The world’s largest tropical wetland offers a host of exotic wildlife for the birdwatcher to enjoy
The Pantanal wetlands offer visitors a wealth of great birding opportunities
FOR ANYONE WITH a love of wetlands, thoughts naturally turn to the marshes of East Anglia, the success story of the Somerset Levels or the wide, featureless estuaries that are such a feature of Britain’s coastline. In the depths of winter, they can be harsh and uncomfortable places, yet their flocks of wildfowl and waders are irresistible to birdwatchers. Tropical wetlands could not be more different and one in particular, hardly known to birders just 30 years ago, has a well-deserved reputation as a wildlife hotspot.
The Pantanal, in the centre of South America, straddles three countries, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay and is the world’s largest tropical wetland. With an area close to 200,000 square kilometres, the Pantanal, which is a shallow, lowland basin, owes its existence to water run-off from the surrounding Cerrado (savanna). Up to 59 inches of rain falls on the Pantanal during the rainy season, which stretches from November to March, and is augmented by the overflow from rivers such as the Cuiabá, Paraguay, Piquiri and Taquari. In the dry half of the year, these floods gradually recede, eventually leaving isolated pockets of water that concentrate waterbirds in a frenzy of feeding flocks.
Access to the Pantanal is limited, but the Transpantaneira, a 145km raised dirt road striking south from the somewhat dishevelled town of Poconé to the fishing village of Porto Jofre on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, offers a remarkable gateway into this scarcely inhabited region. From the moment one drives onto the Transpantaneira (best from the middle to the end of the dry season) wildlife is abundant. The first few kilometres pass through the edge of the Cerrado, so grassland birds predominate. Here is the place to scan for the impressive Red-legged Seriema, South America’s ecological equivalent of Southern Africa’s Secretarybird.
As likely as not the first Great Rheas, the continent’s largest bird, will be found although, despite their huge size and communal habits, they can be far from obvious as they graze quietly in the distance. Look out now for hummingbirds visiting flowering trees as they become increasingly difficult to find once in the wetlands proper. The large, aptly-named Swallow-tailed Hummingbird is not to be missed. Dark blue-violet and metallic green with a deeply forked tail, this rather bulky hummingbird is unmistakable. Four large flycatchers, namely, Great and Lesser Kiskadees and Boat-billed and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, all with yellow underparts, rufousbrown upperparts and strikingly black and white striped heads, are an early identification challenge that unravels with familiarity. A huge wooden portal announcing the Transpantaneira is an approximate marker in the dry season for the beginning of the wetlands. It is not unusual for a gang of Guira Cuckoos to be loitering here. They are conspicuous birds that give the impression they are up to no good. Another cuckoo, the Smooth-billed Ani, all black with a Roman nose for a bill, is regularly here, too. Even more special are the several Chestnut-bellied Guan, vulnerable, ground-loving birds attracted out of the woodlands by grain strewn on the ground around the wardens’ office. Roadside channels soon produce Snowy and Great Egrets and Striated, Cocoi and Rufous Tiger Herons along with Limpkins and Bare-faced, Green and Plumbeous Ibises. Fence posts are favoured perches of the ubiquitous Snail Kite and, while not quite as numerous, Savanna and Black-collared Hawks are regularly encountered. Just a few kilometres on is the first large expanse of flooded grassland and it is a supermarket for the herons, storks and ibises that congregate in heart-stopping numbers. The sheer size of the mighty Jabirus stands them apart in the melée of Great and Snowy Egrets. Roseate Spoonbills add a splash of brilliant colour to the predominantly white gathering. Kingfishers make a delightful addition to the avifauna of any wetland and, unsurprisingly, the Pantanal is graced with five species, two of which, Ringed and Amazon, are especially obvious. Quartering any stretch of open wetland, sizeable Large-billed Terns perform dramatic dives that enjoy a high success rate in the shrinking waters. Bright yellow bills and an upperparts pattern reminiscent of Sabine’s Gull ensure they are among the most striking terns.
