Nothing stirs a male lion like, the laughing cackling call of hyenas. They are mortal enemies. When the numbers favor them, hyenas in large gangs chase female lions off kills. As cubs, lions live in fear of hyenas, for hyenas will kill lion cubs if they can. With incidences from their youth, male lions remember and as adults will go out of their way to kill hyenas. It’s war; combat where lives are at stake.
This male lion perked up during the midday heat when he heard the far-off call of hyenas. You can see the alertness and the readiness to engage in battle if the threat comes.
We were patrolling in the vastness of the Serengeti, heading south from our lodge in the middle of this giant National Park. We would follow the tree-lined valleys looking for game. These valleys were a good place to find leopards, but not today. As the trees petered out, we came upon a pan, with a little water in the middle of a sea of grass.
It was here that we found two male lions. One seemed a bit younger, a red devil, with a very reddish mane, and not fully grown in. Not brothers because of the difference in ages, but probably cousins, and from the same pride. Their mothers were probably sisters. Both were lounging along the water of this recently filled pan when we coast up to them in our land rover.
It was my first trip to the Serengeti and East Africa. Like many, I was really struck by the vastness of the plains. Here in the southern Serengeti, there weren’t many trees. These plains extended all the way to the horizon, shimmering in the midday heat.
When the distant hyena calls became louder indicating the hyena clan was getting closer. The larger and older of the two males awoke from his lazy sleepy place along the pan. After pacing around a bit, he faced the direction of the calls and tested the wind; here was an aroused big cat ready to do battle.
It was a moment we were hoping for, some action, and this big cat gave us everything we could have ask for as he sat up and tested the wind for his enemy. Here in this image you really could see and feel his intent; this male lion is truly the “King of the Beasts”.
With Lions disappearing in Africa, down to less than twenty thousand, and the latest trophy hunting controversy and killing of Cecil, the famous male lion, in Zimbabwe. I felt lucky and humbled to have seen these two male lions and shared a little time with them, just being in their magnificent presence was so special.
I hope to go back to East Africa, maybe, next summer, in the dry season this time. Maybe, a visit to Kenya and the Masa Mara too. If you would like to join me and experience moments like these images depict, please stay tuned, my friend John is working on another trip. Africa is an incredible place, and in the Game Reserves and National Parks, you still can see wild Africa as it once was.
Compared to my 2005 trip to South Africa, we saw many more Male Lions. Here is a Male Lion in the very early morning light, gazing across the plains, checking out what’s going around him. As Lions often do.
We had many different color manes among the many different Male Lions we saw, darker in the Serengeti, a really beautiful blond Male Lion in a different area of Ndutu. This one belong to the Marsh pride, and his mane is in between, not light, not red like some, and not too dark or black.
I just love the side profile with that intent look, and the light was just fantastic, just after sunrise. By the way, it was our last shooting morning, and last morning in Ndutu. What a way to send me on my journey home.
Maybe, he looks so alive, because right beside him is a lioness. He was between mating bouts with her, now waking up, and ready to begin to go again. Very visceral, especially the sounds, and the action of them mating. A picture that stays on the screen of your memory forever. For that story, I used my 100- 400 mm lens, that’s how close we were, and yet that’s another image too…
More stories and images of East Africa to come…
One of the many highlights of my trip to East Africa was lions. I saw many lions in many places: like Ngornogoro Crater, the Serengeti, and here in Ndutu. This image was taken along with the image I posted a few days ago—my last morning photographing in East Africa.
This is the female lioness that my male lion (previous image) was mating with. Here they are both greatly aware and very intently checking out what another male lion about 40 yards away is doing or is up too.
Sometimes getting two subjects sharp with a telephoto lens can be difficult. Here though both lions were close to the same plane so f6.3 aperture was sufficient to capture both subjects sharp.
Notice the noses…could it be that this young Male Lion is wooing an older female. Generally, Lions noses turn black as they age. Here the female lion has a completely black nose, while her male companion nose has some red, indicating that he is a bit younger than her…
Again, I just love the light; this early morning low angle light bathes them in a warm glow that accentuates the colors of the male’s mane and their beautiful tawny bodies.
A mating image next, should I dare!!!???
Affection: Before or After???
I haven’t dare post a mating image yet. Working up my courage. So I thought I would share an image with some affection before the violent mating act itself. We can learn a lot through observing wildlife, even the King of Beast can show affection, perhaps even kindness and love.
