Monday, August 6, 2012

Kgalagadi - Southern Africa

Yellow Mongoose

At Mata Mata the endless dunes of the Kalahari reach to infinity. We were camped atop a brick red dune just outside the boundary of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This vast park covers approximately 38,000 sq kms of arid country across the north western corner of South Africa and the south west of Botwswana.

On the 7th April 1999 a bilateral agreement was signed between South Africa and Botswana to agree to manage their adjacent national parks as a single ecological unit. This become the first Transfrontier Park to be formally declared in southern Africa. This ambitious project has now resulted in several more such parks throughout Africa and the world.

At first light, atop our dune, we gazed across a dry river bed to where a lone White-backed Vulture stood proudly silhouetted on its ramshackle stick nest on the flat crown of a Camelthorn Tree. We watched entranced as a herd of Gemsbok padded silently past in single file to drink at a nearby waterhole.

The dawn chorus of Laughing Doves, Crimson-breasted Shrikes, hornbills and many other birds echoed across the golden expanse while out of the emptiness a Lion roared to welcome the dawn.

Male Lion

We were certainly not alone as this near desert environment was teeming with a diversity of life I have rarely encountered elsewhere. Never have I seen so many visible birds nests in trees and bushes. Many thorn bushes were covered in the grass ball nests of White-browed Sparrow Weavers. Some Camelthorn Trees were collapsing under the weight of the huge thatched condominiums built by hundreds of pairs of industrious Sociable Weavers.

Sociable Weaver nest

White-browed Sparrow Weaver at nest

Strolling across our dune we could see the myriad tracks which spoke of the many nocturnal wanderings of solitary Springhares, Gerbils and Striped Mice. Scattered in the sand were a dozen Procupine quills banded in ebony and ivory.

As each day dawned upon entering the National Park, we were treated to a succession of wildlife adventures. One morning just after sunrise we stumbled across a Cheetah sat beside a sandy track, tearing into a recently killed Springbok. A biologist studying the parks Cheetah population informed us that an adult Cheetah needs to kill a Springbok (or similar sized antelope) every 4 – 5 days.

Cheetah on kill

We frequently saw family groups of delightful Bat-eared Foxes intently feeding on the masses of termites.

Bat-eared Fox

Families of Ground Squirrels, Suricates (Meerkats) and Yellow Mongooses were commonly encountered while the dry river beds were traversed by wandering herds of Gemsbok, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest and the ubiquitous Springbok.


The huge diversity of antelope and small mammals provides food for top predators such as Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, Spotted and Brown Hyaenas and Black-backed Jackals.

We were very fortunate to encounter the regions majestic Black-maned Lions on several occasions. If solitude is what you seek then try camping at the remote campground of Polenstswa, just a stone’s throw across the border in Botswana. It was near here that we spotted fresh Lion prints in the soft sand. We followed the tracks to a small dune where 3 magnificent, male, black maned Lions were resting in the long grass.

Male Lion

The Kalahari skies are rarely empty and we often watched dashing Bateleurs, rakish Lanner Falcons, majestic Tawny Eagles, Gymnogenes, Pale Chanting Goshawks and many other raptors patrolling the blue or perched motionless on a dead Camelthorn.


Sitting around our campfire I realised that here I felt remarkably at home, while contemplating the approaching cold Kalahari night.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Heading to the Tropics, North Queensland

It takes several days to drive north from Melbourne to North Queensland for a distance of over 1,700 miles! Yes it is a big country.

North Queensland has much to offer the naturalist and wildlife photographer due to the incredibly rich areas of tropical rainforest which in some parts occur down to sea level. The remaining areas of rainforest are now protected by a system of World Heritage National Parks which have one of the richest variety of plant and animal life found anywhere on Earth.

For a wildlife photographer the rainforest comes with a particular set of problems. Firstly during the spring and summer it certainly knows how to rain. Combine that with extremely low light levels found under the rainforest canopy and photography of many of the unique creatures becomes quite difficult.

