28 December 2011

Night-birding at REGUA

It was the ghostly sight of 2 Barn Owls on a family holiday to the Isle of Wight when I was 9 years old that ignited my interest in birds, and ever since then owls and other nocturnal families have held a special fascination for me. So when I first visited REGUA in Brazil's Atlantic Forest back in 2006, I soon found myself birding the trails around the wetland at night. Over the last five years, Adilei (one of REGUA's sharp-eyed bird guides) and I have spent many hours birding around the reserve at night, and we've found reliable sites for several sought-after nocturnal species.

For many birders visiting REGUA, Giant Snipe is near the top of the list of target birds. REGUA is one of the best sites for these large, mainly nocturnal waders, with birds often showing down to just a few metres! A few years ago Giant Snipe could be seen at the REGUA wetland, but with the grassy areas here now replanted, birds are easier to find in pasture just outside the reserve. Giant Snipe are most vocal, and are therefore easier to find, between July and December, when they display by calling overhead (they are very difficult outside of this period). Joining a guided excursion from the lodge to one of several known feeding grounds at dusk or dawn is essential, where Barn Owl and Spot-tailed Nightjar are also possible.

Giant Snipe Gallinago undulata, REGUA wetland, November 2008. REGUA is one
of the best sites for these large nocturnal waders, however, they are almost
impossible to locate if they are not calling.

The Wetland Trail provides the easiest night-birding at REGUA. Beginning just a few minutes walk from the lodge, the trail is easy, not too long (2.8 km), and (since November 2011) well marked with yellow posts every 50 m. The main targets here are Tawny-browed Owl, Striped Owl, Tropical Screech-Owl, Common Potoo and Scissor-tailed Nightjar. Allow at least two hours to walk the whole trail.

Tawny-browed Owl is usually found in the larger trees by the Conservation Centre but sometimes perch up in the cecropias around the volunteer accommodation at the very start of the trail (as well as in the lodge garden). Also try the forest edge around post 1400. Common Potoo can be found anywhere along the trail, but especially between posts 900 and 1750 - scan the tops of any bare trees, and from post 1450 to 1740 can sometimes be good for Striped Owl. Scissor-tailed Nightjar prefer the less wooded areas - from post 1600 onwards, scan the hillsides with a torch to pick birds up in flight and eye-shine of perched birds, and at post 1900 carefully scan the ground to the right, where birds can often be found. Barn Owl are sometimes seen hunting over the more open areas (although as the replanted trees mature they are becoming less frequent, and the fields just outside the reserve main entrance are a much more reliable spot nowadays), and occasionally also Short-tailed Nighthawk and Spot-tailed Nightjar. Tropical Screech-Owl and Pauraque can be found anywhere along the trail.

Striped Owl Asio clamator, REGUA wetland, November 2008. Imagine a
Long-eared/Short-eared Owl hybrid!

Male Scissor-tailed Nightjar Hydropsalis torquata, REGUA wetland, July 2010.
Although the reforestation at the wetland is now become quite mature, this
species can still be found around the remaining scrubby hillsides.

Tropical Screech-Owl Megascops choliba, Forest Trail, adjacent to the REGUA
wetland, July 2011. This species prefers forest edge habitats and can be seen
anywhere around the wetland.

It is worth keeping your eyes peeled for a variety of mammals around the wetland at night. You should encounter plenty of Capybara, and at dusk Fishing Bats appear in good numbers over the larger bodies of open water. Common Grey Four-eyed Opossum and South-eastern Common Opossum are often seen, and if you're lucky you might glimpse a Nine-banded Armadillo or Paca crossing the trail. On a cautionary note, tracks of Puma and Ocelot (and other smaller cat species) are now being found very frequently on the Wetland Trail, and in 2011 some birding groups even heard Puma growling on the trail at night! Therefore, potentially you could encounter a Puma at night which might be dangerous, and therefore walking this trail at night in a group, preferably with a guide, is strongly recommended.

The 1.3 km Onofre Cunha Trail, located 3 km from the lodge, passes through a fragment of lowland humid evergreen forest. Over the last two years this trail has proven to be excellent for night-birding and in particular for allowing easy access to forest interior species such as Long-tailed Potoo, Black-capped Screech-Owl and Mottled Owl. Tawny-browed Owl, Common Potoo and Ferruginous Pigmy-Owl are frequently encountered, and an area of rough pasture at the end of the trail is worth trying for Giant Snipe, but the real prize here is Black-banded Owl, with a pair of birds in residence.

It is worth spending at least a couple of hours walking slowly along the trail listening for calls (use recordings/playback very sparingly as the birds soon get wise to them (plus using recordings/playback as little as possible is to be encouraged to reduce any adverse effect on the birds) and keeping an eye out for birds perched up quietly beside the trail. I’ve often picked up Black-banded Owls just by scanning with a torch or even finding them perched up in trees over the trail, and once a Mottled Owl flew in and landed just a few metres from me (without any encouragement from recordings) while I was looking for a calling Long-tailed Potoo! In my experience, the last few hours of dark before dawn are best, and birds are seemingly more vocal on clear moonlit nights.

