Category Archives: South America

Biodiversity Hot Spots are Boosted by Birding

Ecotourism Plays a Protective Role in Endangered Places

The world’s biodiversity hot spots are often, unsurprisingly, birding meccas. After all, birders are keenly interested in seeing novel species, and biodiverse places by definition are home to unique plants and animals.

What may be less obvious is how important ecotourism is to preserving ‘biodiversity hot spots’, a term coined by ecologist Norman Meyers more than 30 years ago. He defined it in an article for the journal Nature: “Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions.”

Biodiversity Hotspots

An area must be both irreplaceable and under threat to be listed among the 36 biodiversity hot spots identified by Conservation International, a global non-profit whose mission it is to help preserve them. More precisely, a biodiversity hot spot must have more than 1,500 endemic plant species, making it unique, and its territory must be degraded to 30 percent or less of its original range, making it endangered.

So while Yellowstone National Park is ecologically irreplaceable, home to 300 bird species and majestic herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn and the wolves, bears, and cougars that hunt them, it is not endangered. Under federal protection since 1872, Yellowstone “is one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth,” according to the National Park Service. (Just two spots remain on our spring Yellowstone tours, on the June 1-8 departure.)

  • Guided US Nature Travel and Tourism to Yellowtone National Park
  • bison are among the ungulate species you may see in Yellowstone, a biodiversity hot spot
  • Fall is Golden in Greater Yellowstone

By contrast, the Madrean Sky Islands we visit on our three Monsoon Madness tours in August fit the biodiversity hot spot definition perfectly. We have chances to see many range-restricted species on these tours, including Mexican Chickadee, Elegant Trogon, Montezuma Quail, and Whiskered Screech Owl, among many others. They occupy the Sky Islands’ varied habitats: from desert floor to scrubland, oak and, finally, in the highest elevations, Douglas Fir and Apache Pine. As marvelous as they are today, the Madrean Pine-Oak forests now cover just 14 percent of what they once did, whittled away by development and agriculture. Though marvels remain, much was lost. Great flocks of Thick-billed Parrot were once common in the southwestern US, but were hunted to extirpation in 1938, when the last individual was spotted in lonely flight over the Chiricahua Mountains. It is now endangered in its remaining redoubts in northern Mexico.

  • Coatimundi are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Monsoon rainbows are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Elegant Trogon are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Montezuma Quail are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspot

Biodiversity Hotspots: Brazil

The Pantanal region of Brazil, which we visit twice this year, is sandwiched between two biodiversity hot spots: the vast tropical savannas of the Cerrado and the dwindling Atlantic Forests. Both support apex predators like Harpy Eagle, Giant Otter and Jaguar, which require huge territories in the treetops, rivers and countryside, respectively. But both the Cerrado and Atlantic Forests are threatened by agricultural and urban development, fragmenting their territories and making them vulnerable to hunting and reprisals by ranchers.

  • Giant River Otter require huge territories in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot
  • Jaguar are residents of Brazil, a biodiversity hot spot
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing species like Harpy Eagle in biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity Hotspots: Africa

Eight biodiversity hot spots are found in Africa, including the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa we visit Sept. 28 – Oct. 12, our tour timed for one of the most jaw-dropping wildflower explosions anywhere in the world. More than 9,000 plant species call this small piece of real estate home, 69 percent of them endemics. The birds that co-evolved with this plant community are equally stunning, like the Cape Sugarbird and Protea Canary.

We also visit three of the thirteen African countries – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – that are part of a large but not-contiguous Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot. The opportunity to trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see endangered populations of Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee is one of the highlights of our Uganda tours, along with opportunities to see the iconic African Shoebill, whose prehistoric visage, 5-foot-tall frame and machine-gun bill-clattering greeting make them both unmistakable and unforgettable. This hotspot is incredibly important because its lush forests play an important role in providing fresh water to eastern Africa. But it is also a very poor region, which puts the trees at threat for commercial logging and for use as firewood.

  • Shoebill are among the birds we see in Uganda, a biodiversity hotspot
  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda, a biodiversity hot spot visited on our birding and nature tours.

Why is Biodiversity So Important?

Biodiversity brings richness to our lives (and our life lists) of course, but it is also economically important well beyond the sales of binoculars, spotting scopes and hiking poles. Healthy environments deliver what scientists call ‘ecosystem services’, and they do it far more cheaply and elegantly than the man-made alternatives. Thriving populations of birds, bees and bats pollinate crops; mangrove swamps and coral reefs offer flood protection and, along with swamps, bogs and fens, water purification services, to name just a few examples.

