Point and Shoot Nature Photographer with Birds & Nature Tours Portugal in Lisbon and the Alentejo.

European Kingfisher (fm) in Tagus Estuary, across the Tagus River from Lisbon Portugal

Note: I will be returning to southern Portugal in the spring of 2019 for more breeding birds and the hillsides covered with wildflowers, as well as the attractions detailed below. If you would like to join me check out the info here.

Let’s cut to chase: if you want to see the most iconic European birds, and you want to see them in a few days, without traveling long distances between birds, then there is simply nothing to equal Portugal, and southern Portugal in particular. Between the Tagus Estuary and the coastal areas north and south of Lisbon, and the steppe and canyon country of the Alentejo between Castro Verde and Mértola, you will have good scope and binocular views of all the most sought after European species. If you add a day in marshes and tidal areas of the Algarve just to south, you will pick up most of your remaining target birds. And all of this is within a day’s drive from the international airport in Lisbon. Conceivably you could find, in two spring days based in Lisbon, all the birds you would spend two weeks seeking out in other countries of Europe. Sound too good to be true?

My visit was in winter when wintering birds replace nesting and migrant populations, so I missed some highly sought after birds (European Roller, Bee-eater, Lessor Kestrel, Black Stork, etc., all easy in the spring), but my trip certainly demonstrated the potential. In five days, we saw Little and Great Bustard; Imperial, Golden, and Bonelli’s Eagle; White Stork and Flamingo; Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, and Purple Swamphen; Black-bellied Sandgrouse (1) and Black-tailed Godwit (1000s), Red and Black-winged Kites; Little Owl; 1000s of Azure-winged Magpies and Northern Lapwings; several Hoopoes; and all of the common winter passerines, from European Robin and Goldfinch and Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting to the ever present and highly variable Chiffchaffs. We even had a glimpse a very rare vagrant from the East, the Dusky Warbler. Again, all of this within 2 hours of Lisbon. The trip was organized by João Jara of Birds & Nature Tours Portugal, and guided by Helder Cardoso. Birds & Nature Tours Portugal is oldest and most experienced birding and nature tour company in Portugal, and certainly my recommendation. They know the birds and the country better than any other group, and work hard on every trip to show you all the birds you came to see. And besides, they are just really wonderful people to spend time with.

The view out over Lisbon Center (rebuilt after the earthquake in the 1750s), the 11th century Moorish Castle on the highest hill in Lisbon, once home to the first kings of Portugal, behind the scenes at Pasteis de Belem, the place for custard tarts in Lisbon (they make 30,000 a day), The Monument to the Discovers honoring the age of discovery and the Portuguese mariners who figured so prominently in it. Behind it you see the April 5 Bridge, named in honor of the revolution that ended the dictatorship of Portugal.
Narrow cobbled streets of the old Moorish village under the castle walls, traditional Lisbon glazed tile house front, the church that launched the fleets that discovered much of Africa and opened the passage to India.

For ease and comfort I spent 3 nights in Lisbon (though Birds and Nature Tours groups often stay across the river nearer the Estuary). My visit started with a tour of Lisbon itself, which I highly recommend including in your itinerary. The city is full of interesting history dating back before Roman times. The monuments to the age of Discovery are worth seeing, as are both the older and more modern sections of the city. I spent an interesting evening with Miguel Gonzaga, head of tourism programs for the City of Lisbon, talking bird conservation and tourism. Lisbon is committed to working with João and other tour leaders to promote southern Portugal as a birding destination. They are aware of the challenges and of the potential. I was impressed. (I want to thank Turismo de Lisboa for helping to making my trip possible.)

The varied landscapes of the Tagus Estuary, a huge reserve encompassing mudflats, rice fields and wetlands.

The following two days, Helder took me to the Tagus Estuary across the broad Tagus River from Lisbon. The Tagus Estuary is a “reserve” focused on bird conservation, but reserve in Portugal means something different than most Americans, used to our developed National Wildlife Refuges, National and State Parks, and conservation areas will expect. The Estuary is mostly rice fields, and aggressively agricultural, and though access is limited, there are no official tour loops or trails. When you visit, you drive the dyke roads between the rice fields, or visit a few spots what give access to the mud flats at low tide. There is a Visitor Center of sorts, the EVOA Center. It is actually an Eduction and Research station (Bird Observatory), funded by the Tagus Estuary Land-owners Association and both government and private funds with an ultra modern natural looking building, man-made lagoons and traditional hides (blinds) for viewing birds, but it is still very much under development. One of the most interesting places we visited was a farm just at the edge of the estuary where the ground begins to rise, where a fresh-water pond in a Cork Oak grove is home to both Little Bittern and Purple Swamphen, and the surrounding grove is full of passerines. Birds and Nature Tours Portugal has an arrangement with the land owner for access.

Little Bittern and Purple Swamphen in the same pond in a Cork Oak Grove, Greater Flamingos just around the corner.

Cork is one the major exports of Portugal, and you see Cork Oak groves everywhere the land is suitable, generally with pigs grazing on the acorns under oaks. All cork in Portugal is protected by law, and very carefully managed. It takes 18 years for a cork tree to reach the size where the first layer of cork can be stripped…and that cork is of no use. You have to wait 9 more years for the cork layer to grow back before you get usable cork, and then the tree can only be harvested every 9 years after that. Clearly cork is a long term investment. As Helder said, you don’t plant cork for yourself…you plant it for your children.

Passerines of the Tagus Estuary: Stonechat, Goldfinch, Corn Bunting, Robin, Chiffchaff, Tree Swallow.
Raptors of the Tagus Estuary: Common Buzzard, 2 shots of Common Kestrel, and the Black-winged Kite

Because I was primarily interested in photographing birds, we spent more of our time at the north end of the Estuary in the rice fields than we did scoping the mudflats. In the rice fields smaller birds often perch relatively close on the road-side fences, and raptors perch on anything with any height (we saw our only Bonelli’s Eagle perched on a high-tension tower in the Tagus). White Storks wander the dryer fields, while flocks of Godwits, Glossy Ibis, Avocets and Stilts hunt the shallow flooded fields. And Snipe. 🙂 We found the flock of Little Bustards, and glimpsed a Great Bustard off across the fields near the EVOA center. The highlights of the Tagus Estuary for me were 1) a very close view and photographs of a European Kingfisher perched on the end of a drain pipe early one morning (seen at the top of this post), and 2) the Squacco Heron, probably the most difficult Heron to see anywhere in Europe that we finally saw on our 4th attempt in its territory, on a detour from our route home to Lisbon on the last day.

I am always looking for landscapes, and the unique nature of the both the land and sky of the Tagus Estuary, with the hills behind Lisbon, gave me several opportunities.

A lonely pilgrims chapel in the rice fields of the Tagus Estuary.

