Photographers reveal the stories behind award-winning wildlife pictures

For most of us wildlife photography doesn’t go much further than snapping a cute picture of our cat.

But these pictures show some of the best photographs of wild animals across the world – and now the photographers have revealed how they took them for a book.

The Natural History Museum, London’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most prestigious event of its kind in the world.

First awarded in 1964, there have been thousands of entries and each year a panel of judges chooses 100 winners.

Last year, there were over 40,000 photographs entered into the competition.

Now the people behind the award have put together a book showing some of the best photographs from across the years. Each photograph was either a winner or a specially commended image.

They have been taken by more than 50 award-winning photographers worldwide representing more than 20 countries.

Each photograph in the book comes with the story of how it was taken and why it is so important.

These are some of the images featured in the book:

Vole in a Hole – Danny Green

‘The drainage pipe seemed the perfect vole-sized hole, but it took the photographer very many days camped on the opposite side of the canal before he saw a water vole that thought the same.

‘The canal in Derbyshire is disused, but has banks ideal for these large voles: steep but easy to burrow into, not overly shaded and with a rich mix of succulent grasses, sedges and flowering plants, together with aquatic plants, providing plentiful cover and food – and relatively shallow, still water to dive into as an escape route.

‘It was the perfect urban refuge. The only problem was a risk of burrows flooding when it rained heavily.

‘Water voles might favour living beside water, at least in England, and can swim, but they are not aquatic rodents.

‘They don’t have webbed feet, and their fur becomes waterlogged if they are forced to remain in the water for long.

‘Luckily for this population, the council lowers the water table if flooding is anticipated, not wanting the canal to overflow.

‘Elsewhere in Britain, however, the threats are great.

‘Rather than flooding, it is wetland drainage, dredging, river and stream canalization and the extension of arable cultivation and livestock grazing right to the river edge that have caused water voles to vanish from nearly 90 per cent of their former range – the most dramatic decline of any British mammal.

‘It’s a situation that has been compounded by predation by feral North American mink, which being semi-aquatic can catch voles if they try to escape into the water and, in the case of the smaller females, can even squeeze into their burrows.

‘So the water vole featured in this prize-winning portrait represents one of the few lucky populations in the UK, its canal site now protected as part of a reserve.’

Swish Mover – Tim Laman

‘This portrait of a male twelve-wired bird of paradise shows him not at his most spectacularly beautiful, but at the pinnacle of his spectacular performance, posed at the top of his dance pole, with the object of his desire in the frame.

‘With his back to the discerning female, he is mesmerizing her not just by the vivid yellow of his plumage but by swishing her face with the 12 wires that extend from the tips of his flank plumes.

‘He has already attracted her to the pole with singing and a full‑frontal display, exposing the metallic glint of his breast feathers and the startling emerald‑green of the inside of his beak. Now he is at the intimate stage, which may or may not result in her allowing him to mate with her – a brief affair, after which their liaison will end. It all hinges on her judgement of his fitness.

‘The pole itself is a tall dead tree in swamp forest on the island of New Guinea, which the male attends at dawn.

‘So to get the shot, the photographer also had to be in position before dawn in a tree at the same height as the dance pole, then wait in a hide, and repeat the process for however long it would take for the finale of the display to materialize – seven days, as it happened.

The extraordinary yellow of the male’s feathers needs to be topped up by eating certain types of fruit to keep the feathers from fading to white.

‘And the display itself needs to be practised and performed regularly if the male is to outperform his rivals, only possible because the forest provides plentiful, easily accessible fruit, leaving him with the time and energy to perfect his routine.

‘That this female finally chose him to mate with means that her sons should inherit his winning looks and energetic persistence and that her daughters should have her good taste in fit males.’

The Odd Couple – Mac Stone

‘To get going in the morning, reptiles need a sun boost. Good basking spots are in high demand, which can mean crowding up with others – or even risking sharing with a sunbather capable of eating you.

‘Here, in a blackwater creek in South Carolina’s Four Holes Swamp, a large female yellow‑bellied slider shares a cypress log with an American alligator.

‘It was a portrait that took time to set up. It involved finding a location with a log big enough for several animals to bask on and then mounting a camera on the log, timed to take a picture every 10 minutes.

‘It also relied on solitude, as the skittish sliders would slide into the water at the slightest unusual sound.

