Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Photographing in the Falkland Islands

Photographing in the Falkland islands

Note; The following was extracted from an article I wrote shortly after returning from the Falkland Island in 2004. Some things may have changed since then. It contains more words than I currently write for blogs but a fuller 
description may help future decisions for interested photographers.


            We were due to board a Lan Chile flight around 9.30pm from Miami but when the plane came in from Bogota it was found to have a mechanical problem (too many drugs stuffed down the toilets?). After my shoes were checked again we were therefore transferred to a Lan Peru flight that left some three hours later. They attempted to feed the patrons but ran out of food. The operation gave the appearance that a nearby foodstore had been raided and they seemed to have grabbed the wrong cartons as I saw one late punter being offered two one litre bottles of orange juice in lieu of a bread roll and can of coke. I expected the last person on the queue to come away with some shoe polish and bubble gum as the stores were drained. We were finally on our way bound for Santiago via Lima. We arrived in Santiago in the middle of the morning and had a fairly long and entertaining trip through the city to our hotel. Santiago had its good and bad parts. The hotel was situated in a more elite area. Graffitti was prominent but the soul of the dry, polluted city was essentially saved by a long green park that ran through most of the central area. Both bums and dogs lay sleeping on the park grass and on the steps of adjacent buildings. We relaxed in the verdant grounds of the hotel and were entertained by a bride getting her pre-wedding photographs taken. The bride was a very attractive French girl who taught English in Chile. She was also extremely charming and had a very warm personality. As you can imagine there was quite a bit of muttered photographic advice being offered.
            Early the following morning we were off to the Falklands via Porto Mont and Punta Arenas. At the latter stop they took out a row of seats and placed life rafts on the floor since it was essentially a domestic flight having to travel over water. Lan Chile airlines was generally very good and the hostesses attractive and well presented. All incoming planes land at Mount Pleasant aerodrome, which is a military installment. I was pleased to see that we were on a Bikini White alert, whatever that meant. The drive into Stanley was about thirty miles over a mainly unpaved road. The countryside is treeless with peat bogs, very low bushes and sprawling runs of sharp stones. Nearer Stanley there are fenced off areas still containing plastic mines that were seeded from Argentinean helicopters during the 1982 conflict. Generally they do not represent a problem to the populace. We were installed in Malvinas House, which is on the main road in Stanley across from the narrow, windswept harbour. The food was good although they were missing some supplies, as the boat was overdue.
 Stanley harbour still contains the hulks of a number of wooden sailing ships. Many of these ships received a battering rounding Cape Horn. Stanley represented the first port of call where repairs could be made. Repairs occurred in some cases but others were beyond repair. English-based insurance agencies were not given the correct information on some occasions and ships were stripped at rock bottom prices. One of the better-preserved ships in the harbour rounded the Horn in good shape but hit a rock at the entrance to Stanley harbour. Even the huge Brunel-designed “Great Britain” met her end at this location, although since salvaged and re-constructed at Bristol, UK. Stanley was also an important port of call on the voyage of HMS Beagle, of Darwin fame.

The journey of HMS Beagle

The 'Great Britain' was wrecked in Stanley harbour before being salvaged and restored in Bristol, UK.

Signs of the 1982 conflict are abundant around Stanley. The war memorial was just along the road and a nearby street was named “Thatcher Drive”. There was a pub called “The Victory Pub”.  The Governor’s mansion was further along the main street and a modern school was close by. The windswept soccer field appeared to mainly host a long duration avian match; the dolphin gulls versus the Giant Petrels. Not all Falklands Islands children attend the school. The children in outlying islands will be educated via the radio and will receive a flying visit from a teacher several times a year.
The Falklands were first ‘discovered’ by Captain John Davis on the 14th of August 1592 (an auspicious day). The sound between the two main islands was later named in honour of the Admiralty treasurer Viscount Falkland. Later both the British and the French established small settlements, unknown to each other. The Americans later became involved over disputes involving sealing rights. The British after withdrawing later came back to establish a more vigorous colony.
The islands currently derive most of their income from squid fishing rights and there is talk of oil fields, gold and possibly diamonds. The economy was mainly based on wool, which has suffered badly in recent times. Eco-tourism appears to be on the increase and that is always a double-edged sword.
The rainfall on the islands is surprisingly low (around 26 inches annually) although the locals claim it is hard to catch the rain when it travels parallel to the earth most of the time. The vegetation of the Falklands is described as oceanic heathland, which includes tussock grass and coarse white grass. A berry-bearing low shrub named Diddley Dee feeds the Upland Geese and the locals who make a jam from the tiny red berries and roast the Upland Geese. The islands host 60 species of breeding birds with another 150 vagrant species
Modern technology is present on the islands. They are well served with a microwave phone system and many have the internet connected. There are several radio stations; one broadcasting from Stanley and another from the Forces base at Mount Pleasant. There are also several TV channels with the BBC being prominent (one female reporter on the Beeb I noted was called Julia Cesar).  For 100s of years peat was arduously harvested as a fuel. Recent technology has also entered the energy field with several settlements generating their own power via modern wind powered turbines. The wind is ever-present.

