Wednesday 21 August 2013

Pantanal Jaguars

Let’s forget that this is usually a blog about birds for a moment… because based on the conversations I’ve had with people about our time in Brazil, and feedback on yesterday’s introductory post, there’s only one thing that people want to see photos of: a certain spotty cat!

For a few years now, the river system near Porto Jofre has become well known as probably THE best place in the world to see Jaguars – indeed some tour operators have been known to offer a money back guarantee if you spend enough time there in the right season. We had three nights in the Hotel Pantanal Norte, and options to have up to two full days on the river, depending on how things progressed.

The following map illustrates the general area:

PortoJofre area

The Piquiri and Cuiaba Rivers do get Jaguars with some regularity, but the key area for sightings at the moment seems to be the Three Brothers (‘Tres Irmaos’) River, which branches off the River Cuiaba about 10km NE of Porto Jofre. In particular, the area around the island about 15km up the Three Brothers is well worth checking out.

Each morning, about a dozen or so motor boats set out from the hotel, heading for different bits of the river network to scout for Jaguars. Most are linked up by CB radio – so unless you’re lucky enough to find your own Jaguar, the typical experience is to have a fairly gentle cruise (at about 12-15km/h, say) interrupted by a garbled CB message in Portuguese, an instruction to hold on(!), and then a quick blast along the river (up to 40 km/h – pretty breezy stuff) to the spot where someone has been lucky enough to find the target.

For us, the first such experience was a frustrating one – we arrived to find half a dozen boats already jostling for position in a very narrow channel… and no sign of the Jaguar. It had simply laid down in the long grass and disappeared from view – very anti-social. Fortunately, though, another sighting came through in short order, and this time, a female Jaguar was visible, resting in a sunny patch on the riverbank. Fantastic!


Less helpfully, she too disappeared into the riverside vegetation rather quickly, leaving us with only intermittent ‘bits and pieces’ views when the bobbing boat happened to line you up with a tiny gap. Eventually, though, after the other two or three boats had departed, we found a clear angle, and enjoyed close views of a resting Jaguar – when you were in the right spot, the entire field of view through binoculars was taken up with a Jaguar’s head gazing back at you!

After a while, we heard of yet another Jaguar – this time a large male, apparently more active. But by the time we got there, just a few minute later, he too had decided it was time for a gentle snooze. Must be a hard life…


After a while, though, he was back up and about, wandering steadily along the riverbank, sometimes out of view, but always reappearing in the clearer areas and emerging onto some of the sandy beaches.


Thanks to the experience and fieldcraft of our guide and boatman, a couple of times we were able to second-guess roughly where the Jaguar would emerge from cover, position the boat accordingly, and enjoy superb views down to 20m as he crept out of the undergrowth and settled down for another breather.


This pattern of alternately wandering and resting continued for quite some time – getting on for an hour, I guess. Though clearly I’m no expert, the Jaguar always seemed relaxed and relatively unconcerned by the c.8 boats and c.50 people following its every move. A couple of enormous yawns (now in the heat of the day, late morning) revealed an impressive set of teeth…


As the Jaguar got up to move from the final beach along this stretch of the river, we assumed that would be the end of the excellent views for a while – but there was one more photo opportunity in store, as the cat strolled right down to the water’s edge for a drink. Not far different from the typical household tabby lapping from a bowl of milk!


After this fantastic experience, we had little expectation of seeing any more Jaguars (surely our luck was exhausted!) – but an evening drive back to the hotel after a birding session for owls and nightjars (photos of these to follow another time) resulted in not one, but TWO more sightings. The first was a very brief affair, where I think only the guide and I really got identifiable views of the back of a Jaguar walking off the edge of the road and disappearing down into dense vegetation.

But the second was stunning again. Out of nowhere, Ricardo suddenly shouted “Jaguar! Jaguar! Jaguar!”, and as the driver jumped on the brakes, another male cat emerged from the verge on the left and walked purposely across the road no more than 10m in front of us. We had a flashlight on hand to spotlight this final Jaguar as it dropped down into short grass just off the road, then turned round to pause and look straight at us. After a few seconds’ stare, and a series of murmured “Wow!”s from inside the minibus, it turned tail, and bounded away into the Pantanal night.

Does it get better than this?

Tuesday 20 August 2013

We love Brazil!

Suzanne and I got back from our first trip to South America on Sunday night, after 17 days in Brazil. What an amazing country!

I’ve got literally thousands of photos to sort out in the coming weeks, so this is probably the first of numerous posts, and I’ll just set the scene for now.

We focused on two of the many fantastic wildlife destinations in the country, kicking off with eight nights at the excellent Serra dos Tucanos lodge in the Atlantic Forest, about two hours drive north of Rio de Janeiro. This has been set up and run by Andy Foster, a British birder who moved to Brazil over ten years ago, and he was good enough to put together a package offer for us including accommodation, all meals, free cachaca at dinner (!), and guided excursions every day to good birding areas within an hour or two’s drive. We saw almost 250 species in total, almost all lifers, and including a good number of regional endemics.

One of the major selling points of Serra dos Tucanos is the excellent range of bird feeders around the large garden, which draw in many of the local specialities. These include a range of outrageously coloured tanagers on over-ripe fruit…

Green-headed_Tanager-1Green-headed Tanager

… and a fair few hummingbirds on and around nectar feeders.

Violet-capped_Woodnymph-1Violet-capped Woodnymph

From here, we took a couple of internal flights (pretty cheap, booked with TAM) across to Cuiaba, and met up with Ricardo Casarin, a guide for Boute Expeditions. Ricardo led us, and another British couple, around the Serra das Araras region to visit a Harpy Eagle site (more of this later), and then down the Transpantaneira highway through the Pantanal to its end at Porto Jofre. The birdlife was again superb, featuring loads of close raptors….

Savanna_Hawk-1Savanna Hawk

… heaps of kingfishers and other waterbirds…

Amazon_Kingfisher-1Amazon Kingfisher

… and a range of parrots, parakeets and macaws – including these enormous Hyacinth Macaws!


But it would be a huge oversight to focus only on birds in the Pantanal! Our time around Porto Jofre resulted in us seeing no fewer than FOUR of these wonderful creatures:


As a result of an hour-long encounter with one especially showy riverside Jaguar, there are plenty more photos where that came from… so watch this space!