Wednesday, August 16, 2017

WINGS Marvelous Mato Grosso Tour: Deep in the Heart of the Pantanal – Jaguars and More

On my tour in late June, we made several stops on the Transpantaneira Highway on the way south from our lodge at Pouso Alegre to Porto Jofre. We spent most of our time in the late afternoon close Porto Jofre, and then birded much of the morning on it as we headed back north three days later. We saw many species only on these drives, the standout being this rare White-naped Xenopsaris.

This rusty-tinged Grayish Saltator was not typical; perhaps it was stained from having taken a recent dust bath?

There are probably lots of butterflies here during and immediately after the rainy season, from December through April, but it’s been weeks since the last rain, a couple of cold fronts have passed through already, and we haven’t seen very much diversity. This is the widespread Strymon astiocha, Gray-spotted Scrub-Hairstreak.

Close to our Porto Jofre hotel were several of these gorgeous day-flying moths Hypocrita plagifera.

On one night drive we stopped for this tarantula species, for which I haven’t yet found a name.

One of the most ubiquitous birds in the Pantanal is the Yellow-billed Cardinal – seen around ranch buildings, in roadside hedgerows, and along the rivers during our boat trips.

Other additions along the Transpantaneira were a difficult-to-find Subtropical Doradito, adorable Little Cuckoos, a single Striped Cuckoo, our only White-tailed Goldenthroat (making this one of very few 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, 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, a White-rumped Monjita foraging from the power lines, and this White-wedged Piculet twitching incessantly on a branch overhead.

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 curixos (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. Amber is on the left, Ginger is on right.

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, the same afternoon and the following later morning, 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. Here’s Carly, on one of her favorite elevated perches later that same day.

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. The entire maneuver was way to brief to get a photo.

Salima was on the main channel of the Rio Cuiabá as we headed back to Porto Jofre for the last time.

Some of the birds we enjoyed as we boated to and from the jaguar areas were on the sand bars. Here is Black Skimmer, one here in a typical resting posture.

Large-billed Tern.

Yellow-billed Tern.

Black-capped Donacobius is interesting enough to see as they forage and flit in the riverside vegetation, but it’s a marvel to see a pair duet – they bow, wag their tails, and inflate their neck sacs.

We also had 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. We saw several Black-collared Hawks, but almost always as individuals; three on one branch was unusual.

Here are two of the Giant Otters.

As we departed our Porto Jofre hotel, Southern Caracara, Great Black Hawk, and Bare-faced Curassow consorted on the private airstrip.

We made a few stops on the way back north, but this Scarlet-headed Blackbird was undoubtedly the best bird.

Our final morning of birding in the Pantanal was on the grounds of Pousada Piuval in the much drier northern edge of the region. Highlights included 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, an uncommon Dull-capped Attila, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker (surprisingly numerous, including a pair excavating a nest).

With a final sighting of Guira Cuckoos along the driveway we bid farewell to the Pantanal and

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Wide Open Birdiness of the Pantanal

The wide open birdiness of the Pantanal was a welcome shock to the senses after our time in the Amazonian rain forests of northern Mato Grosso. Hyacinth Macaws in the garden of our lodge Pouso Alegre, where we stayed the first two nights, were an unmitigated favorite.

The birds at the boardwalk over a shallow marsh near the main lodge buildings were a great pre-breakfast treat, and the low churring sounds of rare Spotted Rails below, however unseen, were an unexpected bonus. The gigantic Jabirus and Greater Rhea along the entrance road during our first morning’s walk weren’t so easy to overlook.

We also enjoyed a sighting of the colorful and distinctive Chotoy Spinetail, as well as these noisy Plumbeous Ibises singing in the trees.

This Gray-cowled Wood-Rail (formerly Gray-necked Wood-Rail, now split), walked right out in the open for us.

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. The deer were uncommonly tame here. We had one Gray Brocket walk right by us.

And we saw two Marsh Deer walk out in the open as well.

A Green-barred Woodpecker perched up near the horse corral was a highlight for some, but I especially enjoyed the amazingly confiding pair of Great Rufous Woodcreepers that came in to eat insects that had been attracted overnight by the lamp along the walkway to our rooms.

This Red-crested Cardinal fed on the ground just outside our rooms as well.

I recognized this skipper as being related to our Tropical Checkered-Skipper, but was smaller and darker than those; it is Pyrgus orcynoides.

