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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Birding in the Pantanal

As any birder knows, keeping a list of birds identified is an essential part of every trip, yet some forget that this is only one measure of many that can be used to represent the success of a journey. In
Rufous Hornero nest
our eight days in the Pantanal and three more in the cerrado near Chapada, Brazil, I identified 125 species of birds. I consider that a real success given 1) this was not a "birding" trip but a wildlife tour and 2) I did not work hard to specifically pad the list. Many birds remained unidentified. Parrots and parakeets were maddeningly difficult for me as were the Columbids.
Birds identified included ones familiar from home (Osprey, Great Egret, House Sparrow, etc.) to those that I knew of from their rare appearances in the ABA area (Jabiru and Roadside Hawk) to those with incredibly exotic sounding names that remind you that home is very far away (Toco Toucan, Greater Rhea, Southern Screamer, Amazon Kingfisher, Helmeted Manakin).
In the Pantanal birds were literally everywhere. Photograph capybaras wading neck-deep into the water: Cattle Tyrant hops from one head to another. Stop the boat for a bathroom break under a shady tree: Great Antshrike and Masked Gnatcatcher bounce from limb to limb. Turn your head to the left to keep the bright sun out of your eyes: Maguari Stork flying parallel to the boat. Stop to look at black howler monkeys: Squirrel Cuckoo takes the spotlight.
And it is stories like these that are behind the numbers on the list that make a trip so memorable. Memories like rounding a bend on the Paraguay River and flushing 50 jet-black Neotropical Cormorants from the trees and an equal number of pure white Snowy Egrets from the sand bar only to watch them commingle into a flock of nuns stampeding through the air. Or standing stock still one evening in the town square as twenty Ladder-tailed Nightjars catch insects above the illuminated 230-year-old church that is the centerpiece of this small town. Or my last species, a Red-winged Tinamou, running across the road as we headed to the airport, and home...
But mine is a visual blog, so I present here my top ten photographed avian encounters of the trip:
10. Great Rhea: At five feet, this is the tallest bird in South America and one of my target species. After seeing Emu in Australia and both Ostrich species in Africa, I wanted to add their New World cousin to my life list.
Curious Rhea
9. Snail Kite: Common. Very common. As in, everywhere. Check out that beak!
Snail Kite, Pantanal
I guess you need a beak like that when the snails look like this:
8. Sunbittern: This is a good looking bird that becomes a real stunner when it flies.
Slightly out of focus, but it sure shows the amazing wing pattern Sunbitterns have.

7. Hyacinth Macaw: A signature species of this habitat, the Hyacinth Macaw is a bird that was on the brink of extinction and is now making a slow but steady comeback through some interesting conservation measures. The Pantanal is almost entirely privately owned so buy-in from the ranch owners is essential. to the survival of this ecosystem. Artificial nestboxes and redistribution of eggs to foster parents are two techniques that are being employed to increase the numbers of these raucous birds.

6. Chestnut-eared Aricari: What a fascinating mix of colors, both feather and beak.
5.Blue-and-yellow Macaw: We visited a pond specifically to watch for macaws to fly in. We saw three species of macaws here and I got some interesting artsy photos as the sun was setting...
4. Wattled Jacana: These are some really nice looking birds and I took lots of pictures of them. My favorite jacana shot is this one

3. Toco Toucan: This is the bird from the cereal boxes of my youth. Simply put, he looks like a crow carrying a banana.
Toco Toucan
Look closely at this second photo. I never could get a great look at this individual. Laura spotted him and alerted me to the deformed bill. How in the world is this bird functioning???
2. Large-billed Tern: A well named bird: that really IS a large bill :)

1. Jabiru: By far, the most fun bird to view and photograph in the Pantanal was the Jabiru, a stork that reaches 5 feet in height with an 8 foot wingspan. Their nests are large and located in unobstructed areas.

