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A photographic journey of discovery.

A Photographer's Guide to the Skagit Valley and Surrounds

January 26, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

I talk a lot about this magnificent place that I live, so I know I bring it upon myself. But, this time of year I am absolutely inundated with questions from friends and acquaintances wanting my guidance on when to visit to get good photos and where to go. I am happy to help people, but I find myself copying and pasting emails and repeating myself often enough that I almost have a script.

This year I decided to compile my local knowledge into an ebook guide. It has turned into a pretty detailed, 25-page .pdf, full of useful links and including a lot of sample photos. My hope is that it not only answers some very specific questions (such as when are the tulips blooming and how do I find the snow geese), but that it also gives users an overall guide regarding where to explore in this area. Photo of ebook cover for "A Photographer's Guide to Skagit County, Washington and Surrounds" Cover of my new ebook: A Photographer's Guide to Skagit County, Washington and SurroundsA detailed, 25-page insider's guide to where to go in Skagit Valley to capture great wildlife and scenic images.

I hope you find it helpful and I welcome your feedback.

Click on the photo to purchase or go here.  Thank you for your support! 

 


From Observer to Activist - How Photographing Raptors Changed My Path

May 28, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Chance Encounters

When I went to a presentation on wildlife photography by Tom Mangelsen, at the invitation of a friend, I had no idea how it would change me, but if anything is testament to how photography can move a person, my experience following that class is.

The short story is this - I had never heard of Tom Mangelsen. I was a photographer, but wildlife photography wasn't even on my radar.

I had always supported nonprofits that work to protect wildlife, had dreamed of helping big cats in Africa when I was a kid. (I had even written to the "Born Free" folks, George and Joy Adamson, about helping them. I remember the disappointment I felt as a 12-year-old when they wrote back and suggested I donate money.) So, I had a burning interest in wildlife conservation early on, but like many childhood dreams, I had long since set it aside.

So I attended Tom Mangelsen's  Creative Live class in person, with my friend Kamriell Welty. At the end of his presentation he casually mentioned that he was one of the instructors in an upcoming wildlife photography workshop being offered by Photography at The Summit in Jackson Hole, WY. Kami and I discussed it and decided to go. When the time came, she was unable to go, so I went alone. 

That was a few years ago, and I enjoyed it so much I returned one more time to repeat the workshop. Classes are taught by some very impressive National Geographic and conservation photographers, including Michael Forsberg, who has used his photography to raise awareness about the environmental threats to the great plains. As much as anyone, Michael got me thinking about my own backyard when he gave a compelling presentation about the sandhill cranes of the Platte River in Nebraska. His clear love for the place where he grew up lent an authenticity to his presentation that was deeply moving. Seeing it through his eyes forever changed how I think about the great plains. 

Local Knowledge

After that first workshop, I set out to learn more about our local wildlife - particularly the birds. I took a class from Bud Anderson, who is our local raptor expert, and learned that we have an extraordinary variety of raptors in our area each winter. Through his deep knowledge and his own passion for birds, Bud has moved many a person to become involved in raptor research and observation. I have also repeated that class. 

I started taking more bird photos. Short-eared owl in flight looking directly at camera.Short Eared OwlClose encounters with raptors, such as this short-eared owl, gave me new appreciation for the challenges they face.

Adult male northern harrier in flight. Northern Harrier HuntingThis male northern harrier, also known as a gray ghost due to its gray color, will spend hours hovering low over open fields to hunt, and then often must fight other raptors to keep its meal.

Northern Hawk Owl flying off tree toward prey. Northern Hawk Owl HuntingA northern hawk owl bolts from its perch while keeping eyes on its prey.

I got to know a few amazing wildlife/bird photographers. I took more photos.

I started getting attached to the birds I was photographing and worrying about their survival. It's hard to be a detached observer when one is privy to intimate moments in a creature's life.

I learned that one of the greatest threats to raptors is the widespread use of anticoagulant rodenticides, which impact not only raptors but other wildlife that feed on rodents - even cougars - and kills them. It's a hideous way to die - slowly bleeding internally. I learned this because one of my friends lost an entire family of barn owls due to eating poisoned rodents. 

Everybody Loves Owls

Since I started taking photos, friends who are lifelong birders have begun reaching out to me - sharing locations of birds they would like to see photographed. There's an amazing network of people who share a passion for birds and I am grateful to have so many patient teachers. I am still not good at identifying birds. I have so much to learn.

This year I was invited to photograph a great horned owl nest in a friend's yard. When I first visited the mom was just sitting on the nest. Within a few weeks there were little fuzzballs poking their heads up. I went by every few days to watch and photograph. At some point, after they had hatched, the father stopped appearing, which left all the feeding to mom. 

There were three owlets. One fell out of the tree, as is common, and hopped away. We never saw it return. We don't know what happened to that owlet, but the nest was in a neighborhood that borders rural housing and fields - places where people often use rodenticides.

  Great Horned Owl watching her owletsGreat Horned Owl watching her owletsI watched and photographed these great horned owlets for a few weeks before a third baby popped its head up.

I shared photos of the owlets and their story as it unfolded. People seem to universally love owls. My baby owlets had fans-people who wanted updates. It occurred to me if I could share what I have learned about the way humans endanger their lives, maybe, just maybe I could make a small difference. 

And then there were threeAnd then there were threeHow could anyone resist these muppet faces? I became emotionally attached to these owlets as I watched them grow. That attachment is partially responsible for my wanting to find a path toward ending the use of anticoagulant rodenticides to kill their prey, as it will also kill them.

