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!

To join me on safari, click here!





A little teaser

17 10 2012

Having recently come back from Kenya, and having witnessed the most incredible wildlife spectacle first hand, I thought it was only fair to share with you some of the madness!

I will be leading The Great Migration Safari again next year, and am already looking forward to getting back amongst the tens of thousands of wildebeest as they gather on the banks of the Mara River waiting to cross, as well as all the predators that roam those beautiful, wide open plains.  The photographic opportunities are endless, as animals seem to constantly fill the viewfinder of your camera.  It really isn’t fair that one place on earth can have so many animals, with so much diversity!  It is a photographic safari like no other.

It does all come down to the famous crossing of the Mara River though. There is something about that experience which is quite difficult to explain – you can watch it on TV a hundred times, but you will never get the level of panic at each crossing.  The wildebeest herd is extremely sensitive, which seems odd given that they are not the sharpest animals around, and even the slightest disturbance will turn the mega herd around, delaying the crossings.  They seem to do their best not to cross, but the overwhelming instinctive drive eventually pushes them to do it. The tension that emulates from the herd is palpable, as they pluck up the courage to start the crossing. Eventually, one brave/stupid/pushed wildebeest makes the leap of faith, and is rapidly followed but the rest of the herd.  The tension climbs to a maximum in seconds as literally tens of thousands of wildebeest and a few hundred zebra hustle to get across the most daunting challenge that faces them on their yearly migration.  Add a crocodile to the mix, and the panic reaches melting point.  The wildebeest do their best, but many succumb to the strong current, and even stronger crocodiles.  The only way to truly understand what happens each year, and what has happened for millions of years, is to experience it.

Have a look at the little teaser I have posted for you, which should whet your appetite! If you would like to join me on next year’s safari, click here!





An age old battle

1 06 2011

Three male lions were out on the hunt. Even though they have firmly established their territory and dominance over a number of prides, they continue to hunt for themselves.
A large herd of buffalo had moved into the area, and as soon as the sun disappeared, the lions headed straight into the herd.
It took a while for the action to start, because buffalo are not an easy target. The males darted in three times, each time unsuccessful. The herd managed to rally around quickly enough to chase the lions off, before they had a firm grip on any of the buffalo. The lions kept trying.
They set up the fourth attempt, and went for it. Again they were outsmarted and out muscled, until they stumbled upon an old male that had been severely injured in a clash with another male buffalo. The injuries he had sustained during the fight were enormous, and he was unable to use his front legs. The lions took two seconds to work out what lay before them, and then made their final assault. The buffalo, in all fairness, never had a chance, but he put up more fight than the lions, or I, expected. We watched the drama unfold for close to forty minutes, and when we left, the old buffalo was still alive, and still fighting!
Once the lions had a firm grip on the old bull, the herd began to muster up the courage to mount a counter offensive. They began to charge in from all directions, over and over. All but one of the lions turned tail and ran. The one male lion, the one with the dark scar on his nose, held on tightly to the muzzle of the buffalo, and wouldn’t let go!
The buffalo’s came within inches of making contact with him, but he stood his ground, and kept to the job at hand. Each time the buffalo retreated to regroup, the other lions would come back and help their brother, only to be chased off again seconds later. The back and forth was fascinating to watch and experience. Photographing the affair was less than easy!
I had to keep an eye on the herd of buffalo, as they were stampeding only one meter from the vehicle, and still try focus on the action, using only a spotlight!
The following morning, the drama was not over. The buffalo had succumbed to his injuries during the night, and the three males had already eaten their fill. They had left the kill for a short time to go drink from the river, and while they were away, a small pride of lions found the buffalo. They thought they had won the lottery, and began to feed. They had managed to get a good amount of meat in their bellies, before the males returned…
The male with the scar on his nose did not take lightly to his hard fought meal being stolen, and came charging in. He caught one of the females, and gave her a light working over, (nothing too serious, just a bit of “how’s your father?”), and went back to his buffalo prize. He had gorged himself the night before, so was not keen on actually eating, he simply sat at the kill, and waited for his digestion to allow him to take a few more mouthfuls!
The lions eventually moved off all together, allowing the patient vultures a chance to get their share of the spoils.