We took a night drive after dinner, seeing more deer, Crab-eating Fox, and yet another tapir, but the highlight was this Bothrops matogrossensis, Mato Grosso Lancehead. The paired blotches along the sides are distinctive in this species.

We spent the last morning along the entrance road marshes again, where we were surprised by a pair of Cream-colored Woodpeckers in an isolated tree in the middle of the open pasture and marsh. Two pairs of Monk Parakeet bickered at each other for ages in this nest they and a pair of Greater Thornbirds had built right over the road in the same tree.

Rusty-collared Seedeaters were very confiding in the grassier marsh vegetation as we walked the road back towards breakfast.

In the late morning we bid farewell to the yard Hyacinth Macaws and worked our way south on the Transpantaneira Highway.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WINGS Tour to Marvelous Mato Grosso: Cristalino Jungle Lodge Highlights

I already posted about some of the highlights from my tour’s visit to Cristalino Jungle Lodge in late June, including Crested and Harpy Eagles, and I also reported from our visit to the first canopy tower, our night walk, and the Boa constrictor that the gardeners and our local guide saved for us. But we saw so much more. Here’s a sampling of what I managed to photograph.

Soon after our flight from Cuiabá to Alta Floresta we were boating up the Cristalino River, greeted by these Capped Herons.

On our second morning, we went to the second tower, where we were greeted by a mixed flock upon our arrival, the best bird being a Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak in the tops of the trees at eye level. Pompadour Cotingas performed nicely with two males and one female within a hundred meters or so, and a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle gave us a very good fly-by. Screaming Pihas providing 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. This Ringed Woodpecker came in very close but stayed partially hidden behind branches.

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. Here’s another photo that I didn’t post to my earlier blog.

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 (at least 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 at close range, 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. Along the way, we enjoyed so many other forms of life, from the utterly blue Menelaus Morpho, to the amazing helicopter damselflies hovering in the forest understory, to a gigantic Idomeneus Owl-Butterfly that perched next to the trail.

I was quick to grab two different “microteiid” lizards (family Gymnophthalmidae) that scurried in the leaf litter on our hikes, and both were new to me. This one is Iphisa elegans, Glossy Shade Lizard.

This is Loxopholis percarinatum, Müller's Shade Lizard. They are probably both very common, but I’m usually here later in the dry season when there are far more leaves on the forest floor, making such tiny critters impossible to find.

We stopped to look at a busy column of red army ants, probably Eciton rapax, which I had seen in Peru.

I told my group about the silverfish I had seen living with these ants, so we watched them for a while and found one. Amazingly, one of the photos I snapped got it in focus. It seems that the species known to be with these ants is Trichatelura manni.

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 this is where we had some of our more unexpected birds. One was a Lesser Nighthawk, perhaps seasonal here. Another was this Large Elaenia, surely a bird that winters in this region in low numbers.

Especially surprising was this Green-tailed Goldenthroat, a very local hummingbird in sandy soil scrub within Amazonia, much more common north of the Amazon River. This is in fact close to the southernmost known occurrence of the species.

We eventually situated ourselves for sunset in the middle of the Teles Pires river, enjoying also a Black Skimmer and hundreds of Cattle Egrets flying downstream to their roost.

On our way back to the lodge we spotlighted several Spectacled Caiman and this Boana calcarata, Troschel's Treefrog, in a small patch of water-hyacinth.

Highlights from our hike to the Serra’s granite dome included a Natterer’s Slaty-Antshrike as well as several hummingbirds here and nowhere else. Other favorites were two great puffbirds: Spotted Puffbird…

…and Eastern Striolated-Puffbird.

I never see many orchids blooming at Cristalino, so I was excited to see one right at the Serra overlook. Thanks to some sleuthing by my client-friend Lisa Li, it turns out to be Trichocentrum sprucei, new for the Cristalino plant list.

One of my favorite finds was this White-bearded Hermit nest right next to the old guides' dorm. I had spotted the empty nest while looking for the usual roosting tent-making bats in the small patch of giant Phenakospermum guianense bird-of-paradise plants, but I had to return at night to find out who the owner was.

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 Toco Toucan at a fuel stop, and a rare Pied-billed Grebe (rare this far north and inland) in a roadside pond.

We finished the day with this brilliant South American Tapir along the entrance road to our lodging at Pouso Alegre.