2015
12.10

“Un, deux, trois!” The countdown ends and we back roll off the Zodiac into the warm, turquois waters. Soon I am descending – three, four, five meters. I begin to make out the bottom at 25-30 meters but something does not seem right. I blink several times and rock my head back and forth a few times but the scene remains unchanged. The sea floor is moving. An undersea earthquake? a gas mixture problem? nitrogen narcosis? – surely not at these shallow depths. I drop past 10 and then 15 meters and it slowly begins to register. As far as my eye can see, the bottom is carpeted with a seething mass of fish. These are not small, sardine-like fish but a much larger species which I recognize as Epinephelus polyphekadion, usually known as Camouflage Groupers.

I fin to my right and still there is no end to the aggregation. 20,000, 30,000, perhaps as many as 50,000 fish, it is impossible to estimate but this is surely one of the largest gatherings of reef fish on our planet. Certainly in 25 years of diving it is a scene unlike anything I have ever encountered.

Huge aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

2a Diver with huge aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

Diver with huge aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

I descend further so that I am now in among the Groupers. They pay me no attention and many brush past seemingly oblivious to my presence.

3. Huge aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

Huge aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

The visibility is strangely excellent in some areas and almost non-existent in others. I drift into what seems like an underwater cloud. Then in front of me, a group of six fish shoot up from the reef floor into mid-water. The fish in the middle, a female, releases a stream of milky spawn, which the attendant males do their best to fertilise. In a flash, two six-foot Grey Reef Sharks power into the spawn, jaws agape. Sharks are everywhere. Usually languid in their movements, they swim with purpose and menace, pectoral fins angled downwards. Grey Reefs are the predominant species but there are also Silvertips and Blacktips with their distinctive elongated dorsal fins and wide girths.

5 Camouflage Groupers spawning, Fakarava, Tahiti Web Prepared

Camouflage Groupers spawning, Fakarava, Tahiti

6 Grey-Reef Shark swimming among Camouflage Groupers in water thick with Grouper spawn, Fakarava, Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey-Reef Shark swimming among Camouflage Groupers in water thick with spawn, Fakarava, Tahiti

The sharks are not just after the spawn but the fish themselves. Over to my right, a Blacktip surges vertically at another spawning group. It happens so quickly that I just have time to see the extended mouth and rows of teeth with bits of Grouper trailing behind.

7 Black-Tip Shark swimming among spawning aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

Black-Tip Shark swimming among spawning aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

8 Grey-Reef Shark above huge aggregation of spawning Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

Grey-Reef Shark above huge aggregation of spawning Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

So enthralled have I been by the action that I have completely forgotten about the camera in its underwater housing that I have been gripping onto tightly. Idiot. I begin shooting blindly. A Grey Reef shark takes two Groupers in one go, almost within touching distance. I press the shutter at exactly the perfect moment with the head of one Grouper protruding from the shark’s mouth. OMG. I glance down at the resultant images on the LCD camera back. Duhhhh! The image is badly underexposed and the shark’s underside is blown from the strobe lighting.  How am I making such elementary mistakes?

I have been sucking air to the point of hyperventilating such has been the excitement. I have 50 bar of air left. At 26 meters I am one minute from exceeding my no decompression limits. Not a big deal but I need to start ascending immediately and allow plenty of time on the way up to rid my blood of the excess nitrogen that has built up.

After a two-hour surface interval, I am back in the water. The peak Grouper spawning has subsided but the action remains intense. With the Groupers blanketing the reef floor, a second species, Yellow Fin Surgeonfish, have suddenly appeared in large aggregations. They also begin to spawn. Huge, pulsating schools of Dark Banded Fusiliers join the fray, often enveloping the fish and spawn. I find myself in the middle of one such ball. The water darkens as they block out the sun from above but just as quickly an opening emerges as a Shark, intent on a meal of spawn, sends the fish scattering.

9 Grey Reef sharks feeding among spawning Yellowfin Surgeonfish with Camouflage Groupers carpeting the reef floor, Fakarava, Tahiti

Grey Reef sharks feeding among spawning Yellowfin Surgeonfish with Camouflage Groupers carpeting the reef floor, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Spawning Yellowfin surgeonfish with attendant Grey Reef Sharks, Camouflage Groupers below, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Yellowfin Surgeonfish spawning, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Grey Reef Sharks and Dark Banded Fusiliers feeding on Camouflage Grouper spawn, Fakarava, Tahiti

13Grey Reef Sharks swimming among a school of Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti Web Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks swimming among a school of Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti

14 Grey Reef Sharks swimming among Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti Web Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks swimming among Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti

15 Grey Reef Shark scattering Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti Web Prepared

Grey Reef Shark scattering Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Grey Reef Shark swimming among schooling Dark Banded Fusiliers attracted by Camouflage Grouper spawn, Fakarava, Tahiti

17 Grey-Reef-Sharks-swimming-among-Dark-Banded-Fusiliers,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks swimming among Dark Banded Fusiliers, Fakarava, Tahiti

I pause to survey the spell binding scene all around me – Groupers packed together in their thousands spread across the bottom; Surgeonfish in vast numbers spawning in mid-water; multiple, swirling balls of Fusiliers which move in a synchronized fashion, wrapped around the spawn; and most dramatic of all, hundreds of highly charged sharks.

18 Grey-Reef-Sharks-among-spawning-Yellowfin-Surgeon-fish-with-Camouflage-Grouper-aggregation-on-the-reef-floor,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks among spawning Yellowfin Surgeon fish with Camouflage Grouper aggregation on the reef floor, Fakarava, Tahiti

The question doing the rounds in my frazzled brain is how can it be that a natural history event of such staggering proportions has remained under wraps all this time?

When I first stumbled on these incredible scenes in June 2009, it was by pure, dumb luck. Fakarava was best known for its prodigious shark numbers. There are very few places on our planet where you can still see sharks in such prolific quantities and this is what had originally drawn me to this idyllic destination. It is also a Mecca for various large reef fish species including the endangered Napoleon Wrasse.

29a Grey-Reef-Sharks,-Wall-of-Sharks,-South-Pass,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks, Wall of Sharks, South Pass, Fakarava, Tahiti

30 Overunder-view-of-Black-Tip-Reef-Sharks-swimming-over-coral-reef,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Over-under view of Black Tip Reef Sharks swimming over coral reef, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Close-focus, wide-angle view of Grey Reef Sharks, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Black Tip Reef Shark tail fin, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Grey Reef Sharks swimming in shallow water lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Grey Reef Sharks swimming in shallow water lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

35 Grey-Reef-Sharks-and-Slender-Suckerfish-in-shallow-water-lagoon,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks and Slender Suckerfish in shallow water lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

35a Silvertip-Shark,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Silvertip Shark, Fakarava, Tahiti

36 Grey-Reef-Shark-Malee,-shallow-water-lagoon,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Shark melee, shallow water lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

37 Overunder-view-of-Grey-Reef-Sharks-at-sunset,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Over-under view of Grey Reef Sharks at sunset, Fakarava, Tahiti

38 Close-focus,-wide-angle,-underwater-view-of-Napoleon-Wrasse-swimming-near-the-surface,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Close-focus, wide-angle, underwater view of Napoleon Wrasse swimming near the surface, Fakarava, Tahiti

39 Overunder-view-of-Napoleon-Wrasse-with-Slender-Suckerfish-swimming-in-shallow-water-logoon,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Over-under view of Napoleon Wrasse with Slender Suckerfish swimming in shallow water lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

40 Onespot-Snappers-swimming-below-pier,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Onespot Snappers swimming below pier, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Schooling Yellowfin Goatfish , Fakarava, Tahiti

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Six Banded Wrasse swimming with motion, Fakarava, Tahiti

43 Fish,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Blacktail Snappers, with motion, Fakarava, Tahiti

Fakarava is giant atoll with a rectangular shape. A thin strip of land, no more than about 200 meters wide at any one spot surrounds a largely deep water, lagoon. The lagoon is fringed by sumptuous white sand beaches and is dotted with postcard-perfect motus or small islands.

19 Coconut-plams-on-small-atoll-(motu)-in-lagoon,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Coconut palms on small motu in lagoon, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Fish-eye, underwater view of floating leaf with coconut palms in the background, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Underwater, fish-eye view of coconut palms, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Underwater view of coconut floating in shallow water lagoon with coconut palms in the background, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Underwater view of overhanging trees, Fakarava, Tahiti

In contrast to the tranquility of the lagoon, the ocean side of Fakarava, with its fringing barrier reef is altogether wilder.

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Ocean shore at dusk, reef side, Fakarava, Tahiti

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Ocean shoreline at sunset, reef side, Fakarava, Tahiti

The dive operation I was with on those first dives in 2009, the largest in Tahiti, knew almost nothing about the spawning – just vague rumours of large Grouper aggregations but no one had any details of when and where. On the internet, there were no images and no accounts. Over the next few days I spoke to as many locals as possible. Back at home, I contacted marine biologists. Slowly the pieces began to come together.

The aggregation takes place once a year, in June or July depending on the timing of the full moon relative to the winter solstice. The Groupers begin to aggregate one to two weeks before the full moon and the fish numbers build steadily until spawning takes place on the day of the full moon.

25 Full-moon-rising-over-Fakarava-reef-lagoon,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Full moon rising, Fakarava, Tahiti

The spawning occurs in a pass that is about half a kilometer wide, through which millions of gallons of water flow into and out of the adjoining lagoon, twice a day. Generally the fish spawn on an incoming current but I have seen some spawning occur on both a slack and an outgoing current. Small amounts of Grouper spawning continue the morning after the main event but the action on the second day is focused on the spawning Surgeonfish. In the afternoon of either the second or third day after the peak Grouper spawning, the Groupers exit the pass in vast, long lines for the lagoon, a migration that in itself is almost as impressive as the spawning.

Late in the afternoon of the peak Grouper spawning and sometimes for 2-3 subsequent days, another reef fish species, Convict Surgeonfish also spawn in spectacular numbers at a nearby location. The event takes place over a shallow reef and usually on a truly ripping outgoing current. The following images were made in incredibly challenging conditions and were taken with one hand as the other one was required to hold on to the reef to prevent me from being swept away. This has happened but fortunately the current pushed me back to my small resort, where I washed up in near darkness.

26 Convict-Surgeonfish-aggregation-with-attendent-Grey-Reef-Sharks,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Convict Surgeonfish aggregation with attendant Grey Reef Sharks, Fakarava, Tahiti

27 Grey Reef Sharks feeding on spawning Convict Surgeonfish #2, Fakarava, Tahiti Web Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks feeding on spawning Convict Surgeonfish, Fakarava, Tahiti

28 Grey-Reef-Sharks-swimming-over-an-aggregation-of-Convict-Surgeonfish,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks swimming over an aggregation of Convict Surgeonfish, Fakarava, Tahiti

29 Grey-Reef-Sharks-swimming-among-spawning-Convict-Surgeonfish,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Grey Reef Sharks swimming among spawning Convict Surgeonfish, Fakarava, Tahiti

Since that day back in 2009, I have made the pilgrimage to Fakarava every year. Each time, there have been differences in the sequence of events. For example, there have been noticeable differences from year to year in the intensity of the Surgeonfish spawning. The other big change is that the Grouper numbers are significantly lower than those that I witnessed in the first two years. No one knows why. Could it be the usual culprit of overfishing? This is unlikely as the pass, surrounding area and nearby atolls are extremely well protected. Could it be that some of the fish have journeyed  to spawn in neighbouring atolls? A new theory has it that an increase in shark numbers (how often do we hear the word “increase” mentioned in the same sentence with sharks?) has resulted in greater predation on the Groupers or has simply scared them off.

I and a few other divers jealously tried to guard the “sexy secret” but as word has gradually filtered out in the last three years, the number of divers in the water has increased significantly. Last year, a huge, well-funded French film crew was there to document the event. Could it be that excessive diver numbers are playing their part too? Unlike in previous years, the last two years have seen only modest amounts of spawning on the morning of the full moon; and no one has been in the water when it is believed that peak action took place, likely in the late afternoon.

I plan to continue returning each year to Fakarava. I love the place and have become good friends with the owners of the small, picturesque dive resort that sits adjacent to the pass where the Grouper spawn. In recent years I have spent more time concentrating on other marine species and it may be that we will never witness Grouper aggregations and spawning of the scale that I saw in those first two years. Whether marine or terrestrial, this sadly seems to the case with so many of our planet’s wondrous natural history events.

44 Pre-spawning-aggregation-of-Camouflage-Groupers-#2,-Fakarava,-Tahiti-Web-Prepared

Pre-spawning aggregation of Camouflage Groupers, Fakarava, Tahiti

 

2014
12.13

In September 2005 I took a private charter in a Cessna 206 from Nairobi to the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya with Paveena and some friends. During the flight I got talking to the pilot and having established that I was a keen photographer, he asked me if I would be interested in taking some aerial photographs. While I had always marveled at the African landscape as seen from the air especially when flying low, as one often does in smaller, charted planes, it wasn’t something I had ever given much thought to. When he told me it would be possible to remove both doors at the back right hand side of the aircraft, providing an expansive and flexible view from the plane, I was intrigued.

The next year I returned with Paveena for my first aerial excursion – to the surreal geological formations that constitute Lake Natron, straddling the border between Kenya and Tanzania. As we approached the lake, I was dumbfounded to find a vast, blood-red lake bed, covered with just a few inches of water. Strange mineral deposits dotted the lake, forming mini, atoll reef-like structures. To cap it off, there were hundreds of thousands of Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters with others flying in V-shaped, squadron formations. As they cruised low over the surface waters, the sun cast dark shadows on the mirror-like lake surface with perfect accompanying Flamingo and cloud reflections. The shadows bore a striking resemblance to Pterodactyles and at times I felt as if I had been transported back in time or even to the surface of a distant planet. I can honestly say that for me, it was a life changing experience and aerial photography in East Africa has since become a near decade long addiction.

Since that first expedition, I have made at least one aerial trip in Kenya each year. In the process I have discovered, explored and been overwhelmed by Kenya’s divergent landscapes but it is its soda lakes that I keep coming back to and it is in the far north and south of the country that these are at their most superlative. It took me a long time to start making decent images from the aircraft. One day I will get up in a helicopter, but the cost of doing so remains prohibitive. Compared to a helicopter with its ability to fly at slow speeds and most importantly, hover, photographing from the open doors of a fast flying plane is altogether more challenging. Initially there is the fear factor with only a thin, loosely fastened seat belt (it has to be loose in order for you to turn your body) preventing you from falling out of the plane to a certain death. Turbulence is almost ever present. The plane jerks up and down often making any sort of framing with a camera impossible. An overhead wing, a protruding right-hand side wheel and a tail wing mean that the widest one can shoot without including these elements, is about 25mm. Wind rushes past the fuselage at hurricane force rates, making it unfeasable to extend one’s lenses out the open doors. Forget about lens hoods. Over time I have developed various techniques to use my body as a wind shield to at least partially circumvent this problem. This type of aerial photography is not recommended for those that suffer from motion sickness. I’ve had more than one accompanying friend whose last meal has ended up in the sick-bag. Most of all you need highly skilled pilots. Flying with the doors removed has been described to me by my pilots as akin to driving a car with the hand brake partly engaged. Wind shear in the far north of Kenya can be extreme and for a light aircraft, potentially fatal. I would be lying if I denied that my heart has not felt it was in my throat a few times as we have approached a dusty airstrip with the plane careering erratically and seemingly destined for a catastrophic ending. But my trust in their abilities is 100% and all my excursion have been incident free; so a big shout out to Peter and Christian.

From a photographic perspective, you need to consider the sun’s orientation. There’s no point flying north in the morning as you’ll have the sun in your face if you are shooting out the right side of the plane. The biggest issue however, is simply that the aircraft travels fast and the closer to the ground, the greater the apparent speed. With experience I have found that you need to be in a state of high alert at all times. You have to be constantly looking forward with your head very slightly out the door (yes, this will feel like you have placed your head into a scientifically generated wind tunnel) carefully scanning ahead and below for upcoming features and action. When you spot something, you have literally a few seconds to a) decide on which camera/lens combination you will use; b) dial in the appropriate level of exposure compensation and c) frame and compose the image. I can assure you, this is not easy. While there are lots of occasions for working in manual exposure, this is not one of them. Trust me on this. If one second you are photographing light or even white coloured sodium formations and the next, white and pink winged flamingos over a medium coloured background, it is far easier to work in AV and use your thumb to dial in compensation (in this case from around +1 and 2/3 to -1 and 2/3, or ten clicks of the wheel). At the soda lakes, where one is typically flying in circular patterns, the sun’s orientation to the aircraft is constantly changing (unless at noon), again obviating the use of manual exposure. Since the very first flight, I have used two camera bodies, secured these days around my neck by Black Rapid camera straps, and typically comprising a full frame camera body with a 24-105mm IS lens and then a cropped sensor camera with a 70-200mm IS lens, sometime in use with a 1.4x converter. For the first lens, you’ll need shutter speeds of at least 1,000th sec. For the second lens, at least 2,000th sec. You can shoot with very large apertures (eg. f4) as depth of field is not an issue when shooting from the air at large distances. There is usually plenty of light meaning that most of the time you can shoot at ISOs of 400 to 500 and still have plenty of shutter speed. If it is cloudy, then you might have to go up to 800-1,000 but with today’s cameras, this is not an issue. Occasionally on the wider lens I will use a circular polarizer.

Like any subject that one photographs regularly, you start to develop an interest in it. For the soda lakes and the Flamingos, it wasn’t long before I was asking basic questions such as: how did the soda lakes form? what are they composed of? what are the strange lake bed colours and geological patterns that I was seeing? why were these patterns, formations and colours ever changing? why did the flamingos have the lakes pretty much to themselves? etc. While my knowledge is far from complete, over time I have build up a rudimentary understanding of the soda lake environment and its primary inhabitant.

I don’t want to bore you with a long winded account so I will try to summarise things briefly and clearly. East Africa’s soda lakes lie within the Great Rift Valley, a fault line that stretches over 6,000 kms from Lebanon to Mozambique and which has formed a vast valley in which numerous lakes, escarpments and volcanoes exist. The soda lakes were formed at a time when the valley floor was covered in volcanic ash, heavily composed of sodium carbonate. Rain water carried this chemical and other mineral salts into rivers which in turn flowed into the newly formed lakes. The lakes had no outlet source and with oven-like temperatures around many of the lakes, the dissolved minerals accumulated and were concentrated through evaporation. This produced various sodium and phosphate compounds, the most important of which were sodium bicarbonate and sodium hydroxide. It is these compounds that give the lakes their high alkaline content and when concentrated in the extreme, can result in waters that are highly corrosive to human flesh.

Aerial image of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, Tanzania

Aerial image of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, Tanzania. This is an active volcano on the south east shore of Lake Natron. On contact with rain or moisture in the air, the lava is transformed into sodium carbonate. Much of this ends up being transported by rain water flowing down the heavily eroded sides into the lake helping to give the waters their unique alkaline characteristics.

2. Ancient volcanic calderas, Seguta Valley, Kenya

Ancient volcanic calderas, Seguta Valley, Northern Kenya. The Seguta Valley was once part of Lake Turkana but is now separated by a formidable volcanic ridge. Evidence of historic volcanic activity is ever present along the entire valley. It is inaccessible by vehicle and few humans are ever likely to have traversed the parched lands. It truly feels like the land that time forgot.

3. The caldera of Nabuyatom volcano, Lake Turkana, N

The caldera of Nabuyatom volcano on the southern shore of Lake Turkana, Northern Kenya. This is a spectacular, uneroded caldera flanked by black lava. Lake Turkana is often referred to as the “Jade Sea” for the dazzling green shades that its waters take on in the mid-day sun.

At sunset, Turkana’s waters can take on altogether different colours. In this next image, wind blowing across the lake surface has imparted a textile-like quality to the waters.

69. Aerial image of lake water patterns at sunset on the shore of Lake Turkana, Kenya _97A1125 {J}

Aerial image of lake water patterns at sunset on the shore of Lake Turkana, Kenya

3a. Star trails over crater walls, double exposure, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Star trails over crater walls, two exposures blended together, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

4. Aerial image of the Seguta River and ancient remains of a caldera, Seguta Valley, Kenya

Aerial image of the Seguta River and the ancient remains of an eroded caldera, Seguta Valley, Kenya. The Seguta River winds its way up the Seguta valley, snaking past numerous volcanic features and terminates in an alluvial delta at the southern shore of Lake Logipi. The river is often dry for parts of the year but here it is full and the surrounding vegetation indicates recent rains.

 

5. Aerial view of sand dunes in the Seguta Velley, Kenya

Aerial view of sand dunes in the Seguta Velley, Kenya. Despite the river, parts of the Seguta Valley are so dry that small areas of beautiful sand dunes have formed.

6. Rain erosion patterns, Seguta Valley, Kenya

Rain erosion patterns, Seguta Valley, Kenya. This image was taken less than 10 kms from the sand dunes and highlights the diversity of landscapes that can be found in the valley.

7._74A0311 {J}

This is the delta formed by the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River as it drains into Lake Natron. The lake water at this end marks the border between Kenya and Tanzania

7a. Lake shore delta

Aerial view of the same river delta on Lake Natron shot from the other direction. Evaporation has caused sodium compounds to form on the delta shore while evaporated sodium trails are evident on the lake surface. Cloud reflections can be seen on the lower left.

The mineral concentrations vary from lake to lake and rainfall patterns and temperatures are other catalysts. With furnace-like temperatures, evaporation rates can be extreme and some of the lakes look dramatically different from month to month depending on rainfall patterns. Lake Natron and Logipi are prime examples of this. The following three images show Cathedral Rock, a volcanic structure that sits within the northern reaches of Lake Logipi. Each was taken on a different occasion over the course of 18 months.

8. PaulMckenzie_Soda lake1_74A7938 {J}

High water – Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya with algae slick and Lesser Flamingos

9. Thousands of Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) dot the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

Shallow water –  thousands of Lesser Flamingos dot the shallow waters around Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya

10. Volcanic island set in dried up lake with flying Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) in foreground (aerial shot), Lake Logipi, N

Cathedral Rock in dry lake bed, Lake Logipi, Kenya. Here, only a small patch of water remains in the lake. It is still sufficient to attract sizeable groupings of Flamingos. The dry, saline lake bed is blindingly white in some areas and the heat reflected off it can be clearly felt even at a height of several hundred meters. This is an environment that is hostile in an extreme sense. Yet the Flamingos thrive in it.

10b. Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) flying over shallow water lake, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake, Lake Logipi, Kenya. Cathedral Rock can just be made out in the top right of the image. As in the previous image, only small bodies of water remain but these still host huge congregations of Flamingos

 

11. Mount Shompole and clouds with reflections on Lake Natron, Tanzania (aerial shot)

High water – Lake Natron during the rainy season in May, showing Mount Shompole (Kenya) in the distance. The still waters create an almost perfect mirror of the sky.

12. Aerial shot of algae bloom at Lake Magadi, Kenya #2

Shallow water – The scene that greeted me on my very first aerial excursion to Lake Natron during the dry season – a blood red lake bed with a very thin covering of lake water

A large portion of Lake Natron and portions of Lake Logipi are relatively dry for much of the year or are covered with just a thin layer of water. The lake bed underneath is made up of a brittle crust of sodium bicarbonate that lies over a bed of thick, gooey mud. The combination of the corrosive waters, searing temperatures and a lake bed that simply cannot be traversed by mammals, means that this is an environment that is alien to almost all life forms. Yet Flamingos have made this ecosystem their home and have positively thrived in this hostile landscape. They share the soda lakes with just a few plant, fish and crustacean species which have adapted to the challenging conditions and by far the most abundant is a microscopic algae species which has evolved perfectly to withstand the harsh conditions and which breeds in prodigious numbers. It is this algae that forms the primary food source for the Flamingos. The lake beds contain huge numbers of the microscopic algae and it is the algae that help to impart the vivid colours that often characterize the lake beds. These same carotenoid pigments in the algae are broken down by enzymes in the bird’s liver to give the Flamingos their distinctive pink colouration.

13. Aerial image of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over the dry lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania_74A5513 {J}

Aerial image of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over the dry lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania. The sodium bicarbonate crust is infused with vast quantities of a microscopic algae that produces a carotenoid pigment resulting in the vivid red colours. Depending on water levels and mineral concentrations, these colours can evolve into different shades.

14. _90R8966 {J}

Lesser Flamingos flying over the lake bed of Lake Magadi, Kenya

14. next Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos on algae infused pool near Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos on algae infused pool near Lake Bogoria, Kenya

13a. _P3I4335 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over sodium bicarbonate lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Mineral concentrations on Lake Logipi are not as intense as in Lake Natron and the sodium bicarbonate crust is less evident. Instead, the shallow waters lie over a coating of silt, which in turn sits on top of a thick layer of blue black, viscous mud. When the Flamingos walk through the waters and silt, black trails in the mud are revealed.

14a_74A1444 {J}

Aerial image of Flamingos and trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

14b B&W_74A0389 {J}

Flamingo doodle – aerial image of Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

14c. Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) on shallow water lake (aerial shot), Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails on shallow water lake, Lake Logipi, Kenya

14d. _P3I2939 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser and Greater Flamingos and trails on shallow water lake, Lake Logipi, Kenya

14e. Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with silt and mud trails visible, Lake Logipi, Kenya_P3I2275 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with mud trails visible through the silt, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos are not wedded to any one soda lake and will move from lake to lake searching for optimal conditions. The birds will sometimes travel large distances, to Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Mauritania in West Africa. Smaller populations can also be found on occasion in North West India. Sometimes the birds will favour one lake during the day and then roost on another at night before returning to the original lake the next day. In Flamingo Crater Lake on Central Island in Lake Turkana, this is precisely what happens. In early 2011, I spent three blisteringly hot days in this crater waiting for the birds to lift off at the end of day, after which they would fly a few times around the crater rim before departing.

65. Lesser Flamingos flying over the crater walls of Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos flying over the crater walls of Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

66. Lesser Flamingos soaring against white sky, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos soaring against white sky, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

67. Lesser Flamingos flying over crater walls at dusk, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos flying over crater walls at dusk, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Central Island is not far from Lake Logipi and it is likely that this is where the birds would go each night.

68. Lesser flamingos flying over Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lesser flamingos flying over Lake Logipi, Kenya

As a photographer, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the painterly, abstract patterns of the soda lake beds and shores. If ever art can be found in nature, these are surely primary examples.

15. Sodium bicarbonate crust patterns on Lake Natron, Tanzania (aerial shot)

Aerial image of sodium bicarbonate and hydroxide crust patterns on Lake Natron, Tanzania. The distinctive colours are produced by vast quantities of algae within the chemical compounds.

