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It was almost 18 months ago when I posted about my frustrating struggle with hummingbirds. Since then, I have worked hard to perfect my technique and learn more about these fast and furious little creatures. I am completely in awe with their agility and speed, the two same attributes that makes them so hard to photograph. But it has been 18 months of training, focus and yes, a lot of frustration.

In my recent trip to Arizona I finally got my revenge. I finally got some images that I am proud of. We did drive over 1,100 miles in one week to achieve it, but got the wonderful chance to photograph species like the Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-billed hummingbird, Broad-tailed hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Magnificient Hummingbird and the elusive (and shown here below) Lucifer Hummingbird.  The Arizona  Adventure will take many chapters to tell, but it the meanwhile and as promised november 2011, I want to share with you some of my favourite humming-bird photos. I still have a long way to go, but progess has been made… and smiles are now sharing the same space that was once only filled with frustration._MGL0953_MGL9683

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CF6A3279Few birds are as graceful and charming as flamingoes. Despite the harm done to their image by Florida’s horrifying plastic statues, these birds are gorgeous and stylish creatures. Their pink feathers and their unmistakable beak, along with their long legs, make the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), one of the true wonders of nature.

Their habitat selection is pretty specific, so this is not a bird you run into, but a bird you have to seek. In the Dominican Republic we are lucky enough to have two or three sites where they nest or feed with certain regularity, so that november morning I set out to find them and hopefully get some nice images.

It was before dusk and I was driving in the main road towards Salinas, and right there, in the pond next to the road, their magic and long silhouettes appeared against the first pinkish light on the Caribbean winter.

Of course Flamingos are skittish birds and getting close to them is not easy, so I had to crawl among the bushes and the sand to get somewhat close. I recently read an Anselm Adam’s quote that when something like this: “good exposure does not make up for bad lighting”. I am sure I am getting it wrong, but that’s the idea. That morning the light was perfect though! So coming up with the right exposure was not as hard as making a great composition; every time I thought I had it the birds moved or flew away.

These are indeed the best shots of that morning. Not necessarily great, but good enough for transforming an ordinary morning into an extraordinary experience.

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Lekking is no doubt one of the most fascinating behaviours on the bird world. Maybe because somehow we can relate quite a bit to it. Males competing for females attention is no completely unfamiliar to us know, is it?

I was lucky enough to visit the Black Grouse lekking site twice while in Finland. These beautiful birds tend to use the same site for over a decade and the opportunity to observe this experience is priceless. The birds dark plumage is very hard to photograph against the white snow, but once you get a good shot, every degree of cold is worth it. After 243 species, the Black Grouse remains on my personal top 5. I can’t wait to go back.

 

Special thanks to Finnature. 

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In 1978, the year I was born, Dr. José Pantaleón, only 20 years of age, was holding in his hands the first ever collected individual of the elusive Spotted Rail in Hispaniola. Not yet a photographer but a hunter, that was the last he was going to see of the species until 35 years later. I have a wicked theory that Panta, as we call him, probably wont like, but the reason this bird eluded him for so long, is no other that the punishment for his hunting years. The sentence was bitter and cruel, I agree, but finally the good doctor can set aside his sorrow and add another hard-to-find species to his impressive and extensive gallery.

A recognised cardiologist, Panta as all nature photographers, has an obsessive personality. He will go on and on until he achieves his target and is willing to sacrifice almost everything in the process. This is something very familiar to me, since “obsessive” seems to be the first word used when describing me no matter who you asked… specially my wife.

As I posted before, I had my glorious encounter with the Spotted Rail thanks to my friend and master birder, Miguel Landestoy, who is not but should be considered a doctor as well. Miguel and I discovered the bird together (thanks to his knowledge and my obsessiveness) and ruined Panta’s Christmas celebration when posted the images on Flickr adding fuel to his fire. After getting over the initial surprised, Panta called and we agreed to visit the site together after the new year celebrations. But honestly,  after traveling with 3 kids, taking 3 long flights back home and a sleepless week, I had totally  forgotten our conversation.  Until  last friday at 8pm, I received a call from Panta confirming the earned pardon-to-be next saturday morning.  – Oh shit – I thought. I had family duties to comply with, but I was not willing to deprive this man of his redemption.

