Monday, January 31, 2011

We Are All Primates

Toque Macaques, Sri Lanka
This is a picture that I was delighted to get - nice light, a lovely composition, and a captured moment of social behavior.  I don't know, but I think this is two young males rather than a male/female pair. I am also guessing that this is a dominance display and that the guy on the right is top dog ( macaque) and the one on the left is required by protocol to...  I'm not sure what.

One of the most wonderful things about watching primates is the window it provides onto our own behavior. It is always fascinating to see how macaques like these jockey for position and status using rituals such as these. And it is intriguing - and irresistible - to speculate on what the analogous human behavior might be:

Checking out each other's job titles?
Fighting over the restaurant bill?
Flattering your boss?

The picture may be a little too graphic to be published widely, but I'm glad I took it anyhow!  At the very least, it makes me laugh...

Nikon D3, 70-200mm VR lens

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Not-so-Humble Peacock

Peacock Taking Flight, Sri Lanka
A few days ago I posted a shot of a running chicken - OK, an endemic Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl that LOOKS like a chicken.  In that post, I made the point that if that bird were not so utterly familiar it would be considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world...

The same exact argument can be made for what can fairly be described as the most astonishing bird on the planet - the Peacock.  Consider: if we did not see them so often, in zoos, and parks and in every form of media, we would better appreciate how breathtaking they really are.

Having seen them in the wild in Sri Lanka, I was astonished that they not were getting gobbled down by every predator in the area - a fully-dressed male peacock is burdened by what must be ten pounds of decoration. So why aren't they getting eaten by jackals or leopards or...?  The fact is, I saw hundreds of them walking around on the ground without a care in the world, taking flight only with great reluctance. So why aren't they being eaten? Truthfully, I have no idea, but I would imagine they're pretty tasty - sort of like chicken...

In any case, I did not spend a lot of time photographing peacocks because, after all, the world hardly needs more pictures of them. But when I saw one in a high tree, set against a misty mountain background, I couldn't resist.  And when he suddenly dropped off the branch and into flight, I fired off a series of pictures. This is one of them, and although distant, it shows what an extravagant bird the peacock really is.

Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 and TC14x

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Ladies of Sigiriya

The Maidens of Sigiriya, 6th C., Sri Lanka
Yes, I am primarily a wildlife photographer, but that doesn't mean I am immune to the charms of history and art. On our recent trip to Sri Lanka, we took time out from chasing endangered species through the dwindling scraps of forest to see some of that island's many stunning archeological sites. By far our favorite was the rock-palace at Sigiriya, a well-deserved World Heritage Site.  It is the location for an amazing story of a bastard prince who, in the 6th century AD,  killed his father and stole his throne, and set about building the ultimate pleasure palace atop a rock monolith in the center of the island. We spent a day there and were blown away by the stunning architecture and engineering of this ancient site, with its gravity-fed fountains and sophisticated running water systems.

But nothing moved me more than the cluster of paintings perched high on a cliff which revealed - in startling color and detail - the existence of a rich secular life rarely depicted in a country whose art typically consists of endless, mind-numbing images of Buddha. These paintings are one of Sri Lanka's national treasures.

The half-dozen images of voluptuous females are all that has survived from what was once a vast collection of frescoes, and are as detailed and colorful as they must have been 1500 years ago. Frankly, I found them breathtaking. And happily, I was able to bend the rules a bit and carry a tripod up a series of rusty ladders to the site to shoot these marvelous paintings in very dim light.

Are these ground-breaking or creative photographs?  No, the maidens - depicted at life-size -  have been well-photographed before, and they presented no technical challenge (one-second exposures at f22). Nonetheless, taking the pictures myself was part of the thrill of being there, and a highlight of our time in Sri Lanka. ... which is why I can't help sharing them with you.

Meanwhile, I've been busy editing the wildlife material today, and will post more of that soon.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens, Gitzo Tripod

Birds Birds Birds

Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sinharaja 
I had, as always, a "hit list" of species I want to find and photograph in Sri Lanka. I designed our itinerary to put us in the right place at the right time with several of these target species, including a number of birds. At the top of that list was the Blue Magpie, found only in the dwindling rain forests of Sri Lanka and nowhere else. It is increasingly rare these days, so I was pleased to find a handful of them in the same leech-ridden forest where I shot the Jungle Fowl (see last post).

The magpie is truly a spectacular bird, but a hard one to photograph in the thick tangle of the understory where we found them. There always seem to be vines in the way, unwanted leaves and hotspots, or a bird that insists on facing the wrong way on a branch. Maddening!  In the end, I got just a half dozen  hard-won portraits.  Forget about getting behavior, or social interaction; shooting a real story on these birds would take weeks, if not months. Still, I'm happy to have gotten anything at all.

