Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

Pico-Bonito-from-Mangrove-Estuaries It has been several weeks since I wrote an article for my blog and that is because, as you may know, I was in Honduras. I was there for a week in late January/early February. I traveled there as part of a small group of wonderful people on a trip planned, organized and led by Expedition Travel, an ecotourism firm based in Gainesville, Florida. I traveled to the Galapagos Islands with them a couple of years ago, and both expeditions were led by highly experienced and knowledgeable experts, conducted flawlessly in every aspect. If you have ever considered traveling to unique worldwide locations to experience wildlife and local cultures, I highly recommend Expedition Travel.

(The above image was taken from Cuero y Salado mangrove estuaries of a view of the mountains in Pico Bonito National Park, and below is Mermaid Falls within the park.)

Mermaid-FallsWe stayed at the Lodge at Pico Bonito in Honduras, which is located at the foot of Pico Bonito National Park. The lodge provides luxury accommodations with a restaurant that serves outstanding food and is maintained and operated by a warm, friendly staff. Highly experienced local guides are provided by the lodge when hiking on the lodge’s property or within the park. I owe much of my success in seeing and photographing Honduras’ tropical rainforest wildlife to two outstanding guides: Elmer Escoto and German Martinez. I would not have seen one-tenth of what I saw and photographed without their help.

Down-River-from-Mermaid-Falls

Pico Bonito National Park is located near the north coast of Honduras and consists of pristine rainforests and cloud forests, mountains and rivers covering an area of over 600 square miles with mountain peaks that exceed 8,000 feet. It is the second largest and least explored park in Honduras. The park and its forests are home to a tremendous variety of birds and other wildlife that includes jaguars, armadillos, wild pigs, tepezcuintles, squirrels, monkeys, toucans, white tailed deer, mountain lions, river otters, motmots and many more species. While there, members of our group saw or heard over 150 species of birds, many very unique to Honduras and Central American rainforests. (Below is a view of Pico Bonito with a White Hawk in a tree.)

White-Hawk-with-Pico-Bonito-Background

Not knowing exactly what to expect at Pico Bonito, I traveled with a lot of camera gear (almost 50 pounds), that included two camera bodies, five lenses, to include a macro lens (105mm) and a super telephoto lens (600mm), two teleconverters, a speedlight (flash), and of course a tripod with two different heads. As it turned out, I used everything, but mostly the 600mm lens with the speedlight and a Better Beamer to photograph the park’s incredible birds. I considered not bringing the speedlight, but ended up using it much of the time, since most of the birds were either hidden in the shade of the thick trees or backlit, requiring fill light. I was concerned about traveling to Miami and then to Honduras with so much gear, but as it turned out, I did not have any problems and was able to carry it all onboard the aircraft with two camera bags designed for such travel (ThinkTank’s Airport Security travel roller case and Glass Limo backpack). (Below is a Keel-billed Toucan.)

Toucan-in-Tree

I have been struggling with how to write this blog article and subsequent articles to describe what I saw and photographed in Honduras, and decided to organize the articles based on types or groups of birds and other wildlife, with the exception of this article, which has a variety to provide examples of what I photographed. As you can see from the images in this article, Honduras is a nature photographer’s paradise teaming with a tremendous variety of birds and wildlife.

Aracari-on-Tree-Limb

Above is an Aracari, which is related to the Keel-billed Toucan, and below is a male Lovely Cotinga.

Lovely-Cotinga-2As you can easily tell, the birds were incredibly colored and beautiful.

Passion-Flower-and-BeeAbove a bee can be seen approaching a Passion flower, which was growing wild not far from the lodge. As you can see from the example images in this article, I was able to capture (digitally) some of Pico Bonito’s incredible beauty. I am concluding this article with an image of a Rufus-tailed Hummingbird. I was able to photograph six different species of hummingbirds.

I also want to mention that I reached a blog milestone with over 50,000 views as of today. Thank you for taking the time to follow and read my blog.

