Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal 2018 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Aug 27, 2018

This year I had the good fortune to lead three consecutive Photo Safari tours to the Pantanal. All three tours were full of incredible photo opportunities, yet each was very different from the others. Below, I have combined my three tours into one trip report.

Starting from Cuiabá, we drive through the small town of Pocone to the beginning of the Transpantaneira, the highway through the Pantanal. But “highway” might be a bit of a misnomer. The Transpanataneira is a gravel and dirt road, with over 120 bridges, that stretches 147 km and ends at the Cuiabá River at Porto Jofre. It is from here we board boats each day to find the many jaguars that roam the riverbanks.

Black-collared hawk in Brazil's PantanalAlong the Transpantaneira we stop many times to photograph the ever-present birdlife and numerous jacare caiman (a type of South American alligator) along the shores of the waterways that parallel the road. Every so often, the small canals open into larger ponds and rivers where countless great egrets, American wood storks, snail kites, black-crowned night herons, neotropic cormorants, anhingas, and ringed, Amazon and green kingfishers, plus many other birds, gather to feed. As the dry season progresses, these water holes shrink, making the remaining fish much easier to catch. This is the prime attraction for the birds and caiman.

We reach our first lodge just before lunchtime and get all of our gear stowed into our rooms. After lunch, we board small boats for the first time. But jaguars are not our quest here. In this large oxbow lake we are able to photograph cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, and the occasional great black hawks as they come in and scoop up the fish we offer them. It makes for some very exciting action photography. On one of the boat trips we come across a giant anteater swimming across the lake. You never know what you might see at any time on this trip! The next morning, during breakfast, we were greeted by a photogenic troop of brown capuchin monkeys that allowed us a productive photo session before we headed back out in the boats to hone our skills with the bird-in-flight shots. After lunch, we do a third boat trip, coming away with several species of birds and close-up shots of the jacare caiman as they swim by to investigate our boats. At night during dinner on one trip, a tamandua (a small arboreal anteater) passes through the property stopping to eat ants.

As we depart from the first of the three lodges we will be visiting, we are met by two crab-eating foxes that pose for pictures. A short way further up the drive is a whistling heron catching fish. Of course we stop for this too. We finally make it back to the Transpantaneira and continue our way southward toward Porto Jofre. We make several other stops along the way to take more photos of birds, caiman, and of the caballeros (cowboys) as they move their cattle herds south to the dry-season grazing lands.

Toucan in flightWe arrive in Porto Jofre—literally, the end of the road—just before lunchtime. We get all of our gear and luggage into our rooms, which are located along the river, and head to lunch. This afternoon will be the only chance we have to photograph the hyacinth macaws, toco toucans, and the other birds that live here, as we will be out on the river every morning and afternoon for the next five days. We take full advantage of the late afternoon light and walk the property finding several pairs of macaws and a couple of toco toucans to shoot, as well as buff-necked ibis and other birds.

We are up and out on the boats long before sunrise the next morning for our first excursion (of ten) to find jaguars. It doesn’t take long before the first jaguars are spotted and we all rush to the area for our first glimpse of these remarkable cats.

Jaguar wading in the waterWhile I was there for my three tours, I was out on the jaguar boats 30 times in total. On only two of all of those trips did we not find any jaguars. But in all fairness, we weren’t looking all that hard on those two trips. Both times occurred on the very last boat trip of a tour when a cold front had come through and the weather had changed. But even though the jaguars had made themselves scarce, both of those boat trips gave us great opportunities to photograph birds and resulted in my very best giant river otter pictures of my time there.
Speaking of otters, they were in abundance this year and we saw them on almost every single boat trip from Porto Jofre. We had several den sites located and the otters, which can be six feet long and travel in family groups, were regularly seen and photographed while they fished and, later in the mornings, when they lounged on the trunks of fallen trees. Over the course of our ten boat trips into jaguar country per group, each had a chance to witness and photograph many different jaguar behaviors—mating, hunting, tree-climbing, swimming, and taking long walks on a wide-open beach. We even saw one jaguar catch a small caiman.

