An Early Ooty Morning

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

There was a chill in the air as I walked down the four flights of stairs to the garden below. Then I remembered that I was close to 8,000 feet of elevation, which also explained my slight shortness of breath. I was in the hill station of Ooty, a mountain top town surrounded by tea plantations. My friend Frans Xavier generously offered to play host to his home state of Tamil Nadu, India for a few days, and this was our first stop on the way from Coimbatore to Mudumalai National Park. We had flown into Coimbatore the day before where we met Frans’ good college friend Frank. This was truly the best way for me to see such a beautiful part of India, with two locals showing me the way!

A female house sparrow eats a grub from the ground in the early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

But of course day one saw me up at dawn, anxious to see which birds I could photograph before we hit the road later that morning. At first I spied one of my regular usual suspects, the house sparrow. Here is a female in the grass, just pulling a fat grub from the earth. I suppose this was the epitome of the “early bird!”

Unfortunately, what was once a common species throughout India, the house sparrow is rapidly disappearing, due most likely to urbanization. It is the typical story we see over and over in this planet’s wild places – loss of habitat.

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I slowly wound my way through the garden, which was terraced – carved into the side of a steep hill. My journey was very quiet until I got to the very bottom, at which point the manicured garden met the thick, wild forest. It was alive with bird song, monkey calls, and other unidentified animal sounds that could only be attributed to the beasts of my imagination. At this point, I struck gold (at least from a bird photographer’s perspective). I was eye level with the tops of several bushes, thick with red-whiskered bulbuls.

Two red-whiskered bulbuls perch on a berry bush in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I had photographed this bird on two occasions in a trip to India last year, but this was by far the most I had seen at once. From my position, it was difficult to move as I was perched on the side of a very steep hill. Any time I tried to move closer to the birds, I ended up underneath them, as I dropped in elevation. So I was pretty much stuck at a fixed distance from the bushes, which fortunately was close enough.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

In addition to the bulbul clan, I found a couple of male pied bush chats (a new species for me), flitting up and down the hill. These guys proved to be more skittish than the bulbuls, most likely because they weren’t busy gorging themselves with berries.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

After about half an hour, the birds were clearing out and the world around me was stirring. I was happy with my haul – an excellent start to wonderful trip.

Namib Rock Agama

A male Namibian rock agama perches on a flat stump, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

When I visited the Damaraland region of Namibia earlier this year, I found and photographed a few Namib Rock Agamas. This colorful lizard hung out on and between some of the large boulders that decorated the landscape.

A male Namibian rock agama splays out against the warm rock, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

While there were likely other species of lizards in the area, these lizards could be seen out in the open and were easily spotted due to their striking color against the gray rock. Unfortunately they were somewhat skittish and didn’t let me get close enough for more of a macro treatment.

When photographing small ground creatures, it is important to bring the lens as close to eye level as possible. Sometimes this means sacrificing personal cleanliness in order to get the shot.

A male Namibian rock agama splays out against the warm rock, Twyfelfontein, Namibia.

While the big game is Africa’s major wildlife draw, it is important not to forget the little guys. Sometimes the smaller critters can have an even more interesting story to tell than the big guys.

Recent Publication – Bay Nature October 2016

Image of a California Condor in Pinnacles National Park used for an article about the rehabilitation and release of Condors.

Run to your local news stand and grab the current issue of Bay Nature. There is an article on California Condors that features one of my photos taken of a condor in Pinnacles National Park. This is a popular release point for these birds bred in rehabilitation centers, and the rocky area has proven a successful wild breeding area. As there are less than 300 of these birds in the wild, each is given a wing tag with a unique tracking number, and a radio transmitter.

A California Condor perches on a branch in front of a rock wall, Pinnacles National Park

The condor feature in my photo had a wing tag of number 340, which allowed me not only identify this as a male, but also get some detailed information about the bird’s history from the National Park Service:

Upon arrival at the Pinnacles flight pen, 340 was by far the most active and aggressive juvenile. Perhaps he was aware of his distinction in being the first chick produced by the Oregon Zoo, where he hatched on 5/9/04. As a culturally significant species to the Wasco tribe, the honor of naming 340 was given to Chief Nelson Wallulutum, who named him Kun-Wac-Shun, meaning Thunder and Lightning.

After his release at Pinnacles in 2005, 340 started to expand his range and quickly ascended the dominance hierarchy. He is outfitted with a GPS tag and has taken flight within 50 miles of the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge condor release site. His continued exploratory flights make him valued within the flock for his ability to lead others to new areas. During the winter of 2013, he began courting Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) condor 444. Unfortunately, 444 died due to lead poisoning in the summer of 2014. As a high ranking male, 340 found a new mate in VWS condor 236 and they are currently nesting within park boundaries, raising their chick, 828.

https://www.nps.gov/pinn/learn/nature/profiles.htm

It is an honor to view and photograph these gigantic and extremely rare birds.

Cuddling Lion Brothers

Two lion brothers sleep side by side in the fading shade of a tree, Etosha National Park, Namibia

On my first evening in Etosha National Park (and third evening in Africa), my traveling companions and I came across two lion brothers snoozing away the afternoon in the shade of the only tree for miles. Although it was still early in the afternoon, we decided to hunker down and wait them out. We were somewhat close to a waterhole, and wanted to see if the lions would wander that way as dusk settled. While we waited, we were treated to many poses as the restless lions moved around.

Two lion brothers sleep side by side in the fading shade of a tree, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Armed with both my 100-400mm and 800mm lenses, I had plenty of options for focal length (especially given that I couldn’t get out of the vehicle and move around!) As the lions were more or less stationary, I was able to combine my 800mm lens with the fantastic 50 megapixel Canon 5DSr for maximum reach.

A lion stands in the shade of a small tree, escaping from the hot afternoon sun, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Based on the length of their manes, these lions were definitely young, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. At time ticked by, their main reason for movement was to get up and walk a few feet when the shadow of the tree had moved sufficiently to no longer provide enough shade.

A lion stands in the shade of a small tree, escaping from the hot afternoon sun, Etosha National Park, Namibia

As often happens with wildlife photography, we waited patiently for something to happen. Although the lions lazed about with no intention of getting up to go to the waterhole, we were eventually presented with a beautiful sunset over the grasslands of Etosha. To capture the landscape, I used my 100-400mm lens zoomed out to 100mm.

Two lions sleep in the fading shade of a single tree as the sky lights up an sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

After a few more minutes, it grew dark enough that wildlife photography at any great focal length became impossible. I packed up my gear in anticipation of a long, sleepless night at the floodlit Okaukuejo waterhole (photos coming soon!)

Gear I used to create the photos in this post: