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…]
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.
One of the challenges I set myself was to capture hummingbirds landing. It’s not a matter of just setting the camera to the highest frame rate and hope for the best, but an anticipation that the landing was going to occur. With the lens focused on the flower, and framed wide enough to capture the bird as it came in, I’d take my eye away from the viewfinder and look at the larger scene to spot a hummer coming in for a landing.
Since the birds are attracted to the photographic setup using a feeder, the images are predominantly side views of the hummingbird coming in to the feeding tube. I tried to be aware of the flight of the hummer and attempt to get some images with the birds in different attitudes.
Another technique that Greg Basco suggested is to use a longer flash duration to get a little blur in the fastest moving parts of the hummingbird, the tips of the wings. In one setup we set the flashes to 1/8 power which froze the image of most of the bird. These two images were taken at f25 and using multiple flashes as the main light. In another setup where full sunlight was lighting the bird and background, the camera was set for a longer exposure to let the moving parts blur quite a bit, and the light from the flashes freezing a portion of the bird that did not move much. This had a lower success rate. The last three images were take at 1/25 second and f8. You can see the amount of wing motion in that short amount of time.
The planned itinerary offered the opportunity to photograph the Arenal Volcano at night, but this did not happen due to the log hanging clouds that persisted during out two night stay there. We did get to see some red streaks of red hot rock and lava on the lower slope of the volcano for about two minutes during dinner, and were treated to the grumbling and burping of the volcano throughout the night. No doubt it would have been spectacular.
Also on the itinerary was a visit to the Snake Zoo in nearby El Castillo. Greg Basco’s friend Victor Quesada runs the zoo and his collection of snakes, frogs and lizards are well cared for as evidenced by the condition of the animals and the cleanliness of their enclosures. Greg and Joe put together a studio set-up with flash, and softboxes for the small critters, and mostly used the distant landscape as a background, although some images used photographed backgrounds.. The branches and flowers used as props were collected on the side of the road before we arrived at Victor’s. As Joe has a great deal of experience handling venomous snakes, he set up a forest floor scene outside the front entrance, and Victor supplied him with the larger snakes to photograph. It was a great opportunity to photograph all these animals in a short period of time, and in a safe environment.
The images are of Red-eyed Tree Frog (2), Masked Tree Frog (2), Rainforest Frog, Eyelash Viper, Fer-de-lance, Neotropical Rattlesnake, and Souther Copperhead.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to photograph hummingbirds using high speed flash set ups. Joe McDonald has made his photographic career as a specialist in high speed flash photography. In addition to the two stations that Joe and MaryAnn set up, the local tour provider, photographer Greg Basco, set up another station. Greg has a very thoughtful approach to photography and is willing to try creative lighting effects in his photography and was willing to share his thoughts, and set ups. I’ll have more on this topic in a later post.
The hummingbirds shown here are: Green-breasted Mango (male), Long-tailed Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant (male), White-necked Jacobin, Red-footed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph, Green-breasted Mango (females). I’m not certain which species is in the last image; it was interesting that the bees were forcing the hummingbirds back on occasion.
At the beginning of March, I travelled to Costa Rica with McDonald Wildlife Photogrpahy to photograph volcanoes, hummingbirds and other rain forest creatures. We had no luck with the volcano as El Ninio was making its impression on the Costa Rican dry season. The rainy weather did madi it possible to photograph birds most of the day, when they would typically avoid the heat of mid-day. One of our first stops was at a small nature preserve known for its boat-billed herons, large birds with very large bills. Other birds visited a feeding station. Shown here are Boat-billed Herons, a Collared Aracari, White-collared Manakin displaying, and Tent-making Bats. The tent making bats chewa small section in the middle of the large leaf causing it to fold over, making a tent for them to sleep in. Also shown are Pasarini’s Tanager, Summer Tanager and a Blue-grey tanager.