Crested Hawk-Eagle, Yala NP

But having a hit list only gets you so far; sometimes pictures just fall into your lap. I was actually taking a rest stop by the side of the road one day when this hawk-eagle landed on a nearby snag, nearly at eye-level. It is a magnificent bird, but I thought it unlikely that it would stay where it was long enough for me to change lenses and get a picture. To my amazement, it just sat there, a slight breeze lifting it's crest feathers up above its regal profile. 

I shot a few distant pictures, took a step or two closer, then took more, repeating the process half a dozen times, moving slowly to avoid spooking him. Soon I was right in front of him, and he remained as relaxed as ever.  I tried hard to find an angle that didn't have the distracting hotspots in the trees behind him, but overall, I was delighted that he wasn't (as these birds so often are) straight overhead with a featureless gray sky.  Not a picture I set out to get that day - but an unexpected gift.

Green Bee-eater, Yala NP

Finally, an admission. I love bee-eaters. They are dazzling little jewels and spectacular aerialists.  I rarely get a chance to get pictures of them in conditions like this, with a light overcast and a largely clean background, and since the leopards I was tracking were staying relentlessly hidden, I spent quite a while with this little fellow.  A simple portrait of a lovely bird.

Nikon D3, 300mm f2.8 lens

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chicken Run

Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl, Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve

No, this is not a chicken, although you can be forgiven for thinking
 it looks like one. In fact, it is a wild Sri Lanka Junglefowl, a close
 relative of the Indian bird that was domesticated into the Colonel 
Sanders variety thousands of years ago.  These bizarre, familiar 
birds are common in the forests of Sri Lanka – and face it, if they 
didn’t look like chickens, we’d think they were among the most 
spectacular birds in the world. Sadly, it is their fate to be ignored.
The Jungle Fowl is not a rare bird; to be honest, it is probably the
 most obvious and ever-present bird in the forests here. But I was
 lucky to find one that allowed me to get close, making possible this
 motion-portrait of him racing through the rainforest.  It is a classic 
blur pan situation, with a long exposure and and fill-flash combination 
that lets the background blur, but stops the action of the subject. 
To make it work, I had to lay on the ground and shoot a mess of 
seat-of-the-pants exposures trying to get what I wanted. Many were 
out of focus, or missing the bird itself, but in the end I got a handful 
which capture the extravagant colors, and motion, of this wild-looking 
bird. What the picture doesn’t show is the host of leeches that took 
advantage of my prone position to crawl up my body and feast on 
my blood. I was pinching them off of me for hours after this little 
More soon; I'm still on my way home. 
Serious editing starts tomorrow.

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Paradise of Rock

Petra Sandstone
Coming home from Sri Lanka, our plane stopped in Amman, Jordan - a country we've never been to before.  We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit a place I've always wanted to see: the ancient rock city of Petra.  Imagine an Arizona slot canyon filled with buildings carved into the rock two thousand years ago, and you begin to get the idea. I shot a lot of pictures of the ruins (this is a World Heritage Site, after all) but I was also enchanted by the rock itself. It was red sandstone, similar to that which you see in the American southwest, but with bands of mineral deposits that created stunning swirls and patterns. In short, I had a wonderful time shooting patterns, arches, caves, and - oh, yeah - some masterpieces of Nabataean Architecture.  All in all, a nice way to spend the day.

Tomorrow we continue the long journey home.

The Treasury from The Siq, Petra

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On the Way Home

Purple-faced Langur
We've finally emerged from the wilds of Sri Lanka where I actually managed to remain offline for 3 full weeks - some kind of record...   (There simply isn't wifi in the places where I was hanging out.)  But there was wildlife - albeit hard to find, difficult to follow, and in many cases, nearly impossible to photograph.  I spent several days trying in vain to find these endangered langurs, but faced the usual problems that confront primate photography - bad light, tall trees, and uncooperative subjects.

Then one day I just got lucky. A group came down out of the trees, a layer of clouds softened the harsh sunlight and I got about 20 minutes at eye level with one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. No, I didn't get a lot of behavioral images, or group interactions. That would take weeks - maybe months. But I got some handsome portraits, like this monkey feeding in the cloud forest canopy.

I will be editing pictures from this trip for the next few weeks and will post several as I go along. But before I can do that, I still have 26 hours of flying ahead of me... Wish me luck!

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens with TC14x

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Back to the Field

Asian Elephant

We are leaving Monday for a month in Sri Lanka, a trip we've had planned for some time, but had postponed until now because of the continuing political problems there. Now, however, things appear to have settled down, so we will go ahead with our plans to work on several of that island's many endemic and endangered species. Among them : the rare Purple-faced Langur, the Sri Lankan Magpie and the Sri Lankan Leopard.  We also hope to spend some time in the company of wild elephants - one of our favorite things.
Along the way, we will also try to learn about Sri Lanka's long and glorious history, with visits to some of the most crucial archeological sites.  It will likely be difficult to keep up with this blog, but if I can find a computer and the internet - I'll try and let you know how we are getting on.

Have a terrific New Year, everyone.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens