Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day (and night) of the Goliaths!

male Goliath Beetle, Trinidad, 7/23/09

On one of our days in Trinidad the highlights fell not on birds, and the emphasis wasn't on digiscoping either... GASP! No on this day there was a unique treat in store, this was the day of the Goliaths!... (and an early birthday celebration).

female Goliath Beetle nearly filling my palm, Trinidad, 7/23/09

The morning started with some birding that was really great, but I won't dwell on that for now. Instead I'll talk about a personal treat, running into Goliath Beetles. The male at top (while cool looking) was unfortunately dead, but still photogenic I might add. The girl below though was an alive one I found on a chain link fence that I had to share with my friends.

positively prehistoric!

Below, Kim Kaufman finds the answer to one of nature's mysteries, "I wonder what would happen if I tried to get a picture of a Goliath Beetle on my shirt?!?..." also proving this was very much an alive Goliath Beetle. Sorry Kim, you didn't deserve it, but glad she waited to get off my hand! Perhaps it was something you said?!?.... ;p

Kim Kaufman displays her badge of honor left from the cool Goliath Beetle!
From the title you realize this adventure stretches into the night! One HUGE advantage of a summer visit to Trinidad over the typical fall & winter trips is the wondrous natural spectacle that occurs nightly on the beaches of Matura! Following our typical fabulous lunch and some mid afternoon veranda time back at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, we packed our evening picnic gear (complete with early birthday cake) and headed to the beaches. We enjoyed a hot picnic dinner prepared by the centre staff complete (naturally) with famed rum punch as the sun went down and soon the fun began.

Juie Zickefoose studies a young Leatherback Sea Turtle
We were treated to a spectacle that is rarely observed by most of us and indeed none in this group of esteemed world travelers had ever enjoyed this spectacle of nature before. Above Julie studies one of these diminutive creatures barely larger than the Goliath Beetle, as only an artist could!
the "Thopso-foose" couple in awe of these amazing creatures!

Of course it wasn't long before the curiosity just leads to pure joy that any naturalist would be sure to feel at a time like this. I think the faces say more than my words possibly could. Above Bill Thompson, III & Julie Zickefoose are clearly thankful to be able to assist in the research taking place. Below Kenn & Kim Kaufman are equally blown away!
Kenn & Kaufman study a rare close-up look of Leatherback Turtle hatchlings.

Despite the impression given by the photos, most of the time the beach is kept completely dark except for one or two dim red lights used by researchers. There are often many researchers and visiting guests on the beaches so young turtle hatchlings like these are sometimes collected and hand-delivered to the ocean so they are not accidentally trodden on. Guests donations and permit fees help to fund the project here and since its inception, the community has rallied behind the world class spectacle here. With the community support turtle nest poaching (once common) is now a thing of the past! Another example of how tourism has actually aided in preservation/conservation.
Julie takes advantage of a rare opportunity in nature!

Now these tiny swimmers hardly seem worthy of the title "Goliath" however, if they are one of the very few to beat the odds and live long enough to return to this beach to breed they will indeed be giants. The largest of the Sea Turtles, Leatherbacks typically reach over 1,000 pounds! On this night we were fortunate enough to not only see hatchings but we had multiple adults on the beach as well. At first we had two together, one did a "false crawl" where it came out of the water and did a short loop then returned not finding the precise spot it wanted. The second began digging but the sand in this spot was too soft and the sides kept collapsing. As I said, most of this is observed by whatever ambient light the moon & stars cast, and to some degree the dim red lights used by researchers. It was amazing to watch as an enormous dark shadowy form would de deposited by the black waters retreating from a wave crest. I was forunate enough to be staring toward the sea as one of these shadowed behemoths magically "appeared".

the crew enjoys the show!

At long last though this female found firm sand and was able to dig a hole she approved of to lay her eggs. It is only at this point that researchers will allow flashlights and photography in the short window as she lays her eggs. Apparently, in this semi-torpid state they are oblivious to the disturbance. It was a long day but an adventure and experience that none in our party will ever forget! Thank you again to Asa Wright Nature Centre, Caligo Ventures, and the team of dedicated researchers at Matura for allowing us to experience such an amazing and rare spectacle of nature so few have the opportunity to enjoy!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Digiscoping 4 - when is "FAR", too far?!?...

