Hi, and welcome to my blog. It occured to me that when you view the images in my galleries, that you would like have some idea as to the how, when and where. Therefore, through this blog, I will attempt to provide some background and detail about the photo trip that resulted in the images posted on my site.
How can one possibly describe three weeks in the highlands of the Central Andean Mountains and the low rain forests of Amazonia, other than simply unforgettable. Over a year in planning, this unforgettable adventure turned out to be ever so much more than Jane and I had envisioned. It started out simply enough as a two week bird photography tour to Peru, but then we extended the trip with an additional week of bird photography in Ecuador. We rationalized the additional week to maximize the adventure since we would already be in South America. All in all, we were gone nearly a month when you throw in travel time.
We commenced our travels by flying from San Diego, via Dallas/Fort Worth, to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. As is our custom, we arrive a day before the start of the photo tour and experienced a hasty exploration of Quito’s historic district, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1534 by Spanish conquistadors, on the ruins of an ancient Inca city, Quito has one of the best preserved historic centers of Spanish America, according to UNESCO. Situated at over 9,000 feet in elevation, we experienced our first signs of breathlessness as we wandered along the steep, narrow streets of Quito.
Every Monday morning there is a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the presidential palace in Quito. This ceremony includes a lot of pomp and circumstance with a military band and mounted soldiers in elaborate, historic uniforms. We stumbled upon this festive celebration during our exploration of the old city center. The Plaza Grande, filled with locals and tourists alike, was inundated with scores of street vendors hawking their trinkets and treats. After the ceremony, and away from the crowded plaza, Jane consummated some intricate negotiations with a street vendor for several colorful scarves.
The next day we met up with David Hemmings of Nature’s Photo Adventures (www.naturesphotoadventures.com) to start our Ecuador bird photography tour. Our first destination was the Tandayapa Bird Lodge located about 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Quito. By car, this trip took about 2 hours and that should give some idea about driving conditions in and around Quito. In general, streets in all metropolitan areas we visited are narrow, with limited sight distance, and extremely congested with people and cars. Streets are aligned in a random, haphazard grid system dating back to a time when there were no cars. Drivers compete fiercely for any space between vehicles, much like bumper cars, particularly as multiple cars and buses attempt to make turns onto the many one-way streets. That is why you need a local driver who knows the rules of engagement and shortcuts to avoid the most congested areas.
We arrived frazzled but without incident at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge to enjoy our first foray into photographing the unique hummingbirds of Ecuador. The Tandayapa Bird Lodge is located in the rain forest and we certainly had our share of rain during our brief visit. Several times we had to retreat inside to avoid the worst of the rainy weather. We surmised that we experienced more rain during our two days at Tandayapa than during the entire San Diego rainy season. The chef made up for the inclement weather by creating some extraordinary deserts for us.
From Tandayapa, we traveled to the Cabanãs San Isidro, located about 187 kilometers (115 miles) to the southeast. Unfortunately, that meant we had to go back through the labyrinth of streets in Quito again. Scenery along the way, however, was fantastic and more than made up for this inconvenience. We journeyed through narrow, winding canyons with high, steep towering mountains, covered with pristine, verdant rain forest vegetation. Gigantic waterfalls were encountered dropping hundreds of feet from the steep mountain sides. We also crossed over one of Ecuador’s highest Andean mountain passes, Papallacta, at over 13,000 feet.
Of the lodges we visited in Ecuador, Cabanãs San Isidro was by far the most luxurious. Our room was like a large sun porch, spacious with a huge bed and tall, floor to ceiling, windows on three sides. Lodge facilities were some distance from the main, dirt track leaving us with the feeling of being absorbed into the rain forest. The grounds had abundant, vividly colored native flowers, hosting butterflies that fluttering from flower to flower collecting nectar. We also encountered some unique bird species at this lodge that were a challenge to photograph.