16. Algae bloom & crystalised salt (aerial shot), Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of sodium deposits on the lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

17. _74A1288 {J}

WTF! seriously, this is nature and not an artist’s canvas. I’ve always thought that any artist suffering from artist block or simply lacking inspiration should take an aerial flight over some of the world’s soda lakes. This is Lake Logipi in northern Kenya.

18. _74A9962 {J}

Sodium deposits on top of the sodium bicarbonate crust lining the bed of Lake Natron. I love these abstract patterns. Here they look like strings of pearls.

19. Crystalised salt, Lake Natron, Tanzania (aerial shot) #2

More weird and wonderful lake bed patterns formed by sodium and phosphate deposits with colouring provided by the algae, Lake Natron, Tanzania

20. _74A5873 {J}

As a photographer, I’ve always been attracted to bands of colour. The shore line on Lake Natron serves up opportunities in abundance.

20a

More mineral deposits and colour bands on the shore of Lake Natron

21. Sodium bicarbonate & sodium hydroxide infused delta waters on the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania (aerial shot)

Sodium bicarbonate & sodium hydroxide infused with microscopic algae on the delta waters at the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania

Concentrations of mineral deposits often form small islands on Lake Natron. From the air, these islands have an oil painting quality about them. The reflections of clouds on the dark, still lake surface adds to the artistic impression.   22. _74A9184 {J} 23. _74A9307 {J}

One of the more unusual features of the soda lakes is that the searing temperatures around the lake result in high evaporation rates. From the air this sometimes gives the appearance that the lake shore and lake bed are disintegrating. In turn, this produces some wonderfully photographic patterns, many with a surreal abstract quality.

24. Aerial image of x, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Evaporating sodium/phosphate compounds on the surface of Lake Natron

25. Crysallised salt trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside salt encrusted delta, Tanzania

Evaporating mineral trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside a lake shore delta heavily encrusted with sodium and phosphate compounds

26. Lesser Flamingos and evaporated sodium trails

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over Lake Natron with trails of evaporated sodium compounds on the lake surface.

26a_90R9295 {J}

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over Lake Natron with trails of evaporating sodium and phosphate compounds of the lake surface

27a. Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over evaporating sodium compounds on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania_97A7902 {J}

How cool is this? Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over evaporating sodium compounds on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania

27b. _97A7925 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over evaporating sodium compounds on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania

The evaporating mineral compounds are sometimes mixed with algae slicks.

28. Algae slick and sodium compound trails

Clouds in my coffee. Aerial view of algae slick and trails of evaporated sodium and phosphate compounds on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania.

 

29

More oil paint abstracts – Algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya. Aerial view of lime green and pink algae slick on the surface of lake.

The algae slicks often draw large numbers of Flamingos.

30. Lesser Flamingos on shallow water lake beside algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos on shallow water lake beside algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya

31. Flamingo algae slick

Flamingos on, beside and flying by an algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Sometimes huge blooms of algae can cover vast sections of a soda lake such as in this instance on Lake Bogoria.

32. _74A3712 {J}

Aerial image of Flamingos flying over algae bloom, Lake Bogoria, Kenya. Can you make out the partial outline of some of the world’s continents?

When conditions are right on the lakes, specifically: the water is shallow, the alkaline content of the water and the concentrations of algae, high, East Africa’s soda lakes can draw staggeringly large Flamingo numbers. Flocks of over a million birds have been recorded, easily the largest gathering of an inland water bird on our planet.

33. Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, aerial shot #2, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, Lake Logipi, Kenya

34. Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos carpeting the shallow waters and shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos carpeting the shallow waters and shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

35. Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos line the shore of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos lining the shore and adjacent shallow waters of Lake Bogoria, Kenya

36. Hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya, aerial shot

Aerial image of hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

 

37. Lesser flamingos, Lake Logipi, Kenya (from the air) 070922__MG_0080

Aerial image of hundreds of Lesser Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lake Natron is one of the few soda lakes in Africa where Flamingos breed on a regular basis. The birds build nests out of mud in locations where it can be easily extracted between the plates of the sodium bicarbonate crust, typically out in the middle of the lake where no four or two legged predators can venture.

38. Flamingo nests on sodium bicarbonate crust (aerial shot), Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Flamingo nests on sodium bicarbonate crusted lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

The Flamingos become sexually mature at seven years and like Albatrosses (my other favorite avian species), they usually pair for life. The female lays a single egg and they form large colonies such that breeding takes place en masse. There is no fixed time table to the breeding but it is usually in dry periods which facilitate nest building. Only about 20% of breeding adults mate and lay eggs in any one year.  20% can still add up to considerable numbers. Two weeks after hatching, the chicks migrate in large groupings, usually led by a single adult, across the scorching lake bed to the shore where there are a permanent fresh water lagoons. In early 2011, one of my aerial excursions fortuitously coincided with this event. I was only vaguely aware of this behavior mainly through the incredible “Crimson Wing” documentary (surely one of the finest wildlife documentaries ever produced) and could not believe my luck when I realized what was unfolding beneath me.

39. Fledgling Flamingos grouped together, aerial shot, into the sun, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of fledgling Flamingo chicks tracking across the lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

39a. Juvenile Lesser Flamingos grouped together on a brittle crust of sodium bicarbonate, Lake Natron, Tanzania (aerial shot)

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos chicks tracking across the shallow waters of Lake Natron, Tanzania

The juvenile Flamingos lack the pink and red colouration of their parents and this is only gradually acquired over time following prolonged algae ingestion.

41. Lesser flamingos and reflections, Lake Bogoria, Kenya_Z5I0978

Juvenile Lesser and Greater flamingos together with a single Lesser Flamingo adult, Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Lake Nakuru, Elementatia and to a lesser extent, Lake Bogoria are set in more temperate surroundings without the searing temperatures and high evaporation rates of Natron and Logipi and hence have lower mineral concentrations. These temperate lakes do not serve as breeding grounds and hence the predatory risk to chicks is a non-issue. However, for the adults and juveniles, it is a different story. Baboons have adapted to catch Flamingos in the fresh water streams of Bogoria and in Nakuru the threat comes from Hyenas.

58. Running hyena captured in mid-air, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Spotted Hyena running along the shore, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

59. Hyena chasing flamingos, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

The Hyena’s strategy for hunting Flamingos appears haphazard. They simply charge into the water towards large groups of the birds. There is however, method to their apparent madness. The Flamingos are alert and a healthy bird can comfortably take flight. On the other hand, while most of these chases culminate in failure on the part of the Hyena, there is always the chance that a sick or injured bird will not be able to escape in time.

60. Hyena with flamingo kill, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Hyena with flamingo kill, Lake Nakuru, Kenya. With the entire lake shore and large portions of the surrounding Yellow Fever Acacia forest currently flooded due to three years of abundant rainfall (human encroachment and forest clearance has added to the high waters), the lake has been largely devoid of Flamingos for the last three years and it may be a long time before we again witness this type of predatory behavior at Lake Nakuru.

 

From the air, large groupings of Flamingos sometimes briefly form patterns and shapes that resemble other animals or symbols. These are usually fleeting and so it helps to be alert to them and be able to react quickly with a camera.

42. Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos by lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania 4_P3I8111 {J}

The Elephant Seal

43. Aerial shot of Shrew-shaped congregation of Lesser Flamingos on the shallow, mud-coloured waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

The Shrew

44. Aerial image of thousands of Lesser Flamingos flying together in the shape of a tooth over the shallow waters of Lake Logipi, Kenya

Africa

45. Lesser Flamingos grouped together in the shape of devil's tail, aerial shot, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Devil’s tail

46. Lesser flamingos flying over Lake Logipi, Kenya (aerial shot) 080926__MG_0067

Love heart

 

47. Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped around small volcanic island, Lake Bogoria, Kenya_P3I2661 {J}

The tear

Flamingos are large birds and require a running start to take flight.

48. Lesser Flamingo running in shallow water to take flight, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Lesser Flamingo running in shallow water to take flight, Lake Nakuru, Kenya.

49. B&W Hundreds of Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) running to take-off with backlit water trails,

Shot backlit from the air, Flamingos leave behind artistic water trails as they run to take flight on the shallow waters of Lake Logipi.

The birds often fly low over the lake waters,  in V-shaped formations, reminiscent of bomber squadrons.

50. Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over Lake Natron, Tanzania

Greetings

In Lake Bogoria and especially on Lake Nakuru, Lesser Flamingos engage in dazzling pre-breeding displays. The spectacle starts with a group of a few birds. Neck and tail feathers are raised as an invitation for other birds to join in and sometimes hundreds join the communal dance. Packed tightly together, some engage in “fencing” with their bills; others thrust their necks and heads skyward while others bend their necks to extreme angles so that their heads rest against their breasts. The birds march in a synchronized fashion at times moving through the shallow waters at a leisurely pace before abruptly speeding up, often with sudden directional changes.

51. Lesser flamingo in early morning light in dark water, Lake Nakuru, Kenya 081011__MG_8401

Lesser flamingo in early morning light, on the lookout for potential “dance partners”, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

52. Flamingos in the mist

In the early morning mist, a small group come together to engage in bill “fencing”, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

53. Lesser flamingo group tightly packed in early morning sunshine, Lake Nakuru, Kenya IMG_0739Kenya2005

The dance ritual begins

 

54. Lesser Flamingo group walking, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

The group begins to move at a fast pace through the shallow waters with ritualistic bill fencing taking place, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

55. Lesser flamingo group walking together, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

The groups steadily get larger. If you sit or better still, lie on the edge of the lake, the Flamingos will eventually come reasonably close. As with all avian species that are on the ground, getting onto your belly with the lens on the dirt, will result in much more pleasing images

56. Lesser flamingos grouped together, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

The courting birds can swell to several hundred. Moving in a highly synchronized fashion, it is a mesmerising spectacle. Lake Nakuru, Kenya

57. Lesser Flamingos at dusk (motion, flash), Lake Bogoria, Kenya

The dance rituals can occur at any time of the day. This is at dusk with the image taken using a slow shutter speed and flash.  Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Lesser Flamingos are more numerous in East Africa than Greater Flamingos although the latter are much more widespread globally.   The Greater Flamingos are larger, have more vivid wing colouration, have a pink versus a brown bill and are able to feed on small fish and crustaceans that have adapted to the lake environments. All in all, they are prettier and more photogenic.

61.Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo, Lake Magadi, Central Serengeti, Tanzania

62. Aerial image of Greater Flamingos in late afternoon sunlight, walking through the shallow waters of Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Greater Flamingos in late afternoon sunlight, walking through the shallow waters of Lake Natron, Tanzania

63. A solitary Greater Flamingo flys past the crater wall of Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana

A solitary Greater Flamingo flys past the crater wall of Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana

The soda lake environments continue to fascinate me. Harsh, beautiful and outer worldly are adjectives that cannot often be used in the same sentence but these sum up the lakes. However, it is their charismatic avian residents that complete the picture of wonder. How these birds have adapted to the severe conditions is a triumph of natural evolution. Viewed from the air, the lakes provide a visual overload that from my experience is unmatched on our planet. Like drugs, aerial photography is not a cheap addiction to have developed but I can take comfort that at the end of my life it will be these “highs” that will be amongst my most treasured experiences.

64. Lesser Flamingo standing in golden reflected water, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

Juvenile Greater Flamingo standing in golden reflected water, Flamingo Crater Lake, Central Island, Lake Turkana, Kenya

 

 

 

2014
05.19

Japan – Feb 2014

I began this blog back in early March and finished about 70% of it by mid-March. For various reasons, mainly work commitments and laziness, it has since lain dormant gathering cyberspace dust. Anyway, I have finally got around to finishing it – I suppose better late than never. It is long but that reflects the many different destinations we visited and the numerous photo opportunities that we were presented with.

In February I was back in Japan for my annual Hokkaido winter wonderland sojourn. Normally I’ve made this trip alone or with just two or three guests. This time I co-led a group of seven photographers along with legendary bird photographer, Arthur Morris and the hyper-creative, Denise Ippolito. When you accompany other photographers you never quite know what you are going to get but I am happy to report that the group turned out to be just about perfect – some of the nicest people you could possibly hope to meet. I love Japan’s culture but for those visiting Japan for the first time, elements of it can be frustrating and challenging. Fortunately everyone coped well and for the most part fully embraced the culture. The absence of dramas on this front was mirrored in the trip’s logistics – a good job since this was my primary responsibility. To be fair, this would not have been possible without the standing and connections of our Japanese guide and host in Hokkaido. This ensured that we had maximum flexibility in what and where we photographed, something that other photographic groups almost certainly do not have, despite what they may tell you. He and his wife have also become good friends; this being the fifth year that I have worked with them. A special shout-out must go to Shinobu for her incredible cuisine. Despite the far reaching dietary requirements of some of our party, Shinobu never ceased to amaze with her incredible culinary skills.

The Japanese are often sticklers for detail and tradition and this can sometimes lead to inflexibility and an inability to see the woods from the trees (I should add that this certainly does not apply to our hosts). But this is all overshadowed by their unfailingly charming hospitality; unrivalled politeness; mouth-watering food and presentation and for photographers, breathtaking scenery and a smorgasbord of superb wildlife.

Flight of the eagles

After overnighting in Tokyo, we flew to south-eastern Hokkaido, drove to our ideally located lodging (none of the soulless budget hotels that some other groups stay at) and were photographing within an hour. On the first afternoon we concentrated on White-Tailed Eagles and Black Kites which are attracted to a daily fish feeding. Although not my favorite location owing to the crowds of photographers that gather here, there’s no denying that if you want nice images of the eagles in flight, this is the place to go.

