Point and Shoot Nature Photographer in Costa Rica

Lesson’s Motmot from the grounds of the Bougainvillea Hotel near San Jose

Note: I am returning to Costa Rica in December 2018 for another amazing photo adventure. Join me there. Info.

I have been to Honduras seven times, and to Panama twice, but until this past October, I had never been to Costa Rica. No Central American traveler or photographer can afford to miss Costa Rica. Costa Rica offers rich and diverse bird and wildlife in a country with a well developed ecotourism structure, and an eco-friendly ethic that produces some of the finest observation and photography opportunities to be found in Central America. The lodges are well established and comfortable, the roads are, for the most part, good, there is a whole industry devoted to getting tourists around, the people are friendly, and at least the ones I met, are used to dealing with people who have come to enjoy the experience of wild Costa Rica. And Costa Ricans are proud of their country. They have more land devoted to National Parks and Reserves than most “developed” countries (over 25% of their country is within the National Park System), and their wildlife protection laws, mostly enacted a generation ago already, are a model for their neighbors. They take birds and wildlife, and those who come to see and photograph it, seriously.

More from the gournds of the Bouganvillea Hotel: Beautiful gardens, Heliconian Butterfly, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Indian Pipevine, Rusty-tipped Page, water feature

My trip to Costa Rica was arranged by Holbrook Travel (http://www.holbrooktravel.com/), and for most of my visit we stayed at Selva Verde, a rainforest lodge owned and operated by the Holbrook family. (http://www.selvaverde.com/ ) While the lodge itself offers great wildlife and birds, and many excellent photo opportunities, most days we went out to other well known birding and photography hot-spots in the valley of the Serapique River, and the surrounding foothills. The last three days I, and two other members of the group, went up into the mountains to the Savegre Hotel for an experience of the cloud forest and its birds (http://www.savegre.com/).

Bronze-headed Emerald, a Costa Rican endemic, Red-headed Barbet, Green Thorntail, Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Black-bellied Hummingbird and the upper falls, all at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens in the mountains above San Jose.

October is, perhaps, not the ideal month to visit Costa Rica. It is the rainiest month, and we had rain at least part of pretty much every day. In the mountains we had to detour around roads that were still closed due to mudslides from the recent tropical storm (a once in a generation phenomenon) and Sevegre had only reopened the day before we got there. The road in and out was still a bit sketchy, but we made it both ways. The rain did not discourage the wildlife or the birds, and we did not let it discourage us. Overall it was one of my most enjoyable tropical experiences. Still, next year’s Point and Shoot Nature Photographer tour of Costa Rica will be scheduled in early December, after the rainy season. 🙂


Around the feeders at Selva Verde: Collared Aracari, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-nosed Coati, Green Honeycreeper, Yellow-throated Toucan, Black-cowled Oriole and Summer Tanager.

One of the most attractive aspects of birding and photography in Costa Rica is the number and variety of birds that come to the feeders and frequent the grounds at the lodges and private reserves. Selva Verde had three kinds of Toucans, at least a dozen bright Tanager species, woodpeckers, Variegated Squirrels and a White-nosed Coati coming to the feeders. There were Howler Monkeys in the trees above the cabins every day, and White-faced Caputians across the street in the gardens. There were also Motmots in the Gardens.


Out away from the feeders at Selva Verde: “Blue-jeans” Poison Dart Frog, White-faced Capuchin Monkey, Olive-backed Euphonia, Red-eyed Tree Frog, and another, from our night walk, Howler Monkey who woke me on our last day at Selva Verde

Before we even got to Selva Verde we visited the La Paz Waterfall Gardens on the mountain rim surrounding the high central valley and San Jose, where we saw a dozen different species of hummingbirds around the feeders and our first Barbets. Dave and Dave’s Costa Rican Nature Park, quite near Selva Verde lodge, has an array of carefully managed, natural looking, feeding stations that attracts Tanagers and Toucans, as well as a variety of rainforest hummingbirds. One afternoon we visited Cope, a native artist in La Union de Guápiles about 45 minutes from Selva Verde (http://copeartecr.com/) who not only showed us a Crested Owl in the rainforest, but took us back to his home, which he has transformed to something between a wildlife sanctuary and an outdoor photo studio, where he showed us all kinds of unique and interesting creatures, including a Glass Frog and the very rare White-tipped Sicklebill (hummingbird) which happens to come to his feeders.


La Selva Biological Research Center is one of the most famous birding locations in Central America (or the world depending on who you talk to): Our day there was rainy and dark, but we still saw interesting birds right outside the restaurant patio. Black-faced Grossbeak, Green Honeycreeper, and Golden-headed Tanager. La Selva is one of the reserves that does not feed birds, but the native plants bring the birds in just the same. We later walked the paved forest trails and found this Semiplumbeous Hawk, and, near the research residences, a Collarded Peccary with young.

