In April 2015, I made my fourth trip to Costa Rica, attending a workshop conducted by my friend Greg Basco. With his business partner Paulo Valerio, he founded Foto Verde Tours, creating tours for photographers by photographers. He works with selected lodges to increase the likelihood of good nature photography opportunities. This year’s trip was titled The Art of Biodiversity – Pacific and the itinerary delivered on this promise. [Read more…]
Day 3 – February 2 – Orne Harbor and Cuverville Island
The day started with heavy overcast as we cruised toward Orne Harbor, where a large glacier is the main feature at the end of the harbor and a large hill of exposed rock is on the south opening to the harbor. This is the location of the Chinstrap Penguin colony we were scheduled to visit. A few chinstraps were in the water near the shelf of rock that served as a landing area, but there were thousands of penguins along the ridge. The path to the ridge was on the other side of the ridge, which we saw when the ship rounded the point on the way to the afternoon landing area. Oceanites reported 1000 chinstrap penguin chicks on the ridge. [Read more…]
Day 2 – February 1 – Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour
The day began with clear skies, flat seas, and reasonably warm weather. Our morning stop on this day was the Almirante Brown Station, a scientific research station built by the government of Argentina. The station had been mostly abandoned for a time due to fiscal problems and appeared uninhabited, although there were signs that repairs were being made to some of the buildings. Gentoo penguins were nesting in the areas around the buildings and allowed close observation of the nesting areas along the trail up the hill. I was surprised to find a Sheathbill, a.k.a Antarctic Chicken, a land based bird that is an opportunistic feeder, stealing krill and fish from penguins, eating their eggs and whatever insects they can find. Surprisingly, we were told they also eat penguin poop. [Read more…]
Day 1 – January 31 – King George Island
Our first stop, Bellingshausen Station, is a Russian Antarctic research facility at Collins Harbor on King George Island. Adjacent to this set of buildings are research stations operated by Chile and China. One of the South Shetland Islands, the summer temperatures here are relatively warm, with much of the accumulated melting away, and giving opportunity to lichens, mosses and other vegetation to grow. Unfortunately, much of the snow free areas are muddy. On land, we were allowed to wander around the area, follow one of the expedition staff on a hike along some of the roads, and visit the small Russian Orthodox Church. There were a few Chinstrap penguins along the beach and it was our first exposure to observe these medium–sized seabirds as they interacted with each other. [Read more…]
23 September — 6 October, 2011
View the Galleries.
At the end of September, my wife, Chris, and I visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park hoping to see and photograph the yellow and orange fall foliage, abundant wildlife preparing for winter, and perhaps a touch of winter itself. We arrived with the leaves just starting to turn, scant wildlife, and temperatures in the 80’s for the first few days. We did find a herd of 200 or so bison spread out in the Lamar Valley and on the return to Mammoth Hot Springs we found a herd of ten pronghorn does with a buck keeping order. One evening we also had a few bighorn sheep come down the cliffs to the Gardiner River. The first evening we planned on eating at the park dining room anticipating the evening show; 30-40 elk cows with two or three bulls vying to keep track of their respective harems, and try to coax a few more cows from another harem. We saw one nice bull, and four cows. Where did they all go? The introduction of wolves to the park did reduce the elk herds, but to a greater degree than initially expected. This was a result of the overwhelming success of the wolf packs, which have done better than predicted. The wolf/elk ratio has probably hit an equilibrium; if there are not enough elk for one reason, let’s say a bad winter, there will be fewer surviving wolf pups due to less food available, then the elk with have greater success, and then the wolf numbers will increase.
We spent the first three nights based in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP. From there it is convenient to travel to the Lamar Valley, Tower Junction and the Canyon Village section beyond, and to Norris Geyser basin. Basically, the northern half of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is the northern headquarters of the park services with lodging, dining, and conveniences (general store, fuel, post office, etc.). The springs for which the area is named, and the travertine cliffs here have changed over the years as geologic activity redirects the hot spring water below ground though subterranean limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate and depositing it as travertine (a bone white mineral) as the water cools on the surface. But that is not what creates the rainbow of colors at this, and all other, thermal features: it’s the thermopiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The color of the thermopiles is due to the temperature of the water. Cooler waters support the growth of orange, brown and green thermopiles while clear and yellow thermopiles thrive in the hottest water.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several viewpoints to easily view and photograph both the upper and lower falls and the Yellowstone River. There are also a number of trails that lead down into the canyon for a more intimate view of the falls. We visited the canyon on different days and at different times of day to get a variety of light into the canyon. While overcast conditions greatly reduce shadows in the canyon, the light is not dramatic nor does it bring out the intense colors of the rock. The sun cast heavy shadow on half the canyon for our visit to the canyon at midday, and a return visit a few days later at 3pm with cumulous clouds in the sky provided a brightly lit inner canyon.
