Saturday, 29 December 2012

An Unexpected Journey... or Three (2012 Review)

Fortunate would be an understatement for the privileges I have experienced throughout 2012. A first trip to the continent from which human life is said to have stemmed, Africa, provided me with a wealth of experiences both cultural and of the natural world. Furthermore trips to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Isle of Mull in Scotland aided in making 2012 a year of international exploration. The cliché “life changing experiences” lived up to their potential and the ensuing differences appeared not in feelings but instead in knowledge. Here is an assortment of some of my favourite pictures and a brief description pertaining to how each was obtained.

1) 2012 started with a chance to test out a hard earned 100-400mm lens and the simple task of making a short film about my old haunts, “home” in Layman’s terms. The video involved capturing as much wildlife as possible to show the myriad and beauty of wildlife residing in the River Stour in Suffolk. I had acquainted myself with a kingfisher and it had become almost a project. Although getting close proved difficult it did not seem to mind human company at a distance. As I walked down a river path a glistening blue caught my eye sitting on an old bridge, this was the first time I spotted it on this perch and the last with camera at hand. Edging forwards, crouching through foliage, without snapping twigs was nigh on impossible. After getting some decent footage I grabbed a quick snapshot to remember him by.


 2) The desolate looking grasslands for the Chinese water deer picture in February, during a weekend of twitching in Norfolk, were in fact far from desolate. A short way from the path at Titchwell nature reserve this furry little Ewok-esque deer with vampire-like fangs emerged from a bush. Certain people consider them a nuisance but many of these people have taken a shine to the Muntjac deer, which is equally as invasive a species.

 3) Amongst the piles of rubbish littered around a Gambian track to the beach skulked a surprisingly large amount of bird life. Much like gulls flocking around a tip, several different species from Hooded Vultures to Fire Finches happily rummaged through the waste, avoiding the odd wistful plastic bag in the searing breeze. Too intent on sunbathing, the Cattle Egrets and Hooded Vultures in particular opted for playing statues in the presence of potential danger. This boded well for myself as I crouched down to their level and adjusted angle accordingly trying to find the optimum shot. After a little shuffling I got a couple of shots away and went on to work on my Little Bee-Eater project…

4) … en route through Bijilo Forest, to continue the aforementioned project,
I encountered the more illusive of the two monkey species in the forest, the Red Colobus Monkey. Being an endangered species it seemed illogical not to take advantage of a rare eye-level shot of this fantastic mammal. Ordinarily I take very little notice of mammals, they are cute, perhaps too cute sometimes and this means they already get enough adoration from the general public without needing my love. This particular Red Colobus Monkey perched on a knee-level branch in the shade nibbling on a rolled up leaf, apparently with the ability to multitask, looking after the baby clutched fiercely to it’s mothers chest.

  5) During a break from the Little Bee Eater project in which we visited Tendaba camp, the opportunity arose to take a boat ride through the nature-rich mangroves and upset stomach or not, there was no way this experience was going to go to waste. After drifting to the opposite bank from the camp floating in-between low flying pelicans we slipped effortlessly through the mangroves. As well as lecturing a lecturer on why I chose the setting I do for my camera I kept an eye out for movement around trees. Throwing my camera into position without lobbing it into the rusty brown waters was challenging but it was worth it as every now and again a shot came off. This African Darter in particular was my favourite as its take off coincided with my camera lobbing creating a near sharp flight picture.

 6) Definitely breaking into my top 3 of the year, the Little Bee-Eater picture (which made a fantastic double page spread for my assignment) was as fun to capture as it makes me proud to display. Without camouflage a lot of hiding in bushes was necessary, the only difficulty with this is the perches of the Little Bee-eater were high above bush level so they could easily spot a bee on a fly past. Great for the Bee-Eater but not me who couldn’t just settling for pointing the camera straight up through thick foliage for a sharp foot shot. After a couple of attempts rising slowly from sparse shrubbery using my eyes to see where the Little Bee-Eater was proved unsuccessful a change of tact was needed. Covering my eyes with the camera as I rose, using just the viewfinder to try and find the petite bird, I slowly emerged from the bush trying desperately to keep an element of balance. I managed to capture the most evening sun-drenched picture I have attained to date. The light was beautiful and I owe it to that.

7) Using the same technique as before I moved around the bush with the intention of a silhouette effect. This turned out to be the better of two similar pictures. This is a personal favourite that makes my top 3 however feedback on it has not been as positive. Apparently it is a common occurrence for photographers to put too much stock into once picture and it takes another’s eye to truly rate it.

