As we sit on the cusp of another new year, another notch in the bark, another eye over the shoulder that makes all of us ponder our existence for a brief moment – it’s that customary time of sharing “best of”, or as social media would have it called “most popular”. Because popularity is a thing that we use to measure ourselves, for reasons that are understood but yet make little sense. It’s that time of year when we all try to make our existence seem as grand as humanly (or inhumanly) possible. Only for prying eyes, of course. Because that’s what matters.
As photographers, we’re lucky that a camera is part of our arsenal when we make our missions – so this type of thing is pretty straightforward and simple. Just pick the images with the most “likes”, put them all together and snap the lid shut. Pick the biggest parties and tag the most famous people and you’re set.
This year I’m doing a top 17, in loose chronological order. Some of these images have never been published before, some of them may be unpopular, but this is a recap of 17 of my most significant and treasured memories of 2017. Too often we want to please others, to gain the approval of the masses – the pursuit of which eventually causes us to lose our very soul. It may be a selfish move on my part, to share memories that are significant to me, but we all must take moments to cultivate what matters to us on a personal level. And I hope this motivates us all to look inside, even if it’s for a split second. Moreover, I do sincerely hope that you enjoy these! So let’s get started yeah?
1. A really weird kind of bird photograph
I’ve been photographing birds regularly for around seven years now, and most of the images I’ve made have had (at least) one thing in common: they were all made looking down a barrel of a telephoto lens. I tried experimenting with a wide now and then, but birds here are pretty wary of any human. For the most part, they were hit and miss. One night, sitting on our little porch overlooking the valley at Cuffie River enjoying the rising moon, we were kept company by one of the resident White-tailed Nightjars. This particular bird was making its short flights for insects periodically just in front of us – the insects were attracted to a floodlight, which benefited the bird, which in turn, benefited me. I just had to frame my shot and wait. Most flights were short, but one moth tried a couple evasive manoeuvres – causing the nightjar to bend and twist in mid-air. I guess it all came together. The long exposure time allowed the typical looping flight action of these cryptic birds to show quite well in the final product.
2. Hi, bye!
Up at the top of Little Tobago island, we were enjoying great views of nesting Red-billed Tropicbirds, when a rustling in the distance alerted us to another bird – this time on its way out from its nest-site, presumably to go on a fishing mission for its hungry young. With only two humans present at the observation deck, this bird stumbled past us (as their feet are quite weak, they can’t walk properly) and fluttered into the air where it instantly regained its elegance. Such an experience to feel the wind from its wings as it passed right over me – I was flat on the ground, of course 🙂
3. Milking it
Wrapping up one of the bird counts I had been doing for Hacienda Jacana, I saw some distance away what seemed to be a snake jump into the air. I thought, damn, that’s one clumsy snake, why in the world would it just toss itself into the air like that? Nevertheless I decided to check it out. Turns out the snake (a “Lora” or Parrot Snake) had lunged successfully at a frog. Panicking, the frog was covered in a milky froth – I would later learn that the frog was actually called a Milk Frog for that very characteristic – and the snake wasn’t letting go. This was the first time I had ever gotten a chance to witness this type of predation, after seeing it countless times on documentaries for as long as I can remember. With its backward facing teeth and fierce tenacity, the predator was never going to give up its meal. After about fifteen to twenty minutes, all that was left of the frog was this sticky, milky goo everywhere. Which intrigued me even more as to how would this legless, armless being ever clean itself? I observed it wiping itself on every stalk, every leaf and very gradually the sticky substance began to come off. Having seen so many documentaries on snakes eating other animals, I knew very well that eventually it’d need to stretch its jaws to pop them back in place. I just waited for the yawn, even though the snake was still mostly covered in slime.
4. Things you just don’t see all the time
Most local birdwatchers will tell you stories of trying in vain to get a view of certain birds. Some are migrants, some are rare – which makes the scarcity of observations most understandable. But some are common and still never seen. Black-faced Antthrushes are enigmatic birds that are relatively common – especially in the Northern Range. Their three-note call would be very familiar to anyone who frequents these parts. Which is usually the extent of the familiarity. One morning, two of these birds just popped out in front of us on a trail and even more surprisingly decided to stay on the trail for a little bit. I followed them, trying my best in the low light as they are dark birds that were on a mission – so standing still for a portrait wasn’t on the cards. I love how this turned out, it’s almost as if the trailing bird wants to know what my scene is, but at the same time knows that it must follow the first bird. The first bird never paid any attention to me whatsoever.
