Southern Bahia Research trip: Part one

by Richard Raby on March 21, 2010

I’m very happy with the results of my lattest motor-cycle adventure designed to set-out “the northern limits of my South-Eastern Brazil patch”. Below I tell some of the story of what happened during this trip;

En-route north from Rio I stopped at the famous Wooley Spider-monkey reserve in Caratinga to get to know it better, I will visit here latter in the year in September, with a group concentrating mainly on mammals.

This reserve is a private initiative reserve and situated in eastern Minas Gerais state. The morning that I spent here, I was most impressed with what I saw, a pretty reserve set along the Manhuacu river valley with much extensive and good low-level forest, great infrastructure and an easy access from the nearest cities, Caratinga or Ipanema, a most friendly welcome, and most important, the reserve has very good birding possibilities and…….. Brilliant Monkeys, and lots of them! My time here was very limited and I just had the morning available getting to know how best to plan a future/return visit here. This I managed to do to my satisfaction, and this was also facilitated by the marvellous staff in attendance at this “mini paradise” of a private reserve, obviously very keen to demonstrate what they have managed to achieve with their dedication, devotion and enthusiasm.

Continuing northwards, my next stop was to be at Boa Nova, in the Southern interior of Bahia state ( I had stopped overnight at Teofilo Otoni in northern Minas as I had a “hick-up” with the bike, requiring a stripping down to gain access to/ and clean the carburettors, not the most accessible part of a “monster-tanked” Paris -Dakar super-traily Motor-cycle). I arrived at boa nova the following afternoon.

This Brilliant birding locality will form the Northern Western corner of my area. I had visited here once before, way back in the mid 1990’s, Little has changed since my first visit but much of this present day situation is probably due to the presence of Birdlife International and Save Brasil. This project, I understand, is a joint one to increase the environmental consciousness of the local landowners and the population in general. Back in the 90’s the remnant forest was disappearing at an alarming rate but Boa nova is now internationally recognised as an important bird area ( EBA = Endemic Bird Area).

Upon my first visit to Boa Nova I had really only targeted its most famous endemic the Slender Antbird, which I found then with little trouble and in the remnant vine-forests patches to the west and North of the town. This visit I needed to target many more endemic species, a large number of which are also Formicivoridae (Antbirds).

This second visit to Boa Nova was another successful one; upon the first morning I re-found the site of my 90’s visit and saw 6 species of Antbird, four of which were new to me ( Silvery Cheeked Antshrike, Stripe-backed Antbird, Narrow-billed and Caatinga Antwrens). I re-found Slender Antbird and I managed to record and Photograph the majority of the other species, the exception being a solitary male Caatinga Antwren that gave great views but caught me unprepared as it “drifted through the caatinga” without really vocalizing, this was before I had arrived at the vine-forested area and before I had set-up my sound and camera gear.

In the afternoon I found a great trail in the Humid Forest at Serra da Ouricana, situated approx. 10kms east of Boa Nova. The weather however turned on me and I ended up riding back to Boa Nova in a very heavy rainstorm on dirt roads. Before the rains broke I managed to find some interesting endemics here in this Humid Forest, Pin-tailed Manakins, Tufted Antshrike and a family group of Spot-breasted Antvireo. In the more open areas Red-cowled Cardinal, Cactus Parakeet and the occasional White Monjitas were also found.

The following morning I manage to make contact with Edson of Save Brazil / Birdlife International and he introduced me to a local guide who proceeded to show me around the region. Apart from learning my way around Boa Nova much better than before with Josafa, we also managed to find ; Spot-backed Puffbirds, White-bellied Northura, Narrow-billed Antwren again(my camera played-up with a flat battery this time!), Red-winged Tinamou, more Slender Antbird and roosting Pygmy Nightjars. Upon any return visit to this region I will definitely employ Josafa ,he is very competent with birdsong and knows all of the woodlots and trails in the region, invaluable talents to be both approved of and encouraged!

The following day I reluctantly left Boa Nova and headed south-east back towards the Minas Gerais boarder. It took me approx 3hrs to arrive at the boarder town of Macarani having ridden over some very pleasant tarmac country roads in a surprisingly good state of conservation. After lunching in a locally recommended house/restaurant (home cooking being the word here), I headed south out of town following the rather vague instructions that I had accumulated for the Balbina Forest and the nearby town of Bandeira. The road South from Macarani is a wide dirt-track and it is in a reasonably good state of repair, but in wet places it can be very slick and extremely slippery. I was luck today, the road was mostly dry, and I travelled the 50- odd Kilometers to Bandeira without any problems (two days latter I would have 20 more kilometres to travel on this dirt-track, in the rain, which proved to be a very technical exercise in riding skills). As I approached the state boarder line (Bahia/Minas Gerais) I could see a rather extensive forested ridge off to the left (East) of the dirt-track road to Bandeira. I stopped at a likely looking access point for this forest a couple of kilometres inside Minas Gerais state, but I found out latter that day that this was NOT the access track written about in trip reports. Just before arrival in Bandeira I found another White-bellied Northurathis one vocalizing by the side of the track and displaying it’s diagnostic yellow-legs.

