Friday, 30 August 2013

Wild goats, scraggy rocks, and endless blue sky.

Wild goats have been a part of the British landscape since Neolithic times, although many of the herds in Scotland are descended from those released by the evicted crofting communities during the dark days of the Highland Clearances of the 19th Century.   It’s certainly not difficult to see them as part of the landscape since they make a perfect fit.  Following them around for a few days (or even hours), you become acutely aware of how well adapted they are to the landscape in their habitat, a mixture boggy grasslands and steep, rocky cliffs around the coast.  Moving around this landscape, they can scale near vertical rocky walls with apparent ease.  Following them with a heavy backpack of camera gear is, therefore, extremely difficult at times.

In this series of silhouettes, I wanted to shoot as wide as possible, dividing the earth from the sky, and bringing the goat and the rocky ground together in the black part of the image.  The goat merges with the landscape, but at the same time remains distinct.

This particular goat is a large Billy, whose trust I gained over the course of several days.  In these photos, he found a spot to sit down for a sleep, and was perfectly comfortable with me crawling closer.  I shot the images with a short telephoto lens (my beloved 70-200mm), but then clumsily dropped this into a deep rock pool whilst trying to crawl closer.  Watching four-figure’s worth of lens plummet like a stone to the bottom of a salty pool is not a pleasant experience when you’re in mid flow of a good photo session (miraculously it survived!), but it forced me to switch lenses, and I continued shooting with a wide-angle lens (17-40mm), making the goat very small within the frame.  That’s the kind of picture I really like.  

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Mystery animal revealed!

On yesterday’s blog, I asked if you could identify this animal, and there were quite a few suggestions, some less sensible than others!!

The answer is…

…it’s a Grey Seal.

I took the photo a couple of weeks ago on the Isle of Mull.  That is, the seal was off the Isle and I was on it, but only just!  By the end of the session, at least, I was more in the water than on the land. 

I’d been sitting on the rocky shore for most of the day, hidden away between a group of rocks about 30 yards or so from the water.  This position kept me hidden whilst affording me a good view of a stretch of coast, in case my otter friend should come along.  He didn’t.  But much as I was hidden adequately from an otter, the seals were on to me, and five of the sat bobbing about in the water for the whole day (don’t they have things to do?) just watching me inquisitively.

Towards the end of the day, the light was getting good and the tide was coming in, so I decided to edge slowly down towards the rapidly receding shoreline, and see if I could get some frame-filling head shots at water height.  I like the fact that the waves were coming in, and that these partly obscured the seals’ faces as the water level bobbed up and down. 

The only problem was that I hadn't protected my camera, and taking photos at water-level with an incoming tide means your camera can get wet, and salt-water is a particularly bad addition to a camera.  I tried my best to keep the salt water off it, but given the choice between being careful and getting the shot, I always go for the shot.  By the end of the session, the seals’ inquisitive nature, combined with the incoming tide, had brought them very close to me indeed.  I was lying on the rocks in the shallow water, with my camera held just above water height by the beanbag it was resting on.  I was cold, wet and happy in equal measure.  My camera was not so happy – the battery grip is almost certainly a write off, and I’ll need to get the whole thing serviced before I’m able to use some features again (I can’t switch to movie mode!).  Was it worth it?  For me, yes, definitely!  Moments where you manage to get this close to wildlife, and your presence is accepted, are simply golden.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Post bank-holiday quiz fun!

Post bank-holiday FUN! 
Here’s a little quiz question – can you identify this mystery animal?

If you think you know (and even if you don’t), have a guess and post your answer as a comment here or on my facebook page, or you can tweet me using the hashtag #krisquiz.  The answer will be revealed tomorrow! 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Wild Goat Rut

Wild Goats Rutting - Isle of Mull, UK

I’ve just returned from the Isle of Mull, where I spent most of my time tracking a herd of wild goats across various different types of landscapes within their habitat.  Over the course of a few weeks, I was privileged to witness a whole variety of behaviour, including a birth, attempts at mating and (as pictured) a rut, as well as numerous types of social bonding and other herd behaviour.  It’s fascinating to watch a group of animals over such a period as this, and witness their social hierarchy in action, as it is established, challenged, and redefined.  Even as part of an established herd who spend most of their time grazing together, life in the wild is my no means straightforward.  This becomes particularly evident in their rutting, where these shy, easy-going mammals demonstrate an enormous level of strength, power and determination – and as an observer, I was very happy not to be caught in the middle of it all!