Often while working the Leica booth at some consumer show, someone will look through one of my sample binoculars and ask, "How far can you see with these?" To which I invariably respond, 'How far you can see is really dictated by atmospheric conditions. A binocular or spotting scope doesn't make you see any farther than you can with your naked eye, it only makes the subjects appear larger and/or closer depending on the power of magnification.' Of course, quality of glass, coatings, and construction of any product can make a BIG difference in the ability to resolve fine details at comparable powers of magnification, but even the best glass can't make you see any farther.

With a digiscoping rig, it is much the same. These systems allow greater magnification than any other commercially available photographic equipment (often out to the equivalent of 6,000 mm or near 120x of magnification!) None-the-less, making full use of this magnification will always be greatly affected by atmospheric conditions that change from spot to spot and from one moment to the next. When you listen to weather reports you will often hear, "...visibility is limited to X miles..." (or km perhaps) as the atmosphere allows.

large bull Elk digiscoped @ ~500 yards, Rocky Mt. National Park, CO 8/5/09

The image of the large lounging Elk above was taken with the new Leica APO Televid 82 mm scope, D-Lux 4 camera, and matched digital adapter 4. Using a Geovid range-finding binocular I was able to determine this individual was ~500 yards away - a bit over 1/4 mile or just under 1/2 km for sake of reference. As you can see the system allowed me to capture this big boy well enough. He's in focus, well lit, colors are accurate, but at that distance near mid-day, under a hot sun (especially for high elevation tundra) this is the most detail I could muster even with the best equipment!
Elk digiscoped Rocky Mountain National Park, CO 8/5/09

The elk pictured above was taken at the same time from the same spot with the same equipment. The only difference here was the subject was considerably closer, between 250 & 300 yards or near half the distance as the group shown at top. You can see here, with all else being equal how much more detail is preserved on the closer subject. Individual details like the hairs on the velvet-covered antlers, and sinewy lines on the body are that much more apparent.

The lesson learned?!?... simple, while digiscoping allows you to "reach out and capture" a very distant subject, I'm certain all who digiscope will agree that your images will always be comparatively better if you are closer and using less zoom. How good or bad these images are is often dictated by a number of factors including:

1) the quality of your equipment - your system will only perform to the maximum capabilities of the weakest link in your system obviously. e.g. the highest quality camera in the world being shot through a low-quality/low-end lens (or scope in the case of digiscoping) can not offer premium quality images. Same is true of poor quality camera through great scope!

2) atmosphere - particles in the air from wind borne dust/dirt, to relative humidity, etc. will all affect overall imaging.

Let's consider atmospheric disturbances for a moment, my friend Bill Schmoker often refers as this as "bad air". When there is a lot of atmospheric disturbance this seems to manifest itself as "noise" the tiny 'off-colored pixels in images. Noise in digital photography is similar to what we would have could grain or graininess in film photography. These odd-colored pixels detract from the overall resolution of your subject making it appear less- sharply focused.

For sake of argument if we consider this disturbance as perhaps a dirty window pane between you and your subject. When we triple the distance to our subject lets consider that we've added an additional two planes of dirty glass. You see where I'm going here. There really is almost no way to correct this short of getting closer to the subject although this could change over minutes. Bill also suggested different angles but this is only going to be marginally effective.

a view of distant Little Tobago Island taken with a Leica D-Lux 4 camera 7/2009

I know some digiscopers who won't even bother taking a distant shot as their only goal is to get and take just the highest quality images. For me though, I'm interested in recording my memories, documenting different plumages on birds, and even in some extreme cases documenting a rare sighting. As such, I always "shoot first & ask questions later"! ;p Memory cards are cheap and deleting is an easy and painless process. Most of the time when I have low expectations that a distant shot will turn out, I find I'm right, but once in a while you'll be surprised! That's why I always take a shot anyway. The image above was a scenic shot taken near the Blue Waters Inn in Tobago showing distant Little Tobago Island, a well-known breeding colony for otherwise seldom seen seabirds! You can just make out the gleam of a light-colored house (a tiny white square in the photo) siting to the left of the pass between the two smaller, nearer islands in this photo.

