Some time ago, I photographed a deer in late evening light.
Even at high ISO, light was scarce and my picture looks very bad. But this made me think, what is there left to do? Then I started working with long exposures…
After all, I was quite pleased. Mainly the black-and-white try-outs drew my attention.
Yet I would have loved to have a 200-400mm in addition to a fixed tele, because once in a while that lens would make a difference in composition…
Anyhow, feel free to tell me what you think about this.
Two weeks ago, I lead a EB5 tour for nature enthusiasts who were eager to fly high: they wanted to see a snow leopard in the wild.
Snow leopards are one of the most mysterious species on planet earth, and are often referred to by locals as the mountain ghost. In the wild, 4000-7000 snow leopards are estimated to remain. Exact numbers are unknown because they are extremely secretive, and live in some of the harshest environments known.
In the past, seeing a snow leopard in the wild was considered only for those who could spend many months in the right area. But times have changed. Devoted conservation projects (Snow leopard conservancy, Panthera) all over its distribution range (mainly Russia, China, India) have yielded a lot of new info regarding snow leopard distribution and their ecology.
It also became clear that the Himalayas in Ladakh (India) contain some of the highest densities on earth. In Hemis National Park (4400km2) some 40 leopards are thought to reside.
Using the skill of local trackers, it has as such become possible to see a leopard when spending several days in this habitat. This means flying in at 3500m and subsequently hike high up in the Himalayas: in summer the cats are found at 5000-6000m but in winter they follow their prey lower down the valleys.
Hence the trip started with eight nervous guys meeting at the airport in Brussels. Nervous because we knew it was possible: we had the best trackers of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, we all had our own scopes, we knew Jon Hall (mammalwatching.com) was going to be there with a crew as well. More eyes scanning the vast landscape means better chances of spotting the leopard. Due to time limitations we were only visiting Ladakh, and not southern India for tigers, lions, rhinos. This meant that it was an “all or nothing” trip. Or you see it, or you come back from a trip seeing only a very barren landscape. Hence, nervous…
When you land at an altitude of 3500m, some acclimatization is required. Altitude sickness is always lurking and as tour leader one of my main concerns was that nobody should be left behind. As such we spent two days birding the beautiful Indus river valley around Leh.
Birding the Indus river for migrating warblers and residents birds, such as the local Ibisbill.
Monky see monky do
Very friendly and welcoming people.
All of us were very keen on seeing ibisbill so we looked further along the barren Indus river banks.
And found it!
The ibisbill is so special it is the sole bird species in its family. There are no subspecies. It was only described in 1831 based on a painting.
After two days of acclimatisation the time had come to travel towards Hemis national park. There we had planned a seven day expedition with only one purpose: seeing a snow leopard in the wild.
We had nine local people involved: drivers, cooks, trackers and spotters
I will never forget the Dutch quote by Jan prior to leaving: “Gast, ge goa ewa zien zene! Een ezelke me voif samsonite valieze den beirg zien oep teejne”
First proof of Snow Leopard presence. A fresh print. This made us agitated yet very focused. We only stopped for a few minutes at this first Large-eared Pika. We wanted to start scanning the mountains for the big cat, as local guide Jigmet allways called it.
Prey was around
Dragging a 500mm along proved usefull in some cases, eg. when a beautiful mountain weasel was found.
Getting up was cold so we sang a lot to keep moral high. This is Frans doing a backstreet boy impression early mornin’. Moral soared…
Another morning of scanning… All of a sudden we heard a radio message from a hiker we had met the days before. We could see him standing far away in the mountains. The radio message was hard to understand but the shouted words “Rock” and “Leopard” sent shivers down our spines. People became very very nervous instantly. Jigmet kelpt calm and ran down the mountain. This is an insane sight: 50° hillsides and a guide running down as fast he can. Within a few minutes (!!) he was on the other mountain and pointed his scope to where the hiker instructed. Through my binoculars I saw Jigmet looking for ten seconds. Then he got up and ran towards us as fast as he could shouting SHAN SHAN SHAN (local word for snow leopard).
By then I was so nervous the only thing I could stutter was “people keep calm, there is a leopard in sight”. This is by far the most intense moment I ever had on a nature trip. Jigmet again ran up the mountain and only moments later, we were looking at a snow leopard resting on a slope.
Very strange moment: tears were flowing, men were hugging, fists were in the air. We were the happiest people in the Himalayas…
Then he got up…
In the evening there was a snow leopard cake, prepared by our chef… The following days we looked for more leopards but no succes.
Three days later, we traveled further east towards the Tibetan plateau in Tso Kar. Target species here were wild ass (Kiang) and rare birds (Tibetan sandgrouse and Black-necked crane).
Another crazy landscape.
Saker falcon dive bombing in a group of Hill pigeons.
