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Trip Report:

Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal
Trip 1, 2012

Check out our book Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal

This year we did a total of five weeks in the Pantanal and Cerrado area and unfortunately Mary, recovering from a total knee replacement, had to remain home. With the magic of Skype, however, I was able to share events of the trips as they transpired, and this year was perhaps one of the best. We were in jaguar country on three different trips, two in the northern Pantanal and once in the south, and we were successful each time.

In fact, on this trip I saw behaviors I've never seen before, including jaguars mating, a mating couple fight (that lasted seconds), a successful jaguar hunt, where the jaguar killed a caiman, and some exciting jaguar activity near camp. I used several trail cameras for scouting out an area to set up a real camera setup, and that, too, proved successful. The following is my day-to-day journal, complete with our disappointments and our many successes and triumphs.

Day 1. Sao Paulo – Cuiaba – Curicaca Eco Lodge

pantanalEveryone arrived safely and on time in Sao Paulo and our connection to Cuiaba, although confusing at times with time and gate changes, went smoothly. We were met by a new guide, Marcos, a competent self-taught English-speaker and self-taught naturalist, and a competent guy. We ate a buffet lunch near the airport where we met the owner of the company, who later joined us again at our lodge in the Pantanal.
birdAs we entered the Pantanal we stopped to photograph the iconic sign and there, in the open, were three Bare-faced Currasows, an almost turkey-sized bird that we often see on the river but that is somewhat difficult to photograph well. These were very cooperative and we spent about twenty minutes in the low light of late afternoon. We also had Red-legged Seriemas, the ecological equivalent of the African Secretarybird, and always a good sign for our luck.

ternI’d been to the Curicaca lodge once before, long ago when I did my first scouting trip to the Pantanal. At that time I felt the lodge was ratty and subpar, and aside from some birds it didn’t have much to offer. We were pleasantly surprised this time, with tasty, huge meals, and a ‘magic window’ – a screened window that can be opened for shooting from the dining area – where we filmed fairly unsuccessfully a Crab-eating Raccoon that came in for scraps. The raccoon looks similar to our North American version, but it is thinner (everything is here!) and much longer legged, giving proportions more like a bobcat than a raccoon. While I talked with the lodge owner a Crab-eating Fox came in as well, but I didn’t bother trying to film this species.

Day 2. Curicaca Eco Lodge to South Wildlife Center

monkeyThe forest around our lodge exploded with sound by 4AM, fully an hour before sunrise, with Chachalacas (pheasant-like brown birds), currasows, and a host of toots, whistles, cackles, and songs that I couldn’t identify. At 6, just as the sky was lightening I was out, and our guide, Marcos, spotted a troop of Brown Capuchin Monkeys that moved assuredly through the trees. I was trying my new camera, the EOS 1DX, and found, to my frustration, that I had set some buttons incorrectly, preventing me from changing my shutter speed on manual mode. For much of the morning I ended up shooting either Aperture on spot or, far more successfully, evaluative, but I so missed my manual metering/spot metering mode!
A troop of Coatimundis moved into the feeding area at the dining hall, joined by a number of bird species and even an Agouti, a rabbit-sized antelope-looking rodent that is normally quite shy. We did well with both, and in fact these were the best of both species I’ve filmed in the Pantanal.

After breakfast we drove back to the Transpantaneira Highway to photograph coatithe wading birds along one of the drying pools where nearly two dozen Jabiru Storks fed amongst hundreds of Common Egrets. We met a British birder who told me that last week there were hundreds of Jabirus here, and this was the only concentration on the entire road. Terns, kingfishers, wood storks, and other egrets joined us during the shoot.
After lunch we headed to the next lodge, stopping en route to photograph a Jabiru at a nest where it was joined by its mate, flying in unexpectedly, but fortunately I was out of the bus and saw it coming, giving the others a good warning.

Marsh Deer, Paroque, and White-necked Heron diving for fish.

