In Costa Rica, you are not allowed to use flash at night when photographing frogs (to avoid damaging their eyes and disrupting their night time routine…in fact flash is discouraged in wildlife photography of any kind in Costa Rica…where it is not actually illegal). In the past I have used a good led flashlight, most recently a Everready daylight balanced flashlight, held beside my camera, with the camera set in “Anti Motion Blur” mode. I have gotten some good shots, but in Anti-motion Blur mode it is not possible to adjust Exposure Compensation and keeping the whites on the Red-eyed Leaf Frogs in check has been difficult. At close distances I often had to turn the flashlight down or shine it slightly off to the side, which pushed my ISO’s higher than they needed to be.
On this year’s Point and Shoot Nature Photography Adventure in Costa Rica, I made two changes to my technique.
1) Inspired by ads for a similar, but much more expensive, device on Facebook, I searched Amazon and bought a little light cube, normally used for shooting video. It mounts in the flash shoe of the Rx10iv and has three levels of adjustable illumination. It was under $30 and came with the flash shoe mount and a set of color filters to change the color temperature. It is roughly daylight balanced as it is.
2) I experimented with “multi-frame-noise-reduction” instead of anti-motion-blur. It does not have the motion processing of AMB but it still takes 3-4 images at a lower ISO and stacks them. Since high ISO noise in an image is random, stacking 3 images tends to ”average out” the noise. I was concerned that if the frog moved…or, more likely, if I moved the camera, the multiple frames would not stack correctly…but in practice it worked better than I expected. MFNR allowed me to dial in the EV for best results and, if I was very careful with motion, to even use Clear Image Zoom. In fact, MFNR did a better job of stacking exposures and I did not have to use much EV compensation at all.
What I also found was that the daylight balanced light cube did not disturb the frogs at all. With flashlights, the frogs first shut their eyes and then hunker down to make themselves as small as possible. You have to be quick to get a shot before they respond. With the light cube I could work a frog for many moments and it did not even close its eyes, much less hunker down.
If you do any night photography, I highly recommend you check out a light cube. They are available from a number of vendors on Amazon, and are inexpensive. They are also way easier to work with an a separate hand held flashlight, and seem to disturb the subject less. What is not to like?
As a final note, while in Costa Rica I worked with Cope, an artist and naturalist who lives in La Union (Donde Cope). He was using an LED array…also sold for video work…with over 150 leds. It seemed to provide a very non-directional light source, much like natural daylight, and would, I think, be very useful for hummingbirds and other birds in low light. That will be my next experiment. This shot of Honduran White Tent-making Bats up under a leaf under heavy canopy was taken using his hand held Led Array, but they do mount in your flashshoe as well. Note how natural the shadows look.
Mountain Gorillas! If you enjoy wildlife, trekking in to visit a family of Mountain Gorillas has to be high on your dream list. It certainly was on mine, and that is one of the main reasons I organized a safari to Uganda. Gorilla Trekking is available in two national parks in Uganda: Mgahinga National Park (which is part of the Virunga Volcano complex of parks in Uganda and neighboring Rwanda and the Congo), and in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. We visited Bwindi. Mountain Gorillas live in small family groups, generally a “silverback”, the male, and his mate and their offspring. Beginning in the 1990s some of these families were “habituated” to human presence, through a long process of increasing human contact over months, to the point where they can be safely visited…and I mean safe for both the gorillas and their visitors.
Since then, Gorilla Trekking has become a major source of revenue for the Ugandan Wildlife Service and for the local communities around Bwindi. There are 25 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi, and each family is visited by up to 8 people each day year round. That is a lot of Gorilla Trekking permits.
The Mountain Gorillas live in some of the most inaccessible forest in the world…impenetrable…as the name of the park suggests. The slopes are steep, all but vertical sometimes, the ground is continuously wet and unstable, the vegetation is heavy, and every Gorilla Trek involves at least some bushwhacking off the primitive trails to reach the family you have been assigned. Heavy pants, waterproof hiking boots, and even gloves to protect your hands from spines, thorns, and splinters, are required apparel. You can hire a porter, who will help with your pack (lunch and water and possibly camera gear), but who will, more importantly, help you up and down the steepest and most treacherous stretches of trail and ground. I highly recommend hiring a porter, no matter how fit you think you are. It can make the difference between enjoying the trek and merely surviving it.
At the morning briefing you and your group (2 people were added to our group of 5, since groups can be up to 8 people) are assigned one of the local habituated families and the guide who works with that family on a daily basis. Even before the briefing, the early trackers are out to where the family bedded down the evening before. Mountain Gorillas make a new nest, generally on the ground or in low vegetation, each night. The gorillas are generally up and moving before the early trackers can reach the night nests, so the trackers’ job is to follow the gorillas’ track to relocate them for the day’s visit. Your group hikes out with your rangers (two armed rangers accompany the guide to protect against possible Forest Elephant encounters) in the general direction of the last night nest (for us this was about an hour but we had one of the closer families as we used our relative age and fitness level to convince the rangers we need an “easy” family). Then generally you wait an hour or more in some forest clearing for the early trackers to radio in when the family stops to feed or rest or play and seems likely to stay put for long enough for your group to get there. If they don’t stop soon, you might be chasing them for another several hours. For us they stopped about 30 minutes from our waiting spot. Again, your experience may vary depending on how far and how fast your family is moving. Some Treks last 6 hours. By the time you get to the family, the trackers will have hacked a rough path from the nearest trail, and, if necessary, cleared a “doorway” into the clearing where the gorillas are.
Though young males and females may stay with the family up to 15 years before going off to form their own families, the family we visited was just dad and mom and 4 youngsters, aged maybe 6 years to 2 months. A young family. When we arrived dad was busy with a late breakfast of vines. It was clear from the size of the clearing he had made in the tangle of vines that the whole family had been feeding. Mom was resting, the oldest offspring was feeding alone at the outer edge of the clearing, and the younger siblings were busy playing, mostly with each other. The 2 month old was the most active and was busy exploring his climbing ability by swinging from the branches over the clearing. The two middle youngsters spent most of their time wrestling with each other. Though there was a lot of yelping, they were not really hurting each other. Typical family.
