Thursday 10th November 2016 – Northern Pantanal
We arrived to the ominous sound of rumbling thunder issued from the depths of evil looking clouds that periodically spat jagged forks of lightning. The accompanying humidity made for an uncomfortable welcome to our stay in the Northern Pantanal. But the rain didn’t materialise, at least no more than a few drops, helping to refresh our tired and unwashed selves. We had been travelling for 30 hours since we left Heathrow. Firstly the flight to Sao Paulo, followed by a frantic rush between terminals before a domestic flight to Cuiaba. Then a long drive with the last three hours over rough roads that meandered through small townships. Eventually this gave way to a sandy track cut through the open savannah, where termite mounds dotted the fields like so many gravestones. And then to our camp.
We are given little time to rest by our guide, who is keen to maximise the time she has with us; four weary Europeans, that for the next little while find themselves guests of people who dwell in a remote Brazilian land that for 7 months of the year in under water. This first stop is at Pousada Rio Mutum, a lodge placed on the banks of the river from which it borrows it’s name. The open grounds play host to an array of exotic looking birds, chief among them being the cantankerous, loud, ever watchful Rusty-margined Guan that vie with the high strutting Bare-faced Curassow, Buff-necked Ibis and various thrushes for the pleasure of feasting on ripe mangoes that drop without warning from heavily laden trees.
The fruits that still hang in tempting clusters are ravished by an array of other birds, parrots, McCaws, orioles, tanagers and jays. Greater Kiskadees eye their territory from convenient perches, ready to pounce on any passing insect or small lizard. We watch a pair hunt frogs at the water’s edge, whacking the poor amphibian mercilessly against a branch in the manner of a kingfisher. In another bankside tree, a pair of Black-collared Hawks are busy courting, as oblivious to the Osprey perched nearby as it was to them. There is so much here that it is hard not to be overwhelmed; I am already like a child in a particularly sumptuous sweet shop.
Our guide invites us to step into a canoe and gently paddles us around clear, calm waters for an hour or so. Here are kingfishers: Ringed – bold and showy; Green and Rufous – smaller and more evenly proportioned; and the Amazon – dagger billed and impervious to our close scrutiny. Other birds dot the riverside vegetation; Neotropic Cormorants, Anhingas, Jacanas and herons.
A pair of Southern Screamers live up to their names, screeching their almightily loud, raucous cries across the still air of the gathering dusk. And then somehow from great distance, our guide thinks she has caught a glimpse of a Capybara. We strain our eyes but can see nothing but acres of water plants and dense vegetation. As we edge closer and closer, the bulky shape of a small group of these weird animals can be seen sitting stock still on the shoreline. We are not prepared for the reality of seeing these pig sized aquatic animals close to. Most impressive. We retire early, completely worn out but looking forward to whatever delights the following 3 days here will bring. We are promised an action packed agenda.
Saturday 12th November 2016 (early afternoon) – Northern Pantanal
It is raining. As I type I am looking at a bedraggled woodpecker clinging to the underside of a stout bough, there to shelter from the deluge. The poor thing is clinging motionless at 45 degrees with its stiff tail feathers bracing it for what looks like being a lengthy stay. A Great Kiskadee briefly perches on the back of an adjacent chair, called loudly, indignantly, at the thundering rain and flies off to find its own place to hole up for a spell. It is coming down hard and has been since just after dawn. At 5.30 as the first tendrils of daylight fanned through the trees, the air was fresh from the previous night’s downpour; some promise of a drier day ahead. By 6.00 the first few spots of liquid dripped from a gloomy sky and before long cascades of water were flowing along the paths and forming puddles in the already sodden ground. The rains that normally arrive in December have decided to come early this year.
Yesterday, Friday, was a day of contrasts, a game of two halves as they often expound on Match of the Day. During the oppressively hot, steamy morning we boarded an open sided vehicle to bump and grind our way along sandy tracks through the Pantanal Savannah. Bird life was prolific here with frequent stops to appreciate the various species that are now into their breeding season; some singing, some tussling with rivals, some building nests or feeding young. The rains bring life to the parched land that bakes during the dry season; the wildlife takes advantage of the bounty following in its wake. We paused to discover that the broken branch of a tree being pointed to by our guide was in fact a Great Potoo roosting for the day We watched a Roadside Hawk fastidiously preening itself a few metres from our truck, and were able to admire a family party of Burrowing Owls sunning themselves from fence posts bordering the track. Further along, we marvelled at a pair of Red-legged Seriema strutting on ridiculously long legs through the dry brush. And all the while the dark shapes of vultures cruised the warm air above.
Virtually every bird seen here is new to us, but there was one that I have personally wanted to see in the wild for a long time. And our expert guide knew exactly where to look. Can there be any finer colouration on any bird than that adorning a Hyacinth Macaw? I think not. We found a small flock feeding in a palm, a little skittish at our approach. They decided soon enough to find a more secluded feeding spot and one by one launched into the air to delight us as they glided past, their velvet, electric blue, feathering shown to perfection in the strong morning sunlight. Only nature can produce such finery; subtle tones and shades on a theme that no artist can match. The reason the birds are suffering here, as many birds and animals are suffering all over the globe, is thanks to the activity of man. The small coconut palms bearing fruits of specific attraction to the birds, are grubbed up to make way for crops and grass with which to feed the cattle that roam here in numbers. The Macaws are forced out. Happily the lodge where we are ensconced for a few days is engaging with the local farmers to educate them to the needs of the birds, while also pointing out the benefits their presence brings in terms of Eco tourism. A classic win-win, which in this case means the Macaws have an ample supply of nuts upon which to weald their tremendously strong beak, and the lodge supplements the farmsteads with food. Such gorgeous creatures and a serious tick for me. Happy smiles all around.
The afternoon was given over to a trip along the River Mutum in a motorised canoe, slowly examining the riverbanks for whatever birds and mammals felt like showing themselves. Of course the showy kingfishers are the main stars, sitting ever watchful on overhanging branches scrutinising the clear waters with bright beady eyes. We saw several brazen Amazon Kingfishers and lots of Ringed Kingfishers before the heavens opened. All in the canoe frantically pulled on the plastic ponchos provided, covered cameras, binoculars and other things of value with any waterproofs to hand, gritted teeth and braved the angry elements. Despite worrying about my optics, I actually enjoyed the feeling of fresh cool rain on my face. Zipping around, blasting into heavy squalls with curtains of water lashing all around was quite exhilarating. It was only later I discovered a sodden wallet full of damp and soggy bank notes which took the shine off the experience a little. And so we come to today. It is now early afternoon and the rain is still falling. Toads and frogs are having a ball, Muscovy Ducks have paid a visit and ibis probe the wet earth with long decurved beaks. There is talk of a walk around the site a bit later, but I’m going to crack open a beer and relax. I’m no weather forecaster, but it really doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere, anytime soon. There’s always tomorrow.
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