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Trip Report:

Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal
Trip 2, 2012

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I always have a bit of apprehension in starting a second tour, as I worry whether or not we'll have the same luck and excitement that we had on the first trip. I need not have worried for the second trip was equally productive and in no way repetitive. We had as many, or more, jaguars and giant otters, and new behaviors or shooting opportunities, making the second trip just as exciting as the first. The following is my day-to-day journal:

Day 1.

storkEveryone arrived at the Cuiaba airport without incident. Tom, Richard, Angus, Romaine, and I returned from the wolf extension, while John, Frank, Joe, and Greg arrived from Sao Paulo. En route to the Pantanal we stopped at the entrance where, once again, we had great Bare-faced Currasows, Chestnut-bellied Chachalacas, and Gray-necked Wood Rails.
We arrived at Pouso Alegre after dark, as we did a long game-drive hoping to see giant anteaters, but we were unsuccessful. Caimans are abundant, and one of my favorite shots was a cluster of glowing red eyes at a nearby pond. A very cooperative Crab-eating Fox visited close to the road, although I missed the shot when its mate touched noses with our subject. Check-in, however, went smoothly.
At dinner, another tourist I’d seen earlier showed me his shots of tapirs and giant anteaters he’d shot at the lodge just hours earlier, in the light. We planned on visiting that tomorrow.

Day 2. Pouso Alegre.

macawWe awoke long before 4AM for a 4:20 departure for a predawn game drive, again hoping for anteaters. We were not successful, although we did well with coatimundis and various birds. The visit to the anteater area proved futile, although we did have coatis there, and many birds. We’d contemplated staying all day, and arriving at our next lodge after dark, but I cancelled that, figuring the chances of real productive shooting was best at the next lodge and not spent waiting in the heat at a waterhole.

hawkAs we left the lodge we encountered a Greater Black Hawk that was feeding on a dying Capybara I’d seen earlier. Eventually we circled the bird for better light, and stayed with it until its crop was full and the bird flew off. Later we had one of our best encounters with a Savannah Hawk perched on a termite mound, and my new camera performed well capturing the bird when it took flight.

After lunch I checked all four of the Game Cameras I had placed, and all had Jaguars on them. The most exciting had passed just one day ago, at noon, and I have reasonably good shots of the huge jaguar. Tonight I set up another ‘real’ camera at a spot where either last night, or today, jaguar tracks were going in both directions. So I may have luck.


This afternoon, at 3, we did our first boat trip for Kingfishers and Hawks, and, as usual, it was a circus of confusion. It was actually worse today, as we had three boats which gave us more space and room, but made ‘herding cats’ that much more difficult. Still, between all the tries I think most everyone got something, some time.
As I returned from the camera trap I saw several eye shines of small caiman, and caught one to show the group. Tom was the only one still awake and, after showing the caiman, I released it back in its pond.

Day 3. PWC to the Jaguar Flotel

jagI was at my camera trap by 6:10, excited as fresh jaguar tracks led in both directions as I neared my set. I did capture two Jaguars, but unfortunately I had the camera facing perpendicular to the trail and either the cats traveled too fast, or the camera ‘slept’ and woke up too late, as I only captured the back end of the two, a male and a female. The lighting was good, and it was still exciting, and I hope to get another few chances when we return from the jaguar flotel.
Breakfast was served early and I ate before going out and shooting the Toco Toucan and some pretty back-lighted birds – Purple Jays, Kiskadee Flycatchers, Doves – in silhouette as their wings glowed translucent. Most of the participants were at a tree where Hyacinth Macaws were perched, but I was distracted by a Sunbittern, and later a Limpkin, that were quite close and fed actively. The sunbittern ended up being perhaps the best one I’ve ever filmed, as I was on solid ground, and not a boat, for very steady shots. Once sunbthe sunbittern lunged deep from the river bank for prey, flaring its wings as it did so to reveal the orange eyespots that the bittern flashes to frighten or threaten predators. We’d seen that yesterday, too, when a sunbittern flashed a coatimundi, which paid it no mind and charged in, driving the sunbittern into the air.
We packed and headed towards Porto Joffre and, for the first time in at least two years, the Hyacinth Macaws were present at the nest tree by our loading dock. I’d walked up to check, then returned for my camera and yelled to the group that the birds were there, but at first only two photographers joined me. macaw