Black-banded Owl Strix huhula, Onofre Cunha Trail, December 2011.
Birds in the Atlantic Forest are a unique subspecies S. albomarginata.
(Photo by Nicholas Locke)

Tawny-browed Owl Pulsatrix koeniswaldiana, Onofre Cunha Trail, May 2010.
This species is endemic to the Atlantic Forest where it replaces the widespread
Spectacled Owl Pulsatrix perspicillata. There are good numbers at REGUA.

For the Onofre Cunha Trail, hiring one of REGUA's bird guides is strongly recommended. Transport is required to reach the trail head from the lodge (although I guess you could walk at a push), and the entrance to the trail is very difficult to find. It is usually Adilei who will accompany you and he knows the best spots for all the birds.

We've only scratched the surface as far as birding at night at REGUA is concerned. The reserve is huge and most of the forest interior remains unexplored at night. The Near-threatened Rusty-barred Owl is probably present at higher elevations, the mysterious Ocellated Poorwill is possible in the forest interior and surely Great Horned Owl is waiting to be found in the more open habitats? Even relatively well-explored areas continue to yield surprises. In July, RJ state's third Stygian Owl was found at the wetland, and there have been several records of Nacunda Nighthawk from just outside the reserve.

Black-capped or Variable Screech-Owl Megascops atricapilla, Waterfall Trail,
November 2008. This Atlantic Forest endemic is only found in forest interiors.


Many thanks to Nicholas Locke for permission to use his photo of Black-banded Owl.

19 December 2011

Brazilian moorhens - a laughing matter

When I first visited Brazil over five years ago, I soon became aware of how different the long 'cackling' calls of the local race of Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus galeata are compared to the familiar short calls of nominate G. c. chloropus back in the UK. A closer look at these birds also revealed that they look a little different too, being slightly bigger with a larger red shield with a broad square top edge, giving the head profile a peak at the front of the crown. With the recent taxonomic scrutiny of moorhens focusing on the variation between Old World and New World forms, much has been written about the morphological differences between the North American race G. c. cachinnans and Old World chloropus, that might allow a transatlantic vagrant to be identified. Adult cachinnans, in addition to the features above, tend to show a different bill pattern with less extensive yellow on the lower mandible and a more clearly defined red/yellow border, a duller red iris and richer reddish-brown upperparts, particularly on the upper mantle where there is a more clearly demarcated contrast with the dark grey neck (see here and here). Immature birds are much more similar and possibly indistinguishable in the field?

In July, the AOU (but so far not the BOU) decided to split all New World forms from Old World chloropus as Common Gallinule (in favour of the name Laughing Moorhen suggested by The Sound Approach). However, it is galeata, the most widespread form across South America, that has been designated the nominate race rather than cachinnans. I'd like to know what features distinguish these two races? As far as I can tell they are vocally inseparable (compare the calls of galeata and cachinnans here and chloropus here), but I've observed that galeata does appear to be much greyer on the upperparts than both Old World chloropus and North American cachinnans, with brown tones restricted to the lower mantle, rump, greater coverts and flight feathers (compare below), and perhaps they are also a little darker overall. Are there other differences?

Former race G. c. galeata, now split by the AOU as Common Gallinule Gallinula
, REGUA, Brazil, November 2011. Note the large, square-topped shield, the
well defined lower mandible pattern and the dark eye. galeata seem to have much
greyer upperparts than both North American cachinnans and Old World chloropus.

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus, London Wetland Centre, UK, December
2011. Note the smaller, narrower shield with a rounded top, slightly more extensive
yellow on the lower mandible with a slightly less demarcated pattern, brighter red
iris and browner upperparts (click to enlarge). North American cachinnans is
apparently even browner above.

At REGUA, galeata also exhibit some differences in behaviour compared to the Old World Common Moorhen. Here the birds seem to be more social, forming large flocks throughout the year, often containing 40 or so individuals that feed and rest together. They also appear to be more aquatic in their feeding habits, preferring to forage in open and often quite deep water, picking plant material from the surface, and feed much less frequently on land than Common Moorhen do in the UK, where bird seem to prefer to graze on grass. Has anyone noticed a similar feeding behaviour in cachinnans, or in any other race? For some excellent footage by Ron Jackson showing the behaviour, calls and features of galeata at REGUA, click here.

A typical feeding group of Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata, REGUA, July
2011. Based on observations at REGUA, Brazilian birds are seemingly much
less terrestrial in their feeding habits than their Old World counterparts?

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus London Wetland Centre, UK, December
2011. Birds in the UK seem to prefer grazing on land.

So is the situation as straightforward as separating New World from Old World moorhens? Looking at photos, meridionalis from sub-Saharan Africa and St. Helena in the mid South Atlantic (here), orientalis of south-east Asia (here), and pyrrhorrhoa from Madagascar and surrounding islands (here), all look very similar to galeata to me, with perhaps a very slightly more rounded top to the shield. Have these been allied to Common Moorhen or Common Gallinule, and are they also different species?

