Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Jaguars of the Pantanal

Our main reason and target for the trip to Brazil was to get close, personal and sticky with a Jaguar. There is nowhere else in the world where this is possible other than the Pantanal. We were concerned about our bad timing - best season for Jaguar observation is during the dry season in July - August. Then jaguars and their prey concentrate around the limited water sources. When we traveled to the Pantanal, at the start of the wet season, Jaguar encounters are less frequent. Our tour operator Pantanal Nature promised a 'good chance', so off we went.
On our first morning we searched hard along the rivers around Porto Jofre but found nothing. We went up and down the rivers, listened to every Caiman snort and Capibara bark, but alas, no Jaguar. The afternoon session was another story. Shortly after leaving Jofre another boat radioed - Jaguar! We sped off to that spot, finding luckily just one more boat there (in peak season we'd be 30 boats...). That first moment of elation, seeing the majestic animal lay on a tree trunk, feel the adrenaline rush, watch the huge smiles of my team mates - that's a feeling I will not forget. And what a beauty she was, so majestic.

In the Pantanal, regulations about minimum observation distance are kept strictly. So we watched this most beautiful female from a safe distance of 20 meters, though still too close for my 500 mm lens. Compared to the chaotic experience of Tiger watching in India I had last year, this was very civilised and tranquil. Perfect. This specific female receives many visitors and is one of the most habituated Jaguars of the Pantanal.

When she started walking on the trunk to the right, all I could get were tight head shots:

Eventually she sat down again to rest, partially concealed behind aerial roots, giving an interesting atmosphere to the photographs:

After a wile we let her be and went on to find more Jaguars. A short while later we bumped into a huge, scarred, wild-looking male just after he crossed the river. He was not habituated at all, gave us fierce looks and disappeared promptly into the forest. What a powerful experience!

We sailed past the original spot where we had female #1, and found her snoozing a bit deeper in the forest. Isn't she lovely?

Our luck hadn't run out yet. On the way back to Jofre we were surprised to find another female resting on a sandbank. She is not a known female and was very wary of us - I managed a few quick shots before she snuck off into the vegetation. 

Our next two days in the Pantanal proved somewhat less productive for Jaguars, though we managed daily encounters. Our first, lucky day was sunny and hot - Caimans and Jaguars become more active on sunny days. The next days were overcast and wet, and we worked harder to connect with Jaguars. Jaguar #4 was another large male. He kept his distance from us, and stalked quietly through the tall grass. He pounced on a Caiman but missed, and I missed the shot. But it was a breathtaking burst of action. Amazing.

On our last afternoon, almost back in Jofre, a huge male (#5) swam across the Cuiaba river ahead of us. He climbed out of the water quickly and disappeared into the forest not to be seen again - perfect, wild finale to our Jaguar experience.

Many thanks again to Ailton and Cesar from Pantanal Nature, and to Fernando and Panthera Brazil team for hosting and supporting us.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Barnacle Goose!

Yesterday afternon news broke of a young Barnacle Goose at Agamon Hula. As with any wildfowl records, concerns about its origins were raised based on poor quality photos. Later on, when better photos emerged, no plumage anomalies were visible, the bird was properly wary, it's circumstances (age, timing and location) support genuine vagrancy, and the species certainly has good vagrancy potential with accepted records in Greece, Turkey and Egypt.
I had no plans to twitch it today - a couple of important meetings were planned in the morning, and in the afternoon I had a family event to attend. Miraculously, the early morning meeting was cancelled last night, and it didn't take much effort to persuade my boss, who normally does not twitch, to arrive at our second meeting after a detour to Agamon Hula. We got there mid-morning and joined the small crowd of 10 twitchers... The bird was on show, at safe scope distance. Phew. We were lucky - shortly after we left the bird was flushed (by farmers or twitchers) and not relocated since, to the anguish of lazier twitchers.
What a lovely bird - I really hope and think it should make it onto our national list. These images were taken on our way out, from inside a car on a public road at a distance of about 150 m:

~95% of original image, lightly cropped for alignment

Big crop

We were in the Agamon for just over an hour, and focused mainly on the goose. Just behind where we were stood, on the other side of the canal, a Daurian Shrike was showing well albeit at a distance:

Big twitch

We had to leave too quickly to make it on time to our next meeting, so we ignored a fantastic alfalfa field we drove past that had Eastern Imperial and 4 Greater Spotted Eagles, tons of Great Egrets and storks etc., we ignored the water body, and a Demoiselle Crane in the crane feeding area. Still we managed a respectable 67 species in our eBird checklist (check here) - officially it's a complete list but in practice could have increased in another 40 species if we had another hour to bird.

