Flagship Species of Brazil 2015 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Sep 30, 2015

Exploratory trips are always an adventure for the trip participants as well as for the leader.  They are "first-of" trips where the logistics have been carefully pre-planned but never fully executed before the trip commences.  The itinerary is never quite set and it can change several times as better logistical alternatives to our initial plan arise—even while we are in the field, as they did on this trip.  As the leader of our new Flagship Species of Brazil trip, I can report this exploratory was an exciting experience and great fun besides—and yielded a treasure trove of wonderful wildlife images!
Our goal was to photograph the iconic species of some of Brazil's most important habitats. In our case, a "flagship species" was defined as a larger and charismatic species that is among the most photogenic and attention-grabbing within that habitat.  To that end we selected the harpy eagle and Amazon River dolphin (a.k.a. pink river dolphin) to represent Amazonian rainforest habitat—the largest ecoregion in Brazil—and the red-and-green macaw and giant anteater to symbolize Cerrado savannah—the second largest of Brazil's immense habitats, characterized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as the biologically richest savanna in the world.  By the end of the trip we had photographed all of our target species well and, as you might imagine, we also "shot" a variety of other interesting wildlife along the way!
Of course, jaguars are probably the most emblematic of all of Brazil's wildlife, but they are easily photographed on our Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal photo tours and all of our Flagship Species participants had either done our jaguar shoot previously or were on the trip before or after the exploratory.
We met in Campo Grande and drove into the Cerrado to the "Sinkhole of the Macaws," a 400-foot-deep collapsed limestone cave with exposed vertical walls of salmon-pink sandstone that capped the underlying sunken limestone.  Here, as many as 100 red-and-green macaws (the world's second largest parrot after Pantanal's hyacinth macaw—a species easily shot at close range on our Jaguars trips) nest and roost along the sheer and treacherous cliffs.  We enjoyed opportunities to photograph the birds perched—often within easy long-lens range—as pairs and groups of pairs entertained themselves and pair-bonded by mutual preening and apparent "parrot play."
The Cerrado in this area is characterized by huge cattle ranches with lots of open grassy areas punctuated by islands of gallery forest.  This is giant anteater habitat and our two afternoon searches through cattle country yielded around 10 anteaters, two of which we photographed extensively.  Anteaters have a keen sense of smell but relatively poor eyesight, so it was easy for our group to approach them from downwind and quietly get within 25 feet.  They happily continued lapping up ants and termites they had excavated from the ground—barely paying any attention to the motor-driven and shutter-clicking "livestock” “grazing” next to them.  A real anteater prize is an image of a female with a baby riding on her back as she forages.  Lo and behold we spotted this situation—a female with a very tiny newborn—at a great distance across an open field!  Naturally we started to hightail it to that location.  But as we watched with binoculars from a long distance away she entered a tangle of fallen trees and wrapped her huge furry tail over the baby to let it nurse.  Since it was a very cool afternoon, our group decided not to approach further and we left her alone without ever getting a single shot.  It was a great group consensus I wish would be followed by more photographers.
Before leaving the Cerrado we also had good encounters with brown capuchin monkeys, white-lipped peccaries, burrowing owls (found throughout North and South America), red-legged seriemas, plus a few other birds.
From Campo Grande we flew to Manaus.  Soon we were deep in the heart of the Amazon Basin—the Amazonian rainforest habitat.  We traveled by boat to a remote barge where we photographed Amazon River dolphins that have been habituated to people by being fed fish on a daily basis.  These "pink dolphins," the largest freshwater cetaceans, have very long toothy snouts and a weird ability to turn their heads 90°, allowing them to enter flooded forests during the rainy season to pursue fish and crabs hiding under logs, tangled tree roots and mats of submerged plants.  We first photographed them topside as a local fisherman, a "fish feeder," coaxed them to the surface to jump for the fish.  This poor guy was in the water with dolphins that were easily 30% larger than he was!  Quite a look of dread crossed his face when one of the big males jumped out to grab a fish out of his hand.  Well, we all have to make a living!
Once the surface activities ended we took turns snorkeling alongside the fisherman as he fed the dolphins from underwater.  It was great fun and a wonderful nature experience, but a tough photo shoot.  The water is almost as dark as Guinness Stout and very turbid.  Of the few underwater shots I kept, I turned them into black-and-whites since it was an easier way to crank up the contrast and give them better definition.  We were there for a 5-hour session (including lunch).  All of us had a great time and would do it again, but one long session per trip was plenty!
Back at our lodge we had very good opportunities to photograph squirrel monkeys, wooly monkeys and red uakari.  The photographs of these species in the accompanying slideshow are by tour participant Ellen Goff.  By this time, something I shouldn't have eaten had caught up with me—and monkey photography was about the last thing on my mind.  Ellen consistently returns from a day’s shoot and, by the next day, shows me processed images I wish I had taken!
After months of scouting for a harpy eagle photo opportunity, and careful reconnaissance of at least six harpy nest sites across wild Brazil, a site deep in the Amazon rainforest was finally selected for our shoot.  Our best chance at photographing a harpy in Brazil this year would be a 15-month-old fully fledged juvenile male who was still using his natal nest tree as a home base from which to forage.  Near the nest we would erect a tower from which to shoot this magnificent, almost legendary, bird of prey.
A day’s journey from Manaus—which included a lengthy boat trip upriver—delivered us to a remote sandy riverbank deep within the rainforest.  Due to some small delays we arrived a little later than expected.  It was already turning towards dusk, but we were too excited not to make the four kilometer trip to the site where our viewing tower had been erected for us to shoot our harpy.  There amidst the towering trees stood an almost unbelievable sight, an 85-foot-high steel tower surrounded by primary forest—our window into the world of a harpy eagle.  Even though it was dusk, we immediately climbed the tower.  Once we were at the top we were astounded by the sight of this incredible bird of prey sitting on an open branch fearlessly staring back at us.  For me, it was a sublime moment.  As you know, I have a keen interest in birds and had only ever seen two other harpies in my lifetime—both of them a quick flash of a distant bird flying across a river in Peru years ago.  In the first minute of watching this bird, the sum total of my entire life experience with this species more than doubled.

Juvenile harpy eagles remain in the territory of their natal nest tree for more than a year after fledging, mostly abandoned by their parents.  Adults normally return to nest in the same tree about every third year; we were visiting this nest tree near the middle of this cycle.  And our boy still had a lot of fidelity to this tree and the surrounding area.

This young male had been casually observed by a local fisherman for several months and we learned that the bird normally returned to the tree for a visit between 1530 hours and dusk.  The next day, although we had climbed the tower and waited in the sun and humidity for most of the day, sure enough the bird showed up, almost like he wore a watch, around 1530 hours.  Then it was just a matter of time as he perched in various locations around the tree until he was sitting unobscured on an open branch.  Motor drives smoked!

This, the final leg of our trip, was an amazing adventure and mind-blowing photo shoot.  We had traveled many miles to arrive at that site.  The 85-foot tower had been manufactured for this trip more than 1,200 miles away, shipped by truck and boat, unloaded on a remote Amazon riverbank, and then transported, in pieces, four kilometers into the forest.  Once at the site it was erected by a crew who specialized in setting up stages and towers of speakers for outdoor rock concerts and similar events.  All of this momentum to photograph one single bird—but what a spectacular photo opportunity it was! 

Here, deep in the Amazon rainforest and high in the trees, was the grand finale of our Flagship Species Exploratory—the harpy eagle.