Published: January 2007
Luis A. Mazariegos

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Without a doubt, my most thrilling experience was finding and photographing the marvelous spatuletail. Look at my picture of this bird, with its spectacular tail, and you'll see why "marvelous" is part of its name. For bird-watchers, this is a trophy species, and I'd put it at the top of the list as the most beautiful of all hummingbirds. I found it in a part of Peru where cattle ranching has been destroying its habitat, causing it to become even more endangered than it was in 1966 when National Geographic last published a picture of it. So while it was great to find it, I have to worry about how much longer it will survive.

See this rare bird in our video presentation.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Hummingbirds are frequently in remote and wild areas, so there's often an element of danger in my work. I was in a mountainous region close by the ocean in the São Paulo Province of Brazil. It's a semitropical area famous for its wildflowers and therefore great habitat for hummingbirds. But it turns out that it's also notorious for venomous snakes. One snake in particular is very common: a small, gorgeously patterned viper called Bothrops jararaca. I'd been warned these snakes were all over the place, so thick on the ground that brush-cutters were always in danger of being bitten as they wielded their machetes.

As usual, I was playing the hummingbird and on the lookout for beautiful flowers. Spotting one, my instinct was to approach it quickly. But I remembered the snake warnings and was treading lightly. Sure enough, there was a jararaca close to my feet, coiled up and ready to strike. Needless to say, I turned on my heels and fled. Had I been bitten, I would have ended up in the emergency ward of a hospital—or worse yet, dead, since I'm allergic to horse-derived antivenom, the antidote most commonly found in Latin America. Thank God I'd been warned!

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

I was in the Tumbes region of northern Peru, just south of Ecuador. Unlike most of Peru's Pacific shore, which is desert, Tumbes has a coastal rain forest, and I was eager to explore for hummingbirds. As luck would have it, I saw something here I'd never seen before in my 20 years of photographing hummingbirds. It was 6:30 in the morning, and there, in a small stream in the middle of the forest, were about 50 hummingbirds taking a bath. These tiny birds do indeed bathe themselves—often in the rain, occasionally in a stream or a pond. But never before had I seen so many doing it at one time. I was amazed.