18 December 2011

Winter at the London Wetland Centre

A quiet afternoon with cold north-westerlies produced 2 drake Pintail, 5 Shelduck, 56 Wigeon, 5 Pochard, 30 Gadwall, 1 Water Rail, 17+ Common Snipe, 15+ Lapwing, 2-3 Stonechat, 15+ Lesser Redpoll, 14+ Siskin and 5 Redwing. Good numbers of Great Tit and Blue Tit were seen, but 4 Long-tailed Tit, 3 Robin, a few Blackbird were the only other passerines of note. Many of the smaller pools are partially frozen and although there were plenty of Teal around there seemed to be less wildfowl than usual, with just small numbers of Northern Shoveler and Tufted Duck. There was also a pair of Mandarin on the Main Lake, which I guess could be from the collection?

11 December 2011

Staines Bore

A couple of hours at Staines Moor produced almost bugger all, with 1 Water Pipit (terrible photo below) associating with a lone Meadow Pipit and a Pied Wagtail along the Colne, 17+ Fieldfare, 15 Linnet and a Reed Bunting being about it. Also, 80+ Linnet were kicking about on adjacent Stanwell Moor.

10 December 2011

Papercourt Short-eared Owls

A brief visit to Thursley Common today found no sign of the Great Grey Shrike, or much else for that matter, with only 10 Lesser Redpoll, 2 Stonechat and a few Meadow Pipits seen. Mid afternoon I found myself back at Papercourt water meadows for some more owl action (I can't believe how many people were out to watch them! Around 50 or so!). At least 4 Short-eared Owls put on a fantastic display, hunting over the rough grass, being mobbed by 2 Kestrels and Carrion Crows, and occasionally even fighting and calling right overhead! This time I managed a few rubbish photos. 1 Barn Owl, 1 Stonechat and a Roe Deer were also seen.

There's been a large influx of Short-eared Owls into the UK this autumn, see here.

2 December 2011

Two of my favourite birds together in Surrey

Surrey is not the best place in the world for birds (what an understatement!), and it's not often you get the opportunity to see two of your favourite birds in the world, in Surrey, at the same place, and on the same day. Therefore I couldn't resist a quick visit to Papercourt water meadows this afternoon to give it a shot. Just a few minutes after arrival I caught sight of the unmistakable deep wing beats of a Short-eared Owl in the distance, and after a few minutes I realised there were actually 3 birds hunting over the rough grass. They showed fairly well but unfortunately stayed a little distant and I didn't manage a single half decent photo! One down, one to go, but I didn't have to wait too long before a Barn Owl appeared quartering the fields. Simply amazing birds! I never tire of watching Short-eareds or Barn Owls! Also seen were c.100 Siskin, c.50 Fieldfare and a single Redwing. I must make a return visit to try and get a few snaps!

28 November 2011

Overcoming euphonia phobia

Euphonias are a genus of small short tailed passerines found throughout the Neotropics, which together with the chlorophonias, comprise the subfamily Euphoniinae. Showing a higher degree of sexual dimorphism than their chlorophonia cousins, male euphonias of most species are brightly coloured, distinctively marked and generally fairly easy to identify. The females on the other hand are mainly dull olive-green with various amounts of grey, and their similarity, along with often poor illustrations in field guides, means that unless they call many birders simply don't bother with them. Six species of euphonia occur regularly in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and at first glance the females of all but one of these, Golden-rumped Euphonia, are fairly similar in appearance. However, given good views and knowing what to look for, separating them is not too difficult.

The most common species in the Atlantic Forest is Violaceous Euphonia. The female (Fig. 1 & 2) is uniform olive-green above and below with dark grey inner webs to the primaries, tertials, medium and greater coverts. This is the only euphonia in this group with no grey on the underparts (note that female Golden-rumped also has olive-green underparts, but is easily distinguished - see here).

Perhaps the most distinctive is female Chestnut-bellied Euphonia (Fig. 3 & 4). The upperparts, flanks, ear coverts, chin and forehead are a rich yellow-green and it is the only species with red undertail coverts and vent. The grey center to the breast and upper belly extends onto the neck sides to form a half collar that is separated from the grey nape by green ear coverts.

Click to enlarge

Female Purple-throated Euphonia (Fig. 5 & 6) is also distinctive, once you get your eye in. The general jizz is of a paler but more contrasty bird, with the colours on the upperparts often looking rather washed out. The upperparts are mainly pale olive-green becoming greyer on the mantle, nape and crown, and contrast sharply with the bright lemon yellow flanks, vent and undertail coverts. The breast and belly are pale grey (sometimes almost white) which set off the dark grey legs. The head pattern is also rather distinctive, with dark grey or black lores (meeting across the top of the bill) and faint narrow black eyestripe behind the eye, contrasting with a bright yellow forehead and hint of a yellow supercilium before the eye. The bill is a little longer and more conical than the other species, with a blackish distal half (more so on the upper mandible), and at close range the split white eye-ring is diagnostic. The blackish upper tail, and inner webs to the tertials and inner primaries add further contrast to the upperparts.

The two most similar of the set are Orange-bellied Euphonia and Green-chinned Euphonia. The females of both are olive-green above, pale grey below with olive-yellow flanks extending onto the undertail coverts. Orange-bellied Euphonia (Fig. 7 & 8) is polymorphic, but the form in the Atlantic Forest has a grey nape that stretches around the neck forming a very diffuse grey collar. In comparison, Green-chinned (Fig. 9 & 10) shows obvious grey neck sides extending onto the ear coverts, an olive-green nape and dark grey lores. Structurally, Green-chinned is a heavier looking bird with a noticeably thick bill, compared to Orange-bellied that has a small and rather delicate looking bill.


