BRAZIL 2010: Pantanal – Jaguar at Porto Jofre

The next stop on my Brazilian tour was Porto Jofre, at the south end of the Transpantaneira highway.  Located on the banks of the wide Cuiaba River, this lodge caters to a large number of wealthy fisherman, as evidenced by the 35+ motor-powered boats and numerous staff to clean, cook and guide us.  It also attracts photographers and Jaguar-seekers, like ourselves, as this part of the Pantanal is the best place in the world to find the elusive cat, especially in the months of August and September.

A quick tour of the grounds revealed several boldy-calling Hyacinth Macaws, and a family of Southern Caracaras who allowed quite close approaches for photographs.  Tropical Kingbirds, Picui Ground-Dove and White-tipped Doves were all common.  A pair of Chestnut-eared Aracaris jumped around a Palm tree right next to our cottage. A flock of 6 Toco Toucans (above) moved around the branches of a large tree, their giant orange bills flashing in the sun. The pond behind the cottages hosted myriad birds along with picturesque Giant Water Lillies, featuring Black-collared Hawk, Green Kingfisher, Black-necked Stilts, and Collared Plover,  along with some early-returning shorebirds, namely Solitary Sandpiper,  Pectoral Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs.  We retired right after dinner, eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s search for Jaguar.

Promptly at 6:30 am we stepped onto a motorboat with Vindalay, our capable boatman and guide. The goal was Jaguar, but the bird show was spectacular, providing plenty to see and photograph. We sped up the main channel of the Cuiaba River, until we reached the Tres Irmaos (‘three brothers’), where we took the middle fork.  The river was wide in most places, more narrow in others. Sandy banks protruded out of the curves; straightaways were lined with overhanging trees, gnarled fallen branches, and dense rushes. Caimans were partially-submerged near the banks every few yards. Capybaras (above) lounged on beaches in family groups, pairs or individuals; these are the primary food source for the river-loving Jaguars.

The river was alive with the sights and sounds of egrets, herons, anhingas, cormorants, terns, skimmers, chachalacas, kiskadees and much more.  Southern Rough-winged Swallows and White-winged Swallows skimmed low over the water. We had four kingfisher species – Ringed, Amazon and Green were numerous, and we had good looks at one Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher. A stunning male Sungrebe (above) paddled swiftly out of the water hyacinths, doing his best to elude us in the overhanging foliage.  New species for the trip included Lesser Kiskadee, Little Cuckoo, Greater Ani, Least Bittern, and a Rusty-backed Spinetail building a nest close to the water’s edge.

During a late morning lull, we came across a group of 5 Giant Otters in a wide expanse of the river. They first caught our attention with their horrifying barks, which sounded like death cries. Over six-feet in length, they looked formidable when they popped their large heads above the water and let out ear-splitting shrieks. One caught a brightly-patterned catfish (above) and ate it right next to our boat, where we could hear him crunching the bones. The animals moved quickly in the water, hiding beneath a dense shrubby overhang. Later we found another group of 5 otters, quieter than the first group. We saw three of them catch fish and eat them from tail to head.

While the birds and otters were wonderful diversions, we never stopped scanning the river banks for Jaguars. Nearly 6 hours later, and no cats, we returned back to Porto Joffre for a lunch break in the midday heat.  We joined Vindalay again at 3 PM, with fresh determination to find the elusive cat. We followed the Piquiri River upstream, and within an hour came upon 3 boats anchored and staring at the bank. We slowed our approach and scanned the area, just in time to see a Jaguar stand up, pause a moment, then disappear into the dark shadows of the woods. While we were happy to have finally seen him, we selfishly wished for more lingering looks.

The boats dispersed and Vindalay took us farther up the channel, all the while scanning every inch of the shore. A pair of Pied Lapwings shared a sandy bank with some Black Skimmers. We returned back to the same spot, this time to find 4 boats anchored, and cameras clicking furiously. The Jaguar was sitting right out in the open on the sandy shoreline! For the next hour we enjoyed spectacular views of him sitting, looking, resting, yawning, licking his paws. He finally got up and walked several yards. His steps were deliberate, seemingly light-footed for such a large animal. He crouched down on all four paws to lap some water, then arose and walked softly into the underbrush, disappearing for the night. What a wonderful experience to watch the world’s third largest cat in his native habitat. This subspecies here in the Pantanal is notably larger than those found to the north.

In the afterglow of sunset, the nocturnal inhabitants of the river emerged. Nacunda and Band-tailed Nighthawks replaced the swallows in swooping over the waters. At least 3 species of bats joined them.  It was dark by 6 PM, this being wintertime in the southern hemisphere. Vindalay swept his large spotlight from side to side, illuminating Coqui Herons standing on the banks, Egrets flying across the bow of our boat, and the red eyes of many Caimans in the water. We slowed abruptly when a pair of green eyes showed on the banks – a Jaguar at the water’s edge! The cat was alert to our wake, and quickly retreated into darkness. The last thrill of the night came when eyes shone from high up on the riverbank. A Greater Potoo (above) was perched on a post! We pulled the boat up close and kept the spotlight on him, as he moved his head from side to side, grabbing insects from his perch. He flew off to continue his evening hunting, and we returned to the hotel with huge elation after such a fabulous day on the river.

all photos © adrian binns



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