‘Warming-up took place in the morning, presumably to help the reptiles get moving after a cold night in the water, but warmth is also important for digestion and, in the case of a female terrapin like this one, for egg development – worth the risk of cohabiting on a log with a predator.

‘Alligators will eat sliders, especially the young ones, and a big alligator is capable of crunching even a big female.

‘But in a swamp rich in alternative alligator prey such as fish, crayfish and amphibians, the two species can live side by side.’

The Lichen Look – Pete Oxford

‘Sporting camouflage accessories, including lichen-like encrustations and moss‑like crinkled antennae, a male katydid poses on a twig that matches his ensemble  perfectly.

‘Such exquisite camouflage means that only the most dedicated of nature photographers could locate it for portraiture.

‘The species is one of hundreds of katydids (bush crickets) to be found in the forests of South America.

‘This one is in Ecuador, in a cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Most katydid species are expertly camouflaged among vegetation to avoid the multitude of predators, and many of them have yet to be identified.

‘The male here not only matches the colours of his background, but he has body parts masquerading as elements of moss and lichen that disrupt his outline.

‘He has also expertly positioned himself to perfect the disguise.

‘To find a female for procreation, a male needs to call her in, but to avoid detection by daytime predators, this katydid sings at night.

‘By rubbing together his forewings (one equipped with a scraper and the other a file) he can produce a range of captivating vibrations, with frequencies that can even extend into ultrasound – another way to try to avoid detection.

‘In the equatorial forests of Ecuador there are no seasons, and mating can occur year round.

‘But as typical weather in the Andes can involve prolonged cloud cover and frequent rain, the equatorial advantages are offset by the inevitable drop in night-time temperatures, which quickly cool a katydid’s ardour.

‘The big disadvantage of a hide-and‑seek lifestyle is, however, its extreme specialization.

‘Such niche-specific camouflage limits the places where these katydids can live. Also, if the humidity necessary for a rich moss and lichen fauna should decrease with a changing climate, these insects could be left high and dry.’

The Greeting – Karl Ammann

‘This is an intimate portrait of a reticulated giraffe calf, just a few weeks old, being greeted by, most probably, an aunt as its mother introduces it to the family herd in Samburu National Reserve, northern Kenya.

‘The aunt nuzzles it and rubs it with her head. Other females and young giraffes have also gathered to make its acquaintance.

‘The calf’s mother gave birth in a patch of savannah woodland not far from the group but with enough cover to keep the calf hidden while she moved away to feed.

‘In dappled light, the calf’s reticulated pattern – paler than an adult’s – will have helped hide it from lions and other predators.

‘And predators are the main reason that more than half of giraffe calves never reach adulthood.

‘When the mother gave birth, she was standing up. Having survived the long drop, the calf would, within 30 minutes, have been standing up, too, and suckling.

‘Already more than 1.8 metres (6 feet) tall, it will double its height in just a year and will continue growing until it’s at least four years old, reaching a height of more than 5 metres (16 feet 5 inches) if a male and more than 4 metres (13 feet) if a female – giraffes are the world’s tallest land mammals.

‘The calf’s tiny, tufted horns lie flat against its head but will slowly stand up as bone replaces cartilage.

‘It is art of a herd of females and young that are a sub-unit of a much larger community of groups spread out over a large range.

‘Young males form bachelor groups, but adult males tend to be solitary.

‘When they join the females, it will usually be to mate, but among each other, they will spar, using their long necks as weapons. Like elephants, giraffes use infrasound (low‑level sound beyond human hearing) to communicate, possibly keeping track of each other over large distances and at night.

‘It’s a connected community that the calf will be part of for life.’

Desert Striker – Thomas Dressler

‘Displayed in a characteristic S-shaped ambush posture, a Peringuey’s adder wriggles down into the sand.

‘A second longer, and only its eyes and the tip of its tail will be exposed.

‘Discovered by the photographer, hunting on the slip‑face of a dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert, it has chosen to submerge itself for safety but also in anticipation of prey.

‘With nostrils and eyes on top of its head – rather than at the side, as is usual in snakes – it can see and breathe while remaining hidden, and by bringing its tail close to its head, the tail tip can be wriggled like an emerging grub to bring a hunting lizard or a gecko within striking distance.

‘Not all desert adders have black tail tips, but a buff-coloured one seems to work just as well as a lure.

