Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Survival In The Bow Valley

Hello everyone,

I wanted to share this story with you as it is one of the best wolf encounters I've been lucky enough to have. The story took place in April last year when I was living in the Canadian Rockies. It appeared in Banff's local newspaper and was my first published article as a wildlife photographer. 

I hope you enjoy it...

The Bow Valley, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The Canadian Rockies draw people from all corners of the planet, to enjoy the numerous activities they have to offer. Whether it’s the skiing and snowboarding in winter, or the year round beauty of the national parks, there will always be people here. But we are not alone. We share this valley with some of the worlds most amazing wildlife. While most valley residents are able to see animals like deer and elk walking around town or grazing in our gardens, only a small percentage of us are lucky enough to encounter some of the rarer animals that live in the park.
I came to Banff nearly two years ago, with the intentions of finding and photographing some of these magnificent creatures.
A few weeks ago, I was out early in the morning looking for my first bear of the season. After a few hours of driving around without any luck, I spotted a cow moose standing in the middle of the Bow River.
She was pacing back and forth in the deep water, and it was clear to me that something had spooked her. Taking a closer look, I noticed that she was badly injured. One of her back legs had skin torn from it and was bleeding profusely. There were also some smaller injuries around her chest and fore legs, consistent with an attack by wolves. I spoke with a local man who claimed he had seen several wolves in the area about 30 minutes before I arrived on the scene. A blood trail along the road, led to a small clearing about a kilometer away where the initial attack took place.

The cow moose retreats to the safety of the Bow River - Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Thinking that the wolves would return again, I spent the next few days watching the moose to see what might happen, staying at a distance so as not to cause her any unnecessary stress. The morning after the attack, I found her in the middle of the river again, and there were fresh tracks along the snow on the banks. The wolves had returned during the night but the deep water had once again provided some safety for the moose.
She spent the next few days lying on the bank of the river, retreating to the water whenever a coyote walked by or she felt threatened by something. Finally, five days after she was first attacked, the wolves returned. The moose was back in the river instantly while three of the wolves watched her from the bank.

'Spirit' sniffs along the riverbank to locate the moose, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
'Spirit' follows the injured moose along the riverbank, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
'Spirit' and daughter 'Blizzard' watch the moose from the icy riverbank, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

The stand-off  lasted about 15 minutes until eventually the wolves vanished into the trees. When they reappeared, the moose was standing in slightly shallower water. ‘Spirit’, the alpha male of the pack, saw an opportunity to try and get the moose to run again so that the others could begin another attack. He paced along the bank a few times and then went charging into the river. 

'Spirit', the alpha-male, charges into the river after the moose, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

The moose ran only a few meters and then turned to face him, standing her ground. This put a stop to the charge immediately and Spirit quickly returned to the safety of the river bank. He was recently kicked by a moose during an attack and was unable to stand for two days! This lesson has clearly taught him to be more careful of these huge animals. Even when injured, they are still capable of delivering a fatal kick.

'Spirit' stares at me as he walks along the ice of the riverbank, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Eventually the wolves left once more and for two more days nothing happened. After an entire week of watching and waiting, I decided to take a morning off to catch up on some sleep. That morning, a grizzly bear showed up. I watched footage of the bear chasing the moose across the river and into the trees. Even though her injuries were causing her to limp badly, when the adrenalin kicked in, she ran like the wind! She reappeared further downstream and shortly afterwards, the bear emerged looking confused and sniffing around for clues as to where she had gone. For the first time in eight days she was nowhere to be found.
I began to think that she was gone from sight for good or that she had been killed elsewhere, but to my surprise I spotted her again over a week later in exactly the same spot in the river, still limping very badly. It can sometimes take a pack of wolves several weeks to take down a moose so it looks like they might still win this ongoing battle. However, we may never know how it ends.
This is just one of many interesting tales about the daily fight for survival facing wildlife here in the Bow Valley.

