About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Pousada Aguapé; a Brazilian wildlife extravaganza #2

This is the conclusion of an exploration of the wildlife wonders of the southern Pantanal, as encapsulated by the fazenda (a working cattle property) on which stands the comfortable lodge Pousada Aguapé. Last time we were too captivated by the wildlife activity in the lodge gardens to venture further afield, but there is good reason to do that too. So climb onto the high-backed truck, decked with seats, from the platform provided, and come and explore the property.
Our group boarding - please join us!
(Photo courtesy of Murray Delahoy - thanks Murray!)
We were there in September, normally towards the end of the dry season, but the rains came early last year so there was a lot of water around, and waterbirds had begun to scatter across the Pantanal, but they certainly weren't absent.
Views, above and below, of the ephemeral wetlands starting to fill.
I believe that the round-leafed plant in the foreground is one of the Pickerel Weeds (a name used
for various species of the genus Pontederia, family Pontederiaceae).
If so, this one is P. rotundifolia, one of the dominant water plants of the Pantanal.

The water was already almost up to (or over) the tracks in places; later most of the area, save only
higher ground, will disappear under at least a metre and a half of water for a few months.

The land is managed, seemingly very successfully, for both cattle and wildlife.
Probably needless to say I couldn't identify most of the plants, but here are a couple of significant ones that I had some success with, including another species of Pickerel Weed. 
Pontederia parviflora, which seems to favour more shallow water than P. rotundifolia.

Salvinia auriculata, a floating fern native to the Americas, which has become a pest of waterways
in some parts of the world. It is in the same family as Azolla, familiar in Australia.
And despite my earlier comments about relative scarcity of waterbirds, there were still enough to bring great satisfaction - here are some of the birds we encountered in the rising waters.
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana, a common - and always welcome - sight pretty much throughout
South American wetlands east of the Andes. Its amazing toes, to spread its weight to enable it to
walk on floating leaves, aren't visible here, but...
... they have other uses, as shown in this somewhat blurry action shot. The smaller size of the male is
also clearly seen here; she is the dominant member of the pair and he is responsible for eggs and chicks.
Jabiru Jabiru mycteria with a very large lunch - amazingly, and after a struggle, it went down too!
Maguari Stork Ciconia maguari. This impressive bird is the only member of near-worldwide stork genus
that includes the familiar European White Stork C. ciconia. Although reasonably widespread it
was my first encounter with it.
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus, a bird whose range seems to be increasing with clearing of forests.
(This flock was actually outside of the fazenda, but part of the same system.)
Black-bellied Whistling Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis, a common and widespread - and very attractive -
duck which ranges north to southern North Amrerica. (It also features, out of focus, in the foreground of
the preceding photo.)
Brazilian Teal Amazonetta brasiliensis, another widespread species, and the only member of its genus;
despite the 'teal' part of the name it is not closely related to the main group of dabbling ducks.
And of course various small birds use the emergent wetland vegetation, but not the water itself.
White-headed Marsh Tyrant Arundinicola leucocephala; this lovely little tyrant flycatcher was perched up hunting insects
and tending the beautiful nest below, made of grass and lined with feathers, accessed by a side door.
It too is the only one of its genus.

Wedge-tailed Grassfinch Emberizoides herbicola; despite its name, it's really a tanager.
As I alluded to last time, tanager-associated taxonomy is a very tangled web indeed!
Smooth-billed Anis Crotophaga ani are familiar and highly gregarious non-parasitic cuckoos,
which cooperate in brooding and chick feeding, with several females laying in a nest.
They are often found near water, but are not restricted to watery habitats.
And of course birds aren't the only inhabitants of the wetlands.
Capybaras Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris are the world's biggest rodent, are supremely at home in the water, and are
seemingly ubiquitous in the Pantanal - above and below.

Male Marsh Deer Blastocerus dichotomus, South America's largest deer, reliant on swampy situations
where it wades for food in up to 60cm of water and swims strongly. It formerly had a huge range
in central South America, but that is now terribly fragmented by loss of wetlands.
Where the grasslands and open woodlands have not yet flooded, different animals can be found, including some of the most exciting from our point of view.

Greater Rhea Rhea americana, the largest of three (or larger of two, depending on who you ask)
rhea species in South America. Numbers are dwindling due to hunting and habitat loss, but they
are still a common sight - and not nervous of humans! - in the Pantanal.
Blue-crowned Parakeets Thectocercus acuticaudatus. These lovely - and it must be said engaging -
little parrots are in the Pantanal only found in the south-western woodlands.
Red Pileated Finch Coryphospingus cucullatus, common enough in its eastern South American range,
but still a delight for visitors like us.
Chotoy Spinetail Schoeniophylax phryganophilus.
The spinetails form a group of the ovenbirds, a large solely South American group of ancient passerines;
this one is limited to the south-east of South America.

