A little bit of good news

28 01 2014

The Svalbard safari I went on in July 2013 produced some wonderful images, but most surprising of all, was the sheer volume of bird photography I was able to do.  I went to the island archipelago hoping to see polar bears and walrus, with an outside chance of squeezing in some bird photography.  Little did I know just how much time I would get to spend tracking the flyers with my camera.

Svalbard’ secret when it comes to birds, is quantity, not diversity.  There are not too many species of birds found that far north (remember it is in the Arctic circle), but the birds that do head up there to breed in the summer, do so in massive numbers (Brunnich’s guillemot breeding colony), and this gives you quite a few bites at the apple.  Normally when you are on safari, you might get only one chance to photograph a bird in flight, but in Svalbard, you can (not always) get several fly-bys from hundreds of birds.

I used these numbers and opportunities to my advantage and put together a gallery of some of the better images, which was recently featured on the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s website: www.dicoverwildlife.com.  It is always nice to see your images getting some good exposure, and nice to be the one who shows people just what amazing birds can be found in the Arctic Circle!

To join me on safari, click here!

Svalbard: An amazing place

24 10 2013

Svalbard, as you might have gathered from my previous blogs, is simply an amazing place.  It is so extreme, that any species that manages to survive up there is quite special, and then some.  I went there hoping to see a few of the more charismatic species, but found myself amazed by everything we saw.

The thing that surprised me the most was the amount of landscape images I came back with.  Being a true wildlife photographer, I don’t often put time into landscape photography, but in Svalbard, you don’t have a choice!  The stark beauty of every new horizon is too inviting.  It was great to see a bunch of big-lens wielding photogs giving the wide-angle lenses a run.  While the little lenses were out, some new ideas came to mind.  For ninety percent of the safari, we had a travelling companion – the northern fulmar.  Admittedly, not the most striking bird, but pretty in its own right, these birds would fly behind the boat, swinging left to right for hours on end, giving us great photographic opportunities.  Combining the little lenses with the northern fulmars created some magic images.
At one point we found ourselves in between two little auk breeding colonies.  These fantastic little birds nest in the thousands underneath large boulders.  Sitting patiently on the rocks just off to the side of the nests gets you right into the action, and every few minutes a flock of five hundred or so birds comes whizzing past your camera.  Shortly after the little auk colony, we were face to face with a family of harbour seals. Curious by nature, these seals are quite interested in the people taking their picture, so they come in closer for a better look – this was a wonderful discovery for the photographers!  Sitting only meters away from these playful seals was an unexpected win for us!

The glaciers that we saw were equally as impressive as the wildlife.  The sheer size is difficult to fully understand, and the photographs certainly don’t do the size any justice.  Try to imagine a forty-story building and you will get a rough idea as to the size of some of the smaller glaciers leading edges.  The massive mountains in the background don’t help the brain compute the size either, by dwarfing these monsters.  We did manage to see some carving, which is when large chunks of ice fall off the front of the glacier – scary stuff!  It literally sounds like a building being imploded, and the force of the ice falling looks similar to it as well.  The waves created by carving glacier ice have toppled boats anchored over a couple of hundred meters away.  Hopping into the smaller zodiacs, we went between theses enormous blocks of carved ice and were transported into an ancient world, as some of the ice were a few thousand years old – again, difficult to fully comprehend.

Svalbard is a special place.  I feel really privileged to have experienced it both in summer and late winter, and can’t wait to get back again!

To join me safari, click here!

Svalbard: The ever-present tern

15 10 2013

At every turn in our Svalbard adventure, another tern would pop up.  The arctic tern is quite a small bird, but is the record holder in quite a prestigious category – it is the animal that has a longer migration than any other.

These amazing little birds breed during the arctic summer. As soon as they have successfully fledged the chicks, they begin the long journey south – to the Antarctic!  They literally migrate from one pole to the other.  This is no mean feat, but given the size of the bird, they have certainly earned their spot in all our respect books.  Perhaps because of their arduous journey, they are tough little blighters.  This became quite evident when on our first day in Svalbard we happened upon an arctic tern nest and were forcibly removed from the area.  The birds begin the attack with loud squawking, quickly followed by dive-bombing at your eyes.  I know they are small birds, but let me assure you, this is a very convincing technique.  No matter how sure you are of yourself, there is an instinct to protect your eyes you can’t seem to turn off, and they win that fight ten out of ten.  I witnessed them using this trick of theirs on a number of occasions, and they were always able to chase off the predators (impressively, from glaucus gulls to polar bears).

During a walrus sighting, the large mammals moved a little distance into the water and we were patiently waiting their return.  Right on cue, an arctic tern showed up and started feeding not far from where we were sitting.  The tern gave us great images as it would dive into the water, catching little shrimp, and then flying off with its quarry right past us.   It goes to show, it is not always the biggest and scariest animals that make the best pictures – keep your eyes open and look out for the ever-present terns.

To join me on safari, click here!

