Remembering Costa Rica Part 7. The grand finale.

My time in Costa Rica was almost up and by then I've already had two encounters with hummingbirds, but no images that I was happy with. So far light has proven to be the biggest problem. We were dealing with subjects which were only a few inches big but moving at more than 50 kmph! The wings, that were proving especially difficult to capture beat at anywhere from around 12 bps in the largest species, to at least 60 bps in the smaller ones (record is 80 bps, but not among any of the species that I was filming). Even on the brightest days it was all wrong and not enough to freeze those wings.



The images above were as close as I got to the desired result, but you don't need to look too hard to see that the outlines of the wings have motion blur. Sure, you can shoot animals with a ton of motion blur if that's your goal, it's just another technique and it yields wonderful results when done right. But I was obsessed with completely freezing a moment. There's just something about it for me - to capture a fraction of time you'd easily miss, to be free to study and admire something that would otherwise lost. A look in an animal's eyes, a fleeting emotion on its face, a beautiful line of its body in motion - it would all be overlooked if that motion hadn't been frozen, because of life's fluidity. There are true gems in between perceivable moments, and I am fascinated by what I find there. That's why, at least for now, video is mostly out of the question.

No, to capture the desired images we needed to rethink out strategy, so Michael and the guys at the lodge put together an outdoors studio of sorts. Out in the woods on one of the paths was a gazebo. The wooden structure looked odd with the jungle pushing on it from every which way - an out-of-place reminder of human presence surrounded by impenetrable wall of green so dense and tall it blocked out sunlight. We took turns shooting from the main set-up, everyone getting the time they needed.

Just outside the shelter provided by the structure's roof was a hummingbird feeder. Sun was rolling down and we had little time to prepare our gear before the tiny birds would start showing up for their meal. Hummingbirds fall into a sort of coma at night to preserve energy, so that final boost of high-octane fuel is important to them. It was important for us to be prepared and not get in their way. The hard work had already been done for us, though. Under the protective cover of the gazebo stood a tripod with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Even though we would be shooting at apertures of at least f/9 the quality of the lens would still give us an advantage as a prime is faster than a zoom. It was a pleasure working with this light-sensitive prime lens, but to this day I still opt for a zoom when shooting wildlife and not just because primes would cost me an arm and a leg. First, they are damn heavy, with added weight of their protective casings they are not easy to transport when you have to carry everything yourself and you are beyond the reach of civilization. And for an expedition you would have to have several! Second, a fixed focal length is very good in a controlled environment, but when you have a subject that is absolutely free to move and unpredictable you will not be able to adjust to the changes in the distance between you. Yes, zooms will have a slightly lower image quality due to additional optics inside of them and they will be darker and slower, but when shooting wildlife you often have to compromise and personally, I prefer to have the versatility a zoom provides in the field. Back then I was packing a Sigma APO 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM and was pretty happy. Sure, it was softer than Canon lenses, but 500mm focal length in Canon can only be found in a giant prime lens and using converters is out of the question. I tried using converters wit Canon zooms and I was so disappointed with the results that I switched to Sigma in a heartbeat. Thankfully, I held no prejudice against using this analogue technology and it worked out fine for me. Today I've upgraded to Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports (still on a Canon body) and am quite content. Choosing the right gear for wildlife photography is a balancing act, you just have to find a formula that works for you.

But getting back to the set-up. The feeder was filled with fresh fruity syrup and had all drippers but one taped shut. This ensured that the birds would come to one place and one place only. With that in mind three synced flashes were positioned to provide proper lighting. One was positioned to highlight the background, one was to hit the bird in the face and one was providing a beam of light from the photographer's side. It might seem harsh to use that much flashing light on tiny birds, but strangely enough animals usually do not mind camera flashes, birds especially. Unless they are in an area where they associate a flash of light with a firing rifle, they mostly don't care. Some can be very opposed to such an element, but you either have to study your subject beforehand or just wing it and hope for the best. In any case a wild animal will not be harmed if you use everything properly and it is free to retreat. If you've read my Siberian tiger story you may recall how the tigress was scared of a steady beam of light, perceiving it as some kind of living entity, but didn't even bat an eye at a series of rapid firing from my camera flash. I love and actually prefer ambient light, but flash photography still has a place in the wild.

