In all of Central and tropical South America, Costa Rica offers the most accessible and diverse wildlife in a safe, friendly environment. This trip was my sixth to this small country, and will be by no means our last. My first occurred in 1975 when a friend and I, and his cowardly graduate professor, drove the Pan American highway for a planned destination of Chile. There’s probably a novel’s worth of stories from that trip, but what is germane here is my memory of entering Costa Rica. We’d just traveled through Nicaragua, a depressing, dusty, poverty-stricken country of denuded landscapes. Shortly after entering Costa Rica it seemed as if we had entered paradise, with thick, green jungle, wet, verdant habitats, and colorful birds everywhere. Perhaps our highway route simply took us from dry Pacific lowlands into wet forested Costa Rican uplands, but whatever, the change was so drastic it was, and is, unforgettable.
This trip was characterized by so many different subjects, from a very cooperative Three-toed Sloth to scores or hundreds of Pallas long-tongued bats, from colorful hummingbirds to exotic and deadly, but very cooperative, tree vipers and bushmasters (the largest of all pit-vipers). The shooting was diverse, and extremely rewarding, as the trip report that follows, and the images, will show.
Except for the Arenal Volcano area, our specific shooting locales are not identified by name. Our in-country outfitter and guide, Greg Basco, has put a lot of time and effort into researching truly outstanding wildlife areas, and cultivating working relationships with the various ranches and lodges. It would be unfair to broadcast these hard-earned secrets, and so, if you’d like to go there, join us on one of our tours , or book directly with our outfiller. I apologize for the secretiveness of this, but these areas are not common knowledge tourist destinations. Instead, they are special, untainted by the usual crowds of tours, and all of us wish that to remain so.
On our way to Costa Rica I spent an afternoon at Green Cay, just south of Lake Worth, Florida for some wetland photography. Above, clockwise: American Bittern, female Boat-tailed Grackle, Sora, Blue-winged Teal, Red-bellied and Yellow-bellied Turtles.
Not sure what the winter weather would bring, and to have an excuse to visit friends in Florida some time during our travels, Mary and I drove to south Florida to catch our flight to Costa Rica. As we always do, we passed the miles by counting hawks, and spotted over 140 in the 15 or so hours of daylight that we drove in, which included a few red-shouldered hawks, a couple of ospreys, and about six bald eagles, including three while we were still in Pennsylvania.
In Florida, while Mary shopped and visited with her best friend from high school, I spent the day at two wetlands, Green Cay and Wakadahatchee. Both are run by the Florida water treatment/waste water management system, and both are models of practicality and conservation. It’s been years since I’ve visited either location and during that time both wetlands have matured, with Waka having a few small cypress islands hosting small nesting colonies of great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and anhingas. While several photographers prowled the elevated boardwalks at both locations, the most common human visitors were either family groups on a nature outing or retirees out for power walks. Jogging and fast walking is now prohibited, and the area is the better for it.
I was hoping to find and photograph Least Bitterns, a rare meadowlark-sized wader I’ve seen at Waka in the past, but neither location offered one up. Green Cay, I learned, had six or so American Bitterns that had shown up prior to my arrival and I found three, a good shoot in itself. Sora Rails, another furtive and well camouflaged bird of the marshes and cattails, were fairly common as well and by having patience, and returning to the same spot at least three times, I ended up with a series of nice shots of this seldom seen species.
Day 1. Miami – Atlanta – San Jose, Costa Rica
Our friends delivered us to the Miami airport for a flight that began with backtracking north, to Atlanta, to catch our flight south. Because of our Gold level we were on the list for a free upgrade but only one opened, and I took it, leaving Mary back in steerage. This Seinfeld moment actually worked out alright, as the middle seat remained empty so she had plenty of room. I suffered in business class, with beer, champagne, and a hot meal, but despite this adversity we arrived in San Jose on time, through the customs lines and baggage claim relatively quickly, and to our hotel by 10. Everyone on the trip had arrived and most of us gathered for a late drink at the bar where we caught up on stories, enjoying a great time that foreshadowed a fun-filled trip.
Day 2. San Jose
Mary and I slept in, catching up on sleep from the trip south and preparing for far less in the days ahead. Although we were the last at breakfast the entire group had gathered at a table and were conversing, remaining as we finished our breakfast. Afterwards I took those interested into the wonderful garden of our hotel to look for Blue-crowned Mot-mots, a bee-eater like bird about the size of a large jay. Although quite colorful when seen up close, mot-mots are quite inconspicuous as they sit still and quiet on a limb, watching the air or the ground below for easy prey. I found two, and although most of the group had a sighting the birds were wary and swooped into cover. Later in the day Judy returned to the location and managed some nice shots, including the shot on the left - Judy Johnson.
Our orientation began at 5:30 where, in addition to a slide show of our species, we discussed flash and techniques, as flash plays a huge role in tropical photography. Greg Basco, our in-country tour leader and owner of the company, later showed me an ebook he just published, a guide to tropical photography. The images in it were stunning, and the text extremely informative, and I’d recommend anyone shooting in the tropics, or indeed using flash and working in any forest, get this book. I was extremely impressed and can only endorse it with the highest recommendations.
Day 3. San Jose to Northern Costa Rica near the Nicaragua Border
We had breakfast at 6:30, and began packing round 7:30AM, and with all the gear everyone brought we had to load all of our luggage on the top of the bus, covering it with a heavy tarp in case of rain. Greg said that our group probably won 'the prize' for the most gear, and I believe it. One photographer carried the RED video camera, several of us had Range IRs and extra flashes and light stands, and almost everyone had their main photography gear packed in Kiboko packs. One in our party had the new bag by guragear, the Bataflae, which features even deeper pockets so camera bodies, with plates attached, fit in nicely. Our luggage went up top, our camera gear in the last row of seats, and we had plenty of room for travel. We traveled to the northeast, rounding the continental divide and descending into the valley. Low clouds swirled into the valley, creating a somewhat ethereal scene as lone trees in high grass pastures stood out starkly against the white. Because of the sweeping clouds these valleys receive only about 30 full sun days a year, making the area cool and clement, with high temperatures generally in the 70’s.
As we reached the lowlands the road deteriorated to gravel, requiring us to slow down as we navigated around potholes. Blue-black Grassquits, small, shiny finches that hung on low fences and long reeds, flanked the road, and overhead, on wires, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadee flycatchers watched for prey.
We arrived at our lodge just after noon, ate lunch, and began shooting. It was sunny and the light contrasty to start, which gave everyone a chance to begin working with fill-flash and balanced flash on the Keeled-billed Toucans and
Oropendola by Tom Wester, Toucan by Judy Johnson
Montezuma Oropendolas that flew in for the banana baits. Toucans, of course, are the Fruit-Loop bird, with huge, multi-colored bills, which they often move sideways slowly, as if in display. The oropendolas are giant, raven-sized birds that resemble a colorful grackle, with a chestnut back, blue wattle, and oange-tipped bill.
I spent a good part of the afternoon in the jungle, looking for a likely spot to set up a Range IR for small jungle mammals. Nothing was obvious, so I tried a banana-bait station on the lodge’s grounds, set in hopes of attracting fruit-eating bats. In a narrow gap between two buildings a small group of bats were perched, and I set up another Range IR and a flash to simply record the passage in preparation for a later shot. No bats flew in to my bait, but in the forest some nectar-feeding bats were swarming around some hummingbird feeders. I sat in the dark, a headlamp dialed to a low power to converse batteries, and tried to work out a flight path for a setup the following day. The bats swooped up from below, with some hovering for a few seconds, lapping at the sugar water before swooping off into the darkness.