We did quite well with the large Marsh Deer, including one buck with trophy-sized antlers. We didn’t arrive at the lodge until almost 4, which was really too late for the boat ride we had scheduled. That trip was cancelled, giving everyone a bit more time to unpack and shoot the Toco Toucans that came in to the feeder and for me to hike to the forest where I set up two Trail Cameras, hoping to get a jaguar. My trail had fresh jaguar tracks and I walked quietly, hoping that I might surprise one resting on the trail. Probably I was lucky in not discovering one!
At dinner a pair of extremely tame Crab-eating Foxes came in, and afterwards we headed out for a night game drive. We spotted a Brazilian Tapir but it was too far off for shooting, although we did well with a Great Horned Owl, a Nightjar, and, the bothropshighlight, a Bothrops viper that tried drinking at a muddy flatland, unsuccessfully seeking water. I got out to shoot it closer to ground level, spooking my guide who was worried that this stretched out snake could strike out a meter. I assured him that I had plenty of experience with snakes.
We traveled into the forest where we found a surprising number of Jaguar tracks but no cats, and indeed, except for the tapir, no mammals, which was unusual. Still it was a spectacular first day, and with the reports we’d had from people both yesterday and this evening of the jaguars on the river, it has been extremely productive. We’re hoping we’ll be lucky too.

Day 3. Southern Wildlife Center (PWC)

I had a miserable night with a knotted shoulder, and by 1AM I finally rubbed in some Icy Hot and got enough relief to fall asleep. Consequently I passed on my 5AM alarm and didn’t rise until Marcos knocked on my door, informing me and everyone else that the Toco Toucans were at the feeder. Six had flown in, and I directed our shooters into more favorable and less conservative positions than where they were stationed, on the porch, worried that they might frighten these very tolerant birds.
hawkAfter breakfast we left early, around 8AM, for a river shoot, chugging up the water hyacinth-choked Pixiami River for nearly 300 yards before reaching open water. The morning was quite successful and we stayed on the water until nearly noon, photographing one Greater Black Hawk, several Black-collared Hawks, Ringed Kingfishers, and one surprisingly bold White-necked Heron that came in to our tossed piranha baits. It was fun watching the heron, which flew down almost like an osprey, feet-first, only lunging forward with its beak at the last moment to grab a fish. Crested Caracaras stole a few fish as well, but the birds today grabbed the fish with their talons, not with their beaks. In earlier years some caracaras grabbed the fish with their beaks, as you might expect a carrion-feeder to do, but today’s birds acted like raptors, and clutched the fish with their talons.
After lunch I walked down to the old Greater Potoo roost, and the bird was there, clearly visible as it perched on a limb, looking like a stump that could so easily be dismissed. I set up a Trail Camera a bit further down the trail and later another camera closer to the ranch houses. Marcos met me and we drove to my final site, at the Bothrops water hole, where I placed Tom’s camera. I’ll keep these out until I return from the jaguars, and it will be interesting if five trail cameras record a jaguar!
In the PM we headed back up river but the mares’ tail clouds we saw this morning had thickened to an overcast, and the light was soft and a bit dull. Still, we had luck with all the birds again, and although we did have to push our ISOs higher we had nice, even lighting and some good shooting. We returned at dusk with mosquitoes just awakening, and packed for our departure to the jaguar camp tomorrow.

Day 4. PWC to Flotel and Jaguar Station

Last night, minutes before bedtime I discovered that my computer wasn’t charged and, I believed, my charger/transformer wasn’t working. I was borrowing Tom’s computer, and I didn’t pay attention that the charge cord did not light up when it was plugged in. Instead, I assumed that it did, and therefore believed that it was broken. It made for a miserable night of worry, as I game-planned on ways I could get a new charger to me.
This morning Tom set me straight and I discovered that everything was working – what a relief. We headed out down the Transpantaneira Road right after breakfast, enjoying the least dusty trip we’ve ever had on this road. Nothing of note slowed our progress – the owls we normally shoot were high and hidden, although there was a 5 foot long fresh Yellow Anaconda lying in the grove.
We arrived at Porto Joffre before noon, boarded a speed boat and arrived at the Flotel less than thirty minutes later. We left again at 2, traveling much of the 3 Brothers river system, hoping to encounter the mother jaguar and cubs, or any jaguar! We had one radio call that a cat had been seen, but it was just fresh, wet tracks that disappeared into the tall grasses. We never saw the cat.
otterWe were still exploring river systems when I spotted four Giant Otters just coming out of a grassy tributary. We followed the otters for about a mile, with the experience culminating when the otters caught several fish and noisily chewed on a log not far from our boats. Later they played, actually rising on their hind legs to wrestle for a brief moment, and later still, two ran down the beach, almost colliding with our beached boat.
Richard and Steve were with me, and Rich commented that the day was slow until then, which it was, but I hoped that the long, unproductive boat ride illustrated that simply cruising around looking for jaguars can be very unproductive. Better, by far, to stop and shoot birds and wildlife and, if we’re lucky, the jaguars will come. Tomorrow we’ll start that game plan.

