14 JUNE 2008: Day of the Jaguar

Every tour has its outstanding moments, producing memories that stay with you long after you’re home. We do our best to help them happen with extensive guiding experience, careful itinerary planning, selection of the best seasons for weather and birding in general, and other logistical details that position us advantageously…

The Jaguar in question, by Bret Whitney
The Jaguar in question, by Bret Whitney

In fact, most of the great events that happen on tours are, for well-seasoned guides, expected (though often not predictable) peaks on the daily chart of activities. For example, Gray-bellied Goshawk (Accipiter poliogaster) is a bloody rarely seen bird. It occurs almost everywhere across Amazonia and we operate tours to lots of places in its range, but I’d guess we’ve seen it on Field Guides tours only about a half-a-dozen times in 20+ years. Thus, it was a tremendous highlight to see it well (and for so long) on this year’s RAINFOREST & SAVANNA tour to Alta Floresta and the Northern Pantanal. But it wasn’t surprising to me, because we “did it right” by getting up on the tower quite early when this raptor fairly regularly perches conspicuously on treetops and vocalizes. So, there it was. Excellent!

But there are some events that mark you for life, events that are all about just being LUCKY to be in the right spot at the right moment. We had one of these ultra-rare events on this tour, a completely fortuitous surprise of the highest order, when Jorge, a guide for the Cristalino Jungle Lodge at Alta Floresta, burst into the dining room and hollered “BRET, BRET!!” Jorge had just left a Jaguar on the riverbank a short distance downriver. We jumped up from lunch and were in that boat in about one minute. Ten minutes later we were gasping as we watched a big Jaguar loafing on a tree trunk leaning over the river.

The massive cat allowed us to glide by three times, finally to within about 15 feet—incredible!—calmly looking back at us, even dropping a hind leg over the trunk as it relaxed, barely even twitching its tail. Those were soul-stirring stares! There were several nervous comments from the boat, but I calmed everyone down: “Not to worry, there’s no way he can get all of us.” I’ve seen Jaguars well several times now, but I know that I am never going to see one this well again in my life; it just would not be possible… ok, maybe if it was mauling me (I’d be proud to sport some scars as long as I could manage to get away!).

We’ll try to keep Bret away from the Jaguar’s claws until next year, when his tour, ALTA FLORESTA & THE NORTHERN PANTANAL is scheduled for June 19-July 4. And John Rowlett will be returning to ALTA FLORESTA October 5-16.