!Working our way down to ‘The Gateway to the Pantanal’ - the famous Transpantaneira road, we clocked up more new and exciting species. Both Green and Buff-necked Ibis showed well on roadside wetlands as well as the first of many Limpkins, Rufescent Tiger Herons and a couple of Jabiru. Heading further south we also came across a Caiman with young, crossing the road at dusk. Not the only hazard in the dark as the wooden road bridges are certainly ‘interesting’ too!
!Our early morning boat trip on the Pixaim River was certainly action-packed with Giant River Otters screaming at us from the riverbank as they obviously recognised our boatman ‘Pischino’. Moments after the exchange of loud screams the otters enthusiastically swam up to our boat and promptly took fish being thrown to them by our larger than life boatman. A little further on, a lesson in Piranha fishing was very entertaining - from landing the hook in the water to landing the fish in the boat took around 15 seconds, the Piranha then becoming breakfast for a nearby Black-collared Hawk which made for amazing photographic opportunities. Other good birds here included Boat- billed Heron, Lesser Kiskadee, all 5 South American kingfishers, Sungrebe and Pale-legged Hornero. Also, a Green Iguana which gave a very good impersonation of Usain Bolt as it sped along the sandy bank!
!After lunch we headed further down into the Pantanal, travelling south on the seemingly never- ending Transpantaneira road. En route we bumped into some superb birds with highlights including White-banded Mockingbird, Bare-faced Currasow, Buff-bellied and Cinnamon-throated Hermits, Red-crested Finch and an obliging Snail Kite. Our last birding of the day was to see 2 roosting Hyacinth Macaws - a massive parrot with a very distinctive silhouette, of which we would see many more and in much better light. Eventually we reached our comfortable houseboat which would become home for 3 nights.
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That evening we totted up our checklist and found we had recorded a remarkable 136 species. All the talk was about what tomorrow might bring - our first day out on the river, so would we be lucky and see a Jaguar?
!We planned to spend the next three days exploring the Cuiaba and adjacent rivers, giving ourselves maximum chances of seeing Jaguar. About half an hour into our first morning our boatman Hernandez received word of a Jaguar sleeping on the river bank about 40 minutes away. Off we sped in ‘Hawaii-5-o’ style to get there before it moved off. We need not have worried, as the male Jaguar had fed the previous day and was fast asleep on our arrival, giving the photographers ample opportunity to enjoy this fabulous predator snoozing about 50 yards from our boat.
!It was great seeing Jaguar but actually it wasn't doing a great deal. The odd scratch of the ear or stretch and yawn was noted before going back to sleep. Nice, but no real action - see the shot below for what I mean!
Hernandez suggested we should try a couple of backwaters where he had seen Jaguar in the past few weeks. Within 2 hours we got news on another Jaguar - but this was an active male, walking along the sandy riverbanks possibly hunting for Caiman to catch - we sped over, and for the next 5 minutes we watched this magnificent animal stalking through the vegetation - sometimes only 30 yards from our boat. It made for a very exciting experience, great photographs and even better video before vanishing into the long vegetation. This was real hunting action - this was more like it!
!Later that same afternoon we were again ion the right place at the right time for a third Jaguar. This one was much bigger than our first two (!) and it was far better positioned with regards to background and light form a photographic perspective. After half an hour it woke up and yawned in full view of its gathered admirers. Would you believe it? by 4pm on our first day on the river and we’d seen and photographed 3 different Jaguars!!
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Here are our 2nd and 3rd Jaguars. The male above in active hunting mode...
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Having seen Jaguar very well we set out on the following two days to see what birds we could find and to see if we could even find our own Jaguar. Concentrating our efforts on lush riverine forest we had superb looks at Red-billed Scythebill, watched the nesting activity of a Yellow-rumped Cacique colony and enjoyed both Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Black Skimmers, Crane Hawk, numerous Capybara and both Pied Lapwing and Collared Plover on the shallow sandy banks, and all at close range which was great for photography.
