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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Marvelous Mato Grosso

The Pantanal, Chapada dos Guimarães, and Cristalino Jungle Lodge

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: With over 470 species of birds in just 15 days, it’s amazing we had time to take note of 28 species of mammals, 20 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 50 species of butterflies on this year’s first Mato Grosso tour. It seems that there was never a moment when our attention wasn’t being demanded by some amazing bird or other animal, and with such a fun group of people, it made for a wonderful tour. It was hard to choose among our favorites, but there may have been some collusion that led to Greater Rhea getting the most votes, though it’s not hard to see why. It was truly a magical site to see about 40 at once on the flats of the Chapada dos Guimarães, and our experiences with them at our final lodging in the Pantanal were memorable. The several Hyacinth Macaws we saw in the Pantanal were also unforgettable, and potoos – we saw both Great and Common – are almost guaranteed to be in the short list of favorites. Nightjars are also fantastic birds that we don’t see all that often, so our view of a Blackish Nightjar on the Serra at Cristalino Jungle Lodge was a tour highlight. The Crested Eagle at Cristalino was super distant, but nonetheless an amazing sight, and seeing it perform an early morning display flight is what helped us clinch the ID. Sunbitterns took the stage on many days, and we never tired of watching them open their wings to reveal their magic. A Pearl Kite was yet another lovely sighting, a delicately colored and not commonly spotted raptor. Our multiple jaguar sightings ranked high on everyone’s list, especially the one that wandered out onto a log in front of all the boats. Nearly as close and perhaps even more thrilling was the one we saw while we were birding on foot in the woodlands at Pousada Piuval. Two Giant Otters put on a nice show for us on the Cuiabá River, but more entertaining was the orphaned Neotropical River Otter that had been rescued from the fires a couple of years earlier and had taken to people for its own source of entertainment. It was amazing to see two Yellow Anacondas on one day followed by a third a few days later, but such is the richness of the Pantanal. Our time at Cristalino was fabulous, with the views from the canopy towers and the roaring from the howler monkeys making it a complete experience.

IN DETAIL: Our first birding outing at Pousada do Parque taught us that “tinamou” must be some native word for “heard only.” We all became ear birders when it came to the many Undulated Tinamous all around, and that would remain the final word for the rest of the tour. Planalto Slaty-Antshrike and Flavescent Warbler were two birds we spotted on our way up to the tower. After dark, we heard the local Tropical Screech-Owls, but more obvious and surprisingly numerous were Common Pauraques all around the yard, while a single Little Nightjar perched on the roof of the restaurant.

One of the most memorable sightings from our first morning in the dry, scrubby cerrado that grows on sandy soil were the duetting White-rumped Tanagers, one rattling and one chortling loudly as they bowed and pumped their tails. Chapada Flycatchers also performed well, seeming to have learned some duetting behavior from the tanagers. We also saw the very shrike-like White-banded Tanagers, with their subtle, twittering voices much more like typical tanagers. A female Blue-tufted Starthroat, a pair of White-eared Puffbirds, and a family of confiding Rusty-backed Antwrens were also on our first stop. From the main road nearby, we had our best views of Curl-crested Jay, while the Burrowing Owls there did not fail to charm. We also birded the upper part of the Vale da Benção road, where two White-vented Violetears were singing on territory and a single Swallow-tailed Hummingbird came in as if to vie for attention. Just within the lusher forest we found White-wedged Piculet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and our first Black-fronted Nunbirds. Back at the lodge, we attempted one of the woodland trails, seeing a very close family of Brown Jacamars overhead. As we exited the trail, a gorgeous Band-tailed Manakin snacked on fruits and pair of Amazonian Motmots responded to a bit of playback. We tried owling down the entrance road where instead we heard the distinctive cry-bark of a Maned Wolf not too far away. Bird activity seemed low, but at the last minute we were pleasantly surprised by a very long-tailed Scissor-tailed Nightjar perched right next to the road.

