Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Pantanal: One of the Coolest Places, You've Never Heard of

Most people have never heard of the Pantanal, even people here in South America haven’t.  It was news to me, too.  But as I read more, and began making my decisions about where to go in Brazil, Pantanal rose quickly in my list of priorities.  The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world, extending through one whole state of Brazil, and into Bolivia and Paraguay.  Depending on the season, you can arrive to find the Pantanal flooded, or with low rivers, but regardless, it is known for teeming with wildlife, everything from fishing birds, to alligators, anacondas and jaguars.

Pools like this are all over the Pantanal!  They look super peaceful and quiet, but they come alive with life!
Plus you never really know what is lurking under the surface!

As soon as I heard this, of course, I had to go.  It didn’t matter to me that this was the worst time of year for sightings, that this was the season of insatiable and numerous mosquitos.  All that mattered was that it was a wildlife photographer’s paradise.  I was going.  So I turned up in the “nearby” town of Campo Grande around 8am one morning (really 4-5 hours away depending upon where in the Pantanal you are headed).  There was a tour agency right inside the bus station, and upon my inquiry, I found that a tour was leaving in 30 minutes, with space for me!  So off I went!

I spent the following five hour van ride chatting with the other folks in the tour: an older gentleman from London traveling around Brazil on his own for a month, a young Dutch couple at the start of a trip around South America, a young British guy in the middle of a trip of unknown duration, and 3 Israelis traveling for a year.  We swapped travel stories, photos, and discussed the state of the world between jokes that set us all laughing.

When the van finally stopped, we mistakenly assumed we had arrived, but instead found that we were switching to other vehicles, each headed to the specific fazendas where we were staying.  The guests and luggage were transferred to the proper vehicle, and we headed off for another 2.5 hours in the back of a truck, winding our way down a rustic, bumpy dirt road to our fazenda.  We spent the first part of this ride getting to know our new group, since the previous guests had been sent other places.  Our Dutch couple was replaced by a nice Danish couple, the 3 Israeli guys headed to another fazenda, and the two Brits were still with me.  Now that our view was unobstructed by windows or walls, we started paying attention to the sights outside the truck: flooded sections of river, lily pad filled pools, and birds of prey perched on tree branches and telephone poles hither and yon.

Our bottoms were most thankful when we finally pulled up in front of our new (temporary) home.  We unloaded, checked in, and received a brief orientation of the plan for the next few days.  We would stay as a group, with the same guide for 4 days, each day participating in 2 different activities, with meals placed between.  We settled into our rooms, trying to adjust to the powerful heat and humidity now that we didn’t have wind from a moving vehicle to cool us down.  The electricity was also out, so there were no fans or air conditioning to help.  I settled for a shower, and an open window, thankful for the screen mesh keeping thirsty insects on the outside.

Over the next few days, we went on walks, boat rides and “car safaris,” ate lots of great food and relaxed in the beautiful property of the fazenda.  We had some incredible animal sightings, so despite the miserably thick clouds of mosquitos, I decided to extend my stay.  In the end, I stayed 8 nights.  I saw groups come and go, went with a few different guides, and even was allowed to take the canoe out alone on the river one morning for a few hours. 

It turns out the rumors were true: it was not the best season to see wildlife (apparently August and September are the best).  I'm content with what we saw, but I can see where there's the potential for so much more. Most especially, they were right about the mosquitos.  I went on one hike where the mosquitos gathered in thick clouds.  Being my usual insatiable-to-mosquitos self, I suffered terribly despite all of my precautions.  I didn't go on any more hikes after that.

Over time, I learned a few tricks:  

  1. always wear long sleeves and pants.  It’s only unnecessary if it is really windy, 
  2. give up on repellent because it doesn’t last for more than 30 minutes with how much you sweat.  Instead, 
  3. carry a scarf or cloth that you can swat around to keep the mosquitos away,
  4. avoid wearing black, it actually attracts mosquitos,
  5. the best time for photos is always the worst for mosquitos, so, just be forewarned
  6. different animals like different weather conditions, so cloudy days you tend to see different things from sunny days,
  7. most importantly, spend as much time as possible soaking in the pool up to your ears.  Mosquitos can’t bite what is submerged.

