A rolling kwirr kwirr came from my right, so I leaned forward to look out the small window in my photography blind. In one of the walnuts, oaks, or locusts would be a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but nothing popped out. A half-inch of snow lay on the ground, and the trees were naked of leaves on this December day. The ground dropped off quickly to my right and down to a narrow ravine where the small creek flowed from the spring behind me. To my left, the hill’s slope was more gradual. Patches of multiflora rose and grasses grew under the sparse canopy. I’d set up near a fallen tree whose exposed roots might make excellent perches for birds coming to the food I’d scattered.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are now the most common woodpecker on my sister’s farm, where I grew up more than fifty years ago. But they weren’t in Western Pennsylvania during my youth and into the beginning of my adulthood. Back then, several high school friends and I went to Maryland to see this species. We drove all night and camped on the Delmar Peninsula, then birded the area for species not found in our farm country.
The kwirr was a little louder now; the bird was coming closer. These are medium-sized woodpeckers, bigger than the Downy and Hairy but smaller than the Pileated. In the last half-century, Red-bellies have expanded north, moving throughout Pennsylvania, into New York and Ontario, and up through much of the mid-west. Probably several things have allowed them to do this. Planting ornamental bushes and trees has provided more food, increased bird feeding in residential areas has supplemented natural foods, and climate change has helped them, too. These birds regularly feed on seeds; ornamental planting has provided winter fruits and suitable foraging surfaces for bugs. The Northern Mockingbird is another species now common near my sister’s farm that wasn’t this far north in my youth.
A pale-brownish bird dashed onto the branch and hung from the backside. It had a long-pointed bill, little bits of red on its forehead and nape, black and white striped back. Definitely a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a female. She hopped forward a couple of times, moving to keep the branch between her and me as much as possible. She knew I was there. Her toes gripped the wood with long nails, two toes forward and two backward. Although she didn’t need it for bracing in this horizontal position, her stiff tail was pushed down on the branch. I am particularly fond of the soft tan colors of her chest and belly. The red is far back on their bellies and often not prominent. Males will usually have more of a red wash across their undersides. People often question why this bird isn’t named for its red head, but another woodpecker possesses that name.
She moved up the branch, picking seeds up, and then in a flash, disappeared down over the hill.
The grass waved slightly in the morning breeze, touching the railing on the boardwalk. My knee was braced on a post as I scanned east and then north across this vast wetland. Structurally, the marsh looked much like the Florida Everglades, where I worked for more than a decade. Earlier, a Snail Kite had quartered back and forth, hunting apple snails, and five Great Egrets had flown over on their broad white wings. Both species are found in Florida, and my work there focused on their conservation. Wood Storks had been abundant at this place, too, a species endangered in the United States but doing fine in Brazil.
The grass species here looked different from Florida, not sawgrass, and the trees on the hammocks were more tropical, with many palms and broadleaf species that I didn’t recognize. This was the Pantanal, a wetland almost as big as Florida, extending across southern Brazil and into Bolivia and Paraguay. A squawk caused me to turn around; a pair of Hyacinth Macaws flew on steady wingbeats west over the marsh. These are the largest parrots in the Western Hemisphere. They feed on the fruits of palms. Definitely, I was not in the Everglades and hadn’t been for the previous week.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked on the conservation and restoration of the Everglades. My research group studied the needs of birds and how to restore a healthier ecosystem. I also spent endless hours in planning meetings with federal, state, and local officials and with industry and agriculture interests. Collectively, we made massive progress on the needs of these wetlands. From my start there, in 1984, I heard of the Pantanal and how this tropical wetland still functioned pretty much untrammeled by human hands. It had been a dream of mine to see this place, get a feel for its wildlife and how it functioned, and look for parallels and differences with the Everglades. Now, forty years later, I’d finally made it.
In 2021, my friend Bob planned a trip to this place, and I asked if I could join him. Unfortunately, that expedition was postponed because of drought. But in July 2022, we came. Much of our time had been along the Rio Savore and Rio Sao Lourenco, traveling by skiff. July was partway into the dry season, and the water levels had dropped several meters from their wet season maximums. We were down in water courses, and the settings reminded me of the channels running through the coastal wetlands of Florida or along the Kissimmee River in the northern part of the Everglades. Occasionally, we could see over the banks and get a feel for the vastness of the marsh system. Oxbow lakes, small ponds, and depressions dot this landscape. I could imagine the wading birds concentrating at those locations as water levels fell; the caimans, this country’s equivalent to our Alligators, lining the shorelines to bask in the sun. A hike to oxbow would be spectacular but out of the question, for jaguars hunt these wetlands.
