Obsession. Goal. Ambition, hobby, call it what you will, but whatever the word that best defines it, I have a love affair with the South American puma, or mountain lion, or cougar, that like any relationship seems to have its ups and downs, its moments of elation and times of disappointment. For almost ten years I've been visiting the area around Torres del Paine National Park in Chile searching for pumas, a quest that was triggered by my first experience with that big cat when I walked parallel with a seemingly oblivious adult for over twenty minutes. That experience, and a later one four years ago when I sat, frustrated, for over an hour waiting for my camera gear to arrive while I watched a puma perform at forty yards, only strengthened my resolve that wild puma photographs could be made, with some luck and a lot of perseverence. This year, that belief was only strengthened.
We had scheduled six nights and five full days in the Torres area to search for pumas, but an error by our travel agent knocked off one night, and the lateness of our arrival curtailed the first day of our search. On our first of four days of searching we started late, and distracted by a hooded skunk foraging along the road we missed seeing our first puma, which our good friend had spotted and watched, frustrated and worried when we didn't meet up in the predawn hours.
As incredible as it may seem, in the next three days we had fifteen puma sightings, involving twelve different individuals, a mother with three nearly full-grown cubs, another mother with four nearly full-grown cubs, and another mother with two cubs less than a year old. One morning, we spotted the mother with three cubs while our friends, at almost the same time, sat watching another mother with two cubs feeding on a guanaco kill.
Unfortunately, seeing a puma and photographing one is a different story, as the cats are active at night and begin a retreat to their daytime lair minutes before sunrise. On our first successful day, our second full-day in the park, we spotted the dim, dark and very vague silhouette of a puma in the predawn light. With 18X image-stabilized binoculars I tried to make out whether or not the shape Mary and I were watching was a puma or a fox, but eventually the cat, which was sitting upright, flopped down on its side in the distinctive, carefree manner of a big cat, and I was sure we had our puma. In the east the sky was just lightening to a lighter shade of purple, and the mountain peaks were still uncolored by any hint of alpenglow. While we watched the light strengthened, and our eyes grew a bit more accustomed to the gloom, and we made out the shapes of three other cats, her cubs! Now all we could do was wait, hoping that the pumas would remain nearby until there was light enough to shoot.
An adult guanaco weights 400 to 450 pounds.
Males have fearsome lower canines they use in fights
with other guanacos. This one has the typical chase
posture adopted with intimidating a rival.
They didn't, and following their typical routine the cats started
moving out, toward some distant cliffs where numerous caves and
ledges would provide a sanctuary from a hot sun or blasting afternoon
wind. By now there was enough light to follow the cats, and I
grabbed my pack and walkie-talkie, a Garmen Rhino GPS unit that
would pinpoint my location, allowing Mary to find me later if
I had luck following the cats to a resting spot. The next several
minutes were exciting and confusing, as Mary tried radioing me
to either update me on the cats movements, or to learn likewise,
all the while trying to make sense of words garbled by an incessant
wind. At one point the cats doubled back and Mary informed me,
quite excitedly, that the cats were moving my way. Indeed they
did, and I suddenly stood about fifty yards from two or three
of the cats as they emerged like ghosts in the still gloomy predawn,
striding confidently from the low brush. One juvenile saw me and
ran off, but the mother, I presume, just stood and watched me
before slipping away at a jog, her travel marked by the warning
alarm whistles of guanacos. Those whistles soon stopped, and the
cats disappeared, and our first experience of this trip ended
just as the light intensified enough for any shooting.
Shortly afterwards, we joined our friends who were perplexed that, to them, for the second day in a row we missed seeing a puma, for they had found a carcass with a mother and two cubs, and had spotted a single individual the day before. On that day, our first in the park, we had started later than planned, and traveled slowly, distracted by a hooded skunk we watched foraging along the roadside. Our friends, in the meantime, sat watching a very curious puma in the predawn light, but when it headed to its morning resting area they lost it.
Their guanaco kill that morning was covered in a classic puma fashion with heaped up grasses and thatch, various scraps of undergrowth and mulch, a pile larger than I thought possible in the spare ground cover. In the context of a 150 pound cat (at best) pulling down an adult 400 pound guanaco male, raking up a big pile of vegetation was rather trivial I guess, but it still represented a lot of effort on the puma's part. Most of the abdomen and chest cavity had been eaten, leaving the lower portions of both thighs, the neck, and portions of the forelegs. Covered as it was, we expected the pumas might return and we made plans to put up a blind to photograph them at night.
