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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Marvelous Mato Grosso

The Pantanal, Chapada dos Guimarães, and Cristalino Jungle Lodge

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: It’s impossible to pick just a few favorites out of about 560 birds seen and heard in just under three weeks, and one could write an epic-length book about all the amazing things we saw in Mato Grosso and at Iguazú. For a brief summary we must start with the Harpy Eagle, which surprisingly has been seen on four of our past nine tours here, but rarely so well. We were about as far as one could be from where it had been found perched above the Cristalino River, but heroic efforts by boatman Diego and decoy antics by Jorge got us there just in time to watch it for about a minute. That it had stayed on one perch for over 45 minutes before we got there was just amazing. It was made that more amazing by our already having seen a Crested Eagle just three days earlier, perched overhead in the tall canopy. Other especially memorable highlights from Cristalino Jungle Lodge were cooperative Band-tailed Antbirds along the shore, a fearless Sunbittern who foraged on the rocks just a short distance from our boat, and a rare Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle in flight on our morning atop Tower II. But before Cristalino we started the tour in idyllic settings in Chapada dos Guimarães where Helmeted Manakin near our lodge and our only Red-legged Seriema right next to the road during an arriving cold front were noted favorites. In the Pantanal, seeing five different jaguars, including one catching a caiman, and our rarely having to jostle with other boats, was a dominant highlight. Other amazing animals were the Giant Otters, the many Capybaras, and countless Yacare Caiman, but some birds really stood out. Social Monk Parakeets bickering on a nest low over the road, unbelievably blue Hyacinth Macaws with little fear of people, duetting Black-capped Donacobiuses with their inflated neck pouches, an elegant Crane Hawk dashing in on the last morning, a super close American Pygmy-Kingfisher, an animated family group of White Woodpeckers on one of the boat rides, and a stealthy Sungrebe were other favorites mentioned for the tour. The Iguazú extension had bird highlights, such as Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, Blond-crested Woodpecker, Rufous-capped Motmot, and Buff-bellied Puffbird, but the real highlight was our visit to the spectacular waterfalls, a grand way to finish a grand tour.

IN DETAIL: We began our birding in earnest in the afternoon of our first day with a stroll to the short canopy tower at our lodge in the middle of Chapada dos Guimarães National Park. A flurry of activity on the way was highlighted by a Pale-bellied Tyrant-Manakin and a Sepia-capped Flycatcher, while we had our first taste of the real tropics at the tower with perched Channel-billed Toucans in the distant canopy trees. We spent the next morning on the Geladeira road in some sandy cerrado habitat where a Pale-breasted Spinetail perched out in the open, a Helmeted Manakin surprised us in the scrubby habitat, and a pair of Coal-crested Finches perched up nicely, if only briefly. We had another even closer Helmeted Manakin back near our lodge, and then on a hike to the small pond we had a pair of adorable Brown Jacamars, a family group of Least Grebes, and furtive Yellow-tufted Woodpecker in distant trees. A stunning male Band-tailed Manakin came into a mob and a male Flame-crested Tanager, scarce in the area, was very territorial but seldom perched on any open branch for long; we eventually had good looks in the spotting scope. On our night walk we had an amazing very close Common Pauraque encounter, followed by an altercation among two or more Scissor-tailed Nightjars right over the road.

We left the Chapada with busy mixed mob of birds that included our only Green-winged Saltator and our best views of a Burnished-buff Tanager, as well as a milky white leucistic Rufous-collared Sparrow. Soon after our flight to Alta Floresta we were boating up the Cristalino River, greeted by Capped Heron, Green Ibis, a juvenile Great Black Hawk, and White-winged Swallows perched in beautiful light. Right by the lodge’s dining area was a mixed flock with our first Paradise Jacamar, while a pair of thoroughly habituated Bare-faced Curassows strolled out in the open.

