Brazil: Itatiaia NP; Chapada & The Pantanal
July 21 - August 5, 2023
Leader: Jan Hansen
$6995 from São Paulo
Planning a visit to Brazil can be a bit of an intimidating experience for birders who have never been there; actually it can be intimidating even for those who have. Brazil is the world’s 5th largest country, nearly as big as the U.S., and that immense size alone presents a dizzying array of options. Compounding that dilemma is the country’s lengthy bird list which currently stands at 1785 species, the third highest list of any country on earth. The truth is is that you could easily make 8-10 multiweek trips to Brazil and still not adequately cover all of its bases. It’s simply too large and there are just too many endemic pockets separated either by enormous distances or impenetrable geographic barriers to allow easy and thorough coverage. How then does one decide where best to delve into this mammoth avian treasure trove without getting quickly overwhelmed by the size and diversity?
No doubt there is likely more than one good answer to that question, but one of them has to be a “Brazilian safari” through the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland covering an area the size of Washington state. Though it spills across political borders into the neighboring countries of Paraguay and Bolivia, Brazil lays claim to most of this ecological wonderland that is larger than 29 U.S. states and comprises more than 3% of the world’s wetlands. It also is home to some of the world’s most iconic wildlife including endangered species like Hyacinth Macaw, Giant Anteater and Giant Otter, the world’s largest concentration of crocodiles and its highest density of jaguars.
Unlike many of Brazil’s best birding sites, the Pantanal is easily accessible, with a major airport only about an hour away from the beginning of the Transpantaneira, the only road that stretches across its marshy terrain. Furthermore, since the Panatanal consists primarily of open terrain, wildlife viewing along the Transpantaeira is easy. Here there is no struggling to find small, skulky birds in the rainforest canopy or understory. The Panatanal is home to an eye-popping abundance of large herons, storks, raptors and cracids that stand in the open begging to be watched and photographed. All of this is enhanced by some delightful lodges along the way where weary travelers can enjoy an ice cold drink and some delicious Brazilian food to help them rejuvenate after long days in the field.
Even better, two other excellent birding venues can easily be combined with a visit to the Panatanal to make for as good an introduction to Brazilian birds as one could hope for. Itatiaia National Park was established in 1937 and is Brazil’s oldest national park. It consists of 65,000 acres of montane Atlantic Forest in the Serra da Mantiqueira, a mountain range shared by the Brazilian states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Itatiaia is a gem and one of the finest birding venues in all of Brazil and will provide us with a chance to see some of the country’s rarest and most localized endemics. While there we will stay in private chalets, each with its own balcony, at a quaint family run hotel situated at an elevation of 3500 feet. The hotel has an extensive feeder system and we will be able to watch an array of colorful hummingbirds and tanagers partake from the buffet from the comfort of our own private balconies.
The other site, Chapada dos Guimarães, located at western edge of the Brazilian Plateau, provides access to an entirely different ecosystem called “cerrado,” a dry, scrubby region with terrain somewhat reminiscent of the southwestern U.S. The “cerrado” is a unique ecosystem quite unlike anything else found in Brazil and offers some of the most spectacular scenery in South America, featuring towering sandstone cliffs and rock formations, caves and stunning waterfalls. Chapada dos Guimarães is also the geographical center of South America and holds a rather mystical place in the minds of Brazilians, many of whom consider a visit there to be a necessary pilgrimage to be made at some point in their lives.
Such a pilgrimage should also be included on the must-do lists of keen birders as Chapada dos Guimarães provides the best chance for them to see several very localized Brazilian birds like Bluewinged Macaw, Chapada Flycatcher and Coal-crested Finch.
Taken together, these three sites will certainly be a memorable introduction to Brazil, its landscapes and its wildlife and will kindle a desire to return again to see more of this amazing and poorly understood country. I hope you will consider joining us and we can begin the process together.