During the previous two days, we’d moved out into the savannas, staying at lodges rather than on a houseboat. The landscape from the boardwalk that final morning and the mixed habitats we’d hiked in the day before and earlier that day reminded me so much of Florida, a combination of the vast wetlands, savannas, and woodlands of the Everglades, Kissimmee Valley, and the Lake Istokpoga plains.
I’d spent three years working on a cattle ranch downstream of Lake Istokpoga. Like central Florida, the Pantanal is primarily private and occupied by massive cattle ranches. Its conservation, too, will depend on maintaining viable cattle operations and having the locals recognize and cherish the wilds. Bob hired a Brazilian guide, Paulo, and we used all local companies. The economy of this area was severely affected by Covid because tourism dried up for two years. One should – and we did – tip generously, for it helps build goodwill for nature.
After lunch on that final day, we would pack up and head back to Cuiaba and our flights home. On the dirt track out from Pouso Alegre, we spotted a South American Tapir soaking in a small pond. This big mammal sent a chill through my veins. It is a creature of the wilds and a symbol of wilderness. The tapir sighting was a nice close to our trip. I ended up seeing more than 130 bird species and numerous mammals, reptiles, and plants. One of the most remarkable things for me is to share a place with a local who repeatedly demonstrates their love for the land. Paulo and our local boatmen and drivers all gave us that gift.
Wood Storks going to roost in the Pantanal, Brazil.
The challenge I put to myself was to create a portfolio of photographs that highlights the unique natural history of the Pantanal and also had relevance to my scientific and professional background. The target was set at 13 photographs. This was the number to make a calendar. I took many tens of thousands of photographs, and the task became daunting. I wanted photographs that had meaning from this trip and also had meaning from my work in science and conservation.
This collection of photographs will give you a taste of the diversity and uniqueness of the Pantanal. It is a wetland of international significance, a UNESCO World Heritage site that needs much focus on its conservation and protection. Unfortunately, when I was there in 2022, the President of Brazil was promoting the exploitation of the wilds. Paulo told us that his administration had slogans saying that photographing wildlife was illegal and protecting nature was bad for people. This will only change with support from the people of Brazil.
I only had a chance to see a small piece of the northern region of the Pantanal. Another trip farther south would yield many new and fascinating sightings. Maybe an anaconda, other parrot species, a giant anteater, or more cats would grace us with their wonder. A place worth another visit and much more study.
Portrait of Jaguar – Our skiff glided around a bend on the Rio Sao Lourenco and drifted off a plane to bob on the shallow river. A capybara sat on the bank, staring out at us, and I immediately began to capture her pose. A few seconds later, someone mumbled jaguar. There, not 100 feet farther down the bank, a jaguar was starting to emerge through the tangled riparian vegetation.
Paulo, our guide, said it was a young female who had two almost full-grown cubs and was hunting to provide for them. The cat lay down and began to scan the river. In the Pantanal, they feed extensively on caiman and will also take capybaras. That large rodent squealed, jumped into the river, and began barking to warn others of the danger. The jaguar paid it no heed. Our boat coasted opposite the cat; my heart felt like it might jump out of my chest. I could have tossed her a ball or chunk of meat.
Jabiru – The male stork leaned over his three chicks and began to dribble water from his beak. The young quickly scrambled for the moisture. It was early afternoon, and the day’s temperature was hot. The tropical sun had the chicks panting. The lodge had constructed a tower that allowed me to stand 30 feet above the ground and not far from the stork’s nest.
When I climbed the tower thirty minutes earlier, the female was guarding the chicks. The male flew in from the north, passed the nest, and made a large loop out to the west. He glided on eight-foot wings and came in below my eye level, where I could look across his impressive back. He gently flew up to land on the nest’s rim. The female stepped to the side while the male moved amongst the chicks. One chick, then a second, took water directly from his mouth before he began to dribble water for them all.
