Visiting the Snow Monkeys

Snow Monkeys!

Surely that’s all I have to say to get your attention? No? How about this then….

Baby (Snow) Monkey

Paying attention now? I mean, how can you ignore this wee guy?

Visiting the Japanese Macaques was top of our list for our honeymoon adventure in Japan last month. I was so excited to go and see this famous population of snow monkeys in Jigokudani Yaen-koen towards the north of the Nagano prefecture.

You’ve quite possibly seen images of them before, basking in the heat of an onsen (natural hot spring) in the freezing climate of the Japanese mountains.  They’re pretty famous all thanks to one cheeky youngster, who, many years ago, delighted locals by leaping in to an onsen for a swim. The first of it’s kind to be documented exhibiting such extravagant behaviour.

In For a Dip – The only monkey to swim while we were there

The area is known as “Jigokudani” which translates as Hell Valley and is named as such thanks to the steep cliffs and hot springs which cause an eerie feel as the steam rises all around.

The macaques are wild and free to roam as they please but have learned to live alongside the humans who regularly put food out and, well, built them their own hot spring pool to bathe in. (Who wouldn’t come back for free food and a spa?) Since it’s establishment in 1964, it has attracted scientists and photographers from all around the world and the troop here are now one of the most studied groups of Japanese macaques ever.

Over generations, these monkeys have learned to soak their tired, cold limbs in the hot springs. They are blissfully indifferent to us somewhat larger, human, primates as we watch in awe while they go about their daily business.

A Family Portrait

We stayed for hours, possibly a couple longer than my husband had hoped for but he should really know better by now… wild animals fascinate me. Encounters with them are enchanting and I rarely know how long I’ve spent in their company.

Our day started after a sleepless night, an early start (5am), a couple of metro swaps, a shinkansen (the only way to travel in Japan!), a local train, a bus journey and a 30 minute walk through the village and forest.

Tired? Yes, absolutely.

But very excited.

And then we were greeted by this sight…

Our First Snow Monkey Encounter

Of course I took multiple photos just in case he was the only one we saw. I really needn’t have worried. As we walked down the path from the visitor centre to the monkey’s private onsen, we quickly realised there were a couple of hundred of them.

Count the Monkeys…

So I took a few shots… and spent ages just watching them live their lives (click on the images to see them in more detail).

I’d highly recommend a visit if you can. It’s expensive to get there unless you have a Japan Rail Pass but otherwise very do-able as a day trip. We went in the off-season and realised there was no need to go quite as early as we did. If you are going in a warmer season, there’s a good chance they won’t be in the onsen. We only saw one monkey take a dip and it was right at the end of our visit.  In winter I expect the crowds are busier and the trip itself is a bit more complicated with the snow! When we go back we’ll be heading there in winter for sure.

You can find out more details about how to get there on this website, by checking out this very helpful blog or going to the park’s website.

Like what you see here? Many of these images will soon be available as prints via my shop. x

Highlights from Our Honeymoon

As many of you know, the Mr and I went off on another adventure last month for our honeymoon.

Japan was the destination and we did a tour via bullet train of so many amazing sights.  I’ll blog more in detail soon but here are a few highlights for you.

Japanese Macaque, Nagano

Inari Gates, Kyoto

Bamboo Grove, Kyoto

Coral Reef, Zamami Island

Over & Under, Zamami Island

Clear Waters, Zamami Island

Young Sitka Deer, Nara

Urban Wildlife Diary – Meeting the Locals

Welcome to my first Jo Foo Wildlife Photography blog post for #BLOGtober2017!  I thought I’d kick-start this year by letting you in on a new project I’m working on. My husband and I moved to Frankfurt earlier this year and I’ve been getting to know our new neighbours.

And I don’t mean the humans (although they are lovely!)

Our garden is a haven for various bird species including: robins, blackbirds, sparrows, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, pigeons, magpies and jays. The jays are a fairly recent arrival and I was excited to spot them, well, I heard them first!  There are also a few other tiny brown birds that I’ve yet to identify once I get a close enough look at them.

Jays are a recent addition to our garden

I’m also delighted that we’ve got red squirrels in the garden too. At the moment it appears that we have two who visit regularly: Jeoffrey and & Sputnik

Jeoffrey the Red Squirrel

Sputnik the slightly darker Red Squirrel

And that’s just some of what I can find in my garden. In the local parks it’s not difficult to encounter rabbits, green woodpeckers, grey herons, geese, ducks and lots of other wild animals. I’m looking forward to spending more time in their company.

Grey Heron, Frankfurt

Local park bunny

Fairly well hidden Green Woodpecker

Over the last couple of months though, I’ve been focusing on the wildlife in our garden and set up different feeders to encourage them to visit. The feeders aren’t constantly filled as it’s important that the food I leave acts as a slight boost to their foraging instead of becoming a relied upon supply.

