Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Run, Grizzly, Run!--But Not Towards Me

Throughout the decade of the 80's and halfway through the 90's I spent so much time photographing in Denali National Park that it prompted my daughter's good friend, Jennifer, to ask me if I worked in the park.
My answer was no, but in a de facto way the park was indeed my office.  I was there to obtain captivating imagery that I would subsequently be marketing through various stock photo agencies. My visits to the park were not casual. They were always photography intensive.

From the beginning I concentrated on photographing grizzly bears whenever possible. Even when I was seeking images of other species in the park, grizzlies had a way of trumping whatever else I might be doing.
Like the time I was in the park in late September, after all the tourists had left for the season. The park road remained open to cars until the Savage River, about twelve miles in. There was already a good accumulation of snow in the park and I decided to hike into Savage Canyon and look for Dall Sheep. I brought with me my Nikon FE camera on a strap around my neck and on the camera was mounted a Nikon 300/f4.5 lens.  In those days of the early 80's there was no auto focus, no image stabilization, and on the bright snow I set the exposures manually.

I hiked into the canyon and after spotting a group of seven rams high on the western slope I slowly made my approach. When I was about fifty feet away I laid down on my belly in the snow, steadied the camera by placing my elbows on the ground, and began shooting. It was a beautiful blue sky day. I was looking through the viewfinder and had only taken a half dozen shots when all of a sudden the rams ran to the left and out of sight. I thought that perhaps the sound of the motor drive on the camera had frightened the animals, but the reason for their swift departure soon became apparent. As I lay there still looking through the viewfinder a grizzly bear walked right into the frame from the right side. This was my first closeup encounter with a bear since moving to Alaska the previous year.

I knew the bear drill by heart: stand your ground, don't run.  I didn't have bear spray in those days. It was yet to be invented.  What I did have was an abundance of fear and I panicked, plain and simple. Instead of standing up and holding my ground I tried to get down the snowy slope as fast as possible. In the process I got caught up in some alder branches. My face and camera became entirely covered with snow as a result of this lame escape effort. When I cleared the snow from my eyes I could see the bear up the slope right where he had been before my hasty retreat. He hadn't moved.  As I looked at him he stood up and looked back down at me. We stared at each other for a few long seconds before he returned to all fours and continued unhurriedly on his way in the direction that the rams had gone a short while earlier. When my adrenalin level finally returned to normal I felt foolish, knowing that I had done the absolute incorrect thing in trying to run from a bear. I got off lucky this time. My next bear encounter would be a little more harrowing.

The first time that I had the opportunity to see a bear run at full speed was just east of a lookout pullover in the park called Stony Hill.  I had a photographic permit that day which allowed me to drive the park road in my own vehicle rather than having to use the park's public bus system.  Such are the perks of being a professional photographer. As I drove slowly and approached Stony Hill a lone wolf ran across the road a short distance behind my car.  Henran up a slope and out of sight.  I quickly made a U-turn and headed back toward where he had been running.  I rounded a bend in the road and found the wolf standing near a fresh looking caribou carcass that was partially eaten. Then a good sized grizzly bear lumbered in from over a small rise and headed right for the caribou.  The wolf was reluctant to give up his meal and stood his ground until the grizzly was nearly upon him. He did not move until the bear gave chase, and that is when I got to see a grizzly run at full speed for the very first time.

The bear did not catch the wolf. He was not interested in doing so. He only wanted to steal the wolf's meal, and this goal he easily accomplished. 

The next time that I got to see a grizzly running at full speed was not so entertaining.

My wildlife artist friend, Mike Sieve, and I met under interesting circumstances on the Denali Park road in the summer of 1980.  I was hiking down the road alone, deep in the park, when I rounded a sharp bend and saw a grizzly bear 100 feet ahead on the side of the road. The bear didn't notice me and I quietly backed up on the road until I was out of sight. I had no idea if the bear was headed in my direction or not.  Soon an SUV came along and I stepped into the middle of the road and waved my arms, forcing the driver to stop. I told him there was a bear up ahead and asked if I could get inside his vehicle. He said sure, and that began a friendship which has lasted over thirty years and spanned several continents. In subsequent years Mike  and I
have collaborated on photographic trips to India to find tigers and to Africa to capture images of a plethora of wildlife. We have been to Canada to photograph on several occasions, to Banff and Jasper National Parks and Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta and to the recently established Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.  We have also returned several times to Denali Park together, and it was on one of our Denali visits that we had the experience of a lifetime that I would rather not have had. I still cringe when I think about it.

