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1–11 August 2016 1 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

This page and cover: Jaguar, Rio CuiabĂĄ. Next page: Giant Anteater, two very special mammals of the Pantanal (Mike Watson).

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I wrote last year that if we had to compile a list of top photography destinations, in terms of number of subjects and ease of shooting them, then Brazil’s Pantanal would be in the top five. Again it lived up to this bold statement during our second Wild Images visit to this amazing region. Most importantly, Jaguar encounters over our five full days on the Rio Cuiabá and its tributaries were even better with 13 sightings and not a single blank on any of our boat trips. As always, some of these events were not ideally photogenic, being either partly obscured by vegetation or in harsh light but some of them were stunning and included one with a caiman kill. Most were lounging around on the riverbank but this time we were able to stick with animals for much longer than last year. There were a couple of reasons for this. First of all the zika virus scare had caused many Jaguar tourists to stay away and secondly the Olympics in Rio had probably reduced availability on flights. The hotel at Porto Jofre was still full but this time with fishermen, who tend to stick in one place on the river and do not add to the numbers watching (and therefore disturbing) Jaguars so boats at each Jaguar sighting were far fewer and the animals we saw did not get spooked like last year. Consequently we were able to wait to see what they would do and we spent over three hours with sev-

eral of them this time being rewarded with far more photographic opportunities. I wrote last time that ‘unbelievably it is usually even better than this!’ and it certainly was this time! I also wrote ‘the only slight disappointment was that we didn’t manage to witness a caiman kill, as this is a definite possibility... maybe next time?’. Well, we managed that as well on this tour! Whilst en route to Port Jofre or scouring the riverbanks from there we enjoyed a profusion of other fabulous creatures. Close behind Jaguar in popularity was the Giant Anteater mother with a little one on her back at the lovely Pouso Alegre Lodge. These prehistoric-looking creatures have very poor eyesight and encounters can sometimes be very close, as this one was, although it is worth reminding ourselves that these ostensibly peaceful animals have been known to kill people with their incredibly powerful bear-like claws. Other highlights included the numerous encounters with family parties of Giant Otters, the ‘beauty of the shadows’ Agami Heron (five this time!) and the outrageous outsized parrot Hyacinth Macaw as well as the close views of Toco Toucans. The Pantanal was again simply fantastic! Mike Watson

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4 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

We saw a wide variety of birds including: Greater Rhea, Chestnut-bellied Guan; Blue-throated and Black-fronted Piping Guans, Bare-faced Curassow, Southern Screamer, the mighty Jabiru, Boat-billed and Capped Herons, King Vulture, Crane Hawk, Red-legged Seriema, Sunbittern; Sungrebe, Black Skimmer, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Guira Cuckoo, Great Horned and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls, Great Potoo, Bandtailed Nighthawks, at least one million kingfishers including American Pygmy, Green, Amazon and Ringed; Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-fronted Nunbird, Chestnut-eared Araçari, Green-barred, White and Cream-coloured Woodpeckers, Campo Flicker, Nanday Parakeet, Golden-collared Macaw, Peach-fronted Parakeet, Scaly-headed Parrot, Great Rufous, Straight-billed and Narrow-billed Woodcreepers, Black-backed Water Tyrant, Purplish Jay, White-winged Swallow, Blackcapped Donacobious; Orange-backed Troupial, Scarlet-headed Blackbird and Silver-beaked Tanager to name just a few. Reptiles were also very impressive, including: Yacare Caiman (hundreds!), Paraguay Caiman Lizard, Black-and-white Tegu and Green Iguana of note. At this time of year the landscape of the Pantanal turns yellow with the candle-like flowers of Cambará trees adding colour to backgrounds. In addition, the old wooden bridges, watery margins and tree-lined riverbanks made great sub-

Black-and-white Tegu at Pouso Alegre. Previous page: Giant Otter and next page Hyacinth Macaws at Pouso Alegre (Mike Watson).

jects. Ecotourism has not been established in this region of Brazil for anything like as long as it has in the Amazon but services have developed quickly and the lodges, mostly diversified cattle ranches or ‘fazendas’, are very comfortable and made our stay a real pleasure. However, unfortunately the best thing about the 120km of the dusty Transpantaneira highway, or rather dirt track, is that its rickety nature and one million dilapidated bridges (well just over 120 actually) keeps speed and therefore the amount of traffic using it, down... although tourist numbers using it are steadily increasing and there is now a programme to replace the wooden bridges with steel bridges on concrete piers, which has already reached as far as Pixaim so we think a visit sooner rather than later is a good idea. The mega concentration of water birds in the borrow pits and marshes along its length seems to be a thing of the past but the throng of herons, egrets, storks and ibises was still pretty impressive nevertheless, especially for Pantanal first-timers. Roadside vegetation has also grown up somewhat over the last couple of decades and could do with being thinned out a bit. The Jaguars alone make the long journey to this quiet backwater of South America worthwhile but all this extra

