Jaguars in the Pantanal of Brazil

This short trip, July 15 – 26, was a birding tour with Field Guides, Inc. (link), led by Marcelo Padua. We were especially pleased to join our friends Terry and Rhys again for another birding adventure. The trip visited the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, in the south-central part of the country, and approximately in the geographic center of the South American continent. The tour principally sampled two biomes: the southern fringe of the Amazon Basin, and the northern Pantanal. The Pantanal is among the largest wetlands in the world, its area equivalent to a square 250 miles on a side. As it dries up during our summer months, wildlife becomes concentrated in areas with remaining water.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar, central Mato Grosso, Brazil
Above: Rufous-tailed Jacamar, central Mato Grosso, Brazil

Until about two decades ago, there was no known reliable way to see Jaguar, the largest cat in the western hemisphere, in the wild. It was then discovered that late in the dry season, Jaguars could be seen from boats on the Cuiaba River and its tributaries, as they diurnally hunted Greater Capybaras (the largest rodent in the world) and Paraguayan Caiman (a crocodilian). This has led to a substantial ecotourism business, centered in Porto Jofre, where we saw on the order of a hundred tourists converge where there was a Jaguar sighting.

Paraguayan Caiman, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Paraguayan Caiman, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

The tour started and ended in the large city of Cuiaba, reached by flying through Sao Paulo. It took us 19 hours to get there and 27 to return, the latter  thanks to United rebooking our itinerary three times due to flight cancellations. In Newark, they also tried to con us out of our reserved short row of two seats, one of only a few on the plane, and put us in the middle of a row of five. I threw a fit and a steward went back to the gate and straightened it out. Obviously something was crooked; the seats still showed as being in our name but evidently someone else wanted them, and either had a friend or bribed someone on the staff.

Greater Capybara, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Greater Capybara, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

The first day we had a classic Brazilian barbeque lunch and then spent the afternoon driving north, passing through agricultural areas and cerrado, a dry woodland and savanna habitat that occupies about one-fifth of Brazil’s area. We stopped briefly a few times to bird, finding somewhat over 40 species of  birds, of which seven were lifers (species we had not seen before). The most important by far was Greater Rhea, a flightless ostrich-like bird that stands about five feet tall. This was a new order for us, our 40th of the 41 extant bird orders. We hope to see the last order, the kiwis, in New Zealand in November.

Rusty-collared Seedeater, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Rusty-collared Seedeater, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

Our next 3.5 days were spent birding around Pousada Jardim da Amazonia, The Garden of the Amazon Lodge, located near Sao Jose do Rio Claro. This lodge is situated on the edge of the Amazon basin, near the ecotone with the cerrado. Although some of the forests there have been selectively logged, and the trees are of relatively low stature compared to core forests, that makes some treetop birds easier to see, and the birding is very good.

Azara's Agouti, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Azara’s Agouti, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

Our first morning we took boats up the Rio Claro to reach an isolated oxbow lake, where we hoped to find Cone-billed Tanager, the key target species of the first half of the tour. This extreme rarity was known by only a single specimen collected in 1938, until its rediscovery in 2003. It has only been seen in a couple of sites. We were very fortunate in that a male was singing when we arrived and we quickly were able to see it, at fairly close range, in good light! A female was briefly visible as well.

Cone-billed Tanager, central Mato Grosso, Brazil
Above: Cone-billed Tanager, central Mato Grosso, Brazil

During the remainder of our stay we mostly walked on trails through the forest, which also passed by openings with lakes. Some favorite birds we saw included a beautifully marked Spotted Puffbird; Orange-cheeked Parrot, normally hard to find; Swallow Tanager, the male being the most exquisite turquoise color imaginable; Gould’s Toucanet, giving a dramatic display while vocalizing; and Ocellated Poorwill, related to our Whip-poor-will and seen exceptionally well at night. Perhaps the avian highlight of the trip for us was watching Blue and Yellow Macaws coming in to roost on palm trees as the sun set.

Spotted Puffbird, central Mato Grosso, Brazil
Above: Spotted Puffbird, central Mato Grosso, Brazil

Other interesting animals were seen as well. Each night I went out looking for animals in the forest with a headlamp and thermal scope. One night I kept seeing, out of the corner of my eye, what I assumed were large insects. But when I finally caught a direct look at one, I realized that they were actually tiny bats! If that were not enough, they were flying into the small opening at the top of a 7-foot tall furled Heliconia leaf! These could only be Peters’s Disk-winged Bats, members of a small family of bats that have suction cups on their wings for adhering to smooth surfaces, like the insides of rolled-up leaves. The following day, Marcelo, our leader, used a remotely triggered smartphone on the end of a selfie stick to shoot photos looking down into the leaf. These revealed at least four roosting bats, and remarkably, when zoomed in, showed the suction cup disks!

