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.

To join me on safari, click here!

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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.





Searching for snow leopards: Part 1

21 02 2014

Heading into the Himalayas to search for the elusive snow leopard, two things immediately struck me – the incredible beauty of these mountains, and the enormity of the task at hand.  The realisation that followed shortly after (when disembarking the aeroplane), was that this was not going to be a warm safari – a cool minus five degrees Celsius (23°F) welcomed us (what turned out to be a rather warm minus five, things would only get colder).  After spending two days acclimatising to the new (and for most people, extreme) altitude we headed into the snow leopard reserve to begin our search, and take on this seemingly futile challenge.

I only had one real hope for this safari, and that was to see a wild snow leopard, photographing one would be a bonus. My dream was realised on the very first morning!  After a rather chilly minus fifteen degree (5°F) sleep in a tent that offered little to no protection from the elements, it was a great surprise to wake up to two snow leopards (a mother and a sub-adult cub) taking a rest on the ridge above the camp.  The ridge was quite a distance away, and even the big lenses struggled to find the cats, but alas, there they were.  Not only had I seen wild snow leopards, I had a cup of tea in my hand at the same time.  Very civilised. This was a great bit of luck, but it was also the last bit of luck we would have for a few days, as things got really tough from there on.

Temperatures dropped, as did reports of snow leopards along with any other signs of the big cats.  The next two days were spent trekking high up into the mountains to no avail.  The satisfaction of already having seen the leopards was pretty much the only thing to hold on to (the ridges we were climbing were very steep with no vegetation, so there was literally nothing else to hold on to).  The assault predicted on the legs and lungs was in full swing, and even the most remedial task (like putting on your shoes) took all your breath away – a ten-meter walk felt like a ten kilometre hike.  Things were tough…

A nightlong snowfall changed our luck a little.  We were now able to spot the tracks of the snow leopards, and this we did. There was great excitement around camp, when we found a set of tracks high on the mountain, and began to follow.  Unfortunately, the great distances that these magnificent cats travel, and the speed at which they travel left us chasing a ghost, but at least there were now signs that the cats were back in the area.