Brazil's Pantanal - 2015

BRAZIL'S PANTANAL

Author: Lois O. Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour

Travel Arrangements: Zegrahm Expeditions

Searching for Jaguars in Brazil

October 2 to October 20, 2015

I ntroduction : Jaguars rolling and grooming like kittens! Giant otters growling and shrieking like no river or ocean otter you ever heard. Common and great potoos, birds that look

positively prehistoric. Flamboyant parrots gliding through the skies like aerial acrobats.

Predatory birds of all sizes from huge roadside hawks to tiny kingfishers plunging into the

ochre, silt-filled waters of the fast-moving rivers with deadly accuracy. The world's largest

rodent, capybaras, weighing up to 150 lbs swimming easily past our boats. What

exuberant nature all around us in the marvelous Pantanal of Brazil!

Because we had long wanted to visit "jaguar country" to see these magnificent big cats in

their own homelands, we booked a trip with our favorite travel company, Zegrahm

Expeditions, to join with other enthusiasts to explore the Pantanal, reputed to be the area

of the Americas with the highest density of jaguars. This trip delivered on every level

from lodgings to exploration experiences, food and food safety (no one got sick on this

trip), and guides. So let me now prove to you why we had so much fun, satisfaction and

great photo ops during this absolutely fabulous trip.

An explanation of the title of this journal is necessary at the beginning. The end of the

dry season in the Pantanal occurs during the spring (remember Brazil is below the

Equator). We knew to expect really hot temperatures—even into the 100s—and that did

occur a few times. Usually however the temperatures were in the 80s and 90s. But the

humidity is very high because the rainy season is hard upon. So we certainly did do a

lot of "panting" in the heat, as did many of the animals, even the birds. We did

experience one very rare occurrence where the weather turned really cool, but more

about that later. Our usual weather kept us sweating, panting on exertion & very HOT.

T ABLE OF C ONTENTS

Where And What Is The Pantanal? ................................................................................................ 4

Transpantaneira Highway.............................................................................................................. 7

First Stop: Araras Eco Lodge ..........................................................................................................13

Hike To Monkey Tower ..............................................................................................................14

Evening Safari Rides..................................................................................................................17

Get A Horse!................................................................................................................................18

Second Stop: Pantanal Mato Grosso Hotel ...................................................................................26

Third Stop: Porto Jofre..................................................................................................................39

Finally! Jaguars!! ..........................................................................................................................47

Fourth Stop: Bonito And A Sinkhole ..............................................................................................65

Buraco Das Araras......................................................................................................................65

Snorkeling The Rio De Prata..........................................................................................................68

Fifth Stop: Caiman Ecological Reserve & Lodge ........................................................................72

The Jaguar Kill ............................................................................................................................91

Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................100

W HERE AND W HAT IS THE P ANTANAL ?

The Pantanal is mainly in the country of Brazil in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato

Grosso do Sul, but small parts of it are within the borders of Bolivia and Paraquay.

The Brazilian part is over 75,000 square miles in area. It is considered the world's

largest tropical wetland, more than 20 times larger than Florida's Everglades NP.

This pristine wilderness with no towns in its borders shelters over 1000 species of birds

(we saw 230), 400 different kinds of fish, 300 mammal species (we saw 26 species),

480 types of reptiles (we saw 5) and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates. It

was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2000 adding further protection to this

sensitive area. Most of the land is owned in very large tracts by ranchers and farmers.

Many of these family-owned estates (fazendas and estancias) offer eco-lodge

accommodations and activities. Their interest in conservation for economic reasons has

also led to the preservation of many more areas.

The Brazilian government furthers this aim by offering tax breaks to large (& smaller)

landowners who will declare sections of their lands to be "refuges." These lands will be

so designated in perpetuity, even should the original owners decide to sell their

property. So that answers the where question. Now to the what.

Imagine a depression in the earth that is millions of years old predating the uplifting of

the Andes Mountains. Picture if you can this huge basin of 75,000 square miles, 80%

covered in water for six months of the year (the rainy season) and almost desiccated at

the last of the dry six months. Many rivers flowing down the gentle slope of the bowl

from surrounding higher lands create an internal delta in this great basin which receives

up to 55 inches of rain as well during the wet months. The rainy season usually runs

from November to April and the dry season from May through October.

The plants and animals must live through both those seasons so they have evolved to

adapt to both wet and dry conditions. We visited the Pantanal in October, considered to

be the best time to view as much wildlife as possible since all kinds of creatures must

seek out the dwindling ponds and pools for water. The rivers flow continuously

throughout the year but not all creatures are adapted to utilize the rapidly running river

water. These creatures seek out the pools and lakes in the Pantanal. Many other

animals do congregate along the river banks in the dry season, making them easy to

spot from ecotourist boats.