Some of the more “official,” publicly supported, reserves and research stations do not have bird feeders on principle…as they feel it keeps wildlife from the plants they would otherwise pollinate and may produce dependency on human resources. They rely on native plantings to bring the birds and wildlife in close. Dave and Dave’s or Cope’s are good examples, I think, of responsible feeding. At Dave and Dave’s they only put out banana slices (a low priority food for most birds) on natural vines hung around the photo patio, and backed by native flowering and fruiting plants. Their hummingbird feeders are kept to a 15 to 1 solution, with much less sugar than the natural nectars of the abundant native plants. The feeders bring the hummers in, but they spend most of their time, as I can attest, feeding on natural sources. Natural perches are provided and fresh Heliconia flowers daily where the hummers can drink. Dave and Dave are certainly very aware of their impact on the birds that they feed, and have made extraordinary efforts to restore native plants, fruits and flowers, on their property over the years they have owned it. In the process they provide some of the best photo opportunities for bird photographers to be found in the Serapique region. (http://sarapiquieco-observatory.com/welcome)


An afternoon on the Sarapique and Puerto Viejo Rivers: Amazon Kingfisher, Great Green Macaws (our closest and only perched views), Green Ibis, Sloth (with baby), well equipped and excellently captained tour boat, Sungrebe in flight (the highlight of the boat tour, seen as we were losing the light)

Broad-billed Motmots from the mid-level mountains near Socorro Costa Rica

Another factor that makes Costa Rica such a great ecotourism destination is the ease of access to such a wide variety of habitats. There are lodges, hotels, and reserves in every region, from dry forest in the north west, to the rainforest of the Caribbean lowlands, to the mid-level forest on the volcanic rims in the coffee country, to cloud forest at the higher elevations…all accessible by well maintained roads. And much of it is no more than 2-3 hours from San Jose’s international airport.


With Cope in the rainforest to find the Crested Owl and Honduran White Tent-making Bats, and then at his home for some exotic photography. He had collected the frogs the night before (Glass Frog and Poison Dart Frog) and set them up in his outside studio for natural looking shots. The White-tipped Sicklebill, one of the rarest hummingbirds in Costa Rica, comes to his feeders daily, and he has been photographing this big male Basilisk Lizard for over 10 years.

And everywhere you go, the people of Costa Rica are ready to show off their country and their wildlife. Near Savegre Hotel there is a tree up on a hillside that is famous for its Resplendent Quetzals. Right tree, right place. The farmer who owns the land has built a rough trail up the all but vertical slope, complete with hand-rails, and chopped out a platform on the hillside across from the tree where birders and photographers can stand to watch and photograph the Quetzals as they come in to feed. The day we visited, he met us at the foot of the trail and accompanied us up to the platform, as delighted as we were with the birds, though he sees them every day. He collects a small fee from birders and photographers who want to see “his” Quetzals, that helps his family to survive (hopefully more than survive) and gives him incentive to keep the land as natural as possible. He could easily rip out the wild avocado trees otherwise, and plant coffee or corn.


Dave and Dave’s Costa Rican Nature Park is a small private reserve with exceptional photo opportunities. White-necked Jacobin at Heliconia flower, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Golden-headed Tanager, Passerini’s Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Poison Dart Frog.

More from Dave and Dave’s. Shining Honeycreeper and Plain-colored Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Blue-grey Tanager, Female White-necked Jacobin

All of the native guides and naturalists we met and worked with were well trained, knowledgeable, and delighted to be of help in our understanding of what we saw and experienced. Costa Rica does have an extensive and through guide training program that includes ornithology, biology, botany, geography, history, ecology, and first aid…and, of course, the interpreters at the official research stations are generally graduate-students or research assistants, experts in their fields. If you work with an experienced tour company like Holbrook, you can be confident that you will be in good hands while in Costa Rica.


Cloud Forest and mountain specialties around the Savegre Hotel: Volcano Hummingbird (another Costa Rican endemic), Flame-colored Tanager, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Firey-throated Hummingbird, Julia Heliconian, Snow-bellied Hummingbird.

Black Guan, Sulpher-winged Parakeet, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Collared Redstart

I was impressed enough with the potential (and the reality) of Costa Rica to plan to return with another group next year. I can not imagine any birder or photographer going there and not wanting to go back. A amazing country, amazing wildlife, an amazing experience, and amazing memories. That is what Costa Rica has to offer.


Resplendent Quetzal, near Savegre Hotel in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Worth the trip all on its own.

All of the photographs in this article were taken with the Sony RX10iii and processed in Polarr on my iPad Pro.

P&SNP in the Galapagos and Andes

Blue Booby’s feet. A must do image from the Galapagos

The Galapagos has to be on any nature photographer’s short list of most wanted places to go…it is on the bucket list for those who simply appreciate nature, and many a pure tourist longs to tick it off the list. I know it is a cliche but there is truely no place like it in the world. The Galápagos Islands sit right on the equator, in the middle of the Humbolt Current, just far enough off-shore from Ecuador to maintain a totally unique habitat. There are certainly birds and animals there that you can see no-where else…but the real magic is in how close you can approach all of the island residents. Combine that with some of the most stunning seascapes and landscapes imaginable…sunrise to sunset…and why wouldn’t anyone want to travel there?

