Kill to shoot?

To what lengths will people go ‘to get that shot?’  Feeling awkward or uncomfortable?  Potential conflict?  Taking a personal risk?  Or killing to get that predator-prey shot?  Photography can be a personal, emotional journey.


Exhausted but exhilarated, I’m stood in front of a full-length open window wearing only grubby underpants and grey socks.  Next to me in this slightly worn Costa Rican hotel room is a similarly attired stranger.  Struggling to see through the early morning gloom, we’re using a mobile phone app to try to recognise the squabbling birds making up the dawn chorus.

Four hours ago we were introduced with a formal handshake.  We’re now locked in a mild obsession to photograph some of the most amazing, diverse wildlife in the world.

I shrug off my initial feelings of awkwardness – this is absolutely normal for two well adjusted blokes – I’m inching out of my comfort zone in pursuit of a parrot obsession.  We conclude that the noisy birds could possibly be, are likely to be, are 99% sure to be, brown hooded parrots.  Or courting frogs.

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Day 5.  Keep moving.  I’m one step ahead of the bizarre cult pursuing me into the Costa Rican jungle.  Their binoculars and scopes see for miles.  Meticulous, in the books strung around their necks they record each tree, change in the weather and species.  I’m sweating with the effort to stay ahead.  The sun rises in 12 minutes, not much time before their trap is sprung and the ritual sacrifice begins.  In the clearing, a large, white, illuminated cloth hangs between two trees – wriggling with life.  The dinner table is set.

Last night a group of us agreed to wake at 4am, gather small plastic pots and head into the jungle.  A mission of mercy – sort-of.  If we can get to the clearing before the cult, we will be able to save many tiny, fluttering lives.  But if we’re spotted there will be shouting and conflict.  A headache is forming in anticipation of this conflict.

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We quickly pick off moths from the table cloth.  Attracted by the light, they are resting until warmed by the sun and have enough energy to escape.  In the golden hour after sunrise, birds and lizards are attracted to this easy meal, which in turn attracts the birders, pencils poised, to record the many bird species in the Cost Rican jungle.  If we can fill our pots with the most unusual and beautiful specimens before the twitchers arrive we will be able to photograph them before letting them live another day.

Conflict avoided, my headache is receding.  I’m snapping away at strategically positioned moths, frogs and lizards whilst grumbling birders trudge by.  “No luck guys?”  A giddy, sneaky excitement.  Naughty school kids again.

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Day 7.  I’m shaking.  Crickey, that was stupid.  Why did I do that?  Deep breath.  Relax.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t touch any of them.

I’m just back from spending a very long morning rummaging through dropped leaves looking for stuff to photograph.  Good grief, how did I possibly end up on the ground staring eye-to-eye with venomous pit vipers and poison dart frogs.

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I’m panicking.  Right, where’s my iPad?  What the bugger have I just done?  I need to consult Dr Google.

The eyelash viper venom is mainly hemotoxic but also neurotoxic, containing procoagulants and hemorrhagins.

What the…

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It affects both the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system, making it highly toxic, and even fatal to humans

Bugger…

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They inject the venom using their 2 extremely long fangs, located on the upper jaw, these remain folded back into their mouths when they’re not in use.

EXTREMELY LONG FANGS!

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Eyelash pit vipers have bitten humans who venture too close.  The bite can cause severe pain, swelling, bruising, bleb formation and very often necrosis, if left untreated it can lead to loss of a limb or even be fatal.

Arrrrrgggghhhhhh, what’s a BLEB?

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This research isn’t helping my panic.  Ok, poison dart frogs.

The green-and-black poison dart frog possesses enough poison to make a human heart stop beating.  However, it only releases its poison if it feels threatened, and wild specimens can be handled provided the human holding it is calm and relaxed.

I’m not feeling calm OR relaxed.  Did I accidentally touch one?  Is that a rash? A scratch?  Is my arm going numb?  A BLEB!

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Ok, calm down.  Breath.  My heart rate is slowing.  A shudder runs through me.  Good grief.  No obvious symptoms of hemotoxic or neurotoxic wotsit (I’m clearly now an expert).  A long breath out.  Wow, but that was soooooooo cool.  A little skip and squeal.  But maybe I won’t do it again.


Final day in the jungle.  I’m conflicted.  I’m really not sure I want to do this.  Is there REALLY anything wrong with wanting to photograph the feeding of a live lizard to the  boa constrictor we found this morning?

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It looks hungry.

… and the lizard is its natural prey.

Come on, I can do this.  I’ve already spent 2 days photographing king vulture on carcasses.

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What’s the difference!  This could be a great shot, maybe THAT shot!

Live baiting by photographers attracts a great deal of controversy.  Whether it’s tethered live mice to attract a swooping owl, fish in a bowl for that ‘natural’ kingfisher dive, or in this case, a lizard to a snake.


I’ve pushed my comfort zone, risked conflict with people and got up close and personal with venomous snakes and poisonous frogs.  Although I understand the ‘natural’ and ‘personal choice’ arguments of live bating, for me, there’s ‘something of the coliseum about it’.  Live baiting to support entertainment makes me uncomfortable.  So no, I think I might pass on this opportunity to get THE shot.

