A very rare sighting

14 04 2015

Being in the right place at the right time is a large part of the wildlife photography challenge. I was lucky enough to have all the variables come together recently, when, quite unexpectedly, an extremely rare black flamingo arrived in Cyprus. I happened to be on the island, with a couple days to spare to try and see this rarity, with my camera ready of course.

This special flamingo is not a different species, it is a greater flamingo like all his pals, but it is a melanistic form (Wikipedia: Melanism is a development of the dark-colored pigment melanin in the skin or its appendages and is the opposite of albinism) of a greater flamingo; the flamingo equivalent of a black panther. When I heard about this bird being sighted, I set off immediately to see if could capture an image or two of such a unique bird. Luck was on my side, and I managed to see and photograph the black flamingo, even if it was at a bit of a distance. This was a truly wonderful surprise, and turned out to be even more special by the fact that it disappeared by the next morning and I was unable to find it on my follow up visits. I do wonder where it will pop up next.

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Searching for snow leopards: Part 2

24 02 2014

Attempting to follow the tracks of a wild snow leopard is a fool’s game, but we were fools on a mission, and when we woke on the fifth morning of our safari to find two sets of tracks that went straight through the camp (literally within fifty meters [±150 ft] of my tent), we were off like a shot.  The camera bag with all the attachments got slung on my back in no time, and the trek up the valley began.  This is one of those moments where you need the utmost speed, but that speed is a gentle walk at best (the altitude still winning all the fights).  We made good time, but not snow leopard time.  By lunch, the tracks were starting to melt in the warm minus three-degree (26°F) sun, and I actually think we were further away form the leopards than we were when we started in the morning.  The walk back down the valley was a little disappointing, but we were one step closer than we had been on the previous few days.

The sixth morning started out the same way – two sets of tracks walking right alongside the camp, but this time in the other direction.  Realising the optimism involved with attempting to track a snow leopard high in the Himalayas, we were gearing up a little slower than the previous morning, understanding better that we were perhaps ill-equipped physically to track down these two cats.  A cup of tea later, and a very excited guide came running up the valley towards our camp (yes, the guides can actually run up there, they don’t seem affected by the altitude at all; read jealousy) waving his arms, and telling us they have found the leopards!

Packs on, tea drunk and doing the fastest slow walk I could muster, I was racing down the valley, heading in the direction of the tracks.  We found the guide who had spotted the cats sitting up on a ridge, so made the climb to join him.  Trying to look through the spotting scope while dry heaving is not the easiest, but the leopards were indeed sitting in the middle of the spotting scope.  They were easily three kilometres away!  We made our way as close as possible, (still between one and a half and two kilometres away) and spent the rest of the day watching the cats.  The cameras were quite ineffectual until late in the afternoon when they started to move around.  Even then, the best I managed was a record shot.

The last day, and our last chance to try get a good photograph of wild snow leopard.  There were tracks in the snow, high above our camp heading up a different valley.  We gave it a shot, as it was all we had.  We made it quite far up the valley, but all the signs of the leopard had disappeared.  Now knowing the capabilities of the snow leopard, it came as no surprise that the cat had long gone, leaving us guessing, again.  We did get a quick glimpse of a Himalayan wolf, a very difficult species to see, so that felt like the reward for the long trek.  We decided to head back to camp slowly, having one last look through the valley in a desperate attempt to get the photographs we had dreamed of.  One of our guides had gone on ahead, and we spread ourselves throughout the valley, searching every crevasse, every rock ledge, and every possible snow leopard looking bump.

The call came in, and just from the tone of the voice on the other side of the radio, I knew we were in business.  The guide that went ahead had spotted a snow leopard sitting on a rocky ledge, not too far from the trail.  With full gear on and in the snow and ice, I ‘ran’ (walked quickly) as fast as I could down the trail to where the guide was waiting.  It took a while to see it, mostly because I couldn’t breath.  Before I had even confirmed its position, I had the camera setup, and was ready to shoot.  There she was, sitting behind a rock, just the tail sticking out (well done to the guide on that spot).  It took a freezing couple of hours for her to move about, but when she did, I was in heaven!  All the hard work, all the planning, all the pain of walking up those mountains and valleys, all worth it for a ten-minute show that to me is priceless.  I got images I never dreamed I would get and I got to experience a moment with a snow leopard I never thought possible.  The moment was ended soon after she went over the ridge by fingers that felt like they were about to fall off, and my body was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but the walk back to camp was the easiest walk I have done in years.





Searching for snow leopards: Part 1

21 02 2014

Heading into the Himalayas to search for the elusive snow leopard, two things immediately struck me – the incredible beauty of these mountains, and the enormity of the task at hand.  The realisation that followed shortly after (when disembarking the aeroplane), was that this was not going to be a warm safari – a cool minus five degrees Celsius (23°F) welcomed us (what turned out to be a rather warm minus five, things would only get colder).  After spending two days acclimatising to the new (and for most people, extreme) altitude we headed into the snow leopard reserve to begin our search, and take on this seemingly futile challenge.