After two days in the Tagus Estuary, we headed inland toward the steppe country around Castro Verde where we hoped to find closer looks at Great Bustard, and locate some Imperial Eagles. Our first birding stop was a hill-top chapel that featured a spectacular 360 degree view out over the rolling hills of the region, and, on a good day, often provides views of Eagles and Kites riding the thermals. I can’t say we were there on a bad day, since, for me, the view and the interesting chapel were worth the visit, but the raptors did not cooperate. We spent the late morning and afternoon driving the roads looking for Bustards and Eagles.

From the hilltop chapel of São Barão, between Castro Verde and Mértola in the Alentejo of southern Portugal

We had several sightings of Bustards, far off across the winter fields, and finally found a small flock feeding over a rise from the main road between Castro Verde and Mértola. We were able to park the car and walk to the top of the ridge for a slightly closer view and some photographs…still at the far range of possibility. Magnificent birds in the scope. And I got proof that they can actually fly, as they did just that after about 10 minutes of observation.

Great Bustards, as close as we could get. Looks to be a female and an immature male. Bustards in flight.

We located two juvenile Imperial Eagles soaring over the hills north of the route from Castro Verde to Mértola, near a known active nest. They were this year’s hatchlings, still hanging out on territory. I was able to get some decent flight shots as they came right overhead. Later, near a irrigation dam feeding a huge olive grove between the hills north of Alvares, we spotted three Golden Eagles on a far ridge. Good Scope views but too far for photography. On the way into the dam, we found a Little Owl in one of it favored roosts in a pile of stones left from an old building right next to the road. Both Red (native) and Musk (not native but certainly naturalized) Deer wandered the hillsides above the dam.

Immature Imperial Eagle (Iberian:), Little Owl, Hills north of Alvares, Red Deer

We chased a rainbow all the way back to Mértola and our hotel, and stopped to photograph it above the classic white hilltop village of Alvares.The highlight of the next morning was a single field where we stopped to scope Eagles on the ridge. They were immature Imperial’s, probably the same two we had seen the day before, but while stopped we located a Great Bustard, perhaps playing lookout for a group concealed in folds in the landscape, and a lone Black-bellied Sandgrouse, much closer. That makes three of most sought after birds of the region in a single stop in a single field. And, of course, Red Kites circled and there were the ever-present (in winter in southern Portugal) Northern Lapwings.

Again, my birding in the Alentejo consisted mainly of driving the rural (often one lane) roads to see what we could find. Helder and João are both in the region most weeks of the year, so they know where to look and what they are likely to find in any season, but it is a different kind of birding than most Americans are used to. There are fewer trails (though João tells me that there are more than I hiked in my short time there…several of which are usually included in the longer trips). There are very few observation blinds. We rarely get out of the car unless there was something that required a scope view. In addition, there are few concentration points where the birds reliably gather in any number. There is a lot of good habitat and the birds can be spread thin. Still, in course of our morning, we had most of the common wintering species…and good looks at most of them. I was able to photograph my Hoopie and Great Spotted Woodpecker out the car window.

Hoopoe, one of the more interesting birds of Europe.

We were back in Mértola for lunch, which included coffee with the Vice President of the Municipality, Rosinda Pimenta, who manages tourism in the region. She is energetically enthusiastic about developing the area as a birding destination, and very aware of how birding and nature observation and photography can be part of the sustainable future she sees for Mértola. Mértola is the 2nd largest Municipality in Portugal, and its most scarcely populated. People visit for the scenery, the hunting (Hunting Capital of Portugal according to the sign), the history (the whole village is one huge museum and archeological site, with settlement dating back to before Roman times, and activity in every age since), and, hopefully, as it develops, the birding and nature observation. They realize their limits…it is a small village with a small number of hotel beds…and they lack the infrastructure (trails, blinds, public access to birdy and wildlife observation sites…but they see the potential. They are actively introducing the local population, merchants, and land owners to the idea that birders and photographers can make a valuable contribution to the economy. Birding is not yet well known as leisure activity in Portugal as a whole, and practically unknown in Mértola. João encourages his birders to wear their binos into the hotel and restaurants just so locals can get used to idea of birders in town. One point the VP made was that birders and nature lovers can feel good about visiting Mértola because they are contributing to the survival of the Municipality at a time when it is becoming more difficult to find employment and a viable lifestyle in the region. (And again, I want to thank the Municipality of Mértola for sponsoring part of my trip to Southern Portugal.)

From every standpoint, Mértola has a lot to offer. Because of my general photographic interest, we spent the early afternoon touring the village, hiking up to the 11th century castle on the top of hill, and the equally as ancient church (originally a mosque) within its walls, viewing the excavations in the Moorish village that once hugged the castle walls and visiting the reconstructed Moorish home on the site, and photographing the ancient streets and buildings. We were staying at the Hotel Museu, or Museum Hotel, which is actually constructed around and above a excavated moorish dwelling from the 12th century.

The 11th century mosque, now a church, inside the walls of the Castle of Mértola, Moorish archers inside the church, excavation of Moorish village, the castle keep.

On the way back to the hotel I encountered flocks of Azure-winged Magpies and Linnets, and later in the afternoon we drove out across the river and along the top of the river canyon to a gap in the hills where Bonelli’s Eagles nest. The eagles did not show, but the drive includes the classic sunset shot of Mértola, from Castle to river, glowing white in the low light.

The landscape around Mértola is also interesting from a photographic point of view. I got lots of satisfying shots. In spring, Helder assured me, the hillsides are carpeted with wildflowers, which makes the landscape even more interesting.

Wolf’s Leap

The following morning was my last in the field, and we drove north to Wolf’s Leap (Pulo do Lobo), a famous waterfall and canyon on the Guadiana River where it narrows. The story is, a wolf fleeing hunters leapt the river above the falls. It is a very scenic area, and, in spring, an excellent birding location. Almost last, but not least, on our way back to Lisbon we visited the Mourisca Tide Mill in the Setubal wetlands, another reserve right on the coast south of the city. We only had time for a brief stop, but the potential here is great. For one thing, the constant human traffic to the museum and coffee shop in the Tide Mill means the the birds are not nearly as skittish as elsewhere in Portugal, allowing for some close observation and photography. Finally, we made a detour off our main route to the city to take one more crack at the Squacco Heron. Helder insisted that it was generally much better behaved (and visible) than in our previous visits…where the most we saw of it was the bird flying away across the marsh. 4th time is charm. It was not on its perch near a small one-lane bridge, but we found it in dead water plants near another bridge a quarter mile on. Considering how difficult this bird is to see anywhere in Europe, I was happy with my views.

Squacco Heron, Tagus Estuary, near Lisbon

Helder dropped me off at the hotel in Lisbon and I caught my flight home the next morning.

