For the last several years I've been searching for an area to photograph jaguars, the third largest cat in the world, and the largest cat in the New World. With a range that historically extended from the southwestern US, and where roaming individuals from Mexico are again being spotted in Arizona, to the wetlands of northern Argentina, jaguars are most frequently seen in the Pantanal of Brazil. The Pantanal is a wetland, forest, Savannah habitat, analogous in some ways to what our Florida Everglades ecosystem must have looked like a hundred years ago, and the Pantanal is considered to be the world's largest wetland. The Pantanal is also home to the largest jaguars, reaching 350 pounds in weight. It is thought that there are approximately 4,000 to 7,000 jaguars in this vast region, making it one of the densest large predator populations -- if not the densest- in the world.
This summer I found the location, and my friends and I that scouted out the location ended up quite successfully, not just in terms of jaguars but also with the other abundant wildlife found here. Unfortunately, the area where we visited has extremely limited facilities - wonderful facilities, but just not much space, and because of this I cannot divulge the exact spots where our photography took place. If I did, I'm afraid I might be 'booked out' by other jaguar enthusiasts, tourists, or photographers, and be unable to return with one of my photography tours. This may seem selfish, but please realize that I've spent three or four years researching and corresponding and working on this, and I want my efforts to finally be worth it. I will, in a future year, divulge these locations, but for now I must keep these locations private. If you'd like to know more, be patient -- I will be much more forthcoming two or three years from now.
If you'd like to see or photograph jaguars in the meantime, you can join Mary and I on our first photo tour to this region next year. Space will be extremely limited, but we do plan on returning in subsequent years as well. That said, and as you read this report, please realize that we may have been extremely lucky with the quality of the photography we had. Most visitors to this area see jaguars -- one is generally spotted per day -- but we had 7 sightings in 5 days, as you'll see as your read the report.
Getting good jaguar photos, or indeed, even seeing a jaguar, is a matter of luck, and because of this we didn't 'chase our tails,' racing about looking for jaguars while ignoring the other wonderful subjects found in the area. We figured that if we did not see or photograph a jaguar, we'd still have a great shoot if we worked on the other wildlife, and decided that whatever happened happened, and we'd just have to trust on luck. There was another photographer at the camp while we were there and at least for the first couple of days this photographer devoted all energies solely to finding a jaguar. Doing so, one may miss any jaguars in the area (being at the wrong place at the wrong time) while also not photographing anything else, either! We didn't do that, nor will we do that on our trip next year.
So, here's my edited Trip Report, with my apologies for not being more specific. If you're interested in photographing jaguars, please join us next year. If you need more information, stay tuned to a later trip report - a couple year's down the line. Sorry.
Day 1 - Left Hoot Hollow at 8:15AM with Mary and traveled
with my two friends, Tom and Dave, and Mary, to a half-way point
for a 1PM pickup to the airport. Arrived in JFK about 4, but a
thunderstorm soon developed which delayed fueling and boarding,
and we didn't take off until 11PM, about 4 hours later than scheduled.
Tom called Mary from the plane, who then called our outfitter
to let him know we'd miss our first connection to Cuiaba.
Day 2 - Flew all night, arrived in Sao Paulo mid-morning, and caught the next leg to Cuiaba at 3, and arrived in Q around 5PM. Our outfitter met us with the driver who would take us into the Pantanal, and we continued out of the city and on to our first destination, Site One, essentially doing a night game drive that yielded a few spectacle caimens on the road and several nighthawks. I was hoping our bad start with the plane would be erased by a night-time glimpse of a jaguar, but we had no luck.
Coincidentally, when we returned to Site One after our jaguar shooting we found that another tourist had seen five jaguars in the same area we traveled our first evening. Jaguars, we were told, are indeed everywhere down there!
Day 3 - Site One.
We were exhausted from the journey and decided to sleep in, planning on meeting for a 7:30 breakfast.My watch was incorrectly set so I got up early anyway, right at dawn, but not knowing the sunrise time schedule I assumed all was well. Dave and Tom were sleeping, I assumed, or out shooting, so I went exploring, discovering the shooting options we'd have that morning and upon our later return to this same site. One of the highlights of the area is a great Jabiru stork nest that has a scaffold nearby for observation and photography. I climbed up, sans gear, to check out the shooting possibilities, and had a wonderful view of the nest -- actually looking slightly down into it from about twenty yards away. The jabiru storks, the New World's largest stork, were completely unconcerned.
