Trip Report to the Pantanal of Brazil by Sue Bryan
September 29th – October 7th 2018
I have always wanted to see a Jaguar in the wild and so made enquiries from several former guides and companies that I have travelled with before. After taking advice I realised that I could do a ‘quick’ trip to The Pantanal in Brazil and also add a couple of other target species that have long been gaps on my bird and mammal list. I also wanted to see Giant Anteater, Giant River Otter, Agami Heron and Hyacinth Macaw. Anything else I saw I considered a bonus since I have been to Brazil twice before and had birded the region in Bolivia not far from The Pantanal. I stayed in various lodges along the Transpantaneira Road that provided boats to take me to the various locations that were necessary to see my target species. Thanks must go to Gunnar Engblom of Kolibri expeditions, Eduardo Ormaeche for help and advice and Marlon Mendes who acted as my guide and driver as well as Dee Hamilton for keeping me company.
Guide/Driver Marlon Mendes
Sept 29th Norwich - Amsterdam -Sao Paulo - Cuiaba
Sept 30th Cuiaba - Pousada Piuval
Oct 1st Pousada Piuval - Mato Grosso
Oct 2nd Mato Grosso – Jaguar Ecological Reserve
Oct 3rd Jaguar Ecological Reserve
Oct 4th Jaguar Ecological Reserve - Rio Claro Lodge
Oct 5th Rio Claro Lodge - Pousada Piuval
Oct 6th Pousada Piuval – Cuiaba - Sao Paulo - Amsterdam
Oct 7th Amsterdam - Norwich
International flights (return) Norwich to Sao Paulo on KLM www.klm.com cost £788
Internal flights (return) Sao Paulo to Cuiaba plus accommodation in lodges (full board), vehicle and driver/guide and boat trips cost £2551
No visa required for UK citizens
I ordered £100 equivalent of Brazilian Reals using Sainsbury’s bank online before I left home but brought £40 of this back which Sainsbury’s bank took back.
Very hot and sunny every day except one morning of rain.
The Pantanal is an immense tropical wetland located mainly in western Brazil's Mato Grosso do Sul state. With a total area of almost 195 000 square kilometres (or 75 000 square miles), the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world.
I flew from Norwich Airport to Amsterdam and onto Sao Paulo where I met up with Dee. Together we flew to Cuiaba where we were picked up by Marlon who took us to a hotel near the airport for the night
We were up at 6am and after breakfast Marlon drove us to Livramento where we stopped to record our first bird species. Many were familiar to me as I have birded near the region before in both Brazil and in Bolivia. Ruddy Ground Dove, Turkey Vulture, Great Kiskadee, Snowy Egret, Toco Toucan, Sayaca Tanager, Streaked Flycatcher, Southern Lapwing, Palm Tanager were all common species that I have seen many times before but were good to see again in the warmth of a South American country. It was good to be back in a country where birds are in a high density and there were a lot to look at. I was kept busy writing as well as keeping my eyes peeled for something that might look unfamiliar to me.
We crossed the road to investigate the possibility of buying some drinks and watched a Rufous-bellied Thrush and a Nanday Parakeet, another world tick for me. Purplish Jay, Yellow-headed Caracara and Blue-black Grassquit were also seen. We drove on a bit further and stopped at a suitable point to watch again, adding Black Nunbird, Variegated Flycatcher, Grey Elaenia, Masked Gnatcatcher, Lesser Seedfinch, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous Casornis and Purple-throated Euphonia.
A Black-throated Mango and a White-winged Piculet were in the trees the other side of the road and a Chestnut-bellied Conebill gave us a hard time before we saw it properly. I the trees further back we saw a Chaco Chacalaca. We motored on stopping once more to add Roadside Hawk, Barred Antshrike, Snail Kite and Jabiru wading around in water at the side of the road.
We arrived at Pocone the start of The Pantanal and last town before the start of the Transpantaneira Road. We weren’t to have much more travel on a tarmaced road before we hit the track and the famous wooden bridges that lead to The Pantanal. It's 147 km long and crosses no less than 122 wooden bridges.
Eventually we arrived at Posada Piuval which was to be our lodge for the first night. We booked in and had lunch before setting off in the lodge’s vehicle around the tracks of the forest behind the lodge.
Around the lodge we watched Whistling Heron, Savannah Hawk, Greater Rhea, Monk Parakeet, White-eyed Parakeet Yellow-billed Tern, Capped Heron and Cocoi Heron all from the luxury of the lodge overlooking the wetland surrounding it. After lunch Marlon drove us around the tracks and we noted Muscocy Duck, Black-necked Stilt, White-rumped Swallow, Red-crested Cardinal and Spotted Sandpiper. There were birds everywhere.
