Wading through the world’s largest wetland

Posted March 18, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

I love wetlands. They are full of beautiful birds and mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Most people don’t walk in wetlands — too much water. Long before the boardwalk was built, I slogged through the Orono Bog to find warblers and sparrows that live only in bogs. As a child, I often went to a marsh to see and catch frogs. That marsh is gone; now a house and lawn are there. I love the Penjajawoc Marsh in Bangor, and the Scarborough Marsh in Scarborough. They are fabulous for birding.

I had the opportunity to go to the largest wetland in the world, the Pantanal in Brazil. The Pantanal is a wetland about 360 miles by 300 miles. I went with a class of 25 students from the University of Maine. Professors Malcolm Hunter, Aram Calhoun and William Glanz led the students in a course titled Pantanal 475.

Lectures in advance of the trip described to us how we would get around the vast wetland on horseback. I used to ride horses in my youth, but now I was feeling apprehensive around horses.

But when I saw the wetland, the water was only 2 feet deep. I decided that nobody could get hurt falling into a few feet of water.

Turns out I loved riding on the Pantanal horses. I never fell off into the water even as the small sturdy horses, mostly dun and gray, sloshed through the wetland up to their knees and hocks and sometimes up to their chests. These horses descended from Iberian Peninsula horses brought in at the time of the conquest in the 1500s.

Transportation was not only by horseback. We also went on buses and trucks, and on foot. Lodgings were not great. Showers, toilets and sinks were all cramped together within six inches of each other, in one tiny bathroom. But, they were clean.

Chiggers were a problem for everyone, and I got nearly 30 bites a day on my legs and ankles. Chiggers caused itching that took a full week to go away. They were too small to see, but their bites were visible as red spots one-eighth-inch across.

The equatorial midday heat was close to 100 degrees daily, so we took a siesta from noon to 3.

These were minor discomforts, and I am very glad I went on this trip. I found 131 species of birds. I was in paradise!

My favorite birds were the jabiru, a big, tricolored stork that I saw catching and swallowing a water snake; the yard-long, bright-colored blue and yellow hyacinth macaw (an enormous parrot), and the rufous hornero — a small bird that makes its nest of mud as hard as cement. The nest is a sphere with a hole, on a thick branch or post.

I also like snakes. One day, we were bouncing in an open truck with hard benches, on a dusty road. The truck stopped when I shouted to the guide, “Snake!” I had hoped to see an anaconda on this trip, having missed it in other trips. This snake had come up from the wetland onto the dirt road in front of the truck. Instantly it turned to head back into the wetland, but I saw it well enough to recognize that it was an anaconda.

This snake was about 5 feet long and at least 3½ inches thick. It was olive green, with black oblong spots on its back. At last, I saw an anaconda.

Another day, our naturalist stopped the bus to chastise a group of people who were stoning a boa constrictor. We all managed to get off the bus and catch a glimpse of the snake, before it got away. The Brazilian naturalist told the locals that we were here to see wildlife, including snakes, and tourism is an important part of the economy.

The anaconda and boa are both constrictors —they kill their prey by wrapping their tail-body around the prey and tightening back and side muscles every time the prey exhales. Eventually the prey can no longer breathe and suffocates.

One day while walking in the forest on my own, I spotted an 8-foot-long, yellow snake with smooth scales. It slithered away incredibly fast. With Mac Hunter’s reptile book, I identified it as a yellow-tail cribo. I read that it kills its prey by “thrashing its prey to death.” That is, it holds the prey in its teeth and thrashes its head back and forth until the prey dies. The cribo then eats the prey.

I thought about that and realized that I have seen species in Maine thrash their prey — a robin thrashing earthworms to break it into small pieces; a dog thrashing a small groundhog; a brown thrasher thrashing large insects.

Predation was all around us in the Pantanal. I watched a jabiru catching, then shaking and swallowing a southern water snake; a caiman (relative of an alligator) grabbing and swallowing another water snake; a bat falcon flying overhead with a bat in its talons.

One day was spent snorkeling in a clear, clean stream. We drifted and swam downstream watching beautiful fish. Every species was fascinating and colorful — many over a foot long. One species was blue, one had stripes, one had big scales, and one was a ray on the bottom of the stream. It was a cool stream (for the tropics; it was spring-fed), perhaps 80 degrees.

In the forest, we spotted many monkeys of three genera: silver marmosets, capuchin monkeys and howler monkeys. It was wonderful to see them climbing around in trees with their adept limbs and feet. Capuchin and howler monkeys also get around using their prehensile tails. It was fascinating to watch them feed on palm nuts with their sharp teeth.

I got a few brief glimpses of giant otters, 5 feet long, with white spots on their throat and chest. Tracks of jaguars were exciting too.

It is such a joy to me to see nature in different places on this wonderful earth.

Judy Kellogg Markowsky will show slides of the trip at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 31, at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden. A $6 admission will benefit the center.

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