!Travelling about 2 hours downriver our visit to Piquiri Poussada produced fantastic views of Hyacinth Macaw, munching their way through Palm fruits, an elusive Striped Cuckoo, Giant and Bay-winged Cowbirds and so many Southern Caracaras they were almost like domestic chickens, walking around the grounds. Nearby on the beach an adult Jabiru was being fed scraps of fish by the local people, and walking amongst the young children it looked quite a formidable sight standing at around 5 feet tall!
The superb Hyacinth Macaw gave great views at Piquiri Poussada.
!Our final afternoon out on the river saw us get great views of Rufescent Tiger Heron, Blue-throated Piping Guan, Chaco Chachalaca, yet more Capybara, another couple of Pied Lapwings and some very nice Yellow-billed Terns flying past at eye-level. Reaching a bend in the river Hernandez slowed down to take the corner smoothly allowing us all to scan the sandy river banks ahead of us. Within a few seconds Carlos amazingly picked up a young male Jaguar partially hidden by the vegetation; moving closer we then got great views for about a minute as this obviously younger animal walked along the bank and then vanished into the thick vegetation. Carlos was understandably ecstatic as although he’d done this trip many times it was the first Jaguar he had found himself - and it was our 4th in 3 days!
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The next day was spent heading back up the Transpantaneira Road. It was even more productive going north than it had been heading south 4 days ago. Several well planned stops produced Dull- capped Attila, Lineated, Pale-crested and Little Woodpeckers, as well as a superb Great Potoo found by Bruce. Checking the flowering trees alongside the road produced a number of new hummers for the trip with White-tailed Goldenthroat, Ruby Topaz, Black-throated Mango, Buff- bellied and Cinnamon-throated Hermit all noted at close range. That evening we hit a real purple patch with 4 new birds in as many minutes with Mississippi Kite, Yellowish Pipit, Sunbittern and ... all noted as we stopped at some roadside pools.
!Reaching Piuvial Lodge late afternoon we enjoyed a superb meal and promptly went back out for a night drive around the reserve. Our two hour session produced several Crab-eating Foxes, a young Bush-pig and a very brief Maned Wolf as well as Common Potoo and several Pauraques. The Giant Anteater, much wanted by all of us however, managed to stay hidden. We were travelling home the following day, leaving the area by 8am so we had one final chance if we tried an area nearby at dawn.
!The following day we started off in the half-light and headed towards the fields which held the largest number of termite-mounds - this should give us a greatest chance of success, according to the ranger, who Carlos & I had quizzed the previous evening.
!At just after 5am it started to get light and with no sign of the anteater, we resigned ourselves to ‘what might have been’ thoughts. Suddenly Carlos started pointing excitedly and there about 300 yards away was a superb male Giant Anteater shuffling his way between the termite mounds and showing very well indeed. The light although improving was far from ideal for photography but setting the camera to 5000 ISO I set about taking a few shots as we had no idea how long the animal would feed. This proved to be an excellent decision as the anteater slowly ambled his way further towards the thick scrub and then was gone - we were ecstatic!
The unforgettable Giant Anteater. This male was probably 6-7 feet in length!
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!As if our luck could not improve we stopped at a site en route to the airport where occasionally a Maguari Stork had been seen in past tours. Scanning through around 500 Cattle and Great Egrets revealed our prize. A Maguari Stork, actually very similar to European White Stork was picking it’s way through the long grass. Quite a fitting way to end the tour with another juicy slice of luck!
!Our 6 days in the field had produced around 240 species of bird including Harpy Eagle, Hyacinth Macaw and Spectacled Owl as well as numerous Pantanal endemics such as White-banded Mockingbird, Flavescent Warbler and Mato Grosso Antbird. We’d had crippling views of 4 Jaguars, several Giant River Otters and topped it off with a superb Giant Anteater - what more could you ask for?
!Although this was a photographic tour it still seemed fitting to try and nominate a bird of the trip. Although a mammal, Jaguar was high on everyone’s want lists and it lived up to expectations, so in a way it was ‘bird’ of the trip. However the title on this occasion was justifiably tied between Spectacled Owl and Harpy Eagle, both very large and impressive birds and very representative of the quality of this superb region. I’m already looking forward to next year for more of the same!