Great Horned Owlets Starting to BranchGreat Horned Owlets Starting to BranchWatching these owlets grow up and branch has been a joy and a wonder. One fell from the tree and was never seen again. The remaining two are now flying and are seen occasionally in the same area.

Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I am a purpose-driven person. I really want to contribute to the greater good. I always have.

When I read that California had recently passed a bill banning anticoagulant rodenticides this year (it's not yet a law), I started asking around to find out if anyone was working on this in Washington state. What I learned is that a lot of people are gathering data - doing necropsies and collecting information on how many of our raptors are killed by rodenticides, or have them in their systems. But no one has made a serious effort to get the law changed.

What could I do? I'm just one person. My friend Melissa Groo, who gently and persistently uses her photography to advocate for wildlife, directed me to the people behind the California bill - Raptors Are The Solution a.k.a "R.A.T.S.". When I talked to Lisa Owens-Viani, the co-founder of R.A.T.S., she told me they had been wanting to open a Washington chapter. And that's where we are today.

I am wading in to unfamiliar territory with my eyes wide open. I believe with enough support, we can make a change, but I am not naive enough to think that I can do it alone, or that it will happen overnight. I am not a National Geographic nature photographer. I am a writer and former magazine editor, but I have never written about wildlife. I don't have a biology degree.  I'm just a person who loves where she lives and would like to protect our existing wildlife. 

I am reaching out to all the people I know who have been working for so long to help raptors in our state survive. Through the main organization in Berkeley, CA, I have access to excellent educational materials to distribute. I know there is a long road ahead, but I'm willing to follow it. If I can stop one person from using anticoagulant rodenticides, that person may stop another. 

I have created a Facebook page for people to connect with us, so please go like our page.  I will post updates to the page as the story unfolds. For now, I am just starting to work on awareness and education. It takes a long time to create change, and I know that. But I think people fall into two camps -  those who wring their hands in frustration, and those who step up and try to do something. I land in the second camp. I hope you will join me. 


Good Bye 2018!

December 31, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Happy New Year! 

Goals & Aspirations

I don't know about you, but I am frankly shocked that I'm sitting here on New Year's Eve - already. I do like to look back on the past year and set goals for the upcoming year. I always write a letter to myself for the next year and then open it on New Year's Day. Fun to see what made the cut and what I didn't succeed at - and decide if the things I didn't get done are worth putting on the list for next year. I've had a trip to Alaska on my list for a few years now. I think 2019 might be the year that happens. I'm itching to see that landscape and possibly some of the wildlife.

In 2018 I connected with three other women who are avid wildlife photographers. We have bonded through photography and are planning some excursions this year. The burrowing owl photos in the image below (third on right of top row) are a direct result of having made those connections. The fox image is also a result of knowing these women. I'm excited to add at least one trip with them to my goals for next year. I will share more about that in another blog entry.

Insta-analysis

Most photographers I know are on Instagram these days - it's an endless source of inspiration and discovery for me. I love having a jewel case of new images to pore over and enjoy. And it's interesting to see what photos I posted were deemed 'most popular' this past year. In Instagram terms, that means they got the most 'likes' from people who follow me. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't mean much, but looking over the top nine does indicate a pretty clear pattern. Tulips and owls. And oh yeah, a fox kit.

In many ways, I'm not surprised these images hit my top nine. They are mostly flashy and make for good eye candy on Instagram, where people scroll by on their phones. I am surprised, though, that the first image in this group landed here. It's a picture of my first poster, published by Third & Wall. I'm excited to have a poster out there in retail-world and it seems my followers were excited for me.

Personal Successes

But this isn't how I judge my most successful images for the year. Yes, the owl pictures were a triumph for me - I love waiting and watching and hoping to catch an action shot. The fox kits were pure joy to watch and photograph and I was thrilled to add them to my wildlife files. But this year I also had the chance to photograph a part of the world I never expected to get to - Costa Rica - thanks to a dear friend who took me there. Hiking through the jungle and happening upon birds, monkeys, anteaters, tapirs. . . it was truly a thrilling experience for me. The photos I made in Costa Rica won't win any wildlife photography awards, but they hold precious memories for me. I learned a lot - macaws are incredibly fast and difficult to shoot when flying - and I know what I can do better, thanks to all that practice trying to capture images of tropical birds. If I'm learning and I happen to get a few images I like, I'm happy.

Another, more important measure, of my year in photography is what images compelled people to order prints. Some of them surprised me, some of them are among my personal favorites, so I was very happy to know other people liked them enough to want them hanging on their walls.

Here's a sampling of my top-selling images from 2018:

Barn 49Wry FieldYoung wheat disguises an old barn in the background.

Tulip ColorsTulip ColorsRows of color spread across commercial tulip fields become a blur.

Fox Kits-5Fox Kits-5A gray fox kit runs for the fun of it.

Short Eared Owl-1Short Eared Owl-1

I am grateful for everyone who purchased my cards, calendars and prints this year. Your support enables and encourages me to continue to push myself and perfect my work. 

If you saw an image this year that you thought about purchasing, but never got around to it, I'm offering a 10% discount on ALL purchases from this web site through the end of February. Just create an account and place your order through this site. I will apply the discount at the time I review the order.

I plan to retire images from this site later in the year, but I will let you know before I remove anything. 

In the meantime, I hope your New Year brings you everything you wish for. And thank you for following me. I will continue to post pictures on Facebook and Instagram throughout the year. 

