Wednesday, November 30, 2016


The emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is a large, flightless bird, in the ratite group, second in size only to the ostrich (found in Africa).  Native to Australia, the emu’s closest relative is the much more rare, and colorful cassowary.  New Zealand’s kiwi is another, slightly more distant, relative.

A few emus are farmed in New Zealand, but we also have an opportunity to see them in captivity at our local wildlife park.  The ones that I have photographed are at Orana Park, in Christchurch.  The emu is not endangered, so there is no rearing program for them here, nor are they likely to be the subject of a research project.  They are kept at the park so that people can observe them behaving naturally in an outdoor, semi-wild environment.

The birds often pace up and down along the fence line emitting a booming sound.  It is mostly the females that produce this noise, while males make a grunting sound.  An inflatable throat pouch creates the booming, which if emitted at high intensity, may be heard up to 2 kilometres away. 

On hot days the staff turn on a hose to create a temporary pool in their enclosure, which the emus use for bathing.  They sit in the pool, immersing their feathers, then stand up and shake off the water.  Although they can’t fly, emus can run very fast.  They have powerful beaks, so visitors need to be wary of getting too close to the wire.  In the wild, they should not be approached, as powerful legs and feet can inflict a damaging kick.

Emus’ soft feathers are very attractive, so it can be tempting to stroke them.  However, this is probably not an impulse to give in to!

Friday, April 8, 2016


Orana Park, a wildlife facility here in Christchurch, recently acquired three male gorillas from Taronga Zoo in Sydney.  They are western lowland gorillas, endangered in their West African homeland, and are part of an international zoo-breeding program.  

The oldest, and largest, Fataki (12) is a silverback, dominant over his much smaller younger brothers, Fuzu and Mahali (7), who are nevertheless inclined to tease their elder brother.  They chase each other around the enclosure and beat their chests, hooting loudly.  In spite of these apparent displays of aggression, gorillas are generally peaceful animals unless seriously upset.  They are great fun to photograph, the challenge being to keep the building and other unnatural bits and pieces out of the image. 

It isn’t too hard to get a nice portrait, but capturing interaction between them is a little more difficult, and I don’t yet have anything I’m happy to post (watch this space).  A dark, or black subject is always challenging.  Because the jutting brows obscure the eyes I find that I have to work hard to see them clearly, but lightening ‘shadows’ in the raw file in Lightroom helps a lot.

New Zealand blue duck

The blue duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) is an unusual duck, and a rare New Zealand endemic.  It inhabits fast flowing rivers and streams and nests on the ground, usually by the river.  So not only are eggs and ducklings vulnerable to stoat predation, but nests are frequently lost through flooding.

In 2002, a predator control program funded by Solid Energy was set up the Oparara Valley, where a few ducks survived.  The current management program is a joint effort between the Department of Conservation and Genesis Energy, and also involves local school children in rearing juvenile ducks to be released into the catchment.  From only four individuals in 2002, the population has now risen to fifty.

Blue ducks are excellent swimmers and totally at home in fast flowing water.  Their upper bill ends in a broad, fleshy, overlapping tip, which allows the duck to scrape insect larvae from rock surfaces without wearing away its bill.  The Maori name for blue duck is ‘whio’, the high-pitched whistling sound made by male ducks.  Although not easy to find, blue ducks are generally tolerant of people, and seldom fly. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Humpback Whales

Niue is becoming renowned as a hotspot for viewing humpback whales.  The Pacific populations head north from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic to breed in warmer tropical waters, mainly around Samoa and Tonga.  In recent years, Niue has increasingly become a breeding area too, so that whales are active around the island for much of the winter, between June and September. 

Although there are operators running ‘swimming with whales’ tours, which are very popular with tourists, I prefer to watch from the shore.  While on Niue, on several occasions I watched a tourist boat approach a whale, which then dove and surfaced again some distance away.  Rather than leave the whale alone, the boat then approached again, forcing the whale to dive once more.  Although I believe that most operators are reasonably sensitive to the wellbeing of the whales, under pressure from enthusiastic visitors, I cannot help but feel there is likely to be some degree of harassment.  These whales travel a long distance to breed and do not feed again until they return to Antarctic waters, living off their stored fat reserves. 

If swimming with whales is regarded as the ultimate experience, viewing from the shore is amazing and very satisfying for me.  We regularly heard whales at night from our cliff top accommodation, and watched them during the day from many superb vantage points around the island.  We saw females with calves, copulating pairs, breaching and spy hopping.  One of the best viewing spots was the Sails Bar, brilliantly situated on a headland with a 180-degree plus view out over the ocean.  On one occasion, a whale breached very close to shore while we were walking on the reef platform, giving us a real appreciation of the size of these animals.  I didn’t get my camera out fast enough to capture the moment, but I shall never forget it.  Many times we watched whales cruising past close to the surface, easily visible through the clear water.  I was surprised at how fast they travelled in their seemingly unhurried fashion.

Overall, I believe that tourist operations benefit nature conservation, as without public appreciation of the value of nature, humans are more likely to exploit the natural environment for gains of a more damaging kind.  Personally I prefer a more ‘hands-off’ approach, watching nature from a distance without interaction because I am more interested in how wildlife relate to each other than to humans.

I found the photography difficult, even though we had such good views of the whales.  Being fast on the shutter button was important, because they travelled fast and were out of the water for only a short time when breaching or spy hopping.  The light wasn’t always easy, either.  During the day it was often harsh with high contrast.  Also, because some of the activity was at a distance, the sensor of my camera (Olympus E5) didn’t have enough megapixels to allow as much cropping as I would have liked.  In addition, when the light was better at the ends of the day, there was less of it; so to maintain a high shutter speed the necessary high ISO resulted in a lot of noise with the Olympus (or the compromise lower shutter speed gave a blurry image).  With my new Nikon D750, I would get far less noise, better definition, and more detail in the shadows.  So now I need to plan my next visit!