A Pantanal Panoply: The ‘Big Five’ of Brazil Birds and Mammals

Brazil is the most biodiverse country on the planet, home to some 20 percent of all species on Earth. Which is why coming up with a top five Brazilian birds and top five Brazilian mammals was no easy feat – even narrowing our scope down to the Pantanal, the focus of our three 2022 tours to Brazil.

Ten times the size of the Everglades, the Pantanal is the size of Washington State (though it’s still dwarfed inside Brazil, a country even larger than the lower 48 US states). The world’s largest wetland, it is incredibly important to the survival of many species.

  • brazil birding and mammals are abundant in the Pantanal

Five Brazilian Mammals

  • Jaguar is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Giant Otter is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The Maned Wolf is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The South American Tapir is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The Giant Anteater is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals

Jaguar

Some 2,000 jaguars call the Pantanal home, which is the highest density of these marvelous big cats anywhere in the world. (Brazil is thought to be home to some 85,000 jaguars, about half of the jaguars in the world.)

Jaguar are among the species you will see on our Brazil birding and nature tours.
Jaguars love water! Photo Credit Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

Jaguars adore water, which helps explain their presence in the Pantanal. Their spotted yellow-orange fur should be a warning sign to prey species. Incredibly powerful jaws allow jaguars to bite right through skulls and sink their teeth through the rough hides of Yacaré Caiman, a favorite meal. Our expert local guides give us great chances to see these water-loving cats, and we set aside one full day to find them.

Maned Wolf

Despite its name, this largest canid of South America is neither fox nor wolf, but the only member of the genus Chrysocyon. It evolved to hunt in tall savannah grass, which helps explain its 3-foot-tall frame and reddish coat. It is able to blend in with and be tall enough to see over vegetation.

We may smell Maned Wolf before we see it, as its urine has a powerful skunk-like aroma. A solitary hunter when it does eat meat, the Maned Wolf is an omnivore, and a fruit-lover! As much as half of its diet is fruits and vegetables, and it has a particular taste for lobeira, a fruit that in Portuguese means “fruit of the wolf.”

Giant Anteater

  • giant anteater may be seen on Brazil Birding and Brazil Mammal tours

Although they are kin to sloths, the Giant Anteater can move much more quickly! They are ant-eating machines, with powerful claws to rip into ant and termite mounds and a two-foot tongue covered with barbs to help them retrieve up to 30,000 insects a day! Anteaters can be considered conservationists, though, because they only feed for a few minutes at each mound before moving on rather than decimating any one colony. We often see these majestic creatures during both our Brazil and our Guyana tours.

Giant Otter

Giant otters can be found cavorting in family groups. Photo Credit: Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

When we see Giant Otter, it’s common to see them as a family group, cavorting and splashing, as 6-foot-long, 75-pound adults will do! Giant animals like Giant Otter need giant and pristine riverine territories, where they are often among the most significant predators. Great news arrived in 2021 when a solitary Giant Otter was spotted in Argentina for the first time in 30 years, in El Impenetrable National Park. Giant Otter are far more common in the Amazon River basin and its tributaries, including Brazil’s Pantanal. With webbed feet, water-repellant fur and ability to close their nostrils and ears underwater, these weasel-family wonders are always a joy to see in the wild.

Brazilian Tapir

The Tapir’s snout is an overgrown upper lip with prehensile qualities! Photo Credit: Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons

To those of us who didn’t grow up seeing Tapirs on a regular basis, the mind grapples with what animal it most closely resembles. Many different ones spring to mind: a pig, a rhinocerous, a little elephant, a small horse. Thought to have remained more or less the same for tens of million years, the Brazilian Tapir is well adapted to its herbivorious function. A 500-800 pound adult can easily eat 75 pounds of food every day, using its prehensile snout to strip leaves and fruit from branches. Following our Pantanal theme, they are a water-loving species, who wallow in mud and even dive to eat aquatic plants. Most closely related to horses and rhinocerous, their cubs have camoflauged fur!

Five Brazilian Birds

  • Helmeted Manakin is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Hyacinth Macaws is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Greater Rhea is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Harpy Eagle is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Toco Toucan is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals

Harpy Eagle

Harpy Eagle is among the Brazilian Birds and Brazilian Mammals you may see on a Naturalist Journeys Tour
Harpy Eagle. Photo Credit: Jonathan Wilkins

Even for birders who don’t care about checklists, the Harpy Eagle is one of the most sought-after species on any birding and nature tour in their rapidly-shrinking range. Brazil still has enough continguous wild territory to support this massive and powerful raptor that one of the most famous of all “listers,” Carl Linnaeus himself, put into a class of its own. The Greek “harpies” were composite creatures with the body of a vulture and the face of a woman with the job of ferrying the dead to Hades. We have good chances to see Harpy Eagle in both Brazil and in Guyana.

