Ross Coupland’s bird photography in the time of COVID-19

Here’s a fabulous selection of bird photographs taken recently in the Queensland outdoors by Australian wildlife expert, Ross Coupland. Great images! A great read! Great Lockdown Beautiful Stuff!!


During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reduced to three days’ work per week. This gave me time to get out into ‘the bush’, in isolation; watching and waiting for good photo opportunities. I have selected my favourite shots from this time for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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Beach Stone-curlew

As the global pandemic gathered pace, in March 2020, I took a trip to Rainbow Beach north of Brisbane. The area is part of the Great Sandy National Park, an area of over 2000 km2 comprising threatened coastal habitats and including Fraser island, the world’s largest sand island. I found a family of Beach Stone-curlews living on a spit of sand, close to where the ferry loads and unloads thousands of 4WDs every year. Returning at sunset, I was able to get close to one of the birds as they are less shy and become more active towards the end of the day. The setting sun provided a beautiful, golden backlight. The species is threatened in parts of its range, as coastal areas are continually developed for tourism and local recreational use.

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Comb-crested Jacana

With COVID-19 restrictions being placed on travel throughout the state of Queensland, I was limited to areas close to home. Thankfully, here in Brisbane there is no shortage of parks, reserves and forests within an hour’s drive. Visiting one of my favourite lakes early one morning I saw a lone Comb-crested Jacana foraging on the lily pads. Their incredibly long toes make walking on the flimsy substrate a breeze; some people call them Jesus birds. I was able to get a nice, low angle by laying on the lake shore, blurring the lilies in the background.

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Forest Kingfisher

At the same lake, there is a family of Forest Kingfishers that hunt the shallow waters around the vegetated inlets. They use a few, select perches to watch for small fish and insects, one of which is a dead tree close to the walking track. I set up my tripod and camera behind a tree on the bank with just the end of the lens protruding and waited…. and waited.. Finally, after 2 hours, one of the kingfishers settled right in front of me with a small fish in its beak.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

By August and with restrictions easing in Queensland, I took a trip to Bribe Island that is accessible via a road bridge to the mainland. It is an important area for many bird species. There is a small population of Rose-crowned Fruit Doves which are known to over-winter there, in a small patch of remnant, coastal rainforest. They seem to feed almost exclusively on the berries of a single Corkwood tree. These are normally shy, secretive birds that live in rainforest canopies on the mainland, so this was a good opportunity to capture an image of this spectacular species.

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Regent Bowerbird

As spring approached, I visited a friend’s property where several Giant Spear Lilies had sprung into bloom. These impressive plants produce enormous flower-spikes with bright orange-red flowers that act like a beacon to birds and insects from the surrounding green rainforest. One of the birds that visited was this male Regent Bowerbird. The males have a striking combination of yellow and black feathers, whereas the females sport a rather drab, scalloped brown. Male Bowerbirds are well known for their habits of building unusual and sometimes spectacular structures out of twigs and decorating them with a wide variety of foraged items. These structures are used as display platforms to entice in female birds to mate. The females then build regular nests in the forest nearby and raise the chicks alone.

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Paradise Riflebird

The species I was really hoping to see on the Giant Spear Lilies was the elusive Paradise Riflebird. This is one of four species of birds of paradise found in Australia and the most southerly occurring. They are hard to see at the best of times; it is rare to get a chance of a good photo. The males have an iridescent quality to their plumage, only visible at the right angle of light. In the hope that a male bird would visit, I set up with my camera underneath a special camouflage net and waited. Sure enough, after about an hour the male arrived to probe the flowers for nectar with his specialised bill. The thin fog in the area gave a nice, diffused light that was perfect for bringing out the subtleties in the bird’s plumage.

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Crimson Rosella

Another bird that is common in the same area is the Crimson Rosella. These colourful parrots are generally found in more temperate regions and in Southeast Queensland are restricted to mountainous areas with cool, wet forest. I found one feeding on a roadside Rondeletia bush. When parrots are feeding, they can be quite approachable if you do nothing to alarm them.

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Musk Lorikeets

On a trip to the western part of the Scenic Rim, a crescent-shaped mountain range southwest of Brisbane, I found a group of huge Grass trees in full bloom. These impressive flower spikes are particularly prolific after fire and are a magnet to nectar-feeding birds such as Honeyeaters, Lorikeets and Spinebills. I have struggled to get close to Musk Lorikeets in the past as they are nomadic and usually feed high up in flowering Eucalyptus trees. I was delighted to find about ten of them feeding low down on the Grass tree flowers. When a pair was feeding on a close flower spike, I turned the camera to portrait orientation to capture both birds in the image. They seem quite content with me being close by while they fed.

