Category Archives: Wildlife

Articles relating to wildlife photography

Maasai Mara 2019: Day 1 of 7

We have recently returned from our second trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, where we undertook an intense week-long wildlife photographic safari in June of 2019.

This is the first article in a series of articles, in which I will provide a day-by-day account of our sightings, images and experiences during this trip.

After two long flights to Kenya, we rested at our hotel in Nairobi during the day of our arrival, and in the evening, we met for the first time since 2015 our go-to photographic safari leader, Mario Moreno of South Cape Images, to discuss the exciting adventure ahead over a nice dinner of steak and an Argentinian malbec.

This was the beginning of our third trip to Africa, our second trip to Kenya, our fourth wildlife photographic safari, and our third wildlife photographic safari with Mario.

We were heading back to the Mara North Conservancy, nearly four years to the date on which we first visited the Mara.  It was very familiar, but it was also very new in some ways, as the trip would reveal over the next seven days.

After landing at Mara North Airstrip, we were met by our guide Francis of Elephant Pepper Camp, who was also our guide during our first trip.  It was great to see him again, and he had prepared brunch for us, which was soon followed by the commencement of our first game drive.

On that first game drive to camp, which can take 20 minutes or three hours, it did not take long before it became apparent that this was not going to be a short drive.  Nature, not us, is the shot caller, and nature had something it wanted to say.

Soon after boarding our private 4WD, a short distance south-west of the airstrip, we encountered cheetahs.  Not even ten to fifteen minutes into our first game drive, we had already encountered one of Africa‘s spectacular species of big cat, and not just one cheetah, but four: a mother with three cubs.

The mother cheetah is known as Amani, and she has three sub-adult cubs of around 12 months of age.

Here is an image I captured of one of Amani‘s cubs:

Amani's Cub

Amani’s Cub

While sub-adult cheetahs quickly grow to the size of an adult cheetah, the distinctive feature which identifies a cub (either very young, or sub-adult) is the mantle — the wild tuft of hair along the back of the head and neck.

The mantle serves two purposes: it assists in camouflage, and makes the cub resemble a honey badger, a species of animal most wildlife would happily avoid.

We spent most of this game drive with Amani and her cubs, but also encountered vultures nearby, and spotted a few baboons, a wildebeest, a topi, and some helmeted guineafowl (affectionately known as Maasai chickens) on the way to camp.

After a fantastic first drive with the cheetahs, we arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, an outstanding luxurious eco-lodge in the Mara North Conservancy.  It is nestled amongst a distinctive ‘X’ cluster of elephant pepper trees, just south of the C13 road between Mara Rianta and Lemek.

It was great to be back at the camp.  Since we were last there four years ago, its operation has been taken over by Elewana, and the camp is now run by Tom and Alison, who we got to know during the week.

We met Tom and Alison, and went through the formality of the briefing given to guests upon arrival.  Much of the camp was the same as it was when we were last there, but there have been some good changes and enhancements, too, such as AC power in all tents, and wireless Internet access throughout the entire camp.

Shortly afterwards, we sat down to lunch.  As it was the first week of the season, the camp had only just opened, and we were the first guests.  We had the camp to ourselves for the first two days and nights before other guests began to arrive on the third day.

Lunch at Elephant Pepper Camp was superb as always, and we were joined by either Tom or Alison, who attend all lunches and dinners with the guests.

Already we had a great story to relate, having spotted Amani and her cubs early into the trip.

After lunch, I set about my highly disciplined ritual of transferring the images and videos from the flash cards to my laptop and backing them up to an eternal hard disk.  It is very important to ensure that there are at least two, or preferably three, copies of one’s images and videos.

Fuelled by the obligatory glass or two (or three, perhaps) of Amarula, which was my habit at Elephant Pepper Camp last time (and a habit into which I easily and happily fell again this time), soon enough it was time to head back out into the plains to see what the afternoon and evening would bring.

Shortly into the afternoon game drive, we encountered two magnificent elephant bulls on the open plains north-west of camp, not far south of where we had first seen Amani and her cubs earlier in the day.

