Wildlife Holiday News

Watching Jaguars (& Birders!) in Brazil's Pantanal by John Erskine

John Erskine travelled on our 'Brazil - Just Jaguars' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Jaguar, Pantanal by Dani Free

It's For the Birds!

Having recently returned from a Naturetrek ‘Just Jaguars!’ tour to the Pantanal region of Brazil, I felt the need to place on record what was, for me, the first sighting of an interesting human sub-species, namely, the Birder. I have travelled the world in recent years taking photographs of diverse wilderness areas, thereby satisfying my desire to enjoy and capture images of sweeping landscapes and amazing wildlife. On these journeys I have travelled with normal people as well as with serious photographers but never with Birders. From my Pantanal observations, let me outline the salient characteristics of a Birder: a fanatic, male or female, obsessed with the need to observe, often fleetingly, any creature with wings, that may or may not have the capacity to fly, and to record the sighting on a piece of paper (known as a bird checklist) for no apparent good reason. Birders must have virtual memory cards built into their brains because most of these individuals do not take photographs; I wonder if they have some unusual means of subsequently enjoying or displaying what they have observed. This strange behaviour is of particular interest to a photographer like me who aims to capture images of what I have seen, to enjoy later and to convince others that I actually observed the wildlife or landscape, on real memory cards in my camera.

At the start of the ‘Just Jaguars!’ tour I asked one of the male members of the party, with a large pair of binoculars hanging around his neck, why he had chosen to go on the tour. His answer, ‘It’s for the birds’, filled me with trepidation. Was I, a simple photographer with no binoculars, about to be enveloped in a suffocating assembly of fanatical Birders on our various truck and boat outings. My worst fears were realised when, on our very first wildlife viewing expedition, my 11 fellow travellers all clambered onto the truck with an impressive assembly of 10x40s hanging from their necks and no cameras in view. When a feathered creature was soon observed by the guide, deep in the foliage of a nearby tree, all the 10x40s swung up in unison and whispered words of praise for the observant guide wafted around the truck as the Birders focused on something that was invisible as far as I was concerned.

However, on our many subsequent truck and boat trips I learnt how to circumvent the odd behaviour of my fellow adventurers. Whenever I saw something of photographic interest, a decent-sized animal (with no wings) or a dramatic landscape, I simply whispered quite loudly about there being a very unusual species of bird in the adjacent bushes and the truck/boat would quickly slow down for the Birders to earnestly scan the foliage for a desired avian rarity. This provided me with sufficient time to capture an image of the object of my admiration. In the Pantanal, there are many beautiful landscapes and animals to be seen at every twist of the road or curve of the river, so progress was sometimes quite slow. On one occasion, the Birders were observing a desirable bird in the bushes at the edge of the river; there were calls of Hallelujah from the Hampshire couple, subdued shrieks of glee from the Welsh pair, and unmentionable words of appreciation from the Aussie couple, so I knew that the encounter must be good. As usual, I had my camera pointing elsewhere and happened to notice that there was a delightful Jaguar (ostensibly, the main target for our ‘Just Jaguars!’ group) sitting on the bank of the river not far from where we had stopped. I gave voice to my delight at seeing the glorious cat only to hear distraught murmurs from the Birders about the uncouth photographer frightening away the avian object of their admiration. We did eventually move along to see the Jaguar and, indeed, I was suitably rewarded when one of the Aussies, who turned out to be half-birder and half-photographer, thumped me on the back and whispered ‘Good on you cobber’ into my ear.

By the end of the tour, we had seen Giant Anteaters, Tapirs, Jaguars (16 sightings), all fairly rare, as well as numerous other mammals, reptiles and birds. The only bird that I was able to identify, and then with some degree of uncertainty, was the common sparrow. The Pantanal is truly one of the world’s most magnificent ecosystems and a region of unparalleled beauty; the wetlands and forest areas offer any wildlife enthusiast an opportunity for viewing dramatic landscapes as well as the diverse and dense fauna.

Did I enjoy the experience? Most certainly. Once I got used to the eccentric behaviour of the Birders, I found them to be a very amiable group and the wilderness experience was something to be treasured and savoured for many years to come. I have to make a confession: on my way back home, I stopped off in London and sneaked into a camera shop in the Strand, not as you might imagine to purchase another lens for my camera, but rather to enquire about a suitable pair of 10x40s. When the assistant asked me what I wanted them for, I replied ‘It’s for the birds,’ and wondered thereafter, with some measure of alarm, whether I was regressing from photographer to Birder.

Read more about our 'Brazil- Just Jaguars!' holiday.