The rest boarded the boat for our transport, and baked in the sun while we photographed the birds. Our guide, Marcos, came up to tell me people were unhappy sitting in the sun, and I told him to go back and tell them to get up here, that the shooting was terrific. Almost everyone eventually did, although some arrived just seconds before the birds flew off. One almost knocked me in the head as it flew close by.



anacondaEn route we also found a 7 foot Yellow Anaconda crossing the road. Marcos and I got out and when the snake started crawling away I dropped my hat over its head, attempting to grab it behind the neck. Marcos stopped me, and just picked it up, as I would a Pennsylvania rat snake, and just started letting it glide through his hands, as he kept pace, essentially keeping it in place. He passed it on to me and I did the same, as did Joe and some others, probably holding the largest wild snake in their life! It was another good omen for a good start for the trip.
blackbirdAfter lunch we headed out, and we’d probably not traveled further than twenty minutes when I spotted a jaguar atop the bank in a small opening. The cat was resting and, over the next two hours, slept, got up, turned direction, and basically stayed in the open for shots the entire time. Everyone worked well and all got nice shots. The Jaguar, I believe, is the same male that was mating, I think, but a face comparison will show this.



Day 4. Jaguar Flotel

anhingaEveryone was beat, and went to bed early last night, and by 9 the boat was silent. I awoke at 4, although I stayed in bed trying to get back to sleep. At 4:40 Doug knocked on my door, informing me that Joe was very sick. Indeed he was, but with two doctors as part of the group by 6 we were able to get an assessment and, with Cipro, he was feeling better by evening. It was scary, however.

John and I headed up the Black Lagoon where we did very nice work with a Roadside Hawk, Anhinga, White-necked Heron, Green Iguana, and Jacana and Cattle Tyrants. A radio call pulled us away as another Jaguar had been spotted.
When we arrived the cat was mostly hidden, and although it did come out into an open sand bank, its resting area was in shade and surrounded by sun-lighted leaves, making for a lot of contrast. We spent the rest of the morning there, but I decided to bring the group in for lunch so that we could check more of the river, coming and going, if we returned to the jaguar.
jaguarAfter lunch we returned to the lagoon, but it was empty, and another radio call brought us to another jaguar, the one-eyed male we’d had yesterday. He was sleeping in the open and for the next three hours we sat, facing the hot western sun and sweating, while we waited for the jaguar to wake up. The wait was worth it, as the cat was close, right next to the shoreline, and performed well, turning repeatedly to give us different views. By 5:15 it got up a final time and moved into the thick brush, where it again fell asleep and where we left it for our return to base.

