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Hispaniola

_MGL4967When Columbus first arrived in what is now called the island of Hispaniola, wildlife was rich abundant; manatees thrived in the fresh water streams, trogans could be plucked like ripe fruit and parrots and parakeets where as common as insects in the lush Caribbean forests. Today everything is threatened, including us humans. We have managed to destroy one of the most beautiful places in the world and most of the time feel proud of what we call “progress”. Our greed and disregard for the place we live in, is driving every species to extinction including our own. But in that sad and terrible reality, there are some odd and positive stories.

Such is that of the Hispaniolan Parakeet ( Aratinga chloroptera). This emerald-green and noisy little fellow was heavily hunted down for its feathers and for the illegal pet trade. Along with the Hispaniolan Parrot (Amazona ventralis) the Hispaniolan Parakeet is sold to adorn houses and learn curse words. It is smuggled into US cities where dominicans live to remind them of the beauty back home. It was first described in 1856 by the french ornithologist Charles Souancé, which seems very surprising since such a pretty and obvious bird should have been noted much earlier. It is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List and populations are way down. Flocks of this amazing bird that could be seen flying over the mountains no longer are common… except in the city of Santo Domingo.

For some reason Parakeets have adapted quite well to the noise and activity of Santo Domingo and can be seen everyday flying south-north in the morning and north-south in the afternoon to roost in almond trees all over the city. To see them come in by the hundreds to their roosting spot in Hotel Embajador is a feast to the eyes and a nightmare to the ears (specially for hotel guests). So if you are ever in Santo Domingo, take a moment to enjoy these beautiful birds, and if you’re really into birding, choose to stay at El Embajador, order some dominican rum and enjoy the show.

More of my photos can be seen in my website mariodavalos.org

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For some time now, I’ve been obsessed with owls. I go out of my way to study, watch and photograph owls everywhere I travel. Most of my friends know this and even if they don’t understand my reasons (I’m not even sure I do) they support it. So when some one knows about an injured owl they call me. It is important to note that I am NOT a veterinarian nor I have any knowledge whatsoever on the matter, but I care deeply about birds in general, specially owls. I can’t stand the idea of an injured owl in the wrong hands, so I go where ever the owl is, no matter how far and no matter what time of the day (or night),  take it home and from there to the zoo.

Last night the amazing Kate Wallace (a true birding pioneer in the DR) called me and told me about an injured owl in Zona Colonial. I was tired from a long day at the office and was about to start playing “memory” with my 5 yr old daughter. But I couldn’t avoid it. I had to go. So I told Adriana – mi amor, can we play memory tomorrow? I have to go rescue an owl that is injured – Her honey-coloured eyes lit up.  – Can I come? -. It was almost her bedtime, but what the hell.. I It was a great adventure for her.

So we drove to Zona Colonial where Janette Keys, a really nice  american who runs a website on the Colonial Zone and the parking guy who found the owl. The bird was in a box and when I opened it was clear it was still a baby. It already had some adult feathers but still not an adult. The bird seemed confused and startled, but Adriana was marvelled by the creature and the dark piercing eyes. We had spent hours at home looking at owl pictures together and watching The Guardians of Ga’hoole, a movie about a Barn Owl that fell from the tree before learning to fly, just like this one. We took it home and my two daughters and I made a nest out of news paper and tried to feed it, with no luck. We close the box and let the owl rest until this morning when I took it to the Zoo.

Most likely this owl wont make it back to the wild, which is extremely sad. But with some luck and good care, it might have a decent life and help in the ZooDom education program. Adriana had her first “owl adventure’ but hopefully not her last. I  wish all the others to come take place observing owls in the wild and not rescuing injured ones.

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Short-eared Owl rescued last year after being shot by hunters in Baní. 

In the Dominican Republic owls are hunted due to superstition (they are thought to be evil by some) and ignorance (some people think owl blood can cure asthma). 

photo 2Injured Short-eared Owl rescued last year after being shot by hunters.

_MGL1506Drama is embedded in art. Think about it: in literature, painting, theater and of course photography , drama has been historically big part of making art. Drama, well-managed and told drama, gets into the human soul and touches the very core of it. And for me, as a painter and a photographer, light is one of the most powerful ways to use it.

I think photography is to cinema as a short-story is to a novel: what they don’t tell about the story is usually more important than what they do. Both short stories and photography work with a small frame of the whole story and invite the viewer or the reader to complete the image. And of course our brain loves to complete things, heck! is basically what it does.. make up for missing information and make decisions based on it. Backlight offers a lot of missing information, since the balance of light and shadows is quite more extreme, getting rid of a lot of the grey area… just the way I like it!

I feel wildlife photography should tell a story. The temptation is to document, almost on a scientifically manner the species or to try to make a pleasing image, sometimes forgetting about the surroundings, and about the narrative within subject. A story has to develop and create, at any point, some kind of mystery. And mystery comes from that part of the story you choose to hold back, which I think is a very important decision, since most of the time good photographs are built from what you choose not to show rather than what you do.

Lately I’ve playing a lot with the shapes and shades. I’ve been trying to fit a more complex narrative into a simpler image. I haven’t quite perfected it yet but I feel I am making progress, and above all, enjoying every minute of it.

To see more of my work visit my website. 

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It happens. It is rare that one gets son lucky, but it happens.

I had been looking for the Short-eared owl for almost two years with no luck. I had looked at every sighting report, talked to every birder I know and had even rescued and injured bird that was taken to me after it was shot in the wing by a hunter. But so far, never ran into a bird in the wild.

A few weeks ago, while visiting a high-end golf resort with my family I decided to go out to the horse stables in search of Barn Owls. I did have my camera and 500mm lens with me, but had no flashlight, no recordings, no tripod and no expectations. I drove past the stable a few times with no luck and then decided to search for night herons at the polo course. Just a few seconds after arriving I saw an owl-shape bird sitting on the ground. At first I thought it was a Burrowing Owl, but Cucús as we call them here, are not reported in the east of the island. And then it hit me! This was my S.E.O. right here.. I jumped out of the car, camera in-hand and spent the next 5 hours trying to get good shots.

Focusing was a challenge since I had no light to shine over the bird. I switched to MF and was able to get some decent shots, even though no fly shots were possible. These birds are considered a sub-species (Asio flammeus domingensis) by some experts. Others don’t agree. Even so, it was a great night for me and my camera. A great night indeed.

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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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Looking up has always been part of the human spirit. It gives us a soulful sense of scale that somehow achieves to provide a healthy dose of humility. Specially at night, when the body winds down, the soul becomes a bit more sensitive and the cosmos shows itself, we can help to ask transcendental questions while looking up. The night skies are hard to grasp and easy to fall in love with.

Since I was little I was always marvelled at night skies. I remembered the superstition of my nana: “if you try to count the stars you will certainly get a wart”. I always tried anyways, never got a wart!

I always tried to imagine the first humans admiring the stars, trying to figure things out, trying to make sense of such a beautiful spectacle. I got a chance to see the Northern Lights last march and there is really no way to describe the way something inside me moved, drifted…

My mother was always a cosmos fanatic. Sometimes we would go to the roof and look through a cheap telescope my dad had bought for us and spend hours looking at the moon, mapping constellations and making up our own.

Last night I drove 2 hours west to Azua and yet again failed miserably in my quest to photograph the Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis). So I looked up and after 4 hours of being out there decided to make the best of the situation. I replaced my 500mm lens for a 18-35mm f/2.8 and decided to have some fun. These are some of the shots that saved the night. But I promise I will go back out there and eventually find the mysterious bird and I will come right back here to this desk in front of this computer and write: “I have conquered my nemesis”.