Sometimes photography can be a personal, emotional journey.

Wild in the City

Arrrrgggggghhhh.  Take a deep breath, stay calm.  My heart is racing.  I’m shaking.  Am I completely, completely bonkers?  Do I REALLY want to do this?  What AM I thinking?

Wandering the streets of London.  At night.  Alone.  Thousands of pounds worth of electrical equipment under my arm.  Holding bin bags and dog food.

It’s 3am.  Shivering, I’m crouched behind a tree in a north london street.  Watching a pile of rubbish fluttering next to a dustbin and hoping I’ve not been spotted.

Night-time urban fox photography combines the thrill and excitement of an African Safari, requires the sensitivity and field-craft of an aboriginal hunter and skill of a vogue photo shoot.

A car drives past.  Stops.  Reverses.  The car is next to my camera, which is ‘hidden’ under a pile of bin bags.  Drug pushers?  A drive-by shooting?  My mind races, now faster than my heart.  Skittish, I jump up, terrifying the two young guys in the car, grab my camera and leg it.  My first night isn’t a great success.

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This time I’ve done my research.  A knife?  No.  Tear-gas?  Ridiculous.  A stinky, blary, personal alarm that sprays my assailant with fluorescent red dye?  Perfect.

I’ve tracked down a fox den, found a concealed hiding  place (away from the road) and after hours of practice, I have my camera set up with a remote trigger.  I’m ready to go – a coiled spring.  Less bouncy after three more hours of being ready.  A fox.  My first fox.  Such a beauty.  I slow my breathing.  It’s moving to my ‘designated spot’.  The ‘X’ on the floor where I’ve pre-focused, ensured is in shadow so the flash balances the street lights, freezes the motion of the fox and takes the perfect shot.  In theory.  The fox tenses.  It’s heard the person that I’m now aware of.  He’s standing close to me.  At 4:30 in the morning.  Next to the church.  Staring in my direction.  My finger is twitching on my personal alarm.  The fox and I are ready to pounce – or run.  He steps towards me.  Slowly, carefully, I’m taking out my alarm, ready to fire.  An orange blur as he drops his cig to the floor and returns to the church.  Damn, I’ve very nearly just blinded a priest.

My fox is back.  Flash, flash, flash.  Good grief, I’ve got a clear fox shot.  That is amazing.  That is incredible.  Flustered I stumble backwards.  Fall on my hand.  My brain buzzing with the excitement, exhilaration.  I can’t believe it’s worked!  I can’t believe I got a shot.  I start to calm down.  The buzzing continues.  A slight odour.  My hand feels sticky.  What IS that buzzing?  The fox has long gone.  Odd.  That smell.  My excitement?  Bewildered I take the personal alarm out of my pocket and stare at it.  Red spray going all over my hand, my jacket, my face.  I think I’ll claim day two as a ‘partial’ success.

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It’s taken 5 long days and LOTS of scrubbing for the odour and red dye to go.  Or maybe I’m now just used to the smell.

For the last 3 nights I’ve got into a routine.  Out of my house and crouched down by 9pm and back home ‘ready’ for work by 6am… I’m absolutely exhausted.  I’ve also started up a few unusual friendships with local dog walkers.  The first after I’d jumped up and rushed towards his car at 2:30am because he’d inadvertently parked next to my camera – and after he calmed from this mild trauma – I variously explained that I was a council street-warden, then an animal activist and finally a muppet photographer.  I’m not sure he believed any of my stories.  Another as, oblivious, he walked directly towards me while I was hiding at the base of a tree – I later find out his dog’s favourite peeing spot – and decide it’s best that I make myself known before he sets his dog on me or has a heart attack.  Each night we share stories on fox-spots, ‘dog hygiene’ tips and of course the weather.

And as I get familiar with the night and fox routines I’m getting better.

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My initial panic has turned to tranquility.  What was once a terrifying trip through my own neighbourhood has become an exciting exploration of the wildlife and people that inhabit my streets when I used to sleep.  Vermin to some, messy disruptive intruders to others, for me the fox is particularly beautiful when set under the orange glow of street lighting against striking buildings.

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And as with all wildlife photography I’ve found that patience, good light and lots of luck are key to a good photo.  In this very unusual night-time world my own personal adventure and education continues.

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While we march to ensure a ban on fox hunting in the countryside we shouldn’t forget about the daily poisoning and trapping of fox in our cities.

It’s tough being a boy

 


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Warm pee trickles over my hand.  I’m barely awake.  Dark.  Freezing cold, damp.  Holed-up in my one-person, snow-covered hide I’m trying to aim into a discarded coke bottle.

Hooouuuhoooou Hooouuuhoooou… pause …Hooouuuhoooou Hooouuuhoooo  pause.  A lone male black grouse has been keeping me awake since 9pm calling to distant females.  A disappointing three shutter clicks between the rising sun at 4:45am and my grouse fleeing a hooded crow attack at 4:47am.