Greater Rhea

Greater Rhea is among the Brazilian birds and Brazilian Mammals found on our tours.
Greater Rhea. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Five subspecies of Greater Rhea come together in the Pantanal region we visit. Flightless and long-legged, this bird is well adapted to savannah. Nearly 5 foot tall and 60 pounds, they are a quiet species, using their voices almost exclusively during mating season, when they also use their rather long wings in courtship displays. Greater Rhea have an unusual breeding system, where the males are sedentary nest tenders of eggs laid by many different females. Females are serially polyandrous, traveling about to mate with different males, and once each egg is laid near her mate’s nest (he inspects and then rolls it in, with as many as 70 others) she moves on to find another partner.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaws. Photo Credit: Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

At the other end of the devotion spectrum, the Hyacinth Macaw is said to mate for life. The world’s largest parrot, it is stunning to see flying in the wild, with a four-foot ultramarine blue wingspan, offset with accents of gold at the eye and hooked bill. Nuts, seeds, fruit and insects make up its diet and they roost in groups. On our Brazil birding trips, we often see these sociable creatures flying overhead, especially in the morning and near roosting time.

Toco Toucan

Toco Toucan. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Toco Toucan is one of the most striking birds found anywhere in the world, and its massive bill performs many functions. It’s used to collect and process fruit (which is more than can be said for the Fruit Loops mascot it inspired). But the bill is also useful in crunching up frogs and snails, and intimidating and fending off nest-robbing predators. But the bill has another important function. Like an elephant’s ears, a Toco Toucan’s bill is used to regulate heat and is lined with blood vessels. At night, when temperatures are lower, the Toco Toucan can be seen to tuck its bill under a wing before sleep.

Helmeted Manakin

Helmeted Manakin. Photo Credit: Dario Sanches via Wikimedia Commons

Helmeted Manakin are sexually dimorphous to the nth degree! Females and juveniles are very boring indeed compared with the male Helmeted Manakin’s sleek glossy black plumage, crowned with a red crest. We often see these birds while “on safari” at Aguapé Lodge, sometimes in exciting mixed-species flocks. During the height of the fruiting season, Helmeted Manakin are very choosy eaters, shifting to the understory to eat less perfect fruit only when circumstances require. In the dry season, when there is less fruit, they have been observed eating insects in Brazil.

Of course, these are just a handful of the many hundreds of species we may see on any given Brazil birding and mammal adventure. To get more of a flavor, read a species list or two and read the trip reports that show what past guests have seen on our journeys.

Pre-Tour and Post-Tour Extensions

The pre- and post-tour extensions in Brazil further expand the many wonderful species you have an opportunity to see!

Brazil birds and Brazil mammals are often seen by boat! Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Itatiaia National Park Pre-tour Extension

Itatiaia National Park. Photo Credit: Augusto Alves via Wikimedia Commons

Itatiaia was Brazil’s first National Park and shelters an incredible variety of birds, including Black Hawk-Eagle, Dusky-legged Guan, Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Giant Snipe, White-throated Hummingbird, Brazilian Ruby, Frilled Coquette, Black-breasted Plover-Crest, Saffron Toucanet, Yellow-fronted and Robust Woodpeckers, Wing-banded Hornero, White-browed Foliage-gleaner, Itatiaia Thistletail, Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Giant and Large-tailed Antshrikes, White-bibbed and Rufous-tailed Antbirds, Fork-tailed Pygmy-tyrant, Southern Antpipit, Velvety Black-tyrant, Pin-tailed Manakin, Eastern Slaty Thrush, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Black-and-Gold Cotinga, Brassy-breasted and Gilt-edged Tanagers, and Sharpbill.

For more details, read all about this 5-Day, 4-Night extension.

Chapada Post-tour Extension

Chapada dos Guimaraes. Photo Credit: Carlos Souto via Wikimedia Commons

Located 65 km northeast of Cuiaba, Chapada dos Guimaraes is a unique destination in the Cerrado, the Brazilian Savanna, a transition zone between the Cerrado and the Amazon, giving you the chance to see the Cerrado’s avian highlights like Small-billed Tinamou, Red-legged Seriema, Scaled Dove, Horned Sungem, Blue-tufted Starthroat, White-eared Puffbird, Rusty-backed and Large-billed Antwren, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Band-tailed and Fiery-capped Manakin, Curl-crested Jay, and White-rumped Tanager. Wow!

Read more about this 4-day, 3-night extension.

What Does Your Dream Africa Birding and Nature Tour Look, Sound, and Feel LIke?

From Lodges to Landscapes to Length, Building a Bucket List Africa Trip Depends on You

Imagining yourself in Africa is the way most journeys to the continent begin. Train your binoculars on a hunting Lion pride from the back of an open-air Landcruiser, come over a rise to greet a herd of Elephant. Return visitors anticipate the excitement of wild nighttime sounds just outside a canvas tent, of Elephants shuffling by, or Hyenas calling on the prowl.

Kenya wildlife safari, binoculars and telephotos up!

“The questions people ask me before they’ve been to Africa and after they’ve been are totally different,” Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott said.

Whether you’re weighing bucket-list alternatives for a first venture or as an Africa veteran looking for that next wildness adrenaline rush, we have ideas for you. Read on to compare and contrast our carefully crafted Africa birding and nature tours, keeping in mind that if you’re flying to Africa from the US, you want to make the most of your investment. (Not to mention, once you start to experience Africa birding and nature, the lure to return will be strong, no matter how long you stay.)

With you in mind, in addition to our standalone trips we pair Uganda: Fabulous Birds & Mammals Sept. 5 – 13, 2022 with our Sept. 13 – 27 Kenya Wildlife Safari. Guests on our South Africa Birding and Wildlife Safari Sept. 28 – Oct. 12 can transition to our Oct. 13 – 25 Grand Namibia: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes. We have done the combining for you in our Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Combo: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes July 23 – Aug. 15, which is an unforgettable three week trip!

Massai Mara Elephants. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

East Africa or Southern Africa?

“People often tell me ‘I am only going to Africa once, so should I go to East Africa or Southern Africa?” said Peg Abbott, Naturalist Journeys founder and guide. “Keep in mind, once you go to Africa you’re going to want to go back.” If that is not possible, you want to hit it right.

“Second, consider this, that question is the equivalent of saying I’m only going to come to the U.S. one time, should I go to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon? They are very different experiences, and you should absolutely do them both,” she said.

Comparing Our Africa Trips (and the Competition’s)

There are many lenses you could train on our Africa Birding and Nature tour options: landscapes, lodgings, birds and animals, and of course, length and cost. But before we dive into each of those categories below, a word from Peg about how our tours contrast with our competition – because our guests are savvy travelers.

“Our Africa tours are aimed at people who want to learn the wildlife and birds in detail, to spend time taking photos and really absorbing place,” Peg said. By contrast, one of our competitors offers a 15-day, 3-country tour, with only 5 days in each country.

We can’t bear to move that fast! Skipping from place to place like that doesn’t allow for spending two to three nights at each stop of our mobile tented camp safaris, for example, which is always our goal.

“We like to let people settle in and experience first-hand Africa’s richness. To hear the sounds of the night,” Peg said.

“We have a LOT of facetime with these animals, so anyone with a camera or binoculars is going to be very happy,” she said.

  • Leopards are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Elephants are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Cape Buffalo are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • bat-eared foxes are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • A mixed herd of Wildebeest and Zebra are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • lioness kills are part of an Africa birding and nature tour

Landscapes

Great wildlife viewing can be found in all of the tours we offer in Africa, but the feel of place can be quite different. To latch on to the Yellowstone/Grand Canyon analogy, southern Africa is more like the desert Southwest in the US, warm and arid, though much flatter, while eastern Africa is more temperate, green and with both grasslands and mountains – not unlike Montana and Wyoming. 

  • Lions in Moremi, Botswana are part of your Africa birding and nature adventure.
  • Kenya is an old guard of the Africa birding and nature destinations.
  • Hippos in Uganda.
  • Rhino in Tanzania are part of an exciting Africa birding and nature tour
  • Amboselli is a wonderful stop on our Africa birding and nature tours
  • Elephants are a required element of Africa birding and nature tours

East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

East Africa offers a more temperate climate than one might expect near the equator, supporting massive herds of animals like the famed Wildebeest that migrate with seasonal rains between Kenya and Tanzania. (Our Kenya safari is perfectly timed so we are at the Maasai Mara at the peak of Wildebeest migration.) Mountains and forests add to the diversity of flora and fauna we encounter. Uganda is a very lushly forested country, supporting some of the last rare and endangered Mountain Gorilla in the world.

Southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia and South Africa

Namibia and Botswana are home to the Namib and Kalahari deserts, respectively. Great wildlife viewing abounds here, as arid conditions concentrate animals at lakes, deltas and watering holes. The Okavango Delta and Chobe River in Botswana and the world-famous watering holes in Etosha National Park in Namibia make for reliable and spectacular wildlife viewing (and occasional excitement as predator and prey are brought together.) South Africa stands on its own, anchored at the southern terminus of the continent. It offers much more landscape diversity between its coast and its famous wildflower-strewn Cederberg or Drakensburg Mountains. South Africa is HUGE and contains a wide variety of ecoregions including grassland, bushveld, semi-desert, savannah, and riparian areas. South Africa’s Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America, including the Amazon, offering unique plant species in the fynbos biome and the animals and insects that rely on it.

  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda are part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • East African Crowned Cranes is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Kori Bustard is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Africa Paradise Flycatcher is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Lilac-breasted Roller is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Hartlaubs Spurfowl is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Violet-eared Waxbill is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Baboons are part of an Africa birding and nature tour

Africa Birding Diversity/Animal Encounters

 “The mammal viewing is equally compelling,” Peg said, in eastern and southern Africa destinations, with Uganda’s Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee trekking an optional added bonus. Not for the faint of heart (or the bum of knee) these encounters offer a stunning and emotional payoff at the end of your trek. Guests sometimes encounter Gorilla after as little as an hour of hiking with our guides and porters, but four or five hours of hiking would not be unusual.

Bird diversity, on the other hand, is going to be significantly higher in East Africa or South Africa because of the greater variety of habitat types. If going for the most birds: choose Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. 

One of the reasons we scheduled our shorter Botswana trip to pair with Namibia (and put the two together in our Ultimate Namibia-Botswana combo) is to enrich birding options. Botswana is landlocked, so adding Namibia brings in coastal and arid-land birds. Visitors to the Botswana Namibia tour have the opportunity to see in the neighborhood of 270 amazing birds, while those on the Kenya-Uganda trip can easily see more than 400!

Here are the most recent species lists from each country:

Botswana  • Kenya Trip Report  • South Africa  • Tanzania  • Uganda  • Namibia

Lodging/Movement Between Parks

Our tour lodging is ALWAYS selected with seeing the animals in mind. Where can we go that maximizes our opportunities to see wildlife in a safe and eco-friendly way? That said, there are differences between countries in what lodging is available to us based on factors like the maturity of their ecotourism facilities. 

  • Selinda Bush Camp
  • Tanzania Lodges are a wonderful respite during our Africa birding and nature tours
  • Uganda accommodations are a wonderful part of our Africa birding and nature tours there

Kenya is the old guard of African wildlife safaris and that’s apparent from its lodge selections, many of which harken back to a British colonial time in style and in their not-yet-updated but absolutely charming facilities. Movement between parks in Kenya can involve highway travel to get the maximum diversity, whereas in Tanzania, once you enter the park system, it’s possible to go from park to park without emerging into the outside world (though you stay solidly in savannah.) 

Built in a different era than Kenya’s, Tanzania’s lodges tend to be big resort-style properties; big enough for large buses to roll in. We’ve worked hard to find some smaller safari camps like the one we visit at the apex of Wildebeest migration at their calving grounds in Ndutu.  

“There are a lot of lodges in Tanzania that are luxury and high end but not particularly well situated – we don’t typically go to these,” Peg said. “We pick our trips by the wildlife, not so they will have a bathroom the size of one’s living room.”

Botswana’s facilities are new, idyllic for ambiance, and they tend to be smaller, Peg said, many with no more than a 35-person capacity. Botswana made a choice for low-volume, higher cost visitation – it’s a place to spoil yourself and immerse. South Africa travelers demand trendy atmospheric lodges, resulting in their well-deserved reputation for extravagant safari options and local dining specialties.

