Pantanal, Mato Grosso: May 25-28, 2013

Our previous trip to the Pantanal, at the dusty end of the dry season last year, was an epic visual feast of birds and mammals, including three Jaguar sightings in one day.  But lost among the dense concentrations of wildlife at the few remaining pools and streams was a handful of relatively easy ticks, including regional bird specialties such as the Cinereous Spinetail, Fawn-Breasted Wren, and Blue-Crowned Parakeet.  And as spectacular and productive as our first trip was, we still dipped on the secretive Agami Heron, a bird that’s alone worth many long hours of searching.  Making a near repeat journey down the Transpantaneira Highway in the Northern Pantanal, we set off near the beginning of the dry season this time when the many marshes and cow pastures are still brimming with water. 

A few months’ difference proved significant in a number of ways.  While the road had already been regraded and was in good condition, the region was still devoid of ecotourists and we saw nary another foreign tourist while we were there.  Interestingly enough, they are replaced by local fisherman when the rivers are running high.  So, instead of birders, there were local boys with bamboo rods fishing from the bridges, and instead of running jaguar excursions from Porto Jofre at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway, they were shuttling wealthy sport fisherman from Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, up and down the river.  The amount of insects was another significant difference.  As every tropical nature enthusiast understands, with the wet season comes the mosquitoes, and we were immediately bombarded anytime we opened our car windows along the road, clouds of mosquitos swarming our ankles and or condensing on the interior roof of the car.

Our friend Jen was in town with high hopes of seeing some of the same wildlife from our previous trip, including Jaguar, Brazilian Tapir, and Giant River Otter, so we took a week off from work and scheduled a stay at Southwild Pantanal, booking a full day jaguar excursion from Porto Jofre for her.  Aimee couldn’t resist another outing either, so I ended up spending the better part of a day searching the roadside scrub and forest for the few bird species I had missed on the previous trip.  I also wanted to visit another lodge, stopping at Pouso Alegre on our first night, having heard of a pair of resident Great Rufous Woodcreepers in the trees around the pousada.  Flying in from Brasilia on a Saturday morning, we rented a compact car in Cuiabá and a few hours later were enjoying a magnificent pair of Scarlet-Headed Blackbirds along the roadside while the mosquitoes were enjoying us.  Sure, you can do the Pantanal with a tour group or a guide, but it’s a remarkably accessible and easy site to explore on your own.

I stumbled out of our room at Pouso Alegre the next morning right onto a pair of Great Rufous Woodcreepers, one of which was on the ground probing around in a huge pile of dung with its long and heavy bill.  Dozens of Hyacinth Macaws were screeching from several treetops and swooping around low to the ground with their tail feathers fanned for stability.  A pair of Chestnut-Bellied Guans, now the most threatened bird found in the Pantanal, were also poking around in the grass near other domesticated animals.  Pouso Alegre definitely feels like more of an active cattle ranch than Southwild Pantanal, and there is no forest or river that is immediately accessible; however, there are still plenty of birds around, and another hour of searching yielded White Woodpecker, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, and Blue-Crowned Parakeet, among others.

We had planned a boat excursion on the Rio Claro that morning and headed off to the pousada of the same name shortly after breakfast.  The entrance road to Pouso Alegre is a great spot for wildlife, passing through 7km of forest, marsh, and pasture.  Large numbers of caiman and Capybara littered the road, and several times we nearly had to nudge them with the car in order to pass.  Huge groups of wading birds, including Roseate Spoonbill, massed together in flooded fields by the hundreds, while a constant stream of parrots flew noisily overhead.  We had taken a spotlight with us along this road the night before, missing Brazilian Tapir but finding Crab-Eating Fox and Raccoon and White-Lipped Peccary.  I’ve found that the best kind of spotlight to use in the Pantanal is the type that connects directly to the car battery, which you can use to scan the adjacent fields as you drive slowly down a road.  Luiz, the owner of Pouso Alegre, had generously loaned us his for the night after my rechargeable spotlight gave up the ghost.

The access road to Pousada Rio Claro also looked great for birding, passing through several sections of deciduous forest, where we encountered Rusty-Backed Antwren, Red Pileated Finch, and Black-Fronted Nunbird without getting out of the car.  The pousada was a bit buggy as it’s so close to the river, but we were soon in the boat and out on the open water.  We were hoping to find some Giant River Otters, but had to satisfy ourselves with lots of birds, the most interesting of which were some Wattled Jacana chicks that were striding awkwardly about the hyacinth.  After our boatman misidentified a juvenile Rufescent Tiger Heron as a Pinnated Bittern, I took over guiding duties, pointing out Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Great Antshrike, Pale-Legged Hornero, and four of five kingfisher species (strangely, I didn’t see a Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher on the entire trip).  Eventually, we got out of the boat and ascended a giant canopy tower, which afforded commanding views of the area but nothing new in terms of wildlife.  We finished off the excursion by walking back to the pousada.

After lunch at Pouso Alegre, we moved along down the Transpataneira Highway towards Southwild Pantanal, or Fazenda Santa Tereza (most pousadas are converted cattle ranches and are recognized locally by several different names).  Just a hundred meters from the pousada, we were confronted with an impassible stretch of mud.  Instead of parking here and wading across, the manager sent us back to the highway, and we left our car at a roadside hotel, arriving at the pousada by boat instead.  As it was getting late in the afternoon, we kept exploring the Pixiam River, which was nearly overflowing.  Since there was no exposed river bank or beach, the chances of spotting jaguar or tapir here were slim, and my spirits dropped a bit when I realized that I probably wouldn’t be seeing an Agami Heron either.  Still, being on the river was delightful, and I perked up considerably towards sunset when a pair of Golden-Collared Macaws swooped into some trees right along the river, a lifer and likely the bird of the day for me.

That night we finally had the chance to meet Charles Munn, ornithologist, conservationist, and owner of Southwild Pantanal.  I sat back in wonder while he regaled us with stories from the Peruvian Amazon, where he did his field research on mixed flocks in the 1970s rubbing elbows with the legendary Ted Parker among others. By far the most complex and elaborate example of interspecies cooperation in the animal kingdom, mixed species flocks are almost impossibly complex, sometimes involving several hundred individuals and over sixty species.  Among other things, Charles investigated the roles and relationships of different birds within these flocks, determining that certain species function as sentinels, warning the rest of the flock of predators while the others forage.  To simulate an attack of a forest falcon, he would launch Frisbees and other objects through the flock and gauge the reaction, determining that certain species of shrike-tanagers and antshrikes would sound the alarm.  He also noted that the same species would occasionally give false alarms when chasing prey that another bird had flushed out.

Hearing this, I started to get a bit nostalgic thinking about birding in Amazonia, especially considering what a breeze it is to bird the Pantanal. Despite living in Brazil, it’s been over a year since I last visited the Amazon, having focused my efforts on the Cerrado of Central Brazil and the Atlantic Forest. I’ve done a fair amount of birding in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon already and did spend several weeks in the northern Amazon outside of Manaus before starting work.  I made the pilgrimage to Cristalino Lodge in the Southern Amazon and even executed a random trip to Western Amazonia, visiting several little visited sites in the states of Rondonia and Acre. As always, birding is a question of access: where a trip to the Amazon can be costly and complicated wherever you’re based, a trip to the Pantanal is as easy as a short weekend getaway, especially living in Brasilia.

On the following day, I was able to do some birding on my own, leaving Aimee and Jen at Porto Jofre, while they spent the day trolling the riverbanks in search of Jaguars.  My plans was to focus first on the open marshes and fields of Campo Jofre, where I hoped to find a few new seedeater species, including Dark-Throated Seedeater, and then to bird an adjacent patch of forest to look for Pale-Crested Woodpecker and Fawn-Breasted Wren, among others.  It was blazing hot by 9am when I arrived, but the roadside scrub was still full of birds, including Rusty-Fronted and Pearly-Vented Tody-Tyrants, as well as White-Bellied, Plumbeous, Double-Collared, and Rusty-Collared Seedeaters.  Scarlet-Headed Blackbird responded nicely to playback, although it took ten minutes for a male to traverse several kilometers of marsh in fits and starts (according to the field guide they maintain large territories).  I also picked up Cinereous, White-Lored, and Chotoy Spinetails, as well as Greater Thornbird and Gray-Crested Cacholote.  My most interesting find here, however, was a Subtropical Doradito (only the Crested Doradito is in the regional field guide, but I’m nearly certain of the identification).

Towards midday I drove further back along the road to find some shade. Without a specific destination in mind, I felt a bit aimless, looking for an appropriate side road to explore on foot. Up ahead I saw a small mammal staggering around in the heat, slipping into a bush as I passed by in the car. I parked in the shade and stood on the roof, hoping to catch a glimpse of it as it continued into the forest.  Instead, it reentered the road and headed in the opposite direction, its spotted hide looking very much like a Jaguar’s. Strangely, it was less than half the size, meaning I was observing either a lost baby Jaguar or an Ocelot, the latter being more likely. It crossed the road a few times, looking as if it were stalking prey, and I was able to photograph it from a distance before it stole off into the forest for good. Pleased by this unexpected success, I hoped Aimee and Jen had already experienced a few of their own. Eventually, I did find an appropriate place to bird some humid forest, and within minutes had called a pair of Fawn-Breasted Wrens from out of the gloom.

