Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Here comes the judge

This article does not have a great relevance to Malaysian Wildlife but I know a number of Malaysian-based photographers enter their works in photographic salons under the patronage of PSA or FIAP and organized in a variety of different countries. I have participated in a number of these over the years and will give my views on these.

The reason photographers enter images in these salons is to gain acceptance points for so-called photographic honours that are awarded by the aforesaid institutions. What are the pro and cons of entering images in these events.

1.     You can improve your photography by seeing what images are accepted and winning awards. It is a quick learning process.
2.     You can flaunt your honours to your friends. Seriously the more you stand-out the more doors will open, including being invited to judge or to give talks.

1.     It is quite expensive to enter these salons. The price per entry of 4 images to one salon ranges from US$7 to a greedy US$25. To get some of the higher honours it will cost you thousands of dollars.  You have to have talent but the question to answer is: are you actually buying your honours?

2.     Some of the judging will leave you bewildered and perplexed and possibly dispirited (more about that later)

3.     A number of anomalies exist in the increasing verbose rules concerning nature photography delivered by the two major administration bodies. For instance, you are allowed to shoot animals in zoos, birds glued to branches, butterflies removed from a fridge but shift one pixel and lightening will strike you down.

4.     In recent years a number of salons have been organized by profit-making companies…and those in some countries have been boosted by a change in honours rules that require a number of different countries to be included.

5.     Allowing Zoo and Game farm shooting. This was previously not allowed. It is rather perverse to see images of Snow Leopards where the photographer has never been to Tibet to record them in their native habitat. Likewise it is almost impossible to get a clear shot of a wild wolf…but easy at game farms.

Snow Leopards are found naturally in hard to reach places but easy to photograph in game farms

While #1 Pro is very valid you can see that there are more negatives on the balance sheet.

I have been, or am a member of PSA, APS, and PSNZ   the respective Australian. American and New Zealand photographic societies. These institutions founded in the film days are all bleeding members profusely. Young folks are just not interested and social media is essentially killing off these bodies. They are run by narrow-minded grouchy old folks. I know a number of good young photographers who have 200-500 ‘friends’ on Facebook and get their satisfaction from friends telling them how stellar their images are. This is fine….whatever rings your bell. I might add you are not comparing yourself with others and will likely not improve your images if you continue down this path.

There are of course higher niches for your nature images. There are several major prestigious competitions each year run by ANZANG (for images from New Zealand, New Guinea and Australia) and the British-based wildlife photographer of the year, which used to be run by BBC.

Hang the judge
We all like to grizzle about judge’s decision either in legal courts, when John McEnroe played tennis or during ice-skating events. I might add at this point in nature photography in the long run the best images will pull through but some odd things happen in the meantime.
The main problem with Nature photography judges is that they are usually good photographers themselves but have little knowledge about the natural world. It is like asking a skilled cabinet-maker to do brain surgery because he is good with his hands.

The other strange thing is that titles are not read out at the time of judging. For instance images of Bowerbirds displaying hardly ever go down well with salon judges…….why?.......simply because they have no idea what is happening. The same goes for displaying Victoria's Riflebirds. Also if you took a technically good shot of the rarest bird in the world……..if it was black or brown….it would be rejected. Why? Because the judge has no idea that this is a rare bird and you are not allowed to tell him or her.

Below are images of a Greater, Satin and Golden Bowerbird decorating their respective bowers ....complex behaviour not appreciated by judges.

Above Is a displaying male Victoria's Riflebird which difficult to get but is not appreciated by most judges.

I have judged in some large salons and images come at you very fast and you have about 5 seconds to score them on some keyboard in a darkened room. It seems at times like an aerial dog (or eagle) fight where challenges come at you from all sides. 

There are usually three judges and the pass mark for the entered images is fixed so an arbitrary percentage (usually around 30%) scores in the acceptance zone.

What particularly annoys me is when an image with an excellent record gets inexplicably rejected. It means that one, two or three judges think totally different from the last 100 or so judges. While I believe this is likely to happen with various art forms it really should not happen with a nature image………..in my opinion. Of course, individual judges may have some bias but this should be equalised by the other 2 judges.

