Birding

Day 31: Birding the Pantanal

Visiting in the off season means few tourists and plenty of birds.

January 31, 2015, The Pantanal, Brazil — Until recently, all I knew about the Pantanal was that it was some big wetland in Brazil with lots of animals. That’s an accurate description, as it turns out, but now I understand why people make such a big deal of it!

The Pantanal is a very flat area the size of France in west-central Brazil, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. Various rivers dump into it and in certain seasons the region floods, drawing huge concentrations of waterbirds and other wildlife. Most people who visit the Pantanal go to the north end and drive the Transpantaneira Road, a 90-mile-long straight dirt road built in the late 1960s by Brazil’s then-militarized government. This road dead-ends at the Cuiaba River (if you get that far), and it passes through savannas, lily-padded marshes, and forest patches, with places to stay along the way. 

The Pantanal is a patchwork of flooded areas and savannah-like forest. Photo: Noah Strycker

Giuliano, Bianca and I hit the beginning of this road yesterday evening and turned into the first lodge on the left, called Pousada Piuval. We spent the night at this wonderful spot (Air-conditioning! Fresh breakfast! Wifi!) and then birded our brains out all morning today. Piuval has a system of dirt roads on its property to access key areas, and Giuliano knew exactly where the birds were. The huge highlight was a Zigzag Heron—a canned-soup-sized skulker that is extremely difficult to see, which perched in front of us for 20 minutes! We also saw a pair of Band-tailed Antbirds, a species whose nest was unknown to science until Bianca discovered and formally described it in 2005. (Of course it was Bianca who pointed out a nest to us this afternoon.)

Right now the Pantanal is empty of other wildlife-seekers. The tourist season here runs from April to November, partly because that’s when rivers are low enough to look for jaguars on exposed banks. According to common wisdom, January is right in the middle of the wet season, but I haven’t seen any rain since northwest Argentina, weeks ago. The birds are all here (some, like the Zigzag, are actually easier to find this time of year), and the crowds aren’t. It’s fun to feel like we have the Pantanal, with its iconic Hyacinth Macaws, Jabiru Storks, and Toco Toucans, all to ourselves.

New birds today: 32

Year list: 718

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