By 10 I took down the banana-set and fortunately so, as later that night it rained. The gear itself was covered with dew or condensation, and the lenses frosty, so had we had luck we may have been disappointed. Chuck and I joined one of the lodge naturalists for a night-time walk for caimans. Two German tourists joined us, and perhaps because of them our guide shouted out into the night in German, although he used English names as he beckoned the caimans from the ponds. It was rather funny to see the caimans trotting up the cement walk-way to meet the guide, where the caiman was rewarded by a treat of floppy fat. The caiman would twist his head to the side, grabbing the fat and chomping down, then sitting quietly waiting for more. Each caiman had a name, Big Dog, Ugly Mama, Argentino, etc. Some of the caimans were incredibly tame, with the guide stroking the caiman’s tail without response, and others, once the food was exhausted, being poked out of the way with a long pole. The caiman would swing its head back and snap, grabbing at the pole, then scuttle back towards the swamp. How he habituated the caimans to come to his call remains a mystery, but it was fun to watch.
Day 4. Northern Costa Rica
The sky was overcast, still holding the clouds after last night’s rain, making the light ideal for the morning’s shoot. Oropendolas, Toucans, and Collared Aracaris visited the main feeder, while close to the porch, at another feeder, tanagers, Yellow-napped Parakeets, and Brown-hooded Parrots provided wonderful shots.
While we shot, a troop of Coatimundis swarmed the grounds, moving like a Mongol horde as they grabbed bananas and ran. Within a few minutes the first batch of bananas were gone, but more arrived, and the coatis returned for several minutes of shooting. Coatis are raccoon relatives, with long, prehensile snouts and a long banded tail that they usually hold bolt upright. A pair of Great Currasows came in later, and when the female grabbed a nearly complete banana and ran off, the male chased after it in an attempt to steal the prize.
Mary helping Jim (Judy Johnson), and a wierd invertebrate that resembled a
flat millipede, or fossil trilobite (Mary Ann McDonald)
At 9:30 several of us entered the jungle looking for macro subjects. The trail, after the night’s rain, was muddy, and subjects were few. The trick to jungle photography, especially with macro subjects, is to move slowly and watch carefully, as most subjects are quite cryptic. Butterflies, a katydid, dragonfly, and odd mushrooms were our most common subjects.
Ivan, Chuck, and Fonda went to the manager’s house to photograph songbirds at another feeder, and did well with a variety of songbirds, parakeets, and woodpeckers. The shoot went quite well.
PM. In the afternoon Mary and two others returned to the manager’s house to shoot more birds, and had a fantastic time with a variety to honeycreepers, parakeets, tanagers, and orioles. (Mary Ann McDonald, left, Baltimore Oriole). I went back into the jungle to set up a Bat shoot using a Range IR. There were difficulties. I suspect TSA had gone through our bags, for as we unpacked several items were scattered about, and vulnerable to breakage. As I set up a Vivitar hard-wired system, the same one I use for our hummingbird shoots, I found one flash with dead batteries and another with Lithium AA batteries that were swollen and warped, having overheated almost to the point of exploding. It took multiple 100 yard trips, back and forth along a wet and muddy trail until I finally had everything in working order. For the shoot I used three Manfrotto Articulating Arms and Super Clamps, and several Manfrotto light stands for three of the four flashes. The Arms supported one of the hummingbird feeders and a back light flash. The third Articulating Arm supported the Range IR, aimed straight up to intersect the bats when they would fly at the feeder. While I was seeting up a rain blew in, and with it several hummingbirds began visiting the feeder, almost in a frenzy. I made some shots, but without a background for the flashes the images were, at best, marginal.
At 5PM Chuck, Don, and Judy set up their gear, joining me for the shoot. Shortly after 6 I turned on the cameras and flashes, and for the next three hours we filmed bats, until my Quantum Master Slave unit lost its battery power and we no longer had a means to fire our four main flashes. During that time Ivan, and then Tom, joined me as we photographed.
The bat action was nearly non-stop, and although we started with a continuous shooting at 6 second exposures, I eventually switched all of the cameras to 3.2 seconds, except Judy’s Nikon, which I mistakenly set at 30 seconds! I kept this rate going over dinner, which meant that Judy didn’t waste too many exposures although everything she shot was a waste, filled with multiple exposures of the bats. After dinner I discovered the error and set her back to 3.2 seconds, which we maintained until her 16 gig card ran out. Even at 3.2 seconds we often had multiple exposures as a bat would swoop in, trigger the Range IR and fire the flashes, and another would repeat the process before the shutter closed. Sometimes this resulted in neat poses with two bats, and sometimes unusable overlaps. Still, with as many frames as we shot, there were plenty of good ones.
