Mato Grosso, Brazil Jun 22—Jul 04, 2008

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

Whittaker_andrew_r

Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Once again, the Pantanal offered a nonstop series of highlights and lived up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the premier wildlife spectacles in the world! The Pantanal covers a staggering 140,000 sq km of seasonally flooded savannas and subtropical forest, making it the planet's largest wetland. Each year it's a great privilege for me to share the region's astonishing biodiversity, where daily bird lists often exceed 150 species, and where mammals and crocodilians occur in amazing abundance. The Pantanal is often favorably compared with renowned African "hot-spots."

Surprisingly, my favorite highlight of this year's trip did not involve birds, although the rare austral migrant White-banded Mockingbird came close. "Anaconda!" We screeched to a halt to witness a huge yellow anaconda curled up under a bush right next to the road. To our amazement, it was in the process of actually swallowing a baby capybara! Quietly getting out of the van, we cautiously approached to within a few meters, cameras clicking and videos rolling, documenting this rarely seen behavior as the 4-meter snake worked its dislocated jaws slowly over the prey before eventually swallowing it whole and then gracefully sliding off into the marsh.

Mammal highlights were headed by a memorable close encounter with a very relaxed sunbathing group of eight giant otters. Rarely does one get the opportunity to study these magnificent, six-foot-long creatures out of the water on a sandy beach as we did, displaying their unique creamy throat patterns and flat, almost beaver-like tails. During an entertaining close encounter with a friendly group of black-capped capuchin monkeys, we noted the dominant male to be eating a freshly caught armored catfish! This behavior, to my knowledge, is unique, and may be the first documented record of any South American primate eating fish.

As always, birding was exceptional, and we found it difficult to tear ourselves away from the lodge grounds on our first morning. Bird feeders were alive with activity as we were entertained by Yellow-billed and Red-crested cardinals, Purplish Jays, Saffron Finches, Bay-winged Cowbirds, and Gray-crested Cacholotes. All the while, we were treated to a cacophony of loud voices, ranging from the incessant offerings of Chaco Chachalacas and raucous duets of Rufous Horneros to the harsh, machine-gun rattle of Ringed Kingfishers as they squabbled with Amazon Kingfishers over the best perches along the nearby banks of the Rio Pixaím.
 
Exploration of nearby gallery forests produced numerous highlights, among them a spectacular crimson-and-black male Helmeted Manakin, perched at point-blank range in front of us. Spellbound, we marveled at its beauty as the sun served to spotlight its uniquely shaped brilliant crimson helmet. Not to be forgotten were our encounters with stunning Pale-crested and Cream-colored woodpeckers, tiny White-wedged Piculets, Red-billed Scythebill, Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds, Large-billed Antwren, Orange-backed Troupial, Rufous Casiornis, and Green-backed Becard.

Afternoon boat trips along the Rio Pixaím were both relaxing and rewarding, and afforded excellent opportunities to observe and photograph a variety of wading birds and kingfishers galore. A Great Potoo on a daytime roost, multiple Boat-billed Herons, Bare-faced Curassows, Blue-throated Piping-Guans, Sungrebe, Sunbittern, and great studies of American Pygmy Kingfisher were just a few of the many highlights of these boat trips. And who could ever forget the hungry Jabiru that flew right at us, getting closer and closer and finally filling our binocular field with just its head and beak as it skimmed just above our heads and landed on the nearby bank to consume catfish tossed out by our boatman. Black-collared Hawks performed equally well, scooping up fish within meters of our boats while multiple cameras captured the magical moments. Spectacular sunsets backlighted line after line of Snail Kites, ibis, egrets, and parrots streaming past to their roosts along the Pixaím River.

Penetrating deeper into the Pantanal proved productive, and resulted in numerous breathtaking encounters with the world’s biggest parrot and hands-down glamour bird of the Pantanal, the spectacular Hyacinth Macaw. Other highlights included outstanding daylight scope views of a Great Horned Owl; flashy White Woodpeckers; Streamer-tailed Tyrants displaying against a cloudless blue sky; huge concentrations of Wood Storks, Limpkins, ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets; splendid Scarlet-headed Blackbirds in the reed beds; and stellar views of endangered Chestnut-bellied Guans. Last, but not least, was a wonderful giant anteater encounter, where we were able to watch this bizarre creature foraging at close range, completely unaware of our presence.

The cooler Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, with its breathtaking red cliffs, deep canyons, plunging waterfalls, and spectacular views, combined with its highly endemic cerrado fauna and lush gallery forests, was also a winner. This year we thrilled to the world's most powerful raptor, the magnificent Harpy Eagle, a first for this tour, despite being a fairly regular highlight of our visits to Alta Floresta in the northern part of the state. We watched in awe from above as this majestic hunter moved through the canopy below us.

Despite IBAMA temporarily closing part of the park, we had many spectacular moments observing the highly specialized cerrado birds. Rarities included in-your-face views of the endangered Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant and, after some work, a well-behaved Collared Crescent-chest. Other highlights included Pearl Kite, an exquisite group of Curl-crested Jays, White-eared and Spot-backed (rare here) puffbirds, Horned Sungem, Checkered Woodpecker (we even found a nest), the recently described Chapada Flycatcher, White-rumped and White-banded tanagers, and the lovely Coal-crested Finch. Visits to nearby gallery forest treated us to Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Southern Antpipit, and crippling male Fiery-capped and Band-tailed manakins.

Our group enjoyed an action-packed two-week birding bonanza that included a whopping 18 species of mammals, not to mention all those mouth-watering meals of freshly caught fish, Brazilian barbeques, and freshly-squeezed exotic fruit juices. I really enjoyed birding with each of you, and look forward to showing you more of Brazil in the future.