 


Costa Rica - A Photographer's First Visit

February 28, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Last year a dear friend of mine returned from his first trip to Costa Rica raving about the beauty of the place and insisting I needed to go take photos. I dismissed it as a pipe dream, but this year he made sure it happened by giving me his Alaska Airlines companion ticket and scheduling an itinerary in which he acted as guide and driver and part-time camera Sherpa. I have just returned from that trip and I have a few things to share with photographers and would-be photographers who are planning a visit.

GEAR UP OR DOWN

First, camera gear. Do your research and carefully assess what you might need to capture the photos you think you are going to get. I did a lot of research before I went. I read a lot of blogs, watched some YouTube videos and even befriended some Costa Rican photographers on Instagram so I could ask advice. In the end, I bought a ThinkTank International travel bag to carry my gear. Here's what I took: two camera bodies, Nikon D500 & D750. Four lenses: Nikkor 200-500mm zoom, Nikkor 24-70 zoom, Nikkor 105mm macro and Nikkor 50mm f/4. I also took a 1.4 extender, which I did not use. I had multiple backup batteries and two battery chargers so I could recharge spent batteries at night. I also took multiple backup memory cards, a Surface Pro laptop and two external hard drives.

Usually when I travel I transfer my files each night to an external hard drive and clean my cards. In this case I ran into a road block. I had purchased a La Cie Rugged 2 TB external hard drive just before I left, but discovered on my first night there that it is not compatible with the Surface Pro. My travel companion works in IT and even he could not get it to work with the Surface Pro, so I changed course and simply watched how full my cards were getting. I didn't download anything till I got home.

Other essentials I took included two water-proof sleeves for the cameras, plenty of lens cleaning cloths, my rocket blower and brush, and a set of tools. I did not take a tripod. I knew we would be hiking through the jungle in the heat and I knew I was going to be suffering as it was. A tripod would have added to my misery and slowed me down. I also chatted with a local photographer who suggested a tripod wouldn't be necessary. 

THE MISTAKES I MADE

I think I did a pretty good job of selecting gear. Although the 200-500mm lens is heavier than my 80-400, I survived. It enabled me to get better pics of the monkeys we saw, and some of the birds, than a shorter lens would. I took this lens virtually everywhere with me. Mounted on the D500, which is a DX format, it gave me good reach for almost all birds and critters and in some instances was too much. 

I did not need the 1.4 extender. I only used the macro lens a couple of times, but since we went in the dry season not much was blooming. If I had gotten to see the poison dart frogs I might have used it more. I used the 50mm the first night we were there for some 'street' photography. I wish I had done that more. I was usually so dialed in to trying to capture good bird images that I let that slide. I love the 50mm and it's a great walking around lens. If you have one, I recommend you take it and use it. 

I have an 80-400mm lens and that would have worked great for most photos, but if I added the 1.4 extender for more length it would have put me at a maximum of f/8, which is way too slow and dark for the harsh light and shadows of the jungle. 

Some of the information I read highly recommended purchasing a Better Beamer light diffuser for flash. It seems a lot of bird photographers use this. I looked into it, but in the end decided against it. I don't normally use flash, so I would have had to purchase a flash as well as the Better Beamer and then practice with it. Instead I took a headlamp and flashlights. When we did night tours the guides had strong enough flashlights that it was relatively easy to take photos anyway. I would skip the extra gear in this case, unless it's something you're accustomed to using.

I also took a small day backpack. Each day I would decide what I needed and only took that gear. 

We traveled by boat to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I had planned carefully for protecting my gear from rain, but failed to consider the potential damage of salt water spray! Although I took a large garbage bag with me, I forgot to take it on the open boat. I sat in the middle and kept my gear in a backpack, but was definitely worried when the water sprayed over the bow numerous times. Next time I will take some sort of water-proof backpack or remember that garbage bag! 

After we returned from that trip I wiped down all my gear with a damp cloth and let it stay in the air conditioning for a while to dry out. It seems no worse for the wear. 

 

THE BEST ADVICE I FOUND

I watched so many documentaries and videos about Costa Rica, trying to imagine what the conditions would be like and how I would have to adapt. In the end the very best advice I gleaned was a single, casual tip. Many posts suggested investing in silicone bags to keep gear dry. The tip that made the most sense to me was this: if you're staying in an air conditioned place, keep your camera gear in the bathroom. Why? The bathrooms usually aren't air conditioned, so your gear won't be exposed to dramatic temperature fluctuations. When you take it out in the morning, it won't fog up in the heat and humidity. It works. My companion didn't do this and it took a good 15 minutes for his camera to adjust on the first day. I would have missed shots if I had been waiting for my gear to acclimate!

OUR ROUTE

We decided on February because it is the middle of the dry season. It's easier to get around during dry season, plus it's easier to see animals and birds because the foliage isn't as dense. Also, traveling to the remote Osa Penninsula is particularly challenging during wet season. I used a OneNote notebook to track our itinerary and keep detailed photography notes, but we used TripIt to keep us organized. 

Our route was determined by my traveling companion's prior experience and the location of some friends I have who moved to Costa Rica a decade ago. I had never gotten to visit them, so we planned time to visit their remote location. It happens to be on the Osa Penninsula, near Corcavado National Park, so we knew it was a place we wanted to visit anyway. 

I knew I wanted to see hummingbirds, the resplendent quetzel, and macaws. Everything beyond that would be a bonus. 

REMAINING FLEXIBLE

We planned our route based on things we wanted to see and do, and allowing for travel time and "course corrections." We really didn't know what the roads would be like, so we built in a little extra time to change course if we needed to and we used Booking.com to reserve rooms that could be canceled without forfeiting a deposit. Some of our plans worked out, some didn't.

