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.
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.
Yesterday we got the opportunity to visit with and photograph Zealandia's takahē chick - the first chick for the eco-sanctuary and one of only about 370 takahē left in the world. As you can imagine, every chick is precious and vital for the survival of their species. So for now, there is restricted access, but hopefully soon the general public will be able to see the chick too. (Our access was due to our roles as volunteer Sanctuary Storytellers).
Those all-knowing eyes! I was completely captivated by this lovely youngster - she's as bright as a button and so curious about the world. She became "Professor Polly", and she reminds me so much of a super-smart friend who became one of youngest female professors in NZ's history (who coincidentally has a daughter named Polly!).
I have long been fascinated with bird intelligence and cognition. Study after study are now showing that birds are incredibly intelligent - just this week there was news about tool-use seen in kea (the kākā's cousin) in the wild. Long gone are the days when scientists thought that tiny brains relative to body size meant tiny abilities. Birds have vastly more dense innervation allowing smarts to be packed in much more tightly than human brains. And parrots and corvids are some of the brightest.
Researchers are quite taken by the kākā as a study subject. They're cousins of the kea, who are thought to be the most intelligent bird species in the world, but kākā are rating similarly on the IQ scales. It is fascinating watching them solve the tasks the researchers set them. The thought was that as social birds they would learn by watching their friends solve problems. From what I've seen, it appears more competitive than that with each wanting to show that they can solve puzzles their own way. It was quite incredible to see how many different techniques there are to solve the simple task of acquiring a cashew nut tied to the end of a string.
Not only are kākā super intelligent but they have complex emotional and social lives. We do of course have to be careful at over-anthropomorphizing, but I fear under-anthropomorphizing has had a negative effect not just on our understanding of animal cognition but also animal welfare. They might not think or feel identically to humans, but they think and feel and we shouldn't assume less.
And not only do we have a calendar, but through October and November, selected and additional photographs and longer stories from the calendar will be on exhibition in the Zealandia Stairwell Gallery. Come and find out why we love Zealandia so much!
With stories by Louise Slocombe, Vanya Bootham, Chris Gee, and Lynn Freeman, and photographs by Janice McKenna, Hayley May, Andrew Hawke, Linton Miller, Chris Gee, Lynn Freeman, Brendon Doran, and myself, there is something of interest for everyone.
And now the 2019 calendar is sorted, I'm already thinking about 2020 - what would you like to see featured?
The volunteer Storytellers' support Zealandia's fundraising efforts with the calendar and postcards, amongst many other activities. Individual artists and photographers also have high-quality prints and photographs available in the store. Proceeds from sales go directly to support Zealandia's not-for-profit conservation and restoration efforts.
I'm going to take you behind the scenes of what has been one of my most popular posts on social media recently and let you in on how it came about... I know it has been puzzling some folks...
It was a typical Sunday morning, mid-winter at Zealandia, on our regular photowalk and we had just reached the pontoon to spend some time with the kāruhiruhi families as they went through their morning rituals. The low sun was just starting to break around the corner, back-lighting the birds and sparkling the dew still hanging on the leaves. Then the rays hit the chilly lake and ethereal mist began rising. For once I was delighted to have lost the battle as to who had the 24-70mm and who had the 100-400mm lens!
The magical misty light hung around for only a few minutes; just enough time to take a bunch of photos with the wrong settings and then to figure out something that might work better and to hopefully get a nice shot. And the photos were indeed "nice," but not much more and I put them aside. On returning to them some months later, I realized that there was no one shot that had everything, but with some judicious compositing I could create a scene with a story.
I know some people have assumed that this image is a single photograph and have puzzled over how I got the shot, so I'd like to set the record straight, so to speak. And in one sense it is "just a photograph," far less messed about with than some of my images. But I believe that adding artistic licence and liberating oneself from pure photography, it's possible to more accurately capture a moment experienced and to share that emotion.
