Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Scouting Report
Costa Rica
Hummingbirds and Quetzals

March 2009

Snow-cap Hummingbird, Green-breasted Mango

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

White-throated Mountain-gem; white-necked jacobin; Magnificent Hummingbird

Green-breasted Mango male; scintillant hummingbird; green-breasted Mango

For years I've wanted to check out some exotic hummingbird locations to augment the shooting we do each April-May in southern Arizona. This year, having an extremely brief break in our schedule, and having been contacted by a Costa Rica company that I believed could work out for us, I made a quick trip. How quick? I was in the field six days, total, and actually three of those days included at least half the day in travel!

That's not how I like to do a scouting trip but I had two objectives. One, I wanted to see if good hummingbird photography was possible, especially in a constricted period of time, and two, I wanted to see if my Costa Rican contact would work out for me, and for future groups. I'm happy to say that both objectives were met, and I was very happy with the shooting and the guide and company I was working with!

I flew into San Jose, Costa Rica in the early afternoon, very, very tired from a 3:45AM departure from our home, and still not over the jet-lag and the travels in Africa. Three days earlier Mary and I had returned home from 7 weeks in East Africa -- 4 in Tanzania, 1 in Rwanda, and 2 in Ethiopia. In the two days I was home I was immersed in all the office work that needed addressing, including updating this website, answering email, editting .... no wonder I was exhausted. Mary, quite wisely, elected to stay home and catch up on her huge office workload, so I headed down alone. That afternoon, although the garden of my hotel was filled with potential photo subjects, I caught up on computer work and crashed early.

My guide and his driver arrived the following morning and we headed to our first destination, Rancho Naturalista, for hummingbird photography. I'd been there several years early and, although I carried gear, I wasn't adequately geared for productive shooting and that visit was a bust. This time, I carried backgrounds (I hadn't, last time), and Bogen Articulated Arms and a complete flash system, as did my guide, so we were covered. After arriving we assessed the shooting possibilities and decided to set up on the lodge's porch, with two sets on either end.


Band-tailed barbthroat; green thorntail female

Green Hermit; green-breasted mango female - in some ways, more striking than the male.

violet sabrewing; violet-crowned woodnymph

The above (and below, one image) portfolio represents 13 species photographed in 1.5 days of photography - an afternoon, 2 hours the next
morning, and about 6 hours, max, two days later, taken at two different sites. That's pretty nice production, so I'm
very confident a photo tour here will be very productive. You'll note, in the above portfolio, several different flowers
and several different backgrounds. And now I ask you, which ones were done in real time, and which ones were done
in Photoshop later? See the end of this report for my feelings on this, and the answer.

One of the problems with hummingbird shooting is timing. Usually, and it was the case here, a hummingbird photography set is located at a spot that's not where the birds are accustomed to feeding, and the birds must find the new food source. Sometimes the nearest competing feeders can be removed, but others are not, and the birds have the option of just visiting other feeders where they are accustomed to visiting. Both of our hummingbird sets were located near 'traditional' feeders, but it took a few hours for the birds to find, and start hitting, our's. Eventually both feeders had luck and we started shooting.

Another problem is familiarity. Hummers are accustomed to particular feeders and are slow to accept new feeders. I was trying to maximize my opportunities by using a tube feeder, while my guide tried, at first, to use a baited flower and then one of the lodge's feeders -- which the birds recognized immediately. Eventually both sets had success, and my guide starting alternating the feeder with a flower baited with some sugar water, and we started having luck with both. In Costa Rica, there are plenty of spectacular flowers that can be used for photo props and we had some pretty good luck using some.

The following morning we had several choices -- spend the entire morning at Naturalista, and compromise the scouting time at our next stop, and deciding where to set up at Naturalista in the time we had available. Because I wanted to thoroughly scout out the possibilities here, I decided to skip on the easier setup on the porch and instead we headed into the forest where another set of feeders attracted several species we would not see on the porch. Just after dawn we set up, and during a quick breakfast break we gave the birds time to get used to our flashes. We stayed only 2 hours, but in that time we did quite well with several species.

From there we drove to our next destination, at La Savegre where we planned to photograph more hummingbirds and, hopefully, the resplendent quetzal, one of the Western Hermisphere's most spectacular birds. We were supposed to shoot at a new, and specially designed, hummingbird pravilion that was set up a short distance from the main, highly trafficed area, but when we arrived, the completed, finished, ready to go facility was, errrr, not ready! Since it was late we didn't bother setting up for hummers but instead searched, unsuccessfully, for quetzals.

The following morning we headed to the spot where a quetzal had been seen almost every morning and, indeed, we had luck. Although the quetzal is grouped with the trogans in the field guides, the quetzal didn't act like one, and instead was a fast, very active bird. I got my lens up on the bird twice, but it flew before I could shoot, but finally I had a few seconds and caught one decent shot. My guide informed me that the shooting was a lot tougher than usual, although it's possible one won't even see a quetzal, so I was satisfied.

Long-tailed silky flycatcher; resplendent quetzal

After working the quetzals we set up for hummers, and ended up making our set just a few feet from the general hummingbird viewing area, but we set up on the wide drive used by vehicles. The few passing tourist vehicles did not affect us in the least, and birds came in almost immediately. Unusual for this time of year, afternoon rains cut short a few of our sessions but we did quite well, shooting five new species in the mid-morning through early afternoon.

When a heavy rain advanced we closed down and decided to go shoot scenics, as the high country jungle here is beautiful. As we loaded into our van the sun broke through the clouds, pointing out that if one needs to shoot hummers, just wait ... the weather will change. But we had had enough to show that this was a shootable location.