We were lucky enough to view many mammal species as well as a huge number of

birds from these boats. In fact, most companies advertise that the easiest and safest

way to see the magnificent jaguars is from a boat and that certainly worked for us. The

other way to explore the Pantanal during dry season is on the dirt roads that the big

landowners have created to get wheeled vehicles in and out of their lands. Each

ecolodge has its own style of safari truck which accommodates between 12 and 15

people comfortably. There are different configurations used in each place: some are

like African safari trucks where the seats are raised from front to back and all face

forward. Another style used the truck sides & back to arrange the seating. There were

advantages and disadvantages to both styles. More about that as we get into the actual

"safaris" we enjoyed.

THE EXPEDITION

Our journey worked its way down from Cuiaba, a large city on the northern edge of the Pantanal. We stayed a couple of nights in a nice hotel (the Gran Odara) but really didn't do

much sightseeing in the city. However, it gave us our chance to have a first meeting with

the 11 other people who had signed up with us as well as our tour guides, Mark Brazil

(Zegrahm representative & bird expert) and Frederico (Fred to us) Tavares (our local

Brazilian guide and trip coordinator and another birding pro and expert on the

Pantanal and all its creatures). Quickly we realized that this would be a very compatible

and comfortably small group. Everyone wanted what we had come for: the chance to

see and photograph as many of the amazing species of wildlife as possible in this

charmed environment. That initial impression held true throughout our 18 days together!

T RANSPANTANEIRA H IGHWAY

The way into the Pantanal from

the cities and towns on the

periphery is via the

Transpantaneira Highway - a raised

dirt road punctuated by numerous

perilous-looking wooden bridges

over rivers, sloughs, and ravines.

The highway leaves the city of Cuiaba and is paved for about the first 40 miles. When

we reached the actual "highway," we saw the wooden welcoming archway

signaling

our true entrance into the Pantanal. The smooth surface abruptly ends there and the

bumps and thumps begin over the dirt road for another 80 miles to its end at Porto

Jofre. So now let's make the trip from top to bottom, or from north to south. Luckily for

our backs and bottoms, we did not have to travel the whole highway in one day, until the

last day when we had to drive back to Cuiaba to catch a flight to our last stop, Campo

Grande (but more about that later).

We stopped many times along the way for photo ops and "nature stops." Among the

birds we saw were: herons, cranes, and various raptors. And then there were the

Caimans and the capybaras - the world's largest rodent.

The Yacare Caiman.

The Capybara

The safari vehicles were old but not particularly uncomfortable—they were the African

type with gradually raised rows of seats, with ladders to climb to enter the viewing area.

We did learn about the accent on "old" further into our explorations there.

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ARARAS LODGE

F IRST S TOP : A RARAS E CO L ODGE

The Araras Eco Lodge was our home and base camp for two days of very successful

exploring of this part of the northern Pantanal. However, I must backtrack a moment to

tell you that the very uneven and lumpy highway drive was not without its rewards. We

saw many different birds and even the most famous reptilian denizen of the Pantanal: the

hyacinth macaw.

One of the highlights of the environs of the lodge were our first looks at the beautiful and

critically endangered Hyacinth macaws. The lodge owner is involved with rehabilitating and

returning to nature injured macaws as well as providing nesting places for wild and

healthy birds These parrots are the largest in the parrot family. Only pictures can

reveals the beauty of these wonderful chatty birds.

The Araras Lodge was comfortable and the food was delicious.

HIKE TO MONKEY TOWER

On our first full day at Araras, however, we started out at 6:30 a.m. on a stroll on the

impressive raised wooden boardwalk out to the Torre do Bugio (the Monkey Tower)

where we would see panoramic views of the surrounding lands. On the walk to and from

the tower we saw capuchin monkeys, woodstorks, and many other birds.

It was extremely hot already and by 9:30, we decided that we needed to shower and

change clothes. I suppose we were still tired because we napped until lunch at noon

and were very ashamed of ourselves. After an inviting alfresco buffet lunch, we were

ready for the next activity: our first vehicle safari.

EVENING SAFARI RIDES

There were several highlights during our afternoon & evening safari rides. We saw crab- eating foxes and crab-eating raccoons but, oddly enough, neither species eats crabs. This was the

only place where we saw the raccoons, but the foxes proved to be very numerous and

easy to spot everywhere we went. Also easily seen were the fat pig-like Barzilian tapirs.

Our night rides here were accompanied by the rhythmic clicks of the castanet frogs all

around us. A distinct and happy jungle sound. Other phenomena that made night rides

more interesting were the numerous fireflies winking on and off around us and the

wonderful insects we couldn't identify except that they appeared to be pieces of silver

razor wire suspended in the spotlight glare.

GET A HORSE!

