Natural Selection Photography by Mark J. Thomas
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COSTA RICA TOUR 4-1-16 TO 4-14-16

photos coming soon

Day 1: All but one tour participant made it to our San Jose hotel in time for our first group meeting and dinner where I laid out some of the details of the trip to come. Our final tour participant arrived later that night. So everyone was now ready for the trip to begin.

Day 2: A local rooster was crowing from about 3:30 AM. We all met for breakfast at 7:00 AM. Wilson, our driver for the trip, showed up with the Toyota Coaster at around 8:00 AM. We loaded up the gear through the back window and were on the road by about 8:20 AM. Traffic was light so we made really good time. We stopped at a supermarket about 5 km away from our first lodge where we could get some snacks. Having been to this Caribbean Lodge before, I recommended that folks grab a Gatorade or two. This would be the hottest and most humid part of the trip. We arrived at our lodge before our rooms were ready, at about 10:30 AM. We unloaded the luggage and stored it in their meeting room. I started taking everyone on an orientation walk of the property. Our great luck started right away. We had barely made it out of the lobby of the lodge when we came across a very nice female emerald basilisk lizard. A few folks had their cameras and began shooting. Others went back for their cameras, including me. We eventually made it to the bottom of the walkway and found a much smaller juvenile emerald basilisk. A few steps later, at the tree stump at the beginning of the trail, was a very, very nice adult male emerald basilisk. He was in great shape and even had some light blue on his face. He posed for hours on this tree stump. After everyone had a bunch of shots of him, we went on to the dining area so I could show them where it was and where we would be shooting red-eyed tree frogs later that night.

After the dining area, we made our way back to where we left the male emerald basilisk when one of the staff came and found us saying they found a snake by the dining room. Our luck was continuing. We raced back. The snake turned out to be a beautiful, 5 foot long, green parrot snake. It is an arboreal snake and is brilliant green above and yellowish green below. It is non-venomous. The staff member was able to move the snake a bit with a stick, and eventually we were able to get some really nice shots of it. We were then told that our rooms were ready. But since it was now lunchtime and we were right next to the restaurant, we decided to have lunch before gathering our luggage and heading to our rooms. After everyone got into their rooms, we met casually to go over our plans for this lodge. It was probably about 1 PM. A bunch of us were standing outside the rooms talking and planning and a beautiful keel-billed toucan landed right at eye level in a tree totally in the open maybe 10 yards away. None of had a camera in hand. He stayed for about 15 to 30 seconds then flew off with a second one. Nobody got shots.

This was our Caribbean Lowlands lodge. Here we could expect to find and photograph two varieties of poison dart frog, the diminutive strawberry and the larger green and black dart frogs, red-eyed tree frogs, leafcutter ants, giant green iguanas, emerald basilisk lizards and a variety of birds. One thing that I noticed upon entering the grounds was that the normal buzz of strawberry poison dart frogs was barely noticeable. But cicadas were buzzing loudly.  The poison dart frogs are active during the daytime and you normally could hear the strawberry poison dart frogs vocalizing all day from dawn until dusk. But by about noon, we didn’t hear them anymore. It had been and continued to be very dry in Costa Rica. That along with the hot sunshine must have sent the frogs into the leaf litter to keep cool. What we needed was some rain.

We spent the afternoon photographing the lizards and the small handful of birds that came to the lodge feeder. Some of our group was very lucky and got really nice shots of the chestnut-mandibled toucan on a beautiful branch near the feeder. A male and female red-legged honeycreeper made an appearance, as did a Montezuma oropendula.

While wandering the property in search of subjects for our cameras, one of the staff told us he knew where there were several poison dart frogs. He had just watered his garden and several frogs became active. We followed him and were rewarded with well over a dozen green and black poison dart frogs of all sizes from pinkie fingernail size to nearly 2-inch long adults. We also had good photo opportunities with 4 collared araçaris. As would be the recurring theme on this trip, we just kept having great luck!