While I stayed with the bats those who did not do the caiman night walk did so this evening, and enjoyed both the guide and his antics and the incredible tameness of the caimans.
Fer-de-lance baby, one of the most venomous snakes of Costa Rica. The snake is a pit-viper, and only when I did an extreme close-up could I see the pit, marking it the real thing and not a mimic. Note the tiny yellow tail, used to lure treefrogs which comprise a big part of its diet when still a tiny, young snake.
James Adams captured this beautiful Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and Judy Johnson this pair of Brown-headed Parrots.
Day 5. Northern Costa Rica
Everyone assembled at the natural light by 6:15, shooting the Oropendulas, Toucans, and parrots as they arrived. Several Black-cheeked Woodpeckers visited the smaller feeder set, and a very cooperative Crested Curracow posed on a log to feed on bananas. At 10:30, nearly 2 hours later than yesterday, the Coatimundis returned to scavenge whatever bananas they could find.
Today I joined Greg, Judy, and Don at the manager’s house to do songbird shooting, and I was quite surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. While everyone said they liked the shoot some had commented that the backgrounds were troublesome, so I was expecting the worse. My reservations were for naught, as the shooting, and the backgrounds, were great. In the course of three hours we filmed Orange-chinned Parakeets, Shiny Woodcreepers, Red-legged Woodcreepers, Blue Dacnis, Baltimore Orioles, Black Cowled Orioles, Panneri’s Tanager, Palm Tanager, Buff-throated Saltator, and Banaquits … and more if I could remember them all.
After lunch I returned to the bat set-up where I replaced the faulty 9 volt battery in the Quantum slave, and everything now works.
Mary returned to the manager’s house to do another shoot with Bill, Tom, and Jose, and managed, this time, to do some birds in flight. Additionally, she had a new species of hummingbird, a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, that she shot full-frame. The rest of the group stayed on the porches where they filmed the birds coming in to the feeders, although the shooting was a bit slower this afternoon.
Mary Ann McDonald's bats, including 3 bats in one flash shot (not a composite)
At 5PM most of the group returned with me to the forest, where we huddled together to set up for another bat shoot. Within 20 minutes we were finished and returned to the lodge, only to return 45 minutes later to turn on the equipment. As usual, one person’s settings were wrong, at 1/3rd second, instead of 3 seconds, but we solved that glitch rather quickly. Over the next 1.5 hours or so everyone went through almost 32 gb of shooting with our Hoodman cards, and the bat activity was almost non-stop. At 3.2 second intervals we still had several times when the flashes fired two or three times during that period, that’s how fast those bats were coming!
Interestingly, we found that the bats were often quite aggressive towards one another if one was at the feeder as another approached, and several photographers captured images as a bat flew in, open-mouthed, to bite at a bat in front of it. Tonight, too, I saw that we had at least two species, the Pallas long-tongued bat, and the Orange nectar-feeding bat, and perhaps a third, still unidentified species.
These bats feed on nectar when available, but will switch to fruit or insects when flowers are out of season. Their echolocation is poor, and apparently their eyesight is relatively good, although they rarely fly on overcast or foggy nights. Nonetheless, they navigated quite well through the jungle and around the feeders, although we did catch some very interesting collisions as bats approached or exited the feeder.
Day 6. Northern Costa Rica to Arenal Volcano
We packed at 7:30AM for our next destination, with two very productive stops along the way. En route I spotted a large Brown Basilisk lizard perched on a fence post. Basilisks are also called Jesus Christ lizards because they literally can walk, well, run really, across the water. When alarmed, if a river or pond is nearby the basilisk darts to the water and stomps across it, with its large hind legs and big feet providing enough of a snowshoe effect to keep the lizard from sinking. After 10 yards or so the lizard slows down, sinks, and swims to safety.