1. White-Tailed Eagle and Crow in flight, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle and Crow in flight, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

2. White-Tailed Eagle about to snatch fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle about to snatch fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

3. White-Tailed Eagle snatching fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle snatching fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The crane attraction

For anyone visiting Eastern Hokkaido in winter, there’s no question that the prime attraction has to be the courting Red-Crowned Cranes. Once thought to be extinct in Japan due to demand for their feathers, they have been nursed back from the brink helped by conservation efforts and grain feeding during the winter months such that their numbers are now up to 1,200. So emblematic and charismatic are the birds, known locally as tancho, that they have become a national symbol in Japan. All are resident in a small area in eastern Hokkaido. For most of the year they are hidden deep within marshland but for two months in winter, they emerge to a few select snow-covered fields where they forage for grain and perform spectacular courtship dances. In the same vain as Albatrosses which have also perfected ritualized dancing, the poetic displays by the cranes are of special significance as they also mate for life. The atmosphere and mood from a photographic standpoint at the crane fields can change dramatically depending on the weather conditions and falling snow is the perfect ingredient. In contrast to the main Japanese Island of Honshu further south, this year has seen unusually light snowfalls in Hokkaido, leaving many of its undulating hills, normally blanketed in deep powder, bereft and brown. For the week prior to arriving in Japan, I would scan the weather forecast every day only to see nothing but fine weather forecast – not just for a few days but for two straight weeks. However, on the day before departure, a forecast for a few cms of snow began to appear about 4 days into our trip. As this day approached the magnitude of the predicted snow fall began to build until a substantial 16cms was forecast over a 24 hour period. We woke on the morning of the 16th to find white-out conditions, with all the roads closed. Given our lodge’s proximity to the main Crane field, this wasn’t a problem for us and for much of the day we had the luxury of the photography perimeter almost entirely to ourselves. The Cranes not surprisingly, were late in leaving their overnight roosts on the nearby rivers but slowly they began to arrive along with a handful of Whooper Swans. Initially it was hard to discern whether any birds had actually arrived given the white-out conditions and it is a wonder that I managed to make this next image when you see the raw file, an unaltered jpg of which I have provided below.

4. Red-Crowned Cranes in snow blizzard, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes in snow blizzard, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

5. Raw file of the previous image

Raw file of the previous image!

Some of the credit must go to the amazing auto-focus capabilities of the Canon 1DX, which I had splashed out for prior to this trip. For a number of years I have been perfectly happy with my 1D MK4, used in conjunction initially with the 5D MK2 and then later with the MK3. The 1D MK4 is a fine camera but the 1DX is on a completely different level. The blazingly fast frame rate with a buffer that never seems to fill regardless of the number of frames one shoots in a single burst, is an obvious attraction. However, it is the autofocus, long an issue in previous Canon DSLRs, that really elevates this camera. It is soooo good. Often I used it with all 61 focus points activated and the number of out of focus images was so low as to be almost ridiculous. It’s ability to pick up contrast even when the human eye is struggling can be illustrated in the two images above.

While heavy snow continued to fall, the visibility gradually lifted and the next image was taken about 45 minutes after the ones above.

6. Red-Crowned Cranes and Whooper Swans feeding as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes and Whooper Swans feeding as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

7. Red-Crowned Cranes walking over the crest of an undulating snow-covered field as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes walking over the crest of an undulating snow-covered field as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

What everyone wants though are the dancing Cranes. However, seeing the Cranes dance and actually making pleasing images, are quite far removed from each other. For starters, the dancing happens very sporadically. An hour or even longer can go by with minimal activity. Then suddenly, one pair will go at it and this seems to trigger other pairs leading to a short burst of frantic activity. More often than not though, the dancing pairs are annoyingly obscured or partly so by other Cranes and achieving separation is a major challenge. Then there is the issue of the background, which on clear days provides few windows of relatively uniform, blurred backdrops. Knowing where to stand helps as is a little luck in terms of getting an eye-level view of the Cranes without the horizon level cutting through the birds – a big pet peeve of mine. But what you really need are days of low visibility and this typically only occurs when it snows. The 16th of February provided near perfect conditions for this.

8. Red-Crowned Crane courtship dance, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane courtship dance, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

9. Red Crowned Crane courtship dance, Hokkaido, Japan_90R2395 {J}

Red Crowned Crane courtship dance, Hokkaido, Japan

In the afternoon, the snow eased off and visibility increased bringing the background into play. But with continued nice dull light and periodic bouts of frantic dancing, there were still plenty of photo opportunities.

10. Red Crowned Cranes courtship dance #3, Hokkaido, Japan_90R3499 {J}

Red Crowned Cranes courtship dance #3, Hokkaido, Japan

I have lots of Crane portrait shots taken over the years but I rarely process any on the grounds that they’re easy to take and everybody else has them, but this one, using a high-key technique where you deliberately over-expose the image (taught to me a few years ago by Artie), kind of appeals to me.

11. Red-Crowned Crane portrait, high-key, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane portrait, high-key, Hokkaido, Japan

Fast shutter speed images of Cranes flying sort of fall into the same category as portraits – they don’t really rock my boat. But I will make a few exceptions for instance where the birds are flying and landing in falling snow…

12. Red-Crowned Crane landing on snow-covered field as snow falls, Hokkaido, Japan_90R2560 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane landing on snow-covered field as snow falls, Hokkaido, Japan

…or where there is an interesting flight pose or angle…

13._90R2945 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane coming into land, Hokkaido, Japan

…and this next one which given the busy background, would normally go straight to the trash can. However, somehow the combination of the orange leaves and the monochromatic tones throughout the rest of the image serve to give this a Japanese painterly feel.

_P3I2561 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane flying past tree, Hokkaido, Japan

But I much prefer flight images which show motion, usually achieved by panning and slowing down the shutter speed.  Not only are they more aesthetically pleasing, but when one is using shutter speeds of 1/20th second or less, they are harder to take when the goal is to try and get a reasonably sharp head. It’s always more rewarding when one of these types of images works vs the easy, sharp, fast shutter speed flight shot.

14, Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan_90R6077 {J}

Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

 

15. Red-Crowned Crane landing, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane landing, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

And sometimes even crazy images can work. Here I was set up to shoot with a slow shutter speed and I continued to pan and shoot even when the birds flew behind the trees. Again, you have to wonder how the camera held focus!

16. Red-Crowned Cranes flying behind trees, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes flying behind trees, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Swan Lake

My favorite destination in Eastern Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo. When we took a poll at the end of the trip on participants’ most and least favorite site, Lake Kussharo scored lowest or close to the bottom of the list on almost everyone’s list apart from mine. I still can’t quite figure this out. Maybe it was because everyone is attracted to the large iconic Cranes and Sea Eagles or maybe it was because I was the only participant who given a choice, will always shoot wide-angle before telephoto. This is an important consideration because while the Whooper Swans are pretty enough, it is the backdrop that is the big attraction and to capture this you need to be shooting fairly wide or at least with a shortish zoom lens. I certainly would have preferred to spend more than a day and a half at the lake but we were still blessed with great photo opportunities. We stayed away for the most part from the most popular site along the lake instead focusing on various lesser known ones. For one of these, I have never encountered a single other photographer in five years of travelling to Lake Kussharo. On the first morning while the rest of the group were enjoying spectacular opportunities at one of my favorite sites, I went off on my own to quickly reconnoiter my go-to early morning destination. This is very much a wide-angle site and I always try to capture the mix of solitude and frozen silence with a Japanese twist – provided by the overhanging tree branches.  I also prefer to leave the cool blue tones of the scene intact.

17. Whooper Swan at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Whooper Swan at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japa

In the evening, I took the group to another of my favorite spots, which we again had to ourselves. I have experienced all sorts of weather conditions here but in the late afternoon, we were blessed with a beautiful sunset with the colours reflected on the frozen lake opening. Five-stops of graduated neutral density helped to balance the foreground and background lighting differences.

18. Whooper Swan on frozen lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swan on frozen lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

19. Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

I didn’t completely abandon my long lenses. This is with the 600mm and the 2x. A nice image that is all about the curve of the neck.

20. Whooper Swan close-up, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swan close-up, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

It is in these sorts of situations that Artie Morris really comes into his own. He has one abstract-like image of the top of a Swan’s head with tufted orange-tinged feathers that is absolutely killer and in my book, a guaranteed contest winner.

Minimalistic landscapes

With the fixation on the admittedly spectacular wildlife, many groups overlook Eastern Hokkaido’s dreamy landscapes. Because of the paucity of snow, landscape photography was more challenging this year but with patience and a few trained eyes, we were able to ferret out a few good possibilities. As I have written before, it is very hard not to be influenced by the stark, minimalistic style landscapes made famous by Michael Kenna. This first image could easily have come from him. The difference of course is that his (small-sized) gallery prints sell for several thousand dollars.

21. Larch trees, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Larch trees, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The focus doesn’t just have to be on isolated trees, appealing as these are. While photographing one of my favorite groups of trees, I notice this fence some distance away. I walked a long way around the two accessible sides of the fence but could never quite find the right perspective I was looking for – hence my decision to settle for a square crop.

Fence on sloping snow-covered field, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Fence on sloping snow-covered field, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Pack-ice wonders

After the Swans , we journeyed to our next destination and for some in the group, the blue-ribbon species of the trip: Steller’s Sea Eagles. This eagle, with its large distinctive orange bill, is the heaviest eagle on our planet and second only to the Harpy and Philippine Eagle in size. In February and parts of March, they gather in large numbers on the pack ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, near to the fishing port of Rousu on the Shiretoko Peninsular, attracted to regular fish feeding, for the benefit in part, of photographers. When conditions are right, the snow covered, forested mountains behind the fishing port provide a beautiful backdrop for the Stellers which are joined by even greater numbers of White-Tailed Eagles.

23. Steller's Sea Eagles and White-Taile Eagles on pick-ice outside of the port of Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan

Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles on pick-ice outside of the port of Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan

One of the problems with taking images from a largish boat in these conditions is that you are usually looking down at the pack-ice, which tends to be cluttered and interspersed with pockets of water. Hence, unless you are shooting wide-angle or very tight with long telephoto lenses, you can end up with unattractive backgrounds. I am always on the look-out for small ice pinnacles which the birds will often use as perches. Since even these are of limited elevation, I try to get as low on the deck as possible to create a clean background. The other point is to anticipate the action. An empty pinnacle will invariably attract an Eagle. It is usually easier to pre-focus on the pinnacle and wait for the bird to arrive. Since I can’t be sure the bird will arrive parallel to the camera, I don’t however, like to rely on manual pre-focus. Instead I pre-focus but stay in auto-focus and rely on all 61-points of the 1DX to pick-up the action.

25. Steller's Sea Eagle with fish, landing on pack ice pinnacle, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Steller’s Sea Eagle with fish, landing on pack ice pinnacle, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

 

25. Adult Steller's Sea Eagle perched on pack ice pinnical holding fish as a juvenile approaches, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Adult Steller’s Sea Eagle perched on pack ice pinnical holding fish as a juvenile approaches, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

On our last morning out on the pack-ice, the crew left an exposed crate of frozen fish out on the foredeck for a few minutes. This quickly attracted a veritable army of hungry gulls, mainly Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged. At times it looked like a scene out of a Hitchcock movie (without the human gore). Seeing an opportunity I quickly switched to a fish-eye lens shooting at almost point-blank range. You need to take a lot of frames in the hope that in one or two you will have some degree of separation between the gulls.

26. Fish-eye view of Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged Gulls over the pack-ice, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Fish-eye view of Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged Gulls over the pack-ice, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Monkey business

And so it was goodbye to Hokkaido for another year. Instead of going home, this year I was continuing on with the group to the Japanese Macaques, commonly known as Snow Monkeys, in Central Honshu. I first visited these charismatic monkeys in 2008 and have since been back in all but one of the subsequent years. The monkeys themselves probably don’t justify such regular trips but it is the combination of the charming ryoken that I stay at with its incredible food and a choice of 11 separate indoor and outdoor onsens that is just as much a draw card. That and the fact that it’s relatively easy to get to from Hong Kong.

Anyway, this year I had previously made an additional trip in January with my wife and daughter. In part this was to set up everything for the group in February but also because in January, you have a much better chance of falling snow. The following images are a tiny selection of those that I took over the two trips but I certainly had better opportunities on the first trip, helped by the weather with one of the days seeing heavy snow fall.

When one goes to Jigokudani, it’s important to bring a few different lenses in order to shoot a variety of images. The following were shot with a 16-35mm, a 24-105mm, a 70-200mm (sometimes with a 1.4x TC) and a 100mm macro. Most were also made with a little fill flash. Some nature photographers don’t like using fill flash but with light levels often low, I find a little fill flash really helps to bring out the details in the wonderfully expressive faces of the monkeys. Most photographers understandably spend most of their time photographing the monkeys in the outdoor onsen but there are always opportunities in some of the neighboring areas.

The first two images were taken in almost the same spot but the first one was taken at the end of February and the second in mid-January. Note the differences in snow cover. This year was unusual insofar as the first half of February saw two large snowfalls, the first one of which dumped so much snow on the area that the park was closed for three days.