A Common Tody-flycatcher posed as did other wildlife including a Crab-eating Fox and a Black Tegu which was about 2 metres long. Birds came thick and fast as we added Little Woodpecker, Red-billed Scythebill, Crested Oropendola before I spotted a roosting Great Horned Owl. It really didn’t want its photo taken though unlike the Red-legged Seriema that posed for us. Striated Heron, Grey-necked Woodrail, Rufescent Tiger Heron all posed before we worked for Chestnut-eared Aracari, narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Grey-crested Cacholote and the most difficult of them all Undulated Tinamou which gave us the run-around hiding in the understory.
We drove to the river and walked across a long wooden board walk where we added more birds to our list. The sun was beginning to have its last rays and within the hour we would lose the light but not before we saw Roseate Spoonbill, Blue-throated Piping Guan, Black-collared Hawk, Bare-faced Curassow, Shiny Cowbird, Turquoise-fronted Amazon, Shiny Cowbird, Solitary Cacique, Southern Horned Screamer and Wattled Jacana. We returned to the watch-tower and watched a Black Skimmer skimming as night fell.
After a delicious evening meal at the lodge we went on a night safari as one of my requests when negotiating my target species for the trip was to see a Giant Anteater. Marlon drove around on and off the tracks adding Nacunda Nighthawk, Pauraque and a Spot-tailed Nightjar. We rejoined the main track and all of a sudden we realised that we had a Giant Anteater running alongside the vehicle. We stopped to admire it as it crossed the track in front of us before disappearing into the forest.
I was up before dawn and wandered around the lodge grounds to watch dawn break. The bird song was tremendous and I didn’t know where to look first. Soon I had one of my other target species as a pair of Hyacinth Macaws flew right across the open area. It was still much too dark for photography but the spectacle was amazing. I felt so privileged and lucky to be here. My heart will always be based in remote wild places where I can watch birds and animals in peace. I admired the Blue and White Swallows as I went for breakfast.
After breakfast we boarded the lodge vehicle which took us across the grass until we reached the forest. Muscovy Ducks and American Golden Plover were running around the grass as were a couple of Red-legged Seriemas.
The lodge driver wasn’t particularly tuned into birds and we seemed to be driving past all the calling birds. We made him stop to give us an opportunity to walk for a while to listen for birds and to take a few photos. We expressed our concern to Marlon and made it clear to him that in future we wanted to use our own vehicle so that we could stop when we wished to.
Once we had got out of the vehicle we were soon watching birds and Dee was taking photos. It was hot and I had to take a few layers of clothing off. We watched Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Pearly-vented Tody Tyrant, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Thrush-like Wren, Cinnamon-throated Hermit, Grey-headed Tanager, Planato Slaty Antshrike, White-vented Violetear, Epaulet Oriole, Glittering-throated Emerald, Versicoloured Emerald and Fork-tailed Woodnymph. Several of the birds were world ticks for me and so I was delighted. I took photos of a Blue-crowned Trogon and Toco Toucan as well as Amazonian Motmot.
We returned to the lodge as it was now very hot. I took a wonderful swim in the lodge’s swimming pool before lunch and watched the Blue and Yellow Macaws coming and going from their nest in a broken-off tree stump as I was swimming. It was just heavenly! A Rufous-bellied Thrush was running around outside my room as I wandered back to change. I quickly grabbed my camera before it flew off.
Sue on the Transpantaneira Road
Greater Rhea and Chicks
We stopped at the start of the Transpantaneira Road to take the obligatory photo of the famous track with its 122 wooden bridges. It was very hot and the birds were everywhere as we travelled through the dust. We stopped now and again to take photos of some of the common birds along the route. We added White-faced Whistling Duck, Scaly-headed Parrot, Great Rufous Woodcreeper and Orange backed Troupial as well as taking photos of Plumbeous Ibis, Black-collared Hawk, Greater Rhea, Cocoi Heron and Yellow-billed Cardinal.
Great Rufous Woodcreeper
A small group of Marsh Deer were also nice to see by the roadside. After our evening meal when it had got dark we wandered around the fields at the back of the lodge at Mato Grosso. Dee was keen to go spot-lighting for spiders and snakes. Dee was a keen Herpetologist, particularly snakes. This was an activity that I have not done before at night, but as with most wildlife events I am up for anything! Dee gave me a really powerful torch and off we went. I was staggered at being able to find spiders by their eye-shine. How exciting! We didn’t find any snakes though! We did however find a Little Nightjar and it was so approachable that I took a photo of it using just my iphone.
