Sunday, June 13, 2010

Starlight camera

While it is possible to photograph nature under low-light conditions using a traditional camera, and the starlight camera is promoted as a means of surveillance, wildlife filmmakers are embracing the technology. With it, they can capture the behavior of animals like hyenas (1st image), badgers (2nd image), and other species (watch film clips) non-invasively. Filming on location in Kenya, a team shooting the BBC/Discovery series "Human Planet" took advantage of an image intensifier camera in combination with a full moon to capture scenes of the elephants, which are most active at night. The team's researcher Renee Godfrey describes the experience:
"So we sit and wait downwind in our hide, in the black of the night, listening for breaking branches as elephants walk through the bush or the padding of big feet on sand. The riverbed below is an opera stage and we sit above in the Gods, waiting for the performance to begin. The moon aches with light as it casts shadows that play tricks on your eyes. Suddenly and silently, from nowhere, a herd of 18 elephants arrive on stage; babies, mothers, brothers all dance under the moonlight. White faces and whiter teeth smile, and we try to breathe and blink as quietly as we can. Mark Deeble, the cameraman, changes lenses on the camera as if carrying out a Tai Chi routine – every move thought through and with slow, silent grace so as to keep the elephants unaware of our existence.

The elephants move underneath us, babies playing with each other and running around gangly legged and trunked, trying to copy the behaviour of their elegant peers. We are captivated, camera rolling. Trunks touch trunks and tusks gleam brilliantly, irridescent under Nature’s spotlight, until the sound of a distant trumpeting call from deep within the bush breaks the silence and lifts every hair on my body. Another herd are on their way – tonight’s performance is far from coming to an end.

Unexpectedly the evening breeze drops and a light wind blows from our hide down into the riverbed. Within seconds, the herd of elephants below us run off in total silence, back into the acacias. The wind picks up and we realise our human scent will now be drifting up the riverbed and the wise elephants will be heading far away from us. Exhausted but invigorated by what we have just witnessed, it’s time for bed on our mattresses under the blanket of stars. If the wind changes they could come back – this time the elephants would be the ones aware of our existence… while we dream and snore the rest of the night away."

I think I would prefer elephant-gazing to star-gazing...


  1. Barbara and I visited our daughter in Tanzania in Oct. 08. We had a couple of days of wildlife viewing. I would have loved to see some of it at night as well, because even in daytime it is thrilling. We parked at one spot to observe a huge bull elephant. He began to walk toward our vehicle. He passed so close that if I had been holding a fishing rod I could have reached out and poked him (which would probably be a really bad idea). Elephants have always been my favorite. We saw lots and lots of them in two days.

  2. I just thought of an intersection among your interests. Have you heard the myth (at least I assume it is a myth) that there is an elephant grave yard that they walk to when they are near death. I wonder how such a story could have gotten started. It seems to me that every once in a while it would be clear enough that a sick elephant dropped dead out in the bush.


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