Check out our Brazil Wildlife and Nature Portfolios, 2010
and please check out our wonderful
Participants' Portfolio Brazil 2010
Read our complete Daily Journal
Jaguars, Maned Wolves, Einstein Monkeys,
Iguassu Falls, and the Wildlife of the Pantanal
Sue Altenburg took what we think was truly THE SHOT of the trip,
when a jaguar guarding a carcass chased off two black vultures trying
to steal scraps. The picture says it all!
An explosion of doves rocket overhead and the dry woodland snaps shut in silence. A minute later, like a Velociraptor slipping through the jungle undergrowth of Jurassic Park a three-foot tall Red-legged Seriema stalks into view, its bright yellow eye peering about, looking for prey. Fearless, the bird approaches our blind, drawn by the strange clicks as images whirr through our cameras.
A joking, relaxed conversation on a group’s last boat ride in jaguar country stops abruptly, as we spot a female Jaguar lying comfortably upon a riverbank above us. Without a shred of vegetation intervening, framed against a cerulean cloudless sky, that image of a seemingly relaxed cat etched itself upon my mind.
An imperceptible shift in an unfelt breeze and we’re covered in fine mist, the pounding wall of water crashing over a hundred foot cliff now wrapping us in its embrace. Communication is limited, and reduced to shouts in order to be heard above the sonorous thunder of Iguassu Falls.
Impressions, all, but as I write this now, a week after returning from a month long trip to several Brazilian locations, these memories still seem as vivid and dramatic as the moment they occurred. Words can barely do it justice, but hopefully as a photographer the images will do a better job of illustrating, but any picture lacks the power of that first impression that marks a memorable encounter.
The unfathomable speed of a Spectacled Caimen, South America’s abundant version of the alligator. One moment lying torpidly upon a sandbar, an instant later crashing through the water as a streak of powerful cat, another Jaguar, blasts from cover, the cat’s strides marked by cascading sheets of mud and water before it dives in pursuit.
Nothing is ever the same, and each trip, each year, offers something different and exciting, and this year’s month in the Pantanal and Brazil certainly proved this true. Nothing can be taken for granted, either, and probably the shot of the trip, for the entire month, occurred on a large river which we normally avoid when jaguar spotting. Our Brazilian guide, Fisher, had taken his boat up the Piqui River while Mary and my boats headed up the traditional waterways, and it wasn’t long into the morning that his boat radioed that they had found a jaguar.
The cat was feeding on a kill, the carcass of a cow clearly visible behind a screen of vines about twenty yards from the river’s edge. Fisher’s boat, the first to arrive, was already anchored and in position when the large male cat stepped into a clearing to drive off several Black Vultures attempting to steal from his kill. That shot, captured by Sue Altenburg and Jan Philips, is haunting, and captured all the magic, power, and excitement that the Pantanal, and jaguars, offers.
Earlier, on our first trip, Mary missed an equally dynamic shot, and ironically it happened on one of the few days where we shared a jaguar sighting with a number of boats. Her boat, along with several other day-operators boats from Porto Joffre, had been following a jaguar along the shoreline of a quiet bayou. My boat arrived just as the cat had disappeared into a tangle of brush, and I missed Mary’s frantic hand gestures indicating that the cat was in front of us, hunting the caimens lying on shore.
One caimen dove into the river, but the other was still basking, and I was just getting my gear into position, hoping something might happen when the jaguar blasted from beneath the undergrowth and charged into the river. Fast as the cat was, the caimen was faster and skittered into the water like lightning as it disappeared. The cat dove in but came up empty, but the mind’s eye image of that action is indelible. Mary was ready, but at the very moment of the charge another tourist boat passed in front of her, blocking her view! We suspect the guilty party didn’t realize the cat was there, and we hope it was an innocent mistake, but it was a huge disappointment and a very frustrating occurrence for Mary’s boat. I wasn’t ready – another 10 seconds and I’d have been on the cat or the caimen, but the jaguar didn’t give us another chance.
Three years ago, on our first trip, my friends Tom and Dave and I spent nearly two and a half days before we saw our first jaguar, and during the entire trip we had just fleeting, unsatisfactory viewings of Giant Otter. Last year, on our first official tour, we did a little better, but the best we did that year for Giant Otters was a poor day this year, which truly was the
Season of the Giant Otter.
