Good light and good times

30 09 2014

So often on safari you find yourself in the most glorious afternoon or morning light with no animals to photograph. The opposite also applies, where you find yourself with a leopard, tiger or any other animal for that matter, and the light is horrible. Only on a few occasions, do all the right variables come together and produce a magical sighting!

We were on a photographic safari recently, and had the good fortune of spending a couple afternoons with a small family of cheetah. The mother and three eighteen month-old cubs were on the move, looking for something to chase. The mother had a different agenda to her three boys. She had the unenviable job of trying to feed four large cheetahs, while the young lads were just keen to chase anything, and try their luck at hunting. They had caught and killed their own prey before, but that must have been luck, because from the chases that we saw it didn’t look like they knew their trade very well.   The family spotted a herd of wildebeest and zebra at the far end of an open area – perfect terrain, but not perfect prey. The zebras were way too large, even if all four cheetahs pooled their efforts, so they were out the game. All except two of the wildebeest were fully-grown, also effectively taking them out of the question. The only real options for the hungry cheetahs were the two sub adult wildebeest hanging around the edges of the herd. All four cheetahs were stealthily moving in, when two of the young males started chasing each other. The mother sat down patiently, and waited for them to finish their game of tag. Eventually, they remembered what they doing, and re-focused on the matter at hand. They covered the distance between themselves and their quarry with ease, almost fooling us into thinking they were on the right track when all three just burst with excitement and ran at the herd. They had no real plan, they just ran. They chased the confused wildebeest all over the clearing, in all directions. As embarrassing as their attempt was, it was wonderful for photography, because for around ten minutes (a cheetah chase usually only last about 10 seconds if you are lucky) we had three cheetah chasing wildebeest around, in the open, in the afternoon sun! The shutters went crazy trying to pick up as much of the action as possible – this was camera heaven!

They came nowhere close to actually catching any of the wildebeest, but they would have learnt a few hunting lessons, number one being patience.

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High in the mountains

24 09 2014

Birds are not the easiest subjects to photograph. They are never close enough, often very small and move very quickly making it difficult to get them in focus. Now when you are trying to photograph magnificent and extremely rare bearded vultures, you have altitude to deal with as well (these birds are only really found 2000 meters [6562 feet] above sea level). Luckily there is a solution…

Tucked away into the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa, is a hide that gives you a great opportunity to photograph these unique vultures, as well as a host of other very cool birds. Sitting high up on the ridge of a valley, you couldn’t be better positioned to watch the birds soaring, sometimes only a few meters away from you. My camera was sent into overdrive, as the birds would come past using the thermals to scout out their next meal.

The bearded vulture is an unusual feeder. It is the only known living bird that feeds on bone marrow. It will eat carrion like the other vultures, but specialises in eating bones. They will take a piece of bone that is too big for them to swallow high up into the air, and skilfully drop it onto the rocks below, breaking it up into smaller more manageable bits. This art form takes several years to perfect, and the young birds will do this frustratingly over and over until they eventually get it right.

Riding the thermals in amongst the bearded vultures, are the large cape vultures. These birds are equally impressive as their bearded friends with a wingspan reaching 2.6meters (8.5 feet)! These true vultures are not quite as shy as the bearded vultures, and are quite prepared to land on the rocks in front of the hide, and see if there is any meat on the bones that have been left out for them. They are the largest bird in the area and don’t really have too many concerns, but once they have landed, they have to contend with a sneaky black-backed jackal who has worked out that everyday bones have been left out for the birds. It is very entertaining watching the jackal try to outsmart the vultures, and every so often the jackal realises the vultures are keeping up with its game and charges in, sending the big birds frantically flapping away. Our cameras enjoy this interaction a lot more than the vultures do. Between all the vultures and jackals, there are a host of other birds that keep the cameras working all morning long, giving plenty of great photographic opportunities.

