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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Secret Life of a Chachalaca

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As one of Digital Camera Adventures objects is to share experiences and adventures in nature and photography, I felt that, as a naturalist turned into nature photographer, learning the natural history of wildlife and photographing
it could be one of the great challenges of this blog.

That is why I recommend, getting intimately close to your subject, so you can
get the pictures that one can miss, without getting the trust of the animal you want to photograph.

I do my wildlife photography on a limited budget, as my equipment is made up by a Canon 40D, a macro 100 mm f/2.8, a 70 to 300 mm zoom f/3.5-4.5 and a
24-105 mm f/4 L mid range zoom. So this places me with a vast number of people, who love to do what I do, and do not have a budget to buy a 600 mm lens and a full frame camera to do nature photography. However, becoming an image hunter, been in tune with your surroundings, studying your subjects behavior, knowing its daily runs can get you good results. And this is what this note is about…breaking the rules!

Rufous Vented Chachalacas belong to the Crassidae family, which includes Guans and Curassows. One could say they are birds that occupy pheasant and turkey niches in Europe and North America in the New World tropics. These birds are well camouflaged, secretive and shy towards humans. However, those that have become urban, as cities encroach their habitat, live in hallways of dry forest close to housing projects and suburban condos. These can be a great subject to learn wildlife and bird photography. My story takes place at my building’s parking lot, as it borders a small island of tropical deciduous forest. My blind was my apartment’s window and the subject, a group of chachalacas, that are so noisy, our neighbors hate them, specially, when they make their dawn and evening territorial calls on weekends or holidays.

I am a softy when it comes to underdogs, and here is where I broke the nature photographers code of “NO INTERVENTION”. The flock has its dominant birds and I befriended the lowest ranking female who we call Droopy. Her name comes from a damaged wing that hangs down on her right side. These birds can be aggressive towards one another in their pursue of dominance, thus, in one of the many squabbles of the flock Droopy’s right wing was damaged. Well, as it turns out, Droopy has overcome her disability by avoiding conflict, switching feeding times, and becoming a regular visitor to our apartment as her flock watches from a distance with justified fear. She has used her intelligence to overcome a handicap in one of her flocks feeding grounds…the woods behind our building.

As any other wild animal, chachalacas make a daily patrol of their territory, as this enables them to find when the fruits are ripe, where can they get water, where is safe to rest or sleep at night and so on. These birds are in cue with the surroundings so well, that once the photographer learns their favorite trees, foods and watering holes, all you have to do is sit there and make them accustomed to you. Once they’ve got your trust, you can start taking pictures and soon enough the strobe lights would not face them a bit.

As they arrived to their resting tree, I would whistle their meeting call and this helped them to trust me. I learned their body language, their vocalizations, and their mood changes, so I knew when to take the pictures and when to stop, so I would not spook them away. When Droopy was chased out of a fruiting tree next to my apartment, I started to call her with a specific whistle and began feeding her bread (breaking the rules) conditioning her behavior with food! Soon the others chased her out of where the bread fell and other birds species learned to associate my whistle with food, so now, I have birds flocking over when Droopy makes her call for me to show up. This proves that urban wildlife learns very quickly our behavior and makes it beneficial for them as soon as they loose fear for us. This is not good with other critters that are becoming regular visitors like red squirrels and possums which have become part of the gang but can become a nuisance to humans.

Two months ago, Droopy broke Chachalaca laws, and she flew over to our window, while the flock was astonished as I was. I fed her bread and she ate till she could not eat anymore! No Alfa chachalaca would dare to do what she did. To reinforce this conduct, I did not feed the others and now Droopy knows she is “THE BIRD”. Intelligence over power worked for her. What I do not understand, is how she overcame the fear of me, as humans are their ultimate predator. Furthermore, she was still fearful of her peers!

