The Sussex Wildlifer
Wildlife Trip Report: Brazil and Regua February and March 2013

Impressions of Brazil

Brazil was in many respects nothing like I had imagined. To start with, it was more expensive; the international airport at Rio was somewhat basic, but with the next Olympics less than four years away this will change; on the other hand, despite being almost last off the flight from Heathrow, we cleared immigration in 20 minutes and had collected our bags in another ten - Heathrow eat your heart out; we were entertained by stories of overly bureaucratic micro-management of B&Bs and accommodation facilities by the authorities; the Rio traffic systems and lights were not a good experience; there was a happy, beach-based culture; traffic was very busy, but this was after all a huge city and the levels of driving ability, whilst different from those in Europe, were generally good - it was far more life-threatening to drive around major cities in, for example, India, where at times you may be scared witless; we had expected to see countless slums and possibly street violence, but the favelas were really nothing like the slums of the Indian cities; that is not to say that things were not bad, just different; Rio has been built on and around numerous mountains and the scenery was simply stunningly beautiful; we saw lots of new infrastructure going in, presumably ahead of the next Olympics.

Brazilian Wildlife

Ten years on from our world trip studying rare and declining wildlife and the reasons why so many were critically endangered, the depressing downward spiral continues. Conservation is at the crossroads.  How many times have I heard that said over recent years? Has it made any difference? Mankind’s indifference is still the cause of continuing extinctions, seemingly nothing must get in the way of human progress, the economy and the absolute greed of the few, and habitats continue to be degraded, or built over, even some of the most valuable wildlife sites in the country.

It is true that there are success stories, but they are depressingly few in number and a cynic such as me is left wondering just how long-term these successes will prove to be. On a more positive note, one success story is Regua in Brazil (or the Guapi Assu Bird Lodge). This location is one of the world’s wildlife hotspots and although reptiles and mammals were few in number and skittish (a result perhaps of the recent past, when they were heavily hunted), the numbers and diversity of birds and insect life is such that it is quite easy to become overwhelmed.  

The Rio Primatology Centre was a very moving experience for vastly different reasons. Once again I held the hand of another primate. Once again I looked into the eyes of another primate and made that connection – when it happens, you never forget the moment. The Centre was established in the 1970s to protect the highly endangered Golden Lion Tamarin, possibly the most beautiful mammal I have ever seen. Now the Centre houses many more species of critically endangered primates. Unprecedented trade in endangered wild animals means that more and more species can only hope to survive in centres such as this, or in private zoos.  You only have to look at the sheer beauty of the birds and primates to understand why some people desire to own them. On the other hand, it is heart breaking to see these beautiful primates locked away in small cages and enclosures, whilst armed guards patrol the area to ensure their continued safety.

We were fortunate indeed to have been invited to visit this intriguing place, set hard under the mountains in beautiful grounds. It is still a centre-piece of Brazilian conservation, but whilst many of the primates breed successfully here in captivity, it is incredibly sad to realise that none of them are ever likely to experience life in the wild. It was also heart-breaking to see the pitiful condition of the quarantined animals, which had either been found abandoned, or confiscated by the authorities, many of which would not survive.

Whilst recognising the modern day need for zoos in terms of conservation and preservation of the species, I have disliked zoos most of my life. Here it was finally, irrevocably, brought home to me. This is the future....

Atlantic Rainforest Photography

My best photography is almost invariably when I am on my own, unconcerned about the needs of others, able to move, or not move, at my own pace, not dictated to by the interests of others. It should come as no surprise when I say how much I loathe birding in rainforests. I went with low expectations of excellent photo opportunities: birds just do not sit still or pose in ideal conditions. Despite world class bird guides, the views were invariably excruciatingly bad. You can expect poor light in a rainforest and birds are constantly on the move, making it really hard to see them at all. The Regua Waterfall Trail one morning provided a staggering number of birds, but I did not get a single image of even one of them! They were either high up in the canopy being viewed at a horrid acute angle, mostly hidden by foliage and tree trunks, or skulking deep in the dark recesses of the undergrowth. They were also all well outside the reach of the lenses I had taken. They were constantly on the move and any group larger than a handful meant that most simply did not ‘get on to the bird’.

I will also never, ever, go birding under such conditions again with vari-focal glasses. Not ever! Don’t even think about it! Even discounting the sweat (and yes, temperatures were between 30-40C with extremely high humidity), the 30+ factor sun screen smeared glasses, binoculars and cameras. Then there are all those bloody insects…. :)

Ok then, so why on earth did I go there? Before we left home went our world bird list stood at 1822 and I really wanted to get to 2000, which would represent about 20% of the world’s bird species. Well, we smashed our way through that barrier with no problem at all, the 2000th bird being a glorious Saffron Toucanet. In fact we ended up with almost 230 new birds for our list and, before you ask, no I do not want to hit a higher target; 20% is more than an acceptable level for me to have achieved. I now want to concentrate more on getting close to and photographing birds, not just ticking some ridiculous list!

