The last few weeks have seen my personal photography projects take a bit of a back seat as I’ve been busy mentoring other photographers on my series of 1-to-1 wildlife photography workshops.
It’s been hugely enjoyable although the variable weather has meant conditions have varied from arctic cold to near summer heat. But through all the UK spring weather’s variations there has been plenty of wildlife to observe and capture.
I’ve run a couple of days at Marwell Wildlife, focussing on their big cats. Here’s a few of the images that have come from those sessions.
There was also an opportunity to photograph Marwell’s snow leopards just before the female, Irina, retired from public view to give birth to her latest litter of cubs. I’m delighted she has 3 new little ones, born on 21st April and they will be a huge highlight of future photo workshops from July onwards when the cubs are on public display.
I’ve also made a few visits to the New Forest on various workshop days which has provided the usual rich mix of mammals, birds and reptiles.
As the weather has warmed up and blue skies have appeared over Hampshire again we’ve had wonderful conditions for bird of prey photography so I’ve been back at The Hawk Conservancy for more photo days there. It’s been a mix of wonderful displays and even the odd wild raptor can’t help joining in just for the fun of it, as with the Red Kite below.
I’ve been a customer of yours for the best part of 10 years and would like to think I’m an advocate for your brand as well as being a good ambassador by conducting my photography business (of which your products are such an integral part) in an ethical manner. It’s important to me that you are an ethical brand who reflects well on my business too.
I’ve always been aware that you have a Sport Optics division of your business which produces, amongst other things, rifle scopes. I have no problem with this, albeit that hunting animals for sport is not something I believe in. Nikon also has a right to promote and market these products. However, a recent article in the The Independent newspaper here in the UK, has highlighted a serious inconsistency in Nikon’s approach to marketing rifle scopes in North America which threatens to alienate its large community of nature photography customers.
I actually believe the mass media have missed the point somewhat. It’s not about the products you manufacture, it’s about the kinds of activity you are encouraging your customers to undertake and the consistency of your message. So people can see the current inconsistency for themselves here are Nikon’s European and American product pages for the same product, the M3 1-4 x20 rifle scope:
First and foremost, perhaps Nikon should think about their profits. I did a little research and according to Nikon’s own annual report:
“During the consolidated fiscal year ended March 31, 2012, the sport optics products business, formerly included in “Other” business, was transferred to the “Imaging Products” business. As a result of revising the business segments, sales to outside customers… increased by ¥553 million”.
So if Nikon’s facts and my maths are correct that means that sport optics customer sales were worth just under £4million that year. The imaging division as a whole was worth just over £4BILLION
Why on earth would you want to alienate such a massive part of your customer base in order to sell a $280 rifle scope to the tiny number of people in North Amercia who have the desire and means to pay to shoot lions for sport. A Nikon 600mm f/4 lens costs close to $10,000 and I bet they sell a hell of a lot more of those than they do those scopes.
Secondly, Nikon make this true statement on their global site: “Corporate activities are closely related to biodiversity.”
If you recognise this then you must act accordingly and it’s unacceptable to promote wildlife destruction to one market and wildlife conservation to another and hope to retain your brand integrity.
So Nikon, I ask you…
…as a loyal customer and champion of your brand. Be more responsible with your product marketing, it is totally unacceptable to be encouraging people to shoot any endangered species for sport. Those of us who take wildlife photography seriously, whether amateur or professional are a pretty ethical, committed bunch of people. We have to be to do what we do successfully. My business takes conservation very seriously and for Nikon to not uphold those values is not something I can easily turn a blind eye to. If you can’t be an ethical brand that promotes conservation not destruction then I won’t be able to continue being associated with you.
Many wildlife lovers are familiar with the African “Big 5″ the most iconic wildlife species to found on the wild continent.
It set me to thinking about what I’d include in a version of this list for the UK. What I realised is that attempting to come up with just five iconic British species is a fantastic advert for the diversity of our wildlife, because it’s an extremely hard task.
The Badger: would it make your “Big 5″ list?