I spent the afternoon at a local internet café where I managed to glean some more information about this locality, made famous by the recent discovery of one of Brazils rarest Birds here, a tapaculo that goes by the enticing name ofStresmann’s Bristlefront.

The following morning I was up at dawn to find the access track to the Balbina forested ridge. Armed with my newly found internet information together with yesterdays recognisance of the region I managed to find the real access track with little trouble. If finding the access track was easy, walking up it to the forested ridge was another story, only a competitions trials M/cycle with a very competent rider would manage to ride or drive up this track. Glad that I had parked my bike at the entrance to this track, I immediately came across an interesting species as I forded the first river at the start of the long trail, a pair of Pale-legged Horniero were feeding on the road and vocalizing profusely, this was to be the first of a host of new species for me today.

About 45 mins. walking-time of pretty steep trail lay ahead of me. As I approached the end I saw a patch of forest off to the right of the main trail, going through a gate at a hairpin bend, I managed to find that this equally steep and minor track penetrated the forest following a small wooded valley, the conditions appeared ideal for Bristle-front but the stream was making quite a bit of noise, it was in full-flow from the recent rains, my tape playback was probably not reaching the largest forested area on the far side of this stream, the slopes were that steep that access was virtually denied to this forest-patch away from this unique trail. Walking through the forest on this same trail I came across my second “life-bird” for the day, a brilliant male Wing-barred Piprites suddenly appeared in a tree in front of me, as I played an archive tape of its song, the bird came in very close, allowing excellent studies of this remarkably beautiful green, grey, yellow and brilliant- white dotted species. I was amazed at the similarity between the physical appearance of this species and it’s sibling co-genera species, Black-capped Piprites, virtually identical in all respects apart from voice and colouring.

After thoroughly exploring for possible alternative tracks in this first forest patch I returned to the main track and found my way up to the forested ridge. En-route I came across a number of rare and interesting species, firstly I heard the most distinctive call of 3 toed Jacamar, secondly I found a pr. of Striated Soft-tail in amongst a mixed flock, low-down in dense brush overhanging a stream. Next I found a vocalizing Bahia Spinetail in the forest-edge habitat, and as I was recording this bird I heard another interesting vocalization, the unmistakeable “fruity-bassey- squeak” of a Rio de Janeiro Antbird, I changed my focus to this bird, recorded it and proceeded to call it in.

Continuing-up a very steep trail to finally arrive at the Forested ridge I stopped for lunch. After “feasting” on a can of Vienna sausage and fresh French bread I started to explore the ridge trail, always trawling, otherwise listening, intently, for any signs of Bristle-front activity. I came across another mixed flock this one comprised mainly of antbirds. Plumbeous Antvireo was one of the surprise members of this flock along with a female Myrotherula antwren, this may have been Salvadori’s Antwren? found at similar altitude a few days latter and not many kms away at Serra Bonita, in southern Bahia.

I followed the ridge track further, hoping to find a link-up with the track that I explored earlier in the day. It started raining; I crossed a couple of swollen streams without arriving at any area recognisable from my earlier recognisance of the area. I decided to turn back the way I had come. During a break in the weather I encountered 2 groups of 3-toed Jacamar, one sat Crescent-chested Puffbird, a Yellow-throated Woodpecker and also Sooty-fronted Spinetail whilst retracing my hike back along the forested ridge. The rain returns and this time it is set-in for the rest of the day. I’m reluctant to leave but I have not heard one note all day that could be attributed to a Bristle-front. During another brief interlude in the weather I observe a mixed flock gleaning a flying ant swarm (triggered by the rains), amongst the Flame crested Tanagers, Tropical Gnateaters, Becard and Flycatchers is a brilliant Oustalet’s Tyrannulet.

Returning to Bandeira the roads are treacherous, my back wheel tries to overtake my front wheel on two occasions, I’m very thankful to arrive back at my rather basic accommodation next to the petrol station without dropping the bike. I’m exhausted from a longish day but mainly from a very long hike back down to where I was parked. It rains all night, I’m now preoccupied about getting my loaded-up motorcycle back onto tarmac roads, I have two choices, 20kms south on an unknown dirt-track (being prepared for asphalting later this year), or retracing my route back north to Bahia and Macarani for 48kms of dirt/mud. I opt for the first alternative, twenty two kms of very slippery dirt road with one stretch of 100yds in shin-deep mud (but I was unaware of this at the decision making time!). I kiss the lovely new tarmac upon my arrival and the rain also appears to be abating, things are looking up! I have asked the best route to another boarder town in this “impossible to pronounce” River Jequotinhonha valley, I need to get to Salta da divisa in the extreme East of the valley and I’m not keen on taking anymore slippery dirt tracks on the way!

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