Spotlight on Species, Greater Gliders

In a recent night spotlight on species night survey we were in luck. We found another Greater Glider in the Wombat State Forest. This time rather then just taking stills I was interested to see if I could video the Greater Glider. Normally when lit by spotlights the Greater Gliders end up pretty well blinded by the light and tend to just sit still. While this is great for photos, a glider just sitting in a tree in the light is not great for video.

So when trying to film anything a night in situ with natural behavior there is no point using a light so bright as to stop that behavior. We know most nocturnal animals seem happy to move about in moonlight so this time with the Great Glider I tried a light that was only just a little brighter than a full moon. It worked, the glider was not interested in me and my light and it kept watching the people with the spot lights as they moved on. I was finally able to capture a bit of clambering about before the spotlights returned but it gives me great hope that it will be possible to film this magnificent endangered species in the wild. All in all it was a very good test result.

The clip starts with a brushtail possum, it was my test critter, while it was interested it did not seem to be worried by my light. I then got some shots of the Great Glider under the spotlights from the survey team, it did as others have done in the past and just sat. As the team moved on I stayed, you can see the glider as the spot lights go off and a red head torch is used to light it. It still stares at the people and red light, I turn my light on and off a couple of times, it does not seem to notice and is much more interested in looking at the spot-lighters. Once they move on we see the Greater Glider just under my light. When it quietens down the Great Glider changed position just before the spotlight team returned. It was very encouraging to see the Glider being unconcerned under the filming light.

For the technically interested the material was shot with a Sigma 150-600 mm lens, using a Sony A7S2 Camera in 4k at 25 fr/sec. It was about 30m away from the camera and did not seem to mind my quiet presence.

A Walk in the Wombat Forest

Greater Glider
A young Greater Glider in the Wombat forest.
Tonight we went on a spotlighting survey in the Wombat State forest. Until a couple of months ago I had not seen a Greater Glider in the wild before. But tonight took the cake, 8 Greater Gliders spotted on a single transect. Perfect night for it, a little moon and no wind and given it is the middle of winter here it was not too cold either.
Greater Glider
Who is watching who?
I am yet to see one glide but they are quite slow moving and seem not at all fussed by the attention. They are quite happy to sit and watch the humans as they wander around with torches hunting for eye shine to find them.

The Greater Glider is the largest gliding possum in Australia. They range from North Queensland to the Wombat Forest in Victoria and are an endangered species. They are surprisingly large looking but their fur cost is long and think making them look bigger than they actually are. Adults weight up to 1.6 kg in our area. Body length is up to 43cm and the tail is up to 53cm. So the whole package comes in at around one metre for a full sized adult. They eat Eucalyptus leaves like Koalas and are often found in the tops of trees feeding. They need many large hollows in their home ranges as they are slow moving and shift home frequently as they feed from tree to tree.

Greater Glider
Whats happening over there.

So pleased to have found such a relatively large population doing well so close to home. The survey we attended was promoted by the Upper Campaspe Landcare Network.

Chasing Aurora

Last Friday night, 20th April I received an Aurora Alert. Given that we are surrounded by trees I went out to the closest spot that gave me an unhindered view of the southern horizon. I could only see a smudge by eye, it was drowned out the glow of Melbourne I thought, but on closer inspection it was there on the right hand side of frame, just below the horizon but the distinct trace of the Aurora Australis.

Melbourne to the left and Aurora Australis to the right.
With Mt Macedon to the left and the white glow of Woodend in front of the mountain with the white glow in the woodsmoke. Melbourne lights up the whole left hand sky, the orange glow of Gisborne below the dotted trail of the plane but to the right behind the trees the soft glow of the Aurora Australis. Click the image of a larger view.

Ethics and Film Making, My Rules

For all aspiring film makers and also for viewers of our content here is my guide to the ethics of filming wildlife. These are my rules and how I operate I think they are reasonable and will gladly hold to them for all my filming for this Blog.

1. Remember it is only a movie/photo, it is not ethical to make any creature miserable just to get your shots. So keep your distance, take your time and be aware of your effect and presence on the creature. I have a simple rule of thumb here, a happy animal does their own thing and that is often what you want to film/photograph.
2. If you film in controlled circumstances and by that I mean a set, tank, a zoo, a wildlife park etc say so. For some things we will work in controlled environments but we will always say so and tell you why it is necessary. (More about set filming later)
3. Do not create unreal scenarios or scenes that would not happen in nature. For example a polar bear eating penguins. (Think about it).
4. Leave nothing but footprints and take noting but images. That is do not destroy or damage the environment you are working in. No litter, no gaffa tape, when you leave, leave no trace of your visit.
5. Do it right, get all permissions and permits before you film/photograph. To conduct any commercial operation, that means to take video or photograph you might sell, in a National Park or reserve you need a permit from the relevant authority. Permits come with conditions that need to be read and understood and kept to. On private land make sure you have the approval of the land holder. Remember in all cases, you never know when you may need to come back so ensure you keep to the rules. (If you are just a tourist and capture something amazing you might be able to sell, most authorities will be understanding and look to issue a permit after the event if your honest and upfront. Plus they will probably be excited to see what you have done too)
6. I always remember taking movies or photographs in nature is a privilege not a right. I think it is the best job in the world but it does come with responsibilities to your subject and the environment they live in. Respect everything and keep yourself real and have fun.

The tips and tricks of how I filmed Spikey, the Echidna today

Well today I got lucky and was able to film an Echidna just doing its thing wandering about the forest and feeding. While I was out I got to thinking that this would make a good behind the scenes post.