One of Mary's Portfolios, below
We found several giant otter dens, one where the mink-sized young would drop out of their bank-side den to plop into the water and play. The adults, and older family members, were extremely solicitous with the young, and after nearly an hour’s play the mother would grab each of the babies in turn and drag it back up the bank and into the den.
At another den nearly every afternoon the adults would gather on several large tree trunks that had fallen into the stream. From there the otters would wrestle, return with fish, and incessantly groom themselves and each other. We’d encounter other otter groups on all the river systems, and one, in a quiet lagoon, provided my best shots as they fed in open shade on a huge eel-like fish at frame-filling distances.
Two different Brazilian Tapirs crossed a river right in front of us on two separate occasions, providing headshots of an animal we’d only glimpsed in deep undergrowth, or at night, previously. One group saw a South American River Otter, a cousin of our North American species and a dwarf compared to the six foot long Giants we saw nearly daily.
Bird life was great, as always, but a previous year’s participant’s body of bird photos was so motivational that both Mary and I decided we’d really try hard this year for bird photos, and we were quite successful. Birds I’d never had a good glimpse of before, like the elusive Sungrebe, now cooperated, and I got frame-fillers of this shy species both swimming and perched.
We alternated our time in the Pantanal with two scouting excursions, one to the far northeastern corner of Brazil for Maned Wolf, Hyacinth Macaws, and the incredible ‘Einstein’ Capuchin Monkeys, so named because they’re so smart they use stone tools to crack open hard palm nuts. The monkeys, profiled in the BBC ‘Life’ video series released in 2010, use a smaller rock, sometimes as large as their head, as a hammer or sledge, and a flat, anvil boulder as the base. We had incredible views that lasted over two hours as the monkeys smashed nuts, sometimes lifting and heaving a rock with such force that their feet lifted several inches off the ground.
The northeastern section was surprisingly beautiful, and one of our camps was without electricity and about 30 miles from the nearest small town. At night, after our Maned Wolf shoot, where a pair of Wolves visited our camp for handouts and giving us great close-range shots with flash, we photographed star trails and the Milky Way in a sky as brilliant as any I’ve seen anywhere. Fortunately, our trip coincided with a new moon, so no ambient light diffused the incredible color of this galactic display. My favorite shot is a wide-angle view of the Milky Way that, if you didn't know it, you'd swear was taken from a telescope. The colors, the brilliance, it was simply incredible, and on the rare times when we needed to use our flashlights to check camera gear, we felt like we were committing a crime, defiling the purity of the night.
Our trip to Iguassu Falls coincided with the full moon, but try as I might to make a convincing night scene of the falls the bright skies rendered an image that appeared to be made by day. Fortunately, our trip also coincided with the Hydroelectric company’s manipulation of the water flow, so we were treated by two entirely different views of the falls with modest water one day, revealing more cliff face, and a full blast of flow on the other, which truly illustrated the power and force of these falls. At Iguassu we visited the famous Bird Park here, and although it’s a nice diversion, it is still a crowded zoo, and rather boring compared to the shooting we’d done in the wild.
Another of Mary's Portfolios
see more at our Brazilian Portfolios
Pictures, of course, tell the story of this trip far better than do words, but if you would like to read my complete, day-by-day account of the entire Pantanal trip, check out the Trip Journal. For photos, you can look at our Participants’ Portfolio, that includes a selection of everyone’s images that appear on the Trip DVD, or our Portfolios from Brazil, 2010 at Brazil Wildlife Mary or Brazil Wildlife Joe. Of course, our Trip Journal is illustrated with images that are topical to the report as well.
Next year, because of a very busy travel year, we will only be offering one trip to the Pantanal, but in 2012 we’re planning on doing three. If you are interested, contact our office immediately so that you can be notified directly before we post a general announcement, otherwise you’re likely to miss out.
The Pantanal is exciting, and the thrill of seeing your first wild Jaguar will be an unparalleled experience. We know, for in our minds’ eye both Mary and I have that image floating before us – and for me, as the opening page on my desktop computer!
Report will be appearing soon!
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