Svalbard: The villain of the piece

20 08 2013

Every good story needs a villain, and filling this less than desirable role in the Svalbard story, is the glaucus gull. On several occasions, I witnessed these large birds preying on some of the smaller birds that headed (very far) north to breed in the arctic summer.

The eider ducks were the main target during most of my sightings.  The brave ducks did their best to fight back, and for a while it seemed to work, but eventually, the patience, wise and guile of the bigger bird prevailed, and the ducks lost a chick.  There is no rest however, no matter how high you are up on the food chain, especially when the rest of your species thinks the same way you do.  Once the chick had been caught, it hadn’t even been swallowed yet (amazingly hole, and in one quick gulp), and the nearest of the gulls’ colleagues was onto him, challenging for the remains of the little chick.  During one attack on the slightly defenceless ducks, a gull made a cool approach to some nesting ducks, and swooped in to try grabbing a chick, but missed and got a beak-full of the treasured down feather that have made eider ducks so famous.  It spat the feathers out with a look of disgust, and flew off to try a different group of nesting females.

Things don’t always go the way of the gulls though – a very brave, and very irritating arctic tern was able to encourage the gull to move on. It was a matter of minutes however, before a second gull was onto the tern’s nesting site, and the performance started again.  All of this provided some incredible photographic opportunities!

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Svalbard: 100% character

8 08 2013

There is so much natural beauty on the island archipelago of Svalbard that there was bound to be one species that dropped the ball, so to speak.  There is no denying that the mighty walrus is not an outright looker, but what they lack in aesthetics, they make up for with loads of character.

Naively, before seeing my first walrus, I thought of them as a juicy prey item for the largest predator on earth – the polar bear.  Split seconds after seeing my first walrus, I realized just how wrong I was!  It was never in doubt that they were big creatures, but I was really surprised by just how big they actually are.  The average size of a male is around one thousand two hundred and fifty kilograms (about two thousand seven hundred and sixty pounds), and the average length is just over three meters (ten feet).  Those nifty stats simply mean that if they are bothered by a polar bear, or anything else for that matter, they don’t actually have to do anything, they just stand together and hold their ground.  We did actually see some interaction between a polar bear and a herd of female walruses, which came to naught as soon as the wary mothers had (rather roughly) escorted their young to the safety of the water.

We had a number of good encounters with walrus on the safari, each one leading to some pretty decent photo opportunities.  Getting up close to the walrus was not a challenge.  The first encounter we had, they came up to us (wildlife photography made easy).  We were still sorting out cameras and approaches on the beach when a couple of the bigger lads came to see what we were all about.  The way they pop their heads up out of the water and inspect you is very cool, even gentlemanly.  Once they were comfortable with us, they stopped the bobbing up and down, and just had a good look.  It was a great opportunity to get some detail-revealing portraits.  On our second encounter, we crept slowly and quietly up to a large herd of mature males that were sleeping on the beach.  They were sleeping with conviction, so it was not difficult to get within fifteen meters.  The sounds emanating from the herd combined with the sheer volume of snot and drool didn’t help their case, but what fantastic animals!  A true surprise.  I had gone to Svalbard sure the polar bear was easily the ‘trophy’ species, but the all-out character of the walruses won the group of us over.  It was great getting the chance to study these massive, blubber rich beauties (beauties used loosely there), and take some pretty (pretty used loosely there) great images.

 

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Svalbard: Unbelievable scenes

2 08 2013

I recently spent 10 awesome days on a photographic safari in Svalbard; the land of the midnight sun (well, this time of year anyway; there are also 4 months where it is the land of complete darkness).  There was so much to see and do, so many spectacular scenes, that I have decided to break up my arctic tales into a number of separate blogs.  The first of these adventures was an incredible trip to a bird cliff.

This was not just any bird cliff, this would be more accurately described as ‘the’ bird cliff – sixty thousand pairs of breeding Brunnich’s Guillemots!  For those of you who struggle with math, that is one hundred and twenty thousand birds (these are only the breeding birds, not any other hanging around) on one cliff face!  It truly is a feast for the senses.

Photographing them from the bow of our ship proved to be interesting…  The hardest part was without a doubt, trying to single out a single scene or bird to aim at.  There is so much commotion both on the cliff face, and flying around you, that it is very tricky trying to pick up the rhythm.   After I had closed my gob-smacked jaw, I did work out the general comings and goings of the birds, and managed to get some great images.  The rocking of the boat did not help either, for two reasons.  Firstly, because it makes aiming the camera very difficult, and secondly, because it does not allow you to use a tripod, so for the duration of the three hour continuous shoot, you are holding your (at this stage very heavy) camera, which will test even the buffest biceps!

At a number of points throughout the experience, I found myself standing back just looking up at that impressive cliff, trying to comprehend everything in front of me.  Even harder was thinking how on earth do I explain this to people who have never seen it – I surely would not have believed it if someone had try to describe it to me.  The only sure fire way to fully understand this marvelous phenomenon, is to head up to the arctic, and see it for yourself!

 

To join me on safari, click here!

 





Sea eagles on ice please

2 07 2013

I was on safari in Japan recently, and had the good fortune to photograph the magnificent stellar sea eagles.  This is quite an experience, one that surprised me in all the right ways.