Opening up the discussion on Twitter got some great feedback from friends and peers in the wildlife photography community. Here are some of their suggestions:
Damian Waters: Brown Hare, Otter, Badger, Sea Eagle and Starling (for its murmation)
Luke Massey: Boar, Otter, Osprey, Red Kite, Basking shark
My first major photography project of 2013 has been working close to home in Hampshire with an iconic but sadly declining species, the Barn Owl.
It seems strange to me that we haven’t done a better job of looking after our native owl species, it’s not as if they are unpopular or unappealing, show anyone an image of an owl and you normally get a very positive response. But they suffered hugely from the introduction of chemical pesticides to farmland in the 1950s and 60s and many rural barns have been demolished or converted taking away traditional roosting spots.
I’m very lucky, the Hampshire countryside where I live is still a great place to see Barn Owls and I’ve been concentrating on one particular individual in a quiet farmland area less than a mile from my home to try and convey some of the magic of the Barn Owl in pictures. This is still a work-in-progress and one I’m sure I will return to throughout the year, but here are a few of the images created so far.
Click on any of the images below to see the hi-res version in my store. Canvas and lustre prints are available to buy in a variety of sizes. Please contact me for licensing enquiries.
For more information about Barn Owl conservation and to find out what you can do to help why not visit the Barn Owl Trust website where there is a wealth of information and advice.
Birds of Prey in flight will always be one of my favourite photographic subjects. On a clear, crisp January day I like nothing better than taking myself off to The Hawk Conservancy Trust near to my home on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border to watch their winter flying displays.
The grounds are quiet in mid-week so it’s a great chance to enjoy these amazing birds without distraction. I regularly run my birds of prey photography workshop here, but on this occasion I was just shooting for myself so I could pick and choose what I wanted to focus on.
For certain that was going to include owls and one of my favourite parts of the Trust’s winter programme involves the Snowy Owl.
These inhabitants of the Arctic tundra are truly spectacular to watch gliding effortlessly low across the ground. To get good images it’s important to dial in the correct amount of exposure compensation (I used -1EV for these shots) so as not to overexpose the owl and lose the lovely feather detail.
It’s not just the birds themselves that I enjoy watching, it’s also the talent of the falconer as man and bird work together to sharpen their skills. Below, one of the falconers works the lure as a Lanner Falcon skims past coming out of their hunting dive, known as a “stoop”.
Lanner Falcons are really tricky to get in-flight frame-filling shots of, they’re so quick. I did manage a few but it’s definitely a question of perserverance! A bright day helps enormously in being able to use high shutter speeds to get a sharp image. I used 1/2000th of a second for the image below which is just about the minimum you can get away with for the small falcons.
By contrast the finale of the afternoon display, featuring a dozen Black Kites, is always guaranteed to provide some great shots as they are much larger and have little fear of people.
With 12 birds in the air simultaneously it’s easy to miss shots purely be trying to follow everything at once, but I’ve shot this display enough times have learnt the technique of picking up a single bird early as it turns into the right position and then staying with it until just the right moment.
I was guilty of a mistake this week, one that I was fortunate to be able to quickly correct, but it has provided an interesting example of the story behind an image and why it’s so important for any photographer to communicate truth via their images and not create a false impression.
I was browsing my Lightroom catalog looking for images to add to my wildlife conservation gallery which is made up of images of captive species which are rare and difficult to see in the wild. Although I term myself a wildlife photographer I’m quite proud of this set of images and make no apologies for the fact they are captured in zoos. A lot of them remain amongst my most popular work and have been widely used by wildlife NGOs to educate and raise money for conservation so they’ve done plenty of good.
I stumbled across an image of a captive white Bengal Tiger that I had captured at West Midlands Safari Park back in 2010. Here it is:
On first viewing perhaps you’ll agree it’s a somewhat comical image. The cross-eyed expression combined with the ears back create a bemused portrait that’s quite endearing so I added it to the gallery and my 500px page with a jovial title and description.
Within minutes I’d been made aware via Twitter about the sad story behind this expression, of which I was completely oblivous. Captive tigers with the recessive white gene have been continually inbred amongst their immediate family to ensure more specimens leading to a litany of horrible side effects, one of which is the permanent cross-eyed look. The unseen ones include immune deficiency, scoliosis of the spine (distorted spine), cleft palates and mental impairments.
