A striated heron along the Transpantaneira Highway. Click to enlarge.

Most days on the Brazil trip started early. It wasn’t uncommon for breakfast to be served around 5 or 5:30 a.m. and for the day’s excursion to start around 6. That was pretty much our schedule on Wednesday morning, July 11, after two nights at our lodge near the northern end of the Transpantaneira Highway: bags outside our rooms at 5:15 am, breakfast at 5:30, and on the bus by 6:00. We’d be driving south that day to the end of the Transpantaneira Highway, to a place called Porto Jofre—but we also would be photographing along the way, and Glenn had a place in mind he wanted us to get to by first light.

As we drove, we saw dozens of termite mounds studding the fields, which surprised me—I thought that was only an Africa thing—and we were told there was a chance we’d see giant anteaters. (From Wikipedia, I learned that giant anteaters are classified in the same taxonomic order as sloths. Who knew?) But we had no luck in seeing any.

Probably less than half an hour after leaving the lodge, the bus stopped along the side of the “highway” (again, just a dirt road), near one of its many wooden bridges, at an area that seemed particularly loaded with birds and other wildlife. The idea was to spend a couple of hours just wandering up and down the road, photographing whatever wildlife seemed to present itself, until the daylight sun got too harsh for photography. Glenn said, “Let’s just enjoy this place,” and with that, we got our camera gear and got off the bus.

Yellow-billed cardinal. The brown coating on the leaves is dust from the Pantaneira Highway. (Click to enlarge.)

You could stroll on your own, or stick close to Andy, Glenn, or Ricardo. Throughout the trip I didn’t miss too many chances to stick with one of those three leaders, because they know a lot more about birds—and Glenn knows a heck of a lot more about photography—than I do. Glenn helped another participant and me photograph kingfishers, a yellow-billed cardinal, a striated heron, and many others. The yellow-billed cardinal was a species we had seen several times in previous days, but I didn’t get a good image of it until we saw it at this roadside stop. Interestingly, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, it’s actually closer to a tanager or a finch than a cardinal. And, while the bird is native to South America, it’s been introduced in Hawaii, so you may have seen it there.

The Pantanal is an especially great place to photograph kingfishers, and we saw two different species of kingfishers that morning. Here’s a ringed kingfisher:

And this, I think, is a green kingfisher:

I say “I think” because the green kingfisher and the Amazon kingfisher apparently can be pretty tough to tell apart. But my notes from that morning say we saw a ringed and a green—no mention of an Amazon—so I’m going with green.

A piece of photography advice that Glenn repeated often is to be aware of the sun’s location and try to position yourself so that the sun is directly behind you, with your shadow pointing toward the bird. Obviously that’s not the only light angle that works, but it’s your best bet more often than not, and I appreciated Glenn’s frequent reminders.

He also taught us that when there’s more than one person trying to photograph a given bird, you need to work together: Start by letting each person get a shot from a reasonable distance; then everyone walk toward the bird together, slowly; then everyone stop; then everyone get another shot; then walk together toward the bird again slowly; and so on. At some point, of course, the bird will have had enough and will fly away, but you can postpone that inevitability if you coordinate your movements.

Sometimes on the trip, Glenn and/or Andy would have us approach the bird by walking in a column, one person behind another—I guess the idea being that the bird might see that as just one person, and thus less of a threat. Other times, they had us walk shoulder to shoulders, in a horizontal sort of phalanx. I didn’t get a chance to find out when one approach might be better than the other.

Among the other birds we saw at that same roadside stop were black-neck stilts, cocoi heron, monk parakeets, a yellow-chinned spinetail, black-capped donacobius, whistling heron, capped heron, wood stork, jabiru, and many, many neotropic cormorants. Here’s one such cormorant with a catfish.

Photographically, I like the action, but the perfectionist in me wishes the bird’s head wasn’t angled away from me. That’s a theme I hear a lot in nature photography: You want the bird facing you, or in profile, or anywhere in between those two points; a bird turned away from you is just not as pleasing to look at.

When the sunlight started getting too harsh, we got back in the bus and drove. We made a stop at a little roadside store, which I was surprised even existed along this desolate dirt road; there, we hit the restrooms and bought snacks. An hour or so later, we had lunch at a small lodge where we’d later spend a night on the way back out of the Pantanal. Then we drove on through an arid, dusty landscape, seeing occasional cattle, marshy areas with egrets and herons, sometimes a pile of caimans sunning themselves on a muddy bank, and every so often a dirt road with a sign for some pousada (Brazil’s name for an ecolodge or inn).

At one point in the afternoon we stopped the bus again, this time in hopes of seeing scarlet-headed blackbirds. Andy, Glenn, and Ricardo had found a patch of reedy habitat that seemed conducive, and we waited in the bus while they walked up and down the road, looking and listening. And, sure, enough, success. What a stunning bird.

Next: The final two days of the trip bring boat rides on the Cuiabá River in search of birds, giant river otters, caiman, capybara … and jaguars.

3 thoughts on “Roadside Birding

  1. your commentary and the pictures are great, we look forward to your new posts and appreciate you sharing your adventures,

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