This image was entered in 52 Salons with 4 honours and 5 medals. It was deemed unacceptable in one salon

Rainbow Bee-eaters; In one 3 salon circuit this image scored 22 and was accepted and 14 and was rejected....a huge difference of 8 points. The acceptance score was 18 in each case.

Expert opinion needed
There are unfortunately a number of ploys used by nature photographers to get ‘the shot’ that contravenes the laws of nature and sometimes the laws of the land. A good judge will spot these a mile off.
1.  Butterfly staging. Newly emerged butterflies will remain still for hours while they prepare themselves for a brief aerial life. Several well-known nature photographers will take advantage of this by purchasing pupae and doing a studio set-up when the butterfly emerges. A good clue on butterfly shots is the disposition of the proboscis……if a butterfly lands on a flower to feed the proboscis will be unfurled. Actually, most butterflies feed from flowers while still flying.

Malay Lacewing....where is the proboscis?

2.     Bird gluing. A reprehensible act where chicks being fed in the nest by parents are arranged in a line along an adjacent branch with the aid of adhesives.

3.     Nest rearranging. There is documentation of a whole branch being sawn off and put in an adjacent location where photographers can recline in chairs and get a clear feeding shot. A slightly lesser crime is cutting branches around a nest for a clearer shot. Of course this exposes the nest to predators.

4.     Pumping and tethering. There have been recent cases recorded in Singapore of tethering chicks from a ground nest for better images and putting inflatable material in a fish so it will float for shots of a raptor attack. Both perpetrators were caught and fined.

5.   Literally shooting the subject. I was judging at one International event and a contending image for an award was an aggressive looking, sand-dwelling lizard. One expert informed the panel that more than likely an air gun was used to startle the creature before the shot was fired.

Locational bias
Smart exhibitors should have done their homework. In Britain photography at nesting sites is banned or frowned upon, therefore nesting shots will not be very welcome in British Salons. Also, despite their ancestors writing the Kama Sutra Indian judges are not very welcoming of mating shots.

Nesting shots; A no-no in Britain

Mating shots; Banned in Bangalore

There is also a general style difference between British Nature photographers and their US counterparts. In Britain, they tend to go for more environmental shots showing the bird or animal in their habitat where US photographers tend to isolate the subject against a milky smooth background. I have also observed recently that Chinese judges tend to favour images that look like a Chinese painting.

Environmental images

          Isolated subjects with a smooth, blurred background

Shots of Yellow-eyed Penguins rarely get accepted. They nest under coastal shrubs in Southern New Zealand. Come on...penguins nest on ice in the Antarctic with blue-hued ice in the background. Actually only 6 of the 17-19 major species of penguins nest on the Antarctic Ice and snow.

Yellow-eyed Penguins nest under bushes while only 6 of the 17-19 species nest on the Antarctic ice and snow.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Kingfisher 2017; a story of survival

Penanti Pete

White-throated Kingfishers are relatively common in Malaysia and Singapore but like most birds are wary of human, and wisely so. Over the last 5 years I have formed a sort of relationship with a male White-throated Kingfisher whose base is a motocross track on mainland Penang. I think it the same bird as his behaviour would suggest although their lifespan is reported to be 8 years. Individuals have a different distribution of the white feathers on their bellies but this also changes on a day to day basis....depending a lot on weather conditions. We will call him Penanti Pete...or just Pete. Pete has had three partners that I know of. When I first met him his partner had toes missing and was easy to identify but was not very photogenic. The next year his new partner was the Elizabeth Taylor of female Kingfishers. She was beautiful with clean vibrant colours. That is her below. She was somewhat naive when they first paired up and was not the best hunter but she really stepped up and in the next few seasons raised broods of 3 and 5 chicks.

At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 Pete had a new partner. She was not the stunning beauty of partner #2 but she became a good partner. She had a characteristic white eyebrow above each eye....often found in fledged chicks. Was Pete robbing the cradle? 

This was Pete's new partner with the characteristic white eyebrow.