Long post! Thanks for hanging in there!!! :)

Brazil's Pantanal & Cerrado trip: An Overview

Our family adventure for 2013 was a two-week tour in Brazil's wildlife-rich state of Mato Grosso. We booked our tour through Pantanal Ecoexplorer, owned by Carlos Grandez. In short, we had an amazing time. Although we did not see a jaguar (a main goal of ours), the things we did see more than made up for it. Wild animals don't adhere to our schedules and our failure to see a jaguar was not for lack of trying. We had fantastic guides and boatman. The lodges were great with plenty of excellent food. Each day's itinerary was well conceived. During the two weeks we drove, hiked, rode horses, took spotlight safaris, boated, snorkeled and boated some more -- all in the pursuit of wildlife. I am very pleased with our species lists.
MAMMALS (in order of appearance):
Capybara in the Pantanal

South American Coati*
White-lipped Peccary*
Crab-eating Raccoon*
Collared Peccary
Brown Brocket Deer*
Brazilian Rabbit*
Crab-eating Fox*
Red Brocket Deer*
Azara's Agouti
Bulldog Bat sp.
Black Howler Monkey*
Black-tailed Marmoset*
Brown Capuchin*
Giant Otter
Greater Sac-winged Bat*
Neotropical Otter*
Yellow Armadillo*
* indicates a new species for me
Danika also saw a small mouse-sized rodent on one of our spotlight trips.

Hoped for, but missed mammals include giant anteater, tapir and the aforementioned jaguar. We found jaguar tracks almost every day in the Pantanal.
Young coati crossing the road

Brown Capuchin digging insects out of a tree limb

I think my mammal highlight was the ocelot (the giant otters were a close second, but I will do a
Our safari vehicle
separate otter post) as it was an unusual sighting and a new species for all of us. Our guide "spotted" (hee hee) the ocelot on one of our night drives. It was a fairly short look as the cat quickly moved out of view. We had brought our own headlamps to supplement the spotlight and it was Danika that relocated the ocelot about 60 meters down the road. She glanced to her left and screamed "OH MY GOSH! ITS RIGHT HERE!". And she was correct. The ocelot was literally five meters from the truck. We stopped and and the cat just kept getting closer. I managed a few nice images:
Ocelot in the Pantanal of Brazil

Brazilian ocelot
Birds: I tallied 125 species. The sheer numbers of birds we saw was hard to describe. I have prepared a blog entry with many more photos and stories here.

Amazon Kingfisher, Brazilian Pantanal
Burrowing Owl standing guard
Black-collared Hawk
Reptiles and Amphibians: From the caiman to the tiny geckos that patrolled our rooms at night, we saw a nice variety of herps -- One snake (identified for us as a false water cobra); Numerous varieties of tree frogs; Lizards, including iguanas and a teghu; and a turtle species in the river. It should be clear by now that I am not as knowledgeable in this taxa as I am with the birds and mammals. But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy all the herp-watching. The caiman were particularly hard to ignore...
Caiman vocalizing
Teghu lizard
Lizard in the Pantanal
Paraguay River
Iguana roused from his basking by a bird
Help me identify this snake please!
Large tree frog in our bathroom

Fish: Let me first say that we were served remarkable fish dishes every day at every lodge. We ate more kinds of fish prepared in more ways than I knew were possible. One lodge started dinner each night with a piranha soup/stew. We also ate dourado, pacu. pintado and a few others I cannot remember. While we were on the Paraguay River, fish were always breaking the surface and we passed many anglers, most of which were on guided trips of their own. But our fish adventures left the dinner table when we snorkeled at two fresh water springs. This gave us a chance to try out the new GoPro camera I received for Father's Day.
Swimming with the fishes

Over the next several weeks I hope to write more entries about our Pantanal adventure. But I had four camera traps out while we were away and Monday I leave for Massachusetts to take some data on black bear sign with my students.  And then.... well, you can see there is never a shortage of things to write about and not even time to do it all!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

My milksnake brings all the fox to the yard...