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The Himalayan understudy

16 07 2014

One of the most sought after animal species in the world to see and photograph has to be the secretive snow leopard, and rightly so, but what most people don’t know, is what else is also running around high up on the Himalayas. The main prey species for the snow leopard is the blue sheep, or bharal to the locals.  These antelopes (the name is quite misleading – it is not a sheep at all, but a true antelope) generally live high up in the mountains between 4000 – 6500 meters (13000 – 21500 feet).  Their ability to manoeuvre up and down seriously steep cliff faces is remarkable, and is often their go-to defence against the smarts and cunning of the snow leopards. They come down into the valleys in the late afternoon, which is when they are at their most vulnerable.  If they get spooked while in the valley, they scramble for the nearest cliff, at a speed that makes you feel like a geriatric tortoise on a treadmill.  It is simply stunning watching these antelope navigate the rocky slopes of the mighty Himalayas.

The only way to see them and possibly get some photographs is unfortunately to climb up the mountains yourself, which starting at 400 meters is no easy feat.  On the up side, when they are comfortably settled on a sheer cliff face, they generally stand still and let their camouflage do the work, allowing you to get close enough to photograph them.  Once you get into position, have found your lungs again and managed to catch your breath, they are well worth the effort.  Their markings are striking, their behaviour both fascinating and slightly comical, and you really feel privileged to be in the company of a brilliantly designed animal.  The only trick left is getting back down the mountain…





When tigers play the game

25 06 2014

Photographing wildlife usually involves a lot of patience, and a lot of frustration.  This is normally the case, but sometimes it all comes together and you find yourself in the right place at the right time.  This is what happened when I was hosting a photographic safari in India.

Photographing tigers is a tricky business; they are designed to not be seen, which always makes things a little interesting. The next part of the challenge is finding a tiger that is happy to be photographed and comes and sits right out in the open.  Given the dense jungles of India, this doesn’t happen very often, but we have managed to find a place where the tigers are quite at ease in the open meaning they can be found with some regularity, giving us good shot.  On my recent photographic safari, we managed to find a large male, who was playing the game.  We found him lying down in a dried up river bed, quite a distance away from us, and decided to wait with him to see if he came any closer.  A solid two and a half hours later, he did just that, and let me tell you, it was worth the wait!  He approached us directly giving us great head-on photos, before moving past us while stalking a spotted deer.  He then made his way, very casually, to a small water hole where he stopped for a late afternoon drink before flopping down into the water to cool off.  Needless to say, the cameras were clicking away furiously!  It was photographic heaven.

I will be leading the Tiger Safari again next year, and cannot wait to see if we can see more of the same from these enormous cats!

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A fun day out

26 03 2014

I was leading a photographic safari recently, and we were lucky enough to find a pride of lions with a little surprise for us.  Hidden amongst all the teeth and claws of the adults in the pride, was a tiny cub, around 2 months old.  This little lion was having a wonderful time exploring his new environment, and seeing what life as a lion was all about.

We were captivated for the better part of an hour with the little cub’s antics, taking every photographic opportunity available.  It is not always the easiest thing in the world photographing a cub so small, because every time he moved off the path, he was completely covered by the grass.  Only every now and again would he pop out into the open and give us a few images.  When we did get a clear opportunity, the cameras went into overdrive – it was fantastic.  Eventually though, the mother of the cub decided we had been lucky enough, and they moved off into some thicker bush.  We didn’t want to overstay our welcome so left them to rest peacefully, and moved off to look for our next subject.

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A magical place

18 03 2014

There are so many fantastic places to visit on safari, it is pretty much impossible to choose just one favourite, and I am not even pretending to do that, but I have found a rather special place, which I can highly recommend.

I was leading a photographic safari to Kenya for the famous annual migration, and we added an extension to the safari that saw us land in Amboseli National Park.  This National Park is a little off the main tourist routes so immediately provides you with a quiet relief that all safaris should.  It is extremely dry and dusty (even more so than the usual African dry and dusty), with a few marshy swamps clustered together, and has probably the best views of Mount Kilimanjaro.  The views of Africa’s highest mountain alone are enough to justify a visit to this National Park, but when you add in the huge amounts of elephants to be found in the Park, it becomes spectacular.  There are many other species of animals as well, most notably lion, cheetah, giraffe and zebra, but the elephants steal the show.  Herds of up to, and sometimes even over, one hundred elephants can be seen on the flat grasslands quietly and peacefully feeding.  Drop in a gorgeous sunset over the back of these mighty herds, and see Africa at its best!  The photographic opportunities are amazing, and the cameras were certainly working over-time.

