Great Costa Rican Adventure

My husband and I have been taking birding/photography groups to Costa Rica since 2004. We’ve used Strabo Tours for each of these as well as a local Costa Rican tour company and our local guide, Willy Alfaro. The same operators and guides for every trip. We change the locations and time of year, and that changes the birds. Each trip is the same but each is different.

Our March 2020 trip was to the northern reaches of Costa Rica. We began in Liberia in the state of Guanacaste and ended in San Jose in the center of the country.

Our first lodge was in the hills of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The habitat was officially dry forest but the grounds were lush and filled with birds. Temps were in the 80s but we were plagued by misty rain. This gave us amazing rainbows but made photography a challenge.

Birds on the grounds included crested guan, white-throated magpie-jay, black-headed trogon, Garter trogon, keel-billed toucan, and turquoise-browed motmot. Those were the big, colorful birds. We didn’t overlook social flycatcher, summer tanager, western tanager, and other small but important birds.

We spent two nights at this location, then packed and drove past the Miravalles Volcano to the Rio Celeste. A stop along the way at Celeste Mountain Lodge gave us a chance to eat lunch and photograph birds at the feeders. Yellow-throated euphonia, scarlet-rumped tanagers, palm tanagers, and others gave the group new birds.

Our lodging in this area put the group in an unexpectedly luxurious eco-lodge. My room had a private outdoor terrace, a private outdoor shower on the other end, an indoor shower big enough for a football team, luxurious bathroom, and amazingly comfortable beds.

Bird feeders on the grounds attracted buff-throated saltator, Montezuma oropendola, and others. Overhead, we photographed swallow-tailed kites during a morning walk. After a nice mid-morning hike, we got to photograph the turquoise-colored Rio Celeste.

After two night, we packed-up and drove to the Arenal volcano area. Along the way we stopped at Danaus Nature Center to photograph two-toed sloth, white-nosed coati, boat-billed heron, and other things. The group was not ready to leave but our hotel for the night held lots of photo opportunities.

Arenal Volcano in the La Fortuna region of Costa Rica.

We maximized our time in the Arenal area but packed again to drive to Maquenque Eco-lodge near the Nicaraguan border.

Maquenque is a destination that nearly overwhelmed the group. Feeders near the dining room attracted many birds we’d already photographed but then there were new birds. Brown-headed parrot was the star and a lifer for me. All three honeycreepers — red-legged, green, and sparkling — came into the feeders frequently. Amazon kingfisher, great egret, purple gallinule and northern jacana frequented the property’s marshy pond.

After two nights, the tour headed a bit south to the Sarapiqui area. This is a favorite location for bird photography and our main stop was Dave & Dave’s Nature Park. Dave and Dave (father and son) have built a location where birds land on natural perches to feed on native fruits. The photo opportunities are amazing.

Two visits to Dave & Dave’s gave us a chance to photograph different perching birds plus several hummingbirds. The group was exhausted but still managed to eat amazing TexMex food before heading across the mountains to San Jose.

We gave the group one last stop while driving through the mountains. A small roadside coffee shop has a balcony overlooking a lush tropical valley. Feeders attracted mountain birds including Emerald toucanet, black guan, and a little Tennessee warbler. Hummingbirds feeders let us photograph green hermit, coppery-headed emerald, and violet saberwing.

As we cruised into San Jose for our last night in Costa Rica, the group was happy but a bit anxious. Corona Virus was in the news back in the United States. We’d experienced great bird and wonderful lodges. Our memories will always be enhanced thanks to the 500 or so pictures we took each day.

We’ll do this route again in March 2021. Details are on the Strabo Photo Tour website.

High ISO Is Amazing

At sunset in July we were cruising down the Rio Piquiri in the Pantanal of Brazil.  Junior, the boat driver, killed the motor and pointed to a pair of jaguars sitting on the riverbank.

Jaguar, Pantanal, Matto Grosso, Brazil, juvenile, males
Jaguar photographed at 51,200 ISO with the aid of a flashlight.  Canon 1Dx, f/8, 1/160th shutter speed.