We had a morning each at the two towers at Cristalino, and the Zanthoxylum tree in fruit by the first tower was the highlight there, bringing in a gorgeous Red-billed Pied Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Dusky-chested Flycatcher, Swainson’s Flycatcher, and several others. Red-necked Aracaris were particularly evident that morning, and we had our first views of the enigmatic Tooth-billed Wren here (later topped by one in small trees just over the path in the staff clearing). The second tower was quite different, with a mixed flock upon our arrival hosting a very cooperative Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak. A Ringed Woodpecker came in very close, Pompadour Cotingas performed nicely with two males and one female, and a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle gave us a very good fly-by. Screaming Pihas as the nearly nonstop background music made this tower visit especially memorable. A Banded Antbird was singing not far from the tower when we descended, and with much patience we eventually had good, close views of this outstanding bird.

Birding the trails was often quite slow, punctuated at other times by exciting encounters. Perhaps the most exciting was the Crested Eagle on the afternoon of our first full day there, being mobbed by noisy toucans, aracaris, and a Crimson-crested Woodpecker. The mixed flocks we stumbled into had some excellent birds, including a family group of confiding Bar-breasted Piculets, while another had a pair of Guianan Gnatcatchers that showed well for birds that prefer to stay in the tops of 150-foot-tall trees. Forest edge flocks were even more productive from the lodge’s clearing, such as the troop of Black-necked and Lettered Aracaris one morning, but some of the favorite birds from the trails came one by one, such as the Slate-colored Grosbeak being sneaky in a vine tangle, a Purple Honeycreeper that paused for great photos, a Fork-tailed Woodnymph that buzzed the group, and a Yellow-throated Woodpecker which we only heard, as it gave its frightening yet fascinating, hoarse scream of a call.

Some of the favorite birds we saw on our several boat rides on the Cristalino River included: the White-banded Swallows, often perched close in perfect light, an Amazonian Umbrellabird that we spotted only moments before it flew, Yellow-bellied Dacnises perched up in riverside trees, a Sunbittern foraging patiently along the rocks, the trusty pair of Drab Water Tyrants almost always near the floating deck, the pair of Band-tailed Antbirds casually poking along the shady shoreline, a Bat Falcon spotted as we were speeding downstream, a group of Wood Storks soaring high on a thermal, and a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher that perched in a perfectly placed shaft of sunlight. The astounding Harpy Eagle was the best bird we had from the boat on the Cristalino. We also ventured to the Teles Pires River, where the river islets eventually produced the local Amazonian Tyrannulets and trusty Ladder-tailed Nightjars, but unexpected Large Elaenia, Lesser Nighthawk, and an especially surprising Green-tailed Goldenthroat were welcome bonuses before we situated ourselves for sunset, enjoying also a Black Skimmer and hundreds of Cattle Egrets flying downstream to their roost.

Highlights from our hike to the Serra’s granite dome included two great puffbirds: Spotted Puffbird and Eastern Striolated-Puffbird. A Natterer’s Slaty-Antshrike finally cooperated there as well, and we saw several hummingbirds here and nowhere else. We took just one night walk, snagging a handsome Crested Owl on a perfect canopy perch and a most delightful Long-billed Gnatwren sleeping on a perch just a couple feet off the ground.

Along the way, we enjoyed so many other forms of life, from the utterly blue Menelaus Morpho, the Neotropical River Otter that steadily worked its way upstream for a long ways, the amazing helicopter damselflies hovering in the forest understory, and a gigantic Idomeneus Owl-Butterfly that perched next to the trail.

We squeezed every last drop out of Cristalino on our last morning, watching a Gray Elaenia in the spotting scope from the deck, finding a pair of Rose-breasted Chats building a nest atop the midrib of a giant palm leaf, coaxing a pair of Spix’s Warbling-Antbirds to show themselves well, and enjoying a noisy group of Red Fan Parrots making their odd noises from exposed perches in the Secret Garden. Even during our travel to the Pantanal we saw some nice birds, such as Guira Cuckoo in the pastures en route, Swallow-tailed Kite and charming Thrush-like Wrens in Alta Floresta, a rare Pied-billed Grebe in a roadside pond, and Toco Toucan at a gas stop. We finished the day with a brilliant South American Tapir along the entrance road to our lodging at Pouso Alegre and a Great Horned Owl waddling on the walkway catching insects attracted to the light just outside the dining hall.

