Endemism in a Disappearing Rainforest

The Atlantic Forest of Brazil is simply ridiculous. Located in the southeastern portion of the country, it is characterized by lush montane and coastal rainforest and is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and several other unique Brazilian ecoregions such as caatinga, cerrado and pampa. This isolation meant one particular outcome: lots of birds and lots of endemism. Roughly 150 endemic bird species, actually.

The extent of the Atlantic Forest used to be massive. Today, about 10% of it remains intact; the rest of it has been lost to agriculture and city centers such as São Paulo and Rio de Janiero. To bird this imperiled ecoregion, one can easily access several state or federally protected forest fragments outside of one of the two major aforementioned cities. That is exactly what I did during my first visit to southeastern Brazil.

The Chestnut-backed Tanager is one of many attractive tanagers endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest.

The Chestnut-backed Tanager is one of many attractive tanagers endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest.

In late November of 2015, Adolfo “Fito” Downs of Costa Rica and I found ourselves fresh out of guiding stints at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge and got ourselves a very basic rental car at a busy bus station in São Paulo. We quickly bee-lined it for the famed Intervales State Park – about 175 miles away from São Paulo. Intervales is supposed to be unavoidable as a birding destination if you’re in that area of Brazil. From what we gathered when speaking with others about birding the south of Brazil during the planning stages, it almost seemed like it would be frowned upon to not spend at least few days in Intervales if visiting the area. Upon our arrival, with about an hour of birding light left in the afternoon, we realized instantly that it would live up to the hype. Firstly – and this was the most refreshing for the two of us – the birds are easy to see. We had just arrived from the Amazon rainforest, where unless you are on a canopy tower or on a river, you’re going to get mostly “heard only” birds. Birds at Intervales are rather active and obliging. Additionally, as the name Intervales suggests, the terrain is mountainous, providing for a comfortable climate. Paired with mostly overcast skies and intermittent drizzles during our stay, birds were active all day. And the endemics. So many endemics.

Our basic and tiny but trustworthy rental got us to the birds even through some wet dirt roads.

Our basic and tiny but trustworthy rental got us to the birds even through some wet dirt roads.

Intervales State Park has several birding guides on staff. For a small fee paid to the park, you can hire one of these seasoned guides for your stay and we did just that. We hired the venerable Luiz Ribeiro, the birding maestro of Intervales. During three days with Luiz, he led us down multiple trails and networks of damp, clay roads criss-crossing primary and secondary forest. Luiz had a number of staked out birds up his sleeve: he led us to Rufous-thighed Kite and Spot-billed Toucanet nests, Tropical Screech Owl and Common Potoo roosts, a patch of forest that attracted a Solitary Tinamou in the afternoons, and a specific section of marsh that allowed for looks at Red-and-white Crakes. He also led us to what would be the highlight event of the trip for me: a Violet-crowned Plovercrest lek. The plovercrest is a unique hummingbird with a wild hairdo. We visited a gathering ground for this special bird and watched several males call incessantly from their perches for about half an hour.

A charismatic male Violet-crowned Plovercrest at a lek site.

A charismatic male Violet-crowned Plovercrest at a lek site.

We visited many staked out birds, but most of our time was spent methodically walking miles of roads through lush, verdant rainforest. Mixed flocks of tanagers, woodcreepers and tyrannulets crossing the roads were commonplace. We’d make frequent stops to wait for antbirds or diminutive tody-flycatchers to reveal themselves in patches of bamboo. It seemed like we were stopping every few feet for a new bird. Every now and then, there would be a showstopper in the form of a colorful or rare species. Among them were White-bearded Antshrike, Atlantic Royal Flycatcher, Crescent-chested Puffbird and Masked Berryeater; all species that command your attention. They’re all endemic to the Atlantic Rainforest, too.

We would run into several Surucua Trogons in primary forest at Intervales.

We would run into several Surucua Trogons in primary forest at Intervales.

Even in the forest, using a field scope proved to be paramount to further enjoy sightings of these remarkable birds. I used to believe that scopes were for shorebirding, seawatching and the like. Before acquiring a Leica APO Televid 65mm scope to leave for Brazil, it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be an invaluable companion in the rainforest. Even when birds were close enough to identify and observe with a pair of binoculars, it became a reflex to quickly put down the tripod and scope to observe the birds in the better detail.  Yes, it is an extra thing to carry into the field, but views of birds I got through the scope were among the most memorable of the trip. Among these memorable experiences was a life look at the Surucua Trogon.

All trogon species are easy on the eyes; they’re rather large, sport black and/or white undertails, and have red, orange or yellow bellies paired with purple, black, or blue backs and heads. The Surucua Trogon, in my opinion, is one of the most attractive of this bizarre family of birds. Through the scope, we were able to admire this bird’s red orbital ring contrasting with it’s purple-blue breast and head. On top of that, it has a fun name to say. The use of a scope to view a bird – near or far – adds a new element to viewing them in the field. It boils down to this: you can just see so much more of the bird that binoculars can’t capture. I often debate backpacking with a scope and a tripod. They could be damaged or stolen anywhere along the way, but I undoubtedly did not regret lugging around the extra weight when I was able to put them into use in the field.

The few days at the park would pass too quickly. With just three full days at the park, we had only just scratched the surface (it’s recommended that you should stay at least a week at the park).  We would leave Intervales with about 200 species for the park and the surrounding area. After saying goodbye to our new friend in Luiz, Fito and I made our way back to the international airport in São Paulo, finding wall to wall traffic along the way. It was touch and go getting through South America’s largest city, but it wouldn’t be long until I was home-bound and stateside. There are just too many appealing destinations in the world. You can’t visit them all, not even once. The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is one of those destinations that deserves multiple visits.

Luiz (left) and Fito (right) admire a Red-ruffed Fruitcrow using a Leica Televid scope.

Luiz (left) and Fito (right) admire a Red-ruffed Fruitcrow using a Leica Televid scope.