Thanks to Dan for the company and driving, and to Agamon stuff for their patience...

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Brazil day 8 - carpark Seriema and rice field birding

Our ultimate day in Brazil was somewhat slower but still great fun. We spent most of it travelling from Ubatuba to São Paulo airport, with a few stops along the way. A casual toilet stop climbing up to the Altiplano produced a sweet Golden-crowned Warbler:

 A coffee stop atBica de Curió offered a surprise encounter with a most obliging, stupidly tame Red-legged Seriema – not a bird I had expected to find in a carpark. It was walking between the cars, picking up squashed insects from their bonnets. What an outstanding bird! Like a cross between Secretarybird, Houbara and stork:

There were a few more birds around the carpark (eBird checklist here). Several striking Lined Seedeaters were singing in the large trees:

I find this blurry shot graphically pleasing:

We spent a while checking rice fields near Taubaté, where we added mainly common farmland species (eBird checklist here):

White-browed Meadowlark

Chestnut-crowned Blackbird - male

and female

Blue-black Grassquit - in display flight

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - imagine finding one of those on the Azores

Brazilian Teal

There were large numbers of egrets and herons in a ploughed field, including a lone Roseate Spoonbill (here with a Wood Stork and White-faced Whistling Duck) and a Whistling Heron:

Our final birding stop was at Parque Ecológico Tiete near the airport. We had very little time left before our flight, and the park was full of punters, so there were not too many birds present (eBird checklist here). Final new species were added to the trip list in the last minute, including Red-crested Cardinal:

Masked Water Tyrant

The unique South Amerian Coati were too close for my big lens, as always with mammals in the tropics:

Then it was the long way home, and time to contemplate and conclude the trip. It was a fantastic trip – my first ever visit to Latin America. Our main target – Jaguar, was achieved with great success. Bird life was mind-blowing, with so many colours and shapes. Arguably the second leg, birding the Atlantic Forest, was a bit slower, but still huge fun.
Above all, the company and the great people we met along the way made this trip unforgettable. Our team – Gidon, Amir and Eli worked together to make it all happen. Big hugs to you all guys. We are grateful to Fernando Tortato and Panthera Brazil team for hosting us and providing us with support when we needed it. Ailton and Cesar from Pantanal Nature made the boat trips happen – thank you! Our gratitude to Brazil Birding Experts and to Marco our guide for their efforts and services towards and during our Atlantic Forest leg. I can wholeheartedly recommend Brazil Birding Experts and Marco – they did an excellent job.

Now time to start planning my second visit to Latin America…

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Brazil day 7 - wet hummers

Yesterday was a very wet day. It was bucketing down all day long, which hampered our birding efforts. We found shelter at Jonas feeding station, which was rather overwhelming despite the 'low' season and torrential rain. Jonas operates this feeding station at industrial scale - hummers use 10-20 liters of sugar water every day! Jonas refuses to accept any payment from visitors - he does such an amazing job and deserves recognition.
There were good numbers and variety of hummingbirds visiting the feeders throughout the morning, and it was spectacular to see them from up close, hear their tiny wings whizz just centimeters away. The banana feeders attracted some tanagers too but less than I had expected. Photography-wise, I am a bit disappointed. I did use a flash, but I am a real amateur in flash photography, and struggled to get any good results. Shooting without flash was nearly impossible in the gloom at ISO 10000. Canon engineers haven't solved the noise issue yet. Here we go:

Most interesting hummer species though not the most attractive is the Saw-billed Hermit - good numbers present:

Very common were the striking Black Jacobin, and the tiny Festive Coquette and Versicolored Emerald:

Black Jacobin

With Festive Coquettes

Versicolored Emerald

Other species frequenting the feeders were Black-throated Mango, the beautiful Violet-capped Woodnymph, Brazilian Ruby and Glittering-throated Emerald.

Black-throated Mango - female

Violet-capped Woodnymph

Check the jacobin tongue!

Glittering-throated Emerald

Of the tanagers feeding on bananas, the most striking was Red-necked - what a superb bird:

Green-headed Tanager ain't too shabby either

Chestnut-bellied Euphonia

A couple of Slaty-breasted Wood Rails visited the corn bowls left out for them:

The rain was too heavy for any forest birding, so after we left Jonas we sheltered in a nearby restaurant that had some feeders too. This stunning Green Honeycreeper was our first:

I have internet connection challenges here, so will upload videos from my phone later on.

Holiday traffic continued to be catastrophic. We wasted the entire afternoon stuck in Ubatuba traffic. We got back to Bananal just before dark where we managed to sneak in a bit of birding along the access road. It added a few species including these grainy Cliff Flycatchers: