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MMXX

Oh, 2020. It was a year I dreamt about as a child. Such an appealing number, I used to think. It was all so…even. This year couldn’t make inequalities more apparent, however. Whether it was race, political affiliation, income level, or simply where one came from – differences were amplified during this year of crises.

I’m not going to rehash all the horrors of the past 12 months – although the pandemic hit the western world around March this year that doesn’t mean that January and February were uneventful either. It illustrates the concept of relativity, however. No matter how bad things may seem, all it takes is something worse to make us pine for what we used to complain about before. Throughout this year I have fortunately managed to do a considerable amount of thought-work which has distilled and crystallized much of the arbitrary concepts floating around in my psyche over the years. I have my own ideas of the origins and purpose of the pandemic – drop a comment or send me a message if you’re interested. Maybe I’ll elucidate in another post (not months into the future I promise).

Truth is, it’s not like I haven’t been writing. Quite the opposite actually. I started bimonthly posts for 10,000 Birds this year, really happy about that as I’ve followed that blog for many years. It’s the biggest birding blog, with contributors from all corners of the planet. I’m happy to install T&T as a consistent fixture there.

Even though we’ve only been to Tobago once for the year I’m still maintaining (on average) an article a month for Wild Tobago. These are also published in the Tobago Newsday, and sometimes in the T&T Newsday. I’m still yet to crack the code as to which article ends up in a newspaper I can also pick up here in Trinidad. Full disclosure: I’ve been in Tobago more than once on the day I had an article published in the paper there and never remembered to pick up my own copy. Oh well.

In October I finally dropped the electronic (kindle) version of my book. Originally carded for release two years before (2018 was declared the Year of the Bird so I thought it would be appropriate), it got delayed due to a series of unfortunate events. After moping around for some months I eventually picked up the pieces and got it done. All 600+ pages of it. Unwilling to wait on securing a publisher, I took the decision to self-publish on Amazon, releasing the paperback version in November. Don’t worry, I will be contacting a few publishers in the new year to see if I can get it into local bookstores. After conceptualizing it around four years ago, I am unable to properly describe the feeling of holding the physical copy.

To say it is the proverbial monkey off of my back, or the weight lifted from my shoulders still seems insufficient. Think of a thought that has been occupying your mind throughout the day, extrapolate it into years – toss in hours in the field and even more in front of a screen. Let it all disappear completely, lie flat on the floor and eventually peel yourself up to restart the realization of the idea that matters to you and you alone. Dare I mention that it is all unpaid? An effort to make living better for wildlife and the next generation of humans does not directly benefit the decision makers and the ├╝ber-powerful.

In the unlikely event you haven’t heard of this book before (I’ve been shoving it down the throats of everyone on my Facebook and Instagram) you can check it out here. It’s gotten 100% 5-star reviews thus far and has been performing well on the charts. Upon release, it sat at #1 New Release for Bird Watching for a few weeks, amazingly (to me at least) surpassing many famous names like Sibley and Weidensaul. I haven’t personally seen it break into the top 10 birding books yet, but I have gotten to #11. I have been made aware of the fickle nature of the Amazon algorithm in the process and accept that I may be #38 one day and #238 the next. I’m still patiently waiting for some official book reviews, I’d be sharing those once they are published.

The purpose of my book isn’t to be the best by any means, however. I’m not in a competition with anyone – the more people who can read it is the better. I made it free for a few days last week and around 200 people grabbed their free copy.

I’m intent on pushing T&T to the tip of everyone’s tongues within the global birding circuit, however. With many voicing their post-plague intentions to visit T&T, it is left to us here to ensure that our environment is welcoming. We have been gifted some time to work on ourselves and I can only hope that we use this time effectively. I gave a taste of what it is like to go birding in T&T in a guest post on Learn-the-Birds, a relatively new birding platform based in South Africa.

In fact, I’ll be presenting in just under a month at a webinar hosted by this website, on birding in T&T. You can view the event details and register using this link.

Regular readers of this blog would also notice my website looks a little different. The revamp was long overdue, and done by my incompetent (at web design) self – I take full responsibility for any glitches or bugs! My galleries have also been condensed greatly and now instead of different galleries for different animals they are separated by general habitat. This is due in no small part to my shifting philosophy on my art – capturing the essence of life and not simply an image of an animal. The timeless question of subject or setting! I spoke about this on a webinar I delivered a few weeks ago. You can view it here, made possible by the COVID relief funds of Catapult Arts Caribbean.

Preparing that webinar led me to realize just how much my formal education and understanding of mathematics plays a role in my current portfolio as a photographer. I’ve been told time and time again about the “naturalistic” feel of my images – and it goes all the way back to the inescapable link between mathematics and nature. Both are as natural as can be, in fact there is a raging debate about whether we invented mathematics or merely discovered it. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

So much did not happen during this year, but at the same time so much has happened. Change is inevitable and constant throughout the universe, and it would make us incapable of living if we are unable to cope with change. I had originally made a selection of images to go with this article, intending for it to be a photographic review, but then I began typing and well, here we are, several hundred words later. So instead of having 40+ pictures to accompany this post, I’ll share just a few noteworthy encounters and encourage you to follow me on Facebook or Instagram, where I share images daily.

20 from 2020:

  1. Image #1 from 2020
On the afternoon of January 1, 2020, an obliging Trinidad Motmot gives a huge clue about where we usually begin each year: Tobago.

2. First official birding trip of the year

Although it wasn’t the plan, I was nominated leader on the morning of this trip touching a couple key areas within the Northern Range of Trinidad. Collared Trogons and Speckled Tanagers made everyone happy.

