Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul: May 29-31, 2013

Bonito is a tourist town located in the Southern Pantanal famous for its fresh water diving. As water filters down through the limestone cliffs and bedrock of the nearby Serra da Bodoquena National Park, it becomes impossibly clear and strikingly blue on a sunny day, and the streams and rivers team with unique aquatic life adapted to the calcium rich environment. While snorkeling remains the primary activity, birding here also offers a terrific mix of Cerrado and Pantanal species, including a few regional specialties such as Blaze-Winged Parakeet. Although this wasn’t a hardcore birding trip, I made sure to keep my eyes and ears open as we participated in some of the highly regulated tours, and on our final day I also hired a private guide to help us track down the bizarre Giant Anteater.

As we visited Bonito immediately after a trip to the Northern Pantanal, flying to Campo Grande from Cuiabá, it would have made more logistical sense to have stayed at a lodge in the Southern Pantanal instead, but I couldn’t find a pousada that struck the right balance between cost and wildlife potential (Embiara looked like the best option but we wouldn’t be able to reach it without hiring private 4x4 transportation). Plus, the thrill of driving and birding the Transpantaneira Highway for the second time was too much to resist. Regardless of sense, we rented a car in Campo Grande and made the relaxing and beautiful five-hour drive to Bonito without incident (I wouldn’t recommend visiting Bonito without renting a car as none of the tours include transport and most of the sites are 20-40 km away).

Arriving in the early afternoon, we quickly organized a tour to Rio Sucuri, one of the top snorkeling excursions in Bonito. With the onset of a holiday weekend, most of the best tours were already booked, and we had to take advantage of any vacancies (given the fragile nature of the environment, tourism is strictly controlled, with limits on the number of daily visitors to each site). Amazingly, we were the last visitors of the day and had the river all to ourselves. The boarding deciduous forest was full of birds: a pair of Pale-Crested Woodpeckers appeared at arm’s length as we were getting in the water, a Hyacinth Macaw flew overhead as we drifted downriver, and Orange-Backed Troupials sang from the treetops. I even heard a pair of Henna-Capped, or Chestnut-Capped, Foliage-Gleaners rattling away from the undergrowth.

After booking some rooms at a pousada located on top of a forested hill outside the center of town, we headed back down for dinner, enjoying a rodizio de peixe, which is a free-for-all fresh-water fish buffet. Nacunda Nighthawks hawked insects in the street lights overhead as we walked the town and eyed the cachaça bars. No thanks, I demurred, and returned to the pousada for a good night’s sleep. We discovered the next morning that Pousada Chalé do Bosque offers a lovely breakfast, complete with well attended bird feeders. Plush-Crested and Purplish Jays and Yellow-Chevroned and Peach-Fronted Parakeets were in attendance, and the owners promised more species if we stuck around a bit longer.

We had set up another two excursions for the day, including another drift snorkel on a different river and a visit to Buraco das Araras, a massive sinkhole that is a roosting site for Red-and-Green Macaws. We decided to make a brief stop first at the Balnéario Municipal, one of the only sites you can visit without booking a tour at a travel agency. After taking a quick dip and having a snack, we had to move on, only Aimee broke off the end of the key to the rental car as we were getting in. It took a few hours, and a few caiparinhas, to resolve the problem, but we still had enough time left to make it to Buraco das Araras before sunset, where over thirty spectacular macaws were swirling about in seeming delight.

The roads radiating out from Bonito pass through endless fields of termite mounds, and it’s not unusual to see a Giant Anteater lumbering about while on your way to one of the tour sites. Charles Munn from Southwild Pantanal had put me in touch with Marcos Augusto, a wildlife guide in Bonito who is adept in locating anteaters. Aimee was desperate to see one, the last of the Brazilian Big Five for her, which also includes Jaguar, Maned Wolf, Giant River Otter, and Brazilian Tapir. Although Marcos was busy the following day, his colleague Vitinho wasn’t, and he promised to get us on an anteater before taking us out to a few birding sites. Vitinho himself is a hardcore birder with many years of experience leading tours in the Southern Pantanal. Although we didn’t find an anteater before our friend Jen had to leave to catch a flight to Rio de Janeiro, we definitely had a successful day under his direction.

Aimee couldn’t have had a better sighting of the Giant Anteater, as were able to approach one from downwind within a distance of several meters (they have both poor hearing and eyesight, which are compensated for by an acute sense of smell). Although we only had a brief flyover of the Blaze-Winged Parakeet, we found a couple of good bird species in some deciduous forest along the edge of the Serra da Bodoquena National Park, including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Planalto Woodcreeper, Pearly-Vented Tody-Tyrant, and King Vulture. In the afternoon, Vitinho took us to a wide expanse of campo limpo, where we found Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Lesser Grassfinch, and Spectacled Tyrant, all three being grassland goodies. The day ended dramatically with an encounter with a Brazilian Tapir along the entrance road, illuminated momentarily in the headlights of our car.

Notable birds seen: Red-Legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Chaco Chachalaca, King Vulture, White-Tailed Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Red-and-Green Macaw, Blue-Winged Macaw, Yellow-Faced Parrot, Peach-Fronted Parakeet, Orange-Winged Amazon, Turquoise-Fronted Amazon, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Nacunda Nighthawk, Gilded Hummingbird, Blue-Crowned Trogon, Pale-Crested Woodpecker, Green-Barred Woodpecker, Toco Toucan, Narrow-Billed Woodcreeper, Planalto Woodcreeper, Pearly-Vented Tody-Tyrant, Streamer-Tailed Tyrant, Spectacled Tyrant, Cock-Tailed Tyrant, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Purplish Jay, Plush-Crested Jay, Purple-Throated Euphonia, Black-Goggled Tanager, White-Lined Tanager, Rusty-Collared Seedeater, Lesser Grassfinch, Wedge-Tailed Grassfinch, Grassland Yellowfinch, Screaming Cowbird, Yellow-Rumped Marshbird, Orange-Backed Troupial, Red-Rumped Cacique.

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