Monthly Archives: November 2011

There are places that are simply magical. Places once you set foot they will be always with you. Energy oozes from the ground and it surrounds us and everything we are. Usually those places are very far away in another continent and time zone. We tend to think of them as exotic and mysterious destinies in a land far, far away. But this place my friends, the one I just got back from, is right here on our tiny island of la Hispaniola. It’s a patch of pristine forest, with great eco-diversity, breathtaking views and an enchanted spell casted on everyone who dares visit: La Sierra de Bahoruco. 
Bahoruco is an abrupt mountain chain on the southwest of the Dominican Republic just footsteps away from Haiti. It’s a steep system of rock formations than was probably once an island itself, hence most endemic birds and amphibians are found here and in cases, only here. I had visited places near by before, but never had I gone into the heart of this always-changing jungle. 
The expedition consisted of Dax; a fellow photographer, Ivan, a biologist from the Dominican Environmental Agency and myself, and it was planned to be a short but intense weekend trip focused mostly on Rabo de Gato and Zapotén. 
I do not intend to tell the whole story of the trip in a blog post, this is simply impossible. According to Alejo Carpentier  “new worlds have to be lived in order to be explained” and I incline to agree. I will write three posts after this one, one for each day in the enchanted forest and each with a few photographs of the species observed and bits and pieces of the adventures we went trough to capture them. 



I know a guy who hunts. I mean he hunts lions, elephants, rhinos and polar bears… the real deal. He hunts, his sister hunts, his father hunts, his grandfather hunts… hunting is like a family Sunday for these guys, and they see nothing wrong with it. I have nothing against hunting, depending on the circumstances behind it that is. If hungry, I will hunt a tiger in order not to die, after all, humanity was built on the power to eat other animals, but hunting for sport, it just seems a bit arrogant to me…Hey! I won’t judge.
The other day I ran into this guy in a party and started a friendly conversation. He talked about hunting (of course) and I talked about conservation of animals. He told me about his expeditions and I talked about mine. It was then that I was stunned. Besides the difference between a lens and a gun, we were talking about the same thing: listening to the animal, tracking it, stalking it, attracting his attention when necessary and then taking the shot. I guess it’s all about possessing that which we chase: the perfect shot.

Last weekend I enjoyed what is probably my most difficult photographic hunt to date: the belted kingfisher. This fast devil might be common in other parts of the world, but in the Dominican Republic this evasive bird it’s very hard to spot and specially to photograph. It was about eight o’clock in the morning and I had just finished a routine walk at Humedales de Nigua. The 2km walk had produced decent images of the green heron, the mangrove cuckoo, the great egret, various sandpipers and the yellow warbler. I was ready to go home when in the distance I somehow spotted and curious shape perched in a dead tree. That beak was unmistakable: it was the kingfisher, my kingfisher. I searched my iPod for its call and hid the speaker below some driftwood, then hid myself behind some bushes and waited… waited. The bird appeared circling over my head and I felt a rapid rush of blood in my head. It was exhilarating! It perched in the perfect branch in front of me, probably ten to fifteen meters away and I took the shot. A rapid fire from my shutter captured this beauty in a few seconds. He flew away confused about the invisible sound that kept calling him. He came back over and over again. I moved fast from one bush to another. Following the bird with my eyes and ears, with my agile lens. He kept moving, flying in circles and then perching in the same branch… the end of this hunt was a series of pictures I feel very proud of, not only of the images themselves, but the adrenaline-filled chase that turned me into a predator without taking anybody’s life.

Ok, so the title sounds like a Bond movie and I feel the word “mystery” has never been so close to the word “ornithology” before, but still in the Dominican ornithology community, it rings true. The mystery is: how the roufous-collard sparrow got to the island of La Hispaniola. First let me state that I am neither an ornithologist nor a professional photographer, but I guy who loves birds and photography and likes to wonder around the mountains of the Cordillera Central. When I started birding and started talking to old timers, I found there are three big mysteries in the Dominican bird community:

1. The double-striped thick-knee (Burhinus bistriatus)

2. The Hispaniolan Crossbill (Loxia megaplaga)

3.The Roufous-collard Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis)

But today we are sticking to the latter one. Among the very knowledgeable people on the subject I got to discuss it with José Pantaleón and Pedro Genaro, two amazing wildlife photographers specialized in Dominican endemic fauna.

