I have a love/hate relationship with autumn. My arthritis hates the colder weather, but my heart is warmed with falling leaves and fungi! With the beautiful settled weather lately, we've been taking lots of walks in Ōtari-Wilton's Bush and Zealandia. I love fossicking for autumn leaves (even though we mostly have evergreen trees) and finding fungi (the smaller the better). What's your opinion on autumn?
Although there are still many birds to be photographed, instead of wandering around with our eyes searching the skies, we're now getting cricks in our necks looking down in the gloomy shade searching for tiny treasures. And there are so many to find! In just a ten metre stretch on Te Mahanga Track at Zealandia, for instance, there are multitudes of fungi species.
I can't help but anthropomorphize the fungi and cast them as characters - they are so full of personality.
This one reminds me of two parents and the kids, but one is a salty teenager who is embarrassed to be seen in public with them!
"Big Sis - Little Bro"
And these cuties are the spitting image of me and my baby brother! Move the slider back and forth and tell me I'm imagining it!
I call this one "The Wellingtonians" as they have that permanent wind-swept look.
And this one reminds me of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Have I started eating the fungi perhaps? No, I just have a vivid imagination 😂
Fungi are also super-fun to paint. Though doing this one tiny piece "Fungi & Friends at Zealandia"
just about blinded me despite the magnifying glasses and magnifying lamp! This is another of my "observational" mixed-media watercolour doodles where I challenge myself to paint 9 things I've seen on a photo-shoot. This one features fungi seen on recent trips to Zealandia, and of course, there is always a toutouwai friend to help. Not to mention some human ones too! Thanks to Hayley, Janice and Linton for the spotting, sherpa-ing, hints, and company.
All my tiniest brushes, pens, and pencils were put into action for this one, along with some gorgeous handmade sparkly watercolour paints. Even the toutouwai has a sparkly twinkle in his eye 😊. The original has sold, but I'm created limited-edition prints that also have a touch of sparkle.
Fungi photography is a bit of a fiddle. A remote release is really handy (when it works!) and a "styling" kit most helpful (thanks to expert fungi-photographer Hayley May for this gorgeous kit of brushes, tweezers, and other essential items). A tripod that gets low to the ground is essential too, but these Joby ones bounce a lot and can be hard to stabilize. Bring patience and a mat to sit on :)
Photography-wise, fungi are a challenge. They might not fly away so you have plenty of time to set up the shot, but they require very careful focusing and often very long exposures. Waterproof pants for the win - it makes a big difference being able to sit down in the mud rather than kneeling or crouching. And it appeals to my inner five-year-old.
Fungi make the best TinyArt subjects, and I've been making them to order since the first set sold out immediately. Chris dropped off more frames this week too, so if you'd like something special made, sing out.
I've also released some of my favourite fungi photos as fine-art prints, and made a category here for all the originals, prints, and TinyArts so fungi fanatics can find everything in one place!
I do hope you've enjoyed this foray into fungi - do let me know if you'd like to see more!
Before and after editing a difficult photo of a gorgeous ruru.
Taken through a tiny sightline in the foliage at ground level this was the best I could manage given the conditions - yes some laundry is now needed!
Sony A1+100-400 G-master zoom: 348mm, 1/80s, f/5.6, ISO 6400, -1EV uncropped
Even with the best gear, it's HARD to get a great bird photo in the forest. The light is usually low and can also be dappled with harsh highlights and dark shadows. Recently, Zealandia EcoSanctuary asked me for my best tips for photographing in these circumstances. If you've not been to Zealandia, it's a deep valley running roughly north-south so there is little-to-no early and late low-angled daylight and there is a lot of scrubby bush that gives dappled light. There are, however, many rare and endangered birds that we're all keen to photograph!
A lot of folk turn to flash photography to get enough light. I'm anti-flash for most bird photography. It's not good for the birds, especially those with sensitive eyesight, and it usually looks unnatural anyway. Instead of flash photography, there are a variety of things you can try. Some are free and some cost money. Some are practical and some are technical. My favourite advice is always to focus first on the free and practical things. Only once you've exhausted those options should you consider opening your wallet.
Move your feet (AKA Sneaker-Zoom)
Free and practical
Move your feet and try for a different angle. I can spend as much effort looking at the background as I do the subject to see where the highlights and shadows are falling (not to mention distracting leaves and twigs). Do consider getting down and dirty - I find it better to sit on my bum in the dirt and save my knees (and weatherproof pants are the best things since sliced bread!).
Choose your day
Free and practical
You're unlikely to see me at Zealandia on a bright sunny day! Increase your chances of success by visiting on overcast days and in the early morning or late afternoon when the light can be softer (and the birds are often more active). Some of my best photos were taken on days with soft misty rain.
It may take repeated visits to your favourite location to learn what times of day and season work best, as the sun's angles change throughout both the day and over the year.
Expose for the bird
Free and technical
Dappled light can confuse your camera's auto-exposure settings, causing an under-exposed silhouetted bird or over-exposed blown-out highlights. The answer is to expose for the bird rather than the background (spot-metering). You can more easily compensate for an incorrectly exposed background in post-processing, but it is much harder to compensate for a poorly exposed bird.
There are hundreds if not thousands of tutorials already out there on how to do this, and probably for your specific camera too, so I suggest googling the specifics.
You can also use your exposure compensation dial to tweak what your camera is trying to do automatically. Or take the plunge and learn how to set your exposure manually. With a manual exposure, you can set and forget and focus on the composition - it's quite liberating once you get the hang of it.
Don't consider buying better gear until you've mastered the basics of the gear you have.
Increase the light sensitivity (ISO)...
Free and technical
Increase the ISO setting in your camera so that the sensor is more sensitive in the low-light conditions. Like all things to do with photography, this comes with a trade-off. The image will be noisier/grainier. But this is always better than having a photo with motion blur (unless that's what you're going for).
High ISO close-up of a kākā's eye, before and after de-noising with ON1 NoNoise AI.
...and use denoising software -
Costs $ and (only slighty) technical
I personally hate the grainy look, but many use it to great artistic effect. I use denoising software to improve high-ISO images. Denoising has become so good in recent years, it feels like magic. Noise is removed without sacrificing too much detail. Choose from ON1 NoNoise AI, Topaz DeNoise AI, and DxO for top-of-the-line noise reduction or use the inbuilt denoising in Lightroom or Photoshop. My current go-to is ON1. Use the slider on the photo above to see a before and after using ON1 (ISO 6400, heavy crop). Worth every cent!
use Post-Processing editing techniques
Free/Costs $ and can be technical
Photoshop, Lightroom and free alternatives like Gimp gives a world of post-processing options to edit your images. As an example, the ruru at the top of this story was first de-noised and then quickly edited in Lightroom for some basic adjustments and to emphasize the eyes. I then took it over into Photoshop to fill in the overblown highlights using a mix of masking, healing, clone-stamping, and brush work. Once you have these skills in your arsenal, these sorts of edits can be done within minutes and can rescue many flawed photos. Again, there are thousands of tutorials out there on the internet on how to do all these things. I highly recommend Julienne Kost's tutorials from Adobe for Photoshop and Lightroom editing - she's amazing and many of her tutorials are free.
Get the gear to do the job
Costs $$$ and practical
There's a reason serious bird photographers carry around gear the size of a small child that looks like it could find life on Pluto. It does the job. Those huge lenses with wide apertures let in lots of light, allowing shooting in otherwise untenable situations. But gear like that comes at a huge cost - both financially and also physically. If you're in a position to buy it and can carry it (or you have a handy sherpa!), you won't regret it. But do try all the other suggestions first so if and when you do get the good gear you can get the most out of it.
And Last of All, always consider the wildlife first
When you're fussing around with your camera and angles, don't forget to mind the wildlife and their home! Always be prepared to abandon the shot if it means protecting the critter.
Birds and other critters show stress in different ways to humans and what might seem innocuous to us, may not be to them. For instance, they might freeze rather than fly, their heart-rates sky-rocketing and cortisol levels shooting up, waiting for you to bugger off. But to you it might look like they're sitting there unbothered. There can be telltale signs though, depending on the species, so do your homework too. Be especially careful when photographing a nesting bird - if they get too stressed they may abandon the nest.
And it's worth repeating, when it comes to flash photography, I never use it with birds. Even if it was OK to use, the resulting images rarely look natural with harsh shadows and light coming from the wrong direction, so it's just not worth it. Some cameras and mobile phones are set to automatically flash when the light is low, but this feature can and should be turned off. It's far better to choose when flash is needed and turn it on specifically.
What have you found increases your odds of a great bird photo?
The only thing I hate about being a photo-artist is that it's hard to take advantage of all the yummy things in an art supply shop and it's much harder to post interesting progress photos showing all the delicious pigments and brushes used. Both are irresistable - more addictive than catnip! A photo of a Wacom tablet and stylus, or a printer and a box of printer ink, does not have the same appeal as a messy swathe of colour on a palette and a dripping brush!
But that's not the only reason I've taken up more mixed-media work to augment my photo-artistry. One thing I'm learning is that to keep inspiration going and skills progressing, it really helps to get more experience working with different artistic media. It has helped make me more observant and it's helped me tap back into the joy of creating for creatings sake - what I like to think of as a beginner's mindset. It's not really just an excuse to nip down to Gordon Harris or fill up a basket at Takapuna Art Supplies - honest!
Artist Karen Rankin is to blame - she started me on the slippery slope of mixed media when I bought a gorgeous kākā painting from her, all blinged up with shimmery inks and pearlescent pastels. She encouraged me to incorporate some shimmer into my photo-art (which can't be printed with a standard fine-art printer), and I've since used them in a variety of ways, including embellishing fine-art prints by hand, like "The Boffin" pictured above.
More recently, I've succumbed to gelliplate monoprinting and collage, thanks to the irrepressible Froyle Davies, and to mixed-media watercolour doodling thanks to Canadian artist CeeCee (Catherine Côté). Photo-artistry, at least the way I do it, requires a lot of exacting painstaking work and also comes with a delete key (handy!), but I was keen to create more loosely, and literally sometimes scribble outside the lines with no backsies.
Creating with a beginner's mindset gives me more freedom to create for the hell of it, to make mistakes, and to experiment. Although I still have a ton to learn about photography and photo-artistry, I feel a basic competence and confidence when I pick up my tools, but I'm also in the mindset that this is how I make my living so I better get it right, which is not necessarily the best mindset for creativity.
A beginner's mindset is not without its challenges though. When I pick up a paintbrush, the insecurities flood in. I hate failing (don't we all) and I know the only way to get any better at anything is to put the hours in. I'm finding it takes some fortitude to apply the paint to the paper and risk wasting expensive supplies. It can be 4:30 in the afternoon before I'm ready to commit and get started. But every now and then, a piece turns out great, and I'm inspired to keep on trying new things and creating.
"Summers End at Zealandia" [SOLD] is another three by three mixed-media watercolour doodle. I've been challenging myself on each photoshoot to observe (and photograph) nine things and then create a doodle using a limited colour palette of just 3-5 paints. It's harder than you might think! I'll perhaps write more about this in a future blog.
I hope you don't mind me sharing some of this journey with you. Have you tried something outside your comfort zone lately? How do you push yourself through the difficult bits? And if you have a favourite art supply that you reckon I should try, feel free to lead me into temptation 😂
P.S. And a special thanks to my social media followers who have been so supportive when I've posted some of these pieces - it's pretty scary putting art out there but you've all been so lovely 🥰
It's that time of the year when the Zealandia valley fills with the sounds of "Mum, mum, mum, mum" as newly fledged kākā chicks are weaned and taught how to fend for themselves. On a late afternoon walk yesterday, I heard those unmistakable cries near the Top Dam kākā feeders, and after a bit of hunting found the culprit high up a tree being tended by her Mum. It was none other than RB-M - the very first chick we banded this season and the first fledgling I've seen out of the nest this season. You might remember her from this story...
RB-M's mum is the lovely V-YW. She's about ten years old now (lordy how time flies!) and unusually became a mother at a very young age - at just one year old. She's onto at least her second fella though, this time an unbanded chap of unknown parentage.
Despite having fledged over six weeks ago, RB-M is still quite clumsy and gravity is not her friend. Kākā cannot fly when they fledge - it can take them a couple of weeks to get the hang of it and even longer to get proficient. Thank goodness we have the Zealandia fence to keep predators out and give these fledgling a good start in life!
A perfect way to end a lovely summer afternoon at Zealandia!
In the coming days and weeks, do keep an eye and ear out for these hilarious characters. If they have a large purple cohort band, you'll know it's a youngster. There are also unbanded fledglings out there too, and it can be hard at a glance to differentiate them from their mothers. The mothers also have yellow eye rings and will beg for food too. The chicks, however, appear much more gormless and naive, and their feathers are usually fresher too.
Earlier this week, I was checking on some kākā nestboxes at Zealandia EcoSanctuary. We do this to get an estimate of the chicks ages so we know when to band them (see this previous blog on banding baby kākā). There are special protocols we follow when checking boxes to minimize disturbance, so there can be a lot of waiting around.
We stay at a respectful distance when monitoring, but kākā like to know what's going on so we don't hide ourselves. Kākā observe their observers as much as we observe them. Mama is fluffing up because she's also begging to Papa for food for the bubs. Papa feeds her and she then feeds the chicks. It's a lot of regurgitation, but it does the trick. They did this right above my head so I was lying on my back trying to photograph directly up - it's not easy with a zoom lens so I only got this photo!
After many years of experimentation, Zealandia settled on using PVC conduit for the artifical nestboxes. They tend to result in healthier, cleaner, drier nests with less fly strike than a traditional wooden box. They also can be reused each year. Wooden panels are screwed inside for kākā to chew and climb on, and are replaced each season. I describe the design as inspired by NZ architect Ian Atfield (who loved organic round shapes and round portals), compared to the original wooden bungalow that dot the hills of Wellington.
Through incubation, and when the chicks are very young, Mama spends most of her time in the box, coming out every hour for a break and a feed from Papa. Once the chicks are bigger and older, she'll spend more time out of the box, entering to feed and preen the chicks, and to make more nesting material by peeling the wooden panels inside into shavings.
The nestbox porthole is the way kākā get in and out of the nest. For us humans, we have a hinged door on the side that we can open to get full access. It's totally up to these wild kākā to use these boxes if they wish to. Plenty choose not to and instead find natural nests in tree cavities. There are about 35 nestboxes throughout the Zealandia valley.
It's not until the chicks are about 7 weeks old that they start climbing the inside of the nestbox and testing their wings. Nestbox monitors will report hearing the scratching as they climb up and then the flapping of wings before the inevitable thud as they fall back into the nest, often to complaints from their nestmates. By about 8 weeks they're ready to fledge and will spend a lot of time climbing up and looking out, until one day, with some coaxing from Mama and Papa, they'll take a leap of faith and flutter-fall down to the ground ready to take on the world. Fortunately the nestboxes are all low to the ground but natural nests can be many metres up a tree.
It takes at least a couple of weeks to learn to fly with confidence, so initially the chicks climb everywhere. They're incredibly vulnerable to predation at this stage, which is why it's so important to attract our wild kākā to nest in the fenced Zealandia valley where they are safe from predators. The Zealandia fence is not just any old fence - it's scientifically designed to keep out predators. Kākā who breed outside the valley in suburban Wellington reserves suffer a much higher attrition rate due to predation from cats, dogs, stoats, weasels and other mammalian predators.
We are so fortunate to have this amazing rare manu in our city and it's been a privilege to be involved in their breeding success. This season's cohort are getting gorgeous purple bands - be on the look-out for them as they've started fledging and will soon be showing up at the kākā feeding stations at Zealandia.
For over a decade now (how time flies!), Linton and I have helped run the kākā conservation and research program at Zealandia EcoSanctuary as volunteers. In earlier days, we were focused on the conservation aspects and the chicks were closely monitored throughout the season. Now the focus is more on research and the aim is to enable researchers to easily identify individual kākā at a distance. To do this, we attach three coloured rings to their legs when they are still nestlings. They're about six weeks old, full of personality and with nearly fully-grown legs, but without the strength in their jaws to bite hard - the perfect age!
Working hands-on with wild native birds and banding them requires significant training, permits, and certification from the Department of Conservation.
At Zealandia, we have around 35 artifical nestboxes that the wild kākā can choose to use. Many choose natural nest cavities instead. We now only monitor and band those kākā in the nestboxes, rather than the entire population, so there are many unbanded kākā about.
At banding age, we take one chick out of the nestbox at a time, let them have a stress crap and then immediately pop them into a cloth bag for weighing. Kākā typically have 1 to 6 chicks, rarely 7, with most nests ending up with around 3-4 chicks varying over a 5 day age range. This nest has 4 chicks, all girls.