So what did I do? Four very similar photos went into this image - each was selected for what the birds were doing over the course of just 5 minutes. One was swimming making a spiral of ripples, two youngsters were looking excitedly into the water, another was "hanging out the washing to dry", and others were looking with anticipation into the new day. No one photo showed all that happening and there was no time to wait until they simultaneously did something - the mist was fading too fast. Choosing one photo as the main image, I did a first pass through camera raw to make basic adjustments to the exposure and lighting. I then carefully masked, adjusted with camera raw, and composited in the alternative birds to create a more interesting version of the scene. Then came a little bit of secret sauce; using Topaz Impression to add in a silky, painterly feel at a lowered opacity over the image, and then layering painted textures using soft-light blend modes to subtly change the lighting. When viewed at full size, the more painterly feel is much more apparent. A couple of passes through adjusting highlights and shadows and spot-healing distractions completed the image.
Do you like this image more or less now that you know how it came to be? Do you feel cheated and that it somehow isn't real? Does it take away the magic knowing what was added and how it was made? Or do you feel like you've seen through my eyes and into my soul? Have we shared a moment?
As soon as I started creating bird art I was asked "when are you going to do a tūī?" As a photo-artist, this isn't so easy because first I need to get the photos and you can't just ask a bird to sit right there and strike a pose. But eventually the stars aligned and "Unfurling" unfolded and quickly became my most popular print. And still the requests for more tūī came... So I turned my attention from my beloved kākā and spent more time searching for magic moments with the best-dressed boys of the NZ forest.
And after many hours of spending time with tūī, I came to see so many subtle differences among them. Each lacy nape is like a fingerprint, each poi is a fashion statement - some neat and tidy, some worn more jauntily. And their colours! Not just black and white, but glorious shimmering shades of blue and green, with touches of purple and even gold.
I asked them for their stories. And they answered with dark, gothic tales of loss, defiance, colonisation, foreboding, and reclamation. The tales are still coming, but now is the time to let you in on some of their inner secrets. Stay tuned on Facebook or Instagram this week as I unveil these new works, or if you'd just like to see everything all in one place, jump ahead here.
There is something about the tūī that resonates with people, more so than other more iconic birds it seems. Whether it's their colours, their personalities, their vocal gymnastics, their ubiqituousness in many regions (thanks to predator control), tūī capture people's hearts and minds like no other. Have they enchanted you? What stories have they told you?
What an incredible week for wildlife lovers in Wellington! Our first blessing was a kiwi pukpuku (little-spotted kiwi) out foraging during the day at Zealandia. Finally a chance for some photos under good conditions! Although quite unusual behaviour for a nocturnal bird, he seems healthy and is feeding well. There looks to be plenty of grass grubs on offer. Speculation is that he may have lost his territory to a competitor so is feeding during the day to minimize conflict. I wonder too if his vision has deteriorated further (he has a known eye issue) and he might not be able to tell day from night anymore - kiwi don't have strong vision, relying far more on smell and hearing, so it's not necessarily a problem for him. A visitor asked me if perhaps he should be taken somewhere where he can be looked after and have his day-night regulated, but really what better place than at Zealandia where he is safe to roam free where ever and when ever he chooses?
Our second blessing was the sudden appearance of a southern right whale in Wellington Harbour. It is a beautiful sight to see a whale frolicking in our picturesque harbour, especially on Thursday night as a calm sunny day descended into a pink sunset. The mood on the waterfront was joyous as Wellingtonians came together to experience this special moment. A moment of poignancy too as we reflected on the killing field that Wellington Harbour once was when whaling was in its heyday, and how we humans nearly hunted whales to extinction. It's thought that at one stage there was only one breeding female southern right left, and all today descend from her. Let's hope our visitor stays and brings friends!
Wellington can be a difficult and challenging city - this weekend is shaping up to be a good example - but moments like these make living here all worthwhile.
#WhyWellington #CantBeatWellingtonOnAGoodDay #NaturalCapital #Wellington #FreeWelly #kiwisforkiwi #zealandia
I am so glad I didn't take on a 365 challenge as I'm struggling (failing) to keep up with a weekly challenge. Rather than doing them weekly, I find I'm doing a bunch at a time or when an opportunity arises, rather than deliberately setting out to do a challenge each week. Throw in some procrastination and perfectionism, it's a recipe for dipping out before the challenge is completed. But I am determined to see this through though, and today did a big push to catch up with the third quarter, even if some aren't my best work. Will I get the last quarter done by the end of the year? Feel free to place your bets!