We arrived early to our next stop, a Restaurant where about two dozen huge Green Iguanas lounge about, on the porches and in all the trees surrounding the restaurant. Iguanas are prehistoric looking, and in the earlier sci-fi movies I remember seeing iguanas paired up in fights to the death with tegus, another Latin American lizard, passed off as dinosaurs. This was, of course, before computer animation.
Mary Ann made the close-up of the male iguana's dewlap and jaw scales.
The iguanas gave everyone a good opportunity to practice fill-flash and full flash techniques, which our in-country guide, Greg, so graciously explained. After lunch I did a bit of an experiment, giving our left-over hamburger meat and ham, in addition to lettuce and tomatoes, their normal diet, as an offering to the lizards. As I expected, they eagerly accepted this protein source although iguanas are often thought to be vegetarians. In fact, however, these herbivores are quite opportunistic and will eat bird eggs, baby birds, or any other animal they can find if given the chance. Many insectivorous lizards do the reverse, and feed upon fresh grasses or flowers, although these same lizards, in captivity, would starve to death before accepting these items in an offered diet.
Three-toed Sloths by Ivan Rothman, Tom Wester, Judy Johnson.
While sloths are slow, they can move surprisingly fast so, as I took my time to break down my gear, the sloth reached the ground, defecated, and started climbing back up. By the time I arrived, all I saw was a fuzzy clump of moss-covered fur among the vines!
Our next stop was a small private refuge that covered only a few acres of land but offered incredible diversity. Within minutes of our entering the jungle two different Three-toed Sloths were spotted. I was working on Tent-making Bats when Mary called, telling me she had a sloth. As I packed my gear to join her I met another group that had had a sloth only a few dozen yards from where I was shooting, a sloth that had climbed down a tree to defecate on the ground. Sloths evacuate just about once a week, and do so on the ground, usually burying their feces. Doing so, they return nutrients to the soil, and most likely to the host tree where they’ve been feeding, thus helping the tree even as they harvest leaves. Seeing two sloths was quite a thrill as they are slow-moving, thus easy to miss, and incredibly cryptic, with fur tinged green by algae growing amongst the hairs.
Tent-making Bat, Owl's Eye Butterfly, and Boat-billed Heron
I returned to the Common Tent-Making Bats perched beneath a large leaf. These bats chew at the center stem of these leaves, thus collapsing or folding the leaf over to create a tent-like shelter. Our driver, Jose, stayed around the bus but located an even better roost, with five bats clearly visible and much easier to shoot than the three I struggled with, so nearly everyone interested in seeing one of these unique bats had an opportunity to do so.
Our goal was to photograph the oddly shaped Boat-billed Heron, a bird that looks quite similar to the more common (and US resident) Black-crowned Night Heron. Like the latter, the Boat-billed is also primarily nocturnal. During the day, this heron roosts in the trees lining the 100 meter pond, and when we’re lucky, as we were today, we’ll have good views of this bird with the thick and broad bill.
As we approached the Arenal Volcano the skies were clear and we had a great view of this 1,600 meter conical volcano. When we were last here, during the height of the dry season, the volcano was obscured by clouds and, during its only eruption while we were there, the pyrotechnics were obscured. Unfortunately, two years ago the volcano went inactive, and it is thought that another 150 years, or longer, may elapse before it once again becomes active. If so, I won’t see it.
We arrived at our lodge by 5, enjoying the great change in weather from hot, steamy, humid lowland jungle to upland cloud forest cool. We watched for monkeys as we drove in but the forest, aside from a Roadside Hawk perched on a wire, was quiet.
Day 7. Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano infrared image by Judy Johnson
When Costa Rica’s most active volcano erupted in 1969 it killed over 80 people. Periodically, over the next several decades the volcano had several major eruptions, but in 2010 is suddenly, unexpectedly, went dormant. It remains so today, but the area is still prime for wildlife viewing and well worth a visit.