Since I was already in South America for the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure, I was also invited to participate in a special, small-boat, 7 day trip to the Galapagos. Kevin Loughlin, the major partner in Wildside Nature Tours, does the islands at least twice a year. Our trip was his 24th. He knows the best boats, the best guides, and the islands themselves as well as anyone in the business…better than most. His tours, generally limited to 12 people, spend more time ashore on the islands than any others. Land time on any island is limited to 4 hours per boat, and no more than 20 people. We got to spend the whole 4 hours on each trip ashore, while most boats had to fit several groups in that same time frame. We got to sit with good subjects for the perfect shot, and take all the time we wanted to appreciate the scenery.

Walking through a nesting colony of Nazca (formerly “masked”) Boobies

On this trip again, I used only the Sony Rx10iii. It’s 24-600mm zoom covers the ideal range for the islands. Much of the time I had to zoom back from 600mm. The birds and animals were just that close. And the Sony in-camera HDR was perfect for the sunrise and sunsets, and the amazing island and seascapes. Then too, most of the other folks on the trip were carrying 20-40 pounds of camera equipment ashore each day. My Sony, with the same kind of capability as their whole outfits, was much easier to carry, and fit in a small wet-bag for the wet landings. I really appreciated it by the end of 4 hours in the equatorial heat of the islands.
We spent our first night in Ecuador at the Garden Hotel near the airport in Quito. Wonderful grounds and a great atmosphere. And the first of my Ecuadorian Hummingbirds.

Black-tailed Trainbearer, Garden Hotel, Quito

The next morning we were off early again to catch a two-hop flight to the Galapagos…though you stay on the same plane there is a short layover in Guayaquil. Having realized the shortcomings of my packing while on the Amazon, I spent the time at the airport in Quito searching, successfully, for a small day-pack to carry my camera on the wet landings (I already had a dry bag to go inside).

When we landed in San Cristobal, Kevin advised us not to try to photograph the birds at the airport. Tempting as it was, he assured us we would have better opportunities on the other islands we were to visit. Still, when you get to the dock to board the pangas (rubber zodiac like boats) that take you out to your yacht, it is impossible to resist the sea lions who greet you, or would greet you if they were awake.

After room assignments and lunch on the yacht, we returned to San Cristobal to take a bus up over the top of the island for a visit to a Tortoise Reserve and Breeding Station, for our first looks at unique Galapagos wildlife. We saw the giant Tortoises of course, but while there we also had our first encounters with one of the 4 species of endemic Mockingbirds of the islands, one of the Lava Lizards, and one of Darwin’s Finches.

Turtle Reserve, Lava Lizard, San Cristobal Mockingbird, Darwin’s Finch, Land Tortoise, young Land Tortoise

We returned to San Cristobal town in time for sunset, a little shopping, and back to our yacht for the first of many excellent dinners.

To make the most of your time in the islands, the yacht moves at night, while you are sleeping. It takes some getting used to, as the waters around the islands, stirred by the Humboldt Current, can be quite choppy…but it is a small price to pay for paradise. We woke on our first full day in the Galapagos to a stunning sunrise…the first of many…and, after a hearty breakfast, boarded the pangas for a short ride to Espanola Island. Every trip to the Galapagos is a mixture of dry and wet landings. Some islands have landing jetties, and on some you run the pangas up to the beach and climb out knee deep in water to wade ashore. Kevin insists on good wading sandals for the wet landings. I also invested in two pairs of sand socks…lycra crew-style socks with neoprene soles and heels. The sand socks keep the sand out from between my toes and my feet and the sandals. Before the end of the trip could have gotten several times their cost if I had been willing to sell them. Highly recommended.

The Galapagos are all volcanic islands, but they are mixture of what I think of as short islands and tall islands. Espanola is one of short islands…essentially a slab of lava raised maybe 70 feet above the sea at its highest point. The trails are pretty rough, with loose lava underfoot and no soft landings if you fall…but both the scenery and the wildlife are totally worth the hike.

Dawn on the first day. A yacht similar to ours that was on the same schedule as we were.
Nazca Boobies in the nesting colony on Espanola
Another view of our group in the nesting colony, the view out over the sea from Espanola
Marine Iguanas. They dive deep in the cold sea to feed on plants and spend much time on land warming themselves. The colors are salt deposits.

Our first and best views of the Galapagos Hawk were on Espanola

Each day there were several activities, with snorkeling generally in the late morning after time on one of the islands. I had never snorkeled before this trip, but I came equipped with an underwater camera. Unfortunately after one disastrous attempt I did not get in the water again, so I missed part of the Galapagos experience. Maybe next time…after a few lessons.
This is as good a place as any to highlight the sealions of the Galapagos. They are everywhere, from tiny pups to great beach-master bulls. They have absolutely no fear of human beings, and on several occasions we had pups come up and get very familiar with both our gear and our persons.

the sealions of the Galapagos
are very friendly 🙂

Our next day was spent on Floreana Island, one of the high islands of the Galapagos, and one with gorgeous beaches were Green Sea Turtles nest and rays swim in the surf. We did not see the turtles, but we certainly saw their excavations and tracks on the beach.

the stunningly beautiful landscape and the bright Flamingos of Floreana Island
Turtle tracks on the beach at Floreana, and the surf.