There were 10 people in the boat and all were squirming to get their cameras and find the jaguars. The boat was bobbing in the water.  There was a lot of movement to try to photograph something after sunset.

I pushed the ISO button on my camera and rolled the dial all the way to 51,200.   I could only get a 50th of a second shutter speed.  No way the photos were going to work with a shutter speed like that!

Raul, our guide, had been bragging about this high-powered flashlight that he’d received as a gift from a previous guest.  His little flashlight was nearly a spotlight.

“Raul, point that flashlight at the jaguars!” I yelled.  It was magic! The light was enough light to give us shutter speeds in the 1/160th or 1/200th of a second range.

A modern high-power flashlight and modern cameras with high ISO gave us the ability to photograph a jaguar in the dark.  I love it!

 

Baby Leopard in Peril

My photo group was on the Serengeti in Tanzania during the last two weeks in May 2018.

Kopje, Serengeti, Tanzania, Africa.
Kopje, or rocky outcrop, on the Serengeti in Tanzania.

One morning while out on a game drive, we got a call over the radio that a baby leopard was in danger on a nearby kopje.  My driver, Tompson, picked up speed and told me what to expect.  Along the way, I translated all the terms and relayed the situation to the people in my Land Cruiser.

Here’s the situation we were racing toward.  A mother leopard left her young baby unattended on a kopje.  A kopje is a pile of rocks on the Serengeti plain.  The kopje has crevices between all the rocks.  Sometimes trees and bushes grow on top of the kopje or around the base of the kopje.

Olive baboon KAC0240

This is traditionally a great place to raise cubs and stash them while out hunting or sleeping.  The babies are usually pretty safe with nooks and crannies to sleep, sun, and play.

In this case, though, a group of olive baboons had gathered on the top of the kopje.  Baboons hate leopards.  That means the baboons will kill the baby leopard if they find it.  With no mother leopard on site, the baby leopard was in real danger.

We arrived at the kopje in a few minutes and found a group of twenty baboons on one side of the kopje.  After driving around the kopje, we found the baby leopard on the other side.  The baby was very young and agitated.  It paced, sat down, paced, and then sat again.  The baby seemed to know things weren’t right.

We photographed the baby leoparLeopard KAC4023d and keep watching for the baboons.  There was a good distance between the two so it seemed that the baby leopard was safe.

Then the baby leopard got nervous.  It started climbing across the rocks of the kopje and maneuvered under bushes.  It came into view then disappeared out of view.  But the baboons must have smelled the baby or seen movement.  Four large males started slowly moving across the top of the kopje toward the baby leopard.

The baby moved down the rocks and found a crevice.  Maybe it was the crevice where it was born or a roosting place with its mother.  The baby walked into the crevice, came back out, looked around, and then went back in the crevice.  We all encouraged the baby to get deep into the crevice but, of course, our words meant nothing to the young leopard.

The four male baboons started perching on the rocks outside and above the crevice.  The baby moved deeper in the crevice to escape the baboons.  The baboons peered into the crevice.  They moved closer to the crevice.  The baby leopard was surrounded.  If the baboons headed into the crevice, the baby was cornered.

Someone in the Land Cruiser next to me said “I don’t want to hear what comes next.”  Someone else said, “I don’t want to see what’s coming.”  My driver told me the baby was a goner and that there was no way the baby could fight off the baboons.

My driver suggested we pull the Land Cruiser back just in case the mother leopard was trying to get back from her hunt.  I asked everyone in the three vehicles if they wanted to stay and watch the kill or move back and let nature happen.

Everyone agreed that the attack was going to be horrible.  We had out photos of the baby leopard and everyone wanted to remember him as a cute, little kitten.

All three of our Land Cruisers pulled away from the kopje and we turned our backs on nature.  During lunch we talked but the baby leopard and everyone wondered what happened.  Our thoughts were really with the little guy.

