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Photographing three wild species in one day

Sunday, August 1, 2010 posted by Bruce 10:41 AM

The beginning of my 3rd book project entitled Wild Rivers

Three species on one lucky day in March of 2005

Like most of my mornings in the forest, getting out of the hammock before dawn is a routine affair for me. Sleeping by the pristine Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park in southwest Thailand is a peaceful and soothing experience with the sound of rushing water flowing down to the lowlands. The night creatures fade into their abodes and daytime is greeted by singing birds and insects. As the sun comes up, gibbons call and hornbills honk from the treetops. It is nature at its very best.

Buffy fish owl by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park

I adhere to an old saying; “an early bird get’s the worm” to sometimes work wonders. This was the case one particular morning in March 2005. After a quick cup of coffee, I got my cameras ready for the days’ shoot. I was about to embark on my third book project capturing some extremely lucky wildlife photographs of three different species in one day.

The mighty Phetchaburi River during the dry winter season

About 6am, one of the Karen porters went upstream and found a buffy fish-owl stuck in his fishnets. I was upset at them to say the least but had to think quickly. The bird was going into shock as hypothermia took control over the owl. It was on the verge of dying and only quick thinking saved this creature from certain death. The campfire was going well so I placed the bird close to warm it up and get its blood flowing. I’m sure the creature had no idea what was going on but the bird was calm and collective as I assured it everything would be OK.

Buffy fish owl just after being saved from certain death

The owl began to perk up and I knew then it would survive. I placed it on a tree branch by the river and it locked its talons into the bark. The bird of prey just sat there while I played wildlife photographer. After shooting almost an entire memory card and without further ado, I left the owl in peace.

As I sat down to eat breakfast, it left its temporary perch and flew across the river disappearing into the dense forest. The bird was not seen again. I felt pleased at having saved this beautiful creature’s life. I had just switched to a Minolta digital SLR camera and was able to double-check all my shots for exposure, color and focus. Everything looked good and I was excited at having photographed this owl during the day as they are nocturnal.

King cobra hunting along the Phetchaburi River

After breakfast, we packed up our gear for a day trip headed upriver. In March, the water level is low, and the riverine habitat easy to transverse. The team and I crossed the river several times till about 4pm when I decided to turn back to camp. Just then, my research companion Detchart “Top” Saengsen sighted a large snake and called out. I reached for my camera with a 280mm lens and found a slithering black reptile in the underbrush. Its head appeared and I started shooting, not thinking about the danger. The king cobra – the world’s largest venomous snake – moved into an overhang so I flipped up the flash and took a few more shots. The reptile did a u-turn and was gone in a split second.

The big snake just before it made a u-turn and disappeared in a split second

The rest of the team had already retreated, leaving the crazy photographer to his own devices. It certainly was an exciting experience. I was elated that I had just photographed the true king of the forest. It is said large mammals like elephants, gaur and tigers stay out of the king cobra’s way. I checked my camera and had two shots left on my card. I decided not to delete any poor images until later as I felt nothing would show itself after the big snake.

Asian tapir swimming in the Phetchaburi River

The team and I were in good spirits as we headed back to camp. Suddenly, an Asian tapir bounced out of the thick forest on the opposite bank about a hundred meters away. It dove into the river and started swimming towards us, now fifty meters off. Tapir have fair eyesight but this black and white creature did not notice five humans standing out in the open up on a sandbank. I took one shot of the swimming tapir then waited, knowing very well I only had one frame left. The creature got closer and then stopped in the water about 20 meters away. I centered the focusing ring on the eye and took the shot. Then we watched this elegant animal go back the way it had come.

Asian tapir posing for me in the late afternoon sun

I know I missed quite a few shots because of old age, forgetfulness (not having spare memory cards), but then again, the two shots I had were more than enough. I was thrilled to photograph the world’s largest tapir in daylight. These creatures are mainly nocturnal and rarely seen. That day was truly the beginning of a new dream and my last shot of this tapir made the front cover of my third book Wild Rivers now published and available at bookstores in Thailand and the region. It certainly was a special day for me and one that is etched in memory.

I am now working on book four which will be a collection of stories published over a two year period in the Bangkok Post, Thailand’s number one English daily. Chapters about the top protected areas in Thailand and ‘wild species reports’ on the animals thriving in the remaining forests including mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other categories. Hopefully, this book project will create conservation awareness among the present generation. My dream to produce wildlife books continues, but that is another story.

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