Somewhere near the meeting of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais lie the partial remnants of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. I recently had the opportunity to explore this fragile region with my wife and see some of the less common species of flora and fauna in South America. Although I’ve explored the ecosystems of North America and Australia before, Brazil’s southern forests were a whole new world for me.
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The Atlantic Forest
On a deserted dirt road, a small bird is moving through the trees. I press my shutter, and there’s my shot of the Serra do Mar Bristle-Tyrant. From its playfulness, I wouldn’t think this species to be rare, but only a few thousand people have seen it. Its carefree movements through the forest contrast against its restricted range: It can only be seen in about a dozen places along a tiny strip in the south of Brazil.
The Serra do Mar Bristle-Tyrant is an Atlantic Forest specialty. It lives in a forest that was once ten times larger, but intense farming and agriculture have destroyed most of its former home.
The same precarious situation is shared by many other species of birds and animals in the Atlantic Forest. Just walk around here, and you’ll find an endless variety of plants, insects, and birds whose tiny ranges are quite worrisome.
This forest lies at the southern periphery of Itamonte, which is about 300 kilometers east of São Paulo. The road cutting through the forest is surrounded by mountain peaks and the Itatiaia National Park.
Established in 1937, Itatiaia is the oldest national park in Brazil. The park offers quite a few trails, including one that goes straight up to the famous Pedra do Pico outcropping, though they aren’t easy. The road leading up to the higher part of the park is known as one of the top birding hotspots of the entire state of Minas Gerais.
One of my destinations today is the Instituto Alto Montana da Serra Fina, located just six kilometers down the road. This conservation area and research station has over 30 kilometers of trails and a richness of biodiversity that contrasts with the surrounding human developments. They also don’t mind if we arrive before opening hour to watch birds.
My wife and I start off on the Casa Branca trail. Again, I’m reminded that wildife photography in this sort of deep, wet forest is a whole different ballgame from shooting in a small city park or open habitats. Although biodiversity literally hits you in the face, the darker environment and busy backgrounds make composition rather challenging. There’s also the small matter of hiking long distances through dense brush, all while hoping it doesn’t rain too hard.
I don’t mind at all. Just to walk through a quiet path with dozens of species of butterflies and hear the racuous calls of the Swallow-tailed Mannakin is peace incarnate. I think, if only the majority of the world were like this, we’d all be a lot happier.
The trail winds up the mountain, and there are views. Could this be an opportunity for landscape photography? Initially, I think not. It’s not the golden hour, and there’s a huge tree in the way. But then the fog begins rolling in.
It’s not the sort of fog that sits lazily in the morning, but a fog with a destination in mind. It quickly moves throughout the landscape, sweeping away the straightforward light of the day with a soft and sweet blanket of mystery. There’s a landscape photo, I think.
We slowly make our way back from the long trail. I’ve captured some new species, some record shots, and perhaps one or two gems on my camera.
Back at the cabin, the wet season rain comes for its almost daily, gentle visit. I look at the small and crooked wooden fence out front. It’s right in front of the covered porch with some grass and bushes in the background. A great bird hide, I tell myself. Not long after, a Rufous Hornero comes to visit.
A Rufous-collared Sparrow or Tico-tico is next. This pretty little South and Central American sparrow reminds me a lot of the Song Sparrow of the north back in Canada. Like the Song Sparrow, he certainly loves to sing. Once, he even sings on the top of the cabin like he owns the place. I think he’s right.
Outside the tiny protected area, the flattened farmland is endless. The fog sometimes covers it up enough so that I feel a hint of the prehistoric forest, but then it moves again, and I see the devastation.
Still, some birds are thriving in the the new, transformed environment. Termite mounds dot the grassy landscape, and Saffron Finches love to sit on them for an easy snack. Large groups of social Guira Cuckoos play on them, moving to and from the few remaining trees. Wait! Is that a Toco Toucan flying across the sky?
Up the Moutain
Butterflies surround us on the mountainous trails. There seems to be an endless variety of them. A friendly one in the genus Diaethria likes to land on me and my backpack. Butterflies of this genus are known for their distinctive wing pattern, part of which forms a numeral like “88” or “80” as you can see below.
And yes, there are birds, too. Now, a white stream is emerging from one of the many waterfalls, providing some cool comfort for my wife and I against the hot sun.
But it seems that we’re not the only ones taking refuge amongst the spray. A Sooty Tyrannulet comes to bathe and play amongst the rocks. This little grey bird loves the forest and will never come near the farmland. I’m looking through my viewfinder and somehow, despite the strange light, I get a shot.
Later, and higher up the mountain, we hear a dozen bird calls. I’m six kilometers into a hike that the trailhead said would be five kilometers, surrounded by dense forest. Still, there’s a Diademed Tanager in the high bushes and some sort of Antshrike below it. While the birds prefer to remain hidden and taunt us, I don’t need to take a photo to be happy.
The trails are starting to exhaust the two of us, so we take a stop at the Lavandário Mantiqueira to look at their lavender fields and try some local coffee. They’ve got jam without any sugar or sweetener, too. And I think I see a Bare-faced Ibis in the field…
I may never see the species of this region again, and I have a sinking feeling that the world may lose them too, although I hope not.
Every time my wife and I see a new species of bird, I look it up in the scientific literature. Unlike many North American species, at least half of the birds we’ve seen here have virtually no research at all done on them. Even though birds like the Serra do Mar Bristle-Tyrant are safe for now in their remnant forest, how fragile is their ecological niche? Most of the time, nobody has the answers.
After some days, it’s getting hard to keep track of all the birds. I set out on this trip having photographed 644 species of birds; now, I’m at at 692. And what about insects? Someone could spend two weeks on the first trail and never run out of different species.
What an incredible display of biodiversity! But in truth, one of my fondest memories of this trip is the joy on my wife’s face from experiencing such a wild area for the first time. I think that if everyone could just experience this joy, our planet might not be in so much trouble.
I feel immensely priveleged to have seen some of the animals of Brazil’s remnant Atlantic Forest. Over time, experiences like this have also led me to a new understanding of my own wildlife photography. I think fundamentally, I enjoy wildlife photography because it gives me a way to connect and share my experiences with nature in a world increasingly devoid of nature.
I love wildlife photography, and I’ll probably never stop shooting. Even so, if I could exchange my camera for a world where natural ecosystems would be safe and we could live amongst plants and animals in harmony, I would give up my photography in a heartbeat.