We had a second morning in short cerrado near the town where a Spot-backed Puffbird and White Woodpecker were the highlights. We also returned to the Vale da Benção road where birds had to compete with a weed whacking gardener. We stumbled into a noisy but furtive little group of Double-collared Seedeaters, and those lucky enough to be looking the right direction had great but brief views of a rarely seen Jaguarundi in the middle of the road. We saved some time to bird the entrance road to the lodge before lunch, and the timing was right for vocal Fiery-capped Manakins, one of which eventually showed exceedingly well. After lunch we drove east of town, first stopping at the Geodesic Center where a distant soaring King Vulture was a lovely sight. We then struggled to keep up with the count of Guira Cuckoos while being charmed by the almost as numerous rheas and seriemas. A Gray Monjita perched on a small tree ended up being our only one of the tour before we assembled around a Collared Crescentchest that finally showed itself after much patience. We were then slightly delayed departing when we paused to admire Red-legged Seriema perched on a small tree against a mauve sunset, which then led to our discovery of a small flock of Least Nighthawks foraging over the open fields, which then led to the spotting of a gorgeous Striped Owl right next to the road searching for its breakfast. The Aroe Jari road was a magical place this evening, and we could only hope that our amazing chef Alexandre wasn’t too dismayed at our late return.

A Planalto Hermit was the prize bird on our early morning walk down from Pousada do Parque. We had a flight to catch, but it was just a short stop at the Portão do Inferno to snag the lovely Cliff Flycatchers utilizing their well-honed niche. Before we knew it, we were in the Amazon Basin, though the first part of our journey was through long-since deforested ranching country. A stop at a grove of Mauritia flexuosa palms in the afternoon heat was surprisingly productive when a Point-tailed Palmcreeper sat exposed for several minutes while Red-bellied Macaws and Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts distracted us. A family of Burrowing Owls on the side of the road was a trick up our driver’s sleeve, but we had something to show him when we got an Eastern Striolated-Puffbird in the spotting scope. A Red-throated Piping-Guan then led to a wonderful mob of tanagers and dacnises in the same location. We made the most of our boat ride transfer to Cristalino Jungle Lodge, enjoying Ringed Kingfishers, seeing both Silvered and Band-tailed antbirds at the same location, and finally being greeted by a pair of Red-necked Aracaris just before we disembarked.

Since the boat rides at Cristalino are one activity that makes this place so special, we spent our first morning heading upriver with no hurry. The timing was perfect when several Amazonian Umbrellabirds flew across the river and landed in a fruiting tree. Soon that same fruiting tree hosted a group of Curl-crested Aracaris as well as a couple of Red-throated Piping-Guans. We spent some quality time with a single Sunbittern at very close range on the riverbank, hunting in perfect light and countersinging with a second distant bird. Razor-billed Curassow and Green Ibis were also very cooperative, and a pair of South American Tapirs in a secluded bend of the river allowed us to calmy approach for amazing photos. Perhaps the rarest bird we saw from the river this morning was a Black Hawk-Eagle, often only heard as they sing high overhead behind the trees. On the way to the giant Brazil Nut tree, we paused to have a look at some hummingbirds chasing in the mid-story and were surprised to see that the one perched was a Fiery-tailed Awlbill. Our views of it in the scope were too brief for everyone to have looks, but later we ended up with lengthy views of Crimson-bellied Parakeets at the relatively new Saleiro formed by White-lipped Peccaries. Just before heading back to lunch, we took a quick peek at the Lagoinha, also known as the Magic Pond, where an American Pygmy-Kingfisher perched out in the open for great views and photos. Birding around the lodge resulted in a memorable Epaulet Oriole, and the afternoon boat ride gave us even more curassows and at the Limão rapids great views of Red-throated Piping-Guan and Capped Herons.

The timing was perfect for our arduous hike up to the Serra I overlook. A few trees were in peak fruit, and we arrived with tanagers in all directions, including, most improbably, straight down. It was a rare event to watch Paradise Tanagers and a stunning Opal-rumped Tanager from above. Joining the tanagers in checking out the fruit was a Bare-necked Fruitcrow, and the flowering trees attracted some nice hummers including a Black-eared Fairy and our second Fiery-tailed Awlbill, one of the rarest hummingbirds in the region. Wandering around the rocky outcroppings we flushed a distinctive Blackish Nightjar. Escaping the escarpment when it was finally too hot, we returned to the refreshing river where we enjoyed the common but always delightful White-winged Swallows. In the afternoon we motored down the Cristalino to the Teles Pires, stopping near the mouth when we detected Flame-crowned Manakins being territorial; one eventually perched out in the wide open, wings flared and ready to attack. We then visited a small, rocky islet where Amazonian Tyrannulet simply failed to appear for the first time ever. But the Black-collared Swallows showed very nicely, and we were surprised to find a couple of Lesser Nighthawks flushing (and continuing to fly around) with the more common Ladder-tailed Nightjars, which landed immediately after being flushed. We lingered on the Teles Pires for the sunset show, and then had a chance to spotlight caiman on the return up the Cristalino. Scarce in this area, a Boat-billed Heron was a bonus find.

