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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Brazil's Amazing Pantanal; an introduction. Part 1.

The Pantanal is one of those places I'd always wanted to see (courtesy primarily, as with so many other things, of David Attenborough), but never expected to do so. That changed when, late last year, we were sent to do a reconnaissance with my Peruvian friend Juan, preparatory to accompanying a tour there later this year. And it is every bit as extraordinary as I'd been led to believe, truly one of the world's great wildlife spectacles! I can't wait to get back there for further exploration.
Yacaré Caiman Caiman yacare and Capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, Pousada Piuval, Pantanal.
The Pantanal is said to have the largest concentration of crocodilians in the world, and Capybaras,
the planet's largest rodent, are also abundant and ubiquitous.
Today I want to give you a flavour of the place, or at least to start to - even that is too big a task for one day - but first some background. Firstly, it's huge - it has no clearly defined boundaries, but estimates vary from 140,000 to 210,000 square kilometres - but just where is it?
The end of the arrow indicates approximately the heart of the Pantanal, which is located just inside the
tropical zone, pretty much in the centre of South America, mostly in south-western Brazil.
 The Pantanal lies mostly in the Brazilian states of Mattto Grosso and Matto Grosso do Sul,
though it spills over to minor a degree into both Bolivia and Paraguay. The Rio Piquirí forms the boundaries between the two Brazilian states. As is obvious, road access is very limited - more on that anon. Today's post will deal only with the northern section, in Mato Grosso. (Map courtesy hot-map.com).
The Panatanal is essentially a vast ephemeral wetland - some 80% of the flood plains disappear under about a metre and a half of water each year, though it can be up to five metres deep in places. Its area is 15 times that of the (justly) famed wildlife haven of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. However an area that large is not homogenous, and various habitats are recognised, including several major rivers with associated gallery forests, permanent lakes, swamps which expand and contract with the rains, open grasslands and the woodlands of the cerrado, which both flood annually, and drier deciduous and semi-deciduous forests on higher ground.
Grassland and forest patches on higher ground, from observation tower, Pousada Piuval.
(Pousada simply means a guesthouse, or lodge; like the others, this one is a working cattle station,
but supports remarkable wildlife.)
One astonishing aspect of the area (to me at least) is that almost none of it is formally protected; there is one small park in Brazil, covering less than 3% of the Brazilian Pantanal (see on the map just south-west of Porto Joffre) and some protected areas in Paraguay and Bolivia. Beyond that it is all private grazing land, where fortunately landowners are increasingly seeing the value of ecotourism and providing some excellent lodges and wildlife viewing opportunities, which of course means they are managing for wildlife too. Some of these are also apparently committed to protecting the habitat for its own sake.

In 1976 an ambitious plan was launched to build a highway right through the Pantanal, from Cuiabá in the north to Corumbá in the south-west. Unfortunately the planners seem to have overlooked the existence of the impressive Cuiabá River, or perhaps they simply ran out of money at that stage; either way the Transpantaneira Highway ends, after 148km and 120 bridges, at tiny Porto Joffre (also known as Porto Jofre). The southern section - 60% of the Brazilian Pantanal - has no access road to join lodges, so travel is much more difficult; as mentioned, I'll be able to report further on that later in the year!

It's probably more than time now to deliver the promised brief overview of the habitats and some of their particularly striking inhabitants. There is, as I've mentioned, too much for one posting, so I'll start with the drier habitats. That may well be leaving the best to last, but there was plenty to enthrall us in the grasslands, woodlands and drier forests!
Cerrado, Pousada Alegre. As elsewhere the grasslands and open woodlands tend to merge into one another.
They have some very exciting inhabitants.
Greater Rhea Rhea americana, Pousada Piuval.
Common and tolerant of people, this is a much bigger bird than the little Darwin's Rhea R. pennataof the far south that I'm more familiar with.
Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata, Pousada Piuval.
One of the first birds we saw, and was I excited?! (Yes.)
Big mostly ground-living hunters of small animals, this one and the closely-related
Black-legged Seriema are the only members not only of their Family, but an entire Order.
Campo Flicker Colaptes campestris.The flickers are group of seven species of mostly ground-dwelling American woodpeckers in this genus, and I think this one is especially handsome!
While we're on woodpeckers - a group I'm especially fond of and which don't live in Australia - here are a few more.
Pale-crested Woodpecker Celeus lugubris.This beauty is not found much outside the Pantanal.
Cream-coloured Woodpecker Celeus flavus, Pixaim River.
She (he has a red moustache, or malar stripe if you'd prefer) was in gallery forest along the river bank.
White Woodpecker Melanerpes candidus, Pousada Piuval.
This one, a specialty of grassy woodlands, instantly became one of my favourite woodpeckers!
Green-barred Woodpecker Colaptes melanochloros, Pousada Arara, a flicker relative from the dry forests.
And maybe that's enough woodpeckers? Oh all right, just one more then...
White-wedged Piculet Picumnus albosquamatus, along the Transpantaneira Highway.
Tiny, like all piculets, this one is only 10cm long and weighs around 10 grams.
Parrots are also a glorious feature of the Pantanal, with one above all others starring; the huge Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus at a metre long is the longest living parrot, and only the flightless New Zealand Kakapo is heavier. Habitat loss and the insidious pet trade have shattered its numbers, but the Pantanal is its stronghold and it is in many ways the poster bird of the region.
Hyacinth Macaws, Pousada Arara; arara is Portuguese for macaw, and most lodges
have at least one pair breeding in the vicinity.
Golden-collared Macaw Primolius auricollis. This much smaller macaw's range extends from the Pantanal west into Bolivia.
White-eyed Parakeet Psittacara leucophthalmus, Pousada Piuval.
Unlike the previous two parrots, this one is found across much of the northern part of the continent,
and flocks of them hang around the lodges.
Monk Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus, at the entrance (or one of them) to their big colonial stick nest
along the Transpantaneira. They are unique among parrots in this.
Escapes from cages in Europe and North America have formed big urban populations.
Cracids are a Family of large South and Central American birds - guans, curassows and chachalacas - which are in the same Order as fowls. Many have suffered heavily from hunting, but they are present and conspicuous in the Pantanal.
Bare-faced Curassows Crax fasciolata, Pousada Arara;
female above, and male below.
These birds have become habituated to people.

