Birds, River Otters, and More

We saw much more than just jaguars on our boat trips on the Cuiabá River. We also saw plenty of birds, of course; more on those later. And lots of caimans, which are Central and South America’s version of the alligator. For those really into the nerdy details, the ones we saw in the Pantanal were spectacled caimans, while the ones we had seen back in the Atlantic Forest were broad-snouted caimans.

Occasionally we’d pass a capybara, or a family of capybaras, along the shore—capybaras are the world’s largest rodent, weighing up to 150 pounds or more, and they have a cuteness factor that’s hard to beat. They’re found only in Central and South America.

A cocoi heron with a fresh-caught catfish.

As for birds, well, they were everywhere. We saw the three main species of Pantanal kingfishers—Amazon, green, and ringed—and Ricardo got a glimpse of a green-and-rufous kingfisher, but our efforts to track it down were interrupted when the boat driver got word of a jaguar sighting. Wading birds were especially common; we saw many cocoi herons (they look vaguely similar to the great blue herons we see in North America), striated herons, and rufescent tiger herons, along with a capped heron. There were great egrets, too, but we pretty much ignored them because they’re so common in North America. Same with anhingas: We’d see one on a tree branch along the river and we’d just keep on going. Neotropic cormorants were too ubiquitous to get excited about, either. Read more

Jaguar Watching

After spending our first two days in the Pantanal roaming around grassy fields and wetlands, we moved on to Porto Jofre, where the southern end of the Transpantaneira Highway meets the Cuiabá River—and there we spent the better part of two days on boats on the river.

My room at Porto Jofre. Four beds to choose from!

Wikipedia describes Porto Jofre as a “settlement,” which I guess is a few notches below a town or village. In an earlier post, I explained that the area once was primarily a destination for sport-fishing, and then about 12 years ago fishermen started seeing jaguars along the river; today, the jaguars are the big attraction. We stayed in a place that apparently got its start as a fishing camp, as evidenced by the accommodations: Each room had a barracks-like collection of four single beds in a row.

The routine at Porto Jofre was pretty straightforward: Get up around 4:30 am, breakfast at 5, pull your gear together and head to the dock by 6:15, get into the boats and go. We’d spend most of the morning Read more

Roadside Birding

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, Read more

The Pantanal

Hyacinth macaws. (Click to enlarge.)

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the Pantanal region of Brazil, that’s understandable—it’s been a tourist destination for less than 15 years. Ricardo Casarin, the guide assigned to us for the Pantanal portion of the trip, told us that the region was originally known for its great sport-fishing, and then in about 2006, fishermen started reported seeing jaguars—jaguars!—along the river banks. There aren’t too many places where you can see those in the wild. Word spread, tourism grew, and today if you Google “Pantanal jaguar tours,” you’ll find plenty of tour operators eager to take you out on the rivers to find the big cats.

National Geographic has a good overview article on the Pantanal, which it calls “Brazil’s best-kept secret.” The Pantanal is an enormous wetland, 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades. It floods in the rainy season, and most people visit in the dry season—roughly May through September—when it’s more marshy and more accessible. Plus, when the water recedes in the dry season, the wading birds and other wetlands species crowd into the water that remains, which makes the wildlife really concentrated and Read more

Travel Day

We packed up and left Ecolodge Itororó around 6 o’clock on Sunday morning, July 8, and it wasn’t until late Monday afternoon that we were holding cameras in our hands again and photographing wildlife. It was only 36 hours or so, but it felt like forever.

The first part of our trip was clustered around the pins near the Atlantic coast; the second part, nearly 1,000 miles inland. (Click to enlarge.)

The Glenn Bartley workshop is somewhat distinctive among Brazil photo workshops, in that it offers four days of shooting in the Atlantic Forest followed by six days in the Pantanal. That was part of what appealed to me about the trip; many other trips focus entirely on the Pantanal. But Brazil is a big country, and getting from the Atlantic Forest to the Pantanal makes a travel day inevitable. You can see from the Google Map I created for myself for the trip that there’s a big gap between the two regions—they’re about 1,000 miles apart.

So a van picked us up at Itororó and drove us to the domestic airport in Rio de Janeiro, about two hours away. There, we took a GOL Airlines flight to Brasilia, and, after a layover, another GOL flight from Brasilia to Cuiabá—a city of nearly 600,000 people that is essentially the gateway to the Pantanal region.

Andy Foster, Glenn’s co-leader, was invaluable in many ways throughout the trip, and especially so as Read more

A Strange Bird Indeed

One of the more distinctive birds we saw in the Atlantic Forest portion of the trip was the red-legged seriema, a three-foot-tall bird that looks something like a cross between a crane and a cuckoo. It’s got a big long neck, a red beak to go with its red legs, and tufts of feathers growing out of its face. What’s not to love? So on our way back from the Pico de Caledonia excursion, Glenn and Andy took us to a ranch-like area with open fields, where a red-legged seriema or two have been reliably found in the past. And, sure enough, one came running at us from way up on a hilltop—seriemas prefer running to flying, and they can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Once it got fairly close to us, it spent some time just posing and looking around, and we got plenty of photos. As far as bird photography goes, it was a rare can’t-miss opportunity.