One of the rules of any Gorilla encounter is that you do not make eye contact (or eat or drink in the gorillas’ presence). And the Gorillas avoided eye contact with us as well. Though they clearly knew we were there, they did their best to ignore us, never looking directly at us during the the 30 minutes we spent with them before they decided they had had enough of us and moved off up-slope.
During the time we spent with our Mountain Gorilla family we observed a wide variety of family behavior. I don’t think anyone could help but be impressed by how like human family life the gorilla family life is…without, of course, the pressure of “keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table.” The Gorillas live much as our ancestors must have…hand to mouth and day to day. They are peaceful, gentle, loving within their families. There are only a few records of any kind of conflict with other groups and families that goes beyond a shouting match between silverbacks…and those were in areas where the gorillas were highly stressed by human encroachment, sometimes even caught in human war zones.
While you can debate the merits and the dangers of habituation, being able to visit the Mountain Gorillas in their forest home is an experience that can not help but change your perception of what it means to be wild, and what it means to be a human. Each group of humans gets 60 minutes a day with the assigned family, and each family is only visited once a day. Somewhat surprisingly fertility is higher and infant mortality lower among habituated Gorilla families than it is among the other Gorilla families in Bwindi who are only observed from a distance. Still, when our family decided they had had enough of us after 30 minutes, I was not tempted to follow them up-slope through the heavy brush. Of course I needed to save a bit of strength for the hike back out, which was as hard, if not harder, than the hike in, but mostly I already felt abundantly privileged to have visited that long…and if the Gorillas were done with us, I was okay to be done with them.
All the photos here were taken with the Sony Rx10iv at various focal lengths between 200-600mm. Program mode with my custom birds and wildlife modifications. Processed in Polarr and Apple Photos, and TouchRetouch. (Something the guide books and other websites don’t tell you: Mountain Gorillas often nest on their own excrement (for warmth in the cold mountain nights) so they are generally surrounded by flies. The out-of-focus flies appear in images as little highlights, spots, blobs, and squiggles. I thought at first my lens must have been very dirty until I realized what was going on. I used TouchRetouch’s AI driven blemish removal tool to take most of them out of my images.)
Finally, you can not just show up for a Gorilla Trek. You need a permit, and permits must be reserved for the day of your visit in advance…far in advance if you need them on a specific day. I arranged my Gorilla Trek (and my whole Uganda safari) through Epic Uganda Vacations (https://www.bookgorillatracking.com/index).
And I am planning on returning to Uganda next September for another Birds and Wildlife Safari, featuring a Gorilla Trek. If you are interested in joining me, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amazon Journeys invited me to join them for a 7 day “Birding the Manu Road“ adventure on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru. The Manu Road is famous among birders worldwide. It runs along the edge of the largest National Park in Peru, Manu National Park, starting at a high pass, over 11,000 feet, in the Puna (dry highland grass and shrub land) and descending through a series of elfin forest slopes and cloud forest valleys to the lowland foothill rain forest along the Manu river…some 50 miles and 10,000 feet lower. It is rough. It can be muddy. It often has spectacular wash outs with raw landslides, sheer drops, and rudimentary repairs. There are two tight blind tunnels, hacked around corners through outcroppings. There are waterfalls, big and little. There are deep cloud filled valleys where you can just barely hear the rushing stream at the bottom. There are vistas where you can watch the clouds come up out of the lowlands and climb toward the high passes above. There are orchids and wildflowers of all kinds and bromeliads and the kind of butterflies that will enliven your dreams. And there are birds. Astounding, wonderful, birds. Birds you will not see many other places. Many birds you that are only easily seen along the Manu Road.
You begin your journey in Cusco, one of the highest and one of the oldest cities in the Americas. (I recommend coming in a day early to get at least a little used to the altitude…11,500 feet can be a stain on anyone’s system.) Your real adventure beings when you leave Cusco to drive across the high dry slopes of the western Andes. You wind up and down and around over passes and across slopes, never getting much lower than 10,000 feet. Of course you stop along the way for birding. My guide, Pepe Rojas, took us first to Lake Haurcapy, a marshy high elevation lake (close to 10,000 feet).
There we picked up our first typical Andean birds. Yellow-winged Blackbirds in the reeds around the lake, Puna Teal on the water, Hooded Siskin, Bare-faced Ground Dove, and Chequanco Thrush along the brushy margins.
A couple of stops along the road yielded our next set of Peruvian endemics, typical, again of the dry western slopes of the Andes. The Bearded Mountaineer (endemic) is big by hummingbird standards, and Pepe spotted several as we drove along. At those stops we picked up Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch (another endemic), Creamy-crested Spinetail (a third endemic), Great Thrush, Band-tailed Seed-eater, and Peruvian Sierra Finch (not an endemic despite the name).
It was late afternoon before we crested the pass at the top of Manu National Park and found our way down slope to Wayqecha Biological Station and Birding Lodge, at about 9500 feet, just at the transition between elfin forest and cloud forest. Wayqecha is owned and operated by the Amazon Conservation Association and provides housing for research teams and for visiting birders. They maintain a growing network of trails, a canopy bridge, and research towers where huge curtains simulate the effects of climate change. The cabins, grounds, and facilities are first rate, and Wayqecha makes an ideal base for birding the upper reaches of the Manu Road. In addition they have well developed feeding stations that attract both common feeder birds and some more difficult to see species.
We spent most daylight hours on the Manu Road itself, so my time at the feeders was in less than ideal light, just before and after breakfast and dinner, and there were often wisps of cloud crossing the grounds, but the Metaltail and the Gould’s Inca are particularly good birds to see…and I was, of course, delighted with my first (and only for the trip) looks at Long-tailed Sylph. Sword-billed Hummingbird also comes to the feeders at Wayqecha but not while I was there.