Pete likes to sit at the top of a large central tree in his domain. From there he can see the tiny movements of prey on the ground below. He can also assess if there are rivals in his domain.

The courting with his new partner occured through January and February of 2017. The species signal to each other by flashing the wings. This is done over a distance, when passing by and on arrival.

Below is an image of the couple together with the female below the male. Pete was very attentive and flew on many sorties to bring her edible gifts.

The gifts were often a prelude to mating and this occurred multiple time in various locations from 7th to the 21st of February.

Pete was more attentive than ever and brought gifts to his partner while she was in the egg-laying phase.

When Pete caught something he would take it to her and call her to come and get it. The exchange was very rapid.....the lizard is about to be handed over in the image below.

The pair usually scout out potential nesting holes in the months before the eggs are laid. Pete and his partner chose the hole that had been used successfully the previous year. This is the third hole I have seen being used in 5 years. They had started excavating another hole on the left of the existing entrance but had given up. They both made a number of flights into and around the hole. When the female made most of the flights I assumed she was laying eggs.

Hunting went on as normal and fed the pair for several weeks. Then the pattern changed...instead of eating the prey themselves they both took it into the nest. Careful examination of the nest hole on arrival in the mornings showed the female had three chicks and would sit in the cavity with them overnight. She appeared to have become a dedicated Mum. The newly hatched chicks were first seen on the 14th March. This means the eggs would have been laid around the 21st of February....the last date I noted mating.

On my next visit though I noted that only the male was feeding the nest. He did so diligently but I wondered what had happened to the female. I thought I saw her several times and the male kept calling her in between his feeding sorties. However she never reappeared..

The weather during the early months of 2017 was uncharacteristically wet. There was one depression on the motocross track that filled with water after heavy overnight rain. Although working hard Pete enjoyed diving into the puddle which he would do multiple times before drying off on a nearby perch.

 Pete even had time for a quiet puff when his partner was not looking.

The feeding of the chicks continued with various prey being hunted and taken into the nest.

One morning I visited after heavy overnight rain. I made my usual observation of the chicks and was stunned to find only one chick in the nest chamber.  It was only 2+ weeks since they hatched and it was too soon for them to have fledged. The eggs are laid over several days and hatch in the same order therefore one chick will be bigger than his siblings and more likely to get more food. I was very disappointed to find the body of one chick outside the hole. In the image below the nest hole is top, centre and the body was in the centre on the lower third of the image. There had clearly been surface water in a depression and the chick may have drowned. I assumed the other missing chick had met a similar fate but I did not find it.

Pete continued to feed the remaining chick like nothing untoward had happened.

It was well over a week before I was able to make another visit. I assumed the chick would be receiving prey near the entrance of the nest hole by this time. I was mortified on arrival to see the surrounds of the nest had collapsed over the entrance to the extent if the chick had been inside it would have been entombed and had a lingering death. It was just 23 days since the chicks hatched. From all accounts fledging in all Kingfisher species take 23-26 days. If the collapse had occurred within the 2 days prior to discovery it was possible that the remaining chick if well fed may have fledged against the odds.

I visited again the following week and Pete was around and still occasionally calling his absent partner. I was interrupted by turf cutters so left early thinking the kingfisher breeding cycle was sadly incomplete.

I was away for a week when my friend visited the location and reported that an adult kingfisher was feeding a juvenile in the central tree. The central tree was Pete's domain so I was very happy to know one chick may have survived.

I went back several days later and found Pete catching bugs in the early morning light and flying to the central tree where he was clearly feeding a juvenile. Pete is in the front in the image below. The fledgeling has a darker bill with a light coloured tip.

Pete is tolerant of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and the Blue-throated Bee-eaters in his domain. He appeared to be learning from the latter when a swarm of flying ants passed through and created a bit of a feeding frenzy. Not to be outdone by the flight wizards Pete unleashed some flight maneuvers and continued to feed the fledgeling on ants. After the flush of insects had passed through Pete returned to seeking more juicy prey and continued to feed his offspring

Pete appears to call regularly for his partner but he is something of a hero since his ability to feed his surviving chick so well resulted in an early but successful fledging and a new life in the local kingfisher population.