Now she has a brood of her own, and they do what mama does. They are tolerated a bit more by the flock but they still remain at the lower tier of the dominance – subordinate hierarchy of their group. It is tough to be born an underdog. However, Droopy has taught her chicks conflict avoidance, timing their visits to the fruiting trees when the main flock is not there, alternative feeding spots and an outright boldness when it comes to visit my apartment’s window and call me two times a day for handouts (breakfast and dinner). They recognize each member of my family and only eat out on my hand when I am home. Other wise, they will take the bread and eat it in their tree away from the rest of the family. So yes, animals can tell one human from the other.

Most of the shots were done with the 70 to 300 zoom, an on camera flash and the camera placed on a Manfrotto tripod. As focusing can be critical, I use LIVE VIEW to augment my field of view for details such as eyelashes, iris of the eye and feather detail. This enables me to keep more picts. Since this started, I have learned much about these birds’ natural history, I got pictures to document their lives and they have told me that trust between the photographer and their subject is the key to great photography.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jardines Topotepuy- A Piece of Paradise in the Clouds

ENGLISH / ESPAÑOL (ABAJO)


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Caracas Valley and Its Avila National Park

Jardines Topotepuy is a private botanical garden nestled in a cloud forest named Bosque de La Virgen (the Virgin’s forest). Here a myriad of flowers and luscious tropical plants make up an 8-acre piece of land that preserves a relict cloud forest which overlooks the valley of Caracas from the mountains south of the valley. This high point allows its visitors to see the whole valley framed by the Coastal Cordillera portion that makes up El Avila National Park. This beautiful location was chosen for our Digital Camera Adventure, which was shared with a fashion photographer and 4 moms who wanted to experience a digital camera assignment on a natural setting.

Topotepuy’s marketing strategies are designed to attract a wide segment of clients based on catering specific activities to the corporate, retiree, young adults and children segments of the population. This is possible by a wide array of services that include: corporate events, gardening and landscaping workshops, birding tours, photo shoot locations and nature interpreting and nature photography for the general public. One can find within its grounds rooms for workshops, a large gazebo for cookouts and outdoors meals and they recently adapted the orchid and bromeliad green house for tea parties and small reunions. Its success is based on its repeat business, as former clients book in advance the dates for their events and groups. Their clientele include groups like fashion companies, medical labs, banks, the different gardeners clubs of Venezuela, Venezuela’s Audubon Society, and the orchid, bromeliad, and palm societies which make this botanical garden their fund raising place of choice to visit.

As far as photographers are concerned, the place offers a secure and well-guarded acreage where you may roam at will with your gear in absolute safety. You will have a cloud forest for your own self; along with greatly manicured gardens with a large collection of the major plant groups, all of which, can be found in a short walk. Topotepuy is a private wildlife sanctuary as well. It is one of the few places in Venezuela with wonderfully tame cloud forest humming birds, which are used to humans being close to their feeders.


Fashion photographer and instructor Omar Ponceleon asked me for a workshop on nature photography for four of his students. As I have been photographing the botanical garden and the cloud forest in and out for over a year (recording the cloud forest dynamics in response to seasonal changes), I suggested this location for our experience. Our adventure started early in the morning, and as we arrived to the botanical garden, a heavy cloud cover mixed with a persistent drizzle (a true enemy of digital cameras) was covering the area. We decided to cover some of the theory speaking to our students about the natural history of the cloud forest, the humming birds, green jays, sloths and plant-animal co-evolution, so our audience could think up photographic themes of their own. This was to encourage them to plan their photography so they could hone their photographic skills based on specific goals for their photography. Planning a shoot, and what you will need to photograph to make a story, is just the beginning of the job. Getting the pictures for your story is the real challenge.

The objects of the Workshops became photographing the structure of the forest from the ground up. And paying special attention to document the botanical garden’s potential for learning about its plant collection.

Some people may think that plant photography can be dull, however, once you find yourself in a forest, you will be overwhelmed by its diversity, the amount of things that take place in there, the changes of light and trying to pick the subject you want to photograph and use to make a story. One of the themes is the plant/animal interaction, which can go unnoticed even by the most skilled photographer. I illustrate this in a short story further on (Photo Gallery), where a solitary bee/plant interaction clearly illustrates co-evolution in a jaw dropping way.