It is not the typical safari, it is not about counting the number of species you see, or how much action you can pack in, but it is well worth a visit.

To join me on safari, click here!





Searching for snow leopards: Part 2

24 02 2014

Attempting to follow the tracks of a wild snow leopard is a fool’s game, but we were fools on a mission, and when we woke on the fifth morning of our safari to find two sets of tracks that went straight through the camp (literally within fifty meters [±150 ft] of my tent), we were off like a shot.  The camera bag with all the attachments got slung on my back in no time, and the trek up the valley began.  This is one of those moments where you need the utmost speed, but that speed is a gentle walk at best (the altitude still winning all the fights).  We made good time, but not snow leopard time.  By lunch, the tracks were starting to melt in the warm minus three-degree (26°F) sun, and I actually think we were further away form the leopards than we were when we started in the morning.  The walk back down the valley was a little disappointing, but we were one step closer than we had been on the previous few days.

The sixth morning started out the same way – two sets of tracks walking right alongside the camp, but this time in the other direction.  Realising the optimism involved with attempting to track a snow leopard high in the Himalayas, we were gearing up a little slower than the previous morning, understanding better that we were perhaps ill-equipped physically to track down these two cats.  A cup of tea later, and a very excited guide came running up the valley towards our camp (yes, the guides can actually run up there, they don’t seem affected by the altitude at all; read jealousy) waving his arms, and telling us they have found the leopards!

Packs on, tea drunk and doing the fastest slow walk I could muster, I was racing down the valley, heading in the direction of the tracks.  We found the guide who had spotted the cats sitting up on a ridge, so made the climb to join him.  Trying to look through the spotting scope while dry heaving is not the easiest, but the leopards were indeed sitting in the middle of the spotting scope.  They were easily three kilometres away!  We made our way as close as possible, (still between one and a half and two kilometres away) and spent the rest of the day watching the cats.  The cameras were quite ineffectual until late in the afternoon when they started to move around.  Even then, the best I managed was a record shot.

The last day, and our last chance to try get a good photograph of wild snow leopard.  There were tracks in the snow, high above our camp heading up a different valley.  We gave it a shot, as it was all we had.  We made it quite far up the valley, but all the signs of the leopard had disappeared.  Now knowing the capabilities of the snow leopard, it came as no surprise that the cat had long gone, leaving us guessing, again.  We did get a quick glimpse of a Himalayan wolf, a very difficult species to see, so that felt like the reward for the long trek.  We decided to head back to camp slowly, having one last look through the valley in a desperate attempt to get the photographs we had dreamed of.  One of our guides had gone on ahead, and we spread ourselves throughout the valley, searching every crevasse, every rock ledge, and every possible snow leopard looking bump.

The call came in, and just from the tone of the voice on the other side of the radio, I knew we were in business.  The guide that went ahead had spotted a snow leopard sitting on a rocky ledge, not too far from the trail.  With full gear on and in the snow and ice, I ‘ran’ (walked quickly) as fast as I could down the trail to where the guide was waiting.  It took a while to see it, mostly because I couldn’t breath.  Before I had even confirmed its position, I had the camera setup, and was ready to shoot.  There she was, sitting behind a rock, just the tail sticking out (well done to the guide on that spot).  It took a freezing couple of hours for her to move about, but when she did, I was in heaven!  All the hard work, all the planning, all the pain of walking up those mountains and valleys, all worth it for a ten-minute show that to me is priceless.  I got images I never dreamed I would get and I got to experience a moment with a snow leopard I never thought possible.  The moment was ended soon after she went over the ridge by fingers that felt like they were about to fall off, and my body was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but the walk back to camp was the easiest walk I have done in years.








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