They do seem to get along better than some people, some nations. Just think of all the wars we have been through the last fifteen years. The Islamic Jihadist war against the rest of us, and the beheading of fellow human beings, man’s cruelty to his fellow man. I could go on and on…
It just seems that wildlife can teach us a lesson of learning to get along. I know that predators eating and killing to live is violent to some and they have trouble with this. However, through death comes life, everything has a purpose, nothing breaks the strands of the web of life. There is a harmony and a balance in nature; it’s only man that can disturb the cycle of life and break the web…
Anyway, we better pay attention. It might be too late already, because if we don’t, then this beautiful planet of ours, won’t be Mother Earth; it will be something harsh and deadly.
And then, the next great mass extinction will be Homo sapiens sapiens—us!
Mating Lions at Last:
After my lion image showing affection, here is my best mating image from that morning.
Lions can mate 4 to 6 times an hour, 100 times a day, and it can go on for days. After exhausting one male, the female will sometimes mate with other male members of the pride, to insure and protect her future cubs by bonding with all the pride’s males.
Lion mating is a violent affair, and does not last long –a few minutes at most. Usually the male will scent mark afterwards, claiming and marking the territory and the females in it as his.
Other than the gorgeous early morning light, I think the success of this image is that female is looking up at her suitor engaging in communication between them, and that her eyes are clearly visible and have such a wonderful expression… Even though, there is no sound, you can almost hear it from their expressions.
Perhaps, the moment of lion ecstasy!
A Drinking Lion and A Very Thirsty Lion:
Mating expends lots of energy, and is a very thirsty endeavor. After, repeat bouts of mating, where does a Male Lion go? He heads for the river and some water. Here are some images from the previous day, when the sun had gone higher in the sky, and the heat became a little more oppressive.
One vertical, the other a horizontal orientation, one a partial portrait and the other showing the complete body. Which one do you prefer, the vertical or horizontal image of the Male Lion drinking water?
Basically, these images were taken within minutes of each other at the same place.
Pictures are ultimately are about how they make your feel. Photography is an evocative art. Most of the time your responds comes from inside, within the gut, it’s a feeling, a sense, and or an emotion.
Knowing why, and articulating the reason we prefer one image over another helps us look within ourselves, and ultimately understand ourselves better.
So tell me which image do you prefer and why!
The Blond Mane Male Lion of Ndutu’s Marsh pride:
The females lionesses had just made a zebra kill in the middle of a wide low area and were eating. This male came out of the tree line, and made a beeline to where we were, coming straight at us, to get his share of the food.
Thus, he was intent and focused. I just happen to get this image toward the end of his run. It was a great behavior moment to witness! His eyes were open in this image, and I captured the movement of the leg as he strides, both help make this a special picture.
He is the most beautiful male lion we saw; his beautiful blonde mane is extraordinary!
The Power of a Male Lion:
I will leave you with this last one image as the magnificent blond mane lion pulls up a zebra carcass. Lions have incredible strength especially male lions in their prime. They rule the Africa savanna; they are the apex predator, nothing will stand up to them, except other male lions in their prime.
Lions kill to live and eat, if they didn’t exist; the grazers like wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, and especially elephants would destroy the habitation, and degrade the environment. Lions along with the other predators like leopards, hyena, and cheetah, provided a vital function in the African ecosystem and are part of the web of life.
Perhaps, the Last lions are walking on the earth now. Down to about 20,000.00 in Africa, their numbers are under extreme threat by poaching and loss of wild places to live. As the human population in Africa grows, tremendous pressure is put on Africa’s wild habitats. The days of finding lions and wild Africa outside of the National Parks is long gone. It’s only us, man, who can save the lion, and the wild places they need to live in.
These image of this magnificent blond mane lion stir my heart and represent to me all that it is to be a lion. I want to know wherever I am or live even if it is not in Africa that Lions will still be roaming the wild African landscape. Life will be diminished knowing that they will no longer roar at night, stalk the bush, sleep under the acacia trees, and hunt to feed themselves and their cubs.
If you would like to help Lions in Africa, please donated to National Geographic’s “Big Cat Initiative” and Cause a Roar!
It has come to me; I must become a mother to seven or eight young juvenile Merriam’s chipmunks. Their mothers are gone, passed into the fourth world–never again to suckle these seven or eight youngsters. Was it my fault, yes and no! Am I to blame? I ask myself?