"Got your nose!" Linton carefully uses vernier calipers to measure the length and width of the beak, while Rachael gently holds. This clutch of chicks were charming and well-behaved, but some chicks will wrestle and wriggle and do everything in their power to not cooperate, giving the handler a lot to manage.
Once weighed, we expose their head from the bag to measure their beak, and then remove them entirely to measure their wing, tail, and tarsus (leg bone). We also do a health check for signs of metabolic bone disease, parasites, etc. Then they are leg-banded and popped back into the nest where they immediately tell their nestmates just how terrible the outside world is!
Special pliers are used to attach the stainless steel cohort band. It takes a lot of training to get these bands to fit just right, without a gap and without sharp edges. This season's cohort colour is a gorgeous purple. Here Linton holds the kākā's toes while applying the band to her tarsus while Rachael holds the leg. Look at those gorgeous feathers on the upper leg!
A single coloured cohort band, indicating the season, is attached to one leg and two narrower coloured metal bands are attached to the other. The colour combinations are unique. The purple band is coded M for Mauve (as we already use P for Pink). The cohort band also has a unique number embossed on it. These records are kept by the Banding Office of the Department of Conservation.
Mama kākā usually turns up when she hears the skrarking of the first chick coming out of the nest. She may or may not hang around for the entire banding process. She will also call in her posse of friends, who all yell at us until they get bored. Occasionally, they'll throw sticks down on us, but the parents never think to attack us despite having a swiss-army knife for a beak!
Ellen holds the first chick to be banded for the 2021/22 season, as she prepares to return her to the nest. Watch out for RB-M (Red over Blue on the left and Mauve on the right). She'll fledge in a couple of weeks and then spend a couple of months learning how to be a kākā. Eventually, mama will bring her to the kākā feeding stations - probably by January or February - where we'll all be able to see their antics.
As of the end of last season, we've banded over 1100 kākā at Zealandia - an amazing result from a founding population of just 14 birds, twenty years ago. They're now a common sight throughout Wellington, and it gives me great joy to have them visit our garden nearly every day.
Rachael's latest kākā project is fascinating - she's using AI algorithms to recognise individual kākā from mugshots. The kākā, of course, have other ideas, and have done everything from licking the camera lens, to throwing the camera down a steep bank! She and her students have some significant challenges to overcome!
I have a low tolerance for board games and learning all the rules (usually leading to an evening of tedious reading and not much game playing), so when Linton bought me Wingspan for Christmas, I was suspicious, but intrigued - it did involve birds afterall! Fortunately he is a games rules-lawyer so it didn't take too long to get playing and to get the hang of it. Since then, Wingspan has completely captured our imaginations and we play nearly every night over dinner (props to the inventors that gave the pieces a slip-coat cover, that so far has mostly resisted red wine, chili sauce, and greasy cheese). So here are my top five reasons why I think Wingspan is the best game ever invented!
I must admit that in our household, we call this game not Wingspan, but a Game of F***s. Most of the cards are referred to as Little Sh**s or Useless F***s, because they don't help the current goals. But some birds are totally awesome like the Wedge-tailed Eagle, Great-horned owl, Puffin, Little Penguin, and the Black Noddy. Worth loads of points, these birds also look gorgeous on the board.
Having played so many games, we've developed "House Rules" including:
1. If you get the Spangled Drongo, you must call out "Spangled Drongo!" loudly using your best Ocker accent. What a name for a bird!
5. And finally, for those with the Oceania expansion pack, one of the round goals is "No goal" which we think sucks because it decreases the total points achievable. Instead, we have a house-rule that it's for "NZ birds played" but as you will have likely guessed we call it the "NZ F***ks" round. We use NZ Birds Online as the adjudicator as to whether the bird is "NZ" or not, and refer to looking up a bird as "Consulting Colin" after Colin Miskelly, who created this amazing resource. It's turned into our favourite round goal. It's fascinating to see how many vagrants we get (did you know NZ has kookaburras?).
I can't wait for the next expansion pack to come out - yes I'm addicted!
Do you play Wingspan? Do you agree it's the best game ever? Do you have some fun house rules too?
P.S. This is not a paid or solicited review, I'm just a dedicated fan.
With Wellington moving into Level 2, we took advantage of Zealandia reopening, masked-up, and went hunting for signs of spring. I do hope you're able to get out and enjoy nature in your neighbourhood, and that you enjoy this wee photo essay...
What are your favourite signs of spring?
Some years ago now, a kākā kura (red-morph kākā) turned up at Zealandia. What was curious is that she had hatched at Zealandia, was banded, and was originally a normal-coloured kākā (find out more about the kākā kura in this earlier story...). To date, she's been the only kākā kura seen in the Zealandia population.
That is until a month ago, when the kākā kura's mum, Pinky-B, showed up with a pink head! She was obviously going through a moult and when I saw her again about a month later she was even pinker with perhaps some orange/burgundy tones in her brown feathers. Now I've known Pinky-B since 2008 when I first started nestbox monitoring, and she's always been a normal-looking kākā with a grey head, yellow-orange cheeks, grey-brown top feathers, and reddish underfluffies. Why now, after all these years, would she start turning pink?
I know I have a lot of vet, ornithologist, and bird researcher readers, so I'd love to know your thoughts as to why she'd be experiencing a colour change! My (possibly incorrect) understanding was that a colour morph was a genetic variation so we'd expect a morph to be that colour throughout its life span. Is there perhaps an epigenetic influence in the environment that's switching these genes on? Or is it perhaps a metabolic issue?
By way of comparison, here's a couple of photos showing the earlier kākā kura (daughter of Pinky-B), who was far more orangy-pink all over, and a normal-coloured kākā (other than the gold tummy feathers).
It's tax time - my favourite time of year! Really? Seriously? It's true... it's when I tally up the donations to conservation through art sales from the previous year. Today I donated over $3300 for the birds, on your behalf. We made donations to Zealandia, Forest & Bird, Hihi Recovery, Capital Kiwi, and World Parrot Trust. And it was only possible thanks to your support - everything from liking and commenting on posts on social media, visiting exhibitions, sharing emails with friends, to buying art all makes a difference in getting the word out and supporting the birds.
So which bird raised the most funds? For the third year in a row, the tūī of course. Four of the top five pieces in 2020/2021 featured NZ's favourite bird...
1. His Resplendence (tūī) - supporting Forest & Bird. "Mr Popular" ran away with it, nearly doubling the amount raised by the second bird on the list. Limited-edition prints are now completely sold out everywhere,
2. A New View (tūī) - supporting Zealandia. This funny tūī has brought joy to so many people! I now only have large limited-edition prints left. Again, I'll continue to release TinyArt pieces. Meanwhile, I'm on the search for more funny tūī, but they are usually so regal and stylish and don't let their comical side show so often.
3. The Scenic Route (kākā) - an open edition print so these funny characters will always be available and helping support Zealandia.
4. Portrait of a Tūī - supporting Zealandia. Last year's top bird, but he's now nearly sold out so has fallen down the ranks. I have just one large print left, but there is a handful of other sizes still available in galleries.
5. Forever Calling Me (tūī) - supporting Forest & Bird. A new kid on the block, the release of this tūī artwork suffered due to Covid-related exhibition cancellations, so he's never really seen the light of day. Despite these setbacks, medium and large prints have been really popular in the galleries, giving this tūī with his gorgeous iridescent wings the number 5 position.
Hoo do you think will be the top bird next year? An early peek at the figures so far reveals there might be a surprise upset... and there was a hint in the previous sentence 🤔
After 11 days in the Galápagos [see previous story], we arrived back in Quito to head to a very different sort of paradise - the Bella Vista Cloud Forest. This high-altitude region of Ecuador is considered one of the best birding spots in the world. And conveniently, with travel to the Galápagos leaving from Quito it's easy to tack on a side trip.
This region was in danger of having forest converted into farms, but may farmers have now found there is more money to be had from tourism. Although tourism has huge environmental impacts, in this case, it is also having a positive effect of saving this precious and unique ecosystem.
The biggest attraction is of course the hummingbirds! Such an incredible variety from tiny booted rackettails with their little ugg boots to the brilliants with their iridescent colours. And despite being tiny, each had huge ferocious attitude! As we climbed in altitude, the species of hummingbirds changed, each evolved and adapted to that specific height. They were also quite tricky to photograph in the dappled forest, as they zipped around from flower to flower, stretching my novice photography skills.