Snail Kite – The kite cruised just feet above the marsh, quartering back and forth, searching for Pomacea snails. These birds are highly specialized feeders, eating only a few varieties of snails. The gastropod will come near the surface, and the birds grab them with their talons, carrying them to a perch where they use that long curved beak to extract the meat. Snail Kites are endangered in Florida but doing well across Latin America. The red eye on this male glowed in the soft light and contrasted with his slate-black plumage.
Crested Caracara – The bird dipped its right wing as it passed, giving me a full view of its elegant body. The late afternoon sun provided warm light to show off its sleek plumage. This caracara flew down the Rio Sarare past our small skiff, its yellow cere and face glistening. The scalloping on its back and tail contrasted with the dark wings with a white window in the outer primaries. This species nested on the cattle ranch where I worked for three years in Central Florida. They like open savanna country there as they do in Brazil. These are members of the falcon group, and several species occur across Latin America.
Ocelot – The cat crept along the thin branches a few feet above the ground, stopped, and then looked through me like I was a window. It was about the size of a large house cat but with longer legs, especially the hind ones. Ocelots are arboreal hunters, quickly moving through the trees in search of prey. Our guide thought this female might have kittens someplace in the gallery forest along the Rio Sarare. Her claws were retracted, but their tips showed on her front paw. She moved like an angel, disappearing back into the forest without sound or effort.
Giant River Otter – The otter rolled onto its side, scratched its neck with the hind paw, and then looked behind it, snarling but making no noticeable noise. We’d been following the family group along the Rio Sao Lorenco for close to an hour. Giant River Otters are highly social. A breeding pair forms the core, and several others are helpers in raising offspring. The white markings on their face, neck, and chest are unique, providing a way of identifying individuals. These diurnal mammals were hunting fish, and we saw them catch several. Each ate their catch with no aggression and no apparent sharing. The species is endangered across much of its range.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron – The heron bolted from the marsh and flew right toward us. The sun made its body stand out against the dark forest background. The feathers were sleek, delicate, and in perfect shape. Possibly, the two outer primaries — flight feathers — on the wing were still last year’s and not as fresh looking as the others. Tiger-Herons are a bird of the tropics and something I’d not seen since traveling in southern Mexico decades ago. These birds are shy, often staying well camouflaged or sneaking off into the thicket and going undetected.
Jaguar hunting – The jaguar had disappeared back into the gallery forest, but our guide thought it was hunting and would be headed upstream along Rio Sao Lourenco. We moved about a quarter mile, dropping a small anchor. Fifteen minutes later, the cat came through the bushes, her muscles tense, ears pointing forward, and eyes checking the shallows for a caiman. In the Pantanal, jaguars specialize in these crocodilians and grow bigger and stronger than jaguars over the rest of their range. We watched this female work the bank and shallows. Several times she waded into thick mats of water hyacinths but didn’t find any prey.
Southern Screamers – We’d seen the pair standing on top of this lone tree in the Pantanal the previous two days. The sun had been setting, and the light fading those days. We were fifteen minutes earlier on this day, so I waved to the boatman to slow down. Three screamer species occur in this unique family, Anhimidae. This species, the Southern Screamer, was the first one I’d ever seen, even though I’d known of them for fifty years. They are like mythological creatures, with a small turkey-like head and a bulky body of a goose. They possess a sizeable sharp spur on their wings and can use them in a battle to do substantial damage to an opponent.
Classification systems put them in with the Duck and Goose Order, but they have many characteristics of chickens, turkeys, quail, and pheasants. This group may well be a link between these two bird Orders. Remarkably, the ancestor of these two groups somehow made it through the mass extinction caused by the meteor that hit off the Yucatan 66 million years ago. This pair just stood there like an Inca god and goddess. Reluctantly, I said we were good to go, for I knew our party was thinking of the sweet caipirinhas waiting at the houseboat. I watched this pair until they disappeared, feeling like I was in the presence of something remarkable.
Capybara Family – The pup touched the female’s backside while the male sat ten feet to their left. A capybara family was on the sandy beach. This species is the largest rodent in the world. The female may weigh a hundred pounds, and the male even more. Over the last three days, we’d seen many along the Rio Sao Lourenco. They feed on aquatic plants, swim exceptionally well, and use the water to escape jaguars. Probably, additional ones were in the water or just over the berm, for they often travel in extended family groups. They are a distant relative of guinea pigs and look like overgrown ones.
