Monthly Archives: September 2012

As in most weekends, I woke up early an headed out-of-town. The sun was not yet out and the morning was clear and purple. It felt good to be out on the road listening to Jack Johnson. I drove west towards Baní, where Salinas and its marvellous sand dune are located, but instead turned via Los Corbanitos; a paradisiac deserted beach where sometimes flamingoes visit. The mangroves look healthy and the water is clean, the pelicans dive violently into the water and once in a while you can see an iguana near by.

That morning I had one target: The Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris). I had tried with no success before but this time I had refined my technique. The sun was just coming out and the purplish morning had turned pink and orange. It was crisp and cool and I felt things were going my way. I picked a spot in front of the mangroves, laid in the moist sand and covered my self with leaves and branches. Then I waited.. I just waited and waited for over 45 minutes. I could hear the waves crashing on the shore, I could hear the weavers making noise in the bushes behind me.. I saw a kestrel fly by me, I saw pelicans with a mouthful of fish and I even saw vervain hummingbirds perch on the mangrove, but still I waited.

The suddenly I was a long orange beak slowly coming out of the mangroves, slowly and cautiously the bird walk out, he took two slow steps and then rushed again to the mangroves. It did the same a few times and the finally, when it thought it was safe, it calmed down and walked into the open. But to my surprise a second rail walked just behind him. I also calmed my self, trying not to make any noise and I took the first shot, the second and so on. I was very pleased with the photos from that morning: the light was good, the bird had collaborated and patience had once again paid off. 



When I first started in bird photography I heard for the first time the name “Arthur Morris” from a good friend and the one who first pointed me in the right direction. He almost whispered when letting that name out of his mouth. – Arthur Morris started it all – he sentenced. Naturally I went home and researched the guy, bought his books, looked at his photos. And yes the guy is good, and yes, he has a lot of merit. But really, his photos did not move me one bit. They are great photos, don’t get me wrong, but they are lacking something, at least in my taste.

Next time I ran into my friend we spoke again about Arthur Morris and he was shocked, almost offended when I said I respected his work but it really didn’t rock my boat. We talked a bit more and he laid down some rules of bird photography, according to Arthur Morris.

1. Always focus on the eye.

2. Don’t ever crop the bird, always photograph the whole bird.

3. Never photograph the bird from below.

And there you have it, those three golden rules are what finally made me see what I did not like about this guy, or at least, about his followers: rules! Mr. Morris might be the father of bird photography and he is talented and a pioneer indeed, but I do not see what others do in his work. It just doesn’t move me. I have a Fine Arts background and even though abstract painting is not the same as bird photography, I think the same principles apply:


Then I discovered, by mere accident, the work of Markus Varesvuo and now I was really excited. He had no apparent rules. HIs work was subtle, thought-out and beautiful. I am not planning to describe his work, please go and Google it, but after that I really started to try different things with my photography. I talk to Markus once in a while (well, not really talk, but chat on Facebook) and his work is still an inspiration. He can turn a pigeon or a mallard into a work of art. It does not matter if the bird is rare or common, if it’s perching on a tree on the woods or in front of house… wherever the bird is, whatever the bird is, Markus can turn it into the protagonist of a beautiful story. His two books, Magic Moments and Fascinating Birds, are proof of his craft.

So moving on, there are no rules, as long as technique meets skill and soul.

Animals are unpredictable… at least most of the time. Photographing them is a true challenge. You can’t count that you will actually find them and if you do they don’t sit still for you to get ht perfect shot. But I have always lived by the mantra “life is a journey not a destination”, so in the long and always-challenging process of photographing animals, mostly birds, I always take time to enjoy the scenery. I always take the time to look around.

There is always beauty no matter where you are: the way the sun hits the leaves, or the dust… the way certain shade of certain tree produces a mysterious aura or simply a fallen trunk over the steam of a river in mid winter. Something is always out there if you just learn how to look. That is the key: to really know how to look and I am certain that is the most important thing I learned in art school.