Grey Monjita Xolmis cinereus, a tyrant flycatcher (the 'other' big group of uniquely South American
old passerines); there are three species of monjita at Pousada Aguapé.
Guira Cuckoo Guira guira (just in case you weren't sure of the name!).
Like the anis above, these are big sociable cuckoos, widely found in the south-east of the continent,
and often also lay eggs in shared nests, though they will also breed separately.
Long-tailed Ground Dove Uropelia campestris, limited to central-west Brazil and adjacent Bolivia;
one of several species of small ground-foraging doves in the Pantanal.
And of course with this richness of birds, there are predators and scavengers.
Roadside Hawk Rupornis magnirostris, a common hawk of a vast swathe of eastern South America, loitering with intent.

Immature Savanna Hawk Buteogallus meridionalis, testing its wings; probably not too much of
a threat yet, but later small mammals, birds, frogs, reptiles, eels and invertebrates, including crabs,
will all be at risk from it.

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus, a constant sight in the Pantanal,
where it cleans up carcasses.
Pampas Deer Ozotoceros bezoarticus; I'd normally spare you such a poor photo, but this is an uncommon
and globally threatened species, and worth recording. Its once huge range has now contracted and mostly
comprises the Pantanal.
And a better photo, of a female, again courtesy of Murray Delahoy.
But one of the creatures we most wanted to see proved to be fairly common and accessible in the Pousada Aguapé grasslands and woodlands. What a thrill!
Giant Anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla, an ancient South American I'd wanted to see in the wild since
being introduced to them in a black and white David Attenborough movie while a young schoolboy.
This was one of those moments that will endure for the rest of my life.
Lastly, there are the riverine forests and forested ridges, which don't usually flood and which support rich wildlife.
Collared Peccary Pecari tajacu. A distant shot of, unusually, a single animal, though they don't
form the vast herds that White-lipped Peccaries do. They used to be regarded as pigs,
but are now recognised as comprising their own family of just three (or perhaps four) species.

Amazonian Motmot Momotus momota; the motmots are a South American insect-eating group
close to the kingfishers. In Spanish they are often called el reloq, the clock, for the tail which
flicks from side to side like a pendulum. It seems that this is a message to watching predators
that 'I've seen you'.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda; the lovely needle-billed jacamars are relatives of the woodpeckers,
aerial insect hunters, some 20 species found from Mexico to the South American tropics.
Black-crowned Tityra Tityra inquisitor; the tityras are mostly fruit-eaters which feed their young on insects
they now form their own family of some 45 species in the Neotropics, including mourners, becards,
royal flycatchers and purpletufts.

Blaze-winged Parakeet Pyrrhura devillei; a small parrot essentially restricted to the Pantanal.
Scaly-headed Parrot Pionus maximiliani, which has a wider distribution in the east of the continent.
Grey-crested Cachalote Pseudoseisura unirufa, another ovenbird, but one which is mostly restricted
to the Pantanal. As this photo might imply, I've found this attractive bird hard to photograph.

Narrow-billed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes angustirostri, yet another ovenbird, but this one
is a member of a large group of bark-probing insectivores. Like Australian treecreepers they
forage by spiralling up tree trunks (or fence posts!).

Red-billed Scythebill Campylorhamphus trochilirostris; I love this bird and that bill!
They too are woodcreepers, but obviously can probe more deeply than their relatives.
And let's finish with a couple of owls, always a highlight, whether we see them roosting by day or in a spotlight at night.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owls Glaucidium brasilianum, a small bird with a huge range from the southern US
to Argentina (despite the species name). They have a range of foods too, mostly insects but including rats
larger than themselves and birds such as hummingbirds which they ambush on the wing, having
studied their flight paths. They mostly feed in the evening and early morning but, as the last comment suggests,
also sometimes by day.

Spectacled Owl Pulsatrix perspicillata, an owl with anther very large distribution. It is much
larger than the pygmy owl, some ten times its weight. It takes mammals to the size of agoutis, skunks, opossums
and rabbits - and even a 4kg sloth! Bird prey includes doves, motmots and jays, and it's been known to
eat iguanas, frogs, bats and insects.
Well, it's been a long day in the truck, so time to drop you off home. Thanks for your company, and I hope you've been inspired to repeat the safari in a less virtual way!