To summarize…well I can’t say it any better than I did in the introduction. “Conceivably you could find, in two spring days based in Lisbon, all the birds you would spend two weeks seeking out in other countries of Europe.” And that is not an exaggeration in any way. Bird photography is a bit more challenging, as it would be anywhere in Europe, but if close views can be found, João and Helder will find them for you. I hope to get a group together for the spring of 2019 to see and photography the birds and landscape of southern Portugal with Birds & Nature Tours Portugal. We would work the area around Lisbon and definitely visit the Alentejo and Mértola, with a possible extension to the Algarve (there are a lot of pelagic species and shorebirds that can be seen closer to the coasts): an easy, relaxed tour of 10-12 days which would promise just about all of the classic European species and some wonderful landscape and village photography. (João tells me that by the spring of 2019 he hopes to have several more blinds in place for hard to photograph birds.) If any of my readers are interested, please contact me at lightshedder@gmail.com for more information. Or contact João Jara at Birds & Nature Tours Portugal at joao.jara@birds.pt for one of his regularly scheduled tours.

Or visit Birds & Nature Tours Portugal on the web.

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&SNP on the Amazon River

For many the Amazon River is a thing of legend. It runs through the jungle heart of South America, from the Atlantic delta in the east to the slopes of the Andes in the west, and its basin dominates almost half the continent in 5 different countries. I was privileged to be invited to co-lead the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure last March, to experience the Amazon for myself. 

On this trip I carried my Sony RX10iii, an advanced-point-and-shoot superzoom, with a tack sharp 24-600mm f2.4-f4 zoom lens, and Sony’s excellent 1 inch sensor. Much of the trip I was shooting from moving boats, and the Sony handled the various challenges very well. I never felt the need for another camera. 

Some of us flew into Lima a day early, and spent the first day, while others were still arriving, visiting the high coastal desert and mountains north of the capital city in the De Lachay reserve. This is a unique landscape, as strange and wonderful as the Amazon itself, but about as different as different can be. These arid uplands, within sight of the Pacific, are home to many species of birds, lizards, dragonflies, and butterflies that you just do not see elsewhere in Peru. 

The lowlands of the De Lachay Reserve, a Fritillary, Amazilia Hummingbird, Spiny Whorltail Lizard?, Bandtailed Seedeater, the view out toward the Pacific

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Ventinilla wetlands just at the edge of Lima…home to major wintering colonies of Franklin’s Gulls and Black Skimmers. It is wonderful that the Lima has preserved its wetlands, though they are surrounded on all sides by haphazard development. There were birds in the air continuously so I had a good chance to hone my birds-in-flight skills. BIF is not as easy with a P&S as with a full fledged DSLR, but the Sony brought back some satisfying images. I can not wait to try out the new Sony RX10iv with its improved focus in a similar situation when it arrives. 

The Lima suburbs, Black Skimmer, Franklin’s Gulls, the wetlands

The following day we were at the airport at 5 AM to board a small commercial flight for Iquitos. Iquitos the major port of call on the Peruvian Amazon. There are about 60 miles of roadway in and around Iquitos, but there is no highway connecting the city to anywhere else in Peru. You can only get there by air or by boat…and by boat would take you almost 2/3s of the lenght of the Amazon through all of Brazil. We landed in the pouring rain. We were to experience rain several times on our journey but, considering we were in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, we stayed remarkably dry. On our way from the airport to our river boat, we stopped at the White Sands Forest to explore another unique habitat.  Shooting in the rain is always a challenge. I had some confidence in the weather sealing of the Sony RX10iii, but still, I tried to keep the camera under my umbrella and covered it with a gallon sized zip lock bag with a hole punched for the strap. I kept the bag on the strap the whole trip, and had several more occasions to use it.

In the rain in the White Sands Forest, Cracker butterfly, Saddle-backed Tamarin, White-eared Jacamar

One of the things I appreciate about the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure is the cultural aspect. Wildside recommends that each participant purchase a small cache of school and art supplies, soccer balls and frisbees, to distribute in villages were we stop, and to throw to children who come down to the river as we pass. We made a stop at a department store in Iquitos to stock up…then bused down to the docks for our first sight of the Amazon and our riverboat home for the coming week.

views of the Amazon in Iquitos, and our riverboat

One of the great advantages of a riverboat trip on the Amazon is that you bring your hotel with you, deeper and deeper into the rainforest. Though we went off every day in motor launches to explore tributaries or to land and hike in the terra firms forest, we returned each noon and evening to comfortable rooms (each with a large picture window on the river), hot showers, and great meals. And we did not have to repack until we got back to Iquitos. There is no better way to experience the Amazon. 

There is also no way to convey the size of the Amazon river…or to capture it with a camera. We were on the river near high water for the year, and the volume of water flowing down and past, the width of the river, the endless water stretching way east and west…even as far up river as Iquitos…is astounding. I can only image what it is nearer the mouth in Brazil. We woke every morning to the river and were always amazed. It is in vistas like the one below that the Sony’s 24mm equivalent comes into play…that and the built in HDR. I would not have been able to capture the clouds and detail in the water in the same exposure without the HDR mode…and Sony’s HDR implantation is among the best…giving you the choice of 1 to 6 stop exposure differences and allowing you to fine tune the center exposure using EV compensation. 

the Amazon is big, big, big

We spent our days in flat bottomed 14 foot motor launches pushing our way up tributaries to get deeper into the rainforest to find birds and mammals, and returned each day to a new towel animal on our beds. Dawn to dusk and even one night boat trip.

Anaconda captured by fishermen, Slough, Oxbow lake, storm coming!
Brown Wooly Monkeys putting on a show beside a tributary.
Black-collared Hawk diving on a fish (we provided the fish)
Oriole Blackbird, Canary-winged Parakeet, Bluish-fronted Jacamar, Sand-colored Nighthawk, White-lined Sac-winged Bat, towel rabbit
Sunrise over the Amazon, our riverboat home, fishing for Black-collared Hawk bait, Hoatzin, little girl in the terra firma, sunset over the Amazon
 

We did go ashore for several hikes in the terra firma forest…in search Pygmy Marmoset and Night Monkeys, birds, and reptiles of the rainforest. 

Pygmy Marmoset, the world’s smallest primate, 2.5 ounces, 4 inches long.
Slate-colored Hawk, Ginger flower, Butterfly, craft seller
Noon meal in a riverside village, native healer, Emerald Boa by flashlight on our night adventure, leaving at dawn
 

Besides our visit to a native healer, we shared a noon meal with a village beside the river. The women of the village prepared a traditional Amazon high water meal (lots of fish), and after the meal the local teacher assembled her students to give us an impromptu concert. 