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Top: Common Woodshrike & below: Little Egret and flying fox, Gir Forest National Park. 6 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Large-billed Tern (above) & Southern Lapwing at Pousada Piuval. 7 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Previous page: Great Potoo and this page: Southern Crested Caracaras. Next pages: Great Horned Owl and Giant Anteaters at Pouso Alegre (Mike Watson).

interest is a fabulous bonus for the photographer and we are very much looking forward to returning for many years to come! Our photo journey started at Cuiabá airport, where we boarded our very comfortable coaster bus and headed for lunch at a typically Brazilian (‘pay for the weight of the food on your plate’) buffet restaurant before we set off southwest bound for the Pantanal. Again, we passed the half-finished tramway intended for the 2014 soccer World Cup as we left Cuiabá’s twin-city of Varzea Grande and then made our way through the seemingly endless dry cerrado countryside towards the gateway to the Pantanal, Poconé. Formerly a centre for the trade of caiman and Jaguar skins this town is now bedecked in murals of the Pantanal’s spectacular animals as its ecotourism economy grows. Where the hills give way to flat lands marks the start of the Pantanal proper, the tarmac ends and the Transpantaneira and its one million dilapidated wooden bridges begins. This year we had switched our first lodge to the delightful Pouso Alegre, set in 30,000 hectares of savannah grassland and marshes, interspersed with patches of woodland. It is a real haven for

wildlife but unlike our previous stop (nice as it was!), it is possible to see plenty of wildlife on foot here and particularly around the lodge buildings thus making it a pleasant change from endless boat and truck rides. Pouso Alegre is another attractive fazenda or cattle ranch, turned mini-ecotourism resort with a distinct rustic charm. Our first walk here passed by water tanks near the lodge, which produced a couple of Sunbitterns and a very approachable Capped Heron as well as numerous Yacare Caimans. A pair of Jabirus was collecting material for their huge nest, which contained some squatting Monk Parakeets. A couple of young Southern Crested Caracaras were perched on some interesting farm machinery and Blackcapped Donacobious, Greyish Saltator and Vermillion Flycatchers delighted the birders among us. A pair of Ferruginous Pygmy Owls was very obliging as were the pair of Great Horned Owls nearby, with their large fluffy youngster in tow. By mid morning it was getting quite hot so, after a pair of Masked Gnatcatchers, we retreated to the shade of the lodge grounds, just in time to catch a couple of monstrous Black-and-white Tegus going on their rounds, walking boldly past our chalets.

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These large lizards are quite confident and make great subjects. The feeders around the lodge buildings attract a lot of fruit-loving birds and it can be just as productive to sit and wait here instead of going hiking. There were regular visits from birds like Toco Toucans, Chestnut-eared Araçaris, Purplish Jays, Crested Oropendolas and Yellow-rumped Caciques from the tree-tops and Bare-faced Curassow, Chestnut-bellied Guan and Chaco Chachalaca from the forest floor. Bold little Azara’s Agoutis skipped in and out of the feeding areas! Again, we enjoyed clear skies and sunny weather for the whole of our time in the Pantanal and not a drop of rain. It was a nice change, following the weird weather all over the world lately, to see the Pantanal as it ought to be at this time of year. Happily during the dry season access to all areas is easy but without a cloud in the sky and highly reflective vegetation and water, the light soon becomes very harsh so we always take a break at lunch times. At this time of day there is nothing much to do except head for the shadows. An afternoon walk in search of Great Potoo was happily very successful with some ex-

cellent looks at this huge nightbird at its day roost, relying on its cryptic camouflage to hide in plain sight. Crab-eating Foxes emerged from the shadows as the mosquitoes increased and the sun ‘fell out of the sky’, as it does in these latitudes, so we called it a day and headed back for the first of many tasty evening meals. However, we were not quite done yet. The perfect end to a great day (for those who made the walk) was a close encounter with a mother Giant Anteater after dusk in a nearby marsh with a baby on her back! In fact it was in exactly the same spot as we saw one last year, it was probably even the same animal that is known to specialise in this marshy lifestyle. Common Pauraques hawked insects as we trooped back to the lodge in the dark. The owner of the lodge, Luis, is very wildlife-friendly and leaves habitat piles of leaves and wood etc about the place to encourage animals to live near the lodge. He was able to show us a Mato Grosso Lancehead during our stay, a very attractive but also highly venomous snake of the same genus as Fer-de-Lance. However, it is not nearly as nasty as its feared cousin. Hyacinth Macaws