This planet is filled with amazing creatures, but also with amazing places if you just look around. These are some examples:

There are birds that are simply breathtaking. Birds that either with their color, their attitude or a particular behaviour develop certain charm that captivates us. The Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) is not one of them. This ordinary looking bird has no particular charm: not its call, nor its plumage. It is a plain-looking bird and most people would simply dismiss it and go look at leaves or clouds.

But something happened between me and that bird that binds us forever. Something far from extraordinary but that somehow sealed a deep bond. I felt his terrible loneliness. I sensed he was an outcast and  that made me care for him. I felt the need to defend him. I felt emotionally connected to him as I have never been to any bird at time.

As I was photographing an earful of Bohemian Waxwings in Yellowstone National Park, I noticed that a Townsend’s Solitaire on a near branch, helpless and desperate. Townsend’s Solitaire can be very territorial and will defend their turf specially in winter. But in this case there was nothing he could do against over 3,000 Waxwings desperate for food, so he simply stood aside, and watch as they devoured every juniper berry and made a noisy fuss all around him. He seemed annoyed and overwhelmed. Every time the Waxwings abandoned a tree and flew to the next, just behind them came the Solitaire and claimed it with pride and bravery. It  ceremoniously chose a branch and perched there until the Waxwings left the next tree.. and the next and the next and so on, until the day was over, the sun was down and the shores of Boiling River once again belonged to him, his loneliness and the bitter cold.

My father in-law has a saying: – the harder I work the luckier I get – . I could not agree more. I am not sure if he made it up or heard it somewhere but this bit of truth is probably what is lacking in 99% of the population. People expect things to “happen” to them when people should “make” things happen. Of course a bit of luck always play a part, but to be in the right place at the right time, you first have to be in the right place as much as you can, and eventually the right time will come.

This is also true in the wild and this weekend was irrefutable evidence. My friend Ivan Mota and I ventured into one of the most magical forests in the Island: La Placa. We had just spent all night looking for Barn Owls and with only few hours of sleep went into the dense but dry forest of La Placa on the foots on la Sierra de Bahoruco. This place is known for having the most sightings of the Bay-brested cuckoo, an endemic and one of the most rare birds in the world. This is the gem of all birders and only the lucky ones, or those who work really hard, get to see it. I have had two sightings already, both brief and only very poor photos have come out of it.

We, as all birders who walk into La Placa, were looking for La Cúa, as the bay-brested cuckoo is known locally. We walked in roughly at 6:20am, still dark and by 9am we had already figured out we were completely lost. Every trail looked the same, every tree looked the same and the GPS on my cel phone was out due to lack of 3G signal… or any phone signal whatsoever. We had no water, no food, no nothing.. only 25 pounds of equipment over my shoulders and the nagging feeling this was going to be a rough morning. But we did not panic… at least not for the first five hours. We admired great birds such as the Key-west Quail Dove, the Antillean Siskin, Hispaniolan Trogan, Broad and narrow-billed tody, antillean euphonia and many other… we carefully searched every branch even in the brink of desperation. At one point, close to panicking, I saw a brown leave move.. then fly into a tree. I quickly grabbed my 300mm lens and looked at it. Surprise!!!! It was my first sighting of the Hispaniolan Nightjar or Pitanguá (caprimulgus ekmani). This bird is extremely hard to see specially in broad daylight. It is easier to hear at night, but sightings are slight and photographs even slighter. But Ivan and I got ours. This is a weird-looking bird, as all nightjars are, it’s camouflage is exquisite and the confidence it has in it, is remarkable. Getting lost provided unexpected benefits and we really took advantage of it.

We finally made it out, six and a half hours after first walking in. But we did not care. We had our trophy, and even with the scars of war (I was bleeding from one shoulder from carrying my 500mm and tripod for so long) we were proud, dirty and hungry. So there you have it…. it is a fact, the harder I work, the more I try, the harder I look… the luckier I get.

