Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada dos Guimaraes Aug 05—17, 2013

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 2013 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 our four separate encounters (involving three different individuals) with spectacular male Jaguars; 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!

Jaguar, Rio Corixo Negro, Brazil, August 2013

Jaguar, Rio Corixo Negro, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our first encounter came before we had even boarded our floating hotel (as was the case in 2012)! Just as we arrived at the flotel for lunch, we received word that a Jaguar had been spotted upstream, along a tributary called the Corixo Negro. Ignoring our rumbling stomachs, we roared up to the Corixo Negro and sure enough, there was an imposing, huge male (this one nicknamed “Dani” by the local researchers keeping tabs on the wild cat population). The big (over 300 lbs) cat was a magnificent specimen, and was content to ignore the gawking tourists and camera shutters as he relaxed in the shade. After satisfying our Jaguar fix, we headed back to the flotel for lunch and siesta.

As we headed out in the afternoon, Jaguar lightning again struck quickly, and once again, it was “Dani,” this time actively foraging along the sunlit banks of the Rio Cuiabá, a different river, and several kilometers removed from our earlier sighting. The light was nearly perfect, and the cat was on a steady prowl, patrolling the riverbank for caiman and Capybaras. Once again, we were able to stay with “Dani” for over 30 minutes, giving us more than an hour of combined Jaguar viewing for the day.

Jaguar, Rio Cuiaba, Brazil, August 2013

Jaguar, Rio Cuiaba, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next morning found us concentrating our search around the perimeter of a long, narrow island in the Rio Tres Irmãos (Three Brothers River). A Jaguar had killed a large caiman and wedged it in amongst some fallen trees along the edge of the island. Vultures had found the carcass, but weren’t making much headway in getting it open. Meanwhile, we were cruising up and down the Three Brothers, and also navigating as much of the channel on the backside of the island as we could, in hopes that the cat would return to his kill for a snack. On our third pass, we noticed that the caiman carcass had vanished, obviously drug back into the gallery forest by the Jaguar so that he could feed in peace. Rounding the tip of the island, we spotted a couple of tour boats anchored in the shade on one side of the river, their occupants watching intently across to the other side. Within seconds, we spotted the object of their attention—a Jaguar, hidden in the brush except for his head, which was focused squarely on a nearby, medium-sized caiman that was resting in the water, with nothing but sandbar in between. We too backed off and dropped anchor, waiting for the drama to unfold. The cat’s approach was painstakingly slow and cautious. The caiman looked oblivious, but looks are often deceptive. Caiman can move fast when threatened, and I had a feeling that this one was on high alert. Finally, the Jaguar made its move, and although I thought I was ready with the camera, the sudden burst of speed after a near glacial approach still caught me off guard. The charge was short and fast, but the cat broke it off prematurely when the caiman abruptly disappeared beneath the surface with a violent splash. This was not the caiman’s first rodeo. The Jaguar was a good-sized male, but not as large as “Dani,” and he clearly had one bad eye from some previous injury. We later learned that this individual was nicknamed “Mick Jaguar.” After dipping on the caiman, “Mick Jaguar” sauntered over to the water and drank voraciously, then continued his hunting along the riverbank downstream. We followed for another 20 minutes before going on our way. After three breathtaking encounters, our last Jaguar sighting—of a dozing, radio-collared male on the last morning—actually seemed anti-climactic, but then again, it was still a Jaguar!

Jaguar charging a caiman, Rio Tres Irmaos, Brazil, August 2013

Jaguar charging a caiman, Rio Tres Irmaos, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Of course, Jaguars were far from the only mammalian highlights, as we were treated to multiple Giant Otters, large families of Capybaras (“Blockheads!”), regal Marsh Deer, and some very up-close-and-personal encounters with Brown Capuchins, not to mention trees full of Black Howler Monkeys.

What about birds? Well, 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. In 2012, the floods never came, which meant that the region was never restocked with fish. That was reflected in dramatically fewer fish-eating birds (particularly kingfishers), and a number of species (notably Jabirus, Anhingas, and cormorants) foregoing breeding that year. Thankfully, the flood cycle was on cue this year, and although numbers of some species still appeared to be depressed, kingfisher numbers were back up, all of the Jabiru nests that had sat vacant in 2012 were occupied, and we were witness to a few really nice concentrations of waterbirds, the most spectacular of which included more than 150 Jabirus (and many hundreds more of egrets and Wood Storks) in a single marsh. Boat-billed Herons were present in numbers unprecedented in our combined previous experience, averaging 60–75 (a goodly percentage of them adults) per late afternoon boat trip along the Rio Pixaím. On these same boat trips, we had multiple encounters with stunningly beautiful adult Agami Herons, not to mention some tantalizingly less-than-perfect encounters with wily Zigzag Herons.

