BRAZIL 2010: Pantanal – The Transpantaneira

Brazil is a beacon for birders and wildlife enthusiasts, featuring a huge list of birds, impressive array of animals, and wide diversity of habitats within this mammoth-sized country. With great anticipation and enthusiasm, I embarked upon my first trip here, focusing on three major areas of Mato Grosso state: the Pantanal, Chapada dos Guimaraes, and Serra das Araras.

Our Brazilian adventure began at the Cuiaba airport, where we were picked up by Eduardo, a young man with a big smile, boundless energy and extraordinary birding skills, who was to be our guide and companion for the next 10 days. About 80kms south of Cuiaba, just south of Pocone, the last town, the macadam road turns to dirt. A large wooden sign marks the beginning of the “Transpantaneira,” a 148 kilometer, well-groomed road that winds through the northern Pantanal, ending in Porto Jofre at the Cuiaba river.

As the world’s largest wetland, the Pantanal hosts a huge diversity of flora and fauna, including specialties that are found nowhere else in the world. Our visit was timed for the dry season – wintertime in South America, though you would not have known it based upon the 100 degree F temperatures – when birds and animals congregate around the precious water resources, providing outstanding viewing and photo opportunities. During the rainy season, this low-lying region floods expansively, and the wildlife is more dispersed.

There is more to the Pantanal than just seasonally flooded wetlands. Fazendas (ranches), scattered around the northern section, are comprised of a mix of savannah and scrubby cerrado, characterized by sandy soil, low shrubs and gnarled trees. Long vistas are broken by three foot high gray cones that are termite mounds, and free range cattle grazing the grasslands.  The earth is baked hard beneath the strong sun and weathered hardwood forests rise out of the dusty ground.

We split our six nights along the Transpantaneira between three locations:  Pousada Piuval in the north, Hotel Mato Grosso in the center, and Hotel Porto Jofre in the south. We encountered few people en route other than the occasional peoe (cowboy), and a few local vehicles trailed by clouds of dust.

The Transpantaneira is a destination unto itself.  Over 100 wooden bridges connect this long dirt road from beginning to end.  Thousands of Yacare Caimans lined the roadside ditches, sharing space with hundreds of waders in the surrounding marshy wetlands, making for a spectacular spectacle of sight and sound.
 

Oversized Jabirus stood out amongst numerous Striated Herons, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Great and Snowy Egrets.  It was wonderful to see good numbers of Rufescent Tiger-Herons, adults and juveniles (above).  The spectacle included Wattled Jacanas, Coqui Herons, Little Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Purple Gallinules, Neotropic Cormorants, Anhingas – all seemingly unconcerned about the nearby sharp-toothed Caimans lolling within a few feet!

Striking Large-billed Terns (above) hunted over bodies of open water.   Less common were Whistling Herons, Roseate Spoonbills and a few Capped Herons.  Abundant Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers hunted from their perches on the wooden bridges.

Black Vultures aside, Southern Caracaras were the most numerous raptor on the trip.  Several additional raptor species were also seen well from the Transpantaneira.  Savannah Hawk, Roadside Hawk and Laughing Falcon preferred the dryer savannah.  Great Black-Hawks and Black-collared Hawks perched conspicuously on low tree limbs.  Lesser Yellow-headed Caracaras (above) were occasionally spotted.  Snail Kites plucked large snails and crabs from the water surface between the ubiquitous water hyacinth. The drive provided ample opportunity to compare adults and juveniles of most of these species.

Driving down the long dusty road we stopped frequently to enjoy and photograph the wildlife. Oversized Monk Parakeet nests shrouded the tops of telephone poles along the road.   Monk and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets added their screeches to the cacophony.  Capybaras rested in the shallows, and several Marsh Deer were seen poised and alert in the grasses.  We stopped to see a troop of about a dozen Coatis (above) cavorting near the roadside.  Scattered patches of papyrus hosted flocks of blackbirds, including striking Scarlet-headed Blackbirds who prefer papyrus plants, along with Unicolored blackbirds.

One wooden bridge close to a grove of tall trees created an oasis of shade in the midday heat, and ample bird activity. Here we found a nesting pair of Great-horned Owls, American Pygmy Kingfisher, South American Snipe (above), and Creamy-bellied Thrush.  Plumbeous Ibis and Buff-necked Ibis probed in the marsh, and two Maguiri Storks could be seen in the distance, along with some Muscovy Ducks. Shrubs and grasses hosted Black-capped Donacobius, White-headed and Black-backed Marsh-tyrants, and Rusty-collared Seedeaters. A pair of curious Cinereous-breasted Spinetails gave us great looks close to the road, and male and female Masked Yellowthroats flitted quickly from shrub to shrub. Yellow-billed Terns hunted over the flowing water. White-winged Swallows joined Gray-breasted Martins in hawking insects near the bridges.

With so much to see, it was hard not to stop at every bridge.  The drive down the Transpantaneira was truly a wonderful part of our Pantanal experience.

all photos © adrian binns

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