Tobago island house digiscoped from Blue Waters Inn, Tobago.

As I viewed this distant, now abandoned, home I thought, "I wonder how that would look digiscoped?" It was late in the day, it was warm and I was shooting across water. My expectations were real low, but this was one of these instances where I was surprised at the results. It was not overly noisy, and the details are still QUITE noticeable, see where the roof has been damaged at the right corner?... the blinds are askew in the top right window on the near side, and hey is there someone looking back out at me here?!?... ;o Just kidding here, this house is vacant.

"Small Tortoiseshell" butterfly - digiscoped in Rutland Waters, UK - 8/09

The small butterfly I digiscoped from the Leica stand at the recent British Bird Fair in the UK (Small Tortoiseshell) was also through the APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope with the new kit - D-Lux 4 camera & matched digital adapter 4. This shot was taken @ minimal focus near 12 feet (4 meters) away. At this closest range one can actually make out individual powdery scales on the hind wing of this critter. This only requires a bit of light. I'd consider this "best case", the image below represents near the worst!

Scaly-naped Pigeon digiscoped on Little Tobago Island 7/09

Normally, this image would warrant an immediate move for the "delete" key. However, this image held special purpose. Scaly-naped Pigeon is a species that has been expanding it's range through the Caribbean islands and had been recorded only 4 times in Tobago since the first sighting in 2002 (still not recorded from Trinidad a bit further south). The bird was feeding on a distant ridge on the opposite side of a large cove. The bird was TOO distant for a good clear image, the light too poor, and atmospheric disturbance too high. None-the-less, even this horrible image was enough to show overall coloration of the bird, you can see albeit not clearly that the base of the bill is red with a yellow tip, and that there is a reddish ring around the eye. Enough to show this as a Scaly-naped Pigeon. As a result of my sending this to local bird experts in Trinidad & Tobago, locals were able to be assured that we had indeed seen this species and numerous locals were able to relocate this small flock which may well represent the first colonists of this rare bird in Trinidad & Tobago. So sometimes even a "bird too far" (sounds like a movie) can have its place!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Trinidad & Asa Wright - the 1st full day

Pete Dunne, Bill Thompson, III, & Kenn Kaufman (from L) @ Asa Wright, Trinidad
After soaking up some of the veranda scenery and fueling up with a wonderful breakfast. We geared up and hit the Asa Wright trails! While the advance team intently scoured the trees for bird activity others were supplementing their breakfasts with "juicy, juicy mangos!"
Kim Kaufman & Julie Zickefoose can't resist nature's bounty!
Moving away from the veranda and its feeders, the bird diversity changes rapidly, and we immediately began seeing Bay-headed Tanagers mixing with Blue-gray Tanagers in mixed flocks. These also held Golden-fronted Greenlets which sang like miniature Red-eyed Vireos. I couldn't believe how alike these birds sounded. especially considering how much smaller they were.
Bay-headed Tanager digiscoped @ Asa Wright Nature Centre, July 2009

As I pointed out earlier, few (if any) eco-lodges have been in the biz longer than Asa Wright and we were totally amazed at the accurate signage. When we saw the sign reading "Golden-headed Manakins", we looked up and saw Golden-headed Manakins. Granted, they have had >40 years to get their signage just right, and since it was breeding season the birds are likely behaving more predictably, but still....

Golden-hooded Manakin, digiscoped with Leica D-Lux 4 camera through APO Televid scope

Many often scoff at the "Green Season" (the season formerly known as "Rainy Season") as a bad time to visit the tropics because of the misunderstanding of the term rain. Yes, it rains from time to time, but in typical monsoon fashion these quick showers move through fast and are followed by a wonderful reduction in air temperature & humidity, and also create a great deal of bird activity. Almost like a second morning chorus! This is my 6th or 7th visit to the tropics during green season and in all of this time I've never been rained out for an entire day. Yes, the bird diversity is a bit lower, but the birds that aren't present are the ones I see in my own backyard when they move north to breed or return to the tropics in winter.

