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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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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The polar experience

15 05 2013

Seeing a polar bear is quite an ordeal.  Firstly, it means you are somewhere very cold, and I mean very cold!  Secondly, you join a privileged few to actually see one of these magnificent bears in the wild and finally, being in such a remote and seemingly inhospitable environment, you really get a feeling of the majesty of nature.  I was up in Canada on a photographic safari a few months ago, and had the great luck to see several different polar bears, as well as a few of the other brave residents of the far north.

 

The first thing that hits you when you set out on safari is of course the cold.  We were welcomed with a cool minus thirty degrees Celsius, topped off with winds blowing at around sixty kilometers per hour.  I can assure you, that is some pretty cold stuff!  Once you have accepted the conditions, and found a way to work with them, you realize the space that surrounds you.  Vast ice fields, seemingly endless, stretch off in all directions.  Seldom will you find yourself in so much space.  The great white plains of the Canadian arctic are something to behold.

It seems nearly impossible to find a white bear in amongst so much snow and ice, but with a bit of patience and some luck, they magically appear from their white world.  Being the super predator, they are generally quite relaxed with the safari vehicles, and allow you to follow them as far as they see fit.  What this translates to, is amazing photo opportunities!  We spent a total of six or seven hours in the company of these magnificent bears, freely taking as many images as we could.  The only limitation to the photography is how long you could stay outside for!  Even with all the gear, there is no real way of protecting your hands against such harsh conditions, which makes things quite a bit more interesting.

 

I have added a short video from the safari to show what it is all about!

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A taste of India

9 05 2013

The mysterious sub-continent of India has a lot to offer wildlife photographers, but like many, I went there really only hoping to see one thing – the magnificent Bengal tiger!  I was living out my dream to see one of these awesome predators recently on a photographic safari, and had more luck than I could have ever expected.

 

Things started off slowly with no tiger action on the first two drives, but they did give us a glimpse of the extreme beauty that the Indian landscape has to offer.  Wild peacocks, jungle fowl and treepie’s were out in full force adding colour to the bush that was drying up in the anticipation of summer.  Spotted deer (the tiger’s most common prey) and the unusual looking barking deer would pop up from time to time, giving our cameras practice runs for when they were aimed at the prized target.  The real excitement of the first two safaris however, was the anticipation of seeing a wild tiger. We searched through the thick forest vegetation, finding nothing but tracks (which were photographed of course); we waited at the popular waterholes with only the playful langur monkeys coming down to greet us; we would even stop and listen at random intervals for sounds that a tiger was near – all very exciting stuff.  As much as I enjoy the anticipation of seeing a tiger, it was dwarfed by the excitement, on our third drive, when we heard the gruff call of a tigress nearby.  The engines started up, and we raced off in the direction of that beautiful sound.  Two minutes later, I was clicking away furiously as my first wild tigress walked straight towards us.  We must have looked ridiculous – a vehicle where only smiles and cameras could be seen!  It was a truly fantastic sensation to be in the presence of such a marvelous animal.

 

We had the privilege of seeing six different tigers during the photo safari, all of which were relaxed with vehicle and very obliging to the cameras.

I have added a short video from the safari below, have a look and let me know what you think!

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Photographing the Northern Lights: Part 2

11 12 2012

After the excitement from the second night, I was keen to try photographing the Northern Lights again, which brings us to our final night.  We were lucky again with a perfectly clear evening, so the game was on. The Internet forecast for the lights once again left us with little hope, at a hard zero out of five possibility.  Playing the odds here would not be smart, but I figure you have to be in it to win, so I made plans for us to go twenty minutes out of town and into a pine forest, and see if we could get some magic there.

Arriving at our destination, a small, cozy log cabin standing alone in the forest, we searched around for some interesting foregrounds, should the lights forget to read the forecast and appear. We were now ready for the lights in all directions.  This having been done, we went back inside, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Just as we were getting ready to start packing up, I went outside for one last check.  I had been out every five minutes for over two hours to check if the lights would appear, and had no real expectations of seeing anything, but better to check and be sure.

Once my eyes re-adjusted to the darkness, I saw the smallest, thinnest sliver of green not far from the horizon, just over the pine trees. Almost excited, I began taking some images.  I set the camera to maximize the light and colour, and managed to get some images out that were decent given the near lack of the lights.  In a two-minute swish, everything changed.  The sky lit up a bright green, with purple, red and orange flames jutting out the side.  It was extraordinary!  The belt of green linked the opposite horizons, and turned the black, very cold night into a green, very cold night.  I was running around to all the foregrounds I had found earlier and was shooting away, having an absolute blast, forgetting about the conditions.

Real life soon caught up with me, and the brisk thirty below temperatures started taking their toll.  Unexpectedly, the camera was struggling before me.  The glass on the front lens kept frosting up, and the controls on the camera were lagging, seriously lagging.  It wasn’t long before the entire rig, camera, lens and tripod, started freezing solid.  This signaled the end of the session, which gave me a chance to head back into the cozy cabin, and regain some of the feeling in my fingers and toes.  You really learn to appreciate your digits after a couple hours out in the snow.

To join me on Safari, head to www.50safaris.com for full Safari info.

 





Caught between a rock and a hard place

27 09 2012

The famous river crossings in Kenya’s Masai Mara are usually filled with excess drama and action, but every so often, one individual’s story catches your attention. I was taking a photographic safari to witness these magnificent crossings, and found myself engrossed with the plight of one young wildebeest.

The crossing had a normal start to it; hours of back and froth from the mega herd of wildebeest, followed by more waiting. The herd had built up nicely, and we were in for a massive crossing – if, of course, the wildebeest decided to jump in and get started. As it turned out, the zebras, unusually, took the lead, but started crossing a little further downstream than usual. This meant that together with the fear, panic and strong river current, the wildebeest now had to contend with rocks! Most of them dealt with the new obstacle by simply jumping over them. In a fantastic display of athleticism (and action photography), all but one youngster cleared the rocks without any problem.
The young wildebeest had somehow managed to wedge his hips into the rocks underwater. I am not sure how he got that right, but he was firmly wedged in. He struggled bravely for a good half hour, before his struggles got the attention of a passing croc. The monster of a croc came right into the action to see what all the splashing was about, and found himself face to face with the trapped wildebeest. There was a cruel ten second stare down as the croc, with a huge weight advantage, sorted through the options, before it lunged out of the water and grabbed the young wildebeest by the horn. I don’t think the croc was fully aware of the wildebeest’s predicament, because he couldn’t get him out of the rocks. A second reset, and he was better prepared. The wildebeest, understandably panicked, was trying his best to get free from the rocks, but to no avail. The croc had come in for a second attempt at an easy meal, and pulled the wildebeest free from the rocks, and down into the water.

It is not always easy witnessing nature unfold, and I certainly felt for the young wildebeest. The whole situation made for some interesting images, ones that documented an unusual event.

For a day by day look at the safari, check out www.50safaris.wordpress.com!





Always nice.

1 12 2011

I got a lovely piece of news recently. I managed to get an image into the Fuji/Getaway Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2011!
This competition is the biggest competition in Africa, so it is always nice to be a part of it! The competition was stiff, as it always is, with great talent being showcased from around the continent.
My image, Celebrity, sneaked into the ‘People in Nature’ category; a category that highlights the relationship between humans and wildlife. I have tried images like this for years, and came close, but this particular image had a little something extra.
It is a competition I have won before (2006), and the dream of a second win is still on the cards, so keep an eye on next years awards…

Fuji Award 2011