The plan is to record and photograph the different species as they visit our garden and I hope to get to know them all better. The real trick to wildlife photography is understanding the species in front of you and that takes dedication and patience.

Watch this space as I learn more about the locals here in our new city.

What wildlife do you have in your garden?

How I Got This Shot – Herd on the Run

I often look at photos and wonder how the photographer got the shot. I was surprised and flattered to learn that some people think the same when they look at my work. It’s always lovely to have that level of interest in something you’ve created. And so, a new photography blog series has been born. I hope you enjoy it!

Motion in shots with wildlife always catch my eye. Portraits are striking and wonderful but the animals I watch are rarely still. I want to capture them in action and bring them to life for my audience.

We were in Yellowstone National Park in 2011. It was our final morning of ten days spent exploring this incredible place and as a photographer with a passion for large predator conservation, I had convinced my other half to spend yet another morning in Lamar Valley, one of the best places to see wolves in the park. As we were driving towards the point where wolves had last been spotted, we noticed a large herd of bison in the grassland below the road. Hundreds of them.

Suddenly they started to run. These humongous animals can weigh over two tonnes and run up to 40 MPH (granted females tend to be smaller and closer to the one tonne mark but still… they’re huge!).  Watching a herd of them run was pretty amazing and the animal behaviourist in me was instantly curious about the cause. What suddenly made these animals take off after seemingly quite happily grazing? Bison can be unpredictable and charge with little or no warning but something had appeared to startle the whole herd.

I scanned the brown beasts looking for a clue and then I spotted it. A smaller brown beast at the edge of the herd. One of these was not like the others. A young grizzly bear had lumbered his way into the herd and made a halfhearted attempt at a chase. He was no match for them and quickly lost interest before I could get a close enough shot of him.

The herd continued to run for a few more moments which gave me the chance to experiment with one of my favourite techniques: panning. With my other half driving to keep pace with the bison, I set the shutter speed to 1/25 and focused on one of the animals. The slow shutter speed combined with our movement resulted in the shot below:

Herd on the Run

Herd on the Run: Taken with a Canon EOS 7D & EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens. f/4.5, 1/25, ISO 100, focal length 105mm.

I also tried some more traditional panning shots where I tracked the bison as they ran from a stationary base (in this case, we’d stopped the car) and quickly found this was more effective for individual animals. You’ll need to keep an eye on the blog to see how those shots turned out!

Little Owls

The other day I wrote about my trip to see European Bee-Eaters in Spain. That visit took up my morning. I returned the same evening to capture shots of an animal that has been on my wildlife wishlist for years.

Little Owls.

Like most owls, these beautiful little birds tend to hunt at dusk and dawn. While this is a brilliant time to see them in action, it’s not the easiest time to photograph them. Luckily they are one of the few owl species who are also regularly active during the day. My time in the tiny little hide near their nest site was in the evening golden hour, an hour or so before sunset.  The light was amazing in late May. It was the perfect set up.

I did have one issue though. I was still sneezing. Owls have incredible hearing. My sneezes would not only scare the birds away but possibly make them wary of the the hide itself which would mean years of work spent gaining their trust would be ruined. Now was not the time for hayfever.

Thankfully, after clambering into the hide, it became clear it was so well covered there was very little issue with pollen. All I had to do was wait.  And sit very, very still.

It paid off.

A small owl sits on a wooden tree stump looking over it's shoulder. The background is light green.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

I was lucky to have about an hour with the male little owl who was nesting nearby. He flew in a number of times and I managed to get a few different shots. There was little planning that I could do for this one. Once I was in the hide I couldn’t move or I’d scare him away for the day. All shots had to be taken from where I was. Other than my initial set up with the branches and tree rootballs, all my shots depended on where he landed.

2016-05-22-004-JoFoo-Wildlife-Photography-Birds-European-Little-Owl-Spain WR

Little Owl in Golden Light

2016-05-22-001-JoFoo-Wildlife-Photography-Birds-European-Little-Owl-Spain WR

Little Owl

It took me a while to get my eye in. I had to watch for a while to learn the direction he would fly in from and figure out what his preferred landing spots were. There are a lot blurred shots in my recycle bin!  Once I understood his behaviour and patterns, I managed to get a few images in focus.

A small owl standing on a tree root ball.

Watching Little Owl

I’ve seen captive Little Owls before and even held one. But nothing compares to sitting with them in the wild and being part of their world, even just for a couple of hours. Wildlife photography is always a privilege and will never stop making me happy.

Little Owl Looking for Dinner

Little Owl Looking for Dinner

European Bee Eaters

a brightly coloured bird sitting on a tree branch with an insect in it's mouth. The background is green and the bird has it's back to the camera but has turned it's head to look at it from it's left eye.

European Bee Eater with Dragonfly

European Bee-eaters are enchanting birds with magical colours. A couple of months ago, I was lucky to spend a few hours in their company.