For our scheduled morning on Tower II we departed while it was still dark, and those in the front of the trail were treated to a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl that was just getting ready for bed. The tower was lovely, and though we did not have any close mixed flocks, we saw plenty, and the bonus Crested Eagle shall not be forgotten. We used the late morning to cover the Manakin Trail with its distinctive forest type, flushing a bunch of Wood Storks at the drying puddle at the end. We found the resident pair of Bronzy Jacamars here and walked by a calling Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin that we eventually spotted and saw well. We didn’t have that much time on the river this day, but a sighting of Capped Heron on the rocks just downstream was still memorable and Red-capped Cardinals by the floating deck showed well. The late afternoon held quite the treat for us as we sat behind a camouflage curtain and watched a parade of birds come into the bird bath that Francisco set up a few years ago. We were very lucky to be among few who have seen Black-spotted Bare-eye come in, but even the regulars were stunning – Bare-eyed Antbirds staring us down, a Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleaner showing its rarely expanded white chin feathers, and super adorable Dot-backed Antbirds.

The experience from Tower I was quite different from the other tower. We had amazing fly-by views of Scarlet Macaws and Blue-headed Parrot, the scarce Scale-breasted Woodpecker came in quite close, Tooth-billed Wren sang from the closest tree, and a constant trickle of new birds meant we only reluctantly left the canopy for some trail birding. A bit of late morning birding by boat resulted in a pair of Muscovy Ducks, more views of Sunbittern with the mind-blowing wing pattern, and a surprise Ornate Hawk-Eagle flying across the river and landing in view. At Limão, the open habitats meant birds were a bit easier to spot, and here we had good views of Variegated Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, and just within the forest road a Zimmer’s Tody-Tyrant and a Black-bellied Cuckoo. We made one last check of the Magic Pond where an unfortunate encounter with army ants in the poorly lit trail did at least result in a surprise spotting of Curve-billed Scythebill.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge was hard to depart, especially since some very memorable bird sightings in just our final couple of morning hours clearly indicated there were so many other species we still hadn’t seen. In just the Secret Garden alone we saw White-browed Purpletuft, finally had good views of stunning Blue Ground Dove, Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Paradise Jacamar at a nest, Cream-colored Woodpecker, and Gould’s Toucanet. What might we have seen if we could have stayed longer? But to top it off, local guide Fito alerted us to a vagrant Paint-billed Crake foraging on the open ground behind the kitchen. Perhaps only the fourth record for Cristalino, this bird was clearly lost. Without too much time wasted in airports, we found ourselves back in the bus with Sebastião and heading south into the Pantanal. Birds were everywhere, but the Black Skimmer foraging over a patch of water by one of the first bridges and a fabulous Great Potoo silhouetted against the pink evening sky were the most memorable.

So rich is the Pantanal and the birds here easy to see, we didn’t have to leave the property of Aymara Lodge on our 11th day of birding to record 118 species. The sounds alone were amazing, with Chaco Chachalacas setting the stage. Hyacinth Macaws right by our rooms were amazing, as was a pair of Pale-crested Woodpeckers and a huge Crimson-crested Woodpecker. It wasn’t a rare thing to look up and see a Jabiru soaring or elegantly flying by, but it was a first for us to watch a Neotropic Cormorant fly in and make a most embarrassing crash landing. It missed its branch and ended up in the brush below the tree; it finally later extracted itself, gave it a second try, and landed successfully to a round of applause. Guira Cuckoos were fun to watch along the entrance road and a gorgeous Orange-backed Troupial came in to a whistle imitation. The unspotted subspecies of Limpkin was also along the entrance road, and we took a side trail where some of us had views of a very close Helmeted Manakin. In the early evening we took a safari ride to the neighboring ranch where the only mammal we saw well was a Brazilian Rabbit, but a flyover of a Great Potoo was a thrilling sight.