The odds of success

18 04 2011

What are the odds of seeing a female cheetah catch three impala in three attempts?

What are the odds of photographing two of the kills in action?

What are the odds of the cheetah catching the impala behind the only Acacia tree in area?

What are the odds of the cheetah keeping all three kills?

All these questions are answered by the images below.

In an incredibly lucky streak, known now as a ‘purple patch’, I have seen a female cheetah take three impala in three attempts!

Cheetahs are not known for their dazzling strike rate, normally catching one in ten – at best, one in five, but this particular individual is setting new records.  The first time I saw her kill, (published in a previous post:  https://kurtjaybertels.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/cheetah-1-0-impala/), was when she caught a young impala right out in the open.  She had a sub adult female daughter with her at the time, so while keeping the kill, had to share it with her ravenous youngster.  The impala was quickly devoured, and the cheetah got to feed in relative peace.

The second kill was one of the sneakiest approaches I have seen by a cheetah.  She ambushed the herd while they were tucked up in a thicket – not the cheetah’s usual hunting ground.  Cheetahs prefer wide open spaces, which allow them to reach the speeds they need to reach to catch their quarry.  This record setter, however, used almost leopard style tactics, to get her within twenty meters of the unsuspecting herd.  She made the charge, heading into the thicket from the clearing, and surprised the herd at a whopping 120km/h!  The entire chase was only sixty meters in length – a far cry from the usual three to four hundred meters that the prey is afforded to try make good their escape.  The ankle tap technique used to trip up the prey was deployed, but instead of the unlucky impala falling head over heels, it spun around, and changed direction 180 degrees.  This prompted a further change in tactics from the female cheetah, who then used a ‘rugby like’ tackle, to secure her meal.  Unfortunately, given the habitat, capturing all the madness on camera was not possible.

Between these two sightings, the sub adult daughter has left her mother, which allowed the female access to the entire impala.  As per the textbook this time, she dragged the impala under a small tree, did the required look around for danger, and began to feast.  When we returned in the afternoon, she was laying about ten meters from the carcass, with a huge belly.  She had fed well, and it showed.  The young impala had done its job.

A few days later, and she was at it again.  A morning hunt proved successful.  Her choice of prey was again a young impala, which she spent over an hour stalking.  She reversed her tactics on this occasion, and stalked through the bush towards the impala, which were feeding on the fringes of the open area.  Like a bolt of lightning, she came rushing out of the bushes towards the impala, which employed their ‘bombshell’ technique, to try confusing their attacker.  Cheetahs are arguably the least opportunistic of the big cats, and single out a target before the chase begins.  In this instance, the tried and trusted bomb shelling did not work.  The female cheetah had locked onto her target, and the chase began.  The young impala used a series of tight turns to try throw the cheetah off its tail, but the cheetah, using her slightly flattened tail as a giant rudder, steered her way through the zig zagging course set by her soon to be victim.  Most of the chase was out in the open, but as luck would have it, the actual catch was smack behind the only Acacia tree in the vicinity!

Again, she dragged her trophy towards a small tree, (not the Acacia that cost the team earlier), but was stopped midway to safety.  A large male lion had heard the commotion, and came running in to investigate.  The sound of the chase, the kill and the alarm calls from the surviving impalas alerted him as to the exact position of the carcass.  He charged in.  She heard him coming, dropped the impala, and this time used her speed to save her own life!  In a conflict situation between lions and cheetahs, the lions always win.  Knowing this, she cut her losses, and ran off.  She lost her hard earned prize, but there are always more to be caught!





An afternoon skirmish.

21 03 2011

Finding leopards and cheetahs is never easy. Finding them together is nearly impossible!
I say nearly impossible, because I was lucky enough to witness an altercation between the two spotted cats!
Initially, the coalition of four male cheetahs was spotted close to the edge of a large clearing. They were resting in the brilliant golden sunlight which made for some excellent images. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until a female leopard was spotted moving cautiously towards the cheetah brothers in the bushes close by.