Day 5. Jaguar Flotel

Let me jump ahead … to the most exciting event of the day.
jaguarWe’d stopped for a family of Capybaras, hoping that the two or three babies in the group might play. One of the two adults was giving periodic alarm calls, although the other capybaras didn’t seem to notice. While we photographed, my boatman/guide spotted a Jaguar on the opposite bank, low and near the water and partially hidden by leaves. We quickly left the capybara, but the jaguar moved up the bank and behind a screen of leaves.
The cat moved upstream, and as I went to pull up the anchor a capybara just upstream dashed over the seven foot bank and dove into the river. All this in a blink of an eye, and less than a second later the jaguar flashed into view, stretched out and flattened as it dove after the capybara. Wow! A second or two later the jaguar reappeared on the bank, the capybara in its jaws. I grabbed my 70-300 and started shooting as the cat moved up the steep bank, where it paused, on top, with the subadult capybara in its jaws. I grabbed my 500 and shot several images hand-held, then, as the cat stayed motionless, I mounted the camera on my Wimberley and shot several more. Hopefully they all will be sharp!
While writing this, and reading this, takes far longer than the event, these brief moments are seared in my mind, burnt impressions by the excitement of the actions. Seeing a kill is extremely rare, and this one showed that action can happen in an instant, and totally unexpectedly – quite unlike most African big cat kills.
Our day started with a 6:15 wake-up, and my boat moved up the Cuiaba River. John, Richard, and Frank went back to the Black Lagoon were they had great luck with Giant Otter. We saw an otter, but it was shy, and our best event on the river was Blue-throated Piping Guans flying overhead and five skimmers that teased us constantly.
jaguarWe received a radio call about a jaguar sighting which ended up at the old giant otter den. The log that blocks the stream is now almost above water, and it took us five minutes or so to get the boat over the obstacle, with Tom outside the boat, on one side, and me in the water on the other, along with the guide. Tom had picked up my camera that was rolling about, and I was a bit worried that he’d slip and fall, but he got the camera in in time and we got the boat going.
We didn’t move far before we reached the jaguar, which was lying in the open, 55 feet away, and sitting upright when we approached. I shot madly, although I expect none of those first shots were worthwhile. Later the jaguar did awake, and gave us multiple opportunities as the cat changed position, and then yawned three times.
Although the cat shoot was done by lunch, technically, we had lunch sent out to us and ate near the black lagoon.  The rest of the afternoon was spent with the jaguar kill, and cruising looking for more.


Day 6. Jaguar Flotel.

Inspired by John’s luck with giant otters, several of our boats went up the Black Lagoon, hoping for a repeat. The otters were absent and the bird life spotty, and most boats moved on. I was with Angus and Doug and we lingered, photographing a variety of birds and making the most of the quiet water. Eventually we joined the main channel, but we immediately turned off into another side channel where we spotted five Giant Otters. We worked with them for nearly 40 minutes, getting them once on the beach where one scrambled with the foot-pushing scent marking. When the otters returned to the main channel we followed, hoping they’d swim back to the lagoon. They didn’t, but other boats were speeding in that direction.
When we arrived we spotted what looked like a young female, but soon I realized it was actually one of the cubs we’d been looking for. She was fairly tame, and posed for a few minutes before joining her mother and sibling as they moved through the brush. We didn’t see them again.
We decided to travel the lagoon again, and we stopped at a Common Tody-Flycatcher nest where Amos and I got out, climbed up some tree roots, and attempted to shoot the jagbird from ground level. While we waited, another jaguar was spotted, again in the lagoon, and just about three hundred yards from where we sat, on the same side of the river.
It was the one-eyed male we’d seen several times and for the next 1.5 hours or so we followed the cat as it hunted the river bank and shoreline. My boatman/guide and I worked perfectly, as he agreed with me in moving ahead, positioning ourselves at spots where we’d have a long open view when the cat eventually worked in our direction. This plan worked well, except at times our shooting was compromised when other boats, playing catch-up and simply following along side the jaguar, crossed in front of us or caused a wake. Nonetheless, we ended up shooting a lot of jaguar before the cat moved into the water plant-choked section of the lagoon where we could not follow.
After lunch we returned to the lagoon, hoping to find the cubs, but a report of another jaguar on the Cuiaba River nearby took us out, but we failed to see the cat. We thought we saw bushes shaking, but a cat didn’t appear.
agoutiWe returned to the lagoon and spent the rest of the afternoon there. For a time all of our boats were present but most moved off, looking for subjects while we worked Anhinga, Striated Herons, songbirds, and a very cooperative Agouti, the large, antelope-like ground rodent, that we silhouetted against the vegetation.
Our count, now, is 9 for our first three days, and almost all of these have been great sightings.

