In search of the perfect picture

Roger Neckles has been recognised among the finest wildlife photographers in the world. It’s an occupation that requires a spirit of adventure, guts, and more than a little patience. Donna Yawching finds out, first-hand, what it takes

  • Neckles and the anaconda after their wrestling match. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Humpback whale in waters off Baja, California. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Tree Frog. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Collared Trogon, Neckles’s favourite bird. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Snowy Egrets, in the Caroni rice fields, central Trinidad. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Neckles’s eyeball to eyeball shot of a caiman. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Speckled Tanager. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Forest fern. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Neckles in the Tobago rain forest. Photo courtesy Roger Neckles
  • Milkweed. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • The rare White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird. This photo was published by National Geographic in 1994. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • The Pawi or Trinidad Piping-Guan, once plentiful in the northern forests of Trinidad, is now seldom seen. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Female Violaceous Trogon. Photo by Roger Neckles
  • Roger Neckles in the field. Photo by Sean Drakes

“Have I ever told you,” Roger Neckles asks, his face of a benevolent camel lighting up drolly at the memory, “about the time I had an 18-foot anaconda by the tail?”

Well, no, he hasn’t; but I can tell it’s going to be a good story — probably even better than the one in which he found himself downwind of a herd of wild boars, locally known as “quenk” and famous for their fierceness. (“It’s a very well-trained pack of dogs that can bring down a quenk,” he elaborates, to ensure that I’ve grasped the seriousness of the situation. Believe me, I have.)

Roger Neckles is full of good stories: not because he’s a natural adventurer — he describes himself as “very lazy” when it comes to hiking through forests and so forth — but because such moments just come with the territory; part of his (self-written) job description, you might say. At 43, Neckles is indisputably the leading wildlife photographer in Trinidad and Tobago — indeed, by common consensus, the Caribbean.

His work has appeared in numerous local and international publications, including such prestigious showcases as Natural History, Audubon, and — the Mt Olympus for a wildlife photographer — National Geographic. One of the high points of his professional life came in 1994, when his landmark photo of the rare, White-tailed Sabrewing hummingbird, as well as an artist’s rendition of another of his images (the first-ever photo of baby sabre-wings in their nest), were chosen for a two-page spread in a book published by Canon, under the auspices of National Geographic.

Neckles was almost delirious with delight. “I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of my success until I saw the calibre of the other photographers featured in the book,” he confesses — names such as Jane Goodall, world famous for her work in the field with chimpanzees. Currently, Neckles is the official photographer and public affairs consultant (Caribbean Region) for the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFFAW); in the last two years, he has been sent on assignments to shoot right whales in Canada, grey whales in Mexico, sperm whales in Dominica, and the “extremely rare” Grenada Dove in Grenada.

Even before all this heady fame and fortune (he would dispute the latter) had arrived on his doorstep, curiosity had driven me to seek out Roger Neckles. What did it take, I wondered, to be a wildlife photographer — to spend one’s life skulking around the bush or knee-deep in murky swampwater, waiting for a bird or a bug? Was it an adventurous life, or just mind-numbingly tedious? Was it a job for the brave, the energetic, or merely (merely? Ha!) the patient?

“Come along and find out,” Neckles offered; so I did.

 

The sun has barely rubbed the sleep out of its eyes. Neckles picks me up in his Toyota Hilux (named Shirley, for the record). We barrel down the highway, then turn off onto a dirt road. Shirley’s windows, luckily, are still up: the first pair of ponds at the Trincity Sewage Treatment Plant do not smell very nice.

By the time we reach the last two ponds, however, the air is as clear as you could wish; it is easy, with a small effort of will, to imagine that the thick carpet of water lilies is a purely natural phenomenon, and that the distant mountains and pale pink sky are being reflected in a pair of pristine country pools. It is, in short, a beautiful morning; and the myriad of birds gliding around the ponds clearly think so too.

Neckles can hardly restrain himself. He bounds out of the truck, and liberates his tripod and camera from the back seat. The latter, with immense lenses attached, is almost as big as its owner. Together, the whole apparatus looks impossibly awkward; but Neckles cradles it like a lover and starts to creep forward — an incongruous operation which, with his two long legs and the tripod’s three, brings to mind some kind of strange, mutant stork. His trademark headgear, a sola topi of all things, does not improve matters.

He succeeds in sneaking up on his quarry: a pair of Yellow-throated Spinetails, birds the size of a sparrow, who are building an immense nest — more than a metre across — in a metal cylinder sticking up out of the water. Neckles in the field, I am discovering, is a real trip. Almost unconsciously, he keeps up a running monologue directed at his subjects: “A bit more, come on, that’s a good boy . . . come on, see your face, see your face, see that yellow throat; oh yes, oh yes, look at this, lovely, absolutely fantastic; let’s see your face again.” The birds twitter, though not necessarily in reply.

The sewage ponds are one of Neckles’ favourite birdwatching haunts (not surprisingly, he is also one of the country’s best birding guides); and indeed, within virtually no time at all, he’s pointed out at least 15 different species, many of which I’d never even known existed. Snowy Egrets, Yellow-billed Terns, Wattled Jacana, Southern Lapwings, White-headed Marsh-Tyrants (which he fondly calls “tuxedo birds” ) — they all glide and swoop and dive around the dark, tranquil ponds.

Tranquil, that is, until I notice that one of the amorphous brown lumps on the surface — the origin of which I had preferred not to think about too closely — is starting to move. To glide, so to speak. Oops, it’s not what I’d thought. A snout appears, then a head, then a long V-shaped ripple cuts through the satin water. A fairly large caiman (a species of alligator) is looking for breakfast. I’m glad I stayed in the pick-up.