On my first trip to the Pantanal years ago, and on our return back to Cuiaba at the end of this trip, we passed several jabiru stork nests that lie near the TransPantanal Road. I photographed these, last trip, and the contrast in shooting opportunities between that trip and this, where we could be close and shooting at virtually any angle with birds completely unconcerned by our presence, was truly spectacular.
started the day with chestnut-eared aracaris, followed by Toco
Toucans, Ringed kingfishers, and caimens. Rafael, our guide, told
me that the gardener had spotted a common potoo, and he led me
to it - the first good view I've ever had of that bird, and shots,
too. Potoos are related to nighthawks, and like nighthawks and
whip-poor-wills, they have cryptic coloration that blends well
with the environment. But potoos take this one step further, adopting
a pose that resembles a broken limb jutting skyward, with the
bird's eyes closed to slits and its beak pointing straight up.
The camouflage is so effective that when I circled the tree to
seek a different angle I looked up and wondered how that stump
blocked my view of the bird. Moving to the right I discovered
that the obstruction was indeed the bird!
After breakfast we headed upriver in a small skiff to look for a den of giant otters, but the otters weren't about. Plenty of birds, and we worked, somewhat successfully, on neotropical cormorants taking off from the water and a black-collared hawk swooping down for a tossed fish.
After lunch we headed for a surprisingly long drive to the dock where we would board a boat for our journey into the bush for our jaguar site. Just out of camp we spotted a great buck Marsh Deer and doe and a Savannah hawk, both cooperative, and on the drive down we spotted several Southern screamers, huge turkey-sized marsh birds, Maguari storks, plumbeous ibis, and many other marsh birds en route.
Almost two hours later we boarded our skiff, after climbing down a steep, ribbed wooden plank that challenged our balance as we carried gear down to the boat, then heading upriver to our second site, our location for looking for jaguars. We.stopped for black skimmer shots, and while we sat there shooting we received a radio call that a jaguar had been spotted - ten minutes down river where we just passed! We raced down river, psyched that we might spot our first jaguar on our first day, but the cat had left the river bank and the spotter boat had gone. We headed upriver for nearly an hour to reach our camp, a quite comfortable tent camp that reminded me of a permanent tented camp in Kenya.
Day 4 Site 2 - Jaguar country
We had breakfast at 7 and headed out around 7:30, intending to return at lunch as is the custom here, but we elected to stay out all day, hoping to increase our chances of seeing a jaguar. Sunrise is around 6, but our guide told us that cats usually don't show up along the river until later in the morning and that leaving earlier would not be necessary. Generally I think it is wise to follow the advice of the local guides, and we did so here. Leaving later, the light was intense enough for us to enjoy faster shutter speeds as we photographed birds along the river, so we didn't suffer for leaving later. Mid-morning we had one report of a jaguar that was spotted, which we raced to, swooping around river bends on steep angles, firing a refreshing spray across our shirts, but the jaguar, which had apparently killed a caimen, had disappeared into the undergrowth. We only traveled a short distance when we received the call to abort. Later, in mid afternoon we came upon the kill, marked by a dozen black vultures and the unmistakable smell of carrion. From what I could see the head and forequarters were mangled seriously, but it did not appear to be fed upon.
Our day was pretty complete, nonetheless, with nice shots of individual and families of capybaras, black-collared hawks, sunbitterns, and jabiru storks.
Sunbitterns are especially intriguing. In their own Family, and in the same Order as cranes, rails, limpkins, and several lesser know species, the sunbittern is famous for its spectacular threat display where it tilts forward and splays its wings, displaying chestnut-colored wing spots that resemble huge eyes. Feeding birds along the river's edge are unlikely to put on a display, and none of the ones we saw did so, but we did glimpse the eye spots several times when birds flew by.
As I mentioned in our introduction we intended to maximize
all of our shooting opportunities, and figured that if we were
to have luck with jaguars, we'd do so as the fates dictated. Missing
lunch, we discovered that life on the river is brutal mid-day
and the afternoon was brutal. I found myself counting the hours
until the cool of the afternoon, as the glare off the water, and
then the slanting late afternoon light, was searing.
Day 5 Site 2 -Jaguar country
We moved our schedule up a notch and had breakfast at 6:30, just as the sun; crested the riverine forest, and headed out about 7:15. Again, we planned on returning for lunch, especially after our experience yesterday. A full day on the boat proved not only hot but uncomfortable, and we decided that getting a stretch and a walk would be worthwhile. We were comforted with that decision, too, by the fact that if we had a jaguar the camp would send a boat out to us with lunch - a great touch of service on their part, but with the food they've been serving we really could have afforded to miss a meal!
The early part of the morning was occupied with more birds - Amazon green and ringed kingfishers, hawks, and herons, and more sunbitterns.
