Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ceará Specialties and the Araripe Manakin

July 2019: 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 (since split as Ceará Woodcreeper) 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.

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