I'm hoping to photograph the Bow Valley wolves again this year when I return to live in the Rockies.

If you enjoy reading the stories behind my photographs, don't forget to subscribe to my blog. All you have to do is enter your e-mail address into the box at the top of this page and click 'submit'.

Thank you for reading!


Saturday, 26 March 2011

Gorillas In The Mist

The following post is about a trip I took a few years back to photograph one of my favourite animals of all, the mighty Mountain Gorilla.

In August of 2008, I returned to Africa to spend two months photographing the incredible wildlife there. I had been to Africa twice prior to this trip, but this would be the first time I took some half decent camera gear with me. It would also be my first time in Africa by myself and I was a little nervous to be honest. I was only twenty at the time and the thought of two months traveling across the continent by myself with all that gear was a little scary! However, the thoughts of what I would get to see and experience far outweighed the negatives, so off I went.

After nearly two weeks on safari, we had driven from Kenya, all the way through Uganda and reached Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda. After we had eaten lunch, we decided to visit the genocide museum which was nearby. When the Rwandan Genocide happened back in 1994, I was too young to understand what was going on. This was to be the first time that I really learnt about what had happened in this beautiful country.

I spent just under an hour inside that museum and eventually it was too much. I felt physically sick and had to get outside for some fresh air. I won't describe any of things that I saw in there, but it really affected me and I was relieved when we got back on the truck and took off towards the mountains. I tried to think about what was ahead, (I was going to see wild mountain gorillas!) but everywhere I looked I was constantly reminded of the country's bloody past. Every few miles we would pass a mass grave at the side of the road and many of the people I saw along the way were missing limbs. It was hard to feel excited.

Eventually we reached a town called Ruhengeri, where we would spend the next two nights. I went to bed early so that I was fresh and ready for the jungle hike the next day.

The first thing I did when woke up was vomit. I couldn't believe it! The side-affects of my Malaria pills had finally decided to take control of me on the most important day of the trip. Great. Throughout the course of the morning I was sick roughly twenty times and I was starting to feel really weak! We were taken to meet our gorilla guide and eventually driven to the base of one of the Virunga Volcanoes where we would be starting the hike.

By this point, I could barely stand let alone hike up a steep volcano though a thick jungle! I forced myself to keep going with every step but it was tough going and I had to keep stopping to vomit. Luckily I had a porter carrying my heavy camera gear otherwise there is no chance I would have made it more than a few feet.

After nearly four hours of hiking our guide stopped and told us we were getting close to the gorilla family. He gave us a few final tips: DO NOT hold eye contact with them and DO NOT run. Even if you are charged, you must stand your ground!

As we continued through the jungle, we began hearing this loud drumming sound. We were told that this was the silverback of the family beating its chest. What an incredible sound! After stopping to get our cameras ready, we were led into a clearing and were able to see the gorillas for the first time.

In total, there were nine mountain gorillas, a medium sized family. They were lying around in amongst the nettles and the thorns of the jungle and their weight had completely flattened the surrounding vegetation. They had created a clearing in which most of them were now feeding. The silverback gorilla began charging about beating his chest in front of us, within six feet from where we were standing. I was scared. Our guide reassured us that he was just proving to us that he was the dominant one and that he was in charge. I was still scared. Then our guide began communicating with the gorilla to let him know we were no threat to him or his family. After a short conversation in grunts between the two, this huge silverback settled down and began to eat like the others.

The Silverback keeps an eye on me as he eats - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

The Silverback Gorilla sits and stares - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

By this point, I had been hiking for nearly four hours and I had been vomiting constantly so that all I had left in me was water. I was so weak that I could barely lift my camera lens and after only five minutes of photographing the gorillas, I was unable to continue. The family group were slowly moving further and further into the thick vegetation of the jungle and I couldn't follow, let alone lift my camera one last time. I backed away from the clearing, lay down beneath a tree, and passed out.

