Trop­i­cal bird­ing

The world’s largest trop­i­cal wet­land of­fers a host of ex­otic wildlife for the bird­watcher to en­joy

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PIC­TURES: RAY TIPPER

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.

Mam­mal thor­ough­fare

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.

Lake­land beau­ties

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.

UN­MIS­TAK­ABLE

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

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