From Cabanãs San Isidro we backtracked about 50 kilometers (30 miles) along the paved highway to the Guango Lodge. This time we did not have to traverse all the way back to Quito. Guango is a large property and we ventured out on several trails along the Rio Quijos looking for birds to photograph. Although the lodge is popular with birders we were the only overnight guests at Guango during our two day stay. We did have a few birding groups stop by to share the spectacle of feisty hummingbirds competing for sugar water at the many feeders scattered throughout the property. Jane added a few new species to our bird list while we were at Guango.
Guango Lodge was our last bird photography location in Ecuador. From there we traveled back to Quito and then flew to Lima, Peru, for the next phase of this unforgettable adventure. In Lima, we met Dali and Neil Solomon who joined us for the two-week Peru portion of the photography tour. We did not dawdle in Lima but continued on to Cusco the gateway to Machu Picchu. Far from being the quaint and charming small village we imagined, Cusco was a sprawling, bustling city with nearly half a million people and its own congested maze of streets and byways.
From Cusco we continued on to Machu Picchu. That excursion turned out to be a unique adventure of its own. By car (with a driver guide) we maneuvered through the hectic traffic jams of Cusco and through the high and dry Andean highlands from an elevation of over 12,000 feet down to the small village of Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet where the habitat begins its transition to rain forest. At Ollantaytambo we boarded a train that follows the Urubamba River down to an elevation of 6,700 feet at Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train ride was a pleasant, relaxing break from the tense, “back seat driving” along the busy, two-lane highway from Cusco. All in all, by car and train, it took most of the morning to arrive at our destination in Aguas Calientes even though the overall distance is only about 120 kilometers (75 miles).
Aguas Calientes is a hodgepodge of buildings built on steep mountain sides. There is no vehicular traffic in the town. All provisions, supplies and construction material arrived by train and are transported by hand, mostly in wheelbarrows, from the train depot to final destinations. The town subsists on tourism and is crowded with inns, hostels, B & B’s, lodges and restaurants of assorted price range and quality. Our lodge, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was one of, if not the, best in town. It was a pleasure to stay there, removed from the hustle and bustle of the main village. The gardens are well tended with hummingbird feeders strategically located throughout. We were able to photograph some very colorful species of tanagers that were feeding on bananas.
To get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu requires a bus ride from town up to the citadel. Bus tickets and departures are carefully monitored to control the total number of people entering this historic icon of the Inca civilization. We visited the Inca ruins twice, once on the afternoon of our arrival in Aguas Calientes and again the following morning. Each time, the entrance gate was crowded with visitors queued to gain access. Once inside the historic site, however, the crowds quickly dispersed into the vast area of this ancient Inca city.
Machu Picchu did not disappoint. Even after seeing many published pictures of the ruins and reading about the Inca civilization, being there and seeing this magnificent edifice with its many buildings, temples and terraces was indeed a gratifying and humbling experience. Sitting quietly on the same bedrock that the citadel is built upon and contemplating Inca life at this remote location, deep in the rain forest jungle, it was not difficult to develop a deep appreciation for the ingenuity, creativity and vision of the people living and worshiping here. Visiting Machu Picchu had been a long time “bucket list” item that has now been realized.
After the majesty of Machu Picchu and the ambiance of the Inkaterra Hotel, we continued with our Peru bird photography tour. We journeyed back to Cusco and then on to Peru’s Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve. According to our guide Steve Sanchez (www.perubirdingexpeditions.com), the park is as large as Switzerland. To put that in a context familiar to us, Manú is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and about three times larger than the state of Delaware. It is a big, remote, rugged place!
We approached the park from the south, a long 150 kilometer (93 mile) drive from Cusco. Most of the approach to the park was on a rough graded, dirt track that became even rougher, muddier and slower as Juan, our driver, maneuvered the many switchbacks and drainage dips within the park. Rain also hampered our progress as we were blocked by a substantial mud slide that has washed out a portion of the track. Fortunately, we were able to backtrack to our first accommodation in the park, the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station. That is when we came to appreciate how remote and primitive lodges in Manú National Park are. The room was small, rustic with few amenities, but in general adequate. The downside was the lack of hot water and electricity. The biological station created its own electric power with a generator, but only ran the generator for three hours in the evening from 6 to 9 PM. During our stay, there was a generator failure and power did not commence until about 7 PM, about an hour after sunset.
