Our party of 10 finally assembled at Cuiaba airport after various overnight flights from Europe, and we soon met up with the truly excellent Marcos Felix, our leader for the next two weeks. After a traditional “by the kilo” Brazilian buffet lunch in town, we headed off south to Pocone in a minibus, before transferring to our converted truck (high viewing positions, no pesky windows!) for the rest of our Pantanal adventure. Our driver, Antonio, did a great job throughout, reversing expertly to get views of things for everyone, negotiating all 110 varyingly rickety bridges on the Transpanteira with style, and even repeatedly fixing a dodgy starter motor.
Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the trip, I’m going to try and summarise by theme and habitat. We stayed in three contrasting lodges – Pouso Alegre in the dry north, the SouthWild Lodge at the Pixaim River, and the amazing Jaguar Flotel near Porto Jofre. All were delightful in very different ways – never did I dream that we’d have WiFi throughout, and the food was very much more than adequate in all cases.
The Pantanal is, of course, a huge wetland first and foremost, and it’s the riverine and marshland wildlife that steals the show. But there is a whole mosaic of different habitats on offer, each with a different range of species on offer. The Transpantaneira slowly descends into the shallow basin of the Pantanal, traversing ever wetter habitats on the way. The dry grasslands support Giant Anteater, but sadly our repeated efforts didn’t turn one up among the thousands of termite mounds. We did luck in with a delightful Lesser Anteater, however, which entertained us with its “I’m an Anteater” threat posture for a few seconds! Another iconic mammal of the area eluded us until our last night – a female Brasilian Tapir lumbered about in the fields, expertly spotlit by Marcos with his 13 trillion megacandle torch.
Also on the mammal front, we had excellent views of Grey Brocket Deer, Marsh Deer, Azara’s Agouti, Crab-eating Fox and all three of the Pantanal’s monkeys, including the endemic Black-tailed Marmoset. Capybaras were common and delightfully tame, especially near the Pixaim River, where dozens took sanctuary on the lodge lawn each evening.
Birdwise, the grasslands held decent numbers of Greater Rheas, and we had one sighting of the difficult Red-legged Seriema just as we entered the Pantanal proper. Common and frequently seen birds also included Guira Cuckoo, Chaco Chachalaca, Chestnut-bellied Guan and various flycatchers, seedeaters, doves and parakeets.
Parrots were a big feature in fact, with no fewer than eleven species logged – most spectacular, of course, were the amazing Hyacinth Macaws, of which we had great flight views, but also close-up perched views near the nest at Pouso Alegre. This species is holding its own now after decades of decline, and is a truly impressive emblem of the Pantanal.
The seasonally dry woodlands and gallery forest along the watercourses were also very productive for us. We racked up some really impressive specialities, such as Red-billed Scythebill, Helmeted Manakin, Mato Grosso Antbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Great Horned Owl, various antshrikes and spinetails, and managed to find not one but three roosting Great Potoos, mimicking broken snags uncannily in the hot sunshine.
But it was the wetland species that were always going to stick most in the memory, and the Pantanal lived up to its reputation as South America’s greatest wetland bar none. Herons and egrets were almost constantly in view – we found fully eleven species, including the nocturnal Boat-billed and the scarce Little Blue Heron. Roseate Spoonbill, Limpkin, four species of ibis and the magnificent Jabiru supplemented our haul, and we also had great views of the tricky Sunbittern on more than one occasion.
Crakes and rails were thin on the ground (or rather hard to see), but we had prolonged views of Rufous-necked Wood-rail.
Raptors were on view almost all the time – most commonly Snail Kites and Black Vultures, but also lots of Southern Caracaras, Savanna and Black-collared Hawks, plus Great Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Crane Hawk, Aplomado and Bat Falcons, and even a brief male Long-winged Harrier.
Also abundant in the wetlands were Spectacled or Yacaré Caimans – ranging in size from cute little tiddlers to 2.5m monsters. Certain members of the group risked closer approaches than others….