We went to dinner at 6 PM. At about 7PM we went and looked for red-eyed tree frogs. There were a couple, but none were in good locations to shoot. And basically, they seemed extremely lethargic, in fact going back to sleep by 8PM. We blamed it on the dry conditions and headed back to our rooms. What we needed was some rain. At about 9 PM, I started hearing the sounds of large raindrops hitting the metal roof of my room. It got louder and louder and luckily, it lasted all night.

Day 3: Got up around 5:00 AM. While getting ready for the day I could hear a light rain falling. That was perfect. It was exactly what I was hoping for to help make the frogs more active. And it worked. You could hear many strawberry poison frogs calling to each other. And that lasted the entire day. Started out the day with excellent photography of our adult, male emerald basilisk lizard again.  We divided our time between the bird feeding stations and looking for poison dart frogs to photograph. We had glimpses of the pale-billed woodpecker. But he was not in a good place for photography this time. Everyone was shooting on their own during the day today in order to concentrate on the subjects each wanted the most. Some wanted the frogs, while others waited for birds.

We were to all meet for dinner at 6:00 PM so we could shoot red-eyed tree frogs immediately afterwards. I quickly scoped the pond on the way to dinner and saw several active tree frogs. Our hunch about the earlier rain was right. The tree frogs were definitely out and about, looking for mates and protecting their turf, or branch, from other frogs looking for a mate. We ate dinner and everyone went and got their camera gear. We were able to capture many nice red-eyed tree frog photos tonight, including a pair of mating frogs.

There is another species of green tree frog that we see by the pool each night. They are about the size of the red-eyed tree frogs, but no red eyes. We also photographed a giant frog known locally as a “chicken-eating” frog due to its size. It was similar to our bullfrog.

Wrapped it up for the night at 9:00 PM. Everyone was pretty wiped out. But everyone was thrilled with the pictures we were getting.

Day 4: Went to breakfast at 7:00 AM. We headed to a nearby property that was set up with several fruit feeding stations to attract birds. We arrived to see great green macaws in the trees, but they weren’t within camera range. Throughout the morning, the feeders were visited by many different species including the golden-hooded tanager, Baltimore oriole, blue-gray tanager, green honeycreepers and red-legged honeycreepers, crimson-collared tanager, Passerini’s tanager and many others. We were also treated to a variety of hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeders. Wilson, our driver, found a large rhinoceros beetle. We fed it bananas and papayas while we set up to photograph it. He was released unharmed and well-nourished when we were finished.

The afternoon was spent back at the lodge property for a last chance at photographing the poison dart frogs. Once we left the lowlands, we would not see them again. One of our group spent time by the river where she saw and photographed the striated tiger heron.

Everyone brought their camera gear to dinner so they could immediately begin shooting the red-eyed tree frogs after eating. The frogs were very animated again tonight as expected due to the light rain during the day.

Day 5:

After breakfast at 7:00 AM, we loaded all of our luggage into the bus, but kept our camera gear handy. We headed away from our lowland lodge to a research station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Here, students from around the world come to study the rainforest and its inhabitants. True to form, our good luck continued. On the roadway leading to the OTS station, we came across a troop of howler monkeys up in the trees. The group included at least on large male and one mother with a youngster clinging to her back. The shooting was challenging, but by spending time with the troop as it moved through the trees, we were rewarded with a few very nice shots. Continuing on to the OTS, we met with our guide. We started down one particular pathway. Our guide pointed out a two-toed sloth sleeping high in a tree. It was interesting to see, but not a great photo opportunity where this guy was. Further down the trail we noticed some small lizards darting around in the leaf litter. They were juvenile Central American ameivas. They nice thing about them is that they have brilliant blue tails when they are young. They were in constant motion looking for insects. Having grown up in South Florida, I have a particular fondness for lizards, snakes, frogs and other herps. So I hung back while the rest of the group moved on with the guide. Eventually, one of the lizards took up a good position for a photograph. I caught up with the group just in time to see what they were looking at. Our guide had found a small colony of white tent bats. Tent bats roost during the day beneath the large, broad leaves of heliconia or banana plants. They actually bite the leaves along the stem so that they droop down forming a tent. They then cling to the stem protected by their leafy tent. I had not seen these on my past trip to Costa Rica, so it was another bonanza species. I took extra time with them as to not disturb their slumber.