27. Japanese Macaque standing on the edge of outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque standing on the edge of outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

28. Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

29. Juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

30. Adult and juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Adult and juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

31. Japanese Macaque shaking its fur of snow and water in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque shaking its fur of snow and water in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

 

32. Japanese Macaque standing in the snow #2, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque standing in the snow, Jigokudani, Japan

 

33. Japanese Macaque running through snow, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque running through snow, Jigokudani, Japan

OK this next image might look slightly familiar and there’s no question that it was inspired by Jasper Doest’s wonderful image from a few years ago which garnered many awards. Jasper’s image has the eyes shut to highlight the eye-shadow like colouring of the eyelids. This one has the eyes open and you can see the use of flash to open up the shadows. I used a 70-200mm lens with 25mm of extension tube to enable closer focusing.

34. Japanese Macaque face close-up with head fur covred in snow, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque face close-up with head fur covered in snow, Jigokudani, Japan

The monkey’s faces are incredibly photogenic; not just for their myriad of expressions but also for their rich colouring.

35. Adult Japanese Macaque sleeping, portrait, Jigokudani, Japan (2)

Adult Japanese Macaque. sleeping, portrait, Jigokudani, Japan

 

35a. Japanese Macaque sleeping, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque sleeping, Jigokudani, Japan

The next image was taken with a macro lens with the emphasis on the water droplets on the whiskers.

36. Japanese Macaque mouth and nose close-up, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque mouth and nose close-up, Jigokudani, Japan

A narrow but fast flowing river flows through Jigokudani and the Monkeys will sometimes leap across it. Unfortunately in the last year, the park staff have built a small wooden bridge which the clever monkeys now largely use, in turn restricting natural crossings (imagine if they built bridges across the Mara River for the Wildebeest and Zebras to use during their migration). Anyway, a friendly group of South African photographers received permission to temporally block the bridge, thereby necessitating a return to natural crossings. With lots of rocks in the river and with the opposite river bank coming into play from most angles, careful positioning was essential to ensuring as clean a background as possible.

37. Juvenile Japanese Macaque jumping across river, Jigokudani, Japan_90R5014 {J}

Juvenile Japanese Macaque jumping across river, Jigokudani, Japan

By late February the sun is sufficiently high at midday that it covers an entire snow-covered slope on one side of the river. Grain is periodically dispensed onto this hill and the Monkeys happily take advantage of both the food and the warmth provided by the sun. I took several images over the course of the second trip and here I got lucky with the monkeys evenly dispersed and with minimal overlap.

34a. Japanese Macaques foraging on sunny snow slope, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaques foraging on sun-covered snow slope, Jigokudani, Japan

While the Monkeys are clearly the main attraction at Jigokudani, there are other photographic possibilities if one looks a little harder. For the first image a tripod was essential with a long shutter speed required (1/8th sec) to slow the movement of the water but one that was not too slow to lose all of the detail.

38. Water flowing past rock and ice, Jigokudani, Japan

Water flowing past rock and ice, Jigokudani, Japan

I noticed the snow patterns below as I was leaving the park on the first day of the second tour. The light was low and the interplay between light and shadow was especially attractive. But I was cold and running late and a little lazy so I passed assuming that I would have the same opportunities the following day. Lesson #1 in photography. If you see an attractive image, take it as it likely will not last. Sure enough the next day the lighting conditions in both the early morning and late afternoon never approached those of the first day. I did my best and this is not bad but trust me when I tell you that the contrast was much more attractive on the first day.

39. Snow patterns, Jigokudani, Japan

Snow patterns, Jigokudani, Japan

Kyoto – classic Japan

From Jigokudani, most of the group continued on to Kyoto via bus and high-speed train. Kyoto is what most people imagine Japan to be in their imaginations – colourful Shinto shrines, sublime Zen gardens, delicate plum and peach blossoms, quiet temples and narrow alleys down which geisha girls can be glimpsed. There are photo possibilities at every corner and even die-hard wildlife photographers rarely fail to be inspired.

But with millions of images already captured of the city’s iconic sites, the trick as always is to try and take something different and the following are an exercise in this pursuit.

We began the first morning, in the rain, at arguably Kyoto’s most visually arresting spectacle – the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.  Thousands of Shinto orange coloured shrine gates line paths that criss-cross the mountains overlooking southeast Kyoto. And at one point these gates form a giant winding,  orange tunnel. The first image is a fairly standard shot of this spectacular tunnel but even here, a little imagination was necessary as this is in fact, three images blended together, with the focusing slightly different on each in order to ensure foreground to background sharpness something that would be impossible even at a very small aperture given the  70mm focal length.

39a.Tightly packed arcades of wooden, vermilion torii (shrine gates), Fushimi Inari Taishi, Kyoto, Japan

Tightly packed arcades of wooden, vermilion torii (shrine gates), Fushimi Inari Taishi, Kyoto, Japan

However, I much prefer this next image…

39b Vermillion Shinto shrine gates blur, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Vermillion Shinto shrine gates blur, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

…but this is the really funky one. An in-camera, 5-frame, radial zoom blur: the acid tunnel.

40. Radial zoom blur of the tunnel formed by shrine gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Radial zoom blur of the tunnel formed by shrine gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Although it was raining heavily, I decided to explore the entire 5kms shrine complex that snakes its way through the swirling mist to the top of the mountain. On the way down, my eye caught the single black character on this shrine gate juxtaposed against the rectangular monochrome steps in the background.

41. Shinto shrine gate with steps in the background, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Shinto shrine gate with steps in the background, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

The retina-burning Kinkaku-Ji temple bears some similarities to the more famous Golden Temple in Armritsar, India and when you arrive through the main entrance, this is the sight that greets you. While the overhanging tree branches are a nice twist, every single visitor to this site will have taken a similar image.

44. Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

But few will have taken this much more original and imaginative image.

45. Zoom blur of Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Zoom blur of Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Another of my favorite Kyoto spots where I took our group in the early morning on two consecutive days was the bamboo forest in the suburb of Arashiyama. Here’s a straightforward image using focus stacking to ensure front to back sharpness. It’s OK but certainly nothing special.

46. Bamboo grove, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo grove, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

This is a little more imaginative – the camera was on a tripod a few inches from the ground. A fish-eye lens was used to include as many bamboo stems as possible.

52. Bamboo grove fish-eye, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo grove fish-eye, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

But this next image is the shot I was after and is without doubt my favorite image from the trip. The secret behind it was having been to this location before. I had taken similar images but never quite got it right. The key was finding a part of the grove that had several different shades shades of colour, zooming in to avoid all distractions and using a slow shutter speed while panning slowly in a vertical motion. But the most important ingredient was the use of a little fill flash. This helped to being out some of the detail in the bamboo while still retaining a sense of motion.

50. Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

The images shown here represent only a small portion taken on what was an enormously successful trip. The success of the trip would not have been possible without the amazing teaching skills of Arthur Morris and Denise Ippolito. But what really made the tour so enjoyable, for me anyway, was the excellent attitude displayed by all group members and the camaraderie that developed early on into the trip. Here’s hoping next year’s tour will be equally successful.

51. The group in Japanese evening wear, Yudanaka, Japan

The group in Japanese evening wear, Yudanaka, Japan. From left: Malcolm Mckenzie, Denise Ippolito, Arthur Morris, Lex Franks, Srdjan Mitrovic, Alan Lillich, Debbie Franks, Pat Lillich, Zorica Kovacevic, Paul Mckenzie

 

2014
01.02

2013 – some highlights

I didn’t do as much photography this year as in previous ones so not surprisingly, I don’t think I got that many quality shots. However, I thought I would recap a few of the highlights.

As usual I made a a very short trip in January to the Snow Monkeys in Central Honshu in Japan. I have lots of nice Monkey images but I thought I’d show a landscape image since you don’t see too many of these at this location. The key here was a tungsten white balance setting to emphasis the cool blue hues. That together with the symmetry of the rocks and ice and 1/6th of a second got the job done.

River water flowing past ice, Jigokudani, Japan

River water flowing past ice, Jigokudani, Japan

In February I was back in Hokkaido. Eastern Hokkaido is full of snowy hills and isolated trees which lends itself to minimalistic imagery.

B&W Leafless Elder trees on top of a snow covered hill, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Leafless Elder trees on top of a snow covered hill, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The main attraction off course in Eastern Hokkaido is birds and my favorite species are the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo. We were blessed with a number of misty mornings on the frozen lake which created fantastic atmospheric conditions.

Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen and lake with snow dusted mountains in the background, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

The next image might just be my favorite from the year. The key here was composition: ensuring that there was no merger between the swans and carefully using the overhanging branches as a frame in the top half of the image. There is something quintessentially Japanese about the image, almost like a Japanese painting and this is what I had in mind when I pressed the shutter. The other less artistic consideration was an ability to withstand a fair amount of pain! The temperature at the time was -20 c and I could only remove my fingers from my pocket-warmer laden mittens for about 20 seconds at a time before numbness would set in.

with selection Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_74A7770 {J}

Whooper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

In June I was back again in French Polynesia for the annual Camouflage Grouper aggregation and spawning event – almost certainly the largest aggregation of reef fish globally but which (thankfully) remains largely undocumented. While I would describe myself as a decent wildlife photographer and an average landscape one, I am no more than a poor underwater photographer. Although I’ve been diving for a quarter of a century, I just haven’t put in enough hours with a camera underwater to rise above mediocrity. It hasn’t helped that for a number of years I’ve had some major sinus issues which has taken away some of the pleasure but after seeing a specialist this year (and briefly contemplating surgery), I seem to have settled on a medication combination that works. Hopefully this will mean more diving and an improvement in my underwater imagery.

This first image was taken the day after the main Grouper spawning event. What many locals don’t fully appreciate is that the Groupers aren’t the only fish species that aggregate and spawn at this location during this period. Here, large schools of Dark-Banded Fusiliers are attracted to the spawn of Yellowfin Surgeon fish. As always, there are plenty of Grey Reef Sharks in attendance and things can get pretty intense when you get enveloped by the Fusiliers with the Sharks charging into them.

Dark-Banded Fusiliers

Grey Reef Sharks among Dark-Banded Fusiliers, French Polynesia

On the afternoon of the main Grouper spawning event, we have discovered another location a few hundred meters away where another reef fish species, Convict Surgeonfish, spawn. This image shows them during a brief lull but I like it for the composition and the sun rays arrowing down to the reef. The scene looks peaceful enough but I can tell you, there was an absolute ripping current flowing over the reef and just hanging on, let along composing and taking an image was a major challenge.

_MG_8807 {J}

Grey Reef Sharks among an aggregation of Convict Surgeonfish

As I wrote in my last blog post, I made three short trips to East Africa in 2013. Apologies that I am repeating some of the images from the last blog but here are a few favorites from these trips. Up first is a juvenile Spotted Hyena which gave me plenty of entertainment and my rock cams a thorough going over near to its den in the Serengeti.

Juvenile Hyena walking, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania_MG_7314 {J}

Juvenile Hyena walking, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

The use of a camera-mounted remote controlled toy buggy afforded me more flexibility and worked especially well with Lions in the Mara.

Immature male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Immature male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Another Lion, this time taken with a longer lens, after a particularly heavy deluge in March.

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7050 {J}

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

In my last blog I described the fun I had with a family of Black-Backed Jackals in the Mara in November and this was probably the best encounter that I had with the Jackals really dishing it out to the Vultures whenever the latter tried to encroach on a Wildebeest carcass that the Jackals were feeding on.

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love Zebras. There is something hypnotic about their stripes and it was these patterns that I concentrated on for more than two hours on a heavily overcast day in the Serengeti in May.

2 Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

B&W Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

I was able to indulge my love of aerial photography on two of my Africa trips and conditions on the soda lakes provided a bewildering array of opportunities.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1444 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

In late November I went to Palau in Micronesia with celebrated photographer and all round nice guy, Tony Wu, to try and photograph spawning Bumphead Parrotfish. This was extremely challenging given the general wariness of the Bumpheads towards divers, the low visibility and the inability to use strobes (in order to minimize disturbance). I have still to process most of my images but looking through the raw files suggests that my efforts were pretty feeble especially in comparison to Tony Ironman Wu. But just to show that I did actually try, here is one image as the Bumpheads stream in, just prior to spawning.

Pre-spawning aggregation of Bump Headed Parrotfish, Palau, Micronesia_MG_1691 {J}

Pre-spawning aggregation of Bumphead Parrotfish, Palau, Micronesia

I’m definitely not one for selfies but I could not resist while free diving in Jellyfish Lake in Palau. Anyway hope you enjoyed and I wish everyone a great 2014. Next up for me will be Japan. Can’t wait.

Selfie at 10m, Jellyfish Lake, Palau, Micronesia

Selfie at 10m, Jellyfish Lake, Palau, Micronesia

 

 

 

 

 

2013
12.18

Kenya/Tanzania – 2013

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog so apologies for this. For several months I was bogged down in a research project for the finance company that I work for on a part time basis. This culminated in a grueling two month global marketing trip, something that won’t be repeated again if only for the sake of my health – it really did me in and included bursting the blood vessels in one of my eyes. For three weeks I looked like a gruesome extra from a horror movie. I felt even worse for the clients who had to sit opposite me and literally look me in the eye during my endless presentations.

Anyway that’s all behind me and to be fair it hasn’t all been work as I have managed a few photographic trips over the course of the year. There’s probably enough ammunition for a number of blogs but I’m going to start with the place where I have spent more time photographing than any other over the last 15 years – East Africa. In 2013 I made three short trips there – two to Kenya and one to the central Serengeti in Tanzania. Normally my East African trips are timed to coincide with the annual Wildebeest migration but this year, partly due to work commitments, all of them fell outside of this “peak season”. The other reason is that I have pretty much given up fighting with the hordes of vehicles that now populate the Mara in August and September. Hence my trips to the Mara were in March and mid-November and to the Serengeti in May. Many would associate these “low season” trips with sub-optimal game viewing but with the right guide, local knowledge and a little luck, the low season can be every bit as rewarding as the high season. Indeed my recent Mara trip in mid-November was arguably my best ever in more than 30 such visits.