The area is also famous for birds from the toucan family, including the giant bumble-bee tummied pale-mandibled araçari and paint-box coloured plate-billed mountain toucan. My favourite bird from the entire trip though was the diminutive crimson-rumped toucanet who we found bathing in a bromeliad (see photo-art at top of this story). It is so fascinating to see these improbably birds eat as they have to toss the food up with their giant bills and hopefully catch it in the back of their throats.
We're not twitchers but we did keep count of the number of species we saw in the four days we spent exploring - an incredible 127 (confirmed by our knowledgeable guide)! I much prefer spending extended time with just one species, getting to know them intimately, but on a whistle-stop trip like this, it's just not possible. And we weren't even trying to knock off as many as possible, it's just that there are that many different birds to see! It's really quite overwhelming, which is why here I decided to post about just the hummingbirds and toucans.
Like I did for the Galápagos leg of the trip, I'd like to add some notes about travelling with a chronic illness. I was very anxious before the trip about the effects of altitude and potential altitude sickness. Alongside anxiety about seasickness, I'm surprised Lynn ever convinced me to go! So before the trip, we went through two rounds of "altitude training". This involves breathing a high-nitrogen mix of air through a mask for about an hour a day for three weeks. You can hire a system to do at home or there is a clinic downtown. Breathing this mix helps create new red blood cells which can then carry more oxygen and give a bit more energy. The effects last around 3 weeks or so. Other than huffing and puffing a bit more and having some trouble sleeping, we didn't have any altitude-related issues, so I'm glad we went to the effort.
What I did notice though was "land sickness". For about a week after getting off the boat after 11 days at sea, I felt the world moving as if I was still onboard. It was quite unexpected, but apparently it is a thing, and sometimes people never recover. Fortunately it wore off!
I was shooting with the Panasonic GX7 and 20mm, 100-300mm, and 35-100mm lenses, all bought especially for this trip and I loved how lightweight it all was. I was still learning how to use the gear, so a lot of the photos are sub-par. I'd love to return with my latest kit and better knowledge of how to get the best out of shooting in dappled forests (even with good gear, it's hard).
Do you have a bucket-list birding destination for when we can travel again?
Bathtime in Bella Vista (crimson-rumped toucanet)
A splish and a splash as these tiny toucanets pop in and out of the cloud-forest bromeliads, drinking and bathing. Habitat for toucanets and many other bird species in Ecuador is being saved and restored as farmers change their land use from farming and hunting to eco-tourism, such as at Angel Paz's reserve in Mindo.
Exhibited in: "Birds on a Wire" solo exhibition (April, 2018). Published in: Artists Down Under magazine (Feb, 2018).
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to the American Bird Conservancy to support their conservation efforts in Ecuador.
Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
crimson-rumped toucanet, Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
Hands up who has at least one print waiting to be framed? Yes - my hand went up too! And if you haven't framed art before, you might be feeling a bit uncertain.
Before going to the framers
If your print is rolled, try to resist temptation and don't unroll it for a peek. Leave it rolled until you get to the framer, to minimize damage. If it's in a cellophane sleeve, leave it inside. And if you do peek, be careful to not touch the surface, especially if the print is on a matte paper, which is easily scratched.
Think about where you'll hang it and make some measurements. Take a photo on your phone too, so the framer can see the colour of your wall. If you have other art hanging nearby, take photos of them too so the framer gets a sense of your style.
Have at least a rough idea of your budget range, and do give the framer an indication of whether you're looking for a low cost frame, mid-range, or something a bit special.
It's the thing you can't see that's most important - the glass
The most important decision is the glass, not the frame. You want to see the art in all its glory.
Plain glass is the cheapest, but is reflective. I don't know about you but reflections drive me crazy! It makes it so much harder to fully appreciate the print and the texture of the paper. Plain glass doesn't protect against UV light either, so your print will fade faster. Some people do like the shiny finish though - if that's you, then you've saved yourself some bucks!
I recommend the next step up, which is UV70 glass. It is anti-reflective and has 70% UV protection. It makes a HUGE difference in reducing (most, but not all) reflections, especially if you've bought a dark tūī print like the one above.
If you've bought an expensive print or original art, protect your investment and consider Museum grade glass, which is also anti-reflective and provides 99% UV protection. There are some other glasses out there, but those are the three key ones.
The fancier glass is of course more expensive. But I'd rather you chose a simpler frame and got the nice glass, rather than vice-versa. So a neat trick to reduce the cost is to reduce the area the glass has to cover. And that may mean using a narrower mat or no mat at all (the mat is the the cardboard frame between the print and the outer frame).
Less area = less glass = lower cost.
A simple 8cm wide mat on a 20x20cm print doubles your glass cost because the area goes from 400 to nearly 800 square cm.
If you choose to just use a frame with no mat, ask the framer to use "spacers". Spacers are plastic risers that sit between the frame (hidden just under the edge) and the print so the print isn't resting directly against the glass.
How to choose a frame and a mat
Nothing beats trying out lots of options. Your framer will have a huge range of possibilities, which can seem overwhelming, but they also have the experience to help you narrow them down. Don't immediately consider plain black or white frames with a white mat - have a play with some other options too.
There are also online framing configurators to experiment with, though the exact colours can be hard to reproduce on regular computer monitors. Pioneer Framing and Van Uffelen are both ones to try. Although they are designed for you to upload digital images, I believe you can also play with the configurators to work out what you like, then send them your print to frame. (I have some open edition prints from the "Flights of Fancy" series on Pioneer where you can choose my preferred framing or design your own.)
Why does framing cost so much?
It's a common refrain - the framing was more expensive than the print! Maybe one day I'll be rich enough to buy art that is more expensive than the frame, but if you're anything like me, that's a long way off! The reality is, the cost of producing a print is the cost of some fancy fine-art paper - expensive, but it's still only paper. But with a frame, there is the wooden moldings, the glass, the mat or spacers, the backing board, and all the hardware and tools needed to put it together, along with the labour costs. It simply costs more in materials and labour to make, compared to the print. I can't help but note too, that many artists, unlike framers, undervalue their work and price their prints too low!
Have fun with your framing
(Hover or click on the photos in this gallery to find out more about the framing used).
The frame is an integral part of the art - the right frame can transform an artwork from nice to magnficent. Even the simplest frames can be magical with the right picture and a well-matched mat.
When I first started getting art framed, I was so scared of making a bad decision and I was also reluctant to invest in getting quality framing. But after making hundreds of TinyArt pieces, I've tried so many weird and wonderful frames that I'm far more adventurous. I love trying new frames and fancy extras. A number of the framed prints I have in galleries have these extra touches because I love seeing my art beautifully presented and I know that it can be hard for customers to visualize how a print might look.
Some interesting things to try, once you've got your confidence up, include:
Can't I just buy a frame at Briscoes?
Of course! And if it gets the print out of its packaging and on the wall, then that's great! I don't need to tell you that you'll get the quality you'd expect. That's means over time, your print may fade because the glass or plastic is not UV resistent, or the print may react to the products used to build it (e.g., if the mat isn't acid-free). If your print isn't a standard size, you might find it hard to find a frame off-the-shelf. But do know there are no "frame police" that will come and tell you off.
You can also buy pre-made frames online. They're usually a bit better quality and the mats are usually acid-free, but in my experience, the frames tend to chip easily. They're actually expensive for the quality of the materials used. It can be a bit of a faff to mount the print too.
If you do decide to frame yourself, find or borrow an air puffer (every photographer has one) and a brand new microfibre glass cleaning cloth to help you remove dust.
Expect to wait 3-8 weeks to get your framed piece back. Framing is not a quick process.
Do get in touch with the artist and ask what type of framing and which framers they recommend. Some artists (me included) will even arrange the framing for you. I don't have that as an option in my shop as framing costs vary so much, so I prefer to have a chat with you first.
If you buy a print as a gift, consider getting a framing gift-certificate to go with it! (Or consider a TinyArt piece, which I created especially for gifts, where the recipient doesn't need to worry about framing.)
If you're an artist looking for help with framing, check out this other blog on exhibition and gallery framing hints.
