Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Kenya Wildlife Photo Safari, October-November 2003

Despite State Department warnings misleadingly and unfairly targeting Kenya as a terrorism target, we did three back-to-back safaris this year, and they may have been the best ever.

Because of the State Department advisory many of the lodges were well below capacity, and on many of our game drives our vehicles were often the only vehicles in the field. That certainly made for a fantastic shooting opportunity for us, and we did extremely well this year.

If you've followed my comments about Kenya's conservation role and, particularly, the plight of the Masai Mara, you may know that I have had very mixed feelings about the area. Unquestionably, Kenya offers the best shooting in the world. True, I love Tanzania, especially for the wildness and sense of wilderness that the Serengeti and other locations provide, but dollar-for-dollar, Kenya is the best shoot out there. However, I seriously wondered how long I might continue to go to Kenya because one of our favorite locations, the Mara River Camp, had become an isolated, Maasai-surrounded camp in a sea of humanity. The sense of wildness was certainly being lost.

THINGS HAVE CHANGED! This year, we radically changed our itinerary to put us in the heart of the Masai Mara, rather than the edge as we'd been in the past. This has made all the difference -- in terms of wildlife, its accessibility and its diurnal activity, and also in terms of an absence of Maasai. Consequently, we had great activity with leopards, lions, cheetahs, black rhinos, and a host of other species. Whereas only a few years ago I felt that I might not be going to Kenya too much longer, now I feel that my future in Kenya, our continued offerings of Kenya Photo Safaris, may never end. We can't wait to get back!

Using a digital camera for a huge proportion of my shooting, I shot Kenya in an entirely different way. For one, I did a lot of 'digital stitches' to shoot landscapes or, as in the case of the crocodile below, to shoot a croc in segments to create a huge, extremely detailed file. Further, I could shoot scenes of high contrast -- bright and dark, and composite them to create an image that was EXACTLY WHAT I SAW, not what the film could render.

On the negative side, me and the other 'digital dudes' spent a lot of time on the computer, downloading images and, in my case, saving images to TIFF files. On the positive side, my editing is well on the way to being complete, although I still have to download the DVDs I wrote onto my computer hard drive at home, so there's still work, no doubt. At this point, I don't know exactly how much work that will be, but regardless, it sure was fun shooting the digital camera.


At Lake Nakuru, I photographed the Kikuyu dancers under the weak artificial light one evening. Later, on the computer I made a quick collage of the various members of the group.

Mary still shot film, but shot with a new strategy (as did I when shooting film, too). Instead of shooting a lot of the same old things (for us), we saved our film for dynamic moments or action where we let the motor drive fly. A few of our past participants have shot this way and one in particular always captures great stuff that we have probably missed by 'punching' out frames rather than letting the motor drive rip.


This shot of Mary and these eagles are excellent examples. Mary's camp dinner portrait was taken at our Samburu bush dinner, with the light provided by the candle and flashlight shown. I was dialed up to 1200 ISO and hand-held the shot -- probably 1/4 second or so. Not a 18x20 portrait, I'm sure, but not a bad slide show illustration. With flash, the image would have looked artificial and flat, but with digital I could preserve the atmosphere of the scene.The fish eagles were, literally, hand-held snap shots where the bird launched itself and flew, and I picked it up and acquired focus and zipped off a blazing 3 frames per second (OK, that's slow) with my digital camera. The joke was, it's only pixels, and if the shots didn't work, so what? As it turned out, a lot of them did.



A slow-shutter speed attempt to capture a giraffe necking battle. Fast speeds 'freeze' the shot, but sometimes fail to convey the motion. In truth, I wasn't happy with most of the results, but some were effective in showing the motion.

We did extraordinarily well with lions this year, especially with black-mane males. Cubs were few this year, but we had some luck in portions of the Mara, and every safari had lions mating, so I'm sure there'll be plenty of cubs in the future.

For years we used to rely on the leopard Zawadi, Half-Tail's daughter, a very habituated cat in the upper Mara. But in the last few years Maasai pressure was such that we often only spotted Zawadi once in 6-8 weeks. Accordingly, we began to rely on Samburu for our best leopard opportunities, which worked, but this year the middle Mara area produced a female leopard with two cubs that gave our third trip one of the best leopard photography opportunities we've ever had.

