28 August - 4 September 2000
by Peter Lonsdale
I'm recently back from a quick week-long (Aug28-Sept4) solo trip to Northeast Brazil. I wanted to share with BIRDCHAT how easy it has become to see some awesome birds around the village of Canudos, Bahia --including most of the world population of the very local and very beautiful Indigo Macaw (Andorhynchus leari). After my trip I discovered the wonderful info-packed website http://www. bluemacaws.org/english.htm which give various recent estimates of the total world population, all in the range of 140 to 'less than 80'. At 8 one morning I counted 42 of them feeding in palm trees on a ranch 44km E of Canudos (along the gravel road to Jeremoabo), and was assured that the next ranch to the west, which I didn't enter 'cos the owner happened to be absent, had a roughly equal number (I did see some fly-bys circling there).
Canudos is in the valley of the (intermittent) Rio Vaza-Barris through the Raso do Catarina, a plateau in the desert interior of Bahia; it's 320km from Aracaju, 420km from Salvador, coastal cities with major airports.In Forrester's still indispensible 1993 Brazilian bird-finding guide, visiting Canudos is said to "involve undertaking a mini-expedition....177km of the rough road there can at times be more mud than road...if conditions are good, the journey (from the coast) can be completed in one full day....". This isolation has til now preserved some splendid habitat.It's not isolated any more. A brand new,impress- ively smooth asphalt highway gets you right into town at 120km/hr (from the south, via the town of Euclides da Cunha), so with decent plane connections Canudos is within 24hrs of most of the U.S. or Europe (I went via Sao Paulo and Salvador on a frequent-flyer ticket with United's partner VARIG, and a good cheap Hertz rental car.) No flea-bitten flop-house when you get there, either: a local family has opened the attractive new ~12 room 'Hotel Brasil', and they're trying to recoup their considerable investment with a room rate of US$4/night (plus US$3 for huge multi-course meals!). I was the only guest during the time I was there. A principal asset of the hotel is the 20-something daughter Maria, who guided me (in my rental car) out to and on to the macaw fazendas; she's lived there all her life, knows all the ranchers, and can sweet-talk her way onto anybody's land. She even found me a Red-legged Seriema (locally fairly scarce, I think) en route. While I'd thoroughly recommend staying at the Hotel Brazil and seeking Maria as a guide, cheapskates looking for a cheap tick can probably find the right fazenda on their own, and at the right time of day see a few fly-by macaws from the road outside.
The Macaws nest and roost at night in finger canyons (which I didn't visit) off the Vaza-Barris valley, and feed in groves of the native Licuri Palm on the valley floor during the mornings. The valley is becoming increasingly developed, with new dams and irrigation mostly for banana plantations and fodder crops. The rancher who showed us around his fazenda explained to me that irrigation was killing the Licuri Palms, and the reason his place was so favoured by the palm-nut eating Macaws was that he had kept one large field free of irrigation. (at least I think this was his story-- I met noone in Canudos who spoke English, and I understand no Portuguese).The afore-mentioned bluemacaws website has lots more info on conservation measures in place, or planned. I sought the wardens who are said to look after the roost/nest sites (to hamper the continued illegal taking of Macaws for the 'pet-bird' trade), but without success, probably because of my language problem.
Lots of other good birds in the 'caatinga' cactus+bromeliads+thorn scrub which still surrounds Canudos. Within ~2miles walking distance of the Hotel, in the 24 hours I was there, I saw e.g.: Caatinga Parakeet; Yellow-faced Parrot; Least Nighthawk; Stripe-breasted Starthroat; Glittering-throated Emerald; Spot-backed Puffbird; Sooty-fronted and Red-shouldered Spintails, Caatinga Cachalote; Silver-cheeked Antshrike; Black-bellied Antwren; White Monjita; Lesser and Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Troupial, White-naped Jay, Long-billed Wren, Pale-throated Serra-Finch, Pileated Finch, etc.
The important question of course is how long these great birds are going to survive in this area -- and for some of the endemic species it's now their only home, since huge expanses of caatinga in Bahia and adjacent states have been cleared in recent decades. With its new highway(a short spur off the under- construction Salvador to Fortaleza trunk road), Canudos has boomed in the past year, with new gas stations, the hotel, numerous large government buildings of obscure purpose, a new triumphal giant statue on a nearby hillside,and a new State Historical Park with visitor center etc. celebrating a 19th century peasant revolt and consequent massacre.(No indication of pride or awareness of their macaws though --- no "Blue Macaw Inn" or ecotourist billboards.) There must be increasing pressure to strip off the caatinga and palm groves, for irrigated farming or very poor hamburger-meat ranching.
Seems to me that the only long-term hope for the birds of Canudos is if the locals and new settlers get an enhanced appreciation of the value of the region's uniquely well preserved habitat and wildlife; that this would be most easily accomplished if they see some economic benefit to conserving it; and that the clearest such benefit would be a flood of free-spending Birdchatters (even $4/night would help) visiting for the express purpose of seeing the surviving birds. Encouraging that, and putting out the message that you don't need to go on an expensive guided birding tour, is the real purpose of this note.
La Jolla, California,