The answer is that the mothers are gone, and I now must take the responsibility to keep these youngsters alive. Assigning blame isn’t going to keep these little guys and girls alive. Get them to adulthood, and foraging on their own. So they too, can grow up and raise young ones of their own. That’s now my mission.
My friend Randy knows the situation; the task is a bit daunting. I must get them to be independent, but they are going to be dependent on me for a while. It is going to be a step by step process. Tame them, no! Really lead them, to the direction of being wild and able to live on their own.
I know that I am being a bit cryptic and mysterious. I have my reasons, and they are good ones. If you want the whole or full story, you’ll have to contact me personally.
I leave you with a couple images of Chipmunks being Chipmunks. I never cease to marvel at these little dynamos of energy. Their antics always seem to make me happy, and if I am a bit depressed they always lift my spirits. Yet, now too, I realize that even they have moments of dependency, of fright, and loneliness.
I am also recognizing individual personalities too. I know that some are going to make it with no problem; others are going to present a great challenge!
A mother must give the type of love that each require. All seven or eight aren’t the same; they are individuals! Not only must I be a loving mother, but a smart one too…
A story from the Ramrod Ranch, a series of wildlife adventures…
And the Last Chipmunk Word…
The first, absolutely the first thing I did when I arrived at the Ramrod Ranch was to go to the bird feed. It’s all in a large garbage can. I have a plastic cup that I use to scoop it out with, so I filled this large plastic cup and headed over to the chipmunk corner, laying out the feed for them. They have been living on the thistle seed, and I put out a large pile for them. I figured that they would be starving… I was right they were!
But this mother was too late for two of them; I found one laying dead close to the area where I left out the seed. I put out a lot of seed before I left, was it not enough? Did I make a mistake? Or was this little chipmunk just too weak to survive. Later in the day, I found another dead chipmunk close by, they were so young. They just did not make it.
Sorrow was in my heart, I had failed two young lives. However, my spirits were buoyed by the flourishing four others who scamper down and came to eat the feed I had left. At least four made it, so far, not sure where the other two are, I know that last time I had counted at least seven. Maybe, the other two were off on their own; I heard at least one down by the barn when I came back from the blind midday and finished photographing.
It was a warm spring day, temperature in the low eighties, tomorrow promise to be another slightly warmer day at the Ramrod Ranch! Even with the sad deaths of the two little chipmunks, and a slight bout with heat stroke, I still had an incredible day observing all the bird life at the ramrod ranch… I just couldn’t stay sad, for all the other life up lifted my spirits!!! Nature and life just fortify the soul and sooth the heart every time. I feel like I am in heaven every moment I spend in nature…
PS: You can guarantee I am going to drink more water tomorrow, and I’ll definitely wear my baseball cap. I really need to find a type of hat that I can photograph with and that will protect me from the hot rays of the sun…
The Final Chapter
A week later I was relaxing in the yard one late afternoon, when a chipmunk came hopping down the yard to the base of the big oak tree by the cabin. It started feeding on some of the grasses around this oak tree. Yet, its movements were kind of slow and not chipmunk like at all. When, it turned toward me, I could see a strange glow in its eye. At first, I thought it might be just the light. I got up and I took several pictures of it, and then I checked the back of my camera and the images still showed this strange glow. I didn’t use flash so that could not be it.
I gathered some food (bird seed), and gently walked over to it. I placed the food right in front of it, stepped back and watched it for a while. Eventually, the young chipmunk began eating the bird seed in front of it. The movements still were slow. I went back to my chair and watched it for a while. It seemed to get disinterested in the food. Then, it tried to climb up the trunk of the big oak tree next to the cabin, but it didn’t make it too high, and almost felled back to the ground, like it didn’t have enough energy to make it up the tree trunk. On the ground not long after, it squeezed between the cabin boards and went underneath the cabin. This is the last time I saw it.
After reviewing the images and thinking about its slow mechanical actions, I realized that the chipmunk was blind. That’s what was accounting for that unusual glow in its eyes. It never did see me as I placed the bird seed inches from its body.
I talked to my doctor about a week later and she said that one of the affects of starvation could be blindness, not enough nutrients for proper eye function.
I am sure this little chipmunk did not make it…very sad!
The good news is that the four remaining juvenile chipmunks hanging around the corner by the bathroom door and on top of the old jerky cage seem to be doing well. Each week I left some bird seed for them. Then, as the weeks passed by, they seem to be foraging on their own, and venturing out from this little corner. I began to see and hear them down by the barn.
