Jaguars in the Morning

We were at the dock before first light. This was our second jaguar expedition and it seemed hard to beat the six cats we saw the previous afternoon. But that didn’t stop us from trying.

In the back of my mind, it occurred to me that we could be skunked because with wildlife, nothing is guaranteed. The jaguars would either be active and out in the open or reclusive and in deep forest away from the water course. We had been very lucky to see six jags the previous outing, this was more that some of the totals of past tours where numbers of one to four jaguars seen was a pretty good haul.


To see wildlife, it helps to get an early start and this was certainly true of finding the New World’s largest cat.

We were off up the Cuiaba River and I was glad that I packed a jacket because this was the first time I wore it in Brazil. In the previous week a cold front had moved in from Antarctica, keeping temperatures comfortable and reducing humidity. We were speeding up river to get to the tributaries where jaguar was most likely.

Within an hour we joining a flotilla of other boats, peering into the far-shore green. Two young males had been seen. And now we waited for them to appear.


A young male appears out of the green!

The two young jaguars were heading downstream, making half hearted attempts at hunting caiman. They still have a lot to learn. They had yet to prefect their deathly pounce.


The two young males hunting along the riverside.


On the other side of the camera. The flotilla of ecotourists that followed the jaguars every move. There’s even a guy taking a selfie. I have very mixed feelings about the intrusion of people into the jaguar’s lives and I wondered how our presence could possible affect the jaguar’s behavior both positively and negatively.

We followed the jaguars along the river. One turned back and swan across the water to the near riverbank, demonstrating what I have already read: that jaguars are excellent swimmers.

DonacobiusBlack-capped donacobius seemed to be our constant companions in the rivers of the Pantanal. A pair readily defended it’s patch of reeds with an auditory duet of sound.

After watching the two young cubs hunting along the river side we headed off in search of more jaguars. At this point in the morning we’d seen a total of eight jaguars.

On one of the smaller tributaries we came upon a single boat on our port side. This was nothing like the flotilla we had just jettisoned. A boat stopped by the riverside meant only one thing: jaguar.

Sure enough there was a female jag on the bank 30 yards away from our boat. To our left was a large male pacing back and forth.

Over the course of the next 30 minutes we watched these two jaguars, from our boat making baby jaguars. We stayed with the amorous cats for about 30 minutes and finally decided to leave them to their privacy.

By the time we got back for lunch and after two boat trips in the Pantanal, we had seen a total of ten jaguars. We had been very lucky. This was a once in a lifetime experience that would live long in my mind and in my sketch book.



Jaguars in the Afternoon

After our bone rattling ride on the Transpantaneira we arrived at our destination for the next two nights: the Hotel Pantanal Norte at Porto Jofre.

At this point in the tour our focus now was not on finding new bird species for our list but adding the New World’s largest cat to our mammal list! And we where wasting no time in doing it!

We checked into our rooms, set our bags down, had time for a quick shower and then we met Gonzalo, our boat driver, at the dock at 3:00 to start our afternoon search for jaguar. We would be heading up the Cuiaba River and explore some of the tributaries which was about a 25 minute speedboat ride away.

Jag Boat

We did stop once on the Cuiaba to look at another large mammal and yes, another Brazilian superlative: the giant otter. This is the world’s largest otter and the the world’s longest member of the weasel family.


Giant otters look nothing like the their cuddly-cute sea otter cousins. These beasts look positively dangerous.

Within 40 minutes from leaving the dock, we came upon a flotilla of five other boats. This was a positive sign that a jaguar had been sighted in the area and a fellow boatman gestured to a sandy bank on the other side of  the river, confirming the fact. At the moment the cat was out of sight. If a group of birders is invested with one quality, it’s patience. And we had just enough left over from looking for antbirds in the Amazonian understory.

Within five minute a male jaguar appeared! He walked down to the river. Up on the bank was a female. This was a little post amorous stroll. It was amazing to see not one but two jaguars on our first afternoons out!


My first jaguar sighting in the Pantanal. This is also one of my first photographs. This is the male coming down to the river to drink. The female can be seen in the upper right.

The pair of jaguars headed back into the forest and out of sight. We headed off in search of more jaguars. within the hour we were amid another flotilla of boats, again looking at a pair of jaguars resting in a clearing by the river.