The primary reason for this was that due to a paucity of rain in the Serengeti, the Wildebeest have lingered on in the Mara far longer than normal. As a result, I spent much of my time following the herds which especially towards the end of my visit, were moving rapidly en masse in the general direction of the Mara River in and around the Lookout landmark in the south Mara. Herd numbers were as large as anything that I have seen during “peak” migration periods.

2. Migrating Wildebeest in S shape curve, Masai Mara, Kenya

Migrating Wildebeest in S shape curve, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

1. Wildebeest at dawn in the mist, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest at dawn in the mist, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

3. Wildebeest herd running, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest herd running, Masai Mara, Kenya

4. Wildebesst running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest running, with motion, early morning, Masai Mara, Kenya

5. Wildebeest legs with motion, mutiple exposure, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A3839 {J}

Wildebeest legs, in-camera multiple exposure, Masai Mara, Kenya

When I went to the Serengeti in May I bought along my rock cams (plastic casings disguised as rocks in which I place cameras and which I trigger manually from a vehicle some distance away using wireless remotes). Although the casings blend in well with the environment, they have several failings not least being their inflexibility – i.e. once down, they cannot be manoevered. Perhaps more importantly, they are prone to “attack” by some of the larger cats. Lions in particular, tend to mistake them for Leopard Tortoises, an irresistible target. The camera lens protrudes very slightly out of the casings and this usually invites copious amounts of licking. Indeed the single biggest problem I have when using the casings with large cats and especially Hyenas is excessive amounts of saliva on the front element of the lens. What often happens is that the window for decent images is literally a second or two before the lens is fogged up with saliva. I can’t tell you how many images I have similar to the following ones.

11. Close-up of Hyena tongue and mouth as it licks the camera lens, Seronera, Tanzania

Close-up of Hyena tongue and mouth as it licks the camera lens, Seronera, Tanzania

 

15 Inquisitive young male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Inquisitive young male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

So one has to be quick and lucky to get any acceptable images.

12. Juvenile Spotted Hyena, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Spotted Hyena, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

10. Lioness walking, head on, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

Lioness walking, head on, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

The better solution is to use a sturdier casing (metal) that moves. My new toy is a modified remote control buggy with a metal casing for the camera. I only had limited opportunities to use this on my most recent trip (basically you have to be on your own) but the results were quite encouraging. The Lions are initially very curious – stepping on it, attempted biting and even picking it up (it’s pretty heavy) but the ability to move it around is a huge advantage. After a while they lose interest in it and this is when the best opportunities arise.

7. Young male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

7. Young male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

8. Young male Lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Young male Lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

9. Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Once fairly common in the Mara, Wild Dogs were largely wiped out in the 1980s due to disease (distemper). A few still remain, mainly around Aitong in the North Mara but these are rarely seen. Very occasionally, transitory nomads, usually on their way to the Serengeti are spotted and hence it was with some considerable excitement that we received word on the radio one morning during the recent November trip, that a small group of four had been sighted not far from us. We reached the dogs within half an hour and followed them for a good hour as they covered a considerable distance. As the sun rose higher and as temperatures increased, they settled in some bushes where we waited for seven hours hoping that they would eventually emerge and become active. Nature has a way of not co-operating and in near darkness, we left them knowing that the odds of finding them again the next morning would be incredibly slim.

Sure enough, when we returned at dawn, they were gone. We searched for another hour or two but to no avail but then late morning our radio crackled into life with information that they had been spotted about 25kms from where we had last seen them. After a long drive and a good deal of searching we eventually caught up with them as they headed in the direction of the Sand River and the Tanzanian border.

Wild dog running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dog running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Again they bedded down under the shade of an Acacia tree. This time we were completely on our own and unlike the previous day, they would periodically become active. I sent out buggy-cam for an investigative sniff around but unlike the Wild Dogs which are regularly seen in the South African and Botswana parks and which are used to humans and vehicles, these ones were quite skittish and never really came quite close enough.

13. Wild dogs, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dogs, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

It was also clear that if there was more than one vehicle around that they would become uncomfortable and retreat into cover as was the case late afternoon. However, as soon as the 3-4 other vehicles that had joined us left at around 6.30pm, they immediately got up with the clear intention of hunting. Although we did not see any real predation, it was wonderful to see them so active and comfortable in the close presence of our vehicle. Most encounters with Wild Dogs in Africa are in areas of heavy vegetation so to see them in the open plains was a real treat and an unforgettable experience.

14. Wild dog, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dog, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild Dogs playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild Dogs playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

One of my favorite African animals and one often overlooked by most tourists is the Jackal. The Mara supports a very healthy population of Black-Backed Jackals which in the early mornings and late afternoons are often active around their dens, especially if they have pups. We spent a good deal of time with one family and enjoyed a number of interesting and exciting encounters. The pups were particularly playful in the early mornings affording us some nice photo opportunities.

Jackal pups playing, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7595 {J}

Black-Backed Jackal pups playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

In this image, shot about 30 minutes after the previous image, one of the pups closely investigates two dragonflies.

Black-Backed Jackal pup sniffing dragon flies, Masai Mara, Kenya

Curious Black-Backed Jackal pup investigating dragonflies, Masai Mara, Kenya

Here two of the pups are on the top of their den at dusk with the one on the right seemingly unbothered by the incessant chewing of its ear by the other.

Jackal pups playing on top of their den, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A0866 {J}

Black-Backed Jackal pups playing on top of their den, Masai Mara, Kenya

Shortly before this image was taken, we were amazed to see one of the parents carrying an African Hare which it had recently killed. It was quite shy when we approached and we had only a fleeting opportunity for pictures before it dropped the kill, so nothing special, but as you can see, this is a pretty big Hare when viewed in the context of the adult Jackal.

Black Backed Jackal carrying African Hare, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I6187 {J}

Black Backed Jackal carrying African Hare, Masai Mara, Kenya

The best encounter though was early one morning when we found them on a Wildebeest carcass (probably killed by Lions). Although it was hard to isolate the Jackals, the interaction with the Vultures and the lovely backlighting was fantastic. The Jackals hate the vultures which would grow increasingly bold, edging ever closer to the carcass before being chased at high speed by the Jackals. On numerous occasions the Jackals would catch the Vultures and aggressively bite their wings.  The first image represents one of the few occasions that an individual Jackal and Vulture moved away from the main group and it is one of my all time favourites. When I first saw it on the back of the camera I really regretted clipping the Vulture’s wings but now I’m not bothered. The lighting, the action, the flying dew all combine to make this (in my very humble opinion!) a really nice image.

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

The next image was taken exactly one second after the above image (3 frames later). While not as dramatic, I like the backlit Vulture wing serving as a frame.

Black Backed Jackal watching fleeing African White-Back Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black Backed Jackal watching fleeing African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

But it’s not all one-way traffic and the Vultures can dish it out as well. A bit cluttered but a comical image nonetheless. Ooow!

African White-Backed Vulture biting Black-Backed Jackal tail, Masai Mara, Kenya

African White-Backed Vulture biting Black-Backed Jackal tail, Masai Mara, Kenya

As the sun rose, we switched around to the other side for more conventional lighting. This is the same Jackal as above, extracting a measure of revenge.

Black Backed Jackal biting African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal biting African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Once they had finished terrorizing the Vultures, the Jackals spent a long time playing amongst each other.

Black-Backed Jackals playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackals playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

With so many prides of Lions around it was perhaps surprising that we didn’t spend more time with them but we still had some nice opportunities on a number of early mornings.

_74A0576 {J}

Male Lion backlit at sunrise, Masai Mara, Kenya

This is one of Notch’s sons, also early in the morning.

Male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love photographing in the rain and some of the images that have done best for me in competitions have been taken in rainy conditions. If it rains and you can find male Lions, stay with them because when the rain stops or eases, they will eventually shake their manes with often spectacular results.

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7050 {J}

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

When I head out each morning in the velvet darkness of the African bush, I usually have some rough plan for what I will concentrate on, at least initially, but I rarely set these plans in stone so that if I chance upon something I’ll often stick with that and abandon my original ideas. I’ve found over the years that operating with only a very rough plan or no plan at all works best for me. While I will sometimes invest long hours (very occasionally days) waiting for a particular species to do something, I will rarely give a second look for instance to a tree dwelling Leopard. I gave up long ago waiting for Leopards to get active especially if there are other vehicles around. I’ve got hundreds of images of Leopards sitting in trees and frankly they do nothing for me and unless one has weeks to spare (no one does), it’s just not worth investing whole days sitting beside trees waiting for them to come down. When the light is good (this includes flat, middle of the day overcast conditions), if there are no iconic subjects around, go for the less obvious as photographically they can be every bit as rewarding. Here’s a good example, shot backlit again and where I waited for the Oxpecker to fly into the frame.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker in flight, backlit in tall grass, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0617 {J}

African Buffalo with Oxpecker in flight, backlit in tall grass, Serengeti, Tanzania

Often the most common species are overlooked photographically but I’d much prefer to photograph Zebras than Leopards sitting in trees for instance. On a dreary, low cloud day in May, I spent almost two hours with a 600mm lens and a 2x converter, attempting to make tight images of Zebras concentrating entirely on the patterns of their stripes. I can’t tell you how much fun this was.

B&W Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

2 Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Different generations – Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I9818 {J}

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

This next one is a little different with an intentionally slow shutter speed used (1/10th sec) to blur the Wildebeest galloping past the static Zebras.

B&W Wildebeest walking, with motion, past Zebras, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest, with motion, galloping past Zebras, Masai Mara, Kenya

Impalas are a super common species and another of my favorites. This one was fleeing from a hunting Cheetah – often it’s a good idea to train your lens on the prey rather than the hunter – and what makes this image for me are the distant undulating hills. Some photographers would probably try to tell you that they specially lined up the hills in the frame but this off course is BS because when an Impala is running at 50mph across open grasslands, all you’re trying to do is keep the subject in the frame – anything more than this and the photographer is in porky pie land. My framing here is just dumb luck but I will say there is some truth to Gary Player’s old adage that “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.

with selection Adult female Impala running across savannah, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7805 {J}

Adult female Impala running across savannah, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love photographing birds so I rarely pass up a chance when I have it. Here are four straightforward images from the 2013 East Africa trips. The first is an African Wattled Plover and I wanted a tight head shot to show off its spectacular facial coloring and the interesting facial wattles and lappets (the folds of skin hanging from the face).

Wattled Plover head shot, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I5019 {J}

African Wattled Plover head shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Next up is one of East Africa’s most common birds, the aptly named Superb Starling. Because they spend much of their time on the ground, the only way to photograph them properly is at eye level, lying on the ground.

with selection Superb Starling, ground level view, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0090 {J}

Superb Starling, ground level view, Serengeti, Tanzania

Oxpeckers are another common species that I never tire of photographing. They spend most of their time living a symbiotic existence with Buffalo, Zebra, Impala, Rhino and Giraffe. This Yellow-Billed Oxpecker had cleverly taken refuge on a Giraffe’s leg, using the latter’s body above to shield it from rain that had begun to fall.

with selection Oxpecker on Giraff leg, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0208 {J}

Yellow-Billed Oxpecker on Giraff leg, Serengeti, Tanzania

Lastly, here is a Secretary bird. Again a common species and although you hear lots of stories about them catching snakes, I’ve never actually witnessed the event, until my most recent trip. I wish I’d gone tighter on the head to see more of the snake but it happened so quickly that there was no time to change lens.

Secretary Bird, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I5284 {J}

Secretary Bird with snake, Masai Mara, Kenya

In March, we spent quite a bit of time with Malaika, the female Cheetah and her then nearly fully grown male cub. Malaika is well-known as a vehicle climbing Cheetah. In recent months there’s been quite a bit of chatter on the social network pages about the behavior of vehicles/visitors/guides in the presence of Malaika. Some of these threads have been started by fairly well-known photographers and some of their observations are correct and make a lot of sense. For instance, there was a well documented case where some disinterested visitors instructed their guide to drive off while Malaika was still on their roof. This is clearly inexcusable behavior and could easily have resulted in an injury to Malaika and as we all know, any kind of injury that prevents a Cheetah from reaching top speed is a potentially fatal one. I certainly laud the conservation ethos displayed by some of the commentators, but I feel some overstep the mark with some of their suggestions/instructions. One photographer has suggested something along the lines that vehicles should not be within 50-100m of Malaika and if she walks towards a vehicle, that vehicle should immediately drive off. He went onto suggest that vehicles/guides/visitors should be named and shamed if they allow Cheetahs onto their vehicles. For me anyway this is too extreme and I think it also displays some ignorance about the history of the Mara’s vehicle climbing Cheetahs.

In the early/mid-1990s, a camp owner in the Northern Mara found a Cheetah cub near to its dead mother, killed presumably by Lions or Hyenas. Knowing that the cub would be incapable of surviving on its own, he managed to coax it into his vehicle. He subsequently hand-reared it, named it Patel and incredibly was able to teach it to hunt. He would often spend days and nights out on the open savannah with the Cheetah and it developed a habit of often sleeping on his vehicle at night. To cut a long but fascinating story short, Patel (later named Queen or Queenie) became a successful hunter and mother and its vehicle climbing antics have been passed down through subsequent generations of Cheetahs.

