Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Vale do Bugio: Tourism as a Tool to Protect Private Ecosystems

Our weekend visit to Vale do Bugio, Valley of the Howler Monkeys, didn't yield any non-human primates. But it did get me thinking about ecotourism, the difference between private and public ecosystems, and bloated dead bats.

It all started when Duca, Lygia and I loaded into the rusty truck and bumped down two hours of red-dirt roads to arrive here at Vale do Bugio.

One reason we'd come here was because, as Duca told us, "The place is gorgeous!" The second reason was practical. Duca and Lygia were hoping to strike up a partnership with the landowner to use this primary-forest reserve as a tourism destination.

This sign, if you couldn't tell, says, "Vale do Bugio," meaning "Valley of the Howler Monkeys." We didn't see any howlers, but we did see some potential infrastructure improvements!

As a comparison, here is the well-signed entrance to Taboco, the small town near Quinta do Sol (the forest reserve where I live).

Duca and Lygia are on a mission to bring ecotourism to Taboco. Ecotourism is one of the conservation strategies championed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. When practiced by the community, with local guides and homestays, tourism provides a source of income that consumes fewer natural resources than, say, cattle ranching, the most common occupation in this region.

Ecotourism also helps build a conservation ethic by increasing the value placed on intact ecosystems by local communities. When customers will pay to see birds in the primary forest, that forest becomes more to the landowner than a waste of space where pasture could be. When tourists stay at a farm in hopes of sighting an ocelot, the farm's owner has a good reason not to shoot that ocelot, even if it does steal chickens from time to time.

An aside: during my interviews with farmers, I have heard families complain of chicken-stealing ocelots, duck-killing foxes, dog-strangling anaconda, garden-wrecking tapir, and chick-grabbing hawks. These wild species become less of an economic burden when they "pay their way" and provide an additional source of income through tourists.

The private driveway to Vale do Bugio could also use some work. Our truck lurched over high berms and listed sideways in eroded tracks. We decided that tourist groups would walk up the driveway as an introductory hike, while an intrepid driver crawled behind them in the four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Ecotourism opens the door for environmental education. Already, as outreach coordinator for WCS, Duca has spoken with dozens of families about lower-impact farming methods, non-lethal techniques for managing wildlife damage (such as electric fences to keep tapir out of manioc fields), and skills to help community-members guide tourists on hikes and host them as overnight guests.

Vale do Bugio has a few simple accommodations already in place, like this stand-alone bedroom, but it will take a huge amount of work if Duca and Lygia decide to turn the place into an ecotourism attraction. Signs, road grading, trail maintenance, handrails, maps, bedding, kitchen and bathroom improvements, and potable water are all on the list. 

During my time in Brazil, I have been struck at how precious little public land exists here. Magnificent waterfalls, towering cliffs, expansive views, ancient cave drawings, old-growth forest, and endangered-species habitat lie entirely within fenced, private land. Only a handful of state and national parks dot the massive expanse of Cerrado.

Lygia blows on a dandelion while we tour the property. I told her to make a wish, but she has a different legend for dandelions. If you blow all the seeds off in one breath, it means you're going to get married.

What's wrong with a lack of public land?

For one, nature on private land inaccessible to nearly everyone: city-dwellers, foreigners, scientists, and anyone without the means to own rural property.

For another, private nature is vulnerable to the whims of a single owner. I don't mean to imply that ecosystems on public land are secure: cattle grazing on Bureau of Land Management desert, logging in US National Forests, damming of the Colorado River, mining uranium near the Grand Canyon, and harvesting solar energy at Ivanpah are enough to dissuade me of that optimistic notion. Yet public lands are accountable to a large and slow-moving bureaucracy, with at least some measure of public input and transparency. An ecosystem on private land, on the other hand, can be extinguished overnight without making any headlines (or should I say, any Facebook statuses.)

Lygia found this grasshopper with short, sassy antennae.

Now, there is one saving grace for the semi-deciduous forests of the Cerrado. By federal law, Brazil mandates that a minimum of 20% of every parcel of land in this region must be covered by forest. Some landowners, like Duca, choose to retain nearly 100% of their land in forest cover. The more ambitious cattlemen tend to deforest right down to the 20% limit. The leftover fragments of forest are called reservas, reserves. There is some political push to have the law eliminated. From the other side, Duca and other local scientists have lobbied the government to increase the reserve percentage to 100%, effectively outlawing further deforestation in the Cerrado. Unsurprisingly, neither side has made headway, and the limit remains 20%.

Duca and Lygia cross a creek to begin hiking the Trilha da Fenda, the Gap Trail. You'll see why it's called that in a moment.

Community-based ecotourism is Duca and Lygia's vision for opening the Cerrado to the world, and opening the minds of local landowners to conservation.