We assembled shortly after 6 at the observation deck where, just yards away, Montezuma’s Oropendolas fed upon fruit while below, hoping for spillage, a coatimundi roamed the grasses. Hummingbirds of three different species frequented virtually every hedgerow of flowers, and by our room a Bronze-tailed Hummingbird frequently perched upon a palm stem. We’d placed one feeder in hopes of drawing in some birds but the hummers ignored it and fed upon the real thing.
Mexican Parrot Snake (two) and Eye-lash Viper
In mid-morning we headed to a friend’s home who has a huge collection of reptiles, where we spent the rest of the day. We photographed over 15 species during this time, ranging from Tropical Rattlesnakes and Boa Constrictors to Snail-eating, Blunt-headed Tree, Mexican Parrot, and Brown Debris Snakes, as well as a variety of frogs, treefrogs, and lizards.
That evening, around 8, I did a snake and frog hunting trip with our friend, driving the roads and walking up several jungle streams in search of Glass Frogs. We were unsuccessful in that pursuit but we did managed to find a large Costa Rican Bullfrog, large Leopard Frogs, a Mud Turtle (discovered in a grass and weed-choked pond, and I don’t know how my friend ever spotted it), and a freshly killed Fer-de-Lance. This much feared snake, the ‘Head of the Lance,’ is indeed shaped like a spear. I stretched out this road-kill to its full five-foot length, and with its thin, high-ridged body pulled straight, with a broad, triangular shaped head, it did indeed look very much like a lance or spear. Considering a lance is a lethal weapon, this big, venomous snake is quite aptly named.
We returned by 11, quite tired, under a crystal-clear star-filled night. As we drove to our lodge we passed two Opossums and, at the gate, a large Skunk that had the gate-keeper a bit nervous as it ran close by his legs.
Day 8. Arenal Volcano
From Top: Striped Palm Viper (Mary Ann McDonald), Tree Snake;
Bushmaster, Brown Basilisk Lizard female;
Red-eyed Treefrog (Mary Ann McDonald), Masked Treefrog.
Our friend’s reptile collection is huge, and deserves, or requires, two days to barely give it justice. Today we photographed over twenty species, including the Fer-de-Lance, a Jumping Viper, Godham’s Montane Pitviper, and, my favorite, the huge Bushmaster, the largest viper in the world, and the longest, and biggest, venomous snake in the Americas. Our specimen was about 7 feet long, but the snake can grow almost twice that length, so its size alone is impressive. All of these venomous snakes were extremely placid, never trying to strike and barely making an effort to leave our studio set. At home, when we’re photographing venomous snakes in studio, we often classify snakes as either ‘runners,’ which only wish to crawl away and hide, and ‘fighters,’ which coil, ready to strike. Our friend’s snakes were neither, not running and not acting aggressively or, more properly said, actively defensive.
Highlights of the shoot varied, from an extremely cryptic Katydid, a twig-like Walking Stick, the cute Red-eyed Treefrog, a Glass Treefrog where, when seen from below, you could actually see its little red heart beating through its nearly translucent skin, several different snakes, and, for me, the impressive Bushmaster.
We’d spent the morning on the grounds of our lodge chasing birds and hummingbirds, serenaded periodically by the deep, thunderous territorial calls of Howler Monkeys. We left for the reptile shoot at 10:30, and returned home after 5PM, for a long and extremely productive day of shooting.
Day 9. Arenal Volcano – Macaw Ranch – Third Lodge
We left Arenal early, driving for 2 hours or so to our next destination, a farm where the owner, a lover of wildlife, rehabilitates wildlife, hacks animals back into the wild, and keeps a pair of Jaguars. We planned on photographing both Scarlet and Great Green Macaws in free flight, as they followed the ranch owner back and forth across a field. Unfortunately it was sunny, and from the usual vantage point for doing this shoot the birds were backlighted somewhat. Later we tried a different viewpoint, but the birds were bored with the game and after just one pass flew back towards the ranch where they roosted in some large trees.