As the photography workshops began, the chipmunks disbursed and headed out for a life of their own. I was a little sad, because I didn’t have to feed them any longer, and they weren’t hanging around in their little corner any more where I could see them regularly. Yet, I felt happy too; for now four chipmunks were living on their own now, with the chance to grow up and have babies of their own…
A camera’s vision is not quite like ours. As a photographer you need to see the world as a camera see it. One of the differences is that the eye focuses constantly, and we see everything in focus from near too far. With a small aperture selection like f22 and a wide-angle lens, you can almost get the focus of the human eye, where everything is sharp and in focus. This focusing is good for landscape photography, where you usually want to see all elements of an image sharp from foreground to background.
Another way is to use selective focus: emphasizing a particular part of an image, making the subject of the image stand out; singing its visual song. This is a powerful technique to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, where the photographer wants the viewer’s eye to go. The eye is drawn to the sharp focused subject surrounded by the blur area containing the rest of the image. This seeing is as the camera sees not as the human eye sees. Controlling the aperture size is the key to controlling the depth of field and selecting the focus area–what’s sharp and not sharp within the image.
Here is an example of selective focus; I entered this image in my camera club recently. This cheetah image was taken at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
I did not use a small aperture like f22 to render the whole portrait of the cheetah sharp. I used instead an aperture of f5.6, so my depth of field with my 600 mm lens and with 1.4 tele converter was shallow, leaving the neck and parts of the shoulder slightly soft. This makes the alert cheetah’s face and eyes seem very sharp, more so because the rest of the body is slightly soft. The story and impact of the image is the face, the alert expression, and those penetrating eyes. Penetrating eyes that look into the soul of the animal! With selective focus, these features are emphasized to the viewer. Subtle in its effect, but nonetheless greatly contributes to the overall success of the image.
Also, it should be noted that this image was taken after sunset late in the evening, so I needed to use a large aperture and a high ISO of 800, just to obtain the proper exposure… My camera was on a tripod and with the animal not moving; I had a choice of using a sharper aperture, and slower shutter speed. My goal for the image was to focus on the face and the great intense stare. Choosing an aperture with a small and shallower depth of field gave me the critical focus on the face, very slightly blurring the neck and shoulders, making the face really stand out and sing.
Why not make the neck blurrier? That would make the face stand out more. I think if you did that; it would make a face on a blurry body (a post it or cut out look), and the blurriness would attract the eye and away from the face you want the viewer to see. A completely burly neck doesn’t work well for this type of animal portrait.
Why not make the image completely sharp? Well, yes, for a nature interpretation, you might want a completely sharp image. I believe this makes the image more a record shot, rather than an artistic presentation.
This selective focus technique is used a lot in macro photography, flower photography, and many other types of image making as well. The uses are endless, so make sure you apply this technique to your photography.
PS: This image won best of show at my camera club’s week night competition…
(A two month old otter pup gives a love bite to its caring mom)
Sometimes it’s magical. Nature just enfolds visual delights constantly, and if you are lucky and talented you can capture one of these special moments.
What a great day I had last Thursday, at that special place for Sea Otters: Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough. My photography friends and I were greeted with a nice sunny day, an unusual occurrence of late with the winter storms that have been coming into the West Coast in waves.
Viewpoint is a critical component, getting low and down into the sea otter’s visual world makes a big difference in the final image.
Luck, talent, and patience too, especially patience to wait for the right moment, goes into creating a provocative image.
Even more than these attributes; it is about having a special spiritual feeling for a place or the animal you are photographing. It’s really all about love!
Sometimes you are privileged to enter into the world of another animal, so it was for me On Valentine’s Day! I witnessed a mother’s love, a mother sea otter’s love and deep imbibing care for her young otter pup.
I saw in the wild for the first time a mother otter pushing mussels and other shellfish to her little one, perhaps for the first time…and it looked at these gifts with curious eyes full of wonder.
Witnessing this moment was incredible privilege, and to capture it forever in an image was just as exciting. I hope these images convey the emotion and feeling that I felt while taking them.
There is something special about sea otters that touches our hearts and stirs our souls… especially the young pups, you can’t look into their eyes and not be moved–their squeaky calls of alarm when they miss place their mothers, calls deep into the being of every person that has heard that sound.
