Saturday, March 31, 2018

Plovercrests and Spadebills

A Quick Two Day Visit to Intervales State Park in Saõ Paulo State

I go to Saõ Paulo (the city) for business quite often and have done quite a lot of birding in Eastern Brazil over the years.  People often asked me if I'd been in Intervales State Park though, and even though it's only 4 hours drive from the city, up until this year I never had.

This March trip to Saõ Paulo started out as a dinner plan, then a few days in the office got added, then a weekend with friends, and having morphed dinner into a 4-day trip already I decided to stay the whole week and add 5 days of birding to the itinerary too.

Wednesday, March 14th - Saõ Paulo to Intervales

Up bright and early to meet Eduardo Patrial at Congonhas Airport to pick up a rental car.  The night before had been long and full of amazing food and wine so I wasn't exactly at my most perky, and of course the rental car process was infuriatingly long and inefficient, but eventually we got on our way and drive out of the city heading South.  There really wasn't much to see on the drive down, just fields and cows, but after a quick lunch stop we pulled off the paved road and headed up into the forest for two and a half days of nothing but birding.  Deep breath ... fresh air ... smile ...

Squamate Antbird and Rufous Gnateater

The first afternoon was for getting oriented so we checked out a number of the best spots and areas where some good birds had been habituated through feeding (none of those birds were present).  We did take the opportunity though to check out the lek of PURPLE-CROWNED PLOVERCRESTS, truly spiffy hummingbirds where the males sit still in dense cover and 'sing' to attract females to them.  When we got to the lek area we could hear two males singing and saw a female.  I wanted to see the male though to bushwhacked into the dense vegetation, and after 20 minutes of carefully searching for a bird we could hear close to us but just could not see, a slight change of angle added the plovercrest to my life list.

Purple-crowned Plovercrest
Then it started to rain a little so we headed back to the car and realized that that dense undergrowth had been perfect habitat for ticks which had transferred to us nice warm mammals while we were looking for the birds.  Then it started to rain A LOT ... the type of tropical deluge that dumps several inches of rain in the space of minutes.  So we gave up birding for the day, went to the guest house, ate chicken, rice and beans (our staple for the trip) and hoped that it would stop raining before the morning.  At that point I wondered if it was ever going to stop raining ... the sort of biblical downpour that has you wondering how to build an ark.

Thursday, March 15th - Intervales

No rain, and a full day of birding with Eduardo and an excellent local guide added a lot of life birds for me, perhaps 20 in all.  We saw the usually skulking SOLITARY TINAMOU and SPOT-WINGED WOOD-QUAIL up close and personal.  The forest had a nice selection of antbirds, antvireos, antwrens, antthrushes, antpittas, antshrikes (collectively I call then 'ant-things') plus lots of woodcreepers, foliage-gleaners, treehunters, leaftossers ... the list goes on.   We took the time to track down a White-breasted Tapaculo (I love tapaculos) and lucked out with a Royal Flycatcher, and that was all before lunch.

Spot-winged Wood-Quail and Green-backed Trogon

In the afternoon we took a quick side-trip outside the park to find HALF-COLLARED SPARROW, a really attractive sparrow that seems to like the second-growth and bamboo habitat along the park entrance road.  Then after failing to see Long-trained Nightjar at a stake-out we ended the day on a high note with LONG-TUFTED SCREECH OWL nearby.

Long-tufted Screech Owl
Friday, March 16th - Intervales

Another full day in the forest with a specific goal for the morning.  We hiked a long way down a relatively steep trail into a valley.  All the way down I was of course thinking of having to walk back up but the birds and plenty of Brazilian Tapir and even Ocelot tracks kept me in a good mood as we got closer to our target.  I was still getting life birds and added Black-cheeked Gnateater and Blue-bellied Parrot before we even got to the main event.  Intervales seems to be The Place to see RUSSET-WINGED SPADEBILL and today the bird didn't disappoint, popping up promptly when we got down to it's territory (note to self though - have to get in better shape before the Horned Guan hike in August).

Russet-winged Spadebill - rarer than it is pretty .... and local guide hard
at work finding it for me ...

Other good birds later that day included RED-AND-WHITE CRAKE which finally came out to it's feeding station (we'd tried 5 times previously) and an ORANGE-BREASTED THORNBIRD at the same spot.  Nice birds and we still had owling ahead of us ...

The owling started out really well with a close view of a RUSTY-BARRED OWL followed by a long but ultimately successful hunt for BLACK-CAPPED SCREECH OWL.  Overall in two nights at Intervales we had 5 species of owl and 2 nightjars ... that's about as good as it gets.

Rusty-barred Owl and Black-capped Screech-Owl

We also had a nice reminder that we were in a wild place ... we'd been stumbling around in the dark looking for owls for hours when we bumped into a Bothrops jararaca, a large and very venomous snake out hunting along the same trails.  Luckily our paths didn't cross too closely and it was a very pretty serpent, but makes you think ....

Really, don't step on this ....