Week 27 - Communication (Artistic)
I love how the light from her screen makes her face glow.
From teeny-tiny fungi to crazy kākā, the 2018 Zealandia calendar is a cracker! The creating of the calendar is one of the biggest projects my volunteer Sanctuary Storytellers group at Zealandia undertakes. Every year it gets better and better, with gorgeous wildlife photography and compelling stories. And at $19.90, it makes the perfect stocking stuffer or secret Santa gift. You can get it from the Visitors Centre shop or order online.
Not only are there 13 months, but NZ holidays are marked along with significant wildlife and conservation days. And every cent made goes back into conservation.
A true team effort with photos, writing, research, and editing from: myself, Vanya Bootham, Rosemary Cole, Brendon Doran, Lynn Freeman, Chris Gee, Chris Helliwell, Eeva-Katri Kumpula, Hayley May, Janice McKenna, Linton Miller, Ali McDonald, and Louise Slocombe.
It's taken me this long to complete the second quarter of the Dogwood 2017 weekly photography challenge because I struggled to get Week 14 Panning completed. Panning is hard! So without further ado, here are the results....
Week 14 - Panning (Technical)
This challenge has been "dogging" me for weeks, so what better subject to choose than a doggo. Must be the slowest pan ever done, but it's done!
With more rain forecast, we headed out this morning to Zealandia to get a quick walk in and see if anything interesting was happening.
...go to Zealandia of course! Of course? Yes it might be a bit chilly, and a bit showery, and a bit gloomy, but rug up well and you'll see lots and have fun!
Today four of us headed out, picking up a couple of strays along the way. For once we were all shooting with micro four-thirds cameras (a Panasonic GX7, two GX8's, and an Olympus OM-D), which given the low light was going to be challenging, but we were up for it. Well most of us were - Janice was certainly missing her Canon 1DX. It wasn't a day for birds in flight, so I decided early on to just pop on my 20mm/f1.7 prime and see how far I could push it.
After a hearty breakfast for some at Rata Cafe, we headed in just in time for the first shower. A quick change of plans and we grabbed the boat instead and took the sheltered scenic route into the valley. This week's Dogwood photo challenge is an f/8 portrait, so what better subject than Skipper Chris. I like how the narrower aperture means the valve tower comes into focus in the background.
For over three years I've been searching for Zealandia's kākā kura - a very rare red colour morph (variation), seen and photographed by a lucky few, but not by me. And finally I saw a wee orange head emerge repeatedly from within a clump of muehlenbeckia to feed. She was unmistakable! With salmon-orange feathering on and around her head, rather than grey and yellow, and an overall colour of burnished mahogany, she was drop-dead gorgeous. And nothing like any other kākā I'd ever seen.
Such a shy character too, but given how much she ate, I suspect she has many hungry mouths to feed and so was willing to take the risk of being seen by humans. Kākā are not normally that shy, but I suspect only kākā kura with shy genes survived the onslaught of Victorian collectors, who were hell-bent on scoring yellow, white, and red kākā colour-morph skins for their pathetic but highly-prized collections. If only they had cameras rather than shot-guns...
And this shy girl is of special significance to me - she came from one of the nests I monitor and I'd even held and cuddled her when she was banded and micro-chipped back in 2010 (and this is why I left the leg-bands in the image rather than photo-shopping them out). Back then, her colouring was normal so it presumably only changed after her first moult - she wasn't seen again until 2013. So as she's a banded bird, we know for sure it's the same bird each time she shows up, and we do know a little bit about her history.
Her mum "Pinky-B" was one of the first generation of kākā to hatch at Zealandia after the initial translocation. Her dad "Heath" hatched the year after. Both mum and dad are the progeny of the infamous Alfie Kākā and his first partner, making them brother and sister, albeit from different nests. Pinky-B and Heath were prodigious breeders too, so who knows what other interesting recessive genes and mutations are out there. Heath disappeared some years ago, but Pinky-B keeps going, though now she's partnered with her son/nephew and her fertility has dropped.
Nothing gives me more joy than heading out with my camera and friends to Zealandia EcoSanctuary for a day of wildlife photography, bad puns, and good coffee, so I thought I'd share with you some of my favourite photos from our recent outings. Just hover over the images for the story behind each.
I've just had a search through Lightroom and I have over 7000 photos tagged Zealandia with 295 different dates over 13 years - and those are just the ones I've kept! And I can't wait for the next outing - there is always something new to see or a different angle on a familiar scene. I firmly believe that Zealandia is just as much a sanctuary for us humans as it is for the wildlife.
Monitoring bird nestboxes often involves lots of waiting around for mum to leave the nest, often to find there was no one in the nestbox to begin with. One way to expedite this process with some species is to use a small car mechanic's inspection mirror (which has an adjustable-angle mirror and a telescoping handle) and a flashlight to get a glimpse of the box contents. This can take a lot of futzing around to get the angles right, and some of us just don't seem to have the coordination required.
After a particularly frustrating kākā-monitoring outing with various failed attempts at using a mirror, I wondered if it might simply be easier to stick my Nexus 5X into the nestbox "porthole" and take a quick HDR+ photo without any additional light or flash. (The entrance porthole is for birds to get in and out of the nestbox - for kākā it's about 10cm wide and about 50cm above the floor of the nestbox which makes it a convenient size for a mobile phone.)
Et voila! It worked. Not only was I able to ascertain whether the nestboxes were active or not, but the pictures were clear enough in some cases to count the eggs and age the chicks, such that I didn't need to open the box. The whole process (for me at least!) was much faster than mirroring, meaning less disturbance to the nest occupants, as well as providing a permanent record of the nest check.
After a week of weathering everything mother nature could throw at us (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, gales, and storms), and which are likely not all over yet, I felt the need to work on this series of images from our recent trip to the Marlborough Sounds. These ethereal, languid landscapes belie the awesome forces that created them.
Most of the photos worked into these images were taken on Simon Woolf's Natural Environment Photography Retreat at the Bay of Many Coves Resort. A long weekend filled with fun, photography, and quite a bit of rain! The images themselves were inspired, in part, by Julieanne Kost's course "The Art of Photoshop Compositing", which LinkedIn kindly offered for free recently (probably the only time LinkedIn has ever been useful). If you're interested in photoartistry, Photoshop or Lightroom, she has many tutorials and courses, many of them free, and all highly worthwhile.
The 2017 ZEALANDIA calendar is now available and it's filled to the brim with gorgeous nature photography, including my enthusiastic mating kākā photo! This year, the images came from the 2016 "Spirit of ZEALANDIA" photo competition, judged by National Geographic and Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore. There is a wide mix of bird photos, other critters, plants, and landscapes, all taken within the Sanctuary valley. The accompanying stories were lovingly crafted by volunteer Sanctuary Storyteller and Radio NZ journalist, Lynn Freeman. The calendar itself was researched, designed and edited by the Sanctuary Storyteller team. It's a pleasure to convene this team of talented and dedicated people. The calendar is a true labour of love and we are all glad to be able to use our talents to support ZEALANDIA in a tangible way.
The calendar makes a perfect Christmas present and all proceeds go directly to supporting ZEALANDIA's vision.
You can buy it online here or pop into the Visitors Centre.
For parrot-lovers, visiting Australia is always a treat! We recently visited Sydney for the first time and were delighted to see wild sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) and rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus moluccanus) filling the skies with chatter and colour. It was quite something to see these beautiful birds outside of captivity.
My Aunty Helen was somewhat perplexed by our interest in what are commonly-seen birds to Sydneysiders, but she was very obliging in taking us to likely bird-watching sites around Mosman. I was particularly keen to see cockatoos.
