Brazil, A Land Of Plenty! - Flashback To June 2008 And A Paradise For Wildlife

Hyacinth Macaw Brazil July 4
In June 2008 we were approaching the half way point of our year long birding adventure. Our last experience in Finland had been wading through snow up to our thighs in a blizzard not seeing Ptarmigan. So it was quite a shock setting foot into the humid heat of night time in Sao Paulo, Brazil. After the long trans-Atlantic flight we were tired, dehydrated and hungry. The flight had been uncomfortable, the food rubbish and we had slept very little. Our adventures in northern Europe had been great fun but the twenty-four daylight had meant that the pace had been relentless and we were now feeling it. We were nearing the half-way mark of The Biggest Twitch and right at that moment we felt exhausted, what would another six and a half months of this feel like? The good news was that our bird total stood at a very healthy 2,304. If we scored well here in Brazil we would be on track to break the world record, which if you remember stood at 3,662, we were over half way there with less than half of the year gone. A little voice at the back of my mind kept saying “it gets harder the more birds you see” This of course was true and the fact we had done so well in the first half by no means guaranteed success. I was reminder of my beloved Manchester United soccer team who had a reputation of coming back strong in the latter stages of games. How many times had their opponents thought they had the beating of the reds only for United to deny them victory in the dying minutes? I vowed that we would not ease off in the latter stages of our big game and have victory snatched away.

Jesus! It was a nightmare scene inside the airport, a heaving mass of humanity and seemingly no order, everyone pushing to get somewhere and going no-where. How we would we find our luggage in this? If we did how we would find the right desk for our onward flight towards Campo Grande our destination far inland. We had already been travelling for over twenty hours and we were not in the mood for this chaos. But this was South America and we were hardly surprised, we had seen it before, so with a sigh and a shrug of resignation we waded into the fray and pushed with the best of them. We retrieved our luggage and some how fought our way to the Tam Airlines counter and checked in for our next flight.

After over four hours of queues and hassle it was a relief to climb above the sprawling city of Sao Paulo with its endless slums and millions of people, any airport is stressful but this one takes the prize so far this year, but we made it and now could start to look forward to what lay ahead, the vast wilderness known as the Pantanal. Our flight took us across a huge chunk of this enormous country as we headed west, inland, crossing vast areas of land once forested but now given over to cattle or Soya bean production.

Pantanal tree sunset July 2016 1

At last our little plane touched down, rather unsteadily, at Campo Grande, a city known as the gate way to the Pantanal. It was wonderful to see our friend, and guide, Fernanda Melo smiling warmly at the arrivals gate. I had first meet Fernanda about four years ago at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water. At the annual welcome event on the eve of the fair I had noticed two rather lost looking women timidly enter the bar and looking like rabbits caught in headlights, ventured over to say hello and welcome them. Fernanda and Marcia joined the Tropical Birding table and we were all soon chatting away like old friends, and have been ever since. Thankfully Fernanda realised that we would be pretty shattered and whisked us away to a nearby hotel to dump our bags and have a quick wash, it’s amazing what a bit of hot water and soap can do for you! Even better lunch was on the itinerary, we had not had any decent food for what felt like ages so we were very happy with that idea! It was an unusual venue, a restaurant where you paid by the weight of food you wanted. We loaded our plates at the buffet table with gorgeous looking meats, pastas, vegetables and bread then took them to be weighed! Once we had paid we tucked in with gusto and we were soon ready for birds.

First we hit the local park, the great thing about that first day in a new country is just about every bird you see is new, no exception here we were soon ticking off plenty of wonderful new birds. It was a little strange, having known Fernanda a while this was the first time we had been birding together. All our meetings had been confined to the Bird Fair where we talked birds but did not watch them! It was quickly apparent that this girl knew her birds; she was birding fast by sight and sound, confidently calling new birds thick and fast, just what we had hoped for. Then we saw it, one of our most wanted birds of The Biggest Twitch, and it did not disappoint. A Toco Toucan flew in and landed on a dead branch in full view bathed in sunshine. Our mascot species on our list! What a bird, a massive yellow-orange bill looking almost like someone had stuck a banana on the bill of a Jackdaw! One of the coolest birds ever. But there were lots more we added eighteen new birds in a few hours birding around the city parks. Nothing could knock our Toco Toucan off his bird of the day perch but there was little doubt who was runner up, Helmeted Mannakin. Not much bigger than a sparrow this jet black bird sported a crimson red crown and nape; the feathers above the tiny black bill were modified to form a protruding horn like a miniature rhino!

