The Peacock – The National Bird Of India

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

On my last trip to India, I was fortunate enough to have some great sightings of India’s national bird, the peacock (or rather more correctly, the Indian Peafowl (to be fair to both sexes))! In the United States, these birds are often relegated to free roaming status in zoos, so it was nice to see some in their natural habitat.

An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches in a tree, tail feathers trailing below, Tamil Nadu, India.

While feathers from the peacock are sought after due to their amazing colors and iridescence, I saw peahens showing off as well.

An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peahen perches atop a stone pillar, Tamil Nadu, India.

One thing that became apparent as soon as I started photographing was that these wild peacocks were extremely skittish and agitated. Any time I tried to approach on foot, they would scamper off into the jungle.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

Only by shooting from the window of a car was I able to get close. The “mobile blind” technique often works well with many types of wildlife, though it is essential to have an experienced driver who knows how to slowly creep up on the subject without spooking it.

An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along a forest floor, Tamil Nadu, India.

When you can catch the peacock feathers in the right light, the brilliant colors almost glow. Here you have to be careful about light angles, because at the wrong angle, you can get unwanted glare from the reflective surface of these iridescent feathers.

An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock perches atop a wooden fencepost, Tamil Nadu, India.

I looked for opportunities like the shot above to showcase peacocks off the ground. Here the males can let the full glory of their tail feathers hang to the ground. This was taken at a meditation center in southern Tamil Nadu that doubled as a sanctuary for these wild birds.

An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.
An indian peacock struts along open ground looking for food, Tamil Nadu, India.

While I photographed many peacocks over the course of three days, one shot I wanted but didn’t get was that of a male displaying to female. I did see this display in action, but wasn’t able to photograph it well as the birds were stationed behind a wire fence. I figure its always good to want more – all the more reason to keep me coming back in the future!

Location Photography – Telling A Story Through Photos

A massive sand dune glows red orange in the setting sun, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Sometimes when I go to new locations, they can be so awe inspiring that I feel photographically challenged. When this happens, I need to take a step back and think about the location’s special traits that fill me with such awe. What is important about this area – is there some natural event occurring, or some irregular weather phenomenon? In short, what are the stories this new place is trying to tell me? Answering this question often lends direction to my photography and helps me realize which stories about the area I want to share with others. (Note: although I primarily photograph natural subjects, this technique works equally well with any location or subject).

I recently used this technique when I spent several days in the Namib Desert in Namibia last year. At first, being surrounded by these huge red sand dunes was overwhelming. What should I shoot first? As I explored the desert around me, I began to recognize several stories that this place had to tell.

The most obvious story was about the sheer size of the sand dunes found here. This is the oldest desert in the world, and home to the world’s largest sand dunes. I had photographed sand dunes before, but never any of the massive size that I saw in this desert. The rust-orange massifs were more akin to sand mountains than something as temporary and fleeting as a dune. Some of the largest dunes stood over 1000 feet tall, dwarfing the sparse trees and flora that dared to grow at their feet. In the photo below you can faintly see a few trees, which give the enormity of the dunes a sense of scale.

The giant sand dunes of Namibia turn many shades of red and orange under shifting clouds, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
The giant sand dunes of Namibia turn many shades of red and orange under shifting clouds, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although this desert receives only 10 mm of rain each year, amazingly there are large mammals that thrive here. This was story number two. Here, a gemsbok oryx (one of Africa’s many species of antelope) roams among dry scrub and dying trees. With no ground water to drink, these animals rely on the occasional fog that rolls in from the Atlantic ocean. After the fog collects on plants and their fur, the oryx lick the scarce moisture from each other’s coats, sustaining themselves until the next foggy morning.

A gemsbok oryx stands in front of a massive dune, wet from a rare early morning thunder storm, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
A gemsbok oryx stands in front of a massive dune, wet from a rare early morning thunder storm, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

While I could take up-close portraits of oryx in other parts of Namibia, telling the story of these large antelope thriving in the desert necessitated using a shorter lens than I usually do for wildlife. A 400mm lens allowed me to include the massive red walls of sand that dominate this habitat. Again, it was important for me to use unique elements of the scene to tell the story of that location.

