The Pantanal

A travel report by Thomas ARNDT published in WP Magazine (January/February 1998 issue, P. 16-21)

You may recall that WP magazine and Papageien readers journeyed with Thomas Arndt last year to one of the world's most breath-taking parrot regions-the Brazilian Pantanal with its unique bird and animal wildlife. Read now about the exciting time these readers had.

The zoological treasures of the Pantanal include the Hyacinthine Macaw, the largest parrot in the world, the impressive giant stork or jaiburu and the ocelot. The Pantanal provides one of the last remaining refuges for this beautiful small cat, where it is still relatively well protected from poaching activities.

Our four wheel drive vehicle bounced along the sandy track and we feel that Brunet deliberately aims at every pothole. Brunet is our driver, guide and food provider all in one. The small Pousada Arara Azul, where our little group arrived five days earlier before, belongs to him and his wife Marisa and he know the area better than anyone else.

We have made ourselves as comfortable as we can on the small loading area at the back of the pick-up. We could have travelled in a more comfortable vehicle, but we have a better view of the surrounding country from up here. Suddenly there is a shout. Brunet brakes sharply and we all look up. From the left two black-blue birds are flying towards us with powerful wing-beats. They fly past and we can hear the air movement with every wing beat. They call out occasionally in a way that has become familiar to us. They are Hyacinthine Macaws, the largest parrots living, and they slowly recede into the distance.

As so often in the last few days we are convinced our journey has been well worthwhile. The Pantanal is one the last refuges of this violet-blue macaw and also one of the few areas in Brazil where one can get really close to nature. Here in the flooded pasture land, where one can wade up to one's waist and there are dusty roads you can observe thousands of birds and other animals.

Our group consists of bird enthusiasts, all of them readers of WP magazine and Papageien, who have travelled to the south-west of Brazil to see parrots and parakeets at close range and above all get to know the Hyacinthine Macaw.

We drive on over rickety wooden bridges on which kingfishers perch and under which alligators doze, past bushes with screeching Nanday conures and Monk parakeets and once we even see a flock of Blue-crowned conures, which take off with an huge outcry only to land 200 metres further on in another group of bushes. We follow them slowly, but before we can get close enough to the green parakeets to take some good photos they are off again screeching loudly.

We head further towards Nhecolandia. It's the area with the largest density of Hyacinthine Macaws in the Pantanal. It is estimated that several thousand of these magnificent birds live in this area alone. In contrast to earlier times they are not hunted or poached. In addition the population has slowly increased in the last few years for the first time. This is down for the most part to the endeavours of Neiva Guedes, a dedicated biologist, who has fought to conserve this large parrot, and through unceasing unremitting field activities and numerous discussions has convinced ranch-owners how important this bird is for the Pantanal. We met her a few days earlier and plan to spend several days assisting her in the work of her conservation project.

But first the bouncy drive and the surrounding wildlife demands our full attention. We see frequently small families of capybara, the largest rodent in the world, disappearing into the water on both sides of the road. Once some coati even cross the road and in the distance we observe a giant anteater trotting contentedly through the swampy grassland. He is probably not even aware of us with his short-sighted eyes and relatively poor hearing. Then he stands still and searches for something on the ground with his very elongated snout. Perhaps he has found ants or termites of which he eats 30,000 every day.

There left just off the road we see a pair of Green-winged Macaws perching on one of the numerous palms. Occasionally they both chew on the outer layer of a palm fruit. We jump off the back of the vehicle and approach cautiously. They are just 50 metres away, then 30, but they still show no fear. Now we are less than 15 metres from them and can take our photographs at our leisure. A wonderful sight! My next step is, however, one too many. They fly off loudly protesting and land in the nearest tall tree. They take the palm fruits with them so the disturbance caused by the German parrot lovers is not so great after all that they will allow it to spoil their meal.

Less than 200 metres away we discover three Yellow-naped Macaws in a low shrub. They are feeding as well, but are a lot more flighty than their larger relatives. As we approach they disappear behind a bush. To pursue them is pointless. You cannot approach closer than 20 metres - too far for a decent photograph.. Then we catch sight of a pampas deer in the distance. He looks up, eyes us and then runs off. They are common here and can be observed frequently.