Rufous-tailed-Hummingbird-a

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Sandhill Cranes of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Four-Sandhill-Cranes

While in Florida in December and early January, I visited Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 22,000 acre preserve located on the edge of Gainesville, Florida. Paynes Prairie is very unique with over 20 distinct biological communities that host a significant variety of wildlife, including bison, horses, alligators, and more than 270 species of birds. The Prairie also has a rich history dating back over 12,000 years when its fertile resources were used by Paleo people, Native American Indians, Spanish adventurers and settlers, and eventually farmers and cattle ranchers. When on the Prairie, I can imagine what much of  Florida looked like many years ago.

Sandhill-Crane

Although the canal in the below photo is manmade (circa 1930s), the flora and fauna are representative of what is readily seen when on the La Chua Trail on the northeast side of the Prairie.

Typical-Sleepy-Afternoon-on-the-Prairie

Sandhill Crane Range Map

This time of year, one of the attractions for me and other visitors are the Sandhill Cranes that winter at Paynes Prairie, having migrated from the north where they nest and breed, although some have become permanent residents in Florida. In 2008, there were over 5,000 Sandhill Cranes and a few Whooping Cranes at the Prairie (see below), but in most years there are one to two thousand. However, due to the drought in Florida over the last couple of years, the number of cranes has been significantly lower. This year, when I was at the Prairie, there were only several hundred (count provided by park volunteer). Some local residents said that the cranes were going to nearby Orange Lake, since it had more water and wetlands. The cranes like to roost overnight in wetland areas to avoid mammal predators, like coyotes and foxes.  Nevertheless, seeing and photographing the Sandhill Cranes, no matter how many are there, is always enjoyable and rewarding.

I took the below image in 2008, when a large group of cranes was taking off early in the morning. Among the Sandhills were two Whooping Cranes.

Sandhill and Whooping Cranes

Below are several images of the Sandhill Cranes flying back to the Prairie after feeding at local fields, farms and ranches, and other wetlands. Flying Sandhill Crane silhouettes are striking against a sunrise or sunsetting sky. The first two are sunrise shots.

Sandhill Cranes at Sunrise 2

Sandhill Cranes at Sunrise

Sandhill-Cranes-Coming-to-the-Prairie-at-Sunset

Sandhill-Cranes-Coming-to-the-Prairie-at-Sunset-2

Sandhill-Cranes-Coming-to-the-Prairie-at-Sunset-3

When I was at the Prairie, the cranes were roosting far into the Prairie and mostly out of sight, but within hearing distance. In fact, their loud trumpeting calls can be heard all over the Prairie. I can usually hear them before I see them in the sky, which is a benefit when trying to locate them to photograph.

Since it was not possible to closely photograph the cranes on the Prairie, I went to a local field where they were feeding, which is where I captured the following images.

Four-Sandhill-Cranes-Feeding-and-One-on-Guard-Duty

Above three Sandhill Cranes feed, while one keeps guard.

Sandhill-Crane-Eating

Sandhill Cranes may not be the most attractive birds, but their size (3 to 4 feet), long legs and necks, and bright red heads and behavior make them interesting to observe and photograph. They can live 20 years and do not begin breeding until after two years. They mate for life, and when they migrate, the family migrates together. Sandhill Cranes feed mostly on grains and seeds, some insects, other invertebrates, and small vertebrates.

Below are two different Sandhill Cranes preening their feathers. When their feathers are fluffed out, more color and detail is plainly visible.

Sandhill-Crane-Preening-2

Sandhill-Crane-Preening

The below crane did not want to pose for me any longer and took off, trumpeting loudly as it flew by.

Flying-Sandhill-Crane

I could not resist capturing some profile images, highlighting their bright red heads and orange eyes.