Where else can you find the giant Southern Cassowary, Regent Bowerbird, the stunning Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, together with Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo and the most primitive Musky Rat Kangaroo.

Male Southern Cassowary and three chicks
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.89 AFS-VR
ISO 1000, 1/80 SEC @ F6.3
Nikon SB800 fill flash @ -1.3 stops

We initially spent several days searching patches of rainforest for Southern Cassowaries until we saw our first, an adult male which trotted past us as it gobbled up fallen rainforest fruit. Over the next few weeks we encountered several of the giant flightless birds including a male with young stripy chicks.

Female Southern Cassowary shaking feathers
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS-VRVR
ISO 640, 1/500 sec F5.0
Nikon SB800 fill flash @ -1.3 stops

Unfortunately these spectacular birds are threatened by destruction of their rainforest habitat although it is reassuring to note that they do now have many friends who are aware and committed to their plight and are working on various rainforest rehabilitation schemes.

We were extremely keen to make contact with one of North Queensland’s most beautiful birds, the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher. This spectacular bird is a summer breeding visitor which doesn’t arrive at its rainforest breeding grounds until late November/December – the wet season. It was soon apparent that this season was going to be even wetter than usual.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers excavate tunnels in active termite mounds so we set up our hide overlooking a recently arrived pair with their chosen mound. The light under the rainforest canopy was dimmer than dim and it rained incessantly. It was also impossible to keep the clouds of mosquitoes out of my dome hide. I needed to set up several Nikon speedlights, each covered in a plastic bag. A vital requirement under these conditions. Once again the wireless speedlights performed flawlessly. However it was a joy to watch these oh so special birds digging out their breeding chamber and displaying over the termite mound.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher flying from termite mound
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS-VR
ISO 2500, 1/250 sec, F14
3 Nikon Speedlights set to wireless. Tripod plus dome hide

North Queensland also has a huge assemblage of mammals, mainly marsupial but also many species of rats and mice. Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo occurs here but again it is very difficult to locate being largely nocturnal and spending most of its time in the rainforest canopy.

Male Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS-VR
ISO 640, 1/23 @ F4
Nikon SB800 fill flash @-1.3 stops

More than anything what is required to capture images of these cryptic creatures is time, and lots of it. We spent over 2 weeks searching for Southern Cassowaries. However at times you may get lucky as late one afternoon my wife Helen sent a radio message to say she had found a Green Ringtail Possum asleep on a low branch – with a joey in its pouch.

Green Ringtail Possum with baby in pouch
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS-VR
ISO 1000, 1/30 sec @F3.5
Nikon SB800 Fill flash @ -1.3 stops

Heading slightly west we reached drier country and here we discovered some superb specimens of Frilled Lizard which in Queensland have a much more yellow frill compared to the redder frill of the individuals from the Northern Territory.

Frilled Lizard
Nikon D300S plus Nikkor 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS-VR
ISO 400 1/400 sec @ F8
Nikon SB800 Fill flash @ -1.3 stops

It was now mid December and a tropical cyclone was heading towards the coast. We needed to head south in a hurry but much of Queensland and New South Wales were covered in floodwaters. In fact the flooded area covered a region greater than western Europe. We were trapped several times by flooded roads but eventually were fortunate to make Victoria for Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tasmania, Marsupial Paradise

Tasmanian Devil running,
Nikon D300s plus Nikkor 70 - 200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens.
ISO 800, 1/100 sec @F6.3, Nikon Speedlight SB800

We recently spent several weeks in the wildlife treasure island of Tasmania which was our home for over 20 years. First we headed to the iconic Cradle Mountain National Park to search for some of Tassie’s unique carnivorous marsupials, Tasmanian Devils and quolls.
Unfortunately the terrier sized Tasmanian Devils are suffering from a debilitating and fatal disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). This highly infectious cancer is being spread by the devil’s own biting behaviour which has decimated the wild population.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend several days with a biologist, Rodrigo Hamede and his wife Sarah, a vet, who were studying Tasmanian Devils and DFTD.