Last week, Lygia was invited to a private meeting with the mayor of Corguinho (arranged over a piece of beef at the Lasso Club Party, where else?) about making the municipality more inviting for tourism. Her pitch was so successful, she was then invited to discuss benefits and needs with the state tourism secretary in the capital, Campo Grande. These things move slowly, and only thanks to a lot of hard work by everyone involved, but it seems that Duca and Lygia may be making history here in this corner of the Cerrado -- for both wild organisms and human livelihoods.

Enticing botanical oddities lined the steep, slippery path. Unfortunately, a handrail did not. (But now, thanks to Lygia's lobbying, a plan is in the works.)

Enough abstract scheming. Let me take you to the Fenda, the Gap, the most magical slot-canyon I have ever experienced. (And if you know slot canyons, you know they are a magical bunch.)
The stunning, moss-coated slot canyon at the end of the trail.

From my journal entry:

Saturday, August 5, 2017. This morning we hiked along a clear mountain stream that led us back into a water-carved, sandstone canyon. The walls glistened with eerie moss, all the way up. I estimate 50 feet. In the spirit of Humboldt, I eyeballed some measurements. It took 18 seconds for a fluttering leaf to fall from the top edge of the canyon to the bottom, and only 2 seconds for a fat droplet of rain.

The canyon soon stooped underwater. We swam up to our necks, scrambled over boulders, and noted the odor of bat droppings. "The stream begins in a cave full of bat poop," Duca told us. "Don't drink the water!" As if I was tempted? 

The canyon floor soon dipped underwater, but that didn't stop us.

Then Lygia, who was leading us, came sloshing back and whooping in fear. "A very, very, very, very, very, very--" a very what? we thought as she yelled --"very, very, very, big, big, big SNAKE!" (I realized in this moment the advantage of Portuguese, a language in which the noun comes before the adjective.) We craned our necks around a bend in the canyon to see a massive rattlesnake curled on a cool, damp rock. Unlike Lygia, the snake was calm. She didn't rattle or raise her head. I estimate she was 4.5 feet long and 4 inches in diameter. Needless to say, we turned back. There is something about being wedged deep in a slot that makes fooling with a venomous snake even less appealing than usual.

As we swam back with some urgency, Lygia noticed a decomposing lump on the rock ledge. "Is this a dead bat?" she asked. I peered at the bloated ball and confirmed. I'd noticed similar lumps and suspected they might be carcasses, but in the dim light I'd dismissed them as leaves. Now that I paid closer attention, I counted seven dead bats in all. Some were bleached skeletons, discernable by the five slender bones fanning outward to support a long-gone wing. Others were bloated and floating bodies. We were all grossed out, knowing bats carry such lovely zoonoses as ebola, rabies, nipah, and hendra.

We rinsed off in the clean stream at the trailhead and applied Purell to our open cuts. Not exactly Biohazard Level 3, but it was all we could do before a picnic lunch in the bed of the truck.

Back at the truck, we hung most of our clothes on branches to dry out while we ate a picnic lunch of oranges, sweet rolls, white cheese, and the ubiquitous terere (communal yerba-mate tea with ice water).

A tatu, or armadillo, eyed us warily from the roadside grass. The creature is a ball of armor with legs.

For a ball of armor, it sure has a cute face!

Mom's Daily Bird

White woodpecker. Pica-pay-branco. Notice that sky-blue eye in the yellow face patch. If you think animals don't make art, consider the plumage of a male bird, meticulously crafted over millennia by the aesthetic tastes of females.

Dad's Daily Bug

It's a fly! It's a moth! It's a wrought-iron window pane with antennae! (Honestly, I have no idea what it is. But it's pretty, and it landed on Duca's hat.)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Cerrado: é para os Pássaros, it's for the Birds

Welcome to a most marvelous collection of living dinosaurs, the avifauna of the Cerrado, os pássaros, the birds!

I've named each species in English and Portuguese. All were identified by me, my camera, and my trusty book, A Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil by Ber van Perlo (2009). If you see any errors, oh PLEASE comment! I will be delighted for corrections and suggestions, especially on the mystery LBJs (little brown jobs, for you rookies out there.)

Rusty-margined guan. Jacupempa. This gangly black bird was perching on a bush at the beginning of the Quinta do Sol driveway and swallowing large berries whole. The bush rustled and shook whenever this behemoth took a step.

Yellow-headed caracara. Carrapateiro. In Portuguese, the name means "ticker" or "tick-eater," though I'm not sure if that's an accurate dietary description. This tropical raptor was perched in a legume tree next to the "upstairs" (big house up the hill) at Quinta do Sol.

Green-barred woodpecker. Pica-pau-verde-barrado. I love the red, white, and black face on this friend. It reminds me of Arizona's acorn woodpecker a bit. This bird was diligently pecking for insects on a tree in our backyard.