On our first full day on the Manu Road we drove back up the the Canopy Bridge trail for a short hike in to see the bridge.
The primary purpose of the bridge is to provide access to the research towers, where, as I mentioned, they are conducting climate change research using huge curtains suspended from the towers to artificially alter the climate beneath.
We then walked back down to the lodge. I suppose some people do walk up the Manu Road, but at my age, and at 10,000 feet, I was thankful to be walking down, and most days for the remainder of the trip, that is what we did. We would drive to likely spot along road, and then walk, sometimes miles, seeing what we could see. Sometimes, especially in the afternoon, we would spend time in the van, slowly driving down, stoping mostly for mixed flocks seen crossing the road or along side, and getting out and walking sections that have proved particularly birdy in the past. This is old fashioned road birding. Walk and ride, ride and walk. What you see is totally dependent on what happens to be near the road as you pass. If most of your tropical birding has been done in Central America or even in other parts of South America, where the birds tend be concentrated at maintained feeding stations or in particularly bird-rich areas, this is different, and a bit harder work. But it is worth it. The magic of the Manu Road is that you do see an amazing number and variety of birds. You might walk half a mile without seeing anything…but then the next half-mile might be full of the most spectacular and interesting birds. And the birds you see are difficult to impossible to see elsewhere. The upper Manu Road gives you easy access to some of the richest cloud forest in the world.
That first morning on the Manu Road gave us a good taste of what the following days would be like. We had our first sightings of the Crimson-breasted Mountain Tanager, many highland wildflowers, and vistas that only the Andean Cloud Forest can provide.
Here is a selection of birds, wildflowers and views from our afternoon walk, below Wayqecha.
We made another visit to the Puna near the entrance station to Manu National Park while at Wayqecha Biological Station. Again, the Puna is the dry grass and shrub area above tree-line in the Andes. Clouds were rolling across the summit when we visited and there were not many birds around, but I was satisfied with the wildflowers.
The next morning we packed up and headed down the Manu Road toward Villa Carmin Biological Station in the foothills. The target bird of the day was the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and we had a late afternoon appointment at the Cock-of-the-Rock lek near Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, half way between Wayqecha and Villa Carmin. The morning, however, as we slowly drove and walked the section of the Manu Road above Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, turned out to be highly productive. Here is a small sampling of what we saw.
Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge has a fame all its own, and is worth visiting for more than the nearby CotR lek. The feeding station, hummingbird feeders, and plantings in the back yard below the dinning hall attract a wide variety of hummingbirds, tanagers, sparrows, woodpeckers, etc.
They take appointments for the lek both morning and afternoon, during the hours when the the male Cock-of-the-Rocks are likely to be displaying. We had an afternoon appointment and I was a bit worried, as we watched the bird show around the feeders at the lodge, and as the clouds rolled in and the day darkened, that we would not have much light left after 4PM. Still, we were there. They maintain a rough covered platform for observing the birds, on a slope above the lek. We went in early to get the prime spots for photogrpahy…at the far end of the platform…but it turned out there were only a few others scheduled for that afternoon, and they came and went quickly. We saw our first Cock-of-the-Rock before official opening time and before anyone else arrived. Again, like most experiences on the Manu Road, your experience at the Cock-of-the-Rock lek will be a matter of how active the birds are on the particular day you visit. There is rarely a day when no birds show up to display, but it can happen. And the birds might or might not be visible in the dense foliage of the lek. We had a total of three birds displaying, but one kept well out of sight, and we never did get a clear look at it. Still, the Cock-of-the-Rock lek at Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge is not to be missed if you are doing the Manu Road, and remains one of the most reliable places in South America to see the bird. And what a bird it is. A member of the Cotinga family of birds, there are few birds more spectacular. Light levels are always low in the lek area, and these images were taken in the Sony Rx10ivs special Anti-motion Blur mode, which stacks serval exposures to make the most of the light available.
We were on our way back the van from the Cock-of-the-Rock lek when Pepe spotted a female Amazonian Umbrella Bird just off the road at eye-level in a small tree. This is another hard to see bird, and another example of the opportunities the Manu Road provides.
For the second half of the journey, see part 2.
For more information on arranging a Birding the Manu Road adventure of you own, contact Amazon Journeys.
We arrived at Villa Carmen Biological Station just as it was getting full dark. Villa Carmen, again, is owned and operated by the Amazon Conservation Association, as a base for research and as lodge for birders visiting the foothills area of Manu National Park. Villa Carmen sits on 7600 acres, ranging in elevation from 1700 to 4000 feet. They have 25 miles of maintained trails, and comfortable facilities for travelers of all kinds. The cabins, as befits the more lowland location, are open to the air on both sides, and unexpectedly elegant.
The feeding station and plantings near the dinning hall attract some interesting birds.
But the most interesting residents of the immediate grounds of Villa Carmen are the colony of Hoatzin that congregate around the little pond below the dinning hall. The Hoatzin was a target bird on our Amazon Riverboat Cruise a few years ago, and we went to a lot of trouble finding them. At Villa Carmen they are yard birds, and present in impressive numbers.
Another attraction of Villa Carmen are the Amazonian Antpitta’s that the staff have been working with for several years. They have constructed a little ally way in the forest, with some basic benches, and you can make an appointment to accompany the researcher to the Antpitta’s area, where, if you are patient, at least one bird might come out to take worms from mossy rock in plain sight. As with the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, the Antpitta run is deep of the forest, so high ISOs or special low light modes (or both) are required for satisfying photography.
Literally at the far other end of the immediate Villa Carmen grounds, they also maintain a feeding station where Wood Rails and at least two species of Tinamous come out on a regular basis. The days we visited the Undulated Tinamou and the Grey-cowled Wood-Rail graced us with their presence.
An afternoon walk down the access road at Villa Carmen also turned up interesting birds, and quite a few interesting butterflies.
While watching for the Tinamous and Wood-Rails our guide, Yonatan Puma, mentioned that he was developing a small hummingbird garden on the other side of the river and a few hundred feet higher that attracted some interesting hummers which did not regularly appear at Villa Carmen. We spend a few hours with him late one afternoon, sitting on a rustic bench and enjoying the hummingbirds. Again, low light levels brought the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode into play.