8) The final Gambian picture I consider the best I have ever taken, simply because it depicts a life and death situation. A group of us were skipping barefoot across jagged rocks on Bijol Island, the home of large colonies of both Caspian and Royal terns. These Caspian terns in particular seemed intent to defend their nests that cocooned their precious young. Everyone else seemed to be taking pictures of the adult birds and I spotted one of their young, obviously dislodged from its nest struggling through a mini sandstorm. As I pressed the shutter release and fired off some high speed continuous shots, an adult Caspian gull swooped down and tried to attack it; the mother of the young swooped down immediately after this swiftly protect it. To this day the series of 3 or 4 shots amazes me.

  9) Romania was filled with mixed emotions and confusion, it is for these reasons and a few others it was not blogged about. The following picture was taken on a day out with Gal Laszlo, the Transylvanian Wildlife Project’s brilliant tracker. He took us to the site of a possible Ural Owl hunting ground. We arrived just before lunch and had to waste the warm summers day away. Bouts of sleeping on the hillside in the Carpathian mountain range and chatting entertained us for a short while. This could not be sustained forever so I decided to take a walk and very soon came across a Swallowtail Butterfly. After rushing back for a change of lens I returned and persevered to get a habitat shot, trying many different commando crawl approaches in the process.

10) Driving along the mud track roads that emanate from the village of Ojdula, keen eyed and ready for anything will be a memory never forgotten. The Land Rover conquered every challenge it faced in the form of potholes and impossibly steep embankments. Driving along these roads we would spot: Red Foxes, Hoopoes, Red Deer, Cuckoos and on this particular occasion a Red Backed Shrike. Although they seemed to be fairly common in this area the Red Backed Shrike is an interesting bird nonetheless. I spotted the Shrike about 10m ahead sitting on a post and called it, luckily it was on my side of the car so leaning out of the Land Rover was done with ease. It sat there and looked at me, away again in timid fashion for a few seconds, back at my and then flew off. It may have spotted the five of us in the car gawping at it.

11) Getting back to England following these magnificent journeys was actually a relief. I never really believed I would miss British wildlife as much as I did but in all honestly we are very lucky to have as amazing array of wildlife as we do. This picture may reappear in the upcoming blog post about Otters. It was only by chance I found it swimming nonchalantly by early on a June summer morning. It kept a beady eye on its surroundings and possibly me as I lay semi covered in the long grass. It came closer after I thought it had spotted me so whether or not it had is another question. This was my first encounter with an otter and will not be my last if the next few weeks go to plan. One of the most exciting experiences I have ever had with wildlife. There is just something about Otters after the hardships they have been through.

12) Despite the warmth of the weather and welcome in Gambia and the raw excitement of walking with Bears in Romania the Isle of Mull was my favourite place I visited in 2012. I owe Cain Scrimgeour a lot, not simply for allowing me to come along to the Isle of Mull but for helping me develop my interest and knowledge of wildlife throughout the year. After his previous visits he had manage to pull together the perfect wildlife trip. One of the activities planned was a boat trip to watch the White Tailed Sea eagles, a magnificent bird which did not fail to leave us completely awestruck. These particular birds are fed which in part takes away from the photograph but nevertheless each photograph will eternally remind me of an experience never forgotten. They were huge. Fortunately since their reintroduction, the eagles around Mull are thriving and the future is looking bright for them indeed. Not sure how much else I can say on the matter but if you ever get a chance to see them, go.

13) Although on the Mull holiday the next two snaps were taken on Lunga Island. I would like to say that the puffin Colony on Lunga Island is unlike any I have encountered before but this is the first I have been up close and personal with. As well as their characteristic colours they have fantastic little personalities and their community is unique to say the least. As we lay there near the cliff edge the puffins would fly in with mouthfuls of fish before diving perilously off the cliff and returning to the sea for more. There was no need for a long lens; they would climb over people’s belongings if they were left unattended. They were completely unperturbed to the point where I had to change down from my 100-400mm lens to the 18-85mm lens because they were just too close.

14) This would have been a picture of the incredible encounter with a Minke Whale on a trip with Sea Life Surveys from Mull. Alas, after the great laptop failure of September it was lost in an information black hole. Sea Life Surveys offer a fantastic trip… a must do if you are going to the Isle of Mull.

As mentioned in the beginning: despite this incredible year feelings remain the same, I still feel a sadness mixed with annoyance when seeing adverts for starving children spammed on television. Knowledge obtained enables me to look past a simple donation and realize that a combination of time and tourism are imperative to growth of the world. On the other hand there is the ethical dilemma of why do we need to do this. The villagers in Ojdula in Romania and the Gambians in remote areas were some of the happiest people I have met because they do not have to deal with the stress and burdens of the western world. I do not mean to sound ungrateful for the life I have been born into, nevertheless in many ways I envy them.

Ultimately I look forward to moving into 2013. It may not have the adventure and excitement of travelling to exotic places that 2012 lavished me with; however it will be a year of using what I have learnt and building upon it to try and capture more wildlife experiences, which to me this is even more exciting.

Happy new year everyone!!