                                                                      King Penguins

The serious business started the next day when we were driven in Land Rovers for two and a half hours over dusty roads and across country to Volunteer point, which hosts a large colonies of King, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. There are 17 (some say 18) species of penguins sharing our planet. Generally they feed in the rich waters of the Antarctic Ocean but must find solid land to come ashore to breed. The penguin-rich islands are the first encountered on the trip north to find solid bases. New Zealand and offshore islands hosts six species, as do the Falkland Islands. You mainly see four species on the Falklands, the above three and Rockhoppers. Kings are the second biggest species after Emperors and look like their larger relatives. Despite the light being good we were plagued with constant drizzle and had to retreat with very little film being exposed. We were able to observe the behaviour of these tuxedoed comics. There were some engaged in amorous activities and at one point the female was in put in a prone position by a suitor and three others suddenly joined the queue. She got up immediately and walked off in a huff. The adults have a haughty walk and sometimes when a group of 3 to 5 birds is on the move one will biff a neighbour around the head with a flipper. A few strides further along retribution will occur. This was the last time we struck adverse weather for any prolonged period. We returned to Prospect Point on the last day of the trip and had perfect weather.
            The bulk of our shooting was done on three islands: Carcass, Saunders and Sea Lion. The Falkland Islands consists of two large islands and a large number of smaller islands. I was somewhat surprised at how extensive the whole island system is. After our wet first day the following morning we went the short distance to Stanley Airport where we and our gear were carefully weighed before being assigned seats on the small, but efficient inter-island aircraft. My roommate had defied the beseeching of Mary to bring the minimum gear. His bags contained the stock of a camera store and half his lounge furniture. He later learnt his lesson when he toppled over on sharp rocks and literally came up black and blue.

                                                                         Magellanic Penguins


                  Carcass Island was named after an old naval ship and not some rotting beast that was found there. It has a population of three. The owner, Rob McGill was a very warm host and he was ably assisted by Aunty (no second name is ever given) and another male hired-hand. The farmhouse has about three double rooms and there are also two cottages that can each house six people. The farmhouse is situated on a bay and is surrounded by introduced trees and shrubs, including flax and cabbage trees from New Zealand. There are only enough sheep on the island to provide food and the small herd of cows provides the butter, milk and cream. Rob’s wife works in Stanley and he joins her in the winter for several months. The main income comes from short visits by tourist boats. These craft will shed 50 to 100 passengers for a couple of hours and they will look at the wildlife and have a cup of tea and cake before returning to their ship. Magellanic  (Jackass) penguins bray around the house while various other aquatic birds can be approached very readily along the shoreline. We were on Carcass for three nights and photographed a colony of King Cormorants, who were feeding recently hatched young. Skuas feed on the chicks from the colony. They too are raising their chicks in rudimentary nests nearby. The skuas will constantly intimidate the colony flying inches above the nesting masses. The adults will play tug of war with hapless, stolen chicks with the winner taking all. They will regurgitate the trophy to their own chicks, carefully picking up the leftovers for a repeat delivery.  Elsewhere there were Steamer ducks, Dolphins Gulls, Night Herons and the ubiquitous Johnny Rook; the striated Caracara. This particular bird of prey was the subject of a recent BBC documentary that pictured it somewhat dramatically as a cunning killer. The juveniles roam around in packs seeking mischief like an inner city gang. They will steal chicks from nests and take the eyes from sheep when the deprivations of winter set in. A number of the birds on the island had chicks, including Johnny Rook.