The most memorable highlight turned out to be related to the "old" safari vehicle. As we

drove through a very dry area with spindly vegetation and open scraggy grasslands, we

came upon a surprisingly muddypatch on the clay road. The driver either did not

recognize the problem or thought the truck was mighty enough to pass right over the

danger. WRONG! We became well and truly stuck and no amount of jockeying back

and forth could free us. It became clear that it was going to take a lot of work to get us

out of the muck and mire. Everybody off the truck and the driver and a helper as well as

many of our party began to work on digging the truck out. That was when we learned

that the tires were totally bald—no tread to be seen and the trucks have no way to

contact the lodge so we were really alone in the wilderness.

The knowledgeable staff and the willing workers began to gather branches to provide

traction while the driver and his helper dug deeper into the mud to place the branches.

Some of the group were a cheering squad, others went off to hike around the barren

waste looking for something "wild" and others actually participated in the preparations.

When all was in readiness, the driver got back into the cab and all the willing workers

began to push the truck. Several fruitless tries later, it was time to give up and start

again.

More branches, more bushes and more digging. By this time the hikers had returned to

the site and found that no real progress had been made so some of them pitched in with

the second pushing effort! Success! We all thought we were out of there. But no! The

truck rammed its way out of the mud only to slipslide away into still another muddy

patch and was trapped yet again! More digging and more collecting and then more

pushing and finally the truck got back onto solid ground. So our afternoon safari was

shorter but it turned into an evening safari as well. And that was fine with us eager

wildlife searchers.

The rest of our explorations at Araras were uneventful compared to that first afternoon.

No more truck dramas. However, our safari drives morning, afternoon, and night were

very productive for our desired wildlife viewing. This was not a lodge that advertised

itself as a good place to see jaguars so we were not surprised that we saw none. But

we did spot many bird species that we had never seen before as well as mammals that

were new to us in the wild.

Among the new birds we saw were scarlet-crested cardinals, purplish jays, savanna

hawks, black-collared hawks, several parakeet species, cocoi herons and the huge

jabiru storks nesting with chicks visible.

Among the mammals, we saw our first tapirs, marsh and brocket deer, the six banded

armadillo, and capuchin monkeys. We spent the longest time observing the charming

yellowish six-banded armadillos. Birds flit away quickly, deer are shy and skittish, and

tapir just lumber along not doing anything very interesting.

The very pale, almost creamy-white, six-banded armadillos were quite busy in their dry

open field home.

They had several holes to duck into when frightened and they also showed a lot of

interaction among themselves They would run at one another, a pair seemed to be

courting; they would waddle quickly away from outright confrontations; one was very

industriously cleaning out his home by digging and throwing excess sand and leaves

out of his doorway. All of them were very fetching and fun to observe. We even returned

to their little homeland on another occasion to watch them again, but there were not

many observable then.

WHITE-LIPPED PECARRIES

Another interesting species we saw only at Araras were the two varieties of peccaries: the white-lipped and the collared. The white-lipped fellows are only in Central and South America, but the collared subspecies is familiar to us since they are common the

United States’ western states.

COLLARED PECCARY

Perhaps the most curious and mysterious bird we saw during the whole trip was the

Sun Grebe. There are two things about him that make him stand out as highly unusual. His

strange feet are what immediately meets the eye, if you can see him perched

somewhere rather than in the water. His webbed feet have distinct lobed "fingers" which

are marked by black and white circular stripes from top of feet to the toes.

SUN GREBE

The other phenomenon is even more incredible and peculiar to this bird alone in the

avian world. But this is something you cannot see unless you can lift his wings (unlikely

in the wild). The male bird has a

marsupial-like pouch beneath his wings where the

chicks can hide and be carried. There are many questions about this unique feature: for

instance, how the chicks actually get inside the pouch, does the male or female place

them there, are they fed there, how long do they stay there, and oddest of all, why does

only the male carry this pouch?

There are certainly other animal and bird species where the male does the caretaking of

the young animals. The Rheas of South America and the Emus of Australia show this

practice. Even Sea Horses are known for this behavior. The Wattled Jacana male has the

ability to tuck his charges under his wings to take them to safety, but he has no

pouch. He just holds them tightly between wing and body. So the Sun Grebe is an

entirely singular bird.

IMMATURE WATTLED JACANA

S ECOND S TOP : P ANTANAL M ATO G ROSSO H OTEL

Our next stop for two days along the Pantaneria Highway was the Pantanal Mato Grosso Hotel which offered unforgettable boat trips on the Pixaim River. Our drive along the

thumpy bumpy highway afforded us many more looks at the roadside creatures:

birds, caimans in profusion, capybaras. So we were never bored on the long drives

between lodges.

