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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This post was previously published last July.

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Photographing the Dragonfly in Flight

Red-eyed dragonfly inflightI call it Dragonflying. The art of photographing the dragonfly in flight. And it is teaching me patience.

I have always been intrigued by the elongated shape and erratic movements of the dragonfly. But not until I started photographing them did I realize how intricate and beautiful they truly are. With their “stained glass window” wings, brightly colored tails and gigantic eyes, they are a small wonder of nature’s design. Part of the odonata order that also includes damselflies, they are believed to have been gracing this earth for more than 300 million years.

dragonfly in flightEquipped with two sets of wings that can beat independently, unlike other double-winged insects that beat in unison, their front wings can be going up while their back ones are beating down. However, even with two sets they are considered to be slow flappers, so to speak, with an average of 30 wing-beats per second (whereas a bumblebee’s wings move at about 300 bps).

Staring dragonflyDragonfly eyes are enormous and contain as many as 30,000 individual lenses (whereas humans have one), giving them supreme vision that enables them to respond to stimuli—like an eager photographer—up to 40 feet away. Still, they are quite accommodating and generally may grant you an audience quite close.

Once referred to as The Devil’s Darning Needles, myth would have it that dragonflies would seek out bad children and sew their mouths together with their claspers while they slept. Sadly, the myth fell apart after rigorous scientific study revealed they had no pockets or handbags in which to cart around needle and thread. They actually can do no harm to us humans as they don’t bite or sting. In fact, they seem intrigued by us and generally come quite close. Frankly, I think they should be more revered as they help control our mosquito population.

Dragonflies pass through a fascinating life journey and you may not realize it, but the time they spend flying around our ponds and lakes is quite a short chapter in their lives. They actually hatch on the water surface and can remain in the larva stage for several years. The metamorphosis state brings the growth of wings, at which point they leave the water and begin their flying lifecycle, which lasts only weeks. This winged-stage is for mating and it is a common sight to see a male and female attached to each other, clinging to a blade of grass, or even mid-flight. Happy times for dragonflies before their precious few weeks of flight-time expire.

red-eyed dragon fly restingThe art…and challenge of photographing dragonflies

I am grateful to the dragonfly as it is teaching me patience. One of the biggest photography challenges for me has been capturing dragonflies in flight. I am generally impatient waiting for microwave popcorn, so standing in one spot for 50 minutes trying to focus and track spasmodically flying winged-things is not exactly in my comfort zone. But I love the challenge! I think of it as a zen meditation — with swearing.

blue eyed dragonfly in flight.I usually shoot with either a Canon 5D Mlll or a 7D and my 70-200 f4 IS L and after a few false starts and focusing trial-and-errors, I have started to find my rhythm. Coincidentally, it has corresponded with finding the dragons’ rhythm. Dragonflies really are unreliable, drunken flyers, changing direction and altitude very quickly. But, they also hover—and that is the photographer’s moment.

dragonfly flying towardsa cameraI have learned to anticipate and concentrate on that brooding moment. Once I find my way with tracking and focus, and I seem to have to re-learn this every time, I am able to concentrate on composition. Luckily, these subjects enjoy flying around bushes and moss-covered water allowing for opportunities to explore creative and contrasting backgrounds with which to create interesting bokeh, (that nice, softly blurred background you sometimes see in photographs) and perhaps a little catch of light dancing off the wings. Is that too much to ask for?

Dragonfly wings inflightThe next time you see a dragonfly while you are out for a hike in the woods, kayaking on the lake or relaxing in your garden, take a moment to watch it dance. Remember, you are privileged to be witnessing the last few days of this graceful creature’s life.

dragonfly departing

Originally written for The Mother nature Network.

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Fox Kitts Have Left the Den!

Young foxes Kitt & Caboodle have left the den! The young fox kitts and their siblings are probably about 3 months old now and have left their winter den site. They are slowly gaining independence as they wander further and further from their mother. It has been great a great privilege to photograph the foxes in and around the rocks and trees. Most of the time I have come across them they have been sleeping, but even when they are, it is wonderful to spend time with them. They are looking very healthy and with a large squirrel population at ahnd, they are clearly well fed!

Here are a few of the more recent shots.

fox kitt

I nice stretch…maybe he things he’s a wolf?

Fox yawn

Mama fox dropped her acorn. You can see the entire sequence here.

I lost my acorn

sleeping fox

fox under the tree

fox yawning

Enjoy!

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Kit and Caboodle

Meet Kit and Caboodle–little red foxes

This week I was fortunate to find an active fox den inside the Montreal city limits. On the day I was there, patiently waiting for 2 hours, I was lucky to meet two of the six fox kits living in the den. They look to be just about a month or so old and hopefully I will get back for a better look next week. I am very grateful they decided to come out midday to explore their surroundings and have a little tossle with each other.

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