By the time we left the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station, the mudslide area had been sufficiently restored to allow us to slowly and cautiously pass over the damaged roadway, and we proceeded to the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge, just 35 kilometers (22 miles) further into the park. Here our room came equipped with candles to light the cabin when the generator was not operating. Hot water, however, continued to elude us when we learned that the water supply to the water heater had been damaged by recent, heavy rains. Regardless of these little setbacks, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge. In addition to hummingbird photography, this is where we encountered a Woolly Monkey troop that liked to raid the dining hall at the lodge.
The national bird of Peru is the Andean cock-of-the-rock and only a 15 minute drive on the Manú Road from this lodge was an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek, a traditional place where male Andean cock-of-the-rock birds assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays that attract females. The best time to observe this display ritual was during the late afternoon hours, which in a dark rain forest is not the best for photography. We visited the lek twice and observed the birds perform their competitive displays from a crudely built, wooden blind. It was most fascinating and intriguing to watch. Several males would swoop in from the dense forest and perch on tree branches where they could be observed by females and competitors. The birds would then proceed to show off their bright red plumage by bowing, jumping along their perches, spreading and flapping their wings, all the while vocalizing loudly with sharp calls. Then, as if an alarm had sounded, they one-by-one disappeared back into the dense forest.
Just as we assumed our adventure had reached its peak, we departed the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge for the Amazonia Lodge. This required not only another 45 kilometers (28 miles) of navigating the treacherous Manú road but also a 20 minute ride in a long, narrow, wooden boat on the Madre de Dios River. Just this voyage was sufficient reason to rate this trip as an unforgettable adventure. The photography at the Amazonia Lodge was challenging but had its rewards with some unique species, including the rufous crested coquette hummingbird and the prehistoric looking hoatzin, added to our bird list and portfolio.
From the Amazonia Lodge, it was a long haul back to Cusco where we dropped David Hemmings off at the airport for his flight back to British Columbia, Canada. Dali, Neil, Jane and I spent another day and half in Cusco where we enjoyed some guided tours provided by Tours By Locals (www.toursbylocals.com). After that, it was a flight back to Lima and then home via Miami. Nearly a month from start to finish this will always be remembered as one of our incredible journeys.
Images of the many birds photographed can be viewed in the Ecuador Birds and Peru Birds galleries. Images of Machu Picchu are in that gallery.
Following the March Madness of Death Valley, I looked forward to Spring Break. For our spring break Jane and I traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for some photography in the Sonoran Desert. My primary objective was to find and photograph the fragrant white blossoms of the saguaro cactus. By all accounts, I knew that it was early in the season for saguaro blossoms, but early April fit into our overall travel schedule. So we packed our bags (mostly my bags stuffed with photo gear) and headed east to Tucson where Jane had found a quaint, out-of-the-way casita to rent. The location, like the casita itself, turned out to be perfect. We were only ten minutes from the Saguaro National Park visitor center and about fifteen from the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum.
We met some friends from the Photonaturalists Camera Club, Neil and Dali Solomon, who had been photographing birds near Sierra Vista, and spent our first day with them. Together we toured the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum in the morning and enjoyed a night sky program at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Neil is an avid bird photographer and his images can be found at www.nsolomonphoto.com. The program at Kitt Peak was fascinating and was highlighted with night sky observations through a telescope. Pretty neat!
We were definitely too early in the season for saguaro blossoms. The forest of tall, tree-like saguaro cactus with arms growing in all directions, displayed many buds but no flowers. Many other cacti, however, were in bloom, particularly at the desert museum cactus garden. There we found some extraordinary hybrid cactus varieties with huge, colorful flowers. Although disappointed that there were no saguaro blossoms to photograph, Jane and I discovered a tall saguaro with nesting northern flicker woodpeckers. Best of all, this saguaro was located only about a quarter mile from the casita, along the dirt driveway to the main road, and we visited that cactus on several mornings. Another serendipitous discovery was a single blossom on a saguaro located right next to the casita. This blossom was a favorite attraction for gila woodpeckers and we spent a lot of time watching and photographing, with coffee mugs in hand, the comings and goings of these striking birds.
