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.
“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?”
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.