  • Reef systems provide ecosystem services to biodiversity hot spots and many other places

Complex Ecosystems Depend on Apex Predators

It can be difficult to explain to a farmer whose cattle is being picked off by big cats that shooting them can lead to bigger problems, but an ecosystem that loses its apex predators gets out of whack very quickly. Unchecked by hunters, herbivore populations soon swell, with the potential to encroach on croplands. Meanwhile, scavenger species like vultures, Wild Dog and hyenas, which rely on the scraps from hunters, are also threatened with population crash. Likewise in the Patanal, healthy Jaguar populations keep crop-menacing peccaries in check. So when farmers bait these hooved “skunk pigs” with poison, they may inadvertently kill off allies in their fight when jaguars and other cats like ocelot and puma feed on the poison-tainted carcasses.

Payments for Peacekeeping

One of the ways that governments and non-profits try to preserve biodiversity hot spots is to pay farmers when they lose crops or livestock to wild animals. Likewise, ecotourism has a vital role to play. When money flows into communities, we hold up our end of the ecotourism bargain, showing locals that natural resources will be worth more to them alive and thriving than they will hunted for meat or the pet trade, or in the case of forests, cut down for fuel or to make way for farming.

Local communities in special places depend on us! Photo Credit, Peg Abbott

Responsible and sustainable tourism is even more important in the face of other more intractable threats, like climate change. A warming, less predictable planet has already initiated a shift in the ranges of many plants and animals, with the potential to drive them from protected parks to less welcoming places already occupied, or where habitats are substantially more degraded.

COVID-19 Ecotourism Lessons

If there was any doubt about the importance of ecotourism to protecting biodiversity hot spots and wild animals in general, it was dispelled by COVID-19. Tourism ground to a halt for more than a year, putting pressure on what are, in many cases, very poor communities whose people who do the tracking, porting, cooking and guiding on which tourism companies like ours rely.

Uganda women birders help to protect biodiversity hot spots
Uganda Women Birders is an organization that trains women for ecotourism careers. Photo credit: Uganda Women Birders

Shutting out not just the binocular set, but trophy hunters who pay big bucks to hunt in not-protected areas, the lockdown was devastating to wildlife protection, as The Economist detailed in “Pandemic is a Gift to Poachers in Africa.

While doing our best to stay afloat during COVID lockdowns, Naturalist Journeys and our clients raised substantial sums of money to help sustain our partners in places like Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago when we couldn’t send them business-as-usual.

One modest example was a decision by our founder, Peg Abbott, to send small monthly stipends to our guides in Trinidad and Tobago to keep them out birding even without guests, asking them to submit eBird checklists. It’s possible they found more birds than they would have, because they didn’t have to stop and show clients where to look!

eBird checklist data from our Trinidad and Tobago guides is super useful!
Trinidad and Tobago birders. Photo Credit: Dodie Logue

But now that we have vaccines, and travel has become more manageable, we are getting out there again, and we hope you will feel comfortable doing so too. Because there is no substitute for the financial and emotional support that ecotourists bring to the protection of precious and endangered places, and the birds, animals and people who call them home.

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.

Don’t Put Off Guyana Travel For Wild, Unspoiled Birding and Nature

Guyana travel offers a lush, tropical paradise where Naturalist Journeys guests often see 300-plus species during the course of our 13-Day, 12-Night tours.

One of the last truly untamed places on Earth, this South American jewel is home to some 800 birds and more than 1,100 animals, many requiring enormous unspoiled territories, like the Harpy Eagle, Giant River Otter, and Giant Anteater.

  • Guyana travel offers great opportunities to see Giant Anteater
  • Guyana travel offers opportunties to see Giant River otters

Geologically ancient, Guyana is part of the 1.7 million-year-old “Guiana Shield,” along with neighboring Suriname, French Guiana, and parts of Venezuela and Brazil. Some 1,000 bird species call this region home, nearly 8 percent of which are endemics. Some of our most sought-after species in Guyana are the colorful Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, whose mating dances we may see and the costumed Hoatzin, whose spectacular plumage is hard to forget.

  • Guyana Birding offers opportuntiies to see the Guianan Cock of the Rock

Nearly 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants live in the capital, Georgetown, where we bird the coast and its famed botanical gardens. We fly over rather than drive the country’s single mostly-unpaved two-lane highway to the interior. There, our ecolodges are run by Amerindians sustainably preserving their ancient way of life and guiding our guests to its wild secrets. 

