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Puma and the Wildlife of Chile Trip 2 Report

This year we did two Puma trips, separated by our two weeks in the Falkland Islands. On scheduled departure from the Falklands was delayed by a day -- a very costly delay for those having to rebook flights home, but a few of us were continuing on for the second Puma trip. While that start was disruptive, as we missed an orientation and group meet, that was the only hitch in a spectacular 5 days of shooting. Here's the report.


Day 1. Tom, Deb, and I missed the  first day, having had our flight cancelled from Mt Pleasant, the  Falklands, on the previous day because of high winds. While we were commuting to the park, arriving in less than 5 hours at 10:45PM, the group was out for their first afternoon session.
The light was variable they said, and the shooting rather frustrating until the very end of the day, when a Geofrey’s Cat was spotted on the bridge leading to our lodge. The vehicles raced there, and everyone got shots, including our guide who did a great video as the cat walked away, then paused, sat down, and looked back. It was his first film of this cat, and the first time one of his groups had ever seen one. Fantastic!


Day 2.
With less than 3 hours sleep I started the day, with our vehicles heading to the lake overlook where we had the best sunrise shooting I’ve had this year. Afterwards, we headed to the mother Puma with four cubs, driving a long, winding track uphill to a small plateau where the cats were gathered. By the time we had our gear organized the Pumas were headed to their morning retreat. We kept up, getting some nice shots of the group with the snow-capped mountains in the background.
Eventually they settled in the conglomerate rock cliffs, one of the most fascinating geologic forms in the park. Two cats lay sleeping on a large boulder, periodically waking and looking back at us. While we were shooting, seven Andean Condors flew passed and circled, giving us the best chances I’ve ever had to photograph these birds. They were close!

With no movement on the horizon from the cats we headed towards Guanacos, where we photographed this camelid in a field of white flowers. I had many in the group shooting low to the ground for selective focus shots, and later three of us spent a great deal of time with young males that continually challenged each other. We arrived back at the lodge at 1PM.

PM. We left the lodge at 5PM. By 3 I tried to get a long nap but cramps in my legs, fingers, and feet kept me hopping out of bed. I wondered if I’d have much juice for the evening shoot. That turned out not to be a concern.
We headed back to the mother Puma and four cubs, which were essentially at the same rock face and cave as they were when we left them. However, the fifth cat was A DIFFERENT FEMALE. She approached the cubs on several occasions, once jumping onto the rock where three of them lay, scattering everyone as she did so. On a couple occasions when one of the cubs approached her she would lay down her ears and snarl – the quintessential Puma pose – but there was no other aggression.
One of the guides told me that this female has joined up and fed with this family at kills, and did so with other Puma families as well. I suspect she is a sister of the adults, but either way, this certainly contradicts the idea that Pumas are anti-social and loners.
We stayed with the cats at their resting spot, and I’d taken a new position for a downward-looking view while the cubs were still sleeping. As they woke up, they surprised us by walking up an unseen path bordering the rock face, about 1 meter from where I was sitting. The cats stepped quickly as they passed me, then resumed their normal pace within a stride. I looked away to avoid frightening the cats with eye-contact, but it still was a thrill.
The cats continued up hill and we followed, witnessing another interaction between a cub and the strange female. While the female snarled, the cub just tilted its head downward – not submissively, but more like  a placating motion. The mother of the cubs had joined the four, which prompted their move passed me, but she showed no response to the new Puma.
Total for day – 5 Puma morning, 6 Puma afternoon. 1 on drive back : 12 cats

Day 3. The BBC crew, with their tracker/scout, had finished filming, leaving only our tracker to cover the entire area, looking for a few needles in an immense haystack. He was having no luck, so our two vehicles headed up into the high country in the general area where we had the family yesterday.
We had no luck, and after several stops to look and listen I drove on ahead to check a separate area. Along the way the  mountain view was spectacular, and I decided we’d shoot it. Terry went to pee, and while on the other side of the vehicle spotted three of the Puma cubs, just off the road! We stopped to shoot and pee precisely at the right place!

The cats were playing, chasing and wrestling with one another, and between taking shots I radioed our guide to join us with the rest of the group. They did, and we followed the three until they finally settled on a small hilltop that presented a great foreground for a mountain backdrop, some spectacular shots.
While there, the fourth cub appeared in the distance, and headed directly to the cubs position, despite the distance where she must have first spotted them. Guanacos were whistling alarm calls, and then off, choosing the back side of the hill to run to, for a better vantage. Suddenly we had three Pumas and two Guanaco heads peering above the hill! The cats saw them and chased, and for a brief second some folks caught running cats and prey.
I had been doing video, and had switched to both video mode and V2, which is an auto setting for doing video. I switched back to manual mode, but in my haste didn’t click to V1, and the camera wouldn’t fire! Last time here, I did essentially the same thing for what would have been the shot of the trip for me.
Meanwhile, I was doing a Time Lapse movie too, and after all the excitement a strong gust of wind blew down the tripod, with the camera and lens attached! The Olympus flip out screen was out, but somehow, luckily, the camera landed on the opposite side of the  hinge, and nothing broke. The Mark II has a metal construction, and I didn’t even have a scratch on the body. I dodged a bullet there.
Last night was another cramp-filled sleep, and today, after lunch, I napped for 2.5 hours cramp free. I needed it.


pPM. We left at 5PM, heading directly to the Puma cubs. They hadn’t moved. And didn’t move until around 8PM when their mother arriving, following approximately the same route her daughter did when she joined the cubs this morning. The cubs ran to her in greeting, intertwining and rubbing, and after a short break the group walked passed us, crossing under a half moon as they did so.
We followed, and the group got some great backlighted shots when they walked along the edge of a meadow. I had circled around, anticipating a different path, and got front lit and more distant views, but managed a shot with Greg and a Puma cub close by, when two playing ran straight towards him.
Later, the  cubs played on a shrub, leaping onto it like a trampoline, and then wrestled. We finished, at 9:15, with the mother off to hunt and the four cubs clustered together, close to us, providing an incredible portrait of a family scene.
We arrived back at the lodge at 9:57, when I Skyped Mary and dropped in bed, exhausted.

Day 4. Our goal this  morning was Blinka, the one-eyed Puma with two Kittens. No one had seen her for several days. Our tracker found her.
She was reported walking along the lake shore so we drove and hiked to a location where we hoped we’d intersect the cat and family. The hike through the tufa-like lunar landscape was treacherous, and after settling in we discovered that she had moved back up into the grasses. We hiked to our new position, finding Blinka coming to rest by a bush, but her kittens were skittish and bounded back towards the lake. Blinka followed, retrieved them, and eventually led the kittens to a large isolated boulder too far and too covered with brush to afford a good view, where she left the cubs to go hunting.

We followed her, and eventually, high on a ridge, Blinka walked within feet of those nearest. I was in a different position and missed that show, but managed another when she walked in my direction, pausing with her head above the grasses and black brush, with Torres del Paine’s mountains in the background.
Later, we photographed both species of swan, Black-necked and Coscoroba, and did Time-Lapse of the mountains before returning at noon to the  lodge.

PM. We headed back to the cubs but they were shy and retiring, and we left them quickly. We headed into new country, where I found a cooperative Gray Fox, backlighted Rheas and Guanacos, and a very rare Tinamou, standing on the road – the first time I’ve seen one of these ground-dwelling birds.

Day 5. We headed into the park, stopping first at a camp where a Red Fox/wolf was seen last week with pups. We had no luck. We continued to the cataracts for some scenic, before entering the park where we shot landscapes or looked for wildlife until lunch.
Afterwards, on the return, we had an incredible shoot with Austral Parakeets at Lago Gray, and an Austral Pigmy Owl pair near Explora. We were back early, as folks wanted a rest and a good dinner, arriving at the lodge by 6:45.


PDay 6. Two other puma groups were in the area today, but we were able to get the family of 5 for this, our last day. With a caveat. The Pumas had killed a guanaco yesterday, quite close to the road, and there had been a Yellowstone mob on the roadside. We were worried that the cats might still be there, and therefore a bit of hassle.
Luckily, the cats were further uphill, out of reach of the non-permit tourists. Eventually, after moving downhill a bit and cross-wise, they moved up to the Puma castle area where they walked quite close to us, one cub pausing only a few feet from Deb. That was a thrill.
Afterwards, we headed to Azul for birds, where we had the best flying Black-necked Swans I’ve ever had, and plenty of ducks, too.

PM. In the afternoon, we headed back to the Pumas, stopping first at another lodge to look for a family of Cilpeo or Red Fox, Pseudalopex culpaeus, an entirely different type of Canine than our North American red fox. We had tried at this location earlier without success, but this time a pup and one or two adults were present, and put on a quite a show. The foxes were fearless, walking in the patio/common grounds area, weaving between sofas at times. But the foxes performed in the grasses, with an adult and pup playing.


From there we headed to the Pumas, and to the same spot we left them. They moved downhill not long after we arrived, then reversed, and strolled by me to another rock vantage. At one point, as a nearly adult-sized cub headed to another vantage point the cub almost walked into us, and our guide had to clap to discourage it from getting closer. Not that we were in danger, but we did not want the cats to become so familiar with people that a tragedy could occur, with perhaps a child (who shouldn’t be in this area) gets frightened and runs, triggering a predator chase. This is probably what happened on the border fence, where in the past we often had Pumas as they preyed upon Guanacos trapped against the fence line. Supposedly, a young puma jumped on a child’s back – exact circumstances triggering this are unknown, but the result was the trail is now restricted severely, and not worth visiting for photographers. We had the entire family for the rest of the afternoon, quite close, and a wonderful ending to a great Puma shoot.


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