Step, Stop, Stand, Scan, Stare, Stalk, Shoot!

How To Get Great Photos In Nature

Posted on: December 22nd, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #35

La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Bridge over the Puerto Viejo River.

I lived and worked for several years in a research field station deep in northeastern Costa Rica’s rainforests. Surrounded by wildlife, it was easy to encounter all sorts of creatures daily. We received many visitors every year. One of the most common things for us to do was take a walk on one of the forest trails, looking for wildlife and enjoying the heat, humidity, and extraordinary diversity that this type of forest provides. I often took these walks on my own, a refreshing break from office work. On every walk, I would stop to take pictures of whatever was happening around me. Once, I paused by the remains of a fallen tree, glued to the spot, amazed at all that was happening. In the hour that followed, three or four groups of people walked by: two on bird walks (binoculars, spotting scopes, enormous lenses, tripods, and knowledgeable guide); one a group of students on a break (water bottles, shorts, loud chatter, not the right kinds of shoes); and one a self-guided tour (foreign accents, more enormous lenses, photo vests, khaki-clothing throughout, a strong and lingering smell of bug repellent). Not one of them stopped or wondered what I was photographing or observing. They just walked by, said,” Hi,” and went on, either looking up for birds or just chatting with each other. I found that puzzling, mostly because there was so much to see even in a small patch of space. A tree trunk;a bunch of wet leaves; the edge of a trail; everywhere I looked was teeming with activity. There were many more stories than a bird checklist, and I wondered why they were not told more often.

One morning, I decided to go for a slow walk in the patch of forest behind the house and look for stories, for drama, and to see what I could find. I thought of doing a little experiment: take a small patch, let’s say 30 feet by 30 feet (that’s like ten long steps by ten long steps square) and wander through it to see what was there. I spent about 2 hours on this patch, but I couldn’t quite make it through the perimeter, let alone reaching the center or other areas within. Why?

The structure of the rainforest is a three-dimensional space filled with life and interactions between plants and animals.

First of all, a patch of rainforest like this one is not a simple thing. It is three-dimensional, with the height dimension being 150 or more feet high. So, as I walked around, things fell from above: flowers, leaves, small branches, feathers. Frass (a nicer term for “insect poop”) rained down continuously; a small group of caterpillars on a shrub can produce quite a volume of it in a few hours. On occasion, a branch laden with bromeliads, mosses, and whatnots can detach from its parent tree and come crashing down, veritable “widow-makers” in the forest. “Beware of falling giant branches” is a warning to all rainforest researchers and hikers, especially on trails close to giant dead trees. Above my head, the bulk of the forest lived and breathed, letting gravity pull down to the ground all of their waste materials and the products of the resident creature’s lives for the soil to recycle into nutrients again. The portion of the patch I could easily explore was only a small fraction of the entire “cuboid.” Without a ladder, ropes, or a canopy tower, I could only study what was on the ground, up to a height of no more than 1.5 meters. A beautiful orange-yellow butterfly that landed barely 4 meters above my head escaped the prying eyes of my camera and loupe.

Peccaries abound around the station and their droppings feed many organisms.

But this area, this human-scale cube of the forest, provided an enormous amount of action, activity, tragedy, and even comedy. I paid notice to my actions as I walked around in a pattern: I would take a step, watching my feet so as not to step on a snake, a ground-dwelling creature, a poison-dart frog, or a pile of peccary dung; then I would stop, stand quietly looking around, scanning the area within sight. Something would move or emerge from the chaotic pattern, and I would stare. What was it? Was it alive? The shape resolved into an animal, a fruit, or an exciting piece of action, and I would stalk, moving quietly but steadily towards it, camera in position, manually focusing until it was framed correctly, and then…

 

Immature praying mantis. When motionless, they blend perfectly with the leafy background.
The larva of the tortoise beetle pictured on the right covers itself with its own feces. Perfect protection, I’d say!
Tortoise beetle with little “bullseye” on its back.

Focus…Click! Flash! Wow! The “wow!” was often part of the reaction to something unexpected. A little swaying leaf would come into focus, revealing itself to be an immature praying mantis, its movement exactly mimicking a green leaf fluttering in the breeze. Or while looking at one thing, something else would come into the patch I’d be watching, like a translucent but brightly colored tortoise beetle landing on a leaf smack in front of my camera. The “Bio-Files” in my brain made a quick identification. More often than not, there was no data in these files, and I’d be clueless about what species I was watching, thus the photos. Other times, a flood of natural history would come to the conscious level. I recalled that the larva of this particular tortoise beetle feeds on the leaf tissues of certain species of palm, covering its body with curled strands of its own feces until it resembles a patch of lichen or moss on the leaf. I’d take the photo, shake my head a little (the “Wow!” part) and move on.

Bullet ants are the largest ants that can be found in the rainforest.

