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.
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.
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/).
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of the photographs in this article were taken with the Sony RX10iii and processed in Polarr on my iPad Pro.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We were back in Quito in time for evening flights. The end of a remarkable adventure in the Galápagos…thanks to Wildside Nature Tours.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.)
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.
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.
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.