With no big bucket-list travel plans on the horizon, I thought I might spelunk my archives and relive some old adventures. Here's hoping we all get to explore further fields again some day! This story is inspired by this week's Art of Birding photo challenge, which is "one from the archives." It's all about the time we visited the Galápagos Islands - a huge, wonderful and scary adventure we undertook in 2014. I'd not travelled for years and never intrepidly - this was well out of my comfort zone! It took much arm-twisting and encouragement from the lovely Lynn. But I'm so glad I took the plunge, not least of all because it sparked a love of wildlife photography. Because it was a photography trip, that was the impetus to buy my first decent camera (ironically most people on the trip were not photographers). It was a pivotal trip in my first steps towards becoming an artist, although I didn't know it at the time. Thanks Lynn and thanks Tui for a trip of a lifetime!
Lynn also twisted the arms of other Zealandia-associated people, making for a lovely, friendly group of people to travel with, along with a few brave souls from other parts of the world who found themselves surrounded by kiwi bird-nerds. Leaving from Ecuador, we flew to the islands and set sail on a little boat for an 11 day cruise. We each chose a “spirit animal” that we most wanted to see. I chose the Blue-footed Booby – a most ridiculous and improbable bird with bright blue feet and intricate courtship rituals, which involves showing off said feet and offering sticks to their beloved.
We learned so much from the amazing Tui de Roy - the wildlife photographer leading the tour - and a Galápagos native. My biggest take-home was to get on-level with my critter and not take “roadkill” shots looking down on them. That sometimes involves getting down in the sand and dirt, but we were also fortunate to get great angles on albatross that were launching themselves off a cliff face.
Landings on the islands are strictly controlled and timed. Because we were a photography tour, we got the early morning and late afternoon slots, which made for fabulous light (though some very early starts!).
The hardest outing, but the most rewarding, was getting out to the waved albatross colony, which involved walking a couple of km over pebbly rocks - exhausting! The albatross are amazing, and so beautiful with their delicate patterning and big eyes. We got to see their courtship rituals where they mimic each other in a choreographed dance, usually with a competitor looking on. My favourite shot from the entire trip is the one above.
I was blown away to see flamingos up close, peacefully feeding in the shallows. Such stunning birds. They're not endemic to the islands, but it was the first time I'd ever seen one.
Getting up close was a theme of the trip. Most of the birds evolved without seeing humans as a threat. We were able to walk through their breeding colonies and if we kept quietly to ourselves, they simply didn't give a shit that we were there. There was no need for a super long lens or tripod on this trip! Most of these photos were taken with a 35-100mm or 100-300mm zoom (4/3rds camera).
The Galápagos are filled with improbable critters, and the stories of their evolution are fascinating. Possibly the most improbable though is the Galápagos penguin - yes a penguin - found in the tropics at the equator! Curiously, the waters around the islands are cold due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold water up from southern Chile. This photo is a wee bit blurry because the zodiac was pitching up and down.
Another improbable bird was the short-eared owl that lives in cavities out on the volcanic flats - this was Lynn's spirit bird. We only spotted one once it started flapping its wings frantically.
It's always problematic to take long-haul travel to visit rare and endangered birds, but the Galápagos can only afford to look after these precious ecosystems with the money they get from tourism. It's a delicate balance with no easy answers. If you do get the opportunity to go, do go - there's nothing else like it on earth. But do your research first and choose your tour operator carefully to ensure they put the welfare of the critters first (Lynn did just this, and chose brilliantly!)
Next story, I'll show you some amazing birds from the side-trip we took to the Bella Vista Cloud Forest in Ecuador - just as amazing and totally different!
A P.S. about pottying and intrepid travelling...
One thing tour operators are often bad at is telling you how much fitness is needed for a trip and practical things like how long the walks are and how often you'll get a potty break - information I need before committing to a trip. People who have chronic illnesses can manage quite intrepid travelling if fully informed and well prepared. Fortunately the folk at Galapagos Travel were super helpful and allayed all my concerns.
If you're thinking of touring the Galápagos, know there are no loos on most of the islands, so you need to hold on for a couple of hours (most outings were for no longer than that). Most of the islands are covered in scrubby bush, so there's no ducking behind a tree, and even if you don't mind hanging it all out, it's discouraged. I managed by giving up coffee (a diuretic) before the trip, and only having a proper drink once we returned from the morning's outing. I only took judicious sips of water while out walking, just enough to avoid dehydration. I also had an emergency pee/poo/puke bag filled with absorbant crystals that could be used for emergencies, but thankfully never had to use it (pick them up online or from a travel/outdoors store for the peace-of-mind if nothing else).
Typically there were three things to do each day: a morning excursion, an afternoon snorkel, and a late afternoon/evening excursion. Some of the excursions were just cruising in the zodiacs and some involved getting out and walking. I usually chose just two of the three events a day to manage my energy levels and stayed on the boat otherwise. I didn't miss out on any show-stopper outings, and cleverly avoided climbing the volcano in the mist to not get a view and not get covered in mud 😂. I was converted to small boat cruises as a way to travel - you only unpack the once, and it's easier to skip an outing because you know you're not going to be left behind!
Happy to answer any questions you may have about travelling in the Galápagos in the comments below...
Last weekend, Linton and I finally went venturing up to Whanganui to visit the fenced sanctuary at Bushy Park - yes a busman's holiday! We stayed at the old homestead and walked all the trails, admiring the incredible forest with ancient rimu and rata, dripping with lichens and epiphytes. Although the Zealandia bush (our regular haunt) is filling in, it's got centuries to go to look like Bushy Park.
And of course the birdlife was amazing too, with baby birds abounding. The toutouwai were everywhere, and usually too close to focus on with the big lens. The korimako kids were begging incessantly while gorging on muhlenbekia berries. And the highlight was seeing a wee ruru trying to snooze on the side of the track, despite the protestations from the tīeke and hihi.
We were also fascinated to see flocks of cockatoos and eastern rosellas (perhaps attracted by the nearby walnut farm!), making us feel that perhaps we had crossed the ditch and were having a long-overdue Aussie adventure with Sydney-based Aunty Helen.
And the flocks of kererū - I lost count at 30! The abiding sound of the bush was the whomp-whomp-whomp of those big wings crashing around through the bush.
We would have spent more time exploring the park and Whanganui itself, but Level 2 came down unexpectedly so we decided to head home early, consoling ourselves with an evil steak and cheese pie in Foxton while charging the car.
Where do you recommend we head on our next outing? There's so much of New Zealand we have yet to explore.
A product review: Stellar Data Recovery
We’ve all had that sinking feeling when we try to download our photos off the camera card but instead get a nasty error. Or perhaps an inadvertent slip of the mouse deletes your files permanently. Or even worse, lightning strikes and zaps your computer! No matter if it’s a snap of your cat with its tongue stuck or a rare and endangered bird that you hiked 10 km to photograph, chances are your photos are precious to you.
Is all hope lost? Not at all! Deleted and damaged files are not necessarily gone forever. With a simple deletion or reformat, the files are still there so long as you don’t write more to the disk. All that’s gone is the index to those files. Even a damaged disk is likely only damaged in parts. Fortunately, there is data recovery software to save us. It’s been many years since I’ve had to resort to disk scraping, so I had no idea what the software to do this tedious task is like these days.
Recently Stellar asked me to review their data recovery software, with the nice kickback of a free standard licence. I assured Stellar (and you) that receiving this gift would not affect my review. Stellar asked me to do this review as a wildlife photographer. They didn’t know that part of my day job at Mimosa Acoustics (where I wear many hats!) involves product testing and bug discovery. And I’m good at it. I’m known as the Chief Breaker and Wrecker. If I can find a way to break it, I will. But I tried my best to behave and use the software in the same way an end-user might rather than a product tester. So I started by not reading the instructions! And trust me, this is what 95% of users do when faced with new software. My day job also involves user manual writing and customer support - I know you don’t read the manual!
The install is straightforward and kindly takes you to the website showing the steps to get started. I ignored it all and jumped on in…
Stellar has designed their product with photographers in mind. What’s really cool is that the software is meant to recognize a vast range of image formats, including native RAW formats, and can display the images. This makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for. But how well does it actually work?
I found an old 6GB SD card last used in an ancient Panasonic Lumix superzoom camera and in an old scanner to save PDF scans to file. The card had 2 empty folders and one folder with 6 PDFs, circa 2014. The initial scan found a further 22 files in 7 folders. I liked that the file structure interface clearly showed the existing folders and deleted (but recoverable) files and folders, which had a red cross over the icon.