I remain an avowed supporter of zoos and the vital work they do, but the display of white tigers has no conservation value whatsoever and is perpetuated purely for human entertainment and as a star attraction for some zoos to make money. I certainly won’t support or visit any zoo that keeps white tigers in future.
I’ve been mulling over what to do with this image. Part of me feels it should remain in my archive unshared, but that achieves nothing. By the same token I don’t want to earn money from it or profit from this creature’s suffering in any way. If there are any NGOs that would like to use the image without charge to help highlight this issue then please get in touch and I’ll be glad to make it available. That’s the only use I will allow this image into the public domain for.
A valuable lesson learned for me both about the tigers and my image. I hope this post helps remind other photographers of the importance of looking beyond the image itself and considering it’s validity, ethics and appropriate usage, especially in these days when we have the power to send our photos whizzing around the world via the internet at a the touch of a button.
Brufut Woods is a low-key, community-run nature reserve located just a couple of kilometres inland from The Gambia’s Atlantic coast. It has a reputation with birders as being a happy hunting ground to see various bird & owl species and as I was staying close by I couldn’t resist a visit As on previous trips in The Gambia I had Karamaba Touray with me as my guide.
First up some practical info. Unlike other reserves such as Abuko, Brufut Woods is some distance from any main road. In order to get there you have to take a local dirt road through Ghana Town and Brufut Village from the main coast road. You then turn off onto a narrow track to get the remaining few hundred metres to the reserve entrance. Don’t try hiring a regular taxi to take you there, a 4×4 vehicle is essential. The track to the reserve has stretches of deep sand and even with a 4×4 we still got stuck and had to dig the tyres out en route. That’s in the dry season, I’m not sure any vehicle would make it in the wet! All good fun though, the most interesting places are always a little off the beaten track.
Like many nature reserves in The Gambia there is very little sign of any recent investment in managing the area, but we did bump into a chap from the West African Bird Study Association there so at least some monitoring is going on even if the infrastructure is a bit non-existent. Right by the reserve entrance the branches of a large tree have been hung with a number of drinking troughs for the birds and several small species were busy taking the opportunity of a drink and a bath. These included Weavers, Babblers, Bulbuls and a Yellow-Throated Leaflove pictured below.
In November, the early part of the dry season, the vegetation is still quite green and lush which can make seeing birds a little tricky, but we pushed on down the narrow paths in search of two resident owl species, the White-faced Scops Owl and the huge Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, the biggest owl species in Africa. Sadly I have to report we drew a total blank on owls, maybe it was a little too early in the dry season for them to have moved into this area but despite much searching and calling by Karamba there were none to be found. Oh well, that’s a task for the next visit!
We did get a sighting of the impressive Green Turaco, but out of camera range. Still, they are brilliantly colourful birds and I was glad to have seen them. I did manage to add another species to my growing list of Hornbills I’d photographed at various locations. This time it was the African Grey Hornbill.
We also had a quick look around to see if we could find a Nightjar, but being a photographer rather than a birder I wasn’t too worried about taking up time in an extended search for this elusive and highly camouflaged ground dweller, it’s pretty hard to take an interesting photo of them. Instead we moved on to the reserve hide, a rather wobbly structure made out of corrugated iron and perched about 10 feet off the ground. A good vantage point but the temperature inside must have been well over 40C, I felt like I was being slow-cooked while we were inside. I did get some shots of a Pygmy Kingfisher featured in my previous African Kingfishers post and also captured a pair of Beautiful Sunbirds with the contrast in plumage between the glamourous male and dowdy female very evident.
As the sun started to dip towards evening and the light failed we had one final visitor to the hide, a big Nile Monitor lizard.
I enjoyed visiting this quiet reserve, there were no other tourist visitors while I was there. I was disappointed to have missed out on owl sightings which was my primary objective, but it was still a great way to spend a few hours on my last full day in The Gambia.