The camera settings I needed in these low-light conditions were surprisingly mild. As I mentioned, the aperture was on average around f/9, with subjects like hummingbirds you need all the depth of field (DOF) you can get. Optimal ISO setting for me was 320 and shutter speed was 1/250. The lens was focused on the very tip of the dripper and then switched to manual. During the shoot the feeder was mostly out of shot - the feeding birds caused it to swing. One essential bit of equipment in a shoot like this is a shutter release cable. If you look through the viewfinder you have a very narrow view. With something as fast as  a hummingbird you will not be quick enough to react. You need the wider view, so use a cable. It also removes any chance of motion blur from your hands on the camera. Note that this is the same technique I used when filming my Siberian tiger at night. Had I not learned and cemented the technique in Costa Rica, I would have wasted my time in the taiga with nothing to show for it! What a scary thought!

The twilight was setting in, softly drowning in the depth of the forest. The world around me was now just a spongy green mass. The birds arrived just along that faded line between night and day, but we all still had enough time to take turns at the set-up and get as many shots as we needed. I quickly realized that each species had its own pattern of flight, very distinctive and predictable. This helped me a lot in the process. There weren't too many birds and they weren't too diverse, but they were still beautiful and memorable.

The larger species were the long-billed hermits and the Jacobins.

This is the least colorful of the hermits, but its shape is still enough to draw attention to this bird. I did see the Green hermit at another location, but we didn't have this outdoors studio then.  And the lodge was outside of the Green hermit's habitat range. But hey, you get what you get.

The hermit seemed to be the slowest and least pushy of the birds there. For a bird whose males grow a dagger-like extension on the tips of their beaks it sure didn't act like a fighter. But then again, hermits aren't territorial. They roam from one flower to the next, only claiming an area  during mating season. The boys gather in large numbers of a few dozen birds in communal leks to sing their little hearts out. That is, however, all the effort they put into ensuring the future of their kind. Once they seal a deal with a female, she is on her own. they are a love 'em and leave 'em kind of birds.

The Great jacobin is a very handsome little bird. The male has a very distinct elegant look with the striking white belly contrasting the dark iridescent blue and green of the rest of his body.

Last time I told you about the structural blue in bird feathers. Well, iridescence is also structural, although slightly different. An iridescent feather has very thin keratin layers with melanin rodules sandwiched in between them. When light hits this structure, part of it is refracted by the upper layer and part travels deeper and is refracted by the bottom layer. Since the one that traveled further was refracted a bit later these two waves fall out of phase. Now, as the feather moves, these waves will either add or subtract depending on the angle, reflecting more or less accordingly. This way the keratin layers can only reflect one color at any one specific angle and the colors shift as the angle changes.

What a marvelous world this is where somehow physics and biology can naturally come together in such a splendid result. Not everyone can easily gain access to hummingbirds to admire this sight, but iridescence in birds is not rare. Next time you see a starling or a magpie or some other common bird light up in a rainbow of colors under the bright sun just consider what actually goes into that effect and how brilliant nature is.

The smaller but more aggressive and territorial Rufous-tailed hummingbird was showing some aerobatics as he asserted himself over others in the line-up to feeder. They were draining the syrup pretty fast despite only one dripper being available, but we had two extra bottles. For such small creatures they sure can pack it away!

Then, just before the last light of the day was completely consumed by the velvety sea of green the star arrived. It was tiny, but even in the low light of the evening jungle it lit up like a gemstone. What an apt name this bird has - the Crowned woodnymph, even its Latin name just rolls off the tongue - Thalurania.

Curiously, the females of the species always retain better and larger territories than the males. The girls are way more territorial and aggressive and they do have something to fight for as their feeding grounds produce more high-quality nectar and that attracts more competition. In truth, they may be called nymphs, but these girls are amazons!

Finally, the hummingbird feeding frenzy was over as the last light slipped through our fingers. The forest stilled, taking a deep breath while one half of it settled in for the night and the other stirred awake. We were about to begin the second part of this shoot, one I was very excited about.

A few feet away from the feeder and the lighting set-up was a barely noticeable opening in the vegetation. A small flashlight with a half-dead battery was placed to shine light on it. The beam was very very weak, only enough to show you that something moved. The task was to push the shutter release button as soon as you registered movement. These were nectar bats and though they came in numbers, boy, did they come fast! I've never had to complain about the speed of my reaction, but bats gave me a run for my money! Only one in a hundred photos taken was actually usable! A lot of them were just empty space, some were blurry bat body parts. Others were worth the effort.