In between jaguar sightings, there is plenty more to photograph, including the jacare caiman, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), and dozens of species of birds. Unlike the shy belted kingfisher of North America, the kingfishers in the Pantanal allow us to approach quite closely to photograph. We saw and photographed three different species—ringed kingfishers (the largest one), Amazon kingfishers and green kingfishers (the smallest one). All were willing subjects for our lenses.

Jaguar in treeWe averaged about 30 jaguar sightings per tour! On one morning trip alone we spotted seven different jaguars. One was a mother with two grown cubs in tow. You never know what you are going to see around the next bend of the river in the Pantanal. One jaguar highlight happened twice during my time there. On the quiet oxbow tributary known as Rio Negro, a female jaguar lounged in a tree about 15 feet above the water. She stayed there for several hours while we filled our memory cards with her image. The first time this occurred was in the early morning. The next time it was in the late afternoon. Both times a jaguar was in the same tree—but it was a different jaguar each time. That shows just how many jaguars roam these shores!

The time finally comes for us to leave Porto Jofre. Everyone has many wonderful jaguar, giant river otter, capybara and bird images on their hard drives. But just because we are leaving Porto Jofre does not mean that our adventure is over. We still have one more lodge to visit as we work our way back north on the Transpantaneira. Of course, we stop several times along the way to photograph birds, bridges and caiman.

Capped heron perched on tree branchOur final lodging is a horse ranch that has been converted to a lodge for eco-tourism. On the 3-mile-long road onto this property, one group comes across a tamandua. The drive is lined with small water holes that are full of caiman and have lots of birdlife. We stop at one of the ponds along the way that also has a large jabiru stork nest next to it. The nest is situated in a tall tree and is wide open for photography. In the mornings, the light is great on the nest. There are also other birds here, including black-collared hawks, cocoi and capped herons, snail kites, limpkins, three species of ibis, three species of kingfisher, hyacinth macaws, monk parakeets and toco toucans. We have a fruit feeder set up at this lodge that draws dozens of birds of various species. The toucan-like chestnut-eared araçaris pose and don’t even flinch as we walk up to add fresh fruit to the feeder. Several toco toucans also come to the feeder, as well as crested oropendolas, purplish jays, Chaco chachalacas, bare-faced curassows—and too many others to name. The morning is the best time to photograph at the feeder.

Around 8:30 AM, we take our bus to the water hole with the jabiru nest and shoot for a couple of hours. We also locate and photograph a nearby great horned owl. Diurnal ferruginous pygmy-owls are common here and are regularly photographed during the day. The large flightless greater rhea is a regular target of our lenses as well. During the heat of midday we retire to the lodge for lunch. When time permits and participants are interested, this is when I will offer some Photoshop instruction.

The late afternoon offers another round of activity at the feeder. Then around 4:30 we usually head back to the water hole to photograph the birds and, later, the sunset. After dark, there is still more to do for those who are not too tired. It is a short walk to the water hole where some folks try photographing caiman at night. Tapirs and crab-eating foxes are often illuminated by our flashlight beams. And we even see the giant anteaters on occasion.

Jabiru stork in flightOn our final morning in the Pantanal we get to shoot one more time at the fruit feeder. We then head up the 3-mile-long driveway toward the Transpantaneira. We stop several times along this drive to photograph brocket deer, a pond surrounded by caiman, and another very accessible jabiru stork nest. Finally back on the Transpantaneira, we are still not done shooting. We stop at a large shallow mud puddle to photograph an anaconda that has recently eaten something. And, finally, a large marsh deer buck bids us farewell as we photograph it standing in the water.

All three tours were incredible this year. Each group had many excellent encounters with jaguars, as well as giant river otters, jacare caiman, capybara and numerous birds. For me it was a really fun time, traveling with congenial groups in one of the most photographically productive locations on the planet. Everyone on each tour was very happy with what they saw and captured with their cameras. I hated to leave and I’m eagerly looking forward to returning next year!

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