Day 7. Pixiami River

otterFor a change of pace we changed river systems, heading up the Pixiami River and to the fishing lodge nearly two hours upriver. Although jaguars can be seen there, and one person, a few years ago, had an incredible shot from here, I didn’t expect to see jaguars and we didn’t. In fact, the prey base was slim, and Tom and Romaine saw one capybara, and I saw a few caimans, nothing like the numbers we see elsewhere.
We were hoping to see a Brazilian tapir which we’ve had here several times but again we came up short. Our guide said the river could be very good for otter – something I didn’t remember as outstanding – but today he was right on. We had two great Giant Otter groups.
The first was a group of five or more that had captured a Dorado fish, or two – I couldn’t be sure. We had to motor to keep up with the current but with high shutter speeds it wasn’t much of a problem, and the otters performed incredibly, moving to several limbs on a fallen tree to provide multiple shooting opportunities. One juvenile cried continuously for food but was ignored, and once another adult tried stealing the remains of a fish from another but, for the most part, all the otters were mild-mannered. Looking at my images later I was surprised to see two different schools of tiny minnows propelling themselves out of the water in front of the feeding otter. I assume they were being chased by a larger fish, and all were probably attracted to the fish bits scattered by the feeding otters. This, in turn, usually attracts kingfishers, and this time an Amazon dove in repeatedly.
Not too much further up the river our guide spotted a Neotropical Otter, a species I otterrarely see and then only fleetingly. We followed it swimming up river, getting some toss-out shots with its head just above the water. Later it climbed up a ledge in the river bank where it rolled in sand, and we managed some decent shots as it descended back into the river. Minutes later it climbed onto a log, clambering quite high into the branches before turning around and dropping back into the water.
We’d moved on but Angus, Greg, and John stayed with it, and called us back when it climbed on to another log. It appeared to be inspecting the base for a den, climbing inside and then out, before swimming again, this time to a large log where it clambered high, in full view, to scratch and to scent mark, giving us the best shooting I’ve had of this species. We left it then, as it swam into deeper undergrowth.
Further upriver our guide’s boat encountered three Giant Otters just as they clambered ashore. We arrived a few minutes later, disturbing them, but they settled down again and rolled in the sand, then entered the water and returned again to shore, giving some nice action. Eventually the presumed leader left the beach and the others, who’d leave but would return, now followed.
The fishing lodge was a bit of a disappointment. We had Hyacinth Macaws but they were not exceptional, and the other birds I’ve successfully filmed here in the past were absent. We soon headed back, passing up two more otter families as we continued to the flotel.
After lunch we again departed by 2, with two boats going up the Black Lagoon and mine continuing on the Three Brothers. We turned off onto a side channel where we filmed a Wattled Jacana just feet from our boat, completely unconcerned by our presence. As we headed back to the main channel we encountered another Giant Otter family, this one towing and dragging a young one. I assume they were changing den sites, and the seven otters generally crowded around the baby, some pulling, others dragging it at times, and it is a wonder the baby ever had time to breathe. The shooting was difficult, as we were following the group in the narrow channel, and just as they reached the main river, where shooting would be easier as we could follow alongside, we got a radio call that the mother jaguar and two cubs were spotted in the lagoon.

jag The mother jaguar and her cubs in the lagoon. Photos by Greg Van Lith.

John, Greg, and Angus in their boat had stayed in the lagoon, pushing along slowly and without the motor as they filmed birds. They spotted the jaguars in the distance, playing in the water, but as they approached the cats left the river. A few minutes later they returned, and about that time my boat arrived, and the cats again, unfortunately, moved back into cover. The female was shy and protective of her cubs, but at least one cub seemed curious. Still, they disappeared into the forest and while we waited until sunset, they did not reappear.
Our jaguar count is now 12, and an incredible otter day!

Day 8. Jaguar Flotel to PWC

otterWe were scheduled to leave the flotel early, but arranged that we had an entire morning in jaguar country before leaving for the mainland and PWC. We headed to the Black Lagoon where we hoped to encounter the jaguar and cubs, but, as expected, she was gone. It was a cool morning and the most beautiful we’ve had since I’ve been here this year, with mist rolling off the river. Almost immediately upon entering the black lagoon we encountered two otters feeding on a tree, framed amidst the mist rising from the lake.
When they finished their fish they moved off, and we followed, as the otters were joined by five others who captured fish and fed before us. At one point five otters were all feeding on one log, and others swam about. They captured at least three different species of fish – a catfish, a small bait fish, and a larger variety, as well as an eel earlier. The shooting never stopped and I ended up shooting over 50 gb of otters, although in editing these down I ended up with less than half that I kept for a more detailed edit later.