Many thanks to Leonardo Pimentel for permission to use his photos of Green-chinned Euphonia.

21 November 2011

A bird in the bush is worth two in the cage

The trapping and trading of wild birds has been illegal in Brazil since the Fauna Protection Law was introduced in 1967, but like across much of the country, hunting wild birds in the Atlantic Forest for the cage-bird trade remains commonplace and a major threat to many species, several of which are classified as Threatened. Many of the birds trapped are destined for the international black market, however, in Rio de Janeiro state, as in many parts of Brazil, keeping native species as cage-birds is very popular within the local community, and cages containing trapped wild birds can be found hanging outside homes, bars, shops, and especially barbers, everywhere. In Cachoeiras de Macacu, a small town about 21 km from REGUA, rows of cages of all shapes and sizes can be found for sale outside several shops, indicating just how popular cage-birds are, and bizarrely, you can even sometimes see people taking their caged birds for a 'walk'.

Green-winged Saltator in a cage outside a shop in Cachoeiras de Macacu in Rio
de Janeiro state. This high altitude species is commonly kept as a cage-bird despite
legislation in place to protect them, and most are trapped locally.

Rows of bird cages for sale in Cachoeiras de Macacu, a small town near REGUA
in Rio de Janeiro state. Most cage-birds in RJ state are native species caught
from the wild and sold in illegal markets. The quantity of cages for sale indicates
just how popular keeping cage-birds remains in the local community.

Captive Blue-bellied Parrot at a small rural property near REGUA. This Atlantic
Forest endemic is one of the more unusual species seen as a cage-bird in the
area. Although trapping places some pressure on this species, habitat loss is
a far more serious threat. Blue-bellied Parrot is classified as Near Threatened.
(Photo by Alan Martin)

In the REGUA area, the most common method employed by hunters to trap birds for the cage-bird trade is to use a captive bird placed next to an empty cage baited with food to attract the targeted species. The unsuspecting bird enters the cage to get to the food and becomes trapped. Birds are then transported for sale in illegals markets in local towns or Rio de Janeiro, often in huge quantities. Hunting is therefore an easy and inexpensive way to make money, and with demand remaining high and some local authorities turning a blind eye, it is difficult to imagine this threat going away any time soon. However, the enforcement wing of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), INEA (RJ state government authorities), with help from the Brazilian NGO Renctas, are having some success tackling illegal hunting and trade, but the scale of the problem means that resources are nowhere near enough to enforce the law effectively.

Although rather drab in plumage by neotropical standards, seedeaters are particularly sought after as cage-birds for their songs, and in the REGUA area male Buffy-fronted and Double-collared Seedeaters are common in cages. Another species very commonly kept as a cage-bird in the area is Green-winged Saltator, and they can frequently be heard singing from apartments and shops in the nearby towns. Thrushes, especially Rufous-bellied Thrush, are also very popular as are Saffron Finch and Bare-throated Bellbird, and Temminck's Seedeater are also sometimes kept.

Double-collared Seedeater is one of the most common seedeaters in southern
South America, with a very large range. Preferring semi-open country, including
agricultural land, deforestation together with the spread of exotic grasses
has helped the population increase and although they are one of the most
popular cage-birds in Brazil, they are not considered threatened.

Male Buffy-fronted Seedeater. A nomadic bamboo specialist, this Atlantic Forest
endemic is heavily targeted by the cage-bird trade for its loud song, and large
numbers are often sold illegally in Rio de Janeiro. Adding to this problem,
deforestation has reduced their bamboo habitat and extended the length of time
between large scale scale bamboo flowerings, which in turn affects breeding.
Buffy-fronted Seedeater is classified as Vulnerable. (Photo by Leonardo Pimentel)

Rufous-bellied Thrush, the national bird of Brazil since 2002, is highly sough after
as a cage-bird for its song, and very popular in the REGUA area.

Another popular cage-bird, male Saffron Finches are very territorial and sometimes
used for blood sports, with two males placed in a cage to fight. This barbaric
practice was banned in Brazil 20 years ago, but has recently been reported from
the US.

Immature male Bare-throated Bellbird. Endemic to the Atlantic Forest, this cotinga
is under pressure from the cage-bird trade for its unmusical but extremely loud
song. They are relatively uncommon in cages in the REGUA area due to policing
by IBAMA, and a local in the village of Mutumbo near REGUA had four birds
confiscated by IBAMA during my visit this month. Trapping pressure is much
higher in other states such as southern Bahia, São Paulo and Santa Catarinam,
and they remain relatively common in the forest of Rio de Janeiro state. Also
threatened by deforestation, Bell-throated Bellbird is classified as Vulnerable.
(Photo by Tasso Leventis)

Key to addressing this problem is a change in local attitudes towards biodiversity, and as is so often the case, small NGOs are making more progress with this than government legislation or the authorities. REGUA is one of the few protected areas in the Atlantic Forest employing local people, mostly ex-hunters, as rangers to patrol the reserve. As a result, since 2001 hunting at REGUA has declined by an estimated 98%! Obviously some hunting activity would simply have been displaced onto adjacent land, so perhaps even more importantly, REGUA has been helping to slowly change local attitudes towards the forest and it's wildlife. REGUA's education programme teaches local school children about the Atlantic Forest and it's wildlife is unique and therefore in need of preserving. REGUA is now the second largest employer in the local area, with 30 full-time staff (and more employed during the tree planting season), many of whom are involved in wildlife tourism to the reserve. By providing employment REGUA is demonstrating that the Atlantic Forest and its wildlife, traditionally viewed as worthless and to be exploited, can provide a sustainable source of income if conserved and respected.