I left the Pantanal very content, though definitely itchy.  I had seen so much that I want to go back again in the high season!  Unfortunately, though, my telephoto lens had begun malfunctioning in El Chaltén, and I’ve noticed that the image quality is severely diminished, so for now, wildlife photography is on pause until that is resolved.

Here are some of my favorite images from the Pantanal.  (Awesome sightings that I did not manage to photograph: a tapir!  One early morning car ride, the guide stopped the truck, and shone his searchlight to the right.  There was a very large tapir, meandering amongst  the bushes about 100 feet from us!  Also, a giant otter!  As we rode in the boat one morning, I said to the person next to me, “You know, the only thing I really want to see, that we haven’t, is a giant otter.”  Not 5 minutes later, to my right, and enormous otter sprinted across the river bank and splashed into the water.  I was as giddy and excited as a school girl!

Crimson-Crested Woodpecker (male)
We came upon this guy resting in a large hole in this empty palm.  He hopped out when we approached, and proceeded to hop his way out of our view repeatedly as we moved for, much as a toddler hides behind the leg of a parent when they meet someone new.
Greater Ani
I loved these birds more as I saw them.  In the shade, they look like ordinary black birds, but when you catch one in the sun like this, you see that really they shimmer with many shades of blue.

Red-Crested Cardinal (male)
These little guys spent a lot of time snacking on small seeds in feeders by the fazenda.  The males have this dramatic red crest, and the females are identical, minus the crest.

Neotropical Cormorant
Though I have already seems lots of these divers on my trip, it was a treat to see them again up close.  I happened to catch this one just as it got it's lunch.  I'm not sure what fish it is, but it certainly is strange.

Guira Cuckoo
When I first saw these birds, I thought they were the young of another.  They were noisy and skittish, always chirping to one another as they flew between trees.  I love their spiked mohawks.

Great Egrets
We drove by a part of river with about 50 egrets perched on a tree.  It was beautiful.  I snuck down to the shore with my camera, but they startled and flew away before I could capture it.  I caught them in motion instead.

Gilded Sapphire
You have to look closely to find it, but I managed to catch one decent shot of a hummingbird.  I love the name in Portuguese:  Bejaflor- kissing flower

Grey-necked  Wood-rail
The name for this bird really does not do it justice.  They can be seen pecking along the shore of the river.

Rufescent Tiger Heron
Though we saw a lot of this heron, it was very hard to photograph, quick to flee when we approached.  It's very thick neck has vertical black, white and maroon stripes, and it's about the same size as a Great Blue Heron.

Cocoi Heron
When I first saw one of these herons perched at the water's edge, I immediately thought it was a Great Blue Heron, but on closer inspection, the markings on this bird are much more dramatic.

Capped Heron
By far my favorite heron that I saw.  We joked a lot about this one, because he is basically David Bowie as a bird:  a shimmering, translucent beak in shades of magenta and turquoise, a black pompadour, and long, streaming feathers trailing from it's head.  Lovely

Green Ibis
One of three types of Ibis I saw on the Pantanal.  They are all about the same size and body shape, with coloration as the only variation.

Jaibru, (male left, female right)
This is the official bird of the Pantanal.  These very large heron-like birds have a very thick, black neck.  The females have a bright red ring at the base and the males a faded red/pinkish ring.

Jaibru (male)
I was so lucky that this Jaibru happened to fly right over my as we were out in the boat.  I caught this one good shot before it was out of sight.

Amazon Kingfisher (male)
I had only heard of Kingfishers before, never having seen one with my own eyes.  I was excited to find that there were 5 types to be found in the Pantanal.  In the end, I only saw two types, but they were both spectacular.

Ringed Kingfisher, (male)
I was not able to get any good shots of Kingfishers my first few days in Pantanal, but once I learned more of their behavior, I got better about knowing when to catch them.  

Monk Parakeet
These little noisy guys were also regulars at the bird feeders.  They would swarm the area in groups of 20 or more, chatting to one another as they ate.