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Barred-cuckoo Shrike

The weather begins to really warm up in Brisbane around the beginning of October; migrating birds from the north appear. Among them is the secretive Barred-cuckoo Shrike. I had never seen this species in Brisbane before and was able to get a clear shot of this one perching high in a Small-leaved Fig tree.

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Channel-billed Cuckoo

Reports of Channel-billed Cuckoos arriving in the area had started to come in on social media! These raucous brood-parasites from New Guinea make their annual southerly migration to Australia around October; they use unstable air masses and thunderclouds to ease the effort of the long-haul flight. They are consequently known by their colloquial name ‘Stormbirds.’ They are the largest cuckoo in the world. Many folk dislike them for their sullen appearance and loud squawk while flying around at dusk and dawn. However, I rather like them and consider their presence a welcome omen of warmer, productive times ahead for the natural world!

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Pale-headed Rosella

We are fortunate in Brisbane to have several sizeable botanic gardens which are beautifully maintained by the council. One of them has an impressive native plant section including Grevilleas that when flowering attract one of the most spectacular parrot species in the area, the Pale-headed Rosella. These are notoriously hard to get good, close views of. They are intelligent birds and highly wary. However, the birds in these gardens are perhaps more accustomed to human traffic and seem happy to be approached while feeding.

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Diamond Firetail

In mid-October, my wife, Kelly, and I took a trip to the Granite Belt region, about 3 hours southwest of Brisbane. The striking granite outcrops make for interesting scenery along the way. This area offers glimpses of a stunning variety of birds. On this trip, I clocked up 87 species of which ten were completely new to me. A highlight was staking-out a muddy puddle on the edge of a road where different birds would busily vie for position to take a quick drink after a hot day’s foraging. The star of the show was the spectacular tiny Diamond Firetail. This is one of Australia’s beautiful, arid-adapted finch species. It lives on the edge, making the most of the boom and bust climate when times are good.

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Zebra Finch

Possibly the most successful arid-adapted finch species in Australia, is the Zebra Finch. Found over much of the dry interior of the country, they can survive for extended periods on only dry seeds and have been observed drinking water of high salinity that other species could not tolerate. This was another first for me and, in this image, a male bird is being harassed by his sizeable brood for a meal of regurgitated seeds!

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Red-rumped Parrot

The final image of my selection is a male Red-rumped Parrot. The species is generally only found west of the Great Dividing Range (a north-south spine of mountains separating the greener coastal strip of eastern Australia from the drier interior) where they live a semi-nomadic existence taking advantage of green, seeding grasses and vegetation where available. To get a low-angle to throw the background out of focus, I had to lay down on angry-ant-infested ground! Worth the effort, I reckon!

All images were taken on Canon equipment, mainly the Canon 1DX full frame DSLR body, paired with the EF 600MM f4/L IS II lens and 1.4X and 2X teleconverters in some cases. I shoot exclusively in RAW format and process in Adobe Photoshop CS5 using a monitor calibrated by a Datacolor Spyder 3. Some images were handheld, others used a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod paired with an Arca Swiss Z1 bullhead and Wimberley mounting plates.


Copyright on all photos: Ross Coupland

Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.

The Lady of Lake Wakatipu

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

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I am near Queenstown, New Zealand. An American golfer admires the view of the magnificent Lake Wakatipu. “I’m just all outa wows!” he says. The golf course is truly lakeside. It is very pretty. My game does not do the setting justice. By the fifth green, I am ready to give up. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that what I first thought was a weather-beaten tree stump is something much more interesting.

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I am drawn towards it and….. my O my…. how my heart thumps. Big metallic sister stuff!

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Mark Hill‘s 2015 untitled sculpture serves up a wonderful surprise in this setting. The feminine form is tall, imposing, defiant and very beautiful. I love her. In elegant gown and with hair streaming behind her, she stares out over the lake daring the elements to throw their worst at her.

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What I admire most is Hill’s technical mastery of his materials. He has used corten and stainless steels to create an astonishing impression of soft leather with bright hand-stitched piping. How he has designed, cut and put together those wind-blown locks is beyond me. This is a work of industry and passion.

