For me the best bird photography at Itororó was at the feeders right outside the lodge. The birds were close and, for the most part, out in the open, and you could photograph them fairly easily as they sat on nearby perches waiting their turn at the feeder.

The “field photography” was another story. The first morning, Andy Foster took those of us who were interested on a walk on one Itororó’s trails, and while we heard a lot of birds and got fleeting looks at a few, I have zero images to show for it—unless you count a very distant photo of a saffron toucanet. (That bird was the one I most wanted to see on the trip, and I struck out.) We also took two day trips to different elevations—if you go up or down, say, a thousand feet, you see entirely different species—and that, too, made for some challenging photography.

You can see why even the Land Rover had its limits on this road. (Click to enlarge.)

One such trip was to Pico de Caledonia, where we took the van as far as it could go then piled into a Land Rover for the rest of the climb. When we got as far as the Land Rover could go, we got out and walked up the road a few hundred yards more, until we were at about 6,300 feet—at least according to the altimeter app on my iPhone. The photo at the top of this page is from the highest point of our walk, looking across the mountains; you can see part of the city of Nova Friburgo in the valley below.

Glenn and Andy knew this to be a good spot for the diademed tanager, and sure enough, we saw a few, as well as a plovercrest (a type of hummingbird), thick-billed saltator, Serra do Mar tyrannulet, bay-chested warbling finch (perfectly out in the open, but all of my photos are out of focus—arrgh!), mottled-cheeked tyrannulet, and a very brief glimpse of a barred forest falcon flying away from us.

I think I’ve mentioned before how amazing is Glenn and Andy’s knowledge of the local birds and their calls, and how good they are at helping us see the birds. And neither of them brought their cameras with them on any of these excursions during the first half of the trip. Glenn in particular is a world-class nature photographer, and he’s a master of this kind of difficult shooting in the field, but he wasn’t there to do his own shooting—he was there to help us.

A diademed tanager, named for the small red crown on its head. Click to enlarge.

At Pico de Caledonia, and throughout the trip, Glenn gave me lots of suggestions and admonishments aimed at making me a better field photographer. One such piece of advice came when we were standing on the road trying to locate a diademed tanager that was calling from the edge of the woods. I was standing next to my tripod, looking around, noticing the cell towers at the peak of the mountain and wondering out loud how much farther up the trail goes. Glenn took the opportunity to stress to me the importance of paying attention to the task at hand, of being disciplined, not distractible. He pointed with both hands at the area where we were hoping the tanager would appear and said: “Only this.”

Later he pointed out to me that of all the time that we’re on the trip—eating, sleeping, driving, hiking, waiting—the moments when we actually have our camera on a bird are few and fleeting. The bird likely will appear on just the right branch, out in the open, for no more than a few seconds. You need to be ready, so you can make the most of the opportunity, not squander it because you were daydreaming, chit-chatting, or looking at your photos on the back of your camera. (Brian Small tried to drive home a similar point with me when we were sitting in a bird blind at a workshop in Galveston this past spring: If you’re looking at the back of your camera, you’re missing out on shots.)

Glenn also tried hard to teach me how to find the bird with my naked eye. It’s a common scenario in birding and bird photography: You’re scanning the trees for something, and it’s all just a jumble of green and brown, and then someone says, “There it is!” Then someone else—usually me—goes, “Where?” There are two kinds of answers to that question. The helpful answer goes something like this:

Do you see the big dead branch on the right? Follow it out to where it forks, then take the lower fork to the end. The bird is directly below that.

The unhelpful answer goes like this:

It’s right there!

Glenn emphasized tracking the bird by looking for movement in the foliage—sometimes you see the leaves fluttering before you see the bird that’s causing the motion. It seems simple, but can be a challenge. He also talked about positioning your head directly above the camera, so that when you do find the bird with your eyes, it’s easier to then locate it in your viewfinder.

Despite Glenn and Andy’s best efforts, I didn’t come back with a lot of images from the Pico de Caledonia trip, nor from the next day’s excursion to a lower elevation (about 2,100 feet), the Cedae Trail. On the latter walk, we saw some spot-billed toucanets—a gorgeous bird I would have loved to photograph—but they were much too far away, up in the forest canopy. Probably the best bird I got, in terms of a clear photo, was a black-cheeked gnateater. Here’s the male:

And I think, based on some Googling, that this is the female of the same species:

Next up: Before moving on to the Pantanal, one last post from our Itororó adventures, featuring a very striking—some might say funny-looking—bird called the red-legged seriema.

2 thoughts on “Field Photography is Just HARD

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