3. The first chase of the year

We stumbled upon a small family of Pied-billed Grebes at the end of 2019. On that day, they came very close but my camera battery had just died. Prior to that, I had only seen this species once – very far away on a very hot day at Arena Dam in central Trinidad.

4. The last guided tour of 2020

I had a lovely group of sharp-eyed birders (lucky me!) visiting from the USA in February. I also had no idea that they would be my last guests for the year! After our ears were pummeled by the calls of a few Bearded Bellbirds, one of my guests finally spotted this one. For such loud birds, they always make the viewer work for the visual.

5. Nesting Short-tailed Hawks

Many years ago when I used to work at Point Lisas, I saw some Short-tailed Hawks nesting on a large tree near to the main roadway. I had photographed them but lost the images in one of my hard drive crashes (I’ve had 3 so far) – so I was happy to grab a few frames this year of mama hawk screaming for papa to bring food as the baby woke up. He showed up shortly thereafter – empty-handed. Trust me, he received an earful.

6. Getting to know my home-birds

Strict stay-at-home measures meant that I was becoming intimately familiar with the avian characters around our house. I noticed that I didn’t have anything good of a Greyish Saltator – so I set out to fix that. A large poui tree that sprouted in our yard has provided us with excellent perches next to a porch where I regularly leave fruit out for my bird friends.

7. Literally the best backyard bird, ever

When a Summer Tanager shows up in a friend’s backyard two minutes away – you get there immediately.

8. Experimenting with light

Even with restrictions being lifted gradually, we were cautious and didn’t travel too far. Working species I’ve photographed numerous times before encouraged me to expand my photographic horizons. Early morning mist made magic with this Red-breasted Meadowlark.

9. Pushing the boundaries

I began relishing conditions that didn’t lend to conventional photography. Thick clouds in the pre-dawn atop one of the highest peaks on the island led to this image. A male Scaled Pigeon on the right courts a female (left) – as uninterested as she seemed here they did mate shortly afterward.

10. Really pushing it

Long after the sun had set, some clouds took on a delicious looking magenta hue – I battled through hordes of mosquitoes to line up this Striated Heron with the richest colour.

11. Shorebird migration

We were ready and anxious (ok, I’ll admit I may have been a bit over-anxious) for the arrival of migratory shorebirds this year. Some birds which arrived early, like this Lesser Yellowlegs were still in their breeding plumage. We returned to the same wetland over the course of many weeks, observing the same individuals gradually shift into their non-breeding or winter plumage.

12. More cryptic migrants

I took my newfound thirst for extreme low-light photography and capitalized upon the presence of a group of migratory Nacunda Nighthawks.

13. Eavesdropping

It was already dark when a pair of Pinnated Bitterns showed themselves. The female in the foreground was keeping a sharp eye on an approaching, displaying male.

14. Sunrise surprise

It’s always a pleasure to see a Channel-billed Toucan, but two toucans definitely wins. During the months of semi-lockdown we ended up frequenting La Vega Estate in Gran Couva, getting some lovely images of birds to help them kickstart a birding pass initiative. Highly recommend!

15. Where there are shorebirds, there will be birds that eat shorebirds

I was photographing a White-rumped Sandpiper when I noticed it suddenly become tense. Looking over my camera, I saw this Aplomado Falcon on its way back up, having approached low and fast, undetected by everyone. That Lesser Yellowlegs never saw it coming. Witnessing predation in the wild is a humbling experience.

16. Welcome back

Each year, a female Yellow Warbler spends the northern winter in our backyard. We’ve been rewilding it steadily for about 3 years now, and it fills my heart with joy to hear her bright chirps every day. In a few months, we shall bid her farewell – she would be flying north with her mate to breed in the boreal forests of Canada, after which she would return specifically to our backyard. The navigational prowess of birds never ceases to amaze.

17. The next generation

Being home for much of the year, I witnessed the young of almost every species of backyard bird experience the world for the first time. I coaxed this young Spectacled Thrush off the ground late one afternoon, knowing that stray cats roam the neighborhood at night. It sat belligerently on its new perch as I photographed it with my wide angle lens.

18. Macro

Spending time at home got me well acquainted with the critters I share my space with. I’d always see this Yellow Crab Spider laying in wait on the top of these yellow flowers. One day I noticed a butterfly on the underside of the flower – so strange, I thought. Upon closer inspection I realized that the butterfly was already dead and being consumed by the spider! So much drama unfolding literally where we live – it’s just that we need to take the time to observe it.

19. Another visitor

From our porch, we’d see this Merlin only for 2-3 seconds at a time as it whizzed past. Took me several days sitting and waiting before I managed to grab a shot of this small falcon. Some years ago, I photographed it on a tree it would use as a vantage point – that tree has since been cut. Like the Yellow Warbler, in a couple months it’d be heading back northward to breed.

20. Ending the year with a bang

A small section of the massive flock of Black Vultures (I made a conservative estimate of 500) at our annual Christmas Bird Count last weekend. We managed to rack up the highest total in the five years I have been leading groups at the Aripo Livestock Station with a whopping 93 species. A positive end to a tumultuous year.

Tonight I will hold my breath and attempt to comfort our cat with the barrage of fireworks. Each year it gets worse, and as he is getting on in age he isn’t handling the fireworks well at all. When he was younger he’d easily sleep through it, but now the explosions terrorize him. Hopefully one day soon we can live somewhere that’s more peaceful.

Anyway, I’d like to thank you for getting this far, I promise to blog here more often and most importantly sincerely wish you and yours all the very best life has to offer for the coming year.

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