By Benjamin Olson, Minnesota, USA: I remember my first encounter with baiting owls quite vividly. During a week long trip to the Sax Zim Bog to photograph the resident Great Gray Owls I had an encounter with another gentleman who introduced a different kind of photography to me: Manipulation. For the first couple days I thought the use of live bait was an interesting method, and I even photographed the birds that other photographers were baiting. But as I began to think more thoroughly about consequences of using live bait, I began to feel remorseful and even began to regret that I had even taken the images in the first place. During that week I watched this man feed ~150 mice to the Great Gray Owl and a Northern Hawk Owl, and at one point I even saw the Northern Hawk Owl come grab mice out of his hands. This was my breaking point. I deleted all of the images I had captured of the two owls influenced by bait and began a project that has altered my approach to wildlife photography.
For the past year I have immersed myself into the habitats of the animals that I wished photograph, with the philosophy that if I spend enough time with these creatures they will become accustomed to my presence and allow me to photograph them within close proximity without the use of any baiting or calling methods. My goal is to create wildlife images without any habituation or association to humans as a food source, or to impart any negative repercussions on the animal or habitat because of my presence.
During this year’s Snowy Owl irruption I ran into the same problem with people baiting, just as I did the year before. People were feeding the owls directly on the roads, using “fake” mice tethered to fishing poles to lure them, and even putting mice into hamster balls and under aquariums to prevent the birds from obtaining them. I was infuriated, to say the least. I almost gave up searching for the white owls, let alone photographing them because the way people were behaving out in the field. I couldn’t stop my search, and persistence finally paid off. Over the course of two and a half months I spent a third of my time working with a single female Snowy Owl. At first, she wouldn’t allow me within 200 yards, but as the winter progressed and I monitored her body language, I was able to get her accustomed to me. By the end of my time with her, she would allow me within 10 feet, all of which was done without feeding her or calling her once.
After scouting out a couple of locations on Day 1 of our time in San Francisco for the 2014 National Geographic BioBlitz, Neil Losin and I were on a mission to photograph as many species as possible before the event actually began. We knew that we could find lots of great subjects back at Tennessee Valley, but on our way there, we decided to stop at Fort Point, just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, to search for the San Francisco Fork-tail Damselfly (Ischnura gemina). This beautiful little insect is a rare, locally endemic species that can reliably be found in grassy ditches near the Fort Point parking area. Though it was a bit early in the spring, we had high hopes of finding an adult damselfly. Sadly, we had no such luck. However, while we were there I became rather obsessed with making a photograph of one of the many bumble bees in flight in front of the bridge and of course, MYN portraits of some of the species. After a few hours of this, and a bit of success, we moved on to Tennessee Valley.
As expected, this area was a goldmine of subject matter for us both. We began by finding what would be the first of many California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus). These fascinating, rather quirky Plethdodontid (or lungless) salamanders are equipped with extremely long tails and very tiny legs and feet. Adorable, yes, but these adaptions allow the small amphibians to move easily through the moist leaf-litter that they inhabit. A study published in 2013 suggests that rather being a single widespread species, B. attenuatus is actually a group comprising 39 species or more! We don’t know which of these provisional species our finds in Tennessee Valley represent, so we’re going to have to call it B. attenuatus for now!
From the outset, we had one species that we wanted to discover above all others: Aneides lugubris, the Aboreal Salamander. Its eastern relative, Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus), has fascinated me for years, so the chance to see a western cousin was a real thrill. Couple this with the fact that the Arboreal Salamander has teeth (you read that correctly) and I was hooked! Well, as luck would have it, about an hour into our shoot, Neil rolled over a log and found what we were looking for! I was tempted to do a cartwheel but previous experience told me that this wasn’t a good plan. However, we were definitely both in a celebratory mood, to say the least!
This fascinating animal showed no signs of aggression towards either of us. However, its powerful jaw muscles definitely hinted that if it decided to bite, it would do the job well. To residents of California who are familiar with this species, our excitement might seem silly, but there is something very satisfying about setting your sights on a target and finding it, particularly early in a trip.
This special species wasn’t the only cool thing we found at Tennessee Valley that morning. We also discovered a Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris), some cool centipedes (including one guarding a clutch of eggs), a nice Eumininae wasp, and several other nice invertebrates. What a way to start off Day 2!
After lunch, we traveled back towards the city to the meet up with National Park Service botanist Tanya Baxter at the Marin Headlands. Tanya had graciously agreed to help us locate some very special plants that were unique to the area. Marin County has an interesting blend of different habitat types, which makes it possible for a diverse spectrum of plant and animal life to co-exist there.