On that particular outing Mike brought along his 12 year old son, Eric. For a week we did some extensive hiking and wildlife viewing, spotting most of the larger species of mammals within the park.

Early one afternoon the three of use hiked up a gravel stream bed west of Polychrome Pass. We kept loosely together as we hiked and Mike made a point of telling Eric to always stay where we could see him.  For a while he did. Mike had a wildflower guide book with him and he and I used the book to try to identify every flower we came across. Eric eventually lost interest in the flowers and in being with adults and wandered off.  At first neither Mike nor I noticed his absence. We were busy looking at flowers. When we did finally realize that Eric was gone we shouted out his name.  There was no reply. We walked back down the stream bed a ways and called out again. There was still no reply.

After another few minutes we saw Eric round a bend about one hundred yards away down the gravel bed and come running right in our direction. He was running fast. He was also yelling. When he was fifty yards from us a grizzly bear rounded the same bend behind him, in hot pursuit.  Eric was running. The bear was running. They were both headed right towards us.  It was surreal. We each took a canister of pepper spay from holsters around our waists, removed the plastic safety tabs, and aimed the cans in the direction of the rapidly approaching duo. I shouted for Eric to stop running and never was a command so blatantly ignored.  The grizzly was gaining fast on Eric as Eric was closing the gap between us and him. One hundred feet. Ninety. Eighty. Seventy.  We had the bear spray cans up and aimed. When Eric was just forty feet from us and the grizzly was almost on his butt the bear first noticed Mike and me standing there and instantly aborted the chase. He veered off into some nearby alders and disappeared. 

We called it a day and hiked back to the car. 

Mark Newman

Friday, 12 August 2011

Florida Bird Photography

Whether it's an osprey flying through the air carrying a fish in it's talons or a gull on a beach trying to figure out how to swallow a sea horse, the images are all in Florida just begging to be captured.

Florida has come a long way since the day of the commercial plume hunters, it's landmark 1901 legislation banning the killing of wading birds, and the death in 1905 of game warden Guy Bradley in the line of duty while he tried to enforce that law. Those were turbulent times in the field of conservation. Today when we photographers visit Florida in winter we take for granted the presence of the multitudes of fabulous birds. But a century ago their survival was very much at risk.

When I first started photographing birds in Florida in the early 80's the hotspot for wetland birds was Everglades National Park, and more specifically the Anhinga Trail and Eco Pond, both near the road into Flamingo.  Today that is no longer the case. While those locations remain OK for photography, the new hotspots are Wakodahatchee and Green Cay Wetlands a couple of hour's drive north.

Both of these wetlands are artificial creations of the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department. Wakodahatchee covers fifty acres and has a 3/4 mile raised boardwalk, while Green Cay is about twice that size. Wakodahatchee means "created waters" in the Seminole language and that description is apropos. The Water Utilities Department decided to create the wetlands as a tertiary filtration system for irrigation purposes and the fringe benefit is that all sorts of birds and other wildlife have moved in.  And due to the presence of the boardwalks, which provide easy access, there are many daily visitors and the birds have consequently become habituated to humans and extremely tolerant. There is no easier place to do bird photography.

Wakodahatchee was opened to the public in 2000 and Green Cay four years later. On any early morning in winter one is likely to come across a photographic workshop in progress, with a half dozen photographers or more grouped together, their huge lenses all focused on some engaging scene.  140 species of birds have been recorded in these refuges, not to mention the other critters that frequent these created waters such as raccoons, turtles, bobcats, river otters and, of course, the iconic alligators.  Nesting birds--mainly anhingas and great blue herons--can be photographed from distances as close as thirty feet.

My main bird photography lens is an 80-400 VR Nikon mounted on a D300 camera body. This gives a maximum effective magnification of 600mm, or twelve power.  Years ago I used a tripod but found that I was missing too many good photo opportunities, especially of birds in flight. Since giving up the encumbrance of  a tripod my images have become much more dynamic.

While these two wetlands are the most easy and productive for photography there are, of course, many other worthwhile locations to capture bird imagery. The Gulf Coast of  Florida near Venice and Naples is my next most favorite locale, where birds like the snowy egret can be seen fishing in the surf and great blue herons fly along the the shoreline with their huge wingspans conjuring up the notion of prehistoric times. 