I spend some minutes walking around the Lady of Lake Wakatipu. I even pose a question or two. Does she ever get cold? Does she get lonely? She ignores me of course. But encountering such a resilient woman lifts my spirits. With renewed determination, I make my way to the sixth tee.

Love the Tate Modern

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

Yes, I love the Tate Modern in London. It lifts me up and makes my little beating heart sing.

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Alexander Calder, Triple Gong c.1948 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I went south of the river to see the current Alexander Calder exhibition. I now understand why people say he redefined the notion of sculpture. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff. Trademark hanging mobiles turn slowly and majestically in imperceptible drafts. The lighting is brilliant; each mobile casts a complex evolving shadow on the high white walls and those equipped with mini-gongs let out the occasional calming chime.

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Alexander Calder, Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I was mesmerised. As were many others. One lasting impression I have of this gorgeous exhibition is the vast Tate Modern rooms full of people, jaws agape, gazing up at Calder’s fabulous works. I would love to re-visit with a reclining chair to rest a while and soak it all up.

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Fernand Léger and his portrait, Photo: Walter Limot. © Limot / Bridgeman images 1934

Room by room, I stepped though the creative history of this fascinating man. He was one original thinker! In the 1920s, he created a toy circus comprising little mechanical people and animals hence his interest in wire and mobility as a medium. He became fascinated by abstraction after visiting the studio of Piet Mondrian. However, his most astonishing early works were his cartoony wire portraits. He described this as drawing in space. It is beyond me how anyone could consistently achieve effective three-dimensional portraiture with only wire. One such portrait is of the painter, Fernand Léger. I love the contrast between the smooth facial outlines, the tightly coiled eyebrows and the stiff little bristly moustache!

Bravo, Tate Modern! I said to myself. Then I thought I would have a look at what else was on show and I found myself in the heart of the building, the enormous “Turbine Room” O….M…..G…..!!!!

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Abraham Cruzvillegas “Empty Lot” Scaffolding and soil boxes, Hyundai Commission 2015

Now the Tate Modern blows me away with two huge scaffolding structures together supporting hundreds of what looks like triangular seed boxes. This is “Empty Lot” by Mexican sculptor, Abraham Cruzvillegas. The soil in each box is taken from parks, commons, healths or other sites all over London. They are watered and lit by a variety of whacky lamps. But not a single seed has been sown. What grows – and in some boxes nothing obvious is growing – is what is simply there. Just like an empty lot! Cruzvillegas has always had an interest in alternative means of building. He is inspired by the popular Mexican “self-construction” approach to home-making. He says “Empty Lot” is about hope and expectation referring to what may be constructed or what might grow spontaneously. The originality, grandeur and vision of the whole concept takes my breath away. I adore it.

I have a hope and expectation that somebody will send a photo of “Empty Lot” to Talking Beautiful Stuff in a few months time. Pleeeeeease!

Love the Tate Modern too!

A Letter to Tracey Emin

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

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Tracey Emin “My Bed,” Installation, 1998

Dear Tracey,

I know you’ve come in for quite some stick for “My Bed.” Is that really art? Anybody could have done that! How was that shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize? etc. etc. I have to admit I was a bit baffled myself. (Was it really worth that much?) But as I tootled happily around Tate Britain the other day, I happened upon “My Bed.” I found myself intrigued, then mesmerised and ultimately quite moved.

The blurb on the wall says “By virute of bringing the domestic into the public sphere without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.” I’ll say! I stood and looked. I walked around. I then realised that “My Bed” was boring into my heart. The mess of the soiled sheets together with the bedside scut of discarded underwear, fluffy toys, well-worn slippers, vodka, cigarettes and KY recalled a whole raft of good, bad, sad and indifferent moments of my life. So many things and times I might – or might not – want to leave behind! And then, to my surprise, I found the sad, saccharine squalor of it all quite eye-watering. In fact, it made my day. So, thank you, Tracey. I hope you’re doing OK now.

Lots of love,

Bonnie

PS I really went to Tate Britain to see the Frank Auerbach exhibition. Not my cup of tea!

PPS As you know, “My Bed” is installed next to two Francis Bacon paintings and a series of your own drawings. I’ve never liked FB’s paintings.

PPPS I need help with your drawings.

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Tracey Emin “I could feel you” Gouache on paper, 2014