Nanday Parakeets
You could hear a flock of parakeets coming a few minutes before they reached you.  They are constantly calling to one another, and making their presence known.

Roseate Spoonbill
I heard of this type of bird only a few months ago.  I didn't know birds existed with a ladle-shaped bill!  I was so excited when I saw this one wading through a pond.  Though it was far away, I was thankful for the sighting, and was raving about it to the other folks in the group.

Yellow-billed Tern
Much like with the Egrets, a large flock of these birds were resting on a fallen tree as we happened by.  They startled at the sight of our boat, but I caught this one image before they were out of sight.

Black Vultures
Vultures were a really common sighting on the Pantanal.  Black were the most common, but also lots of Turkey Vultures.  It wasn't until about halfway through my trip, though, that I actually saw them eating.  Here, they found a large Caiman to feast on.

This huge tower was completely covered with vultures.  It makes sense, since they were the tallest things around for miles.  Every pole had at least a few on it, but this one was impressively full.

Left:  Toco Toucans, Right: Parakeets (type unknown)
Though I have seen one or two toucans before in my travels, the Pantanal is the first place where they almost became commonplace.  I watched this pair for a long time one morning as they hopped from branch to branch.  They seemed to be monitoring the view from every angle.
Toco Toucan
After many failed attempts, I was glad to finally get a clear shot of a Toucan in flight.  This one crossed the river as we floated downstream.

Chestnut-eared Aracari
This was by far the coolest bird on the Pantanal.  It's small, and was not a frequent visitor, but it's bright colorations, unusual proportions, and scarcity made it a favorite sighting.
Buff-necked Ibis
This was the bird I have seen all over, but I loved this in Black and White, or as they say in Portuguese, preto e branco.

Red-and-green Macaw
The fazenda where I was staying had a pair of Macaws who have been coming there for years.  At this point they were partially tame.  They hang out in the bushes, drop discarded nut shells from the branches above, and squawk and wrestle all over the ground.  I loved getting an up-close view

Red-and-green MacawThe pair of them, wrestling and playing in the dirt. 
Red-and-green MacawThe same pair, snuggilng.

Cross-breed Macaw
This was easily my favorite macaw.  It is a cross breed between the Red-and-green and the Blue-and-yellow macaws.  He comes by the fazenda every so often.  He was the most beautiful shade of orange, unlike any bird I've ever seen.

Hyacinth Macaws
This was the rarest bird I saw on the Pantanal.  These spectacular macaws are the color of Indigo, the yellow details around their eyes and beaks bright against the blue.  I stopped in my tracks when I realized what I saw from the road.  From so far away, they almost couldn't be seen, but as I drew closer, this is what I saw.  They gathered here to eat large, thick nuts that covered the ground.

Hyacinth MacawsThese are more from the same group above.  You can see the large seeds in their beaks.  They would grip the seed firmly with one foot, persistently breaking off the thick shell to get to a soft, waxy nut inside.  

Photographicus Americus
I almost didn't see this feather, as it was turned over, revealing the grey underside and obscuring the spectacular blue.  I'm pretty sure I yelped audibly when I realized what I had found.

Another common sight on the banks of the rivers and ponds were caiman.  The smallest we saw was probably 1 meter/3 feet, up to as big as almost 3 meters!    I loved this one.  You can tell he is really watching me.

It was a rare day that the river was this calm.  I was excited to catch this perfect reflection.

One hot day, all the Caimans we passed had their mouths open to cool off.  It gave me the unique chance to see just what their teeth are like...    I think I'll keep my toes out of the water, thank you.

I can see you.....

This smaller Caiman lingered around this spot for a while.  It took me some time before I realized that the large, rock-like lump to the left is actually the bloated abdomen of another dead one.

White-lipped Peccaries
Another species in residence at my fazenda was 3 generations of peccary.  8 years ago, 2 baby peccaries were abandoned on the edge of the property due to a huge storm that flooded the area.  The owner took them in, bottle fed them, and kept them healthy.  From that point on, they divided their time between the fazenda and the forrest, coming and going as they pleased.  Now, the female has raised 2 following generations of peccary.  Though they still come and go between the fazenda and the wild, a group of 15 or so of varying sizes are a pretty common sight on campus.