To document the advertising used by plants to attract its pollinator is a wonderful challenge. Insects, birds and bats, are the plant clients, for which, they adopt a specific strategy to insure pollination. In fact, without insect pollinators the world’s plant populations would be diminished to such an extend, that many of the domesticated species of plants used for food, cosmetics and medicine would disappear from the face of the earth.

To document nature with photography, one most take into account the changes of seasons. In the tropics, this may be two well-marked seasons, as we get roughly 7 months of a dry period, 3 of torrential rains and a month of transition in between the two. However, when you get an assignment to document nature, you may not be as lucky as to spend a whole year to make your pictures in order to document these changes and you would have to choose when to do so. Ideally, the months of transition will give you the best choice. For me, the best comes from dry to rainy season, as it shows great dramatic extremes in wilderness survival for all the creatures involved. Therefore, working a successful botanical garden shoot requires great skills to deal with the same situation and now, man has this down to a science. The choice to plant plants that will bloom and others that will make the place attractive for your audience guarantees the success or failure of the botanical garden. This forces man to adjust its plants planting to the changing environment and making the right decisions in how to keep the place pleasant for it visitors.

My goal was to teach the new photographers how to see nature. It ranged from seen the obvious like the vegetation, flowers, landscapes and animals to viewing the less seen things such as the abstract details deriving from the great variety of forms, textures and different sources of light that the forest and gardens forces us to work with. As Aristotle said “To learn about any subject, one most see it from far and then, one most see it from a very close distance” this is vital in nature photography. To get their shots, the ladies used every thinkable angle to frame their pictures. They worked from ground level to high up in the hills. As time passes fast, when one is having a good time, the activity did not escape this, as we had booked a 4 hour workshop which took us 8 hours to finish.




One of the techniques which all of the attendees wanted to master was to photograph humming birds. These masters of flight are everyone’s favorites in the new world tropics. The garden’s managers know this, so they have placed feeders where people are regularly resting or hanging out. This has made the local population of humming birds very people tolerant. In fact, one can get as close as 3 feet from these little birds without affecting their feeding or acrobatics. Well, once you find a feeding spot or perch you need to pre focus their flight path to their flowers or feeders. Then, you most use manual focus so the spot remains the same, thus avoiding the autofocus to get off the site when the bird flies through. AS the humming bird approaches, one most shoot a burst of pictures as fast as your camera allows (1/259th to 1 500th of a seconds and F stops ranging between f/8 and F/16) to capture the bird. The shutter speed and the depth of field most be fast and deep to increase the chance of securing the photograph, so a high ISO is recommended. Photographing one of the fastest birds in the world requires multiple shots and unrestricting editing since one will thrash many pictures before you get a few keepers!

Patience most be a nature photographer’s virtue. As one of the butterflies, bees or any pollinator’s object of survival its food, placing oneself near the food source will provide the photographer with the possibility to get his/her shot. Our group and I used a singe zoom lens for most of the shots. This forced all of us to approach our objects with care and respect. The use of a single lens forces your creativity and this was one of workshop’s goals.

The other challenge was light, we worked inside the forest, out in the open and in the green houses. All these locations offered us the chance to photograph a beam of light falling on a cobweb anchored to maiden’s fern and a philodendron leaf, a back lit bromeliad, kois and water lilies in a pond, blooming reeds, orchids in fact all kinds of lighting situations that forced all of the photographers to handle, light, composition and creativity to the best of their abilities. The attendees had to adjust camera speeds to beat the wind blowing the reeds out focus, stop down the f stop to kill reflections and to open their lenses to allow enough light to take a picture of the forest floor. In all, Topotepuy was a pleasure to photograph and to use as the first post in the Digital Camera Adventures Blog.

Whe close the blog with a panoramic of the valley of Caracas in the twilight of our shoot…enjoy and see you soon.