I won't go through an exhaustive day-by-day description here, but I will highlight some things to think about if you're planning your first trip to Costa Rica.

LIBERIA & PLAYAS DEL COCO

What worked:  We flew into Liberia, rather than San Jose, because it's a smaller airport and we thought it would be easy to get to the coast for an overnight before starting our journey to Monteverde. If you're planning to go to the Osa Penninsula first, San Jose is a better choice. Our decision to rent a car and drive directly to the coast for our first night worked out well for us. We stayed at Hotel M&M Beach House in Playas Del Coco. Inexpensive, clean, private, guarded parking - it was all we needed. We arrived in time to get a light dinner, a good night's rest, and wake up early enough to enjoy the beach before hitting the road for a long drive to Monteverde. Beacause we had scheduled plenty of time, we actually booked a boat tour in the Paolo Verde park for our first day. Although we had booked a 10 a.m. tour, we arrived early and Palo Verde Boat Tours accommodated us - we got out on the water around 9:00 a.m. After a wonderful, personalized tour (the only other visitors were a biologist who spoke excellent English and served as an unexpectedly great guide, and his family), we had a fabulous lunch. Highly recommend this tour company if you're in the area. We saw at least 17 different birds, plus bats, crocodiles and iguanas. And when the boat driver saw my long lens, he urged me to sit in the bow of the boat - which proved perfect for photos.

What didn't work: We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Apparently this is a really popular arrival time and we were stuck in the customs line for over an hour. Pick another day to fly in and you might not have to wait as long. Beach board walkBeach walkThe beach board walk in Costas. Costas shopsCostasColorful small shops at the beach. Reduce, reuse, recycle on a palm tree. Reduce, reuse, recycleCosta Ricans are becoming more and more environmentally savvy - as expressed by this sign at the beach. Photo of sailboats anchored offshore at the beach with some islands in the distance. Day 1View of the beach on our first day in Costa Rica. People walking down a dimly lit dirt road toward a lighted cabana. First nightIt was nice to walk in the tropical temperatures when we went out for dinner on our first night. Brightly lit tables and chairs outside a local "Soda" restaurant. Soda TeresiaCosta Rica is dotted with these small shops called "Sodas," where you can get a bite to eat and something to drink. Woman selling food from a cart on the street. Street vendorsWe saw plenty of street vendors throughout our trip, but never stopped at one. Two children playing at a skate park, one on a bicycle, one on a scooter.Local sceneKids played at the beachside skateboard park well after dark. Photo of the front porch of Hotel M & M. Hotel M & MThis is Hotel M & M, where we stayed our first night. It faces the beach and was a nice place to just hang out and get our bearings.

MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST

What worked: Wow. The roads in Costa Rica are REALLY BAD. I have never seen such bad roads. Still, since we rented a four-wheel drive SUV, we were able to drive all the way to Monteverde, albeit s l o w l y in some cases. We picked a hotel "Tobi's Place", closest to the Cloud Forest. Having the car was a good idea, as although people suggested we could walk to the entrance of the Cloud Forest Reserve, we would have been exhausted before we even got there if we had walked carrying our gear! We got up early, drove up and parked just outside the entrance. Although we hadn't hired a guide beforehand, there were plenty of guides available for hire when we purchased our entry tickets.

I can't emphasize this enough: HIRE A GUIDE! You will miss all sorts of things if you don't hire a guide the first time you walk through the Cloud Forest. We took the tour with a guide, then took a break at the nearby hummingbird garden, then went back and walked on our own. The guide will give you history and help you see things you would no doubt miss if you were just wandering through on your own.

We picked up a local hitchhiker on our way down from the Cloud Forest. He turned out to be not only a certified guide, but also a bird nerd and bird photographer. He also knew a lot about amphibians and reptiles. We ended up hiring him for a private night tour. I'm not sure I would have picked up a hitchhiker if I had been on my own, but I was sure glad to make this connection! We had a blast with Jean and now we're 'virtual' friends on Facebook and Instagram. If I ever get to return, I will hire him as a bird guide. 

Hummingbird nestHummingbird nestThis is a perfect example of why one should hire a guide when touring the parks. We would never have spotted this hummingbird nest without a guide.

What didn't work: I really wanted a great photo of the resplendent quetzel. Although I saw it in the Cloud Forest, I learned later that they are actually more visible in one of the local private reserves. Do a little research if there's something special you want to photograph and give yourself the best chance to capture that image.

I also wanted great hummingbird pictures. As it turned out, the best place to see the hummingbirds was at the hummingbird garden right next to the park entrance. They have tons of feeders and the hummingbird action is phenomenal. Although I got a few photos, I didn't allow enough time to get what I wanted. I could spend a whole day there watching and shooting pictures. Personally, I would allow more time for that if I went back. I also would consider taking a shorter lens. My 200-500mm was too long for this location. My macro wasn't quite right. I think my 80-400 would have worked better. 

DRAKE BAY

What worked: We had no idea if we could actually drive to Drake Bay. Fortunately, the rental car company suggested we use the WAZE app. This worked beautifully everywhere we were. We also opted for the personal Wi-Fi hotspot when we rented the car. This portable Wi-Fi helped us out more than once during the trip. You can drive to Sierpe and take a boat to Drake Bay. We both decided that next time we would either do that or fly to Drake Bay. Although the drive was exciting (we had to drive through SIX rivers to get there!), it took more time than we would have liked due to the condition of the roads. 