Shooting in the rainforest is a challenge for any camera. Light levels are often low, but with contrasting areas of bright sun that finds its way through the canopy high above. Good high-ISO performance helps, and the Sony RX10iii does not disappoint. The Anti-motion Blur mode is also very useful for really low light. The Marmosets were taken with AMB and produced effective exposures where I would have needed flash. The Emerald Boa was taken in total darkness by the light of a flashlight (a good flashlight but a flashlight none the less). Considering the conditions I am very pleased with the results. 

Children are the same all over the world. Native Amazon fish dish.

Another thing I appreciated about the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon Riverboat Adventure was the local guides. We had two professional guides with us, one for each boat, both raised on the river, and both college educated in the ecology of the river. In addition, at each landing, we hired villagers to provide specific guidance on the local trails. Most of our hikes were in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve but each section of the reserve is managed by a local village…villagers maintain the trails, guard the wildlife, and guide the tourists who land on their landing. These local guides found us birds, mammals, reptiles and insects that we just would not have seen otherwise. And each one overflowed with pleasure at showing us their jungle home. At most landings there were also local villagers selling crafts and art from the Amazon basin.

native guide bring us a present, Trantula, Poison Dart Frog, Rosy Boa, Night Monkeys, Poison Dart Frog
Rainforest giant, The group, two more presents from our guide: White-lined Bat and Stripped Sharp-nosed Snake

When you wake up on a riverboat tied up to the bank on the Amazon River, you know the day will hold something special, and the folks at Wildside Nature Tours know how to make the most of every day. 

Our boat eventually returned to Nauta, the westernmost end of the road out of Iquitos, and we bused back to the airport for our flight back to Lima. 

Most of us had night flights out of Lima, so we spent the day south along the coast in the fishing and tourist village of Pucusana. We took a tourist boat (clearly a converted fishing boat) out around Pucusana Island to see the cormorants, terns and penguins. It is a whole different kind of shooting from a boat in the rough waters around the island. I was able to set the Sony RX10iii to wide area focus, and the ISO to minimum shutter speed 1/1000th for good results even in this challenging situation. 

the harbor at Pucusana in the early morning mist, Humboldt Penguin, Sea Lions, Red-legged Cormorant, Inca Terns, fishing and tourist boats

The Wildside Natures Tour Amazon Riverboat Adventure is adventure indeed. For anyone who has ever dreamed of the Amazon, there is no better way to see it! And, all things considered, there is no better camera to capture it than an advanced Point and Shoot like the Sony RX10iii. 

Basic jpeg workflow. Post-processing.

If you have your camera set up to produce consistent, correctly exposed, jpegs…using all the available auto, program, and special modes for a wide variety of situations, then post-processing does not need to be either a mystery or a chore. In fact, once your camera is set up, you will find that most of your photos of any particular kind (wildlife, birds, macros…landscapes or people) will require exactly the same processing…so much so that if your chosen post-processing program or app allows you to create presets or save a set of edits, you will be able to process most images by choosing the right “one-touch” preset. 

If, that is, if you have your cameras set up correctly. See Basic camera settings for Wildlife, birds, and macro.

Basic controls: Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, Snapseed, Polarr. Touch or click to enlarge. For more control shots see below.

Why do you need to post-process at all? The reality of digital photography is that any good image can be made better with a few tweaks. I am going to cover the basic edits here, as they are done in the more modern apps and programs, both on the mobile and desk and lap-top platforms: Snapseed, Lightroom, PhotoShop Express, and Polarr on phones and tablets, and Lightroom or PhotoShop Elements on desk and lap-tops. You can make these edits in PhotoShop itself as well, but it might take a combination of settings to duplicate the effects of a simple slider in one of the more modern programs. 

Lighting: Even a correctly exposed digital image, the shadows will often be too dark, and the highlights too bright, when compared to what the human eye sees in the same situation. The eye sees further into the shadows than the camera does, and we can see detail in bright areas that the camera will render as blocks of solid white or bright color. Cameras today have some kind of compensation for this built in, generally called Dynamic Range Control, or DR Enhansement, or iContrast, or Active D Lighting, etc. Even when taking advantage of these in-camera adjustments (and you should be taking advantage of them), there is no way the sensor can see or record the full range of light that the human eye does. By adjusting the shadows and highlights in post-processing we can produce an image that has the appearance of being closer to what our eye sees in any given situation. To improve the image we need to “open” the shadows (brighten them) and “pull back” the highlights. Not a lot, or the image will look flat and uninteresting, but some. That is the first change to make. In a traditional program like PhotoShop these changes are made with the “curves” tool. In the other apps and programs it is made with the Shadows and Highlights sliders. Slide shadows to the plus side until the shadows open to suit you. Pull the highlights slider to the negative side until you see the detail you want in the bright areas of the image. Do not expect miracles. The shadows slider will not reclaim shadows that are totally black, and the highlight slider will not restore detail in totally overexposed whites or brights…but generally these adjustments will produce a more pleasing, more life-like image. And don’t overdo either. You want the image to still have enough contrast between the darks and lights to be three-dimensional and interesting.

Detail: Because of the structure of digital image sensors, all digital images need some sharpening. Most cameras, when you shoot in jpeg, apply sharpening in camera. I set my cameras to apply the least possible sharpening in-camera, since it is better done in post-processing. In-camera sharpening can produce extra noise in the background of the image, and unnaturally sharp edges. The sharpening tool in most modern apps and programs applies a combination of traditional edge sharpening and unsharp masking to produce a natural looking result, with a simple slide of the sharpness slider until it looks right. PhotoShop is the exception again, where you still have separate sharpen and unsharp mask tools. Do not oversharpen! It will produce the same negative effects on image quality as in-camera sharpening often does. If an image, or parts of an image are out of focus or motion blurred, they will not be improved by oversharpening. Quite the opposite. Apply just enough sharpening to render the details in the image as they would look to the human eye, if you were at approximately the right distance to make the subject the same size as it is in the image. 

The second aspect of sharpening is most often called clarity (it is called structure in Snapseed). Clarity increases the local-area-contrast of the image to bring out fine detail in hair, fur, feathers, or the fine textures of flower petals (or human skin). Think of it as controlling the “inner detail” of the image. In PhotoShop we produce this effect by using unconventional settings of the unsharp mask tool. Most modern apps and programs will have a clairity (or “structure“) slider. Again, just slide the clarity slider to the positive side until it produces the effect you want. (If you slide it to the negative side it will become really obvious what the tool is doing.) Hint: you do not want to overdo the clarity, especially in images with people’s faces in them. In fact one of the legitimate uses of negative clarity is in portraits, where you might not want to see the “inner detail” of every skin blemish 🙂 Hint 2: Increaseing the clarity will sometimes have the effect of making the whole image look a little darker. You can offset this with the Exposure or Brightness sliders.