Agami Heron, Rio Pixaim, Brazil, August 2013

Agami Heron, Rio Pixaim, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Of course, any discussion of birds in the Pantanal should rightfully begin with the incomparable Hyacinth Macaw. We delighted in repeated great views of these magnificent birds, including one individual at Porto Jofre that had learned how to turn on a water tap at a fish-cleaning station to drink! We were also treated to nice studies of elegant Golden-collared (= Yellow-collared) Macaws that appeared to be nest prospecting near the old IBAMA station. Cracids showed well in general, as we were treated to a virtual parade of Bare-faced Curassows, Chaco Chachalacas, “Gray’s” and Red-throated piping-guans (and apparent intergrades between the two), 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 lineup 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 (9 species), including, besides the aforementioned macaws, some Blue-crowned Parakeets and Turquoise-fronted Parrots that showed particularly well. (On the other side of the ledger, Nanday Parakeets and Scaly-headed Parrots were inexplicably missing in action). Other highlights that come quickly to mind include the eerie Mottled Owl and Great Potoo that we spotlighted along the Rio Pixaím; fabulously cooperative pairs of Great Rufous Woodcreepers; the confiding male Sungrebe; our great looks at an Undulated Tinamou (from the boats!); a nice fly-by view of a rarely seen Bicolored Hawk; exceptional studies of a perched Buff-bellied Hermit; finding a White-banded Mockingbird (a rare, austral migrant); a male Wattled Jacana defending its nest; the dazzling Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and Helmeted Manakins; the wonderful quartet of White-fronted Woodpeckers; the locally rare Black-bellied Antwrens at Piuval; punk-rocker Pale-crested Woodpeckers; improbable-looking Red-billed Scythebills; and many, many more.

Collared Crescentchest, Chapada dos Guimaraes, Brazil, August 2013

Collared Crescentchest, Chapada dos Guimaraes, Brazil, August 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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. But it wasn’t easy this year. Coming out of dinner on our first evening, we noticed that the temperature had dropped sharply in the short time that we were in the restaurant. By the time we awoke, pre-dawn the next morning, it was clear that a rare cold front had moved in from the south. The thermometer stood at about 50o F, and actually dropped a few degrees more during the course of the morning. This put a real damper on bird activity and vocalization in general, making several target birds uncharacteristically difficult to find. Recent human colonization and subsequent habitat degradation at one of our favorite birding spots didn’t help either. Persistence paid off however, and by working and reworking different sites (and with gradually warming temperatures over our three days in Chapada), we eventually found most of the birds we were looking for. Highlights were many, ranging from rollicking duetting White-rumped Tanagers and Chapada Flycatchers to lethargic White-eared Puffbirds and restless bands of White-banded Tanagers. Rufous-winged Antshrikes granted us minimum-focus views on not one, but two occasions; Blue-winged Macaws gave us some nice fly-bys in superb, low-angle sun; a group of dazzling Swallow Tanagers turned a bare tree at the Veu de Noiva into the cerrado version of a decorated Christmas tree; and some flowering vines at another location were swarming with hummingbirds, including Blue-tufted Starthroat, White-vented Violetear, Glittering-bellied Emerald, and both Frilled and Dot-eared coquettes. Best of all was a pair of Collared Crescentchests that came in almost to our feet, with what was presumed to be the male hopping up to an open branch to sing. Our prolonged, intimate studies of these elegant little birds were priceless! And finally, there was the pair of Burrowing Owls that Andy and I found on the grounds of our hotel over the afternoon break. When the group reconvened for our afternoon excursion, we began by paying a visit to the pair of owls, who remained stoically next to their burrow as multiple photographers burned up masses of megapixels from less than 20 feet away! Eventually we were all disabled by a combination of cramping trigger fingers and photographers’ elbows, but as we walked away, the two owls remained glued to their spot, as if they had seen it all before. 

Throughout the course of our Pantanal/Chapada safari we also enjoyed lots of good food, 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.