When our first hotel turned out to be undoable, we got on Wi-Fi and searched for another. We found a cheap, clean, convenient place called Casa Toucan. It had parking next to the room (perfect if you have lots of photo gear, as I did), air conditioning (an unexpected bonus) and a small refrigerator in the room. Plus, after a little negotiation for four nights, it was only $50 a night. Would I stay there again? Probably not. The shower barely worked. The family that lived there was really noisy at night when we wanted to sleep. There was no breakfast or even coffee. There was no view. BUT, all that said, the family was very nice. We didn't spend that much time in our room, and because we were budget traveling, it worked for us. 

When our scheduled tour to Corcavado National Park fell through we scrambled to reschedule. We found a friend in Eric at Pacheco Tours who put up with our bugging him almost hourly and scheduled us for a tour. We would probably stay at their cottages next time, as they were reasonably priced and had an ocean view. 

One of the tours my friends had insisted I book in advance was The Night Bug Tour with Tracie the Bug Lady. Oh boy was it worth it! Smart, funny, informed - Tracie and her partner Gian do a fantastic job of showing you the jungle you don't know is there. Highly recommend! Five stars!

And here's something that surprised me - although we were well prepared to fend off mosquitoes, there were none! That's right. NO MOSQUITOES. I asked my friend who lives there about this and she told me there are a few during rainy season, but generally, it's not bad. A whip-tailed scorpion in the palm of a hand. Whip Tailed ScorpionTracie, of the The Night Tour, gives an entertaining, educational and hands-on tour of all the things in the jungle you don't see at first glance. In this picture she's holding a whip-tailed scorpion for all the tour attendees to see up close. Tropical rainforest up to the edge of the water with two boats in the foreground. Drake BayBeautiful Drake Bay was lush and green.

 

What didn't work: Ah, so many things went wrong in Drake Bay. We had booked a hotel (Lookout Drake Bay) through Booking.com. The room we booked looked lovely and had ceiling fans, which we thought would be good enough. When we arrived, the driveway to the hotel was nearly impossible to use. We barely made it up with our four-wheel drive! Then, there was a very long, steep walk up the hill. When the proprietor showed us the room it was nothing like the room we had viewed and booked on Booking.com. Instead, it was a small, fan-less room with a bunk bed. We said no thank you and went down to the town to get on Wi-Fi and find a new place. We were very worried (at least I was - my travel companion is pretty calm through things like this), that everything would be booked. (See the resolution above in "What Worked). 

I had also made a point of booking our tours for Drake Bay based on recommendations from my friends who live there. They highly recommended I book the guide Roy through Drake Divers to go to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I did that in September. Everything was confirmed. When I sent an email the day before our arrival to reconfirm I received a casual response telling me Roy wasn't available due to family illness. They said they would book another tour for me if I wanted. Of course I said yes, then got no response. Frankly, they dropped the ball.

We spent our first day in Drake Bay walking from tour company to tour company trying to book a tour to Sirena Station because the National Park only allows a handful of people into the park every day. When we went to Drake Divers we were received with indifference. I showed the emails and the woman working there kind of shrugged her shoulders and said Roy lived in San Jose and they couldn't reach him. It was at this point I really lost it. This was on Wednesday and we had scheduled our trip for Friday, but told them we were flexible enough to go the next day. I even texted my friend who lives there, who called and talked to them. Long story short, long after we had found and booked another tour, they sent an email saying we could go with Roy the next day. It was after six in the evening and we were headed to a night tour. Needless to say, I would never try to book a tour with these people again. They get great reviews on Trip Advisor, but they dropped the ball for us. 

Gear: If I were planning for the night bug tour, I wouldn't take my camera. I would take my phone only. I had hoped to see poison dart frogs, but they're actually in Sierpe, not Osa (see note above about doing your research!). I had hoped to get some good pics with my macro lens, but it turned out to be too difficult to get close enough and Tracie and Gian are very conscious of not casting light on the creatures they show you for too long. A phone with a decent camera is plenty good enough for the night tour. 

For the trip to Sirena Station I took my Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. It was a good combo for most things I shot, but was admittedly a heavy load for me to carry in the heat. If I had a nice slush fund, I would probably have gotten the Nikkor 300mm f/4 and used my 1.4 extender. This would have given me the same distance with less weight, although less flexibility than the zoom. 

THE LAST NIGHT

We decided the drive from Drake Bay back to Liberia was likely to be one we didn't want to do in one day, so we scheduled our last night to stay at Cerro Lodge in Tarcoles. Imagine my delight when I saw that they have bird feeders that attract scarlet macaws as well as dozens of other colorful birds! My only regret was that we didn't spend at least two nights here. If you want a lazy-man's way to see gorgeous birds (even a ferruginous pygmy owl!), this is a great location off the beaten path. The rooms are nice, the food is great, there is a pool, and the bird watching is top notch. 

WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY

I felt pretty good about my planning. Although I didn't use the D750 and my wider lenses as often as I would have liked, I was happy to have gotten some decent photos for my first trip out. Now that I have an idea what to expect, I would spend a little more time in Monteverde and visit a couple of the nearby nature Reserves in addition to the Park. 

I would consider getting a little lens for my iPhone and use it for some more 'touristy' casual photos. 

Clothes wise I did great. In fact, my clothes bag was much smaller than my camera bag. I took one pair of Keens and one pair of Teva sandals. I wore the Keens the entire time, except for the trip to Sirena station. For that I wore the Tevas simply to get in and out of the boat (which is a beach landing). Otherwise it was all tee shirts and shorts. For travel from the cold Pacific Northwest I wore a Nuu-Muu dress which I was able to layer with tights over shorts (I took off the tights when we landed), and a long-sleeved overshirt (which I removed upon landing). I also took and wore a fantastic lightweight vest by ScotteVest. 