While I would not sanction the active solicitation by guides/visitors to entice Cheetahs to climb onto their vehicles, it is important to remember that it is always the Cheetah’s choice whether to climb onto a vehicle. And they typically do so for a reason: to spot potential prey from a higher vantage point. Since the prey do not associate vehicles with feline hunters, being atop a vehicle has the added advantage of surprise. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen a Cheetah hunt successfully from a starting position on top of a vehicle.

While it’s a tremendous thrill to have a wild animal in such close proximity I would emphasis that it’s essential to display proper etiquette around the Cheetah. This means very slow deliberate movement; absolutely no touching and if the Cheetah decides to remain for an extended period on the vehicle (rare), then you just have to put up with it regardless of one’s interest level. I’ve had many, many Cheetahs on my vehicle over the years in the Mara starting with Queenie and I feel that I’ve always behaved responsibly around them. Anyway that’s my mini-rant over and I make no excuses for the following images.

Cheetah face close-up, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7868 {J}

Cheetah face close-up, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah walking on vehicle, fish=eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7798 {J}

Cheetah walking on vehicle, fish-eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah standing on vehicle top, fish-eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah standing on vehicle top, fish-eye shot, with hot air balloon in the background, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Paul Mckenzie & Cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7947 {J}

In awe, Masai Mara, Kenya

Staying with Cheetahs but moving away from vehicles, this at first glance looks like a nasty injury but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Rather this cub has just removed its head from the belly of a Gazelle which it has been feeding on. It even still has tufts of Gazelle fur on its nose.

Cheetah cub face covered with blood after feeding on a Thomson's Gazelle kill, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I2565 {J}

Cheetah cub face covered with blood after feeding on a Thomson’s Gazelle kill, Masai Mara, Kenya

As I’ve written before, my favorite type of photography in East Africa is undoubtably aerial photography. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as flying with an open door and watching the splendours of the African landscape unfold a few hundred meters below you. And nowhere is this landscape more spectacular than over East Africa’s soda lakes. It’s not cheap and I wish I could afford the stable platform of a helicopter but the small Cessna I use is still fantastic especially with the incredibly skilled pilots that I use. I have been doing this type of photography since 2006 and probably have more than enough good images to fill a decent sized book but here are a tiny selection from my recent trips. Just to give you an idea of what it looks like from inside the plane, here is an image of my good friend and highly skilled/underrated photographer, Michael Viljoen.

In progress_74A0423 {J}

A long way down

This is Lake Bogoria with Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over a huge algae slick. Someone recently pointed out to me that they see the outline of the Americas on the left, the east coast of Africa in the center and India on the right. It’s strange how you can look at an image for a long time and then someone else comes along and instantly sees something you have missed.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

This is another image from Lake Bogoria. No algae just green waters with the Flamingos arranged pleasingly along the edge of the small island with a Flamingo “tear drop” at the bottom of the frame.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped around small volcanic island, Lake Bogoria, Kenya_P3I2661 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped around small volcanic island, Lake Bogoria, Kenya

The Flamingos often gather together in staggeringly large groupings as shown here on Lake Logipi.

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, aerial shot #2, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Logipi is a seasonal soda lake and conditions are very different every time I fly over it as a result of varying water levels. At one end of the lake lies Cathedral Rock, an ancient volcanic island, around which there are usually a few pools of water in even the driest periods and which in turn, always attract Flamingos.

Aerial image of Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A7686 {J}

Aerial image of Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya

The furnace-like temperatures on the surface of Lake Logipi means that evaporation rates are high and while the lake can fill quickly when there is rain in the vicinity, it disappears equally as fast. Sometimes fingers of water are formed as the water retreats and the sodium, calcium and phosphate rich waters are an ideal breeding ground for the Flamingos’ staple food source – microscopic algae species.

Aerial image of a finger of lake water on dry lake bed, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A7028 {J}

Aerial image of a finger of lake water on dry lake bed, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Even in the deepest areas, the water is never more than a foot or two deep and is usually clouded with a brownish silt. This silt sits above a bed of gooey black/dark blue mud. Flamingos walking across the lake bed leave black trails in the mud behind them and when large numbers move, this gives rise to interesting trail patterns and it was these that I wanted to capture in this next image.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1444 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial images of Flamingos flying are nice enough but what makes them extra special over Kenya’s soda lakes is the spectacular backgrounds in terms of the colours and patterns.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with silt and mud trails visible, Lake Logipi, Kenya_P3I2275 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with silt and mud trails visible, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lake Natron, on the border of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania contains some of the world’s truly spectacular landscapes. The Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River rises in the Mau Escarpment, empties into Lake Natron and is the major inflow into the lake. A large and expanding delta along the shoreline mud flat has been formed where the river enters the lake. In the distance, on the top left hand side, you can just make out the periodically active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai.

Aerial image of river delta on the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania_74A0311 {J}

Aerial image of the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro river delta on the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania

Slightly further inland, Wildebeest and Zebra can occasionally be seen crossing the river. This must be a fairly rare image as I haven’t seen any photos of Wildebeest and Lesser Flamingos in the same frame.

Aerial image of Wildebeest crossing river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Wildebeest crossing Southern Ewaso Ng’iro river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania

This next image is another favorite from my trips with the mud trails left by the Flamingos helping to inject an artistic element into a nice natural history image.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

If an abstract painter was ever short of inspiration, then my strong recommendation would be an aerial trip over Lake Natron, much of which resembles the surface of another planet and where nature really does imitate art.

Lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Lake bed #2, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Lake bed #2, Lake Natron, Tanzania

_74A9184 {J}

Naturally occurring mineral deposits of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate on the shallow water lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

_74A9307 {J}

Naturally occurring mineral deposits of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate on the shallow water lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

For the final image, I’m not even going to try and explain what’s going on here. Just sit back and enjoy. Makes me want to get out some brushes and canvas.

Lake bed patterns, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1288 {J}

Lake bed patterns, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

2013
05.21

Training day

This sequence was taken late last year in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. The pictures pretty much tell the story so I’m keeping the text to a minimum. All the images were taken with a Canon 1D MK4 and a Canon 600mm f4 IS (version 1) lens.

Mother Cheetah spots a Thomson’s Gazelle fawn in the distance.

Cheetah portrait, Masai Mara, Kenya

The mother slowly approaches the Gazelle fawn being careful not be seen. She uses the cover of some bushes and tall grass to get within 60-70m of the fawn. With the fawn facing away, the Cheetah bursts out from the bush, quickly accelerating.

with selection Adult female Cheetah running at top speed, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I2118 {J}

The fawn spots the Cheetah too late and after the briefest of chases, she is tripped by the Cheetah who immediately is at its throat. But instead of dispatching the fawn, the Cheetah picks it up by its throat and carries it back to where its three young cubs are waiting nearby.

Cheetah mother bring still live Thomson's Gazelle fawn back to cubs to train with, Masai Mara, Kenya

The mother then lets the fawn go and the cubs chase after it. They quickly catch up, trip it and pin the fawn down with their paws. However, they do not yet know how to kill it. So after a short while they release their grip and the terrified fawn bounds off again. This process goes on for the next fifteen minutes and follows the exact same pattern each time. It is very hard not to feel for the poor fawn and the whole encounter appears to reek of cruelty, but you have to keep reminding yourself that this exercise is a vital part of the Cheetah cubs’ training. Within 12-16 months, the mother will abandon the cubs and if they cannot hunt for themselves, then they have no chance of survival. I try to also console myself with the knowledge that while Gazelles are abundant in Africa, Cheetahs are endangered with just 12,000 left in the wild.

1Cheetah cubs chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn with mother Cheetah in the background, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7834 {J}

2Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

3Cheetah cubs, watched by their mother, chase after Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

4with selection Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7943 {J}

5Cheetah cubs chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn as mother cheetah looks on, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7931 {J}

6with selection Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya #2

After patiently monitoring the whole episode from a distance, the mother eventually decides that enough is enough and jogs after the fawn, by now visibly slower after the mauling it has taken from the cubs. The end is mercifully quick and she carries the fawn back to the cubs. One small fawn between four Cheetahs amounts to no more than a light snack and the cubs are now at a size where the mother is being required to hunt every day.

7with selection Adult female Cheetah carrying Thomson's Gazelle Kill, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7984 {J}After their brief meal, one of the cubs, its face flecked with blood from the meal, stands with its mother framing it nicely in the background.

Cheetah cub with bloody face, framed between adult Cheetah's lags, Masai Mara, Kenya

2013
04.18

In February (it seems like only yesterday), I made my fifth visit to Eastern Hokkaido’s winter wonderland. I have written before at length about my love affair with Japan, so I won’t bore you by going over old ground but if you haven’t been to Japan and especially to Hokkaido in winter (and I don’t mean Niseko), take my word for it and go!

Although only an eight day trip, photographic opportunities were excellent especially at my favorite location, Lake Kussharo, where the swan photography was the best I have seen.

The only negative for me on the trip was that while we did experience a wide variety of weather conditions, we probably had a little too much sun for my liking which made for challenging photo conditions in the middle of the day. The upside of course is that we had some really nice early morning and late afternoon light. Better still, we had three mornings of dazzlingly beautiful, hoar frost-covered trees.

Untitled_Panorama1

Winterscape panoramic showing hoar frosted trees, swirling mist and snow covered forested mountains, Wakato, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; 5 image, stitched panorama, Canon 1D MK4, Sigma 50-500mm lens @138mm, handheld, f11, 1/400th sec, AV +1/3rd, ISO 250

Lake Kussharo is a large lake. While there are one or two well-known photographic sites to which photographers congregate, there are several other lesser known spots which you usually have to yourself and it is to these that I gravitate.

The first three images in this set were taken early in the morning, before sunrise when most of the swans in this group were either still sleeping or were relatively sedentary.  The final image was made after the swans had fully woken up and had become more active. The key to all these images was correct composition with the swans framed by the overhanging frost/snow covered branches and importantly, no merging of the branches with the horizon and no or minimal merging of the swans. The mood was also important and I’ve deliberately retained the blue caste in the three colour images to given a sense of both the peace and tranquillity as well as the cold. By far and away the hardest part of photographing in Hokkaido in winter is the cold. I wear one pair of thin gloves over which I have a pair of retractable mittens with the pockets stuffed full of hand warmers. After more than about 30 seconds with my digits out of the mittens, they start to freeze up and become numb and painful which also makes it close to impossible to operate the camera’s controls. So I find myself regularly having to stuff my fingers back into the warmth of the hand warmer-encrusted mittens to revive circulation.

1. Whooper Swans on lake at dawn under snow covered tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans at dawn on lake in winter, under snow covered tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 IS lens @18mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f11, ISO400, manual exposure

 

Whopper Swans on lake at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/200th sec, f13, ISO400, manual exposure

Whopper Swans on lake at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/200th sec, f13, ISO400, manual exposure

3a Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_74A7770 {J}

Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @22mm, handheld, 1/160th sec, f13, ISO640, manual exposure

4a Whooper Swans at dawn in winter on lake under tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans at dawn in winter on lake under tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 5D MK2, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/125th sec, f11, ISO250, manual exposure

The next two photos were taken at another secret spot where in five years I have never encountered a single other photographer. Incredibly, these two photos were taken within an hour of each other. The weather can change suddenly in these parts and after a nice sunset, clouds rapidly rolled in and heavy snow began falling.

5a Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening at sunset, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening at sunset, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @25mm, handheld, 1/160th sec, f11, ISO640, 2 Lee graduated neutral density filters (5 stops), manual exposure

6a Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening during snow storm, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening during snow storm, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/80th sec, f10, ISO1,000, manual exposure

The following images were shot at a slightly more popular site but one that you can still often have to yourself. The first image is probably my favourite from the trip, shot with a bendy 8-15mm fisheye lens. I really wanted to get the hoar frost-covered branches into image with the swans. I tried my 16-35mm lens but it wasn’t wide enough. While there was no way to avoid having the branches merging with the snow covered mountains, I still like the way the branches frame the birds.

7a Whopper Swans on frozen ice with overhanging, frost-covered tree branch over lake opening in foreground, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Fish-eye view of Whopper Swans on frozen lake with frost covered overhanging tree branch over lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 8-15mm f4L fisheye lens @14mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f16, ISO200, manual exposure

This is a more moody image, with steam rising from the thermal heated water in the cold air.

8a. Whooper Swans on at hot spring on a wnter's morning

Whooper Swans on thermal heated lake waters with steam rising, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @23mm, handheld, 1/400th sec, f11, ISO200, manual exposure

If you go to Lake Kussharo you will definitely spend time at the main swan area. The swans gather at this spot because they are fed grain twice a day. It can be particularly rewarding early in the morning when the swans fly in over distant trees, which sometimes as in this first image, are covered with hoar frost, before banking against a backdrop of snow covered mountains, and landing on the frozen lake. What’s missing from these images is the sound of the birds’ trumpet like calls piercing the cold air. Almost immediately upon landing, the birds will throw back their heads and call raucously. When several land at the same time, the winter silence is broken with the sounds reverberating around the lake. I’ve stood on top of some of the adjacent mountains on a windless day and have been able to pick up the sounds several miles away.

