As someone with the patience of a gnat, creaky knees and a modicum of style (OK, so I know I previously admitted to not being very fashionable
, but there are degrees to this!), I really admire anyone who can get up at the crack of dawn, sit in a hide for hours, drinking lukewarm tea from a thermos while wearing multi-pocketed clothing! These dedicated people were rewarded for their hard work and patience last week at the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2009 exhibition.
Sam Rowley, winner of the 11–14 year category is a quietly confident young man with a passion for wildlife and must be very persuasive to boot, as he talked his mother into taking him to Richmond Park for a dawn shoot of the deer there.
What a good job he did though as his shot of a deer with itchy antlers, entitled ‘Royal Headgar’, is a beautiful and striking image.
He described how he achieved this shot:
"My mum kindly agreed to take me down to Richmond Park, near my home, at dawn, so we got up at about 5:30 in the morning. We got there and I went to where I normally see them. Sure enough there was a herd of them there and all the males were in a small group together. I was taking the silhouettes of the deer against the sun – just the normal silhouette of this picture but without the bracken – and then I saw this one thrashing its antlers in the bracken. It had itchy velvet on its antlers so it thrashes around to get it off. When I went over to it, it lifted its head to check me out – only for a few seconds – and I managed to get this one photo, then he put his head down again and he’d got rid of all of it, so it was gone again.
Talk about the decisive moment!
Knowledge of animal behaviour can also work in the opposite way. Rob Palmer, from Colorado, spotted North American Bald Eagles behaving very oddly, catching Starlings and Blackbirds mid-air, when they generally catch fish and small mammals on the ground or pick up carrion. The prey were flying erratically so he followed the activity to its source to find out why.
"I was travelling the back roads of Eastern Colorado and there were a lot of farms with cattle feed lots and there was also a river running through there so I was just looking for birds. I noticed about 20 Eagles sitting in an old, dead Cottonwood tree in the back of the feed lot and I had no idea what they were there for because normally you get one or two, but twenty of them meant that there had to be something that was keeping them there. So I got permission to go into the feed lot, I parked my vehicle and just sat there and watched. They didn’t seem to be doing much, they were just sitting in the tree. Then, all of a sudden a couple of them took off and then I could tell by the way that they were flying that they weren’t just flying, they were chasing something. That’s when I saw them climb up into the sky and then all of a sudden they nabbed a Blackbird. Now that is really, really unusual. So I stayed there for the rest of the morning looking. I was taking some pictures at that time too but the light wasn’t very good so I came back the next morning and the same thing was happening but much more. Early in the morning there was a lot more action – Eagles were flying around catching Blackbirds and Starlings. This is not what Eagles normally catch. Bald Eagles normally only catch or eat fish or maybe a duck on the water but they don’t go after small birds.
Having got this great shot in a series of others, Rob went back to the feed lot owner and said: "Is there something you’re doing to the food? Do you poison the food to get rid of any of the birds?
He said: "Oh yeah we use poison to get rid of the blackbirds and starlings. So then I looked up on the web what the poison was and it was a neurotoxin – it affects the nervous system of these birds which was causing them to fly erratically and these Bald Eagles were just taking advantage of it and eating lots of them.
Rob spoke with the feed lot owner about the efficacy of the starling poison and pointed out that there were as many on day 10 of his trip as day one, so perhaps it wasn’t working and it was time to stop poisoning and the farmer agreed. Two days later, there wasn’t an eagle to be seen and the unique opportunity was over.
The poison manufacturer states that the effects would not pass along the food chain but Rob did see one eagle with a similar erratic flight path during his trip. Let’s hope it was something else causing it.
As you can see, the photographers I spoke to were all fascinating people, passionate about this astonishing world we live in and eager to share it.
Maybe I'll invest in a thermos after all…Now, where’s my alarm clock.
These images and more can be seen at The Natural History Museum from October 23rd to April 11th 2010.
Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.
Words and images by Jane Hobson