Along the way, we land the plane to admire Kaieteur Falls, the tallest single-drop waterfall of the world, which you’ve only never heard of because it is only accessible by bush plane. Though Venezuela’s Angel Falls is greater in total height, its filamentous drop occurs by stages, whereas Kaieteur is a single massive, thundering cascade up to 100 meters wide, created as the Potaro River makes a sheer drop of 228 meters—nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls.

Kaieteur Falls. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Guyana travel, at least up to this point, is a bit on the adventurous side, said Dave Mehlman, who is leading the second of three small-group tours we have scheduled for 2022, which have a maximum of 8 guests:

In the ecolodges, our meals consist of wonderful native cuisine that is the definition of fresh and hyperlocal and made in time-honored tradition. Our lodging is rustic but comfortable.

Those who choose to wait to visit may find a more luxe form of Guyana travel in the future, but it will never be less crowded, more wild, more biodiverse, or more magical. 

“Now is a good time to visit for birders who want to get in on the ground floor of a new birding destination,” said Dave, who has led tours for Naturalist Journeys for several years here.

“Unlike Costa Rica, or some of the more developed birding destinations, you don’t have to contend with large groups of international tourists,” Dave said. “We are often one of just a few tour groups in the entire country.”

Our tours are designed to visit as many of its pristine habitats as are accessible to humans:

  • In the rainforest, we frequently find mixed-species flocks of up to 50 types of birds feeding together, associated with army ant swarms or fruiting trees, occupying different layers of the canopy.  Ant-birds, ant-wrens and ant-thrushes cover the ground. One layer up, woodcreepers mine the trunks, one layer above them, flycatchers and tanagers flit about in the understory, topped with canopy birds sometimes close enough to see with a scope. “It’s mind-boggling, really,” Dave said.
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Guianan Antbird
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Guianan toucanet
  • Savannah wetlands offer the prospect of three massive stork species, the Jabiru, Maguari Stork and Wood Stork, and also highly localized flycatchers like the Bearded Tachuri and the White-headed Marsh Tyrant. It’s here we often see the charismatic Giant Anteater.
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru, a giant stork
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru, a giant stork
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru with Wood storks
  • Guyana Travel offers the opportunity to see Maguari Stork. Photo Credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikimedia Commons
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see White-headed Marsh Tyrant
  • We often spot cotingas, swifts, hawks and perching birds as we walk along the main road, which creates an edge vantage point back into the forest.
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see Pompadour Cotinga
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see Capuchinbird and other species

And if none of these natural wonders convinces you the time is now for Guyana travel, recent developments have added some uncertainty to the future of this wild place. 

Large oil discoveries off the coast of Guyana portend change to the country’s economy and lead to development.

“That is going to change the country as it has in virtually every country in the world where oil has been discovered,” Dave said. “Whether that’s for good or bad remains to be seen.”

Colonized by the British, Guyana is the only South American country with English as its official language, and culturally is more like Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean than its neighbors. The Brits relinquished the territory in 1966, but left a few things behind. Guyanans still drive on the left, play cricket, and boast a spectacular rum tradition.

Because it is English speaking, it is the easiest of the three Guianan Shield countries to navigate, Dave said.

“Guyana travel has a lot to offer in terms of birds and birding,” he said. “I have traveled extensively in South America, and I can tell you there really isn’t another place like it.”

  • Guyana travel offers looks at Jaguar
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Jaguarundi
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Margay
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Ocelot
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Oncilla
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Puma

Because there is so much wild and contiguous forest, six species of wild cats call Guyana home (though they are furtive, nocturnal, and we would be very lucky to spot them.) You’ve heard of Jaguar, Puma and Ocelot, but what about Jaguarundi, Ocilla and Margay? Another reminder just how much new there is to see with Guyana travel!

Vaccinated Cruises are Sailing in 2021 (including OUR Nov. 7-14 Cruise to the Galapagos Islands)

Cruises are back, baby, big AND small—at least if you’re vaccinated.

In momentous travel news this week, the CDC signed off on a June comeback for Celebrity Cruises, with the cruise line requiring all guests 16 and older to be vaccinated to leave U.S. ports.

At the much smaller, much more intimate end of the spectrum, Naturalist Journeys intends to set sail on our Nov. 7-14 cruise to the Galapagos Islands. We still have a few cabins available for vaccinated travelers. We’ve chartered the small, well-appointed yacht, perfect for an intimate voyage for travelers with common interests. 