There is no doubt about it-- Florida is where to go for birds in winter. There is really no other place that hands you on a silver platter such a variety of easily photographable avian species.

Mark Newman

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Africa! You Know It Ain't Easy

Life in the wild is a constant challenge to both predator and prey alike. They all find themselves running for their lives. The struggle for survival  is not easier for one side or the other, although weather conditions may temporarily tip the balance. Evolution has seen to it that predators and the animals they stalk both have the inherent natural tools necessary in order to endure both individually and as a species.  With the notable exception of the cheetah, most predators are not as fast as the prey they chase after.  In order to compensate for slower speed they must rely on being clever and using the element of surprise.  In the case of lions, unlike other big cats, they also rely on cooperative hunting.

My good friend, Martin Grosnick, and I spent many weeks camping in the northern part of Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya's premier wildlife park, in order to try to photograph the big cats--lions, leopards and cheetahs--hunting.  Lions hunt mainly at night but occasionally they can be spotted on the prowl just after dawn.  We left camp just as the sky was getting light each dawn (the park's rules don't allow you to go out any sooner), driving without a guide in a 4x4 vehicle that we had rented in Nairobi.  Masai Mara is one of the few parks where you are allowed to drive where you want without having to stay on dirt tracks.  We almost always located lions, but only on one occasion did we find them actively hunting. 

There were four lionesses and they were walking very purposefully, at first in a single file.  It had been an exceptionally dry season and much of the wildlife, especially the African buffaloes, were in a weakened condition from dehydration and poor grazing.  There were carcasses scattered about the landscape, a testament to the effect of the drought.  We stayed a distance back in the jeep so as not to disturb the hunt.
The lionesses made a beeline straight at two buffalo who just stood their ground.  There was nothing stealthy about the stalk. The buffalo turned to face the big cats and made no effort to flee.  The cats concentrated on one of the two buffalo and walked right up to it.  It was not necessary for them to run or rush and the lionesses seemed to know that.  They simply walked up to the buffalo and jumped on its back. One of the lionesses grabbed it's muzzle. After a huge effort the cats were able to bring the buffalo down and then it was all over.  From a comfortable distance with out 600 mm lenses Martin and I were easily able to catch all the action.  But this was the one and only time we saw a successful lion hunt.  The statistics are not flattering to a lion's prowess:  single lions are successful in only 15% of their hunts and a pride manages to catch what they are after only about a third of the time.

Leopards are another story. Of the big African cats they have the second highest hunting success rate, 40%.  But even they are far from perfect, and the hoofed animals of the veldt seem to sense that.  We watched a leopard walk right past a herd of impala and the fleet antelope seemed to know instinctively that the cat had no chance of catching them. They remained on high alert but barely stepped aside.

It took a few more hours of observation that day before we got to see the leopard make a run at a wildebeest calf, successfully isolating the calf from it's irate mother who then chased the leopard, carrying the baby wildebeest,  into a bush.  The leopard remained within the safety of the bush until the calf's mother abandoned her hopes and rejoined the herd. Only then did the leopard carry the dead calf over to a fig tree and proceed to drag it up into the branches to feed.  We captured the whole drama on film.

Closer to perfection are the cheetahs. Their hunting success rate is 50% due to their ability to chase down any critter they want, racing across the landscape at 70 mph.  Usually they hunt the diminutive Thomson's gazelles which weigh a maximum of  29 kg.  We observed cheetahs hunt more often than the other two cats combined, primarily due to the fact that cheetahs are predominantly diurnal hunters. And once they had subdued their prey they sometimes used our vehicle for shade, dragging their kill into the jeep's shadow. Then photography was a piece of cake.

Except when the cheetahs were right next to our vehicle, basically all of our big cat photography involved using our longest lens, the 600 mm. Mine was a 600/f 5.6 Nikon. I never owned the 600/f4.  It was just too heavy, too bulky, too expensive, too much hassle to travel with.   I would rather up the ISO a notch than need to hire a Sherpa to help carry gear around. On this trip I often used a 1.4x teleconverter which made the 600/f 5.6 lens effectively an 840/f8.  I used the 840 power to capture the leopard in the middle photo above.  For lens support I used a bean bag draped over the edge of the vehicle's window or door frame. To create the bean bag I brought along an empty stuff sack and bought plenty of lima beans at a supermarket in Nairobi. The low tech device worked great.

Mark Newman