Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Trip Report

Torres del Paine, Chile
December, 2004

It was three years in the making but we finally put together our first Torres del Paine Photo Tour, and it was worth the wait. Our trip was timed to coincide with what is, statistically, the best season for weather, with the least likelihood of having rain. Well, you wouldn't know it!
We had an unusual amount of rain, and clouds blocked the sweet orange-red angular light of dawn and dusk most days. We had one fair magic color dawn, but it didn't last long and wasn't especially intense. We had one good evening, and one potentially incredible one, but we missed the best light on that one because of a vehicle breakdown. In that respect our shots of Torres del Paine were somewhat disappointing for me, at least for that magic light of dawn and dusk.

That's the bad news. And that, to be sure, was far outweighed by the incredible luck we had with our other shooting subjects. We did get the mountain in several types of weather, getting both the 'horns' and the 'towers' of Torres. Our boat trip to the face of Gray's glacier we were treated to an assortment of ice faces, as the retreating glacier now reveals stony rock fronts at several spots. Gray's lake's terminal moraine can be the trap for incredibly diverse and picturesque icebergs in a good year-or little, and this year it was great. We spent an extremely productive afternoon with wonderful light shooting the 'bergs - a real bonus for we had a chance to do so twice. On our first visit we did a recon of the icebergs but only a few people may the hike, and little shooting was done. This stressed me, because I worried that our only shooting window for the bergs was not exploited. Luck was with us, though, and we had a great shoot later on in the week.
Scenics require cooperative weather and if our trip had been based solely on landscape shooting we'd have had a modestly successful trip at best. Fortunately, though, last year on Mary's scouting trip (I'd done the same trip the year before) we met a local Chilean wildlife photographer who befriended us and who then acted as our local guide for our tour group. Our guide had spent nearly 20 days in the park before our tour scouting and leading another photographer so he knew where everything was likely to be. It was, so we wasted no time looking for the birds and mammals we hoped to shoot and only the Patagonian red fox (aka Andean wolf) eluded us. As it turned out, I got the fox the day the photo tour group left for home!

The wildlife of Torres del Paine is no where near as diverse as one finds on an East African photo safari. Southern South America is a land of extremes and species diversity at the end of the world is rather limited (just as it is in Denali - see our Question of the Month). Torres has its own 'Big Seven,' they being Patagonian gray fox, Patagonian red fox, guanaco, huemule, Andean condor, Magellanic woodpecker, and puma. Our group 'nailed' four of these, and I had six with three extra days of shooting.
The photo tour was five full days of shooting, theoretically involving some very long hours. The magic light of predawn alpen glow occurs between 5 and 5:30AM, with sunrise at 5:45. Most of us at least woke up to check the light each morning, which is all that's generally needed because one of the best views of the mountains is right from a hilltop adjacent to our hotel. Unfortunately most mornings we could go back to bed for a 7AM breakfast since the mornings were often rainy or cloudy.
One morning - the only one with 'marginal' magic light - we left at 4:30AM for a sunrise shoot. On that day, as would occur every day if the light had been cooperative, we returned for a late morning breakfast and a pre-lunch siesta. After a much needed nap we returned to the field where we remained until the 8PM dinner hour. Sunsets could be, and were, shot at the hotel overlook.

We had one mini-disaster: our driver lost the keys to our vehicle! Fortunately it was at the end of a great day at Gray's glacier and everyone was sated and tired. Our guide arranged for a loaner vehicle to return us to our hotel and, in loading, we packed our gear in less than accessible ways. Consequently, when we drove back and discovered that the mountain was clear we didn't stop and drag out the gear. Instead we continued, hoping that we'd get back to the hotel in time to both unload and shoot. We missed catching the best light by about 5 minutes! This was a disappointment, but the day had been so good - one of the best, that no one really minded.

