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PHOTOS: See Brazil's Wildlife Up Close

Your columnist visits Brazil during dry season, the country's winter, which brings out large gatherings of birds, reptiles and exotic mammals.

Capybaras and caimans and caipirinhas, oh, my!

Okay, that last one, while indigenous to Brazil, does not fall into the category of wildlife (unless you have too many of them), but we did see many of the sweet-and-sour cocktails on a recent wildlife-watching trip to Brazil’s Pantanal.

When you think Brazil, images of beaches, bikinis and Carnival parades are probably what first spring to mind, but our trip was focused on the country’s rich variety of wildlife.

Our main interest was members of the cat family, especially jaguars and ocelots, but we quickly found many more animals and birds of interest, too. (See photos.)

The Pantanal is the world’s largest contiguous wetland, with an estimated area of 54,000 to 75,000 square miles. Living there are some 475 bird, 135 mammal, 80 reptile and 50 amphibian species.

And apparently things grow bigger in the Pantanal. Its inhabitants include the hyacinth macaw, the world’s largest parrot; the secretive jaguar, the largest big cat in the Americas; the capybara, which lays claim to the title world’s largest rodent; the green anaconda, the world’s largest snake; and countless caiman, crocodilians that congregate in large groups in watering holes, giving them easy access to fish, bird and mammalian prey when they’re in the mood for a meal.

Wildlife viewing begins the moment your vehicle rolls off the asphalt and onto the rutted dirt road that is the TransPantanal Highway, which runs for 90 miles from Pocone to Porto Jofre. Its 126 rickety wooden bridges span marshy watering holes that draw terns, ibises, skimmers, herons, raptors, brocket and marsh deer, capybara and caiman, to name just a few of the species we saw on our first day.  

Capybaras wear a serious expression and tip the scales at more than 100 pounds. They have big heads with tiny ears and tails. Most often, we saw them lounging near water in small family groups, but they also enjoy swimming and can submerge for several minutes at a time. In the water, they look like nothing so much as miniature hippos.

Capybaras dine on water hyacinths and other aquatic vegetation. In turn, jaguars and caiman dine on capybaras. For the record, according to our guide, they taste like pork, not chicken.

At Pouso Alegre, the fazenda, or ranch, where we stayed our first couple of nights, hyacinth macaws nest in holes in trees or in the large nest boxes provided for them. The cobalt-blue macaws were gorgeous, but their raucous squawk made us grateful we’d never succumbed to the lure of owning one. Their screech serves as a wakeup call, adding a sonic jolt to the caffeine coursing through our veins from the excellent coffee served at breakfast.

A morning hike led by our guide, Julinho Monteiro of Pantanal Trackers, introduced us to agouti, coati, and some small members of the primate family.

The agouti is a rodent that resembles a cross between a squirrel and a mouse. It’s shy and doesn’t stick around to allow for close observation.

Coatis belong to the raccoon family and sport a bushy ringed tail and a narrow, pointed snout that it uses to seek out worms, insects and other invertebrates that along with fruit make up the diet of these cute omnivores.

Marmosets, diminutive black-tailed monkeys, ziplined from trees down power lines, running nimbly across them like tiny tightwire artists, then disappearing to go about their marmoset business.

We spent three days drifting on the Cuiaba River and its tributaries, camping for two nights at the home of Julinho’s friends Carmindo and Maria, and just seeing what we could see.

Mostly that was bird life, and the ubiquitous capybara and caiman. Giant river otters were a special treat. The first one we saw was on his own, but most often the playful predators are found in family groups. We watched them frolic on the riverbank, sliding down from their den to the water’s edge, all the while squealing, trilling and humming before slinking into the water to hunt for catfish.

Did we see any cats? Yes. Two jaguars seen in an instant on the side of the road before they disappeared, and another pair viewed on the river. From the boat, we were able to watch them drink, groom and interact in other ways. They were in the same place the next day, allowing us to spend more time studying their behavior.

An ocelot was a bonus, barely seen through the foliage on the riverbank. This smaller wild cat is about the size of a cocker spaniel with spots that merge on the neck and sides to become stripes.

One animal that we expected to see but did not was UC Irvine’s mascot, the anteater. I guess we’ll have to go back someday.

Pet of the Week: Meet Fanny, a beautiful gray tabby who is just waiting for you to whisk her away to a great new life in your home. The spayed female is 2 years old and has an easy-care medium-length coat. Meet her at Orange County Animal Care, 561 The City Drive, in Orange. Her ID number is A1205493. (See photo.)

Upcoming Pet Events: The MVP event celebrates the many popular varieties of pets available at Orange County Animal Care. It takes place on Saturday, October 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Bonus: big discounts for adopters. For more information, check out www.ocpetinfo.com or call 714-935-6848.

Celebrate Howl-O-Ween with Yappy Hour at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel on Thursday, October 25 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Let your pet strut his stuff in costume while you sip Mutt Lynch Winery's Unleashed Chardonnay, Merlot Over and Play Dead, or Chateau d'Og Cabernet Sauvignon. Pets with the Scariest, Funniest, and Most Glamourous costumes can win prizes, and Best in Show takes home a plush dog bed, chew toy and more, not to mention a two-night stay at the resort, accompanied by his people, of course. A portion of the proceeds from the contest entry fees will be donated to the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter.

Scott Schmitt October 08, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Beautiful photography and well written article. Thank you! Scott
Kim Campbell Thornton October 08, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Thanks, Scott!
Barking Dog October 09, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Wonderful photos! Nice presentation.

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