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Welcome Everybody

Hello - Welcome. The purpose of this site is to document my experiences photographing wildlife and nature throughout Australia and abroad.  I hope you find the content interesting and educational, and the images  cause you to reflect on how important it is preserve natural places and their inhabitants.

All wildife has been photographed in the wild and animals are NOT captive or living in enclosures.

For me photography of the natural world is more than just pretty settings and cuddly animal photos. It's a concern for the environment and the earth all living creatures must share.

Note that images appearing in journal posts are often not optimally processed due to time constraints.

You are welcome to comment on any post.

 

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Conservation Matters.....

Thursday
Oct102013

Meet the Thrombolites - Ancient Life in Western Australia

I’ve spent the last few weeks in Western Australia exploring some of the region south of Perth.  My main aim was to find and photograph a number of orchid species found only in the south west of the state amongst the vast stands of Karri, Tingle, Tuart and Jarrah forests.  I also was keen to photograph the ancient mound-like algal mats called thrombolites that are known to inhabit areas along the coastal zone.

LEFT:  Thrombolite community, Western Australia (click image to view larger)

Thrombolites and Stromatolites - Biology and Life History

Many individuals have heard of stromatolites.  These ancient organisms (prokaryotes) are partly responsible for release to the atmosphere of increasing levels of oxygen.  This oxygen slowly replaced the methane-dominated atmosphere prevalent during the Achaean Period.  The microbes that form thrombolites and stromatolites produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis and precipitate calcium carbonate (biogenic limestone) which create the slow-forming dome-like structures.  Thrombolite communities only occur in warm, shallow, hypersaline and well lit waters.  

Thrombolites and stromatolites are a major constituent of the fossil record for about the first 3.5 billion years of life on earth, peaking in abundance approximately 1.25 billion years ago before declining in abundance and diversity by the start of the Cambrian Period.  Declining diversity is thought to be primarily because of the increase in grazing-type animals, such as gastropods, that evolved from the beginning of the Cambrian Period.

Growth rates are slow and are around 10 cm per 100 years; but it must be remembered that only they outer layer of the mound is alive.

Modern thrombolites and stromatolites are uncommon.  Specific environmental conditions are needed for their long-term development which includes a high temperature and hypersaline environment where the occurrence of grazing creatures is minimal.

What are Thrombolites and how do they differ from Stromatolites

Thrombolites are clotted, accretionary structures, formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding, and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria.  They exhibit a coarse, clotted fabric and laminae, if present, are indistinct.
The stromatolites are similar, but are well laminated with the outer surface displaying small, discrete knobs.  

Both thrombolites and stromatolites precipitate calcium carbonate; however the former precipitates aragonite, a carbonate mineral which is a crystalline form of calcium carbonate.  

LEFT:  Cross section showing internal structure of thrombolite and stromatolite.

Rarity

Thrombolites and stromatolites are not common and are “Living Fossils”.  They provide a key to the past as their form, structure and biology has not changed since their heyday in the Achaean Period.

Casuality of their own Success

Plate tectonics, and the competition for space, took their toll on the primitive thrombolites.  They were eventually a casualty of their own success. Newly evolving organisms were thriving in the improved oxygenated conditions, and found the thrombolites to be a very tasty meal.  They were slowly eaten off the face of the Earth.

Their legacy however, is the Banded Iron Formations (BIFS) that are backbone of the mining industry in Western Australia.  BIFS form by the oxidation of iron locked in sediments and could not have occured without an oxygenated atmosphere for which the thrombolites and stromatolites were largely responsible.  

The Toyota Landcruiser I drive would not be a possibility if these amazing organisms had not evolved…

Glossary

Hypersaline – A water body that has a very high concentration of sodium (salt)
BP – Before present
Plate Tectonics – The movement of the outer part of the earth’s crust due to eaerth’s interior heat
Lacustrine – Lake
Laminae – Layers added above each other similar to a layer cake
Gastropods - Phylum Mollusca comprising the snails and slugs
Achaean Period – Geologic Eon ~4000 – 2500 million years ago
Cambrian Period – Geologic Period ~550 – 490 million years ago
Quaternary Period – Geologic Period ~2.5 million years ago until present day

Friday
Jun142013

Shingleback Crossing - Stop and Lend a Hand

Road kill is always on my mind when I travel in Australia.  More often than not, I see dead or maimed animals along the road verge; the by-product of modern, high speed motor transport.  The further one travels away from the city limits the more prolific road kill can become.  

LEFT:  A shingleback lizard is given a helping hand to cross a busy highway in South Australia (click for larger view).

On a recent trip to South Australia, the time taken to travel between points was longer than normal.  The culprit that was slowing my travel was a relatively small slow moving animal protected by a heavy armour of interlocking  pine cone-looking scales; it was the Shingleback Lizard (Tiliqua rugosa), often referred to as the pinecone or stumpy-tailed lizard.  