2. Whooper Swans flying over hoar frost covered trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans flying over hoar frost covered trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @373mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f8, ISO 500, manual exposure

3. Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm @93mm, handheld, 1/1,000th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

4. Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans flying in to land on frozen and lake with snow dusted mountains in the background, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @113mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

 

5. Two Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @203mm, handheld, 1/1,250th sec, f8, ISO640, manual exposure

6. Whooper Swan standing on frozen lake ice, calling

Whooper Swan standing on frozen lake, calling, with wings stretched forward, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @244mm, handheld, 1/1,000th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

7. Two Whooper Swans on frozen lake, calling, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I5817 {J}

Two Whooper Swans on frozen lake, calling, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @244mm, handheld, 1/1,250th sec, f9, ISO500, manual exposure

It would be remiss on a trip to Hokkaido to ignore the stark but often beautiful landscapes. While I am not an advocate of copying or emulating other photographers’ styles, it is very hard not to be influenced by Michael Kenna’s haunting, minimalistic landscape images taken in the depths of the Hokkaido winter.

I find myself especially drawn to solitary trees or small groups of trees on snow-covered ridges and after some exploratory snow-shoeing (easy and highly recommended if you have not tried), I found one such area. Here, multiple Wildencounters participant, Paul Quah, pauses as he snow-shoes through the area’s snow covered slopes.

8. Paul Quah on snow shoes amongst trees on snow slope, Hokkaido, Japan

Paul Quah on snow shoes amongst trees on snow slope, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @28mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f11, ISO200, manual exposure

I’ve always been attracted to minimalistic type photography so these lonely trees were especially appealing to me. This small selection of images may not be for everyone, but I definitely plan on doing more of this type of photography in the future. Already I have some good ideas on how to be more creative when I return.

 

Tree in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan

Tree in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan: Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @287mm, handheld, 1/500th sec, f9, ISO500, manual exposure

10. Trees on snow covered ridge, Hokkaido, Japan

Trees on snow covered ridge, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS lens @140mm, handheld, 1/400th sec, f11, ISO100, manual exposure

11. Trees on snow covered slopes, Hokkaido, Japan_74A9040 {J}

Trees on snow covered slopes, Hokkaido, Japan: Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm @40mm, handheld, 1/100th sec, f11, ISO500, manual exposure

 

Leafless trees in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I5146 {J}

Leafless trees in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/500th sec, f10, ISO400, manual exposure

This year I didn’t spend as much time as previously with the Cranes, in part because it was so good at the swans but also because we had a lot of sunny days when we were with the Cranes. However, there were still some nice opportunities. I didn’t plan on getting the Crane heads into the first image but it really helps to add additional interest as this White-Tailed Eagle swoops over them.

 

with selection White-Tailed Eagle flying towards Red Crowned Cranes, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle flying towards Red Crowned Cranes, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK IV, Sigma 50-500mm lens @500mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f8, ISO 1,000, manual exposure

For some reason, I haven’t taken many portrait pics of the Cranes on previous trips. Nothing special here but the technicals are all in order.

Red Crowned Crane head shot, Hokkaido, Japan

Red Crowned Crane head shot, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MKIV, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/640th sec, f7.1, ISO 2,000, manual exposure

 

As usual, it was hard to resist taking images of the Cranes flying and coming into land. This one was taken late in the afternoon with the bird framed against a distant, dark, forest-covered hillside.

selection Red Crowned Crane coming in to land against dark forest, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I9265 {J}

Red Crowned Crane coming in to land against dark forest, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MKIV, Sigma 50-500mm @373mm, 1/2,000th sec, f8, ISO320, manual exposure

Since there are already a gazillion flying Crane images out there, I end up spending most of time using slow shutter speeds, usually panning with the bird. Given my preference for retaining some sharpness in the bird’s heads, you need to take a lot of images to get one decent one but when you do get something worthwhile, the results, in my opinion are much more pleasing than a static flying bird image.

with selection Red Crowned Crane, flying over snow and past forest, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan_74A8133 {J}

Red Crowned Crane flying over snow and past forest, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan; 5D MK3, Sigma 50-500mm @500mm, handheld, 1/50th sec, f11, ISO400, manual exposure

A different technique here – no panning, high key and converted to monochrome.

 

Monochrome image of Red Crowned Crane flying blur, Hokkaido, Japan

Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, high key, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Sigma 50-500mm @273mm, handheld, 1/15th sec, f8, ISO1,000, manual exposure

Owing to the uncooperative weather while at the main Crane sites, I spent very little time trying to capture the courting Crane dances. And when I did capture some spectacular action, the background was not behaving! A shame, because this is about as good as it gets action-wise.

with selction Red Crowned Cranes engaged in courtship dance in mid-air, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I9195 {J}

Red Crowned Cranes engaged in courtship dance in mid-air, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MKIV, Sigma 50-500mm @167mm, handheld, 1/2,000th sec, f8, ISO640, manual exposure

In Africa I sometimes have to hang around for hours or even days waiting for something to happen, but in Hokkaido, especially if the weather is co-operating, you can shoot almost non-stop from dawn to dusk and even at night. The images shown in this blog represent just a tiny selection of the images that I made during my eight day stay.

Star filled sky above barren trees, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Star filled sky at night above barren trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm @24mm, Gitzo tripod, 25 sec, f5, ISO1,600, manual exposure

When you throw in the wonderful food, the amazing hot springs to soak in at the end of a day out in the cold and the warm hospitality that I always receive, Hokkaido has become one of my favourite photo destinations and I always look forward to going back. So I will be back next year, co-leading a larger group (this year I took only three persons). Already I am counting down the days.

 

2013
02.03

As promised, here is another set of East African aerials. These were all taken over Lake Natron just across the Kenyan border in Tanzania. I have flown many times over Natron and it has to be one of the world’s most surreal landscapes often resembling the surface of another planet. Usually there is only a little water on the lake with large patches devoid of any moisture, the result of evaporation under furnace like temperatures. This leaves behind a lake bed comprising a brittle crust of various sodium compounds overlaying thick, gooey mud.

The last two years have seen abnormally high rainfall in most of East Africa with water levels on Natron at high levels. A lack of algae concentrations caused by the high water has meant reduced Flamingo numbers. However, even after just a few days without rain, the evaporation process had begun in earnest with dramatic trails of sodium compounds on the lake surface.

Anyway, i’ll stop my naturalist waffle and let you enjoy the images. Most of them probably won’t have much sale value, but I like them and I guess that’s what matters!

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @70mm, handheld, f4, 1/1,600sec, ISO400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @70mm, handheld, f4, 1/4,000 sec, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of trails of evaporated sodium compounds lake surface, beside river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm lens @96mm, handheld 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of trails of evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, beside river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm lens @96mm, handheld 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

 

Aerial-image-of-algae-slick-and-evaporated-sodium-trails-on-the-surface-of-Lake-Natron-Tanzania-Canon-5D-MK3-Canon-24-105mm-f4-IS-lens-@28mm-handheld-11600th-sec-f4-ISO-400-AV-at-01

Aerial view of algae slick and evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @28mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec,f4, ISO 400, AV at -1

 

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens, handheld, 1/6,400 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV a t-1

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens, handheld, 1/6,400 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV a t-1

 

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails at lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @88mm, handheld, 1/1,600 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails at lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @88mm, handheld, 1/1,600 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compounds on lake shore and lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK5, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400,  AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compounds on lake shore and lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK5, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial image of lake bed covered by shallow water and evaporated sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @73mm, handheld, 1/1,000sec, f4, ISO, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake bed covered by shallow water and evaporated sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @73mm, handheld, 1/1,000sec, f4, ISO, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake shore made up of sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake shore made up of sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore at Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @65mm, handheld,1/4,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore at Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @65mm, handheld,1/4,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

 Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3,Canon 24-105mm, f4, IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -1 & 1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3,Canon 24-105mm, f4, IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -1 & 1/3

 

Evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside lake shore, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @47mm, handheld, 1/2,500 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside lake shore, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @47mm, handheld, 1/2,500 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos beside the lake shore delta of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 500, AV at -1

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos beside the lake shore delta of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 500, AV at -1

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water with cloud reflections next to lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D, MK3 Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -2/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water with cloud reflections next to lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D, MK3 Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -2/3

Aeria view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake near the shore with evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @ 67mm, handheld, 1/8,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1 & 1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake near the shore with evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @ 67mm, handheld, 1/8,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1 & 1/3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2013
01.04

In July and September last year I made two trips to Kenya’s Masai Mara but at the beginning of each I spent several hours in the air shooting images from a light aircraft with the doors removed on one side. It is an activity I have been doing annually since 2006 and to put it mildly, it is extremely addictive. I have written about this before so I’ll skip the details but it is not until you have spent many hours flying low over the ground that you get a true appreciation of how incredibly diverse Kenya’s geography is. For a country of its size, it is surely unmatched in its environmental diversity. While there are abundant attractions on its short grass savannahs, its tropical rain forests and reefs, its high alpine meadows and glaciers (yes – on Mt.Kenya), it is the splendours of the Great Rift Valley that for me trump everything else at least when viewed from the air. And within the Rift Valley, it is the many soda lakes that are arguably its most beguiling of features.

These lakes are periodically home to hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of predominantly Lesser Flamingos with smaller numbers of Great Flamingos also in attendance. The environment in an around some of these lakes is oppressively hostile with furnace like temperatures and waters that are often so caustic as to cause severe skin burns to human flesh. Yet somehow, microscopic algae species manage to thrive and multiple in the carbonate and phosphate-rich waters and it is this aquatic plant that forms the staple food source of the flamingos.

The algae is often concentrated into enormous slicks and while usually green in colour, on occasion, more spectacular colours form. As we approached Lake Bogoria, I could tell from a distance that something unusual was going on with large swathes of the lake green in colour vs the usual blue and light brown waters (where rivers enter the lake – high rainfall levels have this year turned much of the lake a coffee colour). As we got closer, the green algae slicks took on a paint-like, ephemeral appearance.

Aerial view of algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/6,000 sec, f5.6, AV at 0, ISO 400

Algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @58mm, 1/8,000th sec, f4, AV at 0, ISO 320

While flamingo numbers at Bogoria were well down on usual levels, there were still good numbers feeding on the algae.

Lesser Flamingos walking through and feeding on algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/8,000th sec, f4, AV at -1, ISO 500

Heading north, we passed over lake Boringo before heading down the Seguta Valley with its spectacular ancient volcanic features. At the end of the valley lies a seasonal, soda lake, Lake Logipi which when filled with shallow water, is almost always home to huge congregations of flamingos. This year was no exception.

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens@200mm, handheld, 1/8,000th sec, f6.3, ISO 500, AV at -1

Unlike the green coloured algae that was visible on Lake Bogoria, the algae on Lake Logipi was an eye popping lime green interspersed with portions of pink.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos, algae slick and volcanic island, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @32mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f5.6, AV at -1/3, ISO500

 

Lesser Flamingos on shallow water lake beside algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @75mm, handheld, 1/2,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -2/3, ISO 500

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos walking through and flying by algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @200mm, handheld, 1\1,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -2\3, ISO 500

Algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @200mm, handheld, 1\2,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -1\3, ISO 500

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos walking through algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @180mm, handheld, 1\1,250th sec, f5.6, AV at -1\3, ISO 500

In part two of this series, I’ll be showing the surreal patterns of crystallising salt formed by evaporation, on Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania. Stay tuned.

2012
12.17

This year I again had two highly commended images in the prestigious Nature’s Best wildlife photo contest. The first image which was highly commended in the endangered species category, was taken on Midway Atoll in the North West Pacific on a day of pouring rain. I was completely alone the whole day; my fellow travellers preferring the shelter of the converted naval barracks that serve as accommodation on the island. But if you look at my four commended images from the last two years, three of them have been taken in the rain. So the lesson is pretty obvious. In order to get eye to eye with the birds I needed to lie prone on the ground. I found I could lie on my right side for longer durations, using the vertical grip shutter and holding the foot of the lens collar with my left hand. I was moving around amongst the birds quite a bit and in such situations I find a tripod too restrictive, hence my preference for hand holding. The other advantage of lying on the ground is that it allowed for the pleasing out of focus, dark green background which in turn helped bring out the falling rain. The final ingredient was the use of a little fill flash to emphasis the rain drops on the birds. I was constantly making small adjustments to my position in order to keep the birds as parallel to my camera as possible but I still needed a relatively small aperture to ensure some decent depth of field and this in turn required the use of a high ISO. The rest was down to patience as I waited for the birds to come together and affectionately nuzzle each other. Finally was a willingness to tolerate a thorough soaking. Albatross pairs mate for life but only come together for a few weeks of the year (every second year for some species). The affection they display towards each other is clear to see and this is what I wanted to capture with this image.

 

Black-Footed Albatrosses interacting in the rain, Midway Atoll, USA, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/640th sec, f9, ISO 2000, AV (-2/3rds), Canon 550 EX flash at -1 EV

The second image which was highly commended in the African Wildlife category, was also taken in the rain but in a very different geography, this time on the other side of the world in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. When I first found this male it was mid-afternoon and he was sleeping under the shade of an acacia tree. For the next three and half hours that’s all he did. Then at about six thirty as the light was fading and the rain falling, a Lioness appeared on a nearby ridge. The Male rose to his feet roaring several times. The Lioness didn’t hang around and quickly disappeared. Three and a half hours of waiting for less than half a minute of activity. That’s pretty much the story of wildlife photography.

Male Lion roaring, Masai Mara, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm IS f4 lens + Canon 1.4x TC, lens resting on beanbag on the side of the vehicle, 1/125th sec, f5.6, AV (-1/3 EV)