Heading back towards Porto Jofre, I stopped again to search for waders in the marsh, hoping for White-Faced Ibis.  In the road I encountered a pair of Pied Plovers and stopped on several bridges to watch the many kingfishers eye the water below. While crossing one bridge in particular, I noticed out of the corner of my eye what I assumed to be a caiman that was swimming away.  A quick glance in my binoculars revealed a Jaguar doing a dignified dog paddle with its head just above the water.  I dropped the binoculars and picked up the camera to record the moment, which would have been hard for even me to believe later without photographic evidence. Waiting around for them at the river bank for a few hours, I first birded the riverine forest, picking up more Fawn-Breasted Wrens and an obliging Great Antshrike, and then had a few beers while watching the Band-Tailed Nighthawks over the river at dusk.  As it turns out, Aimee and Jen saw very little their trip, not even a Pied Plover, much less a Jaguar, no doubt because the river was still so high.

The following morning I did some relaxed birding around the pousada at Southwild Pantanal.  They maintain a few bird feeders that are popular with Saffron Finch, Baywing, Yellow-Billed Cardinal, Purplish Jay, and various pigeons.  There’s a famous Jabiru Stork nest nearby, complete with its own canopy tower from which you can peer down into the nest.  While the forest nearby was still inaccessible due to flooding, the surrounding fields were populated with some charismatic birds, including Black-Capped Donacobius, Plumbeous Ibis, and Jabiru. In addition, I found what I’m pretty confident was a Tawny-Billed Seedeater, my first and only new seedeater lifer on the trip.  Just before lunch, as I was approaching the pousada I found an unusual looking bird perched momentarily on the back fence that I immediately recognized as a female Spectacled Tyrant.  Like White-Banded Mockingbird and Vermillion Tyrant, this species is another austral migrant, although it’s recorded only rarely in the region (my photograph on Wiki Aves is the first record for Mato Grosso).

After lunch we began the journey back to Cuiabá. Since we weren’t leaving for Campo Grande until the following day, we could afford to take our time, stopping to bird several times and even stopping for beers at a roadside bar along the Transpantaneira Highway. One flooded field in particular was simply full of birds: Black-Bellied Whistling and White-Faced Duck, White-Backed Stilt, and Pied Plover.  When a truck drove down the road towards the adjacent farmhouse, nearly a hundred Nacunda Nighthawks flushed into the air from the few patches of dry ground where we had overlooked them. With their spectacularly long wings, the nighthawks whirled around the field nervously, taking nearly five minutes to settle down again. We made a few more stops along the way without seeing anything nearly as impressive: a large group of Greater Rhea, a few Roseate Spoonbills, and a lone Little Blue Herons. Happily, we were on our way to another destination, this time to Bonito near the Southern Pantanal.

Notable birds seen: Greater Rhea, Chaco Chachalaca, Chestnut-Bellied Guan, Common Piping Guan, Bare-Faced Curassow, Southern Screamer, White-Faced Duck, Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Brazilian Teal, Black-Crowned Night Heron, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Little Blue Heron, Capped Heron, Cocoi Heron, Buff-Necked Ibis, Plumbeous Ibis, Green Ibis, Bare-Faced Ibis, Limpkin, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Maguari Stork, Jabiru, Snail Kite, Savanna Hawk, Black-Collared Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Gray-Necked Wood Rail, Purple Gallinule, Sungrebe, Wattled Jacana, Pied Plover, White-Backed Stilt, Large-Billed Tern, Hyacinth Macaw, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Golden-Collared Macaw, Blue-Crowned Parakeet, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Monk Parakeet, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Little Cuckoo, Striped Cuckoo, Band-Tailed Nighthawk, Nacunda Nighthawk, Pauraque, Buff-Bellied Hermit, Gilded Sapphire, White-Tailed Goldenthroat, Ringed Kingfisher, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Black-Fronted Nunbird, Chestnut-Eared Aracari, Toco Toucan, Little Woodpecker, White Woodpecker, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Pale-Legged Hornero, Gray-Crested Cacholote, Cinereous Spinetail, Chotoy Spinetail, White-Lored Spinetail, Rusty-Backed Spinetail, Yellow-Chinned Spinetail, Greater Thornbird, Great Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, Rusty-Backed Antwren, White-Crested Tyrannulet, Subtropical Doradito, Pearly-Vented Tody-Tyrant, Common Tody Flycatcher, Rusty-Fronted Tody-Tyrant, Vermillion Flycatcher, White-Rumped Monjita, Gray Monjita, Spectacled Tyrant, Black-Backed Water-Tyrant, White-Headed Marsh-Tyrant, Rusty-Margined Flycatcher, Purplish Jay, White-Winged Swallow, White-Banded Mockingbird, Black-Capped Donacobius, Buff-Breasted Wren, Fawn-Breasted Wren, Moustached Wren, Thrush-Like Wren, Southern Yellowthroat, Flavescent Warbler, Yellow-Billed Cardinal, Red-Crested Cardinal, Grayish Saltator, Rusty-Collared Seedeater, Double-Collared Seedeater, White-Bellied Seedeater, Tawny-Bellied Seedeater, Red-Pileated Finch, Baywing, Giant Cowbird, Unicolored Blackbird, Scarlet-Headed Blackbird, Orange-Backed Troupial, Epaulet Oriole, Solitary Cacique, Yellow-Rumped Cacique, Crested Oropendola.

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