Chick-eye view of feeding

Chick-eye view of feeding

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Shooting wildlife action in Penang

Serious nature photographers at some point need to define themselves and to decide what they are really after in terms of photographic targets. A clear idea of your direction will mean time, effort and funds can be applied towards a clear goal. Many of my friends come from a birding background and their objective is to record as many species as possible and the rarer the better. This is the ‘bird on a stick’ genre of nature photography. Currently I shoot mostly birds because they are the most available subject in the location I have chosen to live. I am not a birder nor a dedicated bird photographer and if I lived adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa I would surely have more cat shots than bird shots. As a nature photographer my major driving force is to capture action.  I advanced my learning and skill-set in nature photography by competing in International Salons and the most successful images depicted action or behaviour.  

Animal behavior has many divisions: eating, social interaction, mating, fighting, displaying, etc etc. A number of such activities involve action and that is why it is hard at times to separate action and behaviour.

I illustrate the  basic forms of behavior and action below with two images. In the first the Mountain Bluebird has captured a pupa of an insect and is ready to deliver it to the chicks……this is feeding behaviour but not much action portrayed. In the second image a hummingbird’s wings are frozen during flight. These wings to the human eye are just a blur of motion and we don’t get to see the full beauty of the bird unless we freeze the flight with specialist nature photography involving rapid burst of flash light.

I can define my photographic goal as: I want to record in sharp detail a split-second of action in the life of an animal that cannot be captured and conceptualised by the unaided human optical system. 
For example; most people see a Kingfisher sitting on a post or a wire and can recall what that image looks like but when the same bird tosses a frog most folks have never seen this and if they did it is such a blur of activity that it cannot be recorded in the amazing human brain. Action photography allows that rare imagery to be captured and remembered and indeed makes it unique.

I want to give examples of how I have targeted this type of action in overseas trips but want to illustrate that there is likely more action on your doorstep.

I have been fortunate to make several trips to Africa. I was not content to see the big five, I had to capture some action. Action comes in many forms: hunting, eating, mating, migrating, fighting, protecting, flying, running. Some of these actions are captured in images below from Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.

To briefly summarize what you really need to get good African action:
            1.  An excellent guide/driver
2.    A good network…5-10 vehicles from the same company in good radio contact and reporting to each other.
3.     A definitive daily plan…the shooting frame with good light is possibly around 2-3 hours each day only. You have to plan to visit the nearby pride of lions, the cheetah with cubs, the popular crossing points on the Mara River or the Bat-eared Fox den.

Hummingbirds have long fascinated me and the techniques employed in freezing their action. I have joined workshops in Arizona, Costa Rica and Ecuador to capture some of these jungle jewels in action. You need a specific flash setup with these subjects and an understanding lodge proprietor.

In countries like Canada that are in a restrictive icy grip during winter when the spring comes somewhat suddenly there is a major flurry of breeding activity and I have captured this with the Common Loons and other birds in a workshop near Kamloops in Vancouver. These images are more in the category of behaviour than intense action.

With the above illustrations I have demonstrated that action shots can be obtained with well-planned overseas trips. Such trips, especially African safaris are expensive and not within everyone’s budget, especially if done regularly. Fear not, because your local scene is likely to be the best place for getting action shots. Being in the right place at the right time is often a matter of persistence, patience and of spending significant time in researching and understanding your subject.

In my current location I have several favourite photography sites. Quite a lot of action hinges around the breeding cycle of birds and this can be a sensitive issue. I can categorically say that I am totally aware of the requirements of breeding and feeding and will leave the scene if my presence causes any stress. One of my frequently visited sites is the centre of breeding for two species of Bee-eaters, several pairs of White-throated Kingfisher and Red-wattled lapwings. All nest in an open arena located around a motocross track with the Bee-eaters and Kingfisher nesting in cavities and the Lapwing laying eggs precariously on small depressions in full view. Of course other birds nest in the surrounding vegetation.

What do you need for good action shots?
1.    Suitable subjects that are accessible
2.    Unobstructed and strong directional natural light
3.    A hide or blind……a vehicle works best as it has mobility and unlimited carrying capacity
4.    A camera that works well at high ISO…speeds of 1/4000-1/5000 at f8 are required.
5.    A camera with a capability of shooting 10 frames a second or more (fast cards and a large buffer are also required)
6.    A 500mm or 600mm lens (95% of my shots come from my 500mm f4 lens)
7. Good perches for the birds with clean backgrounds. In any situation relating to bird photography suitable perches and clear backgrounds are vital for any shot let alone good action shots.

This species is endemic to Penang but about 30-45 birds congregate at the aforementioned  nesting site on mainland Penang. They arrive at the site in late December and may have two broods but are usually gone by late May.