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were prospecting an old tree in the lodge grounds and Crimson-crested Woodpecker had already settled down to breed in an old palm here. A gang of scruffy Guira Cuckoos lined up helpfully in an old tree and there was a profusion of herons and egrets to point the camera at here as well. We were sorry to leave Pouso Alegre and we look forward to returning here next year. Much of the day was spent transferring to our hotel at Port Jofre, now on the 100% dilapidated wooden bridge section taking some time as our skilful driver Marlon inched his way across them. As we continued south on the Transpantaneira the borrow pits were a little disappointing although a couple of Marsh Deer brightened up the rather dusty journey. We stopped for lunch at the Rio Pixaim and then later, briefly, at another Pousada, where a very friendly guy’s T-shirt read ‘If you kiss me, I will kiss you’. I didn’t take him up on his kind offer. The Santa Isabella Road field station was virtually bird-less, the woodland deathly silent in the late afternoon. At the end of the Transpantaneira lay Porto Jofre and the Hotel Pantanal Norte, the traditional base camp for Jaguar searchers. Although Charlie Munn’s Flotel moored upstream saves around two hours cruising on the river each day we like the idea of the flexibility of staying on dry

A highly venomous Mato Grosso Lancehead! Following pages: the mighty Jabiru, Capped Heron and Yacare Caiman (Mike Watson).

land, a little way from the insect life and a chance to stretch our legs in bird filled gardens if anyone feels like a break from the Jaguar boat rides. From a photographer’s point of view the boat ride to and from the main Jaguar zone is usually done in less than ideal photographic light anyway, at dawn, the middle of the day and in the evening twilight. We were welcomed at the hotel’s gates by our capable host Roger and settled in to our rooms. The Rio Cuiabá is an 800km long, broad, slow flowing and silt-laden river that eventually drains southwards into the River Plate and into the Atlantic between Uruguay and Argentina. It passes through the Pantanal region, where the smaller Rio São Lourenço joins it. It is around, as well as upstream of, this confluence that the majority of Jaguar sightings occur. This area is particularly rich in wildlife and the favourite prey of Jaguars – Capybaras, caimans and anacondas, which can be hunted from the riverbanks. The water margin also provides an easy way for the Jaguars to move around as well as sunlit windows to the gallery forest where they like to sit in the early morning. They are curious and, like many big cats, they simply like to sit and watch the world

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go by. Our first boat ride was successful and we managed to see a Jaguar at the first attempt, a very special moment for all, in fact all of our 10 boat rides were successful in at least seeing Jaguar, with not a single blank trip. This was thanks to our very smart boatman, Alan but also owing to the fact that there were fewer Jaguar watchers this year. Over the course of our five full days on the river we settled into a very enjoyable routine of a pre-dawn breakfast and a morning boat ride before returning to our hotel for lunch and then an afternoon/evening boat ride exploring the river channels upstream from our hotel. After a while on the rivers the days and memories of what was seen on each ride seem to merge into one as we kept a running total of Jaguar sightings. The reason we have more days on the river than almost every other tour company (only a couple that we know of had the same number of days at five) is that the more time you spend looking for jaguars, the more varied encounters you have, including, hopefully, the one everyone wants, a caiman kill. We had a couple of very prolonged encounters, one with an old and battered male who was patrolling his riverbank territory (pages 15-18). He sat around for a while from time to time and then went hunting, pacing slowly through the riverbank

Crab-eating Fox at Pouso Alegre (Mike Watson).

vegetation and diving into the water a couple of times, although without success. He was so close at times that the harsh late morning light became less of a problem. However, after following him for several kilometres and in soaring temperatures, we returned to the hotel for lunch. Another top quality encounter was with a very beautiful female Jaguar that we spotted sitting on the riverbank (pages 19-21). In fact we spotted six out of our total of 13 sightings this time, again mostly owing to a lack of other Jaguar watchers beating us to the riverbank animals. This cat just sat and watched the assembled boats for ages before she eventually went for a stroll along the bank and ultimately away into deeper cover. Again after more than three hours watching her we retired to the hotel for lunch. We were quite happy with our efforts so far, lots of nicely-lit portraits, walking shots and yawns etc but we were still missing something. Cruising back towards where we had seen her on the morning session and all of a sudden... Boom! There she was on the riverbank, covered in mud with a huge caiman in her jaws. I ripped off the cover of my camera and could hardly keep steady as I rattled off hundreds of frames of the action as she tried

