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!

 

To join me on safari click here!





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.





It’s all about the ladies.

26 04 2012

Males cannot be held accountable for their actions when there is an obliging lady nearby! These two water monitor lizards were engaged in a battle royale when I happened upon them during an afternoon safari. The sound and proximity of the land rover didn’t deter the two combatants one bit, as they put on quite a show.
They were embraced in the typical lizard fighting position – grappling on their back legs, but being of similar size and strength found themselves almost stuck in that position. Both were bleeding when I arrived ringside, so I think they had been holding that stance for a while! Someone had to make the first move…

I am not sure if it was strength from the aggressor or fatigue from the recipient, but one of the massive lizards managed to throw the other to the floor, and get some sort of hold on him. The controlled grapple dissipated into a free for all on the mat, and chaos/panic ensued. During all the commotion, the female very casually observed the bout from the sunny entrance to her den, waiting for the victor. Lucky lass!

When on the floor, the tables turned and the chap that had just been unceremoniously dumped by his rival, ended up with an opportunity to bite his opponent’s leg. Being war – where all is fair – he took his chance, and sunk his teeth into a juicy bit of what turned out to be the loser. The leg hold panicked the now three-limbed lizard, and he made a break with the champ in hot pursuit.
Only when he was sure his challenger had fled the scene for good, did he walk back to his lady. With the typical dinosaur style swagger, exaggerated with victory, he epitomised cool and alpha male!





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.





Birds, bees and leopards!

29 07 2011

It was a simple case of boy meets girl – except the boy is a stealthy killing machine, capable of dragging a little more than his own body weight up a tree with only his teeth and claws, and his lady the same, with a pinch of feisty sprinkled on top!

Making baby leopards is a complicated affair. Firstly, leopards are solitary animals, and although they do meet up from time to time, there is always a lot of hissing, growling and general hating. Secondly, the male has a barbed penis, enough to cause any relationship to struggle… What this means is, when leopards mate, there is an explosive reaction after each session. Great to photograph!

I spent a lucky day with just such a couple, and witnessed the passionate sexcapades.
After each session, the female does her level best to smack the living daylights out of the male, (remember the barbed penis), and he tries his best to get out of the way of said claws! The result: a series of images I am quite chuffed with, and a few fresh scars for the young lover!





A minor disagreement

12 07 2011

When two of the big heavies meet up, there are bound to be a few words said.
I was present at just such a meeting, and managed to capture some of the more extreme moments on camera!
Two large, territorial rhinos met up in the river to discuss possible the relocation of the current boundary lines. Both were current territory holders, so the meeting was not as intense as it could have been, (the younger ‘up and comers’ usually put down a fight that ends up with the loser dying), but the boundary was the river, and the river means life, so it was a heated discussion to say the least!

It looked more like an unfortunate piece of timing, rather than a deliberate fight, where the two large bulls just happened upon each other at the rivers edge, and began tussling, as two large bulls that have just happened upon each other do. It took a while for the combatants to commit, but when they did, the dust flew!
The force they hit each other with was astounding, and weighing in at a little over two tones each, the horns pack a nasty punch!
Being seasoned veterans, they managed to defend most of their opponent’s attacks, and no serious injuries were sustained, but both were left with less blood than when they started.

Quite suddenly, amongst all the commotion, it all ended. Each male took a moment for a quick drink of water, and then headed in opposite directions, one moving west, the other east. It seems as though, after sizing the other up, they both agreed that the river was a suitable boundary, and left it at that.