Birding Roraima, Brazil
by Micah Riegner
As you might have noticed, Field Guides has undergone a recent “niche expansion” into Roraima (not to be confused with Rondonia!), the northernmost state in Brazil. At this point, many of you might be wondering where Roraima is and what birds it has to offer. So, let me explain…
Nestled between Guyana, Venezuela, and the state of Amazonas, Roraima covers an area about the size of the United Kingdom. It straddles a transition zone from lowland Amazonian rainforest in the south to palm savannas and cerrado (shrubby savanna) to the north near the capital city of Boa Vista. The Rio Branco, the most important biogeographic boundary in Roraima, divides the state down the middle, separating numerous sister taxa like Gilded and Black-spotted barbets. Adding to the state’s biogeographic complexity is the fact that Roraima holds a “sky island archipelago” of cloudforest-covered tepuis and cerras (mesas and mountains) in a sea of lowland forest and savanna. Each of these highland “islands” has a unique subset of tepui avifauna, and each year ornithologists record new birds for Brazil here—some of which turn out to be new to science!
Understanding habitats is key to understanding the birds that inhabit them. Let’s start with Amazonia, which covers the southern portion of Roraima. From above, the forest may seem like a monotonous carpet of green, but in fact it’s a complex patchwork of micro-habitats, each with a particular subset of birds. White-sand forests are well represented in Roraima. These are forests that grow on nutrient-poor, often poorly drained, quartzitic soils, and they have a unique, highly adapted flora—and thus a specialized set of birds. The term campina refers to a natural opening in the forest. Here, the soils are so nutrient depauperate that trees can’t even grow—only stunted shrubs, Cladonia lichens, and specialized bromeliads and orchids. Being in a campina can feel like being on another planet, so unusual is the plantlife. As one moves away from a campina, the forest gradually gets taller, turning into what’s known as campinarana. The trees here tend to have narrow trunks, appearing like saplings. But don’t be deceived, some of these trees can be several hundred years old! In fact, some of the oldest trees in the Amazon persist in these white-sand forests.
Terra firme refers to any tall forest that doesn’t flood on a regular basis. This kind of forest has the greatest avian diversity of any Amazonian habitat. Within terra firme, there is tremendous variation in tree assemblages that translates to variation in bird communities. For example, patches of bamboo attract a certain set of birds that do not occur in forest dominated by tall hardwoods.
Rivers like the Rio Branco contribute a tremendous amount to the regional diversity of Amazonia. These rivers flood their banks annually into what’s known as floodplain forest. “Whitewater” rivers like the Rio Branco contain a lot of silt, and forest on their floodplains is known as varzea. “Blackwater” rivers, on the other hand, have low sediment loads but high tannin levels (chemicals from leaves), and the forests they flood is known as igapo.
Gallery woodland tends to grow along the upper Rio Branco and its smaller tributaries. This forest type is shorter than typical varzea, growing only 10-15 meters tall, and tends to be bordered by savanna.
Savannas make up the northern quarter of Roraima. Low-lying, poorly drained areas tend to be dominated by Mauritia palms, while the drier, well-drained hillsides are covered in cerrado (shrubland) dominated by Curetella—a fire-resistant tree with rough, sandpaper-like leaves.
Cloudforest cloaks Roraima’s highest elevations, starting at 1000 meters. These forests grow along the flanks of the great tepuis (mesas) and have high rates of endemism both in flora and fauna due to their isolation. In the local language, “tepui” means “house of the Gods.”
Where to go Birding
Roraima has numerous parks and protected areas, many of which are managed by ICMBio (Instituto Chico Mendes), the equivalent of our National Park Service in the United States. Let’s start with Virua National Park, a 241,948-hectare reserve just south of the town of Caracarai. The park was established in 1998 to protect the unique white-sands communities of northern Amazonia. Running alongside the park is the Estrada Perdida, the “Lost Road.” Back in the 1950s, when the BR174 was being constructed to connect Manaus to Boa Vista, tractors and other equipment were lost to the swampy campinas, and the project was subsequently abandoned. However, like the Transpantaneira of Mato Grosso, this abandoned highway makes for some great birding! Numerous white-sand forest birds can be seen here, including White-naped Seedeater, Black Manakin, Large-billed Seed-Finch, and Yapacana Antbird—a unique member of the Thamnophilidae that sounds more like an insect than a bird! Crestless Curassows often stroll the road in the early morning. Virua also supports a grid system of trails into the terra firme, where it’s possible to see Gray-winged Trumpeter, Black Curassow, Black-headed Parrot, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, and numerous other “ant things.”
The park is great for mammals, too. I’ve seen Guianan Bearded Sakis, Golden-handed Tamarin, Bare-tailed Woolly Opossum, and Linnaeus’s Mouse-Opossum, Giant Anteater, and Crab-eating Fox while walking the trails in the reserve. Rarities like Giant Armadillo and Bush Dog have been recorded here, too.
The Estrada Agua Boa is a road right outside of Caracarai that’s proven to be quite birdy. The road winds through some nice white-sand forest communities, igapo (blackwater flooded forest), and tall terra firme. It’s a good place to see Rose-breasted Chat, Imeri Warbling-Antbird, and numerous other species on the right bank of the Rio Branco. The Black Titi Monkey (Callicebus lugens), a spectacular primate—black with a white throat patch and yellow hands—can be seen in the islands of campinarana along the road.
Serra do Tepequem is the most accessible point in Roraima to see some of the tepui avifauna. At about 1000 m in elevation, the top of Tepequem supports a low, shrubby campina-like vegetation. There are several lookout points from the top of the plateau where it’s possible to see Tepui Swift and several species of macaws glide by in the late afternoon. Other specialty birds at Tepequem include Sooty-capped Hermit, Tufted Coquette, Green-bellied Hummingbird, White-chested Emerald, and the range-restricted Finsch’s Euphonia. Along the road to Tepequem, it’s possible to find several savanna species like Bearded Tachuri and Sharp-tailed Ibis. On our 2019 tour we scoped an Orange-breasted Falcon along the entrance road!
Recent Ornithological Discoveries in Roraima
In recent years, expeditions to Roraima’s remote mountaintops have yielded numerous exciting ornithological discoveries. Birds like Scaled Antpitta, Caura Antbird, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush were recent additions to the Brazil list, and others new to science are still being named. Also, just last year a Solitary Eagle (another first for Brazil!) was seen at Serra do Apiau south of Boa Vista, and there have been more sightings of it this year. In fact, a pair was recently photographed at Serra do Tepequem, where we’ll be birding in April!
Acknowledgments: I thank Jose Gabriel Martinez-Fonseca for contributing the map and Bret Whitney for editorial feedback.