A lightning trip to the Minas Gerais Caatinga

by Richard Raby on December 24, 2010

Mission Minas Gerais Caatinga.
In Mid December 2010 I found myself with a few free days which also happened to coincided with an unusually good weather forecast. A this time of year normally guaranteed rain.
I had been sub-consciously planning a trip to the Caatinga region of Western Minas Gerais state (in the vicinity of the Rio Sao Francisco and approx 800kms away), and I decided to go ahead and perform this trip rapidly to be back in Marica in time to spend Christmas and the new year at the Lodge.
According to the weather forecast my window of good weather would arrive in 2 or 3 days, giving me time to service my motorcycle, record a new field-tape with voices of my major target species and also to swat-up on the site-notes that I had accumulated for this region. So to sum-up; I had an unseasonably good weather forecast, of clear & sunny weather starting sometime on Thursday the 16th December…. and lasting approximately 6-7days, thus giving me 5 clear days, plus a small safety margin, to ride up to the river Sao Francisco valley at Pirapora MG, spend 3 evenings, 3 mornings and two afternoons searching respectively for Nightjars, Passerines and also general site reconnaissance. All this followed by the return trip to Rio state, with an overnight stop at the midway point in Belo Horizonte.
The Caatinga (dry orchard-like scattered woodland) around Pirapora is apparently well preserved and full of interesting and typical Caatinga species, including some endemic rareties.
I had set myself two major target species, both considered rare and “difficult” by those familiar with them. As I headed off on that Wednesday afternoon in a light drizzle I hoped to God that firstly the weather forecast was correct and secondly that I had not set myself too difficult a task with my target birds? The first one being a very poorly known Nightjar (Bahian Nighthawk) and the second a minute, gallery forest canopy dwelling, Tyrannulet (Minas Gerais tyrannulet).
About 5 hrs into the journey and at approximately 6 o’clock in the evening the heavens opened, so I decided to stop where I was and I spent the first night near Bello Horizonte, having travelled 400kms that afternoon. The following morning the sky was clear, I arrived at my destination in the late afternoon having ridden a relaxed trip. I stopped quite frequently towards the end to inspect a new bio-type for me, Buruti palm-groves, these unusual palms support huge fan shaped leaves, and when mature support long trailing “tails” of fruits (palm-nuts), hanging down from their crowns. In one of these groves, I encountered my first new species for the trip, Red-shouldered Macaw.
Upon arrival at Pirapora I checked into the Pousada Sao Marco and rapidly returned to spend the dusk period at a spot next to the Rio das Velhas, about 15kms away. The spot that I chose for the first evening proved to be very disturbed with a constantly barking small dog and a noisy power generator, both causing excessive back-ground noise in an otherwise ideal area at the edge of gallery forest. I played my archive recording of Bahian Nighthawk as dusk decended and just before dark a very small, dark-brown &, slim-winged nightjar overflew me and then disappeared over the gallery forest flying at just above tree-top height. This over-fly had been rapid, I was badly prepared and maybe because of the background noises stated earlier, I had heard no vocalizations. The night rapidly grew dark and as I headed back down the track I flushed a pair of settled nighthawks from the dirt-track, one came back and settled and somehow I managed to get a couple of Flash Photography pictures taken, using the illumination created by the headlamp of my motorcycle to manually focus my camera. These pictures however are inconclusive as I write this blog and appear to show a variably coloured bird with a dark eyestripe and maybe a whitish spot in the outer tail? ON CLOSER EXAMINATION THE PHOTOGRAPH OF THE SITTING BIRD APPEARS TO BE OF A SILKY-TAILED NIGHTJAR.
On my second night I spent the “magic” dusk period at this exact same spot where I had photographed the settled bird the previous evening. I started playing my archive tape just before darkness set in (approx 10-15mins before total dark), I got a vocal response almost immediately from a few hundred yards distance, and the bird subsequently vocalised a number of times, a minute or so later a small, chocolate brown Nighthawk, very slim and with pointed wings and a long and narrow tail, over-flew me and preceded to fly up and down the track at just below canopy height. A second bird? repeated this action a short time latter, before disappearing low over the forest canopy exactly as the flying bird noted from the previous evening. I was both ecstatic, and somewhat relieved, I had found one of the most difficult birds for South eastern Brazil, apart from the birds small size and jizz, I had confirmation of it’s distinctive voice, unique colour and also the lack of wing and tail markings. I had just confirmed visually and vocally my first target bird, Bahian Nighthawk, in daylight and in flight!