For anyone who has tried photographing our North American belted kingfisher, one can really appreciate the shooting opportunities here, when one can cruise up to a kingfisher until it literally fills the frame. Over the days we were there we saw and photographed three species - the ringed kingfisher, the largest species in the New World and the same species that one may occasionally glimpse in Texas's lower Rio Grande river valley, and the somewhat similar looking Amazon kingfisher and green kingfisher, and we saw but missed shooting the small green and rufous kingfisher.
Mid-morning we received another radio call - this, now, our
third, and once again we sped down river hoping to get there in
A speedboat ride for a jaguar is a study in anxiety as thoughts race through our heads - will the jaguar be there, will it be visible or will it be in good light? Will we be contending with other boats? Whether its existential or fatalistic, one just has to adopt the attitude that whatever happens happens, and one must just hope that luck is with you.
we got close, our guide cut the motor and, for the next 2 hundred
yards, paddled painfully slow, but quietly, to approach the spotter
boat. Again, the anxiety and worries rise - why did he start paddling
so far away? Would we get there in time? One has to trust that
the guide knows what he's doing, because, unquestionably, he was
working his butt off paddling five people upriver. When we rounded
our final bend the spotter boat was there and the spotter quietly
pointed to the opposite shore. It took us a few seconds as the
guide tried, in Portuguese, to explain that the jaguar was beneath
a tree, but then I saw it. There, under the shade of a huge tree
about 60 feet from the shoreline, a female jaguar lay flattened
and watchful. Her eyes were open and she appeared alert but unalarmed,
but nonetheless we shot a gig or more of insurance shots as our
boatman slowly did a 'lost key' approach as he paddled and pulled
on a rope attached to the dropped anchor, keeping us mid-current,
until we were within frame filling distance of the now rather
relaxed cat. The cat moved twice, and the first time it did so
I thought our shoot was over, but incredibly the cat just moved
a bit closer and settled in a relaxed pose on a convoluted bend
of roots. Eventually the cat grew uncomfortable or bored, and
rising, and staring balefully in our direction, she walked back
to the tree and continued into the forest where it disappeared.
By then it was past noon and we headed back to camp for lunch and to download our images, excited to see the results of our first shoot. We were not disappointed, having shot around 15 gb of jaguar shots. 20 shots would have been sufficient had we been shooting from a vehicle or a ground-based tripod, but on a boat, with current, people, and our guide (as he worked the boat for us) all shifting weight and balance, we had to shoot in bursts to insure that some shots would be razor sharp. This technique works, although it does require a lot of editing later on. We headed back to the same location in the afternoon but the cat was gone, or more likely invisible. We did well with more hawks, sunbitterns, and capybara, and cruised further up the river into a beautiful lagoon.
Day 6 Site 2 - Jaguar country
At first light the distant roars of howler monkeys create an almost unnoticed white noise, with each roar blending into the next. Birds call, pipes and toots and musical trills, and dominating all, the chant of chachalacas, 'wake me up, don't wake me up, wake me up ...', but strangely the insects are quiet. For the second morning in a row I hear what I think is the coughing roar of a jaguar near camp, but I suspected then, and am more convinced now, that it was only the generator getting primed. Later today I heard an ipod rendering of a real jaguar call, and I was surprised by the length and cadence of the call. In some ways the roar was similar to the coughing rasp of a leopard, but in others its surprisingly bird-like and quite unlike what I'd expected.
We headed back upriver where we had yesterday's jaguar but it was gone. Again, we did very well with white-necked herons, sunbitterns, black-collared hawks, and various kingfishers. By 11AM we were heading back to camp for a lunch, and at 11:45 after a good morning and a hot sun I know I had lost my focus and was relaxing when Rafael whispered, 'jaguar, jaguar, jaguar!' I turned in time to see the oval shaped body, a product of huge shoulders and powerful forelegs, and its massive head move in silhouette through the undergrowth and disappear. Wow, another jaguar! I could see I felt lucky to have just seen it, but the best was yet to come.
Our guide moved upriver a few dozen yards and there, sitting behind a tree almost at river's edge, the jaguar sat. Suddenly our guide pointed to the left and we found another cat just a few feet away.
At the time we thought the cats were a mating pair, since we never saw the two side-by-side but later we would learn that it was a mother and cub.In many ways the shooting was more difficult than the shooting yesterday, as the cats moved several times and we had to erect our tripods to their full extension to clear the high river bank. This required a bit of balance, but the boat was still and we felt pretty comfortable, and, after-the-fact, I feel that the shooting was some of the most exciting and effective, as it looks as if we were laying on the ground shooting at paw level as cats stared towards us.