Culturally, there's been a shift away from hunting towards the observation of wild birds amongst wealthier Brazilians. Birding has grown rapidly in popularity in Brazil over the last few years, with increasing numbers of young men and, refreshingly, women, becoming interested in birds, often through photography (take a look at the excellent WikiAves website). Brazil now has it's own bird fair (Avistarbrasil), and in contrast to when I first visited REGUA five years ago, there doesn't seem to be a week that goes by without several Brazilian birders visiting the reserve, with the active Rio de Janeiro Birdwatchers' Club also making regular visits. Earlier this year some Brazilian birders even found themselves twitching when a flock of ultra rare Brown-backed Parrotlets turned up in Ubatuba.

In addition, REGUA's Raquel Locke also reports that computer games appear to be replacing hunting as a pastime amongst the local young men. I wonder how long it will be before Ultimate Bellbird Hunting becomes available on the Wii?


Many thanks to Adilei Carvalho da Cunha for providing information on the bird species targeted by hunters and the methods of capture, to Nicholas and Raquel Locke for additional information about trapping and trafficking, and to Tasso Leventis, Alan Martin and Leonardo Pimentel for permission to use their photos.

Read more about the problem of illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil here.

19 November 2011

Black-backed Water-Tyrant - a new bird for REGUA

On Saturday 12 November 2011, I found a Black-backed Water-Tyrant Fluvicola albiventer at REGUA, a private nature reserve located in the Serra do Mar mountains, in the municipality of Cachoeiras de Macacu, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil. A vagrant to RJ state, this is the first record of this species at REGUA.

The bird was seen twice throughout the day, briefly in the morning and then again later in the afternoon. Initially picked up in flight, it landed in a bare dead bush at the water's edge on a small grassy island by post 300 of the Wetland Trail. With previous experience of this species in the Pantanal I knew immediately what it was. Although the bird was distant and remained fairly deep in cover, I managed to take a few record shots that show the key features: black upperparts including the nape and rear crown and black tail, white tips to the greater and medium coverts forming two faint broken white wing bars, a thin white band across the rump, white forehead and forecrown, face and underparts and black eye, bill and legs. After a few minutes it flew off and despite searching for an hour or so I couldn't relocate it.

Late afternoon, while on my way back from mapping a new trail, I refound the bird around the replanted tabebuia trees, just a short distance from the first sighting, and this time I was able to watch it for about 30 minutes. It was quite active, spending most of the time foraging from vegetation overhanging the surface of the water by just a foot or so, and sallying out over the water presumably to catch insects and frequently fanning the tail slightly and flicking it downwards. Unfortunately, it remained distant and tended to perch a little way into the vegetation, which prevented me from getting any good photos.

Black-backed Water-Tyrant, REGUA wetland, 12 November 2011. The tail, wing coverts, secondaries and tertials
are all rather worn - note the lack of any white tips to the tail, very faint white the wing bars and almost absent
white fringes to the tertials (just visible in the photo top right).

There are only two potential confusion species. Pied Water-Tyrant Fluvicola pica (its closest relative and sometimes considered conspecific), is found in northern South America is similar but shows white scapulars, no white wing bars, a completely white rump and white mottling on the mantle. In RJ state, female or immature White-headed Marsh-Tyrant Arundinicola leucocephala are superficially similar at first glance, but are easily separated by their slightly smaller size, more upright stance, much less contrasting demarcation between the grey/black upperparts (with no white on the wing coverts, tertials or secondaries) and greyish white underparts, as well as a largely orange-yellow lower mandible. They also rarely fan their tail.

Black-backed Water-Tyrant, Pantanal, Brazil, August 2006. Note the obvious white
wing bars, white fringes to the tertials and secondaries and tips to the tail.

Female White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, REGUA, November 2011. With poor or brief
views this is the only potential confusion species in RJ state, but note the greyish
mottling on the white underparts, the diffuse border between the underparts and
the pale grey on the crown, nape, mantle and edges to the scapulars and
orange-yellow on the lower mandible.

Black-backed Water-Tyrant is distributed throughout eastern South America, mainly in central and eastern Brazil south to northern Minas Gerias and north-west São Paulo states, as well as locally into eastern Bolivia, Paraquay, north-east Argentina and south-west Uruguay (click here for a map). It is resident throughout much of its range, but in the austral winter some migrate westwards into western Amazonia (western Brazil, north-west Bolivia, extreme southern Columbia, eastern Ecuador and eastern Peru). The nearest populations to REGUA are found approximately 600 km away, either to the north in northern Minas Gerais or to the west in central São Paulo state.

