Daily Trip Journal
The Pantanal, Iguassu Falls, and Piaui 2010
During the dry season the Tabeluia tree undergoes a spectacular inflorescence of pink blossoms, doting the landscape in bouquets of color that lasts only a few weeks.
Also see our Trip Report (a condensed review)
This is a day-to-day record of our month long trip to Brazil, where we did two trips to the Pantanal, and a pre-trip to the Piaui area for wolves and monkeys, and a mid-trip extension to Iguassu Falls. The text is interspersed with images, but for more photos please see our Brazil Portfolio and our Participants' Portfolio.
Scouting Pre-trip for the Maned Wolf
Barreiras and Piaui Reserve
Normally, I’ll keep a day-by-day journal, but for this pre=trip our schedule of activities was simply so jam-packed that keeping a daily accounting was impossible, and I’m writing this at a borrowed desk at the Barrieras airport, with a plastic chair from the small café lounge.
Day 1. We arrived in Sao Paul from a direct flight from New York’s JFK, meeting Caroline and Misty at the airport and, later, Chris, Lydia, Carol, and Christine. Our connection to Brazil’s capital, Brazilian went smoothly, where we were met by Paulo, an ex-pat Yugoslavian who spoke 6 languages and knew how to hustle. We had a late dinner at one of Brazil’s famous charrauscas, a meat-fest barbeque where meat is delivered on long skewers and shaved off at our table. Paulo suggested we go to a different restaurant at half the price where all dessert was included, at half the price, but we didn’t want to be held to a schedule of pickups so we elected to walk across the street to the more expensive, but good, restaurant. At $50 a pop, however, we’ll go with Paulo’s suggestion next time!
Day 2. Paulo met us at the hotel and transferred and expedited our internal flight to Barrieras. At the tiny airport we were met by our guide, Raphael, who to my delight was the same guide I had in the Pantanal two years earlier. I knew that he had been transferred north, but didn’t expect to see him. Raphael is a gem, energetic, friendly, with a great sense of humor and a good command of English, and a real interest in helping clients. We knew the trip was off to a great start, even before we boarded our transport bus, a 9 passenger van, for a three plus hour drive north where we were met by an open truck. Here we piled in our camera bags and luggage, and ourselves, for the 30 minute ride across a sandy, bumpy road to our first lodge, which would be our main headquarters.
After an entire day of travel, we arrived at our camp late, around 5PM, but with enough time to visit the Hyacinth Macaw blind which was the premiere attraction at this lodge. We drove about a half mile to the end of a dusty track, and hiked in another 300 yards or so, most of it beneath a bower canopy of palm fronds that, if completed covered, would form a blind-like tunnel to the blind.
The blind itself was well constructed, a cement structure sunk into the earth so that from a standing position one had a near ground-level view of the scene. Unfortunately, the lens holes were placed at a poor position, too high for comfortably sitting and too low for standing upright, without a painful stoop. A few birds were present when we arrived but they flew off, and although we waited until 6 none returned. We didn’t bring cameras, so it wasn’t a disappointment, and we were ready for the next day’s shoot.
Day 3. We had an early breakfast, 5:45AM, before heading off to the blind where we arrived at around 6:30AM. A few birds flew off upon our arrival, and none returned, and for 3 hours we sat, slept, or crept about silently, hoping for the return of the macaws.
At the lodge, a small platform feeder was set up which was visited by scores of birds, including 4 species of tanager, several thrushes, mockingbirds, blackbirds, parakeets, and white woodpeckers. Tufted-eared Marmosets visit the feeder daily, ‘once a day’ we were told, and in the afternoon I elected to stay back and try for birds while Mary and the group returned to the Macaw blind.
The afternoon attempt was quite successful, with at least 7 birds arriving and feeding close by, and Mary got some BBC contenders of this much endangered species feeding on palm nuts close by. I had luck at the feeder as well, with the Marmosets turning up and feeding like very active squirrels within 30 feet of my lens.
Marmosets are small, almost squirrel-sized primates with long, non-prehensile tails and, at least with the adult males, prominent white ear tufts. Their tail is lightly barred with dark gray, and their back banded, with a pug-faced features crowned by amber eyes. They move fast, and hold great poses for only a few seconds. The camp staff had baited a coconut palm with bananas, but most of the smeared banana was placed on the edge or behind the tree, so most views of the Marmosets were tantalizing peak-a-boos as this little primate quickly peered at me from behind the trunk.
Day 3. We visited the Macaw blind again, and had further success with 7 to 9 birds returning to feed. The birds would come and go, often flying to a dead tree that was set at around frame-filling distance for a 300mm lens. From there the birds would scramble down, or do a short flight, and start inspecting the piles of coconut palm nuts scattered around the ground.
We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon either down-loading images or working the bird feeder, and at 4PM, and a bit late, we headed to our next camp where we would spend at least one night. Our original itinerary had us set for two nights here, but Raphael suggested one so that we could get a feel for the area and decide if another overnight was in order.
En route we had burrowing owls, a tropical white hawk, and fleeting glimpses of a bird I’d always wanted to see, the Secretarybird-like Red-legged Seriema. We had touristy shots of the hawk and owl, but because of our late departure we had to continue to our camp for the wolf.
The camp resembled our HQ but without electricity, and this would prove problematic when we did the wolves. We were hoping that this endangered, refocus-red, long-legged wolf – truly resembling a red fox on steroids – would arrive before dark where we could shoot it against the red stone cliffs that lined this valley. It didn’t, and as night settled we headed to dinner. We had not even sat down when the wolf showed up, almost at the kitchen door, and we headed to a spot where they’d bait the wolf.
The wolf was almost unconcerned, showing some caution and alertness only at odd movements, but often simply feeding, with ears aimed in different directions and looking almost too relaxed. The best shots were those when the wolf paused and cocked its ears forward, focused forward, and aimed in the direction it was looking. All of us shot from flashes mounted on hotshoes, which created a gold eye shine that will need to be addressed later, and my flash – with batteries I had assumed were fresh, died by the end of the shoot. More taxing was the focus, for the only lights the camp had were dim flash lights which we augmented with our headlamps. This proved fairly inadequate, because although my Canon cameras indicated, via a green focus confirmation light, that the wolf was in focus, too many were not. Out of 60-80 shots about a dozen were sharp!
The night was moonless and the stars blazed, literally, so Mary, Christine, Carol, and I decided to try star trails. The sandstone mountains and cliffs were too far away to act as a frame, so we experimented with using trees in our foreground. Most surprising was the clarity of the Milky Way, and our best shots were of this galactic cluster shot with a 16mm wide-angle.
Day 4. We hoped that the wolf would return at dawn, which it does irregularly, and we waited in the area until 9AM hoping for its return. It didn’t, so at 9 we headed to a Blue and Yellow Macaw nest that we were told was framed against the red sandstone cliffs. It was, but at the viewing distance we started at the bird, sticking its head out of the nest hole, barely filled the tiny square focusing point of my viewfinder, and that with a 7D with a 1.6X crop factor, and a 1.4X tele-converter! While we waited other Hyacinth Macaws flew by, but the mate to the nesting macaw did not return. When we exhausted the small shots, and when our guide decided the mate had already fed the bird in the nest and would not return, I asked if we could try getting closer. We did so, moving in a slow line, with the understanding that if the bird flushed we’d immediately turn around and leave. It never did, and we ended up with some fairly nice shots that would have been great had we done so earlier when the light was lower. By now, the sun was high, and we had some problems with contrast.
As we moved in, a loose group of 6 Swallow-tailed Kites flew about, circling us and sometimes tucking their wings in a steep dive before flaring, their characteristic tails flaring into sharp V’s. The light was directly overhead, so the birds were contrasty, and challenging, too, as most of us tried shooting by hand-holding our biggest lenses.
We had lunch at the lodge and then headed back, arriving in the late afternoon where we again downloaded or worked at the bird feeder.