Scarlet Macaws, left to right: Tom Wester, Mary Ann McDonald,
Don Lewis, me.
We, too, returned to the ranch where, over the next two hours, we photographed Chestnut-billed Toucans, both Macaws, a great White-fronted Parrot, a Great Curassow, and we had a brief glimpse of a troop of Black and White Capuchin monkeys that scampered off, running across the roof of a farm house.
After a huge lunch and a late visit to the jaguar enclosure, we headed to our last destination. Just as the ride to this ranch, this final bus ride was mostly silent as nearly everyone fell asleep, Mary and I included! We arrived at our third and final lodge in mid-afternoon, greeted by five different species of hummingbirds that practically swarmed across the air space. Our room had a small porch so I tried another Range IR setup, and almost immediately upon putting up a hummingbird feeder birds started visiting. Violet Sabrewings, Green Hermits, and tiny Mountain Gems hit the feeder, and tripped the Range IR and flashes. The prospect for tomorrow, and a full day of this type of shooting was exciting, but as it turned out, the feeder here just died.
Agoutis, large rabbit-sized rodents that act almost deer-like, and Black Guans visited the grounds, and both of these usually elusive, shy creates were tame. After dinner several Pacas, an even larger rodent, second only to the huge Cabybara, grazed and fed upon the corn bait set out nightly. On our last visit our only paca encounters occurred at night, in a rain, so having good shooting this evening was a treat.
Day 10. Third Lodge
Greg, Jose, and I were at the hummingbird area by 6, setting up light stands, backgrounds, and flashes for the day’s hummingbird shoot. We finished shortly before breakfast, and the rest of the day, for the participants, was constant hummingbird shooting. Jose found an active nest of a Mountain Gem Hummingbird and by approaching slowly and quietly I got to within minimum distance of my 500mm lens. Rather than disturb the bird by having other cameras placed nearby we, instead, had photographers trade cards and shoot with the rig I’d already positioned. The bird was undisturbed and everyone got some very nice photos of the nesting hummingbird.
Oddly, today was a bluebird sky day, bright and sunny until mid-afternoon. Usually, when the sun is out the hummingbird activity slows down, probably because the sun generates accelerated photosynthesis and with it, more natural nectar from the flowers. We were lucky, however, and the feeders stayed busy throughout the day, except my porch feeder, which simply died. The group shot from 8:30 to 12:30, and then again from 1:10 until 4:10 in 45 minute shifts, giving everyone three shoots at all three sets. Everyone had action, and for the most part a lot of it!
Green Hermit female (J McD), Green-crowned Billiant (Fonda Johnson)
In the afternoon I explored some jungle trails looking for a spot to set up another Range IR in hopes of capturing some nocturnal mammals. Although I found two likely locations I only had time to set up one, along a trail that was flanked on one side by a steep bank and the other, by a stream. I’m hoping that any mammal will take the easy route, walking down the trail, rather than bushwhacking over the high country to head down stream.
After dinner I checked the setup and although it took a few seconds for the camera to ‘wake up’ and fire, everything was working although nothing had, as yet, passed. Stars are out, and the weather looks promising, although all of the gear is securely covered in plastic in case of rain.
Day 11. Third Lodge
Green Hermits by James Adams (left) and Chuck Steen (right);
Violet Sabre-wings by Fonda Johnson (left) and Ivan Rothman (right).
I checked the camera trap at dawn, and found nothing. Although the camera had fallen asleep all of the flashes were working, but the Range IR battery had finally drained. It was clear, however, that nothing had passed down the trail.
At 7 we packed our bus with equipment for a short drive to another location where we set up three new hummingbird sets. Mary made a shooting rotation schedule lasting 40 minutes each and, after a slow start, activity was quite good. Green Crowned Brilliants, Black-bellied Hummingbirds, Green Hermits, and Thorntails all visited the sets. Mary did some great work at a feeder out in the garden where hummers were congregating and there, using natural light and fill flash, she shot birds in flight and perched.