We spent our last full day on the Manu Road walking down the section above Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge again…in search of some Cloud Forest species we had not yet seen. We got a few good birds, and a few better looks at birds we had ween before…including a Cock-of-the-Rock foraging away from the lek. And, we had a great show of butterflies.
Almost back to the lodge we stopped for some good lowland birds along the road.
On our last day on the Manu Road, on the drive back to Cusco, we only stopped for good birds, but the Manu Road had saved one of the best for last. On a tight turn near a big waterfall we came upon several van loads of birders, all looking at a Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan. We had been looking for this bird every day for 7 days, and here it was!
And that is the way it is on the Manu Road. You never know exactly what you will or will not see, but everyday you spend there you can count on great birds, great butterflies, and great scenery.
For more information on Wayqecha Biological Station and Birding Lodge, Villa Carmen Biological Station and Reserve and Amazon Journeys, visit Amazon Journeys.
I am just back from a month of travel which took me and my trusty RX10iv to southern Portugal, the Dry Tortugas, and the Erie shore of Northern Ohio (for migrant birds). I am still experimenting with focus modes to get the most out this camera in different situations.
In southern Portugal, has in most places in Europe, it is hard to get close to birds. Many of the birds you see are either small and distant, or big and really distant (as in eagles flying high on the thermals). Also, at least where we were, by mid-morning there is significant heat shimmer over the fields and pastures and seashore, which makes any auto-focus mode problematic. In those conditions, I found, after experimenting with several different modes, that wide-frame tracking auto focus worked as well as anything. I was able, when needed, to pin the initial focus point down by touching the screen, but most of the time the camera locked on to the subject within a few seconds and held long enough for a series of shots. Keeping the camera in wide area tracking also allowed me to swing up for birds overhead without changing any settings.
a tight crop of a very distant bird in heat haze…even expanded spot flexible focus could not provide reliable focus under these conditions. Great Bustard, one of most sought after European birds
keeping the camera in wide area tracking auto focus allowed me to swing up for BIF. Iberian Magpie.
In the Dry Tortugas, the birds were somewhat closer, and the light was blindingly bright. Again, I found that, in most cases, wide area tracking auto focus did as well as any other setting, and better than most, at focusing on the bird. It takes some getting used to, as the camera often takes a second to seek and find the most obvious target, but if the target is moving at all, as even in a preening bird, it will lock on. And again, you have the advantage of being able to swing to birds in flight without changing any settings.
wide area tracking auto focus in great light in the Dry Tortugas . Brown Noddies.
Not a perfect shot but impossible without wide area tracking auto focus. Sooty Tern
But then I went to Ohio…the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk for migrating warblers and other singing birds. The birds are close…often less then 10 feet…very small and very active. And they are in dense cover…the trees are beginning to leave out, and there are always twigs and brush in the way. In those conditions, I had to revert to my preferred Expanded Spot Flexible Focus (without any tracking). It was the only way to get on the close, active, and too often particularly hidden, birds. On occasion I even had to switch to DMF and focus through foreground foliage and twigs.
Expanded flexible spot was needed here with the bird in a confused surround. Female Cape May Warbler
DMF allowed me to focus right through obscuring foreground foliage. Not a great shot but effective. Northern Oriole.
By the way, when using DMF, I do it backwards. I use the focus ring to get close to focus and then half press the shutter release to kick in auto focus. Only on really rare occasions do I half press to enlarge the subject and focus completely manually.
So, the take away is that no one focus mode works best all the time. You have to adapt to the situation. And the Sony RX10iv has the options you need in almost any situation.
This will appear as an added chapter in my Sony RX10iv ebook soon.
The Sony RX10iv is, in my opinion, of the finest cameras for birds and wildlife ever made. The excellent 600mm equivalent ZEISS zoom, and the equally as excellent 1 inch sensor combine to produce exceptional images of both birds and wildlife. In the past year I have traveled to Portugal, Honduras, Kenya, and Costa Rica…as well as to Florida, Califronia, New Mexico, Colorado, Yellowstone, and Ohio in the US. The RX10iv has gotten a workout and never let me down. Here is a collection of some of my favorite photos of birds and wildlife.
In December 2018, I took 10 Point and Shoot Nature Photographers to Costa Rica for 9 days. We visited two of my favorite lodges and several excellent photo venues around those lodges. Here is a gallery of shots from the trip, and a link to a pdf e-book detailing the journey.
And, if you enjoy the booklet and would like to contribute to my Sony RX10v fund (if and when), click here: to go to my PayPal page. 🙂 No contribution is necessary, but all contributions are appreciated.
In September, 2018, I traveled to Kenya with my Sony RX10iv for 12 days in the Parks and Refuges, photographing wildlife, birds, and landscapes. It was an amazing journey, which I made into a book. I have posted it here as a PDF, for your viewing pleasure. It will take a few moments to load.
Last September I began to plan a kind of “grand tour”, birding and photographic, of Honduras. I wanted to see some of the places I had not seen yet in my 7 trips to the Lodge at Pico Bonito, two of which also included a few days at Panacam Lodge in the highlands near Lake Yojoa. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is, without doubt, the best known birding destination in Honduras, and wonderful place to base a birding tour. But it is not the only place worth visiting by far.
My tour was arranged and sponsored by Honduran Birds and its owner Alex Alvarado, and scheduled for May when Alex would have time for me. I had met Alex on my short extensions to Panacam in the past, and knew him to one of best birders in Honduras. What I did not know was that his company, Honduran Birds, provides guiding and logistics for just about all the major international birding and nature tour companies when they visit Honduras. If I listed the tour companies he works with, it would read like a “who’s who” of international birding tourism. You might book a Honduran tour with a big name tour company, but aside from the equally big name company guide, chances are very good that your experience in Honduras will be provided by Hondruan Birds and Alex Alvarado.