Up in the Marin Headlands, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge we had the privilege of finding some of the special plants of the area. We photographed several species of breathtaking wildflowers, including the Franciscan Paintbrush (Castilleja subinclusa ssp. franciscana), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and the Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), which is a larval food source of the federally protected Mission Blue Butterfly (Aricia icarioides missionensis). We photographed in the headlands until after sunset, when the Golden Gate Bridge was aglow with lights of passing cars. What an incredible end to the day!
by Clay Bolt, MYN Co-Founder and Contributing Photographer
For the past three years Meet Your Neighbours photographers have participated in National Geographic’s annual BioBlitz events. For this year’s event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, longtime MYN contributor Neil Losin and I were brought on-board by National Geographic to once again document some of the incredible plant an animal species that are native to the focus region. Washington contributor Les Meade also made the trip and kindly shared his knowledge of local reptiles and amphibians. Neil and I headed out to San Francisco with a wish list of species that we wanted to discover in mind and while we didn’t find everything that we had hoped for, we certainly found several that were at the top of our list.
Our shoot began on Wednesday afternoon shortly after we arrived in San Francisco. Neil and I had an early afternoon appointment to meet with National Park Service Aquatic Biologist Darren Fong who had previously agreed to point out several key species to us. One highlight was the Tomales isopod (Caecidotea tomalensis), a globally rare species that is only known to exist in a small number of ponds in California. We arrived at an area in the park called Tennessee Valley, which is good starting point for locating amphibians as well as a number of other species such as the Tomales Isopod. Since we were a little bit early, we started out by photographing some of the beautiful California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) that covered the hillsides near the parking area. Although many photographers have photographed this species, countless times before, we both couldn’t resist making a few quick shots before heading into a nearby wooded area in search of amphibians.
After photographing some cool species including an interesting, well-armed Hacklemesh Weaving Spider (Callobius sp) that we found sheltering beneath the bark of a moist log, we spotted a California Newt (Taricha torosa) navigating its way up a small stream. Since this was our first herp of the trip, we were obviously very excited to photograph it. We had no idea that we would soon be seeing dozens of the prehistoric looking creatures later on that day so great care was made to do our best to photograph it well. Next we moved onto a small pond on the property. Within minutes after arriving at the site Darren had already netted several of the rare ispopods, which are essentially aquatic relatives of the pill bugs that most people are familiar with. The challenge, of course, was photographing such a small, rather translucent organism in the MYN style.
Neil placed the isopod in a small container with a small amount of pond water, and after a bit of experimentation, was able to make several beautiful portraits of an animal that most people will never have a chance to see. I photographed a beautiful pair of damselfly nymphs (Zygoptera sp) and various stages of horsetails that I would later use to build the composite that you see below. As the night began to settle in we heard the first chirps of Pacific Tree Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) and suspected that if we were to come back later in the evening we would be rewarded with several opportunities to photograph the beautiful frogs in the MYN field studio.
At around 10 pm, Neil and I arrived back at the park. The night was fairly cool and we had the immediate pleasure of being serenaded with the “beep-beep-beeping” of a small Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) I, for one, had desperately hoped to see the bird since it was my first encounter, but I would have to be content with its song that was intermingled with the howls and yips of several coyotes who hunted close by. As we walked up the path towards the pond, the sound of the tree frogs began to grow louder and louder and we had to watch our steps as to not step on the multiple California Newts that were crossing our path. It had rained earlier in the day, which made this evening perfect for amphibians, and for eager photographers!
The sound at the pond was nearly deafening, and while we could hear many, many frogs, finding them was still quite difficult. Neil bravely waded into the surprisingly deep pond to photograph a male Pacific who was too busy looking for a mate to be camera shy and in doing so surprised an unidentified garter snake that was also interested in the frog for very different reasons. From time-to-time we heard a couple of different frog calls but we were unable to see or verify if they belonged to another species. We knew that California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) were found in the area, but unfortunately, we were unable to locate one.
After our time at the pond, we discovered some really unusual crickets including a stunning Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopalmatus sp) and this beautiful gray Cave Cricket (possibly Tropidischia sp) near where we had parked. Unlike true crickets, Jerusalem Crickets are wingless insects that primarily feed on roots and tubers, thought they will occasionally consume other insects as well. All in all, it turned out to be a very successful day and we were already on our way to finding some great species ahead of the BioBlitz!
Dr C’s goal will be to get the otter healthy and stable, and to acquaint him with other otter orphans his own age. Once old enough to be released, the group will be set free together in a suitable wilderness area. Juvenile wildlife is always a challenge for caretakers, and not all babies make it. Wildlife rehabbers such as Dr. C dedicate their lives to helping animals. From the sick, to the orphaned; their work doesn’t stop at 5pm-baby animals need to be fed every few hours. People like Dr. C work tirelessly to care four our pets and get wildlife back into the wild. Let’s thank them for all they do-for all the little otters out there!
