The guy behind the lens

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I'm a Science Teacher, Nature Photographer, Husband, Father, and Grandfather who loves to explore the natural world by traveling, photographing and thinking. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Rising Star (Homo naledi) Interviews

During July of 2015 I was fortunate to be able to spend two weeks at the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa with a remarkable group of scientists and explorers. As followers of this blog know I have been following and supporting the work of the Rising Star expedition which discovered and recovered a huge collection of hominin fossil bones starting in November, 2013. Indeed the open access nature of that excavation allowed my students and I to follow the hour by hour updates on Twitter which led to he creation of what's become known as the "Twitter Play by Play" of the excavation - you can access that resource HERE.

My recent visit allowed me to get to know many of the Rising Star team members and I was struck by the immense dedication and teamwork these varied researchers and explorers shared with me. That has led me to interview members of the team so that you can get a taste for how a great team can work cooperatively in a complex endeavor to make the most of what is a groundbreaking fossil discovery. All interviews were conducted by me either in the entrance chamber of the Rising Star cave, at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, or via Skype.  With the PBS/NOVA/National Geographic documentary about this discovery ("Dawn of Humanity") set to air on September 16th, I hope these interviews will allow you different and possible deeper view into the people and personas that made this expedition such a success.

This page will be continually updated with new interviews as they become available so please bookmark this page and come back often for updates!

Dr. Lee Berger & Dr. John Hawks discuss the discovery and significance of Homo naledi 

Interview #11 - Matthew & Megan Berger - Fossil photography and caving support

Interview #10 - Marina Elliott - Lead excavator

Interview # 9 - Hannah Morris - Primary excavator

Interview # 8 - Alia Gurtov - Primary excavator & Rising Star Workshop Member

Interview # 7 - Lindsay Hunter - Primary excavator

Interview # 6 - Becca Peixotto - Primary excavator

 Interview #5 - Elen Feuerriegel - Primary excavator and Rising Star Workshop Member

Interview #4 - Maropeng Ramalepa  and Dirk Van Rooyen. - Exploration Technicians

Interview #3 - Nompumelelo Hlophe - Exploration Technician

Interview #2 - Rick Hunter  - Exploration Technician and one of the original "discoverers" of the fossil chamber.

Interview #1 - Steven Tucker  - Exploration Technician and one of the original "discoverers" of the fossil chamber.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

nThambo Tree Camp Day 6 – A Legendary Morning!

Day six of my bush adventure at nThambo Tree Camp started as usual with the 5:30 am wake up, but there was a special urgency to get out quickly as word had come to Luan and Issack that we had a “Surprise” awaiting us. A fast drive away from camp, which we called the “Ferrari Safari” brought us to a true highlight of the trip. In the overnight, a leopard had made a kill of a male kudu not far from a waterhole. 


As is often the case in the bush, possession is NOT 9/10 of the law when hyenas are around. After a tussle, the hyenas took control of the kill and fed on it for a while until the two Breakaway Ross Pride lionesses arrived to take it away from the hyenas. 


We arrived in time to see the lionesses working the last parts of the kill and were honored to spend an hour watching these lionesses finish off the carcass before wandering off to rest and get a drink at the waterhole.  


As if that was not enough excitement, news broke that there was another very special surprise brewing. Word came over the radio that a wild dog den had just been discovered on the far side of the reserve. Time for another Ferrari Safari! After a fast and bumpy (but fun!) ride, we went off road and worked our way over hills and through brush and found the wild dog pack in an appropriately dense area of mopane trees and grasses – perfect for keeping their den well hidden. We did not see the pups, but many of the pack members were wandering around for us to see. Wild dogs are the second most endangered predator in Africa after the Ethiopian Wolf, estimates have less than 6000 of these amazing creatures left in the wild. They are endangered due to ongoing habitat fragmentation, conflict with humans, and infectious diseases.

We enjoyed getting such a special treat, but knew that wild dogs will move their dens if they attract too much attention. This is a bad thing for the survival of the pups, so we left them alone and on our way back to camp plans were already in the works to limit visits to the den by the safari camps in the Klaserie so that the dogs would not relocate the den. It was encouraging to see such care for these amazing carnivores! 

Only moments before arriving back at nThambo, we were treated to yet another unexpected treat when we came across a tree with a pair of Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax) in it! 



They were wonderfully patient models and even gave a show when they took off and the female revealed the scrub hare in her talons. A fantastic end to a legendary morning! 

Monday, July 20, 2015

nThambo Day 5 – New Sightings and Old Friends

Day 5 at nThambo Tree Camp proved another special day in the bush. Despite the wintry chill of the 5:30 am wake up, the sights I experienced were once again heartwarming. The morning game drive was highlighted early on with a nervous heard of impala drinking at the waterhole as their reflections peered back at them. A pleasing surprise was a great spot by Issack our tracker – an African Barred Owlet!

