Our boat slid slowly around the slight bend. We were cruising up a tributary of the Rio São Lourenco in the Pantanal when I spotted the capybara dozing on the bank. It was early morning, and the sun was still low. A warm light covered her, and although her eyes seemed open, she appeared relaxed. I snapped my binoculars to mine and discovered that a sleeping baby was tight against her side.
Capybaras are the largest rodent in the world and are common around wetlands in South America, from northern Argentina to Venezuela. I’d never seen one and was looking forward to watching them on this trip. Their common name is derived from several words and translates as “one who eats slender leaves.” Their scientific name comes from Greek and could be translated as “water pig,” although they have no relationship to pigs.
The female cocked her head slightly while the pup continued to doze. She looked remarkable sitting there, much like a giant guinea pig. Her long whiskers around her muzzle were probably highly sensitive. She could easily be a hundred pounds and a rodent at that. People laughed at me when I told them about my excitement to see this animal. “It’s a giant rat,” one person said. No, actually, not that closely related to a rat. Based on their feeding habits, they are more like a rodent version of a moose.
These semiaquatic mammals feed extensively in the water and graze in the savannas. On our first day out, we found several floating in a water hyacinth clump. They are good swimmers and regularly hang out in the water. Apparently, they are often social and live in groups with several adult males and even more adult females. Photographs showed a dozen to 20 along the wetland edges. But, so far, I’d not seen more than two adults at once.
Probably, this was a mother and child, but in this species, all the females in a group will help raise the young, and pups suckle from multiple females. It would be interesting to know if females in a group tend to be related: sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, grandmothers. These two looked tightly bonded. They reminded me of my daughter. She used to climb into my lap or her mother’s, and we would read to her. She lives in Australia now, an ocean away. We didn’t have relatives nearby when she was young and so never benefited from those family bonds to help raise her. She and her husband would have loved to be here with me.
Someone on our boat yelled, “Jaguar.” Only 30 yards away, a Jaguar had stuck its head out through the thick shrubbery and looked up the river. Neither Jaguar nor capybara had seen each other. According to Paulo, our Brazilian guide, jaguars in the Pantanal feed primarily on caimans, but a breakfast of capybara is not out of the question.
An instant later, the giant rodent gave a loud bark, and the mother and baby shot into the water. They swam around the bend, the female barking every few seconds, letting the world know a Jaguar was hunting.
Brr-rrrrrrrdddd came from behind me and lasted for close to two seconds. I whipped around and realized it was our boatman making that sound. He was standing in the back of the boat with a five-inch fish in his right hand. The fish was shaped like a bluegill and probably was a piranha, for we were in the Pantanal of Brazil. He made the call a second time and then paused while he waved the fish in the air at a 45-degree angle above his head.
Almost instantly, the exact same sound came from a tree boarding the small river. I put my binoculars back onto the large overhanging branches 20 meters above the water where two Black-collared Hawks sat. I’d watched and photographed these birds as we progressed down the Rio Sararé. The tree was the tallest along this section of the river, and the pair had built their nest in a large branch that projected to the left. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, said the one on the nest was a young one and to watch the other one. I guessed the other might be the female, and probably the male was out hunting. Our boatman began talking in Portuguese. Perhaps, he was telling us to be ready. He continued to wave the fish. The hawk called again, then the boatman, then the hawk. Maybe it would come down to the bait.
Black-collared Hawks occur from southern Mexico south through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and very northern Argentina. They are associated with freshwater and brackish habitats in lowland tropical regions. This bird feeds primarily on fish, and the undersides of their toes have spines that aid in grabbing and holding onto their prey. Rivers and their gallery forests — like the Rio Sararé where we were right then — are perfect places for this species to feed and breed. I’d never seen this species before this trip, but I knew about it.
A few months ago, Paulo posted a photograph of this hawk flying low over a river in the Pantanal, and I wrote to him about the stunning take and the color of this unique species. I’d come to see it for myself and had asked him when we met a few days ago in Cuiaba if we might see them.
The head is a creamy white with darker stripes, making the bird look like it had just come out of a beauty parlor. The front of the neck is black, as if the bird is wearing a bowtie or fancy lace collar. The body and inner wings are a bright rufous, and the primaries and tips of the secondaries black. The short tail has some black and rufous barring. Overall, this hawk looks as if it had dressed for a fancy gala.
Ten of us were in a narrow, flat-bottomed boat with a small outboard motor. The boatman was in the back and Paulo in the very front. The boatman had carefully placed the other eight of us, two across, to even out the weight in this tippy contraption. He’d assigned me to the back row just in front of him and opposite from where I thought he’d throw the fish. To balance, one knee was pushed hard into the seat in front of me, and my other foot spread wide to be as stable as possible. I would need both hands to operate my camera and photograph the bird when it flew. The gentle rock of the boat made me nervous, and I figured it would tip even more when everyone started photographing, but I was determined.
The boatman and Paulo kept talking back and forth in Portuguese, and Paulo would interject “Is everyone ready?” to the rest of us. The sun was behind us, and the water was calm on this July morning. The light was perfect for outstanding photography. The boatman hurled the fish a good 75 feet, and the hawk instantly left her perch, spreading her four-foot wings, flapping gracefully as she dipped toward the fish. I jammed my camera tight to my right eye and pressed the shutter, the motor drive taking pictures as fast as possible. I tried like the dickens to keep the bird in the frame; fortunately, it wasn’t flying particularly fast and seemed to be making a beeline for the fish. Yet the rocking made it particularly tricky, probably meaning I’d sometimes cut off its wings.
As she approached the fish, her legs dropped down, the talons spread apart, and her legs moved forward like outstretched front legs on a horse coming down from going over a jump. She picked the fish off the water with practically no splash and circled left, away from us to head back toward the tree. I kept following her, taking more photographs, and praying I captured this magnificent demonstration of athleticism. Sure, it was staged, but this showed the grace and precision of their hunting techniques.
I dropped the camera to my chest and plopped back down into the boat, breathless with excitement. Paulo yelled from the front, “Did everyone get it?” And I hoped I had. The motor drives on nine cameras made it sound like multiple machine guns were going off all at once. Hundreds of pictures had been taken. I began to look at mine on the back of my camera. Smiling, I seemed to have an incredible series; unfortunately, on a few, I had cut the wings, and on others, the bird wasn’t in the middle, but I was delighted with the results. I raised my binoculars to look back at this stunning raptor.
The Black-collared Hawk had gone back into the tree, but I couldn’t tell if she still had the fish or had given it to the nestling. Apparently, this species generally lays only one or two eggs and often raises just a single nestling. The young looked fully grown and probably was close to leaving the nest. After fledging, it will stay with the parents for several more months as it learns to feed on its own. According to Birdlife International, the species is still relatively abundant and not of immediate conservation concern, but the Peregrine Fund warns that populations have been declining in recent decades. On the other hand, we’d seen a lot of individuals over the last week in the Pantanal, so maybe they are doing well here.
The boat drifted for several minutes as we chattered about what had just happened. Eventually, the boatman started the motor, and we cruised down this Pantanal river for another hour, photographing other riverine wonders. My mind, though, kept coming back to that flight, the grab, and the return.