Day 5. JRC

Our first full day in jaguar country and although we had planned on eating breakfast at 6:30AM everyone was up and eating fifteen minutes early, allowing us to leave for our cruising by 6:45. We covered the 3 Brothers area but there were little luck with cats, although Marcos had a brief glimpse of a jaguar that quickly disappeared.
My morning, with Jan and Judy, was going slowly until we pulled in on a family of Capybaras with four or five kits. As we pulled in the rodents moved down the sand bar so we followed, anchoring and letting out enough rope to keep in a good position. Then, we waited, and it wasn’t long before the young kits decided to play, entering the water with their mother and then wandering off to wrestle. They were close enough for a 70-300mm lens, and they repeated the wrestling matches several times.
Another female swam in, with her young baby riding her back part of the time. The other kits greeted her and soon several were nursing, so apparently, like lions, female capybaras will nurse another’s young. It is possible that the group is composed of related females, and so, like lions, the care-giving would make sense.
PM. We headed out at 2 and my boat, now minus Jan, headed up the Black Lagoon. I was told it was weed choked and impassable but we pushed through and explored almost the entire length of this, one of my favorite locations. This morning we visited the other, another lagoon that was too choked with vegetation to continue.
otterReturning from the lagoon we encountered a group of six Giant Otters, and we had fairly good luck when several caught piranhas and docked themselves on a flimsy branch that broke in half as they tried to climb aboard. After finishing their fish they moved off, caught more but before we could continue we had a radio call that a jaguar had been spotted. This was at 3, and by 3:30PM we arrived but the cat had been spooked by an obnoxious group of fishermen and moved into the brush.
We waited 15 minutes or so, in the shade, near the opposite bank, and fed voracious mosquitoes. We moved up stream and I spotted the jaguar just as it emerged on the opposite bank. After being disturbed, the cat must have moved up river where it made the swim. We followed at a bit less than frame-filling distance as it moved through the river reeds. At one point it pounced, rising high above the grasses, and later still charged into the reeds, but missed whatever it had chased. We lost the cat then, but shaking reeds indicated it was moving about and later the cat emerged, waddling with something heavy between its legs. A BBC crew was here with their CineFlex camera on a tall boom and they saw the hunt, and the kill – a huge caiman, probably 2.5 meters.
We waited a bit longer but it didn’t look productive and we moved on, heading towards another jaguar sighting where the other two boats were parked. I didn’t know about this and our guide turned us around, correctly figuring that we couldn’t get there in time as the light was running out. The group there, however, had waited nearly 2 hours until, with light beginning to fail, the boats moved in for a closer view and got some low light but extremely close shots of a female jaguar. The male was in the tree above her, and he came down, she snarled, and they mated. They arrived nearly a half hour after we did, in complete darkness.
Total for the day: 3 jaguars sighted by the group, 4 in total (Marcus spotted).

Day 6. JRC

We scheduled our breakfast for 6:15 but when I arrived, on time, everyone was already half-finished their breakfast. We headed out by 6:45, and my boat, with Tom and Phil, headed up the Black Lagoon, hoping for otter, birds, or jaguars. We pushed through the tangle of water hyacinths but the area was rather barren, and as we headed back we received a radio call that the jaguars were seen. We sped to the location.
jaguarBy the time we arrived the two jaguars were hidden in the brush but we waited, all day, hoping for the cats to reappear. We were in a great position but despite our hopes the cats remained hidden, with just small snatches of views as the cats mated repeatedly. The female was quite vocal during each mating, although the few times we saw the act there wasn’t the violence I’ve seen with lions. For much of the day the cats were mating about every fifteen minutes, although by 4 the matings had slowed down. At 5 the cats finally moved, coming to the river’s edge where, for a short time, the female climbed a tree (the first time I’ve seen this behavior!), then climbed back down and settled on a large tree root.
jaguarThe male would approach the female in a stalk, growling low and rumbling as he did so each time he attempted to mate. At the end of the day the cats finally moved to the open of the forest clearing, with little vegetation or branches in the way. We started another circle-shoot, with each boat approaching, shooting, and moving on in a big circle, followed by another boat. I tried ISOs from 1600 up to 32,000, and finally ended with ISO 800 and flash. Unfortunately I was out of position when the cats unexpectedly mated a final time completely in the open, but a few of our boats were  there and hopefully got some shots.
We arrived back at camp 6:15 or so, completely in the dark. Several of us tried bat ‘baseball,’ where we shoot wildly, hoping to get a bat in the frame and in focus. Tonight, we all struck out.