At the other end of the maturity spectrum from Kenya, Uganda is a newbie and an up-and-comer. Uganda has the old colonial facilities but they went dormant in many years of unrest. Post Idi Amin’s military dictatorship, from 1980 a new page was turned. “There’s a real upbeat feel to Uganda’s nature and its ecotourism,” Peg said. “The roads get better and there are new facilities every time we go back. The quality of guides and their training is astonishing. ”

  • guides and porters in Uganda Africa birding and nature tour

Length/Cost

While all of Naturalist Journeys’ tours are centered on birds and wildlife, you can find a range of experiences. A two week South Africa tour, for example, can be viewed as a sampler: a toe-dipping option with a bit of everything for the Africa-curious. It includes a three-night safari in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s crown jewels, wonderful food and wine in glorious Cape Town, a trip to experience endemic fynbos wildflowers, and comfortable but exciting birding in varied habitats. For some people, it feels more like pampering than “Out of Africa.” It’s also more budget-friendly than many of our other Africa trips, because we aren’t spending as much time in national parks. When you are comparing different companies’ offerings, look at how many days of your trip are inside national parks. That’s where the animals are, admission fees pay for their conservation and that’s a big driver of Africa tour costs –rightfully so!  

Our shorter Uganda trip is also less expensive at 9 days and 8 nights, it’s meant to be paired with our Kenya tour but also to fit into other travel plans. We can facilitate add-ons to your journey. We recommend time in Cape Town or a few days in Victoria Falls.

  • Victoria falls should be added to any Africa birding and nature safari

At the other end of this spectrum, our 23-night, 24-day Namibia-Botswana Combo will really leave you feeling the re-entry to your not-Africa life. Living the true safari life in mobile tented camps, staying as close to wildlife as possible, our guests find this a truly immersive, life-changing, bucket-list trip with Greg Smith, one of our most experienced guides. Ultimate Botswana with company owner Peg Abbott is just that – limit of six or seven clients, and more depth in one country than one can imagine.

In between on the spectrum our various Africa tours feature safari game drives and mobile tented camp experiences offering great looks at wildlife and birds. All of them transport you into the other world that Africa is.

Why Go to Africa in 2022?

Even though Africa is back open to tourism, the number of visitors is sharply down from pre-pandemic levels. For cautious but intrepid travelers, visiting Africa in 2022 offers an opportunity to view animals and wildlife that have not been exposed to high levels of safari pressure for more than two years. 

“The lull will be brief,” Peg said. “Once the world opens back up there will be a huge push to get back here. We went in 2021, we plan to be there in 2022. After all you’ve lost, you deserve to go to Africa and have the most amazing trip of your life.”

Below are our Africa trips listed chronologically with costs and guides. If you want to get a good feel for a trip, read the most recent trip report, which we’ve also linked below.

Our Africa Birding and Nature Tours:

Grand Uganda: Fabulous Birds and Mammals

July 15 – 31, 2022

17-Day / 16-Night Uganda Wildlife Safari w/ Gerard Gorman

$7790, from Entebbe

Read the Trip Report!

Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Combo 

July 23 – August 15, 2022

23-Night / 24-Day Namibia-Botswana Nature Tour w/ Greg Smith

$14,700 DBL from Windhoek, departing Maun

New Combined Trip!

Botswana: Wildlife Safari & Birding

Aug. 3-15, 2022

13-Day / 13-Night African Safari with Greg Smith

$9,710, from Maun

Read the Trip Report!

Uganda: Fabulous Birds & Mammals

Sept. 5-13, 2022

9-Day / 8-Night Uganda Wildlife Safari with Jon Atwood

$4290, from Entebbe

Read the Trip Report!

Pairs with:

Kenya Wildlife Safari

September 13 – 27, 2022

5-Day / 14-Night Kenya Safari with Jon Atwood

$8990, from Nairobi

Read the Trip Report!

Ultimate Botswana

September 14 – October 4, 2022

21-Day / 20-Night Botswana Safari w/ Peg Abbott

$15,500, from Maun

Read the Trip Report!

South Africa Birding and Wildlife Safari

Sept. 28 – Oct. 12, 2022

15-Day/ 14-Night South Africa Birding & Wildlife Tour w/ expert local guides and Bob Meinke

$6390, from Cape Town

Read the Trip Report!

Grand Namibia: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes

October 13 – 25, 2022

12-Day / 11-Night Namibia Wildlife Tour

$5590, from Windhoek

Namibia Species List

February of 2023 is our next Tanzania tour!

Tanzania Wildlife and Birding Safari

January 30 – February 11, 2023

13-Day / 12-Night African Safari with Peg Abbott and Washington Wachira

$TBD, from Arusha

Read the Trip Report!