We were offered an early morning boat ride from our lodge at Mato Grosso on the Rio Sarare but there was no sign of our guide Marlon. He had overslept. Dee and I paced up and down and as we had no idea which room he was in and I could see our boat ride disappearing. We took photos of Guira Cuckoo, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Black-striped Capuchin whilst we were waiting. Eventually Marlon appeared and we set off down river. There were herons and kingfishers every few metres down the river. It was buzzing with life. We set off in great anticipation with our boatman saying that he knew of a spot for Agami Heron, one of my most sought-after bird targets.
Not long after setting off on the river a Sungrebe swam in front of us as an Anhinga watched us from the riverside as did a Black-capped Donacobius. Ringed Kingfisher watched for its breakfast as a Great Black Hawk sat in riverside trees. A Greater Ani was added to the list as a Green and Rufous Kingfisher sat and posed. We watched a Cinereous-breasted Spinetail and a Great Antshrike in the bushes as we searched for the Agami. All of a sudden the boatman spotted an Agami Heron but failed to point out where he was looking. We waited for the bird to reappear but it was not to be.
A Jabiru stood at the side of the river as we made our way back to breakfast and not long after I spotted an American Pygmy Kingfisher perched on twigs over the river. We were disappointed but it had been a lovely way to start the day.
Back on dry land, Marlon and I birded the fields behind the lodge. It was now searingly hot and we both struggled to stand out in the sun. Dee had stayed behind in the lodge and so Marlon and I sought out the birds that I wanted to see. Top of the list was Helmeted Manakin. Eduardo Ormaech had been advising me and so I had a target list. Marlon and I added Lineated Seedeater, Giant Cowbird and Scaled Dove before crossing over to a small group of trees where we saw Chotoy Spinetail and Greater Thornbird but these were not my required target ticks. Eduardo had told Marlon where to take me so we walked the riverside where we found the Helmeted Manakin. Although I saw the bird well there was far too much vegetation in the way for a photograph. A Squirrel Cuckoo and Brown Capuchin proved a bit of distraction before we added my next tick of Sibilant Sirystes. All of a sudden we were once again distracted by a calling bird. It took ages before either of us got decent views to get any kind of description. After playing a tape of a few possibilities I eventually got a photo and the field guide confirmed it as White-lored Spinetail, the tick that I needed here. We also watched a pair of Barred Antshrikes and a Mato Grosso Antbird.
Marlon and I returned to the lodge where the heat was exhausting. I dived into the lodge’s swimming pool to cool off before having lunch.
After lunch we continued along the Transpantaneira road and crossed over numerous wooden bridges or made diversions down into the mud and where the bridges were too unstable. I would hate to be here in the rainy season! We needed the air conditioner on in the vehicle but it soon became apparent all was not well with it and so we had to have the windows open.....not very clever on a dusty track! We had to stop to admire a group of White-lipped Peccaries, which are apparently very aggressive and quite dangerous. A small group of Southern Caracaras proved a bit of distraction too. We added Maguari Stork and Brown-chested Martin to our lists as we limped along the track.
We arrived at the Jaguar Ecological reserve and picked up our boatman who was going to take us to the Rio Cuiaba for our afternoon boat ride. Dee and I were getting excited as neither of us could wait to see Jaguar, the whole reason for our trip. After a short while steam began pouring out from under the bonnet of our vehicle and we had to stop. It had been obvious for some time that not all was well with the vehicle but it had been exceptionally hot. We waited for a while for the engine to cool down before trying to get a drop of water into the radiator and Marlon fiddled with the air conditioning for a while. The three men all had differing ideas on what to do. Luckily I kept out of the argument! An hour passed and we made another attempt to motor on but more emitting steam dictated our fate. We were now stranded. After a failed attempt at getting a lift to the river it was now too late in the day and we watched helplessly as our vehicle radiator bubbled over and we walked back to one of the bridges that was blocking all traffic (well one tourist minibus) because it was being repaired. It got worse as a recently felled tree had taken down a nest of African Bees and they were not happy as we approached! Aggghhhh..........With little protection we made it to the tourist minibus that was being blocked by the bridge repair and begged the driver to let us in. The driver agreed to take us back to the lodge. We left Marlon with the bubbling vehicle and the boatman came with Dee and myself back to his lodge where he would make arrangements to rescue Marlon.
