Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Brazil - the Cerrado and Pantanal

We’ve just returned from leading an Avian Adventures tour in the Chapada dos Guimaraes and the Pantanal in Brazil.  It’s a country we’ve long wanted to visit and we’ve heard and read so much over the years about the Pantanal in particular that we were determined to see it firsthand.

We flew with British Airways from Heathrow to São Paulo and then on to Cuiabá the capital city of the state of Mato Grosso. From Cuiabá we went by road to the Pousada do Parque for a three-night stay in the Chapada dos Guimarães National Park.

Chapada dos Guimarães National Park is part of the Cerrado, one of the world’s most important savannas from the point of view of biodiversity.  It comprises dry woodlands, gallery forests and palm groves, rolling grasslands and dramatic rock formations with cascading waterfalls.  The Cerrado is Brazil’s most endangered ecosystem, more threatened even than the Amazon.  Already about 80% of it has been cleared for large-scale agriculture and very little of what remains is protected.

Véu da Noiva waterfall 

Unfortunately, our time in the Cerrado was badly affected by some unseasonal weather.  Cold, wet and windy wasn’t what we expected and one of our days there was an almost complete write-off in terms of birding.  However, we did see a good selection of species even if conditions weren’t always conducive to photography.  We also saw one of the ‘special’ mammal species that we had been hoping to find, a Brazilian Tapir – in fact, we saw three or perhaps four different individuals.

Brazilian Tapir

The birds included the tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers, antbirds, hummingbirds and various parrots, parakeets and macaws that one would expect in this part of the world.

 Chapada Suiriri

Glittering-bellied Emerald

 Monk Parakeets

Chestnut-eared Aracari

We moved on to the Pantanal with stays at Pouso Alegre, Porto Jofre and Pousada Piuval.  The Pantanal is the world's largest tropical wetland area. It is located mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, but it extends into neighbouring Mato Grosso and also into Bolivia and Paraguay.  It sprawls over an area estimated at between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometres and is reported to be home to about 1,000 bird species and 300 mammal species.

Gateway to the Pantanal, the start of the Transpantaneira

It goes without saying that in our short visit we barely scratched the surface but we did see a good selection of the most accessible birds and mammals.  Although we always say that our interest is primarily in the birds, many of the mammals here are truly remarkable and we were thrilled to see Giant Anteater, Giant River Otter, Jaguar, Marsh Deer and another Brazilian Tapir.

There were some fairly impressive birds, too.  The Hyacinth Macaw, for instance, is the largest flying parrot species and the Toco Toucan has a monstrous bill that relative to body size is the largest of all birds.

 Hyacinth Macaw

Toco Toucan

As to be expected in such a huge wetland, herons, ibises, kingfishers and storks were abundant and it was good to see Limpkins and Snail Kites again, two species that feed mostly on apple snails and are therefore often seen together.

On the Rio Claro

 Amazon Kingfisher


 Striated Heron

Rufescent Tiger Heron

 Wattled Jacana

 Cocoi Heron


We enjoyed boat trips on the Rio Claro and the Rio Cuiabá and it was from a boat that we saw Jaguars, seven or maybe eight different individuals.  Amongst the world’s cats they are larger than anything other than Tigers and Lions and so impressive beasts.


 Yacare Caiman

Giant River Otter

Snail Kite


Not surprisingly it was also from a boat that we were able to watch Giant River Otters tucking in to a meal of catfish.  Capybaras were also seen mostly along the river banks.  Yacare Caimans were simply everywhere – it is said that 10 million of them exist in the Pantanal.  They can grow to a length of three metres!


Also from a boat we saw a Sungrebe, related to the more familiar (to us) African Finfoot.  On sandbanks there were Large-billed & Yellow-billed Terns, Black Skimmers and Collared & Pied Plovers.


 Pied Plover

Large-billed Tern

Perhaps the most surprising bird species we saw was an Orinoco Goose, a rare vagrant in this part of the world.

Orinoco Goose - just a record shot!

All in all it was a fabulous trip!

Friday, 7 July 2017

Avalon Marshes

This week we managed at last to visit the Avalon Marshes for the first time, an area that we used to know as the Somerset Levels.  It was just a day trip so our time was limited and we concentrated on what are probably the two best-known sites, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserves.

The nearest town to the Avalon Marshes is Glastonbury.  Maybe it was seeing television coverage of Jeremy Corbyn on the Pyramid Stage at the recent music festival that inspired us to visit the area or perhaps it was friends who were down there last month and came back enthusing about the birds, butterflies and dragonflies they had seen.  You can decide which!