A young male Mountain Gorilla - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When I woke up in the middle of the jungle nearly an hour later, I had no idea where I was. I was worried for a minute that the group had forgotten about me and left! Then I saw one of our armed guards standing nearby, his AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He was well camouflaged so I hadn't noticed him at first. I suddenly realized that there were two more guards posted around the tree that I was sleeping under! We were only fifty meters or so away from the Congo border so these guards had been told to stay with me as the rest of the group followed the gorilla family deeper into the jungle.

Can you see a second gorilla in this photo? - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When you visit the Mountain Gorillas, you are only allowed to stay with them for one hour. I only experienced five minutes of that hour. I found out later that one of the females had bought her baby out to show the group, which I'm devastated I missed. I only managed to get a few photos that I'm happy with so another trip back to Rwanda is a must!

The hike back down the volcano was over pretty quick. As soon as I got back to the compound that we were staying in, I went straight to bed and slept for the next fifteen hours. 

The following day I felt absolutely fine. The only illness I experienced on the whole two month trip to Africa, happened to come on the most important day of my visit. 

Just my luck.

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Thank you for reading!


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox

So here we are. After months of hard work I’ve finally launched my new website. This site contains some of my favourite photographs from my travels over the past two years and I’m pleased that you’re now able to view all of these images in one place.

I will be updating this blog with stories behind some of the more exciting and memorable wildlife encounters I’ve been lucky enough to experience.

I’m living the city life back in Wales at the moment, so exciting wildlife encounters are few and far between. I will start this blog off with the tale behind one of my most popular photographs, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’.

A Red Fox poses for me in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

During one of my photography trips to Jasper last year I spent many hours searching for a Red Fox to photograph along the Maligne Lake road. I had read in the information center that a fox had been seen several times that week on this amazing stretch of road. After many long hours driving back and forth along this road over several days without even a glimpse of a fox, I was starting to doubt that I would ever see one of these amazing animals in the mountains.

With my frustration becoming obvious, my driver Emma suggested we take a break and head into town to collect a jacket I had left with a friend a few days earlier. My friend Simone happened to work in a hotel on the edge of the Jasper townsite, so we pulled up to the entrance and I went inside. When I returned less than five minutes later, Emma was almost speechless.

''You missed a fox'', she said.

''Very funny'', I replied, wondering why she had decided to joke about our bad luck when I was clearly frustrated.

She held out her camera for me to look at and sure enough there it was, a small red fox walking past the car about a foot from where I was standing at the hotel’s main entrance. I couldn’t believe it! I turned to Simone and told her what had just happened. She smiled and told me that she sees that fox nearly everyday as it chases after the local ground squirrels.

I quickly grabbed my camera from the front seat of the car and ran in the direction of the fox. I came across a couple of people walking around behind the hotel and asked them if they had seen a fox pass by. After being pointed in couple of different directions and wondering around for nearly 15 minutes, I began to think that the fox had disappeared and that I’d missed my best chance of photographing one. I turned to head back to the car and all of a sudden there it was, walking towards me no more than 20 feet away!

Red Fox chewing a piece of wood - Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

This fox was clearly used to humans and didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence as I knelt down in front of it and began snapping away. After about five minutes of posing, he turned and walked away towards the forest. I followed, walking almost alongside him which felt like I was out walking my dog. It was quite a hot day, but instead of heading into the shade of the trees, this fox chose to curl up beneath an old trailer at the back of the car park! Perhaps he’d had enough of the peski photographer following him or maybe he was just really tired. I decided that one last photo would be enough so I sat down on the ground, so close I could have reached out and patted him on the head. I took my final photograph and after checking it briefly on my camera’s LCD screen, I got up slowly and walked away.

The fox sleeping beneath a disused trailer - Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

And so that is where I left him, curled up asleep with his back resting against the tire of an old trailer. It was not what I was expecting for my first encounter with a wild fox, but what an amazing experience nonetheless!

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