Naturalist Journeys’ Guests Are Vaccinated

Since all of Naturalist Journeys’ guests must show proof of vaccination starting July 1, our yacht cruise of the best islands in the Galapagos archipelago will also be a vaccinated cruise, and not just our guests and crew! By mid-June, the Galapagos is expected to be the first fully-vaccinated province in Ecuador and in South America, thanks to a joint government-tourism industry campaign supported by our tour partner, Ecoventura. 

Our crew, local residents and our guests won’t have to focus on COVID-19 and can instead train their sights on Blue-Footed Boobies, Marine Iguanas, Giant Tortoises and Darwin’s finches.

See Giant Tortoise on one of Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos Islands
Giant Tortoises greet us the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. Photo by Bud Ferguson.

In short, if you are itching to travel internationally in 2021 and the Galapagos Islands have been on your bucket list or re-visit list, this is your year!

Completely isolated from hunting pressure and with little-to-no fear of humans, Galapagos wildlife can sometimes seem to be hamming it up for your attention in plain, nearby view. In fact, if there was ever a place where nature photography can be had without lugging around a heavy telephoto, it’s the Galapagos Islands.

Up-close photography is easy on our vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos birds you could see on Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises
No telephoto needed for these not-so-shy birds. Photo by Ed Pembleton

As we move among rugged black “new” islands of the volcanic island chain and the soil-, plant- and animal-colonized “old” ones, we swim and/or snorkel among colorful fish, and sometimes dolphins, turtles or even penguins, whose frenzied fishing swirls the schools. A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz provides context and history to the conservation of this most magical place.

February Galapagos Cruise and Pre- and Post- Extensions

In early 2022, we have another of our vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos, Feb. 6-13. If vaccination progress is a straight line, it is perhaps more likely that the pre- and post- extensions to this trip will be available at this later date. Arrive in Quito Feb. 4 to join a high-altitude visit to Antisana Ecological Reserve in search of Andean Condor and many other spectacular endemics and make sure you’re in place and don’t “miss the boat.” We have for many years run the post-Galapagos four night extension to the Mindo area, to the delight of guests who revel in its amazing mix of species and habits viewed in just a short period of time. We bird cloud forests, montane forests and drier forests, where we discover species of the Choco Region.

We Have a Few Cabins Left on Amazon River Cruise Nov. 12-20

A Horned Screamer is one bird you may see on Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises in the Amazon
Horned Screamer. Photo Credit: Naturalist Journeys’ founder Peg Abbott.

Pending the lifting of COVID restrictions, our Nov 12-20 Amazon River Cruise is another bucket list tour on the radar of serious birders and general nature lovers alike. Some 450 species of bird, 13 kinds of primates, 130 species of reptiles and amphibians and 120 species of mammals have been found in the areas we cruise in luxury on the Zafiro, a vessel especially designed for wildlife exploration in comfort. Excursion boats take us ever deeper into one of the wildest, richest places left on Earth.

Brazil’s Pantanal: A birding spectacle

Carlos Sanchez describes his experience from visits to Brazil’s birding and wildlife spectacle, The Pantanal. Carlos sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society. He is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He’s also a former resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.

Jabiru in the Pantanal
Jabiru by Peg Abbott

The Pantanal is a vast, seasonally flooded wetland. The largest in the world and in the southwest corner of the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Among birders, wildlife photographers, and nature enthusiasts, it is renowned for its incredible concentrations of birds at the end of the dry season. During this time, the fish get trapped in the shrinking pools of water. This attracts hordes of herons, egrets, storks, and other wetland species. The star of such huge concentrations is the massive Jabiru. The Jabiru towers over a diverse collection of South American waterbirds such as Sunbittern, Plumbeous Ibis, and Southern Screamer. Raptors such as Savanna Hawk, Snail Kite, and Black-collared Hawk, and up to five species of kingfisher also join the bonanza. It truly is one of the world’s great birding spectacles.

Green Kingfisher Pantanal
Green Kingfisher by Delsa Anderl

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Pantanal before my guiding stint at Cristalino Lodge. It was my first of several subsequent visits over the years, but a first time visit to a place always seems to be the most impactful. I quickly learned that everything I had ever read about the Pantanal was true — this was truly a birder’s paradise. Everything was easy to see and easy to photograph. Did you miss that perfectly perched Snail Kite or Green Ibis? Not to worry. There were always more just around the corner. The Pantanal was the type of place where ‘there is always more of everything’ seemed to be a recurring theme.