Day 5. We had a 4AM breakfast before departing at 4:30AM for a two-three hour drive to Green-Wing Camp where we hoped to see one of the latest primate discoveries, the ‘Einstein’ Monkeys, Brown Capuchin monkeys that use stones to crack open palm nuts. We traveled a paved road for about an hour before turning onto a sandy track that headed westward through the low deciduous scrub, dry forest, that stretched to the horizon. Eventually, plodding through sand, we neared the eroded cliffs, pocketed, fissured rocks reminiscent of Zion’s cliffs, and stopped at a tiny ranch – Green Wing camp. There we waited, as the ranch owners scouted the area looking for one of the three troops of habituated monkeys in the area. While we waited, in a dusty, sandy ranch with all the trappings of a spaghetti western set, with a tame parrot that took a liking to me, provided I ignore its nips to my forearm, we had a surprisingly thorough breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fruit, bread, and cold drinks. That time, there while waiting and afterwards, was one of the trip highlights – a simple time of good camaraderie with people who didn’t understand English but extended their hospitality and opened their home to us.
About an hour later, near 8:30AM, the ranch owner returned, as one of his sons was now with the monkeys. We headed out on foot, hiking about a half mile through low brush and scrub as we neared a ravine and the high cliffs where macaws nested. We arrived at a little amphitheater where about six monkeys lounged on the rocks or nearby trees. Raphael told me immediately that they were in a great position, and they were – in good light, with what little intervening brush cleared by the guides for better shooting.
Nuts are in short supply and the guides had brought several, which the son carried to the anvil base for the monkeys to crack. The Capuchins are habituated to the son and barely moved, and as soon as he rejoined us the monkeys sauntered over to the rock. Led by a dominant male, marked by a black ‘high top’ or crew-cut looking crown, the monkeys grabbed rocks often as large as their heads to smash the nuts.
The procedure was similar for each, although we learned that it may take 9 years before the technique is perfected. An adult or near-adult would grab a rock in both hands, lift it at least to head level and, as it swung the rock down, the force of the downward thrust was such that nearly always the monkey’s hind feet would lift off the ground, sometimes as high as three or four inches. More often than not the rock wouldn’t hit correctly and the nut would pop out, uncracked, and the monkey would follow to perhaps try again with its back facing away from us. We were trying for tight shots for drama, and it was frustrating to often miss when, framed too tightly, the monkey stood too high or backed off to far and moved out of frame. But in three hours, and nearly 24 gb later, we got some great stuff. Along with palm nuts the monkeys also ate the huge, lubber-like grasshoppers that were common here. These grasshoppers were so big that when first spotted several of our group mistook them for flying bats or small birds, and apparently the monkeys relished them. Of the ones we saw feed, the monkey would pluck the grasshopper off a tree trunk, bite off the insects head, and start feeding from the thorax down until only the spindly front four legs remained and were discarded.
We headed back in early afternoon, stopping en route for a huge dinner, and arriving back to our base camp HQ in time to start downloading images.
Day 6. Some of our group headed back to the Macaws, which were very cooperative, and all of us tried to get some flight shots as the birds flew into the perches before going for the nuts. More eating and shooting around the bird feeder before heading out, an hour later than planned at 4PM, to do a final evening with the Maned Wolf. The evening before the wolf had arrived before dark, but it was nearly 6:30 before the wolf returned, but this time we were better prepared – in theory. Raphael had a big truck-powered torch, and we had also positioned the truck so that its headlights would illuminate the feeding area. This worked well, until a number of wasps were inexplicably and unexpectedly attracted to the lights, stinging Raphael painfully at one point. We had some distractions, with the wasps, with lights, with the arrival of another wolf that had our ‘wolf man’ leave his bait bucket, where upon the wolf rushed in, snatched three pounds of beef, and ran off.
The other wolf returned, but it was only interested in eating and did not adopt any poses that were useful, so at 7:45PM or so we wrapped up and headed home, arriving near 9 for a late dinner. Tired, and cold, almost all of us elected to forego a shower – the water was solar heated and cold by now, which made for a somewhat sticky night!
Day 7 – I’m at the Barrieras airport writing this after our final morning at the camp. Misty had to leave early for a flight and Raphael accompanied her, while Chris, Christine, and Carol went to the Macaw blind for a final, and very productive, shoot. I baited the bird feeder and before I even had my camera 5 Marmosets returned, and I got some great shots in wonderful, warm light before they ran off. Later, Scarlet-throated Tanagers, Silver-beaked Tanagers, and others all showed, before we were called away for a wild chase for Howler Monkeys that ended up too high, in too thick a canopy, to shoot. We returned, weaving through the thick jungle, showered, packed, and headed south, driving for the three plus hours back to town. From there we’re off to Brazilian, and on to Cuiaba, where we’ll spend the night just inside the gates of the Pantanal – if all goes as planned!
Day 8 – The Pantanal Trip Begins
We were met by Paulo in Brazilian, with our luggage, and acting as our expediter everything went smoothly. We made our transfers, and arrived into the Pantanal on the evening of the 7th day around 12:30AM, a very long day marked by absolutely nothing on the night roads as we drove in. Mary and I took ambient to knock ourselves out after a long, taxing day, so we didn’t wake before sunrise, and stepped out around 6:30AM to see Chris, Christine, and Carol working monk parakeets and other birds in the drying marsh before our lodge.
I explored the grounds, and after breakfast we hiked out to the main Transpantanal road to walk along the roadside, photographing incredibly tolerant Snail Kites, more Jabiru Storks than I’ve ever seen before at one time, and lesser numbers of Wood Storks, hovering kingfishers, Neotropical Cormorants, and flying Yellow-headed Vultures. It was an extremely productive morning. After lunch we headed to PWC for lunch, stopping en route for a few Jabiru Stork nests in beautiful light framed in the pink/lavender trees, and arrived in the Arrarras right before dusk, too late to walk out to the observation tower. Before dinner, I set up two trail cameras (last year I had an ocelot here), which I ran all night and, ultimately, had about 25 triggers, but as I write this, I don’t know how to view the images except via the computer, so I don’t know if I captured anything!
Bill and Randy joined us about 1:30PM, when we had lunch, and headed to PWC immediately afterwards.
Day 9 – Five of us gathered at 5:30AM, in complete darkness, to walk the .5 mile trail to the observation tower where we hoped to do a sunrise. Unfortunately, as we had the night before, rampant, wide-spread fires masked the low horizon, and a fireball sun occurred about an hour after sunrise, offering no shooting.
We spent the morning at Arraras, and I believe everyone did well. I had tame, but wild, frame-filling Rufous-tailed Jacamars, and we did well with flying and feeding herons, storks, limpkins, Smooth-billed Anis, and other birds.
We left the lodge at approximately 11, arrived at PWC at nearly 1PM, had lunch, photographed the orchard of pink-flowered trees, and headed down the nearly 60 miles of dirt road to Porto Joffre. En route, we had some good views of Marsh Deer, Southern Screamers, Savannah Hawks, and myriad kingfishers, but we stopped rarely. As it was, we did not arrive at PJ until nearly 5, and with the smoky skies the light had already failed. Nonetheless, as we headed upriver to our houseboat HQ we had a call that a Jaguar was seen, and as we raced upriver to see it we encountered another! This jag walked along the shoreline for a few minutes, then disappeared into the brush, just as the one we were motoring upriver to see.
The Houseboat HQ has great food, and rooms that are, well, boat rooms – small and compact, requiring everything to be put in place and not spread about, as we enjoyed last year. The jury is out on this one – but this year there was no alternative as the owners had major hassles and harassment from the Brazilian Parks Department.
Day 10. Our three boats separated, covering three separate sections of the rivers, and the river system where Mary boated ran into a jaguar first. She was on it nearly 30 minutes before my boat arrived, and another 15 before the third boat, but aside from a few differing poses no one missed anything. The air was cool, almost cold, and we were bundled up after last afternoon’s experience where we froze on the drive to Joffre. This works well for the jaguar, as this big male cat sunned itself until nearly 9:30, and may have gone longer but the sound of crackling in the brush drew the cat into the forest. A few minutes later it was back, moving fast and almost at a trot, although it had a definite limp and some open wounds from some type of altercation. A few minutes after the jaguar passed we heard more crackling, and clacking, and soon a herd of thirty or forty White-lipped Peccaries, one of the most fearsome and dangerous animals of the Central and South American jungle. The Peccaries were agitated, chuffing and clacking their tusks, and rooting about exactly where the jaguar had laid and walked. It was clear that the cat was moving to avoid these pig-like cousins of the Southwestern US Javelina, and although we followed the cat eventually it moved off, away from the river edge, and disappeared. In all, we had more than 2 hours with the jaguar, and almost all of the views were in the open to some degree, and usually quite good.
