On the trail of jaguars with Steve Winter, National Geographic photographer – Part III

Dear Mr. Jaguar, please come for a drink!
The sun has already warmed the forest as we hike the trail, single file, toward our chosen destination. It’s Day 2 of Steve Winter’s expedition to photograph jaguars in the Yucatan Peninsula and again a water hole draws us in, a second cenote that may yet provide Steve with a chance to capture an image he’s already seen in his mind: a spectacular shot of a jaguar coming to the water to quench its thirst, as seen from the water looking out.

Steve is psyched about the possibilities and his no-nonsense enthusiasm is contagious. It’s also impossible to ignore Bertie Gregory’s commitment to his double mission today, for in addition to his role as Steve’s assistant he’s also shooting video for National Geographic’s on-line platform, carrying strapped to his chest a rig at the core of which is a Sony FS-7 digital video camera. Throughout the day he’ll be busy alternating between camera-trap deployment and shooting video as a one-man-band.

Steve Winter and Bertie Gregory, loaded with gear, walk a trail in El Zapotal towards a potential trap-camera location. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The trail turns into a rocky gradual ascent, then slopes down again until suddenly we see it, a beautiful, rounded water hole surrounded by trees that grow over a tapestry of dry leaves, their branches reaching over the water as if attempting to escape from the heat.

Biologist Abraham Puc has used this location regularly to set up compact camera-traps for El Zapotal’s wildlife monitoring program, and many records of jaguars have been obtained here. Steve confers with Abraham, looks around as he weighs his options, then chooses a spot. Work begins immediately as he goes waist-deep into the water without hesitation.

Many factors must be taken into account when choosing proper emplacement for a camera-trap, as has already been discussed in Part II of this story. Today’s set-up adds another variable, since the camera will be emplaced just above the surface of the water. Steve wants to achieve a shooting angle that will hopefully be at eye level with the jaguar as it approaches the edge of the cenote to drink.

There’s a real chance that, if water level continues to rise as the rainy season progresses, the camera will be swallowed by the cenote. Steve feels it’s a risk worth taking, but not without first grilling Abraham to better understand how high the water has risen in preceding years. Abraham does his best to answer but in the end, as he cautiously points out, it’s hard to know for sure. 

Steve visualizes his shot and makes the next all important decision: how to frame the composition. He then gives Bertie precise indications for the placement of three strobes that will light the subject and its surrounding scene. Next the TrailMaster system must be carefully aligned, its infrared beam shooting straight into the sensor and drawing a line that, we all hope, the jaguar will cross in order to trigger the system. All cables must then be hidden as best as possible and secured to rocks and branches. Finally, everything must be tested to confirm the system works.

Bertie rigs the first strobe to the right side of the camera. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Following Steve’s directions, Bertie climbs on a tree to rig the second strobe. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Steve pre-visualizes his shot before putting the camera in the weather-proof housing. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It takes teamwork to precisely align the TrailMaster’s infrared beam with its receiving sensor. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

It takes nearly three hours of hard work to complete our task. In the end, as we leave the finished set-up behind, the box that houses the camera is only a couple of inches above the water’s surface. Meant to offer protection from the elements, these boxes are weather sealed but not built to be submerged. Clearly there won’t be much room for error and if the water does indeed rise it will surely leak into the box, flooding the camera. But Steve’s gamble could pay off and reward him with a great photograph of a jaguar coming down to the water for a drink, its imposing figure reflected on a liquid mirror.

Once we make it back to camp we eat a hearty lunch and get some rest while the sun travels away from its zenith, arching west across a blue, cloudless sky. It’s best to wait until the temperature drops a bit, so we finally set out again shortly past 4 pm. We soon reach location #3, an area where the trail cuts a boundary between low bush and a small patch of landscape covered in reeds. This trail, Abraham reports, is often used by wildlife.

We’re all quickly engaged in what by now feels like a familiar routine, selecting camera emplacement, rigging strobes and the TrailMaster system, hiding and securing cables, locking everything down, then checking it all works. Again it takes about three hours for everything to be ready and night has fallen by the time we’re finished. The following day we’ll go back to each camera location and make sure all systems are operational. 

The trail cuts through two distinct habitats, low bush on one side and this area filled with reeds on the other. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Night is about to fall as we continue working, but that would never keep Steve from smiling. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

A triple double-check and the promise of things to come

I’ll spare you the details of our day spent revisiting camera-traps, but a couple of things are worth mentioning. Notably, camera-trap #1, which had given us plenty of trouble during initial set-up (with strobes refusing to fire and batteries falling out of place, as told in Part I of this story) was again not working properly. This alone justified the need to go back and revisit each set-up, and should be a note of caution to all photographers planning to use camera-trap techniques. After all, this would be our last chance to make sure everything works before leaving the cameras on their own for at least two weeks.

But if set-up #1 was a bit of a downer, demanding more time and effort to be fully operational again, and set-up #2 proved uneventful, set-up #3 had an uplifting surprise in store for us. The TrailMaster’s event counter announced in red numbers that the system had been triggered and several shots had been fired. After taking the camera out of the housing and quickly previewing the contents of the card, a big grin flashed across Steve’s face. The night before, not long after we’d left the location, an ocelot had triggered the system!

Surpirse, surprise! An ocelot was photographed soon after we left the location the night before. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are impressive felines in their own right.  Males can weigh up to 15 Kg. with a body length of up to 100 cm. Mostly nocturnal, with brown eyes that turn golden when illuminated, they’re solitary hunters that come out at dusk and return to their resting places with first light. They prey on small mammals, birds, fish, insects and reptiles, and can rarely also target larger prey such as deer or peccaries.