Ham Wall with Glastonbury Tor in the distance

As the two reserves are situated only about 10 miles from the M5 and our starting point was near the M6, there was only one practical route for us to get there – 152 miles and motorway almost all the way.  Optimistic as usual, Google Maps suggested the journey might take us 2½ hours.  In fact, it took 3½ hours.  We should never underestimate the ability of the M6 traffic to extend travelling times even when we make an early start.  It’s funny how we never seem to have that problem with the Via do Infante de Sagres!

 Shapwick Heath NNR

Most British birders will know that much of the Avalon Marshes is a landscape formed from peat. In the 1960s huge quantities of peat were removed by machine for horticultural use but subsequently this landscape has been transformed into one of lakes, reed-beds, fens and woodland by the RSPB and by English Nature.  Both Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath have extensive reed-beds created with the particular intention of encouraging Eurasian Bitterns to the area and this has been an amazing success.  Two nests at Ham Wall in 2008 were the first in Somerset for 40 years and since then numbers have increased rapidly with 47 booming males reported in the area in 2016.

 Great Egret

Marsh Harrier

Not surprisingly, other wetland and reed-bed species such as Little Egrets, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits, Reed, Sedge & Cetti’s Warblers have also benefited from the provision of what appears to be a perfect habitat.  What probably wasn’t anticipated was the arrival of Great & Cattle Egrets, and Little Bitterns, all of which have bred here in the past few years and Glossy Ibises, which also seem ready to do so.  It’s not difficult to foresee Purple Herons and Spoonbills also colonising.

Black-tailed Skimmer

 Tufted Duck with young

Great Crested Grebe juveniles

Although we had a very enjoyable day, the truth is that we should have been there a month or even two months earlier when there would definitely have been much more breeding bird activity.  We weren’t disappointed as we knew beforehand what to expect and, of course, most of the bird species that have been causing excitement in Somerset are ones that we are used to seeing regularly in the Algarve or in Doñana.  It was simply good to see an area that we have heard so much about and which seems to be an ongoing success story.  Maybe next year we can go there in May!  

Friday, 23 June 2017

Catching up!

As usual, March, April and May have been busy months for us and we have been left little time for blogging.  Now we are catching up and able to at least share a few photographs from our days out in the Castro Verde area as well as around the Algarve:

Red-crested Pochard - breeding birds seem to have been even more numerous than usual this year, particularly at Castro Marim and at the Lagoa de São Lourenço.

Little Bustard - easy enough to find when they are calling and displaying but after that they disappear!  There is a suggestion now that the population of these birds in the Baixo Alentejo may be at a much lower level than previous estimates.
Great Spotted Cuckoo - to find these birds, look for their preferred host species, Common Magpie. Those Magpies that failed to chase away the Cuckoos earlier in the year can now be found feeding their young ones!

Thekla Lark - common enough in the Castro Verde / Mértola area and in the western Algarve, perhaps best separated from the similar Crested Lark by the shape of the bill.

Calandra Lark - a very distinctive and easy to identify lark and one that is easy to see in the Alentejo at most times of the year but especially when they are displaying and singing.

Rock Bunting - in the Algarve, probably most numerous in the hills of Monchique and Caldeirão but this one was less than 15km from Castro Marim in the east.

Eurasian Nuthatch - most often seen (by us) in the woodlands of the Serra do Caldeirão but also regular at Ludo.

Spotted Flycatcher - an uncommon breeding bird in the Algarve but we found this one at what seems to be a regular site where in previous years we have also seen breeding Common Redstarts.

 Crag Martin - we have followed the progress of this easily viewed roadside nest for several weeks.  It's amazing how they manage to stick the nest to vertical walls.

Little Owl - a common enough species but this particular bird is very obliging and usually to be found in this same roadside tree.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - we mentioned this nest in a previous blog.  It was in the same agave where a pair nested in 2011.  When we last visited, they were feeding young.

Little Ringed Plover - commonly found breeding around reservoirs and along rivers and streams; passage birds are sometimes seen in the Ria Formosa; we call them 'lurps'.

 Greater Short-toed Lark - quite widely distributed but nowhere really numerous.

 Blue Rock Thrush - a recently fledged juvenile that we came across in the Eastern Algarve.

  Stone-curlew - one of a pair breeding in the Ria Formosa.  Habitat loss has resulted in fewer birds around Tavira in recent years.

  Pallid Swift - we always enjoy the challenge of photographing these birds that nest in the trunks of palm trees in the centre of Tavira.