The pumas Mary and I had seen were not feeding, but their lounging out in the dark steppes made us wonder if we had missed a kill, so we headed back and soon Mary smelled the distinctive odor of an opened body cavity, the scent of a fresh kill. Mind you, her nose isn't particularly keen .... she doesn't track that way, but she did detect it first, and soon after found the carcass, another adult guanaco. This one was nearly completely consumed, as one would expect with four nearly full size pumas feeding upon it, and it was uncovered.
Later that afternoon we returned to that kill, hoping that we might get some Andean condors in flight. Condors are inordinately shy and cautious, and when at a kill take flight at the slightest disturbance. Two years ago, on our previous and unsuccessful puma quest, I discovered a very fresh guanaco kill when a half dozen condors took flight when I rounded a rise a quarter mile distant. On this day several condors had landed close to the carcass, which was rather surprising since the kill was close to a road, but as we drove closer the half dozen birds launched themselves into the air. Several flew close, including a great male with its distinctive floppy-looking crest, and both this male and a brown-plumaged immature circled above our vehicle for a minute or so, presenting a challenging target as we braced our hand-held 500mm lenses on the roof of our SUV, jacking up the ISO for the fastest shutter speed possible as we fought for sharp images against a constant 30-40mph wind.
Around 6 we tried to erect a pop-up blind, but in a wind that had increased to 40-50 mph the mere act of spreading out the pieces proved too much of an ordeal. Worse, light scattered rain squalls threatened, almost guaranteeing that our lenses would be coated and useless should a cat appear. We doubted whether or not we could even get a sharp image, even when using flash, with a lens protruding from a blind's porthole in the wind, and worried that the blind itself would disintegrate along the seams from the constant stress of blasting winds. Hopefully you get the idea, the winds were extremely bad, and at one point the winds quite literally almost tore the door of my SUV clean off when I opened a car door into the wind with the stupid assumption that I could hold the door half-open with one arm. No sooner had I opened the door than it simply ripped from my grasp, flattening itself against the front panel of the car. Although I feared that I had broken the SUV's door hinges we were lucky, and aside from a bent front panel that we later wedged back into place we had no other damage.
Both Mary and I had picked up bad chest colds on our Antarctica trip and were, quite frankly, exhausted, so we headed back to our lodge with plans to meet our friends in the late morning of the following day. Our friends stayed at the kill to see if anything would happen and sure enough, a few hours after dark the puma and two nearly full-grown cubs returned to feed and to play in an open area nearby. It was too windy for any type of shooting but our friends returned the next morning, early, to see if the pumas were still there. The cats had returned, and this time, when the cats headed for their diurnal lair, our friends successfully followed them the mile or two until they reached theirday rest area. Later that morning, one of our friends drove back to our lodge and retrieved Mary and I and led us to the unlikely swampy copse of stunted trees where the cats had holed up for the day.
For the next seven hours we sat upon a hillside overlooking the shrub-like vegetation, waiting for the cats to wake up and, hopefully, play in one of the grassy clearings. In contrast to our preceeding days the afternoon was calm and warm, and our vigil was remarkably pleasant, as we overlooked a stream and the massive horns of the Torres del Paine massif. We were about 80 yards away from where we thought the cats to be, which was far enough away to not pose a threat to the cats, and indeed when they finally appeared they showed little concern. Unfortunately they were not playful, and after crossing a large clearing the cats returned to thicker cover where they remained the rest of the day. Still, we did have a chance to photograph them, and it was quite a thrill for all of us, but particularly Mary who, in five trips for puma, finally got her lens on one.
Our first puma shots of the trip, two of the three pumas we followed to their diurnal resting area in a shrubby swampland.
As the afternoon slid into evening the wind returned, and while we waited, worrying that we'd lose light before the cats would reappear, the wind morphed into a gale. By 8PM we were losing shootable light, although that was a moot point as the wind blasts would have made holding a tripod-mounted lens still virtually impossible, and we headed back toward the cars. Doing so we had to climb a 700 foot ridge which, in 50mph winds, was something of a challenge. Several times I had to push Mary forward when a particularly strong blast knocked her off-balance, threatening to toss her down the steep slope.
The following morning we left early to continue our search, hoping that we might again have luck and incredibly we did, at the same kill from the previous day where three cats had fed at dawn. In the slowly gathering light we could just make out the cats, but this time, however, we were stunned to see that there were five pumas present, the mother and four nearly full-grown cubs. The two new ones were, we assume, siblings that had not joined the mother at the kill previously. We often see this type of loose arrangement with leopards where, indeed, one or more siblings may seemingly be absent for days, weeks, or even months at a time. We're guessing that one or both of these large cubs had been elsewhere, and may have been one of the cats our friends had seen on our first morning. Conditions, if we were lucky, were nearly perfect. The sky was clear, a clear blue-black and subtle purple canopy above us and a promising hint of magenta-orange in the east, and the air was still. In the calm, cold air we could clearly hear the sound of ripping hide and the occasional snarl of a dispute, as we watched and waited, all the while hoping that the cats would stay long enough for shootable light.