If you enjoyed this post do check out my others from the Gambia:
It’s hardly surprising that kingfishers are an iconic family of birds. Their brilliant colours, spectacular fishing behaviour and pocket-sized charm are incredibly endearing. In the UK they are a tantalising species, most often see as a bright flash of orange and blue along a riverbank, but observing them perched for any length of time often requires a lot of patience and fieldcraft. There is only one resident species, the Common Kingfisher and I’ve long been keen to explore an area where it’s possible to see kingfishers in greater numbers and diversity.
West Africa is probably the most accessible place to travel from Europe to find precisely that. I travelled to The Gambia and although a tiny country it’s possible to see up to eight different kingfisher species here. In one week I managed to photograph four and had sightings of a fifth, the Pied Kingfisher, although outside the range of my camera lenses. Here are the other four I did succeed with:
The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon malimbica)
My first kingfisher encounter came at Kachikally, in truth a bit of a tourist trap, famous for its resident Nile Crocodiles. It also turns out to be a handy spot for kingfishers, although it pays to keep half an eye out for any of the larger inhabitants in case they wander a little too close! Scanning underneath the low branches hanging over the crocodile pool I saw a large, blue kingfisher peering at me. The size was an initial shock, this is a bird nearly twice the size of the Common Kingfisher at home. Despite being a lovely day the light in this particular spot was quite gloomy and I was only carrying a monopod so I had to crank up the camera’s ISO setting to 6400 to get a usable shutter speed. The resulting image was ok, not a show-stopper by any means but I’d had a first up-close experience and it made me excited to do better!
The Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima)
My next location for kingfisher sightings was the Abuko Nature Reserve. I had a chat with the reserve guides and was delighted to hear that chances were good of a sighting of Africa’s largest kingfisher species, the Giant Kingfisher. I didn’t have to wait long, within 15 minutes of entering the reserve we had heard a call and tracked it down to the edge of a large forest pool although we couldn’t see it as yet. Then out from the trees it came swooping low over the water. I was too stunned to shoot, that can’t be a kingfisher I thought, it’s the size of a small heron! With it’s large spiky crest making it seem even more impressive my first ever sighting of this wonderful bird will live long in the memory! I wasn’t able to get close enough for any frame-filling shots, but the light was pretty good and it stayed put for a few minutes on a nice open perch allowing me to get a few frames.
The African Pygmy Kingfisher ((Ispidina picta))
From the Giant to the Pygmy! I’d spent a rather frustrating afternoon in the Brufut Woods reserve looking for owls and nightjars (and finding neither). Eventually tiring of slogging around on foot in the heat I retired to a hide overlooking a small pool to save some energy and see what smaller birds might be about. My guide Karamaba Touray was as usual way ahead of me in spotting new species darting in and out of the trees but it took a few instructions before I could make out the tiny speck of blue and orange perched atop the tangled undergrowth. It’s only about the size of a robin and only the dwarf kingfisher is smaller. But its colours were fabulous even in low late-afternoon light, it’s impossible not to love this cutest of kingfishers.
The Malachite Kingfisher ((Alcedo cristata))
The sightings so far had been great but I really wanted to get some closer shots than I had previously managed. My final attempt at kingfisher photography saw me switching from land to water, heading into the Tanbi Wetland Complex by pirogue. The big advantage here was the ability to approach silently and get nearer to my subject! This made a huge difference in being able to isolate these little birds better in the frame and get some shots with cleaner defocussed backgrounds rather than a jumble of untidy vegetation as a distraction.
I could have happily spent many more days observing these wonderful little birds but sadly I was only visiting The Gambia for a week on this occasion. But these encounters proved that it is possible with patience and a good guide to get a good insight into the life of these fisher kings, here’s to many more!
At the end of 2012 I decided not to do any “review of the year” style posts on the blog. Not because I had any retrospective negativity towards the year just gone, in many ways it was a very good one. I had great fun running more workshops than ever before and had two great trips to Norway and The Gambia. But my inclination is usually towards the future and I really wanted to keep my focus on new plans and adventures.
In that spirit, here’s my first image of 2013, a mallard drake enjoying a rousing bath on New Year’s Day.