Clouds and a growing fog slowly rolled in and I took a 1.5 mile walk on a well-maintained jungle trail. After the first half mile or so I worried that my trail might not loop and I’d have to retrace my steps, so I moved fast and paid little attention to my surroundings, and doing so passed up some nice jungle landscape shots. The trail did intersect with one that led back to the lodge and at that point I slowed down, shooting vignettes of the jungle in the soft, low light.
At 4 Mary and I planned on shooting one of the sets for 20 minutes before breaking down the gear but by 3:40, with the light outside continually failing, the hummingbird activity slowed down significantly. At 4, then, we started tearing down gear, and, of course, birds started to appear but we were committed and continued. The group had some great shooting and next time we’ll try scheduling one session for ourselves as well – it was somewhat frustrating simply watching!
Two species of tropical rodents were common here, and both act, and almost are shaped, like hooved mammals. The Agouti, left, reminded me of a small deer or antelope, like an African Dik-dik, while the Paca (center and right) had an almost horse-like face and was shaped like a tapir. Agoutis are diurnal, and pacas are nocturnal, and like all rodents they are vegetarians.
I decided not to do another camera trap this night as rain seemed likely. Instead, I set up two light stands and flashes and prepared for the Pacas that visit the feeder area nightly. Ironically, the pacas did not arrive on time, and I thought that I’d have no luck but with frequent checks of the area, two hours later than usual, the pacas returned.
These large, spotted rodents eventually grew fearless as I lay on the grass about 12 feet away, trying a low angle that would minimize the lawn. Periodically the pacas would head back into the forest and I’d stand and grab some new vegetation or leaves to build up a more natural set. It was amusing to see the progression of images from a very simple, unnatural ‘lawn’ habitat to a true jungle setting, complete with palm fronds and held in place by an additional light stand. Two hours later I finished, tired, with a lot of work still ahead as we needed to pack for our return to San Jose tomorrow.
While we concentrated upon wildlife Costa Rica is simply beautiful. Unfortunately we had mostly sunny days, which are not the best for landscapes. Here's a few scenes, however. From Top, then left to right:
James Adams, Joe McD;
Joe McD, Tom Wester, Joe McD;
Day 12. Third Lodge to San Jose
For the first time on the trip we had overcast light and some fog, making for great jungle photography. Unfortunately, we needed to resume our packing and, after breakfast, I compiled a slide show of our participants’ work. Most everyone contributed 20 images that we’d view later in the day, and some of those shots are included elsewhere and here in the trip report. I didn’t finish until lunch, missing any shooting in the jungle. We decided we could easily base ourselves at this lodge for four nights, not three.
The drive to San Jose took us up over the continental divide. Although we’ve driven this route several times in the past we’ve always done so in a fog or rain, and thus missed out on the spectacular scenery, the undulating ridges and deep valleys, the lone tall trees, relics of now-cleared jungle, and the sweeping vistas of distant mountains and volcanoes. The drive was beautiful, and had it had fog or low clouds it would have been simply incredible, and incredibly frustrating, since we were now commuting on to San Jose for our flights home tomorrow.
That evening, before dinner, we had our group slide show and it was wonderful, showcasing a variety of images, many of which I never even saw! For example, because I was involved in the jungle with bats, or setting up hummingbird sets, I missed the fog and ethereal landscapes that treated us on a few mornings. Macro subjects, like well-camouflaged insects or colorful flowers, and birds that may have appeared just once at a set-up or feeder were just some of the great shots. Afterwards we reviewed the trip by giving our trip highlights, favorite lodge and place for eating, favorite shooting location and favorite shooting subjects, and the answers among the 12 of us was quite diverse. This certainly illustrated the diversity and depth of the locations we visited – all offered something that was special and unique.
Check out the group's entire portfolio
Because of the demands of our 2014 schedule (and possible back surgery for me in early March of that year) we will not be able to do a Costa Rica trip in 2014. However, we plan on doing at least two trips, perhaps in different months, in 2015, so if you are interested in joining us, contact our office and get on the First Alert List. For Mary and I, we can’t wait to get back!
Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to the Pantanal are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.