The Pixaim River is interesting in that it is a river which in dry season is interrupted by

higher lands which emerge as barriers to river flow. So there are "dead-ends" to

various forks along the river's course. In wet season, all the barriers are covered and

the river flows without interruptions. So it is labeled a "seasonal river." Nonetheless its

segmented parts offer water to the wildlife and places for tourists to travel along the

banks searching for birds and mammals.

The Hotel was comfortable and again the food was quite good: lots of fresh vegetables

and fruits and tasty main course dishes. Our private rooms were comfortable and

spacious and the air-conditioning was efficient even in the really hot weather we were

experiencing. There were many shady places to sit outside and watch the birds at the

numerous feeders spread around the main public building where the reception area was

located as well as the dining room where we were fed so lavishly and deliciously.

The fas t - boat rides were the high points of

this visit. We enjoyed two daily: one in the

morning and the other in the afternoon.

The river was very placid and filled with

birds of so

many

different

species

whether a.m. or p.m. The riverside forest

galleries were wonderful homes to winged

residents and to some of the arboreal

mammals and even one species of reptile

as well. It was amusing to see the green

iguanas draped among the branches of the

trees taking in the sun.

Near one jabiru stork nest, a very substantial iguana was relaxing on a branch

immediately below the complicated architecture of the very large home the storks had

built for their chicks. Neither species seemed to be aware of the proximity of its

neighbor.

We saw capuchin monkeys, marsh deer, and brocket deer, capybaras and lots of

Brahma cattle that belong to local ranchers in the area. It was clear that there was

plenty of meat on the hoof to satisfy the jaguars, if any live in this part of the Pantanal.

Kingfisher species abounded as well and we even saw dragonflies in many different

colors. These river boat rides were just astounding for viewing the wildlife.

MARSH DEER

CAPUCHIN MONKEY

JABIRU STORKS WITH CHICKS

GIANT RIVER OTTERS

The most exciting boating adventure was seeing the giant river otters up close and

personal. The big male that swam directly at our boat looked as though he was going to

jump in and join us. In truth, the staff brings a few frozen fish along to feed them so they

are ready and willing to get close.

These are truly amazing animals. Their size - particularly the males - is stunning. And

the teeth and claws could easily make a mess of any human flesh stupid enough to

challenge them.

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The staff also threw some fish to waiting hawks. They would tie the fish with a piece of

river greenery that had small air bladders. That way the fish would float and give the

bird a second chance if the first one failed.

FISHING HAWKS

ROADSIDE HAWK

BLACK COLLARED HAWK

BLACK HAWK

The river was not considered safe for night rides due to fallen trees and other

dangerous obstacles to run aground on so at night we took safari road rides. On our first night drive here, our best sightings were of the Great Potoo (such an improbable bird) whose feathers so closely resemble tree bark and lichen. When he roosts on a branch

snag or a fence post he is almost impossible to see because his camouflage is just

perfect. The only way he was detected at night was through eye-shine. When the

spotlights swooped over him, his eyes would emit golden spears of light back at us. The

first we saw was actually sitting atop a conical shaped gray termite mound. His eye-

shine made him look for all the world like a little lighthouse flashing warning signals to

ships in the night.

Another really amazing experience here on the night drives was hearing the frog

species dubbed the Formula One frogs. Neither of our guides knew the real name of

these wonderful creatures. But their nickname was perfect: they sound exactly like race

cars on a curve going as fast as possible—that high whining sound. Close your eyes

and you are standing at one of those curves on a racecourse in Monaco!

Another surprising and even startling experience on a night ride here was our encounter with a Pauraque, a species of nightjar, who decided the search beams in our dark truck revealed to him where the insects he sought showed to best advantage. So he flew right

into the truck with us as he darted about trying to catch his supper. He is not a small

bird either so we were all dodging and maybe even emitting a squeal or two until he

sped out of the truck and we could see that he was a bird and not a bat as some feared.

On our 2nd day at the Pixaim river resort, we started the day with a birding walk along

the river bank. A different way of observing the vegetation that lives a little back from the

actual river bank. It was dramatic to see the high water marks on trees and bushes from

this angle as well as from the river. A really special sighting on this walk which we probably would never have seen from the boats was the Pantanal Black-tailed Marmoset. He is one of the family of very tiny primates who live in South America. Our guides and all of us were so happy to see him.

Another particularly beautiful creature we observed, not for the last time, was a bird

most of us had never even heard of. the Glittering-throated Emerald looks quite a bit like a

hummingbird but he is an entirely different species. Tiny and fast-moving like

hummingbirds and therefore difficult to photograph well, he was still worth our patience

in working for the perfect shot. Later on the trip, we would see him many times but

never took him for granted.

The afternoon boat ride was very productive as well. We were quite struck with the

beautiful and artistic patterns created by the exposed roots of the trees and bushes

living so close to the river bank that they were being undermined by the river's currents.