This is the third night I’ve barely pressed the camera shutter, and, unable to venture out of my hide until the ‘all-clear’, I continue the indignity of filling the bottle (note to self: not more than two cups of tea on a hide night).

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He will be back again tonight.  And the next night and the next.

 


 

Part of the Grouse family, male Capercaille and Black Grouse both have only 100 days throughout their lives to attract a female and reproduce.  This intense pressure to succeed drives aggression, body size, plumage and obsessive compulsive mating behaviour.

Western_Capercaillie_Tetrao_urogallus_distribution_mapRanging across the boreal taiga – the world’s largest terrestrial biome – grouse aren’t at risk globally but habitat degradation on the periphery has resulted in a catastrophic collapse leaving pockets clinging on for survival.   Capercaille are extinct in England and their numbers have gone from 20,000 to 1,400 in Scotland, where after a reintroduction programme they are now in intensive care.

Geographical distribution of the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. IUCN 2014. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3

 

Winner-takes-all competition, where natural resources are scarce and opportunities few and far between mean increasingly desperate male behaviour and many many more losers.

 


 

I’ve checked my equipment, the exact time of sunrise, the weather forecast and cloud cover.  I’ve spoken to other photographers and ‘smiled’ through “you should have been here yesterday”.  Frustrated, I’m straining my eyes in the lifting gloom to locate a clucking black grouse.  With an average life-span of 5 years and sexually mature after a year, he has around 4 seasons left.  He hopes to mate at least once during a 4 week lek.  And, mildly voyeuristically, I’m here to shoot this lekking, cavorting couple.

It’s 3:32.

Twitchy fingers, I shoot.  Too soon.  Not enough light.  Sunrise in around an hour.

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As with every self-respecting male looking to attract a lady, he’s chosen his favourite hang-out…

Black grouse lek: Oulu and Kuusamo, Finland

Black grouse lek: Oulu and Kuusamo, Finland

…sneakily checks to see she’s watching

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…flashes his best side

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…and tries to catch her attention.

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He shouts and calls

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…and flaps around.
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Eventually, maddeningly, giving up when she buggers off to a more enticing lek….

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It’s not looking good for him.  Three seasons left.

We both leave.

Disappointed.

 


 

hide3-2For the last 3 nights I’ve moved from one Capercaillie lek to another, trying to identify the one dominant male that will succeed during the very short 10 day mating period.

As with the Black Grouse, the Capercaillie, a turkey-sized bird, clatters into the tree-tops above the lek at around 9pm and then starts booming, strutting and posturing to attract females.  Inside my damp, cramped hide I can hear Capercaillie in the distance and can spy an extremely timid bird close by, hoping I’ve chosen the dominant male.

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FOUR fruitless nights.

No dominant male emerging.  Who knows why?  Maybe the choice of site.  The shine of their plumage.  The boom of their call.  Or simply unlucky.

 

 

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I’m scuttling down the mountain, pushing through the spruce.  Heart pumping, short of breath.  Concentrate.  One frantic foot in front of the other.  Quickly shifting the weight of my backpack so I don’t go tumbling.  I’m following fluttering and noise heard last night to yet another location.  No sleep.  Grubby and a bit smelly.  I’m now aching.  I need to keep moving.  I really shouldn’t have packed that extra lens ‘just in case’.

My last night.  My last chance to shoot a dominant male surrounded by females.  It’s now 4:47 and I spot a magnificent male Capercaille in his tiny clearing.

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He’s spent the last 6 hours keeping me awake and calling to two inquisitive, but hard to please females.  Does he really have the goods?

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Finally.  One joins him on his little mound and I quickly shoot.  Thank goodness, at least I have SOMETHING.

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But, success in the world of the Capercaillie is only achieved by coaxing many females down from the trees and then mating with them all.

Don’t judge him!

So, he continues to call.

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and then another and another join him.  I snatch a really quick shot.

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This is an intense, precarious dance.  He must keep satisfied the enticed females, while he judders back his head and calls to more.

My heart is racing too.  The exhilaration of getting a shot, any shot, is soon replaced by “was the exposure right, it would be EVEN BETTER if there were more females, better light, a better composition and male-female interaction.  Can I change my position, a different lens or camera settings?  What might happen next that I need to be ready for?”.  This internal competition never ever ends.

A flutter in the trees signals even greater success.  Are we seeing the emergence of the dominant male?

Disaster.  Another male has spotted him and has decided to crash the party.   Flurry, squawk, this insurgent cock must be chased away.

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This leaves the females on the ground to flee and scares away the jittery ones remaining in the tree.

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Irritation, frustration, annoyance.  All that time and energy wasted.

Another fruitless night.  Tic Toc.

_DSC9672My heart rate is slowing, calming down.  The excitement is over.  A glow of edgy satisfaction as I’ve got ‘A’ shot but not ‘THE’ shot.  I’ve already raised my own expectations just out of reach.

Tired, hungry, aching, I need to pack up and leave.  Damn, where did I leave that half-empty coke bottle?

It’s tough being a boy.

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