Friday, August 16, 2013

So Many Reasons to Hire a Local Guide...(Pura Vida, Part II)

Go Local, Grow Local                                9 July 2013

I have never worked so hard through the lens and in the creative process of photography as I did in Costa Rica.  In Wisconsin, the challenge is in getting close, capturing the defining moments as they occur in our spectacular migrations or in the interactions between two animals.  The light is often abundant, and the conditions are very forgiving.   By contrast, Costa Rica is very humid, often with very dense cloud cover, dense forest canopy and very little light.  Animals are very well hidden, and an opportunity with an animal, even when surprisingly tame, gives very little opportunity for good light and strong composition.  In Wisconsin, the battle is in getting close to the subject.  In Costa Rica, the battles are in finding the subjects and then battling through the lens to capture them.   To boost my odds in Costa Rica, I traveled with my good friends Bruce and Tamy Leventhal (, an outstanding and award-winning nature photography duo who were heading to Costa Rica for their eighth time.  Bettering our odds for great imagery, Bruce had made prior arrangements with some excellent local guides, and that was the ingredient that made our experience so genuinely rich!

Basilisk lizard, pepper bush and mosquito near Rio Quatro

Michael Sevilla is a brilliant man living in the northern lowlands region of Costa Rica, a place rich in true rainforest and crystal clear rivers.  In his mid-twenties, he has a wealth of working knowledge about ecosystem dynamics in the tropical rainforests.   Indeed, he has been very involved in Costa Rican conservation projects, and he is currently involved in wildlife research in Costa Rica’s Northern Lowlands.   Every bird song and call has meaning to Michael, and he knows where to look for the animals that are so foreign to me.  He knows the frogs, the plants, the insects, the mammals, the reptiles, the birds, the fish… In such a biologically diverse place, Michael is familiar with a staggering number of wild beings.    His search images are well honed and are as powerful as his generosity. With each step through the forest, he reveals to me a world that was right in front of me but somehow still invisible. 

Helmeted basilisk lizard, Sarapiqui River

At home in Wisconsin, where I am an observant wildlife biologist, birder, and photographer, my own knowledge of our local forest ecosystems keeps me engaged and always observing the dance of biological diversity.  But this specific knowledge of the temperate zone has only minimal transferred meaning in Costa Rica.  This place is wondrously different.   We do not have nearly so many interdependent interactions, so many stratified layers of forest, and we do not have frogs that lay eggs under leaves above ponds, frogs that carry tadpoles on their backs and feed them eggs, or frogs that can give you a headache and make your hands burn with a touch.   We do not have tarantulas waiting in burrows or hoards of birds that follow larger hoards of army ants.

 Montezuma Oropendola

Birds are strangely absent at times and then, sending me  into a frenzied panic, incredibly diverse and abundant as mixed flocks descend upon opportunity of ripened fruit, ant mobs, or other sources of nutrients. The bird voices in Costa Rica are deeper, richer, easily “thrown” as master ventriloquists hide in the dense foliage.  Other birds enlist shrill sounds at the limit of human hearing, sounds that are omnipresent and non-directional.  My own trained ear, adept at deciphering most North American bird songs and calls, seems clumsy.   Michael asks me to identify a bird, a deep, rich, repeating sound.  I strike out quickly, and he then shares the answer.  “Red-throated Ant Tanger, a song so different than the calls you heard earlier!”     

Grosbeaks, tanagers, wrens, and antbirds all sound so similar in song here.  Few of my “rules” seem to work.  I cannot seem to pull the sounds apart and dissect their taxonomic clues.  A myriad of smaller tanagers, honeycreepers, and even hummingbirds own a higher register that has fallen meaningless to my ears.  Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, ubiquitous and aggressive, end up the sole solution to so many bird sound mysteries.  I am critically incapacitated here, and birds do not even respond to my “bird whispering” that works so well at home.   A local birder in Costa Rica jokes with me, “Oh yes, we call our birds too.  But you have to learn to call them in Spanish. You’re doing it in English.”

Soon, I am making progress.  We are walking along a muddy clay trail deep in a rainforest.  A bird calls out from the subcanopy somewhere.  Michael turns to me, points upward and says, “What do you think that is?”  I hesitate but then move along confidently.  I say to him, “My taxonomy brain says that sound comes from a cuckoo.  No.  Not a cuckoo, but something that would be closely related to a cuckoo. That would put it somewhere around…TROGON! It is a trogon.”  Michael smiles and nods at me.  “Correct!  Black-throated Trogon.”

Black-throated Trogon, male

Black-throated Trogon, female

On our down time, I find Michael to be sincere with a hilarious wit and a true joy for teaching.  He is an inspiration to my children, and his caring demeanor quickly wins over my family.  In the evenings, he shows us great places to eat where the food is local and the people are at home and relaxed.  He begins to teach us Spanish, and, soon, he is also teaching us how Costa Rican culture transforms the Spanish language.   In our second day together in the forest, he is now beginning to expect us to know some Spanish.  This is only fair, as he had to teach himself English, a language he now knows fluently.

Up at 5 AM and into the forest, we explore a world of misty rain, deep green foliage, thin layers of leaf decay over firm clay, bellowing mantled howler monkeys, and raucous flocks of parrots.  Crystal clear rivers rush from the hills, and we eagerly converse about discoveries, life of the rainforest, and our own lives and journeys.  It isn’t long before I find out that Michael is an excellent bat biologist.  He is not only great at finding bats, but he can also catch them, handle them, and release them unharmed.  We are amazed to find ourselves petting the fur and feeling the soft wings of a rainforest bat, firmly secured by Michael.  As the bat flies back into the forest, Michael begins to list the fruits that would not be possible without the bats, as they are pollinators and also interact with a variety of other animals in ways that allow the life cycles of fruits and seeds to continue in the rainforest.


Later in the day, he guides us to unique locales near his home where opportunities to make nature images are just too good to be true, places where the people are as welcoming as the fearless wildlife.  We drink fruit juices from fruit I didn’t know existed and are introduced to friendly people that weren’t originally part of the day's plan. So friendly, so genuine, so deep and rich, this is great living! Pura Vida!

Great Green Macaw

Scarlet Macaw

Common Tody Flycatcher

Michael is a very good photographer, but he has left his own camera at home.  He has dedicated himself fully to our own success.   After two amazing days, we say farewell to Michael.  He has quickly become a part of our family.  We have come to find great comfort and joy in his presence, and now, with this part of the adventure behind us, we already miss him.     In just 48 hours, he has changed our lives.

When you travel to a distant and unfamiliar place, be sure to hire a local guide!  All images were taken with a refurbished Canon 7D, a Canon 40 D, Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, and Canon 28-135 mm lens, and a Canon Powershot SX230HS.  Many images were made using a Gitzo basalt tripod and Gitzo head and a Canon electronic cable release.  Working in the rainforest as a photographer is very, very difficult.  These images are very much the result of having a very excellent and patient guide with an eye for what makes good photography.