This being my first trip to Costa Rica, I naturally had visions of getting photos of every single thing - from monkeys to birds to poison dart frogs. I also knew that probably wouldn't happen. Next time I would schedule time to visit Sierpe Frogs and get photos of the famous and beautiful poisonous amphibians. 

QUICK TIPS

  • Don't be afraid to go on your own, without a tour
  • Pack lightly on clothes
  • Pick the right camera gear for the images you want
  • Use TripIt to plan your itinerary
  • Learn some Spanish - it helps 
  • Research where you're going and when to understand what birds/animals you stand a chance of seeing - there are many different areas to visit to see everything from hatching sea turtles to massive bird migrations to butterflies and sloths
  • It's Nature - know that you won't necessarily see everything you want to
  • Book tour guides in advance; if heading to Corcavado make sure you book with a guide who takes payment in advance in order to secure your spot
  • Sirena station is considered the best location in Corcavado to see the most animals/birds
  • Plan flexibility into your schedule - you may need a day or two to rework logistics
  • If you're going to shoot birds, download the Merlin Costa Rica guide, or other Costa Rica birds guide
  • Do the night tours - you can sleep when you get home
  • Notify your credit card companies in advance that you'll be out of the country and where you will be
  • If you're headed to the Osa Penninsula, take cash. There are no ATMs and few people take credit cards
  • Most places take US dollars, but it's always good to exchange some money when you arrive in the country
  • The food and water were excellent most places we went. Unlike Mexico, I did not get sick. I took anti-diarrheal medication just in case.

SOME PICS - HOVER TO READ CAPTIONS

A turkey vulture in flight. Turkey vultureCosta Rica has many varieties of vultures, and we saw plenty of them. This turkey vulture was checking us out on our first day. A close-up of long-nosed bats on the bark of a tree. Long nosed batsI shot these photos from the boat during our tour in Palo Verde. I could not see what I was shooting, but the guide kept pointing and telling me there were bats. I did not see them until later, when I looked at my photos and was able to zoom in. Masters of disguise! A blue-capped night heron peeking out from his perch inside foliage.  Blue-capped night heronWe saw lots of herons. It was really difficult to get full pictures as they often turned away or backed into shadow when the boat approached. A boat-billed heron sitting on a branch in a tree looking directly at the camera. Boat-billed heronThis boat-billed heron was eyeing me carefully. It took a number of tries before I got a picture of him without much foliage in front of him. Photo of a sugar cane field with a single tree. Dry seaonI was smitten with the color palate of Costa Rica on our first day. The pale green of sugar cane against the blue skies was just the thing I needed after a long, dark winter in the Pacific Northwest.

 

  A brightly colored hummingbird perches on a feeder. Hummingbird at feederOf course it's much easier to see the many varieties of hummingbirds up close at the nearby hummingbird garden. It's just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve entrance and has feeders that attract dozens of hummers. A hummingbird with a blue throat in flight, approaching a feeder. Hummingbird with blue throatThere are a seemingly endless variety of hummers in Costa Rica. A coatimundi on pavement. CoatimundiWildlife is one of the great attractions for Costa Rica. We saw our first coatamundi at the Cloud Forest Reserve. Although he was happily looking for handouts, visitors were really conscious of not feeding him. They are in the raccoon family and cause many of the same issues raccoons do in the US - like getting into the garbage.

 

Photo of a resplendent quetzal in a tree, showing his turquoise colored back side and long mating tail feathers. Resplendent quetzelThe resplendent quetzal is THE bird I had hoped to see and photograph in Costa Rica. Although I did see three of them, I never got a great shot. Still a thrill though.

Hummingbird with a purple chest sitting on a tree branch. Purple hummingbirdThis purple chested hummingbird terrorized all the other hummers at the feeders. A purple chested hummingbird in flight approaching a feeder.Purple hummingbird in flightI think the white tail of this hummingbird served as a huge warning to others, as they all scattered (except that little honeycreeper on the feeder) when it came in to feed. Anteater in a tree looking directly at camera. Anteater in treeI have to say, my favorite critter encounter was completely unplanned. This adorable anteater crossed the road in front of our car as we were leaving Monteverde Cloud Forest. We pulled over and I ran to take pics. It ambled up a tree, turned and posed for me, climbed back down and ambled off. Adorable! Scorpion glowing blue in the dark.ScorpionThis is a bad photo of a really cool critter. On our first night tour we were shown this scorpion that illuminates under blue light. I had no tripod, so this was the best I could do hand-held. A two-toed sloth hanging from a tree branch. Two-toed slothNo trip to Costa Rica is complete without a view of a sloth, even if a brief one. This two-toed sloth was high in a tree and moving ever-so-slowly the night we took our first night jungle tour. Again, no tripod meant fuzzy pics.

 

White faced monkey eating a banana.White faced monkeyWe saw lots of monkeys during our entire visit, but the white-faced monkeys are the clever ones. I am sure they annoy the people who live there, as they are always getting into something, but they were fun to watch. Two scarlet macaws on a branch in a tree. Scarlet macawsIf I couldn't get good pics of the Resplendent Quetzel, at least I could get pics of the scarlet macaw. These two were at Cerro Lodge, where we stayed our last night. I got better pictures of them in Drake Bay, but never got the great flying shot that shows their amazing feathers.

