Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal 2017 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Sep 18, 2017

It is so hard to write a report for this tour. You quickly run out of superlatives. And this year was especially exciting. As our group made its way down the Pantaneira Highway, we stopped several times to photograph a myriad of birds, caiman, and even a marsh deer. We were also very fortunate to be in the Pantanal while the Ype trees were flowering. The pink canopy overhanging the road offered really beautiful landscape opportunities and we happily took advantage of the colorful bloom.
We arrived at our first lodge of the tour in time for lunch. Afterwards, we had some time to photograph the birds coming to the feeder and parrots eating fruit in the surrounding trees before boarding our boats. We were not looking for jaguars just yet (although they have been spotted here in the past). Here, however, we had great opportunities to photograph kingfishers, cocoi herons, and hawks flying in to scoop up piranha from the mirror-like surface of the lodge’s lake. We took the boats out two more times the next day to hone our skills photographing birds and we came away with even more wonderful action shots. As we departed our first lodge to travel further down the Pantaneira Highway, we stopped almost immediately to photograph a pair of whistling herons hunting for frogs near the road.

As expected, we stopped more than once to take photographs on the way to our next lodge, which sits at the end of the road…literally. Our accommodations there are wonderfully spacious, comfortable, cooled by excellent air conditioners, and with plenty of room to spread out gear and laptops. There are plenty of 110V outlets to plug in all of our chargers, and each room even has a refrigerator and a safe. The meals are all served buffet style and the food is very good. Laundry service is available and is usually back the same afternoon. A great place to also comfortably recharge ourselves between boat trips!

Hyacinth macaws Brazil's PantanalIt is from this lodge that we would be boarding our boats ten times over the next five days in search of jaguars. That would start the following morning. In the meantime, the lodge property itself offered a myriad of wonderful shooting opportunities. Hyacinth macaws were feeding at eye level, and even at ground level, on palm nuts from the numerous trees on the property. They were also nesting in a dead palm tree which happened to be directly next to one of the magnificent pink-flowering Ype trees. In another tree, also adjacent to the flowering Ype, were no fewer than six toco toucans feeding on ripe fruit. There is a lagoon with a boardwalk on this property as well. Along the shore we found a pair of southern screamers, wattled jacana, southern lapwings, jabiru stork, guira cuckoo and three species of ibis. There were also kingfishers, flycatchers and hawks perching on the boardwalk, a great vantage point from which to hunt. There was even a family of capybara inhabiting the lagoon. Yet this was all simply a wonderful diversion from our main quarry—the magnificent jaguar.

Early the next morning we split up among our three boats. Each photographer has an entire row of seats to him/herself, allowing plenty of room to spread out photo gear and move around to get the best vantage point. All of our boats, as well as most of the others on the river, are in radio contact with each other. It took less than 30 minutes before the first jaguar sighting call came across the airwaves. We rushed to the scene. This, our first of many jaguar encounters, left us with several nice pictures. But it was just the beginning. By the time we headed back to the lodge for lunch, we had seen and photographed four different jaguars. What makes this even more amazing is the fact that, barely a decade ago, virtually no one had a photo of a wild jaguar. Now, on our tour, sometimes within a handful of minutes from the lodge, anyone can have opportunities for really great jaguar pictures.

River otters, Brazil's PantanalNot that photographing numerous wild jaguars isn’t reason enough to be out on the water, we also had incredible opportunities to photograph a family of giant river otters on several occasions while they hunted for fish. We even had five otters lined up on the same log at the same time eating the same species of fish!! Add to that the capybara, caiman and a plethora of bird species—black-collared hawks, crane hawks, cocoi herons, rufescent tiger herons, striated herons, at least four different kingfishers, storks, egrets, wood rails, trogons, swallows, black skimmers, roseate spoonbills, yellow-billed terns, large-billed terns, and countless others—and the Pantanal stands alone as one of the most photographically target-rich areas of the world. And all of this was before lunch on Day One. We still had four and a half days (nine more boat trips) to go.

The following days brought us even more great luck and great shooting opportunities. On the morning of Day Three, all of our participants were fortunate enough to be front row witnesses as an 11-year-old male jaguar caught and dispatched an 8-foot-long caiman right in front of us. It took several minutes for the big cat to catch, kill and drag the giant reptile up the steep bank—our cameras firing away the entire time. The next morning, this very same jaguar was at it again, hunting while swimming along the riverbank. Spectacular!

After an absolutely exhausting productive five days (ten boat trips) photographing from the “end of the road,” we still had one more lodge on our itinerary as we headed back along the Pantaneira Highway. Along the way we stopped for a quick ice cream break. There were a couple of brown capuchin monkeys posing for us in the trees. Another unexpected bonus species for us in the Pantanal.

Toucan Brazil's PantanalWe reached our final lodge of the trip. This property has lots of potential for great bird photography. It was well into the dry season now, turning the once flooded plains into a collection of shrinking ponds and pools. As this happens, the fish become more concentrated and fall easy prey to an assortment of aquatic birds, such as herons, egrets, storks, kingfishers and hawks. Our lodge has several of these water holes, all full of subjects for our cameras. One of my favorite subjects here was a pair of capped herons, beautiful little white herons with blue faces and long head plumes. Some of us were witness to an incredible sight one morning when more than 200 caiman crossed over the dirt road that separated a large pond from a shrinking mud hole. There they proceeded to catch and eat whatever small fish remained. While the water holes offer a great deal of subject matter, the rest of the lodge property also offers a variety of photo opportunities, including nesting hyacinth macaws, a family of rheas, toco toucans, monk parakeets, oropendolas, ibis and roaming tegu lizards. Some of our participants actually saw tapirs, while others spotted a giant anteater.

By now, toward the end of our trip, virtually all of the Ype trees had dropped their pink flowers. But the lowering water level had revealed even more caiman along the shallow ponds near the road. In fact, hundreds of them were now visible. It was a great way to end our journey.

Brazil’s Pantanal gives us one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet. From a photographer’s perspective, there is no place more target rich, both in quality and quantity. I don’t even think that the plains of East Africa can compare. All I know is…next July can’t get here soon enough for me. I can’t wait to get back to the Pantanal!


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