We stop at a gate. It's the entrance to a huge ranch. It is private property and we are unsure whether we can enter or not. We have, however, seen a lot, and really do not need to travel further. Brunet hands out lunch packs consisting of sandwiches and fruit. The rest does us good after the bouncy ride in the four wheel drive vehicle.

Three rheas (nandus) appear on the pasture near the gate. This largest of all South American birds is not rare, but is usually seen alone. Unfortunately they keep their respectful distance, but still impress us with their long strides. We can not get enough of the great variety of bird-life. Many are completely unknown to us. It is not easy for Europeans to get used to the bird world of South America. There are just too many species. However we recognise the small group of ducks, which have just flown overhead. They are Muscovy ducks, which can be found in their thousands on the ponds and lakes of European bird breeders. It is exciting to see them for once in the wild.

We make ourselves comfortable for the return trip. Brunet turns the vehicle round, we climb on board and off we go. As we pass the palm groves, Brunet slows down to walking speed. Perhaps we'll see the two macaws again. Stop! Was that a parrot calling. We jump down from the back, now with more alacrity than earlier. We move slowly towards the first group of palms and direct our gaze at the palm fronds. Suddenly there is a great screech and three Amazons fly away in alarm. We get a glimpse of the red wing spectrum and realise they are Blue-fronted Amazons. We move forward slowly and discover that the entire grove is full of these green parrots. Admittedly it's extremely difficult to make them out. They are absolutely silent and so well camouflaged by their plumage that they are usually discovered too late. Now the whole group is on the move. Each of us tries with varying success to get a good photo of the magnificent birds.

Soon we see what has attracted the Amazons. It is the green palm fruits. They do not feed on the inside as the large macaws, but enjoy chewing on the exterior. They hold the heavy fruit with one foot and bite the yellowish peel off.

In the meantime the Green-winged Macaws have turned up again. They position themselves on a tall tree and look down on the palms. We are delighted as at short intervals three more pairs join them .However they appear to be disturbed by our presence as only one pair comes down to feed. It is eventually dusk and we can no longer photograph. With heavy heart we leave the Amazons and macaws and drive back to the ranch house without stopping.

The next morning we meet up with Neiva. She has the timber for the nest boxes, which we want to construct for the Hyacinthine Macaws. Now the men are in their element. After all they are breeders with years of experience in constructing nest boxes. For three hours we saw, hammer and bang in nails, then stand back and admire the result. Before us there are six brand new boxes waiting to be hung up and moved into by the macaws. It has been confirmed to our amazement that Hyacinthine Macaws love artificial nesting sites. Only a few months before a pair had raised a young macaw in a nest box, which the group had put in position the year before.

After an ample lunch we stand for the obligatory photo with the nest boxes, then the first consignment is loaded on the trailer of the tractor and we set off. Neiva has already chosen a suitable tree in a little vegetation island not far from the ranch. She demonstrates how she uses a catapult to shoot a long nylon rope around a thick branch high up in the tree, which the climbing rope will be attached to. We are amazed as Neiva scales the tree with her climbing equipment and the cable. It is our task to pull the nest box up with another rope. All of us get stiff necks with constant looking up, but no-one wants to swap tasks with Neiva, who must fix the boxes to the tree at a great height.

Suddenly we hear a raucous call. Hyacinthine Macaws! Indeed three birds fly towards us and circle the tree calling. Two even appear to hover in the air watching what Neiva is doing. We watch with open mouths as it is so unexpected. After two minutes the birds have obviously seen enough and disappear again. Neiva explains she is used to such spectacles. Hyacinthine Macaws are inquisitive creatures with little fear of people and always want to know what is going on in their neighbourhood.

While Neiva is working we look around the vegetation island with its acrocomia and attalea palms with isolated manduvi trees. Palm nuts are lying around everywhere, most of them partly consumed. This is partly down to the Hyacinthine Macaws, but mainly the small agoutis, which have their burrows everywhere. We even see one twice, but only from a distance. Finally Neiva finishes and we depart for the ranch.

That evening we sit down with Brunet and Marisa, enjoy a caipirinha, relive the adventures and experiences we have had together and discuss again the marvels of the Pantanal. As usual Neiva fields one or two questions about the birds or the project. Tonight, though, the mood is somewhat sombre for tomorrow we travel back home. On the way to our rooms we breathe in the clear and wonderfully cool night air and inwardly make our individual adieux. But not for ever, of course. I'm sure we'll all return to the Pantanal at some time in the future.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)