Sunday, May 27, 2007


I find knowing what to shoot is the first step to getting good shots. I spend more than half my unproductive time stumbling around dazed by the heat or by weary feet, looking for something to hold my eye.

In the field, disappointment is not a rare thing. Boredom fortunately for me is.

If memory serves, some big photographer once said to his teacher: Can you now please tell me what to point my lens at?
(1 and 2: Hawk moth; 3: Cicada)

PS. The wings of hawks moths beat at about 85 beats per second. The high frequency insects go as far as 1000 bps. They have muscles that respond with multiple contractions to each action potential so they can go past the upper limit set by neuronal firing. All that speed just to stay in the same place!

Friday, May 25, 2007

The law of unintended consequences: Lantana camara

Blue Tiger butterfly
A superficial glance at this post might lead you to think it's about butterflies. It is in an oblique fashion, but it's mostly about the plant they are all feeding on, Lantana camara. Lantana off course is an exotic, among ecologists a much reviled one.

The native range of this plant is in Central and South America and the Carribean. Lantana was probably introduced into India as far back as the 19th century. It has probably been introduced on multiple occasions as a ornamental or hedge plant. Since then it has nearly taken over the landscape in India, and is now found just about everywhere. It has the dubious honour of being listed as one among the top hundred worst invasive species in the world.

Common Rose butterfly
But it is not the damage that this weed does to local ecology, displacing native species, outcompeting them for resources that makes Lantana the poster-child for the "Law of unintended consequences". No that would be too simple, and many other contenders vie for that title. Whether it is the ill-fated attempt to get Indians to eat snails which now overrun the countryside eating their way through everything green or the cane toads in Australia. The world is rife with examples of human hubris gone awry.

Striped Tiger butterfly

Lantana carves a niche all its own though. It take things one step further. It not only makes itself ubiquitous it has also made itself indispensable. Well, perhaps that's going a bit far out on the line, but certainly key to many ecosystem processes. The key to this plant's success in novel habitats has been two-fold, it's wide tolerance for habitats and it's fruiting and flowering phenology.
Lantana camara flowers and hence fruits through out the year. This plant is a readily available, ubiquitous and massive source of nectar and fruits. With native plants out-competed and locally extinct, Lantana becomes the key source of nectar for many species of butterflies. It is similarly extremely important to several birds as a source of fruit available throughout the year.

Common Nawab
This double whammy means once established Lantana cannot be easily removed without serious ecosystem disruption. Some unpublished work has apparently suggested that several populations of Western Ghat species now rely on Lantana and a crash will be imminent if there is uncontrolled removal of this weed. This off course makes removal of this weed and subsequent restoration of local ecology difficult. Many parameters will have to be considered when attempting such an exercise.

Twany Coaster

Not that dealing with this invasive has been easy. Large seed loads mean that even burning and massive chopping are simply a set-back, not an eradication. This has been a hard hard weed to deal with incredible rebound capabilities. ATREE in Bangalore has been leading one of the more interesting efforts to deal with this menace.

Hawk moth (shot of the week!)
Lantana furniture! Made by tribals in the Male Madeshwara Hills in Karnataka, the project is an interesting mix of community involvement into conservation practices with payoffs for both. So all of you homesteaders who might want to buy furniture might want to give ATREE a call and check out their Lantana catalogue at their offices. You'd be doing your bit.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets(4): the canopy

Small green barbet
Everyone who popped in and said hi on the previous post, thanks. And here's the next 'how-to' promised.

It's very seductive to think of grandiose names for the unknown. The canopy has been called, in scientific literature, the final frontier. Like the deep oceans and space, who also lay claim on that moniker, it's relatively unexplored and the first few forays into it have yielded a lot that is new. The oldest method of trying to get at animals in the canopy was fogging, immensely destructive and unjustifiable (not to mention useless) if you wanted to photograph living animals.

Pariah or Black kite

Then came the more (ahem!) sophisticated methods, the canopy cranes, bridges, rafts, hides and ropes. But do what we might, the human monkey has lost his ancestral ease among branches. All these tools take us up a bit and down again with little lateral leeway. And most of all they are available to very few people, usually researchers and then for a very little time.

So here's the good part, I've found that for urban/semi-urban wildlife photographers there are canopy cranes aplenty. They are called buildings. Many many rooftops, balconies, windows are actually very close to trees, the canopy within touching distance. These can be absolutely great to watch and photograph what usually goes on above eye level.

Blue rock pigeon

Look out for places where trees are close to a opening and then look out in them for animal activity. Whether it's nesting or nest building birds or birds and other animals that come in to feed when the tree fruits or flowers, or even birds that come in to roost or perch. Keep an eye out for anything you can convert into a photographic opportunity. The great thing about this little window of access is the ability to peer from a ready-made hide (the building) into a usually secret world. And off course, eye-level shots that are so much more attractive than those belly shots from below.

Rose ringed parakeet
But that's so much for the larger birds and mammals, what about the insects? The truth is most of those canopy access techniques I spoke about were actually devised in order to reach the smaller creatures, the arthropods. These cannot be shot merely by looking out over a closeby branch. The long lenses don't get you quite that kind of magnification and you can't really get much closer to the animals.

Long horned beetle
There is however a sort of indirect way that you can get at these animals. The photograph of the long horned beetle was got by this technique. In all of my time of hunting in the undergrowth I've never come across one of these wood-boring beetles. Yet they are all over my bathroom.

Praying mantis

The basic story is this, the lights in our bogs are left on overnight and they attract plenty of insects. (You can increase the efficacy of capture by using insect attracting UV lights). I live a floor off the ground and the canopy is close to our windows, sometimes peering in. The insects that are attracted to the lights here are often from the upper canopy and not the usual ground and undergrowth dwellers. All I do is go look everyday for something interesting. You'd be amazed at what you can get. The moths in the Nat Geo story were entirely from an urban backyard. (That story began in the bogs as well.)

