P&S Nature Photographer in Cuba

A wider view of the Vinales Valley

I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for 14 days in October of 2016. What a trip! The birds were greatl, especially the endemics, of which we saw over 20 out a possible 26. Then too, the landscape was often unique and beautiful, the food was great, and the people were open and friendly. It is a great place to visit, and a great place for photography.

4 Cuban endemics: Bare-legged Owl, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody

 We visited the mountains west of Havana on our first night (I was there for 2 trips, so we stayed in two different hotels). I don’t recommend hotels in Cuba. You are much better off staying in Casa Paticulars, private homes licsenced by the government to host visitors. They are common in most of the touristy areas, and are less expensive, cleaner, and often more modern than the hotels. Private tiled baths with shower, air conditioners in each room, generally a refrigerator (sometimes shared between rooms), filtered water used for cooking, bottled water and beverages available, etc. are standard (and, it was my impression, required by law.) Plus you can arrange to have your meals at the Casa Paticular and if the ones we stayed at are a good sample, the food is abundant and excellent!

Dinner our first night on the mountain, Cuban Green Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker, Giant Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Trogon, Red-legged Thrush, Giant Kingbird, Orchid, Orchid, Cuban Emerald

Near our first hotel there was a small botanical garden…or Orchid Garden. Besides beautiful plants and stunning landscaping…in a series of terraces up the side of a steep limestone hill…the birding was excellent. Here we saw our first endemic: the Cuban Trogon. We also had good views of one of the most common, and most spectacular birds of the Cuban forest, the Red-legged Thrush. The Great Lizard Cuckoo lived up to its name. Cuban Emeralds worked the flowers on the terraces. We also saw Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, and the rare and unexpected Giant Kingbird.

Dawn in Vinales from the roof of our Casa Paticular

In Vinales (a must-visit city in one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and the center of the cigar industry in Cuba) there are whole neighborhoods that are pretty much exclusively Casa Paticulars. They have catered for a decade to German and French tourists, and are eager to host Americans. The hosts have limited English. I don’t recommend going to Cuba without hiring a local guide to set up your trip for you, but once at your Casa Paticular, even the most basic Spanish (and I am limited to a very few words), combined with the host’s basic English, will generally get you what you need. In one case, where the host needed to communicate a maintenance issue, he was able to flag down a passing neighbor with more English and we got the job done. As I said before, the people I met in Cuba were among the most friendly and accomodating I have met anywhere in my travels.

 

sampling the product: Vinales tobacco farm and cigar hand rolling facility
Street market in Vinales
Western Spindales, in the mountains east of Vinales, Green Malicite Butterfly, Cuban Kestrels (dark variety)
Out the bus window…the unique landscape around Vinales. Tobacco fields and Mogotes (the mountains)
Cuban Solitaire, Cuban Pewee, Olive-capped Warbler, Roseate Skimmer dragonfly

 From Vinales we traveled back toward Havana and then south to the Zapata Swamp area. Our accommodations were again in Casa Paticulars, this time in the resort town of Ponto Larga at the head of The Bay of Pigs. This is another unique landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Everglades in south Florida. A porous limestone base mixes fresh and salt water well inland, creating extensive marshes and wet plains. There is a fault running up the middle of the Bay, so the east side is low, with sandy beaches, and the west side is some 20-30 feet higher, with a rim of low limestone cliffs, and many sinkholes back from the shore. This is the only place in Cuba for three of the most sought after endemics…the Zapata Sparrow, the Zapata Wren, and the Zapata Rail. The existence of the rail is currently in some doubt, as there have been no reliable records for several years now. This spring, when the marsh is dryer, local ornithologists and biologists are mounting a last-ditch effort to find the rail and document its status. 

The Zapata area is also a good place to find a two of the other Cuban endemics: the Cuban Bee Hummingbird (the worlds smallest bird), and the Blue-headed Quail Dove.

Zapata Wren, Zapata Sparrow, Cuban Bee Hummingbird, Blue-headed Quail Dove

The Blue-headed Quail Dove used to be very hard to find. Recently a small flock has taken up residence around restaurant at a sink-hole park just across the road from the Bay. They come in to corn spread by the staff at the restaurant, and draw the tourists with them. ūüôā The Wren and the Sparrow, however, required a 5 mile round trip hike into the swamp on raised dike roads, in the heat of a hot October. Fortunately there were other birds along the way to keep our spirits up. On the first of the two trips I hosted, the Bee Hummingbird was easy as well. There is a backyard in a small village just north of the Bay where they are regular visitors, so much so that the owners have a small business showing them off. On the second trip the Cuban Emeralds (not endemic despite its name) were so numerous and so aggressive that the Bees were scarce. We did find them elsewhere, but did not get close views.