Downstream, another jaguar appeared heading along a path toward the pair in the clearing. Jaguars are normally found alone and they do not tolerate the presence of others. This could get explosive. The lone lone jaguar was nearing the clearing and we weren’t sure how the jags would take to this territorial encroachment.


Here come the “intruder” downstream towards the pair in the clearing.

The lone cat disappeared into green and reappeared in the clearing and all tension was dispelled as we realized that this was a mother and her two young cubs. Our driver told us that they were about two years old.


About ten minutes later, a fourth jaguar appeared on the path. This was a lone adult male. The female left the cubs behind and trotted up the riverside path and let the male know that his presence was not wanted. He changed his course and disappeared into the green forest.

So on our first afternoon of jaguar hunting we saw six individuals! Most tours are lucky to see one or two cats over the course of two days and we still had one more morning of searching to go. Could we possibly go into double digits with this iconic cat?



Our destination for the start of our search for Jaguars in the Pantanal was Porto Jofre on the Cuiaba River. But first we had to drive south on the legendary Transpantaneira Highway.

The Transpantaneria is a 147 km (91 mile) dirt road starting in Poncone in the north and ending at Porto Jofre in the south. The highway crosses 122 wooden bridges (a few have been updated to concrete) on it’s way south. All of the bridges are only wide enough for one vehicle to pass at a time.


A traffic jam on the Transpantaneira. One bridge and one car, time for some roadside birding.

Crossing a bridge on this highway was always an adventure, partly because we were unsure that we would make it to the other side before the  fragile looking wooden structure would be able to support the weight of out rental car for the full duration of our traverse and collapse into the water.


One of the 122 wooden bridges on the Transpantaneria. We made it across this one without  misadventure. The side “guard” rail on the left could use some love.


A typical bridge view from a Transpantaneira bridge. Full of foraging egrets, bathing black vultures, and sunning Yacare caiman.


Brazilian Superlatives

Brazil is home to many superlatives and many of these are covered in feathers.

Brazil, at 3,287,956 square miles, is the largest country in South America, the 5th largest in the world. Brazil is considered the world’s most biological diverse country in the world with about 103,870 animals and 43,020 plants. About 700 new species are discovered in Brazil each year. 1,806 species of birds have been recording in Brazil, 235 of these birds are only found in Brazil. South America’s largest country hosts 60% of the continents bird species!

What follows is a selection of some of Brazil’s avian superlatives that I encountered in the Pantanal.

Largest Stork in the Americas: Jabiru

This truly impressive stork, like the Hoatzin, seems to belong to a long, lost epoch. This massive bird has the second longest wingspan of any land bird in the Americas, losing out to the Andean condor. It was always something special to see this bird, either on the wing or on the ground. The Jabiru can be surprisingly approachable, just stay outside the range of its deadly beak! Like the jabiru pictured below. The stork followed our boat along the riverside.


Largest Parrot in the World: Hyacinth Macaw

This macaw was certainly on my wishlist. It is amazing to see a bird that you have seen many times in zoos, pet shops, movies or as part of an animal act, wild and free flying. Most people around the world, looking at an image of this bird would be able to identify it as a parrot or a macaw. We had many quality looks of this iconic parrot in the Pantanal. And they were very approachable at Porto Jofre as they cracked nut with their powerful beaks.

Hyacinth Macaw

Largest Toucan in the World: Toco Toucan

The largest toucan in the world is also the prototypical toucan. This South American Big -nose seems to be advertising products all around the world, albeit in a modified form. The Toco can be seen on advertisements from everything from Fruitloops to Guinness Stout, marking the Toco one of the world’s most recognizable birds. We started to get far off view of Tocos in the northern Pantanal. It wasn’t until we reach the end of the Transpantaneira Highway, at Porto Jofre, that we got jaw-dropping views of many of these unreal birds.


Heaviest Bird in the Americas (Largest Flightless Bird in the Americas): Greater Rhea

These avian grazers where very easy to see from my porch at Pousada Piuval. Another bird that I was really looking forward to seeing. This large flightless, 60 pound bird is a smaller version of Africa’s ostrich and are related to other flightless birds that are still in existence. (emus, cassowaries, kiwis).



