Monday, February 18, 2019

Costa Rica- the Highlands

We ended our time in the highland cloud forest.  Our rain gear remained in our baggage because it is the dry season in February.  But, we were prepared! Next time I will only bring a small umbrella.

At elevation, we mostly saw little critters with a preponderance of rapidly moving hummingbirds. I prefer natural settings for  subjects so there are none showing feeding stations.  Compounding this is the speed for most hummingbirds.

There are a group of nectar feeders that rob nectar without pollinating the flowers.  They cut directly into the nectar site.  I believe this little brown bird is doing just that.  He perches beneath the cluster of blooms and .....

...  uses its sharp beak to enter at the right spot.

 Only occasionally was I fast enough to get focus and grab an image.

I never could do this with film.  It would take half a dozen rolls to get just one shot like this, or the next one.

There were unexpected visitors like this Red-tailed Squirrel.  It came in for the ripe fruit on a platform feeder.  It looks very similar to the Red Squirrels in New York.

While the hovering hummers only allow a few seconds to capture a photo, sometimes one will choose to perch in full sunlight.  Then you have maybe 30 seconds, which is a luxury.

That birds was clearly visible. This next image is a favorite for me because it offered a narrow tunnel of visibility.

There was one larger visitor, a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.  It seems all woodpeckers have sharply defined patterns.

The highland cloud forest, even in the dry season, offers a fine display of flowers including bountiful numbers of succulents.  This cluster was outside our lodging in the Savegre River valley.

Every lodging we visited had beautiful flower beds like these.

It is little surprise that Costa Rica is such a popular destination. The Tico are serious about maintaining a balance with their natural resources.  Pura Vida!  It reflects their philosophy.

Have to visit again, maybe in the wet season?

Paul Schmitt

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Costa Rica Naturally!

John Muir famously counseled the traveler to saunter rather than rush.  On our second visit to Costa Rica, Pam and  I booked with Natural Habitat. We were drawn to the small group size and a pace better suited to actually seeing more of the flora and fauna in natural settings. Arriving in San Jose at midday a full day before the program began, our driver, Marko, delivered us to the beautiful Bougainvillea Hotel. Entering the grounds, one is greeted by lush beds of flowers and bird feeders at the restaurant windows. This is not a hotel squeezed onto a small tract of land. There are several acres of gardens with trails.

Arriving a day early reduced the stress of possible flight delays coming from the wintry USA. Our free day was easily passed exploring the hotel grounds and finding abundant birds, plus many vibrant flowers.  Everywhere one goes in the Bougainvillea, one finds creative architecture and decorations.  The attentive and friendly staff perfectly complements the hotel's beauty.

Here are a few of the discoveries we made walking the grounds. Orchids are found growing on the trees along a path.

A wide variety of palms and other trees offered a hint of the variety we would see later when we arrived at Tiskita Lodge in the extreme south coast near the border with Panama.

The grounds were not just manicured lawns. The tennis courts were hidden within a dense cover bisected by a path.

Many birds were there, including a Lesson's Motmot.  It was feeding on the ripe fruit of a tree.  Note the twin "paddles" at the end of its tail.  Beautiful bird.

Our time at the hotel passed comfortably, aided by abundant discoveries like butterflies,

...graceful flowers,

.....  and other pleasant surprises.

After a pleasant day in the gardens, we met our guide Roy and the other six members of our group on Saturday, and prepared our baggage for a Sunday morning charter flight to Golfito from the domestic airport. Our driver, Jimmy, would take us to the flight and then make the 5-1/2 hour drive to Tiskita Lodge with the majority of our bags.

We were each allowed 30 pounds for the flight. It went into a pod on the belly of the Cessna. My camera bag used up most of my allowance. Wisely, I kept Pam's small Fuji XT-1 travel camera with me. The weather was beautiful, and Roy convinced our pilots to fly along the Pacific coast for a view of  a feather called the Whale's Tail.  Our luck was that we were at low tide, so it was clearly visible.

Our second location on the itinerary would be only a few kilometers from the Whale's Tail and Uvita Beach.

