Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pura Vida! Part IV-- Sarapiqui Memories...

Costa Rica’s Rain Forest Frogs                  8 July 2013

Costa Rican Red-eyed Tree Frog

This day, July 8 2013, has given countless and vivid memories.  We have decided to meet Michael Sevilla at 5:15 AM along the Sarapiqui River. We have planned for “some photography,” a day that will be adventurous, intensive, and richly rewarding.  Bruce and I are enthusiastic for the morning shoot, so we have arrived early and have set up our tripods on the scenic beauty of some river rocks.  Within a few minutes, Michael has arrived quietly and with a smile.  We begin our day of adventures in the rainforest.   Perhaps it is now that I should remind you that a day of photography in the rainforest is unusually hard “work.”  It is the intense work of creativity. While animals are abundant, the environment is harsh on camera equipment, and moisture in the air is unforgiving on camera angle, incident light, and lens care.  Each and every step must be calculated if any photography is to result.  Michael is aware of this, and he is an exceptionally gifted guide in his ability to couple his deep knowledge of the forest with the specific needs of a photographer. We are so lucky to have his friendship.

Montezuma's Oropendola

Orange-billed Sparrow

I also feel lucky to have made a last-second purchase.  I have purchased an electronic cable release, the high quality Canon equipment, for this trip.   Matched with a stable Gitzo tripod, I soon find that almost everything hoped for in this environment would be impossible without the cable release and tripod.  This is essential gear if photography is the desired outcome in a rainforest journey.  

A Woodcreeper, most likely a Cocoa Woodcreeper

Butterflies, dragonflies, and birds abound.   Mantled Howler Monkeys make their presence known from the distant canopy.  Green-and-black Poison Dart frogs and Strawberry Poison Dart frogs, the “Blue Jeans” frogs, are abundant in places along the forest floor.  Where fruit grows, monkeys and birds suddenly appear, descend upon the fruit, and, within a few minutes, have disappeared entirely.  Food is abundant, and animals are often on the move.

A Skipper species of butterfly

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Palm Tanager

Green Honeycreeper, female

Olive-backed Euphonia

Mantled Howler Monkeys lounging just before heading to feed on fruit...

A dragonfly species (updates later!)

Another mystery to solve!

One of the smallest dragonflies I have ever seen, another mystery of identification...

The famous bullet ant, a lone soldier with a powerful bite (equated to the feeling of being shot). 

A large, adult Iguana basking along a stream...

A brown basilisk lizard hiding among the vegetation, this is one of the species
 famous for being able to "walk on water".

Michael shows great respect for the animals we are photographing.  He is careful to allow each animal to continue on with its life in perfect health, and he reminds us not to use flash photography with the nocturnal frogs.  It is possible that a bright camera flash can cause permanent damage to the eyes of Costa Rica’s iconic Red-eyed Treefrog.  Each organism is an individual and also a beautiful part of the rain forest's immediate form and function.  

Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs

Costa Rican Red-eyed Tree Frog

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, also called the "Blue Jeans" frog

More time spent with Michael Sevilla adds up to a great education.  Soon, we are learning about the complex and interdependent relationships among living things in the rainforest.   We learn about ants that eat poisonous fungus and frogs that eat poisionous ants, a food chain that magnifies the toxins to potency in the skin secretions of a colorful rainforest frog.  Animals that eat toxic food most often have some means of sequestering the toxins, shunting the molecules to a different location where they can be deployed in defenses against predators.  The frog’s brilliant colors warn, “Careful! I taste bad!”  Occasionally, the colors could mean, “Careful! I am deadly!”   This is known among biologists as aposematic coloration.  The warning colors of the frogs tell an ambiguous tale, as some species are greatly more toxic than others.  Many animals of the rainforest also use cryptic adaptations, structures and colors that result in camouflage.   Sometimes, the two survival schemes are twisted together, a break-up pattern that camouflages and a touch of brilliance that is flashed when the animal is suddenly discovered.  Michael brought us an amazing caterpillar covered in bristle hairs that would surely cause spectacular irritation to any animal so foolish as toe attempt to eat it.  But those same bristle hairs allowed the caterpillar to disappear in certain environments.  

Can you find the caterpillar?    

It is not very late at night, but the sun goes down promptly in the tropical rain forest.  By 7 PM, the world is a dark, mysterious and wondrously noisy place.   Most of the sounds could be attributed to insects, but it is clear that there are also numerous species of frogs, some bats, and the occasional nocturnal bird.   There is plenty to guess about, and a biologist’s mind races in such dumbfounding beauty.   Michael meets us again for a photo shoot, and, since we have been up since 4 AM and making art since 5 AM, the 8 PM meeting feels like midnight.  Our mission for the evening is “light painting.”  Light painting is the use of slow shutter speeds in darkness.  Diffuse light, ideally warm incandescent light, is cast like a spotlight upon the subject of the photograph. In our case, we use two Mini-Mag flashlights.  So long as the subject doesn’t move and the camera is rock-steady, the image should work.  The successful results are usually quite dramatic!  I added the additional touch of placing my fingers around the end of the flashlight to “pinch” the light and use my own capillaries as warming filters.  (The tones of the light in some of my light painted images are literally warmed with the color of my blood.)  

Michael catches a large, tan and golden colored tree frog briefly.  As he lets it go, I reach down, capture it gently and then ask, “Michael, could we photograph this one?”  He carefully selects a moss-covered limb, and we set up the branch under our incandescent flashlight set for some “light painting.”  Before I release the frog onto the branch, Michael tells me, “Pay attention to the foot pads on this frog. They are very strong.”  As if locked to my hand, the foot pads give a strange sensation as they release to the safety of the branch.   While I have held one of the incandescent flashlights for other frog photos, I am now the recipient of the gift of this gentle light.  Michael and Bruce are painting the frog with the light while I make my exposures.   A couple of pictures, and I am pleased. We release the frog to the safety of the forest.  That’s when Michael tells me, “Be sure to wash your hands before the headache sets it.  This one is one of the most toxic frogs, and the alkaloids will give you a bad headache.”  While many would find this news alarming, I find myself smiling.  This is very cool.  I wash my hands under cold water.  Suddenly, the pads of my hands feel very, very hot…and insanely itchy.  Michael asks me, “Do they burn?”  I am experiencing the expected.  The itching becomes very mild within a few minutes, then, over the next day, slowly subsides, and I am thrilled to have experienced the reality of the rainforest frogs.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to eat a frog like that, and I don’t plan on trying to find out!

A toxic treefrog, flashlight painted.  I did not use noise reduction and have some work to do. 
This image will be updated some day.  For now, here it is in its original form!

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D, a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens, a Gitzo tripod and ball head, and a Canon electronic cable release. Michael Sevilla guided for most of these images, and his friendship and expertise is a treasure! Yes, ALL of these images were made on the same day! 

Passerini's Tanager