One afternoon we made a day trip to two local, old Spanish missions. The first mission we visited was Tumacácori, a National Historic Park, about an hour south of Tucson. The mission was originally founded in 1691 by a Jesuit missionary from Spain. By 1848, after decades of hardship the mission was abandoned. On our way back to the casita, we stopped at Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic landmark. This mission was founded in 1692 by the same Jesuit missionary as Tumacácori. The current church was completed in 1797 and has been in continuous operation since. Mission San Xavier del Bac is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The inside of the chapel is exquisitely decorated. The original mural paintings are beautiful and the altar and statues amazingly detailed. Our visit to these old, original national historic places well worth the effort.
This spring break trip was also planned to coincide with the full phase of the moon. I wanted some more practice with night sky photography after only mediocre results in Death Valley. My ability to locate where the full moon would appear in the sky was accurate, but the timing between moonrise and sunset was off. The location I selected had a high mountains ridge in the foreground that resulted in the moon showing its face much later than I had anticipated resulting in a foreground too dark for proper exposure.
Even so, we had a great time and on the way home we decided to put the casita in the pending travel file for a possible future visit. From the casita we were able to make early morning visits to the Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum where we were rewarded with some outstanding photo ops with only a few visitors to contend with. One morning, we had the hummingbird aviary almost to ourselves. The woodpeckers flying back and forth to the saguaro next to the casita gave me plenty of opportunities to photograph birds in flight. And last, but not least, was the relaxing atmosphere of this quaint, out-of-the-way casita where we watched the sun come up from the front patio with our morning coffee and go down from the back patio with our glass of wine.
Images from this spring break journey can be found in the National Parks, Monuments & Historic Landmarks gallery. Look for the Mission San Xavier del Bac, Saguaro National Park and Tumacacori National Historic Park sub-galleries.
My March “madness” consisted of trying, for me, a new aspect of photography. I traveled to Death Valley, during the full moon, to try my hand at “moonscape” photography, that is, photographing iconic locations in Death Valley by moonlight. March is high season in Death Valley and I had made reservation at Furnace Creek Ranch far in advance of my trip. It was good I did. The valley was filled with tourists, speaking a wide variety of different languages, and Furnace Creek was totally booked. Many of these visitors were also photographers that I ran into as I attempted my moonlight photography. Perhaps the most iconic landscape location in Death Valley is Manly Beacon at Zabriskie Point and that is where I concentrated my efforts and met fellow photographers from as far as Germany.
I was accompanied on this new adventure by Bruce Hollingsworth. We like to travel and photograph together and he was also game to try something new. I had researched the internet for information about how to go about this unique type of photography. What I discovered was that reading about how to obtain well executed moonscape photographs is so much simpler than actually implementing the process during the dark of night. Although my planning and preparation for obtaining moonscapes was good, my ability to create “keeper” images left a lot to be desired. Obviously, much more practice will be needed before I can brag about my moonscapes. I also attempted photographing the full moon. Looking at my results from that endeavor, full moon photography is also a skill I will need to work on. It is not that my attempt at this night time photography was a complete bust. The resulting images were just not up to my expectation and standard.
All was not lost, however. There was a killer sunset in the valley that I was able to photograph and get some decent images. Also, during a telephone call with Jane, I learned that the Anza Borrego Desert State Park was experiencing the best spring wildflower display in ten or more years. So a short jaunt to Borrego Springs was called for. The wildflower bloom was pretty impressive with flower displays in areas I had not seen any flowers before. Of course, with this kind of colorful flower exhibit, and the associated publicity, hundreds of other people had also ventured to Borrego Springs to experience the remarkable phenomena. I did manage to obtain some images without extraneous people in them.