Scarlet macaw on a branch, looking down at camera. Scarlet macawI heard scarlet macaws on the first day in Drake Bay, but they flew by so fast I didn't get a shot. Every morning after that I got up before sunrise and walked to a nearby park overlooking the beach. I sat and waited for my opportunity. Finally, on the last day, six macaws flew to a nearby tree and stayed long enough for me to get some shots. I even got a couple of them in flight.


The Joys and Perils of Bird Photography

January 03, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

The Joys and Perils of Bird Photography 

As a professional photographer I consider myself a lifelong student of photography. I have worked in portrait studios, as a photo editor, sold my flower and landscape images to large corporate clients and individual collectors. I have had my share of success in my ‘comfort zone’ areas of photography. But I feel there’s always something new to learn, always something new to inspire. For me, that current inspiration is birds.

I live in one of the most abundant areas in the country for winter birding. Not only do we get 50,000+ migrating snow geese, 7,000 trumpeter swans and 3,000 tundra swans, but we also attract a large number of birds of prey – from eagles to American kestrels and pretty much everything in-between. And I’m not talking about a single bird here and there. I’m talking about red tailed hawks on every telephone wire, eagles in every tall tree, and more. Once you start to see them, they truly are everywhere you look. That’s the joy of living here – there are birds in abundance and if you learn to see them, you will be endlessly entertained.

As a photographer, I hadn’t lived here long before I simply had to start shooting pictures of the snow geese. They gather in such huge numbers, the first time you see them take off from a field is unforgettable. Although they are legally hunted, there are plenty of places to watch them that are not hunting grounds. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people simply pull off the side of the road to watch snow geese for a while. It’s one of the things I love about living here.

Photo of snow geese in flight at twilight.Snow geeseThis shot of snow geese exiting is a bestseller. I think it just amuses people to see those dangling feet. I know it amused me when I shot it.

But shooting pictures of snow geese can lead down the slippery slope of wanting to know more about birds and thus wanting to shoot pictures of other birds. Birds are not easy. Unlike the plants and landscapes I usually shoot, birds are unpredictable and quick. And often they appear in abundance in low light, or in marshy, wet, cold places. All of these factors can be a hindrance to taking up bird photography.

ESSENTIALS

What do you need for bird photography? Primarily, patience. While birds won’t complain that their portrait makes them look fat, they also won’t hang around and wait for you to get the lighting just right. They are wild creatures and are working hard to survive and reproduce. It’s important to keep this in mind – while you may be wanting to get a great shot of a bird, if you interfere with its hunting to get that picture, you may be jeopardizing its very survival. This is why you need patience.

The best way to get a good photo of a bird is to understand its environment and its behavior. Carefully put yourself into a position to observe and photograph without interfering and you will set yourself up for a successful photo session.

It’s critical to keep in mind that no photo is worth the death of a creature. Some days you will see things you wish you could photograph, but you will be too far away, the light will be too low, the weather won’t cooperate, the background won’t look good. If you’ve got the right mindset, none of this will matter. To be a successful bird photographer is to care about birds.

There are plenty of unethical bird and wildlife photographers – people who disrupt nests, bait, or flush birds that are resting just to get a shot. I personally don’t consider these people photographers – they are trophy hunters no better than those who kill endangered species. The difference is their trophy is a photo, not a carcass, but in the end it has the same impact. Single bald eagle in flightBald Eagle Eagles are abundant around here in winter. They feed on migrating snow geese as well as salmon and there are many great locations to observe and photograph them. This one happened to be in the backyard of a friend of mine. Photo of sky full of flying snow geese. Snow geese in flight at duskI never tire of watching and photographing the snow geese in Skagit Valley. I hear them fly over my house in the mornings and in the evenings and still I make an effort to see them in their huge numbers. These were heading to the roost at sunset on a cold winter evening. Photo of hundreds of dunlin in flight. Dunlin in flightSnow geese in flight are captivating, but a flock of dunlin in flight is downright mesmerizing. With their dark tops and light bellies, the flock moves in unison and quickly changes back and forth from a dark blur to a light one. Lucky us to get these wonderful shorebirds in our area each winter. Photo of single short eared owl in flight, looking down toward the ground. Short eared owl listening for preyWhen you understand a bird's behavior, you can situate yourself to capture moments like this. This short eared owl is listening intently for the sound of voles. He hovered near me for a few minutes before he dove and captured his dinner. Photo of large barred owl on a tree branch. Barred OwlWhen you have friends who know you're interested in photographing birds, they sometimes call or text you when they see something interesting. I was still in my pjs one morning when I received a text from a neighbor that just said "HUGE OWL!". Needless to say, I was dressed and at their door in less than five minutes.

PHOTO BASICS

There are many ways to approach bird photography. Some avid birders have set ups where they can attach a camera to their scopes. Some use point and shoot cameras with digital zooms. These all work fine if that’s what you want to do. As I shoot with a DSLR, I use more traditional equipment – a camera body, a long lens and sometimes a tripod. I find shooting without a tripod is often more efficient in our area because I can move more quickly, but using a tripod will result in more, better, sharper images.

Birds are so accessible around Skagit County that one of the most efficient ways to get good photos is to use one’s car as a blind and have a beanbag handy. I sometimes stay in my car and throw the beanbag over my door to give myself something on which to rest my camera. If I am walking out into a field where I will wait for birds to fly near, I use a technique for holding my long lens steady that involves bracing one elbow against my ribs. I also take a breath and hold it while I shoot. Even as advanced as today’s cameras are, with their autofocus and auto vibration reduction, when you’re shooting with a long lens even the slightest movement is likely to throw off your focus.