We then made our way back up the trail we had just come down in order to cross the river and start on another trail. At the far end of the swinging bridge, there was a tamandua sleeping in the crook of a large tree. Unfortunately, his face was hidden from view. But in another tree a bit closer to the bridge we found a rufous motmot, a beautiful bird with a long colorful tail. I snapped a couple of quick shots. A few from our group stayed there longer and the motmot actually came out to a better perch. They got excellent shots.

Another rainforest creature that had escaped my camera in the past was the three-toed sloth. That was about to change. As we got to the other side of the river and started on the trail, we came to a tree where a three-toed sloth was sleeping. He was in a great spot and there was nothing in front of him. We all set up our cameras on him and waited for him to look our way. After a few minutes, he obliged us. There was also a chestnut-mandibled toucan in another tree that was photographed by some of our group. And others followed a collared peccary with her baby.

The morning went by quickly and we headed to the dining room for lunch before heading to our next lodge in the foothills. The change in elevation would cause a change in the wildlife we would see. No more poison dart frogs. But other interesting subjects awaited us.

We arrived at our foothills lodge at about 4:00 PM. We got everyone into their rooms. I scrambled to unpack all the gear we would need to photograph bats in the forest. I hauled all of the gear up the forest trail. I got everything set up just in time to race down the trail for dinner at 6:00PM. Immediately after dinner, everyone got the recommended gear and followed me back up the trail to where our setup was waiting. Everyone got positioned. We fired a few test shots. And then we waited. Our flashes fired only a handful of times that first night. The bat activity was slow. Possibly due to the dry conditions. But Wilson came through again when he found a red-legged tarantula in front of its burrow. Those with macro gear had a field day. Besides the tarantulas, there were many other spiders and whip scorpions to photograph. Giant click beetles with two glowing “headlights” and a bright glowing abdomen were attracted to the flashing green lights on the backs of our strobes. I think he believed they were females or rival males. We wrapped up around 9 PM. We actually got one or two decent bat images. We would try again tomorrow night.

Day 6 Woke up to the sound of a keel-billed toucan somewhere in the trees. Was not able to spot him. The feeders around the lodge were only being visited occasionally by local birds. We were given permission to go onto the neighboring property where the Montezuma oropendulas were nesting in a cecropia tree. They nest in colonies, each pair building a hanging basket nest. I needed to go into town to pick up some supplies or the bat shoot, so everyone had the morning to shoot around the lodge. I got back in time for lunch. After lunch, I set up the hummingbird multi-flash setup to capture hummingbirds in flight. The group rotated through, 2 at a time, so everyone got several opportunities to shoot. Over the course of the afternoon, several different hummingbirds visited our feeder and flower including, white-necked Jacobin, green hermit (male and female), violet sabre-wing, rufous-tailed hummingbird, and green-breasted mango hummingbird. Another hummingbird that we saw here but did not visit our particular flower was the tiny snow cap hummingbird. The green thorntail was also a visitor to the flowers around the lodge. We shot the hummingbirds until about 5PM, when I needed to take all of the gear back up the mountain to prepare for our bat shoot again. While it didn’t really rain, there was a lot more moisture in the air today. There were big clouds rolling in over the neighboring mountains. I got all the bat gear set up just in time for dinner.