 

We set out on our icebreaker cruise first thing in the morning, and were lucky to have had the sea ice drift south over night (quick info: no ice = no eagles; there was no ice the evening we arrived).  We headed out straight for the ice (which never seems like a good idea: titanic), and wedged ourselves between the massive blocks of white rock.  The hull of the boat squealed each time we made contact with a new piece of ice, causing even the brave to keep a concerned eye on the lifeboats.  Just as we got settled, the first of these massive eagles swooped past us, looking for bits of fish.

The stellar sea eagle is the world’s largest eagle, which is quite apparent even at a distance.  While the short distance between eagle number one and our cameras did not disguise their size, when eagle number two came and landed less than ten meters away from us, it was properly understood.  These are some seriously big birds.  They are just fantastic to watch, and even better to photograph.  The white-tailed eagles we had seen before also joined in the feast of fish found on the ice, and were somewhat dwarfed by these oversized raptors.  Two and a half hours of pure bliss resulting in thousands of images.  Towards the end, I counted close to one hundred eagles sitting and flying all around us.  To anyone who has even the slightest interest in photography, birding or life experiences, this is an absolute must do!

To join me on safari, click here!

 

 





Crossing madness

31 05 2013

Every year, over two million wildebeest and zebra make their way around the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem, following the rains and the green grass that follow.  The highlight of this dangerous journey (at least for wildlife photographers) is the crossing of the Mara River in Kenya.  This is probably one of the most documented wildlife spectacles in the world, and with good reason.

 

The wildebeest can gather for days on the banks of the river, plucking up the courage to make the crossing.  There is an ebb and flow; a back and forth as their bravery builds, which is quickly diminished when they get close to the water.  Everyone is waiting for the first wildebeest to jump in.  All this waiting only adds to the excitement.  Eventually, one brave fellow makes the move.  As soon as the first hoof touches the water a stampede begins, and up to twenty thousand wildebeest and a few hundred zebra start panicking and blindly follow the rump in front of them.  When the first wildebeest cross, they choose the best point to enter the river, but a point that also has a good exit (crocodiles aside, most animals perish at the exit).  Once the mega herd has entered the water, the current takes the herd downstream, often to a point in the river that doesn’t have an exit, leaving the animals swimming to their demise.  This is where the crocodiles come in.  They are smart animals, having played this game for many decades.  The crocodiles don’t waste their energy on fit and strong individuals that have just entered the river, they target the poor chaps that are swimming around aimlessly, getting more and more tired.

There are many great individual triumphs through all the commotion.  A very large percentage of the animals that cross the Mara River make it to the other side, and carry on the cycle.  It is extremely uplifting to watch a wildebeest or zebra fight the odds; the crocodiles, the current, the stampede and blocked exit points and make it out the other side, to fight another day.

All of this adds up to an experience that is actually quite difficult to explain, but the same comment keeps coming up when people try to describe it – you have to experience it!

 

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Skilled thievery

22 05 2013

Sometimes the best intentions can be misunderstood.  This is exactly the case in Japan, where feeding stations were created to rehabilitate and restore the alarmingly low numbers of the Japanese red-crowned crane (there are an estimated eight hundred breeding pairs left, a number which has increased greatly over the last fifty years).

Corn is thrown out on a daily basis to help the cranes get through the long cold winter and to boost breeding in the spring, but occasionally fish are thrown out as well.

Enter the white-tailed eagles.  They have cleverly seen that the cranes are being fed delicious, pre-caught fish, and wanted in on the action, so that’s what they did.  They started hanging around the crane sanctuaries, keeping an eye on proceedings, and when they see the juicy fish thrown out onto the snow, they begin their decent. They move quickly and quietly, and to try catch the flocks of cranes by surprise so as to steal the fish with as little fuss as possible.

Many wary cranes eyes now keep an upward watch for these eagles, and let out a loud squawk when the eagles drop into the flock.  Amplify this by one hundred birds all squeaking at the same time, and feeding becomes chaotic. For the most part, the cranes get the fish they need to make it through the winter, but a large portion goes (unintentionally) to sustaining the white–tailed eagle population.

I was leading a photographic safari to Japan earlier in the year, and managed to witness this fantastic interaction between the birds.  It is a photographer’s heaven; there is more going on than any one person can photograph, leaving you glued to the action and clicking away like crazy. The eagles don’t have it all their own way however. As they make off with some freshly stolen fish, the carrion crows swoop in and start harassing the eagles, picking up the dropped pieces.  It really is half an hour of madness that provides thousands of great images.

 

To join me on next years Japan: Winter Wildlife Safari, click here!





Fun and games

23 05 2012

There is always that one individual in a group that has the ability to rile up the others. Turns out, zebras are no different.

Out on a morning safari, a particularly frisky zebra was jabbing at the cool temperament of his herd. There was no obvious sign for his boisterous behaviour, but every member of the herd had their share of his attention.

There seemed to be no way out of his fun and games, as even the most mature of the zebras eventually succumbed to his biting and frolicking, and joined in. The mood he was in seemed contagious, as once he was done with one of the members, they in turn would start to harass a different member of the herd, and so on. This of course was great for photography, and I snapped away, spending the better part of an hour watching this chap getting on everyone’s nerves. I caught another lucky break; the overcast conditions, usually not a photog’s friend, meant that I had no limitations on the direction that I photographed. Glorious, as the zebras moved quite quickly back and forth past the vehicle. The most difficult part of the whole sighting, was trying to keep up with the action. There was so much going on; it was tricky to work out which way to point the camera!

It didn’t last forever though. The big stallion put an end to the youngster’s playtime with a swift kick to the neck. That settled everyone down instantly, and they continued with their day.