Tasmanian Devil showing serious case of DFTD.
Since 2005 an insurance population has been established at several sites on the Australian mainland. So far nearly 300 disease free devils have been trapped for this insurance population. Another option being planned is to establish disease free populations on offshore islands. Maria Island National Park off the east coast of Tasmania has been chosen for the first island translocation. To form a viable breeding nucleus around 50 devils will initially need to be released on Maria Island.
Eastern Quolls can still be seen in many of Tasmania’s glorious National Parks and occur in 2 colour morphs, a fawn morph and a black morph which appears to be increasing. These stunning little marsupial carnivores are strictly nocturnal so we needed to resort to using several Nikon flash units to obtain suitable images.

Eastern Quoll dark phase,
Nikon D300s plus Nikkor 70 - 200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens.
ISO 500, 1/250 sec @ F10.
4 Nikon flash units, 2 x SB800 speedlights plus 2 x SB28 speedlights.
SB 800 triggered by pop up flash used as commander unit.
SB28's triggered by Nikon SU-4

Forester Kangaroos and Common Wombats are also wonderfully photogenic and are easy to see in several National Parks in the north and east of the state such as Maria Island, Mt William and Narawntapu. The light in late afternoon, particularly during the winter months, can be superb at these sites just as the macropods are emerging to feed from their daytime shelters.

Forester Kangaroo family,
Nikon D300s plus Nikkor 500 mm F4 AFS lens
ISO 800, 1/200 sec @F8. Tripod

Common Wombats are tank-like marsupials which excavate large burrow systems and remain common in many parts of Tasmania. The single joey is carried in a backward facing pouch and sometimes the female can be see grazing at the front while the joey grazes at the back! Still I have yet to capture this in camera because as soon as the joey wombat hears the shutter it instantly pops back into the pouch.
Common Wombat
Nikon D300s plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens.
ISO 100, 1/250 sec @F6.3, Tripod

Fill flash set at -1.7. Nikon SB800 speedlight
It was here in Narawntapu National Park one autumn afternoon while sitting on a small hill, that we counted 92 Common Wombats grazing. No wonder we like to refer to Narawntapu as the Serengeti of Tasmania.

For more information on the plight of the Tasmanian Devil visit - 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Australia's Avian Master Builders

At last after several years of documenting the wildlife of Europe and other areas, I have returned to the great land down under – Australia. When I was last in Australia film was still in vogue but now I have returned with great expectations of what I can achieve with the latest in digital camera technology.

All images of Satin Bowerbirds were captured with
NIkon D300S plus 70 - 200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens.
1/320 sec @F11, 2 x Nikon Speedlights SB800 plus
SB28 triggered by Nikon SU4.
Wireless SB800 flashes triggered by cameras popup flash used
as a commander unit. Tripods plus dome hide.

I have long been fascinated with those avian builders – the bowerbirds and so was most excited when a Ranger friend showed me the active bower of a Satin Bowerbird. This particular bower was in some dry Eucalypt forest in the ACT and contained the greatest collection of blue objects I have ever seen at any such bower.

Firstly I began by introducing a camouflaged dome hide which was slowly moved closer over a period of a few days. Then 2 small tripods plus Bogen Super Clamps were erected close to the bower to support the 3 or 4 Nikon speedlights. As the bower was in shade, but with patches of harsh sunlight, it was necessary to use several flash units as the main light to fill the harsh shadows caused by the strong sunlight filtering through the canopy.

Satin Bowerbirds are among the world’s most remarkable birds and are only found in far eastern Australia. For those people unfamiliar with the antics of Satin Bowerbirds, the male constructs a bower by sticking twigs in the ground to form a double avenue. The bower is not a playground but in fact the psychological centre of the males territory. The male collects an assortment of mainly blue objects plus a few yellow ones which are displayed in front of the bower. There is a distinct correlation between the plumage colours of the male and the colours of the displayed objects, the male having an overall satin blue plumage with a yellow-tipped bill and pale yellow legs.