We did a few birds earlier, and Carol and Bill’s boat had just set up on four Giant Otters when the cat call came over the radio, so it was a complete morning. We arrived back at the houseboat around noon for lunch.
We left at 2PM, heading again up the Three Brothers, photographing herons, kingfishers, a Cattle Tyrant riding the head of a Capybara, and Jacanas. As we were going up one river, one of the people in my boat spotted a Jaguar lying on the bank, but in the excitement practically screamed, ‘There’s a Leopard!’ and the cat jumped up and slunk into the brush. Later, towards an early sunset – around 4:30PM, we had a call for another Jaguar, which we found sleeping about 35 yards from the river’s edge. Its head was barely visible if I stood on the highest point of the boat, but no pictures. Our jaguar count is now 3, with 2 not photographed, although one of these certainly would have been had it not been spooked.
The ride into camp was freezing, and I had on every layer I could. Bats and nightjars kept pace with our boat in the dusky light, and the shower was warm – not hot, but an improvement!
Day 11. No jaguars this morning, but with the pressure off from yesterday’s great shoot everyone settled down to photograph the Pantanal’s other wildlife. Several of us had baby capybaras’ climbing on adults, and my boat, with Chris and Lydia, spent an easy hour with a family group with four babies that wrestled, chased each other along the beach and, at one point early on in the shoot, climbed atop a sub adult and rested upon its head.
Earlier we spent nearly two hours with a family of five Giant Otters that swam around a large canopy tree, creating an umbrella where, earlier, a dozen Boat-billed Herons had roosted. At one point we had one of the otters sitting along the bank, in sunlight and in the open, although most of the shooting had been dodging dead branches and deep shadows. Eventually the otters climbed atop the bank where it appeared as if the female was scrapping about, scent-marking, while the four subadults intertwined and groomed. We felt they were accustomed to us so we pushed our boat in closer, and had some challenging, high ISO shooting but frame-filling at or below ground level. The observations – wrestling, grooming, playing, marking, were a highlight, whether or not the shots proved sharp!
Bird shooting was great, too, and nearly everyone got frame-filling kingfishers, one boat had a Gray-Necked Woodrail eating a frog, and we had minimum focus shots of a Vermillion Flycatcher. Mary’s boat had the South American equivalent of the African Gymnogene, or Harrier-Hawk, the Crane Hawk, which looks and acts almost identically, using its double-joined legs to fish for lizards, nesting birds, and other prey in tree crevices.
We’d been told about a Giant Otter den, with young that were old enough to leave the den but still too small to clamber up the steep river bank to their den. I’d seen some images from another photographer our first evening on the boat, and I knew that it was a late evening shoot. We headed upriver, stopping for the best Southern Screamer shots I’ve ever had, as these huge, turkey-like gray birds strutted along the shoreline and, at one point, screamed their honking call in unison. Mary worked on a great Sunbittern nearby, and some Black Skimmers bathing.
We arrived at the den around 4:30, and downriver we could see an adult. The den was located on the top of an 8 foot bank, around a tree root complex that had several holes closer to the water’s edge. In ten minutes or so the other adults, or subadults from a previous litter, filed out of the den and slid down the chute, swimming under the roots and tree for 15 minutes or so before the first, weasel-sized blond-gray baby appeared and slid/crashed into the river. Within minutes four more followed, and for the next half hour they played with the adults, who reminded me of African Wild Dogs in their family activity, until the mother, and perhaps another adult, grabbed the pups one by one and carried them back up into the den. It was nearly 5:15 and the light was failing as the shoot ended, and at ISO 1000 to 2000, with shutter speeds less than 1/1000th sharpness might be an issue. But the excitement and fun was over the top, marking this the best Giant Otter shoot we’ve ever had in the Pantanal.
Our two hour commute to the otters was shortened to a 45 minute speed boat back, but along the way we saw one Brazilian Tapir that quickly lumbered off into the jungle. We arrived back at the boat almost exactly at 6.
Day 12. The air was cold and I left our boat wearing a wool cap, and forgetting my wide-brimmed hat back on the boat. After seeing one collared male jaguar that provided fleeting glimpses along the high river bank, and missing another that had retreated into the forest, my boat returned to the houseboat for my hat. On our return, we encountered a family of 5 Giant Otters that swam like seals ahead of us, sounding and barely offering a shot. Eventually they clambered up a steep bank and headed into the forest.
The morning was fairly ordinary, with good bird shooting of Rufus-tailed Jacamars, Black-collared Hawks, various kingfishers, herons, and egrets, and Chris’s boat did quite well with still another family of otters. It was nearly 11:30 when we had a call on another Jaguar, up the San Pedro River that we had just left!
By the time we arrived 10 other boats were jockeying in position to see the jaguar, which had disappeared. Mary had seen it go, and knew that it was about to charge a caimen, and she was ready. I didn’t know where the cat was, and was just in the process of setting up when the jaguar blasted out of the thick shrubs, the caimen darting, lightning-fast, into the river, with the jaguar bounding in pursuit and smashing into the water. All I could say was an exclamation of shock, but Mary said far more as another boat passed right in front of her at the instant of the charge and she missed her shot! All of us got some shots of the jaguar in the river, and along the shoreline, but the money shot was lost. We followed the cat for nearly a half hour upstream, and it did one more half-hearted lunge at another caimen, but missed. Eventually the cat, which had been actively hunting, practically jogging from one vantage area to another, headed deep into the dry forest and was gone.
My afternoon was rather slow. We did one U-turn on the major river without reason, although I wondered whether our boatman missed his turn. Eventually we headed upriver to the site of the jaguar hunt this morning, and along the way two returning boats gave a two-finger sign, indicating two jaguars upriver. However, in contrast to Kenya, where drivers would stop and actively share information, we were still completely ignorant of the location of the jaguars and never discovered them. It was close to sunset when we reached the jaguar spot, and well after dark when we returned where I assumed myself attempting to shoot flying bats in very dim light. Surprisingly, out of less than 15 shots, one was fairly good!
Mary went up Blackwater River and came across the best Giant Otter encounter we’ve ever had, with six adults, five actively playing right in front of her. Tremendous shots! Fisher’s boat had a brief glimpse of a jaguar that then disappeared into the brush, making a total of 3 for the day, and 4 had we seen the one we missed early and perhaps even 5 had I seen the two the other boat guys indicated.
Day 13. The temperature was increasing, and for the first time the river wasn’t shrouded with a layer of rising steam as we headed out. Still, in the open boat it was chilly, and I was glad I was still as layered as always. We hadn’t traveled far up the Blackwater when we were called back to the main channel where Mary was on a river-side jaguar. She had it for nearly fifteen minutes before we arrived, whereupon it receded back into the brush. We waited in the area, eventually doing fairly well with some young howler monkeys that browsed near the river’s edge.
A close-up view of the Screamer's beak reveals a serrated edge, almost tooth-like. The male's wing sports a sharp talon-like claw, useful in defense and in fights with rivals. All-in-all, a very reptilian-looking bird!
We had a very cooperative pair of Southern Screamers, and we were able to jab our boat into the sandy shallows for very steady, frame-filling shots. At one point the two screamed in synchrony, making it fairly easy to catch the open beaks, and to tape at close range too. The rest of the morning preceded rather slowly as we motored up a channel, until we encountered a family of Capybaras swimming upstream. Hoping to continue shooting after they moved into the brush we let another boat go by, and they found the family of 6 Giant Otters first. Not wishing to disturb the shooters and fight one another in the current, we moored in some branches, but so close that sometimes all we could get were headshots. Otters never seem to stop, and between the backlighting and the focus, I wonder what I got, but the otters put on a show, wrestling at one point, running up and down a 45 angled tree, and, when we finally changed positions as the other boats left, we managed some great shots of an adult decked out on the thatches, grooming and, eventually, sleeping. At one point the entire group headed downstream, and we followed them to a spot previously misidentified as a jaguar trail, but simply a favorite haul out for the otters. There they dust bathed, urinated, and trampled the wet soil down with their enormous front legs, before slipping or scrambling, crab-hopping, back down the slope. The otters returned to the denning area, and we tried shooting from an upstream position where the light was better, but vegetation blocked most of the shots. They didn’t stay long before heading further upstream where they entered the main channel and disappeared.
