Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada dos Guimaraes Aug 06—18, 2012

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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Our 2012 Pantanal Safari served up the usual generous helpings of birds, mammals, and other wildlife that we have come to expect from "South America's Serengeti." For most, if not all of us, the number one highlight was seeing two magnificent jaguars:  the first, an elegant female ("Walda") hunting along the edge of the Rio Cuiabá, and the second, an enormous, but battle-scarred older male ("Lopez") lazing along the banks of the Rio São Lorenzo. The density of jaguars in this region is astonishing—biologists studying these amazing animals have been able to identify (and name) more than 40 individuals in the surrounding area! But jaguars were far from the only mammalian highlights, as we were treated to multiple giant otters, loads of capybaras ("Blockheads!"), regal marsh deer, and multiple species of primates, including some unexpected Azara's night-monkeys on our night drive at Piuval.

Jaguar (female) along the Rio Cuiaba, August 2012

Jaguar (female) along the Rio Cuiaba, August 2012— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

What about birds? Well, in spite of unusually dry conditions, which resulted in marked declines for some species, the Pantanal was typically teeming with birds. The Pantanal ecosystem is based upon an annual cycle of flooding during the rainy season. The rivers overflow their banks and flood the surrounding basin, in the process, fertilizing and nurturing the vegetation and restocking the area with fish fry and aquatic invertebrates that serve as the prey base for great numbers of waders, cormorants, raptors, and kingfishers. With the onset of the dry season, the floodwaters draw down, leaving dwindling pools crammed with fish, eels, frogs, and the like. These concentrations of prey present a "target-rich environment" that attracts throngs of birds, an annual spectacle for which the Pantanal is justly famous. This year was an aberration, because the Pantanal never flooded. Water levels in the rivers were, if anything, higher than we are accustomed to seeing, due to some unusually late rains in spring. But the few bodies of standing water, and the rivers themselves, lacked the concentrations of fish and other aquatic life that are perpetuated by the flood cycles. The result was many fewer Snail Kites, Limpkins, kingfishers, and concentrations of waders than normal, and many species that would normally have active nests appeared not to be nesting (e.g. Jabirus, Anhingas, Neotropic Cormorants).

Hyacinth Macaws at nest, August 2012, Porto Jofre

 Hyacinth Macaws at nest, August 2012, Porto Jofre— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

Despite this, we pretty much cleaned up on the expected species, and we were witness to a few nice concentrations of waterbirds, the most spectacular of which included more than 50 Jabirus in a single marsh. Maguari Storks had returned to the region in good numbers, and our boat trips produced some wonderful views of adult Boat-billed Herons. Of course, any discussion of birds in the Pantanal should rightfully begin with the incomparable Hyacinth Macaw. We delighted in repeated close studies of these magnificent birds, including families at their nests. We were also treated to nice studies of Blue-and-yellow Macaws just outside of Poconé, and elegant Golden-collared (= Yellow-collared) Macaws along the Transpantaneira. One couldn't ask for better looks at any curassow than we had of Bare-faced Curassow, particularly that cooperative family group near the beginning of the Transpantaneira on the first afternoon. Cracids showed well in general, as we were treated to a virtual parade of Chaco Chachalacas, "Gray's" and Red-throated piping-guans, and rare Chestnut-bellied Guans. It also didn't take long for Gray-necked Wood-Rails and Sunbitterns to seem pedestrian, such is the unusual abundance of both species in the region.

Our lodge feeders attracted an unbelievable line-up of spectacular birds, ranging from flocks of Yellow-billed Cardinals and Purplish Jays to show-stealing Toco Toucans with their "Tequila Sunrise" bills. We scored our usual clean sweep of all five species of kingfishers, including some stellar views of American Pygmy Kingfisher. Parrots were much in evidence throughout (14 species), including, besides the aforementioned macaws, a lovely flock of Black-hooded (or Nanday) Parakeets at minimum-focus range.

Toco Toucan, August 2012, Pantanal, Brazil

Toco Toucan, August 2012, Pantanal, Brazil— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

Other highlights that come quickly to mind include the fabulously cooperative pairs of Great Rufous Woodcreepers, the aggressive family of Red-legged Seriemas, the day-roosting Great Potoo, that sensational pair of Black-banded Owls, the skulking Least Bittern that really made us work, the dazzling Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and Helmeted Manakins, the lovely perched Gray-headed Kite, the wonderful pair of White-fronted Woodpeckers, and a couple of raucous pygmy-owl-mobbing scenes that attracted droves of birds right to our fingertips, among them such gems as White-naped Xenopsaris, Rusty-backed Antwren, Masked Gnatcatcher, Gilded Sapphire, and Blue-tufted Starthroat.

After the Pantanal, we headed to the cerrado region of the Chapada dos Guimarães. Spectacular scenery and bizarre plant formations combined to create a very different world that was home to all kinds of special birds. Highlights were many, ranging from rollicking duetting White-rumped Tanagers and Chapada Flycatchers to lethargic White-eared and Spot-backed (Caatinga) puffbirds. We were treated to scope-filling views of a singing Collared Crescentchest, a dramatic face-off between a juvenile male Dot-eared Coquette and a much larger Glittering-throated Emerald, a briefly perched Horned Sungem, displaying Fiery-capped and Band-tailed manakins, a dusk chorus of three tinamou species singing at once, a responsive Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, an elegant Saffron-billed Sparrow, and many, many more.

Along the way, we enjoyed lots of good food and more than a few icy caipirinhas, and had lots of laughs. On behalf of Andy, Alyson, and myself, it was great fun birding with you, and we look forward to seeing you again on future trips.