Mato Grosso, Brazil Jun 03—15, 2006
Posted by Andrew Whittaker
Once again, the Pantanal lived up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the premier wildlife spectacles in the world. Covering a staggering 140,000 sq km of seasonally flooded savannas, the Brazilian Pantanal is the world's largest freshwater wetland. I always feel privileged to be able to return to this region of astonishing biodiversity, where the sheer birdiness and abundance of mammals has to be experienced to be believed!
A rollicking dawn chorus of Limpkins was our alarm clock, pulling us out of bed to be greeted by a spectacular sunrise, whose fiery shafts of light illuminated the countless dew-kissed cobwebs scattered across the grasslands. Nacunda Nighthawks making their last foraging passes before calling it a day passed the baton to flocks of raucous Turquoise-fronted Parrots and various parakeets that were just beginning their rounds. Snail Kites streamed past as they left their communal roost along the Rio Pixaím. It was shaping up to be another great day in the Pantanal.
Our first morning found the lodge garden filled with a loud cacophony of odd voices, from the incessant Chaco Chachalacas and sporadic, but no less raucous Rufous Horneros, to the harsh machine-gun rattles of Ringed Kingfishers on the river out back. The bird feeders were alive with activity, hosting a nonstop procession of Yellow-billed and Red-crested cardinals, Purplish Jays, Saffron Finches, Bay-winged Cowbirds, Gray-crested Cacholotes, and an amazingly tame pair of spectacular Toco Toucans. Panic ensued among the smaller birds when an immature Bicolored Hawk dashed into the yard looking for breakfast. After an unsuccessful pass, this rarely seen raptor landed, providing great scope studies.
During our stay, the lush gallery forests produced such highlights as the stunning Pale-crested Woodpecker, tiny White-wedged Piculet, Golden-collared Macaw, Undulated Tinamou, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Red-billed Scythebill, Great Antshrike, Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds, Rusty-backed Antwren, Orange-backed Troupial, Gilded Sapphire, Rufous Casiornis, Green-backed Becard, and Red Pileated-Finch.
Afternoon boat trips were very relaxing, affording excellent photographic opportunities with wading birds, terns, skimmers, and kingfishers galore. However, one of our most memorable encounters was with a very vocal group of twelve Giant Otters. A habituated group of these spectacular, six-foot long mammals even allowed us to feed them off the boat! We were also rewarded with views of Blue-throated Piping Guan, Bare-faced Curassow, Sungrebe, and great studies of both Pygmy Kingfisher and a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher that almost knocked me out of the boat. Our daily bird lists here were often close to 175 species.
Penetrating deeper into the Pantanal also proved productive, with Jabiru, Maguari, and Wood storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and various egrets and herons lining the numerous roadside pools. Splendid Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, Purple Gallinules, and a secretive Least Bittern all drew our attention to the reed beds, whereas endangered Chestnut-bellied Guans, Chestnut-eared Aracaris, and Chotoy Spinetails were just a few of the many birds that yanked our focus back to the brushlands and woods. Our arrival at the new hotel was heralded by several raucous pairs of huge Hyacinth Macaws, including a courting pair that allowed us to observe them at point-blank range!
Who could forget the flashy White Woodpeckers and four Streamer-tailed Tyrants displaying right over our heads against a cloudless blue sky, or the huge colony of odd-looking Boat-billed Herons displaying their shaggy black crests to one another? Mammal highlights included a wonderful close Ocelot seen on one of our night drives, a feeding Collared Anteater (Tamandua), and still suckling baby Capybaras ("Blockheads").
The cooler Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, with its breathtaking red sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, plunging waterfalls, and spectacular views combined with its rich endemic cerrado fauna and lush gallery forests was also a winner. This year raptors stood out as highlights. The overlooks along the magnificent new wooden boardwalk at our hotel rewarded us with a majestic and rarely seen Crowned Eagle, as well as King Vulture, Black Hawk-Eagle, and excellent studies of close White and Short-tailed hawks. The cerrado and gallery forest were as rich as ever, with highlights including a stunning male Blue Finch, Red-legged Seriemas, Blue-winged Macaws, Curl-crested Jay, White-eared Puffbird, Horned Sungem, Checkered Woodpecker, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, the recently described Chapada Flycatcher, White-rumped and White-banded tanagers, Coal-crested Finch, and Helmeted and Band-tailed manakins.
All in all, a wonderful group of participants enjoyed an action-packed, two-week birding bonanza that produced 307 species of birds and a whopping 18 species of mammals, in addition to numerous excellent meals featuring freshly caught fish, Brazilian barbeques, and freshly-squeezed exotic fruit juices. I'm already looking forward to my return visit next year.