When the jaguars retreated to a spot where only vague black spots were visible, a fishing boat with a guide and two Brazilian fishermen arrived. The fishermen decided to climb ashore so that they could get a point-n-shoot closeup. We were annoyed, worried that the cats would run off, but surprisingly, the cats didn't panic, but instead just walked away at just faster than a normal pace. One of the fishermen, prudently, held back, but he was ready to help his friend as he placed his long-bladed knife between his teeth, pirate style. I know I was afraid - I can just imagine the terror the cats had watching a couple of fat guys playing Tarzan.
I could just imagine the chaos if a cat would have acted aggressively. For an idea of how fast predatory action can be, check out YouTube and type in Jaguar hunts. There are several clips of jaguars hunting various prey, including javelina (the peccary, a pig-like herbivore of our US southwest, extends into Central and South America. One species, the white-lipped peccary, is an aggressive fighter, and I suspect it is the one featured in these video clips.
The cats settled in for a long nap just a few feet from shore, but in very thick cover. We decided to head back to camp for a quick lunch. En route, another American photographer came zipping up the channel - who had already circled the island twice where we had spent the morning on just one side, and had just been down the Cuiaba River almost to the launch point we'd left two days earlier! I figured, correctly, that the presence of another boat, cruising the shoreline while looking for the cats would keep them under cover until we returned.
Which is exactly what happened. When we returned, the cats were still hidden, so we took up a position in the shade and waited. The other photographer left, no doubt discouraged that the cats were not visible and deciding, wrongly, to find another cat. This is almost always a mistake as the adage, 'a bird in the hand ...' generally applies. We've learned from scores of days in Africa that it makes more sense waiting on a rare animal that you know is there, even if it is not visible, than to go looking for another. The likelihood of finding another is just too slim. As the photographer left I said to Dave, 'in an hour, the cats will come down to drink.' And, sure enough, an hour later both cats got up and one settled into an open spot on the bank and began to groom its paws. We paddled out into the river, and our guide dropped anchor. A few minutes later, the jaguar got up and padded down to the shoreline and drank, before leisurely climbing back up the bank to join the other, still resting in the shade and partially obscured. I am sure that that one, too, was about to drink but a speed boat roared by and spooked both cats deeper into the brush.
Having received our radio call that the jaguar had stepped back into view the other photographer zipped back but by then the speedboat had already done its damage and the show was over. All of us waited, hoping that the cats would appear on one of two sandy shelves that would have made the perfect picture, and gradually the heat of the day passed. Almost at dusk the cats got up and started moving, but they didn't come to water and instead seemed to disappear into the distant brush. We headed back in near darkness, dodging caimens that had begun their evening hunts. That evening we were treated with a huge portfolio of jaguar shots from the last two years. This is part of a jaguar study where the distinctive spots on the cat's forehead, just above the muzzle and between the eyes, identify individuals. Perhaps most illuminating about the jaguar pictures we saw that evening was the incredible luck they had had photographing this cat. I saw shots of jaguar and cubs swimming, carrying caimens into the brush, sitting or lying on logs, sandy banks, and in low trees, or lying half concealed in the grass or brush. Some shots, we were told, were the product of encounters that lasted only minutes -- not the near hour long studies we had enjoyed, but nonetheless they were great shots that I lusted for.
The study is a wonderful low-impact way of assessing a population, and to monitor movements, and it was fun to match our jaguars with the photos and to learn our cats' names. I can't help but compare this manner of research with that displayed in a snow leopard film I saw recently. In that film a snow leopard that had been filmed was trapped by a researcher and then collared with a ghastly, conspicuous white radio collar. The photographers were outraged, at least at first, but later rationalized that this allowed them to find the cats more frequently than they otherwise would have. While true, there seemed to be something inherently wrong with this, although I also realize that this rare cat could hardly be followed in that incredibly rugged terrain any other way. I'm just thankful that these jaguars are being monitored in a more benign manner, and the incredible beauty of these cats is not compromised.
Day 7 Jaguar country
Same schedule, and again the distant susurrus roar of howler monkeys starts the day. A low fog blanketed the river and surrounding marshes, glowing a soft orange in the low light but by the time we headed out only a few shady spots still had fog. We headed, too slowly for my worried, impetuous state, towards the jaguar pair, stopping en route for kingfishers, roadside hawks, and a gray necked wood rail. When we got to the jaguar area it was empty, but fresh tracks and a drag mark showed that they had made a kill - either caimen or capybara, which indicated the cats were probably still around. Vaguely we could smell the distinctive scent of death - that sounds like romantic bs but if you've smelled carrion, or fresh guts opened from a carcass, you'll recognize it when you smell it. We planned on returning later, suspecting that the cats would drink by mid-morning.