Gemsbok oryx cross flat ground in front of a wall of sand - the lower slopes of a massive sand dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Gemsbok oryx cross flat ground in front of a wall of sand – the lower slopes of a massive sand dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

A third aspect of this desert that I wanted to show photographically was the rust orange color of the sand. This reddish orange comes from the high iron concentration in the sand and the gradual oxidation of that iron. The older the dune, the more orange it becomes. In order to offset the beautiful orange and red tones of the sand, I needed blue skies, giving my photos nice complimentary colors. Counter to most of my landscape photos, I opted to shoot in late morning or early afternoon (instead of sunrise or sunset, when the sky itself would be much warmer and closer in tonality to the sand). Had I not been thinking of how to convey the story of these ancient orange dunes, I likely would have kept my camera in the bag at this time of the day!

Afternoon light provides enough blue in the sky to compliment the reddish-orange of the dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Afternoon light provides enough blue in the sky to compliment the reddish-orange of the dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

A final story waiting to be told about this area was the play of light across the contours and textures of the dunes. The photo below was shot at sunrise, creating extreme side light and casting a sharp shadow line along the front crest of the dune. This strong shadow added shape and contrast to the dune.

Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The shadows in the image below manifested very differently in that they are not created by the shape of the dune itself, but rather by clouds moving in front of the sun. Because these dune ridges are actually quite far apart, a large cloud shaded only a single ridge at a time, giving me endless shadow patterns to choose from over the course of about half an hour. This was my favorite image of this type, as the closest and farthest ridges are in shadow, isolating the middle ridge in sunlight.

Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

When I first arrived in this vast desert, I was challenged by where to start with my photography. But by focusing on those stories that made this place so special, I could use them to direct my photographic effort. It even helped me develop a shot list to try to fill during my brief stay. Next time you find yourself in a challenging location, stop and listen. Perhaps the area will open up and share its stories with you.

Red-headed Finch

A male red-headed finch carries nesting material, Windhoek, Namibia.

Red-headed finches are a medium sized finch with a beautiful feather pattern on the body. The males display a bright red head, while the females have a grayish head with slightly duller body colors.

I came across a wild colony in Windhoek, Namibia, where it appears that they took over a set of old nests abandoned by some kind of weaver.

A male red-headed finch perches on a nest, Windhoek, Namibia.

The nests were hanging from the branches of a tree, with a small entrance on the underside. This species is known to take over and retrofit nests of other species, though they also build their own.

A female red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

I was not able to find much information on this bird, other than to read that they are occasionally bred as caged birds.

A male red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

It is birds like this that makes traveling to other parts of the world so much fun for me. When I arrive in a new area, even the most common species are new and interesting.

African Bush Elephants

An african elephant lifts its trunk to trumpet, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I was very lucky to see and photograph both Asian and African wild elephants in a single year. My Asian elephant experience was in the thick forests of northern Tamil Nadu, India, while I got to get up close and personal with the larger African cousins on the plains of Etosha National Park in Namibia.

And these guys were certainly huge! They are physically larger than Asian elephants, with larger ears and tusks. I saw a few drinking and having a mud bath next to a waterhole.

An african elephant gives itself a mudbath at a waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

This elephant would suck up large amounts of mud and water with its trunk and alternate flinging it up and over its head, and blasting its underside. The grayish white on the elephant’s skin is mud dried by the hot midday sun.

An african elephant gives itself a mudbath at a waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

At one point we were watching a large adult snacking on some leaves of a low bush. After finishing its meal, it starting wandering in our direction, getting closer and closer. The beast soon filled my camera frame at 70mm, and yet it came closer still, making me nervous. My mind’s eye was playing out a scenario which involved this guy getting upset and flipping our van. Luckily, our driver was prepared and when the elephant got within 20 feet, he threw the van into gear and got out of there.

An african elephant flares its large ears as it grazes on branches, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

It was a joy to just sit and watch these mammoth creatures. Similar to watching primates, you can see the intelligence and intention in their movements. Their amazing multipurpose trunks that they use to grab, smell, drink, touch, carry, and sometimes break is endless enjoyment to see.

An african elephant eats leaves and grass, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

As excited as I was to see these large bush elephants, I was looking forward to seeing the smaller, desert-adapted elephants in a few days time. Stay tuned for photos!