On the day I took this, I had been sheltering in a rocky spot by the shore, hoping to catch up with a local otter (whose picture I posted in the previous blog), when my attention was drawn to the sound of clashing horns, about 200 yards behind me.  A sub-group of six goats were standing on a grassy mound just above the coast line.  The rutting goats stand opposite each other before one rears up on its hind legs before using the momentum of its fall back to earth to drive its weight head-first into the other.  It’s an immensely powerful move, and as both sets of horns meet with great force, it’s possible to see the shock waves ripple back through the loose woolly coats of each animal, from their heads down towards their back ends. The sheer force is eye-watering, and I found it difficult not to wince a little each time they ram into each other with such force.

In spite of the power and ferocity of the rut, there were many aspects of this behaviour that seemed surprisingly civilised.  The goats had chosen a site for their rut within a rectangle marked by the ruins of an old crofters’ building.  This appeared to be established as their ‘ring’.  As soon as one of the rutting goats stepped outside of this boundary, the clash was over temporarily, and both parties took a few moments to collect themselves before coming together again.  As they battled it out further, the others goats in the group stood around watching, with one particularly dominant bystander looking almost like the umpire of a boxing match, standing close with his eyes fixed on the action, even breaking the goats up when they became too entangled.  In between bouts, the goats go through a complex ritual of communication through licks, sniffs, and scraping at the floor with their hooves, a conversation in gesture which appeared to clarify the outcome of the previous rut, as well as offering them a moment of respite.

Assuming a position close by from which I could observe them (which was not difficult, since the goats themselves were so absorbed in the rut that they hardly paid any attention to me), I rested my camera on a rock.  After taking and reviewing a few pictures, I was initially disappointed that they didn’t convey the sheer power of the battle between the goats – instead the images appeared rather static.  Instead, I started using a slower shutter speed (1/15 sec) to ensure that more of the movement of the tussle was shown in the resulting images.  Using such a slow shutter speed means having to throw away a lot of pictures in which the action appears as nothing other than a blur of wool and horns.  But by moving the camera as precisely as possible with the movements of the goats, it was possible to get one or two shots in which some of the features were suitably sharp.  These pictures demonstrate the turmoil of an individual caught up in this whirl-wind of behaviour, which is just what I wanted, and this shot was my favourite of the whole bunch.  

Saturday, 24 August 2013

An unexpected otter

European Otter with a crab - Isle of Mull.

Photographing wildlife can involve a great deal of planning and patience, although on other occasions you can be grabbed suddenly by the unexpected.  When I photographed this otter on coast of Mull, it was a chance encounter that I wasn’t expecting, but one that will stay with me for years.

I’ve photographed otters many times before on Mull’s coast, but never on this particular stretch of coast, where the rocky shore is almost constantly beaten with waves that can reach heights of 12-15 foot on a fairly regular basis.  But, I’m in the middle of nowhere: I’ve hiked a good way over hills and grasslands to get here and the nearest road is around 5 miles away, so I’m virtually guaranteed not to be disturbed. 

So here’s how it happened.  I’m standing right on the water’s edge, photographing some of the smaller waves coming to shore,  when I hear a peculiar grunting noise in the water – I’ve never heard this sound before – a repeated, short, sharp ‘nguh, nguh, nguh, nguh’.  I look up and right in front of me, no more than 12 feet away, a dog otter is in the shallow water, with a crab in its mouth, trying to come ashore – and he’s glaring at me, angry!  It’s rare that otters will approach humans, particular in places like this where they are unaccustomed to seeing us around.  What surprises me most is that this otter has not only come so close, but is actively drawing my attention towards himself to show my his fury that I’ve invaded his territory.

Immediate I hit the deck, and throw myself to the rocky floor, water swishing around me.  I don’t care much about getting wet, but I do care about disturbing a wild animal that is in its home territory here.  Perhaps if I lie still, he might think I’ve gone, and come ashore to eat his meal.  In truth, however, I’m far too close to the shoreline to avoid being seen – the otter’s eyesight might not have great definition, but he will know every rock of this shoreline piece by piece, and can recognise easily when something is out of place. 

The otter swims away and I sit tight, allowing the rhythm of the shoreline return to normal before I get up and move on.  The light is fading, the sun is about to set (although on a cloudy day like today, sunset is more a theoretical event of the clock than anything else), and I have a long walk ahead of me to get back home.  The opportunity to photograph the otter has gone.  Or has it?

I climb back up to a peak in the rocks, a place that affords me a view of a good stretch of shoreline, and see the otter fishing again in another area around the bay.  I have to be careful: if I’m going to make an advance, I need to be absolutely certain I’m not going to disturb him for a second time.  This means keeping my distance, finding a good position where I’m well hidden, and sticking to it.  Slowly and painfully, I work my way between the rocks, high up on the land, moving only when the otter is underwater, until I finally reach a position high up from which I can look down upon the rock where the otter is repeatedly coming to shore.  I’m behind a wall of rocks with a small gap in them – if I stay here, I’m as certain as I can be that I won’t be seen.  And so once again the otter comes to shore, with a crab, and I start photographing.  He flips the top off the crab onto the rock in front of him where it lies in the picture, just about to be swept away by the incoming wave, and tucks into the fresh, succulent meat of the crab.  By now the light is very dim, and I’m forced to use slow shutter speeds which blur the water – I’m just hoping there may be the odd moment in the otter’s feeding frenzy where I can catch some sharpness in his eye that is needed for the picture to work.

The otter continues fishing, coming back to the same rock several times with crabs aplenty, one after another, before moving on. 

Once again, I stay in place for a good fifteen minutes afterwards, waiting to make sure he’s gone and that I’m not going to disturb him by getting up now and moving.  It’s dark now, and time to begin the long walk back across the grasslands, which I’m able to navigate through by following the wild goat tracks.  This, coupled with a love of the land, which I know very well, makes certain that I can find my way from sea level up to a local trig point, and back to the house, all in the pitch black without using my torch, map, compass, satnav, or any other modern gadgets. 

With over 20 kilos of equipment on my back, it’s a gruelling walk.  But navigating through this wild and remote area in the dark, unaided by technology, makes me feel closely in touch with nature, which can be full of such unexpected pleasures. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Time for a rebrand!

It’s been a good long while since I posted on this blog – in the meantime, I’ve been doing some thinking and asking myself all sorts of questions about my images and their meanings.  Questions about the subjects I write about and want to share here.

And so the rebranding: Human Nature.  It’s nature, we know it – or, as how we as humans think of it.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the role of animals and natural images in the human imagination and mythology, and that is where my photography begins.
In ancient, mythological stories, as well as in the images depicted in paintings from prehistoric times to great masters of the second millenium, animals often take on a magical, supernatural appearance, and it’s this magic and super-nature that interests me.  Not because I believe in the magical or the supernatural, I don’t; instead, it seems clear to me that people in ancient times must have had a sense of deep connection with nature to the point where real-life encounters with animals, plants, woodlands, etc, led to the experience of some magic moments that triggered their imagination, generating magical stories and associations.  Perhaps it’s a moment of where the light reflects in a certain way, or a mysterious encounter in the dark. 

Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

It’s this kind of magical encounter with real-life nature which triggers such stories of magic that I want to seek out for myself and depict in my photos.   All my photos show real-life encounters with nature.  I shoot and process my photos digitally, but I don’t construct images after the event or carry out techniques of digital manipulation.  I’m concerned with finding the natural facts behind the myths, since the facts often reveal that nature in its purest form can be experienced as fantastically and emotionally as in any myth or story of magic.

What is this emotion, this instinct for a connection with nature? It’s an instinct that every child has, but it isn’t childish.  A primeval instinct that we undoubtedly share in some was with our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, but it isn’t primitive in the crudest sense of the word.  It's nature as we have come to experience it internally.

So, for now, let’s call it ‘human nature’.