It appeared that every time I gathered driving speed, I’d witness yet another "pinecone" crossing the road.  Sometimes they would amble quite briskly across the centre-line, only to stop and raise their head, sensing the vibrations of an approaching vehicle, before doubling back into the direct line of the vehicle.  I was stopping several times within a few kilometres, to dismount and rescue these ancient-looking dinosaurian-looking reptiles.

Brief Natural History

Shingleback Lizards, the largest lizard of the Skink family, live alone for most of the year; however, between September and November reunite as monogamous pairs.  Shinglebacks are often seen crossing roads in pairs, with the male following the female; the same pairs may unite every year during the mating season.  With the life expectancy of a shingleback reaching approximately 20 years and the fact that they are monogamous, it’s important that individual lizards are not squashed unnecessarily into the bitumen by uncaring motorists.

Unique Facts - say no to"SEX" with your brother

One very interesting aspect of shingleback reproduction is the ability of the lizards to discriminate between kin and non-kin, even after being separated from their mothers after birth.  This observation has been scientifically tested by observing that they preferentially direct attention and tongue flicks to related over non-related individuals (Main & Bull, 1996).  The mechanism for this unusual ability is unknown, but probably involves olfactory cues.  Whatever the mechanism, not reproducing with your “brother or sister” has obvious genetic benefits and cannot be dismissed.

Reptiles are ectothermic meaning they derive their body warmth directly from the environment.  This is one reason why you never see reptiles during the winter months or on cold overcast days.  It's also another reason that you often see reptiles sunning themselves on the road verge; the bitumen is warm.  To aid in warming itself, the shingleback has the ability to arc and flatten its body extending its scales so that they present a greater surface area towards the sun.  An added benefit to this solar warming is defence; flattening itself the shingleback can appear larger in size.  The posture and size also mimics a highly venomous snake called the death adder.

LEFT: A meeting and mutual respect; a shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) is carefully carried across the highway (click for larger view).

Foraging Strategies and Navigation

Foraging strategies change throughout the year among sexes.  During the two months before mating males use a time-maximization strategy, while females use an energy- maximization strategy.  During mating when lizards are paired, the male eats significantly less than the female whose eating habits do not alter.  During this time the male maintains a distance of a few centimeters behind the female.  This behavior when paired, presumably suggests that males are on the alert for rival males.  Bull & Pamula (1998) discovered that females can detect danger far more quickly when paired than when alone, and when paired the female earlier when the male is feeding.  They suggested this behavior maybe an adaptation for identifying large predators, such as dingoes, feral cats and wedge-tailed eagles when plant food is only available at exposed locations.

A study by Freake (2001) found that the lizard can use celestial cues as a navigational strategy to return to its home range. It detects these cues using its parietal eye, perhaps functioning as a celestial compass.  

Not a Klutz

If you have read this far, you’ll realize that the Shingleback is not just a slow-moving armoured klutz, but a marvel of evolutionary design.  Therefore, the next time you see a "pinecone" crossing the road, give way to the shingleback.  Better still, stop your vehicle and give the lizard a helping hand.

Sunday
Jun022013

Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) Tasmania

Saturday evening there was the chance that an Aurora maybe visible from high latitudes due to a coronal mass ejection (CME).  A CME is an ejection of a large amount of solar plasma (mostly protons and electrons) and magnetic fields from the Sun. Most CMEs are ejected into space nowhere near the Earth. Those that do impact Earth can disturb the Earth's magnetic field and lead to a subsequent disruption of the ionosphere which is observed as an Aurora.

LEFT:  Image showing coronal mass ejections from the sun (copyright Rollin Bishop)

In the southern hemisphere an Aurora is called the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) and in the northern hemisphere the same event is called the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).

Although this Aurora wasn't particularly intense, it was still worth the short drive from Hobart.

Thursday
May232013

Wildlife Conservation & Anti Pouching (talk) - IAPF

The talk below was held on May 4, 2013 at the Sydney Opera House in Australia to a sold out audience.   

Damien Mander is an ex Special Forces (Special Air Service/SAS) operative who, after had a successful career in the military, made a personal decision to preserve wildlife and end the horrific poaching that is decimating Africa’s wildlife.   Damien founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) based in Zimbabwe.

Damien discusses the urgent need for conservation on a global basis.  He concludes his talk with an interesting question, one which I believe all of us who photograph animals need to ask ourselves.

I strongly recommend you listening to Damien in the embedded video below.

 

Friday
May032013

Fossil Flora - Photographing Plant Fossils In Situ - Part Three

For the most part nature photographers strive to capture their subjects in the early morning and late afternoon when the light is lower to the horizon.  During this “golden hour” the colours are highly saturated and are much more pleasing to the eye than if the photograph was taken during the middle part of the day in full sun.  However, photographing fossils in-situ is a little different as often there was a few hours hiking to find the fossils and it wasn’t possible to wait until early morning or later afternoon to take the photograph.