It was pretty clear that many of the most dramatic of these "prop" roots were omens of

the ultimate fall of these plants. So many seemed to be hanging on by one stringy root

with its "claws" clinging to the sandy bank. This year's rainy season would probably

bring many that we were admiring down into the river water. But these snags just off the

banks provided excellent perches for the birds and even the iguanas who lived along

the Pixaim.

BLACK AND GOLD HOWLER MONKEY

While we were in primate mode, we also got a tantalizing look at the Black and Gold Howler monkey. So well camouflaged in the heavy leafy vegetation, the black and golden

females were very hard to photograph. However, we could bob and weave around

to see the creatures anyway. This was definitely a new primate species for all of us. Not to

break a trend, we also saw Pantanal Marmoset and Brown Capuchins on this walk.

This nice combination of explorations by boat, safari truck and on foot made our visit to

the Pantanal Mato Grosso Hotel thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding in every way!

T HIRD S TOP : P ORTO J OFRE

HOTEL PORTO JOFRE At the end of the Highway Pantaneria sits the Hotel Porto Jofre. It's a

huge property with many buildings to house tourists, serve meals, provide internet access,

and trees with enormous canopies to provide shade in the heavy heat to humans and

homes for the noisy resident hyacinth macaws and parakeets.

Mornings were cacophonous but

the sounds were joyous as the

birds greeted the morning. Chaco Chachalacas were the noisiest and easily woke all the others.

We needed no alarm clocks to be up at 5 AM. - this bird took care of that little chore .

One of the most prominent structures on the property was a 500 ft. long boardwalk over

a stream—this structure was the jaguar walk. Across the stream the jaguars were often

seen. So often that a webcam was placed there so anyone could see them strolling over

to the hotel property, usually at night. We were cautioned not the cross the boardwalk,

even in daylight, unless there were at least two of us walking together. We were clearly

instructed NOT to cross the walk after dark no matter how many of us wanted to stroll

over together!

That was a sign that was very welcome to the big cat lovers who were so eager to see

jaguars in the wild. We knew that our best chance of seeing these gorgeous cats was

during our four days here in Porto Jofre. And the signs with "night cam" pictures of the

felines were convincing evidence that we had arrived in the right place!

However, our first sighting of a yellow-ginger cat was not a jaguar. When we went to the

dining hall from our cabin for breakfast the first morning, we spotted on the porch of

the building a rather beat up ginger tom cat—felis domesticus. He was obviously waiting

for breakfast handouts and the property manager, Norman, was already there feeding

him, lunch meat and cheese.

Norman told us that the cat's name is Harold Christian and he had lived there on the

property a little over two years. We were amazed that a jaguar had not already taken

him for a breakfast snack. For the next three days, we also took turns feeding poor lop-

eared Harold. Norman expressed to us his worries about the cat during the 4 months

that the hotel is closed. We asked if there would not be a caretaker during the down-

time and the answer was affirmative. So we suggested that the caretaker be requested

(bribed) to see to Harold during that time with the understanding that when Norman

returned he would look for the cat and if Harold was well, the caretaker could expect a

bonus above his regular salary. Norman thought that was a grand idea and agreed that

he would try it this year. We certainly hope that the plan works because Harold Christian

looks like a survivor in a hostile world.

Hotel Porto Jofre specializes in boat explorations on the Cuiaba River & its many

tributaries. The hotel runs really fast boats (light aluminum skiffs powered by 150

horsepower outboards). The boats carried 10 or 11 people each. Normally, it would take

about 1 to 1 & 1/2 hours to reach the point where we would begin exploring a particular

river area.

We went out in the these boats twice daily: once at 6 a.m. and then again at 3:30 or 4:00.

The average session lasted until right before lunch (noon) and dinner (7 p.m.)! So there

was lots of boat riding for sure!

AMERICAN PYGMY KINGFISHER

The first full-day boat rides (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) were so

exhilarating. The temperatures were mild, at least when the boats were flying as fast as

possible, the sky was so blue and high over our heads, punctuated with the such

dreamy white clouds, and we all enjoyed the air rushing through our hair after the really

hot days on the Pixaim and at Azaras. Birds were everywhere, on branches, in the sky,

on the river side banks, in the water

COCOI HERON

Of course on the first day's boat rides we were all eager for a jaguar but that wish was

not to be satisfied on that day. All we really saw were suggestions of jaguar coats

behind thick foliage . No one really saw a whole jaguar; we all saw rosettes and knew

there was a jaguar just behind the scrim of riverbank bushes. But no jaguar appeared so we could see him whole. Herewith, a differentiation between jaguar spots and leopard spots. Since we were so well-versed in this difference, we knew the spots

before our eyes could only belong to the jaguar. Ha! Ha! How about the fact that we

also really did know that only jaguars live in South America. Therefore, no leopards in

Brazil. Pretty easy, right?