Not too long after we saw the Black-faced Antthrushes, we fulfilled the purpose of the entire mission. Which, to be honest, is a rarity in itself. I had seen Swallow Tanagers occasionally before, but never gotten a single image I was proud of. Not only do they enjoy hanging out in areas of low light, but the bright blue of the male’s plumage is difficult to render correctly on a camera. In the forest understory, the light itself is tinged with lots of green and yellow. I ended up having to do a fair amount of post processing work on the colours to ensure that I got rid of that green cast – but all worth it in the end!
6. Casual birding at its finest
Upon getting word that the latest addition to the collection of hummingbirds found within T&T was sighted at the home of Theo Ferguson – we made haste to visit. Yerette is always a gem, a photographer’s paradise – and by the time we got there, a couple other photographers were already set and waiting for this bird. I remember many years ago, finding Theo’s work on Flickr and being amazed that there was someone locally photographing birds. I paid him a visit at his office to get some guidance as to where I should point myself, seeing that I wanted to create images like he did, beautiful large sized pieces of art that featured our own avian life. Fast forward seven years or so, and I’m in his patio, sipping some fine coffee and photographing an Amethyst Woodstar. Can’t get much more casual than that!
7. The biggest lifer I’ll ever get
Within certain nerdy circles, the word “lifer” means something that you’ve seen for the very first time – for example the Amethyst Woodstar was a lifer for me as I had never seen it. Extending the concept to something a little bit bigger, well, a lot bigger – whilst driving down an unlit road through Tobago’s rainforest something told me to look up – and my eyes fell instantly to something that looked sort of like a cloud in the sky. But the sky was cloudless. It was also new moon, so no light reflecting off of anything. Stopping the car instantly, I tried making a few images. We were staring directly at the galactic core of the Milky Way. Completely humbling experience. Never having photographed this before (although I’ve wanted to for years) I was hopeful that I’d get at least one usable image. I got two. Wish I had a wider lens but hey, I’m just glad I saw it! Plus now I have a cool wallpaper on my phone.
8. Yet unsolved mystery
A few days after seeing the Milky Way, we found a little gecko in our room. Something about it looked a little different from what we were accustomed to seeing. I grabbed it and put it outside and made a few images, and sent them for ID. To this day, we’re still unsure of the true identity of this little one. Perhaps Ocellated Gecko, maybe Yellow-headed Gecko, but John asked us to collect any specimens and bring to Trinidad for definitive identification. For the rest of our two weeks on Tobago we turned rocks over, looked under overhangs and never found another similar looking gecko. A few days later, a Trinidad Motmot literally flew into a nearby tree and looked at me dead in the face – with this same lizard hanging lifeless from its beak.
I could probably do the entire top 17 memories just of Tobago – such is the beauty of the island as well as its people. So different from Trinidad. Anyway, being accepted into the folds of a hummingbird society that is truly Tobago, being allowed to stand under a tree and approach them closely – I wish I could conjure words that would properly and accurately describe the feeling. I ditched my big lens and only walked into their circle with my macro – but the real magic was being able to look at them and see all their intricate details and colour variations with my bare eyes. Pictures never do nature justice.
10. Heading north
I had long wanted to visit the islands of St Giles, and managed to finally make the trip with a few of my closest friends – which in itself was great – meeting up with another brother who is also an expert seaman was greater – getting on his new boat from Speyside and rounding the tip of Tobago that is almost never seen – having a large Hawksbill Turtle take a breath of fresh air about twenty feet away – it seriously kept getting better and better. Fantastic times, lovely people and tremendous amounts of birds…yeah, sounds like I need not say much more about this. I’ve said so much already – multiple articles both on my blog as well as WildTobago and Tobago Newsday all about these precious islands and the beautiful seabirds that call them home.
11. What goes into bird photography?
Soaking in the saltwater pool at Cuffie River Nature Retreat with a special friend of mine whom I see on average once a year – we were chatting about what really goes into making a strong and unique image. I pointed to a dry tree up the hill, and not too far from it was the rising moon. I explained that within the hour, the moon would drift behind the tree and then I’d just have to wait until something perches on any of the branches. And we continued with our conversation. And here we are.
12. The smallest
Have you ever seen something so tiny that you’re convinced that if you touch it you will destroy it? Could be a delicate piece of glassware, maybe a friend’s baby – you get the point right? We saw a pair of these tiny lizards running across the floorboards at Hacienda Jacana and I initially thought they were some young Streak Lizards – but their patterns were different. One was plain and the other had a lovely pattern on its head. In any case, the shape of their bodies were different. Far more flattened. I really wanted to pick it up to have a closer look, but I was convinced that from the moment I put my clumsy fingers into the mix that’d be the end of something I had probably never seen before. As quickly as possible, I grabbed my macro lens and returned but obviously not quick enough, for it had managed to slip into the tiny space between the door frame and the wall. If I could’ve pressed my camera into the wall, I would’ve. Shining the light from my mobile phone into the abyss, I got a single shot of the smallest lizard that can be found within T&T, the Mole’s Day Gecko. Note: the family this belongs to, Sphaerodactylus has some of the smallest reptiles in the world.