The DCIM (camera folder) had subfolders, one of which had RW2 (Panasonic) raw files. The preview wasn’t able to show me an image of this old format, but I chose the first image to recover. I saved it to my desktop and was glad to see the entire folder structure was written and not just the file. Win10 could preview the image, and I was delighted to see it was a photo of a baby kākā! Awwwww cute!
Curious as to what a Deep Scan might reveal, I tried that. A Deep Scan does take significantly longer to run, but a progress dial manages expectations. This time 43 files were found in 14 folders. A new folder was created on the card called “Raw Data.” In this folder, the files are grouped into subfolders by file type, not in their original folders. Why is that? Well, if the original folder structure was still readable, it would have been picked up by the Initial Scan. Without the index, all the data recovery software can do is recover the individual files. What is curious is that it found files it labeled as *.RAW from the old Panasonic camera and could preview them. Perhaps it just didn’t know that RW2 files are RAWs?
The four RAW files it found had wildly different sizes. Two were 4GB, and two were 20MB. I’m guessing the two 4GB files were missing end-of-file markers because they were partially overwritten. The JPG preview in the RAW file was still viewable. Conveniently, these files are named by the camera type and image dimensions, e.g., “Panasonic DMC-FZ100-4536x2448-9029440.RAW”. The smaller files were recoverable, but the larger ones took forever (and to be honest, I got bored after 10 minutes and stopped the recovery). I also tried deep recovery of a WMV (not readable) and a PDF (recovered without error). Deep recovery is not guaranteed even if a file is recognized because it may be partly overwritten by other data.
I then took this card and stuck it on the fridge with a powerful magnet for a few minutes (don’t try this at home) and then dropped it on the floor (inadvertently). My plan was to well and truly corrupt the card, but unexpectedly, the card survived its torture just fine. It wasn't corrupted! Rerunning Stellar showed the same files available for recovery, including the Deep Scan. I still wouldn't recommend doing this on a card you care about though...
I then tried one of my current 64 GB SD cards, which regularly gets reformatted by my Sony a7riii camera and currently has multiple photoshoots saved. The card was less than a third full, so there was plenty of “empty” disk to find previously deleted photos. The Stellar file preview could display the Sony ARW images, which was handy. The initial scan showed the expected available, undeleted folders and one deleted folder, which was empty. So I entered Deep Scan. Curiously, the deep scan did not find the photos prior to formatting as I expected. A card reformat doesn’t delete the files; it merely rewrites the index, so there should have been files there to be found. It seems there is something about the Sony reformat that Stellar doesn’t recognize? This is obviously an issue for a product aimed at photographers. Who among us hasn’t inadvertently reformatted a card before downloading the images?
For fun, I then looked at a 32 GB SD card from my Panasonic GX8. This card had been reformatted and had no images. The initial scan found nothing other than the basic file structure. But unlike the Sony-formatted card, switching to Deep Scan revealed deleted files. There was a JPG, 8 RAW files (all with previews), and two TAR files in the Raw Data folder. All the RAWs were suspiciously 4GB again, which is much larger than the native RW2 format of around 15 MB. I recovered both the JPG and a RAW file successfully and opened the latter in Adobe Camera Raw. I also found a previously deleted folder with Panasonic RW2 files under the MISC folder, none of which could be previewed by Stellar. They were, however, recoverable, and I could also open them in Adobe Camera Raw. So lovely to find an old photo of Puffin!
Stellar Data Recovery has a friendly user interface and is intuitive to use. I liked being able to search and group by file types and see previews (sometimes!). I can see how that could considerably reduce the search time and effort if it’s just a specific file that needs recovery.
I did not have a corrupted disk to test, but I hope recovering photos from reformatted SD cards is a fair test. It certainly worked fine for the card from my Panasonic GX8. But there is an issue with Sony-formatted cards that Stellar might want to look into, given Sony cameras’ rising popularity.
I hope you never need to use data recovery software, but Stellar is worth a look if you do. Stellar offers a free trial, so if you find that it doesn’t work for your situation, you won’t be out of pocket. When it does work, it works well and is intuitive and straightforward to use.
Have you ever had a corrupted disk and had to use data recovery software? How did you fare and what did you use? Let us know in the comments...
Reviewed: Stellar Data Recovery Standard
Platform: Windows 10
My favourite project for Zealandia EcoSanctuary is creating the annual fund-raising calendar! And it takes around 18 months to create if you account for the effort required to obtain a seasonal range of photos. Many of us aim to get that calendar-worthy shot on every visit to Zealandia, and we visit year-round, often weekly.
Planning starts in December, and sometime in the New Year a call goes out to the volunteer Sanctuary Storyteller photographers and to regulars on the ZEALANDIA Visitor Art & Photography Facebook page to start submitting their photos. We aim to include at least three photos per month, with each month having a theme. It's a 13-month calendar, because it's created from folder A3 paper (to make an A4 calendar). This gives 4 pages for every piece of paper. A 12-month calendar plus cover only fills 26 of 28 pages.
Around March, the selections are made and photos edited and approved by the contributing photographers and staff. This year, preparations coincided with lock-down giving me a most-welcome distraction.
The coveted spot is of course the cover - that image needs to be compelling, have some negative space for branding, and be recognizable from a distance. Congratulations to Jason Plaisted for his wonderful kākāriki photo that graces the 2021 cover.
Once the photos are set, over autumn, the Storyteller writers conjure up inspiring stories to match the theme and images. Some keen contributors aim for the complete sweep with a set of themed photos and a matching story. But most months are a mix of many contributors.
As we head into winter, the fact-checkers and researchers dig in and confirm all the species are identified correctly, that the dates and moon-phases are correct, the Te Reo Māori is correct (including macrons), as are the holidays and observations. The pedants among us relish this task, and many lively discussions can ensue. I'm sure some of you are also pedants and are interested in some of the behind-the-scenes decisions (if not, skim down to the end to find out how to get hold of a calendar!)
I always fear the dates will somehow be wrong, but I use this amazing plug-in for InDesign (Calendar Wizard) that is a pig to use but when you conquer it, it automatically generates all the spreads. It's a life- and time-saver.
We set the moon phase as it is in Wellington - anywhere else in the country (or world) can be off by a day as the phase often changes in the middle of the night. There is often confusion as one of the definitive guides online has the correct phases, but uses the wrong Northern-hemisphere icons (yes, the moon is upside down in the Southern hemisphere - a fun fact that has confused many of my Northern-hemisphere friends).
Scientific names can be quite fluid for NZ species, with researchers actively updating taxonomies, but with scientific consensus and adoption of new names taking some time. For instance, you may have noticed that our gecko names have transitioned back and forth over recent years, and it's still not settled. Te Reo names are also fluid as old knowledge is reclaimed by local iwi, or new names are needed. Of great debate is whether transliterations for months and other European concepts should be used or maramataka months (from the Māori lunar calendar, which is based on moon phases). These decisions and recommendations are made with such care and much consultation. In recent years we have decided on the transliterations. I would love to some day help with a maramataka calendar too.
Some people wonder why we don't include specific observations and holidays. We strive to include many conservation-related observances, but the sponsoring organizations often don't advertise their dates (or haven't decided on them) for the coming year in time to include in the calendar (I won't name and shame). We also don't tend to include religious holidays unless they're an official public holiday.
Not including the Matariki period (the Māori New Year) seems like an oversight to many, and we do hope to include it next year. But there are many variations across different iwi in how the period is defined. This makes a lot of sense when you consider its all about observational astronomy: the appearance of the constellation Matariki on the horizon. And this of course depends on where you are in the country and barriers like hills. Some iwi use other constellations. It is a fascinating subject and there are some amazing Māori astronomers working on it. With talk of Matariki becoming an official public holiday, it will be interesting to see how consensus is reached because the aim is to have one date for the entire country (but which will at least vary each year), so by definition, some of what the Matariki period means will be lost to convenience.
Back to the Zealandia calendar, once the dust has settled and the facts established the best we can, it's then down to multiple rounds of proofing and sign-off from every part of the organization. We strive for no errors, but is that ever possible? By the end of the process, once the calendar comes off the production line, I'm too afraid to look! People tell me that it's absolutely gorgeous, so I'm going to trust their judgment...
If you're keen to participate, do join the Facebook group and start working on your photography. You're more likely to be successful if you've taken a fabulous photo featuring a subject we haven't previously had in the calendar (e.g., kākā, tūī, kākāriki, and takahē have had more than enough exposure). We also love photos that show wildlife interacting with its environment or showing an interesting behaviour.
