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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Brazil: Mato Grosso

The Pantanal and Cristalino Jungle Lodge

2009 Tour Narrative

In Brief: There are not enough superlatives to describe birding in two of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the Pantanal and the Amazonian rainforest. Add a third ecotone with cerrado habitat, and you have the ingredients for a birding extravaganza to rivals any other. Jabirus, Plumbeous Ibises, egrets, herons, and kingfishers were seen every day in such numbers that our checklists could only be filled with estimates of tens or hundred. The gallery forests of the Pantanal provided the needed passerine fix with a male Helmeted Manakin, almost regal in his black and red plumage. A young Harpy Eagle within our first hour at Alta Floresta set the stage for our Amazonian experience. The forest surrounding Cristalino Lodge is so extensive and and its bird life so diverse that it can only be sampled in five days. But that sample included a tower experience where macaws flew below us and toucans, toucanets, and aracaris perched long enough to be scoped. A male Pompadour Cotinga was stunning with the flash of white in flight. River trips on the Cristalino provided some of the best birding experiences, including a male Amazonian Umbrellabird, a pair of Razor-billed Currasows at river’s edge, Hoatzins, and of course the regular sightings of macaws, parrots, and toucans. The forest trails at times had our adrenaline flowing and at times allowed a more leisurely pace, but sightings were always superb, with Blue-cheeked Jacamar, Banded Antbird, Flame-crowned Manakin, and a herd of White-lipped Peccaries just a few of the more spectacular and memorable sightings. A morning in the cerrado habitat of Chapada dos Guimarães was a nice change from the forest birding of the Amazon. Our targets appeared in the morning light as if prompted: White-eared Puffbird, Rufous-winged Antbird, Chapada Flycatcher, Collared Crescentchest, and White-rumped and White-banded Tanagers. Twelve days are not long enough to see all that the state of Mato Grosso has to offer, but our trip list put a hefty dent into the state’s birds and mammals.

In Detail: Without a doubt, lodges situated in the center of excellent habitat and catering to the habits of birders—early breakfasts, buffets, lots of cold drinks—are a dream come true, and we experienced some of the best of such settings in the Pantanal and the southern Amazon. From the moment we left Cuiabá, we were immersed in the birding of the Pantanal. Red-legged Seriemas were quickly spotted, and the waterbird spectacle that was to be the norm for the next three days claimed our attention. The numbers of Maguari Storks our first afternoon were astounding, especially considering that not a one had been seen the previous year. Snail Kites and Savannah Hawks and Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers were some of the more common birds.

Hyacinth Macaws before breakfast just feet away from your room—now that’s a way to wake up without coffee! And watching the dawn rise while enjoying Greater Rheas, several species of parrots and doves, Chestnut-bellied Guans, ibises, egrets, and herons was one of those natural history moments worthy of National Geographic.

Every step of our first day filled us with bird sightings: the forest was active even at mid-morning, with a male Helmeted Manakin and Mato Grosso Antbird seen by all. We needed a rest break after lunch just to reflect on the morning’s sightings and to restore our energy for the afternoon and evening’s birding excursions, which featured a Giant Anteater and Great and Common Potoos among other sightings. Our second day was the same and more, as we went further afield to Pixaim to enjoy a late afternoon river trip, where Giant River Otters were one of the non-avian highlights.

The change from the openness of the Pantanal to the forest regions of Amazonia was evident soon after our arrival in Alta Floresta. We quickly walked a path in a forest patch near the airport with hopes of glimpsing a recently fledged Harpy Eagle. Initial anxiety when the nest proved to be empty turned to relief when our escort spotted the youngster on the other side of the tree. And thus began our Cristalino experience.

Arriving at Cristalino Lodge is always a bit like Alice stepping into Wonderland: on entering the Cristalino River from the Teles Pires River, the colors, the sounds, the way of life seem to change. Macaws flying overhead, Capped Herons statuesquely standing on rocks along the river, White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans perched high and calling to confirm the identification: it’s like entering paradise.

Whether in boats, on a canopy tower, at a viewpoint on the serra, walking trails, or birding the grounds of the lodge, each day gave dawn-to-dusk birding opportunities while still providing a sense of relaxation. A morning tower experience with White-necked and Striolated Puffbirds in quick succession, a Black-girdled Barbet, Curl-crested Aracaris, Gould’s Toucanets, Pompadour and Spangled Cotingas, Bare-necked Fruitcrows, and many other species was enjoyed all the more in the absence of sweat bees. Trail experiences were varied, sometimes hard work but ultra-rewarding when gems including Blue-cheeked Jacamar, Banded Antbird, or Cinereous Antshrike were sighted, and there was that ever-elusive group of ant followers that allowed only a couple of us quick glimpses. And the mid-morning teeth-gnashing of White-lipped Peccaries stopped all of us in our tracks as we watched a herd of 60 or more weave in and out of the forest.

The viewpoint at the Serra was worth the climb when we recorded four species of puffbird in a couple of hours, including Brown-banded and Spotted, and saw both Masked and Blue-necked Tanagers. The boat trips, of course, are always a highlight, in part due to never knowing what to expect—Sunbitterns flashing their complicated wing pattern as they flew across the river, Razor-billed Currasows, Red-throated Piping Guans, Hoatzins, a Brown Jacamar, a pair of Amazonian Umbrellabirds—and with the relaxed nature of birding on the pristine Cristalino River, where we seldom encountered another boat, we had the feeling that we were in our own private reserve.

Chapada dos Guimarães provided the perfect ending to an intense birding holiday. On our final day, the birds appeared as if on cue to show us that birders don’t always have to struggle. The morning light was perfect as the birds perched on the low vegetation to give us a reprieve from the canopy birding at Cristalino. White-eared Puffbirds, Rufous-winged Antshrike, a Collared Crescentchest (one of the stars of the morning), and Chapada Flycatchers gave a virtuoso performance, and White-banded and White-rumped Tanagers were sighted in quick succession. Mid-morning and late afternoon forest birding was equally productive, including stunning views of a pair of Sharp-tailed Streamcreepers.

Twelve days passed far too rapidly. Mato Grosso is one of those places where you want to capture the morning, then release it slowly and relieve it again day after day, knowing there are gems that got away or were seen too briefly. We only touched the surface of Cristalino: a repeat visit there would result in a very different bird list, the same experience had when walking the same trails on consecutive days.

- Judy Davis

Updated: August 2009