Here’s a more-or-less full-body shot of the seriema:

The seriema has a very loud and distinctive call. I tried to capture that on video, but ended up shooting five or six video clips in which the bird refused to open its mouth even once. Here’s a short clip in which the bird calls a bit at the beginning, then spends the rest of the 33 seconds just looking around.

Next: We leave the Atlantic Forest and fly across the country to the Pantanal, where photographing birds—and reptiles and jaguars—is much easier.

Field Photography is Just HARD

For me the best bird photography at Itororó was at the feeders right outside the lodge. The birds were close and, for the most part, out in the open, and you could photograph them fairly easily as they sat on nearby perches waiting their turn at the feeder.

The “field photography” was another story. The first morning, Andy Foster took those of us who were interested on a walk on one Itororó’s trails, and while we heard a lot of birds and got fleeting looks at a few, I have zero images to show for it—unless you count a very distant photo of a saffron toucanet. (That bird was the one I most wanted to see on the trip, and I struck out.) We also took two day trips to different elevations—if you go up or down, say, a thousand feet, you see entirely different species—and that, too, made for some challenging photography.

You can see why even the Land Rover had its limits on this road. (Click to enlarge.)

One such trip was to Pico de Caledonia, where we took the van as far as it could go then piled into a Land Rover for the rest of the climb. When we got as far as the Land Rover could go, we got out and walked up the road a few hundred yards more, until we were at about 6,300 feet—at least according to the altimeter app on my iPhone. The photo at the top of this page is from the highest point of our walk, looking across the mountains; you can see part of the city of Nova Friburgo in the valley below.

Glenn and Andy knew this to be a good spot for Read more

This Hummingbird has a Color Trick

A male Brazilian ruby at Itororó.

The ecolodge at Itororó has a number of hummingbird feeders, with about three species visiting regularly when we were there: the white-throated hummingbird, violet-capped woodnymph, and Brazilian ruby. We also got brief looks at the scale-throated hermit and the glittering-bellied emerald. All except the emerald are Atlantic Forest endemics, meaning that this is the only place in the world that they’re found.

The Brazilian ruby is one of a number of hummingbirds that can dazzle you with the way their throat—or gorget, as ornithologists call it—changes color. Take a look below at two images I took of a Brazilian ruby male just a few seconds apart, and you can see what I mean.

Just by moving his head ever so slightly in one direction or another, he can change the intensity of color on that patch of feathers—or make the color patch go away almost completely.

I also shot a quick (6-second) video of a male Brazilian ruby flashing his throat patch:

Most of what I’ve read seems to suggest that male hummingbirds do this trick in order Read more

A Mountain Oasis

I’ve been on about a half-dozen nature photography trips so far, and I’ve stayed in a range of ecolodges; none of them has been what you would call fancy, but all have been perfectly adequate—as long as you bring a sense of flexibility and good humor. There was a memorable one in Peru where one wall of your bedroom was wide-open to the jungle, and you never knew what kind of critters might visit while you slept. And one in Ecuador where the hardware that was holding up the bathroom sink was so rusted that it broke, and the sink fell off the wall while I was using it.

Shortly after our arrival at Itororó.

Ecolodge Itororó—the lodge where the Glenn Bartley workshop portion of the Brazil trip started—was fairly basic and yet pretty sweet, in my view. From the small city of Nova Friburgo you take a paved road that turns into a dirt road and becomes increasingly steep and bumpy, until you reach an altitude of about 4,000 feet, where a few small buildings sit in a secluded area. That’s Itororó.

There’s a main cabin that consists of a small dining room and a kitchen; the sleeping rooms are in various buildings that have been Read more

Sooooo Many Tanagers

Rufous-headed tanager, Ecolodge Itororó.

One of the things I was really looking forward to in Brazil was the wide variety of tanagers. In the Eastern U.S. we have scarlet tanagers and summer tanagers, and that’s pretty much it. The Western states get western tanagers. But there actually are more than 240 species of tanagers, many of them amazingly colorful, and more than half of them live in South America.

We saw a few tanagers at REGUA lodge—palm tanagers, sayaca tanagers (or “sciatica tanagers,” as Elizabeth liked to call them), black-goggled tanagers, and burnished-buff tanagers, among others. Then we drove to Itororó ecolodge for the next four nights, and the first afternoon there brought a bonanza of tanagers and other birds. We arrived at Itororó at lunchtime, met the other workshop participants and the two leaders—Glenn Bartley and Andy Foster, ate lunch as a group, quickly put our bags in our rooms, and immediately set up our tripods to take photos at the lodge’s fruit feeders.

In North America, people attract birds to their backyards by putting out feeders with sunflower seeds, thistle seed, maybe some nuts, sometimes suet or peanut butter, and so on. In the tropics, birds are more attracted to fruit, so a lodge will typically put out a tray of bananas, papaya, and whatever other fruit is available. The birds at the Itororó fruit feeders that first afternoon were among the most memorable of the trip for me, with Read more