Mystery bird number one! A thick bill, streaked belly, and brown color. The size of a sparrow. It was hopping about in the branches of a small shrub in the yard. Any guesses? There are females of many species that look similar. Edit: my friend and expert on South American birds, Rich Hoyer, thinks this might be a female saffron finch (canário-da-terra-verdadeiro) but the beak looks larger than it should. Still a partial mystery.

Short-crested flycatcher. Maria-cava-leira. This flycatcher (or a con-specific) perches and fly-catches from the large front-yard tree every evening before sunset. He is one of the Myiarchus flycatchers, if you recall the genus from my Arizona post about Humans who Love Birds who Love Cacti.

Great egret. Garça-blanca-grande. The large white heron is one of the few species found both here in Cerrado and at home in the United States, though seldom as far north as Seattle. This one is taking off from a roadside pond.

Southern lapwing. Quero-quero. This bird, found at the same pond, did not take off. Southern lapwings are bold and common everywhere I've been, from the city of Campo Grande to the countryside of Corguinho. The Portuguese name is onomatopoeic for their call.

Buff-necked ibis. Curicaca. This bird is even more common than the southern lapwing. When flying, it has the large, black profile of a witch on a broom with trailing robes. It dines in cattle pastures and roosts en masse in trees right next to bedroom windows...

White-rumped monjita. Noivinha-branca. The Portuguese name means "white bride," but the English name is actually a Spanish word meaning "white-rumped little nun." If I were this bird, I would probably stick to Portuguese!

Toco toucan. Tucanaçu. This bird is the largest toucan in Brazil and the most common around here. It flies, front-heavy with its giant orange bill, over the school yard and around town. Lygia holds a grudge against it because, she says, it eats ovo de ararara (macaw eggs), but I forgive it. Gotta get all the protein for that bill somewhere!

Chestnut-eared aracari. Araçari-castanho. This small, greenish toucan has a saw-patterned bill and a clear blue eye. I found it in the fruit tree behind a rancher's house while I conducted an interview about his cats and dogs for my disease research. People are very understanding when I have to leap up in the middle of a conversation to take a photo of a bird.

Amazon kingfisher. Martim-pescador-verde. This oil-green kingfisher is an old friend from the Ecuadorian Amazon. I'm amazed to see him here, in the dry riparian forests of Cerrado, but I suppose a river is a river. This sighting was all the more special because of my vantage point over a thundering waterfall.

Prime kingfisher-watching spot.

Planalto hermit. Rabo-branco-acanelado. A large and somewhat drab hummingbird until you see the tail. I'll try to get a photo of it in action. It splays out in a white and orange splash, like an elaborately-tatted lace doily.

A semi-mystery. This bird is either a plain-breasted ground dove (rolinha-de-asa-canela) or a female ruddy-breasted ground dove (rolinha-roxa). There are subtle differences, like a "rufescent rump" on the female ruddy, so I hope to solve the mystery with a better view soon. Edit: Rich has confirmed that this bird is a female ruddy-breasted ground dove. Thank you!

Snail kite. Gavião-caramujeiro. This kite was perched over a wetland in Assentamento Camponesa Liberdade ("Freedom Peasant Settlement"), one of the government land-redistribution communities I wrote about earlier. (My understanding of settlements has been updated quite a bit after spending time in them, so stay tuned for another post.)

Blue-and-yellow macaw. Arara-canindé. They nest in the broken-off tops of palm trees and preen each other to show affection. These macaws are doing better than other local species because they are generalists, and broken palm trees aren't hard to find (yet).

Mystery bird number two! Perched over the wetland. Another streaky LBJ. Edit: it is a female vermilion flycatcher (príncipe). I'll try to photograph the flashy, ruby-red male soon.

Whistling heron. Maria-faceira. This heron looked very composed in its cerulean mask, until...

... it got the sudden urge to shake and erect all its feather on end, turning its silhouette from a sleek statue into something cuddly I would have liked to hug. 

Brazilian teal. Pé-vermelha. A small, somewhat common duck in roadside ponds. The male has crayon-red bill and legs; the female has white spots painted on her face.

Great kiskadee. Bem-te-vi. This bird calls its Portuguese name constantly, like a braying donkey. It means, "I saw you well." This flycatcher is watching you, and it wants you to know.

Campo flicker. Pica-pau-do-campo. This woodpecker likes to check bark for bugs in pairs. How cute.

Another view of the campo flicker. I wasn't surprised to discover that this woodpecker is a flicker, like the familiar northern flickers of my home in Seattle. Both species hop along the ground checking for ants. (A note on diet: this species has been observed eating quite a few termites, but a study of its stomach contents revealed only ants and ant eggs. Maybe it just plays with the termites?)