Svalbard: The Kittiwake’s cliff

11 10 2013

Tucked away in a large crevasse along the jagged coast of the main island Spitzbergen, is an extremely impressive colony of breeding black-legged kittiwakes.  These petit and very pretty birds appear gull-like, which probably makes you think ‘a little dull-like’.  I certainly did, until we reached the cliffs, settled in and actually had a chance to watch these beautiful birds go about their day-to-day.

Viewing the cliff is quite an intimate affair- you climb over a ridge and (very carefully) work your way down until you are basically in the colony, on a small grassy patch that is unused by the birds.  From there you can find yourself only a few meters away from the birds, and the photographic opportunities are endless.  Every lens was put to work, from the widest angle to the big zooms – it was fantastic!  The birds simply ignore you and carry on with their day, which is ideal for photography. 

A real highlight was seeing the newly hatched chicks in the nest.  For the most part they were well covered by their parents, but every now and again, a little fellow would pop its head out from beneath its mother and have a look at the world.  This was a dangerous game as the always-present glaucus gulls were keeping an eye out for a quick meal.  While we were at the cliffs, it seemed that the kittwakes had the gulls under control, as none of the youngsters were snatched.

The cliffs were shared with a small colony of brunnich’s guillemots, which seemed to enjoy the peace away from the main colony (see: Svalbard: Unbelievable scenes).  Together they seemed to have a great place to nest, coupled with a great view and plenty of food.

To join me on safari, click here!

Hot property

3 04 2012

Location is key in the real estate game. Every year, a flock of lesser-masked weavers heads back to the same tree, to rebuild their weathered empire.
The males (with the black faces) work frantically to build a new and suitable nest for the lady of their dreams (well, that year’s dreams anyway), which she will hopefully approve of, and not rip apart – literally (if our gentleman friend does an unsuitable job, she will break the nest apart, forcing him to start again).
This is tiresome work, and as is the case in every community, there are those that are not too keen to get stuck in and work for their ladies affection. This group of individuals steal ready-made nests, and show off their stolen goods to their ladies, with a sad story of how hard they had to work for her!

While this is not great for the builder of the nest, it is great fun for photographers! The trick is trying to pick the right nest out of the hundred or so to focus on before the action starts, because these little birds end their squabbles very quickly, often just as you get your lens focused.
I had to stop trying to photograph them for a while, and work out where the hottest property was. Somewhere in the middle of the tree, perfectly positioned over the water, I found a small group of nests that were attracting a lot of attention. The nest had not only been completed, but already had a female living inside. These unruly males were not just trying to steal the nest, but the female as well! She decided she had had enough of all the commotion, stepped outside, and simply removed the problem.

While all this is going on, the birds are contending with two other enemies. The first, and most difficult to sort out, is the much larger Diedericks Cuckoo. This brood parasite, waits for the owners of the nest to be distracted enough to quickly slip into the nest, and lay their eggs. Interestingly, when their egg hatches, (always before the weavers eggs hatch), the day old chick instinctively knows to break the other egg, or once the weavers egg hatches, the bigger cuckoo chick pushes the weavers chick out the nest. The adult weavers have not worked this little snippet of information out yet, and raise the cuckoo chick as their own. Bizarre.
The other enemy fighting them on a more passive front is in fact the very reason their nests are so successful. They build their nest high off the ground, right on the end of the smaller branches, most often above water. The entrance to the nest is below the nest, facing the ground, which helps keep other predators like snakes and goshawks out. The catch is, when the chick starts getting adventurous in the nest, they often fall out. If they survive the fall, which the near fledglings often do, they are then easy targets for the other predators.

One day, quite suddenly, the noise disappears, the nests are empty, and the birds are gone. Next year though, they will be back, fighting for the hottest property in the tree.

A pretty ugly fight

9 03 2012

Often when you are on safari, you are looking for something specific, but more often than not, its what you are not looking for that is the most exciting!
I had headed out on a typical afternoon safari, thinking I was ready for what the wilds had to throw at me, when, literally 5 minutes into the drive, a clacking ball of turquoise and lilac came falling down in front of me!

It took a few split seconds to realize what was going on, but naturally, my hands had gone for the camera and started lifting it to my eye. When I had worked it all out, I was snapping away like a mad man at arguably two of the most beautiful birds, two male Lilac Breasted Rollers, doing their level best to destroy each other/impress the female. The lucky lady had casually taken up a ringside seat, and was shouting encouragement to the contenders. The two birds, now in full battle mode, ignored me completely and were using every trick in the book to overcome their rival.

The entire fight lasted only a few seconds, and both birds flew away from the fight with most of their striking feathers intact. There was a clear winner though, as one of the birds returned after seeing off his defeated competitor and perched right next to the now silent female.

It was hard to fully understand the impacts sustained by the birds during the fight, as the camera’s shutter was working overtime, but when I got back to camp and went through it all, I was amazed by the brutality of it all. It did lead to some interesting images, which always puts a smile on my face.