In the two panels above you can appreciate the real versatility of the Sony RX10iii (and soon to be iv). Flamingos at 600mm, in flight, and landscapes worth bringing home and showing off.

Overnight the boat moves us across the Humboldt Current once more to South Plaza, another short island…and indeed very plaza like. Here we had our fist encounters with the Giant Prickly Pears and Land Iguanas.

Giant Prickly Pear trees, and Land Iguanas. Galapagos Racer Snake.

The afternoon was spent on Santa Fe Island, with more Land Iguanas, chances to photograph Tropic Birds from the cliffs, wonderful views of Swallow-tail Gulls, and a close encounter with a Lava Heron…as well as stunning landscapes.

Lava Heron. Totally fearless…
Land Iguanas
Swallow-tail Gull, in my opinion, one of the most attractive gulls
Red-billed Tropic Birds, Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe Island, Land Iguana, Prickly Pears, sunset!

North Seymour Island was our next to last stop…saving the best for last. North Seymour has nesting colonies of Blue-footed Boobies and a mixed colony of both Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds. The Boobies are everywhere, underfoot, nesting in the trail, beside the trail…so close you sometimes have to walk around them. And they are displaying…doing their booby dance in pairs. The Frigatebirds are almost as close, nesting in taller brush wherever they can find space…and the males are in full display (or were when we visited). It is a totally amazing experience.

Blue-footed Boobies, North Seymour Island
The booby dance!
Nesting Great or Magnificent Frigatebirds. The Great have more green sheen on the neck but they are hard to tell apart.


On our last full day in the islands we visited Santa Cruz, and traveled by bus up into the highlands to visit the largest of the Giant Land Tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos. We stopped along the way for some birding and sightseeing around a huge sink-hole, a common feature of volcanic islands.
It is hard to imagine just how big the Giant Land Tortoise is. When they move through the brush they are like a bulldozer…nothing stops them…and yet this giant grass eater is among the gentlest creatures on earth. Too gentle perhaps as hundreds of thousands of them were collected each year, before they were protected, by passing ships and consigned to life in the hold until the crew was hungry for fresh meat. Since protection their numbers are slowly growing on the islands and most of the high islands have reserves.

Giant Land Tortoise
Gentle giant.
The meal on our last night on the yacht was a thanksgiving spread, complete will all the fixing, and a edible puffer fish sculpture.

We flew back to Quito for another night at the Garden Hotel, but since most of us had night flights out, we spent our last day in Ecuador traveling to the high Andes above the city and over the other side for Andean hummingbirds. We visited a lodge that specializes in hummers and spent a slightly rainy day photographing them, and sharing a traditional Ecuadorian meal.

The Sony RX10iii really came through on the hummingbirds in low light.

Top of the Andes, Buff-tailed Coronet, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar, Tourmaline Sunangel
Collared Inca, Masked Trogon, Buff-tailed Coronet, lunch Andes style, White-bellied Woodstar, Tourmaline Sunangel

We were back in Quito in time for evening flights. The end of a remarkable adventure in the Galápagos…thanks to Wildside Nature Tours.

P&S Nature Photographer in Cuba

A wider view of the Vinales Valley

I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for 14 days in October of 2016. What a trip! The birds were greatl, especially the endemics, of which we saw over 20 out a possible 26. Then too, the landscape was often unique and beautiful, the food was great, and the people were open and friendly. It is a great place to visit, and a great place for photography.

4 Cuban endemics: Bare-legged Owl, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody

 We visited the mountains west of Havana on our first night (I was there for 2 trips, so we stayed in two different hotels). I don’t recommend hotels in Cuba. You are much better off staying in Casa Paticulars, private homes licsenced by the government to host visitors. They are common in most of the touristy areas, and are less expensive, cleaner, and often more modern than the hotels. Private tiled baths with shower, air conditioners in each room, generally a refrigerator (sometimes shared between rooms), filtered water used for cooking, bottled water and beverages available, etc. are standard (and, it was my impression, required by law.) Plus you can arrange to have your meals at the Casa Paticular and if the ones we stayed at are a good sample, the food is abundant and excellent!

Dinner our first night on the mountain, Cuban Green Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker, Giant Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Trogon, Red-legged Thrush, Giant Kingbird, Orchid, Orchid, Cuban Emerald

Near our first hotel there was a small botanical garden…or Orchid Garden. Besides beautiful plants and stunning landscaping…in a series of terraces up the side of a steep limestone hill…the birding was excellent. Here we saw our first endemic: the Cuban Trogon. We also had good views of one of the most common, and most spectacular birds of the Cuban forest, the Red-legged Thrush. The Great Lizard Cuckoo lived up to its name. Cuban Emeralds worked the flowers on the terraces. We also saw Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, and the rare and unexpected Giant Kingbird.