13. Request received, request granted
If you’ve ever carried anyone anywhere to experience something that is beyond your control, you’d understand the level of luck and chance involved. I had two clients who instantly became friends with me who wanted to see the endemic and critically endangered Trinidad Piping Guan – the issue was that we were going to an area in which I had only seen a pair once before. A more reliable location would involve a few more hours on the road, hours we didn’t have. It just so happened that there was a single bird feeding – a bird that didn’t mind us being there at all. We enjoyed seeing this gorgeous Pawi for as long as we desired in some warm morning light while being cooled by the crisp mountain air. A truly lovely experience to round off the last week in September. I returned to the same spot a week later hoping to catch another glimpse and the forest was much quieter. Coincidentally it was the first week of the hunting season.
14. True character
Photographing some White-bearded Manakins along the trail at Asa Wright Nature Centre, I had no idea that one of the most feared killers of the neotropics was curled up no more than two feet away from me, on an embankment, waist level. It was only when it started to crawl away that my friend noticed it. I photographed it, and he then shooed the viper further into the forest. He told me that he encounters the notorious Fer-de-lance often, doing tours in his homeland, Guyana. He’s an expert guide and eagle-eyed spotter – if you ever decide to visit Guyana do contact him, his name is Leon Moore – look him up on Facebook or visit his website here. He visited Trinidad and was finding the birds before me, and I’ve lived here all my life.
15. Getting closer and closer to nailing my nemesis
There’s something about the male Silver-beaked Tanager, something that I’m still learning to conquer. Even though I’d put everything into getting the shot, my focus would either jump off at the crucial moment, or the bird would move, turn away, be behind a branch, you get the idea. Oh and they almost always stay in the shade. And they are this extremely deep, rich shade of almost velvety red. With a bright silver beak, of course. So balancing the bright bill and dark plumage could only be done properly in diffuse light. So what I’m saying is that lots of things have to come together for the image to be acceptable. You can see a glorious failure from a previous attempt here; but for now I’m happy that I have a reasonably decent image of a male Silver-beaked Tanager, after so many presses of the shutter. Always room to grow and improve, though.
16. Just some moths. On a sloth.
We ended up jumping across to Suriname for a few days, during which we managed to get into the bush for a few hours one day. Suriname is still very beautifully wild, I believe 94% of the country is covered by forest. Anyway, not too far from the capital city was Peperpot Nature Park, a very accessible patch of forest with well-manicured trails and a lovely information centre. It’s all very well organized. Two species of monkeys were regularly seen on our mid-morning walk through the park. Just as we were about to leave though, someone came running to the guy with the camera – and spoke to our local guide in their Saramaccan – there was a sloth nearby. This was an absolute unreal experience, as I had never before seen a sloth in the wild. Furthermore, to see it moving up a tree was even more special – they spend hours upon hours asleep after all. It was only after I got home and I looked at these images large on the computer monitor I noticed the number of insects that just seem to live on this Three-toed Sloth. What a creature!
17. Up close and personal with the world’s smallest shorebird
For those of you who know me well, you’d know that I love shorebirds. They’re one of my favourite families of birds, right up there with vultures :-). On our last Christmas Bird Count, a member of my group came up to me just as we were wrapping up, with some images of a small shorebird that he’d photographed on the way out. They seemed like Least Sandpipers, but they had dark legs – bright yellow legs make the Least Sandpiper one of the easiest shorebirds to identify. So I decided to go back in and have a look. Within a few minutes of finding the spot, I got a look at the mystery shorebirds. Sure enough, there was one Least Sandpiper among the group of three, the other two were a little further away – and those were the two that seemed to have dark legs. After some time, they came closer – as shorebirds tend to be very trusting – and started to bathe. Didn’t take long for that mud to wash off and reveal two pairs of gorgeous yellow legs.
I really hope you enjoyed these stories as much as I enjoyed reliving them this morning while working on this blog post. And I do hope that each image told you its own version of the story. The most difficult part of this entire thing was whittling down the selection to 17. I had to cut out lots of great memories with lots of great people – many of the images centred around people experiencing things for the first time. I love the sense of wonder it gives – that feeling of seeing something you’ve never seen before. I enjoy it myself and love even more to see other folks experience that joy.
So here’s a big thank you for the wonderful times – and a continuation of good, positive vibes for the new year! Blessings!