Grand Brazil Part II: Pantanal Safari & Chapada dos Guimaraes Jul 27—Aug 08, 2010

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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Once again, the Pantanal lived up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the premier wildlife spectacles in the world! This, the world's largest wetland, covers a staggering 140,000 km2 of seasonally flooded savannas and subtropical forest. Here, daily bird lists in excess of 150 species are routine, and when considered in combination with the sheer abundance of resident mammals and crocodilians, it is not surprising that the Pantanal is often referred to as "South America's Serengeti."

As is always the case, it was difficult to venture away from the immediate vicinity of the lodge on our first morning, what with a steady procession of birds to the feeders that included Chestnut-eared Aracaris, Yellow-billed and Red-crested cardinals, Purplish Jays, Bay-wings, Grayish Saltators, and Saffron Finches. Colorful Campo Flickers and male Vermilion Flycatchers ignored the feeders, but still foraged nearby, while territorial groups of Chaco Chachalacas and pairs of Rufous Horneros contributed to a sustained cacophony of sound that was periodically interrupted by the harsh, machine-gun rattles of Ringed Kingfishers as they sparred with Amazon Kingfishers over favored perches along the nearby Rio Pixaím.

My favorite highlight this year centered upon our incredible breathtaking encounter with the glamour bird of the Pantanal, the spectacular Hyacinth Macaw, which is the world's biggest parrot! Of course, Hyacinths are a staple of every Pantanal trip, but this year we enjoyed views at point-blank range (a pair down to 30 feet) in light conditions that can only be described as amazing—what incredible colors! As runner-up, I would pick the much drabber but nonetheless impressive pair of Great Rufous Woodcreepers, which also treated us to superb, close studies.

Exploration along trails through lush gallery forests produced such gems as Helmeted Manakin, Pale-crested and Cream-colored woodpeckers, Great Potoo (on its daytime roost), Red-billed Scythebill, Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds, Large-billed Antwren, and Orange-backed Troupial.

Afternoon boat trips along the Rio Pixaím were both relaxing and rewarding, affording excellent photographic opportunities with wading birds, terns, skimmers, and kingfishers galore. Among the highlights were multiple Boat-billed Herons, Bare-faced Curassow, Blue-throated Piping Guan, Sungrebe, Sunbittern, and great studies of Pygmy Kingfisher (especially the one we watched catching fish at point-blank range). A tame Black-collared Hawk perched so close we felt as if we could touch it through our telephoto lenses! Spectacular sunsets revealed line after line of Snail Kites, egrets, and parrots streaming past to their roosts along the Pixaím River. These, in turn, yielded the airspace over the river to the Band-tailed Nighthawks, in a nightly changing-of-the-guard ritual.

Farther south, we were treated to spectacular close views of Great Horned Owl, the endangered Chestnut-bellied Guan, and Golden-collared Macaw, not to mention neatly camouflaged roosting Nacunda Nighthawks, flashy White Woodpeckers, and Streamer-tailed Tyrants displaying right over our heads against a cloudless blue sky. Huge concentrations of Jabirus, Wood Storks, Limpkin, ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets lined the pools, while splendid Scarlet-headed Blackbirds sang from the reed beds.

Mammal highlights included a memorable close encounter with a very relaxed group of giant otters. Rarely does one get the opportunity to study such magnificent creatures eating fish at such close range—we were able to compare the unique throat patterns of the different individuals, and marvel at their flat, almost beaver-like tails.

The cooler Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, with its breathtaking red sandstone cliffs, canyons, plunging waterfalls, and spectacular views combined with its rich endemic cerrado fauna and lush gallery forests was, as always, a winner. Particularly memorable were our good studies of Red-winged Tinamou which were followed by a thrilling encounter with a magnificent Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a first on this tour. Once IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) finally allowed public access to the waterfalls, we were rewarded with a great afternoon parrot show of Red-and-green, Red-shouldered, and Blue-winged macaws. A flock of endemic Biscutate Swifts swirled over the falls while several stunning Swallow Tanagers and Burnished-buff Tanagers added color to the drought-stricken leafless trees.

Meanwhile, the cerrado provided more than its share of spectacular birding moments. Highlights included excellent studies of a well-behaved Collared Crescentchest; a pair of diminutive Pearl Kites; an exquisite group of Curl-crested Jays; White-eared Puffbird; an in-your-face, perched male Horned Sungem; Checkered Woodpecker; Rufous-winged Antshrike; the recently described Chapada Flycatcher; White-rumped and White-banded tanagers; and lovely endemic Cinnamon Tanagers.

Nearby lush gallery forest yielded Red-necked and Yellow-tufted woodpeckers, Brown and Rufous-tailed jacamars, a crippling male Fiery-capped Manakin, and Gray-headed Tanager.

In sum, a wonderful group enjoyed an action-packed two-week birding bonanza and a whopping 20 species of mammals, as well as lots of freshly caught fish, Brazilian barbecues, 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.

TOP 5 birds (as voted by the group):

1. Hyacinth Macaw
2. Fiery-capped Manakin
3. Swallow Tanager
4. Horned Sungem
5. Bare-faced Curassow