Cuban Tody (again), Giant Green Anole, Butterfly

The most elusive of the endemics of the Zapata region (not counting the rail), turned out to be the Fernandino’s Flicker, which should have been a lot easier in the wet plains back from the Bay. On our first trip we had only a questionable sighting. On the second trip we tried an unlikely spot in the mountains west of Havana where our guide had seen them once before, and had great views. Of course, on that trip, we also found them on the Zapata Plains.
Our Fernandino search did turn up other interesting birds. We had our first sighting of the Cuban Pygmy Owl here, and great looks at yet another Cuban Tody.

Fernandino’s Flicker, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuban Tody

Meals in Playa Larga tended to center around seafood. Excellent shrimp, lobster fixed several different ways, and Deviled Crab with peppers and green olives. And of course fish, like this giant Dog-fish that capped a seafood meal at one of our Casa Paticulars.

The shrimp, lobster, crab, beans and rice, salad plates, fried plantains, and fruit were only the appetizers for the main course.

South of Playa Larga are the extensive salt-water marshes of the La Salina Refuge. This area is very like a cross between the Everglades and Merritt Island in Florida. The winter birds were just coming in, but La Salina is home to part of the Caribbean flock of American Flamingos, as well as the Cuban variety of the Osprey and many of the other wading birds you would expect to see in South Florida.

American Flamingos, La Salina, Cuba

Though the Zapata area lacks the mountains, it has the marshes and the Bay of Pigs, both spectacular in their own way.

La Salina, dawn at Playa Larga, La Salina, Bay of Pigs, Zapata Marsh

We finished our trip, both times, with an afternoon in Havana. We stayed in Old Havana, an area which is rapidly being gentrified…with lots of trendy restaurants, brick streets, art galleries, mucic venues…surrounding the museums, historical sites, and famous Squares already in the area. Casa Particulars in Old Havana can be a bit basic…but comfortable. And the sights of the Old City are not to be missed…from the monuments and squares and the classic architecture, to the abundance of well maintained 50’s convertible taxis (from Fords to Cadillacs), the host of pedicabs, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage or cart. Street life is vibrant.

Car culture Havana
Old Havana streets
Old Square (newest actually), our guide, Cathedral Square, Old Fort

And I will finish with out hosts/guides on this amazing adventure. Ernesto and Tanya are two of the most wonderful people I have ever met…committed to the birds of Cuba and the future of Cuba. If you are interested in touring Cuba and birding with them, the easiest way is probably to contact Joni at Optics for the Tropics.

Cuba is an experience. It is getting easier. It is only an hour from Miami. You really have no excuse. Grab your camera and go!

P&SNP does Africa!

Giraffe in sunrise, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
How African classic is that? Giraffe in the sunrise. Balule Game Reserve

I think every¬†nature/wildlife photographer dreams of a photo safari to Africa, and that certainly includes Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhino, hippopotamus, cheetah…and a host of bright African birds: sunbirds, rollers, and bee-eaters…not to mention the big birds, Ostriches and Bustards, Vultures, and Eagles. And just being there, in the presence of so much great wildlife…the Africa of all our dreams.

However, if you have priced an African photo safari lately, you know that it can be a very expensive destination. The safaris themselves are pricey compared to other eco or adventure travel, or even photo tours, and the cost of getting there is high. Airfare is expensive, and it can take as much as 38 hours with layovers on the least expensive flights.

Bush Bomba, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Bush Bomba, our first night in Africa

Of course that does not keep me from dreaming or taking a look on-line at the safari booking sites. Recently I found a company, Viva Safaris, in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa (perhaps the most accessible of the African nations), offering what appeared to be real bargains in Kruger Wildlife Safaris. I also found a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (South African Air), that got me from Portland Maine to Africa in less than 24 hours for just over $1000. The trip total was around $2500 for 11 days (two back to back safari packages at different lodges owned by Viva). That included 2 bushwalks with an armed Ranger, one night Game Drive and several sunrise and sunset Game Drives on Private Reserves in the Greater Kruger Area, and 4 full day Game Drives in Kruger itself.