We had a brief look at the first elephant bull, before heading towards a second elephant bull not far away.

Mario is a big fan of capturing almost symmetrical, frontal images of approaching elephants, so Francis positioned the vehicle such that the elephant was heading straight towards us.  He kept walking, and we snapped away furiously as his imposing presence dominated our viewfinders.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Mighty Elephant Bull

Mighty Elephant Bull

Once he got close to our vehicle, he veered left and walked in front of us at a distance of only one or two metres.

This big tusker is a magnificent, healthy elephant who has the Mara plains at his disposal.

Less than ten minutes after I captured my final image of this elephant, we encountered Amani and her cubs for the second time!

They were in the same location where we had first encountered them four hours earlier.  As cheetahs can travel considerable distances in a short period of time, it was nice to find them again so soon.

My guess is that they spent the entire time resting.  There is no telling whether they hunted or not, but they had not recently eaten, so any attempts at hunting would have been unfortunately unsuccessful.

Here is an image I captured of Amani resting on a mound and surveying her territory for potential predators or prey:

Resting and Surveying

Resting and Surveying

We spent a around an hour with the cheetahs, during which time I had the opportunity to capture a clean image of Amani as she rested on a mound in the afternoon, soaking in the sun’s rays.

Amani

Amani

Eventually we decided to move on, heading west-north-west towards the Mara River, and soon encountered a banded mongoose.

After a few quick shots, we continued on, and spotted two male waterbuck and a small group of females in the open, just south of the Mara River.

Having photographed only female waterbuck in South Africa, we briefly stopped, where I was fortunate to see this impressive male standing out in the open, staring straight at me:

Male Waterbuck

Male Waterbuck

While many people visit Africa to see and photograph the big cats, there are many species of antelope to be seen and photographed, and these animals are just as important in the ecosystem as the predators, with their own stories to tell.

I am quite partial to a good antelope image, and as these animals are quite skittish and like the cover of thickets, capturing a pleasing image of such an animal is not always easy.

In this case, I was fortunate that the male waterbuck was out in the open, clear of distracting foliage, and that he was staring straight down the barrel of the lens.

The resulting image is pleasing to me, as it places this waterbuck in his environment, and his impressive stature stands out.

Late in the afternoon, we slowly began making our way in a south-easterly direction back to camp.  Less than ten minutes later, we experienced our first lion sighting of the trip, and again, it was during the first day of this trip.

We encountered some members of a familiar pride: the Cheli Pride.

The Cheli Pride is a dominant pride of lions which inhabits the area near camp in the Mara North Conservancy.

We had seen lions from the Cheli Pride four years earlier, when it was quite a large pride, consisting of 27 members or thereabouts.

Things have changed somewhat, with the pride being apparently smaller, and quite a lot of disruption having taken place.  The pride still exists, but rather than being one large pride as it was four years ago, there appear to be various off-shoots from the main pride.

On this drive, we encountered a female who was resting out in the open during the late afternoon.

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Cheli Pride Lioness at Rest

Very close to where she was resting, a large male lion was taking shelter in a thicket.

While I did photograph the male, the busy setting was not great for photography, and even though nightfall had not yet arrived, it did not look like these lions were going to become active, so we moved a little further south-east towards camp, and encountered another female and a very young cub in a thicket.  The cub looked to be around six to eight weeks of age, and was the youngest lion cub we had seen in the wild.

Some 40 minutes later, we were further south toward camp, when we encountered a young hyena sleeping on a mound.  After spending a few minutes there, and determining that the sky was unfortunately not ideal for any landscape photography, we headed back to camp for dinner, drinks and a debrief before bedding down for the night, as an early start the next morning awaited us.

Saturday, 1st June, 2019 had been a fantastic first day in the Mara, with not one but two sightings of the same family of cheetahs, an impressive big-tusker elephant bull, a great photographic opportunity with a male waterbuck, and our first encounter with the Cheli Pride lions, including a tiny cub.

It was fantastic to be back in Mara, a familiar place with new stories to tell.  This trip had taken some time to materialise, but finally we had returned to a place we love to be — one with many more great sightings ahead of us.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day two.

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Back in Kenya at Long Last

After 30 hours of exhausting travelling and very little sleep, we are back in Kenya at long last, for our second Maasai Mara safari.

After our flight from Doha to Nairobi, during which we had the pleasure of viewing Mount Kenya from the air, we are resting at the hotel before Mario joins us later for dinner and a good catch-up, followed by what will hopefully be a solid night’s sleep before we fly to Mara North Conservancy tomorrow morning.

This trip has been on the agenda for a few years, and finally we are here.  Tomorrow, an intense week of wildlife photography and experiences begins.

 

Returning to Kenya and Israel

I am pleased to announce that we will be heading abroad later this year, with visits to Kenya and Israel in the same big trip.

It has been a few years since we have been to either country (2015 and 2016 respectively), but a return to Africa was something high on the agenda for some time.

Because we need to return to Israel for some family events, it made sense to combine the two destinations into one trip.

The original plan was to visit South Africa again, as it seemed to be the logistically simplest option, whereby we would fly directly to Johannesburg, photograph wildlife in the Timbavati, and then fly to Tel Aviv.

Unfortunately, a combination of circumstances meant that South Africa was not a viable option for this trip.

Firstly, the cost of accommodation at safari lodges has considerably risen since our visit in 2012.

Secondly, we could not easily obtain a private 4WD vehicle, as the lodges either no longer offer them due to low-impact regulations in the Timbavati, or as was the case with one lodge, we would have had to pay for an extra tent/rondeval, which made the cost prohibitively expensive.

Thus, South Africa was off the agenda.

Enter Plan B: Kenya.

The initial thinking was that Kenya would be more logistically difficult than South Africa, but it is actually not much more difficult in terms of logistics.  Plus, we were able to secure outstanding accommodation and a private vehicle at a lower cost.

After a FaceTime conversation with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno one night, we worked out a plan, and booked a safari with Mario — our third.

We are heading back to the Mara North Conservancy with Mario for a fantastic time of being in the African savannah and twice daily pursuing amazing sightings and images of the wildlife in the Mara.

After our African part of the trip concludes, we head north to visit family in Israel for some celebratory occasions.

I am not sure what kind of photographic opportunities I will have in Israel this time (I did not engage in any photography on the last trip), as it is more of a social visit than a photographic visit; but I am sure I will have the chance or two to capture some images I did not capture during previous visits.

Our schedule is going to be quite full, but I am sure I will land an image or two.

The countdown begins!

Trip to Taronga Western Plains Zoo

In late October, we headed away with some good friends of ours for a three-day trip to Mudgee and Dubbo.

Our plan, apart from sampling and buying some fantastic wine in Mudgee, was to stay at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, in its exclusive Zoofari lodge, at which ten luxurious tents, complete with mod-cons, overlook the savannah, where African, Asian and even Australian animals roam.

You know you know you are in Australia when an eland — a large African antelope — chases kangaroos away!

On day one, we headed to Mudgee, where we stopped at my favourite winery and stocked up on premium shiraz.  A nice dinner in town, followed by an overnight stay nearby, concluded the day.

On the following morning we headed up to Dubbo and went straight to the zoo.  Our official check-in was at 2pm, but we had time to roam the zoo via our inclusive two-day zoo pass.

Having been to Africa twice and spent time with truly wild animals in their natural habitat, a zoo can never quite come close; but Zoofari is an experience designed to emulate, as closely as possible, the safari experience.

Upon arriving at the zoo, our first stop was naturally the lion enclosure.  Unfortunately the lions were not terribly active or welcoming, so photography was not a terribly successful pursuit.  Incidentally and somewhat ironically, it is easier to photograph lions in the wild than in captivity.

One pleasing image I did capture at the lion enclosure was not an image of a lion, but an Australian pied cormorant, which was perched on a log over the lion enclosure’s moat in the morning sun.

