Brazil: Pantanal Safari Aug 20—Sep 01, 2016

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 2016 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 daily encounters with these magnificent cats, involving a total of 6 different individuals! 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 (“Olympia”)— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

On three consecutive days, we encountered the same female Jaguar (dubbed “Patricia” by the SouthWild researchers) and her two nearly grown cubs along the rio Tres Irmãos. Patricia had killed a Capybara shortly before our arrival at the Jaguar Flotel, and she and her youngsters were sticking to the vicinity of their kill. We saw a big male (“Marley”) along the rio Cuiabá on our second afternoon and had brief looks at an even bigger (and unidentified) male along the Corixo Negro on our third afternoon. Best of all was a large female (“Olympia”) that ventured onto a sandy beach less than a kilometer upstream from our flotel (along the rio Piquirí) on our last morning. She treated us to an impressive series of grunting calls (some of you should have some good video/audio of this?) while patrolling the vegetated edge of the sandbar.

Jaguar, female (

Jaguar, female (“Patricia”) with cub— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Our luck with wild cats actually began on our first evening, days before arriving at the Jaguar Flotel. After an introductory drive into the Pantanal that produced a seemingly non-stop highlight reel of birds, we arrived at SouthWild Pantanal Lodge in time for a late lunch, followed by a short boat trip along the rio Pixaím. We cut the boat trip short, so as to be able to hike into the nearby gallery forest before dusk and position ourselves in a specially constructed blind next to a feeding station. Then, we waited. Our dusk vigil featured a “changing of the guard” chorus that was equal parts “last call” from the diurnal forest birds, and the “wake-up” chorus of nightjars along the river. We were also treated to the unusual sight of Great Antshrikes and Pale-legged Horneros stealing bits of raw chicken meat that had been put out specifically to attract Ocelots to the site. Eventually, darkness and quiet settled in, and with eyes straining, we focused on the dimly lit feeding station in front of us. Suddenly, without audible warning, a lovely Ocelot materialized out of the surrounding forest and approached the station. The initial foray was brief, barely offering the opportunity for a photo for those quick on the draw. But within minutes, the feline returned, followed soon thereafter by a second cat. The two Ocelots displayed a fair amount of aggression toward one another, in the process, treating us to a variety of gnarly vocalizations, and some physical posturing that established the dominance of the larger mature male over what appeared to be a female. The two cats came and went for over 45 minutes, while we sat spellbound just 10–30’ away. I have seen upwards of 80–100 Ocelots in my life, but never this well, and never had I been able to photograph them before this. It was truly a show-stopping performance, and a great way to start our tour!

Ocelot

Ocelot— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

Of course, cats 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 Cuiabá and Corixo Negro was exceptionally productive as regards Giant Otters, producing two different family groups, and treating us to all kinds of fascinating behaviors (including watching a complex ritual of an adult being groomed by smaller members of the group). We also thrilled to a lengthy sighting of a Southern Tamandua (Lesser Anteater) at Pousada Piuval; repeated up-close-and-personal encounters with good numbers of Capybaras (“Blockheads!”) throughout; excellent studies of Brown Capuchins, Black Howler Monkeys, and diminutive Black-tailed Marmosets; regal Marsh Deer and smaller and shier Red Brocket Deer and Gray (Amazonian Brown) Brocket Deer; and impressive numbers of both Greater and Lesser bulldog bats along the larger rivers at dusk.

Giant Otter

Giant Otter— Photo: Kevin J. 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 was drier than usual this year, particularly around the Campo Jofre area and between km 15–25 of the Transpantaneira. 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. Roadside counts of Jabirus, Limpkins, and Snail Kites were the lowest that I could remember in my 25 years of leading Pantanal tours, seemingly in direct correlation with the overall dry conditions of the marshes. Nonetheless, we still witnessed some impressive egret and cormorant roosts along the various rivers, nesting Jabirus at point-blank range, and good numbers of all of the usual herons, egrets, and ibis, including the less common Capped and Boat-billed herons and Plumbeous Ibis. We also enjoyed crippling views of no fewer than 5 different adult Agami Herons, a species that gets my vote for “World’s Most Spectacular Heron.”