                                                                         Striated Caracara

                                                                         King Cormorants

The next island we were deposited onto was Saunders. A family owns this island and they would best be described as Falkland Island rednecks. The owner is married with two daughters and his sister also lives on the island for most of the year while her husband flies planes in the Antarctic. The brother and sister are both from the same mould; big and rough. The female is only referred to as Biffo, a name that she chose when a child (after Biffo the Bear) in preference to her given name, which is never surrendered to strangers. Biffo is a character and would never be given the job as Ambassador to Argentina. Her brother when we first saw him had on his overalls, large goggles, a backpack and toted a pistol in a holster. The firearm we were told is an aid to rounding up the sheep. We invited the family in for drinks on our final night and the family goat H accompanied them. At one point H was standing eating cake on the coffee table. We were housed in a cabin and cooked our own meals.
                                                            Black-browed Albatross

The main groups of wildlife were situated on a constriction in the island called The Neck. This required a bumpy one-hour ride in Land Rovers to get there. We photographed colonies of Gentoo, Rockhoppers, Black Browed Albatross and a small colony of King Penguins. Magellanic penguins, who burrow underground to make their nests, are universal and can be photographed anywhere. At various times during the day groups of Gentoos return to their nest with stomachs full of fish and squid. There are a number of predators in the waters; sea lions, elephant seals and orca whales, hence the groups of penguins come into the beach at speed. They can be seen porpoising towards the beach. Near the beach they will surf inside or on top of the waves and then pop out onto the beach like champagne corks. This activity provides excellent photo opportunities and can be quite comical to watch. One character popped out of the water so fast he landed on his face in the sand. I managed to nab one in mid-air as he made the final pop. The chicks in the colony ranged in size from newly born to fluffy squawkers who were nearly as big as their parents. The juveniles constantly squeak for food and will chase their parents for some distance to get their supplies. Often groups of juveniles will hang out together and have the odd flipper fights.

                                                          Gentoo Penguins

The rockhopper penguins were a particularly endearing species. These smallish penguins with a spikey hairdo after swimming the dangerous waters face danger when they come ashore on wave-tossed rocks. When they make a successful landing they are often faced with a half-mile hike up a rocky trail to their nesting grounds. Like Leprechauns in a sack race they hop their way over many obstacles. I photographed some jumping across a three-foot chasm. Some slipped and fell, picked themselves up and started again. The rocks contained gouges and striations where penguin claws have incribed them for perhaps thousands of years.

                                                             Rockhopper Penguins

While we were waiting for the planes to leave the islands dolphins were seen in the Bay. A zodiac was launched and we were able to observe the Collison’s dolphins at close quarters. They swam languidly around the craft while exhaling loudly. They seemed to enjoy it best when the inflatable sped up and they were able to ride the bow wave and demonstrate their consummate swimming skills.
The third island we visited was the relatively flat Sea Lion Island. The hotel was comfortable and the host, Jenni was warm and hardworking. Her Chilean staff was ever-smiling and turned out gastronomical delights from the kitchen. Huge helicopters had originally airlifted the hotel onto the island. When we arrived an air force party, including the top dog, was there for a day trip. The Vice Air Marshall was generally a man of few words but did claim the Tristar (which brings passengers from the UK once a week) “was the best plane in the fleet once you got it in the air”. There was also a party of British twitchers staying at the hotel. There were some lively exchanges between the mainly American photographers and the bird spotters from Blighty. The war of independence seemed to happen all over again.
The island also contained several reminders of a more recent war. A memorial to the HMS Sheffield was situated on the North East coast. This high profile victim of Argentinean exocets went down off the island. A prominent grave near the hotel marked the last resting place of one of the few civilians killed in the same conflict. She was unfortunately a victim of the inaptly described ‘friendly fire’. Other relics included the tripots that were used to render down the penguins for their oil. You needed five penguins to the gallon apparently.
The island hosts many wildlife species all of which are in walking distance from the accommodation. I would generally get up around first light (5am) and go out seeking that early light. Some days were good and other days the light would close in. One fine morning was suddenly blanked out by a sea fog that appeared from nowhere. Elephant seals fought mock battles on the beach and harems of Sea Lions nestled under cliffs further along the beach. The male harem-masters were fearsome looking creatures who fiercely protected their collections of 6 to 8 females. The females were giving birth (witnessed by some of the twitchers) and there were pods of the little black babies in the center of the colonies. The island also contains several lakes where various birds gather. One was a great location to go in the late afternoon to get flight shots as the various geese and ducks flew in for the evening. Turkey buzzards could also be photographed soaring into the wind. South American Terns and Seagulls were also rearing chicks in the Sea Cabbage along the beach. The terns are a small handsome species but they are extremely aggressive. If you go remotely near their colony you will be dive-bombed. Scouts are first sent out to investigate and then the fighter-bombers attack. They will dive and shit and when they attack it is not to frighten but to hit. Several of us, including me, got hit on the head. One of my hits was so hard it actually drew blood. We were not seeking to intimidate these ‘bombers’ and they would give you the message when you were sometimes 400-500 metres from their base. Elsewhere there were colonies of Rock Cormorants raising their young on narrow ledges on cliffs. When the adult brought fish back to the nest the young almost half disappeared down their throats to get their share of the booty.