Chestnut-bellied Guan Penelope ochrogaster.A Brazilian endemic, it is a listed Threatened Species, and even in the Pantanal it is scarce.
Red-throated Piping Guan Pipile cujubi, a big handsome guan.
Some sources suggest that only the Blue-throated Piping Guan P. cumanensis is present; others that
White-throated Piping Guan P. grayi is also present, plus hybrids!
I understand why some taxonomists just hide their heads in their hands and lump them all as one species, Common Piping Guan P. pipile! However both Avibase and Handbook of the Birds of the World
make it clear that this is within the range of Red-throated, so I have no reason to call this anything else;
despite a blue trim to the throat in this bird, neither of the other species has red there,
so I'm going with the evidence.
(My thanks to my friend Martin for helping me through this taxonmic tangle.)

Chaco Chachalaca Ortalis canicollis. There are gangs of these everywhere, and like all chachalacas they comment loudly,
rudely and incessantly on everything.
Pousada Arara runs a little roadside cafe-bar - the only one on the highway - and a bird bath there attracts a most impressive array of birds, especially in the dry season. Here are some.
Chestnut-eared Aracaris Pteroglossus castanotis; aracaris, all in this genus, form
a group of smaller colourful toucans. Toucans will get their own post here one day.
Crested Oropendola Psarocolius decumanus. Oropendolas are a group of large, colonial-nesting
icterids (or North American blackbirds, whose ancestors arrived in South America a few million years
ago when the Isthmus of Panama arose).
This is an impressive bird, but the crest? Well not quite so much....
Purplish Jay Cyanocorax cyanomelas; not at all shy!
Yellow-billed Cardinal Paroaria capitata. One of the most prominent birds in the Pantanal, and a delightful one.
The Streaked Flycatcher Myiodynastes maculatus, is widespread in the Pantanal and beyond.

Grey-necked Wood Rail Aramides cajaneus.While this big rail is far from the hardest rail to see, it's not usually this easy!
And with that we'd better look at some other animals while someone is (I hope) still reading...
Crab-eating Fox Cerdocyon thous, hunting frogs in the grounds of the lodge at Pousada Piuval.
These South American foxes are not very closely related to northern hemisphere foxes.
 South American Coatis Nasua nasua. Highly sociable members of the raccoon family,
they hunt a range of prey. I couldn't get very near to this group.
Black-striped Tufted Capuchin Sapajus libidinosus (formerly lumped with the more widespread
Brown Capuchin). This chap was eating green mangoes, which might explain his grumpy demeanour.
Black-tailed Marmoset Mico melanurus, a diurnal tree sap specialist whose range is centred
on the Pantanal.
Brown (or Grey) Brocket Deer Mazama gouazoubira Pousada Alegre; a small deer
and one of four species found in the Pantanal.
Black (or Black and White) Tegu Salvator merianae, Family Teiidae, along the Transpantaneira Highway.
These are big lizards, up to a metre long and massive, filling the niche of goannas (or monitors) in
some other parts of the world. They are often seen around the lodges.
Another member of the same Family, which I've not yet been able to identify.
Red-footed Tortoise Chelonoidis carbonarius, sprinting across the Highway.
This lovely tortoise - and we only saw one - is another Threatened Species, and again the illegal pet trade
is complicit in its decliine.
Wasp nests: Pousada Piuval above,
armadillo wasps, along the Transpantaneira, below.
I was advised that both are well worth not disturbing!

Butterflies enjoying the benefits of cow pats, above and below.

OK, I'm sorry that wasn't perhaps the most tasteful way to conclude, so perhaps something a little more romantic to end on.
Amorous millipedes, Posada Piuval.
I hope you're still there - or if you've left, you've done so to rush off to the fabulous Pantanal. And before you say something like "hey, what about the ....?!", remember I'll be back next week with some delights associated with the Pantanal's wonderful swamps and rivers. Hope you can be here for that.

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Anonymous said...


Flabmeister said...

WRT the Blue-throated Piping Guan I think I can see some blue in the throat as well as the red. Could the red be a flush of blood to the skin as a cooling mechanism? Or was the bird just glad to see you?

Personally I am more intrigued as to why a crab-eating fox was eating frogs.

Thanks for the explanation of where the Pantanal is located. I'd heard of the Matto Grosso but never the Panatanal. Can the next post have a little more detail on how you travelled around?


Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Anon!

Martin; there is a Red-throated PG, but as far as I can tell it is only to the east of here. There is also White-throated in Pantanal (and hybrids!) but that doesn't help me. It's one of the most confusing SAm bird puzzles I've encountered, and I understand why some would just lump them all! I shall persevere. As for the fox, well it was young, so who can say? Or maybe there's a problem in translation...

Ian Fraser said...

Actually, having read further, I've changed my mind and gone with the obvious, Red-throated PG, though not all would agree it's here.