Years ago, Tibetan sangrouse was extremely difficult to see. Only recently, this population in Tso Kar became known. We saw many
But the stars of the Tibetan plateau are by far the wild ass (Kiang). They live in huge herds and roam the emptyness…
Tso Kar base camp is very pretty but very cold: 4600m altitude and -20°C during the night. Big respect to the crew who helped us in this extreme environment.
Amazing how the chef cooked decent meals all day long.
Diesel problems are there to be solved.
Goodbye Tso Kar and last stop of the trip: Ulley valley, to try for another snow leopard. Here no extra sighting neither.
We stayed in a local homestay, with beautiful budhist children…
Everybody was tired, but satisfied. All smooth boys had now become rugged men 🙂
Goodbye India, It was awesome!
Big thanks to Jigmet Dadul (Local guide and scientist for the Snow Leopard Conservancy), Jan (Europesbig5) and PJ and Yves for help with photo packs and batteries…
Last year I bought a casco appartment and spent almost a year getting it ready. For the final part I wanted something cool. Something different.
I got into contact with the talented street artist Dzia.
He came over and got to do whatever he wanted. This is the result:
It was nice to go over 8m hight, whilst still incorporating that many details.
I thinks it looks pretty good!!
Check out http://www.dzia.be/
It is said that bats… are like love: nearly blind.
But if love is blind, shouldn’t a blind lover have a greater understanding of it?
So maybe bats are better lovers, and they have radar! It’s clear. Bats have it all.
Maybe that is why they fascinate me so much.
Combined with the fact that photographing them is challenging… made for a holiday which sole purpose was to photograph these loverboyz.
Hence last week Pieter-Jan and I spent a week in the French pyrenees, where we visited desman biologist Alain Bertrand. He is an old friend from our desman adventures and winter counts of bats. Also, he provided us with the right paperwork to photograph bats near their colonies.
The landscape of the french Pyrenees: hills, lots of water and permanently green.
We spent many nights photographing schreibers bats (Miniopterus schreibersii) and lesser mouse-eared bats (Myotis blythii) near natural colonies in caves.
First bat photographed:
Lots and lots of gear: tripods, flashes and cameras.
Gear ready at the entrance of a colony with > 3000 Schreiber’s bats.
Lesser mouse-eared bat
Because we had several cameras, we could start playing with wide angles, as well as with lateral perspectives. Following images were taken from a lateral point of view towards the barrier.
We even shot a collision between two bats:
Mediterranean horseshoes (Rhinolophus euryale) were found in a cave with a very small exit. This made for wide angle opportunities:
In the area are many hundreds of lesser horseshoe colonies. Not in any of the 3000 caves in Ariège, but on the attics and in cellars of old houses.
PJ and I found out that in Alain his house there was a little hatch used by lesser horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus hipposideros). We decided to climb the roof and attach all our gear with ropes.
A picture of a black hole, I thought it was impossible…
Quite scary, attaching your pricey gear to on an old roof.
But the results were nice.
PJ at work
A big thanks to PJ and Alain, who made this trip a succes. Can’t wait to do more high speed.
People might wonder if this has a significant effect on the colony. Simply said: it doesn’t. We only photograph once at each colony and the animals don’t change their behavior. we never block the entrance so the animals can move freely.
So, what did we realy learn during a week with the night gliders? Is love really blind? Then what about the thousands of mother bats bearing offspring in the pitch dark colonies, where not a ray of light penetrates?
Maybe love isn’t blind… It just takes a lot of looking the other way.
This weekend I got the exceptional chance to team up with a biologist studying european nightjars. As usual it was easy leveling with PJ, who knew instantly how rare this opportunity was. Whether spending hours in a hide, or doing night work with infra red barriers and many flashes, two heads are better than one… Also, when working at night, one can keep the other motivated when getting very tired.
The Latin name Caprimulgus europaeus refers to the old myth that the nocturnal nightjar suckled goats, causing them to cease to give milk. Hence its nicknames all over europe: goat sucker, tête-chèvre, geitenmelker, ziegenmelker etc.
Nightjars are extremely difficult to see and thus photograph but thanks to Ruben we were allowed a day in the field, to assist him in his fieldwork for a PhD on nightjars.
Upon arrival in the forests near Leopoldburg we were greeted by a lot of quails and this mother and bambino.
From dusk till dawn, the coniferous forests are alive with rolling sounds, made by male nightjars.
The first we found was sitting in a dead tree. Without help, this is the only sort of sighting you would get, since the birds are so camouflaged during daytime.
The first morning we placed a hide near a nest to see what was happening. Not that much in fact. The young were laying low and mother was probably sitting on a branch.
waiting sometimes leads to selfies…
Hours of waiting went past. Still only a handfull pictures made.
Then we visited another site were we saw a mother nightjar with her youngsters. Also lying low. Very difficult to get good pictures, indeed!
Mother with two youngsters (right and rear).
The following image shows another female sleeping on the forest floor. The camouflage is unbelievable. Every time we played the game were PJ and I had to guess where the bird was, whilst Ruben gave us tips. We almost never found it.