The second day of speedboat explorations saw an enormous change in the weather!

Instead of flying along under blue skies feeling relief from the heat as we sped along,

suddenly we were under sullen gray overcast skies and the winds in our faces were no

longer pleasant. WE WERE FREEZING!

No one had brought clothing for this 180 turn in the temps. We ended up that day using

our life vests as shields against the winds. Those folks wearing sandals and shorts or

cut-offs were particularly uncomfortable. But there was no slowing the boats down

because the distances to be covered could not be shortened. The most discouraging

thing about the abrupt weather swap was that the guides told us that we would be less

likely to see jaguars along the riverbanks when the weather turns cool. Oh woe! Now

we were really unhappy—at least those of us whose primary reason for visiting the

Pantanal was the opportunity to see jaguars in the wild. It was no more comforting when

they told us that this weather change was highly unusual at this time of year.

Finally! Jaguars!!

But Guess What—Surprise! The weather gods did NOT ruin our trip! That very morning

as chilly as we were, we saw our first whole entire jaguar! He was sitting in a perfect

frame of vegetation but was totally visible.

Even though the sky was overcast, a golden spotlight bathed him in clear and glowing

light as if he were on a stage. And to us, of course, he was the star of the whole show!

He lounged there in regal splendor for quite some time, yawning and displaying his

formidable teeth and very long deep pink tongue. He demonstrated feline grooming

techniques as he washed his paws and his face as well as behind his ears. When he

grew bored with us staring at him, he raised up on his front legs and stretched

languorously for a few seconds. Then he disdainfully turned and disappeared into the

deep vegetation behind his lounging platform. No wonder jaguars can be so hard to

see; they can disappear with just a couple of steps—their camouflage is highly effective.

46

For the next 2 days, the weather was just as temperamental—really chilly in the speed

boats. However, now we were forewarned and forearmed. Everybody brought extra

coverings to the boats: towels from their rooms, more layers of clothing if they had any,

ponchos to repel the winds, closed shoes with socks rather than sandals. Even cold

weather could not dampen our spirits now that we had seen that jaguars do roam the

riverbanks even when the chilly winds blow!

Each one of the boat rides we took revealed different scenery, different vegetation,

different water colors, different birds (as well as the ones becoming more familiar to us),

different mammals and their special behaviors.

We jumped aboard those skiffs both morning and afternoons eager to see what that

excursion would reveal to us. We were never disappointed. The Pantanal was alive with

so much natural scenery and so many creatures, particularly the amazing varieties of

birdlife.

On our last and most special day, we were on the Negrinho River early in the morning

and we had the entire tributary to ourselves, This river was the most beautiful in itself,

black water instead of the more common ochre, delicate vegetation on the riverbanks,

picturesquely overhanging the calm and reflective waters, twittering birds everywhere

and lots of animal life to see as well. Adding to the amazing morning was the fact that

the overcast skies had been replaced by beautiful blue skies and the pillowy white

clouds. The air temperature had also turned warmer but not hot!

Cruising along this

river setting was glorious!

We had barely gotten into this tributary when we had our best jaguar experience of this

part of the Pantanal! And we were not surrounded by many other riverboats all

jockeying for positions to assure their tourists had the best views. We had these two

jaguars to ourselves and it was fabulous.

The first one we saw was an adult male who was moving about checking on scents in

his area. The boat driver said that there was a female in the vicinity and so it was

assumed that he was checking on her whereabouts.

He would stroll along the river, disappear behind the vegetation momentarily, reappear

with his nose to the ground, and groom a little while, perhaps in anticipation of

her return. Kay took so many unobstructed pictures of this really fine fellow and

we all stared in amazement at his size and his beauty.

Jaguars are the largest of the cats in the South America, but there are several other cat

species living alongside this giant feline. There are Margay, Ocelot, Pantanal Cat (also

known as the Pampas Cat), Jaguarundi, and Puma. The smaller ones are very hard to

see in the wild and even the pumas are not common. The only one of these lesser cats

we actually observed, to be described later, was the ocelot. And we were told that we

were very lucky to see one of those critters. Just in case you ever wondered, the only

big cats who purr are the snow leopard and the cheetah; the lion, leopard, jaguar, and

tiger all roar rather than purr. No cat species can both purr and roar.

Back to the jaguar sightings—while we were enjoying the big male and his activities, it

took us a little while to notice another jaguar cat arriving behind the bushes a little to the

right of the big fellow who was giving up on the female returning. He was backing away

into the brush himself and disappearing. We had no time to be disappointed because a

young female came into view somewhat down the river and around a bend.. We moved

our skiff closer to her and the guide and boat driver both said it was unlikely that the big

fellow was tracking her scent because he never reappeared. She definitely appeared to

be much younger and smaller than the first. But she gave us a good show as well. Two

jaguars in one session and again with no other boats around!