The following morning we tried again for the quetzal, but it didn't show. After breakfast we headed to the southwest and our next lodge, located in the jungles near the Dulce Gulf, near the Oso Peninsula. The drive was long, covering some very interesting country, but the distance was so great that it wasn't prudent to stop for shooting, and we didn't see anything that required that decision. The lodge was ok, but I wasn't too keen on the management and the sense of a not too enthusiastic sense of cooperation. The lodge didn't have any feeders out, which might be a good thing for jungle ecology, but made shooting difficult. The afternoon we arrived a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys passed, but did so so quickly I managed one good shot before they disappeared. The following morning I had similar luck with squirrel monkeys -- fast and brief, and two or three shots to show for it.

A white bat, still to be identified; striped basilisk lizard, a tent bat in its palm-frond hut.

We did see a few sloths, and I photographed two species of bats -- one of my favorite animals, and we spent much of a day working the very interesting leaf-cutter ants, making a great lighting setup, but the heat, humidity, hiking involved, and rather esoteric subjects -- I don't know how many potential travelers with us would be as interested in bats, or spend two or three hours with ants, but I liked it.

On the negative side, traveling to the southwestern corner of Costa Rica was a long journey, and the shooting was tough. On the positive side, I've always wanted to visit the Oso Peninsula (I was in the same habitat, and within 20 miles) and this scouting trip gave me a tase and idea of what the shooting would be like, without a long investment in time. My conclusion -- after the clement environment and temperatures of the other two locations, taking a group to the Oso area would be taxing, hot, tough, and probably not photographically rewarding. So I was very glad I went, even if I would not want to return.

A good friend of mine is visiting Costa Rica even as I write this, and he's visiting two locations that I had hoped to see, but couldn't with my limited time. If his trip is successful, and he likes where he was, I'll feel very confident about incorporating these two unvisited locations on a tour we'd offer. If he doesn't ... then I'll have to visit those spots for myself and make a decision.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this trip was finding a Costa Rican guide whom I could trust and work with, and that I did, and for that reason alone the trip was well worth it. However, as the portfolio shows, in just three hummingbird shooting sessions I did quite well, and I'm absolutely convinced that we can do a rewarding hummingbird shoot.

On the hummingbird photos

Photographing hummingbirds presents an odd set of conditions for a photographer. Think about it. The lights used to illuminate the hummingbird are man-made; natural light does not provide the exposure here. Why not? Natural light exposures cannot provide a fast enough shutter speed and, and this is critical, a small enough aperture for good depth of field. With flash, one can freeze a hummer's wings at a flash duration that's likely to be higher than 1/8000th sec. and still provide an aperture of f11 or higher, and at ISOs of 200 or 400.
Further, the food attracting the hummingbird is man-made -- sugar water in a feeder. If a flower is used, in most cases, and in every case in these examples, the flower didn't grow there but was placed there, and baited with sugar water, to attract the hummingbirds. The background is artificial, too, as a natural background would most likely appear black, as the exposure based for the flash would underexpose a natural background unless one or more flashes were directed at the background to provide illumination. In most cases this is impractical or impossible to do, so a 'fake' background is placed behind the flash setup and is also illuminated by one or more flashes.

The bird is real, and free-flying, and free to choose to come to the feeder or not. Everything else is, as explained above, contrived.

Backgrounds, as stated, are articial, and are either out-of-focus photographs, spray-painted cloth, or poster board. One could have a very real looking background of out-of-focus vegetation or foliage, or an out-of-focus landscape reflecting where the bird lives, if one photographed such a scene and made a print large enough to put up behind the bird. Now think about that...

What is the difference, really, between doing just that and snapping a shot, which might demonstrate a laudable amount of forethought and perhaps a large printer, or putting in a background digitally after the shoot? In either case it is fake, and the results are identical. The only difference -- one is done beforehand, and the print made and carried to the site to be shot in real time, while the other is done afterwards.

The same applies to the flowers. We found the hummers much more accepting of the hummingbird feeders they were accustomed to, and much of our shooting had feeders in the frame. Afterwards we cloned or cropped out those feeders. In the limited time I had using real flowers had limited success since it took some time for the birds to accept the new feeder locations and sometimes even longer, or not at all, for them to investigate a flower. Consequently I ended up cloning out a lot of feeders and putting in a flower after the fact, via Photoshop.

The results, I think, are superior to those done in real time. Backgrounds could be varied, and provide the appearance of a realistic background as it'd be seen through my lenses. In some cases I actually used photographs as my background that I had prepared before traveling to Costa Rica, but the results, either way, were virtually the same.

I mention this because we'll be using all of these techniques on our future Costa Rica trip, and I think you'll agree the results are wonderful. If you don't, and insist on only using a background that exists, and of only using the real prop, be that the feeder or a flower, we can accommodate you, but your productivity will suffer. But that choice will be your's.

For this green violet-ear the plant and the background were there, but the feeder was cloned out.


So, which ones are real, as shot?
Top row, green-breasted mango, flower and background.
Second row, rufous-tailed hummingbird, background real (meaning it is a print), and flower added.
Third row, white-chinned mountain-gem and magnificent humming, flower and background real.

Fourth row, all are real, or shot and depicted as is.
Fifth row, all are real -- you can see the feeder I could have cloned out with the barbthroat.
Sixth row, background real, but the flowers were added later in Photoshop.
Seventh row, the flower is added for the violet sabrewing, and the background and the flower were added for the violet-crowned woodnymph.


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