Dawn in Vinales from the roof of our Casa Paticular

In Vinales (a must-visit city in one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and the center of the cigar industry in Cuba) there are whole neighborhoods that are pretty much exclusively Casa Paticulars. They have catered for a decade to German and French tourists, and are eager to host Americans. The hosts have limited English. I don’t recommend going to Cuba without hiring a local guide to set up your trip for you, but once at your Casa Paticular, even the most basic Spanish (and I am limited to a very few words), combined with the host’s basic English, will generally get you what you need. In one case, where the host needed to communicate a maintenance issue, he was able to flag down a passing neighbor with more English and we got the job done. As I said before, the people I met in Cuba were among the most friendly and accomodating I have met anywhere in my travels.

 

sampling the product: Vinales tobacco farm and cigar hand rolling facility
Street market in Vinales
Western Spindales, in the mountains east of Vinales, Green Malicite Butterfly, Cuban Kestrels (dark variety)
Out the bus window…the unique landscape around Vinales. Tobacco fields and Mogotes (the mountains)
Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Pewee, Olive-capped Warbler, Roseate Skimmer dragonfly

 From Vinales we traveled back toward Havana and then south to the Zapata Swamp area. Our accommodations were again in Casa Paticulars, this time in the resort town of Ponto Larga at the head of The Bay of Pigs. This is another unique landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Everglades in south Florida. A porous limestone base mixes fresh and salt water well inland, creating extensive marshes and wet plains. There is a fault running up the middle of the Bay, so the east side is low, with sandy beaches, and the west side is some 20-30 feet higher, with a rim of low limestone cliffs, and many sinkholes back from the shore. This is the only place in Cuba for three of the most sought after endemics…the Zapata Sparrow, the Zapata Wren, and the Zapata Rail. The existence of the rail is currently in some doubt, as there have been no reliable records for several years now. This spring, when the marsh is dryer, local ornithologists and biologists are mounting a last-ditch effort to find the rail and document its status. 

The Zapata area is also a good place to find a two of the other Cuban endemics: the Cuban Bee Hummingbird (the worlds smallest bird), and the Blue-headed Quail Dove.

Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Bee Hummingbird, Blue-headed Quail Dove

The Blue-headed Quail Dove used to be very hard to find. Recently a small flock has taken up residence around restaurant at a sink-hole park just across the road from the Bay. They come in to corn spread by the staff at the restaurant, and draw the tourists with them. 🙂 The Wren and the Sparrow, however, required a 5 mile round trip hike into the swamp on raised dike roads, in the heat of a hot October. Fortunately there were other birds along the way to keep our spirits up. On the first of the two trips I hosted, the Bee Hummingbird was easy as well. There is a backyard in a small village just north of the Bay where they are regular visitors, so much so that the owners have a small business showing them off. On the second trip the Cuban Emeralds (not endemic despite its name) were so numerous and so aggressive that the Bees were scarce. We did find them elsewhere, but did not get close views.

Cuban Tody (again), Giant Green Anole, Butterfly

The most elusive of the endemics of the Zapata region (not counting the rail), turned out to be the Fernandino’s Flicker, which should have been a lot easier in the wet plains back from the Bay. On our first trip we had only a questionable sighting. On the second trip we tried an unlikely spot in the mountains west of Havana where our guide had seen them once before, and had great views. Of course, on that trip, we also found them on the Zapata Plains.
Our Fernandino search did turn up other interesting birds. We had our first sighting of the Cuban Pygmy Owl here, and great looks at yet another Cuban Tody.

Fernandino’s Flicker, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Tody

Meals in Playa Larga tended to center around seafood. Excellent shrimp, lobster fixed several different ways, and Deviled Crab with peppers and green olives. And of course fish, like this giant Dog-fish that capped a seafood meal at one of our Casa Paticulars.

The shrimp, lobster, crab, beans and rice, salad plates, fried plantains, and fruit were only the appetizers for the main course.

South of Playa Larga are the extensive salt-water marshes of the La Salina Refuge. This area is very like a cross between the Everglades and Merritt Island in Florida. The winter birds were just coming in, but La Salina is home to part of the Caribbean flock of American Flamingos, as well as the Cuban variety of the Osprey and many of the other wading birds you would expect to see in South Florida.

American Flamingos, La Salina, Cuba

Though the Zapata area lacks the mountains, it has the marshes and the Bay of Pigs, both spectacular in their own way.

La Salina, dawn at Playa Larga, La Salina, Bay of Pigs, Zapata Marsh

We finished our trip, both times, with an afternoon in Havana. We stayed in Old Havana, an area which is rapidly being gentrified…with lots of trendy restaurants, brick streets, art galleries, mucic venues…surrounding the museums, historical sites, and famous Squares already in the area. Casa Particulars in Old Havana can be a bit basic…but comfortable. And the sights of the Old City are not to be missed…from the monuments and squares and the classic architecture, to the abundance of well maintained 50’s convertible taxis (from Fords to Cadillacs), the host of pedicabs, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage or cart. Street life is vibrant.