By 9:30 the fishing was done and we finally moved off to join the others in what proved to be a fruitless search of jaguar. We returned to the boat at 11, ate, and were back on the river by 12:15, arriving and packing at Porto Joffre around 1 for our return to the Wildlife Center.
We arrived by 3:30, and the group left shortly after 4 to photograph the Greater Potoo. Unfortunately it wasn’t at its usual perch but our guide did find it and people did succeed in photographing the bird.
Meanwhile, I checked my camera traps and recorded nothing new. I think my formatting of the cards didn’t work. I did set up two ‘real’ cameras along well-used jaguar trails, and hopefully I’ll see results tomorrow.

Day 9. SWC

John and Richard joined me at 6AM to check my two ‘real’ camera traps, using 7Ds and the Range IR systems. I was a bit worried as we approached the first set, as there were no cat tracks on the trail, so I did not have high expectations. However, I did have luck, as an Ocelot had tripped the beam twice at 12:30AM, and the flashes were awake, yielding an exciting two shots! The other camera was dead, and I believe having the switch on constant ‘awake’ may have drained the battery although there was no sign that anything had passed on the trail.
After breakfast we did another river trip, working once more on kingfishers, hawks, and herons. Another boat had preceded us and the birds may already have eaten, but we did get a few good sequences, although the kingfishers were frustrating. The highlight, however, were two Neotropical Otters that were swimming around us. I suspect one may have been the juvenile or baby of the mother. It called constantly when separated from the larger otter, the sound very much like a rubber squeaky toy.
The other highlight was the best Agami Heron viewing and shots I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen this heron on the upper stretch of the river and its normal haunts are impassable with the river choked solid with water plants. Our guide suggested we toss a fish out to see if the bird would come out of hiding, and I discounted the idea, not thinking that this shy, reclusive bird would respond. We tried anyway, and the bird did come out, and although the shooting was tough several of us managed some nice shots of the heron.
Later I tried some water-level Capybara shots, holding my 70-300 just above the water surface. Most shots were misframed and most were out-of-focus, but I did manage a few, and the perspective was great.
After lunch a few people did another boat ride but they may have started too late and the light was low and the birds relatively inactive. Our guide took Angus, John, and Joe into the forest where, just 100 yards in, they did extremely well with Brown Capuchin Monkeys. In fact, one of these shots was one of Joe’s favorites for the whole shoot!
I left around 4 to set up another two camera traps, using the same site for the Ocelot and another, not too far off, where fresh tapir tracks crossed last night. Fortunately I didn’t go to yesterday’s more distant site, as I forgot to load a CF card and I had to walk back to the lodge for another card, and more flashes while I was at it. Had I been at the other site, I’d have been walking 2 miles in total. As it was, I didn’t finish the setups until 5:30, but I stayed in the area until nearly 6 to be sure that the sensor didn’t misfire once the daylight disappeared. We’ll see what develops tomorrow!
This was our last evening and we shared highlights, favorite shots, and favorite food location. Interestingly, this group’s food choice was completely opposite that of the last group – this one preferred the Flotel, while the last group enjoyed the food at PWC.  Although those who had the jaguar and cubs were initially disappointed with the shoot, those that got the shots considered them among their favorites for the shoot. I saw them, and they were good, and the hasty judgment wasn’t necessary.
Otherwise, highlights ranged from the great jaguar portraits, the hunt, the mother with cubs, the entire Pantanal experience, the great birds, and the feeding frenzies of the Giant Otters. With 12 jaguars, and great sightings for 9 of these, it was an extraordinarily lucky and productive shoot. 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.



Read about our Jaguars and the Wildlife of the Pantanal trips
One or Two for 2012
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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.