Brazil: Pantanal Safari (Birds & Jaguars) and Chapada dos Guimaraes Aug 15—27, 2015

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 2015 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 objective of the trip was to see Jaguars, and see them we did, as we enjoyed three separate encounters (involving two different individuals) with spectacular males: The density of Jaguars in this region is astonishing—biologists studying these amazing animals have been able to identify (and name) more than 60 individuals in the surrounding area! Not only are Jaguars particularly common here, they are also uncommonly large in stature. Adult males from the Pantanal routinely top 325 lbs, making them 100–150 lbs heavier than average-sized Jaguars from the Amazon or Central America. The reason appears to be “something in the water”—in this case, an abundance of aquatic or semi-aquatic prey in the form of Capybara and Yacaré Caiman. Much as is the case with Brown Bears in Alaska, where an abundance of easily harvested, fatty, protein-rich salmon along coastal streams has led to the impressive supersizing of coastal populations relative to their interior inhabiting relatives, Jaguars in the Pantanal have benefited from an abundance of prey that would be the envy of their rainforest-dwelling brethren to the north and west.

Jaguar (

Jaguar (“Mick”)— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Two of our encounters involved a large male that has been dubbed “Mick Jaguar” by the SouthWild researchers. “Mick” is readily recognized by his one damaged eye (apparently suffered in a fight with another male Jaguar years ago) and particularly coarse flank markings. In 2013 we watched “Mick” stalk and charge a caiman, but on this trip he was decidedly more phlegmatic, alternately dozing, stretching, and repositioning himself on what was clearly his favorite resting spot (since we saw him there for extended periods on two consecutive days), only once rousing himself to go down to the water’s edge for a drink before lying back down.

Our encounter with “Maximé” was more entertaining:  we caught up with him on our second afternoon along the rio Tres Irmãos and followed him as he weaved in and out of the river-edge vegetation while hunting along the bank. It looked for awhile as if we might see him take down a lone Capybara on a sandbar below, but the repeated alarm barks of the big rodent were apparently enough to let the Jaguar know that his cover was blown, and he never made any serious attempt.

Jaguar (

Jaguar (“Maxime”) hunting— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

 

Of course, Jaguars were far from the only mammalian highlights of our Pantanal safari. There is no better place in the world for viewing Giant Otters in the wild, a point that was driven home repeatedly during our various boat excursions. Our last morning trip up the rio Piquirí from the Jaguar Flotel was exceptionally productive as regards Giant Otters, producing no fewer than four different family groups, and treating us to all kinds of fascinating behaviors (including watching an adult ripping apart an Armored Catfish while the youngsters tussled with one another over access to the scraps). We also thrilled to two sightings of improbable looking Giant Anteaters (both at Piuval), one by spotlight at night, the other shortly after dawn the next morning; repeated up-close-and-personal encounters with good numbers of Capybaras (“Blockheads!”) throughout, and with Brown Capuchins along the forest trails; rarely seen Azara’s Night-Monkeys by spotlight at Piuval; regal Marsh Deer, and smaller and shier Red Brocket Deer and Amazonian Brown Brocket Deer; and impressive numbers of both Greater and Lesser bulldog bats along the rivers at dusk.

 

Giant Otter

Giant Otter— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

What about birds? Well, the Pantanal, as always, was 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. That having been said, the Pantanal seemed drier than usual this year, particularly around the Campo Jofre area. Disturbingly, this is starting to look like a multi-year trend, possibly due to perturbations of the normal flood cycles caused by some large hydroelectric projects upstream in the Paraguay watershed. To be certain, wading birds and kingfishers were still abundant and conspicuous along the various rivers that we boated, but the concentrations of water birds that have come to symbolize the marshes bordering the Transpantaneira seemed a pale shadow of their former selves. Nonetheless, we still witnessed some impressive egret roosts along the rio Pixaím, nesting Jabirus at point-blank range, good numbers of Boat-billed Herons and Plumbeous Ibis, and, thanks to a modification of our original plans (allowing an additional boat trip on the morning that we were leaving SouthWild Pantanal), we secured crippling views of a stunning adult Agami Heron for the entire group.