As soon as I knew I was moving to Spain I checked to see what wildlife I could try to capture on camera. A quick bit of research told me that I didn’t have to travel far to see these beautiful birds. They were quickly added to my wildlife wishlist and I made plans to visit Hides de Calera as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in autumn 2015 I’d already missed the best season to see them so I had to be patient.

And patient I was. I finally made it out at the end of May 2016 and the day began with an interesting start. With a 90 minute drive to the site ahead of us and a 6.30am meeting time, the alarm was set for 4.30am. This is not unusual for wildlife photography. Often the best time to see animals in action is early morning or late at night.

I’m not the best sleeper and once again, the night before my trip, sleep eluded me. I lay awake while the hours slipped away, eventually getting some kind of pseudo-sleep in for an hour before the alarm went off. Coffee is often essential for us wildlife photographers.

My drowsiness quickly gave way to excitement as I pictured the shots I’d like to capture in my head. Wildlife photography is unpredictable. Hides like these ones help make it more likely that you’ll be successful but it’s still possible to visit and see nothing. I tempered my excitement slightly as I reminded myself I might not be lucky today.

European Bee Eater (brightly coloured small bird) on a tree branch with a bee in it's mouth.

European Bee Eater with a Bee for Dinner

Lack of sleep was not the only thing working against me that day.  In the week leading up to the shoot, I’d experienced some of the worst hayfever allergies in over a year. Yep, that’s right – puffy, itchy eyes; scratchy throat and sneezing.


Exactly what you want to be doing when you’re sitting in a hide quietly waiting for wildlife to arrive. A hide in a field grass and flowers no less.

It wasn’t a great recipe for success.

But somehow it worked. The birds at the hide didn’t seem to notice my occasional outbursts and after about twenty minutes of waiting, they started to show up. The hide was situated near a nest site and there were at least four individuals sailing through the sky and landing in the the surrounding area. They were a sight to behold.

I always go with a plan in mind. An idea of what I’d like to see for the day. All good photographers plan their shots in advance and sometimes we have full control over the image itself. But wildlife and nature have their own agendas and I can only plan what I’d like to capture. A “dream shot”. I always have one but then I’m always happy with any time spent in the company of animals.

A brightly coloured bird amongst grass and flowers sitting outside it's nest in the ground.

European Bee Eater at it’s Nest Site

As the name would suggest, Bee Eaters live off of a diet of bees and other insects. An obvious but delightful shot to capture would be one with a mouthful of it’s name sake.  They tend to watch their prey from the branches, fly after it and catch it, then return to the branch to finish their meal. I found out later that they also kill their prey by hitting it off of the branches or perches that they return to. Eating bees is tricky and these birds have developed a clever way to deal with that sting. Once the bee is dead, they wipe or scrape the abdomen along the branch to get rid of the sting.

Two brightly coloured birds (European Bee Eaters). One on a small branch and the other is on it's back with it's wings spreads part of a mating behaviour

Mating Behaviour

These birds are usually monogamous and nest in the ground. The nest is a long burrow which can be a metre in length with an area at the end called a chamber. It was fascinating to watch them. With some further reading afterwards, I also learned that this is one of the few European bird species who have helpers. So for these birds, care of the young is not only down to the parents.  They have assistance from male relatives (sons, brothers) of one or both of the parents.

While I was there it became obvious that some courtship was taking place. At first I thought it was a parent feeding a fledgling – they do this for some time as hunting insects is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of skill – but I quickly realised that the male bee eaters bring gifts to their female partners.  I watched as he arrived with a variety of presents for her and his troubles were occasionally rewarded with mating behaviour.

Sometimes though, his efforts were met with a disgruntled female and a squabble ensued.

I say that though, despite sitting still in my little hide for hours, I couldn’t identify individuals with certainty. They look very similar! So while I thought that sometimes the female wasn’t impressed with her male sutor, it may well be that there were two males approaching her and one was lucky in love, while the other not so much.

My instinct told me that what I was witnessing though, was a monogamous pair preparing for the next brood with male siblings/offspring getting in the way.  I guess I’ll never know for sure.

Their squabbles were impressive. A flurry of disagreeing colour. I got good a predicting them and working out which birds were about to have words with each other. I could study animal interactions all day.

Two bright birds (European Bee Eaters). On is on a small branch with it's wings spread and beak open, responding to another as it flies overhead.

The Quarrel

By the end of the session, around midday, the encounters were reducing in frequency as the temperature rose. I was thankful for my little hide and the shelter it provided. It wasn’t quite the 40 degrees of summer but we were reaching a toasty 32 degrees.  It was time to pack up and head home for a few hours sleep before returning later that night to try and photograph Little Owls.

I took hundreds of shots that morning and have many more to share with you. Please visit my website and galleries to see more of my bee eater images.

Thanks for stopping by! x

Two bright birds (European Bee Eaters) sitting back to back on a small tree branch. Their feathers are ruffled.

Ruffled Feathers