Alex met me at the airport in San Pedro Sula when I got off my noon flight, and we drove to Copan Ruins. On the ride I reminded Alex that this was, at least in part, a photographic adventure…and that high quality images of a few birds were just as important as the number of species seen. I had with birded with Alex before around Panacam and I knew him to be very intense in the field. He assured me that he would adjust the pace to suit me. He planned to bring his own camera and concentrate on photography as well. He was as good as his word, and we enjoyed some great photo ops on the trip that would have tried the patience of a hard-core birder, but were ideal for me.
Due to road construction, we did not get the the hotel outside Copan itself until supper time. I stayed at the Clarion Hotel, while Alex drove back to his home in a near-by village. That evening I had my first experience with Mayan culture, as there is a small excavated ruins right next to the hotel property. A short walk took me back centuries, and I enjoyed wandering the paths through the excavations. There was a guide there, but as there was no real overlap between his few words of English and my few words of Spanish I had to rely on the by-lingual interpretative signs.
The Clarion is the least expensive of three hotels that Alex uses in Copan Ruins. It is modern, with comfortable rooms, a great restaurant, and extensive grounds. If you are more interested in birds and photography than in luxury accommodations, but demand a nice surrounding and comfort, then the Clarion is the choice for you. I should say that May is the “low season” for hotels (and birding) in Honduras. The first night I may have been the only person staying at the Clarion, though the second night there might have been one other guest. I ate alone in the excellent restaurant each morning and night…though the full menu was available and the service was excellent. (http://clarioncopan.com/)
I also got my first bird of the trip on that walk at the Clarion. The very wide-spread Lesson’s Motmot sat on a limb in the dark under the canopy, with brilliant blues and its long bobbed tail feathers trailing, and let me take a few pictures. It was especially dark as evening was coming on, and my first photos of the trip demonstrated one of the major challenges of photographing birds in the forests of Honduras and all of tropical Central America. Light! Too often, there is just not enough light. I shoot in Program and auto ISO and my ISO was pushed right up to my practical limits at 6400. A one inch sensor camera like my Sony RX10iv does not have the same image quality at higher ISO as today’s full frame DSLRs, but all in all, considering that I, at my age, would not carry a full frame DSLR and a 600mm f4 lens in the tropics (or anywhere else), I am happy with the results the Sony brought back…even in extreme low light conditions. And, I was very pleased that the Sony was able to auto focus even in the lowest light.
The next morning Alex picked me up for the short drive to Copan Ruins. Copan is the major Mayan site in Honduras, and a particularly fine example of Mayan ruins…full of amazing carvings and buildings on grand scale. It is, of course, worth seeing in its own right, but for a birder and bird photographer, the main attraction has to be the Scarlet Macaws. The Scarlet Macaw was important in Mayan culture and religion and is featured in many of the carvings at Copan. It was clearly common in the area in Mayan times, but it has died out in modern times. The Macaw Mountain Bird Center in the hills above Copan Ruins pioneered a reintroduction program, with chicks raised from pairs of Macaws rescued from the pet trade. These birds were released at Copan Ruins and successfully nested on the grounds and raised chicks of their own. The free-flying, wild population has grown to over 40 individuals now, and the birds are spreading out from the Ruins themselves to recolonize the hills around the city. It is a great reintroduction success story.
They still provide feeding platforms for the Macaws at the Ruins, and put out fresh fruit every morning. There are few experiences in the world as fine, for the photographer or bird lover, as standing among the feeding platforms just after 9 AM, surrounded by 40 Scarlet Macaws.
The Macaws pay no attention to humans. They are too busy competing with each other for the fresh fruit. They are especially avid during nesting season, when we visited, as many of them have chicks in the nest to feed. We had birds perched as close as 5 feet, and birds in flight all around us. Catching a Macaw in flight at close range is a real challenge. They are big and fast, and very hard to keep in the frame long enough to catch focus. I found that I could not follow them in the eye-level viewfinder on the camera. I resorted to extreme Point and Shoot tactics…simply pointing the camera in the right direction and shooting off a 10fps burst…hoping that 1) I had the birds somewhere in the frame, and 2) that the auto focus would lock on some of the time. Reviewing the images that night, it worked surprisingly well. Of course, it was a percentage thing…and would not have worded if I had had only one chance at flying Macaws…but with as many attempts as I made, some were bound to work. I came back from the morning with over 4000 exposures. 🙂
Of course we also found Macaws perched among the ruins, for some really classic shots of the birds on Mayan carvings.
As we walked through the extensive grounds, Alex spotted a couple of workmen at ease in one corner of a ceremonial courtyard below us. He called down to them and they explained that they were “guarding” the nest of Turquoise-browed Motmot, where the adults were actively feeding young. They invited us to come down and we descended the steep step like wall of the courtyard and spent 45 minutes watching and photographing the Motmots. The nest was in a hole between two of the stones of one of the courtyard walls, under a massive tree that had sprouted generations ago at the foot of the wall. Male and female motmots were taking turns bringing bugs and spiders to the nest. We could not see the young, but the adults would land on a rock near the nest and then make a short direct flight into the hole. They would often sit in the branches of the overhanging tree right in front of us, before diving to the rock.
A little further on we found a nest of Boat-billed Flycatchers with 3 chicks.
Of course the ruins themselves are worth seeing. Copan is has one of the best Mayan sites for sculpture, as well as having a wide range of buildings and courts.