I did have some doubts. The Lodges and Camps I stayed at are not in Kruger. They are in Private Game Reserves adjacent to Kruger. Balule Game Reserve very large and is unfenced on the Kruger side, so it is, for all practical purposes, part of Kruger National Park. Motlala Game Reserve is smaller, but is also open to the surrounding reserves. However, Balule is about an hour from the nearest Kruger gate and Motlala is only a bit closer, so you do not get early mornings in Kruger itself. Early bushwalks and drives are on the Private Reserves.

Then too, the safari packages they offer are not Photo Safaris per say…they are general wildlife safaris. If you have ever been out with a group of non-photographers when you are trying to photograph, you know there can be some strain there…and the potential for cross purposes is high. Most dedicated Photo Safaris to Africa guarantee you a window or outside seat in the high Game Viewers used in the African Bush (converted transport buses or Land Cruiser type vehicles with high seats and large sliding windows, or no windows at all), which automatically means a small number of people per vehicle. No such guarantee here. Viva offers its low prices based on the simple premise of keeping their rooms and their Game Viewers (the Land Cruiser, open sided type) full at all times. Also the pace of a photo safari can be quite different than the pace of a general wildlife safari. On Wildlife Safari, the goal is to show the customer as many animals as possible. That can mean the quantity of views will generally¬†trump the quality. On a Photo Safari, the goal is to get you good shots of as many animals as possible..but that may mean you see less animals total, and miss some altogether…and that is perfectly fine with most photographers. Quality over quantity.

Vervet Monkey, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Vervet Monkeys were everywhere around both lodges.

Finally the Lodges themselves were an unknown. They got generally excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but, as there always are, there were a few outstanding negative reviews too.

I will reassure you on that point first. The Lodges were fine. Tremisana Lodge on the Balule Game Reserve is comfortable, with nice rooms and a family style atmosphere…including family style meals. Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is more rustic, with a more genuine “bush” feel and reed cabins perched in trees or on stilts high above a flowing river, and is¬†much more like a “camp”…including camp style¬†meals. Perhaps because of that, Marc’s attracts a lot more young people than Tremisana, and that just adds to the camp atmosphere. I enjoyed the experience of both, and the contrast between the two. I have no hesitation in recommending Tremisana to any potential traveler. I would recommend Marc’s Treehouse to those with a desire for a more authentic bush experience, and a good sense of adventure ūüôā

Tremisana Lodge, Balule Game Reserve, Greater Kruger NP, South Africa
Tremisana Lodge
Marc's Treehouse Lodge, South Africa
Marc’s Treehouse Lodge

As far as my other doubts went, the quality of the night, early and late walks and drives in Balule Game Reserve and the neighboring Tshakudu Reserve, both in the numbers of animals seen, and in the skill of the driver/rangers Viva and Tshakudu employ, more than made up for any lack of mornings in Kruger. At Balule we were able to spotlight elephants, giraffe, and honeybadgers on the night drive, and at Tshakudu we were able to drive up, just after sunset, within 40 feet of a pride of lions at a kill. (Other groups at Balule also saw a lion kill, but I missed it.) The rangers at Tremisana went out of their way (literally) on several occasions to show me birds I might not otherwise have seen or been able to photograph.

And the Viva driver/rangers who take the Game Viewers into Kruger daily did a wonderful job of finding and getting us views of as many animals as possible each trip. Every ranger I road with, and I road with four different ones, was knowledgeable and keen eyed, and I was especially impressed that, even though they are in Kruger every day, driving the same roads, chasing the same animals, they all still obviously enjoyed showing the African Wildlife to their customers. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.

So, no it was not a dedicated photo safari…but I am not sure it made a difference, especially for a first experience of Africa. Perhaps because I was one of the few people each day in the Game Viewer with serious looking camera gear, I generally was voted into an outside seat. On the occasions when I did have a middle seat, it turned out not to be much of a problem. The vehicles are very high, with seats raised considerably above even the normal bed of the Land Cruiser, and I could generally shoot over or around my fellow passengers…and again, since I was obviously serious about my photography, the others generally made a special effort to make sure I got my picture. Several asked if I would send them copies of things that were just beyond the cameras in the cell phones and tablets that most of them were carrying. (I was totally amazed at how many of my fellow safariers came out with only a cell phone for a camera.)

