinha-do-planalto is quite beautiful, the kind of place that makes you want to be a botanist so that you could understand what the amazing variety of unfamiliar plants actually were.  This little bowl of white-sand habitat with patches of dense scrub and rock outcroppings in surrounded by picturesque cliffs and bisected by a sand road.  It just looks like the kind of place that is stuffed with interesting life and indeed the first thing we saw when we got out of the car were Ocelot tracks in the sand.  Walking along the road, Marcelo soon oriented us.  The doves apparently liked the dense vegetation near the rock outcroppings and to see them we basically had to wait for one to pop up and let itself be seen.  So we took positions at promising looking spots, where Marcelo knew the doves were seen recently, and waited ... and waited ... and waited ....

Dense vegetation, where the doves do hang out.
Local rare cactus thing (not a botanist) .... 

  Five hours later, we still hadn't seen a dove.  We'd seen plenty of other birds, in fact I really felt like I'd gotten to know the locals pretty well and even managed to take quite a few photos of the resident birds along the road.

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird 
Glittering-throated Emerald
Five species of hummingbird seemed to be on territory along the road and often posed for photos, the best being the showy and local Horned Sungem, although we only saw a female.  There were also lots of flycatchers, tanagers, finches, seedeaters, thrushes and the like.  In total we saw over 40 species along the road, but none of them were doves.

Plain-crested Elaenia
Pale-throated Pampa-Finch
At one point, Marcelo did briefly glimpse a dove but we were very spread out and, by the time I saw the hand signals and walked several hundred yards down the road, the bird had dropped back into the dense cover and vanished.  The doves weren't even singing or calling so there was no 'heard only' option and with mid-day approaching I was beginning to assume that we would be coming back in the afternoon for another search and feeling grateful that we also had another couple of hours the following morning for a third try if necessary.

Then, around noon, another hand signal from Marcelo and Pablo and I rushed over to where he was pointing (well Pablo rushed, I can't manage more than an amble these days).  By the time I arrived, the others had bins up and were watching a BLUE-EYED GROUND DOVE sitting up on a small bush not far from the road.  Relief!  I raised my camera, found the bird and fired, but instead of the blast of shots I expected to hear, it fired only twice.  Tried again ... nothing.  Then looking down at the camera screen, the problem became obvious "MEMORY CARD FULL" .... five hours of hummingbird photos and now I was not going to get a photo of the main target!  I scrambled to delete some photos to free space on the card but, by the time I lifted the camera again, the dove was gone.  What were the chances of one of the two shots that I did get being in focus?  Slim I thought, but when I checked, I was lucky.  I had one (more-or-less) in focus shot of a dove, albeit with it's bill hidden behind a bush.  Good enough.

Blue-eyed Ground Dove (you'll just have to imagine the bill).
Now everyone could relax and you could probably hear the guides breathing a sigh of relief at great distance.  I usually have mixed feelings in these moments; thrilled to see the bird and accomplish the mission but also sad that the species is so rare and worried for it's future.  The future of the Blue-eyed Ground Dove does not yet seem secure despite the protection it now receives.  It isn't hunted by humans but nest predation seems to be an issue and camera traps and nest monitoring have revealed several species of wild cat and the local feral dogs all potentially preying on doves and their nests.  Even with the best efforts of all concerned, the population is so small and at risk from some tragedy, a forest fire perhaps, impacting it's last known site.  The prospects for this species are at best tenuous but there's still hope, so fingers crossed for this one and I'm happy to see great organizations like Birdlife InternationalThe Rainforest Trust and Save Brasil doing such important hands-on work (all three organization are on my personal giving list by the way and all do amazing work, please consider joining me in donating much needed funds to support them).

With the dove in the bag, we were free to bird at leisure that afternoon and the next morning, adding a few more species at the reserve and more good things locally.

Masked Yellowthroat and Variable Antshrike 

We were also treated to another amazing home-cooked meal that night (I didn't even ask about the local restaurants).  I was thinking just how perfect everything was that night after dinner and then, walking out of the dining room in the dark, wearing flip-flops, I slammed my toe into a low concrete step and had to deal with a bloody, bruised, swollen mess of a foot for the rest of the trip .... oh well, at least it happened after I got the dove.

I really wanted to take this lady home with me as I could quite happily eat her food every day.
Finally, after a morning hobbling and birding at Mata do Lobo which added Yellow-legged Tinamou, White-bellied Nothura and Narrow-billed Antwren among others (you know the birding gods are smiling when you get two tinamous) we had to wend our way back to the airport for a flight back to São Paulo.  A very successful and highly do-able single-bird mission (with huge thanks to Marcelo and Pablo).  I felt very honored to see this bird.

Narrow-billed Antwren 
Silvery-cheeked Antbird
 And so on to other adventures (oh, and the toe healed after about two weeks, although it was gruesome-looking and painful the whole time).