Toco Toucan – “Toucan,” came from the person beside me. A large, yellow-orange beak dropped through the canopy and landed on a vine slightly above eye level. The Toco Toucan was elegant, looking like he was dressed for a gala. Blue skin surrounded his black eye, and then bright orange wrapped that. He wore a snow-white bib, black body, and fire-engine red under his tail, white above. His legs and feet were a baby blue. Not a single feather was out of place. A second bird, identical in plumage, landed not far away. The sexes are similar in appearance, and there was no way I knew which was which.
Yacare Caiman – The caiman made a beeline for me. Its eyes appeared glued to mine, and its long tail waved back and forth in rapid s-curves, propelling it along. I looked at the gunnel on the small skiff, maybe only six inches above the water line, and back at this beast. It was at least 6 feet long, perhaps as much as eight. A bow wave radiated out from its snout, and its teeth started to show at the waterline. These are fish eaters, and the boatman waved a fish in the air while squeaking for the crocodilian to approach. Still, seeing this primordial predator approach sent a chill through my body.
Lesser Kiskadee – The flycatcher zipped down onto the log floating at the river’s edge. Its muscles appeared taught, like a sprinter in the racing block. These are aerial pursers, and it was looking for a flying insect to dash after. Their bills are moderately wide, making a perfect net and pincher for grabbing a moth, fly, or dragonfly. The black and white pattern on its head and throat stood out in the bright sun, and the yellow underside looked like a beautiful, tailored outfit. In a blink, it was gone, twisting and turning as it tried to nab some morsel.
This capybara wants to wish you a wonderful and happy New Year. May the wilds bring you joy, solace, and a sense of awe. Thank you.
The Blue Jay landed on the old turned-up root and then looked right at me. I felt like something of great intelligence was peering into my eyes and seeing right through me. This jay is in the crow and raven family and has the smarts. It seemed to be letting me know that she knew I was trying to hide in my photographic blind. I’d been putting food around the old stump for several days and had just zipped myself into the tent-like structure with my telephoto lens sticking through a small opening.
I studied the feathers on this magnificent specimen. The blue glistened in the light, accented by white flecking on the wings and face, and she possessed the right amount of black fringe. The feathers appeared fresh, not showing any signs of wear. Blue Jays replace their feathers in late summer and early fall. Young of the year go through a partial molt while adults replace all their feathers. Energetically, it is an expensive process; growing the new plumage takes nutrients and much protein.
Almost five decades ago, I did my master’s thesis on this species, a comparative study of molt in Blue Jays and Scrub Jays in central Florida. There, Scrub Jays finish nesting in June, while Blue Jays often have a second brood and go into August. The study showed that both species wait until their nesting season is over to molt, and each takes about two months to replace all their feathers.
The blue of this one’s feathers was intense. That color is not from a pigment but rather from how it reflects light; only the blue wavelength comes off. The feather’s structure forms the blue color in birds. Apparently, my grandfather figured this out in the 1920s and published a paper in The Auk. He was a chemistry professor at Cornell University and collaborated with his friends at the Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology. I don’t remember meeting my grandfather; he died before my second birthday. I sometimes wonder what other bird stuff fascinated him.
The first Blue Jay flew away, and another landed on the wood. They are highly dexterous with that bill. It grabbed one peanut bit, flipping it up in the air and to the back of its mouth. A second individual began to gulp seeds, gradually filling its mouth with a nice little collection. It, too, then dashed back into the woods. Blue Jays will stash seeds for later. First, they will open a small hole in the ground, depositing the mouth full and then covering up the stash with dirt and vegetation. Eventually, they come back and dig the titbits up to eat.
Several more jays came and went over the next few minutes before they seemed to disappear as quickly as they had arrived. Other birds — chickadees, titmice, sparrows, and cardinals — began to come now that the jays had moved to some other endeavor.
The gurgling-like chuckle came from my right, and I peered through the three-inch diameter window in my blind. My index finger pulled the fabric one way, then another, so I could see more. There, not much more than one hundred feet away, were two wild turkeys pecking at something along the small brook. I’d been seeing many tracks in the snow since visiting my sister in Western Pennsylvania a week ago, but these were my first close look at a living bird.