Leo

Please contribute with your stories by sending your text and pictures (WEB READY JPEGS) so we can allow others to learn about your digital Camera Adventures. Email: leogarber@gmail.com

Natural History Stories (Click on the Image to enlarge it)




















Gallery (Click on the images)

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jardines Topotepuy un Oasis Cerca del Cielo

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Jardines Topotepuy
es un jardín botánico privado, un pequeño oasis de tranquilidad lleno de de colores que sirven de mirador hacia en norte del Valle de Caracas. Sus vistas al valle son privilegiadas, ya que permiten ver toda su extensión, la cual es enmarcada por el Parque Nacional el Ávila el icono natural de los que viven en la capital de Venezuela.

Al pensar que el lugar es un jardín de cuatro hectáreas y que Topotepuy aparenta ser un lugar donde solo hay plantas, las oportunidades para hacer fotografía son especialmente buenas, sobretodo, para aquellas personas interesadas en empezar a realizar la fotografía de la naturaleza en un lugar fotogénico, seguro y además bello para trabajar. Sus instalaciones incluyen baños, sala de conferencias, invernaderos, guías privados y una oferta de cursos y talleres innovadores donde el cuidado de las plantas, la jardinería,el paisajismo, las artes plásticas, paseos de interpretación de la naturaleza y la fotografía son algunos de los temas que se cubren en sus instalaciones.


Para los interesados en eventos, Topotepuy ya tiene en su haber actividades para niños, labortorios, casas de moda y empresas. Topotepuy ya cuenta con empresas y ONGs que repiten la experiencia todos los años como clientes fijos de este bello lugar en Caracas. La empresa, en su busca continua de nuevas cosas que hacer, está incluyendo la fotografía de la naturaleza como uno de sus servicios para personas de todas las edades.

El fotógrafo Omar Ponceleon y sus alumnas fueron los pioneros en utilizar las instalaciones para hacer fotografía y me contactaron como naturalista y fotógrafo para realizar un taller donde nos dedicáramos a fotografiar la naturaleza. Nuestra aventura empezó muy temprano en la mañana. Llegamos a Topotepuy con una llovizna pertinaz que nos obligó a resguardarnos en la sala de conferencia donde se habló de lo que se requiere para realizar una producción de campo para documentar un evento o destino turístico en la naturaleza. Esto nos permitió esperar que cesara la lluvia mientras aclaraba el cielo pasamos el tiempo hablando y explicando el flujo de trabajo de una producción de fotografía en la naturaleza.

Los objetos a fotografiar fueron la vegetación del Bosque de la Virgen, el jardín botánico y los colibríes e insectos que visitan constantemente las flores y abrevaderos estratégicamente ubicados en este bello jardín botánico privado. Topotepuy (que es como lo llamamos los asiduos visitantes a este lugar) ha sido mi escenario para la fotografía de plantas y flores por más de un año y les puedo decir que siempre que visito este bucólico lugar regreso con ideas nuevas y más fotos para mis archivos sobre la naturaleza.

Muchos pueden pensar que fotografiar plantas y flores es un fastidio, pero les garantizo que hacer buenas fotos de flores y vegetación es uno de los retos que nos ofrece Topotepuy que nos obliga a crear composiciones bajo una infinidad de situaciones de luz natural capaces de convertirse en un gran reto para cualquier fotógrafo. Mi fascinación por la relación Planta / Polinizador también se me convierte en un reto al tener que buscar el momento indicado para realizar las fotos sobre este evento tan importante en la naturaleza (vean la breve historia natural sobre las abejas mas abajo).

Documentar la publicidad que hacen las plantas para atraer a aves, insectos, murciélagos y otros polinizadores y como estos trabajan obsesivamente para cumplir su trabajo por un poco de néctar y polen, nos obliga a visitar periódicamente el lugar, ya en cada temporada de verano, lluvias y los periodos intermedios, la naturaleza de los bosques tropicales nos ofrece un evento diferente que documentar. Un ejemplo es como las plantas utilizan el polen y el néctar, los cuales son administrados por las plantas mejor que cualquier institución bancaria, ya que de esto depende la sustentabilidad de sus especies. La florificación ocurre durante diferentes momentos al año, haciendo de la fotografía de la vida secreta de las plantas un reto sin igual. En jardinería y paisajismo, el hombre se ve obligado a aprender los ciclos de las plantas para domesticarlas y manejarlas a su antojo. Las plantas y flores hacen del paisajismo una ciencia para poder mantener los jardines bellos durante todo el año y en Topotepuy el esmero del hombre por la domesticación y uso de las plantas es vital para lograr todo lo que a sus visitantes les agrada del paisaje. Es ese entendimiento sobre que florea cuando, cuando se debe podar, cuando son las plantas mas propensas al ataque de plagas lo que hace que en un jardín botánico todo esté en un cambio constante.