Also we saw something very unusual: a nightjar sleeping in a decidious tree (loofboom). This is very exceptional since they are almost always found in conifers…
Following, we tracked another male down to a certain tree. We started looking and found nothing. Ruben looked for two minutes and found the male pearched up a dead branch.
500mm and a lot of crawling later… We got very very close (4m) and full framed it.
You can spend hours looking at the camouflage of these beauties.
In the evening we tried capturing nightjars to get satellite data back, and to ring new birds.
After two hours we caught a bird so PJ and I set up a lot of flashes trying to photograph the bird with a wide angle when it was going to be released.
We were very happy that it stayed for several seconds… turning into several minutes. This was the time of our life, getting very close to the bird, which was -as usual- relying on its camouflage.
This is the distance we were working at:
Resulting in pictures we never even dreamed of making:
I want to deeply thank Ruben and Eddy. Ruben is one of those field biologists who knows how to read the environment, who loves his study object and who likes it when others share his enthusiasm. He is doing very well and learned us a lot about nightjar ecology. For example: I did not know that females can abandon a nest to start a second one, leaving the male to raise the young of the first nest.
Eddy is one of the most impressive foresters I have so far met. He knows the woods and the plants, butterflies, birds and mammals that dwell within.
In the end what we found most beautiful I guess, was seeing a flagship species being studied by very professional people in a needly managed woodland. Yes We Can!!
This weekend PJ and I visited my friend Jean-Marie in the Lorraine. Meadows are being cut and wild cats are seen daily.
We started off with working with the cats, which was not easy. Business as usual then…
First cat on the first evening…
Dress like a player. Play like a boss… We say yeah
The first evening we also saw a fox on the road. Just another fox for which we had no time. Cat was on the menu and we worked hard.
Another very shy wild cat which deemed unaproachable. Even when wearing a camouflage suit…
Nice black kite in morning light as well!
Foxes were everywhere, in all sizes and shapes. This unlucky individual was found in a hay bale.
Then we passed the road once more, and the fox was there again!
We decided to quit looking for cats and put all our time in this particular fox, which spent all day hunting in the same meadows.
We weren’t the only ones interested
Jumping was not a crime. We agreed.
Practicing with AF modes on both body and tele lens made for a few good images…
We were in pure MDMA, I mean ecstacy, but had to keep quiet…
This is what you need to catch voles…
Amazing how the fox listened intensely, whilst pumping his muscles before the jump. Truly amazing to see from up close!
Marvelous experience… Notice the saliva dripping from his mouth
In the next pictures you see all parts of the jump
We were so pleased with the fox we didn’t mind not getting the cat images we went there for. (though we had five sightings in one weekend)
What an amazing animal, what an amazing area.
Big thanks to Jean-Marie, Alex, Gerald and PJ.
Finally some action. I hope to be back for good.
This weekend I went to look for a very rare butterfly refound last year in Belgium (after several decades of absence): Bretons spikkeldikkopje / Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper / Pyrgus armoricanus.
Four hours of searching yielded no results for us. But we were very happy to take good images of other species…
Briza media early morning
First butterfly: Ocellate Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia / Ringoogparelmoer)
Marbled White (Melanargia galathea / dambordje) on field cow-wheat (wilde weit)
Hey there baby, seen the length of my tongue?
Beautiful rose patterns
A bad boy was eating our dragonflies…
Who is there???
Hello mister Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania / tweekleurig hooibeestje)
Late evening bog fritillaries
What an amazing weekend. Thanks to Iwan, Pieter-Jan and Kurt
I know I have not been posting a lot recently.
This is why:
The past six months I’ve been working -rather a lot- on the new appartment I bought (casco). I will move in a few weeks, so I’m looking forward to do more photography again.
This summer I’m planning on photographing more flying bats.
Recently Pieter-Jan and I practiced with common pipistrelles…
There are species that never cease to amaze.
Be it the blackbirds singing on a summer eve, large groups of toads migrating to a nearby pond in spring or the squirrel “flying” through your garden tree tops.
With their impressive size, their large migratory flocks and also their mystical trumpeting calls, cranes – to me at least – are also such a species.
Lac du Der (France) for example is an ugly concrete dike surrounding an artificial lake, but hundreds of nature lovers go there every year to watch thousands of cranes coming in to roost.
Recently I visited my friend Jean-Marie in the Lorraine (France) to look for wild cats. No cats were found, so we spend time looking for cranes and photographing them in ideal lighting conditions… I really get the impression the wintering cranes here are far more at ease compared to those in the Lac du Der regions.
Nice winter lighting on these starlings in an old orchard
Buzzard along the road
First close cranes
Cranes coming in to roost just after a big rain shower
Following day, the buzzard was there again.
Shortly before I found a dead badger and placed it in the meadow were I saw the bird twice.
The next day I got lucky…
To the left or to the right?
I really like the compo in this pic. Cranes… gotta love em!!