Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada Dos Guimaraes Aug 04—16, 2015

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 we found the fabled Pantanal simply brimming with wildlife, offering non-stop 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 an African Safari, especially with each year’s incredible JAGUAR 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 amazing 7 Jaguar encounters with a total of 5 different cats, including the massive alpha male called Adriano, weighing in at a colossal 350 pounds (the same size as a lioness), and we were able to observe Bianca hunting along the banks for caiman for a prolonged spell, too.

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 the region’s astonishing biodiversity, where it’s fairly easy to find 150+ bird species daily. Combine this with an amazing abundance of mammals and crocodilians for an incredible spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. This year’s high tour rewarded us with a record-breaking 7 species of macaws (all seen well), from both the Pantanal wetlands and the lovely area of cerrado in the Chapada National Park.

Pousada Piuval was our setting for a fantastic introduction to this fascinating world-renowned wetland biome. The lodge’s lovely canopy observation tower and palafitas rewarded us with many magical moments such as huge numbers of waterbirds coming in to a breeding colony, including Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbill. We had our first encounters with huge Greater Rhea, Red-legged Seriema, noisy Southern Screamer, Orange-backed Troupial, and noisy Chaco Chachalacas and Cachalotes.

The following morning we advanced deeper into these exceptional marshlands and marveled at the non-stop bird action in the form of Campo Flicker, White Woodpecker, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, and a magnificent pair of responsive Yellow- (Golden) collared Macaws that circled us several times very low, showing off their amazing vibrant colors in perfect light before conveniently perching in a nearby Cecropia for fantastic scope studies.

Toco Toucan

Toco Toucan— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Our next stop was the lovely Pixaim Lodge which was exceptional, as always. It was so difficult to leave the lodge garden on our first morning as we had so many species of birds; dawn greeted us with a cacophony of odd, loud voices from the incessant Chaco Chachalaca (which woke us up) to raucous Rufous Hornero, Gray-crested Cachalote duets, to 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 along the river bank. Bird feeders, as always, were alive with activity, graced early on by a pair of hungry Toco Toucans (whose enormous flaming-orange bill has to be seen in the early morning sun to be believed), sending the photographers wild! There were also flocks of lovely Yellow-billed and Red-crested cardinals, Purplish Jay, Orange-backed Troupial, Bay-wings, Grayish Saltator, Picazuro Pigeon, Chestnut-eared Aracaris, and the tiny subspecies of Saffron Finch (to be split). The open fields surrounding the garden were graced by colorful Campo Flickers and male Vermilion Flycatchers, while White-rumped Monjitas hunted off the fence posts. A pair of noble Bare-faced Curassows even graced the lodge feeders for the first year ever on day two! 

Hyacinth Macaw feeding

Hyacinth Macaw feeding— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Pantanal highlights were so many; however, voted top bird of the trip was an incredible breathtaking encounter with the glamour bird of the Pantanal, the spectacular enormous Hyacinth Macaw, the world’s biggest parrot!  As usual, we got excellent scope views of a family near their nest (what incredible colors and massive beak) as they gently plucked palm fruit with their humongous beaks and surgically opened it to drink the juice and extract the small seeds. Next up was the odd but striking predator, the Red-legged Seriema (the ecological equivalent of the Secretary-bird), and flocks of huge prehistoric-looking flightless Greater Rhea. However, we just as much loved the drabber and tiny, colorful long tailed Chotoy Spinetail (nesting in the Jabiru’s nest), as well as several cute Long-tailed Ground-Doves which also gave superb close range scope 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; stunning looks at flashy Pale-crested and Cream-colored woodpeckers; stellar Blue-crowned Trogon; tiny White-wedged Piculet; a close day-roosting, incredibly well-camouflaged Great Potoo; Red-billed Scythebill (what a bill); Mato Grosso and Band-tailed antbirds; Large-billed Antwren; and noisy Greater Thornbirds with their huge stick nests.

Red-legged Seriema

Red-legged Seriema— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Relaxed boat trips along the Rio Pixaim rewarded us with incredible photographic opportunities with all five South American kingfishers performing well, especially that cute Pygmy; a magnificent Agami Heron (observed fishing); and several huge-eyed Boat-billed Herons. However, our close-up views of the Sungrebe really stole the show. We also saw Sunbittern, with multiple close observations delighting us all as they flushed and glided along the bank; they even exposed those most sought after brilliant sun spots on their wings!

Penetrating deeper into the Pantanal was also very productive with numerous other highlights including spectacular close daytime views of the odd, orange-eyed Great Horned Owl; neatly camouflaged roosting Nacunda Nighthawks; abundant waterbirds; huge concentrations of Jabiru, Maguari and Wood storks, and Limpkin; three species of Ibis including the largest, the Plumbeous; Roseate Spoonbill; Capped and Whistling herons; and gobs of egrets lining the pools. Marshes rewarded us with splendid Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, and we had stellar views of the rare and endangered Chestnut-bellied Guan. And we certainly can’t forget the herds of block heads (Capybara) we encountered in the marshes as we headed south on our journey!    

Mammal highlights were many, including the king of them all—the Jaguar: Adriano, Bianca, Silema, Jast, and Maxim; and a memorable close encounter with a very relaxed group of Giant Otters (yes giant, 6-foot-long—simply spectacular). Rarely does one get the opportunity to follow and study for several minutes such magnificent creatures hunting at such close range. Their unique creamy throat patterns and flat, almost beaver-like tails power them through the water effortlessly, interrupted by eating or occasionally periscoping—looking for the presence of Jaguars (which they hate). We also saw Black Howler, Capuchin, and Black-tailed Marmosets. 

Great Potoo

Great Potoo— Photo: Andrew Whittaker



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 the musical backdrop of calling Black Skimmer and Yellow and Large-billed terns displaying over their sand bar, while nesting colorful Pied Plovers graced the water’s edge along with pairs of Collared Plovers. 

For our grand finale we drove north to explore the cooler Chapada National Park with its breathtaking red sandstone cliffs and canyons, plunging waterfalls, spectacular views, and different birds. This exciting new biome abounded with life in the rich cerrado, with many endemic fauna and flora, combined with lush gallery forests. 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 Burnish Buff tanagers added even more color.  

The cerrado provided us with many spectacular birding moments while observing its highly specialized birds and highly exotic plants, including excellent studies of both the tiny Horned Sungem and migrant Blue-tufted Starthroat; 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); the really cool endemic Caatinga Puffbird; and those amazing Red Pileated Finches!

While in the lush, cooler gallery forest we were enthralled by scope views of a smart-looking Amazonian Motmot and a great pair of Lettered Aracaris, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, and a crippling male Band-tailed Manakin. A cool-looking Brown Jacamar was a nice find too.

You were a wonderful group and it was a great pleasure and a real treat to share such an excellent action-packed two weeks of birding and mammal-viewing with you. Who could forget our many mouthwatering meals of cat fish, Brazilian barbeques, freshly squeezed and exotic fruit juices and, of course, those Brazilian Caiparinhas! It truly was my pleasure to guide you all. I look forward to sharing another exotic birding location with you sometime in the future. Until then, take care and, as always, great birding!