Since I first started shooting snow geese a decade ago I have come to understand that some birds are more difficult than others to follow with your camera. I shoot multiple exposures, 5-10 frames a second, and I pan with the birds, but shooting snow geese like this is a cakewalk compared to trying to follow a hawk on a hunt. This is where understanding the species you are trying to photograph helps. Some birds will return to their perch. Some birds hover while they hunt. If you can learn to anticipate this behavior, you stand a better chance of getting a good picture. I remember very clearly that the first owl I saw was sitting on a street sign on a foggy morning. I actually got a decent photo of it because I had my camera handy and was able to pull off the side of the road. I recommend joining your local Audubon Society if you’re serious about learning more about birds. There are also some great classes offered in the region, such a Bud Anderson’s raptor class (info available at www.falconresearch.org).

If you’re watching a bird on a perch – a wire or a post or a fence – waiting for it to fly, use that time to make sure your settings are right. I find a shutter speed of no less than 1/1600 is needed to stop birds in flight, and for some birds that can go as high as 1/2500. If you’re trying to shoot on an automatic setting, start with the sports setting. Ideally, you should take the time to learn to use your camera’s manual settings so you can control the look of the finished image. Photo of brightly colored male painted bunting at a bird feeder. Painted buntingWhen you start down the path of bird photography it becomes clear you need to hang out with birders. And when you hang out with birders you start to learn a lot. This Painted Bunting showed up in La Conner at a local feeder. It was way off course for its winter territory of New Mexico. I only found out about it because I am in the local birding community, which gave me the opportunity to shoot a bird I might not otherwise even see.

If a bird takes flight as soon as you raise your lens to shoot a picture, you’re too close. I have watched photographers make this mistake over and over. I have made this mistake! Thinking I’m well out of the bird’s way, I raise my lens only to be skunked when the bird decides I must be a threat.

It’s tempting to want to get just a little bit closer. However, with today’s digital cameras one can crop in very closely on a photo and still have a shot good enough to print. And let’s be realistic – how many people print their photos anymore?

A lot of professional bird photographers have camouflage clothing and even camouflage covers for their lenses. This is a good idea as it is the least disruptive to the birds’ environment. It’s not that they won’t see you – especially hawks – but you will seem less threatening if you blend in better. It’s also a good idea to use your car as a blind, as most birds don’t perceive cars as a threat.

I highly recommend reading the Audubon Guide to Ethical Bird Photography as a primer to understanding the impact of pursuing birds with your camera. 

EQUIPMENT

It’s a slippery slope. You get into birding and then you want pictures. And then you want better pictures. . . If you become serious about bird photography, it’s only a matter of time before you will want a long lens – whether it’s a high powered digital zoom or a big traditional lens. I have succumbed to that temptation myself, as I get more and more interested in taking better pictures of birds in flight. However, it doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment to begin. A good place to practice is capturing birds at the feeder in your yard, if you have one. My first challenging subjects were the hummingbirds who feed in my yard year round.

There are certainly plenty of photography workshops available if you are so inclined. I have done a couple of wildlife photography workshops through The Summit Series of Workshops, which offer excellent access to National Geographic photographers, but I’m a professional photographer and my excuse is I am investing in my skills. Hobbyists may not want to spend the money and time to do a workshop.

OUTCOMES

What I have learned is that bird photography is exciting and challenging. The more I learn about birds, the more I want to find them and capture their behaviors. Since the bulk of my professional work involves plants and landscapes, which are mostly summer photo opportunities, birds in winter keep me active and thinking about photography in new ways. I am far from a master of bird photography, but I do see incremental improvements each winter and that’s personally very satisfying.

TOP 10 LIST

For those who want bullet points – here’s my list:

1.       Lower your expectations – birding photography is difficult. Do not expect to get the perfect shot right out of the gate.

2.       Cultivate patience – birds are wild creatures and the best way to capture images of them in their natural environment is to learn their behaviors and wait and watch.

3.       Read and absorb ethical bird photography guidelines. It’s just a picture to you, but it may be life and death for a bird.

4.       The most important equipment is behind the camera – you. Don’t invest in expensive equipment until you are convinced this is a passion you must pursue.

5.       Become a birder. Join birding groups, learn from birders.

6.       Hunters are not your enemy. Understand that many birding areas are also hunting grounds – but hunters may have great observations to share with you. They often walk the fields at dawn and dusk and can share what they see if you take the time to engage in a conversation.

7.       Start with backyard feeder birds. They will be the most accessible and most accustomed to your presence.

8.       Take a class or workshop – on birds, birding, bird photography.

9.       Practice, practice, practice.  I can shoot a macro image of a flower or a landscape and know I have the image I want in just a few shots. With birds I may only get one or two shots I like out of hundreds – it’s the curse and the beauty of digital. In the old days of film, getting the shot right the first or second time was a real money saver. With digital, it’s a time saver as you won’t have as many photos to go through and throwaway.

10.   Remember to appreciate the birds. I love birding photography because it’s a technical and physical challenge, but also because I love watching the birds. Sometimes the light is bad or the background is junky or the birds are too far away for a good shot. When that happens, I usually just stop and watch. Photo of crow resting on driftwood silhouetted against violent surf, big rocks and an orange sky. Sunrise at the shoreWhen you start photographing birds, they begin to creep into your mindset. I shot this sunrise at La Push's First Beach with just waves at first - and then I saw the crow on the drift wood. How much better this image is with a bird in it!