On the return we joined several boats staked out on a Jaguar in deep shade, high on a river bank. It was collared, and with the bad light and his condition, we headed back for a lunch.
In the afternoon, Mary and my boat was supposed to return to the otters, but somehow my guide got the message wrong and we continued up river, looking unsuccessfully for jaguars. I knew the turn, and could have changed him but with Mary there I figured a broader coverage, and chance for jaguars, was worth it. That may have been a mistake, because in the sweet afternoon light Mary got some knockouts, including a possible BBC contender as a Giant Otter leaped off the log, which she caught in mid-leap and full frame! Carol was with her, and she hadn’t had luck with otters to date, so it was a very successful time for all.
We did spend time with otters, following and trying to keep ahead of 6 that swam so fast we no sooner got set up than they were passed us. On the main point of the river a male marked territory, almost wallowing in a depression he made near the shore. We headed up Blackwater, and at the river bend where I’ve had Sunbitterns in past year, Bill spotted one that allowed us within full-frame, as it picked small bugs from the mud flats. A caimen that was feeding upon a large fish carcass, with only the gill area still intact, worked well, and Caroline got great video as it raised its head and chomped. I was almost on the shoreline, and now that the temperature has returned my ankles were being consumed by dozens of mosquitoes. The light was golden until finally being completely consumed by the trees, and despite our fervent hoping no jaguar appeared.
Day 14. Our last morning at JRC before we headed to our last lodge, which we would do after lunch. Rumor had it that SEMA, the Brazilian Parks Department, would be coming up river, and they were arresting or ticketing boats in many of the areas we cruised for jaguars. There is a controversy continuing between the Parks and the Marine Division, whose policy is that all of these rivers are navigable, and therefore open. SEMA, if this policy is true, will simply kill tourism here, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent at the various lodges, hotels, transport companies, etc. that end up catering to visitors whose primary intent in seeing a jaguar.
With that rumor, our guides were nervous, and although we spent time up one of our favorite river systems, they were anxious to leave it, too. That didn’t stop us, and we had an extraordinary morning filming my best Sungrebe, swimming about and eventually perching on a limb, but our guide pulled us away because he spotted a Yellow Anaconda on a bank, amidst tree roots. He motored us there and pointed, but not understanding the language we had no idea what he was pointing toward, and I was watching the top of the bank for a hidden Ocelot or something similar. Eventually we saw it, and we took some shots before moving back to the Sungrebe, which dropped off the branch and swan away.
We headed up the side channel towards the otter den, and although mid-morning there is marginal light, with the best in the evening, as Mary’s shots last night affirmed, we decided to end our visit there. We hadn’t gone far when I spotted a Jaguar lying on the bank, about 10 feet above us, completely in the open, although from our angle we couldn’t see her legs. Our guide immediately got on his radio but it was another 20 minutes or so before our second boat arrived, and Mary’s never did, as she had gone far upriver.
The jaguar moved before the second boat arrived, but reappeared on the bank, and did so twice before stalking a sandbar with two Southern Screamers took flight, probably alerting the lone capybara on the beach. This huge rodent eventually gave an alarm whistle and plunged into the river, and that hunt was over as the jaguar moved through the tall grasses and eventually disappeared.
We finished up the morning back at the main channel and at a sandy point where a family of Giant Otters regularly haul out to rest. Here they’ve made a shallow depression which they use as a communal toilet, which was used while we watched and was then picked at by a Southern Caracara. The female, her teats huge and swollen, and we assume nursing, had an injured right front leg which she heavily favored as she moved about the beach. The light was high, but the shooting good, and with that we headed to the boat.
The drive from Porto Joffre to our lodge was fairly uneventful, and everyone seemed beat by the heat and dust. I got out a few times to check on scenics, but there wasn’t much interest so most of the ride back was just enduring heat, sun, dust, and as dusk approached, insects whacking our faces. We did some okay work with a Great Horned Owl that nests at a location we found last year, and I chased after a large yellow snake that got away, but I did catch a 20 inch vine snake when we arrived at the lodge.
The pink or lavender trees are now past peak, and in the last light of day I shot some landscapes of these stately trees that remind me of California live oaks.
Day 15. PWC at the lodge. Nearly everyone awoke early to work the birds and storks, and Christine and Carol were on the scaffold before sunrise. Chris got a spectacular Orange-backed Troupial oriole in flight; Mary got a Whistling Heron eating a fish, and I headed out to the Pink Trees to do landscapes, and had a Coatimundi feeding in the marshes.
After breakfast we had our first round with flying Greater Black Hawks swooping down on fish, but our Canon 7Ds missed focus in the 19 AF point, but I did get one good sequence. Down river we saw our first Agami Heron, a reclusive bird that stalks the shallows under the deep cover of the shoreline forest, and our views were as sketchy as the bird.
We had until 3:30 before reloading onto the boats, whereupon we headed upriver to try for more hawks. This was my third year of doing this, and every year, whether the first or this, proved stressful and frustrating as we try to make it clear to our guides that we needed the birds flying towards us, in the sun, and not snatching fish by coming behind. Eventually we got things coordinated and had some luck with Black-collared Hawks and Greater Black Hawks. One Ringed Kingfisher took a fish, but blasted in and out so quickly that our attempts were pretty much futile – my shot had a blur going in, a great splash, and a misframed bird flying out of the frame.
Just after sunset and before dinner a Crab-eating Fox came in for its nightly handouts, and I quickly ran back to the room to get a slave flash and focusing lights. Bill acted as a light man, giving me enough light to focus for most of the shots, although we wasted time when my primary flash ran low on power. Hopefully I’ll have another chance tomorrow night, armed with fresh batteries and Bill’s very powerful headlamp.
Day 16. The last full day for our first group. Everyone shot around the grounds before and after breakfast, working on a variety of songbirds before a 9AM boat trip for more hawks. We had immediate luck with a black hawk, and then some fairly good action with Black-collared Hawks, Ringed Kingfishers, and a couple of Southern Caracaras that tried collecting the fish we tossed. Eventually all that tried snatched a fish, but surprisingly, the last caracara grasped the fish in its talons, while most seem unable to do so and instead plunge into the water so that they can grasp a fish in their beak. Boat coordination went a bit better, but there was still plenty of joking-griping about being ready, in position, etc. The real challenge was getting a fast-moving hawk in view and in focus!
We did well with two Green Iguanas along the river’s edge as well, and one allowed us to be within 2 feet of him without fleeing. Just after lunch the Toco Toucans reappeared, and I quickly diced up several bananas to keep them around a bit longer than we normally have them, as they grab large pieces, and either gulp them down or fly off.
We did our afternoon boat trip earlier, leaving at 3PM to catch more open light along the river. We had immediate luck with a Greater Black Hawk, and a short time later with a Black-collared Hawk and a Ringed Kingfisher, but the birds seemed sated and we had only a few more passes. My boat returned by 5PM, while Chris and Caroline and Carol headed downriver to enjoy the beautiful afternoon. They spotted two rare Agami Herons, one of which stood in the open for 6 seconds but no one was ready with flash, and ‘the shot of the trip’ was lost! Back at the lodge I had tremendous luck with a Toco Toucan in the golden later afternoon light. As dusk approached I borrowed Mary and Bill’s flash and set up a multiple flash setup for the Crab-eating Fox that returned just a few minutes after dark. Two came in, and fortunately this evening’s was a different one from the previous night, as both eyes were open, while the fox the night before seemed to have a bad right eye. With multiple flashes, the fox was a wonderful studio subject!