When we left camp later in the day, my driver Tompson asked if I’d like to take the group back to the kopje to see what happened.  Tompson assured me the baby was dead but I decided we needed to go back.

A half-hour later we were nearing the kopje.  I started scanning the rocks for anything that looked like a leopard.  There were no baboons in sight.  Not one.

I stood up on my seat with my body out of the top of the Land Cruiser and started scanning the rocks.  High up on one of the rocks I spotted the profile of a feline.  “There she is,” I yelled.  Tompson spotted the mother leopard immediately and drove the Land Cruiser in photography distance.  The other two Land Cruisers in our group fell into position next to us.

Leopard KAC3964
Mother leopard with a fresh gash in her nose.

Mother leopard was laid out on the top of the kopje all pretty and content.  She had a fresh, deep gash from her nostril straight up her nose.  She’d been in a fight and she was the winner.

Tompson popped up on his seat and poked out of the top of the Land Cruiser.  He raised his arms high in the sky and yelled “You are a good mother leopard!!”  The mother leopard beat off the baboons and she took a beating while doing it.  Yet, was the baby alive?

My vehicle drove slowly to the other side of the kopje. There was the baby leopard!  It was out in the open and resting on a nice warm rock.  Baby was safe and Tompson gave the mother another “Your a good mother leopard!!” salute.

Leopard KAC3983
Mother leopard’s eye is on the right behind the bush.

Leopard KAC4054
Mother leopard bedding down behind a bush on the kopje.

Mother leopard didn’t take to our noisy group of photographers.  We were a good distance from her but were pretty excited that mother and baby were safe.  I suspect we were a bit noisy.

 

The female moved deep into a crevice protected by a small bush.  She bathed her injured nose one more time and then fell asleep.  (People in my group would have given her all the Neosporin in their packs if she would have allowed us near her.) .

Baby leopard gave us a few more stunning photos and then fell asleep.  It lived for another day in the Serengeti.

Stay tuned for more adventures from our Strabo Photo Tours Collection trip to the Serengeti in May 2018.

 

 

Tanager & Other Birds — Ecuador Photo Tours

Tanagers are one of my favorite families of birds in the tropics.  They are colorful, rather large, somewhat slow, and plentiful.  The Ecuador birding field guide lists about 66 species with tanager in their name.  We didn’t photograph that many during our Strabo Photo Tour Collections trip in March but we got a lot.

 

Black-capped tanager; Tangara heinei; Ecuador; Mindo Valley
Black-capped tanager — Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Blue-capped tanager KAC9857
Blue-capped tanager in the Mindo Valley.  This was a new bird for me.

Blue-capped tanager KAC9864
Blue-capped tanager

Blue-winged mountain-tanager KAC9997
Blue-winged mountain-tanager

Golden tanager; Tangara arthus; Ecuador; San Tadeo; Mindo Valley
Golden tanager — Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Flame-faced tanager; Tangara parzudakii; Ecuador; San Tadeo; Mindo Valley
Flame-faced tanager — Mindo Valley. What a great name!

White-lined tanager KAC9389
White-lined tanager — See the white line?

We found a nice variety of birds along the way.  These are all from the Mindo Valley of Ecuador on the western slope of the Andes Mountains.

Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Buarremon brunneinucha,
Chestnut-capped brush-finch

Crimson-rumped toucanet KAC9716
Crimson-rumped toucanet

Crimson-rumped toucanet KAC9740
Crimson-rumped toucanet — here you can see the rump

Dusky Chlorospingus KAC0091
Dusky Chlorospingus — Love that name!

rufous-collared sparrow KAC0035
Rufous-collared sparrow — so common but so pretty.

Swainson's thrush KAC9427
Swainson’s thrush on wintering grounds.  It will be arriving in my area of Texas in mid-April on its way to breeding grounds in the north.

 

Here are a couple more hummingbirds from the last day of the trip.  The birds in Ecuador are amazing.

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My 2018-2019 photo tour schedule is on the Strabo Photo Tours site or on my website.