We agreed on sunday and there I was picking him up exactly at 6:23am to head to the wetlands of Monteplata. Panta was excited and so was I. This guy has beautifully photographed almost every species of bird in the island and to be responsible to fulfil the long time dream of his, was a big honor.

We arrived at the site and after some coffee offered by some very nice locals, we walked into the water for the expected encounter. It was a good morning, the bird complied and cooperated. We observed three individuals, two of them photographable. It was a good morning indeed. There were plenty of purple gallinule all over and even a juvenile that walked inches away from our feet while we hid behind a mash cover. Besides the shots taken that day, we observed interesting behaviour of this species, that eventually will end in a full report. We vowed to go back and at the same time, set expectations for our next target: the Black Rail. The Doctor got his photos, redeemed himself to the bird gods and I was lucky to be a part of it.

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As you may already know, Hispaniola is an island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The eastern half, the DR, is not only my home but also for obvious reasons my primary birding and photography destination. When I started with this obsession for birds, I wanted to read and learn as much as I could as fast as I could. And as anybody who an interest in any of our 30+ endemics or hundreds of resident and migrating species, the best place to start is the Field Guide to Birds of la Hispaniola. This is how I began.

The book is a very complete account of all birds observed on the island. It will give you a quick and broad scope of all the possibilities of species and habitats available as well as great illustrations on almost all of them. Of course the most bright and colourful species are the ones everyone, including myself, wants to start with: Hispaniolan Trogon, Broad-billed Tody, Antillean Bullfinch and so on. You never have good-enough photos of this species…  But after a while, when they become not-so-hard to find, the thirst of new discovery comes back. So every once in a while I go back to the field guide and I try to choose a species I have not seen yet. Like the case of the Northern Pottoo. Which I have not yet observed even after many night drives around the island and failed expeditions to sites that were supposed to be “sure-things”.

That saturday I went out with Miguel Landestoy, who along with Nicolás Corona, whom I haven’t met yet, I consider the two top birders on the island. Miguel and I headed north-east in search of one of the few birds he hadn’t seen yet and I hadn’t even heard of.  That sole fact should tell you a bit of how rare this bird is in Hispaniola. We started at marshes and swamps in Monteplata with no luck. We drove around dirt roads in the area and stopped at any little spot of grass in the wetlands nearby in hope of spotting the Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculatus). This bird was discovered in Hispaniola in 1978 and to the best of my knowledge it has only been spotted a few times after that and even though I haven’t seen any photographs I know the great dominican photographer Pedro Genaro was able to take some good shots few years ago. I am unaware of any more photos taken in Hispaniola, but if they exist, they are only a few.

We were about to call it a day when we stopped at one final lagoon and went in knee-deep into the water chasing after some Purple Gallinules when a quick small shadow flew by after making a quirky gutural sound. And there it was, a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Spotted Rail. That was the last we saw of it. But I was hooked on the challenge and determined to get the shot.

A week later I went back. Prepared with proper equipment I arrived before dark and went into the water. I made sure my camouflage was good enough and waited silently. There was a Belted Kingfisher perched just over my head and I had to pull all my strength not to alter the stillness of the water by photographing it. After all, is one of my favourite birds. There were plenty Purple Gallinules around as well as a couple of Limpkins. But patience paid off and this elusive bird came out of the tall grasses and walked right by me as it snacked on apple snail. It would suddenly freeze and look around, feeling that something was strange that morning but without being able to pinpoint exactly what. I stayed in the water for nearly four hours and was able to get some decent shots of the least observed and photographed bird on the Hispaniola and some pretty cool shots of the Purple Gallinules,  the birds that unknowingly helped us find a true feathered treasure.

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_MGL8790I try to do at least 3 photography trips a year. Between getting permissions from the wife, the job and the cashflow, 3 trips is all I can do in one calendar year, but also 3 are enough to satisfy my minimum requirements of adventure in my everyday corporate life.  So when an opening presented it self for november 2012, I had to figure out where was the best spot to travel taking in consideration distance, budget and of course, dates available.

