Four hours into our birding excursion, on Lago Yojoa, Rolando leaned over and quietly whispered: “turkey motmot bird.” What he was actually saying was Turquoise motmot bird, but turquoise came out sounding more like turkey. The bird’s full moniker is actually Turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota supercilious). They are amazingly beautiful creatures, and I fell in love with them on first sight, that was in the tropical jungles of Costa Rica in 2010.
Rolando is a bit of magician, with his keen eyesight and voluminous wilderness knowledge, he had been spotting wildlife for us all morning, even in the morning rain we had endured three hours previous. This was just another case in point (the most recent), and as our small skiff slid quietly into the reeds I could see this beautiful bird about 25-meters distant perched in the deep shade. Rolando is a man of slight proportions (but handles the oars of his skiff with artful precision), and wears his birding Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer straw hat with rakish pride—adorning his hat prominently is the long tail feather of a motmot bird.
The bird itself averages 34 – 48 cm in length, or 13 – 18 inches. They weigh approximately 60 – 65 grams, and have a wingspan of about 4.80 inches. They are of modest size, but absolutely brilliant in color. Their long, pendulum-like tail feathers are like the pendulums found on grandfather clocks with their clump of feathers at the bottom. In the wild it is estimated they live between 12 – 16 years, but in captivity they may extend that span to 20 years. Their habitat is primarily the tropical and cloud forests of southeast Mexico, and south through Central America and into Costa Rica (with sightings also occurring in South America). This, then, is the tale (not tail) of the mysterious motmot bird.
Turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa)
Photographer’s note: Shooting birds (especially small to modest sized birds) in the wild is difficult, even with a 400mm super telephoto lens. This day proved to be no different—early morning rain, dark overcast lighting conditions, shooting from a small, moving (rocking) skiff, and trying to steady a long 400mm handheld super telephoto lens all contribute to the challenges of the wildlife photographer. Shooting on the fly (so to speak) precludes the use of a tripod, so the photographer is required to shoot at higher shutter speeds and higher ISO’s. This kind of shooting requires that you go to the subject, rather than setting up a “blind” and letting the subject come to you.
As Rolando brought us in closer to this motmot, I was fearful that he might fly away—birds are skittish critters even in their natural wild habitat. As we were gliding in I was busy making final adjustments to my camera’s settings: metering (light) set to “partial metering,” shooting in shutter-priority mode with a single AF point (up to nine are available on my camera), selecting “one shot” mode and auto ISO.
Taking a 25-meter handheld shot with a 400mm super telephoto lens, from a moving skiff, is not unlike taking a 1,000-yard shot with a sniper rifle: Brace your shot the best you can, let the focus dot slide in small circle-8’s over the subject, take a breath and let half of it out, then squeeze the trigger (shutter) don’t punch it. With luck you will hit your target (Thank you Marine Corps). In this case the elusive motmot bird. This shot was taken in deep shade, so thankfully I was shooting in CameraRAW (not JPEG) and had PhotoShop to bail me out. The in camera image looked like a dark silhouette, and little to no detail was visible—using PhotoShop’s RAW conversion algorithms I was able to work with the shadow and highlight adjustments to restore the recorded detail (RAW files are huge, and it’s all there—you just have to go and find it).
Gear: This image was captured in CameraRAW with my Canon EOS 5D Mk2 camera and Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super telephoto lens. Settings: Shutter Priority 1,250 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 160, FL 400mm, Handheld (from a rocking boat) with Natural Light. RAW conversion and post-edits were completed using PhotoShop Elements 11.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Reporting from Lago Yojoa, Honduras . . .