Because the other photographer was up our favorite river we took a different branch, covering much more open and bird-free areas, but from the portfolio of jaguar images I'd seen last night, I realized a cat could be anywhere. Eventually we did head back up the tannin-colored river where we spotted our first jaguar, and as we entered those waters we received a call saying that a cat was moving. When we got there we saw the cat, but it was fairly distant, and with the intervening sun-lit vegetation, the shots we made would be nothing more than so-so record shots. A short time later the cat moved off, and we left the other photographer with the cat as we headed downstream to the site of yesterday's jaguar pair.
When we arrived, we quickly spotted a cat lying in deep shade, and as we maneuvered the boat we discovered another, and then, surprisingly, yet another. Last evening we were told that this female had two cubs, and now they were together at this kill. We moved in, shooting the young cats from less than 50 feet away, but again, the cats were in shade and the foreground grass was in bright sun, so the contrast was terrible.
We spent the afternoon waiting, hoping that the cats would come out into the open to drink. They didn't, but instead stayed in the thick cover when they moved to the river's edge to drink. Not helping the matter, a tourist boat stopped and moved in very close, actually parting and moving vegetation so that the tourists could have a better look. I'm guessing but I suspect the tourists, about ten of them, and all standing upright in the boats, were less than thirty feet away from the nearest cats, yet remarkably, the cats stayed put. This does point out the habituation these cats have to humans, which might be a product of the cats often lying unseen in nearby vegetation as a boat passes or pauses to fish, much like the pumas of Torres del Paine are no doubt accustomed to unaware hikers on those mountain trails.
The camp sent a boat out with an incredible hot lunch, so were stayed on point, sitting in the shade of a riverbank tree as we waited. Several times ringed kingfishers flew in, perching just feet away from our boats, but unfortunately on the wrong side of the tree! The other photographer had joined us but, intent only on jaguars, ignored this incredible photo opportunity. We envied that position! At 3:30 we moved back into the river to be in position if the cats would come out into the open, but they did not, and for the next hour we broiled in the sun. By 4:30 the sun had broken its intensity and the time grew tolerable, and near 5 we moved back in close to try for more shots, but our friend the other photographer had a position where we couldn't cut in front, so we were pretty much compromised. The cats stayed inside, biting at flies before finally getting up and walking off.
The jaguar shoot was a bit of a disappointment, although in retrospect we actually got some great head shots, albeit a bit contrasty with the grasses, but we're obviously spoiled, as we just had FOUR jaguars in one day, giving us more than a one-a-day average!
Day 8 Site 2, Jaguar country and back to the lodge at Site 1
We had breakfast at 6 to make the most of our last half-day here, and headed straight to the beach where we had had our 3 jaguars. There was still a faint odor of a kill, but although we cruised back and forth several times we didn't spot the cats. We headed up river to the other jaguar, but again without luck, although we did encounter three giant otters which were rather shy. At one point one of the trio popped up close but I was looking the wrong way and missed the shot. Tom didn't, and caught a surprisingly nice headshot of this, the largest of the New World otters. We shot some of our best rufescent tiger herons, gray necked wood rails, and more kingfishers as we slowly cruised the river, and hoped that we'd have a final jaguar on a dream-spot, a sandy beach or fallen log. (photo of me by Tom)
In late morning we stopped at the beach again and found a caimen floating, dead, in a little eddy - quite likely a casualty from a boat zipping by at dusk when the caimens desert the river banks and cruise the open channels. A lone black vulture balanced on the belly of the caimen, pecking at an opening by the cloaca, and as we watched the carcass drifted closer to shore. When it got close we pushed it ashore with our paddles and within minutes it was an African Savannah scene as black vultures swirled in to the kill. Over the next hour we worked several positions, including some so close I was using a 16-35mm for shots with the caimen in the foreground and vultures right behind, that also included habitat. I was hoping that a jaguar would see the swirl of vultures and would investigate, perhaps even steal the kill, but we had no luck. On our recent Botswana trip Mary had that happen when a sleepy male lion spotted distant vultures and took off, splashing through the marshes as she kept pace alongside. We've had this type of opportunism happen often in Kenya, and I was sure it would be the same here, if only a cat was in the area.Our boat driver did tell us, through Rafael, that he has seen jaguars on carrion, and of one case where a jaguar carried off a dead man that some fishermen had found floating in the river. They had tied the man's arm to a tree and left him there while they fetched the police. When they returned, they found the arm, and a half mile away, a jaguar feeding on what was left of the corpse. But, alas, we had no luck.
