Saturday, October 22, 2011

Swallow your Pride, Ask a Guide

Tropical Screech Owls, Intervales State Park, Brazil
It is easy to overlook the value of local knowledge. However, local guides, or anyone who is familiar with a place which you are seeing for the first time, can save you time, money - and steer you towards things you might never have found on your own.  That's why I always seek out local advice whenever I am shooting in a new location.

In the tropical rainforest, this is especially important since this is an environment where every living thing is dedicated to hiding. Many people walking in a rainforest for the first time will swear that the forest is empty. The animals are hard to see, cryptically colored or strictly nocturnal. The fact is, tropical forests are busy places, but it often takes experienced eyes, and a knowledge of the location, to catch a glimpse of the stealthy creatures who live there.

Consider these tiny owls, for example. No, I did not stumble onto them by accident, roosting in a dense thicket of vines. I made a point of asking my local guide, in my halting Portuguese, if he had seen any owls roosting. I know enough that many owl species tend to roost in the same, safe location every day - once they've been found, they are likely to be seen again in the same place if left undisturbed.

I was glad I asked - my guide replied that there was a pair of screech owls roosting in the tree next to his house: he sees them almost every day. So finding this wonderful pair of owls – one red, the other gray – was just a matter of stopping by his house in the afternoon. There they were, right on schedule...

There was really one angle for a picture, through a tiny opening in the leaves. It was also very dark in the tangle of leaves, so a long exposure was required. But I managed a few pictures and then retreated, feeling  sure that my disturbance had been minimal. Then again, they were sitting within ten feet of a busy parking lot - so maybe they were probably used to a lot of people.

Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 lens, 2 second exposure

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mystery in the Dark

Lights on termite mound, Pantanal, Brazil
Never believe the conventional wisdom. When we spotted these striking lights on a termite mound on our last night in the Pantanal, we were told they were caused the termites themselves, on just one or two nights a year. (I'd never heard of bioluminescent termites before, but what do I know...?)  But why?  Not for mating, like fireflies, surely. There was no Google handy out there, so I had to wait until I got home to investigate further.  And wouldn't you know it - the story was much more interesting.
The green lights we saw were the glowing abdomens of Pyrophorus, or click beetle, larvae which burrow into the edges of termite mounds and use the lights to attract other insects - as prey.  Apparently some of these glowing beetles are found in the US, in Texas and Florida.
This was a 30-second exposure at ISO 2000, so there is little depth of field, and a fair amount of noise. But it was good enough to at least capture this rarely-seen behavior - and learn a new story.

Nikon D3, with 24-70mm lens

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Back from the Heat

Giant Armadillo emerging from Burrow, Pantanal, Brazil
Finally home from a month-long sojourn in Brazil, and to be honest, I'm glad to be out of the heat. It is heading into summer in the southern hemisphere and on the dusty plains of the Pantanal, it was over 100 every day with stifling humidity. Seattle, by contrast, is delightfully cool, breezy and HOME.

It was a complex trip, working in several different biomes including the Amazon, but our major concentration was the endangered species of the Pantanal. Although this fellow coming out of his burrow looks a bit like the common Texan 9-banded armadillo, this is actually a Giant Armadillo, one of the rarest and least-known large mammals in the Neotropics. I had never seen one before - and after I took this - I had STILL never seen one.  Welcome to the world of camera traps.

The photo was made with an elaborate camera trap system I employed every night at what appeared to be occupied burrows. This was the first image taken on the first of 9 consecutive nights, and it is still my favorite.  It is an intimate look at a very rare animal (this is one of the first-ever wild shots of this behavior) looking untroubled and at ease.

It is not obvious but these animals are big: over  3 feet in length and weighing upwards of 60  pounds. They sleep up to 18 hours a day and emerge only at night - facts which help explain why even people who have lived their entire lives in the Pantanal have never seen one.

As is often the case, a week spent trying to get pictures of these secretive animals was just long enough to teach me how hard it would be to really tell their story. But I did get some ideas, and with some equipment refinements, I hope to be able to get deeper into the project when I go back next year.

Until then, I will post some more images from Brazil in the coming week or two.

Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens, Camera-trap