Mission: Plumbeous Antvireo!

by Richard Raby on March 14, 2009

Well I’m back at the Marica lodge after a really great six days research trip. In the end I stayed two nights at Raposo in the extreme north of Rio de Janeiro state, one night at Caparoa, Pico da Bandeira (the second highest peak in Brazil and situated on the boarders of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo states), I then moved on to the main focus-point of my trip, the state park of Rio Doce, situated in eastern Minas Gerais state and approximately 300kms east of the state capital (Bello Horizonte). In total I covered a distance of 1600kms, nothing excessive by Brazilian standards, but still representing quite a few hours spent behind the steering wheel of my Pajero. Yes I decided to take the 4×4, rather than my motorcycle, at the last minute.

The primary purpose of this trip was to try and track-down an eastern Brazilian rarity, an Ant-vireo menaced with extinction by cause of it’s preference for tall, primary, low-level forest, probably the most threatened habitat in the whole of South eastern Brazil. Dysithamnus plumbeus, or the Plumbeous Antvireo is one of the great local endemics that is generally considered “very difficult to nail” in South-eastern Brazil, unless you manage to obtain permission to bird the IBAMA reserve at Sooretama. Permission to bird this reserve has recently become most burocratic and I for one, have been refused on several occasions. I felt that it was time to get some more field-work done, and try to find another stake–out.

Armed with notes from the red data book concerning recent sightings of this mega-tick I headed out to the village of Raposo in northern Rio de Janeiro state, which along with a report of sightings by researchers in 1991 also happened to be en-route to my main destination and situated a convenient 6 hours drive from the Marica Lodge. Raposo was an ideal overnight stopping point it’s a pretty spar town with a good option of clean and pleasant hotels. My first morning there proved productive, but only in localizing areas worthy of a return visit and at an earlier hour of the day. Today was a hot one and the best birding hours were spent getting to know the region. I finally arrived at an area of good, tall forest at approx 11.00 hrs and by which time the heat of the day was oppressive. I spent the midday period organising permission to enter the forest on a future visit. After successfully achieving this, I headed off for my second stop of the trip at the Pico da Bandeira. I arrived there in the early evening.

My time at the Caparao National park was limited to one morning so I drove into the park and opted to explore the 1500m zone. My luck was in as two pair of endemic Vinaceous Amazon Parrot flew into the valley that I was birding and settled in the canopy close to me, I even managed to get a shot off with my camera. Other species that I also saw here were birds typical for this altitude, birds such as Diadem Tanagers, Pallid Spinetail, Rufous-tailed Antbird and Plover-crested Hummingbird. After a very pleasant mornings high altitude birding, it was time to move-on again.

The afternoon drive across lowland eastern Minas state was hot and dusty and rather sweaty, I finally arrived at the Rio Doce state park just before dusk. On arrival here I was surprised to find a really well set-up state park where camping, picnicking, bathing and fishing combine and exist side by side with a huge area of low-level forest. The fishing by the way is permitted as a way of controlling rogue introduced fish species to the local lake system, fish such as Piranha etc, that have entered into the local ecosystem via flood-water invasions from the nearby Rio Doce. After dinning at the campsite restaurant I returned to my accommodation early but not so early as to miss-out on several Paraqui settled under road-side lamps and a nearby vocalizing Tawny-browed Owl.

Early the following morning I was up and birding near my accommodation block where I found numbers of vocalizing Sooretama slatey Antshrike, White-flanked Antwren and Moustached Wren. Surprisingly I also noted two singing Minute Hermit hummingbird, I was unaware that this endemic occurs this far away from the coastal strip. In the afternoon I explored a trail near the administration block and found Rufous Hermit, Versicoloured Emerald and a huge flock of Red-rumped Cacique foraging in the forest mid-level and canopy. That evening I took advantage of the full moon, always a good time for night-bird activity, and called in a Tawny-browed Owl, some Paraque and I taped an unusual Potoo vocalization (still awaiting identification as I write this report).

The following morning I spent comparing notes with the reserve staff, and in the afternoon I drove to a rather distant track that effectively bisects the reserve from West to East, here the forest is taller and it contained different species. A number of Yellow legged Tinamou were vocalizing and at one of my stops to “trawl” with tape archive for interesting endemics, I managed to get a good response from a Plumbeous Antvireo. The reply was slightly different from my archive recording but sufficiently similar and a “strong-enough response” to get me excited, and sure enough I managed to get, with a little bit of initial reluctance from the bird, good views of a magnificent male Antbird, displaying and flexing it’s shoulder area to show two largish white “epaulet” patches inboard of the wing-bend, apart from a few small white spots on the closed wing area these were the only markings on an otherwise leaden-grey Ant bird, without doubt I was observing my target bird species for the trip, a male Plumbeous antvireo, I was ecstatic!

Early the following mourning I returned to the same area and I managed to locate 3 family groups of Plumbeous Antvireo within a 600meters stretch of the track (a very successful achievement of which I was most pleased, the reserve was beginning to give-up some of it’s secrets). Back at my accommodation I had a little time still available to check around the camping area. Sure enough, just as the park wardens had said, and immediately after watching and photographing a low group of feeding tanagers (Chestnut-vented Conebill, Flame crested and Yellow-backed Tanagers), there on the next lowish dead branch-tip was a roosting Great Potoo, Wow !! This was a lovely parting memory from this wonderful and poorly studied forest reserve.

The afternoon was spend retracing my route south to Raposo village where I spent the night, arriving at dusk. The following mourning I visited the forest patch discovered on my journey North. After trawling with my newly recorded Plumbeous Antvireo archive from yesterdays Rio Doce encounter, I managed to get a good response on my third try at this rather small forest patch. The bird came straight-in but the track-edge was so overgrown it initially appeared impenetrable and the bird was so close but effectively invisible. Three farm-workers rode up on bicycles, one of them had a cutlass, so I offered them a dollar for it’s use for 5 minutes! This was immediately accepted and the fellow even insisted on wielding the blade himself, he cut an opening into the tall primary forest beyond the vine-tangle of the forest edge.

I entered the forest and within a couple of minutes I got great views of another male Plumbeous Antvireo, this particular bird appeared more inquisitive than agitated and the white inner-shoulder patches were not displayed this time. The bird was a bit scruffier than the Rio Doce birds and was possibly moulting it’s tail feathers, but it was still my first home-state (Rio de Janeiro) observation and my third encounter with this greatly endangered eastern Brasilian endemic in three days.

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