Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Twice in the last week I have visited Taronga Park Zoo. My purpose has been to learn to use a telephoto lens and to practice using the setting on a digital SLR camera. The camera is a Nikon D90 and it has three lens. The main lens is a Nikkor AF-S DX 18-105mm F/3.5-5.6G ED VR. The second lens is a macro lens for shooting very small things. It is a Tamron SP AF90mm F/2.8 Di Macro 1:1. The third lens is the telephoto, and the one I am trying to learn to use correctly. It is a Sigma 150-500mm F/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM. Each lens has an ultra violet filter on it.

So what does all this mean? Well I guess it means I have a lot to learn because I know very little about these lens and my job is to learn how to use them. They do take splendid pictures, almost without me.

One of the first enclosures is that with the giraffes. This giraffe I am sure knew that it was my first time with the camera and is almost smirking over the top of the enclosure.

The chimps make a good subject matter, especially the young who are always finding some antic to get up to. This photo was taken through the glass.

There are over two and a half thousand individual animals at Taronga Zoo. The zoo is spread over 21 hectacres and after a report on the zoo in 1967 it updated many of its facilities and got rid of "attractions" such as the elephant ride and the merry-go-rounds. Pictured about is one of these animals, the Binturong, commonly known as the Asian Bearcat. It is neither a bear or a cat but belongs to the a family similar to the better known civet. The Bearcat is nocturnal and lives in trees in rain forests across Asia. The Bearcats' enclosure at Taronga allows the visitor to get so close that they can almost reach out and touch the animal. Its diet consists of fruits, insects and small animals. The keeper told me that they only became dangerous if you tried to pick one up or if the animal felt threatened.

One of the new enclosures built in response to the 1967 report was the walk-through rainforest. A pair of Red Lory parrots were breeding in one of the walk-through bird enclosures. Its nest was under a rock where it had dug out a tunnel. The young had only recently left the nest. The Red Lory comes from Indonesia. Pheasants, doves and quails also shared this enclosure.

Meerkats have become very popular zoo exhibits. Some people stand and watch their antics for hours. While one of their number stands watch the others forage for food, dig in the sandy soil or sun themselves.

The sea lion and seal enclosures were interesting places for taking photographs. Inevitably the inquisitive animals come to the surface to investigate what you are doing. A challenge in the future will be to try to photograph these animals while they are swimming. This can be done through the glass viewing windows which give an amazing view of the animals world beneath the water.

Pictured are some wild Rainbow Lorikeets who live in the area and visit the zoo picking up scraps left by the bigger animals in their enclosures. Taronga Zoo was officially opened in 1916. The name Taronga is an Aboriginal word meaning 'beautiful view'. This is still true today. Located at Mosman the zoo has wonderful views of the harbour, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. These views are even more evident now as visitors can ride above the zoo in a cable car.

The Red Panda is not as recognizable as the traditional black and white animal. They would still make cute pets. It is about the size of a large cat and is often known as 'the shiny cat'. It comes from the Himalayas in Nepal and China. There may be as few as two and a half thousand individual animals left in the wild.

Tigers always make dramatic pictures. This is probably because they are so powerful. This one almost looks like it is posing for the camera.

Each afternoon the zoo has a bird show where eagles, owls and parrots fly in to the arena. The finale is to be seen to be believed! The Black-breasted Buzzard, pictured above, is native to Australia. It uses a rock to break open emu eggs. Those used in the demonstration are not real emu eggs.

Here is another bird used in nthe open air bird show. This was shot using the sports function on the camera, so everything is captured in a snap except the extremely fast moving wings.

Barbary sheep are natives of Northern Africa. However they are difficult to find there now. There numbers are thriving in southern Europe and America where they were introduced.

Zebras are a popular animal. It was interesting trying to photograph them as their lines played havoc with the focus system in the camera, it kept zeroing in and out unable to focus. However when it does focus the zebra does take a nice photograph.

This is probably my favourite photograph. The Indian myna bird is an introduced species to Australia and in many places they are considered a pest. This bird was scrounging food around the zoo. It stopped and sat up nicely for me. Maybe it is the contrasting colours which make it such a nice photograph.

Gorillas are always interesting. It is probably their human-like qualities that make us so fascinated by them.

I spent some time photographing the lions. Using the telephoto lense pressed against the class, and being there at feeding time, really produced some good close-up photographs.

The zoo was a good place to start using a camera because the opportunities for good pictures are so frequent. Now I need to work on making them technically better. If youn would like to see some superb photographs taken at the zoo there is currently a free exhibition being held at Parliament House in Sydney. It features zoo photographs by Rick Stevens. Rick was a photographer with the Herald for a period spanning over forty years. During this time he spent many, many hours at the zoo patiently waiting for the perfect shot. The exhibition finishes on 26 August.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Wow! What a terrific sport or hobby.

Last weekend I went to the sled dog races held in Wingello State Forest by the Siberian Husky Club of NSW. I drove down from Sydney to the small village of Wingello early on Sunday morning. After a few false starts I saw some car lights disappearing into the distance and as that was the only movement at that hour of the morning I set off along a windy, dirt road in the same direction the other car had gone. After driving several kilometres I was starting to think I wasn't going to find anyone. Then I found a huge banner (pictured above) and knew I arrived at the right place.

As it was still dark I was worried about driving into the camp as I might wake people. So as quietly as I could I coasted along the road. I need not have worried because I soon heard the sound of dogs barking and howling. As there were approximately 150 dogs and it seemed most of them were greeting the morning I doubted that anyone in the camp was able to sleep.

A dog team rests after finishing their race.

I parked the car and wandered around the camp. I talked to people out walking their dogs, plastic bag in hand. I learnt about the different types of races, the care and training of the dogs, the conditions for racing and the types of races.

The first set of races were the six and four team dog sleds. These raced over a shortened track of about 5 to 6 kilometres as it was expected the day was going to get a little hot at about 11 degrees. I was amazed at how well organised the races were and especially at how keen the dogs were to race. At the start line the dogs became very excited and continually pulled at the leash wanting to begin.

A team receives a watering before its race to avoid dehydration.

Teams were sent off at regular intervals and the results were based on the times they took around the bush track. The dog teams were controlled by the driver, or musher, as they are called, using only voice commands. "Gee" means turn left; "haw" means turn right; "hike" means to go faster while "on by" means to pass a distraction or road turning. It quickly became evident how well trained and responsive to these commands the dogs were. At the start of the race the course passes a track off to the left. Some of the dog teams started to veer towards this track but a short, sharp word from the musher made the dogs instantly respond and stay on the course.

The dogs ideally have speed and endurance and can run at average speeds of about twenty kilometres an hour or more. The four and six dog teams pull a cart or rig. Some carts have four wheels while others have three. The two dog teams and single dogs pull a scooter. These scooters are very similar to the ones children use but larger.

A well trained six dog team patiently awaits the beginning of the race.

A six dog team nears the finish line

Husky racing began in Alaska, where sled teams were used to move supplies to gold miners in remote locations. Although many challenge races took place between rival 'company teams' it wasn't until the early 1900s that the first organised race took place. The sport gained in popularity once it spread to the USA and today there are over 200 Sled Dog Racing Clubs around the world.

The sport has grown in Australia over the past twenty years. Although it has some dedicated participants in NSW it is particularly strong in Victoria and even stronger in South Australia at the moment. South Australia holds 'race meetings' nearly every weekend during the winter.

A two dog team is held ready to start their race. If not held the dogs enthusiastically take off too soon.

Sled dog racing is strictly a winter sport as the dogs can only race when the weather is cool or they over-heat. NSW Club has a strict rule where race meetings are called off once the temperature reaches 15 degrees. At this race meeting the race distance was shortened as the day was warmer than the organisers like. Races are always held early in the day, or sometimes at night, when it is coolest.

Donovan begins a race with a two dog team.

Race days are very much family affairs. There are both men and women drivers. There are junior races and even a pee wee race for the real young, who are accompanied by a parent controlling the dog team. I spoke to Donovan,a 'musher', who spoke of his dog team with obvious pride. He told me he had ridden motor bikes and his wife had been the one who began driving the dog teams. However when she became pregnant he reluctantly took over the handling of the team. He says he now prefers it to motor bike racing.

The couple had sold their beach front house and moved to a small property on the edge of Sydney purely for the benefit of the dogs. They were now also heavily involved in 'husky rescue'. This is where they save husky dogs from the pound and find new homes for them after having the dogs desexed and micro chipped.

Another two dog team. This time pulling a cart.

Another musher told me how he used to be a professional bull rider. He talked about the friendly nature of the sled dog competitions. While races were always good natured and very friendly everyone was competitive and wanted to improve their times and places. He trained his teams four times a week but reduced this during the racing season so as not to wear out the dogs. It was obvious after every race it was the dogs that were always looked after first before the driver or the handlers.

There was a considerable amount of skill exhibited by drivers as they negotiated sharp corners with their dogs.

While any dog can be used in the sled races most stuck with tradition and had teams of Siberian or Alaskan huskies. However there were also some teams which used hounds because of their strength. I was also told of one lady who was pulled by a Staffordshire terrier.

Most riders seemed to have developed their own style. Some stood, while some preferred to stop wind drag by crouching.

Care of the dogs is a priority to the owners and the organisers. Dogs were watered before races and looked after immediately after a race. There was a lot of discussion about diet and what was being fed to the dogs. Races were held at a time which best suited the dogs, and if it became too hot the races were called off. Dogs are not allowed to race or pull a sled until they are nearly a year old. All of the dogs I saw were extremely healthy and well cared for. The dogs also seemed very keen to run. Actually on the day I only saw one dog who a hundred yards into the race decide it wanted to stop and smell the flowers.

Towards the end of some races it wasn't always clear who was doing the pulling.

The families who were participating really deserve a pat on the back. This was a sport that was well managed, and well organised. It was fun and the dogs certainly well cared for and loved. There are two more races left in this racing season. The first is in Canberra and the second, a longer race, up in the snow. I hope to get to both these meetings, but there is always next season. I recommend everyone should go and see a race. The owners were very welcoming and ready to share their love of the animals and the sport.

.....and the last word should go to the real stars on the day.