Mato Grosso, Brazil Aug 01—13, 2007

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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This year's Mato Grosso, Brazil tour was a non-stop highlight reel, but if it had to be captured in a single word, that word would be "Jaguar"! Our first one was a mere tease—a large feline form crossing the gravel road some 150 meters in front of our bus. By the time we got the vehicle stopped, the cat had disappeared, only to step back out into view seconds later. Those in the front of the bus, with binoculars at the ready, were able to discern the pattern of spots and other details before the jaguar vanished for good. For the rest, a silhouette was as good as it got. But that was mere prelude to the following day. Our boat trip on the Rio Cuiabá, although attentive to birds, was very much a focused effort at finding a jaguar. By late morning, that effort had yielded fresh tracks along the shoreline, but nothing more, and we were on our way back to the lodge. My own internal disappointment was shattered when our boatman abruptly throttled down and shouted, "Onca"! Up ahead, at the margin of a large sandbar on the left shoreline, stood a magnificent jaguar. Our other boat was mere microseconds behind in spotting the cat, and soon we had both skiffs pulled in to the nearest shoreline. The next several minutes were a blur, as the many photographers in the group fired away in a non-stop digital barrage that challenged the capacity of a dozen cameras and flashcards to keep pace. Roughly 5,000 photos later, the regal cat had seen enough of us, and bounded into the brush, not to be seen again. From this point on, it was all icing on the cake.

But what icing it was! We thrilled to numerous encounters with the glamour bird of the Pantanal, the Hyacinth Macaw. The world's biggest parrot, a spectacular study in blue with yellow accents and possessing a decidedly serious bill, is a quest bird for every birder that visits the region. We saw them on numerous occasions, including several times on the grounds of our lodge, where birds came in nightly to roost, and sporadically through the day to feed and drink. Boat trips on the Rio Pixaím yielded prolonged studies of spectacular Agami Herons, more Boat-billed Herons than I can ever remember from a single trip (up to 50 per boat excursion), repeated close views of Sunbitterns and Sungrebes, rare Chestnut-bellied Guans, close groups of feisty giant otters, and more kingfishers, herons, egrets, anhingas, and the like than we could count.

It was definitely the year of the Pygmy Kingfisher. These diminutive little sprites are always present, but usually inconspicuous. This year we averaged 5 per day. The dawn feeder show at one of our lodges was a spectacle in and of itself, with mobs of Yellow-billed Cardinals and Purplish Jays competing with spectacular Toco Toucans for our attention. Two Subtropical Doraditos were a great bonus—this skulking flycatcher has only recently been confirmed as occurring in Brazil. A Zigzag Heron found by participants George and Valerie was a major bonus for the half of the group that could be rallied in time to see it. Flashy Helmeted Manakins, near daily encounters with Bare-faced Curassows, nest-inspecting Black-hooded Parakeets, comical White Woodpeckers, adult male Blue-tufted Starthroats, impressive Great Rufous Woodcreepers, more than 150 giant Jabirus in a single marsh, and a day-roosting Great Potoo also stood out among the many other avian highlights. A night drive featuring a giant anteater, crab-eating raccoon, crab-eating fox, and a spectacular star-filled sky was the perfect exclamation point to our Pantanal adventure.

What the Chapada dos Guimarães lacked in sheer avian abundance and spectacle, it made up for in scenic splendor and the highly specialized nature of its avifauna. We enjoyed point-blank studies of such prizes as Blue-winged Macaw, Horned Sungem, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Collared Crescent-chest, Fiery-capped Manakin, White-rumped Tanager, and Coal-crested Finch. A magnificent pair of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles treated us to prolonged studies at the Geodesic Center, and a spotlit Band-winged Nightjar provided a first record for this particular tour. The real prize was reserved for our last morning, when we stepped off the bus only to find a juvenile Crowned Eagle perched atop a nearby low tree. The bird was giving persistent food-begging calls, and when it finally took flight and sailed a few hundred meters away, it was joined by both of its parents. We were treated to magnificent studies of a family group of these immense and rarely seen raptors—the equivalent of seeing a family group of Harpy Eagles in Amazonia.

Along the way, a great group racked up tons of special birds and mammals, enjoyed some major feasts at Brazilian barbecues, downed a lot of icy cold drinks, shot an impressive number of photos, and had a lot of fun doing it. Andy and I really enjoyed birding with each of you, and look forward to showing you more of Brazil in the future.