For those wanting a more luxurious stay, Alex also uses the Hotel Marina Copan in downtown Copan Ruins. We visited the Marina after a lunch of the local chicken speciality. The Marina has standard and deluxe rooms (both of which looked pretty deluxe to me) and small suites. The suites have hosted American Presidents and other dignitaries over the years. The grounds are small, but there is beauty in every nook, lush courtyards everywhere. In our short visit there, I saw orchids, butterflies, dragonflies, and a surprising number of birds (including a pair of Green Herons nesting in one of the courtyard trees). (https://www.hotelmarinacopan.com/)
The final possible Copan Ruins accommodation is at lodge in the foothills above the city, Hacienda San Lucas. It is up a typically Honduran dirt road, rough by almost any standard, but the lodge itself is quaintly attractive, with a dozen rooms terraced up the hillside. It provides a more rustic, if completely comfortable, experience of Honduras, and the extensive grounds are home to all the typical birds of the foothills, including Magpie Jay and Elegant Trogon. They even have a nesting box for Scarlet Macaws and Macaws have started coming to the feeders there. The lodge, being smaller and more specialized, is the most expensive accommodation option near Copan Ruins, but it might be the most authentic and certainly provides the best on-site birding. We looked for the Elegant Trogon, without success, but did find a small flock of Magpie Jays. (http://www.haciendasanlucas.com/)
Our final stop in Copan Ruins was the Macaw Mountain Bird Center, where the Macaw reintroduction program got its start. Feeders around the deck at the coffee shop have begun to attract a wide variety of birds, and it is one of the best places to photograph birds in the area…perhaps in Honduras. Photo orientated trips sometimes spend a full day at the center, mostly sitting on the deck sipping coffee and waiting to see what will come. In our short visit I was able to photograph Keel-billed Toucans, Collared Aracari, Yellow-napped Parrot, Streak-backed Oriole, and Montezuma’s Oropendola…as well as Grey Cracker Butterfly. http://www.macawmountain.org/
The next day we left Copan Ruins early and drove back to San Pedro Sula to pick up Older Rodriguez, a young guide who has worked for The Lodge at Pico Bonito (perhaps the best known birding destination in Honduras). He had visited the Opatoro Highlands and La Tigra National Park once before but was interested in birding the region again. We arrived at our hotel outside the village of Marcela in the foothills below the Opatoro Highlands by late afternoon. Hotel La Casona is not as rustic as Hacienda San Lucas, but it is definitely a more rustic than the Clarion. The rooms are comfortable, they have a basic restaurant for breakfast (and there are many restaurants in-near by Marcela), and the hotel is part of extensive grounds that include tilapia ponds, plantations, and a unique church on top of the hill across the valley. The first afternoon we went in search of a nesting Great Horned Owl, not all that common in Honduras, and saw it at a distance. While there we also chased down Whiskered Screech Owl and had good sightings of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. Three owls is pretty good for any location. (https://www.facebook.com/hotel-La-casona-Marcala-La-Paz-270452666295/)
While out for supper, we laid in supplies for a full day in field, including breakfast and lunch, and were off soon after dawn for the Opatoro Highlands…the highest forests accessible by road in Honduras. The highlands are coffee country, producing some of the most sought after beans in the world. Because of that, and the heavy truck traffic the roads get in season, the roads are a challenge. Alex is used to them, and got us safely up into the highlands. We were searching for the signature bird of the region…the Blue-throated Motmot. Though we looked in all the right places, the best we could manage that day were glimpses through the dense foliage. We had better luck with the Fulvous Owl, which came to a call about 1/4 mile off the road exactly where Alex predicted it would be.
Best of all, as far as I was concerned, were excellent views of both male and female Mountain Trogons. I am always happy with Trogons and the Mountain was a new bird for me. Lunch was picnic style under the trees beside the road. We even had a second Fulvous Owl late in the day when we went to check to see if a Resplendent Quetzal was near its nest. No Quetzel, but the owl right overhead almost made up for it.
The next morning we were out on the grounds of Hotel La Casona in search of Crested Bobwhite quails. We found two groups…in addition to good looks at Whiskered Screech Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Spot-breasted Oriole, and Eastern Bluebirds.
It was about two and a half hours from Marcela to Tegucigalpa. Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras, and does not have the best of reputations in the US, so I was interested to see what it was like. It is a crazy city, with narrow streets, and lots of traffic of all kinds, but other than taking a long time to get through downtown, it was much like any other Central American city…more of an overgrown village, or a large number of hill top villages that simply filled the valleys between them, than it is like a North American city. As the home of the University of Honduras and all the government agencies, it is full of art and culture and very alive. Our hotel, Los Gloriales Inn, turned out to be well out of the city itself, up on a high ridge across a deep valley from La Tigra National Park. The Inn is built of rough red stone. My room had a flagged stone floor and two fireplaces, as well two sleeping areas and a small kitchen. All very rustic but very comfortable. Hanging curtains around the bed I slept in. There is a complete restaurant in the central lodge, with a traditional Honduran outside kitchen. Again, being the low season, our group to 3 were the only guests. We ordered traditional breakfasts and a common meal at supper.
Los Gloriales sits in a coffee plantation and the coffee processing buildings are across the road from the Inn, right at the edge of the almost vertical drop into the valley between there and La Tigra. Mature trees and bushes along the drop attract all kinds of birds in season. We had Yellow-backed Oriole, Squirrel Cuckoo, and two Emerald Toucanettes. The Toucanettes were a real treat…a bird I had only seen poorly in deep forest, or at a distance. They were close and cooperative at Los Gloriales. (https://www.facebook.com/Gloriales-Mountain-Inn-120257305226404/)
After breakfast the next morning we were off to La Tigra. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Tigra_National_Park) La Tigra National Park was the first National Park in Honduras. It is silver mining country and after the mines played out, the land became available for conservation. It was set aside as a national park in 1980. It is mix of high rainforest and cloud forest, and rich with birds, mammals, reptiles, rare plants and all manner of natural life. Hondurans are justly proud of it, and since is only a short drive from downtown Tegucigalpa, it gets a lot of visitors.
On our way up to the park, near the entrance gates, we had our first good birds of the day. We stopped by a little overgrown stream that passes under the road and two Ruddy Crakes responded to Alex’s recordings. We watched them, and attempted photographs, for about a half hour as they worked their way up and down the chocked water flow, feeding. “Attempted” is the operative word there. 🙂 Crakes are notorious for always being behind or under vegetation, and these were no exception. I have a lot of “pieces of crake” that might be assembled into a whole crake with some imagination.
