Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Três onças

When you sit in one place and watch, inevitably you see. Wild things come to you, by sound and by sight. This afternoon, in the shirt-drenching heat of the Três Irmâos river, we sat and we waited, and we saw and we heard.

Always there were yellow-billed cardinals and lesser kiskadees along the bank of the river, among the twisted roots of the trees. Always there were ringed kingfishers, sometimes Amazon kingfishers too. Always a cocoi heron fished just upriver. There were many birds I was unable to point out to my group as we were sitting in silence, waiting, watching. Of the birds I saw and heard for my silent self, all were old friends. Rusty-backed spinetails stammered in the overhanging brush and pale-legged horneros shrieked in antiphony from the bank. Grey-headed tanagers bounced over the river calling, and in the trees’ canopy a hooded tanager fed.

I could not point them out because, in the blanket of humid heat, we were waiting for movement. On the opposite bank, flat-out and barely half seen, was a blotch-spattered form in the dust. This was Peter. Behind a tree, unseen by the whole group, except me, just occasionally a black ear with a white splotch would move, or the curve of a spotted neck. This was Bianca.

Jaguars. A courting pair, both well-known local cats. For all of my clients, their first. For a long hot time, nothing happened, though Peter occasionally lifted his heavy head and once he yawned. His face was battered and scarred and half of his left ear missing. He was, I guessed, and later Fiorella confirmed, some eight or nine years old. A male at the peak of his strength, with the wounds of battle all around his tired eyes.

Thanks to this strength, beside him lay Bianca, hidden from view by a tree. After two hours she stretched, she stood, she looked, and I could see from her face that she was much younger. I guessed four or five and Fiorella later agreed. She walked to Peter and slumped behind him. All eyes watched, thrilled, delighted, moved.

Sleep; again sleep. Heat. Then, of all the unpredicted turns, another jaguar, a bigger male, appeared by the river upstream, walking towards our pair. No identifying features could be seen on him - too far, too fast - but here, clearly, was an interloper, a young male drawn by the hold of Bianca's scent on his hormones. We heard his padded footfall on the forest’s dry leaves and, in an instant, Bianca stood, roared deeply and bolted downstream. Peter went with her, roaring too.

They turned to the unseen incomer and they stared. A checkered checkmate in the leaf-dappled light of the late afternoon. The suitor desisted, the cats relaxed, and so did we, as the lesser kiskadees looped over the water and the undulated tinamous sang their sad song to the lengthening shadows. As relaxed, that is, as my group of eleven naturalists could be having just seen their first three jaguars on the bank of a river in Brazil.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii                3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                    3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus            2
lion Panthera leo nubica                              78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                       3
jungle cat Felis chaus                                   2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                            13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                    4
lion Panthera leo persica                              7
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis           15
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps          1
wildcat hybrid Felis silvestris grampia/catus  1
jaguar Panthera onca                                    3

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