‘Depending on the season and temperature, the adder hunts on the surface by day as well as night, using a sidewinding technique that allows it to move surprisingly fast with, at any one moment, only part of its body in contact with the hot sand.

‘Its prey is mainly diurnal sand lizards and nocturnal geckos, from which it obtains food and moisture.

‘But like many animals and plants of the Namib, the snake’s survival is partly dependent on the fog that most nights rolls from the sea and over the dunes.

‘It also has a technique to catch the moisture, used especially in the hot summer.

‘At dawn, as the fog rolls in, it flattens its now cold body against the sand, increasing the surface area for condensation.

‘It then licks the droplets off its body, periodically raising its head to swallow the water – a drinking habit made possible only in the coastal strip of the Namib, where hot air from the desert meets cold air from the sea.’

Good Friends – Edwin Giesbers

‘This is a portrait of male and female friends, relaxing after lunch – and also of character.

‘The female (left) with the luxurious beard has furrowed her brows, giving a warning stare to someone not to violate her personal space.

‘Both express attitude. Both also have official names – as had the macaque commemorated on the plaque behind – given to them (along with microchips) by their government carers and to all of the 200 or so Barbary macaques living on the rock of Gibraltar, a British protectorate in the Mediterranean.

‘Gibraltar is the only place in Europe with free‑living monkeys – five troops of them in the Gibraltar Nature Reserve.

‘Their foraging is supplemented daily with fresh water, vegetables, fruit and seeds to manage their diet and to try to prevent them descending into town and stealing from tourists, who despite fines and warnings that macaques bite, still try to feed them.

‘Gibraltar’s macaques are related to both Moroccan and Algerian Barbary macaques, isolated and declining populations of which still exist mainly in the mountainous and forested regions of North Africa.

‘Macaques were possibly first brought to Gibraltar as pets by the ‘Moors’ (people of North African Berber and Arab descent) who invaded Iberia.

‘When most of Gibraltar’s monkeys died in an epidemic in the 1900s, more macaques were brought in from North Africa.

‘Barbary macaques live in mixed groups, and though males are bigger and more dominant, females still hold social power.

‘Their young take on the social status of their mother – though depending on their personalities, that status can change.

‘Males are also unusual among species of macaques in their interest in babies – indeed using them as social currency, even to diffuse conflicts.

‘The theory is that, as females are promiscuous, the males have no idea which are their offspring – their genetic inheritance – and so it pays to be nice to all babies, and exhibiting a caring nature might also gain them mating privileges with the mothers.’

The Watchful Pelican – Helmut Moik

‘With an almost human eye and pose, a head decked in finery, and a wing cloak of feathers masking its face, this remains an enigmatic portrait, even when given a name.

‘Without a glimpse of the beak –among the world’s biggest –it is hard to visualize this as a Dalmatian pelican, even though the waved silver-white feathers on its forehead and flamboyantly loose plumes on its head could belong to no other species.

‘Photographed at dawn, on an island in Romania’s Danube Delta, the bird is still in its sleeping position, with its head rotated 180 degrees and its beak resting on its back, buried in feathers.

‘Notoriously shy, Dalmatian pelicans are easily disturbed, and so it was necessary for the photographer to enter his hide before sunrise and wait for dawn.

‘The island and the marsh vegetation offer safety from predators, both for nesting –this population of pelicans migrates from the Mediterranean region to eastern Europe specifically to breed –and for sleeping.

‘But like many birds, a pelican sleeps with one eye open and only half its brain resting, and then only in snatches, adjusting how much of its brain is asleep by how open its eye is.

‘Its bill, with its huge pouch of skin, is a marvellous tool, not only for scooping up fish and holding a catch, but also for evaporation-cooling when it exposes and flutters the skin.

‘But on cold nights, with such a large area for heat loss, a huge beak can be a handicap –the reason for burying it in the feathers of its backrest, as the pelican inhales air warmed by its own body heat.

‘With that in mind, this image of a Dalmatian pelican could be said to be a most thought‑provoking portrait of Europe’s biggest fishing bird.’

Little Watcher – Cyril Ruoso

‘The photographer couldn’t have asked for a more perfect pose or a more photogenic sitter.

‘Though it was a cold, overcast morning in China’s Qinling Mountains, with frost on the ground under the forest canopy, the soft light was perfect for photography.

