Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) & Chapada dos Guimaraes Aug 15—27, 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 tributaries. We racked up an amazing 10 Jaguar encounters with a total of 6 different cats, including the massive alpha male called Mick Jaguar, weighing in at a colossal 350 pounds (the same size as a Lioness)! We watched him hunting the banks for caiman and Capybara, swimming along the river banks, resting on a beach, and even yawning! Even more amazing was the fact that we saw TWO more spotted cat species: an Ocelot at night and, for some, the even rarer Margay hunting mid-morning along the road.

Bianca hunting

Bianca hunting— 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 on our first morning due to the 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.

Red-legged Seriema

Red-legged Seriema— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

One of our bird highlights was an incredible breathtaking encounter with the glamour bird of the Pantanal, the spectacular and enormous Hyacinth Macaw, the world’s biggest parrot! As usual we got excellent scope views of a family near their nest in the most amazing early morning light; what incredible colors! Other highlights included the odd but striking Red-legged Seriema, flocks of huge prehistoric-looking flightless Greater Rheas, and the colorful long-tailed Chotoy Spinetail and Long-tailed Ground-Dove, which both gave 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; the tiny White-wedged Piculet; day-roosting, incredibly well-camouflaged Great Potoo; Red-billed Scythebill (what a bill); Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds; Large-billed Antwren; and Greater Thornbird.

Great Potoo

Great Potoo— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Relaxed boat trips along the Rio Pixaím rewarded us with incredible photographic opportunities with all five South American kingfishers performing well, a magnificent Agami Heron, and several huge-eyed Boat-billed Herons. A pair of noble Bare-faced Curassows graced the banks; however, the Subitterns 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!

Penetrating deeper into the Pantanal was very productive with numerous other highlights including spectacular close daytime 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, Maguari and Wood storks, and 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. Not to mention the beautiful Yellow Anacondas we encountered on the road!

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). We had a fabulous close encounter with an anteater, a Southern Tamandua, that we watched as it fed on termites.

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 Pantanal, or the early morning sun on the beach we named “Paradise Island,” we listened 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 or chased off a pair of Collared Plovers.

Giant Otter

Giant Otter— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

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 abounding with life in the rich Cerrado with many endemic fauna and flora, combined with lush gallery forests, was also a winner. The waterfalls rewarded us with a great 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.

This year we were thrilled by a magnificent perched, still hunting Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle and another soaring—being attacked by a rarely encountered Orange-breasted Falcon! Meanwhile the Cerrado provided us with many spectacular birding moments while observing its highly specialized birds and exotic plants. Highlights included excellent studies of an exquisite close group of Curl-crested Jays, White-eared Puffbird, Rufous-winged Antshrike, recently described Chapada Flycatcher, White-rumped and White-banded tanagers (both endemic to this biome), and the nomadic Coal-crested Finch, as well as those amazing Red Pileated Finches.

In the lush gallery forest we were enthralled by scope views of smart-looking Amazonian Motmots and a great pair of Lettered Aracaris, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a crippling male Band-tailed Manakin, White-backed Fire-eye, and a cool-looking multicolored 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 mouth- watering 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, 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!