Saturday 12th November 2016 (late afternoon) – Northern Pantanal
It glared at us from baleful lemon yellow eyes, sat atop a tangle of fallen branches and roots. A Ferruginous Pygmy owl, one of a pair our guide had picked up calling from the track along which we had been strolling. The ability of this knowledgeable lady to filter out an isolated call from the cacophony of frog croaks and birdsong is uncanny, but luckily for us unfailing. We watched this diminutive owl for a couple of minutes until it decided it had provided enough entertainment, and flew across the road to disappear into some bushes.
It was so good to be able at last to venture out from the lodge because finally, thankfully, the rain had eased in mid afternoon allowing us to walk along the puddle strewn road. Butterflies, dragonflies and insects of all kinds, especially mosquitoes, revelled in the cocktail of 95% humidity and a never ending supply of still water in which to set about their breeding cycle. The hungry female mosquitoes certainly found a good food source in this particular lily-skinned Brit. Sweet blood for all.
Our guide, making up for lost time, was most keen to show us as many of the special species of the area as was humanly possible in the couple of hours available. First up, a Helmeted Manikin that frantically responded to a recording of one of its kind, hopping around tantalisingly from branch to branch in the forest of dense scrub. What a stunning bird, jet black body capped by a shock of scarlet on the crown and nape. Quite lovely.
The Great Potoo we saw from the safari wagon yesterday had chosen to roost in the same spot, unflinching as we gathered round it’s chosen tree to crane our necks for a second look. What a strange looking bird, although its camouflage is truly extraordinary. Seen from any angle, it simply looked like an extension of the dead bough on which it perched motionless throughout the sodden wet of the day.
And this brought us via various woodpeckers, lapwings, cowbirds and flycatchers to the aforementioned Pygmy Owl, after whose acquaintance we traversed a rough meadow to enter a grove of tall palm trees. More pesky mosquitoes. But these things must be brushed aside for we had come here for another owl, a much larger Great Horned Owl, which before long was being admired through binoculars, providing frame filling images for our eager eyes. What a contrast to the little chap we had seen earlier. This bird was big and impressive with large brown eyes set in a facial disk ringed with black feathering. Ear tufts raised, the bird looked impassively down at us, quite unperturbed by our presence. It twisted its large head to and fro a couple of times, yawned in a leisurely way before launching itself on silent, rounded wings to twist and turn between the trees to another unmolested roosting spot.
Monday 14th November 2016 – Northern Pantanal
My 5.30am alarm was almost drowned by the hammering of an early morning downpour. I rolled over thinking that it was pointless expecting my 6.00 appointment with our guide to go ahead. But then how many other opportunities would I get for a dawn paddle in a canoe on the waters of the northern Pantanal? I hauled myself out of bed, poked my head out of the door to find a gloriously fresh and clear morning. The heavenly fluting of thrushes, the harsh screeches of the guans, the wolf whistling of the Yellow-rumpled Cacique greeted the emerging rays of the sun. If it was good enough for them, then so it was for I.
We walked through the meadow to the edge of the lake, passing a family group of Capybara and cackling Green Ibis along the way. Within a few weeks this whole area will be submerged, with the waters reaching to the very edge of the lodge itself. The rains will slowly fill the basin that is the Pantanal to a depth of 2 metres or more, transforming an area the size of the UK into a huge water world teeming with aquatic life of all kinds. For now though, we had an hour to gently float along the shallow margins of the lake in search of a Pygmy Kingfisher that my guide was determined to find.
Slowly slipping away from the jetty, sliding as if across a mirror, so still and undisturbed was the scene before us. No human sound at all; nothing except the gentle ripple of crystalline water as we glided along, the echo of birdsong gleefully greeting the dawn, the slap of fish escaping our intrusion and the occasional throaty roar of a bull Caiman advertising his wares. And all around the reflected image of sun spangled clouds.
We spent our time drifting quietly into the shallow hyacinth cloaked margins, but could not connect with the little kingfisher we sought. It didn’t really matter though; just being there was enough. What we did see was a troop of Giant Otters that were fishing amongst the lilies. One had caught a large fish, and with this clamped firmly in its jaws raised its head and long neck out of the water to have a good enquiring look at the intruders. My guide can recognise individual animals by the patterning on their necks; she knows there are three separate groups that inhabit the immediate area. She can imitate their anguished calls, which to my ears sound as if the creatures are in pain and whining to each other about their ills. Weird and wonderful.
Sadly, despite a thorough search we failed to connect with the Pygmy Kingfisher, but what price an experience like this? How lucky am I to be able to see, smell and drink in the sights and sounds of one of the worlds true wilderness areas.
Can I give anything back? Not directly, except that talking to people about their passionate love for the region, trying to understand the problems that it faces, giving them encouragement in their endeavours, may help just a little. Asking someone to try and find me a little kingfisher is in itself an inconsequential thing, but allowed us to talk about her hopes and fears and maybe, just for a small amount of time, allowed her to immerse herself afresh, through my eyes, into the wonders of the natural splendour she works in every day. In some small way perhaps, it also allows you to appreciate what we all have around us, and how fragile it can be. The Pantanal, Brazil, the World, faces many challenges: exploitation of wildlife (here it is over fishing and persecuting of Jaguars that sometimes attack cattle), pollution, human encroachment – the usual thing – all of them are man made and based on greed and ignorance. Thank goodness some people care enough to devote their lives to conserving the place, because without them there really would be no hope.
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