After dinner, we all eagerly headed up to our bat location. Everyone got set up quickly as now they all knew the drill. It was definitely damper tonight, and the bats seemed to really come to life. It wasn’t long before the bats began tripping the strobes. Of course not all flashes are great shots. But every once in a while, BINGO! The bats would fly very close to us. You could easily here their fluttering wings and sometimes feel the breeze as they flew by. The bats had definitely come to life tonight and we got many exposed frames. In the meantime, the other creatures of the night were out and about. We now had become adept at locating tarantulas and had about half a dozen burrows located. So our macro shooters had a great time while waiting for the bats. We called it quits about 10 PM. That made for a long day. But everyone was a good kind of tired.

Day 7:   This morning, I had something else planned for the group. Since the bird activity at the lodge itself was a bit slow, I decided to take the group to a river where I had been successful with sunbitterns in the past. So after breakfast, we gathered into the bus and drove for about 30 minutes to a place Wilson and I knew about along a nearby river. We had both seen sunbitterns here in the past. The sunbittern is a medium-sized bird that spends its day walking on the rocks at the edge of the river catching insects, fish and tadpoles to eat. They aren’t all that impressive at first sight…until you see them fly. When they fly, their unimpressive plumage ignites into two giant eye spots on top of their wings. The shot that you want of a sunbittern is either when he is flying or when he is displaying to ward off a predator.

We walked the dirt road that paralleled the river looking for sunbitterns. There are only a couple of really good locations to photograph them in flight. You need an area where the rocks are far apart so they are forced to fly between them. You also need to be above the birds shooting down on them because most of their flight is actually soaring with their wings outstretched. If you are at eye level to them, the beautiful patterns on their wings aren’t visible. And you also want there to be sun hitting them. We walked down the road for about 20 minutes. Neither Wilson or I had ever seen the birds past this spot. So we worked our way back upstream to where we had parked. Then we walked downstream again. When we got about halfway down, Wilson came and got us. He spotted a pair of sunbitterns that were walking down river. We all scrambled upriver to see them. They were doing exactly what we wanted them to do. It was a pair that were slowly working their way down river about 20 yards apart from each other. They constantly called out to each other. When I saw where they were headed, I gathered everyone and said “we need to get ahead of them.” We all rushed down to the prime shooting spot. It was an unobstructed view of the river, in the sun, with no rocks for the birds to hop on. They would fly when they got here for sure. We could hear the birds calling to each other and it was obvious that they were still headed our way. Then the first sunbittern came into view when it hopped up on a rock on the other side of the river. To get to the next rock, he’d have to fly. So everyone focused on him and waited. Then he flew right through the sunny spot and everyone got shots of him in flight. His mate was not far behind him, so I told everyone to be ready for her. A few minutes later, she showed up and did the exact same thing. Everyone got not just one chance at a sunbittern in flight, but two perfect opportunities. And the entire group got the shot. Once again, luck was following us around.

We got back to the lodge a bit before lunch. I got the multi-flash gear set up before lunch so that everyone could shoot immediately afterwards. We spent the afternoon shooting the hummingbirds up until about 5PM so I could bring all of the flash equipment up into the forest for our bat shoot. After dinner, everyone hustled up the hill and got set up. It was another very damp evening. As it got darker, the bats came out in good numbers. We had many flashes fire throughout the evening. In the meantime, several of us went looking for other creatures of the night, such as tarantulas, whip scorpions, long-legged crickets and anything else that we could use our macro gear with. There was no shortage of subjects. A couple of us stayed until 11 PM. After breaking down all of the flash gear and bringing it down to the cabin, I went back up and just sat in the forest for a while listening to the bats. An armadillo and a mouse passed by.

In looking at the bat image so far we are definitely capturing at least two distinct species of bat. The orange nectar bat is usually the more common of the two. But we are also getting about an equal number of long-tongued bats.