They did, although we had to jack up our camera ISO's to 1200 to 2000, but at that speed and at our working distance we could include all five cats within the frame. While we squeezed off slow-shutter speed shots the peaks of Torres turned pink, teasing us with the light that was still many long minutes away from intensifying enough in the lowlands for any type of real shooting. While we waited, two of the pumas moved off, jogging uphill to climb a low rise before disappearing from view. Three pumas remained, still actively feeding, and worried that they too would soon leave I left the vehicle, crawling and duck-walking forward for a closer shot. As I moved forward one cat moved off, and I began to dispair. Mary stayed at the vehicle, shooting the remaining two cats as they fed while I slowly moved closer, all the while worrying that at any moment these two cats would also leave. To my horror they did, once, moving off into the brush but luckily they returned seconds later, and I had my first sense of hope, that the cats would now continue to feed within reasonable distance of my lens.
They didn't. Just seconds later the pumas finished their feeding and slowly moved off, pausing on the hillside for a few seconds to glance back in my direction before disappearing for good. I tried following, but in the undulating terrain I never saw the cats again, and the guiding warning whistles of watchful guanacos stopped surprisingly quickly.
That afternoon we hiked through promising countryside hoping to spot the other family of four pumas. Mary and I separated, and she hiked through the low country checking small forest thickets while I went high, climbing some steep rocky outcrops where I'd command a view of several likely-looking day time lairs. While we hiked an ominous black front formed over Gray's glacier,and as the minutes pass the storm loomed ever larger and more threatening against the western sky. It wasn't too long before another wind kicked up, firing hard cold pellets of rain horizontally into my face.
The conditions didn't look too promising for photography, or even for spotting a puma, and I decided to call it quits. I tried radioing Mary to set up a new rendevous, but to do so I had to climb out into a more exposed position on a rock face overlooking the valley below, a bit scary and a bit daunting in the relentless wind. Incredibly, the wind increased, blasting so hard that even when I was lying flat against the rock I was slowly inched forward, my body and backpack acting like a sail as the wind pushed me toward the cliff edge. It was a bit unsettling, for although I was still anchored rather securely with legs spread wide and one hand gripping the bumpy rocky conglomerate I wondered whether or not I could hold on if the gale increased in intensity. Huddled over my radio, I discovered that I had had my volumn set too low to hear Mary's response, and I finally contacted Mary and arranged to call it a day.
A pair of crested caracaras fed on our last guanaco kill. One arrived first, fed, and flew off, but when it returned it had brought along its mate. In the unrelenting wind we filmed the caracaras from our SUV.
We weren't especially enthusiastic about our prospects for success on our last full day, as the sky was shrouded in thick, spitting clouds and a cold wind underscored the chill and unpleasantness of the coldest morning we had awakened to. Incredibly, however, less than a half mile from the location of the previous day's kill we spotted three more pumas which, in the gloom of the dreary dawn, resembled European hares more than cats five or six times that size. We'd spotted these cats in the peripheral glow of our headlight and saw, to our surprise, that the puma was a mother with two half-grown cubs, about eight or nine months old, and they were feeding on still another kill! This one was only about twenty yards from a road, promising great shots if the cats would remain long enough for the light to finally arrive. They didn't stay, but instead moved off, heading in the same direction that our dirt track led. We followed, and within a few hundred yards we intersected again with the cats, which crossed the track only a few yards in front of us, before slowly wandering off, pouncing playfully on one another as they disappeared only too quickly. We decided not to follow, our decision dictated by low light, high winds, and the fact that the cats were covering ground at a discouragingly fast pace.
That afternoon, our vehicle packed for our return to Punta Arenas and our flight home, we parked close to the guanaco kill and within a half hour a pair of crested caracaras appeared, scavenging on the uncovered remains. While we knew we were too close for any condor to land, we still half-expected one or more to at least circle in curiosity, but the windy skies stayed clear. After a long feed the caracaras flew off, and with their departure we left this prime puma habitat as well, heading on our final leg for home after a month-long trip that included Tierra del Fuego National Park in Argentina, our Antarctica cruise, and our puma quest in the area around Torres del Paine, Chile.