Color: The auto color temperature controls in today’s cameras are very good. They can adjust the jpeg processing to produce natural looking colors in almost any light. They are almost as good at this as the human eye. Amost. What can be improved in most digital images is the “pop” or “impact” of the colors…especially if you have already adjusted the shadows and highlights. Modern apps and programs have a control called vibrance (sometimes grouped with clarity and sometimes grouped with color temperature and saturation…and, as always, called something else in Snapseed:  “ambiance“). Vibrance looks at the image and determines which colors might be undersaturated (not rich or vivid enough). Generally these are the blues and greens, and sometimes reds. Sliding the vibrance slider will increase the saturation and brightness of only those colors that the program or app thinks need it. It will generally make the sky a darker blue, and the green trees brighter green. Or it might pick up the similar hues in a bird’s plumage or a flower’s petals. Slide the vibrance (or ambiance) slider to the positive side until you produce a pleasing effect. (And again, sliding it to the negative side will give you a better idea of what you are actually changing.) Once more, do no overdue it. If the control is adjusting reds, or purples, especially, it is easy to get the reds and purples so saturated that you no longer see fine detail in those areas of the image. And it is also easy to get the sky unnaturally blue. Exercise restraint. Again, PhotoShop (the last time I looked) did not have a vibrance slider or control. You would have to adjust the individual color channels using the curves control. Not easy to do. It is worth mentioning that Snapseed’s ambiance control has more effect on the brightness and color temperature of the image (by color temperature we mean the balance between warm tones and cold ones, red and yellow and orange being warm…just think the color of fire, and blues and blue-greens being cold), than the vibrance control in the other apps and programs. It produces almost a warm glow…which is pleasing in some images, but not in others.

Before and after. Original and basic edits applied. I also used the brush in Polarr to bring up detail in the chin patch 🙂

To summarize, these are the adjustments all most all digital images will need, or benefit from. The amounts will depend on your camera and your taste.

  1. open the shadows
  2. pull back the highlights
  3. sharpen the image
  4. increase the clarity of the image
  5. increase the vibrance of the image
  6. exercise restraint…work for the natural look not the spectacular. 🙂

Lightroom controls, lots of presets, but none of them user custom, local controls limited to gradient and radial
Snapseed. Main controls. Tune Image where most of what we want is. Details. Local Controls: brush and radial.
Polarr. General controls. Light opened and you can see the others, Local controls, Custom filters
 

Wildlife, birds, and macro images will benefit from more sharpening and clarity than landscapes, and will not need as much shadow, highlight, and vibrance control. Landscapes will generally need more shadow, highlight, and vibrance control, and less clarity and sharpness. People shots will not like much sharpening or clarity at all (at all), and can stand only a touch of vibrance. Shadow and highlights can be effective but you need to be careful not to produce a cartoony look. 

In programs that allow me too, I will set up three presets, or saved looks, or custom filter (all names for the same thing…a set of edits that are saved and can be applied with a single touch or click to the nickname). I love the way Snapseed works, and it is the one app that will run on any mobile platform (not matter how underpowered), but it does not yet have the ability to save a set of edits and apply them to a different image. Lightroom on the desk and lap-top has this ability and is excellent…but Lightroom for mobile platforms does not. PhotoShop Elements and Polarr both save sets of edits (My Looks in PSE, and Custom Fliters in Polarr). For exactly that reason, my go-to post-processing program on the desk and lap-top is Lightroom, and my go-to apps on my tablet are PSE and Polarr. (PSE for landscapes, because the shadow tool is more effective, and Polarr for everything else, since it is faster, and has a deeper feature set than PSE.) 

An in-camera HDR (high dynamic range, three shots blended for exposure) image processed in PhotoShop Express. More shadow and highlight control to really open shadows, retrieve detail in clouds, and bring up the green in the foliage.

Honestly, if you have your camera set up right for quality jpegs, you will rarely have to go beyond these basic edits…and most often will be able to apply one of your saved presets or custom filters. If you need to to more, they you really need to ask yourself if the image is worth saving. Most of the time, even with more powerful tools and more sophisticated techniques, you will not be able to produce the image you had in mind when you pressed the shutter. Sorry. That is just the way it is with digital. 

One exception is the dehaze or defog control that is available in Lightroom (both mobile and -top) and in PhotoShop Elements and Polarr on mobile. The dehaze tool, like the others covered, takes care not to overdo it, but it can be effective in restoring contrast to an image that is washed out due to an over abundance of blue refracted light…as in fog or haze, or the effects of shooting into the sun. It selectively removes diffuse blue spectrum light from the image. It will also darken the image overall, so some compensation with the exposure or brightness control is generally needed, but it can improve some shots dramatically. It is never part of my basic presets, looks, or custom filters, as I only use it rarely, but it is really useful on occasion. 

Another exception is what we call local adjustments. In PhotoShop to make local adjustments you have to use the selective brushes and masking. In Lightroom, Snapseed, and Polarr, you can apply them quickly and easily using specialized controls. Lightroom on the desktop has the best implementation. You can apply gradient or radial filters, or you can brush on adjustments to just a specific portion of the image. In Lightroom on the mobile platform you only have the gradient and radial options. Snapseed has radial filters and a brush, but the brush is not very fine. Polarr, on the mobile platform has the set that is closest to Lightroom desk and lap-top: gradient, radial, and and finely controllable brush. I have not found much use for a radial filter (basically round and graduated from the center) in any app or program, but I use the gradient filters on occasion to darken the sky and lighten the foreground in a particularly difficult landscape shot. You just drag a gradient over the image, top to bottom or bottom to top, and then adjust things like exposure, brightness, clarity, vibrance, etc. The effects are applied as a gradient…most intense at one edge of the image and then gradually fading to nothing at the other edge. You can actually apply two gradients (I call them dueling gradients), one from the top and one from the bottom to, as I mentioned, darken the sky at the same time you lighten the foreground. 

The other local control that I do use is the brush, especially in Lightroom (-top) and Polarr (mobile). The brush allows me to decrease the brightness of, say the white patch on the chin of a otherwise correctly exposed Great Blue Heron, to retrieve detail in the feathers there. I simply select the brush control and paint over the area to be changed, then apply negative exposure. I can do the same thing with the clarity control to make the eye in an image pop. Just paint over the eye, and increase clarity. Again, I do this kind of extra editing to maybe one in 300 images. 

Finally, there is one app available on iPads and Window’s tablets which does what no other will do…on those very rare occasions when the there is something in the image that just has to go…whether is an out of focus branch in an otherwise perfect composition of a bird, or beer can on an otherwise pristine beach. TouchRetouch does a better job of removing and filling than any other app I have used. You simply paint out, or lasso, the offending object, press go, and the app removes the object and seamlessly fills in the hole by very intelligently extrapolating from the surround. When it works it is magic. It does not always work. Sometimes the background is just to complex or the objectionable thing is too close to your subject, etc. But is is always worth a try when you have an image that requires, or could benefit from its magic TouchRetouch. 