Locally it is called “Cigüa de Constanza”, but technically it is not a “cigüa” but a sparrow as its English name indicates. Secondly it is not limited to Constanza, as it was first believed, but the real mystery is how this bird got here since it is not present neither in Cuba nor Puerto Rico nor Jamaica and it is certainly not endemic either. Its Latin name is Zonotrichia capensis.

Zonotrichia referring to the black stripes on its head and capensis, which apparently is mistakenly used since this term is use to name birds first seen in Cape Hope. The hypothesis is that in the first text written on the species it should have been “cayensis” from the French Guyana and a typo could be responsible for this. Still the real mystery has no real answer. This bird it’s only found on the mountains of the Cordillera Central above 900mts from sea level and has no other presence in the island nor similar avi-fauna ecosystems in the Caribbean. It is no likely that Europeans brought it since the bird lives in North and South America.

This beautiful sparrow is common in my Jarabacoa backyard. I have seen and photographed juvenile specimens only weeks old, I have seen couples jumping from branch to branch and mostly on the floor looking for food near my orange trees. I have no intention of solving this mystery but only to keep enjoying this delightful sparrow that has Dominican ornithologist scratching their heads.

Every morning as soon as I open my eyes I reach to my nightstand and grab my iPhone. Is something that I am not proud of, but apparently 64% of us do it before getting out of bed. I read my news on the CNN app, read my email, check out some Flickr new uploads from my contacts and look at my blog’s stats. The normal trend is 10 to 15 readers every morning and around 35-40 by the end of the day. That comes to a weekly approximate of 195 visitors. Even thou my native tongue is Spanish I decided to write in English because wildlife photography is not exactly the national sport in the Dominican Republic, if my blog would’ve been about baseball or politics that would be another story. I am not my best when writing in English but I try my best. I have my daughter and wife proofread it and finally I have Microsoft Word proof read it. A few mistakes do escape all of us but I get by. Usually after posting I am still editing typos and grammar mistakes.

I enjoy going into the wild and taking pictures and try to do at least once a week. I enjoy writing about them and hopefully getting some feedback. So yesterday, while having lunch with my wife and daughter I started to notice something weird about my blog. At 12:30 ET I had the expected 23 views and suddenly 128 reader….248 readers…. 311 reader, 500, 600, 1300…. WTF?!!! I was happy and confused. Then I saw an email from Erica notifying me that my post “My Alaskan odyssey: Kaktovik” had been “Freshly Pressed”. It felt pretty cool to be noticed and considered good enough to be pressed into the world. Actually, it felt awesome! The views kept coming; the subscriptions kept mounting and the comments still keep on coming. I must’ve done something right, but still I can’t exactly pin point it. These are some probable causes:

1. I am writing often and about something I really liked.

2. The fact that I go “into the wild” every weekend gives me enough material to write something I enjoy and not only words to fill my blog with.

3. Pictures. I write about photographs I take, so I assume this makes it a bit more attractive and easy to dig.

4. My uncle. Yes! My uncle was the one who invited me to Alaska and provide the opportunity to write about Kaktovik and take those pictures of such an incredible creature.

5. I was not writing with being “freshly Pressed” in mind, but only as a way to document my adventures and passion with nature. Also, to escape the advertising world at least 15 minutes a day.

Whatever the reason was, being “Pressed” turns blogging into a bigger challenge, a fun challenge but a bigger one indeed. Kaktovik was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity very hard to duplicate. I will try to find places and photographs to match it, but for now I am just thankful to have more people to share stories with.

Those little jewels move so freaking fast, way faster than my auto-focus. There are thousands in Jarabacoa: Vervain hummingbirds, Antillean mangoes and Hispaniolan Emeralds. All three are abundant and very successful at avoiding my camera while hovering rapidly from flower to flower. As you can see in this post I’ve gotten a few shots, but none that satisfy my need to posses a self-captured image of these curious birds. I have read tips and tricks for photographing hummingbirds but haven’t really focused on them until now. I have to admit they are not my favorite family of birds, far from it, but I do have a fascination for their scale-like feathers. The first time I zoomed into one of my pictures I thought it looked more like a magical fish than an actual bird. Starting today I will not stop until I get at least 10 decent in-flight hummingbird photos, including but not limited to all three species present in the Dominican Republic. This is my challenge and I’ll take it seriously. Every time I get one I’ll post it here and hope to hear back from you. I’ll have to arm my self with patience (which I lack) and determination, but this is a challenge the hummingbirds are not going to win. I promise.