Category Archives: Photographer pieces
A few years back I had a memorable journey through Sri Lanka, and I’ve had a soft spot for the birds of this magical island ever since. I’m currently busy compiling photos for our book Cuckoos of the World, and was drawn to a series of snaps of one of my favourite Sri Lankan endemics, the scarce and rather beautiful Red-faced Malkoha, taken in the famous Sinharaja rain forest by tour guide and photographer Amila Salgado.
A nice portrait, but what really blew my mind was this. Take a look.
A bird carrying nest material? Wrong.
This cuckoo is actually feeding on a gigantic, branch-sized stick insect!
I had to know more, so I had a look at Amila’s blog (his profile claims that he ‘holds the record as the first birder from Colombo to visit the Sinharaja rain forest in a tuktuk’ – very much our kind of chap). Amila took the photo during a trip to Sinharaja in 2004, just days after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami had hit the island. After seeing the bird in one of the mixed-species flocks (or ‘bird-waves’) that are a speciality of the forest, he took photos as the bird gave the insect a good bash, removing the limbs and the possibly defensive chemical-containing thorax, before tucking in.
Far from being any old stick insect, this is actually one of the world’s biggest insects. After an initial misidentification, an expert in the phasmid world told Amila that his malkoha was munching an adult female Phobaeticus hypharpax, one of the largest of the so-called ‘mega-sticks’, with a body length of up to 236mm. What a whopper.
This wasn’t just a great photo of a great bird doing something remarkable. It turns out that prior to the publication of these photos, the range of this insect was mysterious (with the handful of ancient specimens in collections all labelled simply ‘Ceylon’). So entomologists now know a little more about the beast, although its biology remains almost completely unknown.
Mighty though P. hyparphax is, it is some way behind the world record holder – P. chani, Chan’s Mega-stick, which lives on the island of Borneo. Formally described in 2008, Chan’s Mega-stick has a body length of up to 357 mm; its overall length with the limbs stretched out is an astonishing 567mm! Just imagine that.
Read about Amila Salgado and his tours – and see more of his great photos – here.
Amila is a contributor to Cuckoos of the World by Johannes Erritzøe, Clive Mann, Frederik Brammer and Richard Fuller – coming soon.
This week, a guest blog from ace wildlife photographer Ramesh Anantharaman, introducing the amazing and beautiful region of Sikkim, and an encounter with a very special bird indeed …
Sikkim is a nature lover’s paradise and, with more than 550 species, a birdwatcher’s dream. Set in the eastern Himalayas, this primarily Buddhist Indian state extends from the foothills to some of the highest reaches of the Himalayas, with habitats varying from moist deciduous forests to alpine meadows, snow-clad peaks and high-altitude deserts. As in other parts of the Himalayas, the climate is highly variable. It can rain or be nice and sunny at any time, with extremely cold winters. This makes it testing for the photographer, as the lighting and weather conditions are similarly unpredictable. But many a time the birds do oblige.
This winter was not great for me as a bird photographer. I had not made any major birding trips. I had reached a kind of desperation and my right index finger was itching to work on the shutter of my camera. Then the opportunity for a week-long trip to Sikkim came by! We covered just a few places around the south and west of Sikkim, mainly ranging in the altitudes of 1400m to 3000m. The forests here are mainly of moss-laden oak and sal trees, and the bird diversity is stunning.
One day on our trip, we had already seen and taken nice photos of Pygmy Wren Babbler, and were visiting the edge of a lake in western Sikkim, hoping to photograph Black-tailed Crake. My dear friend and guide Chewang Bonpo and I were scuttling around the edge of the lake, trying to find a good spot with the best light, and where we could wait in relative comfort, perhaps for a long time – the Black-tailed Crake is a very shy bird. We came across a large oak tree root, which had a depression behind it. This seemed to be a good place to stay put and start the waiting game for the crake. The sun was right behind us, and everything was painted beautifully by the light, with the large root acting as perfect cover. We succeeded in spotting the crake, but it would not come out of its hideout of reeds and bamboo clumps.