Agami Heron

Agami Heron— Photo: Kevin J. 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 arrival at SouthWild Pantanal Lodge, where a nesting pair provided us with daily opportunities for study. We were treated to multitudes of these magnificent birds at close range during our subsequent visit to Piquirí Lodge, along with chance encounters with pairs and small groups at various points along the Transpantaneira. We were also treated to exceptional studies of elegant Yellow-collared (= Golden-collared) Macaws near Piuval on our last morning. Cracids showed well in general, as we were treated to a virtual parade of Bare-faced Curassows (including multiple pairs 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-cowled 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 Macaws

Hyacinth Macaws— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

We scored our usual clean sweep of all five species of kingfishers, including some stellar views of American Pygmy Kingfisher. We were also treated to one habituated Amazon Kingfisher (“Sparky”) that livened one of our boat excursions along the rio Pixaím by repeatedly using our boats as perches from which to catch small fish thrown by the boatmen. As always, parrots were much in evidence throughout (10 species seen), including, besides the aforementioned macaws, some fine Blue-crowned and White-eyed parakeets and Orange-winged and Turquoise-fronted parrots. Other highlights that come quickly to mind include the fabulous Great Potoo on its daytime roost, the pair of shy Undulated Tinamous that we taped in for great views, ridiculously responsive Great Rufous Woodcreepers and Golden-green Woodpeckers, multiple confiding Sungrebes and Sunbitterns, daily Rufous-tailed Jacamars and Gray-cowled Wood-Rails right next to our flotel, incandescent Scarlet-headed Blackbirds and Helmeted Manakins, animated groups of White Woodpeckers (especially that pair on our first day that was excavating an old hornero nest), punk-rocker Pale-crested Woodpeckers, improbable-looking Red-billed Scythebills, prolonged studies of a group of elegant-looking Long-tailed Ground-Doves, multiple confiding Crane Hawks (including one using its long legs to try to rob a nest cavity of its contents), and many, many more.

Undulated Tinamou

Undulated Tinamou— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

A freakish cold front that brought lots of rain to the Pantanal (in this, the peak of the dry season) thankfully held off until we had completed our time on the flotel, and thus, did not impact our success with either birds or Jaguars for most of the trip. The resulting muddy road conditions did make the return drive north along the Transpantaneira much more challenging, and the ongoing overcast skies and intermittent showers over the next few days did impact our final bird list, robbing us of both of our planned night drives at Piuval, and cutting short two afternoon excursions, while depressing bird song and activity in the last mornings of the trip as well. Nevertheless, we still managed to score several good birds during our stay at Piuval, including the locally rare White-fronted Woodpecker and Black-bellied Antwren, here, at the very margins of their respective ranges.

Zigzag Heron

Zigzag Heron— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer

 

For all of this, the singular birding highlight for me was finding a Zigzag Heron on one of our walks through the gallery forest at Santa Teresa. This species is probably uncommon at best in riverine gallery forest in the Pantanal, but it is very rarely seen, particularly in the dry season, when the species is notoriously non-vocal and secretive. I was just starting to give the “about face” command to head back to the lodge for lunch, when I heard a single low call of a Zigzag. Tracing the call to a backwater channel of the river, my eyes caught a slight motion. Expecting to see a Zigzag Heron, I instead found my binoculars locking in on an Agami Heron! The Zigzag never called a second time, even after playback, but we hung in for several minutes, inspecting all of the tangles bordering the edge of the water. Finally, Gisela announced that she was looking at what appeared to be a small heron crouched in the shade. Sure enough, it was the Zigzag! It was furtive, leaving its spot to forage briefly in even deeper shade, then scooting through the tangles to cross the narrow arm of stagnant water before freezing once more in the shade. This time, everyone got on it and enjoyed excellent views, even if the photographic conditions were far from ideal. We eventually ended up turning our backs on this great bird and walking away, leaving it frozen in place!

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.