Male JAGUAR Panthera onca. The Pantanal is definitely THE place to see this superb predator!
Working our way along to ‘The Gateway to the Pantanal’ - the famous Transpantaneira Road, we clocked up more 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. A Blue and Yellow Macaw by the roadside was a brief but welcome addition to the checklist. Just a shame it was beside a busy road with nowhere safe to turn (or park). We eventually arrived at Piuval Lodge at dusk and, after dinner, headed out on our second night-drive. Crab-eating Fox and Raccoon of the same name all obliged as did many Yacare Caiman, but the owls refused to come out and play so we returned to the lodge, ready for our early start the following morning to look for the much-wanted Giant Anteater.
At just after 5am it started to get light and with no sign of the anteater, we concentrated on the early morning birding which was simply superb! Starting with a pair of beautiful Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, it just got better and better, with Chotoy Spinetail, Apolomado Falcon, Red-legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Jabiru, Rufescent Tiger Heron, American Golden Plover, Great Rufous and Narrow-billed Woodcreepers, Savanna Hawk, Peach-fronted Parakeet, Campo Flicker and then two unexpected bonus birds before heading back; Golden-collared Macaw and two Red-winged Tinamou in the fields by the entrance. Wow - and all before breakfast!
After breakfast we headed further down into the Pantanal, travelling south on the seemingly never- ending Transpantaneira Road. Enroute we bumped into some quality birds with highlights including a terrifically confiding Sunbittern, American Pygmy and Green Kingfishers, Cream-coloured Woodpecker, Grey-necked Wood-rail, Southern Screamer, Bare-faced Currasow, Scarlet-headed and Unicoloured Blackbirds and several very obliging Snail Kites. By late afternoon we were around 30 miles from Porto Jofre when we stopped to look at seven Hyacinth Macaws perched in roadside palm trees. The largest parrot in the world, these massive birds with a very distinctive silhouette, sat and entertained us. However, as we watched the macaws, we too were being watched, as we soon found out. When glancing along the road behind the bus, Ian only found himself a Jaguar! It was a little distant but the long swishing tail and rounded head all told us that this was a large animal and most probably an adult male - there would be more to come but this was a great piece of observation and everyone was buzzing. Eventually we reached our comfortable houseboat which became our home for three nights. All the talk was about what tomorrow might bring - our first day out on the river, so with the pressure off, would we be lucky and see more Jaguars?
We planned to spend the next three days exploring the Cuiaba River and adjacent tributaries, giving ourselves maximum chances of seeing and photographing Jaguar. On our first morning the Jaguars which were reported disappeared before we could get to them, but the afternoon bought incredible views of an adult male on the riverbank which, after about 10 minutes, swam across right in front of our boats at only 100 yards range - superb!
Sometime later we chanced across another Jaguar, this time a female, resting from the afternoon heat, lounging across a low bough, but once again giving great views. A short while later as we returned to the lodge, a young male swam across the river only a few miles ahead of us so we just managed to see it before it disappeared into the thick riverside vegetation. Riverside birding here produced Bare-faced Currasow, Little Cuckoo, and several White-browed Blackbirds.
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 Crane Hawk, watched the nesting activity of a Yellow-rumped Cacique colony and enjoyed both Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Black Skimmers with young, numerous
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Capybara, and literally hundreds of Caiman. Waders were much in evidence here with Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and up to five adult White-rumped Sandpipers with both Pied Lapwing and Collared Plover on the shallow sandy banks nearby - all at close range which was great for photography.
Travelling about two hours downriver our visit to Piquiri Poussada produced fantastic views of Hyacinth Macaws, munching their way through Palm fruits, an elusive Striped Cuckoo and many Guira Cuckoos, Yellow-rumped Caciques, Giant and Bay-winged Cowbirds, Rufous Cassiornis and so many Southern Caracaras they were almost like domestic chickens walking around the grounds. Nearby on the beach an array of several hundred colourful butterflies paused to take minerals from the hot sand.
Our return journey along 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. Soon we noticed a couple of boats ahead of us cruising very slowly alongside the riverbank; on closer inspection we could see that they had slowed down to watch and photograph a family party of Giant River Otters. We soon joined them and, for the next half an hour, we enjoyed wonderful close-up views and photographs of these superb mammals. A little further upriver was another otter hauled out on a fallen tree. Not a Giant River Otter but the rare and often shy Neotropical River Otter, which obliged with wonderful views until swimming off downstream and into a shady overhang.
The next day we departed the houseboat and started heading back up the Transpantaneira Road. The journey was even more productive going north than it had been heading south four days earlier. It started with Fawn-breasted Wren and Streaked Flycatcher. Several well planned stops produced Lineated, Crimson-crested and Little Woodpeckers, as well as Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, several Squirrel Cuckoos, nesting White-barred Piculet, Vermilion Flycatcher, Epaulet Oriole and more Southern Screamers.
Birding the forest behind the hotel produced Long-tailed Ground Dove, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Mato Grosso Antbird, Golden Green Woodpecker, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and a superb Stripe-necked Tody-Tyrant, Helmeted Manakin was vocal but not playing ball and the views were brief to say the least.
Our late afternoon boat trip on the Pixaim River was certainly bird-filled with at least two Sungrebes, Pale-crested Woodpecker and a calling Red-billed Scythebill which flatly refused to show itself. A little while later a Helmeted Manakin obliged, proving that they’re not all as stubborn as each other! Other good birds here included Boat-billed Heron, Lesser Kiskadee, all five South American kingfishers including the one we were missing for the trip, the beautiful Green-and-rufous; Black- collared Hawk, Grey-necked Wood-rail and Pale-legged Hornero. As the late afternoon turned to dusk a few Band-tailed Nighthawks flew over as did a superb Nacunda Nighthawk, the broad square wings with huge white panels were very obvious as it passed overhead.
Setting off early on our final morning we did not expect many surprises, after all it was only a few days earlier that we’d travelled south along this dusty road so just a quiet drive to the airport then? WRONG! - Our first surprise was a very close Tayra which trotted along ahead of the vehicle for a few yards - Nice!
Even better was to follow as a male Giant Anteater crossed the road only a few yards in front of the bus to the chorus of “STOP!” yelled at quite some volume. It was present for around 30 seconds but everyone saw it and some even got photographs! Quite a fitting way to end the tour with another juicy slice of luck!
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Our six days in the field had produced around 240 species of bird including Hyacinth Macaw and as well as numerous Pantanal endemics such as both Scarlet-headed and Unicoloured Blackbirds, and Mato Grosso Antbird. We’d had incredible prolonged views of multiple Jaguars, a family of Giant River Otters, a confiding Neotropical River Otter, 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 list and it lived up to expectations, so in a way, just like on previous occasions, it was ‘bird’ of the trip.” – Stuart Elsom