Part of the Pantanal experience is the amazing soundscape. So, in addition to the raucous chachalacas, noisy parrots, and squabbling caracaras, this morning we got to experience the distinctly bovine mooing of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron. After all, its Brazilian name does translate to cow heron. Great Rufous Woodcreeper was another great bird near our rooms before we took a late morning walk on a trail near the main road. Here we found a White-wedged Piculet, followed by a Red-billed Scythebill, followed by a Rufous-breasted Hermit, a very sudden barrage of new and exciting birds. Then we worked up a nice mixed flock which ended up with a gorgeous male Helmeted Manakin that waited for everyone to see it well before it moved on. It was a struggle to not stop too much on the way south into the wetter parts of the Pantanal, but Long-tailed Ground Dove was a good find in the drier area. Little Blue Heron, Blue-crowned Parakeet, and White-headed Marsh-Tyrant were some of the more memorable birds during the drive, but two Yellow Anacondas were unforgettable finds as well.

It didn’t take us long on our first morning up the Cuiabá River to see our first Jaguar, but it was a bit frustrating; there were a lot of boats in the way, and we only saw a head and part of the body poke out of the grass a few times. And while we were told there were three, they were distant, and we saw only one for sure. Not to worry, we would have our chance. After enjoying Wattled Jacanas, Pied Lapwings, and Anhinga eating a fish, and Yellow-billed Terns, we returned and there was the mother of the trio, trying to stalk caiman on the river bank, but then she decided to have a short nap on a log after all. Later, while seeing Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and an over-summering Osprey, we saw three more Jaguars, but none quite so well as that first. We returned upriver in the afternoon, and the birding was still good. One particularly good spot had us looking at a confiding Rusty-collared Seedeater, followed by a Subtropical Doradito, and then a surprise fly-over of a Long-winged Harrier.

On our early morning walk up the road, Gilded Hummingbird was a nice addition, but it was only a brief bit of birding before we went out by boat again, this time downstream to Rio Negrinho. A relatively newly formed island was hosting a lively colony of Black Skimmers and other birds, including some handsome Collared Plovers. Birding was excellent in the new side channel, and with work we finally saw Green-and-rufous Kingfisher to our hearts’ content. Orange-backed Troupial was a colorful addition to the list here, many Gray-cowled Wood-Rail walked along the shore, while a Crane Hawk landed low in a big tree for good views. Shortly before our afternoon outing, we were alerted by some other birders that a Paraguayan Snipe was out back behind our rooms, a fun and unexpected rarity; it turns out it had been there for nearly two weeks. In the afternoon we birded the open areas farther up the Transpantaneira, getting a better count of all of those Nacunda Nighthawks roosting on the mud. We tallied Yellowish Pipit, watched Cattle Tyrants ride the backs of Capybaras, and saw a well-spotted Striped Cuckoo singing from the top of a distant bush.

Driving back up through the Pantanal in one day is difficult, as each 1-kilometer stretch of road could take hours to bird properly. So we hit just a few spots and still amassed a huge day list. A White-banded Mockingbird was a nice surprise, as were Yellow-browed Tyrants at the same spot, both migrants spending the winter here. We had already seen Hyacinth Macaw well, but we didn’t pass up a chance to see more of them as a small group cavorted in palm trees right next to the road. Another quick roadside stop was warranted for a stunning Scarlet-headed Blackbird that didn’t require use of a spotting scope. We arrived at Pousada Piuval before dark, which was good, as a huge chunk of our favorite sightings of the day came in the last hour of daylight. Grassland Sparrow, Plumbeous Ibis, Guira Cuckoo, and Green-barred Woodpecker were right along the entrance road before we had even arrived at the lodge. Once settled in, we watched the leisurely strolling Greater Rheas on the drying up lake bed and put the scope on a pair of very distant Whistling Herons performing an amazing and very un-heronlike one-on-one courtship display.

