Best of Brazil & Iguacu Falls Extension Aug 08—21, 2009

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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If one had to summarize our 2009 Best of Brazil tour in a single word, that word would be "Jaguar"! Jaguar was definitely a primary target as we set out on our first boat trip along the Rio Cuiabá out of Porto Jofre, southern terminus of the famed Transpantaneira (or Trans-Pantanal Highway). But you don't really find jaguars—they find you. The largest and most mysterious of New World cats picks his spots, and we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time. This time, we were. It was mid-morning when we crossed paths with another boat whose pilot reported seeing a jaguar about 0.5 km downriver. We roared to the spot, only to find nothing. Our boatman turned around and started retracing our path. Even though we had traveled nearly 1 km already, I suggested to Andy that the distance estimate may have been way off, and that we might want to extend our search farther downstream. Andy agreed, and we turned the boat around once again.

The powerful outboard ate up two more bends of the river, and then we heard our boatman urgently say, "No frente, no frente." And there it was, a big male jaguar, dead-ahead, but he was headed for cover. Before most of our group could get on it, the cat had melted into the tall grass, with only his head sticking out. We cut the engine and backed off with the boat. After studying us for a few minutes, the big cat cautiously emerged from the grass and began strolling down the sandbar toward the river's edge. He was huge! Bulging at the seams, he looked as if he had fed recently. And now he was at the water, testing it first with both front feet before wading in. It was clear that he was now headed for the other side of what was a pretty wide river. What luck! We inched the boat closer, and soon had pulled to within about 7 m of the cat—close enough to hear his breathing and muffled grunts as he dog-paddled his way steadily against the current. Not a sound came from our boat except for the continuous barrage of camera shutters.

Soon, the jaguar pulled himself from the water, his fur slicked down to look like wet vinyl. Once on the lower bank, he stood, shedding water easily and surveying us without looking concerned. He negotiated the steep dirt bank far too easily and lay down in the shade to dry off. After a short while he became restless and moved along the top of the bank some distance. His entire body language changed when he spotted a caiman basking at the surface of the shallow, nearshore waters below. The jaguar crept to the bank edge and eyed the caiman intently, every muscle in his body practically screaming with the promise of explosive impending violence. We backed off and held our collective breath, waiting for the cat to pounce. But the caiman apparently sensed danger too, for it suddenly disappeared, and the cat relaxed. He moved farther now, and back into a tree-fall tangle where it became difficult to see him. The king of the forest had given us all that he would give, and now, finally, we could exhale.

We had spent over 45 minutes in very close proximity to a very large male jaguar. We had watched him walk, swim, rest, and stalk prey. We had looked into his eyes from some 20 feet away, and we had heard him breathing and voicing his muffled displeasure at our presence. It was magical. And now, somehow, we had to reset and turn our focus back to birds.

Our 2009 tour had already covered much ground, beginning with our drive from Cuiabá to Poconé, and on to the Transpantaneira, a gravel road that provides a fabulous north-south transect of the northern Pantanal. Birds were everywhere, as they typically are, and we rubbernecked from Streamer-tailed Tyrants to giant Jabirus to smaller, but no less interesting cacholotes and woodcreepers. At one of our first real stops, we were treated to perched and flying Hyacinth Macaws, the largest and one of the most spectacular parrots in the world. Here also, we traded point-blank views of an impressive Great Rufous Woodcreeper for even closer views of an attractive Narrow-billed Woodcreeper.

The next several days were a nonstop highlight reel. Despite a cold front that dropped temperatures into the 50s (F) and clearly depressed vocal activity, birds were still to be seen everywhere. From Hyacinth Macaws frequenting the grounds of one of our lodges to multiple Jabirus on nests, large, charismatic birds were everywhere: a male Bare-faced Curassow booming his bass from one side of a small stream, coaxing two nervous females on the opposite bank to fly across; Black-collared Hawks snatching fish from the river's surface; more than 150 Maguari Storks in a single large marsh; and Toco Toucans with incandescent bills visiting the lodge feeders. And what of snazzy Helmeted Manakins and improbably-coiffed Pale-crested Woodpeckers, or the wildly duetting pair of Black-capped Donacobius? Boat trips along the Rio Pixaím yielded a nonstop parade of kingfishers of five species, Gray-necked Wood-Rails, Boat-billed Herons, striking Scissor-tailed Nightjars, and a skulking Little Cuckoo, whereas trips along the much larger Cuiabá River produced sandbars teeming with Large-billed Terns and Black Skimmers, and dainty Pied Lapwings. Throw in large day roosts of impressive Nacunda Nighthawks, gallery forests with Red-billed Scythebills and Rufous-tailed Jacamars, and a mammal list that included such prizes as giant river otter (everything from a lactating female hauled out on a log to babies scrambling up a dirt bank into a hole, to porpoising adults chewing up distance in a way that would make Michael Phelps green with envy), marsh deer, herds of capybara (blockheads!), and troops of inquisitive brown capuchin monkeys, and you can see why our heads were spinning. Even our drive out of the Pantanal kept getting interrupted, with stops for a beautiful pair of Golden-collared Macaws, a perched Laughing Falcon, a roadside Red-winged Tinamou, Greater Rheas, a Red-legged Seriema atop a termite mound, and an absolutely bizarre Jabiru whose entire head and bill were bright red!