As we flew over the Pacific coastal areas we saw a mix of mountain and coastal planes with large plantations of  palm oil trees. Soon the pilots  began our approach to Golfito. The dense cover of trees became closer as the aircraft began to follow a narrowing valley.  Soon, we were on a glide path defined by the tree tops.  Our guide, Roy, exclaimed "Welcome to the rain forest!" and seconds later we were on the runway. It was an exciting start to our adventure.

A local driver was awaiting with his bus to take us to Tiskita.  The roads very quickly switched from paved to otherwise as we rode through a mix of farms and forest.  Just short of Tiskita, one of our party shouted out "Scarlet Macaws!"  The driver quickly stopped and pulled off as everyone scrambled to pull out cameras or binoculars.  A brilliantly colored pair were high in trees right next to the road.  These are just two images of many that were captured.

What a start to the trip!  During the next two days, we began with a 6:00 am bird walk, and after breakfast explored some of Tiskita's trails as a group.  Here are a few of our discoveries.

Three-toed Sloth


Squirrel Monkey

 I noticed that some of the palms with a broad fan of leaves were crimped over as seen to the right. Rather than reaching toward the sky, they folded downward.  Odd, I thought, but my unfamiliarity just accepted it as the usual. On a morning hike  Roy became interest in a group of such palms, and went off trail (after carefully probing the forest floor with his extended tripod legs to confirm no snakes were underfoot.)  His interest was directed at some palms where the fronds were more upright like an A-frame roof.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

When it rains, fungi reign!

It has been a really, really wet time around here.  Even the waterfalls are too full for good photography.  Muddy water is not too pretty.  It's been a perfect time to pursue the many beautiful mushrooms emerging from the hidden world of fungi beneath.  There are some good images to share. I'll include a few tips to documenting the fungi you see with a camera.

The colorful fungi quickly attract my attention as I roam the woodlands.  These are barely more than one inch high.  To show them, the camera must be low.  It is just like photographing small children.  The camera needs to be at their level to avoid images of the tops of the mushroom caps.

And, since there was not much light deep in the forest, the exposure was slow, requiring the camera to be motionless. In this case, the shutter was at 1/15 second.

These 'shrooms were too low to even use a tripod, so I improvised.  The camera is supported by some pieces of old towel carried to dry gear when it rains. Once the camera is in position, and the rear screen shows a good focus, I am ready to use a little trick.  I use the shutter delay normally used so the photographer has time to quickly join the group of people in the photo.  This avoids shaking the camera when pressing the shutter.  It works perfectly.

You can do this.  Fill a small bag with something like dried beans and cradle your camera in it.  Be sure the camera is not too close to focus.  Set the timer like I did, and you have it.

On this day, I continued my exploration and soon spotted a violet color on the forest floor.  It is a coral mushroom.  Beautiful.  I was lucky with this fungi, and could support the camera on a tripod for another slow shutter in the dark woods.

While I am roaming the woods, I sometimes come upon a cluster of shelf mushrooms on a fallen tree. In this case, I simply pulled out my smartphone and quickly captured the rich patterns and colors.  These are commonly called turkey tail mushrooms. Unlike the ephemeral forms, the shelf mushrooms do not quickly disappear, but they do look their best when they are wet.

The variety of fungi forms is part of what excites me during my quests.  This one was a big surprise to me.  Beyond the colors, the form seemed to match the famous line of "E.T. phone home."

I  will admit to having dug out part of the leaf litter to get my camera in position for the above image.  I simply would not be satisfied with a poor composition for this fungi.

Most of my photos use natural lighting, but sometimes the underneath of the cap mushrooms is just too dark.  I came upon a cluster of finely textured mushrooms on a fallen poplar tree. In the next case, I popped a little bit of flash from beneath to bring out what I was seeing.

Getting low is a constant aspect of this pursuit.  There is another annoying way to get low.  It calls for turning the center column of a tripod upside down and hanging the camera on it.  The annoyance comes from working with the camera upside down as seen below.

With a little practice, the benefits are worth the effort, and really, it soon becomes very manageable. Here is the result of the setup shown above.

The exposure was 1/4 second, so even if I laid flat on the ground and hand held the camera, the photo would have been blurry.

On a recent morning at the Ringwood Preserve near Freeville, I put the upside down approach to the test.  This pair of large mushrooms were on a steep hillside.  The upside down approach allowed me to work without sliding down the bank.

