A Rainforest Expedition

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) spotted along the riverbank on the way to the TRC, Peru.

When planning a trip to the rainforest, it might seem somewhat facile to point out the importance of doing one’s research; however, this very simple step is often overlooked, and thus bears repeating.

Some questions worth asking before setting off might include:

I) Q. What is the weather this time of the year?

A. Dry and rainy seasons have become increasingly unpredictable in today’s global climate and it’s worth checking the local conditions before booking and departing.

II) Q. Will I be comfortable?

A. This is an especially important question, and one which is often neglected, often with repercussions. Bring a hoodie for unexpected chilly weather (early morning boat rides!). Waterproof socks can be good for walking across boardwalks and keeping feet dry when boots become flooded. An easily accessible compact umbrella attached via carabiner or even a contact sheet for lying on the ground and/or providing additional cover for one’s bag. Quick dry clothing and extra microfibre cloths to clean optics. Individual ziploc bags for both clothing and photography equipment (with silica or dehumidifier pack)

III) Q. Do I have enough flexibility in my booking to account for emergencies or                      changing the duration of my stay?

      A. During the rainy season, airlines will often cancel flights which may lead to                           lost connections and complications. Alternatively, if you wish to book a                                 longer stay but have arrived in the peak season, there might not be any                                 additional room.

IV) Q. Will I find what I’m looking for?

A. This often depends on a variety of factors including the amount of experience, amount of time, rarity of the subject, equipment on hand, season, etc… However, one can look at communal databases like ebird and iNaturalist, and concentrate one’s efforts in high probability zones, request specific guides, ask resident researchers, etc…

V) Q. Do I have the right tools for the job?

A. This is deeply personal and largely depends on the kind of trip you are preparing; however, I will outline in the next section my basic tools which might serve as a reference.

VI) Q. Are there any restrictions on my activities? Eg. Research, Sampling, Drone flight, exclusion zones, etc…

A. Researchers, volunteers and those with a special mandate will undoubtedly have undergone special preparations for the occasion; however, it’s worth noting that many countries, national parks, and other areas are becoming increasingly restrictive in their drone policies. Camera trapping can also present some challenges and thus it’s always worthwhile double checking.

VII) Q. Will I be able to repair/replace my equipment while in the field?

A. As a general rule, I never assume that I’ll find a specialized part or cable while traveling. Where possible I carry a redundancy, otherwise I carry a small repair kit equipped with glue, silicone, tape, specialized screws and camera plates, and a variety of electrical cables which I can manually tie together without the need for solder (there are few things worse than being unable to use one’s equipment on account of a dead charger!). Consider a jeweller’s screwdriver and a multi-tool as well.

These questions can serve as a kind of checklist, and help avoid pratfalls, especially when scaling up the size of the project or the amount of equipment.

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A multi-month project often involves a variety of specialty tools. While working in Sani lodge, Ecuador, and subsequently with Rainforest Expeditions in Peru, I required several suitcases worth of equipment to accommodate in-situ, studio, camera trapping, and drone photography.

Rather than provide an exhaustive list of all my equipment,  I will break it down by category. Exhaustive equipment reviews and “tips, tricks and techniques” have been written about, so I’ll just include one or two personal insights I have gleaned from my experience for each category,

Macro

Lens Flash Misc.
Canon MPE-65mm Canon MT-24EX twin flash Canon 12mm Ext. tubes
Canon 100mm f/2.8 L Olympus ST-F8 twin flash Raynox DCR-250 diopter
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II L Canon 600 EX-RT + Yongnuo RT triggers Tripod + Focusing rail

Nighttime macro will allow for you to better control the light, and to approach the subject much closer than would otherwise be possible during the day. Diopters, macro couplers, extension tubes, bellows, reverse lens mounts, etc. require just a bit of planning and testing, but are otherwise significantly cheaper than a dedicated macro lens, and can achieve comparable results.

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Coralloid fungus outside Puerto Maldonado. Photographed with Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens with single diffused flash and a reflector at night.

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A pirate spider (Gelanor sp.) has stalked and killed an araneid in its web. Photographed with Canon Mpe-65mm lens + Olympus ST-F8 twin flash from Posada Amazonas.

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Parasitoid wasp (Eupelmidae) laying its eggs in a larva within a tree trunk. Canon Mpe-65mm lens + Olympus ST-F8 twin flash from Posada Amazonas.

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Juvenile spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodylus)  photographed with Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens + single diffused flash. Photo from the Tambopata Research Centre.

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Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) photographed with Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens + single diffused flash. Photo from the Tambopata Research Centre.

Bird/Mammal

Lens Misc.
Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS I Tripod with Wimberley head
Canon 1.4X TC Binoculars
Canon 2X TC Remote shutter (smartphone App.)

Telephoto lenses are an expensive investment and an indispensable tool; however, one can still manage relatively well with cheaper, high quality optics and teleconverters. A faster (lower f/ stop lens) is especially useful in the dark rainforest understory, and when combined with teleconverters, this will allow for a certain degree of flexibility and more unique perspectives as well.