Seal Lion calling

Rock Cormorants nesting

A BBC team had photographed a sequence involving orcas killing gentoos on the island two years ago. Joe and Mary had been there but missed the action when Mary had switched off the walkie-talkie radio ‘to save the batteries’. I have seen the sequences on a video called ‘The South American Coast’. The hapless penguins who were suddenly overtaken by suddenly emerging adults were not hunted for food but to teach young orcas how to hunt. After the ‘lesson’ the intact corpses were left floating in the bay.
There were many other species of birds readily observed on the island: ruddy and ashy headed geese, red-backed hawks, short eared owls, Peregrine falcons, several species of oyster catchers, Magellanic snipe as well as the bold and ubiquitous tussock bird. The last-mentioned species was either pecking at the nose of sleeping elephant seals, prying into camera bags or standing on your boots. There were several pairs of Peregrine falcons on the island. One pair was feeding two juveniles who had left the nest but were still demanding food on a regular basis. The parents obliged them with newly-killed Falkland islands thrushes and thin-billed Prion that were shredded and pushed down hungry gullets.
On the final day on Sea Lion the supply ship came in. This is not an easy operation. The sea must be calm at the landing area. A landing craft comes into a cove that could host rum smugglers from yesteryear. The cargo is then hauled up a steep slope with the aid of a tractor. Joe was co-opted into helping and he said it was very hard work taking over three hours. We all helped unload the trucks and stack the goods in and around the hotel. We were not helped particular by a pet lamb (full grown species with testosterone). It wanted to get at the apples at one point and when Mary prevented it, the moody mutton stepped back 10 yards and was about to butt Mary’s butt onto the next island. When the unloading was done the others were chasing the little Chilean boy around the front yard. The mutton performed a neat trip on one of the woman and jumped on her with intentions of breeding. At least it took the heat off me as I was being ragged about the apparent New Zealand proclivity to fancy sheep when women were not available. I always thought it was the Welsh.
Our flight was not due off Sea Lion until the middle of the afternoon. It meant we had at least a morning to shoot and the weather was great. The trip back to Stanley was again without a hitch. As mentioned previously the next day stayed fine and we made our way out to Volunteer Point to photograph the King Penguins. In the fortnight the eggs they were sitting on had started to hatch. The young are quite ugly in comparison to their handsome parents. There was one of the last batch of juveniles still with its fluffy fur coat and despite being the same size as its parents was still begging to be fed.

                                                           King Penguins

The long journey gives you time to talk to the driver. There is a lot to learn because they are all locals. It seems the inhabitants are very loyal to their Islands and even if they are educated overseas, many of them return. There are a number of new residences being built around Stanley.
The day we left the sea fog and rain descended. The Lan Chile flight stopped at three places on the way back to Santiago. Strangely it stopped in Argentina. The airport looked like it had been deserted 10 years previously. Three people got off the flight and not surprisingly nobody got on. No locals were even sighted and the flight contained it’s own ground attendants. We arrived at our Santiago just before midnight and spent a Sunday there before heading back to Florida. We strolled along the green belt and had a long leisurely lunch before heading for the airport and a total shambles. Two large cruise ships had disgorged their passengers and everyone was trying to get on planes at the same time. Not surprisingly the flight was full.

Blog constructed October 2012
Graeme Guy


Friday, 28 September 2012

Hummingbirds (and frogs) of Costa Rica

My trip to Costa Rica occurred in March 2008 and was under the guidance of Greg Downing and Greg Basco. The latter is a US citizen who lives in Costa Rica and is married to a local lady.

I arrived at Juan Santamaria International Airport, San Jose, via Florida in the USA.  I met other participants of the tour at the Hotel Bougainvillea, which has it’s own gardens with beautiful orchids and other tropical flowers and a good selection of some local birds.

The following morning after breakfast we travelled to the Turrialba area on the Atlantic slopes of Costa Rica’s Central Volcanic mountain range where Rancho Naturalista is located. One thing was obvious on the journey was that there has been minimal disturbance of the tropical forests of Costa Rica. This may have been accidental in that the coffee plantations do not take too much space but in recent times the Government has made a decision to preserve much of the natural flora.
Rancho Naturalista is pleasantly located and comfortable. Fruit is liberally dispersed in trees to attract birds…..which in turn attracts birderwatchers. Greg Downing had set up several multiple flash set-ups on the lodge balcony and in the nearby forest and participants circulated around these. Hummingbird species included the Snowcap, Green-breasted Mango and White-necked Jacobin.