The ocelot was a source of joy and wetted our appetite for further triumphs to come. Perhaps more importantly, it also allowed Steve to review the lighting of this particular camera set-up. The cat was nicely illuminated but the scenery around it was too dark, so Steve decided to increase the intensity of the lights bathing the background.

With the first stage of Steve’s mission now completed, our production plan will put us on the road to the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, where we hope to witness the natural spectacle of a huge colony of nesting flamingos. After that Steve and Bertie will fly to Colombia, where they plan to photograph and film jaguars for several weeks. In the meantime I’ll return to El Zapotal to check all cameras, change batteries as needed, and leave them working again for several more days. Then I’ll return one last time to pick them up for good.

Once the Colombian leg of their trip is over Steve and Bertie will return to Cancún and we will set out from there on speed-boats towards “The Blue”, off the coast of the Mexican Caribbean, where it’s possible to experience the gargantuan placidity of whale sharks and the impressive natural design of oceanic manta rays. Production will be brought to a close with a final visit to the flamingo colony in Ría Lagartos, which should by then be populated with thousands of newly hatched chicks.

We shall continue to share all these amazing experiences with our readers here in Ride Into Birdland, but first we’ll now flash-forward to bring you along as I return to check Steve’s camera-traps in El Zapotal. It’s time to find out if all our hard work has been rewarded with any degree of success.

I’ll disclose right away that I found nothing significant in the first two cameras I checked. The one that had photographed the ocelot had a few images of a Bare-throated Tiger Heron who, walking distractedly, had triggered the system several times. There were no photos of jaguars either in camera #1. I changed batteries and realigned strobes that had been moved by the wind and the rain, then left the cameras working.

Only the ambitious camera-trap in the water remained to be checked. I invite you to watch the video below to fully appreciate what I found when I got there.

We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the video, but if you cannot, know this: the camera was found underwater and is probably a total loss. The question is whether the SD card is still working, and if so… Did we succeed in capturing images of a jaguar? (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

Back in Merida, the hour of truth!

If you watched the video you know that at this point we’ve made it back to Merida with a case full of very wet camera gear. We’ve set it up to dry and now, finally, we’re ready to check the card that we pulled from the flooded camera-trap. The computer recognizes the card, which seems to be unaffected by having been underwater for several days, and the files are transferred without issues to one of my hard drives.

I  then begin to import the RAW files into Lightroom, holding my breath. One by one the images pop up on the screen… and there it is! The TrailMaster triggered a sequence of five images and I can see photos of a jaguar coming to the water for a drink, just as Steve had envisioned!

I imagine Steve must be out of reach on a remote location somewhere, but I dial his number anyway. I get lucky and Steve picks up from the backseat of a taxi that is taking him and Bertie to an airport, where an army helicopter awaits to fly them deep into the Colombian jungle. 

Ivan went back to check the cameras”, Steve relays to Bertie as I give him my report, his voice raising with excitement, “…there was nothing on the first two cameras… but we got the jaguar in the camera we left in the cenote!” I can hear them both screaming in celebration and I know we’re all flashing big smiles. With some hard work and a few drops of good luck, our mission has indeed been accomplished!

Steve asks me to send the RAW files to Veronica, his studio manager in the U.S. Later on, after he’s had a chance to review them personally, he’ll kindly allow me to share them with our readers in Ride Into Birdland. Who could ask for a better way to close Part III of this story? Thank you Steve!

So finally, here they are. Behold the beauty of Panthera onca, mighty jaguar of the Yucatan Peninsula, as captured by the lens of Steve Winter, National Geographic photographer.

This is the first image in the sequence. Even if the jaguar is just entering the frame, it has that “mighty predator” attitude that makes this a powerful image. Steve rarely uses creative cropping but he did choose to balance this composition by going vertical. (Photo © Steve Winter. Used by permission, all rights reserved).

Having almost fully entered the frame, the jaguar seems a little befuddled. Perhaps he sensed something had changed in his regular drinking spot? (Photo © Steve Winter. Used by permission, all rights reserved).

There it is, its whole body now in the frame, right paw stepping on a fallen tree as he steps forward, fully reflected on the water! (Photo © Steve Winter. Used by permission, all rights reserved).

This is the final usable image in the sequence. The jaguar has taken one more step forward and his head is now turned slightly to the right, granting us a view of both eyes. (Photo © Steve Winter. Used by permission, all rights reserved).

Only Steve can select the best image, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to lean in favour of the first, vertical shot. The jaguar’s poise, head angled down from its shoulders and pointing forwards, muscular tension on its front legs, intense expression on its face and eyes as if stalking prey, all of it suggests he’s about to charge forward into the negative space on the right side of the frame. And all of it is beautifully reflected on the water below. Well done Steve, thumbs up to this killer image!

Thus we close the first leg of this production. Stay tuned as we’ll proceed to share with you the rare privilege of witnessing one of planet Earth’s largest colonies of flamingoes, in the midst of nesting season. It’s really a sight to behold, in full technicolor.

I.G.H.

With special thanks to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán for logistical support and access to El Zapotal private reserve.

BIG THANKS to Steve Winter for allowing us to use his images in this story.

Special thanks also to Roselys Oropeza, Head of Production at Kinetrópico, for designing our itinerary, keeping track of our progress every step of the way and providing continued support from our home base in Mérida, Yucatán.

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