This time, I used another trick to balance the light on the underside of the caps.  I put my cell phone on the flashlight mode, and lightly painted the caps with soft warm light. I like it better than using a flash because I can see the best position before triggering the shutter.

As I gathered my gear to leave Ringwood preserve, I should have known something would capture my attention. This may be the same mushroom I previously found on the poplar log.

Here, I also used my cell phone flashlight to paint the underneath of the cap.  It was a good find.

For the  photographers, I hope a few of these techniques are of value.  Photographer or not, I also hope these images inspire you to take a closer look at the fall mushrooms that are present present.  I even find them in my garden and lawn right now.

Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Bears Galore

After 2-1/2 hours of following the pod of Humpback Whales in Chatham Strait on the Westward, it would seem the day's appetite for Alaska wildlife was satisfied.  Reaching Pavlov Bay, the Westward anchored, and we boarded the skiff. The plan was to observe some bears from the skiff.  Our naturalist, Carolyn, steered the zodiac up a small river towards a set of small drops exposed by the low tide.  Because of the low tide, the river had trapped the returning salmon in pools scattered along the way to higher falls with a fish ladder to the right side.  Carolyn anchored the skiff so that we all had a good view.  Midway towards the steep falls, in the pools, was a large Brown Bear sow with two cubs.

She was catching a few salmon, usually back in the shadows where we could not see clearly.  In all cases, the sow gave the fish to her cubs - leaving few scraps for the gulls.

Shortly, a fourth bear appeared at the top of the high falls. It was a bit smaller and leaner than the sow.

Junior crossed the falls and disappeared into the forest, reappearing later near the sow. There seemed to be a tolerance by the sow for this new arrival, maybe somehow related to her.  Yet, the bear did keep it's distance, and soon crossed to the farther side to search in the small pools of water.

 Suddenly, the bear burst forward some twenty feet and grabbed a fish.

In no time, that salmon was consumed, and the bear drifted back towards the sow.  She may have been one of her offspring from a few years earlier, but the sow still was not entirely welcoming the competition for the salmon to feed her cubs. So she set some limits, it would appear.

Two days later, dawn found the Westward anchored in a hidden cove.  Awake early, I went up on deck to find a pair of Bald Eagle perched along the shore. One bird launched into the classic glide toward a target near the boat.  It was successful, and arose with a nice fish.

This would prove to be the beginning of a very rich day of wildlife viewing.  Chef Traci again provided an extraordinary breakfast that day.

Ham and Broccoli Hash with Soft Poached Eggs, Cinnamon Spiral Rolls, Apples and Grapes.  

We were all energized for a rewarding morning excursion to the nearby salmon hatchery at Hidden Falls. 

There are no fish farms in Alaska.  This stream has a falls too high for salmon to climb. This (and other) hatcheries raise wild salmon fry that are released to supplement the population from those natural runs.  This takes pressure off of the wild runs.

The salmon come up a series of falls into a pond where they are harvested for eggs and sperm, respectively. The fertile eggs are cultured and transferred later into tanks using a constant flow of fresh water.  The end result is that these salmon go to sea like the wild run, and come to market as tasty as those from a natural spawn.  The bear are satisfied, too.

The Brown Bears line up along the cascade, and some sit at the entrance to the chute, intently watching.

 When successful, the first priority for a subordinate bear is to head for the forest.

There are dominant sows with cubs to feed.  The top bear was this huge sow with four cubs. No one argued with her.  It is very rare for a female to have four cubs survive.

The cubs were adorable. Momma was a strict disciplinarian. Perhaps this explains how she kept all four alive.

Brown Bears can also show strong social bonds like this sow and her sub-adult.

 The cub needed some cuddle time it would appear.

Some of the lone bears chose to enter the water and search underwater for the salmon.

Sometimes they succeeded.

The morning passed too quickly; eventually it was time for Captain Bill to motor back to the dock to retrieve us.

It had been exciting to watch these twenty-one bears with so much activity, it was hard to decide where to observe.  Lunch was a potpie with elk, roasted root vegetables and braised greens.  Cruised that afternoon.  What a day!