I only had one real hope for this safari, and that was to see a wild snow leopard, photographing one would be a bonus. My dream was realised on the very first morning!  After a rather chilly minus fifteen degree (5°F) sleep in a tent that offered little to no protection from the elements, it was a great surprise to wake up to two snow leopards (a mother and a sub-adult cub) taking a rest on the ridge above the camp.  The ridge was quite a distance away, and even the big lenses struggled to find the cats, but alas, there they were.  Not only had I seen wild snow leopards, I had a cup of tea in my hand at the same time.  Very civilised. This was a great bit of luck, but it was also the last bit of luck we would have for a few days, as things got really tough from there on.

Temperatures dropped, as did reports of snow leopards along with any other signs of the big cats.  The next two days were spent trekking high up into the mountains to no avail.  The satisfaction of already having seen the leopards was pretty much the only thing to hold on to (the ridges we were climbing were very steep with no vegetation, so there was literally nothing else to hold on to).  The assault predicted on the legs and lungs was in full swing, and even the most remedial task (like putting on your shoes) took all your breath away – a ten-meter walk felt like a ten kilometre hike.  Things were tough…

A nightlong snowfall changed our luck a little.  We were now able to spot the tracks of the snow leopards, and this we did. There was great excitement around camp, when we found a set of tracks high on the mountain, and began to follow.  Unfortunately, the great distances that these magnificent cats travel, and the speed at which they travel left us chasing a ghost, but at least there were now signs that the cats were back in the area.





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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Every time is playtime

26 11 2013

One of the joys of being young is having endless energy; another perk is that you have no responsibility, so every time is playtime.  Now take that thought, and add some seriously cute little lion cubs and you get an amazing sighting!

I was in Kenya recently leading a photographic safari, when we came across a family of lions – a female with her three small cubs, probably around three months old.  It was late in the afternoon, and they had finished chewing an old warthog carcass they had found.  The cubs decided this was a great time for a bit of rough and tumble, and so the games began.  They were darting back and forth, stalking and jumping on each other, biting their sibling’s ears until said sibling didn’t find it funny any more and a real little scuffle broke out.  Peace was restored time and again when another of the siblings found a stick to play with, and this became the most sought after possession, which would leave us photographing a line of cubs, all chasing the leader with the prized stick.

The mother, who had been keeping a watchful eye over the young bundles of fluff, was not excused from their list of play items, and it was not long before one of the cubs took on something a little larger than itself.  Her patience was commendable as she let her youngsters try to ‘hunt’ her.  They jumped all over her, attacking her tail, ears, face and paws, until eventually she started giving them a bath, which was when they returned to the magic stick that had once again been discovered (cue small line of lions following a stick).

It is not often that you are allowed into the world of such great predators, so when you get the chance, I highly recommend keeping your camera ready!

To join me on safari, click here!





Natures Best Photography Awards

15 11 2013

Every year, thousands of photographers try their luck when entering the Natures Best Photography Windland Smith Rice Photographic Awards, and every year for the past five years, I have been in the mix trying my luck and entering images into the competition.  Finally, after reaching the final round of judging every year since I started entering, I have cracked the nod, and have had two images accepted into the awards.

The competition is based in Washington D.C. and the gallery housed in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.  It attracted twenty four thousand entries from over fifty countries, making the going quite difficult.

The two images that were accepted are both quite special to me.  The first, the elephant’s trunk, is a shot I have tried to get for many years.  Getting a close up shot of the trunk is surprisingly difficult for a number of reasons.  The first is you have to get quite close.  Elephants are large and dangerous animals, so I needed to find one that was relaxed around vehicles, allowing me to sneak a camera nice and close.  Secondly, the trunk never really stops moving, so zooming in on the trunk, and trying to follow its unpredictable movements is a seriously tricky affair.  Lastly, the trunk is constantly in the grass/bushes/trees, so getting it to stand out from the surroundings requires a lot of luck.  After many years of trying/waiting/hoping, I got the right elephant on the right day, and it paid off.

The second image is of a small group of greater flamingos.  Again tricky, but for quite different reasons.  On this particular day, there were around five thousand flamingos walking through the shallow waters of the salt lake.  Separating a small group from the masses was nearly impossible.  Everywhere you aimed the camera there were more flamingos!  Another difficulty is that they all do the same thing, all the time, so finding a new perspective or a new shot was challenging.  Luckily for me, they started displaying and the shot seemed to compose itself.

It really is a great feeling to have your images accepted into such a huge competition, especially after putting in the time.  Lets hope the good luck continues!