Our next stop was in Jackson, WY, near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons National Park. Since we were so late in planning this trip,we opted to stay in Jackson, even though we would have an additional 20 minute drive into the park for sunrise. Sunrise opportunities are numerous in Grand Teton; Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend, Molton Barn and Mormon Row. In our exploration we found a beaver pond near the road (about a foot away from the road) where one evening we watched two adult and two young beavers feeding on the bark and leaves of small branches within fifteen feet of us. We visited the location several times during our four days in Jackson and did repeat the experience.
Again, wildlife was somewhat scarce, with the exception of the beaver. We saw several elk cows and a couple of bulls in the early evening hours, but did not see a single moose. We did see osprey on a nest but the position made photography impossible, and saw a red tail hawk flying. In any case, the landscape photography opportunities were reasonably decent, even though proscribe forest fires at the south end of the park resulted in ground smoke at the base of the mountains. This is evident in the images that show a grey pallor on the lower half of the mountains.
We then moved on to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the last five nights of our stay. This location gave us good access to the southern half of the park, and even drives to the Canyon Village area were not that far away. A large number of visitor accessible thermal features is in this area, including Old Faithful geyser. Photographing hot pools and geysers can be challenging as they produce large amounts of steam. Your luck will depend largely on the direction and speed of the wind, and the air temperature. On my winter visit here, there were times when you could hear a hot pool bubbling, but couldn’t see it for all the steam surrounding it. The higher daytime temperatures (low 70’s) while we were there offered up some interesting views of the thermal features. I concentrated on areas of the thermal features that had striking color or interesting compositions.
The wildlife activity did eventually perk up as the nights became cooler and the daytime heat finally abated. We saw several herds of elk along the Madison River, and bison herds could be seen at many locations with about 50 animals each, except for the big herd in the Lamar Valley. By far the best experience was viewing a pack of wolves in the Lamar Valley returning to an elk they had killed the day earlier. At one of the pull-outs overlooking Hayden Valley we overheard this tidbit of information from a couple that was deciding where to go next. One at a time the wolves would come to the carcass, chase off the ravens and magpies and try to pry meat from the bone. Since the carcass was in the river, one wolf tried to pull it up onto the bank to get at the meat that was previously submerged. Another big spectacle was the number of photographers who had lined up shoulder to shoulder in two locations.
Bosque de Paz Ecolodge
This small lodge, located in a valley between the Poas Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks offers a diversity of subjects to photograph. The owners, Federico and Vanessa González-Pinto are working hard, and succeeding in, developing an ecological corridor linking the two nationally protected areas. They are amiable hosts and are truly concerned for the nature of Costa Rica. In addition to the variety of landscape opportunities of the cloud forest moss-covered trees and rushing streams, the place is teeming with hummingbirds. There is also an extensive collection of orchids located near the main building that hosts hundreds of orchids, and the owners sponsor orchid research supporting preservation efforts. On the afternoon of our arrival, I spent some time photographing in the forest, and captured a few images of hummingbirds hovering near the feeders. The first orchid in the series is a stacked focus images, made from six images that have different zones in focus. I’ll be writing a blog post on the technique soon.
In addition to the local photographic opportunities, two setups for high speed flash photography were made available on the second day of our stay here and a schedule for use by the participants was established. Initially we set up hummingbird feeders to attract the hummers to the sets, but switched to flowers after the first round. While high speed flash set ups make photographing crisp images of hummingbirds possible, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the image will look like until you view the image. It’s a simple matter to take a photo of the hummingbird with its beak in the flower since it stays there for a few seconds, although you never know what the position of the wings will be. It’s much more challenging to catch the hummingbird approaching or departing from the flower, or if there is an altercation with another hummingbird. On several occassions the birds were landing on flower pants and breaking them off, making for a not-so-attractive flower. I walked over to coax a Green-crowned Brilliant off a flower and it stepped onto my finger where it stayed for a full minute. Luckily, I still held on to the wireless remote control and was able to capture some images.
On the third day of our stay at Bosque de Paz, we made a day trip to a nearby restaurant that has access to the 110 meter Bajos de Toros waterfall. There are trails through the forest and a set of stairs that descend to the base of the falls. Two hummingbird high speed flash setups were placed in the open air restaurant to take advantage of some species which were not found at Bosque to Paz. This was the first time I had seen a black-bellied hummingbird, a very small bird that fluffs the feathers on its head in a curious way when it is perched. When it is flying, the feathers are flattened aerodynamically.
After dinner at Bosque de Paz, a few of us ventured out around the lodge and down a path to find insects and frogs for some nighttime macro photography. We did find a small tree frog which was about ¾ of an inch in length, and we had great opportunities with a cicada which had just climbed out of its shell and was still damp and unable to fly. We all had our turn photographing this amazing insect by flashlight.
Arenal Observatory Lodge
Arenal is the country’s most active volcano, with continuous emissions of lava and incandescent pyroclastic flows since the beginning of the present active cycle in 1968. In 2010 when I visited this location, the eruptions could be heard day and night roaring, coughing and spitting, but due to the low cloud cover, not seen. I did get a view of the pyroclastic flows through a break in the clouds for about 30 seconds one evening. The weather did cooperate this year with clear skies one evening and clear skies one morning during sunrise. Unfortunately, the volcano stopped erupting to a great extent three months prior to our visit. It was quiet. You could still see steam coming from several vents in two locations near the summit, but no fireworks. The lodge grounds offer many gardens, and there was an extensive garden right outside our room where we could observe hummingbirds feeding at the flowers.
We spent one day at a nearby facility that houses a wonderful collection of frogs, toads, snakes, and lizards. The staff set up several stages with natural vegetation, moss covered rocks and stumps; the vegetation on the nearby hills provided out of focus backgrounds, and we could photograph with natural light or with fill flash as we chose. It was a great opportunity to photograph species which would be difficult, if not dangerous, to photograph in the wild. The facility also had a butterfly enclosure which I visited while waiting for the set ups to be ready. Once the stages were completed, several species were brought out and placed in the setup. An experienced caretaker stayed with the animal at each set up, repositioning the subject when it moved into a position that was not photographic. The caretaker would replace the animal when it appeared to be too active, or when photographic interest in that subject diminished. At the end of the day, one caretaker asked my wife Chris if she wanted to hold the Rainbow Python, which she did. She was surprised that it was very soft to the touch.
We also spent a morning at the Danaus Ecocenter. There was a limited number of birds in the area due to the time of year, but quality is often better than quantity. We had quite a long time with several Collared Aracaris feeding on fruit very close to the path. And one of the guides showed us the location of a baby three-toed sloth since it was not on one of the main paths, but on a service road.
All in all, Arenal Observatory Lodge is one of those locations in Costa Rica which could easily support a week’s worth of photographic subjects, if you know where to look. There are trails up through the forest to the lava fields and a large lake that we didn’t explore on this trip. However, unless you were on a Foto Verde guided trip, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to photograph the variety of reptiles that I did on this trip.
Selva Verde Lodge
We spent three days at this tropical rainforest lodge located on the banks of the Sarapiqui River. The attraction here is the abundance of green and black poison dart frogs and red poison dart frogs as well as masked and red-eyed tree frogs. One back lit basilisk lizard was a challenge to photograph as we tried to move through the undergrowth off the path and not chase the lizard off. There were also lizards climbing a tree next to the dining room, and we even saw a baby fer-de-lance on the side of the path. It couldn’t have been more than three inches in diameter coiled less than a foot from the path. The lodge naturalist moved the snake into the forest for everyone’s (and the snake’s) safety. When Greg was selecting some vegetation for nighttime photography of a red-eyed tree frog, he explained that we had to carefully look under the low vegetation to make certain no fer-de-lance were there. We could hear numerous birds throughout the forest, but they were elusive with the exception of a mot-mot, a chestnut billed toucan, and an ochre bellied flycatcher on the nest. We also had some time with howler monkeys which were very close and almost eye-level from the balcony of the lodge’s classroom. The naturalist believes they come to see their reflection in the floor to ceiling windows.
One morning we traveled to a nearby farm owned by a local family that has preserved some of its property as forest. Great Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws live in the forest and stay close to the farm to roost and feed. He also had a large enclosure that injured birds, which locals had found were rehabilitated and allowed to go free. There is an opening in the cage where birds can come and go as they please. The owner also rescued two jaguars from being hunted and killed by local villagers for killing cattle. The farmer got the villagers to agree to let him capture the animals rather than just kill them. He built an enclosure to house the jaguars and takes good care of them; they look healthier than some zoo animals I’ve seen.
Chris and I traveled recently to Costa Rica with my friend and tour leader, Greg Basco, cofounder of Foto Verde Tours, a provider of tours designed for photographers. Last year I traveled to Costa Rica with Joe and Maryann McDonald primarily to photograph hummingbirds, and met Greg who organized and co-led the trip. This year I signed up early for the Art of Biodiversity tour which offered a wider variety of photographic subjects at the start of the rainy season. Chris decided to join me at a later date, which worked out well as there were only two other participants for a total of four plus Greg and Jose Lopez, our driver and also a very good photographer.
My blog entries for this trip will be divided by location, starting with the Bougainvillea Hotel in Heredia, near San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. We also traveled to Selve Verde Lodge, the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and the Bosque de Paz Ecolodge as well as side trips from those locations.
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The Bougainvillea Hotel This was my third trip to Costa Rica and each time I stayed at the Bougainvillea to start and end each trip. Tour providers choose this hotel in a residential area for its 10+ acres of gardens that include over 50 species of bromeliads, native trees, orchids and frog ponds. Each visit offered different plants in blossom. And while my two visits in March had quite a few birds in the garden, in June the migratory birds were gone, and the local birds were raising chicks and mostly staying hidden. There were more plants in blossom, but fewer orchids. In any case, I wasn’t disappointed with the opportunities to use my macro lens.
After attending the Natural Exposures Yellowstone in Winter Photo Tour described in Part 1, I picked up a rental car in Bozeman and continued my winter adventure based in Gardiner, MT. Gardiner is only a few miles from the north entrance to the park and Mammoth Hot Springs. Highway 212 passes through the northern section of the park to Cooke City just outside the northeast park boundary. This road is maintained year round and is the only means to reach Cooke City during the winter.