Peach-fronted parakeet. Periquito-rei. Here is a quick tip from Duca on how to tell apart members of the parrot family. Macaws are big with long tails. Parrots have short tails. And parakeets have long tails and long wings.

Hyacinth macaw. Arara-azul-grande. Of the three macaw species here, this one is the rarest. Its population dropped to 1500 birds in the 1980s due to capture for the pet trade, but it has since rebounded to 5000 individuals. It's the longest parrot in the world, measuring 3.3 feet from tip of bill to tip of tail. And, to its detriment in Anthropocene Epoch, this macaw is a specialist, requiring cavities in old-growth manduvi trees to nest. These palms are becoming rare due to deforestation for cattle pasture. Check out the Wildlife Conservation Society's work to provide nest boxes.

Blue-crowned motmot. Udu-de-coroa-azul. I saw this bird in a creek valley, deep in the humid forest called Vale do Bugio, Valley of the Howler Monkeys. I didn't see any howlers, but I did encounter an other-worldly slot canyon, towering walls of moss, and the bloated bodies of seven dead bats. More to come in the next blog post on that. 

Helmeted manakin. Soldadinho. He flitted in the same patch of gallery forest as the previous bird, and the next. It was a very birdy moment.

Edit: Grey-headed tanager. Pipira-da-taoca. I previously misidentified this bird as a female white-shouldered tanager; thank you to Rich for the correction! A field guide and a camera are no substitute for years of experience in the field.

Roadside hawk. Gavião-carijó. This is one bird that is true to its name.

Chalk-browed mockingbird. Sabiá-do-campo. These mockers hopped around the entrance to an alien-themed town of aluminum-dome houses called Proyecto Portal. More to come, I promise. For now, just know that an extraterrestrial creature named Bilu hangs out here, and the end of the world is coming in the form of strong winds. Oh, and the earth is flat.

Mystery bird number three! Someone should be able to get this; the black-and-white head stripes are distinctive. Also, it was hopping around in riparian bushes, right next to a creek. The behavior was similar to a northern waterthrush, but those are exceedingly rare here. Edit: Rich says this is a golden-crowned warbler (pula-pula), shown in my book as a white-bellied warbler (pula-pula-de-barriga-branca); the two species were recently lumped together into one.

Flavescent warbler? Canário-do-mato. Another I'm-trusting-the-book identification. The yellow eyebrow, red legs, and riparian habitat were my indications, but I'm still calling this one with a question mark.

Pale-breasted thrush. Sabiá-barranco. This bird a distinctly robin-like jizz (that's overall countenance, to you non-birders!) with a grey hood and rufous back. It was hopping and pecking in a shallow, paved part of the creek that went under a bridge.

Helmeted guineafowl. Galinha angola. These birds are domestic, basically useless chickens that make a LOT of squeaky noises and look pretty.

Bare-faced curassow. Mutum-de-penacho. A big ol' bird. This one was wild, but it didnc't mind strutting around with the guineafowl to find cracked corn.

Rufous-bellied thrush. Sabiá-laranjeira. A glorified robin, if you ask me. The national bird of Brazil.

Edit: Sayaca tanager. Sanhaçu-cinzento. Previously misidentified by me as a palm tanager. Thanks, Rich!

Chopi blackbird. Graúna. That pointy beak though.

Plush-crested jay. Gralha-picaça. An exotic-looking bird that's as common as a blue jay, and commonly called by that name.

Smooth-billed ani. Anu-preto. A jokester with a jaunty expression on its wide bill, and a sweeping black tail I would expect on Katy Perry at the Met Gala.

Small-billed tinamou. Inhambu-chororo. This round bird scuttled in the underbrush like a rail, but its down-curved bill, spotted underside, and rufous back make me think tinamou.

Rufous hornero. João-de-barro. The English common name means "baker" (in Spanish) because this bird constructs sturdy mud nests that look like clay ovens. I'll get a picture soon, they're all over the telephone poles. The Portuguese name means "Neighborhood John," a sweetly familiar moniker.

Scaled dove. Fogo-apagou. The perpetually-ruffled look called "scaling" comes from a dark edging on the wing and body feathers.

Grassland sparrow. Tico-tico-do-campo. Looks like a savannah sparrow, doesn't it?

Red-crested finch. Tico-tico-rei. Maybe I'm just getting homesick, but this guy reminds me of a house finch.

Red-and-green macaw. Arara-vermelha-grande. Nope, Dorothy, we're not in Seattle anymore! This bird's backside coloration is like a cold rainbow snowcone before all the syrup drips to the bottom.

And that's not all folks. Did you think I would forget....

Dad's Daily Bug?!

A large and armor-legged cricket that lives in my bedroom. Isn't her green tinge dapper?