So is this a late overshooting spring migrant from Amazonia? Ricardo Gagliardi maintains the official RJ state bird list and he informs me that Black-backed Water-Tyrant is in fact spreading south into RJ state (a paper is currently in preparation) and there have been several recent sightings in the north of the state. However, he is surprised the species has already reached as far south as REGUA and writes that this record "indicates a continuity in the process of colonization of new areas for the species". The bird was still present the next day but hasn't been seen since.


Many thanks to Ricardo Gagliardi for kindly providing information regarding the status of the species in RJ state, and to Eric DeFonso for taking the time to find the bird the following day.

12 November 2011

REGUA, Atlantic Forest, Brazil: 12 November

Our final day in Brazil, and a marathon day at that! At 02:45, Adilei, Helen and I found ourselves blurry eyed and yawning on the Onofre Cunha Trail for our last night walk. Once again things were rather quiet but a Black-capped Screech-Owl (photo 1) showed well, and 2 Black-banded Owl were seen in their usual spot but typically remained just out of DSLR range. A Mottled Owl was heard but there was no sign of any Tawny-browed Owls so we drove to another site, where immediately on arrival we found a Tawny-browed perched up in a cecropia. Mission accomplished! 3 Pauraque on the dirt roads were a bonus, but by now the rapidly gathering light was bringing the mornings night-birding to an end.

Black-capped Screech-Owl on the Onofre Cunha Trail

We decided on a dawn visit to the area of agricultural land at Areal (photo 2) that has become another regular Giant Snipe site, to try and catch up with a few species that are difficult on the reserve now that the reforested areas are becoming more established. 1 Savanna Hawk, 2 Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (scarce here), a Burrowing Owl, 2 Grassland Sparrow, 2 Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, 1 Red-cowled Cardinal, 2 Chopi Blackbird, several White-browed Blackbird and a group of Common Waxbill were amongst the birds seen against a backdrop of displaying Blue-black Grassquits and a beautiful sunrise. There's nothing quite like grasslands at dawn.

Sunrise at Areal

After breakfast back at the lodge I was out again, this time mapping in detail the two trails we marked yesterday. Starting on the Wetland Trail, I had only got to post 300 when I noticed a small black and white tyrant-flycatcher flying out from the bank towards a small grassy island. I knew immediately that this was no White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, but a Black-backed Water-Tyrant, and a new bird for REGUA! Landing in a dead bush, it frustratingly remained rather obscured before flying off just a minute or so later. I was sure that this species was not normally found in RJ state, and only had a few terrible record shots. After over an hour of searching there was no further sign of it so I continued walking the trail hoping to refind it. By now it was getting hot and several White-faced Whistling-Duck (photo 3), 3 Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, 18 Masked Duck (the highest count of the trip), 1 Capped Heron, 2 Snowy Egret, 1 Squirrel Cuckoo, 2 Greater Ani, 1 Wing-banded Hornero, 1-2 Cattle Tyrant (now rather scarce at the wetland), 1 Short-crested Flycatcher and a Black-capped Donacobius were the best of the other birds seen.

White-faced Whistling-Ducks

A quick walk mid afternoon to map the new Forest Trail found very little bird activity, with a Blond-crested Woodpecker being the most noteworthy sighting. With only two hours left before we had to leave for the airport, I was almost back at the lodge when I refound the Black-backed Water-Tyrant. It was a little distant but I spent half an hour watching it and taking some slightly better photos, before all too soon I had to leave it and rush back for dinner, pack and say my goodbyes. It would have been nice to have had another day to try and get some better shots but I couldn't have asked for a better end to the trip (separate post on this bird to follow).

11 November 2011

Trail marking at REGUA

Although there are plenty of trails in the lodge area at REGUA, few have ever been marked out with posts and there is no information readily available to visitors about these trails and the wildlife that can be seen along them. So back in July, Rachel, Raquel Locke, Helen Cavilla and I began the task of developing the trail network and designed two new trails, the Wetland Trail and the Forest Trail, working out and measuring the routes and deciding where to place signs and benches etc. Over the last few days Rachel has been working hard with volunteers and REGUA staff building and painting marker posts and signs, and today (11 November) we were finally ready to mark out the trails.

The Wetland Trail is a circular route that runs for 2.8 km around the edge of the wetland, taking in lakes, marsh, reed beds and reforested areas. It is marked with yellow posts every 50 m and also gives access to two hides. The Forest Trail is a 2.4 km linear route that runs through well established secondary forest, areas recently replanted with pioneer tree species and wet grassland. Rachel and I assembled a team consisting of REGUA ranger Barata, lodge manager Helen Cavilla, REGUA guide Adilei and volunteers Richard Thaxton and Eric DeFonso, and although it was very hot we made light work of what would otherwise have been a time consuming task, and had a lot of fun in the process. Many thanks to everyone for helping out!

Newly painted marker posts for the Forest Trail.

From left: Richard Thaxton (Loch Garten RSPB site manager), Barata and Rachel.

From left: me and Helen Cavilla.

Richard Thaxton and Rachel.