My birding trips are always full of adventures but now we were stranded without a vehicle. Marlon eventually returned with our very poorly vehicle with a cracked radiator in the middle of nowhere. Dee and I had a discussion as Marlon wanted to keep stopping for the rest of the trip continually re-filling with water. We explained that this was impractical, given the heat and after the lodge owner kindly agreed to take us under his wing for the following day, Marlon agreed to find another vehicle for us. After a night safari where the vehicle once again left us stranded as it overheated, Marlon was despatched back to Cuiaba to fetch a working vehicle. As we had missed our afternoon boat ride the lodge owner promised a full day’s ride on the river the following day instead of just the planned morning. Result!
In failing light a raucous sound was coming from trees behind the lodge. We were delighted to find Hyacinth Macaws coming into roost as well as Turquoise-fronted Amazons.
It had been quite a day and I was glad to be safe and sound in the lodge after wondering on several occasions whether we would be sleeping with prowling Jaguars on the track! (there is no mobile phone signal out here!) We even had a treat of Passionfruit Mousse for part of our meal which I fell in love with when I was in Bolivia.
With our guide despatched back to Cuiaba, Dee and I jumped into the lodge owner’s vehicle along with his son’s girlfriend after breakfast after admiring a Cattle Tyrant watching our departure.
We headed for Porto Jofre and the Rio Cuiaba. Eduardo stopped en route as a Sunbittern was strutting along the track. We also noted a Collared Plover, Rusty-margined Flycatcher and Unicoloured Blackbird. Once in Porto Jofre which was the end of the Transpantaneira Road, Eduarda prepared the boat. Lunches were loaded as were drinks. Dee and I made ourselves comfortable and the awaited day that I had planned for had finally arrived. We were both excited and thrilled as we sped off along the river in the blazing sun.
Eduardo knew where to stop along the river as he heard two Jaguars mating. We could just about see some spots behind the vegetation but our views were not good. We sped off once again and waited with another couple of boats but we saw nothing. The boatmen keep in contact with one another via radio and we were soon on our way again. Herons and kingfishers abounded but we were focused on seeing a Jaguar.
A Crane Hawk fascinated us as it probed for prey as we also took photos of Blue-throated Guan.
We pulled into the side of the river and there sleeping on a log was a female Jaguar. I could have cried as it was just so beautiful. Dee and I were thrilled as we clicked away with our cameras waiting for the Jaguar to wake up which after about half an hour it did. After several yawns it started to walk along the riverbank. I have never taken so many pictures of a single animal and was completely overcome with emotion of the sheer beauty of the animal as it hunted for prey.
We watched the Jaguar for nearly two hours as it walked along the top of the riverbank until it noticed two Capybaras halfway down the bank. All of a sudden it leapt down on top of them narrowly missing them. They swam off and the Jaguar continued swimming along the river alongside the bank. We kept our distance as we admired the animal. Eventually we left it in peace. It had been an amazing encounter and all the previous day’s angst forgotten.
Giant River Otter
Eduarda took us to a quiet spot in the shade where we could have lunch. A few metres away we watched a pair of Giant River Otter devouring catfish.
In the evening Eduardo took me to a local spot where he knew there to be an Agami Heron. Dee had remained behind as he didn’t want to come. We crept through the undergrowth but unfortunately the bird heard us coming and I was unsighted behind Eduardo and it ran before I could lay my eyes on it. I was gutted that I didn’t see it. Eduardo said that we would try again in the morning.
After our evening meal Marlon arrived back at the lodge with another vehicle.
What a day! How lucky and privileged I felt. I love South America and its wildlife.
After yesterday’s exciting day we awoke to torrential rain. It was quite clear to all that we were going nowhere. I was disappointed as I so wanted to see the Agami Heron, where Eduardo had seen it yesterday. Worse was to follow as soon as Marlon appeared he looked dreadful, quite clearly not well at all and we sent him back to bed. It really wasn’t his trip! Dee and I retreated to our rooms whilst the thunder and lightning storm raged around us. The electricity was knocked out and we lost all communication ability too. Luckily I had charged my phone, tablet and camera, so I spent the morning processing my photos as well as doing my checklist and diary pages. It was good to catch up.
Rio Claro lodge
After lunch we thanked the lodge owner for looking after us so well, showing us 3 Jaguars and Marlon dragged himself from his sickbed to drive us on a slippery track to the Rio Claro lodge. It was certainly very wet underfoot.