While still watching the Crakes, a pair of Chestnut-capped Bushfinches appeared in the brush on the other side of the road behind us. Photographically, they proved almost as elusive as the Crake. Good birds though.
When we arrived at the park itself we hiked in to find the area where Wine-throated Hummingbird are known to feed. It was a longish hike, but along the way we had good sightings of Tawny-throated Leaftosser…a bird that is evidently not that easy to see anywhere, and great views of Singing Quail…singing!
When Alex found the Wine-throated Hummingbirds they were well off the trail, down a sharp slope, and in deep cover…well, actually, there was a little opening in the surrounding forest where they were actively feeding, but there was no easy way to get in there to see them. “No easy way” did not stop Alex from bushwhacking deep into the brush and undergrowth, and climbing over fallen trees and branches buried in tangled, and tangling, vines to reach a perch where we could see the hummingbirds. Older and I followed him in, while Alex called back with encouragement. “This will be the photo of the trip!” And I have to say it was worth it. Once perched precariously in the vines, we had excellent views of the Wine-throated Hummingbird feeding and returning to one of several favored perches. We spent 45 minutes there watching and photographing this amazing hummer. The Wine-throated is tiny but it as one of the most amazing gorgets in the hummingbird world. I took way too many exposures. 🙂
On the way back out, Alex spotted a Forest Viper in brush beside the trail and hooked it out onto the path for a better look. We had lunch at the little cafeteria near the Visitor Center and rested before one of the park rangers joined us for the real mission of the visit. In May there was an active Resplendent Quetzal nest up the mountain from the Visitor Center, and we hiked in, and then off the trail a hundred yards (all up-hill) to stand at a respectful distance and watch for the adult Quetzals coming to the nest to feed the chicks. Though we spent an hour there, only the female came. I say “only” but we are talking Resplendent Quetzal here…and the female is spectacular enough.
We birded around the Inn the next morning and I got some excellent shots of Squirrel Cuckoo, before leaving for the drive to Panacam Lodge. Before we were down the mountain, we stopped at a city park at the edge of Tegucigalpa for good views of Acorn Woodpecker, Bobwhite Quail and another Lesson’s Motmot…as well as amazing views of the City below us. The park is home to the traditional giant stature of Jesus overlooking the City, common in almost every Spanish speaking country of the world.
Older left us in La Guama, on the shores of Lake Yojoa, and at the foot of the Blue Mountains where Panacam Lodge is a major birding attraction, to continue his birding adventures with a planned week in Guatemala, while Alex and I made the drive up to Panacam. I remember thinking, on my first visits to Panacam, that the road in was a challenge. Now having been on more Honduran mountain roads, I can say that the road to Panacam is exceptionally well made and maintained. 🙂
Panacam Lodge is the official lodge of the Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meambar, or, in rough translation, Blue Mountains National Park. There is an excellent restaurant / gift shop / a small conference and event center and a variety of cabins and rooms scattered down terraces below…as well as miles of trails. Birding on the grounds is always excellent, with active hummingbird feeders attracting numerous species, nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, at least two Trogons, and several Motmots, including the hard to see Keel-billed Motmot. A short walk down the entrance road will generally turn up at least a half dozen additional species: Red-legged Honeycreepers, Golden-crowned Tanagers, Orioles, Seed-eaters, Ferruginous Pygmy Owls, Montezuma’s Oropendolas, etc. Add in the exceptional views out over Lake Yojoa, and Panacam is just a wonderful Honduran birding destination.
We spent our first day at Panacam exploring the margins of Lake Yojoa. Lake Yojoa is the largest natural body of water in Honduras and it attracts hundreds of species of birds. It is also home to extensive Talapia farms. It is a major tourist attraction for Honduras, and there are resorts and restaurants all around the edge…as well as another park…Eco-Arqueológico Los Naranjos. Since it was looking like rain by the time we got to the lake, we started the day at one of the lake-side resorts just off Rt C5, the main route between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. The resort had a covered boat shed and a long dock reaching out toward the open water with a covered area at the end. As it turned out, we did not get rained on anyway, but the dock provided excellent views…amazing views…of hunting Snail Kites, Limpkin, Purple Gallinules, Bare-necked Tiger-Herons, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-herons, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Grove-billed Anis, and Red-wined Blackbirds. I could easily have stayed all day, watching and photographing the Lake-side birds.
We moved on though to another resort, Hotel y Finca Las Glorias for lunch and turn around the grounds. Here we again hand access to the marshes that line the lake for more birding.
After lunch we drove to Los Naranjos and walked the trails there. It was hot, and the slow time of day for birding, but we still managed some good birds, including a Blue-chested Hummingbird and excellent views of a Berylline Hummingbird. The Arqueologico part of the park involves ruins of a culture common in the area prior to the development of the Mayans. The highlight, for me at least, was a flowering bush at the base of one of the ancient mounds that was attracting a wide variety of bright butterflies. Alex and I spent at least 30 minutes with the bush and its beauties, before continuing on back to the car and Panacam. In the high season, Los Naranjos is full of birds and definitely a place you want to visit while at Panacam.
Late in the afternoon, Alex and I took another walk down the entrance road at the lodge and discovered a nest of Lesson’s Motmots in the bank beside the gate. The chicks were calling loudly for food. They were big, about ready to fledge. I was able to get a flash photo of them in their cavity. Further down the road, we found a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the bare top of a tree surrounded by a mixed flock of Honeycreepers, Tanagers, and Euphonias. It looked like the Honduran equivalent of a tropical Christmas Tree.
There were reports of an active Ornate Hawk-Eagle nest in the Santa Barbara Mountains (another National Park) so we made a breakfast appointment with Denis and his wife. Denis is one of the local guides being trained by Alex and a local village conservation project, Montana de Vida, run by Robert Lambeck, an Australian who has lived in the area for several years. I had met Denis before, on one of my previous visits to Panacam. One of the aspects of the Montana de Vida project is to encourage the local women to open their homes to birders who visit the area and offer meals. The idea is to convince the local villagers that there is an alternative to cutting down the high forest surrounding Santa Barbara National Park and planting more coffee, and, these days, avocado. We had both breakfast and lunch with Denis and his family.
