The SE Peruvian Amazon - September 30, 2013

In May and June of this year, Jacob, Cristian and I traveled to the Madre de Dios province of Peru. Jacob is my son who is a cinematographer from Los Angeles and who is producing a documentary film about my insect and nature photography. Cristian is my assistant and an expert in finding exotic insects and other wildlife. Our first destination was a lodge on the Madre de Dios River. Due to the shabby treatment we received on the part of the central administration, I won’t mention the name of this lodge. The area itself is rich in the diversity of fauna. The amount of different bird songs and bird sightings is impressive. Manu is truly a bird lover’s paradise. Unfortunately, finding photogenic insects proved to be a much harder task. Some of the guides familiar with this area told us that September is the best month for finding insects. Cristian had to work long hours, normally from 8pm to 1am, to come up with what he did. In any case, I did manage to take a large quantity of photos in the five weeks of this trip. I came back with some 65GB on my CF cards. We had some fascinating encounters with some really wild creatures. For one, we attempted to capture a beautiful Indigo snake. That was a miscalculation! That snake appeared to be the fastest, the strongest, and the most aggressive snake in the entire world! It escaped from the snake tongs with ease and in the process came within inches of removing Cristian’s nose. Its’ super high speed lunges and whipping movements produced panic among the lodge’s staff, and Jacob was able to film staff members “running for their lives.” It is one thing to see an animal in a zoo and quite another to see it in the wild. The intensity of the life force in this snake was mind-boggling, and nothing like I had ever seen before, not even in the programs of the herpetologist Austin Stevens.

We were in the Manu forest for 17 days. Due to luggage restrictions, I wasn’t able to take all of my panoramic equipment. Nevertheless, I did manage to take a good hand-held panoramic sequence of a massive strangler fig tree. We were able to walk inside the tree to its’ hollow center-the original host tree had completely decomposed-and look straight up to the very top of the tree. Check out the photo in this site or at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roboelman.

While in Manu, I came up with a new technique for taking many of the insect photographs. Previously, almost all of my photos were taken inside of a “studio” about 2 x 3 x 1 meters in size made from mosquito netting. This was to insure that a captured insect would not escape before a good photo was taken. However, this setting has a drawback in that it is very difficult to re-create within the studio a natural setting and background. So my new idea was to use the studio only for certain insects, those that are a very high risk for escape such as treehoppers and ants and some others, and to use a natural setting for all the rest. In Manu, I chose the base of a giant tree with its’ surrounding vegetation as the primary studio. All the leaf-mimic katydid photos were taken there. One might ask, why not take the photos in the exact place in which they are found? This can be done and often with excellent results. But what if I am not present with the camera when the insect is found?

However, there is a more basic reason for not depending on this natural approach, which is that I cannot normally obtain the best angles, cannot get the variety of photos from different perspectives, and cannot get the best lighting. What I am trying to do in my photography is not just to document the existence of a given insect but also to take the most artistic and high technical quality photo. To do this, some manipulation of the insect is required. With the new outside studio at the base of the tree, this manipulation consisted in physically returning the insect to a more visible place when it began to disappear in the vegetation. In looking at these new photos from Peru, I believe that one can notice more complex and natural backgrounds which adds an improved aesthetic quality to the photos.

After 17 days in Manu, Jacob returned to “civilization” while Cristian and I traveled to our next lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve. We stayed at the Explorer’s Inn for 11 days and despite difficulties with the water supply, we enjoyed our stay. On one hike of 5 kms to an oxbow lake, Cristian was incredibly lucky to have a puma cross the path in front of him. They stared at each other for a moment and when Cristian raised his camera and before he could get off a shot, the puma disappeared into the forest. Around the lodge, there were scores and scores of very talkative birds. These were Yellow-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas. I tried and tried again to get some decent photos of them and finally succeeded. The quantity of exotic and photogenic insects was again limited. Perhaps, this was due to the time of year. Also, I speculated that the number of insect predators could be an important factor. The proliferation of bats, monkeys, birds, lizards, snakes, and big spiders was quite impressive. The number of species of small frogs also was unbelievable. I wondered how a scientist in this field would ever be able to identify them all.

On the last day of our stay, we had the great good fortune of finding one of the champions of invisibility. Provisionally, I have identified this mantis as an Acanthops tuberculata. It looks at first, if one can see it at all, as a dried up, dead leaf. It is “programed” to hang upside down, to remain motionless except for some swaying-in-the-wind movement, and to remain closed up so that its’ head, its’ raptor front legs, and its’ abdomen are not detectable. It remained in the closed up position throughout the photos until the very end when a miraculous thing happened and it opened up completely. I had to fall back into a mass of vegetation in order to get this last once-in-a-lifetime photo. I hope that you will check it out and appreciate this salmon-colored marvel of nature.

 

 

 

I'm a self taught nature photographer specializing in exotic insects. You can learn more about my story by checking out the feature documentary film 'Learning To See: the World of Insects'.