Car culture Havana
Old Havana streets
Old Square (newest actually), our guide, Cathedral Square, Old Fort

And I will finish with out hosts/guides on this amazing adventure. Ernesto and Tanya are two of the most wonderful people I have ever met…committed to the birds of Cuba and the future of Cuba. If you are interested in touring Cuba and birding with them, the easiest way is probably to contact Joni at Optics for the Tropics.

Cuba is an experience. It is getting easier. It is only an hour from Miami. You really have no excuse. Grab your camera and go!

P&SNP does Africa!

Giraffe in sunrise, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
How African classic is that? Giraffe in the sunrise. Balule Game Reserve

I think every nature/wildlife photographer dreams of a photo safari to Africa, and that certainly includes Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhino, hippopotamus, cheetah…and a host of bright African birds: sunbirds, rollers, and bee-eaters…not to mention the big birds, Ostriches and Bustards, Vultures, and Eagles. And just being there, in the presence of so much great wildlife…the Africa of all our dreams.

However, if you have priced an African photo safari lately, you know that it can be a very expensive destination. The safaris themselves are pricey compared to other eco or adventure travel, or even photo tours, and the cost of getting there is high. Airfare is expensive, and it can take as much as 38 hours with layovers on the least expensive flights.

Bush Bomba, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Bush Bomba, our first night in Africa

Of course that does not keep me from dreaming or taking a look on-line at the safari booking sites. Recently I found a company, Viva Safaris, in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa (perhaps the most accessible of the African nations), offering what appeared to be real bargains in Kruger Wildlife Safaris. I also found a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (South African Air), that got me from Portland Maine to Africa in less than 24 hours for just over $1000. The trip total was around $2500 for 11 days (two back to back safari packages at different lodges owned by Viva). That included 2 bushwalks with an armed Ranger, one night Game Drive and several sunrise and sunset Game Drives on Private Reserves in the Greater Kruger Area, and 4 full day Game Drives in Kruger itself.

I did have some doubts. The Lodges and Camps I stayed at are not in Kruger. They are in Private Game Reserves adjacent to Kruger. Balule Game Reserve very large and is unfenced on the Kruger side, so it is, for all practical purposes, part of Kruger National Park. Motlala Game Reserve is smaller, but is also open to the surrounding reserves. However, Balule is about an hour from the nearest Kruger gate and Motlala is only a bit closer, so you do not get early mornings in Kruger itself. Early bushwalks and drives are on the Private Reserves.

Then too, the safari packages they offer are not Photo Safaris per say…they are general wildlife safaris. If you have ever been out with a group of non-photographers when you are trying to photograph, you know there can be some strain there…and the potential for cross purposes is high. Most dedicated Photo Safaris to Africa guarantee you a window or outside seat in the high Game Viewers used in the African Bush (converted transport buses or Land Cruiser type vehicles with high seats and large sliding windows, or no windows at all), which automatically means a small number of people per vehicle. No such guarantee here. Viva offers its low prices based on the simple premise of keeping their rooms and their Game Viewers (the Land Cruiser, open sided type) full at all times. Also the pace of a photo safari can be quite different than the pace of a general wildlife safari. On Wildlife Safari, the goal is to show the customer as many animals as possible. That can mean the quantity of views will generally trump the quality. On a Photo Safari, the goal is to get you good shots of as many animals as possible..but that may mean you see less animals total, and miss some altogether…and that is perfectly fine with most photographers. Quality over quantity.

Vervet Monkey, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Vervet Monkeys were everywhere around both lodges.

Finally the Lodges themselves were an unknown. They got generally excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but, as there always are, there were a few outstanding negative reviews too.

I will reassure you on that point first. The Lodges were fine. Tremisana Lodge on the Balule Game Reserve is comfortable, with nice rooms and a family style atmosphere…including family style meals. Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is more rustic, with a more genuine “bush” feel and reed cabins perched in trees or on stilts high above a flowing river, and is much more like a “camp”…including camp style meals. Perhaps because of that, Marc’s attracts a lot more young people than Tremisana, and that just adds to the camp atmosphere. I enjoyed the experience of both, and the contrast between the two. I have no hesitation in recommending Tremisana to any potential traveler. I would recommend Marc’s Treehouse to those with a desire for a more authentic bush experience, and a good sense of adventure 🙂

Tremisana Lodge, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Tremisana Lodge
Marc's Treehouse Lodge, South Africa
Marc’s Treehouse Lodge

As far as my other doubts went, the quality of the night, early and late walks and drives in Balule Game Reserve and the neighboring Tshakudu Reserve, both in the numbers of animals seen, and in the skill of the driver/rangers Viva and Tshakudu employ, more than made up for any lack of mornings in Kruger. At Balule we were able to spotlight elephants, giraffe, and honeybadgers on the night drive, and at Tshakudu we were able to drive up, just after sunset, within 40 feet of a pride of lions at a kill. (Other groups at Balule also saw a lion kill, but I missed it.) The rangers at Tremisana went out of their way (literally) on several occasions to show me birds I might not otherwise have seen or been able to photograph.