Australian Pied Cormorant

Australian Pied Cormorant

Being a fan of big cats, naturally, we needed to visit the cheetahs.  We fortunately timed our arrival to see the keepers feed the cheetahs, which consisted of a king cheetah mother and several sub-adult cubs.

Contrary to popular belief, the king cheetah is not a separate species of cheetah, but rather, is a cheetah which has a rare fur pattern mutation as a result of a recessive gene.

The light was quite harsh, and the cheetah were very active — particularly as food was being provided — so photography was quite challenging, but I did land this pleasing image of the king cheetah.

King Cheetah

King Cheetah

The king cheetah is quite rare, so it was a pleasure to see one, and capture pleasing images of her.

Following the big cats theme, high on the agenda was a visit to the Sumatran tiger.

Now, I do not have many images of tigers, so I was keen to capture some pleasing tiger portraits despite the difficulty of broad daylight.

Again, we timed our visit to co-incide with the keeper’s talk and a feeding session, so this Sumatran beauty was very alert and more often than not, looked in our general direction, which is always what a wildlife photographer wants.

Striped Beauty

Striped Beauty

As the biggest of the big cats, the tiger is a very impressive big cat.

After lunch, we roamed the zoo and found our way to the siamangs.  I had never seen one before, so we spent a bit of time watching them play, and I snapped away, trying to land a pleasing image of one of them.

Siamang Stare

Siamang Stare

Not long afterwards, we headed to Zoofari lodge and checked in.

With adjacent tents, we soon joined at our tent for some afternoon lounging.  It was a taxing experience to sit on the back deck, overlooking the savannah, whilst consuming premium shiraz and munching on potato chips.  It is a tough life, but someone has to do it.

These were the appalling, slum-like conditions we had to endure during our overnight stay:

Animal View Lodge

Animal View Lodge

It was tolerable.

What cannot be seen in this image is the open door overlooking the savannah.  We decided to keep the doors and windows open so that we could hear the incredible sounds of wildlife at night, just as we experienced in South Africa and Kenya.

In the late afternoon light, we had the pleasure of watcing the giraffes grazing on the savannah, while these two particular giraffes (of the four inhabiting the reserve) shared a sticky snack.

Sharing a Sticky Snack

Sharing a Sticky Snack

During our lazy afternoon on the deck, we were visited by a peacock, which was only too happy to munch on our snacks, and sit very close with us on the deck overlooking the savannah.

In the early evening we headed to the communal dining room, where some wine tasting, and later, dinner, were served.

After dinner, we got to experience a night tour of the zoo, whereby 4WD vehicles drove us around the zoo in complete darkness.  We visited the lions, hippos and rhinos in their night enclosures, which are not accessible to the general public.

As can be imagined, photography was just not going to happen, as it was pitch-black; but it was great to be close to these animals in the darkness.

After a good night‘s sleep, the following morning saw another early start, with a pre-breakfast tour of the zoo — again, behind the scenes — during which we got to visit the cheetahs and see them from a different location; feed a giraffe; spend some time with the meerkats; and partake in an exclusive visit to the elephant ‘maintenance’ shed, in which the keepers bathed and fed the elephants in preparation for their entrance into their exhibition enclosures for the day.

Here is an image of one of the meerkats on sentry duty.

Wide-Eyed Meerkat

Wide-Eyed Meerkat

After the tour, we returned for a communal breakfast, before making our way back to the lodge to pack and check out.

On our arrival at the zoo the previous day, we had booked ourselves onto a rhino encounter.  Once the tour guide arrived, we found out that we were the only people booked on the tour, so we got an even more exclusive tour of the rhinos and spent a great morning learning about the zoo and how it operates — a much more personal tour than would have been otherwise possible.

After the conclusion of our Zoofari experience, we made another round of the zoo, before embarking on the long trip home.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and I did manage to land some pleasing images of the wildlife which inhabits Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

Whale Watching Weekend

This weekend, we are heading into the open ocean for a few hours of whale watching.

The one and only time I have ever seen whales was during a white shark diving trip in South Africa.  We stopped at Hermanus to observe the whales frolicking, before heading further south-east to Van Dyks Bay to see the ocean’s ultimate predator in its domain.