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This striated heron was photographed with an effective focal length of 600mm (Canon 300mm f/2.8 + 2X TC) from a boat on tres chimbares lake, near Posada Amazonas.

When shooting from a motorized boat, one should bring a zoom lens rather than a prime (fixed focal length), as one has less control over the approach and framing. Make sure that the lens has been kept dry overnight/before the boat trip (otherwise the temp./humidity change between your room and the open boat will fog your lens and potentially ruin the opportunity).

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While entering the TRC our group was treated to a Jaguar sighting close to the Chuncho claylick. It was undisturbed by our presence and I was able to get off some “wide angle” shots with a 100mm lens, which better illustrated the jaguar’s environment.

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A puma launched itself down the riverbank at a group of capybaras on the way back to Puerto Maldonado. Shot handheld with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens from the boat. A 100-400 zoom lens would have provided a better overall picture, including the capybaras.

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Capybaras huddled around their mother in the wake of the Puma attack.

Landscape

Lens Misc.
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II Lee 100×100 foundational filter set
Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Circular Polarizer)s)
Tripod + ballhead

I personally find landscapes to be very challenging and I often need to plan ahead or else revisit a site multiple times in order to take advantage of climactic conditions, position of the sun, cloud, fog, etc…

Filters and a steady tripod are a staple in landscape photography and are especially important gear to have in the bag (even as so-called digital filters are becoming increasingly powerful) . One should be prepared to shoot in the rain, and have numerous microfibre cloths to wipe down the front element.

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Lightning strikes announce an impending storm during the rainy season at the TRC. Taken with a 16-35mm lens in the rain.

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A merged timelapse overnight can create a surreal landscape, and a different perspective from the same area with the same setup (above shot).

Camera trapping

These fall into two broad categories:

  1. Professional (ie. DSLR-type) camera traps involve a camera in a Pelican-style waterproof housing, remotely triggered by a subject crossing an infrared beam, and connected to externally placed flashes.
  2. Consumer ie. Trail Camera systems have a passive infrared (PIR) sensor and are less discriminate in their capabilities, but cheaper and more flexible in their site placement potential.
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More failure prone than the simpler trail camera systems, this professional camera trapping photo from Sani lodge in Ecuador illustrates the quality of Professional systems.

Professional systems require a significant investment of time and resources and will be covered in greater detail in a future blog post. Trail cameras on the other hand are simple, and easy to setup (albeit of lower quality). The two videos below were taken with the 2018 Browning Strike Force Pro XD. Browning currently offers one of the best cost/value options; however, Reconyx, Bushnell, Moultrie, and many other brands have comparable products reviewed here.

The trail camera should be placed as low as possible to the ground whilst bearing in mind local topographic conditions (depressions and potential flooding), set to video mode (most trail cameras have low quality still reproduction, but very good video capabilities (1920 x 1080), especially in infrared ie. black and white). It can be mounted upside down to get the lens closer to the ground. Good site indications include fruiting trees, a stream crossing, trail juncture, or high concentration of multi-species markings. A lens shade (which can be as simple as a leaf strapped onto the top) can help prevent lens fogging, rain spots, and other complications.

Southern naked-tailed armadillo (Cabassous unicinctus) emerging from a burrow at the Tambopata Research Centre. Walking the B-trail one day, I heard a gnawing sound coming from an upturned tree stump. As I bent down the area the sound grew more distinct and I noticed a small, partially collapsed hole. Not knowing what (if anything) I’d find, I placed the Browning trail camera opposite the hole and collected it several days later.

A puma (Puma concolor) briefly crosses the Ceiba trail in Posada Amazonas lodge. Cats are most likely to be photographed in the TRC<Posada<Refugio and often require the trail camera to be placed in one location for a minimum of several days (placing a trail camera where there are/were cat prints might neglect to account for feline behaviour, and they might not return to the same site for days or weeks).

A capped heron fishes in a newly formed pond at Posada Amazonas. This temporary pond didn’t exist 2 days previous, and illustrates the importance of camera placement. Heavy rains not only flood low-lying areas, but can also cause streams and rivers to burst their banks, causing unexpectedly large changes in flood height (sometimes several metres!).

Drone

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The Tambopata Research Centre surrounded by pristine rainforest shot with the DJI Mavic Pro.

Consumer drone use has exploded in recent years and for good reason, they offer a unique perspective, whilst becoming increasingly portable and affordable. Accessories like ND/Polarizing filters and compression feet (to elevate the drone body to avoid scratching a low-lying obstacles) are sound investments. Flying below the canopy presents many hazards, not least of which include connectivity issues between the App – Phone – Remote, obstacles which confound the avoidance system, wind and falling hazards like leaves and branches. Fly with care, and always be respectful of wildlife and anyone who might be impacted by the sound/privacy issues engendered by drone flight.

Although it would be difficult or impractical to adopt all of these methodologies (and equipment) outlined herein, my hope is that this brief overview has helped to provide some practical grounding, whilst allowing one’s imagination to take flight.