And the Viva driver/rangers who take the Game Viewers into Kruger daily did a wonderful job of finding and getting us views of as many animals as possible each trip. Every ranger I road with, and I road with four different ones, was knowledgeable and keen eyed, and I was especially impressed that, even though they are in Kruger every day, driving the same roads, chasing the same animals, they all still obviously enjoyed showing the African Wildlife to their customers. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.

So, no it was not a dedicated photo safari…but I am not sure it made a difference, especially for a first experience of Africa. Perhaps because I was one of the few people each day in the Game Viewer with serious looking camera gear, I generally was voted into an outside seat. On the occasions when I did have a middle seat, it turned out not to be much of a problem. The vehicles are very high, with seats raised considerably above even the normal bed of the Land Cruiser, and I could generally shoot over or around my fellow passengers…and again, since I was obviously serious about my photography, the others generally made a special effort to make sure I got my picture. Several asked if I would send them copies of things that were just beyond the cameras in the cell phones and tablets that most of them were carrying. (I was totally amazed at how many of my fellow safariers came out with only a cell phone for a camera.)

Lion, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Lions, Kruger National Park. We swung around and went back for this view. Because I asked 🙂

Again, though it was not a photo safari, the driver/rangers are very experienced in positioning their vehicles so that everyone can see the animals…and on the few occasions where my view was blocked or where I saw the potential for a better shot, the driver made every effort to reposition the vehicle so I could get the shot I wanted. I would love to be able to afford a dedicated photo safari, but I am not convinced I would come back with any more keepers than I did from my Viva Wildlife Safari.

I took three cameras with me. The Sony RX10iii, with its 1 inch sensor and 24-600mm zoom, which I intended to use most of the time, the Nikon P900 for when I needed more reach (out to 2000mm equivalent, especially for birds), and the Sony HX90V (a tiny P&S with a 24-720mm equivalent zoom) as a fail-safe backup in case both other cameras broke 🙁 As it turned out, it was just too much trouble to handle more than one camera in the field in Africa, especially in the Game Viewers, so the Nikon and HX90V stayed in my pack most of the time. Except for distant birds, I did not miss the reach of the P900, and even for distant birds, with the shimmer in the heated African air, I am not sure I would have gotten better shots with the 2000mm zoom. I did use the Clear Image Zoom out to 2x on the Sony more than I thought I would. Distant prides of lions, or a Cheetah in the shade of a distant tree just demanded more reach than 600mm, though I could have cropped and gotten the same image scale. Overall I was pleased with the results even for those stretched shots. I also found the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode useful on several occasions when the light levels were low. I got better shots of hyena and the pride of lions at the kill after sunset because that mode was available…and impossible shots of Honeybadger after full dark in the light of only the Game Viewer’s spotlight. Finally, for the landscapes I took, the in-camera HDR on the Sony is just the best!

Today’s modern Point and Shoot superzooms are ideal cameras for Africa, offering you the wide open vistas at 24mm, frame filling shots of larger wildlife at mid-telephoto range (250mm), and the reach to shoot a close-up of an elephants eye or a distant lion or small bird. And you well not find yourself overburdened with gear, or changing lenses in the field.

I took 5000 exposures over 11 days. I have 851 keepers. Lots of lions, more elephants that I really need, a hundred giraffes, most of the antelope species, zebra, wildebeest, rhino, hippo, leopard, cheetah, honeybadger, mongoose, etc.

White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve

And though it was not a birding trip, I got to photograph my “most wanted”: two sunbird species, both African rollers, and two bee-eaters…as well as many of the larger birds of the African bush…including a total surprise in a pair of Kori Bustards (the largest flighted bird) that we found walking one morning just after we got to Kruger.

Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park

This is a slideshow of 132 of the best or most interesting shots from my keeper set. You can also view the full take, organized by day, (and subject as time allows) on WideEyedInWonder.

I am considering, if there is enough interest, negotiating a bit more photo-centric trip with Viva or one of the other Kruger Safari companies next September. I think, if we could fill a Game Viewer (9 or 10 participants), we might get some special treatment (though not a cost savings as Viva is already about as inexpensive as anyone can be). Let me know via email, if you would be interested.

 

P&SNP at Traquilo Bay, Panama

In August of 2016 I had the privilege of being the official ZEISS host for a ZEISS/Eagle Optics trip to Tranquilo Bay Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. While it was a birding trip, not a photography trip (and there is a difference), I took along my Sony RX10iii (and two back-up cameras) for those inevitable (at least for me) photo opportunities.

Headed out to Tranquilo Bay
Headed out from the dock at Bocas Town on our way to Tranquilo Bay Lodge

I have said here before that in my opinion, Tranquilo Bay Lodge and the surrounding area in the islands of Bocas del Toro, and the lowlands, foothills, and mountains of the ajoining mainland, are one of the best spots in Central American for bird and wildlife photography, especially during migration season. Our August trip proved that it is also excellent even at slower times of the year.

