There is nothing quite like hiking to the river every Sunday. It’s a cleansing ritual that prepares me for Mondays and the cynic misadventures of advertising. My golden retriever Lula is often my companion. Nature is specially kind and patient in that trail. Broad leaves are like giant eye lashes covering the narrow trail to the fall. Silence is only broken by the constant cry of insects and the impact of water on water. I come out back to civilization refreshed and reinvented. Nature is a magical drug and water its more wonderful high.
I’ve always been a firm believer in accidents. Most of the time is trough unexpected events we get to discover innovation. In painting I’ve always encouraged accidents in my work and most of the time they rewarded me with beautiful new paths.
This last weekend while photographing warblers and other songbirds in Jarabacoa, the flash on my camera suddenly failed. It was frustrating!! I had been hiding between cypress branches for one hour waiting for the right shot and when finally I had a beautiful pine warbler 1.5 meters away… no flash!! I was angry and disappointed.
I got home Sunday night and plugged my camera into the computer to download all 547 shots from the weekend. I served my self a glass of wine and started to browse trough them when I came to a complete stop in front of one image. When my flash had failed to shoot, a small and thin ray of sunlight had managed to find its ways through the leaves and hit the yellow tiny bird right in the breast. I then deliberately tried it again on a few other scenarios. It worked specially well with an image of the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo. These images may not be great documents of these species but they are without a doubt, beautiful accidents product of luck, sunlight and a messed up flash on saturday morning.
I have a weakness for owls. They are, hands down, my favorite family of birds. The snowy owl was my main objective when traveling to Alaska and the Burrowing owl was my first “big” experience photographing birds. Now it was turn for a face to face encounter with the Ashy-faced owl (Tyto glaucops). This owl is endemic to the island of La Hispaniola and it very similar to the Barn owl just slightly smaller and with the distinctive “ashy” face. My brother and I drove to Jarabacoa for the weekend and decided, while having a few beers after the morning birding session, that we were going to find our selves and ashy-face owl and photograph it. We talked about it all day; researched its habitats, its eating habits, call and nesting sites. We scouted for searching locations, talked to locals about previous sightings and finally around 10pm, maybe with a few more beers thanwe would like to admit we headed out to the first location. It was pitch dark. We started to climb a small hill then got to a small patch of grass and started pointing the flashlight to the trees while listening intensely for a possible sign of its presence. Honestly, we were not sure if this was going to go further than a midnight adventure. No one around Quintas del Bosque had seen or heard an owl for a while and no one could give us any hint or tips to begin our search. But there we were, dark as a cave, a bit tipsy and equipment in hand. We walked a bit further over the moist grass and suddenly I felt the ground slip away from my feet. I fell quickly and hard in a cement ditch for water drainage. While my ribcage slammed into the stone wall, my camera went flying away and my shoulder popped out of its socket. I screamed. I really screamed. I was shocked and was not sure what had happened. The pain was unbearable. I had gone trough this before and recognized what had just happened to me. My brother was freaking out. I was freaking out. – Oh shit, oh shit – he kept repeating. There were no light other than our flashlight, no one around to hear or help us. I calmed my self down and tried to breath slowly. I explained to my brother how to proceed; – pull my arm in the opposite direction in one fast steady movement – I told him. After 15 or 20 minutes of agonizing pain, the bone was back in its proper place and the pain went down a bit. He was quick to call it a night and suggest we went back to the cabin. – We’ve had enough – he said. I refused. The pain kept slowly going away. I had bruises all over my thighs and legs but I was determined, now more than ever, to get the photograph. This fall would be a drunken accident without the picture, but a heroic war story with it. We drove to the second location, a bigger patch of wild grass and big, tall trees. We waited, silently into the dark wilderness. After maybe 25 minutes we heard the call maybe a 100 yards away and after saw an owl rapidly fly over our heads. It disappeared into the forest. We kept at it for an hour or so. I place two fingers over my lips and started to make a squeaky sound, like that of trapped mice. Two hours went by and no owl. We were ready to go home, bruised, battered and disappointed. I decided to give it one last chance and with my good arm pointed the flashlight to a few trees. There it was! Staring at us from above, probably amused by our clumsy sounds and searching methods. Mocking us who knows for how long, the ashy face owl was perched in a big “pomo” tree. I called my brother out there out from the car were he had already gone to play some music and get ready to go back home, told him where to point the flashlight so I could get my camera ready and shoot. The owl gave just enough time, just over 30 seconds to get ready and act. I took the shot and it immediately flew back into the darkness of the Jarabacoa midnight, rewarding me with a decent image, a great adventure and reestablishing my honor after a nasty fall.
Since I can remember I wanted my own small cabin up in the mountains. I think it’s a desire that has always been in my DNA, like the need to breath or drink water. I am certain I get it from my mom and my early childhood weekends at San Cristobal: the treehouse, the hunt for eggs, the camping trips… I always pictured this small wooden house, golden retriever and fireplace included and magnificent view to the mountains. In my dream the weather was cooler than the Caribbean hot air and there were orange and pine trees. Maybe snow… When I first got my drivers license, I immediately drove towards the Cordillera Central and started to look for land to acquire. I saw plenty of places in plenty of counties. I drove all over the place with a Pear Jam cassette playing and the will to get my dream. I did find very nice lots, but I could barely afford the gas to get back… it was a hopeless search but a fun one. Once I had to exchange a couple of swimsuits and t-shirts for a few gallons of gas to get back to the city.