So how do you film an Echidna? Very carefully, boom boom. Seriously the approach to getting close and filming most mammals is essentially the same. The upshot is you just need to become a non threatening part of their environment, that is become something they ignore and see you are not something to fear. But how do you do this? Don’t animals just run away? Well yes, but also no sometimes if you are lucky, careful and follow the rules you can literally get closer than your minimum focus. (at which point you just stop work and enjoy the moment.)

Ok, my basic ground rules are.
1. Do not stalk or try to sneak up. All wild animals are way more alert and in tune with what is going on around them than we stupid humans. Most of the time they will spot you long before you spot them. If they feel “hunted” even just for a photo they will run or in the Echidnas case, dig in and bury itself.
2. Move slowly, openly and never straight towards the animal and only when they can see you. No surprises. I usually walk in at about a 45 degree angle in the same direction as the animal is traveling so we would converge eventually. More often than not talking quietly to the animal. The logic behind this is the animal must think, “he is not following me and is not interested in me. He can’t be hunting me because he is making noise and seems focused on something else”.
3. Avoid eye contact. You want to keep the impression that you are just another creature sharing the same space. That your focus is not the animal, a glance yes, but only a glance especially in the early stages when you first make contact.
4. Let the animal come to you. Put yourself ahead of the animals path, don’t hide, just sit or stand and ignore the approaching animal. Talk to your self or the animal. Remember rule 3, feign disinterest.
5. RELAX. Chill out, don’t get excited, stay loose and relaxed. Remember move slowly at all times, never any sudden movement, enjoy the moment. Watching ants is always a good tactic to you appear not to be focused on the animal you are trying to share a space with.
6. Take your time. It will take as long as it takes but once the animal seems happy, ie not watching you, basically ignoring you, you can slowly start to film / photograph the animal and move with it. Again remember stay relaxed, move slowly and keep talking. You can end up way closer than you might think possible.

Just remember, it is up to the animal to accept you into their space, the choice is always theirs so respect that and don’t push and take your time. If they show signs of stress, back off and leave them alone, everyone has a bad day. If the settle down don’t break the trust you have established, it is so easy to go from hero to zero with just one quick thoughtless movement. Once you have your shots let the animal just wander away from you before you move on.

So to today with Spikey the Echidna, I spotted it having a drink. I surprised it as I was not aware it was there and it immediately moved away and so did I leaving in the opposite direction to the Echidna. I noted its direction of travel and then hightailed it off (walking slowly) for the camera gear. When I came back, about 10min later, I approached from a totally different direction ie from where I saw the Echidna heading. I spotted it and immediately stopped and let it see me, talking quietly. It came to within about 15m of me and veered away and around me, but still heading in the same basic direction. I let it move about 25m away to where I could barely see it. Then moved slowly out and ahead if its path again so it could see me. This time it came closer, before veering away but I could tell I was winning. This process happened several times more, each time it came closer than the last and was more relaxed. I was able to move position in plain sight of the Echidna and it just kept doing its own thing. All the time I am talking, making sure it knows where I am, and where necessary watching ants to chill out. This is where experience comes in, I could see the point it had accepted me as a neutral part of its landscape. It had taken about an hour and a half, but now I was able move at will, never straight toward the Echidna but into its path. Every move it came closer and closer before angling away. Finally it came under minimum focus and straight past the tripod, totally ignored by me. This is the magic moment you hope for. All done with a little time, patience and gentle persistence.

I then stayed with Spikey until he/she went through a fence. I had more than enough shots and called it a day letting the Echidna wander off before I moved away. What a thrill, trusted by a wild animal with a ticket to its world for a couple of hours. Days like today leave me feeling so good, it is why I love what I do. Thanks Spikey, see you again sometime soon I hope. Stay safe little friend.

Behind the Scenes: Macro filming in the field

Here is how I filmed the macro shots in this weeks video in the field. This pretty much is my standard way of doing similar sorts of shoots where it is impossible to move the subjects to a more sheltered location.

Gear in situ
An overview of the site and setup for the caterpillar filming

The shoot days were pretty breezy and that made filming the macro shots very tricky, even tiny movements end up looking like earthquakes when you are using high levels of magnification. Even just the ants moving were causing problems with the branch bouncing up and down and when the wind blew it was next to impossible to get a steady shot.

Setup for macro 1
Overview of setup. Note the lab stand and windbreak / reflector

The photo shows my setup. I used a heavy lab stand and clamp to steady the branch the caterpillar was sitting on. Initially this disturbed the ants but after a few minutes they settled back down as if nothing had happened. The second tip was to use a rigid white piece of cor-flute board to the windward side of the area I was trying to protect. This left a small pocket of stiller air most of the time and had the added advantage of bouncing some extra fill light back into the scene too. (If you dont want the fill just use a matt back board)

The macro shots used my trusty Canon MP65, it covers the range of 1:1 to 5:1 in macro in one neat lens package. (To explain further, 1:1 to 5:1 refers to magnification, so at 1:1 the image on the camera sensor is the same size as the subject. At 5:1 the image on the sensor is 5x magnified ie larger, that the actual subject. That is how you can see an ant only 3mm long in so much detail.)

Camera setup for macro
The lens here is my Canon 24 -105mm with extension tube, great for wide shots less than 1:1.

The other essential piece of kit is the slide plate between the camera and tripod. The lens does not focus as like a normal lens, you turn the barrel to change magnification (not to focus) and to actually focus you slide the whole camera rig toward and away from the subject. It is fiddly but also very satisfying to see things to small to normally observe.

I hope you like these insights behind the scenes and feel free to ask me any questions you may have and I will do my best to answer them for you.