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This is what you all want isn’t it? Bring on the Jaguars! (Mike Watson). 16 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

to get the caiman up the bank and into the shade of the gallery forest (pages 22–24). She wrestled with it for ages, trying to drag it backwards up the steep bank but the huge beast was too heavy and eventually she gave up and pulled it into some bushes halfway up the bank where we could hear her crunching away at it. Sadly for other viewers our private show was over by the time they arrived. We had been very lucky indeed! You can see from her face markings that she is the same animal as the morning sighting, around 200m away even though she is looking a lot rougher now, caked in mud.Other wildlife sightings on the river included some great encounters with Giant Otters, always on their way somewhere but the photo-shoot starts when they catch a fish and pause to eat it with a lot of gnashing and crunching of their powerful jaws. There were also plenty of Blue-throated Piping Guans and the equally impressive Bare-faced Curassow. Southern Screamers were common, even on the small lake behind the hotel and sometimes allowed some good views but Sunbittern was again uncommon. Grey-necked Wood Rails could be seen along the water’s edge in the evenings and sand bars, now exposed in the river, were frequented by Southern Lapwings, Pied Plovers, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns and Black

Jaguar, the big boss sits in the early morning sun on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá (Mike Watson).

Skimmers. We spent our final morning at Porto Jofre around its gardens and enjoyed some good encounters with Toco Toucans, the resident breeding Hyacinth Macaws, a Plumbeous Ibis nesting in the grounds as well as the ubiquitous Southern Crested Caracaras. However, all too soon it was time to say goodbye to this excellent place. Retracing our route back north along the Transpantaneira we made our way to a lovely lodge at Rio Claro. As its name implies the river here is clear and not laden with silt, a spring-fed blackwater river absolutely full of wildlife. Another fazenda turned eco-tourist resort, Rio Claro, has a nice atmosphere with a large communal dining hall and fruit-laden trees surrounding the lodge buildings. We enjoyed some nice views of birds on their feeders like Nanday Parakeet – a Rio Claro speciality. The river cruises themselves were as fabulous as always. With only miniscule traffic, the much narrower Rio Claro is a haven for wildlife. During the course of four boat rides we saw the ‘beauty of the shadows’, the gorgeous Agami Heron five times! Known as something like ‘Hummingbird Waterbird’ (the literal translation is

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Sungrebe (above) and Giant Otter on the Rio Cuiabå. 30 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Black Howler Monkey (above) and Capybaras on the Rio Cuiabá. 31 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Sunrise on the Rio Cuiabá and below: Sucuri (or Yellow Anaconda). 32 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

A magnificent Toco Toucan at Hotel Pantanal Norte, Porto Jofre. 33 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

actually ‘Punch Flower-kisser’) in Portuguese it is beautifully ornate but rarely strays from the shade of overhanging riverside vegetation, moving incredibly slowly and occasionally stabbing at tiny fish in the shallows with its extra long bill. We were also treated to some nice views of Boat-billed and Capped Herons along the quiet channels here. Now familiar species such as Great Black Hawk were easy to see and the horses’ feeding troughs attracted good numbers of the threatened Chestnut-bellied Guans. All good things come to an end and it was eventually time to leave the Pantanal. If there is an easier and more pleasant way to photograph wildlife than cruising on the quiet waterways of the Pantanal I haven’t found it yet.

The ‘beauty of the shadows’ Agami Heron at Rio Claro (Mike Watson).

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Above: another Jaguar on the prowl on the riverbank and below: the caiman-killer takes to the water in search of prey. 36 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Previous pages: Capped & Boat-billed Herons, Great Black Hawk and Ringed Kingfisher. This page: Chestnut-bellied Guan and Nanday Parakeet. 37 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Our 2016 Jaguar sightings, some of which involved the same animal. 38 Wild Images Tour Report: Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal 2016

Jaguars of Brazil's Pantanal 2016  
Jaguars of Brazil's Pantanal 2016  

A Wild Images wildlife photo tour from Brazil 2016.