We arranged for a photo shoot with a trio of gauchos, the Patagonian cowboy, who herded horses across a field and toward us for several passes. The gauchos got into it, and before we finished the horse drive we had the gauchos galloping straight at our cameras, breaking and veering off at the last second. Literally! On the last gallop one of the gauchos almost lost control (I have a shot as he hangs half-off his horse as he swerves hard to the right) as the horses zipped by. Dirt, grass clods, stuff was flying - and with flying hooves zipping passed it was a great, fun shoot.
After the horse drive we returned to the stables where the gauchos prepared their mate` -- a traditional hot drink, giving us great chances for portraits as they sipped their mate` and tended the small fire they used to heat their teapot. The three hour session was one of the highlights of the week for 6 of the 7 shooters - it was that good.
While some scenics require particular weather conditions most wildlife subjects do not. In fact, many animals are best shot in cloudy-bright conditions. Having a terrific guide who had located subjects beforehand, and having some unbelievable luck with some subjects that can't be pinpointed, we truly maximized our shooting opportunities.

Two years earlier, on my first trip to the area, I found a Magellanic woodpecker nest that I was unable to photograph. Magellanic's are huge, larger than our pileated woodpecker, and they can be incredibly tame. Although it was a thrill to see one, and to discover a nest, I was haunted by the missed opportunity. This year that ghost was laid to rest, as our guide had located a very shootable nest. That shoot was the highlight of the photo tour for me.
When you think about this, the shooting opportunities are pretty incredibly unique. Pileated woodpeckers - an analogous species - are found throughout much of North America. I've had one nest near our home at Hoot Hollow which I did not shoot, and I've never photographed one at a nest, and I'm certain no one in our group had either. Here, in Torres del Paine, our group filmed a pair at their nest!

I've never filmed a fox den either, and I'd bet neither had anyone else in our group, but we did on the tour. On three separate occasions we photographed Patagonian gray fox (an entirely different species from the US gray fox), including two shoots with adults and one with two pups at the den. As we filmed these I couldn't help but think - I've never done this in the States!

We saw Andean condors almost daily, but usually as distinguishable silhouettes as they soared high overhead. At Gray's glacier we had a nice male fly by low and close enough to see its distinctive white secondary feathers, which was videoed, but these were merely record shots. Things would change.
On our last full day in the park (on the tour) we had some of our best weather. Our destination was some of the overlooks where we could photograph the towers of the massif, but en route, at each stop, other subjects popped into view. We had incredible opportunities with young guanacos in fields of flowers and adults framed against the towers themselves. At a scenic cascade - the best waterfall that is easily accessible, we spotted a condor as it landed on the top of a not-too-distant hill. Another bird joined it, and then a third. Other condors appeared, and all seamed to be headed to the same spot.