I am posting several slide shows of images. All were taken with the Sony RX10iii in Program Mode, In-camera HDR, or my customized Birds-in-flight mode (based on the built in Sports Mode, see here) and processed in Lightroom.

This firsts set is from Day One. You have to overnight in Panama City to get to Bocas del Toro at any reasonable time on your first day. The Lodge books the dawn flight from the domestic airport in Panama City, so you are in Bocas early enough for a full day of exploring or birding. The Lodge picks you up at the airport and transports you to their boats at a dock in Bocas Town, and you motor out to Bastimento Island were Tranquilo Bay Lodge is located. We were met, half way up the boardwalk between the dock and the foot of the stairs leading up to the Lodge by what appeared to be the official Tranquilo Bay greeter for the day…a Three-toed Sloth in the canopy above us. That set the tone for the whole trip. After check in and island breakfast with your hosts at the Lodge, you head out to explore the trails around the island before lunch. After a siesta, which gives you a chance to unpack and even shower, you are off again on new trails, ending your exploration on the Canopy Tower on the hill above the cabins, watching flights of parrots returning to their roosts for the night.

On day two, we were up early to travel to the mainland for a day in the lowlands, foothills, and mountains. You can drive from the dock, right up to and over the continental divide, on good paved roads. The first section is lowland grass and swamp, then the foothills with rainforest, and eventually the mountains right up to the edge of cloudforest. Spectacular birding and photography all the way. We got rained out on our first approach to the divide, and went back down to the Ranger Station where we had lunch under their thatched shelter. By the end of lunch it has stopped raining and we went back to the divide to bird, then retuned to the foothills to end the day. There were many interesting dragonflies along the road were we birded on the way back.

Day three took us the Green Acres Chocolate Farm for morning birding, adn then back to Tranquilo Bay for the afternoon. The Chocolate Farm is near the mainland and has different species than Bastimento…including a totally different species of Poison Dart Frog.

On day four we traveled to the mainland again to explore the lowlands and ridges of the Changuinola region on the north edge of Bocas del Toro. Besides interesting birds, we encountered a number of butterflies, most of which I can not identify yet.

Day five was our day to visit Isle de Popo, a close neighbor of Bastimento and Tranquilo Bay. There are two major attractions at Popo. One is a population of Snowy Contingas, and the other is the unique phenomenon of a mix of color variations of Poison Dart Frog in a single location. Generally Poison Dart Frog variations are restricted to small ranges on individual islands or individual drainages.  On Popo, in an area the size of a heavily forested football field you can find at least 5 different color variations of Poison Dart Frogs, plus two separate species. Though I was with some hard-core birders, I persuaded them to visit the frog spot, and most seemed to really enjoy chasing the elusive critters around the forest floor, trying to find new color variations. We had just about given up on finding the rarer second species and were actually headed back before Ramone, our guide, found one. One of the birders jokingly asked for a Tourquoise frog. We found her one of those too. We did not, however, find the Snowy Cotinga, though we came back to Popo after our afternoon rest period, and again on our last morning at Tranquilo Bay. Not for want of trying.

Between trips to Popo on Day five, we had some free time. Some went on another hike around the lodge in search of the Three-wattled Bell Bird. I elected to hike back to the Golden-collared Manakin lecks to see if I could photograph these elusive but brilliant birds. Tranquilo Bay Lodge has to be one of the best places for Golden-collared Manakin. After a long hot wait in the humidity and mosquitoes, I was rewarded with two male Manakins coming into the lecks. August is late for any lecking activity so I felt particularly privileged. They did not actually get down and display, probably because there were no females in the area, but I got some keepers of the males.

Day 6 was our day for the Snyder Canal and Swan Island. The Snyder Canal was built at the turn of the century by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas from the plantations to the ships in a deep channel in northern Bocas del Toro, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. It was only in active service for about five years before the railway put it out of business, but it is still there, winding its way parallel to the coast through some prime swamp and lowlands. It provides easy access to some of the best birding in Bocas del Toro.

Swan Island is a volcanic plug about 40 minutes off-shore out in the Caribbean. It is home to a nesting colonies of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies, and Frigatebirds…and is one of unique attractions of Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro.

After finishing in the Snyder Canal and Chinguinola River, we headed to Swan Island. All images here are taken in my custom birds-in-flight mode.

On our last day, the day we traveled back to Panama City to spend another night before our flights home, we made, as I mentioned, one last try for the Snowy Cotinga, without success. Just before we left for Panama City, I took some time to shoot fish off the dock, and then we were back in the boats and on our way to Bocas Town and the airport.

So, my conclusion. Tranquilo Bay is still one of the best places in Central America for bird and wildlife photography…no matter the season. I can’t wait to go back again. (And maybe you will join me. Keep an eye on the Workshops and Tours page.)

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Motoring away from Tranquilo Bay