On the other hand, around the Regua wetlands, there were many excellent photographic opportunities – birds, butterflies, dragonflies, capybara, caiman, and in and around the lodge there were the immense diversity of moths, mantids, beetles, and many other insects. Then there were the hummingbirds…. don’t let me forget to mention the hummingbirds, which offered endless interest and photo opportunities, but don’t forget to take your flash gun and a good zoom and plenty of batteries.

Trip Report

We flew direct to Rio with BA, about eleven hours, and well worth the extra cost to save the misery of having to spend several more hours either in a plane, or hanging around some foreign airport. We enjoyed temperatures ranging from -3C as we left to 30C on arrival! We had pre-booked our Rio accommodation, the O Veleiro B&B, a wonderfully calm, gentle oasis in the heart of Rio, set in its own beautiful garden, rich in wildlife and set in a wooded valley with views to the Christ the Redeemer statue and a short 15 minute walk to the nearest bars and restaurants.  I captured better images of the tufted marmosets there than anywhere else on our three week stay in Brazil.

Rob, one of the co-owners, had handled all our questions prior to our arrival in his super-efficient manner, arranged our airport transfers (which operated flawlessly) and organised two days sight-seeing in and around Rio taking in most of the major sites and many smaller, out of the way, gems.

Day 1: We visited The Old Lady’s Place (Largo do Boticario), the Christ the Redeemer’s statue lookout, driving past the statue itself, as two huge liners had disgorged hundreds of people, all wanting to get to the statue. Instead we headed for the waterfall in the Tijuca Forest, the Chinese Pagoda Memorial and then on to the Botanical Gardens. After a light lunch, we quickly notched up outstandingly close eye-level views of a Channel-billed Toucan, Rusty-margined Guan and a Slaty-breasted Woodrail. In fact, the gardens were full of birds and I could happily have spent several days there with so many excellent photographic opportunities. Then it was on to the lookout at the Parque do Penhasco, a drive along the beaches, finishing the day up the Sugarloaf Mountain, where we watched the sunset.

Our restaurant menu that evening showed two prices, one for two people, and the other for only one, this being significantly more expensive pro rata. The beer on tap was cold and refreshing – look for loose beer under the heading ‘Choppes’ on menus.

Day 2: The temperature had climbed to 27C before breakfast. If you get up early enough you will be treated to the sight of hummingbirds and marmosets feeding in the garden. We were then off along the coast taking in the Parque Marapendi, the Parque Natural Municipal Chico Mendes and the sublime clay folk figurines and automata at the Casa do Pontal Museum before heading off further westwards to a restaurant at Grumari Beach. Returning to Rio as dusk fell, we were awestruck by an immense, spectacular tropical storm, the lightning display one of the most amazing we had ever witnessed. Everything seems expensive. Best value? Without doubt, the Botanical Gardens and the Folk Museum!

Day 3: An early start to catch our flight to Iguassu Falls. Our internal flight, pre-booked from the UK was a little, well, strange. Chaotic information, gates changed, take-off details changed, but we still took off on time. It paid to watch the information boards very carefully, but security was a breeze and the staff helpful and cheerful. Heathrow please note! It is years since they handed out sweets on take-off! They stopped just two seats in front of us! A sulky 70-year old is not a pretty sight!

We had pre-booked our two night stay at the San Martin Hotel. The location was great, just a very short walk away from both the entrance to the Falls and the Bird Park, but the less said about staff attitudes probably best! Actually, I do feel that the receptionist worthy of mention. She was actually drumming her fingers on the counter in front of me as I filled out our details. Her reaction on being told that our expected airport pick-up had failed to materialise - utter indifference! A staff member in the self-service buffet area clearly expecting a tip was another surprise. Never mind, we only wanted somewhere to grab a quick meal (which was quite acceptable) and to put our heads down for two nights.  The room was basic but clean, but there was no complimentary water – strange in a climate like that! They have millions of gallons of the stuff gushing almost past the front door! There were also no tea or coffee making facilities – also strange in a hotel with such pretensions. Buy your water directly across the road from the hotel.

Arriving around noon, we soon embarked on a short helicopter trip over the Falls; well worth the cost, although this appeared to have risen 50% since the previous September. After that, we paid our entrance fees and caught the bus to the Falls – don’t even consider walking, unless you can cope with the heat and high humidity. The super-abundance of butterflies was amazing, dozens upon dozens, all flying along the forest edges along the wide avenue through the forest.