jagDay 7. JRC

We left at 6:45, heading indirectly to the mating jaguars. We covered a few side rivers before, arriving at the jaguars. They were hidden when we arrived but within twenty minutes or so the female moved down to the shoreline where she nestled into the sand. A few seconds later the male appeared and walked down to the water’s edge where he dipped a paw and snarled. Over the next several minutes the male displayed interest but the female just moved along the sandy beach, pausing occasionally, and giving us hope that they would mate.

The male visited a bush and scent-marked, and then approached the female, probably intent on mating. The female judged his actions and charged, and in the two seconds or so of the entire action the male reared back, paws outstretched defensively, while the female swatted, claws completely extended. She missed him by inches, but it made for an incredible sequence.
The cats moved back into the brush and after that show, at the 11AM hour, we figured the cats were finished. Another jaguar was reported down river and we headed there, where a male was lying beneath a tree in a sheltered lagoon, but completely in the open. Unfortunately, tour boats with a canopy top were there first, and the covers blocked most of our views. The shooting was really compromised, and these tops are a real affront to jaguar viewing. Worse, they seem to do little good, as photographers were often still in the sun and not under shelter. The absolute worst offender was from PUMA LODGE, where the operator continually drove his boat much closer to the shoreline, following the jaguar, and in doing so blocked the view for most of the other visitors. He had one tourist inside, who didn’t look too serious, but he and the boat pilot certainly were obnoxious! I had heard that Puma Lodge was a bit ratty, and it certainly seems out of the way, but the behavior of the pilot certainly would make me urge everyone not to patronize that lodge.
jaguarThe jaguar showed an interest in a caiman so all of us moved off, hoping that it would make a hunt but the caiman moved off, as did the jaguar. The cat began following the shoreline ridge, approaching another caiman and a group of capybaras. The caiman slipped into the water and swam off, but the capybaras remained. Perhaps they smelled the jaguar because they started doing alarm calls, while the jaguar slowly worked through the shoreline reeds, possibly hunting more caiman. When the jaguar reached the open the capybaras darted into the bay, but the jaguar jogged towards them, a half-hearted charge. We followed the cat as it continued to hunt, darting forward once for another caiman or iguana. Jan was feeling poorly so Tom and Richard headed back, and we were about to, as the jaguar looked as if it was about to disappear into the jungle. It didn’t, so we followed, but in a quick, unseen dart the jaguar dashed into the river and pulled out what we think was an iguana. The lizard was about 3 feet long, and we figured the cat was done hunting for a while so we headed back for lunch.
At 2PM we headed out again, and the jaguar had resumed hunting. We followed it for over a mile, as it worked the shoreline, the waters, and the reeds. Thirteen boats were following the cat as well, and our shooting was a bit compromised as we needed to ‘park’ at access points, sometimes farther away than I’d have liked. Still, we had some interesting shots.
Eventually the jaguar moved into heavier cover with limited open banks, so we headed towards the mating jaguars, a 30 minute ride. When we arrived other boats were there so we had an idea where the pair were, and after a half hour or so they mated again, and we heard the yowling cries. The cats moved, settling into an opening, and we began another boat rotation where we circled, shooting some frames before moving on for the next boat, then getting back in line for another series. We continued almost to dark, adding a tele-flash for the lighting.
As we returned to the boat we passed more bats than I’d seen before, but I didn’t set up the flash. Yesterday I did, but I had little luck … I should have been prepared again tonight!