This, of course, is the cue for another of Neckles’s stories: about how he got that famous eye-to-eye shot of a swimming caiman. “That was terrifying, the most terrifying experience of my life,” he reminisces — temporarily disqualifying, perhaps, the anaconda incident. He’d actually been trying to photograph some rare Muscovy ducklings in a Cedros swamp, to prove that the species were breeding in the wild. He’d waded about a quarter mile into the swamp when he saw the caiman come slithering out of the mangrove roots, heading straight for him. Fighting the (very natural, I would say) urge to panic, he pointed his camera, focused and clicked. In my mental list of Wildlife Photographer Attributes, I tick off “guts”.

It has to be admitted, however, that in our subsequent stops, guts is not a major part of the procedure: patience features much more prominently. At one point, after a Southern Lapwing staunchly refuses to cooperate, Neckles sighs in exasperation: “Why did I take up birds? Photographing houses would have been so much easier.” And today, it should be noted, is child’s play: Neckles has been known to wait 16 hours to get a shot of the  endangered Pawi (Trinidad Piping-Guan).

 

Photographing houses would, indeed, have been easier; unfortunately, it would seem that there were not too many houses-in-distress in Neckles’s childhood haunts. Born in Trinidad in 1956, the photographer grew up in London, where his family moved while he was still a baby. London, he says, is “not a great place for birds because there are a lot of cats.” Young Roger was always rescuing “poor little sparrows and starlings” and taking them home — “driving my mother crazy.” A somewhat more sympathetic teacher recognised his passion and presented him with an old bird book and a pair of binoculars — and there was no turning back. By the time he was nine, Neckles could identify practically every feathered inhabitant of the British Isles, and was soon giving birdwatching lectures to his fellow Boy Scouts.

It wasn’t until he visited Trinidad in 1978, however, that his casual hobby became a vocation. “I was so shocked,” he explains, “to see such vivid-coloured birds that I immediately got into birdwatching on a regular basis, and have been doing so ever since.” He allowed his airplane ticket to expire, and — drawing on a lifelong talent for art — began to do etchings of birds on glass, as a means of earning money.

Photography came into the picture more by accident than by design. Seeking a decent representation of a Scarlet Ibis to copy for a commissioned etching, Neckles found the libraries to be lacking. He bought a second-hand camera and sallied forth into the Caroni Swamp in search of a more satisfactory image. “It wasn’t the best shot,” he admits, “but enough to get the details.” With his earnings from that commission, he acquired a better camera; the rest is history. As with birdwatching, his photographic skills have been entirely self-taught. “I know I should take — and I will, someday, take — a course,” he muses. Someday.

Until “someday” rolls around, however, Neckles simply continues to do what he does so well — and loves so much. By now well-established in both photography and the tour-guiding business (he heads two companies: Avifauna Tours and The Wildlife Photobank, an image repository), Neckles has won several awards; and his work can be found locally reproduced on everything — from billboards to brochures, advertisements to annual reports. He is frequently called in as a consultant on wildlife documentaries — indeed, his anaconda story grows out of one of these television experiences.

The giant snake was a dramatic cameo in a video on Trinidad’s Nariva Swamp, a freshwater wetland that harbours, among other things, the island’s last remaining manatees. After 10 minutes of taping, the cameraman realised he’d forgotten to load his camera. By this time the anaconda, totally fed up, was heading upstream at a goodish speed. “Grab it!” yelled the cameraman desperately. “Are you crazy?” yelled Neckles — diving, nevertheless, for the unfortunate reptile. The cameraman got his footage; and Neckles got a genuinely “tall tail” with which to regale his future grandchildren.

Unfortunately, nothing quite so dramatic befalls us on our final outing, to Grande Rivière on Trinidad’s remote north coast. Another attempt to beat the sun to work sees us bumping along a terribly rutted road through an old cocoa plantation, as rosy-fingered dawn tentatively lights the sky. We are in search of “my absolutely favourite bird in T&T”, enthuses Neckles: the Pawi, a pheasant-like species that is dangerously close to extinction, largely because, apparently, it’s as dense as a brick. (Indiscriminate hunting, of course, is the real determining factor.) The Pawi is totally indifferent even to gunfire. There are stories of a hunter shooting one bird — and having the rest of the flock fly down to investigate. “They’re stupid,” Neckles admits fondly, “like a chicken.”

Stupid, but handsome, with their imposing stance and long tails, their striking blue dewlaps and white wing-patches that flash against dark-brown plumage. We stand in the early morning, surrounded by dense green mountains and a glorious sunrise, and wait for the Pawi to wake up. Suddenly — “Oh there he is, I can’t believe it, he’s here so fast!”

I’m learning that the most amazing thing about Roger Neckles is his razor-sharp eyesight. He can spot and identify a silhouetted bird at unlikely distances, and he is always right on. It has to do, he explains, with knowing the “topography” of the bird — the shape of body and wings, the tilt of the head, the length of a beak. If there’s one avian topography that Neckles knows by heart, it’s the Pawi: he has captured its image on film at least 50 times before.

Why, then, this urgent need for a 51st? Because Neckles is a perfectionist. As far as he’s concerned, the perfect Pawi photo has not yet been taken, and he fully intends to take it. “I’m always striving for perfection,” he says. “I’m very critical of myself. I’m always looking for the ultimate shot.”

I can only hope that he never finds it.