North Northumberland Bird Club, March meeting

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PANTANAL PARADISE: Friends and members were enticed to Bamburgh Pavilion with the prospect of a visit to birding paradise and they were held completely spellbound, at times overwhelmed, with Brian Clasper’s enthusiastic account of his visit to the Pantanal, a vast inland wetland in Brazil with an area larger than England.

For six months of the year the savannah is inundated with water and well-nigh impassable, but during the dry season the water gradually recedes to a series of muddy pools and lagoons by the roadside, chock full of fish.

This in turn is a magnet for a wealth of birds and animals drawn to the easy pickings and for visiting naturalists lured by such fabulous opportunities to see and photograph these ‘critters’ at close quarters.

Easiest access to the Pantanal is from the regional capital of Cuiabá, driving south on the only road – the Transpantaneira – which runs for 100 kilometres over an endless number of rickety wooden trestle bridges to the river at Porto Jofre.

Many of the cattle ranching stations en route have diversified to provide simple tourist accommodation for this annual influx of visitors and the wildlife itself benefits from this new source of income.

No longer is the jaguar shot on sight to protect the cattle and the once endangered hyacinth macaw is slowly recovering as the pantaneiros plant more palm trees (palm nuts are their main food source) and set up nest boxes.

Brian quickly conjured up the richness of the Pantanal’s birdlife as image after superb image appeared on screen accompanied by their names, snail kite, black-collared hawk, smooth-billed ani, grey-necked water rail, jabiru stork, plumbeous ibis, white-headed marsh-tyrant, southern caracara, chestnut-eared araçari, many from families of birds with exotic, unfamiliar names such as oropendolas, curassows, tanagers, spinetails, horneros, and that only took us up to lunchtime of day one birding from the roadside.

His rich Mackem accent enlivened the evening as he highlighted some of his personal favourites and recounted several amusing anecdotes.

Going against the grain of a Sunderland lad, he even included one photograph of a local cowboy on horseback wearing a Newcastle United strip, wondering ‘where did that come from?’

He recounted rescuing a kingfisher seen struggling in the river to discover it had speared a water snake which was still alive and curled round the bird. His friend managed to remove the snake only to be bitten for his trouble.

His favourites included the gorgeous sunbittern with its fantastic wing pattern, the glorious brightly coloured troupial, a kind of New World oriole, and the majestic jabiru stork.

He was equally dismissive of the inevitable ‘little brown jobs’ or LBJs as they are known in the birding fraternity, such as the many woodcreepers or thrushes.

He mused over one, the black-capped donacobius, questioning why this attractive species had been saddled with such a mouthful of a name, and sympathised with another, the fork-tailed flycatcher, wondering why it had been encumbered with such an appendage, like a ‘bird on a tripod.’

Fortunately there are many more dashing and dazzling species in the tropics than LBJs, and we were treated to many stunning shots of colourful kingfishers, toucans, parrots, jacamars and everyone’s favourite, the hyacinth macaw.

Even families such as our familiar herons and egrets run riot in South America with such fabulous species as the capped heron, agami heron and rufescent tiger-heron.

Nor were we restricted to the birdlife of the Pantanal. Brian had encountered many of the region’s iconic reptiles and mammals on his journey and we were treated to some wonderful images of caimen, coatimundi, capybara, giant river otters grinning at the photographer and star of the evening, his encounters with the magnificent big cat of South America, the jaguar.

Most visitors count themselves lucky if they catch a glimpse of this legendary beast, but Brian had the good fortune to come upon no fewer than seven individuals including several relaxed and lolling about on the open riverbank enabling him to capture some amazing close-ups from a canoe. What a fantastic climax to a most enjoyable evening.

The next indoor meeting of the NNBC at Bamburgh Pavilion is on April 13, at 7.30pm when Harold Dobson, secretary of the Friends of Red Kites will give an illustrated talk entitled Red Kites Return. Visitors always welcome.

Further details can be found at www.northnorthumberlandbirdclub.co.uk