Sandhill-Crane-Headshot-2

Sandhill-Crane-ProfileSandhill-Crane-HeadshotThe above images are of three different cranes. In the first two images, the cranes’ long beaks are covered in dirt and other debris. They had not cleaned their beaks after feeding (and before posing for me). The third crane is more neat and proper (clean beak); therefore, I would guess it would be a female. Their sex is not distinguishable, other than by size, with the males being a little larger. In Florida, Sandhill Cranes are protected and, if killed, carry a very high fine. However, that is not the case in other states, which allow them to be hunted. Hard to imagine.

I have many more images to be reviewed and processed from my recent trip to Florida. I plan to include them in another blog article before leaving for Honduras. I am going to the rain forests of Honduras soon to photograph some of its very unique and interesting wildlife. Yes, I am excited, been doing a lot of preparation, and very much looking forward to it.

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Male Wood Duck

Wood-Duck-on-Wakula-River

One of my photography goals has been to photograph a male Wood Duck and to ideally photograph it in a natural setting and with sufficient light to produce a good image. As you can see by the two images in this article, I achieved that goal in December while in Florida, and I am still excited about it! The male Wood Duck is one of North America’s most colorful waterfowl with its distinctive multicolored iridescent plumage and red eyes; so you can see why it was high on my photography goal list.

Although my two images are very good (in my opinion), I would have liked to have had more time and better circumstances to capture the duck’s image, as well as an image of the male’s mate. The female was also on the river. They are usually seen in pairs, but the female was ahead of the male, and when they saw the boat that I was in, they quickly swam out of sight.

I was very lucky to get these images because I was on a crowded (full capacity) boat used by the State of Florida at the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park to provide tours of the Wakulla River. The boat included many children, and they and their parents got very excited when an alligator or manatee was spotted, which happened frequently. The children and a few adults ran around the boat from front to back and side to side, depending on where the gator or manatee was located. There was shoving, shouting, screaming, pointing, waving, and point and shoot camera flashes. It was chaotic at times, not the way I enjoy nature photography.

I was on the boat because a friend emailed me on my way to Carrabelle, Florida, which is on the Gulf Coast, to visit another friend. Her email said that she was at Wakulla Springs the day before, and she had seen some Wood Ducks. The timing was perfect, since I was only about 10 miles from Wakulla Springs; so I immediately changed directions.

I called my friend from Carrabelle, and we met at Wakulla Springs State Park and took the boat tour with high hopes of seeing the Wood Ducks. I had never been on these tour boats and did not know what to expect. I would have preferred to be on a kayak or canoe, alone and quiet, but the tour boat was the only option.

After buying the boat tickets, we had to wait about an hour before the boat returned and we were able to board it. We waited, second in line, to be able to select the best seat possible to get a shot if we were lucky enough to see a Wood Duck. I chose the starboard side, since it would be facing the river’s shoreline, where the ducks most likely would be located.

It was not until the last section of the river, as the boat approached the spring head, that I spotted a pair of Wood Ducks tucked in close to the shoreline behind and under various tree and plant growth. At the same time, the people on the boat were scrambling in all directions because someone shouted that they saw a large alligator and a manatee. Eventually, some spotted the Wood Ducks too, but the boat kept moving and the ducks were hustling to get out of sight.

Wood Ducks are very skittish to include those that frequently see people. They often take flight as soon as they see people, who are perceived to be a threat, and rightfully so, because Wood Ducks are hunted in the United States and Canada. It is beyond my comprehension why anyone would harm such an incredibly beautiful bird.

Prior to going to Carrabelle, I tried a few times to photograph Wood Ducks that had been seen on Prairie Creek Preserve in Gainesville, but as soon as the ducks saw me approaching, they flew quickly away. They were impossible to photograph. Due to those “near misses” and the chaos on the boat, you can understand why these images are special and cherished.

Wood-Duck-on-Wakula-River

I photographed the Wood Duck after knocking several children to the ground and elbowing myself and camera in between people–just kidding, but I did feel a bit like George Constanza on the Seinfeld episode with the clown and fire at a children’s birthday party. The images were captured using my Nikon D800 with a 70-200 f2.8 lens and TC20 teleconverter.

