Mike Mockler

Brazil - Sep/Oct 2014

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The Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland, is vast, equivalent in size to over half the area of the United Kingdom.  As much of it is inaccessible for several months each year, it’s little wonder that I have barely scratched the surface of this vast wilderness, despite numerous visits in the last 14 years.

Consequently, each time I return, I have a sense of  “unfinished business”:  areas I have not yet visited and species I have yet to see or capture on camera.  This time, my wife, Pat, and I had a “wish list” of key species and behaviour.  To this end, I decided to devote a significant part of this trip to new locations, especially in the southern Pantanal, which to some extent I had previously neglected.  I was hoping for close encounters with some species that are easier to locate in the southern Pantanal including red-and-green macaw, blue-and-yellow macaw, ocelot and giant anteater.

The strategy certainly paid off.  We arrived to find the southern Pantanal much greener and lusher than expected, bearing in mind this was the height of the dry season.  The previous rainy season had continued for weeks longer than usual, in addition to which there had been further rain in August.  The downside of this was a superabundance of biting insects, notably ticks and the dreaded, infamous chiggers.  On the plus side, the wildlife was extremely prolific.

Blue-and-yellow macaws were much in evidence and, not far from the Pantanal’s southern perimeter, we visited South America’s largest sink-hole, an extraordinary place where around 60 pairs of red-and-green macaws nest in fissures in the high sandstone cliffs.   Groups of these vividly-coloured, raucous birds swirled around the deep depression, a spectacular and unforgettable sight.  Elsewhere, we saw scarce birds such as blaze-winged parakeets, white-rumped tanager, streak-bellied (or chaco) puffbird and the secretive blackish rail.

Mammal highlights of the southern Pantanal included pampas deer, an uncommon species in the Pantanal, and two ocelots, beautiful small spotted cats, clearly visible and photographable.  Even more exciting were sightings of no fewer than 17 giant anteaters!  That is a remarkable tally for a species that can be surprisingly elusive.  In the southern Pantanal, the species is more abundant than in the north but, even so, 17 in one location in just 2 days was incredible.  And to cap it all, among them was the holy grail for nature photographers, a mother giant anteater with a baby on her back.

Moving on to the northern Pantanal, we found everywhere much drier and far less green.  Although the dry conditions meant the birdlife was not as plentiful as usual, there were numerous birds to see, many of them colourful and memorable: toco toucans, capped herons, blue-crowned trogons, black-hooded (or nanday) parakeets, monk parakeets, four species of kingfisher, several woodpecker species, black-collared hawk and many more.

Key bird species included sunbittern, roseate spoonbill, hyacinth macaw, golden-collared macaw, chestnut-bellied guan, blue-throated piping-guan and the most furtive of herons, the near-mythical agami heron.  This wonderful bird haunts dark, densely vegetated woodland along quiet watercourses.  It is rarely seen well as it is reluctant to venture out into the open.  However, the deep blue and chestnut plumage combined with an incredibly long, dagger-like bill make the agami heron one of the world’s most striking water birds.

Compared to the abundance of birds, mammals were more difficult to see, as is usually the case.  Even so, we had satisfying encounters with crab-eating foxes, giant river otters, black-tailed marmosets, brown capuchin monkeys, black-and-gold howler monkeys, south American coatis and the rare marsh deer.

Of course, the mammal everyone wants to see is the jaguar and by far the best chances of a sighting are in the northern Pantanal.  I’m very fortunate to have seen many jaguars on my previous visits but this trip was especially productive.  In a little over two days we had 7 excellent sightings.

Most sightings are from motor boats as the jaguars frequent the riverbanks where their favourite prey is found: caiman and capybara, the world's largest rodent.  The majority of these encounters involve stationary individuals lounging on the banks of the local rivers.  Fortunately, we were able to witness interesting behaviour on several occasions.  Twice we watched a jaguar swimming but the most exciting sequence involved a huge male hunting along the river bank. He was stalking prey hidden in the riverine vegetation - young caimans, tegu lizards and snakes - and, on numerous occasions, he plunged head-first into reeds and thickets, each time emerging with nothing to show for his efforts.  At one point he bounded through the shallows pursuing a caiman with a series of leaps, each one creating a huge splash.  This brought him within two or three metres of the stern of our small motorboat, so close, in fact, that with one more great bound he would have joined us in the boat.  

Later, he had an apparently easy opportunity to catch a large male capybara which was sitting partly concealed in grassy vegetation high on the riverbank.  The jaguar was walking towards the potential prey and a quick check of the wind direction suggested that the capybara would be unaware of the predator's approach.  The huge rodent remained relaxed, chewing the cud oblivious of the fact that his most dangerous enemy was now less than 40 yards away and still heading his way. With the distance between them closing, the big cat paused and looked around.  The two animals, clearly unaware of each other, were now barely 20 yards apart.  Surely the jaguar would smell the capybara now!  But no, he continued strolling nonchalantly towards the patch of vegetation where the prey suddenly became aware of the danger.  The capybara's reaction was instantaneous.  With a loud, honking alarm call, he exploded from cover, rocketed across the river bank and launched himself from a sandy cliff far out into the river before immediately diving below the surface of the water.  It was a very impressive escape strategy. The jaguar stopped and stood motionless, looking surprised and slightly puzzled, then walked to the spot where the capybara had been and sniffed it, possibly wondering how he had missed such an easy prize.           

In the four years since I was last in the Pantanal, the number of jaguar-viewing boats has increased enormously.   All of them now have radios so, when a jaguar is spotted, the news spreads immediately, leading to unedifying scenes reminiscent of the ugly crush of vehicles in some east African game parks and Indian tiger reserves when big cat hysteria takes hold. At least in the Pantanal, the tourists are on the river and the jaguars are on the riverbank so the animals cannot be encircled.  Also, of course, if the cats do feel threatened, they can walk a few paces into the forest where they are completely out of sight and cannot be followed.  In reality, many of the local jaguars have become so accustomed to the throng of excited tourists in motor boats they barely give them a second glance.  And, to be fair, the majority of boatmen I saw behaved sensitively, showing respect for the jaguars and courtesy to passengers in other boats. 

Nevertheless, the concentration of boats can be unpleasant and, for many people, detracts from the enjoyment of seeing one of the most magnificent animals on the planet.  Fortunately, we were able to enjoy some jaguars alone or with only one or two other boats present.  One of these occasions involved a handsome, young male jaguar who was eyeing up a group of capybaras.  Entirely alone with our boatman, we watched the jaguar for some time as the sun sank behind the forest.  Eventually, he appeared to decide to wait for darkness to fall, strolled into the trees and disappeared.  It was a magical end to the day.   

In hill country to the north of the Pantanal, we encountered more red-and-green macaws and, to our great delight, a group of spider monkeys.  There had been rumours that the species was now extinct in that area so the sighting was a wonderful surprise.  The spider monkeys were very shy and kept moving away through the trees  as we tried to view and photograph them from a distance.  It was not the best possible sighting but an encouraging one nonetheless.

On our final day in Brazil, we checked in at Cuiaba Airport for our flight to Sao Paulo.  The young man who checked us in asked about our visit to the Pantanal and proudly told us he had grown up there.  He said it gave him a sense of pride that people like us travelled thousands of miles from remote parts of the world to visit his beautiful homeland.


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