Photographing the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog: Hidden Gems!

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Oophaga pumilio…better known as the strawberry poison dart frog, is a gorgeous little amphibian-dude that lives across Central America. These are terrestrial beings (meaning they hang out on land) and are active during the day, making it a somewhat easier to go traipsing around the rainforest searching them out. What I found interesting about photographing these creatures was how accommodating they were. I mean, aside from sitting knee-deep in mud, soggy from humidity and being knawed on by bugs, the frogs themselves are rather patient and engaging. Once spotted, I could generally get down on my knees and move relatively close up for a shot. They didn’t seem to mind, although they certainly preferred to keep their backs to me.

My first task was finding them. Given this was a maiden voyage to their territory, (a side trip to Bocas del Toros while in Panama photographing hummingbirds) I was not exactly sure what to look for and I walked the same path, back and forth, without so much as a single click of the shutter. The first encounter was thanks to a naturalist that I was fortunate enough to go hiking with. He pointed out a tiny red  fleck on the low branch of a tree. I had not expected them to be so tiny and bright! After this gleeful introduction I began retracing my steps in the jungle and suddenly my eyes had no problem spotting several little gems to spend time with.

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They do like to hang out in the leaf litter so the trick to discovering them was to keep an eye on the vegetation just below my knee and slightly off the path.  Their vibrant colour is a beacon in the bush!  They are very tiny beings–imagine the size of a regular strength Tylenol, but with itsy-bitsy, silvery-blue speckled legs. The biggest challenge was getting myeslf close enough to shoot them. Staying dry and clean was out of the question–but that’s part of the fun! Balance is key when photographing something so small with a macro lens, in my case the Canon 100 f2.8 IS L. When you are up close and absorbed in making an interesting image, it is very possible to falter and reach out to steady yourself. I am prone ot tipping over in these situations. This is not a good idea in the rainforest where you have no idea what might be hiding at the bottom of the grass that is climbing your calves or what might be fasy asleep on the slippery moss of the tree trunk next to you. Not to mention, be careful not to touch these little guys. Their skin is toxic. (Interestingly, this toxicity is not present in frogs born in captivity, leading scientists to believe the toxins form from the diet they consume in the wild–which is where they belong.) These frogs put you through your paces as they squeeze between entwined vines, slip under decaying leaves or cling to the underside of wide grass blades. It requires some elaborate body contortions to get your camera into a position low enough for a capture. With these controtions there was no relying on tripods or monopods for stability and pre-storm skies created further challenges with light, already in short supply under the rainforest canopy.  I was pushing the ISO to 6400 and using a shallow DOF, making shooting conditions less than optimal for these photos.

Still, I had an absolute blast mucking about and talking quietly, trying to coax one of these little ruby-red jewels to look me in the eyes!

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If you like little creatures, why not check out Flapneck Chameleons: Emerald Wonders!

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Tracking Leopards: What a Difference a Ranger Makes

roadtrip8BWight___MG_9873It is always a thrill to catch sight of a leopard in the wild. Two leopards, well, that’s sheer bush ecstasy! These felines are elusive loners and very independant, so finding them is quite difficult and tracking them, well, hang on to your hat. Their markings and stealth movements allow them to disappear in front of your very eyes. But if you have an experienced guide at the wheel, you might be in for quite a treat! And so it was for me last October while staying at Leadwood Lodge in the Sabi Sands, one of my favourite of & Beyond’s property’s.

I was guided by Mack, a very experienced and photography-savvy ranger and our talented tracker, who’s name I wish I could remember. Two things that make an enormous difference when you are in the bush searching for wildlife and unique photo opportunities–a knoweldgeable ranger/tracker team and a reliable, well-tricked out Land Rover. The & Beyond folks tick both boxes.

Early on our second morning we came across this mother with her adolescent cub. As soon as we spotted them, they were on the move! Through thickets and tall grass, down raveens and around termite mounds, they slipped in and out of sight. Unbelieveably, Mack and our tracker stayed with them, which involved some serious off road manoeuvers. Thankfully our truck easily ploughed through almost anything!

roadtrip5BWight___MG_9890The cats moved through tall grass, the occassional tip of a tail or back of an ear bobbing up here and there, welcome landmarks in bad weather.  Finally they emmerged from the thickets into the open and once again we were able to track more closely as they followed the bend in the road in front of us.

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roadtripBWight__0U7A0204But not for long! Into the grass and down the banks they went, forcing us to once again to take our search off-road, bouncing along over tree stumps and thick bushes–with one happy photographer hanging on to a roll bar in one hand and a Canon 5D Mlll in the other!

roadtrip4BWight___MG_9901The guys were quick to respond and years of tracking these fabulous animals has provided keen insights into anticipating which way they might be heading. Mack gunned the engine (as much as you can power forward in 3 feet of underbush!) and moved the truck through the fields, pulling a quick u-turn and magically emmerging back on the road–with the leopards walking towards us!!roadtrip9BWight__0U7A0176The kept moving forward, straight at the truck, disappearing through my minimum focus range. They barely gave us a look as they slipped by the open-sided vehicle. I resisted the urge to try to scratch some kitty ears as they floated by.closeWight__0U7A0180

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Finally, they wandered into a cool clearing and lay down to tumble together and enjoy some serious grooming. Leopard watching just does not get better than this!

