The most challenging adventure yet: Snow Leopards

6 02 2014

Usually I write about experiences I have already had on safari, but this next adventure is my toughest and one of the most exciting yet, so I wanted to include you all in the build-up.  I am heading up into the Himalayas to see if I can a.) see a wild snow leopard, and b.) try to photograph one!  This is very optimistic I know, given that less than 1000 western people have actually ever seen one in the wild (literally, more people have summited Mount Everest), but I have always said if you don’t try, then you don’t stand a chance, so with that in mind I am giving it a try.

Aside from the low probabilities of actually finding a snow leopard in such a vast area, the physical difficulties involved with accessing the areas they do is a challenge all its own.  The altitude is the first big hurdle to overcome.  Starting in town at 11,500 ft (3500m) and only going higher will definitely put some strain on the lungs and test the fitness levels quite thoroughly.  The base camp is around 13,290 ft (4050m) from where we start each trek, again, only going higher.  I have been hitting the gym pretty hard to try getting my legs and lungs ready for what I am sure will be an awesome assault on both pairs of trekking apparatus, but the low altitudes I have been training at, are, I think, giving me false information about my level of fitness.  This will most likely be confirmed on day 1, in the town, climbing off the plane.  Second to the altitude, but not by much, is the temperature.  Average nightly temperatures are expected to bottom out at minus twenty-five degrees Celsius – good times! (I must note at this point we are staying in tents, so come on super sleeping bag).  A real concern I have is, when you spend a day hard trekking up a mountain you sweat, no matter how cold it is.  When you stop trekking, your sweat freezes, which brings your core temperature down dangerously quickly (I have experienced this a few times, but never too far from help if needed). I think the secret is to walk slow and steady.

The prize at the end is, however, worth all the trouble.  Just having a chance to see a wild snow leopard is already very lucky, never mind the elation that I am sure accompanies actually seeing one (lets hope I don’t cry from happiness if I do manage to see one, and if I do that my eyes don’t freeze shut)!  I will let you all know just how things unfold when I am back in a couple of weeks.  Until then, here is a photograph I took of a captive snow leopard to keep you going.  Let’s hope for more of the same…

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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!

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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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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.

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Svalbard: The stars of the show

25 09 2013

Even with all the magnificent beauty, extreme conditions and serious difficulties of living in Svalbard, there is one species that really steals the show.  Most people travel up to the arctic with one real hope – to see a polar bear.  We were no different, and we were very lucky indeed.

We had several sightings of polar bears, which is lucky in itself, but it’s the interactions we witnessed that fired off the cameras at an alarming rate.  Our first sighting was a good appetite setter.  She was a young, nervous bear that wasn’t too keen on being photographed.  I managed a few long-range shots before she moved off over the ridge.  Not long after she disappeared and we celebrated, the second bear appeared out of the mist, and this bear was more obliging.  So obliging in fact, that it led us straight to a third bear, who was also relaxed.  The conditions were difficult; the rain was becoming a combination of hail and sleet and the zodiacs were rocking back and forth, but it was all forgotten when the two bears stood up and started sparring with each other.  Seeing a polar bear is cool.  Seeing two bears interacting is fantastic!  The cameras were working overtime through the rain/sleet/hail capturing interaction seldom seen on Svalbard.  After their sparring session, the two bears parted ways temporarily, leading one of the bears straight to a herd of walruses with a small baby.  Walruses are generally too big for the polar bears to handle (see: Svalbard: 100% character), but the babies, now that is a different story.  Realising the danger, the mother of the young baby and her close affiliates made a mad dash for the water, literally throwing and rolling the baby down the beach and into the safety of the water.  Seeing this, the polar bear walked closer to make sure there were no more baby walrus treats hiding in the herd, and then moved off.

Our next polar bear was brilliantly spotted as it moved over a ridge.  We boarded the zodiacs, and went in for a closer look.  The bear was quickly re-found, but in a different place to where it should have been.  It took us a little while to work it all out, but when a little head popped up from behind the sleeping bear, we knew we had found a different bear from the one that was spotted, and she had a six-month old cub!  The rest of the day was spent photographing these three bears in all sorts of positions and locations.  The bears eventually met up, and a twenty-minute chase began across the small island they were on.  The mother, obviously nervous with such a young cub around, was doing her best to shield the little chap from potential danger, and kept trying to lose the approaching bear. They didn’t get too close to each other (luckily for the little bear) and all ended well.  It was great seeing the change in behaviour in the bears, and getting to photograph it.  We spent many hours in the company of these amazing animals and were privileged to get many great photographs.

 

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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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