Lion, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Lions, Kruger National Park. We swung around and went back for this view. Because I asked ūüôā

Again, though it was not a photo safari, the driver/rangers are very experienced in positioning their vehicles so that everyone can see the animals…and on the few occasions where my view was blocked or where I saw the potential for a better shot, the driver made every effort to reposition the vehicle so I could get the shot I wanted. I would love to be able to afford a dedicated photo safari, but I am not convinced I would come back with any more keepers than I did from my Viva Wildlife Safari.

I took three cameras with me. The Sony RX10iii, with its 1 inch sensor and 24-600mm zoom, which I intended to use most of the time, the Nikon P900 for when I needed more reach (out to 2000mm equivalent, especially for birds), and the Sony HX90V (a tiny P&S with a 24-720mm equivalent zoom) as a fail-safe backup in case both other cameras broke ūüôĀ As it turned out, it was just too much trouble to handle¬†more than one camera in the field in Africa, especially in the Game Viewers, so the Nikon and HX90V stayed in my pack most of the time. Except for distant birds, I did not miss the reach of the P900, and even for distant birds, with the shimmer in the heated African air, I am not sure I would have gotten better shots with the 2000mm zoom. I did use the Clear Image Zoom out to 2x on the Sony more than I thought I would. Distant prides of lions, or a Cheetah in the shade of a distant tree just demanded more reach than 600mm, though I could have cropped and gotten the same image scale. Overall I was pleased with the results even for those stretched shots. I also found the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode useful on several occasions when the light levels were low. I got better shots of hyena and the pride of lions at the kill after sunset because that mode was available…and impossible shots of Honeybadger after full dark in the light of only the Game Viewer’s spotlight. Finally, for the landscapes¬†I took, the in-camera HDR on the Sony is just the best!

Today’s modern Point and Shoot superzooms are ideal cameras for Africa, offering you the wide open vistas at 24mm, frame filling shots of larger wildlife at mid-telephoto range (250mm), and the reach to shoot a close-up of an elephants eye or a distant lion or small bird. And you well not find yourself overburdened with gear, or changing lenses in the field.

I took 5000 exposures over 11 days. I have 851 keepers. Lots of lions, more elephants that I really need, a hundred giraffes, most of the antelope species, zebra, wildebeest, rhino, hippo, leopard, cheetah, honeybadger, mongoose, etc.

White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve, South Africa.
White-fronted Bee-eater, Balule Game Reserve

And though it was not a birding trip, I got to photograph my “most wanted”: two sunbird species, both African rollers, and two bee-eaters…as well as many of the larger birds of the African bush…including a total surprise in a pair of Kori Bustards (the largest flighted bird) that we found walking one morning just after we got to Kruger.

Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Kori Bustard, Kruger National Park

This is a slideshow of 132 of the best or most interesting shots from my keeper set. You can also view the full take, organized by day, (and subject as time allows) on WideEyedInWonder.

I am considering, if there is enough interest, negotiating a bit more photo-centric trip with Viva or one of the other Kruger Safari companies next September. I think, if we could fill a Game Viewer (9 or 10 participants), we might get some special treatment (though not a cost savings as Viva is already about as inexpensive as anyone can be). Let me know via email, if you would be interested.

 

P&SNP at Traquilo Bay, Panama

In August of 2016 I had the privilege of being the official ZEISS host for a ZEISS/Eagle Optics trip to Tranquilo Bay Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. While it was a birding trip, not a photography trip (and there is a difference), I took along my Sony RX10iii (and two back-up cameras) for those inevitable (at least for me) photo opportunities.

Headed out to Tranquilo Bay
Headed out from the dock at Bocas Town on our way to Tranquilo Bay Lodge

I have said here before that in my opinion, Tranquilo Bay Lodge and the surrounding area in the islands of Bocas del Toro, and the lowlands, foothills, and mountains of the ajoining mainland, are one of the best spots in Central American for bird and wildlife photography, especially during migration season. Our August trip proved that it is also excellent even at slower times of the year.

I am posting several slide shows of images. All were taken with the Sony RX10iii in Program Mode, In-camera HDR, or my customized Birds-in-flight mode (based on the built in Sports Mode, see here) and processed in Lightroom.