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Click here for Why I Love Africa

Check out the Big Cats Gallery and Lions at Night

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Black-backed Jackal and her New Family

I always consider it a treat to see jackals (canis mesomelas) when I am in the bush in Africa. I have been fortunate to see both the side-striped and black-backed jackals in my travels, but they have always been quick to disappear once spotted.  So, it was a very RARE treat last October to come across a black-backed jackal standing out in the open on the Ngala reserve  in South Africa. We could see her off in the distance standing at high-alert near a mound of dirt at the edge of a thicket.

wight_jackal0U7A57980U7A5798We slowly made our way across the grassy plain and as we approached we quickly realized that this was no ordinary mound of dirt! Tentatively, a tiny face emmerged from the opening at the base of the mound. This was my first-ever sighting of a jackal pup and this  fuzzy little bundle looked very new to the world indeed, quite possibly making one of his first explorations out of the den.

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wight_jackal20U7A58050U7A5805As if seeing one youngster wasn’t enough, moments later his sibling climbed out for a look! As Mom moved off a few yards the two little ones were in full view. We kept a signifincant distance so as not to startle them so I would have to be satisified doing some serious cropping with these shots taken with a 5D Mlll and 400mm f4 DO. I was thankful we had decent light to work with though, and regardless of not being optimal shooting distance, it was wonderful to watch these tiny new lives.

wight_jackal50U7A58070U7A5807The second puppy was slightly less brave, and after a minute or so, her made a quick dive back into the den leaving his fearless sibling to explore alone. After a few minutes the little guy settled in for a rest just to the side of the den but remained quite alert, looking directly at us.

wight_jackal60U7A58100U7A5810wight_jackal40U7A58060U7A5806Eventually both cubs hid themselves away and Mom wandered further from the den to hunt. We followed her for a good 30 minutes as she attempted to pounce on small rodents and capture low-flying termites. The morning heat was mounting and every so often she would lie down for a minute or two to rest before picking up the hunt again. She continually looked back to make sure all was well at the den.

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wight_jackal90U7A58620U7A5862We returned to the denning site three more times over the course of the next four days, but we were unsuccessful seeing the adults or the cubs.  I am so grateful I had these moments as this was absolutley one of the highlights of my 11 days in the bush this time around!

 

Don’t miss previous African adventures. Why not check out: Lions at Night and Spotted Hyenas; Who’s the Boss?

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The Bateleur Eagle: An Unusual Perspective

I confess–I snuck a peek up the skirt of a Bateleur eagle.

The red-faced Bateleur owes its name to the Frnech word for tight-rope walking, a testament to the rocking movement of its wing tips as it glides overhead. It is a stunning bird-of-prey and one of my favorite to spot in the African bush. The vivid red skin in front of the eyes takes about eight years to fully form and once it does, there is absolutely no mistaking this bird!

I was staying at Ngala Tented Camp in South Africa and I was out on the truck with my ranger Andrew. We spotted a magnificent pair of Bateleurs high up in a treetop well off the road.

wight_pairoff0U7A59090U7A5909It was a quiet day and there had not been much game around so I suggested we try to get a little closer and the best way to do that would be on foot. Rifle in hand, Andrew and I started to zig-zag our way through the brush to get a better look. Within a few feet of leaving the truck the male decided he didn’t like the look of us and took off for parts unknown. But his female companion stayed put. Maybe we would get lucky?

wight_side view0U7A59360U7A5936We slowly made our way foward, zigzagging right and then switchbacking left, looking, I am sure, like we had tossed back one too many Amurulas.  Every turn we got a little closer to her. She was clearly alert, looking back at us over her shoulder, but remained quite calm.

wight_closer0U7A59700U7A5970 (1)Eventually, as we were nearing the trunk of the tree, I told Andrew if she co-operated I was going to try to shoot her from  directly underneath.  He looked at me like I was a little loppy. I NEVER imagined she would let me get that close–but I was very wrong! Again, moving just a few feet at a time I continued approaching, stopping frequently to get off a couple of shots.

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At last I was at the base of the tree and right beneath her. I hoisted up the Canon 5D Mlll and 400f4 and balanced it on my forehead, trying to steady myself while I looked straight up, the weight of the camera making me painfully aware of every vertebrae  as my head tilted back as far as it could. I sensed the physiotherapy bills mounting as my neck and shoulders strained to keep the camera poised on my forehead! Finally, the moment I was after–this glorious bird looked straight down at me, marble eyes catching the light. I am sure she was wondering what kind of foolish creature was staggering around below her. We made eye contact for a brief moment and I got off two or three shots before my neck and back gave in to the pain. She lifted her head back up and then a moment later she flew off, leaving me standing their with a look on my face thatI am sure fell somewhere between a grimace of pain and a grin of contentment.

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This shot, the last of the series, was taken on day nine of an eleven day trip. It was only the second time in nine days that the gray and rain had cleared and a little blue sky fought its way from behind the clouds. If there was ever a moment to make an appearance, this was it!

 

If you like birds, why not check out Feathered Jewels: The Lilac Breasted Roller

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