In my last post, I wrote about a Reconyx set I made in hopes of capturing woodcock images. I had great success with this location last year, but this spring has been so wet that our hedgerow has been in almost continuous standing water since April. So while woodcock pictures have been rare, other animals have been picking up the slack. And the water has provided a certain artistic element to the photos that I had not anticipated. For example:
Doe and fawn 
Here the infrared flash gives them glowing eyes but the Reconyx delivers with a nice crisp image. Deer, and fawns in particular, have made almost-daily appearances to this set. A few of my favorites:
Cautious fawn
The image above is highly cropped. This fawn is right at the edge of the photo so I had little choices when it came to composition. Second only to the deer are the raccoon visitors. Two favorites:

I don't want to leave you with the impression that these are the ONLY visitors to this watery domain. Opossum, gray squirrel and various birds are commonly captured as well. Last week, we had another species as well:
Gray fox reflected
Above is the entire image. Below, I crop it down to Mr. Gray himself.
Gray fox
Even without color, this is unmistakably a gray fox. Note the short snout and the black line running down the dorsal surface of the tail. I always like my gray fox captures :) and this guy was only one of a pair
What really makes this such a great photo is the perceived size difference between these two animals. I have to admit my first reaction was surprise. I mean, that guy on the left looks HUGE compared to the other gray fox. But of course, it is closer to the camera AND it is standing on top of a mound. This is a great lesson in how careful one must be when comparing images. If you wish to compare the sizes of two animals, make sure they are exactly the same distance from the camera or it just won't be accurate.

The Reconyx is set to take a burst of three photos then almost immediately ready itself to take more photos if the animals are still triggering the sensor. I got several sets of photos of these fox, but here was the one that caught my eye (and inspired the title of this post):
Gray fox and milksnake
Wow! A photo of a gray fox is always a "win" for me, but one carrying food is even more special. I was so excited. But had the fox killed the snake or scavenged it? I scrolled back through the photos to find out. Stay with me now, as we are going to go backwards in time...
The photo previous to the one shown above didn't seem remarkable at all when I first glanced at it. But now under closer examination, I can clearly see the milksnake in the mouth of the fox:

Milksnakes are so distinctively patterned that on my property there really is no mistaking the identification. I continued to scroll backwards --

I need to crop and enlarge for you, but there IS a snake in the photo above. Thank goodness for the pattern on the milksnake or it would be invisible in this inrared photo.

A few inches below his nose and hidden by growing vegetation is the snake. At this point, I speculated that the snake was dead or it would have tried to escape. A quick scroll backwards through the photos confirmed that, but I am getting ahead of the story...

This photo on June 24th at 9:11 PM is the last image without a milksnake. I have zoomed in to the area in question and cannot make out any bit of a snake here:

A raccoon had triggered the above image and it continued over to this spot:
The coon drags up a dead snake. It is visible in the photo below just under the coon's snout.
But after another sniff, he leaves it behind.
I have only a partial answer. The gray fox did indeed scavenge the snake, but I still don't know how long it lay there before the fox found it. And why didn't the raccoon eat it? And as I looked back through all the photos, concentrating on the snake this time, I saw that another visitor had found it too. Remember that cute fawn peeking out from the edge of the photo above? Well, she too investigated the milksnake:
Finally, an image of the snake in color! :) Identification confirmed.
There is one more story I want to tell from these photos. The night after I captured the gray foxes, a coyote made an appearance. And lucky for me, he crossed in front of the camera in exactly the same spot as the gray fox did. This will allow us a direct comparison of size between the two species. But how best to convey that to my students? Since I do not own Photoshop, I had to get creative...

Here are the two images stacked for direct comparison. But I can do better. Besides, I will be using PowerPoint to show these to students...

I made a jpeg of a PowerPoint slide:

That works, but i still wasn't satisfied. So I tried enlarging them.
Better. But if I could combine the two images, that would be best. I am working with PowerPoint 2007 here at home and the best option I could find was to make most of the background transparent. Since this is a black and white image, it made the task a little harder...
There is the gray fox with most of the colors set to transparent and cropped as best as I could (is there a free form crop tool in ppt 2007? If so, I couldn't find it.) The last step was to lay this on to the coyote image. The best part of this is that the fox gets placed EXACTLY where he was in the original photo:
Comparing the size of a coyote to a gray fox
I am pretty pleased with the results. Not perfect and I assume I will get better as I try more of this.