Day 8:   This is our last day at our foothills lodge. And everyone wanted to go back to the sunbitterns again. Today was going to be a repeat itinerary as yesterday. After breakfast, we loaded into the bus to head for our sunbittern spot. But today, we weren’t as fortunate. When we finally found sunbitterns, they remained aloof and mostly hanging out in the shade while hunting for food. That made everyone realize just how fortunate they had been the day before. We returned before lunch and I got the hummingbird gear set up. After lunch, we had longer rotations at the hummingbird set ups hoping to capture confrontations as several hummingbirds tried to feed simultaneously. Most everybody got some really nice interaction shots. We stopped shooting at about 5PM so I could get all the gear back up the hill for the bats. I brought an extra strobe for tonight to try some different lighting. We also now had a pretty good idea of where the bats where coming from and where they were headed so I adjusted things to try to get more somewhat head on angles. I told everyone during dinner that we would only be shooting bats until about 9PM because I needed time to break down all the gear and pack it away since we were leaving the lodge in the morning. At 9 PM, most of the group called it a night. We had been getting a lot of bat action. So I told the remaining two people that we would shoot for another 15 minutes or so. Three hours later, at midnight, we finally wrapped up shooting. The activity was just too good to leave. I think the best bat shots of the trip came from tonight.

Day 9:   Today we are leaving the foothills to head to the highlands on the final leg of our Costa Rica adventure. We ate breakfast and had the van loaded up by 8 AM. We headed off. We made a stop along the way for some folks to purchase more batteries for their strobes and maybe to pick up some more snacks. We spent several hours climbing upward on the winding mountain road to nearly 10,000 feet before heading down into the valley where our lodge was located. We ended up at around 7,500 feet. We got there at lunchtime and decided to eat lunch before checking in since our rooms were not ready yet. (We got there early). After lunch, we were able to unload the bus and get all of our luggage into our rooms even though they were not entirely made up yet. After that, we met and I took everyone on the short trail through the woods to where a very active quetzal nest has been for the past 12 years, only to find it unoccupied this year. For whatever reason, the quetzals had not chosen this spot this year. But there were other birds to photograph here including a variety of hummingbirds, acorn woodpeckers, flame-colored tanagers, black-cowled orioles and others. But our real goal was resplendent quetzals. There is another area about 45 minutes away where the quetzals are also nesting. We already had arrangements to visit there on our third day in the valley. But as soon as we realized there were no quetzals nesting near our lodge, Wilson, our driver, once again jumped into action and began calling our alternate location and trying to get us in earlier. This alternate spot has several active nests located on various tracts of private property where the landowners work with the local guides to keep them abreast of quetzal activity. But in order to not overstress the nesting birds, they limit the number of people that they take to the nests each day. And they were booked pretty solid until our scheduled visit two days later. But with persistence, Wilson came through and managed to get us another full day of shooting at our alternate site. In the meantime, we would all shoot the other birds on the property and wait the day and a half until we could visit the active quetzal nests.

Day 10:   After breakfast, I walked with one of the guests through the woods again to the nest that was active last year. We were soon joined by another from our group. As we stood there talking, a redstart appeared and we all got pictures of it. Then I heard the call of the male quetzal. At first I thought that it might be someone using a bird call from their phone. But there was no one else around except us. We pinpointed where the call was coming from, but could not see the bird. As beautifully colored as they are, they are often nearly invisible when they are in the forest. All of a sudden, it flew from one tree to another. We couldn’t see exactly where it landed. A few minutes later, it flew again. It flew out of site. But it called one more time. We tried to follow the call up the hill. But that was the last time we saw him. At least they hadn’t given up totally on that area. Maybe they would still nest there later in the season.


I took a walk about 1/3rd of a mile up the road to a spot where quetzals were excavating a nest in an old dead tree last year. I found the tree and it looked like they completed their excavations and possibly used the nest last season. But there was no activity in it this year. I was later told by one of the owners of the lodge that they started nesting there this year but had abandoned it for some reason.