Having been involved in tracking the distribution of kākā around Wellington, I've followed the "Cockatoo Wingtag" program with interest (also see their Facebook page) - a joint venture between the University of Sydney and the Australian Museum. They too are interested in the distribution and behaviour of parrots in an urban setting and also rely on public reports to help track the birds. Unlike kākā, who just have coloured leg-bands, cockatoo have cattle-tags attached to their wings with large numbers written on them. This makes it much easier for the public to identify them as individuals without having to decipher leg-band colour combinations.
There are only around 100 birds in the Wingtag study, so we were not expecting to come across any, but to our delight, we spied not just one, but two Wingtag birds: #035 "Shakespeare" and #011 "Watermelon", both in Clifton Gardens in Mosman. (And yes, I had to just about leap out of a moving car to get the first sighting!)
As an aside, I do wonder if the yellow tags make the cockatoo more or less sexy to one another? Presumably the yellow tags were chosen to match their colouring?
Some cockatoo like Shakespeare are now also sporting solar-powered GPS units. Cockatoo are about twice the size of kākā so can carry the units more easily. When this was tried with kākā, the researchers were at the limit of what a bird could be expected to carry, plus the duller Wellington skies were not as conducive to solar-powered devices (battery-packs were more successful). Not to mention, it was incredibly difficult to build the units strong enough to withstand a kākā's powerful chomping beak. I hope they have more success than we did.
Back home, I've been working on some compositions, including this one of Helen enjoying the Sunday papers, with some additional "embellishments" that for me capture what was a lovely long weekend "across the ditch".
Linton also sneaked this shot of this "bird watching bird" scene - don't be surprised to see this charming kookaburra in a future composition!
For those people who have only known me as an adult, my forays into the creative world may appear to be a new craze, but for those who knew me as a kid, they'll remember that I loved both art and science in equal measure. And often the two worlds would combine, like when I made a space rocket out of my Snow White talcum powder bottle and toothpaste caps, or when I illustrated a book on the planets (including Pluto of course!). I belonged to the local astronomy club when I was only 7 and I was selected as one of the top art students to go on a school trip to see the Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection at 11. I'd spend hours colouring and drawing - especially butterflies. All that ended when I was in my teens due to an illness - I was no longer able to hold a pen long enough to write, let alone draw. So art went by the wayside and I pursued maths and science instead. [...insert a 30 year gap...]
Coming back to art as an adult has had its challenges, and like many, I worry that I don't have a "style" and that I'm scattered all over the place. I was reassured today that perhaps there was a vestige of innate personal style that I was drawing from. I was tidying my home office - which serves a dual purpose as an acoustics laboratory and an art studio - when I found this treasure. It's a bookmark I made my Nana over 40 years years ago - featuring a space parrot and a butterfly!
One thing I've learned in the "Awake" photo artistry course is the importance of warming-up by doing what Sebastian calls "Finger Exercises". The idea is take a few minutes, grab a couple of images and some textures, and knock something together. It's a great way to get into the flow, and most of the time the results are rubbish, but sometimes something good comes out and suddenly the whole morning has disappeared. This piece is not my normal style, but was engaging to work on. I hope that we never reach the day where all we have are photo albums with memories of kākākpō. Fortunately the Kākāpō Recovery Team is doing all that is humanly possible to ensure their survival and are well worth your support, but it is an uphill battle.
Kākāpō and other photos by Linton Miller and myself, kākāpō skeleton from the NY Public Library digital archives. Additional content via "Awake".
My go-to site for bird information is no longer the definitive field guide by Heather & Robertson, but instead NZ Birds Online. Essentially a wikipedia for New Zealand's Birds, it gives authoritative information curated by Te Papa's ornithologist, Colin Miskelly, supported by a wealth of crowd-sourced photographs from keen birders and wildlife photographers (like myself!). One of its strengths is the ability to quickly add and modify entries as new information comes to hand, such as the recent sightings of new vagrant birds to NZ like the red-footed booby.
Have you ever noticed that it's the black and white packages that have all the cool edges and photo frames? But what if you want to apply a frame on a colour image? As in all things Photoshop, there are multiple ways to do this, but I like this quick trick.
"Winter at the Cape"
Images from Cape Cod and the Galapagos. Additional content used under licence from FoxeySquirrel and Ninka Studio.
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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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