Red-legged Seriema Pantanal
Red-legged Seriema, Naturalist Journeys Stock

The Pantanal hosts a mosaic of forest islands and riverside forest. Home to an interesting assemblage of regional endemics such as Mato Grosso Antbird, White-lored Spinetail, and Pale-crested Woodpecker. It is in this habitat in which most of the near-endemic Pantanal specialties occur. Because of its excellent gallery forest and proximity to the southern portion of the Transpantaneira Highway. The Transpantaneira highway transects the northern Pantanal, starting from the town of Pocone down to Porto Jofre. I chose to stay at SouthWild Pantanal which is formerly the Pantanal Wildlife Center. A lodge that features as the grand finale to Naturalist Journey’s tour to the area.

I must mention one thing, dawn in the Pantanal is spectacular. Warm golden-yellow hues shoot through the trees and across the landscape. This quickly wakes up with the calls and movements of thousands of birds. Days started just outside the lodge, watching the commuting birds. Keeping a special eye out for Golden-collared Macaw! The feeders hosted Toco Toucan and Red-crested Cardinals, stars of the show. Joined by a supporting cast of blackbirds, pigeons, doves, aracaris, and others.

Once the birds settled down for the morning, I explored the forest interior. Consistently practicing my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl imitation to draw in flocks containing Rufous Casiornis, Masked Gnatcatcher, and more. In the afternoon, I took a boat trip, the shores were teaming with birds and caiman. Ending the day with Band-tailed Nighthawks feeding over the river. It is easy to see over a hundred species in a day in the Pantanal without ever using a motorized vehicle — such is the bounty of the Pantanal.

Red-crested Cardinal Pantanal
Red-crested Cardinal, Naturalist Journeys Stock

With a pre-dawn start down the Transpantaneira Highway, it took up until noon to finally reach Porto Jofre. Such was the quality of the birding to be had along the road here. Unlike the more northerly segment of the highway, the southern Transpantaneira crosses much wetter, much more open wetlands that many species seem to prefer.

As I was driving, I quickly noticed a red light among the reeds near the side of the road and stopped. A Scarlet-headed Blackbird, only one of two birds seen on the trip. The open fields along the way had multiple bizarre Southern Screamer and elegant Maguari Stork. The patches of forest here are excellent for Fawn-breasted Wren. They can only be seen in this part of the Pantanal. As one drives south, the wooden bridges become increasingly rickety (with one of the long ones twisted sideways). Crossing them was like taking a leap of faith each time.

Halfway between SouthWild Pantanal and the northern terminus of the Transpantaneira, Pousada Alegre offers slightly more affordable lodging set within a working cattle ranch. A great opportunity to see Brazilian Tapir. Although birding here did not revolve around specific target species, it was still highly enjoyable and it was the only place where I saw Red-billed Scythebill. For the first time ever, I went birding by horseback, to get deeper into the wetlands. It was certainly not great for seeing small birds, but in the Pantanal where many of the birds are large and conspicuous, this method certainly works. Plus it was fun! I will never forget the experience of rolling out of bed, walking down a couple miles and back, and having breakfast at around 8:00 AM with a day list already over 100 species.

Giant Anteater Pantanal
Giant Anteater, Naturalist Journeys Stock

Pousada Piuval was the last stop of my trip in this glorious wetland, located north of the start of the Transpantaneira. Here, the landscape is not seasonally flooded for as long as points further in the south. Termite mounds are conspicuous. Many species more typical of the cerrado scrub-grasslands to the north and east are common, including Red-legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Gilded Flicker, and more. It is one of the best places in Brazil to see White-fronted Woodpecker – a specialty more typical of the Chaco of Paraguay and Argentina –occuring in small numbers at Pousada Piuval. Giant Anteater, arguably one of the world’s most incredible mammals, ambles along in certain paddocks in the early morning. Always a special sighting!

Hyacinth Macaw Pantanal
Hyacinth macaw pair by Greg Smith

Alas, it was over too soon. My last sunset in the Pantanal was spent admiring a pair of Hyacinth Macaw. They are the largest parrot in the Western Hemisphere and one of Brazil’s great conservation success stories. It was a great way to end this part of my trip.

See Jabiru, Giant Anteater, and more on our Brazil Birding & Nature Naturalist Journeys tours in 2021.

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Find out why YOU should take a Guyana Nature Tour with Naturalist Journeys. One of our favorite trips, Guyana is a country that is off the radar for many travelers, but oh so rich in biodiversity.

Discover “South America’s hidden gem.”