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Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl DXO

I normally wait until I have reviewed and processed all of my images from a photography outing before posting them to my website and blog, but I am so excited about seeing and being able to photograph a Great Horned Owl that I want to share it right away. The above Great Horned Owl was photographed at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Gainesville, Florida, yesterday (December 15) at sunset.

When I arrived at Paynes Prairie, I heard the owl hooting in a heavily wooded area near the entrance to La Chua Trail. I have heard Great Horned Owls in that location many times during visits to the Prairie over the last few years, but have never been able to see or photograph them. I was hoping this visit would be different.

I was down the trail photographing wading birds in the setting sunlight, when the two Paynes Prairie volunteers, that were working the visitors trailer, came down the trail to tell me about the owl. I quickly shouldered my camera gear and hustled up the trail to where the owl was spotted. Unfortunately, it was far away and across the large sinkhole along the trail and perched on top of a very large dead tree. Although far away, its very small silhouette was unmistakeable as a Great Horned Owl.

I positioned and aimed my Nikon D800 with a Nikon 600mm lens and TC14 teleconverter, and using the manual mode, I began photographing the owl. I adjusted the camera’s settings a number of times as the light changed and tried to keep the ISO setting as low as possible while maintaining an appropriate shutter speed. Fortunately, the owl stayed on top of the tree, while I fired off a number of shots and only quit when it was too dark to get anymore images.

I will eventually process more images of the owl, as well as other images of sunrise and sunset on the Prairie and the other birds that I photographed. I expect to return to the Prairie, as well as other refuges and preserves over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.  Mine certainly has started out very well.

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American Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam

American Bald Eagle in Flight with Its Fish Catch

On November 29 and December 4, I went to the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland with a friend and fellow photographer to photograph the American Bald Eagles that spend the winter on the downside of the dam. The dam is about 100 miles from home, and to get there at sunrise, when the eagles are most active, requires leaving home very early. For me, one of the challenges to Nature photography is getting up in the middle of the night, but it is usually worthwhile and very rewarding getting to see and photograph wildlife, like the eagles in this article.

American Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders, but their main diet is fish. Not all eagles migrate, but since fish is their preferred diet, those in the north migrate south in late fall when rivers, lakes and other waterways begin to freeze. That is why at times there can be over 100 eagles near the Conowingo Dam, because the downside of the dam generally does not freeze, and where when the dam opens to run its turbines, fish flow through the dam along with the water, and the stunned fish are easy pickings for the waiting eagles. The large number of eagles in this concentrated area make it one of the best, if not the best, locations to photograph American Bald Eagles along the east coast.

American Bald Eagle Flying over the Susquehanna River

The eagles are very active when the dam is open and the river is flowing through it. When the dam is closed, the eagle activity is very limited. Above, an eagle spotted a fish and began to dive toward the river. They swoop down, lower their legs when close to the water, open their talons, and when successful, grab a fish and take off with it under their tail.

American Bald Eagle Diving toward River

American Bald Eagle Catching a Fish

Not every attempt for a fish is successful, but in the above image, the eagle is taking off with its catch.

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle Flying with Fish

After coming up from the river with its catch, the eagle flew in my direction (above and below images).

American Bald Eagle Flying with Fish

Most of the time, the eagles fly off to the other side of the river to eat their catch, but occasionally, they fly directly overhead toward the trees behind where I and other photographers are located.

American Bald Eagle Eating a Fish

Below an eagle is perched in a tree, watching other eagles and the river below.

American Bald Eagle Perched in a Tree

You probably have heard the term “screaming eagle.” At times, eagles do sound like they are screaming, which is very loud and used to communicate with other eagles. Below is an image of an eagle screaming.

Screaming Eagle

To see more of my eagle images, I posted an article in October that can be seen at https://stevetabone.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/american-bald-eagles-at-conowingo-dam/ or go to my website at: http://stabone.com/p922753828

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