The Cristalino Towers

In Amazon Basin, most of the birding we did was with from trails in the forest or from boat and we we seeing birds that favored the riverside, ground, or understory. To see the birds that made a living in the forest canopy, we could spend a lot of time straining our necks and peering into the forest tangle to look at a far off bird butt, or we could climb the observation towers that put us up above the trees.

There are two 50 meter (165 feet) observation towers at Cristalino that allows you to see all the layers of the forest with many stopping points on the way up to the top.

IMG_3380Sunrise from the top of Tower One.

On the morning of July 5th we climbed the steep steps of Tower One, 165 feet to the very top platform which was high above the top of the forest canopy. We timed our climb to be in place before sunrise, not just for the stunning views but also to take advantage of optimal of bird activity in the canopy.


All eyes on deck as we pick through the large amount of birds working their way around  Tower One.

The idea was to be at the top of the tower to observe the avian activity while the sun was still low on the horizon and then move to the lower platform as the the morning heated up moving the bird activity below the canopy. This morning proved to be our most prolific in our short time in the Southern Amazon Basin. At times the bird activity was nonstop and we seemed to be surrounded by avian movement with lifers coming quick and fast!

Paradise Jackie

We got good looks at a paradise jacamar from Tower One.

B-G Barbet

A southern Amazon speciality, the black-girdled barbet. This sketch is of the male.

IMG_3504The paradise tanager is a truly stunning tanager amongst many stunning tropical tanagers to be found in the Amazon. At Tower One we finally got great looks at this canopy dweller.


The Cerrado

The Cerrado of Brazil is a biome that is found northeast of the city of Cuiabá and it is distinguished for its open plains, low vegetation and its spare trees. It is home to endemics that would make world bird listers salivate to think of adding to their life lists. It is also home to more plant species diversity than any other savanna in the world. There are about 10,000 species of plants in the Cerrado with more plant families represented than the Amazon!

The star of the show is the often elusive collared crescentchest (Melonopareia torquata). This was our main targets bird and we were going for it on our first full day of birding. This bird can be impossible to detect if it isn’t calling because it’s a first rate sulker in the low bushes of the Cerrado.

We began our hunt on a dirt road that began off of the main two lane highway.

We drove half a mile in and got out and birded the roadside. It’s wasn’t long before our guide, Andrés, heard the call of the crescentchest in the bushes to the right of the road. We trekked in on foot down a dusty culvert. We weren’t far in before we found the source of the call. We spotted not one but two of these highly desirable Brazilian specialties.


This shot of one of the collared crescentchests might have come out okay if it hadn’t been for that pesky piece of vegetation!

Tours like this can seem like simply ticking off birds on your life list without getting quality views. But in this case we a wonderful five minutes with these two Cerrado gems.

Reflecting back, sometimes with high numbers of new birds seen in a biodiverse rich county as Brazil, I am reminded that what lasts in the memory are the quality and not the quantity of sightings that really matters. To see a bird and to see it well in it’s prime habitat, just doing what it does for a living is the best birding experience.

IMG_2416The southern lapwing is a very common bird in South America but getting quality views of this common plover against the rich earth tones of the Cerrado in good, morning light, really shows the beauty of this bird.


National Bird of Brazil

The National Bird of Brazil is not the Toco toucan. Nor the harpy Eagle, the hyacinth macaw, or the Jabiru stork.

The National Bird is slightly bigger than our American robin, in fact it’s in the same genus: turdus (thrushes). The National Bird of this mega diverse country that contains about 1,832 bird species is the unassuming rufous- bellied thrush. A brownish thrush with a reddish wash underneath.

I was pretty sure that I would see this bird sometime on the 15 days of my birding tour. But I didn’t expect to see it on my first day in Cuiabá. I was walking from my airport hotel around the corner to get some currency at the local bank. When on a wall appeared Brazil’s national bird! Well that was easy!

IMG_3728Why such a drab bird in nation full of amazingly colorful birds? Well the answer may be in the thrush’s melodious dawn song that the Brazilians love so much. Maybe it is a harbinger of the upcomming rains. The National Bird of Costa Rica is the even less impressive clay-colored thrush but it is it’s music not its appearance than endears it to Costa Rican’s and so maybe to all Brazilians. Maybe the rufous-bellied thrush is singing about the upcoming life-giving rains.


There is more that meets the eye with the National Bird of Brazil. This thrush teaches us to listen and not just look.