Another interesting phenomenon we had noticed earlier on other tributaries was the little

eruptions in the surface waters which appeared to be little geysers. On the Negrinho,

these were much more numerous and fun to watch. There was considerable

speculation as what could be causing the little fish (or some other creatures in the

water) to come to the surface in such numbers. We never got a definitive answer, but

the most plausible seemed to be that the fish were seeing insects on the water surface

and rising up to snatch them. One person suggested they might be coming up for air, so

to speak, but that seemed odd since most fish do not breathe in air but in water. A

couple of the fish actually jumped out of the water and into our boat!

We saw nesting male and female rufous-tailed jacamars scurrying about collecting

nesting materials while also displaying courting behaviors. These are very colorful

songbirds, rather like our painted buntings, except they are somewhat larger.

The river surface was covered in water hyacinths in lovely blooms—light and darker

purple blossoms like wisteria flowers except that the water-borne ones stand upright

rather than drooping so lazily in the light breezes. The pretty flowers created a soft

sweet aroma in the area as well. Just a lovely time to be "cruising down the river."

While we drifted along, we also saw a caiman rise up out of the water with a rather large

catfish in his mouth. The fish was speckled with orange colorations on his scales—a

very pretty fish actually. But he was

also clearly doomed if not already

gone by the time we saw him

An interesting bird we saw was the

Crane Hawk, a gangly predatory bird,

gray in color, who uses his very long

legs to pursue his prey differently

from other predatory birds.

Rather than flying down to the water and scooping up his prey or catching it on the fly,

this bird reaches with those long legs into crevices and holes in trees to get eggs or

young birds for his supper. The legs look out of proportion to the rest of the bird's body

because of their surprising length. " All the better to reach you, my dear."

During our drift down the peaceful river towards evening, we came upon two trees

leaning over the river that were filled with spectacular birds, white with reddish-orange

breeding plumage. At breeding time, the really remarkable thing about them is that their

irises turn the same color as the feathers on their heads and necks. These lovely

creatures flying back and forth, landing & taking off filling the skies with their long white

wings were very familiar to us—they were Cattle Egrets, the bird that has managed to

occupy every continent except Antarctica.

On other days on less magical tributaries than the Negrinho, we nevertheless saw

marvelous sites—like the capybara families on shore.

Sometimes an adult would be in the water with the babies standing around watching.

We even saw one mother try to lure her baby into some lily-pad covered water with her.

But the baby was very hesitant and when he finally ventured in, he didn't last long even

though the cool water must have felt good. He just turned around and headed back to

the safety of the shore and then the mother followed him.

We had two special encounters with giant otters while visiting the Cuiaba River and its

tributaries. During the first one we watched a family cruising up and down the river bank

near their home den. They treated us to the many vocalizations they can create.

Unearthly sounds for sure. Some loud like screaming, others low like booming drums,

another more like a croon. Truly amazing. The Giant Otters are prodigious hunters with

huge teeth; they can even compete with jaguars for prey. Very muscular and powerful

swimmers. Their faces are fierce in expression but another experience revealed what

caring parents they are.

On another swifter river, we watched a family try to cross a really strong current to reach

the opposite side where their den obviously lay. The adults had no trouble at all, but the

3-4 month old babies were struggling and unable to cross over.

The adults kept swimming back and forth trying to coax the two youngsters to follow

them, but it was no use. They just didn't have the strength or maybe the nerve. At any

rate, two of the adults swam back to the other side and each put a baby in its mouth

where the tail was hanging out one side and the face out the other and carried the

babies to the safety of the den.

The other otter species who lives in Brazil is the Neotropic River Otter. We also saw this much

smaller otter displaying his customary behavior and we learned a new word

connected with his territory marking. That word is "spraint" and it describes the otter's

habit of smearing portions of his dung to signify to other otters that he is in this territory.

The fellow we watched was "sprainting" all over and around a fallen log and he was

quite busy at it. He is sinuous and muscular just as are the giant otters and the North

American river otters. He is playful as are the others.

To compare the three species, here are some statistics. The giant otter can be up to 6 ft.

long and weigh up to 75 lbs. He can use 9 different vocalizations to communicate with

his family. The neotropic river otter tops out at 33 lbs and can reach 3 to 4 feet in length.

North American river otters are similar in size to the Neotropic otters. By contrast,

sea otters can reach 50 to 100 lbs. and can be 4 to 5 ft. Long. All these otters can

vocalize, but the giant otter has much the largest "vocabulary."