As we continues we were happy to encounter our friends the two “Ross Pride Breakaway Females” There two lionesses had left their original pride of 20 + lions to go it alone. There have proved themselves great hunters, but had sadly lost several litters of cubs over recent years. Having a healthy pride to help raise and protect cubs is critical as many other animals will kill young lion cubs if they encounter them unattended.


A hearty breakfast was followed by a nice bush walk where we got to learn more about tracking , animal scat, and the smaller things to be found in the bush. It was a very nice treat to wind up walking alongside a journey (or tower) of giraffe for over half an hour. My friendly Lilac Breasted Roller even visited us as we returned to camp.

The first part of the afternoon drive was highlighted by being in the midst of a relaxed breeding herd of elephants. To me the coolest part was to see the two elephants below “greet” each other in a most unique way! Has anyone ever seen this behavior before in the wild or in captivity?



The day concluded with another up close encounter with our by now well-known lionesses. Their expressions here show it all. Notice the condition of her teeth – close examination shows her to be missing a canine tooth and two incisor teeth. Life in the bush is not for sissies!


Cheers – come back to see the WOW factor that day six brings!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

nThambo Tree Camp Day 4 - Another Day in Paradise

Day 4 at nThambo Tree Camp was another stunning day with superb winter weather (cool in the  morning and warm in the afternoon) Bother game drives produced some wonderful sightings. The morning began with yet another beautiful South African Sunrise  - the sunrises and sunsets here in southern Africa are remarkably orange relative to what a comparably clear sky in Texas produces. It seems that a greater presence of dust in the upper atmosphere here (potentially blown by winds from the Namib desert to the west) give this special color without the presence of clouds.

Elephants were the early highlight of the day as we were privileged to witness a relaxed breeding heard come down to  the waterhole to get a drink. The early light and their imposing presence made their visit all the more special  - I always love watching elephants manipulate their trunks in interesting ways and this encounter did not disappoint.  


We also got to visit with two of the most "prehistoric" looking creatures of the Klaserie Game Reserve - I'll leave you to decide which is your choice for "Most Prehistoric". 


As is always the case on came drives, there is the tension between predators and prey. The tiny steenbok (left) and impala (right) are always on alert and ready to alarm call and flee at a moments notice when any hint of hyena or lions crosses their sensory radar. 



I feel truly privileged to get to have and share this amazing experience in a truly magical place with you. While I am always a little disappointed when a game drive comes to an end, it's hard to stay that way when presented with a another glorious sunset! 

Friday, July 10, 2015

nThambo Tree Camp Day 3 - Big & Small

Day three here at nThambo Tree Camp has proven another exciting day as game viewing today was a fine mix of large and small. The highlight was the chance to spend over 30 minutes with my all-time favorite bird, the Lilac Breasted Roller (LBR). These amazingly colorful birds are common here and that has warmed my heart as their brilliant colors always bring an irrepressible smile to my face. The several I got to spend time with today in the bush were more obliging of me and my camera than I deserved to experience.


Also on the small side of thing is Africa’s smallest carnivore, the dwarf mongoose which I have mentioned in previous postings. While immensely cute, this little fellow is, pound for pound,  one of the toughest creatures on the continent!

The big side of the ledger for today included two encounters with breeding herds of elephants. I never tire of seeing these massive animals use their trunks to manipulate even the smallest of things quite expertly. I am also gaining a deeper understanding and respect for the role that elephants play in shaping the landscape of this area of the African bush.

Finally, any encounter with the other grey behemoth of the bush always leaves me awestruck – In their presence my science based mind tends to leave me as I stare in simple awe at such a majestic yet critically endangered creature. I defiantly hope that this species will somehow manage to keep roaming the African landscape long after I have left the planet. 


May we all do what we can to make sure these are not the twilight years of such an iconic African animal!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Day Two at nThambo - a Real Cracker!


Day two of my safari here at nThambo Tree Camp in the Klaserie Game Reserve was simply stunning. The combination of wonderful companions from South Africa, Germany, and England makes for a wonderful international experience that I wish everyone had a chance to experience. In addition, our hosts, guide and tracker have been nothing short of world class in making this visit feel like being at a second home – great kudos to Lily, Luan, and Issack!





Our two game drives of the day yielded a plethora of the “Big Five” (the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in South Africa – Rhino-Leopard-Lion-Cape Buffalo-and Elephant). Today we saw four of the five with only the leopard proving elusive. In addition to the thrill of seeing all the big name animals, Issack amazed all of us by seeing and alerting us to a bushbaby in the total darkness. I was thrilled to be able to capture images of it to share with you – usually they are far too skittish, but this fella cooperated for just long enough before hoping off into the African night. Enjoy the images and keep your eyes peeled here for more coming tomorrow!