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Lark Loop

A Visit to the Highveld Grasslands of Mpumalanga, South Africa

Over the years, you see a lot of habitats and a lot of wildlife on nature shows on TV.  A lot of the shows on Africa look a lot like the last post, Lions and Elephants in thorn scrub habitat, but there are some places that look very different, and one in particular I'd always wanted to visit.  The Highveld habitat is a special place.  Higher altitude grasslands, scattered with small Afrikaner farming communities, and filled with interesting and different birds.  It's hard to think of anything quite like it, so three days based in Wakkerstroom exploring this habitat was a trip I had been looking forward to for some time.

Sunday, January 7th / Monday, January 8th ... Wakkerstroom Area

We were staying at a lovely little guest house on the outskirts of Wakkerstroom.  South Africa prompts an odd series of emotions and Wakkerstroom, a pretty little Afrikaner farm town with neat little houses and beautiful gardens, prompted more than a few.  Outside of town, the "africans" (as the locals call them) still lived in a densely packed, and somewhat basic township with cinder block and corrugated iron 'houses'.  It may not have been surrounded by a fence any more but the contrast between the housing there, and the beautiful manicured grounds and accommodation at the place we were staying was quite jarring.  At dawn on day one, we drove over to the 'african' neighborhood to pick up our local guide for the day, the famous and talented Lucky.  Then off for a full day of birding the local hotspots.

White-bellied Bustard
Southern Bald Ibis
First stop was a location for WHITE-BELLIED BUSTARD and we quickly picked one up while driving across the short grass area where they breed.  Bustards were very much a key theme of the grasslands and not long afterwards we found ourselves searching for DENHAM'S BUSTARD and getting some distant scope views.  The third bustard species, BLUE BUSTARD had to wait until the next day but hey, any place with three bustard species is hardly horrible.

Mammals weren't really a target up here but we did see Meerkats, Yellow Mongoose, Scrub Hare, Springbok, Blesbok, Common Duiker, an Oribi, Mountain Reedbuck and a SERVAL, only the second one I'd ever seen.  Not a bad haul for a place not famous for it's mammals.

The bird I most wanted to see in the grasslands though was the BLUE CRANE the odd-looking, but strangely beautiful grassland crane of Southern Africa.  We saw a couple in the extreme distance while looking for bustards but I had to wait a while before we bumped into a pair with a young chick closer to the road.  The birds didn't panic when we stopped to take photos but they did walk away quite quickly so all I got was photos from the back.  Such an amazing species though, still my Facebook cover photo three months later.

Blue Crane family
Wakkerstroom is famous in birding circles not for these amazing big birds though, but for a series of small cryptic songbirds that spend their days hiding in the grass.  A half dozen species of lark can be found here but two of them RUDD'S LARK and BOTHA'S LARK are very rare and very hard to see anywhere else.  So generations of birders have come here to look for larks and with expert guide Lucky along for the ride, we planned to as well.

The spot for Rudd's Lark was an huge area of grassland with a few cows and couple of small building, and after stopping at a small farm to pay a fee, and stopping to flush an African Snipe from a small wetland, we got down to the serious business of lark-hunting.  Lucky clearly knew where a pair or larks preferred to be, so stopped in an area of grassland and had us form a line (of three birders) and walk through a specific area looking for find the larks.  45 minutes, and many passes later, no larks.  So we gave up on that pair and started working more broadly across acres of seemingly identical grasslands.  We saw Spike-heeled Larks, Red-capped Lark, various cisticolas and African Pipits (all similar-looking small brown birds) but no Rudd's Lark.  The only excitement came after about an hour and a half when we flushed a HOTTENTOT BUTTONQUAIL a very special and unexpected species.  Finally though, we were forced to admit defeat, deciding to try one more time at the original spot before moving one ... and of course there was a RUDD's LARK right where we'd started two hours before.

Rudd's Lark 
Scrub Hare, looking terrified ...
Botha's Lark
By contrast, the search for BOTHA'S LARK was straightforward.  We went to the site, got out, formed a line and walked no more than 30 yards before we found a pair on the nest.  Still a very good bird though.

Jackal Buzzard and Ground Woodpecker 

With the larks in the bag, and many other grassland species besides, we had time to look for a couple of species I really wanted to see at the Waakerstroom Wetlands.  My Rockjumper guide, Selwyn Rautenbach had done some important work on the super-rare and near mythical White-winged Flufftail, the rarest member of a family I'd seen precisely none of to date.  While we were talking about it he mentioned that Red-chested Flufftail lived in the local marsh ... did I want to see it?  Duh!  Of course I did.

So we spent a fair amount of time at the marsh seeing a good selection of water birds and even a big Nile Monitor lizard.   Gray Crowned-Cranes were here as were African Rails and African Marsh-Harriers, a truly birdy spot.  Playing tape for the flufftail I kept my fingers crossed then saw just hint of movement in the grass ... and there it was ... a female RED-CHESTED FLUFFTAIL, my first flufftail.  Hopefully not the last ...

Red-chested Flufftail ... well I was excited.
The night wasn't over though and we ended the birding by calling in an AFRICAN MARSH OWL.  When I was a kid I looked at the species in the Peterson Field Guide to the birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (they just get into Morocco) and had always wanted to see one.  Magical way to end the day.  And who knew, there was even a decent restaurant in Waakerstroom ... so some cocktails and a delicious meal to end the visit ... who could ask for more?