The wide open birdiness of the Pantanal was a welcome shock to the senses. Hyacinth Macaws in the garden were an unmitigated favorite, but we wouldn’t have missed the gigantic Jabirus and Greater Rhea along the entrance road, the colorful and distinctive Chotoy Spinetail, noisy Plumbeous Ibises singing in the trees, and a Green-barred Woodpecker perched up near the horse corral. The birds at the boardwalk provided endless entertainment, but the low churring sounds of rare Spotted Rails, however unseen, were the unexpected highlight. In the quieter afternoon we still scored a nice pair of Sunbitterns and had a great experience with a particularly territorial Undulated Tinamou that ran directly towards us in the open forest understory.

Ending our stay at Pouso Alegre with a surprise pair of Cream-colored Woodpeckers, we bid farewell to the yard Hyacinth Macaws and worked our way south on the Transpantaneira Highway. We made several stops on the way, also spending a late afternoon on it closer to Porto Jofre one day, and then birding much of the morning on it as we headed back north three days later. We saw many species only on these drives, the standouts being a rare White-naped Xenopsaris, a difficult-to find Subtropical Doradito, adorable Little Cuckoos, a single Striped Cuckoo, a stunning Scarlet-headed Blackbird close to the road, our only White-tailed Goldenthroat which we saw from the bus (this now one of very tours ever to see both goldenthroats), a Sungrebe swimming along at one bridge, and an American Pygmy-Kingfisher that came in very close in the bushes right below the birders. Other favorites mentioned from there were the strange Southern Screamers, a Great Horned Owl hooting during the day in the mango grove, very close Striated Herons, a White-wedged Piculet twitching incessantly on a branch overhead, multitudes of Limpkins, a super colorful pair of Orange-backed Troupials, a cooperative Fawn-breasted Wren in a dense vine tangle, a flock of Nacunda Nighthawks, handsome Rusty-collared Seedeaters in roadside grasses, and a White-rumped Monjita foraging from the power lines. Some of our best snakes were from the road (a Plumbeous Mussurana was a delight to hold), and a lucky few spotted the Giant Anteater crossing the road far ahead before it vanished into the impenetrable brush.

At Porto Jofre, we were again greeted by numerous Hyacinth Macaws on the grounds, providing for endless entertainment, but most of the excitement was on the boat rides up river, where we explored the cuirxos (creeks and oxbows) of Charlie’s, Negro, and Ilha, as well as the Tres Irmãos River tributary of the Cuiabá. On the first morning we interrupted our first stop for birding on the main river by following up on a radio report of jaguars up the Tres Irmãos. In less than an hour after setting out from the hotel we were already looking at our first jaguars, the mother-daughter pair of Ginger and Amber. It was still rather dark for good photos, and they soon disappeared into the brush, but were elated and looked forward to a more relaxed morning of birding from the boat, with maybe just a chance of seeing another jaguar. I had our boatman take us up Charlie’s Creek, where we enjoyed good views of duetting Black-capped Donacobiuses, our first of many very nice Rufescent Tiger-Herons, and Ashy-headed Greenlet when we spotted another Jaguar, which we later learned was Carly, famous for climbing trees and dropping into the water to catch the abundant yet wary Yacare Caiman. We stayed with her for over an hour in hope of witnessing such a feat before we moved on to find more birds. We took two more boat trips up river, seeing two more individual Jaguars – Salima and Hunter – as well as a repeat viewing of Carly about 1.2 kilometers from where we had seen her earlier. Hunter we watched for only about 5 minutes before she did a quick left-hook leap into the partially submerged grass below the bank and caught a small caiman right in front of us.

