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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.