At first, the cheetahs were not aware of the leopard’s presence, and no real drama seemed imminent. The fact that there were four large male cheetahs probably kept the single female leopard at bay initially, but she did move into a position to get a better look.
In a normal situation, cheetahs are easily overpowered by leopards, and sprint away from any conflict. Being such specialized hunters, (an all out foot race reaching speeds of close to 120km/h), the cheetahs cannot afford to fight, as an injury, even a minor one, could cripple them enough to kill them.
This was not a normal situation though. The female leopard, aged at just over ten years, is an experienced campaigner, but seemed indecisive when it came time to charge in and assert her dominance. She stalked closer to the brothers, who had now noticed her, and moved forward to investigate. One of the cheetahs seemed a little more nervous than his brothers, and backed away from the fight, leaving the remaining three, closely bound, to take on the aggressor.
The show of defiance seemed to put the leopard on the back foot, and the spotted cats were temporarily locked in poker style stale mate. The leopard called the cheetahs bluff, and was out the tree and upon them in a flash. It turned out, much to our – and the leopard’s – surprise, that the bluff was backed by some substance, because the cheetahs turned the tables on the leopard, and while she was distracted by the individual she was chasing, she let the other two brothers round her, and found herself being chased!
In a few mad seconds, the cheetahs were hot on the leopard’s heels, and sent her up a nearby tree.
It was a crazy dash of spots and cats, which resulted in a few decent images.





Cheetah 1-0 Impala

11 01 2011

After days of waiting, I was rewarded with the quickest mammal action in the bush!
A female cheetah had been waiting patiently all day for the herd of impala with the babies to leave the thick bush line, and step out into the open area, where she could use her 120km/h run to full effect! She was promted by another herd of male impala, which accidently stumbled upon her and her 2 year old daughter. The male impala’s let out an alarm call, which pushed her into the chase. She ran almost callously through the large clearing, and managed to go unnoticed by the young impala, until she was in the strike zone.
The turn of speed was simply amazing, and watching her reach full speed can only be described as awe inspiring! The distance covered by the animals during the chase is also staggering! Trying to keep the camera up with the action is an interesting challenge!
The young impala made his final mistake, by trying to corner too sharply – a ploy often successfully used by impala against cheetah – and slipped, causing it to take a tumble. The cheetah gained valuble yards on the youngster, and using their ankle tap technique, completed a textbook catch.
The cheetah’s female cub, was not too far behind the action, learning as she joined her mother at the kill. Cheetah’s learn by watching their mothers, and this was a valuble lesson in patience and improvisation.
The meal went undisturbed, and both cheetahs managed to get a good feed!





The Cruel Reality.

27 12 2010

Africa’s wilds are run by its own rules. There is no time to relax – if you drop your guard, even for a second, it could be your end.
That is the sad story of a young male leopard cub, which, at three and a half months old, bounded with gay abandon into a deadly patch of Buffalo grass.

The female leopard; the mother of two cubs, was moving her cubs along a dry river bed late in the morning. It was a good time to move the cubs, because the sun was scorching anything and everything that moved out the relatively cool shade, nullifying most big cat movement for the rest of the day.
The two cubs scurried around their mother, taking interest in anything that moved. They stalked, pounced and mauled anything that stood still long enough, often loosing their battles to butterflies whipping away on their colourful wings and winning against blades of grass that dangled over the pathway. The female kept a watchful eye on the cubs, softly calling them back to the pathway every now and again. She would stop at regular intervals, sniffing the air, using every tool at her disposal to navigate Africa’s daily gauntlet.
The young male cub pushed on ahead, and followed his nose into the Buffalo grass. He stumbled straight into three lionesses which were resting in the shade.
It was a panicked few seconds.
It resulted in the instant death of the young male cub, which stood no chance against the 150kg lioness. The female and the other cub managed to scramble away to safety.
I had found the young trio only two days before the incident, and managed to capture some images of the young male cub.
It isn’t always easy understanding or accepting the cruel reality of nature. The system is flawless however, and left untouched, maintains the equilibrium that is the eternal struggle.