This particular morning I repeated the step, stop, stand, scan several times sequence with excellent results. I really could do this all day! I saw a gigantic bullet ant, a full inch long if not longer, foraging, searching, and doing its own version of “stop, stand, stare” back at me.  All it could probably see was a puzzling, massive piece of round glass a few inches away and sudden bursts of lightning from the twin flashes — giving me the best opportunity to examine it in great detail. A group of large ants (in the 1/4-inch range size) slowly harvested nectar from the tiny, bulbous flowers of a young palm tree, posing aggressively at my lens when I got too close. Several spiders (jumping spiders, a wolf spider, and other species) performed their sit-and-wait strategy,  patiently resting for long periods on flowers or fruits or leaves until they could suddenly pounce or rush to the net to bite and paralyze their next hapless meal.

Jumping spider busy enjoying her meal, oblivious to the photographer.
This beautiful species of midge (also known as chironomids) is an undescribed species, new to science.

I interrupted one of them as she ate an insect, and she ignored me. Flies landed and took off from leaves, the sudden stop of their buzzing triggering in me a spider-like reaction of rushing and pouncing, lens first, on my prey. Click! Photo. Under a leaf moved by a tiny breeze, a shadow resolved into a resting land snail. Click! A small ant looked up from something it found: little white spots scattered on a leaf. The ant’s mandibles were ringed with a white chalky substance and made me think of “Got Powder?” Click! Small flowers growing straight out of the trunk of a tree…Click!…the fruits looked familiar…Click!…they looked like…oh gosh, tiny cacao fruits! Click, click! Must check what species this is. Step, stop… Something looks like a mosquito…stalk…Click! A midge, one of my dear little chironomids, sitting here, oh so pretty, on a leaf, with white legs, curled up abdomen, feathery antenna. Click, click, click!

Tarantula wasp dragging her spider prey towards her burrow. Three ants begging a tug-of-war to steal the prey from her.

The hours went by, my shirt sticky with sweat. I didn’t even care anymore about the buzzing mosquitoes around my ears. If they landed on my hand or arm, I’d take a photo of them too. Tiny mushrooms of all sizes and colors; the discarded molt of a growing spider; a swarm of fungus gnats frozen in death within the invisible strands of a spider web; more ants doing their thing — and then a prize. I saw movement below me. A bluish-black wasp dragged a similar-sized spider along the forest floor, seemingly having difficulties. I kneeled on the wet ground looking for a photo angle and an explanation, trying not to disturb the wasp. These wasps hunt spiders or caterpillars to feed their larvae, paralyzing the spiders and packing them in underground chambers or mud retreats. Like the related pipe-organ wasps, they pack the chambers with a supply of live but paralyzed spiders and one egg, and the larvae will feed on this fresh food for weeks until maturity. The wasps were abundant and diverse in this patch, from tiny ones, about half an inch or less, to the giant tarantula wasps, several inches long, impressive warriors capable of fighting and paralyzing the enormous and invincible-looking spiders they are named after. This one seemed to be having trouble dragging the spider.

Tarantula wasp trying to get away from the ants.
The obstacles on the forest floor added to the drama of dragging the spider into the burrow.

I looked more closely…The wasp let go of the spider for a second, and I saw the spider move backward! Wait a second! What the…? I looked closer still…two, no, three ants had a hold of the spider, one ant held one spider leg, the other two teamed up on another leg, and they were dragging the spider away. The wasp came back and tugged, and the ants tugged back, three against one. The wasp let go and went after the ants. One of the ants fought back, enemies with similar weapons: mandibles, stingers. The wasp’s advantage? Its wings. The ant’s advantage was her colleagues! Two of the ants chased the wasp while another one tugged at the spider. The wasp retreated and rushed back to the spider and started dragging it again. It needed a clear path to its burrow, but the ants went back too, each grabbed a leg, and the struggle was on again, strengths well-matched. The spider could fly but not while carrying so much weight. Neither was giving up. Finally, the wasp used its wings to add strength to its pull, jerking hard, dragging the spider and the ants down a hole where they all disappeared in a tangle of legs and leaves. I waited to see if they would come back out. Still, the struggle continued out of sight, leaving me wanting, the story unfinished, probably invisibly repeated many times in this forest, thousands of times, thousands of hectares, thousands of species.

Later, I looked through the images at home, gathering more detail, recounting the moments, amazed at the details now splendidly magnified on my screen. There was no end to this; there couldn’t be. Every patch of ground held hundreds of stories, processes, species, lives, complex, interacting, irreplaceable, and in danger. From us!

Elaborate set up to attempt to photograph a pollinating moth visiting a giant epiphytic cactus.

This is why I write and take photos. I can’t be the only one experiencing this rush, this amazement, the only one to bear solitary witness, bewildered and puzzled. I need an army of observers and recorders, kids and students, photographers and artists, people seeking the thrill of discovering the world at our feet. Then, perhaps only then, these forests and nature, in general, will remain, persist, and endure.

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director