Blue and Yellow Macaw, central Mato Grosso, Brazil
Above: Blue and Yellow Macaw, central Mato Grosso, Brazil

Another night, while walking on a boardwalk through a flooded forest, I found a two-foot-long Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman, the smallest crocodilian in the world. He spent the day in the same place, partly buried in mud, but was gone the following night. While out for nocturnal birds, our group had good looks at Crab-eating Fox, and some good mammals were seen during the day as well: Brown Capuchin, Black-tailed Marmoset, and Greater Capybara.

Black-collared Hawk, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Black-collared Hawk, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

A long drive south took us past our starting point in Cuiaba and on to the Pantanal. We stayed one night at the Aymara Lodge, which had good birding along its entrance road and on the grounds and trails. Some favorites from this area were Nacunda Nighthawk, with flashy white wing patches; the strikingly patterned Black-banded Owl; and Bare-faced Curassow, a large game bird often hard to see because of hunting pressure. We then drove the remainder of the road to its end at Porto Jofre, our base for the next three nights. Along the way we added the stunning Scarlet-headed Blackbird, which nests in Papyrus beds.

Pied Lapwing, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Pied Lapwing, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

The next two days were spent birding from boats on the Cuiaba River and its tributaries, with the primary objective of seeing Jaguars. In total we encountered these stunning cats five times, seeing seven individuals, and observing such behavior as dragging a caiman carcass; drinking from the river; resting; and actively searching for prey along the river shoreline! We also saw both scat and tracks. Photography from the boats was good, and the occasional sandbars often had interesting birds such as Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, Collared Plover, and Pied Lapwings.

Yellow-billed Tern, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Yellow-billed Tern, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

At dusk two species of Bulldog Bats, Lesser and Greater, began foraging low over the river, caching small fish. These represented a new family for us. Other highlights of our boating adventure included an inquisitive Spectacled Owl; Black-capped Donacobius, a wren-like bird with no close relatives; Paraguayan Howler, a large monkey with deep, far-carrying calls; and White-wedged Piculet, a tiny woodpecker.

Black-capped Donacobius, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Black-capped Donacobius, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

Leaving Porto Jofre, we returned north on the Transpantaneira Highway, birding along the way. Marcelo used recordings to lure in two difficult-to-see marsh birds, Rufous-sided and Gray-breasted Crakes, both of which we saw well. We reached the Piuval Lodge, where we spent our last night, around mid-afternoon. Highlights included Red-legged Seriema, one of only two species in its order; Black-bellied Antwren, a striking black and white species; and best of all, on a night-time safari in an open vehicle, extended, superb views of Lowland Tapir!

Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

In total, Eileen and I saw about 314 species of birds, of which 106 were lifers. This brings our bird lists to 3795 (Brian) and 3675 (Eileen). We saw 19 species of mammals, 14 of which were new; our totals are now 474 (Brian) and 448 (Eileen).

Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

As I write this, we are about to head south to Florida, to search for around 80 new plant genera, which will take us close to the end of our road trip this year.

Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil
Above: Jaguar, Northern Pantanal, Brazil

2 thoughts on “Jaguars in the Pantanal of Brazil

  1. That’s an amazing trip.. we did it with Mitch Lisinger and Marcelo was introduced on that trip as a newbie to Field Guides (if I’m recalling it properly)

    Sounds like you had great viewing – it is such an extraordinary place!

    So good you are finally able to take some of these trips that had been put on hold for so long!

    Happy travels, dear friends. Bob and Connee ________________________________


  2. Hi Brian and Eileen

    Somehow this latest entry was really captivating to me! The story, and the photos! What an amazing thing: to have been able to capture so many high quality photos. I was mesmerized. I kind of wanted to see the reject photos too 😊 It sounds like you added more than the usual number of “life” birds to your collection – it sounds like this was a really successful tour! Except for the 27 hour plane ride home with the suspicious seat incident.

    Mark finally got his permits to rebuild, and they’ve broken ground. It will cost far more to rebuild than the insurance paid out, so I’m helping Mark apply for an SBA Loan (because this was a FEMA disaster). Every single little thing about this is complicated. I’m really glad you’d sold your home.



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