I’d been spreading seeds around a stump each day to attract birds. The location was several hundred yards down from the barn in a black walnut grove and near the spring. I’d only just set the blind up early that morning and had brought only the 800 mm to the blind. If the turkeys came to the feed, at best, I could do a headshot and maybe some closeups of their feathers.
The birds continued to give quiet chucks; they knew I was there and were nervous. When I was growing up fifty-sixty years ago, we had no wild turkeys on the farm. Overhunting had exterminated them from Pennsylvania, but the state had started a program to reintroduce them. So, in high school, my buddies and I would go to a park twenty miles from here to see if we might see one of those released birds. In the last thirty years, though, they have become abundant around the farm and all across Pennsylvania. It is one of the conservation success stories of the last half-century.
The two birds walked behind the black walnut to my right and began to cross the opening toward the stump. Their gait slowed, and their heads went back and forth. Nope, it was too much, and they turned around, heading down the hill away from me. I began to lean back and forth, looking out the small side window and the front one where my lens protruded. Over by the lane, six more turkeys were coming my way.
This flock didn’t come by way of the spring but instead dropped into the ravine down the hill and walked up toward me. They stopped and began milling around as soon as they came out of the gully. They, too, had detected me and were coming no further. The group conferred for several minutes before backtracking to the lane and heading into the sidehill pasture.
I gave the birds another five minutes before opening the back door on my blind and crawling out. A larger flock of twenty to thirty turkeys walked along the hill’s crest. The group moved right until they noticed me standing several hundred yards from them. Now joined by the birds that had come to visit, the flock turned around, heading north and walking more rapidly, eventually disappearing around the bend.
The weather in Seattle has been cold and wintery the last few days. I snuck out of town just before it got really bad and made it to my sister’s house in Pennsylvania. Tomorrow, that front should reach here with dropping temperatures, winds, and snow. I had a good walk in the wilds today to receive some solace that nature provides. A little snow is on the ground and the tracks from turkeys, squirrels, rabbits, and deer provided much to examine. The ice in Cedar Run from yesterday had melted and the forest had the winter browns, grays, and tans. A few chickadees, titmice, and juncos flitted through the branches. It was wonderful and what I needed before the cold and wind hit.
The Mountaineers contacted me in early fall to ask how nature helped people deal with winter. I penned this article for them. Nature and birds, in particular, can provide much solace and delight. Being in the natural world is a powerful source of healing and an excellent antidote to our troubles. Seeing how species survive and thrive is mesmerizing. Strolling through the wilds provides time to absorb the wonder of life.
May you have a wonderful holiday season and may your new year be filled with nature.
Click on the Excerpt below to go to the full article.
The splash came from my right. A Neotropic Cormorant ran across the water, flapping its wings, trying to gain lift. It was coming along the shoreline and would pass our boat as we floated on the Rio Sararé in the Pantanal. They typically need to run into the wind, but this morning it was calm, and surprisingly it had taken off by coming right toward us.
These cormorants are compact, dense, and look like torpedoes. They are pursuit hunters, chasing down fish underwater. Their body, neck, and head are all hydrodynamic for the least drag possible. Their feet are set well back on their body; this makes them ideal for propulsion underwater but not the best for walking around on land. All four of their toes are connected by webbing, totipalmate feet, where a duck or goose only has three toes webbed.
I’d brought my GoPro on this trip in the hopes of doing some underwater filming. But unfortunately, the water here in the Pantanal of Brazil is high in tannins and organic matter, so nothing is visible a few feet out. So, no luck, but the athleticism of this bird taking off was a treat to watch.
To take off, the bird pushed hard down with both feet like it was trying to launch from the water’s surface. At the same time, it flapped its wings, the outer primaries hitting the water, helping to lift its body. It then drew both feet forward as far as possible and pushed hard on the water, flapping again. In essence, it was hopping as fast as it could while smacking the water with its wings. Finally, it gained enough altitude to fold back its feet and move just to wing beats.
The cormorant disappeared down the river. Neotropic Cormorants are smaller than the widespread Double-crested Cormorant of Northern America. They live all through Latin America and even extend into Southeast Texas. This is one of the most adaptable birds in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from sea level to some Andean Lakes at 5,000 meters.