Visit www.karineaigner.com for more of her images.
By Todd Amacker, Tennessee, USA: The East African country of Mozambique has gone through its fair share of changes in the last five or so decades. Soon after gaining independence from Portugal in 1975 (a dramatic affair in its own right), it entered into a civil war that would last nearly two decades as the country’s two main political entities attempted to sort out their differences. This was an incredibly trying time for Mozambicans, and even after the civil war ended in 1992, many problems persisted. The Mozambican economy was in disarray, but many Mozambican natives who had originally fled during the struggle flooded back into the country, one of the largest repatriations in Sub-Saharan history. The Mozambican economy has risen quite steadily ever since. But how did the natural world fair after all of this conflict? Not well. The good news, however, is that there are quite a few exciting projects happening right now in Mozambique that involve a trio of ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ contributors.
Gorongosa National Park, in central Mozambique, is in the midst of an extraordinary restoration under the helm of philanthropist Greg Carr and a team of scientists, local Mozambicans (some of whom are also scientists!), educators, and administrators. Piotr Naskrecki (Ph.D), a Harvard-based entomologist, has been named Associate Director of the soon-to-be-opened E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory right inside the Park itself. Naskrecki was blown away by the richness of life that he witnessed in Gorongosa, along with the diversity and pristine condition of the natural habitats found within, so he was keenly interested in making a modern biodiversity research laboratory a reality. Furthermore, the number of fascinating creatures he has been able to document against a white background leaves any viewer ready to pack their bags for East Africa!
Another Meet Your Neighbours contributor who has been stomping through the Mozambican bush in search of (mostly) reptiles and amphibians is Harith Farooq. He feels that they are a sensitive group. “Everybody knows about the worldwide amphibian diversity decline and regarding reptiles, snakes are actively killed for no reason in this country. Something I’d like to see end.”
As a child, he spent his days playing with bugs in his garden. He eventually left for Portugal to receive his university education, and, like many others, returned to Mozambique after receiving his Master’s degree. He’s now based at Lúrio University, in the coastal town of Pemba. This university trains up-and-coming Mozambican biologists. It’s also not a bad place to stroll along the beach looking for colorful star fish.
Another Meet Your Neighbours contributor busying himself in Mozambique is Todd Amacker. In 2011, along with a small group of dedicated volunteers, he founded MozCause. They’ve undertaken a project to restore a small primary school on the periphery of Banhine National Park in southern Mozambique. Their first goal is to improve the school’s derelict facilities, and their first project (which involves replacing a long missing roof) is nearing completion. This is a life-long project for MozCause’s members, and they plan to be around during what they think will be an equally impressive transformation of the surrounding National Park. MozCause’s partner, Búfalo Moçambique, has undertaken the first attempt to restore wildlife numbers in the Park.
To learn more about MozCause, visit their website.
Many thousands of wild plant and animal species live in the Anacostia River watershed, right in the heart of the Washington DC metro region, including Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. Meet some of this urban wildlife in this video made for the Anacostia Project as featured by contributor Krista Schlyer.
“The Amphibians” is a stunning new eBook featuring photographs of amphibians against a luminous white background from around the world, brought to you through a novel collaboration between the Amphibian Survival Alliance and Meet Your Neighbours, a worldwide photography project reconnecting people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps.
Of the photographic technique featured throughout the book, Meet Your Neighbours Co-Founder Clay Bolt says: “A brilliantly-lit white background removes the context, encouraging appreciation of the subject as an individual rather than a species. Their own form constitutes the composition. Seen this way, animals and plants we thought we knew reveal another side of themselves, encourage a second glance, perhaps even renewed interest”.
“The Amphibians,” which opens with introductions by Clay Bolt and ASA Conservation Officer Dr. Robin Moore, is a visual treat of kaleidoscopic colours and tantalizing textures – a true celebration of the beauty and diversity of frogs and salamanders, and an invitation to reconnect with these wonderful creatures. Please enjoy, and share widely.
Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA)
The Amphibian Survival Alliance is the world’s largest partnership for amphibian conservation, formed in response to the decline of frogs, salamanders and caecilians worldwide. Without immediate and coordinated action we stand to lose half of some 7,000 species of amphibians in our lifetimes. The ASA draws on cutting-edge research to protect amphibians and key habitats worldwide, in addition to educating and inspiring the global community to become a part of the amphibian conservation movement. www.amphibians.org
Meet Your Neighbours
Founded in 2009, Meet Your Neighbours is a worldwide photographic initiative that is dedicated to reconnecting people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps – and enriching their lives in the process. These creatures and plants are vital to people: they represent the first, and for some, the only contact with wild nature we have. Yet too often they are overlooked, undervalued. Meet Your Neighbours images have an instantly recognizable look. Each subject is photographed on location in a field studio. A brilliantly-lit white background removes the context, encouraging appreciation of the subject as an individual rather than a species. To date, MYN photographers have worked in over 60 places around the world. Learn more atwww.meetyourneighbours.net.