The Falls themselves are truly one of the modern day seven wonders of the world. They were simply staggering, especially when close up. Despite numerous recommendations, we did not bother to try to get to the Argentinian side as it would probably have taken all day and the queues over the bridge long and slow moving. I think what we ended up doing was a better option.

Day 4: An absolutely stunning morning – listening and watching the dawn chorus – hummingbirds and anis for breakfast and then the Bird Park. What an incredible way to spend a whole morning. Once the coach loads of tourists had raced on around the park, we were rarely bothered again and were able to take our leisure with some of the most beautiful and brilliant birds on the planet; toucans, hummingbirds, macaws and other parrots, then butterflies, owls and even a Harpy Eagle and much, much more besides. These birds are simply larger than life. More colourful, more everything! Utterly, ridiculously, magnificent, and most at point blank range! We even witnessed the resident Toco Toucans socialising with a wild family of three immediately outside the aviary roof. It was one of the best mornings of my life. A light lunch washed down with a cold beer, a quick zizz, then out around the hotel’s nature trail and more toucans, parrots and hummingbirds.

Day 5: Our return flight to Rio was on time, where we were picked up by Alcene and driven to Regua in heavy rain, birding all the way and collecting several lifers.

Day 6: We decided to take it easy in the morning photographing the hummingbirds at the feeders, moths from the moth wall and a quick recce of the wetlands, then in the afternoon we teamed up with Dave and Anne-Marie from Canada and were driven along the Santa Maria Trail; plenty of new birds, 21 lifers, including cotingas and puffbirds. Once the cloud started to clear, all was revealed – the beautiful mountains under which Regua nestles.

Day 7: We had a very early start to get to Macae de Cima, making it a long and arduous day, but one that produced over 60 lifers. The clouds came down, the sun shone and we sweated! The Moth wall continued to amaze, but I did not have the time to study the insects in any great detail. The wall, an impressive structure, is painted a light colour, with two black lights on one side and an mv on the other all covered by a tiled roof, simply heaves with life – moths, butterflies, crickets, mantids, beetles, dragonflies, geckoes and goodness knows what else. I made one big mistake wearing a head torch, when I was immediately surrounded by a seething mass of insects, all trying to get into my ears, down my back and goodness knows where else.

Day 8: The mountains were cloaked in cloud and mist as we made another early start, this time on the Green Trail as far as the waterfall, the afternoon being spent in the wetlands. Early evening saw an abortive trip to try to pin down Giant Snipe. I was “chiggered” to death in a cow-pat ridden field waiting for the non-appearance of the snipe watching a myriad of stars, an approaching electrical storm of enormous magnitude and countless fireflies – it was quite an experience!

Day 9: A third early start to Sumidouro to see the critically endangered Three-toed Jacamar. The road up the mountain pass to Teresopolis was under heavy repair creating long delays, but we got another lifer for our pains as we waited in the long queue and we got to admire the glorious scenery, the Finger Mountain and the vistas back towards Rio. After the long, but beautiful valley road to Carmo, set in some of the most delightful scenery imaginable, we arrived at the gate to the location and there it was! Then another four joined it. The habitat here has deteriorated badly and the results of deforestation are all too evident, with the subsequent water run off causing huge ravines and erosion. Then another family group just along the trail, but just how long will their habitat last? What chance these Jacamars have of hanging on in this environment is unclear.

The temperatures peaked at 40C today and what with the incredible humidity…. it really is no fun birding right through the day under such conditions; not even remotely! Then we underwent another thundery evening with some rain. There were fewer birds today, but we did see two Blue-winged Macaws and we clocked up our 171st lifer of the trip.

Day 9: Yet another early start, this time back up the mountain pass to Serra das Orgaos and the suspended trail, but it was too windy and there were no birds. There was cloud below us, spreading out in white puffs towards Rio. We relocated to Leo’s local patch on the other side of Teresopolis, but returned in the afternoon for a second stab. At first things seemed to be the same, until a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl arrived on the scene and all hell broke loose, as all the small birds showed themselves. We clocked up 20 species within a couple of minutes. So, where had they all been hiding all day! Today I clocked up our 2000th lifer, a Saffron Toucanet – what a great bird for this milestone!

The Moth Wall was switched on early and almost immediately we saw a Peanut, or Lantern Bug, several species of large hawkmoths, clearwings and an incredibly vociferous cicada. It actually screamed at me as I potted it up to photograph in the morning.

Day 10: After five days of full-on birding I went on strike and decided to spend the day with the moths, wetland birds, reading and relaxing. We managed two lifers totally on our own!