Neotropics and Double-crested look much alike, and the size difference is often impossible to tell. Double-cresteds don’t occur in South America. The best characteristic to separate them is to look at the profile of their gular pouch, the yellowish area behind the bill, and at the top of their neck. On an adult Neotropic, this structure looks like a horizontal “V” with the bottom pointed backward and is less than 50% of the rest of the head. The V also has a thin white border along the back edge. In the Double-crested, the pouch is bigger and rounded rather than “V” shaped.
Farther down the river, a cormorant sat on a branch hanging over the river. Its webbed feet curled around the twig as the combination swayed slightly. In this morning sun, the feathers had a sheen to them. It didn’t fly as we cruised by.
A cobalt color zipped just above the ground and around the small building. It was big, maybe 2 meters across and half as long. I ducked left to go around the opposite side of the structure so perhaps the sun would be behind me. We were in the small community of Porto Jofre along the Rio Cuiaba in the Pantanal. There, on a cement water trough, at the end of the building, sat a Hyacinth Macaw.
It dipped its massive black bill into the water for a drink, then sat back up. This bird was even more giant than I’d imagined from my readings—at least a meter from its head to the tip of that long flowing tail. The body was chunky, cocker spaniel size, but with wings with a violet tinge. Bare yellow skin showed around the eye, and a little yellow hugged the base of the lower mandible.
Birdlife International lists this macaw as vulnerable, one notch below endangered. Their population has plummeted because of the pet trade and loss of habitat. Sadly, poachers might have captured 10,000 individuals during the 1980s for pets, and their numbers fell to an estimated 3,000 wild ones. The stronghold for this species is here in the Pantanal, and two other small groups, still declining, survive in East Amazonia and the Gerais. For a while, scientists listed it as endangered, but they think their numbers have somewhat stabilized right now in the Pantanal. Conservation initiatives and ecotourism have helped. Our Brazilian guide, Paulo, told us that the absence of ecotourism during the two years of severe Covid was problematic. But, at least we were here now, supporting the local economy.
The macaw drank a second time, and water dripped from the hook on the upper mandible when it raised its head. The bill was massive, maybe 3 or 4 inches from top to bottom at the back. The front edge of the lower mandible looked razor sharp. It could probably snip my finger off without any effort.
This parrot, the largest in the world, is tied closely to various palm trees, and they need that massive bill to crack the palm nuts. Here in the Pantanal, evidently, Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia totai are the two most crucial palm species. One book said the seed of Acrocomia was as hard as a stone, yet this bird can crack it with that bill. Apparently, tapirs eat the fallen fruit whole but don’t digest the nut, passing it through their digestive system and dispersing it to new areas. Macaws, though, crack the seed to get at the inside. These parrots will eat other things, including snails.
My eyes fell to its feet, sprawled across the cement. Two toes pointed forward and two backward, zygodactyl feet, and a smile came to my lips. I hadn’t thought of that term in a long time. Occasionally, my early career as a research ornithologist pops back out. These toe arrangements allow parrots to hold food in one foot while they use the bill to peel and crack a morsel. One of the nails was white while all the rest were black; it made me wonder if this bird had damaged its nail or if this was just normal variation. So many questions!
The hyacinth pivoted and shot into the air, its massive wings drawing down, lifting the bird several feet off the ground. It flew right in front of me. The yellow around the eye and along the lower mandible glowed in the sun, and the giant hooked beak projected down and back. Its feet were folded under its tail coverts, and the long tail flowed behind it. The underside of the primaries and secondaries looked grayish rather than the blue of the other feathers.
It landed in a tree across the opening, and the breath left my lungs. For some reason, I’d held it when the macaw took off. It sat beside its mate, and the two leaned forward, looking back at me. Adult Hyacinth Macaws are always paired, which is the most common way of seeing them. Paulo told me of a few places he knew about where we might see small flocks, but neither was scheduled for this trip. A good reason to come back.
A light breeze came in off Puget Sound, keeping the temperatures in the mid-60s on this August morning. I headed onto the fishing pier at Edmonds to see what birds might be around when a small bird floating just beyond the tideline stopped me. The tide was out, and little waves caused by the ferry lapped along the shore. The bird floated only a dozen feet from the edge. It was dark brown, stubby body and short bill. A Marbled Murrelet cruised in the shallows. I backtracked to walk down onto the sand.
