Tuesday, April 4, 2023

One Big Capy Family

It’s a rodent that can weigh as much as 150 to 200 pounds. Some people might be creeped out by that thought, but for me it was one more reason to go to Brazil. Along with the jaguars, ocelots, anteaters, monkeys, and macaws, I wanted to see a capybara.

As it turned out, capybaras seemed to be everywhere in the Pantanal. We found them at nearly every location we visited, sometimes walking on the dirt roads in front of our vehicle, and generally unperturbed by our presence. On our daily excursions we saw and photographed family groups of up to twenty or more in a variety of habitats - grazing in a meadow like a herd of deer, frolicking in a pond like a strange hybrid of hippos and otters, or just hanging out on a riverbank.

Capybaras may not be the most dramatic or awe-inspiring of tropical animals, but there’s just something special about them.

Want more? Click here to explore the Capybara Gallery.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

High-speed Hand-off


One of the joys of moving to a new city, or even a new neighborhood, is getting to know the local wildlife. Every ecosystem, no matter how small, has its own mix of species. When my family moved from Berkeley to Benicia we saw a lot of familiar backyard critters – Fox Squirrels, Scrub Jays, Lesser Goldfinches – and, because our new home was close to the water and in a more suburban area, a lot of different ones as well. For one thing, Benicia has more Northern Mockingbirds than any other place I’ve been. We often see Canada Geese, Western Gulls, and even Ospreys and an occasional Bald Eagle flying over the house. And, with the abundance of open space and grassy hillsides, we see far more raptors than we did in our urban neighborhood in Berkeley. Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Cooper's Hawks are the most common, along with an abundance of Turkey Vultures.

My favorite new neighbors were the pair of White-tailed Kites who built a nest just four blocks from our house. When I first saw them in late March they were still building and I was able to photograph them carrying sticks to the tree. Over the next couple weeks, although I couldn’t see the nest itself, I photographed the male bringing food to the female, who was presumably incubating their eggs. (In kites it’s normally the female who cares for the eggs and hatchlings while the male hunts. The sexes look alike so of course I can’t be absolutely sure this couple was following tradition.)

One morning in April it had all changed. A half dozen crows were in the top of the nest tree with no kites in sight. I waited for the kites to come back and chase them off but they never returned. After checking again over the next few days it was clear to me that the crows had eaten their eggs and the kites weren’t going to try again, at least at that location. 

Then in June I noticed an adult kite spending a lot of time in a tree on our street and followed it to a nesting site just two blocks away. The new nest was in a taller and denser tree that was even more difficult to photograph than the first. Again I could watch as the adults flew in and out but there was no way to see into the nest. 

My big break came in July when the chicks fledged. After leaving their nest the two fledglings made their temporary home in a Coast Redwood in the alley behind our house. I could literally photograph them from my back yard. The short time they spent in that tree was a real privilege to witness. 

A chick would stand in the top of the tree and flap its wings, jumping in the air, repeatedly practicing its takeoff and landing technique. Other times the two of them would play tag, sometimes joined by one of their parents, chasing one another across the sky, spiraling together, nearly colliding, getting faster and more skilled with each passing day. 

At first the adults would bring food directly to their babies but as the days went on they made them work harder and harder for every meal. An adult would fly past the tree with a vole in its talons, calling for a chick to come and get it. When one of the young birds followed, the adult would let it get almost close enough to grab the rodent, and then surge ahead in a surprising burst of speed, making the hungry chick fly even faster. The successful hand-off you see in the next three photos happened on the third attempt. 

After about a week of these fantastic displays the family moved on, probably for a few hunting lessons in the local hills before the young birds were fully on their own. I was very sad when they didn’t nest in our neighborhood the following year, and I’m hoping they will return in 2023. 

Would you like to purchase a print? Click on the photos to see a variety of print sizes and framing options, or click here to explore my photo catalog.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Jaguar Crossing

Before every trip I spend some time thinking about what I want to photograph. It might be something general - “I want to find some eagles” - but it can often be very specific. For example, if I’m going to the southwest I might imagine a cactus wren perched on a cholla, with a little backlighting to emphasize the spines of the cactus. The more I think about specific compositions, and what it might take to make them happen, the more likely I am to get the shot that I want - or at least something like it. As we all know, nature often has other plans. Patience and flexibility are always key to successful wildlife photography.

When I started thinking about the Brazilian Pantanal, and more specifically about the jaguars I hoped to see, I imagined a variety of photo scenarios. There were the dream shots, of course. A mother with her newborn kittens. Two males fighting for dominance. A jaguar stalking and killing a caiman. Or maybe a jaguar eating an anaconda eating a capybara – the turducken shot. My imagination can run wild, especially when thinking about a place I’ve never been before.

But the photo I imagined most often was a simple one: a wide view of a river, surrounded by jungle, with a jaguar swimming across in the foreground. I didn’t know how likely I was to find that scene, but I knew I was going to try.

Jaguars are the biggest cats in the Americas and the third largest in the world (only lions and tigers are bigger), and their population has declined by about 20-25% over just the past thirty years. Once common everywhere from Argentina to the southwestern United States (they were known from Monterey County, California, as recently as the early 20th Century), about half the total population now lives in Brazil, with smaller populations in Mexico and other Central and South American countries.


The Pantanal, in west-central Brazil, is the largest tropical wetland in the world, and it’s home to the largest concentration of jaguars. It also attracts an ever-growing number of wildlife photographers. Every morning and afternoon dozens of small boats head out from the village of Porto Jofre to cruise the Cuiabá and Piquirí Rivers in search of big cats hunting along the banks. Our group spent three full days here, with about seven hours per day on the water. We photographed hundreds of birds, caimans, and capybaras while keeping an eye out for jaguars.

There are plenty of jaguars here but that doesn't mean they're always easy to see or photograph. The marshy riverbanks are lined with thick vegetation, and jaguars are masters of stealth and camouflage. I estimate that only about half of our jaguar sightings resulted in usable photographs. Not that I'm complaining, of course. I'm very happy with the photos that you see on this page, and it’s a privilege just to see these magnificent animals in their habitat. But let me tell you about the one that got away ...

One afternoon we watched as a jaguar killed a big caiman no more than thirty feet from our boat, while the only thing we could see was the violent thrashing of the marsh grass and an occasional glimpse of a leg or tail, as two of the world's most powerful animals fought to the death. The caiman never really had a chance, but it made the jaguar work hard for its dinner. As a photographer it was extremely frustrating; as a naturalist it was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced.

On our second day on the river, I saw my chance for the crossing shot when a young male cautiously approached the water. After a couple of false starts it walked into the current and swam across, with nothing to obscure the view from our boat, and I was ready for it. Among the thousands of frames I shot in Brazil, this one was exactly what I had hoped for. With all the no-shows, near-misses, and other disappointments that come with wildlife photography, it’s a real joy to celebrate a success like this one.


Would you like to purchase a print? Click on the photos to see a variety of print sizes and framing options.