Day 8. JRC

ptterIf having two jaguars and three or four encounters with giant otters don’t count, it was a fairly slow day. Doris, John, and I headed up the San Pedro River (or Black Lagoon?), hoping to encounter otters or a missed jaguar. Normally bird life is fairly abundant here but the trip was slow, with just one cooperative subadult Black-crowned Night Heron and a Black-collared Hawk posing well.
Back on 3 Brothers we did encounter a group of four Giant Otters we followed for over a mile until they turned into the Black Lagoon where, amidst the thick, choking weeds, we lost them. We continued on to the jaguars, encountering Charlie and his boat heading back down river, along with our other two boats following. They had been at the jaguars but nothing showed, but we moved up and within twenty minutes the pair showed themselves on the bank and, over the next hour, a few times under some trees. We decided to leave by 11, hoping to see another jaguar on the route back was we came up dry.
otterIn the afternoon we headed up the Pixiiami River for two hours, hoping for giant otters and jaguars on this much-less traveled river. We encountered otters several times, and managed some images, but the otters were moving rapidly and it was, for the most part, a game of chase.
We did fairly well with Pied Plovers and a semi-cooperative Capped Heron, a beautiful, long-plumed, blue-faced white heron that is very shy. I was prepared for bats as the evening ended but we arrived at the boat, and the thick of the bats, almost simultaneously and got no shots.

Day 9. JRC

Our last morning in true jaguar country and we covered a lot of territory, including, for me, some slow-moving streams I’d never been on. Steve and I were together and we did very well with wide-angle views of Capybaras that we shot from just a few feet away.
After lunch we returned to the PWC, arriving too late in the day for any day light activity. After dinner we headed out on a night game drive and we had a distant view of an Ocelot, but it moved up the road and never came close. Another vehicle did a drive and headed north and east (we went south and west) and they had a tapir and a giant anteater! Our drive, in comparison, was rather tame.

Day 10. SWC.


I checked the various game cameras I had set out while we were at JRC. Two of the five cameras misfired, or didn’t show anything worthwhile. Two others, however, set at opposite ends of the property had Jaguar images. All were shot at night with infrared, and the beam illumination requires a slower exposure so the images are not sharp or detailed, but clearly showed jaguars, as well as crab-eating fox, an armadillo, and raccoon on other cameras.
After breakfast we did another boat trip, this time with Charlie, the company owner, acting as our guide as Marcos, our original guide, was sent back to the jaguar boat with two new clients. We had fair luck, with two passes, early and late on the boat, with Black-collared Hawks and one with a Greater Black Hawk. hawkCaracaras of both species went after fish and interestingly, the Southern Caracara tried grabbing fish by both its talons and by its beak. Normally this species just dives in and grabs a fish with its beak, and in so doing sinks deeply into the water before floundering back into flight. Yellow-headed Caracaras, in contrast, tried snatching fish with their claws, but usually dropped them – apparently their feet are not built for holding prey.
In the late afternoon, inspired by my success with the trail cameras, I set up a real camera trap using two external flashes and a Range IR.
I returned from the setup in time to lead the group in the late afternoon we took the truck to the Greater Potoo nest. The bird was in its usual spot and everyone got nice shots from several angles as the bird never moved, frozen in place like a log.

storkDay 11. SWC to Cuiaba

Jan, Phil, Sue, and John left right after breakfast to catch their flight while the rest of us stayed on, hoping to do another boat ride and hang out until a 3PM departure to the city. The boat was tied up with others until 10:15, too late and too hot to go out, but fortunately the morning was rescued when 5 Chestnut-cheeked Aracaris, toucan relatives, flew into the avocado tree on the grounds and started feeding, presenting 45 minutes of great views.
Since nothing else was happening we decided to leave for the city right after lunch, planning on visiting a small colony of marmosets. Right after lunch, just as we were about to leave, Claudia, the hotel manager, spotted a Jaguar crossing the road – within sight of the restaurant’s bar where she was standing. Unfortunately she didn’t call attention to it quickly enough and everyone else missed our final glimpse of a cat.
marmosetThe ride back went uneventfully but took longer than expected and we arrived at the marmosets at 5:10PM, with the sun almost at the horizon. The marmosets, large squirrel-sized primates, arrived almost immediately and the viewing was great, although shooting was compromised by high ISOs (for the lucky ones) or very slow shutter speeds. Still, it was a great experience and we hoped to return tomorrow before flying on to our extension for the maned wolves.
This evening, however, I learned that there would be a $120 or more charge for doing the marmosets the following day. This was unexpected and as it was now nearly 10PM I couldn’t survey the group to see if they’d wish to spend the money, and so we cancelled. It did make for a very annoying time of email exchanges as I felt we should have been informed of this earlier – where we’d have either passed on this evening’s shoot and just shooting on the following day, or been prepared for spending money the following morning. I learned a valuable lesson, but it was an unfortunate end for an otherwise great time. And the lesson? Assume nothing.



Read about our Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal trips
One or Two for 2012
Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip!

Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to the Pantanal are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.