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Wildlife

Last year I published my top 20 shots of 2013. Looking back on that selection, I am sure I would have chosen differently if done today. Every week I still review images from three, four and five years ago and I see great images I hadn’t notice before as well as images I thought great and are not so awesome after all. This year I traveled a bit less than previous ones, but I felt my approach to nature photography mature and grew more personal. With my book on Africa published  in november, over 20,000 miles flown, over 50,000 shots taken and countless hours of reviewing and editing, this year was intense. Today I share with you a selection that will surely look flawed and weak just a couple of weeks from now. I tried to choose images that reflect a narrative and my pictorial approach rather than just “pretty” images. I feel this selection represents the way I think about art, photography and nature. Hope you enjoy them and please feel free to share your thoughts.Happy holidays!

20. Snowy Owl in Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY. 

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19. Gull over the Mediterranean, Turkey. 
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18. Low tide at Ruby Beach, W.A.
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17. Boreal forest, Adirondacks, NY. 
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16. Lion Cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana.BJ9Q6859

15. Female elk in the rainforest of Lake Quinault, W.A.

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14. Sand snake in the Namib desert, Namibia. AJ4D6132

13.”Esperanza” cricket, Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic.CF6A8002

12. Male lion on the move in Botswana. AJ4D8535

11. Brants in Jones Beach, NYC.CF6A6573


10. Hikers in the desert, Namibia. AJ4D6430
9. Hispaniolan Solenodon, Pedernales, Dominican Republic. BJ9Q0695

8. Snowy Owl in Lake Champlain, Vermont. CF6A5480

7. Antillean bullfinches and Yagrumo, Ebano Verde, Dominican Republic. AJ4D2958

6. Flamingoes in Laguna de Oviedo, Dominican Republic. BJ9Q2918

5. Hippo at sunrise, Okavango Delta, Botswana. BJ9Q4613

4. Lilac-breasted Roller eating lunch in Tau Pan, Botswana.BJ9Q9896

3. The roar of a male lion, Tau Pan, Botswana.
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2. Hippo from above, Okavango Delta, Botswana. BJ9Q5909-Edit

1. Tricolored Heron, Salinas de Baní, Dominican Republic. 

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I don’t know what is it about Polar bears, but feel they represent the true essence of nature: they are beautiful, they are strong, they are brutal and yet they are delicate.

There is no other animal, anywhere, that has had such an impact on me when face to face with it. So today, before you go crazy on the weekend and spend a fortune on gin tonics, I’d like you to visit: Polars Bears International and check it out. You can donate, buy gifts or adopt.

We are destroying the ice sheet and soon there will be nothing but water where there was ice. Soon there will be no life where there were polar bears.

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Today I’ll share with you a very short post, consisting of two images that show different approaches to the same subject.

I’ve said before that the wildebeest migration is probably one of the most overwhelming events in nature. The sound, the speed, the coordination, the fear, the rumbling of the earth beneath the determined beasts…

In the first image I wanted to capture the movement of animals and water, so I closed my aperture to f25 and used a slow speed in my 500mm. For me this image has a more dreamy and lyric dimension to it.

In the second image I tried the opposite, freezing the action in the frame, slowing down time… so I used f8 to get higher speeds.

Which one do you like better and why?

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(Here I reproduce an article I just published in Wildlife Photographic eMag, which you can download here https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wildlife-photographic-photography/id668779090?mt=8 )

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I approach nature photography with two main goals in mind:

• To capture and portray a sense of place.

• To convey a sense of intimacy to the viewer in a way that confronting a photo is the closest he or she can get to being there without actually being there. 

So when I first approached Sierra de Bahoruco, this was my mind set and pre-established goals … but that would soon change as the need to communicate a sense of urgency and commitment to the conservation of such a place took over.

Sierra de Bahoruco is an important part of the history of Hispaniola (the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). These mountains, reaching nearly 9 thousand feet at Pic La Selle, served as a hideout for the indigenous Taíno as they tried to escape the cruelty and bloodshed that the Spanish colonisers brought with them. The Sierra is  specially known as the safe haven chosen by Enriquillo (a Taíno chief originally named Guarocuya), who fled there to defend himself and his people from the Spaniards for over ten years, making him the first Amerindian rebel of the continent. Later, the same mystical mountains protected the African slaves as they rebelled against the French and Spanish colonial oppression on both sides of the island. Since 2004, Sierra de Bahoruco, with its 270 thousand acres, became the largest terrestrial protected area of the Dominican Republic, serving as a refuge to most of the island’s unique biodiversity,  but if the trend continues, not for long.  Unfortunately, no one is listening to its desperate calls. 

Separated by a gruelling 4 to 5-hour car ride to Santo Domingo, with no major urban centers nearby, Sierra de Bahoruco is a good example of out of sight, out of mind.  Since the park’s boundaries on the ground are non-existent, claiming a piece of land on this unguarded territory and leasing it to the long queue of landless and desperately poor Haitian farmers goes usually unnoticed. Likewise, bribes to border and forests guards for looking the other way when trees are turned to gigantic charcoal ovens are commonplace.  Although illegal, the charcoal trade provides income to many in this poor region, since it is the main cooking fuel in Haiti and some rural Dominican communities. Thus, under the indifference of the Dominican authorities, a lot of Dominican farmers and entrepreneurs have plundered the Sierra’s unique forests, resulting in widespread erosion of its steep slopes, leaving its limestone rock substrate exposed after a few harvests.

In terms of bird conservation, Sierra de Bahoruco holds a privileged spot and it is a must see for all bird scholars and enthusiasts. This national park provides a habitat for 28 of the 31 species of endemic birds, and hosts 32 of the 34 birds with restricted ranges on the island.  These include the Black-capped Petrel, including its  the only known nesting ground in the world, the rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo, the La Selle’s Thrush and the largest population of Hispaniolan Crossbills in Hispaniola. Other endemic and endangered birds include the boisterous Hispaniolan parakeets and parrots, the spectacular Golden Swallow, the White-winged Warbler and the Western-chat Tanager. The Sierra is also a very important destination for 31 species of birds that migrate from North America during the winter, including Bicknells’ Thrush, an endangered songbird with approximately 90% of it’s entire population believed to winter in the Dominican Republic.

For wildlife photographers, Hispaniola presents a true challenge. Contrary to other continental destinations, as an island it has less species, with most being extremely hard to photograph. The forest is dense, the light gets hard and harsh pretty quickly and birds -with some exceptions-, are shy and weary. Besides hosting most of our endemic bird species, Bahoruco also offers chances to photograph our two endemic terrestrial mammals; the Hispaniolan Solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) and the Hispaniola Hutia (Plagiodontia aedium), and countless endemic reptiles, amphibians, plants and fungi. 

I’ve been photographing Sierra de Bahoruco for a few years now but I still feel I’ve only dipped a toe into this enchanting mountain chain. For my last visit, I hired local guide Nicolás Corona in an attempt to find and photograph the elusive Solenodon, an iconic creature never seen by the majority of Dominicans due to its nocturnal habits and shy nature. 

That morning I left before sunrise in a 6-hour drive from Santo Domingo to Pedernales, a little border town in the southern part of the Sierra that I would be using as base camp. Until this trip, I had always focused on the north side of “La Sierra”, as we locals call it, usually setting base in Puerto Escondido, where Kate Wallace runs the only birding lodge in the country.  Then, I would be driving up to Zapotén to spend the night in a tent near a ranger station.  However,  this time I would explore the south, staying at one of the small hostels in Pedernales and covering about 100 miles and 20 hours each day.

When I finally got to Pedernales it was already 2pm ( I had made a previous stop at Caamaño National Park to photograph Burrowing Owls) and the day was hot and humid. The thermometer marked 103ºF when we left the beach at Cabo Rojo, but 45 minutes later, after driving through dry,semi-dry,  moist and cloud forests, I reached the Sierras vast pine lands, the temperature had dropped down to 64ºF.

As I kept driving  we entered a patch of forest that had been completely burned. Nicolás explained that in early January there had been a fire that burnt for more than a week, in his opinion it was intentionally caused in order to clear land for illegal farming. As a thick, eery fog settled in, I thought of the lush cloud forests which once stood here and wondered if I’d ever see them again or if I could spare some of them elsewhere in Bahoruco from this fate.  I’ve never felt so sad facing something so beautiful.