‘And for the young monkey, the fascination of the bipedal primate and his tripod and lens on a facing slope was irresistible.

‘Having left the warmth of its mother, it sat where it had the best view, perfectly balanced, tucking in its feet and hands for warmth.

‘The youngster was the photographer’s favourite in the troop of Qinling golden snub-nosed monkeys he was following.

‘Ever playful, this monkey was bolder than most, climbing up high, trapeze-swinging from branches or teasing its playmates, and if it felt the need of comfort, taking a hug from other troop members, who are highly protective.

‘Though the monkeys occasionally come to the ground, they mostly feed in the trees, on leaves, bark, buds and lichen –so little ones need to learn to be agile. For the smallest there is a risk of a swooping goshawk or, more rarely, a golden eagle. But the real danger for all races of snub‑nosed monkeys is deforestation, the spread of the human population and, in the past, hunting.

‘In the last millennium, golden snub‑nosed monkeys occurred in both lowland and upland areas across eastern, central and southern China. But today,fewer than 4,000 individuals remain, confined to a series of nature reserves in southern Shaanxi province.’

The Art of Relaxation – Jasper Doest

‘Though just a portion of the face is revealed and the subject’s eyes are closed, this is a portrait which encapsulates pure relaxation.

‘That we can interpret this is because the subject is a fellow primate, and we are attuned to the tiniest signals in a face so similar to our own. Indeed, the eyes rolled back under the translucent lids suggests a state of dreaming.

‘The dozing individual is a young Japanese macaque, once considered by the Japanese as a sacred mediator between humans and the gods.

‘Today it is a protected species, though its fate is mixed. In some places it is indulged, but elsewhere it is persecuted as a pest.

‘Here the youngster is with its large extended family group, soaking and socializing in a hot-spring pool – the famous Jigokudani monkey ‘hot tub’ in the volcanic mountains of Joshin’etsu‑kogen National Park, on the main island of Honshu.

‘The local Japanese macaques have been coming here to relax and warm up every winter since the 1960s, when a bold female, presumably having observed the pleasure exhibited by humans bathing in the pool, took advantage of the hot spring, and then brought her relatives.

‘Today the pool is kept just for the macaques, and in winter, a stream of them come to warm up, observed and photographed by a gaggle of human onlookers.

‘Now that the owners of the site put out food for them, the macaques come all year.

‘But on this occasion, it was winter. There had been a blizzard earlier, and the snow that had gathered on the youngster’s thick winter fur had melted into water drops.

‘Showing no fear of the nearby human presence, it had fallen asleep in front of the photographer, accompanied in the pool by 25 or more sleeping adults – a scene of pure tranquillity.’

A very sensitive beast – Larry Lynch

‘It was big, very big, and very full. Judging by its size –more than 3 metres (10 feet) – this American alligator was a male.

‘It had been gorging on fish trapped in pools as the river, in Florida’s Myakka River State Park, dried up.

‘Knowing that the giant was satiated and not about to move, the photographer set up his tripod at a respectful distance and waited until dusk.

‘Using flash at the lowest setting, he focused on the reptile’s eyes –the defining touch to a portrait of a nocturnal hunter.

‘Alligators are opportunistic freshwater predators.Their main prey is fish, along with turtles, snakes and small mammals, and they tend to hunt mostly at night, especially in the heat of summer.

‘That their eyes shine red is the result of light bouncing off the tapetum –a reflector system at the back of the eye –and back through the eye’s photo-receptor layer, enhancing the alligator’s ability to see in dim light.

‘The tapetum also adapts to the amount of light,depending on the time of day. That an alligator can find its way around in the dark and under water is partly due to another adaptation: multi‑sensory organs on the skin of its head and especially around the eyes and jaws, which give it a pressure sensitivity more acute than that of human fingertips.

‘This allows it to sense pressure waves caused by the smallest water movements and to help it detect prey in the dark. The ones around the mouth and teeth are also presumed to help it identify prey.

‘Despite its thick armour of scales and its sluggish looks, it therefore appears that southeastern USA’s biggest land predator is, when it comes to vision and touch, a very sensitive beast.’

Close Encounter – Tony Wu

‘This is a portrait of Scar, an unusually friendly sperm whale. His forehead appears enormous and is.