With the light fading almost as fast as we were, our massive journey finally catching up with us, until now the adrenalin of so many new birds had spurred us on, we called it a day. Ruth was loving birding with Fernanda, nice to have another woman around and especially one so knowledgeable and friendly, a great start to our Brazilian adventure. We finished the day on 2,304 species.

Fernanda may be female, pretty, friendly and great fun but she was a guide that had been trained by Tropical Birding in Ecuador so it was a very early start on day two. As dawn arrived we were on the out skirts of Campo Grande parked on a dual-carriageway watching spectacular Blue-and-yellow Macaws, as we were spell bound by these huge parrots Fernanda spotted a Campo Flicker swooping up into a nearby tree and this handsome woodpecker joined the Macaws on our list. This is how the day went, drive a little, slam on the brakes, and jump out to see yet another new bird, drive a little and so on. We amassed an amazing forty-four new birds in this way, just a brilliant days birding. Highlights? Whew! Hard to decided with so many great birds. One that has to be mentioned is the bizarre and beautiful Frilled Coquette, a tiny hummingbird with orange crest and iridescent plumage, a gem of a bird. I particularly enjoyed the Steamer-tailed Tyrants that displayed over a marsh and the gang of noisy Curl-crested Jays that worked across a wooded field gabbing grubs from the ground, then flying to a fence post to batter the prey to death on the post. As we crossed a vast grassland plain we encountered two more super birds, Greater Rhea, Brazil’s answer to the Ostrich and almost as big and Red-legged Seriema, a long legged kind cross between a bustard and a stone-curlew. But a mammal stole the show here, our first encounter with a Giant Anteater! What a creature, they really are big, and hairy, and have the most amazing long snouts, powerful front legs armed with huge claws which are held tucked back off the ground so not to blunt them. These lethal looking implements are used for breaking and entering at termite mounds so the animal can insert its long sticky tongue and hoover up the contents.

Finally after a long drive with an over-load of wildlife we reached our destination and what a destination it turned out to be. Fernanda had often told us about a magical place in the heart of the Pantanal wetland called Caiman Lodge, well now we were here and about to see it for ourselves. Progress along the entrance track was almost impossible, the place was heaving with birds. A flock of two hundred Nacunda Nighthawks lifted into the air and swirled over a grassland right next to the car, this alone would have been amazing but there was so, so much more. Plumbeous and Bare-faced Ibis fed in roadside ditches, Whistling Heron waded through shallow pools and perhaps best of all meter long royal blue Hyacinth Macaws swept overhead, had we died and gone to heaven? It certainly felt like it!

The Caiman Ecological Refuge ( covers some fifty-three thousand hectares, a vast carefully managed nature reserve that includes wetlands, open-water, grasslands and forests, a paradise for wildlife. So not only did we see new birds but we boosted our mammal list to. Huge Capybara are common and easy to see, a Yellow Armadillo trotted past us while a herd of Collared Peccaries, wild pigs, viewed us suspiciously before charging away in to the bush.

With dusk approaching we finally made it to the lodge that was to be our base here in the Pantanal. We were delighted when we saw what a stunning place we had arrived at. This was five-star luxury, our room over-looked a large lake and was beautifully decorated and contained everything we could possible need. The staff were just lovely, so friendly, so helpful and so knowledgeable; we were going to just love Caiman! Then came the food, we were amazed at the quality and quantity of the splendid food here, we were miles and miles from the nearest shop yet each meal was just wonderful, we were being spoilt rotten and loving it!

