I’ll state firmly at the outset of this report that a birding trip to the Pantanal is ostensibly more rewarding than one to Amazonia. Of course, the level of biodiversity is significantly lower, but the general magnificence of the birds and the relative ease at which you’ll view them is incomparable. Indeed, the dry season – July through October – in the Pantanal is the great wildlife spectacle in South America. You might spend hours in the midday heat walking through pristine terra firma forest in the Amazon and not detect a single bird. Not only will you see them in the Pantanal, you can watch them from your car just a few meters away while you sip a cold beer, if you like. I’ve been living in Central Brazil for a year now, just a ninety minute flight from the portal city to the Pantanal, and I simply can’t fathom while I waited this long to visit, even just for a few days. What was I waiting for, I wonder?
Once I cleared our calendar for a four-day weekend trip, I decided to go all in and pay for the full Pantanal experience. I didn’t want to drag Aimee there twice, so I booked an expensive two-day jaguar tour as well as a typical stay at a pousada along the Transpantaneira Highway. Charles Munn of Southwild Pantanal sold me on a package deal involving a one-night stay on a houseboat on the Rio Piquiri, located deep in the Pantanal well beyond Porto Jofre. From this base, we’d spend a solid two days patrolling the Rios Piquiri and Cuiabá, scanning the river banks for the jaguars that congregate at high density in the region during this time. Southwild Pantanal can practically guarantee a jaguar sighting in these circumstances, and they’ve entertained scores of successful trips this season, including those involving high-profile journalists from National Geographic and Rede Globo. Afterwards, we’d spend two nights at Southwild Pantanal, formerly known as the Pantanal Wildlife Center, located about halfway down the Transpantaneira Highway.
For those out of the loop, the Pantanal is the largest freshwater wetlands in the world. Located smack in the middle of the continent, the ecosystem spans three different countries – Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia – although it’s most easily visited from Brazil. During the rainy season in Central Brazil, the region is nearly completely inundated with water, which slowly drains south into the Paraguay River. During the dry season, only a few pools of standing water and shallow rivers remain, around which an impressive variety of wildlife congregates, a phenomenon much like what occurs at the watering holes in East Africa. The quantity and diversity of birds are certainly mind blowing, but even more striking for South America is the number of large mammals present, including capybara, jaguar, Brazilian Tapir, Giant Anteater, and Giant River Otter. For much of the trip, I felt like I was back in Tanzania, and that around every bend in the road, or the river, lurked a huge herd of elephants or perhaps a solitary leopard in a tree.
Unless you’re traveling in a guided group, I would strongly recommend renting a car in Cuiabá and performing the logistics of the trip yourself. While getting out of the city can be a little tricky, the road is basically a straight shot all the way to Porto Jofre, and having your own transportation allows you to stop wherever you please along the Transpantaneira Highway. Both Bruce Forrester in Birding Brazil and a more recent article in Neotropical Birding assert that you can see every bird species in the Pantanal from the Transpantaneira Highway itself, or just off it while birding on foot, including the Agami Heron, Matto Grosso Antbird, and Hyacinth Macaw. While I didn’t spend a lot of time birding along the side of the road myself, I did see a wide variety of species from the driver’s seat of our Volkswagen Gol, including the Hyacinth Macaw, Scarlet-Headed Blackbird, Great-Horned Owl, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Jabiru, Great Potoo, Rusty-Collared Seedeater, and Great Rufous Woodcreeper. The highway is a dead end road with little to no traffic, about 150 km in length, with nearly the same number of rickety wooden bridges. You’ll have no problem with a basic rental car during the dry season, but they say it’s no dice during the rains.
After a few hours’ sleep on Thursday night at Hotel Skala in the end-of-the-road town that is Poconé, Aimee and I hit the road before dawn, hoping to cross through the entrance gate to the Transpantaneira Highway at first light. Passing by several cattle ranches and open fields, I finally stopped the car on a wooden bridge overlooking a small pool of standing water. Shaking Aimee awake, I got out of the car and looked down below, where scores of caiman were strewn about, almost all over two meters in length. Along the edges of the pool a variety of waders milled about, including Capped Heron, Green Ibis, and Gray-Necked Woodrail. The concentration of wildlife was stunning; Aimee was particularly baffled by the close proximity of the capybara to the threatening jaws of the alligators. Although it was still too dark for photography, I wouldn’t have been able to use my telephoto lens anyway, as the Rufescent Tiger Heron was perched so close to the car. We had finally arrived in the Pantanal.
We had to make it to the end of the road by 10am, when our boat driver was scheduled to pick us up, so I felt a bit conflicted as I raced past so much bird activity along the side of the road, stopping only for Black-Collared Hawk, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, and Sunbittern. Once Aimee woke up though, I felt compelled to share a few goodies with her, including Plumbeous Ibis, Southern Screamer, and White-Headed Marsh-Tyrant. We also spotted our first pair of Hyacinth Macaw high in a roadside tree; a couple was preening each other in the early light, what was almost surely a mating pair for life, Aimee remarked. The first drive down the Transpantaneira Highway is truly a memorable experience; I advise that you plan your trip so that you begin the journey at dawn and have at least 4-6 hours to reach your destination (you could spend an entire day birding the full stretch, continuing into the night for owls, nightjars, and mammals).
An astounding number of birds were on the road itself, including Chaco Chachalaca, Bare-Faced Curassow, and Gray-Necked Woodrail, and different raptors and kingfishers were perched on nearly every fence post and bridge. Finally, we reached Campos do Jofre, an open stretch of fields towards the end of the highway (remarkably the road itself passes straight through a considerable amount of deciduous woodland as it transitions from Cerrado to wetlands habitat). At a small clump of trees next to an abandoned building, we encountered a large group of photographers along with bird guide Fabiano Oliveira, whom we crossed paths with at Cristalino Lodge earlier this year. As we stopped to chat for a minute, he pointed out a roosting Great-Horned Owl and shared that they had just come back from a wildlife experience out of Porto Jofre similar to that upon which we were about to embark. I learned they had seen “major jaguars,” and my pulse started to quicken with expectation.
Within an hour Aimee and I had parked the rental car, traveled up the Rio Cuiabá, and were ogling our first jaguar, a lazy male that stretched out on the beach after surprising us by suddenly emerging from the forest, just as we were trained in on a pair of King Vultures drinking at the water’s edge. Unabashed by our presence, just ten meter’s away in the boat, the jaguar calmly cleaned its fur with its tongue and laid its head back on the sand for a nap, exposing a radio transmitter collar. Wait a second, I thought. What the hell is going on here? Far from tracking the jaguar though, our boat driver had simply heard from several fellows at Porto Jofre that a jaguar had been seen at this particular beach along the river a few hours ago. He had no special equipment for tracking the jaguar, although he explained that a research team stationed at a cattle ranch nearby had recently collared it. Clearly, it was annoyed with the contraption as it shook its head repeatedly, but fatigue can be overwhelming, and it soon fell fast asleep. Let’s go find you some other jaguars without collars, João our silent and stalwart boat driver suggested.
We came up empty after five more hours of jaguar searching, but the birding was terrific, and João soon caught on that we just as happy watching feathered creatures as well as hairy ones. Highlights included the elegant Pied Lapwings standing sentinel at the water’s edge, a solitary Sunbitterns feasting on brilliant yellow and green butterflies, and hoards of kingfishers waiting expectantly for prey, including the inconspicuous American Pygmy Kingfishers. The sunset flamed out spectacularly as we returned for the night to the Flotel, our floating hotel riverboat accommodation, which was more than adequate considering the circumstances. In fact, the food that night was delicious, as the chef barbecued on the rooftop, and we all ate outside, watching the Band-Tailed Nighthawks dart just over the water’s surface to feed on mosquitos, we hoped. Running on generators 24 hours a day and offering air-conditioned if tiny cabins, the Flotel initially struck me as an environmental disaster. What’s the alternative, though – a road running through pristine gallery forest way out into the swamp? At the point, the tourists are going to come, so at least the Flotel was having only a seasonal and temporary impact.
Although we were the only guests, the owner promised to send two other boats out with us in the morning as we searched for jaguars. All would be connected by radio, and should one encounter a jaguar, we could be on the scene in a few minutes. The technique proved effective shortly after we made a short stop along a quiet tributary, where we picked up Sungrebe, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Rusty-Backed Spinetail, and Orange-Backed Troupial. Racing up another tributary in the Tres Irmãos region, we were soon face to face with a huge male jaguar breathing heavily in the shade. While it moved off quickly, we found its mate on the facing bank pacing restlessly upstream in and out of dense vegetation. It’s always a difficult decision whether to shoot photographs or simply watch in amazement, but my commitment paid off this time as I captured some fine images of the jaguar in motion and out in the open. Pumped with adrenaline, we continued on until I spotted the same male farther up stream, again resting in the shade just a few meters’ from the river. To finally locate a jaguar yourself after many long hours of scanning the vegetation along the riverbank is a real shock, but I’m sure my voice was dripping with pride as I called it out: “Jaguar!”