Our final, short morning of birding of the main tour was excellent. A huge group of Guira Cuckoos were huddled in the palm trees by reception before we headed out by bus. We found Black-bellied Antwren right where they were four years ago, and a mixed flock was joined by very confiding Great Antshrike and Rufous-tailed Jacamar. We got lucky to have a Cinnamon-throated Hermit forage at close range, but the big surprise came in the form of a Jaguar – probably the female known as Baia – suddenly in the side track off to our left. She must have been hard of hearing, as we hadn’t been super quiet, but when she realized we were in her path, she bolted the opposite direction. Another nice mammal surprise, running down the road in front of us as we returned, was a Six-banded Armadillo. We bid adieu to Margaret and Jean at the airport and mentally prepared ourselves for a long, boring and wasted day in Cuiabá waiting for our flight the next afternoon, which would get us into our Iguazú hotel around midnight the next day.

But wait – what if? After a quick check at the airport and many attempts to communicate with everyone, we soon found ourselves booked on a redeye that would have us departing at 1:40 a.m. and getting us into Iguazú even before our original flight was to leave Cuiabá. Perfect. The longish layover in São Paulo wasn’t so great, but the flights went very smoothly. So, after meeting up with Quillén and driver José at Foz do Iguaçu, we transferred into Argentina, had a very leisurely lunch at the hotel, had time to bird around the gardens a bit where Squirrel Cuckoo was a nice find, and then we got permission to stay at the local hummingbird garden past their usual closing time. There we sorted through the countless Versicolored Emeralds to name Black Jacobin and Swallow-tailed Hummingbird as the highlights.

Our first morning in the totally different ecosystem of the Atlantic Rainforest was intense – such a new sound and feeling, and so many species! Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher is one of the fine specialties here, so we were lucky to have such good views of it in the shorter trees. An Eared Pygmy-Tyrant finally showed well, a Surucua Trogon reluctantly came in, and at least two pair of Ochre-collared Piculets were adorable. An amazing find was a Tiny Hawk perched motionless and well within the canopy of a big tree. There are very few records from this area, and it’s not an easily seen bird anywhere in its range. We enjoyed scope views of this feisty raptor for several minutes before we had to move on. The afternoon was largely spent getting to and from the impressive Iguazú Falls at Garganta del Diablo, but there were birds here too – most amazing was an endangered Black-fronted Piping-Guan singing from an islet of trees as throngs of tourists walked right by on the boardwalk to the falls. Almost as unlikely were the Slaty-breasted Wood-Rails walking around and underneath the same boardwalk closer to the falls. Plush-crested Jays were easy and conspicuous but never tiring to look at. As our visit winded down, we spotted Great Dusky Swifts heading back to the falls to roost. Finally, as we exited the national park, a Campo Flicker foraging in the lawn was the final favorite bird of the day, save for the Tropical Screech-Owl at our hotel after dinner; it flew right in for great views with only the briefest of attempts.

An early departure to Urugua-í Provincial Park was worth it for the birds we saw upon arrival – Blond-headed Woodpecker first among them. That was followed by a sneaky Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper under the bridge, stunning Chestnut-headed Tanagers in the understory, White-browed Warblers with their haunting song penetrating the forest, Swallow-tailed Manakin glimpsed by a few, a Toco Toucan perched prominently above the forest, and a Robust Woodpecker foraging intently at eye level for quite some time. The numbers and diversity of butterflies was hard to overstate, and we could have spent all morning just looking at them. We made an afternoon stop where we easily snagged the Araucaria Tit-Spinetails in the tree bearing their name (though they always remained high), and another nice find here was a handsome Magpie Tanager and the drab but rather rare Burnished-buff Tanager.

With late afternoon flights, we were lucky to have all morning free to bird the forest behind our hotel, though an overnight rain made it quite a muddy walk. We started with a visible Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (at last), only later to have one fly in at our heads quickly followed by a third. Small noises coming from a clump of mistletoe overhead led us to a pair of lovely Blue-naped Chlorophonias, and some more color was just down the road in mixed canopy flocks that included vibrant Blue Dacnises and stunning Green-headed Tanagers. Streak-capped Antwren eventually came down nicely out of the canopy, while we were lucky to have such good views of both Tufted Antshrike and White-shouldered Fire-eye, often skulky beyond hope. Saved from the endless mud by a passing tractor pulling tourists, we finished the walk with a pair of Rufous-capped Motmots in the deep shade at a nearby hotel entrance road.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 29 September 2022