Poconé is a dusty little town with broad streets and simple terracotta houses. Locals peer out from under broad-rimmed hats in the shade of their porches. It could be any frontier settlement in Latin America with catholic churches outnumbered only by bars. We had stopped here to quench our thirst and refuel on our way south into the Brazilian Pantanal. There is only one road leading out of town and that is the fabled 120km-long Transpantaneira – a straight gravel track raised above what is essentially the world’s largest inland floodplain. When the rains come to an end each April and the landscape dries out, much of what is left of the receding flood lies in the ditches along this road. By August, fishes, frogs and crabs are densely concentrated in the ever-shrinking puddles and pans, hoping they will still be around when the November rains arrive. Few of them make it.
The little Fiat hatchback bounced over the umpteenth plank bridge, to pause on the road verge. I hardly knew where to direct my binoculars. Eleven kingfishers of three species sat on the wire fence a few metres in front of us. A lone Jabiru stork paced among a feeding mob of Coqui Heron, Snowy Egret, Wood Stork and Bare-faced Ibis. Wattled Jacana skipped out of their way across the waterlilies, as a Grey-necked Wood-Rail strutted boldly into view. Arching its impossibly pink wings over its back, a Roseate Spoonbill wouldn’t have been out of place at the Moulin Rouge. Like black shirts on a washing line, twenty or more Snail Kites were strung along the far fence, tearing apart crimson-legged crabs or ripping into apple-snails. And this menu of birds was to be dished up for over 100km! Nowhere in the world can there be such a concentration of aquatic hunters for there are literally thousands of Spectacled Caiman (small alligators) among the throngs of herons, storks, ibis and kingfishers.
But amazingly, there are birds in the Pantanal that upstage these plentiful piscivores.
On higher ground, the whole region is wooded savannah, reminiscent of Africa with widely-spaced, flat-topped trees and swathes of tawny grass. Groves of stately Bocaiuya palms are dotted about. We’d stopped to admire a hornero’s mud nest on a fencepost along a side track when the harsh rasping cries of parrots ripped through the still afternoon air. Suddenly a trio of Hyacinth Macaws screeched into view, their long tails sailing behind them. Magnificent hardly describes them. At over a metre in length, this is the largest member of the parrot family and arguably the most spectacular – in a group of birds well known for their splendour and extravagance.
The macaws banked, then wheeled around towards a clump of palms spreading their broad wings and fanning out their tail feathers to land heavily among the fronds. But they were not alone – at least a dozen others were already feeding. The acorn-sized palm nuts were being ripped from their husks and effortlessly snapped open with the vice-like bill. The bill of a macaw is truly a wondrous tool, for we would need to employ a hammer or power saw to make any impact on these rock-hard nuts! We watched in awe as gangs of these huge noisy parrots arrived, ate their fill, then dispersed in various directions. Each pair or family group having a favoured roost, no doubt. Meanwhile, dusk was fast approaching and we still had some ground to cover. Our time in the Pantanal was just beginning.
Northern Pantanal, Brazil, September 2007