The rivers also offered up one the biggest targets of the trip – Giant Otters. We had a prolonged encounter with a family of nine, watching them swimming, hunting and playing in the Piquiri River, plus several other briefer contacts with individuals and small groups. Nowhere on Earth is it easier to get prolonged views of this amazing animal. Another big surprise was a sighting of two Brasilian Porcupines – up a tree!
The highlights of the trip for almost everyone were cats – one “expected” (but which we dared not think of as guaranteed!), the other a truly delightful bonus. Twice daily boat trips out from the Flotel resulted in no fewer than four sightings of Jaguar – the biggest cat in the Americas, and third only after Lions and Tigers in the world. Three of “our” animals gave prolonged, relaxed views, long enough for us to get good photos and to identify them as individuals from Marcos’s extensive facial recognition library. We were left in awe of the sheer power exuded by this extraordinary animal – once almost mythical for wildlife travellers, but now seemingly straightforward at this one location in the heart of the continent.
More of a surprise, but just as exciting, we had no fewer than FIVE sightings of the generally highly elusive Ocelot! The first two were distant and brief sightings on night drives, but at the SouthWild Lodge we were among the lucky very earliest participants in a brand new opportunity – habituated Ocelots! We hunkered down in our tower hide just before dusk, and were rewarded on two successive nights with three different Ocelots (two females and a big male) coming in to feed on chicken bait. While nervous, they were not alarmed by our presence at all, and allowed extraordinary views at close range. This was a true privilege, and for many of the group the unexpected highlight of the trip.
Truly, the Pantanal lived up to expectations, with a huge abundance of bird and mammal life, amply backed up by reptiles (Golden Tegu, terrapins and Green Iguana as well as the abundant caimans – plus close-up views of a very dangerous Lancehead (Bothrops matogrossensis) snake), insects and plants, the latter amply interpreted by Marcos with lots of expert local knowledge. Insects (of the bity kind) were mercifully uncommon, but we were treated by numerous lovely butterflies, moths and dragonflies.
After ten days, we bade farewell to the Pantanal, and via a city hotel in Cuiaba and a very welcome meeting with Charlie Munn, the proprietor of SouthWild, we set off via Sao Paulo for the world-famous Iguacu/Iguazu (depending on language) Falls.
Here we were met by our co-leader Martin, and we swiftly crossed into Argentina for two very comfortable nights in what was a new country for everyone on the trip. Sadly the weather conspired against very serious forest birding on this leg – it was often wet but more importantly cold in the Atlantic forests, so we saw rather fewer forest specials than anticipated.
Nonetheless, we had lots to see, quite apart from the amazing spectacle of the Falls themselves. The fragments of remaining Atlantic rainforest are crucially important for many near-endemic bird species, and we saw a decent range without being overwhelmed. Highlights included Southern Antpipit, White-shouldered Fire-eye, Blond-crested Woodpecker, Black-fronted Piping Guan and various tanagers, parrots and other colourful Neotropical specialities.
A particular highlight was a drizzly but fantastic visit to the “Hummingbird Garden” in downtown Iguazu, where we enjoyed eight hummingbird species, tanagers, Blue Dacnis and three Euphonias, among others!
Mammal interest was dominated by the cute and highly habituated (but potentially dangerous and rather smelly!) Coati troops around the falls, but we also saw Brasilian Cavy and more Agoutis.
The real highlight, of course, was Iguacu Falls itself. We made three visits, two on the Argentina and one on the Brazil side of the border (via a debated country tick in the form of Paraguay at the tri-border meeting point), and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the absolutely amazing spectacle. I’ve now visited all three “big” Falls around the world, and for me, Iguacu wins hands down. Stunning.
Very well-fed, tired, superbly looked-after and happy, we said our final farewells to Marcos and those of the group who were staying on for a day or two, and headed for home late on the evening of June 22nd. Straight back in time for Referendum Day….oh dear!
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