TouchRetouch used to remove distracting out of focus branch.

In my opinion, for general editing and post-processing there is no match for Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, though it does require you to import every image you want to process into its catalog. On the mobile platform there is no reason not to use PhotoShop Express (especially as it is free…though to unlock all its features you have to have a Adobe subscription). It works very much like Lightroom on the desk or lap-top, and allows you to save your editing settings as a custom My Look. Polarr is becoming my go-to image processor on my iPad Pro, because of its speed and deep feature set, and the ease with which you can save and apply our editing settings as custom filers. To unlock all features it cost $20, but that also gives you access to Polarr on any platform you might use…desk or -laptop, Andriod phone or tablet, iPad or iPhone, and even Chromebooks. It is available for them all. 

So again, get your camera set up for consistently well exposed jpeg images, and apply a few basic edits in the program or app of your choice, and you will have consistently satisfying images. 

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.)

DSC04929
Motoring away from Tranquilo Bay

 

P&S Nature Photography Adventure in Honduras 2016

Barbara, Carol, Greg, Steve, Sally, and Ev waiting for breakfast on the porch of the restaurant on our last day in Honduras

Well it actually happened! The first Point and Shoot Nature Photography adventure in the tropics…at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras, was, imho, a solid success.  My wife, Carol, came along, as well as my oldest daughter Sally (as my assistant), and we had three participating adventurers: Ev, Barbara, and Greg.

It was a Point and Shoot trip, and between us we had a Nikon P610, a Nikon P900, a Canon SX60HS, and a Canon SX50HS. I brought both the Nikon P900 and my new(er) Sony RX10iii, but I shot most of the time with the Sony.

The goal was to provide as many photo ops as possible over 5 full days. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is somewhat unique in providing first class accommodations and gourmet food, excellent guides, and a totally new adventure each day.

We only got to spend one full morning in and around the actual grounds of the Lodge, which is beautifully landscaped with native plants and surrounded on one side by an overgrown coco plantation, and on the other by untouched rainforest. We also had a few afternoon hours (when some of us processed pics and others explored) and we did a night hike in the coco plantation and the edge of the rainforest for nocturnal birds, reptiles, and frogs,

28059168471_76d730bfdb_k
Greg’s image of the Crowned Wood Nympth at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, right off the porch. Canon SX50HS.

We could easily have never left the grounds and trails of the Lodge and still have had plenty to photograph. You can sit and watch and photograph several species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders all along the edge of the roof over the open porch, or veranda, of the Lodge and restaurant, and perching in the trees and bushes within a few feet. We saw mostly White-necked Jacobins, but there were also Crowned Wood Nymph, Brown Violet-ear, Violet Saberwing, and a few Long-billed Hermits and White-breasted Emeralds. There was a family of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers raising

Black-cheeked Wood Pecker chick, The Lodge at Pico Bonito. Ev’s image with the Nikon P900.

young in a dead palm only a dozed feet from the deck between the Lodge and Conference Center, and under bushes near the base of the palm an Agouti was raising young. On the trails around the lodge we had good views of Blue-crowned Motmot and Black-headed Trogon, and glimpses and quick photo ops of Red-legged Honeycreeper and Masked Tytira. Some of us had good photo ops with Collared Aracari. (Between our seeing it and writing this, the AOU has split Blue-crowned Motmot into several species. I am not sure which of the new splits the ones we saw fall under.)

Blue-crowned Motmot. The Lodge at Pico Binito. Sally. Nikon P610.
Blue-crowned Motmot, the Lodge at Pico Bonito. Barbara with the Canon SX60HS.

Elmer (Elmer Escoto our expert guide) lead us off the trail to find a mother Great Pooto with a well grown chick sitting out in plain view. Perhaps the highlight of our day on the grounds was when Elmer tempted a Little Tinamou out into the open where we could all see it, and at least a few of us got shots. The Lodge maintains a butterfly garden and butterfly house, and between them we saw a dozen species of tropical butterflies: including the amazing Red Cracker (a blue butterfly despite its name…with a wing pattern that reminds me of a dutch dinner plate). There were at least 5 different Heliconians (Long-wings), and, in the butterfly house, several of the giant Blue Morphos that are pretty much the butterfly emblem of the tropics.

Little Tinamou, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Steve with the Sony RX10iii
Red Cracker, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Steve with the Sony RX10iii
Amazon Kingfisher, Rio Cangrejal, Honduras. Ev with the Nikon P900 at full reach.

I asked Elmer to find us a waterfall we could photograph and he suggested a run out to the Cangrejal river where they take adventuresome guests for white-water rafting. Though it was not on our schedule, we made time for it, and the lodge provided a van, on the afternoon of our day around the grounds. The waterfall turned out to be somewhat distant and shrouded in mist from intermittent rain, but the scenery going up the river and then across a

The suspension bridge over the Rio C . Greg with the Canon SX50HS
The suspension bridge over the Rio Cangrejal . Greg with the Canon SX50HS

suspension foot bridge high over rushing water and house-sized boulders, was spectacular. Along the way we had great views of Amazon Kingfisher…though at the limits for photography, and on the other side of the river we encountered the Helicopter Damselfly…the largest damselfly in the world, with a wingspan larger than even the largest dragonfly. We tracked it into the deep shade of the rainforest where we were able to get some decent flash shots. We got to see some unscheduled landscape, and a part of Pico Bonito National Park that most who go to the Lodge for birding and photography do not see.

Helicopter Damselfly, Rio Cangrejal, Steve with the Sony RX10iii and flash
The Banana train to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, Ev with the Nikon P900.

The next morning was our first real day in the field.  We visited the mangrove channels of the Cuero y Salado estuary, riding a century old banana train into the refuge at the mouth of the rivers, and then taking a small motor boat up the channels into the mangroves as far as we could go.

on the Banana train on the way to Cuero y Salado. Steve, Sony RX10iii. Elmer, Sally, Greg and Ev.

My hopes for the boat adventure are always Pygmy Kingfisher (since I really like Kingfishers), Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Boat-billed Heron, and monkeys…both Howler and White-faced Capuchin. There is always a remote hope for Agami Heron and Sungrebe. On our day on the rivers, we had good looks at all but the last two, plus Long-nosed Bats, many Northern Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Black-headed Trogon, and more Green Herons than I could count. And I mean really good looks at everything but the Boat-billed Heron, which flew off before everyone could get pics, and the monkeys, which played hard to get in the dense foliage.