Its plumage was transitioning from summer to lighter winter plumage. Overall, it seemed a dull brown, with no evidence of the brighter brown of a breeding adult. Perhaps this was young of the year. The chest and neck had mottled white and brown. The back and sides had white flecking. Scientists do offshore surveys in the late summer to determine how many young might have been produced. They can tell adults from juveniles quite well, but I wasn’t sure which this was.
Marbled Murrelets are endangered in Washington. Their populations have plummeted over the last 50 years, and this decrease seems mostly related to the loss of suitable nesting habitats. Surprisingly, these birds fly inland and nest high in the canopy of old-growth coniferous trees. They find a broad branch covered in mosses and lichens. They make a depression in the vegetation and lay a single egg. Then, both parents fly back and forth to Puget Sound or the ocean to feed and care for the egg and nestling. Some nests can be as far as 50 miles from the water.
This alcid shifted directions and began to swim parallel to the beach. Its bill had a small hook at the tip, and the nostril slit near the base was thin and long. The feathers were tight against the body, and a few water droplets clung to them, glistening in the sun. It looked plump, but I’d worried that being this close to shore was not a good sign. Might this bird be skinny, not in good health? Maybe, if it was a young bird, it was just learning the best places to fish. Once they leave the nest, it appears they are on their own, needing to find all their food themselves.
With the tide still receding, the murrelet had come into a small pool between two sandbars. It turned and started to head out to sea, but the water was too shallow to swim. Here it attempted a stumbling walk. Its legs are far back on its body, making walking difficult, so it raised itself on its legs and then plopped forward. After ten minutes, it was back in deep water and headed offshore.
“Toucan,” erupted from the person on my right. In the canopy, two large birds with bright colors were mainly silhouetted against the sky, but some yellow, red, and white showed. The long bill was enough to confirm that two toucans had arrived in the Pantanal.
This was my last day in Brazil, and I’d seen Toco Toucans fly over two or three times but never had a decent look. Yesterday, a pair at Rio Claro flew across the Rio Sararé just as the sun broke the horizon. The sky and low light silhouetted their bodies. That long thick bill was unmistakable. Unfortunately, my camera didn’t focus fast enough in that nonexistent light.
The bill on a toucan is a thing of wonder. In this species, it is about a third the length of the bird but weighs very little. With strong, finely tuned muscles in their necks, these birds can use it like a fine tweezer. The bill is strong and tough. The outer layer is a series of overlapping keratin tiles that are fused – like armor plating. The interior is like foam and is made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes to form a strong ridge and brace structure – a three-dimensional lattice. The middle is hollow. The bill is a marvel of engineering, and a person who could design something like this would be considered a genius. The overall configuration gives a high degree of strength for minimal weight—evolution at its most remarkable.
The pair hopped down to where both were visible. This Pantanal lodge had put fruits, nuts, and seeds out at first light this morning, and a plethora of doves, finches, guans, chachalacas, and others had come to feed for the last 90 minutes. Toco Toucans are splendid birds, bigger than I’d expected. They are the largest toucan species. Their white bib, black body, red under-tail coverts, and distinctive red-orange bill make them pop on a tree branch. Females apparently average a little smaller, but there was no way to tell that difference in the wild.
One glided down to a horizontal log attached to two fence posts. This species is primarily frugivores, but they will take bird eggs, nestlings, small birds, lizards, and insects. They can hang upside down and use that long bill to snip fruit from twigs or probe deep into holes. Earlier, a person had spread bananas and mangos across the back of the branch and dropped small pellet-looking stuff on the feeder. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, had said the small fruit-like nuggets were items the toucans particularly liked.
The second one flew to the other end of this natural-looking feeder. It stood staring at us. Maybe fifteen people congregated behind a small fence watching the feeders. We all had homed in on this unique bird. The second one reached down, picking up a small quarter-inch pellet from behind the branch. It seemed to roll it in the tip of that foot-long bill much like a jeweler might role a diamond between her index finger and thumb. It then cocked its head slightly, flipped the nugget up, opening its mouth as the morsel flew to the throat; its foot-long tongue showed for a second as it closed its bill, to then twist a stare right into my eyes as if to say, “What’d you expect?”
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.