The four-hour afternoon boat ride passed relatively without incident, but João got the bright idea to take us far up the Rio Piquiri to an old cattle ranch with dozens of resident Hyacinth Macaws. Here we also found Jabiru, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Baywing, and White-Eyed Parakeet. I was getting a little antsy though, as we had glutted ourselves on jaguars and were now ready on to the more serious birding part of the trip. It was already late afternoon and we still had a two-hours’ drive back to Southwild Pantanal, but I was hoping to bird the reed beds at Campo Jofre before dark. We arrived in the area an hour before sunset, just as bird activity was rebounding from a long hot afternoon. A pair of Scarlet-Headed Blackbirds responded nicely to playback while I scanned fruitlessly for a Subtropical Doradito. A group of Chotoy Spinetails was easily agitated, and Aimee and I marveled at several richly patterned male Rufous-Collared Seedeaters along the road. Finally, we arrived at the small patch of trees surrounding the abandoned building, ticking Great Horned Owl, Gray-Crested Cachalote, and Greater Thornbird.
The rest of the drive back yielded Little Nightjar, another Great Horned Owl, an adult Great Potoo with chick, and yet another jaguar. What can I say? Take your spotlight and do a few night drives in your rental car, regardless of how tired you feel after dinner. It’s really the great wildlife spectacle of South America. After blubbering to Fabiano and his group who were now staying at Southwild, we bolted a quick dinner and went to bed, ready to bird the gallery forest trail network in the morning. I opened the door to our room the next morning to a hundred birds at the rice flour feeder, including Yellow-Billed and Red-Crested Cardinals, Baywing, Purplish Jay, and Solitary Cacique. In a neighboring field, a lone bare tree harbored a massive clump of twigs and sticks at the top, serving dual purpose as both a Jabiru and Monk Parakeet nest. I noted the Crab-Eating Fox footprints near the car, where I had seen it the previous night before I turned in. The other guests followed shortly after me, all expressing the same stupid amazement at their surroundings.
Given the high density of jaguars in the area, we were accompanied by one of the lodge employees during our morning’s exploration of the gallery forest trail network. While he wielded a machete, I suppose we benefited more from simply having his company – greater strength in numbers and all. Another set of eyes also proved useful as we located Green-Backed Becard, Pearly and Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycatchers, Matto Gross Antbird, White-Lored Spinetail, Large-Headed Antwren, and Ashy-Headed Greenlet. While I was unable to get my binoculars on a pair of calling White-Eyed Attila, I did succeed in getting over a hundred chigger bites on my feet and ankles thanks to my short off-trail adventure in running shoes. My advice is not to mess around in the dry season in Mato Grosso: when stomping around in the bush, always wear rubber boots, or the chemical equivalent of a physical barrier. My feet started madly itching in the afternoon, and I obstinately resolved to actually see a White-Eyed Attila or die trying. No chigger was going to ruin my trip to the Pantanal.
After a later morning stroll in the opposite direction to see the Great Potoo roost, we took yet another long boat ride in the afternoon, although I was already thinking that we didn’t have much left to see really besides Agami Heron, which had only been reported once in the area this season (last year the Agami Heron photographs coming out of Southwild were incredible, and missing it came at considerable disappointment, although I’ve seen them up close before in the Amazon). Green Ibis, Boat-Billed Heron, Sunbittern, and Turqouise-Fronted Amazon were highlights, but the excursion’s success was sealed at the end by a half-dozen Nacunda Nighthawks that swooped gracefully out over the water at dusk. Unusually large and patterned white, they were joined over the water by swarms of Band-Tailed Nighthawks once we reached the pousada. It’s become something of a tradition at Southwild to drink a caiparinha in the evening while watching the last two birds of the day, but I reasoned I could have two beers instead for the price.
