Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter Sunset

November 30 Sunset, Olympic Mountains
I feel lucky to travel to exotic places around the world, but I will admit that at times, I am VERY happy to be home, especially living in this beautiful corner of the world. Yes, you may think it rains all the time here (and it usually DOES in November) but we are enjoying a rare winter dry spell when the mountains gleam in the setting sun. This is the view from our dining room, and we love it more than any in the world.

Click on the image to see it slightly larger. The full size TIFF is 7 feet long...

9 images, Stitched in Photomerge in Photoshop

Monday, November 28, 2011

Action on the Sand

Male Maleo defending nesting territory
I spent much of the last few weeks in the company of wild maleos, an endangered species on the island of Sulawesi. It was hot, hard work, but I felt privileged to spend time in the company of a fascinating, lively, and slightly weird bird. As I mentioned a few days ago, maleos gather near the coast to lay their single, enormous egg in the hot sand, there to be incubated by the heat of the sun.

They spend most of their time digging, as I mentioned, which allowed me many opportunities to capture that behavior (see below) but there was more going on as well. For birds that share a communal nesting area, these guys don't seem to get along very well!  When they weren't digging their own nests, the males of each maleo couple spent a lot of time chasing away other birds that had the temerity to try and nest too close. This process put the birds in some pretty striking poses, like this male huffing himself up to look big, and scary, to another bird that strayed into "his" area.

Working with a 600mm lens in a tiny blind, I managed to get some good close-ups, but was constantly plagued by the shallow depth-of-field at that focal length. Essentially, I had to lock onto the face (since even if nothing else is sharp, the eyes must be) with my auto-focus and try and stick with it, as the birds ran circles around me and one another. In the end, I lost more pictures than I got - including some spectacular aerial fights that I just couldn't lock onto. But I still managed to come away with some nice behavioral coverage..

Dig, dig, fight, dig, dig, fight

Nikon D3 with  600mm lens

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Face in the Forest

Pallas's Tube-nosed Bat (Nyctimene cephalotes)
We tend to think of bats as cave-dwellers, gathered underground en masse only to emerge at dusk and spread across the landscape in vast numbers. So it was with some surprise that we stumbled onto this fellow, alone, hanging from a thin vine in the highland forest of Mt. Tompotika on the island of Sulawesi.  It's large eyes and small ears made it a species of fruit bat but not like any other I had ever seen.
I hoped to get a shot of it, and quickly grabbed an "insurance shot" - a poorly-composed image from ten yards away - in case it flew off as we approached. I needn't have bothered. I took a few more shots within 15 feet or so, but although he was clearly awake, he stayed put. In the end, I moved right in with my 400mm lens and got this shot, and he never budged.
Sulawesi is home to so many endemic species - things found there and nowhere else on earth - that I briefly had fantasies of having discovered a new species to science. No such luck. I showed the picture to a friend much more familiar with Indonesian wildlife - and he recognized it right away.  Nyctimene cephalotes is found in a number of islands in the region, including New Guinea. Oh well - not a new species - but a handsome little fellow nonetheless. 

Nikon D3 with 200-400 Nikkor lens

Friday, November 25, 2011

With Maleos

Big Diggers - A Maleo digs a nest
Just back this week from a 2-week trip to Indonesia, where I took part in a volunteer "Tripods in the Mud" project of the ILCP, documenting biodiversity on a part of the island of Sulawesi. (If you're not familiar with Sulawesi, go look at an atlas - it has to qualify as the weirdest-shaped island in the world.) Our work was in support of a small, but effective NGO called ALTO, the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation.

For biologists, Sulawesi is particularly important since it is the largest island in the region known as "Wallacea" named for Alfred Russel Wallace, eminent 19th century naturalist and contemporary of Darwin. Wallace traveled extensively in southeast Asia and discovered that Sulawesi and its smaller neighbors to the east, had a distinctive fauna - a blending of species from Asia and Australasia, but quite distinct from either with many endemic animals.

One of those, and one Wallace described, is the Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), found only on Sulawesi and nowhere else on earth. The Maleo is a "megapode" (literally, "big-footed"), the size of a VERY large chicken, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss and egg-collecting. So why the big feet?  Simple - for digging...

Maleos do not build conventional nests, but lay a single egg in the hot tropical sand, allowing that heat to do the incubation. Once the egg is laid, the parents abandon it to its fate. On hatching, the orphan maleo chick has to dig its way out of the sand, emerging at night, fully-feathered and capable of flight. In fact, the first thing these newborns do is fly into a tree - even though they've never seen one before.  Amazing.

ALTO was created to help save one of the last nesting areas for maleos on Sulawesi and the protection they provide has profoundly increased the breeding success of these unique birds. One of my missions on the trip was to photograph the maleos, and I spent most of a week in a small blind on the fringe of the colony.

A Really Big Hole

On the breeding grounds, maleos have one thing on their mind - digging. It becomes a reflex, an obsession, and they move vast amounts of sand with a persistence and energy that is astonishing. The process of digging six feet down in soft sand, laying an egg and then re-burying it, can take these birds 4 hours or more - all under the hot tropical sun.

Photographically, the challenge was to get a bird NOT digging - since that is about all they do.  I will come back in a day or two with some other shots as I edit them. Maybe we'll see what else they get up to...

Nikon D3 with 200-400mm lens

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More from Brazil

Swimming Brazilian Tapir, Cristalino River
 I've been home from Brazil now for several weeks, largely spent editing the thousands of shots I got over the course of a long trip. I've already posted a couple of my favorites, especially the Giant Armadillo which, although not a particularly creative image, is a groundbreaking picture of a rarely-seen species - one I was frankly thrilled to get.

During the trip, we spent 5 or 6 days at spectacular Cristalino Lodge in the southern Amazon where - despite the crippling heat - we had some wonderful wildlife sightings.  We were lucky enough to see two different Harpy Eagles, the largest new world raptor, the first I had seen in nearly 20 years. Our guide, who had been at Cristalino for almost a year, had never seen one at all until this week.  I didn't get any great pictures of the Harpies, unfortunately, but sometimes seeing is good enough...

I did manage, however, to get pictures of one of the four (!) lowland tapirs we saw in a single day along the shores of the Cristalino River.  This is my favorite shot, a portrait of a handsome adult swimming upstream, with a dangling green vine behind. It is always a pleasure to get a shot of a wild animal in which one senses that the photographer's presence has no effect on the animal's behavior. This guy hardly seemed to notice us, swam easily along the shore, and then disappeared into the forest, apparently unconcerned about us.  Magical.
Hyacinth Macaw emerges from nest, Pantanal
Hardly less magical than the tapir was the discovery of an active, and accessible,  Hyacinth Macaw nest  in the Pantanal.  Often these birds nest so high that a picture like this is impossible, but I was fortunate to have everything go my way: the nest was low, had a clear view from the ground, was in the shade (providing nice soft light) and had birds going in and out.  Our visit coincided with the beginning of the nesting season, and the birds were coming and going every few minutes, which made my job much easier than I had any right to expect!

Meanwhile, I leave this weekend for a two week expedition to Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia where I will be documenting the life history of the Maleo, an endangered megapode found only on this island and nowhere else in the world.  Wish me luck!

Nikon D3 with 300mm f2.8 lens and TC14x