Some of the birds we enjoyed as we boated to and from the jaguar areas included Black Skimmer, Pied Lapwing, and Large-billed Tern on the sand bars, while Orange-backed Troupial, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and a family group of White Woodpeckers frequented the narrow gallery forests. An amazing sight as we boated back at sunset was a flock of about 40 Snail Kites drifting over the river on the way to their communal roost, while at the same time countless Band-tailed Nighthawks and both Greater and Lesser Bulldog Bats emerged from their daytime hiding places to forage over the river. Of course in addition to the birds, we enjoyed the many Capybaras and even a few Giant Otters (one enjoying a personal spa treatment), as well as Green Iguanas basking on the riverbanks.

Our final morning of birding on the grounds of Pousada Piuval provided many treats, including a couple of Greater Rheas right outside the yard, Pale-crested Woodpeckers along the driveway, and many new birds on the loop trail though the “cordilheira” forest, including Streak-necked Tody-Tyrant, Gray-headed Tanager, Olivaceous Woodcreeper (of the Bolivian viridis subspecies), Crane Hawk, Crimson-crested Woodpecker (surprisingly numerous, including a pair excavating a nest), and an uncommon Dull-capped Attila. With a final sighting of Guira Cuckoos along the driveway we bid farewell to the Pantanal and Mato Grosso.

IGUAZÚ EXTENSION: We made the most of our mid-afternoon arrival at the town of Puerto Iguazú, first finding a Buff-bellied Puffbird behind the hotel, and in a short check of the hotel’s garden found Ochre-collared Piculet and Ruby-crowned Tanager (even seeing the difficult ruby crown spot). Then at the Jardín de Picaflores in town we saw Black Jacobin, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Planalto Hermit, Violet-capped Woodnymph, Versicolored Emerald, White-throated Hummingbird (including a hybrid between these latter two), while Chestnut-bellied Euphonia briefly visited the bananas and a Blue Dacnis insisted on visiting only the bright pink hummingbird feeders for quite the clash.

Mixed flock activity was high during our morning along the 101 road, both in terms of numbers of birds and where in the trees they were. Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher was the best find, though it was hard to pin down in the tree tops, while Green-headed Tanager and Surucua Trogon were a little more cooperative. Even better was an Ochre-breasted Foliage-gleaner that came down much lower for great views. Birds in the national park were acclimated to throngs of people (though we were thankful to be there in the low season), making them quite fearless. We got unbelievably close looks at splendid Magpie Tanagers, White-bearded Manakin, Plush-crested Jays, Golden-crowned Warbler, and a pair of Riverbank Warblers, while Toco Toucans were nearly as easy to see on the boardwalk to the falls. The flight of Great Dusky Swifts came too late for us to see them at the falls but it was still amazing to see probably well over a hundred of them heading towards the falls during and after our relaxed walk and train ride back.

Our final morning of birding at Urugua-í National Park began with a very lucky sighting of Black-fronted Piping-Guans on some riverside rocks below the bridge by the guard station. On the trail system we caught up with a confiding Scale-throated Hermit, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, a pair of Blond-crested Woodpeckers, and the distinctively yellow Southern Bristle-Tyrant (like a big Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, which was also there). We made a quick stop en route and scored quickly with Gray-throated Warbler-Finch and the appropriately named Araucaria Tit-Spinetail, then finished up the afternoon birding near the hotel with a distant Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle in flight (amazingly, our second of the tour and the only hawk-eagle species we saw, even though it’s the rarest of the trio) and a pair of Rufous-capped Motmots. We did try for owls, but there was little activity, save for a heard Solitary Tinamou that whistled just once.

The tour’s official birding ended with a short walk near the hotel where Plain-winged Woodcreeper, Southern Antpipit, and a gorgeous male Spot-backed Antshrike popped up into view for an appropriate grand finale.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 08 August 2017