White-lipped Peccary
One of the 2nd generation peccaries.

White-lipped PeccaryThese two are the newest generation of Pecarry around the fazenda.  They were the smallest and most wary of people, but boy were they cute! 

White-lipped PeccaryOften the matriarch would nuzzle each member of her family as they lay down.  It looks almost like a massage.  She nuzzled her snout along the length of the other's body, wiggling it underneath the layers of thick, stiff quill-like bristles.  After finishing one row, she would move over, and start another, and another until every inch of her subject was nuzzled.  She herself, was a huge sucker for a scratch on her chin.  The first time I did this, she closed her eyes and leaned into my hand so hard that I thought she was going to fall over!

Howler Monkey (male)
Though I had heard Howlers a few different places, and caught slight glimpses before, this trip afforded me the best sightings yet!  I saw Howlers on a few different occasions, and the first photo is from a hike we took, where we heard this male in the branches above us.  He was very curious about us, and stopped calling once we were nearby to watch us.
Howler Monkey (family)
The next four photos are from my favorite sighting.  I left my room early for breakfast, but on the way to the dining room, I heard the growling call of the Howlers.  It is a really distinct sound.  I followed the sound down a path, through a small field and over some fences, to find a family of about 10 in one large tree.  One large male (the black blob to the right) lounged in the crook of the tree, two young females did acrobatics, and two mothers took care of their young.
Howler Monkey (female) This was one of the females caring for her young, though her young seemed much older than the other.  Although this looks like some sort of ferocious protective instinct, really she was just yawning.
Howler Monkey (female)
I stood in the early sun, being divebombed by hungry mosquitos, sweat dripping down my back from the hot, humid air.  I moved forward slowly so as not to startle them, and to give them time to adjust to my presence.  Once they were comfortable, this playful female made her way down the branch, eventually hanging by her tail, all for limbs reaching for the branch below her.
Howler Monkey (female)
This mother is still nursing this young male.  Most of the time that I was watching, she kept him thoroughly enwrapped in her embrace, clearly preparing to flee if it became clear that I was a threat.  Once she grew comfortable with me, I was able to get this full view.  It was very moving.

Deer (type unknown)
I was lucky enough to have numerous deer sightings while in the Pantanal.  According to my guides, I saw three of the five species that can be found there.  This was the best photo I captured, this one looking at me as intently as I was at her.
 I saw a few Capybara in the Amazon in Ecuador years ago, but this trip offered so many!  This is my best shot showing exactly what they look like.   To me, they look like a beaver's head and feet on a pig's body with lots of fur.  This one is the size of a Golden Retriever.
 This group was easily the most impressive.  This was a group of about 40 that we saw swimming in the river.  It was a very memorable sighting, because as soon as they saw us come down onto the riverbank, all of them froze!  We could see that it was a large group of adults, with a large group of young!  Then, suddenly, the lead Capybara starting barking out commands, much in the same tone and forcefulness of a drill sergeant.  With each guttural grunt, the rest of the family responded, slowly moving into formation.  I noticed that the adults formed a large circle, with the babies in the center.  The adults sat up high out of the water, while the young crouched down as low as they could, only their eyes, ears and nose visible.  The barking continued, urging everyone to stay into position.  Unfortunately the light was fading, so I didn't end up with a great photo, but this one serves to remind me of that moment.  

Capybara (mother and young)
You can't tell in this picture, but when we saw a mother alone with her pup the next day, she kept her eyes on us until we were out of sight.  She had a very no-nonsense look in her eyes.  I chose this photo, instead, because it shows you very clearly the young, and just how small and adorable they really are.
Capybara (family)
This photo is actually from my first Capybara sighting on this trip.  This family froze completely still as we approached.  They held fast, even as our guide drove the boat far too close, nearly hitting them!  It was amazing  You could tell that the babies were really nervous, but tried to hold fast like the adults.

So no jaguar sightings for me, despite the reputation.  Apparently it is more common in the north (I was in the south) and in the season I mentioned earlier.  So, I guess, the only questions is, how soon can I come back?