Day 17. We left at 6AM for the drive to Cuiaba and our flights, and the three hour drive sped by as we talked, joked, and saw a few last minute great animals, including an absolute trophy buck Marsh Deer that strutted across the road and slipped beneath, rather than jumping over, a wire fence. Our flights went without delay and our only drama was catching the bus to the motel, as we had waited an hour at the wrong bus stop and spotted our bus just as it was pulling out to leave. All of us started running, and I knew I’d never catch the bus via the crowded sidewalk so I took to the road, pushing the cart and waving, and finally catching the driver’s eye just as he was about to drive off.
Parting was a sad affair, as the group gelled wonderfully and everyone was positive and fun-loving, and the shoot, and the tremendous luck, reflected this great karma.
Day 18. Sao Paulo to Iguassu Falls. The hotel was noisy, with Bill having a honeymoon couple next door and Mary and I having a thumbing treadmill and pounding music beneath us, so the night went too fast for a 4:40AM wake-up. At the TAM check-in we had a bit of a scare when a staffer spotted our carry-on backpacks off to the side, but when he summoned a supervisor I explained that all of this was photo equipment, and we were waved on.
We arrived at Iguassu by 8:30AM, and headed immediately to the Bird Park where we spent the next three, fast-moving hours. At first the shooting promised to be slow or boring, as we passed cages with parrots and open enclosures with trimmed birds. When we walked into one of the open aviaries, however, everything grew more interesting, as toucans, tinamous, and guans walked or flew by, and the toucans permitted Mary and I to pet them. The birds nibbled back rather gently, which was surprising when one considers that toucans are omnivores, and will kill nestlings and steal eggs. The Harpy Eagle flight cage was surprisingly large, and we got some nice shots when the bird perched in the shade, framed against a bright background. Normally I’d avoid that type of lighting, but in this case the bright background overexposed and disappeared, giving a real forest-like appearance to this huge raptor.
Lunch was a huge buffet, followed by over an hour wait while our guide, Homer, completed a favor for a friend and disappeared to the airport. When he returned, I discussed with him his priorities, and let him know he now had to make up for lost ground, which he did in spades on the following day.
Our first view of the Falls was exciting, even though we’d soon see far better lookout points, but the near horse-shoe shaped curve of waterfalls still was breath-taking and we were exciting to start shooting. From our hotel, inside the park and within 100 yards of one lookout, we could walk the entire Brazilian network of viewpoints, which culminates at a three tiered viewing area where an elevator transports folks to the highest vantage. Because we were staying at the hotel, within the Park, we had the trails almost completely to ourselves after 6PM, and as the sun set we enjoyed slow shutter speed, ethereal shots without the back-light contrast we had earlier in the afternoon.
While the hotel is perfectly located for shooting, it also trapped us for food, and our only option was passing on dinner – the better choice, considering the lunch buffet we had, or having their $50 buffet, which most of us elected to have. The food bill, especially for those that only went through the motions of partaking of a buffet, was exorbitant.
Day 19. Iguassu Falls, Argentine side. From the Brazilian side, the falls looked as if they favored viewing from this side, but Devil’s Throat, a consolidation of currents leading to a maelstrom of swirling, descending water, creating a wall of mist that often obscured most of the falls, is here, and we took the half-scale train the few miles to the nearly 1,000 meter long walkway. We’d last been on a similar trail here over 20 years ago, but the walkway we used then was washed away by a flood in 1992. By the time we completed our Devil’s Throat visit the walkway to this site was jammed with people, and it was hard even negotiating back to the train to move on to our next stop.
As it turned out, the Argentine side had a variety of vistas, and as our guide said, the Argentine side provided more intimate views. In contrast, the Brazilian side offers the broad vista, although at the terminus of the viewing area, at the Elevator shaft, one is right against the wall of the waterfalls, and a boardwalk leads to another Devil’s Throat type vortex. We spent 6 hours on the Argentine side, covering the upper, middle, and lower trails, and the lowest vantage requires a journey up and down of 100 steep steps. Subtly beautiful Plush-Crested Jays and a husky iguanid lizard that was probably related to the Fence Lizards, Sceloporus, were the only animals, other than the ubiquitous Coatis were the only other subjects, but the day went fast and the views were beautiful. Twenty years ago, this same area was filled with Snail Kites, but the floods must have changed the habitat for not one was seen.
Mary and I passed on the late afternoon shoot on the Brazilian side, as the light was the same and the incredible pool tempted us to swim. After dark, under a full moon I tried doing a moon-lit waterfall scene, but the bright moon created a sky that appeared to be daylight, so the effort was for naught.
Day 20. Bill, Phil, and I did a final early morning shoot of the Falls, and at this time of year, August 24th, light doesn’t hit inside the gorge until after 8AM. We had our guide drop us off mid-way down the road, and from there enjoyed the overlooks that, two days earlier, were packed with tourists. Now we were alone, and it was a pleasure to be shooting as the light gradually slid down into the canyon, triggering rainbows drawn from the mist. Dusky Swifts, swallow-like birds, were swooping about, and we watched with amazement as birds flew into the falls, to roost or nest, somehow avoiding being crushed or smashed by the descending walls of water.
Mondays, the day we visited the Argentine side, is the day that the Hydro Electric Company restricts, or nearly stops, the flow of the Iguassu River for power. Our guide was quite unclear about this, indicating that the falls could be nearly dry, and I suppose that might be true in severe cases. As it turned out, the water had been restricted on Monday, because today fully 33% more water flowed, and dry cliffs now flowed in torrents. In some ways it was almost too much water, so we were happy to have the contrast between high and medium water, but a Monday visit, for anyone, must be approached with caution, as it could turn out to be a bust.
We left at 11AM, and had an uneventful journey back to Sao Paulo where we’ll meet the remaining members of our next group.
Pantanal, Trip Two
Day 21. We overnighted in Sao Paulo, meeting up with Fred, Kathy, Sue, and John, and at the airport, Bruce. Our flight was delayed by an hour, so we did not arrive in Cuiaba until after 1PM. After a very late lunch at P, the eco lodge right inside the Pantanal, we headed to Arraras, arriving just before dark. One of their guides drove Mary, Fisher, and I out to see their Jabiru Stork nest overlook, and along the way we had a nice troop of Howler Monkeys cross the road. Another Marmoset species greeted us in the woods, and we checked on some spots where a Tamandua had been seen, but not tonight, for us.
Day 22. Our host lent Fisher the camp car so that Mary and I could check out the Jabiru platform for shooting, but the light was wrong, strongly ¾ back-lighted. Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, and a still unidentified Wood Creeper, a Trogan, and some Capuchin Monkeys passed the platform, but shooting was almost impossible, not because of the platform, but because of the opportunities.
We spent the rest of the morning working the containment ponds around the lodge, and I believe everyone did quite well. In addition to frame-filling Plumbeus Ibis, a bird I’d not photographed in the last three trips to the Pantanal, and a gaudy, gray, shaggy-plumaged bird, the pond offered great shots of Green Ibis, frame-filling Whistling Herons, Sunbitterns, and Kiskadee Flycatchers.
We left at 11, stopping at one of the Jabiru Stork nests lining the road that, two plus weeks earlier, was surrounded by wonderful pink blossoms. Now the nest was a stark outline of dry season branches, and the ponds that had been at least half-filled with water, and plenty of birds, were now almost dry, with little bird life.
We arrived at PWC for a late lunch, and a Toco Toucan that cooperated wonderfully just after our meal. Mary and I headed out to set up two Trail Cameras at opposite ends of the lodge, hoping to record something unusual over the next five days. Three days ago, less than fifty yards from our room, a jaguar grabbed a capybara at 5:30AM, scaring the daylights out of the cook, who screamed, causing the jaguar to release the rodent as it ran off.
We did our first boat trip for hawks, and had surprisingly good luck, and great boat handling, and had three opportunities for Black-collared Hawks, and one for the Greater Black Hawk. We had the best Boat-billed Herons we’ve ever shot in the Pantanal, and Mary’s boat had birds along the shoreline after we left. We had headed down stream, hoping for a good view of the rare Agami Heron, and although I got a shot, it was a poor sighting. The bird, however, is spectacular, and gleamed almost iridescent in my flash. All in all, a spectacular start to the next trip!