This firsts set is from Day One. You have to overnight in Panama City to get to Bocas del Toro at any reasonable time on your first day. The Lodge books the¬†dawn flight from the domestic airport in Panama City, so you are in Bocas early enough for a full day of exploring or birding. The Lodge picks you up at the airport and transports you to their boats at a dock in Bocas Town, and you motor out to Bastimento Island were Tranquilo Bay Lodge is located. We were met, half way up the boardwalk between the dock and the foot of the stairs leading up to the Lodge by what appeared to be the official Tranquilo Bay greeter for the day…a Three-toed Sloth in the canopy above us. That set the tone for the whole trip. After check in and island breakfast with your hosts at the Lodge, you head out to explore the trails around the island before lunch. After a siesta, which gives you a chance to unpack and even shower, you are off again on new trails, ending your exploration on the Canopy Tower on the hill above the cabins, watching flights of parrots returning to their roosts for the night.

On day two, we were up early to travel to the mainland for a day in the lowlands, foothills, and mountains. You can drive from the dock, right up to and over the continental divide, on good paved roads. The first section is lowland grass and swamp, then the foothills with rainforest, and eventually the mountains right up to the edge of cloudforest. Spectacular birding and photography all the way. We got rained out on our first approach to the divide, and went back down to the Ranger Station where we had lunch under their thatched shelter. By the end of lunch it has stopped raining and we went back to the divide to bird, then retuned to the foothills to end the day. There were many interesting dragonflies along the road were we birded on the way back.

Day three took us the Green Acres Chocolate Farm for morning birding, adn then back to Tranquilo Bay for the afternoon. The Chocolate Farm is near the mainland and has different species than Bastimento…including a totally different species of Poison Dart Frog.

On day four we traveled to the mainland again to explore the lowlands and ridges of the Changuinola region on the north edge of Bocas del Toro. Besides interesting birds, we encountered a number of butterflies, most of which I can not identify yet.

Day five was our day to visit Isle de Popo, a close neighbor of Bastimento and Tranquilo Bay. There are two major attractions at Popo. One is a population of Snowy Contingas, and the other is the unique phenomenon of a mix of color variations of Poison Dart Frog in a single location. Generally Poison Dart Frog variations are restricted to small ranges on individual islands or individual drainages.  On Popo, in an area the size of a heavily forested football field you can find at least 5 different color variations of Poison Dart Frogs, plus two separate species. Though I was with some hard-core birders, I persuaded them to visit the frog spot, and most seemed to really enjoy chasing the elusive critters around the forest floor, trying to find new color variations. We had just about given up on finding the rarer second species and were actually headed back before Ramone, our guide, found one. One of the birders jokingly asked for a Tourquoise frog. We found her one of those too. We did not, however, find the Snowy Cotinga, though we came back to Popo after our afternoon rest period, and again on our last morning at Tranquilo Bay. Not for want of trying.

Between trips to Popo on Day five, we had some free time. Some went on another hike around the lodge in search of the Three-wattled Bell Bird. I elected to hike back to the Golden-collared Manakin lecks to see if I could photograph these elusive but brilliant birds. Tranquilo Bay Lodge has to be one of the best places for Golden-collared Manakin. After a long hot wait in the humidity and mosquitoes, I was rewarded with two male Manakins coming into the lecks. August is late for any lecking activity so I felt particularly privileged. They did not actually get down and display, probably because there were no females in the area, but I got some keepers of the males.

Day 6 was our day for the Snyder Canal and Swan Island. The Snyder Canal was built at the turn of the century by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas from the plantations to the ships in a deep channel in northern Bocas del Toro, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. It was only in active service for about five years before the railway put it out of business, but it is still there, winding its way parallel to the coast through some prime swamp and lowlands. It provides easy access to some of the best birding in Bocas del Toro.

Swan Island is a volcanic plug about 40 minutes off-shore out in the Caribbean. It is home to a nesting colonies of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies, and Frigatebirds…and is one of unique attractions of Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro.

After finishing in the Snyder Canal and Chinguinola River, we headed to Swan Island. All images here are taken in my custom birds-in-flight mode.

On our last day, the day we traveled back to Panama City to spend another night before our flights home, we made, as I mentioned, one last try for the Snowy Cotinga, without success. Just before we left for Panama City, I took some time to shoot fish off the dock, and then we were back in the boats and on our way to Bocas Town and the airport.

So, my conclusion. Tranquilo Bay is still one of the¬†best places in Central America for bird and wildlife photography…no matter the season. I can’t wait to go back again. (And maybe you will join me. Keep an eye on the Workshops and Tours page.)

DSC04929
Motoring away from Tranquilo Bay