Always the bad guy

5 11 2014

Always the bad guy, always hated, always the cowardly scrounger – the spotted hyena has caught a tough rap over the years. Partly because of the Lion King, but mostly because every time the hero gets a meal, those pesky hyenas are in there like a shot to steal it!

It must be said, that I like hyenas. I think they are very well designed, and excellent at their job – possibly better than most other predators roaming the savannah in Africa. It does not mean, however, that they don’t frustrate me endlessly! I have had many sightings of leopard/lion/cheetah actively hunting, and closing in on their quarry when a bumbling hyena stumbles into the sighting to see if there is anything on the go, chasing away the prey and ruining the hunt.

Photographing hyenas can be particularly exciting. They move freely through the bush looking for other predators, so the chance to see and photograph large predator interaction is quite high. We have all seen the classic battles between hyenas and lions (don’t lie, you always support the lions), but to actually be there witnessing the battle first hand is wonderfully exciting, and great for wildlife photography. Their relationship with leopards is slightly trickier, where one-on-one the hyenas usually win, but it does sometimes go the other way. You always need to keep the camera ready, because a short, sharp and often violent scuffle could break out at any moment.

There is another side to hyenas though. Their behaviour around their den sites is highly contrasting to their business personas. They are very caring and nurturing mothers (the males play no role, and are treated like lepers in medieval times), and show their young ones the sort of patience that a paint-drying-wall-watcher displays while in the middle of their hobby. The cubs are cute as you like, and their little personalities show right from the first time they leave the den to explore their immediate little world. To me, they often make the best photographs, because they become comfortable with the safari vehicles quite quickly, and are often very playful.

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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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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.





Every time is playtime

26 11 2013

One of the joys of being young is having endless energy; another perk is that you have no responsibility, so every time is playtime.  Now take that thought, and add some seriously cute little lion cubs and you get an amazing sighting!

I was in Kenya recently leading a photographic safari, when we came across a family of lions – a female with her three small cubs, probably around three months old.  It was late in the afternoon, and they had finished chewing an old warthog carcass they had found.  The cubs decided this was a great time for a bit of rough and tumble, and so the games began.  They were darting back and forth, stalking and jumping on each other, biting their sibling’s ears until said sibling didn’t find it funny any more and a real little scuffle broke out.  Peace was restored time and again when another of the siblings found a stick to play with, and this became the most sought after possession, which would leave us photographing a line of cubs, all chasing the leader with the prized stick.

The mother, who had been keeping a watchful eye over the young bundles of fluff, was not excused from their list of play items, and it was not long before one of the cubs took on something a little larger than itself.  Her patience was commendable as she let her youngsters try to ‘hunt’ her.  They jumped all over her, attacking her tail, ears, face and paws, until eventually she started giving them a bath, which was when they returned to the magic stick that had once again been discovered (cue small line of lions following a stick).

It is not often that you are allowed into the world of such great predators, so when you get the chance, I highly recommend keeping your camera ready!

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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!

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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.

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