Not everyone was thrilled. The subject was, to some, unappealing and the process very difficult with a low yield of images. Plus, people were getting hungry. But I was seeing something I had never seen before, not like this. There was no way in hell I was leaving! In my mind this was now a game of numbers - the more you shoot, the more you get, and I needed more time. Forget food, forget sleep, this was too rare of an opportunity to pass up for something that could wait! I can always eat or sleep later, but that light and that animal will not give me a second chance! Yes, I get very fanatical about my work on expeditions, but thats only because each opportunity is so unique! So I work as much as I have to milk it for all it's worth.

My colleagues left and the blackness of the jungle closed in on me. My entire world was now compressed and focused only on that dying beam of the little flashlight. My own body and mind seemed to dissolve in the darkness. I was only eyes that registered movement and the finger that pressed the release button. There was a sort of detachment from the world around me and the physical perception of my own being in it. A troop of coatis must have marched past me on their way to raid the lodge and I barely made note of something stomping around in the jungle. I was consumed by the process.

The bats were nipping each other, squabbling over the nectar. I was seeing their life like I never have before. The nectar was running low, so I took the extra bottle and went to refill the feeder. As I was doing it a bat ran right into me, flat up against my back. I think it was as surprised as I was because we both paused. There I was, standing in the middle of a dark dense jungle with a bottle of nectar in my hand and a bat between my shoulder blades. Thankfully, the bat regained itself and swooshed away.

Around 9 PM a guy from the lodge brought me another bottle of nectar and told me the kitchen was closing but they set aside a plate for me. It was very considerate and I thanked him. I was still good to go. Thinking back now I think I was more alarmed upon hearing an unknown human approaching than just standing alone in the inky black night in the wilderness with unknown animals and venomous snakes free to move around me.

I think I wrapped up at about 11 PM and walked the muddy trail back to base. By then my eyes have adjusted to the night and I was able to walk with ease. My fellow photographers were still up, exchanging their impressions of the day at a dinner table. I wolfed down my cold dinner while they looked at my images of bat drama. I felt tired, but so, so good. This has been a very difficult but satisfying day!

Later on I tried to find out what kind of nectar bats these were. There are 110 species of bats in Costa Rica and I am no bat expert. I think the dark ones might be Pallas's long-tongued bats.

The brown ones might be Orange nectar bats. But then again, they might not.

That pretty much concluded our expedition and we had to return to civilization. Once again we took to the road, driving past coffee plantations and the blue-green pineapple bushes standing out against the red earth. The dirt roads with deep holes gave way to smooth winding  blacktops.

In San Jose we checked into the beautiful hotel Bougainvillea, that seemed to be drowning in the namesake flowers of different shades. Its accommodation seemed even more luxurious after so many days in the middle of nowhere.  Once again I was showering with warm water with no fear of being roasted alive by electricity, I was sleeping in a bed in an airconditioned room and not in a hammock outside. Yet I would give a lot to go back out there, to search for hidden live jewels of the forest and the mountains! There was still too much I wanted to see and do! I would trade that comfort for the wilderness in a blink of an eye.

As it were, I stocked up on souvenirs and spent the rest of my time wondering the hotel grounds. This hotel has something like eight acres of land designated for a beautiful garden and you can find birds here too! Like this angry-looking Motmot.

In conclusion, I must say that this was a very special experience not just because I learned so much or seen so many stunning creatures. I also reconnected, at least in part, with my own roots. I was born in a similar environment but never got to experience it fully. Here in the Costa-Rican jungle I was like a piece of a puzzle falling back into its rightful place. Here things about me made more sense than they have ever done before or elsewhere. My default settings for heat, humidity, levels of light, food preferences - this was exactly where they were formulated and this is where they clicked just right. I've never felt like that before in my life. I was made for this and I fit right in. My Paradise Lost still lay just beyond my reach but Costa Rica was as close to the truth as I could get at that time and it all felt so right on almost a molecular level.

My life has taken me to very different places since then and I have no idea where it will lead me next or if I will ever see the actual place where I was born.  But I am happy that now I have a conscious memory of where I come from and how it all truly feels. It was as if I was taking back something that was stolen from me. Now I have these memories and no one can take that away from me.