Then, suddenly to my right, a small dark shape hopped out of the dense reeds towards us. Chewang suddenly grew restless, and I could see tension on his face. Whispering, he urged me to at least get a record shot of the bird. All he said was that it was something rare. I took a few shots. The bird kept staring at us, but was continuously hopping around the reeds. We sat extremely still and quiet; my hand began to ache, as my 500mm lens felt like a ton now, because of the tension in the air. All of a sudden the bird popped out onto a broken bamboo twig. This was any bird-photographers dream. Green background, perfect light, a natural perch, and a wild bird sitting in the open! I focus-locked and the let the shutters go like a bullet.
Satisfied, I stopped and looked at poor Chewang, who was trembling with excitement. He told me that what we had just seen was a Blue-fronted Robin Cinclidium frontale, that this was the first time he had had a good view of the bird, and that this was probably the first time the bird had been photographed in the open, wild and free. He told me that people have spent months on its trail just to get a distant half-glimpse of this shy, shy fellow. Only then did the whole scene started to sink in, and I was left breathless and astonished at what nature can throw at us. We had to come out of our spot behind the root for a bit of fresh air. The excitement had been too much for us.
We’d forgotten all about the Black-tailed Crake …
So there we go. The inside story of the finest photograph ever taken of this species, the most elusive in Asia. You can see more of Ramesh’s stunning photography here.
This week, a guest blog by ace wildlife photographer Martin Goodey – an amazing encounter on his patch on the Isles of Scilly …
‘Come the summer months of July and August, I like to spend an evening or two fishing for Mackerel from the shore. My favourite spot for this is on the east side of St Mary’s at Deep Point. No two visits are ever the same; one day you can fish for hours without a bite, another time you can catch a dozen in a quarter of an hour. Either way there always seems to be something to enjoy, be it a distant pod of dolphins or a curious Fulmar passing so close you feel you could reach out and touch it.
These encounters are, by and large, unpredictable and fleeting. The exposed, salty rocks are not a place to take an expensive camera, and images are captured only in the memory. One day in August last year I had finished fishing and was clambering back up when I heard the familiar peeping call of a Rock Pipit. It was perched on a rock and was close enough that even without my bins I could see it had a beakfull of juicy insects. I expected it to disappear amongst the boulders to find its waiting brood, but instead it bravely stood its ground, waiting for me to pass.
I reached the cliff top and sat down to watch where he or she might go. To my surprise the pipit flew about 50 yards to my left where it was greeted not by hungry offspring of its own but by a monster!
In a wide granite cleft warmed by the late afternoon sun sat a huge, fat Cuckoo.
Over the next twenty minutes or so I watched as both foster parents worked tirelessly to bring in a range of insects. Of course while I was enjoying every minute of this I couldn’t help ruing not having my camera to hand. Finally I cracked and decided “what the hell lets nip home and get it. If its gone when I get back then so be it.”
It took me about ten minutes to make the return trip and to my delight the Cuckoo was still there! I took a few record shots from some 50 yards away, and watched as the pipits came and went with food. I was sure they must have been aware of me but seemed unconcerned. With this in mind I started to cautiously close the gap between us.
Once I was happy I was close enough without causing any disturbance I settled down and was able to take a series of quite intimate photos.
It wasn’t long before the sun dipped below the trees and I lost the light. I packed up and slipped away, leaving the well-fed Cuckoo with its doting ‘parents’. I saw them together several times over the following days but never at such close quarters.
Sadly the Cuckoo has suffered a significant decline across its range, and the numbers returning to Scilly are much reduced. I fear I may yet live to witness a year without that familiar harbinger of spring. But oh, I do hope not.’
Martin is one of the contributing photographers for our forthcoming Helm Family Guide Cuckoos of the World. To see more of his work, click here.