It is hard to leave this birding paradise but, not far beyond, a track to the right leads to the Hotel Pouso Alegre. This track is
The tangles of lianas and mangrove at the rivers’ edge are good places to look for Boat-billed Herons and the curious Sungrebe
favoured as a thoroughfare by mammals, especially towards dusk, when Brazilian Tapir and the extraordinary Giant Anteater are at large. The open parkland around the hotel is as good a place as any to see Hyacinth Macaws. Several pairs nest in holes in large old trees here and more come to roost. They begin to converse around 4am and, however tired you may be after a long and weary journey, you are immediately aware of them. Their volume is stuck on loud. Their persistent squawking is soon joined by the near-maniacal and equally loud caterwauling of Chaco Chachalacas and is enough to send any member of the Noise Abatement Society into apoplexy – and to get one out of bed. Hyacinth Macaws are simply magnificent and perhaps show at their best when in flight. They are impressively large birds, their size enhanced by a long, narrow tail. Their deep, languid wing-beats make them strong flyers and customarily they choose to fly just above tall tree-top height. They have suffered badly at the hands of the cage-bird trade, but a conservation programme is slowly bearing results while the local pantaneiros appreciate their importance as a tourist attraction. Along with the macaws and chachalacas, the grounds hold the localised White-headed Woodpecker, Chestnut-eared Araçari and a pair of Great Horned Owls, while from time to time the improbable Toco Toucan will fly in to feed in a fruiting tree. On the ground, several species of dove wander about in search of seeds, a habit that is duplicated by groups of Monk Parakeets. Rufous Horneros and the subtly colourful Cattle Tyrants strut purposefully, the latter approaching one’s feet to snap up disturbed insects. Early in the morning is the time to meet Bare-faced Curassows, a pair of which regularly venture out into the open as they take their first stroll of the day. The length of the Transpantaneira is a birding showcase. Wherever there is water there are birds and every swamp and pond is worth checking carefully. Wattled Jacanas defy logic by walking about on floating vegetation and, with luck, there may be a Purple Gallinule there or a Grey-necked Wood Rail scampering for cover. The strange but fascinating Sunbittern is far from rare, but it seldom gives itself up easily. Its intricately patterned plumage provides nearperfect camouflage in overgrown ditches and waterways and its movements are slow and deliberate, often statuesque. And then there are Southern Screamers in isolated pairs or family groups. They are large, heavy-looking birds with an appearance that combines goose and turkey. They are reluctant to fly but when they do there is something of a bustard about them. In due course the end of the Transpantaneira is reached at Porto Jofre on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá. The grounds of the Hotel Pantanal Norte offer spectacular views of Hyacinth Macaws and Toco Toucans, and attractive Buff-necked Ibises probing on the lawns all but ignore the hotel guests walking closely by.
Behind the hotel buildings a well-vegetated lake boasts Wattled Jacanas, White-backed Stilts, Southern Lapwing, a clutch of herons and ibises and the bright-eyed black-and-yellow-buff Black-capped Donacobius. The last is traditionally regarded as a wren, though its taxonomic history is chequered and, unsurprisingly, it has gained support for elevation to a monotypic family, the Donacobiidae. Once at Porto Jofre though, focus inevitably switches from the land and marshes to the river and Jaguars. The Rio Cuiabá and its tributaries within an hour’s boat ride of Porto Jofre are unquestionably the most reliable area in the world to see Jaguars. Here, their main prey are Capybara and Jacaré Caiman. When hunting, therefore, they must come to the river bank, so the best way to find them is from a boat. Amazingly, the Jaguars have become accustomed to boats and show no fear of them or their occupants, even when the inevitable armada forms before a cooperative individual. The largest in the Americas and the third largest cat in the world, the Jaguar has a wow-factor of 10 out of 10. Sadly, its range has contracted considerably and it is probably extinct in North America. Consequently, with continuing habitat loss and persecution it is considered Nearthreatened, moving towards Vulnerable. The rivers hold another iconic mammal – the Giant Otter. These are all-action creatures and do everything as if they have too few hours in a day.
One moment a head breaks the river surface, the next it has gone only to re-surface 10m away, maybe with a fish. They are delightful animals, made all the more endearing by their social behaviour and vocalisations. The gallery forest that lines the rivers is home to a different set of birds among which are the colourful Blue-crowned Trogon, Amazonian Motmot and Rufous-crowned Jacamar. The tangles of lianas and mangrove at the rivers’ edge are good places to look for Boat-billed Herons and the curious Sungrebe; while overhead, as anywhere in the Pantanal, vultures of three species, American Black, Lesser Yellow-headed and the occasional Turkey Vultures, will be soaring. On the return cruise to Porto Jofre, at the approach of dusk, the first nightjars and bats appear. Soon the bats, Greater Fishing Bats, are over the river in what can only be described as a swarm and it becomes difficult to pick out the Band-tailed Nighthawks among them. And so ends another day in the Pantanal – chock-full of birds and simply unforgettable.
If Ray’s article has inspired you to see the wildlife wonders of the Pantanal, you can join him on this exclusive Bird Watching/avian Adventures tour. It focuses entirely on the Pantanal, recently described as the best wildlife photography location in the world. As the world’s largest wetland, it is one of the most immense, pristine and biologically rich environments on the planet. Its flora and fauna are extraordinarily diverse and include highly sought-after bird species such as Hyacinth Macaw, Red-legged Seriema, Jabiru, Chestnutbellied Guan, Blue-crowned Trogon, Crimsoncrested Woodpecker, Purple-throated Euphonia, Orange-backed Troupial and Sunbittern. Mammals include Jaguar, Giant Otter, Giant Anteater and Crab-eating Fox. We’ll stay at lodges/estancias (ranches) with marvellous access to wildlife areas. We’ll have several river cruises, with a great chance of seeing Jaguar and also Giant Otter, tapir, Jabirus, Snail Kites, kingfishers, skimmers, herons, and others.
The Toco Toucan has an improbably huge bill
BIG CATS There’s a good chance of seeing Jaguars, and photographing them
UNSPOILED The Pantanal has large areas of untouched gallery forest
SPECTACULAR VIEWS Hyacinth Macaw is among the many species you could see