Finally in 2009, after 13 years of driving and dreaming, I had enough dough and courage to afford a decent piece of land and so Quinta Rosa was born. This place is my refuge and my haven. Most of my expeditions and adventure start and end here and is the only place I feel whole. One of my kids love it. The other hates it. My wife tolerates it. But I’m a happy camper with a realized dream but the snow.
This is the Black-crowned Palm-tanager (phaenicophilus palmarum) and the first time I saw it was while peeing in my grandmothers bathroom. Seriously. There was an illustration of this great bird hanging in the wall in front of the toilet and I would stared at the image while emptying my bladder. I remember feeling a bit embarrassed by this unusual voyeur and wonder about the real reason of it having “4 eyes” . -It doesn’t really have 4 eyes, but it looks like it. Is for fooling enemies – my grandma said. It looked more like a masked thieve to me and I thought t needed no protection from anything, but the other way around.
Years later when I got interested in birds and photography I would bump into this beloved childhood companion again and again. It’s very common in the island and can only be found here. As most weekends, last Sunday I went birding in Quintas del Bosque and it was not one of the most successful sessions I’ve had. I wanted to stay close to the cabin in order to spend more time with the wife and kids. But my dear “4 ojos” was there for me as usual. Always curious, almost reckless. I find it to be the most underrated bird in the Hispaniola. More beautiful than people give it credit for, more common than people realize and a lot more friendly that it should be. So if you ever come down to the Dominican Republic or Haiti, look this bird up. It will gift you with wonderful images and joyous times.
A constant theme on blogs and websites all over the world is the celebrated “Bucket List”. When briefly faced with mortality one tends to make a list of achievements one must accomplish and fulfill our presence in the carnal dimension. I too have my list. Actually I have many lists: places I must see, books I must read, restaurants I must dine at and photographs I must capture before I die. These are note necessarily extraordinary images, not all of them at least, but things and places I want to see and record with my camera.
1. The eye of the humpback whale: actually this is very close to happening, since next February I will sail with Aquatic Adventures to snorkel with the humpbacks in the Silver Banks of my own country, Dominican Republic. I once saw a close up picture of a whales head and was very taken my the “humanness” of it’s gaze.
2. Portrait of a Bengal tiger: Once seen in the Chivas Reagal TV spot, it was burned in my brain. A tiger has always been a beast of power, elegance and flare. To hunt it down, spot it, aim and shoot and capture it on film in the wild must be an extraordinary experience.
3. Gray wolf: I had a close encounter with one once. While hiking Dumpling with my brother and a friend in Katmai National Park, we stopped to look at some black-capped chickadees when suddenly my brother heard a twig snap. After the now funny – uh oh – I turned around to find myself only a couple of yards from the intense stare of a lone wolf. I did not have the courage to photograph it and instead we fled. I deeply regret missing that opportunity and must seek this photo to redeem myself.
4. Hispaniolan Solenodont: the prehistoric creature is one of the few Caribbean endemic mammals that remain today. Threaten my habitat loss and domestic predators (cats and dogs) this ugly rodent-like thing is magnificent and it’s also one of the few mammals in the world that have some kind of poison. Most Dominicans have never seen one, including myself, hence my determination to capture it on film in the next 12 months.
5. Panoramic shot in Muir Woods: I visited Muir Woods two years ago and was overwhelmed by the majestic Red Woods. I could’ve wondered around in the forest forever. I love trees. I find them to be very noble and wise creatures, and Muir Woods is like the cathedral of great trees. Two years ago I was not into photography yet, but next time my camera and I will attempt to capture the wonderful poetry of such a magical place.
6. Bald eagle attack: I did photograph bald eagles while in Alaska very recently, but only perched in the top of a pine tree. Since I already have a shot of the snowy owl, my favorite bird in the world, this bird is the next favorite raptor on my list. Its attack is swift and efficient like no other and a shot of it fishing or hunting is a must.
7. Aerial view of the Amazon River: the first book that changed my life was “Los pasos perdidos” (The lost footsteps) by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. In it a musicologist goes deep in to the jungle and looses the sense of time, reason while taking the reader into a delicious adventure. Since then I have always desired to capture the Amazons image. An aerial view of a curvy segment will satisfy this need.
8. The emperor penguins of Antarctica: As most of us I was taken my “The march of the penguins”. Their determination, their strength and the hostile and beautiful place they live in has to be one of the most overwhelming sites on earth. I have seen various shots of the image I want, most of them taken by wonderful photographers. But more than getting the image, the experience of taking it is what I seek.
9. The Narwhal: Forget the scientific fact that proves is not a horn but an overgrown tooth. I think of it as sea unicorn with a horn and a wonderful spirit. I have no specific reason for desiring an image of this mythological creature rather than it’s beauty and my child-long desire of riding a unicorn.
10. Underwater landscape of the Great Barrier Reef: I did scuba dive for a while until one of my eardrums gave out and could not equalize anymore. I’ll buy a helmet if I have to for this shot. Diving is like floating into an alien atmosphere. I will play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and take this photo if is the last thing I do.
This is the gem of La Hispaniola. A small drop of feathers and jewels, without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful endemic birds of Dominican Republic and Haiti. One of two species on the island, the broad-billed tody (todus subulatus ), it’s easy to spot in the right habitat. I frequently photograph this pretty little thing near my cabin in Quintas del Bosque. It is a curious and fast creature and its call sounds more like that of an insect than an actual bird.
The first time I spotted one of this gorgeous little birds, was by pure coincidence. I was sitting in my porch and this little gem perched on a pine branch a few meters away from my rocking chair. Since then, every time a birding expedition goes bad, I can always count on getting home, pouring my self a drink and snapping a few shots of this green treasure in my own backyard.