10 November 2011

REGUA, Atlantic Forest, Brazil: 10 November

Another hike up the Elfin Forest Trail today, this time via the Waterfall Trail. An adult Rufous-thighed Kite just before the trail head by Casa Pesquisa got things off to a good start, and then things got even better shortly afterwards with one of the highlights of the trip. Luciana Barcante, a student from Rio de Janeiro State University studying changes in bird populations with altitude, was ringing on the Waterfall Trail and had just caught a pair of Russet-winged Spadebill (photos 1 & 2)! Its not everyday you get the opportunity to see such rare a bird at close range, so I stayed and watched Luciana process the birds, taking a few pics in the process. Check out the white crest - I've never seen this in the field. Incredible birds! This pair was not caught at one of the regular spots on the reserve for this species, so they could be yet another pair. A White-throated Spadebill seen shortly afterwards provided a timely comparison.

Male Russet-winged Spadebill

Female Russet-winged Spadebill

Also caught were 1 Saw-billed Hermit, 1 Violet-capped Woodnymph, 1 Rufous-capped Antthrush (photo 3), 1 Ochre-bellied Flycatcher (photo 4) and a Grey-hooded Flycatcher.

Rufous-capped Antthrush

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

On the Elfin Forest Trail I finally managed to connect with Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant (at post 2250), with 1 or 2 birds seen after a what felt like a very long wait. Unfortunately they weren't very showy so I was unable to get any decent photos. Also seen on the Elfin Forest Trail were 1 Mantled Hawk, 1 Least Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by 2 Red-necked Tanagers, a Scale-throated Hermit, 1 Saffron Toucanet, 1 Yellow-throated Woodpecker, a male Salvadori's Antwren, 1 White-bibbed Antbird, 1 Spotted Bamboowren, 1 Planalto Woodcreeper, 1-2 Scaled Woodcreeper, 1 Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner, 2 Black-capped Foliage-gleaner, a Pale-browed Treehunter, 1+ Sharpbill, the male Elegant Mourner again, 2 Black-capped Becard, 1-2 Rufous-browed Peppershrike, 4 Brown Tanager, 2 Black-throated Grosbeak and a Golden-crowned Warbler.

9 November 2011

REGUA, Atlantic Forest, Brazil: 9 November

A hot and very quiet day on the Veludo Trail today. 2 Saw-billed Hermit (photo below), 1 male Frilled Coquette, 1 Rufous-tailed Jacamar, 1 Yellow-throated Woodpecker, a male Variable Antshrike, a pair of Spot-breasted Antvireo, 1 Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner, 1 White-eyed Foliage-gleaner, 2 Grey-hooded Flycatcher, 1 White-throated Spadebill, 2 Euler's Flycatcher, 1 Blue Manakin, 3 Yellow-green Grosbeak, 1 Orange-bellied Euphonia and a Chestnut-bellied Euphonia were the best of the few birds seen, and yet again we came frustratingly close to a calling Variegated Antpitta but failed to see it. Elsewhere, a White-eared Puffbird was on the dirt road leading to the trail head.

8 November 2011

Austral migrant tyrant-flycatchers

During the austral spring (September and October), large numbers of migratory birds arrive in the Atlantic Forest and across southern South America to breed. Avian migration in South America is very poorly understood compared to many other parts of the world, with seasonal distribution and migration routes unclear for many species. However, some species, particularly some tyrant-flycatchers, are known to migrate very long distances, and a few are potential vagrants to North America and perhaps beyond.

Several Fork-tailed Flycatchers (photo 1) are currently about on agricultural land around REGUA. There are four races of this stunning bird, and the nominate Tyrannus savana savana is a long distance migrant, breeding in southern South America, mainly south of the Tropic of Capricorn2, and spending the austral winter (April to August) in the northern half of the continent, as far north as western Columbia, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago. Fork-tailed Flycatcher occurs almost annually as a vagrant in the US and Canada with over 120 records, mainly in the east and involving 1st winter birds of the nominate race3. Most have occurred as reverse migrants in September and October, when birds wintering in northern South America move south to their breeding grounds, but some have occurred as overshoots in the northern spring when birds are heading north for the austral winter. Incredibly, one even made it to Spain in October 20023!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher of the nominate form T. s. savana, REGUA, November 2011.
This long distance migrant is recorded almost annually as a vagrant in North
America, and the first record for the Western Palearctic occurred in 2002.

Variegated Flycatcher (photo 2) is also a common summer visitor to the Atlantic Forest and can be seen around the wetland and at forest edge habitats at REGUA at the moment. Widespread throughout South America east of the Andes, nominate Empidonomus varius varius is highly migratory in the southern part of its breeding range, with birds moving as far north as Trinidad, Venezuela and as far west as eastern Colombia and eastern Ecuador for the austral winter. Variegated Flycatcher shows a similar pattern of vagrancy in North America to Fork-tailed Flycatcher, albeit but with far fewer records (Fork-tailed Flycatcher is a very conspicuous species, so maybe Variegated Flycatchers are going unnoticed?) - 3 have been recorded in the US (2 in the east) and 1 in south-east Canada, with all but one recorded between September and November. None have been assigned to race for certain, but a bird in Washington in 2008 showed characteristics of the nominate varius4, suggesting migrants from southern South America are involved rather than the nearer but sedentary Mexican population. With Fork-tailed Flycatcher having made it across the Atlantic, could Variegated Flycatcher follow?

