Footage Focus – Simon Littlejohn
This month we are looking at the work of Simon Littlejohn.
Honing his camera skills in Spain
Simon started out as a self-taught wildlife photographer, but moved into video in 2012, aiming to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional wildlife and conservation cameraman. It was while living in southern Spain from 2003 to 2015 that he honed his camera operating skills as he made the switch to filming. Here he spent long periods climbing, and filming birds of prey, especially Griffon Vultures and Bonelli’s Eagles. He was fortunate enough to locate and film at the nest a pair of endangered Spanish Imperial Eagles who successfully raised three chicks. In the summer of 2015, Simon spent almost four months locating and filming the Iberian Lynx, the world’s rarest wild cat. Andalucia is home to the last viable wild breeding population.
Filming Patagonia pumas
Simon describes how a film on pumas inspired him to embark on a career in photography:
“There is a very simple reason I am not a property mogul in Chelsea, London where I was born and grew up. On a late November’s evening in 1997, I chanced upon a wildlife documentary filmed by the veteran British cameraman Hugh Miles, entitled “Puma: Lion Of The Andes”. Only a few seconds of footage had rolled and I knew what I was viewing was going to be life-changing for me. I immediately sold my London flat, bought a second-hand Land Rover, some photographic equipment, tent, and supplies, threw it all in the back and drove to the port of Southampton. I had booked a passage to Argentina on a 60,000 ton ship called the MV Grande America. As soon as I cleared customs, I turned west and drove until I hit the Andes, then turned south until I arrived in Torres del Paine National Park.”
“I have spent 4 years to date roaming this amazing landscape in search of the elusive Patagonian puma, and I hope to spend more time there in the future as I film material for a planned film. These magnificent cats have entered my psyche in a way I never dreamt possible. It was this species alone that convinced me to switch from photography to filming and concentrate my efforts on getting a rare view into their lives as they rear their offspring. It was on my last trip in the winter of 2018 that I began filming pumas. My main focus was on females with young as they struggle in an environment that can shift from feast to famine as quickly as the fickle Patagonian weather, where four seasons in one day is common.”
Puma dragging guanaco carcass
“The clip above of a female dragging a guanaco carcass through the snow was the culmination of a very long day. This female had three 5 to 6 month old cubs to feed. I located her early in the morning as she was stalking a large herd of guanaco. She could travel far more quickly across the snow-covered landscape than I could, but I knew if I persisted long enough I would be rewarded. I had to film on a DLSR with a short 200mm Nikon lens, due to the fact that gale force winds 2 weeks previously had blown over my tripod and my main camera with a longer lens. However, capturing a puma taking down its prey in the wild is very very rare footage, and it was worth the effort.”
Getting close to pumas
“The female seen feeding on the carcass had a very large two year old male cub who joined her at the kill on two of the three mornings I set up my camera to film. It was a very sobering experience as again, I only had the 200mm zoom lens. In order to get the footage I wanted I had to push my luck and set up much closer than is healthy. At one point the cub moved away from the carcass and slowly wandered in my direction, about 35ft up on a slight rise, and started cleaning it paw. Then it slowly but (luckily non-threateningly) moved to within ten feet of me and began sniffing the air. I had a few stones at the ready to ping onto the end of its nose, but this was not needed as a few loud shooing noises seemed to do the trick.”
“My only other camera was a 4k Go Pro 6, which I placed near a kill another puma had made. I watched her feeding and then, as she took a nap close to the carcass, I placed the camera right next to the carcass. This resulted in the closest footage ever taken of a mountain lion feeding when she awoke and returned to eat. At one point she actually bangs my camera with her tail or a rear paw as she steps around the carcass and my camera is right under her belly as she feeds. I thought I would get good results, but I was elated when I retrieved the camera and saw what it had captured.”
To play any of the videos in the gallery below, just click on “image info” when you enlarge the image.
Returning home to the UK offers filming opportunities
When Coronavirus cut short Simon’s overseas filming plans, he was forced to come home. But luckily for him, the UK also has good opportunities for filming wildlife. As Simon explains:
“Being forced to leave Chamonix in March 2020, due to Covid-19 cutting short the Ski season and therefore losing my part-time job, I had no choice but to return to the UK. Dorset is currently home, and I am fortunate to live in an area rich in wildlife. The species that consumes most of my time is the otter, which is found along various sections of the River Stour.
