Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro

Birding at Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

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I wanted to visit the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden for a very long time. So many people told me about the beauty of the place and its famous imperial palms (some were planted in 1809!) that I have created great expectations. This is dangerous, beacause it is easy to end up disappointed. Thankfully, that’s not what happened: Rio’s Botanical Garden is one of the largest and most beautiful I’ve ever visited. And it is also a great place to birdwatch!

Penelope superciliaris

Rusty-margined Guan (Penelope superciliaris)

It was a cloudy Saturday, but the weather forecast was sunny. We arrived at the Botanical Garden shortly after the box office opened at 8 o’clock. The bad weather must have frightened most visitors because there was hardly anyone. We walked quietly through the arboretum, trying to create a mental map of the wide tree-lined aisles, finding ourselves amidst so much green. A flock of Red-shouldered Macaws made a rustle in the top of the trees.

Soon we found the main alley with the centennial imperial palms and the “Chafariz das Musas” fountain. One cannot translate into words the grandeur of these palm trees, native to the Antilles, which can reach up to 50 meters in height. Curiously, the first imperial palm specimens of Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden did not come from the Antilles, but were brought from another botanical garden, located in Mauritius (archipelago where the famous and extinct dodo used to live). The palm seedlings had been offered to the regent prince Dom João.

Aramides saracura

Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail (Aramides saracura)

We walked some more and reached a small lake, where we began to find more birds. Luckily they didn’t seem to care about the drizzle that started to fall. Small groups of Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails were walking around, while a Striated Heron was fishing quietly.

Butorides striata

Striated Heron (Butorides striata)

From there we followed a short Atlantic Forest trail. Woodcreepers, tanagers and other small birds surrounded us, but it was quite dark and impossible to photograph. Soon the rain tightened and we sought refuge in one of the several cafés. It took time for the rain to stop, but in the meantime we were having fun observing the marmosets, almost as mischievous as those from the Rio movie.

Callithrix jacchus

Common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus), native from Northeast Brazil, is considered an invasive species in Rio de Janeiro

The rain finally stopped and we started to walk again. Rio’s Botanical Garden is very large, with more than 140 hectares. We stayed there for several hours but were not able to see everything. I must blame a Gray-headed Tody-Flycatcher,  because we “spent” a very long time admiring the little bird, who was building his nest in a low tree.

Todirostrum poliocephalum

Gray-headed Tody-Flycatcher (Todirostrum poliocephalum), the nest is behind, unfocused

Before we left, we crossed the Japanese garden section and this Snowy Egret paraded and even posed for photos. I think there were about four or five people photographing the bird at the same time!

Egretta thula

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) at the catwalk

Next day I came back, but this time I came alone. I found a Botanical Garden even more beautiful than the previous day. The sun was shining and it seemed like I was somewhere else, everything was different. Even the tanagers looked more colorful!

Tangara seledon

Green-headed Tanager (Tangara seledon)

I went straight for the Atlantic Forest trail. There I found other birdwatchers, some with powerful cameras, others with binoculars. Brazilians and foreigners.

Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)

While the great toucans made a lot of noise up in the canopy, a group of tiny birds was searching for insects in the lower branches: Palm Tanager, Green-headed Tanager, Rufous-headed Tanager, Flame-crested Tanager, Golden-crowned Warbler, Gray-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Plain-winged Woodcreeper, Lesser Woodcreeper, Sepia-capped Flycatcher… It was a party! It is very interesting how the list of species you record in one day may be so different from the next day. I even got a lifer, a species that I was seeing for the first time: a White-flanked Antwren.

Myrmotherula axillaris

White-flanked Antwren (Myrmotherula axillaris), male

I spent some extra time birding at other sections of the garden, but after several cloudy days the sun attracted many visitors and by 11 o’clock the place was quite busy. I really wanted to shoot the Flame-crested Tanager, but although I have found the species several times, I did not get it very well with the camera (I don’t enjoy photographing, I end up doing it only to illustrate the blog). Luckily, only a few meters from the exit I found a group of tanagers that was very entertained containing a superpopulation of caterpillars. I finally got a picture!

Tachyphonus cristatus

Flame-crested Tanager (Tachyphonus cristatus), male

In two days I saw only a small sample of the garden’s avifauna. There are more than 180 bird species registered there at all. Recently a guide book was published with the 152 most common birds in the garden, authored by the photographer Lena Trindade and the ornithologist Henrique Rajão. The book can be purchased at the souvenir shop, which is run by Friends of the Botanical Garden Association.

Guide to the birds of the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro, launched in 2017.

I’m already back in São Paulo, but I can not wait to return to Rio! Maybe one day participate in one of the birding walks organized by COA-RJ. This is one of the most active groups of birdwatchers in Brazil, which used to be joined by Helmut Sick himself.