‘A sperm whale’s head, at nearly a third of its body length, contains both the world’s largest brain and the spermaceti organ, a huge waxy-liquid-filled cavity that could function either as a buoyancy-control device for deep dives in search of squid and fish or as part of its sonar-like echolocation system – or both.

‘When this portrait was taken, Scar was still a teenager – less than 15 years old – and little more than half his potential size of more than 18 metres (59 feet) long.

‘He also appears large because he is close to the photographer, having charged up to him, wanting to be rubbed. Scar has always been friendly.

‘He was born off Dominica in the Caribbean into a family group that has been studied by whale researchers since 2005.

‘It was after an attack by pilot whales that he first approached a boat, perhaps seeking comfort, having been gashed on his head and dorsal fin, the scars from which would give him his name.

‘He seemed to enjoy the contact with the couple sailing the boat, developing such a trust of humans that he would approach divers, inviting contact.

‘Scar left his natal unit not long after this picture was taken in 2010, and he will probably not be seen at the breeding grounds until he is in his late 20s.

‘But like elephants, sperm whales form lifelong relationships, and they communicate in their clan dialects over great distances.

‘Indeed, they live in a world of sound communication. And given that sperm whales are now seldom hunted, Scar may well be living in this world when he is 80 or 100 years old.’

Snowy Landing – Vincent Munier

‘Huge wings sweep around, feathers splayed, as a snowy owl prepares to touch down. Set against a snow‑grey sky, the owl displays both its precision‑landing technique and its grappling-hook talons.

‘The winter setting is typical – snow-covered tundra‑like grassland – but this is not the Arctic, rather a windswept prairie in Quebec, Canada, where the owl has set up a temporary hunting territory.

‘This is a young female – larger than a male and distinguished by her heavily barred plumage.

‘She has moved south of the Arctic Circle in search of ground with a snow depth of 30 centimetres (12 inches) or less, which she can pounce through.

‘With layers of feathers, including an undercoat of down, and thickly feathered feet, her plumage gives her insulation equivalent to that of an Arctic fox.

‘And being large – the snowy owl is North America’s heaviest owl, standing more than 60 centimetres (2 feet) tall – her reduced ratio of surface area to body size also helps her conserve heat.

‘Though she can catch prey as large as a hare or a sea duck, her normal diet is small rodents, mainly lemmings.

‘Lying on the snow, the photographer has been watching her use her sit‑and‑wait hunting technique, swivelling her head to scan the surroundings, listening with her acute hearing for rodents scurrying under the snow, then gliding and pouncing.

‘If the snow becomes too deep or the icy crust too thick to break through, she might prospect for hunting grounds farther south, returning north in spring to the Arctic Circle and increasing hours of daylight hunting.’

Cool Cat – Isak Pretorius

‘A head-on penetrating stare – the classic portrait of a predator. But the eye-level view and the frame of lush greenery makes this image uncomfortably different – as if the lion has been unexpectedly found drinking from a pond at the bottom of the garden.

‘The waterhole is, of course, in Africa, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, and the photographer achieved his shot by anticipating that, after sleeping off a night feast of a buffalo kill, the lioness would need to drink, and he knew just where she would go.

‘So though there was an element of luck in being able to see the precise point where she emerged through the rainy-season grass, there was nothing lucky about the composition or the timing – catching both her forward glance and her lapping tongue.

‘The low angle was achieved by using a long lens from a vehicle positioned on the opposite side of the waterhole, making use of the early morning light to bring out the rich colours.

‘The result is a strikingly original portrait of one of the most photographed of all African animals.’

The Hunter – Konrad Wothe

‘Leopards are among the most popular portrait subjects for photographers. But since leopards normally sleep during the day, most portraits show them reclining, usually draped over a branch.

‘Rarely does a portrait reveal the fluid grace of a leopard in motion. To create such a shot required planning. The photographer stayed for more than a week in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and got to know the leopard’s hunting area and where she was likely to rest.

‘He also knew that she would climb down from her sleeping tree at dusk to begin hunting. This was in the days of film, the 1990s, when a picture could be taken after sundown only with the use of a low speed and a wide aperture to capture the last of the light.

‘Working with rather than against the inevitable grain that would result, the photographer enhanced the sense of movement by panning the camera along with the stride of the leopard, keeping the focus on her eye.

‘The result was a painterly representation and a prize‑winning picture that has stood the test of time.’

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