Agami Heron

Agami Heron— 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, starting with our initial afternoon drive along the Transpantaneira to SouthWild Pantanal Lodge. A nesting pair at the lodge provided us with multiple opportunities for study during our time there, and we were treated to multitudes of these magnificent birds at close range during our subsequent visits to Piquirí Lodge and Pousada Piuval. We were also treated to nice studies of elegant Yellow-collared (= Golden-collared) Macaws near the old IBAMA station. Cracids showed well in general, as we were treated to a virtual parade of Bare-faced Curassows (including a pair hanging out near the SouthWild Lodge), Chaco Chachalacas, “Gray’s” (or “Blue-throated” depending on the taxonomist followed) 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.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaw— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We scored our usual clean sweep of all five species of kingfishers, including some stellar views of American Pygmy Kingfisher and the less common and more elusive Green-and-rufous Kingfisher. As always, parrots were much in evidence throughout (12 species seen in the Pantanal alone), including, besides the aforementioned macaws, some fine Blue-crowned and Nanday (Black-hooded) parakeets that we turned up during a lunchtime visit to Rio Claro. Scaly-headed Parrots and Turquoise-fronted Parrots both seemed to be much less common than usual for this season, but were still seen nicely. Other highlights that come quickly to mind include the fabulous Great Potoo on its daytime roost, ridiculously responsive Great Rufous Woodcreepers and Golden-green Woodpeckers, amazingly confiding Sungrebes and Sunbitterns, our prolonged studies of Little Cuckoo (from the boat!), exceptional views of a perched Buff-bellied Hermit at Piuval, incandescent Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and Helmeted Manakins, animated groups of White Woodpeckers, punk-rocker Pale-crested Woodpeckers, improbable-looking Red-billed Scythebills, a snazzy Saffron-billed Sparrow, prolonged studies of a group of elegant-looking Long-tailed Ground-Doves, that confiding Crane Hawk along the rio Tres Irmãos, multiple chaotic mobbing owl-mobbing scenes (not all of which featured real owls!), the rarely seen Subtropical Doradito (or, at least what is passing for that species in the Pantanal) and many, many more.

Great Potoo

Great Potoo— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After the Pantanal, we headed to the cerrado region of the Chapada dos Guimarães. The fun started before we even reached the Chapada proper, when what was intended as a brief scenic photo op ended up getting hijacked by some photo-bombing Red-and-green Macaws that just wouldn’t leave! Once we reached the national park and the surrounding environs, we found ourselves immersed in spectacular scenery and bizarre plant formations that combined to create a very different world with 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 puffbirds, and restless bands of White-banded Tanagers and Curl-crested Jays. Rufous-winged Antshrikes and Rusty-backed Antwrens granted us minimum-focus views; Blue-winged Macaws were nearly as well-behaved; and Red-legged Seriemas seemed to be everywhere. After much effort, we even turned up a Blue Finch and a Checkered Woodpecker, although both were best described as “close encounters of the brief kind”!

Collared Crescentchest

Collared Crescentchest— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Best of all was finally scoring a Collared Crescentchest (after it had been missed by us and by other groups on the previous day) that eventually came in almost to our feet. Visits to nearby gallery forest added all kinds of treats, from Amazonian Motmots to Blue-crowned Trogons, Fiery-capped Manakins, Blue-winged Parrotlet, Sibilant Sirystes, and White-backed Fire-eye, but my vote for the highlight would be for that responsive Pheasant Cuckoo that came winging in to my playback. An afternoon vigil from the spectacular Morro dos Ventos overlook yielded a tree full of Lettered Aracaris, a very responsive group of Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers, flocks of White-eyed Parakeets and Red-and-green Macaws gleaming in the late afternoon light, and a spectacular Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle that rocketed right over our heads and ended up perching on the cliff face for distant scope views.

Throughout the course of our Pantanal/Chapada safari we also enjoyed lots of good food (including a heart-of-palm pizza and a visit to a particularly good churrascaria, or Brazilian barbeque), more than a few icy caipirinhas, and had lots of laughs. On behalf of Kíke and myself, it was great fun birding with you, and we look forward to seeing you again on future trips.