It has been possible for some time now to take wildlife watching holidays in south-west Brazil which give you an excellent chance of seeing Giant Anteater, Jaguar, Giant River Otter, Brazilian Tapir and, if you’re lucky, Maned Wolf. Combine this with a week’s birding in the Amazon and you have an itinerary which rivals the best of those in Borneo and Uganda for opportunities to see some of the world’s best birds alongside some of its most amazing mammals.

I realised a long-held ambition to make this trip in October 2015, as a participant on a Birdquest tour to the Brazilian Pantanal and the Amazon rainforest along the Rio Cristalino, close to its confluence with the Rio Teles Pires. This is the first in a short series of posts which focus on my favourite areas and encounters.

We began our tour in the river valleys and gallery forests at the base of Serra de Canastra National Park, an area of grasslands perched atop an enormous rock outcrop (the name translates roughly as the hill shaped like a travelling trunk).

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Serra de Canastra

My principal interest in the grassland leg of the tour was seeing the mammals and I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as the Amazon. Serra de Canastra rapidly changed my opinion. Seldom visited by people unconcerned with natural history you generally have the park to yourselves (I think we saw two other people on our second day) and this, combined with its elevated position, gives it a ‘Lost World’ quality I absolutely loved.

Our first morning was spent tracking down Brazilian Merganser, a Critically Endangered species now restricted to Brazil and Argentina, the population of which was estimated in 1992 as approximately 250 . Shy birds, ranging along stretches of river, they can be difficult to see but we were fortunate in finding a group of three towards the middle of our first morning. This left us free to search the gallery forest nearby where White-eyed Foliage-Gleaner, Southern Antpipit, Pale-bellied Tyrant, Pin-tailed and Helmeted Manakins were among the best of the birds seen. The stand out bird of the morning for me was Golden-capped Parakeet. Endemic to Brazil where it has a fragmented range in the south of the country, this Near Threatened species is sometimes treated as conspecific with Sun Parakeet.

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Golden-capped Parakeet, Serra de Canastra.

In the afternoon we took the often difficult dirt road up to the Cerrado habitat in the National Park. Though the conditions were dry, and mud no problem, we still had some fun with the large bumps in the road, grounding the bus and denting its petrol tank on one of them.  Searching the lower slopes we found Grey-backed Tachuri and our first, distant, Giant Anteater.

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Grey-backed Tachuri, Serra de Canastra.

Moving on we stopped at the source of the Rio Sᾶo Francisco where we were lucky enough to find ourselves downwind of another Giant Anteater. They are quite approachable when unable to detect your scent and we spent an unforgettable ten minutes or so with this one.

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Giant Anteater, Serra de Canastra.

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Giant Anteater, Serra de Canastra.

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Giant Anteater, Serra de Canastra.

Brasilia Tapaculo performed outrageously well for a representative of such a skulking group but the same could not be said of Sickle-winged Nightjar, of which there was no sign. A Striped Hog-nosed Skunk was a surprise find at the edge of the headlight beam on our way out of the park. We rapidly abandoned the bus to get fairly good views of it as it made its way across the Cerrado.

We began our second day birding on the lower slopes where we enjoyed more views of Grey-backed Tachuri and encountered our first Blue Finch and Collared Crescentchest. I had previously failed to realise the extent to which the behaviour of the latter species resembled the tapaculos, to which it is related. Having seen numerous photos of them perched up in exposed positions I had gained the impression this was normal when in fact such individuals are generally responding to playback. Our first was not all that responsive and we spent an extremely entertaining ten minutes watching it creeping about on the floor like a migrant locustella warbler. Moving higher and in to more open grassland we were lucky enough to find a Pampas Deer. This species has declined as its habitat is lost to agriculture and is now classified as Near Threatened.

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Pampas Deer, Serra de Canastra.

Moving on from our lunch stop at the ruins of the old park headquarters we struck out in to the plateau for an afternoon of savannah birding. We soon stumbled across a pair of Sharp-tailed Grass Tyrant building a nest. This was one of the target species when I worked on a University of Nottingham project surveying savannah birds in Bolivia in 1997 so it was good to see it again after all those years. I also took part in territory mapping surveys of Black-masked Finch in Bolivia and it is sad to report this species appears to be getting scarcer at Serra de Canastra where we failed to see it.  Both birds are currently classified as Vulnerable.

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Sharp-tailed Grass Tyrant, Serra de Canastra

Another attractive tyrant we found here and one I had not previously seen was Cock-tailed Tyrant.

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Cock-tailed Tyrant, Serra de Canastra

Other notable birds seen were White-striped Warbler (in a gallery forest fragment), White-rumped and Shrike-like Tanagers whilst commoner species encountered included Red-winged Tinamou, Burrowing Owl and Campo Flicker.

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White-rumped Tanager, Serra de Canastra.

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Burrowing Owl, Serra de Canastra

We also heard Dwarf Tinamou here and though we got quite close it remained hidden from view. Almost as difficult were two Ocelated Crakes but a couple of us managed ridiculously brief glimpses as birds sped across small gaps we had prepared in the vegetation.

Additional interest came in the form of several lizards from the tropiduridae family, including the animal in the photo below which we have yet to identify to species but which appears to belong to the genus stenocercus.

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Unidentified stenocercus lizard, Serra de Canastra.

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Lower Slopes, Serra de Canastra National Park.

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Grassland plateau, Serra de Canastra NP