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Birds Gone Wild Tobacco – Episode 1: The Studio

April before last, on a random pop-in to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, I noticed there was a lot of activity at the far end of the garden. Sure enough, wild tobacco was in season, and even though I had passed many trees earlier in the day – none of them had half the frenzied action of this tree. Everyone was flying in to grab the bright orange fruit, from the ubiquitous Palm Β and Blue-grey Tanagers and bananaquits to the stunning flashes of colour from both Purple and Green Honeycreepers. From the whirring of the tiny wings of manakins to the delicate flutter of trogons (stay tuned). Trust me, it was a photographer’s dream. Shooting fish in a barrel. Or something equally barbaric.

Two of my favourite tanager species also flew in for the buffet. It’s always a pleasure to see them move together, their colours seeming to complement each other as they flash past. Although I had only just previously seen and photographed Turquoise Tanagers (here), I couldn’t complain when this beautiful bird perched close. Always helps when you’re well hidden πŸ™‚

turquoise tanager







Bay-headed Tanagers are gorgeous, don’t you think? On the mainland, Bay-headeds have more blue on their breast. In fact, with nine subspecies, and further variations within these, the Bay-headed Tanager is one of the most diverse species within the Tanager family, and could very well be broken up into separate species in the near future.








Also surprisingly present was a Golden-olive Woodpecker. Woodpeckers are generally insectivorous, but do include fruit and berries in their diet from time to time. After its brief sojourn in the wild tobacco tree, it flew over to prod some bamboo for insects. Ever absorbed in its task, it too, approached rather closely.







So too, this Red-rumped Agouti-thrush was rummaging around in the leaf litter looking for leftovers.








When there’s so much going around it’s difficult to tear your eyes away from what’s right before you. A brief flash of blue in the distance revealed something different, something that was absorbing the hurried activity from a distance. A male Swallow Tanager. Another bird landed on the branch it was sitting on – a female of the species. Prior to this encounter, I had only seen this bird two or three times – Swallow Tanagers are rare breeding visitors to the highest parts of the northern range. So I was naturally very excited to shoot this difficult-to-see species in the fading light of the afternoon. You never really realize how quickly it gets dark in the forest unless you’re doing something that depends exclusively on sunlight. Even though I had been using my flash all day, I was trying to avoid increasing its power so as to not disturb the pair, as well as for a very unique reason I can only postulate about.

Certain blue birds like the male Swallow Tanager (also happens with Blue Dacnis) tend to react badly to the light from a flash unit. When I say react, I mean that somehow, the refractive/reflective mechanism by which we perceive the colour of a bird’s feathers seems to not be able to deal with (predictably at least) the colour temperature of incoming light from a camera’s flash unit. Birds that are supposed to be a deep blue can end up looking fluorescent green. Of course, the effect is not always that extreme, but it occurs to varying degrees if you’re not careful. The goal is always to render the bird in the image just as it would be seen with the naked eye. As it stands, this is just my interpretation of the possible reason for a given output from the situation. Still unconfirmed though. But when it works, it works πŸ™‚











All in all, an extremely productive day photographing some of the forest’s most striking avian residents without having to rack up tons of mileage. Even earlier in the day, when the sun was still high in the sky, I never stopped shooting. Sometimes the harsh light can work at the right angle. With the right type of background, of course. A spotlit patch of vervain within the relative darkness of the understory proved to be a perfect setting for feeding hummingbirds such as the tiny Tufted Coquette.


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