Day 23. PWC to JRC. Our plan was to leave for the Jaguar boat immediately after breakfast, but the 1.5 hours post sunrise were extremely productive. Several folks spent some time at the Jabiru tower, while others worked the sugar feeder where three brilliant Troupials flew in constantly. A pair of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets fed, unconcerned, at a fig tree, demonstrating these birds’ remarkable tolerance and closeness to each other. The morning passed too quickly, but productively.
The drive to Porto Joffre took over three hours, with minimal stops for a few hawk identifications and photos of a jaguar mother and cubs fresh tracks along the dusty road. Sadly, we stopped for a freshly killed Tayra, a semi-arboreal mustelid (weasel family) that hunts similarly to a Pine Marten, but is about the size of a North American river otter. A pickup truck had sped by us only minutes earlier, and the pool of blood around the Tayra was still liquid. I’ve only seen one other, and living, Tayra, so it was depressing that on such an infrequently traveled road a magnificent predator like this could be killed.
In that vein, when we reached the boat I spoke with the manager about ‘Wilson,’ a famous jaguar that we’d seen the previous two years. Last year, we passed on one shooting opportunity when we discovered that the jaguar radio call we responded to was for Wilson, hanging around a fishing house boat where fish were being thrown to lure the cat into the open. On another occasion, I’d seen a guide not associated with a lodge tossing a fish to Wilson, and our thoughts at that time were, they’re killing that cat. Indeed, Wilson, and perhaps another very tame ‘star’ jaguar, Jack, is probably dead, and the rumor is that fishermen, camping on the shoreline, were frightened by this tame cat that has been enticed to visit camps and was subsequently killed by the fishermen. Tragically, heedless fishermen who were only concerned with the momentary satisfaction of seeing a jaguar, at whatever cost, were then responsible for the cat’s death when, at a less convenient time, the animal scared them.
We arrived at our new Houseboat by 1, and settled in. The rooms were small, but all were outfitted with bunk beds and shelves, so there was plenty of space for laying out equipment. This trip we have two new guides, while Mary’s, from the last trip, stayed on. The new guys are ‘old hands,’ and actually better boatmen than those we had on the last trip, so the learning curve should be easy.
The PM boat cruise produced Giant Otters for two groups, and a suspicious capybara incident where Mary wondered if a jaguar was near. My boat did well with a capybara and Smooth-billed Ani, the Black-backed D…., and an Anhinga that struggled for a few minutes with a fish. Shots were tough, as everyone was still getting the feel for moving about in the boat, so we rocked a bit. Worse, the anhinga alternated between juggling its fish horizontally, and then, for a vertical frame, tossing the fish high – which I missed because of my horizontal framing!
We cruised both prime jaguar lagoons, and didn’t leave the San Pedro River until 6PM, giving us a bug-in-the-face boat ride in almost complete darkness, arriving in at 6:45, in time for a fast, cold shower before dinner.
Day 24. We left by 6:30AM in surprising cool temperatures, although nothing like the previous trip’s near frigid mornings. A light, cirrus cloud overcast, perhaps coupled with dust or smoke, created a rather soft light through much of the morning, and an hour after sunrise the sun was still a bright orange fireball hanging above the canopy.
All three boats headed in different directions, and my boat cruised up the broad Piquiri, the same river where we’d film a family of otters earlier, but one where birds, and any shooting, is tough and a constant fight with the current. We hadn’t traveled very far, and with little shooting, when our guide spotted a Brazilian Tapir mid-stream. We caught up with it shortly, and followed it down river as it sought a bank that provided access into the jungle. Most edges were too steep, and the Tapir tried several before swimming downstream to a spot where it finally climbed out and, with little concern with us, walked off into the undergrowth.
Further up river we had some luck at a Black Skimmer beach, where these striking black-and-white birds were either courting or beginning to nest. They provided a couple of chances at skimming, as this bird is named for its fishing behavior, literally skimming along above the water, its long lower bill dragging in the current, ready to snap shut if a fish is encountered. This lower bill is fully a third longer than the upper bill to facilitate this skimming, although chicks, only requiring a beak to grab fish from their parents, have both bills of equal length. Later, at another sandbar we shot Buff-necked Ibis drinking and mutually preening, quite close as we beached our boat for steadier shooting.
Our last hour was spent in a quiet lagoon where we had luck with a Neotropical Cormorant tossing a fish, and a very cooperative Sunbittern that we followed for twenty minutes or so, ending up with front-view full-frame shots. I missed ‘the shot’ when the bird flew and revealed its striking eye-like wing pattern. I had my zoom racked out to 200, and had I zoomed back, I’d have had it in the frame.
Mary finally got one of her ‘dream shots’, of a Capybara with a Cattle Tyrant on top its head, and one of our other boats had great luck with Giant Otters, hawks, and more birds. As we break for lunch the sky is dreary and dull, offering contrast-free but low light for our afternoon.
We left at 2:30 for our afternoon shoot, and my boat headed directly to the Giant Otter den, which we hoped to arrive at by 3:45. Stopping for a few incidental subjects, we reached the den just 5 minutes late, and several otters were hauled out on the large log they often use as a staging ground for play. One otter caught a spiny catfish, but unfortunately started feeding upon it on the opposite side of the log, presenting a rather narrow shooting window for everyone. Later, we repositioned ourselves for another view, but by then the action had teased. Nonetheless, the shoot was quite good, so it was a bit amusing to hear one of our participant’s later remark that he didn’t need to see any more otters, and was ready to leave after only 30 minutes. Considering that this endangered species is one that, two years ago, we barely got a shot at, and last year, had very marginal shooting, and those on our last group, quite rightly, would have shot the otters every day, the comment was rather uninformed. True, it’s certainly understandable that someone new to the Pantanal wants to get everything, but with several other boats looking for jaguars while we shot, and with increasingly failing light, one really must cease the best opportunities as they are presented, and this certainly was one.
In the last light of day Mary’s guide spotted a jaguar, which Mary saw for a brief instant before this shy cat disappeared back into the brush, but at least the ice was been broken, and hopefully we’ll start having better luck, now 1.5 days into our jaguar search.
Day 25. Our luck did break, for today we had four different jaguars, and I missed a 5th on a sandbar of the San Pedro where I found tracks that were less than an hour old. Had we left our last jaguar watch earlier, or perhaps not loitered at a caimen … at any rate, the tracks, right at the water’s edge, were not marred by any backwash. But that’s just the one we missed.
My boat had headed towards the San Pedro, while Fisher’s boat went back up the Piquiri where he spotted a jaguar feeding on a kill. We reversed and raced down river, in time to get some shots as the jaguar returned to the now-abandoned kill to drive off some Black Vultures. The jaguar, a big male, paused along the shoreline for a moment, then disappeared back into the brush.
Mary’s boat arrived last, because she was photographing another Brazilian Tapir that my boat may have missed, as we were focused on the anchored boats far ahead, where the jaguar fed. She had frame-filling headshots as it swam across the river.
Fisher’s boat was the first to leave, while Mary and my boat stayed, hoping that the jaguar would return. Mary headed up river, and I followed Fisher’s route, so I was just one river system away – in the Black Bay, when he found another! This one performed spectacularly for his crew, stalking caimens, sunning on the beach, rolling over, and by the time we arrived we had the remainders. Swimming, and walking on the beach, before entering the river and swimming fully 200 yards before climbing back onto the bank and disappearing. Unfortunately, my boat had back end views of most of this, and Mary’s boat was too far down river.
Fisher’s boat left, while we waited along the shoreline with hopes that the cat would return to the river. Incredibly, Fisher found a third jaguar, this one resting placidly along a high bank. My boat got there in time to catch most of the posing, and Mary’s boat arrived late, but in time for a couple of shots. By now it was past lunch, and Mary and my boat decided to stay out and hope for the best, while Fisher’s boat returned to the houseboat for lunch, and to deliver a message – bring food to us!
That, the crew did, delivering a full course meal, with plates and silverware, and afterwards, under umbrellas for shade, we waited out the jaguar. It never cooperated. Finally, we were called off when another cat – the 2nd one that we’d seen earlier, was spotted again. Backlighted and in deep shade, it offered no shots, and eventually all of us left it.