However, the flip side of that coin is rates are cheaper, you have less competition for resources including, rooms, vehicles, guides, etc. and most importantly the true tropical birds are very often displaying & breeding unlike a winter visit. So with the "Green Season Advantage" we had as many as 20 male Golden-headed Manakins all vying for the affection of a nearby female. The antics were not unlike things I'd witnessed in a bar full of single men with a single female in it actually. A lot of bravado but it was fun to watch! ;p

White-bearded Manakin, digiscoped @ Asa Wright, Trinidad 7/2009

Another hundred feet down the trail and another sign read, "White-bearded Manakin" and even before you could read it you could hear the manic snapping of wings of the displaying males on this lek! There was beard puffing, and wing snapping, sliding up and down the branches, and mini hopping displays. The non-descript green female bird was hard to spot in the rich foliage but you could always tell where she was by the vigor of the performances. The fellas definitely amped it up when she came close!

harshly backlit Bearded Bellbird, digiscoped @ Asa Wright 7/2009

Even before the next sign appeared we could hear the distinctive "BONK!" of the Asa Wright signature bird, the amazing Bearded Bellbird! Not surprisingly this male sat literally straight above the large wooden sign straight above the steep path. When he was spotted we all behaved in very predictable birder fashion, setting our scopes down and peering straight up at this amazing bird with the hanging fleshy appendages dangling down forming the "beard". These were great and they would wobble to and fro with each "BONK!"

Now you remember how I said it was a steep path right?!?... somewhere between the third and fourth "BONK!" came a sickening, "CLUNK!"... the kind of sound that freezes birders in their tracks, the sound of a heavy and expensive piece of optical equipment hitting terra firma. There were gasps all around as everyone looked at the fallen scope that had tomahawked directly into the muddy path. Yep, I can happily say I've tested the new Leica scope for impact resistance and it passed with flying colors. I'm still using the same model and the only sign of the fall is the presence of some Trini mud still trapped in the filter threads of the objective lens! :)

Common Potoo adult w/ chick, digiscoped Asa Wright 7/09

While there was no sign for this attraction we were all pleasantly surprised by the addition of a Common Potoo doing its best broken stub impression. It was very humorous when a chick poked its head out of the adults breast feathers though, looking like something right out of the movie, "Alien".... peek-a-boo!

Potoos are large nocturnal insect eaters that are related to Nightjars like the widespread Common Nighthawk throughout most of North America (as an example)... but more on this bird later! We ended this all too short but very productive introduction to the Asa Wright trail system and began a leisurely stroll back to the lodge for lunch.

2 headed Night-egret! ;p

In the evening we headed to the Trincity Water Treatment plant.... my idea, I take full credit for this! As I felt this would be a good spot to find some cooperative subjects like herons and egrets, that would sit still and be good fodder to review the digiscoping equipment and techniques. Instead it wound up being yet another test of the equipment. This time I demonstrated how waterproof the Leica equipment was while testing the tolerance of our group. Remember the monsoon showers I spoke about?!?... A little tiny one blew in just as we were at the furthest point from the vehicles. Since it was pretty apparent that we were going to be hit by just a tiny corner of this shower, the crew just braved it. For our efforts we were rewarded by views of familiar birds like the crossed pair above (Black-crowned Night-Heron & Snowy Egret), Purple Gallinules, Least Bittern, and less familiar birds like Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, Yellow-billed & Large-billed Terns, Wattled Jacanas, Southern Lapwing, and the Yellow-chinned Spinetail shown below.

Yellow-chinned Spinetail digiscoped through Leica APO Televid scope with D-Lux 4

After passing the obligatory tour participant tolerance test, the crew was rewarded with treats in the form of fields full of Limpkins & rum punch and some sort of sugar cookies/biscuits as we scanned the rice fields for Long-winged Harriers. Sharp-eyed BT3 picked out the first one, a dark immature, far enough away that even an eagle would squint to see it. Fortunately, another passed moments later much closer than the first. This time it was a more strikingly-marked light adult male bird. A wonderfully fitting way to wrap up day 1!