Day 11: We travelled the Waldenoor Trail as far as the house. Our bird guides have been amazing. They are so attuned to the slightest movement, the merest hint of a bird call, whether high up in the top of the canopy, or low down in the darkest recesses of the undergrowth. They do, of course, know a lot about the various territories and which birds hold them, but their skills are truly incredible. My only criticism - they tend to over-use the bird recordings, but they are totally focussed on showing us as many of the endemics as possible. It is an awesome experience.

It was really quite remarkable how many butterflies there were that were actually significantly larger than many of the birds. There was a handkerchief-sized white one, which simply floated around the rainforests. Then there were all the dark forest morphs. What a wonderful experience.

I kept asking the same question of all the hard-core birders I met. “Is it better to catch the merest, fleeting glimpse of, say, a bird’s backside, perhaps to see it flying fast away from you, or listen to an unseen bird, a few feet away, but singing its heart out. The answer was always the same. Catch the merest, smallest glimpse and it counted as a tick, and there had been so many birds just like that on this trip. Bird calls and song simply do not count. What absolute tosh! Rubbish!

Today had been another of those when we saw nothing at all for ages, then suddenly we hit a hotspot, and came across a mixed flock. In the meantime we were being eaten alive! There was also a really disappointing lack of any mammals! Hunted to extinction?
We took another afternoon off. There was really something nice, civilised, about sitting drinking our sundowners, watching the hummingbirds and the cloud-shrouded mountainous backdrop.

Whilst down at the far end of the wetlands in the afternoon we heard a strange sound coming towards us across the lakes, and just had time to don our ponchos before the heavy rain arrived. Nicholas had offered us a free upgrade to his best room for the rest of our stay. It had a lovely balcony, the only trouble being that the air conditioning did not work, some sockets were faulty and there was no internet connection. Oh well!

Day 12: Saw us on the 4-wheeled drive to Casa Anebel, a real little hotspot, where we soon clocked up another 13 lifers; a pleasant morning, only stopping because we had to be back for lunch. Excellent moths again last night, but it was always going to be a struggle to deal with them properly with birding activities hanging over us and determining our time priorities. This morning we saw puma and armadillo tracks and our guide set up two camera traps. One of the highlights was the helicopter dragonfly.
Day 13: We decided to strike out again on our own making our way to the upper Canopy Tower on the Yellow Trail and spending the rest of our time around the wetland trails. Some of the flocks were beginning to build up, many to sizeable proportions.
Day 14: We headed off on our own towards Nicholas and Raquel’s house, a return walk of about 6 miles. My ankles had been swelling up a lot and my sock tops rubbing up blood blisters. What with that and the bloody chiggers…. My best advice is simply this. Don’t treat just the outside of your socks, but rub insect repellent onto your legs as well.  Bless him, Alcene came to the rescue and provided us with some pungent ointment. It quickly stopped the mosquito bites itching.

Another afternoon spent with the butterflies and dragonflies around the wetlands.

Day 15: We headed for the coast, to Cabo Frio, a beautiful day, refreshing sea breezes, low humidity, glorious light and several really good birds. Toni spotted not one, but two Clapper Rails at the end of the day.

Day 16: Our long-awaited visit to the Rio Primate Centre with Leo. The Lion Tamarins were simply the most stunning primates I have ever seen in my life: Golden, Golden-faced and Black. What a morning!

Day 17: After storms all last night spent time on our own again around the wetlands, discovering a spiny-trunked Floss Silk Tree and a Cannonball Tree. It rained all afternoon, so spent more time with the hummingbirds.

Day 18: We drove to N&R’s house, where we got distant views, at last, of three-toed sloths and got reasonably close to Whistling Herons. Toni found the local shop at last and bought some small gifts for the family. More moths on steroids.

Day 19: Our last day and we spend the morning with Adelei around the wetlands, clocking up even more lifers. We have seen lifers every time we have visited the wetlands!  Alcene drove us back to the airport, followed by an uneventful flight home.

Postscipt: When I look at the incredible effort that has been expended into restoring Regua, this in one of the world’s greatest wildlife hotspots, what chance is there at home. Ultimately, none! The proposed new high speed rail links will plough right through the middle of at least one SSSI. The Mayor of London wants a new airport in the North Kent Marshes, an outstanding wildlife area, of international importance and one of the most heavily protected, even in EC terms. Within a matter of just a few short weeks of our return work had commenced on the redevelopment of section 1 of our butterfly transect, once possibly the premier invertebrate location in the whole of Mid-Sussex. Nothing it seems must be allowed to get in the way of building ever more houses. What is so criminal about this? They do not choose the poorer wildlife locations – they choose the best!

When I look back, all this talk about global warming, it seems to me that here in Sussex we are entering a new ice age! Somewhat an exaggeration this, I know, but our winters just keep on getting colder and colder and for longer and longer. It’s all to do, they say, with movements in the jet stream. Ha, bloody ha!