As I first approached on foot the dunes in Baní the feeling was otherwordly. Like if for a moment I was in that Star Wars film where there was only sand and evil creatures owned other evil creatures as pets. With my tripod, camera and backpack I found my way trough the few shrubs and bushes that surround the small bits of water on that grey desert until I got to medium size pond on the other side of the sand hills. This seemed like a perfect place to photograph.As I waited for the sun to come out I laid, belly down on the damp mud. For a moment there I could only imagine the look on my wife’s face when I got back home full of mud from head to toes! She was not going to be happy about this!

A small group of birds, least sandpipers (calidris minutilla), looked for food near the shore only a couple of centimeters deep. They seemed oblivious to my presence and showed no fear. Studies show that once a human being looses its vertical shape by laying down, most birds don’t see us as such a threat. Suddenly the first rays of sunlight came out from behind the trees I started shooting, no flash. Amazing reflections and pure backgrounds emerged in my camera screen. Mosquitos had a feast on my arms, but I walked away itchy and happy with photographs worth every bite and ounce of mud.

“It looks just like a Barn Owl” seems to be the response from every first encounter with this bird. And it does look like a Barn Owl but it is just a bit rarer, cooler. The Ashy-Face Owl, also in the tytonaide family, is endemic to La Hispaniola and slightly smaller than the American Barn Owl. It’s shiny heart-shaped face and dark gazing eyes are remarkable and enchanting. I first fell in love with owls two years ago with my first encounter with a Burrowing Owl and it has been another growing obsession that has put me on my friends “weird” list since then. I travel specifically with the purpose of watching and photographing owls, but something greater connects me with the Ashy. I guess it could be a sense of camaraderie, since we are both from the same island, or maybe it is everything I had to go to achieve my first Ashy photo , whatever it is I find my self going deeper and deeper into the Ashy-face’s world only to be struck by the lack of information regarding these marvellous birds.

There is a lot of information out there on owls, specially Barn Owls. Books like “Wesley the Owl” by Stacey O’Brien have also contributed to increase popularity and love for owls (by the way, great book, a must read for every owl lover). A recent animated movie, “Legends of the Guardians of Ga’hoole” portrayed a young Barn Owl as the hero. In the Dominican Republic thought, owls are feared and hunted down. Some people believe they eat chickens so they kill them, others thinks they are evil and others just hunt them out of ignorance and sport.

The North Wales Bird Trust has teamed up with ZooDom to create the Dominican Republic Owl Conservation Project, specially conceived to study and protect four species:

•The Ashy Faced Owl (Tyto glaucops)

•The Hispaniola Short Eared Owl (Asio flammeus domingensis)

The Hispaniola Stygian Owl (Asio stygius noctipetens)

•The Hispaniola Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia troglodytes)

I think we can go much further. I think the Ashy-Faced owl should be a symbol of Dominican Identity. I think we have to create images and stories in order to get the message across and help protect this species by making farmers realise they do not eat chickens but only mice, which could prove very helpful. I think there is room for improvement in schools regarding education of all our endemic species. I think we could make literary and photographic contests aimed to increase awareness and produced powerful messages. Endemic wildlife is part of who we are as a country. It’s the more valuable legacy we inherited and is our commitment to cherish it and pass it down. I encourage you to help out the D.R.O.C.P., either donating money or knowledge or just spreading the word.

Personally, my goal is to help publish a book with photos, behavioural notes and studies about the tyto glaucops. The way I see it, this could be Dominican Republic’s most famous bird, even thought competition is tough with colourful species like the Todies ( todus subulatus & todus angustirstris), the HIspaniolan Trogan (priotelus roseigaster) and the Black-crowned Palm Tanager (phaenicophilus palmarum). But the Ashy has the mystery and the charm to pull through. I’m sure of it. From a marketing perspective it has all the elements to become a celebrity. I want the world to know about this owl. It seems the only way we Dominicans appreciate our treasures is when somebody from the outside does first.