My two short trips in March provided ample photographic challenges and demonstrated the need for more practice. That means more trips!
Jane and I started twenty-seventeen with a super “vacation”, two weeks in Hawaii. Jane and I have a special definition for “vacation”, it is a trip without any photography gear and all photos are taken with either a cell phone or small snap shooter camera. We have lots of other trips in store for this year, but these two weeks were a “vacation”. We were fortunate in being able to arrange a time-share trade for two consecutive weeks, the first week on Maui, the Valley Isle, and the second week on Kauai, the Garden Isle.
We flew non-stop from San Diego to Maui and enjoyed the first week of our vacation in a one bedroom condominium at the Maui Schooner Resort in Kihei. Jane was able to score a great price for an off-airport car rental. Anyway, that is what we thought. The price was really good, at least one hundred dollars less for the week than a convertible from the major car rental companies at the airport. But the good price was not because of the location, it was because the cars were old and a bit beaten up. Before departing the rental agency, we thoroughly inspected the vehicle and noted all the dings and scratches on our rental form. You know how it is with car rental companies, they will charge through the nose for any little thing they can get away with.
So we were more than a bit shocked and concerned when a large, fresh ding appeared on the driver side door. It was really bad looking, deep and with paint from the culprit vehicle embedded on our door. Then, as I pulled out of the parking space at the resort, we heard a loud scraping sound coming from the front of the car. We quickly got out of our seats to inspect what was causing this horrible noise. Turns out the front bumper assembly had become dislodged and the entire fiberglass unit was hanging down and scraping on the ground. Immediately we could see the insurance deductible becoming part of our vacation cost. We were able to, sort of, wedge the unit back into place, although we had to do that several more times over the next few days.
Before returning the vehicle to the rental company we cleaned up the ding with cleaning solvent from the condo to where it looked as old as all the other dings on the door. We also manipulated the bumper assembly back into place as best we could and started feverishly thinking of ways to avoid paying for damages. When we got to the rental place we were hyped and ready to do verbal combat with the agent. When we explained about the bumper, the agent casually told us “you should have called and we would have replaced the car. These are old cars and we know things can go wrong”. What a relief that was!
Otherwise, our week on Maui was very relaxing. We had a pool-side unit and spent a fair amount of time in the Jacuzzi and lounging around the pool. One of the other guests at the Schooner Resort told us about Polo Beach and the ocean front walk in the area. We enjoyed that hour-long walk along the swanky hotels and apartments several times. We also followed up on suggestions from friends at home and snorkeled around Molokini Island with Trilogy Sailing and watched a slight-of-hand magic show in Lahaina. Of course we could not return home from Maui without having made the drive up to the Haleakala volcanic crater (although we did not do the sunrise thing).
Our next week was spent at the Cliffs Resort in the planned community of Princeville, along the north shore of Kauai where we enjoyed the comfort and space of a large one bedroom, two bath unit. Princeville is a bit remote from other population centers on Kauai so we planned most of our activities in and around very upscale Princeville. For Kauai, Jane had arranged much better transportation. We enjoyed top-down touring in a new, bright yellow Mustang convertible. No problems with this vehicle!
In addition to exploring the beaches at Hanalei Bay and Wainiha Bay we also imbibed happy hour drinks at the Hanalei Bay Resort, about a half hour’s walk from the Cliffs. We toured the entire island of Kauai via Sunshine Helicopters right from the Princeville airport. The flight included Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, and now famous Manawaiopuna Falls, aka “The Jurassic Falls”. The bird’s eye view of the island’s steep, vegetation covered terrain from the comfort of the helicopter was very cool!