The cheetah Princess, the daughter of Queen, climbed atop our vehicles several times, giving those inside an intimate view of the cat -- from inches away. At one point, as Mary shot with a wide-angle lens, Princess flopped down and actually sat upon her lens!



Between trip's two and three Mary, Carolyn Hooper, and I spent an extra two days in the Mara. The leopard we'd been hoping to see with cubs was spotted at a wildebeest crossing area and we hoped that maybe we'd get lucky and see a kill. On our last full day we arrived at the crossing shortly after sunrise and spotted the leopard sitting below the bank, waiting in ambush for the hundreds of gnus that were milling about, moving slowly toward the crossing. For the next five and one half hours we waited beneath a tree for the wildebeest to move and make the crossing. Twice vehicles scared them off, but fortunately they returned, and when the crossing began the leopard struck.

Hundreds, if not multiple thousands, of gnus streamed across the deep ravine, with individuals tumbling backwards into the herd as they tried scrambling up steep banks. Moving en masse they resemble a living river, but suddenly the current broke and gnus scattered in all directions. By the panic we knew the leopard had presented itself and just as we were about to move a gnu stepped into the open, with the leopard hanging on. The gnu shook free and the leopard disappeared and we figured it had missed its kill. It had not, though, for after dropping off the adult gnu she must have jumped onto a young gnu, for seconds later, when we drove forward she was struggling to bring down the gnu. The contest lasted thirty seconds to a minute -- not very long, and Mary and I fired away, hoping to get a clear shot and hoping, too, that we didn't goof up the exposure. Carolyn did video and captured the entire scene on tape! As I write this neither Mary or I know if we caught the action or fired at the right exposure, if I had shot digital....


We did extraordinarily well with black rhinos this year. In fact, on our second safari the male rhino we filmed was so cooperative that we eventually quit and we drove off. Normally, rhinos provide some brief, frantic shooting and then disappear into the brush. Shortly after filming the ostrich nest the park burned the grasses in the area and we were afraid that the nest was destroyed. However, on trip three we found the birds -- with 18 babies tagging along!


We were following a pride of lions one morning as they hunted. The cats moved determinedly and were heading towards a kill other lions had made. En route one of the lionesses got ahead and encountered a pack of hyenas, and we witnessed our first real 'lion-hyena war' with the hyenas surrounding and snapping at the lioness. The lioness initiated the attack, bowling one hyena over, but within seconds the rest of the pack were on her and had the advantage. The lioness retreated, with hyenas snapping at her hindquarters and tail. Fortunately she escaped, but when we saw her a few minutes later we could see the smears of blood where the hyenas had bitten her hind legs. Remarkably, she walked normally and showed no notice of her wounds. Later we filmed the hyena pack at the remainder of the kill, polishing off a wildebeest that they eventually dragged off.


We had spotted a Martial eagle swooping down on prey in the Uaso Ngiro River in Samburu, which landed somewhere ahead of us on our side of the river. When we drove forward to find it we spooked the bird, mantling its prey right in front of us while we scanned the trees above! The eagle flew to the other side of the river and we drove over, and incredibly our driver, David, located the spot on the opposite side. The eagle was flighty and took off, and I got a series of shots as it flew away, clearly carrying a young savanna monitor lizard in its talons.

Right after dawn we discovered this severely injured zebra which we assume had been grabbed by a large crocodile. The zebra pulled free, but a huge chunk of its hindquarters were ripped out, with large peg-like holes from the croc's teeth both above and below the wound. The zebra still walked with some ease so we assume the wound was fresh, but we knew that a lion would make a quick kill if it saw the zebra. As it turned out, two lionesses appeared and saw the zebra, but at the distance involved the lionesses could not make out the injury and the zebra's movement did not betray its frailty. We were tempted to stay with the zebra all day, figuring that it would be killed eventually, but we didn't. That evening, returning to camp, we again spotted the zebra, alive but walking stiffly and with a limp. We did not see it again.

What surprised everyone was the abundance of birds and the great shooting they provided. We always do well at Samburu, and we did especially well this year. In the Mara we found a tawny eagle that provided frame-filling bust portraits, as well as a seldom seen pygmy kingfisher. Most groups photographed at least thirty different species of birds -- and these are just a sampling!



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