The serene “Golden Hour” of photography in the northern latitudes is more like a “15 Minute Blitz” in the tropics. Here in Belize, the sun rapidly sinks on a near vertical path leaving little time for spontaneity. Planning, patience and technique are most important when photographing wildlife at sunrises and sunsets.
From December to March every year, scarlet macaws from the western forests of the Chiquibul National Park fly east to the foothills of the Maya Mountains to feed on the rich fruits of the polewood tree, along with nuts, seeds and fruits from other trees, such as the wild annatto, prickly yellow, mountain trumpet, cramanthee, and symphonia.
To capture this, I need to arrive at the Maya village of Red Bank before sunrise. I follow my young Maya guide Rojelio, in the dark, up a jungle trail he has cut by machete, to a ridge top with a view of the valleys and steep banks where the polewood tree thrives. In the distance is the coastal plains and the Caribbean Sea. Throughout the day, formations of 20-30 scarlet macaws continually fly in from the west, loudly squawking their presence, descending on the fruiting polewood that dots the foothills around me.
The thing about tropical forests is that they are a chaos of green. The brilliant red plumage of the macaws stands out, but branches, leaves, lianas and vines usually block a clean view of the birds. I photograph bits of wings here, beaks there, long flowing tails yonder. But a clean shot of the whole bird is elusive all day.
As the sun begins its downward journey, the shadows of the hills begin to deepen, providing contrast between those trees still in sunlight and the shadows behind me. I’ve been watching macaws fly a specific route through the valley in front of me and up over the ridge all day. But the direct sunlight creates a harsh and intense scene where the birds are swallowed by a bright, glittering background.
The birds are beginning to cluster in pairs with full crops, readying for the flight back to the roosting sites in the Chiquibul. I focus between a lone tree still highlighted by the setting sun and the dark shadow of the hillside behind - focus, shutter speed and f-stop technique dialed in from years of experience - and I wait.
The sun races toward the tree line above as one pandemonium after another of macaws take flight over or above where I am focused. Patience. Patience is now king and requires my allegiance. I wait, feeling the daylight wane. Right where I had pre-focused, my fealty to patience pays off. A single pair takes flight, rotates their bodies and wings to climb up the hillside and out of the valley, exploding into an avian rainbow as they hit the sunlight against the dark shadows behind.