Searching for otters before dawn
This particular female and her 2 large pups provided me with good filming opportunities this past spring and summer. I had only ever seen an otter in the wild in Spain for a few seconds. Little did I know how difficult they would be to film when the opportunity arose. I have spent many hours before dawn wandering the riverbank, hoping to hear the telltale sound of an otter entering the water, waiting for the sun to rise and finally give enough light to focus – if you’re lucky enough to locate an otter!”
Interaction between otters and swans
“In these clips the river has large islands of flowering water crowfoot that the otters love to dive under to feed, but it is also a place where swans love to forage and I have been fortunate to film the odd squabble. These pups have recently left their mother and moved off to find their own stretch. I am lucky to still be filming her in the original location. I also filmed another female with two young pups further upriver and I’ve located a couple of other individuals, so hopefully it is going to be a busy winter.”
Difficult winter conditions
“The spring and summer provided much clearer water in the river, and focusing on the otters as they surfaced and dived was often manageable, but winter conditions are a totally different matter. The rains cause a huge increase in flow and murky brown water is now the norm. Prediction is vital as I wait for the otter to break the surface. Luck plays a large part – the bubble trail otters leave sometimes helps, but when it’s raining hard this can’t be seen. I must say that I can’t help but smile when I nail it!”
A soaring success
“These are apt words to open with when describing this magnificent soaring leviathan. The lammergeier or bearded vulture captive breeding and reintroduction programme began in the late 1980s. There are now a total of 250 birds in the Alps, including 50 breeding pairs. Originally wiped out in the Alps by hunting, poisoning and other factors, it is now possible to look skyward in many locations in the mountainous regions of the countries and be awed by their magnificent presence.”
Lammergeiers interact with other species
“This particular juvenile was the offspring from a resident pair that have bred for a number of years on the vertical face of the Grand Bargy Cirque, in the Aravis range in Haute Savoie, France. I was based in the mountain town of Chamonix for 4 winters and one of my reasons for moving there was in the hope of filming them. On more than one occasion I witnessed the resident ravens and Alpine choughs mobbing both the juvenile and adult bearded vultures. I was also lucky to film a large number of them mobbing a golden eagle that was nesting across the valley and often cruised the Grand Bargy slopes in search of food including stoats, foxes, and, I believe, the young bearded vulture chicks, if left unguarded for too long.”
A dangerous place to film
“The slopes below the wall of the Cirque are a very dangerous place to film at any time of the year, as there is a lot of rockfall and when covered in deep snow, as it often is, the wide horseshoe shaped slope is a very high avalanche risk. On my first trip to scout locations to film from, I wandered too far across the middle in my eagerness to get to a better location and narrowly missed getting hit by several projectiles on their way down. I also learnt that in places it is better not to be directly below any of the large ibex that are resident up here all year.
This particular sequence was filmed from the steep slope and on more than one occasion as I panned I was very close to losing my footing on the very slippery long grass. I made a mental note to attach crampons next time, for added security, all the while listening for the faint but ever loudening sound of rock crashing down the face.”
“The slopes and high mountain meadows below the face of the Grand Bargy are also the domain of stoats, or ermine as they are known in French. Their winter coat is pure white except for the tip of the tail, which very much helps to locate them when all is blanketed white. I started to observe them in the autumn when their pelt starts to change and at first struggled to pick them out when the first snows fell. They can move at incredible speed and change direction so fast it is impossible to keep up when panning.
I noticed on numerous occasions that when the landscape is blanketed in snow, they charge around manically, as if turbo powered. Whether this is because the snow excites them and they are just having fun, or a hunting tactic to flush out their prey, I am not sure. On several occasions I gave up trying to follow them and just left the camera aimed at one particular patch. Then I watched them zoom around in and out of shot, because that was the only way to get footage. The random rock formations scattered around the slope and the edge of the woods offer them protection from predators, a place to hunt and stash their prey, and also a vantage point to scan their surroundings.”
Some footage subjects require less effort to film
“Arriving late one evening in the Andujar National Park in Andalucia to film the Iberian lynx, I set about making camp below a copse of huge eucalyptus trees. I didn’t realise the trees were in flower until early the following morning, when I was woken by the sound of a huge number of honey bees feeding in the branches right above my camper van. While the water was boiling for my breakfast coffee I set about filming them as they collected their breakfast. Every morning for a week the process repeated itself – in the end, I needed to put cotton wool in my ears as the noise kept waking me up far earlier than I wanted to be awake.”
Two more interesting bird clips
To end, we’ve chosen two more bird clips, one from Andalusia and one from Chile. To play the videos in the gallery below, just click on “image info” when you enlarge the image.