I headed up the San Pedro where I found the fresh tracks, while Fisher’s boat did more Giant Otters, and Mary’s boat worked on birds. An incredible day, but one that could lead to the very false impression that to find jaguars, all one needs to do is cruise the rivers and they’ll be there. Yesterday showed that doesn’t work, but today, by any measure, was truly an exceptional jaguar day.
Day 26. Although everyone is rotated through the boats, coincidence had it that two of our shooters had had minimal luck with the jaguars. Either late, or out-of-position, but the cats had eluded them. Today, Mary placed the three guys, the spouses of the women who, yesterday, had been at the right place at the right time, getting to the jaguars first each time, in the boat with Fisher, and we hoped his luck would hold.
My boat headed upriver, intending on getting to the San Pedro lagoon for whatever it offered. En route, we stopped at a small, dead end lagoon where we met a vocal family of Giant Otters, but the light was still fairly low and the shots probably are soft. We’d passed the spot where we had the jaguar yesterday and had traveled about 2 Ks when a fishing boat overtook us, slowed down, and started gesturing and talking to our guide. The hands up, finger-clicking motion of a camera firing was the obvious clue, and after a few minutes of talk we turned around and raced back down river. Just around a bend, our jaguar lay on the bank, in plain view in a spot where five or ten minutes earlier, that spot was conspicuously empty.
The inertia of our boat took us beyond the cat, and we quickly did a U-turn and headed back upstream. I jumped to the front of the boat to man the anchor, directing Edno towards the shore and dropping the anchor, and tying off the rope, to put us in a ¼ view, half-head-on, and nearly full frame. Brilliant!, if I must say so! The cat looked about for a few minutes then proceeded to groom, alternating each paw and foreleg as it licked itself dry. The cat didn’t stay long – maybe 100 shots or so, and stood and walked into the river. We followed, eventually paralleling the cat for almost frame-filling headshots as it swam by, so close that I could hear its ‘chuffing’ as it breathed. It was obviously hunting the bank, either for unwary caimens or fish, but without success. Eventually the cat climbed out of the water and rested in cover on the bank, about the time our other two boats arrived.
We stayed with the cat for about twenty minutes, and although it went against my preaching about staying with an animal, my group, Sue and Jan, had had phenomenal luck yesterday and didn’t need to wait for the off chance of another good shot. We headed out, continuing on to the San Pedro.
Here we worked on birds, getting a bust of a Black-collared Hawk, frame-filling Anhingas eating fish, a Roseate Spoonbill for Jan, and a family of Black Howler Monkeys, the male of which hung by its tail as it climbed from one branch to another. Two females with babies joined together, with the baby stepping free of its mother and hanging just by its tail, a full 80 feet off the ground. Talk about being at home in the trees!
We were working on another Anhinga when we received a radio call that the Jaguar was active, so we headed at speed down the lagoon, hoping to arrive in time. We hadn’t gone far when Edno spotted a family of Giant Otters feeding in a large cluster, and we drifted in on this extremely open scene, getting frame-filling shots of the otters eating and grooming. Otters are fast, messy eaters, and the flecks of fish flying in the air attract other fish, which Kingfishers dive at, and Kiskadees snatching at the fish bits. One otter grabbed a Piranha, and screamed and complained loudly, but whether that was because it had been bitten or it was just warning the other otters to keep away, I couldn’t tell. A couple of times fights broke out, and in one, an angry otter stamped its feet as if in a tantrum.
Meanwhile, our other two boats raced to the Jaguar, and luck was with them, as they ended up with about 1.5 hours of shooting, as the jaguar swam along the shoreline, clambered onto the banks, and hunted for caimens and fish. Several boats had gathered, making 6 or 7 in total, including one boat that was a Photo Tour of our major competitor where 8 or 9 photographers were crammed into one boat, two to a row. Mary said that their boat was never still, as someone was always trying to shoot over someone else’s head or shoulders, using tripods, beanbags, or hand-holding. We wondered what they thought of us, with three photographers per boat, one per row, and had they watched, they’d have seen near rock-steady shooting conditions. Obviously, the lesson here is – compare brochures!
Their rocky boat impacted on our shooters, too, as the unsteadiness created a wave. Worse, their guide grabbed ahold of one of our boats to steady themselves and to keep from drifting, and until told to get their hands off, their movement transferred to our’s! Later, Mary found a nice set of jaguar tracks on the beach, and she had her boats come ashore to shoot the tracks. The leader of the Photo Tour followed suit with his nine people, who milled about, stepping on tracks after shooting them, rather than stepping higher up on the beach to keep the tracks clean for the next photographer. As one of our participants said, ‘That’s the difference in having a photo leader or not,’ and it was clear in this. Afterwards, as I thought more about this the contrast between our rival’s tour and our own was even more striking. Not only were all nine jammed into one boat, as opposed to three per boat in our’s, but our participants had the benefit of three leaders, as Mary and I are in separate boats, and our Brazilian guide captains the third. Unfortunately, too, their guide is a tour guide/birder, not a photographer, and his lack of etiquette, evidenced earlier on our last trip, and lack of common sense, the tracks as an example, dramatically highlights the differences.
We spent nearly 30 minutes trying to anticipate where the jaguar was headed, as it had just disappeared into the jungle. By the time we arrived at the houseboat, everyone was at lunch, and the room fairly bubbled with excitement as people recounted their shoot, getting head-on swimming jaguars too close to focus, and frame-after-frame of exciting stuff. Fred and John, who had been skunked yesterday, along with Phil were now very, very pleased, as was our boat, since we worried that they had missed the show.
In the afternoon all of us intended on getting to the Giant Otter den/haul out, if a jaguar didn’t intervene. One did, a male we had yesterday that had made a kill, as vultures were about and a scrap of meat hung above his snout. The cat rested on the beach but left as I fought with trying to get a good anchor for the boat, but it returned, and all of our boats took up a vigil. We were hoping he’d come to the river to drink, or, when two capybaras swam by, he’d try a hunt, but by then the light had failed and the cat had disappeared into the forest.
With the heavy haze, more of a smog than smoke or humidity, we’re getting red suns two hours before sunset, and the last half hour before true sunset the light is gone. On the positive side, it softens the shadows all day, and probably drops the temperature a bit, but it does make for low light early and late in the day.
Day 27. The haze is smoke, from forest fires to the north that apparently are devastating parts of Brazil somewhere to our north. Even at high noon the air has a smoggy feel to it, although at the distance we are the smell of smoke is not detectable. We started out at 6:30, with everyone heading upriver in the general direction of the San Pedro. En route, we had one jaguar sighting, but the cat stayed in the trees and all we saw were brief glimpses of its silhouette.
We reached the San Pedro, and had just begun to work on an Amazon Kingfisher and, adjacent to it, a Black-collared Hawk when we got a call that the jaguar was moving. At the same time, the other Photo Tour boat pulled up to us, this time with another boat along, so I suspect there were complaints about the crowded conditions. Our guide told theirs that there was a jaguar, and as we pulled out their boatmen started up as well, while their photographers were still shooting, and these were jostled and shaken. I think a warning was in order.
Their boats raced behind us, keeping up since we knew where the cat was, but when we arrived it had already gone back into the forest. We stayed for a short time, but the cat never showed, so we headed back towards the San Pedro. The other Tour left within minutes of arriving, and continued back to their base at Porto Joffre, so this false alarm for jaguars cost their people the only chance they had at the truly quality bird photography that lagoon offers.
Back in the San Pedro we had great luck with Roseate Spoonbills, with reflections and flight shots, the most cooperative Bare-faced Ibis we’ve had, and challenging wide-angle views of Spectacled Caimens. Despite the smog and light cloud cover it was hot when we stopped moving, but this canopy has, I’m sure, cut down on the heat.
Mary’s boat, and Fisher’s, headed upriver to another channel where one boat filmed a River Otter, and Mary’s boat worked on scenics. As I write this, the landscape has a faint orange hue, and the shadows are muted, so we’re hoping our afternoon sojourn for Giant Otters will be successful.