In addition, do join my Art of Birding Wildlife and Nature photography challenge. Many of the successful contributors are doing the challenge, which is designed to upskill photographers for wildlife advocacy, and with outcomes like the calendar in mind.
If you want to lay your hands on a calendar for yourself, your friends, and your family, pick them up at the Visitor Centre or check out the offer above.
[Update 3 Nov 2020: You can now buy them directly from Zealandia through their new online gift shop!]
Finally, such huge thanks to the contributors for 2021:
Photography: Brendon Doran, Andrew Hawke, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Bianca Maddox, Amanda Main, Janice McKenna, Linton Miller, Jason Plaisted, Karen Rankin, Alison Valentine, Rory Wilsher.
Stories: Leon Berard, Vanya Bootham, Rosemary Cole, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Katherine Miller, Louise Slocombe.
Design: Judi Lapsley Miller.
Research & editing: Vanya Bootham, Libby Clark, Rosemary Cole, Chris Gee, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Linton Miller, Louise Slocombe, Rory Wilsher.
It's all about dreamy backgrounds...
This week on the Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge, we're tackling bokeh and blur. When I was first starting out as a photographer, I adored photos with a dreamy, buttery smooth background and a subject in sharp focus. But I struggled to replicate the look.
I eventually discovered there is more than one way to achieve it. Two techniques are free and the other costs lots of money. Let's chat about the free ones first!
Regardless of your camera, its settings, and your abilities, its possible to get out-of-focus backgrounds by being smart. No you don't need to get into the physics of why (but it is interesting if that's your thing). The secret is to get your subject close to the camera and ensure the background is waaaay in the distance, like in this photo of a tūī. This was taken at Zealandia (if you're familiar with the sanctuary) on the path leading from the Takahē lawn up to the Weka fence. To the right, the bank falls away to the wetlands There are scrubby trees at eye-height on the edge of the path and below and beyond them are the low-lying wetlands. In the distance are the green hills of the steep West Scarp. I love shooting here! If a bird lands on top of the nearby trees, the background is far, far away and creates a beautiful green blur pretty much regardless of the settings.
You can increase your chances of success by paying attention to your aperture, rather than shooting on Auto. Learning a bit more about how your current gear works may save you an expensive purchase. You want the aperture to be as wide as possible. This decreases the range that will be in focus. To get a wide aperture, you'll need to switch to Aperture priority mode (A or Av) or Manual mode, and set the aperture to the smallest number that the lens allows.
<pedant mode on>For the pedants out there, yes I know that it's actually 1 over the number, and so its the biggest number, but the reality is that people refer to just the denominator.</pedant mode off>
[Update Oct 16, 2020] At the above-mentioned location at Zealandia recently, I took a series of photos in Aperture-priority mode with my 100-400mm lens (set at 400mm) as if there was an interesting bird sitting on the foreground branches. (In this mode, as I changed aperture, the camera automatically changed shutter speed and ISO to ensure the same exposure for all photos in the series). For each photo I narrowed the aperture by a couple of clicks. The largest aperture on this lens is f/5.6, which is not that great but given how far away the background is, it still gives a nice blur. Even at f/18 the background is still nicely defocused (although its unlikely you'd want to use f/18 for wildlife).
You'll start having more reliable success if your lens is capable of apertures like f/1.4 and f/2.8. If you're using a 4/3rds or APSC camera, rather than a full-frame camera, the effective aperture will be narrower (ie the amount of blur will be lessened) even with wide-aperture lenses (this was a sad realization with my 4/3rds camera when I got an f/1.4 lens and I still wasn't getting that blur).
If you find you're frustrated by your gear, even when being smart about how you're shooting, this is when you start considering getting a lens that has a wide aperture. And usually when you start gulping when you look at the price and the weight. They're expensive and they're heavy. Don't consider getting one until you've exhausted all other techniques, such as the ones above, and that you understand what aperture and focus depth mean (otherwise you might not get the best out of your expensive purchase). But if you're serious about getting that look and having the ability to get it when you want it and not just when the conditions allow, it's well worth it. I must admit, I've drunk the KoolAid and don't regret it for a second.
One more affordable option that's worth considering is a Lensbaby lens, like one of the Velvet or Sweet lenses. Not only do they have wide apertures, but they also allow for special effects and can be a lot of fun to play with. You need to manually focus them though. They really are a lot of fun and you can even get them for your iPhone.
And finally, a fun thing to try is making patterned bokeh. You can buy Lensbaby templates to do this, or you can go old-school and cut up some cardboard to fit over the end of your lens. Simply cut a pattern like a heart or a star, ensure the edges are taped so no light sneaks around the edges, and set up a scene with your subject close to the camera and the background far away. Set the aperture to wide if you can. The key is to have something sparkly in the background like the Christmas tree lights in the photo above. You'll need to experiment a bit and you might have to manually focus, but if you succeed, your Christmas cards will be sorted this year!
If you try out any of these techniques, do leave a comment and let us know how you got on.
This fella cracks me up! I can just imagine him out for a moonlit stroll chortling away to himself. I don't know what the joke is, but it's a good one. Listen out, if you're in kiwi territory, for their distinctive snuffling and snorting as they go about their business.
It's not easy to get good kiwi pukupuku (little-spotted kiwi) photos - they are nocturnal after all. But I was fortunate to get the opportunity to photograph this chap during the day as he foraged for grass grubs. Conservation staff thought he was likely in a territory dispute, so rather than take on his foe, he decided to take the peaceful option and forage in the daytime instead. It was such a rare opportunity that I shot a couple of thousand photos! And I couldn't resist reimagining him in a more familiar night-time scene.
More typically, photo opportunities are at night and lit by red torchlight (converting to black and white is the only option). Shutter-speeds are slow and ISO is high, making for a grainy photo with motion blur. Despite these limitations, I do love the above photo with the oversized shadow in the iconic kiwi shape.
I've been fortunate to be involved with some of the kiwi research at Zealandia EcoSanctuary, helping out Andrew Digby (before he became a kākāpō and takahē guru) and Helen Taylor. I never did get to see a kiwi chick, but I did get to see many adults. A highlight was watching a fight late one night, with the two kiwi "beak-fighting" like their beaks were rapiers.
We (literally!) dug kiwi out of their burrows during the day for health checks. This provided some unique opportunities to get close-up photos of their tiny wings and their huge eggs.
Helen's research suggests that all is not well for kiwi pukupuku. Despite their breeding success at Zealandia, Kāpiti, and other places around New Zealand, they are descended from only a handful of birds. This genetic bottlenecking decreases the fertility of each generation and lowers their genetic diversity. Helen's research has been instrumental in helping conservation organizations get a handle on how many individuals are needed to successfully translocate a species to a new home - typically many more than once thought.
If you found this page because you're after kiwi photos, I've donated a number to Wikimedia Commons with a CC-BY-4.0 licence which means they're free to use with attribution. Links to my fine-art prints featuring the kiwi are below, with sales supporting conservation at Zealandia.
Fine art prints featuring kiwi pukupuku
A real kiwi joker (kiwi pukupuku)
Out for an early evening stroll under a rising moon, our kiwi friend is chuckling to himself - I wonder what the joke is?
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to Zealandia EcoSanctuary to support their conservation efforts. Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
This fine-art print comes on archival Breathing Color Elegance Velvet paper. Each print is hand-signed and editioned.
kiwi pukupuku, little-spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii
After midnight (kiwi pukupuku)
A snuffle, a rustle, then a ghostly image appears, silvery light dappling over his fluffy feathers - this is the rare and endangered kiwi pukupuku (little-spotted kiwi) out for a moonlit stroll. Long cat-like whiskers and a heightened sense of smell ensures this kiwi will find a tasty dinner.
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to Zealandia EcoSanctuary to support their conservation efforts.
Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
kiwi pukupuku, little-spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii
I'm so excited to give you a sneak preview of what is likely the final image in my dark and moody tūī series. "Forever calling me" speaks to an uncertain future for our resplendent tūī. And from now until the end of March 2020, limited-edition medium-sized (28x28cm) prints are available exclusively at Forest & Bird's webstore.
Ten percent of my proceeds for my bird art goes to conservation, and for this print Forest & Bird is the recipient. By going through their webstore, you increase that percentage even further because they also receive a commission.