Variegated Flycatcher of the highly migratory nominate race E. v. varius, REGUA,
October 2007. Birds breeding in southern South America winter in the far north of
the continent. 4 have so far occurred in North America, including 3 in the east, but
more possibly go unnoticed. The larger size, longer bill and rufous tail separate it
from the similar Piratic Flycatcher.

Piratic Flycatcher is similar to Variegated in appearance, but is smaller with a shorter bill and less rufous tones in the tail and rump. Like Variegated, the nominate L. l. leucophaius is migratory and moves north for the austral winter. Nine had been recorded in North America up until 20094, with one record from eastern US (Florida). Similarly, the local race of Streaked Flycatcher, M. m. solitarius (photo 3), is also highly migratory in the southern end of its range. So far Streaked Flycatcher has not been recorded north of Mexico4, but this is one of the most common austral summer migrant tyrant-flycatchers in RJ state, and must be considered a potential vagrant to North America.

Streaked Flycatcher of the migratory race M. m. solitarius, Vale das Taquaras,
November 2007. This common long distance austral migrant is a potential vagrant
to North America and maybe elsewhere.


1 del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. & Christie, D. (eds.) 2004. Handbook of the Birds of the World, 9. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.
2 Erickson, H.T. 1982. Migration of the Fork-tailed Flycatcher through southeastern Brazil. American Birds 36: 136-138.
3 Gutiérrez, R. 2008. The Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Spain - a new Western Palearctic bird. Birding World 21: 325-328.
4 Mlodinow, S.G. & Irons, D.S. 2009. First Record of the Variegated Flycatcher for Western North America. Western Birds 40: 47-50.

REGUA, Atlantic Forest, Brazil: 8 November

A very long but fantastic day birding to the top of the Elfin Forest Trail today, with plenty of Atlantic Forest endemics seen. A quick walk along the Grey Trail en route produced 1 each of Plain Parakeet, Blue-bellied Parrot, Spot-backed Antshrike, Black-cheeked Gnateater, Rufous-breasted Leaftosser, Planalto Woodcreeper, Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner, Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Russet-winged Spadebill, Grey-hooded Attila, Pin-tailed Manakin and Blue-naped Chlorophonia.

The Elfin Forest Trail reaches 950 m above sea level, and although rocky and very steep in places, is one of my favourite birding trails anywhere. The forest here has only ever been selectively logged and the trees are dripping with bromeliads and orchids, supporting a whole range of animals scarce in secondary forest. A calling male Elegant Mourner (photos 1 & 2) showed very well between posts 850 - 900, with another seen briefly in the same place. At the top of the trail 1 Spotted Bamboowren (photo 3) was eventually coaxed out into a relatively open area of bamboo, and 1 Mantled Hawk, 1 Scale-throated Hermit, 1 Versicolored Emerald, 4 Saffron Toucanet, 1 Yellow-browed Woodpecker, 2 Ferruginous Antbird (photo 4), 1 White-bibbed Antbird, 1 White-throated Woodcreeper, 1 Black-billed Scythebill and a Rough-legged Tyrannulet were seen. Other notables logged include 1 Surucua Trogon, 1 Rufous-capped Motmot, 3 Spot-billed Toucanet, 1-2 White-collared Foliage-gleaner, 1 Pale-browed Treehunter, 1 Azure-shouldered Tanager and a Black-throated Grosbeak. Frustratingly, we failed to see the Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrants recently found on this trail despite hearing them call at close range. The return walk along the Waterfall Trail added a Plain Xenops and a White-thighed Swallow.

Above and below: Male Elegant Mourner at the regular breeding spot at
post 850 on the Elfin Forest Trail

Spotted Bamboowren - rubbish photo, tough bird

The brightest coloured Drymophila antbird, Ferruginous Antbird is found at higher
altitudes and is often associated with bamboo.

7 November 2011

REGUA, Atlantic Forest, Brazil: 7 November

A quiet day on forest trails around the wetland produced nothing out of the ordinary. A walk along an unmarked trail and then onto the Forest Trail produced 1 Rufous-thighed Kite, a pair of Sooretama Slaty Antshrike (photo 1), 5 White-flanked Antwren, 4 Unicoloured Antwren, 1 Plain-winged Woodcreeper, 1+ Grey-hooded Flycatcher, 1 Sepia-capped Flycatcher, 2 Streaked Flycatcher, 1 Variegated Flycatcher, 1 Short-crested Flycatcher, 2 Moustached Wren (photo 2), 1 Long-billed Wren and the Green-winged Saltator. A short hike up the São José Trail found little activity, with just 2 more White-flanked Antwren, 1 Unicoloured Antwren, a Streaked Xenops and another Long-billed Wren for company.

Male Sooretama Slaty Antshrike

Moustached Wren

In the evening a group of low swifts over the lodge included a few Biscutate Swifts and some Sick's Swifts and a night walk around the wetland produced a male Scissor-tailed Nightjar and several Pauraque (photo 3).

Male Pauraque