After our lovely supper we were thinking of heading for bed after a long but wonderful day, the staff had other ideas, a slide show had been arranged to tell us a little about our new surroundings. Everyone was so nice to us we did not have the heart to say we would rather sleep so took our seats for the show. We learned that the vast Pantanal wetland is surrounded by mountains on four sides that drain into the wetland and keep the water trapped here, we were so tired I am afraid that is all I can remember of the talk but I am sure it was very informative! At night the temperature really dropped and wind got up and rain hammered down. Breakfast was served well before dawn, again great food made it hard to hurry. Fernanda dragged us away from the delights of the kitchen and as we stepped out of the door we instantly saw birds! A patch of reeds one meter from the entrance door held a calling Yellow-chinned Spinetail and the tree above the door had a Purplish Jay, both new for the year! A short walk had us in a small patch of forest and almost immediately a huge Blue-throated Piping Guan jumped across the braches above us, we stared in almost disbelief at this bizarre creature with it’s bare head and blue throat, looking almost pre-historic. We walked and drove about all day never more than a mile or so from the lodge and clocked up another twenty-seven new species! Fernanda was excelling and exceeding all our expectations. There was no slide show this evening so we were out looking for owls after dinner and managed to find Ferruginous Pygmy-owl and Tropical Screech-owl to finish a wonderful day.

Rufous tailed Jacama 1

The rather bee-eater like Rufous-tailed Jacams one of so many amazing birds here.

It was cold at dawn and we had hats and gloves on as we searched an area of flooded forest. A pair of Fawn-breasted Wrens were easily found so we moved to drier habitat where the birds were tougher. We played tape and patiently stalked about the woods here for ages before finally both Mato Grosso Antbird and White-lored Spineail gave themselves up in rapid succession. We then stumbled on another tough bird with Fuscous Flycatcher finding us while we stopped to listen for distant drumming woodpecker. On again to an area of Palm Forest where we quickly picked up Pale-crested Woodpecker and the colourful Rufous-tailed Jacamar. By now it was hot and we made our way back to the lodge for much needed refreshment, even here we still able to add new birds with Greater Thornbird and a noisy gang of Blue-crowned Parakeets. We were soon out again, we had been told of a Common Potoo roosting in a nearby dead tree but sadly we not at home but we did come away with Great Rufous Woodcreeper and Chotoy Spinetail, not bad for a dip! As we drove the track back towards the lodge a Crab-eating Fox appeared ahead of us, we stopped to watch this attractive animal and soon realised he was watching something. The fox’s attention was directed towards the forest edge, we waited, then saw a movement, just for moment we thought Jaguar! But no it was to small, an Ocelot, still a beautiful cat, marked very like a Jaguar. The view was brief but the fox was still looking so we waited and the Ocelot calmly walked out of the trees and strolled across the track in front of us!

This had given us an appetite and we treated ourselves to lunch at the nearby lodge rather than the usual packed lunches of recent days. Our meal was twice interrupted by the guides sitting on the deck outside the dinning room, first they found a Black-bellied Water Tyrant sitting in a small bush by the lake then they really excelled themselves by picking out a Scarlet-headed Blackbird sat in a distant clump of reeds, through the scope we could really see what a stunning bird this was, and hard to find in this area, as if to make the point the bird flew up and up and off into the far distance showing no signs of stopping. The afternoon was very hot and birding was slow but we still added Common Thornbird and Rusty-backed Antwren, the problem was we were spoiled here we almost expected every bird we saw to be new so many had we now seen. The afternoon finished with an upgrade from a heard to a seen when we stalked an elusive Undulated Tinamou seeing not one but two of these cryptically coloured residents of the forest floor, rather partridge like birds, usually heard and not seen. It was dark well before we reached the lodge so we tried spot-lighting in the hope of a Jaguar, no big cats but we did find a Common Potoo sat on a dead tree, his orange eyes giving him away. Back the lodge we totted up the list and finished the day on 2,393.

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