Another very cool experience was our three hour tour of the Princeville Botanical Gardens. The botanical garden was actually developed by a couple from San Diego, Bill and Lucinda Robertson, who had intended to retire on Kauai and instead spent years creating a fantastic garden. Our guide, Harald, a former children’s book publisher from New Mexico, was extremely knowledgeable about all the various varieties of trees, plants and flowers encountered along the tour. One of the tour highlights was a presentation of how cacao beans are processed into chocolate that included tasting samples of chocolate with varying cacao amounts. We also found, by word-of-mouth, a five mile hiking trail through a mahogany plantation. The area had previously been a sugar cane plantation and the trail took us past an old stone dam and canals built to float the cane to the processing plant. Rain pelted us as we hiked back to the canary yellow convertible.
The concierge at the resort offered us a two-for-one price for a very expensive, all inclusive (open bar and shuttle service to and from), luau for agreeing to sit it on a timeshare presentation. The sales person tended to be a bit narcissistic and talked mainly about himself and that he did not care whether or not we purchased a timeshare since he was retired and did not need the commission. So after a half hour we let him know that we were not interested, and since he didn’t care, we should cut the sales session short. That proved to be a very profitable half hour for us as we had a lot of fun at the luau and enjoyed several Blue Hawaiian cocktails (with Vodka instead of Rum).
For a wildlife enthusiast like me, one of the more fascinating experiences in Princeville was our encounter with the Laysan Albatross. It seems that the cliffs along the north shore of Kauai are the ancestral nesting sites for the Laysan Albatross and other sea faring birds. Now, these birds instinctively continue to come to these cliffs to raise chicks even though the area is covered with million dollar homes. The albatross have adapted well to their new surroundings. We observed them exhibiting their natural behaviors in people’s front yards as we strolled through the neighborhood streets. In addition to the albatross, we added several new bird species to our list. The most common bird encountered was the red junglefowl, ancestral to the domesticated chicken. They were everywhere on Kauai.
Of course, all great “vacations” must come to an end and after our week on Kauai we headed back to San Diego. Upon arriving back on the mainland, we learned that San Diego had experienced more rain during the time we were gone than in any other similar period in the city’s recorded history of rainfall. That news made our two weeks in Hawaii even more special.
December saw the last of my 2016 photography trips. Jane had work commitments, so I traveled with my photo friend, Bruce Hollingsworth. Bruce had wanted to return to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico for another opportunity to photograph the migrating sandhill cranes and snow geese. Jane and I had traveled to Bosque several times in the past and, in fact, Bruce and I had been there several times as well. Since this was about my fifth or sixth trip to Bosque del Apache, I didn’t want to return with images that I already had in my portfolio. So, this time I planned on obtaining some new, unique images by concentrating more on environmental compositions using shorter range focal length lenses rather than close range images using long telephoto lenses. I also attempted to obtain more abstract images using a slow shutter speed while panning birds in flight.
Normally, birds in flight are photographed at pretty fast shutter speeds, over 1/1,000 of a second. I was attempting to photograph the cranes and gees at around 1/50 to 1/100 of a second. When successfully executed, the image should result in the bird’s head being in focus, its wings slightly blurred, and the background an abstract blur of colors. Sounds easy, but it is not. Thank goodness for digital photography and an infinite supply of pixels. I made several hundred attempts for each image that approached the standards I expected to achieve. I had to sort through thousands of totally out of focus shots to find the very few keepers I was satisfied with. Hope you agree with my choices. You can view them in the Wildlife Refuges gallery and then clicking on Bosque del Apache.
On our way home, Bruce and I stopped for more photography at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Rather than wildlife as at Bosque, White Sands is a landscape photography location and I have always found landscapes to be extremely difficult to compose. Landscape photography requires a serious amount of scouting to find an interesting combination of foreground, middle-ground and background. My lack of landscape photography experience showed as I wandered aimlessly among the white gypsum sand dunes looking for that perfect landscape combination. By the time the soft light of sunset arrived, I just ended up doing the best I could. Same thing occurred the following morning. It was dark when we arrived so finding a perfect location was out of the question. Again, I reverting to doing the best I could with the potential compositions I stumbled upon. My saving grace was a beautiful sky with colorful light and great clouds. Images from White Sands are located in the National Parks and Monument gallery under White Sands.
WISHING ALL WHO READ MY BLOG
A HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!