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Thursday, 17 January 2019

Pousada Aguapé; a Brazilian wildlife extravaganza

A year ago I posted a two-part blog on the superb Pantanal, the vast ephemeral wetland lying in south-western Brazil (and overflowing into neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay). At that stage I'd only visited the northern part, as do most visitors there. Since then however I've had the opportunity to visit the less-known southern section - though as the map shows, there is very little road access to this huge wild expanse of country.
The red arrow points to the approximate position of Pousada Aguapé, a delightful lodge on a fazenda,
a working cattle property. While almost none of the Pantanal is formally protected, fortunately many of
the landowners now realise there is a real and tangible value in managing their land to encourage
wildlife alongside the cattle. The pousada is near the southern edge of the Pantanal, but
entirely within it. (Map courtesy Pantanal Escapes.)
The rooms are scattered through extensive gardens; the outdoor eating area is surrounded by wildlife. You can - and probably will - spend quite a bit of profitable time in and immediately around the accommodation, which is what we'll do in this post. Next time I'll take you on a drive through the property.
Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata outside our room. To have these wonderful birds - one of just two
quintessentially South American species together comprising an entire Order - right outside the door is
far from the least of Aguapé's delights.
Another old South American actually lived under our room.
Six-banded Armadillo Euphractus sexcinctus (the number of bands is actually variable) disappearing into
its basement apartment beneath our rooms. They potter about the garden and frequent the compost heap.
Other garden dwellers can be encountered anywhere in the yard, and favour gardens everywhere.
Giant Ameiva (or Amazon Whiptail or Racerunner) Ameiva ameiva (Family Teidae), a handsome
big lizard widespread in South and Central America.
Pale-breasted Thrush Turdus leucomelas, another widespread species in north-eastern
South America (plus an isolated population in northern Peru), often seen in gardens.
Rufous Hornero Furnarius rufus, widespread in the south-east of the continent - it is
the national bird of neighbouring Argentina.

Hornero is Spanish for an oven (indeed the members of this whole extensive family of ancient South American
passerines are known as ovenbirds); this impressive enclosed mud nest is the reason for the name.
However early in the morning the activity is focussed frenetically on the feeders situated, appropriately, alongside the human open air dining room. For up to an hour the parade can be non-stop, though it varies from morning to morning. The following photos were all taken virtually from the breakfast table.
A general view of the feeders at a quiet time, from the dining room.
Black-hooded and Monk Parakeets crowd the breakfast bar.
Black-hooded (or Nanday) Parakeets Aratinga nenday are very attractive parrots,
limited to the Pantanal and mostly found only in the south.
A menacing Giant Cowbird Molothrus oryzivorus, an Icterid (or North American blackbird) found from
the Pantanal north to southern Mexico. The cowbirds are all brood parasites, and this one concentrates
on other Icterids such as oropendolas and caciques. Unlike cuckoos the cowbird chicks live alongside
those of their hosts.
Plush-crested Jay Cyanocorax chrysops, found across central South America.
A few species of jay are the only crows to have become established in South America.
Truly glorious.
Purplish Jay Cyanocorax cyanomelas, a less striking but ubiquitous and more often seen jay.
Greyish Saltator Saltator coerulescens. Saltators are now recognised as tanagers (along
with many other South American birds); this one is widespread.
South American cardinals comprise another bird group which actually belongs to the tanager family. Two species come to dine at Pousada Agouapé.
Red-crested Cardinal Paroaria coronata; this species is much less frequently seen in the Pantanal
than the next one.
Yellow-billed Cardinal Paroaria capitata, one of the commonest and most conspicuous birds in
the Pantanal, including around settlements.
Other visitors to the morning buffet prefer to forage on the ground, to avoid the competition above them or just because that is their preferred environment.
Picui Ground Dove Columbina picui, one of several species of ground-feeding doves in the area.
Picui is a Guarani word, of the central South American people of the same name.

The even smaller Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola has a large but discontinuous range in the west,
north and centre-east of the continent. It too is actually a tanager!

Shiny Cowbirds Molothrus bonariensis are much smaller (as we might expect!) than their Giant
relations, so parasitise much smaller host species, such as sparrows. They are found almost throughout
the continent and are still expanding their range.
And lastly some large visitors who dropped by, starting with another Red-legged Seriema - you can't have too much of them!
Red-legged Seriema partly showing off the patterned underwing.
Chaco Chachalaca Ortalis canicollis, the very raucous and ever-present voice of the Pantanal!
A member of the guan family (Cracticidae), which lives in groups of several to dozens of boisterous birds.
But the star of almost any South American party is likely to be a toucan, and thus it probably was at Aguapé.

Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco, the biggest and one of the most striking of this splendid family.
One day they will feature in their own post here. Toco is apparently also a Guarani word.
Meantime, just over the back fence, the pin-ups of the Pantanal, the simply magnificent Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus come to feed on palm fruits cut for them, ensuring that visitors see and properly appreciate them. At a metre long they are the largest living parrot, though the flightless New Zealand Kakapo is heavier; being electric blue makes them fairly noticeable too.
A victim of the insidious pet trade, numbers plummeted in the 1970s and 80s; in the latter decade around 10,000
were stolen from the wild, leaving only 3,000. They are now limited  to just three isolated populations in Brazil;
two of those seem still to be in decline.

The Pantanal is their stronghold, with at least 5,000 of the estimated world population
of 6,500 (though those figures seem to be more than a decade out of date).
I would suggest that they alone justify your visit to the Pantanal - and at Pousada Aguapé
you are virtually guaranteed to enjoy them at your leisure.
I only feature commercial properties in this blog if I deem them exceptional in nature, and with an appropriate environmental ethos. I believe that Aguapé easily meets these criteria and I look forward to exploring it further with you next time.

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