Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) & Chapada dos Guimaraes Aug 04—16, 2014

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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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 we found the fabled Pantanal simply brimming with wildlife, offering a non-stop series of highlights and living up to its well deserved reputation as one of the premier wildlife spectacles in the world! Not surprisingly, the Pantanal is often favorably compared to African safaris, especially in recent years with incredible JAGUAR watching spectacles. This massive cat is certainly the most wanted of South America’s top five mammals and once again dominated our boat trips along the picturesque Cuiaba River and its tributaries. We racked up an impressive 5 Jaguar encounters with a total of 3 different cats, including two massive alpha males, one called Adriano and the other called Lightning, both weighing in at a colossal 350 pounds (the same size as a Lioness)! We watched Bianca hunting the banks for caiman and Capybara while Adriano, yawning and resting on the beach, was photographed by most of us.

Jaguar, female

Jaguar, female— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

The Pantanal covers a staggering 140,000 sq km of seasonally flooded savannas and subtropical forest, making it the planet’s largest and richest wetland. Each year it’s a great privilege for me to share this region’s astonishing biodiversity, where it’s easy to find 150+ bird species daily, along with an amazing abundance of mammals and crocodilians.

The birding was exceptional, as always. It was difficult to leave the lodge garden of our hotel due to a cacophony of loud voices from the incessant Chaco Chachalaca (which woke us up), raucous Rufous Hornero and Gray-crested Cacholote duets, and the harsh machine-gun rattle of Ringed Kingfishers as they competed with Amazon Kingfishers for the best perch in the garden from which to fish the Pixaím River. Bird feeders were alive with activity, as usual, and graced early on by a pair of Toco Toucans (whose enormous flaming-orange bill has to be seen in the early morning sun to be believed), Yellow-billed and Red-crested cardinals, Purplish Jay, Orange-backed Troupial, Bay-wings, Grayish Saltator, Picazuro Pigeon, Chestnut-eared Aracaris, and flocks of the tiny subspecies of Saffron Finch, while the garden was graced by colorful Campo Flickers, male Vermilion Flycatchers, and graceful White-rumped Monjitas.

Chestnut-eared Aracari

Chestnut-eared Aracari— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

One of our bird highlights was an incredible breathtaking encounter with the glamour bird of the Pantanal, the spectacular Hyacinth Macaw, the world’s biggest parrot! This year we got point-blank range views (a pair down to 20 feet) at their nest in the most amazing early morning light; what incredible colors! Other highlights included the elegant pale morph migrant Long-winged Harrier, the odd but striking Red-legged Seriema, flocks of huge prehistoric-looking flightless Greater Rheas, and the drab but neat pair of humongous-billed Great Rufous Woodcreepers, which produced superb close range studies.

Exploration through lush gallery forests produced such gems as a spectacular crimson-red and black flash in the form of a stunning male Helmeted Manakin; Pale-crested and Cream-colored woodpeckers; Blue-crowned Trogon; day-roosting camouflaged Great Potoo; Red-billed Scythebill (what a bill); Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds; Large- billed Antwren; and Greater Thornbird.

Relaxed boat trips along the Rio Pixaím rewarded us with incredible photographic opportunities with all five South American kingfishers performing well and a magnificent look at a perched close Sungrebe and several huge-eyed Boat-billed Herons. A pair of noble Bare-faced Curassows graced the banks; however, the Sunbitterns stole the show with multiple close observations in the early morning sun delighting us all as they flew and glided along the bank, exposing those brilliant sun spots on their wings! The marvelous sunsets along the river were graced by hundreds of Snail Kites and Bare-faced Ibis all coming in to roost.

Jabiru

Jabiru— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Penetrating deeper into the Pantanal was very productive with numerous other highlights including spectacular close day views of the odd Great Horned Owl subspecies, neatly camouflaged roosting Nacunda Nighthawks, and flashy White Woodpeckers displaying right over our heads against a cloudless blue sky. Waterbirds abounded with huge concentrations of Jabiru, and Maguari and Wood storks; Limpkin, ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Capped and Whistling herons, and egrets lined the pools; splendid Scarlet-headed Blackbirds in the reed beds; stellar views of the rare and endangered Chestnut-bellied Guan and the odd Southern Screamer; and much more.

 
Giant Otter

Giant Otter— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Other mammal highlights included a memorable close encounter with a very relaxed group of Giant Otters (yes, giant—6-feet-long—simply spectacular). Rarely does one get the opportunity to follow such magnificent creatures (for 30 minutes) hunting and constantly munching fish at such close range. Their flat, almost beaver-like tails power them through the water effortlessly, interrupted by eating or occasionally periscoping for the presence of Jaguars (which they hate).

This tour will be remembered too for its countless magnificent sunsets and dawns. Taking in the evening sky glowing like an orange ball over the island we named “Paradise Island,” we watched a huge Jaguar as it fell asleep to a musical backdrop of calling Black Skimmers and Yellow and Large-billed terns displaying over their sand bar nesting site, as colorful Pied Plovers graced the water’s edge.

Following the Pantanal we explored the cooler Chapada National Park and its breathtaking red sandstone cliffs and canyons, plunging waterfalls, and spectacular views. This exciting new biome of rich Cerrado with its endemic fauna and lush gallery forests was also a winner. The parks department gave us late access to the waterfalls, which rewarded us with a great afternoon parrot show consisting of Red-and-green Macaws, White-eyed Parakeets, Blue-headed Parrot, and flocks of endemic Biscutate Swifts, while several stunning Swallow and Burnished-buff tanagers added even more color.

Coal-crested Finch

Coal-crested Finch— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

This year we were thrilled by a magnificent soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle and King Vulture while the Cerrado provided many spectacular birding moments as we observed its highly specialized birds and exotic plants. Highlights included excellent studies (after some work) of an inquisitive group of Curl-crested Jays, well-behaved White-eared Puffbirds, cool-looking Rufous-winged Antshrike, the recently described Chapada Flycatcher, White-rumped and White-banded tanagers (both endemic to this biome), and the tiny, well-marked, nomadic Coal-crested Finch.

In the lush gallery forest we were enthralled by scope views of a smart-looking pair of Lettered Aracaris, an exquisite male Black-backed Grosbeak (a rare austral migrant), Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a crippling male Band-tailed Manakin, White-backed Fire-eye, and a cool-looking Saffron-billed Sparrow.

You were a wonderful group and it was a great pleasure to share with you this action-packed two-week bird and mammal bonanza, as well as all those mouthwatering meals of cat fish, Brazilian barbeques, freshly squeezed exotic fruit juices, Tapioca night and, of course, those Brazilian Caipirinhas. It truly was my pleasure to guide you all, and I look forward to sharing another exotic birding location with you sometime in the near future. Until then, take care and, as always, great birding!