We survived the slippery journey in the rain to the entrance to the Rio Claro lodge. It had now stopped raining and we searched for more Giant Anteaters without success. A little further on a huge snake was slithering across the track. Dee leapt out of the vehicle in an attempt to catch it before it slithered down the bank. He tried to maintain a hold on its tail. Marlon and I were shocked at what was happening as it had all happened so quickly. Dee needed help to keep hold of it but neither Marlon or myself were very keen to help!
I have to say I wasn’t sad when the snake got away. We continued down the track and watched a Narrow-billed Woodcreeper and finally the sought-after Long-tailed Dove. After booking in to the lodge we had a disagreement with the lodge as they seemed to want to curtail our agreed booked boat rides. Eduardo Ormeache had advised me this was where our best chance of seeing Agami Heron was and so I was doggedly determined I was not going to be short-changed. I negotiated with the lodge owner and left Marlon no doubt that I had not come all this way to be let down now.
Sue on the Rio Claro
Half an hour later we boarded the boat and sped off down river watching Amazon Kingfishers, Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night Heron and a Roseate Spoonbill. Lurking under the trees over-hanging the river was an Agami Heron but as soon as it saw us it ran away and hid. It was a tickable view but neither of us had managed a photograph of this very shy, pretty heron.
We continued to search and eventually in a quiet channel the Water Hyacinths choked the water. We switched off the engine and in silence paddled our way further up. There along the bank was an Agami Heron walking quietly along the bank. We slowly edged our way along. You could have heard a pin drop!
It was a very pretty bird and once again we counted our blessings. My fourth target of the trip achieved.
Dee and I were both delighted at not only seeing the bird but seeing it so well and so close as we almost stopped breathing to keep very quiet. I knew how elusive these birds could be as I have done many trips to South America and this was heron that had always managed to elude me. Dee thanked me for my dogged determination for making sure that we saw this bird and in turn I need to thank Gunnar and Eduardo for making it happen.
After we had watched the Agami for some time it walked back into the vegetation and we turned the boat around. We quietly made our way back and stopped as a Band-tailed Antbird posed for the camera. The light was very poor today as we were having very light intermittent showers. I struggled as I pushed the ISO up to get a fast enough shutter speed. I envied Dee’s better camera equipment!
Further up the river I spotted a bird in a riverside bush that flew across the river as we approached. I kept an eye on it and relocated it sitting on a branch. It was a Little Cuckoo. With several world ticks today I was a happy bunny as we got back to the lodge. It wasn’t far off being dark and after an evening meal and walking back to my room I spotted two women kneeling down not far from it. Being the nosy sort I joined them to see one of the women taking photos of a Tarantula Spider. The small gap under my bedroom door now bothered me just a bit!!! This particular beast was nearly the size of my hand!
We were up at dawn but Marlon was still not very well. We watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Rusty-fronted Tody Flycatcher before returning for breakfast. After breakfast Dee decided not to join us and so Marlon and I drove up the track to an area of scrub that held a lifer for me that Eduardo had
mentioned. We stopped to admire Grassland Sparrow, Little Woodpecker and Long-tailed Dove before we got out of the vehicle to walk the scrubby area. We soon located the Green-backed Becard but it was not keen to have its photo taken.
Marlon was still not well and was struggling in the heat. He wanted to return to the lodge. I felt a bit frustrated as there was still good birding to be had but without a driver/guide I was a bit hampered and so spent the next few hours wandering around the lodge grounds whilst waiting for lunch as well as contacting Eduardo who made a few suggestions for more birds that I could reasonably get in the time that I had left. I took pictures of Yacare Caiman, Savannah Hawk, Blue-crowned Parakeet Nanday Parakeet and Bare-faced Ibis.
After lunch Marlon had recovered enough to drive us back to Pousada Piuval. We checked back into the lodge and armed with a list of species that Eduardo had suggested we used our own vehicle and drove back into the forest behind the lodge. Using our own vehicle we could now stop where we wanted and added a few more species to our list, including a few lifers. We saw Pale-crested Woodpecker, Plumbeous Kite, White-wedged Piculet, White Woodpecker, Large-billed Tern, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Stripe-necked Tody Tyrant. We reached the river once again but still failed to see the rail but added one last bird for the trip list a Striped Cuckoo.
After breakfast we began the journey back along the Transpantaneira Road to Cuiaba where Dee and I thanked Marlon and caught our midday flight to Sao Paulo. Once in Sao Paulo I thanked Dee for his company and we parted ways. I flew overnight to Amsterdam.
I flew from Amsterdam back to Norwich.