Mis primeras alumnas se me unieron en como documentar formas, plantas, flores y colibríes como cualquier profesional. Estas jóvenes señoras buscaron ángulos diferentes, a ras del suelo, el agua, contra luces, reflejos, detalles, cuadros abiertos y cerrados, en fin todo lo que les llamaba la atención con tanto entusiasmo, que no nos pareció sorprendente, que las 4 horas que íbamos a pasar se nos convirtieron en 8 y nos quedamos cortos. Ellas no solo aprendieron a hacer fotografía sino a interpretar lo que estaban fotografiando y la importancia que tiene darle sentido a la parte estética de la fotografía con información sobre lo que se está fotografiando.

Un ejemplo de las técnicas adquiridas que salta a la vista es como se hace para fotografiar a los colibríes. Esto puede parecer complicado pero solo son necesarias las siguientes acciones: Permanecer tranquilos frente a los comederos permitiendo que estas aves se acostumbren a su presencia, pre-enfocar un lugar entre el abrevadero y las rutas de vuelo de las aves, ajustar la cámara a una velocidad rápida (se requiere un ISO entre 400 y 800 como mínimo) y a un diafragma medio (La profundidad de campo es critica en fotos pre-enfocadas) y al pasar el colibrí por el espacio se dispara la cámara procurando la mayor cantidad de cuadros que el obturador nos permita para esta acción. Luego se encojen las fotos buenas y se descartan las malas, que es algo insuperable de las cámaras digitales.

Las mariposas, abejas y todo insecto polinizador puede convertirse en el objetivo de los cazadores de imágenes. Con solo permanecer cerca de algún sitio por varios minutos ,la actividad de los animales atraídos por el jardín y los residentes permanentes del Bosque de la Virgen se harán presentes. La promesa de una posibilidad de fotografiar abejas multicolores, mariposas, escarabajos, libélulas, colibríes y otros pájaros solo requiere algo de paciencia. No se necesitan muchos lentes para lograr los objetivos, nuestras compañeras y yo trabajamos con un solo lente ( En lo personal un zoom 17-85 mm) aún cuando teníamos un morral lleno de lentes. Forzarse a utilizar un zoom para el trabajo de campo es muy importante en la fotografía de la naturaleza y en especial en lugares remotos donde el fotgrafo debe llevar todo a cuestas en un morral.

La luz nos obligaba a enfrentarnos a los claros oscuros del bosque donde hacer fotos se convierte un reto. Fue así que pudimos fotografiar pequeños helechos tales como el culantrillo bordeado por telas de araña plateadas que reflejan la luz o gotas de rocío sobre su superficie.

Fotografiar las plantas acuáticas y los Koi (carpas) de la laguna nos permitió utilizar la luz y la composición para tratar de llenar los cuadros de las cámaras con todos los elementos del sitio.


Los lirios, cubiertos de gotas de lluvia escondían a Kois: Rojos, blancos y rojo y rojos y negro de gran tamaño. Bordeando la laguna habían pajotales cuyas espigas se convirtieron en el objetivo para lograr el reto de utilizar la profundidad de campo y la velocidad de obturación bajo unas condiciones donde la briza obligaba a las nuevas fotógrafas a esperar que bajara el viento, fijarse en la iluminación de su objetivo y realizar la composición adecuada para obtener la imagen deseada.


La vista crepuscular de Caracas es la mejor despedida para una aventura de fotografía en los Jardines Topotepuy. Espero que disfruten las imágenes tanto como nosotros disfrutamos hacerlas.

Saludos
Leo



Historia Natural (Las Plantas y sus Polinizadores)
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GALERÍA - Haz Click sobre las fotos