What sort of activities are suitable for good action shots?
1.    Flight shots…..Bee-eaters are master flyers and they are a joy to watch as they swoop after flying insects.
2.    Pursuit shots….when they chase insects. These are very difficult shots to get and I used my f4 400mm lens handheld while out of the vehicle to capture these. Luck and the tracking ability and reflexes of an Olympic skeet shooter are needed for success
3.    Tossing shots. When the Bee-eater lands on a perch with prey it will get the insect in a suitable position to swallow or to disarm the sting. To achieve this it will toss it in the air before grabbing it again. A mid-air toss can be captured by using the rapid shooting capability of the camera. You create many images with this method but when you get a perfect toss it is worth it.
4.    Gift-giving. The male will give a gift of an insect to the female twice in the breeding cycle; when they wish to mate or when she is laying eggs.
5.   Mating. The prelude is more interesting as they come into close proximity and invite the partner to participate. The actual mating looks more like a WWF wrestling match with appendages in all directions as the male mounts the female and pins her with his dagger-like beak.
6.  Fighting: There are occasional squabbles over perches or nesting areas and the protagonists will use their sharp beaks for attack and defense.
7.    Preening. Preening is frequent as they are in a dusty environment in the nest and there are many parasites. Good action shots can be obtained when they stretch their wings and fan their tails during the cleaning process.
8.    Partner interaction: The species mates for life and they get very excited when their mate arrives and they greet each other with tail-wagging.
9.    Feeding the nest. 2-5 birds will feed the nest that likely contains 2-4 chicks. It is difficult to get an incoming shot with the bird carrying cargo because each bird comes in at  different angles. Exit shots are easier especially if the adult bird backs out of the nest hole and then spins around before flying off. The auto-tracking system on modern cameras works well here. Incubation and fledging both take around 28 days. As the chicks get larger the food (insects) the adults bring in gets bigger. It starts with bees and finishes with quite large dragonflies.
10. Fledging shots are nigh impossible…the chick comes out of the nest like a mortar shell. They often look around with the head outside the nest periodically for several days before taking off in rush.

 The only likely action opportunity that arises late in the cycle is the parents interacting with the chicks. If the nesting was successful and food is abundant they may have another clutch and the chicks from the first will help feed their siblings.

This species is quite abundant around rural Malaysia although not easy to approach. They feed mainly from the ground although they will dive for fish. There are at least 3 pairs located in and around my favourite nesting ground. You can tell a potentially active nest by the amount of loose soil at the entrance that occurs after early season home renovation.  I had one pair that was more approachable than the others and had some very good opportunities with them but only one nesting in three seasons seemed to have been successful.  The local population of Lapwings get extremely protective when they have eggs and constantly harass the Kingfishers. The successful clutch in 2013 produced 5 chicks and the female in particular fed the nest very frequently as they neared maturity. They brought in insects, lizards, skinks and frogs. There was a perch close to the nest where the incoming adults landed around 60% of the time…this enabled well directed flight shots as they flew the short distance to the nest hole.

The Kingfishers present different opportunities for action shots:
1.   General feeding…they will swoop down and catch frogs, lizards and insects and they will beat them on a hard surface and toss them exuberantly. Frogs in mid-air make particularly good action shots.
2.    Flying into and out of the nest. It is best if they land close to the nest as outlined. I tried shooting with a radio-activated signal with the tripod-mounted camera closer to the nest and with a shorter focal-length lens but they were sometimes distracted by the camera noise.
3. Interactive behaviour. The Kingfisher pair signal to each other over long or short distances with a quick flash of outstretched wings. This is cute action.

Mating and gift-giving occurs but generally early in the pre-dawn hours and often in the taller trees.

This Bee-eater species is not endemic to the State and they appear in mid to late January at the breeding grounds with likely more than 100 birds in the group. They are bigger birds than the Chestnut-headed and there are occasional squabbles between the two species. The shooting opportunities during the breeding cycle are the same as the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. They may also have a second brood and won’t fully vacate the breeding area until late June. 

It is best to shoot all three species early in the breeding cycle as they are in pristine condition when they arrive but can look quite ragged towards the end of the cycle as constant underground feeding takes its toll.

Bee-eaters and Kingfishers are not the only source of action shots in my local environment.
The Red-wattled Lapwings at the Bee-eater nesting site also present action opportunities. They strangely nest in very obvious places in the open but will defend the area with loud squawks and aggressive flying. When their chicks are hatched they are immediately sequestered in the surrounding tall vegetation and only timidly appear to graze when somewhat older. The nesting adults also have territorial disputes with their neighbours.

In the same location there is a resident pair or more of Greater Coucals and Green-Billed Malkohas. I had not been able to get a clear shot of the Malkohas until recently when I captured two displaying to each other. I don't know if it was romance or combat.

There are other useful but less concentrated areas for nature photography around  Penang state where action shots can be obtained. Fruiting trees produce a concentration of the neighborhood frugiphores but you have to be alerted early because they can strip a tree in a week. The Byram area has a number of raptors and visits at the beginning of the year by the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, which does not nest in the area. 

Primates are also potential good action subject; everywhere there are Long-tailed Macaques and silhouette shots as the sun rises produces an interesting perspective on their youthful antics. Leaf monkeys are also good potential action subjects.
The local area is also host to a number of large raptors: Crested Serpent Eagles, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Brahminy Kites. These impressive birds make ideal flight shots especially when flying in with cargo to their nests.

The local Crow population seem to like to mob perching raptors….it appears to be in their DNA to harass perched eagles.

Smooth-coated Otters even appear along the waterfront near my home and demonstrate their excellent fishing skills. An encounter with them often produces interesting and cute action as they are very dynamic.

For competent action shots you don't need to travel overseas or pay a lot of money. You need to work hard, make frequent trips to sites of concentrated activity and spend hours observing… will pay off.