Later, I learned that on the following day one of the camp staffers had returned to the caimen carcass. The head was mostly gone, and jaguar tracks dotted the sandy shoreline. They waited in the shade of the opposite bank for the cat to return but had no luck, and called to other duties returned to the base camp around lunchtime. In mid-afternoon they returned and the caimen was gone -- the jaguar had returned and had dragged the carcass into the brush. So my hunch was right, and we could have had incredible luck. Jaguars will return to carrion, a fact that I'll keep in mind when we return to the Pantanal. On YouTube, I recently watched a short film where a jaguar defended a rotting cow carcass from black vultures; again, confirming my hypothesis.
We returned to camp, where I shot some images of the camp, the tents, and our base camp boat - the only time I actually saw the camp in daylight - before we headed down river to where we would meet our car and take the long drive back to our first Site. We times this well, as there is little time or opportunity for shooting on the drive, and it is best to maximize the daylight on the river. En route we stopped for large-billed terns, yellow-billed terns, and skimmers, but the black skimmers were extremely difficult to photograph, zig-zaging in every direction. We did get some flight shots, but none skimming, and our throw-away rate was phenomenal, but hey, it's only digital.
On the drive back we stopped for a family of Southern screamers with a single chick sitting rather close to the road and we got nice shots. After dinner, at 8pm we headed out on a night game drive in an open truck with about 10 other tourists. After the first few minutes of bouncing about in the converted truck, trying to keep track of a swinging spotlight, we figured this decision was a disaster, nothing more than a poor excuse for a nature outing, and we wished we had stayed back and spent the time editing. We changed sentiments, however, when we found a tapir, which crossed the road in front of us, 2 marsh deer - perhaps the same two we had on our first day here, a brocket deer, great horned owl, and many caimen eyes, glowing spectrally in our flash lights. On the way back, I had a first, and a real highlight, an ocelot that I managed to shoot at ISO 3200 with flash, and it worked. The original ocelot RAW file was pretty dull and flat, but through the magic of RAW conversion and some cropping I managed on making a pretty fair record shot. It ended up as a surprisingly satisfying game drive!
Day 9 Site 1
We met at 6AM and had breakfast as the sunrise gathered some intensity, starting as a dull red glow in this incredibly flat land, and then headed to the jabiru stork nest. After shooting some nest shots from the ground Tom and I climbed the 35 foot tower and spent the next 2.5 hours up top, shooting the adults flying in and the chicks. The adults regurgitated a lot of fish and twice headed to water, returning with a gullet's full to give the chicks a drink. On my recon here almost a week earlier I was a bit skeptical about the scaffold's position, thinking it was too high and cut off the scene between landscape and sky at an awkward position. As it turned out, the shooting was surprisingly good and we enjoyed our time aloft.
Afterwards we headed a quarter mile into the forest to shoot
capuchin monkeys that Rafael baited in with bananas. We did a
lot of great shots with the 70-200, and I used flash as fill.
Unfortunately something was wrong with my flash/1Ds interface
and any TTL exposure was overexposed, so I switched to a low power
on manual and just winged the fill light. It worked well, and
any off-exposures with flash were easily corrected in the RAW
converter. Fortunately, I was aware of this option! Later, when
the monkeys settled down a bit and rested in a more uniform shade,
I shot some natural light shots with the 500 that I enjoyed most
At 11:30 we headed back, and the site's internet connection was working so I spent the next two hours fighting with an unfamiliar machine to get out some emails to Mary Ann, and to read her emails to me - the day's highlight. I needed two hours because, twice, I hit the wrong key and my yahoo email account flipped to a new screen, losing my work. I use yahoo as my travel account and I'm not used to the interface, as, at home, we have our business email account that is more difficult to access from the road. If you need a travel account, I'd suggest yahoo - it works and it is free.
In the afternoon we photoed a trio of chestnut-eared aracaris feeding on a over-ripe papaya just outside our room, then headed for the boat for a 4PM departure to photograph black-collared hawks swooping in for fish. Our boatman wasn't used to working with photographers, and Rafael didn't get our directions across to him, so it was pretty frustrating. Worse, we left too late, and we had to find spots that still had sunshine on the river, as the sun was dropping below the riverine canopy. Between poorly tossed fish, frustrating miscommunication and directions, birds coming from the wrong angles, and weakening light, we chalked this up as a learning experience rather than a successful shoot, and figured we'd have a much better chance trying again tomorrow.
After the shooting light for hawks passed we headed up river to look for the giant otters and, I was hoping, perhaps one of the jaguars that had been spotted within a mile of camp within the last two days. I didn't expect shots, just the thrill and accomplishment of seeing another jaguar, but the evening boat ride was another wrong move - as we returned in almost total darkness, slow and late, as the first (and very scarce) mosquitoes began to appear, but fortunately we made it back to camp without mishap.
Day 10 Site 1
I shot a sunrise, an orange fireball framed by the graceful deciduous trees that dotted the pasture, and then ate a quick breakfast. One of the trees in the courtyard was flowering with a pink blossom that yellow-chevroned parakeets plucked in order to suck out a dab of nectar from the stem. Several, perhaps two dozen, parakeets swarmed around the tree, dropping blossoms as they went. By late morning the ground below the tree was littered with buds - not a single flower remained. Other buds were visible, and I'm wondering, now, if they will bloom tomorrow and the spectacle will be repeated. Several chestnut-eared aracaris were feeding on the papaya tree outside my room, and a toco toucan pair fed on avocado and papaya that Rafael placed at a feeder outside the main dining area. Thinking we could have better, and more open poses, we tried a different tree but the birds ignored it. As it was, we did quite well with the original bait tree.
By 8:30 we headed back up the river to photograph fishing hawks, but we had minimal success, with one black-collared and one black hawk taking the baits. All of the hawks we'd seen the previous evening were missing. The boat trip wasn't a complete bust - we filmed some water birds and saw another boat-billed heron that we almost filmed.
Before lunch I walked quietly in the riverine jungle alone, carrying my big lens and macro gear, but it was hot and I felt burdened, so I did not travel as far as I'd like. I saw many birds I couldn't easily identify, and one I could, a nunbird, as well as a semi-cooperative capuchin monkey that probably was expecting handouts.
At 3:30 we met at river's edge to try to photograph hawks and kingfishers, but no hawks were in sight. A ringed kingfisher was, so Rafael threw out a fish and a black hawk swooped in, from parts unknown, and snatched the fish. In the next hour or so we had three more tries with the hawk, as well as three dives from the ringed kingfisher - a challenging shot, to be sure.
Around 4:30 we raced to the potoo roost to catch the bird in the late light, and that half mile walk took us long enough that we almost missed the light. Rafael carried Dave's gear, and Dave looked like he had been swimming he was so wet from sweat, but he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, T-shirt, light photo vest, and a backpack, so he was layered heavily. We were hoping to catch the hyacinth macaws at one of their feeding trees but although they flew by, we didn't have any luck. We got back at sunset, about 5:45, and started the ritual of down-loading, editing, and eating.
Day 11 Site 1 to Sao Paulo
We hoped to shoot the hyacinth macaws this morning, and remarkably, all six birds were perched on a bare limb just below the jabaru stork nest. Unfortunately we were quite a ways off, and although we shot the birds flying about the limb, the images are more habitat than portraiture. The stork didn't tolerate the birds and flew in to drive them off. We did have luck with one cooperative whistling heron, one of a pair that fed like cattle egrets in the pasture. We also spent time on the ground near the jabiru nest, at an angle to the storks nest so that we could attempt in-coming flight shots, but my framing was too tight for anything good. The birds are truly enormous and one needs real working distance if you are using a fixed long lens.
We tried again for the kingfisher and hawks, and had reasonable success, but not as active as they were the last afternoon and we had no hawks, until we went on the river. Almost immediately we had a black hawk swoop in for a fish, and then pairs of black-collared hawks as well. Interestingly, several caracaras also responded to the fish but would immerse themselves to snatch the food with the beaks, not their feet as both hawks species did, thus showing more of an affinity to vultures than the falcons they're supposed to be kin to. One ringed kingfisher put on quite a show dive-bombing for a fish repeatedly, and we all got sequences. On my part, my AF and I just were not in tune and I missed a lot of shots that Tom got, so I know it wasn't the camera's limitations. That rarely happens, so I wonder what I was doing wrong.
We had an early lunch and departed the lodge at 12:15 for the 3 hour drive back to Cuiaba, hoping to stop in route for anything good. Knowing we were heading home, and worried about getting everything packed correctly for our flight, we packed all of our gear and decided we'd just do some wildlife watching. We stopped once, for 4 rheas in the distance, and we hoped for a glimpse of giant anteaters, but we had no luck. About 40 minutes up the road from Site 1 there is another facility where, for a fee, you can walk out on a boardwalk to a tower that is above the canopy where howler monkeys visit. For groups staying 3 days at our site that's usually arranged, but oddly it wasn't for us. It would be worth doing, and we plan on visiting it on our next trip.
Check in was no problem but our flight to Sao Paulo was late, and a birding group hoping to make a connection to NY, with only a one-hour window, were worried that they'd miss their flight. As it was, we arrived in SP about 45 minutes before their flight but a TAM representative was there to speed them through. We didn't see them the next day, so we assume they made the connection- although I doubt if their luggage made the same one.
Finding our hotel in SP was a mess - we looked for the free shuttle but, much later, found that our hotel shuttle was far down in the domestic terminal section, at stop 2, and no where near where we left the departures area. When we finally got to the right spot a kindly shuttle driver called the hotel to ask when the next shuttle would be, and it being an hour later, we decided to take a cab - $20-25 - and arrived, rather circuitously at our hotel at 11PM local time (SP is one hour ahead of the Pantanal).
Day 12 Sao Paulo to Home
We left for the airport via the hotel shuttle at 6:10 or so, late because of passengers arriving just at 6 and still checking out. The international departure line is to the Right when you enter the terminal - we stood in line at domestics first, which faces the entrance. Fortunately Tom noticed a sign and we switched, and then the fun began.
Dave thought he lost his ticket and after first checking in at our counter for Tom and I, I took Dave to the TAM booth that handles this and we worked in Spanish and English to solve Dave's problem. Oddly, our representative had to step behind a wall several times (reminding me of a car salesman checking with his manager) but when he returned and began the paperwork Dave found his ticket, stuck deep in his pocket! Afterwards all went smoothly, we left almost on time, and I jumped seats to get a row of two to myself. Tom, my oringal seat mate, moved also, although he now had an empty row, but somehow a bouncy little kid with monster-genes firmly implanted joined him, making for, what Tom charitably called, 'an interesting flight.' Our limo driver met us at JFK, and we headed home, meeting Mary mid-way, transferring to our vehicle, and driving home, finally arriving at 12 midnight. Now, only editing and fond memories remain!
If you are interested in joining us for
next year's Jaguar Quest, contact our office as soon
as possible. We will be taking a non-refundable $1,000 deposit
for this shoot, but as I write and post this we are still waiting
for our outfitter's final pricing so don't send any money until
we have that settled!
We are hoping to include an extension to Iguazu Falls, one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. The falls are wonderful and scenic, and there's plenty of wildlife around the area, often including hundreds of colorful butterflies. There is also a great bird park that comes highly recommended by all for great photography of birds that are often much more difficult to shoot.
Most importantly, we will be going on a jaguar QUEST. With the number of days we'll be devoting to jaguars we have a very high chance of seeing one, or more, and we should have a chance to photograph the cats as well. The head of our camp felt that we had done very well, and that we may have been luckier than most, so our success on this scouting trip can't be a measure of future success. I can tell you this - the site averages slightly more than one jaguar per day, which is better than any camp in Kenya offering a similar record for leopards! So I think the chances will be good, but we cannot make any guarantees.
We will be conducting this QUEST as we do our African safaris, with our group divided into separate boats that will travel independently, photographing the wildlife and looking for jaguars. All of the boats will be in radio contact, so if one boat spots a jaguar everyone will know about it and, hopefully, get to the jaguar before it disappears into the bush. It is LIKELY that once in a while a boat will be too far away and will miss a cat, just as that occasionally happens in Kenya for sought-after wildlife like leopards. It is also POSSIBLE that more than one boat would spot a jaguar at the same time - a contingency that we'll discuss with the group prior to our shooting.
We'll also be photographing most of the wildlife at Site 2 from boats, which will either require hand-holding (not recommended for long lens work) or competent tripod use. I say 'competent' because you may need to position your tripod on your left side one minute and then, as the current gradually turns the boat, you may have to shift to the right. Or you're set up on the left and your subject ends up being on the right. Whatever, but what I want to stress is that the shooting is not as easy as it is when photographing from a safari vehicle in Kenya, although its not too far off from the conditions we faced in Botswana!
I know that anyone doing this trip will be doing so with the greatest expectation and desire to see and photograph jaguars, but I hope my story about what happened on Day 6 will be instructive. That photographer, by the way, had spent over two weeks in this area on a previous trip, and had only a brief, very unsatisfying encounter with one jaguar. However, that photographer was only interested in jaguars and spent all of the time cruising solely for cats, and ignored the other wildlife. I'm not bashing that shooter - that was that person's goal, but for our groups we simply will not be doing that. There is never a guarantee you'll see a cat, and it would be a tragic mistake to ignore wonderful shooting opportunities as you cruise the river, as you desperately look for jaguars. Our experience both here in the Pantanal and indeed anywhere in the world shows us that when you spend the time 'smelling the roses' and photographing everything, we not only have a lot of fun and a great, productive trip but we also have luck as well. The guides are more relaxed and have more fun, too, and I think that translates into keener eyes and greater enthusiasm. So, if you have a sole agenda, that you must see a jaguar and you don't care about anything else, go to British Guyana yourself and hunt for jaguars! Otherwise, come join us for our Quest for the Jaguar!