On 12/10 we began our journey along the famous Transpantaniera, the dirt road which crosses some 80 miles or so of the Pantanal finishing at Porto Jofre, the staging point for trips along the Rio Cuiabá in search of Jaguar. Mercifully we had left the worst of the weather behind us. I suspect it was comparatively dry in the Pantanal but there was a never ending parade of wildlife to interrupt our progress to our first stop at the Pantanal Matto Grosso Hotel. Pantanal Caiman were absurdly numerous, lining the roadside and ringing the edges of every pool.
I was reacquainted with numerous marsh birds familiar from my time in Bolivia including Jabiru, Wood Stork, Rufescent Tiger Heron, Green Ibis, the ungainly Southern Screamer, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Ringed Kingfisher and the attractive Black-capped Donacobius.
Rufescent Tiger Heron.
A brief stop in some gallery forest was successful in locating White-eyed Attila and produced a bonus in the form of several Dark-billed Cuckoos, an uncommon summer breeding resident. Further stops were made for Blue-crowned Parakeet and the first of several Marsh Deer we would see before we eventually checked in.
After lunch a walk along a forested trail was quiet in the mid-afternoon heat but we found a number of good birds including Rufous-tailed Jacamar and our first Matto Grosso Antbirds.
Late in the afternoon we took a boat trip along the Rio Pixaim where we had excellent views of a number of good birds including Bare-faced Currasow, Blue-fronted Piping Guan, Sunbittern and Sungrebe. I particularly enjoyed the Sungrebe and a first for me was seeing the pale legs and lobed feet with their broad black bands. One of two stand-out encounters for me was with my first Giant River Otters and they didn’t disappoint. I knew they were enormous but it is still a bit of a shock when you hear the bow wave and turn to see something the size of a Labrador homing straight in on your boat. The boatmen lure them over with fish and whilst this feels a little contrived and somehow slightly less ‘wild’ it does provide excellent opportunities for photography.
Giant River Otter.
The other was with one of the two birds I most wanted to see on the entire trip, the diminutive Zigzag Heron. Though it has a wide range encompassing a number of vast river basins this species is classified as Near Threatened and very little is known about it, a result of its secretive and nocturnal habits. They are located by listening for them and it is a thrilling thing to drift along a waterway at dusk and hear your first one calling from the forested banks. I had no recording gear with me but the eerie sound and something of the atmosphere can be gleaned from listening to the recordings here http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Zebrilus-undulatus . The next trick is to locate the small bird among the screen of vegetation in a searchlight beam but at least once that is done they generally sit tight, affording ample opportunity to admire.
A wander along the airstrip early the following morning gave us good views of a nice selection of species the best of which were Long-tailed Ground Dove, Green-backed Becard and Chesnut-bellied Seed Finch. A return to the forest in the afternoon was hard work but among the good birds we found were the super smart Cream-coloured Woodpecker and the astounding Red-billed Scythebill along with our first Band-tailed Antbird. The drive to Porto Jofre was eventful and one notable stop was made for a group of Scarlet-headed Blackbirds, an uncommon and particularly good looking speciality bird of the Pantanal.
Our final stops were made in the dark. A snake we originally misidentified as a Yellow Anaconda occasioned the first. The mistake was pointed out to me by a herpetologist who read this post and whose e-mail address I lost before I was able to reply which was a shame as I would have liked to pick their brains regarding a couple of other Neotropical snakes encountered on subsequent trips. The snake in question is (if I remember correctly) actually a member of the genus heliodoposis, though I have no idea which species.
The second was made for a large snake we originally thought was going to be another anaconda. It turned out to be a Brazilian Lancehead, a pit-viper from the deadly genus Bothrops. Again I am indebted to Warren Hardman (who shared my enthusiasm for such things) for the image reproduced below. During nocturnal bird surveys in Bolivia I had met previously with Bothrops, but they were small animals in comparison and I had no idea they could reach this size.
Brazilian Lancehead by Warren Hardman.
I was happy to arrive at the hotel that evening, full of anticipation for our dedicated Jaguar watching excursion the following day.