While birding along a forest trail in Brazil's Itatiaia National Park, I encountered this waterfall. I watched it for several minutes, mesmerized. That is, until a nearby lek of male blue manakins wing-snapped into action.
In the future, I hope to share more of these natural Moments of Zen with you.
We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Ypé, in Itatiaia National Park in the afternoon. On the long bumpy road up to the hotel we had glimpses of zipping hummingbirds and saw the lush jungle on all sides. The air got cooler and thinner as we ascended the mountains of the park. Clouds drifted past below us.
It felt great to climb out of the van at the hotel's main building and as we stretched our legs we noticed a whirlwind of activity at the feeders hanging over the building's veranda. Like moths to a flame, we wandered around the building for a better look. What we found was the most amazing tropical bird-feeding station I've ever seen. Six or seven hummingbird feeders attracted as many hummer species while three separate hanging dishes filled with cut fruit attracted tanagers, dacnises, bananaquits, caciques, and a super weird-looking woodpecker. I had to keep reaching up to close my jaw.
I wanted to use my camera and my binocs at the same time... Then it was time to go find our rooms. This was agonizing to have to leave the feeders, but I felt better once I saw my room. Why? Because this is the view I had from my room's balcony:
My room with a view.
Within minutes we were back looking at the feeders again, enjoying new life birds in quick succession, including Brazilian ruby, black jacobin, violet-crowned woodnymph, and scarlet-rumped cacique.
Feeders on the veranda at Hotel Ypé.
The birds that were most numerous at the fruit trays were the blue-naped chlorophonias. If there's a bird that does a better job of combining the colors of yellow, blue, and green in its plumage I have yet to see it. I probably snapped of 500 digital frames with my camera. The birds were so intent on feeding that we could approach within a few feet.
Male blue-naped chlorophonia.
Nearby was another colorful bird, the more earth-toned chestnut-bellied euphonia. Chlorophonias and euphonias are tanager relatives, but they are smaller than what we think of as tanagers—they look more like buntings to me.
Male chestnut-bellied euphonia.
The larger tanagers were more shy. Among the most numerous were the yellow-chevroned tanagers—sky blue with a dab of yellow near the shoulder.
I could (and probably will) do complete posts just about the hummingbirds. There were so many individuals hovering and zipping and drinking and fighting around the feeders that it was difficult to watch any one individual for long. Any bird that stopped to drink was soon chased from the feeder by another hummer. Among the easily seen species were swallow-tailed hummingbird, Brazilian ruby, black jacobin, white-throated hummingbird, and violet-crowned woodnymph.
Male white-throated hummingbird.
Male violet-crowned woodnymph at the Hotel Ypé feeders
After lunch I wanted to camp by the feeders with my camera, but Paulo had an ambitious agenda so we loaded back in the van to drive to another nearby hotel. The Hotel Simon was visible from our hotel, not only because it stood up above the jungle canopy, but also because it was painted the color of Barbie's toenails. The large gardens in front of the hotel were busy with birds. We walked out to another veranda that had active bird feeders and, while we warmed ourselves in the afternoon sun, enjoyed looks at courting dacnises. Click-click-click went my camera.
The gardens at the Hotel Simon.
Male blue dacnis at Hotel Simon.
And then it was time to leave again. Slowly the idea dawned on me that we were going to see a lot of birds on this trip, but that sitting around enjoying them at length was not always going to be possible. Off we went back down the road to the house of a woman named Norma. Tucked into the side of a dark valley, like the house of a forest sprite was Norma's place. The feeders were immediately restocked by our hostess and the birds began flooding in. The first new bird for us was the burnished-buff tanager, looking (color-wise at least) like the interbred offspring of a bobolink and a tree swallow.
Male burnished-buff tanager.
We sat around on patio chairs while the birds chittered and flitted all around us. More woodnymphs, rubies, rufous-collared sparrows, euphonias and chlorophonias—peaceful and inspiring all at once.
Female Brazilian ruby.
Male Brazilian ruby.
Male violet-crowned woodnymph.
Chuck, Terry, and Pete scan the treetops in Norma's yard.
We were here to see one very special bird—a tiny hummingbird called a coquette. To be more specific, we were waiting for the frilled coquette to make an appearance. According to Norma the bird came in close to dusk for a final feeding each day. We waited and glassed each bird arriving at the feeders.