I asked around, I googled options, I researched everywhere and all quests ended up almost unanimously in one destination. It just so happens that november is not the best month to go photographing birds in North America, unless you are visiting Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.  So when I saw that a full moon was also on the menu, the decisions was made pretty quickly

Bosque del Apache is about 1hr south of Albuquerque and only 8 miles aways from Socorro, NM. So after flying SDQ-MIA-DFW-ABQ I was eager to get to the refuge the next morning. I had invited my mother, a true adventurer and the culprit of my own insatiable desire to explore, to come along. My mother is not a photographer, but she is an avid observer of nature in all its forms. We woke up at 4am and by 4:45am we were already in front of 5K+ Sandhill Cranes in the pools just outside the refuge main entrance.

There is not much one can say about Bosque further than what photographs can, but let me just say that this is Disneyland for wildlife photographers. Just try to imagine over 50K snow geese, 10K sandhill cranes and several other species of birds and mammals. Just try to imagine photographing the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets mixed with blast-offs of thousands and thousands of geese. Just try to imagine getting there everyday at 5am and leaving at 7pm for 6 days straight, always with a big smile on your face.

Before arriving I feared that all photos taken at Bosque by the hundreds if not thousands of professional photographers that show up every migration season, looked exactly the same. But actually, this is quite impossible. I was there with probably 50 other photographers and I am pretty happy with my photos, and after looking around in the web, I think they are pretty genuine.

There is something quite strange about Bosque del Apache. For photographers and I think is that feeling that something is too good to be true… and actually it is. The fact that a place full of opportunities to make great memorable shots exist, is just outstanding. Is like going to graduate school and working at your dream job all at the same time.

I took 14K shots in 5 full days and I can’t wait to go back and try different things. This is a place I want to repeat and someday take my kids, hopefully each one of them will be holding a camera as well.

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_MGL9125 _MGL8918 _MGL8017 _MGL6673 _MGL6341_MGL6991 _MGL9540 _MGL9785To see more photos of my Adventures in New Mexico just click here.

Greater Antillean Bullfinch (Loxigilla violacea)

No matter where I travel in the world, there is always one place that will never cease to amaze me: La Sierra de Bahoruco. It is a place filled with magic and resilience. La Sierra manages to stay alive and beautiful despite all the harm that has been caused by humans. Of course it wont be like this forever, if you keep pounding on her she will eventually die. But every time I set foot I always come home with new hope and a profound sense of humility and awe. The vegetation varies a lot: from dry forest to transition to broad-leaf rainforest to pine forest all in minutes from one another. Temperature can also be as wide and varied as vegetation, so this mixture of ecosystems gives place to a melting pot of species of all kinds; plants, birds, amphibians, reptiles and birds.. but also mammals. The only two endemic mammals, the Hispaniolan Solenodont (Solenodon paradoxus) and the Hispaniolan Jutia (Plagiodontia aedium) are found here, and mostly only here.

Most Hispaniolan endemic birds can be found here but also other great species such as the Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis), Greater-Antillean Bullfinch (Lixigilla violacea) and Antillean Euphonia (euphonia musica). Also the entire populate in the Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) migrates to this place for winter, as well as our endemic La Selle Thrush (Turdus swalesi) which is pretty much only found here. You can also find the most beautiful song in the bird kingdom in these forest: that of the Rufousthroated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis). This gorgeous whistle fills the forest just before dawn and really creates a surreal atmosphere.

I crave this place. When I am locked in my office, thinking of budgets and strategic plans and cash flow, La Sierra always provides a safe haven for me to look forward too and pull trough. Evey time I go the experience is different. Every time I go a want more. I have been around in the world, but still La Sierra de Bahoruco always manages, with her accustomed resilience, to come back and retain her title as my favourite nature spot in the world, and that my friends, it’s a tough title to keep.

Rufous-throated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis)

Antillean Euphonia (Euphonia musica)