Continue reading 8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Highlights from our Pantanal Wildlife Tour

The Top 5 Highlights from Naturalist Journeys’ July Pantanal Wildlife Tour

Pantanal Wildlife Tour
Gate to the Pantanal Transpantaniera by Peg Abbott

There are few places in the world that offer wildlife like Brazil’s famed Pantanal. On Naturalist Journeys‘ July 2017 Pantanal wildlife tour, our group of 10, accompanied by guides Greg Smith and Xavier Muñoz, had an incredible adventure down the Transpantaneira Road that bisects the incredible Pantanal.

Continue reading Highlights from our Pantanal Wildlife Tour

A Pantanal Perspective

A visit to Brazil’s Pantanal.

Hyacinth Macaws, Naturalist Journeys Stock
Hyacinth Macaws, Naturalist Journeys Stock

Naturalist Journeys is back to the blogging world and wanted to kick off our first new post with a great participant account about her time in Brazil’s Pantanal.

Please enjoy Kelly’s comments and her perspective on what we too, thought was a fantastic wildlife safari.

Gate to the Pantanal Transpantaniera by Peg Abbott
Gate to the Pantanal Transpantaniera by Peg Abbott

“Hi Peg and Xavier,

Before we all go back to our daily lives, and our memories start to fade, I wanted to thank both of you for a truly spectacular trip to Brazil!

Xavier, your ability to manage the details -both large and small- of a logistically difficult trip is impressive, and your willingness to accommodate the needs of everyone in the group is much appreciated.

Posada Horseback Ride by Mark Wetzel
Posada Horseback Ride by Mark Wetzel

But it’s your continued enthusiasm for sharing every bird new to us, even ones you have seen many times, that made the trip special (And it goes without saying that you really do know your birds!)

Peg, your knowledge of birds is equally amazing, and your steady cheerfulness (even through the group’s episodes of illness, and when some of us, [i.e. me], were getting tired and a little grumpy around the edges) was critical to the success of the trip! Bob and I hoped to see a piculet on this trip, but are not disappointed that one didn’t appear, since we instead became better acquainted with a far superior bird – the “red-crested Peg-u-let”!  I hope the association continues.

Sunbittern, Naturalist Journeys Stock
Sunbittern, Naturalist Journeys Stock

For what it’s worth, my highlights include:

Watching the incredible numbers of herons, egrets, ibises, and miscellaneous other “aves” fly up as we went along in the bus, boat, or on foot.  One of the great wildlife viewing opportunities still left in the world, this experience rivals the sight of zebras or giraffes running across the plains of Africa.

Rufous horneros and their nests. While these birds are not rare

Rufous Hornero Nest Pair by Peg Abbott
Rufous Hornero Nest Pair by Peg Abbott

or particularly showy, their characteristic strut and epic nest-building efforts epitomize the Pantanal for me.

Pouso Alegre. If I could magically transport myself back to one of our sites for an occasional weekend visit, this would be it. I loved the wetlands, the walk to the hide, the tegus outside our door, and the overall peacefulness.

The charming, befuddled expression on the faces of all capybaras, large and small. I still want to bring one home … Bob bought a capybara leather belt in Uruguay but it’s just not the same.

Capybara Family by Peg Abbott
Capybara Family by Peg Abbott

The unexpected sight of the Streamer-tailed tyrants along the road to Caraca. So cool, and one of the reasons having an experienced guide is essential! Who else would know to look for such a spectacular bird in such a mundane location?

The hikes at Caraca Sanctuary. The undisturbed habitats here are a rare treasure – in both an ecological and spiritual sense – allowing us lucky visitors to truly connect with the landscape. I will remember the araucaria trees, the fantastic flora of the fens, the Face of the Giant, the Pin-tailed manakin, and the quiet of the Brother’s Woods for a long time.

Flocks of [Gilt-edged] and Brassy-breasted Tanagers! Amazing!

Our extended encounter with the unflappable Red-legged Seriema –too funny!

Red-legged Seriema, Naturalist Journeys Stock
Red-legged Seriema, Naturalist Journeys Stock

Our final count of (~?) 302 bird species, each with its own character and personality.

Brazilian coffee!  And desserts!

And many, many, more.

Thanks also to all of my fellow travelers – I’m proud to be part of such a jovial yet stalwart group. Let’s do it again!”

Kelly

Resting Jaguar by Xavier Munoz
Resting Jaguar by Xavier Munoz


Thanks for traveling with us, Kelly … we can’t wait to go back to the Pantanal again next year.

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