Being a beginner in the world of birding is tough. I get that. Remembering the names of all the birds let alone the actual birds themselves can seem like a tall mountain to climb. I am reminded of this feeling of confusion every time I go birding in the Neotropics. I have the benefit of being a lifelong birder learning my craft initially in the UK – London specifically – and latterly, in Europe. As with many of my peers whilst in Europe I can recognise most birds I come across at least down to family level. I can separate a duck from a stork and even differentiate between the subtle flight differences in tricky species like Tree and Meadow Pipits. However, take the man out of Europe and place him in a Brazilian rainforest and his problems begin!
In May 2019 I had the pleasure of being invited to São Paulo, Brazil to speak at Avistar 2019, also known as the Brazilian Bird Fair. Set in the São Paulo University grounds, an urban location, I had the opportunity to gently reacquaint myself with some species that I had seen elsewhere in South America over the years like the vociferous and fairly obvious Kiskadee, Snowy Egret and the omnipresent American Black Vultures drifting overhead. During our down time the international delegation were treated to bird walks around the campus. This was where my confusion started to set in. For example, I struggled to separate the Pale-breasted Thrush from the seemingly equally common Creamy-bellied Thrush. You would think that the names would imply that they could be easily separated. Not so. My learning curve was gentle over the few days that I was in São Paulo. However, nothing could have prepared me for the avalanche of species that I saw in the nearby Mata Atlanticá Rainforest.
This stretch of coastal rainforest used to be huge. It used to cover the entire coastline from Brazil through to Paraguay. Unfortunately, it was the first landing spot for the early European settlers and before long they decimated the forest. Today, a mere 10% remains. The reserves that I visited were mostly secondary growth and some places were struggling with an over preponderance of invasive Eucalyptus trees. Parque das Neblinas, is a 2,800 hectare reserve within the forest that is trying to encourage secondary growth and eliminate the Eucalyptus. It was also the site where my head was spinning after seeing a host of birds, some of whom I had never heard of. Birds like Hangnest Tody Tyrant, White-throated Spadebill and the very curiously named Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper were all added to the list often quicker than it took to write this sentence!
We saw a head-spinning array of foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, antbirds, antshrikes and tyrannulets amongst others. However, my favourite family had to be the tanagers. Some, like the Red-necked and Orange-headed were complete stunners whilst others were relatively drab in comparison like the quite common Sayaca Tanager, which is mostly a pale shade of dirty blue. I kept calling it the Sciatica Tanager.
Despite the obvious destruction of the habitat there seems to be a certain resilience shown among some of the species that inhabit this remnant forest. Despite the pounding that they are receiving due to habitat destruction they still cling on, sometimes taking advantage of lower grade habitats like the secondary growth forests. The shear number of species represented albeit in low densities is mind-boggling. It gave me hope that with robust conservation and the capping of illegal logging we can still at least save something for our children and in turn, their children to discover and enjoy. We simply cannot allow this wonderland to perish altogether. If we were to loose all those crazily named birds and the other animals within that ecosystem the birding world would of course be less confusing, but a far sadder and boring one.
Thanks to Avistar 2019 for the invitation!