Techniques

It's important to realize that photographing fossils is identical to photographing anything else - there are no set rules - only guidelines.  Use your imagination and the equipment you have on hand.  The process to photograph fossils in-situ is nothing magical; however, there are a few techniques that will improve the photographs markedly.

  • Always use a quality tripod and ball head that when locked down, is tight and does not move.  A tripod that allows the ability of the head to be maneuvered to odd positions is a distinct advantage when photographing something that cannot be moved and is probably located in a relatively inaccessible location (rock crevice, overhand, etc).
  • Fossil leaf photography is essential macro photography; therefore, use quality lenses and if possible a full frame camera.  Ensure you use a timer release as many of your images will be taken at slow shutter speeds to ensure adequate depth of field.  
  • Use a solid board to mask your subject from the wind.  The wind is quite normal in mid latitude arid areas and can cause camera movement if shooting at a slow shutter speed.
  • Use a reflector board and largish diffuser to remove stark contrasting lines that may otherwise ruin your image if you are shooting during the middle parts of the day.  
  • Make use a fill flash to add, remove or change the location of shadows.  Use a wireless flash head (or similar) to avoid any camera movement that maybe caused by the flash head or cord moving.  A remote head also allows you to position the flash (s) at suitable distances and at odd angles to your subject.  
  • Do not use ETTL, but use M (manual) to determine the exposure setting for the flash.  You do not want a 100% flash photograph, but an image that was taken with a subtle amount of fill flash.
  • Try to use a diffuser with your flash.  I’m not discussing the small “clip on” diffusers but, a largish diffuser that can be held at varying distances from your flash head.  A diffuser will lower the starkness of the light emitted from the flash.  Using a flash as a fill light will enhance the light that may otherwise cause an object in plan-view to appear flat and uninteresting.
  • Be aware of the colour of your surrounding environment; central Australia is predominately red (from iron oxides) and photographs taken will inadvertently take on a reddish colour cast.  
  • Ensure you white balance your images appropriately.  Although this can be done in post processing, I prefer to take my time and white balance the images in the field; after all, the fossils are not going anywhere in a hurry…  I use a white balance card.
  • Depending upon what you are attempting to achieve, position the camera lenses at the appropriate angle to the subject.  For instance, if you wish to create a scientific photograph in which the complete fossil is shown, position your camera and lenses so that the lens plane is parallel to the subject.  This will ensure that the fossil (in plan-view) will be in focus, even if using minimal depth of field.
  • If your photographs look flat and lack texture because of the bright light from shooting in the middle of the day, try spraying some water from  small squeeze bottle onto the fossil.  Often, a little water will make the colours and texture of an otherwise flat object pop.

The below images are case in point.  The photograph on the left was taken without a diffuser or fill flash while that on the right was taken with a diffuser, soft fill flash and a quick spray of water on the rock.  Conditions were full sun.  Note the subtle differences in colour, texture and shadow.  Click image for larger view.

Composition

Fossil photography is often done for scientific purposes; therefore, the photographic layout must comply with certain guidelines such as the inclusion of a ruler or known size object to provide a scale.  The subject should also be photographed completely flat with all aspects of the fossil in focus.

However, if you’re not bound by these guidelines, composition is very important.  Position the fossil so it’s at an angle rather than vertical or horizontal; using angles gives your subject more visual power.  Try using minimal depth of field to add illusion to your image or attempt to place something in the image which provides scale.  

Looking at three images below, you will note the leaf in the right hand photo is at an angle forming a triangle in the image, while the center image shows part of the landscape surrounding the fossil and places the fossils in context with its surrounding environment; this creates interest.  Finally the Eucalyptus leaf I have positioned vertically with the apex of the leaf pointing downwards.  The reason for this composition is that it replicates the way extant (present day) eucalyptus leaves appear on trees – pointing downwards. 

If you navigate to the second journal post on this subject you will observe that I’ve also used minimal depth of field on one of the leaves to provide illusion.

Problems or Challenges

If you cater towards everything mentioned, you’ll almost need a mule to transport your equipment.  Carrying the gear was one of my biggest concerns on this trip.  We were walking considerable distances for most of the day in very warm temperatures.  Carrying the photographic equipment, food and other essential items such as map, compass, DGPS and 5 litres of water was tedious.

Add to this a constant wind and bright sunny conditions, and photographing fossils became an enjoyable challenge.

This is a short video I made of the trip. The reason for the relatively lengthy four wheel drive sequence is to indicate the length of time it took to reach the location.  If your computer is not powerful, click HD to remove High Definition and view at a lower resolution.

The below plate depicts a few of the fossils found and photographed in-situ.  No fossils were removed or collected; this being an illegal activity in Australia.  I have purposely not included the identification of each fossil.  Click image for larger view.

This is the final post of three dealing with this excursion.  To read the first post and second post click here.