One of the most ubiquitous creatures in the Pantanal is the Yacare Caiman. He is South

America's answer to our Alligator. He doesn't grow to quite the size of the gator but he

is not too far behind. His eyes sit a little higher on top of his head and he shows more

teeth than a gator when his mouth is closed but not as many as the crocodile reveals.

Fearsome as he looks, he can easily become Jaguar food. We were surprised at this

revelation—he seems way too formidable for a jaguar to chance attacking him. But

apparently they regularly do, especially the smaller ones. We actually saw a good-sized

caiman, dead, and pulled up on the bank where 3 vultures were feasting.

The guides said only a jaguar could have drug him from the river after the kill.

For a good comparison of the three species, check out this link.

F OURTH S TOP : B ONITO AND A SINKHOLE

We stayed in this lovely tourist town of Bonito at the Pousada Ohlo de Aguas Hotel which

looked quite prosperous for only one night. This property was very attractive and I think

we all would have enjoyed staying another night or two. But we were here for only one

purpose—to visit Buraco das Araras. Before we visited this singular site, we enjoyed

the best meal we had on the entire trip to Brazil. The food was exquisite and what the

wonderful lady chef could do with manioc was just so delicious. I think everyone

was blown away by all the food she served us during that lunch. It was not that the

meal's ingredients were that different, it was the special way she used various spices to

render the food so flavorful. We probably all would have taken her back home with us if

only she could have brought all her spices and food combinations with her.

Buraco das Araras

In 1986 a cowboy named Modesto Sampaio purchased 247 acres not far from the

town of Bonito. He discovered that part of his acreage contained a huge sinkhole

(formed from the collapse of a cave) that was 407 feet deep and 525 feet in diameter. It

was filled with trash and garbage and occupied by multiple vultures. In 1997 after hearing

that red and green macaws had inhabited the sinkhole in years past, he decided to clean it

out.

It was difficult to imagine how he managed such a feat when we looked down into the

prodigious hole and observed how steep the sides are—nearly perpendicular. But

Modesto was determined and accomplished the task. Once it was cleaned out, he

realized that there was a pool at the bottom

providing water to wildlife who could utilize

the sinkhole. So he released a captive pair of

red & green macaws into the sinkhole and

they pretty quickly flew out and away.

However, within a couple of days, they

returned and brought about 10 wild macaws

with them. The bird complement now is

about 100 macaws.

In 2000, the macaws decided they had had enough of their neighbors, the vultures, and

drove them out in screaming bird battles. Then Modesto decided to make his treasure

into a Natural Heritage Private Preserve (RPPN) and so the area will be preserved in

perpetuity even if someday his family wishes to sell the land. Nowadays, the macaws

willingly share their vertical walls with all its accommodating cracks and ledges for nests

with spectacled owls and buff-necked ibis as well. There are also caimans in the pool at

the bottom but researchers are at a loss to explain how they got there and how

they continue to survive.

Modesto the cowboy now owns a popular tourist attraction which supports his family

handsomely. He added trails to the sinkhole from the entrance to his land and built

observation platforms where delighted visitors can enjoy the spectacular flights of these

beautiful birds as they come and go from the sinkhole. In flight these birds are

flamboyant and magnificent.

Our short stay in Bonito was certainly very much worthwhile! We loved the food and the

lovely birds of the Buraco. And lots of kudos to Modesto Sampaio who brought the birds

back and even gave them protection forever!However long that turns out to be!

S NORKELING T HE R IO D E P RATA

We left the Pousada Ohlo de Aguas by our comfortable touring bus heading south

toward the Caiman Lodge, our last ecolodge stop. But we paused on the way for a

surprise snorkeling adventure. All the necessary gear was provided and the group was

divided in two for the drifting float down a crystal clear freshwater river—supposedly

also clear of caimans and man-eating piranhas. The cool Rio de Prata lived up to the hype

and the 2-3 hour drift was enjoyed by the participants. Many colorful fish were seen &

photographed with underwater cameras.

The many colorful birds congregated on the large property which also provided

showers, changing rooms, shaded sitting spaces, and a restaurant for a substantial

lunch. There were macaws and parakeets enjoying the feeding platforms. Other smaller

birds (unidentified) also slipped in amongst their larger brethren to sneak a bite too.

After lunch, we reboarded our bus and headed on down the smoother but still

treacherous gravel highway towards the Caiman Lodge and Fazenda (cattle ranch). We

saw many of the usual suspects along the way—birds, capybaras, caimans but we

weren't bored at all. We rode through agricultural properties, most of them really cattle

ranches and if crops were being grown, we couldn't identify them. We did learn that the

huge mango trees all over the area which were heavy with so much fruit are not

commercially harvested or shipped. The local peoples use them and so do the many

fruit-eating birds and mammals—like tapirs and a couple of species of bats.

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