Forest & Bird is one of New Zealand's largest and oldest conservation organizations - for nearly a century they have advocated from the grassroots to the highest government levels for our precious wildlife. I've been a member and supporter for over 15 years and I'm delighted to be able to support them further through my art (six pieces are currently available). If you want to support the birds through art, this is a great way to do it!
(In late March, Mr Tūī will then make his public debut at an exhibition in Akaroa and will be more widely available on my web store and in other galleries. If you're interested in larger or smaller limited-edition prints, just contact me for details.)
Some people dislike the holey nature of kawakawa (Piper excelsum), but I think it gives this under-rated native shrub some personality. Each leaf is uniquely carved out by the every-hungry kawakawa looper moth caterpillar. The birds adore the fruit and I adore a nice cup of peppery Kawakawa Fire tea.
It's week 2 in the 2020 Art of Birding challenge, and it was a simple one - to get inspired by leafy greens. Though my apologies to our snowed-in Northern Hemisphere participants who had much more of a challenge on their hands. I'm so glad so many of you were able to uncover some evergreen leaves.
400mm, f2.8, 160s, ISO 400, 0EV
I love taking photos of leaves, and often use them in my art by overlaying them with textures and collaging them to make leaf arrangements. Some examples are:
Do you have a favourite leaf?
We're kicking off Week 1 in the 2020 Art of Birding photo challenge with "Where I Stand," which alludes to the Māori concept of "tūrangawaewae" - a place of empowerment and connection. As a Pākehā and as someone who grew up living in many different places, I can only have an inkling of what it feels to be connected to the land in that way. The closest I come is my current home in Wellington, New Zealand, and especially Zealandia EcoSanctuary. For the past 16+ years I've been involved in this huge community project to restore an inner-city valley to a pre-human ecosystem. Not only have we transformed the valley into a lush landscape teaming with birdlife, but we've transformed the surrounding city. Wellingtonians are now fortunate to live in one of the few places in the world where biodiversity is increasing.
Today we went for a typical walk at Zealandia, but instead of the usual feelings of peace and tranquility, I was struck by the feelings of impending doom. The light was low and the air filled with haze and the faint smell of burning. Not because of anything local, but because the apocalyptic climate-change-enhanced bush fires from Australia have spread smoke across the Tasman Sea over 2000km away to New Zealand. The scale of these fires is unfathonamble and unprecedented and I can't bear to think of the lives lost - both humans and other animals. So many friends and family across the ditch are in harm's way.
It's the start of new year and a new decade, which should be a time for hope and anticipation of good things to come, but it feels more like the beginning of the end of life as we know it. Is it really as bad as we're told? According to this recent article by Jonathan Franzen, it's probably worse, because as he quite rightly points out, scientists tend to be cautious and underestimate the likely impacts of climate change. We are now living a "new normal".
So what can we do? It seems so insurmountable, but I'd rather we try than just give up. It may just be a little thing, but I hope that this photo challenge gives some of us a voice to our concerns, and, in conjunction with compelling imagery, will spread ripples throughout our friends and families. Showing our love for our wildlife and wildspaces and what we have to lose if we don't change our ways. Right now. Right away.
Creativity ebbs and flows and after a busy patch doing something else it can be hard to get back into it. Sometimes the business side of art, other work, and life has to come first for a bit. I've been reflecting on what's helped me in the past and I thought I would share my thoughts with you - I know I'm not alone in needing some inspiration (and a kick in the pants)! I'd love to know what works for you - feel free to add ideas in the comments...
1. a reward for getting going
Photo-art teacher Sebastian Michaels taught me that you have to turn up, and keep turning up, for your muse to arrive. She won't take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously too. I like to hook in a reward for turning up - something as simple as a cup of coffee or tea in a special mug first thing in the morning can get me out of bed and ready for action. For a long time I was starting every morning with art, but somehow I got out of the habit. This is probably the number one thing I need to remedy in my quest to get creative again. Sebastian's 21-days to creative abundance is a good kick-starter. I also love Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Big magic: creative living beyond fear". Might be time for a re-read...
2. The time is now
There's no point waiting for the perfect time to get creative - there is no better time than now, even if just for a few minutes. Waiting for the perfect time means so many lost opportunities. I find when the perfectionism/procrastination ramps up so that I find I'm waiting for the perfect time, when it arrives I'm out of practice and risk squandering the opportunity. A little bit more often, even if not ideal, means I'm more likely to have days when I find my muse and get into the zone.
3. Message a trusted friend
It makes a big difference touching base with artist friends regularly to inspire each other with plans and schemes and to bounce ideas around. I'm blessed to have a couple of artist friends that regularly check in and are quick with positive encouragement. We all need people in our lives that believe in what we're doing, especially for those times when we don't believe in ourselves.
5. Try a new art medium
Seeing a favourite subject in a new way can help, and what better way to feel enthused than a visit to the art store for new and interesting art supplies. My life was forever enriched when pastel artist Karen Rankin Neal put me onto shimmery Pan Pastels and Dahler Rowney pearlescent inks! It's what took me from a purely digital world into experimenting with Giclee print embellishment, mixed media, and big messes.
6. Do a creative course
I love getting creative and crafty with weekend workshops and online courses. Even if not directly related to my main artform, they can lead to creative connections. The weekend picture framing course I did last year at The Learning Connexion unleashed an entire product line (TinyArt), produced a rewarding collaboration with friend and framer Chris Helliwell, and enabled me to get bolder and more creative with my framing choices. There are so many free online courses and tutorials on literally every creative endeavour - start with YouTube and you'll soon be on an adventure. Did you know all the classic Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" courses are online and free? All 403 of them! What a resource! I've not been taking advantage of my subscriptions to the online KAIZEN (enrollments currently closed) and Shift Art photo-artistry communities, both of which have an incredible wealth of creative tutorials, and I will get back into them tomorrow... or even today... I promise.
7. Schedule social media
Being active on social media is an essential part of most modern artist's lives, but it so easy to go down unrelated rabbit holes and never return. Make time for social media, but not at the expense of the most productive hours of the day. I have to relearn this lesson again and again and again… how about you?
8. Join a regular creative challenge
daily, weekly, or monthly creative challenge can be a fun way to keep trying new things and to build a habit of creating regularly. I created the weekly Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge in 2018 to push myself to try new things, and then invited the world to join me. There are now hundreds of people also doing the challenge and we're all set to go for 2020 - check back in early December for the new challenges. Next year's challenges will emphasize creativity and composition, won't rely on having special gear, will have extra credit challenges, and will work for both photographers and other artists. I'm excited!
9. Create something just for fun and just for you
It can be too easy to get caught up in the mindset that everything created needs to count. But sometimes it's best to relax and take the time to create something just for ourselves. It's especially important if you're having an "attack of the shoulds" (when you hear yourself saying "I should be doing this" and "I should be doing that"). It took two days to make this crazy-complicated secret Belgian binding notebook, but I loved every moment. Especially fossicking through my decades of interesting paper scraps. Want to make one too? There's lots of tutorials out there and I referred to many, but the lovely Jennifer aka Sea Lemon tutorial was the clearest.
10. Fill your world with inspiration
Enrich your surroundings by subscribing to art magazines (check out Artists Down Under), collecting art, following artists on social media, and going to exhibitions. Try the Excio app that puts art and photography on your phone's wallpaper. Put on some of your favourite music, grab your tools, and get creating!
Do any of these suggestions resonate with you? What works for you? What else would you recommend I try? Let me know in the comments below...
[An article for budding artists who are taking the plunge to exhibit their work, though art buyers might also be interested in what goes on behind-the-scenes of an exhibition]
So you've taken the plunge and agreed to do an exhibition - congratulations! One of the first major decisions is framing. If you've not done it before, it can be quite intimidating. Hopefully this blog will take some of the uncertainty out of it, or at least will help you know which questions to ask.
My key take home message? It is important to see the frame not merely as a vehicle for the print but as an extension of the art itself.
So what's going on here? We have a super-intelligent parrot - Polly to her friends, but Professor to her students - at home and trying to relax but the kids are testing out their camera skills. We've all been there...
There's something about the aesthetic of old family photographs that I perversely love - the retro wallpapers, the jaunty angles and lack of focus, the look of terror on the poor victims, the fashion faux pas - and of course the memories - they're a delight to relive. And I found some wonderfully cringing examples in my old family photo archive to share so you can perhaps see where I'm coming from with lovely Polly.
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Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
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