For the next three days I went up and down the Sierra looking for birds during the day and mammals during the night, running into tarantulas, painted snails and all kind of orchids while doing so. The beauty and richness of this place has no comparison. This is the unexpected Caribbean, one filled with life and diversity, one begging to be saved, one that has seen history go by and that has suffered in the name of civilisation since Christopher Columbus set foot in this island in 1492.

As I packed my gear the last day of shooting I knew something had changed inside me and that I was forever bound to this place, and as I closed the trunk of my car and looked up one last time before driving back to the city, I promised to do everything in my power to spread the word and encourage other nature lovers to visit and protect the magical forests of Sierra de Bahoruco.

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BJ9Q2660Contrary to assumptions, the Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) as other kingfisher species, does not fish. As it name may suggest it is found mostly on dry land hunting for insects, but pretty much with the same strategy that its cousins hunt over water; it will pick a good perch and wait for pray to show up, quickly swooping down in one quick burst only to go back to the chosen perch. While in the Okavango Delta I had the chance to see many Woodlands and most of them in a high perch against the clear sky. But I wanted to achieve a different image, one that made honor to its name and its habits: “Woodland”.  I wanted an image where grass and land played a part and no water was in sight. Woodland Kingfishers are not as shy as other kingfishers and actually are quite aggressive and might even attack a human, even though this happens rarely. But I could get somewhat close sometimes if I was silent enough. The Woodland Kingfisher was definitely not one of my target species, but every time I saw one, which was very frequently, I tried to achieve the image I had designed in my head. Finally I got my chance:  while looking for a Leopard on Victoria Island, inside the Moremi Game Reserve, this great looking individual swoop down to catch an insect only to fail, then staying low on the ground perched over a dead tree. The light was soft and dim and the grass was high, so I composed the image putting the bird all the way to the right, making the atmosphere and the environment a leading part of the image. The story I wanted to tell. I’ve seen amazing action shots of Kingfishers. Just incredible images of birds in the water or already with a catch on their bill in mid-flight, so I know this may not be a fantastic image on that sense, but I am very happy with the mood and the narrative altogether. For more images of my time in Botswana please visit the gallery on my website. 

Flying is the ultimate human dream. Flying over Africa is that dream on acid.

Up from above , the Earth looks different. No other point of view provides a more complete perspective or sense of place of our planet.

True, it might not be the most intimate or interesting point of view for wildlife, but it sure is one that provides a sense of fulfilment and

connection to that that surround us. .

Watching the world from above gives you wings.

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I’ve spent time with lions. Yes, I’ve been up close, only feet away from these majestic felines, looking at them directly in the eye, and yes, I’ve felt fear. Even though lions usually do not attack humans if they are inside a vehicle, the sole fact that they can, strikes fear in the bravest. In a fraction of a second a lion could potentially kill me while I look at their powerful eyes trough the viewfinder.

I have a fascination with wild big cats, but then again.. don’t we all? Lions are brutal killers and tender parents. They are lazy and yet fierce. They protect each other and yet kill each other. Lions live by a different set of rules and brutal force is their constitution.

I’ve spent time with lions in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. As a wildlife photographer the most desired action to capture in a photo is a kill, of course, but I must say that when I set out to photograph these powerful predators, I wanted to capture their essence.. whatever that means! I wanted images that could convey their presence. When you are in the presence of the top predator of Africa, you know it. You feel it. Your mind and your body are completely aware of it. And I wanted that! I did not have a clue how to achieve it and such was my luck that I didn’t witness I kill (I did witness several failed tries.. but never a successful kill), so I had to work hard to capture their soul some other way.

I’ve spent time with lions and their essence walks with them everywhere they go; when they call each other, when they play, when the feed their cubs, when they mate, when they fight.. even when they lay around motionless for 18 hours a day and you just sit in your vehicle for all those hours waiting for something interesting to happen. The essence of a lion can only be experienced in their presence so my goal to capture on camera was meant to fail from the start, but that did not deterred me. Failure is just another word for “I’m getting closer.. I will get there eventually”.

These images are the closest I’ve been to capturing the spirit of Africa: the big, royal carnivore we call lion.

For more images of my journey with lions click here. 

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