I spent two mornings in the region of a stream called Corrego dos ovos, the narrow gallery forest that follows this stream as it winds through the dry Caatinga is famous for being one of only two places in Minas state where the ultra-rare Minas Gerais Tyranulet may be encountered. The narrow ribbon of forest is also home to a number of other rare species. Upon my first day exploring here I immediately became familiar with one of these, A Henna-capped Foliage-gleaner had decided to nest in the steep sandy banks of the river, about a meter below the overhanging top and on the outer edge of a river bend. I preceded to observe this rare Cerrado foliage-gleaner (that I had only once previously encountered) flying to and fro, carrying insects into it’s nest to the accompanying shrill squeaking of an obviously famished fledgling bird deep inside the hole in the riverbank. Investigation a rather feeble and spindly song in the underbrush produced a very colourful Saffron-billed Sparrow whilst an obvious wren vocalization in the same vicinity proved to be a new species for me, Fawn-breasted Wren. A pair of White-napped Jay also announced themselves by voice, a most unusual almost electronic and tree-frog-like “buzz”. I heard black-capped Antwren in the canopy above me but failed to call them down, but I did get to see Orange fronted Yellow-finch, Flavescent Warbler, Planalto Slatey Antshrike, Masked Gnatcatcher and a number of Pale-legged Horneiro. Caatinga Parakeets flew noisily overhead and family groups of White-throated Kingbirds and Dusky-capped Flycatchers were also being very vocal. After a number of failed attempts I finally got great views of a Pickulet that had been calling from a number of hidden perches, this also turned-out to be a species new for me, and another typical Brazilian Caattinga/Gallery forest species, White-wedged Piculet.
On the first morning I failed to find my target Tyrannulet, but repeating my visit the second morning, and postponing my breakfast at the hotel, I got to the “corrego” for dawn, and was rewarded with brief but slightly distant, but however conclusive views, of a typical Phyllomyias/Phylloscartes tyranulet in the tree-canopy above the stream, the lighting in the early morning sun was optimum and the bird was all yellow below, all greenish above and had a good yellow eye-ring (on an otherwise plain-ish face), the bird also showed yellowish wing-bars. I had hoped for closer views, I had hoped to see some reddish- brown colouring in front of the eye? I had even though of maybe a photograph? But this was without doubt a Minas Gerais Tyrannulet, and the best that I could manage this time, a confirmed sighting, but leaving a lot to be bettered on a return visit.
I found a number of other interesting species on this trip, at the hotel where I stayed there were Caatinga Cacholote in waterside habitat and my first sighting was of one suddenly appearing as if from nowhere and walking past my open-air table as I took a late breakfast at the hotel on my second morning. On the third morning I had Blue-fronted Amazon Parrots and Golden Chevroned Parakeets visiting a nearby Mango tree and on my last morning there a solitary Fork-tailed Palm-swift over flew as I was also taking breakfast.
I saw a number of other “extra-limital” species (birds just entering the South-eastern Brazil region) during this trip, birds such as Greyish saltator, Solitary Cacique and Red-cowled Cardinal.
On my journey back towards “civilization” I stopped at a number of points on the road approaching Pirapora, searching-out birding spots for future visits. On one of these tracks I found two family groups of the rather lovely Coal-crested Finch. Almost back at home, and well within Rio de Janeiro state, I came across a Crowned Solitary Eagle as I passed by Petropolis, but views were restricted to naked eye observation as my binoculars were packed away in the bottom of my luggage, typical!

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