While waiting I noticed an stone chapel next to Norma's house, with an old bell hanging in its stone steeple. The bell was green with corrosion—the same color as the forest around us. I wondered when the bell had tolled last.
The old stone chapel.
Soon it was getting later and darker. In the tropics the sun is up from 6 to 6 each day then it beats a hasty retreat. As the light grew dimmer, my bird images became more and more blurred.
Blue dacnis in low light.
With night poised to pounce, we wondered if our coquette would show... I'll resume here tomorrow.
I left the Atlanta airport late on the night of Wednesday, July 8 on an overnight flight to São Paulo, Brazil. No I was not fleeing the country, I was heading way down south and east to sample the bird life of South America's largest country at the invite of Leica Sport Optics. Terry Moore, Leica's vice president for sport optics (and super avid birder) was our host for the trip. Also along for the adventure were two other well-known birder/friends, Chuck Hagner, editor of Birder's World magazine, and Pete Dunne, author, birding raconteur, and director of Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.
We got on the Boeing 777, stowed our bags, and tried in our own ways to get some sleep on the 9 hour flight. I slept for exactly 13 minutes. These were the final 13 minutes before we touched down in Brazil, with my head and neck in the upright and locked position. During the flight I worked, glanced through the Brazil field guide, watched some horrible movies (none—thank the gods—starring my airplane movie nemesis, Matthew McConaughey), and enjoyed various amounts of snoring and drool from my fellow passengers (my own trip companions excluded).
Stepping off the airplane (and hoping the feeling would soon return to my lower extremities) the cool air of winter in the southern hemisphere greeted us. I wondered at that moment if I'd brought enough warm gear. It turned out I'd brought JUST enough.
There to meet us for our week of bird watching in Brazil was our guide (and one of Brazil's most accomplished field birders) Paolo Boute of Boute Expeditions. Into the Renault combi-van we went and in moments we were roaring through the crowded streets of São Paulo, headed toward the mountains of Itatiaia National Park (pronounced Eat-ta-CHY-ah). Along the way we made a stop at the house of a friend of Paulo's.
The house was shades of blue, green and yellow. The green walls enclosing the courtyard perfectly complemented the green bedsheets hung out to dry. Our hosts made us espresso coffee that was just the ticket for sleepyhead birders. It had the consistency of pancake batter. I was thereafter hooked on it and spent much of my time in Brazil trying to score just one more tiny cup of the beneficial brew.
Courtyard on the outskirts of São Paulo.
This is when the birds started appearing.
The sun was up and warming the trees along the roadway. My first Brazil bird (that was NOT a house sparrow, rock pigeon, or black vulture) was a blue-winged parrotlet. This was followed immediately by a strange hummingbird and a strange tanager. We would be seeing 17 additional hummingbird species and 21 additional tanager species in the ensuing 7 days, but these were our first ones and therefore, special.
The first hummingbird was a swallow-tailed hummingbird and the tanager was a hooded tanager. Then some waxbills, and a white-barred piculet, and an unidentified hummer, and the ever-present great kiskadees. Oh, it was ON, bro!
Birding in the São Paulo 'burbs.
We drove to the town of Itatiaia and stopped a few times along the way to scope birds. I was in a fog, but still managed looks at social flycatcher, Brazilian teal, and yellow-headed caracara. As we left the main highway and headed up a narrow mountain road, we left the noise and unpleasantness of civilization behind us. Ahead were forests and shadowy trails where we'd meet many new birds in the next four days.
Halfway up the mountains to our hotel in Itatiaia NP. From left: Paulo Boute, Terry Moore, Pete Dunne, BOTB. Photo by Chuck Hagner.
Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, the host of the "This Birding Life" podcast, a regular speaker/performer on the birding festival circuit, a gentleman farmer, and a fungi to be around. His North American life list is somewhere between 667 and 669. His favorite bird is the red-headed woodpecker. His "spark bird" was a snowy owl. He has watched birds in 25 countries and 44 states. But his favorite place to watch birds is on the 80-acre farm he shares with his wife, artist/writer Julie Zickefoose. Some kind person once called Bill "The Pied Piper of Birding" and he has been trying to live up to that moniker ever since.