Why do we think sea otters are so cute, so enduring? It’s their faces, their flat noses and pudgy faces subconsciously remind us of our own babies…
Where do you photograph sea otters? Where can you get up close and capture images that evoke these human feelings? There are many places; my favorite one is Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough.
Across from highway one and the Whole Enchilada Restaurant is a boat dock area where sometimes the otters rest and hang out. I have even seen them mating here twice. Because the land area next to the water is low and the otters aren’t far away, you can good images here. The downsides are that they aren’t always there, and good sightings can draw big crowds and attract passersby from the nearby road.
Under the bluffs below Jetty Road is a very good place to see lots of otters, they usually raft up there and you can see twenty or thirty or more sometimes—quite a sight. A must stop for those who have never seen a raft of otters.
The best way to photograph otters is from a kayak. You can get down at water level, and have a less condescending viewpoint in your images. Photographing from a Kayak does present issues and dangers: choppy and rough water, stiff breezes, and a unbalanced boat, and this could result in a lens and camera body easily in Elkhorn Slough’s waters. Remember wildlife viewing rules prohibit close approach making necessary the use of long telephoto lenses.
“When you encounter an animal in the wild, you represent all of that individual’s cumulative experiences with humans, and you are adding to that experience with your own actions.”*
Elkhorn Safari Tours offer tours up the slough on a flat pontoon boat where you can photograph lots of wildlife and many species of birds, including sea otters that happen to be feeding close by. I think I have been on Capitan Yohn’s boat at least seven or eight times over the years. Elkhorn Slough is a beautiful and special natural place worth experiencing even without photography.
Sometimes when you least expect it, something appears out of nowhere and brightens your life, and leaves you with an incredible moment that will stay with you forever. This is the world of nature, and nature photography, special moments, indelible, forever imprinted within your mind as treasured memories. This morning one of these moments happened to me.
California quail were all around me, cackling and chuckling, in the brush around the pond. From both sides of the little breeze way that separates the brush from directly behind the pond and the sea of brush that leads up the slopes of the hills, I could hear them and occasionally see them as they scurried across the breeze way to the shelter of the thick brush.
I was in my photo blind with my 600 mm lens and digital camera body ready and waiting for them to get up enough courage to come into water at the little pond eight feet in front of my lens. In the early days of July, the mature parents had lots of young ones with them, still with the juvenile markings: a dash of brown and white striped patterns with just a touch of a top notching.
All of a sudden the cackling and chuckling increased in volume, more intense, more urgent, and seemingly coming from all around me, as I sat in my blind waiting. In the back of my mind, I knew something was different about the increased level of noise. Yet, I didn’t react or increase my level of awareness; I just contentedly and patiently waited for the quail to get over their fright and nerves, waiting for them to come on out of the brush and into camera range and view.
Then, it was there, right in front of me: a beautiful gray fox. Yes, not eight feet away, a gray fox. I can’t begin to describe what a beautiful animal it was. This was why the quail were making so much noise. After a moment’s hesitation, it went to the pond and started drinking. It happened so fast, one moment nothing was there, and the next moment it was there before my eyes. The photographer in me started to kick in gear, should I reach back in the blind and grasp my other camera body with my 100 to 400 zoom lens. I did not want to take my eyes off this splendid animal. So when it bent down for a drink, I just started shooting with my 600mm, subconsciously knowing that my f-stop might be too high, and my resulting shutter speed too slow. And what was I doing on ISO 500?
But nothing mattered for the moment as I focused on the gray fox’s head lapping up the precious life giving water. It looked up at me, my flash was going, and would it scare it off? God, I was so close, too bloody close, I couldn’t even keep the ears in the frame as it look at me. Then, in a moment it was off, heading back into the brush. One last look back at me, I switched to vertical, and composed a couple more images, praying that I was in focus. Then, the moment that would last me a lifetime was over, the beautiful gray fox slipped back into the sea of brush where it came from, twenty or thirty heart pounding adrenaline seconds it was over.
Did I compose the images correctly, was I focused on the eyes, did I get enough depth of field, at that moment. All these thoughts were secondary, for I just witnessed a beautiful animal at home in its environment. For a brief time it shared its life with me, we were connected, and somehow forever joined. I will carry those eyes as it looked back at me and its life spirit with me always in my mind as an everlasting memory.
Upon later reflection, as a friend reminded me, the gray fox too had courage and understanding, courage to come forth out in the open knowing that I was there, and trusting and understanding that I meant no harm.