We left at 2:30, with all boats heading toward the Giant Otters. Fortunately, no jaguars were about so we arrived on time, with Mary taking one spot, me another, an area that I had cleared an opening for previously, and Fisher’s boat taking the large, bay area where he’d have a clear view of the main basking log. As it turned out, most of the action occurred off the log on a secondary tree trunk, which, by chance and good fortune, was where I had positioned my boat, so we had most of the shooting. Unfortunately, from our anchor point, an upright log I had tied the front of the boat on to, two broken stumps cut off the view for our third shooter, so I had John move up to my seat and I climbed out onto the little deck at the front of the boat. As I turned to help John, I heard a grinding metallic squeal, and saw my camera toppling overboard – with a Mark IV and 500mm! I made a lucky grab and caught the heavy gear just as one tripod leg dipped beneath the water, but everything else stayed dry and, for the remainder of the shoot; I made sure all three legs were inside the boat. We shot for over an hour, but by 5:15 the smoky light had failed, as our ISOs were at 2000 and the otters had climbed onto a steep bank to rest.
A former participant from one of our Africa trips showed up on our boat this afternoon, and this evening, on the Piqui River she and her guide had three jaguars, including one that swam across the river and another that stayed on shore, with nice visibility but in low light, for some good shooting. More amazing, they had had another jaguar on the river in the AM, and, along the sand bar where we’ve filmed Buff-necked Ibis, they had a King Vulture bathing! Next year, it is likely our camp will be up that river, so the shooting looks promising.
Day 28. JRC to PWC. We left at 6:30 for a final boat cruise in jaguar country, with each boat headed in a different direction. Mary’s boat hadn’t had much luck with Giant Otters, so she headed back to last night’s den, hoping that the otters would be about. Frequently, otters patrol their territory and fish in the morning, and although that was explained, everyone still wanted to have a try. The otters weren’t there, so most of their morning was involved in commuting the near hour each way without any shots.
My boat headed up Mary’s favorite spot, the Black Bay or lagoon, where, last year, we had our favorite jaguar encounter and where the bird shooting is always good. This morning we had heavy overcast skies, in fact, last night the entire area had had a thunderstorm, and around Porto Joffre and PWC the rains were heavy. Birds, I figured, would be an easy, relatively slow-moving subject.
We had great luck, starting with Bare-faced Curassows, then Kingfishers, Jacanas, Storks, and Capybaras with Smooth-billed Anis. We stopped for a Rufescent Tiger-Heron with a fish, but by the time we set up it had swallowed it. We stayed, as it appeared the bird was still actively fishing, and gradually drifted closer until, when the bird finally grabbed another fish, all we had within the frame was the beak, fish, and bird’s eyes.
On leaving the lagoon we encountered several local fishermen in their low-slung carved, canoe-like boats, and one of these fishermen was dressed quite traditionally, or plain. We started shooting, and asked if he minded, and eventually got within 16mm range for nice close-ups, especially when he caught a tiger fish that he held for display. It was one of the highlights for a very productive morning.
We arrived back at Porto Joffre around 10, and this time, for our transport back to PWC we had two vehicles, and both with AC! Mary and I took the lead truck to watch for subjects, and our driver spotted the first King Vulture we’ve ever seen in the Pantanal – yesterday’s, with that other group, was the first I had even heard of King’s here. Although somewhat distant, the shots were good record shots, and great flight, too, when the bird finally took off.
At 3PM we headed back down river from PWC for another session with hawks, but this time only the Black-collared Hawk and a Southern Caracara showed up. We had a few opportunities with each, and folks that did poorly last time felt they may have caught some shots on this round. Downriver, we looked for the Agami Heron again, but without luck, although we finished the day with close shots of one of the rare kingfishers, the Pigmy Kingfisher, that we shot with flash. Several times, near PWC, we had chances with the Jabiru Storks, including feeding, drinking, and in flight, so it was a great afternoon.
Day 29. Our last full day in the Pantanal. Everyone was out early, photographing at the feeders around the lodge. I headed downstream to look for Rufous Horneros, and encountered a pair of Aracaris feeding on Morning Glory flowers along the river bank. Each bird would reach forward, pluck either a few petals or most of the flower, leaving a pink base, and then start gulping it down, reminding me of a thin, tissue-paper-like candy. The shooting was good, but unfortunately I ran out of CF space, and forgot my cards!
Mary and I climbed the Jabiru tower to take a trip portrait, with the nest in the background, and while up there two huge Nacunda Nightjars flew by and perched in the shadow of the tower. Later, I got fairly close to the birds for some half-frame portraits. A birder told us about a very low Greater Potoo, and with very specific directions we found, and photographed in good morning light, the bird perched just 13 feet off the ground, almost directly above the trail. While these birds adopt a statue-like pose when spotted, we found that when one of us moved off and returned, the bird would slowly move its head to follow that person’s progress. Unfortunately, though, the bird never really left its guard down and kept its huge eyes as half-slits.
Meanwhile, the group did another hawk attempt, and had some fairly decent luck with three different hawks. In the afternoon, I joined four of our group for a final try, while Mary tried to make sense of our destroyed room, getting everything in order and packed. Phil looked for the Potoo, but had our directions wrong, but he did get some great shots of a curious Marmoset that came close to inspect him.
We did a short boat ride for another crack at hawks, and had both Greater Black Hawks and Black-collared Hawks swooping in. At one point, we had both species vying for a fish, but the Collared beat the Black to the fish, and came in from behind, stealing it and offering us no shots. The Black Hawk cooperated when the competition left, and we had some more shots.
We concluded early, to have an early dinner before our last official outing in the Pantanal, a night game drive where we hoped to see Giant Anteater. Fisher manned one headlamp, and Mary and I alternated with the other, spotting a surprising number of Boat-billed Herons, and Fisher the close, glowing eyes of an Ocelot. Several people got shots, but regardless of what Mary or I tried with our Tele-flashes, we couldn’t get out flashes to reach. It was frustrating, as the cat was in full view and with the 400mm I was using, we’d have had some nice shots. Fortunately, Phil and Sue’s flashes worked correctly, and the group got some successful shots. Later, Mary spotted the glowing eyes of a Greater Potoo perched next to the road, and everyone had a chance to see and photograph this bird, this time, with its eyes wide open and glowing ghostly white in the flashes. Fisher spotted a Common Potoo, also, and the size difference was considerable.
At dinner earlier, the biologist that had told us about the Potoo roost had been hiking alone, after his group had spotted a Brazilian Tapir on the trail. He heard leaves cracking, and assumed a deer was approaching, but instead, walking straight at him he saw a jaguar. He got a quick shot of the cat in the brush, using a short zoom lens, and the flash of his camera frightened the jaguar off. We had placed two Trail/Game cameras at opposite ends of the lodge, and at one spot close to a huge pile of jaguar scat. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the directions and incorrectly assumed that the internal memory of the camera would hold hundreds of shots. It did not, capturing only 10! So, on that camera, I recorded guys riding horses and bird-watchers walking past, but the image quality was good. The other camera captured two Brazilian Tapirs and several Brocket Deer, so it will be interesting to try this again next year.
Day 30. We left at 6:30 for Cuiaba, arriving in plenty of time for our flights, and here our final leg got frustratingly ironic. Mary and my tickets were screwed up, so we needed to leave the queue to get that straightened out with Fisher. In Sao Paulo, when we headed for our hotel (the rest of the group wisely flying on home), we missed the free shuttle so bought the $35 taxi ticket. Soon afterwards, we discovered that the line was huge, and it turned out we got into our taxi at the same time the free shuttle would have been leaving the airport! At the hotel, I placed my wallet and our passports in the room safe, but it malfunctioned, and we couldn’t reopen the safe. It took nearly an hour to get someone to open it for us. The only bright spot of this fiasco was having a hamburger and a few beers on the street, winding down after a frustrating day.
The next morning, we discovered our tickets had us sitting separately, so we paid an extra $90 to have our seats changed, only to second guess ourselves as we wondered whether our agent purposefully separated us to give us the potential of extra room. My movie console worked for one ridiculous movie and then died, giving me time to finish this journal as we continue on to New York, hopefully not crashing en route! Although this last day was frustrating, it was our only glitch in a flawless trip, and we’re anxiously planning on next year’s one visit, and how we can expand our Brazilian offerings for 2012.