This time, we are staying much closer to home to see the ocean’s largest creatures.

Whale watching has been on the must-do list for quite a while, and I am hoping not only to see some whale action, but to capture it.

I will bring out the big lenses so that I have the best chance of capturing the action, even if it is well and truly away from our position.  Having up to 800mm of focal length should help.

Stay tuned for some images — assuming I manage to capture any!

Re-Visiting Featherdale Wildlife Park

Early this year, we took a trip to Featherdale Wildlife Park for the first time, and photographed a number of animals and birds.

Having recently bought a new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a new Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, I was keen to head back to Featherdale Wildlife Park to shoot with my new gear, and hopefully capture a pleasing image or two.

Normally I would take my Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM for a photoshoot involving wildlife, but I specifically wanted to shoot with my new 200mm lens, so I took that, plus my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM and both the 1.4x and 2x tele-converters.

Throughout the half-day visit, I mostly shot with new 200mm lens, and occasionally used my 300mm lens.  I wanted to shoot wide-open and isolate my subjects from their mostly busy backgrounds.

We headed out on an extremely cold morning, and were amongst the first visitors to the park on that day.

Having photographed penguins there before, I naturally wanted to photograph them again.  Here is the stand-out image from the many penguin images I captured:

Profile of a Little Penguin

Profile of a Little Penguin

These creatures can be very difficult to photograph, as they constantly scurry around and often stand in front of annoying backgrounds.  Not so in this case, as I was able to isolate this penguin against his sandy surroundings.

As can be seen in this image, the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM is very sharp, and produces very pleasing background blur.  Had the penguin been higher and further away from the background, the background blur would have been even creamier.

We had some warm morning light during our visit, and whilst wandering amongst the bird section, I spotted this white-browed woodswallow perched in the warmth of the sun.

White-Browed Woodswallow

White-Browed Woodswallow

Unfortunately the woodswallow is enclosed in a cage, and even when shooting wide-open at f/2 within close proximity to the cage, it was not possible to obliterate the pattern of the cage against the background.

Despite this annoyance, the lens has again shown itself to be a tack-sharp performer, capable of easily isolating a subject.

Earlier during the visit, I spotted a kookaburra sunning himself in a narrow sliver of sunlight on a branch.

Catching Some Rays

Catching Some Rays

For this image, needing more reach to fill the frame, I used my Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM and 1.4x tele-converter.  I have not used that lens for quite a while now, so it was good to give it another run.

It was an enjoyable — albeit cold — morning, and using my new gear was certainly enjoyable too.

Given the capabilties of the Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, I am very much looking forward to using it in the near future for some portraiture.

First Photoshoot of 2017

My first photoshoot of 2017 began eather early in the year, with a visit to Featherdale Wildlife Park on the 2nd of January.

This is only the second time we have been inside a zoo or wildlife sanctuary/park since our travels to South Africa and Kenya in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

For some time, Featherdale Wildlife Park had been on our list of places to visit, and when some friends from Queensland, who come to Sydney for Christmas and New Year’s Eve every second year, indicated they wanted to go, we made a day of it.

I shot quite a lot of photos, and have lots of material to review; but I managed to publish two of my favourite images of birds.

One of my stand-out images of the trip was this profile of a black-necked stork (otherwise known as jabiru):

Jabiru in Profile

Jabiru in Profile

The colours on this jabiru are striking!

Using the 560mm focal length, I was able to isolate the jabiru from her grassy background and render the details of her plumage in razor-sharp detail.

Moving onto a much smaller bird

The Little Penguin

The Little Penguin

When photographing a group of penguins, trying to capture a single penguin in isolation is rather difficult.

Fortunately I managed to capture this cute creature after he moved away from the others.

This image was captured with the stellar, rare, discontinued and highly-coveted Canon EF 200mm f/1.8 USM lens, shot wide-open at f/1.8.

All in all, it was a pleasing and productive day, and I shot more images in one trip than I have shot for months.

More images are to follow.