Approximate locations of accommodation

View from Rancho Naturalista

Indoor dining room at Rancho Naturalista

When not photographing hummingbirds we photographed the tanagers, orioles, oropendolas and chachalacas that visited the lodge’s fruit feeder.

Collared Aracari

Montezuma Oropendola

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

We spent three full days and four nights at the Rancho Naturalista and during that time got many nice shots of the Green-breasted Mangos (both male and female), White-necked Jacobin and Wood Nymphs. Often at feeders a dominant hummingbird will take charge and chase others away so you might not necessarily get a great variety of birds.

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango

Green-breasted Mango pair

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

Violet-eared Hummingbird

Crowned Wood Nymph
We next headed to the higher cloud forests of the northern Central Volcanic Mountain Range and our lodge, Bosque de Paz. Bosque de Paz Ecolodge is located in one of the most biodiverse areas of the country, nestled in a picturesque valley at approximately 4,500 feet above sea level between the Poas Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks. After lunch at Zarcero (Greg Basco’s home town) we arrived at the lodge. Endemic wildlife included the turkey-like Black Guan and Agoutis, large forest rodents. Quetzals are common visitors to the area but we did not have the fortune to see any in a photographable location.

Bosque de Paz Ecolodge



The next morning the multi-flash set-ups were in place and attracted a different subset of hummingbirds; the Scintillant Hummingbird (Costa Rica’s smallest species), Violet Sabrewings (Costa Rica’s largest species), the Purple-throated Mountain Gem and the Green-crowned Brilliant.

Green-crowned Brilliant

Magnificent Hummingbird

Violet Sabrewing

Small groups of photographers were free to explore the local flora and fauna  in the nearby valley and along the rushing stream. In the evenings there were slide-shows and discussions in an adjacent conference room. As expected in Costa Rica, the home of good coffee….the brew was always superb.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

On the following day we went on an excursion to photograph the nearby Toro waterfall, which is 110 metres high and provided spectacular shots of the falls and the surrounding cloud forest.

Toro Waterfall (click on image to see large version)

We next set out to the Sarapiqui area to a lowland rainforest. We roamed the Selva Verde Lodge grounds in search of photographic targets that included the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, the Blue Jeans Frog, the Green and Black Poison dart frog and the famed Red-eyed Tree frog. In the afternoon we went on a boat tour on the nearby Sarapiqui River to photograph Sunbitterns, Bare-throated Tiger heron, Green Ibis, Sloths and the Spectacled Caiman. That evening we photographed frogs in their natural habitats around the lodge and experimented with using LCD torches as a light source.

Black and Green Poison Arrow Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog

Red-eyed Tree Frog (using LED torches as a light source)

Blue Jeans Frog

We spent one last evening at the Hotel Bouganvillea before dispersing in various directions.

Cattle Egret

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Just to comment on aspects of the tour. Both Gregs were excellent hosts and accomplished naturalists and photographers….at all times good company and both with a good sense of humor. The trip was well-organized and the hummingbird set-ups were painstakingly done. The Rancho Naturalista is comfortable with many species available. Some of the other guests, a group of British birders were not as friendly as they could be and some feeding stations that Greg Downing set up for morning photography disappeared overnight.

                 The second lodge was also very comfortable and the food was very good. There seemed to be some problems with the disposition of hummingbird feeders but this did not impact greatly. To photograph hummingbirds in the multi-flash set-ups requires that the normally placed feeders are removed thus pushing the birds to the photograph set-ups. Not many lodges are keen to allow this and this limits the venues for this type of photography. If there are other guests present there is therefore a conflict of interests as they want to observe as many species as possible coming to the lodge’s feeder. The third location that was included to photograph the exotic local frogs was generally good but the river trip was not very spectacular from a quality photograph point of view. Recent trips offer more diversity and concentrate on more of the spectacular bird life aside from hummingbirds. Greg Basco also works with Joe and Maryanne McDonald, which would also be a great combination of expertise.

The snake wranglers: Greg Basco and Greg Downing

Bouganvillea Hotel;  http://www.hb.co.cr/


Bosque de Paz Ecolodge; http://www.bosquedepaz.com/

Selva Verde Lodge;  http://www.selvaverde.com/lang/en/

 Graeme Guy September 2012