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BCA News: Winter 2019

Kakadu World Heritage Area – Tourists Beware!

Gale Spring, FBPA

On a trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, Danielle Edwards and I explored Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is dual-listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its outstanding natural and cultural values. This area is remote and difficult to access anywhere other than off the main road. Kakadu is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and just a bit smaller than the state of New Jersey.

Kakadu is aboriginal land continuously inhabited for over 40,000 years. The wildlife is exciting and not too frightened by the tourists who make the journey to Outback Australia. Some animals are shy and run away while others simply ignore the strange curiosity. Australian wildlife has many ways of hurting you (including death) with the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders, jellyfish, crocodiles, not to mention, sharks. It makes for exciting wildlife and natural history photography.

The Yellow Water Billabong and wetlands are beautiful and serene, but not a place to setup a tripod on the bank and wait for ‘the shot’. © Gale Spring

Trying to photograph wildlife in Australia poses many problems – especially in wetlands. Wading into the waterways is not a wise choice. Setting up a tripod near a shoreline and waiting on the action to happen is also dangerous – you may become an active player in the ‘action’. So, handheld cameras with telephoto lenses are the safest option. I have used many telephoto lenses over the years, but have found none better that my current AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR. This is the newest version of the lens and has a greatly improved vibration reduction (VR) system allowing the use of slower shutter speeds.

Usually very shy, this Jabiru was determined to get nesting material. © Gale Spring

Although we shot hundreds of photographs on this 3-week trip, one of my favourite images was of the Australian Jabiru (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus), classified as a near–endangered species with populations decreasing. In the early morning, we were travelling in a boat with about 10 other people slowly going through the Yellow Water Billabong in the Kakadu wetlands when we slowly rounded a bend and, in the distance, saw a Jabiru in the grasses near the end of the estuary. The Jabiru is a shy bird that nests in the very top of tall trees and usually in areas that are inaccessible (or at least dangerous) for people to get near. The Australian Jabiru ranges in height from 130-150 centimetres (52-59-inches) with a wingspan up to about 230-centimetres (91-inches).

When we spotted the Jabiru a few hundred metres away, the guide said it would fly before we got too close since they were very shy. Fortunately, it seemed to disregard our slow approach and continued to concentrate on gathering nesting materials.

With very little anticipation of success, I set my lens on 400mm, stood up in the slow moving boat, bent my knees to act as shock absorbers and hoped the VR technology would help me get a sharp image. The morning light was still low and I didn’t want to push the ISO too high. I took several photos before the Jabiru decided to take its sticks and go. It sounds simple enough to stand in a boat and shoot, but standing in a boat or dangling your arms or elbows over the edge is not advisable in crocodile infested Australian wetlands, something you are constantly warned not to do by all experienced guides.

The crested Jacana is adapted to ‘walk on water’. Fortunately, these birds are small and not usually seen as a meal for a large croc. © Gale Spring

The birdlife in the tropics is abundant. I took many photographs of many species of birds, but I admit to being fascinated with the birds ‘walking on water’. Ardeparin gallinacean, the Comb-crested Jacana, also known as the lotusbird or lilytrotter, is the only species of Jacana in the genus Irediparra. Like other Jacana species, it is adapted to the floating vegetation of tropical freshwater wetlands.

Modest size female ‘Saltie’. Beautiful, but the reason we don’t setup a tripod on the bank of any river in northern Australia. © Gale Spring

The area we were exploring on this trip was a great habitat for the Australian Estuarine or Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodiles porosus) or ‘salties’ as they are called here. They can reach a length of 7 metres (23 feet) for an adult male. As described in the Outback Australia Travel Guide, “they are huge, aggressive, territorial, and plentiful across the north. Our crocodiles kill on average one to two people per year!” Note, these are usually, but not always, tourists. Crocodiles are beautiful creatures that either do nothing, run from you or eat you. Get close enough to a saltwater crocodile and ‘nothing’ isn’t an option. They are very protective of their territory and can move very fast. People who get killed by crocodiles would rarely see them coming.

Crocodiles are endemic across the top end of Australia. For over 20 years I have been visiting the Daintree River in Far North Queensland and got to know a local guide very well over those years. He loves to tell the tourists many scary stories of crocodiles and snakes along the Daintree River. It usually keeps them well back from the edge of the boat.

This photo is deceptive. Although appearing to be standing in the water, a fraction of a second earlier the water was calm with no evidence a croc was near. © Gale Spring

When travelling the wetlands or rivers you will see many female crocodiles of various sizes. Only if you’re lucky will you see the dominate male. There will be only one in a very large territory. The wetlands are beautiful and full of animals, particularly birds. The scene will look serene tempting you to go near the water’s edge or hang your arms and camera over the edge of a boat. The photograph of the crocodile leaping from the water demonstrates just how high they can jump. Also, note there is almost no surface disturbance as they exit the water. They are like an arrow penetrating the water surface. There’s a saying in the Outback: you may not see a crocodile, but they will see you.


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