The adult females are a sombre olive green above with a tawny brown tail and wings. The feather margins are darker giving an overall attractive scaly appearance. One day while watching the male displaying I noticed 3 separate females had been attracted near to the bower which is where mating takes place.

In fact Satin Bowerbirds are not really difficult to photograph at the bower being quite tolerant of the close proximity of the hide and tripods. I am always excited when entering a hide for the first time and on this occasion I was not disappointed as the male began singing nearby within 30 minutes of me entering the hide.

In the past, when using film, achieving a correct exposure was problematical to say the least. Now I am able to expose a few frames and to immediately check the exposure via the histogram on the cameras rear view monitor.

I have mounted 2 x SB 800 flash units in front of the hide. These Nikon speedlights are operated wirelessly via the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300S which is being used as a commander unit – how smart is that! A third and fourth flash units are mounted above and behind the bower. These older Nikon SB28’s are triggered by the incredibly useful Nikon SU – 4 wireless triggers which convert older non-wireless flash units into wireless TTL flash units.

From within the hide I am able to monitor and control the amount of light emitted by the flash units to achieve the aperture and lighting of the scene I require. Many thanks Nikon you have just made my work so much easier.

When viewing the results on the cameras monitor I am thrilled at the image quality of the D300S. I loved the D300 but the D300S is a distinct improvement with visibly enhanced image resolution.

There is no doubt that the latest Nikon digital cameras particularly when combined with wireless flash units have enabled me to obtain higher quality images of Australia’s unique wildlife which was so difficult or even impossible previously with film.

I will now be driving north to the wet tropics of northern Queensland hoping to photograph some of the regions rarer kangaroos and other species.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Camargue

Greater Flamingos in flight at sunrise. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 500. 1/1000 sec @ F8. Tripod.

One of my all time favourite areas is “La Camargue” in southern France. This vast area of lagoons, marshes, dunes, reed beds and rice paddies is the ancient delta of the river Rhone and is one of Europe’s premier wildlife sites. Much of the area is privately owned where access is restricted, however there are extensive reserves, many with excellent public hides.

Greater Flamingo taking flight. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 320. 1/1000/sec @ F 7.1. Tripod.

Any time of the year can be rewarding although it is not recommend that a wildlife photographer visits during July or August due to the high number of tourists and hordes of mosquitoes.

Grey Heron Courtship display,
Nikon D300s plus MB-D10 plus Nikkkor 500mm F4 AFS lens.
ISO 400, 1/125 sec @F6.3. Triggered within hide.

My favourite time to visit is April/May when the summer migrants are arriving and most of the breeding species are in their prime nuptial plumage. It is always such a pleasure to be driving east along the northern shore of the Etang de Vaccares, that vast coastal lagoon which is completely protected within the Camargue National Reserve. The sense of space is exhilarating and everywhere there are birds, jet black bulls and the regions famous white horses.

From a photography viewpoint my recent visit in early May was one of my most productive yet. Many of the regions water birds seem to have increased in recent years with that European rarity, the Great White Egret, now breeding in small numbers. Grey Herons, Little Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons appear to me to have all increased in recent years.

One of the great attractions of the Camargue are the ubiquitous Greater Flamingos. These ridiculously shaped, gangly pink birds are so evocative of the windswept marshes, and so photogenic. The breeding colony now numbers around 10,000 pairs with 7 – 8,000 chicks being produced most years! The breeding colony is located on a custom made island in the Etang du Fangassier, a few kilometres west of Salin de Giraud.

Two juvenile Grey Herons in nest. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 250. 1/640 sec @F7.1. Fill Flash with one hot shoe mounted Nikon SB800 (plus Fresnel flash extender) set at -1.3 stops.

The gravel track which passes along the north side of Fangassier and leads to the Digue à la Mer is I believe the finest site in Europe to photograph Greater Flamingos in flight. These bizarre, yet magical birds were at their best last May with long lines frequently passing to and fro between the colony and the distant feeding grounds to the north and west.