This is a gallery of images from the group of the same very cooperative Pygmy Kingfisher. We had some trouble finding it in the first place and had actually given up and were headed back out of the channel where it is known to nest, when Elmer’s sharp eye caught it. We were able to drift close in with the boat, but these are still shots are taken from a moving boat of a very small bird. Great results for everyone.

Deep in the mangroves on a channel off the Cuero.

We had a similar opportunity with the Bare-throated Tiger-heron. Sally spotted it as we motored down the open river toward another channel (earning her supper that day), and we were able to drift in within a dozen feet of it before it flew up to perch practically right over our heads.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Steve, Sony RX10iii
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Steve, Sony RX10iii
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS

As I mentioned, the monkeys were elusive, and especially hard to photograph from a moving boat. I managed a quick shot of the Howler we spotted, and even more distant shots of the White-faced Capuchins. The Capuchins came just close enough to keep an eye on what we were doing…but not really close enough for photography.

Looking up the river back towards Pico Bonito. Sally rocking her Comics Workbook tee shirt and framing the view.
Clash of cultures. Motorbike and hand crafted dough-out canoes.

Once back at the boat dock near the Visitor Center for Cuero y Salado, we enjoyed some chilled fruit and cookies, courtesy of the Lodge, and then hiked about 300 yards out to the beach at the mouth of the rivers. It was typical June Honduran day on the Caribbean coast…sunny with towering clouds over the mountains and a storm coming in off the sea.

Looking east from the mouth of the Cuero y Salado rivers.
The group on the beach at Cuero y Salado. Ev, Sally, Carol, Barbara, Elmer, and Greg.

When we got back to the lodge, after lunch on the veranda, some went exploring around the grounds, while others rested until we met again at 3 pm to go to the first Tower in search of the signature bird of the Lodge at Pico Bonito…the Lovely Cotinga (and whatever else we could find). The Cotingas put in an appearance, though beyond the range of practical photography, but we had good views of a White Hawk out across the valley, some Keel-billed Toucans feeding on fruit, and our third primate of the day: Spider Monkeys (way over on the far side of the valley).

At the limits of what is practical, even with 1335mm reach. White Hawk. Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Spider Monkey. Too far! Steve Sony RX10iii
Kinkajou, flash shot, Steve Sony RX10iii

On our night hike, we went in search of Vermiculated Screech Owl in the Coco plantation. Though we were within a few feet of and heard it calling right above us, we never could find it in the dense overstory foliage. As compensation Elmer found us a Kinkajou within flash range, and the Great Pooto (which was hand-raised at the Lodge a few years ago before release) put in an appearance on its favorite corner of the first tower. The Red-eyed Tree Frogs were calling around the Frog Ponds beyond the tower, and Elmer found us two to photograph. Along the way we picked up both Rainforest and Marine Toads (Marine Toads have to be seen to be believed…they are huge!) and various Anoles and bugs. It was such a rewarding hike that a few of us headed out for an encore the next night.

Red-eyed Tree Frog. Steve, Sony RX10iii

We were up early the next morning for breakfast again, and on the bus for Rio Santiago Nature Resort, a justly famous destination for Honduran Hummingbirds. As a close neighbor to the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Rio Santiago is a favorite day trip. The lodge and brand new cabins are, it

Rio Santiago valley. Steve. Sony RX10iii

seems, half way up the slopes of the mountains surrounding Pico Bonito, at the end of a rough and sometimes steep, but passable, dirt track. (The elevation is actually only about 600 feet above sea-level.)

Along the road on the way up we got out and walked, exploring the fields on either side. We found Boat-billed Kingbirds, Blue-black Grassquits, Rose-breasted Bicards, Passerini’s and Blue-grey Tanager, Scrub Euphonia, Starry Cracker Butterfly, and a nesting Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird.

Rio Santiago Nature Resort maintains about 200 hand-crafted tube hummingbird feeders year round, which, along with the richly landscaped grounds, regularly attract over a dozen species of hummingbirds. And the hummers are close. You can sit on either of two covered verandas and have hummingbirds literally buzzing around your head. You can stand on the lawn and watch constant activity as the various species compete for space at the feeders less than 8 feet away. It is an experience not to be missed.

On the day we visited the Brown Violet-ear Hummingbirds were dominating the feeders in such numbers that it kept many of the regular visitors away, but it was still a great experience.

Hummingbirds are not the only attraction at Rio Santiago. It is also one of the most reliable places to see the Keel-billed Motmot. Gartered Trogons are regular there. They have snakes and lizards, dragonflies along the streams, interesting butterflies, a resident pair of Specticaled Owls, and, this year, an abandoned Margey kitten that they are attempting to raise for release. And if you enjoy scenery they have one of the most attractive small waterfalls in the foothills of Pico Bonito National Park, right there on the grounds.

Elmer worked hard to find us a Keel-billed Motmot, and it was there, calling above the waterfall, but it stayed high in the canopy. We got the shots we could under very difficult conditions.

Waterfall at Rio Santiago. In-camera HDR. Sony RX10iii

The Specticaled Owls were also playing hard to get during our visit, but several of us managed decent shots.

Looking back from the boat toward Sambo Creek and the coastal mountains of Honduras.

Day four found us headed for a totally different experience. We took the van early to Sambo Creek east of La Ceiba on the coast, where we donned life preservers and boarded a twin engined, 14 foot powerboat to visit Cayo Cochino, islands 17 miles off-shore. Cayo Cochino encompasses 2 volcanic and coral islands and 13 small sand cays clustered in the clear waters of the Caribbean. White sand beaches, palm trees, water ranging in color from transparent aqua to translucent

One of the sand cays of Cayo Cochino over the shoulder of our boatman.

turquoise: The Caribbean at its best. Parts of Cayo Cochino are protected habitat, and our first stop was the Visitor Center on Cayo Cochino Minor, operated by the Smithsonian Institute. Around the Visitor Center we found Yucatan Vireos, Allison’s Anole, and lots of Spiny-tailed Iguanas (the native Iguana of Honduras). The Yucatan Vireos on the islands of Cayo Cochino are the only ones you will find in Honduras.

Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Yucatan Viero. Elmer with Ev’s Nikon P900
Again, with the Sony RX10iii
Spiny-tailed Iguana. Sally. Nikon P610
Spiny-tailed Iguana. Sally. Nikon P610
 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Cayo Cochino major, Steve

From Cayo Cochino Minor (or Turtle Island as the locals call it), we crossed the straight to Cayo Cochino Major, where we landed on a private beach to explore inland for the Rosey (or Island Hog-nosed) Boa. These snakes are sometimes abundant, draped in trees, back a few hundred yards from the beach. Though it was a hot day and the snakes were mostly higher in the canopy, Elmer located one for us, curled up on a branch just above eye-level. We eventually found our way back to the beach for morning snacks, water, and wading (this beach is near the spot were we would have gone snorkeling if any of us had wanted to.) The beach sloped gently out into Turtle Bay, and it was a real treat to wade out into the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.