-By Todd Amacker, Tennessee, USA: When we last met, we learned about the extraordinary plant diversity that Longleaf pine trees allow to thrive in their light-filled understory. Not just a forest; not just a meadow, but both! An upside down forest, so to speak, with the overwhelming majority of its plant life flourishing in an area where most forests cast an enormous shadow during some (or all) of its seasons.
Frequent fires discourage the growth of pesky hardwoods, which makes way for a seemingly infinite amount of plant life. Pitcher plants, orchids, sundews, butterworts, meadow beauties, yellow-eyed grasses, wild blueberries, and myriad relatives of the mint family. Endemics of coastal plain longleaf alone count for 925 species. (And if you care to know, no place has as many species of Sarracenia, the largest genus of pitcher plants, than the state of Alabama, with nine. All but one are completely dependent on Longleaf pine.)
But this is only the beginning of the cascade of diversity found in Longleaf ecosystems. With so many tasty plants to consume, pollinate, lay eggs on, and hide in, insects flock to this ecosystem. Bees, ants, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, and wasps are lured in year-round by the sequential droves of flowering plants and tasty green leaves. By simply stepping foot into a Longleaf pine forest, especially during summer months, you’ll be met with a cacophony of insect sounds that would send any naturalist into a flurry. It’s best to get down on your hands and knees (watch out for snakes) so you don’t miss anything. You don’t want to miss out on finding a new species to science.
With such an impressive menu, Longleaf pine forests of the Southeast play host to an equally impressive collection of insectivores, including a rich diversity of amphibians and reptiles (not to mention hundreds of bird species, with a few being hopelessly dependent on Longleaf.)
Searching for frogs, one of my favorite pastimes, can keep one quite busy. Do they squawk, squeak, chirp, or bellow? These are clues to help you identify the some 30 species of frogs that can be found in longleaf pine forests. My favorite might be the little pine woods tree frog (Hyla femoralis), which can be found in the early morning clinging to clusters of dew-drenched leaves. There are also a staggering 56 species of reptiles that call longleaf home. Remember the snakes I mentioned to watch out for? The three largest in North America (the indigo, the black pine, and the diamondback rattlesnake) are all found in longleaf pine forests. But only one of those, the diamondback, could actually hurt you.
If you already live in the United States, and haven’t found your way to any of the Southeast’s lovely natural areas, please consider a Longleaf pine forest as your next stop. The Florida panhandle, North and South Carolina, as well as coastal Alabama and Mississippi are all good places to consider. Oh, and pitcher plants bloom in March and April. You’re welcome!
More of Todd Amacker’s photos can be found on his website.
By Juanjo Segura, Taos, New Mexico: Winter is ideal for bird photography. Birds are wearing their beautiful winter plumage, and they visit feeders more often. That’s because they have a greater need to find food and calories, which I’m happy to provide! Using snow as a white background instead of a diffuser provides great freedom of movement and naturalness, which I hope you’ll see exemplified in my photographs.
The steps to keep in mind are the same for photographing any wild birds that are attracted to your feeder. You choose a well-visited spot, set up the hide and the feeders, and allow time for the birds to get used to feeding comfortably. These images were taken over a 3 month period in the backyard of a house in Arroyo Seco, in the mountains of Taos, New Mexico.
The food I used was seeds for garden birds mixed with black sunflower seeds. But their absolute favorite is a homemade suet, which they love! The suet is simply a mixture of three equal parts of corn flour, lard and peanut butter. I prepare the perches so that I can place the food behind them in a way that it is hidden. I also use a drill to make holes that can be filled with food where I want the birds to investigate.
To use the snow on the ground as a natural white background, the perches should be nestled in the snow itself or close to the ground. To overexposure the snow in action photography you need a good amount of light. The days I prefer are cloudy yet bright. The brighter, without direct light, the better. If you don’t have a super-bright day, you can still use the snow as a white background. But then later, when processing, you will likely have to turn up the whites to get the pure white background.
By Dimitris Poursanidis, Greece: We’re well into February and the winter has not yet found its way to Crete. A few weeks ago the “Halcyon days” start. This is a special period in Europe, where for short periods winter “stops” and sunny days appear. During this period, some plants start to flower. Most of them have a bright yellow color, others have white, and rarely you will find purple. Iris is one of the exceptions. The name Iris comes from Ancient Greek mythology, as she was one of the mythological messengers of the gods of the rainbow.