Early mornings and late evening are by far the best times to be set up with cameras and long lenses on tripods. I like to be in position about one hour before sunrise when the wide Camargue sky is suffused with a pale pink and orange glow which spreads from the east. The long lines of magical flamingos continually appear in silhouette as in a masterpiece in oil.

Mediterranean Gulls in flight at island colony. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens. ISO 400. 1/2000 sec @F7.1. Tripod mounted in a hide. No I had not disturbed the colony, they had taken flight momentarily in response to a passing Black Kite.

My D300 with its high ISO ability allowed me to capture images at 400 – 800 ISO in the low light of pre-dawn. My preferred lens is my trusty Nikkor 500mm F4 AFS lens with a 70 – 200mm F2.8 AFS VR kept handy in case of some closer flying birds. I do find the autofocus capabilities of the D300 to be quite superb once you have mastered the numerous settings.

If the infamous Mistral is blowing then the flamingos heading north fly low across the water. This powerful wind also helps to keep the myriads of mossies at bay. The long lines of outstretched birds only rise at the last moment to pass over the gravel track making for the most wonderful photo opportunities.

Without a doubt the Greater Flamingos of the Camargue are a living symbol of a conservation success story and I cannot wait to return.

Black-crowned Night Heron on flowering Tamarisk. Nikon D300 plus MB-D10 plus Nikkor 70-200 F2.8 AFS-VR lens. ISO 400. 1/640 sec @F6.3. Tripod mounted in a hide. Fill flash with one hot shoe mounted, Nikon SB-800 set at - 1.7 stops.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Using Flash for Small Mammal Photography

Edible Dormouse

Welcome to my new Blog. I understand that a blog is now vital for achieving improved search engine ratings so here goes.

Following one of the coldest winters in Wales for many years I couldn’t wait to head south to France for some warmth. A friend in southern France has an outbuilding where some Edible Dormice had taken up residence. As you may be aware they are truly delightful creatures and resemble a small squirrel. Of course you would not have wanted to be an Edible Dormouse during Roman times as they kept these little cuties alive in jars and fattened them up for eating, hence the name. One particular individual had become quite tame and would appear during daylight to feast on pieces of fruit which we placed on a work bench. Edible Dormice just love pears, nectarines and raisins.

I was most keen to try out the Nikon D300 together with several wireless speedlights so I built a natural looking set on the work bench. Being a dimly lit outhouse I needed to utilise flash as the main light source. I used 2 x Nikon SB800 speedlights mounted on tripods and set them to wireless function. My Nikon D300 plus a micro NIkkor 200mm F4 was also mounted on a tripod and hidden behind a hanging sheet of camouflage netting. An SB800 was positioned either side of the camera. A third speedlight – an older SB28 was mounted on a Nikon SU-4 wireless remote flash controller which was mounted on a Bogen Super Clamp attached to an overhead beam.

The SU-4 is an extremely handy gadget allowing incredible flash flexibility by turning most of Nikon’s older speedlights into wireless flash units. The SU-4 is powered by the batteries in the attached flash unit and has an effective range of up to 23 feet and weighs only 2oz! How could any Nikon photographer manage without one. In case they go out of production I suggest you rush out and buy 2 or 3.

You may have realised by now that I am a huge fan of Nikon. One of the main reasons is that I believe that Nikon speedlights remain the most user-friendly and versatile small flash units available being ideally suited to wildlife photography. However I would suggest to any prospective purchaser that they first of all throw away the far from user-friendly instruction book. Any instructions for use can easily be found on the internet.

Finally the “piece de r√©sistance” of the D300 camera body is that the pop up flash can be programmed to act as a command unit to trigger the 2 x SB800 speedlights wirelessly which then trigger the SB28 via the SU-4. In fact all these flash units are able to fire simultaneously.

Believe me, the whole system worked like magic and the Edible Dormouse appeared on cue. I only had to check the LCD screen and histograms on the rear of the camera to ensure I had the correct exposure. The camera settings were set to 1/250 second F11 – 14 on manual mode. The flash units were set to TTL. How did I ever work with flash on film cameras when I had to sometimes wait for weeks to see the results?