The bamboo-dominated cloud forests of Itatiaia provided a dramatic change from the lowland savannas and marshes of the Pantanal. The lush, montane Atlantic forest here was home to a completely different set of birds, as colorful tanagers and skulking antbirds and foliage-gleaners replaced raucous parrots and kingfishers and lumbering waders. One thing that wasn't different was the sheer birdiness of the hotel grounds. We spent the better part of our first morning just birding off the balcony of the dining room, where six species of hummingbirds, each more dazzling than the one that preceded it, swarmed like bees around the feeders. Fruit feeders attracted a variety of snazzy birds, from electric Blue-naped Chlorophonias and Green-headed Tanagers to more subdued, but equally special Black-goggled Tanagers and Olive-green Tanagers. Over the next four days, our biggest challenge was simply to tear ourselves away from the feeders—something new was always turning up, from fearless bands of bizarre Saffron Toucanets (literally close enough to touch), to one incredibly confident brown capuchin monkey.

We were particularly fortunate to have timed our visit coincident with a major bamboo-seeding event. Brazil's Atlantic Forest harbors the greatest diversity of bamboo species and genera in the world. Many of these species take ten or more years to fully mature before going to seed and dying. When large stands of a particular bamboo seed simultaneously, they provide a tremendous food resource for a number of nomadic birds that specialize in feeding on their seeds. When conditions are right, these birds may descend on an area in large numbers, set up territories, and breed explosively. When the resource is depleted and the bamboo has died, these same birds disappear and may not be seen again in the same area for years. Much of the bamboo in the elevational zone surrounding our hotel had seeded in 2008 and was already dead. Accordingly, the seedeaters and finches that we had found numerous last year were nowhere to be found this year around the Hotel do Ypé. But as luck would have it, the bamboo lower down was on a different schedule, and a major seeding event was in progress down below the Hotel Donati. Uniform Finches and Buffy-fronted Seedeaters were everywhere (we even found a nest of the latter), and were by far the most vocal species in the forest. Temminck's Seedeaters were also present, although less conspicuous.

We lost the best few hours of the morning to rain when we visited the highlands of the Agulhas Negras road, and the only bird in sight for some time was an opportunistic Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper that was foraging merrily along the rivulets of water running down the middle of the gravel road! By mid-morning the rain had finally abated, and soon we were treated to a male Black-and-gold Cotinga, the minstrel of mountains, pouring out his ethereal song as we watched through the scope. Other highlights came in dizzying procession: stunning close-up encounters with a male Large-tailed Antshrike and a Speckle-breasted Antpitta; an Araucaria Tit-Spinetail that taped down to 5 m above the ground; dazzling male Plovercrests swarming about a lek; taping-in elusive Mouse-colored Tapaculos and Itatiaia Thistle-tails for point-blank views; and a veritable tyrannulet workshop at the summit, where we were able to compare fieldmarks of Rough-legged, Greenish, Mottle-cheeked, White-crested, and Serra do Mar tyrannulets sequentially and at minimum-focus range.

Along the way we enjoyed and overindulged in many excellent meals, knocked off our share of yummy ice cream, and introduced many group members to the joys of Brazil's national drink, the caipirinha. All too soon, it was time to bid farewell to Andy, Jim, and Allison while the remainder of our group continued on to Iguaçu Falls National Park. Far from being a postscript, the falls and the birding that we enjoyed in the surrounding forests were true highlights. Being based at the lovely Hotel Cataratas meant that we not only had the falls at our literal doorstep, but that we were able to enjoy the splendor and spectacle of the world's largest waterfalls as a near-private showing for a few hours before the park gates opened to let in the hordes of other tourists. With the luxury of three-and-a-half-days for exploration, we ended up working both sides of the river, something we hadn't done on previous tours with fewer days. Higher density of bamboo on the Argentine side yielded a slightly different mix of birds, including prolonged studies of a rare Black-fronted Piping-Guan. It also gave us the opportunity to view the famed Devil's Throat from a catwalk leading to the top of the falls, a view and experience that is quite different from the catwalk on the Brazilian side that looks up into the chasm. Besides the sheer mesmerizing power of the falls, we marveled at the swarms of Great Dusky Swifts plunging recklessly into the teeth of the cataracts, and greatly enjoyed the rare opportunity to have the experience to ourselves. Visiting the Devil's Throat at the very end of the day, after the hordes of tourists had departed, essentially constituted a private showing, and one that we will never forget.

The Poço Preto Road on the Brazilian side provided us with many of our birding highlights, from Rusty-margined Guans to an impressive pair of whacking-big Robust Woodpeckers, a bobbing and bowing pair of responsive Spot-billed Toucanets, punk-rocker Blond-crested Woodpeckers, and an incredibly confiding pair of Sao Paulo Tyrannulets. The Argentine side yielded good views of a couple of skulking large antshrikes: the Spot-backed and the Tufted. It was here also where we scored great views of the rare Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, Chestnut-headed Tanager, and Saffron-billed Sparrow.

All in all, a great group of really fun folks enjoyed a lot of special birding and mammal-viewing experiences (with totals of 409 species of birds and 21 species of mammals!), fascinating countryside, spectacular scenery, and the warm hospitality for which the Brazilian people are justly famous. To top it all off, the weather was mostly fabulous, with cloudless sunny skies the rule. The cooler than normal temperatures clearly impacted bird activity, but it also made the Pantanal more comfortable than usual, and the two mornings of rain ended up not hurting us measurably. Andy and I hope to see you all again on future Brazil trips—there's a lot more to show you!

Five favorite birds of the main tour (as voted by the group):

1.  Speckle-breasted Antpitta
2.  Plovercrest
3.  Tie between Hyacinth Macaw and Large-tailed Antshrike
4.  Three-way tie between Cryptic Antthrush, Mouse-colored Tapaculo and Jabiru

Three favorite birds of the Iguaçu Falls Extension (as voted by the group):

1.  Three-way tie between Black-fronted Piping-Guan, Spot-backed Antshrike, and Sao Paulo Tyrannulet