2012 was a year of transition for me with some huge changes in lifestyle in order to move my photography forward to the next level. In truth I haven’t reaped the benefits of that yet, but this is a long-term strategy that will undoubtedly take 3-5 years to fully realise (and there is no guarantee it will succeed fully!). What’s important is that I continue to take the steps, even if they are baby ones to begin. The guiding principles for the immediate future are:
Longer-term projects in the UK
More days in the field
Greater collaboration with other photographers
Like many nature & wildlife loving folk I love to travel and spend time discovering new places. But this often creates logistical problems. If I’m to achieve the three objectives above I need to make it logistically manageable so for the first quarter of the year I’ve planned two projects only, both at locations within 45 mins of home. These will be my focus until April when my workshop bookings tend to get busier and require more of my time. Hopefully it will ensure I spend maximum time behind the camera rather than missing out on photography days because other things got in the way of a plan that was over-complicated to begin with!
I daydream constantly about exotic places to visit and animals to encounter, but I really don’t know what 2013 will hold in this regard, I’ll definitely take a trip somewhere and keep a two-level list of major and minor places depending on the time and cost involved. Scotland, the Iberian peninsula and Estonia are in one category. Namibia, India & Brazil are in the former. I hit the landmark 40th year of age in late 2014 so long-term planning for something special to mark that occasion is already underway and I’ll keep any other expectations modest.
Greater collaboration has been uppermost in my mind over the last few months so perhaps if I have a real photographic resolution it’s that. Running workshops and mentoring others is something I’ll always do but when I shoot for myself I often do so alone and I’ve started to feel I’m missing the benefits that peers provide in terms of comradeship, inspiration and challenge to better oneself. I won’t wait for that to come me in 2013, but be pro-active in working with others and seeing what new ideas and experiences that brings.
Here’s to a new year of great light and great adventures!
During my trip to The Gambia in November 2012 I was keen to explore some of the wetland ecosystems surrounding the Gambia River, the country’s dominant natural feature.
The 6300 hectare Tanbi Wetland Complex, a RAMSAR protected site since 2007, provides an ideal opportunity with easy access from the coastal resort areas via Lamin Lodge. The main lodge is currently closed (apparently the European owner had a run-in with the Gambian government over unpaid tax), but boat trips still depart daily. If you’re looking for wildlife a good guide will serve you well and I had an excellent one in my friend Karamaba Touray. We set off by paddle-powered pirogue shortly after sun-up, it was lovely to enjoy the serenity of the surroundings without the interruption of an engine.
To give you an idea of the surroundings I made this short video with my GoPro as the journey unfolded.
We weren’t entirely alone on the river, local people still fish in the area and also harvest oysters which grow in large numbers on the roots of the mangroves which proliferate from the edges of the mudflats.
We saw many species of wading bird including, whimbrel, bar-tailed godwit, common sandpiper, long-tailed cormorant, redshank and several species of heron and kingfisher.
After returning to dry land and pausing for a delicious local breakfast we explored the drier surrounding areas on foot. The image below shows the road leading away from Lamin Lodge through the surrounding rice fields. The pile of debris visible is an enormous mound of oyster shells left over after they have been boiled and shucked. You can read more about this local industry here.
The mangroves give way to salt marsh and then dry woodland and there are large rice fields which provide excellent habitat for an entirely different set of bird species like coucals, prinias and tinkerbirds. It’s also a great area to see raptors who perch on the fringes of the woods, able to survey the open territory beyond. Other than the ubiquitous kites and vultures we came across a Grey Kestrel perched in a lone tree.
A little further on came one of my favourite encounters of the whole trip, a first-ever sighting of a Long-crested Eagle. We spotted it perched at some distance, too far away to photograph even with a 500mm lens, on the far side of an area of tall grass. I crept through it, keeping my eye on the eagle, moving slowy but dreading that it would fly away at any moment. I managed to get within shooting range and peek through cover to get a few frames.
In all we’d seen over 30 species and perhaps more importantly escaped the tourist areas of the Gambia and experienced an environment and local way of life that has existed unchanged for many decades. As ever the warm, friendly Gambian people made the experience one to treasure.