Our last day in the Pantanal dawned with a small handful of target birds remaining, including the Pale-Crested Woodpecker, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, White-Eyed Attila, and, of course, Agami Heron. While these are predominantly gallery forest species best searched for by land, the manager at the lodge nearly insisted that we take another boat ride. Considering the intolerable itching sensation I received at each step in my rubber boots, I acquiesced, and we spent the next two hours enjoying the early morning activity along the river bank for the last time. Nothing new was noted, until I cranked my head back far to the right as we flew by a dead-end at high speed. Standing in the hyacinth was a massive Brazilian Tapir, calmly drinking from the stagnant water. Backing up, we then approached carefully in the boat, as the tapir continued to quench its thirst unperturbed. I suspect it doesn’t have very good eyesight, as it sniffed suspiciously at the wind to ascertain our presence just ten meters’ downwind. Finally, it paced off into the bush, a gentle giant whose sheer size might be its most effect measure of defense from predators.
With a few hours left before our departure back to Cuiabá, we struck out into the forest again, picking up a female Cream-Colored Woodpecker in response to the Blond-Crested Woodpecker’s call, which we used to attract yet another Celeus species, the regionally endemic Pale-Crested Woodpecker. A pair of White-Eyed Attilas came in eventually to playback, affording excellent views of a species much more often heard than seen. Stopping again to visit briefly with the mating pair of Green-Backed Becards near the entrance of the trail, we returned to the lodge to pack and have lunch before we left. Our final target along the Transpantaneira was the Great Rufous Woodcreeper, which we had heard can be found in a few matures trees in a clearing not far from the entrance gate. Indeed, a brief burst of woodcreeper song brought a pair into a nearby mango tree, affording good looks but no photographs. Not to sound blasphemous, but the woodcreeper wasn’t nearly as large as I had imagined, being barely bigger than a Strong-Billed Woodcreeper. The Long-Billed Woodcreeper is far more spectacular, if you’re considering which species is the standout in the family.
Reflecting on the trip over a few beers in the airport, between panicked bouts of scratching at my feet and ankles, I was greatly pleased with how productive it had been. Granted we didn’t do too much hardcore birding, but we still racked up a nice trip list and were rewarded for our effort and expenditure with stellar views of the region’s star mammals. I’ll definitely return next dry season, probably to a lower budget lodge along the Transpantaneira, such as Pousa Alegre, skipping the jaguar expense next time while focusing instead on birding gallery forest on foot. Our biggest miss was definitely the Agami Heron, but Yellow-Collared Macaw, Pale-Crested Woodpecker, and White-Naped Xenopsaris were also disspointments. I did get good looks at a few relatively difficult birds though, including Buff-Bellied Hermit, Great Potoo, and Sungrebe, and was able to gorge myself on incredible bird photography opportunities, as I hope a few of these photos demonstrate. The Pantanal simply cannot disappoint.
Notable birds seen: Greater Rhea, Capped Heron, Boat-Billed Heron, Plumbeous Ibis, Green Ibis, Bare-Faced Ibis, Maguari Stork, Jabiru, King Vulture, Southern Screamer, Snail Kite, Crane Hawk, Black-Collared Hawk, Zone-Tailed Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Osprey, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Common Piping Guan, Bare-Faced Curassow, Gray-Necked Woodrail, Sungrebe, Sunbittern, Pied Lapwing, Spotted Sandpiper, Large-Billed Tern, Yellow-Billed Tern, Hyacinth Macaw, Red-Shouldered Macaw, Monk Parakeet, Black-Capped Parakeet, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Greater Ani, Great-Horned Owl, Great Potoo, Band-Tailed Nighthawk, Nacunda Nighthawk, Little Nightjar, Buff-Bellied Hermit, Blue-Crowned Trogon, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Cream-Colored Woodpecker, Little Woodpecker, Great Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Large-Billed Antwren, Mato Grosso Antbird, Pale-Legged Hornero, White-Lored Spinetail, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Rusty-Backed Spinetail, Greater Thornbird, Gray-Crested Cachalote, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, Red-Billed Scythebill, Pearly-Vented Tody-Flycatcher, Rusty-Fronted Tody-Flycatcher, Fuscous Flycatcher, Black-Backed Water-Tyrant, White-Headed Marsh-Tyrant, Rufous Casiornis, White-Eyed Attila, Green-Backed Becard, Black-Capped Donacobius, Ashy-Headed Greenlet, Rusty-Collared Seedeater, Red-Crested Cardinal, Yellow-Billed Cardinal, Solitary Cacique, Orange-Backed Troupial, Scarlet-Headed Blackbird, Unicolored Blackbird, Baywing.