Sarah Plunkett, who really wanted to see condors, had noticed the activity first, and she was all set to try to get closer. She and I headed uphill, stopping frequently as birds soared and circled by, sometimes more than filling the frame! As more birds gathered I wondered if a puma was guarding a kill so I continued up the hillside, eventually finding a guanaco baby that was half consumed. Examining the carcass we concluded it was a natural death, not a puma kill.
Spurred on by our example, and Sarah's frantic waving to join us, the rest of the group scrambled up the hill and everyone got shots of the condors before they eventually soared away. Typically condors do not linger at a kill - they can be shy and after a pass or two they leave. These did not, and for twenty minutes or so we had several birds repeatedly circle our position, sometimes actually flying below our position! Incredible shooting, fantastic viewing, and truly one of the highlights of the trip.
Mary and I stayed on for an extra three days with the intention to search hard for pumas. Had the weather cooperated we would have devoted the last two days of the photo tour to this activity - all the scenics can be done in two or three days of good weather, and even when puma hunting one can pause for the magic of predawn alpen glow landscapes - but with the whacky weather we had too much to squeeze in during the tour.
We traveled with the group half-way to the airport, and returned to the park in the late morning. By then the cloudy morning skies had cleared and we experienced the clearest, virtually cloud-free skies of the entire trip! Talk about irony!
Nonetheless we didn't shoot a scenic. The Magellanic woodpeckers were close to fledging so my guide and I returned to the nest (Mary needed sleep after a very restless night!) but our luck with the birds was marginal. From there we explored two locations for the Patagonian red fox, and at the second location hit pay dirt. We did quite well, and learned a couple of things that we could use for photographing the fox on our next tour.
The following day began cloudy, but for a brief few minutes dawn light struck the swirling clouds around the mountain massif. Mary took some shots, which were the only images we shot all day! The rest of that morning, and all afternoon, we spent hiking the backcountry looking for puma, without success.
On my first trip to Torres I got hooked because I saw, close - 20 yards or so, a puma that I was unable to photograph. Last year Mary and I spent virtually the entire week looking for puma, and photographing the other wildlife in our off-hours. While we were there our future guide found and photographed a family of four, so we knew we were close, but unlucky.
This year, in three days, I hoped to change that luck. Our guide didn't have much hope - stating we would not see a puma because it takes about a week, on average, to find one. One might, as he did just a week before, find a cat on the first day of a search, but not see another one in six more days of looking. So, chances are, we wouldn't be successful and his assessment would be right.
We started that last day with a 3:30AM wakeup and 4AM departure, scanning the still black landscape for tell-tale green eyeshine. Once we thought we had luck - Mary spotted green eyes, but they belonged to a fox. Our hopes were to spot a puma as it walked back to its day lair and to follow the cat until it eventually came to rest. We didn't spot a cat.
At 7AM we went to plan B, where Mary, me, our guide, and a tracker (experienced game-guy, spotter, not really a 'tracker') would split up and begin hiking over likely-looking country. We had covered that same ground the day before, putting in a total of 9 man-hours hiking the hills and cliff edges. Mary thought she had a puma almost immediately (see
Tip of the Month-Carry Your Gear), but it was a false alarm.
At 8AM, while I sat on a low ridge top scanning the area, I did spot a puma, a speck on the top of a ridge about 200 yards away. I called Mary in via radio but from her position, another 300 yards away, she could not discern the cat.
Most of the remaining story can be read under the Tip of the Month so I won't repeat it here. However, I'll simply repeat that I had a wild puma within view for over two hours, was within 60 yards and absolutely frame-filling, full view, completely clear, perched on a photogenic rock ledge, heart-breakingly beautiful, study of the puma for almost a half hour as I cried in my beer waiting for my gear to arrive! I ended up shooting the cat for the first time at a measured distance of 60 feet!, and would had two different shooting sessions before the cat left the ridge.
Truly, that was the highlight of the trip for me, the culmination of two trips and the validation of the first. It was bitter-sweet to be sure, as I missed the to-die-for shots because I didn't have my gear, and because Mary arrived too late to get more than a fleeting glimpse of the cat.

Interested in photographing wild puma?
If I do not do a tour, I might take as many as two photographers
on a special puma safari. Predawn and early mornings will be devoted to searching for pumas, with the
rest of the day available for photographing the area's other wildlife. I'm fairly confident I'll be successful,
but this type of trip would be expensive and speculative. If you are interested, contact our office ASAP.

Still, it proved to me that photographing the puma in the wild could be done, and that a group could even do it provided they had the time and the energy. Remember, in the two days that we devoted exclusively to the cat I didn't shoot a single picture on the first day and only photographed the puma on the second. Had I had my gear I would have ran out of flash cards, but since I didn't have my gear, I only shot 50 or so images. We hiked a total of about 17 man-hours (I'm counting the hiking time for our guide and tracker who were looking while I was waiting for Mary to meet up with them at the car) and personally I did about 6 miles of walking/searching before I had any luck. And even then, we were lucky.
Next year I'm going back, either with a group or alone. At this point I'm hoping to do another photo tour and then add some extra days for puma, that will be offered to the participants provided they understand all that a puma search involves - including disappointment!

If you are interested in our Torres del Paine Photo Tour, contact our office by phone or email.
For more information about Torres, check out our
Question of the Month .

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