Praying mantis
I keep a few vials and containers handy with me, catch what is interesting and take it to a habitat similar to what it must have come from and then shoot it. The insect goes free, I get some shots. It's pretty much win-win. Off course you're not going to get any big behavior shots this way. But you do get some spectacular animals and portraits are usually tractable with a little knowledge of insect behavior and some gentle coaxing. The insects in this post are all bog-insects!

So go try out your very own canopy access system!

Others in this series: Wildlife secrets parts 1, 2 and 3.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Who's reading this?

I was saving this for some day when I was really exhausted. Today is that day. And for some day when my traffics improved a bit. It has since the wildlife photo secrets posts (1, 2, 3).

So here goes. Tell me who you are? Some of you I know, some personally. I know why some read this site, (p.s. they know me and enjoy watching me make a fool of meself!)

But there are many others, it'd be great to get to know who those readers are. I'd love to know why people read the things I write here, so I can write more of that stuff. And tell me if there's anything you'd like me to be talking about. Tell me which were the completely pointless posts and then be nice and tell me about the ones which were useful to you.

Say hi, willya?

P.S. Sorry to folks who use the feed reader and suddenly have a huge number of posts. They're all old except for this one, I merely added labels to them.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The animal is the environment

This insect, probably a homopteran, a heteropteran, has possibly the best camouflage trick in the world. It layers itself with the environment its in. Invisible under bits and pieces of detritus, wood, insect bodies, blending in completely with the background it can walk around with impunity.

The only clues to its being alive are the facts that it moves and you can just about make out its exposed eyes and antennae.

To enlarge click on the image

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Hmmm, remember that post about that competition I made? Well I'm in the finals :)!!! Winners will be informed June 30th, they usually announce finals results around October. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets(3): Getting close

Red wattled lapwing through grass
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." -Robert Capa. (Link to another site about Capa)Robert Capa, co-founder of Magnum, whose autobiography Slightly out of focus I recently read spent the best part of WWII getting close to the action. Its a hilarious read; he had to go through a lot to just stay in the war theatre with no passport and no press agency backing. He managed this feat of staying on in the war theater and close to the action with some amount of trepidation, at much risk to himself. He gained access mostly with a smile and with the lubrication on which he claims all armies move, alcohol (a strategy I haven't tried yet!)
Wildlife is both similar and different. Unlike people in wars, intent on their own purposes, wildlife notices your presence and reacts to it, usually by bolting. It's similar in that in some ways and sometimes it can be dangerous; for example with large carnivores, venomous snakes, etc. To get close, knowledge about your subject, its habits and capabilities, is paramount. I'll try and tell you what I have learnt. I'm still not as good as I would like and your own suggestions are very welcome.
Saw-scaled viper

Most wildlife: birds, insects, snakes, mammals, will react very quickly to motion. What this means is if you make sudden quick jerky
movements, you will be noticed and whatever you are shooting will run away. So learn to move slowly, smoothly. I have found this can require quite a bit of strength and agility, so develop those. And oodles of patience, the hardest muscle to build.

Even if you have been discovered, staying motionless afterwards makes animals forget about you and continue with their life after sometime.
Camouflage clothing is artform, no really, look at what the military has been upto with it. It's useful, certainly you can't be wearing bright white or red clothes and expect to go unnoticed. Dress appropriately to the environment you expect to be in. Quiet shoes, comfortable shoes, discreet colours. If you can camo your equipment as well.
This is actually one of the reasons I dislike shooting with other people. Silence obviously keeps attention away from you, but it does a second thing. If you are quiet you'll hear other things, you'll find subjects to photograph or you'll notice that elephant sneaking up behind you. So leave the Ipod behind ok? Shootings safer and more productive that way.
Don't smell
No really. Particularly with mammals, strong odours, deodorant/perfume is a guaranteed way of not getting any shots. Leave your vanity behind.

Mongoose cub eating temple offerings
Sit still
The classic wildlife mode of shooting off course is to stay in one place and let animals come to you, hide photography. Get a hide, a camo net and stay. Hedge your chances of getting close to something by setting up a hide near a resource an animal needs (water, food, salt lick, mating grounds) or a place an animal inhabits (nest, den, etc). As I said knowledge is everything. Also oodles of patience, and all of the above. Some people also use bait, I haven't yet, although I have sort of used food others have set out.
StalkingThis is a different kind of photography altogether. All but sit still applies, well actually sit still, move, sit still, move, you get the idea? Use the terrain, hide behind things, plants, stones, etc. Stay out of direct line of eyesight of your quarry. Use zig-zag or round about approaches to it. When there isn't anything to hide behind squat on the ground and move bent down.

Keep your camera close to shoulder high while approaching. Its hard to do this undetected when you're close. (Any other ideas here?)

Remember your limits, never get too close, you'll loose your shot or worse get bitten, gored or killed.
When in doubt err on the side of caution.Familiarize
Believe it or not animals do get used to you. Wear the same or very similar clothes. Be unobtrusive and completely non-threatening. Keep returning to the place that your quarry is, it will maybe eventually accept you as part of the landscape. True of birds and mammals, insects and reptile, probably not.

f5.6 and don't be there!
Camera traps are cool, and potentially expensive. So using remotes is also an option, stay close enough so you can trigger and guard your gear.

PS: the first 2 images link to my new Flickr gallery, following Strobist ideas on the service. Will see how it pans out.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Have you been wondering what the noise was? It's these...They make sound with their abdomen's to attract mates.