We continued shooting around the lodge property the rest of the day. We had been hearing the story of one quetzal nest at our alternate site that had two nearly grown chicks in it. Both parents were regularly flying in with the mini avocados that they feed on along with the occasional insect for the chicks. We knew that if the chicks fledged, the parents would not be coming back to the nest. We got word at dinner time that one of the chicks fledged but that the other one was still in the nest. We just needed it to stay in the nest one more day …

Day 11:   After a quick breakfast, everyone was eager to load up and head for our alternate quetzal site. When we got there, we found out that the one chick was still in the nest. However, it appeared that only the female was coming back to feed it while the male followed the other chick after it fledged to take care of it. We photographed at this nest throughout the morning. Only the female returned to feed the remaining chick. We ordered box lunches from the nearby lodge so we could maximize our time with the quetzals. Our local guide told me about another nest where the female had disappeared and only the male quetzal was coming in to feed the chicks. The only issue with this nest is that the male had lost its two long tail coverts during a fight earlier in the season and they hadn’t fully grown back yet. He showed me a picture that was shot the day before. It was a beautiful bird and the nest was wide open. Even though his tail wasn’t at its maximum length, it was still long and beautiful and I decided that we needed to go to that nest. We all made our way back to the 4WD vehicles that brought us to this nest and were taken back up the road to where our bus was parked. We climbed in, stopped briefly up the road to pick up our box lunches, and then headed immediately to the second nest.

This shooting situation was great. The nest was in a dead tree that was wide open. Nothing was near it on any side. We would easily be able to see the quetzal as it made its way in as they typically will perch a bit away from the nest to assess for danger before bringing food to the nest. We didn’t have to wait long before we saw the male in a tree nearby with a mini avocado in its mouth. It sat there long enough to get some nice perching shots before flying to the nest, where it clung to the outside for a handful of seconds before finally going inside. After feeding the chicks, it would pop its head out for a few seconds and then fly out of the nest. Now that we knew its pattern, we could all attempt to get that very desirable quetzal flight shot. He came back a couple of more times while we were there bringing back avocados each time. Nearly everyone got nice flight shots either as he flew toward or away from the nest. Thanks to Wilson, we had a very good day photographing both the female and the male quetzals coming to their nests to feed young.

Day 12:   This morning we had a major decision to make. It would be our last chance with quetzals and from there we would be heading back to San Jose. There was a third nest that the locals knew about where the chicks had hatched out only about 3 days earlier. Both the male and female parents were reportedly bringing food back to the chicks. And this male had both of his long tail coverts intact. But this nest was not in the open and there were only a few places where they could perch that would work for pictures. So the decision to be made was to either return to the male we had yesterday at the open nest site, or try the new nest in hopes of photographing the male with the long feathers. We also had the option to shoot at the new nest until about 8:30 and then moving to the nest from yesterday. But after 8:30, it would be too late to move.

We decided to shoot at the new nest and hope for the male to show and then reassess at 8:30. In the time that we were at the new nest, the female came in once or twice, but not the male. At 8:30, the majority of the group decided they would like to risk it and stay there for a shot at the new male quetzal. We stayed until lunchtime. The female came in a couple of more times. Once she had an avocado and once she came in with a large green katydid. But the male never came near the nest. He was seen in the trees nearby, but simply did not come within camera range. At noon, we had to call it a day and head to the lodge for lunch. They have a few hummingbird feeders set up near the dining room. They were very busy with fiery-throated hummingbirds and one or two other varieties.

After lunch, we hit the road on our way back to San Jose. Wilson told us a bit of the history of Costa Rica along the way. We arrived back at our hotel by mid-afternoon. Everyone got checked into their rooms. Our farewell dinner was at 7:00 PM. After that, everyone retired to their rooms and prepared for their departures to the airport the next morning.

It was a wonderful trip and everyone came away with some really nice images. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip!

Day 13:   Everyone transferred to the airport to board their flights home.





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