We were joined for the hike into the Ornate Hawk-Owl nest by Esdres Lopez, another young guide who has worked with the Lodge at Pico Bonito and Alex’s Hondruan Birds, and by Robert Lambeck. The hike was steep, up rough trails that were cut to access a spring and waterline high up at the edge of the National Park. As it happens, we only caught a glimpse of the hawk flying off the nest, and while we waited an hour or so, it did not return…though it had been seen on most other hikes in. So it goes. The hike took us up through coffee and avocado plantations and into the cloud-forest and was totally worth the effort even if we missed our target bird.
You can find out more about the Montana de Vida project at http://www.montanasantabarbara.com/
On the way down the mountain, at the foot of the mountain near Lake Yojoa again, we stopped at the D&D Brewery and Lodge for a home-brewed Root Beer. The craft brewery, and mini nature preserve, attracts birders from all over the world when they visit the lake area, as well as Honduran vacationers. They do beers, root beer, and cola, and serve a menu typical of a craft brewery with a local Honduran twist…not to be missed. (http://ddbrewery.com/)
For my final day at Panacam, Alex took me to area I had never visited. Several years ago, he discovered a population of the endemic Honduran Emerald Hummingbird in the foothills around the El Cajon Hydroelectric dam. Since then, Alex Martinez Matute, a local birder, who owns and operates a restaurant and small hotel inside the El Cajon gates, El Rancho (https://www.facebook.com/hotelyrestauranteelrancho/), has tracked down several near-by locations where it possible to see the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird without taking the long drive into the Aguan Valley to the Honduran Emerald Hummingbird Reserve. He spent the morning with us, and showed other specialties of the area, including the Yellow-tailed Oriole (one of the few reliable populations in Honduras) and the White-necked Puffbird.
On the way back to Panacam Alex took me to EcoFinca Luna del Puente, a small lodge and campground in the foothills. (https://www.facebook.com/lunadelpuente/) Last time I visited, several years ago, they had nesting Northern Pootoos on the grounds. No Pootoos this time, but Alex led me deep into the thickets behind the lodge to look for the elusive Tody Motmot. The Tody Motmot is the smallest of the Motmots in Honduras and Central America, and the only one without the bobbed tail feathers. We had several good sightings, and even managed a few photos in the semi-dark of the deep undergrowth under the heavy canopy. Right by the lodge we had a chance to observe and photograph a Black-crowned Tityra hunting insects from a low perch.
I as due a the airport the next morning for my flight home, so we only did a short walk down the road from the lodge…but we got good shots of Spot-breasted Orioles, Masked Tityra, and a close encounter with the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. Back at the lodge, just before loading up the car for the final trip to the airport, I got the bird I had been wishing for on my last day…a trogon for Panacam…the Collarded Trogon.
On the way back to the airport, I asked Alex about how he got into birding. I had heard bits of the story in past visits and knew it was a story worth hearing in full. Alex grew up in Honduras and attended a technical school to learn a trade as an electrician. He, along with many Hondurans his age, entered the US illegally, where he worked in the Landscaping industry until he was arrested and deported. Back in Honduras, and settled with his parents in their new home in a village near Copan Ruins, he managed to scrape together a living doing construction work, but his ability to speak English lead to his being asked to help teach the language at a local school. One of his students there told him his English was really good enough so that he ought to find a job in the tourist industry, and introduced him to his father, who was a manager at the Hotel Posada Real de Copan today it is Hotel Clarion . He worked on the desk, and in reservations. As I mentioned the Hotel Clarion has extensive, well landscaped, grounds, and Alex began to notice the birds near the windows of his work area. Soon he was coming to work early to see the birds…and it was only a short step from there to going out into the foothills and mountains around Copan Ruins to find more. “It was my salvation. Out looking for birds I felt whole and sane in a world that was getting out of control.” That lead him to volunteer at the Macaw Mountain Bird Center, where they noticed his interest and gave him his first field guide. Now, of course, he had to see every bird in the book, and he began to horde his days off to travel to other areas of Honduras looking for birds. As his knowledge grew, the folks he worked with at Macaw Mountain offered him a job there as an English speaking interpreter for their guests, and after a short trial period, he took it. Among the visitors to Macaw Mountain was a woman who organized tours from the US. She asked who could show her the birds of the area and the management at Macaw Mountain pointed her to Alex. When she got home she recommended Alex as a tour guide, Later High lonesome Tours came on a exploratory trip to Honduras they asked him to guide them to some of the harder to find birds. That lead to his first organized tour, arranged for High Lonesome the following year, and a real learning experience. “I knew the birds and I knew where to find them, but I knew nothing about logistics…how to move people to the birds.” With help from High Lonesome he was able to master the logistics before the next season and several of the international tour companies used him as their “man on the ground” in Honduras that year. Soon he had a website: Honduran Birds (http://honduranbirds.com/) and a company. Since that he has not looked back. His company provides guiding and logistics for almost all of the international tour groups that come to Honduras, and he organizes his own independent and private tours. His Honduran friends find it hard to believe that in a few short years he has built a business that supports his family…”I have a nice house…I have car…I have a good life.”…but mostly they continue to find it hard to believe that visitors to Honduras will actually pay him to show them birds. He laughs, “They are convinced I am up to something else out there in the jungle with these foreigners.” Honduran Birds has grown to the point where Alex employs several other native Hondurans as guides during his busy season…and he is a mentor for many of the younger Honduran guides. In the low season he also spends a lot of time in local schools introducing the next generation to the wonderful natural resources of Honduras and to the possibilities of nature tourism. There are other home grown Honduran birding companies these days, but Honduran Birds continues to be the “go to” company if you want to see the best of Honduras.
So, you might already know about the Lodge at Pico Bonito, and you might already have been there…but that does not mean you have see all Honduras has to offer. Honduran Birds and Alex Alvarado can show you much more on your next, or your first, visit to Honduras.