 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Carol and Sally in Turtle Bay
 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Cayo Chachahaute #2

We were back in the boat again then, for a short run to Cayo Chachahaute #2 (or Twin Island #2 if you translate from the native dialect). The two Chachahaute Islands are only separated by a shallow straight and sand bar…often exposed in the winter months. Both islands are home to a population of Caribbean fishermen, and Cayo Chacahhaute #2 specializes in serving a daily lunch and dinner of fresh caught, wood grilled Yellow-

 Coming into Cayo Cochino minor. Fuji XP85 waterproof camera
Lunch, Fuji XP85

tailed Snapper, rice and beans, and fried plantains. That is the whole menu, and all meals are served on paper plates right on the beach under a thatched shelter at rough picnic style tables, but it just might be the best fish you will ever eat. While you eat you can watch the Frigatebirds and Pelicans soaring in the updraft at the head of the island. Except for the open beach on one side, the whole island, which is maybe the size of half a football field, is covered with the shanty homes of the fishermen. Their meals are so famous that boats come daily at noon and in late afternoon and early evening from the mainland and from the bay islands 25 miles away. (And of course fire-wood, rice, beans, plantains, and ice…lots of ice…have to be brought out to the island in dugout canoes daily.) After lunch, we spent about 45 minutes, mostly trying flight shots of the soaring Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There are only a few places I can think of that are this good for practicing flight shots.

Shooting the Back and White Owl

On the way back through La Ceiba on our way to the Lodge, we stopped at a small park where Black and White Owls are known to nest and roost. Again, Elmer managed the impossible and located one of the young B&W Owls on branch high in the canopy of one of the huge Mangostein trees. While we were photographing the young owl, Elmer’s friend, who used to work at the park, located one of the adults, and we moved the group over. Both owls were in the deep shade of the foliage, high in the trees, and, though they were in plain sight, they were not easy photographic targets. We were looking almost straight up at the them in the shadows. The situation was really at the limits of what any camera can do…the light was not good, and focus was difficult…and we were at the limits of what our bodies could do as well, as we tried for awkward vertical shots at slower than optimum shutter speeds. The situation called for a tripod, but for the kind of 8 foot tall tripod no one would ever carry into the field anyway. Still, everyone in the group came away with at least one satisfying shot of the Black and White Owls.

Our last full day in Honduras found us on the bus early again for the drive to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, the turn of the century Botanical Research Station founded by the United Fruit Company to experiment with tropical hardwoods and fruit trees for growing in their Honduran holdings. Lancetilla has the longest bird list of any single location in Honduras. It is also a great place for butterflies and dragonflies, and the occasional mammal.

A day at Lancetilla begins with a walk along the entrance road and one side road in search of mostly understory birds. We had not progressed far long the road when Greg spotted a Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine on the branch of a tree just at the edge of the rainforest. (Also, apparently, known as a Prehensile-tailed Porcupine or Tree Porcupine.) Like most Porcupines its body is covered in spines, but in the Hairy Dwarf, its fur is long enough to completely cover the spines on much of its body, leaving spines exposed mostly on the face, lower legs, and spine. We had as much time with it as we wanted…since it was not at all disturbed by our presence on the road. Our pictures are remarkably similar as it did not move much beyond an occasional scratch for fleas.

Early on we also encountered Groove-billed Ani, Blue-black Grassquit, Thick-billed Seed-finch, Olivacious Piculet (the smallest woodpecker of the tropics), Passerini’s Tanager, many dragonflies and few butterflies.

Olivatious Piculette. Ev. Nikon P900

The second stop on the way in is a giant hardwood tree that hosts upwards of 100 active Montazuma’s Oropendola nests. The Oropendolas are the largest of the oriole family, and construct huge hanging woven basket nests.

Steve. Sony RX10iii

Just beyond the Oropendola tree there is a trail down to the river, which is always worth checking for Jacamars and Ruddy Crake. Neither turned up, but I photographed some interesting butterflies, the first of many that day, while we were waiting. Several of these are from later in the day, around the Visitor Center, which was our next stop.

Though Elmer set up and played his recording for the Ruddy Crake we heard calling in the tall reeds along the trail, it did not make an appearance. Ruddy Crake is not uncommon, especially at Lancetilla, but it is very difficult to see.

At the Visitor Center we spent some time with the natural history displays on the second floor, and then retired to the deep shade of the bamboo grove. Many different varieties of bamboo from around the tropics grow along a little stream that runs through a hollow. There is an amphitheater with a small stage there for presentations, but the main attraction is still the massive clusters of the largest grass in the world. I generally get the group together in the grove for a photo.

Greg, Ev, Sally, Barbara, Carol, and Elmer

While in the bamboo grove we came across a toad, and the whole group gathered to try toad shots.

shooting the toad

Before getting on the bus to head to Tela, a beach resort town near the gardens, for lunch, we made one last try of the Ruddy Crake. There are a series of small lily ponds along one side of the Visitor Center, and a Crake responded to Elmer’s recording almost at once. The rest of the group went around to the far side of the ponds where the Crakes were calling (there were at least two) but I got distracted by some shade and butterflies along the other side and headed that way. Consequently I was in exactly the right spot to see both Crakes cross a small open patch in the dense growth covering the pond. Most of the group got glimpses of the Crakes, but I got photos!

Of course I could not resist the dragonflies around the ponds either. I do not know enough about Central American Odonata to id these.

After the Crakes and Odonata we were back in the van for the short drive to Tela, where had a delicious lunch at a sea-side hotel. Tela was the resort town back in the days of the United Fruit Company, and still maintains its charm for Honduras today.

That left only the morning of our departure at the Lodge. Just as we finished eating breakfast a Keel-billed Toucan flew in over the Conference Center. Greg had the persistence to wait it out until it posed on an open branch.

Greg. Canon SX50HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS

It was an amazing satisfying trip. We had time (mostly in the van on the way to shooting sites) for some discussion and photographic instruction. We had abundant opportunities for tropical photography. We had great times around the tables at the restaurant on the veranda at the Lodge (not to mention great food). And we had great weather. Though it rained every day, it never rained on us in the field. For the most part we had sunny skies and good photographic light when it mattered. The tropics are always a challenge for any photographer, but our group proved that today’s advanced superzoom Point and Shoot cameras are up to the task.

I am already planning another trip to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for next June (the 16th to the 22nd) …and I have a trip to Tranquilo Bay, Panama (another great destination) in the works for 2017. I am thinking of South Africa for 2018. Watch the tours and workshops page on this site for details.